He used to have a name back in Campbelltown. Billy, they called him. Billy Moran. Seems like a strange thing to have a name, he thinks. He’s had many titles: Sydney Native, Down-the-river Jack, John Smith, to name but a few. Now he has a title he has bestowed upon himself, the very utterance of which can strike fear into men.
Oh, how the press latched onto that. Morgan the bushranger. Morgan the incendiary. Morgan the murderer. Never Morgan the man. Morgan the hunted. Morgan the traveller’s friend. It would not do for journalists to speak of him with any ounce of empathy, it seems. After all, with the current rampant bushranging, the police find themselves at risk of annihilation from politicians who would throw their men on the fire to keep the flames from their own door.
Morgan has no more regret for shooting a policeman than does the wolf for tearing the throat out of the hunter. It is their relentless pursuit that has made him into this beast that others consider him to be. He does not understand how such assertions take root, but he can guess. If only people knew the callous treatment he had been subjected to; if only he could tell his side of the story, then they’d understand. They’d be on his side against the police and the squatters then.
These thoughts rumble around Morgan’s mind most days as he returns to the waking world. He never gets enough sleep to be rested, he merely allows his body to succumb when it can’t go on, and even then only enough to stop him from collapsing. He would not allow that to happen again – too much is at stake if he allows himself a deep sleep.
He rekindles his fire and brews some tea while chomping at salted beef. He pokes the end of a Bowie knife between his teeth to get at the sinews that have caught there. Once finished with breakfast, he goes into the scrub, digs a shallow hole in the soil with the blade of his hatchet, then drops his pants. He crouches over the hole for what feels like ten minutes before he can squeeze anything out – a high sodium, low fibre diet does that. When he finishes, he fills the hole in like a cat.
He goes to the nearby creek and disrobes. His body is pale, bony and scarred. Morgan submerges in the stream, momentarily allowing himself to plunge in above his head before bursting out of the water for air. He attacks the dirt on his skin with a block of soap. He likes the feeling of being clean, though he rarely has the opportunity to enjoy it.
When he emerges, he drips dry while meticulously combing his black hair, the ebony gypsy ringlets falling around his shoulders. He continues to gaze into a stolen shaving mirror as he combs his huge beard, black as pitch but streaked with silver. Close to hand is a rifle, so that even though he is naked as a newborn he can still defend himself.
There’s freedom here, but freedom is worthless without company or something to engage his mind. His inability to read prevents him from consuming literature, though he occasionally tries to practice with newspapers. He flattens the pages on the ground and moves his finger beneath each word as he attempts to recall the lessons that he bothered to show up to as a boy. Inevitably he gets frustrated and tosses the thing in his camp fire.
Sometimes, if he is lucky, he has access to leather or twine and is able to plait ropes together.
When his supply of rum or gin is adequate, he will drink himself stupid, then, when the fire in his belly spreads to his loins, he pleasures himself to completion while thinking of some provocative individual he has encountered on his adventures, some lady with a pretty mouth or other, then passes out for an hour with no memory of the embarrassing, desperate behaviour. The boredom in the mountains is painful and as difficult to shift as a sleeping cow. These days he only moves as often as he does to keep himself occupied because he already knows the places he could camp and never be found; being found by police is not a worry to him in the bush by now. Robbing people is about the only social interaction he normally gets, and even that is losing its sheen, but he knows he could stay in one place for months at a time if he liked, because the police are incapable of finding him.
News usually reaches Morgan via his bush telegraphs, who are mostly Aboriginal boys who gather the information from farmers and stockmen Morgan trusts. This particular morning, Morgan rides to the meeting place near Walla Walla, an outcrop of huge granite boulders he often uses as a lookout, where the telegraphs are already waiting for him. He can see where a small fire is amongst the rocks by a plume of smoke. A young Wiradjuri man who Morgan knows only as “Billy” is roasting a snake over the flames. He is dressed in threadbare garments, mostly items handed to him by one of the various preachers that tried to force him to give up his heathen ways. When he sees Morgan coming he smiles broadly. His deep-set eyes twinkle. Behind him is an older man, a Welshman, whose best years are behind him. Morgan knows the Welshman as “Jack”, and considers him reliable. Both have come up from the nearby Walla Walla Station, their boss quite unaware of their absence.
Morgan rides up and dismounts. He leads the horse to a sapling and hitches it there in the shade. He walks to the others with the strange, bow-legged gait that is his signature; a result of excessive horse riding and a poorly healed leg injury from being shot during a failed horse theft.
“How much do you know about what’s happening south of the border?” Jack asks, unprompted.
“Only what I’m told,” Morgan replies. His voice is a slow drawl, almost sleepy.
“I suppose, then, that you’ve not heard of what the Victorians are blowing?”
Morgan stares at Jack. His gaze is deeply penetrating and puts the Welshman on edge.
“They say you won’t last forty-eight hours if you step foot over the border,” Jack continues.
Morgan’s eyes, usually a soft blue, now seem to turn a deep violet, and his thick black eyebrows twist and knit into a scowl. The audacity!
“Those flash bloody Victorian police reckon they can nail me, do they?”
Morgan curls his right hand into a fist and waves it in Jack’s face. He turns and paces in the dirt in the shadow of the great boulders.
“Mudyi, dhaan yanha,” Billy shouts, breaking the tension, “yamandhu minyambal dhali ngindi? Come and eat, Morgan.”
A warm smile breaks out underneath Morgan’s long, voluminous moustache; his teeth are surprisingly straight and clean. He immediately joins his friend by the fire and partakes of the bush cuisine. The snake’s flesh is warm and chewy, tasting not dissimilar to poultry.
“Mmm, good,” Morgan says. Billy smiles broadly. Morgan is the only white man he knows who will not only partake in, but embrace the customs of his people, though not as often as he would like. Jack hangs back.
“Come and eat, Jack,” Billy says.
“I’m not eating a bloody snake like a primitive,” Jack replies. Morgan whips his head around and glares at the Welshman.
“Shut your bloody mouth and eat with us you old fool,” Morgan snaps. Jack knows better than to disobey a bushranger with four revolvers poking out of his belt. He sits on the opposite side of the fire and takes a chunk of snake meat from Billy and puts it in his mouth. He chews reluctantly. It is hardly as bad as he thought, but he has his pride and he does his best not to show any enjoyment as he swallows.
“You’ll apologise to Billy,” says Morgan.
“I apologise,” says Jack.
“Gadhaang badhu,” says Billy. Despite the exertions of the church and his master, Billy had defiantly clung to his people’s language. He uses it sparingly around white men, but feels comfortable enough around this outlaw to use it liberally. Morgan had even tried to learn some phrases, but he was never well-suited to it. He knew some basics, though.
“What will you do now, Morgan?” Jack asks.
“Well, I suppose I’ll cross the Murray and teach those Victorians a thing or two. Forty-eight hours, they reckon? Child’s play.”
Morgan crosses his legs and stares into the flames. He feels an ache in his left arm and remembers a vow he swore years ago.
“Reckon I ought to pay that bastard Evan Evans a visit too. He’s got a debt that’s overdue.”
After an hour or so, Morgan returns to his mount and bids his friends goodbye. He reaches out and takes Billy gently by the hand.
“Mandaang guwu,” Morgan says softly. Billy nods silently. Morgan digs his heels in and takes off for the bush. He has a goal now. He’s going back to Victoria. Back to where it all began.