18. Joe’s Last Stand
Troopers Garrie and Noble, along with Fred Doyle and Bird the stockman, fired their weapons into the galvanised iron sides of the hut until it was peppered with holes. The senior policeman was dead, and Hann was bandaged up in bed, so Fred Doyle placed himself in charge of the effort to end the bloody siege. When two handy local cattlemen, Harry Shadforth and Dan Carlyon rode in, Doyle felt that they had enough manpower on hand to ask Bird to mount up and ride to Burketown for assistance.
Still the firing went on. It sounded like a battle, with booming discharges and clouds of powder smoke. Now and then, a window shutter would ease open and Joe Flick reply with revolver or shotgun. Towards dark the cloud cover thickened, and rain began to fall.
Inside the bunkhouse, Joe understood that the police were no longer interested in taking him alive. With the station and its ample store of ammunition at their disposal, they used ammunition like water, while Joe could scarcely see a target worthy of the name. He piled furniture against the doors and windows, for he knew the penetrative power of bullets, and over the following hours he flinched each time they crashed and whined through the walls and inside. The floor was by then littered with flattened slugs and flakes of lead, along with spent cartridge cases from Joe’s return fire.
A ricocheting projectile glanced off the point of Joe’s ankle, and he howled with pain. The bullet shattered the bone, and damaged nerves behind it. With the wound wrapped tightly, he could only just manage to stand on his feet, wincing and hissing with pain as he did so. Meanwhile thunder cracked and rain hammered on the roof.
Around midnight a .577 calibre Snider bullet smashed its way through the wall. It ploughed through one side of Joe’s stomach and out the other, opening an ugly wound. Blood flowed through jagged slits in his skin, and set off a deep pain, as if some terrible creature had taken up residence inside him.
Sobbing in the darkness, Joe staunched the flow as best he could, using some kerchiefs he found in a valise. Unwilling to believe that he was mortally hit, he decided that if he was to hold the police off, and have any chance to escape into the wild Lawn Hill gorge country to heal his wounds, he had to leave now.
Soon after, when the rain was heaviest, and fearing that the police might storm the hut, Joe pushed open the door, looked around for activity, then crawled away from the darkened buildings, moving towards the escarpment that led down to the creek.
This broken slope was difficult to manage in the rain, with mud running between the stones and his legs slick with blood. His hands gripped roots and the stiff stalks of small shrubs. The shotgun, slung over his back, and supply of cartridges slowed him down. Lightning lit his way, and his breath hacked in and out of his lungs. His eyes crinkled tightly against the pain that made frontal assaults on his senses.
Over an hour of effort, Joe made it down to the creek, heading to the water to clean his wounds and drink. By the time dawn arrived he had made it only five or six hundred yards southwards along the creek. Soon the trackers would be on his trail, Joe knew, and he was close to the end of his energy.
Crawling through thick spear and kangaroo grass, he stopped in a thicket of pandanus, shielded by green fronds, and supported on a carpet of dry, fallen strands. There, Joe decided, he could make a stand, and perhaps, he told himself, hold them off and get away.
That morning, bandaged and sore, Frank Hann impressed everyone by insisting that he rise, dress, and join the action. When Fred Doyle led an early morning rush into the hut Joe had occupied, Hann limped along in the rear of the party. They found the floor covered in smeared blood stains and spread with spent cases.
‘Joey’s hit bad,’ said Hann. ‘He must be close to finished.’
After a hearty breakfast, Hann took command back from his neighbour, splitting the company into two. One group would dig Alfred Wavell’s grave, the other start tracking Joe.
Soon after, Joe Flick watched the wounded Hann, a white stockmen and Fred Doyle carry Wavell’s body down from the homestead area and select a site not more than a hundred yards away from his hiding place. Of course, Joe understood that they would bury the dead constable on the riverbank, for the rocky ground around the homestead would have been too hard to dig the required six feet down. He felt sorry to see the sheet-wrapped corpse with its blood stains, but was too far gone to truly know remorse.
He had not slept beyond short naps since he left Mary Theresa’s shed, and lost more blood than his body could regenerate. His hands shook on the shotgun stock, and his eyes were bleary.
A second party soon came into view, descending the steep ground down from the homestead, following Joe’s trail. He recognised Troopers Noble and Garrie, Hann’s boy Nym, and Harry Shadforth. Of course, even with the rain, Joe’s route was easy to follow, and the men shouted with excitement at each new sighting of a mark where a foot had slid, or the deep red pigment of Joe’s blood on a stone.
The tracking party continued past where their mates were digging Wavell’s grave, then walked on towards Joe, rifles loaded and ready, studying the ground as they came. Trooper Garrie found the place where Joe had gone to the water’s edge, and then where he had left it again.
It was the station ‘boy’ Nym, with his sharp eyes, who looked ahead and saw Joe’s shotgun barrel amongst the pandanus fronds.
‘Look out,’ he cried, pointing. ‘There’s Joe Flick now.’
Joe took steady aim at Nym’s chest, and fired. The choke-bore shotgun thumped against his shoulder and Nym went down. The other members of the party, including the gravediggers, fell into cover like skittles.
Despite being struck in the chest by a charge of pellets, Nym did not die quickly, but twitched and thumped, and cried out. Frank Hann made a sound, a bellowing cry of rage and crawled to the dying man, cradling him in his arms and comforting him with soft, crooning words until Nym finally fell silent.
The police contingent responded to Nym’s death with a barrage of gunfire. Joe let go of the shotgun and brought up his revolver. As he extended his arm and squeezed off a shot, a bullet struck him in the upper leg, and another grazed across the side of his chest.
By the middle of the afternoon Joe was passing in and out of consciousness. He fought death like a warrior, but apart from one half-hearted charge by Trooper Noble, still the police party would not rush him. Instead they raised hats on sticks to tempt Joe to use his ammunition. He obliged by riddling them with gunfire. He was desperate for the coming of another night, still believing that he would crawl away and escape to the gorge country.
The next tactic, suggested by Trooper Noble, and ordered by Frank Hann, was the lighting up of the thick grass. Joe watched them circle upwind and drop matches into the vegetation.
While flames danced through the stalks towards him, Joe fought down a rising panic, and emptied all six chambers of his revolver towards the firelighters.
Yet, after some initial success, the fire did not take well in the wet grass. It burned fitfully, yet streamed acrid smoke so Joe could scarcely breathe. More bullets came. One struck him high up in the skull. It felt just like the impact of a hammer, but it was the stomach wound that was slowly strangling the life out of him.
Not long after sunset, having lost all function in his gut, and having bled almost dry, Joe fired his last, despairing shot across the partially burned ground. Then, a few hours later, during the night; alone, frightened, crying with pain, but still dreaming of the gorge country and a life of freedom, the last living breath slipped from Joe Flick’s lips and he died where he lay.
All night the police party kept watch, firing into the pandanus at intervals, but no one was willing to risk going close in the darkness.
‘Surely he’s dead,’ grumbled Hann, whose wound was bleeding and becoming more painful. But no man in the party could be persuaded to go in after Joe. After all, he had killed two men and wounded another. No one wanted to be next.
A little after sunrise, however, Hann nodded to Trooper Noble. ‘For God’s sake now. Go in and see.’
Noble loped forward, holding his loaded Snider rifle at the balance point. Shadforth and Garrie followed close behind.
Reaching the pandanus clump, they all watched Noble lean forward, lift the rifle to his shoulder, then fire into Joe’s head ‘just to make sure.’
‘Joe Flick is properly dead, boss,’ reported Garrie, waving his rifle like a flag.
‘Of course he is,’ said Hann, limping forward with a grin on his face. ‘I told you as much and we’ve been sitting here all night for no reason.’
More shouts of excitement came, and the white men competed to be first to reach Joe’s body. They dragged him out of the pandanus by the heels, and laid him in the open near where Wavell’s grave was now being finished.
Joe wore no shirt, only trousers, though dried blood covered his trunk and arms. His body was marked with between nine and fourteen gunshot wounds, including the posthumous head wound. The figure was unclear as there was much argument about entry and exit points.
When Kitty and Henry Flick arrived at the creek, the men in the party were busy digging two more graves: one for Joe Flick next to Wavell, and another for Nym, some distance back towards the homestead. The men took turns on the shovels while the others souvenired spent cartridges, items from Joe’s pockets and even locks of his hair.
Kitty saw her son’s bloody wounds, his thin body without any trace of fat, as lean as a goanna. She cried out and wailed, fell and smashed her face to the ground. With a shriek she raised a stick and drew a bloody trail down between her breasts.
‘Get the gin away,’ growled Doyle, and they took Kitty far enough away that all she could do was watch as they lifted Joe, ready to drop him into his grave.
‘Plant him facing hell, boys,’ cried Hann.
And that was what they did. They buried Joe Flick face-down. Two of the men leaned down to spit on his body before the first shovelful of earth went in.
When Kitty had finished telling me the story, she took me down to the creek below the homestead. We first passed two graves, one for a house ‘girl’ called Jenny, the second for the ‘boy,’ Nym. Some distance to the west, towards the creek, we found a fine headstone dedicated to Wavell, and beside it a mound, surrounded by a frame made of iron pipe, marking the final resting place of Joe himself. Kitty was silent by then, her eyes as old as stone.
I walked to the creek bank and stared at the pale green water, with its archer fish and tiny insects, the heads of little crocodiles hunting fish out in the steam. My hands were opening and closing, wishing I had a weapon. I wanted to avenge Joe. I wanted blood. But the men who killed him were just spirits and ghosts. And of course I felt sorry also, for Nym and Alfred Wavell, who Joe had murdered. They were victims too, caught in the crossfire of Joe’s circumstances.
I sat down there, on the bloodstained bank of that creek, and waited until Kitty was ready to go home.
©2020 Greg Barron
Epilogue next week.