After a break-neck ride Alfred and O’Donohue pulled up at Abraham’s Billabong for supplies and a breather. Young Bowen, a little tougher looking than last time they had seen him, fronted the counter of the store. ‘It’s a relief to see some troopers in the area. You’re on your way to Borroloola?’
‘Well you’d better hurry. There’s an article in the Times and Gazette about that town. I thought this place was bad. Listen, I’ll read it to you.
“‘Drunkenness is epidemic, and drunken men practice rifle and revolver shooting in the open road ways of the township at all hours of the day, whenever their sweet wills direct, to the constant danger of the rest of the inhabitants.
“A perfect reign of terror exists; lawlessness and crime prevail to an extent that is quite indescribable, and the peacefully disposed people are obliged to submit for fear of incurring the displeasure and vengeance of the roughs and perhaps having their property destroyed, or even endangering their lives.
“A race meeting had been held, and was largely attended by people from far and near, and of course, such an opportunity could not be let slip without a celebration which, as might have been expected, degenerated into a saturnalia of drunkenness and excesses. Amongst other acts of violence reported was the sticking up of the stores of W. Macleod, and Cameron; Cameron resisted with firearms, whereupon the rowdies retreated out of pistol range and fired rifle balls into the store, but fortunately without wounding anyone. Some of the less patient of the residents are seriously talking of lynch law, and the establishment of a vigilance committee for the punishment of offenders. The following is an extract from a letter from a resident in the district: This town and the district are in a state of terror for want of police protection, all the outlaws from Queensland flock here. Horse stealing, forgery, robbery, violence, and repudiation of debts are included in the catalogue of crimes—one case of sodomy, committed by three brutes in the form of men on a drunken man …“‘
‘That’s enough,’ said Alfred. ‘I care to hear no more.’ He turned to his mate. ‘We leave now, and must ride all night. No wonder the Commissioner was keen for us to get down there.’
Forty eight hours later, they rode into Borroloola, seeing first the river on the left side of the track, with the Government wharf jutting into the water. Small boats and a ketch sat at their moorings or alongside the wharf itself.
This was not Alfred’s first visit to the town. He had, twelve months earlier, arrived on the steamer Palmerston, in the capacity of Customs Officer for the colony of South Australia. On that occasion he had managed to catch Maori Reid and his wife Henrietta in the act of bringing goods over the border from Queensland, and failing to pay import duties for doing so.
Now, entering the township they saw camps and bark shelters in plenty, but few houses. White survey pegs were visible in grids out into the distance. A sign identified the main street as Riddoch Terrace.
‘A grand name for a strip o’ dirt,’ commented O’Donohue.
It was so hot, on that December afternoon, that nothing stirred as they rode in, a few bony horses behind bough fences scarcely looking up. It was only once they came upon a building site, where a handful of Chinese carpenters were hammering away at the frame, that they saw any sign of life.
From a white canvas tent in the shade alongside this new structure, a gentleman emerged. Alfred recognised him as a travelling magistrate from Palmerston, a man by the name of McMinn.
‘At last,’ said McMinn. ‘We’ve been waiting for weeks.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Alfred. ‘There was a loathsome gang of ruffians on the loose up north that required our attention.’
‘I hope you nailed them good.’
‘Unfortunately not. But that story is not yet finished. We heard that there have been troubles down here.’
‘You could say that. Whatever kind of mayhem you can imagine, you’ll find it here.’
‘Whose house are t’ose men building?’ O’Donohue asked.
‘The new Police Station. With quarters for you two gentlemen, and myself when I’m in town. Now come to the tent for a dram, and wash the dust from your throats.’
‘That sounds like a capital idea,’ said Alfred.
Later, as dusk approached, the little township came alive. Residents left the shade of their bark shelters and slab huts, talking and laughing on the roadways in groups. Shouting and singing was soon heard, carrying from the two shanties that paraded themselves as pubs. Two men galloped past at a ferocious rate.
‘I say,’ said Alfred. ‘They should slow down. Riding like that in a built up area is dangerous.’ He looked at O’Donohue. ‘I think it’s time we made our presence felt in this place. People need to know that law and order has arrived.’ He had drunk just enough whisky to feel infallible.
The magistrate begged off, preferring to sit with his glass and watch, as the two troopers dressed in their full uniforms, mounted up and walked their horses slowly down Riddoch Terrace towards the cluster of pubs and stores. With a view to how the townspeople might see them, they turned their heads from left to right, patently studying every human being they saw.
Though the sun was now hidden behind the scrub, the air was still baking hot. Yet the land was becoming fragrant with it, earthy with dusk, but also some less pleasant smells that come with humans living in close contact.
The Macarthur River was almost always in view down below the bank. More people, black and white, were camped alongside the water. The greatest numbers, however, were clustered under deep verandahs clad with bark, for both of the pubs seemed to be separated by only a couple of small stores.
As Searcy and O’Donohue neared the area, two dozen or so drinkers stopped to stare. The singing and laughter ceased.
Alfred saw this as a sign of the regard these lawless types must hold for the law. ‘Yes. You are right to be wary,’ he called loudly. ‘British justice is here. Prepare for many changes.’
The laughter started with a skinny ringer-type, wearing a cabbage-tree hat that was so old patches of his ginger hair showed through. Others followed suit, until the whole crowd were roaring, slapping each other’s hands and proposing loud toasts.
‘Did yer hear the stinkin’ trap? British justice is here?’
The first man threw whatever missile happened to be handy. A leather boot sailed through the air and landed on the rump of Alfred’s horse. If it wasn’t so flat it would have skittered. Alfred saw red, and was turning to identify the culprit when a bottle, a stone, then a fish head were propelled towards him. He was forced to take evasive action.
O’Donahue copped a stick on the shoulder, and within a few moments they were both in full retreat. Reining in, just out of range of the missiles, Alfred turned his horse and tugged his carbine from its scabbard. It was half way to his shoulder when O’Donahue stopped him, with a hand on his arm.
‘No Alfie, don’t shoot at them. They’re all armed, and do we really want to start a gun fight?’
Alfred took a deep breath, and even the drinkers seemed to quiet down while they saw him sheathe the weapon once more. After a long, searching stare he turned his horse back towards McMinn’s tent.
‘They will live to regret this day,’ said Alfred as they walked the horses home. O’Donahue didn’t answer.
‘Those boys do like throwing things,’ said the magistrate when they reached the tent. ‘Have another drink and don’t fret too much about it.’
After one more rum Alfred said. ‘I swear to God that I will clean up this town so that when we hear that the Ragged Thirteen are ripe for the taking, we can leave it in clear conscience.’
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