Although most would not have believed him if he said so, Jack always did think himself a decent, reasonably collected sort of man.
On most nights of summer, he would enact the exact same routine and the same systematic way of life, waiting by the side of the red-dusted path in eager anticipation, patiently standing there in wait for a gentleman of some sort that might have been called a victim or otherwise a player in the great game he referred to as his very existence. Most nights he would wait there until came the startling blaze of dawn and the birds, when past came the horses and their raucous, cocky riders, accompanied commonly by the roars of early morning calls and the gentle thuds of come-morning hooves. It was in those moments that he dared retreat, although more often than not he would return ever and again to once more take up his still and erect post by gates, and in the dense shadows of eucalypts and spinifex as he shuffled his feet in the dirt and held tight to his pistol. Occasionally, it would vary, and perhaps he would take his chances by the grey of dawn or the loneliness that devoured the hours of dusk. When day reigned, he would make his place in the depths amidst thick dirt and the spines of plants, awaiting the calls of the butcherbirds and the brush of a serpent’s hide against his outstretched fingers, perhaps sparing himself a grin as he would take his stand as a watching sentinel - quietly waiting by the high rocks and groves.
The higher he went, the better the sight of the setting sun, after all, and that was hardly something worth compromising.
The skies were beautiful to watch in the peace of the quiet afternoons, and he treasured them – so startling, and so intensely vivid, as if the stark contrasts of those few wispy clouds that laid themselves out against the horizon had been carved there by God’s own hand, and the grey and black that dripped from and stained their edges was scarcely more than a spill of diluted paint. There were the sharp, black outlines of the trees, and the dull, faded humps of forgotten hills in the far distance. Perhaps the rose-gold and brown of another distant horizon was but thick, impenetrable dust, having rushed up to meet the dim blue sky in yet another wild storm. The sky was like his country itself – so unpredictable, strange and mismatched, and yet so startlingly welcome to a traveller’s weary eyes. It was home to one such as him. Terra nullius was his home.
He could have easily called himself an ordinary fellow of that land, with this voice of culminated, clipped tones, browned skin and shining eyes – that was, if not for the fact that he was something far different from the usual person, and far removed from the norms of society. He was an outcast, but he embraced that truth with open mind. People always knew little of him; if they were forced to give him something akin to a name, they may have called him a bushranger.
He thought it a very strange term. What did it say about him, other than that people thought he was a man of simple enough personality and traits that he could be pinned down under such a universal term? He was something much removed from that, he knew, and he was a person with far more personality and wit than such a foolish generalisation as that could allow. He’d been called a gentleman many times, likely owing to his pastimes of breathing out the idle verses of sonnets and murmurs of thanks to the paying victims of his dangerous profession. More often than not he would offer a sun-beaten hand to the women, tip his hat to the driver and offer another of his cheerfully spoken pleasantries when the coach was again sent on its way. He was never a criminal, and he believed very firmly in that truth. He was never in the wrong. He never shot a man, never pressed the barrel of his revolver to their foreheads, and never raised his voice except to give careless, cheery laughs; never did he voice death threats. What, then, had he ever done to be forced to hide, and shun himself away from the common man? Why was he, such a kind, mischievous spirit, looked down upon? What had he done to deserve it, other than being the man he was?
What had he done to deserve ignorance?
Perhaps it was best that he never fully allowed it to get to him, or consume him. There was nothing to be gained through resentment and hatred, even when those sorts of memories were the strongest sort in his head... alongside ones of betrayal, and hurt.
But if he had to despise one thing about himself, it would be his decency, not his kindness. It was always his odd, out of place naivety, and his practise of being the charmer, the lover, that winded up making him much more susceptible than he had ever considered. It was his desire to assist and to trust people that was the trait he personally hated about himself, especially when the very people he gave his heart to could do him in with one spoken sentence to a constable, and he would find himself imprisoned for God-knew how many years (yet, he knew it was difficult to be transported to one’s own country, even when he did hate hauling logs and sleeping on planks).
There was never a scrap of hatred in his body - not once. He could never bring himself to truly hate another human being, when he knew the only crime done to him was one committed by that great body of society. Single people alone weren’t the ones that condemned and imprisoned men like him. They were simply the onlookers, and witnesses to the cruel cycle of life, and it could only be fit that what had been taken from him was paid by society’s riches when he waited by lonely roads and held up coaches, snipping heavy purses from breast pockets. He saw nothing wrong with his actions. Who truly had the right to oppress him, after all, when all his crime had been was being incidentally raised into a starving family? He had to survive, to eat and to make his way through life, just like anyone else. Did it truly matter how it was that he got there?
Yet quite clearly, it did - at least, it did to greater society, and everyone outside of his small circle of acquaintances and likewise ‘criminals’.
But not even being the man he was, and being an ostracised bushranger was able to stop him from being human. He was like anyone else of his time, with a love for freedom and the sensation of the wind at his neck, with a love for quiet nights by a fire when came July, and sombre waltzes in the weak, fading light of a lamp when everyone else had gone to relish in sleep, preparing for another November dawn of blinding sun and trembling heat. Like anyone else, he had emotions. He grinned for the shine of the early mornings; yelled after a snarky policeman and fools’ insults; cried for the pain and the loss and the blood when he was alone and the night had fallen into blackness, when he knew another of his kind had been tried and killed. He was tired and weary in the evenings, when halfway along a road he might pause to spare a thought for Power or Hall or Gardiner. He was confident in the presence of a woman, perhaps offering her one of his laughs for a chance to see her smile in the light of morning.
And like anyone else, he loved.
Yet, love was not to be this pitiable figure’s glorious reprieve or saving grace in a life of prolonged hardship. It was to be his downfall, and his eventual end.
It was to be his death.
If there was ever one thing he should have truly regretted about being the sort of man he was, it would not be anything to do with his ways of snatching away coins and wealth. It would not be the fact he carried a gun and had a price on his head, and was always running to escape that deadly £1000 promise made. And it was more than just his simple kindness and decency – it was his ability to love. He should never have fallen prey to affections for women he would never be able to kiss the fingers of or dance alongside, as all foolish lovers do. He should never have fallen in love with a woman who was to be his downfall.
For a number of years she had been at the corner of his mind – only catching faint glimpses of her where she resided in the fields he very often passed on his horse; she being the third daughter of one of the many squatters in the area. He’d hardly dared to allow her to enter his thoughts until months later when she did the unthinkable. She had hidden him – allowing him to stay in the fields until nightfall when the constables had gone away, deeming him absent from the area. It had been his own fault for being spotted riding along that road and being so nearly caught, and she had taken the fall and risk; even her own father being entirely oblivious to the fact his own flesh and blood had betrayed herself and her dignity by taking pity on such a wretched figure of society.
It was hardly surprising, after that, that never could he forget or lay aside memories of that kindness, knowing the worth and compassion of it. So easily could she have handed him in, or shot him, even, yet still she had refrained, and that sort of grace was hardly something easily forgotten. And to think how wealthy she could have become!
But the strangest thing out of the whole affair, and the aftermath of coming so close to being found wasn’t the worst part of it all. The most peculiar part was the fact that he’d never supposed that he would feel affection toward a girl when, in truth, she was hardly a recognisable figure. He had often fancied he would one day be foolish enough to fall for a wealthy woman of good status and embroidered sleeves – not a poor girl in a tattered dress, who worked her hours away in the dust and heat of the fields, pulling away grasses and digging furrows into red, inhospitable earth, or otherwise slaving away inside a crude house of sticks and straw, pricking her fingers with a needle. But still, never could he help himself but visit her when given the chance, even making his way to the fields at dusk when he knew she would be with the livestock and he would be able to see her, if only for a moment - despite the knowledge that the roads were often risky for men such as him when sunset came, and people were heading home into their towns with the easy chance of seeing him there.
None of that mattered to him.
Initially, he only considered the visits and kindly exchanged, yet dangerous words to her to be objects of gratitude and payment, but slowly, ever slowly, he realised why it was that he always hastened to the fields to see her face again, and why he would give her rings he had taken from the fingers of aristocrats. Never did he feel that same sort of attachment and tenderness to any of the high class women, despite their pretty lips and clean dresses. The kisses to the hand and the bold gestures made when he held up coaches and travellers were never more than idle acts of personal amusement, and satisfaction in seeing a person smile (or sometimes bare their teeth in irritation, for that matter). Hardly ever was it more than that or something more than an act quickly said and quickly done.
It didn’t matter who she was, or what she looked like – no less, to him she was a girl far, far different from the rest of them, with a good heart and a beautiful smile, delicate and rewarding thing that it was.
Who knew, maybe it was her smile and good spirit that made it so inconceivable and difficult to contemplate when he was betrayed. Maybe that was why it hurt so dearly.
That was when they came for him, and captured him, shackling his wrists and his pride, leaving him with blood spilling from open bullet wounds and eyes gone dim in melancholic reflection. It should never have happened. He should never have been caught, unless he had been betrayed by someone he was close to. Nobody should have been able to find him, or know his location, when he was so aloof by nature.
It was impossible –altogether impossible.
But who could have done such a thing? Had they been blackmailed, or forced, or tortured? Had the constables bribed them?
There was only one option, he knew, and that knowledge hurt him more than all the irons at his feet and the wounds in his body, and even the promise of death.
He didn’t fear death, after all – he never feared death, feeling he had no proper reason to, when he spent his entire life running and living on the brink of being executed. He surrounded himself with guns and dangerous men. It was hardly something easy for him to be afraid of.
But betrayal was an altogether different matter. Betrayal was something much more hurtful and grating on one’s conscious, in the end. Simply to think that he had placed trust enough in a person that they should know his personality and whereabouts was one matter, but when a person thought Jack, himself, was worthless enough as a human being that they could simply cash him in like a bull in the marketplace, he truly felt the impact of it. What, was he no more than an animal, after all? Was his worth so low, and his trust so thin?
And he had loved her. He had given his heart to a stranger, trusting her more than he had trusted anyone for a dozen years. He had fallen in love, and now was paying the price for doing something so childish and foolish.
He was going to die, and nobody would bat an eyelid at the indifference and cruelty of it all. Nobody would know. Nobody would care, least of all her.
That night in the cells was a lonely, solitary one; despite the fact he was surrounded with half a dozen men like him, he felt it to be a sort of solitary confinement in itself. He was alone, and condemned – but unlike the others, his throat did not tighten, and tears did not enter his eyes. What was the use in regret and hatred? Part of him wanted to hate her, true, and despise her for everything she had done, but she didn’t deserve that, surely. She would be happy, rich, even, and more than likely marry a wealthy land owner or banker, with her newly acquired fortune. Could he hate her for being happy?
He was no less silent in the days following. He ought to have considered himself lucky – most of the prisoners in the cell he had shared had probably been there for months awaiting evidence and witnesses, and would probably be there for months longer. If he considered it, it was a lucky thing he had all the evidence there to allow him death. He didn’t lift an eyebrow in all the stillness of the courtroom, silently regarding the judge with dull green eyes. He didn’t speak a word in defence, even when came the false accusations he’d considered inevitable.
Murder. Bank robbery. Kidnapping.
What was the point in fighting? What could a thousand words do to save the case of a man who’d been condemned since birth? What could a thousand words do to save a fellow like him, regardless of whether or not they had a good heart, or had instead murdered fifty people?
What was the difference?
He was wordless, still, when dawned the next day. The stars still glinted, and the sun still rose, blissfully ignorant to the world of suffering far beneath their heavenly resting places. Life went on around him, and he knew already the crowd would be gathering by the gallows. What was he but mindless entertainment, anyhow? Soon enough they would come to slowly take him away and he would be led to the gallows with hands bound and head held high.
And come, they did, not half an hour later to lead him to his death. He considered it a slow, mournful march – a reflective one, also, given that he certainly had plenty of time to consider what lay ahead, and remember her. He hoped she would be safe, happy and content. He was going to be caught soon enough, wasn’t he? Where was the use in thinking otherwise, or living his last minutes in cold resentment?
No less, there was no small part of him that didn’t turn to stone at the sight of the noose.
And there was no small part of him that didn’t ache when he saw her.
There she was, the same girl he had fallen in love with those months ago. But she was a far different person, then, as she broke through the crowd with tear-stained cheeks and trembling hands, throwing her arms around him without a touch of a manner that would have been considered ‘proper’. He had felt nothing but her body pressed against his own; heard nothing but her voice in his ear.
“Th-They knew... they would have killed my father, they told me, and they cut his throat... they didn’t listen to me when I lied, and then they were forcing themselves upon me. I don’t deserve to live. I don’t deserve to be alive for what I’ve done...”
And then she was sobbing, but none of the crowd or the police could pull her back, or force her away. He could find himself doing nothing but savouring the seconds he had to hold her close and kiss her, forgetting for a still moment in time that he was going to die.
“Don’t cry for me. There’s no point in wasting tears on a dead man. It wasn’t your fault.”
But he himself betrayed his own words, feeling tears pricking at his eyes as he kissed her again and again in the wretched sort of hope that he would be able to cling onto whatever time he had remaining, and remain there in bliss forever as he held her amidst all the shouts and yells and the voices about him. There was no one but them, standing there as they embraced one another.
“I love you.”
For a moment in time, and even as he felt the noose tighten around his neck and his vision turn to black as her fingers touched his for the last time, he fancied that all the hardship, all the struggle and the pain of a short life had perhaps been worth it, if all for a final kiss, and the knowledge that even a despised man could love.