Telling the story of Joe getting shot distressed Kitty. The sandy blight that afflicted her eyes – that near blindness – made her somewhat inscrutable. Yet as I grew to know her better I could tell when the howling dog of grief inside her slipped the leash and brought her down.
Kitty explained to me that she did not blame Joe for running. He had grown up as free as any boy alive, at home in the woodlands and savannahs, the red gorges, the clear waters and dark paperbark swamps. Then, after being chained and dragged away like an animal, the policeman’s bullet tore through his flesh, leaving him bleeding and weak.
To Kitty, her son was the hero of this tale. Hadn’t all the trouble started when Joe stood up for her against a predatory man? Hadn’t he done only what every son should do? Everything that happened from that moment was as much a part of Kitty’s story, as his.
Joe’s wound had only half healed when they set off again. Stott’s bullet had struck at an angle, burrowed in through the meat of his back, struck a rib and torn back out, leaving a bloody wound but not harming the vital organs inside.
Within a week the five men were back on the track north to Palmerston, and the policemen took no chances with Joe from then on. At every stop he was chained to a tree, forced to sleep sitting up or half lying with the links stretched tight and the collar pulling at his neck. In Katherine he languished in the lock-up for three days, his wound still leaking blood and fluids while Stott and Haedge rested up and drank beer and whisky at Barney Murphy’s hotel.
In the middle of April the party arrived in Palmerston, and Joe had his first experience of a real prison. Fannie Bay Gaol was built from porcellanite stone, quarried from Doctor’s Gully, and was imposingly solid, shut off with iron and rock from any view of the bay or Point Emery. Most of the inmates were black, others Chinese and a few whites. Many were on trial for their lives. The hangman was busy in 1889.
Two warders greeted Joe and his escort for a formal handover. His details were recorded. He was showered, his hair cut, and prison clothes issued. As was the custom he was placed in a cell alone for observation before being allowed to join the general prison population.
When they opened the barred door of the ‘welcome’ cell for him, Joe hesitated. This was the natural reaction of a man who instinctively knew a trap when he saw it. The warder saw the hesitation as insolence, and pushed Joe so hard between the shoulder blades that he flew inside, sprawling against the far wall, crushing his lip, tearing his wound afresh.
The door slammed shut behind him. The warders laughed and wandered off, leaving Joe lying on the floor. Sobbing with pain he finally lifted himself so he could sit on the cot. The humid air was foetid, and smelled of captivity.
All the time new prison sounds reached his ears. Someone screaming; a voice raised in anger; a distant stationary steam engine huffing and cycling. Occasionally the smack of a whip or baton, or the sound of a distant snare drum.
After perhaps an hour, a new face appeared at the door. It was a white man in late middle age, with drinker’s veins on his face. ‘You’re the Queenslander, aren’t you, Joe Flick?’
There was something kind about the man, so Joe looked up and nodded.
‘The guards here are mostly mongrels,’ said the warder. ‘But you’ve got nothing to fear from me. My woman and me, we have a lad. He looks a lot like you. My name’s Tommy Cook.’
Almost a whisper: ‘Mine’s Joe.’
The man’s face creased in concern. ‘That’s blood on your shirt.’
‘I’ll get you in to see Doctor Wood at the infirmary. Leave it to me.’
The doctor treated Joe kindly, tut-tutting over the wound, binding it tightly with clean bandages, and berating Haedge and Stott, in their absence, for forcing him to travel before the wound had healed properly.
‘Now watch out Joe,’ warned Doctor Wood. ‘They’ll put you in a cell with three others tomorrow. The gaol is so overcrowded that they’re squeezing four men into cells designed for three. Wash your hands every time you use the privy, and be careful what you drink and eat. Dysentery and typhoid fever can kill you, and both are rife here, do you understand?’
The next morning Joe was taken to a cell with three white men, one of whom had been convicted of robbery with violence on the Pine Creek goldfields; one was a deserter from the British Navy, and the other a Welshman who would say nothing about who he was or what he had done. The latter spat on the floor when Joe arrived. They did not want the extra man, no matter who or what he was. There was no floor room left. No space to walk. The cell was twelve feet long by twelve feet wide, with exactly twelve feet of ceiling space. The latrine bucket was in the corner, in view of all.
The day started with the clang of a bell at seven am. At this stage all prisoners had to make their beds, then stand for inspection as the warders walked through. Then, when the cells were unlocked, the prisoners shuffled through to the dining hall for a breakfast of oatmeal porridge. In the mornings most of the prisoners had work, and Joe was assigned to the prison garden, chipping out weeds with a hoe under the watchful eyes of men with rifles. At noon there was bread and tea. Then two hours in the exercise yard. Those two hours kept Joe alive. He walked the grass in bare feet, with the green stalks soft between his toes. He talked to no one, and instinctively he avoided forming any association. He avoided confrontation, turning away when the gaol toughs tried to rile him up.
On Thursday, April the 18th 1889, Joe was cuffed and walked to the courthouse, in the company of a Northern Territory policeman called Corporal Waters. When Joe’s case came up he was brought into the dock before Justice TK Pater who glared down at him with kindly, but authoritarian eyes.
Justice Pater was from a distinguished English family. His grandfather had served under the Duke of Wellington, and Pater had himself been a London barrister before emigrating to Australia. Known for a quirky nature, and saying much more than his masters would have liked, Pater wore a full black beard and had a flashy dress style.
Corporal Waters stood and was sworn in. He said: ‘I produce a telegram received from the Commissioner of Police in Adelaide, which states the offence and gives a description of the prisoner, Joe Flick. I also produce a copy of the Queensland Police Gazette stating the offence committed.’
Mounted Constable Bob Stott was next to take the stand, and his story was simple. ‘I am a mounted constable stationed at the Roper River. I arrested the prisoner on a provisional warrant at Hodgson Downs on the 28th day of March.’
‘Very well,’ said Justice Pater, his voice a slow and gravelly drawl. ‘Do we have a representative of the Queensland police here to take charge of the prisoner?’
‘Not yet, your honour,’ said Waters.
‘Have they been informed that he is here?’
‘Yes, sir, they have.’
Justice Pater’s eyes hardened with some indignation. ‘Well it’s not up to us to feed and clothe every Queensland fugitive that comes our way. Tell them that they need to hurry up.’ He banged his gavel down, ‘Joe Flick you are remanded in custody for seven days pending representations from Queensland.’
Joe was taken back to his cell, still in some pain from his wounds, full of fear at what would happen. He lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Seven days. Just seven days then back to Queensland. He didn’t want that, but how could it be worse than this place?
Two days after the court appearance, Joe suffered the first chronic stomach pains. Within an hour he was on the bucket, face contorted, and the emissions would not stop. By midnight they had no choice but to take him to the infirmary, half walking, half carried like an invalid.
There Joe lay, for three days, curled up like a baby, shaking with pain from his gut, while every bed filled, emptied only when those who had died from the full-blown typhoid fever that ravaged the gaol were carried away.
Tommy Cook looked in on him every day. He read to Joe from slim books he carried in a pocket, or brought small parcels of food. Tommy was with Joe when he returned from the hospital to his cell. Only three men slept in there now, for the Welshman had died of typhoid during the week.
The court process ground away, for British justice was as unstoppable as time. Corporal Waters came for Joe again the next Thursday, and he was again handcuffed for the walk to the courthouse.
Justice Pater glared down from the bench. ‘Has a representative of the Queensland police arrived to take Joe Flick?’
‘Not yet your honour.’
‘Have they expressed any intention of doing so?’
‘Not yet sir, but we have written to them again,’ said Corporal Waters.
Pater banged his gavel. ‘The prisoner is remanded for a further seven days, but let it be known that I am not impressed.’
More diarrhoea, more days of cramping pain followed. On the following Saturday the prisoners, fifty-three in all, were marched to the exercise yard to watch a prisoner who had struck a guard three times around the face and head, being whipped.
The charge was read aloud by the head warder. The miscreant’s shirt was removed and he was tied to the whipping post. A guard took a cat o’ nine tails from a calico bag, and whipped the man until his back was in bloody shreds.
The following Thursday came, and still no officer from Queensland had arrived.
‘Do they intend to come for the prisoner at all?’ asked Justice Pater.
‘I have received a letter saying that they will despatch an officer of the law to collect Joe Flick as soon as arrangements can be made,’ said Corporal Waters.
Pater shook his head, ‘I am heartily sickened by this business.’ He looked down on Joe. ‘It is not fair for any man, no matter what his crime, to be hauled up every week and kept in suspense as to his fate. Can I remind you that Joe Flick has not yet been convicted of any crime? Still, at this stage I have no choice but to continue this farce.’ A bang of the gavel. ‘Remanded for a further seven days.’
Weeks passed, all of May and June. In prison Joe’s wound slowly healed, but dysentery revisited him time and time again, though he avoided the more serious typhoid. He was bashed once, by two men who didn’t like the way he ‘slunk around’ the yard. His cell mates came and went. He was called a yella mongrel and a half breed.
Each Thursday Joe was hauled up before Justice Pater. Each time it was established that no one had yet come to collect the prisoner. Each week he was remanded in custody for a further seven days.
Finally, by the end of June, the long wait became too much for Justice Pater. ‘I must again express my extreme dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the Queensland Police.’ He looked down at Joe. ‘If they do not send someone to collect you by the time you appear before me in seven days’ time, I intend to set you at liberty.’
Joe had scarcely spoken a word in that courtroom. Now, however, he looked up at the judge, his eyes like deep brown pools. ‘You’ll set me free?’
‘If they do not come for you, I will.’
Three days later, Tommy Cook walked towards Joe in the exercise yard. His face was grave. ‘Joe, I’ve got bad news. Constable Hasenkamp just arrived on the steamer to take you back to Queensland.’
Joe sat down on the grass, face in his hands. The new hope that had filled him drained away, leaving only bitter despair.
Continues next Sunday
© 2019 Greg Barron