An hour before dawn Alfred Searcy led a line of horsemen across the Negri, half a mile upstream from the Ragged Thirteen’s camp. Moving carefully in the dark, armed with coils of rope and loaded carbines, the police party worked their way back down on foot, taking up their positions around the camp, spaced at regular intervals just a long stone’s throw from the sleeping men.
Searcy himself had chosen a boab tree as thick around as a garden rotunda as his post, waiting for the Thirteen to stir. The instructions he had given to the men in his party were simple. The gang of ruffians had been gorging on stolen food. They would wake around dawn, and the call of nature would take them, one by one, out of the camp. When they did so, a quick gag and a few lashings of rope would allow them to be spirited away, back here to the boab. Searcy would guard the captives while the rest of the gangwere taken.
‘Won’t Tom Nugent get suspicious when people keep disappearin’?’ O’Donohue asked.
‘Eventually, yes,’ answered Searcy, ‘but by then their numbers will have been whittled down and we can take the rest by force.’
It had rained during the night, but the sun rose clear and burning yellow, just as two of the Victoria River ringers brought in their first captive. This, Searcy saw, was the lad called Tommy the Rag, wrists secured around his back with his own stockwhip. His eyes were furious, and he attempted to kick at them with his feet until they too were lashed together, and he had no choice but to lay down.
‘What’s that smell?’ Searcy asked suspiciously.
‘Well now,’ said the ringer. ‘You can’t expect to apprehend a man er, performing a call of nature without things getting messy.’
‘It’s a weakness in the plan,’ said the other.
Searcy bristled, ‘Stop griping and get on with it. Before long we’ll have the whole lot of them in custody, and they can wash themselves off in the river.’
For a while nothing happened. Searcy was forced to watch Tommy the Rag trying to chew through his gag for entertainment, but the next two captives came together. Wonoka George; then ‘New England’ Jack Woods. Both were strong men, fighting the ropes and those who carried them like ‘gators caught in a net.
O’Donohue was just as strong, however, and he brought each of these men in with the help of the trackers and some ringers, throwing them under the trees, binding their feet, then giving Wonoka George a kick in the side for good measure.
‘I must admit, Alfie,’ the big Irishman said, with his chest heaving. ‘I doubted yer plan at first. Yet it seems t’ be working.’
Sandy Myrtle had experienced a troubled sleep, and laid abed a tad longer than usual. Finally, however, he lumbered to his feet, found a pannikin of water and a pipe he had packed ready the night before. He swallowed the water thirstily, then walked to the fire, leaning over to light the pipe on a burning stick. Tom, Fitz, Carmody and Larrikin were warming themselves and toasting lumps of damper.
‘Where is everyone?’ Sandy asked.
‘Dunno,’ said Fitz. ‘Out and about.’
When the pipe was finished Sandy’s bowel started making its presence felt. He stood and walked from the camp, into the scrub, scouting around. Being such a big, heavy man, nineteen stone last time he checked, he did not like to squat. His preferred latrine was a fallen trunk that he could sit on. He would often spend some time looking for the right one.
The search was hastened by the growing urgency in his gut, and in the end the best he could do was an old fallen sapling, no thicker than his arm, supported at knee height by its spindly branches. Stripping off his dungarees he perched himself on the trunk, sighing with relief.
He had eaten well the previous day, wolfing down johnny cakes and treacle until he felt sick, along with tinned beans and salted meat. The result was a fully ripe discharge, depositing in a rush below his perch.
A sudden noise from behind had Sandy turning. He saw two men, strangers both, carrying carbines. One also held a length of cloth ripped into a gag. Sandy tried to get up, but at that moment the old trunk he was sitting on broke with a sharp crack, and down he went, plumb into a hot pile of his own effluent.
The men rushed forward with the gag. But not before Sandy managed a loud shout of surprise. He rose like a bear, howling with rage, lashing out with a huge arm, so unbalanced and unsteady that he fell back into the same patch of filth he had just risen from, now mixing with reddish mud from the previous night’s rain.
Bellowing and lashing out mindlessly, Sandy got up again and rushed at the two Victoria River ringers, who turned tail and ran, thinking now of nothing but their own safety.
Tom, back at the fire, heard the sound and stood up, holding an enamel mug of tea in his right hand, every sense attuned. ‘What was that?’
‘Dunno,’ replied Fitz, ‘sounds like old Sandy Myrtle just lost his temper.’
A moment later the sound of a gunshot echoed through the bush and they were all on their feet, scrabbling for weapons.
‘Hey Blind Joe,’ called Tom.
‘Get the rest of the stock boys, women and horses together and ride west until noon-time. We’ll catch up with you there. We’ve got trouble.’
Then, to the gang members who were at the camp. ‘Mount up, boys, we’ll find out what the devil’s going on out there.’
Sandy Myrtle charged like a bull through the bush after the two men. He wore no trousers at all, and a singlet that had once been white was stuck to his torso. He was a fast runner, over a short distance, and it wasn’t far to where Alfred Searcy waited with his prisoners. Sandy was roaring, face red with anger, his half-naked body covered in foul-smelling brown and reddish slime.
‘Good God,’ shouted Searcy as the two ringers ran in, with this apparition behind them. He had time to lift his rifle and fire a warning shot over the huge man’s head. It had no effect.
‘Arrest him,’ shouted Searcy to the ringers.
‘Arrest that?’ one of the ringers shouted back. ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking.’
Searcy was forced to run for his life, Sandy’s huge fist swinging wildly and missing his head by a whisker. The smell was intense. Terrible. Almost life changing.
Laughter rang out around the boab tree, as the prisoners in their bonds laughed at the sight. But Sandy was not distracted, his heart set on punishing the men who had interrupted his morning ablutions. He ran with every ounce of strength, fists clenched, eyes narrowed, and droplets of sweat flying from his forehead at every stride.
Alfred Searcy was smart enough to double back, but the two ringers ran on, terrified and disgusted, all the way to the horses, and it was only when Sandy saw them mounted and swimming back across the river that he recovered some of his composure, walking back to where Tom Nugent and the others had just arrived on horseback.
Searcy and O’Donohue had rallied with one of the trackers, their carbines trained on Tommy the Rag, Wonoka George and ‘New England’ Jack.
‘These men are our prisoners,’ shouted Searcy. He was hoping for the rest of the contingent from Victoria River Downs to turn up, but the sound of horses sloshing their way across the river told him that they had already joined their mates in making a retreat.
‘The devil they are,’ replied Tom holding his heavy Snider rifle like a toy. ‘Turn around and walk away. If you’re still on this side of the river on the count of fifty we’ll throw you in.’
The tracker, having a sense for which side was on the ascendancy, turned and went after the ringers. Searcy and O’Donohue stared at each other. Then slowly lowered their weapons.
‘This won’t be t’e end of t’e matter,’ warned O’Donohue.
At that moment, however, Sandy Myrtle emerged from the trees, still showing off the lower half of his body, sheeted with sweat and filth from top to toe.
Seeing Searcy and O’Donohue, he roared with rage, and gave chase. The two policemen had no choice but to run, and while Tom and his mates untied the ropes, the riverbank rang with laughter, and the slowly receding sound of Sandy Myrtle yelling as he chased his prey to their horses and over the river.
‘I don’t think I’ve seen old Sandy lose his temper before today,’ said Tom.
‘It’s a sight,’ said Wonoka Jack, rubbing his wrists. ‘I seen him go berserk once in the town of Stuart, on the telegraph line. Damn near killed five men, he did.’
Tom smiled, ‘Still and all, I think it’s best that we all get mounted and ride some distance into Western Australia, away from those damn traps. They’re going to be spoiling to get us after this little fracas. Besides, we’re so close to that darned gold I can smell it.’
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