Authors: Tanya Moir
In Winstone’s imagination, the Kid and his partner ride through the Wild West on the trail of their quarry. In Winstone’s actual life, he’s had to abandon his ‘partner’and is hiding out in the tough landscape of Central Otago. What has this boy run from, and how will the resilient and engaging twelve-year-old survive?
This powerfully realised novel weaves the past with the present and the real with the imaginary to tell a moving, inventive and hard-hitting story that will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.
‘It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.You take away all he’s got,and all he’s ever gonna have.’
— William Munny inUnforgivenContentsTitle PageEpigraphWESTEASTWESTEASTWESTEASTWESTEASTWESTEASTWESTEASTWESTEASTWESTEASTWESTEAST TO WESTWESTCENTRALWESTCENTRALWESTCENTRALWESTCENTRALWESTCENTRALWESTACKNOWLEDGEMENTSAbout the AuthorAlso by Tanya MoirCopyrightWEST
THE SKY WASa hell of a thing. Blue brighter than Technicolor, wider than Panavision. It was universal. Paramount. It was everything and nothing.
Cooper and the Kid rode up into it, all the way from the line of the river below, crawling up the edge of the sky into the eye of judgement. It took most of the day. Time lapsed. The sun shifted. A hawk-eagle-buzzard screamed, a scrape across the stretched skin of the lonely, just to show how deep it was, how far the silence ran.
Cooper and the Kid were dust, shadows in the film grain. Then insects, lumpy and six-legged. They kept coming. There was no road, just the long yellow grass swaying in the sun, and eventually there they were, their horses stepping through it large as life, right up in the face of the sky, rolling in the saddle. Cooper’s horse bright silver as a cloud. The Kid’s palomino a length behind, scorched gold like the grass over which its white mane was rising.
The Kid and Cooper rode on. They rode until the sky was behind them. They rode until they took up the whole frame, until Cooper’s face was all there was in the world, a canyon wall, and the blue was only a glint in his shadowed eyes, and then they passed through and were gone. Their business was their own, and they felt no need to speak a word about it.
Winstone opened his eyes. The sky remained. In the wake of the riders’ passing it was sun-spotted and empty and celluloid sharp and the breeze wound through it and caught on the rocks and tailed away through the yellow grass. He lay on his back, sliced and spliced until only what mattered remained, and below his shoulders the world rolled on and all mistakes and misdeeds and needless scenes were sweepings down on the valley floor. He lay looking up at the blue and the sun behind the blue shone through him and he was light and light alone cast large in every colour of the range.
Winstone Blackhat is riding the canyons.That would be his status now.Posted from my iPhone.
Winstone didn’t have an iPhone. He didn’t have any kind of phone. Or a horse.
Winstone Blackhat is telling lies.
The valley below him was groggy and glazed with the summer sun. An Indian summer, they’d started to call it around the huts as they lit their Friday night barbecues under yet more clear and violet skies, and hearing them Winstone looked down over the purpling plains and saw the flash of tomahawks in the setting sun and the muscular flanks of painted ponies. But between the sun and the valley the top of the range was cool. Up here the heat ran around the breeze and shifted and slipped and was gone before he could close his hand.
Winstone wasn’t surprised. He’d expected it to be colder up in the hills. But it came to him then that he didn’t know why. Why it didn’t get hotter the closer you got to the sun. It was a new thought and it felt strange in his head and he thought it for a while. Maybe it was because of the air. Air got thinner thehigher you climbed. Thinner and thinner until it couldn’t keep anything in or out, not heat not the blue not the emptiness or your thoughts or gravity, and then the sun cooled and the blue grew thick and other stars sucked at your blood.
The day was starting to fade. Blue to black. White to lemon then gold and orange and red and the shadows closing. Winstone watched it through his eyelids and the afternoon moved across his face and the night came up cold through his back. It was time to go home. He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees and watched the west go up in flames.
UP HIGHsomewhere a coyote-wolf-dog howled. Sometimes it happened that way, the sound coming before the picture changed, pointing to where you were going next, guiding you into the red and gold heart of a low campfire in darkness. Soft brush embers. Dry wood crackling. Flicker. Snap. Then a fat yellow moon sailing up behind the range to light the ridges and valleys and planes of Cooper’s ten-gallon hat.
A doe-rabbit grazed the blue night grass outside the circle of firelight and she had her ears pressed close to her head and her fur was up against the cold. The coyote lifted his silver throat to the moon. The doe froze and her eye was wide and a glint of the fire showed in it. Her nose twitched. The Kid shifted in his sleep.
Cooper didn’t stir. He didn’t even tip up the brim of his hat, which was resting over his eyes. He might have been sleeping or he might not. It didn’t really matter. If Coop was awake the Kid had nothing to worry about. And Cooper wasn’t a man to drift off if he wasn’t sure they’d passed beyond the reach of any danger.
There was a rifle under Cooper’s right hand but the doe-rabbit likewise had nothing to fear. The Kid and Cooper werefull of bacon and beans and drowsy as milk and the coyote was miles away, singing up at the wheeling sky from his pillar of rock on the sharp black edge of the horizon. There was no one and nothing else. All around for as far as a man could ride the night was empty.
The moon cleared the pillars and piers of the Rough Ridge Range and paled and shrank and drew away. Winstone went on sleeping. He lay as he almost always lay, on his side with his knees drawn up and his face to the leaning wall of schist and the scabby knuckles of his left fist pressed to his mouth and his other hand down his Warehouse tracksuit pants where it gently cupped his testicles for security and comfort. A habit. Every morning he woke surprised to find his hand there and every morning there it was.
Get your hand off your dick, his old man used to yell as he whipped the covers back, you dirty little bugger.
Winstone twitched and woke. He stayed still in the dark and felt around him the wide stretch of rock and grass and stars until he had reassured himself of its emptiness and then he took his fist from his mouth and pulled the sleeping bag closer to his chin. He told himself what he already knew. There was nobody there. And anyway, you couldn’t be surprised in a sleeping bag, not if you slept with the zip underneath. You’d always feel them coming.
Inside the sleeping bag his right hand reclosed the circle of his warm self and kneaded like a cat bedding down in the soft and soothing silk of his centre. Beneath the shelter of his palm and of goose-down and plastic and stone and sky Winstone lay complete and he slept again and he knew as he slept that nothing would come to wake him but the sun.
It did so kindly. The morning came into the cave like a patient dog and stood warm and waiting over his head until he was ready to open his eyes. When Winstone felt its breath on his forehead he rolled over onto his back and looked up at it and stretched and removed his hand from his tracksuit pants and then he sat up and listened. He listened for voices. Then he listened for cars and after that for spotter planes and choppers and tracker dogs and next for farm dogs and quad bikes and sheep. He heard nothing. Not even the wind was up yet. The ridge was a kind of quiet that wasn’t just an absence of noise but a silence observed in its memory and even the outlet stream seemed to call for hush as it passed among the rocks below the dam.
Winstone crawled to the entrance of the cave and stuck his head out into the morning. The opposite side of the gully was still in shadow. Below him the line of its lip was a slow blue wave seeping back through the grass and in its wake the slope glinted keen and fresh and gold and further back and above and behind and all around the reef of the Rough Ridge Range spread under the sky with the brown grass mounting the rocks like a furious tide and the sun that shone on the range was not tame but a thing to tread around carefully, a stalking thing fierce and yellow and thin that might, if it chose, rip out your throat and pick your bones.
The Rough Ridge had ends but from here, the valleys to north and south and east and west and the higher ranges behind the valleys were over the sloping shoulders of the world and out of sight. Up here on the range you could always sense the curve of the earth and the sky.
At the base of the gully a small flat overhung the creek and on it he could see three rabbits grazing low and grey and indistinct in the shadowed grass. A fourth rabbit stood sentry above and asWinstone watched it sat back and began to scratch its ear. The coast was clear. Winstone held the top of his sleeping bag up to his chest and made his way outside.
The sleeping bag was a very good one and after the continued existence of his balls it was the thing for which Winstone felt most grateful every morning. It tapered like a mummy’s case and was waterproof and had a hood and a special pillow inside the hood for his neck and it must have cost a fortune. Of all the useful things he’d found in the Danish couple’s campervan the bag was the best by far. Before that all he’d managed to find to sleep in were a couple of scratchy grey blankets that blotted up damp from the driest of ground so that he woke up smelling like a wet dog. No one left their sleeping bags in the huts because of the rats and mice and because a sleeping bag was a valuable thing and you never knew who might come along and nick it.
The Danish couple didn’t even miss theirs. Winstone watched them through a hole in a rock tor up on top of the ridge and when they’d finished skinny-dipping in the dam and taking photographs of themselves they just got in their van and drove away. They didn’t even look in the back. So you could tell they didn’t really need it.
Winstone Blackhat steals stuff.
He could have taken a lot more than he did. He could have taken their passports. He liked the passports – they had lions wearing crowns on the front and interesting stamps inside and there was a whole page that said UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in big Wild West letters, red and blue. But he just took the batteries out of the Danish couple’s torch and a camp stove and matches and some clean clothes and most of the food in the fridge and a Leatherman tool and a camouflage Zippo lighter. Winstone didn’t need a passport.
The Danish couple’s bread turned out to be brown and their little pats of butter were white and their cheese was mouldy. But they did have bacon and salami and ham and some fruit from the orchards back along the main road and he ate the bread and butter anyway because with enough salami and ham in between you didn’t really notice the taste and it had been a month since his last sandwich. He could usually eat pretty well off the tins and dry food people left in their huts but hardly anyone had a fridge and if they did it was on generator power so they always took away the fresh stuff. Winstone tried to cut the mould off the cheese but it went all the way through and the whole thing stank so badly he ended up burying it on the other side of the dam in case the tracker dogs came and found it.
As Winstone and his sleeping bag emerged from the rocks the grazing rabbits fled. They always did. They ran as if he was the meanest thing in the world even though he’d never once done them any harm. He watched until the last white tail disappeared and then he unzipped the sleeping bag and took his trainers out from under their rock and checked them for spiders and wetas and rattlesnakes and put them on and went off to choose a thing in this wide world to piss on.
When he came back he was cold so he took his shoes off and hid them again and climbed back into the sleeping bag which was still warm and then he was hungry. Like a grub he shuffled back through the gap in the mass of weathered schist and into the cave. There was a space about the size of a two-man tent inside but the entrance was lower and narrow. Winstone was pretty sure an adult or maybe even a high school kid couldn’t crawl in there and he was nearly certain they wouldn’t try.
The cave had been dry when he found it. Sheep had been in there, but not for a while. He swept most of the shit out with a dead speargrass stem and he stole a knife from the huts andcut dry tussock grass and laid that over the rest and then he put his blankets on top of the grass and lay looking up through the chinks in the rock at the stars. For two nights he was very happy. On the third night he woke to rain on his face. He tried stuffing the cracks with dry grass but that didn’t work so the next day he stole a tarpaulin. He was sure no one would notice. Things blew away from the huts all the time. And by the time they’d finished drinking and fishing and drinking some more half the hut-owners wouldn’t remember what they had or where they’d put it anyway.
He chose a black tarp so the spotter planes couldn’t see it. He rigged it up inside the rocks like a fly-tent and scraped little gutters for the drips and since then the cave had been as snug as the brown grass beetles he so frequently found in his bed.
Winstone was small for a boy of twelve. (Hey runt, Bodun used to say, go get us some of the old man’s smoke. He’ll never see you.) So there was plenty of room inside the cave for him and his supplies. He had space to cook in if he wanted to and there were days when he did but today he just picked up a can of baked beans and a spoon and took them outside.
It would have been easy enough to heat the beans up but Winstone was saving his gas for crucial things like Cup-a-Soup and instant noodles. He didn’t know when the next campervan would make it up to the range.
He didn’t dare light a fire in the gully. Choppers and planes flew over all the time. During the day they might see the smoke and at night they’d see the flame. A fire up here could bring anyone. Like the fire brigade for instance. Apart from a horse, a campfire was the one thing missing from Winstone’s new life. It was hard to live like a real outlaw inside a TOTAL FIRE BAN.
Sometimes when he was very sure all the huts were empty he’d light a fire up there. In the chimney of a ruined damworkers’ hut that hadn’t been resurrected by fishermen, or even outside, close by somebody’s legal hut so the cops would think it was somebody’s barbecue and the hut-owners when they saw the ash would just think bloody campers. Those were the best nights. The fire felt so right with the wood smoke dusting the dusk like a sprinkle of salt on hot chips and bringing up the stars. You could stare into it till you forgot you had no TV and nothing to do and when you had forgotten the night leaned in and wrapped you up and you relaxed and forgot to be nervous.
But it was never safe. Not with nobody watching your back and a posse of angry townsfolk trying to run you down.
Winstone sat in the warming sun and held the tin up under his chin and spooned beans into his mouth and watched the wind whip up the clouds and drive them across the range and their distant black shadows stream like buffalo herds through the long dry grass. When he’d finished he got out of the sleeping bag and put his shoes back on, and after he’d given the bag a bit of a shake and stowed it away and found his old hoodie with the hole in the sleeve and pulled that on over his pyjama top, he picked his way down to the creek.
It was the sort of wide open slope that invited a whooping headlong run. But Winstone wasn’t the sort of boy who whooped. And he’d learned that between the rabbit holes and the trainer-piercing speargrass spines this was no country for a gallop. Although a horse, of course, with its four hard hooves would be okay. Winstone had a lot of faith in horses. If he was Charlie Sheen at the head of the Regulators he’d fly down the hill and across the creek and straight up the other side and all the angry townsfolk and men in black would see would be his dust.
As it was he sat down on the bank of the creek and took off his shoes and his hoodie and hid them and rolled up his tracksuit pants. A metre or so of fine gravelly sand cut in underthe bank between the brown rocks and he let himself down onto this and squatted and scoured his spoon and the empty beans tin with sand and rinsed them out and sat them to dry. Then he wet his finger and rubbed it over his teeth and spat and splashed water over his face and under his arms and ran his wet hands through his hair and looked slightly worse than when he had started.
With the tin in one hand he waded upstream through the rocks and the water until he reached the base of the first little falls, where he stopped and began to turn over the rocks.
When he was clean, Winstone was pale, his thick hair white-blond and his skin the cream of cartridge paper. As it was – and mostly had been, all his life – he was the smutty grey of a limestone facade on a busy corner. The long warty fingers now searching the creekbed for freshwater crayfish were knobble-jointed and splayed and the scrawny knees sticking out of his tracksuit pants were scratched and stained with old grazes and bruises and ringworm scars and his eyes were too big and round for his little triangular face and not one of his classmates in the valley below would have been in the least surprised to hear he was living under a stone.
In the shelter of the gully the rising sun pooled and grew hot. Winstone caught five small crawlies and that was too many for the tin and by the time he got back to the beach he’d lost two of them over the side. He sat on the powdery silt with his legs stretched out in the sun until they were dry and made a mental note to steal a bucket. Then he dusted the sand off his legs and levered himself back up the bank and wiped his feet on the short green rabbit-cropped grass and found his clothes and put on his shoes and scrambled back up to the cave, by which time he was thirsty.
On the way the crawlies kept climbing out of the tin andhe had to keep stopping and picking them up and one of them caught the skin of his finger in its pincers and drew blood. It had been a fair fight but grilling them one by one on a flat rock under the Zippo flame Winstone still felt a bit sorry.
When they were nice and pink he pulled off the tails and peeled the shells and sprinkled them with little campervan sachets of pepper and salt and dipped them in Danish butter. They weren’t exactly KFC Crispy Strips but they tasted pretty good.
He put the heads back in the tin for trout-bait and covered the tin to keep off the flies and carried it off aways and left it in the deep shade at the base of another rock tor. Then he went back down to the creek and washed his hands and had a drink and after that there wasn’t much left to do except steal a bucket. By his calculation it was Monday, which wasn’t a good day for going up to the huts. So Winstone lay back with his head in the shade of the bank and let his eyes close. The sun shifted overhead and through his eyelids the light on the Rough Ridge Range grew soft and took on a more docile hue.
JUST HOW LONGwe fixin to be up here Coop?
Cooper was riding ahead and he did not turn. The Kid watched the set of his shoulders and the jog of the rifle butt at his thigh and the sway of his horse’s rump and the swish of its silver tail and their saddles creaked and the horses’ hooves thudded in the grass and still Cooper didn’t speak and the Kid began to think he wouldn’t reply.
You tired of the saddle Kid?
A spur jangled. The wind gusted.
Then we keep ridin.
They rode. They rode until the gold flank of the Kid’s horse was the only thing to be seen in the world and it faded into distant grass and a coyote’s-eye view of the range from some high rock tor and there they were, still riding. And as they rode they faded again and there was the range spreading wide and far as an eagle could see and the Kid and Cooper were just a dark smudge in the centre of their old selves, far off and moving away. There was no place behind them and no place ahead and if the Kid and Cooper rode for ever and a day the next morning when they got up and drank their coffee and pulled on their boots they’d still have some riding to do.EAST
For a while,Young Gunshad been Winstone’s favourite film. It was the story of a good man called John Tunstall who took in At-Risk Youth and cleaned them up and taught them how to behave and it was the very first DVD that Winstone watched at Zane’s place. Winstone was only nine at the time but he understood it straight away.
Am I Billy the Kid?
Do you want to be Billy?
Winstone shook his head.
Who then? Dick? Chavez?
Winstone said nothing. He would have quite liked to be Chavez the Indian brave but that didn’t seem terribly likely.
Winstone’s breath caught.
Ah. Zane raised his eyebrows, considering. Doc, eh. He looked Winstone up and down. Yeah I can see that. You look like Kiefer Sutherland a bit. Okay. You’re Doc then.
The At-Risk Youth in the DVD were supposed to protect John Tunstall. But they got distracted and they were off shooting pheasants instead of looking when the men in black hats came and gunned John Tunstall down. The boys were very sorry then. But it was too late for good John Tunstall who’d looked after them and without him they all went bad again. Except for Doc.Doc tried not to shoot anyone and he was smart and he rescued a girl so pretty and fine they called her a china doll.
Winstone didn’t know why the men in black hats had hated John Tunstall so much. There was something about beef and the government but it had been a very short part of the film and he hadn’t really understood it. It didn’t matter. That was just the way things went. Suddenly people hated you and there was no rhyme or reason to it and they tried to destroy you and you didn’t know what you’d done and there you were face down in the dirt never knowing why.
When it was time for him to go home, Winstone sat on the edge of Zane’s couch with his hands on his knees and he looked at the door and his jacket and schoolbag hanging out in the hall and he spoke to the blank TV.
I’m not Dirty Steve?
No mate. Zane put his hand on Winstone’s shoulder. Winstone flinched a bit but it didn’t hurt. You’re not Dirty Steve.
Winstone walked home down the verge of the gravel road in the dusk below the power lines and thought that he would always protect John Tunstall.
Before he came west Winstone lived on the outskirts of a series of eastern towns, a looped string between State Highway One and the inland ranges, moving like a shooed fly from one to the next in an untidy circuit of the district in which he was born. Some of the towns had a traffic light and shops and takeaway bars and other kids with holes in their shoes and pools of trouble it did no good to avoid, since no matter how far back Winstone stood he still got caught in Bodun’s backwash. Others were barely towns at all, just a short stretch of tarseal with a petrol pump and a memorial hall and a one-teacher school behind a row of silver birch trees and a sagging fence.
It was driving into the latter that made Winstone’s stomachtense up the most. Those non-towns with wide playing fields and nowhere to hide and fifteen kids who ran as a pack and had all stopped to watch Bic’s Commodore drive past with the furniture strapped to the roof and seen the mattress stains. The towns where everyone fitted together like a block wall and you’d think, from the fuss, that not a single kid in the world had ever had nits before.
Clintoch, where he met Zane, was a town of medium size, with no traffic light but a grid of named streets and a strip of small shops and a burger bar and an area school and a Four Square supermarket. Still, as far as the house down the gravel road he was walking to went, it might have been anywhere. No matter which town it was in, how big or how small, the Hasketts’ house looked much the same.
Each time they moved, Winstone recognised it, picked it out from the back of the Commodore before they even began to slow down, before Bic had turned the wheel or said a word. Two bare sash windows behind the gravel verge and long clumpy grass, green or brown according to the season. A two-tone house, always, the iron roof red and grey and growing weeds, bare boards showing through the coloured paint, dead yellow squares in the knee-high lawn.
He knew how it would smell. That there’d be a lean-to out back containing a kitchen with lifting linoleum tiles and sinking floorboards and two stiff taps sticking out of the wall and a toilet with a brown bowl and a chain and a spidery louvre window that didn’t shut and between those two rooms a space with corner mould and an iron laundry trough stained green and among the dead flies a thin piece of yellow soap with dirt-black veins. Winstone knew the shapes of the stains in the bath and the sink at the end of the hall and their fine black criss-cross crazing. He knew the carpet would have brown flowersand cigarette burns and sticky marks and sag over holes in the floor and how it would feel below his feet.
A couple of times he was wrong. A couple of times their house was just red and white and the grass was cut short and the inside smelled like a school toilet block first thing Monday morning. Before Bic parked on it, the lawn was all green. But they weren’t there for long. Not even a month. There was never much work for Bic in those places.
On that slow-falling Clintoch night, walking back the first time from Zane’s, Winstone arrived at his house on the edge of the dark, that moment when the last of the light has gone but you don’t realise it yet, not until someone flicks on a switch and flattens all the shadows to black. The curtains, such as they were, weren’t drawn, and there were no lights on inside the house, just the glow of TV in the front room spilling out over the Commodore’s windscreen and hood and the uncut grass. Through the window he could see Bic asleep on the couch. The front door was slightly open, as it almost always was, since it didn’t have a latch.
Winstone went in and propped the door to with the brick. He was as quiet as he could be. But as he walked past the lounge, Bic opened one eye and raised the can of beer from his chest and waved it at him.
Where the fuck’ve you been?
A friend’s place. Even to Winstone, this sounded unlikely. His hands balled up inside his jacket pockets. He hunched his shoulders and tucked in his chin.
You got homework?
Winstone was silent.
Where is it?
I don’t have any.
Don’t fucken argue with me. Bic got him lined up with the beer can. I just had that teacher of yours, Miss Carruthers or whatever the fuck her name is, all up in my ear. She said she gives homework every night, and you’re sposed to write it down in some fucken book and give it to me to sign.
Bic rolled over and propped himself up on one arm and picked the last of a burning rollie off an empty beer can on the floor and dragged the smoke down to his finger ends and dropped the butt into the can. Then he raised his hand and beckoned, slowly, like a roadside cop flagging Winstone down. So come on you lying little shit. Hand it over.
Miss Carruthers is Bodun’s teacher, Winstone said.
Bic narrowed his eyes and stuck out his chin. You’re not Bodun? He tilted his head, considering. Fuck. Then he flopped back down on his back and started to laugh. No shit. Little Winnie. You’ve grown.
Bic wasn’t their old man’s real name. Grunt told them.
Good old Bic, Grunt said, one time back in Brownburn when their PrePower card ran out halfway through a Highlanders game and Bic kicked a hole in the wall below the meter. You kids know why he’s called that?
All three of them had been watching the game from the floor behind Grunt’s chair, and they looked up at him and they all shook their heads. Bodun, Winstone, Marlene.
Cos he goes red at the click of a button, Grunt said, and waited.
Like one of those pens, you know? Push a button and you get a different colour. Bic-click. You know?
Fuck off you cunt. In the kitchen, Bic slammed the fridge door. How about you tell them how you got your name.
Suit yourself mate, said Grunt, but not very loud, and he picked up his smokes and his keys and knocked back his beer and stood up. You kids want to go for a drive?
Shotgun, Bodun said, and gave Winstone a dead arm.
Grunt backed out and fishtailed into the shingle road and they drove up past the McCutcheons’ place and turned left along Quarry Road and they passed the old transport yard and the closed-down service station and the Ford’s exhaust burbled low and nobody asked where Grunt was going.
Who called him that? Bodun said.
Bic? Grunt shrugged. Everybody did.
When did they? said Winstone.
We started in high school I spose.
Who did it first? Bodun wanted to know.
Shit I dunno. Some teacher I think. Yeah that’s right – this real old-school cunt we had for PE.Bic-click,he’d say,what colour are you today?How about we try a different button?Then we all started doing it and it stuck.
What did he do? Winstone asked.
He was stoked about it. Thought it was really cool. He used to dare people.You make me red, I’ll make you black and blue.He went round at interval grabbing Third Form boys, making them pick a colour.What’ll it be, turd, red black blue or green?
There was silence while they thought about this. Bodun twisted his neck to look at Winstone and Marlene in the back. He looked excited. What was green?
Green was the rubbish bins. He’d stand the turd up in one of the cans and they weren’t allowed to get out till after the bell rung. Grunt laughed. Shit man. That was their best option.
Bodun laughed too. He picked Grunt’s packet of tailor-mades up off the dash and turned it around and studied the photograph of a shrivelled heart on the front.
Can I have one?
No. Shit. How old are you?
You smoked one before?
Shit yeah. Heaps.
Yeah. Didn’t you smoke when you were my age?
Shit. Well I spose one more won’t kill you.
Winstone looked across at Marlene. She had her back to him, watching the side of the road go by, kneeling up among the empty cigarette packets and soft drink bottles and RTD shots and used serviettes and screwed-up burger wrappers on Grunt’s back seat. She hadn’t put on her shoes or brushed her hair and the soles of her ankle socks were black and the back of her head looked like a whole family of rats had made a nest in there and gone to sleep with their long tails hanging down all curled together and it smelled a bit that way too. Marlene hadn’t said a word since they got in the car but Winstone knew she was listening.
What was he called before? he asked Grunt. What did you call him before he was Bic?
Shit. I forget. Grunt laughed. No wait. I got it. Brian.
Brian, Winstone thought, through the bedroom wall that night. Your name is Brian. It helped a bit, but not as much he’d expected.
There was a lot in what people called you.
Winston. What a very illustrious name, said Mrs Clarke, the ancient relieving teacher, as she wrote it up on the board.
It’s got an e on the end, said Emma Lynch.
No, said Mrs Clarke. It hasn’t.
Why did you call me that? Winstone asked his mother,when they went to visit her in Christchurch.
Shit babe I dunno. I just liked the sound of it I guess. She leaned across the table and put both hands over his. Strong, you know. Rock-hard. Like concrete.
Then she sat back. I got to go now babe. Time’s up. You take care of yourself eh. All of you. You boys look after your sister. And the corrections officer came and opened the door and she went back to her cell.
Aunty Ruth drove them back to her friend’s flat a different way past the gravel pits and the diggers and hard-sided trucks mean-faced as Optimus Prime in a storm-trooper suit andWinstonewas written all over everything and Marlene pointed and held his hand and even Bodun in the front seat couldn’t think of anything bad to say.
Winstone kept his mouth shut until Bodun wasn’t around, just in case. What’sAggregates?he asked Aunty Ruth.
The other word it said on the trucks.
Oh. Aunty Ruth thought for a bit. It’s what they put in concrete and roads and stuff, she said after a while, to make them stronger.
The next day Winstone counted four of his trucks down State Highway One andaggregatesspattered the windscreen like rain as Ruth overtook and Winstone knelt up on the back seat and waved and three of the trucks waved back. The fourth just gave a blast on its horn and Ruth nearly ran off the road and Marlene got such a fright she fell off the back seat and she laughed until she cried. Then they swung off SH1 inland, and there were no more trucks, and after a while no more cars or white lines and the road grew paler and louder under their wheels until the seal ran out and Ruth was driving down the centre of it, straddling the gravel.
The red and grey tin roof of their house came up through paddocks of standing hay and a summer evening soft and purpling with rain. It wasn’t bright, but Ruth put her sunglasses on anyway.
I’m just going to pull in and drop you off, she said, watching the driveway ahead. You kids grab your stuff and go in okay? I can’t stay.
Winstone and Marlene looked at her big black plastic eyes in the rearview mirror and nodded. They didn’t ask why. There’d been a lot of noise the last time Ruth had stayed.
Bic was sitting on the top step of the porch. He rose as Ruth’s car bumped up the drive.
Okay guys, Ruth said. Winstone had his backpack ready over his shoulder. He picked up Marlene’s and held it to his chest.
Bic padded over, barefoot through the lengthening grass, a can of beer in his hand. He looked like he’d just got out of bed and pulled on his jeans, his jaw jutting prickly and dark, his faded T-shirt crumpled. He leaned on the car, one big hand either side of Ruth’s open window, resting his tinnie on the sill, and he smiled.
Bic had a roof-mounted Hella lamp of a smile, and while he was giving it to Ruth, Bodun and Winstone opened their doors and Marlene shuffled across and they all got out the other side. Ruth kept the engine running.
So how was New Zealand’s hottest home baker? She getting on okay up there?
She’s doing all right.
Kids behave themselves?
Yeah they were good.
So. You coming in?
I got to get home.
Where’s the fire?
I got a friend coming over.
Oh yeah? What’s his name?
So call her. Tell her you’ll be late.
You could before.
I got to go. Ruth clunked the car into reverse. I’m late.
As the car moved off, Bic stood back, spread his arms and laughed. Aw c’mon Root, don’t be like that! I won’t hold you up. It’ll only take a minute.
Ruth, looking over her shoulder, accelerated towards the road.
Bic crumpled the can in his hand and lobbed it over the fence. What are you three standing there for? Get your stuff inside.
Winstone watched Ruth’s car disappear and the first fat spots of rain dampen the dust. He felt a lot more like aggregates than concrete.
Mrs Clarke taught Winstone’s class for a fortnight. She read themThe House at Pooh Corner.They learned about honey and bees and blew up balloons and played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Winstone quite enjoyed being Winston minus an e for a week and a half, but then he went off Mrs Clarke even though he knew that wasn’t really fair, because it wasn’t her fault. But he couldn’t help it.
It was Mrs Clarke who found him behind the boiler shed and pulled off Harry Tait and took Jack Baxter’s phone. She was surprisingly fast and strong, it turned out, for such a scrawny old woman.
He was spying on girls in the toilets. Harry Tait’s voice crackedwith indignation. He’s a pervert Mrs Clarke.
He was trying to see them with their pants down, Jack Baxter explained. He’s a sex offender.
I don’t care what he was doing, yelled Mrs Clarke. Give me that phone. And the rest of you, go away.
We were just going to teach him a lesson, Janelle Lindsay said. See how he liked people looking at him.
It’s disgusting, chipped in Lola Price. He’s a paedophile. And he’s got dirty pants.
Go. All of you. Winston, pull your pants up.
But Winstone couldn’t do that. He lay flat on his back in the grass with his wet eyes squeezed shut and both hands over his privates – except that they weren’t any more – and he couldn’t reach down for his pants without letting go and he couldn’t even curl up in a ball because then his bare arse would be showing.
He tried to say something to Mrs Clarke standing way up there, but no words would come out, just a squeak like a farm dog locked in the back of a ute, and he tried to sniff back the snot that was tickling his chin and he willed her to see.
What’s the matter? It’s all right. They’ve gone, you can get up now.
I’ll turn my back, all right? There. I’m not looking. Is that better?
It was. Winstone pulled his pants and his trousers up and wiped his eyes and nose on the backs of his hands and his hands on the front of his hoodie. Mrs Clarke was looking at Jack Baxter’s phone. He could see it in her hand.
Don’t watch it.
I’m not going to.
I’m just deleting it. There. It’s gone.
What if he sent it to everybody? What if he put it on YouTube?
Mrs Clarke’s fingers moved over the phone. He didn’t, she said.
Are you sure?
I’m sure. Nobody’s going to see it.
In that moment, Winstone felt a wave of love for Mrs Clarke, and his eyes got wet again. Then he remembered it was just the video that was gone, and that the whole school had still seen his dick and his shitty underpants and were waiting for him, and that Mrs Clarke had seen them too.
Winston? Were you looking at the girls? You know that’s a bad thing to do, don’t you.
Ah. So why did the boys think you were?
Because Harry had walked round the corner and caught Winstone with his eye pressed to a hole in the side wall of the girls’ cloakroom.
I didn’t want to.
Bodun had told him to look. Winstone wasn’t sure what at – there was no one in there and all he could see was the floor. Then Harry grabbed him and Bodun wasn’t anywhere and he couldn’t look up because of the headlock Harry had him in but he recognised Marlene’s scuzzy grey and pink trainers trotting alongside as he got dragged past the boiler shed and he yelled at her to go away and he could hear her crying. There didn’t seem much point in saying any of that to Mrs Clarke, so Winstone just pulled his hoodie down a bit more and stared at the torn-up grass.
All right, said Mrs Clarke, but it sounded more likewe’ll see.Go and get yourself cleaned up. Give your face a wash.
Winstone didn’t though. There was no way he was going into the boys’ toilets alone. So it wasn’t until he got home that he realised there were sooty black tear-streaks all down his face and his nose and chin were powdered white with dried snot and there were grass stains in his hair.
All the kids at school called him Winnie the Poo for a week or so after Mrs Clarke left and after that they got bored and just called him Shit-Stains. Winstone thought a lot about this, but there wasn’t much he could do. He thought that if Janelle and Lola and Harry and Jack had to wipe their arses with a ripped up copy ofFarming Newsthen they’d have skid-marks too. He thought he’d like to find that A.A. Milne and kick him in the balls. He started stealing toilet paper from school and he washed his pants with the sliver of yellow soap and he made Marlene wash hers too. But no matter how hard they scrubbed they couldn’t make the pants go back to their old colour.WEST
Winstone watched the wind shift. All evening it had broken behind the rocks at his back, but now between one breath and the next it was running towards him skittering like rain across the dam.
He reeled in fast and the bait on the end of the line skipped and splashed as it came through the cut-up water. You couldn’t stay ahead of the wind up here but with all the rocks around the dam it wasn’t too difficult to escape it. You just had to keep moving, that was all. If it wasn’t for having to keep out of sight of the huts as well it would have been easy.
The line bucked out of the water and he caught it and turned his back on the wind and eased the crawly head off the hooks and threw it back into the dam. The bean tin was really starting to stink so he threw the rest of the bait in too. He waded back in to the muddy beach where a trout barely the length of his forearm was already staring up with a fixed yellow eye and he didn’t pick it up by its gills but by its stiff cold slippery tail.
He’d got better at this. The mean squirmy parts they didn’t show in those father–son bonding films, the part where someone smashed the fish’s head with a rock and sliced its white belly open gills to tail and ripped its slimy heaving guts out. It had come as a bit of a shock, the first time, realising it would have to be him. After he’d reeled the fish in and held it up and there wasno one to show and he’d thought how Todd Jackson would be proud of him and then remembered that Todd wasn’t. After he’d been so careful, unhooking the little trout’s lip, trying not to hurt it. It had lain there gasping and looking at him like maybe he knew where the water had gone and he’d picked up a stone and he wasn’t even sure if a trout had a skull but he couldn’t smash it.
He’d left it there and he’d fished some more and he’d thought a bit about drowning. He’d heard somewhere that it was peaceful. But after a while he’d gone back and picked up the trout and carried it down and put it back in the dam. It had sunk. Then it had floated back up and washed about on its side with its little eye staring up at the sun. So he’d fished it out again and gutted it and it wasn’t too bad because he knew for sure it was dead and being dead meant you’d gone to a better place where no one could hurt you.
Now when he gutted a fish Winstone raced, and he didn’t think about its sad eyes and round head and its baby teeth but the imaginary clock ticking down that he had to beat and if he could break the world record. He usually did, now that he’d taken to borrowing the big curved knife from the Green Camo Hut along with the fishing rod. There were some things a Leatherman just wasn’t good for.
Behind the wind, lines of rain drifted over the mountains to the west, a black net across the last band of sun. The light on the ridge was soft and thick with the dusk, rock dissolving into grass and mud and cloud and water, the perfect hour for a small grey boy and his bucket and his dead fish to slip along the seam between earth and sky.
Winstone put the rod and knife back exactly where they belonged, neatly stowed in the upturned dinghy that leaned against the back of the Green Camo Hut between the corrugated iron wall and the rock, and he sat there under the hull for awhile in the narrow sheltering dark and the cold chimney smell until he was sure no one was watching. Then he untaped the key from the base of the galvanised rubbish bin and went into the hut and took three old newspapers from the box beside the wood stove and a fork from the drawer and he found the roll of tinfoil under the sink and ripped off a length and folded it up and put it in his pocket.
As he climbed the ridge, sidling through the sparse scatter of huts hunkered down in the lee of their rocks, picking up a log or two from each woodpile he passed, a window above caught the slicing yellow sun and glowed just as if someone had fired up the stove inside and set a lamp of welcome.
IS IT THEM?the Kid asked.
No, Coop said, just a farmhouse is all, and they sat their horses in the gathering grey and looked at it some more. There was woodsmoke drifting out of the iron chimney above the shingle roof and in the chill of the falling night it hung in a feathered grey line across the snow-pocked mountains.
The Kid’s palomino whinnied low and the grey snorted and stepped out and his bit jangled. They heard a horse fuss behind the closed doors of the barn. A dog barked, once, then twice. The porch door opened.
Yellow light poured out and a woman stood against it. She held up a lantern and it lit her face and her snowy white blouse and her soft brown skirt and she was an hourglass standing there with the warmth and the glow of the fire running through her into the night, lighting a path for them to follow.
Evenin, ma’am, Cooper called, and he took off his big white hat and rode into the light.
The sparks of Winstone’s fire swarmed red in the ruined chimney. He poked at the logs with a dried speargrass stem and blew out the tip and stepped out over the fallen wall and made his way down through the deepening blue to the dam and filled his bucket with water. While he waited for the fire to burn down he squatted on his heels on the floor of the old hut all grown over with grass and he wrapped his trout first in the foil and then in the newspaper and when the embers were red and soft he soaked the newspaper-trout in dam water and set it in the centre of the fire and raked embers over the top and put another log on. Then he sat back and drew up his knees and the embers hissed and the new wood caught and behind the ridge the wind tore the cloud and he looked up from the yellow flames and through the missing roof saw the steady wheel of the stars.
WILL YOUhave some more stew? the woman asked with the spoon in her hand. Don’t be shy now. I made plenty.
Thank you kindly ma’am, Cooper said. I don’t mind if I do.
Billy, pass our guests the biscuits.
The big old dish came on up the scrubbed-pine board hand to hand along a row of children clean and white and soft as whittled willow. Two boys and a girl sitting youngest to oldest, one, two, three.
A thud of boots in the porch and the door burst in with the dark and the cold and then it was shut and a man stood there with the sting of the wind on his face shrugging off his big coat and hanging his hat and hooking his rifle behind the door.
The little girl ran and jumped and he caught her sure as eggs and swung her around just as gently as if she was china. Then he set her back down on the floor and she laughed and pretended to fall and he held her in his big hands until she was steady.
Again, she said.
But the woman said, We got company Jed, and if the man had overlooked Cooper and the Kid at his table and forgotten their horses out in his barn he recollected them now and he stood up and held out his hand.
The little girl stepped back and stumbled over the leg of a chair and the Kid reached out and caught her. Whoa there missy, he said and he set her back on her feet. You be careful there now. Watch out for the table.
Martha Mae, the woman chided, the smallest crease in her white brow, go on and sit back down. I don’t believe I heard you ask to leave the table.
Martha looked up at the Kid all doe-eyed and shy, but she wasn’t scared, and she smiled him a little thank-you smile under all that wavy gold hair falling over her face and smelling of soap and flowers and then she ran back to her seat and picked up her spoon and the woman got up and opened the oven door and brought out an apple pie.
Outside in the dark the crickets and coy-otes sang and starlight frosted the ground and the horses sank to their knees in the warm barn and under the mountains the little square house stood firm with its windows edged in lamplight and behind the house the old dog lay with an ear to the wind and tucked his nose under his paw.
Inside they wiped the dishes and damped down the stove and the man kissed his children before they went to their bedsand through the open door to their room the Kid could hear the woman singing low as she brushed out Martha’s hair. The man showed Cooper and the Kid to a room where two bunks were made up with pillows and high feather quilts and sheets that smelled cleaner and sweeter than hay, and then anyone still standing out there alone in the night would have seen the lamps go out, one by one, and the yellow windows fade.
In the lower bunk the Kid lay with the night on his face and he studied the dark until he could once again make out the check of the gingham curtains.
What is it Kid?
What happens tomorrow Coop?
Tomorrow Kid? Cooper paused. Tomorrow we get up and we do what we got to do and we move on.
Something – a feral cat, probably, so close to the fire – crossed the dark at the edge of Winstone’s sight. He fed the head and bones and fins of the trout back into the fire and watched them melt and poked the ashes a bit to make sure they were all burned up and then he collected his things and tipped the bucket of water over the hearth. The fire hissed and spat and was gone and in its absence night and cold and sullen smoke circled all around. Winstone pulled his hoodie sleeves down over his hands and hugged his arms to chest and waited for them to clear.
The night was never as dark as you thought. You just had to be patient, that was all. After a second he could see the stars, all of them layered up, big and small, and the distant dust between them. Behind the black hills to the west a deep blue ghost of the dead sun rose and far away to the east, beyond range after range, Rockand Pillar, Lammerlaw, the lights of the settled east stained the sky a faint red, a premonition of disaster or the dawn. He could see the tumbled walls of the hut and the square of the window frame and he sat in it with a foot in the grass either side of the wall and scuffed his toes to keep warm and waited some more.
The dark shaded around him like a drying ink wash, and when he could make out the grass at his feet, he slipped down through the speargrass mounds and across the old dirt road to the creek and he followed its loud liquid line down the gully, bending low, another shade of the night. There was no one there. He could have carried his torch and waved it on high and still have passed unseen. But careful as he was, only night eyes as good as those of the kitten stalking the scent of rotting crawly and warm fish oil could have made out Winstone’s shape in the long grass.
Inside his cave, Winstone switched on the torch and looked at his home and found it just as he’d left it. Outside, unbeknown to him, the chinks in the rock tor gave off an extraterrestrial glow, and the kitten balked, one paw raised, before commencing a wide circle.
Winstone listened. His tarp crunched a little in the breeze. He could hear the creek and the night breath of the range as constant and soft and all around as his own and there were no hooves, no angry voices or crackling torch flames or jangling bits or pitchforks. Winstone got out his sleeping bag and took off his hoodie and climbed in. While he listened some more, he thought about eating the last of the chocolate bar he’d foraged from the Red Hut last week, but he wasn’t really hungry after the trout, and in the end he just switched off his torch and put his head down and pulled the sleeping bag tight with his fishy fingers.
THEKID AND COOPERsaddled up in the barn and the horses were rested and full of oats and they skittered and snorted as they were led out and the chill of the mountain morning hit their hides. The Kid put his hand on the palomino’s nose as he passed the reins up over its head and he felt its warm and whiskery breath on his palm and he already had a foot in the stirrup when Martha came up behind him and said, Where you headin mister?
He swung up anyway and then he looked down and tipped his hat and said, So long now missy.
Are you comin back?
She had fresh grass stains on her white pinafore and a frown on her face and daisies in her plait and the Kid made her no reply but to turn his horse and ride for the gate where Cooper and the grey stood waiting.
Hey mister. I made you this.
She held up a daisy chain that would barely fit over three of the Kid’s fingers. In her hand, the little flowers caught the low morning sun and swayed in the breeze and behind them getting smaller and smaller the Kid rode out and every petal grew sharp and edged in light as his back began to blur.
He passed by Cooper and said, Let’s ride, and the two of them lit out over the high plateau with the mountains all around and the dust flying up, chasing hard down the track of the wind. The ground thundered and the palomino’s long mane flew out and its nostrils blew and Winstone shifted in his sleep and heard the ragged pant of breath and the rumble of distant hooves.
There was daylight on his face and he woke and checked his testicles and stretched and rolled onto his back. Close by the panting resumed.
For the first time since finding the sleeping bag, Winstone felt cold to his bones. He sat up. There was a dog in the cave. Not awhole dog – not yet – just its two front paws and black and tan muzzle and pink foamy tongue caught up sideways over its teeth and its ears standing up and its eyes locked onto his face like it was Magneto and he was metal filings.
Good dog, Winstone said.
There were cattle moving outside. He could hear them pulling the grass, their hooves on the ground. He could hear whistling. A shout. Another dog.
His dog tensed. One ear flicked back.
Ssh. Don’t bark. Good boy.
Winstone had a dog once. Her name was Ginger. He found her running along the road with no collar on and he took her home and looked after her all by himself for two days before Bic shot her.
Winstone had let Ginger out into the paddock before he went to school and she wouldn’t come back to be tied up and it was nearly time for the bus and Bic was late for work so he yelled at Ginger too and she wouldn’t come back for him either. Bic called her again but Ginger was busy eating sheep poo and she didn’t listen a bit. So Bic went inside and got his pig-hunting gun and he opened the gate and walked up behind Ginger who was still scoffing poo and blew her head off.
They’d all followed him out – Winstone, Bodun, Marlene – and Bic turned to them and said, That’s what happens to cunts that don’t do as they’re told, and then he walked away. There were bits of dog everywhere and Bodun had this look on his face like it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen and when Winstone looked across at Marlene there was a stream of pee running down her leg and into her pink gumboot.
Then the bus came and Marlene stank so badly no one would sit beside her and coming home it was even worse and when they got back almost all of Ginger was gone and a week laterthey moved to Clintoch because there was no more work for Bic at the McCutcheons’.
Winstone didn’t want a dog any more after that.
Now, in the entrance to the cave, the new dog wasn’t going anywhere. Winstone’s hoodie was though. Out of the corner of his eye he saw it stir, very gently, and creep left.
It’s okay, he said. Good dog.
The dog cocked its head.
Behind it there was more barking and mooing. The shouts got angrier. The dog stopped panting and listened hard. It stared at Winstone for a second more and then it pulled out and vanished. Winstone heard its racing breath as it crashed through the long grass and up the slope and then it was barking fit to split the sky.
Slowly, Winstone drew up his knees. He felt as if he was running himself but he kept very still and took some breaths and waited until his spine went loose and all the noise outside was clearer than the blood whooshing in his head. He could smell the cattle, hear them passing all around, sniffing, snuffling grass and air, the swish of their feet, the copious splitter-splat of their shit as it hit the ground.
He waited what felt like a very long time. When there was no more shouting or barking and hadn’t been for a while, he reached out and picked up the stick he kept for stirring noodles and poking things with and very carefully he lifted up a corner of his hoodie.
He barely saw what ran out. A flash of grey approaching light speed. It ricocheted off the side of the tarp and shot out of the cave like exactly what it was, a little scaredy cat with the fear of God on its pink skin and no idea where it was going.EAST
John Wayne played a little baby guitar and sang. On his horse. He didn’t mean to be funny. It’s what people had to do before there were iPods.
His early films didn’t make a lot of sense. The black and white pictures were fuzzy and jumped about and everyone seemed to be talking through a sock so you could barely make out what they were saying. The sound effects were wrong too. Someone had to say if there was a storm outside because what you could hear just sounded like somebody waving a bendy bit of cardboard and John Wayne’s face was brilliant white and he looked like a vampire.
He wasn’t though. He always did the right thing. Protected the weak. The women and kids and old men. After a while, as soon as John Wayne rode into shot with his big white face and his big white hat, Winstone would start to feel warm and loose and he’d try to keep his eyes open but he never could, all those muffled voices and clip-clopping coconut hooves were a lullaby, and it didn’t matter if he drifted off because he already knew how the film would end, that no one you cared about was going to get hurt and everything would be okay.
Zane’s couch looked like it was made of scuffed brown leather, but close up it was furry and soft and smelled of hardly anything, just shampoo and soap and the good kind of smokefrom the log-burner in the corner. Two years later the Jacksons’ couch would be just as comfortable, but Winstone never went to sleep on that. He’d grown up by then, and he couldn’t relax just like that, not knowing what things cost.
Hey, Zane said, when Winstone woke up just in time to seeThe Endroll up. You want another toastie?
Winstone always did.
Can we watch another one?
It’s getting late. Your dad know you’re here?
It made Winstone’s skin itch, people calling Bic that, but he didn’t tell Zane. It was one of those things that only got worse if you tried to say.
Will he be worried?
Winstone didn’t think so.
When he climbed in through his bedroom window that evening he found Marlene already asleep in his bed halfway down under the covers. He pulled her up and she burrowed into him like a baby mussel into a rock, all pointy and hairy and smelly and damp, and when he woke up in the morning they were both soaking wet. There wasn’t time to clean anything up and no choice but to get dressed and get on the bus and pretend not to hear when people said Hasketts! like it was something you needed to duck, or most probably get a shot for, and Winstone sat in the stink of himself, alone, just one row behind Marlene even though he was three years ahead, and watched the paddocks and fences go by.
That was the day Zane first offered him a shower. Winstone had used the toilet at Zane’s house before, but that was in a narrow room of its own so gleaming and neat and fresh it seemed a shame to use it to piss in. He’d never been in the real bathroom. It was like something on TV.
There were big brown tiles that looked stony and cold but they weren’t, he could feel them through the holes in his socks, warm as toast, and they went on and on up the walls and the bath, and there were a lot of shiny steel things and a mirror with lights and a white square sink with no legs hanging on the wall. Zane flicked a switch and a heater blew down the back of Winstone’s neck and suddenly he was almost too hot with all his clothes on.
It took a lot of steps to get to the bathtub and he looked inside it and was confused when Zane said, Hey how about that shower mate, because all he could see were two taps and a spout and then he heard the water start up and he turned and there was a shower all by itself and he hadn’t seen it because it was made of glass like a telephone booth or a bus-stop.
Give me your clothes. We’ll give them a wash.
Winstone took off his trackies and hoodie and T-shirt and socks, and he pushed his underpants in between with his toe so Zane wouldn’t have to touch them.
Good man. Zane held the glass door out and Winstone got into the shower. I’ll bring you a towel.
The water was coming out so heavy and fast Winstone thought he might drown but only a little bit went up his nose and after that it felt good, running down, and he looked but he couldn’t see any soap, so he just stood there watching the water run down the drain and after quite a lot of it had, he got out and dried himself and wrapped himself up in the big white towel like a cloak and went across the hall to the lounge and sat beside Zane on the brown sofa.
Zane looked at him a bit funny. Then he sniffed, and smiled, and said, I think you missed a spot mate. Come on. And he put his hands on Winstone’s shoulders and joke-marched him back across the hall and took away his towel and turned the shower back on.
Did you use this?
Winstone looked at the bottle and shook his head and Zane showed him how to squeeze the shower gel – just a little bit – onto the sponge and lather it up on himself and through his hair and all the extra bits he needed to wash, armpits and earholes, between his toes and his legs and under his balls and even the end of his dick and the water came down all over him and didn’t run out and no bits of him stuck out and got cold and nothing floated back up the plughole and nobody shouted or banged on the door and it was quite a revelation.
Okay, said Zane, that’ll do, and he had a fresh towel waiting huge and heavy and thick and warm and he helped Winstone lift it up to dry his hair. Better?
Yes. Winstone felt pink and peeled and new and under the towel his skin smelled good like Zane’s.
Here’s a dry one.
Winstone wrapped the new towel round his shoulders and held it up so it didn’t drag on the floor and he followed Zane out and into the lounge and curled up in the cushions on the sofa. Zane made hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows in and put onThe Man From Utahand when Winstone woke up there was a blanket over him and it was dark outside.
His clothes were folded up on the chair by the fire. Winstone went over and put them on and they hardly felt like his clothes at all – they were still Haskett-coloured, but soft and dry and warm and a little tight and they smelled like Zane’s towels.
You want a lift home?
Just some of the way. To the end of the road. You say when.
Put your seatbelt on, Zane said when they got in the car, and he drove down Winstone’s road until the houses and street lightsand tarseal ran out, and then Winstone said stop and Zane did. He turned the headlights off and Winstone undid his seatbelt and climbed out into the dark and shut the door and started walking.
He was pretty sure that John Wayne couldn’t ride in the dark – not here, anyway, without that big old American moon that made everything blue and bright as day – so he was a commando on a night raid creeping down the verge, and it felt good to know that his unit was back there in the Humvee ready to call in a strike if he got into trouble. But even without any back-up at all, Winstone wouldn’t have been afraid.
He liked being out in the night alone, under the cover of darkness. He always had. Even when he was a little kid, right back when his mum lived at home, when the shouting and banging and breaking got loud, he’d take the blanket off his bed and climb out the window with it and walk through the paddock to the old rusty car with no wheels or windows or doors and the grass growing up and he’d drive it until he got sleepy again and then he’d roll himself up on the back seat. If the moon was out, he could count the sheep. It was very peaceful.
It was only six hundred metres or so from Zane’s car to the gate, and although there wasn’t a moon that night Winstone had his night-vision goggles on and even when a possum hissed at him from the top of a power pole he kept a cool head and held his fire and made the distance. He cut across country, slipping through two fences to come at his house from the side, and he squatted under the bedroom window, listening, and then he climbed up on the sill and slid up the sash. This was the trickiest part, because the window was heavy and had to be propped and it was hard to do without making a noise, but it was okay this time, because he could see through the glass that Bodun’s bed was empty too.
When Winstone slid into his own and found it worse than cold and the smell came up, he remembered about the sheets. But it was too late to do something about them by then, not without being seen, so he just rolled over and tried to stay right on the edge of the bed away from the damp patch.
He must have slept pretty well, because the next thing he knew Bic was yelling at him to get his hand out of his pants and his covers were gone and Bodun was there pulling up his school shorts and the bedroom lights were on. Winstone rolled over and rubbed his eyes where they hurt from the light.
Oh for fuck’s sake, Bic said. How long’s it been like that? Clean up your mess you filthy little bugger.
He smacked Winstone over the back of the head so his teeth snapped together, but not that hard, and Bodun looked over and smirked and Bic said, Yeah? Like you never pissed yourself, and he smacked Bodun around the ear and it looked harder. Winstone’s stomach flipped, but Bic just sniffed and said JesusChristand walked out and all Bodun did was call Winstone a cunt and give him a Chinese burn. That was the upside to smelling bad – people weren’t so keen to touch you.
That afternoon after school Winstone didn’t walk over to Zane’s, he just got the bus home with Marlene so he could deal with his sheets before Bic got back from work. He got the sheets off the bed and into the washing machine, and actually it wasn’t as hard as he’d thought, once he’d found the powder that people used on TV and a bucket to stand on so he could see what it said to do on the buttons. Then he took the bucket and what was left of the yellow soap and he found a cloth underneath the dirty plates in the kitchen sink and started on the mattress. Marlene came in and sat in a pile of Bodun’s clothes on the floor and after she’d watched for a while she went away and found a cloth of her own and helped him.
Next Winstone washed Marlene. He tried to make the shower nice like at Zane’s but with the spiders and mould in the corners and the smell everywhere it wasn’t the same. Hardly any water came up the plastic hose from the taps and what did sputtered hot and cold and the soap wouldn’t lather on Marlene’s skin and he dropped the bar on her foot more than once and she shrieked and shivered and kept sitting down on her bum in the greasy grey bath with the water mounting up to her hips and Winstone wasn’t sure she was getting any cleaner. He was just about to start on her hair when the hose on the hot tap fell off and the hot water burned her feet and cold poured all over her head and as he struggled to turn off the taps there was a terrible thumping at the back of the house like a terrorist raid or Armageddon.
Winstone left Marlene in the bathtub and ran. When he got to the kitchen he could see the washing machine coming for the laundry door like it was going to destroy them all and it was way bigger than him and he didn’t know how to stop it. It had made it halfway across the laundry floor when a terminal-sounding bang came from its insides and it rocked back onto its feet and sat there beeping at him like it wanted something or maybe was going to explode. Winstone sidled around it and before it could do anything else he climbed up into the laundry sink and turned it off at the wall.
Behind the machine was a puddle of water and a trailing hose that looked like it used to belong somewhere and all in all it looked pretty munted. Winstone was still squatting in the sink wondering if running away would help and how far he could get when he heard a car in the drive. Bodun walked in and said, For fuck’s sake, and he shoved the washing machine back up against the wall and hung the hose back over the side of the sink and rearranged the sheets inside the machine and turned it on and it worked just fine and then he walked out and the front doorbanged and Winstone climbed down and as usual he hadn’t the least idea where Bodun had come from or where he was going.
He turned round and there was Marlene in the kitchen doorway all streaky pink with drips from her hair running down her face and her stinky pants back on.
Is it okay?
It’s okay. Come on.
Winstone helped her get dry and sorted through the clothes on her bedroom floor for some cleaner pants and he thought about Zane’s bathroom and he was pretty sure that Zane wouldn’t mind if Marlene used it too. But the next day after school he didn’t ask, because Zane’s place was one thing that was his and sometimes he got tired of Marlene and all the things she needed.
The kitten was stuck in the bean tin. It had licked every last bit of rotten crawly juice from inside and now, no matter how much it backed up, its head stayed exactly where it was, deep inside the can.
The cattle circled around it. They’d been watching for a good half-hour when Winstone came along.
He’d been wondering where they’d got to. The cattle slept in the gully out of the worst of the wind, and every morning when Winstone got up he’d find them huddled round with their slobbery noses to the mouth of his cave, waiting for him to come out and roar at them and chase them. They’d scatter and run for the hills and then, when he’d turned his back, they’d drift down and regroup and watch him eat his breakfast. Sometimes after that he’d herd them a bit and fake-rope one or two until they got bored and went up to higher grazing. But this morning they hadn’t been there.
It wasn’t until Winstone went out for a pee that he spotted them away across the slope behind another tor, the one he used for storing his bait and other stinky stuff he hadn’t had time to burn or bury. There was a sharpish breeze blowing up the gully into his face and the cattle were so intent on whatever it was they were gathered around that at first they didn’t even notice Winstone coming. He was only a few metres away when abullock finally threw up its head and saw him and snorted and rolled its eyes and they all turned on their heels and bucked and kicked and fled.
He was surprised to see his bean tin there at the centre of things, and even more surprised when it began to retreat across the slope of its own accord. In a moment more he understood the tin had a stripy tail and four legs and as it backed into a tussock Winstone took off his hoodie and threw it over the kitten and wrapped it up tight so it couldn’t scratch and picked it up and clamped it under his arm. He was scared the kitten’s head might come off so he didn’t pull, he just turned the tin very gently like taking the lid off a jar and after five turns it came free in his hand. For a second the kitten stayed stock still and blinking under his arm and then its mouth split open wide as a snake’s and it started to fight for all it was worth and Winstone dropped the hoodie and let it go. The hoodie heaved and the kitten shot out almost faster than he could see, streaking into the far distance like a small brown missile through the grass.
Winstone, watching a hawk bank and hover above its trail, hoped the kitten knew what it was doing. He picked up his hoodie and sniffed it and put it back on. Then he walked back to the cave and found a sheltered spot outside in the sun and made BBQ chicken noodles.
After breakfast he crossed the gully and scrambled up the east side and scouted the top of the ridge for a while. There was rain coming in from the north. Winstone watched the line of it closing across the valley. But for now there was nothing up there but rabbits and rocks and the wind in the grass between them.
He turned his back on the wind and picked up a speargrass stem and twirled it and walked for a while, keeping just below the crest of the ridge because a lot of cowboys, and Indians too, might have stayed alive if they hadn’t spent so much timesilhouetted against the horizon. But above the gully he could see the roofs of the huts and the cattle grazing around the dam and there were no cars and no smoke above the chimneys and he stopped keeping low because what would he be up here, anyway, but one more lump on the sky?
The rain rode him down so softly he didn’t even know it was there until he saw the droplets clinging to his sleeve and the first wave carried on past him and over the range and the second came in harder. Winstone looked back and there was a pretty good hollow halfway up one of the tors so he climbed up and sat in it and watched the rain and the far-off cattle and huts down below and the line of the dirt road darkening.
When he’d finished doing that he got the Zippo out and practised flipping it open and lighting it all at once in one hand. He smoked the speargrass stem for a while, which tasted bad, and after that there was nothing to burn but a few tussock blades that curled to black ash in his hand and refused to flame.
OUTSIDE THE RAIN FELLthick and thunderous over the range and ran off the overhanging rock and sputtered fatly in the dust. The light of Cooper’s fire was red on the roof of the cave and spilled out into the steely blue deepening day and the coffee pot hissed and in the dry at the back of the cave the tethered horses shifted.
You figure they know we’re comin for them?
What if we don’t find em?
Cooper held up his hand. Quiet now. You hear that? He picked up his rifle and crossed the dirt to lean at the mouth of the cave.
Cattle? The Kid pressed up to the rock on the other side. He had his six-shooter in his hand. There was bellowing coming up over the rain and then the sound of hooves and the crack of whips and when he leaned out, pistol first, the Kid could see steaming backs and plastered-down hides and the canyon filling with the herd.
So what do we do?
Untie the horses. You ready to ride?
Then sit down, Cooper said, and he walked back to the fire.
That’s all. Lessen you’re fixin to make some more coffee.
You figure they’re just cowmen down there?
Cooper reached the coffee pot from the fire and poured himself another mug. For cowmen, he said, they been runnin their mob pretty hard. And I don’t know about you but I counted four different brands on them cattle out there.
That’s my bet.
You figure they seen our fire?
Cooper stirred it up some and said, I reckon they mighta done Kid. Lessen they’re blind.
Five men stood strung across the mouth of the cave. They carried their rifles across their chests and the light from the fire played on their boots and the pistols slung at their hips and their hats were dark and dripping with rain and shaded their eyes and what light there was left in the day was behind them.
That’s a mighty fine cave you got there, the tallest one said. Real commodious like. Mind if we step inside?
Be my guest. Cooper raised his mug. You boys want some coffee? We just made a fresh pot.
Well that’s mighty kind, aint it boys? Don’t mind if we do.
Outside the cattle shifted and settled and spread out to graze and the strangers’ horses stood with their eyes half closed and their heads down in the rain. Inside the fire burned low and the strangers sprawled on their blankets in the dirt with their shoulders on their saddles. Two of them pulled their hats down and dozed and the rest didn’t speak a word.
The tall one pulled a canteen out of his saddlebag and took a swig and grimaced and sucked his teeth and passed it on and the other two men did the same. The Kid had never seen Cooper take strong drink but when the canteen came to him Cooper lifted it high and long and then he handed it on with a look that said the Kid should do the same. The Kid took as small a sip as he could and the moonshine burned down his throat and up into his nose and he coughed it back up and the strangers laughed and Coop said, Boy never can hold his drink, and then they laughed some more.
Over here kid, the tall one said, and the Kid stoppered up the canteen and tossed it across the fire and around it went again.
So, the tall one said, when Cooper had drunk a third time. You boys lookin for someone or they lookin for you?
Cooper wiped his mouth and said, I don’t follow you friend.
Only two reasons a man has for being up here. Which is yours?
Cooper let the question hang over the fire for a while like maybe there was a third choice and the Kid thought he saw one of the sleeping men’s hands move a little closer to his gun. The tall one and his friends were watching Cooper hard and while they did the Kid shifted back a bit further out of the light and didn’t even pretend to drink this time.
A girl, Cooper said at last, and one of the strangers laughed.We’re lookin for a girl.
Aint we all. Don’t find many runnin this high on the range. What’s she like, this girl of yours?
Little, Coop said. With long yellow hair. You seen her?
Up here? Alone?
No, Cooper said. No she aint alone. You got any more in that bottle?
The Kid didn’t remember going to sleep but then someone was kicking his foot and in the darkness under the brim of his hat he opened his eyes and saw Coop lying next to him with his back to the fire and a stranger’s boots between them. The Kid froze. The boots moved off.
They’re out cold, he heard a voice say. Drunk as skunks.
I don’t like it, another said. They’re bounty hunters for sure.
For sure, the tall one said.
You reckon they’re up here lookin for us?
Dont hardly matter none. They found us.
I say we kill em now.
The Kid hardly dared move except to glance over at Coop whose eyes were open wide and he had a finger to his lips and his six-gun out and cradled close to his chest.
I’m beat, they heard the tall one say, and he yawned. Aint no call to go messin up this nice cave in the middle of the night. Let’s get us some sleep. We can kill em first thing in the mornin.
But what if they wake up before then?
The tall one laughed. Before sun-up? You see how much they drank? That amount of swamp whisky gets in a man he aint openin his eyes before noon.
The Kid heard the strangers settle themselves and slowly the firelight shrank and after a time no shadows moved and under his poncho the Kid drew his gun and he didn’t doubt for a second that Coop had a plan but he couldn’t help wondering, lying there,how long they had until dawn. He could see the back of the strangers’ watchman slumped in the mouth of the cave and the stars in the clearing sky outside, and it seemed to him they were already starting to pale before the last of the strangers began to snore and Cooper gave the sign.
You, Cooper pointed. Two eyes. And while the Kid kept watch, Cooper rolled slowly, like a man in his sleep, two turns away from the fire. The Kid’s finger was on his trigger. He held his breath. Across the cave, the strangers continued to snore. Cooper’s boot nudged his back. The Kid lowered his pistol and rolled. Still the strangers slept on.
As soon as they were out of the light the Kid and Cooper crawled like Apaches on elbows and knees through the muffling dust until they reached the horses. The grey and the palomino stood still and quiet as mice and the Kid and Cooper rolled under their bellies and felt for the stirrups and crouched there until their eyes got used to the dark. Cooper tapped the Kid’s arm with three fingers, then two, then one, and on the next beat they swung up and dug in their heels and then they were charging straight at the fire and the horses lifted and strangers rolled from their hooves and in their wake red embers flew. The Kid heard a shot and in the mouth of the cave the watchman threw up his hands and fell and the palomino jumped him lying spread-eagled there on his back in the dust with his rifle beside his hand.
They flew down the slope and gunfire rang from the rocks and bullets whined in their ears and they fired behind them without looking back. Cooper took a knife from between his teeth and cut the strangers’ horses free and the Kid fired up in the air and scattered them wide and the cattle woke as they galloped through. The Kid yelled and fired off a couple more and by the time he and Coop had cut through the herdit was up and scattering too. The night closed behind them and the strangers couldn’t see what to shoot but the grey and the palomino were sure-footed as cats in the mountain dark and their hooves thundered on without missing a beat until they’d left all the miles of the night between the canyon and them and galloped clear into the dawn.
Winstone watched the back of the rain move off. Sun trailed it over the range and he followed them both.
Winstone Blackhat is getting away.EAST
Winstone had been on Facebook for ages. It was how he met Zane. He’d been living in Clintoch for about two weeks when he first got on, and while he was never completely certain what started it off he had a pretty good idea it was the Samsung Galaxy Y that Tui Baxter-Brown got for her tenth birthday.
She started showing the phone off the moment she got on the bus, and instead of turning it off before they went into class, Tui waited until Miss Flynn got up to write on the board and took a close-up picture of Miss Flynn’s big bulgy bum with her pants digging in and pxted it round the room. Winstone, of course, didn’t have a phone, and Tui wouldn’t have sent it to him if he did, but she sat in the desk in front of him and he could see her do it.
It was one of the days that Winstone had lunch, and later, as he sat under the staffroom window by himself, eating his Marmite sandwich, he started to notice people were looking at him. They were whispering too, and Winstone was surprised, because usually the staring and whispering only lasted for a few days before the avoidance kicked in, and he’d thought the Clintoch kids were over the Hasketts by now and would mostly leave him alone as long as he didn’t get too close and was careful not to touch them.
That afternoon there was giggling all around him in class andpeople were sneaking looks at their phones and Winstone’s face grew hot and his belly felt sick as he tried to think what he’d done. He thought of asking to go to the toilet to see if his pants were wet or his fly was undone or he had a sign on his back sayingKick me, I’m a dick,but if they were, or he did, standing up in front of the class would make it so much worse and so he didn’t dare.
After the bell rang, the whispering and giggling went on as Winstone walked out to the bus park. He climbed up quickly and slid into his usual seat behind Marlene at the front and got out a book and pretended to read and not listen to what anyone said and he felt pretty safe because he knew he’d be getting off soon and the driver was there and no one was going take the seat beside him.
Hey nit-kid, Luke Carter said as he walked past, how was your lunch, and the whole bus cracked up, and that’s when Tui leaned right across the aisle and stuck her Galaxy Y in Winstone’s face and took a picture.
Winstone stared at her. He couldn’t help it.
You want to see? Tui’s fingers moved over the phone.
No, said Jacinda Pryce, sitting next to her. Don’tshowhim, Tui, that’s mean.
Tui held the phone out across the aisle and Winstone shuffled over the seat and for a moment he thought that she was going to let him touch it, but she didn’t, she just angled the screen so he could see.
There you are. Look.
Winstone looked. It was the first picture he’d seen of himself, alone. His face was screwed up and his eyes were red and he looked psycho and dirty and runty and mean.Winstone Haskett changed his profile picture,it said.
Tui scrolled down.
Winstone Haskett just shat his pants.
There was a picture of Winstone holding his lunch and scratching his head.WinstoneHaskett is making nit sandwich for lunch.
Hey, you’ve already got twenty-eight likes, Tui said. You’re going viral.
Winstone blinked. He didn’t know how this could be happening to him, and he would have quite liked to ask, but he could feel the whole bus waiting for him to do something, move or speak, and he knew what kind of waiting it was, and that the only safe thing was to slide back across the seat and down into himself where nobody could see him. It wasn’t easy. He was bent out of shape and deep in the pit of his stomach his self fizzed and heaved as if it was going to burst out and explode like a Baghdad bomber. Winstone rested his head on the window and thought about that, bits of bus and Tui and Luke and Galaxy Y everywhere, and it felt pretty good, and he wished he had a button.
He wouldn’t have pushed it, though, because of Marlene. She was sitting right there in the seat in front not looking at him or doing anything that would make it worse, but she had her forehead pressed up to the window too and she stuck her skinny elbow back through the gap between the window and the seat and it was like a touch.
Winstone could feel his nose starting to run but he couldn’t wipe it or sniff because then they’d think he was crying. He saw Tui’s phone flash again.
Hey leave him alone, Jacinda said. That’s enough.
It wasn’t though. The next morning they started again.
Not just Tui, who got the Galaxy Y confiscated in maths, but the whole junior school. By the end of lunch, even some of the boys in Bodun’s class had joined in. Everywhere Winstone wentthere was a phone in his face, and even when there wasn’t he couldn’t relax because Tui wasn’t the only one with a zoom. The only person who didn’t know Winstone’s status was him, and sometimes someone told him and sometimes not and he wasn’t sure which was worse, but he did know it was going to get really bad after the final bell.
Sure enough, four Year Nines trailed him out to the bus and when they were past the school gates one got in front and walked backwards shooting them all on his phone. Winstone tried not to look. He didn’t know their names.
Hey Haskett, the one with the camera said. Smile. You’re going to be on YouTube. What shit looks like when it’s walking.
Winstone tried to speed up and get past but he couldn’t, so he tried to slow down but they wouldn’t let him do that either. His face was hot and his ears were filling up with fear and he thought he saw a chance to slip to the side but they caught him and gave him a shove and he stumbled forward and as he put up his arms to save himself he bumped into the boy with the phone.
Whoa! the camera boy said, and everything went quiet. Did you touch me, Haskett? He looked down and brushed an imaginary louse off his shirt. I think you did.
What’d you do that for? The boy behind shoved Winstone forward again. He’ll have to get a shot now.
The camera boy shoved him back. Ass-shit, are you trying to touch me again? Are you gay?
His nits have got Aids, said the boy at the back.
Hey,said a voice, and it was deep and angry and came from above and Winstone nearly threw up with relief because he knew it had to be a teacher.Leave him alone.What do you think you’re playing at? Real hard men, eh, to pick on a kid that size. Get out of here, go on, before I call your parents.
Yeah fuck you man, the camera boy muttered, but he and theother Year Nines moved off towards the bus park pretty quick.
You all right? the teacher said.
Winstone nodded without thinking – you were always all right, it was part of the rules. He looked up at the teacher, and then down the street. There were still kids streaming out of the school gates and along the road and he knew it would be at least ten minutes before the buses moved off and although Winstone couldn’t see the bus park from where he was standing he felt pretty sure the Year Nines were at the back of it waiting for him.
Come on, the teacher said, and he opened the passenger door of the car he was standing beside. Get in, I’ll take you home.
Put your seatbelt on. Winstone looking for it, the clean all up in his nose, shiny vinyl and carpet mats, air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. The key going in. Stereo twanging like a wire fence, tight and low. Gliding away from the kerb. The kids on the street getting silent and small behind green glass until there was nothing left of them at all.
What was that about? With those boys?
The streets sliding empty and slow. Brick houses, red orange brown. Wide asphalt drives and green lawns and pale garage doors clamped down tight.
You can tell me.
Facebook. They’re putting things about me. Making me say bad stuff.
They hacked your account?
Does everybody have one? An account.
No. You have to join up. Did you? Join?
I don’t think so.
Coasting up to the stop sign, looking right, left, right. Wheel turning. You’d know, the teacher said. If you did.
Winstone too scared to touch anything. Elbows in, hands on knees. I saw me, he said. On their phones.
An imposter account. You can report it. Get it taken down.
Sudden stereo screech like a train, sawing down. What was that instrument called again? The thing that sounded like woodsmoke and leaving.
What are you, Year Three?
Quick sideways look.
You’re not allowed on Facebook at your age anyway. Tell your parents. They’ll know what to do.
White circles spreading across the purple of Winstone’s knees.Rinky-tink tink tink.He knew that one. Banjo.
You don’t talk to your folks much huh.
Winstone’s head hardly moving, a flax blade bob in a meagre breeze.
Yeah well I know what that’s like. Where do you live?
How do you do it? The report.
Just go onto the site when you get home. Tell them how old you really are. They’ve posted pictures of you, yeah, those kids. Facebook’ll see you’re not thirteen. You don’t have to prove anything else.
Guitar strings fadingplunky plunk plunkdown into the silent street.
You’ve got a computer. Right. At home.
Left turn. Snot leaking. Not far now to Boundary Road even though he hadn’t said where to go and how come the teacher knew the way? Sudden burst of hope fading like a fart and as soon as he opened the door of the car it would be all gone.
Winstone Haskett will never change.
No? Hey. The teacher’s voice going soft. Hey mate it’s okay. I’ll help you. We’ll use mine.
Short sweeping curve of a concrete drive and the automatic door coming down and there they were, in the white poolinggarage light, going into the teacher’s place. His arm an arch over Winstone’s head.
What’s your name?
Runt Shit-Stains Nit-Boy Ass-Shit You Little Fucker. Winstone Haskett.
Winstone. I’m Zane. Hey look at that we’re only two letters apart.
Behind venetian blinds Zane fast on the keyboard. Breath whistling wet through his teeth. Little fuckers, excuse me you didn’t hear that did you.
But Winstone had and it must have shown on his face because then Zane raised his eyebrows and smiled and said, They are though, nasty little fuckers.
Can I see?
I wouldn’t bother mate, this is all about them not you. This time tomorrow it’ll be gone.
Gone for good?
Like it never existed.
Winstone Haskett has been erased.
Excluded from cyberspace. It figured.
If you want. Zane talking, Winstone watching the video camera lying there on the desk, the sheen of it, his warty fingers itching.
If you want we can make you a new Facebook account. A real one.
But I’m not thirteen.
I won’t tell if you don’t. Just don’t put your picture on.
What will I put?
Anything you want.
Whatever you want people to see. Hey. You want to watch a movie?
RIKERS WATCHEDthem coming. Between rotting sheets of iron, low, from the eyeline of resting dust devils and skinks, from the tumbled stones, and the Kid and Cooper rode up slowly out of the wavering blue, the narrow pale between shadows and cloud, and they were no taller than a lizard’s tail skittering its sss through the dust, and the lizard flicked its tongue and the iron creaked and the wind ran over it shuddering like a stick drawn down the teeth of an old jawbone.
The palomino’s hoof stirred the dust and his creamy tail swished and the Kid’s boots rested easy in the stirrups as they followed Cooper and the grey on up towards the tin shack with its sagging porch and a dull glass eye either side of a gaping doorway.
A sign hung crooked over the hole, ugly white letters wandering over rough board, a thing a child would paint to spite its teacher. RIKERS HOTEL.
The Kid shifted in his saddle. This is the place?
This is it.
Silently they swung down, and Cooper knotted the grey’s reins over the rail and the Kid cast about but could see nothing more solid or straight and so he tethered the palomino likewise and the porch step creaked under Cooper’s boots and the dry boards rang below their heels and together they walked inside.
In the shadows at the end of the room was the pale of a shirt and a face and a cloth and the paleness moved and a man said, Cooper.
A mostly thin man coming out of the gloom, a damp sheen on his skin and his shirt, a man unable to spell his own father’s name, a small paunch hanging over the waist of his trousers. Vat vill yer have?
Water. For us, and two horses.
One-fifty. If yer fixin on stayin der night.
You got room? Coop asked, and if it was a joke Reichardt didn’t take it that way, he just nodded slow, wiping out two glasses with a cloth that had seen a good stretch of time since last it made anything clean.
I got room.
Steady. Two last week. Now you.
The Kid leaned forward. Two?
Cooper didn’t look up or turn his head but the gloves he’d been pulling off came down with a soft littlethuton the bar beside the Kid’s elbow and the Kid shut his mouth and Reichardt said, Yer vanna see der room?
They followed him into the lean-to through a sticking door and he pushed open the shutters on a window that had no glass and the heat and the light fell heavy into the room and spread across two bunks and an unswept floor. The Kid put a hand to the mattress of the bottom bunk and felt the prickle of straw and as he raised his eyes to the base of the bunk above he saw, caught in the splintering wood above his head, a scrap of ribbon and two blonde hairs.
Winstone rolled over, away from the wall. On the other side of the shadowed hut the window was bright as a TV screen, and it held a flat rectangle of dam and grass and day blue and gold and baking in the sun. He read the names again, in his head, without looking over his shoulder.India, Mia, Daniel, George. Jason, Charlie, Kimberley,Scott. His favourite,Alexandra, which was the name of the town his tracksuit pants had come from. Then the two princes,Harry, Will.Rolling back, he pressed the mattress down and in the space below the last name on the wall, with his finger, he wroteWinstone.
Then he slid down off the bed and crossed the floor with its three lifting layers of vinyl and looked out the window on the other side and opened the cupboard and stole a tin of fruit cocktail and squeezed back through the hole in the floor of the room where they kept the wood and the nets and the fishing rods and crawled out from under the Scout Hut.
As he did so, away to his right a ripple ran through the long grass beside the hut, which was strange since there was no wind. He watched it make its way down to the beach. Too slow for a rabbit. A rat, maybe, scared out of its nest. Winstone had always felt a bit sorry for rats, which couldn’t help being ugly and dirty and getting diseases – how could they wash, with only their teeth and their tiny rat paws? So he followed the ripple, tracked it, just to see if he could, to see if the rat was going to have a drink or a bath, maybe wash its rat hands in the dam, and because there was a lot more left of the day than there were things to do in it.
The beach was empty, except for a couple of lengths of four-by-two, a crawly pot float on a yellow line, a faded chip packet, some feathers. But on the other side of the beach the grass was moving again, so Winstone tracked across it, bending low, soft-footed as an Indian scout, and in the mud beside a feather he saw, clear and deep and fresh, the print of a small paw.
A cat. A little cat. A kitten. The bean tin kitten? Winstone crept through the grass to the next bay, his progress silent except for an occasional slosh from the fruit cocktail tin. And there it was, below the rocks, a scruffy brownish-grey scrap of cat, crunching up dried crawly shells on the sand.
The Jacksons had a cat. It was a pretty, shiny, silvery thing that this cat did not at all resemble. This cat was thin, and parts of its stripy fur were long and stood up while others weren’t and didn’t. Its ears were matted and flat and its tail was too long for its body and twitched as it crunched and from the bedraggled state of its face it might very well have been stuck in a bean tin.
Carefully, Winstone settled down in the grass, watching the kitten hunt, turning the tin in his hand, feeling the comforting shift of its weight, and he thought about the pale sweet chunks of fruit and how many cherries there might be and being hungry.
THE KID SANKa fork into the yolk of his fried egg and watched the yellow spill over the plate and then he loaded the fork up pretty good with corned beef hash and swirled it around in the egg and shoved it quickly into his mouth before it dripped or the hash fell off and while he chewed he loaded the fork up again and he still had another egg left to go and no complaints about Reichardt’s cooking.
Them two boys came through here last week, Coop said, like it was nothing at all and he didn’t care one bit if Reichardt answered or did not, they anybody we know?
One boy. Reichardt put the coffee pot down and above his own chewing the Kid heard it crunch in the gritty dust on the table.
My mistake. Cooper pushed his mug forward. I thought you said there was two.
Yer thought right. A boy und a girl.
The Kid’s fork paused for a second between his teeth, but then he took it out and kept his eyes on his hash and went on chewing.
A girl, Coop said. Well that explains this here ring I found under the bunk. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the little gold ring with the red stone he usually wore on a chain round his neck and held it out for Reichardt to see. She must have dropped it down there, he said.
I don’t know, Reichardt said, and he looked hard at the ring and went to take it out of Coop’s hand but Cooper didn’t let go. That don’t look like der sort of ring a little girl got any call to be vearin.
Cooper brought his hand back and he looked at the ring himself, real close, like it hadn’t lain on his chest three years or more. Maybe it was her momma’s, he said.
I don’t know, Reichardt said. I didn’t see her vearin no ruby ring.
You had any other ladies in here? Cooper closed his hand around the ring and put his hand back in his pocket. She probably had it hid somewhere safe. She’s probably missing it sore.
Yer can leave it here, Reichardt said. Maybe they’ll come back lookin for it.
Maybe we’ll catch up to them on the road, Cooper said, like it didn’t matter a damn either way. They say which way they were goin?
West, said Reichardt. Over der pass. His eyes still on Cooper’s pocket.
That’s where we’re headin too, Cooper said. And we’re how many days behind them?
Vat’s today? Reichardt said.
It’s Monday, said the Kid.
Three days, den. They left Friday. That der day I wrote on the bill.
Three days, Cooper said. Well I reckon the Kid and me ride fastern a little girl.
I don’t know, Reichardt said. The cowboy she vas vith, he looked to be in some hurry.
The kitten looked over its shoulder, straight at the spot on top of the bank where Winstone, close enough to see its yellow slitty eyes, was lying in the grass. It had no idea what he was, you could tell, and though Winstone had been looked at that way before, the kitten did it better. The kitten had a big grey crawly pincer hanging out of its mouth and it crunched it, twice, while it thought about what Winstone was. Something you ran from or something you didn’t.
Winstone, awaiting judgement, kept very still. Puss, he said.
Because when Debbie Jackson said that to their cat it made the cat happy, it made the cat love Debbie so much the cat couldn’t get close enough, rubbing and rubbing its whole body over hers like it was trying to push itself under her skin, and she’d pick it up and hold it to her big squishy chest like people hold a baby.
The kitten dropped the crawly shell and fled.
Winstone got up and climbed down the bank to the beach. He wished the kitten had taken its dinner at least. He poked at the pincer. It was light as a leaf and crackled under his shoe. Nothing in it to feed a lake fly.
Life could be tough up here on the range till you figured out how things worked. Winstone looked up the slope at the rocktors towards which the kitten had run and he wondered how old the kitten was and where it had come from.
It had taken him two nights to make it up here, walking the white dust road when the moon came up, hiding under the rocks by day, in the pines or the gully away from the road, so hungry his ears hurt. There’d been no sleeping bag back then, not even a wet-dog blanket to roll himself in, just his pyjama top and hoodie and tracksuit pants and the man-sized khaki fleece with the lace-up front that he’d nicked from a washing line near the turn-off. But he walked through the cold of the night and it was uphill so he kept pretty warm and the hunger was the worst part.
He could have caught crawlies, but he didn’t know that yet, and anyway he’d have to have eaten them raw. He hadn’t come prepared. All he had in his pockets was a Moro bar he’d stolen from the pantry of the last house he saw. He’d taken two packets of chocolate biscuits as well, but he’d already eaten all those because he’d got sick of carrying them and they were melting in the packet. He was living hand to mouth in those days. He could see now that he should have taken more stuff, and a bag, but how was he to know how long it took to walk to the top of the ridge and that there were no more houses?
He was just learning the ropes. That’s what Zane would have said.
The day after he finished the Moro bar he might have tried raw crawly. Maybe a day or two after that, if he hadn’t found the huts, even an empty shell.
Winstone picked up the pincer and threw it back into the dam. It didn’t make much of a splash, so he threw a stone in as well. A flock of Canada geese yammered up from the opposite beach, and he wondered if they’d lay their eggs out there on the island in spring and whether they’d taste good boiled and howhe could get to them other than swim or row, neither of which he was very good at. He wondered what corned beef hash was and how it was made and if maybe sometimes it could come in a tin or a packet.
A gust of wind pushed past him and onto the dam. It was late getting up. That or the sun was going down early.
He didn’t see the kitten on the way home, though he walked around all three rock tors. It was a long way for a kitten to come, but that night, just in case, Winstone saved three of the sausages from his spaghetti-with-sausages can and almost half his vanilla creamed rice and put them on a flat rock outside the cave.EAST
Zane would have known about corned beef hash, for sure. He was always making stuff to eat, and he knew a lot of things, even though Winstone had been wrong about him being a teacher. It had just been lucky, Zane being there, parked outside school that day. Lucky for Winstone.
Lucky for both of us, Zane said, or we wouldn’t have got to know each other. Hey you want some cheesecake?
Zane worked for the council, he wrote reports and ticked boxes and filled out forms, and he started at seven o’clock and worked through lunch so he could finish early. Which was why he was hungry when he got home and ready for something good to eat, a toastie with Mexican beans and onions and cheese, or a potato-top pie or oven wedges with tomato sauce and sour cream. He knew Mexican like in the films and even though it wasn’t his job he taught Winstone some.Salsa. Tortilla. Guacamole. Si senorwhich sounded hard but just meantyessir.Vamoose,which wasn’t anything to do with a moose but meantgo awayand John Wayne made a lot more sense when you knew that. Winstone learned to say a whole phrase.Hasta la vista, baby.
Winstone was always amazed at the stuff other people knew.
Don’t let him touch you, Courtenay Thomas whispered to Kelly-Anne Jones as she handed out their maths tests. He’s had his hand down his pants. He plays with himself.
Winstone didn’t put out his hand for the paper but let Kelly-Anne put the test on the edge of his desk while he stared at a spot in the opposite corner. Bic was working for Courtenay’s dad and Winstone wondered if he’d told her.
She knows, Zane said, because she does it too. Everybody does.
But Courtenay’s a girl.
Yeah them too. Don’t they teach you this stuff in school these days?
Winstone shook his head. Not at any school he’d been to, but then he was forever missing stuff on account of all the moving around and he was just about to ask Zane how and what girls touched when he thought of something important.
Does John Wayne play with himself?
You bet he did.
Zane blinked. Yeah. Sure.
I told you, everybody does.
But why do we?
Because we’re lonely, Zane said, and he looked a wee bit funny.
Winstone thought about that for a while and it felt true.
Because we need to practise, Zane said. Because it feels good.
Practise for what?
For when we meet someone we love. So we know how to do it right.
Winstone was lost. You mean they’ll see us?
Yeah, sort of. Sometimes. Yeah.
Winstone knew about sex, of course he did. He’d seen it, and not just on TV. At parties, through the windows of cars, sometimes late at night when he got up for a piss and Bic wastoo wasted to have closed the bedroom door. One time Grunt had come into his room all slurry and giggly and said hey Winnie are you asleep and when to be on the safe side Winstone hadn’t said anything back Grunt and Kirsty had done it right there on Bodun’s bed. But he hadn’t seen anyone touching themselves, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to do what he had seen them doing to anyone, especially somebody he loved.
Zane said touching yourself didn’t always happen and everybody felt that way at first.
So why do they do it then?
Because when you love someone you want to make them feel good. Touching yourself feels good yeah? Well it’s even better when somebody does it for you.
If Grunt had been making Kirsty feel good she’d had a funny way of showing it, but Winstone didn’t want to argue with Zane, so he didn’t say anything more about that. You’re talking about girls, he said, and he thought about Marlene and her smelly pinkness. I don’t want to touch girls.
I’m talking about someone you love, Zane said, and he was nothing like angry with Winstone but not very pleased. It doesn’t matter who, he said. And it’s not always about what you want. That’s what love is, not being selfish.
Winstone was pretty sure he’d heard that before, on TV, or Wednesday mornings at Brownburn School from the Bible lady or a poem Mrs Clarke had read out and maybe all three, and it seemed like everyone had already agreed and it was decided.
How do you know if you’re doing it right? he asked Zane.
Doing what right?
Winstone looked down over the crotch of his tracksuit pants at the toe of his sock and scuffed it on the carpet. When you touch it, he said. You know. When you play with yourself.
Well. Zane put his spoon down on the coffee table and satback and shifted a little on the couch. Why don’t you show me how you do it?
Winstone felt himself go very still like when you’ve grabbed an electric fence by mistake and you’re waiting to see if it’s on and Zane laughed and said, Hey it’s okay. We’re mates aren’t we? Mates do this kind of stuff all the time. Haven’t you ever had a pissing contest?
Winstone hadn’t, except maybe with Bodun back in the day, but he’d seen quite a few and although this didn’t feel like the same thing at all it was true that guys saw each other’s dicks all the time and maybe the weird feeling was having a mate and if he’d had them before he’d have done this for years and be used to it by now. He bit the inside of his lower lip but he didn’t move his hand.
I tell you what, Zane said, how about I go first.
Winstone wasn’t looking at Zane but it sounded like he was smiling. Winstone’s tongue didn’t want to move either, it was stuck to the back of his teeth, so he just nodded a bit, his chin tucking into his chest, his neck shrinking into his shoulders. He wondered what the rules were, when he should look and how much, and he heard and felt more than saw Zane’s hands move and unzip the front of his trousers. Then he did look, and he got quite a shock and suddenly all the stuff people said about woodies and boners made sense because there it was, Zane’s dick, not floppy but standing straight up, and Winstone had thought Bodun’s was getting big but this was massive. He couldn’t look away.
You want to touch it?
Winstone kind of did, just to see if it was as hard as it looked, though not with his fingers.
Here, Zane said, it’s okay, and he showed him how to move his hand and it was just as well really that Winstone had asked because it turned out he’d been doing it all wrong. It still didn’twork that well, though, when he tried it on himself and Zane won the contest easily but he said, Don’t worry, mate, it’s practice that’s all, and when Winstone went off for his shower Zane said he could do with one too and they hit the bathroom together like the All Blacks.
Zane helped Winstone get clean and dry and they sat back on the couch and had ice cream and watchedWinchester ’73which was all about the best gun in the world and then Zane took Winstone home.
Walking the last of the way down Boundary Road Winstone thought about the soldier who only got to say one thing in the film, that he didn’t like yellow hair and his wife’s hair was brown, brown with red bits in it, and then he was dead and he never saw his wife’s hair again no matter what colour it was.
While he was getting out of the car, Zane had said, You know mate if anything ever, and then stopped, looking down the road towards Winstone’s house even though you couldn’t see it from there. If you ever need me I’m here. Just call and I’ll come get you. Winstone just nodded and opened the door like he didn’t understand what Zane meant, but he did, and the time Bic used the jug cord to whack him and the plug went all the way in came to mind, and he wondered what Zane would have done about it.
There was nobody home at his house, not even Marlene, and nothing to eat in the fridge but that was okay because Winstone was hardly hungry. He left the lights off in case he used up all the power again and sat on the floor in the lounge and turned on the TV. There wasn’t much on, just old-people stuff, and the house was cold and he thought about calling Zane and he might have done if they had a phone.
He watched a show about cops and tracker dogs and then the one Bodun liked where girls in bikinis got sweaty and dirtyand were made to do all kinds of weird stuff, whatever the show could think up, and the girls cried and screamed but they did it anyway, no matter how gross it was. They couldn’t say no because it was TV. It was called a reality show but Bodun said that was shit and not even the tits were real. He wanted to see them, though, those fake tits. That’s why he watched the show every week, waiting for a big fake tit to fall out. So far none had, and they didn’t tonight, not that Winstone saw, though he might have missed it because next thing he knew there were car headlights sliding over the walls and the clink of bottles outside and a show he didn’t know on the screen and Bodun kicked his foot and said, Hey shithead wake up, we got you a quarter pack.
Bodun dropped the paper bag on the floor beside Winstone and flicked on the lights and then Marlene trotted in yawning and covered in fried chicken grease and holding an empty bucket of KFC like it was a prize. She sat down beside him and she was excited because she’d been all the way to Dunedin and when Bodun wasn’t looking Winstone let her have one of his fries.
Then a woman Winstone had never seen before walked in and saidHi!like she’d been waiting to do it all day and Bic was right behind her. Bic didn’t say anything because he had a rollie in his mouth and a six-pack of something pink in one hand and a twelve-pack of stubbies under the other arm and he was watching the woman’s arse, which was hard to miss. Winstone stared at it too.
What’syourname? the woman said, slow and bright and loud, like Winstone was retarded.
His mouth was full but he caught Bic’s look and said his name fast and a bit of chicken fell out and the woman smiled. She smiled a lot and her smile was almost as big as her arse and she laughed a lot too and Winstone wondered what she had to be so happy about and he figured it wasn’t going to last much longer.
Bic put the drinks down and took the rollie out of his mouth and said finish your chicken and go to bed and Winstone did as fast as he could. Sure enough, the banging and moaning started up pretty soon after that and it was coming under the doors and through the walls from Bic’s room to Marlene’s to his and filling up the whole house and Winstone heard Bodun swear and his bed creak but it was too dark in their room to see what he was doing.
Winstone got up and went into Marlene’s room and he found her down in the smelly centre of her bed under all the covers. He got her out and she held his hand down the hall and climbed into his bed and he lay between her and the wall and she pushed her bony back and bum into him as hard as she could and put her hands over her ears. Winstone put his hands over the top of hers and held her like that until the banging stopped and she went to sleep and then he did too. Later there were car headlights again and the chug of the Commodore’s motor pulling away and Marlene got up and he checked and his bed wasn’t wet but it did smell a lot of KFC.WEST
THEY WERE FLYING, the Kid and Cooper, along a pale road, tearing up the dark, and the moon was on their hats and the shadows fled and tumbled under their horses’ hooves and the hooves beat the night like rain on a tarp, like shower jets on glass. They rode, and the range grew wide around them, and the road ahead was empty and they were alone.
The range grew wider yet, and the road ran on until it slipped off the edge of the world and there, small and red, at the very brink, a fire burned beside it.
Closer, someone stirred the fire and the sparks swarmed orange and gold and the embers blushed and crumbled. Beyond the fire there was a blanket and under the blanket there was a girl with yellow hair, long yellow hair spilling into the grass, yellow hair with red in it, and it was everywhere yellow and red and thick, red and yellow, and Winstone woke up and the camera rolled back to where it belonged, tracking Cooper and the Kid as they raced the night on a white dust road.
We’re close, the Kid said, we aint never been this close, but the palomino was walking now and his neck was low and his hooves were heavy. No one could run for three days and three nights, not even the grey, and up ahead his foot buckled over a stone and Cooper said, Whoa easy now, and reined in. I’m sorry Kid. We got to rest these horses.
We’ll lose em, the Kid said. They’ll be through the pass.
We got to rest.
We’ll be too late.
We’ll find em, Coop said. Trust me.
Yesterday’s sausages were all gone. The vanilla rice too. Just two dark greasy stains on the rock outside the cave. Winstone hoped the kitten had got them. He imagined it tucked up in the rocks somewhere, its stripy belly stretched and fat, warm in its fur and sleeping soundly. It was cold this morning, a new kind of cold he’d felt on his cheeks, in the tip of his nose, as soon as he woke up enough to feel anything, cold enough to put his khaki fleece on and climb through the grey to the top of the gully to get warm and when he did he saw why.
There was snow on the backs of the mountains beyond the range to the west, not the usual patches but a thick cover glowing peachy yellow and pink above the shadows of ranges and valleys soft as smoke. The backs of the mountains, because Winstone had been in front of them once and there was a lake with a steamer and a wharf and an old hotel where cowboys from Califor-ni-AY stayed in the Gold Rush. Winstone had sat on the wharf watching the steamer come in and he’d looked at the old hotel with its name carved into the stone and Todd Jackson had taught him how to say it right which wasn’t how it looked at all.I-carts,Todd had said,like pie carts,and Todd laughed and Winstone didn’t know what a pie cart was but he said it like that anyway and he laughed too and the steamer took a long time to come and he looked at all those stealthy letters that made no sound until he could see them with his eyes shut.EICHARDT’S.It was German.
That had been a long time ago. He was behind the mountains now, at the back of beyond, and Todd wasn’t laughing any more. He wouldn’t show Winstone anything ever again, leastways nothing that Winstone wanted to see, and the last time he saw Todd was the kind of mean and maggoty thought that would eat you out and buzz in your bones if it got inside and he could feel it coming for him, crawling up the white dust road in the driver’s seat of Todd’s Pajero.
Winstone turned around and went back down to the cave and found the tin of All Day Breakfast he’d been saving and heated it up and sat in the shadowed gully and ate and waited for the world to get a little lighter.
IT’S NO GOOD,the Kid said with his ear to the ground in the grey breaking dawn. They’re too far ahead. We’ll never make it.
You wanna give up?
No, the Kid said, and it was a lie and Coop knew it, the whole wide waking world knew it, even the buzzards up in the sky. But what do we do Coop?
Only thing we can do Kid.
And so Cooper and the Kid saddled up and rode, rode the cold trail west, away from the rising sun and into their own shadow. They had their faces to the tattering dark and the country ahead was the colour of ash and the road ran through it and out of sight and if they should ever reach its end the Kid didn’t know where they’d be and all Coop ever could or would say about it was that they’d be on the other side.
But behind them the sun was coming up and lighting the grass and pretty soon it would be on their shoulders. The Kid watched the range grow sharp and gold and the sky turn blueand the sun warmed his back and the palomino shook the cold from his mane and stepped a little higher. The range ran forever and it was empty and free and theirs for the riding and as long and wide as it ran there was no need to stop or turn back or get anywhere because there was no place better than this and not everything had to …
Winstone froze, a chunk of All Day Breakfast sausage between his teeth. The kitten. It was creeping over the rocks, a cartoon cat, placing each paw with exaggerated care, watching him as it wound its way up and over and through to the vanilla rice stain and when it got there it sank, ears back, a pressed spring, and began to lick the stone.
Slowly, Winstone took the sausage out of his mouth and the kitten’s ears pressed even tighter to its head and its stripy tail batted side to side on the rock like a rattlesnake someone was trying to kill but the kitten stayed where it was and very gently, with just his fingers and wrist, Winstone threw the sausage onto the ground between them.
The kitten exploded out of the rocks as if the sausage had been a grenade and Winstone stared at the empty air and chewed and he half expected to see some bits of fur come down. When they didn’t, he got on with his breakfast, and he was picking the last bit of bacon out of the beans when the kitten came back, through the grass this time, stalking that Wattie’s canned sausage like it was a gazelle on the Serengeti.
The kitten snatched up the sausage and then it didn’t know what to do first, run or chew, and it glared at Winstone and hissed like it was all his fault it was in such a difficult situation. In the end, it scuttled backwards a bit and dropped the sausageand licked it and turned it about and then ripped into it with its kitten teeth and bolted it down.
Winstone threw a bit of potato next because those weren’t as good as they sounded. The kitten seemed pretty keen on it though, so he threw it another chunk and this time he didn’t throw it as far. The kitten didn’t like that one little bit, you could tell, but it wanted that potato bad and so it had to come closer.
The kitten was right to be nervous. It was on the run too. Wanted, just dead. People were probably hunting it now, laying traps and poison. Its kind had no right of their own to a place in the world, all they did was hurt good things, lizards and birds, the things people cared about, and sometimes they enjoyed it. That’s why people wanted to destroy feral cats. ANNIHILATE them, which was another word Winstone had learned how to spell in Glentrool after Tom Barker threatened to do it to him and he’d found it in Todd’s dictionary, waiting for him between ANNEX and ANNIVERSARY, a long cold word, a line of traps around a silence.
Winstone fed the kitten all the potato and himself all the beans and by the time they were finished the kitten was really quite close. Then there was no more food and the kitten ran away but not as fast, and that afternoon when Winstone broke into the hut with the sliding door, as well as caramel condensed milk and a bottle of Coke he stole a tin of cat food.
Winstone could remember the first time he slept over at Zane’s. It was right after he got his phone.
Hey there mate, Zane said when Winstone walked through the door after school, I’ve got something for you, and he threw Winstone a box.
The box was covered in light blue paper with cowboys on, long tumbling lines of cowboys in hats and chaps and boots and spurs and they were rearing and roping and galloping on brown and white and red horses. Winstone turned it around.
Go on, Zane said, you can open it now.
He’d probably been given wrapped-up stuff before, he must have been, those years when his mum lived at home, but right then Winstone couldn’t remember when or what and although he fully intended to get to what was inside the cowboy box he wasn’t in any hurry. He found a bit of tape and picked at the end of it with his scraggy fingernail and as it lifted some cowboy came too and so he pressed it back down and tried again at the other corner.
Just rip it, Zane said, but there was no way Winstone was going to do that. He wanted the paper all in one piece and so he skinned that box as patient and slow as Bodun with a possum. It was only after he’d got the whole thing off and folded it up and put it away in his bag that he really started to think about thekind of box it was and what it must have inside it.
It’s a phone, Zane said. For emergencies. You can keep it in your pocket.
Winstone took it out of the box and held it in his hand. It was tiny and shiny metallic red and he didn’t care one bit that he’d never heard of the kind of phone it was.
I got you the smallest one I could find, Zane said, and Winstone thought of Zane looking for it, going to all the phone places, for him. Nobody will even know you’ve got it, Zane said. It’s a secret phone.
Winstone picked the charger up and wondered how he could hide it from Bodun and Bic and what effect it would have on the PrePower card but Zane said, You can keep that here if you want. Charge it up when you come over. It’s got a long battery life anyway, it should be good for at least a week.
A week was a long time not to be at Zane’s. Thinking about all those days made Winstone feel a bit sick.
For emergencies, he said. Like what?
Well not just emergencies, Zane said. You can use it for whatever you want. Like if you want to call me.
Winstone tried to imagine himself calling Zane and he wondered what he’d say.
Like, Zane said, if you felt like coming round sometime and your dad wasn’t home, you could send me a text and I could come and get you. Meet you up the road.
Winstone had to check the rules. When can I call you?
Any time, mate. Zane’s voice went all soft. Day or night. Any time you’re lonely.
Back home, Winstone stuck the blue cowboy paper up on the wall beside his bed and when Bodun came in and said where the fuck did that come from he said he’d got it at school and Bodun said it was the gayest thing he ever saw.
Then Bodun went out again and Winstone heard him turn on the TV and he had no idea about the secret red phone in Winstone’s pocket. Winstone stayed where he was, lying on his back on the bed looking up at the cowboys on his wall and wondering what it would feel like to sit on a horse and what sort of things the cowboys did when they got down, what they said, and whether they were all mates back at the ranch or if maybe a couple of them liked each other more than the rest and Zane texted to make sure he’d got home okay and Winstone got down under the covers so no one could see and he texted back yes. Then Zane texted good, and Winstone texted he wished he had a horse and Zane texted that he did too and it felt much more like being friends than Facebook, which was pretty useless actually since Winstone could only log on when he was at Zane’s and then Zane was there and he already knew his status.
It was pretty much dark when Bic got home. Winstone heard him come in and yell at Marlene for not doing the dishes and eating the last of the bread and he put the phone away and pulled the covers in tight and felt something that was maybe the Aunt Betty’s double chocolate pudding he’d had at Zane’s try to push up his throat but from the sound of things Marlene only got a slap on the legs and she hardly even cried. He could barely see the cowboys by now, but he knew how they looked, the colours of their scarves that were called bandanas and also their horses and hats, and he closed his eyes and made the shape of each one on the back of his eyelids.
When he woke up it was properly dark and all he could hear was the wind in the hedge and he looked across and the window was up and Bodun’s bed was empty. Above his head, the cowboy paper was rustling in the draught, and he thought of all the places it would be nicer to be, Utah or Mexico or Christchurch, or just there, by himself, in the blue. He wonderedhow much night there was left and he checked on his phone and it was only eleven o’clock and there was a message from Zane saying are you in bed and sleep well.
I’m lonely, Winstone wanted to text, but it came out, can’t sleep, and Zane must have been awake too because the reply came right back and fifteen minutes later Winstone was up Boundary Road climbing into Zane’s car at the usual spot where the shingle met the seal.
They went to Zane’s room and watchedRio Bravo.Zane’s duvet was white and made of feathers and when he wrapped it around their shoulders it was like being wrapped in a big warm fog where nothing bad could find you. Zane left his arm on Winstone’s shoulders and the weight of it curled him into Zane’s chest. Winstone froze up for a second or two but Zane’s body was soft and relaxed and it wasn’t like a headlock at all. Then Zane ruffled his hair like dads did to their kids on TV, dads with clean shirts and wise eyes and no rollies hanging out of their mouths, and Winstone understood why they did that, because it was gentle and nice like patting a dog and not hard and mean just to mess you up like it was when Bodun did it.
He leaned back against Zane and watched John Wayne ride into view and when he woke up he had no idea where he was and the lights and the TV were off and someone had hold of him and he started to panic but then he remembered. Zane was holding him the way Winstone sometimes held onto Marlene when she slid into his bed and now he knew why she liked it so much and he felt a bit bad that he didn’t do it more often. Zane had his back and his side and the duvet had his front and no one could get him and in fact it was even better than that because he was at Zane’s place and nobody knew he was there or even where Zane’s place was.
He could tell by the way Zane was breathing that he was asleepand Winstone felt him move and his arm slipped forward a bit more. Zane’s arm was warm and heavy, heavy and loose like a sack of sand, and Winstone felt himself sinking, a good kind of sinking, into the bed, the dry sheet, the pillowcases sharp with clean, into the cowboys’ open blue.
There was a noise like the sea and it was Zane’s phone and Zane rolled over and turned it off and then he rolled back and rubbed Winstone’s shoulder and brushed his hair back and spoke quietly into his ear. Hey. Hey mate it’s time to wake up. We’d better get you home.
Winstone pretended to be asleep for a few seconds more because it was nice to be woken that way, soft and slow, and he didn’t want to go home. But he knew Zane was right and they’d better get going because if he got caught sneaking back in, well, he didn’t want to think about that, but it was too late by then and he didn’t feel so warm and sleepy any more.
Okay, he said, and sat up. Zane turned the light on. Winstone didn’t remember getting undressed but he was, and Zane passed him his clothes which were folded up on the chair and he pulled them on and by the time he’d finished Zane had taken off his pyjama bottoms and was back in his jeans and sweatshirt too.
They didn’t speak as they walked down the hall but Zane rested his hand on Winstone’s shoulder and it said everything important. In the garage, Zane switched the automatic light off and before he opened the door Winstone crouched down in the footwell of the car again even though he’d have been surprised if Bic knew anyone in Zane’s street and it was four in the morning anyway but they’d both agreed it was best to be safe. You never knew who was watching.
A couple of nosy dogs were watching, apparently, because they started barking as soon as the garage door went up, but no lights came on in the houses around and when the dogs hadstopped the street was silent and empty except for the pools of orange light edged with fog and it hardly looked like any place that Winstone had seen before.
Will you be warm enough? Zane said as they turned into Boundary Road and Winstone said yes and Zane switched the headlights off and they drove the rest of the way in the dark.
The bedroom window was still up. Winstone slid through it and into his bed, and cold and damp as that was it was quite a relief to be there and now that he’d made it he felt pretty pumped. Mission accomplished, no casualties.
Where the fuck have you been? Bodun hissed.
Winstone froze. An ambush. He was surprised the fear hadn’t popped him two metres out of his bed, but he kept his head and stuck to his plan. Where were you? he said.
Out. You little fucker.
Winstone said nothing, but they both knew it was a pact. His heart was ticking like an IED, the racket all up in his ears, and he thought there was no way he could sleep but the next thing he knew his covers were gone and Bodun was up and getting dressed and Bic was yelling get your hand off your dick you filthy little bugger.
From then on Winstone stayed over at Zane’s two or three nights a week, sometimes more, and he got to know the ground between the bedroom window and the end of the shingle so well he could have covered it in his sleep and sometimes it felt like he had. They watched Zane’s entire collection of John Wayne films and then they moved on to the boxed set ofBonanza.They did other stuff too, but Winstone didn’t think too much about that. Zane showed him some other things you did for people you liked, and some things you did for people you more than liked, and it was lucky Winstone liked Zane as much as he did because some of the things were pretty revolting to be honest. Worsethan cleaning Marlene. And even though he wanted to do nice things for Zane he didn’t like looking at him while he did them, the way his face went, and there were times Winstone felt a bit sick and he almost didn’t like Zane, but then again there’d been times when he hadn’t liked Marlene that much either. Anyway, that stuff didn’t take long and it made a lot of sense just to get it over and done with. Afterwards Zane went back to being himself and he was happy and pleased and before he turned the lights off they watched Lorne Greene being stern but kind and putting up with all his sons, even Little Joe, and never losing his temper.
One morning there was a new kid on the bus, a kid Marlene’s age, and he was sitting in Winstone’s seat so Winstone took a deep breath and kept his eyes down and slid into the row behind him.WINSTONE HASKETT SUX DICKhe read on the back of the seat. They’d carved it right into the plastic, deep, so it would never come off and kids a hundred years from now would read it. And Winstone was amazed all over again, but he didn’t tell Zane this time because he had all the way to school to look at those spiky letters, the depth of them, and the longer he did, the less likely it seemed to him that everybody did it.WEST
Winstone watched the Friday night headlights cut the falling dark, the erratic parade of them sweeping up the road, veering off, rising and falling over the grass to the huts, arcing around the far side of the dam, appearing and disappearing. They settled in pools shot through with raised moths and dust, criss-crossed by shadows, boxes and chilly bins, kids and dogs and stereos blaring. The first generators started to hum and then the hut windows were lighting up, squares and rectangles spilling over the grass. In the Sliding Door Hut the TV came on. A Highlanders game, by the looks of things, the bright flat green, the scud of blue and gold.
He could hear things being flung open and slammed shut and dropped, the clink of logs, and the wind off the dam brought up the first whiff of woodsmoke. Two dogs ran laps of the Green Camo Hut barking and barking at their own echo.
Winstone liked to keep an eye on the huts on Fridays. It helped to know who was about, how many kids and dogs there were to watch out for. Most of the hut-owners had a routine, stuck to their favourite spots, pissed behind the same rocks, so he knew where they’d be in a given wind. But there was no telling with kids and dogs. They could turn up anywhere.
Each week, more people arrived in the dark and fewer in the daylight. A month ago, even the last to get there had had timefor a fish or at least a crawly hunt after they’d unloaded. There’d been barbecues and tables outside and even as the sun pulled out and sucked the heat from the grass they’d filled up the empty dusk with sausage smoke and voices. In his hideout high in the rocks behind the cattle fence Winstone’s mouth had filled with spit and his guts had wrung and he’d thought about Todd and cheese sizzlers. But now all the hut-owners were in a hurry to get inside and light their fires there and he couldn’t see what they ate and only the dogs went down to the water.
Another set of headlights made their way up the road, saloon-car low and hesitant, more creeping than sweeping, pausing at every hint of a track, lingering beside the Scout Hut. Lost. But just as Winstone thought it, the car crunched back onto the road and a few metres later swung off it again along the track to the Red Hut. A station wagon, not a saloon. He caught the blue glow of a seatback TV, the silhouette of luggage.
There were people in the Red Hut already, the old man and his wife, and they came out and stood in front of it, shading their eyes, watching the headlights coming. The station wagon pulled up and two people got out and the sound came up on the wind, the clunk of car doors, voices with the words blown out, happy and excited. The back of the car stayed closed and the TV stayed on, flickering fast and bright, great swirling explosions of pink, and Winstone wished he was close enough to see what was so much better than two old people and hot food and a fire in a hut on a lake in the back of beyond in darkness.
There was more talking and laughing and gathering of bags and somebody opened the back of the car and spoke and it was a woman and there was music and wheedling and whining in a girl’s voice and then other voices and the tiniest hint of a fight and the door closed again and the flicker went on and the others walked away all loaded up with their stuff and went inside.
Winstone watched the colours leap and shift on the dark and he tried to imagine what they made up and he thought of a whirl of princess skirts on a ballroom floor. In a few seconds they stopped and there was just steady blue and then black and the car door opened and the inside light came on. The girl did something to the back of the seat and slid out and shut the door and she crossed the patches of window light in her gumboots and skirt and went into the Red Hut. She did it fast, but not so fast Winstone couldn’t see she had something in her hand and he felt pretty sure that it was an iPad.
He waited until the guy in the Green Camo Hut shut his dogs in the back of the ute for the night. Then he went down.
The Red Hut was maybe Winstone’s favourite hut. It had a sooty stone fireplace for sitting beside as well as a range for cooking on and brown chipboard walls with pictures of fish hanging on them in frames and the curtains were red and blue and if he narrowed his eyes just right it looked like The Ponderosa. He liked the old man, too, who had a round head and big eyes and was bushy and silvery like Lorne Greene. When the old man went fishing, he even wore a tan vest, and Winstone had learned a lot from following him and seeing where the big fish hid up in the wind and what they liked to eat and how to get them.
Tonight the old man and his wife were drinking. Whisky, he thought. Something brown, anyway. They had it in flash glasses and they were sipping it slow, not knocking it back like Grunt sculling Jim Beam from a plastic cup, but nevertheless it was disappointing. Lorne Greene didn’t do that. Winstone had presumed the bottle he’d seen in their cupboard was there in case of emergency, for sedating patients and cleaning out wounds. It had tasted like it. But the visiting man and woman were drinking it too, and he started to get a bit worried about the girl because the glasses were big and there wasn’t much left in the bottom of them.
It was dangerous, of course it was, to be this close to the huts, looking in. Wedged like a skink into a crevice halfway up the Red Hut’s sheltering rock, fingers splayed, the cold black lap of the dam just behind and the electric spill of the hut before him. More dangerous still to slip down when the old man’s back was turned, skirt the light and settle in the thick dark underneath the water tank stand. To climb its cross-brace and peer in through the bedroom window. He wouldn’t have done it except for the glow. And he didn’t really have any plan except to see what she was watching.
Alicia, the woman called, come in here.
The colours stopped. And she just left it. Left it sitting right there on top of the sleeping bag under the window which Winstone happened to know had no stay and could be opened with pretty much any blade of a Leatherman tool if you had one in your pocket.
He’d never been so close to an iPad.
Shut the door please, the woman said, and the girl – Alicia – did.
Winstone asked himself what John Wayne would do, but he didn’t like the answer to that, and Doc was undecided because it didn’t seem right to steal from a girl but on the other hand the girl had a lot of stuff like a hut and Lorne Greene so she didn’t need an iPad, and Winstone didn’t have time to ask anyone else because she might be back for it any second.
Knife or screwdriver? Knife. Longer blade, better leverage. Slip it into the gap. Angle in, then ease it back. Thin crackle of spiderwebs. Coming to him slowly, wood dry and spider-sticky on his fingertips, don’t drop it like last time whatever you do.
The bedroom door flung open. Hitting the bulge in the floor with a whump and sticking there, shuddering like an arrow.
Winstone somehow back in the dark under the tank stand and the iPad still on the bed. The urge to run very strong. He was pretty sure he could make it, too, through the light up the slope across the road vault the cattle fence he could do that couldn’t he he could he was fast down into the gully but don’t run straight don’t lead them back make a target let them see where you go you’ll have to zigzag like a rabbit.
There’s something out there, the girl said.
The knife still in his hand.
The woman’s voice, What is it Ally?
I saw something.
Outside the window. There.
What was it?
I don’t know, the girl said. It went so fast. I think it was a kitten.
It was a while before Winstone came out from under the water tank, but when he did it was at a gallop, fast and straight, quick as Charlie Sheen or the Sundance Kid or any outlaw with the law on his tail, and he didn’t stop until he was back in the cave staring hard at the dark behind his eyelids.
His lungs burned and his breath was coming too hard for his chest and he tried to talk it down, Whoa there, easy now. Find a rhythm. Clip clop. Nothing happened. Nobody saw. Clip clop. It was all okay.
COOPER AND THE KIDrode into town. They rode a main street that might have been cut by the wind and in that bluster of dust and skirts and wagons and weeds they alone moved slow, the brims of their hats tilted over their eyes, their bandanas upover their noses. The town was as wide as the road and the porch and the store to its left and its right and all around it, close, the mountains banked like settled smoke, last year’s snow grit-grey still on the shale below a brittle new white dust. How a town came to be there and why wasn’t easy to see, but if it had been a mistake it didn’t matter much, since the elements seemed likely to erase it before long.
They could hear the wind fretting away at the boards, rattling signboards and slamming shop doors, and through the small slit between hat and bandana the Kid watched it hurry the folks of the town about their business. To his right, a man in a doeskin coat was loading a wagon with grain. Across the street a door banged loud as a gun and the Kid’s hand went to his hip as he turned, but there on the porch above him was only a girl in a blue dress. The wind was whipping up the ends of her shawl and her hair and stinging her face but he could see her eyes, which were blue as her dress, and they followed him as he rode by. The Kid was so busy looking he forgot to tip his hat and it wasn’t until he had passed that he recollected his mistake and looked back to make it good and as he did so a man stepped in front of the girl and he was all in black like a cloud across the sun.
Cooper reined in beside the hotel and they sat their horses there until a raggedy boy ran out and took them. Inside the hotel a tall clock was striking whatever hour of the afternoon it was and to one side of the clock was a desk and a round-bellied clerk in vest and spectacles and he looked at the Kid and Cooper and they looked at him and they all waited for the clock to finish so they could make themselves heard and while they did the Kid and Cooper untied their bandanas and shook the dust from their hats and wiped their faces.
A room, Cooper said.
Names, said the clerk, and Cooper gave two and the Kidlooked up at the blue flowered paper rising over the stairs and didn’t contradict him.
They followed the clerk up to a room with more flowers on the walls and the beds and white lace across the window. The bed was soft and deep and the Kid lay back with his arms behind his head and the clerk eyed the Kid’s dusty heels on his flowers and said there’s a place just across the street if you boys want a bath and Cooper said well he didn’t mind if he did it had been a while.
I’ll do some askin around over there, Coop said, when the door was shut. Find out if anybody seen em.
The Kid stared at a blue flower on the wall and it made him think of the girl and he got up and went to the window.
Go easy, Coop said, if you go out. We don’t wanna spook nobody.
The Kid leaned on the window frame and looked over the lace and listened to Cooper leave. He watched the dusk sink off the mountains into the street until the wind guttered under its weight and the glass became still and then he put on his coat and his hat and he went downstairs.
He let his coat hang over his gun so a passer-by would hardly know it was there and his hands were in his pockets. He walked in the soft mounting dark and above his hunched shoulders store windows glowed yellow and gold and he saw a woman throw back her head and laugh and a man knot up a big paper parcel with string and another try on a hat while a boy in the window ran his hand over the tooling of a saddle.
Then the stores stopped and the houses began and he turned his head and there she was. The girl. Her brown hair all fixed up with a ribbon in it. She was sitting at the piano in a lit-up front room with a fire in the hearth and flowers on the mantel. The Kid watched her fingers move over the keys and then shestraightened her back and opened her lips and the Kid crossed the empty street to get close because the most important thing in the world right then was to know what she was singing.
He would have given it back anyway. Of course he would. Even if he’d taken Alicia’s iPad there’d have been no point in him keeping it because what use was an iPad when you lived in a cave. He’d just wanted to playAngry Birdstill the battery ran out, that was all.
Winstone loosened his grip on the top of the sleeping bag and brought his face up for air. They’d have had nothing on him anyway. He was going to borrow it, not steal it.
He sucked the side of his finger where he’d cut himself with the Leatherman knife. If he’d bled all the way back to the cave maybe the dogs from the Green Camo Hut would track him. Maybe he’d left fingerprints. It wasn’t fair. He hadn’t even done anything wrong. Not tonight.
Winstone listened hard. Still nothing. Just the wind in the rocks and the crunch of the tarp. The Red Hut people hadn’t seen anything. The Green Camo Hut dogs couldn’t get through the fence. There was nobody coming. Tomorrow he’d get up and catch crawlies in the creek and stay away from the huts and it would be like every other weekend and not the end or the last.
He likedAngry Birds.Winstone shuffled up the sleeping bag so his head was back in the hood and rolled over to face the rock and closed his eyes and he thought about the birds and their furious eyes and their slings. They wanted into those pigs’ houses so bad they just hurled themselves at the walls until they were broken down.
THE KIDcrossed the street. He crossed the street and maybe the wind wasn’t dead after all because he went right through the gate in the picket fence and up the steps and onto the porch and fetched up at the door. The Kid looked at that door all shiny and red in the light of the lamps and he raised his hand and he knocked on it just like a man who had every right to.
The music stopped. There were steps inside and the Kid took one back and straightened his coat and then the door opened and she was there with a long hall behind her all warm and bright and she tilted her head to one side and looked up at him and the Kid swept off his hat and said howdy ma’am and the girl in the blue dress smiled.
Who is it? said the man in black blotting up the light. Black eyes black hair black coat, black everything, except for his skin and his shirt, which were white, and his belt’s great silver buckle.
It’s all right Paw. He’s come to walk me to the dance.
And she reached for her shawl and took the Kid’s arm and they went down the steps together and through the white gate and out into the street which wasn’t empty now but full of strolling cowboys in their best boots and girls in dancing dresses. The girl knew all their names and she told them to the Kid as they walked and they walked until they came to a pale wooden church and all manner of wagons and horses and mules fussing up in the road and as two wagons crossed and went their own ways the Kid saw in the space between their high rolling wheels a lit-up hall with a smiling jack o’ lantern outside and a sign sayingHarvest Dance.
There were pegs in the porch and the girl hung up her shawl and the Kid hung up his gun. They stepped over the thresholdand under the strings of red lanterns they danced, one two three, round and round. One of the Kid’s hands holding hers, the other holding her waist just right, keeping the perfect distance.
How did you know it was me? the Kid said.
Your hat, the girl said. I knew you by your hat.
Her name was Mary Ellen.
She was looking for the kitten. Winstone felt sure of it. She had a speargrass stem in her hand for a staff and he watched her part the tussocks and prod at the grass to either side of the track as she made her way down to the beach and when she got there Alicia stopped and bent over the sand just as he had done a few days before. Then she began to weave around the bay with her head still down and Winstone had a pretty good idea whose trail she’d picked up and that it was leading her from one crunched-up crawly shell to another.
He had no way of knowing if the tracks she was seeing were fresh or the same ones he’d followed himself, in which case his own trainer prints would be there beside them. He hadn’t seen the kitten for a couple of days. But on the evidence of last night the kitten had seen him and was hanging around and if Alicia started following it then he might have a problem. He’d known there was a reason he had to go back that morning and keep an eye on things around the Red Hut and it wasn’t to look at Alicia orAngry Birdsand now he knew what it was.
She was getting closer to him. The rocks he was hiding in brought the beach and the bay to an end and overhung deep water. Winstone wasn’t worried. If she was on the kitten’s old trail it would veer off into the grass and even if the prints were new and headed his way it was quite a scramble to carry on overthe rocks and it wouldn’t be any easier in a fluffy dressing gown and monster slippers. Besides, Alicia could hardly follow a track across stones.
She didn’t veer off but Alicia did stop at the rocks and look at them for a while. Then as Winstone watched she hitched back her dressing gown and put her furry toe to the face of the first rock and felt for a handhold and found one and pulled herself up and for the first time it occurred to him that if the kitten’s feet had been wet when it jumped up there then maybe it could have left paw prints.
Sure enough she stared at a spot on the rock and then sat on her heels for a closer view and then she looked up and all around.
She was only a couple of metres below the hole he was watching her from and Winstone was glad she’d had to leave the speargrass stem behind. He squatted down from the hole and leaned back on the rock and thought about his options.
Here kitty kitty, Alicia said.
When he looked back she’d turned away from him and was crouched on the far edge of the rock and he could see she was sizing up the best way to reach the next one and he watched her sit and take off her slipper and ease herself down some little way into the gap and stretch out her toe to bridge the distance. He could do it himself but Alicia’s leg didn’t reach and she’d have to jump if she was going to go that way. She sat back up on the edge and looked around again and then down at the steep underwater scree disappearing into the dark of the dam between the two rocks and removed her other slipper.
Behind her the Red Hut stood silent and closed with its curtains drawn and its chimneys cold and the scatter of other huts stood likewise. It was a good moment to slip away down the other side of the rocks but Winstone didn’t. The sun was just makingthe top of the ridge and sparkling on the rising chop of the dam and it shone on Alicia’s unbrushed hair hanging down the back of her dressing gown and her hair was all the soft and lovely colours of a mouse. He watched her take the dressing gown off. She had ponies on her pyjamas.
Then Alicia started to roll her pyjama legs up and Winstone thought he saw her plan. She was going to slide down and wade around the top of the scree. Sure enough she shuffled her way down into the gap with her arms and legs spread and her bum as a brake and he was impressed at how well she did it. At the bottom she dipped her foot into the dam and felt around the scree for a hold and tested the hold and let down her weight and there she was standing ankle-deep on one foot in the dam and that’s when she came to the hard bit. She needed to keep her balance. The best way to do that was to turn and face the rock so she could grab hold of it if she started to slip but that was easier said than done and she’d have to hold her nerve while she let go with one hand and leaned the wrong way out over the deep and brought her leg around. The other option was to keep going the way that she was and hope that the scree wouldn’t move, but if it did she’d most likely pitch in head first and in the meantime she’d have to look down at the drop the whole way and Winstone happened to know it looked a lot worse from there than it did from the top of the rock and you could see through the water a very long way but you couldn’t see the bottom.
He wondered if Alicia could swim. The wind was up and the sun wasn’t doing much to scrub the chill off the day and the dam didn’t look inviting.
Alicia turned. She turned and held onto the rock and felt her way around the scree and only once went in over her knees and she made it look easy. Winstone was impressed all over again, and before he had time to be anything else she was up the rock onthe other side and over the top and out of sight. She’d have easy going from there for a few metres across a flat shelf and he no longer doubted Alicia could get all the way and it was high time he made a move before she came up behind him.
Winstone climbed around the side of his viewing rock and let himself down from the edge and dropped the last metre of empty air and landed silently as the kitten itself beside Alicia’s slippers and dressing gown in the very spot where she’d been standing. He crouched for just a second to look at the muddy kitten prints on the rock and as he got up he saw the corner of something slim and rectangular in Alicia’s dressing gown pocket.
It wasn’t an iPad. It wasn’t an iPhone either. It wasn’t even a smartphone but an ordinary phone like the one he’d had and Winstone squatted there on the rock with the phone in his hand and he thought of the satellite arcing high overhead and its beam spreading over the range and the world and the world spun and the plains of the east opened up and he thought of everyone he’d left there and he thought of the number he knew by heart and he ran his thumb across the screen. The screen came up but the sun was too bright to read what was on it so he shaded it with his hand and brought the phone close to his body and sheltered it there and curved over it he looked again at the screen.
Winstone put the phone back in Alicia’s pocket. Then he took it out and wiped it for fingerprints and with the sleeve of his hoodie pulled down over his hand replaced it again and glanced around and up at the empty sky and stood and took a few steps back and a run and cleared the beach and landed in the grass so as not to leave fresh footprints.
He needed to take cover. He heard a plunk from the other side of the rocks and he hoped it wasn’t Alicia falling in and he thought about going to see. He was still thinking about it whenhe heard her calling the kitten again so he made a break up the slope to the next rock tor and circled it out of sight of the huts and climbed into the place he knew inside where he could look out down the slope and he settled down there and waited to see what Alicia would do next.
For the next hour or so they continued to move around the dam in much the same manner with Winstone keeping one rock formation ahead and it was a pretty good way to pass the time and they might have done it all day if it wasn’t for the dogs.
He should have thought about them. But he was too busy watching Alicia and thinking how much they had in common like horses andAngry Birdsand the next place they’d look for a kitten. He didn’t even hear the guy from the Green Camo Hut open the ute. So he got as much of a fright as Alicia did when the dogs galloped up at full tilt and by then it was too late to get away and he just had to sit it out where he was and hope that they’d ignore him.
They didn’t. The two dogs played with Alicia for a nanosecond or so before the older dog lifted its head and looked at the rocks where Winstone was hiding. He saw the dog sniff once at the wind and then it came up the slope like it was auditioning forDog Squadand the other dog rotated mid-bounce and followed hot on its tail and the two of them arrived together at the foot of the tor and began to pant and pace looking up at him and if they’d brought big foam fingers to wave they couldn’t have pointed to him more clearly.
Winstone drew back as much as he could from the gap he was watching them through and pressed himself close to the rock behind.
What is it? he heard Alicia say and her voice was right there below the rocks.
There was nowhere to go. Winstone pulled his hood up over his head and wrapped his arms round his chest and shut his eyes.
THE KID’S BACKhit the wall. His back hit the wall and the timbers juddered and dust circled in the stabs of light and the breath shuddered out of the Kid displaced by the stranger’s fist in his stomach. The Kid slid sideways and ducked the next blow and the stranger’s fist slammed into the boards and his knuckles split and he swore and the Kid forced new air into his guts and came up swinging because he knew how to fight and he had no fear of sinking his knuckles into another man’s flesh or breaking his hands on another’s bones. The Kid’s punch caught the stranger square on the jaw and it landed with a noise clean and sweet as a ball in a glove and the stranger staggered backwards and fell to one knee but arms grabbed the Kid from all sides and they dragged him back and pinned him to the wall.
The Kid looked down at the stranger crouched on the floor in the banded light and the man was dark as the shadows and slow to move as the drifting chaff but while the Kid watched the man raised his head and set his hat straight and rubbed a bloodied hand over the stubble of his jaw.
There was blood running on the Kid’s lip too and he tasted it there but he wasn’t afraid because he knew what he was made of. He heard the barn door open. Behind the stranger easing himself to his feet a widening stripe of the day fell in across the dirt floor and it struck the Kid in the face. He turned his head and narrowed his eyes to see what stood in the glare and there was a high white slice of the yard and the town and the morning outside and stamped out upon it the shape of a man and preceding the man and the morning and bigger than both the black stretch of the man’s shadow.
The sun burned on the silver rowels of spurs and the heels of the man’s black boots stepped through the dust and moved without haste down the path of his own darkness. The man’s shadow came on eating up the light and it overtook the stranger who stood opening and closing his hand in front of the Kid and as it did so the stranger moved aside without so much as a glance over his shoulder.
The man stopped in front of the Kid and the sideways light coming in between the boards of the barn raked his folded face from the dark and caught in his eye.
So, the man said. Where you come from kid?
Who’s askin? said the Kid. He didn’t see whose fist it was but it swung his cheek to the wall and when he looked back the man had a little gleam in his eye like he was telling a joke and about to deliver the punchline.
You don’t know who I am, he said. You got no idea in the world.
No mister I don’t.
Well, the man said. I reckon you hit the nail on the head. That’s the crux of your problem right there.
He took a step forward and tipped up the brim of his hat and there in the grainy light the Kid recognised the man in black as Mary Ellen’s father.
Now I’ll ask you again, Mary Ellen’s father said. Where you from?
The Kid saw the punch coming this time and it landed him in the stomach.
A kid out of nowhere, Mary Ellen’s father said. That’s pretty much what I thought.
His face disappeared below the brim of his hat and he popped a match on his coat and looked up at the Kid again and took theburning cigarette from his mouth and exhaled and his smoke turned and tumbled in the shadows.
Well I guess they don’t teach much in the way of manners down there, he said. In these parts a boy asks before he goes puttin his hand to a man’s daughter.
The Kid licked the blood from his lip.
But some kid from nowhere, Mary Ellen’s father said. He just rides on in and takes what he wants.
I walked her to the dance, the Kid said. That’s all.
You walked a step too far, Mary Ellen’s father said. You oughter have stopped before ever you crossed the street to her house. Hell boy. He shook his head and dropped his cigarette and ground it out with his heel. You oughter have stopped at the town limits.
Behind him something stirred the light. The Kid’s head was all shaken up and he squinted past Mary Ellen’s father into the churn of shadow and sun and he saw a star.
Mary Ellen’s father didn’t take his eyes off the Kid but inclined his head to the sound and smiled. Mornin Roy, he said.
Sheriff, said the man with the broken hand and he stood away from the Kid and touched his good hand to his hat. Two voices echoed him to left and right of the Kid at either shoulder.
Boys, said the sheriff.
Mary Ellen’s father ran his eyes up and down the Kid one last time as if an accurate guess at the length and breadth and weight of the Kid might be required of him at some future date and when he was good and done he stood aside.
The sheriff stopped in front of the Kid.
Okay, the sheriff said. Okay. You boys there get his hands tied.
The floor of the barn came up at the Kid. Boots trod the hay. The rope wound around his wrists and doubled back and hitched him up neat as a mule.
You’re takin me in? he said. For what? For dancin?
Check his saddle roll, said Mary Ellen’s father.
In the sun coming down from the high window the two gold candlesticks glowed as if they were still holding flames. Between the bars of his cell the Kid looked at the pair of them there on the sheriff’s desk.
He put em there, the Kid said. You know he did.
Behind the candlesticks the sheriff raised his boots to the edge of the desk and set one on top of the other. Here’s what I know, he said. Somebody put them things in your saddle roll. He says it was you and you say it was him. Trouble is, son, I’ve known Judge Givens these thirty years. You and I are just gettin acquainted.
That’s right son.
It don’t even make no sense, the Kid said. Say I did take em. I didn’t take em but say I did. What kind of damn fool would I be to leave em there in the barn?
Some kind, the sheriff said. Some kind. Same kind maybe as thinks no harm’s gonna come from takin Mary Ellen Givens dancin.
The Kid pushed himself back from the bars. He turned and took three steps and sat on the edge of the cot and after that he had nowhere to go. He looked at the yellow candlesticks again. They had some kind of flowers in a twist at the top and their stems were ridged like the chamber of a gun.
They solid gold?
The sheriff raised his head from his notebook and looked at the candlesticks too. Reckon so, he said.
They sure are pretty things.
That they are.
Can I touch one?
The sheriff looked at the Kid.
I’m gonna be payin for em long enough aint I, said the Kid. I reckon I ought to put a hand on one at least.
The sheriff dropped his feet to the floor. He looked at the Kid again. His hand closed around the shaft of the candlestick closest to him and hefted it and the Kid could see the work of it in his neck and arm but he shifted his grip and carried the candlestick casually and without haste towards the cell and the Kid got up from the cot and put his forehead against the bars and watched the candlestick coming.
The sheriff stopped just out of arm’s reach. You wouldn’t be fixin to hit me over the head with this thing and take my keys now would you son?
You sure about that?
I swear it.
Okay then. Here you are.
He swung the candlestick towards the Kid and the Kid caught the other end of the shaft and it dragged his shoulder down and he blew out his breath through his teeth.
Solid gold, he said. Well I guess there’s good money in judgin folks.
There’s most everthin in it, the sheriff said, dependin on how you go about it.
The Kid turned the candlestick on its side and balanced it across his palms. How much you reckon they weigh?
Between the two of em, son? The sheriff shook his head. I’d say just about enough to hang you.
No, said Alicia. Leave it. Go home. Bad dogs.
Her voice came louder through the gap in the rocks.
Kitty kitty kitty?
The dogs from the Green Camo Hut weren’t the brightest dogs in the world or they would have found their way in from the other side of the rocks by now but they still weren’t going away and neither was Alicia. There were sounds of a scuffle below and the volume of whining and panting and scrabbling fell and when Alicia’s voice came again it was further away and she sounded short of breath.
It’s okay, she said. You can come out now. You’ll be safe. I’ve got them.
Winstone thought about coming out. With his hands up maybe. He wondered what he’d say to Alicia and what she’d say back and what they’d do after that. He thought of them standing there face to face. Close up. He thought that maybe he could be from a hut on the other side of the dam and maybe Alicia would like to play cowboys with him but he knew she wouldn’t because she was too old for that. He wondered how long it had been since he’d talked to another kid or anybody at all and then he remembered exactly when it had been and he thought about Todd and Debbie and the last things they’d said and he stayed right where he was.
One of the dogs got sick of whining and started to bark. It was a crazy high-pitched kind of yap and Winstone listened to it echo over the range.
Come on, Alicia said and she sounded like she was working hard, I’m going to take you home. The kitty’s never going to come out with you two here.
What’s going on?
It was a man’s voice and it sounded rough as Bic’s the Sunday morning after a Saturday night and about as pleased to be conscious.
Nothing, Alicia said. She sounded nervous. I was just playing, she said.
The man whistled the dogs, which meant Alicia had to let go of them, and sure enough in a few seconds more the dogs were back in their original spot at the base of the rocks looking up at Winstone. It also meant that the man was the man from the Green Camo Hut and Alicia was right to be nervous.
They got a rabbit in there, said the man from the Green Camo Hut.
Alicia didn’t say anything. So she knew about feral cats then.
You should leave them to it, said the man from the Green Camo Hut. They’re doing their job.
The dogs scrabbled some more. They seemed even keener now.
Are you going to shoot it? Alicia said.
If they flush it out, said the man from the Green Camo Hut. Place is crawling with rabbits, he said.
Don’t, Alicia said. Please.
For a while there was just the noise of the dogs.
What if it isn’t a rabbit? Alicia said.
Look, said the man from the Green Camo Hut, why don’t you go play somewhere else.
Winstone waited but nobody said anything more. He waited for a while. He thought that Alicia must have gone away and he wished he could see what was going on but it seemed like asking for trouble to move. The man from the Green Camo Hut was a pretty good shot. Winstone was almost sure he wouldn’t fire into the rocks because of the ricochets and the dogs but the first thing to show clear of them was going to be in trouble.
Winstone was only a little bit scared. He’d played this scene so many times he felt almost at home holed up in the rocks with Sheriff Pat Garrett and deputies staking him out, and although Garrett’s gun wasn’t usually real on the upside this Garrett didn’t know he had Billy in there and maybe didn’t know even who Billy was or the price on his head and had never heard that name. He was just huntin rabbits.Varmints, that’s what some crazy old man in a hat would have said. And the man from the Green Camo Hut was right, the place was crawling with those. He wasn’t going to wait all morning to shoot one.
The dogs were starting to quieten down and some time soon the man from the Green Camo Hut would move off and the only problem would be how to tell when he had and also the little bit of Winstone that was scared was making him want to pee quite badly.
Some time passed. It passed with only the sound of the wind and Winstone tried counting heartbeats but they seemed an unreliable guide so he tapped out seconds, one index finger against each cheek, and got to sixty and started again until he lost track of how many times he’d done it. It occurred to him that if he peed down through the rocks he’d soon find out if the dogs were still there but the man from the Green Camo Hut would most likely be too far away to see it and anyway it was getting so he didn’t have much of a choice. Winstone started to move.
Jacko, somebody called out.
Gidday Ron, said the man from the Green Camo Hut who by the sounds of things was right under Winstone’s rock. What’s up?
There was a bark and then the dogs got back from wherever they’d been and Winstone heard them fussing about and no doubt jumping all over Ron.
Looks like it might cut up rough later on, Ron said.
Yeah, said Jacko the man from the Green Camo Hut, meaning what the hell do you want.
Mate, said Ron, could you help me out? All hell’s broken loose at my place. My granddaughter’s bawling her eyes out because she thinks you’re going to shoot a kitten.
A kitten, said Jacko.
She thinks there’s one hiding in there, Ron said. She thinks she saw it run in.
Nah, Jacko said. It would’ve been a rabbit. Baby one probably.
That’s what I said, said Ron. Thing is she’s not too keen on you shooting that either.
The wind gusted around the rocks.
She up from town? Jacko said.
Headed back tomorrow, said Ron.
Erroll’s not up this weekend is he? Jacko said after a while.
No, Ron said. It wouldn’t be theirs.
I’ve told him, said Jacko. He’s a bloody idiot bringing that cat up here.
They’ve got a bell on it, Ron said.
Nobody spoke for a while.
Could’ve been a feral she saw, Jacko said.
Yeah, said Ron. Could’ve been.
I’ll have a word to Grizz, Jacko said. Tell him he might want to put out some traps.
Wind’s coming round, said Ron.
Yeah, Jacko said.
You headed back down?
May as well. Jacko gave a long stretching yawn and followed it up with a belch. I was having shit-all luck shooting the bugger anyway.
The next Winstone heard of him was a whistle from away down the slope and Winstone rocked backwards and forwardscounting the times and got to thirty and pissed quietly into the rocks and when he’d finished he closed his eyes and breathed in and out and felt as good as he’d felt in a while and maybe ever.
He looked out and Ron was already out of sight and Jacko was halfway down the hill with the dogs behind him. Winstone waited a bit longer but not too long in case Alicia came back to see if the kitten was okay. Then he climbed up and through the rocks and crawled out on the other side and looked around him. All clear. He started to scramble commando-style towards the edge of the tor but there was a speargrass clump in the way and he had to get up. Slowly he raised his head above the last rock.
The air split. Fifteen metres ahead of him on the open slope a rabbit twisted out of the grass and screwed left and that was the last thing it did. The crack of the shotgun was still rolling around the range and Winstone hadn’t finished working out if he was alive and the dogs were already there. The wind snapped west and pushed down the smell of green meat. Winstone turned around and crawled back into his hole.
THE KID LAYon his back on the cot looking up at the jailhouse window. The sky was picked clean by the wind and in the square of night he could see there were stars and they looked ragged and unfriendly. He could hear the wind in the yard outside and the wind up under the eaves and a loose shutter bang against a wall in no particular rhythm. The shutter banged and a dog barked up and a voice yelled out at the dog to hush and the shutter banged again and whatever else might be happening in Granville that night the wind blew clear away.
A gust came in through the office door and the sheriff followed it in and bolted the door behind him. He took off hishat and laid it down on the desk and wiped the sting of the wind from his face with his bandana. Phew, he said. It’s blowin tonight.
Hey sheriff, the Kid said.
What is it son?
You know if somebody fed my horse?
I daresay they did. Johnsons’ll take good care of him, don’t you worry.
Maybe you could check, the Kid said.
Well maybe I could. Maybe next time I go out I might swing by there.
I’d appreciate that.
The sheriff walked over to the stove and took a rag from the nail above the stove and wrapped it around the pot and poured himself a cup of coffee. You know, he said, Judge Givens’ boys are out there combing the country for your friend. I don’t suppose you could tell me where to find him.
What friend? the Kid said.
The sheriff sipped his coffee. The one you were roomin with son. The one everbody in town saw you ride in with.
He aint a friend, the Kid said. Just a man I met on the road is all. Figured since we was both stoppin off we may as well share expenses.
That right, the sheriff said. Well maybe he aint that good of a friend. He sure did make himself scarce pretty fast. Then again I caint say as I blame him.
The Kid sat up on the cot and picked at the toe of his boot. What does the judge want with him anyway? He aint done a thing to nobody.
Same way you aint?
The Kid was silent.
Well I guess Eli’s concerned for his character, the sheriff said. The judge don’t like the company he keeps.
The sheriff looked over the rim of his coffee cup at the Kid and his cheeks glowed with the wind and the stove and the light of the lamp on the desk and the light of the lamp glinted in his eye. Behind him the Kid’s six-shooter hung on the wall.
Bang bang bang went the door but the knock upon it was light and sweet and the sheriff put down his coffee without alarm. He crossed the office and stood square in front of the door and looked through the peephole into the dark and the wind and then he slid back the bolt and opened the door.
Miss Mary Ellen, the sheriff said and he stood aside to let her in. Your daddy know you’re here?
No, Cooper said and his gun barrel gleamed in the dark below her jaw. Miss Mary Ellen’s with me tonight.
She stepped in through the door neck stretched and eyes darting back like a spooked-up horse.
Easy now, Cooper said and he kicked the door to behind them.
I’m guessin we found your friend, the sheriff said to the Kid, but he didn’t take his eyes off the gun on Mary Ellen.
Drop your weapon, Cooper said.
The sheriff unbuckled his gun belt and let it fall to the floor. Cooper inclined his head to the left and the sheriff slid the belt that way with his foot and whether by accident or device the belt stopped midway between them. It lay there on the boards with the leather caught up in itself and the pearl grips of the sheriff’s twin Colts glowing yellow and red in the lamplight.
The point of Cooper’s pistol pressed into Mary Ellen’s throat and his finger was on the trigger. He had hold of her other arm behind her back and with Mary Ellen curved over his heart he moved into the room real slow. Pick it up, he said.
He let go of her arm and Mary Ellen bent her knees and sank to the floor and Cooper’s gun sank with her and kept her chin up and her back braced straight as a poker.
By the leather, Cooper said. Use both hands.
Mary Ellen picked up the belt. She held it there across her knees with a .45 hanging off to each side and Cooper told her to get up and she did and she still hadn’t looked at the Kid who stood watching the three of them go about their slow-motion play through the shadowed frame of his cell.
Cooper reached around her and took a gun from the holster with his left hand and opened the chamber and emptied it and reached for the other gun and emptied it too and the sheriff’s bullets rang on the boards at Cooper’s feet like so many nails in a coffin.
Throw him the keys, Cooper said, and the sheriff’s big iron key ring arced through the light and the dark and the Kid caught it neat as neat in one hand and in two seconds more he was free and standing at Cooper’s side and buckling on his gun belt.
The sheriff shook his head. Boys, he said, you better hope I catch you before Eli Givens does.
The Kid pulled out his gun and spun it around in his hand as if checking its character had not changed and then he held it on the sheriff. What do we do with him? he said to Coop. They looked at each other and they looked at the sheriff and they looked for a long time.
The palomino’s head tossed and the reins were in the Kid’s hand as he vaulted into the saddle. The Kid and Cooper hit the main street of Granville abreast and they rode it at a thunder. The wind snatched at their heels and their hats and the tumbleweeds raced and they outrode the weeds and the wind and the town and the grey was no less swift or sure of foot for the extra burden he was bearing.
On Granville’s empty street the sheriff’s door remained locked and the lamps in his office went on burning. In the yard behind the office the wind blew and the shutter banged. Inside,the light of the lamps spilled over the floorboards undisturbed and beyond its circle the sheriff lay trussed and fuming behind the bars of his own cell.
Cooper’s hands reached up and closed around Mary Ellen’s waist and he lifted her down from his saddle. On the sandy floor of the canyon pale in the moonlight she stood looking at them with her chin held high and her hair was whipped and wild and her eyes were lost in shadow.
It’s okay, the Kid said. He stood square to Coop and his feet were spread and his right hand was braced at his thigh. You can let her go now Coop.
Go, said Coop and it wasn’t too dark to see him smile. Now what do you think Miss Mary E? Should I let you run back to your daddy?
Mary Ellen swept her hair back. What do I think? she said. Well Mr Cooper I guess I think it’s about time you and your friend stopped standin there and got us up a fire and some coffee.
Behind the Kid’s boots the fire sparked up the night and the crickets sang in the blue and he let the armload of wood he’d fetched tumble down and across the fire Cooper spoke and his voice was easy.
Well the Kid here bought it, Cooper said. Let’s hope your friend the sheriff did too.
The light of the fire shone in Mary Ellen’s brown hair. We got away didn’t we, she said.
We sure did, Cooper said and he tossed the dregs of his coffee into the embers. We sure did.
The Kid eased himself down onto the ground at Mary Ellen’s side and stretched out and propped himself up on his arm. Her hands were folded around her coffee cup and he watched them there. Weren’t you scared? he said.
No, she said and he looked up at her face and she was alreadylooking at him and it seemed like she might have been looking at him for a while but at that moment she turned away and spoke to Cooper across the fire. Well maybe I was a little scared, she said, in case Roy tried to shoot you.
That’s mighty kind of you, Cooper said.
Not really, Mary Ellen said. I figured he’d most likely hit me instead. But after we got Roy’s guns I was okay.
Cooper nodded. He tipped up the brim of his hat with his thumb and from that improved perspective took in the rocks around and the sky above them. You sure your daddy’s men won’t search for us here?
They don’t know this place, Mary Ellen said. We’re on old man Jackson’s land. Nobody rides up here on account of he’ll shoot em.
Well that makes me feel a whole lot better Miss Mary E, Cooper said.
I’ll take the first watch, the Kid said.
That seems fair, Cooper said, since you aint done nothin else all day. Be sure and do a better job of it than you did of goin to check on the horses.
He untied his saddle roll and shook his blanket out and settled under it with his head on the saddle and his boots to the fire and his hat down over his eyes.
Here, the Kid said, and he set the palomino’s saddle behind Mary Ellen and got out his blanket and gave it to her and as she took it her hand brushed his and she didn’t move it away.EAST
You had to know when to stop. It was called a cut and it meant getting rid of the stuff you didn’t want people to see and according to Zane andEvert’s Guide to American Filmit was the second most important part of making a movie. Shooting it was first, and his last summer in Clintoch Winstone and Zane did a lot of that, but no matter how fine the weather was they never shot in daylight.
Zane said it should be dark because all the best scenes in cowboy movies were dark and before they started he’d pull the curtains tight and turn on the lamps and he showed Winstone the name for what they were doing there in the movie book. Day for night. They were turning afternoons at Addison Road into Wild West American nights and Zane said if they had more equipment they could turn the sky black and the whole world blue and the sun would become the moon but as it was they could only do the inside of his place.
Outside the summer came and went and people in Addison Road mowed their lawns and the bitumen softened around the chips in the seal and inside Winstone played a number of roles but the one he liked best was director. When it was his turn to direct he got to tell Zane what to do. Zane’s video camera had an LCD screen but Zane said it was better to look through the eyepiece and Winstone agreed because that way he sawthe scene he was making and nothing else and the world was a rectangle edged in black and he got to say what went in it. If he didn’t like how the coffee table looked he just had to turn his head or step to the left or zoom in and it was gone like it never existed and even if you fell over it later on you could edit that bit out and no one had to know.
Cut, he could say and turn the camera off and Zane had to stop what he was doing and go back to being himself. Then they’d look at each other and laugh and Winstone got to decide if they went for another take or stopped for a craft service break and it was a shame not all of life was like that.
Generally, Winstone didn’t mind staying in the house all the time because Zane had a new 52-inch plasma TV and things looked better on that than they did outside. Clintoch didn’t have much in the way of a range. Its sierras were low and where not scruffily green and studded with gorse they were piled with logging rubbish. Its paddocks of clumpy grass did not gleam in the sun and neither did its horses. The old limeworks was the closest thing to a canyon they had and a disused mine and a desert as well and there was no river down there behind the HAZARD signs but brown puddles of varying depths sprouting slime and water boatmen.
But still, there were times Winstone thought he’d like to see that big old American moon in the Clintoch sky. Zane said he couldn’t promise him that but one night they could go outside and they did and they filmed Cowboys and Rustlers.
Zane was chief rustler and Winstone had shot him and he was on the ground being dead. Zane hadn’t wanted to ruin the lawn so instead of a campfire they’d lit the portable gas barbecue and they’d put some cheese sizzlers on it to set the mood and the smell and the smoke of the sizzlers drifted over the garden and through the fence and past the closed curtains of neighboursthe filming couldn’t disturb because they had hitched up their caravan and gone and Zane was feeding their cat so he knew they wouldn’t be back until Monday.
The sizzlers smelled good, but Zane’s nose didn’t even twitch. Winstone held the camera as steady as he could and moved in for a close-up. He could see the places where the bones of Zane’s skull stretched his skin and they were white in the moon and he could make out no glint of Zane’s eyes in the darkness of their sockets.
Winstone thought about Zane being dead and he was surprised at how little he felt about that. He thought about the dead sheep melting slowly into the ground behind the shelterbelt on Boundary Road and the time he’d seen a maggot fall out of its nose and he couldn’t zoom in because of the dark but he got down on his knees on the lawn beside Zane’s head and he filled the frame with Zane’s face and it felt funny to be looking at Zane like that without Zane looking back and he wondered if that was how Zane felt looking through the lens at him in all the scenes when Winstone was captured and tied up and blindfolded and waiting to be rescued.
He didn’t say cut. But Zane opened his eyes anyway and for a second he looked a bit frightened to find the camera right there at the end of his nose and then he smiled and said put that down for a bit. Winstone turned the camera off and looked at the whole of Zane’s face and Zane had the sort of look Marlene sometimes got when she was coming up out of a dream and Zane raised his outstretched arm from the ground where it had fallen when he got shot and Winstone lay down and curled into Zane’s shoulder. They didn’t say anything or do anything, they just lay and looked at the stars coming out above the shrubs and the smoke and the neighbours’ tin roof and the grass was cool and springy under their backs and they might have gone to sleepright there on the lawn except the sausages were burning.
Hours later, walking the last stretch of Boundary Road with Zane’s car behind him in the last of the dark and the sky already threatening dawn, a scene came into Winstone’s mind for no reason that he could see and in it Zane was the one all tied up and afraid and alone and in need of some cowboy in a white hat to come along and save him.
Back in his own bed he scrunched down and textedsafefrom the greater darkness underneath the covers. Zane texted smiley face back and Winstone thought of him turning the car around and driving back to Addison Road and walking into his house and how quiet it would be.
Get your hand off your dick, yelled Bic not very long afterwards and it came as a double surprise since it was Saturday.
You too, Bic said and he whipped the covers off Bodun’s bed as well and Winstone bet Bodun was thanking Christ he was there because he hadn’t been when Winstone got home and Winstone could smell the Woodies coming out of his pores. Luckily for Bodun they were coming out of Bic’s too.
Start getting your shit packed up, Bic said. We’re moving.