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The Secret of the Black Bushranger

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The Secret of the Black Bushranger


  To Kim and Angela, Kate and Kate, who helped build

  this book, to Mark for the beauty and insight

  of his artwork, and Lisa, always,

  with love and gratitude




  Chapter 1: Terror in the Night

  Chapter 2: The Abolitionist

  Chapter 3: The Boy Who Was Not a Slave

  Chapter 4: Slave!

  Chapter 5: A Thief in the Night

  Chapter 6: Attack!

  Chapter 7: To Norfolk Island

  Chapter 8: Talking with Elsie

  Chapter 9: Caesar!

  Chapter 10: Lashed!

  Chapter 11: The Slave Who Would Not Give In

  Chapter 12: Hope

  Chapter 13: A Farm!

  Chapter 14: My Place

  Chapter 15: Reward!

  Chapter 16: Bushranger!

  Chapter 17: Capture

  Author’s Notes

  About the Author

  Also by Jackie French



  This is a secret that could kill a good man, have him hanged by the neck till his toes danced in the air, then dangled still and dead.

  I’ve told you other secrets, about Birrung and about the whales. But when I told you those stories, I left out all the bits of this one. That’s why this time I need to go back to the early days I have already told you about, right back to when Birrung and Mr Johnson rescued us. This secret didn’t fit into the stories I’ve already told you.

  This secret could have me killed too. But sometimes we need to look at the secrets of the past, to know what we should do in our own lives. And you will be reading this — I hope — long after I am safe from earthly law.

  That good man and I broke that law. Did we do wrong?

  You judge.


  Terror in the Night

  Sydney Town, December 1789

  Midnight silence hung like a blanket across the dusty colony. A strange bird hooted outside the lean-to storeroom where Mr Johnson had made my new bed. But every bird in this new land we had sailed to almost two years ago was still strange to us.

  I’d slept in my new bed for a few wonderful weeks, since Birrung and Mr Johnson rescued us, with a full belly and love all around. Moonlight shivered between the mud and sticks that made up the wall.

  I still couldn’t quite believe I was safe in bed, with no hunger gnawing like a mouse at my belly, knowing Elsie was safe inside the hut too, even if Surgeon White himself hadn’t been able to solve the mystery of why she couldn’t talk, or where such a strange girl might have come from in the colony of convicts and soldiers.

  Elsie and I’d had three big meals a day ever since Mr Johnson and Birrung had found us in a ruined hut, where we were hiding from the older convicts who’d steal our rations and give us a bashing too. Here at the Johnsons’ we had cold potatoes or cobs of corn to eat whenever we wanted them, as well as three big meals every single day. And beds with sheets and blankets, and lessons on reading, and saying prayers, and not saying a lot of the words that the convicts used, most of them beginning with b.

  I’d had three giant helpings of fine fish stew for supper, rich with potatoes and fresh peas, with cornbread to soak up the juices. My belly still wasn’t used to so much food at once. I needed to go to the privy. Now.

  Mr and Mrs Johnson and Elsie and Birrung and Sally (who was the convict woman assigned to the Johnsons) had chamberpots inside the house, but I didn’t need a chamberpot with the privy and its deep hole just down the path from my lean-to.

  The ground felt warm to my bare feet — strange to be so warm near Christmas when it should be snowing. I opened the storeroom door and found my way to the privy hut by moonlight. I did my business, then washed my hands in the bucket like Mrs Johnson had shown me — she was a terror for washing.

  That’s when the monster grabbed me. It were twice as tall as any man should be, so vast it blotted out the moon behind. Something large and hard covered my mouth. A face darker than the sky stared down at me. All I could make out were the whites of its eyes.

  I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t run.

  But I could bite.

  I let myself go limp, like I was too scared to move, then bit. Hard!

  ‘You b— b— little b—!’ The muttered words were ones Mrs Johnson had said I wasn’t to use, with another I was sure she wouldn’t like either. The monster dropped me.

  I scrambled to my feet and opened my mouth to yell for help.

  ‘Please,’ whispered the monster.

  Monsters don’t say ‘please’, I reckon. Nor do convicts, mostly. This wasn’t a monster, I realised, but a man. A man I’d seen lots of times before.

  No one could miss John Black, and not just because he had black skin — a different kind of black from the Indians of New South Wales. John Black was twice as big as any man in the colony, not just tall but broad as an ox across the shoulders.

  I hadn’t seen him about for a long time, I realised. But then I’d been hiding since Ma’s death, creeping around at night to find me and Elsie water to drink, or to cook our tucker on the coals of someone else’s fire when they were asleep. I’d only seen people on the two ration days each week, when I had to sneak out to get our food from the storehouse, then run back to our hiding place as fast as I could.

  ‘Please, don’t make a noise,’ whispered John Black. ‘I didn’t mean to fright you.’

  ‘What do you want?’ I kept my voice quiet too.

  ‘I come to see Mr Johnson.’

  ‘You could just knock on the door. In daytime,’ I added.

  The giant man looked down at me with those brown eyes. ‘If I show myself in daylight, boy, they chain me up again.’ His voice was so deep, deeper than any I had ever heard. He drew himself up even taller. More stars vanished behind him. ‘I am John Black Caesar. I will not be a slave!’

  Mr Johnson had read a bit in the Bible about slaves in Egypt, just two evenings back. But the Bible was from olden times. There weren’t slaves in England these days, or our colony. Why was John Black talking about slaves?

  ‘Will you fetch Mr Johnson, boy? Don’t wake the mistress, nor that servant of his. Just Mr Johnson. Mr Johnson will understand.’

  That sounded the best thing to do, whether John Black wanted it or not. There was no use scaring Mrs Johnson, and Sally would complain at the top of her voice if I woke her. I supposed John Black meant I wasn’t to wake Elsie or Birrung either, even though he didn’t say so.

  ‘All right,’ I said.


  The Abolitionist

  I knew an easy trick to wake Mr Johnson. I lit the rag wick of a slush lamp with a coal from the kitchen fire, then crept into his bedroom where he slept with Mrs Johnson and lifted the sheet and tickled his toe. Ma used to do that to me when she’d picked a pocket and we’d had to run from whatever crowded room we were sheltered in, before the Peelers found us, and before someone else paying pennies to sleep in that slum knew Ma had a prize worth stealing.

  Ma stole stuff to keep me fed. Even if Mr Johnson said stealing was a sin, I knew Ma’d only done it because she’d had to. Who would employ Ma as a servant with a brat like me at her heels? Ma wouldn’t send me to die in the workhouse, just so she could be a maid with a proper bed and meals and a kitchen to eat them in. Nor did we have anyone else to take us in.

  Mr Johnson opened his eyes and blinked at me. I stopped tickling, put my finger to my lips and beckoned him out into the kitchen. He nodded to me to say he’d come. He was out in the time it takes to say the Lord’s Prayer, w
ith his trousers on and his nightshirt tucked into them.

  ‘What is it, Barney?’ he asked softly.

  ‘That big black convict John Black is outside, sir. He says he has to speak to you.’

  I didn’t say that John Black had half scared me to death or grabbed me in the night. Mr Johnson didn’t ask questions either. Even in the short time me and Elsie had been with him, I’d learned that he could be called out at all times to say prayers by a dying woman or for a man about to be hanged. Surgeon White called Mr Johnson to the hospital too, if someone was screaming in pain.

  Mr Johnson said if you prayed to God for strength, your prayer was always answered. I supposed he thought John Black wanted a prayer tonight too, though it seemed to me John Black was strong enough already.

  It was cooler outside. December in the colony was hot, even at night, except when the big wind came from the south, but our house had a stone fireplace for cooking, even though the rest of it was made of cabbage-tree logs and thatched with bark that leaked when it rained, all built with Mr Johnson’s hands.

  John Black was sitting on the ground by the privy. I expected him to stand up when Mr Johnson came out. Instead he kneeled and put up his hands like he was praying. ‘Sir, I ask for sanctuary,’ he said.

  I’d never heard that word before, but it seemed Mr Johnson had. ‘You are John Black, aren’t you?’ he asked quietly. ‘Where did you hear of sanctuary?’

  ‘In church, back in England,’ said John Black simply. ‘A man may claim sanctuary in church. I claim sanctuary with you, sir.’

  ‘But I have no church,’ said Mr Johnson softly. ‘I preach beneath the trees and wait for the governor to spare men to build a House of the Lord.’

  ‘Then I claim sanctuary in your house, sir.’ The big man hesitated. ‘Black Jemmy, he said you were an abolitionist, sir. That you and Mr Wilberforce would free the slaves.’

  Mr Johnson smiled sadly in the darkness. ‘Our group works to change the laws to make men free. We cannot free slaves with our own hands. Nor are you a slave, Mr Black.’

  ‘They chained me, sir,’ said John Black simply. ‘They chained me like a slave, on Garden Island, with no one to talk to but the seagulls, where I must labour as the master said.’

  ‘We all must labour,’ said Mr Johnson. ‘John Black, you stole another man’s bread, here where bread is precious. You were sent to the island as punishment, and I know the governor ordered that your chains be removed and he sent out extra food for you from his own supply.’

  Mr Johnson reached out and took the man’s giant hand in his. ‘You’ve escaped from the island, haven’t you, John Black?’

  John Black nodded. ‘I borrowed a canoe tonight. I didn’t steal it,’ he added. ‘The Indian women will find it on the shore tomorrow. And then I came to you, to the one man in this colony who would help me. Give me sanctuary.’ John Black said the word carefully, as if he had been practising it for years, as if it was one of the best words that he knew.

  ‘I can’t offer sanctuary,’ repeated Mr Johnson softly.

  ‘But, sir!’ The words sounded desperate in the darkness. ‘Do not turn me away!’

  ‘I can offer you a meal, John Black,’ Mr Johnson continued calmly. ‘I will pray with you, if you would like it. I will come with you to the governor tomorrow, to say you are sorry for escaping and will go back to Garden Island, so should not be punished. And one day — soon, if you work hard, as I know you do — you will have land of your own, and men to work it. You will become a farmer, John Black, with a house like mine, or far better, and a family, and happiness.’

  ‘But not free, sir,’ said John Black quietly. ‘Never free, even if I have a house and land of my own and a wife. I have been sent to this land for all my life. If you knew my story, you would know that if I am not free, then I am still a slave.’

  Mr Johnson said nothing for a moment. Then he nodded. ‘Jesus tells us to give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty. Come inside, and let us see what there is left from supper. And you will tell us your story.’


  The Boy Who Was Not a Slave

  There was leftover cornbread, and cold potatoes, and fish stew that was still warm. Mr Johnson nodded to me to stir up the fire. I guessed what he was thinking and put the pot on to boil, then filled it with the cobs of corn I’d picked for tomorrow.

  The giant man shoved the cornbread into his mouth, hardly chewing before he swallowed, then eagerly spooned up the stew. He ate the corn while it was still so hot I was sure it would burn his mouth, cob after cob, and the potatoes, then saw me staring at him. ‘How many potatoes did you eat today, boy?’

  ‘Ten,’ I said.

  ‘And how much bigger am I than you?’

  I’d learned a little figuring from Ma and more from Mrs Johnson in the past few weeks, but not enough to work that out. ‘Lots.’

  ‘So I need lots more food. Much more than a man’s rations here. More even than the governor sends me.’

  ‘But you had a garden on the island, to grow more food,’ said Mr Johnson. ‘And man does not live by bread alone.’

  John Black nodded. ‘Man is both a spirit and a body. My spirit has been starved, sir, even more than my body.’ The words rumbled out rhythmically and firmly in his deep voice.

  ‘Then tell us,’ said Mr Johnson softly. ‘Tell us why you claim sanctuary — why I should not send Barney down to call the Watch.’

  The Watch was made up of convicts who were the colony’s police, for the soldiers just lazed around, saying they were only here in case the French attacked, or the Indians. I thought it would take every man in the Watch to haul John Black away, and maybe he’d grab me again before I could even get out the door. But John Black just nodded and threw the last gnawed corn cob into the fire.

  ‘What should I say?’ asked the big man. ‘What will make you pity me, and save me, sir?’

  Mr Johnson smiled. ‘Begin at the beginning, my son. What you can first remember.’

  I tried to think of my first memory. London, and yellow fog, and the stink of rich people’s coal fires. A fire’s warmth wasn’t for people like us. Ma, feeding me a hot potato, little pieces I could chew. Ma starved, mostly, but when she had pennies she spent them on a hot potato for us to share, giving me the bigger bit, not on gin, like most other poor folk did.

  ‘I remember my mother,’ said John Black quietly. It was funny to think that a man as big and black as him had a ma, just like me.

  ‘Where did your mother live?’

  The big man smiled for the first time. His teeth were brown and crumbling, like most convicts’. ‘My mother lived in our house and gardens, and they were on our land, my father’s land, for he was king. His kingdom was in what you English call Madagascar, and others call it other names. But I just called it home.’

  ‘You’re a prince!’ I whispered. It was hard to believe. I had heard of black South Sea princes. But surely even black princes couldn’t become convicts.

  ‘My father was chief, and I was a prince.’ John Black sat even straighter, and suddenly I did believe that I was sitting in a house with a real prince. Me, Barney Bean!

  ‘My father had other wives, and other sons.’ The deep voice rumbled on. ‘But my mother said I would surely be king one day, even if she was no longer his favourite wife. I was the tallest of all my father’s sons. I was strongest too, and my mother made me stronger. I remember her fingers, feeding me porridge of roots — you English do not know them. We had good roots, many kinds. Our roots make you strong, not like the English carrots and parsnips.’

  Mr Johnson looked interested — he liked to try all kinds of vegetables and fruits. I’d learned more about vegetables in the last few weeks than I had in my whole life, seen more kinds than in the barrows of Covent Garden. But he nodded to John Black to keep talking.

  ‘I pulled weeds with the women and other children, and laughed in the sunlight, and my mother’s brother taught me to throw a spear. I stood tall as the tr
ees, even as a child, for I knew I was the son of a king.

  ‘And one day the warriors from the next kingdom attacked. Smaller men, weak men, not strong like us. We would have laughed at their attack, beaten them in the time it takes to boil porridge. But this time some of our enemies had muskets.’

  ‘They didn’t have muskets before that day?’ asked Mr Johnson.

  ‘No, sir. The slavers had given them muskets and black powder and shot in return for the slaves the enemy kingdom caught for them. Free people caught and forced to work for their whole lives, and their children too, to bow down to the masters who owned them. And with those few muskets our enemies killed many, many in our village, trying to capture us to sell as slaves to buy more muskets to make them more powerful still.

  ‘We fought them off that time! We were strong! But my father said that next time the enemies would have more muskets. He said we must have muskets too.’ John Black looked at me, and then at Mr Johnson. ‘But the only way to buy muskets was to pay for them with slaves. People. And the only people my father had to sell were our own.’

  ‘He sold his own people into slavery?’ whispered Mr Johnson, appalled.

  ‘He had no choice, sir. Better some be sold as slaves than the whole village be captured. He needed muskets!

  ‘All the young of our village stood in a line when the Dutchman came with his chests of muskets — the little boys, the tiny girls, the young women, the young men.

  ‘But I did not stand in the line. I was a son of the king! I watched as my friends were chosen, and the daughter of my uncle. She screamed and screamed, she held out her hands and begged. But the Dutchman wrapped her hands in chains. He whipped her, but with the end of his whip, not the tip, to hurt her but not to leave a mark that might spoil her beauty, though I did not know that then. I did not know why men wanted slaves at all.’ His low voice hesitated before he went on. ‘I did not even know what a slave was.’

  There was a longer silence, then he spoke again. ‘Boy after boy, man after man, girls and women, all chained in two long lines, weeping and despairing, or calling to their king for mercy. My father did not even look at his people. He reached for the chests of muskets. But the slaver shook his head. He pointed at me, and said something to my father.

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