An extract from Dust Off The Bones by Paul Howarth, published by One (Pushkin House) on 26 August 2021
Central Queensland, Australia
They stood on the bank of the desert crater, staring down into hell. Trampled humpies, scattered possessions, discarded weapons, severed limbs, all bogged in a churn of crimson mud; the camp had become a slaughter yard. One of the men wept openly. The other vomited on the ground. Not two days ago they had been here, in this crater, welcomed by the Kurrong people, attempting to preach to them, sharing a meal. Now that same entire community lay heaped in an enormous pyre: a knot of mangled bodies, popping, crackling, peeling as they burned. A thick smoke column rising. A smell both men would carry to their graves.
After four days’ non-stop riding over a wasteland of sun-scorched scrub they reached the settled colony in the east, and the single-street outpost of Bewley perched on its frontier. Desperate and dishevelled they tore into town, slid from their saddles, and scrambled along a narrow path to the courthouse, bursting through the black-tarred double doors into the cool flagstone lobby beyond.
‘An outrage! A most terrible outrage!’
From his desk by the wall, the clerk looked up at the piebald-faced white man, fair skin bleached and blotted by the sun, and a properly dressed native like none they got round here. ‘Help you?’ he called, and startled, the white man spun.
‘There’s been an outrage in the desert. A hundred killed! More!’
A guard wandered out from the cell block and crossed the lobby to where they stood, glaring at them, cocking and uncocking his revolver with his thumb, but before he could speak, a side door opened and out barrelled Police Magistrate MacIntyre, barking, ‘Donnaghy, get that darkie out of here, or else throw him in the cells.’
The accent was thick Scots. The guard smiled, clicked his tongue, tossed his head towards the doors. Nobody moved. The guard cocked the revolver again, but the white man said, ‘Matthew, please,’ and reluctantly he went outside, Donnaghy following a few paces behind.
‘Well now,’ Magistrate MacIntyre said, ‘what do we have here?’
‘There’s been an outrage in—’
‘Yes, yes, I heard all that. What I mean is: who the hell are you?’
‘Reverend Francis Bean, sir. That is Matthew.’
‘Yes we are.’
‘I don’t suppose you’d thank me for a whisky then?’
Reverend Bean cast about the lobby. ‘Perhaps just some water, if I may.’
The magistrate steered him towards the office. ‘Come through here and I’ll find you some. Let’s you and me have a little talk.’
They sat on either side of a rosewood writing desk, MacIntyre cupping his chin in his hand, Reverend Bean fidgeting in his chair. Wiping his hands on his trousers, picking at his shirt hem; he’d soaked his chest with water, gulping it down. MacIntyre waited, expressionless, slumped over the desk, as falteringly Reverend Bean began recounting all that had happened, all they had seen: the horror of the crater, the posse they’d encountered the day before, the tall man who’d been leading them, the one calling himself Noone.
‘And how are you so sure,’ MacIntyre asked finally, once Reverend Bean was done, ‘that this group of men you claim you met were Native Police?’
‘The officer admitted as much himself.’
‘I see.’ With great effort the magistrate shifted his bulk and heaved himself upright. ‘And did Inspector Noone tell you the nature of his work out there, I wonder?’
‘He had two young white boys with him. There’d been a murder, he said.’
‘Exactly. Three innocents, butchered by savages in their own home. Those poor McBride brothers lost their parents, their little sister, their whole family just about. Meaning it now falls on Inspector Noone to find the culprits and bring them before the law. You don’t object to justice being done in the colony, do you, Reverend Bean?’
‘They can’t all have been suspects, surely. There were women and children in that camp. It was obviously pre-planned.’
‘Obvious to who? You? Yet you didn’t try to stop them, or warn the Kurrong?’
Reverend Bean was aghast. ‘But, I couldn’t have…’
‘You did nothing. Ran away, in fact. Do I have that right?’
‘There were far too many of them. We were unarmed!’
MacIntyre only shrugged.
‘You don’t understand. The things Noone threatened me with…’
‘Are nothing compared to what he’ll do if he learns you’ve been in here telling tales. Noone is not a man to be trifled with. Not if you value your life.’
Reverend Bean had turned ashen. He looked suddenly unwell. Steeling himself, he said, ‘There is only one authority I answer to, and it is not Inspector Noone.’
‘Well then, make your statement. But I promise you, he will find you, and when he does no god will be able to protect you then.’
The magistrate reached for one of the pens in a double holder on his desk, dipped it in the inkwell, and held it poised over his writing pad. His bushy eyebrow lifted, watching the reverend writhe, as a drop of black ink slid slowly along the gully, hung from the nib in a teardrop, then spattered on the pad.
‘Forgive me Lord, I haven’t the strength,’ Reverend Bean whispered, jumping to his feet and scurrying for the door. As his footsteps receded over the lobby flagstones, MacIntyre speared his pen into its holder and flopped back in his chair.
‘If it’s spiritual guidance you’re in need of,’ the magistrate called after him, laughing, ‘there’s a church at the end of the street!’
Outside, Matthew was sheltering in the shade of the courthouse wall. He hurried over, asked what had happened; Reverend Bean only blinked into the glare.
‘Father? What did he say?’
‘He’ll take care of it now, Matthew.’ His voice distant, detached.
‘Take care how?’
‘We’ve done our duty. It’s no longer our concern.’
Matthew glanced at the courthouse doors. ‘And you believe him?’
‘We have no choice. He is a man of the law, after all.’
‘So were them others what did it!’
‘I know that,’ Reverend Bean said sadly. ‘Yes, I know they were.’
They rode out of Bewley later that afternoon, heading for Mulumba, as had once been their original plan. They were washed now, and clean-shaven, and had provisions in their saddlebags; the reverend had bought a pint of rum. They were no longer talking. Hardly a word between them since. When they passed the little church at the far end of town, Matthew blessed himself dutifully and muttered a short prayer, while in sight of the cross above the doorway, Reverend Bean turned his back on the building, and hung his head in shame.