Some men are born bad, some become outlaws through persecution and desperation. Some, like Harry Readford, are opportunists, who commit their crimes through a sense of fun and love of a challenge.
Even as a young man, Harry was an unusually tall and impressive figure, face shaded by his hat and protected by a thick, curling beard. He smoked cigars and never seemed to run short of these luxuries. He never said a word without thinking it through first, and was generous and chivalrous to a fault.
Born in Mudgee in 1842, youngest of seven children, Harry knew plenty about living rough. He also had a rare understanding of horses, and took to cattle work like he was born to it. In Western Queensland he found his calling, working on Bowen Downs Station, a property that stretched for well over a hundred miles along the Thomson River.
It was there one day, in a remote stock camp with his mates George and Bill that Harry first started musing about ‘all those unsupervised cattle.’ Bowen Downs carried some 60 000 head at the time.
“I believe,” Harry said, “that these damn cattle aren’t hardly seen from one year to the next. Why a man could ride off with a bunch of them in September and they might not be missed until June. Perhaps not even then.”
The idea firmed into a plan over the coming weeks. The three men quit their jobs and rode away, returning at night to remote hill country where they built a set of yards and set about secretly mustering Bowen Downs cattle. They were careful to take only cleanskins and to leave behind any stock that might be recognised.
Unfortunately as they finally set off with 1000 head of cattle, a distinctive white bull, a prized possession of the Mt Cornish Outstation, joined up with the mob. Harry and his mates argued over what to do with him, while they escorted their stolen cattle down Coopers Creek, en route to South Australia.
“Best to shoot that bastard and leave him in a ditch,” Harry said.
But the others disagreed. The bull was worth five hundred pounds and they convinced Harry that they could easily sell him to a station owner along the way without the risk of trying to yard him in Adelaide. Harry gave in and they sold the bull to a storekeeper on the remote Strzelecki Creek.
The drive itself was one of the great achievements of Australia’s early pastoral history, and this was not lost on the people of Adelaide. Harry, George and Bill found themselves being hailed as trailblazers, leading to some uncomfortable questions about the source of the cattle. When news of the white bull trickled through to Adelaide, trouble was on the way.
Harry was enjoying the proceeds of the sales, staying in private rooms at one of the city’s best hotels, when a clerk from the saleyards knocked on the door and asked him for a moment of his time.
“I’m only telling you this because you’re such a gentleman and always done right by me. The police are coming for you. Get out of town fast if you can.”
Go to Part Two