It was a two mile ride to the thermal pools known as Bitter Springs, but no one considered the time wasted. Leaving the stock boys in charge of the camp, the thirteen men rode in double file down the moon-lit track, swigging from bottles and skylarking as they went.
Leaving their horses tied to paperbark trees, they stripped off boots and clothes, then staggered on tender white feet for the pools. The water was clear as air, surrounded by sprays of fan-like livistona fronds, reeds and pandanus. The stench of flying-fox sat heavily in the air, and stars glittered through the spaces between the trees. One by one the group splashed or slid into the steaming water.
‘The Yangman grill those damn fruit bats an’ eat them,’ said Larrikin, surfacing with his hair slicked back like the fur of a rat. ‘Buggered if I know how they can stand the stink.’
‘You’d eat them too, if you were hungry enough,’ Fitz said.
Bob Anderson made a noise through his nose. ‘I’ve nar been that hungry, and by God’s grace I ne’er will be.’
Sandy Myrtle, wearing just an oversized pair of underpants, busied himself making a bright fire on the bank. Finally, when dancing flames flickered across the water surface, he lowered his elephantine body into the water. ‘That’s hot,’ he sighed.
‘Whoops,’ Tommy the Rag cackled. ‘Damn water level just rose by a yard.’
The others laughed while the big man tried to catch his scrawny tormentor, before giving up. ‘Watch your mouth, you little turd. I’m too drunk to tolerate your foolery.’ Sandy sank back down into the water until it lapped against the whiskers that followed the double curves of his chin.
Tom Nugent found himself a patch against an underwater rock, smoking a cigar in damp fingers. Entertainment was provided by George Brown, sneaking up behind his brother, Wonoka Jack, holding a mess of rotting vegetable matter he had gathered from the edge of the pool. With a hoot of glee George slapped the sulphurous mess on his victim’s head. Wonoka Jack reacted with a shriek, ran a few paces, then realised the trick and turned to retaliate.
The high-jinks went on for a moment or two, then they all settled down to luxuriate in the hot water, thirteen of them in a circle.
‘Ah this is gid,’ said Scotty. ‘An’ must surely be why I left jeelit bleddy Scotland.’
‘Aye,’ said Bob Anderson. ‘I would nar have dreamed there could be a place as braw an’ bonny as this in all tha warld. Where aboots in the auld country be tha from, Mr Campbell, eh?’
The older man sized up his countryman. Bob was tall and skinny, with a long face. ‘I’m an Argyll man, but a long taim past. I’m near thir’y now, and was scarce fi’teen when I bairded me first tub – a windjammer she were. But dinny call me mister. Scotty will go jes’ as gid.’
‘I’ll call you Scotty then,’ said Bob. ‘I’m as like a Perthshire man meself; from Abernethy as a bairn, though me da were a tailor and we moved with his work; down Edinburgh way for a time. I would have tarried, but me and the laird I was working for had a wee disagreement.’
‘Can you damn Scotsmen stop your jawin’ and pass that bottle?’ someone called, and around it went. When it was empty someone climbed out of the pool and dripped their way over to a saddle bag for more.
Tom Nugent was watching the twelve men in turn. They’re not really bad apples, he decided, just misfits like himself, spat out by polite society and united by a love of the Australian bush. Usually he liked travelling solo, but the idea of lively and entertaining company suddenly appealed.
‘Since we’re heading to the rush at Hall’s Creek we should all ride together,’ he said at length. ‘I think I can safely say that there’ll be plenty of fun to be had.’
‘No one will argue with that,’ said Sandy Myrtle. ‘And I reckon I speak for all of us, Tom, when I say that we’d be pleased if you’d agree to be our captain. Thirteen of us rough bastards raising Cain from here all the way to the Kimberley. What a grand adventure!’
‘I’d be honoured to lead you,’ said Tom. ‘But if we’re going to be mates we’ll do it right. That means we stand shoulder to shoulder through thick and thin. We never shirk the things that need to be done. And if we do fight amongst ourselves we solve it, man to man, with our fists.’
There was a muttering of agreement. ‘It’s settled then,’ said Tom. ‘From now on, we’re thirteen. An insult to one is an insult to all. ‘
‘Now here’s an idea,’ said Sandy Myrtle. ‘On our way up from the Alice we were camped at Milner’s Lagoon when Nat Buchanan and one of his sons rode up. They stopped to shoot the breeze, and before he rode off, old Bluey said: “That’s a ragged bunch you’re riding with, Sandy.” We had a good belly laugh about it at the time, but what say we call our gang the Ragged Thirteen?’
There was silence for a moment, and it was New England Jack Woods who spoke first. ‘That’s a grand idea.’
‘The Ragged Thirteen it is then,’ said Tom. ‘And we don’t take a slight from anybody. That starts with Matt Kirwan and his damn beef carcass we saw hanging there tonight. The first thing we do is take the meat he should have let us buy for good money earlier.’
A rash of smiles broke out at this, but Tom wasn’t yet finished. ‘Then I say we should deal with those two traps, Searcy and O’Donahue. As soon as they hear that we call ourselves the Ragged Thirteen they’ll start boasting about how they bested us all at the Roper. Searcy has his head so far up his own arse he hasn’t seen daylight for years. Time he got taught a lesson.’
‘Too late for that,’ said Fitz. ‘They would have left the Roper by now. They’re heading down to the Macarthur where Commissioner Foelsche has posted them. That’s why Donegan has taken up position at Roper Bar – he’s been relieved.’
Tom grinned, ‘If I can’t ride faster than a couple of “pinks” and be on them in a day or two I’ll hang up my spurs. Besides, Alf Searcy can’t travel in a straight line to save his life. The bastard fancies himself as a naturalist, always poking around trying to figure out why grass is green and why mountains are high and valleys low.’ He paused. ‘I want to travel light, three horsemen altogether, and we’ll live off the land. No packs to slow us down. We do what needs to be done, and meet up again near the Katherine.’
Tom didn’t say that there was another reason for the trip. Business that, since Maori Jack’s threats, needed attending to in Borroloola.
‘So who’s to go with you?’ Sandy Myrtle asked.
‘I dunno. Volunteers, anyone?’ Tom asked.
Fitz nodded grimly. ‘I’d love a chance to get back at Searcy and that other dog O’Donahue.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Tom. ‘You’re in.’
Larrikin grimaced, ‘My mare’s just coming into season and, well, I was talking with Wonoka Jack here back at the shanty … I’m hoping to join her with his chestnut stallion. I think I’ll stay with the group.’
‘That makes sense.’
‘I’ll tag along if you’ll ‘ave me,’ said Jack Dalley. ‘I ‘aven’t seen the Gulf Country yet and I’ve a mind to. If the diggings are as rich at Hall’s Creek as we ‘ope, this might be me only chance.’ He paused. ‘I don’t want to sound like I’ve got tickets on meself but I won’t slow you down any.’
‘I’ll vouch for that,’ Sandy Myrtle said. ‘Jack’s got an arse made of glue, an’ I haven’t seen him come unstuck yet.’
‘That settles it then,’ Tom said. ‘Me, Fitz and Jack Dalley will go do what needs to be done.’
‘Take me too, please, Mr Nugent,’ said Tommy the Rag.
‘Why would he take you?’ Sandy Myrtle blasted out. ‘A stripling with a smart mouth? He’d sooner take a dingo pup than you.’
Tommy hovered closer in the water to Tom, the earnestness of his face lit by reflected ripples in the firelight. ‘You want to travel light, Mr Nugent? I can kill game. Bush Turkeys without firing a shot. You never saw a man like me with a stockwhip in his hands. Snakes … goannas … whatever you can think of don’t stand a chance.’
‘That’s true,’ offered Jimmy Woodford. ‘Tommy’s bloody amazing with that whip.’
‘Why would you want to come along so much?’ Tom asked.
Tommy’s eyes shone. ‘Because one day I want to be a legend, a real bushman, like Harry Readford,’ his voice trailed off, ‘and like you.’
‘Can you stick to a saddle for fifty hard miles from sunrise to sundown, and all night if you have to?’
‘I can. My oath Mr Nugent. I’ll prove it to you, just give me a chance, I swear.’
‘Alright,’ Tom drawled. ‘We leave at first light and if the blue-wing jackass howls and you’re not yet out of your swag I’ll not wait for you. What’s more, if you let me down on the track you’ll need more than a stockwhip to stop what’s coming to you.’
The lad’s face split into a grin. ‘You won’t regret this, Mister Tom.’
‘You’d bloody better hope not. Now, first things first. I’ll not ride on an empty belly. Put the stoppers in those bottles, boys, and we’ll wallow here until we sober up. Mister bloody Kirwan is about to find out that the Ragged Thirteen don’t take no for an answer.’
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