When Will Jones called out to Scotty McCrae and told him that he would take the blue heeler pup and try to nurse him back to health, he had no real idea how difficult that would be.
Lainey stood with her hands on her hips. ‘You’re soft in the head,’ she spat. ‘Would Ned Kelly have taken a sick dog with ‘im to Glenrowan?’
‘I ain’t Ned Kelly,’ Will replied. ‘An’ I don’t plan on stagin’ me own Glenrowan.’
After Scotty had moved off with his wagon, however, Lainey went from angry to practical, fashioning a sling for her brother to carry the pup under his arm. Gamilaroi Jim and Fat Sam watched with bemused expressions on their faces, not wanting to say the obvious – that the animal was not likely to survive the rigors of life on the road.
Before long, however, they were walking the horses up the track, with Jim in the lead, scouting ahead. Little Blue was asleep in the warmth of his sling. Every now and then Will slipped a hand inside to feel for the animal’s heartbeat, reassuring himself with its regular rhythm.
With no real plan but to skirt Adavale when they got closer, they were all a little wary of what was coming, and when Jim came riding back towards them in a hurry, Will could see by his face that he was alarmed.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Will.
‘P’lice troop – havin’ dinner camp up ahead. Must be small water, for the tailers bringin’ horses in one by one ter drink.’
‘Is Long Douglas there?’
‘Yeah, seen the little barsted there too.’ Jim moved his arms and head in a parody of a rooster walking.
‘He’s a cow of a man,’ Will said, ‘but e’s persistent. We’d best get off the track quick smart. They’ll be coming this way soon, so we’d best get to it. Jim, can you sweep our sign?’
Jim gave Will a look as if he were deficient. They all knew that no one could do it better.
First they rode back the way they had come until sparse kangaroo grass gave way to iron-red stones, and there they made their departure, with Jim following on foot, using a branch torn from a brigalow tree to sweep the surface where their tracks diverged from the well-trodden centre, then straightening spinifex stalks or turning stones that had been scored by a horse shoe. For a quarter mile Jim kept this up, while Sam, Lainey and Will walked their mounts, until finally the stones became sparse.
Now they performed a trick Jim had taught them. They picked out a recognisable distant landmark, in this case a flat-topped hill some three miles away, then separated, making complicated and erratic trails before meeting up again on the summit of that rise.
‘That should throw them off,’ said Jim as he slid from the saddle and took up a vantage point behind a great slab of stone. And while Sam held the horses Will, Lainey and Jim watched the far-off road as the police broke camp and rode by.
Will clapped his hands as the troop – fifteen men in all – continued past the point where he and his friends had detoured. ‘We fooled them,’ he said,
‘Maybe for now,’ said Jim, ‘but one a’ them trackers; he saw something; he went off the road a little, but the p’liceman called him back.’
Standing, brushing off their clothes, they returned to the horses, and Will poured some water into a pannikin for Little Blue, who did take a small drink, but had to be supported around his bandaged body while he did so.
‘We’ve got decisions to make,’ Will said, standing with the small dog in his arms. ‘We can’t go south again, and I’m not sure we should go anywhere near Adavale neither.’ He turned to Sam. ‘What do you think?’
Sam pointed to the west. ‘That way we reach the Bulloo. Camped there a few year ago. Good river.’
‘Good thinking,’ agreed Will. ‘We could maybe hide out there for a spell – let the dog come good again. Queensland is a fair lump of a place, an’ they can’t follow us forever.’
‘I for one would be grateful for a river camp tonight,’ Lainey said. ‘It’s been days since a proper bogey. Maybe latch onter a fish or to – Sam always has a line handy.’
‘Yes, that’d be a fine thing, a river camp,’ said Will.
And they rode the afternoon hard through lancewood scrub and brigalow, or bare plains of bluebush and spinifex, with the yellow splash of everlasting daisies or fields of waving mitchell grass. The scene rarely stayed the same for long, and with the eyes of bushmen the differences were more apparent than they might be to a newcomer.
They reached the Bulloo before sunset and river was welcome and shaded sight, yet there was no feeling of sanctuary or relief. The banks had been scoured by the passage of stock, grass sparse on the flats alongside.
‘Drovers been through,’ commented Sam.
‘Not just one,’ agreed Will. ‘Thousands of head, muddying the damn river, and eatin’ out every last blade. I should have guessed that we’d be fair smack on a droving track, headin’ north, all that country up there every squatter has his sights on, an’ this might not be the best place to hide.’
‘It’ll do for tonight though, won’t it?’ asked Lainey hopefully.
‘Yeah, it’ll do for tonight – any drovers nearby will be in camp by now so they won’t trouble us before morning.’
Scouting around, they found a bend in the river with a steep bank that the cattle and sheep had avoided, but there was a small rock ledge below that could be reached with a careful descent. Will clambered down to fetch a canvas pail of fresh water, and Little Blue eyed the river warily and snuggled back against the warmth of Will’s navy jacket, with the reflections of the coolabahs and red gums all around them, and a crimson sun glaring as it hurried for the horizon.
While Sam took the horses out to find some feed, the others soon had clothes out of swags and were washing everything from underwear to shirts, scrubbing the cloth against itself, whacking them against tree branches, then hanging them on makeshift clothes lines.
Jim pulled a handful of very long and thin green leaves out of a shirt pocket and showed them to Will. ‘Here bloke, try some of this on the dog.’
‘What is it?’
‘Gumbi gumbi – powerful medicine – haven’t seen it much aroun’ here but passed by a couple a’ healthy shrubs up the track. Might help ya dog, bloke, but he need meat to go with it.’
‘That’s if he’ll eat,’ said Will.
‘He has to eat,’ said Jim, ‘or we’ll be buryin’ him soon enough.’
The Snider being far too much gun for the task, Will borrowed Jim’s new Henry carbine—the one that he had inherited from the New South Wales police force in the Pillaga. Leaving Little Blue in Lainey’s care he wandered away from their camp, down along the bank until he came upon a wallaby that had come to drink.
Working the lever, enjoying the smoothness of the action, he took the shot standing, aiming for the head for an instant kill and to avoid meat spoilage. The beautiful creature fell dead, never knowing what had hit it, and Will picked it up by the legs, away from the mud, and skinned and gutted it on the high bank.
Jim looked up as Will arrived back at camp, ‘How many bullets it take you to kill that skinny little feller?’
‘One,’ said Will.
Jim made a mocking smile. ‘I never seen you hit the thing you aimed at first shot in yer life, bloke.’
‘Well, this time I did.’
Settling down with his roll of knives and a chopping board of Macleay blackbutt, grooved by many blades, he went to work. A section of the backstraps he diced into tiny pieces for the dog, and these he mixed with chopped gumbi gumbi leaves. The rest of the backstraps he pierced with the point of a knife many times, then rubbed with handfuls of salt, tucking the result in a canvas bag. Without this preparation the meat would be close to spoiled by morning.
While the wallaby haunches roasted in the coals, Will begged, cajoled and encouraged the little dog to eat, but he would do little more than whimper and sniff. Jim watched for a bit, then asked with his eyes if he could take the dog. Will passed him across, and watched Jim’s big, dark hands gently handle the animal. Leaning over, he took a lump of Will’s meat mixture between his fingers, then rolled it into a ball. He used his free hand to prise open the little dog’s jaws, and thrust the meat deep inside with his finger. The pup struggled for a moment, then recovered.
‘You try,’ said Jim. ‘Just a little bit more.’
Will, a little disturbed not to have thought of such a neat trick, took back the pup and mimicked Jim’s actions, and by now Sam and Lainey were both watching too. He took a lump of meat and herbage the same size as Jim had done, and opened the dog’s mouth. He didn’t get it down quite as far as his mate had managed.
‘Close ‘is mouth and stroke it down,’ said Jim.
This worked also, and when Will offered the water dish the pup lapped up more than he had all day. It was encouraging, and it was a happier camp as they risked building the fire up for light and warmth and chewed fresh meat and were grateful for it.
Yet Will was not feeling safe enough to abandon all caution, and they agreed to draw straws to keep watch. Lainey, drawing the easiest, early shift, walked out after sunset with just a revolver in her belt, heading for a small rise nearby.
Later, however, just as Will was thinking of unrolling his swag, there was a shout from Lainey out in the darkness: a challenge. Then the voice of a stranger echoing amongst the coolabahs.
by Greg Barron 2022