Kitty told me how her son Joe rode to the west in the wild upper Nicholson country, through a river gorge intersected with knife blades of red stone, ancient cycads and calm, clear pools rich with turtle and fish. She told me about Wanggala – the age of creation – when the river was formed; this artery snaking through the land.
She told me of a line of ranges white men called the China Wall, and the sacred dreaming places of the old people along the route. She told me how the Waanyi still talk of the turbulent years – the Wild Time – when the cattle moved in, and the trouble began.
Then she told me of how proud Waanyi men almost took her son’s life, for Joe was riding a horse, wearing a hat. To them he was all the same as a white man: anyone in white men’s clothes and mounted on a horse was a target, and especially one who dared to ride alone and unarmed into the border country.
By late that afternoon, Joe reckoned that he must have crossed into the Territory, and he breathed easier. Back then, Queensland and the Territory were separate colonies, the latter being part of South Australia. The police could not move freely across borders and Joe felt safe from them, for the time being.
He was riding through cave country, slow going between rocks hidden by tussock-grass and spinifex, when three tall Waanyi warriors, wearing head-pieces adorned with feathers, rose from the broken ground to his right. Another group appeared, blocking his path ahead. Knowing some words of their language, Joe shouted that he was a friend, and meant them no harm. His hands wished for a weapon with which to frighten them off, but his father had made him throw the Snider carbine away. His knife seemed small and ineffectual, but he drew it anyway.
The terrified packhorse reared up, slowing any chance Joe had of burning them off with speed. Spears flew, driven by long woomeras at close to the speed of a bullet. Each of these weapons was some nine feet long, and tipped with a barbed and razor-sharp worked head of stone.
Joe deliberately jinked his horse, but a spear drove into his foot, cleaving through the leather of his boot, and driving deep into sinew and flesh, then tearing out from the sheer weight of the hanging spear. The point left a deep, bloody gash, and the pain was deep and shrill.
A spear struck the pack horse in the chest, and it kneeled, mortally hit, bellowing blood from its open mouth. Blanking out the pain, Joe turned and cut the lead rope, and kicked his mount onwards, blood from his foot smearing its flank.
Joe aimed his horse, thankful that its courage matched his own, directly towards the group that had gathered ahead of him, one spear missing his head by a whisker. The thundering hooves of his gelding were lethal weapons in themselves, and the Waanyi parted enough to give Joe space to gallop through.
He kept that pace up until his horse’s sides were flecked with foam. Ten miles, fifteen, he rode, until finally he slowed enough to look at the wound in his foot. It was still ebbing blood, and he felt weak and light headed. He took off his boot and bound the wound with strips cut from the only spare shirt he still had.
There was no way back, only forward, his best hope to head for Brunette Downs, managed, at that time, by the famous cattle duffer Harry Readford.
For three more days Joe hung on, with no rifle to get meat, scarcely with the energy to stay in the saddle, guessing himself to be on the Northern boundaries of the vast Alexandria Station. He plucked bush food when he came across it – billy goat plum from the tree, biting the tangy abdomen of the green ant, or grubbing for water lily tubers and mussels in the very few waterholes he came across once he left the Nicholson.
Finally, he struck the waving grasses of the Barkly savannahs – flatter even than the ‘Plains of Promise’ near Burketown, and easy going for a horseman. It was also possible to see a great distance all around, making him feel safe from mounted men.
In a forlorn condition, Joe followed a faint smudge of smoke from a distant cooking fire. Near sundown, a week after his break-out from Normanton, he stumbled on a stock camp on Corella Creek. It was just a bark hut and set of bush yards, with a white man leaning in the doorway smoking a pipe. A couple of black girls in stockman’s gear, generally known as ‘boys’, were hanging around a fire.
‘You’re Joe Flick, aren’t you?’ the white man cried, walking towards Joe. He was of medium height, with brown hair and eyes, wiry rather than solid, but with an athletic air about him. ‘Everyone’s heard about your escape, and they said you might ride this way.’
Joe could see no point trying to hide his identity. ‘You guessed it. But I’m hurt. I got speared in the foot on the Nicholson.’
The stranger looked down at the foot, swollen and wrapped in cloth to keep the flies off. ‘The cheeky wretches! I thought Jack Watson had dealt with that lot.’
‘Please don’t give me up,’ Joe pleaded. ‘I’ll do anything but go back behind bars.’
‘No chance. My name’s Charlie Gaunt, by the way.’
The names of these white men seemed to cause Kitty pain. She hugged herself with her arms and looked down at the smouldering fire, the bones and skull of a catfish slowly turning to charcoal there in the embers.
When I asked her who Jack Watson was, she screwed up her face and spat tobacco-stained spit into the dust. ‘Bad man. Head stockman at Lawn Hill.’
I later researched something of Watson’s life, finding that he was a private school boy from Melbourne with a reputation for cruelty, who nailed black ears to the walls of the Lawn Hill homestead, and cleared whole river valleys of the old people, as Kitty called them. The only come-uppance was that he was much later taken by a crocodile at Knott’s Crossing, Katherine.
‘What about this Charlie Gaunt?’ I asked.
Kitty shivered, despite the heat of the day. ‘Another bad one. Charlie Gaunt a killer too. But he helped my Joey.’
After a pause to collect her thoughts, Kitty continued with the story.
‘We heard you were on the run,’ said Charlie Gaunt, ‘and you’ll get only assistance from me and Ned here – I’ve no love for that tight-fisted mongrel Jim Cashman, and don’t get me started on Hasenkamp.’ Another white man appeared from inside the hut, smelling of rum, bleary eyed and tousled. ‘Here’s Ned,’ said Charlie. ‘Heat some stew up for Joe, will you mate? He’s done in.’
Joe tried to dismount, and would have fallen in the process, had the other men not come forward to catch him. They laid him out in Charlie’s own bed, while Ned heated some tucker and the ‘boys’ saw to Joe’s horse.
Unwrapping the wound was a trial, for Joe’s hastily applied cloth had stuck to the wound like glue. Each turn caused a shudder in Joe’s body and a soft whimper of pain. Once it was finally uncovered, however, Ned took the bandages outside and burned them, while Charlie asked Joe to wiggle his toes, making sure that the tendons weren’t damaged. When this was done he used hot water to bathe the wound, soaking away the pus and half-formed scabs.
‘How bad is it?’ asked Joe.
‘Bad enough, but I’ve seen worse,’ said Charlie, folding a belt and passing it to Joe to chew on, while he swabbed undiluted whisky onto the wound. ‘We’ll do the same again tomorrow. You’re young, and you’ll heal.’
For eight days Joe stayed in the camp, with the very few visitors from outlying cattle camps sworn to secrecy about his presence. At first, however, he could scarcely sleep with nervousness.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Charlie. ‘No man around here believes you should have been charged for what you did, and now you’ve told me what happened I think it even less.’
At night, as Joe healed, he was able to sit around the fire and listen to Charlie Gaunt tell his stories, of great cattle drives, of fights and massacres, and the underlying sadness of a lonely life left unspoken. Ned’s tucker was good, and there was no hint of a threat, yet there was something about Charlie Gaunt that made Joe nervous.
Each day he forced himself to walk with a stick to hurry the healing of his wound, and he was impatient to ride, though he knew that turning up at Hodgson Downs half-crippled would make a manager think twice about hiring him.
Finally, however, when he could walk well enough, and ride even better. Joe decided that he was ready to continue his journey. The thought of working again as a stockman, living a normal life, appealed to him, and he knew that his father’s mate at Hodgson Downs would do right by him. Henry Flick had few mates, but the ones he had were like brothers.
Before Joe left, Charlie gave him a rifle, cartridges, three good horses, and a pack full of tucker. The kindness overwhelmed Joe.
‘Hodgson Downs is two hundred miles from here,’ said Charlie, ‘and if Crawford is expecting you so much the better. No one will ever hear a word from us.’
Joe shook hands with both men, then rode off into the grasslands, countless seed-heads turning golden with the morning sun.
Continues next Sunday
© 2019 Greg Barron