Being interested in the original people of the Gulf and their culture, I often stopped to talk to an old man called Charlie after my meetings with Kitty. He was a wiry fellow, knotted like old rope, with a sharp mind and encyclopedic knowledge of that strip of coast. Somehow, after a few of these conversations, I earned myself an invitation to take a ride in his dug-out canoe.
By then I knew enough language for the pair of us to communicate. He told me to come early in the morning, when he predicted gentle breezes and clear skies. This forecast proved to be perfectly accurate, and he was already impatient to launch when I wandered up after my breakfast.
The canoe was some fourteen feet long, still with the marks of stone adzes along the interior. It was no lightweight, I discovered, helping Charlie heave it into the water. Two carved paddles lay inside the hull, along with a dugong spear – a weapon some eight feet long, with a head barbed on one side, fixed to the shaft by tightly wound bindings.
Charlie reckoned we had little chance of spotting dugong or turtle, for the water along the coast was coloured with wet-season outflows from the many creeks and rivers. Even Doomadgee Creek, as we called the western branch of Arthur’s Creek where we launched the canoe, was flowing brown.
Stepping gingerly aboard, while Charlie held the stern, I soon found that the craft was not particularly stable. After wobbling alarmingly at first, I learned to keep my weight to the centreline. Charlie gave us a shove out into the stream, then clambered aboard with such agility that the canoe seemed as solid as the HMAS Canberra.
My guide took his place in the stern, grabbed a paddle, and I did the same, with the old man shouting at me when to change sides. It was a fine feeling to fly down the channel, with the help of a strong ebb tide, while armoured crocodile heads surfaced amongst the mangroves, small baitfish skittered from the water, and kites or eagles took to the wing from tree-top vantage points at our approach.
Soon it was not a matter of paddling for thrust, only steering the vessel through the bends. Before I knew it we were racing out from between the mangrove lined heads of the creek into the wide-open ocean, the hull thumping against a small chop.
I felt like an adventurer indeed, with islands scattered on the horizon, and the wide Gulf shore seemingly untouched by governments, empire builders and settlement.
After some half a mile of paddling in a westerly direction, Charlie put down his paddle, took up his spear, and asked to exchange places. This we managed, somehow without ending up in the water.
The next hour or more will remain like a cinema-picture in my memory: Charlie poised in the bow with his spear at the ready, peering down into the water and the sea surface around us, while I paddled us gently onwards in the direction of his pointed commands. His dark skin was free of any trace of fat, every muscle of his shoulders and back portrayed in stark relief.
Once or twice I saw him tense, as if he had noticed some sign that was invisible to my eyes, but then he relaxed again. Eventually he sat down, chuckled and shrugged.
‘Today, they live, and we go hungry,’ he said, then indicated that we should exchange places again.
Later, when I arrived at Kitty’s camp, she seemed a little put out that I had made a new friend from amongst her neighbours. She called Charlie a few names that I dare not translate here.
Then, pausing only for the ritual of filling and lighting her pipe, she took up the story where she had left it the day before.
Sub-Inspector Patrick Brannelly, Kitty told me, was the officer in charge at Normanton at the time Joe made his escape over the wall. Brannelly had cut his teeth in the Royal Irish Constabulary before emigrating to Australia.
Brannelly had a close-trimmed beard, turning grey at forty-five years of age, a down-turned mouth that was inclined to sourness, and a hot temper. His intolerance for foolishness and time-wasting was legendary, as was his thick Galway dialect.
The evening after Joe’s escape he was enjoying a drink with Mister Brodie, Normanton’s mayor, at Hely’s pub. The barmaid had just mixed him a Bushmills and water, and he had scarcely lifted the glass to his lips when Sergeant Ferguson hurried in, touched his superior’s shoulder and whispered into his ear.
‘Excuse me sir, we’ve had an escape.’
Brannelly placed the glass on the table, then stood abruptly. ‘Good Gahd man. An escape?’
‘That’s right sir.’
The room had gone quiet. Even Missus Hely herself, dressed in heliotrope silk, stopped her earnest study of her customers and the cash in the drawer and listened.
‘Now tell me. Whech o’ de despicable and low examples o’ ‘umankend behend ooehr walls ded manage to escape?’
‘Joe Flick, sir.’
‘‘Ow in de name o’ Gahd ded ‘e do it?’
‘He jumped the wall, sir.’
‘‘E joehmped a ten-foot irahn wall? Dat’s a tall tale to be sure, sergeant. ’Ow lahng ago ded dis ooehtrage ahcur?’
‘Ah, several hours sir.’
‘And why was I naht tahld earlier?’
‘We were trying to locate him sir, and we did not think it would take long.’
Brannelly downed his glass in one long swallow, then tapped his chest. ‘I regret to say Mester Brahdie, dat me subardinates ‘ave let me down.’ He glanced sharply at the sergeant. ‘Let oehs all down. Oenfahrtunately, I moehst leave you.’
The Inspector and his subordinate walked out the door, past a group of men showing off a giant mud crab trapped from the Norman River. The left pincer had clamped on a stick, while the other was opening and closing menacingly.
Ignoring the show, the sub-inspector and his subordinate walked briskly back to the police station. The quarters were all but deserted, with most of the constables out looking for Joe.
Brannelly gathered the remainder, including any trackers left in the quarters, and gave them a tongue-lashing. ‘You let a weld boehsh lad outwit you?’ he cried. ‘Get ahn yooehr horsches and fend Joe Fleck tahnight. Fend ‘im ahr be damned to ye all and start lookin fahr new jahbs.’
Not all the absent police constables were following false trails laid by Kitty. Others were smart enough to expect that Joe might equip himself with a horse and ride from town after dark. Some three miles out, a sixth sense warned Joe that there was trouble ahead. He slowed Marathon to a walk, then reined in and dismounted.
Moving onwards, scarcely breathing, he heard voices up the track. Leaving the horse tethered to a tree, he moved closer and saw the glow from a pipe bowl as someone inhaled, and the smell of tobacco smoke. Up closer he made out the buttons on a serge jacket, and the shape of a rifle barrel. Joe shivered, if he had ridden straight on into the checkpoint they would have opened fire on him.
Doubling back, Joe rode up into the scrub, and bypassed the area, though he slowed his pace and moved more cautiously.
By dawn Joe had reached Magoura Station, and was now crossing open downs studded with knee-high termite mounds, and a bountiful covering of Landsborough, Mitchell, and blue grasses. The cattle were so settled that they scarcely looked at horse and rider as they passed.
Magoura was one of the Gulf’s finest stations, a mix of freehold and leasehold, with 10 000 cattle feeding on the plains. Some 800 square miles in all, it was watered by the Flinders River, and the Bynoe, a tributary.
The owner, one of the most respected pioneers of the district, Irishman George Trimble, had died after a brief illness the previous year, and his widow Frances was keeping the place going with a manager, an old and faithful head stockman called Holmes.
Joe arrived at the homestead in the mid-morning, snooping in slowly, in case the police were there waiting for him. There was no sign of them yet, however, and he rode up to the homestead. Holmes and the other men were out on the run, and as Kitty had promised, Frances Trimble was waiting for him.
She was tall and slight, with no figure to speak of, and often wore cattlemen’s gear instead of a dress, doing any job the men could do, from dressing a bullock to breaking a colt. Joe had always liked her a great deal, and the sight of her kind face made him feel more hopeful.
‘You’re a young fool, Joey,’ she said, ‘shooting at Mister Cashman was a mad act, even though what happened to your mama was despicable.’
‘I know it was. I’m sorry, but I can’t take it back.’
‘No you can’t, more’s the pity. And where did you get that stallion, isn’t he Mister Darcy’s racehorse?’
‘Yes, that’s him. Marathon.’
‘Yes. Well unsaddle him and let him go. Like as not he’ll head home and you can choose a couple of mounts from here to take with you. Run in a mob from the horse paddock and take your pick while I bring out a pack and some tucker.’
The cook, a thin man with knobbly knees and greying hair pulled tight in a bun at the back of his head, was watching nonchalantly from the verandah, there rarely being such high entertainment as the arrival of an escaped prisoner on the premises.
Franny Trimble turned to him and cried, ‘Hey you, Ah Fong.’
‘Climb up on the roof and watch for horsemen on the track. If you see anyone coming call out. You understand?’
‘I unnerstand, Missus.’
The gangly cook headed for the side of the house where he scrambled up a trellis, to the water-tank, then onto the roof, carefully keeping to the main beams and avoiding the unsupported grass thatch in between. Once he reached the ridge he made his way along to the chimney. There he stood, making a show of staring into the distance with one hand held parallel above his eyes to shade them.
‘Keeping plenty proper look out, Missus,’ he called down.
Franny Trimble ignored him and went to fetch the tucker and pack she had promised.
Meanwhile the help of a stockwhip that had been left coiled on a yard post, Joe ran a dozen station horses into the yards and made his selection, looking for good overall conformation, straight shoulders, depth in the chest and a spirit to match his own. Quiet horses were not Joe’s thing.
Choosing two, he tacked up the best prospect, an active bay, and when Frances reached the yards they fitted packs on the second, balancing them by eye as best they could.
‘Nothin’ yet, Missus,’ came a shout from the cook on the rooftop, as if to remind them that he was still up there, doing as he had been bidden. Meanwhile, Joe ponied Marathon up with a rope so he could string behind the others.
‘Aren’t you going to let him go?’ Frances asked.
‘Yes, but not here. In case he hangs around and gets you in trouble.’ Joe paused. ‘Can you let me have a rifle?’
Frances considered the question then shook her head. ‘No, Joey. I know you might have need of a weapon on the track, but if the police come up on you you’re better off without one. Just give yourself up if they catch you. Promise me that.’
Joe was ready to mount up when a tremendous screech came from the cook on the rooftop. ‘Missus, Missus. Mounted men coming this way directly. Four maybe five all-up.’
‘How far away?’ she called back.
‘One mile, maybe more, Missus.’
‘That’ll be the police,’ she said to Joe. ‘I’ll delay them for as long as I can.’ She grinned. ‘No policeman alive can resist tea and scones. Now go, and the best of luck to you.’
Joe had no spurs, but his boot heels were hard enough. Even in a hurry, however, he retained his natural caution. He chose his route carefully, letting the marks of his escape mingle with the countless hoof-marks that had been made when he ran in the mob. This done, he set off across the horse paddock, letting himself through a bush gate on the other side.
Joe set off in a westerly direction, cross country, anti-tracking where he could. Even with the traps breathing down his neck, it was a good feeling to be on a fine horse, with another carrying enough tucker to get him to his father’s camp at least.
It was only the lack of a weapon that bothered him now, and Joe turned his mind, as he rode, to how he might acquire one.
Continues next Sunday
© 2019 Greg Barron