‘Listen to me Tom, and listen good,’ Sandy Myrtle said after breakfast, still licking crumbs from his beard. ‘You have to do something about that horse.’
‘What can he do, apart from turnin’ it loose?’ asked Fitz
‘I’m not letting the horse go,’ Tom said, ‘and that’s flat.’
‘You know,’ said Larrikin, relighting his pipe and taking a deep puff, ‘last year I was working at Alexandria Station over on the Barkly. Their brand is a capital A in a box, this one has a B in a circle. When I left I bought three horses, one of them was a grey stallion. He was a poor old bugger that I used as a packhorse until he died. It seems to me that with a hot knife and a steady hand the brand could be changed. It might be enough of a story to keep a man out of gaol.’
Tom shook Larrikin’s hand. ‘You, my friend, are a genius.’
They heated the knife in the fire until it glowed red, and the handle had to be wrapped in a rag to be held. Since altering the brand was Larrikin’s idea he was deputised to do the work, and he oversaw the project, demonstrating with a stick in the dust just how he might make the change most efficiently.
The stallion, meanwhile, was no idiot, and he watched the proceedings with a wary eye. When Larrikin took the knife from the fire and walked towards him, the stallion reared. He was a big strong horse, and was not going to be held while the hot knife was in proximity.
‘There, there mate,’ Larrikin cooed. ‘It’ll all be over in an instant.’ The high-spirited beast responded with a kick that would have taken Larrikin’s head off if he hadn’t moved.
They tried everything, but the horse would not let the knife get close to him.
‘We’ll have to throw the bastard,’ said Larrikin. ‘It’s the only way.’
The Thirteen gathered around while Larrikin made a loop in a rope and firmed it up around the stallion’s neck. The ends went down through the forelegs, in a complicated arrangement around the rear fetlocks. Then, while the animal fought and kicked every inch of the way, Larrikin had Tom pull from the front rope-end and he on the side. The stallion’s rear legs gathered up, and he went down, held by willing helpers while the knife burned into the hair and skin of his shoulder.
When it was done, the area was thick with dust raised from the activity, and the air smelled of singed horsehair. They all agreed that the brand looked much like Larrikin had promised it would. He’d fined up the top of the B to resemble an A, and rounded the square into a circle. It was messy, sure, but not all brands were applied expertly.
‘What was the name of that old nag of yours, Larrikin?’ asked Tom. ‘The one with this brand.’
Some of the men laughed, but Tom shrugged. ‘Well I guess we’d better call this one the same then, though it don’t really suit.’ He looked at Larrikin. ‘We might as well do the other two horses you blokes took from the homestead, while we’re on the job.’
The Thirteen were too busy to notice when riders came up on the other side of the river: Searcy, O’Donohue, eight armed ringers from VRD and two trackers. The horses were blown from hard riding, and the men were weary but alert. They were veterans of stock camps and long droves, more at home in the saddle than any feather bed.
Leaving the horses and creeping up to the edge of the scrub, the police party gazed out at the Negri and the slow rise of stale smoke on the other side.
‘That’s them,’ growled O’Donohue. ‘But that river’s the border, damn it. They’re in the sovereign colony of Western Australia and there’s nothing we can do about it.’
Searcy grinned. ‘That’s not the case. All these bushmen think that the Negri River is the actual border. It’s not. The real border is the 129th meridian, which the river runs along, here and there. I’m telling you right now that the Ragged Thirteen are still half a mile within the Jurisdiction of the Northern Territory of South Australia. And the best thing is that they don’t even know it.’
O’Donnell smiled. ‘Alright then. How are we going to take them?’
‘I’ve got a brilliant idea,’ said Alfred, ‘of how we can have the whole lot of those rascals in chains. But, it will only work in the morning. Alright lads. Let’s go back and sleep well. There’s men’s work to be done in the dawn.’
Continues next Sunday …
©2018 Greg Barron
Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com