#49. Too Close for Bloody Comfort
Weeks had passed, and the routine varied little. Almost every afternoon, Tom rowed Miss Emily Byrne up the channel: crabbing and sometimes fishing. By the third week he was permitted to kiss her on the cheek. By the fifth they were holding hands when he walked her home after dinner at the pub.
While Emily was teaching, Tom worked shifts down at Anton’s Landing, unloading steamers and sail craft as they discharged stores, cattle or horses. He also broke a couple of nags for Mr Katiford, the Government Surveyor. All in all, things were looking up, though he missed life on the track, and the constant fun of riding with the Ragged Thirteen.
Late one morning, Tom was in the bar of the Wyndham Hotel, with a glass of beer in hand and a pipe drawing nicely, when one of the stevedores from the port hurried in, leaned close to Tom and lowered his voice. ‘I was just talking to the skipper of the Levuka. A Territory walloper’s arrived in town – name of Searcy. It sounds like he’s got it in for you.’
Tom’s beer turned sour in his throat. ‘That jumped up, arrogant dog! Why did he have to land here, of all places? Just when things were going right for a change.’
‘Searcy told the Levuka’s skipper that he’s ah, assembled … fresh evidence against you. Something about robberies over in the Territory, and an assault at the Vic River Depot.’
‘What?’ spluttered Tom. ‘All we done was throw a thieving sly grog seller in the river!’
‘Well I dunno, but this Searcy was boasting that he’s got an extradition order to take you away in chains. They’re havin’ a cuppa in the police station, then they’re comin’ for you.’
‘On the level?’
‘Yeah, worse luck.’
Tom drained his beer and slammed down the glass. ‘Thanks mate. Life was just gettin’ too bloody good.’
Leaving the bar, Tom hurried down to his hotel, using the side entrance to avoid the desk. He couldn’t see any point settling his bill, if the police were going to chase him anyway. Besides, he’d need every penny he could get his hands on for life on the run.
Back in his room, Tom rolled everything he owned up into a swag, then opened the window. Throwing his gear out ahead, he jumped to the ground. He hurried out back, catching his gelding from the horse yard, then tacking him up inside the stable. Before riding out he checked that he had, in his pockets or saddle bags, all the things he valued most – pocket book, folding knife, and two small volumes of poetry – Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall. Most precious of all was a ferrotype image of his mother in a tiny bronze and glass frame, wrapped in waxed paper.
Leading his horse by the bridle, down dusty back streets, he visited the Adcock brothers’ store, where he provisioned himself for a couple of days. With one more stop in mind, he walked another half block, then tied his horse’s reins to the schoolhouse gate. He adjusted his collar and walked to the open door.
The school students turned as one to see Tom Nugent standing in the door frame. Silence descended. Miss Byrne herself was frozen, chalk in hand. To Tom she had never looked so beautiful, her hair tied back, but some lighter strands remaining free, falling around her neck. She wore a cream-coloured dress with silk sleeves and a modest bustle.
Tom cleared his throat. ‘Excuse me for interrupting, Miss Byrne. But I must see you on a matter of importance.’
Some of the children now whispered and giggled, until Miss Byrne shut them up with an icy stare. Finally, when silence reigned again, she passed her chalk to a nearby older girl and turned to the children. ‘Seniors, please complete the third and fourth exercises on your slate, juniors carry on with your letters. Mary, you will stand and record the name of any pupil who talks, or otherwise takes advantage of my absence.’
Every young eye was on Miss Byrne as she walked to the schoolhouse entrance, passed through, and closed the door behind her.
Tom led her by both hands further away, out of earshot. ‘Bad news,’ he said. ‘I have to run, the Territory police have lobbed in, with more charges against me.’
‘Oh … Tom. That is bad news.’
‘I’m thinking that I’ll find a place for us. Somewhere safe where life will be grand. Will you come, if I send for you?’
‘That depends,’ she said, lifting her hand and laying her palm along his cheek. ‘I won’t live with you in a gaol cell.’ She was smiling now, but he could see that she was trying not to cry.
On impulse, Tom kissed her on the lips. A long and deep kiss. Their first real kiss.
There was a shout of delight from a boy with his head glued to the schoolhouse window. Then uproar from inside.
‘Oh God,’ she said, breaking off but still holding his hand. ‘The cheeky little devils. I have to go.’
‘Goodbye, Miss Emily Byrne.’
‘Goodbye, Tom Nugent, Captain of the Ragged Thirteen.’
‘I’ll send for you, when I’m fixed.’
‘Make it soon,’ she cried, then hurried back through the door and inside.
Tom was about to mount his horse when he heard activity from the police station just down the block. He ducked deeper into the shade and crept forward to watch two Wyndham traps, along with a narrower figure that could only be Searcy, and a couple of armed trackers, march off towards the hotel.
Tom waited until they were well down the street before he mounted up and rode away. He was full of mixed feelings: anger, a touch of panic but most of all, surprise and excitement at the love that had just burst into full flower outside that school house.
Tom knew better than to try and leave town by the back roads. The safest way to get distance under his belt, and to fool the trackers, was to head down the main road. Of course, as he rode, he kept well away from the Landing or groups of people on the way out, keeping his hat low.
The new gelding started out with a will, but after an hour he had slowed appreciably. Tom cursed the man who’d offered him as part-exchange for the exceptional grey. He was a nice enough animal, but without the wind needed for a fast escape. Tom cursed the gelding, cursed Alfred Searcy, and cursed himself for being a fool and not making his move on Emily sooner.
Using a switch to keep the gelding motivated, Tom diverted around the extended Byrne family’s hotel at the Six Mile. These were all Emily’s relatives, of course, and although he had not formally met them, they knew of the developing relationship, and did not approve.
By late afternoon Tom was getting close to Parry’s Lagoon. Unfortunately, by that stage, getting his mount to keep up anything more than a reluctant trot was growing impossible.
There was, he decided, no option but to camp for the night, resting the horse and preparing for a big day. Searcy and his new mates, he decided, were unlikely to have set off after him just yet. It would have taken an hour or two to figure out that Tom had left town, and they would then have had to provision and prepare a patrol.
Still, taking no chances, Tom watered his horse in the stony bed of the fast-flowing Ord, then forced him into one last big effort, climbing a good-sized peak in the ranges, with a view along the track back towards Wyndham. On a flat shelf in the rock, he lit a small, miserable fire, and made a meal of hot tea and salt beef.
When he was done eating, the sun was low, with the stone hills glowing red all around him. Up high as he was, the sight made him pleased to be back in the bush. It was only this that gave him peace at last, a feeling that did not last for long.
A glance back along the track, laid out like a ribbon far below him, showed a pall of dust rising from five horsemen heading fast, south from Wyndham. Tom felt a prickle of apprehension. Could it be them?
Yes it could, he decided. Searcy was a persistent bastard, and was probably on a tight schedule. These riders were travelling too light to be diggers or travellers.
‘It’s them alright,’ Tom said to himself. ‘Too close for bloody comfort.’
Aware that he was in for the chase of his life, he saddled the reluctant gelding and prepared to brave the descent in the half-dark.
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