Keeping Faith

by Roger Marchant

Keeping faith

It was dark now, the hard darkness of an Australian bush summer night. And quiet, out here in the back-blocks. The flies were down but the mosquitoes hadnt yet made an appearance. Not that they worried us; wed spent all our lives around that tumbledown shack. Living outside mostly.

Blue and I had been out after rabbits. There were plenty around again now and, country-style, we considered them true game. To kill, certainly, and to eat only when we werent choosy. That night, though, we were pretty exhausted. Either we werent trying hard enough or the rabbits were getting smarter.

Anyway, we were plodding our way slowly home to the shack along the unmade road that cut across the property when I first heard the ute. Although it was a fair distance away I could hear the engine screaming, protesting against the treatment Matthews was handing out. I knew too well what that meant. He had been in town, twenty miles down the track, propping up the front bar of the only hotel for the whole afternoon. Now he was well drunk.

It wasnt good. Matthews at the best of times had little love for us. Drunk, he was vicious, and all the hate he had in his soul would pour out. Either of us - Blue or me - could be the recipient of at least a curse, more often a kick or a slash from the stick he always carried.

The shack was the only home we knew. Matthews had got our mother up from town to work for him. He didnt know for some time after her arrival that she was in the early weeks of pregnancy. She was a good worker, though, and cheap, so she stayed on at the shack. From the first day he hated us - he considered us the cause of her death - and his resentment was never far below the surface. It didnt take much for him to erupt into violence.

But Matthews knew that but for us he could never cope with his ramshackle property and its few head of cattle. We did most of the hard grafting, and we were good at it. Perhaps it was his sense of his dependence that fuelled the fires of rancour. He provided us with shelter and food of a sort, but we never felt secure in his presence.

The ute was almost upon us now, grinding its way up the rise where the dusty track crested the hillock upon which the shack stood. We looked back and saw the lights reaching over the summit as the tortured engine howled in low gear. I could hear the rear wheels meshing and spinning on the rutted track - hed forgotten to drop it into four-wheel.

As we had done so often before, we slipped quietly off the road, back behind the bushes. We had learned long ago to keep well away from Matthews when the grog was on him.

Over the rise, the ute lurched onto level ground. It was then that Blue made his incomprehensible move. He had been crouching in the bush on the opposite side of the track to me. It was just a matter of waiting the few seconds for Matthews to curse his vehicle past our position, then darkness and safety would return.

But Blue decided to cross to my side. Perhaps he was dazzled, I dont know. I just watched, horrified, as he stepped on to the track exactly as the bank of headlights cut a horizontal again, lighting the whole track ahead.

Blue was caught in the glare, no more than ten metres away. He stopped and gazed with widening eyes at the oncoming danger. At once I heard the engine note change as Matthews forced down the accelerator. The lights went up to full beam, catching Blue just as a searchlight traps an aircraft.

Now Blue moved. He turned back to his side of the track and tried to make good his position in the bushes. The ute was going fast now and it swerved quite deliberately. Matthews was hunting Blue. A split second seemed like eternity. Blue hadnt a chance. He was tossed by the roo-bar. As he rolled, already unconscious, first the front, then the rear wheel went over him.

I was unable to move. The ute locked its brakes and skidded to a halt. Matthews came back along the track carrying a hand-lantern. I watched as he played the beam over Blue, as he lay broken and still. From my position about five metres away, I heard Matthews grunt with satisfaction. He straightened up and swung a foot. The kick was sufficient to roll the body over.

Thats one of the bastards, anyway.

He sounded triumphant, mad. I almost took him there and then, but some residue of caution held me back.

So I kept quite still, mind churning, and watched as Matthews staggered back to the ute. Once again engine and gears protested as he forced the vehicle on towards the shack. I waited until the headlights had dwindled away and then crept across to Blue. He wasnt difficult to find - just a crumpled heap in the rough grass bordering the road.

A cursory examination told me he was dead. Again the blinding rage rose up, and once more I had to fight to stop myself from pursuing Matthews straight away. But retribution carried out in hot blood is too good for a murderer. Revenge is a dish best taken cold and my plan formed instantly and instinctively. Nowhere in it was there any intention of making the crime known to authority. I would deal with this and I knew exactly what to do.

But there was nothing I could do for Blue. Hangover permitting, Matthews would be back in the morning to dispose of the body. I didnt want him to see evidence of any interference on my part. So I left my brother lying there, his blood slowly congealing in the dust of the track, slipped back into the bushes, made myself as comfortable as possible, and waited.

Dawn was just dissolving the darkness as I heard the ute start up at the shack a quarter of a mile away. It was at this time that Blue and I usually commenced our day. Dawn to dusk were our working hours on the property. And now, as I expected, Matthews was returning to the scene of the crime.

The ute ground to a halt abeam my hiding place and Matthews got to the ground and, muttering, retrieved a shovel from the tray. In the strengthening light I saw him bend over the body, grasp Blues legs and drag him a few feet off the track. It didnt take him long to dig a shallow grave and, with his foot, roll the body in. He threw a few shovelfuls of earth on top if my brother and, satisfied, stood back and rubbed his hands down the sides of his trousers. Whether he was going to leave things like that, or had more sophisticated disposal plans, I dont know. And I didnt care; it wouldnt come to that.

I watched as Matthews drove back to the shack. Now he would start to look for me - there was work to be done. But first he would take his usual desultory morning wash then eat. For that and for the black tea he always needed to clear his head, water would be required.

Bore water was all we had, although it was only just drinkable. Furthermore, the pump had long since broken, the tank was empty and it was necessary to raise the water by bucket and windlass from the old-fashioned well twenty metres deep that represented our only source of supply. So I knew what Matthews next move would be. I took one last look at where Blue lay and set off for the shack. Travelling in a wide arc and keeping to cover, I approached through scrubby bush at the rear. Matthews was still inside, but it wouldnt be long before he set out for the well, about ten metres from the building. Just a little removed from the windlass on the far side, a pile of old timber offered good cover. I was hidden in seconds, crouched, with the door in good sight.

Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, he emerged carrying an empty bucket. As he approached I felt cold, emotionless. What I was about to do wasnt nice but I felt no compunction in acting as judge, jury and executioner. This way there was no chance of him going unpunished. He attached the bucket to the well rope and let it run to the bottom. The well was deep but quite wide, so I heard the splash as the bucket hit the water below.

Now Matthews started to wind in the full bucket. It was a difficult and in his condition, painful, job and he cursed with every turn of the handle. I tensed myself, ready. I started to move as the bucket rose to the lip of the low parapet surrounding the well. My target was a big man, heavy, and the timing had to be just right. I rounded the pile of timber and was at speed as Matthews took one hand off the parapet to grasp the full bucket. Then, as his other hand came off the windlass and, for a second, he was unsupported, I leapt.

He was bending slightly over and I caught him with full impetus square in the small of the back. His lack of balance, the full bucket and finally my own velocity combined to produce an irresistible force. With a terrified scream, Matthews pitched forward, struck his head on the parapet and, still grasping the bucket, disappeared down the well.

I hit the hard-packed earth with a bang and rolled a couple of times, slightly dazed. It was nothing to the fierce exultation that coursed through me. Justice had been served.

I crept back to the low wall surrounding the well and directed all my senses to detect any sign of life. The evidence was plain - Matthews was lying at the bottom, unconscious but breathing. He was probably in three or four feet of cold water with his head against the side. He would probably come round in a little while but no way could he climb that black, slimy shaft.

There was nothing to do now but wait. He could expect no assistance, no matter how he screamed for help when he came to. His general surliness made visitors to the property very few and far between. Even the post box was a kilometre away. It would probably be weeks before anyone thought to mount a search. Matthews would die slowly and in despair. In the meantime, if he should by any chance make it to the top of the well, I was ready to deal with him again.

And I could wait. Oh yes, I could wait. Indefinitely.

I backed off just a little way from the wellhead and turned completely around a couple of times to make a comfortable place. Then I lay down, put my head between my paws and started the vigil.

Roger Marchant 2015

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