‘Everyone alright?’ Tom Nugent had called, when they pulled up ten miles south west of the Katherine township.
Sandy Myrtle took off his cabbage-tree hat and thrust his hand inside, extending a finger through a bullet hole in the weave. ‘Well damn me for being a lucky bastard,’ he said. ‘I thought I felt something.’
The gang fell into helpless laughter, full of nerves at the burglary and their rapid exit, remembering the sound the police bullets had made as they parted the air around them.
‘Damn near took the top of yer scone right off,’ said Tommy the Rag.
‘Fancy missing a target as juicy as Sandy Myrtle,’ laughed Fitz.
‘Beats me why you have to wear that darned hat in the night time anyhow,’ breathed Wonoka Jack. ‘I thought only ladies wore hats after sundown.’
Sandy replaced the hat on his head. ‘Shut yer mouths, you lot, or I’ll close ‘em for you.’
Tom Nugent grinned to himself, the banter was one of the things he loved about this crew of misfits. They rode on, and when they came upon a hanging bullock carcass next to a glowing campfire and some abandoned swags, it seemed wasteful to hurry past it. Within an hour, with Jack Woods in charge of proceedings, they’d hacked off most of the meat and stuffed it in tucker bags. Even more heavily laden, they headed off downstream along the Katherine River itself, riding through the stream, splitting up when it diverged into a maze of channels, making pursuit all but impossible.
By dawn, however, they were back up on the high banks. It was scrubby country: sandy soil with crackling dry speargrass. Even the woollybutt, shitwood and black wattle trees grew stunted and mean. Every now and then, to cope with the heat, they would head down to the river bed, finding pools of sweet green water interspersed with rapids, and banks of green couch grass that the horses loved.
They lunched on the riverbank, in just such a spot, amongst the writhing trunks of paperbark trees, and a breeze off the water. After some swimming and skylarking, Bob Anderson gathered sticks for a campfire. A bottle of rum, looted from Cashman’s store, was opened and passed around, while fresh beef steaks and Scotty’s best Johnny-cakes filled bellies.
Tom raised his mug to his mates and grinned. ‘Here’s to mischief, fast horses and adventure.’
They all drank down their drams, and Larrikin hurried around with the bottle to refill them all, before lifting his mug also. ‘And’ … he added. ‘Here’s to a fortune in gold waiting for us at the Hall’s Creek fields.’
Laughing and drinking, they talked of nuggets like bantam eggs lying just under the ground ready for them to pick up. Then, while Jack Woods cut beef into strips and hung them on sticks over the fire to cure, Larrikin led his mare into the river shallows.
Cupping water with his hands he wet her all over, brushing her coat down with his fingers. When he was done she trotted out, rolled in the hot gravel and shook herself off.
‘Looks like you got your wish, Larrikin,’ said Sandy Myrtle. ‘I reckon that mare’s in foal.’
‘A pregnant mare shakes only her head and neck, not her body, like she just done.’
This precipitated a long discussion as to whether she was or she wasn’t. They had all been involved in the breeding, and thus had a strong interest.
Jimmy Woodford was all set to get out a nail and string, ‘to prove the fact for good and all,’ but Tom Nugent laughed. ‘I haven’t seen that barrel of hers start swelling yet. That’s when we’ll know for sure.’
They were having fun, in no hurry to ride on when there was a loud whistle from downstream.
Tom stood up. ‘Cripes, that’s Blind Joe. What the hell is he doing back here?’ He thrust two fingers in his mouth and whistled back.
Blind Joe rode into the camp, his dark skin shiny with sweat and his horse’s side flecked with foam.
Tom walked to meet him, alert and wary. ‘What’s up, Joe? You haven’t seen them policemen, have you?’
‘No mulaka. Much worse’n that.’
‘That Maori Reid, he follered us mob all the way down along the junction where you tell us to go.’
Jimmy Woodford’s face turned deep red. ‘I wish I’d kilt the bastard when I had the chance.’
‘You might as well have,’ growled Tom, ‘for you can bet you made him angry.’ Then, to Joe. ‘What’s Maori Reid done? Tell us, quick.’
The black man said nothing, but tears glistened in the corner of his eye.
‘Mount up, you lot,’ cried Tom. ‘I’ve been soft and I apologise for it. Now we’re going to deal with that bastard once and for all.’
Jim Carmody was the first to tack up and hit the saddle. ‘Maori Reid might be my brother-in-law, but I’ll gladly put a bullet in him myself.’
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