9. Hodgson Downs
Again the monsoon retreated, and apart from storms bustling out from the horizon in the evening, the weather was better. I had my first touch of Gulf fever, but Dorothy Akehurst’s store of quinine kept it at bay, and I remained on my feet, most of the time.
I fished for barramundi in the creek, using a cat-gut line, and small fish for bait. Hussein caught these for me using a cast net that he had made himself from plaited pandanus strands. Once or twice I caught huge saw sharks, and while most people in the itinerant camp were keen to eat them, they had some significance to old Charlie as a creation-being, and he would clamber down the bank, help me to cut the hook free, talking to the strange and primeval creature while we gentled it back into the water.
The fish I did catch, of course, were welcomed by the Akehursts for the mission kitchen, and I’ll always remember how the children would skip along beside me while I carried a silver-scaled barramundi up from the creek, gill rakers cutting into my fingers, while Stanley and Willie whetted their knives to prepare this welcome change from beef.
Kitty was proud of my efforts, and boasted to the others that she’d somehow trained up my fishing skills. In any case, she beamed at me when I brought her down a chunk of fillet, though she liked turtle better, she told me.
After settling the fish-flesh on the coals to cook, she started to tell me how, a few days after leaving Corella Creek, Joe watered his horses in the stunning calm of the wide green Anthony’s Lagoon. After satisfying himself that there were no police in attendance, he dared to walk up the grassy hill and into the cluster of sly-grog shops and bark shanties that made up the settlement. The store was scarcely worthy of the name, but the shelves had not long before been replenished by dray from Newcastle Waters. Joe limped a little as he headed inside.
After selecting all the flour and tea he could carry he fronted the counter.
‘On account, please mister,’ said Joe, bold as brass.
The store keeper planted his elbows on the counter and narrowed his eyes. ‘And whose account would that be?’
‘Sub-Inspector Brannelly, of Burketown,’ said Joe without hesitation. ‘Some constables an’ the rest of us trackers are camped down Kilgour River way, trailing one true bad feller from Queensland.’ He lifted one finger to his lips. ‘But shhh … big secret.’
The storekeeper hesitated only for a moment, then shook Joe’s hand. ‘Tell your boss that the rations are on the house, and that I hope you and the constables get your man, whoever he is.’ He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘And if that man happens to be the fugitive Joe Flick that goes double.’
Joe gave a knowing grin, lifted his finger to his lips once more, and backed out of the entrance.
Kitty, forty-odd years later threw back her head and laughed, holding her belly to stop it jiggling too much. Then she continued with the story.
Joe, Kitty told me, fell in love with the Minyerri country long before he reached the homestead itself. The western reaches were broken limestone country, rugged and beautiful, and the river itself a ribbon of silken green, sweet for cattle and men alike. Mitchell, Flinders, kangaroo and blue grasses grew on the better soils of the plains, and horses thrived.
James Crawford, the manager of Hodgson Downs Station was a fierce Scotsman in his late forties. ‘I’m helping yew, Joe, for the sake of yer father. He’s a guid man an’ a true mate. My own help depends on ‘ow yew be’ave from now on. Yew try a trick like pointin’ guns at people an’ that help comes to an end. I’ll give yew twenty shillin’s a week an’ all found. We’ll call you Jack, and no one need ken where yew came from.’
Within a week, ‘Jack’ had proved himself to be an exceptional horseman and one of the cleverest cattleman Crawford had ever seen. Joe was set on proving himself, and showed no interest in the usual stockmen’s diversions of drinking rum and kidnapping Alawa girls.
Before long he was a trusted hand, both in the cattle camps and the yards. Back at the homestead, he took whatever corner of the men’s camp was given him, and ate whatever tucker the cook cared to dish up. Travelling with cattle was no hardship for Joe, and he never missed a night watch, shirked or complained. If there was a rush he was the first man onto a night horse and the first man to ‘bend’ the herd.
Arriving just in time for the station muster, Joe joined in the preparatory work of running in horses, shoeing, repairing or plaiting new hobbles, ropes and bridles. Saddles were oiled, and tucker packed for the camps.
Mustering on Hodgson Downs was carried out in sections. It was far too big an area to muster in one go. The strategy, in the main, centred on the waterholes, where mobs of cattle would drink daily.
After establishing a camp, and knocking up some rough yards, the men would ride out at dawn, fanning out for miles around a huge area of pasture. This done, they would begin to ride in, cracking stockwhips and shouting, herding wild cattle that might not have seen a horseman since the previous year’s muster, if at all, along their usual pads or trails to the waterhole. Intractable, evil-tempered scrub bulls were thrown and tied, or if all else failed, shot.
On the banks of the waterhole, usually by noon, a dinner camp was made, while a couple of horsemen quieted the mob. Soon afterwards, the drafting and branding started. And in the mayhem, with dust and smoke rising to the sky, and stockwhips cracking like thunder, someone would shout as a game weaner broke from the mob and a mounted man galloped close after, guiding the animal expertly back to the fold. It was no place for weaklings, and black men and white worked together as equals.
Joe, soon heading up his own team, had a favourite waterhole to work from. It was very long, narrow and brown, and curved in a gentle archer’s bow to the west. The shape assisted in its efficacy and soon they were calling it Flick’s Hole. (Kitty told me that it bears his name to this day).
Weeks passed in hard but thrilling toil, and one night a travelling Queenslander turned up at Joe’s camp and asked to speak to him privately. They stood on a knoll just near the camp with the sun glowing red in a smoke-tinged dry season sunset.
‘Relax,’ said the man. ‘I know who you are but I won’t give you away. I’ve got a message from your mama, Kitty. She says that she sends big love to you, that she and your old man are well. What answer shall I take back to her?’
‘Say that I love her too.’
‘Nah, also tell her that I wish I was home but that things are good here. Tell her I’m alright.’
The man rode away in the dawn, and Joe’s heart felt warm from his mother’s soul brushing his across the distance, with the magic of a few words. He went back to his work with a will. The Queensland police seemed to be a long way behind him.
As the season lengthened, the plains were practically exhausted of new cattle to muster, and the camps moved into the limestone country, where stones, hidden by dry kangaroo grass, were sharp as needles, and escarpments rose on every side.
The cattle here were even wilder, and with fewer waterholes to work from, coacher herds of quiet cattle were used as focal points for the muster. Many of the free-ranging beasts had to be shouldered to the ground by horse and rider. Some small mobs, that had seen horsemen come and go before, sought refuge in the least accessible crags, and the men who brought them in with spur, rein and stockwhip were true artists.
Once the newly-mustered cattle were in with the coachers the mob was usually over-excited and rampaging mad. At that stage the horsemen would circle around them, over and over, talking or singing quietly, watching for any attempts to rush or escape from the mob.
Not everyone in the camp appreciated Joe’s skills. One man who became jealous of the admiration others felt for Joe was called Clarence Jones, a heavily built South Australian. He spent most of his days doing as little as circumstances permitted, interspersed with the occasional act of great daring and bravado that cemented his reputation and quietened grumbles about his lazy ways. Cruel with horses, women, and dogs alike, he was not popular in the camp.
One thing a shirker hates is a natural. The man who does everything well, and is humble besides, never drawing attention to himself, but is respected through his sheer reliability and talent. Joe Flick, then known as Jack, was such a man.
One night, towards the end of the season, Joe’s crew were in camp, eating johnny cakes and fresh beef, while the night watchman controlled the herd. The head stockman had just ridden up, and paid Joe a compliment about the efficacy of the day’s muster.
Clarence Jones stewed for a while, then started musing aloud. ‘It’s strange, you know. How we hear that a yella boy called Joe escapes from the Normanton lock up, then a month later Jack rides into Hodgson Downs. A hell of a coincidence, don’t youse all reckon?’
Joe said nothing, and neither did any of the others. Those who had come to see him as a mate merely lowered their eyes in sadness. Most of them had worked that same coincidence out for themselves some time earlier. No more was said that night, or the next.
For many months, into the wet season, while most of the ringers rode off to Darwin or Katherine to wait out the season, Joe stayed on, living the life of an honest stockman. The real work of the year was done, but there was plenty to do: breaking horses, plaiting greenhide ropes and yard-building, even a couple of late season grass fires that Joe helped fight, shoulder to shoulder with Crawford and his family, while dry storms crackled and spat from dark clouds overhead.
Clarence Jones, meanwhile, happened to ride through Roper Bar on a roundabout way to the Katherine for an end-of-year spree. He called in at the store, then happened to catch sight of a poster showing a sketch of Joe Flick, and the words WANTED on the noticeboard out the front of the police station.
‘Oh, that’s ‘Jack’ over at Hodgson Downs alright,’ said Jones to himself, cradling the jug of rum he had purchased to assist him on the long ride to slightly more civilised parts. He took the poster down, walked inside the police station and addressed the constable lounging behind the counter.
‘I know where this yella dog is hiding out,’ said Jones, holding up the poster.
Mounted Constable Stott sat up – yet another Scotsman, this time from Kincardineshire. ‘Yew can tell me where Joe Flick is?’
Stott smiled, ‘Well laddy. If yew’re not jest blatherin’ yew’d best sit down an’ tell me where.’
Continued next week
© 2019 Greg Barron