Will Jones and the Blue Dog
Gamilaroi Jim was not dull enough to ride into the Coonabarabran police station and announce the death of Long Douglas. Yet, he felt a responsibility to the man’s widow. Jim was the only one who knew what had happened to the police sergeant, and he had some private possessions in his saddlebags: a few letters that he could not read, a photograph in a tiny frame, and an intricate folding knife.
Jim gave the matter a lot of thought during two weeks spent at the Forked Mountain reserve on the Gunnedah Road. This was a reserve of around five hundred acres where most of his family were living, compressed from their old range that stretched from the mighty Castlereagh River across the plains to the Warrumbungles. This was a time of renewing relationships, remembering old skills, and affirming his place in the world he had been born into; now vastly changed.
A sense of responsibility compelled Jim to ride on, close to Coonabarabran, setting up his camp on the river, fishing and thinking. Later, after a feed of yellowbelly roasted on the coals, he walked into town. It took a few discreet conversations at the Royal Hotel to learn that Long Douglas’s residence was on Nandi Street, at the south-eastern end of town.
‘Sergeant Douglas ain’t been seen for some months,’ said the informant. ‘Lots a’ rumours around – includin’ one that he’s bin shot by Will Jones.’
‘That one’s not true, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘I can tell you that for certain.’
Informing a woman of her husband’s death seemed like too dour a duty for night-time, so Jim waited until the next morning, broke camp, and rode up George Street with his pack horse trailing behind. Turning up Nandi, he stopped at the correct address, tied his horses to the front fence and knocked on the door.
A woman in a green house dress appeared at the door, all curves and manicure. Her hair was blonde, with ringlets at the side, yet there was a hardness to her face as she appeared to realise that her caller was not the one she was expecting.
‘Can I help you?’ she asked.
‘Are you Missus Douglas?’ Jim asked.
‘I am. Who are you and what do you want?’
‘You might want to sit down with a cuppa tea, missus. I’ve brought bad news.’
The woman shrugged, ‘Take your boots off if you insist on coming inside.’
Joe did as he was asked, slipping off his ‘lastic sided boots, then walking inside and taking a seat at the kitchen table opposite his hostess. After a few barked instructions the maid fetched the kettle from the wood stove, pouring two cups of tea and placing one in front of Jim, the other in front of her mistress.
‘Now, I’m very busy, and I don’t have time for sitting around with strangers. What is the reason for this intrusion?’
‘As I said, it’s bad news for you, Missus. Your husband, Sergeant Douglas, is dead. He were thrown from a horse and being alone he got gangrene. I buried him myself.’
Mrs Douglas fingered a chain that hung around her finely sculpted neck. ‘Roger is dead? Are you sure it was him?’
‘It were surely him.’ Jim placed a cloth-wrapped package on the table.
She unwrapped it slowly, showing no emotion at the sight of the little knife and her own photograph. She made no effort to open any of the letters. ‘Are you sure it wasn’t you that killed him? He was on the trail of some dangerous outlaws and you look like one yourself.’
Jim shook his head, ‘I wouldn’t be sitting here if I had, would I missus?’
‘I don’t know, would you?’
There was the sound of boots on the stoop and a man entered the house without knocking or removing his footwear. It was the entrance of a man who felt like he belonged here. He was at least six foot tall, with a chin like a shovel blade, and shoulders as wide across and sturdy as a bullock yoke.
‘Who the blazes are you, and what are you doing here?’ growled the man when he saw Jim.
Jim knew the type. This was one of those men who went through life taking whatever he wanted, from whoever they wanted. ‘Me name’s Jim. And I brung bad news after a long ride. I’m just leavin’ now, as it happens,’ he said.
‘My name is Tom Brody, an’ if I see you around here again it’ll be the worse for you.’
Jim stared. So this was Tom Brody. The man whose name Long Douglas had called out to so many times in his sleep. He studied the depths behind his eyes and wondered what he knew about the death of John Clarke, and of Joe McCartney, for that matter.
Jim put on his hat and tipped it to the widow, then walked past Tom Brody. Outside, after slipping on his boots he saw that Brody had tethered his horse beside his own, unsaddled it and left a serious work of art sitting on the front porch rail.
It was a new Jack Wieneke saddle from Roma, high in the back, with practical knee rolls and intricate carvings in the leather flap. It was a saddle that would have cost three months of a working man’s salary, and might last ten or more years of hard usage.
Jim’s own saddle was almost threadbare, the wooden tree having worn through the leather. It was uncomfortable for both man and horse and he’d been looking for an opportunity to replace it for some time.
From inside he could hear Tom Brodie’s voice raised, obviously berating Missus Douglas for letting him in. Jim hesitated not a moment longer. He had the girth of his own saddle undone in an instant, and Tom Brody’s model off the rail and onto his horse’s back to replace it. The contents of the saddlebags – a few cartridges, a folded kerchief and some papers, he dropped to the lawn. Lastly he transferred the contents of his own saddlebags to his new possession. This done, he swung up onto the horse and headed away down the street at a trot.
As Jim left town, pointing his horse northwards towards Queensland, he understood at least part of the reason why Long Douglas had cried out the name of Tom Brody in the night, for it seemed to him that Brody had stolen the heart and body of his wife.
© Greg Barron 2022
Photo is of the Royal Hotel Coonabarabran. Courtesy Australian National University.