Scattered over a mile of river bank, the settlement of Katherine was deep in midnight slumber. There was no wind, the air warm and smoky from hearth fires that burned beside bark and iron humpies.
Thirteen mounted men rode out from their camp downstream, skilled horsemen all, keeping to the scrub where they could, moving like shadows. Tom Nugent, at the lead, kept every sense on high alert. Somewhere, far out in the night, a pair of hunting dingoes howled. The river was a faint whisper as it ran over the stones around Knotts Crossing.
Up ahead Tom could make out the dark shape of a man on horseback. ‘Hold it there, lads,’ he said softly. ‘There’s someone riding towards us.’
‘It’s a friend,’ came a voice. ‘I’m riding in.’
Tom did not reply, but the horseman rode out of the darkness of the trees, into the open, where the moonlight illuminated the face of Maori Reid.
‘You’re not part of this,’ growled Tom. ‘I’ve told you to piss off before, so why the hell do you keep turning up?’
‘It’s a free country. Besides, I came to report that Searcy and O’Donahue are in town and waiting for you bastards. I can sort them out for youse, even now. Just give me the word.’
It was Hugh Campbell who spoke up. ‘Now listen, you dog, Tom’s told you to ride on, and I suggest you do it.’
Maori Reid turned his face so his eyes were blazing white. ‘Shut your gob you daft Scot. Go back to your fucking bagpipes and leave the man’s work to real men.’
Scotty started forward, but he was not about to initiate a fight on horseback, and there were more important things at hand than dismounting and scrapping with Maori Reid.
Besides, taking advantage of the confrontation, Jimmy Woodforde moved up behind Maori Reid with his Snider rifle reversed. He swung the butt with a vicious, short stroke. Maori sensed the attack and tried to turn, too late. The hardwood struck the back of the New Zealander’s head like a pole-axe, felling him so he slid over the side of his horse. His right foot caught in the stirrup until Jimmy kicked it free, allowing his victim to thump to the ground, out like a snuffed candle.
‘That felt good,’ said Jimmy. ‘The horse-murdering bastard.’
‘Good work, Jimmy,’ said Tom, looking down at the inert form of the man. ‘Maori had that coming. Now let’s ride in fast from here in case anyone heard us talking. You got that axe ready Sandy?’
‘Good. Now gee-up.’ Tom let his mount have his head in the dark, trusting him to avoid obstacles, controlling only the speed of the canter and a general direction. They were into the town before they knew it, for there were no gas lights here, just the odd glowing fire around the township.
Coming to a halt beside the store, Tom slipped three fingers under the lever of his Martini-Henry carbine, standing guard while Sandy Myrtle dismounted with his axe. Sandy’s huge shoulders swelled like tree trunks as he took his stance and swung. The door was a stout construction, Tom had studied it earlier that day – made of slabs of deep red local ironwood – and it stood up to a pounding. After four hefty blows from Sandy, however, the screws broke through the hinges and the way was open.
‘Alright boys,’ Tom hissed. ‘Everything we can carry, we take.’
As they filed in, Tom remained on guard, watching for any sign of trouble. The dust was rising from their hurried arrival, for the surface of the track had been pounded by hooves and wheels into a deep, fine powder, light as air.
The men were inside now, and Tom heard the clink of cans hitting sacks as they went to work. Horseshoes, flour, tea, sugar. He smiled to himself. He had long ago decided that the system was biased against men like him, and that taking back his share was not just a right, but a duty.
A town-dweller in a night shirt with a jacket thrown over the top approached from one of the nearest bough shelters. He carried a shotgun, broken, over his forearm, and his nose was red with grog.
‘What in the name of the Almighty is going on here?’ he shouted.
‘Go back to bed, this is no concern of yours,’ Tom shouted. The man hesitated at first, and Tom raised the rifle to his shoulder and trained it on the man’s chest. The nightshirt flapped around his legs as he ran off into the darkness, shouting as he went.
‘Hurry now you lot,’ Tom shouted into the doorway. ‘They’ll all be waking now.’
The twelve started to file back out from the store, one after the other, throwing sacks over saddles, booty from the raid. Nervous horses nickered and stamped.
Last came Tommy the Rag.
‘Hurry up, fuck it Tommy.’ Tom whispered under his breath, but he couldn’t stay angry. Tommy wore a grin so wide, enjoying the game more than the rest of them put together, giggling as he mounted up. But that frontier town was waking, lanterns blinking on and shouts ringing out from neighbouring shanties.
Tom Nugent ran his eyes over her ragged band. ‘Now mount up,’ he called.
But as they did so, two men stepped out onto the road just ahead. Both had rifles ready at the shoulder.
‘Surrender, in the Queen’s name,’ called a voice, loud and commanding.
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