Sandy Myrtle fronted the bar, standing like a giant with his hair almost brushing the cypress rafters. He pulled his chequebook from his pocket, borrowed a pen and inkpot, then scribbled a figure.
‘Here boy, let me know when this runs out. Whiskies for me and the Scotsmen, then rums all round for the rest of the lads.’
The shanty keeper looked like he’d just stepped off the steamer from ‘down south.’ He was around twenty years old, neatly dressed in a long sleeved shirt and tight button-up vest, sweat dampening his armpits from the heat. He picked up the cheque as if it were a poisonous spider, holding it close to his spectacles. Clearing his throat, he turned to the Jangman teenager who was sweeping the floor. ‘Hey you, where’s Mr Kirwan?’
‘Mister Kirwan go shoot ducks down the river, Mulaka.’
‘Go find him, quick and tell him to come here.’ The young shanty keeper turned back to Sandy. ‘Might I ask if this cheque is valid … we have a policy of—’
‘Of course it’s bloody valid. Hurry up man. We’re thirsty.’
‘I know, it’s just that … the more experienced man is not here at present, I’ve sent for him but—‘
Sandy slammed both massive hands down on the bar and leaned on them, eyes glowing like slow-burning campfires. ‘Now listen, laddie. If there’s one thing that makes me very, very angry it’s having my integrity questioned, especially by a pup whose balls have scarcely dropped.’
‘I beg your pardon sir,’ huffed the shanty keeper. ‘Well I mean to say that I am very new at this, and my much more experienced colleague will be here shortly.’
Again the hands came down, this time striking like a cannon shot. ‘Now fill up those glasses and hurry up about it, or I’ll come over there and do it myself.’
Meanwhile, Tom and the rest of the men spread out on the verandah. The table-tops were slabs of cypress, fresh from the saw-pit. The chairs were sawn sections of woollybutt trunk, but even this was luxury to bushmen who had been so long on the tracks. Tom seated himself with Fitz and Larrikin, his best mates from the crew. Scotty occupied the end chair, a glazed expression on his handsome face.
Tom looked around. The shanty was brand-new and businesslike. On his last visit it was quite the opposite, being run by an old soak called McPhee. It was now owned by the firm of Armstrong and Bryden, who also operated the store at Roper Bar.
‘I heard this place burned down just a few weeks ago,’ said Tom. ‘They’ve done a mighty job in rebuilding it so fast.’
‘When Matt Kirwan is around,’ said Fitz. ‘Things happen.’
‘They do indeed,’ said Tom. ‘Anyway, it’s good to see you bastards. I knew you were planning on heading for Hall’s Creek, but wasn’t sure if we’d meet up.’
Fitz smiled his usual grin. ‘Oh we knew where you were headed. There seemed no doubt we’d hear of your shenanigans sooner or later. Though mind you, we had some troubles of our own on the way over.’
‘Like what?’ Tom asked.
Larrikin took over, his smiling blue eyes lively in his forehead while his strong hands remained constantly busy, tearing a dry gum leaf up into tiny squares. ‘Maori Reid was right about one thing … that mongrel Alfred Searcy. He’s out of control. We had a run in with him and another ‘pink’ by the name of O’Donahue.’
Tom crinkled his eyes. ‘Wait a minute. Alf Searcy’s a policeman? Since when? Last I saw he was a customs inspector, and a jumped-up excuse for a man at that.’
‘He was a customs inspector,’ Larrikin explained, ‘but Inspector Foelsche up in Palmerston was short-handed so drafted him into the force. Anyway, we were headed out of Roper Bar, maybe ten mile out, travelling with a bunch of prospectors, when Searcy and O’Donahue tricked us into having a pipe with them. Searcy recognised us from the Macarthur River, I’m guessing.’
The first round of drinks arrived on a tray from the young shanty keeper, shooting disapproving glances as he went.
‘What’s your name, sonny?’ Tom asked mildly.
‘George Bowen, sir.’
‘Straight off the boat by the look of you.’
‘Pretty much, sir.’
‘Well keep the rum flowing and we’ll have no quarrel.’
At that the shanty keeper emptied the tray and went back inside for another.
Larrikin took a swig of his drink, then patted his gut. ‘Hell that feels good. Anyhow, to go on with the story, half way through our pipes O’Donahue pulled a revolver and forced us to ride back into Roper Bar police station to see if there were any charges against us.’
Tom’s face hardened. ‘So you weren’t under suspicion of anything, Searcy and his mate just didn’t like the look of you?’
‘That’s right. They said we looked like a mob of ruffians and marched us in. Donegan at the Roper is a decent bloke and let us go, but not before every drifter on the Roper had laughed themselves silly at our expense.’
Tom shook his head slowly. ‘That doesn’t sit well with me. Searcy and this O’Donahue mongrel had no right to do that.’
Larrikin shrugged. ‘No harm done. Not really. Come on Tom. It’s not like you can do anything about it.’
‘Maybe there is maybe there isn’t.’ Tom turned to look at Scotty, who was drinking his whisky at a rapid rate, but still hadn’t said a word, staring into space. ‘Now what’s wrong with you? I can’t recall ever seeing a Scotsman lost for words.’
‘I just canna get the sight o’ Red Jack out of my head. How can a woman be so beautiful?’
Tom Nugent rested his tumbler on his bottom lip and spoke into it reflectively. ‘Aye gentleman, we were very lucky to see Red Jack the Wanderer. She can ride better than any of you flash bastards, and break anything on four legs in a week.’
‘Bonniest face I ever seen,’ Scotty breathed. ‘May our paths cross again.’
‘Don’t go down that road,’ warned Tom. ‘Red Jack leaves heartbreak in her wake like a siren.’
Matt Kirwan came in from the river, a Purdey breech-loading shotgun slung over his back. A couple of lean but muscled boys carried, in each hand, two or three still-bleeding ducks tied together by the feet.
Kirwan’s timing was good, young George had just accepted the third cheque from Tom Nugent’s party. This one was made out to some illegible recipient in Alice Springs. Apart from bearing the marks of several owners, none of whom had used soap on their hands in many a long week, it was partially torn, and hardly legible.
The conversation shushed while the youngster took Matt Kirwan inside for a hurried conversation. Kirwan walked outside presently, red in the face and obviously angry. ‘No more of your worthless cheques, you bastards.’
Tom Nugent stood, ‘Well if it isn’t good old Matt Kirwan. Nice to see you.’
‘It’s not in the slightest bit good to see you. If you lot don’t have cash you won’t get another drink here this afternoon.’
Tom liked Matt. He’d been running the Hay and Company store at the Roper Landing for some years. Kirwan was afraid of no one, could fight bare-knuckle with the best of them and did not tolerate fools. Fortunately the campers from the waterhole had enough cash between them to keep the drinks flowing.
Darkness fell, and one of the Irishmen who had disposed of Jimmy’s dead horse retrieved a concertina from his camp, and played old country jigs so lively that the tapping of feet filled the night. Larrikin Jim, as always, was the first to get to his feet. And Yangman women came in from the fringes. Music was universal.
Matt Kirwan had mail to distribute. Most of these letters were secreted away, to be treasured later. There was one from Fitz’s lady friend, down in Brisbane. This he opened immediately, wafting the scent of perfume far and wide across the verandah. Fitz sat by himself for an hour, nursing his drink, reading and rereading each sentence, a wistful expression on his face.
Other men came through that night, some travelling in the darkness, some Tom knew from cattle work. One was Charlie Gaunt, with hollowed eyes and sadness evident in his heavy tread. He paused only to buy provisions and to down a quick rum before riding off into the night.
Jimmy Woodford and Tommy the Rag returned from camp, and Jimmy seemed as ready for a glass of grog as ever. He announced his arrival by shouting the bar with his new found riches, courtesy of Maori Jack Reid.
‘Hey Matt,’ Tom shouted, during a lull in the music. ‘We haven’t had beef in Gawd knows how many days. How about you make a start on that beef carcass you’ve got hanging out there at the yards?’
Kirwan stood with his arms folded across his chest. ‘That meat’s all spoken for, and beef is in short supply because of the redwater fever.’
‘That’s a bit rough, Matt,’ said Tom. ‘We’re hungry, and we’ve got money to pay for it.’
‘I told you, and I can’t speak any more plain,’ called Kirwan. ‘There’s no beef for you. And what’s more, I’ve had enough of you lot. That’s last drinks. I’ll sell bottles if you want to take grog back to your camp, but you can get out of this store, every bloody one of you.’
While the others downed last drinks and organised the purchase of take-away bottles, Tom went out in the dark with Carmody to cut down Maori Jack. At first he thought Maori might be dead, for he knew that his guts would be lying heavy on his lungs after all this time inverted.
A movement of the eyes showed that Maori was a long way from dead. Still alert. Still dangerous. Tom released the knot that held him suspended and lowered the horse-killer down to a slumped mess in the dust. He carefully removed the noose.
Maori did not get up straight away, but sat, shaking his head, massaging his ankles and glaring like a brown snake at Tom. ‘I should kill you for that,’ he said.
‘Keep your mouth shut. Now listen, I put your carbine with the rest of your gear, and your boy has packed everything ready. Time for you to get on your horse, and ride away.’
Maori’s eyes fell on Carmody, hanging back in the darkness. ‘What about you, Carmody? You ain’t gonna desert me now, are you brother?’
‘I’m going to ride with these blokes now, sorry Maori.’ Carmody gave him the purse then walked back across the dust to the others.
‘Don’t come near us again,’ Tom warned. ‘You have a dark heart, and I want nothing to do with you.’
‘I can hurt you,’ hissed Maori Jack, his eyes luminous as moons..
‘l know about something – or should I say someone – down Borroloola way.’
Tom tried to hide the fear that crossed his face unbidden. ‘You can’t hurt anyone if I kill you now,’ he said.
‘You’re no killer, Tom. You’re not like me.’
‘You don’t know the first thing about me. Get out of here. Ride away and don’t come back.’
‘So be it then,’ Maori said softly. ‘But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
Tom watched as Maori Reid limped across to his camp, where the boy waited with two saddled horses and laden packs.
Finally, with the beat of horses driven hard, thudding away into the distance, Tom let out his breath and walked off towards the twelve men waiting for him outside the shanty, bottles of rum and whisky in their hands.
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