‘I won’t be ministered to by a damn outlaw,’ spat Long Douglas.
Jim knelt beside him in any case. The policeman’s left leg had obviously been broken – and badly – it was swollen to twice the size of the other. The scent of gangrene was deep, like old cheese, and the extent of this murderous flesh-rot showed in the angry stripes that wound around the leg, visible through the ragged strips of his breeches.
‘Don’t touch it,’ warned Long Douglas.
‘Orright then,’ said Jim. ‘If you’d rather I’ll cook us a feed and brew some tea.’
While Jim gathered sticks and built the fire, Long Douglas lolled back and seemed to doze. It was dark before he stirred again, at which point he raised his head, ate some fresh johnny-cake and sipped a pint pot of tea. All the while droplets of sweat flowed down his forehead, and Jim could only imagine the fever that raged inside the sick man’s head.
‘Can you tell me what happened, bloke?’
Long Douglas’s eyes rolled back like marbles, and there was a pause before he began to speak. ‘Like I said before, those cursed Queensland troopers took my horse and stole away like thieves. They didn’t like me from the start.’
‘But that don’t explain the leg?’
‘After they abandoned me I walked for three days. At a dirty little waterhole – just a puddle really – I came upon a small herd of brumbies. Most of the mob ran, but one was interested in me – a bay mare of about fourteen hands with a snow-white blaze. When the others shied she came a little way towards me. I could see her brand and the scars of old saddle-galls. I sweet talked her for an hour before I got close. There was no doubt in my mind that she had once been a riding horse but God alone knew for how long she had been running wild.’ Long Douglas paused to hold his head between the flat of both hands as if squeezing the memories out. Then he went on; ‘I had no rope for a halter, and no other tack at all, so my only chance was to try to get on her back and tame her – stay on until I reached a station or town – even a damned track or fence line.
‘Finally she let me rub her neck, and with a light grip on her mane I steered her towards uneven ground where I’d have a chance of mounting up. As you know I am not a tall man. I had only my rifle slung on my back so I had nothing to impede me.’
‘It was a good plan, bloke,’ Jim commented, ‘an’ you done well to get up close to her.’
‘When we reached the rocky ground I took my opportunity, found a handy clump and clambered aboard. Well,’ he tried to laugh but it came out as a wheeze. ‘I knew she was going to buck but not how. She knew every trick in the New South Wales Mounted Police horsemanship manual, and then some. In no time at all I was on the ground and my leg broken below the knee.’ He sighed deeply. Almost a wail. ‘I was a proud man once, but everything just got worse … and worse. Too many weeks to count of pain … oh I learned to sit with the rifle for hour after hour ‘til a kangaroo happened along, but the bullets are all gone now, and my only rescuer is a dammed outlaw … and he came too late.’
Jim shook his head sadly. ‘Will you let me look at the leg now?’
Long Douglas shook his head, ‘If you’d come along a week ago something might have been done, but I’m finished now – even taking my leg won’t help.’
Jim saw no reason to contradict him. The disease had progressed too far for even drastic measures. There were, however, things he would like to know from Long Douglas, and now seemed as good a time as any to ask them. ‘You know that Will Jones never murdered anyone, don’t you bloke? Clarkie was dead in the saddle when he rode into our camp on the Castlereagh country. What really happened on that day?’
Long Douglas put his pint pot down on the dust and stared into the flames, shaking his head slowly. ‘I didn’t kill him either.’
‘I know you pinned it on Will. That’s why you’ve chased him so hard. You want him dead so he can’t prove you wrong.’
‘This is bigger than just me and that cursed Will Jones. Now stop talking and let me rest.’
Within minutes Long Douglas was asleep, and Jim draped a blanket over the top to keep him warm.
Jim had seen sick men come to nefarious life before, so he was careful to set up his swag some distance away, sleeping with his revolver under his arm. He needn’t have worried, however, for Long Douglas was on his way to another world, shouting in his sleep at times – shouting a name over and over.
‘Curse you Tom Brody,’ he yelled. Then, ‘Don’t shoot him down, Tom.’ Finally he cried, ‘You can have my share in exchange for my life. You can have it all.’
Towards dawn the calling out stopped, and Jim rose to a golden dawn, awoken by the pure tones of a butcher bird in the trees, and the chattering of fairy wrens. Long Douglas was stiff and cold, as dead as any corpse Jim had seen, and he’d come across a few in his days.
Jim closed the dead man’s eyelids and used the spade from the packhorse to dig a grave – away from the rocks where the going was easier. He wrapped Long Douglas in his blanket and lowered him down, filled the hole and fashioned a rough cross from mulga sticks. It was a lonely duty and he wished Will and Sam were with him.
After a few words over the grave, that even Jim knew were pretty much meaningless, he rode away, still wondering who Tom Brody was, and whether he might be the perpetrator of the murder of which Will had been falsely accused.
© Greg Barron 2022