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 the pioneering days this was a popular place to hobble out the plant and unroll a swag. There was a store nearby that doubled as a grog shanty. For those inclined to fish, black bream and catfish were plentiful – easy to catch and good tucker.
One afternoon, in the year 1885, Tom Nugent rode up fast from the south. He wasn’t easily rattled, as a rule, but he’d stumbled on a gang of ten horsemen back along the track, and wanted to steer clear of them. They were as heavily armed as any police patrol, and looked twice as dangerous. He urged his gelding into a trot, keeping that pace up, all the way to his planned night’s camp.
Tom smelled the waterhole before he saw it, reining the gelding to a halt on the river sand. White men called this place Abraham’s Billabong, after a labourer who’d worked on the Overland Telegraph line. It had Jangman and Mangarrayi names before that, of course, but Abraham’s Billabong was the name Tom Nugent knew.
First he watered his pack horses and spares, then his gelding, leading him, with a loose grip on the bridle, to the lily-fringed edge of the hole. Tom’s hands were gentle and caring, his soft words soothing. He was in his late thirties, tall and sun-browned, all muscle and sinew after a thousand-mile ride.
Tom been born in Maitland, in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, baptised as Thomas Brian Nugent. His father James was, at that time, licensee of the Gordon Arms Hotel in Lochinvar. Tom wanted to be like the rough men who washed the dust from their throats at the pub, though he never quite understood why there was always so much dust to wash away, even when it rained.
When Tom was fourteen, already working on local cattle stations, his father went bankrupt, turning bitter with it. Just before Christmas 1867, James Nugent was charged with threatening to kill his wife. He probably would have done it, too, if nineteen-year-old Tom hadn’t stood in his way.
Yet, the Hunter Valley was too small a canvas for a wild young man like Tom. At the age of twenty-two he rode north, seeking adventure in Queensland, in the days when the west of that state was just opening up.
Tom worked his way up to head stockman at Carandotta Station on the Georgina River. He was known for his horsemanship and calmness of manner when faced with anything from a ‘rush,’ to an angry piker, or even a rum-crazed ringer.
Cattle magnate John Costello hired Tom to establish Lake Nash station on the Territory/Queensland border. Tom droved the first herd of seven hundred breeders there from Carrawal in 1879. He could have stayed on as manager, but he was a drifter at heart.
He met up with the infamous Harry Readford, who had once stolen two thousand head of cattle and driven them to South Australia, inspiring the Captain Starlight character in Rolf Boldrewood’s novel, Robbery Under Arms. Tom and Harry joined forces for a cattle duffing jaunt or two, and remained the best of mates through thick and thin.
In fact, Tom and Harry Readford had shared this latest journey north together, at least for most of the way. With them on the trip was a lad from around Moree, who had run away from home. The lad and Readford himself had, just five days earlier, left Tom and headed for Brunette Downs on the Barkly.
Tom said on the day they parted. ‘I’ve a hankering to join the Hall’s Creek rush, before all the sparkle is panned from the creeks. No doubt I’ll be back before long, with the arse out of my pants and ready for stock work.’
‘No doubt,’ agreed Harry. ‘But if you do ride back this way, loaded down with gold, give me a shout and I’ll help you spend it.’
Leading his gelding up from the water, Tom unsaddled, hobbled and night-belled him, letting him loose with the packs. He collected sticks for a fire and established his campsite on the waterhole’s southern bank.
Thinking of the wild ten horsemen he had seen – men who may well be heading this way – he considered fetching his revolver, or squirt as stockmen called them, from his saddle bag before settling down. Yet, Tom wasn’t in the habit of using guns on any man, black or white, so he decided against it.
With a small mug of whisky close at hand, Tom sat on a paperbark root near the fire and opened a volume of poetry written by an Australian called Henry Kendall. His favourite verse was called Song of the Cattle Hunters. He’d read it a hundred times or more, but it still quickened his pulse and warmed his heart.
Down the ridges we fly, with a loud ringing cry,
Down the ridges and gullies we go,
And the cattle we hunt they are racing in front,
With a roar like the thunder of waves,
Tom was softly reading the words aloud, the stub of a cigar between the corners of his lips, when he heard the sound of hoofbeats. One man, riding fast, the rhythm changing where the waterhole sand began.
Down came a horseman, one of the biggest men Tom had ever seen. Twenty stone if he was an ounce, riding a stallion that matched him in stature. The whiskers of the rider’s beard curled like a coir mat over his face from ear to ear and chest to nostrils. He carried a black Colt revolver in a holster at his waist, reining in when he saw Tom, towering over him, his mount’s black chest like a cliff of veined muscle.
Tom recognised the bulky man as one of the ten riders he had seen earlier. Knowing instinctively that showing any weakness or fear would be a mistake, he barely moved, just flicked his eyes up from the pages of his book to the grizzled face of the rider.
‘Good afternoon,’ Tom said. ‘You must be new to the bush. Riding up on a man’s camp like that isn’t the way things are done.’
The rider shrugged. ‘I’m no new-chum. I just don’t worry myself much about the way things are done. I have my own ways and they work well enough.’
Tom took a handy twig from the fire and used the smouldering end to resuscitate his cigar, puffing with his lips until it was drawing well. ‘You could at least tell me who the hell I’m talking to.’
‘My name is Alexander McDonald, but men call me Sandy Myrtle. You might have heard of me?’
Tom thought for a moment, then shook his head. ‘No. Can’t say that I have.’
The rider scowled. ‘In any case, my mates are back a ways, and I’ve come ahead to scout out a place to camp.’
‘Plenty of space for it. Take your pick.’
Sandy Myrtle grunted. ‘Well, a polite way of saying this doesn’t spring to mind, so please, your Lordship, excuse me if this is not the way things are done. Put simply, I’d be grateful if you moved on. My mates and I don’t care for the company of strangers, especially not ones with smart mouths.’
Tom blinked, surprised. He stood up and crossed his arms over his chest, still holding the book. ‘So,’ he said softly. ‘What if I’ve already made up my mind to stay here for as long as I damn well like?’
‘That,’ said the big stranger. ‘Will be a problem.’
©2018 Greg Barron
Continues next Sunday … Read the story so far here.