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 smell them. His breath quickened as he walked faster, though his dungarees hung loose around each leg, and his shirt flapped against bony arms.
The trouble had started at the Daly Waters Telegraph Station. Jimmy’s mare had developed a case of colic. At first he’d ignored her restless pawing, but when she started dropping abruptly and trying to roll, he was forced to rest and examine her. Normally a beautiful horse – a blend of sweet nature and high spirits – she became irritable and sweaty, nostrils dilating with each laboured breath.
With any other horse Jimmy might have sold her and moved on, but she had been a parting gift from his parents, and her bloodlines were second to none in South Australia. He elected to stop with her while she recovered. Sandy Myrtle and the rest of the boys went on without him.
The recovery from colic took less than a week, but she remained poor, and instead of following the telegraph line north, Jimmy elected to veer east until he struck the Strangways River, guided by a Wilingula boy he had ‘borrowed’ for a few shillings from a fellow traveller.
One night he was camped on a waterhole called Paddy’s Lagoon. There were two other white men there, taking a smuggler’s route from the Gulf. They did not offer their names, but one in particular worried Jimmy. He was swarthy of skin, with eyes like the devil himself. With just three of them on the waterhole, however, bush etiquette declared that it would be impolite not to share their campfire.
As usual Jimmy hobbled out his mare and set his boy to watch her, patting the glossy black skin between the lad’s shoulder blades and giving him a stick of Barrett’s tobacco to keep him happy. The other white men had a cask of ‘rum’, and Jimmy had always had a weakness for the stuff. This was sly grog: a devil’s brew of brandy and fermented sugars, poisoned with wood alcohol. After a few hours of yarning and gambling, followed by singing, shouting drunkenness, Jimmy fell asleep where he sat.
When he woke in the morning the two men had gone. They’d left Jimmy’s old bedroll. Still hidden in its recesses, he found with relief, were some coins, a note or two and some questionable cheques. They had left his cracked and hard boots. The Wilingula boy they had either taken, or chased off.
But it was the theft of Jimmy’s mare that brought a succession of piteous tears rolling down his cheeks. Apart from his strong connection to her, he was at the mercy of the much talked about and feared inhabitants of this area, on a little travelled route, with no horse.
But Jimmy was nothing if not persistent. He wanted his horse back, and he vowed that he would get her. He did not need a tracker. With a plant of four or five horses, including packs, the thieves had left a trail any fool could follow. Besides, they were lazy bastards. They rode hard for one morning, figured they were well ahead of one man on foot, then relaxed, stopping for a dinner camp that lasted most of the afternoon. Jimmy could see the marks where they had lain down in the shade.
Days of trailing the two thieves and their plant from waterhole to waterhole followed. Slowly Jimmy gained on them, the trail seeming fresher each morning. Leaving the Strangways they headed for the harsh country around Mount Mueller. There Jimmy found the carcass of a beast they had killed, taking just the backstraps and the rump. Jimmy had eaten well for the first time in days. He had no Vestas, so he chewed the meat raw, blood running down his cheeks and beard.
From here they headed west, crossed Elsey Creek, bypassed the homestead, then dawdled along a rough track that shadowed the south bank of the Roper River. The heat grew worse, pulsing off the river pandanus in humid waves.
At the limit of his physical strength, Jimmy saw the shanty ahead. The building itself looked new; more civilised than most of the structures he had sampled grog in from Alice Springs up along the line. It had sawn panels on the walls, and a wide verandah strewn with tables. The roof was clad with paperbark sheets. A dressed bullock hung from a cross pole at some rough yards nearby.
There were tents and campers under every tree, with horses tied or hobbled here and there. Noise and argument. The clink of harness and the sound of crows cawing in the trees. Groups of Yangman sat at smoky fires with fish spears leaning on trees and children running. The ground had been beaten to dust from hooves and boots.
Jimmy heard his mare before he had her in sight. At the familiar nicker he turned and saw her looking at him, one of a half-dozen horses tethered by halter leads under a woollybutt tree. He broke into a stumbling run towards her. She had been hard used, bones hanging out of her chest like roof battens. Her coat was dull and dusty, and her eyes rimmed with dried fluids.
Jimmy was surprised by the strength of his mingled concern and pleasure at seeing her. He stroked her neck and let her nuzzle close. Hand resting behind her ears, he glared at the tables under the shade of the shanty’s verandah.
The two thieving bastards were there, lounging with glasses of spirits close to hand. Jimmy would have recognised them anywhere. He felt anger surge in him. Retribution was at hand. He was going to take what was his. A skelter of gear was stacked around the tree branches. Swags, hobbles, and three saddles laying on boughs. One of these was Jimmy’s own, made by a saddle maker at Keith, and paid for as a lad through months of labour, knocking up split rail fences for local cockies at sixpence a panel.
Jimmy did not hurry. The men were intent on their drinks, and he nursed his anger coldly. His mare was the first priority. He delved in the stolen gear and found a brush. Starting at her neck, running down the barrel to her hindquarters, he brushed her all over, talking all the while, frowning at small nicks and cuts, vowing to use some of his limited funds to purchase some iodine to treat them.
‘Don’t worry girl, I’ll fix you up and find you some good grass. You an’ me are alright now. I’m going to punish the bastards who done this to you then we’re going to get you good as gold.’
When the body was done, he worked through her tail, then dropped to one knee, lifting her off front leg with a firm grip. He shook his head as he examined the foot, anger tugging at his lips. She had been cold-shoed badly. And the frog was black and smelled bad. This, unfortunately, would have to wait.
Standing, Jimmy tacked her up, then arranged his gear on the dees and saddle bags. Untying the halter lead, he walked her over towards the shanty. Men, black and white, jealous of their patch of shade, stared as he went past. There was no mistaking the grim expression on his face.
He walked to the shanty and stopped near the thieves, gripping the mare’s bridle loosely in his right hand. The two thieves were so brazen they did not try to run, but Jimmy did not fail to note the cut-down Snider carbine that lay on the table in front of the mean-looking one. Still, Jimmy was far beyond fear, or even reason.
‘You’re the bastards who stole my mare,’ he shouted, spit flying from his lips with the force of his anger.
The mean one took a clay pipe from his mouth, rested it on the table, then turned and spat on the ground. ‘That’s not right. I won her off you at cards when you was drunk.’ The speaker turned to his mate. ‘It’s true all right, isn’t it Carmody?’
His mate said nothing, just stared with black eyes.
‘You stole her, you swine,’ Jimmy hissed, ‘and I’ll have satisfaction. Get out here and take what’s coming to you.’
The horse thief lifted the carbine and pointed at Jimmy. ‘Satisfaction, eh? How about you turn around and walk away from here, without your horse, and without a hole in your goddamn gut.’
Jimmy stared, lips twisting with hatred and indecision. The .577 calibre hole in the Snider’s muzzle glared at him. ‘I’m taking my horse and be damned to you.’
The thief levered back the hammer on the carbine. ‘Last chance Jimmy. I swear to God I won’t let you take what’s rightfully mine.’
Jimmy heard a shout, turned and looked down the track, and saw eleven men walking in a line along the track. Even at a distance, one, in particular, was unmistakeable, mainly because of his massive bulk. It was Jimmy’s mate Sandy Myrtle himself, and there also was Wonoka Jack, George Brown and Jack Dalley there beside him.
‘No, you piece of scum,’ said Jimmy, ‘I’ll take my horse, and damn you for the cowardly horse thief you are.’
The gunman turned his head and saw the men coming. ‘I tell you again, Jimmy, you’re not taking that mare. One thing you should know is that I never make an idle promise.’
The eleven men were coming up to the shanty now, forming up in a silent row. ‘These men are my mates,’ cried Jimmy. ‘How are you going to stop me taking my horse now?’
‘Like this,’ said the thief.
The carbine boomed, and a gust of black powder smoke burst from the muzzle. The sound of the discharge numbed every ear around that shanty. The heavy slug struck Jimmy’s mare in the middle of her forehead and she fell like a bag of bones into the dust.
At first there was silence. Even the crows ceased their cawing.
Then a commotion developed out on the road. A hushed whisper rolled through the crowd. Something else was happening. A rare and unusual rider was coming. And with smoke still curling from the barrel of a carbine, they turned to watch her come up along the track.
It was a woman riding astride like a man, in moleskins and chequered shirt, with three laden pack horses behind her. Her stallion was even more impressive than the legend had promised.
‘Jesus Christ, it’s Red Jack,’ someone whispered. ‘And Mephistopheles.’
Red Jack’s long red hair was in plaits, hanging from the sides of her hat. As she passed her eyes did not seem to rise from the ground, stonily avoiding eye contact with one and all. The stock of a rifle extended from her saddle. A woman in a man’s world. Not as a curiosity, as part of it. No man there doubted that she was a force to be reckoned with.
Hugh Campbell broke the silence, his eyes glazed with admiration. ‘My Lord, is that really Red Jack. I canna believe she’s so bonny!’
And as she came up to them, the hooves of her horse raised a puff of dust with each footfall. It seemed that she would keep going past the dead mare, for the stallion smelled death and became skittish. When she came alongside, however, Red Jack reined in and looked at the pitiful body with its protruding bones and arched neck.
Now Red Jack looked from one to the other of the men gathered there, until her eyes settled on the man with the smoking gun.
‘You’re a mongrel dog, Maori Jack Reid,’ she said. ‘It’s time someone hung you from a damned tree.’
Red Jack rode on, but at a distance of some hundred paces she stopped again. Her shoulders relaxed as if she had been holding her breath. Then, with a touch of her heels against her stallion’s flanks she continued on her journey into the west.
©2018 Greg Barron