The feeling of being hunted …
Of every rocky outcrop hiding an ambush. Every traveller an informer. Trackers poring over every impression of hoof and boot; reading the sign each time Joe dismounted to eat or brew tea.
Joe directed his mount along shallow stony creek beds, walking both horses backwards up the banks several times, at intervals of hundreds of yards, before continuing on his way. He laid false trails to the north and south of his true path. He left red herrings such as horsehairs in bushes, reversed around large trees and set off in erratic directions, even slipped from his saddle while his plant plodded on, running on foot in a wide circle before re-joining them. These tricks, however, were time consuming, and good trackers would find the correct trail eventually.
Twenty miles on from Magoura, and back on the main road, Joe passed the sign-posted track heading into Inverleigh Station. This sprawling cattle run was owned by Will Fleming, in partnership with a woman called Jessie Kennedy. Joe had done cattle work there in the past, and he remembered the storehouse behind the homestead where weapons were kept.
Reining in on the cross roads he considered his position. He was used to carrying a revolver at least, and if he were armed the police would have to think twice about tackling him. Everyone knew that trackers hated following men with rifles most of all.
The decision made, Joe nudged his new bay gelding off the road, heading down to the creek that wound back towards the homestead. It was an hour before he stopped just short of the old people’s camp, in view of the homestead and outbuildings from the rear. Then, leading all three of his horses back into the waterside scrub, he tethered them within reach of shade and water.
Banking on the stockmen having gone out to work already, and the servants being busy inside, he approached the storehouse. It was simple enough, he found with his strength and thin frame, to force an iron shutter and squeeze through. The interior was dark, but Joe’s eyes soon adjusted. From a wooden rack inside he chose a .577 calibre Snider carbine, a heavy, brutal-looking weapon. This he lowered to the ground out through the window, along with a box of cartridges. Heart hammering with excitement, Joe squirmed through and outside. There he flipped the hinged block out of the receiver, sliding in a cartridge and replacing the block. This done, he slung the loaded carbine over his right shoulder for ease of travel.
Keeping under cover as much as possible, Joe reached the horses again without being seen. He rode off the way he had come, finally re-joining the main route to Floraville. It was there that Joe decided to set Marathon free.
With the knots untied and the rope removed, however, the stallion wasn’t keen on leaving his new friends.
‘Ah, you can’t stay with us, boy,’ Joe muttered. ‘Though I’d love to keep you … I promised Missus Trimble I’d let you go.’ With those words he delivered a firm slap on the animal’s rump.
Just at that moment, Will Fleming came down the track from Normanton way, riding casually towards him. Joe was not particularly frightened; Fleming was better known for his skills at the game of chess than gun play. Yet the shock of recognition came quickly to the station-owner’s face.
‘Hey, Joe Flick,’ shouted Fleming. ‘Is that you?’
‘Yah,’ cried Joe, digging his heels in hard. He took off at speed, the packhorse following, leaving only Marathon behind, and Will Fleming wondering what the hell was going on, and anxious to report that he had just seen the wanted man.
Not sparing the horses, Joe travelled fast to the Nicholson, bypassing Corinda Station, then the Turn Off Lagoon camps – the police station and pub – wheeling around the area with its smells of woodsmoke and beer, and the sounds of men at work and play. He saw a gang unloading timber from a dray, bullocks lowing and someone shouting. Joe had the sense of being on the outside now. They had locked him out, taken away his ability to participate in society.
Turn-off Lagoon was so named because this was where the Territory stock routes began. The inland path, across the Border Ranges to the Barkly Tableland was called Hedley’s Track, and the more northerly alternative was the Coast Track, known for its fever, humidity and mud.
Joe spent several hours heading up the coast track, then cleverly doubling back and going the other way, crossing the Nicholson upstream of the settlement, from which point he followed the river to its wild headwaters.
Finally, after twenty straight hours in the saddle, he left the main course of the Nicholson, and turned up a scrubby, rocky little creek. There he saw a smudge of smoke, and Henry Flick sitting beside a cooking fire, walking to meet him with a worried smile on his face.
Joe dismounted and grinned widely.
The vine-dresser’s son clapped his son’s back, tut-tutting at the weight he had lost and the haunted shadows around his eyes.
Henry had a good beef stew simmering in a camp oven, and before long Joe was eating his fill. There with his father he felt free for the first time since he had first suffered the bite of iron chains on his skin. Henry Flick had always been such an authority in Joe’s life that the Queensland police now seemed only about as potent as March flies and their hot needle stings.
‘Where did you get the rifle from?’ Henry asked Joe while he spooned stew into his mouth.
‘You stole it?’ Henry Flick cast a sharp glance at his son.
Joe met it with a steady eye. ‘Yes, and some cartridges. Fleming saw me riding away, so the “pinks” know I’ve got it. Should help keep them off my back.’
‘We’ll talk about that later.’
Joe put down his tin plate and smiled, white teeth in the firelight. ‘Are you gonna ride with me to the Territory?’ He could not hide his good spirits. With his father beside him he felt safe.
‘No, I’m not coming with you, Joey.’
Joe took a long swig of tea from his pintpot, and looked sideways at his father. ‘That’s a shame. I would have liked to ride with you – and it’s all new country for me.’
‘That’s true, but it’s the road you have to take, Joey. You’ve done what you done and there’s no way back. I’m here to help you, but my life is back Lawn Hill way. We can’t afford to lose the mine, and if I leave it unworked, some bastard will take it. You know the rules.’
‘I don’t really want to go to the Territory without you and Mama. How am I supposed to fit in there?’
‘You’re as good a man with cattle as I’ve ever known.’
‘That’s not what I mean. I’m not one of the old people, and not white either.’ Joe pointed to the south. ‘Mama’s country is a thousand miles from here. Maybe that’s where I should go. Maybe that’s where I belong.’
Henry Flick shook his head. ‘Put that out of your mind, son. Look at me. I was born in Germany, but I was just a crawling babe when we sailed for this country, and I can’t remember it one bit. I’ve lost touch with my family down south too. I heard that my old man – your grandfather – died just two or three years ago at a place called Taree. This is our country now – yours and mine both.’
‘I’d give anything just to be back at our camp,’ Joe sniffed, ‘settlin’ down around the fire with Mama tellin’ her stories.’
‘Well you can’t. Just have to make the best of it now,’ said Henry. ‘Life is not easy for anyone. And there’s always be people, like ol’ mate Jim Cashman, who try to bring you down. Who try to stop you from being the man you need to be.’
‘I’m scared,’ Joe said at length.
Henry Flick did something he had not done for many years, he moved next to his son and drew him close, feeling the trembling in that hard, thin frame. ‘I know that. Now stay just one night here – you know they’ll be tracking you as we speak, and they never ever give up. Tomorrow you can ride on to the Territory – all the way to Hodgson Downs – Minyerri the old people call it. My mate, Jimmy Crawford is the manager. Just tell him that you’re my son and he’ll give you a job. You can lay low there.’ He paused then said, ‘I’m proud of you, Joey, for standing up for your mother. Whatever happens, I’m proud of that.’
And then, with Joe half asleep in his arms, Henry Flick sang a lullaby in his rough and gravelly voice – one that he remembered his mother Rosina singing to him through his childhood.
Wie ist die welt so stille,
und in der dämmrung hülle.
So traulich und so hold!
Als eine stille kammer,
Wo ihr des tages jammer
verschlafen und vergessen sollt.
How the world stands still,
in twilight’s veil.
So sweet and snug!
As a still room,
Where the day’s distress
you will sleepily forget.
When Joe finally moved to the swag Henry had prepared for him, he slept soundly, with his father keeping watch. In the piccaninny dawn he was breakfasted, mounted and ready to ride, while the chatter of wrens, spinifex pigeons and honey-eaters reverberated between the faces of that rocky creek.
Henry reached up to clasp his son’s hand. ‘Put all this behind you, Joey. We’re counting on you to rebuild your life.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
‘One last thing,’ Henry said. ‘See that rifle, I want you to throw it in the creek.’
Joe laid a protective hand on the wooden stock. ‘I don’t want to.’
‘Take the damn thing and throw it in the creek. It’ll cause only trouble.’
Joe made a face, but he unslung the carbine and with a heave of his arms speared it far out into the waterhole, where it made a splash and sank without trace.
Then, with a last clasp of his father’s hand, and many a backwards glance, he rode off towards the Territory. Very soon Joe was to rue the lack of that rifle, for it may well have prevented a wound that would almost take his life.
Continues next Sunday
© 2019 Greg Barron