The Victoria River Depot, when they reached it, wasn’t much of a place, a couple of jetties half-afloat in tidal mud, the usual collection of bush dwellings, tents and rough camps. There was noise enough at first, even some music, but everything went silent as the Thirteen left the women and stock boys with the plant and packs on the fringes and walked in to the little settlement on foot.
Tom Nugent nodded at an Aboriginal man standing beside the track, staring as they sauntered past. There was something familiar about him. Nothing certain, but enough to cause a prickle of worry in the base of Tom’s neck.
From the bank above the river, Tom watched a crew of boys unloading goods from an oil-burner launch some thirty-feet long. A gang of miscreants and unemployed watermen, hung around in the shade watching the work progress, their women cooking listlessly on open fires or half asleep in blanket-wrapped bundles.
A little further along the foreshore they found a man in the shade of a bough shelter. On the table in front of him sat two or three open bottles of grog. Behind was a stack of wooden crates, a Snider carbine leaning against them.
At another table three men were playing draw poker for money. Judging from the red eyes, sorrowful faces, and a blackened slush lantern on the table beside them, Tom guessed that they had been playing for some time, perhaps all the previous night.
A group of half a dozen men, and one rare, haggard white woman had set themselves up between the bough shed and a broad, grey boab tree. One man had a concertina and another a fiddle, while a third thumped a drum of rawhide stretched over a hoop of iron. The music started again. The woman danced.
Tom noticed that the barman moved his carbine closer as the Thirteen walked up.
‘I’m a little thirsty,’ said Tom. ‘Wouldn’t mind a peg or two to wash away the dust. Anyone else?’
Sandy Myrtle grinned. ‘I think the good Lord would look kindly upon us imbibing of a small quantity of spirits after a sojourn in the wilderness.’
‘I don’t give too much of a toss what the Good Lord thinks,’ said Tom. Leaning on the bar table he barked out. ‘Rum, please sir.’
‘I’ve only got whisky,’ said the proprietor.
‘That’ll do then. Line up thirteen glasses and be quick about it. Then you can start pouring the next.’
The shanty-keeper narrowed his eyes. ‘You’re the Ragged Thirteen I’m guessing?’
‘Well I hope you’ve got cash to pay. I hear that cheques from you lot aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.’
The shanty-keeper’s tone was never going to wash with the Thirteen. And it was Wonoka George who took exception for them all. His face reddened, ‘We’ve got South Australian coinage if that’s acceptable in this shit-hole,’ he snarled. ‘Now get the fucking drinks like the man asked.’
The shanty-keeper scowled but pulled the cork from the bottle and started filling glasses. A minute or two later, with his second drink in hand, Tom took a seat at the table with the card players, watching the action.
‘We’ve heard of you,’ said one, in an Irish brogue.
‘Heard of you alright,’ said the second. ‘Saddle-strap bushrangers, they call you.’
The third said nothing. He was a dark-skinned European, Spanish perhaps.
‘Some people who don’t know us well might say such things.’ Tom’s voice hardened. ‘But they don’t say it within earshot. What’s your business here?’
The Irishman replied, ‘Crew of the launch yonder, brought supplies around from Palmerston for Victoria River Downs and Wave Hill. I heard you mob are headed for Hall’s Creek. Best you hurry or the gold will all be worked out.’
Tom looked past the card-players and saw that the young Aboriginal man who had watched the Thirteen arrive had walked a little closer to them, staring across a hundred yards of speargrass at them.
‘Dunno his name. Been hanging around here for a few days. One of the ringers from the Downs almost put a bullet in him yesterday, trying to get his business out of him.’
The conversation fell away, and Tom sat with his third drink in silence. Watching as the Aboriginal youth walked back to his camp, sat with a mug of tea and stared back across the intervening space at Tom and the Ragged Thirteen.
Tom had that niggling feeling that he was a little too interested in them.
Larrikin was known for his fun-loving ways; a swagger, and willingness to try anything. He was not of attractive appearance. His hair was a cap of little woolly curls and his eyes were like slits. But he never had trouble attracting members of the opposite sex when there was a dance floor around.
Sipping his whisky, Larrikin couldn’t take his eyes off the dancers under the trees. Occasionally he clapped a hand in time with the drum and concertina.
He had grown up an orphan, on the Norman River, Queensland, he’d once told Tom, raised by a man called Major Colles. ‘Singin’ and dancin’ was all we had. God knows there was never enough food to eat.’
After the fourth or fifth tot he walked all the way back to the pack horses and came back with his dancing shoes. He took off his boots, his feet stark white under the woollen socks, and laced on his hard leather hornpipes.
‘You going to have a turn or two, old mate?’ Tom said, indicating the dance ‘floor.’
‘Yep, I can’t resist. Whether dust or fancy planks makes little difference to me.’
Jim sprang to his feet, and by way of announcing his arrival, capered his way across to the space before the musicians. Some of the men gathered around, cheering as he started an Irish jig with every nearby hand clapping. The circle widened with some of the layabouts sensing entertainment.
The virtuosic display lasted for a song, at which point some of the others joined in. New England Jack Woods and Bob Anderson dropped their gun belts and took to the floor, grinning like children.
A gunshot broke that scene. Echoes sounded across the river and off those massive cliffs that lined both banks. It was a shock of noise, carving its way through the river air and ringing in the skull.
The music stopped.
The dancers paused mid step.
Wonoka George stood with the smoking gun, facing the owner of the grog shanty who stood transfixed, a pillow of dust drifting from where the bullet had struck the earth just near to his feet. The silence that followed as the echoes died was absolute.
‘You have five seconds to explain why a man who serves watered-down whisky deserves to live,’ Wonoka George snarled at the shanty owner.
Tom, still seated at the poker table, lifted his glass to his nose. He sniffed the liquid inside, then eyed it deeply. ‘Why so it is, the mongrel cur.’
Sandy Myrtle nodded grimly. ‘It’s an old trick – serve the good stuff straight up when a man is on the alert and his senses keen.’ He pointed to the bar table. ‘That’s the bottle on the right. But when a man has had a few it comes from the next bottle, which I’m betting is one quarter clean rainwater. I dare say there’s another bottle after that, which has half water.’
George’s revolver barked again, and a bottle exploded into a thousand shards. ‘Now admit it, you thieving dog.’
The shanty owner scowled. ‘It’s an honour to be called a thief by a thief of such renown, but you are mistaken. If there’s any water in those bottles I didn’t put it there.’
It must have been a flash of the eyes that warned George, for the shanty-keeper was in the process of lifting the Snider carbine when the elder Brown brother crossed the dusty earth and pressed the barrel of his revolver to the other man’s temple.
‘Good work George,’ said Tom, now on his feet and making for the bar table. ‘First thing I’m going to do is tip that goat’s piss out on the ground.’ He upended the first bottle and poured it on the ground, then the second and third. ‘And now we want our money back.’ He opened the cash box and looked inside. A small wad of cash went into his pocket. ‘Some of this can be for punitive damages,’ he said. ‘And now boys, let’s see if this dog can swim.’
Strong arms pinioned the shanty-keeper, lifting him out of his chair, supporting him by feet, shoulders, head, back, thighs and legs. He was trying to fight, but they gripped him hard, and while Tom walked alongside, they carried him down to the jetty.
‘The deepest end boys,’ cried Tom.
‘Don’t do it, you mongrels,’ cried the shanty-keeper. ‘There’re gators out there. Big bastards too.’
At the extremity of the longest jetty they swung the man once, twice, three times, then chucked him far out into the river. There was a splash of water and foam, then his head surfaced, arms floundering at the surface.
Tom found himself a boat hook, and every time it seemed that the shanty-keeper would grab hold of the jetty timbers and pull himself to safety, Tom prodded him off with sharp jabs.
This went on for ten minutes or more, the shanty keeper exhausting himself with his efforts to stay afloat. The rest of the Thirteen went back and plundered the crates of good whisky and swigged as they watched, laughing at the entertainment.
Finally, when the local crowd bored of the game, and wandered off to their work or leisure, Tom allowed the blubbering man to climb ashore. Fitz and Larrikin carried him up the bank and rolled him in dust so that even his face was caked with it.
They left him there, an exhausted mess in the dust. ‘That’ll teach you to fool good men with your tricks,’ Tom said. Then, ‘Come on you lot. Time to move on.’
Back at the horses they distributed the looted whisky bottles among the packs. Larrikin was the only man among them who was sorry to leave.
As they rode out of the little settlement Tom looked back one last time to see the Aboriginal youth staring back at him. Something told him that he should have dealt with him right there right then, but he had seen enough violence for one day.
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