The dingo pack were starving, with rib bones sharp as knives and shrunken, high bellies. There were five altogether, led by the matriarch, with dugs as black as night, and her teeth worn with age.
The pack had recently taken to shadowing the camps of prospectors, existing on bones or scraps left behind, and even, when desperate, eating shit and sullage. When the old bitch found the scent of blood on the wind she knew it as a human smell. This made her wary, but hunger was a powerful force.
Still unsure, she led her offspring in a wary, winding course, following the tracks that led aimlessly into the arid landscape.
Blind Joe was as keen-eyed a tracker as Sandy Myrtle had ever seen, but he struggled to locate Nellie’s trail. They did not know her departure point from Hall’s Creek, and it was necessary to cast wide around the diggings.
Sandy, Jake, Tommy the Rag and Larrikin followed Blind Joe in silence, reliant on the senses of this master bushman. By late afternoon they were tense with frustration, and when Blind Joe pointed out a lone man’s tracks, Sandy told him to follow it up.
‘Let’s see who it is, anyway,’ said Sandy.
The tracks were like a highway to Blind Joe, and at a jog-trot they soon came to a swagman’s camp. He was long-bearded, and lean, busy at the fire, standing when they rode in.
‘Welcome, brothers, come and have a cuppa. The billy just biled. Or a tot of rum if youse would prefer.’
The five men stayed in the saddle. Sandy spoke for all of them.
‘We’re looking for a girl? Have you seen her?’
‘What girl? D’ye mean black or white?’
Tommy flicked his right wrist, releasing his stockwhip, but Larrikin’s hand struck out like a snake, seizing the whip just above the ironwood shaft, stopping the blow.
‘Let’s not start taking our frustrations out on the innocent,’ said Larrikin.
Sandy cleared his throat, and addressed the prospector again. ‘Thanks for the offer, but we’ve no time for drinking. It’s a white girl gone missing from her camp.’ He pointed to Jake. ‘This feller here’s sister. If you see her, kindly take her in to the mine warden.’
‘I’ll do that. What’s the lass’s name?’
‘Ellen, but we mainly call her Nellie,’ said Jake.
‘Good luck then, to you fellers. This aren’t a good country to be lost in.’
The search took on a frantic urgency. They all knew that Blind Joe could follow a track after dark, but only if he was on it in the first place. By sheer good luck, not far from an abandoned claim on two joined hills called the Red Widows, Blind Joe gave a shout.
‘Hey Sandy. I seen Miss Nellie been alonga here.’
Jake confirmed it. He knew his sister’s print and there it was in the dust, clear as day.
‘Good work, Joe,’ said Sandy. ‘There’ll be a pouch full of tobacco for that. If you find her alive it’ll be an armload.’
Blind Joe took to the trail with dogged flair, and even in the hours before moonrise he never lost the spoor for long. Around midnight they found much of the equipment the girl had been carrying. A pan, a spade, and much of the food, lying abandoned on the ground.
It had been a while since Sandy had spent so many hours in the saddle, but the old muscles were still there, creaking and groaning. After a few hours the aches and pains had hardened into resolve.
Ah, he thought to himself, it was like a grave yard that night, the moon-silvered plain of termite mounds and small trees, glowing like diamonds, and so silent that it was like some nether world between life and death; past and future. The bush at night held no fears for Sandy, but he had learned to be watchful. He was alert for shapes and shadows that seemed out of place, for movement and sounds. A little ahead and to the right Blind Joe was a constant, sometimes riding, sometimes walking with the reins bunched in his right hand, and occasionally dropping to one knee.
Even more rarely the tracker would toss his reins to one of the men, or secure his mount to a tree, while he cast around the area, muttering to himself before reporting to Tom and pointing. ‘Here Miss Nellie run into a branch,’ he said once. ‘And leave blood on the ground, see?’
‘Poor little mite,’ said Jake. ‘But the blood ain’t hardly dried. She can’t be far away.’
But another hour passed before the next change in the trail.
‘There Miss Nellie make water,’ Blind Joe said. ‘Just li’l bit water. No more blood.’ Then he creased his brow, pointing out an unmistakable dog print in the red dirt.
‘Yella dog foller alonga Miss Ellen,’ said Blind Joe, then held up five fingers. ‘This many.’
Sandy spurred his horse. ‘That’s it, you fellows. Go. As fast as Blind Joe can lead us.’
Nellie stopped walking and sat on a stone on a rise. First she took a drink from her canvas water bottle and then she allowed herself to cry, partly from fear and loneliness, and partly from the pain of her bruised and bloodied nose.
The sound of howling made her freeze inside. She saw the shapes of five dingoes out in the moonlight, sitting up, and howling with snouts pointing up towards the moon. She was frozen in fear. She had seen many dingoes, but not at night and alone like this. The sound of their howling crawled inside her skin.
Finally, the howling stopped, and the dingoes gathered courage. The old bitch slunk forward. The girl picked up a stone and threw it hard. It fell short, and the wary old matriarch scampered back. Not far, however.
Nellie picked up another stone, satisfyingly heavy in her hand.
In the distance Sandy saw something. Was it a splash of white? He wasn’t sure. Blind Joe gave a shout too, and the riders put their spurs to their mounts. They all saw the yellow dogs flee into the night, but there was no time or light to shoot at them.
Jake was there first, off his horse and with Nellie in his arms, cooing at her and letting her sob with relief against his neck. ‘There, there,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever scare me like that again. Thanks to Blind Joe and these gentlemen here.’
Later, when they took her home, Jake prised the second stone from Nellie’s fingers, and found it streaked with rich native gold.
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