Reaching the Negri River was like a homecoming for the gang. There, camped on the opposite bank, were the stock boys and women they had sent ahead. Blind Joe stood watching the Thirteen ride in, one hand on the shoulder of Tom Nugent’s orphan from Borroloola, who looked disappointed when the leader did not appear.
‘Don’t worry lad,’ called Larrikin, still wet to the leggings from crossing the river. ‘Old Tom Nugent will be along shortly.’ He looked at the camp, then back across the brown swollen waterway. ‘This here river is the border, but I think we need to ride another ten or twelve miles to be safe from the traps.’
‘No bloody way,’ snapped Sandy Myrtle, swinging out of his stirrups and hitting the ground with a lurch. ‘I’m stopping here for a feast, and ain’t moving again ’til tomorrow, and even then only when Tom Nugent rides up.’
‘The wallopers might still follow us, don’t you reckon?’ asked George Brown.
Sandy Myrtle shook his head, ‘Not much chance of that. They’re hundreds of miles away. Besides, the bastards aren’t supposed to follow us over the border. Now, enough talk. It’s time to cook up a feed and enjoy the fruits of all that hard work.’
Scotty, as usual, took up the job of chief cook, and before long there were plates of johnny cakes and treacle, tinned peaches, hot tea and tinned beans. They ate until they were full, and restlessness soon took over. Jim Carmody got up a game of mumble the peg, the stock-camp favourite involving pen knives being flicked from various positions into the ground.
Later in the afternoon, Tom Nugent arrived on a grey stallion, leading his own horse. Sandy Myrtle watched him cross the river, unsure at first, but as he neared the quality of that stallion became apparent. ‘The bloody idiot,’ he turned and shouted to the others. ‘Tom stole the fucking grey.’
Jimmy Woodforde crossed his arms over his chest, annoyed. ‘That’s because he didn’t have an old woman there telling him not to.’
Normally Sandy would have reacted to this, but now he kept his attention on Tom, waiting until he rode up and dismounted. ‘Are you mad?’
‘What do you mean?’ Tom said. ‘I hope you left some tucker for me, I’m famished.’
‘You took the grey.’
‘You lot nicked a couple for yourselves from what I can see, and besides, we’re safe over the border.’
‘Safe are we? Your new friend at the Downs won’t let that horse slide, and Searcy hates our guts. Best to turn him loose now.’
Nugent dismounted. ‘Not a chance, Sandy. Now shut your mouth, there’s a good bloke. He rubbed his hands together. ‘Now for some tucker.’
‘Well don’t listen to me then,’ said Sandy, ‘but mark my words. Duffing that horse was a mistake. A man can get away with a lot in this life as long as he don’t …’
‘Cross a certain line,’ Tom finished for him. ‘I’ve heard you say it before. Now lead me to dinner, before I pass out.’
Late in the afternoon, at Tom’s suggestion, Scotty Campbell and Larrikin forded the Negri again and climbed a nearby slope to watch for anyone who might be in pursuit.
They settled themselves down about half way up the hill, sitting on a natural contour, surrounded by turkey bush and tussocks. Seeing nothing at first, but spying a bull ant nest ten paces down the slope, Larrikin collected small stones and threw them at the insects. The first missile landed just shy of the entrance, and the ants went mad, climbing all over the stone.
Scotty joined in the fun, sending first one stone then another.
‘I reckon you hit one,’ said Larrikin. ‘I seen it jump in the air and fall down.’
‘One tae meself then,’ Scotty said.
They were so busy raining missiles down on the ants that they didn’t, at first, notice a lone rider in the distance. It was only that Scotty, tired of the game, finally flicked his eyes up and saw the raised dust in the scrub to the east.
‘Och, Larrikin, belay that for a taim. Ah ken we ‘av company.’
‘Looks like you’re right,’ drawled Larrikin, and they watched in silence as the form of a lone rider, with two spares and three packs strung out behind, became clear.
‘Shid we be calling the others?’
‘Nah, one walloper wouldn’t come after us alone. It’s just a traveller. But we’ll watch just in case.’
The rider was not hurrying, but came closer slowly. Finally, when they came abreast of the hill Scotty saw red plaits hanging down from the broad cattleman’s hat. ‘That’s Red Jack,’ he blurted.
Larrikin whistled, ‘By all that’s holy I think you’re right.’
As they watched she crossed their sign, and reined in. Scotty could almost see her eyes following their trail heading up the slope, scanning the hillside until, at the distance of half a mile she had picked them out.
‘She’s spied us,’ cried Scotty.
‘Well she’s not exactly dangerous, who cares?’
‘Hell an’ all, she’s comin’ this wae.’
Larrikin seemed to forget his bravado, and together they wriggled into the thicket of turkey bush, raising their heads just far enough that they could see her canter up the slope, directly towards them.
‘That lass can ride,’ breathed Scotty. There was something about her, he thought to himself. Something like the faeries in the illustrated Scots books that his mother had read to him. This woman had that glow. Not just beauty, but inner goodness. Hugh Campbell wanted her in a way that wasn’t only physical. He wanted to make a sacrifice for her. Prove himself.
‘Christ, what’s she doing?’ Larrikin muttered. ‘Is she working for the traps?’
‘Nah,’ Scotty said, ‘she’s only curious.’
At that point Larrikin jumped sharply. ‘Fuck,’ he hissed.
‘What is it?’ Scotty asked. But just then something sharp pierced the soft skin behind his knee. Hugh looked down to find that their hiding place was only a short distance from the ants they had been stirring up. Now those ants were swarming over them, crawling up their moleskins and biting bare flesh, finding the gap between trousers and shirt.
The red-haired woman momentarily forgotten, they both jumped up, swatting at their legs like madmen.
Finally, when Scotty raised his eyes it was to look straight into the eyes of Red Jack as she stopped, just a few paces away from them.
After a long silence she said, ‘Well damn me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two jackasses so overgrown before.’
Then she wheeled her horse and trotted away, her packs and spares following obediently behind.
Scotty slowly picked himself up, and stared after her. ‘Ach she’s bonnie. Ah only just seen her and already me pair heart is achin’ for the lack.’
Larrikin shook his head sadly. ‘That’s only because you’re young and stupid. Red Jack leaves broken hearts behind her wherever she goes, and she doesn’t give a fuck who they belong to.’
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