A Lesson from the Lawless

You should know we have you in our sights Mr Humphrey and I dare say you should be expecting us. A man with as desperate a character as yourself should not be expecting any less. It is no secret the way you treat the convicts under your charge, I have heard firsthand how you drive men into the dirt and work them to exhaustion. This colony is fast becoming overrun with rogues and I am left with little choice but to put things square.  

Glancing over the scrawl in his journal through tired eyes, Michael closes the book and tosses it against the knapsack resting at his feet.  The action causing James Whitehead to look up from the cow hide he is slicing.

“What’s the matter with you?” He asks, with a raise of his eyebrow.

Michael rubs at the collection of pockmarks hidden beneath his beard, irritated at being made articulate the jumble of thoughts in his mind.

“I was going to write a letter of warning to Humphrey, but the scoundrel doesn’t deserve it,” He mutters.

“Besides,” James begins, “Beagent doesn’t believe he’s at home this week.”

“When did he inform you of that?”

“When he brought the newspapers. You and Bumpy were down at the river,” He answers, cocking his head in the direction of the Fat Doe.

Michael nods at the explanation, knowing he has no reason to doubt the validity of Beagent’s information. He had been a member of the gang before the conditional pardon was offered in 1814 and had surrendered with Michael and James. However, while they had duly absconded from their places of assignment, Beagent had stayed. This position allowed Beagent safety from the gallows while also aiding his former comrades by bringing them newspapers and keeping them updated on the movements of men such as Humphrey.

“Perfect time to strike, then,” Michael asserts. “What’s keeping the rogue and his whore from meeting our acquaintance?”

James shapes the cow hide around his bare foot and shrugs his shoulders.

“Business in Hobart Town I assume.”

“Business,” Michael scoffs, his attention taken by Richard Collyer and Hugh Burn who wrestle with the ewe destined for the fire. “The only business he’ll be conducting will be to flay the back of some poor wretch.”

“It’s a real pity he won’t be home,” James ponders thoughtfully with a smirk. “I’d like nothing more than to make him well acquainted with the tails of the cat.”

Michael laughs, taking a moment to visualise the scene in his mind. The great rogue fastened to a post while he and his men cut his back with the lash.

“The day will come,” He promises, rising to his feet.

***

Walking to the side of their hut, Michael spots Richard and Hugh skinning the slaughtered ewe. Their hunting dogs snapping against the chains at the smell of the carcass. 

“Quiet!” He exclaims, clapping his hand against his thigh.

Sulkily, the dogs sit, their large eyes fixed on the dead ewe as the skin is finally removed and thrown to the side by Hugh, while Richard begins the task of removing the beast’s entrails.

Michael picks up the warm sheepskin and drapes it over the log of a fallen blue gum.

“We’ll be leaving for Humphrey’s before daybreak,” He says.  

Hugh glances up at him through carroty coloured curls, his face pink from the struggle with the sheep

“Whitehead told you the news Beagent had for us?” He asks, wiping a bloodied hand across the square of cloth tucked into the waist of his nankeen trousers.

Michael nods, a cheeky grin spread across his face.

“He did. I would never have believed Humphrey to be so charitable.”

“Charitable?” Hugh repeats, bewilderment cast over his brow.

“Well of course Burn,” Michael says pompously, “Is it not charitable that he has gone into Hobart Town for our benefit?”

Unable to understand the jest, Hugh scratches at his temple.

“You’re damn near greener than Yorkshire grass, Burn,” Michael jests, reaching a hand out to ruffle the 21-year old’s hair.

***

With the forequarter of mutton roasting over the fire, Michael tips a portion of flour out of the knapsack and mixes it with water to form a dough. Shaping small cakes in the palms of his hands, he places the damper over the coals to bake, while James busies himself weighing out gunpowder in readiness for their ensuing raid.

Turning the damper over in the coals with a stick, Michael’s ears catch on the voices of Peter Septon and Richard McGwire as they converse with Hugh and Richard Collyer. The pair had spent the day looking for the tracks of soldiers with the aid of their native guides, Mary Cockerill and Elizabeth Edmunds. Both women had left the employ of their New Norfolk masters, seeking the same freedom Michael had sought when absconding from John Ingle in 1814, with the women proving invaluable to the gang in reading tracks, as well as keeping them at a safe distance from the tribes who hunted in the area. They had also taught them the ways of their people, including techniques for using the skin and sinews of kangaroos, a lesson Michael had found most vital in providing them with cloaks, moccasins, knapsacks, patches for torn wearing apparel, and most importantly, binding for his journal. 

Removing the cooked pieces of damper from the fire, Michael glances through the trees at Peter Septon as he walks towards him, with Richard and the women following James into the hut.

“Almost dinner time, is it?” Peter asks, removing the musket and knapsack from his shoulder.

“Shouldn’t be long now,” Michael replies, offering him a piece of damper.

Peter takes the damper and holds it in his fingers, admiring the baked good with the gaze of a baker.

“Hungry work tracking red coats and natives,” He declares, taking a bite.

“How far did you go?” Michael asks, conveying the remaining damper onto a waiting sheet of bark.

“Only as far as the banks of the Plenty,” Peter begins, his voice muffled by half chewed damper. “Black Bess was sure she could see tracks, but me and McGwire were blind to them.”

The nickname was lost on Elizabeth, but was a great lark for the gang who had named her after Dick Turpin’s legendary mare, ‘Black Bess’.

Standing, Michael pokes the stick into the roasting meat.

“Don’t be doubting them, Septon,” He says sternly, “If it weren’t for the two women, we’d have been skewered months ago.”

***

Inside the hut, the gang sit around the fire that crackles from the stone hearth, their hunger satisfied by the roasted lamb and damper.  

Michael picks at a small lump of grizzle caught between his teeth and shifts on the stump to face Elizabeth. 

“Peter told me you’d discovered tracks near the Plenty?” He asks, reaching for the jug of rum that rests on the makeshift table.

Pulling the cork, he pours the molasses-coloured liquor into the waiting tumbler and takes a swig, allowing the rum to swish over his gums before swallowing.  

“Headed north, captain,” She answers.

Michael rubs a sleeve across the residue of rum that glistens over his lips, his brow furrowing at Elizabeth’s information.

“Soldiers?”

She nods in the affirmative and slides off her moccasins, revealing a pair of calloused feet, hardened by the terrain of the country.

“Soldiers boots made the tracks, captain. I know from their shape,” She declares, rubbing a hand across the broken skin at her heel.

Taking a handful of tea tree leaves her and Mary and collected, Elizabeth crushes them in her hand to make a poultice. She applies the leaves to her ankle, tying the dressing in place with a strip of torn cloth.

Pondering the vision of the soldiers blindly marching in the direction of Port Dalrymple, Michael’s face lights up in a smirk. 

“We must be in Launceston, lads,” He laughs, taking another swig of rum.  

“Those blind buggers,” George Jones begins from behind him, his fingers busy stitching kangaroo hide, “Couldn’t catch us if we were standing bold in front of them.”

Michael turns to face him, his eyes settling on the tumour that hoods George’s right eye, earning him the nickname ‘bumpy George’.

“You thinking of trying your luck, bumpy?”

George tosses the hide on the table and snatches his fingers around the rum jug.

“I bet I could get away cleaner than you,” He says, baring his teeth in a sly smile.

The statement brings forth a thunderous laugh from Michael and the gang, who commence to harass George on his supposed superiority.

“Bumpy George for captain!” Exclaims James Geary, rising from his position on a straw sack to lay his cutlass on George’s shoulders in mock ceremony.

Peter Septon also joins in the ribbing, placing a cap of kangaroo hide on George’s head, who swats him like a fly, his cheeks flushed red. The triviality causes Mary and Elizabeth to exchange tired glances and they begin preparations for sleep, lying themselves down on their hammocks, wrapping their tired limbs in possum skin rugs.

Glancing in their direction, James Geary shakes his head.

“The women are dull,” He remarks, pouring a tumbler to the brim with rum.

Michael eyes the amount disapprovingly and removes his watch, positioning the face toward the firelight, his eyebrows raising at the late hour.

“We have an early rise ahead of us,” He begins, looking sidelong at George, “If master Jones will permit us to retire.”

“Fuck off,” Mumbles George, disappearing outside to relieve himself.

Snickering at George’s bruised ego, Michael stretches himself on the makeshift bed and stares up at the dancing shadows cast upon the bark roof. His mind burdened by their coming engagement at Humphrey’s.

***

Michael is awoken from his slumber by the urgings of Mary Cockerill, who tugs at his sleeve.

“Captain, captain,” She sharply whispers, “The sun will be rising soon.”

Wearily, he opens his eyes to the outline of Mary leaning over him, his home and sister in Pontefract replaced by the murky gloom of the hut.

“We must be moving soon, captain,” She continues, positioning her knapsack across her shoulders.

Collecting himself, Michael rises from the sacking, his mind lost between dream and reality. He fumbles for his pistol and slides it into the waist of his nankeen trousers, the weapon cold against his warmed skin.

“Wake the others,” He says, pulling on his woollen peacoat.

Doing as instructed, Mary wakes the remaining gang members, the silence of the hut soon replaced by the yawns and curses of sleep deprived men.

***

Having breakfasted on green tea and damper, the gang begin their trek to the settlement of Pitt Water, where the house of Mr Humphrey sits undefended and ripe for the taking. As is their usual practice, the journey is made in single file flanked by their kangaroo dogs, with Mary and Elizabeth at the helm, reading the land. Sine their fight with Dennis McCarty and his party two weeks ago, the soldiers have remained around New Norfolk, giving the gang freedom to travel unmolested. Michael wondered how they could be so foolish to believe he’d stay in that part of the colony, now made hot by the presence of Davey’s redcoats, but make no mistake McCarty would be made pay for firing on them at the Back River.

***

Arriving at Pitt Water at dusk, the gang position themselves on a hill overlooking Humphrey’s stone homestead, watching for movement. The house is cast in darkness, while light flickers from the windows of the nearby servants’ quarters, with curls of smoke rising from the chimney.

“What do you say lads,” Michael begins, “Time for tea?”

***

Leaving, Hugh Burn, George Jones and the women at the exterior of the property to act as sentries, Michael, accompanied by the rest of the gang edge towards the servants’ quarters. Inside, the sound of male voices can be heard conversing, interspersed with the clattering of cutlery. Michael presses his ear to the door, in an effort to distinguish whether Charles Baxter is among their number, a man who had recently been engaged in searching for them.

“If Charley’s in there,” Whispers Michael, “We make an example of him. The bastard wants to play the role of blood hound? Well, we’ll see how well he hunts without his nose and ears!”

Discarding his knapsack and musket, he gestures for the axe carried by Richard Collyer and lines up the boards with the blade. Swinging it as fervently as if Humphrey himself was tied against it, Michael strikes the blade into the door and reefs it back, sending a hail of splinters at his feet.

With the door partiality destroyed, James Geary is the first to burst his way into the hut, closely followed by Peter Septon, James Whitehead and Richard McGwire, who order the startled servants not to move from their seats on pain of death.

“Get the buggers bound, Collyer,” Michael instructs, cocking his head toward the lighted doorway.

He watches from the darkness as Richard passes his musket to Peter and begins instructing the servants to remove their neckerchiefs, which uses in lieu of rope to tie their hands behind their backs.

“Where’s your esteemed master, Green?” Enquires James Whitehead, feigning ignorance.

“In Hobart Town,” Responds George Green, a man whom James knows through his previous assignment to Mr Gunning of New Town.

“It’s a real pity,” Says Peter Septon with a solemn shake of his head, “If he were here, he’d not be afforded the opportunity of feeding slop to another man.”

“Or flogging another convict,” James interjects with feeling.

Seizing the opportunity to play the bushranger, Peter strokes the double-barrelled pistol in his hand and strides backward and fourth in front of the fire.

“See this piece?” He says, addressing the men, “I acquired it during our last engagement with that Irish scoundrel McCarty, and if your master were up there in his fancy house, I’d cover him with it while I fucked his wife good and proper.”

Hearing enough of Peter’s bluster, Michael enters the kitchen, his eyes scanning the room for Charles Baxter, but the man is notably absent.

“Where’s Charley?” He asks the servants who sit around the table.

“He left on an errand a few days ago,” Lies William Quemby.

Michael smirks at the man’s supposed unawareness of his real appointment and picks up one of the lamp’s that burn on the table, the motion causing the flame to dance on the wick.

“It’s a lucky thing he’s away,” Responds Michael, the hatred he feels for the man evident in his voice. “For when we do finally come across him, we plan on making an object of him.”

This causes a look of anxiety on the faces of the servants, which James Geary feigns to dispel.

“Oh, but there’s no need to be alarmed gents, is their captain? For we only plan on cutting the nose from his face and hocking him.”

***

Leaving three of the gang members to guard the servants, Michael, James Geary and Richard McGwire arrive at Humphrey’s door, which Michael splits in two with the axe.

“I’m sure Davey will pay for the damage,” He remarks, stepping over the threshold of broken door.            

Inside the house, Humphrey’s cockatoo begins screeching from its cage at the intruders, startling Richard McGwire, who raises his pistol in response.

“The scoundrel would imprison his own mother,” Growls Michael, reaching into his pocket for the flint.

Ducking his head into the doorway, James whistles a tune, the half-hearted attempted at a bird call sets the creature off in loud screeches.

“I say we ring that thing’s neck,” He declares, taking the newly lighted lamp from Michael.

“Be good to it and you’ll have no trouble,” Michael replies with a knowing wink. “Now, let’s search the house.”

Splitting up, the trio commence gathering what they require, with Michael beginning his search in the kitchen. Opening his knapsacks, he fills them with flour and sugar and tips over the cask, which offers a plentiful supply of meat. With his knapsacks full, Michael leaves them on the table and walks up the hall to the front room, the place where Humphrey conducts business.

Upon entering the grand room, he glances out the window to the shadowy figure of Richard Collyer who nears the house.

“Ready for a drink, lads?” Michael asks the others, whose footsteps move up the hall.

With a response in the affirmative, he reefs open the window sash, exposing his face to a press of cold autumn air.

“Put the kettle on, Collyer!” He yells.

Sitting himself comfortably in the magistrate’s chair, Michael opens one of the desk’s top drawers where he finds Humphrey’s compass nestled amongst a jumbled array of dispatches. Removing the item, he places it in the pocket of his peacoat and slumps in the chair, stretching his legs beneath the desk to mock the sitting style of the magistrate, the action causing his boot to kick against a chain of iron. Pushing the chair back, Michael rests the lamp on the floor, its light exposing two sets of leg irons.

“That bastard!” He snarls, the blood in his veins running as cold as the water of the Derwent.  

Hearing Michael’s exclamation, James drops his knapsacks in the hall and rushes into the room.

“What is it?”

“The bastard fetters his servants,” Michael growls, brandishing the leg irons. “I found these beneath his desk.”

James shakes his head in astonishment.

“The fucking dog,” He says with derision.

***

Re-entering the servant hut, Michael finds James Whitehead deep in conversation with George Green.

“I’m very sorry to see you in this position, Whitehead,” Says Humphrey’s servant, with a look of sorrow. “I thought you were going to make a proper go of it with Gunning.”

James shakes his head with a sigh.

“I’m sorry for myself, Green, but it would never have been the case if not for Gunning; that bastard treated me worse than his dogs.”

Hearing enough of the self-pity, which is not unlike his own, Michael signals to James and calls him aside.

“Humphrey has irons,” he says, his voice a low whisper.

“In the house?”

Michael nods.

“I found them concealed beneath the bugger’s desk.”

James glances back over his shoulder at George Green.

“Do you think he uses them on the men?”

“What other reason would there be to keep them in the house?”

“Christ. What should we do?”

Michael scratches his chin, a plan already forming in his mind.

“You and the lads go and plunder the house. Afterwards, we’ll join you and pay the bastard square.”

***

Drinking his tea in silence, Michael broods over the find.  Humphrey may not have paid for his brutality in the past, but he’d be made pay this time. Even the burning of his wheat and corn stacks by George Watts and Thomas Garland, as wanton as it had been, was only a fleabite compared to the retribution Michael would serve him.

***

Entering the house, the gang gather in the hallway, awaiting orders from Michael.

“Now lads,” He begins, “We have to send a warning to this bastard, don’t we?”

The question leads to a resounding murmur of agreement from the five men.

“The bugger needs to understand, that if he wishes to continue flogging and chaining the men under his charge, there’ll be consequences,” Pausing, Michael elbows a pear-shaped vase to the floor, sending shards of cobalt blue scattering around his boots. “Break every fucking thing in the place!”

The gang quickly disperse through the house, the silence of night soon replaced by shattering glass and broken pottery ricocheting from the floor. Setting his eyes on the fireplace, Michael clears the ornaments from the mantle, sending them smashing to the floor.

In the mayhem, Humphrey’s cockatoo begins screeching wildly in its cage, its frantic wings clipping the bars.

Feeling pitiful, Michael moves towards the cage and opens the grille, attempting to claps his fingers around the bird, an action which causes it to bite firmly into the webbing of his hand.

 “Ow, you bastard,” He curses, carrying the cockatoo to the window.

“It won’t last long out there,” Remarks James Whitehead from the doorway, Humphrey’s blue cocked hat on his head. “It needs hand feeding.”

Michael ignores his concern and opens the window sash.

“What it needs is freedom.”

Extending his arm out the window, he unfurls his fingers, allowing the bird its freedom.  

With the gang now reunited, they begin their journey back towards their hideout, their knapsacks laden with the spoils from their raid.

***

 In the darkness, the chains grasped in Michael’s hand chink with each step he takes.

“What will you do with them?” Asks George Jones, struggling to keep pace with Michael’s determined gait.

Stopping abruptly, Michael hurls the fetters into the river with gritted teeth, their weight hitting the water with a great splash.


Illustrations by Aidan Phelan.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s