‘There’s only one way to save time,’ said Alfred. ‘We’ll have to take the Murranji Track.’
After a frantic ride from Borroloola, up through Anthony’s Lagoon and Brunette, they had reached Newcastle Waters in four days of hard riding. Arriving at the homestead, they’d enjoyed the hospitality of the manager, a friendly man by the name of Giles, with comfortable cots in the ringers’ quarters, half empty because of the Wet. They had just finished a hearty meal of beef and fresh garden produce.
From here they had two choices. North to the Elsey then across the Dry River country, or west from here on the dreaded Murranji stock route, pioneered by Nat Buchanan a handful of years earlier. Over a hundred miles of narrow track through limestone country, with hollow ground that spooked cattle and made stockmen’s lives a misery. It was a last resort.
O’Donohue paled. ‘Good Christ, Alfie. T’ey call it the death track. They say t’ere’s graves and ghosts at every stop, and from all reports t’ere’s only two waterholes of any note – no water otherwise for fifty moiles or more.’
‘That’s in the Dry,’ Searcy argued. ‘There’s been some rain, Giles said so. Besides, we’re not drovers, forced to cover only eight or ten miles a day at best. We can get through as fast as we want.’ He paused, then, ‘Do you want to catch the Ragged Thirteen or not?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Then we can carry water and get through that damned track. Lesser men than us have done it.’ Alfred turned the wick down on the lantern until it was barely glowing. ‘Let’s get a couple of hours sleep then head off in the cool of the morning.’
‘If you t’ink we should.’
‘I do, my friend. I think we must.’
They were saddled up and ready long before dawn, the two policeman leading and Jimmy, the police tracker, bringing up the spare horses and packs in the rear. At first the going was easy, a formed station road, and wide grasslands. By sunrise, the scrub had started to close in, and the trail narrowed. The January sun gathered heat like a storm gathers cloud. By noon it was a fireball, and both men pulled their hats down low.
When they stopped for the midday meal the track was a mean and insidious scar, through scrub so thick on either side that Alfred jokingly suggested that not even a snake could penetrate. Lancewood they were used to, but the bullwaddy was a brutal plant, thick and strong as a pole, but equipped with thorns like daggers.
They did indeed pass graves, one at a shallow little waterhole. O’Donohue crossed himself and hurried on, and even Alfred said a prayer,
The horses did not like this place, not one little bit. And neither did their owners. The superstitious O’Donohue kept himself together until near dark, when swarms of mosquitoes came from nowhere, descending in relays of a hundred or more at a time.
‘We’ll ride all night,’ said Alfred, ‘but let’s stop and eat now while we wait for the moon to rise’
They had already dismounted and had a camp fire burning before either of them noticed a nearby rough cross of split timber and the raised mound of a grave nearby.
‘Jaysus,’ said O’Donohue. ‘Did we haf’t stop right on the resting place of another poor sod?’
Alfred leaned close with a lighted brand and read the words that had been scratched in to the cross. Here lies Jack Hall. Dyed of fever, July 23 1883.
‘See!’ he said. He’s been dead for a couple of years.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed the Irishman. ‘Just long enough for his shade to get stirred up and look for mischief.’
They ate corned beef and fresh bread from Newcastle Waters. Instead of cheering them, the meal made O’Donohue look more worried than before. To make matters worse Jimmy was jittery and impatient, throwing down his food as if to hasten their time of departure.
Alfred walked off into the bush for a leak, then as he came back the landscape seemed to have closed in darkly around the fire. Even the silhouettes of their horses in the firefight seemed still and mysterious.
Searcy was not a man to allow such things to get him down, and seeing his mate huddling at the fire, looking this way and that, he decided that it was necessary to lighten the mood.
With this in mind he started creeping around so he was directly behind O’Donohue, but hidden by a bush from view. From this position, Alfred began a low and mournful wailing, slowly increasing the pitch. The effect on O’Donohue was dramatic. He jumped up, drew his pistol and cried. ‘Sweet Jaysus, what’s t’at noise?’
At this point Alfred strolled into the firefight. ‘What noise? I didn’t hear a thing?’
‘How could you not, Alfie? It was bloody horrible.’
‘Probably a bird.’
‘A bird?’ He spat. ‘Not even a curlew could make a deathly sound to touch it.’
‘I think you’re hearing things,’ said Alfred. ‘Let’s get going.’
O’Donohue seemed much happier back in the saddle, but Alfred, whether from the sameness of the ride, could not resist a little more fun.
He dropped back so he was riding alongside his mate. ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘but I keep thinking I can see someone following us.’
O’Donohue’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Blacks?’
‘No, not blacks. A horseman, but a strange one.’
‘You’re talking shit, Alfie. How can t’ere be a horseman? Jimmy’s up ahead of us, out on the flank, I just seen him meself.’
‘I don’t know. Perhaps it was only a fancy. A trick of the night.’
‘What did this horse look like?’
‘The horse was kind of silvery. Strange. The rider’s hat looked like that same colour too.’
They rode on for a little further, with Alfred constantly looking searchingly behind him. After a few minutes of this he stopped his horse, turned one hundred and eighty degrees in the saddle, then shouted at the top of his voice. ‘Gawd help us. It’s coming for us.’
Alfred Searcy later boasted that he and his mate had set a new record crossing the Murranji Track: just three days after leaving Newcastle Waters they arrived at Victoria River Downs.
The policemen and their tracker were lean from the saddle and eyes in dark pits from lack of sleep. O’Donohue had recovered his composure, but no one mentioned the terror of that night.
The manager walked out from the homestead. ‘Good to see men in uniform here, we’ve been done over and no mistake.’ He extended a huge and work-hardened hand. ‘My name’s Lindsay Crawford. Get your boy to run the horses into the yard there and I’ll tell someone to bring them some feed. They look near perished.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Searcy said. The manager was tall and rangy, with a bunch of black curls escaping from his hat. ‘Done over? Have the Ragged Thirteen have been here?’
‘Been here is a damned understatement,’ said the manager.
The two lawmen watched as Jimmy led their horses into the house yard, removing the saddles and hanging them on the rail. A stock boy brought in bale of hay and spread it around. Crawford watched with a critical eye. ‘Now you blokes come and get a bite or two into you, and we’ll talk about the thieving mongrels who paid us a visit.’
They sat on the verandah while a young black woman brought tea on fine crockery and fresh baked scones. Searcy, ever polite, ate delicately, but O’Donohue couldn’t resist stuffing the warm food into his mouth so fast he could scarcely talk.
Crawford, observing this, said, ‘A hard trail then, fellas?’
‘Yes, soon as we heard that the Thirteen had assaulted a storekeeper at the Victoria River Depot we saddled up and hit the road.’
They ate and drank for a bit, accepted a second cup of tea, and O’Donohue’s eyes turned to the young black woman as she came to clear the cups and plates. As she was about to walk away the policeman cleared his throat.
‘Don’t go just yet, lass, stop here for a moment.’
She stopped, and there was a tremble in her, for one of the cups rattled on the saucer.
‘Nice features on t’is one,’ O’Donohue said to Crawford. ‘Is she local stock?’
‘I think she’s a Walbiri from down Wave Hill way. One of the men found her and her ma wanderin’ after a shootin’ party had been through. Her ma died years ago but this one’s been brought up by my missus.’
‘What’s your name, girl?’ O’Donohue asked.
O’Donohue leaned forward on his chair and placed the flat of his hand on her belly. ‘You gettin’ plenny good tucker or you growin’ ‘im picaninny in there?’
The three men laughed, but Crawford stopped first. ‘Let her go now, she’s got work to do.’ He stood. ‘Now come and have a look at the mischief the Ragged Thirteen have managed to wreak.’
The two lawmen followed the manager down to the store. It was a standard place of white-washed split slab walls, with top-hinged windows propped open with sticks, and a bark roof. A couple of station blacks were sitting in the shade outside, looking quizzically at the newcomers as they wandered up.
Searcy walked through the ransacked store, noting the slabs that had been removed to gain entry. ‘Typical of the Ragged Thirteen, they display a low animal cunning,’ he said.
‘Cunning, alright, one of them presented at the station and pretended to be a land speculator. I weren’t here, being out on the run at the time, but Lockhart the book-keeper was in charge. The fool gave the king of thieves a top-notch feed and every possible entertainment.’
‘That would have been Tom Nugent. He’s the only one with the smarts to carry that kind of thing off.’ Searcy shook his head sadly. ‘They’ve got a good start towards the border, but you never know with these riffraff – they might have stopped to get drunk just twenty or thirty miles away.’ He thought for a moment, they really needed more firepower to take on the Thirteen. ‘If you would lend us a couple of ringers who are handy with their rifles, and another tracker, we’ll get after them.’
Crawford nodded slowly, ‘I should think that volunteers won’t be hard to come by. Would you plan on leaving at first light?’
‘We won’t wait that long. It’ll be dark soon, but the moon rises before midnight. I’ll send our tracker out now to get a fix on their route, while we try for a couple of hours of sleep. Then we’ll assemble at the yards and move off as soon as there’s light to see.’
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