Category: Red Jack and the Ragged Thirteen

Bringing Australia's History to Life

Prologue: The Legend of Red Jack

They called her Red Jack, for her hair was as bright as an outback sunset, hanging to her waist from beneath a stained cattleman’s hat. Borne on her jet-black stallion, Mephistopheles, she roved the north, riding into towns and setting up camp, knocking up a rough set of yards where she would break horses, bring…
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#1. The Man at the Waterhole

Not far from where the Mataranka Pub stands today, upstream from the Bitter Springs, the Roper River broadens into a waterhole. Giant paperbarks crowd the banks, the spaces between pierced with blades of sun-lit pandanus. Archer fish dart here and there in the green water, and cormorants hunt deep, surfacing amongst the snags. Back in…
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#2. The Eleven

Still in the saddle, Sandy Myrtle peered down at the stranger camped on the waterhole. ‘I’ll give you five minutes to piss off,’ he said, then dragged a silver pocket watch from a recess in the flowing caftan he wore in place of a shirt. He lifted the face to one eye, and squinted. ‘When…
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#3. Jimmy Woodford’s Horse

For the first time in two long weeks, Jimmy Woodford knew that the journey’s end was nigh. Two weeks of scarcely a solid hour of sleep. Half starved. Near perishing for water at times. Tracking the mongrel bastards who stole his horse. Now, at last, he was so close to the thieves he could almost…
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#4. The Hanging of Maori Jack Reid

Tom Nugent had packed a lifetime of experience into his thirty-seven years, but he’d never seen Red Jack in the flesh, and had never watched a man murder a horse. Today, at this Roper River shanty, he’d seen both those things. Each was troubling in different ways. Most of the crowd were still in shock,…
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#5. The Shanty

Sandy Myrtle fronted the bar, standing like a giant with his hair almost brushing the cypress rafters. He pulled his chequebook from his pocket, borrowed a pen and inkpot, then scribbled a figure. ‘Here boy, let me know when this runs out. Whiskies for me and the Scotsmen, then rums all round for the rest…
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#6. The Bitter Springs

It was a two mile ride to the thermal pools known as Bitter Springs, but no one considered the time wasted. Leaving the stock boys in charge of the camp, the thirteen men rode in double file down the moon-lit track, swigging from bottles and skylarking as they went. Leaving their horses tied to paperbark…
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#7. The Beef Raid

Matt Kirwan was no fool. He’d left a guard on the bullock carcass that hung from a chain in the yards beside the store. The guard was a young Jangman helper. White men called him Billy, though he already had a name, that they did not choose to learn. Billy heard the Thirteen coming from…
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#8. Searcy and O’Donahue

Alfred Searcy loved a good camp, and the Hodgson River crossing was a first-rate site, with flat shelves of dark rock, waist-high waterfalls, and fish to be had in the deep pools below. With a suitable rock as a seat, Alfred lit his pipe and sighed contentedly. He considered himself a true bushman: the kind…
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#9. The King River

While Tom Nugent, Jack Dalley, Fitz and Tommy the Rag headed for the Gulf, the rest of the Thirteen struck camp and rode the track in a north-westerly direction, towards the Katherine. With the stockboys droving a plant of near forty horses they moved slowly, often with the Overland Telegraph Line in sight, six or…
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#10. What Happened in the Gulf

After a slap-up feast of salt beef and johnny-cakes, Tom Nugent stoked the fire and took pride of place on a stump. Jack Dalley, Tommy the Rag, and Fitz, still proud of his bullet wound, took their places nearby. ‘Gather ’round and hear the yarn you blokes,’ Tom called. ‘There’s been deeds done in the…
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#11. Jack Comes Back

Their ears were still ringing from the gunshot, scattered embers glowing all around the camp, when Carmody raised his head warily. ‘Hey Tom,’ he hissed, eyes glowing white in a face shiny with sweat. ‘That sounds like Maori Jack out there.’ ‘So it does,’ said Tom. ‘I’d know that devil’s voice anywhere.’ Standing, holding his…
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#12. Katherine Town

The last leg of the journey to the Katherine covered mile after mile of flat woodland. Tommy the Rag entertained himself by flicking his stockwhip at the tops of termite mounds along the way, and Bob Anderson sang as he rode, old Scottish songs, that strangely seemed not out of place in the Territory. The…
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#13. Billy and the Traps

Up from the Gulf on a mission of revenge, Troopers Searcy and O’Donahue rode side by side, reaching the Elsey in record time, and veering north towards the Katherine. ‘You don’t think Inspector Foelsche will be angry that we’ve ridden back all this way when we’re supposed to be on duty in Borroloola by now?’…
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#14. Before the Raid

With the supply of rifle cartridges replenished, Tom turned his thoughts to the revolvers, or ‘squirts’ they all carried. These were, in the main, cap and ball weapons such as Tom’s own Colt Navy. Aware that they had just a handful of .36 calibre balls left, Tom set about casting new ones. He rummaged through…
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#15. The Katherine Robbery

Scattered over a mile of river bank, the settlement of Katherine was deep in midnight slumber. There was no wind, the air warm and smoky from hearth fires that burned beside bark and iron humpies. Thirteen mounted men rode out from their camp downstream, skilled horsemen all, keeping to the scrub where they could, moving…
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#16. A Company of Thieves

Alfred Searcy’s legs were steady and his hands did not shake as he peered through the iron sights of one of the most feared weapons in those parts, a Winchester repeating rifle. Beside him stood O’Donahue, with his Martini-Henry locked and loaded. Together they were representatives of the law, a force to reckoned with. Alfred…
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#17. Fugitives from Justice

‘Everyone alright?’ Tom Nugent had called, when they pulled up ten miles south west of the Katherine township. Sandy Myrtle took off his cabbage-tree hat and thrust his hand inside, extending a finger through a bullet hole in the weave. ‘Well damn me for being a lucky bastard,’ he said. ‘I thought I felt something.’…
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#18. Searcy Turns Back

In the middle of the afternoon, Alfred Searcy and his mate O’Donahue followed their tracker up to the remains of the Ragged Thirteen’s dinner camp on the river. They walked the horses in, carbines in their laps as they rode, inhaling the smell of food scraps and cold campfire. Some hasty drying racks over the…
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#19. The Stone Knife

The boy loved being there on the Flora River, where calcium-rich water flowed from distant underground springs, forming a green channel that never stopped flowing. Upstream from the junction the waters cascaded over raft-walls of skeletonised logs, boiling into pools and churning through rapids. There were wild blacks around. Blind Joe went to warn them…
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#20. A Strange Kind of Justice

Tom Nugent was riding beside Blind Joe, when a high-pitched, unearthly wail carried on the air, rising above the sounds of the breeze and the river, the clink of spurs and the creak of leather. He spurred his horse, heedless of the river scrub, reaching the riverside camp at a furious gallop. There, on a…
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#21. Alligator Jim

Tom Nugent and his hunting party reached the main camp in the late afternoon. Storm clouds glowed yellow, reflecting like gold on the surface of the Flora River as it snaked out of the limestone plains, twining with the Katherine to create the mighty Daly River. The plant were soon hobbled and grazing on green…
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#22. A Town called Borroloola

After a break-neck ride Alfred and O’Donohue pulled up at Abraham’s Billabong for supplies and a breather. Young Bowen, a little tougher looking than last time they had seen him, fronted the counter of the store. ‘It’s a relief to see some troopers in the area. You’re on your way to Borroloola?’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Well…
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#23. Beef for Christmas

Riding in a south westerly direction, upstream on the Flora River, the Ragged Thirteen ran headlong into solid Wet Season rain. Some nights the only fire they could maintain was deep between the raised roots of a thick old paperbark, or far back in a rocky cleft with the flames brushing soot onto lichen and…
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#24. Crossing the Victoria

The Victoria River, when they reached it, riding down a spur of one of those jagged hills, was a turbid, flowing lake, rimmed with mud and thick undergrowth. The sun was out, but it cheered nobody, for the heat was almost unbearable. Horse and man alike saw no pleasure in that day, and tempers flared,…
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#25. Whisky and Water. The Victoria River Depot

The Victoria River Depot, when they reached it, wasn’t much of a place, a couple of jetties half-afloat in tidal mud, the usual collection of bush dwellings, tents and rough camps. There was noise enough at first, even some music, but everything went silent as the Thirteen left the women and stock boys with the…
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#26. Red Jack’s Camp

While the Ragged Thirteen rode south from the Victoria River Depot, Red Jack met the river at Gregory Creek and resolved to follow the eastern bank as it dog-legged south to Victoria River Downs and beyond. While a fiery sunset filled the horizon, Red Jack crossed the creek on a gravel bar, reined in her…
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#27. Billy Reports Back

  Every day Alfred Searcy wrote a new entry in his journal. He saw himself as a sea-captain, with the vessel being his own body. Just like James Cook or Matthew Flinders, on land and on water. He set down in detail the events of the day; ground covered, and places visited. Borroloola had proved…
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#28. Tom’s Trick

‘I can’t see a bloody thing,’ called Tom Nugent. Sandy Myrtle cupped his hands and shouted up towards the crown of the tree. ‘Well climb up higher then, and stop yer blessed complaining. I’d have shimmied up the blasted tree myself if I were as skinny as you.’ After a week or two heading south…
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#29. The VRD Raid

Setting off towards the Victoria River Downs station outbuildings, ducking under ironwood rails into the station horse paddock, Sandy Myrtle attempted to move with stealth, but his bulk made it difficult. Every time he bent over he felt a twinge of pain that shot up his spine and down through his thighs. Moving ahead of…
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#30. Across the Murranji

  ‘There’s only one way to save time,’ said Alfred. ‘We’ll have to take the Murranji Track.’ After a frantic ride from Borroloola, up through Anthony’s Lagoon and Brunette, they had reached Newcastle Waters in four days of hard riding. Arriving at the homestead, they’d enjoyed the hospitality of the manager, a friendly man by…
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#31. On The Border

Reaching the Negri River was like a homecoming for the gang. There, camped on the opposite bank, were the stock boys and women they had sent ahead. Blind Joe stood watching the Thirteen ride in, one hand on the shoulder of Tom Nugent’s orphan from Borroloola, who looked disappointed when the leader did not appear.…
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#32. Changing the Brand

‘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…
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#33. The Call of Nature

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…
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#34. Hall’s Creek

The Elvire River wound down towards Hall’s Creek, with an established trail on the high ground beside it, marked with heavy wagon ruts and bush camps along the way. Graves were common, as were cairns of stones and timber crucifixes. On a short cut between loops of the river, propped up at the foot of…
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#35. Staking a Claim

Just as the sun’s first rays touched the gully, a cupped handful of water from the shallow brown waterhole hit Tom Nugent’s face. When the ripples had stilled he used his reflection on the surface to comb his hair with his fingers. He had washed his shirt the night before and, hung it on a…
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