The stranger strode out of the darkness of the riverside canopy, with Lainey close behind. He wore stained moleskin trousers, ‘lastic-sided boots and a striped shirt. His hair was dark but a little thin, plastered to his head from a day of sweating under a hat, though he was now bare-headed. He was leading a long-legged stock horse by the reins, a poley saddle on its back. Following warily was a short-haired collie, distrustful of this new camp, choosing to sit at the edge of the firelight and pant softly.
‘Welcome, stranger,’ said Will, coming to his feet, turning to signal to Sam with a tiny shake of his head to put away the carbine he had trained on the man as he entered the firelight. ‘Come and warm yourself. We have a little wallaby meat, if you’re hungry.’
‘Why thank you,’ said the stranger, fixing his eyes on Will, ‘but I’ve just ate a good feed of mutton an’ johnny-cakes. We’ve a mob two mile ahead, and we’re missin’ half a dozen ewes – came scoutin’ down for them and seen yer fire. Figured I’d find out who it was.’
‘Which way are you headin’?’ Will asked.
‘North. Up to a run west of Blackall – two thousand maiden ewes and a hundred and fifty rams. We’re Liverpool Plains folk originally, but these lot are from another run we own out near Burke. Ted White’s me name, by the way.’
‘Well damn it all,’ said Will. ‘Liverpool Plains? I know a White family from the range country south of Willow Tree. Arthur White is an old mate of mine.’
The drover cracked a grin. ‘Well, Arthur’s me own brother – would’ve been along on this drove if his missus wasn’t expectin’ a third. Now I’m guessin’ that you’re the famous Will Jones – I ain’t seen you since you were a young tacker.’
‘That’s me,’ Will said, ‘here, tie up your horse an’ stop for a yarn.’ Sam left the carbine lying on his blanket, and as if to apologise for his hostility, he took the reins himself, and secured the horse nearby.
Ted White thanked the quiet Cantonese for this courtesy, then squatted down near the fire, fumbling in his top pocket for a pipe and the makings. ‘None of us could believe our ears when we heard you was wanted for murder.’ He turned to Lainey, ‘You must be Elaine, is it?’
‘F’give me if I stare a bit, but I ain’t seen a good lookin’ sort like you for many a long week.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind so much,’ said Lainey. It was a while since Will had seen his sister’s face turn red, but it now took on a shade of crimson that a fresh slice of beetroot would have been proud of.
‘Do you know the country up ahead?’ Will asked.
‘Well enough, I’ve done this trip half a dozen times, over the years.’
‘Then I’ll pick yer brains, if you don’t mind,’ said Will. ‘We’re aiming to amble up north, but we need to hide out for a few days.’ He waved a hand to where Little Blue was asleep on an old jacket near the fire. ‘We’ve got a sick pup, an’ need somewhere we won’t be disturbed. Is there anyplace you know where we can lay low for a spell?’
Ted White, having packed his pipe, lit up from a burning stick and drew deeply. Dogs, in his world, were a valuable commodity – a good one was worth two men – and the idea of changing plans to nurse one back to health made perfect sense to him. He considered the idea for a moment or two then snapped his fingers. ‘Oh yeah, Hellhole Gorge, on Powell Creek. The stock route skirts it, but there’s a couple of waterholes up in the stone country where it aren’t easy to take stock and you won’t get bothered. Best of all most of the Queensland trackers won’t go near the place – it has a sad history – a bad history. You’d be safe enough there for a few days.’ He paused to smoke in silence for a few minutes, then his eyes lit up. ‘Here’s an idea. If you can be in the saddle at first light, an’ catch us up, we’ll tuck you up in front of the mob. No tracker alive will be able to follow after a thousand odd sheep have walked behind you.’
Will looked around at the others. ‘That’s the best blasted plan I’ve heard all day,’ he said. ‘Now help yourself to what food we have. If only we had a bottle of rum to share with a mate on this night.’
‘No rum needed,’ said the stranger, ‘an’ I’d best ride on and find them sheep. You’ll see us along the left bank – as early as you can get there.’
In the morning they rose with the sun still just an underglow in the east, and Little Blue seemed a little better, eating several more lumps of meat mixed with herbs, even taking most of these on his own, along with a healthy drink of water.
An hour later Will, Jim, Sam and Lainey were making their way around the mob, greeting the drovers with their dogs on the wings, moving across the sunshine of the morning feeling as safe and protected as they had ever been. The pissy smell of sheep was almost overpowering, but as familiar as home, and the bleating a comfort rather than an annoyance.
The mob moved slowly, less than a mile an hour, and when they went into dinner camp Jim became restless. He rode ahead, reaching as far as where the cook had driven his wagon to set up for the evening.
That night they shared the drovers’ camp, well-stocked as it was with flour and tea. They sat around a hearty fire, sharing yarns, talking of the bush, and far distant places. Ted made no secret of his admiration for Lainey, but he was nothing but gentlemanly and considerate towards her.
Little Blue had begun to take an interest in his surroundings and there was a moment of hilarity when Midge, Ted’s Collie, sniffed the injured pup out, and the two dogs, young and old touched noses. The bitch must have known that the little blue dog was poorly, for she licked his side solicitously, then left him alone.
‘Might be able to take them bandages off tomorrow, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘Help him move around if he wants to.’ No one dared to say it, but the little dog seemed to be out of real danger and on the mend.
Will snuggled up with him that night, and for a full minute he stared at the girl in the postcard – his silent obsession – before settling down to sleep. He, like the others slept without fear of traps or discovery, nor even the horses straying, for there were men on watch through the night. In the morning they assisted with catching horses and the cook provided a good breakfast before they headed out, once again enjoying a day of riding at the head of the mob.
Late on the third afternoon, after hours of parched saltbush country, the drive reached Powell Creek – not so much a waterway as a dry sheet of rock. There was a hole downstream a little, for the sheep had scented it and were hurrying in that direction. While the other men watered the mob Ted White rode in to talk to Will and the rest of the group, Midge matching pace with his horse.
‘We have to part ways here,’ said Ted, keeping the flies from his face with a swipe of his hands, but if you follow the creek bed upstream, you’ll reach the gorge country. This is all part of Milo Station, but it’s a darn country in itself — find a quiet spot and I doubt anyone will bother you.’
There were handshakes all round, and Will swore that one day he’d pay back the many kindnesses Ted and his mates had shown. ‘Just one thing before we leave,’ Will said. ‘You say that the trackers won’t go near this Hellhole Gorge. That something bad happened there. What was it?’
Ted shook his head. ‘I dunno much about it. Just that a station owner called Welford was tomahawked and speared fifteen or so year ago, not too far west of here.’ He then jabbed a thumb upstream. ‘They say that Hellhole Gorge is where the Native Police and a posse of landowners caught up with the Kungkari people that done the murder.’
Jim showed his horror on his face, and Will shook his head slowly, as if to clear an unpleasant thought. ‘I don’t blame the trackers for not wanting to go there then. But it still sounds like a handy place for us to hide out for a bit.’
Leaving the droving party was a wrench – it had been nice to be amongst a crew that had adopted them as friends. Now, however, it was time to regroup, and bring the little dog back to full health. With Will in the lead, they turned away up the creek, and slowly the sounds of bleating sheep and the smell of the mob receded into the distance.
When Lainey turned around and saw Ted still watching after them, she blew him a kiss.
‘What’d you do that for?’ asked Will. ‘He’s got it bad enough for you already.’
‘The poor barsted deserved it,’ said Lainey. ‘An’ if he’d had a bath in the last six months I woulda done more than blow a kiss.’
‘Yer a married woman,’ growled Will.
‘Not to my mind I ain’t,’ she said. ‘Most boring years of me whole existence, they were, bein’ the little woman. I’d rather the life of an outlaw, any day.’
Will scowled and urged his gelding into a trot, heading out to the front, horseshoes clumping on the hard stone of Powell Creek.
Greg Barron 2022