Red Jack and the Ragged Thirteen

#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 the five minutes is up I swear I’ll stick that book down your throat and kick your arse so hard that they’ll have to pick you off the telegraph line yonder.’

The stranger didn’t so much as blink, and Sandy had to credit the man with some guts. He crossed his arms to wait out the five minutes, wondering if he’d have to fight to enforce the eviction. The prospect didn’t bother him much. Sandy was an uncommonly big man, at least the twenty stone Tom Nugent had estimated. Some of it was muscle, and some of it, he liked to joke, was muscle lying fallow.

Back in his youth he’d been as thin as the next lad. The weight came later. The fourth child of Scottish immigrants, he was born in Myponga, South Australia. His father took a liking to the sturdy ‘wee lad’, and bestowed on him his own name, Alexander MacDonald. Within an hour it had been shortened to Sandy.

Blessed with a capable brain, Sandy worked on the land from an early age, and was a natural leader. He was running Myrtle Springs Station at Farina, near the railway line to Oodnadatta, when he decided to chuck it all in. The horse he was riding now, the station owner’s part-Percheron stallion called Jonathan James, had, he told anyone who would listen, ‘followed’ him as he headed north.

Myrtle Springs Station (State Library of South Australia)

Thus mounted, Sandy rode a zigzag course into the Territory, drawn to prospector’s camps and desert shanties, farm huts and telegraph stations, living hard, playing poker and black jack, racing horses and skylarking at every opportunity. He found a niche in the brand-new settlement of Alice Springs, taking a genuine interest in the Arrernte and Luritja women around the town, but then in their old ways; the culture. Rare amongst bushmen in that part of the world, he was soon able to make himself understood in two or three Indigenous tongues, many of the words learned from the women he lived with at various times.

Sandy left the Alice with a bunch of mates after they’d worn out their welcome in the town. They’d been forcibly ejected from a race meeting, after one too many dud cheques and drunken fights. Word of a rich gold rush at Hall’s Creek had just hit town.

‘Nuggets as big as footballs,’ someone said. ‘An’ just lying there ready to be picked up.’

Sandy and his mates hadn’t been able to load their packs fast enough. Another three men, also headed for Hall’s Creek, had joined with them at the Elsey.

Now, Sandy divided his attention between watching the minute hand move closer to the time limit, and studying the stranger, who showed no inclination to move, his eyes flicking evenly over the words in his book.

The sounds of horsemen came from a distance, quickly closing on the waterhole. Tom’s eyes flickered up. Hoofbeats. Pintpots clicking on saddle dees; and laughing conversation.

‘Right,’ announced Sandy. ‘Time’s up.’ He gripped his horse’s mane with his left hand preparatory to dismounting. ‘And do you hear those horsemen coming? If you’re not afraid of me – and you should be – there are ten of us here now. You’d do well to piss off out of here as fast as that bony little gelding will carry you.’

Tom Nugent closed his book with a snap. ‘Well now,’ he cried, springing to his feet. ‘I can take an insult, but once you start on my horse, that’s when I get shirty.’

The first of the main party came up alongside Sandy Myrtle. It was Tommy the Rag, a bean-pole of a lad with a stockwhip looped around his shoulder like a rope. His quick mind summed up the situation at a glance. ‘What are you gonna do, mister? Fight all ten of us?’

A third man nosed up on a delicate grey. He was also of slim build, but with wiry muscles, and broad shoulders. His dress was flash: a snake skin belt tight around his trim waist; tooled leather boots and a red shirt. A silk kerchief was tied loosely around his throat. ‘Fighting?’ he said. ‘There’ll be none of that. This man here is our mate, Tom Nugent.’

Sandy’s forehead furrowed like a ploughed field, ‘You know this deadbeat?’

‘Know him? Tom is like a brother to me. Not only that, but he’s mates with Harry Readford, if that means anything to you. Tom has as solid a reputation as any man on the tracks.’ The speaker slid off his horse with more than usual style and extended a hand to Tom. ‘G’day there old mate. Haven’t seen you since we split up at the Macarthur.’

Tom smiled as they clasped hands. ‘Hey Larrikin, good to see you mate. And who’s this riding up? Well if it isn’t Fitz. You sly bastards. I saw you mob this morning and gave you a wide berth. If I’d recognised you two I’d have ridden straight in.’

‘Fitz and I met up with Sandy Myrtle here and his crew at the Elsey, and we’re all heading for the Kimberley rush to try our hand, so we decided to ride together. Look, here’s Bob Anderson too.’

‘Hi there Bob,’ said Tom, ‘it’s good to see you again.’ Bob was only recently arrived from Scotland, and still serving his apprenticeship, but was a likeable young bloke. His nickname was ‘The Foot Runner’ due to an uncommon turn of speed.

While the newcomers dismounted, there was a rush for saddle bags to take out pipes and tobacco pouches, pack the former with the latter, and drop live coals from Tom’s fire in the bowls to light them.

Sandy came down off Jonathan James with astounding grace for such a big man. ‘Mates with the great Harry Readford? Well why didn’t you say so? You’re welcome sir. I figured you were just a drifter heading for the goldfields. As Larrikin just explained, our lot met up with their lot down the track a ways and joined forces.’

Sandy and Tom shook hands, and by then all ten of the riders had come up. They were like a whirlwind visited on that waterhole, unsaddling horses, hobbling others, removing packs, hunting firewood, and peeing behind trees while others stripped off and plunged into the waterhole.The stock boys started to arrive; a lean Bularnu teen from the Georgina River Country, others from the Gulf. Most came in on horseback, black chests glossy as they went about camp chores.

‘Any ‘gators here?’ someone shouted.

‘Swim for a bit and we’ll find out,’ shouted another. ‘I’ll stand guard with my carbine.’ And that, to Tom’s surprise, was exactly what they did. The air was soon filled with the sound of splashing men and drops of water flinging rainbows in the the afternoon sun. Someone fired a round from a Snider rifle into the midst of the waterhole just to ‘let the scaly bastards know that we mean business.’ It sounded like a cannon shot, and birds took to the wing from all around the waterhole.

Abraham’s Billabong, taken in around 1885. (National Library of Australia)

Once camp was struck, the lure of the nearby shanty and its grog was too much. Sandy Myrtle cupped his hands over his mouth and bellowed.

‘Get ready, you lads. Directly we’re going to walk up to the store. I don’t know if any of you has a thirst for whisky that can compare to mine, but that’s where I’m heading.’ Sandy looked across at Tom, who had relit his cigar, looking at all the activity with a bemused expression on his face. ‘If you feel like company you might want to join us? It’ll be a good chance for a chin-wag. It sounds like we’re all pointing our noses for the Kimberley Rush.’

‘So it does, and I’ll be glad of a peg or two. I’ll pull on my boots and join you.’

Eleven men gathered on the banks of the waterhole, buckling on gun belts and emptying sand out of their boots. Some had bathed in their underwear, and the wetness showed through their dungarees.

As they walked together through the scrub towards the store, full of that shared energy a group of men get when heading off for a drinking spree, Sandy Myrtle slapped Tom Nugent on the back with the power of a thunderclap. ‘I’m sorry we got off to a bad start. I hope we can put it behind us.’

‘Of course we can,’ said Tom. ‘I’m not a man to bear a grudge.’

‘In that case I think some introductions are in order,’ said Sandy, calling the gang to a halt. ‘Now you already know Larrikin, Bob Anderson and Fitz. You also met this skinny little streak of shit, Tommy the Rag.’

‘I did,’ agreed Tom.

‘Well here’s the blokes who’ve ridden up along the ‘line’ from the Alice with me. First up, Jack Woods, but we have a few Jacks so we call him ‘New England Jack.’ Tom’s eyes met a scrawny character who looked like he hadn’t touched soap or water in months, if not years. Still, he had the twinkle of fun in his eye and the look of a man who lived life to the full.

‘Here’s the brothers,’ Sandy went on. ‘Wonoka Jack and George Brown. South Australians like me. They call themselves escaped farmers, but no one’s quite sure what they’re escaping to.’ The elder of the two wore a dirty-brown bowler hat, and they were both missing a tooth or two.

‘Nice to meet you,’ said Tom.

‘This fine young man over here is Jack Dalley,’ Sandy went on. ‘And this is Hughie Campbell.’ Tom sized up the latter. He was a big bastard, uncommonly muscular and handsome with it. ‘He was a seaman on a ship anchored off Port Augusta when he decided he liked the look of bonny South Australia and took a dive overboard.’

‘Call me Scotty,’ said Hugh, in a deep, smooth brogue. ‘These rude bastards all do.’

Sandy Myrtle grinned at Tom. ‘Eleven of us in all, that’s a drinking party and no mistake.’

‘Enough talk,’ growled Jack Daly. ‘Let’s go raise some hell.’

They walked in a line towards the shanty.

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

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