Chapter Sixteen: Joe and Long Douglas

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Gamilaroi Joe rode south and west, retracing his previous journey with Will, Lainey and Sam along the Alice and the Barcoo. Most often he found a glade along the river to camp through the afternoon, then set off again my night and rode until noon the next day. The coastal route would have been faster, but there were more people, smaller farms and he had promised Will that he would investigate whether Long Douglas and his men were still on his trail.

Near Blackall Jim’s roan mare became reluctant to trot, and developed a strange roll to her walk. The cause, Jim found, was an abscess in the offside front hoof, and he could not afford the time to rest her.

Instead, with a caressing hand on her neck, he thanked her for the many miles they had covered together, then released her into a dark Mulgrave Station horse paddock, roping a buckskin stallion in return. It was a victimless crime, he reckoned, for the two horses were roughly comparable in quality.

 Riding onwards in the night, Jim enjoyed the wildness of the stallion, edgy and energetic; pig-rooting a couple of times in the first few hours, or stopping dead and stubbornly dropping his head to feed. When Jim let him run, however, the stallion had a turn of speed that was both exhilarating and a little dangerous.

By sunrise, when Jim stopped to brush his new mount, boil the billy and make johnny cakes on the coals they both knew who was boss, and the horse had a name – Cartridge. While Jim ate, the stallion made a nuisance of himself with the packhorse, a ten-year-old mare who wanted nothing to do with his youthful ways, and Jim had to separate them with different lead ropes.

The station brand on Jim’s new mount didn’t bother him too much – he didn’t intend on visiting towns until he reached the New South Wales border in any case. Jim could see or hear other parties moving through the bush from a great distance, and it was rare that he was spotted when he did not want to be.

Past Diamond Downs, on the Barcoo, Jim decided that he would take a few days off the track to follow up what had happened to the police patrol that had followed them. To this end he set off on a short cut through the back-blocks of Albilbah Station and Gilgunyah.  

After a day’s hard ride, in light scrub on orange dirt, Jim cut the track of a man, barefooted and with a heavy limp. He dismounted to study the spoor up close, noting the mark in the ground made by a stick the man had used to walk with. The tracks were several weeks old.

Jim began to follow, and it was soon obvious that the man was lost, stumbling in great, wide circles through this vast and mostly uninhabited land. The tracks took him into rough country – a range that was marked on Jim’s map as the Strathconan Highlands.

Over the next twelve hours Jim found campsites, some scattered with wallaby bones, and he found a spent brass case lying on the earth where it had been discarded. The man was armed and able to shoot meat, it seemed.

Forced to camp by the darkness of a new moon, Jim was back in the saddle early, and now the sign changed – lots of comings and goings – as if the man he was following had taken up residence in this area. He found the sites of several more kills.

Finally, he rode towards a rocky peak, jagged with plates of hard rock, with outstretched wings like buttress roots and an overhanging ledge deep in the lee. Jim’s sensitive nose picked up the scent of a campfire, and he dismounted and walked in.

There, beside a hearth of dead coals was a heavily bearded man dressed in tattered clothing, close to death it seemed, though he sat up and coughed, saw Jim and tried to run – fell back to the ground. One of his legs was swollen and red and the very air smelled of putrefaction.

There was a rifle beside the man but he made no effort to pick it up. Jim guessed that he was out of cartridges.

It was the remnants of the clothing that gave the man’s identity away to Jim, then the face became visible amongst the grime and dirt. Yet it was a terrified face, for he also had recognised his visitor.

‘Inspector Douglas,’ said Jim. ‘What happen to you, bloke?’

‘Get away from me,’ said Long Douglas.

‘You’re gonna die if I leave you here, an’ I ain’t about to do that.’

‘They left me,’ said Long Douglas. ‘They left me in the bush to die. Murdering curs. I’ll have them dismissed from the force … horse-whipped.’

‘You ain’t gonna do anything ‘cept for letting me take a look at that leg,’ said Jim. ‘Right now I ain’t yer enemy, bloke – I’m yer best mate.’


© Greg Barron 2022


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