#40. Bow River

Bringing Australia's History to Life

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#40. Bow River

Missus Dead Finish and her patient, Tommy the Rag, passed through Baobab Wells at noon and reached Anton’s Landing a little after two on the third day. A crowd gathered while the big woman carried the once slight, now wasted, young man into the Wyndham hospital, a stone building run on a skeleton crew of nursing sisters and a single doctor.

The doctor examined the patient and turned to Missus Dead Finish. ‘Are you his mother?’

‘Nah, just a mate,’ she said, too worried to be offended.

‘You’ve done well in getting him up here alive, but he’s a sick boy. That foot has turned septic and the poison has all but reached his heart.’

Tommy tossed fitfully, burning with fever in his hospital cot, while the freight piled up for Missus Dead Finish, and her customers pleaded with her to hitch up her team and get back to work. This she refused to do, but stayed doggedly, defending Tommy’s interests. When the sisters tried to take his stockwhip away from the bedside she shook her head.

‘Don’t touch that whip. It stays by Tommy’s side day and night, sick or well. He’ll get better quicker with it than without it.’

Wyndham, Western Australia in the 1880s. JM Nielson. Victoria State Library

After five days, Tommy was sitting up in bed, and finally, back on his feet. Now they loaded up the cart and headed back towards Halls Creek. As they trundled out of town a group of disillusioned diggers lined the track, passing a demijohn of rum from hand to hand and lip to lip, singing a song popular then in the town:

 

Behold in me a digger bold, I’ve just come down of late,

I spent my time just like the rest, midst spinifex and slate,

Of tucker it is plentiful, and more than can be sold,

There’s lots of pebble and other metal, but the devil’s run away with the Gold.

For the Bow runs into the Ord,

And the Ord runs into the sea,

And we rushed down to Cambridge Gulf,

To clear from Kimberley.

 

Missus Dead Finish had always been proud of her speed, but that journey back to Hall’s Creek took on a dream-like quality that threw a blanket over any desire to hurry on.

The first day they managed just thirteen lazy miles, to Parry’s Lagoon. The second they did better, but lingered on the Denham River crossing ‘for the damned horses to get a good feed.’ The third they camped on the second branch of the Bow River, where granite boulders made handy camp furniture.

The next day, in the stony hills towards Turkey Creek, Tommy saw a blaze of brown movement just off the track, and through the trees. It was a spot sometimes used as a camp, stony and sparse, but useful because of a number of old wells made in days of yore by the Kija people.

Getting gingerly down from the box, Tommy heard the sound of buzzing flies, a horde of them. The brown shapes he had seen turned into kite-hawks, squabbling over something, with the flies rising and falling in clouds as they moved in or out of the way. A wedge-tailed eagle was also on the scene, and there seemed to be a battle developing between that giant bird and the kites.

The smell hit Tommy at the same time as the kites scampered onto the wing and away.

‘What is it, lad?’ came from behind him.

Tommy slipped his stockwhip from his belt. ‘Don’t move, Missus, for Christ’s sake. And get yer shotgun handy.’ He swallowed down rising nausea, for there on the ground was the body of a man, his body transfixed with a spear through the chest, both hands gripping the shaft as if trying to pull it from his body. The birds had opened the skin and torn strips of flesh from his cheeks, neck and upper chest. One of his ankles above the boots had also provided an entry point. A revolver lay on the ground beside the corpse.

The wedge-tailed eagle was the only one of the birds who had not yet taken flight, staring back at Tommy as if to say. ‘This old meat is mine now.’

Missus Dead Finish came up beside Tommy, with the shotgun in her hands. ‘The Kija got the poor bastard.’

‘Yeah, looks like it.’

‘Do yer know him?’

‘Nah. What about you?’ Tommy uncoiled his stock whip, took aim at the wedge-tailed eagle and let fly, cracking it not a yard from the bird’s head. The bird admitted defeat, flapping those stately wings and flying off to the nearest branch.

Tommy kneeled beside the body, not daring to breathe through his nose.  The spear would not come out, and Tommy used an axe to sever it where it left the chest cavity.

‘Should we just bury him here?’ asked Dead Finish. ‘Gawd knows I’ve done it before.’

‘We dunno who he is,’ said Tommy. ‘Best we get him to town, someone will know him.’

Wrapping the corpse in a blanket they placed it in the back of the cart. The smell was horrendous.

‘How far to town?’ Tommy asked.

‘Probably eighty mile.’

‘Let’s not stop again,’ said Tommy.

Missus Dead Finish agreed. Neither of them could countenance spending a night with a dead man for company.

 

A crowd gathered in the street when they stopped the cart opposite the police station. Sergeant James Sherry took charge of the body, but allowed the people of Hall’s Creek to view it on the cart, in the hope of an identification.

‘By God, that’s George Barnett,’ someone said. ‘He’s a good man, and I knew his Ma back in Queensland. I know him well enough to dig a hole for the poor bastard.’

‘Can we count on you to write a letter back and let his family know?’ Sergeant Sherry asked.

‘Well I would, but I can’t write a word except me own name.’

Charlie Price, the Mine Warden, scratched his beard. ‘Come with me, I’ll take the words down for you and you can sign it.’

The policeman turned to the crowd and said, ‘Go back to your claims, all of you. Be assured that justice will be done. With Big Johnny Durack barely cold in his grave just two months past, this proves that the natives have not learned. I will track down the killers of this man and bring them to justice.’

Sherry was true to his word. He rode out with two trackers looking for the killers and came back a week later with five black men in chains, walking behind his horse in a line.

‘That’s not the end of this,’ said Tom Nugent to Sandy Myrtle. ‘From what I hear Barnett came from a big family and they’re yelling for blood.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2019 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

 

 

 

 

 

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