Tom Nugent had packed a lifetime of experience into his thirty-seven years, but he’d never seen Red Jack in the flesh, and had never watched a man murder a horse. Today, at this Roper River shanty, he’d seen both those things. Each was troubling in different ways.
Most of the crowd were still in shock, but Tom knew that Jimmy Woodford would not take the killing of his horse lying down. Sure enough, Jimmy stood slowly from the limp and bloody body of his mare, and then, with a barging run that sent chairs and tables crashing, he went for Maori Jack.
‘You’ll die for that, you cur,’ Jimmy cried.
Tom was ready, and with a lunge he grabbed the struggling man around the bony chest, holding him easily. ‘Steady on, lad.’
‘Let me go. That mongrel shot my horse!’ This was Jimmy’s last despairing shout before he broke down, wailing like a child. His face was soon a mess: tears ran from his eyes, and jelly-like snot, streaked with dirt from the track, hung from his nose and clotted in his beard.
‘Just calm down,’ said Tom. ‘Let me handle it.’
Slowly the struggles subsided, and Tom released the now limp body into a chair. Jimmy blew his nose on his shirt and waited expectantly.
Tom glared at the gunman, ‘That was a low act, Maori Reid. No real man would kill a horse.’
‘Ar, and if it’s not that esteemed gentleman, Tom Nugent. Keeping poor company these days Tom.’
Big Sandy Myrtle turned on Tom. ‘Is this character a mate of yours?’
‘Mates? Never!’ muttered Tom. ‘But I know him, yes, I met him down at the Macarthur River. His real name is John Reid. Some men call him ‘Black Jack Reid.’ Mostly he’s known as ‘Maori,’ for you can see by the swarthy shade of his skin, and the deep black of his hair and beard, that the noble threads of the New Zealand native are woven through him. The man sitting next to him is his brother-in-law, known as Carmody.’
Tom raised his voice as he went on. ‘Listen now my friends, and I’ll tell you the nature of a man who would kill a horse in cold blood.’ After a long stare at the body of the mare, still bleeding into the dust, Tom explained: ‘Maori Jack Reid was a seaman, who escaped his country just ahead of the Royal Navy, who caught and hanged many of the officers of his last ship there, an infamous brigantine called the Carl. This cruel man was crew on a blackbirder in the South Sea Islands, kidnapping labourers for the sugar plantations of Queensland.’
‘That’s a low trade indeed,’ added Sandy Myrtle. And every man on that shanty’s verandah was spellbound.
Maori Reid betrayed a smile in one corner of those whiskered lips, as if enjoying hearing the recount of his own misdeeds. ‘Go on, Tom, I’m flattered that you made the effort to research my past.’
‘Oh it was no effort,’ said Tom. ‘It was the man sitting next to you, your brother-in-law Carmody who told me much of this when last we met, at that seedy outpost they now call Borroloola. The remainder I read in the newspapers during the trial of your captains.’
Maori Reid fixed on Carmody a look that clearly said, I’ll deal with you later. But Tom was not finished.
‘Now I must share,’ he said, ‘the trick used by Maori Reid and his shipmates to capture their human prey. They would anchor in a bay of some South Sea island and invite the locals aboard, promising them gifts laid out in the hold. As soon as the trusting crowd went below to look, the hatches would slam shut, and the ship would sail for Queensland, where their captives would be sold at auction.
‘The young women suffered most, for Maori and his mates would use them as playthings while their interest lasted, then they would throw them overboard. The violent or untameable men would likewise feed the ravenous sharks of those remote waters. Yes, my friends,’ added Tom, ‘this is the resumé of a man who would shoot a horse then smile. Shall I go on?’
Taking the grim silence of the crowd as encouragement Tom finished the story, ‘On the final voyage of this blood-thirsty Carl, the heavily armed Royal Navy ship HMS Cossack espied and chased them. Maori Jack and his mates were determined not to be caught with their living cargo.’ Tom dropped his voice to a whisper, ‘Those bastards shot every man, woman and child, and weighted them down to the bottom of the sea: a slaughter that churns the gut. The hangman took vengeance on the Carl’s officers, but this man here escaped. He ran to Queensland where his ill-gotten funds bought and outfitted a schooner. Now, styling himself as a sea captain, Maori filled her holds with goods in Burketown, and sailed her up the Roper, then the Macarthur, making a fortune on cheap whisky, weevilled flour and flimsy wares.’ Tom raised his forefinger. ‘Maori made only one mistake. He never paid a cent of customs duty, bringing goods from the colony of Queensland to the Territory, and he was caught red-handed by Alfred Searcy the sub-inspector.’
For the first time Maori Reid reacted. ‘That officious bastard, Searcy. It’s he who’s ruined me, impounded my vessel and arrested my dear wife Henrietta and I. Now I am ruined. Why should I not be bitter?’
Tom glared at Maori. ‘Killing this horse was the last straw. Red Jack was right. It’s time someone hung you from a tree.’
Maori’s eyes darted like those of a snake about to strike. He raised his carbine.
‘Don’t bother,’ Tom warned. ‘We all know that Snider rifles carry but a single round in the chamber. You spent yours on that horse.’ He turned to the rest of the eleven who, with the addition of Jimmy Woodford, had now become twelve. ‘Get him, boys, while I fetch a rope.’
While he kicked and spat, throwing curses to the wind, they carried Maori Reid from the verandah and towards a tall, spreading kurrajong tree. Everyone helped in one way or another: Bob Anderson, New England Jack, Sandy Myrtle, Jack Dalley, Scotty, Wonoka Jack and his brother George, and Tommy the Rag ran alongside yelling encouragement and cracking his stockwhip. Fitz and Larrikin grabbed Carmody and brought him along, with each gripping an arm.
Tom Nugent found a dozen men camping around that shanty who were willing to lend a rope for the enterprise. He ignored various plaited greenhides, and selected a stout length of hemp.
Imprisoned under that handy bough, seeing Tom walking towards him with a rope, Maori Reid showed fear for the first time. ‘You can’t hang me. You have no right. This ain’t no court of law.’
Larrikin pointed to Carmody, whose face had turned the same shade as his yellow hair. ‘What about this one? Does he hang as well?’
Tom shook his head. ‘No, Carmody’s not bad, just too weak to stand up to this mongrel. Let him go.’ With those words Tom stepped forward with the rope and threw it over a suitable bough. On the other end he tied a hangman’s slip-knot while Maori swallowed so that his adam’s apple bobbed like a rowboat on a heavy sea.
‘You can’t. You won’t,’ he muttered.
Holding the noose in his hands, Tom glared down at the prisoner. ‘John Ward Reid, known variously as ‘Maori’ and ‘Black Jack,’ you are charged with stealing a horse, the property of James Woodford, then feloniously slaying the said horse instead of returning it to him. You are also charged with other acts of bastardry too numerous to mention. How do you plead?’
Maori Reid made a determined bid for freedom, but New England Jack stopped him cold with a two handed thrust that sent him flying. ‘That means guilty, I reckon, Tom.’
Then, rather than fitting the noose around the prisoner’s neck, Tom kneeled near Maori’s feet, snugging the loop around his ankles. Once they saw this the men understood Tom’s joke. This was not to be a death-by-hanging, but a grand amusement.
‘Now lads, pull,’ Tom cried.
The mood changed in an instant, from heavy and expectant to a wave of laughter, as the rope tightened and Maori Reid went backwards up into the air, shouting with discomfort. They pulled until his head was dangling a yard off the ground, then tied the rope off on a neighbouring tree.
‘You bastards, it hurts,’ Maori shouted, his face reddening quickly. A leather purse fell from the folds of his shirt, hanging from a string. Tom used his knife to cut it free.
Jimmy Woodford was smiling at last now, and Tom called him over.
‘Now how much was your mare worth, do you reckon?’ Tom asked. ‘Don’t hold back, there’s a goodly sum in here.’
Jimmy cocked his head to one side and scratched his beard. ‘She were a good horse. I’d say twenty-five pound.’
‘Don’t you touch my money,’ wailed Maori Reid.
Tom handed a roll of notes to Jimmy. ‘Here’s thirty pound in notes, for your pain and trouble. You’ll be able to buy a decent nag for that.’
Sandy Myrtle came across. ‘Thanks Tom. Jimmy’s a good mate.’ He called out to Tommy the Rag. ‘Hey Tommy, would you take Woodford back to camp and get him settled, and a feed into him?’
‘What about my horse?’ Jimmy cried. ‘I can’t just leave her there, dead and all.’
‘Leave that to us,’ Tom said. ‘We’ll get her buried good and proper.’
Tom was true to his word, offering twenty shillings from Maori Reid’s purse to a couple of travelling Irishmen. They were to dig a hole away from the shanty, drag the mare’s body up with a team and bury her.
‘Now,’ Tom said to the others. ‘Let’s go have some fun.’ He looked at the upside-down Maori Reid. ‘You can watch from here,’ he said.
A rain of curses flew from that unfortunate, some of which even Tom hadn’t heard before.
As they walked towards the shanty Tom fell in beside Carmody and gave him the purse. ‘You can pass the remainder back to Maori later, if you feel inclined. There’s still a useful sum inside.’
‘Thanks Tom, you’re a fair man.’
As they reached the dusty shade of the shanty’s verandah Tom stopped and lowered his voice. ‘Tell me, Carmody, it wasn’t like Maori Reid said, was it? He didn’t win that horse at cards did he?’
‘Afraid so. Jimmy Woodford was so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing. Maori won the horse, then the saddle and everything else fair and square. Jimmy must have forgotten it all when he waked.’
‘Why didn’t you say something earlier?’
‘Maori’s my brother in law but he’s a bastard. And it’s a dog act to fleece a drunk man like that anyhow. It’s nice to see someone stand up to him. I was pretty sure you weren’t really going to hang him.’
Tom laughed. ‘No, but that’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.’
Carmody went on, ‘So are you going to cut Maori down?’
Tom clapped the other man on the shoulder. ‘Maybe later, first I’m going to drink my fill with grog and share a few yarns with mates new and old.’
Continues next Sunday …
©2018 Greg Barron
Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com
Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History is also available from amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com