Red Jack and the Ragged Thirteen

16. On Joe’s Trail

The next morning, before dawn, Senior Constable Alfred Wavell lit a slush lantern and sat down at his desk at the Turn-off Lagoon Police Station. He had been up during the night, forced out of bed by the dysentery that had afflicted him for weeks, leaving him lethargic and dehydrated.

The necessity of finding new horses and setting out after Joe Flick, was a heavy weight on Alfred’s shoulders. Somehow, in his heart, he knew that dire consequences were coming, one way or another.

Inking a fresh quill, he wrote a letter to his mother, Harriet, far away on the Isle of Wight. Once this was done he prepared a last will and testament and called on Constable Noble to witness it. At thirty-eight years Alfred was no longer feeling young, and with his recent illness he’d been wondering if he might soon return to the green fields and dramatic cliffs of home, before he grew too old to make a meaningful start there.

When the letter and document were done, Alfred wrote in the station journal that he was about to set off after Joe Flick, and of his determination to catch him at all costs. He vowed not to leave the outlaw’s tracks until the day was won or lost.

This done, Alfred instructed Noble to ready their packs and firearms, while he took Troopers Garrie and Jimmy to the Andersons. There they faced the embarrassing task of borrowing horses to replace those that Joe Flick had taken.

As the police party was about to leave, with nine good horses haltered on the roadway, Alfred bid Mrs Anderson farewell on the verandah. 

‘We appreciate the horses, but please, tell me something. You knew that it was Joe Flick hanging around here. Why didn’t you tell us?’

Mary Theresa’s face turned white and her lips pursed with shock. ‘That’s a bloody lie.’

Alfred stared her down. He saw many things in the woman’s face and he didn’t like any of them.

Within an hour they were on the road downstream to Corinda. Garrie, the best tracker, easily followed the sign made by Joe’s mob of stolen horses as he left town the previous evening. Two miles out they found the old yards and the fallen, bloodied corpses, attended by a cloud of flies that must have numbered in the millions. Alfred felt sick as he walked that bloodstained ground. Several of the horses had been his, and highly valued they were too.

‘What kind of man would do this?’ wondered Constable Noble.

Alfred did not reply, but the clenched knot of dysentery in his gut was writhing, combining with the strength of this horror and the dangers that might face them when they found Joe Flick.

Tracking from this point onwards was not easy, for the humidity and heat were building, leaving a film of sweat that soaked shirts and ran down over eyes. Besides, Joe Flick was in his element. At one stage, Garrie was confused for some time, and they made no progress, until the tracker discerned that the outlaw had bound sheaves of grass to his horses’ hooves. Only the keenest of eyes and attention to detail allowed Garrie to follow a trail of broken stalks, that a lesser observer would never have noticed.

Very early the next morning they reached Bannockburn, where they found that the manager, Symes and his wife, had been up all night, frantic with worry after a horseman had ridden close-up in the night, and pelted the place with stones. The stone-throwing had stopped only when Symes fetched his rifle.

Later that day, Alfred was considering a quick dinner stop, when there came a shout from some hundred paces ahead. ‘Boss, boss, there he is, Joe Flick!’

Wavell touched his spurs to his horse and charged off the back legs, heedless of deep holes and wayward paperbark trunks. He could hear Noble doing the same down behind and Jimmy on his flank. The riverine brush swept by his face and adrenalin flooded his system.

Ahead they saw Joe, mounted up on the near bank, turning his horse to face them, then rearing up with an angry shout, waving his pistol. The creek was a sheet of vivid blue, dotted with lily-pads, and fringed with gravel sands.

‘Stop there,’ Joe shouted. ‘Go back home. Follow me no more.’

With those words Joe urged his horses into the water, churning the surface into white froth. By now Alfred and the others had extracted their firearms, peppering the air with lead, and clouds of black powder smoke, but Joe was by then on the other side and galloping away.

Noble and Jimmy took up the pursuit, while Alfred rode into Joe’s camp, where a smouldering fire and almost-cooked johnny-cakes told the story. A welcome sight was a horse tied to a branch of a she-oak.

‘Well if it isn’t my old boy Collector,’ said Alfred, dismounting. The roan gelding was one of his favourite horses, and he was pleased to add him to the train, despite his wasted condition.

By the time they had crossed the creek, Noble and Jimmy were on their way back, having lost sight of their quarry, ready for a horse change and shaking their heads at how Joe Flick rides like the wind itself down gullies and through scrub as if it’s not even there.

But it was dogged persistence, not speed, Alfred knew, that would win the day, and Garrie was already on the spoor, leading them southwards along that picturesque waterway. Within hours Joe detoured across to where the upper Weddallion cut through slabs of yellow-orange stone; a world of rock, water and sky.

They found another abandoned horse, ridden almost into the ground. Nearby were signs that showed how Joe had stumbled on a small mob of station brumbies and cut one out. Only the most skilled and desperate horseman would attempt to break and ride a mount on the run. That’s what Joe had done.

The tracks showed how close he came to being bucked off, but Joe somehow seemed to have kept his seat. Garrie shook his head in wonder. ‘That horse pig-root long time here. That bloke never fall.’

On stony ground, even Garrie could not follow unshod horse tracks and the process became more guess-work than certainty. Still, they rode on at snail’s pace into the evening, when a build-up season storm began to flicker and rumble on the horizon.

‘It’s getting too dark for tracking in this country,’ said Alfred, ‘and the lightning doesn’t help. My guess is that Joe’s heading for Lawn Hill Homestead. It might be best now to get there first and stop any mischief that he might be planning.’  

On that long night ride, dysentery again tightened its grip. Alfred had to stop several times, and he was so weak that he tied himself to the saddle as a precaution. The tracking of Joe Flick seemed to be an ordeal without end.

Kitty told me how that night she was sleeping next to Henry in their camp at the silver mine, of how the night was dark apart from the storm clouds throwing lightning bolts to the earth like bullets. She related how they heard an unearthly wail from out in the night, the sound of weeping so terrible it tore her heart asunder.

She told me how she gripped Henry’s shoulder, and sobbed. ‘Oh mercy, it’s Joe. He’s out there.’

She told me how the pair of them went out of the hut, where coals from the cooking hearth-fire glowed hellish orange. Of how they heard the sound of a horse’s hooves moving skittishly out in the scrub, as if the rider had reached an impassable but imaginary barrier.

‘Mother,’ cried the voice, unearthly, low, but unmistakeable.

‘Joe,’ cried Kitty, ‘my son. Come in to us, please do.’

In reply came the sound of more weeping; great sobs and wails that rose and fell through the night winding around the white trunks of gums and the stones and mullock heaps of the mine.

‘I’m sorry … forgive me,’ Joe went on. ‘For what I done … for what I know I will do.’

‘Come to us, boy,’ said Henry. ‘It’s not too late.’

More weeping then, and those same sideways movements of the horse. ‘I can’t. Forgive me …’

‘Please Joe,’ wailed Kitty.

‘Good bye,’ Joe cried.

Then, accompanied by the sound of hoof beats, he rode away from her for the last time.

The next morning, just in time for breakfast, Wavell, Noble and the two trackers, saw the flat-topped mount that gave Lawn Hill its name, and rode up to the homestead, relieved to see no signs of trouble.

A group of people, including an elderly visitor from a nearby station, a man by the name of Doyle, were sitting down to breakfast in the outbuilding that served as a dining room. Frank Hann himself was out on the run ‘dealing with’ some horse-spearing Waanyi.

‘We need rations,’ Alfred cried to the cook, ‘and breakfast too, as fast as you can manage.’ Knowing that even though he was still having trouble keeping food in his system, he needed the sustenance. He and Noble joined the others at the table. Garrie and Jimmy ate outside.

 They had just finished eating, waiting for another cup of tea when Frank Hann’s woman, beautiful dark Opal, arrived at the door, telling them breathlessly that she had just seen Joe Flick trying to catch a horse in the house paddock. Wavell stood and grabbed his rifle. Within a moment he was out the door, calling for Troopers Garrie and Jimmy.

‘The escaped prisoner is here,’ cried Alfred. ‘And justice, at last, is nigh.’

Continues next week

©2019 Greg Barron

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