‘I can’t see a bloody thing,’ called Tom Nugent.
Sandy Myrtle cupped his hands and shouted up towards the crown of the tree. ‘Well climb up higher then, and stop yer blessed complaining. I’d have shimmied up the blasted tree myself if I were as skinny as you.’
After a week or two heading south along the Victoria River, the Ragged Thirteen were half-starved and desperate, gathered under a spreading gum tree, looking expectantly upwards to where Tom Nugent continued to climb, trying not to look down as he moved into the high branches.
A limb made a cracking sound as he moved higher. He gave a start, bringing on a chorus of laughs from the men below.
‘Well, you bastards try climbing the fucking tree. I’m not a possum, you know.’
Finally, Tom settled into a fork off the main trunk. Pushing aside a leaf-laden twig, he was able to see all the way to the station homestead of the pastoral holding called Victoria River Downs. One of the world’s biggest stations, it had been taken up by Fisher and Lyons, two of the richest of the Territory’s land barons. The property sprawled over some of the world’s best grasslands, broken up with scrub, stony hills and gullies – an overall area not much smaller than England.
‘What can you see?’ Sandy Myrtle shouted.
‘Homestead. Yards. Outbuildings. Not much yet. Give a bloke a chance, will you?’
There were dozens of men in the yards, working horses, Tom saw. Others wandered in and out of various sheds. He saw a killer being hoisted on a gallows, and men stropping knives, ready to swarm in. There were wagons, and Bilingara serving women getting about their duties. Tom took his time, noting every detail, even the trail of smoke from a blacks’ camp on the river.
Tom’s eyes focussed on a stout-looking building next to the homestead. The store. Even as he watched, one of the hands walked up, went inside, then returned a minute later with a tin of tobacco in his hand.
Having seen all he needed to see, Tom shimmied back down the tree, then dropped to the ground, examining his ankles and inner forearms where the bark had scraped his skin.
‘By God that’s a big affair and no mistake,’ he said. ‘Haven’t seen anything like it west of Longreach, except maybe Macarthur River.’
‘The store’s open?’ asked Fitz.
‘Yes, and it’ll be fully stocked for the Wet, I’ll warrant.’
Larrikin Jim struck a pose, thumbs in the pockets of his dungarees. ‘I think it’s our duty to relieve this cattle station of some of their excess goods. It’s not fair for them to be greedy.’
‘I agree,’ Tom said. ‘But if the thirteen of us ride in there they’ll know exactly who we are, and they could raise an army as soon as click their fingers. Every one of those men has a rifle or a pistol not far away.’
‘So what’s the plan?’ growled Sandy Myrtle. ‘I haven’t tasted tobacco smoke for a week. I’ll kill for it …’
‘I’ll ride in myself,’ Tom Nugent said thoughtfully. ‘They don’t know me, so I’ll pretend to be some rich swell riding around looking for land. These squatters all love a toff, and I’ll surely get a chance to chew a bone with them. Someone keep a lookout from this tree here. When I walk out on the verandah and scratch my ear it means there’s no one around and you blokes can come in and do your thing.’
‘That’s a grand jest,’ cried Larrikin, ‘but they won’t fall for your act dressed like you are now.’
‘No,’ agreed Tom thoughtfully. ‘I need to bung it on somehow.’
Each of the Thirteen, it seemed, had a prized item of clothing at the bottom of a kitbag that they figured would be perfect for the occasion.
Sandy Myrtle delved in his packs like a wombat digging a hole, broad bottom high in the air, showing a deep and wide crack, so tempting that many a stick or rock had been lodged in there over the weeks the Thirteen had been together. So often in fact that Sandy never displayed his rear end without wary glances behind him.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘Tweed trousers. Perfect for the job.’
‘Yeah,’ drawled Tom. ‘And five sizes too big for me.’
Fitz supplied an English riding saddle, stolen off a new chum’s horse outside the Burketown Hotel. ‘The blasted thing’s almost brand new,’ he said. ‘I stole it only three months back. The owner was just off the boat from Brisbane. I would have taken the horse too – nice looking chestnut he was – but the blessed thing bit me on the shoulder.’ His voice took on a haughty tone. ‘I won’t steal a horse that bites.’
Larrikin sat Tom on a fallen log and used a sharp pair of scissors to trim his hair, then produced a cut-throat razor so rusty and chipped that Tom paled at the thought of it scraping his neck and cheeks.
‘No bloody fear, yer not touching my face with that thing.’
‘Listen Tom, you’re either going to look the part or not. I’ll be careful mate, promise.’
When the time came to go, Tom mounted his own horse. He was a fine animal, a gelding with more than a few bad habits, but a dark bay in colour, with clean legs and straight back. Tom’s tanned face and wrists were set off nicely by a piratical white shirt. A silk cravat owned by Bob Anderson was the final, distinctive touch.
‘I don’t mind what you do,’ warned Larrikin, ‘but don’t get blood on that shirt. It’s dashed hard to wash out.’
Tom mounted up and looked down at the others. ‘I say old chaps,’ he said, ‘my name is Thomas Holmes, formerly of London town. I’m looking for speculate in this new country. My business partners are keen to invest in land, so I’m here to see what’s about.’
The company clapped until the bush rang with it. Sandy Myrtle summed up the general feeling. ‘You’re perfect. Keep ‘em busy and we’ll come in and do our thing.’
Tom rode off, and as the sun dropped towards the horizon, Fitz clambered up into one of the tree’s top-most branches, making easier work of it than Tom had.
‘It’s working, boys. I can see Tom and another couple of blokes on the verandah.’
‘What’re they doing, mate?’ Scotty asked the question for them all.
‘Well there’s a table and chairs there. Oh Lord, Tom looks every inch the gentleman. Haha, they’re sitting down and a girl is bringing them supper.’
‘Jesus, real food. What are they eating, Sandy?’
‘It’s hard to tell at this distance, but I swear it looks like taters, and roast beef, and peas, and gravy …’
‘Oh Gawd, peas and gravy,’ someone said.
Collective hunger brought on a long silence, and Sandy sighed wistfully.
After a few minutes of watching the men eat Fitz announced. ‘They’ve got tinned fruit coming, for dessert. Lucky old Tom.’
‘Well it’s going to be lucky us in an hour or two,’ said Sandy, ‘because as soon as the signal comes we’re going to raid that store. We’ll be feasting like pigs before you know it.’
‘How are we going to raid the fucking thing?’ asked Larrikin from below. ‘As Tom said before, there’s a lot of armed ringers around.’
‘We’ll sneak in, lever a couple of slabs off the walls and take what we want.’
Wonoka George scoffed. ‘If we were real bushrangers we’d ride in, guns drawn, take what we want and shoot anyone who stands in our way. All this sneaking around gives me the shits.’
‘If we were real bushrangers,’ Sandy said wisely, ‘we would have been hung by now. A man can get away with a lot in this world, so long as he doesn’t cross a certain line. So anyway, shut your trap and let’s do this the smart way.’
As darkness fell it became harder for Fitz to see, and he was getting more than a little uncomfortable. The plates were cleared, however, and a bottle of port wine appeared on the table. Glasses filled. A moment later Tom scratched his ear, slow and deliberate.
‘Alright boys,’ Fitz called. ‘That’s the signal.’
They left their horses saddled there under the trees, bridled up with only the bits out of their mouths for a fast getaway. Tommy the Rag was deputised to watch the plant while the raid took place. On hearing this, he screwed his face up like a child.
‘Why do I have to wait here, you miserable bastards?’
Sandy Myrtle hardly looked at him. ‘Because you walk like you got a shovel strapped to your leg and you’ve got a big mouth. And if you get caught we’re all fucked. If anyone finds you here, just fire off a few shots with your squirt and we’ll double-time it back here.’ He looked at the others. ‘Alright boys, let’s go relieve Misters Fisher and Lyons of their surplus goods and provisions.’
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