5. Escape from Normanton

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5. Escape from Normanton

The Police Quarters, Normanton, in the 1880s. State Library of Queensland.

Hasenkamp and his men shackled Joe with iron chains, and escorted him 130 miles to Normanton, a five-day ordeal on horseback. There had been some late rain, and the black soil country was hard going in the mud.

By the time they reached the town’s neatly surveyed streets, laid out on the western bank of the Norman River, Joe had calluses on his neck and wrists, and his spirits were so low that he could scarcely stomach the johnny-cakes and tea that they fed him on the track.

This was Kurtijar country; the people of the river plains. Joe saw them – men, women and children – watching from the camps on the fringes of town as he rode in with his neck chain firmly and humiliatingly in place.

The Normanton lock-up was located behind the Police Quarters in Borck Street, and was more substantial than Burketown’s. It had an exercise yard, and four cells in a line. The whole complex was built up on stumps, and all solidly made of heavy timber slabs secured with iron spikes. The windows were too small for a goanna to shimmy through, and the iron door would have resisted a bull. The prison compound was enclosed by walls of iron sheet, ten feet high.

Joe shared his cell with two other men. One was on remand for assaulting his wife. The other, a young Irishman, was serving thirty days for riding a horse without permission, and swearing at a policeman.

‘They’ve charged ye fer the ‘tempted murder of a white man?’ the horse ‘borrower’ asked.

Joe nodded miserably.

‘T’ey’ll give ye ten t’ fifteen year fer that. No question.’

‘Ten to fifteen years in here?’ asked Joe, gesturing at the bare cell.

‘Not here,’ piped up the wife-beater. ‘They’ll take you to a proper gaol, with stone walls. Rockhampton probably, or p’raps Brisbane.’

Those four walls crushed in on Joe, and his world reeled. The thought of being taken away, far from here, to a stone prison, seemed to him much worse than death. A despondent sense of doom settled heavily on him, and he huddled into a corner like a spiny anteater, digging into the earth with sharp points all around, where nothing could dislodge him, nothing could hurt him.

Joe stayed like that until late in the afternoon, when he had a visitor – the owner from Lawn Hill Station, Frank Hann, a family friend if there was such a thing for the Flicks.

Frank Hann

Born in Dorsetshire, England, and immigrating while still a child, Frank Hann’s feats of exploration and endurance were well known and celebrated amongst his peers. Yet, he was not big or robust as might be expected of a man with his reputation. Rather, he was more bird than bull, with red bushy eyebrows and flaming hair. He lived somewhat openly with Opal, a young Wambaya woman he had obtained from Cresswell Creek in the Territory, although his white friends pretended that she was his housemaid.

Now, the station owner approached the cell, in company with the gaoler, who unlocked the door and let Joe out to speak with him.

‘Hell, Joey,’ Hann cried. ‘What’s this I hear about you shooting at Mister Cashman?’  

Joe clammed up again. He didn’t mean to; it just happened. He looked down at the ground and avoided Hann’s eyes.

‘I can’t help if you don’t talk to me, lad.’

Still, Joe said nothing, arms folded protectively around his body, and eyes glazing over like window shutters. He wanted to go back inside the cell and be like an anteater again.

Hann went on, ‘I hear your old man went and had a word to Cashman. Told him that there was no harm done, and that he should drop the complaint. Jim Cashman said he wouldn’t, and well, I guess that’s his decision.’

There was not even a flicker in Joe’s eyes at the station owner’s words.  

Hann shook his head. ‘I’ll help if I can, but I don’t think there’s much I can do.’

It was only when Hann stamped in frustration, and turned to walk away that Joe found his voice. ‘Fifteen years in a stone prison, for the little what I done? I can’t face that, Mister Hann.’

‘You just might have to, Joey, but wait and see, for the judge might sympathise, and I’ll put in a character reference for you.’

The gaoler pushed Joe back inside with the others, and slammed the door. Heavy cast-iron doors, it seemed to Joe, made a sound deeper and more final than any other sound on earth.

Normanton Police Quarters and Lock-up. State Library of Queensland

In the late afternoon of the next day, when the sun was at its hottest, and the iron-plate wall like a branding iron to the touch, the prisoners were allowed outside to exercise, under the eyes of two warders armed with Martini-Henry carbines.

Joe kept himself apart from the other inmates, now including a bunch of Burns Philp seamen who had been arrested the night before on assault and drunkenness charges. He walked in aimless circles, shoulders slumped and hands in his pockets. So deep was his reverie that he did not heed it at first – a very distant, but high and piercing bird call from outside the prison grounds. When it came again, however, he stopped walking and listened – a clear twin whistle, with the second note higher in pitch than the first.

Every muscle and nerve in Joe’s body came alive. That was the call of a quail-thrush, a creature of the mulga a thousand miles to the south of Normanton. Joe knew with deep certainty that there was only one person who could so perfectly mimic that bird. Somewhere, outside those walls, was his mother, and she was calling him.

Joe looked at the guards. They had noticed nothing. Now he eyed off the walls. They were ten feet high, but someone had stacked some firewood for the kitchens quite close. If the stack held it could be used to help jump the full height of the wall, and he was not lacking in agility. The iron would be hot, yes, but his hands were callused from hard work.  

Joe waited until the guards were distracted, one tamping his pipe, carbine held in the crook of his arm. The other man was trying to get a vesta to strike.

Sprinting towards the wall, Joe instinctively chose the right moment, jumped for the wood pile, then used his left foot on the peak to take a flying leap. He was a born athlete, and his fingers just managed to grip the top of the burning hot iron. With a tremendous heave of his shoulder and arm muscles he lifted himself, his face contacting the hot metal in the process, yet his knee rising just high enough to find the top of the wall. Adroitly Joe’s left foot came up, and for an instant he stood poised with both feet on the edge.

A rifle discharged, and a bullet stung through the air like a wasp. Joe cocked his knees and jumped, and for a young man who’d been thrown by rough horses since the age of five or six, landing safely on the hard ground was no challenge, using the flex in his legs and ankles to absorb the impact.

Wasting no time in recovery, he ran with all his considerable speed, heading into the sun, across the series of horse paddocks and outbuildings that made up the police reserve. Ahead he could see the start of the bush. If only he could make it before the police were out and mounted up.

Joe’s luck held. Within a minute he was dodging saplings and termite hills. His hearing was as sharp as a wallaby’s, and again he heard the quail-thrush call. He altered his direction a fraction.

The bird call sound moved seemingly as fast as he was. It was eerie, almost supernatural. He reached a shallow gully, where the wattle and box trees grew more thickly, and was sprinting up the other side when the call came again to his left. He saw a fallen bloodwood trunk, and then his mother’s face appeared from behind it, beckoning him to her.

He saw what she had done, hollowed a space in the soil beneath the decaying base – a small cave, and as Joe slithered in beside her, she raked a cache of branches and leaves in behind them.

For a long time there was silence. Twenty minutes or more. Then the sound of hoofbeats and shouting voices, close at first, then fanning out into the distance.

‘They’ll be back,’ Kitty whispered.

‘… and track me here,’ Joe whispered, but Kitty shook her head and showed him the pair of his old boots that she had worn, crisscrossing the area, heading out in a dozen false trails. ‘All night I done that,’ she said.

Kitty was right, though, the police came back to search the area again. Mother and son lay close together, listening to the sounds of the hunt around them, often fading into the distance, sometimes very close. Once Joe saw a pair of police boots so near that he felt he could have reached out and touched them. Soon, however, the man passed on by.

Once the night was fully dark, Kitty and Joe left their hiding place.

‘Listen good, Joe,’ she said. ‘You walk to Magoura Station, Missus Franny Trimble expecting you, and will be ready with horses and tucker. By and by you ride for the Nicholson River. Your father is heading there directly, with plenty tucker for you to get to the Territory.’

‘Where will I meet him?’

‘You savvy that place close by Nudjabarra, the little waterhole, where we all three of us camp that time?’

‘I know it.’

‘Go there. Then he’ll tell you where to go.’

Joe hugged her with happiness. He should have known that his family would look out for him.

Kitty again donned Joe’s old boots. ‘I’ll lead them away,’ she said, ‘give ‘em a good trail to follow up tomorrow.’

They embraced one last time, then Joe watched his mother melt into the shadows and disappear.

Joe gave Kitty a start, then prepared for his departure. Travelling the eighteen miles to Magoura on foot, however, didn’t appeal. Instead he worked his way from the scrub near the prison into the township, keeping to the shadows when he could, and avoiding the pubs.

With a race meeting scheduled for the following week, many of the contenders were already in town, being put through their paces on the track each day. Joe made his way out to the paddock in which several of these racehorses were grazing. He recognised the stallion Marathon, belonging to a carrier called Darcy, a horse that tested the field every year at the Normanton and Burketown carnivals. He was a lively, spirited animal, just the kind that Joe loved to ride.

His next step, however, was to hurry back to the police station. Where else would he find the best saddlery in the township? The stable door was held by iron staples, but Joe levered them out as quietly as he could. Once inside he visited the tack room, choosing a saddle blanket, bridle and saddle. As an afterthought he chose a felt hat from a peg, and placed it on his head. Looking just like any bushman heading home, he walked openly down the street.

Marathon, in Joe’s mind at least, seemed to be waiting for him to return, snuffing the air. Hadn’t his father said that his boy was part horse? Joe spent a precious minute or two stroking the stallion’s neck, asking for and offering trust. The animal seemed to come alive at a sense of adventure in the offing, a change from the tedium of the racetrack. He stamped and snorted a little as Joe fed the bit into his mouth, tightened the chin strap, then gently positioned the saddle and tightened the girth.

Their friendship sealed, Joe walked Marathon with a loose hand on his bridle, through the gate and ever so quietly out of town, wrinkling his nose at the smells of civilised life, the smoke from kitchen stoves, cooked food, and chicken coops.

With a sense of leaving that settled world behind, rejecting it utterly, Joe swung up into the saddle, and set off for Magoura Station at a canter.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

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