“How many?” Jimmy asked Neddy.
“They all want to go.”
Twertayan gestured to his brothers; an older man with a long beard and intricate scars worked over his chest, a small man with curled fingers, Albert and a young man about the same age as Neddy.
Jimmy pointed to the rowlocks. “Neddy and Billhook will row you,” he said to the men.
Neddy and Billhook climbed into the boat after the black men. Randall stood beside Neddy as the others started pushing her out. “Neddy, Billhook. Take these men to Garden Island,” he lowered his voice, “leave them there and come straight back.”
The sea took the boat and the two sealers began rowing hard to get it past the breakers before the next set. The black men talked to each other, happy to be heading out to hunt and shrieking when they were hit by a wave. Neddy didn’t talk to them. He didn’t know their language. His face was different, his straight hair and canvas clothes made him different too. As a group, the black men treated him the same as they treated all the sealers; one eye on his cutlass and the other on the opportunity.
The oars were wrapped in spirals of kangaroo skin, fastened with copper nails, and they creaked as Neddy and Billhook laboured out to the island. With each creak and splash, Billhook wondered about Jimmy, whose mind was always on the game and the trap.
They beached on the north side of the island where it met the deeper water and crunched gently into the rocks. Twertayan tumbled over the side and the four others followed him, their spears clattering against the gunwales. They waited for Neddy and Billhook to stow the boat. Neddy hefted his oar out of the rowlock. Billhook watched him. “Push off!” Neddy hissed at him, his eyes wide.
Billhook knew what they were about to do. He looked back to the best of the black men in King George Sound – the five strongest, the five best hunters and protectors – grinning, rubbing their thorny feet on their slim shins in anticipation of the bird hunt. Those two girls, foraging for tubers in the forest. Billhook knew all about it then. He could have stopped it but he did not.
“They do not swim, Neddy.”
“Push off, Billhook. Randall tol’ us so.” Randall had broken Neddy’s little brother’s arm over his knee on Kangaroo Island.
“They do not swim!”
Neddy shoved an oar against a stone scrawled with the white markings of strange creatures and the little boat heaved away from the island. The whaleboat, with its pointed bows ahead and astern was perfect. No going about or shoving a clumsy transom against hard water, just turn the body and row the other way fast - a quick lurch away from a cranky humpback, from swell smashing against granite, or from desperate people.
Billhook tried to ignore the lamentations of the marooned men but he was watching them the whole way to shore. Checking over his shoulder for bearings was his only reprieve. Five dark figures, their arms waving, silhouetted against their green and pink meadowy prison. Billhook rowed with a deadening in his stomach, that same blackness, when the only reward for his ill deed was shame clawing deep into his body.
“There is no water for them, Neddy,” Billhook’s concern, spoken aloud did not unravel his guilt but only made him a weaker man.