Will Jones and the Blue Dog
The three trackers with the police party were from different homelands. Trooper Joseph was Kungkari, from the Barcoo. Trooper Jeremiah was a Pitta Pitta man from around Boulia—they called him the Plains Turkey Man for his long legs and manner of walking with his neck swaying forward and back like that bird. Trooper Matthew was from the coast near Rockhampton, a member of the Darumbal people. In order to communicate amongst themselves they spoke Kriol mixed with some English and the more widely used words of their own tongues.
While Long Douglas enjoyed a long dinner camp the three trackers gathered ahead of the patrol to talk. For two days they had ridden blind, unable to find any spoor made by Will Jones and his crew amongst the hoof marks of many thousands of sheep, making even their significant skills impotent.
Now, however, casting along the edges of the drive, Trooper Matthew had found Will Jones’s boot imprinted in the dust, signalling the moment that he and three others deviated from the droving party they had ridden with.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘One man say g’bye an’ ride off with them sheep. That outlaw an’ his mates they follow the creek bed here, up sunrise way now.’
Trooper Joseph made a face and spat onto the earth. ‘I won’t go up that Powell Creek. Bad country up there.’ He told the others the story of a white man called Welford, who his own Kungkari people had killed, and then how the rest of the tribe had been cornered and slaughtered here by settlers and the Native Police. ‘Bad country, sooner ride off home than go there.’
‘This Long Douglas from down South,’ said Matthew. ‘He’s a bad man – an’ he’ll whip us all if we say no to ‘im.’
The Kungkari man brightened, ‘How about we just take ‘im somewhere else?’
Trooper Joseph shrugged and pointed to the Northwest. ‘Up that way, between the rivers. Lotsa empty country round there – ride around until he gets plenty tired – pretend we still on the trail.’
The other two men grinned back. It was a good plan.
As the three trackers rode back into camp Long Douglas was mounting up with the aid of a handy rock. Settling into the saddle he unclipped the waterbag and took a swig. ‘You on the trail yet boys?’
‘Yes sir,’ said Trooper Joseph. ‘Plenty good trail.’
‘Well, that’s good news anyway. Carry on.’
With the rest of the patrol mounted, they crossed the creek, putting spurs to the horses, charging into the scrub on the other side. The trackers knew how to play the game, finding fictitious ‘sign’ here and there, and Long Douglas seemed happy enough through the afternoon.
‘Look,’ Trooper Joseph would say. ‘That log is where Will Jones run along, then slide down branch over there.’
Trooper Jeremiah would join in the game. ‘Then he hop from rock to rock.’
Picturing these events, Long Douglas would nod his head slowly. ‘How far ahead?’ he asked, over and over.
‘Not far now.’
Slowly they penetrated deeper into a wilderness country between the rivers, but Long Douglas was no fool, and by the middle of the next day he was smelling a rat. ‘It doesn’t make any sense why they would go Northwest now. Show me some of these tracks,’ he demanded. ‘Blessed if I’ve seen any sign for a day or more.’
With no tracks to show, Trooper Joseph changed his story. ‘Can’t find any more tracks now sergeant. We are casting around, looking.’
Long Douglas’s face turned a bright shade of red. ‘Well look harder, or starve. No bloody rations for you bastards tonight.’ He paused, then approached the white constable in charge of the Queensland contingent, ‘I really must say that I’m in need of a bath and a meal – is there any kind of homestead within an hour or two’s ride.’
‘Nothing sir,’ he said, then grinned. ‘Your Lordship might ‘ave to go without.’
‘Excuse me, you are being insubordinate, sir.’
The constable smirked and walked away.
That evening the Queensland mounted constable wandered up to the trackers, giving them each a plug of tobacco. They were miserable without tucker, and the baccy helped fill the void. Trooper Jeremiah, who did not burden himself with the paraphernalia of smoking, simply bit off a chunk and chewed it happily.
‘I’m jack of this caper,’ said the white constable. ‘I want to head home. I don’t like this Long Douglas fella, this bastard from New South Wales, and neither does anyone else. I got an idea, right?’
When he had finished outlining his proposal the three troopers grinned, and the Kungkari man summed up his feelings for the three of them. ‘Plenty good thinking, constable.’
‘We’ve got to do this properly,’ said the constable, ‘and by tomorrow night we’ll be riding home.’
When the embers of the fire had burned low, and the stars and moon offered enough light for secret business, the constable rose in the night, taking two men on an erratic night ride, leaving a trail that even Long Douglas would be able to see.
They did just enough anti-tracking to suggest that the trail had been made by fugitives, then returned before dawn for an hour’s hard sleep.
After a breakfast of johnny-cakes and tea, Trooper Joseph showed Long Douglas the sign. ‘Them bad men not covering their spoor now sir. We follow no trouble now Sergeant.’
Yet the going was tough. This was a country of sand, dry channels, gidyea, claypans and spinifex. Long Douglas was in a hurry now, and would brook no delay.
At noon they reached the base of a small hill, and the three troopers climbed to the summit, leaving the rest of the party down below.
Long Douglas waited until they returned, and Trooper Joseph came to him and hissed. ‘I can see Will Jones in his camp from the top sir. Come up and look.’
Scenting victory, Long Douglas unsheathed his Winchester and dismounted, before calling for his field glasses from one of the packs. ‘Lead me carefully, Trooper. For I dislike thorns.’
‘No thorns,’ he was assured, and together the two men set off up the face of the hill, an ancient sandhill hardened to the consistency of stone. At the far side Trooper Joseph insisted that his sergeant fall prone to the ground, then slither forwards slowly.
‘Now look carefully,’ said the tracker. ‘You’ll see his camp in the distance.’
Long Douglas didn’t stop to ponder why Trooper Joseph’s voice was now behind instead of beside him. Laying the rifle down he picked up the field glasses and began to scan the fore and middle ground, looking for a column of smoke, men, or horses.
At length he said, ‘Where are they? I can’t see anyone.’ He looked around and the tracker was nowhere to be seen. ‘Damn your eyes,’ he muttered, but resumed searching through the glasses. A good five minutes passed before he lowered them for the last time, collected the rifle, and got to his feet. ‘Damn you, Trooper Joseph, show yourself. What manner of trick is this?’
The trooper had gone.
By the time Long Douglas made it down to the base of the hill there was no one there, not even his own horse.
The enormity of the situation he was in: alone in the wilderness with only the six cartridges in the tube magazine of the rifle, and no food or vesta to light a fire, dawned on him.
‘Damn you,’ he shouted to the sky, but there was no answer, not even an echo.
© Greg Barron 2022