The Bushranger's Bayonet
In town, now flush with coin, the group found themselves in the market street of Kallamat. This little group of buildings started as little more than a general store and a blacksmith for the local farmers but has boomed into a tent city. One lucky soul struck gold while digging nearby and the word filtered through the colony. The markets now were filled with all sorts of things. A waxwork and candle shop to light the tents. A sweet shop for the children of the rich to indulge in. The old blacksmith to repair the picks and reshoe the horses. An undertaker to deal with the dead. The imperial post office to keep in touch with loved ones and stay up to date with new from the capital. The goldsmith who worked the material brought by the miners and gold-panniers in the creek. A wheelmaker to maintain the farmers carts. And finally, the bowling tavern where the prospectors would gather to drink and gamble away their pay.
The booze flowed freely in the bowling tavern. The few actually bowling were the ones who still had the most motor control left, though the pins often stayed up regardless. Mara poked her head in the door before being yanked out by Jack.
“We’re not here to drink, Mara. We’re here to resupply.” He stated nonchalantly.
Mara huffed with annoyance. “If we’re here to get food, why did you walk us past the damn bar!”
While the two started to make a scene in the main street, Arthur followed along without complaint. The little boy, still caked in the dirt of a street urchin, carried his fair share along with his rifles. Cat brought up the rear, gliding along silently like a wraith.
Jack made a counterpoint that he thought nobody could disagree with. “The general store is on the main road but near the other end of town. All I did was pick the fastest route there.”
“Fine,” Mara huffed. “But we’re coming back here and I’m getting shit-faced whether you like it or not.”
Eventually, Jack managed to get Mara’s mind off booze, for once. As the four of them walked in, Arthur wandered off. Cat simply smirked, keeping her silence unbroken. Mara listened around for the sound of his breathing, tracking him to a little corner of the shop. She found him staring into a box.
“What’cha got there?” She queried; a motherly softness crept back into her voice to overshadow her normal voice.
“I found these shiny rocks. We used them when I was little.” His grubby face betrayed no emotion, nor did his flat tone. Mara smiled, chuckling slightly before stroking his hair.
Making sure nobody could see, Arthur pocketed the rather large opal as well as a common smooth stone to nap it with.
Jack stopped browsing, carrying a big armful of stuff over to the counter before wandering over. He heard what Arthur said and was rather confused. The natives didn’t make jewellery so what would they be used for?
He shook his head and headed back to the counter to pay for the supplies unceremoniously piled there. Not long after, they found themselves in front of the town noticeboard, as bushrangers tend to do.
On the noticeboard, there were few contracts, but one stood out…
A strange beast has been lurking around my farm and terrorizing my cattle. Several animals have gone missing recently and all of them are spooked. We have to ride all the way to the next river to draw water for fear of being eaten. My farm is northeast of Kallamat, about half a day’s walk. If you can bring me that beast’s head, I’ll reward you well.
- Farmer Dan
Jack took the contract off the board and examined it closely. The handwriting was rough, and the paper was cheap. This had to be genuine.
“Well it looks like we have our next jo-”.
Cat yanked the paper out of his hands mid-sentence. “Looks like a job for me.”
Jack grabbed the contact out of her slender fingers and pocketed it. “We’re doing this one together.” His stern tone betrayed an underlying annoyance.
Mara glared at Cat in a way that seemed more sinister than pure annoyance. Cat’s neutral annoyance didn’t show much.
Jack continued on, either oblivious of or actively ignoring the tension. “Well, it seems this creature is an ambush predator living in their section of the river. We could use someone with your stealthy skills.”
Cat nodded. “Understood. I’ll do my job and take my cut. A third of this would be plenty.”
Jack and Mara winced at this. They needed money to hold over summer too, not to mention Arthur’s inevitable training. “You’ll get a quarter of the reward. Four bushrangers, four cuts.”
The first hint of anger came through in her voice since the incident in the cave. “He’s a kid. Give him a sweet and he’ll be happy enough. He doesn’t need that big a share.”
Mara cut in before Jack could respond, her expression halfway between eager and vindictive. “We need coin to train him. He needs to eat over the summer too, you know. And the training equipment at The Farm also needs repairing. The wooden bayonets need replacing, the training dummies are falling apart and don’t get me started on the gauntlet.”
Jack shivered in response to this. The fucking gauntlet. “Do we have to put the kid through the gauntlet?”
Mara snickered. “I’m not sure what was funnier. Your fuck up or the embarrassment on your face.”
Arthur cocked his head in confusion. Jack, pale as a ghost, turned to him. “Trust me kid, you don’t wanna know.”
Mara started laughing. “I remember Uncle Peter made you bathe outside for a week after that.”
But then, she got something she wasn’t expecting.
“Huh. I bet you enjoyed the show then. I kept spotting you hiding in the bushes or poking your nose out from behind the stables.”
Her face went almost as red as her hair. “Sh-shut up you pervert.”
Now it was Jack’s turn to laugh. “Pot calling kettle black much?”
Mara buried her embarrassment and tried to swallow her pride. “Anyway, let’s get going. The sooner we kill that thing, the sooner I can get smashed.”
“And the sooner you’ll have an excuse to get close to me.” Jack muttered.
“What was that shit-for-brains?”
The four of them set off for their next contract.
As they walked along the narrow and winding dirt trails of the bush, the four bushrangers began to approach Farmer Dan’s property. Walking up the path to his front door, Jack holds a hand out to the others. “Wait back there. It’s not good if we crowd the doorway. We’re here to help, so if we scare the poor bloke he’ll not pay us.”
Cat nodded silently, Mara huffed while Arthur stayed silent. Arthur had been hanging back for the whole walk.
He knocked on the door. After some shuffling inside, a woman came out. “Hello sir, are you here about the monster?” His presence seemed slightly unnerving to her, as Jack could see her shaking slightly.
Jack nodded and pulled out the paper. “It’s signed by somebody calling themselves Farmer Dan, I assume that’s your husband?”
“Yes, he’s out tending to the animals. We’ve had to really shuffle them around to stop any more from getting eaten. If we lose any more, we might just go broke. The landlord would not be happy about that.”
“Quite; now where on your property can I find him?”
She paused for a second. “There’s a clump of trees with a twisting gum in the middle. He’s been grazing the sheep out there for the moment. He’ll explain everything.”
Jack nodded. “Thank you, madam,” His professional courtesy shining through, “If all goes well, the situation should be sorted by the morn.”
He headed back up the path. “Alright, let’s go meet the client.”
Sitting in the shade of the trees with a large dog at his side, Farmer Dan watched over his grazing herd. As the bushranger approached the dog began barking with unnatural aggression, almost running at them to attack before being grabbed. “You must be here about the contract. You four bounty hunters?”
Mara let her tongue get the better of her. “Would a bounty hunter carry such an expensive rifle?”
She was quickly reprimanded by a quick glare from Jack.
Dan shot back with snark of his own. “Would a bounty hunter be dumb enough to give a little boy a gun?”
Jack pulled his rifle from the bucket on his back. “I apologize sir. My partner isn’t usually the one to deal with the clients.”
Dan sighed, patting his dog. “Well then, let me lead you folks over to the river. This beast has been lurking there for about a week now.”
He headed off toward the river. Jack walked next to him while the others followed at a distance.
“Can you describe this ‘beast’ for me? Your notice wasn’t exactly clear.”
Dan groaned slightly, probably lamenting his losses. “Well, it’s really big. It’s got a sort of brown fur and it grabbed a whole cow off the riverbank and drowned it. All I found was one of its ribs picked clean and covered in tooth marks.”
A complex expression settled on Jack’s face. “So, you’re not sure what it is?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I put up the notice.” Dan sighed “Look, I’ve got two hundred pounds in reserve I can give you but if you can’t kill the beast now, I’ll need it to feed me wife.”
Jack looked closer at Dan. How a man of such low status had managed to come into so much money was well beyond him. Maybe he was a smart man or had been wealthier on the old continent, but Jack saw no reason to pry. He had dark red hair and extremely pale skin. “Judging by your accent, I assume you’ve not lived here long.”
“You got that right. Moved here from the second isle of the mainland. The crops were beginning to fail worse than ever before, so I packed up my life and moved down ‘ere. Didn’t have much after the crossing, but I had enough to rent this here farm and marry my lovely wife.”
Jack thought for a second, weighing up whether or not to share a strange detail he’d picked up. “I heard two heartbeats coming from her when she opened the door. Are you expecting?”
Dan’s eyes lit up with joy. “She’s pregnant?” He grabbed Jack’s hand and shook it vigorously. “Thank you for telling me this, good sir. I wouldn’t’ve known for a long time if you hadn’t told me. Kill this beast before supper and I’ll make sure there’s enough for everyone as well as your payment.”
“You don’t need to do that.” Jack said coolly.”
Dan smiled. “I insist. It’d take a trip to the doctor and a good amount of coin to find that out if not for you.”
As they approached the river, the water was eerily still. Jack picked up a stick and threw it into the stagnant water. It made a decent splash, sending perfect ripples out from the centre. “So, where’s your beast?”
Dan looked confused. “The bastard usually sneaks up and grabs from the water’s edge.”
Cat broke her silence, making Dan jump. “Did the beast perhaps go for an injured or weak target?”
Dan, shocked again at their insight, nodded in disbelief. “It did. The first cow it took had been attacked recently and had cuts on its front legs.”
Cat’s eyes lit up as she pulled out a knife. “Where are the cows now?”
“Whoa, woah, woah. I’m not letting you cut up my cow and have this beast eat it!”
She put on a seemingly false smile as the explanation came out. “I’m not going to hurt it. All I’m doing is a bit of bloodletting. Drain some of the bad blood and use it as bait.”
At this moment Jack knew he’d made the right choice. Mara saw the look in his eyes and didn’t like it one bit.
A few minutes later, Cat came back with a jar full of blood and her hands stained red. “I bandaged the cow after letting the blood. She’ll be fine.”
Dan, though annoyed, kept his mouth shut. Jack backed up and crouched a bit further from the river, ready to strike as it leapt out. Mara followed suit.
“Arthur, back up and aim at the water. Stay out of trouble but if you see something you can shoot, go for it.”
Jack was somewhat surprised by Mara’s concern for Arthur. Was this some as-of-yet undiscovered maternal instinct? He’d certainly never seen it before.
Cat spilled some of the blood on the riverbank, leaving the jar on the ground. A few drops ended up in the water, slowly dispersing in lazy crimson tendrils. She leapt backwards and pulled the bolt back, taking aim at the swirling blood.
All of them waited with bated breath, watching the blood slowly diffuse into the river water. Five, ten, twenty seconds.
A ripple disturbed the water, then another. All of a sudden, a beast surged out and snapped at the blood blindly as three gunshots went off.
The beast emerged from the water as Mara leapt behind it and slashed its back, forcing it onto the land. It had a doglike head with smaller ears, its jaw curled into a snarl. The beast’s legs were catlike but with the webbed toes of a platypus. The tail was short but powerful, almost whip-like with its movements. Its body was smooth and round like a seal and the whole beast was coated in reddish-brown fur. There had been rumours going around about the beast simply called the ‘Bunyip’, which leapt from the water in a blur of fur and death, but those rumours had never really been solidified. And yet, the beast stood before them.
Cat’s jaw audibly dropped. “Is that a Bunyip? I thought those were fairy tales!”
Mara slashes again with her bayonet as the beast flicked its tail in annoyance. “Well apparently not!” It took a swipe at Jack as he rolled away from the beast’s massive foreleg, following the direction of the swipe. Cat pulled the silver bolt back on the monstrosity she called a weapon and fired. Without the sound of the other guns mixed in, the shot rang through the trees. Jack, trying to use the noise as cover, slashed the beast’s foreleg. He managed to cut deep into its muscle but hadn’t managed to hit the main tendon as he had hoped.
“Go for its ankle!” Jack shouted at nobody in particular.
Mara stabbed it in the rear with her bayonet, sinking the blade up to the hilt. The massive beast reared up on its hind legs and slammed back down, knocking both of them over. Another shot rang out. Cat had managed to take out one of its eyes. In a fit of blind rage, it charged at the only figure within sight, Jack.
It barrelled him over, knocking him flat. A high-pitched yell came from the top of a nearby gum as Arthur leapt defiantly from its branches, brandishing a sharpened opal.
The blade found its mark in the Bunyip’s spine just behind its skull. Arthur bounced unceremoniously off after losing grip on the blade before landing in the water. Mara approached cautiously, prodding with her bayonet a few times to confirm that it was immobile.
Cat leapt from the tree, landing with a heavily muffled thud. She approached it, whipping out a hunter’s knife as Jack went over to the water. Arthur was paddling his way back to shore where Mara crouched. He smirked as he saw her jaw drop. Most of the ‘dirt’ had come off but the colour had barely changed. He was a native, not just a street urchin. She held his face in disbelief. “H-how did I not notice this from the start?!?”
Jack laughed. “You couldn’t tell? I always knew you weren’t the most observant person in the world, but this is killing me.”
His comments were met with her rifle but square in his stomach. “Shut up, moron.” Shouldering her rifle, she grabbed a small towel out of a bag and started to dry him off.
Jack wandered back over to the beast’s corpse. Cat stood next to it, holding the doglike head aloft by its spinal cord. “Time to turn this sucker in.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Cat gave him a dirty look but nothing more.