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 rested mounts back into work, and even train racehorses. A month or two later, she’d load her packhorses and move on.
Stockmen from Hughenden to Cloncurry, awed by her abilities in the saddle, whispered of how, as a young woman, flames set by an arsonist had consumed her house. Legend had it that her husband of three years and two children were inside – babes she had birthed and hugged and nursed and loved through fever and colic.
When they brought out the blackened, charred bodies, so the story went, Red Jack collapsed to the ground. Two men carried her to her mother’s house. For six weeks, they said, she lay cold and silent. Not once did she speak, her skin growing paler than white.
Then, one morning, Red Jack rose from her bed. She saddled Mephistopheles, then loaded two packhorses with every practical thing she owned. That day she commenced her wandering, breaking horses and hearts all the way; countless men bewildered by her beauty and skill and the folklore that followed in her passing.
The legend of the house fire was the most common story, but front-bar chat had it that Red Jack’s real name was Hannah, and that she hailed from the Darling Downs. Was it true? No one knew for sure. She was polite but would say nothing of herself. Neither confirm nor deny. One rumour held that Red Jack’s husband had not died in a fire, but rather of gunshot wounds just a week after the wedding. Some reckoned it was an accident. Some said that Red Jack shot him.
Others said that her wandering across Queensland and the Northern Territory was a manhunt for her husband’s killer, and that when she found him she would tear his beating heart from his chest.
Whispers followed Red Jack wherever she went. Some called her Australia’s greatest horse breaker. But to those who knew her, her cold beauty was so ethereal that she was no mortal woman, but a legend who walked the earth.
Continues next Sunday …
©2018 Greg Barron