At the Mission; that island in the clay and salt of the wild Gulf shore, came days of building heat, followed by thunderstorms such as I had never dreamed possible. Raking winds and black thunderheads roving ahead of a packed, boiling cloud mass, spitting lightning over a shallow sea churned to a furious white.
Years later I would see ranks of German soldiers and their Panzer IV tanks through the blowing sands of El Alamein and feel that same sense of awe and powerlessness. I was learning something that my city upbringing had not taught me; that there are powers in the world far greater than our pitiful selves.
I took to visiting with Kitty in the late mornings, while the Mission children were still at their lessons. So enamoured of the story was I, that in those days I scarcely touched ink to my notebooks. Len Akehurst lectured me mildly for neglecting my work, but I felt myself bound up with Kitty’s story, and could not let go.
When Joe was still an infant, Kitty told me, Henry Flick moved the small family up into Queensland, where he found a job working sheep on Murweh Station. He kept Kitty and their son in a wurlie made of bark and scraps of tin on the waterhole near the homestead, coming home after days out on the run smelling of wool, dust and rum. He was a hard man, with steely blue eyes, and knife-scars on his hand and left thumb, but he loved his little boy.
One morning Henry rode back from a weekend of drinking and gambling in Charleville, and took from his pocket a ring he’d won at cards. He slid it onto Kitty’s finger.
‘There you go. Now we’re prop’ly married,’ he said.
This gesture didn’t dampen Henry’s interest in other women, for around this time at Murweh he became enamoured of a Kunja girl named Lizzie, who worked as a maid at the homestead. He studied her movements – noticing that round ten pm, when she finished her work, Lizzie usually walked alone out back to the servant’s huts. Henry laid his plans with care.
The following night, with Kitty and Joe packed up and waiting. Henry rode up to the homestead, hid behind a bush with a spare horse, and waited for the girl to come. He clamped a hand over her mouth and carried her to his horse. With a good moon, he, Kitty, little Joe and Lizzie were soon on their way to the Bulloo River.
Jenkins, the station owner, was furious at the loss, and he, his eldest son and a tracker set off in pursuit of their missing housemaid. Henry, however, was expecting them. Fifty miles down the track, he sent Kitty, Joe, and Lizzie on ahead, and waited behind a convenient outcrop.
When the riders came up, Henry appeared with a double-barrelled rifle in his hands, and a hatchet in his belt. ‘Go home you bastards,’ he said, addressing Jenkins and his son. ‘I’ve got one bullet for each of you, and an axe for whatever’s left.’
Jenkins and his son spat and swore, but turned their mounts for home. That, however, wasn’t the end of the matter.
The police were soon in pursuit, and Joe was four years old when he watched uniformed men knock his father from his horse with a rifle butt, then force him to kneel and wear chains. In that state they dragged Henry Flick, with his family following miserably behind, to Charleville, where he was charged with aggravated assault and sentenced to six months in Roma gaol. Lizzie was returned to the Jenkins family.
Kitty was not judged to be a fit carer for her son without Henry, so the little boy stayed with a succession of police families, while his mother made camp by the river and waited, pining for her boy, starving herself until her legs were like sticks and the townspeople fed her out of pity.
Despite publicly swearing that he would ‘scalp’ the entire Jenkins family for calling the traps on him, Henry left the district as soon as he was released. Feeling increasingly like outcasts, the little family rode north on ‘borrowed’ horses for the Gulf, where a score of new stations needed good stockmen – and Henry was handy with horses, sheep and cattle – resilient and self-reliant.
Packhorses carried everything they owned to Lawn Hill station. There, for the first time they saw the homestead and creek where much later Joe would make his last bloody stand, but it was the picturesque pandanus and paperbark lined waterway, with its dramatic ochre-hued cliffs, that caught their eyes at the time. It seemed, back then, like a land of promise.
Frank Hann, the owner, hired Henry on the spot, and offered them a place to camp nearby. ‘Play straight with me,’ he said, ‘and we’ll get on famously.’
Within a year or two Joe was riding his own horse, and could crack a stockwhip like a man. By eight years of age he could shoot a small-bore rifle, drop a running wallaby at a hundred yards, and dress it for the pot in a blink.
Like many stockmen, Henry Flick kept an eye out for precious metals. One day, out on the run, he camped on a small hill with a vein of quartz. The chunks he extracted were filled with a dark metal. He knew enough to test it by heating some fragments and dropping them into water. When a greasy sludge rose to the surface, he knew it was silver. He rode to Cloncurry to lodge a series of claims with the Mining Warden.
With Henry now officially a miner, life changed. The days of travelling were over, and the new camp near the mine become a home. Father and son built a couple of stout huts, and the small family put down roots. It was a busy, friendly camp, with a couple of labourers, raised from the local Waanyi, thrown in. Henry brought other women into his bed, when they took his fancy, but Kitty was too intent on the survival of herself and her son to indulge in jealousy. Most days, when the other chores were done, she sat in the shade and plaited cabbage-tree hats to sell to stockmen and travellers.
By the age of thirteen, Joe had roamed every inch of the surrounding wilderness, learning everything he could from the Waanyi men. Before long he was supplementing the family income with stock work on Lawn Hill and other nearby stations such as Punjaub and Westmoreland. The family lived on bush food, bronzed barramundi and catfish from the creeks, and the occasional ‘lost’ bullock.
Joe could whistle so beautifully it would make you cry, and stun a goanna at fifty yards with a stone. He had a smile that won over men and women alike. He grew to manhood in this way, close to both his parents, and as fine a bushman as any man alive. He was part horse, part bush spirit, Henry used to say. Neither tobacco nor drink tempted him, and he did a man’s work well in every role he cared to fill, always with a flashing smile and good grace.
This was the first time, since I’d arrived at Doomadgee Mission, that I saw Kitty truly smile. It was like she’d forgotten I was there. Her white eyes looked skyward, and her toothless lips cracked open.
‘Sounds like your son was something special,’ I said.
Kitty closed her eyes and nodded thoughtfully.
Her boy was twenty-one years old, when the day came that changed it all.
‘Hey Joey, we got no sugar,’ Henry growled one morning, head and shoulders into the tucker-box that held their supplies.
‘Not much tea neither.’
‘Scarcely a week, I reckon,’ said Joe.
Harry Flick turned a whiskey bottle upside down and nary a drop appeared.
‘Looks like a trip to Burketown, son. Take your mama with you to tail the horses.’
Joe strapped his revolver belt on, and whistled up the packs. They were on the road before the sun had peered over the red stone ridges around the mine.
And didn’t mother and son love to ride together? Laughing, speaking a mix of English, Kriol, and her native tongue from down south. They crossed to the Gregory River along a dry scrub of bloodwood and termite mounds, that had come to be known as Kitty’s Plains.
The Gregory was still full from the Wet, the pandanus roots submerged, and the water retreating, leaving green couch grass patches on the banks. Striped archer fish patrolled the shallows, and rainbow bee-eaters flicked low over the surface. Kitty and Joe saw the first dragonflies, that day, and knew that the season’s change was coming.
Later in the day, riding along the high western bank of the river, Kitty spotted a tell-tale hole up high in a woollybutt tree, and tiny stingless bees emerging. She climbed the trunk like a possum, shimmying up with a hatchet and wrapping chunks of sweet sugar-bag honey in paperbark. They ate honey and dried meat by the fire that night, then amused each other by mimicking the creatures of the bush, and Kitty told stories from her inexhaustible supply.
Just before they reached the small settlement at Beame’s Brook, Joe’s gelding, newly broken as he was, was squeezed against a tree by Kitty’s mount and he lashed out with his back legs. His aim was bad, and his near hoof struck the woman’s shin. Within an hour the limb was swollen red, blue and painful. It seemed better that she would wait and rest the injury while Joe went on to Burketown.
Joe made a camp for his mother along the creek where she could sit and fish, then went to the hotel – a well-built affair of split logs and dressed timber. Jim Cashman, the owner, was behind the bar. His young wife Mary, sat on a chair at the nearest table, an infant girl on her legs below her belly, already well-rounded with the next arrival.
‘Well if it isn’t Yella Joe,’ Cashman said. He was originally from Sydney, but had made his name and modest fortune looking out for the main chance in North Queensland. A well-known businessman on the Palmer Fields, he had moved on after the death of his first wife, Margaret, in Cooktown. ‘Where’s your old man?’
‘Back home, Mister Cashman. I’ve left Mama down the creek with a crook leg, I didn’t want to take her down the black’s camp while I go into Burketown. Will you keep an eye on her?’
‘Course I will, Joey. She’ll be safe here.’
While Joe pushed on with the packs, Kitty sat, fished with grasshoppers and flies for bait, and waited. The next day a man from the camp came down to the river to water his horse. He was heavy in the gut, and his teeth rotten from too much sugar. Kitty recognised him as a slave-boy belonging to Jim Cashman.
The intruder stared at Kitty, but said nothing.
The next day he came back again. She hid when she heard him coming, but he found her, knocked her down, examined her face up close, then looped a noose around her neck and took her to his camp.
On the way they passed the pub, and Cashman himself was standing out the front.
‘Hey, boy, you know that’s Harry Flick’s woman?’
‘She’s mine now, boss.’
‘I don’t recommend crossing Flick, but that’s your look out.’
At the camp Kitty’s new ‘husband’ told her to cook him up some tucker and she had no choice but to obey. Later on, when the meal was finished, he raped her.
Meanwhile Joe hurried the thirty miles to Burketown, with the very different scents of the tidal Albert River in his nostrils. Only a few dozen whites lived permanently in the town, though seamen from regular shipping traffic, and passing droving teams, helped support the two pubs.
Most of the inhabitants treated Joey with tolerant politeness. They called him Yella Joe, but took him seriously. After all, he dressed like a white man, talked like one, and could out-ride and out-shoot most of them.
Burketown had two stores, one owned by Watson Bros, and another much larger owned by Philp, Burns and Company, managed by Mister Amsden. The competition between the two was such that discounts could be had, particularly for a man with slugs of crudely refined silver to trade.
Joe worked through his list, and finally, with pack-saddles bulging, he rode back to the Brook in high spirits, but was stunned to find his mother’s camp abandoned, still with some of her things there.
Guessing what might have happened, he picked up her belongings, then rode through the riverside camps until he found Kitty at the fire of Cashman’s slave-boy, her captor sitting at the entrance of his wurlie, grinning like a king and fingering a long knife.
When Joe pulled up his horse, dismounted, and met his mother’s eye, something like a Gulf-country storm grew inside him. And as Kitty described that moment I could feel every heartbeat, even then, forty-five years afterwards.
Continues next Sunday
© 2019 Greg Barron