Moving through the dense scrub that flanks the upper Shannon River, the narrowed eyes of Michael Howe spy the man he is looking for, standing with his back towards the flickering amber of a fire.
Halting, the bushranger whistles sharply, causing the man to spin in his direction, his claw-like fingers grasped around a musket.
“Knock the priming out of your piece, Warburton,” Orders Michael, his body concealed by a covering of wattle.
With a look of uncertainty flashing across his face, the man does as he is instructed, the action rendering the musket useless and he drops it to the swampy ground.
Perceiving himself safe, Michael breaks through the cover, the hem of his kangaroo cloak snagging on a broken branch. Tugging it free, he walks into the open where Warburton greets him with a cocky smile.
“You know I wouldn’t have used it, my friend. But a man must have protection in these parts, you never can tell what may be lurking.”
Michael holds the hunter’s gaze, his jaw clenched in mistrust. He glances past Warburton to his camp, where kangaroo hides are strung like washing on a line.
“Do you have what I require?” He asks, eyeing him.
Warburton passes Michael a bulging calico knapsack.
“There should be sufficient provisions and ammunition in here for you.”
Taking the weighted knapsack, Michael loosens the tie and opens it, his eyes falling on a smudgy copy of the ‘Hobart Town Gazette’.
Noticing Michael thumbing the corners of the paper, Warburton nods towards it.
“I kept that one specially. Your robbery of Blinkworth’s is mentioned within it. Decent little write up they gave you.”
Michael curls his lip at the statement. The newspapers had done nothing but tarnish his name since he had freed himself from the chafe of convict irons and he knew better than to believe it would be any different now.
With furrowed brow, he unfolds the paper and scans the black print for the mention of his name, until his grey eyes settle on the following report:
That great murderer Michael Howe, with whose enormities our readers are so well acquainted, within these few days made his appearance to the stock-keepers of Mr. G. W. Evans, Deputy Surveyor General, at a place called Blinkworth’s Hunting ground. He took what provisions the men had, and two fine Kangaroo dogs. What is astonishing, he had plenty of ammunition, and was well armed. His beard is of a great length; and his appearance, connected with the idea of his horrid crimes, is altogether terrific.
“Quite the write up, isn’t it?” Muses Warburton.
Michael stays silent, his eyes transfixed on the paper’s words, their severity cutting him like a blade.
Arriving back to the security of his hut, he drops the knapsack beside the door and collects the wooden bucket that hangs from the branch of a dying Eucalyptus. Crouching beside the icy water of the stream behind his hut, Michael fills the bucket and carries it inside to the stone hearth. Rekindling the fire, he pours the water into the iron pot and places it over the crackling flame. Waiting as the water heats, he sits on the log and looks into the waters’ mirrored surface, his reflection almost unrecognisable. The coarse black hair that frames his face is matted and long, the tangled strands slicked with oil, like the base of an unwashed cooking pot. He pulls his calloused fingers roughly through his beard, once closely shaven to the curve of his chin, now wild and unkempt, lending him the appearance of Black Beard.
Removing the pot from the fire, Michael submerges a torn cloth into the steaming water and begins scouring his weathered face, the skin engrained with dirt and soot. As the grime melts away and exposes the slightly pockmarked cheeks beneath, he wrings the cloth and rises, carrying the bucket to the door. He discards the murky water onto the well-trodden grass and picks up his knapsack, placing it on the rough table. Pulling out the gazette, Michael crumbles it firmly in his palm and throws the paper into the fire, watching with disdain as it shrinks and burns. Since he had first escaped the clutches of his master John Ingle, the rhetoric had been the same, with the hate of others coating his limbs like mud, leaving very little of the Yorkshireman visible beneath. The people of Van Diemen’s Land see him for what he is, rather than who he is, unable to distinguish the bushranger from the man, and the falsehoods from truth.
All his mates are long dead. Shot and gibbetted, their bodies left to rot on Hunter Island for the Governor’s pleasure. Times had been different when he had mates to confide in, they had his back and he theirs, but now he was truly alone. Residing in his solitary hut on the plateau, with no one for company but the pair of kangaroo dogs from Evans’ farm and the pages of his journal the only ear for his thoughts. The scheming Warburton is the only man within the colony he has trust in, yet this too is slowly eroding.
Report from The Hobart Town Gazette, 13 June 1818.