Forbsey by Danny Heap (now Danny Oz)
I remember I'd just had to interrupt my reading to shepherd a stray cow back to the herd. It was old Nellie, doing her usual trick of skirting the herd in wider and wider circles until she pinged the ranger, which pinged me via the implant. I'd then ping Pete the kelpie cross…
"Here Pete! Geddaroun' back." Pete jumped up and started off and I had to yell again and get him to stop. "Petepetepete Pete!" The dog ground to a halt, turned and started to trot back towards me. "That way," I pointed in Nellie's general direction, "now GEDDAROUN!" As I sat back Pete took off again. I waited and was rewarded in short order with the sound of the dog's distant barking and Nellie's signal quickly making its way back to the main herd.
The kelpie returned a minute or two later, panting and looking weirdly surprised, as usual. It wasn't that Pete had anything to be surprised about, it was just that his eyes tended to bulge alarmingly from his head as the result of an unfortunate accident some years earlier. He came and sat down beside me and I scratched him gently on the head, making him roll those bulbous peepers in pleasure. I was about to return to my book when I heard an unmistakable sound. Drunken drovers returning from a night in the nearest town.
The dogs always made it into camp first. Panting and barking excitedly they'd come tearing into the clearing and it was all I could do to get to my feet before they swamped me and licked me to my inevitable doom. They all belonged to Dad and I, and tended to be a bit on the affectionate side when it came to either of us. Finding no sport with me, they chose instead to sniff Pete in case he'd done something really exciting while they were gone. Pete, sure they they must've had a better time than he, was trying to sniff all of them. I tried to walk over to the esky and found it nearly impossible. A quick, "Willya GEDDOUDOVIT!" saw the mass of fur and feet scatter then reassemble at the outskirts of the camp, allowing me some freedom of movement once again.
I had almost reached the esky when Dad entered the clearing. "Aw what a rotten kid! Doesn't even have a drink ready for his poor old Dad!"
Never one at a loss for a witty comeback, I yelled back, "Get stuffed you ol' bastard!"
I was tired, okay?
I broke the thermal seal on the esky and gave a beer to him. As each of the others turned up I gave them a beer. Young Kev was the next through, followed by Gumnut, Lacey and Shaun. The latter took his beer gratefully and then cast a critical eye over the stew. Shaun was our poisoner and like most cooks only really happy when he's there to oversee every last bit. And even then he was still a bit of a grumpy bugger.
"Did ya put me stew on when I tol' ya to?"
"You didn't let it get too hot?"
"And how many of me 'cendry's did ya use to get the fire goin'?"
"None. I reused an old one." That stopped him dead. "I found a thing on a Smithie's site talking about how you can re-use'em. So I tried it, an' it worked." He started to ask me how but I cut him off as the rest of our comrades heralded their presence with the staggering footsteps and slurred speech of sozzled stockman everywhere. I handed him his beer. "I'll explain later."
In short order, Andy, Nonga, and Scoutmaster all rocked up and gratefully accepted the proffered beers. Scoutmaster told me that Trev, Pronga and Old Kev had found a night-shop and were partying. As Scoutmaster headed over to where Shaun was handing out tin plates of stew, he called to anyone who was listening, "Can you imagine Old Kev on the job? It'd be a medical miracle, wouldn't it?" As they all laughed like mad ('cause when you're drunk enough anything's funny) I heard our last arrival's distinctive whistle.
Old Forbesy was somewhere in his sixties and had obviously once been a very powerful gentleman. Oh, time had been hard on him but he still had a presence. Big, but not intimidating. Always ready to help out and was appreciative of aid in return. Never had a bad word to say about anyone but quick-witted enough to verbally slap down those who started to chew at him. Forbesy was the most recent to join our gang, so in theory it was he who was supposed to stay back and mind camp, while I went off to town for fun. But I was never much for drinking and way back then I think I was the only stockman with an implant. A lot of the blokes didn't react well to the rather obvious skulljack, so I used to stay away from collections of large men with attitudes in places where alcohol flowed freely. I think most of them disliked it 'cause a lot of them had spent time in prison. Some years before the government had pushed through a law that stated that all those that were found guilty of breaking the law were to have a chip inserted into their body that would be automatically updated with every subsequent transgression. What they had failed to mention was that it would also note every change of address, job and anything recorded concerning their private life. In a place where all the guards had skulljacks and implants, you could hurt someone a lot more effectively with a few well-placed comments than you could with a lifetime of beatings.
Forbesy had been to prison. His chip had pinged me the first time we met.
As the night rolled on and the beer flowed freely, Scoutmaster obsessed about Old Kev having sex, Andy teased Shaun about his cooking and the rest of us told jokes and lied a lot about anything and everything we could think of. In a quiet moment, Nonga mentioned that he hated the long hauls 'cause it made him miss his wife, which made a few of the boys go quiet. All the jokes and comments aside, most of the guys got to missing their wives after a while. And that was when Forbesy dropped his bombshell and said that he still missed his wife.
We all looked over at him in surprise. He'd been with the troop for nearly two months and had never even hinted at being married. None of us knew what to say for a moment, trying to figure out from that single comment whether he meant he just hated being away from her, or that she'd run off or that maybe…
As it happened, Scoutmaster's drunkenness meant we didn't have think too long or hard about it. "So," he said loudly, "she dead or what?" There was one of those moments where no-one knows where to look or what to say, kept mercifully short by Forbesy answering that she'd died forty years ago next April. Scoutmaster saved us the next obvious question by asking what had happened. Forbesy sighed, then looked over at me.
"Ask the boy."
I froze. Then I blushed as I realised what he meant. I tried to sound nonchalant and asked what he meant.
"Well, you know my little secret, don't you lad?"
He didn't sound accusing but his eyes were locked onto mine. I refused to look away out of sheer stubbornness, but by jingo, I had the hollow feeling of a rabbit trapped in a spotlight. All eyes were on me and I tried not to stutter as I replied, "I know you've been to prison, your chip was pinging the implant…" Our eyes had locked tight. All I wanted was to disappear. "When I found out what it was I locked off the signal so it wouldn't happen again… All I got was your first name that's it. Honest."
He stared at me for a another few moments, then broke eye contact as a he looked over at my Dad and said, "He's a good kid, George. You're a lucky bloke." Dad said something about me not being too bad a boy but I really didn't take it in. I just felt sick. It was a horrible feeling to have Forbesy think I'd been going through his private life. He must've thought I'd been through it all weeks ago when he first joined.
Human nature being what it is, people just assumed that if you had an implant you were using it to find out things about them. Vanity and paranoia working hand in hand. The 'jacks back then didn't have all the sophisticated progs and subs that todays have. You had to be careful. There was always some bastard somewhere that'd try to brainjack you just 'cause he thought he could. As I stared into the fire, I remember thinking about how it was really hard to get it through to people that most of us (we called ourselves Cards back then) would never seriously consider sneaking a peek at someone's records. We were far too aware of how vulnerable we were. Besides which, I was part of the droving clans. If you wanted to know a secret about someone, you didn't sneak around trying to find it out. The honourable way was to hassle and badger them 'til they gave up and told you, just to shut you up.
I'd started to get very dark on what Forbesy had done to me when I felt an arm go 'round my shoulders. I looked up and it was Forbesy. I remember he looked sad and little embarrassed.
"Sorry if I upset you, lad. I didn't mean to, really. When I first realised you had the 'jack, I automatically assumed that you would've read my record. I didn't even know how badly I resented the idea until just then when I brought it up. But not many people can just look you in the eye and lie about something like that." He sighed as he took his arm away. "How can I make it up to ya?" I murmured something about forget it but he was determined to make amends.
"Now you don't drink do ya? No… Ermmm, how about I get you a room at the best night-shop I can find when we hit the big smoke? Three scarlet's, the whole night… C'mon, that's gotta be tempting…"
I smiled in spite of myself. "What and have that mongrel carrying on about it for then next six months," I said pointing at the Scoutmaster, "No fear." Scoutmaster tried to look hurt then gave up and called me a number of names too crude to see print here. I looked at Forbesy, "I'll tell ya what. Take the money you were going to spend on the scarlet's and put it towards a 'jack upgrade for me. I've heard that there's some quack called Williams that's managed to get the size down and can hide it under a flap o' fake skin. That's what I want. It'll mean I can go to the pub to play pool again."
"Deal." We spat and shook hands. "Now, I want you to access me chip." I looked at him and he grinned broadly, "Well if you don't I'm gonna have that so-an'-so on me back 'bout what happened to me missus." As Scoutmaster called us both names, I accessed Forbesy's chip.
Except for his name and date of birth, it only had one entry, WRONGFULLY ACCUSED. I passed this info on to Forbesy and he looked off into the distance and smiled.
"She never said she was going to do that." He glanced back down to us and said, "All right, storytime. Gather 'round lads and I'll bring you up to speed… Aw, don't be like that Scoutmaster… Gumnut! Grab us a Black Frost while yer at the esky… Shut up, Scoutmaster… Did you want anything, lad? No… Hold ya horses, Scoutmaster I'm waitin' for me beer… Same to you with knobs on then… Thanks Gumnut."
He took a long swig of his beer then stopped for a few moments and gazed at the fire over the rim of his bottle. "Her name was Mary. Beautiful she was, good skin, auburn hair, wide hips… We'd known each other since we were young'uns and when I turned sixteen I asked her Dad for her hand. It was a big weddin'… we both came from big families and everyone who could make the trip was there… it was a big weddin'…" He paused and took another swig from his bottle. "Four years later, we were still just as wrapped up in each other. I was away for months at a time, this droving lark does that, as you boys all know, but it just made our time together sweeter.
"Our land had been given to us by her ol' man. It was a top plot, just outside o' Kallamoultha. Her Pa and I built the house up by the main road. Mary an' I liked watching the people pass by. We used to sit on the veranda after tea and say ho to the folks that passed. We knew most everybody." Another drink, a big one.
"I got home one night after a two monther to Westbrook. I'd sent word with a swaggie the day 'fore that I was almost home. There was a light in the kitchen. I called out and didn't get an answer, thought nothing much of it and went on inside…
"Mary was lying on the floor… there was blood… so much blood… I didn't know that there was that much blood in a person. She'd been hit in the head, I don't know how many times… I knelt down and cradled her in my arms… I couldn't think of anything else to do."
He stopped and regarded the bottle thoughtfully, then took another swig. He stayed quiet for a while an' I remember even Scoutmaster keeping silent. Forbesy took a deep breath and continued.
"While I was holding her she opened her eyes… she could hardly speak above a whisper… she said a few things, told me she loved me and died in my arms. I don't know how long I was sitting there holding her. The next thing I knew was that the police were dragging me away from her. It seems that people had been passing the house and saw her fighting with someone in the kitchen. She'd been screaming my name… Probably 'cause she knew I was coming home soon. She must've hoped I'd hear and come and give the bastard what-for.
"But I didn't.
"I went to court, charged with murdering me own wife. An' they won. They bloody won. I told'em again and again what happened, but with her blood all over me an' the screams an' such… Bastard prosecutor just wanted another feather in his cap, didn't care one way or t'other, whether I'd done it or not. But ya see there was one thing on my side. I knew who'd done in my Mary. She told me before she died.
"Don't look at me that way, young Shaun, I know what you're thinkin'. But you weren't born to the clans. When we're wronged, we see to it. We don't go callin' in the legals. Blood calls for blood and Mary's blood called out for her killer. Do you know they gave me twenty years? Twenty bloody years for my Mary's life. That's what he would have got. It wasn't enough, not by a long chalk.
"He was a local lad that'd been helpin' her out while I was away. We all rely on the kindness of the locals while we're off an' workin'. People are generally good at heart. I don't know what happened, maybe he was thinkin' to replace me in my Mary's affections an' got angry when she said to go hee. The thing was I knew who'd killed her, so I beat the tar out of me escort and did a runner. I was determined to find the sod and do him in. Turns out he'd moved on during the court-case, so I set to tracking him down.
"I was on the run for nearly six months before I ended up walking into Carrington Cop Shop and giving meself up. Of course me escaping was seen as a sign of guilt and they gave me another five years."
Forbesy stopped and had a long drink from his bottle. Then he gave us a weird smile. "Prison wasn't so bad," he continued, "I got along okay, so long as no-one called me a wife-killer. If they did I'd giv'em what-for. I was a pretty big bloke, back then, and getting into fights added a fair few years to my sentence. Anyway, about ten years back, they started putting these chips in us. Well, it wasn't much of a problem at first but then… My chip said I was a wife-killer. Every time a guard looked at me, he was being told I was a wife-killer. Which meant that when I copped a bad'un, he'd bring it up as a way to hurt me. Then I'd have to hurt him. Well, that added more time to me sentence.
"Eventually the Guv'nor of the prison told the guards that anyone of 'em says I killed my wife an' she'll suspend'em for a month without pay. She'd realised what made me cause trouble. An' so I became a model prisoner again until about a month before I was going to be released.
"You see, we'd since had fellers come back inside after getting those chips put in and they told us about how folks could just access 'em and find out all about you. Now I didn't care if they knew I'd been to prison or not, but I didn't want anyone thinkin' I'd killed my wife. So I saw the Guv'nor and told her that I didn't want that on my record. She said that she couldn't change it, so I told her that I'd do whatever it took to stay in prison, 'cause I wasn't gunna go out into the World and have folks think I murdered the one person who meant more to me than anything. For me, that woulda been worse than staying inside. I told her she had 'til the day before I was getting out.
"Well the day before comes an' she calls me in an' says 'I can't show you what I've done, but trust me, it's been changed." Forbesy nudged me in the ribs and smiled, "She was true to her word, eh lad? Dammit, I'm gunna make sure she gets a Chrissy card an' a fruit basket every year 'til the day I die. She's bloody earned it." He stood up and raised his bottle aloft.
"A toast! To all the top women of the world, wherever they may be!" He drank deep and finished the bottle. "An' that's it. I got out, went to Blackall and met up with Ol' Kev, he told me you had a spot comin' up and I joined Clan Dowling for the long haul. And now, gentlemen and Scoutmasters, good night!"
Apart from some residual language from the Scoutmaster, that sort of saw the end of the night. We were all a bit drained after the story and it'd been a tough week. So we all dossed down and I tried (and failed) to picture myself in Forbesy's position. I couldn't imagine how hard it must've been for him, losing the woman he loved and being accused of killing her. As I lay there a thought struck me. I called out softly, "Hey, Forbesy. You awake?"
"Only just, lad, what d'you want?"
"I was just thinkin'. You're not plannin' on pickin' up where you left off are ya?"
"Eh, whaddya mean?"
"Well, I mean you're not gunna try an' track this joker down are ya?"
"What? Oh no, lad, no. I don't have to. I know where he is."
I sat bolt upright. "What? Where?"
"Why he's right where I buried him, just outside o' Carrington, where else?"
Copyright 1999 Danny Heap