Tom Nugent and his hunting party reached the main camp in the late afternoon. Storm clouds glowed yellow, reflecting like gold on the surface of the Flora River as it snaked out of the limestone plains, twining with the Katherine to create the mighty Daly River.
The plant were soon hobbled and grazing on green pick, brought on by the rains. A good fire burned in the hearth, with a pile of firewood stacked ready for the evening.
In the process of collecting wood, however, George Brown was stung by an inch-thick centipede that had been domiciled under a lump of driftwood. Not to be outdone, Carmody stubbed a bare toe on an old log submerged in the sand, and howled for ten minutes solid, at which point Sandy Myrtle grew tired of the noise and promised him something that would really make him yell.
To keep up the entertainment Jimmy Woodford spied the shape of a big barramundi cruising in the deep-water channel below a sand bar. He stood watching for a minute or two, shirt off, muscles relaxed so that his hairy belly pointed to the river.
‘Anyone fancy fish for supper?’ he asked thoughtfully.
Tom laughed. ‘I’ve got a good length of cat-gut in the packs and a hook or two if you want to give it a try. Or one of the boys will lend you a fish-spear.’
‘Bugger that,’ cried Jimmy. ‘I’ll show you bastards how to catch fish.’
Tom watched with interest as Woodford fetched his Martini-Henry rifle and walked back to the bank. Working a cartridge in to the breech he raised the weapon to his shoulder and fired.
The surface of the water was disrupted into concentric waves, and the air filled with falling droplets. Birds took flight from trees along the riverbank. The big silver fish floated to the top of the water, kicking feebly.
Woodford turned and smiled. ‘How easy was that? You don’t even have to hit them, the explosion of the bullet on the water busts their brains.’
Making his way to the water’s edge, he stripped off his dungarees, then walked across the sand bar to where the barramundi lay near the surface. The others watched idly, honing knives, mending clothes or oiling leather. One or two were reading.
Woodford had almost reached his fish when it managed to flick its tail, taking it into deeper water, out of reach of the sand bar. ‘Hey you blokes,’ he called. ‘Someone chuck me a stick, will you?’
Tom and hunted around for a good green stick, which he threw underhanded, spear-like, out across the water. Woodford collected it, and started using it to prod, poke and drag the fish closer.
The process took a while. It seemed to Tom that Jimmy Woodford was winning. He was almost waist deep now, half off the sandbar and into the swirling current.
‘Jesus Christ, a ‘gator,’ someone shouted.
Tom looked up and saw it coming. A giant of a thing, swinging its tail lazily upstream with the scent of fish blood in its nostrils. The thick snout partially submerged, ahead of deeply-slitted, armoured eyes.
‘He’s right,’ cried Tom. ‘Get out of there.’
Woodford turned, his face showing hope that someone was playing a joke on him. Torn between self-preservation and not wanting to be the butt of a joke, he played it safe with a couple of mighty strides onto the sand bar.
Before anyone had the presence of mind to train a rifle on it, the ‘gator burst from the deep water, jaws open, the back of its head slick with water. It scooped up the fish, so big it hung out the length of a forearm on either side. Then, lifting the prize high, it opened its jaws wider several times to force the fish down, before turning and disappearing below the surface.
‘Fucking hell,’ Woodford spat. ‘That was close.’ He walked back up through the shallows to dry land, shivering visibly from the closeness of this encounter.
‘You’re a fool, Woodford,’ said Sandy. ‘You let that blessed ‘gator eat my supper. I was looking forward to it, too.’
That night, when the meal was done, and fresh sticks were added to the fire; flames leaping, lighting up the old paperbarks that grew so gnarled and huge on those Daly River banks, the gang passed around a bottle of grog. Only Wonoka Jack was absent, at a smaller fire, with the stockboys, still grieving for his dead lover.
While the others talked and laughed Tom scribbled madly with pencil and notepaper. At some length, he stood up. ‘Alright you blokes, I have a little verse to share, if you wouldn’t mind shutting yer gobs for a bit. This one’s called, Alligator Jim.’
There were a few sniggers at the title, but they waited in silence, as Tom Nugent started to recite his poem, using voice and hands and eyes to command their attention.
‘Jim Woodford was a brave man,
A marksman tried and true,
Yet the day he tried to shoot a fish,
Forever he would rue.’
The camp broke up into laughter, and Tom waited with the timing of a showman
‘He held the rifle to his eye,
And took his deadly aim,
The bullet flew in earnest pace,
That fish would never be the same.’
More laughter, and Woodford was blushing like a cherry. Bob Anderson punched him playfully on the shoulder.
‘But as he reached to claim the prize,
Poor Jim was in for fun,
A ‘gator rose to get the fish,
And Jim turned tail and run.’
Sandy Myrtle was shaking so hard, laughter exploding through his lips, that the ground itself seemed to move along with him. Tom finished the verse with a flourish, shouting the last line at the top of his voice.
‘And here we’ve heard tell of a man,
Of vigor and of vim,
Who henceforth will be known as,
‘Haha, Alligator Jim, that’s bloody perfect,’ someone howled, and more laughter rang through the camp.
The men were now in the mood for poetry. Tom Nugent was not the only lover of verse, though he would often kick things off with one of his own, as he had tonight.
Larrikin Jim produced a battered book from his saddlebags. Holding it open he paced around and through the firelight under the teeming stars. ‘I’m gonna read one from old Adam Lindsay Gordon …’
There was clapping all round and a series of ‘Hear, hears,’ and ‘Aye,’ from the Scotsmen.
Jim waited for silence, then, started to read. He was an expressive reader, and by the second verse there was no sound but for his voice, the river waters pushing at the old snags that held against the current.
‘Lightly the breath of the spring wind blows,
Though laden with faint perfume,
‘Tis the fragrance rare that the bushman knows,
The scent of the wattle bloom.
Two-thirds of our journey at least are done,
Old horse! let us take a spell
In the shade from the glare of the noon-day sun …’
When it was finished, Sandy Myrtle cleared his throat and said, ‘Beautifully read, Jim. It might interest you bastards to know that Gordon was a ne’er do well back in England, and was sent out here by his old man so he might make something of himself. Poor bastard fell off the perch at the age of thirty-seven.’
‘May he rest in peace,’ Tom said. ‘He was one of the best. Now, I say it’s time to unroll our swags and get some sleep. Tomorrow we ride for the Victoria River!’
They cheered and bickered and carried on as they threw out their swags and settled down to sleep. In addition to the night noises, Carmody was singing a sad old tune, just something he liked to do after a few drinks. No one minded, he had a rich and soothing voice.
The newly christened ‘Alligator Jim’ took no chances, carefully keeping Sandy Myrtle between him and the river.
‘It’d take that ‘gator a long time to chew through Sandy an’ get to me,’ he said. ‘So this is where I sleep tonight.’
Continues next Sunday …
©2018 Greg Barron