The man was driven, that was clear enough. Driven to what, exactly…that was the mystery. Jack grinned to himself. He liked mysteries. And in any case, there was something magnetic about this man. It wasn’t charisma, not exactly. It was more the case that a fire lit this one from within. Intriguing, after several years of seeing only deadness in his fellow convicts’ eyes.
He made inquiries:
“Barker? Yeah, ‘e’s been ‘ere a long while. 10, 12 years, I ‘eard.”
“No one about can say what ‘e did, Jack. No one knows. I think ‘e killed a man – ‘e’s got a mad look about ‘im, that one ‘as.”
“Damned if I know anything one way or t’other, ‘cept ‘e’s from London.”
“Sometimes, in ‘is sleep, ‘e calls out for Lucy…but I wouldn’t go pokin’ around Barker if I was you, lad. ‘e’s a highwayman, I ‘eard, of the worst sort too.”
Jack took all this in stride and digested it. It was possible, of course, that Barker was a murderer. But his instinct told him no. He had seen murderers before, and this man wasn’t one. He could do it, maybe, had the capability to. But it hadn’t marked him – something had, but it wasn’t blood. Or at least, not blood he had spilt himself.
Armed with his newly-gathered intelligence and the belief in personal immortality which is the sole property of a youth of 18, Jack approached the man one day. It was a Sunday afternoon – they were supposed to be resting for the Lord’s day. Most of the convicts spent the day lazing about, as if to make up for lost time. Barker sat alone, under a tree close enough that the watchman could see him.
As Jack got closer, he could see the man scraping a stick against a round stone. It was the motion of sharpening a blade of some sort. “What’s the game, love?” he ventured. “Fancy a shave?”
Barker whipped about, fire full ablaze. “How did you know? Who told you?”
Jack held up his hands appeasingly, “Cor, lovely, didn’t mean no offense. Only, I’m touch stubbly m’self, you see.” He felt his own chin, and the small, young man’s beard on it. It emphasized his youth to the other convicts, most of whom had grown scraggly and full beards of their own in the colony. “So y’see, just fancying a shave m’self, I go and impart my fancy to you.”
He plopped down beside Barker without asking. The older man raised an eyebrow, fire lowering back to the smoldering of glowing coals, and returned to his sharpening motion.
“So, you was a barber, eh? Gad, a gentlemen don’t meet too many folk round here what had a real profession. Gets lonely for us men of business, y’see, with only these common chaps around ‘ere to gab with.”
There was a long pause. Jack became convinced that Barker meant to simply ignore him, but he didn’t move. Instead, he stretched out under the tree, drinking in the cool shade. It wasn’t a proper tree, of course; nothing in the colony was quite right. But it was protection from the devilish sun.
Finally, Barker said, “What are you called, my boy?” His voice was low, and harsh, as if he’d been screaming for a long while and just recently left off.
Jack opened his eyes without sitting up. “I’m called a great many things, love. My name is Jack Dawkins, but as for you – call me Artful.”
Barker nodded solemnly. “Very well. I am Benjamin Barker.” A moment. “I’m sorry that I snapped at you. I was simply…preoccupied.”
“’Course, gov, o’course. Nothin’ to worry your head about.” He plucked a long blade of grass and stuck it between his teeth, closing his eyes, and the two of them sat in the late afternoon shade.
Weeks passed, and the Artful and Benjamin Barker fell into an unusual but comfortable friendship. By an unspoken rule, neither ever discussed their past lives with the other, except to establish that both men were from London. Jack liked the old man – he was somehow a touch more genteel than most of his acquaintances, and his purpose, whatever it might be, kept him more alert and responsive than many of the other residents of Botany Bay.
Jack was not the only, nor by far the most prolific of the kitchen thieves. Even with the severe penalties for being caught, in a camp full of men being punished for robbery, no one could be surprised when things went missing here and there. Jack took to pinching extra food for Barker as well. It was always accepted, with no inquiry as to where it came from, but only a simple, “Thank you.”
Though the barber never said as much in words, Jack could tell that he enjoyed the young man’s company as well, private and solitary as he was. Jack treated him like a trusted uncle, with as much or more joviality as he had shown to other men, hanged and gone. He occasionally wondered how Charlie and Oliver made out – but no one had heard of them being hanged, and they hadn’t shown up yet, so it wasn’t really worth thinking about. He could tell Barker’s thoughts were in England too. He used to stare off into the ocean for long stretches, a dark expression clouding his features. Whoever that fire was to be turned on…Jack didn’t envy them if they ever chanced to cross the barber’s path.
It was about year after their first meeting. They were both a year harder, a year more bitter, Jack in his caustic sarcasm, Barker in his brooding silence. But they were no less friendly to one another, and that particular day, they were out on a rowboat. Rowing was considered good exercise for the convicts, and with good behavior, you could go in the small lake near the camp without a guard in the boat. Barker was always well-behaved; Jack was never caught. And so they had a little touch of privacy in their all too public lives.
Jack watched Barker’s arms as he rowed. He was a strong man, but then he had been doing hard labor for over a decade. No way of guessing what his build was before. But his hands still had such a delicacy, such a control. After a moment, Jack looked out towards shore, trailing his fingers in the water. The silence was comfortable between them, almost a third friend in the boat. Each let their thoughts drift away for awhile, until Jack finally spoke without turning back to his companion.
“Y’ever think about London, Barker?”
There was a pause. The boat continued slicing through the water. Finally, the low answer came: “Constantly. What of it?”
Jack gave the guard on the far shore a cursory glance and turned back. “No, not the past. I mean…the future. Goin’ back, like.”
Something flickered behind Barker’s expression. Something stirred. But his voice remained the same. “It’s death to go back, Artful.”
Jack nodded. “Death if they catch you, sure. Why you have to go in disguise, like. But…” He leaned in, normal levity sobered for a moment. “Would you risk it? To see London again?”
Barker never stopped rowing. “If I thought I could get there. Yes. I would. You?”
Satisfied, Jack leaned back in the boat, nodding. “Wouldn’t ‘ave brought it up otherwise, would I lovey? O’ course…it’d take some planning…but if a man had a trusted partner, like, who ‘e knew wouldn’t turn on ‘im if things got dodgy…”
The two men shared a long look and Barker gave a small, barely perceptible nod. Jack’s smile widened and he closed his eyes, dipping his fingers into the water and absently humming a tune.
It took several months. There were clothes to be stolen, a raft to be built and kept hidden in the building, provisions to be stockpiled, tides and guard schedules to be studied. They were careful, incredibly so. Jack’s quick fingers and Barker’s brooding respectability were both great assets, and both helped each other. Jack was cheerful, often singing as he worked, playing harmless jokes on the other convicts. He hid the hardness beneath a charming exterior. Barker might as well have been made of stone, but the look in his eyes continued to get a little brighter, a little fiercer as time progressed.
Jack had managed to bribe a guard with a stash of money. God only knew where he’d gotten it, but neither the guard nor Barker asked. He told the guard he was just going over to the women’s tents. Jack wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last. It was regular enough.
He retrieved Barker, and they changed into the stolen clothes. They were blessed with bright moonlight as they pushed their raft into the bay. Neither breathed for a good long time. Jack was half-incredulous they were actually doing this. There were worse things than death waiting if they were caught on this end, before they could find a boat that wasn’t a hulk.
The sea was gentle, but not dead calm. There were some scares as they tried to get out past the surf, but their raft held, and no one raised an alarm. It was hours before they were far enough out for Jack to start whistling a soft little tune. Barker smiled at him, and Jack realized it was the first time he had ever seen the man truly smile. He looked younger – he couldn’t be much over 40 – and Jack saw a shred of the man his friend had been once. A moment later, Barker murmured, “I’m on my way.” Jack just nodded, as if this were a perfectly conventional remark. Then again, what was or was not conventional in the given situation was a matter of opinion.
They had gotten out of the colony. They were delivered from their jailers…into the hands of the sea.
They didn’t see any ships for quite awhile. Jack began to get a little nervous about the water supply, but said nothing; what was there to say, after all. Barker stared off at the horizon often, but the purpose driving him seemed even keener than it had been, and the barber was more alert and awake than he had ever been before.
The clouds started rolling in and Jack frowned. Barker turned and noticed the boy’s expression. “What is it?”
“Gonna storm, lovey.”
Barker shrugged. “A little rain? We’ve had rain before.”
“No, gov…I mean a real storm. Doncha feel it?” It made him think of Nancy. Made him think of Bill. It gave him the creeps.
“Hm. Anything to be done?”
Before Jack could answer, a clap of thunder split the sky above, and the storm was upon them. Water fell in sheets, and the waves below rolled up to meet them. The two men clung to the raft desperately, any further conversation rendered impossible by the din made by wind and thunder.
How long they pitched that way was impossible to say. Suddenly, something caught Jack’s eye. He squinted through the storm for several long moments, and then his eyes widened. Silently, he pointed, and Barker followed his arm. The large black shape could only be a ship.
Fighting against water and wind, Jack stripped off his shirt and got up, waving it like a flag. Barker tried to pull him back down, as the wood had gotten incredibly slippery, but Jack waved desperately. Waved for his life.
Anthony Hope was stuck in the crow’s nest with a spyglass. Not that he could see anything through the storm, really. He shouldn’t complain – a sailor never complained of being cold and wet and thousands of miles from home. But sometimes he wished they did. He couldn’t even –
He looked again. And again, harder. Yes – there. Good God.
Barker finally got Jack down again. The storm only increased its fervor. The two men locked eyes for a moment and Jack was startled to see there was no fear in his friend’s face. Only a strange sort of regret.
There was a cracking sound which Jack took, at first, as thunder, until he felt the wood groan beneath him. The raft heaved a death cry as a huge wave crashed down onto it and broke into splinters, sending men, planks, and supplies out in all directions. The last Jack saw of Barker, the man was swept away on the black waves, clinging to a large shard of their raft. He tried to call out, but just got a huge mouthful of seawater and began choking.
The sailor hauled the shipwrecked man onto the quarterdeck. He gasped something that sounded like “Artful…” and then collapsed into a shivering head, soaked to the skin and already slightly feverish. The crew ran to and fro, securing the ship against the elements, and Anthony noted, from above, that the man had been successfully retrieved. Now all he could do was pray he would survive his near drowning.
When he came out of the fever, the man asked if they had found his companion. The crew was forced to confess they didn’t see anyone else in the water. He nodded grimly in response.
He stood on the deck, wrapped in a blanket, staring out at the sunset over the calm sea. The ship was heading towards London, and the young sailor Anthony had assured him that they were only too happy to help a fellow Englishman in need. He had swallowed the cock-and-bull story about a shipwreck with no problem.
The sky was streaked with red, but the water was quiet. He opened his hand and looked at the small wooden cross he had bartered with a sailor in exchange for a proper shave. He kissed it once, and then abruptly flung it far overboard, his strong arm sending it out into the distance. “Goodbye, Jack Dawkins. Goodbye, Benjamin Barker.”
He turned his back on the sea and went inside.