Crown Prerogative – a short story
They had made good time from the end of the railway line. The weather was cool and the horses were pleased to be off the clanking, jolting train, with its hot clouds of wood-pellet smoke and steam; and the going was easy along the old highway. The bush was growing in thick either side of the road, but the asphalt was still mainly intact, the white lines fading slowly away as the road surface took on a grey-purple tinge. Donaldson could hear his grandfather’s voice saying “what do you expect boy, that cost good tax-payer’s money.” Now it was a road to nowhere, speeding ahead to nothing but the blackened ruins of half a dozen country towns that hadn’t survived the Big Fire. Neither the men nor the horses liked passing through them. Brick hearths and chimneys stood out from the rich green scrub like some ancient monster’s teeth, while here and there stood untouched but long-abandoned buildings, grinning at them like enchanted houses from some nightmare fairy tale. He could see the men’s grip on their carbines tighten as they entered each village and loosen as they left. But this was not where they were going to find trouble, he reminded himself.
It was as they left the last of the burned-out towns that they met the Palawa, sitting quietly on the river bank. Unlike the highway itself, the big road bridge ahead of them was now little more than rusty beams and the empty air between them, yet next to it sat a yellow sandstone bridge that had probably been built by convicts soon after Settlement; its arches and cobbles patiently sitting out the centuries and waiting for the clatter of horseshoes to return. There were three Palawa; two very young men, and a much older man. All three wore sealskin cloaks and boots, and carried bags and pouches slung over their shoulders alongside long, powerful-looking bows. They left their spears at their feet as they rose to greet the approaching party. Donaldson paused for a second before he dismounted, wrestling away a sudden fear that he was about to make some terrible yet unknowable mistake. He dropped to the ground and passed his reins to Trooper Jackson, then motioned Mackay, the aboriginal policeman, to join him. The two of them scrambled down from the road to the river bank to join the Palawa men. Mackay stepped ahead of Donaldson, opening his hands in greeting.
“ya pulingina” he said, nodding to each of the Palawa in turn.
“ya pulingina milaythina mana mapali tu” replied the older of the three men, nodding back to Mackay and Donaldson. His face broke into a broad smile, radiating out from a thousand creases and wrinkles. He laughed out loud and turned to Donaldson. “Don’t worry, son. I still speak the King’s English. Even these boys here do if you twist their arm.” Donaldson looked to the two younger men, who smiled in embarrassment.
“You are welcome in our land” said the shorter of the two, in a songlike accent unlike any Donaldson had ever heard before. His companion just smiled again, and spread his hands in the same gesture Mackay had used.
“My name’s Mikey Daniels,” said the old man. “I took a clan name when we come out here, but it never really stuck. Never knew it was me they was talking to when someone called me. So I went back to what me old mum named us.”
Donaldson’s mind raced as he took that in. This was one of the original Treaty reclaimers? That must make him eighty years old if he was a day. But then he could have been anything between fifty and a hundred, this skinny old geezer with sinews like metal hawsers under a skin like an elephant’s hide.
“These lads here are Maulboyheener and Rolepa”, Mikey stated, gesturing first at the shorter man and then to the taller.
“G’day” said Donaldson, perhaps rather deliberately. “I’m James Donaldson. Tasmanian Light Horse. It’s an honour to meet you. This is Police Sergeant Geoff Mackay.”
The old man nodded. He turned to look at the troops waiting up on the road, and Donaldson saw his eye rest long on the mule train carrying their two pack howitzers and the machine gun tripods. He turned back slowly, the smile no longer filling the folds of his face.
They had called him to the barracks first. Jacobs, the Army Commandant for Hobart, had been apologetic – “Sorry to call you in so soon before harvest, James, but you’re the best bloke for this job.” Not the first time his plans had been screwed up by a mobilisation, after all – and at least this time Ellie wasn’t about to have a baby. But rather than receiving his travel warrant and beginning another long journey north to the mainland and beyond to some desultory tropical stand-off, this time he found himself being driven across town with Jacobs in his staff car. Seeing the passing trolleys and trams from the car window was quite a novelty for Donaldson; he savoured the feeling as if he were a little boy once more, and that sensation in turn filled him with an unaccountable longing. Not something he could explain to Jacobs, who in any case was fully absorbed in his efforts to flick some intruding substance visible only to himself from the brim of his slouch hat. Jacobs raised his eyes as the car drew through the gates of Government House and looked at Donaldson. “Ready?” was all he said, before an orderly opened his car door and he stepped out onto the gravel, putting his hat back on with precision and evident satisfaction that it now met his standard for cleanliness. Ready for what, though, Donaldson at that stage had no idea whatsoever.
They were led onto a verandah where they waited long enough to be served morning tea by another white-jacketed orderly. Donaldson stared out over the sparkling waters of the Derwent, the morning sun already burning white in the sky, although the air was still fresh. A bulk windjammer under Chilean flag was being towed carefully under the bridge by a tug to load up at the zinc works, her four masts reaching nearly as high as the great arc of the bridge itself. Further downriver, three graceful white pinisiq in full sail were putting in to Macquarie Wharf, ready to unload their cargoes of coffee and spices before returning to Sumatra with new loads of grain and wool. In the foreground, a train puffed and wheezed its way out of the port railyards and along the riverside, wagons swaying along the track as it passed the botanical gardens. He looked around as a door opened, and a secretary requested that they follow her inside.
They were shown into a large room, where a group of men were seated round an imposing table. Donaldson had collected himself sufficiently from his earlier reverie to salute the Governor on entering the room, who was seated at the head of the group. The Governor waved them to seats at the table, as Donaldson took in with some surprise those other members of the group he could recognise. “Captain Donaldson”, said the Governor, “You know the Premier? The Solicitor General, and the Police Commissioner?” He nodded, somewhat stupidly – he didn’t really know them, although he had once declared his ardent passion for the Premier’s younger sister at a grade ten combined social. She had not been impressed.
The Premier had started the meeting, staring intently at the two soldiers through the thick lenses of his wire-framed glasses. “We have a problem in the Treaty territory,” he had begun, “and we need to resolve it promptly and decisively.”
“We and the Palawa have always respected the terms of the Treaty very carefully, as you know,” he continued. “Once the land grant was made, and the Reclaiming clans returned to their lands there, it was agreed that there would be no further contact between the Palawa and the outside world unless it was explicitly initiated by the Palawa. While there has been a certain amount of – shall we say – traffic between the Reclaimers and the majority of Aboriginal people who chose to remain among us, we have turned a blind eye.” Donaldson saw the Commissioner of Police suppress a chuckle. “Our only formal contact has been an annual visit by an immunisation team, to give them some chance against pandemics. And they have never asked us for any other help before.”
“But this year, the immunisation team came back with a message from the Palawa leaders. They had been attacked by armed white men and several of their young men killed. They are invoking the terms of the Treaty to seek the Crown’s protection from this threat. And that, Captain Donaldson, is where you come in.”
The Governor sat forward in his chair at this point. “I have spoken with Canberra about this at length, as you would expect.” He looked down into his coffee cup reflectively, as if inspiration lay in its dregs. “We agree that upholding the terms of the treaty is paramount. And the Australian Government believes that this is a job for the Army, not just the state police. And both Governments therefore accept that this may have consequences in terms of the level of force that may be used in this operation. Michael here will be able to advise you further, won’t you?” he said, looking at the Solicitor-General.
“Yes, Governor. It’s pretty simple. Any reasonable and necessary force may be used by the Crown to ensure the sovereignty and integrity of the Palawa people and the Treaty lands. The Crown in the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Tasmania is their ultimate protector, and the Treaty voids the rights of any non-Palawa Australian citizen who enters the Palawa Treaty lands. Whoever attacked them – if they are still there – has no rights under Australian law. Which allows you significant discretion as to how best to execute your mission, Captain.”
They looked at him meaningfully, but Donaldson struggled to answer. He was grateful when Jacobs intervened.
“Can we tell James any more about who we might be dealing with here, Sir?”
This question was passed to the Police Commissioner, who pulled up his substantial frame to sit erect in his chair before answering gruffly, “Not a lot. No more for sure than what the Palawa told the nurses – seven or eight white fellas with rifles who attacked a hunting party and killed five of their hunters unprovoked. By now I expect the Palawa know more about who and where they are. I wouldn’t put it past them to have dealt with them themselves. We don’t know any more than that yet. But we have made an arrangement,” he said as a smile flickered over his face in pleasure at his cleverness. “You’ll rendezvous with some Palawa guides who will track them for you.”
The Commissioner spread his hands on the blotter in front of him. “Look, they could be anything. Illegal miners, illegal loggers, Deep Greenie head cases trying to be more authentic hunter-gatherers than the First Australians. We’ve seen all of them on the mainland. All we really know is that they were armed, they’re trespassing, and they shot a bunch of black fellas who were out hunting kangaroos. So they’re not good neighbours.”
The Governor stared once more into his coffee cup, as if calculating precisely how long it would be until it was refilled. He looked up as the Premier spoke. “ Two and half centuries ago, we all but exterminated the Palawa’s ancestors. The Treaty was signed to go some way to right that wrong. And the Palawa have honoured their obligations to us. If white blood has to be shed to honour our obligations to them, so be it.”
The Governor leaned forward. “We will not tolerate anarchy here, James. The Crown will uphold the Treaty. You will see to that.” And with that he rose from the table, as an orderly pulled open the patio doors for lunch.
With Mikey and his two companions leading them, it didn’t take the party long to locate the intruders; they marched for a day and half, sometimes through bush but often through open, almost park-like grasslands. The Palawa men weren’t tracking; they clearly knew exactly where they were going ahead of time, and Donaldson was not inclined to query their knowledge. For their part, the aborigines kept themselves separate from the soldiers and their officers, staying ahead and conferring quietly in Palawa-Kani from time to time – usually mindful of whether Mackay was nearby before they spoke. On the afternoon of the second day, Mikey explained that they were drawing close, and they should halt this side of an imposing ridge. Donaldson and his men established a patrol harbour, drawing the horses into the trees and setting up their hootchies. The Palawa men went off hunting, and returned some hours later very pleased with their haul of wallaby meat and duck eggs. The soldiers were less entranced by their tinned rations, but, as Squadron Sergeant Major Franklin-Tsang was keen to remind them, dinner was a parade, not a gastronomic event. They tried to get a decent sleep, for they all knew the next few nights would be busy.
In the morning, Donaldson had Mikey and his men guide his initial commanders’ recce. He took Anderson and Cohen, his own troop commanders, Duckworth, the artillery troop commander from Launceston, and Sergeant van Wijk, the machine gun section commander. Mikey led them up the big ridge on foot until they were just below its crest. He stopped them there to explain. “Other side of this ridge, you’ll see ‘em. A little way off, but it’s clear from here. They don’t have any look-outs this side, only other side.”
The men moved forward at the crouch until they crested the ridge and crawled forward into some bush from which they could see the ground in front of them. Before them, a broad valley opened out to the sea beyond. The valley was deep rainforest, filled with trees that had stood long before the French had first sailed up the sparkling coast that lay beyond, the first European eyes to take in this land. A river flowed down the valley, opening out in the coastal plain into a series of great lagoons behind sand spits, traversed by a bridge, which was the only visible sign of a road which seemed to have been consumed by the growing forest around it. But it took all of them only seconds before their eyes were drawn further upriver. The green of the rainforest canopy gave way at one point along the river to a broad swathe of brown and grey mud. Felled trees lay beside the river on both sides, while the river itself seemed to turn from sparkling silver to shimmering black just beyond that opening in the forest. As they looked more closely, bringing binoculars up to their eyes in silence, they could make out plumes of smoke and structures of some kind – small, but many of them. And tiny figures, on the river bank and in the water itself. Donaldson counted at least thirty on his first attempt. He put down his binoculars and turned to Mikey.
“What are they doing?”
“You’ll see, soon enough,” the old man replied. “They don’t come up this way much,” he continued. “They go down to the sea when the ship comes for ‘em.”
“When does the ship come?” asked Donaldson.
“Every couple of months, we reckon,” said Mikey. “Probably soon.”
So they stayed on top of the ridge for a couple of hours, discussing how best to recce the camp below, how to work their way around unseen, and how to block off any exit to the sea. Donaldson did not wish to rush into anything here. This was a mission he knew he did not yet understand, and much as he wanted to get home, he knew that this was no time for laziness.
In the end, Donaldson had them spend five days recceing and observing the encampment they had seen from the ridge. The weather turned to rain and cold winds, and the soldiers cursed and swore as they stumbled in the mud and on the slippery roots in the great rainforest, and shivered in misery under their oilskins. But the weather protected them from their targets, who huddled on their river bank, apparently unaware they were being watched. And a picture began to emerge as the patrols came and went to be debriefed and to hand over their drawings and notes. They were miners, or prospectors, at least. They had quarries near the river, muddy holes in the ground they were working with pick axes and crowbars. They had dammed off ponds in the river; next to them were stone kilns on the bank, which they fed with charcoal they were burning themselves. The ponds were blue and black, and the river ran black downstream of them. And they had women and children there, families living in lean-tos and ragged tents of branches and old sails. The men broke and hauled the rocks, while the women fed the kilns and charcoal mounds, and the children paddled in the noxious tailing ponds, faces down searching for whatever lode all this revolved around. A kilometre downriver, closer to the bridge, they had another furnace. This was surrounded by mounds of discarded insulation, and they appeared to be melting down cables and scrap they had gathered from the burned out town that lay beside the lagoon. They went out at times to hunt kangaroos with rifles and dogs, but no other weaponry seemed to be in evidence. One day, a ship arrived off the lagoon, a single masted cutter, and a large portion of this community busied itself unloading stores from two whaling boats and reloading them with panniers which the patrol assumed contained metal ingots or processed ore.
After a few days, the officers were able to estimate that there were perhaps a hundred people down there in this camp, men, women and children. Which, of course, raised the very awkward question of what to do with them all.
As their intelligence formed itself more clearly, Donaldson spent some time reflecting on the true nature of his task. For all their apparent eagerness to despatch those who had killed the Palawa with force, he was confident that the Government would not thank him for causing a massacre of women and children. Well, he wasn’t entirely confident – but he had no desire to cause one, and it was a helpful rationalisation. Yet he was even more confident that – whoever these people were – they would be unlikely to welcome the opportunity to be escorted to Hobart or Launceston. Their most likely option there would be convict labour on the farms or the railway, with their children almost certain to be removed from them. Given that they had already chosen to bring their families into a deserted wilderness to scratch in the mud they had themselves contaminated, he had little expectation they would come willingly into the embrace of the authorities.
Donaldson had been careful to communicate only minimal information to Hobart in his nightly radio checks. He had kept his messages short, as the signallers cranked the charger handle on the big HF radio. His brevity was aided by the fact that most evenings their skywave signal could only reliably manage Morse transmission. He had reasoned to himself that Hobart had little to offer him by way of help, and only really offered the prospect of interfering to order him to do something regrettable. He had been left to his own devices in a number of foreign jungles in the past, after all. It was all a long way from his grandfather and the old infantryman’s stories of drones and satellite links and computer displays in his helmet. Not that they had really seemed to help make anything clearer, if you had listened closely to what the old boy was saying. Now that his plan was forming more clearly, Donaldson realised that he would need to provide more detail – and a very clear request for help with how to remove these people – but that he needed to do so only at the point where Hobart could have no option but to comply.
Which just left the Palawa.
The Palawa men had chosen to camp outside the Light Horse perimeter. After some discussion, they had agreed to tuck themselves down in a dip, so they would at least be in dead ground and out of their field of fire in the event of an attack. Although, as the days passed, Donaldson came to see why Mikey had been so dismissive of the likelihood of such a thing occurring. As a result, they had had little contact except when they accompanied recce patrols, retiring to their shelter as soon as they returned.
Donaldson made his way past the horses, bored and wet as they waited to be taken to forage in the grasslands below, and followed the track plan out to the sentry post. He paused to speak to Trooper Chingarai, the sniper, who was doing his turn on stag.
“I’m going to speak to the Palawa,” Donaldson explained.
“Are you sure, Sir? Watch out for what they’re up to in that hut of theirs,” replied Chingarai, his eyes opening wide in his broad black face in an equal parody of concern and lewdness.
“Really, Chingarai, we’ve only been out here a week,” he opined in mock disapproval, stepping past the sentry hide.
“Righto, Sir, but try not to bend over” chuckled Chingarai, returning himself to the warmest position he could find while still able to see out of the pit.
Donaldson approached the Palawa’s shelter, a temporary structure of branches and sealskins with a small fire burning within. He paused in the doorway to say “May I come in?”
Maulboyheener pulled back a skin covering the doorway and motioned him to enter. “Please,’ he said, “Come in” and gestured for him to sit. “Mikey is sleeping.” Rolepa looked up from some complicated work he was doing, which appeared to be making laces or straps from skins.
The old man was indeed lying on the floor of the warm shelter, wrapped in kangaroo skins. But his eyes flipped open immediately, and he sat up .
“Captain. You’ve come to talk.”
“Yes, Mikey. I need your advice – and your agreement.”
“You’re happy for these boys to listen?”
“That’s good. I’m old now. They need to know what happens next, and how and why. Our people need to know how this goes.”
“Look, these people attacked you. My job is to make sure they are removed from your lands. And I will do that. But I don’t want to kill them if I can possibly avoid it. And I really don’t want to kill women and children. I think I know how to do this; but I need to understand what you and your people really need here from us.”
Mikey turned away for a while, as if looking through the walls of the hut at something far away. As he waited, it occurred to Donaldson that the distance the old man’s gaze traversed might perhaps be better measured in centuries rather than meters.
The Palawa man nodded to himself at last, and turned back to face Donaldson.
“Before the white man came here to Trowunna, there were maybe ten thousand of my ancestors here on this island. It only took thirty years for there to be more white fellas here than Palawa – and just a few more for them to have killed off almost all of my people. A hundred and fifty years after that there were half a million souls in old Tasmania. Growing, building, expanding always.
“Our elders had fought for recognition, and for restitution, for decades before I was born. And it had come, in some ways, with land rights, and apologies and even a little bit of power here and there. But let’s not bullshit ourselves, Donaldson. We’re only here now, in our own land, living by the old ways, because so many people died back then. Disease, the droughts, the fires. After the Big Fire, the old Government came and asked us if we wanted this land back – not us asking them. They knew they couldn’t rebuild that time. Couldn’t afford it – had to “conserve resources for the core,” they said. So a dream of an idea started to be born among us, my parents, my uncles and aunties. And they seized on it too, the Government and their scientists and that. You know what the Treaty really was? Not just restitution – although we give thanks every day for that, for there was repentance there too, among your grandfathers. But really, it was an insurance policy for the human race, you understand?
Donaldson listened and waited, tasting the smoke from the fire in the back of his mouth. The old man continued.
“Back then, people were starting to think that white man’s civilisation couldn’t last. It felt like an ending. And there was all this space the fire had created, all this land emptied of its inhabitants. And there was us Palawa, who had been busy reclaiming our culture and our knowledge, wrestling ourselves back from the brink of extinction. And we got to thinking maybe we didn’t need anything much of the little they still had. Just needed the land and the shore and the sea. And they thought to themselves, those clever Government fellas, “they might just survive even if we can’t – let’s give’em a chance.” So they offered us a one way ticket. A ticket back into history to have another chance. That’s how it felt that day we stepped off the boat onto the shore, like we was walking along a beach back two hundred, three hundred years and our ancestors was about to jump up out of the bush and embrace us, and we’d tell them of a nightmare we’d just woken from, filled with white spirits of the dead. No offence, mate.” He chuckled and paused, his eyes narrowing for a few seconds.
“I’ll tell you what we learned, and then I’ll tell you what we need from you, Captain Donaldson of the Tasmanian Light Horse. We learned that we could live the old way. A lot of us died trying, but we have rekindled the secrets of the time before, along with some new ones we learned from you. We learned that ownership of the land is everything for us, just as it is for you. And we also learned that the White man’s time wasn’t up yet either. You’re still here, like you always were – just fewer, weaker and poorer than before. We don’t bear those people down there in that valley any grudge. They’re poor and desperate, poisoning their children even as they believe they are providing for them. But we can’t let them be in our lands, because our history and yours shows that they will never be satisfied until they own it all again, never stop until they have taken every centimetre of it from us.”
“When I was a young man, like these boys here” – he gestured to Rolepa and Maulboyheener, whose eyes were fixed on the elder, “the old King came to Hobart on the day they promulgated the Treaty. He looked us square in the eye and told us “these lands will never again be taken from you.” That’s all we need from you, Captain. Enforcement. Making good on a solemn promise. No back sliding.”
Donaldson blinked repeatedly. The smoke was almost overpowering now, but the burning in his eyes came not from any physical irritation but from the rising sense of horror at what history seemed to be demanding of him.
Then Rolepa spoke quietly to the old man in Palawa Kani. It was the first time Donaldson had heard him speak. His words sounded like a river running over stones, repeating words and phrases more like an incantation than a conversation. Mikey nodded slowly after a while, as if in assent.
Rolepa turned to Donaldson and stared intently at him. “Our land asks for no more blood. It is still soaked with the blood of our ancestors – and yours. It needs no more” he said, his voice still like a softly flowing river, even in unfamiliar English. “But my grandfather is right. They cannot stay. And no others can ever come in their place. He says you have the power to kill them all if you choose. But can you give us what we need without killing them?”
Donaldson breathed deeply, and looked each of the three Palawa men in the eye before speaking. “Yes.”
But when he left the Palawa hut, he turned away from the patrol base and walked further into the forest, where he knelt, resting his face on the muzzle of his carbine, and prayed to the Lord.
Three mornings later, they were ready. Hobart had agreed with his plan, and he had busied the men with preparation and rehearsals. Half his force had set out well before dawn, to establish their cordon and stop groups well before the rest revealed themselves to the prospectors. The fire support group followed them, to hide themselves in the high ground above the miners’ encampment – although Donaldson wanted them to make themselves and their heavy weapons very visible to the people below at the right moment. That left Donaldson and another twenty men, with the Palawa. They began their descent towards the mining encampment at about eight a.m. Initially they moved through the forest, staying hidden for a while. Further down, they joined a track that they knew would lead them down to the camp. After about half an hour, the forest either side of the track opened out, where – he guessed – the miners had been logging for their charcoal kilns. At the start of this clearing, two wooden frames had been hammered into the ground, one either side of the track. Each frame contained a sodden animal pelt, stretched out and threaded tight with twine through the battens.
“Kullener” said Rolepa, angrily.
Mackay edged his horse closer to one of the frames. “Thylacines.” He said. “Look at them. This one on the right is a reintroduced clone – see, the darker fur comes from the Tassie Devil DNA they used to culture it. This lighter one on the left is natural. I’ve never seen both side by side before. That’s something.”
Mikey replied, “Yes, they live together here now. Maybe even breed together by now. You know it’s funny. They went to all that effort to recreate old kullener – all that science and genetics and all – when all they really needed to do was take the people away and he just quietly came down out of those mountains where he was hiding all along.”
“But why kill them and string them up here?” asked Donaldson.
Rolepa looked up at him sharply and said “To make a sign. To make a sign that they have taken this land back from nature and from us.”
Donaldson nodded and sighed to himself. These people liked making themselves difficult to sympathise with, he thought.
Further down the track, they finally came upon a look-out. He was a boy, no more than ten years old. They saw him stand up in surprise as they rounded a bend. He stood stock still for a few moments, his mouth open, and they had time to take in the rags he was dressed in before he turned and flew through the bush, his bare feet carrying him soundlessly from root to root. A couple of minutes later they heard his shouts as he neared the camp.
Donaldson turned to face the party. “Ready, gentlemen?” he asked, before kicking his horse forward gently.
As the track left the forest and joined the river bank and the miners’ camp, Donaldson was relieved to look up and see the fire support party up above them on the hillside, very deliberately setting up the howitzers and heavy machine guns in full view of the valley below. They slowly walked their horses along the path leading into the middle of the riverside clearing, as women and children poked their heads out of shelters and men and women came running from the kilns and pits. Donaldson and his men stopped in a more open space where some of the people were already congregating, careful to keep out of the line of fire from the hill above. They waited.
The growing crowd was quiet, with little more than whispering to be heard. Some of the more observant among them were looking around to see what else was happening, and they soon spotted the support weapons trained on their settlement from above, which caused a murmur of concern to run through the group. A handful of men and women who had recently arrived were allowed to push their way to the front of the crowd. The way the others parted for them made it clear that these were leaders of some kind. All faces were turned to Donaldson in expectant silence; many looked anxious, a few were hostile, but none seemed especially surprised. All the faces were gaunt; the children were thin and dirty.
When he judged that all were present, Donaldson began.
“You know why we are here. These are Palawa lands. They are closed to all but the Palawa nation. You are trespassing, and some of you have killed Palawa men. I have come to remove you by the authority of the Crown. You will never come back here. And others will know what will happen to them if they try to come here. Here is what I can offer you.”
“At 3.00 this afternoon, transport ships will arrive to take you to Hobart. At 12.00, you will have packed everything you wish to take with you, and you will assemble here to be escorted to the beach. You can take anything you can carry; we won’t ask any questions. When you reach Hobart, you will receive a rail or sea ticket to anywhere you wish to travel to in Australia. Again, no questions asked.”
A man at the front of the crowd, with a face like raw meat and a grey beard that reached down to his belly, stepped forward. “Thanks, cobber,” he sneered. “That’s generous. But I don’t think so. What’ll you do to make us?”
“Anyone still here after 12.00 will be arrested. You will all be interrogated until the people who murdered the Palawa are found and punished. The rest will be charged with being illegal aliens; by the look of what you’ve been up to here, there’ll be no shortage of other charges. Your children will be taken into the care of the State. Any attempt to resist arrest by anyone will cause me to use those weapons up there to finish this. And the Palawa here will find anyone who tries to go bush. They have all the time in the world to come after you. The Navy will make sure that your friends with the boat don’t pay you any more visits either.”
Donaldson looked out at the faces staring at him. He saw anger in some, but in others he saw resignation and weariness. Good, he thought to himself.
Then a woman stepped out of the crowd and turned side on, as if to address everyone present. Her skin was deep brown from the sun, her cheeks were sunken and her face lined. She looked as if the beauty of her youth was still visible in outline, but its substance had been leached out of her by whatever poisons they had filled their tailing ponds with. Her voice was clear and articulate as she spoke, as incongruous and unexpected to Donaldson as a drunken pub brawler pausing to declaim Shakespeare.
“We know why you are here, yes. But do you know why we are here?” she asked, looking Donaldson clear in the eye. She turned back to the crowd. “Because we have nothing anywhere else. Because there is nothing for us. Because you and your government can give us nothing except pain and contempt. You can give us a ticket to anywhere you like – but that’s where we already left from. You people – you have the land and the water and the houses and the food. But we can’t survive on the crumbs off your table. And now, when we try to do something for ourselves, make some honest value for ourselves out of this land of Australia, along comes His Majesty’s finest to kick us to our knees again.”
The crowd was murmuring its support, and Donaldson could see the woman was warming up nicely.
“Why do you keep us out of these lands? To indulge these people in their role playing?” She pointed at the Palawa men. “How dare you lock up all the wealth of this land, how dare you lock up the copper, the gold, the timber, when we have nothing? How can you waste all these resources which we can extract and turn into value, to grow a new future for ourselves? How can you protect these people above us? They don’t want to achieve anything, they just want to hunt kangaroo and seals and live like they did forty thousand years ago. How can you side with them when we want progress? When we – the poor and the dispossessed – want nothing more than to use the hard work of our own hands to extract the wealth from this land, just like our forefathers have done these hundreds of years? To build back what we have lost? Why don’t our traditions count? We are a mining people. Why do aborigines and landowners get a monopoly on tradition?”
She had the crowd on her side now. Donaldson could see defeat beginning to spark into defiance in the faces of the adults. But then it happened. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement. Before he could even register what it was, he heard the crack and thump of a rifle round pass by him, always redolent of countless days in the butts, and the moving object changed direction and resolved into the shape of a man arcing away from him under the impact of Chingarai’s sniper round, a shotgun tumbling from his hand as he flew backwards.
The woman screamed, all oratory gone. “Davey! No!” Even as the words ripped out of her throat, Donaldson could see the man’s face, a younger version of his mother, fire and passion turning to bewilderment as the kinetic energy of the metal impacting his body took control of his destiny. She started running towards her son, the indignation of seconds before transformed into naked horror. Mackay wheeled his horse towards her, and planted the butt of his carbine square into her cheek. As she reeled backwards, the policeman slid down from his horse on top of her, pinning her to the muddy grass. It was Franklin-Tsang who saved them all, his Sergeant Major’s roar of “Lie Down” hitting the crowd at the very instant of their indecision. “Lie down, or you will all be killed,” he reinforced. And they did, some meekly, some angrily. In the silence that followed, Donaldson gave thanks that van Wijk and the machine gunners on the hill above kept their fingers from their triggers.
Donaldson swallowed. “Cohen! Treat the casualty, ” he ordered, and the medic dropped from his horse and ran to the young man. To the rest of the men, he said, “Dismount and search these people for weapons, one at a time. Move them over by that hut once they are cleared.” The men moved forwards, organising themselves, weapons trained on the by now cowering crowd, who no longer needed Franklin-Tsang’s encouragement to keep low. One by one the adults were pulled up from the ground and searched unceremoniously.
Donaldson moved across to the wounded man, just as Cohen snapped the wrapper on the trauma pack ampoules. He watched in fascination as the bright blue nano gel swarmed into the gunshot wound in the man’s shoulder, forming itself to the contours of his body and visibly sealing the exit wound in his back as Cohen rolled him to check. The medic moved quickly to insert a line into his other arm, pushing volume expanders and targeted coagulants into his veins. He sat back on his feet and inspected his patient. “Zimbo’s a good shot, Sir. He’ll be right,” he opined to Donaldson, “long as we get him back to Hobart before any infection sets in.” Donaldson looked over to the young man’s mother, whom Mackay had now released, but who knelt on all fours, tears, blood and snot running down her face. He walked to her and knelt.
“He’ll live,” he said to her. “But we need to get him out of here as soon as we can – on the ship.”
“You bastard,” she replied. “Please save him.” She raised herself up on to her knees and surveyed her people in their indignity. “Will they really let us go?” she asked him.
“They have told me they will,” he replied. She looked deep into his eyes, and he felt for a second that the hatred with which she had first fixed him seemed to give way to longing.
“They just want to feed their families as free men and women.”
“I know,” he answered. “But not here. This is not your land or my land any more.” And he turned away from her and walked back to his horse.
The ships arrived on time, coming into sight as the soldiers marched the bedraggled miners and their families down to the sand spit. Two clippers under full sail, chartered for the occasion, and an old and battered-looking destroyer whose smoke-stack occasionally belched a black cloud of diesel fumes. They set anchor beyond the surf, dropping cutters and whaling boats, their crews rowing smartly towards the shore. The miners were slowly transferred to the ships over a couple of hours, until all were aboard.
Once they were alone on the beach, Donaldson had the men prepare for their return march to the railhead. They were eager to oblige, and as they repacked stores and weapons, he came and sat with the three Palawa men, who had been observing for some time.
“I hope you can tell your people that we did what was needed,” he said to them.
Mikey regarded him carefully for a few seconds, before answering “Yes, we can tell them that. And we give you our thanks. You upheld the Treaty and the promises that were made to us. And you did it without any more killing.”
The old man sighed. “The white fella in me would have liked to see them who killed our boys brought to justice. But the black fella is simply happy you got rid of them. Thank you.”
Rolepa rose to his feet. “We must go now, Captain Donaldson,” he said. “nentegga menyawa gondalyerroo, gondalyerroo nentegga menyawa.”
Maulboyheener also rose and smiled as Donaldson looked at him quizzically. “It means ‘yesterday was tomorrow, tomorrow will be yesterday’. We wish you a safe journey home, Captain.”
Donaldson watched the Palawa walk away down the beach for a long while. They did not look back towards the soldiers.
Eventually, he turned back to the men and found them all watching him. It was Chingarai who broke the silence.
“Can we go home now, Sir?”