The Bushranger's Bayonet
Having called off the search for Thunderbolt, they decided to start towards the Mainecastle Goldfields, where rumours of an ongoing dispute had been emanating outwards. Mediation jobs, though usually left to the coppers, were easy money if handled correctly, but could turn very bad very fast.
Fortunately, Maincastle proper was a few days walk away.
Arthur had now regularly taken to sitting on Connie’s shoulders. It was now odd to see him not sitting up there. The fact that he wasn’t was slightly unusual, but that was just part of the job description these days. He kept pace with the group on his little legs as they walked the narrow dirt track. It was too remote for carts or even horses to cross. Arthur jogged back and forth between the four group members, walking right next to them. Sidling up to Mara, he was greeted with a pat on the head. “You doing okay, little buddy?” Arthur nodded, still not totally comfortable speaking much, he tended to communicate with basic gestures. She smiled, picking up the little boy. He was noticeably heavier now. When they found him, Arthur was little more than skin and bones. “Plumped up a bit, have ya?” Mara grabbed his leg and could feed the muscle growing there. All this strenuous work seemed to be building him up quite healthily. The surgery hung around in Mara’s head as she held him. What if he wasn’t strong enough to survive the process? Though a lot safer than it used to be, it was still a dangerous procedure. Just remembering what happened to her during the process sent shivers down Mara’s spine…
Mara lay in her bed.
Everything was dark.
Her ears were ringing.
Her muscles felt like they were trying to tear themselves apart.
All she knew was the reassuring feeling of a familiar hand in hers.
Jack had been through the procedure himself less than a week ago, only having just recovered himself. He knew what Mara was going through as she lay in bed, still as death. The pain was hell to go through, even though all they needed was the simplified process. Living through it was bad, seeing it from the outside was far worse.
“How’s she doin’ Jack?” Came a familiar voice from the door.
It was Uncle Peter. Though softly spoken, he was a giant of a man with soft orange-brown eyes and a wispy silver hair still covering his head.
“Not sure, Uncle. She hasn’t moved in hours, she’s sweatin’ like crazy too.”
Uncle Peter sighed, leaving a steaming bowl on the small table next to him. “I brought you some dinner. Made some stew tonight.” He took another look around the room. “Sure you don’t want me to light you a lantern? It’s not like we’re hurting for oil.”
He shook his head. “No thanks uncle, I don’t need it. I can see perfectly fine. I’m more worried about what Mara will see when she wakes up. You blinded me when I woke up, remember?”
Peter chuckled. “I said I was sorry for that. Mara insisted on the lights”
“And I told you that she’s a damned idiot!” Jack bit back.
Another chuckle came from the doorway. “I’ll leave you alone then. Come and get me when she wakes up. Want to make sure I didn’t fuck up again.” He trailed off as he finished his sentence.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Peter replied innocently before shutting the door.
Jack gulped. He’d heard exactly what Uncle Peter had said. He gave Mara’s hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Don’t worry, we’re gonna get through this.” He said softly, brushing the hair out of her face with his other hand. Knowing that she couldn’t hear him, he wasn’t sure who he was trying to reassure.
Mara or himself.
Jack dropped his head as he sat there.
The bowl of stew went from piping hot, to lukewarm, to room temperature over the course of an hour.
He gave her hand a hopeful squeeze and waited.
All Mara knew was pain.
Blind, deaf, and feeling like her muscles were tearing apart, It was almost unbearable.
A sensation came down her arm.
He was still there. Jack was still next to her.
Mara’s muscles began to relax as she squeezed back before drifting off to sleep.
The sun shone brightly through the dirty window, shining scattered sunlight onto his sleeping face. Jack still sat in the chair, a bowl of cold stew on the short table next to him, completely untouched.
Mara gave his hand a quick squeeze.
“Hey, wake up sleepy head.”
Jack shot awake before wrapping his arms around Mara.
“Are you okay? I was so worried about you!” Jack squeezed her tight, to the point it started to hurt.
“Sorry.” He replied, loosening his grip. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine Jack. In fact, I haven’t ever felt this good.”
She yanked him off his feet and onto her bed, wrapping her arms and legs around him, refusing to let go.
“I never want you to leave my side.” Mara stuck her face in the gap between his neck and shoulder. All he could do was wrap his arms around her.
The memories came flooding back and she had to put Arthur down before propping herself on a nearby log.
“I need a minute guys.” She said with a voice that sounded more exhausted than anything else.
The rest of them stopped. Arthur decided it’d be a good idea to dive into Mara’s lap. Throwing his rifle down, he dove under her arms, his head landing squarely between her legs atop the fabric of her skirt. She threw her head back, laughing hysterically, all thoughts of surgery and pain stuck behind a barrier of surprised joy. Petting his head, those intrusive thoughts broke through the hastily-erected barrier and back to the front of her mind. All she could do was keep him healthy and hope that Uncle Peter didn’t fuck him up too badly. Another shiver went down her spine as Jack walked over.
“It’s not like you to tire out this easily, something goin’ on?” He queried with a light concern to his tone.
Mara shifted Arthur off her lap and hopped off the fallen gum. “Nothing, it’s nothing. I just need a moment to myself.”
With that, Mara wandered off into the nearby scrub to process her thoughts before noticing something odd.
A horrible stench.
It flooded her nostrils and burned her throat.
It was also very familiar. With a bit of searching, she came across the source. What Mara found wasn’t exactly what she was expecting. It was close, but didn’t exactly match.
What she’d smelled was dingo shit, but what she found was different. It looked and smelled identical but had one major difference.
It was huge.
She knew from previous hunts and textbooks that dingoes would almost never shit this big. It was comparable in size to that of a large man. Either this was one giant fuckin’ dog, or it was something else entirely…
“Oi! Get over ‘ere, I found some interesting shit.”
A few seconds later, a shadowy streak fell from the trees. Mara turned to face Cat as she stood silently next to her. Her sneaking constantly had become routine now, it was probably not even intentional most of the time. Just one of the quirks that became normalized with exposure.
“Were you fucking following me?” She shook her head dismissively. “Never mind that, you’re seein’ this shit right?”
Cat nodded. “I see it. You weren’t kidding when you said interesting shit.” Upon closer inspection, there appeared to be giant paw prints leading to and away from the droppings.
“It’s either a bloody big dingo, or we have a problem on our hands.” Cat took another look, examining the pawprints. They were not only large, but also deep, suggesting the animal had the bulk to back this size of shit and print up. Something about the prints didn’t line up though. It’s gait didn’t seem to be consistent. “Big problem. Think it’s a werewolf.”
Mara looked confused. “How can you tell from the shit?”
Cat rolled her eyes at the snark. “The prints. They aren’t consistent. This thing was walking on it’s back legs. Unless you’ve seen a dingo do that, It’s a bloody werewolf.”
Cat took another look and spotted it herself.
“Had ta pop a squat and drop one out then. Some habits die hard, even with a whole new form.”
Mara chuckled, imagining a giant dingo werewolf squatting on it’s back legs. The thought was just absurd, but the evidence was right in front of them. Whatever laid out this turd had very much done that.
Connie broke through the underbrush, sword in hand to cut through the branches.
“Weren’t lying when you said interesting shit.” He noted with a dry sarcasm that he didn’t usually use. “Looks like some sort of big dog or somethin’.”
Cat nodded. “Werewolf. You can see it was standing on its back legs.” She stated flatly, pointing out the pawprints.
“Looks like a colossal dingo shit to me. Seen this before or are we just standing around a giant turd and guessing?”
Jack chuckled as he emerged from the bushes, Arthur not far behind. “You are seriously weird, but I’d not have it any other way.”
“Says you” Mara shot back “We all know what you used to do.”
Jack was taken aback. “You didn’t. You swore you’d never tell!”
Mara burst into laughter. “I didn’t, you did.”
Jack rolled his eyes as his gaze began to follow the faint tracks. “This thing can’t be too far away. Those tracks are fresh, after all.” He looked from Cat, to Mara, and back again.
“So what? Who gives a shit? It’s not like there’s a bounty on it we can cash in on.”
He sighed. “Lemme put it this way. We’re three days out from Maincastle. You wanna spend nine days on one bounty or just carry the beast in and get paid?”
Mara sighed. “Fine, let’s kill it. I’m bored anyway.”
Jack looked at Cat, locking his gaze into her acid-green eyes. “Cover us from the top. I want you spotting targets.”
Cat smirked slightly, resting her giant rifle on her shoulder casually. “So the usual then?”
He chuckled a bit. “Yeah, the usual.”
Connie reached for his shotgun, slamming a pair of 12-gauge shells into it before flicking the barrels up to close the breach. “Let’s do this.”
The five fanned out to search the bush for more signs. Jack and Arthur followed the tracks through the underbrush. Connie took up the right flank, shotgun in hand and claymore riding loose in its rough half-scabbard, always on his giant back.
Mara took up the left flank, her mane of burning hair flowing behind as she brandished her rifle, bayonet firmly fixed in its mounting. When beams of sunlight breached the trees, the glint of the blade revealed where steel ended and silver began.
Taking her eternal vigil, Cat leapt through the trees above as the scout, a wraith-like presence ready to spit white-hot vengeance at half a second's notice.
As they followed the trail, it grew increasingly faint. Entire stretches of dirt would lack prints only for there to be more further up. It’s not like they could sniff the animal out.
A howl came from the distance, echoed by a dozen others around it. The beast had them circled.
Where these other dingos had come from was a mystery. They made no sound as they approached nor did their smell get picked up by anybody in the group.
One by one, pairs of glowing eyes appeared in the dimming forest as the sun slid behind a bank of thick clouds, plunging them all into a dim twilight. After two or so seconds, their eyes adjusted to the shift and gave their skills a moment to shine. Connie placed Arthur onto the ground, drawing his sword and bellowing at the beasts.
“Come and get me! I’m right fucking here!”
Arthur clutched for his rifle in confusion. He had never seen Connie get so aggressive before. Not even the Tiddaliks or giant Composite Slime had brought out this side of him.
Jack had noticed it too. His stoicism in battle had been one of his most noticeable traits until now…
Jack dismissed it as a tactical decision. Arthur clenched his rifle tighter, levelling it at one of the approaching dingos as its eyes glowed an unnatural blood-red.
Mara loosened her grip, rifle ready to snap to a firing position in a second. “Get out here ya cunt, I know you’re there!”
Jack looked at her in confusion for a second before realising what was going on. The beasts approached in near-perfect unison until they formed a perfect circle twelve meters across, each covering every possible exit the four of them could have taken. A slight smirk settled onto Jack’s face after he realised that the beasts had the four of them trapped.
A shape began to emerge from the dark. A hulking, hunch-backed beast, framed with orange-gold fur and bursting with muscle, eyes glowing blood-red as bright as a great bonfire. It strode casually, emanating confidence like a foul cloud that clung to its fur. Approaching the circle, it walked between two of the smaller dingos, holding up its head to look them in the eye. As it approached ever closer, the circle closed behind it. Staring them down, its head was eye-level with Jack. He approached the beast, bayonet fixed and rifle ready to snap to firing.
Relaxing his stance, but not his grip, he smirked at the beast knowing full-well it was within striking distance; but so was he.
The beast snorted, it’s hot stinky breath blowing into his face and ruffling his hair. Mara made a chuckling snort that she tried to muffle, remembering the last time he’d done this.
“Why do you come here, beast hunter? Have you come for my head too? Do you wish to fall as did others who came here?”
He looked back at Mara for what to do. The monsters didn’t usually want to chat first. She simply shrugged.
“I guess. We found a giant pile of ya shit and knew you were here.”
The monster growled angrily, its muzzle snapping to the side in annoyance. It muttered something that was too heavily growelled to make out, even with their enhanced hearing. One dingo sneezed, almost as if in laughter. The giant one turned to face it and growled a threat, bringing it back into line.
“Very well. Tell nobody of this place and we will let you walk away unharmed. No need to fight over nothing.”
Jack nodded, a non-committal frown on his face.
“I guess that’d be alright, as long as you don’t hurt anybody, then we won’t have much of a choice.”
The beast nodded.
“Very well then, we are agreed.”
A silence emerged.
Broken only a split second later as an object hit the ground.
It was round and light-gray, covered in bite marks and scratches too large to be any normal dog. Jack turned it over with the toe of his boot, only to see what it was.
A human skull.
Cat leapt out of the trees above, holding a sack. She dumped the contents on the ground between the two of them.
“I’d say we’ve got plenty of justification. I found these in a big hollow. These are just a few I grabbed.”
Jack levelled the bayonet tip at the beast's throat.
Cat pulled out her revolver, pointing it at the beast's head.
“No need. This one’s been hunting the locals. Probably at least a 500 pound bounty on this.”
Jack put a tentative question forward, his confident smirk gone.
“Right, that only leaves me with only one question.” Pausing for a moment, Jack inhaled sharply.
“Why the hell did you just blow your cover for that? You’re the sneaky one here, you could’ve just shot the bastard!” He bellowed at Cat, unwittingly lowering his bayonet from the beast's throat.
It lunged, spreading its jaws wide and aiming to swallow Jack’s head whole. Dropping his rifle onto the dirt, he grabbed its jaws and held them open, hoping to save his own skin. Mara leapt into action, dashing around the rear and slicing through the monster’s right hind leg, causing blood to spurt out like a crimson drinking fountain. Her blade had managed to strike an artery.
It let go, backing off as it half growled and half whimpered.
“I’ll get you cunts yet!” You’ve not seen the last of me.”
He skittered off into the dark as the five of them stood their ground, leaving a bloody trail behind it.
Relaxing a bit, Jack reached down and grabbed his rifle before using the butt to help pull himself off the ground.
Reaching into a pouch, Cat produced a metal disk. Taking it, Jack gave the scrap a good look. It was a Royal Army tag, used by soldiers.
“I found this next to a shredded uniform. There weren’t any blood splatters or bones of any kind that I could see near it, this was in what I could only assume was it’s sleeping spot. I think we have our culprit.”
“But how the fuck did that happen? I thought that werewolves were invasive.” Mara put in her two cents. “That’s what Uncle Peter always said in class.”
Cat produced a small leather notebook and a charcoal pencil, noting the find down. “Well we should add that to the new ones then.”
Jack looked at Mara in confusion. She met his gaze with a slight shrug as they looked at Cat simultaneously.
“What? It’s useful for longer stuff and taking notes. Hard to remember every little detail on my own.”
“You’ve not used it recently, or ever.” Jack flatly stated, an expression of neutral annoyance on his face. “Knowing that little tidbit would’ve come in handy before now. Could’ve asked you to take notes on the targets or write other shit down. Sometimes you don’t need to hide shit, you know?”
Cat quickly stashed the book away in the pouch she’d retrieved it from, a slight look of uncharacteristic embarrassment on her face.
“I guess I should’ve mentioned it sooner…”
A silence hung awkwardly in the air. Nobody seemed to know what to do about it.
“Anyways, it doesn't matter now. What we need to do is investigate this thing and bring it’s head in for the bounty. Somebody has to be paying for this thing’s head with all those human remains nearby.”
It took several hours of scouring, but they reconvened at sundown, in a smaller clearing nearby. Connie had gathered some firewood, cut up with his giant sword. One by one the rest of them trickled back. First back was Cat, silent as death. Second came back Jack, covered in mud and scratches.
Finally, Mara returned with Arthur in tow.
“So, any new revelations on our target?”
Nobody could answer her, only looking down or away in disappointment or embarrassment.
Jack broke the silence. “Welp, then we’ll rest here for a few hours and go out looking again. He said, a cautious optimism in his tone. “Let’s get some rest and pick this up just after dusk. With any luck, they’ll be out hunting and we can set up an ambush.”
Slowly, one by one, they all sat down in front of the fire. Within a few minutes, the whetstones came out as Mara, Jack and Connie all began to sharpen their blades. It seems that this habit went beyond the Dingo school after all.
Uncle Peter always said ‘The nervous man’s whetstone sharpens the finest blade’. He’d always wondered what that phrase meant until he first had to sit and wait for a target that he knew could end his life in a swipe. Turned out, the simple repetition calmed his nerves and helped to maintain his most useful tool. He figured it must be old wisdom then.
As sunset turned to dusk and the sky faded from a vivid orange, to the red of fresh blood, and finally to the vivid purple of the coming dark, their eyes slowly began to adjust. They were over the hump, and now they would be able to see better than ever. It was now or never if they wanted to kill this bugger.
Connie stood up, hefting his sword as he checked the shells in his shotgun. “Come on guys, let’s go catch us a turncoat.”
The rest nodded. Affixing his bayonet, glimmering brightly in the flickering flames, Jack readied his rifle for the hunt. Looking around, he saw that Cat had vanished again.
“Typical” He muttered under his breath.
“Cat! Follow on and keep your eyes open. Don’t wait for me to call it, just take the shot!” Jack shouted into the treetops, looking like a madman. Mara looked around confused for a second until she realised Cat was gone.
“Typical” She muttered under her breath.
A reply came from the canopy. “Got it. You want me to call out targets for you guys?”
Jack whipped his head around, expecting the source from a completely different direction. “No thanks, just take out the ones on our flanks. Immediate threats only, no stealing our thunder, you’re covering our arses.”
“Ugh, Typical.” Cat muttered sarcastically from the treetops.
Mara shouted at the treetops, shaking her rifle angrily.
“Oi! Quit your yappin’!”
“I can hear all of you very clearly. Quit YOUR yappin’.” Came the response, again from a different place. “I’ll cover flanks, you just cover your arses.”
“That’s what we got you for!” Jack shouted back.
A quiet rustle in the canopy and then…
Jack turned back to the others. “Alright. Connie, you take the right flank, Arthur will hang behind you for some ranged cover.”
Arthur nodded. Connie looked offended. “Ranged cover? I’ve got me ranged cover right ‘ere!” He hefted his claymore for emphasis, shotgun dangling from his left hand.
Jack sighed in annoyance. “A sword is not long-range. Arthur is covering you whether you like it or not.”
He sighed in resignation, “Alright, I like the lil’ bugger anyways.”
He then turned to Mara. “Stick to my left flank and watch out for targets.”
She gave him the stink eye. “No, how about you take my left flank and I’ll lead for once.”
Jack clenched his jaw in a complex expression. “Testy.” He squeezed hesitantly from the side of his mouth.
“Get ready, Jack. I’m leading this one. You just watch me.”
He sighed, muttering under his breath. “We’re all gonna fucking die.”
Mara scoffed, striding angrily towards the trees. “Quit bitching and cover your arse. I’m gonna bring that thing’s head into town stuck on a bayonet like the head of that one king.” She stopped to think for a second. “What was his name? Nevermind, he’s dead now.”
Cat rolled her eyes at Mara’s loud declaration, silently leaping from one branch to the next, bayonet in its sheath crosswise on her belt for easy access when needed. Most of the time though, it was nothing but a hindrance. Carrying her rifle and pistol for emergencies was usually more than enough. The traditional bayonet, evolving in practicality from the silver swords of old, is standard equipment for all of them in one form or another. To Cat, it was little more than an oversized skinning knife and occasional threat or intimidation tool. But she didn’t dare get rid of it; Doing that would be tantamount to throwing away a thousand years of history as well as disposing of an occasionally useful tool.
Observing through her scope, Cat could see Connie, followed by the relatively tiny Arthur.
Toddling along, rifle in his hands, Arthur was on his toes. He’d already faced several dangerous monsters before, but this felt different. The slimes were threatening but easy to kill. The last werewolf was a complete unknown until they were already fighting it. The bunyip hid in the water but at least they knew it was there from the start, which narrowed down the fear factor significantly. This beast was smart and it could be anywhere.
Connie stood in front, sword in his right hand, shotgun in his left. The brush wasn’t dense, but the shedding bark from the gum trees crunched with every step.
The first warning would either be a gunshot, or a streak of fur and fury. He was uneasy for the first time in what felt like forever. The beast had them surrounded so easily before, so what gave them the confidence to march into the bush as they did before? These and other similar thoughts ran through all of their heads, but there was a job that needed doing and they would get it done. With the coming of spring, this year’s hunting season was coming to an end, jobs would start to dry up like the water in the narrow creeks, exposing the cracking mud beds for all to see. This could be one of the few shots at a big bounty they’d get until next year.
He was unfazed.
Connie was used to facing big beasts. Over the few years he’d been in the bush, many monsters had gotten the drop on him, only to end up on the business end of a broadsword.
Training had made him tough.
The bush made him unbreakable.
Arthur hid behind him, clutching his rifle like his life depended on it, because in all probability, it did.
The beast could be anywhere and he wouldn’t know until it was too late.
Looking across, he caught a glimpse of a bluish shirt through the trees.
Looking up, Arthur saw a slight movement in the branches, accompanied by a dark streak of movement.
Reassured that he was safe, he adjusted his grip on the rather large rifle he held.
Jack was preoccupied with a single thought.
‘How was a werewolf controlling a pack of dingos?’
Nothing of the sort had ever come up before. Not in the books detailing the first expeditions or the accounts of older and more experienced Bushrangers. This was a definite first.
A growl came from the dark and all curiosity about how vanished, covered by the sudden rush of adrenaline. Quickly snapping to aim in the direction of the growl, he fired a shot into the darkness. There was a slight whimper, then a flash of streaking fur, the last few rays of the sun catching the tips of its bristling fur ever so slightly to give it an eerie golden outline.
A perfect target.
Jack let the beat have another slug, this time into the shoulder, right where it met the beast's neck. It leapt at him again, jaws wide open ready to bite off as much as it could chew. Sidestepping, Jack swung the blade below where its head was to try and catch its neck.
A slight hiss and blood splattered the ground.
Three sets of footsteps could be heard charging from his right as Jack circled around the beast to thrust into its rear. Pained grunting and the dripping of blood to the earth was music to his ears as he pulled the blade back out to stab through its abdomen before it leaped around, pinning him.
Reaching up to the mount, Jack yanked the bayonet off his rifle and plunged it upwards into the werewolf’s throat a split second before it could get its maw around his face. With all the force he could muster, Jack forced the blade ever deeper, until the hilt kissed its blood-soaked fur and crimson streams ran down both his arms. Scrabbling to keep on its feet, the beast began to spasm, flailing itself into falling next to Jack.
Rolling onto its back, the beast coughed up a mass of blood.
“Killed by a demon like you. I should’ve expected as much when I caught this curse.” It coughed again, struggling to get back to its feet. “I’m not going down without a fight!” Snarling as loudly as it could muster, six dingoes leapt from the darkness as he backed off, leaving Jack to face them without his blade.
“Rifle butt it is. You are a cruel monster, sending your friends to meet such a brutal death. My blade, bring it back.”
It coughed once more before finally laying down some meters away. “Fuck off demon. I’ll watch them tear you to shreds, or whatever’s left of you.” It coughed again, blood spurting out of its wound.
Jack himself wasn’t in the best of shape, covered in little welling cuts and teeth marks on his hands. As the dogs closed in, he gripped his rifle like a club and braced himself for another fight.
A shot rang out from the treetops, splattering one of the dogs. More shots came from the center and right flank positions as the other three rushed to his aid.
“It’s over, monster, I have the high hand.” One dingo leapt at Jack, who countered it quickly with a swing and a follow up strike to the back of its skull, landing with a satisfying crunch. With a yelp, it fell to the ground twitching before being still.
Three stood between Jack and the wounded werewolf. Shouldering his rifle, he took aim at the werewolf and smirked as he gazed down the iron sight.
“I’ll send you back to the royal army; Hell.”
With a single shot, the beast was done. Limp on the ground, a clean hole between its eyes, what had once been a man who served his nation was naught but a pile of meat and mutated fur, twisted beyond what humanity should ever be, laying in the dirt to bleed his last on the underside of the world. As the last sparks of light faded from his eyes, the dingoes shook themselves in confusion before bolting back into the bush.
“You were not the only one to bear the curse of a mutation; May you find more peace in the next world than you did in this one.”
As soon as she was sure there wasn’t any danger, Mara quickly grabbed her first aid kit and started fixing Jack up.
“You really are a fucking moron, you know that? You could’ve just shot them!”
Jack just chuckled in bemusement. “Cased bullets like ours are expensive. I was trying to conserve them.”