After a slap-up feast of salt beef and johnny-cakes, Tom Nugent stoked the fire and took pride of place on a stump. Jack Dalley, Tommy the Rag, and Fitz, still proud of his bullet wound, took their places nearby.
‘Gather ’round and hear the yarn you blokes,’ Tom called. ‘There’s been deeds done in the name of the Ragged Thirteen.’
There was no need to ask twice. The men were aching to hear the story, pouring tots of rum and finding spots around the campfire.
And there, with a crackling blaze, the sighing of casuarinas and the clink of hobble chains as a background, Tom began to speak, drawing on all his skills as a bush raconteur: descriptive words, searching glances, and expansive gestures.
‘We rode day and night, and didn’t spare the spur. We struck the Hodgson at Minyerri waterhole, but scarcely stopped to wet our lips. Young Tommy killed a fat goanna with that whip of his, and we ate the bastard raw. Here’s a tip, boys, a lump of meat wedged between the saddle pad and a horse’s flank cures from sweat and heat. Tasty enough for a man in a hurry.
‘Finally, with dawn blooming in the east, we rested. Men and horses slept like dead things ’til the flies roused us in swarms of millions. On we went. Even the wild spearmen of the Alawa people let us pass, for we moved too fast for them to gather in strength.
‘Reaching the Hodgson crossing, we found the place where Searcy and O’Donahue and a third white man had camped. They had a smart Ngalakan tracker with them so we knew we’d have our work cut out. But as I’ve said before, Searcy likes to ride at snail’s pace, a-looking under rocks and writing in his journal at every turn.’ Tom grinned fiercely. ‘We caught them up by nightfall, seeing their tents along a creek. We camped dry that night, and waited for our chance.’
‘Waking after midnight, we surrounded their camp in the dark, and lured their tracker away. While Searcy and O’Donahue snored and drooled on their pillows, we unhobbled their horses and took them away. For good measure we went back and stole their undershorts, trousers and shirts, for the bludgers had left them hanging on a rope beside the creek. When it was done we rode like the clappers of hell for the Tablelands.’
Tom paused for an outbreak of laughter. Sandy Myrtle clutched at his heavy chest and shook like a wagon with a loose wheel. ‘Oh you funny bastards, I wished I could’a seen their faces.’
Waiting until the noise died down, Tom slapped his right fist into his open left hand like a pistol shot. ‘And oh, they chased us hard. They ran on foot, half dressed, to some desperate little cattle camp, and borrowed mounts. They came after us determined. They made us work, and we were near dead with lack of sleep by then.’
George Brown couldn’t help but interject. ‘Is that when Fitz copped that slug?’
Tom raised a hand. ‘That’s right, they managed to close up with us one morning, and Searcy sent down a hail of lead with that Winchester of his. Thought he was a goner for a tick, but then he fired back with his Snider and I knew he was still with us. Bear with me, though, there’s more to tell. We weren’t finished with the bastards yet.’
‘Each day we rode hard, leaving cheeky little signs behind. Jack Dalley blazed a tree and carved a fair image of Searcy with his pants down on the trunk. We rode them ragged, made them spitting angry, then sold their nags to a bunch of Chinese prospectors half way to Anthony’s Lagoon on the Barkly track.’
Wonoka Jack shook his head, incredulous. ‘Now tell us about the boy you brought back. Where did he come from?’
‘Well,’ said Tom, then stopped to heave a deep long sigh. The fast rhythm of the tale fell away into a slow and thoughtful plod. ‘Years ago I come upon a mob of fallen blacks down near the Macarthur. Bloodied and dead, cartridge cases scattered around the spinifex like seashells. I heard they’d speared a drover, and they’d paid for the crime in blood. There, wandering around the corpses, was a lad – just a toddler really – starving and near dead.’ He pointed towards the boy, sitting with the stockboys. ‘That’s him there.’
‘I took him to some Yanyuwa women I regarded highly. They housed and nurtured him. As far as I was concerned, that’s where he would have stayed, with just a visit and some assistance from yours truly now and again. But then, just days ago, Maori Jack Reid – Carmody here’s brother-in-law – threatened that he knew the boy meant a lot to me, and that he might get at him to hurt me. Such a diabolical threat I couldn’t abide, so we rode down to fetch him. Here he is, and amongst a good mob of his own people, with the Territory as his classroom.’
‘Here, here,’ said Sandy Myrtle, beginning to clap. The others joined in.
‘Thanks, mate, but here’s a word of warning. I fear that Searcy and O’Donahue will not let us get away so easily this time. As I said, they have a handy Ngalakan man as guide, and he’ll see our trail like we were a bullock team.’
Tom had scarcely got the last word out of his mouth when a bullet struck a pintpot someone had left sitting close to the flames, followed by the bellowing report of a heavy rifle. The pintpot jumped of its own volition, and sparks and embers flew like fireworks. The Thirteen scattered for cover and reached for their weapons. Actions closed and cartridges slammed home.
Out of the darkness came a ringing laugh. The stockboys cowered in fear, and even Tom felt the prickle of unease in the hairs along his spine.
‘That’s just a taste,’ came a voice, ‘just be sure that I could ‘a killed any one of you bastards.’
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