Postman's Knock ... Bill Young's painting of himself in Outram Road prison.
Postman's Knock ... Bill Young's painting of himself in Outram Road prison.
''And then there's the food … '' Which Billy had to admit was a problem. Tins rusted in the humidity. Rice went off. Yams rotted, however carefully they were packed in the cavern. How to keep them from going bad long enough for even a short voyage across three or four inches of coloured map? None of them spoke Malay or the native Dyak lingo. Nobody knew how to ask which were the best foods to gather or how to store them properly.
''We need someone with nous to help us,'' Joey Crome proffered.
''Someone like MP Brown who sleeps next to you, Billy. He can talk half a dozen languages.''
"I'll ask him" But Brownie would have nothing to do with it. ''Don't be stupid,'' the wiser head counselled. ''Even if you found a boat …''
''We reckoned that's where you could help us.''
'The Japs would catch you before you got halfway downriver.''
''We could go overland.''
''Do you realise that many of the upcountry Dyaks are headhunters?''
Billy Young at 15.
Billy Young at 15.

Billy Young in 2012.
Billy Young in 2012.
''And suppose you reach the coast? There are hundreds of miles of open sea between here and Australia.''
''There are lots of little islands!''
''Yep, and they're all occupied by the Japs. Forget it. You young fellers are better off staying here until the war is over.'' And nothing that Billy could say all over Christmas and New Year would shift Brownie's opinion. Until events conspired to change his mind.
The men had finished Wednesday lunch. One of the camp cooks, an older prisoner whom everybody liked, was cleaning out the bucket in which the rice was served, when Mad Mick - another of Moritake's attack dogs - grabbed the pail and began to wash his dirty clothes in it.
''Don't do that!'' the old bloke remonstrated. ''We put our food in that bucket!'' Mad Mick's response was to knock him violently to the ground and start kicking. At which point Jimmy Darlington, the Aboriginal heavyweight standing nearby, went to the cook's assistance.
''Leave him alone!'' Jimmy said. ''You'll injure him.'' And he held out his arm to fend Mad Mick away.
The guard took a wild swing at Jimmy, which he easily avoided.
And then his professional training took over. Instinctively, the champion retaliated with a right hook that knocked Mad Mick out cold. He fell to earth and didn't move.
Not so the other guards. They came rushing from everywhere, like ants swarming. Jimmy warded them off for as long as he could; but there were too many and at last they forced him to the ground and beat him almost senseless.
Moritake arrived. Ordering the guards to keep the prisoners at bay with their rifles, he directed his henchmen to prepare a torture for Jimmy Darlington that was beyond the imagining of those who witnessed it, though the guards seemed well practised at it. They got pieces of firewood - rubber trees, roughly cut and quartered and laid them lengthwise on the ground, sharp edges pointing upwards, making a kind of platform on which they forced the victim to kneel, splinters digging into his bare flesh. A split log was forced behind Jimmy's knees and another into his back over which his arms were bound with thin cord, soaked in water. The rope was tied around the prisoner's hands, looped about his neck and passed behind to his ankles. And there Jimmy Darlington knelt, trussed like a bird, and left to roast in the Borneo sun.
As the cord dried, so it tightened about his limbs, digging great weals and constricting the flow of blood. The kid, watching on, could see his mate's hands and feet begin to convulse and darken.
''They're gunna kill him!'' Billy cried. And to create a diversion, those with him also began to shout and throw dirt and sticks to distract the guards' attention.
It had the desired effect. As the sentries rushed to quell the disturbance, a first-aid officer known to the Dead End Kids only as Mac, crept from behind a skip with a knife and cut Jimmy's bonds. Everyone knew that this one brave deed saved Darlington's life, though it earned Mac a severe beating from the Black Bastard who caught him. And it didn't prevent Jimmy being retethered to the jagged timber scaffold for another two hours. Until, come mid-afternoon, a truck carted the agonised man to the camp, where they flung him into the punishment box.
That evening Dr Picone - Captain Dominic Picone - smuggled him some water laced with morphine, so that Jimmy might at least pass the night in unconsciousness. But the next day Darlington was carried off in the back of another truck and taken no one knew where.
The attack on Jimmy Darlington was so vicious, so prolonged, so outside what the prisoners had experienced from their captors as to change the mood of the entire camp. Hardening attitudes of contempt and a desire for revenge, certainly. Confirming the resolve of those, like the Dead End Kids, who had ideas of escape. Yet also instilling a sense of fear - as Moritake no doubt intended. A few thoughtless moments and a man's whole world could be turned upside down - as Billy the Kid and his mate MP Brown would soon discover.
Three days later, the pair found themselves working on the far side of the airfield.
During the short lunch break the kid sat next to Brownie and murmured quietly, ''That Chinese feller Harry says will help us with the dried rice lives near here. We could slip away quick - tell him about my mozzie net - and be back before work starts again. The Japs will never miss us. Will you come with me?'' Brown had been deeply shocked by the torture of Jimmy Darlington. This intelligent man, who'd have nothing to do with escape and constantly advised caution, now understood why the young fellows at least should try to get away from such monsters as Lieutenant Moritake and his servants.
He therefore gazed steadily at the kid from the shade of his slouch hat and to Billy's surprise at last nodded and replied, ''All right. But only to the village. And back. And make it snappy.'' The kid couldn't believe his ears. He'd fully expected another refusal. But knowing never to question a consent, he merely said, ''Thanks, MP.'' And glancing around to make sure of their opportunity added, ''Come on then!'' They slipped through the trees fringing the airfield and down the path that led to the kampong. The place was only small - a few mean houses, mostly made of palm thatch and raised on stilts, standing in a jungle clearing planted with bananas and pineapples, among which chickens scratched and a pig rooted.
The villagers were not unknown to the prisoners, for they were sometimes allowed to sell fritters and rice cakes beside the aerodrome at lunchtime. This day, however, the man Billy wanted to see was not there. He'd gone away, the pair were told, and wouldn't be back until later.
''Terima kasih,'' Brownie thanked the people in Malay. And to the kid he muttered urgently, ''Off we go now! Back to the airfield, before it's too late.'' Yet when they arrived they found it was already too late. They hadn't been absent more than 10 minutes. Yet in that time the guards had discovered - or more likely been informed by a villager wanting the reward - that two men were missing. As they came through the trees, Billy and MP saw that the Japs had marshalled the workforce into their squads, and were counting them.
''Oh, cripes!'' the boy exclaimed. ''What are we gunna do?'' Ordinarily, he'd have known exactly what to do: repeat the effrontery shown the night they caught Punchy Donohue. March up to the guards. ''Were you looking for us?'' Say they'd gone for a shit. There was always a chance they'd be let go. At most they'd risk a belting. But that was before they'd seen Jimmy Darlington's punishment. Now they knew what would happen to them.
''I'm not going to go back to that,'' Brownie said. ''I don't think I'd survive it.''
''Then we'd better make a run for it,'' Billy whispered. A few words - a mere puff of breath - and the balance of life over death pivoted upon it. ''Our little hideout's a few miles down this track.''
''We could stay there till we work out a plan. What d'ya reckon? Are you in it?'' Myles Peace Brown looked at the kid. He looked at the workforce lined up and being counted. He weighed the possibility of escape against the likelihood of torture. ''All right,'' he said after a moment. ''Let's have a go.'' Swiftly they pulled back into the trees and padded down the jungle path - the kid barefooted with his snake-bitten ankle, the haversack with his few treasures - cigarette paper and the bit of shrapnel from his thigh wound in its tobacco tin - safely on his back. Noiseless. Breathless. Ears straining at furtive green shadows.
Then onto the path stepped Lieutenant Moritake and his crew.
The Black Bastard. The sumo wrestler. Several Malay policemen carrying rattan canes. And half a dozen recently arrived young Formosan conscripts, known as ''kitchies'' - more derisively dubbed ''titchies'' or ''boy scouts'', because they were comparatively small.
There was nothing juvenile in their behaviour, however.
Back at the camp, the kitchies were ordered to the woodpile, each to select a stick. The kid reflected that he'd been with the work party that chopped the rubber trees down only a few days ago. The quartered logs were sharp and splintered, like those with which Jimmy Darlington had been tortured.
''Ichi man, ichi hit,'' Moritake commanded, indicating that each boy scout would have only one go at Billy and one at MP. They took their time selecting the weapons, for their hands were small - titchy - and this prevented them inflicting too much damage. As they swung and struck their single blow at the captives, the rough timber edge cut into their own fingers, hurting them as much as their captives. There were no restrictions placed on the Black Bastard and co when their turn came. There was no time to duck or parry the whirling swordsticks then. Barely a chance to register injury before the next onslaught. Mad Mick … the sumo wrestler … they flogged their prisoners with a ferocity inspired as much by fear of Moritake as it was by hatred of their victims.
When at last it was over, Billy and MP were dragged up the hill and dumped outside the guardhouse.
The boy lay foundering, as it were, in a sea of pain; his mind numb to everything except the waves of agony that swept over his body, wallowing and trying to drag him under, though his spirit refused to sink quite yet. He turned his head to one side and saw MP Brown lying unconscious beside him: his legs swollen with bruises, his head a bloodied scab, as if his whole face had been ripped away.
''Jesus! What have they done to ya?'' He concentrated everything - and realised that one of their cudgels had sliced into Brownie's forehead and eyebrows, the raw skin hanging like a veil over his eyes.
As the afternoon wore on, Billy lay in the dirt unaware of anything except the sensations of grief, until, in the distance, he heard the sounds of singing - Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me? - as the men returned to camp from the airfield.
Next thing the kid heard a cry and feet running. He felt arms about him, lifting him up. And opening his eyes he saw the familiar face of his corporal looking at him, tears starting, as Bob Shipsides unscrewed his water bottle and poured the precious liquid onto Billy the Kid's parched lips. ''The bastards!'' Shippy exclaimed. ''The bloody bastards …'' But too soon the boy heard the sounds of other feet, as Japs scrambled from the guardhouse verandah and dragged Lance- Corporal Shipsides away, kicking him as they did so. ''Bad man! Bad man!'' And Billy did not see him again.
So he stayed, as the day dropped into evening; his mind beginning to recover a little and to think of other, happier things, as a release from present hurt. Nana Tot and the family waiting for him in Hobart. The girl Rosalind, promenading in Fremantle. He wished they could see him now … and then was glad they couldn't.
Darkness fell. Billy even fancied he could hear the bugler playing the Last Post under the Big Tree. And Reveille. The plangent strains spoke to him of something good and enduring; of friendships and values that mattered. And though every bone in his body cried aloud, the kid struggled to his feet and stood at some kind of attention. While the guards looked on in amusement and disbelief.
This is an edited extract from The Story of Billy Young by Anthony Hill, published by Viking, $29.99