Chapter 15:

Fire from Above

The Bushranger's Bayonet

Jack watched helplessly as the others packed up their hasty camp. With his leg in the condition it was, he could do nothing but watch. He was not used to being powerless.
“I can’t believe I let that bastard get away.” Jack said, gritting his teeth as he shuffled into a slightly more comfortable position.“That bastard was going to get away anyhow. You rushed in on your own and left us in the dust. If you’d waited for the rest of us, your leg might not be in five pieces.” Mara shot back, her snark underlying the deadpan anger on full display in her tone and body language. “I had to try. We can’t let him run around ruining our lives by proxy.”Mara sighed, putting the last of her stuff away before walking over to him. “So to stop our lives being ruined, you were willing to sacrifice yours?”Jack said nothing, her form looming over him like some judgemental monolith.“Thought as much.” She snarked, before plopping her butt down next to him. Jack couldn’t laugh, it was too painful. “It was pretty stupid. I thought I could reason with him. He was right there, talking. I thought, if only for a second, that if he was willing to speak that he would be willing to listen.”She sighed, putting a tentative arm around his shoulder. “Just because somebody will talk, doesn’t mean they’ll listen.” “But, he was there. I thought if I talked some sense into him, he might come back. He is one of us, after all.” His tone was much higher than normal, almost as if he were trying to hide his feelings, to plead to the void. “He asked me to go with him. For a second there, he actually made sense.”Mara put a concerned hand to his head, smiling in that motherly way that had only ever come out when Arthur was around. “It’s okay, you didn't get a concussion as far as I can tell, you don’t need to worry.”Jack pushed her hand away. “My head is fine, thank you very much,” he growled in annoyance. “He was right though, we are being stolen from.”Mara pulled him a bit tighter. “It’s okay, it’s okay, he can’t hurt you anymore, so stop with the crazy talk.”Raising his voice, Jack shifted so that he could see them all roughly equally.“Think about it, we do a shit job, we risk our fucking lives, only for us to barely get by. We all know somebody who’s died while on a contract, we’ve all had to pick through the mangled remains of our friends and family. We’ve all suffered at the hands of ungrateful dickheads who've spat in our faces even when we've done everything in our power. Can we really say that he was wrong?”
The whole group was stunned. All they could do was stare in shock whilst mulling it over internally.Mara seemed to brush the comment off first, burying her face in his neck and pulling him so tight it was almost painful.“Don’t say such stupid things. If you do, I’ll break your other leg.”What terrified Jack the most about that comment was the girlish way she said it. Overly bubbly with absolute fury lurking beneath the surface, trying to break through. It reminded him of somebody he used to know…
Jack decided at that moment that shutting the fuck up was probably the best option. Mara wasn't usually good for a lot, but she wasn't in the habit of making idle threats. It would be best for his health if he didn't process his thoughts out loud, he didn't fancy being carried home this year. 
“Now what?”For once, it was Cat that broke the silence, but it quickly returned, only broken by the sounds of the bush and the calls of nearby birds.Mara stepped up, deciding to take charge of the situation. “It's simple enough, we go home. Let's face it, we aren't in any shape to keep working like this. Two of us have been shot.”“That was your own bloody fault, ya fucking moron” Cat interjected.“I didn’t ask for your fuckin opinion.” Mara shot back.Getting more defensive, Cat retorted. “I don't care if you didn't ask. The world doesn't fuckin revolve around you. I can say whatever I want, I don't need anybody's bloody permission.”“Just keep your trap shut, it's what you're good at.” Came the reply, laced with annoyance and contempt.“Why I oughta…”“Enough!” Jack shouted, wincing from the effort. “Can you please stop snapping at each other's throats for five fucking minutes?”Cat turned to face him, grinning maliciously. “Make me.”Mara's face was a mix of outrage and disgust. "You leave him outta this!"It was only then that Connie decided to weigh in. "Both of you, shut up. We need to move fast, because I have a feeling that we won’t be alone for much longer. If that Thunderbolt guy is ‘alf as smart as I think he is, somebody’s comin’ after us.”Jack nodded slightly. “Somebody pick me up.”
Mara reached down to pull him as an eerie silence settled over the trees.
Draped over Mara's shoulder, Jack limped along with a chaotic mix of shock and despair on his face. Arthur walked along on Jack's other side, seemingly emotionless, but it was his own way of showing concern. Connie was not far behind, still on his guard for an attack, hand hovering nervously over the grip of his shotgun. Cat trailed behind, still annoyed from before.
With the morning sun shining on their backs, the temperature was creeping up. The familiar feeling of uncomfortable warmth was a sure sign that summer was very close, if not already upon them; marking the beginning of bushfire season, and the beginning of the single most dangerous part of the year. One false move, one casually emptied pipe, and it could end in a dozen funerals. Jack could see it as he limped along. Dead brush and branches littered the ground. Grasses growing in massive tan thickets that could reach the knees of a horse.The perfect kindling and a great hiding place for what may wish to stalk through the open plains undetected.
As the group made their way along the rough dirt trail, the trees began to grow thicker. Twisting bluegums still clutching onto dead branches that had fallen off months ago, still dangling forlornly from the canopy. The faint smells of the dry brush filling their nose. Connie was on edge, hand glued to the shotgun on his belt, ready to draw and fire at the drop of a hat. His paranoia had begun to take hold, tuning all his senses into possible danger. Just to cover all his bases, he sniffed the air to find the barest hint of a clue.It was only then, when Connie’s attention was turned to smell did he notice.The distinct acrid smell.Smoke.
“Hey, did any of you see any fires nearby?” Connie mentioned casually, seemingly trying to conceal how on edge he was.Mara shook her head. “I haven’t seen anything.”Arthur said nothing, but looked around to see if he could spot anything.Connie then turned to where he thought Cat would be.“Then how abou-”He stopped, realizing she was gone again.“There’s nothing nearby. We’re all alone.” Came a familiar voice from the treetops, before she dropped down in front of them. 
“Whatever is causing the smell has to be small and close. I can smell it too, but can't nail it down.”Mara' acknowledged them, trying to speed up slightly.“OW FUCK!” A loud protest came from her shoulder. Jack's face was twisted in agony as he tried in vain to clutch at his leg. “Can ya slow the fuck down? I can't fucking walk!”She winced in sympathy, trying to readjust him so they could go faster.“Something's wrong mate, we gotta move.” She tried to calm him down, speaking in a more even tone than usual.“I know that you dumb bitch, I broke my leg not my ears.” Came his uncharacteristically nasty reply.Mara tried to not let it get under her skin, his leg was completely shattered, so she figured it was more pain than anything else.“Oi, there's no need to be a complete cunt about it. Shits about to go sideways and need to move.”
“Do ya have any painkillers at least? If you're gonna fuck my leg up more, I don't wanna feel that shit.”
Mara sighed in a mix of annoyance and relief.
“Sure mate, lemme get some out of my bag. Somebody grab him for a second.”
Cat padded over, carefully peeling his arm off Mara's back and moving it to her own. Though she was noticeably smaller than him, she didn't struggle too much from the effort. 
Digging around in her bag, Mara managed to find some weakened morphine tablets, which could be used on themselves or civilians, one of the very few things that could. Uncle Peter always used to mention how dangerous this stuff was, always saying that it was the last resort for when there were no other options. She silently handed Jack a few of the pills before burying the bottle at the bottom of her bag.
“Welp, looks like shits about to get messy.” Jack swallowed the pills without hesitation, dreading what they signified. Transferring him back to Mara, Cat fell behind the group to follow them again. 
As they settled into an uneasy rhythm, suspicions bubbled up again in the back of Connie's mind, suspicions that seldom plagued him.But plague him they did, in a very real way.The smell. It was back.“Alright, there’s no way you guys can't smell that.”He complained to the group.Jack merely plodded along, too concerned with the pain in his leg. Mara said nothing, too concerned with Jack. Connie looked around again and Cat was nowhere to be found. Unsurprising, expected even.Arthur piqued up, sniffing the air tentatively before pinching his nose. “It stinks of fire, but worse. I don't like it.”Over the course of about a minute, all the colour drained from his face as he gazed into the middle distance.
Grabbing his shotgun off his belt, Connie tapped Arthur on the shoulder lightly. The amount that he moved from such a gentle movement only highlighted how massive the size difference between them really was.
Connie began to scan back and forth, eyes darting from shadow to shadow, looking for the slightest hint of danger. Only the sound of the birds lingered, before even they faded into silence.He stared into one of the shadows, waiting for something. But then, it twitched. Ever so slightly, it had moved. Not in a way that normal shadows moved, but as if there was an amorphous but defined mass hidden within. 
Pulling the claymore off his back, Connie reached out to prod it. No sound broke the silence as the tip of his blade slowly reached into the darkness. Crossing the edge, the tip approached the place that had twitched. 
The seconds passed at a glacial paceBut then……Nothing.
Nothing but stillness and silence.
The blade's tip passed through the spot with ease, encountering nothing but air. As the others began to move off, he turned his head away to follow..It darted.The shadow dashed for another spot nearby and vanished, seemingly never having existed to begin with.“Guns out, we've got company.”One by one, each drew a weapon. Arthur unshouldered his rifle, Mara drew her pistol from under her jacket, even Jack managed to grab for his revolver.“Put it away, you won't be able to do much in that state.” Mara said, a healthy dose of sarcasm in her concerned tone.Jack attempted to chuckle, but only got out an annoyed snort. “I broke my leg, not me bloody arms. I can still shoot.” She rolled her eyes at him, his arm still draped over her shoulder. “And I don't want you to break your hand with the recoil by holding it wrong, shitlark. Put your pistol away.”
The silence that hung after her words was unnaturally prolonged, unbroken by the normal sounds of the bush.This remark only seemed to annoy him even more.“I refuse to be useless. If I break my hand too, so fucking be it.”“No you fucking won't. Put it away now!” She yelled at him outright. He could tell from her tone alone that she was dead serious, the shouting only gave her words more impact.Jack attempted to protest “But I ha-”.Mara said nothing, reaching over and yanking his revolver out of his fingers and tucking it into her belt.“No. You are injured. Shut the fuck up and hang on. We will do the shooting. You have done enough.”Her stern emphasis on every word conveyed her true feelings. The way she spoke almost sounded like a parent telling off a child who's just survived doing something extremely dangerous. Jack had no words.
It was only then, in the silence that followed, did they hear the snap…It was not the breaking of a twig being crushed by weight, but that of one exploding from the inside as a result of great pressure…The sound of a fresh twig on a fire…The four of them stood there sweeping their rifles around before Jack took a cautious sniff. “Is somebody cooking?” Clearly, the drugs were kicking in and starting to get to his head, he'd be more of a liability than a help.It was only then that it became visible. A single wisp of smoke on the wind, holding itself together over a seemingly great distance. Mara turned to the crumpled lump hanging off her shoulder that was Jack."On my back, we need to move fast.""I can carry him easily, you don't have to." Connie suggested."No, we need you to hack through whatever is coming for us. Whatever it is, it could destroy all the nearby bushland if that means burning us too…" Her tone would seem overly dramatic in any other context, but right now it seemed appropriate. Hoisting Jack onto her back, she got ready to run."Ow fuck!" A protest came from over her shoulder."Don't shout in me fuckin' ear, I'm right next to us.""Well that really fucking hurt!" Jack replied with all the angry smarm he could muster. With the four of them as is, there were only two who could comfortably shoot, but only one with the proper training.They were sitting ducks…
WIth the sound of another distant pop, they began to head off.Another pop…They kept going.And another…The four picked up the pace.Two more pops in rapid succession…
The four of them were on high alert, ready for any threat. The limited and sparse tree cover meant that keeping to higher ground was not currently an option, so Cat kept to the group’s rear. Quickly realising that if this were to come to blows, range would be an issue, she drew the bayonet strapped to the small of her back. Placing the but of her rifle carefully in the grass as the rest of the group crept forward, she fixed it into place and took a few short steps to catch up. 
None of them could keep their heads steady. Eyes snapping every which way, looking for a threat they could face head on. The shadows stayed dead still, not even the wind disturbing the leaves in the treetops. It was as if the bush itself knew what was coming.Another whiff of smoke made Mara pick up her pace even more, with several weak protests from Jack which were dulled by the drugs. But out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flicker. It was not one of shadows, but cast a faint glow onto the trees nearby. There was no doubt as to its nature. 
Cat’s head was on a nervous swivel, constantly snapping to potential threats as she tried to find a target. Her finger hung closely around the trigger guard, just itching to go past it. In the distance, obscured by the grasses as they hugged the bulging base of a gum tree, she saw a flicker and instantly her gun snapped up to meet it.But, it was gone.“Move, NOW!”
Still trying to remain conscious through the drug, the noise of Cat uncharacteristically shouting snapped him as close as he could get to alert, considering what he was going through. He tried to reach for his blade, but felt a warm hand grab a hold of his wrist and a familiar voice cut through the fog. “Don’t even try.”All of a sudden, he could feel himself being hoisted up higher as two arms supported him being draped over somebody’s back. With the drugs numbing his senses, the only thing he could feel was the sorrow and guilt of being nothing more than a burden for the others to overcome.
As they walked, more and more flickering began to appear around them. There was no doubt as to what was going on, but trying to carry wounded, this was as fast as they could go.Cat noticed that as the flickering picked up speed, the shadows seemed to flicker in tandem. But the flickering did not follow the flames as should be expected, instead the shadows seemed to proceed the flames by a split second. Ever so slowly as they trudged, the flickering became a dull roar.Mara stopped dead, putting Jack down and drawing her rifle. “I know I saw something there.”“This place is going to burn to the ground if we don’t move.” Cat stated, clearly frustrated by Mara’s apparent stupidity. “Arthur pointed to a line of flickering flames about twenty meters off to the side.“It’s too late. We’re stuck now.”Cat traced the line Arthur had indicated, slowly spinning around with carefully-placed steps in the dry grass, not letting her eyes leave the flames for even a split second.“It appears we must fight. What we face is yet to be seen”“Shut your trap” Cat snapped “You’ve been good at keeping quiet so far, so stick with that.”She relented, not wanting to aggravate the situation. "As you wish."
The shadows began to flicker once again as the flames danced ever higher. Each flicker became more and more rapid as the infernal aperture closed ever tighter. It flickered and crackled as the shadows danced.Until one dove from the sky with the sun at its back.Mara crouched as low as she could get, Jack still on her shoulder. But before anyone could bring a blade or barrel to bear,It was gone…Seconds past as the flames danced, taunting them.The shadow swooped again, trailing flames behind it.Cat tried to attack, swinging her blade at where she thought it's path would come closest to her.The silvered blade rang as it met its target,But only black fluff drifted toward the ground…Arthur plucked the light object off the ground to examine it more closely."Feathers. I know these."Mara shot him a very serious look. "Where? Cough up everything, or we're gonna fucking die here."He nodded, his head snapping up and down. "We used to find these after big fires. No birds stay when fires burn, but these feathers are always there. Little clumps on bushes, a feather in the ash. We don’t know why."Jack snorted, the information seeming to get through to his drugged brain. "That's convenient."Mara shook him, a sarcastic disgust making her fear.Whether she liked it or not, Jack could still feel her heart pounding.
The flames flickered and danced as the shadows leapt about. The three still able to fight circled around Jack and Mara, her snub-nosed pistol in hand. Each held their weapons in anticipation, knowing something would dive eventually.Connie saw a strange gap in the flames and brought his sword to bear against it. A flaming blur shot at him from the gap. Blood splattered over his face and torso as a bird split itself on the edge of his blade, levelled at his eyes."It's just a bird. Not even a big one." He noted casually, his nasal draw seemingly less pronounced than usual.Cat quickly stepped over and scooped it up. "No time to look now, let's get moving."Mara looked around at the flaming wall that had shrunk toward them."There’s a narrow spot, if we dash through, we should be okay."The three nodded, Connie sheathing his blade. "Give Jack to me."Mara didn't argue, handing him over without comment. Connie heaved Jack over his head very carefully. "Run for it!"
The four of them dashed through, all except Connie attempting to leap over the flames. He just charged through with Jack over his head.The group made for a clump of trees a good distance from the fire so they could regroup.
Connie held the two parts of the bird up to eye level for examination. The bloodied remains were cleared cleanly in two, it's cut up organs looking like a cross section model that had fallen apart. Its beak had been perfectly cleaven in half, the leading edge of the cut mere millimetres from being on the very tip of the beak."A clean cut. Quite precise for such an unwieldy blade." Commented a voice from what had been empty air mere moments earlier. Connie snorted in amusement. "Surprised? I can handle me sword just as well as the rest of yous."Cat looked over the remains closely, looking for any trace of evidence.Connie held the bird down to her level, so she didn't have to stand on tip toes to even try glimpsing it."Look at its legs, that will be the give-away." She stated coolly, scooping the left side of the bird out of his massive paws. The bird's body flopped and splattered guts as it was handled. Holding the leg still, Cat held her breath and brought it to eye level. "Chafing marks. This bird was chained up at some point.""So it wasn't attacking us of its own accord" Mara grunted, gently sliding Jack onto the soft grass at the base of a tree; "the bloody thing was being told to.""Which means the bastard doing it has ta be nearby." Connie concurred.
As they reached the clump, Mara slid Jack carefully off her shoulder and propped him carefully up against a tree. His eyes were glazed over, looking as if they’d been replaced with glass replicas inset with fake irises made with reflective paint to mimic their shiny eyes.

“It’s okay Jack, you’re gonna be okay, we’re safe now.”He could hear through the fog that had settled over his brain, but the voice was muffled and indistinct. He couldn’t see anything clearly, but knew whatever it was couldn’t be real.The world was a grey mass of swirling mists in all directions, no light coming from anywhere. “Don’t worry, we’ll be home soon.” The mists echoed to him a voice he couldn’t identify but somehow recognised, bringing a warmth and peace to him. The mists swirled and engulfed him as he slipped into the nothingness.

Mara knelt down to adjust the splint on Jack’s leg, pausing to look at him absent-mindedly. A soft smile crept onto her face as she tousled his hair. “You stay here, okay?” Her motherly tone, usually reserved for Arthur, crept out as she spoke to the drugged and helpless Jack.“He’s not going anywhere.” Snarked a familiar toneless voice from behind her that wasn’t there a second ago. “And neither are we.”Mara huffed, turning around to face Cat. “If you have something helpful to say, speak now or shut your bloody mouth. You’re good at being quiet, so stick to it!”Connie stepped forward, holding one of his giant hands out between them.“This ain’t the time or place for this. Youse can fight when we get t’yer farm, but we need ta get this git before ‘e gets away.”Mara sighed, clutching her head whilst holding out her other hand for space. “Alright, but we need to guard him too. We can’t risk him getting shot while we're out looking." Pulling her hands down and reaching for her rifle, she looked at Cat.
"You do the usual. Stick to the treetops, pick your shots." She jerked her head toward the canopy in the small patch for emphasis.
"You want him dead, or am I on spotting duty again?" Cat replied flatly as she checked the chamber of her rifle.
Mara shook her head briefly, turning her rifle over in her hands in a manner that seemed more habitual fidgeting than a proper examination. "No, but try to go for a non-lethal shot. I want to know who attacked us and why. Lower back if you can, thigh or ankle if you can’t.
Cat nodded as she unfixed her bayonet and slid it into the sheath that sat crosswise on her waist, it's hilt sticking out and within easy reach. She popped open a padded pouch and removed her rifle scope, fixing it well forward of the bolt and double checking the alignment before shouldering her weapon and disappearing up a nearby tree.
Arthur clutched his rifle and stepped forward, puffing out his chest.. "I'll stay here."
"Not by yerself" Connie interrupted "Stay within reach, I ain't dashing off to save yers."
"So it's settled" Mara grunted in resignation "If you see 'im, shoot."
The two of them nodded. Connie drew his sword and stood alert, ready to attack at the slightest hint of danger.Arthur hurried over and kneeled next to Jack, holding his rifle next to him at the ready.

Satisfied that Jack would be safe, Mara ventured into the trees alone. Her eyes darted around as the leaves cast stray beams of sunlight around the scrub, each shadow adding to her tension. She proceeded forward, placing each step carefully and looking around, hoping to see her prey. Further in, a felled tree lay on its side, decaying under the shade of its children. With no effort, Mara leapt atop it and crept forward with the walk of an expert predator. 
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw what seemed like a person's body peeking out slightly.
In an instant, she brought her rifle to bear and pulled the trigger softly.
Two shots rang out and the muffled thump of a body hit the ground.
Shouldering her rifle, Mara dashed over to the tree, dodging fallen branches and rocks with ease.

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In among the leaves, a man lay bleeding and moaning between two large roots of the gum tree he was hiding behind. He wore a pair of rough trousers and a simple shirt, his jacket covered in claw marks and a drover's hat with a few claw holes in it. A streak of blood leaked from his left shoulder and another from his right thigh. Cat had done her job well.Bookmark here

Mara dragged the man up by his armpits and propped him up against the trunk, yanking her bayonet off her rifle while it still sat on her back. With a vicious snarl, she gripped the blade in her left hand and held it to his throat. The man gulped, shivering from his wounds and absolutely terrified. He appeared to be in his early twenties, no more than twenty-five or six.

"Go ahead bright eyes, slit my throat. Prove I should've trusted my gut". He groaned, mustering as much strength to pour malice into his words.
Mara lowered the blade slightly, looking into his eyes. "No, you're going to tell me who you are and why you had your bird attack us."
He grunted as he attempted to shift. Mara tensed, thinking he would attack. But he just sat up a bit straighter and more comfortable. "So you can kill me right after? I think not, demon. Put me outta my misery and make it quick." His nose flared out in a disgusted look that was hard to be threatened or offended by because of how strained it seemed.
Mara's eyes softened as he clutched at his shoulder. "Tell me everything you know, and I'll let you go free."
Another groan sounded from the man as he resigned himself to his fate. "Alright. The cap'n told me to tail your lot and scare you off. He doesn't want anyone interfering with his plans."
"What plans?" Mara probed curiously.
"He hasn't told us yet. Danny thinks it's something big, but Will isn't sure. John don't care as long as he gets his own back. As for Frank, he'll follow the captain to the ends of the earth and down to hell itself." His speech started to wheeze slightly as his voice strained in places.
"Do you have any clues? What would it be?" She kept pushing, impatient for answers.
"From the sounds of it, a raid of a decent settlement a good way out in the bush. The boys seem keen, but the cap'n don't like talking ‘bout it much. He says he don't wanna do it, but he has to. Tie up loose ends before the big score.”
"What big score?" She raised an eyebrow in exaggerated curiosity.
"He hasn't decided yet, but it'll probably be a raid on some big town, probably along the rail line again. Some sort of big cash transfer. It's our ticket to being free men." He coughed again, more violently this time, his body straining with the effort. Some of his spittle ended up on Mara’s jacket and shirt, staining them with bloody droplets.
"Why were you following us?"
"Cap'n wanted me to scare youse lot off. He doesn't want you interferin' with his plans. He said not to kill yers though…" The man trailed off, breaking into a coughing fit. Bookmark here

Mara couldn't tell at a glance, but some of the trauma from the shot might have gone in at an angle and done some damage to his lung.
He continued coughing, the blood coming up in his spittle turning the white foam to a vibrantly viscous crimson. He was clearly beyond saving.
"I think he has a soft spot for youse lot. He's been talking about a kid named Jack a bit; Likes the kid, but 'e looks a bit sad when he does it. Dunno why, but he don't want you getting hurt in all this."
"But why?" Mara pleaded with the dying man, she needed more information.
The man chuckled faintly as his eyes began to fade. His rapid breathing slowed to a bare minimum as the blood from his wounds slowed to an ooze.
He was gone.
"Ah fuck."Bookmark here

The now-familiar amorphous shadow of Cat materialized in a spot that Mara could've sworn was empty before, taking on solid form and becoming the slim woman she knew. "We got enough information. Once Jack comes back around, we should be able to tell what the next move will be."Bookmark here

Mara rummaged around in the dead man's clothes, looking for any clues. All she found was his pistol and a few dozen spare bullets in a belt pouch. Undoing his gun belt, she wrapped it around the holster and put it into her bag."I'll see if anyone else wants this. If not, we'll just put it in the armoury when we get home. Jack needs his shoulder cleaned and bandaged.""And him?" Cat asked.Mara responded to this by kicking some dry leaves into a pile next to his body. Producing a match from her bag, she struck it against her skirt to light it and dropped it into the improvised tinder. The leaves began to smoulder as the first tongues of flame caught on.
"He won't be a problem."
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