Their ears were still ringing from the gunshot, scattered embers glowing all around the camp, when Carmody raised his head warily. ‘Hey Tom,’ he hissed, eyes glowing white in a face shiny with sweat. ‘That sounds like Maori Jack out there.’
‘So it does,’ said Tom. ‘I’d know that devil’s voice anywhere.’ Standing, holding his carbine at his hip, aiming vaguely out into the scrub, Tom called. ‘If that’s you, Maori, you’re not welcome here.’
The reply came from the darkness towards the river bed. ‘Be that as it may, I’m here. Put your guns down boys. I’m coming in.’
Tom spat back, ‘You walk in with a loaded weapon and I’ll shoot you down.’
‘I’m unloading,’ said Maori Jack. They heard the click of a Martini-Henry action, then; ‘My rifle’s in the scabbard now. I’ll walk my horse in, real slow.’
In he came, spurs jingling as he walked, and though the breeze took the campfire smoke in his direction, Maori Jack never coughed or hid his eyes. He kept his hands visible, so no one would misinterpret a movement and open fire.
There was nothing good about his presence. They all felt it. Even the night birds stopped their calls and the drone of insects stilled to a whisper.
Nice and slow, Maori Jack fastened his horse to a tree just behind the camp, then came in and squatted at the fire, warming his hands like he belonged there. Though he must have seen that thirteen gun barrels were trained on him right then, his whiskered face showed no fear.
‘You’ve got a hide coming here,’ cried Jimmy Woodforde. ‘You mongrel horse killer.’
Maori swivelled his head, spat at the ground, then levelled two black eyes on Jimmy. ‘Why boy, is this your property?’
‘No, but …’
‘Then shut your mouth, or I’ll do worse than kill a useless nag.’ No one spoke back, nor did so much as a twig break.
Tom growled with displeasure. ‘Mind your threats, you dog. Or next time we hang you it’ll be the right way up. By the neck.’
Maori Jack ignored the comment and looked around the camp, scowling at each of the Thirteen, then the stock boys until his eyes picked out the young Yanyuwa boy Tom had brought back from the Gulf.
‘Aha,’ growled Maori, ‘so there he is.’ Looking at Tom, he continued; ‘We both rode to Borroloola on the same errand. Unfortunately, I was waylaid at the Roper by a card game that seemed never to end. You beat me to him. Come here boy.’
The child walked closer, eyes wide and fearful. Maori Jack reached out, holding his fingers like pliers, using them to tug at the boy’s chin.
‘What’s the lad’s name, Tom?’
‘Haven’t thought up one for him yet. The stock boys are calling him Willy, ‘cause he’s like a little whirlwind.’
‘He’d have a blackfella name though?’
‘Yeah, but he’s too young to remember it.’
Maori removed his thumb and forefinger from the child’s chin, and watched him scamper back to the company of the stock boys. Then he turned his attention to Tom.
‘I was angry, I admit, at what you and these other bastards done to me at Abraham’s Billabong. But how you fixed up Searcy and O’Donahue has gladdened my heart. You made fools of them, good and proper. Every man from here to the Queensland border is laughing about it.’
Fitz, who was not afraid of anybody, said, ‘We didn’t do that for you, Maori Jack Reid. We did it for us. Now why don’t you get on your horse and leave us in peace.’
‘Well maybe I will, in a minute. But I guess I should tell you that Searcy and O’Donahue are riding this way, right on your trail, with the aim of arresting you lot for horse thievery. Here’s my offer, as a sign of friendship. I’ll wait for the bastards at some lonely place, and nail them both. I’ll bury them deep, where no one will ever know, just as a favour.’
There was not a sound in the camp. As if no one dared breathe.
‘But that’s not all,’ continued Maori. ‘Just twenty miles ahead, on the Katherine, is Jim Cashman’s store. I hear that a dray-load of brand new goods has just arrived. While I deal with Searcy and O’Donahue, you can knock over the store. Fill your pack saddles for the long ride to Hall’s Creek, and give yourselves an alibi for the death of two policemen into the bargain.’
‘Get out of here,’ drawled Tom. ‘We’re already planning on knocking over Cashman’s store, but I won’t have anything to do with shooting men in cold blood.’
Maori Jack threw back his head and laughed. ‘You’ve set yourselves up as a gang. What have you done so far? Nicked some beef and broke a man’s arm. Big fucking deal. It’s time to prove yourselves.’ He paused for a moment, looking at each of the Thirteen in turn. ‘Prove yourselves.’
Not far away, the Yanyuwa boy shivered with fear. He hated the sly looking stranger with the demonic eyes.
He fingered the stone knife he carried in his bundle of rags. He had a feeling that one day soon, he would need to use it.
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