Tom Nugent was riding beside Blind Joe, when a high-pitched, unearthly wail carried on the air, rising above the sounds of the breeze and the river, the clink of spurs and the creak of leather. He spurred his horse, heedless of the river scrub, reaching the riverside camp at a furious gallop.
There, on a sweep of white river sand, the body of a woman had been placed on a platform of sticks, a fire smoking away underneath. Most of the stockboys were gathered around, some of them naked, having stripped off their Western gear. Others had blood on their faces and arms where they had cut themselves with sharp stones and sticks.
As the pair dismounted, Blind Joe broke into sobs. Tom knew that grief with Aboriginal people was loud and raw, and there was no getting in the way of it.
Closer now, Tom recognised the dead woman’s face. He turned back to see Sandy Myrtle and the others arriving, tethering horses and walking in with shocked faces. Most carried weapons, still unsure of what had happened and how to react.
‘It’s Wonoka Jack’s woman,’ Tom said, then addressed the mourners. ‘Was it Maori Reid that done this?’
One of the women hissed sharply. ‘That bad-wan Maori come here alright. He shoot her inna heart, an’ take the boy blonga you.’
Tom said nothing, but his lips whitened. He liked the boy, and felt responsible for him. His big hands closed into fists at his side.
A shout came from behind. It was Wonoka Jack, brushing aside restraining hands and coming up to see the dead woman. ‘Oh the bloody rat. The cruel swine. He’ll pay for this, I swear he will.’
Finally Tom found words. ‘I should’a hung the bastard properly when I had the chance. I won’t make that mistake again.’
Carmody had ridden off to see to the plant, and came back with more bad news. ‘Four good horses missing.’ He turned to Tom. ‘If you’re follerin’ Maori I’m goin’ with you. If anyone should put a stake through the heart of that monster it’s me.’
‘You ready to track him for me, Joe?’ Tom asked.
Blind Joe nodded very slowly. ‘A life for a life,’ he said.
Tom studied the assembled men. Apart from being consumed by grief, Wonoka Jack was showing signs that a bout of malarial fever was on its way. New England Jack had the same trouble. Sandy could ride no other horse than Jonathan James, and was thus not able to join a fast chase. The Scotsmen, Bob Anderson and Scotty, had not yet reached the same level of bushmanship as the others.
‘I’ll take Carmody then,’ Tom said at last. ‘And Larrikin too, if you’ll come?’
‘Too right I bloody will,’ cried Larrikin.
‘An’ me as well,’ shouted Jimmy Woodford. ‘I want to be in at the death o’ that horse murdering cur.’
‘Righto,’ said Tom. ‘You too. We’ll pick fresh mounts then take up the trail.’
Blind Joe began the hunt with restrained eagerness. One of the younger stock boys showed the party where Maori Reid had crossed the Flora, then headed northwards along the main channel of the Daly.
After that, Blind Joe tracked from the saddle, scarcely saying a word, only pointing or signalling occasionally. There were times when his brow furrowed, and he walked his horse slow, leaning over so his head hanging down, scarcely above the earth. At times like this Tom had the sense to rein in, light a pipe and wait while the tracker rode in seemingly nonsensical lines.
At other times they reached a near gallop, and speargrass heads flicked the horses’ flanks and stung through the riders’ dungarees. Rain squalls came and went, but for now, Blind Joe’s keen eyes kept them firmly on the trail.
After dark there was no choice but to wait for the moon, and Tom begrudged every wasted minute. When it finally rose, luminous white over the Daly River valley, Blind Joe was quickly back at work, leading them slowly downstream.
Around dawn, after scarcely any sleep, they were lolling in the saddles, but there was no question at stopping. Cattlemen learn the trick of sleeping in snatches that might last only seconds.
The heat and humidity were insidious. Blind Joe’s eyes were bloodshot and his hands were shaking, but he solved each riddle as it came and kept them moving until mid-morning. Now they reached a chain of muddy ponds back from the main river channel. Horse tracks mingled with those of animals; great three-toed prints of jabirus beside the distinctive mark of kangaroos.
Blind Joe examined the area slowly then spat. ‘This tucker taste different than before,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Plenty track, different track. More-feller horse. Dunno now mulaka.’
‘Follow the freshest ones,’ said Tom.
They rode for another hour, away from the river and into a long stretch of woodland. Then, just shy of a creek gully, Blind Joe signalled for them to dismount, then came back and pushed his face up close to Tom’s.
‘Someone aroun’ here. Look out.’
Tom drew his revolver and thumbed back the hammer, then watched as the others did the same. They moved at a crouch. There was a taint of campfire smoke in the breeze that swished and whistled in the casuarinas. One step at a time now, easing forward and swivelling his head, Blind Joe led them into deeper scrub near the creek banks.
March flies landed on the backs of necks and hands, needling deep into the skin, impossible to ignore. Tom gritted his teeth and did not let his concentration waver. He had just rounded a thick paperbark trunk when a Colt .45 appeared, aimed with dead-steady hands at his temple.
‘Holster your weapon,’ came a voice. ‘Real slow and careful.’
Tom was surprised to see that the owner of the Colt was not Maori Reid at all, but a woman with flaming red hair.
He holstered his weapon and stepped back. ‘Red Jack,’ he said, touching his hat. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I had to go up to Pine Creek to look at a horse. Now I’m doing the same journey as you. Heading for the Kimberley rush.’
‘Have you seen Maori Reid?’
Red Jack inclined her head. ‘That I have.’
‘What about the boy?’
‘I’ve seen him too.’ Without lowering the handgun, the woman thrust the tips of the first two fingers of her left hand into her lips and whistled.
The boy appeared, responding to the sound. He smiled when he saw Tom and ran to him.
‘At least he seems to like you. What’s the little bloke’s name by the way?’ Red Jack asked. ‘He won’t tell me.’
‘He hasn’t got a Christian name yet, and he can’t remember the one from his own people.’
‘Where are they?’
‘Dust and ash by now. Wiped out in a reprisal on the Macarthur.’
‘Enough talk,’ said Jim Woodford, walking slowly out of the scrub. ‘Now where’s Maori Jack? We’ve got business with that bastard.’
Red Jack lowered her Colt. ‘You gentlemen strung Maori Reid up by his ankles and made him a laughing stock. Then, from what I hear, one of you clobbered him on the back of the head in Katherine. You’re lucky he didn’t put a bullet in your spine one night as you lay in your swag. He’s a snake, everyone knows it, and you poked him with a stick.’
Tom looked at her seriously. ‘He killed a woman, and took four horses. Just because the boy’s back doesn’t get the bastard off the hook.’
‘You want to see Maori Reid?’ she asked. ‘Come with me.’
Red Jack led the way through the trees to a camp, with horses hobbled all around, and a campfire burning low. Maori Reid was there, lying on the ground with his head on a saddle. His lower body was a mess of bloody bandages. His eyes were glassed over and the smell of infection hung over him like a toxic cloud.
‘This young bloke carries a sharp little knife,’ Red Jack said. ‘It must have been made by his people before you picked him up. He managed to prick this bastard right through the femoral artery. Maori had just about bled dry when I found him, and now the wound has turned septic. He’s as good as dead.’ She shrugged. ‘But if you really want to shoot a gravely ill man where he lies, don’t let me stop you.’
Tom fingered the butt of his revolver, staring at the once piercing eyes of Maori Jack Reid. He turned to Blind Joe, who nodded once. The black man wanted Reid dead, and so did Jimmy Woodford. Carmody showed a trace of relief that he might not be forced to shoot his own kin, and Larrikin shook his head. It just didn’t seem right to kill a man who was already fighting for his life.
After a moment of reflection Tom tipped his hat to Red Jack. ‘Thank you, ma’am. There’s a strange kind of justice at work here. It’s not pretty, but I believe that it’s fair. I’ll leave this bastard in your hands, and to the fate that God decides for him.’
With the boy trailing him like a shadow, Tom walked back towards the horses.
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