The Victoria River, when they reached it, riding down a spur of one of those jagged hills, was a turbid, flowing lake, rimmed with mud and thick undergrowth. The sun was out, but it cheered nobody, for the heat was almost unbearable.
Horse and man alike saw no pleasure in that day, and tempers flared, insults thrown like hammers and occasionally punctuated with a swinging stirrup iron.
They pulled up on the high bank and Fitz whistled. ‘She’s running, there’s no doubt about that.’
They rode upstream, horses slick with black mud to their chests, looking for a place to cross, but it was hard going. Swearing and cursing, they pushed their way through heavy foliage until finally there was nothing for it but to force a crossing, or embark on a wide detour on land.
Tom lost the usual twinkle of fun in his eyes, showing the wear and tear of leadership. He tried to figure how the river worked; how the current sped on the near bank or when the bed narrowed, or shelved on the broad pebbled bars. With this in mind he led them to wide sweep where stones below the surface could be seen in the rush of water.
A Wardaman family had been on the fringes, one man working a fish spear in the shallows. Women and children grubbed for mussels on the banks. At the approach of the horsemen they grabbed a dead barramundi as long as man’s arm from the bank and ran for the scrub.
‘I swear it looks shallower here,’ Tom said. ‘We should try it now before we get more rain.’
‘No bloody way,’ Tommy the Rag spat, ‘I don’t swim, you bastards. I’ll camp here and you can pick me up when yez all come back with the arses out of yer pants from Hall’s Creek.’
Tom Nugent studied the river again. It seemed to him that a good horse should keep its footing most of the way. The best horsemen amongst them could ride across, with only Tommy and Scotty Campbell best off swimming separately from their mounts.
‘I’m not riding across that fucking river,’ Tommy ranted. ‘Go across and to hell with ya.’
Tom Nugent took his last bottle of rum from one of the packs, twisted off the lid and sniffed it. He took a swig before handing it to Tommy.
‘Dutch courage, old mate. Have as much as you want.’
Half way through the bottle Tommy had a change of heart. ‘I dunno what was in that bottle besides rum,’ he slurred. ‘But I’d charge hell with a bucket of water right now. Now where’s me bloody horse?’
The crossing was longer than it looked, and by the time they were half way across the heads of two or three ‘gators were visible, surfacing downstream and making bow waves in the water, before disappearing to God knew where. Even Tom felt the awful fear of those submerged monsters.
One of the spare horses screamed in unearthly pain, and tried to rear, the jaws of a huge gator wrapped around its hindquarters, tearing bloody streaks through hide and flesh as those bony, toothed jaws came together.
A death-roll by the gator brought the poor horse down, while Tom tried vainly to churn through water to help. He was forced to abandon the chase in deeper water, current tugging at his horse and legs.
No man could stand the sound of a horse in pain, and this one wailed in a human-like shriek that shook them all. Tommy the Rag lost all composure, panicking his horse so it bucked, slowed by the water, showing its teeth and panicking the rest of the plant. It was a rout, a desperate crossing that saw two men thrown and washed downstream with horses and gear floating everywhere so it was a miracle no others were taken by those dark beasts.
Sandy Myrtle, one of the first across, took position, solid as a sandstone pillar, with his rifle. His first shot killed the mare that was still being mauled, silencing her pain at last, then he aimed at the heads of the gators, firing until none were in sight.
Tommy the Rag took off his sodden shirt and sat on a rock way up from the edge, shaking like an insect.
‘Are you alright?’ Tom asked.
‘I knew I shouldn’t have tried to cross. I hate those damn gators, I really do, they make my fucking skin crawl.’
‘That’s the most dangerous river in the north,’ said Tom. ‘We were lucky to lose just one horse. Now mount up. We want a dry camp tonight, and a cheerful fire away from the river.’
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