Will Jones and The Blue Dog
Long Douglas and his patrol had ridden on for the rest of the day after missing Will Jones and his crew south of Adavale, heading down through Bulloo River station country: Bull’s Gully, Glencoe and an outstation of Milo called Tintinchilla.
By late afternoon, after many uneventful miles, Long Douglas had his sights set on the homestead at North Comongin, just an hour’s ride ahead. He had shared a table with one of the station’s owners, a man by the name of McLean, in Eulo a few weeks earlier, and he had seemed like a very nice fellow indeed – had offered shearer’s quarters for the men and a room in the house for Douglas himself if the patrol happened to come through that way.
The comforts of a homestead, which apparently also boasted a very scenic billabong, appealed to Long Douglas far more than a night in camp. He pictured in his head a meal of hot lamb roast, gravy and potatoes, the station missus solicitously pouring his drinks and admiring his uniform.
Up ahead, in defiance of his haste, he spotted the patrol’s three trackers off their horses and in earnest conversation. This, surely, was an unnecessary delay to a hot bath and meal. Outraged, Long Douglas urged his mount into a trot.
‘What in heaven’s name is going on here?’ he demanded as he came up to them.
The three troopers turned to look at their sergeant, then continued to talk amongst themselves in their own language. This casual disregard, along with the fact that he couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying, infuriated Long Douglas, and he was a man capable of instant transformation from calm to rage. He made a scoffing sound in his throat. ‘Excuse me. Did you happen to hear the ranking officer give you an order? Now, mount your horses and take the trail.’
Again they ignored him, despite the fury in his eyes and the spittle that flew from his lips. Douglas dismounted from his horse, and hurrying forward, grabbed the nearest of the three trackers by the hair. This was no mean feat, for the man was at least a head taller than he was. The man squealed, reeling backwards in the direction of the hair-pull.
‘Now that I finally have your attention,’ spat Long Douglas. ‘I told you to take the trail.’ He gave the man’s hair a last tug then pushed him in the back. Preparing to mount his horse again, he was surprised to see the man making no move to do the same. ‘Holy hell trooper. I you want a thrashing, you’re going the right way about it. Never in my life have I seen and heard such insolence. You’ve got three seconds to mount up and take the trail.’
‘Trouble is sergeant, that the trail don’t go this way no more.’
‘Then where on earth does it go?’
The tracker pointed to the north. ‘Sometime back Mister Will Jones leave the road.’
‘Damn your eyes, are you telling me that we’ve been following a cold trail?’
The tracker inclined his head, cringing with his eyes and lips and if knowing that his revelations would bring on a tantrum from Long Douglas.
‘What’s your name, Trooper?’
‘Joseph, sir, Trooper Joseph.’
‘How much of a bonus were you promised for this venture? A shilling a day was it?’
Again he nodded.
‘Well kiss today’s shilling goodbye, for you and your blasted mates. We’ll ride on to North Comongin and start retracing our steps in the morning.’
The Queensland police corporal, lounging on his horse throughout the exchange, said, ‘Beggin’ your pardon, sergeant, but I can’t see the use in ridin’ another ten miles onwards, then having to come back this way again first thing tomorrow. Trooper Joseph here was sayin’ a minute ago that he thinks he might know where we missed them, and it were a fair ways back – we could make up some lost ground now – there’ll be enough starlight to get by, and the moon will rise soon enough. Then we could go into camp not far from the spot and have an early start at them.’
Long Douglas turned on the tracker furiously. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that you saw something.’
‘I try to Sergeant, and you call me back.’
Long Douglas stuck his foot in the stirrup and swung up onto his horse, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. Being made to look in dereliction of his duty was even worse than having to camp rough – and they had passed a public house of sorts up the track so the night may yet be passed in comfort. ‘Very well then, we’ll ride back the way we have come, but this oversight will be mentioned in my report, Trooper Joseph, and you can expect a reprimand from your commanding officer when the time comes.’
Twenty miles to the north, a little after ten the following morning, Long Douglas watched Trooper Joseph work in concert with his two mates. It took them an hour of searching to find the place where Will Jones and his gang’s spoor had stopped. This done, they began to cast around for the spot where the fugitives had left the road, narrowing it down to the edges of a gibber plain.
The sergeant was in a better mood than he had been the previous afternoon, having taken a room at a roadside pub operated by a Scotsman called Gunne. It was little more than a shanty, really, but the food had been hot, the mattress soft, and the liquor hard. Long Douglas prided himself on his head for drink. He had risen at dawn, with scarcely a hangover, and joined his patrol, who were camping outside, in time to rouse the stragglers out of their swags.
Trooper Joseph turned to look at the sergeant, smiling. ‘This feller a clever one,’ he said, then tapped his own head with a forefinger. ‘Proper good puzzle.’
Slowly they crossed the plain of stones. One clue at a time: a scuffed rock; a bent grass stalk. Clues that were only visible when Trooper Joseph or one of the others pointed it out.
When the stony expanse ended the single trail became four, and several hours of unravelling multiple threads followed. It was noon when Trooper Joseph showed Long Douglas the rocks on the hillock from which the fugitives had watched the police patrol ride along the road.
When they reached the river, the spoor was complicated by drovers and their herds coming through. Even now the last of a northbound mob of cattle were strung along the Bulloo pools, hereford and angus breeders moving slowly, urged along by tough men on tougher horses.
Once the mob had moved on the three trackers separated, and while Long Douglas waited in camp with the billy boiling and damper on the coals, they scouted up and down gullies, in dense thickets and along the banks. Finally, the sharp eyes of Trooper Joseph won through. He found a two-day-old camp on the western bank, and rode back to fetch the sergeant and corporal.
The tracker pointed out the earth-covered fireplace, along with the prints of boots and bare feet in the dust. ‘Three feller camp here.’ And a small distance away he pointed out a smeared black stool on the ground. ‘Little dog,’ he said. ‘Sick-fella.’
Long Douglas smiled to himself. Now it was only a matter of speed. With twelve armed men they could not fail to overcome Will Jones and his little band when the time came.
© Greg Barron 2022