Riding in a south westerly direction, upstream on the Flora River, the Ragged Thirteen ran headlong into solid Wet Season rain. Some nights the only fire they could maintain was deep between the raised roots of a thick old paperbark, or far back in a rocky cleft with the flames brushing soot onto lichen and limestone.
When the rain eased, mosquitoes attacked every unprotected square of skin and whined around the ears. Nights were a torment – too hot for blankets – but it was impossible to sleep without the protection they provided from the insects.
‘I’ve had enough of this stinking weather,’ said Sandy Myrtle. No one disagreed.
Days of sweat, forced rides, wrong turns and detours around flooded creeks followed. Leaving the headwaters to punch south for the Victoria River was a relief, though the rain hardly faltered, and nothing ever dried out anyway.
There were wild blacks in the area, and once or twice a spear or two flew out of cover or the horses were spooked at night.
‘They’re just warning us to keep moving,’ said Tom. ‘There’ll be no shooting. I won’t have it. We’re not squatters or traps who seem to think they have the God-given authority to kill-on-sight. We leave them alone.’
Finally, running low on provisions, Fitz shot a ‘dropped’ bullock through sheer luck, and they camped on the line of cliffs that overlooked the Victoria River Valley. Tom declared that it was the most beautiful sight in the natural world, with the churning brown river in its midst.
New England Jack Woods packed his pipe with Barrett’s twist, and passed the pouch around. ‘How the blazes will we get across that?’
Tom had been wondering the same thing. ‘The rain seems to have eased off. Give it a day or two, mate. It should drop enough.’
Over breakfast Larrikin announced that his mare was, beyond doubt, pregnant, her belly now rounded in all the right places. The rest of the gang clapped and laughed, for the joining of the mare to Wonoka Jack’s stallion had been a group entertainment.
‘I feel almost as proud as if I were the father meself,’ said Wonoka Jack. A round of cheering and catcalls followed.
‘By the way, you lot,’ Tom called. ‘Did you know it’s Christmas Day, and here we are running out of flour. Thank God for that beef! It won’t be quite proper without taters, pumpkin and pudding, but I vote we do our best to honour the day.’
A full rump of beef was diced and stewed up by Bob Anderson and Scotty in some old Caledonian recipe that involved copious amounts of pepper and Lea and Perrins Sauce.
Supplies of rum were low by then, but with the Victoria River Depot just a few days away they did not hold back. There was even some gift giving, all second-hand of course. George Brown gave Sandy Myrtle a copy of a Ryder Haggard novel, and Carmody wrapped a sharp little pocket knife in cheesecloth and passed it over to Tom.
‘You blokes have been darned good to me, considering my bein’ related by marriage with Maori Reid. So that’s just a little thing that’s been sittin’ in the bottom of my saddlebags for a while.’
Fitz made New England Jack a stock whip, which he cracked a few times and declared to be the best he’d ever seen. Some of the others set out to honour Larrikin’s forthcoming foal with greenhide tack.
No one had any musical instruments, but later on Larrikin put on his dancing shoes, and to the accompaniment of clapping hands, he put on a jig that would have made a dance hall crowd shout for more.
Carmody leaned against a tree, watching, thumbs hooked in the waist band of his dungarees. ‘Where the hell did you learn to dance like that, Larrikin?’ he asked.
‘Learn?’ grinned Larrikin. ‘I never learned a thing in me life. I just put on me dancing shoes and move me feet. That’s how I do it.’
On dusk they sat on the edge of the cliffs and stared down at the deep valley of red stone and its wide river. The rain had settled the dust and smoke, leaving the air as clear as glass and every surface washed clean.
‘Tomorrow,’ said Tom, ‘we go down and cross that bloody big river. Then at last we’ll know we’re getting close.’
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