#16. A Company of Thieves
Alfred Searcy’s legs were steady and his hands did not shake as he peered through the iron sights of one of the most feared weapons in those parts, a Winchester repeating rifle. Beside him stood O’Donahue, with his Martini-Henry locked and loaded. Together they were representatives of the law, a force to reckoned with.
Alfred had always seen himself as a hero-in-waiting. He had recently started writing the story of his life. Now, in this remote outback town, his first real moment of fame might have arrived. He and O’Donahue were the sole manifestations of good in this moment of evil. It was time to act. Still with the rifle to his shoulder he sighted over the heads of the Thirteen and fired into the air.
‘Stand to, you ruffians,’ he shouted. ‘Lay down your weapons and you might yet save your skins.’
For a moment there was dead silence, surprise perhaps. Then, the raiders ran for their horses, leaping onto saddles, giggling and laughing as they went. One even dropped his trousers momentarily. Searcy felt the muscles of his neck tighten with anger.
As the Thirteen rode away. Alfred was fully prepared to shoot to kill. He focussed on the bulky shape in the rear of the galloping thieves, surely the infamous Sandy Myrtle, a man so huge that men took pity on the poor creature, reputedly called Jonathan James, that carried him. Yet, these were not good conditions for shooting, darkness exacerbated by dust. Iron sights were never much good in the dark.
Alfred fired, swung the lever, fired again. Three times the butt thumped into his shoulder before he realised that his target was nowhere in view. He knew with a trained rifleman’s gut instinct that his efforts had flown wide. The first shot had been close, but the others might as well have stayed in the magazine.
He lowered the rifle, holding it at the balance point in one hand as he and his mate loped after the horsemen, hoping for one more shot where the track curved. Unfortunately, the Thirteen were already too far away, and besides, men woken by the gunshots were appearing from their camps. The chances of hitting one by accident were high.
‘T’ose damn mongrels,’ O’Donahue muttered. ‘They reckon t’ey are above the law. P’raps we should raise a party to chase an’ give battle.’
Alfred said nothing, but as they walked back to the store, he looked dismissively at the half-drunk blowhards who staggered out of their bough sheds and wurlies to see what the commotion was. There wasn’t a man among them he would have trusted to ride out with him against thirteen well-mounted rascals.
At the store Jim Cashman himself had arrived, ranting at the damage and depleted shelves. Alfred could not meet his eye, and simply turned to O’Donahue.
‘Let’s get our gear, we’re going after them.’
‘Now? In t’e dark?’
‘You bet your pension we are.’
Alfred led the way back to where their tracker waited with the horses. The first thing he did was to reload his rifle with heavy cartridges from a box of ammunition he took from his saddlebags. Finally, with O’Donahue beside him, he mounted the nervous horse and left town at a walk, before digging in his heels and cantering through some initial side creeps and even a light buck or two.
On the outskirts of town Alfred stopped and addressed the tracker. ‘Now Jimmy, there’s a good bit o’ moon and lots of men in that company of thieves. You reckon you can track ’em?’
Jimmy leaned down from the saddle, examining the trail. Then, without a word he urged his horse on. The track headed southwest along the river, and the camps they came upon were awake and riled, offering shouted reports of the Thirteen riding through.
Downriver ten miles they found a furious gang of ringers, a cattle camp from Elsey Station. They’d shot a ‘killer’ the day before, and hung the carcass overnight to set, a strong branch serving as gallows. The Thirteen had paused for long enough to strip the carcass to the bone before riding on.
‘Those thieving dogs,’ the lead man ranted. ‘If you catch them I want my meat back, and I’ll testify in court against them meself.’
‘They can’t be far ahead,’ muttered Searcy. ‘Burdened down by meat, and all those stores, we must be getting close.’
But the Thirteen were not ignorant of the chance of pursuit. Not long after capping the night off by stealing the meat, they headed down to the river, riding in through a dry side gully, under a canopy of paperbarks, then up along a shallow stretch of the river bed itself.
Searcy and O’Donahue had no choice but to follow, urging their horses into the dark, slow water, scratching through the pandanus. In places the water was deep enough to reach the horses’ bellies. Both men were afflicted by itchy grubs from the riverside trees, and were scratching the blotched red skin on their arms and neck that resulted.
‘T’is a risk, Alfie,’ commented O’Donahue. ‘I’ve heard of big ‘gators around here.’
‘Damn the ‘gators,’ came the reply, but the horses were wary, picking their way around hazardous snags and deeper holes.
The going was slow, with Jimmy forced to examine the banks as they went, looking for exit points. Before long the stream veered left into a channel cut in a veritable lake of sand covering dozens of acres, soon separating into five or six separate channels, any of which the Thirteen might have followed, and emerged from, at a time of their choosing.
Jimmy finally stopped, waiting for the two policemen to catch up. ‘We wait for sunup, boss. They coulda gone this way, or maybe that way. If we go on we maybe lose them. Too many ways now.’
‘Damn,’ shouted Searcy. ‘But alright, we make a light camp and get a few hours sleep. At first light we get after them again.’
O’Donahue shook his head sadly. ‘Inspector Foelsche is going to kill us when he finds out. We’re absent without leave, and I don’t like it.’
‘He’ll be pleased if we catch the Thirteen,’ muttered Alfred, but later, lying awake in his swag, he wondered if that was true.
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