Setting off towards the Victoria River Downs station outbuildings, ducking under ironwood rails into the station horse paddock, Sandy Myrtle attempted to move with stealth, but his bulk made it difficult. Every time he bent over he felt a twinge of pain that shot up his spine and down through his thighs. Moving ahead of him was Larrikin, perfectly balanced, carrying a steel jemmy bar.
The station horses were alarmed by the eleven men moving amongst them at night. Some walked up curiously, nickered and sprang away. The men made soft sounds of comfort as they hurried on, finally reaching the far end of the paddock and crossing the fence.
They paused behind the far wall of a stable to catch their breath. ‘Inside will be the best horses on the run,’ whispered Fitz. ‘We’d better take a look.’
How could they resist? Every one of them loved horses, and particularly good horses, with a passion.
They let themselves in through a side door, and walked along the stalls. It was dark inside, but it was easy to see that these were the cream of the station plant. The best of all was an attractive grey, with clean legs, long neck and high withers – surely the station manager’s or even an owner’s thoroughbred.
Jimmy Woodford couldn’t stop staring at the animal, even as they moved on towards the open front entrance.
‘C’mon you,’ hissed Sandy.
‘He’s a marvel that horse. Have you ever seen the like of him?’
‘Alright mate, but we’ve got work to do. I’m starving hungry, and starin’ at horses won’t fix that.’
In twos and threes they crossed the dark station track, bent over and moving slowly, thereby reaching the store itself. The raiders circuited their way around to the back, sandwiched between outbuildings so that they were finally out of sight.
Larrikin knelt with his bar and started to attack the slab wall. The nails were long and stubborn, and he was forced to move along the studs underneath, levering and prying. One of the nails screeched as it came.
‘Shut that noise,’ hissed Sandy.
Luckily there were some distant sounds, men laughing around some fire somewhere, others talking. A voice broke into song, yodelling out a few lines of a song popular around the stock camps back then.
She rode into town on a chestnut mare,
Wearing just her golden hair,
I asked her please to marry me,
And took her horse and virgin-i-ty,
The singing was well timed, for it allowed Larrikin to work faster at the slabs, finally opening a man-sized hole in the side of the wall, though Sandy opted to draw his revolver and act as guard while the others went inside.
‘I’m not too good on my hands and knees,’ he said.
Larrikin went in first with a candle stub and vestas to provide some light. The others followed, one at a time, and after a minute or two they started to reappear, pushing goods ahead of them.
The Ragged Thirteen “requisitioned” everything away that could be carried – horseshoes, flour, treacle, rum, tinned goods and more. When they were fully laden, Larrikin replaced the slabs as tightly as possible, then joined the others in hurrying off.
Jimmy Woodford took a detour to the stables and returned leading the three finest horses, including the grey, opening the slip rails to get them into the horse paddock.
‘Are you mad?’ Sandy hissed. ‘They’ll never pin us for a few horseshoes and the stores, but they’ll get us for these nags straight. Especially the grey, anyone with eyes in their head can see he’s a stand-out horse. At least leave that one.’
‘Alright, I’ll leave the grey,’ Jimmy said. ‘But I’m taking the others. That mongrel Maori Reid shot my horse, and I’m sick of riding old rubbish.’
Sandy held the two horses as the younger man led the grey back, and secured it in its stall.
‘C’mon,’ he said, when Jimmy came back. ‘Let’s get moving.’
Back at the camp under the tree, there was a hurried bout of shoving food into mouths, filling packs and preparing for a night run to the Western Australian border, some one hundred miles to the west.
They had scarcely half an hour until moonrise. They set off then, heading straight west and travelling fast to put some distance between them and any pursuit.
‘I hope Tom’s alright back there,’ drawled Larrikin.
‘He’ll be fine,’ commented Sandy, ‘I’d back that bastard against a pit full of brown snakes.’
At first they followed the Wickham River, then, in the interests of speed, struck out across the plains. It was good country to ride with a moon shining white on the grasslands, and hills with pillars of stone on the horizon.
Carmody’s navigation skills, honed on the quarterdeck of a ship but equally applicable here on the savannah, proved invaluable that night in choosing the straightest route to the border. The point at which a line through the Southern Cross intersected with another perpendicular line from the pointers showed due south, they all knew that, but Carmody, knowing the relative positions of the stars for this time of year, used two or three other constellations as well.
‘It’s like a bloody road map,’ he said.
Most of the time, however, there was no time to talk. They kept the horses at a jog trot, and for even the best of them it was an exhausting pace, but they ate up the miles.
There was a thrill in watching the coming dawn, then the glory of the sun, lifting spirits of man and horse alike. Poor Jonathan James for all his strength, carrying Sandy Myrtle’s great bulk, had slowed to a walk during the night, and the others loitered to let him catch them.
‘For pity’s sake let’s stop for breakfast,’ moaned Sandy.
‘Not yet,’ said Fitz. ‘Not until we cross the Negri River, then you can eat all you bloody want.’
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