No one said a word when Missus Dead Finish started sharing Tommy the Rag’s swag, her draught horses hobbled and wandering with nosebags of oats, and some to spare for the rest of the plant, who were rarely well enough fed.
As fond of rum as the rest of the crew, Dead Finish never failed to produce a bottle from under the driver’s box. She and Tommy would sit up after the others had wandered off, telling jokes and yarning. The bond between the pair seemed too ludicrous for words – scrawny young Tommy, and a woman at least three decades older than him (no one really knew) – with white bloomers, washed and hanging from a line stretching from wagon to tree. These, Larrikin mused aloud could, with the addition of a pole or two, be used as tents.
In any case, the relationship continued to develop, and Missus Dead Finish’s arrival came to be a regular thing. Those who grumbled about a woman in the camp were sweetened by the horse feed, free grog, and the lack of any need to moderate their language or behaviour. This was a woman who could curse with the best of them.
Tom Nugent said to Tommy one day, ‘You and the old girl seem to get on uncommonly well.
‘Yeah, not too bad.’ Tommy looked embarrassed. ‘Dunno why. But she aren’t like other gals I’ve known. I feel like she’s watching my back. That she’d never give up on me.’
‘Cripes Tommy, sounds like you’re in love with her.’
‘Maybe I am.’ There was a long pause, while Tom took a cigar from his pocket, straightened it and bit the end off. ‘Do you think the other coves are laughing at me, because she’s old, and not real pretty.’
‘Maybe a bit, but don’t let that bother you, Tommy.’
‘You’ve been around. How does a man know when he’s in love?’
Tom smoked his pipe in silence for a few moments, watching the swirling smoke reflectively. ‘Love’s a bit like wind. Sometimes it blows in hot gusts that last an hour or two, making a lot of dust and noise. Other times it twists and turns all over the place, changin’ direction all the time. Real love, now that’s another thing. It blows like a prevailing wind, almost all the time, so steady a man can rely on it.’
Tommy the Rag grinned, and quicker than the eye could see he uncoiled his stock whip and cracked it so hard Tom’s ears rang and a pair of foraging pigeons took to the wing and flew off into the sky.
The diggers and townsfolk of Halls Creek could tolerate Sergeant Sherry. Mostly he was content to sit on his verandah, sometimes investigating a serious theft or murder, but he never worried too much about a brawl or even a riot at one of the shanties.
Things changed, however, when a full police patrol came into town. No one liked it. Word spread on the bush telegraph, shouted from claim to claim, or carried by running children.
One afternoon when Tom was down the shaft, working away at the face with a hand pick, he heard the high ringing tone of a steel pipe being beaten hard at the entrance. It was the usual recall signal, able to penetrate the depths for some distance.
Crawling in his hands and knees for the first part of the shaft, Tom reached the ladder and started to climb, filthy with rock dust and sweating like crazy. He was half way up when he saw Larrikin leaning over, his head surrounded by the cloudless blue sky.
‘What’s the problem?’
‘You’d best get up here. Word is that there are two out-of-town traps with some armed boys asking for you in town, and now they’re riding this way.’
Tom thought for a moment. He and the boys had lately been stealing a few Durack cattle and stocking the hidden valley he had found. New England Jack had even butchered one or two and sold the meat. Still, it seemed unlikely that the police would be able to pin that on him.
‘What the fuck do they want with me?’
‘I dunno. But here they come now.’
As Tom emerged into the sunlight, Larrikin aimed a finger back along the track that weaved its way down the gully between the claim boundaries. Two policemen, still in clean enough clothes to indicate that they hadn’t been on patrol for long, were walking their horses towards the Thirteen’s claim, and behind them rode a bunch of police boys with rifles.
The police party didn’t enter the camp at first, but diverted down towards the base of the gully, where the horse plant were munching on a few scraps of grass. Tom watched, wondering what the hell they were doing. He hoped for a moment that they might keep riding on. Then, he felt a prickle of unease as the trap pointed out the grey Tom had taken from Victoria River Downs. One of the police boys put a halter on him.
Leading the animal, they rode across to the camp. ‘Are you Tom Nugent?’ the policeman asked Tom.
‘Yes, that’s me.’
‘Is this your horse?’
Tom knew that he had two choices, either take responsibility for the horse or implicate some or all of the others. It was important, he decided, that the others stayed here to work the claim.
‘Yes, he’s mine. His name’s Gumnut, and I bought him from a bloke who said he was branded at Alexandria Station, and that’s the brand there.’ Tom flashed a glance at Larrikin, who had told the story originally.
‘I put it to you that the animal’s name is actually Wickfield Chesterton,’ said the trap. ‘The brand has been cleverly altered, but he is actually the property of Charles Brown Fisher, joint owner of Victoria River Downs station. You, Tom Nugent, have been accused of stealing him.’
Tom’s eyes went wide with mock-innocence. ‘Why, that’s a terrible accusation to make. Here I am, a dedicated miner and member of the Halls Creek Digger’s Committee.’
The policeman grinned wickedly. ‘Spare us the fine words attestin’ to your virtue. A colleague of mine was talking to Alf Searcy of the Northern Territory Customs Service. He told some pretty tales about you and your so-called mates.’
‘I beg to differ sir, they are real mates, not so-called mates, but I doubt you’d know about such things. Neither would Searcy, I dare say.’
‘Enough talk. The horse is stolen property. You are under arrest for the theft of this horse, worth over four hundred pounds, property of CB Fisher.’
Tom looked across and locked eyes with Sandy, whose eyes had moved to the shotgun propped against a tree nearby. Tom shook his head, telling the big man clearly not to think about it. ‘Lads,’ he said. ‘We all know this is a mistake. I’ll go quietly, clear my name, and be back digging gold before you know it.’
The police gave him time to roll his swag and saddle a spare horse, then fixed iron bracelets to his wrists.
Tom, having mounted his horse awkwardly, turned back to the others. ‘Isn’t it strange how these gentlemen allowed a gang of killers to ride here and commit bloody murder unchecked for a week until we stopped them, but they’ll drag a man away in chains over a horse.’
Just as Tom was about to ride off, the boy from Borroloola ran out from the woman holding him. He grabbed on to Tom’s leg, tears rolling down his cheeks. Tom leaned down and mussed his curly hair.
‘Don’t fret, kid. I’ll just go along with these men. It’s only for a day or two.’
Sandy came forward and unclasped the boy’s arms, holding him firmly but gently as the police column moved off in a welter of dust, on the long road to Wyndham.
When Tom had gone the others gathered around the fire. Sandy said sombrely, ‘By God, that wasn’t good. I guess we’re just the Ragged Twelve now.’
Missus Dead Finish stood up from her place beside Tommy. ‘You’re wrong there,’ she said. ‘I’m here too, and I’m as good as any man, even if I’m only half as tall.’
Sandy inclined his great head. ‘Right you are Madam, the Ragged Twelve-and-a-Half it is.’
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