Alfred Searcy loved a good camp, and the Hodgson River crossing was a first-rate site, with flat shelves of dark rock, waist-high waterfalls, and fish to be had in the deep pools below.
With a suitable rock as a seat, Alfred lit his pipe and sighed contentedly. He considered himself a true bushman: the kind of gentleman adventurer that was destined to bring civilisation and the rule of law to South Australia’s vast and wild Northern Territory.
Alfred had, to be sure, enjoyed an adventurous life. As a lad, working as a seaman on a schooner off the Jenimber Islands, he had taken a dinghy on a solo fishing trip. When a storm blew up without warning, he was blown onto land and wrecked. He joined forces with a gang of Malays, and the ordeal that followed included the murder of most of his companions, and a second shipwreck, onto the Northern Territory coast. He lived with a ragtag assortment of indigenous hunters, trepangers, and buffalo hunters before finally making good his own rescue.
Back in the more civilised world of Palmerston, he had taken up the position of sub-collector of customs, extracting duty on goods arriving into the Territory from abroad, and attempting to levy taxes from the Macassars, who were intent on stripping Top End waters of bêche-de-mer. In the process of this work, Alfred had been kidnapped by Chinese smugglers. He had faced down Malay captains, brumby hunters, and even the infamous Maori Jack Reid, of whose arrest he was most proud.
He’d seen things that his family, back in Adelaide, would scarcely have believed: fleets of Macassar dredging canoes coming down before the wind in Bowen Straits, their triangular matting sails billowing full. He’d seen proas at anchor off gorgeous northern beaches fringed with sand and tropical forest. Horsemen in full cry at the Victoria River, driving cattle across the ford at sunset. He’d seen men’s throats cut, and held a prospector down while a doctor sawed off his leg below the knee.
When the opportunity came to join the police force, Alfred had willingly taken up the challenge. He suspected that this might be his true calling; pacifying the lawless elements of the north. His first posting was to be Borroloola. His partner was an Irishman called O’Donahue, who stood a solid six feet in height. Fearless and fond of swinging his fists, Alfred’s new companion was also enamoured of soft and lovely Irish ballads, sung in a fair voice and lilting accent.
Since leaving Palmerston on horseback, bound for the Gulf, the pair had already enjoyed a number of adventures. O’Donahue had won over a crowd at Adelaide River, riding a bush buckjumper to a standstill. Alfred had been alone when facing a ‘bank robbery’ at Burrundie, and a barrage of bullets from a disgruntled ruffian near the Elsey.
Further down the track the two of them had apprehended a clutch of rascals and marched them in to the Roper Bar police station. Even now Searcy laughed at the memory. Under the waving barrel of O’Donahue’s revolver, Alfred had cut the buttons and suspenders from the miscreants’ trousers, so that they were too busy protecting their modesty to fight back.
Then, at Roper Bar, the two lawmen had seen an amazing sight: the travelling horsebreaker called Red Jack, her magnificent red hair spilling out from her hat, leading a string of horses no less beautiful than herself into town. None were so impressive as the stallion she rode, Mephistopheles.
Red Jack had paused to fill her packs with rations from the Armstrong and Company store. And Alfred was certain that she had nodded in his direction, though O’Donahue wasn’t so sure. Either way, it was an event to remember. Most of the little township had turned up to watch her ride out of town, into the west, destination unknown, the famous wanderer dwindling into a haze of dust and red sunset.
And finally, now with a black trooper called Jimmy, seconded by order of the Superintendent, at Roper Bar, they had reached the Hodgson without further incident. The three of them had just finished an evening meal of black bream from the pool, picking the white chunks from the backbone, and charcoal flavoured skin, when a traveller rode down the track from the north, leading two packs.
The three horses splashed white water to the knees as they trotted across the ford. Seeing the established camp the new man dismounted and came in on foot.
‘Evening you fellows,’ he called. ‘The name’s Joe Jefferies, riding down to take up a position on Costello’s Valley of Springs Station.’
Alfred stood, lifting his pipe from his lips as he did so. ‘Searcy and O’Donahue here. We’re policemen heading down to the Macarthur. You’re welcome to our fire and campsite. A fine one it is too.’
‘I don’t mind if I do,’ said the stranger. ‘A cheery blaze and some new mates to yarn with is always welcome.’ After seeing to his horses, he dug in his packs. There was the clink of glass and a bottle of rum appeared in his hands.
‘Ye are welcome indeed,’ grinned O’Donahue.
While Jimmy whittled away at a stick with his pen knife, the white men drank from tin cups. They toasted the King,
‘Have you heard the news?’ asked the traveller. ‘I dare say that being lawmen, you’ll be interested.’
‘There’s a new gang on the loose. They call themselves the Ragged Thirteen. Just two nights ago they held up the store at Abraham’s Billabong, stole a cart load of beef and broke Matt Kirwan’s arm.’
Searcy narrowed his eyes. ‘Who are these men?’
‘Their captain is a bloke called Tom Nugent, but I reckon I know a couple of the bastards, Jim Fitzgerald and Larrikin Smith for a start.’
O’Donahue almost choked on his rum. ‘Now let me get this from ye straight. Those dunderheads we took in at the Roper have jined up with some other ruffians and are calling themselves the Ragged Thirteen?’
‘I don’t know what happened at the Roper but I guess that’s about it,’ said the stranger.
‘Well blow me down,’ said Searcy. ‘Should we ride back up and apprehend them?’
‘I’m game,’ said O’Donahue, ‘but not yet, I’m thinkin’. Best we wait and see if we hear anything else. Besides …’ he swept his right hand in an arc towards the still distant Macarthur River. ‘I’ll wager there’s many a lawless ruffian ahead that’d smile to see us ride away.’
‘You’re right,’ said Alfred. ‘The Ragged Thirteen can wait. But they’d better not get too far out of hand, or they’ll be risking more than their trousers.’
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