science fiction and fantasy writer

Bitter Dreams

The blackfellas brought the body down to the town gate in the grey of morning, when the mist was lifting but hadn’t yet burned off. There were four of them and they carried the remains up on their shoulders, on a stretcher made of branches and plates of paperbark.

They didn’t wear much, despite the cold, just loincloths and possum-skin shawls and one of them in a pair of cut-off moleskins. They were tall men, as blackfellas are, all ropy muscle, with the long, skinny calves and broad, long feet of runners. In the weak light, when their shadows were faint on the ground, their heavy brows and wide noses still gathered darkness around their eyes. Their hair was matted with clay and their faces, torsos and limbs were scarred all over with the white lines and dots the blackfellas use in place of pictures and letters.

They left the body outside the gate, wouldn’t pass between the posts carved with English runes – couldn’t, with the dreams of the land mapped all over their bodies. They turned around without a word and jogged back into the bush, not hurrying, just because that’s the way they preferred to move.

#

Constable Robert Bowley sat on the porch outside the post office with Maise Wallace, drinking tea while Maise worked at her embroidery. Georgie, Maise’s old half-dingo bitch, lay curled up at her mistress’s feet.

Bowley toyed with his teacup, gazing at the buildings across the way. Hunched things, all, imposed on but never accepted by the clay and rock they squatted over. Mockeries of Englishness, with their crooked frames and sagging spines, tarred timbers and dark shingles unalleviated by the runes carved into their surfaces. They huddled beneath their roofs, shaded by alien trees and encroached by grass that was never green even in the wettest months.

Only the church was made of stone, not counting the coolroom out the back of the pub, and only it rose higher than the houses, and not by much. And it was even sadder than they, with no priest there since before Bowley had first come to Useless Loop. Its stones had all been shipped from England because local rock refused to take the shape.

He examined his hands around Maise’s porcelain cup and saucer: the dirt that would never come out, at the base of his fingernails, in the creases of his knuckles and the fine lines that etched his skin. The cuffs of his uniform jacket, permanently impregnated with clay dust. He ran his thumb across the largest chip in the edge of the saucer, fitted the leathered pad into the shallow cavity.

“Bowls.” Alby Tucker stood at the front of the porch, one booted foot propped against the edge of the boards, toe upwards so that Bowley could see the runes scorched into the leather sole. “Mate, you’d better come see what the blackfellas have left outside the gate.”

#

 “Bloody hell.”

Bowley stood over what was left of Stink McClure, forcing himself to look. He couldn’t bring himself to squat down beside Alby and examine the corpse more closely. He rested one hand on his service holster and had the thumb of the other hooked in his belt, both fists closed so no-one would see the shake in his fingers. He breathed through his mouth.

Maise stood beside him, her face pale, arms folded across her chest. Bowley doubted it was because her hands were shaking. Beyond her, German Braun and young Dermott O’Shane watched Alby prod at the corpse, their lips pursed in mirrored expressions of distaste. Their shadows all bunched up close under their boots, reluctant to cast themselves across the corpse.

“Been dead a day or so,” said Alby. He poked about under the ribcage with a stick. “His liver’s gone as well.”

Bowley could see there wasn’t as much left inside the open belly as there should’ve been. There wasn’t much left, in fact, to show that the carcass had been old Stink, just his grey nest of hair, his crappy old home-made snakeskin boots and that prickly-pear of a nose of his. As well as opening his guts, whatever had eaten him up had chewed off his penis, and dug out his eyes, and ripped apart his cheeks to get at his tongue. His blood-matted beard hung from shreds of skin around his ears. His lower jaw flopped loosely on his chest.

German asked, “Vas it a villyvilly?” Ingrained soot made the furrows of his always-sweaty brow appear even deeper.

Maise said, “Willywilly wouldn’t chew him up like that.”

She knew. A willywilly had taken her husband, Nev, not a year after Bowley arrived in town, left his carcass with all the hair sucked off it and scattered around. But, with the sun now peeking through the clouds, they could all see that Stink’s corpse cast no darkness beneath it, on its bed of bark and sticks. Whatever killed him had drunk up his shadow as well. The body seemed to float, a hair’s-width off the ground, cut adrift, as the corpses of the dream-eaten are.

But what the hell kind of dreaming would tear a man up like that? A willywilly wouldn’t make a mark on a man, just leave him bald, not needing to devour the parts that anchored him in his flesh in order to pull out his soul. A bunyip or potkoorok might chew a body up, some, but the dreamings that lay in billabongs and creeks didn’t have teeth, as such, and tended to crush up the guts and bones and leave the bag of skin that contained them intact.

“Maybe it was dingos, or a goanna, after,” said Alby, pressing hands down on thighs to come upright. The ligaments in his knees creaked as he straightened.

Bowley shook his head, doubtfully. He extracted his thumb from his belt and scratched at the edges of his moustache, his skin still raw from the morning’s cold-water shave. He wished he’d remembered to put on his uniform cap – still on Maise’s outdoor table beside the cold dregs of his tea. He felt vulnerable without it, his lawman’s persona incomplete. He realised his hand was still shaking and put it back to his belt.

“Dingo’s too smart,” he said, “and a goanna’s been around long enough to know better.”

“What about the blackfellas?” said Dermott O’Shane.

“Why would they bring him in if they’d done it?” said Alby.

The young Irishman shrugged. “Maybe he did something to them. They wanted us to know they’d had their justice.”

“Old Stink?” said Bowley. Stink McClure had been a mad old bastard, but he’d known better than most how to stay on the good side of the natives. Although, if it was the blackfellas that’d done it, no-one in their right mind, not even a magister, was going to dispute it. That meant case closed, no further problems. Bowley didn’t think so.

“We should go out to check on the others,” said Maise.

The Del Mar clan, she meant, her blood kin, in their fortified farmstead up the top of the Loop, where the track crossed the ridge and turned to come back down. She had a sister up there, Lucy, and a niece, as well as all her cousins and uncles and aunts. Less important, for her, King James Campbell and White Mitchell with his retarded brother and all the other antisocials prospecting the gullies and creek beds between Del Mar’s and the town.

Everyone looked at Bowley, the Queen’s Man, the town’s sole protector, although he was as mundane as any of them. Useless Loop was too small to maintain its own magister or even a runesmith. Only German, the blacksmith, with the dozen signs he knew that worked on hooves and boot soles. The town had Bowley and the rune posts at the gate and the rune stones laid beneath their houses and in a ring around the town. And they had the runes on their boots and bullets of English silver in their guns. None of which would stop a really strong and bitter dreaming, should the land ever throw one up, just make it angrier.

Alby snuffled back a chunk of phlegm and dug in his vest pocket for a handkerchief. He saved Bowley from having to answer. “Bugger that, Maise.”

Bowley nodded, hoping his relief wasn’t too obvious. He badly wanted a whiskey, couldn’t while he was on duty. He thought he might get away with a gulp or two from the bottle under his desk, later.

“Come crank up the telegraph for us, eh, Maise? We’ll get onto Ballarat and see what they say.” For a moment he thought she’d argue. Her shoulders were tucked up like they got when she was that way inclined. But she nodded. Bowley waved a hand to encompass Alby, German and O’Shane. “You blokes take the body to the pub and put it in the coolroom.”

Alby snorted. “Ulf’s going to be bloody happy about that.”

“Tell him I’ve deputised you,” Bowley called back over his shoulder, walking after Maise, his shadow stretching ahead and eager to be gone.

#

Investigate. Report. Was the terse reply that came back from Ballarat in the middle of the afternoon.

Bowley had stayed at Maise’s for lunch after they sent their telegram, returned, without thinking, to his accustomed seat on post office’s porch. She’d made his food in the same manner, neither his fear nor her anger enough to derail them from their familiar patterns. Neither of them had spoken while they ate. They rarely did say much. Usually, it was because there wasn’t all that much to say, just closeness to be had and that was something both of them felt was best taken in silence. Today the crow’s feet at the corners of Maise’s eyes had been tight with worry. A lot going on inside of her, he could tell, although it was unlikely that much, if any, of it would find its way into words.

Leaning against the frame of the stationhouse door, Bowley unfolded the paper for the dozenth time and re-read Maise’s scrawled transcription. As if, somehow, the message might’ve changed from the previous eleven times he’d read it. Investigate. Report. “Green Christ.”

Maise had wanted to ride out right away. Bowley had started to shake his head, to point out that there wasn’t time to get out to Del Mar’s and back before dark. She’d smelled the whiskey on his breath as soon as he opened his mouth. He’d watched her rigid back as she stalked away.

He watched her now, back on her porch with Georgie sprawled at her feet, both of them sharing the last rays of sun and Maise pretending not to see him watching. He’d always thought, vaguely, that one day he’d make an honest woman of her, although both of them were past childrearing age. He’d never quite gotten around to asking. In truth, he was happy enough to just share the stillness of her front porch and, sometimes, the warmth between her bed sheets, whenever the urgency was enough in both of them to keep him there overnight.

Cold nights alone stretched ahead of him.

His thoughts circled back to worrying at what the hell might’ve done that to old Stink, like nothing he’d ever seen before – heard about, maybe, but only up north, nowhere nearby – and where it might’ve come from and how could it, since dreamings didn’t move from the patch of land that dreamed them? And how strong was this dreaming? Strong enough to get past the rune stones and the gate? Because if it was, there was no-one and nothing here that could stop it from doing to the whole town what it’d done to Stink McClure.

There were dreamings that came that strong, he’d heard, out in the desert, where the land was still wakeful and warlike, that could take over a person, or more than one, and use them as its teeth and claws… He shuddered, thinking of human teeth tearing up Stink.

Georgie’s shadow slunk off under the porch, leaving the dog still asleep in her patch of sun.

Other animal shadows flitted across the dusty clay of the street, looking for dark places to hide. Their frantic owners pursued them. Cats, chooks, a couple of early-rising possums and Ted Wright’s brown nanny goat, united in flight. Georgie awoke with a start, twisted wildly about and, with a swallowed yip, followed her shadow under the porch.

The pair of horses hitched at the watering trough in front of the smithy started in alarm as their shadows bucked, shadow-legs stretching with their feet anchored to the runes beneath the horses’ shoes. German tumbled out and lunged for the animals’ reins. The horses quieted before he even reached them, opting to freeze with flight denied. Bowley could see their ears flicking, trying to pinpoint the threat. German’s head swivelled to look down the street, towards the gate. Maise was up out of her chair and looking that way too.

The horse was a dappled grey of the long-necked, spindle-legged variety bred to tolerate sorcery. Its rider wore a battered oilskin coat, with worn and faded edges on its collar, cuffs and hem, and slashes of lighter colour where it had dried out and stiffened in the dust and sun. A rough Hessian shawl draped the man’s head and shoulders beneath the sagging brim of his hat.

He reined his horse to a halt in the middle of the street, facing the setting sun. Neither the man nor his horse cast a shadow. They stood, superimposed on the world, but not really fitted to it.

Two days at least for a magister to come up from Ballarat with a company of redcoats in tow, and Bowley’s superiors had made it plain that they weren’t coming to his aid at all until he could tell them more precisely what they’d be walking into. So who in hell was this, right here and now?

Bowley reached inside the door and took his uniform cap from its peg. Maise looked his way as he stepped outside. He tried a tentative smile. She didn’t respond. He pretended not to notice, smoothed his jacket and hitched his gun belt. He straightened his policeman’s badge on its silver chain and stepped down from the porch.

He was acutely conscious of the eyes that followed his progress across the rutted clay. Maise and German. Alby, leaning outside the pub with Ulf Erikssen. He could feel his shadow’s reluctance to follow, a heaviness in his calves and feet, like his legs had fallen half asleep. He willed it to stay with him.

He was conscious, too, of the awkward weight of his gun, bumping on his hip with every step. He hooked his thumbs in his belt to keep it still.

Bony hands folded over the saddle’s pommel – pale skinned, with a greyish tinge, and blotched with darker grey liver-spots, the man evidently as dappled as his horse. Both the rider’s gear and his horse’s tack were curiously blank, unmarked by runes. Bowley could see nothing on either man or horse to indicate that the rider was, in any regard, a Queen’s Man.

     Bloody hell, a wild spook.

The cowled head turned towards him as he neared. Bowley could make out the lines of a gaunt face in the shadows gathered beneath the man’s hat. The shadows seemed to writhe across his cheeks and down his neck. A long nose protruded into the light, blotched like the man’s hands.

Bowley stopped a distance from the stranger that he hoped might appear both authoritative and deferential. Queen’s Man or not, a spook was a spook, after all, and Bowley had no wish to have his soul sucked out of him for the sake of a moment of perceived impertinence.

“I’m Bowley, local constable.” It sounded as inadequate as he felt.

The cowl dipped in acknowledgement. Bowley waited, but the man didn’t speak. The silence began to stretch.

Bowley cleared his throat and said, “You got a name, mate?”

The stranger’s reply was as oblique as any magister’s would be: “None that’s any use.” His voice was a surprise, rich and soft.

Bowley tried again, “What brings you to Useless Loop?”

“Land’s thrown up a bad dreaming, hereabouts.”

Bowley’s guts clenched. He tried to keep his reaction off his face as he said, “How do you know about it?”

The man gave a huff that might’ve been a laugh. “Land stinks of it. How do you know about it?”

Bowley considered him, disinclined to answer and wracking his brains for who the hell this wild spook might be and coming up with nothing. But, damn it all, he was far out of his depth and, wild spook or not, he was in dire need of magical aid. “Dreaming killed a man, outside town. Chewed him up something horrible. Got the body in the coolroom at the pub.”

He felt an abrupt increase in the intensity of the other’s stare. “Can I see it?”

Bowley hesitated, but knew he’d committed himself now. He tipped his head in the direction of the pub.

He started walking, not waiting for the stranger to dismount. He heard the man land, heard his steps close behind – puffs of dust and the small clinks of shifting pebbles, no thump of boot soles striking earth.

The hair stood up along the length of Bowley’s spine. Bloody spook.

Ulf and Alby levered themselves off the rail and disappeared inside the pub. Bowley led the stranger down the side and round the back. By the time they arrived, Ulf had unlocked the coolroom door and retreated to the rear porch with Alby.

Bowley let the stranger precede him through the low door. The temperature dropped sharply within the thick stone walls. The man crouched beside the body, his oilskin collapsing towards the floor, as though it were all but empty. He pulled back the tarp that covered Stink and was still for a while, a crumpled pile of shadows in the light from the door. Outside, Ulf muttered something to Alby that Bowley couldn’t quite catch.

The stranger flipped the tarp back over the body and rose, turning, the brim of his hat only inches from Bowley’s eyes. His coat sleeve brushed Bowley’s chest as he exited. Bowley stood in the darkness alone for a moment. His eyes fell on the flattened lump under the tarp. He shuddered.

Ulf and Alby watched silently as he re-emerged. Ulf’s expression offered him nothing. Alby widened his eyes a moment. Bowley hurried after the stranger, already striding back up the street. The man walked past his horse and headed for the gate. Intrigued and disturbed, Bowley followed. Maise’s porch was empty. Sweat trickled past his belt to lodge in the back of his pants.

The man stopped outside the gate. His shrouded head half turned towards Bowley.  “This is where they left the body.”

“Yep.”

The stranger faced outward. Bowley scanned the surrounding bush, wondering what he saw. For a minute the man was still. Then darkness began to pour from under the fringe of his shawl, out of his cuffs and under his coat tails. Bowley squeaked.

His shadow tore itself free of the runes on his boot soles and fled back into town. The darkness pooled on the ground around the man’s feet, its edges reaching and questing. It lapped at Bowley’s toes and flowed around his heels, then released him. The man raised his arms and the darkness shattered into a thousand running shadows that raced away into the bush.

The stranger lowered his arms.

Bowley swallowed. Green bloody Christ.

The stranger stood like a statue for most of half an hour while his shadows hunted. Bowley waited with him, not daring to walk away, feeling queasy and light-headed without his shadow. At last the hunters returned. They flowed up the man’s legs, moving fast, so that Bowley had trouble making out their shapes. He thought he saw men among the dogs and roos and emus and other, smaller forms. The last shadow disappeared beneath the man’s coat.

“The town should be safe for tonight.”

Bowley nodded, only realising after he’d done so that the man couldn’t see the gesture. He gathered up enough composure to say, “There’s a lot of prospectors out there, up the Loop.”

“Dead.”

     Christ. He’d had a notion there’d be more than just Stink McClure, but the stranger’s flat appraisal rocked him, even so. “There’s a farmstead, too, up the top. Fortified. Lot of people.”

The spook didn’t respond.

“My orders are to investigate,” Bowley added.

“You’re riding out?”

“Tomorrow.”

Silence, for a while, then: “I’ll come with you. I can defend four men.”

A small part of Bowley bristled at the man’s presumption. Most of him sagged with relief.

“Have you got any rune-carved bullets?” the stranger asked.

Bowley knew the number precisely: six. He answered cautiously, “Some.”

The spook turned, his shrouded face a vague impression amid the shadows. “We’ll need more than some. Is there a runesmith in town?”

“Just the blacksmith.”

“He’ll do.”

The man brushed past and strode back into town. Bowley hurried after. The skin on his back crawled. His shadow lunged at him from the shelter of Ted Wright’s house, nearest the gate, and re-attached itself to his feet.

#

The mist was heavier the following dawn. The stranger, on his horse just outside the gate, was discernable only because Bowley knew he was there.

Bowley fumbled another carved silver bullet from his palm and pressed it into the magazine of his service carbine, then shrugged the gun from the crook of his arm into his hand and slotted the magazine home. Alby, German and young Dermott O’Shane formed a circle with him. German’s eyes were so bloodshot he had no whites left to speak of. Bowley knew his own eyes weren’t much better, having seen the state of himself in his washstand mirror. He’d spent the whole night out on his porch, his service revolver in his lap, loaded with the six rune-carved bullets he’d been issued a decade before, when he joined the Queen’s Constabulary. He doubted any of them had slept much.

Young O’Shane grabbed at a bullet that slipped between his fingers. It bounced off his thumb and tumbled in an arc to strike the ground. The older men flinched and sucked air through their teeth. All three shared a sheepish grin, their reflexes outdated, accustomed to rimfire cartridges. O’Shane scooped up the escapee and stood again, red from forehead to chin.

“No worries, mate,” said Bowley, relieved that he’d managed to load his own weapon without dropping anything and made magnanimous because of it. There was still a tremor in his hands, but much less than the day before, now that the moment was upon them.

Alby flipped the magazine cylinder shut on the second of his six-shooter rifles. He sniffled loudly. His cold seemed to be getting worse. “You know anything about this spook, Bowls?”

“Much as you do,” said Bowley. “German?”

“Don’t ask me, mate,” the blacksmith said. “Ve just carved fucking bullets all night.”

Young O’Shane piped up, “I heard about a dappled man, once, when I was out Ararat way. Said he came in from the desert, on foot, dressed like a blackfella and spotted all over, like his sire was one of them Dalmatian hounds. That’s all I know. Never saw him myself.”

Alby spat. “Reckon that’s our bloke. We right?”

“Yep.”

“Ya.”

The O’Shane boy nodded his head.

“No time like the present,” said Bowley.

His old brown mare, Clay, looked back at him with wide nostrils and white-rimmed eyes as he shuffled along her side. Her shadow was skittish beneath her, faint as it was, both horse and shade aware of the Dappled Man’s presence and keyed-up because of it. Bowley shoved his carbine into the sleeve in front of the saddle and patted her neck.

“Alright, old girl.” He unhitched the reins and brought them up to her neck. Alby was already aboard his chestnut mare, Nudge. German heaved himself up onto fat black Bismarck the gelding and O’Shane rose easily into the saddle of his new piebald filly. Bowley put his foot in the stirrup, grabbed a handful of mane and hauled himself up.

“Ah, shit.”

Maise, wearing an oilskin and a pair of Nev’s old pants, led Ulf’s mean-tempered roan up from the direction of the pub. Bowley held his ground while the others retreated. Maise stopped in front of him, Ulf’s idiot horse almost pulling her off balance as it danced about.

She didn’t wait to hear Bowley’s objections. “It’s my family, Robert. And I’m a better shot than anyone except you.”

He glanced at the others, waiting halfway to the gate. Alby smirked. Bowley said, “But you can’t ride for shit, love. What if we have to move in a hurry? That animal’ll break your bloody neck.”

“Don’t you ‘love’ me,” she snapped. “German can’t ride for shit, either.”

Of that, Bowley was acutely aware. “No one else volunteered.”

I’m volunteering.”

“The spook says he can only defend four.”

You’re the bloody constable – since when are you taking orders from him?”

“It’s because it’s your family out there that I don’t want you to come.”

“I don’t need you to protect me, Robert.”

It’s not you I’m protecting, love. It’s me. His desperation crept into his voice, “Maise, please.”

Her jaw clenched. She bowed her head, hiding her face from him. She was crying, he knew, and knew too that she wouldn’t accept any comfort from him. He dithered for a moment, then pulled Clay’s head around and prodded the horse into motion. He didn’t need to look back to know she wouldn’t follow.

The Dappled Man’s hunting shadows already roiled around his horse’s hooves, indistinct in the silvery dimness. He waited until the townsmen were a few yards behind him, then clucked his horse forward. His shadows ranged ahead of him, vanishing almost immediately from sight.

The Man’s connection to the ground, through his horse’s hooves, seemed even more attenuated, today, than it had in strong sunlight. It seemed he might, if he relaxed the will that anchored him, simply drift off into the mist.

None of them looked back as they rode from town. They didn’t need to, could feel the moment when it dissolved into the shroud of mist and trees. Their mounted shadows tucked tight beneath the horses hooves. The charms on the horses’ tack clinked loudly in the surrounding stillness.

Beside the track grew spiked grass that was only ever the colour of forgotten bones. Trees surrounded them, some twisted, some straight, all of them alien, with their bleached skins – some that leaked thick sap like blood, others with bark hanging in strips and strings as though they’d been flayed. All growing out of ground that was either rock or clay and in both cases unyielding, that gave itself only with bitter resentment to any man who wanted to farm it.

Even under mist or rain, with the air above it saturated, the land remained parched. Bowley could feel it plucking at the edges of his shadow, and knew that the land would drink him up, too, in an instant, should he ever surrender to it.

#

A couple of miles out of town, they passed a stand of twisted eucalypts, their trunks wound up and bent like wrung towels, that marked a willywilly’s hunting ground. Bowley put his left hand to his badge, tracing runes – not that a willywilly was likely to give them trouble when they had a spook in their company. O’Shane pointed. Stink McClure’s shack – the old willywilly ground a signpost on the trail. Bowley had been trying not to look. The Dappled Man kept riding, facing straight ahead.

“Bowls,” said Alby, softly. “Strikes me that a Queen’s magister’ll tow a whole company of redcoats around with him. This bloke reckons he can only protect four of us. Makes me wonder, if we come across this thing that did for Stink, whether he’ll be able to handle it.”

“Alby,” Bowley said. “I reckon you think too much, mate.”

He slipped a hand inside his jacket, wound the cap off his hip flask with thumb and forefinger, and took a swig. He glanced at Alby, staring pointedly at the flask. Bowley took another mouthful and handed it over. Alby upended it, then passed it around. It came back to Bowley from German, empty.

“Damn,” said Bowley, but without much rancour. “Greedy bloody Kraut.”

“Vasn’t me,” said German, “Vas this greedy Irish bastard, here.”

Alby sneezed loudly, startling a flock of cockatoos into screeching, deafening flight. Men and horses alike all but jumped off their shadows. Young O’Shane’s filly put her head down and pigrooted, nearly planting the Irishman into the dirt. Clay danced sideways, objecting to the younger horse’s theatrics. Bowley pulled her head around and make her walk a full circle. He patted her neck as she calmed, his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. The cockies settled in the branches above, white enough to be the spirits of the dead, like the blackfellas believed, but complaining far too loudly to be ghosts.

Neither the Dappled Man nor his horse had reacted to the commotion behind them. The Man reached a fork in the track and unerringly picked the way that led up the Loop.

“Bloodless bastard,” O’Shane muttered.

“Reckon this fog might lift?” said Alby.

Bowley looked skywards. “Not for a while, anyway.”

The track started to climb. They passed the Mitchell brothers’ place shortly after. The Dappled Man ignored that, too. Bowley noted the absence of smoke coming from the chimney pipe. He knew with a sick knotting in his guts what they’d find inside if they looked.

The trees opened out on a shelf of lichen-fringed rock. The clopping of their horses iron shoes became abruptly louder, but flattened, the echoes smothered by the mist. The flanks of the ranges rose ahead, a blue-green wall vanishing into greyness.

Bowley squeezed Clay’s ribs between his knees. When she didn’t respond, he gave her a thump with his heels. She broke into a reluctant trot to come level with the Dappled Man, her hooves striking a dissonant staccato on the rock.

The Man sat hunched in his saddle, as if guarding his darkness against leaching away into the grey surrounds. He seemed diminished – not so fearsome, now, when fearsome was what they wanted most.

“You know what we’re hunting,” Bowley said, flat.

The Hessian fringe turned towards him. The Man whispered a reply, “Broken Hill.”

It took Bowley a moment to make the connection. His mouth turned dry. Broken Hill. “Christ.”

It had been a mining town up in New South Wales, out near the edge of the desert, where the spirit of the land hadn’t yet lain down to sleep. Some bitter dream had slithered out of a seam in the rock and into the mines. Possessed by it, the miners had devoured the town and besieged the survivors in the church for four days until the magisters arrived from Sydney Town with a train full of redcoats and organ guns packed with silver grapeshot.

So the story went.

“How?” Bowley asked. “Dreamings don’t travel. There’s never been any dreamings like that around here.”

The Man didn’t answer immediately. The trees closed in again around them. There was wood smoke in the mist, blackfellas in the scrub. A camp. Cooking fires smouldered in a second, smaller clearing, enclosed by a half circle of lean-to shelters. The tribe watched them silently between the tree trunks. The women and children stood behind the men, swaddled in possum-skin cloaks and emu feathers. The cloaks were scorched with the same dot-and-line maps that scarred the blackfellas’ skins, that connected them to the land’s power and protected them from its dreamings. The men leaned on long spears and the hip-high war boomerangs that whitefellas knew as Number Sevens, for the curve and unequal proportions of their arms.

The blackfellas made no gesture or sound, just watched.

“That was a new dreaming, full of anger and strength,” said the Dappled Man, when they’d passed. “When the land becomes quiet, as it is here, such dreamings sink down into the rock, and wither away over time. This dreaming, here and now, will be old, from deep in the ground, with little of it left, otherwise it would’ve attacked the town already.”

“But how did it come up? There’s no mines.”

“Caves?” the Man suggested, and suddenly Bowley saw it all: Del Mar kids with lanterns, daring each other to go further and further into the grottos up the back of the property. Or young Del Mar men, maybe, down there looking for veins in the rock, one of them putting a hand on some old stone, under which a nightmare slept, that would have slumbered away to nothing if one poor fool hadn’t happened upon it.

The spook was watching him intently.

“Del Mar’s,” Bowley said. “Up the top of the Loop.”

“How many people there?”

“Maybe forty, plus kids.”

“It probably won’t have been strong enough to use all of them,” the Man said. “But expect there to be children among those it’s taken.”

Bowley didn’t need to ask what would’ve happened to the rest. He felt a sharp little hurt behind his breastbone. He saw Maise’s sister Lucy, putting a hand on his shoulder the last time he’d visited, interrupting his conversation with the Del Mar men to ask him if he wanted tea. A plumper, warmer, motherly version of Maise, almost invariably with a smile on her face. Her daughter Jemima had served the tea, a willowy child with her father’s height, barely into womanhood, her cheeks flushing at the gentle teasing of her great-uncle Javier.

Maise’s face came to his mind’s eye, jaw quaking and eyes brimming before she dipped her head and he turned his back on her and rode away. Bowley’s hands were shaking again. He fumbled for his flask, was surprised for a moment to find it empty.

He flung it into the bush. “Fucking hell.”

#

The Del Mar house was an overgrown cousin to the cottages in town – the way a mastiff is to a terrier – a great, brooding thing of raw timbers and tar. Timber roofed, too, with a cavernous loft space where the children slept. They had some talented runesmiths among them, the Del Mars – Oscar had learned the craft in his native Andalusia – so they had no need for English slates to press the building on its runestone foundations. The whole house was covered in a mesh of flowing Arabic script and the angular English runes that Oscar and his sons had learned since they left their homeland. New wings had been added, over the years, as sons and daughters married and brought their wives and husbands back to live. Only a handful, like Maise, had made their lives elsewhere. All of the extensions connected back to the main house, with just the stables and feed barns standing separate, and they were connected to the house with paths of rune-carved corduroy.

It was a fortress town in all but name, Del Mar’s, and stronger in its defences than most towns. But perhaps, Bowley thought to himself, its greatest strength was also its weakness. Because dreamings understood matters of blood and hearth – of place – intimately. No dreaming was intelligent, but some were clever. The rare one was strong enough to roam over an area, not tied to a single spot like a willywilly or a bunyip. If a dreaming of that kind got into a man’s shadow, then it might ride him to his home and maybe no density of warding signs, English or Arab – or blackfella, for that matter – would keep the contagion out and stop it spreading to his kin.

The Dappled Man reined in at the edge of the cleared ground that surrounded the farm buildings. There was no sign of the cattle that ranged freely over the hills, but which often hung around near the house. The farm was shuttered and silent. Bowley halted Clay beside the Dappled Man. Young O’Shane pulled up beside him and Alby and German on the Man’s far side. Alby snuffled into his handkerchief.

Bowley drew his carbine from its sleeve and laid it across his lap. Alby and German followed his example. O’Shane drew two of his four pistols.

The townsmen’s horses whickered and danced as the Dappled Man’s hunting shadows returned and wriggled up his mount’s legs. The Man straightened in his seat, but still he seemed less than he had the day before. A breath of wind rolled curling fingers of mist from the trees beyond the house. Bowley searched the grey above for some sign of a tear in the veil. There was nothing.

The Dappled Man walked his horse a few paces into the open. Another breath of air chilled Bowley’s face and ruffled the horses’ manes. It tugged the man’s coat, collapsing the side of it inwards. Bowley saw him clearly, then: as a scarecrow, a mockery of a man, a creature with limbs and head but only shadow at his centre.

The Man’s horse stopped dead in its tracks. It’s ears twitched furiously. Clay whickered and tossed her head. Then all the horses were at it, fidgeting and complaining and dancing on their hooves. The air seemed suddenly thin in Bowley’s lungs, as though there was a big storm approaching.

The Man’s head whipped to the left. Bowley looked that way in alarm, but could make out nothing untoward among the trees. He ran his fingers over the killing runes etched into his carbine’s stock. The Man turned the other way, stared.

Bowley thought he heard a whisper of sound, a distant yelping and howling.

“No.” The Dappled Man spun his horse on the spot. “Run!” he barked. “We can’t face it here.”

His horse launched itself towards them.

Run!” the Man cried.

Then he was past them and all of them were cursing, their horses skittering about and bumping into each other while they tried to get them turned around. Bowley glimpsed figures in English clothes racing through the trees. The howling had grown rapidly more distinct. It was in his head, Bowley realised with a stab of horror, but not in his ears.

The riders got themselves moving. Alby and young O’Shane galloped ahead of Bowley, down the slope, Alby riding one-handed, as Bowley was, his rifle pressed across his lap. Bowley glanced back and saw that German was already falling behind, fat Bismarck struggling under his rider’s weight, German with one fist in his horse’s mane and the other flailing his rifle about for balance. Their conjoined shadows stretched out ahead of them, straining to drag horse and rider along.

“Move it, you fat bloody Kraut!” Bowley yelled back, which wouldn’t help German at all, but there was nothing practical Bowley could do for him.

Clay jerked her head as something flew past her nose. A second object struck painfully against Bowley’s arm. He tucked his head down. In his peripheral vision he saw running figures closing on either side, arms pulled back and whipping forward – throwing rocks as they ran. He caught jumbled impressions of bloody chins and blood-stained shirts, of mouths open wide in silent anguish.

Then he was past them. He looked back. German made it through a heartbeat before the first pursuers spilled onto the track. The blacksmith had lost his hat. Bowley saw a splash of red across his forehead. But German was still in his saddle, gritted teeth and wide eyes stark in his dark face.

Clay gained quickly on the three riders ahead. They’d already slowed their horses to a canter. Bowley did the same as he came up to them. The Dappled Man twisted in his saddle. Bowley wished he could see the expression on the spook’s face. Alby looked back, too, and gave a shake of his head. Whether the gesture was one of exasperation with Bowley, or the spook, or the situation in general, Bowley wasn’t certain.

German hadn’t caught up. And wasn’t going to, Bowley saw. Bismarck was labouring even harder, now, the horse’s gait uneven, favouring a hind leg. Bowley swore under his breath and reined Clay back into a trot. He felt the tug on his flesh as her shadow and his both resisted. The gap between them and the three riders ahead widened again. The mist closed between them.

He scanned the bush around as German caught up. Bismarck didn’t need any instruction from his rider to slow to a trot.

“Look’s like he’s lame.”

German dabbed at the cut on his temple with his handkerchief, examined the resulting mess on the white cloth with distaste. “Stone hit him in the leg,” he replied. Bowley could see where – a patch of torn hair just above the gelding’s hock. German drew a shaky breath and added, “Vell, that vas a vasted trip.”

Bowley heard the note of hysteria in the other man’s voice, and in his own chuckle in response. “We’ll hold a trot for a bit, see if he works the lameness out. We should stay ahead of them at this pace.”

German nodded. “Ya, but they vill go straight down the hill vhile ve follow the track.”

“Better keep an eye out then, hadn’t we?”

German gave a rictus grin. “I notice those other bastards didn’t hang around.”

“Spook’s getting back to town quick,” Bowley said. He hoped – to get them ready. By rights, he should be riding ahead, too, and leaving German to take his chances. There had been a lot of people in the scrub at Del Mar’s, enough for it to be the whole damn clan taken by this dreaming. And, Christ, he couldn’t get those half-seen faces, or the silent howls of the thing that possessed them, out of his head.

They were – it was – coming after them, he was certain, like a tiger snake that’d chase you for a mile even after it’d struck at you once, just because it was pissed at the world and you happened to be a part of it. He hoped like hell this Dappled Man wasn’t lighting out on them, that Alby’d shoot the son of a bitch in the back if he was.

They passed the spot where the blackfella tribe had been camped. No sign of them now.

A tortured whispering brushed his mind. He felt a sucking at the soles of his feet. His and Clay’s shadows snapped free of the horse’s hooves and lit out across the bare rock ahead. German’s shadow on Bismarck’s was close on their heels.

Gruene…”

“…Christ!”

Running figures emerged from the mist, off to their left. Bowley kicked frantically at his horse’s ribs. “Move!”

Clay leapt into a gallop. Bismarck whinnied, in pain, and terrified of the thing that pursued them.

A man lunged out of the trees on their right. Clay’s hooves struck the edge of the rock shelf, clattering like gunshots. Behind them, Bismarck screamed.

Bowley looked back. The gelding staggered out onto the open rock. A pick handle hung obscenely from his belly. The horse’s his eyes bulged as he cried bewilderment and pain.

Bowley hauled back on Clay. Her hooves skidded on the bare stone. Her back end dropped before she found purchase again. Bowley loosed the reins and spun her with his knees.

Bismarck collapsed. German leapt clumsily but got his legs clear of the horse’s weight. Bismarck’s cries drowned out the dreaming’s dingo howls.

The attacker charged out of the trees, empty hands raised like claws. Francisco Del Mar, an iron-haired Andalusian bull. He was barely recognisable, with sticks in his hair and the animal snarl on his face. His feet were bare and he cast no shadow. German was still on his back, no runes between him and the thing that ran beneath Franscisco and his kin. Bowley was acutely aware of how vulnerable they were, with their shadows far from their feet.

He brought his carbine to his shoulder. Christ, Maise’s cousin Frank. He sighted and fired. Missed.

Clay danced on the spot, ears flat.

Bowley swore and sought the cold, marksman’s place within himself that used to be so easy to find. He pushed down the carbine’s lever to eject the empty shell and chamber the next. It stuck halfway.

Shit!” Bowley pounded the jammed lever with the heel of his hand.

German had his boots under him. Fransisco was almost on him. More Del Mars emerged from the trees. German ignored them. He raised his rifle and shot his dying horse through the top of the head. Bismarck’s cheek slapped loudly against the rock.

Dingo howling curled through the abrupt quiet.

“German – behind you!”

The blacksmith met Bowley’s stare with dazed eyes. He turned, fired at Fransisco from the hip. The bullet caught the Del Mar in the shoulder, spun him all the way around and down to the ground.

German swung his rifle towards the approaching horde and kept shooting, not bothering to aim. There were a good forty or fifty people: men, women and children, and more than just Del Mars. Bowley spied White Mitchell’s narrow frame among the front ranks. All of them were barefoot, like Francisco, all filthy and bloody and with the same rictus snarl on their faces. Many of them carried farm tools – picks, hatchets and shovels – as weapons. None of them made a sound, only the silent howling of the thing that possessed them.

“Run!,” Bowley cried, “You stupid bloody Kraut! Run!” He hoped Alby had shot that damn spook, for lighting out and leaving them. He shoved his jammed carbine into its sleeve and fumbled for his service revolver.

German’s rifle clicked, empty. The dream-taken were almost on top of him. German started to swing his rifle by the stock, spitting curses in his native tongue. Francisco Del Mar staggered to his feet behind him, his right arm dangling. Bowley shouted a warning.

Too late. Francisco hooked his left arm around German’s neck, pulling him off balance just as the rest reached him. They bore him to the ground. Hooked fingers tore at his clothes. Heads dipped, teeth bared, and German’s curses turned to screams.

Bile rose in Bowley’s throat, spurting out of his mouth before he could swallow it back down. Most of the Del Mars kept coming. Bowley raised his pistol and fired off all six shots without seeing where any of them struck.

He heard the deep ‘whooosh-whooosh’ before he saw the war boomerangs come spinning out of the scrub. They tore into the dream-taken, snapping human bodies like stalks of wheat.

A rider burst past Bowley. The Dappled Man. Shadows writhed all over both the spook and his horse. The Del Mars fell back, closing ranks before him.

Bowley put his heels to Clay’s ribs, and fled. Among the trees, blackfellas whirled like hammer throwers. A second flight of war boomerangs launched into the air.

#

The Dappled Man caught up with him near Stink McClure’s shack. Clay had slowed to a trot of her own accord, and then a walk. The Man had lost his hat and his Hessian shawl was scrunched in one fist. Lank, shoulder-length grey hair framed bony features that receded at forehead and chin from his long nose. The complexion of his face was, indeed, the same unhealthy mottled grey as his hands.

The Man slowed his horse beside Clay. Moving with what seemed to be pained slowness, he shook out his shawl.

“Where the hell were you?” Bowley demanded.

The spook glanced his way, a flash of washed-out grey eyes. He lifted his shawl and put it back over his head. Shadows crawled around his face beneath its fringes. He slumped, evidently exhausted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were in danger until your shadows caught up with us.”

“Did you kill it?” Bowley asked.

The Man shook his head. “A dreaming can’t be killed, only put back in its place. The tribe and I together weren’t enough to subdue this dreaming or deter it. When it’s done licking its wounds, it’ll follow us to town.”

“Why did they try and help us?”

Another shake of the head. “Our presence was coincidence. The tribe’s witchmen thought a surprise attack might defeat this dreaming. They underestimated its strength.”

“So did you,” Bowley said. “And now German’s dead.”

“It wasn’t my decision to go hunting for it,” the Man replied, softly.

The riposte struck home. My fault, Bowley thought. I shouldn’t have let him come.

The Dappled Man extended a hand. “I have something for you.”

Bowley’s heart gave a lurch. He stared at the spook’s outstretched palm. There was a barely visible tremor in the Man’s fingers. Bowley’s own hand shook noticeably as he raised it. The Dappled Man’s skin was dry as old paper.

Darkness flooded out of the Man’s sleeve and up Bowley’s arm. Bowley yelped and would’ve snatched back his hand if the spook hadn’t gripped his fingers tightly. The darkness flowed over Bowley’s shoulder and down his side, along his leg and then down his horse’s to pool on the ground beneath them. It resolved itself into his shadow astride Clay’s, before fading in the dull light. The Dappled Man released his hand.

Bowley clutched at his chest. “Green Christ.”

The Man leaned on his saddle horn, his head bowed. Bowley’s rattling heartbeat slowed to a more normal rate. The Dappled Man spoke again, his voice a bare rasp, “The tribe’s intervention has increased our risk when we face this dreaming again. Whenever one of those it has taken is killed, it is freed to steal another shadow.”

Bowley watched him, swaying like he could hardly hold his seat, and said, “It took some of yours, didn’t it?”

The Man nodded.

     And did you keep German’s? Bowley wondered, Or did the dreaming take it from you? His scalp goosepimpled. The spook could as easily have kept his and Clay’s, had he wanted. Giving them up had plainly cost him.

“How do we stop it?” he asked.

The cowled head remained lowered, the tattered fringes of the shawl falling forward to hide the Man’s face completely. “Kill all of them,” he said. “All but the first infected. Each death will be a shock to the dreaming that possesses them. While it’s still reeling, I can – perhaps – subdue it and return it to the land.”

     Kill all of them. Bowley’s vision blurred. Oh, Maise.

#

The mist had settled at the bottom of the valley, where the town stood, denser than when they’d left. There was a crowd gathered between the posts of the town gate. All men, except for Maise, and all of them armed. Alby and young O’Shane were among them. Bowley watched their faces fall when they realised German wasn’t with them.

Bowley gathered his jammed gun and dismounted. He slapped Clay on the rump. The crowd parted to let her by and she skittered off down the street, vanishing quickly into the grey – smart enough, he hoped, to stay inside the rune circle.

“Where’s German?” Maise asked.

“Dead,” Bowley replied. “Same as old Stink.”

She looked away from him, covering her lips with her fingertips and drawing deep breaths.

“We’re ready,” said Alby. “Everyone else is in the church.”

“Uncarved bullets won’t hurt the dream-taken,” said the Dappled Man, down from his horse now, too. Only an arm’s length from Bowley, he seemed to fade into the mist. He stood straight though, and apparently without difficulty.

Bowley looked around at the frightened, determined faces, then back at the spook. “We’ve got more than four guns loaded with carved bullets,” he said.

He pulled his revolver from its holster and reached past Maise to offer it butt-first to Ulf Erikssen, dug in his left pocket for fresh cartridges.

“I can only defend four of you,” said the Dappled Man.

“Reckon we’ll defend ourselves, mate,” said Alby. He handed one of his rifles to Ted Wright. German and young O’Shane followed suit.

The spook was still for a minute. His pale eyes glittered beneath the ragged fringe of his shawl, boring into Bowley. Bowley hoped his fear wasn’t plain to see on his face. He returned the Man’s stare as levelly as he could. At last, the Man said, “Anyone else wants to fight, you’ll need weapons with killing runes carved on them.”

“The rest get your arses into the bloody church,” said Bowley, his knees momentarily weak with relief. Most of the crowd scattered.

Maise glared at him through tears of frustration.

“That includes you, Maise,” he said. He was amazed that his voice was steady. “It’s your whole bloody family coming down on us, love. What’ll you do if you get Lucy in your sights? Or Jemima?”

Her nostrils flared. She pressed her lips white as she, too, tried to stare him down. He put a hand on her arm, pushed her gently. Maise turned away, swayed a little and stumbled on her first step, then walked in the direction of the church.

Bowley took a long breath, felt it chill his lungs. He let it out with a puff. To no-one in particular, he said, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

He strode through the crowd and down the street towards the police station. Inside, he went straight to his desk drawer and retrieved his half-empty bottle of whiskey. He pulled the plug with his teeth and took a long swig. He closed his eyes for a minute while the burn of it spread through his chest.

He rummaged around in the drawer for the screwdriver he thought might be there, found the letter opener and decided that would do. He perched on the desk with the carbine across his lap to try and un-jam it. To his relief, he was able to do so without disassembling the gun. Bootsteps sounded on the boards outside as the lever snapped back into place, chambering the offending cartridge properly, this time.

Alby leaned on the doorpost.

“Didn’t know you’d fallen behind, Bowls,” he said. “Spook said to keep riding, when we realised.”

Bowley passed him the whiskey. “I know,” he said. “No worries, mate.”

They made their way past empty houses to the church, where the spook had gathered everyone willing to fight below the steps: young O’Shane, Ulf, Ted Wright, half a dozen others busily loading their weapons with the spare bullets Alby and O’Shane had carried. Bowley handed out his spare rifle bullets. A handful of women and kids and shamefaced men huddled in the church’s doorway to watch. Dougie MacGill, mad old buzzard that he was, was the only one to turn out without a gun, armed with the rune-carved pike head he’d souvenired when he retired from the redcoats, stuck on its rough cut pole.

The town’s rune-stone ring ran across the back of the unwalled churchyard. The world beyond it was invisible in the mist.

Bowley looked down at his hands. They were rock steady. His emotions felt dull and distant – locked out. He cocked his carbine. He heard the creak-and-click repeated around him as the others did the same.

The Dappled Man raised his voice. “Hold your shadows close. Keep the your boot soles on the ground. For every one of its taken that the tribe killed, the dreaming can take one of you. There are worse things than dying, if you fall.”

He let that sink in, before adding, “This dreaming has no understanding of guns. That’s our advantage. Choose your shots well, because you’ll not have enough bullets to finish this task.”

“Alright, lads,” Bowley said. “Spread out a bit, but stay close to the church. We don’t know which way they’re going to come.”

Somebody shut the church door with a thump, and then only the movements of the men disturbed the silence – the crunch and crackle of their boots on dirt and brittle grass, the creak of oilskin coats – as they positioned themselves in a rough semi-circle, anchored at the corners of the church. Bowley’s badge clinked against the top button of his uniform jacket as he took a few paces to position himself behind a headstone.

They waited.

German’s death played again in Bowley’s mind. He’d frozen, he knew, in the moments before the dream-taken had brought German down. Would it have made a difference, he wondered, if he hadn’t? Might he have saved him?

The Dappled Man’s spoke: “They’re here.” The howling began in Bowley’s head an instant later.

A stick snapped, out in the mist, from the direction of the town gate. Gravel scraped. All weapons swung in that direction. Another sound cut across the howling.

“Number Sevens!” Bowley cried.

He dropped to his haunches a heartbeat ahead of the men around him. A war boomerang throbbed low overhead, through the space he’d occupied an instant before. A cry, abruptly silenced, told him someone hadn’t been fast enough. Dougie MacGill hit the dirt with five feet of bent wood buried in his ribs. War boomerangs clattered against the stone of the church walls.

Somebody loosed a shot.

“Not until you can bloody see them!” Bowley yelled. He peered over the top of the headstone.

Ragged figures materialised out of the mist. Bowley came to his feet, bringing his carbine to his shoulder. For an instant, the sharpness of his perceptions overwhelmed him. He’d seen, in feral dogs, the hurt and desperation that drove them to hurl themselves at the muzzle of a gun. He saw it now in this charging rabble, with grime and gore unwashed from their faces and caked into their cuffs and shirtfronts, axes and shovels clasped in their fists.

Gunshots cracked to his left and right.

His vision narrowed. He was in his marksman’s place, where he could act and not feel. Francisco Del Mar came under his sights once again. Bowley’s first shot punched through the charging man’s face and out the back of his head. The second hit him side-on as he stumbled. The impact took the shattered back of his skull clean off.

Bowley searched for a new target, wondering if he could pick out the first taken, the one who mattered, and avert the worst of the carnage.

He paused, overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of wrongness. “Where’s the rest of them?”

There were less than twenty attackers in front of him. Half of them were down already and all of them, he saw, carried some kind of injury. He spun on his heel, shouted his question at the Dappled Man, positioned at the foot of the steps.

The Man was already turning, pointing, out where the rune-stone perimeter came closest to the church. Bowley saw movement in the mist.

“Alby! Over there!”

He ran to that side of their line, his gun at his shoulder, as Alby and the others nearest pivoted to meet the new threat.

His sights found a blackfella, running among the Del Mar mob. There were others. The tribe’s intervention had cost them. Bowley tracked the blackfella’s approach. He fired just as the man passed behind a tall tombstone. The bullet kicked chips off the edge of the stone. Someone else’s bullet knocked the blackfella flat.

The new wave of attackers came fast. Bowley put his next two shots into the torso of one of the older Del Mar nephews from less than ten yards away. The twin impacts knocked the Del Mar off his feet, like a giant hand had slapped him flat. The axe handle he’d brandished pin-wheeled between the headstones. Bowley shot little Letitia Del Mar, coming behind, wearing a pinafore brown with blood. Her hair flicked up as the bullet came out the back of her head.

He was dimly aware of Alby beside him, flipping his rifle, already empty, to use as a club. Of Ulf, beyond Alby, with Bowley’s service revolver gripped in both hands. Young O’Shane, pumping bullets from his pair of pistols with methodical precision.

A still figure caught Bowley’s eye, out beyond the mayhem – a girl, standing straight and tall, her arms raised before her. Jemima Del Mar. Maise’s niece. The first taken, Bowley realised. In front of the church, the Dappled Man mirrored Jemima’s pose.

A woman charged straight at him. It was Maise’s sister, Lucy – Jemima’s mother. Bowley’s finger froze on the carbine’s trigger. His pulse pounded in his ears. There was nothing of the woman he’d known in the rictus of Lucy’s face. He squeezed the trigger with a jerk, pulling the carbine’s muzzle sideways. The bullet hit her high in the chest. She staggered into the arc of Alby’s rifle butt. Bone and wood crunched together.

Les Barrett, a senior son-in-law, was hard on the Lucy’s heels. Bowley flipped his empty carbine in his hands, felt the hot metal sear his fingers and palms, and swung. He met the downward arc of the man’s mattock and used the momentum of the blow to push the weapon aside and put his elbow into Barrett’s face. Bowley pulled his carbine back over his shoulder and swung. The trigger guard caught Barrett squarely in the side of the head. The blow jarred Bowley’s wrists and elbows. Blood crazed beneath the skin of the dream-taken’s temple, patterning like shattered porcelain. Bowley adjusted his grip and hit him again. Barrett collapsed.

Ulf went down under the weight of two assailants. Young O’Shane and Ted Wright arrived an instant too late. Ulf started to convulse on the ground. Ted impaled one attacker on the point of Dougie MacGill’s pike, belted the other with a long-handled mallet he must’ve taken from one of her kin. The woman’s head rocked on her shoulders. She lunged at Ted, making him stumble. O’Shane shot her, point blank, in the face. Ulf started to rise from the ground at his feet. The Irishman put his second pistol to the publican’s forehead and pulled the trigger.

Closer to Bowley, Alby kicked little Tomas Del Mar, all of four years old, under the chin. He raised his boot again and stamped on the child’s thin chest as he bounced against the earth.

Hands grappled Bowley from behind. Sharp teeth sank into the side of his neck. He wrenched free and spun. The carbine’s stock missed his attacker by a whisker. Javier Del Mar, patriarch of the family, peeled back his bloody lips in a soundless snarl.

A hand snaked over the old man’s shoulder and caught him around the face. Alby thrust his hunting knife up under Javier’s chin. The Del Mar jerked backwards as the blade penetrated. Alby stumbled and they both started to fall.

“No!” Bowley lunged after them. For an instant, he clutched Alby’s coat sleeve. Then the oiled leather slipped through his fingers and Alby’s back hit the dirt.

His eyes bulged. His heels drummed the dirt. His shadow flitted away from his stricken body, then it too began to thrash, but only for a moment. Still struggling, it was sucked into the earth.

Alby started to rise. Bowley rammed the carbine’s butt into his face. Alby fell back. Bowley hammered down again. Bone gave beneath the blow. Alby’s limbs twisted spastically. Bowley swung in a frenzy, as though he could obliterate Alby’s identity and, with it, the horror of what he was doing. The carbine’s stock snapped. Bowley staggered. Alby’s bottom jaw jutted up, above his collar, obscenely intact.

The field was still.

For a while, Bowley leaned on the splintered butt of his gun. His breath rattled in his ears. His neck and his burnt hands throbbed. He slowly pushed himself upright.

Aside from Bowley, only three of the townsmen who’d begun the fight were still on their feet. Young O’Shane was one of them, still with both his pistols in his hands. His face was slack, his eyes closed. Ted Wright crouched with his forehead resting against the pole of Dougie MacGill’s pike, one forearm pressed against his belly. Blood dripped between his legs. Bowley began to shake.

One Del Mar still stood amid the carnage. Jemima. Niether she or the Dappled Man had moved, still confronting each other in their invisible battle of energy and wills. Even in the pale light, Jemima’s shadow was dense and dark, many armed and many headed, as though cast by many suns. The Dappled Man’s captive shadows writhed across his body.

He took a step forward. Then another. Jemima remained rooted. The Man walked towards her, each step an obvious effort, like a man wading through mud. He reached out and caught Jemima’s chin. Still, she didn’t move. Her shadow’s many limbs writhed in agitation and it began to shrink towards her feet. Darkness poured out of her mouth and out of her nose and ears and eyes. It ran up the Dappled Man’s wrist and into his sleeve. Jemima’s body shook violently. The Man bowed his head, his shoulders hunched.

The last bit of shadow drained over Jemima’s lip. The Man released his grip on her jaw and they staggered apart. The Man swayed but kept his feet. Jemima crumpled.

A keening sound penetrated Bowley’s gun-deaf ears. At first he thought it was the dreaming, howling still, and he wondered how that could be. Then he realised the noise was coming from Jemima – each cry an uninflected blast of anguish, followed by a terrible, wrenching gasp for air, then another long, monotonous cry.

Maise raced across the field, arms outstretched, fingers splayed. She was too slow to catch Jemima before she fell. She skidded to her knees beside the girl and scooped her up. Jemima’s face and neck were crimson, veins and ligaments pushed out with the force of the sound coming up her throat.

The Dappled Man stood over them, his shrouded head bowed, leaning a little, like someone who’d taken a bad hurt to the ribs.

His horse picked its way through the slaughter and stopped beside its master. The Man took a moment to react, as though he didn’t see it at first. He reached up an arm, then got his foot into the stirrup and lifted himself with painful slowness to slump in the saddle.

The horse moved off again, past the rows of tombstones and out to the rune circle. Blackfellas waited in the fringes of the mist. They fell into step beside the rider as he vanished from sight. They’d see the dreaming put back into the ground, back where Jemima and her kin had found it, to go back to sleep and lie undisturbed until it withered away to nothing. Bowley wondered if he ought to go after them, to be certain it was done with and they’d seen the last of it.

He looked over at Maise, with her eyes screwed shut and her teeth clenched in a grimace, her own body wracked by sobs as she held her niece. What comfort could he offer her? What was there left for he and Maise, with the blood of her family on his hands?

He let the shattered carbine fall from his fingers. He walked towards Maise. Her head was turned away, to where the Man and his escort had gone into the mist. She didn’t respond when he knelt beside her, put his hand on her back. He took a grip on her shoulders, pulled her in to him. She didn’t resist. Jemima had exhausted her voice, for now, and sprawled in her aunt’s arms, panting like a hurt animal. Her eyes were bulged and bloodshot in her still-red face.

Maise pulled away suddenly, and turned to look at him, her face fierce. “You go after them, Robert,” she said. “You make sure it’s done right.”

He didn’t want to, started to shake his head, because his place was right here, with all the death and ruin about them to clear away, bodies to bury or burn, and the people needing someone to show the way, and that being down to him, the Queen’s Man in Useless Loop. And what would he know, anyway, if he did go, about whether this dreaming was put to rest for good, or not?

But, “Go!” she said, and he staggered up and away from her, propelled by the force in that word.

People stumbled out of the church. Some fell to their knees, some turned away and covered their children’s eyes, some vomited. Others hugged each other and wept. A sudden shaft of bright sunshine lit the battlefield in unwelcome light. Bowley hurried past.

He put his fingers to his mouth, barely noticing the salt-metal tang of blood as his whistle shattered the quiet. He whistled again, and saw Clay prick her ears, standing in the street outside the police station. He went to her at a stumbling run, and got her moving at a trot as soon as he was aboard.

He felt the pressure of their eyes, like a physical weight, as he skirted the church yard. He kept his own fixed straight ahead. No-one called out to him. Maise didn’t look up from rocking her niece. The Dappled Man and his escort had already vanished into the mist. It didn’t matter – Bowley knew where they were headed.

He caught up with them quickly enough. The blackfellas ignored him, so he followed a few yards behind, all the way up into the hills behind Del Mars’. The Dappled Man swayed like a man half dead in his saddle. His horse directed itself, or sometimes the blackfellas did, when it seemed unsure. They walked tirelessly, high-stepping over undergrowth and litter from the trees so they rarely needed to check their gait. Bowley watched the patterns of scars on their backs and legs, rippling as they moved, and wondered at the price they paid for living with the land, for not holding themselves apart as whitefellas did.

At the mouth of the caves, they pulled the Man down from his horse and carried him inside, stooping under the low lip of rock. One paused when Bowley got down from Clay and made to follow. He raised a hand, his long, broad-tipped fingers splayed, the palm pink and free of scars. He held Bowley’s gaze with brown-black eyes. Shadows gathered beneath his heavy brow. The ridged scars that covered his skin formed a mask that obscured his expression. Once he was certain Bowley wasn’t going to follow, the man turned and went after his fellows.

Bowley waited, with only the horses for company. He saw to Clay, but left her saddled, and made himself a small fire. The Man’s horse seemed content and Bowley was disinclined to approach it. He hunched beside his fire as night closed in and knew he’d made a mistake, coming here. Knew he should’ve stayed in town, and been the Queen’s Man, no matter what Maise had wanted. But he knew there was no way he could’ve refused her.

He stared into the flames, trying not to see Alby’s head come apart, over and over again. He tried not to hear German’s screams as human teeth tore into him. Not to see the grief on Maise’s face as she held her niece, nor hear Jemima’s wailing, that said saving her was the worst they could’ve done. Exhaustion eventually let him fall into a light doze.

#

The blackfellas brought the Dappled Man back out in the grey of morning. He said nothing to Bowley, nor even appeared to recognise his presence, even though Bowley rose to his feet barely an arm’s length from where the Man passed.

The blackfellas led him to his horse and put him up in the saddle. One of them took its reins, and another two held the Man’s legs to keep him in his seat as they walked away with him into the bush.

Bowley was left alone once again, and wondering what victory had cost the spook, whether he hadn’t been able to separate all of himself from the dreaming when they’d put it back into the ground.

He looked back into the cave, felt gooseflesh rise all over his body. He could only hope that the task was done.

He got his skinning knife from his saddle roll, scratched the rune for danger into the rock above the cave mouth. The sign had no power, since he had none to give it, and the shallow marks would fade quickly, but it would serve, for now.

#

Smoke rose from the churchyard, when he returned to town. A funeral pyre. They’d burned all the bodies together. A few folk watched him walk past on Clay, their faces closed in, looking at him like a stranger. Crows picked among the headstones, hunting for any titbits that might’ve been overlooked.

There was a cart outside the post office, half loaded with small furnishings and baskets and crates of bric-a-brac. Maise’s rocking chair, from the porch, that Nev had made her for a wedding gift, was lashed in pride of place on top of the pile. As Bowley approached, she came out with a basket of clothes. Her eyes flickered over to him. Her expression closed in and she looked away.

Bowley stopped Clay beside the cart and watched for a moment while she worked the basket into a too-small space at the back.

“Maise? You’re leaving?”

She didn’t look up. “I am.”

His eyes were suddenly hot and overfull. “Where are you going, love?” he asked.

“Don’t you…” She caught herself. “I don’t know. Away.”

Bowley’s mouth worked silently for a moment before he could shape more words. “Would you have left before I got back?”

Maise stopped, bowed her head. “I can’t do it, Robert,” she said, from between her raised arms. “I can’t even look at you.”

She gave the basket a final shove and turned her back on him. He watched her disappear back inside. She returned a moment later, followed by Dermott O’Shane, carrying Jemima. The younger man glanced at Bowley, and away again, without speaking. Maise climbed up onto the cart’s bench, then turned to help O’Shane lift Jemima up beside her. The girl was wrapped in a blanket, so Bowley could discern little more than the fact that she was conscious. She huddled against Maise, tucking her head low. Maise sat straight and rigid, looking neither left nor right, nor back, as she picked up the reins and clucked their horse into motion.

Clay danced a little, when the cart started moving. She twisted her neck to watch it, then snorted, and returned her gaze forward, to wait patiently, again, for her master to tell her what to do. O’Shane looked as though he might speak, then shook his head, dissatisfied with the words he might’ve offered, and walked away.

Bowley sat there for a long time, the words “Can I come with you?” lying bitter on his tongue.

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2006

Leave a Reply

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

%d bloggers like this: