History Stories

Elizabeth Woolcock

By Greg Barron

The Old Adelaide Gaol stands on the south bank of the River Torrens, massive and silent. The thick stone walls, guard towers and block-like cells leave visitors in no doubt that from 1841 to 1988, this was a prison designed to dehumanise and isolate its inhabitants; those that the justice system had decided, for their crimes, to remove from society.

It was here, in the year 1873, that Elizabeth Lillian Woolcock was given just twenty-six days to live. Twenty-six days to ponder her sins. Twenty-six days to imagine how the rope would feel around her neck, and to reflect on the life and eventual crime that had made her a household name – the talk of every household in the state.

Elizabeth was born in Burra, South Australia, in April, 1848, to Cornish parents, John and Elizabeth Oliver. Like many of his countrymen, John had mining in his blood, and the family enjoyed the camaraderie of a strong community, tapping rich copper reefs in the dry hills around the town.

Like many others, the Olivers lived in a home burrowed into the banks of Kooringa Creek. In June 1851, a major flood swept down the waterway, sending a churning wave of destructive water through these underground abodes. At least one man was drowned trying to retrieve his belongings, and it’s likely that the Oliver family lost everything they owned. These were tough times, and neither of Elizabeth’s younger siblings, John and Catherine, survived early childhood.

When Elizabeth was five years old, her mother left home. John, living at least temporarily at Tynte Street, North Adelaide, placed the following advertisement in the South Australian Register: This is to certify that my wife, Elizabeth Oliver, has left her home without any just cause or provocation. I will not be accountable for any debts she may incur or contract after this date.

Unable to stay away from the mining way of life for long, John followed thousands of other gold seekers across the border to Ballarat, hunting the yellow metal while trying to care for his little girl. He staked a claim at Creswick Creek, and Elizabeth was often left in the tent alone when he went out to work, though she was likely to have attended the local school after it opened in 1854.

It was a difficult time. Elizabeth was still a child when the Eureka Rebellion swept through the area. John Oliver played at least a minor role. It seems likely that his daughter was a witness to at least some of the violence that erupted between the diggers and police.

When Elizabeth was seven, she was alone in the tent when an itinerant by the name of George Shawshaw came to the flap and asked for a smoke. Elizabeth gave him her father’s pipe, and when he had finished smoking he seized her by the throat, half suffocating her. He then raped her, a crime so vicious that the judge called it “one of the most atrocious cases” he had ever presided over.  Shawshaw was sentenced to death by hanging, though this was commuted to a long jail term.  

Elizabeth’s injuries were so severe they left her unable to bear children. A local doctor gave her opium for the pain, the beginning of a lifelong addiction, and more changes were on the way. While still a girl she was engaged as a servant to a Mr Lees, a Creswick chemist. Through her early teens Elizabeth had a steady supply of the drug she craved. At fifteen she left her employment and moved to Ballarat, living in a boarding house that may have doubled as a brothel. She was using opium and supplying it to prostitutes, a trade in which she may have been employed herself.

Elizabeth’s mother, during this period, had remarried. A few years later, despite facing bankruptcy in 1862, the elder Elizabeth started looking for the daughter she had abandoned so many years earlier.

After receiving a message from a travelling minister, in 1864 Elizabeth moved in with her mother and stepfather at another Cornish mining stronghold in South Australia, Moonta. At this point, for a while at least, the young woman had something of a normal life. Her mother and stepfather were active in the Wesleyan Church, and Elizabeth became a Sunday school teacher. She also took up employment as a servant to a local widower, Thomas Woolcock.

When Elizabeth’s stepfather heard rumours that Woolcock was enjoying sexual favours from her, he threatened to break her legs. Undeterred by the threat, she married her employer, despite warnings from her stepfather that he was a bad type of man. During this time her drug addiction continued, using morphine obtained legally from local chemists.

Woolcock, however, was strict, violent and unpredictable. He found fault with her housekeeping, and accused her of having an affair with a boarder called Tom Pascoe. Then, when his dog died suddenly, he suspected that Pascoe might have poisoned the animal. The canine’s rotting body was later exhumed and tested, with high levels of mercury found in its internal organs.

Pascoe was certainly Elizabeth’s co-conspirator in obtaining opium, along with a powder that was most likely precipitate of mercury. He sometimes acted as her representative, using handwritten notes in false names. Her stepson, Thomas John, was also enlisted for this purpose.

As Elizabeth later wrote: “I was not married long, before I found out what sort of man I had got, and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good. But was too late then so I had to make the best of it. I tried to do my duty to him and the children but the more I tried the worse he was. He was fond of drink but he did not like to part with his money for anything else and God only knows how he ill-treated me. I put up with it for three years, during that time my parents went to Melbourne and then he was worse than ever.”

Periodic attempts to leave home and run for Adelaide did not help, for Woolcock tracked her down and dragged her back. Addicted to opium, and trapped in an abusive marriage, Elizabeth tried to hang herself. The plan would have succeeded but for the weakness of the beam she tied her rope to – it broke when she kicked away her chair.

When Woolcock fell ill, Elizabeth consulted a series of doctors, giving at least the appearance of trying to save her husband. Nothing seemed to work.  Thomas slid towards death, and on the 4th of September 1873 the undertaker called to collect his body.

The local rumour mill went into overdrive. After all, Elizabeth’s desperate need for opiates was well known, and rumours of an affair with Tom Pascoe had kept tongues wagging for months. An inquest was convened and the finger was pointed at Elizabeth. She was charged with murdering her husband by mixing toxic mercury powder into his food, and sent to trial.

The jury had no trouble finding her guilty, and she was sentenced to be hung by the neck until she was dead. It is ironic that Elizabeth’s rapist was granted clemency, and spared the rope, but she herself was not, despite a recommendation for leniency from the jury. 

Most death sentences were carried out after twenty-one days, but Elizabeth had twenty-six because they did not want to hang her on Christmas Day. On December the 30th, Elizabeth was led from her cell in the company of her last confidant, Reverend Bickford. The hangman placed a noose around her neck, allowing the regulation amount of slack, then finally released the trigger that caused the trap door to fall away. After hanging for the prescribed period of one hour, she was pronounced as deceased, then buried between the inner and outer gaol walls.

Over the years, some researchers and historians have argued that Elizabeth was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. A petition was circulated to have her conviction posthumously quashed. The suggestion received short thrift from the attorney general, but some doubt does remain.

The physical evidence that Thomas Woolcock (and his dog) died from mercury poisoning was not conclusive by modern standards. The cause of death was initially given as “pure exhaustion from excessive and prolonged vomiting and purging.” Mercury was found, however, in dangerous levels in his organs, particularly his stomach, much more than could be attributed to the small amount in some of the medicines he was prescribed.

A letter from Elizabeth, addressed to Reverend Bickford, was handed to the Adelaide Observer after the hanging. The newspaper published it in full, with this damning confession only adding to the public’s interest in the case: “I was so ill-treated that I was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour I yielded to the temptation. He was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarrelled with me and Satan tempted me and I gave him what I ought not.” Believers in her innocence assert that she only made the confession to impress her penitence on Reverend Bickford, who had been the minister at Moonta and whom she admired.

Whatever happened, Elizabeth was a tragic figure: the victim of careless parenthood, a savage crime and a violent marriage. Years of substance abuse may have been her way of coping with the demons of the past. She remains the only woman to be executed by the South Australian government, and a figure of mystery, sadness, and intrigue.

©2020 Greg Barron

The JC

The JC

In the late 1860s pastoralist and adventurer John Costello rode west from his holdings on Kyabra Creek, exploring the Channel Country out to the Diamantina. One night he camped beside a small creek, where he stripped back the bark of a bauhinia tree and carved his initials, JC.

That tree became a popular stopping place for travellers, and when an enterprising hotelier built a mud-brick pub on the site, he called it the JC Hotel. The government surveyor was sent in to lay out a town, but he refused to call the new town JC because it wasn’t proper. He named the place Canterbury instead, but to locals the name never changed.

In the mid-1880s the pub was being run by two men in partnership: Manners and Dalton. Not only did they spruce the place up, but apparently Mrs Dalton was a popular figure behind the bar. A visitor in 1885 reported that nearly thirty men sat down to eat breakfast at the hotel.

The owner of nearby Waverney Station, a man by the name of Gibbs, built a store next to the pub. It was apparently “fully stocked with all the requirements of a country store.” A post office was opened in 1891, and ran for a couple of years before being downgraded to a receiving office.

In 1893 the pub was being run by George and Elizabeth Geiger. Their son, also named George, was not quite two and a half, playing in the yard when he wandered off. One story goes that he had a pet lamb, and when it was taken by a dingo, he followed.

Every available adult, including some capable trackers, were enlisted to find young George, but the flock of goats kept by the family had obliterated his tracks, and the mulga scrub made it hard to see more than a few yards. They found him in the end, much too late, and the dingos had finished him off. His grave still stands in the small cemetery there.

The pub was the venue for regular dances, and an annual race meeting. Most importantly it gave travellers a friendly place to stop between Windorah and Bedourie. The beer flowed for another half century before the manager of Waverney bought it for a pittance and shut it down. He was sick of his stockmen spending their free time there and riding home drunk.

Story, research and photographs by Greg Barron.
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The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

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It was April the 2nd 1902 when Queensland policeman, Constable Doyle, closed in on Patrick and James Kenniff at a rugged mountain hideout called Lethbridge’s Pocket. With the manager of Carnarvon Station, Albert Dahlke, and a tracker called Sam Johnson for company, Doyle stealthily approached the camp.

Wanted for horse stealing, Jim and Patrick had been in trouble with the law before, and both had served time. Born and raised in New South Wales, they moved to Queensland one step ahead of the bailiffs. Then, from a base in the Upper Warrego area they raced horses, ran illegal books, and stole livestock at night. When police arranged for the lease on their land to be terminated, the brothers became outlaws, and rarely rode unarmed.

Dahlke and Constable Doyle got lucky at first. Patrick managed to slip away, but they chased Jim on horseback and rode him down. When tracker Sam Johnson was sent back to fetch handcuffs he heard five gunshots. Patrick had returned for his brother, with deadly result.

Sam was forced to ride for his life, but he returned later with a man called Burke. In two pack bags they found the charred remains of Dahlke and Doyle.

A huge manhunt followed, but the two brothers stayed on the loose for more than two months before they were tracked to a ridge just south of Mitchell called Bottle Tree Hill (pictured above). Four policemen; Constables Tasker, Scanlan, Meston and Cramb surrounded the camp, and waited until sunrise when they were able to surprise the sleeping men. Patrick and Jim both fled on foot.

Patrick had no time to locate a weapon, and was easily ridden down by Constable Cramb. Jim fled with both loaded rifles, but was captured on the road back towards Mitchell, near what is now called Arrest Creek.

The brothers were placed on trial on Brisbane, and found guilty of wilful murder. Public sympathy, however, was on the side of the Kenniff brothers, in part because of a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling at the time. Jim’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Patrick was promised an appointment with the gallows.

Four thousand people marched outside Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol to protest the execution, but the government held firm. Patrick had his neck broken by the rope on the 12th of January, 1903, still protesting his innocence.

Below are the words to one of several ballads in circulation at the time. They are believed to have greatly boosted public sympathy for Patrick and his brother, who served only twelve years of his life sentence.

THE EXECUTION OF PADDY KENNIFF
by John Creevey 1867-1912

With head erect he left his cell, he needed no man’s aid,
He walked upon the scaffold, and this is what he said:
“My name is Patrick Kenniff, I am condemned to die,
As witness of my innocence I call my God on high.
To my few friends I bid farewell, the last farewell I’ll say,
My time has come and soon I’ll be a lifeless lump of clay.
I wish to thank the warders, who have treated me so well,
And the Rev. Father O’Riley, who saved my soul from hell.”
Then forward came the noble priest, and shook poor Paddy’s hand,
“Paradise is yours,” he said, “when you quit this sinful land.”
The good priest then began to pray, he prayed ’till all was o’er,
The lever wrenched the scaffold sprung, poor Paddy was no more;
He may have died an innocent man, ’tis very hard to say,
There were other men in Killman’s Gap, upon that fatal day;
Then let’s not judge lest we be judged, by him who judges all,
And never despise your fellow man, if he should chance to fall.

 

Story researched and written by Greg Barron. Photo by Greg Barron.

Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History now available at ozbookstore.com
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Mary Watson of Lizard Island

Mary Watson of Lizard Island

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The ruins of a stone cottage, once the home of pioneer Mary Watson, lie crumbling up behind the beach at Watson’s Bay on Lizard Island, three hundred kilometres north of Cairns.

Mary was born in Cornwall, and her family settled in Maryborough, Queensland, when she was seventeen. Both educated and musical, Mary easily won a position in Brisbane as a governess.

Mary’s employer, Mr Bouel, decided that her talents were wasted teaching children. He took her to Cooktown to play piano in a hotel he owned there, and in that wild frontier town she grew up fast.

Belting out popular tunes on the piano at the bar, Mary couldn’t help but notice when a handsome, fit man called Robert Watson swaggered in one night. Mary learned that he, in partnership with his mate Percy Fuller, ran a beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) fishing operation on Lizard Island.

Seduced, perhaps, by tales of one of the world’s most beautiful islands, Mary married Bob a few weeks later, and packed for the journey north.

By 1880, still just twenty years old, Mary was running an island household and a small farm with the help of some Chinese labourers. She kept a record of the trials and triumphs of her life in a journal, which survives to this day.

Within a few months Mary was pregnant, and she returned to Cooktown where she gave birth to her son Thomas. Once she felt confident of her abilities in raising the child she headed back to Lizard Island and the love of her life.

Bob, Percy and another man headed off to a distant island on a fishing trip. They had not noticed a fleet of canoes crossing the thirty-five kilometre stretch of water from the mainland.

With most of the white men absent, the local Dingaal people, who had fished and hunted on the island for millennia, attacked. Ah Leong, one of the Chinese workers, was killed, and another seriously wounded.

Mary, her baby Thomas, and the wounded man, Ah Sam, put to sea in a cut-down iron water tank. They drifted in terrible heat for eight days before washing up on an uninhabited island in the Howick Group.

The final entry in Mary’s journal reads: “No water. Nearly dead with thirst.” Their bodies were found three months later, and transported to Cooktown for burial.

Taking their cue from an outraged public, the local constabulary inflicted a terrible revenge on the Dingaal people. A sad end to a heart-wrenching tale.

 

Story and Pictures by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com

Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

 

Nemarluk

Nemarluk

Idriess

Nemarluk was a fighting man of the Daly River people who would not be tamed. Born in 1911, by the 1930s he and a small band of young men were waging an effective guerrilla war against interlopers on his territory.

The Fitzmaurice and Daly River areas had never been fully settled. With the region’s jagged sandstone gorges and winding rivers, pastoral pursuits were difficult, and supply routes subject to ambush. Nemarluk grew up in a time of conflict and, according to oral tradition, swore to keep his land free of outsiders, their laws, and their guns.

Three Japanese shark fishermen sailed their lugger into the Daly River near Port Keats. Their names were Nagata, Yoshida and Owashi. They anchored in a backwater and made contact with Nemarluk and his community, who were camped on the river bank.

Nemarluk was aware that the lugger was packed with stores, along with highly-prized iron and tobacco. He was also mindful of his oath to rid his lands of foreigners. He formulated a plan to attack and kill the Japanese without risking his people to their deadly guns.

The first step was to make the Japanese trust them. They brought food aboard, served by the most attractive young women in the group. Nemarluk then suggested to Nagata, the captain, that he might go ashore to a lagoon and shoot as many ducks as he wanted.

Nagata took up the invitation, and was delighted to find that the lagoon really was alive with ducks. He shot a great number, walking further along the banks as he went. Waiting until the Japanese captain was thigh deep in water, Nemarluk gave the signal. They attacked and killed him.

Nemarluk took the geese back to the lugger, telling the other Japanese that Nagata was attempting to shoot some kangaroos. Once they were aboard the Aborigines produced hidden weapons and killed the rest of the crew.

A frenzy of looting followed: more tobacco than they had seen in their lives, iron implements that could be filed down into spear points, along with blankets and vessels of all types. They also found guns.

It was rumours of guns in the possession of the group that provoked a strong reaction from the NT Police. Two parties were soon on the trail of Nemarluk and his comrades. The most feared of these was the mounted policemen Pryor, Birt, and the tracker, Bulbul.

Despite seeking refuge in the rugged Fitzmaurice region, most of Nemarluk’s comrades were arrested for murder and faced the death sentence. Months later their leader was also captured.

Even then, Fannie Bay Jail could not hold this wild spirit. Nemarluk escaped by swimming across Darwin Harbour to the Cox Peninsula, a distance of at least eight kilometres.
Heading back into his homelands, Nemarluk continued to elude the police for years. This article from the Northern Standard newspaper gives an account of his capture.

“Nemarluk was captured after two and a half years of continuous searching by officers and black trackers, who covered 21,000 miles of country. The capture occurred when Constable Birt was stationed at Timber Creek, in the western part of the Territory. Black trackers who were in his charge found Nemarluk at Legune Station in March, 1934. Constable Birt later escorted Nemarluk to Darwin to face a three-year-old charge of having been concerned in the murder of three Japanese at Port Keats.

“Nemarluk had been arrested after the murder, but escaped from the Fanny Bay Gaol, and was at large until Constable Birt’s trackers found him. Bulbul, the leading tracker, was also responsible for the recapture of Minemara, another escaped native murderer who had been concerned in the killing of the Japanese, and who was captured in June last year.”

Nemarluk’s exploits became the subject of a popular book by author Ion Idriess, who met the outlaw several times, and was impressed by his physical strength and demeanour.

The dust jacket introduced the book with the romantic assertion: “Here now is Nemarluk’s life story – the tragic adventures of the young chief who was a living Tarzan of the wilds.”

I doubt Idriess himself made that one up.

Story and Pictures by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Elizabeth Woolcock

Elizabeth Woolcock

Elizabeth Woolcock.jpg

Elizabeth Woolcock was the only woman ever to be executed in South Australia. Convicted of killing her husband by poisoning him with mercury, she was hanged by the neck until she was dead on the portable gallows at the old Adelaide Gaol.

A letter from Elizabeth addressed to a Reverend Bickford, who had been counselling her before her death, was handed to the Adelaide Observer after the hanging. They published it in full on January 3, 1874.

THE LAST STATEMENT AND CONFESSION OF ELISABETH WOOLCOCK.

I was born in the Burra mine in the province of South Australia in the year 1847. My parents’ names were John and Elisabeth Oliver. They were Cornish. They came to this colony in 1842 but they went to Victoria in 1851. 1 was left without the care of a mother at the age of 4 years and I never saw her again until I was 18. My father died when I was 9 years old and I had to get my living until I was 18 and then I heard that my mother was alive and residing at Moonta Mine. She wrote me a letter asking me to come to her as she had been very unhappy about me and was very sorry for what she had done. I thought I should like to see my mother and have a home like other young girls so I gave up my situation and came to Adelaide.

My mother and my stepfather received me very kindly and I had a good home for two years. My mother and stepfather were members of the Wesleyan Church and I became a teacher in the Sunday School for two years. At the end of that time I first saw my late husband Thomas Woolcock.

I believe my stepfather was a good man but he was very passionate and determined. My late husband was a widower with two children. His wife had been dead about eight months when I went to keep house for him against Stepfather’s wishes. I kept house for him for six weeks when someone told my stepfather that I was keeping company with Thomas Woolcock. He asked me if it was true and I told him it was not but he would not believe me. He called me a liar and told me he would cripple me if I went with him any more.

I, being very self-willed, told him that I had not been with the man but I would go with him now if he asked me. This took place on the Thursday morning. I saw my husband in the evening and he asked me what was the matter and I told him what had taken place the following Sunday. He asked me to go with him for a walk instead of going to chapel.

I went and my stepfather missed me from the chapel and came to look for me and met us both together so I was afraid to go home for he had said he would break both of my legs. I was afraid he would keep his word as I never knew him to tell a wilful lie. So I went to a cousin of my husband’s and stopped, and my husband asked me if I would marry him and for my word’s sake I did we were married the next Sunday morning by licence after the acquaintance of seven weeks.

I was not married long, before I found out what sort of man I had got, and that my poor stepfather had advised me for my good. But was too late then so I had to make the best of it. I tried to do my duty to him and the children but the more I tried the worse he was. He was fond of drink but he did not like to part with his money for anything else and God only knows how he ill-treated me. I put up with it for three years, during that time my parents went to Melbourne and then he was worse than ever.

I thought I would rather die than live so I tried to put an end to myself in several different ways but thank the Lord I did not succeed in doing so.

So as he did not treat me any better and I could not live like that I thought I would leave him and get my own life. So I left him but he would not leave me alone. He came and fetched me home and then I stopped with him twelve months and I left him again with the intention of going to my mother. I only took six pounds with me.

I came down to Adelaide and I stopped with my sister. I was here in Adelaide six weeks when he came and fetched me back again. But he did not behave no better to me. I tried my best to please him but I could not. There is no foundation at all for the story about the young man called Bascoe. He was nothing to me nor did I give the poor dog any poison for I knew what power the poison had as I took it myself for some months.

I was so ill-treated that I was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour I yielded to the temptation. He was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarrelled with me and Satan tempted me and I gave him what I ought not, but I thought at the time that if I gave him time to prepare to meet his God I should not do any great crime to send him out of the world.

But I see my mistake now. I thank God he had time to make his peace with his maker and I hope I shall meet him in heaven for I feel that God has pardoned all my sins. He has forgiven me and washed me white in the precious blood of Jesus. I feel this evening that I can rejoice in a loving Saviour. I feel his presence here tonight. He sustains me and gives me comfort under this heavy trial such as the world can never give.

Dear friend if I may call you so, I am much obliged to you for your kindness to a poor guilty sinner, but great will be your reward in heaven. I hope I shall meet you there, and I hope that God will keep me faithful to the end so may be able to say that live is Christ but to Die will be gain. Bless the Lord he will not torn away any that come unto him for he says come onto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. I feel I have that rest. I hope to die singing victory through the blood of the lamb. I remain sir, ours truly a sinner saved by grace.

Elizabeth Woolcock

 

Steele Rudd

Steele Rudd

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“It’s twenty years ago now since we settled on the Creek. Twenty years! I remember well the day we came from Stanthorpe, on Jerome’s dray – eight of us, and all the things – beds, tubs, a bucket, the two cedar chairs with the pine bottoms and backs that Dad put in them, some pint-pots and old Crib. It was a scorching hot day, too – talk about thirst! At every creek we came to we drank till it stopped running.”

So begins the first-ever published story by Arthur Davis, better known as Steele Rudd.

Born in 1868, Arthur Davis was six years old when he and his brothers and sisters, walking beside a cart piled high with furniture and farm equipment, arrived at “Shingle Hut” on the Darling Downs, there to make their fortune. “Dad” had arrived a few weeks earlier and knocked up a rough slab hut. Before long, through drought, flood and very occasional plenty the family had swelled to thirteen children.

The young Arthur, was, according to a much later recollection by his son Eric; “six feet tall—active and athletic—his carriage was erect—also his seat on horseback. He had a ruddy complexion with twinkling brown eyes—keenly alert and observant, with wrinkles at his temples which lent a humorous outlook. Kindness was one of his virtues, and he was generous to the extreme.”

At the local school, Emu Creek, Arthur was quiet and hard working. There was one little girl who liked to sit with him in the playground, and talk about horses, dogs and books. Her name was Christina Brodie, always called “Tean” for short.

By the age of twelve Arthur had finished school and was earning a living ‘picking up’ at the woolshed on nearby Pilton Station, and honing his skills as a jockey at the local picnic races. After a stint as a drover “out west” his mother arranged for him to apply for the civil service. His application was successful and he soon found himself in the foreign world of turn-of-the-century Brisbane.

His first job was with the office of the Curator of Intestate Estates, and a later book called “The Miserable Clerk” gives a clue to what he thought of this particular job. A flatmate, however, got him into reading Charles Dickens, and his interest in rowing led to him writing a series of articles under the pen name “Steele Rudder,” later changed to “Steele Rudd.”

After a few years in the city he missed the bush life so much that he began to read everything he could about the outback. Eventually, he had a go at writing his own stories. His first sketch of life growing up in his boisterous family, “Starting the Selection,” was published in the Bulletin Magazine in 1895, championed by J.F. Archibald, the force behind so much great Australian literature.

That same year, Arthur headed back home and asked his childhood sweetheart, Christina, to marry him. She was full of fun and good sense, and had a keen editing pen. It was “Tean” who first read and helped hone Arthur’s early stories.

“On Our Selection” was published in full by the Bulletin Magazine in 1899, followed by “Our New Selection” in 1903. Both won popular and critical acclaim. Two of the main characters, Dad and Dave, became part of Australian folklore.

Partly because his bosses were jealous of his success, Arthur was retrenched from his public service job, and responded by moving to Sydney and starting his own magazine. Nothing could keep him down. As his son Eric later said of him: “He was always a man’s man, tough, testy, a good friend.”

All was not well with Tean. The lack of a steady family income tested her disposition. The magazine slowly dropped in sales, then was forced to close, making her state of mind worse. Believing that a big change might help, Arthur took the family back home to the Darling Downs, settling on a property called “The Firs,” where he bred polo ponies and entered local politics, becoming head of the Cambooya Shire Council.

During World War One their son Gower was badly injured at the Somme, and Tean’s “frailty” became full blown mental illness. The family were forced to sell up and move to Brisbane where she could receive special care. She was hospitalised permanently in 1919, remaining there until her death more than twenty years later.

“Steele Rudd” never stopped writing until his death in 1935, but made little money in his later years. A grateful nation endowed him with a “literary pension” to the tune of twenty-five shillings per week, for which he was apparently grateful.

Arthur published many other books and stories over his lifetime, including his ill-fated magazine, and but nothing ever approached the freshness and honesty of his first two works, On our Selection, and Our new Selection. They are true classics, and an insight into how life was, “back then.”

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.
Click here to view the sources for this story.


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The McGree Brothers of Taylors Arm

The McGree Brothers of Taylors Arm

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John, Michael and Patrick McGree were raised on their parents’ farm on the Mid-north coast of NSW. All three answered the call to arms in 1915. The ANZAC battalions were forming up, and the brothers were determined to have their chance at glory.

Their mother, Bridget Sullivan, had married Irishman James McGree in St Augustine’s Church, Longford, Tasmania in 1874. The young couple moved north and took up a selection on Hickey’s Creek near Kempsey. Life was tough, but like most good Catholics they welcomed children, bringing twelve boys and girls into the world over a twenty-five-year period.

Patrick, the oldest of the three McGree boys who served, was a born adventurer. He headed off to New Zealand at an early age, living in Waiapo and Gisborne. He kept in touch with his Australian family via mail and occasional visits.

In 1914, when war broke out, Patrick was 31 years old, yet he signed on with the Wellington Infantry, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Michael crossed the Tasman Sea to join his brother, but was waylaid by an unscheduled love affair. He married his Kiwi girl, Nellie, just before heading off for intensive training in Egypt.

John, still at home on the farm outside Taylors Arm, was 22 when he joined up in 1915. He was a small, wiry man, weighing just 58 kg, and of average height. In fact, none of the McGree boys were tall, but were all as tough as nails, with brilliant blue eyes and Irish charm. The doctor examining Michael for his enlistment described him as having a “grand constitution.”

Patrick and Michael, though assigned to different units, both took their place amongst the bloody heroes of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. Both survived the early days of suicide charges on the well-entrenched Turks, but natural attrition took its toll. Patrick was killed on August 8, 1915, in the defence of a hill called Chunuk Bair.

Michael was wounded in the last days of the Gallipoli campaign, and was evacuated to the Fulham Military Hospital in England. His recuperation was slow, and he endured hospitalisation for almost six months before being returned to his unit, judged as fit to serve in the hellish trenches of France.

On the 28th of July 1916 that “tough little bastard” John McGree was one of thousands sent in human waves against the German trenches at the Battle of the River Somme. He was shot in the chest and back. He was still alive when he reached the field hospital, but died within twenty-four-hours. He was buried at the nearby Warloy-Baillon Military Cemetery.

James and Bridget received the usual telegram from Base Records in Melbourne informing them of John’s death: a message just fourteen words long. Losing one son was hard enough. The loss of a second must have been hard to bear.

Bridget penned a desperate letter back to Base Records.

Dear Sir

Please could you give me any information about the death of my son Pte John A McGree No. 3888, who died of wounds in France …  I would like to know the name of the hospital where he died, also if he was seriously wounded or what caused his death. What were his last words and where is he buried? Please send reply as soon as possible

B. McGree,

Taylor’s Arm, via Macksville

Five months passed before she received any additional information: a kind letter informing her of the nature of John’s wounds and the name of the hospital and cemetery. John’s personal effects also arrived in the mail: one religious medallion, three handkerchiefs, two brushes, a cap comforter, one photograph and a notebook.

By July 1918, the surviving brother, Michael McGree, was a veteran of three years of the most terrible warfare mankind had ever known. On the morning of July 18, 1918, just months before the end of the war, his company were ordered to attack a fortified German trench at Gommecourt Wood, France. Running into a hail of lead, Michael was killed in action, just a few kilometres away from the site of his brother John’s death, two years earlier.

Their father, James McGree died at the age of 86, in 1928. Bridget lived on until she was 87, a highly respected local pioneer, and a matriarch of the Laverty, Brock, and McGree families. She died in 1940 and was buried in Macksville cemetery.

The strength she must have had to shoulder the grief of three lost sons is a testament to the spirit of not just the Anzacs, but their families.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Galloping Jones

Galloping Jones

 

Queensland has produced a character or two over the years, but John Dacey “Galloping” Jones takes some beating. Apart from being one of the most talented rough riders of his generation, and one hell of a bare-knuckle fighter, he was famously light-fingered.

Galloping Jones got his nickname from a horse race where he and his mates prepared a ring-in. Apart from boot polish cunningly applied to a white blaze on the nose, part of the trick was to make the substitute’s tail longer. Unfortunately the glue they used to fix the tail extensions started melting half way through the race. The crowd noticed pretty quickly. Jones and his mount reached the finish line ahead of the pack, but rather than face the stewards he just kept on galloping, through the gates and into the bush.

One night Jones complained that when he walked into a pub everyone left.

Riding an outlaw: The Queenslander Magazine

“I don’t leave,” said a voice. Jones turned to see a big bloke called Treacle MacFarlane walking towards him.

“And why don’t you leave, Treacle?”

“Because I can fight just as well as you can.”

Legend has it that they fought for two hours before the bout was declared a draw.

No one could best Jones on a horse, and his freakish ability to stay in the saddle saw him recruited to Lance Skuthorpe’s famous travelling show. Jones’s fame at riding buckjumpers was such that he would ride into town and dare locals to bring out their worst horses just so he could tame them. More than once, if he liked the horse, he lived up to his name and just kept on galloping.

According to the ‘’Queenslander’’ newspaper:

“Galloping” Jones has established the fact that he is a master horseman, and he is recognised as such today. As a horseman and stockman he is recognised as one of the central figures of the Gulf districts. He could be relied on to tame any horse that any other man had failed with, and while he may not quieten him sufficient for any ordinary rider he would never be thrown himself.

Jones joined up in World War One and came back with even less regard for authority than when he left. Police gazettes list charges against him for assault, creating a disturbance and using obscene language. He robbed at least one bank and was shot in the shoulder for resisting arrest. He was known to steal, sell, and then re-steal the same cattle on the same day.

Another time, arrested for horse theft, he asked his captors for permission to head behind a bush for a “call of nature.” When they went looking for him Jones had run off, but recapturing him wasn’t hard. The police found him at the nearest pub.

Even past his prime, Jones was not afraid to stick his neck out. In 1926 the Northern Herald Newspaper carried a challenge from Jones to a boxer called Bob Smith to take him on for a prize of £25. The paper noted that, “Promoter Bob Ditton said that when he presented the agreements to Smith last night the latter seemed unwilling to meet Jones.”

One year later Jones appeared before the police magistrate in Rockhampton, charged with “using obscene language in a public place, assaulting Constable WH Langhorne whilst in execution of his duty, and resisting arrest.”

There’s a sad side to all this. Jones married in 1913 and had three children. The relationship didn’t work out, and he was often in trouble for failing to provide maintenance payments. He was a free spirit, and couldn’t stick to anything for long. That must have been hard on his family.

As an old man, in a nursing home in Charters Towers, Galloping Jones continued to cause trouble – fighting, getting drunk and wandering off to the pub. He died in 1960.

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view the sources for this story.

The Eulo Queen

The Eulo Queen

More than a century ago, when the town of Eulo was a thriving centre on the Western Queensland opal fields, one of Australia’s most interesting women set out to make her mark. She was a short but striking redhead, spoke English, French and German, wore tight-fitting dresses over a voluptuous body, and had a fully-stocked bar in her bedroom.

Isobel Robinson, or the Eulo Queen, as she became known, was soon a legend from Quilpie to Lightning Ridge. Reputed to own the world’s finest collection of opals, she was also one of country Queensland’s biggest hoteliers, and boasted thousands of admirers. Every night she would hold court over the bar of the Royal Mail Hotel, carrying on with her delighted customers. Behind the fashionable gowns and diamond earrings, however, was a shrewd business brain.

Right from the beginning, Isobel had attitude. She was a crack rifle and pistol shot, a brilliant billiards player and apparently a shrewd card cheat. She also liked men, marrying three times. Her first husband died only a few weeks after the wedding. The second was a station manager called William Robinson who invited her out to the Paroo, and they leased their first hotel together in around 1886.

By 1902, when William died, they owned five pubs, a store and a butcher’s shop, but trouble was on the way. The Licensing Commission decided that Isobel was not a fit person to hold a liquor licence. She countered this by bribing travellers camped along the river to act as proxies, but when they decided that this entitled them to free beer, the writing was on the wall.

Both the town of Eulo and its queen were in decline. Isobel enjoyed several “round the world” trips with rich squatters, then married again, to a man twenty-four years younger than her. The Eulo Queen’s bad luck with husbands continued. He was killed in action during World War One.

Alfred Bourke, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1951, remembered meeting the Eulo Queen in his youth.

In 1921, I, a smooth-faced stripling, rode into Eulo with other drovers and met this still remarkable woman. Her ‘domain’ was then only a ramshackle store down by the banks of the Paroo. No trace of her beauty then remained, but her keen business instincts and feminine wiles were still much in evidence.

Isobel died in a mental home in 1929, leaving an estate worth just thirty pounds.

Story and Pictures by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

Nat Buchanan

Nat Buchanan

Portrait of Nathaniel Buchanan

 

The greatest drover the world has ever known was an unassuming Irish-born Australian with an even temper, incredible organisational skills and an unerring sense of direction. Nat ‘Bluey’ Buchanan was a bushman par excellence with a passion for new horizons. He single-handedly opened up more country than some of our most famous explorers.

In 1861, for example, Nat Buchanan and his business partner Edward Cornish were out exploring in Western Queensland. Having taken up land to create Bowen Downs Station, they decided to poke around much further to the west. Penetrating all the way to the Diamantina River they discovered the tracks of a camel train. The tracks were, it turned out, made by one of the most expensive expeditions in the history of white exploration: Burke and Wills on their way from the Cooper Creek Depot to the Gulf of Carpentaria. That Buchanan and Cornish came upon those famous men and their entourage, while ‘poking around’ out west, with just one tracker and some packhorses, is a good illustration of the difference between independent bushmen and government sponsored explorers.

Nat’s family originally settled in New England, New South Wales, south of Armidale, but after an abortive trip to the Californian goldfields with his brothers, he headed for Queensland and the vast frontier. His first real foray into the wilderness was from Rockhampton with William Landsborough in 1860. Within a year they had formed Bowen Downs station on the Thomson River, and Nat was installed as manager.

Nat met the attractive brunette Catherine Gordon when by chance he rode into her family’s campsite near Rockhampton. The young couple were married soon after, and Nat took his bride out to Bowen Downs in a buggy.

Married or not, Buchanan had no intention of living a settled life. After checking out much of Western Queensland he started exploring the Gulf around Burketown, looking for suitable pastoral country for his partners in Bowen Downs. By 1867 he had struck out on his own again, heading south for a year or two on a Bellingen River (NSW) selection. Catherine must have thought he’d grown roots, but his adventurous years were barely getting started.

Moving Catherine and their son Gordon north again, he managed Craven Station for a while, then took on his first big droving contracts. He was the first white man to cross the Barkly Tablelands in 1877, sparking an explosion of land speculation. Most lease contracts, moreover, stipulated that the run had be stocked within two years. The owners were crying out for cattle and men to drove them.

Now in his fifties, Nat led the largest cattle drive in history – 20 000 head from St George in Queensland to Glencoe in the Northern Territory. He made the record books again a few years later, delivering the first cattle to the East Kimberley. One of his most harrowing achievements was the blazing of the bleak Murranji Track, from near Daly Waters to Victoria River Downs.

Charlie Gaunt, (the subject of my new book, Whistler’s Bones) later wrote that Nat Buchanan had four characteristics that made him great: bushmanship, organisation, observation, and initiative. Yet it was his sense of direction that impressed Charlie and his contemporaries the most.

Charlie relates a story from when he and Nat travelled from Eva Downs Station to Powell Creek in the Northern Territory.

On the open downs with not a tree or bush in sight we got off our horses to have a short spell and a smoke. It was between Bundara and Monmona Creeks. After a smoke we got on our horses and resumed our journey. After a time I discovered I had left my knife (a splendid cattle knife) when we got off for a spell. I mentioned it to Nat. “That will be alright,” he said, “We’ll get it on our return journey.” I thought to myself “A forlorn hope.”

On our return trip back to! Eva Downs, although we did not follow our tracks, and just rode aimlessly along, when we reached the spot, Buchanan pulled up his horse and pointing to the ground said, “There is your knife.”

Charlie never forgot it.

Nat’s great grandson, Bobbie Buchanan, described him as a “confident, strong-willed and uniquely self-sufficient man of great integrity.”  His organisational skills were legendary, and his ability to keep tough men on track and working together no less impressive.

Nat Buchanan’s rules on cattle drives were inviolate:

1)   Travel at speed. This was a technique he referred to as, “giving the cattle the gooseberry,” or just “the old gooseberry.”

2)   No alcohol in camp. In 1883 when he took over a drive to the Kimberley for W.H. Osmand and JA Panton, his first act was to tip out the demijohns of rum he found hidden in the drays. He was a teetotaller himself, and knew well the effect of grog in cattle camps.

3)   Never let wild Aborigines into a camp, male or female.

4)   No man should be left in camp alone.

On a drive through the Gulf in 1878, Nat was forced to head back to Normanton for provisions. He was away for some weeks, and the man he left in charge, Charles Bridson, relaxed these last two rules. Some very insistent Aborigines who knew a few words of pidgin talked their way into the camp. This error was compounded when Bridson rode off and left another man, Travers, alone in the camp.

Travers was making damper, dusted to the elbows in flour, when a steel hatchet that had been lying around the camp cleaved deep into the back of his skull. The event set off days of drama and revenge killings. Buchanan, on his return, was understandably incensed.

Nat’s plan now was to bring the family together on one of the largest cattle runs in history – Wave Hill Station – one of several leases Nat took up in partnership with his brother. Unfortunately the skills that made him a great drover and adventurer did not extend to management. Distance to markets and attacks on stock by the local Gurindji people were major problems.

Nat, by the way, was known for a generally conciliatory approach to Aboriginal people, and was spoken of fondly by Aboriginal workers in oral histories from the region. Cattle, fences and men were not welcomed by traditional owners, and conflict was a fact of the frontier, but Buchanan was never party to the “shoot on sight” mentality of some frontiersman.

Even at the age of seventy Nat was out exploring again, searching for a stock route from the Barkly Tableland to Western Australia. His health was poor by then, and in 1899 he retired to a small property near Walcha, New South Wales, with his beloved Catherine. He died two years later and his gravestone still stands in the Walcha cemetery, along with a plaque commemorating his life.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

This post appears in the book ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ by Greg Barron. You can get it at all good bookshops or at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

Catherine Cecilia Coleman wasn’t famous, but was typical of a generation of Australian settlers. She was born in Maitland, NSW in 1856, eldest of ten children. She married in 1871, at the age of 15, and had the first of her own children a couple of years later.

Her husband, John Douglas Coleman, was determined to make his mark in business, and in 1887 the young family packed up and moved north. Their new home would be the land of opportunity, Western Queensland, a wilderness only just then being opened up to cattle and sheep.

Arriving at Whittown (Isisford), near Longreach, the Barcoo River had broken its banks and was in full flood. Catherine’s quick-thinking brother Dan placed the young Catherine and her children in a large draper’s packing case and towed them across on a rope.

John moved them further west to the fledgling town of Forest Grove (Arrilalah), a natural stop for drovers and teamsters making their way up the Thomson River.

At Forest Grove John and Catherine built the mud-brick Club Hotel and a store, operating both for many years with the help of the resourceful Dan. The babies kept coming, and Catherine gave birth to ten children overall while mobs of cattle and sheep came up along the river bed, and dusty men in felt hats rode in to slake their thirst. Picnic races, held every few months, brought a colourful crowd of riders, punters and revellers in from stations and nearby towns.

Then, in September 1888, the dream ended. John fell ill, and did not recover. He died on the 26th of September, and was buried up behind the pub.

Catherine sold up and moved to Isisford, where she lived for 66 years. Her brother Dan also remained in the district. Even in her eighties Catherine was still slim and active, and could apparently read without glasses.

Catherine died in August 1944 at the age of 88. Only four of her ten children outlived her. At the time of her death she was survived by 30 grandchildren, 29 great grandchildren, and 12 great-great grandchildren. Most still lived in the Isisford district at that stage.

There is nothing left of the once thriving town of Arrilalah now but ruins, some signage placed by the Longreach Historical Society, and one gravestone.

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

The Town on the Flood Plain

The Town on the Flood Plain

Gundagia

Gundagai Flood 1900: National Library of Australia

 

Australia’s worst flood drowned one third of the population of Gundagai in 1852. The town was originally built on low-lying areas around a natural river crossing and Morley’s Creek. The inhabitants were used to being cut off by floodwaters, taking refuge in their lofts when the water rose.

Yet on June 24 1852, the rain kept falling and the river kept rising. By late that night, two metres of water had inundated or swept away many of the houses and huge floating trees were pummelling what was left.

When the sun rose the next day, eighty-nine people were dead, and dozens more were left clinging to trees and rooftops. Rowboats were useless in the swift water.

Yarri, Long Jimmy and Jacky Jacky, local Aboriginal men who had been warning Gundagai residents for years that their town would be washed away, launched their bark canoes in a desperate rescue attempt. Over the next two days, with the river now one mile across where the town used to be, at least forty, perhaps sixty more people were saved by the efforts of these Indigenous boatmen. Long Jimmy died from exposure after his efforts on the flooded river. Yarri and Jacky Jacky were rewarded with bronze medallions.

The town was eventually rebuilt on higher ground, but it still suffers from the occasional inundation, with water entering the main street in 2012, thankfully without loss of life.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

The Girder that Wouldn’t Fit

The Girder that Wouldn’t Fit

 

cooper

Things were tough in the NSW North Coast forests in 1907. All the cedar had been cut years earlier, prices for hardwoods had slumped, and the best way to make money was by shaping girders and sleepers.

Tamban Forest woodcutter Bob Cooper was lucky enough to snag an order for a huge 86 foot (26 m) girder from a Sydney construction company. Bob selected a giant ironbark tree, and skilfully felled it along the hill contour.

After trimming off the branches Bob used a string line blackened with charcoal as a straight-edge, and over days of back-breaking labour with a broad axe, finally squared the girder into the required 16 inch (400mm) square dimensions.

Promising a party for his friends and helpers on the basis of a forthcoming big cheque, Bob followed the girder as a bullock team dragged it down to Clybucca Creek, from which point it was punted up the Macleay River to Frederickton Wharf.

Moored at the wharf was the graceful three masted top-sail schooner, Alma Doepel, of one hundred and thirty one tons displacement. One look at the boat was enough to tell that the girder was far too big for the hold.

“No worries,” the captain said cheerfully, “we’ll get it aboard somehow.”

Bob had some business in Kempsey to attend to, but returned a couple of hours later to see that the Alma Doepel was still at the wharf, with no sign of the big girder.

“You got it in the hold?” Bob exclaimed. “How the hell did you do that?”

“Easy,” the captain told him. “We just cut it in half. Then it fitted nicely.”

History doesn’t record how Bob took that news. But apparently the party planned in celebration of a big cheque was cancelled.

(Interestingly, the Alma Doepel, originally built in Bellingen, survives today as a sail training ship, and is berthed at No 2 Victoria Dock Melbourne undergoing a refit.)

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

Bennelong

Bennelong

Bennelong

Image from the journals of James Grant

 

It’s hard to think of a born and bred Australian who inspired more place names than Bennelong, or Beneelon, of Sydney.

His name lives on at Bennelong Point, where the Opera House now stands; the electorate of Bennelong; and Bennelong Park at Kissing Point. A genus of shrimp, Bennelongia, was also named after him. Some suburbs, streets and locations similar to Bennelong’s other traditional name, Woollarawarre, may also owe their origins to this immensely interesting man. The development at Barangaroo is named after his first wife, herself a powerful figure amongst the Cammeraygal people.

Bennelong was a member of the Wangal clan, whose country stretched from Parramatta to Darling Harbour, and included highly productive estuarine hunting grounds. He was abducted from his people on the orders of Governor Arthur Phillip, apparently in an effort to better understand local Indigenous groups. At that time Bennelong was around twenty-five years old, described by a Captain Watkin Tench as being: “of good statue, and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance, which bespoke defiance and revenge.”

The young Bennelong lived in Governor Phillip’s home and soon had a working grasp of the English language as well as a taste for food and liquor. He could, apparently, eat a week’s rations in a day. Despite this largesse, the bush life called to him and he escaped after a few months. He turned up later at Manly in a confrontation between armed parties that resulted in Phillip being wounded by a spear. Bennelong was so worried about his former host that he took to hanging around the settlement again. By 1791 he lived in a brick hut built for him at Bennelong Point.

Barangaroo gave birth to a daughter called Dilboong, but the young mother died soon after. Her body was wrapped in an English blanket, and burned along with a basket of her fishing gear. The service was accompanied by a traditional shower of thrown spears.

Dilboong also died while still an infant, and Bennelong begged Phillip to let him bury her in his garden. He produced only one other confirmed descendant, a boy called Thomas Coke, most likely the son of his second wife. Thomas was raised by a clergyman and died at the age of just twenty.

When Governor Phillip returned to England in late 1792, Bennelong went with him.

According to an account by Royal Navy Lieutenant James Grant:

“Benelong (sic) visited England with Governor Philips, and returned to New South Wales with Governor Hunter; and I am sorry to add, far from being improved by the voyage. He has unfortunately acquired a fondness for strong liquors, and is apt to take them to a great excess, at which time he proves very disorderly and ungovernable. He still retains the highest respect for Governor Philips (sic), and discovers a grateful sense of the favours received at his hands.”

On his return, Bennelong found that his second wife had left him, and he spent the rest of his life caught between two worlds. He was an adviser to Governor Hunter, but also an elder of his people, participating fully in ceremonies and payback fights. His two favourite activities, it was said, were “love and war.”

Bennelong died in January 1813 at Kissing Point, and was buried in an orchard belonging to his friend and early brewer, James Squire. The grave site has recently been located, now under a front yard in the suburb of Putney.

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, “Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History” at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones

Click here to view the sources for this story.

Paddy Cahill

Paddy Cahill

Cahill

Paddy Cahill: State Library of South Australia

 

Originally from the Darling Downs, Paddy Cahill made his name in the Northern Territory as a bushman, stockman and buffalo hunter.

Paddy and his two brothers, Tom and Matt, all cut their teeth with the famous Nat Buchanan on one of Australia’s biggest cattle drives, from St George in Queensland to Glencoe Station in the Northern Territory. All three stayed on in the frontier country, Paddy forming Oenpelli Station on the East Alligator River, where he produced beef and even milk from a small dairy herd.

Within a few years, with a burgeoning market for hides, Paddy started buffalo hunting. This was a risky undertaking, pursued in wetlands frequented by huge crocs. The ground was treacherous for horses, and therefore the key to the business was a good supply of surefooted mounts, and a skilful team. Paddy’s horse St Lawrence was a legend in the north, and one of the reasons for his success.

The team had to work with precision. Generally Paddy and another man were mounted during the ‘run’, both armed with Martini Enfield carbines. The early models were chambered in .450 calibre, then later the new .303 military cartridge. The men on horseback would ride in close and shoot at point blank range, while a steady foot shooter could take out running animals. Once the buffalo were down they would be finished off while the skinners stropped their knives and started work.

Injuries and deaths amongst the men were common, often from being thrown and occasionally from being attacked by a wounded or enraged buffalo. Horses were often gored. It was bloody and dangerous work; not for the fainthearted. Most of the skinners and foot shooters were Aboriginal, who were fearless, and used to the harsh conditions in the tropical Top End.

At the beginning of the season agents in Darwin would offer contracts for whatever number of hides the buffalo hunters thought they could manage, and the product, salted down and tied into bales, would be collected from bush jetties on the East Alligator River, and the King or Liverpool Rivers for the shooters working further east. Paddy Cahill and his team produced at least 1600 hides each year.

Paddy Cahill sold up in 1913, and died of influenza in Sydney ten years later. Next time you throw a lure in at Cahill’s Crossing, spare a thought for the man it’s named after.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.

Get the book, “Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History” at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones

Click here to view the sources for this story.

 

 

The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

The Capture of the Kenniff Brothers

Kenniff2 (1)_edited

It was April the 2nd 1902 when Queensland policeman, Constable Doyle, closed in on Patrick and James Kenniff at a rugged mountain hideout called Lethbridge’s Pocket. With the manager of Carnarvon Station, Albert Dahlke, and a tracker called Sam Johnson for company, Doyle stealthily approached the camp.

Wanted for horse stealing, Jim and Patrick had been in trouble with the law before, and both had served time. Born and raised in New South Wales, they moved to Queensland one step ahead of the bailiffs. Then, from a base in the Upper Warrego area they raced horses, ran illegal books, and stole livestock at night. When police arranged for the lease on their land to be terminated, the brothers became outlaws, and rarely rode unarmed.

Dahlke and Constable Doyle got lucky at first. Patrick managed to slip away, but they chased Jim on horseback and rode him down. When tracker Sam Johnson was sent back to fetch handcuffs he heard five gunshots. Patrick had returned for his brother, with deadly result.

Sam was forced to ride for his life, but he returned later with a man called Burke. In two pack bags they found the charred remains of Dahlke and Doyle.

A huge manhunt followed, but the two brothers stayed on the loose for more than two months before they were tracked to a ridge just south of Mitchell called Bottle Tree Hill (pictured above). Four policemen; Constables Tasker, Scanlan, Meston and Cramb surrounded the camp, and waited until sunrise when they were able to surprise the sleeping men. Patrick and Jim both fled on foot.

Patrick had no time to locate a weapon, and was easily ridden down by Constable Cramb. Jim fled with both loaded rifles, but was captured on the road back towards Mitchell, near what is now called Arrest Creek.

The brothers were placed on trial on Brisbane, and found guilty of wilful murder. Public sympathy, however, was on the side of the Kenniff brothers, in part because of a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling at the time. Jim’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Patrick was promised an appointment with the gallows.

Four thousand people marched outside Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol to protest the execution, but the government held firm. Patrick had his neck broken by the rope on the 12th of January, 1903, still protesting his innocence.

Below are the words to one of several ballads in circulation at the time. They are believed to have greatly boosted public sympathy for Patrick and his brother, who served only twelve years of his life sentence.

THE EXECUTION OF PADDY KENNIFF
by John Creevey 1867-1912

With head erect he left his cell, he needed no man’s aid,
He walked upon the scaffold, and this is what he said:
“My name is Patrick Kenniff, I am condemned to die,
As witness of my innocence I call my God on high.
To my few friends I bid farewell, the last farewell I’ll say,
My time has come and soon I’ll be a lifeless lump of clay.
I wish to thank the warders, who have treated me so well,
And the Rev. Father O’Riley, who saved my soul from hell.”
Then forward came the noble priest, and shook poor Paddy’s hand,
“Paradise is yours,” he said, “when you quit this sinful land.”
The good priest then began to pray, he prayed ’till all was o’er,
The lever wrenched the scaffold sprung, poor Paddy was no more;
He may have died an innocent man, ’tis very hard to say,
There were other men in Killman’s Gap, upon that fatal day;
Then let’s not judge lest we be judged, by him who judges all,
And never despise your fellow man, if he should chance to fall.

 

Story researched and written by Greg Barron. Photo by Greg Barron.

Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History now available at ozbookstore.com
Click here to view Sources used in this article

The JC

The JC

In the late 1860s pastoralist and adventurer John Costello rode west from his holdings on Kyabra Creek, exploring the Channel Country out to the Diamantina. One night he camped beside a small creek, where he stripped back the bark of a bauhinia tree and carved his initials, JC.

That tree became a popular stopping place for travellers, and when an enterprising hotelier built a mud-brick pub on the site, he called it the JC Hotel. The government surveyor was sent in to lay out a town, but he refused to call the new town JC because it wasn’t proper. He named the place Canterbury instead, but to locals the name never changed.

In the mid-1880s the pub was being run by two men in partnership: Manners and Dalton. Not only did they spruce the place up, but apparently Mrs Dalton was a popular figure behind the bar. A visitor in 1885 reported that nearly thirty men sat down to eat breakfast at the hotel.

The owner of nearby Waverney Station, a man by the name of Gibbs, built a store next to the pub. It was apparently “fully stocked with all the requirements of a country store.” A post office was opened in 1891, and ran for a couple of years before being downgraded to a receiving office.

In 1893 the pub was being run by George and Elizabeth Geiger. Their son, also named George, was not quite two and a half, playing in the yard when he wandered off. One story goes that he had a pet lamb, and when it was taken by a dingo, he followed.

Every available adult, including some capable trackers, were enlisted to find young George, but the flock of goats kept by the family had obliterated his tracks, and the mulga scrub made it hard to see more than a few yards. They found him in the end, much too late, and the dingos had finished him off. His grave still stands in the small cemetery there.

The pub was the venue for regular dances, and an annual race meeting. Most importantly it gave travellers a friendly place to stop between Windorah and Bedourie. The beer flowed for another half century before the manager of Waverney bought it for a pittance and shut it down. He was sick of his stockmen spending their free time there and riding home drunk.

Story, research and photographs by Greg Barron.
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As Brave as a Bushranger

As Brave as a Bushranger

 

KateKelly_slv_mp004324

No one knew young Ada Foster when she arrived in the Forbes, New South Wales district in 1886. She was just twenty-three years old, but was attractive and hardworking, and had no trouble finding a position.

Working as a domestic at Cadow Station, she was soon showing off her talents as a horsewoman. An expert horse breaker and rough rider, she spent every spare minute at the yards, and few of the station workers could best her on a horse. A visiting stockman claimed to have seen her trick riding for a Wild West show in Sydney, and this led to questions about her past.

Ada moved on, taking on a position with the Prow family, then a butcher called Gunn. At one stage she even worked as a home helper with the town’s undertakers.

Despite whispers that she was hiding a secret, it wasn’t long before Ada was being pursued by a bunch of suitors, and she chose William ‘Bricky’ Foster, a blacksmith and horse trainer. The pair were married in November 1888, and things went well for a while.

Unwilling to be a genteel housewife, Ada spent her time breaking horses and riding. The first two children, Frederick and Gertrude, were born healthy, but three of their next four children died in infancy. It was the death of little Catherine in 1898 that sent Ada over the edge. She was diagnosed with ‘milk fever’, as post-natal-depression was called in those days, and things went bad. Bricky was away most of the time, blacksmithing or training horses in distant towns.

Ada found solace in the bottle, and the townspeople turned on her. A lost and tragic figure, she was hounded by rumours of her youth and memories of the destruction of her family.

Ada’s real name was Kate – Catherine Ada Kelly – the sister of Australia’s most infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly. It was she who had fought hardest to save Ned’s life, even going down on her knees to the Victorian Governor to plead that he be spared the rope.

After Ned’s death, Kate found it impossible to live, unmolested, under her real name. She took her middle name, Ada, then left home and travelled, looking for a new life. After a few months with Lance Skuthorpe’s travelling Wild West show, performing as a trick rider, Kate ended up in Forbes.

Now, the loss of three children, along with memories of her brother Dan’s burned body, and Joe Byrne’s corpse hanging from the door of the Benalla Lock-up, sent her to the edge. What happened next is folklore, not solid fact, but if there’s a grain of truth in this tale, Kate Kelly deserves far more adulation than that piled on her brother Ned.

Ravaged by alcohol and depression, one day Kate was walking by the Forbes Lagoon, opposite the racecourse, when she saw a local Aboriginal child out of his depth and in trouble. Despite being burdened by the heavy dresses of the day, she did not hesitate, charging through the water to save him.

After delivering the child safely to the bank, Kate was not seen alive again. Eight days later, they found her body floating face down in the water. Her brother Jim Kelly hitched up his wagon and drove all the way from Victoria to fetch Kate’s three children and take them home to live with their Grandmother, Ellen. Bricky wanted to raise them, but the Kellies insisted. And another page turned in the history of the troubled, wild, but undoubtedly talented Kelly family.

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Click here to view the sources page.

Collateral Damage

Collateral Damage

Glenrowan
The Glenrowan Inn. Credit: Victorian State Library

Following on from last week’s post about Kate Kelly, spare a thought for the Jones family, who owned the Glenrowan Hotel when the Kelly Gang decided to use it as the venue for a battle with police.

Ann Jones was the owner and publican. In the battle her pride and joy was burned to the ground. Her son John was shot and killed in the crossfire. Her daughter Jane also caught a stray bullet, but lingered on for two years before dying from her wounds.

Documents found at the Supreme Court stated, in Ann’s own words:

“Brave police! They lay in the gullies, and behind the trees, and shot bullets at the house, knowing that it was full of people. My poor innocent little children suffered most. When my dead little boy was hit he stood up, looked around, and then fell down. ‘Oh God,’ he cried, in such a piteous voice. ‘Mother, dear mother, I’m shot!’”

After the siege, the distraught Ann screamed abuse at the police, and was arrested for being a Kelly sympathiser.

“The police have said things about my character,” she said later. “Most of them never had any.”

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Click here to view the sources for this article.

 

 

Captain Moonlite

Captain Moonlite

Capture_of_moonlite Vic state library
Capture of Moonlite: Victorian State Library

It was Saturday, November 15, 1879, and the McDonald family, at Wantabadgery Station, half way between Wagga Wagga and Gundagai, were settling down for the evening. A shepherd galloped in from further down the Murrumbidgee with the news.

“I seen a gang of horsemen coming up along the river,” he said breathlessly. “I swear it’s Captain Moonlite and his men.”

While family and employees alike took refuge inside the house, seven horsemen rode out of the night. A pounding on the door followed. Claude McDonald, the station owner, opened the door a crack, revealing Captain Moonlite himself, dressed in a dark cloak, as dashing as his reputation.

“Good evening,” the bushranger said in his cultured Irish accent. “My men and I are starving. Can we trouble you for bread and tea?”

“Ride off, and don’t come back,” came the answer. Furious, Moonlight stalked back to his men and horses. The gang members loaded their revolvers and Snider rifles. Gunfire was exchanged, and within a few minutes, Moonlite had taken control of the homestead. The gang rounded up the neighbours, twenty-five in all, and raided the Australian Arms Hotel, a mile or two down the Gundagai Road, taking all the liquor they could carry.

Moonlite and his men ate and drank into the night. To entertain themselves they forced young women to play the piano or sing, and held a mock trial of a man who tried to escape. One brave stockman attempted to charge the guns, but was knocked down and restrained.

Four troopers, arriving on the scene, had little chance of taking down the well-armed gang, who fired at them through the windows. Riding off for reinforcements, however, the troopers were soon back with five more men from Wagga Wagga. The policemen surrounded the homestead, and the Moonlite gang, seeing the odds against them, slipped out by a side door.

Fighting a rear-guard action, firing from outbuildings and neighbouring farms, Moonlite and his men finally found themselves penned in to an outdoor kitchen. Gus Wreneckie, just fifteen years old and by far the youngest member of the gang, was shot and killed. There was no turning back now. A bullet from Moonlite struck home, killing Constable Edward Webb-Bowen.

Captain Moonlite’s right-hand-man, James Nesbitt fell also, shot dead, and this was a bitter moment for Moonlite. He fell to his knees, cradling his dying mate in his arms. Constable McGlede saw his opportunity, charging the kitchen, disarming the leader and scattering the gang. It was all over.

Only Moonlite himself, and a man called Tom Rogan, felt the hangman’s noose, the other three survivors were given long prison sentences. The legend that grew up around Moonlite’s life kept the public interested for years, and the facts slowly faded from memory.

Captain Moonlite, whose real name was Andrew George Scott, was surely Australia’s strangest bushranger. The Irish-born engineer, soldier and lay-preacher, though violent at times, was more of a talker than a fighter, and had an inflated opinion of his own worth. He had a history of swindling friends and opportunistic robbery. The cape was just part of his penchant for dressing up.

His first major heist involved robbing gold bullion from one of his best friends, then leaving a note claiming the robbery in the name of ‘Captain Moonlite.’ He later caused a mass break out at Ballarat gaol by tunnelling through a wall and into neighbouring cells. After years of trouble with the law, and a second stint in prison, he formed a gang with six other slum dwellers and ex-cons and headed for the bush.

The police and public took Moonlite seriously, but other bushrangers and the hard men of Australia’s countryside did not. Legend has it that when operating in Northern Victoria, Moonlite sent a message to Ned Kelly and his gang, suggesting that they join forces. The answer apparently came back from Ned that if Moonlite or his men came anywhere near him he’d shoot them down like dogs.

Much has been made of Scott’s relationship with Nesbitt. There’s no doubt that they were unusually close. Was Captain Moonlite, with his love of the theatrical, and deep feelings for his friend Nesbitt, Australia’s only gay bushranger? We’ll never know for sure, but we do know that Nesbitt’s death broke his heart.

“My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt,” Scott wrote before his hanging, “… the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship. We were one in hopes, in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms.”

 

Note: A plaque commemorating the Siege of Wantabadgery hangs on the wall of Gundagai’s Criterion Hotel.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

 

The Battle of the Margaret River

The Battle of the Margaret River

 

In 1880, Australia’s borders were open, with no quarantine restrictions, and few immigration controls. Chinese miners had been flooding into the Territory goldfields for years. The Margaret River goldfields, north of Pine Creek, were worked by two rival Chinese factions, one from Hong Kong and the other, Macao. When they weren’t attacking each other with muzzle-loaders and shovels, they united against the Australian miners.

In late August, 1880, a young digger by the name of Fred Stone asked a storekeeper called Ah See to look after a bag of his wash-dirt overnight to save him carrying it back to his claim. For some reason the request enraged the Chinese man, who responded by pushing the Australian out onto the track.

Punches were thrown, and the furious storekeeper shouted for help from his countrymen, who came running from all directions. Picking up stones, they pelted Fred from all sides until he broke and ran. His Australian comrades, up at the camp, were greeted with the sight of their mate running flat out towards them, pursued by a mob of two hundred rock-throwing Chinese.

What choice did the white diggers have? Filling their own pockets with rocks they rushed to their mate’s defence, pouring a highly accurate barrage of missiles down on the Chinese. Meanwhile, the only policeman within cooee, Constable Lucanus, ran back and forth trying to quell the riot. He eventually succeeded, but not before he too had been peppered with rocks in the body and legs.

An eyewitness to the fight, a reporter from the Northern Territory Times and Gazette wrote:

“Some of the incidents of the battle were amusing. One powerful young European came to the front and intended to throw stones in return, but he became a splendid object for the enemy; and instead of throwing, he found himself sufficiently occupied in avoiding the missiles. He admitted himself (that) it was a most unsatisfactory method of fighting.”

The smallest white man there was apparently the best rock chucker, being described as a human Gatling Gun, causing carnage amongst the “enemy.” Not every man was armed with rocks: two diggers with rifles, and a local Aboriginal man called Billy Muck with his tomahawk, stood by, watching in case things got out of hand.

In the end, five of the most violent of the Chinese were arrested, taken to the “shackle” and tried for affray. Within a few years the area was mainly worked out and abandoned. Interestingly, a portion of the Margaret River goldfields has recently been designated as a public fossicking area.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

James “Shearblade” Martin

James “Shearblade” Martin

James Martin - Queensland Police Museum

James Martin was working as a boundary rider when he first got his hands on a copy of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.  He was thunderstruck by the possibilities. He carried the book everywhere while he absorbed every word. He then moved on to other socialist writers such as Bellamy and Nordeau.

A dream was born, to make Australia a worker’s republic, owned by the people.

In 1891, while shearing shed after shearing shed was burned to the ground by rampaging shearers, Martin hurried from town to town, enlisting recruits and trying to convince strike breakers to change sides. In Barcaldine he addressed a crowd where he announced that it was time to move against the Queen, who he referred to as “Old Mother Brown.”

“What we want is a revolution and a republic,” he said. “If the amalgamated miners are prepared to back us, we are prepared to take the colony. I have a petition in my swag for electoral reform, but the only petition I believe in is 10,000 resolute bushmen behind 10,000 shear blades.” His numbers were not inflated. 8000 strikers were living in at least forty camps across Queensland, and thousands more were living independently or at home.

Almost as furious about Martin’s disrespect to the Queen as his threat to conquer Queensland, a team of policemen were soon on the trail of the man now known as James “Shearblade” Martin. On the day of his arrest he was carrying a revolver and seventy cartridges. This fact did not impress the judge. He was sentenced to two years in prison for sedition, and taken to the dreaded St Helena Island, off the mouth of the Brisbane River. Known variously as “the hell hole of the Pacific” and “Queensland’s Inferno,” Martin served two years in that gaol, suffering mercilessly under the lash and terrible conditions.

Released at the end of his sentence, Martin turned up in Charleville, taking control of the Australian Workers Union there, just in time for the next round of the Shearer’s Wars in 1894. He marched a small army to Winton, where the strike action was centred. Terrorising and converting scab labour was the number one activity, and Martin was involved in the burning of at least three woolsheds.

This was harsh, but bear in mind that the pastoralists had again banded together to set shearers’ pay below what was considered a living wage. These men were fighting for the right of their families to eat.

For the burning of the Ayrshire Downs woolshed Martin was ultimately charged with arson and sentenced to fifteen years at hard labour. They transported him on a steamer, padlocked to his bunk, to Townsville’s Stewart Creek Gaol, where he was placed in solitary confinement, in tropical heat, for three months. Later that year he was taken back to Brisbane’s Boggo Road, and ultimately to his old prison at Saint Helena Island, where he worked, for a time, as librarian, bootmaker, and cook.

Petitioned for early release, by members of the original jury, and 1500 members of the public, Martin and his co-accused served only four and a half years.

That was the end of James Martin’s dreams of a workers’ state in Australia. After his release he went to join the revolution in Paraguay, where his side had much better success than they did in Australia.

 

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about the book: Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

The Man with a Mission

The Man with a Mission

Australian Inland Mission Southern Patrol car with Reverend John Flynn leaning against the back tray

The year was 1882, and the sheets were wet with blood and sweat as the young woman fought to deliver her third child. The baby was born sickly and weak. Even worse, the midwife could not stop the new mother from bleeding. It was soon obvious that she was dying.

A two-year-old boy was brought into the room, so his dying mother could see him one last time. He must have been deeply affected, although seemingly too young to understand. Who could have guessed that one day this child’s achievements would see his image gracing Australia’s $20 note!

The boy’s schoolteacher father was unable to cope after the loss of his wife, and the boy was sent to be raised by his aunt in Sydney until he was five. At that age he returned to his father in Snake Gully, near Ballarat.

“Good to have you home John,” said his father, ruffling his hair. “Us Flynns have to stick together.”

After leaving school, John followed in his father’s footsteps, enrolling as a pupil-teacher, but also studying theology through the Presbyterian Church. His first appointment as a pastor was to Dunesk Mission in the Northern Flinders Ranges, and his affinity for the bush led to the Church commissioning him to visit the Northern Territory and assess the needs of the people who lived there.

The result of that report was that Flynn was given responsibility for the newly formed Australian Inland Mission. He organised “patrols” of ministers on horseback, based in Oodnadatta, Port Hedland, Broome and Cloncurry. He set up nursing hostels in Port Hedland, Hall’s Creek, Maranboy (near Katherine) and Alice Springs.

John was desperate to help solve the “tyranny of distance.” A badly injured drover at Wave Hill, for example, faced a journey that might stretch to weeks to reach medical help in Katherine, by which time they were often dead or suffering from gangrene.

Two relatively new inventions were rattling around the back of John’s mind. One was the aeroplane, and the other was the two-way radio. After a long testing phase, and years of gathering support from various state governments and the church itself, the Australian Aerial Medical Service was born.

Busy to the point of obsession, John also found time for the good things in life. He was a passionate photographer, and though he had no time for romance in his early years, he married his secretary, Jean Baird, at the age of fifty-one.

The effect of the Flying Doctor on inland Australia can’t be overestimated. Thousands of lives have been saved, many of them the children of remote families. Even today, the Royal Flying Doctor Service operates sixty-eight aircraft, and assists a quarter of a million people each year through clinics, telehealth services, and emergency visits.

John Flynn died of cancer, in 1951. Speaking at the funeral his former senior padre, Kingsley Partridge, said, “Across the lonely places of the land he planted kindness, and from the hearts of those who call those places home, he gathered love.” Not a bad epitaph for a man who saw his mother die in childbirth and pursued a dream, believing that medical help could reach every Australian, no matter where they lived.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

Lost

Lost

FREDERICK MCCUBBIN LOST
Lost, by Frederick McCubbin.

It was May 1885, and twelve-year-old Clara Crosby was boarding with a local family at Yellingbo, Victoria, when she decided to visit her mother, who lived some two kilometres away.

Setting off across paddocks and bushland, Clara was seen by several locals, including the publican, as she left town. She failed to reach her destination.

By nightfall the police had been alerted. Troopers, blacktrackers and local bushmen combined to comb the area, but heavy rain obliterated any tracks. After days of intensive searching the party dispersed, and it was assumed that Clara had died in the heavy scrub that surrounded the town.

Days of grieving passed by, and slowly the little town began to recover from what seemed like a senseless tragedy. Then, three full weeks after Clara had first wandered off, two road workers were looking for a horse in thick scrub far from the town, when they heard a human-like cry.

In the hollow trunk of a dead tree they found a starving, naked girl, streaked with lacerations and so weak she could not stand. Clara sobbed with relief as they wrapped her in their jackets and took her back to their camp for food and warmth. By nightfall she was recovering at the Woori Yallock Hotel, with her mother in attendance. Within days she was being hailed across the country as a miracle.

Clara had taken a wrong turn and walked blindly into the scrub. She had lost her clothes trying to cross the near-freezing waters of Cockatoo Creek, and kept herself alive on water and leaves, hanging her petticoat over the opening of her hollow tree to keep the warmth in.

Later, a Melbourne waxworks induced Clara to recount her story for a fee, and over time, some 150 000 people paid money to hear her story. Later she was married, unfortunately into an abusive relationship.

Well known painter, Frederick McCubbin heard the story in 1886. He was, at the time, in one of his “bush camps” in company with other artists like Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder at a farm near Box Hill. His painting Lost (main image) was based on Clara’s experiences, and was followed a few years later by a companion piece, called Found.

 

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

Where the Dead Men Lie

Where the Dead Men Lie

Barcroft Boake
Barcroft Boake in 1892. State Library of Victoria

There have always been two schools of thought on the Australian bush: epitomised in the romantic writings of Banjo Patterson, and the harder, more brutal outback of Henry Lawson.

The poet who presented the bush in the harshest light of all was stockman and poet Barcroft Boake. That doesn’t, of course, mean that he loved it any less. Born in Balmain, in 1866, Barcroft was the son of a very early professional photographer. Having lost three of his siblings in their infancy, he was prone to bouts of melancholy, even as a child, but he loved sport and outdoor activities. He dreamed of living and working in the outback.

At the age of seventeen Barcroft applied for training as a surveyor. He spent years in the back blocks of New South Wales, connecting with the Western landscape. Before long he had quit the Survey Department and was off droving in Queensland. At the same time he devoured the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon, and developed the urge to express the tough love he felt for the bush. He started writing, and by 1890 his poems were appearing regularly in the Bulletin magazine.

His career as a poet was short-lived. When he was just twenty-four years of age he was called back to Sydney where his family was facing bankruptcy. Barcroft helped with what he could, but fruitlessly searched for work, battling depression and anxiety. His body was found under a tree on the shores of Sydney Harbour in May 1892, hanging from his own stockwhip.

 

Where the Dead Men Lie
By Barcroft Boake


Out on the wastes of the Never Never -
That's where the dead men lie!
There where the heat-waves dance forever -
That's where the dead men lie!
That's where the Earth's loved sons are keeping
Endless tryst: not the west wind sweeping
Feverish pinions can wake their sleeping -
Out where the dead men lie!

Where brown Summer and Death have mated -
That's where the dead men lie!
Loving with fiery lust unsated -
That's where the dead men lie!
Out where the grinning skulls bleach whitely
Under the saltbush sparkling brightly;
Out where the wild dogs chorus nightly -
That's where the dead men lie!

Deep in the yellow, flowing river -
That's where the dead men lie!
Under the banks where the shadows quiver -
That's where the dead men he!
Where the platypus twists and doubles,
Leaving a train of tiny bubbles.
Rid at last of their earthly troubles -
That's where the dead men lie!

East and backward pale faces turning -
That's how the dead men lie!
Gaunt arms stretched with a voiceless yearning -
That's how the dead men lie!
Oft in the fragrant hush of nooning
Hearing again their mother's crooning,
Wrapt for aye in a dreamful swooning -
That's how the dead men lie!

Only the hand of Night can free them -
That's when the dead men fly!
Only the frightened cattle see them -
See the dead men go by!
Cloven hoofs beating out one measure,
Bidding the stockmen know no leisure -
That's when the dead men take their pleasure!
That's when the dead men fly!

Ask, too, the never-sleeping drover:
He sees the dead pass by;
Hearing them call to their friends - the plover,
Hearing the dead men cry;
Seeing their faces stealing, stealing,
Hearing their laughter, pealing, pealing,
Watching their grey forms wheeling, wheeling
Round where the cattle lie!

Strangled by thirst and fierce privation -
That's how the dead men die!
Out on Moneygrub's farthest station -
That's how the dead men die!
Hard-faced greybeards, youngsters callow;
Some mounds cared for, some left fallow;
Some deep down, yet others shallow.
Some having but the sky.

Moneygrub, as he sips his claret,
Looks with complacent eye
Down at his watch-chain, eighteen carat -
There, in his club, hard by:
Recks not that every link is stamped with
Names of the men whose limbs are cramped with
Too long lying in grave-mould, cramped with
Death where the dead men lie.

 

RIP Barcroft Boake

 

Harry Readford Part One

Harry Readford Part One

Harry Readford leaving NSW by John Morrison
“Harry Readford Leaving New South Wales for the new Frontier” by John Morrison

Some men are born bad, some become outlaws through persecution and desperation. Some, like Harry Readford, are opportunists, who commit their crimes through a sense of fun and love of a challenge.

Even as a young man, Harry was an unusually tall and impressive figure, face shaded by his hat and protected by a thick, curling beard. He smoked cigars and never seemed to run short of these luxuries. He never said a word without thinking it through first, and was generous and chivalrous to a fault.

Born in Mudgee in 1842, youngest of seven children, Harry knew plenty about living rough. He also had a rare understanding of horses, and took to cattle work like he was born to it. In Western Queensland he found his calling, working on Bowen Downs Station, a property that stretched for well over a hundred miles along the Thomson River.

It was there one day, in a remote stock camp with his mates George and Bill that Harry first started musing about ‘all those unsupervised cattle.’ Bowen Downs carried some 60 000 head at the time.

“I believe,” Harry said, “that these damn cattle aren’t hardly seen from one year to the next. Why a man could ride off with a bunch of them in September and they might not be missed until June. Perhaps not even then.”

The idea firmed into a plan over the coming weeks. The three men quit their jobs and rode away, returning at night to remote hill country where they built a set of yards and set about secretly mustering Bowen Downs cattle. They were careful to take only cleanskins and to leave behind any stock that might be recognised.

Unfortunately as they finally set off with 1000 head of cattle, a distinctive white bull, a prized possession of the Mt Cornish Outstation, joined up with the mob. Harry and his mates argued over what to do with him, while they escorted their stolen cattle down Coopers Creek, en route to South Australia.

“Best to shoot that bastard and leave him in a ditch,” Harry said.

But the others disagreed. The bull was worth five hundred pounds and they convinced Harry that they could easily sell him to a station owner along the way without the risk of trying to yard him in Adelaide. Harry gave in and they sold the bull to a storekeeper on the remote Strzelecki Creek.

The drive itself was one of the great achievements of Australia’s early pastoral history, and this was not lost on the people of Adelaide. Harry, George and Bill found themselves being hailed as trailblazers, leading to some uncomfortable questions about the source of the cattle. When news of the white bull trickled through to Adelaide, trouble was on the way.

Harry was enjoying the proceeds of the sales, staying in private rooms at one of the city’s best hotels, when a clerk from the saleyards knocked on the door and asked him for a moment of his time.

“I’m only telling you this because you’re such a gentleman and always done right by me. The police are coming for you. Get out of town fast if you can.”

Go to Part Two

 

 

Harry Readford Part 2

Harry Readford Part 2

readford,Henry

 

Riding like the born horseman he was, across South Australia, through Victoria and into New South Wales, Harry decided that the best way to throw the police off was to lose himself in some nondescript country town. He was smart enough not to ride openly into his birth place of Mudgee, but found the ideal retreat just a little further north.

The town of Gulgong, in 1871, was rapidly changing from a sleepy hamlet to a set of bare hills swarming with diggers. The rush had started when a man called Tom Saunders found fourteen ounces of gold, and the news went out on the wires and bush telegraph to every corner of the colony. Over the next ten years the Gulgong fields would produce some fifteen tonnes of the precious metal.

With 20 000 hopefuls arriving with their shovels and pans, Gulgong was the perfect place for Harry to hide while the police searched fruitlessly elsewhere. He changed his name and used some of the proceeds from the big cattle theft to buy a hotel.

Soon one of the top businessman in town, Harry began to ride to Mudgee, always after dark, to visit with an old family connection. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Skuthorpe, now a thirty-two-year-old widow.

The fling soon became a fully-fledged love affair. Harry galloping south every second night, sleeping in Elizabeth’s arms, then leaving before the break of day. Finally, he selected a diamond studded ring and proposed to Elizabeth on his knees. Unable to risk a public wedding, they married in private, at the Mudgee home of Elizabeth’s sister.

Living in the hotel in Gulgong, life was good for the newlyweds. Their daughter Jemima came along in 1872. Harry enjoyed life as a popular hotelier, father and husband. His years as a stockman seemed like a lifetime ago, but the bush has a habit of calling back to its own.

Things didn’t stay well for long …

Harry had an employee at the hotel, an itinerant boy who performed odd jobs around the place. He collected glasses, cleaned rooms, hosed down the pavement and slept in the stables.

After money and valuables started disappearing from around the hotel, Harry was watching the boy carefully. One evening, when the cash box was found to be missing, the boy and a horse were also gone. It was a grave mistake to try to outdo Harry Readford on a horse.

With a couple of hours Harry had caught up with the boy on the Sydney road, still with the cash box. After a short chase the older man knocked the boy from his mount and dragged him back to Gulgong.

The boy went on trial in the courthouse. It was an open and shut case, and Harry was there to see that justice was done. Unfortunately, it just so happened that a Queensland detective was in the courtroom that day. Worse still, he had earlier been assigned to the case of the stolen Bowen Downs cattle.

The detective recognised Readford straight away. He sidled out of the courthouse, heading for the adjacent police station for backup. Within minutes one of the local policemen was whispering in Harry’s ear.

‘They’re coming for you. Get out of here.’

Another timely warning, but this time Harry had a wife and child to consider.

 

Go to Part Three

 

Harry Readford Part 3

Harry Readford Part 3

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Brunette Downs today: Photo by Catriona Martin

 

The story of Harry Readford has more twists and turns than an outback trail. The police nabbed him on the road to Sydney, and he was handed, with great fanfare, over to the Queensland authorities.

But by then Harry was a folk hero. Every Australian loved the story of a man bold enough to steal 1000 head of cattle and drove them down a desert track no one had dared to attempt. On trial in Roma, the jury found him not guilty and set him free. He was carried on the shoulders of his mates out of the courtroom.

The judge was furious, and the Queensland justice department so annoyed by Harry’s acquittal that Roma’s courthouse was shut down for two years!

Yet Harry was a marked man, and couldn’t keep himself out of trouble. In the next few years he famously pioneered the use of acid to dissolve any previous brand from a cow’s hide, but it was his love of fine horses that brought him undone. He was charged with stealing a horse from Eton Vale, and served fifteen months in Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol.

From the time of his release Harry lived and worked almost entirely in the bush. He started off droving cattle from the Atherton Tablelands to Dubbo, and then did hundreds of trips across North Queensland and beyond.

Apart from the Bowen Downs cattle theft, however, Harry Readford will be best remembered as the man who first took up Brunette Downs cattle station, on the Barkly Tableland, on behalf of Macdonald, Smith and Company. He arrived from Queensland with 3000 cattle, finding one of Australia’s most productive grasslands, horizon to horizon of waving Mitchell grass.

Harry spent much of the rest of his life on Brunette Downs and close by. There was even a waterhole on Corella Creek named after him. After a hard day in the saddle he liked to go there and read bush poetry. Harry managed Macarthur River Station for a time, but in his last couple of years he wandered from station to station, described by a man who knew him as  “a very old, unwanted and forgotten man.”

It’s unlikely that Harry had much contact with his wife and daughter, who were living in Sydney by then, many weeks away on horseback. Elizabeth died peacefully in 1925, at Macquarie Park at the ripe old age of 85. Harry was not so fortunate.

There are conflicting reports of his death. One story is that in March 1901, he attempted to swim his horse across the flooded Corella Creek, was hit by a floating tree trunk and drowned. The other is that one of his favourite horses got tangled in her hobbles in the same creek, and he lost his life trying to untangle her.

Either way, his body was found by a young Aboriginal woman, who wrapped him in his swag and buried him. A sheet of corrugated iron, set in the earth, marked his grave until at least the 1940s. A stone marker with iron barriers was eventually erected.

Harry is remembered as an expert horseman and cattleman, for his mischievous nature and as a true friend to his mates. He became the inspiration for the main character in Rolf Boldrewood’s book, “Robbery Under Arms,” and each year hundreds of Australians gather for the “Harry Redford Cattle Drive” near Aramac in Queensland.

 

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

 

Tom Turner – Pine Creek Cop

Tom Turner – Pine Creek Cop

Constable Tom Turner in front of Pine Creek Police Station Photo Pine Creek Museum.
Constable Tom Turner in front of the Pine Creek Police Station (Photo courtesy Pine Creek Museum)

Tom Turner was just nineteen years old when he quit his trade as an iron and wire worker, and joined the South Australian Police Force. Posted to the mining town of Kapunda in 1907, a local girl soon caught his eye. Her name was Pauline Alma Rohde.

Tom started courting the young trainee nurse, but she was no pushover. Tom might have been tall and fit, with a curious outlook and strong character, but Alma (as she was usually known) wanted security.

‘We’ll wait,’ she said, ‘until you’re settled somewhere.’

Back then the Northern Territory was governed by South Australia, and in 1910 Tom was posted to the remote town of Pine Creek. This was a rough mining town with characters as hard as the country around it, and big problems with grog and opium consumption.

Tom and Alma agreed to become informally engaged as he headed off for the first leg of the journey north. He reached Oodnadatta by train, then travelled by camel train through the Centre. Tom soon found that he loved the outback with a passion, and that he had a talent for remote police work. He roamed far and wide on camel and horse patrols, and kept law and order in “his” town with a keen eye and iron hand.

He also found time to compete in both cycling and foot races, winning more than a few pounds in prize money. Most of this extra cash, no doubt, went towards his savings for an upcoming honeymoon. He also loved to grow pawpaws, vegetables and mangoes in a plot behind the police station.

Preparations for a wedding were well underway when World War One broke out, throwing their plans into disarray. Alma wrote her betrothed a tearful letter, explaining that she felt she had to play her part in the war effort, and that he would have to wait.

The young nurse sailed off to war on the Canberra, serving in India, the Persian Gulf, and in a hospital ship off the coast of France. Her wartime duties must have taken an emotional toll, and Tom would have found it hard to understand how she had changed, despite their constant letters to and from the front lines.

The long engagement stretched on until 1926, when the couple finally married in Adelaide. After nearly twenty years of courtship Alma headed north to share the Pine Creek Police Station with the love of her life. The trip took twenty-five days by motor car.

In 1932 the Great Depression was beginning to bite all across Australia. An army of desperate, unemployed men hit the road. When the Northern Territory government offered a weekly wage of one pound for all comers, in return for a day’s work, men started to arrive in their thousands.

But the Government, realising that they’d opened the floodgates for more trouble than they wanted, changed their mind so that only official residents could apply. The result was a surge of anger.

Pine Creek erupted into nothing short of a battleground. The hotel, owned by the Young family, was banned by the mob for cutting off their credit. They then assaulted anyone who tried to drink there. Blood apparently, had to be hosed from the floorboards.

When police reinforcements arrived from Darwin, forty or more unemployed men barricaded themselves in the abandoned hospital and were only ejected by police firing live rounds, ducking bullets from the opposition. After police arrested one of the mob and took him away, the station itself came under attack.

Tom Turner was badly beaten with fists, boots and clubs, and that night an explosive charge was placed under the courthouse. The explosion rocked Tom and Alma’s bedroom, and Tom was badly injured, almost losing an eye and spending five weeks in Darwin hospital.

Tom’s last Territory posting was to Daly River, where he and Alma cemented themselves as a formidable pair. With Alma’s nursing skills, and Tom’s penchant for law and order, they took a humanitarian approach, helping preserve the health, pride and welfare of some 3000 local Indigenous people. They stayed on after Darwin was bombed, and did not leave the Territory until 1944 when the crisis was over, and the military took over the police station.

A creek in the Daly River area, Tom Turner’s Creek, was named after Tom, and retains that name to this day.

Alma died in 1960, and, broken hearted, Tom also died just six weeks later. As I delved into this story, I couldn’t help thinking that Tom and Alma were really special Australians.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BOOK: Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

WHISTLER’S BONES A Novel of the Australian Frontier

WHISTLER’S BONES A Novel of the Australian Frontier

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This is the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who rode away from his home in Bendigo in 1880, looking for a life of adventure. Within a few months he was droving with Nat Buchanan across the Gulf Track to the Territory. At just seventeen he joined the Durack family’s epic cattle drive from Cooper’s Creek to the Kimberleys. A stockman for most of his youth, he also hunted for gold at Hall’s Creek, and for pearls on the coast north of Broome. He fought in the Boer War, and travelled the world when travelling was hard.

Based on a true story, this is an Australian yarn like no other. No holds barred. Adventure. Passion. Romance. And the truth of our violent frontier like you’ve never read it before.

I’m delighted to announce the release of Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier. This story has been my main focus for more than two years and I’m very proud of it. I was told by major publishers that it was “too confronting to publish.”

Get your copy by ordering online here or visit your local bookshop

If you enjoy ebooks it’s also live on Amazon.

Augusta Marion Gaunt

Augusta Marion Gaunt

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Long before Charlie Gaunt rode the plains of Western Queensland and the Gulf Track across to the Kimberleys with the Duracks, his mother was a passenger on an immigrant ship, plying the seas from England to a new life in Australia.

The family sailed on the Royal Mail Steamship Africa, in late 1852, and for five months nine-year-old Augusta Marion Fuller made her family’s thinly partitioned space on the steerage deck her home. 450 immigrants were sandwiched into this converted cargo hold at the stern, with enough head space only for children to stand. The sun barely penetrated, and the air stank of close-packed, unwashed humanity.

Hundreds of people used two overflowing privies with queues all day and night, talking or arguing in Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and every dialect of England. All were desperate poor. The dangers and possibilities ahead were the main topics of conversation.

Augusta’s father, Adam Fuller, was a sick man. He needed a warm place to live. He was also a bankrupt. Augusta didn’t really know what it meant except that it had happened to him twice and that they had no money. She understood that Australia was their last chance for happiness.

All the time, day in, day out, the side-paddle churned and the Africa faced the big green ocean swells. Augusta sang nursery rhymes to the rhythms of the steam engines.

Augusta’s mother, Anna Maria, held the tiny hands of her daughters. ‘The Mate told me that we’ll reach Melbourne in just one more day,’ she said. ‘Your uncle George will be there to meet us. He’ll help us. Da will get well then. God won’t let him die.’

From then on they counted the hours and the miles, while Adam held on, falling lower and lower. He was still breathing, however, when the ship passed through Port Phillip heads and the Africa came alongside the Town Pier in Hobson’s Bay.

Augusta looked out from the rail, to another long pier that jutted into the bay to the north. There were building frames visible behind the beach near the Customs House. Further on was the vast slum of Canvas Town, a city of tents, the home of thousands of hopefuls on their way to and from the Goldfields.

Augusta had never seen her Uncle George but she scanned the crowd as they waited out on the concourse with their bags. Slowly the arrivals wandered off to their relatives or prepared to cross the sandy track to the settlement of Melbourne on the Yarra, on foot or by one of the many horse drawn vehicles for hire.

The unloading of the ships’ cargo started. Corpses were carried out first. One in twenty of those who had set out from Liverpool had already been buried at sea along the way.

Augusta and her family were spared the tragedy of death by only one day. The following afternoon, Adam Fuller died, and they had no choice but to move into the Houseless Immigrants home.

Anna Maria sent a desperate message to her brother George, who was supposed to have met them when they arrived. The following advertisement appeared in the Melbourne Argus on Saturday April 23, 1853.

GEORGE JOHNSON – Your sister MRS MARIA FULLER is very desirous of seeing you. Apply to Mr Barry, Storekeeper Flinders Lane, West.

That night when the destitute little family returned to their room, a big, sunburned man in his mid-twenties was waiting for them. Augusta watched as her mother ran into his arms. He was rugged looking and a little scary.

The man finally left Anna’s embrace, and looked down at the girls.

‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘I’m your Uncle George.’

He smelled of whisky. Augusta hid behind Amelia’s legs.


George was living in Ballarat, where the gold boom was in full cry. Augusta’s mother Anna was nothing if not resilient, and after a few years of living on the charity of her brother, she fell in love again. Henry William Cooper was the son of a coach builder from Dublin and owner of the Burrumbeet Hotel, on the shores of Lake Burrumbeet, near Ballarat.

Anna lied about her age to the celebrant, and most likely to her new husband as well. She was forty three years old by then, but the marriage certificate lists her age as just thirty-five. Partly, perhaps, for the vanity of her husband, who was thirty-seven at the time.

Augusta was twelve years old by then, almost certainly a flower girl. The ceremony took place on the north shore of Lake Burrumbeet, perhaps on one of those perfect spring days that Ballarat can produce when it feels like showing off.

George was there to give Anna away, and no doubt he did his best to drink the hotel dry at the reception afterwards. (The newspapers of the day were sprinkled with George’s minor run-ins with the law, mainly for drunk and disorderly behaviour and the odd fight.)

The wedding was a triumph, certainly much better than Anna’s taste in men deserved.

Within twelve months, however, Henry William Cooper was insolvent, and the Burrumbeet Hotel was sold for less than half of what he paid for it. In fact, a meeting of creditors was informed that Henry had paid three times the true value of the hotel in the first place.

Augusta and her sisters were again forced onto the charity of their family.

Continued next week.


Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

The Parapitcheri

The Parapitcheri

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This is the Parapitcheri waterhole, on the Georgina River west of Boulia. Charlie and the rest of the Durack party camped here with 7000 head of cattle for at least three months, waiting for rain to bring the drought-parched plains back to life so they could continue. It was a beautiful spot, though there was something eerie about the place; the lack of large trees for a start, but more than that. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when we finally drove away over the low dunes and bulldust, I was happy to leave it behind.

Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Don Douglas – Outback Writer

Don Douglas – Outback Writer

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Australian author Don Douglas writes vivid and thrilling outback adventure stories that are hard to put down. You can tell that he lived the life he writes about – he worked as a ringer, head stockman, manager and owner of stations across Queensland. I recently took the opportunity to ask Don a few questions.


1) You grew up on a remote cattle station. Where was it, and what was it like for a kid growing up on the land back then?

I really don’t consider the place where I grew up to be remote. It was at Morven in south-west Queensland, 20 miles from town on a battler’s mulga, cypress, pine & range block of just 52 sq miles, almost 500 miles from Brisbane.

I learnt to ride young of course – first buster at 2 yo. My mother was carrying me on a cushion on the pommel of her saddle. Horse shied at a mulga snake & I landed on top of the snake. I don’t remember that but must do subconsciously because I’ve been scared of snakes all my life.

At 4yo, my only playmate was a 5yo Aboriginal boy who taught me the local dialect.

An Aboriginal ringer (who was an ex-Light Horse Trooper) taught me to track & to use an axe & adze when I was 5 or 6.

I first drove a D2 crawler tractor at 5 & at 6 or 7 helped my father dam-sinking, driving the tractor while he handled the single furrow mouldboard plough & working a 1.5 yard Meadowbank scoop while he drove the machine.

I learnt fencing, yard building & ringbarking pretty young & by 10 or 12 was riding pretty lively horses. Some could hump up a bit.

Don

2) How old were you & what year was it when you had your first paid job?

I went to boarding school at 11 & after that I was usually paid a quid a week to work during the school holidays, mustering, fencing, ringbarking or whatever – left school in 1961 & went on the payroll as a first-year jackeroo on 7 pounds, 2 shillings & sixpence/week – big money I thought but a bit demeaning to be on 1st year wages with 10 or 11 years experience.

3) Who was the toughest man or woman you’ve ever met?

For outright oblivion to pain, an old family retainer, John Neilsen, who came to work for my great-grandfather in 1917 & never left our family. At 7 yo he had his back broken in a cave-in, while working underground in Broken Hill Mine. His family couldn’t afford a doctor & his mother nursed him for two years bedridden. He was a hunchback & his nerves must have been scrambled because he almost never experienced pain from burns, wounds or afflictions except gout.

My father was a tough man, could ride most any horse, was a good boxer & footballer, could do hard physical work for 72 hours straight when called for. He was a hard, critical taskmaster.

The toughest woman I ever knew was Emily Locke from Sommariva, near Charleville. She won the first-ever buckjump event in Morven but was disqualified when it was discovered she was a woman. She was rough & tough, could bash a man – looked & lived like a man. In some ways a bit like Eliza in my stories.

4) What are some of the Australian books you enjoyed reading most?

I’ve been a voracious reader most of my life & have pretty catholic tastes. I learnt to read before I started school by reading comics. At boarding school I read pretty much the whole library. There are so many great & good Australian books so I’ll name a few of them.

Moleskin Midas, by Tom Ronan (& any book by him).

The Shiralee, by Darcy Niland (& any book by him).

Lasseter’s Last Ride, by Ion Idriess (& any book by him).

Coal Country, by Alex Miller.

The Gun Ringer, by Geoff Allen.

The Long Goodbye, by PJ Parker.

Icing on the Damper, by Marie Mahood (& her other books).

The Cattle Duffers of the Outback, by Frances M Boyle.

Naked Under Capricorn, by Olaf Ruhen (1958).

The Light between Oceans, by ML Stedman.

5) When did you start writing?

At boarding school between 1956 – 61, firstly war or ghost stories & then westerns later on, for the school magazine.

In High School I paid little attention in class & read a Cleveland western under the desk every day if I had one to read. I also read stuff like God’s Little Acre (which of course was banned at school).

My westerns were maybe 3-5000 word jobs.

I started writing full length novels in about 1995, after a few unsuccessful short stories submitted to Playboy & the ilk. My first full length novel was Curlew Enigma, which underwent much reorganization & editing by me before it was presentable for publishing. I lost count of the rejections & I was finally published by Boolarong Press in 2014.

6) Tell us a bit about your books.

The Curlew series follows the lives & exploits of the McDonald descendants of the matriarch, the drover & bushranger Eliza, from 1840 until the present & is a work in progress (currently writing #11 in the series, writing first person, present tense, from the point of view of an 11 year old girl). The stories gradually evolve to include murder, international espionage, mining, gem trading, Iraq, Afghanistan, US Trade Centre attack & much more.

The Saint Clair series of 9 books, starting with Rosslyn Legacy, follows the Saint Clair family from the Civil War in America until the present (with the last in the series unearthing family documents back to the last Jacobite rebellion in Scotland). The mystery surrounding 150 years of US government persecution of the family is finally revealed. Down through the volumes the Saint Clair family intermarries with the Curlew McDonalds & the two series become entwined to an extent (although each book of each series does stand alone).

The Chillcott series of 3 books covers the period from mid 1800s to recent times in NSW & Queensland.

I have 5 more completed stand alone novels, including one, Gone Cop, a contemporary crime novel written with the main character in first person, present tense. I still have quite a few more already written longhand to be typed up & edited.


If you live near Ayr, Queensland, you might see Don at the local markets selling his books. Otherwise you can get them in all good bookshops (if you can’t see them, just ask). Otherwise you can get his books direct from Boolarong Press here.

Or as Ebooks on Amazon: Curlew Enigma, Curlew Calls, Curlew Fugitive

 

Whistler’s Bones

Whistler’s Bones

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Want to know what it was really like on the Australian Frontier?

Whistler’s Bones is the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who rode away from his home in Bendigo in 1880, looking for a life of adventure. Within a few months he was droving with Nat Buchanan across the Gulf Track to the Territory. At just seventeen he joined the Durack family’s epic cattle drive from Cooper’s Creek to the Kimberleys. A stockman for most of his youth, he also hunted for gold at Hall’s Creek, and for pearls on the coast north of Broome. He fought in the Boer War, and travelled the world when travelling was hard.

Based on a true story, this is an Australian yarn like no other. No holds barred. Adventure. Passion. Romance. And the truth of our violent frontier like you’ve never read it before.

I’m delighted to announce the release of Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier. This story has been my main focus for more than two years and I’m very proud of it. I was told by major publishers that it was “too confronting to publish.” I disagree. I think it’s time that this story was told.

The Writing of the Novel

The author stumbled on the story of drover, stockman and adventurer, Charlie Gaunt, when trawling through old newspaper archives. As an old man in the 1930s, Charlie wrote of his experiences in the Territory’s Northern Standard Newspaper. Years of research followed as the author attempted to write Charlie’s biography. Unfortunately there was not enough known about his life, particularly his personal affairs, to make a satisfying book.

The best approach was to combine fiction and fact. In this novel the author has attempted to build Charlie into a complete person, with flaws, desires, relationships and regrets.

Whistler’s Bones is the culmination of that process. Fiction based on fact. An adventure you’ll remember for a long time.


Click here to order the paperback. $19.99 with $3.90 shipping

Or click  here to get it on Amazon.


310 Pages, Trade (large) Paperback.

ISBN: 978-0-6480627-4-5

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Urquhart’s Grave

John Urquhart’s Grave

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If you ever find yourself in Roper Bar, Northern Territory, drive down the caravan park, climb over the fence at the far end and walk into the bush a hundred metres or so. There you’ll find the grave of John Urquhart. I took this photo in July, when I was researching the new book.

John was a stockman from the Diamantina River and a self-taught veterinarian who saved countless cattle on the Durack drive and was a good mate of Charlie Gaunt. Mary Durack wrote in Kings in Grass Castles that John shot himself while delirious with fever but I haven’t found any other source to back that up.

In writing Whistler’s Bones I decided to leave the exact cause of his death up to the reader, though malaria and strong spirits undoubtedly played their part. You’ll find the story of John’s death in Chapter Twenty-three, as Charlie and the rest of the crew are marooned by floodwaters at McMinns Bluff, near Roper Bar.


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Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

The McGree Brothers of Taylor’s Arm

The McGree Brothers of Taylor’s Arm

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John, Michael and Patrick McGree were raised on their parents’ farm on the Mid-north coast of NSW. All three answered the call to arms in 1915. The ANZAC battalions were forming up, and the brothers were determined to have their chance at glory.

Their mother, Bridget Sullivan, had married Irishman James McGree in St Augustine’s Church, Longford, Tasmania in 1874. The young couple moved north and took up a selection on Hickey’s Creek near Kempsey. Life was tough, but like most good Catholics they welcomed children, bringing twelve boys and girls into the world over a twenty-five-year period.

Patrick, the oldest of the three McGree boys who served, was a born adventurer. He headed off to New Zealand at an early age, living in Waiapo and Gisborne. He kept in touch with his Australian family via mail and occasional visits.

In 1914, when war broke out, Patrick was 31 years old, yet he signed on with the Wellington Infantry, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Michael crossed the Tasman Sea to join his brother, but was waylaid by an unscheduled love affair. He married his Kiwi girl, Nellie, just before heading off for intensive training in Egypt.

John, still at home on the farm outside Taylors Arm, was 22 when he joined up in 1915. He was a small, wiry man, weighing just 58 kg, and of average height. In fact, none of the McGree boys were tall, but were all as tough as nails, with brilliant blue eyes and Irish charm. The doctor examining Michael for his enlistment described him as having a “grand constitution.”

Patrick and Michael, though assigned to different units, both took their place amongst the bloody heroes of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. Both survived the early days of suicide charges on the well-entrenched Turks, but natural attrition took its toll. Patrick was killed on August 8, 1915, in the defence of a hill called Chunuk Bair.

Nambucca and Bellinger New Fri Nov 26 1915

Michael was wounded in the last days of the Gallipoli campaign, and was evacuated to the Fulham Military Hospital in England. His recuperation was slow, and he endured hospitalisation for almost six months before being returned to his unit, judged as fit to serve in the hellish trenches of France.

On the 28th of July 1916 that “tough little bastard” John McGree was one of thousands sent in human waves against the German trenches at the Battle of the River Somme. He was shot in the chest and back. He was still alive when he reached the field hospital, but died within twenty-four-hours. He was buried at the nearby Warloy-Baillon Military Cemetery.

McGree death

James and Bridget received the usual telegram from Base Records in Melbourne informing them of John’s death: a message just fourteen words long. Losing one son was hard enough. The loss of a second must have been hard to bear.

Bridget penned a desperate letter back to Base Records.

McGree Bridget's Letter

Dear Sir

Please could you give me any information about the death of my son Pte John A McGree No. 3888, who died of wounds in France …  I would like to know the name of the hospital where he died, also if he was seriously wounded or what caused his death. What were his last words and where is he buried? Please send reply as soon as possible

B. McGree,

Taylor’s Arm, via Macksville

Five months passed before she received any additional information: a kind letter informing her of the nature of John’s wounds and the name of the hospital and cemetery. John’s personal effects also arrived in the mail: one religious medallion, three handkerchiefs, two brushes, a cap comforter, one photograph and a notebook.

McGree

By July 1918, the surviving brother, Michael McGree, was a veteran of three years of the most terrible warfare mankind had ever known. On the morning of July 18, 1918, just months before the end of the war, his company were ordered to attack a fortified German trench at Gommecourt Wood, France. Running into a hail of lead, Michael was killed in action, just a few kilometres away from the site of his brother John’s death, two years earlier.

Their father, James McGree died at the age of 86, in 1928. Bridget lived on until she was 87, a highly respected local pioneer, and a matriarch of the Laverty, Brock, and McGree families. She died in 1940 and was buried in Macksville cemetery.

The strength she must have had to shoulder the grief of three lost sons is a testament to the spirit of not just the Anzacs, but their families.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron

This post appears in the book ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ by Greg Barron. You can get it at all good bookshops or at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

John Moore Gaunt and the St Kilda Years

John Moore Gaunt and the St Kilda Years

This Marker is all that remains of John Moore Gaunt's Grave
This broken brass marker is all that’s left of John Moore Gaunt’s grave in the old Bendigo Cemetery. NB: The number is not a date, it’s a marker number, often the only way of finding old graves.

Continuing on the series of background articles to Whistler’s Bones, this one covers the arrival of Charlie’s father in Australia, the meeting of his parents, and Charlie’s early years.

This is a long post, but if you’ve read Whistler’s Bones, or intend to, it will give you some extra background.


Charlie Gaunt’s father was called John Moore Gaunt, the son of a Leeds barrister and alderman. John arrived on the Tippoo Saib in 1852, twenty one years old, and full of ambition and charm. He was part of the first wave of goldfields immigrants, fired-up by stories of men picking nuggets off the surface at Mount Alexander and Ballarat.

By the time John reached the fields the plum claims were already pegged, but there were millions of tonnes of alluvial gravel still to be panned. He must have had some success with the sluice box, for in 1853 he purchased 40 acres of land at Yarram Yarram, near Mornington, in partnership with his brother. This he disposed of in the next few years, but then, in 1857, he took up a parcel of seventy acres. John, it seems, never set eyes on the block, but the land was leased out, with an annual rent of £20.

By 1856 John was living in Park Street, St Kilda, working for the Victorian government. Four years later, his big break came. He was appointed to the post of acting Gold Receiver in the town of Inglewood.

Life in Inglewood suited John, and he made a life-long friend, a young doctor, around his own age, called Henry Hayton Radcliffe. Together they joined the Aurora Lodge of the Freemasons, a fraternity of Anglican businessmen organised into lodges: the members of which advance through a series of guilds. The lodges offered networking opportunities similar to modern day Lions and Rotary Clubs.

Augusta Fuller and her sister Charlotte were by then eligible young women, living in the area. Augusta was in her late teens, Charlotte her early twenties.

John Gaunt was playing cricket for the Inglewood XI one fine Saturday, making a sensible thirty-six runs before tea. At the break mutual friends presented him to Augusta.

‘I enjoyed watching you bat,’ she said.

‘If I’d known such a presentable lady was watching I would have bashed out a century.’

After tea John returned to the crease and was clean bowled first ball!

John Gaunt was fifteen years older than Augusta, and must have made her heart skip a few beats. After all, in 1862 he had been added to the roll of Magistrates for the State of Victoria. He appeared to offer stability and financial well-being, qualities that must have been irresistible to Augusta.

The wedding followed three months later, on the second of December 1863. The Reverend William Chalmers conducted the ceremony. Anna Maria gave her daughter away and John’s mate and brother-in-law Henry was best man.

The future seemed bright. John and Augusta were essentially compatible. Both from strong Church of England families, with intelligent, professional forbears, they were committed to their family and looked forward to raising children together.

John and Augusta’s eldest son, William, was born in Inglewood, near Bendigo, yet the rising star of John’s career was faltering. He formally resigned from the roll of magistrates in the Colony of Victoria. No reason was recorded, and he was soon being shunted between lesser roles.

The family moved to Melbourne, and were living in Argyle Street, St Kilda, on December the 6th, 1865, when the couple gave birth to a second male child. They named him Charles Edward Gaunt.

John Gaunt had a dry and cutting Yorkshireman’s sense of humour, and had always been keen on a drink or two. Increasing overindulgence meant that cracks soon appeared in his life, both personally and professionally. He was posted to Bairnsdale, Gippsland, first as an acting Lands Officer, then as Clerk of Courts, but his fondness for whisky made it difficult for him to carry out his duties to the satisfaction of his superiors. It was also tough on his family, for he was a hard man, prone to bouts of violence.

John and Augusta’s first daughter, Harriet, died after just four weeks and four days of life. The cause was listed on her birth certificate as ‘Debility from Birth.’ Watching her waste away must have taken a heavy emotional toll.

Tired of the constant shifts, the family soon elected to stay put while John went off for yet another relieving or short term position. These years were spent in rented houses in St Kilda and Prahran, Melbourne – Fitzroy Street, Robe Street, Octavia Street, and Punt Road, Prahan.

St Kilda was still in the second phase of its development. The rough port town, and the seaside coffee shop suburb were still in the future.

As historian John Butler Cooper noted of the city at in the 1860s and 70s:

“St Kilda was a conservative, homely and very English place … the prevailing sentiment was English, for most of the fathers, and mothers had been emigrants. They formed the backbone of the community of St Kilda, and gave the place its character.”

Family events became shared milestones. When Charlie was six years old the house next door to theirs in Octavia Street caught fire in the early hours of the morning, burning to the ground while the boys, their father and the fire brigade worked tirelessly to prevent the blaze spreading. All the Gaunt family’s outbuildings were lost, including presumably, the outside dunny, but the rented house was saved.

In those days Prahran was mainly open paddock, and wandering cows were the cause of many an argument. The Gaunt family kept at least some livestock, for in August 1868, John Moore Gaunt was fined five shillings for having an ‘errant’ goat.

Every Sunday, the family dressed up and walked to the All Saints Church in Chapel Street, East St Kilda. Faced with Tasmanian bluestone, it was the largest parish church south of the equator, able to squeeze in 1400 worshippers. Weekly services were run by the founding father, Reverend John Herbert Gregory, who had given up a career in law to take Holy Orders.

The children attended the schoolhouse attached to the church, and for secondary schooling a Grammar School opened in 1871 on the corner of Chapel Street and Dandenong Road. Fees were high – up to three guineas per term for day students, but the family managed.

Two more girls were born. Marion arrived in 1871 and Ellen in 1874. Both were baptised at St Kilda by the Reverend Gregory. The church was a constant, steadying influence, as was a large extended family. John’s brother, James Richardson Gaunt, who had immigrated a few years after John, visited often. He had a much more adventurous spirit than John, and even played a small part in the Eureka Rebellion on the Ballarat goldfields.

Augusta’s mother Maria was living in Mair St, Ballarat, and would also have been a regular house guest. George remained a loveable ruffian, in and out of trouble in the same area.

The Gaunt family’s closest friendship was still, however, with Augusta’s sister Charlotte, and her husband, Henry Radcliffe. Their years in Inglewood together had made them close, sharing the excitements of childbirths, and the sadness of Charlotte losing her daughter Ella at just nine months, while the men chased success in their fledgling careers.

Change was coming, however, very little of it for the better.

John’s drinking went through cycles of wild excess followed by sober periods that might last for months or even years.

Just one dram, Aggie. That’s all I’ll have …

James Richardson Gaunt moved to Queensland, setting himself up as a businessman in partnership with a man called Henry Britcher, in Adavale, west of Charleville. Henry Britcher’s brother George would later feature tragically in one of Charlie’s adventures.

John publicly forswore booze, and declared himself a teetotaller in 1877. There were reports that he had joined the Good Templar Crusaders.  This ‘new leaf’ brought results, and John’s final government appointment was to Sandhurst, as Bendigo was then known, to perform the duties of Paymaster and Receiver.

The family settled into a house rented from the All Saints Parish, on Rowan Street, within walking distance of the Government offices where John worked, and also the Masonic Hall. The children thrived in the new town. William and Charlie attended the Church of England school run by the fiery Reverend Croxton next to their parish church, named All Saints just like the one at home in St Kilda.

All Saints Sandhurst was a gothic edifice of yellow sandstone blocks, squat and sacred-looking. It had narrow arched windows fitted with stained glass images of the saints in dull colours.

On Sundays John, Augusta, William and Charlie sat together in the hard pews of the church, while the girls scampered off to Sunday school. John was a bloated and increasingly tragic figure, now suffering from dropsy, his puffy limbs and neck the subject of laughter and jokes behind his back.

Twelve months later, in 1879, his dropsy worsening, and entering the final stages of alcoholism, John Gaunt was dismissed from government service for ‘gross neglect of duty.’  At around the same time, John’s father back in Yorkshire died, and he expected a large inheritance.

The Bendigo Advertiser reported in May 1879 that J.M. Gaunt was the recipient of a considerable sum of money from his father’s will and that he had announced his intention, should his health permit, to travel by sea to England at the first opportunity. John was, according to this report, suffering from ‘colonial fever’ and needed a sea voyage to clear it from his system.

John died a year later, at the age of fifty, principally from cirrhosis of the liver. He was buried in the old Bendigo cemetery, and no trace of a headstone remains. It seems certain that by then his old employers had turned their back on him, and there was no government funeral.

With two pounds and five shillings of rent overdue, and John’s money tied up until the will could be probated, the church wardens of All Saints Parish acted quickly. With full legal backing, they ejected the family from the Rowan Street house, forcing a fire sale of furniture and effects; everything the family had collected over the years.

Augusta and her four children found themselves out on the street. Marion was nine years old, Ellen only six.

Charlotte and Henry (also the executor of John’s will) came to the rescue, and the broken family planned a move to Ballarat, at least until some money from John’s will became available to them.

The family was not destitute. John’s estate included ownership of the seventy-acre block at Mornington he had bought with his brother, (which would later cause a serious feud and numerous court cases). He also had fifty-one pounds to his credit in his account at the Commercial Bank when he died, presumably the remains of his inheritance. Yet, he had racked up a number of debts. Crabbe and Kirby, solicitors, executors of the will, placed a notice in the Bendigo Advertiser calling for particulars of all claims against the estate of John Gaunt to be made by August, 1880.  These small debts totalled some seventy-two pounds.

The real salvation was a life insurance policy valued at three hundred and fifty pounds; John’s gift to the family he had let down so badly. Overall, Augusta and the children received just under four hundred, enough to buy a cheap house, but not enough to invest at interest and survive on.

But that money was a long time coming. Augusta tried desperately to hold the family together. The boys, however – William and Charlie – had other ideas.

William, like his grandfather on his mother’s side, planned for a career in medicine. With a favourable response to an application to study at Edinburgh University, Scotland, he booked his passage to the United Kingdom.

Charlie, barely fifteen years old, spent his share of his father’s money on a horse and saddle. He taught himself to ride on barren goldfields hills and over long hours in the saddle he discovered that he liked horses and they liked him.

And that, pretty much, is where Whistler’s Bones starts off.


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Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Broadmere

Broadmere

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Broadmere Waterhole

As an old man Charlie Gaunt wrote in the Northern Standard Newspaper (May 29 1934):

“The head of (Edward) Lenehan we wrapped in a saddlecloth and carried into Broadmere. At the foot of one of those giant paper bark trees it now rests and with the help of a carpenter’s chisel, stripping the bark, we chiselled, ‘Here lies the head of E. Lenehan, murdered by blacks. Only part recovered.’ Below we cut the date.”

Visiting the area in July this year my wife and I searched the paperbarks that line Broadmere Waterhole, on the Parsons River, for the inscription Charlie described, but that tree must be long gone. These events described took place in the 1880s. By now the tree might have fallen into the waterhole, or rotted away.

The place does have a strange feeling to it. Charlie had never felt comfortable there. He wrote:

“The impression it gives one on first viewing it is, its uncanny stillness. Not a bird is to be seen. It strikes one that beneath that beautiful surface there is something deadly about the spot, and gives a weird uncanny feeling.”

I know what he meant.


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Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Lake Nash: A harrowing tale of drought and disaster

Lake Nash: A harrowing tale of drought and disaster

View of Lake Nash Northern Territory in better times ca. 1925 SLQ
View of Lake Nash in better times, circa 1925. (Photo: John Oxley Library)

In 1889 Charlie Gaunt was working on Lake Nash Station, near the NT/Queensland border first breaking horses and then as a stockman.

Lake Nash Station was, at the time Charlie arrived there, under the ownership of John Costello. John’s pride and joy, Valley of Springs Station had, by this stage, been abandoned.

John Costello’s son Martin was managing Lake Nash. Back in Goulburn in his teens Martin had felt himself called to Holy Orders, but quit after a few months. Life on a cattle station must have appealed, and his father had plans for Martin to eventually take over as owner. He was, according to Charlie:

About twenty-five years of age, a splendid type of an Irish Australian, a chip off the old block; only lacking experience; a thoroughbred and a perfect gentleman.

When the horse-breaking was done Charlie signed on as stockman, but things on the station were dire. The 1889 wet season had been light, and in 1890 the rain didn’t come at all. This was Charlie’s story of a mad dash to a big waterhole in the Rankin River, attempting to save the remaining cattle.

In Charlie’s own words:

The drought hung like a great funeral shroud over a vast extent of country. Roxburgh and Carrandotta, having the only permanent water, held out. Headingly Station, adjoining Lake Nash, lost eighteen thousand head in four days. Lake Nash assumed the spectacle of a huge burying ground for stock, a mass of liquid mud with hundreds of cattle packing that oozy slime, bogged, dead and dying, with others roaming around the banks bellowing and maddened by thirst.

Costello decided that they had to try something – gathering up the strongest cattle and trying for the nearest permanent water – the Big Hole on the Rankin River, eighty miles away. They sent a dray and horses on ahead, and mustered every animal they could find and set off.

The heat at that time, January, was unbearable, and the dry storms made it worse with the hot winds. We had great difficulty getting the mob away from that charnel house and lake of liquid mud, but once they got going they strung up the river almost without any urging. The day wore on and night came and still those perishing cattle moved slowly along.

After a day and a night of travelling, they reached Austral Downs station, which had been abandoned to the drought. With just twenty miles to go now Charlie rode across to check the station tanks and found enough water to keep the horses going.

At least the horses had drunk their fill as they followed the thirst-maddened cattle down the left branch of the Rankin River. The sun was getting higher, however, and the heat intensifying.

The big body of the cattle kept following that spirit “Further Still.” The only sound they made was a low moaning. As evening came I rode up on the side to see how the lead was getting along, accompanied by Mick Scanlon. We rode a full six miles before we reached it. All along the line we noticed cattle dropping and dying but yet that line piled up the empty spaces. Great strong bullocks formed the lead and you dared not go near them. They were thoroughly thirst-maddened.

It was now dark and we rode close to the lead, when a demented bullock charged my horse, knocking it down and throwing me out of the saddle. We were amongst the infuriated animals and didn’t know it, the night being inky black.

I jumped up and shinnied up a tree close by and yelled to Mick to save himself, telling him I was alright, and that I’d stay in the tree fork till daylight. Mick soon got out of that maddened line of cattle and I saw him no more that night. All night long those thirst crazed cattle passed under that tree and I, sitting in the fork, hardly able to keep awake, waited for the dawn.

When, at last, daylight came, I got out of the tree and walked over to my horse. He was lying dead with a great wound behind the shoulder having bled to death. Removing the saddle and bridle I threw them on my back and started to walk up the river. After walking about four miles, dodging cattle, at last I struck the Big Hole and the camp. I was, like those stricken cattle – perishing for a drink. I had had no water since the day before at midday.

What a tragic scene was being enacted around that waterhole! Maddened cattle, some blind with thirst, moaning and walking through the water, being too far gone to drink. Up the bank they went and wandered out on the downs. After the drought broke we found that some of them had wandered six miles out from the river before dying.

The tail-enders drifted in and these represented the last of the living. Our men were now all in camp and we gladly sat down to a hot breakfast. Camped on a high bank overlooking the water we were in full view of that theatre. Only about five hundred head were left out of four thousand and were the remnant of a herd of fifteen thousand. The Big Hole where the cattle were, was on Avon Downs country, and John Affleck, manager of Avon, charged young Costello £100 per month for the right to use the water and surrounding country. It was a most unneighbourly and cowardly action to a now ruined brother stockman, but John Affleck was, a hard, hungry and mean Scotsman and he well knew that Costello had to accede to his terms. It was especially mean on account of the country being idle and not used by the Avon Downs people.

We, spectators of that terrible drama of crazed cattle wandering around the banks of that waterhole, piling into it, and gorging themselves. In some cases animals staggering out on the banks and lying down to die overgorged, the water flowing out of their nostrils as they drew their last breath.

On the bank nearest the camp some horses were standing and amongst them was a magnificent chestnut horse young Costello had brought from Goulburn. This animal was the young fellow’s pride. A maddened bullock, staggering along the creek saw the horse, made a desperate charge at it and tipped the entrails out of him. Martin Costello said, “Oh, my God, my horse.”

And the tears slowly coursed down his face. The long pent up agony that the young fellow had gone and was going through was at last broken by this incident. Fate had dealt him a cruel blow. He got up, walked behind the dray, sat down, and with his head resting on his arms and knees he had the dejected attitude of a heartbroken man. Every man around the breakfast table felt the position keenly and there was a lump in everyone’s throat. I know there was one in mine.

In the beginning of March; the arch fiend “Drought” was killed by one of the heaviest wet seasons known for years and we collected the remnants (five hundred head of cattle) of the Lake Nash herd and went back to reform the station.


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Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

Catherine Coleman – Pioneer

I’m curious whether anyone who read this story when it was originally posted, and who has also read Whistler’s Bones, noticed the reference on page 75 to Catherine Coleman. Charlie Gaunt and Catherine must surely have met when the Durack droving teams passed through Forest Grove in 1883.


Club Hotel
Forest Grove 1880s (John Oxley Library)

Catherine Cecilia Coleman wasn’t famous, but was typical of a generation of Australian settlers. She was born in Maitland, NSW in 1856, eldest of ten children. She married in 1871, at the age of 15, and had the first of her own children a couple of years later.

Her husband, John Douglas Coleman, was determined to make his mark in business, and in 1887 the young family packed up and moved north. Their new home would be the land of opportunity, Western Queensland, a wilderness only just then being opened up to cattle and sheep.

Arriving at Whittown (Isisford), near Longreach, the Barcoo River had broken its banks and was in full flood. Catherine’s quick-thinking brother Dan placed the young Catherine and her children in a large draper’s packing case and towed them across on a rope.

John moved them further west to the fledgling town of Forest Grove (Arrilalah), a natural stop for drovers and teamsters making their way up the Thomson River.

At Forest Grove John and Catherine built the mud-brick Club Hotel and a store, operating both for many years with the help of the resourceful Dan. The babies kept coming, and Catherine gave birth to ten children overall while mobs of cattle and sheep came up along the river bed, and dusty men in felt hats rode in to slake their thirst. Picnic races, held every few months, brought a colourful crowd of riders, punters and revellers in from stations and nearby towns.

Billiard Saloon and chemist agency at Arrilalah in the Longreach district
Billiard Saloon and chemist agency at Forest Grove (John Oxley Library)

Then, in September 1888, the dream ended. John fell ill, and did not recover. He died on the 26th of September, and was buried up behind the pub.

Catherine sold up and moved to Isisford, where she lived for 66 years. Her brother Dan also remained in the district. Even in her eighties Catherine was still slim and active, and could apparently read without glasses.

Catherine died in August 1944 at the age of 88. Only four of her ten children outlived her. At the time of her death she was survived by 30 grandchildren, 29 great grandchildren, and 12 great-great grandchildren. Most still lived in the Isisford district at that stage.

There is nothing left of the once thriving town of Arrilalah now but ruins, some signage placed by the Longreach Historical Society, and one gravestone.

ccoleman
The Longreach Leader 26 August 1944

 

This story also appears in the book: Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History. Read more about it here.

The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship

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The Mersey under sail. Photo courtesy State Library of South Australia

Charlie Gaunt was in his late thirties, veteran of the Northern Territory cattle trails, and a hard-fought Boer War, when he began several decades of international wandering. His willingness to work as a seaman took him wherever he wanted to go.

Since Whistler’s Bones is essentially a novel about Charlie’s Australian experiences, there was no room for these stories, but they’re fascinating nonetheless, and it’s great to be able to post them here.

The Slave Ship by Charlie Gaunt appeared in the Northern Territory Standard newspaper on the 6. 10, and 13th of November, 1931.


Broke, in the Sailors Home Calcutta, sitting on a bench amongst a lot of old seasoned shellbacks; men who had sailed seven seas; schooner men, whale sealers from the Pribilof Islands, men who had been in the blackbirding trade in ‘the southern seas,’ young lads who had only done their first or second trip at sea.

Old and rugged were some, with hands knotted and gnarled, impregnated with Stockholm tar that would not wash off, and the grip of an Orang Outang. Faces seamed and scarred with the gales of the Arctic and howling typhoons of the China Seas. But, age counts nothing, the shipowner wants your work, not your body, and a “Bucko Mate” is there to get it out of you and he gets it, or you’ll wish yourself in hell for signing on for job you cannot fulfil. Officers and crew have no time for an inexperienced man or a slacker.

What tales those old seamen could tell, a couple of nobblers of rum and a plug of tobacco would draw them out of their shell. And I with my limited experience of the sea, only on luggers, pearling, felt very small amongst that seasoned brigade. But I was desperate. I’d have shipped aboard a Nova Scotia blood ship. Too long had I stood the famine and I was getting fed up and longed for the feast. All the crowd at the Home was dead broke. You could not squeeze a rupee out of the lot and every man eager to get ship and the coveted advance note (a month’s pay in advance before going aboard after signing articles) and having a night’s outing amongst the girls and the rum, before embarking on perhaps a floating hell.

We all sat on those benches in that big room in a listless manner, scheming how we could raise the wind for a bit of tobacco or a bottle of rum. Presently, while we were moralising over our past sins, the Runner of the Home came in and in a loud voice said, “Who wants a ship for the West Indies?” We all jumped to our feet. He continued, “Ship Mersey loading twelve hundred and fifty coolies at Kidderpore Barracoons, sailing day after tomorrow’s tide. AB’s (able seaman) is fifty four rupees per month, ordinary seamen thirty rupees. The run is one hundred and twenty five days, more or less, destination Port of Spain, Island of Trinidad. Now boys, who’s going to ship? I want a double crew, thirty two men (Indian coolie ships were compelled to carry double crews).

Every man in the room in one voice said, “Aye.” Twenty eight of us, and headed by the Runner we marched to the Shipping Office. When we entered the office the Captain was there, and the Shipping Clerk sat with the articles before him on the desk. We all lined up and Captain Douglas, of the Mersey sized us up. He looked us up from the feet to the chin. Muscle and thew he wanted, brains didn’t count. Signing the A.B.s first who were handed the articles and conditions of food, to read. If satisfactory they signed their name and received the Advance Note with the remark from the Captain, “Be aboard before midnight tomorrow.”

I was fifth in the line and when I read the articles, “Three years or any Port in the United Kingdom.” I handed the paper back to the clerk with the remark, “Cut me out, I’ll not sign those articles.”

“Why?” asked the Captain. “They are in order.”

“In order,” I said, “but when you land those Coolies in Port of Spain, where do you go from there?”

The Captain said, “We load sugar at Barbados for New York, thence to Pensacola and load hard pine for England, and then you get your discharge.”

“I’ll sign for Port of Spain,” I said, “and no farther. Give me my discharge in Trinidad and I’ll sign.”

The skipper sized me up and seeing I was a likely looking A.B. said, “All right. I’ll sign you off in Port of Spain.” (It took, as I afterwards found out, nearly three years for the “Mersey” to reach Great Britain). I then signed the Articles and after the Runner got the rest of the men and they all signed on we got our Advance Notes went out, cashed them and then hit the high places. The following evening I, with part of the crew, went down to Kidderpore docks, found the Mersey and went aboard.

The Mersey was a full rigged steel ship, about three thousand nine hundred tons, hailing from Liverpool, England, and with her sister ships the Elbe, Lena, and Rhone she was engaged in the coolie trade of the West Indies. Stragglers came to the Mersey all through the night, some drunk and muddled and threw themselves into the bunks of the forecastle to sleep off the effects of the liquor. About midday the tide being in full flood and the crew all on board the tug boat Hugli took hold of us pulled us out into stream and like a toy terrier pulling a huge mastiff, towed us out of the river to the sea.

Before continuing this article a word regarding the West India coolie trade. Babus (recruiting agents get into the farming districts in Province of Bengal. With a promise of big wages and a glowing account of the land he is going to, only, says the Babu, distant about one day from Calcutta, he gathers the unsuspecting coolies in mobs, takes them men, women and children, to Kidderpore Barracoons three miles below Calcutta (Barracoon being a big walled in compound) and once the Babu gets them in, the massive gates are shut and coolies carefully handled and are kept until the number required is got together, and then put aboard. The coolie for the plantation of the West Indies is indentured for three years at a wage of eighteen pounds per year and food and housing. When the coolies find they have been deceived regarding one day’s sail from Calcutta and for days see only the open sea they try to jump over the side and drown, which many succeed in doing, as a Bengali loses caste when he crosses the sea.

Now the white doctor in charge of the coolies looking after health and welfare gets a guinea a head on safe delivery in Port of Spain, the Captain ten shillings, the mate seven and six pence, second mate five shillings and third mate half a crown, and the crew nothing, only work.
On the way down the river the mate mustered all the crew at the break of the poop to divide us into watches, he taking one watch, the second mate the other. Thirty-two of us lined up, the mate leaning over the rail closely inspecting us as a pig judge would inspect a pen of prize pigs. Amongst the crowd was big burly Swede, pipe stuck in his mouth. The Mate noticing it left the poop rail, walked down the ladder, strode up to the Swede and dealt him a smashing blow in the face, laying him flat on the deck, remarking: “Smoking is not allowed aft on this hooker.”

I said to myself, “A twenty-four carat Bucko Mate alright” and later on I found it out. The mate and the second mate then picked their watches, the mate taking port watch, second taking starboard watch. Sixteen men on each watch, and it fell to me to be one of the Mate’s watch. After the watches were picked the Mate climbed the ladder and leaned over the poop rail and as we started to walk away he called us all back. “Now men,” he said, “any man who has shipped aboard this ship as an able seaman under false pretences and he cannot hold his end up, I’ll make him wish he had never been born. You’ll find me a hard mate, but we’ve got twelve hundred and fifty lives on this ship and we want seamen, not farmers. Do your work and keep a civil tongue in your heads and when and addressing an officer, say, “Sir,” and you’ll find me a just man.

Captain Douglas knew his mate, a hard mate but one of the finest seamen who ever trod the deck of a ship. Armstrong was his name, a Bluenose (Nova Scotian) about thirty five years of age, tall and wiry, weighed about twelve stone, as agile and active as a cat, knew no fear and could hit like a sledge hammer. Truly a Bucko Mate.

After this address of the mate’s I got a nasty taste in my mouth as if I had taken a big dose of quinine. Here was I who had never been on a square rigged ship in my life, only a schooner man, and had never been aloft. Certainly I could do my trick at the wheel, was a good steersman, but didn’t know a rope on a square rigger. But, I had the consolation of knowing that two of the crew that signed on as able seamen were Howra railway firemen and had never had a deck of a ship under their feet. (The Howra is a railroad that runs from Calcutta to Bombay).

“God,” I thought, “How will they fare with this Bucko Mate,” but soon I was destined to find out When the tug let go of us well out from the Sunderbunds at the mouth of the Hoogli we went aloft and unfurled our sails. We sped across the Bay of Bengal eight hundred miles with a freshening breeze on the port quarter. She was now blowing a stiff breeze. Seas were getting up, great big green fellows, white-capped and the vessel with all the sail she could carry was forging rapidly ahead, driven through the head seas with the force of canvas behind her, going straight in to them instead of riding over them, shipping tons of water over the forecastle head, feet of water rushing aft along the main deck. When she cleared a big mountainous sea the ship would shake herself like some huge water dog and meet the oncoming sea again. The mate was pacing the poop. I was engaged cleaning bright work close to the binnacle when who should come up on the poop but one of the Howra firemen to relieve the man at the wheel. When the fireman took the wheel from the other, wheelsman, he the relieved man, gave the course. Nor-east half by east. The fireman took the wheel but did not answer. Now when relieving a man at a wheel you must always repeat the course given by the relieved seaman, so that you have the course right. No answer was a dead giveaway showing that the fireman had never done a trick at the wheel in his life.

The Mate, nothing missing him, noticed it and, strode up to the wheel and said to the fireman “Did you sign the articles as an Able Seaman?”
“Yes sir,” he answered. By this time the ship was off her course. Instead of heading and easing her up to the big seas she had fallen off and the needle of the compass was chasing itself round the compass like a cat at play. The Mate dealt the fireman a blow that would have felled an ox and he fell an inert mass on the poop deck. I instantly jumped and grabbed the wheel and threw the vessel up meeting a mountainous sea, just in the nick of time. If that big sea had hit her when she was wallowing in the trough, it would have struck her on the beam and nothing could have saved the Mersey. She would have turned turtle and ship, all hands, and coolies also, would have been at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal.

Stooping over the now insensible fireman the mate picked him up as a cat would a mouse and threw him down the poop ladder on to the main deck and calling a couple of hands to carry the injured man to the forecastle. Walking over to me he said, “What’s your name, I’ve forgotten it.”

“Gaunt, sir,” I answered.

“Well Gaunt,” he said, “You did well. I’ll not forget it. Ease her up a little,” he continued, as a big monstrous sea was coming straight at us. I eased her and she took it beautifully, the mate and I watching it with bated breaths, and he continued to pace the poop as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

After this incident the crew in the forecastle became unsettled and muttered threats were often heard to do the mate in. One day the Mate’s watch was aloft putting new gaskets on the upper top sail yardarm. I was amongst them. We all had marlinspikes with a loop of marlin through the eye of the spike and suspended around our necks. (A marlinspike is of steel thick at one end and tapering off to a needle point, about ten inches long; with an eye in the thick end to pass the marlinspike’s twine-through, so if it fell out of our hands it would be suspended from the neck and would not fall on deck). It was about eighty five feet from the deck to the top sail yard. The Mate was standing on the deck directly underneath when suddenly a marlin spike dropped from the yardarm, and whizzing through the air buried itself about an inch and a half in the deck right at the Mate’s feet. He never moved or batted an eye.
Calling all hands from aloft he waited till we reached the deck and examined us. Tommy Payne, an A.B. had no spike and a broken marlin. “You dropped that spike,” he asked. “Yes,” said Payne, “The marlin broke.” The mate examined the two broken ends of the line. Sure enough they were frayed. “Go aloft and resume work,” said the Mate and the incident was closed. Payne had deliberately cut the marlin, frayed both ends and waiting a favourable opportunity dropped the spike aiming for the Mate’s head. The shot missed but it nearly got him. If it had hit him in the head it would have gone clean through him. It missed him by a very narrow margin.

Some time later we struck the East African coast at Cape Agulhas and ran into a terrific gale, with head winds and mountainous seas. For ten days we battled with the elements and could not pass the Cape. At daylight every morning we were on a lee shore, beat out and back again. Decks awash and forecastle flooded, nearly all the time, the two watchers on deck, and when at last we left the Cape behind the good ship Mersey had a worn out and exhausted crew. Through that gale the Mersey proved what a splendid ship she was. Like a living thing she battled with those seas. They used to pound her; they came, over the top of her with mighty blows: they used to throw her over almost on her beam ends; but she returned to the fight scarred but unbeaten although stripped of boats and deck fittings, iron stanchions broken and bent, cook’s galley gone that noble ship took her medicine and shook herself free every time, toiling and striving to free herself of the grasp of that terrific gale.

For ten days she fought wind, rain and seas and came out of it battered, bruised, but triumphant. That’s when I saw the seamanship of our Mate. Tireless, always leading in dangerous jobs, working like an able seaman, he did the work of three men and with the help of Captain Douglas, himself a splendid seaman, the ship answered every call they made, like a well-trained sheep dog obeys the call of its master. But this is not a tale of a Bucko Mate, it’s a narrative of the voyage of the good ship Mersey. At last we rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and set a course for the island of St. Helena, the last home of the Emperor Napoleon.

The weather now being good the coolies used to be brought on deck in batches and had to be watched carefully as odd ones, if they got a chance, would hop on to the bulwarks and take a header into the sea. Our grub was bad-hard tack biscuits that the maggots and weevils had left, salt pork and beef that had been killed when Adam was a boy, condemned navy stores, burnt peas for coffee, and four quarts of water per man per day. Soft bread once a week, and a plum duff on Sunday. Arriving, at St. Helena we took on sheep, fowls and geese for the consumption of the captain and officers only. Leaving, there we set a course for the South American coast.

“Everything spick and span,” was his motto and he kept us to it. About eight o’clock one morning the lookout sang out, “Land on the starboard bow,” and Cape Verde hove in sight. The weather was now unsettled; mare’s tails were scudding across the horizon; the wind coming off the land began to freshen; dark ominous-looking clouds began to gather and there was every indication of a coming storm. Coolies were sent below and hatches battered down. With the two watches on deck we were soon aloft stripping the kites off her and none too soon. The dreaded pampanero, or South American tornado, was upon us. When the pampanero struck us the ship heeled over forty five, degrees, , righted herself, shuddered from stem to stern, and then raced before that, terrible gale like a fox with a full cry pack of hounds after him. The terrific force of the wind lifted the sea and hung it at us like thrown sand off a shovel; the air was full of spume, like goose feathers; you could hardly see the length of the ship.

Then the rain started, light at first, hitting the deck like the pattering of children’s feet, increasing to a terrific downpour, it seemed the bottom had fallen out of the heavens. Leaning on the poop rail was Captain Douglas roaring out his orders to the Mate who was using all his skill and seamanship to guide the Mersey on her mad race. At times the wind would lull, stop almost, and then come back at us with redoubled force, lifting the ship almost out of the water.

The day grew dark, with a, leaden sky and with the goose feathers in the air it was almost as black as night. Towards evening the gale had spent itself leaving in its wake tremendous sea, but with a light head sail that noble ship rode her seas like a gull.
As soon as the seas abated and the weather got settled, up aloft we went and soon the Mersey had every stitch of canvas, stem sails and all, on her sticks. The Old Man drove his ship as his Mate did his crew. Up the coast we ran passing Georgetown and Demerara, leaving Barbados on our port bow. A few days later we sighted the high mountains of the Island of Trinidad. Swinging around the point at La Brae we came to anchor in the roads opposite Port of Spain, after a trip of one hundred and twenty nine days.

The boats came off to the ship and the twelve hundred and fifty coolies were soon landed and on their way to the different sugar plantations to which they were assigned. Next day (after bidding farewell to all my shipmates and officers) the Mate, gave me a hearty grip and squeezed three golden sovereigns into my palm saying, “Rum is only twopence a bottle over there in the Port and the Creole girls are good. Take care of yourself and good luck.”
I went ashore with the Captain and signed off, a free man once more with a good pay note. As I write these lines, an old age pensioner, existing on a mere pittance far away from Port of Spain, a picture like a cinema picture passes before my eyes. I see the Mersey as I saw her on a bright moonlit night lying at the break of the poop with the watch in easy call of the Mate’s whistle.

Lying on my back I gaze aloft: Lofty spars, sails all full and drawing, stemsails well out on port and starboard sides, like great wings, as with a fair wind she glides through the water like a beautiful white swan. I marvel at man’s handiwork. Today she lies in a haven of rest. She now lies in Southampton Water, England, a training ship for the White Star Line, turning out officers and cadets for steam.

Another scene passes. I see Captain John Douglas, of seventy odd summers, big moulded, a keen grey eye, leaning over the poop rail in his oilskins and sou’ wester, roaring his orders like a bull; truly a great seaman and mariner. No doubt old John has by now “crossed the bar.”

Again I see Abel Armstrong, our blue nose Nova Scotia mate who loved the good ship Mersey as an ardent lover loved his beautiful week old bride. The ship was his bride and he didn’t forget to let his crew know it. We were her chamber maids to wash her face very clean every morning and keep her dressed faultlessly. The crew hated, feared, and respected him but a deep water man is a poor hater. He soon forgets on reaching his port of discharge. Where is that Bucko Mate now? Is he still sailing the seven seas? Not on a coffee pot I’ll bet. He hated steam. Perhaps he’s on one of those Nova Scotia schooners trading to the West Indies, a master now, or perhaps owner.

Again the picture changes. I see my old shipmates of the forecastle. I fancy I hear them singing the old shanty, “Rolling Home to Merrie England,” as they beat it up the English Channel. Again I see them and the Mersey fast at the East London docks, their, long voyage finished, and the crowd in their shore going togs making for the shipping office to sign off and draw their three years pay. And then seven men from all the world, back to port again.

Rolling down the Ratcliffe Road, drunk and raising Cain,
Give the girls another drink, before, we sign away,
We that took the “Bolivar,” out across the bay. (With apologies to Rudyard Kipling).

Again I see them sitting in the Sailors Home in London as we sat in the Home in Calcutta, broke and down and out and the runner comes in and says, “Who wants to ship on an outward bound ship?” and it’s the old, old story. Up they go to the shipping office, sign on, receive their advance note, go aboard, and in no time are beating down the English Channel and as the articles call for “Three years or any port in the United Kingdom'” is the sentence! A good ship it may be or perhaps a floating hell – with a Bucko Mate.’


Lo Res Cover

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Ben Hall the Bushranger

Ben Hall the Bushranger

Ben_Hall_Bushranger

“Bushranger” is a uniquely Australian term for the lawless characters who roamed the fringes of civilised districts seeking out easy money through robbery and violence. The word was first used in the Sydney Gazette in 1805, referring to a wild assortment of escaped convicts, deserters from the military and disillusioned free immigrants; full-bearded, dirty, and afraid of nothing.

The gold rushes of the 1850s saw the heyday of these bushrangers, but they had pretty much disappeared by the late 1880s as better police tactics, technology and burgeoning population made it harder for them to hide out in the bush for the long periods necessary.

The most famous bushranger was certainly Ned Kelly, but Captain Thunderbolt, John Gilbert, and Frank Gardiner are still well-known. Most interesting of them all, perhaps, was Ben Hall, who became a bushranger for reasons of passion, not lust for wealth or an easy life.

Ben was working as a stockman just out of Forbes, New South Wales. He was strong, reliable and honest. He had no time for bushrangers or lawlessness of any sort, and soon saved enough money to buy a small place of his own.

He married a local girl called Bridget in 1856, but she proved not to return Ben’s steadfast love and loyalty. Falling in love with a flash young stockman, she took hers and Ben’s child to be with her lover. Ben was heartbroken, but that wasn’t the end of it. When she was seduced and bedded by a policeman Ben swore vengeance on that “trap” and all his kind. Ben Hall took to the bush he knew so well, the remote Wedden Mountains, and became one of the most feared men of his generation.

Despite this reputation, he robbed only from the rich, mainly mail coaches with their rich burden of gold. According to folklore Ben Hall never killed a man, right up to that fateful day in 1865, when police found him alone at his campsite at Billabong Creek.

According to the testimony of one of the policemen in the party that killed Ben Hall, Sub-inspector James Henry Davidson:

I levelled a double-barrelled gun and fired one shot. I believe I hit him, for he halted and looked back. Sergeant Condell and Billy then fired. I think they both hit him; we fired pretty close together.

Condell and Billy were running a little in my rear, about fifteen yards to my left; Hall ran about sixty yards to a few saplings, and caught hold of one. I think he was then mortally wounded. The four constables and tracker then came across. I think Hall saw them coming, for he changed his course; they fired; I was then within thirty yards, when Hipkiss fired his revolving rifle.

I noticed Hall’s revolver belt fall to the ground. Hall, still holding to the sapling, gradually fell back; altogether, thirty shots were fired. Several were fired after Hipkiss fired; I fancy he was shot in the head after that. He spoke afterwards. He said, “I’m wounded, shoot me dead.

When they carried Ben Hall’s corpse into Forbes he had nine bullet wounds, four of which might have been fatal.


 

Researched and written by Greg Barron. Click here to view the sources for this story.

“Captain” Joe Bradshaw

“Captain” Joe Bradshaw

Bradshaw's Tomb
Bradshaw’s Tomb on the Victoria River Photo: Lewis Collection

“Captain” Joe Bradshaw was one of the most adventurous of the early Northern Australian pastoralists.

He was born in Melbourne in 1855 with cattle and farming in his blood. His father owned several properties in Victoria, including Bolwarra and Bacchus Marsh Stations.

An explorer by nature, by his early twenties, “Captain” Joe Bradshaw was plying the waters of Northern Australia in a schooner named Twins. He was particularly interested in the Kimberley district, finding excellent pastoral lands along the Prince Regent River, where he took up a score of 50 000 acre blocks. Naming the station Marigui, he set out to build the property into a pastoral showpiece.

Trips “back south” to raise money for his enterprises were interspersed with problems, such as the WA government hiking fees to such a level as to make new cattle enterprises uneconomic, and his first choice of stock – sheep – proving to be unsuited to the conditions. He also once returned to the then bustling town of Wyndham to find that it had been ravaged by a cyclone.

Joe’s cousin, Aeneus Gunn, was one of a number of friends and family who arrived to manage stations and businesses on Joe’s behalf. The future wife of Aeneus, Jeannie Gunn, much later wrote the Australian classic, We of the Never Never.

Joe’s love affair with the Victoria River district began with a trip up that mighty river in a steamer called Red Gauntlet. The trip was ostensibly to drop a Government exploration party upriver, but Joe was impressed with the beauty of the mountains with their sheer cliffs, and the Mitchell grass plains. In partnership with his older brother Fred, Joe took up 20 000 square miles encompassing almost all the land between the Victoria and Fitzmaurice Rivers, and all the way west to the sea.

On a trip “down south” Joe fell in love with a young woman called Mary Guy, and married her on a trip to Melbourne in 1891. During 1893 Mary delivered two children, William Guy and Jas, both dying in infancy.

More disaster followed when Joe’s brother and business partner Fred was travelling from the Victoria River to Port Darwin in his oil-powered launch, the Bolwarra, with two friends and a Russian engineer. They called in at Port Keats near the mouth of the Daly where their Aboriginal “boys” deserted. A new crew were persuaded to join them, but that night, while the white men slept, anchored off Point Cook, they were bashed to death with clubs.

An expedition led by a policeman called Kelly found the launch drifting, damaged and bloody, and most of the bodies on the shore nearby. They were buried on a sandy beach, but for Joe Bradshaw this wasn’t a fitting resting place for the older brother he loved.

Joe had a number of coffins made, and travelled by lugger to the site. Bodies of the other members of the party were presumably repatriated to Darwin, but Joe had special plans for Fred. He carried his brother’s body back to the big river. The cliff top Joe chose was too solid to dig a hole, so Fred was laid to rest under a cairn on a high cliff, now known as Bradshaw’s Tomb, overlooking one of Australia’s most beautiful river valleys.

Bradshaw's Tomb 2
Fred’s coffin being prepared for burial on “Bradshaw’s Tomb.” Photo credit National Library of Australia

Even then, despite a diagnosis of diabetes, and Mary returning “South” to supervise their son’s education, Joe did not slow down. He was pivotal in the formation of a company called the Eastern and African Cold Storage Supply Company.

This company managed, through lobbying and powerful friends, to obtain leases and other arrangements to use the eastern half of Arnhem Land as their private domain. Before long, the area was running up to 17 000 head of cattle in the face of determined resistance from local Traditional Owners. Like previous attempts to use this area for pastoral purposes, Arafura Station was ultimately a failure. (See the Jack and Kate story here for more on this)

In 1916 Joe sustained a wound in his foot, which soon turned septic. Lying incapacitated in Darwin Hospital, Joe’s last wish was that he be buried next to his brother, under a cairn of stone on the hill called Bradshaw’s Tomb on the Victoria River.

According to an obituary:

“There are many worse men in the world than the late “Captain” Joe Bradshaw. Whilst he had his faults and weaknesses, he was a kindly and courteous gentleman at heart, absolutely “straight” in all his dealings with hls fellow men.”

Joe Bradshaw was a one-of-a-kind. Coming from a background of wealth, he had the funds to treat Northern Australia as a playground, notwithstanding the isolation and hardship he must have endured at times. He was a long-time member of the Royal Geographical Society of London and is credited with being the first white man to view the Gwion Gwion style of indigenous art, which was named after him for many years. Yet, for all that, brutal deeds were done in his name, and at heart Joe Bradshaw was ultimately concerned with making money and empire building.

Joe’s wish to be buried beside his brother on that Victoria River cliff top remains unfulfilled. His grave can be found at the Darwin Pioneer cemetery at Palmerston, south of Darwin. Mary outlived her husband by 26 years, passing away in 1942 at Kew, Victoria. Bradshaw Station is now a Royal Australian Air Force Testing Range.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron. His first book of true Australian stories is available in all good bookstores and online from ozbookstore.com

Jack and Kate

Jack and Kate

Arafura Swamp
Arafura Swamp (Photo: Territory Library)

John Warrington Rogers was the eldest son of a politician and QC from Tasmania and Victoria. Young “Jack” as he was called, was sent “home” to England to attend an expensive private school, but he wanted no truck with balls and banquets. As soon as he returned to Australia, he saddled a horse and rode off for the outback, setting in train a fifty-year story of bush life, cattle station management, a real-life love affair, and a series of tragedies.

In Queensland Jack soon proved himself as a top cattleman. Not surprisingly, as he was a strongly built man – six feet tall, and was taught to ride not long after he could walk. He loved horses, wide open spaces and adventure in equal measure, cutting his teeth in tough Western Queensland stock camps.

Meanwhile, his younger brothers followed carefully planned careers in law and the military. Jack’s brother Cyril was a Lance Corporal in the Imperial Light Infantry, fighting in the Boer War. He was killed in action at the Battle of Spion Kop at just twenty-one years of age.

War, however, seemed a long way off when Jack was stringing cattle along the Georgina River. There he met Catherine Matilda McCaw, the eldest daughter of James McCaw, of Urandangi, Queensland. Nineteen years younger than Jack, Catherine was known universally as Kate, blue eyed and full of life.

Jack invited her to a dance in Boulia. Kate replied that she’d rather just get on with it, and why didn’t he just ask her to marry him straight off?

Kate proudly took her father’s arm as he led her down the aisle in Camooweal. It was 1901, the year Australia became a nation. The few members of the Rogers family who made the trek lent a fashionable air to the proceedings, with their dark suits and the latest dresses.

When Jack headed to the Territory, and up into Arnhem Land, to manage Joe Bradshaw’s newly formed Arafura Station, he couldn’t have had a better woman beside him. Kate Rodgers had grown up in the bush. She was a born horsewoman, great with a rifle, and an expert at managing stockmen of all personalities and backgrounds.

The Northern Territory Times and Gazette reported, on their arrival, that Kate was “generally regarded as a better cattle manager than Jack.” And Jack made no secret of his plan to appoint her as head stockman.

Glenville Pike, in his book, Frontier Territory, described Kate as:

An expert in the stock camp or on horseback, she was also a crack shot with rifle or revolver. Old timers have told of Kate Rogers’s everyday life — dashing through the timber and long grass on a galloping horse, skirts flying and with stock whip thundering, horse and rider moving as one, as she wheeled a mob of wild long horned cattle.

Arafura Station was no picnic, operating on a scarcely believable ten thousand square miles of what is now East Arnhem Land. Wetland cattle management was difficult in the Dry Season, impossible in the Wet. The station homestead was located on the Glyde River, not far from the present day settlement of Ramingining. Mosquitoes, cattle-spearing locals, humidity, heat, crocodiles, and rain all counted against the station’s success.

The homestead came under determined attack several times. On one occasion two of the Chinese gardeners were speared, and Kate was forced to barricade herself inside, armed with her ‘73 Winchester. She was supported by the station cook, firing an ancient blunderbuss, holding out until Jack and the men came home.

Their son John (also nicknamed Jack) was born in 1902, but Kate didn’t let him slow her down – she’d carry him in a sling around her neck while she got on with station duties.

Like Florida Station, operating on pretty much the same area some twenty years earlier, Arafura Station was ultimately abandoned, and the remaining cattle transferred to another Bradshaw property. The country was just too harsh and too remote, and the Traditional Owners, justifiably, fought hard to keep the whites and their cattle out.

Paddy's Lagoon Territory Storieshttphdl.handle.net1007039462
Paddy’s Lagoon (Photo: Territory Library)

The first chapter of their lives was closed. But the impact of this remarkable couple on the Northern Territory pastoral industry was only just beginning. Undeterred, Jack reformed Paddy’s Lagoon Station, bordered by the Roper and Wilton Rivers. This was drier, more forgiving country, with some excellent pasture. While they were there Kate gave birth to a daughter, but unfortunately she passed away on the same day. The small grave did not remain alone for long: Jack’s brother Harry, who came to stay with them after the collapse of his business interests, died of typhoid fever there in 1909.

Jack was a talented cattleman and sharp businessman, always with an eye for opportunities. He reformed Paddy’s Lagoon into Urapunga Station, then set up Maryfield in partnership with a man named Farrar.

Kate continued to run the station cattle yards, horse paddocks and drove “fats” to market. On at least one occasion, while Jack was busy running the station, Kate left her infant with a nanny, and, with a plant of horses and half a dozen men, drove a mob of bullocks to Camooweal.

For many years she was assisted by a capable Aboriginal woman known as Princess Polly. Kate’s son John could ride before he learned to read or write.

Kate was not only as capable as any man in the yards, but she was also a sympathetic woman who formed a genuine love for the Aboriginal people of the north.

Kate and workers
Kate with staff in 1917 (Photo: Sydney Mail)

While living with Jack at Hodgson Downs Station, which he was managing, she worked with Archbishop Gilbert White on the formation of the Roper River Mission. This was not merely a paternalistic gesture. The Indigenous people of the region were shattered and cowed from years of violent confrontation: leprosy was common, with a weekly truck shipping sufferers up to a colony at Channel Island. Addiction to opium, imported and sold by the Chinese, was also a problem, more usually back near the railway line and mining areas. The mission was an attempt to protect and consolidate the people of the Roper Valley before it was too late.

Possibly under the influence of Jack’s father, young John was eventually sent off to private school in Melbourne. And with only five mail deliveries on the station each year, contact with their son was rare. In 1914, at the height of the wet season, Jack was away when Kate received a telegram from “down south” stating that their son was seriously ill, and asking for his parents’ permission for the doctors to operate.

Knowing full well that every creek and river between home and Katherine, including the mighty Roper, was in flood, Kate was determined to reach the telegraph station there. With a couple of loyal horsemen, and fully-laden packhorses for the journey, Kate set out on a journey to save her son.

That trip to Katherine must have been a nightmare: fighting humid heat and mosquitoes, fording swollen rivers and driving the packhorses through driving rain and bogs. Two weeks of travel later, they swam their horses across the flooded Katherine River at the Springvale Crossing (now known as the Low Level). By then, almost a month had passed since the original message was sent.

Waiting for Kate at the post office, however, was a new telegram telling her that the doctors had operated regardless and that young John had fully recovered. It was a wasted trip, but Kate’s smile must have been a mile wide as she took the opportunity to buy stores and meet old friends.

Before long, John’s schooling was over, and there was no question of a fancy career for him. It was the station life he wanted, and the small family were soon together again.

As the new decade, the 1920s arrived, Jack sold Maryfield Station and, flush with cash, announced a family holiday. Jack, Kate and John steamed south on SS Bambra. What was meant to be a pleasant interlude, however, turned into a tragedy.

While in Victoria, Kate grew sick with pneumonia. Jack was at her side to the end, praying for her not to die, wondering how the hell he could possibly live without her.

The incredible Kate Rogers, who had faced down charging bulls, uncountable lonely nights on the track, and wild Top End cyclones, fell to a microscopic bug in her lungs. She died in Brighton, Victoria at the age of 45, and is buried in the cemetery there.

Kate’s obituary in Darwin’s Northern Standard newspaper read:

(Kate Rogers) was a woman of exceptional ability, and she will be remembered in the outback parts of the Territory for her skill and courage in everything pertaining to the management of the station, and for her generosity and great kindness of heart.

Heartbroken, Jack returned to the north with his son, operating Roper Valley Station and Urapunga before selling the latter station. For a while his heart went out of it, but he had to think of his son’s future.

Lonely Grave on Roper Valley
Typical of bush graves, this one stands on Roper Valley Station (NT Library)

In 1925 Jack and John were among the first NT pastoralists to ship live bullocks to Indonesia and the Philippines. Jack was also, by nature of his importance to the Roper area, appointed as a Justice of the Peace by the Government Resident.

As he neared seventy years of age Jack was still a fearless horseman and consummate bushman. In 1927, he was droving one hundred head of fat bullocks, single handed, to the butcher supplying crews laying the railway line from Katherine to Daly Waters.

Jack’s horse tripped and fell, trapping him underneath and breaking bones in his leg, thigh and hip. The cattle wandered off, leaving him alone, an old man, with crippling injuries. Yet, Jack’s unerring sense of direction told him the nearest place of safety: the Presbyterian Inland Mission at Maranboy.

For five days he crawled towards his destination, fighting off the dingoes and kite hawks that waited for him to fall. Somehow, through determination and strength of mind, he got there, and a Dr Kirklands was dispatched by train to treat him. Unfortunately the injuries left him partially crippled, but he was still vital and thirsting for life.

Official obituaries don’t mention this fact. But Jack found love again, from a local Roper woman. In around 1930, well advanced in years, Jack became a father for the third time. His girl child was healthy and vital, and must have been a comfort in his sunset years.

In 1931 Jack purchased Urapunga Station for the second time, a brave move for a seventy-four year old. His holdings were then around three thousand square miles on both sides of the Roper River. But the Great Depression was sucking the life out of every enterprise, in every nation. Cattle prices dropped to uneconomic levels.

Close to bankruptcy, in 1934, Jack sold Roper Valley Station to the Royallison Pastoral Company for a fraction of its value. He was finished, riding away with just a horse and the clothes on his back. How that must have hurt after being the boss man for so long! He farewelled young John, who had his pick of job offers on other stations, and went to the Mataranka Hotel to drown his sorrows.

In 1935, at the age of 78, still at Mataranka, Jack borrowed a rifle, and shot himself in the head. The wound was not immediately fatal, and that tough old man took sixteen hours to die. Dr Clyde Fenton, the Territory’s first flying doctor, arrived in time to issue the death certificate.

Jack’s obituary in the Northern Standard Newspaper stated:

The passing of John Warrington Rogers at Mataranka on Tuesday morning last at the age of 74 (sic) removes from the ranks of the northern pastoralists one of nature’s gentlemen with a history of fine achievements in the development of the Northern Territory.

Sadly, this tragedy of Jack and Kate had one more act to play.

Their son John was mustering on Victoria River Downs Station in 1943 when his horse fell and rolled on him, leaving him with severe head injuries. He died three days later.

Jack’s daughter, who I won’t name for cultural reasons, became an elder of her people, living at a Roper community. She died in 2008 and is survived by her many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron, this story features in the book, Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History. You can buy it here or in good bookstores.

 

The Wanderer

The Wanderer

One of the most touching stories from Charlie Gaunt’s later years came from a time when he’d left the Australian outback far behind and wandered the Western States of America as a hobo. This is one of many periods of his life there just wasn’t room for in the book.

“From Colorado I hopped fast passenger and freights, today in one state tomorrow in another, and at last my few dollars played out and I was then thrown on my wits and resources. I was now a bum, pure and simple – not really simple, for I took to it like a babe to its mother’s milk. All and sundry I hit up, rich and poor. Shrimps gave good feed as well as the whale. Certainly I chopped wood or did an odd job for the poor lone woman with a yardful of brats, but I avoided doing anything for the wealthy.”

On winter days with no food or shelter Charlie would sometimes knock on a respectable door to ask for help – cadging meals in return for stories, and it’s likely that this was when he refined his yarns, helping remember the detail for that far off day when he decided to write them down.


hobos
Source: Getty Images

Before I could say any more a beautiful girl about seventeen came out of a room into the hall and said, “Who is it, Chloe?”

The maid answered, “Oh, Miss Agnes, only a bum. He wants a drink of coffee.”

The young girl now came to the door and said, “What can we do for you?” and “Shut the door,” she said to the coloured girl.

I spun the tale to the young lady and she caught hold of my hand. “My goodness,” she said with alarm, “Your hand is almost frozen off. Come,” and forthwith I followed her, cap in hand. She led me into a beautiful well-lighted room. Leisurely seated in comfortable chairs were an aristocratic looking old gentleman, hair as long and as white as the driven snow, an old lady; white like the old gentleman, with refined features showing signs of great beauty in her younger days, two lovely young girls and a lad of about eighteen.

They were the most refined and aristocratic family I had ever met or seen. “Dad,” said the young girl, “Here’s a hobo nearly frozen. Today’s my birthday. Can’t we be charitable and let him know that tonight somebody cares for him?”

The old gentleman got up, took my hand, shook it, and all the others did likewise. “Sit down,” he said, and reaching for a decanter of whisky poured me out a stiff peg. “Drink this,” he said and I drank it. It put new life into me.

They had just finished their dinner and the viands had not been cleared away. What a repast! Every time I felt hungry afterwards the vision of that well stocked table used to come before me. “We’ve just finished dinner,” said the old gentleman. “Sit down,” and calling to the maid, gave her orders for a fresh supply to be brought in.

T’was a feast for the gods. Boiled turkey with cream sauce, vegetables of all sorts, a splendid dessert with coffee and last but not least a splendid cigar to top off with. After I had had a sumptuous dinner, which I certainly did justice to, they began to question me. I told them part of my life and adventures – all truth, solid truth.

I couldn’t lie to those people, their courtesy and kindness forbade it. I could not act the part of a hobo. I had to act the part of a man. Like Old Hayseed and his family, these aristocrats were immensely interested in my tales. They told me they were from the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, originally were tobacco planters, and came to live in Pueblo for a suitable climate for the old lady. After a pleasant evening had passed, the old gentleman got up went out of the room, returning in a short time he put an envelope into my hand saying, “A small token for the interesting evening you have given myself, wife, and family.”

I bid them all good night and thanked them sincerely. The young lady whom I had met first escorted me to the door. “Wait a moment,” she said. Running up the stairs she soon came back with a parcel in her hand. Handing it to me she said, “There’s a combination suit of underclothes. You and I are about the same height,” and with a sweet smile she said, “You don’t mind, do you?” and thanking her I said good night and went to look for a bed.

I soon found a rooming house at twenty five cents a room. Lighting the candle I sat on the edge of the bed, took out the envelope, opened it and drew out six crisp and clean five dollar notes – thirty dollars in all (English pounds, six). I then opened the parcel and there was a beautiful suit of lamb’s wool combination underclothes.


Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Edward Dickens

Edward Dickens

Ed Dickens

Not many people know that the youngest son of one of the great English novelists, Charles Dickens, lies at rest in the cemetery of an Australian outback town.

Edward Dickens was encouraged by his father to migrate to Australia, where he took to farm and station life as if he was born to it. He became manager of Momba Station near Wilcannia and married a local girl. In and out of financial trouble for much of his life, he had an interest in several “runs”, and became an alderman on the Bourke Shire Council, a booming region in the day.

Stints as a land and rabbit inspector led to a long period of ill-health and unemployment. He died in Moree in 1902, aged just fifty. His gravestone still stands in the cemetery there.


Written and researched by Greg Barron

 

 

 

The Marion Sleigh

The Marion Sleigh

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The Marion Sleigh bringing supplies to remote Gulf communities. (Photo: Mataranka Museum)

A ship like this steaming up Gulf rivers would raise a few eyebrows these days, but in the early 1900s the Marion Sleigh was a regular sight carrying supplies as far up as the Roper River Bar, and Borroloola on the Macarthur. The Marion Sleigh was of 506 tons burden, had a number of cabins for passengers, and often carried Darwinites who wanted a taste of adventure.

On one trip in 1926, a troupe of young ladies on a pleasure trip were forced to endure ten days stuck on a Macarthur River sandbar, followed by serious engine trouble, and finally a storm near Groote Eylandt that saw the Marion Sleigh almost founder several times.

The Marion Sleigh was sold in 1932, her engines converted to diesel, and she spent her final years in New Zealand waters.


Written and researched by Greg Barron

Book Review: Curlew Fugitive by Don Douglas

Book Review: Curlew Fugitive by Don Douglas

I always enjoy a good Australian historical adventure yarn, and Curlew Fugitive is a ripper of a story. The author, Don Douglas, grew up living the life of a stockman, manager and owner throughout Western Queensland, and that real life experience shows through in his writing. The perils of the Gulf Track, station life on the WA/NT border, and the Kalgoolie Goldfields all come to life in this fast-paced novel that I found hard to put down. The fight scenes are so realistic I have to suspect that Don had a bout or two of his own back in the day.

Ben’s a great main character, but you’ll love (and hate) Sarah, Basil, and the others too. This is a highly recommended Aussie bush story.

Greg Barron

Charles Fisher – Cattle King

Charles Fisher – Cattle King

Glencoe SLSA
Glencoe Station Homestead (Photo: State Library of South Australia)

Most Australians know the names of our biggest cattle kings, Sidney Kidman and John Cox. Charles Brown Fisher was in the same league, building an empire of land, men, cattle and sheep when things were much tougher.

Charles was born in 1818, in London. Feeling restricted by city life, as a young man he moved to Northamptonshire to work on his uncle’s farm, loving country life. When his parents and eight siblings decided to emigrate to Australia, the young Charles couldn’t get on the ship quick enough.

Settling with the family in Adelaide, Charles and his three brothers joined their father as stock agents and carriers, but that was never going to be enough for Charles. He was soon running sheep and cattle along the Little Para River, then stocked a large tract from what is now Parafield Airport to the meatworks at Gepps Cross.

After taking control of a swathe of properties, in 1856 the Fisher Brothers partnership sheared 115 000 sheep, and sent an unknown number of cattle to the slaughterhouse.

Charles’s mother, Elizabeth, died in 1857, and just two years later his brothers George and Hurtle were transporting three racehorses on a coastal steamer, Admella, when it struck rocks off Port Macdonnell. Hurtle and George paddled together in the water, clinging to debris, waiting for a rescue ship that came too late. George slipped beneath the cold waters while his brother watched helplessly on.

By then Charles was living mainly in St Kilda, Melbourne. He was a regular at Flemington Racecourse, his own horses winning regularly on the track. Around this time he wooed and married Agnes Louisa Peckham. They had just one child, also named Charles.

Meanwhile, Fisher was forging one of Australia’s biggest land empires.

He soon owned huge tracts of land across South Australia and Victoria, including some of the country’s most valuable racehorse studs. He had leases on sixteen Queensland Stations, and with new partner JC Lyon pressed on into the Northern Territory. Glencoe Station was the Territory’s first big cattle run, and Charles engaged the best in the business, Nat Buchanan, to drove 1200 cattle across from Aramac in Queensland. Later Nat would, on Charles’s orders, undertake the biggest cattle drive in world history, 20 000 head from St George in Southern Queensland to Glencoe. (NB: Charlie Gaunt was also on that drive)

Fisher’s ambition had no limits, and together with Lyon he obtained a lease on a huge area of land that became Victoria River Downs, at various times the biggest cattle station in the world. This was the jewel in the crown of Fisher’s holdings, then covering more than 40 000 square kilometres.

At the peak of his expansion Charles Fisher controlled more country than most European kings.

In the 1890s the empire fell apart. With beef sales in decline and general recession, the complicated financial structure Charles had built began to unravel. By 1895 he was declared bankrupt, though he was able to retain a residence and enough income to live on.

Charles’s beloved Agnes died aged 60, in November 1906. Charles lived on for another 18 months, passing away in his home on Albert Terrace, Glenelg. His grave still stands at the West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide.


Written and researched by Greg Barron (Sources available here)

Greg Barron’s first book of true Australian stories, Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History, is available in all good bookstores and online from ozbookstore.com

 

Pearling on the Mona

Pearling on the Mona

Pearling lugger in the Torres Strait
Pearling Lugger in the Torres Strait (Photo: NLA)

One of the parts of Charlie Gaunt’s life that I would have liked to explore more in Whistler’s Bones, but it didn’t fit into the story, was his years skippering a pearl lugger out of Broome in the 1890s.

Charlie was able to throw in with a partner, a local businessman called Stanley Piggott, to commission a lugger. The keel was laid by the firm of Chamberlain, down in Fremantle.

Charlie engaged a Japanese diver, a tender (a man to row out with the diver), and a four-man-crew. After provisioning the lugger, now named Mona, Charlie sailed her north to Cygnet Bay, Kings Sound.

In Charlie’s words:

Cygnet Bay in those days was known as the Diver’s Graveyard, it had strong currents, deep water and a foul bottom. The shell also was of poor quality – big old shell very rarely carrying good pearls; all Baroque (misshapen pearls worth about twelve pounds per ounce, used by the Chinese to grind into an eye powder).

My diver by the name of Muchisuki was a splendid man but had one fault, being too reckless. He seemed to enjoy gambling with death and at times took great chances. We worked amongst the fleet of luggers, all on good shell. For a neap tide or two nothing unusual happened, until one day a flag was hoisted half-mast on one of Captain Redell’s luggers. An accident had happened. Several luggers raced to the scene, to render aid.

My lugger being the first to get to the lugger, my diver called out, “What’s the trouble?”

The tender of the other lugger replied, “My diver is fouled and I can’t get him up.” Getting helmet and face glass on quickly, Muchisuki descended in haste to assist the unfortunate diver. In about five minutes he came up and as soon as we got him on deck he sang out to the tender, “Heave up your anchor and you’ll get your man.”

The crew rushed to the winch, hove up their anchor and found the diver entangled around the flukes. The goose neck had been broken off the helmet, the diver’s skull was smashed in, and he was dead as a door nail. The flukes of the anchor, swinging to and fro had crushed the helmet into a shapeless mass, and then fouled the life line and pipe. The cause of the accident was this: when a diver worked below the vessel drifted after him, the anchor, lowered over, acted as a brake. The more chain paid out the lower the anchor and slower the progress of the lugger. When the anchor was heaved in the faster the lugger would drift. Now, this diver had been working close to the anchor: which was about a fathom from the bottom and his lines, getting foul of the anchor, through the action of the strong current, he was wound round and round the chain, the flukes swinging backwards and forwards dealing him smashing blows on the head.

One day, Charlie’s diver, Muchisuki, stayed below for too long, and he stopped responding to signal tugs on the lifeline.

Myself and the tender heaved on the lifeline and could feel dead weight. Pulling him to the ladder his both hands hanging uselessly down, we knew he was paralysed or dead.

Muchisuki had been diving in water twenty three fathoms deep – more than forty metres. Apart from the tragedy of losing a man Charlie respected, the death put financial pressure on the enterprise.

With no cash to employ another diver Charlie took on the role himself, and the man who once roamed the savannah and open woodland of Australia’s north, now worked the bottom of the sea. Up to three miles a day he wandered, collecting shell, and admiring the sea floor.

The submarine scenery in places is almost indescribable. Walking the bottom prospecting for shell the diver will often cover a distance of two or three miles, beds of silver sands, now coming to great fields of waving sea exactly the same as fields of wheat waving with the tide as if a gentle breeze was fanning it. Through those fields and on to beds of beautiful white coral; over them and onto beds of beautiful flowers of many different hues. (When these flowers are brought to the surface and exposed to the air they turn black and have a rank smell).

On over big ironstone ridges, dark caverns, black and forbidding looking, then through a forest of coral cups from the size of a cabbage up to forty feet high, stems two feet through, like champagne glasses. The great feeding ground of fish of all species and the home of some of the best actors of the deep. In some places myriads of fish, red and silver schnapper, white fish and others will swarm around the diver, looking curiously in his face glass.

Charlie had run-ins with eighteen foot-long sharks and huge diamond fish that became entangled in the lines and dragged a helpless driver behind in their panic to be free. Despite the dangerous work, he soon proved that he could do the job profitably.

The first month I brought up about half a ton of pearl shell, and beautiful shell it was. I also got a few pearls.

For three and a half years Charlie carried on his dual roles as skipper and diver, but theft of decent pearls by employees was a constant problem, and pearl shell prices were tumbling. Besides, Charlie as always, had itchy feet. It was time to move on.


Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

James “Jimmy” Darcy

James “Jimmy” Darcy

Fred Burnett
Fred Tuckett, the Halls Creek Postmaster (Photo courtesy National Library of Australia)

The year was 1917, and it had been a long day in the saddle for Walter and Thomas Darcy. They drew first turn at the night watch, keeping the cattle contained on the river flats, while the rest of the crew slept.

A rider came in from Wyndham with terrible news. Walter and Thomas’s brother Jimmy, also a stockman, had fallen from his horse on Ruby Plains Station and had been taken to Hall’s Creek on a cart with severe internal injuries. 

The brothers wasted no time in going to Jimmy’s aid. Making sure the cattle were in safe hands they mounted fresh horses and rode for 140 miles before stopping at Turkey Creek for remounts. By the time they reached Hall’s Creek they had covered 250 miles without rest. The last 110 miles they smashed in just 15 hours. 

Finally, arriving at Hall’s Creek, they found that, with no hospital in the town, Jimmy was in the care of the Postmaster, Fred Tuckett. After a visit with their brother the boys were troubled. Jimmy’s lower abdomen was swollen and red, and he was barely conscious. There was no doctor for a thousand miles and the situation seemed hopeless. 

‘He looks like he’s dying Mister,’ they pleaded with the postmaster, ‘you have to save him …’ 

‘I’ve sent a telegram to Perth. They’ll send someone on the steamer.’ 

The brothers groaned. ‘That’ll be weeks. Jimmy could die by then. He needs surgery.’ 

Another telegram was sent to Perth. This time to a man who had instructed Fred in first aid a few years earlier. Was it possible that a surgeon in Perth could help with the patient via telegram? This novel idea bore fruit, and a back-and-forth diagnosis of a ruptured bladder, complicated by infection, was made. The pressure had to be released, and only Fred could do the job! 

While the brothers waited anxiously outside, the postmaster made an incision with a razor blade, then painstakingly stitched the wound back up, with a drain in place. The rudimentary operation helped at first, but over the following days there was little improvement. The Perth surgeon decided, via telegram, that a major operation was needed. 

By this time major newspapers across the country were reporting the story, and Dr Holland was making his way up the vast Western Australian coast by boat, still much too far away for the operation to wait. 

Again Mr Tuckett sterilised his razor, and with the wires running hot, completed a difficult operation that was basically successful. Australians all across the country, welcoming the respite from war news, breathed a sigh of relief. 

It would have been nice if Jimmy made a full recovery, but unfortunately his condition was complicated by the malaria he had been suffering from for months. Again he deteriorated until his life hung by a thread. 

Yet Dr Holland had by then arrived in Derby, and a team of experienced bushmen were standing by with a Model T Ford to carry him to Halls Creek. 

model t
The Model T Ford that carried Dr Holland (Photo courtesy National Library of Australia)

Walter and Thomas Darcy urged their desperately ill brother to hold on, that help was on the way. But the wild Kimberley landscape was not kind to motor vehicles. The Model T limped closer, plagued by engine trouble and flat tyres. 

Jimmy Darcy died the day before Dr Holland arrived. His grieving brothers laid him to rest in the Hall’s Creek cemetery. 

The events of those weeks affected Holland so deeply that he became a founding member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which would go on to save thousands of lives, many with similar injuries to Jimmy Darcy. 


Written and researched by Greg Barron. Sources here.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Tom Kilfoyle

Tom Kilfoyle

Tom Kilfoyle
Tom Kilfoyle (Photo: Durack Homestead Museum)

Tom Kilfoyle, a cousin of the pioneering Durack family, was Charlie Gaunt’s boss for much of the 1883-6 overland drive from the Channel Country in Queensland to Rosewood Station in the Kimberleys. Tom was born in County Clare, Ireland in 1842 but became a highly skilled bushman. Interestingly, he later married Catherine Byrne, a close relative of Joe Byrne from Ned Kelly’s gang.

Charlie Gaunt described Tom Kilfoyle as:

“a splendid bushman, stockman and of strict integrity: almost puritanically so; bluff, quick of temper but with the heart and simplicity of a child.”

Tom died in Port Darwin in 1908, leaving behind Catherine and his son Jack, who successfully ran Rosewood Station, becoming an important figure in Western Australian pastoral history.


Written and researched by Greg Barron

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Charlie Flannigan and the Auvergne Station Murder

Charlie Flannigan and the Auvergne Station Murder

Flannigan
Sketch by Charlie Flannigan (Photo courtesy South Australian Museum)

 

September 1892. The game was cribbage for a stick of tobacco each hand. Four men whiling away a long night by the light of a slush lamp on Auvergne Station, near the NT/WA border. Even today, Auvergne is an isolated and dramatic locale; rugged mountains cut through by the Bullo, Baines and Victoria Rivers.

Among the men playing cards in a lean-to behind the kitchen that night was Sam Croker, the acting manager. Croker was an experienced stockman, having arrived in the Territory droving a mob of breeders from Queensland to Wave Hill Station for Nat Buchanan. A stockman called McPhee and a Chinese cook, Joe Ah Wah, were also at the table.

Another man playing cards that day was an Aboriginal stockman called Charlie Flannigan, also called McManus. Charlie had been raised by his white father in the Richmond Downs area in Queensland, and had also learned his trade with Nat Buchanan. He had arrived at Auvergne one week earlier, with just a horse, saddle, perhaps a few of the sketches of bush life he loved to draw, and a rifle.

Before the game started Joe Ah Wah told Flannigan that he didn’t feel like a game that night.

‘Best you play now,’ said Flannigan bluntly. ‘For you can’t play cards when you are dead.’ Joe agreed to play a couple of hands, and when they cut the cards to choose partners, Ah Wah and Flannigan teamed up.

Some reports of what followed cited an argument over the card game, but Joe Ah Wah’s testimony did not mention it. According to Joe, part way through the evening, Flannigan took a drink of water from a cask, then went out to the shed in which the men slept, a crude structure of poles with branches piled over the top. He came back carrying his rifle.

Taking up position at a tree near the lean-to, Flannigan raised the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at Croker. The men at the table were oblivious to what was about to happen.

This, it has to be said, was not the first or last time violence had boiled over at Auvergne. The station had a chequered history in those days. As Charlie Gaunt later wrote:

In recording sketches of the olden days I cannot pass Auvergne Station on the Baines River, where more tragedies have been enacted than any station in the North.

I was stock-keeping on that station when Jack Skene was managing it. The manager before Skene, Hardy by name, was speared to death at the old station, down the Baines on the opposite side of the river from where the present station now stands. For years after you could see the stone spear head sticking inches in the door post where it passed through Hardy as he rushed through the door for his rifle.

But men weren’t the only hazards on Auvergne, according to Charlie.

Alligators … came up through the garden, tearing up pumpkin vines and into the beef house, once taking a quarter of beef off a hook.

Charlie went on to list a litany of tragedies, including more spearings, fatal riding accidents and murder. Most bloody of all was the day Charlie Flannigan took aim at his boss part way through a game of cards.

Flannigan fired once, and Croker slid to the floor, mortally struck in the chest.  According to the eyewitness report of Barney, a black stockman who was in the shed at the time, Croker called out ‘I am dead,’ after being shot the first time.

Flannigan walked up and finished Croker off with a second round to the head.

Joe ah Wah ran off into the bush, while McPhee helped Charlie wrap his victim in a blanket. Thirty-six tense hours with Flannigan in control of the station followed. Fearing reprisal he searched for and confiscated any firearms. He also forced the others to help bury Croker’s body.

So how did a normally inoffensive stockman come to commit murder? He was a good worker, generally popular, and loved to draw pictures.

Gordon Buchanan, who worked with Flannigan on cattle drives as well as on Wave Hill Station, described him as “… a fair horseman and stockman, and an expert in the drafting yards and branding pen. Illiterate, but fairly well spoken, he seldom swore.”

The key might be in something Flannigan said to Joe just after the shooting. “I have let him run long enough, six months now.”

Also, the next day, viewing the bloody, blanket wrapped body, Flannigan appeared to address the dead man directly.  “Well, old fellow, I’ve had the pleasure of sewing you up instead of you sewing me up”‘

So if this killing was just a disagreement over a card game, why did Flannigan later tell Joe Ah Wah that he had waited six months to kill Croker. Was this the result of a long-running vendetta? On the other hand, if there was an open grudge between the two men, why would Croker have allowed Flannigan onto the station. Let alone given him a job. The answer, it seems, is lost to history.

In any case, within two days of the murder, Flannigan extorted a cheque for his “wages” from McPhee and rode hard for the Western Australian border.

Flannigan2
Sketch by Charlie Flannigan (Photo courtesy South Australian Museum)

Friends at Ord River Station, however, convinced Charlie to give himself up in Hall’s Creek. Burdened by manacles that weighed close to ten kilograms, he was taken on horseback to Wyndham, then on the steamer, Rob Roy, to Palmerston.

In prison, Charlie had the time and the materials to pursue his love of drawing. He sketched sad images of the bush, the things he had seen. Even though he was illiterate, Flannigan copied words and letters, and some of his pictures seem to spell out words. He drew stockmen and steamers, homesteads and bush scenes. The full collection of these sketches is now held by the South Australian museum.

A newspaper article described how white man’s justice was served on Flannigan, the first man to be hanged in the Northern Territory

The execution of Charlie Flanagan … took place at the Fannie Bay Labour Prison at 9 o’clock to-day. Since his conviction the prisoner had maintained a cool demeanour throughout. His chief expressed desire was that he should not show the white feather. Although admitting the crime for which he was sentenced, he showed no contrition or desire to avoid the death penalty. He slept well last night, and breakfasted and smoked this morning, and mounted the scaffold alone. The whole arrangements for the execution were carried through successfully, and death was instantaneous.


Written and researched by Greg Barron. Sources here.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

 

Jim Roxburgh and his Stand against Racism.

Jim Roxburgh and his Stand against Racism.

I was lucky enough to know one of the main players in this little story from Australia’s recent history. Everyone knew that one of our English teachers at high school had played rugby for the Wallabies. We’d also heard that he’d done something special. It wasn’t until later in life, however, that I found out more about what he had done.

Jim Roxburgh was a big, shaggy man, wide across the shoulders and heavily bearded. Years earlier, in the late sixties, when Jim was playing for Australia, South Africa was a divided country. A minority white government, led by the National Party, was determined to keep the black majority and white minority separate. Also segregated was a third group labelled as “coloured.” This was an ugly system with an ugly name: Apartheid. 

In 1969, Australia’s Wallabies toured South Africa. Young Jim Roxburgh wore the Australian jersey with pride. He played prop, a relative lightweight against the hulking 130 kg Springbok forwards, yet playing with the determination and bravery he was famous for. 

But things happened on that tour that would change him forever. Rugby audiences were generally all-white, but on this tour, in an attempt to display racial unity, black crowds were rounded up and forced to watch and cheer. In Pretoria, one of the flimsy, temporary stands that were used to hold them collapsed, and the Aussie players helped carry the maimed and injured to ambulances while many of the white South Africans merely watched. 

During one game, the black crowd started cheering for the Australian team in a show of protest against the system under which they lived. South African police responded quickly. They used dogs, batons and sjamboks—hippo hide whips—to subdue the crowd, battering them into silence, while the Aussie players watched helplessly from the field. 

I still remember the English lesson when Jim told us this story. We were a bunch of rowdy country boys, but you could have heard a pin drop while he talked, choking up then, well over a decade after the event, trying to tell us something important in that slow, careful way of his. He told us of something that should offend all humanity. Something that never should have happened. 

Two years later, in 1971, the Springboks crossed the Indian Ocean to tour Australia. Jim joined six of his team mates in a stand that will go down in history. Seven national Rugby Union players: Jim Roxburgh, Tony Abrahams, Jim Boyce, Paul Darveniza, Terry Forman, Barry McDonald and Bruce Taafe, refused to take the field for the Wallabies against the visitors. Rugby’s “Magnificent Seven” as they have been called, would not play the representatives of a regime that not only didn’t consider non-whites for selection in any sport, but treated their own people with brutality and contempt. 

Our Prime Minister at the time, Billy McMahon, condemned Jim and his comrades as a “disgrace to their country.” They suffered abuse and catcalls from die-hard fans. They were blacklisted from playing Rugby, and only one of the seven was ever selected to play for Australia again. Their careers were over. Yet they folded their arms and explained that they saw playing against the Springboks as tantamount to condoning the apartheid regime. The “Magnificent Seven” stood firm. 

As I said, Jim was an English teacher, and a good one. But the main thing he did for me was much deeper than grammar. He inspired me, especially as the years passed and I learned more about what he did and how powerful a symbol it was at the time: almost certainly helping the Australian government towards a decision to officially sever all sporting ties with the South African regime in 1972. 

Every boy needs a hero, and moral courage is the greatest of human attributes.  

Greg Barron

Greg’s latest novel, Whistler’s Bones, is available now from Stories of Oz Publishing. 

The Siege of Dagworth

The Siege of Dagworth

Troopers at Dagworth Station 1894: John Oxley Library

The shearers’ strikes of the 1890s flared dangerously close to open warfare. It was a bitter struggle, with no sympathies between the conflicting sides. As one old timer recalled:

The wonder is that the strike and its attendant disturbances did not end in civil war. Since the Eureka Stockade, Australia has never experienced such a period of industrial upheaval, with the shearers in thousands armed with rifles, and military and police parading the districts of the central-west with an armament that included Gatling guns. There were many clashes and sensational incidents. Wool sheds were burnt on some stations, and considerable damage to property ensued before the struggle ended.

The reasons for the strikes were many, but were mainly related to pay and conditions. Shearers were paid just fifteen to seventeen shillings for every hundred sheep they shore, and were often expected to live rough while at the shed. Shearers also objected to being forced to shear wet fleeces.

Armed police preparing to break a strike near Hughenden, 1891: John Oxley Library

In 1894, a heavily fortified woolshed near Kyuna, Queensland, was bristling with guns, manned by special constables and station employees. It came under attack from a dozen determined shearers. Bullets flew in both directions, but the defenders kept themselves hidden behind stout log barricades.

One of the shearers crept forward with a kerosene bottle and used it as a crude Molotov cocktail to set fire to the shed. The defenders were forced to withdraw, but the arsonist hadn’t reckoned on the presence of 140 sheep in the yards. All were burned away to a terrible death. So ended the Battle of Dagworth.

The next day the squatter and the special constables who had been in the siege rode down to a nearby waterhole, where they found the body of Sam Hoffmeister, the man who started the fire. Racked with guilt he had shot himself during the night.

Interestingly, Banjo Patterson, then a lawyer hired to bring the warring parties together, visited Dagworth in the aftermath of the siege. Soon afterwards he made that historic visit to Combo waterhole, near Winton, with the station manager MacPherson, where they surprised an old swagman killing and dressing a station sheep.

It’s almost certain that the suicide death of Hoffmeister made its way into the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda, a story of independent spirit and resistance to authority.

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron

This story appears in the book Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Photo credit: Dunwich Museum

If you’ve read Whistler’s Bones you’ll know that Charlie Gaunt died at the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on January 29, 1938 of myocarditis and a rodent ulcer. His was just one of ten or more thousand, mainly unmarked, graves that lie beneath the sands of North Stradbroke Island.

The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum first opened in 1865 and operated until 1946. It usually held from a few hundred to a thousand inmates, mostly alcoholics, sick people with no family, and the unwanted elderly.

Inmates were housed in a number of dormitories, each for a different category. One housed women, another Asiatics, another was for drunks and another for Indigenous people. There was a tent village for the more independently minded men, a laundry, bakery and kitchen, and even a farm. Only a lucky few ever left the island alive.

Photo credit: Dunwich Museum

Charlie was not the only drover on that island, bushmen had a habit of losing track of their families and had nowhere to go in old age. Almost all professions, however, were represented, with former lawyers, timber cutters and schoolteachers all lining up together at the dining hall.

Photo credit: Dunwich museum

Interestingly, details about the asylum, including admission forms, can only be accessed by expensive Freedom of Information requests, and these are rarely granted. These records have been “frozen’ by the Queensland Department of Health until 2038.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron

 

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron can be ordered from the following outlets.

Paperback

Ebook

Or have a browse at ozbookstore.com

 

 

Carrie Creaghe

Carrie Creaghe

Emily “Carrie” Creaghe

Women in the Victorian era were often sheltered and protected; dominated by strict male figures and lacking experience in the real world. Yet, not all women were like that. There were female outlaws, ship’s captains, drovers, and even the odd well-bred adventurer like Carrie Creagh, probably the first European female to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Emily Caroline Creaghe, usually known as Carrie, was born in 1860 on a boat in the Bay of Bengal, India. Her father was a major in the Royal Artillery, and her relatives included a Marquis and State Governors. Moving to Australia with her family at a young age, at 21 she married station manager Harry Creaghe, who was jealous of his friend Ernest Favenc’s explorations across Northern Australia.

“Feel like going on one of Ernest’s trips into the wilderness?” Harry asked her.

“When do we start?” she said, and preparations began.

Over six months in the saddle, in the wild upper Macarthur River area and beyond, Carrie learned to love the bush. A swag shared with her husband each night was her home. The two fell deeper in love over time, though Carrie clashed repeatedly with Favenc, who she called “Grumpy.” It was a harsh trip, with conditions that killed at least one of the white males on the trip. It also earned Carrie the tag of “Australia’s first white female explorer.”

Returning to outback Queensland, Carrie gave birth to her first two children, Gerald and Harry Junior. Sadly, however, her husband died in a tragic accident. Not a woman to sit around grieving, Carrie found and married a new man, Joseph Barnett.

In 1899 she was on her way to New Zealand with her children, now five in number. The ship, called the Perthshire, broke a propeller shaft and drifted the seas for seven weeks. With the ship’s supplies of food and water soon exhausted, Carrie kept her brood alive until they were finally rescued.

Carrie bred half a dozen strong and adventurous children. Two sons served in France in the first World War. Only one returned.

Carrie died, matriarch of a loving family, in 1944.

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron. View the sources for this story here.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron can be ordered from the following outlets.

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Alma McGee

Alma McGee

 

 

Back in the 1920s, mental illness was seen as shameful. Sufferers were locked away, and subjected to “treatments” based on barely tested theories. The story of Alma McGee is a case in point.

Alma’s mother, Frances, came from a Protestant family – landed gentry in Cork, Ireland.  Frances fell in love with the Catholic stable boy, Bartholomew Murphy. Disgraced and disowned, Frances was 6 months pregnant when the young couple boarded the SS Whampoa, bound for Sydney. Their first child, Bartholomew was born as they settled into their new country. More followed.

Thirteen years later, Alma was born in James Street, Newtown. Tragedy seemed to dog her life right from the start. When she was 10 her older sister Florence died of a heart infection. One year later her father, the stable boy turned hansom cab driver, also died, at the age of 48. His death certificate stated that he died of stomach cancer and dementia, but a Murphy family story tells that he simply fell off his cab one day, drunk.

Just 12 years old, Alma left school to work as a fabric machinist, and eventually married boot-maker Robert McGee. By the end of the First World War, however, Alma was troubled by nerves, exhaustion and stomach complaints. The death of her nephew Maxwell, aged 8 months, didn’t help her state of mind.

Alma’s first two daughters, Ivy and Maude, were born during this time, but then, five days before the birth of her third child, Joyce, her husband Robert McGee was taken by the influenza plague that was raking the country. For the next twelve months Alma battled the same flu that had killed her husband, along with “shock” and “nervous turns” while her mother, Frances, helped care for the girls.

At times, however, she was capable of lending a hand in her brother’s produce store, particularly putting her sewing-machine skills to work, making aprons and shopping bags. She also served at the counter when needed.

Despite a succession of tragedies, including her brother dying from pueripheral neuritis, in Rockwood Asylum, Alma was again, in 1923, engaged to be married. Yet, on the cusp of her wedding it was revealed that her husband-to-be was already married. The union could not proceed.

This must have seemed like a last straw. Alma, now the recipient of an invalid pension, was bedridden with ulcers, eating disorders, and anxiety.

At the age of 35 Alma was admitted to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, then Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic, and Gladesville Mental Hospital. She was an inmate of these institutions, on and off, for years. The diagnosis given was “Hysteria”, “Melancholia Delusiona”, and later as “Manic Depressive Psychosis”.

Well-meaning but brutal treatments were the order of the day. Under the teachings of an American psychiatrist, Dr Cotton, teeth were seen as a source of bacteria and thus a cause of insanity. All of Alma’s teeth were removed and she was fed via a nasal tube while the stumps healed.

Alma was not allowed to see her children, at first, adding to the “hysteria” that she was being treated for. Frances visited her daughter regularly for a few years and then in 1928/29 only twice each year. Later, both Ivy and Maud visited their mother in Gladesville from 1926 to 1933.

The three girls lived with their grandmother, Frances, until she passed away in 1930, then with their Uncle William until he too died, in 1932. Ivy, the eldest of the three teenage girls, now took over as head of the family, supporting her two younger sisters both financially and emotionally. They lived in a tiny but spotless house in Canterbury, Sydney.

After six years in mental institutions, Alma was allowed to return home to live with her daughters. Ivy was by then a capable young woman of 20 years. But still Alma was periodically forced to return to the asylums where she had spent so much of her adult life, despite Ivy’s pleas to keep her at home.

The final chapter in Alma’s life was both happy and tragic. At the age of 49 she married Jim Parks, at St George’s Church, Earlwood. They moved into a flat at the back of a family home in the same suburb.

Unfortunately, some 15 months later, Alma suffered a serious bout of flu. A doctor was called but he could not come. She died the next day in an ambulance on her way to the hospital. She was 50 years old.

*******

Postscript: Alma was my great-grandmother. My mother, Faye, oldest child of Alma’s youngest daughter Joyce, remembered her as kind and loving. She also had fond memories of “Poppa Jim”, Alma’s husband for those few short months.

Greg Barron

 

Making Fools of the Law

Making Fools of the Law

There’s a long tradition of laughing at authority in Australia. Holding the constabulary up to ridicule was often the response to oppressive police tactics.

Australian bushrangers loved nothing better than making fools of the “traps.” Some entered stolen racehorses in bush races and won, or even impersonated the police commanders who were hunting them. Many were such supreme bushmen, that they were able to evade their pursuers for years.

 

Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland

 

Escaping from custody was a great lark …

Bushranger Captain Thunderbolt escaped the infamous Cockatoo Island by swimming across a dangerous stretch of water to shore. He remained at large for six years, and showed his contempt for the police by carrying an empty pistol.

Galloping Jones was known for running off from his police escort just for fun, then allowing himself to be recaptured; once he’d had a drink and a feed.

This account from the diary of early Territory policeman, Augustus Lucanus (who was once a soldier in the German army), had a similar theme:

Being transferred to Pine Creek and put in charge of the station, I had plenty of riding and bush work to do. My patrol extended to the Katherine River. One day I had to take a white prisoner and hand him on to the next station, to be forwarded to Palmerston. A heavy storm came up.

The rain and lightning were terrible. There was one fearful clap of thunder, worse than the rest, after which pieces of timber went flying all ways. A dry tree close by us had been struck. The horses bolted, and by the time I had managed to pull up my frightened mount I could see nothing of my prisoner. I searched and tried to find some tracks, but with no success. The rain had washed them completely out, so I rode on to camp at the Union. Arriving at the hotel I found my prisoner waiting for me in the bar. He was having a whisky. I was very pleased at this.

Lucanus went on to say that he wouldn’t have been so worried if the prisoner was Chinese, for the practice at the time was to simply grab another one, regardless of his innocence.

With attitudes like this it’s no wonder the ordinary people of Australia, whatever their race, enjoyed a good laugh at a policeman’s expense!

 

Written and Researched by Greg Barron.  

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron can be ordered from the following outlets.

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Ebook

Or have a browse at ozbookstore.com

Also available: Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History

Prologue: The Legend of Red Jack

They called her Red Jack, for her hair was as bright as an outback sunset, hanging to her waist from beneath a stained cattleman’s hat. Borne on her jet-black stallion, Mephistopheles, she roved the north, riding into towns and setting up camp, knocking up a rough set of yards where she would break horses, bring rested mounts back into work, and even train racehorses. A month or two later, she’d load her packhorses and move on.

Stockmen from Hughenden to Cloncurry, awed by her abilities in the saddle, whispered of how, as a young woman, flames set by an arsonist had consumed her house. Legend had it that her husband of three years and two children were inside – babes she had birthed and hugged and nursed and loved through fever and colic.

When they brought out the blackened, charred bodies, so the story went, Red Jack collapsed to the ground. Two men carried her to her mother’s house. For six weeks, they said, she lay cold and silent. Not once did she speak, her skin growing paler than white.

Then, one morning, Red Jack rose from her bed. She saddled Mephistopheles, then loaded two packhorses with every practical thing she owned. That day she commenced her wandering, breaking horses and hearts all the way; countless men bewildered by her beauty and skill and the folklore that followed in her passing.

The legend of the house fire was the most common story, but front-bar chat had it that Red Jack’s real name was Hannah, and that she hailed from the Darling Downs. Was it true? No one knew for sure. She was polite but would say nothing of herself. Neither confirm nor deny. One rumour held that Red Jack’s husband had not died in a fire, but rather of gunshot wounds just a week after the wedding. Some reckoned it was an accident. Some said that Red Jack shot him.

Others said that her wandering across Queensland and the Northern Territory was a manhunt for her husband’s killer, and that when she found him she would tear his beating heart from his chest.

Whispers followed Red Jack wherever she went. Some called her Australia’s greatest horse breaker. But to those who knew her, her cold beauty was so ethereal that she was no mortal woman, but a legend who walked the earth.

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

 


Buckley’s Chance

William Buckley was an English bricklayer, and ex-soldier, transported to Australia in 1803 for being caught in possession of stolen goods. He was a huge man, standing six foot six in his socks. Resuming his trade at Port Phillip, he laid the first brick of the town that would eventually become Melbourne.

Escaping with five mates from a work party, one man was shot dead and another recaptured. Two others elected to return to Port Phillip after a week of starving in the bush. Only William Buckley stayed in the wilderness, eating anything he could find to sustain him. Finding a spear protruding from an Indigenous grave site, he put it to good use, much to the amazement of local Aborigines who figured he had to be the reincarnation of the man who had once owned it.

For thirty-two years Buckley lived with the Port Phillip tribes, and when he finally wandered back into the settlement, he’d forgotten how to speak English. Pardoned, but forced to live and work with the whites, he was sickened by their treatment of his Indigenous “families” and he eventually moved to Hobart. Crowds gathered to get a look at the “Wild White Man.”

Buckley married at age sixty, and died ten years later after a wagon accident.

The Australian slang term “Buckley’s Chance” came about when he first escaped into the bush as a young man, because no one expected him to survive.

It seems likely that the later addition to this saying, “Buckley’s and None,” came about after the department store, Buckley and Nunn, opened its doors in Melbourne in 1851.

 

©2018 Greg Barron

 

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com

   

#1. The Man at the Waterhole

#1. The Man at the Waterhole

Not far from where the Mataranka Pub stands today, upstream from the Bitter Springs, the Roper River broadens into a waterhole. Giant paperbarks crowd the banks, the spaces between pierced with blades of sun-lit pandanus. Archer fish dart here and there in the green water, and cormorants hunt deep, surfacing amongst the snags.

Back in the pioneering days this was a popular place to hobble out the plant and unroll a swag. There was a store nearby that doubled as a grog shanty. For those inclined to fish, black bream and catfish were plentiful – easy to catch and good tucker.

One afternoon, in the year 1885, Tom Nugent rode up fast from the south. He wasn’t easily rattled, as a rule, but he’d stumbled on a gang of ten horsemen back along the track, and wanted to steer clear of them. They were as heavily armed as any police patrol, and looked twice as dangerous. He urged his gelding into a trot, keeping that pace up, all the way to his planned night’s camp.

Tom smelled the waterhole before he saw it, reining the gelding to a halt on the river sand. White men called this place Abraham’s Billabong, after a labourer who’d worked on the Overland Telegraph line. It had Jangman and Mangarrayi names before that, of course, but Abraham’s Billabong was the name Tom Nugent knew.

First he watered his pack horses and spares, then his gelding, leading him, with a loose grip on the bridle, to the lily-fringed edge of the hole. Tom’s hands were gentle and caring, his soft words soothing. He was in his late thirties, tall and sun-browned, all muscle and sinew after a thousand-mile ride.

Tom been born in Maitland, in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, baptised as Thomas Brian Nugent. His father James was, at that time, licensee of the Gordon Arms Hotel in Lochinvar. Tom wanted to be like the rough men who washed the dust from their throats at the pub, though he never quite understood why there was always so much dust to wash away, even when it rained.

When Tom was fourteen, already working on local cattle stations, his father went bankrupt, turning bitter with it. Just before Christmas 1867, James Nugent was charged with threatening to kill his wife. He probably would have done it, too, if nineteen-year-old Tom hadn’t stood in his way.

Yet, the Hunter Valley was too small a canvas for a wild young man like Tom. At the age of twenty-two he rode north, seeking adventure in Queensland, in the days when the west of that state was just opening up.

Photo of Tom Nugent Source: State Library of South Australia

Tom worked his way up to head stockman at Carandotta Station on the Georgina River. He was known for his horsemanship and calmness of manner when faced with anything from a ‘rush,’ to an angry piker, or even a rum-crazed ringer.

Cattle magnate John Costello hired Tom to establish Lake Nash station on the Territory/Queensland border. Tom droved the first herd of seven hundred breeders there from Carrawal in 1879. He could have stayed on as manager, but he was a drifter at heart.

He met up with the infamous Harry Readford, who had once stolen two thousand head of cattle and driven them to South Australia, inspiring the Captain Starlight character in Rolf Boldrewood’s novel, Robbery Under Arms. Tom and Harry joined forces for a cattle duffing jaunt or two, and remained the best of mates through thick and thin.

In fact, Tom and Harry Readford had shared this latest journey north together, at least for most of the way. With them on the trip was a lad from around Moree, who had run away from home. The lad and Readford himself had, just five days earlier, left Tom and headed for Brunette Downs on the Barkly.

Tom said on the day they parted. ‘I’ve a hankering to join the Hall’s Creek rush, before all the sparkle is panned from the creeks. No doubt I’ll be back before long, with the arse out of my pants and ready for stock work.’

‘No doubt,’ agreed Harry. ‘But if you do ride back this way, loaded down with gold, give me a shout and I’ll help you spend it.’

Leading his gelding up from the water, Tom unsaddled, hobbled and night-belled him, letting him loose with the packs. He collected sticks for a fire and established his campsite on the waterhole’s southern bank.

Thinking of the wild ten horsemen he had seen – men who may well be heading this way – he considered fetching his revolver, or squirt as stockmen called them, from his saddle bag before settling down. Yet, Tom wasn’t in the habit of using guns on any man, black or white, so he decided against it.

With a small mug of whisky close at hand, Tom sat on a paperbark root near the fire and opened a volume of poetry written by an Australian called Henry Kendall. His favourite verse was called Song of the Cattle Hunters. He’d read it a hundred times or more, but it still quickened his pulse and warmed his heart.

Down the ridges we fly, with a loud ringing cry,

Down the ridges and gullies we go,

And the cattle we hunt they are racing in front,

With a roar like the thunder of waves,

Tom was softly reading the words aloud, the stub of a cigar between the corners of his lips, when he heard the sound of hoofbeats. One man, riding fast, the rhythm changing where the waterhole sand began.

Down came a horseman, one of the biggest men Tom had ever seen. Twenty stone if he was an ounce, riding a stallion that matched him in stature. The whiskers of the rider’s beard curled like a coir mat over his face from ear to ear and chest to nostrils. He carried a black Colt revolver in a holster at his waist, reining in when he saw Tom, towering over him, his mount’s black chest like a cliff of veined muscle.

Tom recognised the bulky man as one of the ten riders he had seen earlier. Knowing instinctively that showing any weakness or fear would be a mistake, he barely moved, just flicked his eyes up from the pages of his book to the grizzled face of the rider.

‘Good afternoon,’ Tom said. ‘You must be new to the bush. Riding up on a man’s camp like that isn’t the way things are done.’

The rider shrugged. ‘I’m no new-chum. I just don’t worry myself much about the way things are done. I have my own ways and they work well enough.’

Tom took a handy twig from the fire and used the smouldering end to resuscitate his cigar, puffing with his lips until it was drawing well. ‘You could at least tell me who the hell I’m talking to.’

‘My name is Alexander McDonald, but men call me Sandy Myrtle. You might have heard of me?’

Tom thought for a moment, then shook his head. ‘No. Can’t say that I have.’

The rider scowled. ‘In any case, my mates are back a ways, and I’ve come ahead to scout out a place to camp.’

‘Plenty of space for it. Take your pick.’

Sandy Myrtle grunted. ‘Well, a polite way of saying this doesn’t spring to mind, so please, your Lordship, excuse me if this is not the way things are done. Put simply, I’d be grateful if you moved on. My mates and I don’t care for the company of strangers, especially not ones with smart mouths.’

Tom blinked, surprised. He stood up and crossed his arms over his chest, still holding the book. ‘So,’ he said softly. ‘What if I’ve already made up my mind to stay here for as long as I damn well like?’

‘That,’ said the big stranger. ‘Will be a problem.’

©2018 Greg Barron

Continues next Sunday … Read the story so far here.

 

#2. The Eleven

#2. The Eleven

Still in the saddle, Sandy Myrtle peered down at the stranger camped on the waterhole. ‘I’ll give you five minutes to piss off,’ he said, then dragged a silver pocket watch from a recess in the flowing caftan he wore in place of a shirt. He lifted the face to one eye, and squinted. ‘When the five minutes is up I swear I’ll stick that book down your throat and kick your arse so hard that they’ll have to pick you off the telegraph line yonder.’

The stranger didn’t so much as blink, and Sandy had to credit the man with some guts. He crossed his arms to wait out the five minutes, wondering if he’d have to fight to enforce the eviction. The prospect didn’t bother him much. Sandy was an uncommonly big man, at least the twenty stone Tom Nugent had estimated. Some of it was muscle, and some of it, he liked to joke, was muscle lying fallow.

Back in his youth he’d been as thin as the next lad. The weight came later. The fourth child of Scottish immigrants, he was born in Myponga, South Australia. His father took a liking to the sturdy ‘wee lad’, and bestowed on him his own name, Alexander MacDonald. Within an hour it had been shortened to Sandy.

Blessed with a capable brain, Sandy worked on the land from an early age, and was a natural leader. He was running Myrtle Springs Station at Farina, near the railway line to Oodnadatta, when he decided to chuck it all in. The horse he was riding now, the station owner’s part-Percheron stallion called Jonathan James, had, he told anyone who would listen, ‘followed’ him as he headed north.

Myrtle Springs Station (State Library of South Australia)

Thus mounted, Sandy rode a zigzag course into the Territory, drawn to prospector’s camps and desert shanties, farm huts and telegraph stations, living hard, playing poker and black jack, racing horses and skylarking at every opportunity. He found a niche in the brand-new settlement of Alice Springs, taking a genuine interest in the Arrernte and Luritja women around the town, but then in their old ways; the culture. Rare amongst bushmen in that part of the world, he was soon able to make himself understood in two or three Indigenous tongues, many of the words learned from the women he lived with at various times.

Sandy left the Alice with a bunch of mates after they’d worn out their welcome in the town. They’d been forcibly ejected from a race meeting, after one too many dud cheques and drunken fights. Word of a rich gold rush at Hall’s Creek had just hit town.

‘Nuggets as big as footballs,’ someone said. ‘An’ just lying there ready to be picked up.’

Sandy and his mates hadn’t been able to load their packs fast enough. Another three men, also headed for Hall’s Creek, had joined with them at the Elsey.

Now, Sandy divided his attention between watching the minute hand move closer to the time limit, and studying the stranger, who showed no inclination to move, his eyes flicking evenly over the words in his book.

The sounds of horsemen came from a distance, quickly closing on the waterhole. Tom’s eyes flickered up. Hoofbeats. Pintpots clicking on saddle dees; and laughing conversation.

‘Right,’ announced Sandy. ‘Time’s up.’ He gripped his horse’s mane with his left hand preparatory to dismounting. ‘And do you hear those horsemen coming? If you’re not afraid of me – and you should be – there are ten of us here now. You’d do well to piss off out of here as fast as that bony little gelding will carry you.’

Tom Nugent closed his book with a snap. ‘Well now,’ he cried, springing to his feet. ‘I can take an insult, but once you start on my horse, that’s when I get shirty.’

The first of the main party came up alongside Sandy Myrtle. It was Tommy the Rag, a bean-pole of a lad with a stockwhip looped around his shoulder like a rope. His quick mind summed up the situation at a glance. ‘What are you gonna do, mister? Fight all ten of us?’

A third man nosed up on a delicate grey. He was also of slim build, but with wiry muscles, and broad shoulders. His dress was flash: a snake skin belt tight around his trim waist; tooled leather boots and a red shirt. A silk kerchief was tied loosely around his throat. ‘Fighting?’ he said. ‘There’ll be none of that. This man here is our mate, Tom Nugent.’

Sandy’s forehead furrowed like a ploughed field, ‘You know this deadbeat?’

‘Know him? Tom is like a brother to me. Not only that, but he’s mates with Harry Readford, if that means anything to you. Tom has as solid a reputation as any man on the tracks.’ The speaker slid off his horse with more than usual style and extended a hand to Tom. ‘G’day there old mate. Haven’t seen you since we split up at the Macarthur.’

Tom smiled as they clasped hands. ‘Hey Larrikin, good to see you mate. And who’s this riding up? Well if it isn’t Fitz. You sly bastards. I saw you mob this morning and gave you a wide berth. If I’d recognised you two I’d have ridden straight in.’

‘Fitz and I met up with Sandy Myrtle here and his crew at the Elsey, and we’re all heading for the Kimberley rush to try our hand, so we decided to ride together. Look, here’s Bob Anderson too.’

‘Hi there Bob,’ said Tom, ‘it’s good to see you again.’ Bob was only recently arrived from Scotland, and still serving his apprenticeship, but was a likeable young bloke. His nickname was ‘The Foot Runner’ due to an uncommon turn of speed.

While the newcomers dismounted, there was a rush for saddle bags to take out pipes and tobacco pouches, pack the former with the latter, and drop live coals from Tom’s fire in the bowls to light them.

Sandy came down off Jonathan James with astounding grace for such a big man. ‘Mates with the great Harry Readford? Well why didn’t you say so? You’re welcome sir. I figured you were just a drifter heading for the goldfields. As Larrikin just explained, our lot met up with their lot down the track a ways and joined forces.’

Sandy and Tom shook hands, and by then all ten of the riders had come up. They were like a whirlwind visited on that waterhole, unsaddling horses, hobbling others, removing packs, hunting firewood, and peeing behind trees while others stripped off and plunged into the waterhole.The stock boys started to arrive; a lean Bularnu teen from the Georgina River Country, others from the Gulf. Most came in on horseback, black chests glossy as they went about camp chores.

‘Any ‘gators here?’ someone shouted.

‘Swim for a bit and we’ll find out,’ shouted another. ‘I’ll stand guard with my carbine.’ And that, to Tom’s surprise, was exactly what they did. The air was soon filled with the sound of splashing men and drops of water flinging rainbows in the the afternoon sun. Someone fired a round from a Snider rifle into the midst of the waterhole just to ‘let the scaly bastards know that we mean business.’ It sounded like a cannon shot, and birds took to the wing from all around the waterhole.

Abraham’s Billabong, taken in around 1885. (National Library of Australia)

Once camp was struck, the lure of the nearby shanty and its grog was too much. Sandy Myrtle cupped his hands over his mouth and bellowed.

‘Get ready, you lads. Directly we’re going to walk up to the store. I don’t know if any of you has a thirst for whisky that can compare to mine, but that’s where I’m heading.’ Sandy looked across at Tom, who had relit his cigar, looking at all the activity with a bemused expression on his face. ‘If you feel like company you might want to join us? It’ll be a good chance for a chin-wag. It sounds like we’re all pointing our noses for the Kimberley Rush.’

‘So it does, and I’ll be glad of a peg or two. I’ll pull on my boots and join you.’

Eleven men gathered on the banks of the waterhole, buckling on gun belts and emptying sand out of their boots. Some had bathed in their underwear, and the wetness showed through their dungarees.

As they walked together through the scrub towards the store, full of that shared energy a group of men get when heading off for a drinking spree, Sandy Myrtle slapped Tom Nugent on the back with the power of a thunderclap. ‘I’m sorry we got off to a bad start. I hope we can put it behind us.’

‘Of course we can,’ said Tom. ‘I’m not a man to bear a grudge.’

‘In that case I think some introductions are in order,’ said Sandy, calling the gang to a halt. ‘Now you already know Larrikin, Bob Anderson and Fitz. You also met this skinny little streak of shit, Tommy the Rag.’

‘I did,’ agreed Tom.

‘Well here’s the blokes who’ve ridden up along the ‘line’ from the Alice with me. First up, Jack Woods, but we have a few Jacks so we call him ‘New England Jack.’ Tom’s eyes met a scrawny character who looked like he hadn’t touched soap or water in months, if not years. Still, he had the twinkle of fun in his eye and the look of a man who lived life to the full.

‘Here’s the brothers,’ Sandy went on. ‘Wonoka Jack and George Brown. South Australians like me. They call themselves escaped farmers, but no one’s quite sure what they’re escaping to.’ The elder of the two wore a dirty-brown bowler hat, and they were both missing a tooth or two.

‘Nice to meet you,’ said Tom.

‘This fine young man over here is Jack Dalley,’ Sandy went on. ‘And this is Hughie Campbell.’ Tom sized up the latter. He was a big bastard, uncommonly muscular and handsome with it. ‘He was a seaman on a ship anchored off Port Augusta when he decided he liked the look of bonny South Australia and took a dive overboard.’

‘Call me Scotty,’ said Hugh, in a deep, smooth brogue. ‘These rude bastards all do.’

Sandy Myrtle grinned at Tom. ‘Eleven of us in all, that’s a drinking party and no mistake.’

‘Enough talk,’ growled Jack Daly. ‘Let’s go raise some hell.’

They walked in a line towards the shanty.

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com
Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com
Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com
#3. Jimmy Woodford’s Horse

#3. Jimmy Woodford’s Horse

For the first time in two long weeks, Jimmy Woodford knew that the journey’s end was nigh. Two weeks of scarcely a solid hour of sleep. Half starved. Near perishing for water at times. Tracking the mongrel bastards who stole his horse.

Now, at last, he was so close to the thieves he could almost smell them. His breath quickened as he walked faster, though his dungarees hung loose around each leg, and his shirt flapped against bony arms.

The trouble had started at the Daly Waters Telegraph Station. Jimmy’s mare had developed a case of colic. At first he’d ignored her restless pawing, but when she started dropping abruptly and trying to roll, he was forced to rest and examine her. Normally a beautiful horse – a blend of sweet nature and high spirits – she became irritable and sweaty, nostrils dilating with each laboured breath.

With any other horse Jimmy might have sold her and moved on, but she had been a parting gift from his parents, and her bloodlines were second to none in South Australia. He elected to stop with her while she recovered. Sandy Myrtle and the rest of the boys went on without him.

The recovery from colic took less than a week, but she remained poor, and instead of following the telegraph line north, Jimmy elected to veer east until he struck the Strangways River, guided by a Wilingula boy he had ‘borrowed’ for a few shillings from a fellow traveller.

One night he was camped on a waterhole called Paddy’s Lagoon. There were two other white men there, taking a smuggler’s route from the Gulf. They did not offer their names, but one in particular worried Jimmy. He was swarthy of skin, with eyes like the devil himself. With just three of them on the waterhole, however, bush etiquette declared that it would be impolite not to share their campfire.

As usual Jimmy hobbled out his mare and set his boy to watch her, patting the glossy black skin between the lad’s shoulder blades and giving him a stick of Barrett’s tobacco to keep him happy. The other white men had a cask of ‘rum’, and Jimmy had always had a weakness for the stuff. This was sly grog:  a devil’s brew of brandy and fermented sugars, poisoned with wood alcohol. After a few hours of yarning and gambling, followed by singing, shouting drunkenness, Jimmy fell asleep where he sat.

When he woke in the morning the two men had gone. They’d left Jimmy’s old bedroll. Still hidden in its recesses, he found with relief, were some coins, a note or two and some questionable cheques. They had left his cracked and hard boots. The Wilingula boy they had either taken, or chased off.

But it was the theft of Jimmy’s mare that brought a succession of piteous tears rolling down his cheeks. Apart from his strong connection to her, he was at the mercy of the much talked about and feared inhabitants of this area, on a little travelled route, with no horse.

But Jimmy was nothing if not persistent. He wanted his horse back, and he vowed that he would get her. He did not need a tracker. With a plant of four or five horses, including packs, the thieves had left a trail any fool could follow. Besides, they were lazy bastards. They rode hard for one morning, figured they were well ahead of one man on foot, then relaxed, stopping for a dinner camp that lasted most of the afternoon. Jimmy could see the marks where they had lain down in the shade.

Days of trailing the two thieves and their plant from waterhole to waterhole followed. Slowly Jimmy gained on them, the trail seeming fresher each morning. Leaving the Strangways they headed for the harsh country around Mount Mueller. There Jimmy found the carcass of a beast they had killed, taking just the backstraps and the rump. Jimmy had eaten well for the first time in days. He had no Vestas, so he chewed the meat raw, blood running down his cheeks and beard.

From here they headed west, crossed Elsey Creek, bypassed the homestead, then dawdled along a rough track that shadowed the south bank of the Roper River. The heat grew worse, pulsing off the river pandanus in humid waves.

Paperbark huts. Source: Roger Nott collection. NT Library

At the limit of his physical strength, Jimmy saw the shanty ahead. The building itself looked new; more civilised than most of the structures he had sampled grog in from Alice Springs up along the line. It had sawn panels on the walls, and a wide verandah strewn with tables. The roof was clad with paperbark sheets. A dressed bullock hung from a cross pole at some rough yards nearby.

There were tents and campers under every tree, with horses tied or hobbled here and there. Noise and argument. The clink of harness and the sound of crows cawing in the trees. Groups of Yangman sat at smoky fires with fish spears leaning on trees and children running. The ground had been beaten to dust from hooves and boots.

Jimmy heard his mare before he had her in sight. At the familiar nicker he turned and saw her looking at him, one of a half-dozen horses tethered by halter leads under a woollybutt tree. He broke into a stumbling run towards her. She had been hard used, bones hanging out of her chest like roof battens. Her coat was dull and dusty, and her eyes rimmed with dried fluids.

Jimmy was surprised by the strength of his mingled concern and pleasure at seeing her. He stroked her neck and let her nuzzle close.  Hand resting behind her ears, he glared at the tables under the shade of the shanty’s verandah.

The two thieving bastards were there, lounging with glasses of spirits close to hand. Jimmy would have recognised them anywhere. He felt anger surge in him. Retribution was at hand. He was going to take what was his. A skelter of gear was stacked around the tree branches. Swags, hobbles, and three saddles laying on boughs. One of these was Jimmy’s own, made by a saddle maker at Keith, and paid for as a lad through months of labour, knocking up split rail fences for local cockies at sixpence a panel.

Jimmy did not hurry. The men were intent on their drinks, and he nursed his anger coldly. His mare was the first priority. He delved in the stolen gear and found a brush. Starting at her neck, running down the barrel to her hindquarters, he brushed her all over, talking all the while, frowning at small nicks and cuts, vowing to use some of his limited funds to purchase some iodine to treat them.

‘Don’t worry girl, I’ll fix you up and find you some good grass. You an’ me are alright now. I’m going to punish the bastards who done this to you then we’re going to get you good as gold.’

When the body was done, he worked through her tail, then dropped to one knee, lifting her off front leg with a firm grip. He shook his head as he examined the foot, anger tugging at his lips. She had been cold-shoed badly. And the frog was black and smelled bad. This, unfortunately, would have to wait.

Standing, Jimmy tacked her up, then arranged his gear on the dees and saddle bags. Untying the halter lead, he walked her over towards the shanty. Men, black and white, jealous of their patch of shade, stared as he went past. There was no mistaking the grim expression on his face.

He walked to the shanty and stopped near the thieves, gripping the mare’s bridle loosely in his right hand. The two thieves were so brazen they did not try to run, but Jimmy did not fail to note the cut-down Snider carbine that lay on the table in front of the mean-looking one. Still, Jimmy was far beyond fear, or even reason.

‘You’re the bastards who stole my mare,’ he shouted, spit flying from his lips with the force of his anger.

The mean one took a clay pipe from his mouth, rested it on the table, then turned and spat on the ground. ‘That’s not right. I won her off you at cards when you was drunk.’ The speaker turned to his mate. ‘It’s true all right, isn’t it Carmody?’

His mate said nothing, just stared with black eyes.

‘You stole her, you swine,’ Jimmy hissed, ‘and I’ll have satisfaction. Get out here and take what’s coming to you.’

The horse thief lifted the carbine and pointed at Jimmy. ‘Satisfaction, eh? How about you turn around and walk away from here, without your horse, and without a hole in your goddamn gut.’

Jimmy stared, lips twisting with hatred and indecision. The .577 calibre hole in the Snider’s muzzle glared at him. ‘I’m taking my horse and be damned to you.’

The thief levered back the hammer on the carbine. ‘Last chance Jimmy. I swear to God I won’t let you take what’s rightfully mine.’

Jimmy heard a shout, turned and looked down the track, and saw eleven men walking in a line along the track. Even at a distance, one, in particular, was unmistakeable, mainly because of his massive bulk. It was Jimmy’s mate Sandy Myrtle himself, and there also was Wonoka Jack, George Brown and Jack Dalley there beside him.

‘No, you piece of scum,’ said Jimmy, ‘I’ll take my horse, and damn you for the cowardly horse thief you are.’

The gunman turned his head and saw the men coming. ‘I tell you again, Jimmy, you’re not taking that mare. One thing you should know is that I never make an idle promise.’

The eleven men were coming up to the shanty now, forming up in a silent row. ‘These men are my mates,’ cried Jimmy. ‘How are you going to stop me taking my horse now?’

‘Like this,’ said the thief.

The carbine boomed, and a gust of black powder smoke burst from the muzzle. The sound of the discharge numbed every ear around that shanty. The heavy slug struck Jimmy’s mare in the middle of her forehead and she fell like a bag of bones into the dust.

At first there was silence. Even the crows ceased their cawing.

Then a commotion developed out on the road. A hushed whisper rolled through the crowd. Something else was happening. A rare and unusual rider was coming. And with smoke still curling from the barrel of a carbine, they turned to watch her come up along the track.

It was a woman riding astride like a man, in moleskins and chequered shirt, with three laden pack horses behind her. Her stallion was even more impressive than the legend had promised.

‘Jesus Christ, it’s Red Jack,’ someone whispered. ‘And Mephistopheles.’

Red Jack’s long red hair was in plaits, hanging from the sides of her hat. As she passed her eyes did not seem to rise from the ground, stonily avoiding eye contact with one and all. The stock of a rifle extended from her saddle. A woman in a man’s world. Not as a curiosity, as part of it. No man there doubted that she was a force to be reckoned with.

Hugh Campbell broke the silence, his eyes glazed with admiration.  ‘My Lord, is that really Red Jack. I canna believe she’s so bonny!’

And as she came up to them, the hooves of her horse raised a puff of dust with each footfall. It seemed that she would keep going past the dead mare, for the stallion smelled death and became skittish. When she came alongside, however, Red Jack reined in and looked at the pitiful body with its protruding bones and arched neck.

Now Red Jack looked from one to the other of the men gathered there, until her eyes settled on the man with the smoking gun.

‘You’re a mongrel dog, Maori Jack Reid,’ she said. ‘It’s time someone hung you from a damned tree.’

Red Jack rode on, but at a distance of some hundred paces she stopped again. Her shoulders relaxed as if she had been holding her breath. Then, with a touch of her heels against her stallion’s flanks she continued on her journey into the west.

©2018 Greg Barron

 

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#4. The Hanging of Maori Jack Reid

#4. The Hanging of Maori Jack Reid

Tom Nugent had packed a lifetime of experience into his thirty-seven years, but he’d never seen Red Jack in the flesh, and had never watched a man murder a horse. Today, at this Roper River shanty, he’d seen both those things. Each was troubling in different ways.

Most of the crowd were still in shock, but Tom knew that Jimmy Woodford would not take the killing of his horse lying down. Sure enough, Jimmy stood slowly from the limp and bloody body of his mare, and then, with a barging run that sent chairs and tables crashing, he went for Maori Jack.

‘You’ll die for that, you cur,’ Jimmy cried.

Tom was ready, and with a lunge he grabbed the struggling man around the bony chest, holding him easily. ‘Steady on, lad.’

‘Let me go. That mongrel shot my horse!’ This was Jimmy’s last despairing shout before he broke down, wailing like a child. His face was soon a mess: tears ran from his eyes, and jelly-like snot, streaked with dirt from the track, hung from his nose and clotted in his beard.

‘Just calm down,’ said Tom. ‘Let me handle it.’

Slowly the struggles subsided, and Tom released the now limp body into a chair. Jimmy blew his nose on his shirt and waited expectantly.

Tom glared at the gunman, ‘That was a low act, Maori Reid. No real man would kill a horse.’

‘Ar, and if it’s not that esteemed gentleman, Tom Nugent. Keeping poor company these days Tom.’

Big Sandy Myrtle turned on Tom. ‘Is this character a mate of yours?’

‘Mates? Never!’ muttered Tom. ‘But I know him, yes, I met him down at the Macarthur River. His real name is John Reid. Some men call him ‘Black Jack Reid.’ Mostly he’s known as ‘Maori,’ for you can see by the swarthy shade of his skin, and the deep black of his hair and beard, that the noble threads of the New Zealand native are woven through him. The man sitting next to him is his brother-in-law, known as Carmody.’

Tom raised his voice as he went on. ‘Listen now my friends, and I’ll tell you the nature of a man who would kill a horse in cold blood.’ After a long stare at the body of the mare, still bleeding into the dust, Tom explained: ‘Maori Jack Reid was a seaman, who escaped his country just ahead of the Royal Navy, who caught and hanged many of the officers of his last ship there, an infamous brigantine called the Carl. This cruel man was crew on a blackbirder in the South Sea Islands, kidnapping labourers for the sugar plantations of Queensland.’

‘That’s a low trade indeed,’ added Sandy Myrtle. And every man on that shanty’s verandah was spellbound.

Maori Reid betrayed a smile in one corner of those whiskered lips, as if enjoying hearing the recount of his own misdeeds. ‘Go on, Tom, I’m flattered that you made the effort to research my past.’

‘Oh it was no effort,’ said Tom. ‘It was the man sitting next to you, your brother-in-law Carmody who told me much of this when last we met, at that seedy outpost they now call Borroloola. The remainder I read in the newspapers during the trial of your captains.’

Maori Reid fixed on Carmody a look that clearly said, I’ll deal with you later. But Tom was not finished.

‘Now I must share,’ he said, ‘the trick used by Maori Reid and his shipmates to capture their human prey. They would anchor in a bay of some South Sea island and invite the locals aboard, promising them gifts laid out in the hold. As soon as the trusting crowd went below to look, the hatches would slam shut, and the ship would sail for Queensland, where their captives would be sold at auction.

‘The young women suffered most, for Maori and his mates would use them as playthings while their interest lasted, then they would throw them overboard. The violent or untameable men would likewise feed the ravenous sharks of those remote waters. Yes, my friends,’ added Tom, ‘this is the resumé of a man who would shoot a horse then smile. Shall I go on?’

Taking the grim silence of the crowd as encouragement Tom finished the story, ‘On the final voyage of this blood-thirsty Carl, the heavily armed Royal Navy ship HMS Cossack espied and chased them. Maori Jack and his mates were determined not to be caught with their living cargo.’ Tom dropped his voice to a whisper, ‘Those bastards shot every man, woman and child, and weighted them down to the bottom of the sea: a slaughter that churns the gut. The hangman took vengeance on the Carl’s officers, but this man here escaped. He ran to Queensland where his ill-gotten funds bought and outfitted a schooner. Now, styling himself as a sea captain, Maori filled her holds with goods in Burketown, and sailed her up the Roper, then the Macarthur, making a fortune on cheap whisky, weevilled flour and flimsy wares.’ Tom raised his forefinger. ‘Maori made only one mistake. He never paid a cent of customs duty, bringing goods from the colony of Queensland to the Territory, and he was caught red-handed by Alfred Searcy the sub-inspector.’

For the first time Maori Reid reacted. ‘That officious bastard, Searcy. It’s he who’s ruined me, impounded my vessel and arrested my dear wife Henrietta and I. Now I am ruined. Why should I not be bitter?’

Tom glared at Maori. ‘Killing this horse was the last straw. Red Jack was right. It’s time someone hung you from a tree.’

Maori’s eyes darted like those of a snake about to strike. He raised his carbine.

‘Don’t bother,’ Tom warned. ‘We all know that Snider rifles carry but a single round in the chamber. You spent yours on that horse.’ He turned to the rest of the eleven who, with the addition of Jimmy Woodford, had now become twelve. ‘Get him, boys, while I fetch a rope.’

Photographer: H.W. Christie

While he kicked and spat, throwing curses to the wind, they carried Maori Reid from the verandah and towards a tall, spreading kurrajong tree. Everyone helped in one way or another: Bob Anderson, New England Jack, Sandy Myrtle, Jack Dalley, Scotty, Wonoka Jack and his brother George, and Tommy the Rag ran alongside yelling encouragement and cracking his stockwhip. Fitz and Larrikin grabbed Carmody and brought him along, with each gripping an arm.

Tom Nugent found a dozen men camping around that shanty who were willing to lend a rope for the enterprise. He ignored various plaited greenhides, and selected a stout length of hemp.

Imprisoned under that handy bough, seeing Tom walking towards him with a rope, Maori Reid showed fear for the first time. ‘You can’t hang me. You have no right. This ain’t no court of law.’

Larrikin pointed to Carmody, whose face had turned the same shade as his yellow hair. ‘What about this one? Does he hang as well?’

Tom shook his head. ‘No, Carmody’s not bad, just too weak to stand up to this mongrel. Let him go.’ With those words Tom stepped forward with the rope and threw it over a suitable bough. On the other end he tied a hangman’s slip-knot while Maori swallowed so that his adam’s apple bobbed like a rowboat on a heavy sea.

‘You can’t. You won’t,’ he muttered.

Holding the noose in his hands, Tom glared down at the prisoner. ‘John Ward Reid, known variously as ‘Maori’ and ‘Black Jack,’ you are charged with stealing a horse, the property of James Woodford, then feloniously slaying the said horse instead of returning it to him. You are also charged with other acts of bastardry too numerous to mention. How do you plead?’

Maori Reid made a determined bid for freedom, but New England Jack stopped him cold with a two handed thrust that sent him flying. ‘That means guilty, I reckon, Tom.’

Then, rather than fitting the noose around the prisoner’s neck, Tom kneeled near Maori’s feet, snugging the loop around his ankles. Once they saw this the men understood Tom’s joke. This was not to be a death-by-hanging, but a grand amusement.

‘Now lads, pull,’ Tom cried.

The mood changed in an instant, from heavy and expectant to a wave of laughter, as the rope tightened and Maori Reid went backwards up into the air, shouting with discomfort. They pulled until his head was dangling a yard off the ground, then tied the rope off on a neighbouring tree.

‘You bastards, it hurts,’ Maori shouted, his face reddening quickly. A leather purse fell from the folds of his shirt, hanging from a string. Tom used his knife to cut it free.

Jimmy Woodford was smiling at last now, and Tom called him over.

‘Now how much was your mare worth, do you reckon?’ Tom asked. ‘Don’t hold back, there’s a goodly sum in here.’

Jimmy cocked his head to one side and scratched his beard. ‘She were a good horse. I’d say twenty-five pound.’

‘Don’t you touch my money,’ wailed Maori Reid.

Tom handed a roll of notes to Jimmy. ‘Here’s thirty pound in notes, for your pain and trouble. You’ll be able to buy a decent nag for that.’

Sandy Myrtle came across. ‘Thanks Tom. Jimmy’s a good mate.’ He called out to Tommy the Rag. ‘Hey Tommy, would you take Woodford back to camp and get him settled, and a feed into him?’

‘What about my horse?’ Jimmy cried. ‘I can’t just leave her there, dead and all.’

‘Leave that to us,’ Tom said. ‘We’ll get her buried good and proper.’

Tom was true to his word, offering twenty shillings from Maori Reid’s purse to a couple of travelling Irishmen. They were to dig a hole away from the shanty, drag the mare’s body up with a team and bury her.

‘Now,’ Tom said to the others. ‘Let’s go have some fun.’ He looked at the upside-down Maori Reid. ‘You can watch from here,’ he said.

A rain of curses flew from that unfortunate, some of which even Tom hadn’t heard before.

As they walked towards the shanty Tom fell in beside Carmody and gave him the purse. ‘You can pass the remainder back to Maori later, if you feel inclined. There’s still a useful sum inside.’

‘Thanks Tom, you’re a fair man.’

As they reached the dusty shade of the shanty’s verandah Tom stopped and lowered his voice. ‘Tell me, Carmody, it wasn’t like Maori Reid said, was it? He didn’t win that horse at cards did he?’

‘Afraid so. Jimmy Woodford was so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing. Maori won the horse, then the saddle and everything else fair and square. Jimmy must have forgotten it all when he waked.’

‘Why didn’t you say something earlier?’

‘Maori’s my brother in law but he’s a bastard. And it’s a dog act to fleece a drunk man like that anyhow. It’s nice to see someone stand up to him. I was pretty sure you weren’t really going to hang him.’

Tom laughed. ‘No, but that’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.’

Carmody went on, ‘So are you going to cut Maori down?’

Tom clapped the other man on the shoulder. ‘Maybe later, first I’m going to drink my fill with grog and share a few yarns with mates new and old.’

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com
Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History is also available from amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com


Sixty Ships and One Thousand Men.

The extent of the Macassar penetration into Northern Australia was greater than is generally acknowledged: much more than a few scattered trepang-seeking proas. In fact, as this excerpt from Voyage to Terra Australia by Matthew Flinders, shows, Macassar incursions featured large numbers of boats and men; heavily armed and organised on military lines. The following meeting took place on the coast of Eastern Arnhem Land, not far from the modern town of Nhulunbuy.

Thursday, February 17, 1803:

On approaching I sent Lieutenant Flinders in an armed boat to learn who they were, and soon afterwards we came to an anchor in twelve fathoms, within musket-shot, having a spring on the cable and all hands at quarters. On the return of Lieutenant Flinders we learned that they were proas from Macassar, and the six Malay commanders shortly afterwards came on board in a canoe. It happened fortunately that my cook was a Malay, and through this means I was able to communicate with them. The chief of the six proas was a short elderly man, named Pobassoo. He said that they were upon the coast in different divisions sixty proas, and that Salloo was the commander-in-chief.

According to Pobassoo, from whom my information was principally obtained, sixty proas, belonging to the Rajah of Boni, and carrying one thousand men, had left Macassar with the north-west monsoon two months before, upon an expedition to this coast, and the fleet was then lying in different places to the westward — five or six together — Pobassoo’s division being the foremost. These proas seemed to be about twenty-five tons, and to have twenty or twenty-five men in each. That of Pobassoo carried two small brass guns obtained from the Dutch, but the others had only muskets, besides which every Malay wears a dagger, either secretly or openly.

The image that accompanies this post depicts a Macassar Trepanging Camp at Raffles Bay, Coburg Peninsula NT. It was painted between 27 March and 6 April 1839. The painter was Louis Le Breton, the official artist on a voyage of exploration under the command of French captain, Dumont D’Urville. Courtesy: NT Library

#5. The Shanty

#5. The Shanty

Sandy Myrtle fronted the bar, standing like a giant with his hair almost brushing the cypress rafters. He pulled his chequebook from his pocket, borrowed a pen and inkpot, then scribbled a figure.

‘Here boy, let me know when this runs out. Whiskies for me and the Scotsmen, then rums all round for the rest of the lads.’

The shanty keeper looked like he’d just stepped off the steamer from ‘down south.’ He was around twenty years old, neatly dressed in a long sleeved shirt and tight button-up vest, sweat dampening his armpits from the heat. He picked up the cheque as if it were a poisonous spider, holding it close to his spectacles. Clearing his throat, he turned to the Jangman teenager who was sweeping the floor. ‘Hey you, where’s Mr Kirwan?’

‘Mister Kirwan go shoot ducks down the river, Mulaka.’

‘Go find him, quick and tell him to come here.’ The young shanty keeper turned back to Sandy. ‘Might I ask if this cheque is valid … we have a policy of—’

‘Of course it’s bloody valid. Hurry up man. We’re thirsty.’

‘I know, it’s just that … the more experienced man is not here at present, I’ve sent for him but—‘

Sandy slammed both massive hands down on the bar and leaned on them, eyes glowing like slow-burning campfires. ‘Now listen, laddie. If there’s one thing that makes me very, very angry it’s having my integrity questioned, especially by a pup whose balls have scarcely dropped.’

‘I beg your pardon sir,’ huffed the shanty keeper. ‘Well I mean to say that I am very new at this, and my much more experienced colleague will be here shortly.’

Again the hands came down, this time striking like a cannon shot. ‘Now fill up those glasses and hurry up about it, or I’ll come over there and do it myself.’

Photo by T.Mann, courtesy NT library.

Meanwhile, Tom and the rest of the men spread out on the verandah. The table-tops were slabs of cypress, fresh from the saw-pit. The chairs were sawn sections of woollybutt trunk, but even this was luxury to bushmen who had been so long on the tracks. Tom seated himself with Fitz and Larrikin, his best mates from the crew. Scotty occupied the end chair, a glazed expression on his handsome face.

Tom looked around. The shanty was brand-new and businesslike. On his last visit it was quite the opposite, being run by an old soak called McPhee. It was now owned by the firm of Armstrong and Bryden, who also operated the store at Roper Bar.

‘I heard this place burned down just a few weeks ago,’ said Tom. ‘They’ve done a mighty job in rebuilding it so fast.’

‘When Matt Kirwan is around,’ said Fitz. ‘Things happen.’

‘They do indeed,’ said Tom. ‘Anyway, it’s good to see you bastards. I knew you were planning on heading for Hall’s Creek, but wasn’t sure if we’d meet up.’

Fitz smiled his usual grin. ‘Oh we knew where you were headed. There seemed no doubt we’d hear of your shenanigans sooner or later. Though mind you, we had some troubles of our own on the way over.’

‘Like what?’ Tom asked.

Larrikin took over, his smiling blue eyes lively in his forehead while his strong hands remained constantly busy, tearing a dry gum leaf up into tiny squares. ‘Maori Reid was right about one thing … that mongrel Alfred Searcy. He’s out of control. We had a run in with him and another ‘pink’ by the name of O’Donahue.’

Tom crinkled his eyes. ‘Wait a minute. Alf Searcy’s a policeman? Since when? Last I saw he was a customs inspector, and a jumped-up excuse for a man at that.’

‘He was a customs inspector,’ Larrikin explained, ‘but Inspector Foelsche up in Palmerston was short-handed so drafted him into the force. Anyway, we were headed out of Roper Bar, maybe ten mile out, travelling with a bunch of prospectors, when Searcy and O’Donahue tricked us into having a pipe with them. Searcy recognised us from the Macarthur River, I’m guessing.’

The first round of drinks arrived on a tray from the young shanty keeper, shooting disapproving glances as he went.

‘What’s your name, sonny?’ Tom asked mildly.

‘George Bowen, sir.’

‘Straight off the boat by the look of you.’

‘Pretty much, sir.’

‘Well keep the rum flowing and we’ll have no quarrel.’

At that the shanty keeper emptied the tray and went back inside for another.

Larrikin took a swig of his drink, then patted his gut. ‘Hell that feels good. Anyhow, to go on with the story, half way through our pipes O’Donahue pulled a revolver and forced us to ride back into Roper Bar police station to see if there were any charges against us.’

Tom’s face hardened. ‘So you weren’t under suspicion of anything, Searcy and his mate just didn’t like the look of you?’

‘That’s right. They said we looked like a mob of ruffians and marched us in. Donegan at the Roper is a decent bloke and let us go, but not before every drifter on the Roper had laughed themselves silly at our expense.’

Tom shook his head slowly. ‘That doesn’t sit well with me. Searcy and this O’Donahue mongrel had no right to do that.’

Larrikin shrugged. ‘No harm done. Not really. Come on Tom. It’s not like you can do anything about it.’

‘Maybe there is maybe there isn’t.’ Tom turned to look at Scotty, who was drinking his whisky at a rapid rate, but still hadn’t said a word, staring into space. ‘Now what’s wrong with you? I can’t recall ever seeing a Scotsman lost for words.’

‘I just canna get the sight o’ Red Jack out of my head. How can a woman be so beautiful?’

Tom Nugent rested his tumbler on his bottom lip and spoke into it reflectively. ‘Aye gentleman, we were very lucky to see Red Jack the Wanderer. She can ride better than any of you flash bastards, and break anything on four legs in a week.’

‘Bonniest face I ever seen,’ Scotty breathed. ‘May our paths cross again.’

‘Don’t go down that road,’ warned Tom. ‘Red Jack leaves heartbreak in her wake like a siren.’

Matt Kirwan came in from the river, a Purdey breech-loading shotgun slung over his back. A couple of lean but muscled boys carried, in each hand, two or three still-bleeding ducks tied together by the feet.

Kirwan’s timing was good, young George had just accepted the third cheque from Tom Nugent’s party. This one was made out to some illegible recipient in Alice Springs. Apart from bearing the marks of several owners, none of whom had used soap on their hands in many a long week, it was partially torn, and hardly legible.

The conversation shushed while the youngster took Matt Kirwan inside for a hurried conversation. Kirwan walked outside presently, red in the face and obviously angry. ‘No more of your worthless cheques, you bastards.’

Tom Nugent stood, ‘Well if it isn’t good old Matt Kirwan. Nice to see you.’

‘It’s not in the slightest bit good to see you. If you lot don’t have cash you won’t get another drink here this afternoon.’

Tom liked Matt. He’d been running the Hay and Company store at the Roper Landing for some years. Kirwan was afraid of no one, could fight bare-knuckle with the best of them and did not tolerate fools. Fortunately the campers from the waterhole had enough cash between them to keep the drinks flowing.

Darkness fell, and one of the Irishmen who had disposed of Jimmy’s dead horse retrieved a concertina from his camp, and played old country jigs so lively that the tapping of feet filled the night. Larrikin Jim, as always, was the first to get to his feet. And Yangman women came in from the fringes. Music was universal.

Matt Kirwan had mail to distribute. Most of these letters were secreted away, to be treasured later. There was one from Fitz’s lady friend, down in Brisbane. This he opened immediately, wafting the scent of perfume far and wide across the verandah. Fitz sat by himself for an hour, nursing his drink, reading and rereading each sentence, a wistful expression on his face.

Other men came through that night, some travelling in the darkness, some Tom knew from cattle work. One was Charlie Gaunt, with hollowed eyes and sadness evident in his heavy tread. He paused only to buy provisions and to down a quick rum before riding off into the night.

Jimmy Woodford and Tommy the Rag returned from camp, and Jimmy seemed as ready for a glass of grog as ever. He announced his arrival by shouting the bar with his new found riches, courtesy of Maori Jack Reid.

‘Hey Matt,’ Tom shouted, during a lull in the music. ‘We haven’t had beef in Gawd knows how many days. How about you make a start on that beef carcass you’ve got hanging out there at the yards?’

Kirwan stood with his arms folded across his chest. ‘That meat’s all spoken for, and beef is in short supply because of the redwater fever.’

‘That’s a bit rough, Matt,’ said Tom. ‘We’re hungry, and we’ve got money to pay for it.’

‘I told you, and I can’t speak any more plain,’ called Kirwan. ‘There’s no beef for you. And what’s more, I’ve had enough of you lot. That’s last drinks. I’ll sell bottles if you want to take grog back to your camp, but you can get out of this store, every bloody one of you.’

While the others downed last drinks and organised the purchase of take-away bottles, Tom went out in the dark with Carmody to cut down Maori Jack. At first he thought Maori might be dead, for he knew that his guts would be lying heavy on his lungs after all this time inverted.

A movement of the eyes showed that Maori was a long way from dead. Still alert. Still dangerous. Tom released the knot that held him suspended and lowered the horse-killer down to a slumped mess in the dust. He carefully removed the noose.

Maori did not get up straight away, but sat, shaking his head, massaging his ankles and glaring like a brown snake at Tom. ‘I should kill you for that,’ he said.

‘Keep your mouth shut. Now listen, I put your carbine with the rest of your gear, and your boy has packed everything ready. Time for you to get on your horse, and ride away.’

Maori’s eyes fell on Carmody, hanging back in the darkness. ‘What about you, Carmody? You ain’t gonna desert me now, are you brother?’

‘I’m going to ride with these blokes now, sorry Maori.’ Carmody gave him the purse then walked back across the dust to the others.

‘Don’t come near us again,’ Tom warned. ‘You have a dark heart, and I want nothing to do with you.’

‘I can hurt you,’ hissed Maori Jack, his eyes luminous as moons..

‘How?’

‘l know about something – or should I say someone – down Borroloola way.’

Tom tried to hide the fear that crossed his face unbidden. ‘You can’t hurt anyone if I kill you now,’ he said.

‘You’re no killer, Tom. You’re not like me.’

‘You don’t know the first thing about me. Get out of here. Ride away and don’t come back.’

‘So be it then,’ Maori said softly. ‘But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Tom watched as Maori Reid limped across to his camp, where the boy waited with two saddled horses and laden packs.

Finally, with the beat of horses driven hard, thudding away into the distance, Tom let out his breath and walked off towards the twelve men waiting for him outside the shanty, bottles of rum and whisky in their hands.

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron
Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, ibookstore and ozbookstore.com
Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com
Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
#6. The Bitter Springs

#6. The Bitter Springs

It was a two mile ride to the thermal pools known as Bitter Springs, but no one considered the time wasted. Leaving the stock boys in charge of the camp, the thirteen men rode in double file down the moon-lit track, swigging from bottles and skylarking as they went.

Leaving their horses tied to paperbark trees, they stripped off boots and clothes, then staggered on tender white feet for the pools. The water was clear as air, surrounded by sprays of fan-like livistona fronds, reeds and pandanus. The stench of flying-fox sat heavily in the air, and stars glittered through the spaces between the trees. One by one the group splashed or slid into the steaming water.

‘The Yangman grill those damn fruit bats an’ eat them,’ said Larrikin, surfacing with his hair slicked back like the fur of a rat. ‘Buggered if I know how they can stand the stink.’

‘You’d eat them too, if you were hungry enough,’ Fitz said.

Bob Anderson made a noise through his nose. ‘I’ve nar been that hungry, and by God’s grace I ne’er will be.’

Sandy Myrtle, wearing just an oversized pair of underpants, busied himself making a bright fire on the bank. Finally, when dancing flames flickered across the water surface, he lowered his elephantine body into the water. ‘That’s hot,’ he sighed.

‘Whoops,’ Tommy the Rag cackled. ‘Damn water level just rose by a yard.’

The Bitter Springs

The others laughed while the big man tried to catch his scrawny tormentor, before giving up. ‘Watch your mouth, you little turd. I’m too drunk to tolerate your foolery.’ Sandy sank back down into the water until it lapped against the whiskers that followed the double curves of his chin.

Tom Nugent found himself a patch against an underwater rock, smoking a cigar in damp fingers. Entertainment was provided by George Brown, sneaking up behind his brother, Wonoka Jack, holding a mess of rotting vegetable matter he had gathered from the edge of the pool. With a hoot of glee George slapped the sulphurous mess on his victim’s head. Wonoka Jack reacted with a shriek, ran a few paces, then realised the trick and turned to retaliate.

The high-jinks went on for a moment or two, then they all settled down to luxuriate in the hot water, thirteen of them in a circle.

‘Ah this is gid,’ said Scotty. ‘An’ must surely be why I left jeelit bleddy Scotland.’

‘Aye,’ said Bob Anderson. ‘I would nar have dreamed there could be a place as braw an’ bonny as this in all tha warld. Where aboots in the auld country be tha from, Mr Campbell, eh?’

The older man sized up his countryman. Bob was tall and skinny, with a long face. ‘I’m an Argyll man, but a long taim past. I’m near thir’y now, and was scarce fi’teen when I bairded me first tub – a windjammer she were. But dinny call me mister. Scotty will go jes’ as gid.’

‘I’ll call you Scotty then,’ said Bob. ‘I’m as like a Perthshire man meself; from Abernethy as a bairn, though me da were a tailor and we moved with his work; down Edinburgh way for a time. I would have tarried, but me and the laird I was working for had a wee disagreement.’

‘Can you damn Scotsmen stop your jawin’ and pass that bottle?’ someone called, and around it went. When it was empty someone climbed out of the pool and dripped their way over to a saddle bag for more.

Tom Nugent was watching the twelve men in turn. They’re not really bad apples, he decided, just misfits like himself, spat out by polite society and united by a love of the Australian bush. Usually he liked travelling solo, but the idea of lively and entertaining company suddenly appealed.

‘Since we’re heading to the rush at Hall’s Creek we should all ride together,’ he said at length. ‘I think I can safely say that there’ll be plenty of fun to be had.’

‘No one will argue with that,’ said Sandy Myrtle. ‘And I reckon I speak for all of us, Tom, when I say that we’d be pleased if you’d agree to be our captain. Thirteen of us rough bastards raising Cain from here all the way to the Kimberley. What a grand adventure!’

‘I’d be honoured to lead you,’ said Tom. ‘But if we’re going to be mates we’ll do it right. That means we stand shoulder to shoulder through thick and thin. We never shirk the things that need to be done. And if we do fight amongst ourselves we solve it, man to man, with our fists.’

There was a muttering of agreement. ‘It’s settled then,’ said Tom. ‘From now on, we’re thirteen. An insult to one is an insult to all. ‘

‘Now here’s an idea,’ said Sandy Myrtle. ‘On our way up from the Alice we were camped at Milner’s Lagoon when Nat Buchanan and one of his sons rode up. They stopped to shoot the breeze, and before he rode off, old Bluey said: “That’s a ragged bunch you’re riding with, Sandy.” We had a good belly laugh about it at the time, but what say we call our gang the Ragged Thirteen?’

There was silence for a moment, and it was New England Jack Woods who spoke first. ‘That’s a grand idea.’

‘The Ragged Thirteen it is then,’ said Tom. ‘And we don’t take a slight from anybody. That starts with Matt Kirwan and his damn beef carcass we saw hanging there tonight. The first thing we do is take the meat he should have let us buy for good money earlier.’

A rash of smiles broke out at this, but Tom wasn’t yet finished. ‘Then I say we should deal with those two traps, Searcy and O’Donahue. As soon as they hear that we call ourselves the Ragged Thirteen they’ll start boasting about how they bested us all at the Roper. Searcy has his head so far up his own arse he hasn’t seen daylight for years. Time he got taught a lesson.’

‘Too late for that,’ said Fitz. ‘They would have left the Roper by now. They’re heading down to the Macarthur where Commissioner Foelsche has posted them. That’s why Donegan has taken up position at Roper Bar – he’s been relieved.’

Tom grinned, ‘If I can’t ride faster than a couple of “pinks” and be on them in a day or two I’ll hang up my spurs. Besides, Alf Searcy can’t travel in a straight line to save his life. The bastard fancies himself as a naturalist, always poking around trying to figure out why grass is green and why mountains are high and valleys low.’ He paused. ‘I want to travel light, three horsemen altogether, and we’ll live off the land. No packs to slow us down. We do what needs to be done, and meet up again near the Katherine.’

Tom didn’t say that there was another reason for the trip. Business that, since Maori Jack’s threats, needed attending to in Borroloola.

‘So who’s to go with you?’ Sandy Myrtle asked.

‘I dunno. Volunteers, anyone?’ Tom asked.

Fitz nodded grimly. ‘I’d love a chance to get back at Searcy and that other dog O’Donahue.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Tom. ‘You’re in.’

Larrikin grimaced, ‘My mare’s just coming into season and, well, I was talking with Wonoka Jack here back at the shanty … I’m hoping to join her with his chestnut stallion. I think I’ll stay with the group.’

‘That makes sense.’

‘I’ll tag along if you’ll ‘ave me,’ said Jack Dalley. ‘I ‘aven’t seen the Gulf Country yet and I’ve a mind to. If the diggings are as rich at Hall’s Creek as we ‘ope, this might be me only chance.’ He paused. ‘I don’t want to sound like I’ve got tickets on meself but I won’t slow you down any.’

‘I’ll vouch for that,’ Sandy Myrtle said. ‘Jack’s got an arse made of glue, an’ I haven’t seen him come unstuck yet.’

‘That settles it then,’ Tom said. ‘Me, Fitz and Jack Dalley will go do what needs to be done.’

‘Take me too, please, Mr Nugent,’ said Tommy the Rag.

‘Why would he take you?’ Sandy Myrtle blasted out. ‘A stripling with a smart mouth? He’d sooner take a dingo pup than you.’

Tommy hovered closer in the water to Tom, the earnestness of his face lit by reflected ripples in the firelight. ‘You want to travel light, Mr Nugent? I can kill game. Bush Turkeys without firing a shot. You never saw a man like me with a stockwhip in his hands. Snakes … goannas … whatever you can think of don’t stand a chance.’

‘That’s true,’ offered Jimmy Woodford. ‘Tommy’s bloody amazing with that whip.’

‘Why would you want to come along so much?’ Tom asked.

Tommy’s eyes shone. ‘Because one day I want to be a legend, a real bushman, like Harry Readford,’ his voice trailed off, ‘and like you.’

‘Can you stick to a saddle for fifty hard miles from sunrise to sundown, and all night if you have to?’

‘I can. My oath Mr Nugent. I’ll prove it to you, just give me a chance, I swear.’

‘Alright,’ Tom drawled. ‘We leave at first light and if the blue-wing jackass howls and you’re not yet out of your swag I’ll not wait for you. What’s more, if you let me down on the track you’ll need more than a stockwhip to stop what’s coming to you.’

The lad’s face split into a grin. ‘You won’t regret this, Mister Tom.’

‘You’d bloody better hope not. Now, first things first. I’ll not ride on an empty belly. Put the stoppers in those bottles, boys, and we’ll wallow here until we sober up. Mister bloody Kirwan is about to find out that the Ragged Thirteen don’t take no for an answer.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#7. The Beef Raid

#7. The Beef Raid

Matt Kirwan was no fool. He’d left a guard on the bullock carcass that hung from a chain in the yards beside the store. The guard was a young Jangman helper. White men called him Billy, though he already had a name, that they did not choose to learn.

Billy heard the Thirteen coming from a distance, walking through the scrub towards him. He was frozen with indecision, trying to guess their intentions. Should he shout and wake his white employers? Kirwan would be furious if he was disturbed for no reason. Yet wouldn’t he be still angrier if someone stole the beef without being warned? Wracked by indecision, Billy stayed where he was, squatting in the dust, every sense alert.

Thirteen men advanced out of the trees. Thirteen of the big, rowdy men who had been at the store earlier. Billy now saw their faces and the knives they carried. He was certain they were after the beef. No one, not even Mister Kirwan, could stop so many. There was no doubt in Billy’s mind whose fault this would be.

Photo: Gorie Collection, NT Library

Whatever happened, trouble was coming. Serious trouble. Billy’s overwhelming impulse was to get away from this place as fast as possible. He sprang up, vaulted a rail, then sprinted into the horse paddock, where George Bowen’s grey was passing the night in peace. Billy vaulted onto the startled animal’s back. He galloped away, pausing only to open the gate, and did not turn back.

By that stage the Thirteen had reached the hanging carcass. Carmody’s nimble fingers were at the chain that held it suspended, lowering it to working height, where men and knives were waiting.

All the men knew how to butcher, but New England Jack Woods was an enthusiast, with a folding leather satchel of tools. These included a hatchet that he used to cleave through joint and rib. With razor-sharp knives he carved out huge chunks of meat; back straps and tenderloins; rumps and rounds, sirloins, briskets and ribs.

The noise of Billy’s flight on horseback, and of hatchet strokes on bone, were not lost on the occupants of the sleeping donga that stood behind the store.

‘What the hell is going on out there?’ came Kirwan’s screech.

The door burst open and the storekeeper stormed out, wearing just a pair of trousers. His bare torso rippled with muscle. His face was red with fury. He carried his shotgun in his hands as he approached them. When he pointed it skywards and fired a round, flame leapt from the barrel in the darkness. Even New England Jack paused in his work.

‘You bastards have got a hide,’ Kirwin shouted.  ‘Thieving scum – that’s what you are.’

Tom walked out to meet him. ‘Call us what you like, Matt, but you refused our fair offer to pay for the meat. That offer still stands. Take our money and we can all get some sleep. Just send down to the Elsey for a new bullock to replace that one tomorrow and everyone is happy.’

Many of the campers, wakened by the shotgun blast, gathered ‘round, ashen faced and quiet, watching as Matt Kirwan leaned the shotgun against a handy tree and began to limber up. ‘Choose your man, Mr Nugent,’ he snarled. ‘I’ll fight him one on one. If I win you can pay me for damage and loss, as well as returning the meat. If I lose you can ride off with the beef and never darken this little corner of the Territory again.’

Scotty stripped off his shirt and raised his right arm. He was the biggest man apart from Sandy Myrtle. ‘I’ll do it. Let me take the bastard on.’

Sandy Myrtle moved to his side.  ‘Good one, Scotty, I’ll pick up for you.’

It only remained to find a second for Kirwan. Bowen was hanging back near the donga, pale and shaken. No one expected him to come forward. Tom Nugent volunteered himself. ‘I wouldn’t like to see a man fight without someone watching his back.’

As the two men faced off, Tommy the Rag took up the role of bookmaker. ‘I’ll hold your bets fellers. Even money, pick your winner.’

The growing crowd studied the boxers’ physiques, and asked pointed questions.

‘Hey Matt, I heard you’ve had a few bouts of fever, how long ago?’

‘Let’s see you shadow box, Scotty.’

‘Kirwan’s lean and hard, but look at those biceps on the Scot, for fuck’s sake, if he gets a clean punch in …’

‘If is the word,’ opined Fitz. ‘I’ve seen Kirwan fight before, and he can move, I’m telling you.’

Finally, with all bets in, the fighters squared up. Kirwan went at the Scotsman hard, battering in with a jab, cross, hook and a cross. Scotty, however, was tough, with a strong neck and shoulders, and knew how to protect his face. He withstood the initial flurry and delivered a couple of probing jabs, then a right cross that thumped into Kirwan’s solar plexus.

There was a sigh from the men watching, but Kirwan was back on the attack in an instant. For the space of ten minutes or more the sparring continued: flying fists, ducking heads, rolling shoulders and dancing feet, with both fighters tapping wells of blood on the other man’s face.

A break in the routine came with Scotty almost tripping on a tree root. Distracted, he caught a solid right hook in the temple, a blow that would have seen most men tumbling to the ground. Instead be floundered forward and pushed Kirwan with both hands in the chest, sending him sprawling.

The storekeeper sprang back to his feet, shook the blood and sweat from his head and took his stance. But his concentration faltered, whether from the dark, or having been recently wakened from sleep. He let in a beauty from Scotty, a magnificent straight right, that took him on the mouth. His legs folded and down he went.

‘That’ll do,’ Tom said, going to the storekeeper’s side. ‘Throw in the towel, Matt, you’ve proved your point.’

Scotty stepped back, grinning, but Matt Kirwan struggled to his feet and growled through bloody lips. ‘No way, I’ll bring the bastard down yet.’ With that he tore into his unprepared opponent with a flurry of body blows. It didn’t take long for Scotty to respond, however, and another powerful right landed on Kirwan’s nose, sending a spray of blood and the storekeeper flying.

Groggy but determined, Kirwan again tried to get back up, though his legs, seemingly, would not support his weight.

‘Stop him, Sandy,’ drawled Tom.

The big man pushed Kirwan down. ‘The fight’s over, Matt. Scotty’s murdering you.’

‘Like hell he is, let me up. I’ll fix the bastard.’

Sandy sat on the struggling man, who wheezed and carried on, struggling like a madman. ‘Let me up you fat lump. I can’t breathe.’

‘Not until you agree that the fight’s over.’

‘No way. It’s not over until I say it’s over.’

Sandy grabbed Kirwan’s arm and twisted it, and there was a shriek of pain. ‘Alright, for fuck’s sake, just get off me.’

When Sandy stood up, Matt Kirwan’s arm was hanging at a crooked angle from the elbow. ‘You broke my arm, you idiot.’

‘Sorry mate. I didn’t mean to.’

Kirwan stood, breathing like a bull, unsuccessfully trying to wipe the blood from his face on his good forearm. ‘Don’t dare come back this way again, you lot, or I’ll fill your hides with buckshot.’

Tom tipped his hat. ‘You’re game Matt, and I admire that. But if we want to come back this way, then we will. And don’t ever say no to us again.’

The two men stared at each other until finally, Matt Kirwan turned and walked towards the donga, a defeated slump to his shoulders.

*****

Tom, Fitz, Jack Dalley and Tommy the Rag rode off, down towards the Gulf, just as the first white and yellow glow of piccaninny dawn was showing on the eastern horizon. The air smelled fresh and full of promise, scented with the spice of adventure.

Fitz yawned, for none of them had slept a wink. Tom’s face took on a serious frown.

‘Bear up you blokes. We’ve fifty miles to cover before we throw our swags tonight.’

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com
Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
#8. Searcy and O’Donahue

#8. Searcy and O’Donahue

Alfred Searcy loved a good camp, and the Hodgson River crossing was a first-rate site, with flat shelves of dark rock, waist-high waterfalls, and fish to be had in the deep pools below.

With a suitable rock as a seat, Alfred lit his pipe and sighed contentedly. He considered himself a true bushman: the kind of gentleman adventurer that was destined to bring civilisation and the rule of law to South Australia’s vast and wild Northern Territory.

Alfred had, to be sure, enjoyed an adventurous life. As a lad, working as a seaman on a schooner off the Jenimber Islands, he had taken a dinghy on a solo fishing trip. When a storm blew up without warning, he was blown onto land and wrecked. He joined forces with a gang of Malays, and the ordeal that followed included the murder of most of his companions, and a second shipwreck, onto the Northern Territory coast. He lived with a ragtag assortment of indigenous hunters, trepangers, and buffalo hunters before finally making good his own rescue.

Alfred Searcy (Photo by TH Harwood)

Back in the more civilised world of Palmerston, he had taken up the position of sub-collector of customs, extracting duty on goods arriving into the Territory from abroad, and attempting to levy taxes from the Macassars, who were intent on stripping Top End waters of bêche-de-mer. In the process of this work, Alfred had been kidnapped by Chinese smugglers. He had faced down Malay captains, brumby hunters, and even the infamous Maori Jack Reid, of whose arrest he was most proud.

He’d seen things that his family, back in Adelaide, would scarcely have believed: fleets of Macassar dredging canoes coming down before the wind in Bowen Straits, their triangular matting sails billowing full. He’d seen proas at anchor off gorgeous northern beaches fringed with sand and tropical forest. Horsemen in full cry at the Victoria River, driving cattle across the ford at sunset. He’d seen men’s throats cut, and held a prospector down while a doctor sawed off his leg below the knee.

When the opportunity came to join the police force, Alfred had willingly taken up the challenge. He suspected that this might be his true calling; pacifying the lawless elements of the north. His first posting was to be Borroloola. His partner was an Irishman called O’Donahue, who stood a solid six feet in height. Fearless and fond of swinging his fists, Alfred’s new companion was also enamoured of soft and lovely Irish ballads, sung in a fair voice and lilting accent.

Since leaving Palmerston on horseback, bound for the Gulf, the pair had already enjoyed a number of adventures. O’Donahue had won over a crowd at Adelaide River, riding a bush buckjumper to a standstill. Alfred had been alone when facing a ‘bank robbery’ at Burrundie, and a barrage of bullets from a disgruntled ruffian near the Elsey.

Further down the track the two of them had apprehended a clutch of rascals and marched them in to the Roper Bar police station. Even now Searcy laughed at the memory. Under the waving barrel of O’Donahue’s revolver, Alfred had cut the buttons and suspenders from the miscreants’ trousers, so that they were too busy protecting their modesty to fight back.

Then, at Roper Bar, the two lawmen had seen an amazing sight: the travelling horsebreaker called Red Jack, her magnificent red hair spilling out from her hat, leading a string of horses no less beautiful than herself into town. None were so impressive as the stallion she rode, Mephistopheles.

Red Jack had paused to fill her packs with rations from the Armstrong and Company store. And Alfred was certain that she had nodded in his direction, though O’Donahue wasn’t so sure. Either way, it was an event to remember. Most of the little township had turned up to watch her ride out of town, into the west, destination unknown, the famous wanderer dwindling into a haze of dust and red sunset.

And finally, now with a black trooper called Jimmy, seconded by order of the Superintendent, at Roper Bar, they had reached the Hodgson without further incident. The three of them had just finished an evening meal of black bream from the pool, picking the white chunks from the backbone, and charcoal flavoured skin, when a traveller rode down the track from the north, leading two packs.

The three horses splashed white water to the knees as they trotted across the ford. Seeing the established camp the new man dismounted and came in on foot.

Hodgson River above the cascades.

‘Evening you fellows,’ he called. ‘The name’s Joe Jefferies, riding down to take up a position on Costello’s Valley of Springs Station.’

Alfred stood, lifting his pipe from his lips as he did so. ‘Searcy and O’Donahue here. We’re policemen heading down to the Macarthur. You’re welcome to our fire and campsite. A fine one it is too.’

‘I don’t mind if I do,’ said the stranger. ‘A cheery blaze and some new mates to yarn with is always welcome.’ After seeing to his horses, he dug in his packs. There was the clink of glass and a bottle of rum appeared in his hands.

‘Ye are welcome indeed,’ grinned O’Donahue.

While Jimmy whittled away at a stick with his pen knife, the white men drank from tin cups. They toasted the King,

‘Have you heard the news?’ asked the traveller. ‘I dare say that being lawmen, you’ll be interested.’

‘What news?’

‘There’s a new gang on the loose. They call themselves the Ragged Thirteen. Just two nights ago they held up the store at Abraham’s Billabong, stole a cart load of beef and broke Matt Kirwan’s arm.’

Searcy narrowed his eyes. ‘Who are these men?’

‘Their captain is a bloke called Tom Nugent, but I reckon I know a couple of the bastards, Jim Fitzgerald and Larrikin Smith for a start.’

O’Donahue almost choked on his rum. ‘Now let me get this from ye straight. Those dunderheads we took in at the Roper have jined up with some other ruffians and are calling themselves the Ragged Thirteen?’

‘I don’t know what happened at the Roper but I guess that’s about it,’ said the stranger.

‘Well blow me down,’ said Searcy. ‘Should we ride back up and apprehend them?’

‘I’m game,’ said O’Donahue, ‘but not yet, I’m thinkin’. Best we wait and see if we hear anything else. Besides …’ he swept his right hand in an arc towards the still distant Macarthur River. ‘I’ll wager there’s many a lawless ruffian ahead that’d smile to see us ride away.’

‘You’re right,’ said Alfred. ‘The Ragged Thirteen can wait. But they’d better not get too far out of hand, or they’ll be risking more than their trousers.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

#9. The King River

#9. The King River

While Tom Nugent, Jack Dalley, Fitz and Tommy the Rag headed for the Gulf, the rest of the Thirteen struck camp and rode the track in a north-westerly direction, towards the Katherine. With the stockboys droving a plant of near forty horses they moved slowly, often with the Overland Telegraph Line in sight, six or eight miles from breakfast to dinner camp, then the same again in the afternoon, depending on distractions along the way.

After a couple of days there was no longer any difference between the South Australian mob and the Queenslanders. They were all mates now. They shared a sense of fun, and a love of the bush and its dangers.

One morning, New England Jack tried to slip on his right boot. Finding the task difficult, he looked inside to find that a brown snake had taken up residence where his foot was supposed to go. With a shout of surprise Jack threw the boot underhand, watching it spin into the air. The surprised reptile extracted itself, fell to the ground, and slithered under Sandy Myrtle’s swag. Sandy, who was sitting on it at the time, did not appreciate the visitor.

The incident brought on a spate of raucous laughter, jokes, and even a line of verse or two. Before an hour or two had passed, however, the agile minds of the bushmen had moved on to other topics. There was always something new on the track up to Katherine; bucking horses, a ‘dropped’ bullock that ‘accidentally’ ran into a .577 Snider bullet, and best of all, Larrikin’s attempts to cover his mare with Wonoka Jack’s stallion.

The poor animal had gotten the shit kicked out of him by the stubbornly resistant mare the first few times the act had been attempted. These eagerly anticipated ‘breedin’ sessions,’ saw the gang fetching drinks and laying bets before watching the poor stallion, his dark penis hanging erect, finish up with a couple of hoof prints across his face. That wasn’t the worst of it, for Sandy Myrtle’s huge mount, Jonathan James, was also taking an interest. Several times he interrupted proceedings, keen to fight for the right to cover the mare.

‘I’ll shoot that bastard of yours if he tries it again,’ promised New England Jack.

‘You’d better shoot me first,’ warned Sandy. ‘For I love that animal like a brother.’

‘Well, for pity’s sake, keep him out of it.’

Finally, camped on the King River, the mare gave up fighting. Fitz held her by a long halter, while Wonoka Jack brought up the stallion. This time she let him rub the underside of his neck against her shoulder, then draw deeply of the oestrous scent from under her tail. He mounted her at last, finding the place he needed with exploratory thrusts. The jokes ran free as he deposited forcefully, then slumped onto her back when he was done.

They stayed three hot and humid days on the King. The nights were not so bad. Many of the stockboys were not boys at all, but women. There was a great pretence about this. Everyone knew but no one spoke about it. Some of these relationships were full blown love affairs with tiffs and sulks. Others more one-sided. The women’s stories varied. Never mentioned aloud. Most have been lost in tearful silence.

Old King River Crossing. Carl E. Schultz Collection, NT Library

On the third night the riders from the Gulf returned. Horses and men alike were thin and dusty from hard riding. Fitz removed a bandage to show off a wound on the muscle of his upper arm, an ugly, burned channel along the surface of the flesh. His shirt sleeve was dark with dried blood.

‘A real bullet graze,’ declared Tommy the Rag, proud to bear the news. ‘He might’a come a cropper, if the aim’d been true.’

Larrikin examined the wound critically. ‘By crikey! It was made by a bullet. You’re a lucky devil, Fitz.’

Stranger still, and a source of mystery, was the fact that Tom Nugent was not alone in the saddle. Riding with him was an Aboriginal lad just a few years old. Dismounting first, Tom lifted the infant from the saddle and deposited him on the ground, where he stared with deep brown eyes at the white men, belly rounded and hair in lank curls. Even the stockboys gathered around to look.

‘He’s a bit young to be of much use,’ declared Carmody. ‘Where did he come from?’

Tom unfastened the girth and lifted his saddle down, arms taut with muscle. ‘Unlike your brother-in-law, I don’t measure people by how much good they can do me. Someone grab a chunk of damper, poor lad will be famished.’

Sandy Myrtle’s face was twisted with curiosity. ‘Can you tell us what the hell went on down there?’

‘All in good time,’ Tom said. ‘Tucker first, then a good mug of rum, and I’ll tell the yarn from start to finish.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


 

 

 

 

#10. What Happened in the Gulf

#10. What Happened in the Gulf

After a slap-up feast of salt beef and johnny-cakes, Tom Nugent stoked the fire and took pride of place on a stump. Jack Dalley, Tommy the Rag, and Fitz, still proud of his bullet wound, took their places nearby.

‘Gather ’round and hear the yarn you blokes,’ Tom called. ‘There’s been deeds done in the name of the Ragged Thirteen.’

There was no need to ask twice. The men were aching to hear the story, pouring tots of rum and finding spots around the campfire.

And there, with a crackling blaze, the sighing of casuarinas and the clink of hobble chains as a background, Tom began to speak, drawing on all his skills as a bush raconteur: descriptive words, searching glances, and expansive gestures.

‘We rode day and night, and didn’t spare the spur. We struck the Hodgson at Minyerri waterhole, but scarcely stopped to wet our lips. Young Tommy killed a fat goanna with that whip of his, and we ate the bastard raw. Here’s a tip, boys, a lump of meat wedged between the saddle pad and a horse’s flank cures from sweat and heat. Tasty enough for a man in a hurry.

‘Finally, with dawn blooming in the east, we rested. Men and horses slept like dead things ’til the flies roused us in swarms of millions. On we went. Even the wild spearmen of the Alawa people let us pass, for we moved too fast for them to gather in strength.

‘Reaching the Hodgson crossing, we found the place where Searcy and O’Donahue and a third white man had camped. They had a smart Ngalakan tracker with them so we knew we’d have our work cut out. But as I’ve said before, Searcy likes to ride at snail’s pace, a-looking under rocks and writing in his journal at every turn.’ Tom grinned fiercely. ‘We caught them up by nightfall, seeing their tents along a creek. We camped dry that night, and waited for our chance.’

‘Waking after midnight, we surrounded their camp in the dark, and lured their tracker away. While Searcy and O’Donahue snored and drooled on their pillows, we unhobbled their horses and took them away. For good measure we went back and stole their undershorts, trousers and shirts, for the bludgers had left them hanging on a rope beside the creek. When it was done we rode like the clappers of hell for the Tablelands.’

Drover’s Camp. James Suttor White Collection, NT Library

Tom paused for an outbreak of laughter. Sandy Myrtle clutched at his heavy chest and shook like a wagon with a loose wheel. ‘Oh you funny bastards, I wished I could’a seen their faces.’

Waiting until the noise died down, Tom slapped his right fist into his open left hand like a pistol shot. ‘And oh, they chased us hard. They ran on foot, half dressed, to some desperate little cattle camp, and borrowed mounts. They came after us determined. They made us work, and we were near dead with lack of sleep by then.’

George Brown couldn’t help but interject. ‘Is that when Fitz copped that slug?’

Tom raised a hand. ‘That’s right, they managed to close up with us one morning, and Searcy sent down a hail of lead with that Winchester of his. Thought he was a goner for a tick, but then he fired back with his Snider and I knew he was still with us. Bear with me, though, there’s more to tell. We weren’t finished with the bastards yet.’

‘Each day we rode hard, leaving cheeky little signs behind. Jack Dalley blazed a tree and carved a fair image of Searcy with his pants down on the trunk. We rode them ragged, made them spitting angry, then sold their nags to a bunch of Chinese prospectors half way to Anthony’s Lagoon on the Barkly track.’

Wonoka Jack shook his head, incredulous. ‘Now tell us about the boy you brought back. Where did he come from?’

‘Well,’ said Tom, then stopped to heave a deep long sigh. The fast rhythm of the tale fell away into a slow and thoughtful plod. ‘Years ago I come upon a mob of fallen blacks down near the Macarthur. Bloodied and dead, cartridge cases scattered around the spinifex like seashells. I heard they’d speared a drover, and they’d paid for the crime in blood. There, wandering around the corpses, was a lad – just a toddler really – starving and near dead.’ He pointed towards the boy, sitting with the stockboys. ‘That’s him there.’

‘I took him to some Yanyuwa women I regarded highly. They housed and nurtured him. As far as I was concerned, that’s where he would have stayed, with just a visit and some assistance from yours truly now and again. But then, just days ago, Maori Jack Reid – Carmody here’s brother-in-law – threatened that he knew the boy meant a lot to me, and that he might get at him to hurt me. Such a diabolical threat I couldn’t abide, so we rode down to fetch him. Here he is, and amongst a good mob of his own people, with the Territory as his classroom.’

‘Here, here,’ said Sandy Myrtle, beginning to clap. The others joined in.

‘Thanks, mate, but here’s a word of warning. I fear that Searcy and O’Donahue will not let us get away so easily this time. As I said, they have a handy Ngalakan man as guide, and he’ll see our trail like we were a bullock team.’

Tom had scarcely got the last word out of his mouth when a bullet struck a pintpot someone had left sitting close to the flames, followed by the bellowing report of a heavy rifle. The pintpot jumped of its own volition, and sparks and embers flew like fireworks. The Thirteen scattered for cover and reached for their weapons. Actions closed and cartridges slammed home.

Out of the darkness came a ringing laugh. The stockboys cowered in fear, and even Tom felt the prickle of unease in the hairs along his spine.

‘That’s just a taste,’ came a voice, ‘just be sure that I could ‘a killed any one of you bastards.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

 

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#11. Jack Comes Back

#11. Jack Comes Back

Their ears were still ringing from the gunshot, scattered embers glowing all around the camp, when Carmody raised his head warily. ‘Hey Tom,’ he hissed, eyes glowing white in a face shiny with sweat. ‘That sounds like Maori Jack out there.’

‘So it does,’ said Tom. ‘I’d know that devil’s voice anywhere.’ Standing, holding his carbine at his hip, aiming vaguely out into the scrub, Tom called. ‘If that’s you, Maori, you’re not welcome here.’

The reply came from the darkness towards the river bed. ‘Be that as it may, I’m here. Put your guns down boys. I’m coming in.’

Tom spat back, ‘You walk in with a loaded weapon and I’ll shoot you down.’

‘I’m unloading,’ said Maori Jack. They heard the click of a Martini-Henry action, then; ‘My rifle’s in the scabbard now. I’ll walk my horse in, real slow.’

In he came, spurs jingling as he walked, and though the breeze took the campfire smoke in his direction, Maori Jack never coughed or hid his eyes. He kept his hands visible, so no one would misinterpret a movement and open fire.

There was nothing good about his presence. They all felt it. Even the night birds stopped their calls and the drone of insects stilled to a whisper.

Nice and slow, Maori Jack fastened his horse to a tree just behind the camp, then came in and squatted at the fire, warming his hands like he belonged there. Though he must have seen that thirteen gun barrels were trained on him right then, his whiskered face showed no fear.

‘You’ve got a hide coming here,’ cried Jimmy Woodforde. ‘You mongrel horse killer.’

Maori swivelled his head, spat at the ground, then levelled two black eyes on Jimmy. ‘Why boy, is this your property?’

‘No, but …’

‘Then shut your mouth, or I’ll do worse than kill a useless nag.’ No one spoke back, nor did so much as a twig break.

Tom growled with displeasure. ‘Mind your threats, you dog. Or next time we hang you it’ll be the right way up. By the neck.’

Six men in bush country. State Library of South Australia

Maori Jack ignored the comment and looked around the camp, scowling at each of the Thirteen, then the stock boys until his eyes picked out the young Yanyuwa boy Tom had brought back from the Gulf.

‘Aha,’ growled Maori, ‘so there he is.’ Looking at Tom, he continued; ‘We both rode to Borroloola on the same errand. Unfortunately, I was waylaid at the Roper by a card game that seemed never to end. You beat me to him. Come here boy.’

The child walked closer, eyes wide and fearful. Maori Jack reached out, holding his fingers like pliers, using them to tug at the boy’s chin.

‘What’s the lad’s name, Tom?’

‘Haven’t thought up one for him yet. The stock boys are calling him Willy, ‘cause he’s like a little whirlwind.’

‘He’d have a blackfella name though?’

‘Yeah, but he’s too young to remember it.’

Maori removed his thumb and forefinger from the child’s chin, and watched him scamper back to the company of the stock boys. Then he turned his attention to Tom.

‘I was angry, I admit, at what you and these other bastards done to me at Abraham’s Billabong. But how you fixed up Searcy and O’Donahue has gladdened my heart. You made fools of them, good and proper. Every man from here to the Queensland border is laughing about it.’

Fitz, who was not afraid of anybody, said, ‘We didn’t do that for you, Maori Jack Reid. We did it for us. Now why don’t you get on your horse and leave us in peace.’

‘Well maybe I will, in a minute. But I guess I should tell you that Searcy and O’Donahue are riding this way, right on your trail, with the aim of arresting you lot for horse thievery. Here’s my offer, as a sign of friendship. I’ll wait for the bastards at some lonely place, and nail them both. I’ll bury them deep, where no one will ever know, just as a favour.’

There was not a sound in the camp. As if no one dared breathe.

‘But that’s not all,’ continued Maori. ‘Just twenty miles ahead, on the Katherine, is Jim Cashman’s store. I hear that a dray-load of brand new goods has just arrived. While I deal with Searcy and O’Donahue, you can knock over the store. Fill your pack saddles for the long ride to Hall’s Creek, and give yourselves an alibi for the death of two policemen into the bargain.’

‘Get out of here,’ drawled Tom. ‘We’re already planning on knocking over Cashman’s store, but I won’t have anything to do with shooting men in cold blood.’

Maori Jack threw back his head and laughed. ‘You’ve set yourselves up as a gang. What have you done so far? Nicked some beef and broke a man’s arm. Big fucking deal. It’s time to prove yourselves.’ He paused for a moment, looking at each of the Thirteen in turn. ‘Prove yourselves.’

 

Not far away, the Yanyuwa boy shivered with fear. He hated the sly looking stranger with the demonic eyes.

He fingered the stone knife he carried in his bundle of rags. He had a feeling that one day soon, he would need to use it.

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

 

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


 

 

 

 

#12. Katherine Town

#12. Katherine Town

The last leg of the journey to the Katherine covered mile after mile of flat woodland. Tommy the Rag entertained himself by flicking his stockwhip at the tops of termite mounds along the way, and Bob Anderson sang as he rode, old Scottish songs, that strangely seemed not out of place in the Territory.

The weather was steaming hot, however, and most of the others rode in a silence, half asleep and swigging from waterbags, horses and men alike dark with sweat.

In the flat scrub just shy of the river, they stumbled on a round-yard made of cypress posts and rails lashed together with greenhide strips. A neat canvas tent sat alongside. Camp ovens were embedded in the coals of a smoking fire and washing hung from a line.

Working a colt in the yard was the red headed woman, Red Jack. Even through the scrub, for they didn’t dare ride too close, the Thirteen could see the grace of her movements and the concentration in her eyes.

‘There she is again,’ Tom said. ‘What a trip this is turning out to be.’

Not wanting to disturb her, the Thirteen rode on to the river, intersecting it downstream from the township. The green channel lay deep between high clay banks, fringed with a lush growth of pandanus and stately paperbarks. By unspoken agreement they rode on past a colony of flying foxes and stopped to pitch camp on the high bank, where a dry season blaze had left a sharp stubble and green pick coming through for the horses.

‘Where the hell is Scotty?’ asked New England Jack.

‘I’ll ride back and find him,’ said Tom, with a knowing smile.

Retracing their steps, Tom found the big Scot with his horse hitched to a black wattle tree, and Campbell himself leaning on the round-yard rails, watching Red Jack break the colt.

‘Hey there, Scotty,’ said Tom. ‘I thought I might find you back here.’

‘Ah but it’s bleddy poetry,’ the Scotsman replied, ‘watchin’ ‘er work.’

Tom nodded slowly. ‘True enough. I’ve seen a lot of horse breakers, but few have her touch.’

‘I suppose you wan’ me tae gae up now.’

‘It’ll be dark before long. We’ve got plans to make.’

Scotty untied his horse and mounted up, following Tom as he rode off. It seemed to them that Red Jack turned and looked as they went, and they tipped their hats to her as they rode off towards the river.

‘Don’t be getting obsessed with that woman,’ Tom warned.

Scotty wouldn’t look him in the eye. ‘I’m tryin’ Mister Nugent, but a man is only flesh an’ blood.’

Katherine Telegraph Station, 1883 (Paul Foelsche. NT Library)

Just before dusk, while Sandy Myrtle and the Brown brothers forded the river and rode off towards Springvale Station in search of a ‘lost’ bullock that might be shot and butchered for meat, Tom took Larrikin, Bob Anderson and one of the stockboys into town. The main purpose was to case out Jim Cashman’s store, but they had pennies for a rum or two jingling in their pockets.

‘Now, if anyone asks,’ said Tom, ‘my last name is Holmes, not Nugent.’

‘And I’m Bill,’ Larrikin said. ‘That’s my real name, but no one knows me by it.’ He turned to Bob. ‘You’re so fresh off the boat no one will know you anyway.’

The Katherine township was a straggling, untidy little outpost; situated on the south bank of the river, at a crossing place named after a prospector called John B Knott. The river’s edge was busy with men fishing, drinking, bathing or washing clothes. Above the water a dirt track that served as a main strip wound through the scrub. There was a pub called the Sportsman’s Arms, owned by Barney Murphy, a couple of stores, and bough-sheds, shanties and tent camps over a few blocks.

The telegraph and police stations were located a few hundred yards away, almost invisible with all the trees, huts, and pandanus clumps. Tom looked warily in that direction. Traps would make their work more dangerous.

Seeing a handy clearing, with old fireplaces marked by scorched stones lying abandoned in the shade, Tom suggested they stop. ‘Pull up here, boys, and we’ll wander around on foot.’

While the stockboy, a wizened character of about fifty years called Blind Joe, guarded the horses, the three white men packed their pipes and strolled along the main street, smoking and talking amongst themselves. They paused at the butcher’s shop to comment on the carcass hanging on a gallows out the back, and exchange hellos with the man in a bloodied white apron weighing beef on a scale, surrounded by a cloud of flies that settled on everything, including the meat.

By a round-about way they reached Cashman’s store. Tom took in every detail: the solid slab construction of the door, the barred grills on the window spaces. Inside they walked between the rows of shelves, enjoying the sight of a variety of goods they had not seen in a long while. Everything from Lea and Perrins sauce, patent medicines, flour in drums, soap, horseshoes, tinned goods to hardware like axe heads and knives. In a cabinet behind the counter sat a selection of Winchester and Martini-Henry rifles, a couple of shotguns and Colt revolvers in wooden cases.

Tom purchased some pipe tobacco and a packet of .577 cartridges so as not to seem suspicious, then led the other two back out onto the roadway. ‘I think I’ve got a plan,’ he said.

‘Ha’ aboot another plan, eh?’ said Bob Anderson. ‘We could just buy what we need, wi’out havin’ to pan in windaes and doors, then be on our way tomorra without any bastard chasing us.’

‘Where’s the fun in that?’ countered Tom. ‘Besides, we’re going to need every cent we can lay our hands on when we get to Hall’s Creek. What now, you blokes, how about a quick peg or two at the pub?’

Without any further urging they crossed the road to the pub, a slab hut with drinkers spilling out on to the street. Tom led the way inside, and as soon as his eyes adjusted he stopped dead. For there, right in front of him, sitting at a table with a glass of rum, was Maori Reid. Beside the half-drunk spirit sat a pile of coins and a grimy old pack of playing cards.

Also at the table was an Aboriginal youth. He looked to Tom like a Jangman from the Roper. There was also something familiar about him.

Tom would have turned and left, but other eyes had already been raised. Thinking furiously, he walked on past Maori without a word and fronted the bar, where he bought three rums. He led Larrikin and Bob, armed with a glass each, back to the table where Maori Reid sat.

‘Hello there, sir,’ he said. ‘Are these seats taken.’

‘Not at all,’ said Maori Reid smoothly. He extended a hand, ‘Nice to meet you Mr …’

‘Holmes, Tom Holmes.’

‘I’m John Smith,’ replied Maori, just as smoothly.

The attention of the rest of the bar had moved on, and Maori Reid smiled and lowered his voice. ‘I’ve just been gettin’ the good oil from Billy here. Your friends Searcy and O’Donahue are on their way. They might get here at any minute.’ Then, in a whisper, ‘I’m thinkin’ that you and your “gang” won’t have the ticker to knock over Cashman’s store with a couple of pinks around?’

Tom ignored the veiled insult, ‘What about the Katherine traps, are they in town?’

‘No, there’s only one, and he’s out on patrol. Not expected back for a week or two.’

Tom turned his attention to the black youth Maori had identified as Billy. ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’

Billy shrugged and looked scared.

Maori sucked in his lip. ‘Billy’s the one who rode off on Matt Kirwan’s horse out at Abraham’s Billabong, when youse were knocking off that beef. That means he’s on the cross – one of us now.’

Tom snapped his finger. ‘I knew I’d seen him before.’ He turned to the boy. ‘So that’s where you met “Mr Smith” here.’

‘Yes malaka. Last time I seen this feller he was hangin’ up wrong way.’

Tom laughed, then threw down his rum in one draught. Larrikin and Bob followed suit. There was no question of staying for another with the brooding presence of Maori Reid in the pub.

‘We’re off,’ Tom said. He extended a hand. ‘Nice to meet you, Mr Smith.’

‘Likewise, Mr Holmes.’

They walked outside, and when they reached the horses, the three men knocked out their pipes and stood taking a last look at Cashman’s store.

‘Are we still going to rob the place?’ Larrikin asked. ‘It might not be so easy if those two traps get here in time.’

‘Of course we’re still going to do it. I don’t mind old Searcy and O’Donahue being around. It’ll add to the fun.’

Tom turned to the stockboy who had been waiting with the horses. ‘You orright Blind Joe?’

‘Yeah I’m orright, boss.’

‘When we get back to camp I want you and the rest of your mob to clear out straightaway.’

‘What for boss?’

‘We got things to do and don’t want you mob mixed up in it. You take the others west, you know the junction, where the Flora River runs into the Katherine?’

‘I know that place boss. Plenty sand, and fish n’ turtle.’

‘You get cracking, walk all night and camp there. We’ll follow tomorra, with full packs of tucker and supplies.’

‘Orright boss.’

The four men mounted up and maintained a lively trot back towards the camp. Each was silent, filled with thoughts of how the events of the coming night might affect his own future.

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

#13. Billy and the Traps

#13. Billy and the Traps

Up from the Gulf on a mission of revenge, Troopers Searcy and O’Donahue rode side by side, reaching the Elsey in record time, and veering north towards the Katherine.

‘You don’t think Inspector Foelsche will be angry that we’ve ridden back all this way when we’re supposed to be on duty in Borroloola by now?’ Alfred asked.

O’Donahue shook his head. ‘Paul is a man o’ the world. He’d expect us to punish the ruffians who stole our horses and made us look like dashed fools.’ He held one fist up to his face. ‘I’ll see Tom Nugent and his cronies in chains if it’s the last t’ing I ever do.’

‘It’s a shame,’ said Alfred, ‘that the very rawness of the Territory attracts undesirable characters. I’m not talking about hard-working farmers and labourers, storekeepers and clerks. We need people such as those. It’s these dashed parasites like the Ragged Thirteen that I’m talking about. They care for nothing but themselves, and not for one minute the glory of the British Empire.’

‘I agree with ye, Alfie. If only we could close the borders to ’em. The Territory needs to be settled with intelligence and foresight. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy an adventure as much as the next man, but we don’t need robbers and vagabonds.’

The conversation kept them engrossed through the day, until just before Abraham’s Billabong they saw a rider coming towards them. A string of packhorses followed, attended by a couple of stock boys.

‘Hey, isn’t that Matt Kirwin?’ Alfred said.

‘I think so. Yes, it’s him, by God.’

They both liked Kirwin. He was a rogue, but a well-bred one, for he was from a good Melbourne family, yet too wild to be contained in that city. His left arm was in a sling, so he rode one-handed. As he neared it became obvious that his face was swollen, and marked with old bruises.

The riders reined in, and the horses nosed around each other, snorted and stamped.

‘Hail there,’ said Alfred, ‘it’s nice to meet a good man on the track. Got time for a cuppa?’

‘I’ve always time for a brew with some mates.’

They stopped and lit a fast-burning fire of dry twigs, the hot flames quickly boiling the billy before dying again. It was only once they had mugs of sweet tea in hand that O’Donahue asked the question.

‘We heard about your arm, Matt, and I can still see a bruise or two on your face. The damned Ragged T’irteen had no right to do that.’

Matt’s face darkened. ‘The devil take them. Can’t you put the mongrels behind bars? I heard that you’d captured them and had them down in Roper Bar a few weeks ago.’

Alfred preened, ‘We did too. Just the pair of us. And that damned Trooper Donegan convinced us to let them go … but tell us about the fight. How did your arm get broken?’

‘I fought the Scotsman, Hughie Campbell, fair and square, and would have ground him down and won, but that fat-arsed Sandy Myrtle sat on me and broke my arm. Now, you tell me, why are you riding back this way? I thought you two were the new coppers at Borroloola?’

There was a long silence then, O’Donahue cleared his throat. ‘The Ragged T’irteen stole our bloody horses, which is why we’re riding these second-rate neddies. We’re on our way to find the bastards and arrest ’em. How about you?’

‘I’m heading back to the Roper Landing. Young Bowen will have to fend for himself from now on, God help him.’ They’d finished their tea by then, and Matt smoothed out the fire with his foot, grinding a few still-burning embers into the dust. ‘Do me a favour though. Keep an eye out for a roan gelding of mine. Young black called Billy rode off with him the same night the Ragged Thirteen raided me for beef. He’s a good horse and I want him back. The brand is a crossed diamond.’

‘We’ll keep an eye out, for sure,’ promised Alfred, and in no time at all they were back in the saddle and riding north towards the Katherine.

Praisel Collection. NT Library

Increasingly aware that they were absent without leave from their new post in Borroloola, Searcy and O’Donahue wasted no time covering the sixty remaining miles. The heat intensified as they headed north, the sun burning like a branding iron. By mid-afternoon on the second day they were only an hour away from the town, and had already passed the camps of some lonely travellers, mostly bound for Hall’s Creek.

Up ahead through the trees there was a flash of roan, and the thunder of hooves as a horseman spurred his mount off the back legs, springing into a full gallop.

‘Whoa,’ shouted Alfred, ‘That might be Matt Kirwan’s horse. Let’s ride him down.’

Leaving their tracker with the packs, the two policemen set off at speed, the tired horses responding well. It was a wild ride through spear and hummock grass, spurs biting deep and the policemen leaning low like jockeys, eyes almost closed to exclude flying bugs and sharp speargrass heads.

This was bad ground for fast riding, however – gilgai country – pitted with hidden clay holes. The horse in front took a stumble, grunting with alarm and almost throwing the rider. The horseman got his mount under control, but by then Searcy had reached him, shouldering the horse with his own and grabbing the reins. A final dart on foot was foiled by O’Donahue who dismounted and ran the horse-thief down, pushing between his shoulder blades so he collapsed in an untidy pile.

With the horses tied securely, Alfred helped pin the fugitive.

‘Doan hurt me,’ he cried.

‘By colour and brand that horse belongs to Matt Kirwan. It was stolen from Abraham’s Billabong. Consider yourself under arrest. What’s your name?’

‘Billy.’

‘Have you seen those thirteen ruffians from the Roper? Did you ride with them? Are you assisting the gang?’

‘Nah malaka. Saw nobody. Only Maori Reid.’

Searcy and O’Donahue exchanged glances. ‘Maori Reid is in Katherine?’

‘An’ Tom Holmes. The one I seen down Abraham’s Billabong.’

‘Holmes?’ said O’Donahue.

‘Nugent,’ smiled Searcy. ‘That man wears pseudonyms like normal men wear jackets. Jackpot! Hey boy, now that we’ve got the stolen horse we might go easy on you: if you tell us all about this Tom Holmes we might even let you go.’

‘They gonna rob the store in Kath-ryne town.’

‘When?’

‘Dunno. Mebbe tonight.’

‘They’re staying in town?’

‘Nar, out on the river somewhere.’

‘You’ve done well, Billy. But if we do let you go, do you promise to walk back to the Roper and keep out of trouble?’

‘Yes malaka.’

Alfred let go of his shoulder. ‘Well go on. Clear out of it then.’

O’Donahue also released his pinioning hands and let Billy up, who loped away without a backwards glance.

Alfred grinned at his mate. ‘Tonight’s the night … you and me are going to have those bastards cold.’

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

#14. Before the Raid

#14. Before the Raid

With the supply of rifle cartridges replenished, Tom turned his thoughts to the revolvers, or ‘squirts’ they all carried. These were, in the main, cap and ball weapons such as Tom’s own Colt Navy.

Aware that they had just a handful of .36 calibre balls left, Tom set about casting new ones. He rummaged through the packsaddles for some folded lead sheet he had borrowed from a church roof in Southern Queensland. He added this to a saucepan, setting it on the coals of a fire made from black wattle sticks – the hottest burning timber around – most often used for heating branding irons. He worked his hat mechanically, like a bellows, and slowly the lead began to melt into a sluggish grey pool.

At this stage he stirred in a spoonful of flux from a tin, and scooped off the dross from the surface. The moulds had handles like pliers, with a spherical cavity at the other end. Working over a flat rock with a steel funnel, he poured the first one full, leaving it to cool while he made a second. The first ball was then ready to drop into a quart pot of water, tinkling against metal as it reached the bottom.

Each ball then needed any protrusions filed off, and Tom liked to finish with a glasspaper rub, until they were perfectly round and shiny, satisfactorily heavy. He had more than twenty new balls done when Blind Joe came over, holding the hand of the boy Tom had brought up from Borroloola.

‘What’s up?’ Tom asked. ‘I told you to clear out and meet us up the Flora Junction.’

‘I’m gonna boss, but this young feller says he don’t want to leave you.’

Tom sat down on one knee, and cupped the boy’s chin. ‘You get going with Blind Joe, for your own good. Things are going to get lively around Katherine town tonight, and I want you safe. Orright?’

The boy nodded slowly, eyes like waterholes.

‘Blind Joe’s takin’ you to a fine camping place. We’ll tarry a few days there and have a grand old time.’

Tom watched Blind Joe lead the boy away, letting out a long sigh, relieved that seemed to be preparing to join the crew heading west.

Old Katherine Telegraph Station. Peter Spillett Collection

Meanwhile, Searcy and O’Donahue were riding hell-for-leather towards the town. They passed a drovers’ camp on the southern bank, with half a dozen stockmen keeping a big mob of bullocks boxed in, but Alfred just waved his hat in greeting and rode on. There was something about their arrival in relative civilisation that made him worry that maybe Inspector Foelsche might not be happy with them retracing their steps. It made him conscious that he was on borrowed time.

Crossing the river at Knott’s Crossing the sun was an orange fireball that played on the river surface with reflections of the green flushed banks, while the horses churned through. Both men let their mounts pause to drink in the shallows on the other side before reefing their heads up and moving on, climbing the far bank, passing a noisy group of travellers bathing, skylarking and drinking rum. A little further downstream was a bucket chain of Chinese, no doubt carrying water for a vegetable patch on the high bank.

‘This place is going to the dogs,’ said Alfred as they entered the township. Most of the population appeared to be on the pub verandah, and there were catcalls from lower types as they recognised the uniform. Dusty urchins glared avariciously as they passed.

‘Pity t’ere are so many low-lifes here,’ mused O’Donahue. ‘A glass of ale’d sit well on my palate this evening.’

‘I agree wholeheartedly,’ said Alfred. ‘But I fancy we have more important things on our plate.’

They found the police station deserted, with a note on the door. This was the only part of the structure made of sawn timber. The rest was of split slabs of ironwood, and the roof of casuarina shingles.

The note was rendered in quill and ink, already a little faded; ‘Gorn west on patrol. Any disterbance should be reported to Barney Murphy who will telegraf Parmerston.’

‘We’d better report in to headquarters directly, then,’ said Alfred. And at the telegraph office, he penned a short communication, with O’Donahue looking over his shoulder all the while. In the end, after numerous crossings-out they came up with.

AT KATHERINE IN PURSUIT OF NOTORIOUS GANG THE RAGGED THIRTEEN STOP WILL RETURN TO BORROLOOLA IN HASTE ONCE ACCOMPLISHED STOP SEARCY AND ODONAHUE ENDS

Pushing his way to the front of the line, citing ‘official business.’ Alfred watched the telegraph operator tap out the message. Then, they had scarcely mounted up again, when the operator hurried out with a reply.

‘Constable Searcy, this just come back for you.’

Alfred took the note and read it, frowning.

EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTED YOU HAVE IGNORED ORDERS AND NOT YET ARRIVED BORROLOOLA, REPORTS OF MAJOR UNREST IN TOWNSHIP STOP ORDER YOU RIDE IMMEDIATELY REPEAT IMMEDIATELY FOR THE MACARTHUR STOP INSPECTOR FOELSCHE ENDS

Searcy looked at O’Donahue. ‘Even he wouldn’t expect us to ride tonight, would he?’

‘He sounds shirty, but I wouldn’t reckon on it.’

‘We’ve got one night to nail the Ragged Thirteen. We have to take it.’

‘I was counting on the local men being here. Can we take them with just two of us?’ O’Donahue asked.

‘Well, we bested them on the Roper.’

‘That weren’t quite the entire gang, and they weren’t in the process of a robbery. They will have firearms.’

Alfred drew him up to his full height. ‘I did not come all this way to ride away again with my tail between my legs. We will wait for those rascals and apprehend them in the act of robbing Cashman’s store.’

O’Donahue patted his belly as if stoking a fire there, ‘Of course we will.’

 

Back at camp, Jimmy Woodforde and New England Jack had just returned from a trip into town, riding with the reins in one hand, and a demijohn of rum in the other. They were not the only ones keen to warm up with the fiery liquid.

‘I’ll be damned if I rob a store sober,’ said Jimmy, his hair and eyes wild. ‘It’ll be twice as much of a lark fully charged.’

Sandy Myrtle wasn’t so sure. ‘Maybe you should ask Tom. We voted him as leader, remember?’

Jimmy paused with his mug in one hand, and jug in the other, then called across to Tom, who was rubbing his new lead balls, one by one, with glasspaper. ‘You don’t mind if we down a few belts of the good stuff, do you Tom?’

Tom shook his head sagely. ‘So long as you can sit on a horse and don’t do anything stupid, go for your life. I might even enjoy a nip or two myself before we ride out.’

Jimmy let rip a whoop and touched mugs with New England Jack. Upending these vessels they drained them fast, with a few drops dripping down off their moustaches.

‘Here’s to tonight,’ cried Jimmy. ‘And the most daring gang in the land since Ned Kelly and his mates fell at Glenrowan.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com


Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

#15. The Katherine Robbery

#15. The Katherine Robbery

Scattered over a mile of river bank, the settlement of Katherine was deep in midnight slumber. There was no wind, the air warm and smoky from hearth fires that burned beside bark and iron humpies.

Thirteen mounted men rode out from their camp downstream, skilled horsemen all, keeping to the scrub where they could, moving like shadows. Tom Nugent, at the lead, kept every sense on high alert. Somewhere, far out in the night, a pair of hunting dingoes howled. The river was a faint whisper as it ran over the stones around Knotts Crossing.

Up ahead Tom could make out the dark shape of a man on horseback. ‘Hold it there, lads,’ he said softly. ‘There’s someone riding towards us.’

‘It’s a friend,’ came a voice. ‘I’m riding in.’

Tom did not reply, but the horseman rode out of the darkness of the trees, into the open, where the moonlight illuminated the face of Maori Reid.

‘You’re not part of this,’ growled Tom. ‘I’ve told you to piss off before, so why the hell do you keep turning up?’

‘It’s a free country. Besides, I came to report that Searcy and O’Donahue are in town and waiting for you bastards. I can sort them out for youse, even now. Just give me the word.’

It was Hugh Campbell who spoke up. ‘Now listen, you dog, Tom’s told you to ride on, and I suggest you do it.’

Maori Reid turned his face so his eyes were blazing white. ‘Shut your gob you daft Scot. Go back to your fucking bagpipes and leave the man’s work to real men.’

Photo by Bill Lillicrapp, NT Library

Scotty started forward, but he was not about to initiate a fight on horseback, and there were more important things at hand than dismounting and scrapping with Maori Reid.

Besides, taking advantage of the confrontation, Jimmy Woodforde moved up behind Maori Reid with his Snider rifle reversed. He swung the butt with a vicious, short stroke. Maori sensed the attack and tried to turn, too late. The hardwood struck the back of the New Zealander’s head like a pole-axe, felling him so he slid over the side of his horse. His right foot caught in the stirrup until Jimmy kicked it free, allowing his victim to thump to the ground, out like a snuffed candle.

‘That felt good,’ said Jimmy. ‘The horse-murdering bastard.’

‘Good work, Jimmy,’ said Tom, looking down at the inert form of the man. ‘Maori had that coming. Now let’s ride in fast from here in case anyone heard us talking. You got that axe ready Sandy?’

‘Sure have.’

‘Good. Now gee-up.’ Tom let his mount have his head in the dark, trusting him to avoid obstacles, controlling only the speed of the canter and a general direction. They were into the town before they knew it, for there were no gas lights here, just the odd glowing fire around the township.

Coming to a halt beside the store, Tom slipped three fingers under the lever of his Martini-Henry carbine, standing guard while Sandy Myrtle dismounted with his axe. Sandy’s huge shoulders swelled like tree trunks as he took his stance and swung. The door was a stout construction, Tom had studied it earlier that day – made of slabs of deep red local ironwood – and it stood up to a pounding. After four hefty blows from Sandy, however, the screws broke through the hinges and the way was open.

‘Alright boys,’ Tom hissed. ‘Everything we can carry, we take.’

As they filed in, Tom remained on guard, watching for any sign of trouble. The dust was rising from their hurried arrival, for the surface of the track had been pounded by hooves and wheels into a deep, fine powder, light as air.

The men were inside now, and Tom heard the clink of cans hitting sacks as they went to work. Horseshoes, flour, tea, sugar. He smiled to himself. He had long ago decided that the system was biased against men like him, and that taking back his share was not just a right, but a duty.

A town-dweller in a night shirt with a jacket thrown over the top approached from one of the nearest bough shelters. He carried a shotgun, broken, over his forearm, and his nose was red with grog.

‘What in the name of the Almighty is going on here?’ he shouted.

‘Go back to bed, this is no concern of yours,’ Tom shouted. The man hesitated at first, and Tom raised the rifle to his shoulder and trained it on the man’s chest. The nightshirt flapped around his legs as he ran off into the darkness, shouting as he went.

‘Hurry now you lot,’ Tom shouted into the doorway. ‘They’ll all be waking now.’

The twelve started to file back out from the store, one after the other, throwing sacks over saddles, booty from the raid. Nervous horses nickered and stamped.

Last came Tommy the Rag.

‘Hurry up, fuck it Tommy.’ Tom whispered under his breath, but he couldn’t stay angry. Tommy wore a grin so wide, enjoying the game more than the rest of them put together, giggling as he mounted up. But that frontier town was waking, lanterns blinking on and shouts ringing out from neighbouring shanties.

Tom Nugent ran his eyes over her ragged band. ‘Now mount up,’ he called.

But as they did so, two men stepped out onto the road just ahead. Both had rifles ready at the shoulder.

‘Surrender, in the Queen’s name,’ called a voice, loud and commanding.

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com
Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
#16. A Company of Thieves

#16. A Company of Thieves

Alfred Searcy’s legs were steady and his hands did not shake as he peered through the iron sights of one of the most feared weapons in those parts, a Winchester repeating rifle. Beside him stood O’Donahue, with his Martini-Henry locked and loaded. Together they were representatives of the law, a force to reckoned with.

Alfred had always seen himself as a hero-in-waiting. He had recently started writing the story of his life. Now, in this remote outback town, his first real moment of fame might have arrived. He and O’Donahue were the sole manifestations of good in this moment of evil. It was time to act. Still with the rifle to his shoulder he sighted over the heads of the Thirteen and fired into the air.

‘Stand to, you ruffians,’ he shouted. ‘Lay down your weapons and you might yet save your skins.’

For a moment there was dead silence, surprise perhaps. Then, the raiders ran for their horses, leaping onto saddles, giggling and laughing as they went. One even dropped his trousers momentarily. Searcy felt the muscles of his neck tighten with anger.

As the Thirteen rode away. Alfred was fully prepared to shoot to kill. He focussed on the bulky shape in the rear of the galloping thieves, surely the infamous Sandy Myrtle, a man so huge that men took pity on the poor creature, reputedly called Jonathan James, that carried him. Yet, these were not good conditions for shooting, darkness exacerbated by dust. Iron sights were never much good in the dark.

Alfred fired, swung the lever, fired again. Three times the butt thumped into his shoulder before he realised that his target was nowhere in view. He knew with a trained rifleman’s gut instinct that his efforts had flown wide. The first shot had been close, but the others might as well have stayed in the magazine.

He lowered the rifle, holding it at the balance point in one hand as he and his mate loped after the horsemen, hoping for one more shot where the track curved. Unfortunately, the Thirteen were already too far away, and besides, men woken by the gunshots were appearing from their camps. The chances of hitting one by accident were high.

‘T’ose damn mongrels,’ O’Donahue muttered. ‘They reckon t’ey are above the law. P’raps we should raise a party to chase an’ give battle.’

Alfred said nothing, but as they walked back to the store, he looked dismissively at the half-drunk blowhards who staggered out of their bough sheds and wurlies to see what the commotion was. There wasn’t a man among them he would have trusted to ride out with him against thirteen well-mounted rascals.

At the store Jim Cashman himself had arrived, ranting at the damage and depleted shelves. Alfred could not meet his eye, and simply turned to O’Donahue.

‘Let’s get our gear, we’re going after them.’

‘Now? In t’e dark?’

‘You bet your pension we are.’

Alfred led the way back to where their tracker waited with the horses. The first thing he did was to reload his rifle with heavy cartridges from a box of ammunition he took from his saddlebags. Finally, with O’Donahue beside him, he mounted the nervous horse and left town at a walk, before digging in his heels and cantering through some initial side creeps and even a light buck or two.

On the outskirts of town Alfred stopped and addressed the tracker. ‘Now Jimmy, there’s a good bit o’ moon and lots of men in that company of thieves. You reckon you can track ’em?’

Jimmy leaned down from the saddle, examining the trail. Then, without a word he urged his horse on. The track headed southwest along the river, and the camps they came upon were awake and riled, offering shouted reports of the Thirteen riding through.

Downriver ten miles they found a furious gang of ringers, a cattle camp from Elsey Station. They’d shot a ‘killer’ the day before, and hung the carcass overnight to set, a strong branch serving as gallows. The Thirteen had paused for long enough to strip the carcass to the bone before riding on.

‘Those thieving dogs,’ the lead man ranted. ‘If you catch them I want my meat back, and I’ll testify in court against them meself.’

‘They can’t be far ahead,’ muttered Searcy. ‘Burdened down by meat, and all those stores, we must be getting close.’

But the Thirteen were not ignorant of the chance of pursuit. Not long after capping the night off by stealing the meat, they headed down to the river, riding in through a dry side gully, under a canopy of paperbarks, then up along a shallow stretch of the river bed itself.

Katherine River near Galloping Jacks. Photo by Catriona Martin

Searcy and O’Donahue had no choice but to follow, urging their horses into the dark, slow water, scratching through the pandanus. In places the water was deep enough to reach the horses’ bellies. Both men were afflicted by itchy grubs from the riverside trees, and were scratching the blotched red skin on their arms and neck that resulted.

‘T’is a risk, Alfie,’ commented O’Donahue. ‘I’ve heard of big ‘gators around here.’

‘Damn the ‘gators,’ came the reply, but the horses were wary, picking their way around hazardous snags and deeper holes.

The going was slow, with Jimmy forced to examine the banks as they went, looking for exit points. Before long the stream veered left into a channel cut in a veritable lake of sand covering dozens of acres, soon separating into five or six separate channels, any of which the Thirteen might have followed, and emerged from, at a time of their choosing.

Jimmy finally stopped, waiting for the two policemen to catch up. ‘We wait for sunup, boss. They coulda gone this way, or maybe that way. If we go on we maybe lose them. Too many ways now.’

‘Damn,’ shouted Searcy. ‘But alright, we make a light camp and get a few hours sleep. At first light we get after them again.’

O’Donahue shook his head sadly. ‘Inspector Foelsche is going to kill us when he finds out. We’re absent without leave, and I don’t like it.’

‘He’ll be pleased if we catch the Thirteen,’ muttered Alfred, but later, lying awake in his swag, he wondered if that was true.

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#17. Fugitives from Justice

#17. Fugitives from Justice

‘Everyone alright?’ Tom Nugent had called, when they pulled up ten miles south west of the Katherine township.

Sandy Myrtle took off his cabbage-tree hat and thrust his hand inside, extending a finger through a bullet hole in the weave. ‘Well damn me for being a lucky bastard,’ he said. ‘I thought I felt something.’

The gang fell into helpless laughter, full of nerves at the burglary and their rapid exit, remembering the sound the police bullets had made as they parted the air around them.

‘Damn near took the top of yer scone right off,’ said Tommy the Rag.

‘Fancy missing a target as juicy as Sandy Myrtle,’ laughed Fitz.

‘Beats me why you have to wear that darned hat in the night time anyhow,’ breathed Wonoka Jack. ‘I thought only ladies wore hats after sundown.’

Sandy replaced the hat on his head. ‘Shut yer mouths, you lot, or I’ll close ‘em for you.’

Tom Nugent grinned to himself, the banter was one of the things he loved about this crew of misfits. They rode on, and when they came upon a hanging bullock carcass next to a glowing campfire and some abandoned swags, it seemed wasteful to hurry past it. Within an hour, with Jack Woods in charge of proceedings, they’d hacked off most of the meat and stuffed it in tucker bags. Even more heavily laden, they headed off downstream along the Katherine River itself, riding through the stream, splitting up when it diverged into a maze of channels, making pursuit all but impossible.

By dawn, however, they were back up on the high banks. It was scrubby country: sandy soil with crackling dry speargrass. Even the woollybutt, shitwood and black wattle trees grew stunted and mean. Every now and then, to cope with the heat, they would head down to the river bed, finding pools of sweet green water interspersed with rapids, and banks of green couch grass that the horses loved.

Photo: James Pinkerton Campbell. NT Library

They lunched on the riverbank, in just such a spot, amongst the writhing trunks of paperbark trees, and a breeze off the water. After some swimming and skylarking, Bob Anderson gathered sticks for a campfire. A bottle of rum, looted from Cashman’s store, was opened and passed around, while fresh beef steaks and Scotty’s best Johnny-cakes filled bellies.

Tom raised his mug to his mates and grinned. ‘Here’s to mischief, fast horses and adventure.’

They all drank down their drams, and Larrikin hurried around with the bottle to refill them all, before lifting his mug also. ‘And’ … he added. ‘Here’s to a fortune in gold waiting for us at the Hall’s Creek fields.’

Laughing and drinking, they talked of nuggets like bantam eggs lying just under the ground ready for them to pick up. Then, while Jack Woods cut beef into strips and hung them on sticks over the fire to cure, Larrikin led his mare into the river shallows.

Cupping water with his hands he wet her all over, brushing her coat down with his fingers. When he was done she trotted out, rolled in the hot gravel and shook herself off.

‘Looks like you got your wish, Larrikin,’ said Sandy Myrtle. ‘I reckon that mare’s in foal.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘A pregnant mare shakes only her head and neck, not her body, like she just done.’

This precipitated a long discussion as to whether she was or she wasn’t. They had all been involved in the breeding, and thus had a strong interest.

Jimmy Woodford was all set to get out a nail and string, ‘to prove the fact for good and all,’ but Tom Nugent laughed. ‘I haven’t seen that barrel of hers start swelling yet. That’s when we’ll know for sure.’

They were having fun, in no hurry to ride on when there was a loud whistle from downstream.

Tom stood up. ‘Cripes, that’s Blind Joe. What the hell is he doing back here?’ He thrust two fingers in his mouth and whistled back.

Blind Joe rode into the camp, his dark skin shiny with sweat and his horse’s side flecked with foam.

Tom walked to meet him, alert and wary. ‘What’s up, Joe? You haven’t seen them policemen, have you?’

‘No mulaka. Much worse’n that.’

‘Who?’

‘That Maori Reid, he follered us mob all the way down along the junction where you tell us to go.’

Jimmy Woodford’s face turned deep red. ‘I wish I’d kilt the bastard when I had the chance.’

‘You might as well have,’ growled Tom, ‘for you can bet you made him angry.’ Then, to Joe. ‘What’s Maori Reid done? Tell us, quick.’

The black man said nothing, but tears glistened in the corner of his eye.

‘Mount up, you lot,’ cried Tom. ‘I’ve been soft and I apologise for it. Now we’re going to deal with that bastard once and for all.’

Jim Carmody was the first to tack up and hit the saddle. ‘Maori Reid might be my brother-in-law, but I’ll gladly put a bullet in him myself.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

© 2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com
Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
#18. Searcy Turns Back

#18. Searcy Turns Back

In the middle of the afternoon, Alfred Searcy and his mate O’Donahue followed their tracker up to the remains of the Ragged Thirteen’s dinner camp on the river. They walked the horses in, carbines in their laps as they rode, inhaling the smell of food scraps and cold campfire.

Some hasty drying racks over the fireplace had been abandoned. Dollops of grass had been turned, thrown by horses spurred from a standing start.

‘They left in a hurry,’ said Alfred, eyes following a scavenging goanna as it sprinted away and up into a tree. ‘Not sure why. We’re still a long way behind, and it looks like a lazy camp.’ He dismounted and held his hand flat over the hearth to judge the heat. ‘Barely any warmth there. I’m guessing they’ll be three or four hours ahead.’

‘T’e bastards are well mounted,’ said O’Donahue. ‘It might take another day or two to catch up now. We’ll have to let t’em go and ride for the Macarthur. If we hurry we can be t’ere in t’ree or four days, before t’e Superintendent sacks us.’

Alfred thought about it.  The Thirteen were long gone, miles ahead, and to follow would mean days on the hunt, most likely losing their jobs in the process. Foeleche was of German descent, and strict on discipline. Besides, Searcy also had the feeling that now a serious crime had been committed, the Thirteen might not be taken easily. Two policemen wasn’t enough for a serious pursuit.

‘Damn those bastards,’ he said, but he called for Jimmy, who was still casting around the spoor, expecting to follow. ‘You better lead us back Borroloola way, orright?’

‘Orright boss.’ If Jimmy thought it strange that he be asked to turn around so suddenly, he gave no sign.

Roy Edwards Collection. NT Library

And those two mates rode like the wind. Barely straying off the trot, galloping when the mood took them and the horses seemed willing. By evening a troop of storms were out roaming the grasslands, with raking winds and the first real rains of the coming wet. Black clouds rose in columns, and lightning flickered like gunfire.

Feeling heavy raindrops, and the moisture-laden air in their nostrils, Alfred and his mate whipped off their hats and whooped and hollered with excitement.

They were half way to the telegraph line, twenty good miles down, when they headed in to a small waterhole called Clem’s Pond. Now, for the first time they became cautious, slowing the horses so they could see if any men, white or black, were there before them. There was indeed a man camped at the water’s edge, shirtless and still wet from the rain. His right leg was stuck out straight from his body and the other tucked underneath. His face was pained with fever.

‘Hey that’s the horse thief, Billy,’ cried O’Donahue.

‘In a bad way by the look of it.’ Alfred rode closer, looking down at the leg. There was a bloody wound in the man’s thigh, striped red with infection. A hobbled horse had been grazing in the scrub just back from the waterhole, but lifted its head to look at them.

‘I hope that’s not another stolen horse, is it Billy?’

‘No malaka. This one was gibben to myself. Cranky bastard threw me good back there, an’ got a stick through this-feller leg.’

‘You’re in luck,’ said O’Donahue. ‘Mr Searcy here is darn near as good as a doctor.’

‘I’ll do my best, anyhow,’ said Alfred. ‘We’ll see to the horses and get the billy on. Then we’ll clean that leg up and have a look.’ Jimmy had reached the waterhole with the rest of the plant and was already hobbling them out.

The leg, it turned out, had been pierced by a shaft of cypress, made up of multiple splinters, each as thick as a finger. Billy had managed to remove only a fraction of the total, and Alfred had to use forceps. Each extraction was followed by a seep of blood. The patient grew increasingly distressed, and O’Donahue had to hold him down by the shoulders, while tendons stood out in the dark skin of his neck. The muscles of his leg clenched so tight that they were like boards.

When it was done, with the wound bathed with iodine and bandaged neatly, they ate johnny cakes with treacle together and talked.

‘So where are you headed to, Billy?’

‘Nowhere mulaka. Just wanderin’ about.’

‘What do you plan to do when your leg heals up?’

‘Dunno, mulaka.’

‘Do you feel like a job?’ Alfred asked.

‘Where to boss?’

‘Round Victoria River Depot way. That Ragged Thirteen have to turn up there on their way west to Hall’s Creek. You could wait ’til they arrive, then get a message to us in Borroloola.’

‘Perfect,’ cried O’Donahue, applauding. ‘Oh you are a clever man, Alfie.’

‘Orright, yeah I’ll do it. When my leg all fixed.’

‘If you help us catch the mongrels, we’ll give you so much tobacco you won’t be able to carry it all.’

O’Donahue fixed his eyes on his mate. ‘I like the way your mind works, Alfie. No wonder every vagabond in the north is afraid of you.’

Alfred nodded, as if accepting only what was his due. ‘Yes, once we’re established in Borroloola, and we get the word from Billy, we can slip out west and capture the damned Ragged Thirteen. This time we won’t let them go.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Australian

When boundary rider Charles Rasp stumbled on an interesting hill in far western NSW, with a fractured body of ore running right through it, he wasn’t sure if he’d found something of value or not. He consulted his battered copy of ‘The Prospector’s Guide’ to be certain. Within a few weeks he and six others had formed a company called the Barrier Ranges Mining Association, and pegged out six claims.

The partnership included two dam-builders; David James and James Poole, station owner George McCullogh, head stockman George Urquhart, bookkeeper George Lind, and jackaroo Philip Charlie.

Rasp and the others thought they’d found a reasonable prospect for tin mining, but things didn’t go well at first. The ore samples they mined and sent away for analysis showed only traces of tin. Conditions were harsh and necessities like water difficult to obtain.

“At the start it was very bad,’ George Rasp later told the Melbourne Argus. ‘There was no accommodation, water and provisions were scarce and the weather was very trying … for 12 months it was really doubtful whether we would make anything out of it.’

Lind sold his share for next to nothing. James Poole SWAPPED his share with Sir Sidney Kidman, for TEN COWS. George Urquhart sold his share back to George Rasp for £20.

We can only imagine how much Lind, Urquhart and Poole regretted their rash disposal of the shares, for new reports from the ore samples came back from Adelaide with exciting news. Silver! Some of the richest ore ever seen. All of a sudden the partnership of seven was one of the most talked about companies in the country. It was time for a name change: The Broken Hill Proprietary Company floated on the stock exchange in 1885.

George Rasp’s hill would go on to be the richest find of silver, lead, and zinc in the history of the world. The share George Urquhart sold for £20 in 1884 was worth 1 000 000 pounds just six years later. In today’s terms a one seventh share of BHP Billiton would be worth a staggering twenty billion dollars.

As for George Rasp, he married a waitress, and moved to Adelaide. He didn’t have too much time to enjoy his wealth, as he died relatively young, at the age of sixty.

Still, few people have made such a contribution to the development of Australia as did George Rasp.

© 2018 Greg Barron

 

#19. The Stone Knife

#19. The Stone Knife

The boy loved being there on the Flora River, where calcium-rich water flowed from distant underground springs, forming a green channel that never stopped flowing. Upstream from the junction the waters cascaded over raft-walls of skeletonised logs, boiling into pools and churning through rapids.

There were wild blacks around. Blind Joe went to warn them that some horsemen were coming. These white men, he said, were not interested in staying, but were heading west to hunt for precious rocks, and should not pose a threat.

After this initial contact, the wild ones kept clear. After all, these newcomers were such a different mob, with white-men’s clothing, horses and gear. They were from all over the north. Some of the women had ridden with their men from the Queensland coast. Some wore crosses on chains around their necks and kneeled to a white man’s god.

On the second day, the young men killed five ducks. Unplucked and bloody, the birds were roasted on the coals. Still-kicking cherapin, with their long, pincered claws, along with mussels and water lily tubers, rounded out the feast. The boy ate every scrap he was given, picking clean bone and shell alike.

When the food was all gone, most of the party settled down to sleep, soon woken by the sound of a horseman coming in fast. The Thirteen were expected that day, so at first no one was alarmed. Then Blind Joe grew wary. He ran for the horses.

‘Hide,’ he shouted. But it was too late.

Maori Reid, mounted on his horse, charged into the camp, carrying a carbine one handed. The boy remembered and feared the dark-bearded rider. One of the women realised the danger and tried to grab the youngster.

The carbine barked, belching black smoke and fire. The woman’s chest tore open and she fell to the ground.

The boy tried to run, but Reid scooped him up, near-wrenching his arm from his shoulder, then dragged him into the saddle. The boy screamed, but the sound of gunfire had scattered the others. Those who managed to fetch spears and stand could not throw for fear of hitting the boy.

Reid smelled of tobacco, sweat and rum. His arms held the boy like iron straps as he doubled back to where the Ragged Thirteen’s treasured plant had been left to graze and rest.

Blind Joe was by then saddled and mounted, galloping off as Maori Reid opened the action of his rifle and inserted a fresh cartridge. Blind Joe reached the trees, whipping the horse with the flat of his hand. The heavy bullet took down branches and leaves not far from his head.

Maori did not bother to chase, instead removing a coil of rope that had been lashed to his saddle Ds. This proved to be made up of half a dozen individual lengths, each about fourteen feet long.

The first length he used to bind the boy: his hands, then his neck, the loose end tied to the saddle. This done, he hunted up four of the Ragged Thirteen’s finest horses, and haltered each, ponying them together in a string. It was neatly done, without fuss, at least as fast, the boy reckoned, as Tom Nugent might have managed.

‘You’re mine now,’ growled Maori Reid. ‘An’ we’re gunna ride like mad bastards. If you try to escape, I’ll cut your throat.’

The boy had lately been allowed to ride a spare horse bareback, but now he sat uncomfortably, ahead of his captor, on the pommel of the saddle. They swam the Flora at a gravelled crossing, then followed the western bank of the Daly River, often riding in the shallows, or in the leaf litter and detritus-strewn layers of an old flood level.

It was a difficult path, but Maori Reid did not slow the pace. Branches whipped past at face level in the riverine scrub. It was obvious to the boy that Maori was doing his best to confuse the spoor. He never rode past a shelf of bare rock, taking the horses out where the marks of their hooves would be hard to see, and where the exit points would have to be painstakingly discovered. Yet Blind Joe, the boy knew, would follow. Joe was not blind at all, but had the keenest eyesight of any living man. The name was some kind of joke that the men of the Ragged Thirteen found amusing.

The boy remembered the stone knife, wrapped in rags in his pocket. It comforted him, though with his hands tied, it was impossible to retrieve it. Later, perhaps, he would have his chance.

Maori Reid rode fast, just as he had promised, stopping only to sweep their tracks or change horses. They rode through rain squalls twice, and afterwards the humidity increased so that their clothes and skins were wet from sweat and rain combined. For the boy, that afternoon was a torment. The rain, he knew, would make the work of following them much more difficult.

Just before dark they crossed the Daly, then made camp on a beach of white sand and red pebbles. A fire of driftwood was soon burning, with the river streaming past in a narrow channel.

‘We make some grub and curl up for an hour or two,’ Maori Reid growled. ‘I won’t take no chances with you running off.’ He transferred the loose end of the boy’s rope from the saddle to a paperbark branch, then cooked johnny-cakes on the coals. He threw a hunk to the boy, who held out his hands to indicate that he could not eat with them tied.

Maori released the knots that bound the boy’s wrists. ‘You used to be Tom Nugent’s but now you’re mine. I’ll train you up to work, and work you will. The sooner you look me in the eye and call me boss the sooner I’ll cut you loose and let you ride your own horse.’

After they had eaten, Maori tied the boy’s wrists again, tighter than before. ‘Now sleep,’ he said.

After a while, when Maori’s chest was rising and falling evenly, the boy started working at the ropes on his wrists. The knots held fast. It was impossible to move them. But when Maori woke and went out to catch the horses, he again loosened the bonds.

‘You’ll ride easier with the use of your hands. See? I ain’t as bad a bastard as everyone thinks.’

Photo by C Martin

Back on horseback under a glowing moon, the boy saw a dark bank of cloud, blowing out from the horizon, blotting out stars as it came. They were in thick scrub. The moon disappeared behind the cloud. Then came the darkness.

The boy dug in his rags for the stone knife, and with every ounce of strength he possessed, he drove it deep into Maori’s thigh, plucking it out for another blow. Reid cried out like a bird. Pain-strengthened hands clutched and fumbled for the boy and his knife.

As slippery as a catfish, the boy used the weight of his own body, falling purposely from the saddle, over the near-side of the horse. He slipped free from Maori Reid’s grasp. He hit the ground, rose to a crouch, then used the stone knife to hack at the rope that still bound him by the neck to the saddle. Free at last, he started to run.

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

#20. A Strange Kind of Justice

#20. A Strange Kind of Justice

Tom Nugent was riding beside Blind Joe, when a high-pitched, unearthly wail carried on the air, rising above the sounds of the breeze and the river, the clink of spurs and the creak of leather. He spurred his horse, heedless of the river scrub, reaching the riverside camp at a furious gallop.

There, on a sweep of white river sand, the body of a woman had been placed on a platform of sticks, a fire smoking away underneath. Most of the stockboys were gathered around, some of them naked, having stripped off their Western gear. Others had blood on their faces and arms where they had cut themselves with sharp stones and sticks.

As the pair dismounted, Blind Joe broke into sobs. Tom knew that grief with Aboriginal people was loud and raw, and there was no getting in the way of it.

Closer now, Tom recognised the dead woman’s face. He turned back to see Sandy Myrtle and the others arriving, tethering horses and walking in with shocked faces. Most carried weapons, still unsure of what had happened and how to react.

‘It’s Wonoka Jack’s woman,’ Tom said, then addressed the mourners. ‘Was it Maori Reid that done this?’

One of the women hissed sharply. ‘That bad-wan Maori come here alright. He shoot her inna heart, an’ take the boy blonga you.’

Tom said nothing, but his lips whitened. He liked the boy, and felt responsible for him. His big hands closed into fists at his side.

A shout came from behind. It was Wonoka Jack, brushing aside restraining hands and coming up to see the dead woman. ‘Oh the bloody rat. The cruel swine. He’ll pay for this, I swear he will.’

Finally Tom found words. ‘I should’a hung the bastard properly when I had the chance. I won’t make that mistake again.’

Carmody had ridden off to see to the plant, and came back with more bad news. ‘Four good horses missing.’ He turned to Tom. ‘If you’re follerin’ Maori I’m goin’ with you. If anyone should put a stake through the heart of that monster it’s me.’

‘You ready to track him for me, Joe?’ Tom asked.

Blind Joe nodded very slowly. ‘A life for a life,’ he said.

Tom studied the assembled men. Apart from being consumed by grief, Wonoka Jack was showing signs that a bout of malarial fever was on its way. New England Jack had the same trouble. Sandy could ride no other horse than Jonathan James, and was thus not able to join a fast chase. The Scotsmen, Bob Anderson and Scotty, had not yet reached the same level of bushmanship as the others.

‘I’ll take Carmody then,’ Tom said at last. ‘And Larrikin too, if you’ll come?’

‘Too right I bloody will,’ cried Larrikin.

‘An’ me as well,’ shouted Jimmy Woodford. ‘I want to be in at the death o’ that horse murdering cur.’

‘Righto,’ said Tom. ‘You too. We’ll pick fresh mounts then take up the trail.’

The Flora River in 1895. Photo: State Library of South Australia

Blind Joe began the hunt with restrained eagerness. One of the younger stock boys showed the party where Maori Reid had crossed the Flora, then headed northwards along the main channel of the Daly.

After that, Blind Joe tracked from the saddle, scarcely saying a word, only pointing or signalling occasionally. There were times when his brow furrowed, and he walked his horse slow, leaning over so his head hanging down, scarcely above the earth. At times like this Tom had the sense to rein in, light a pipe and wait while the tracker rode in seemingly nonsensical lines.

At other times they reached a near gallop, and speargrass heads flicked the horses’ flanks and stung through the riders’ dungarees. Rain squalls came and went, but for now, Blind Joe’s keen eyes kept them firmly on the trail.

After dark there was no choice but to wait for the moon, and Tom begrudged every wasted minute. When it finally rose, luminous white over the Daly River valley, Blind Joe was quickly back at work, leading them slowly downstream.

Around dawn, after scarcely any sleep, they were lolling in the saddles, but there was no question at stopping. Cattlemen learn the trick of sleeping in snatches that might last only seconds.

The heat and humidity were insidious. Blind Joe’s eyes were bloodshot and his hands were shaking, but he solved each riddle as it came and kept them moving until mid-morning. Now they reached a chain of muddy ponds back from the main river channel. Horse tracks mingled with those of animals; great three-toed prints of jabirus beside the distinctive mark of kangaroos.

Blind Joe examined the area slowly then spat. ‘This tucker taste different than before,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Plenty track, different track. More-feller horse. Dunno now mulaka.’

‘Follow the freshest ones,’ said Tom.

They rode for another hour, away from the river and into a long stretch of woodland. Then, just shy of a creek gully, Blind Joe signalled for them to dismount, then came back and pushed his face up close to Tom’s.

‘Someone aroun’ here. Look out.’

Tom drew his revolver and thumbed back the hammer, then watched as the others did the same. They moved at a crouch. There was a taint of campfire smoke in the breeze that swished and whistled in the casuarinas. One step at a time now, easing forward and swivelling his head, Blind Joe led them into deeper scrub near the creek banks.

March flies landed on the backs of necks and hands, needling deep into the skin, impossible to ignore. Tom gritted his teeth and did not let his concentration waver. He had just rounded a thick paperbark trunk when a Colt .45 appeared, aimed with dead-steady hands at his temple.

‘Holster your weapon,’ came a voice. ‘Real slow and careful.’

Tom was surprised to see that the owner of the Colt was not Maori Reid at all, but a woman with flaming red hair.

He holstered his weapon and stepped back. ‘Red Jack,’ he said, touching his hat. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I had to go up to Pine Creek to look at a horse. Now I’m doing the same journey as you. Heading for the Kimberley rush.’

‘Have you seen Maori Reid?’

Red Jack inclined her head. ‘That I have.’

‘What about the boy?’

‘I’ve seen him too.’ Without lowering the handgun, the woman thrust the tips of the first two fingers of her left hand into her lips and whistled.

The boy appeared, responding to the sound. He smiled when he saw Tom and ran to him.

‘At least he seems to like you. What’s the little bloke’s name by the way?’ Red Jack asked. ‘He won’t tell me.’

‘He hasn’t got a Christian name yet, and he can’t remember the one from his own people.’

‘Where are they?’

‘Dust and ash by now. Wiped out in a reprisal on the Macarthur.’

‘Enough talk,’ said Jim Woodford, walking slowly out of the scrub. ‘Now where’s Maori Jack? We’ve got business with that bastard.’

Red Jack lowered her Colt. ‘You gentlemen strung Maori Reid up by his ankles and made him a laughing stock. Then, from what I hear, one of you clobbered him on the back of the head in Katherine. You’re lucky he didn’t put a bullet in your spine one night as you lay in your swag. He’s a snake, everyone knows it, and you poked him with a stick.’

Tom looked at her seriously. ‘He killed a woman, and took four horses. Just because the boy’s back doesn’t get the bastard off the hook.’

‘You want to see Maori Reid?’ she asked. ‘Come with me.’

Red Jack led the way through the trees to a camp, with horses hobbled all around, and a campfire burning low. Maori Reid was there, lying on the ground with his head on a saddle. His lower body was a mess of bloody bandages. His eyes were glassed over and the smell of infection hung over him like a toxic cloud.

‘This young bloke carries a sharp little knife,’ Red Jack said. ‘It must have been made by his people before you picked him up. He managed to prick this bastard right through the femoral artery. Maori had just about bled dry when I found him, and now the wound has turned septic. He’s as good as dead.’ She shrugged. ‘But if you really want to shoot a gravely ill man where he lies, don’t let me stop you.’

Tom fingered the butt of his revolver, staring at the once piercing eyes of Maori Jack Reid. He turned to Blind Joe, who nodded once. The black man wanted Reid dead, and so did Jimmy Woodford. Carmody showed a trace of relief that he might not be forced to shoot his own kin, and Larrikin shook his head. It just didn’t seem right to kill a man who was already fighting for his life.

After a moment of reflection Tom tipped his hat to Red Jack. ‘Thank you, ma’am. There’s a strange kind of justice at work here. It’s not pretty, but I believe that it’s fair. I’ll leave this bastard in your hands, and to the fate that God decides for him.’

With the boy trailing him like a shadow, Tom walked back towards the horses.

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#21. Alligator Jim

#21. Alligator Jim

Tom Nugent and his hunting party reached the main camp in the late afternoon. Storm clouds glowed yellow, reflecting like gold on the surface of the Flora River as it snaked out of the limestone plains, twining with the Katherine to create the mighty Daly River.

The plant were soon hobbled and grazing on green pick, brought on by the rains. A good fire burned in the hearth, with a pile of firewood stacked ready for the evening.

In the process of collecting wood, however, George Brown was stung by an inch-thick centipede that had been domiciled under a lump of driftwood. Not to be outdone, Carmody stubbed a bare toe on an old log submerged in the sand, and howled for ten minutes solid, at which point Sandy Myrtle grew tired of the noise and promised him something that would really make him yell.

To keep up the entertainment Jimmy Woodford spied the shape of a big barramundi cruising in the deep-water channel below a sand bar. He stood watching for a minute or two, shirt off, muscles relaxed so that his hairy belly pointed to the river.

‘Anyone fancy fish for supper?’ he asked thoughtfully.

Tom laughed. ‘I’ve got a good length of cat-gut in the packs and a hook or two if you want to give it a try. Or one of the boys will lend you a fish-spear.’

‘Bugger that,’ cried Jimmy. ‘I’ll show you bastards how to catch fish.’

Tom watched with interest as Woodford fetched his Martini-Henry rifle and walked back to the bank. Working a cartridge in to the breech he raised the weapon to his shoulder and fired.

The surface of the water was disrupted into concentric waves, and the air filled with falling droplets. Birds took flight from trees along the riverbank. The big silver fish floated to the top of the water, kicking feebly.

Woodford turned and smiled. ‘How easy was that? You don’t even have to hit them, the explosion of the bullet on the water busts their brains.’

Making his way to the water’s edge, he stripped off his dungarees, then walked across the sand bar to where the barramundi lay near the surface. The others watched idly, honing knives, mending clothes or oiling leather. One or two were reading.

Woodford had almost reached his fish when it managed to flick its tail, taking it into deeper water, out of reach of the sand bar. ‘Hey you blokes,’ he called. ‘Someone chuck me a stick, will you?’

Tom and hunted around for a good green stick, which he threw underhanded, spear-like, out across the water. Woodford collected it, and started using it to prod, poke and drag the fish closer.

The process took a while. It seemed to Tom that Jimmy Woodford was winning. He was almost waist deep now, half off the sandbar and into the swirling current.

‘Jesus Christ, a ‘gator,’ someone shouted.

Tom looked up and saw it coming. A giant of a thing, swinging its tail lazily upstream with the scent of fish blood in its nostrils. The thick snout partially submerged, ahead of deeply-slitted, armoured eyes.

‘He’s right,’ cried Tom. ‘Get out of there.’

Woodford turned, his face showing hope that someone was playing a joke on him. Torn between self-preservation and not wanting to be the butt of a joke, he played it safe with a couple of mighty strides onto the sand bar.

Before anyone had the presence of mind to train a rifle on it, the ‘gator burst from the deep water, jaws open, the back of its head slick with water. It scooped up the fish, so big it hung out the length of a forearm on either side. Then, lifting the prize high, it opened its jaws wider several times to force the fish down, before turning and disappearing below the surface.

‘Fucking hell,’ Woodford spat. ‘That was close.’ He walked back up through the shallows to dry land, shivering visibly from the closeness of this encounter.

‘You’re a fool, Woodford,’ said Sandy. ‘You let that blessed ‘gator eat my supper. I was looking forward to it, too.’

Photo by Ellen Kettle, NT library

That night, when the meal was done, and fresh sticks were added to the fire; flames leaping, lighting up the old paperbarks that grew so gnarled and huge on those Daly River banks, the gang passed around a bottle of grog. Only Wonoka Jack was absent, at a smaller fire, with the stockboys, still grieving for his dead lover.

While the others talked and laughed Tom scribbled madly with pencil and notepaper. At some length, he stood up. ‘Alright you blokes, I have a little verse to share, if you wouldn’t mind shutting yer gobs for a bit. This one’s called, Alligator Jim.’

There were a few sniggers at the title, but they waited in silence, as Tom Nugent started to recite his poem, using voice and hands and eyes to command their attention.

‘Jim Woodford was a brave man,

A marksman tried and true,

Yet the day he tried to shoot a fish,

Forever he would rue.’

The camp broke up into laughter, and Tom waited with the timing of a showman

‘He held the rifle to his eye,

And took his deadly aim,

The bullet flew in earnest pace,

That fish would never be the same.’

More laughter, and Woodford was blushing like a cherry. Bob Anderson punched him playfully on the shoulder.

‘But as he reached to claim the prize,

Poor Jim was in for fun,

A ‘gator rose to get the fish,

And Jim turned tail and run.’

Sandy Myrtle was shaking so hard, laughter exploding through his lips, that the ground itself seemed to move along with him. Tom finished the verse with a flourish, shouting the last line at the top of his voice.

‘And here we’ve heard tell of a man,

Of vigor and of vim,

Who henceforth will be known as,

Alligator Jim.’

‘Haha, Alligator Jim, that’s bloody perfect,’ someone howled, and more laughter rang through the camp.

The men were now in the mood for poetry. Tom Nugent was not the only lover of verse, though he would often kick things off with one of his own, as he had tonight.

Larrikin Jim produced a battered book from his saddlebags. Holding it open he paced around and through the firelight under the teeming stars. ‘I’m gonna read one from old Adam Lindsay Gordon …’

There was clapping all round and a series of ‘Hear, hears,’ and ‘Aye,’ from the Scotsmen.

Jim waited for silence, then, started to read. He was an expressive reader, and by the second verse there was no sound but for his voice, the river waters pushing at the old snags that held against the current.

‘Lightly the breath of the spring wind blows,

Though laden with faint perfume,

‘Tis the fragrance rare that the bushman knows,

The scent of the wattle bloom.

Two-thirds of our journey at least are done,

Old horse! let us take a spell

In the shade from the glare of the noon-day sun …’

When it was finished, Sandy Myrtle cleared his throat and said, ‘Beautifully read, Jim. It might interest you bastards to know that Gordon was a ne’er do well back in England, and was sent out here by his old man so he might make something of himself. Poor bastard fell off the perch at the age of thirty-seven.’

‘May he rest in peace,’ Tom said. ‘He was one of the best. Now, I say it’s time to unroll our swags and get some sleep. Tomorrow we ride for the Victoria River!’

They cheered and bickered and carried on as they threw out their swags and settled down to sleep. In addition to the night noises, Carmody was singing a sad old tune, just something he liked to do after a few drinks. No one minded, he had a rich and soothing voice.

The newly christened ‘Alligator Jim’ took no chances, carefully keeping Sandy Myrtle between him and the river.

‘It’d take that ‘gator a long time to chew through Sandy an’ get to me,’ he said. ‘So this is where I sleep tonight.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

 

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#22. A Town called Borroloola

#22. A Town called Borroloola

After a break-neck ride Alfred and O’Donohue pulled up at Abraham’s Billabong for supplies and a breather. Young Bowen, a little tougher looking than last time they had seen him, fronted the counter of the store. ‘It’s a relief to see some troopers in the area. You’re on your way to Borroloola?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Well you’d better hurry. There’s an article in the Times and Gazette about that town. I thought this place was bad. Listen, I’ll read it to you.

“‘Drunkenness is epidemic, and drunken men practice rifle and revolver shooting in the open road ways of the township at all hours of the day, whenever their sweet wills direct, to the constant danger of the rest of the inhabitants.

“A perfect reign of terror exists; lawlessness and crime prevail to an extent that is quite indescribable, and the peacefully disposed people are obliged to submit for fear of incurring the displeasure and vengeance of the roughs and perhaps having their property destroyed, or even endangering their lives.

“A race meeting had been held, and was largely attended by people from far and near, and of course, such an opportunity could not be let slip without a celebration which, as might have been expected, degenerated into a saturnalia of drunkenness and excesses. Amongst other acts of violence reported was the sticking up of the stores of W. Macleod, and Cameron; Cameron resisted with firearms, whereupon the rowdies retreated out of pistol range and fired rifle balls into the store, but fortunately without wounding anyone. Some of the less patient of the residents are seriously talking of lynch law, and the establishment of a vigilance committee for the punishment of offenders. The following is an extract from a letter from a resident in the district: This town and the district are in a state of terror for want of police protection, all the outlaws from Queensland flock here. Horse stealing, forgery, robbery, violence, and repudiation of debts are included in the catalogue of crimes—one case of sodomy, committed by three brutes in the form of men on a drunken man …“‘

‘That’s enough,’ said Alfred. ‘I care to hear no more.’ He turned to his mate. ‘We leave now, and must ride all night. No wonder the Commissioner was keen for us to get down there.’

NT Times and Gazette Aug 7 1886

Forty eight hours later, they rode into Borroloola, seeing first the river on the left side of the track, with the Government wharf jutting into the water. Small boats and a ketch sat at their moorings or alongside the wharf itself.

This was not Alfred’s first visit to the town. He had, twelve months earlier, arrived on the steamer Palmerston, in the capacity of Customs Officer for the colony of South Australia. On that occasion he had managed to catch Maori Reid and his wife Henrietta in the act of bringing goods over the border from Queensland, and failing to pay import duties for doing so.

Now, entering the township they saw camps and bark shelters in plenty, but few houses. White survey pegs were visible in grids out into the distance. A sign identified the main street as Riddoch Terrace.

‘A grand name for a strip o’ dirt,’ commented O’Donohue.

It was so hot, on that December afternoon, that nothing stirred as they rode in, a few bony horses behind bough fences scarcely looking up. It was only once they came upon a building site, where a handful of Chinese carpenters were hammering away at the frame, that they saw any sign of life.

From a white canvas tent in the shade alongside this new structure, a gentleman emerged. Alfred recognised him as a travelling magistrate from Palmerston, a man by the name of McMinn.

‘At last,’ said McMinn. ‘We’ve been waiting for weeks.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Alfred. ‘There was a loathsome gang of ruffians on the loose up north that required our attention.’

‘I hope you nailed them good.’

‘Unfortunately not. But that story is not yet finished. We heard that there have been troubles down here.’

‘You could say that. Whatever kind of mayhem you can imagine, you’ll find it here.’

‘Whose house are t’ose men building?’ O’Donohue asked.

‘The new Police Station. With quarters for you two gentlemen, and myself when I’m in town. Now come to the tent for a dram, and wash the dust from your throats.’

‘That sounds like a capital idea,’ said Alfred.

Photo: NT Library

Later, as dusk approached, the little township came alive. Residents left the shade of their bark shelters and slab huts, talking and laughing on the roadways in groups. Shouting and singing was soon heard, carrying from the two shanties that paraded themselves as pubs. Two men galloped past at a ferocious rate.

‘I say,’ said Alfred. ‘They should slow down. Riding like that in a built up area is dangerous.’ He looked at O’Donohue. ‘I think it’s time we made our presence felt in this place. People need to know that law and order has arrived.’ He had drunk just enough whisky to feel infallible.

The magistrate begged off, preferring to sit with his glass and watch, as the two troopers dressed in their full uniforms, mounted up and walked their horses slowly down Riddoch Terrace towards the cluster of pubs and stores. With a view to how the townspeople might see them, they turned their heads from left to right, patently studying every human being they saw.

Though the sun was now hidden behind the scrub, the air was still baking hot. Yet the land was becoming fragrant with it, earthy with dusk, but also some less pleasant smells that come with humans living in close contact.

The Macarthur River was almost always in view down below the bank. More people, black and white, were camped alongside the water. The greatest numbers, however, were clustered under deep verandahs clad with bark, for both of the pubs seemed to be separated by only a couple of small stores.

As Searcy and O’Donohue neared the area, two dozen or so drinkers stopped to stare. The singing and laughter ceased.

Alfred saw this as a sign of the regard these lawless types must hold for the law. ‘Yes. You are right to be wary,’ he called loudly. ‘British justice is here. Prepare for many changes.’

The laughter started with a skinny ringer-type, wearing a cabbage-tree hat that was so old patches of his ginger hair showed through. Others followed suit, until the whole crowd were roaring, slapping each other’s hands and proposing loud toasts.

‘Did yer hear the stinkin’ trap? British justice is here?’

The first man threw whatever missile happened to be handy. A leather boot sailed through the air and landed on the rump of Alfred’s horse. If it wasn’t so flat it would have skittered. Alfred saw red, and was turning to identify the culprit when a bottle, a stone, then a fish head were propelled towards him. He was forced to take evasive action.

O’Donahue copped a stick on the shoulder, and within a few moments they were both in full retreat. Reining in, just out of range of the missiles, Alfred turned his horse and tugged his carbine from its scabbard. It was half way to his shoulder when O’Donahue stopped him, with a hand on his arm.

‘No Alfie, don’t shoot at them. They’re all armed, and do we really want to start a gun fight?’

Alfred took a deep breath, and even the drinkers seemed to quiet down while they saw him sheathe the weapon once more. After a long, searching stare he turned his horse back towards McMinn’s tent.

‘They will live to regret this day,’ said Alfred as they walked the horses home. O’Donahue didn’t answer.

‘Those boys do like throwing things,’ said the magistrate when they reached the tent. ‘Have another drink and don’t fret too much about it.’

After one more rum Alfred said. ‘I swear to God that I will clean up this town so that when we hear that the Ragged Thirteen are ripe for the taking, we can leave it in clear conscience.’

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


#23. Beef for Christmas

#23. Beef for Christmas

Riding in a south westerly direction, upstream on the Flora River, the Ragged Thirteen ran headlong into solid Wet Season rain. Some nights the only fire they could maintain was deep between the raised roots of a thick old paperbark, or far back in a rocky cleft with the flames brushing soot onto lichen and limestone.

When the rain eased, mosquitoes attacked every unprotected square of skin and whined around the ears. Nights were a torment – too hot for blankets – but it was impossible to sleep without the protection they provided from the insects.

‘I’ve had enough of this stinking weather,’ said Sandy Myrtle. No one disagreed.

Days of sweat, forced rides, wrong turns and detours around flooded creeks followed. Leaving the headwaters to punch south for the Victoria River was a relief, though the rain hardly faltered, and nothing ever dried out anyway.

There were wild blacks in the area, and once or twice a spear or two flew out of cover or the horses were spooked at night.

‘They’re just warning us to keep moving,’ said Tom. ‘There’ll be no shooting. I won’t have it. We’re not squatters or traps who seem to think they have the God-given authority to kill-on-sight. We leave them alone.’

Finally, running low on provisions, Fitz shot a ‘dropped’ bullock through sheer luck, and they camped on the line of cliffs that overlooked the Victoria River Valley. Tom declared that it was the most beautiful sight in the natural world, with the churning brown river in its midst.

Looking down on the Victoria River. Photo by the author.

New England Jack Woods packed his pipe with Barrett’s twist, and passed the pouch around. ‘How the blazes will we get across that?’

Tom had been wondering the same thing. ‘The rain seems to have eased off. Give it a day or two, mate. It should drop enough.’

Over breakfast Larrikin announced that his mare was, beyond doubt, pregnant, her belly now rounded in all the right places. The rest of the gang clapped and laughed, for the joining of the mare to Wonoka Jack’s stallion had been a group entertainment.

‘I feel almost as proud as if I were the father meself,’ said Wonoka Jack. A round of cheering and catcalls followed.

‘By the way, you lot,’ Tom called. ‘Did you know it’s Christmas Day, and here we are running out of flour. Thank God for that beef! It won’t be quite proper without taters, pumpkin and pudding, but I vote we do our best to honour the day.’

A full rump of beef was diced and stewed up by Bob Anderson and Scotty in some old Caledonian recipe that involved copious amounts of pepper and Lea and Perrins Sauce.

Supplies of rum were low by then, but with the Victoria River Depot just a few days away they did not hold back. There was even some gift giving, all second-hand of course. George Brown gave Sandy Myrtle a copy of a Ryder Haggard novel, and Carmody wrapped a sharp little pocket knife in cheesecloth and passed it over to Tom.

‘You blokes have been darned good to me, considering my bein’ related by marriage with Maori Reid. So that’s just a little thing that’s been sittin’ in the bottom of my saddlebags for a while.’

Fitz made New England Jack a stock whip, which he cracked a few times and declared to be the best he’d ever seen. Some of the others set out to honour Larrikin’s forthcoming foal with greenhide tack.

No one had any musical instruments, but later on Larrikin put on his dancing shoes, and to the accompaniment of clapping hands, he put on a jig that would have made a dance hall crowd shout for more.

Carmody leaned against a tree, watching, thumbs hooked in the waist band of his dungarees. ‘Where the hell did you learn to dance like that, Larrikin?’ he asked.

‘Learn?’ grinned Larrikin. ‘I never learned a thing in me life. I just put on me dancing shoes and move me feet. That’s how I do it.’

On dusk they sat on the edge of the cliffs and stared down at the deep valley of red stone and its wide river. The rain had settled the dust and smoke, leaving the air as clear as glass and every surface washed clean.

‘Tomorrow,’ said Tom, ‘we go down and cross that bloody big river. Then at last we’ll know we’re getting close.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

 

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#24. Crossing the Victoria

#24. Crossing the Victoria

The Victoria River, when they reached it, riding down a spur of one of those jagged hills, was a turbid, flowing lake, rimmed with mud and thick undergrowth. The sun was out, but it cheered nobody, for the heat was almost unbearable.

Horse and man alike saw no pleasure in that day, and tempers flared, insults thrown like hammers and occasionally punctuated with a swinging stirrup iron.

They pulled up on the high bank and Fitz whistled. ‘She’s running, there’s no doubt about that.’

They rode upstream, horses slick with black mud to their chests, looking for a place to cross, but it was hard going. Swearing and cursing, they pushed their way through heavy foliage until finally there was nothing for it but to force a crossing, or embark on a wide detour on land.

Tom lost the usual twinkle of fun in his eyes, showing the wear and tear of leadership. He tried to figure how the river worked; how the current sped on the near bank or when the bed narrowed, or shelved on the broad pebbled bars. With this in mind he led them to wide sweep where stones below the surface could be seen in the rush of water.

A Wardaman family had been on the fringes, one man working a fish spear in the shallows. Women and children grubbed for mussels on the banks. At the approach of the horsemen they grabbed a dead barramundi as long as man’s arm from the bank and ran for the scrub.

‘I swear it looks shallower here,’ Tom said. ‘We should try it now before we get more rain.’

‘No bloody way,’ Tommy the Rag spat, ‘I don’t swim, you bastards. I’ll camp here and you can pick me up when yez all come back with the arses out of yer pants from Hall’s Creek.’

Tom Nugent studied the river again. It seemed to him that a good horse should keep its footing most of the way. The best horsemen amongst them could ride across, with only Tommy and Scotty Campbell best off swimming separately from their mounts.

‘I’m not riding across that fucking river,’ Tommy ranted. ‘Go across and to hell with ya.’

Tom Nugent took his last bottle of rum from one of the packs, twisted off the lid and sniffed it. He took a swig before handing it to Tommy.

‘Dutch courage, old mate. Have as much as you want.’

Half way through the bottle Tommy had a change of heart. ‘I dunno what was in that bottle besides rum,’ he slurred. ‘But I’d charge hell with a bucket of water right now. Now where’s me bloody horse?’

B.C. Mettam Collection, NT Library

The crossing was longer than it looked, and by the time they were half way across the heads of two or three ‘gators were visible, surfacing downstream and making bow waves in the water, before disappearing to God knew where. Even Tom felt the awful fear of those submerged monsters.

One of the spare horses screamed in unearthly pain, and tried to rear, the jaws of a huge gator wrapped around its hindquarters, tearing bloody streaks through hide and flesh as those bony, toothed jaws came together.

A death-roll by the gator brought the poor horse down, while Tom tried vainly to churn through water to help. He was forced to abandon the chase in deeper water, current tugging at his horse and legs.

No man could stand the sound of a horse in pain, and this one wailed in a human-like shriek that shook them all. Tommy the Rag lost all composure, panicking his horse so it bucked, slowed by the water, showing its teeth and panicking the rest of the plant. It was a rout, a desperate crossing that saw two men thrown and washed downstream with horses and gear floating everywhere so it was a miracle no others were taken by those dark beasts.

Sandy Myrtle, one of the first across, took position, solid as a sandstone pillar, with his rifle. His first shot killed the mare that was still being mauled, silencing her pain at last, then he aimed at the heads of the gators, firing until none were in sight.

Tommy the Rag took off his sodden shirt and sat on a rock way up from the edge, shaking like an insect.

‘Are you alright?’ Tom asked.

‘I knew I shouldn’t have tried to cross. I hate those damn gators, I really do, they make my fucking skin crawl.’

‘That’s the most dangerous river in the north,’ said Tom. ‘We were lucky to lose just one horse. Now mount up. We want a dry camp tonight, and a cheerful fire away from the river.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#25. Whisky and Water. The Victoria River Depot

#25. Whisky and Water. The Victoria River Depot

The Victoria River Depot, when they reached it, wasn’t much of a place, a couple of jetties half-afloat in tidal mud, the usual collection of bush dwellings, tents and rough camps. There was noise enough at first, even some music, but everything went silent as the Thirteen left the women and stock boys with the plant and packs on the fringes and walked in to the little settlement on foot.

Tom Nugent nodded at an Aboriginal man standing beside the track, staring as they sauntered past. There was something familiar about him. Nothing certain, but enough to cause a prickle of worry in the base of Tom’s neck.

From the bank above the river, Tom watched a crew of boys unloading goods from an oil-burner launch some thirty-feet long. A gang of miscreants and unemployed watermen, hung around in the shade watching the work progress, their women cooking listlessly on open fires or half asleep in blanket-wrapped bundles.

The Victoria River Depot. Photo by Alfred Searcy (In Northern Tropics)

A little further along the foreshore they found a man in the shade of a bough shelter. On the table in front of him sat two or three open bottles of grog. Behind was a stack of wooden crates, a Snider carbine leaning against them.

At another table three men were playing draw poker for money. Judging from the red eyes, sorrowful faces, and a blackened slush lantern on the table beside them, Tom guessed that they had been playing for some time, perhaps all the previous night.

A group of half a dozen men, and one rare, haggard white woman had set themselves up between the bough shed and a broad, grey boab tree. One man had a concertina and another a fiddle, while a third thumped a drum of rawhide stretched over a hoop of iron. The music started again. The woman danced.

Tom noticed that the barman moved his carbine closer as the Thirteen walked up.

‘I’m a little thirsty,’ said Tom. ‘Wouldn’t mind a peg or two to wash away the dust. Anyone else?’

Sandy Myrtle grinned. ‘I think the good Lord would look kindly upon us imbibing of a small quantity of spirits after a sojourn in the wilderness.’

‘I don’t give too much of a toss what the Good Lord thinks,’ said Tom. Leaning on the bar table he barked out. ‘Rum, please sir.’

‘I’ve only got whisky,’ said the proprietor.

‘That’ll do then. Line up thirteen glasses and be quick about it. Then you can start pouring the next.’

The shanty-keeper narrowed his eyes. ‘You’re the Ragged Thirteen I’m guessing?’

‘That’s us.’

‘Well I hope you’ve got cash to pay. I hear that cheques from you lot aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.’

The shanty-keeper’s tone was never going to wash with the Thirteen. And it was Wonoka George who took exception for them all. His face reddened, ‘We’ve got South Australian coinage if that’s acceptable in this shit-hole,’ he snarled. ‘Now get the fucking drinks like the man asked.’

The shanty-keeper scowled but pulled the cork from the bottle and started filling glasses. A minute or two later, with his second drink in hand, Tom took a seat at the table with the card players, watching the action.

‘We’ve heard of you,’ said one, in an Irish brogue.

‘Heard of you alright,’ said the second. ‘Saddle-strap bushrangers, they call you.’

The third said nothing. He was a dark-skinned European, Spanish perhaps.

‘Some people who don’t know us well might say such things.’ Tom’s voice hardened. ‘But they don’t say it within earshot. What’s your business here?’

The Irishman replied, ‘Crew of the launch yonder, brought supplies around from Palmerston for Victoria River Downs and Wave Hill. I heard you mob are headed for Hall’s Creek. Best you hurry or the gold will all be worked out.’

Tom looked past the card-players and saw that the young Aboriginal man who had watched the Thirteen arrive had walked a little closer to them, staring across a hundred yards of speargrass at them.

‘Who’s that?’

‘Dunno his name. Been hanging around here for a few days. One of the ringers from the Downs almost put a bullet in him yesterday, trying to get his business out of him.’

The conversation fell away, and Tom sat with his third drink in silence. Watching as the Aboriginal youth walked back to his camp, sat with a mug of tea and stared back across the intervening space at Tom and the Ragged Thirteen.

Tom had that niggling feeling that he was a little too interested in them.

Larrikin was known for his fun-loving ways; a swagger, and willingness to try anything. He was not of attractive appearance. His hair was a cap of little woolly curls and his eyes were like slits. But he never had trouble attracting members of the opposite sex when there was a dance floor around.

Sipping his whisky, Larrikin couldn’t take his eyes off the dancers under the trees. Occasionally he clapped a hand in time with the drum and concertina.

He had grown up an orphan, on the Norman River, Queensland, he’d once told Tom, raised by a man called Major Colles. ‘Singin’ and dancin’ was all we had. God knows there was never enough food to eat.’

After the fourth or fifth tot he walked all the way back to the pack horses and came back with his dancing shoes. He took off his boots, his feet stark white under the woollen socks, and laced on his hard leather hornpipes.

‘You going to have a turn or two, old mate?’ Tom said, indicating the dance ‘floor.’

‘Yep, I can’t resist. Whether dust or fancy planks makes little difference to me.’

Jim sprang to his feet, and by way of announcing his arrival, capered his way across to the space before the musicians. Some of the men gathered around, cheering as he started an Irish jig with every nearby hand clapping. The circle widened with some of the layabouts sensing entertainment.

The virtuosic display lasted for a song, at which point some of the others joined in. New England Jack Woods and Bob Anderson dropped their gun belts and took to the floor, grinning like children.

A gunshot broke that scene. Echoes sounded across the river and off those massive cliffs that lined both banks. It was a shock of noise, carving its way through the river air and ringing in the skull.

The music stopped.

The dancers paused mid step.

Wonoka George stood with the smoking gun, facing the owner of the grog shanty who stood transfixed, a pillow of dust drifting from where the bullet had struck the earth just near to his feet. The silence that followed as the echoes died was absolute.

‘You have five seconds to explain why a man who serves watered-down whisky deserves to live,’ Wonoka George snarled at the shanty owner.

Tom, still seated at the poker table, lifted his glass to his nose. He sniffed the liquid inside, then eyed it deeply. ‘Why so it is, the mongrel cur.’

Sandy Myrtle nodded grimly. ‘It’s an old trick – serve the good stuff straight up when a man is on the alert and his senses keen.’ He pointed to the bar table. ‘That’s the bottle on the right. But when a man has had a few it comes from the next bottle, which I’m betting is one quarter clean rainwater. I dare say there’s another bottle after that, which has half water.’

George’s revolver barked again, and a bottle exploded into a thousand shards. ‘Now admit it, you thieving dog.’

The shanty owner scowled. ‘It’s an honour to be called a thief by a thief of such renown, but you are mistaken. If there’s any water in those bottles I didn’t put it there.’

It must have been a flash of the eyes that warned George, for the shanty-keeper was in the process of lifting the Snider carbine when the elder Brown brother crossed the dusty earth and pressed the barrel of his revolver to the other man’s temple.

‘Good work George,’ said Tom, now on his feet and making for the bar table. ‘First thing I’m going to do is tip that goat’s piss out on the ground.’ He upended the first bottle and poured it on the ground, then the second and third. ‘And now we want our money back.’ He opened the cash box and looked inside. A small wad of cash went into his pocket. ‘Some of this can be for punitive damages,’ he said. ‘And now boys, let’s see if this dog can swim.’

Strong arms pinioned the shanty-keeper, lifting him out of his chair, supporting him by feet, shoulders, head, back, thighs and legs. He was trying to fight, but they gripped him hard, and while Tom walked alongside, they carried him down to the jetty.

‘The deepest end boys,’ cried Tom.

‘Don’t do it, you mongrels,’ cried the shanty-keeper. ‘There’re gators out there. Big bastards too.’

At the extremity of the longest jetty they swung the man once, twice, three times, then chucked him far out into the river. There was a splash of water and foam, then his head surfaced, arms floundering at the surface.

Tom found himself a boat hook, and every time it seemed that the shanty-keeper would grab hold of the jetty timbers and pull himself to safety, Tom prodded him off with sharp jabs.

This went on for ten minutes or more, the shanty keeper exhausting himself with his efforts to stay afloat. The rest of the Thirteen went back and plundered the crates of good whisky and swigged as they watched, laughing at the entertainment.

Finally, when the local crowd bored of the game, and wandered off to their work or leisure, Tom allowed the blubbering man to climb ashore. Fitz and Larrikin carried him up the bank and rolled him in dust so that even his face was caked with it.

They left him there, an exhausted mess in the dust. ‘That’ll teach you to fool good men with your tricks,’ Tom said. Then, ‘Come on you lot. Time to move on.’

Back at the horses they distributed the looted whisky bottles among the packs. Larrikin was the only man among them who was sorry to leave.

As they rode out of the little settlement Tom looked back one last time to see the Aboriginal youth staring back at him. Something told him that he should have dealt with him right there right then, but he had seen enough violence for one day.

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


#26. Red Jack’s Camp

#26. Red Jack’s Camp

While the Ragged Thirteen rode south from the Victoria River Depot, Red Jack met the river at Gregory Creek and resolved to follow the eastern bank as it dog-legged south to Victoria River Downs and beyond.

While a fiery sunset filled the horizon, Red Jack crossed the creek on a gravel bar, reined in her stallion and swung to the ground. In a short time she had the packs unloaded, and a fire leaping high.

Even as she brushed down the satin black coat of her stallion, Mephistopheles, she never smiled. A frown of concentration was the only emotion she showed. She gave her packhorses and spares the same treatment, checked for galls where the pack had rubbed and applied ointment where necessary. Finally, she hobbled all the plant, and hung the night-bell only on Mephistopheles, for the others would not stray far from him.

Photo by Bill Lillicrapp. NT Library

Even then her work was not done. She checked all the tack and hung it ready on handy tree branches. Her last act was to remove the Martini-Henry carbine she carried from its scabbard, and lean it against a tree close to hand. Finally she started on an evening meal.

A couple of days earlier she had spent some time with three women of the Wardaman tribe, learning many of the natural fruits and delicacies that most stockmen never bothered with. That day, on her travels, she had stopped to pick billy goat plum, and wild grape. She’d also made a citrus-tasting drink from a nest of green ants.

Cooking was not a chore to Red Jack, and she gently sautéed the fruits in a pan. Unwrapping a square of linen she revealed a lump of pink corned beef she had purchased back on the Katherine. With her folding knife she sliced the meat into squares and stirred them in.

When she had finished she cleaned the pan and plate in the creek, and unrolled her swag. She crawled under the blanket, as always, fully clothed, her rifle beside her under a fold of canvas.

This was the danger period, she knew, in those moments before she fell asleep. When her mind always tried to delve back into the past.

Childhood. Growing up hard on the Darling Downs. Bonded to horses as soon as she could walk, at fifteen she’d become a buckjumping champion. Her reputation spread from Roma to Thargomindah. Riding astride like a man she earned more than a few curses from the flash lads who fancied they could ride and couldn’t stand being bested by a girl, and a skinny young one at that.

But that was before the fire. Long before the tragedy that made her a wanderer. Long before the lonely years on the track.

For some weeks now, there had been a new thought that entered her head in these minutes before she slept. For the first time in many years, it was a man. He was tall and well made, big in the arms and chest.

Tom Nugent had called him Scotty. There was something very special about him. A shy smile, that deep Scottish brogue …

She did not think for a moment that she was ready to fall for another man, but the memory of Scotty, leaning on the rails watching her work a horse gave her pleasure, banished the memories that slithered from the dark shadows in her mind.

With these thoughts, Red Jack fell into an exhausted slumber. Under the myriad stars, with a faint breath of welcome cool air moving over the landscape, her dreams were filled with that tall and gentle Scotsman.

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

#27. Billy Reports Back

#27. Billy Reports Back

 

Every day Alfred Searcy wrote a new entry in his journal. He saw himself as a sea-captain, with the vessel being his own body. Just like James Cook or Matthew Flinders, on land and on water. He set down in detail the events of the day; ground covered, and places visited.

Borroloola had proved to be a difficult posting, and already Alfred’s journal was filled with accounts of wild adventures. On just the second day of he and O’Donahue’s arrival they had been forced into forming a patrol, following up rumours of a gang of Chinese extortionists who had set up a faux customs post on the border with Queensland. These charlatans were, apparently, charging travellers a fee to enter the Territory.

It was only through the skilful use of their rifles that the two policemen had managed to subdue an angry mob and arrest the perpetrators. Then, just days after dealing with this outrage, a ketch sailed into the Borroloola landing. The crew reported that their captain had been clubbed to death when attempting to “hire” a young Yanyuwa woman as a house maid.

It seemed prudent to send just O’Donahue to deal with this, but the local men who volunteered as deputies made themselves so drunk on the voyage downstream that they started an all-out war on a bushfire, convinced that the burning trees were black warriors holding burning torches. O’Donahue finally managed to restore sanity, but not until the party’s ammunition was near exhausted.

Meanwhile Alfred attempted to maintain the rule of law in the town, a near impossible task. Internal order was hard enough, but raids for women on already persecuted groups of Yanyuwa and Binbinga, reprisals by the same, and regular cattle-spearings saw black-white relations reach boiling point, and the threat of violent confrontation was always present.

One day, a wild local youth, with a bush of black curly hair and a sliver of bone through the septum of his nose, hurried into the newly-completed police station and reported that a big mob of his people had yarded some cattle out at a lagoon and were slaughtering them at will.

“Them bad blackfellas,” he warned. “Kill plenty cow.”

Alfred made up a party made up of himself, Cameron the publican, Billy McLeod the storekeeper and a couple of trackers. Guided by the “informer”, wearing chains as a “precaution”, the posse rode off to investigate.

Reaching the lagoon in question, there were no cattle in sight, least of all a large party of Yanyuwa. The informer tried to slip his chains and creep away but his horse bolted, dragging him bodily alongside the lagoon until the chain came adrift from the horse and he escaped into the water. The white men supposed that he had likely become lunch for a ‘gator.

‘Does this look like a set-up to you?’ Alfred asked his companions. ‘Did that rascal lure us out here on purpose?’

Old Billy McLeod, who had been around the traps for a while, had no doubt. ‘Well I guess we were probably the only sober white men with weapons in Borroloola, and now we’re in the middle of bloody nowhere. Yeah, for my money it’s a trick.’

‘You think the Yanyuwa would dare to take on Borroloola?’ The consensus was that they would.

Riding as fast as possible back to town they found a party of three hundred armed black men advancing on the cluster of shanties and shelters that made up the town. The party of whites charged, firing into the air (according to Searcy’s journal, but the truth may well have been more lethal) as they went, forcing the hostile party towards the river, where they swam across to the other side, but remained a threat for some days.

Soon after, with O’Donahue back from his excursion downriver, they were faced with arresting a notorious local ruffian called “The Orphan” who had set up a butcher’s shop, helping himself to Macarthur River Station cattle to provide the beef.

Next came a local race meeting. This “entertainment” provided many pages of fodder for Alfred’s journal. The township had, by then, its own racecourse. O’Donahue loved to ride, mounted on a horse that he had changed the name of three times.

When he first purchased the gelding, he had been named “Coronation”, but after a disastrous race at the Adelaide River, he’d renamed it “Ruination.” Now, however, when the horse delivered him more wins than losses at Borroloola he rewarded the animal by renaming him “Reformation.”

The race-going crowd, consisting not just of the Borroloola locals, but all the ringers, prospectors, brumby-runners and n’er-do-wells for two hundred miles around, coped with the heat by drinking the town absolutely dry of alcohol in a three-day binge that left many suffering delirium tremens. Some wandered off, initiated gunfights or fell into the river. Some of the survivors robbed the store, carrying away and drinking every item that resembled alcohol, including Lea and Perrins sauce and cough remedies.

Early photo of the Borroloola Police Station. NT Library

Alfred was recording this latest round of adventures, sitting on the verandah of the police station, when he heard the sound of a horse, driven hard. He turned to look just as it came to a stop outside.

It was their old friend Billy, lean from hard riding and sweating visibly. Alfred directed him to the stables around the back, then, at the verandah table, he poured a pintpot full of tea, and gave the rider a couple of plugs of tobacco.

‘So Billy, have you seen the Ragged Thirteen?’

‘I think I mighta done, Mulaka.’

O’Donahue came through the door in time to hear. ‘What d’ye mean you think you mighta done? Those rascals stand out like balls on a bulldog.’

‘Yes boss, but I been gone a long time. Maybe I can’t remember what I seen.’

‘You cheeky beggar,’ O’Donahue spat.

Alfred pulled his purse from his pocket, removed a shilling coin and flipped it to Billy. ‘Oh I don’t mind a bit of pluck, and he has come a long way. Now where did you see the Ragged Thirteen, and did they break the law?’

‘I seen ’em at Vic River Depot. They half-drown one bloke, then steal all his money and grog.’

‘Where are they heading now?’

‘Victoria River Downs, then Halls Creek.’

Searcy smiled and turned O’Donahue. ‘We’ve got those Ragged Thirteen bastards cold. Better pack for two weeks.’

‘Do you think it’s a good idea to leave Borroloola?’

‘It’s been pretty darn quiet after the races,’ Alfred said. ‘We must go where duty dictates, and besides, we’ll be back in a week or two. Not only that, those vagabonds made fools of you and I. We can’t let that rest.’

O’Donahue grinned. ‘To be sure, you’re right, Alfie. Let’s go get them.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

 

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

#28. Tom’s Trick

#28. Tom’s Trick

‘I can’t see a bloody thing,’ called Tom Nugent.

Sandy Myrtle cupped his hands and shouted up towards the crown of the tree. ‘Well climb up higher then, and stop yer blessed complaining. I’d have shimmied up the blasted tree myself if I were as skinny as you.’

After a week or two heading south along the Victoria River, the Ragged Thirteen were half-starved and desperate, gathered under a spreading gum tree, looking expectantly upwards to where Tom Nugent continued to climb, trying not to look down as he moved into the high branches.

A limb made a cracking sound as he moved higher. He gave a start, bringing on a chorus of laughs from the men below.

‘Well, you bastards try climbing the fucking tree. I’m not a possum, you know.’

Finally, Tom settled into a fork off the main trunk. Pushing aside a leaf-laden twig, he was able to see all the way to the station homestead of the pastoral holding called Victoria River Downs. One of the world’s biggest stations, it had been taken up by Fisher and Lyons, two of the richest of the Territory’s land barons. The property sprawled over some of the world’s best grasslands, broken up with scrub, stony hills and gullies – an overall area not much smaller than England.

‘What can you see?’ Sandy Myrtle shouted.

‘Homestead. Yards. Outbuildings. Not much yet. Give a bloke a chance, will you?’

There were dozens of men in the yards, working horses, Tom saw. Others wandered in and out of various sheds. He saw a killer being hoisted on a gallows, and men stropping knives, ready to swarm in. There were wagons, and Bilingara serving women getting about their duties. Tom took his time, noting every detail, even the trail of smoke from a blacks’ camp on the river.

Victoria River Downs Station. State Library of South Australia

Tom’s eyes focussed on a stout-looking building next to the homestead. The store. Even as he watched, one of the hands walked up, went inside, then returned a minute later with a tin of tobacco in his hand.

Having seen all he needed to see, Tom shimmied back down the tree, then dropped to the ground, examining his ankles and inner forearms where the bark had scraped his skin.

‘By God that’s a big affair and no mistake,’ he said. ‘Haven’t seen anything like it west of Longreach, except maybe Macarthur River.’

‘The store’s open?’ asked Fitz.

‘Yes, and it’ll be fully stocked for the Wet, I’ll warrant.’

Larrikin Jim struck a pose, thumbs in the pockets of his dungarees. ‘I think it’s our duty to relieve this cattle station of some of their excess goods. It’s not fair for them to be greedy.’

‘I agree,’ Tom said. ‘But if the thirteen of us ride in there they’ll know exactly who we are, and they could raise an army as soon as click their fingers. Every one of those men has a rifle or a pistol not far away.’

‘So what’s the plan?’ growled Sandy Myrtle. ‘I haven’t tasted tobacco smoke for a week. I’ll kill for it …’

‘I’ll ride in myself,’ Tom Nugent said thoughtfully. ‘They don’t know me, so I’ll pretend to be some rich swell riding around looking for land. These squatters all love a toff, and I’ll surely get a chance to chew a bone with them. Someone keep a lookout from this tree here. When I walk out on the verandah and scratch my ear it means there’s no one around and you blokes can come in and do your thing.’

‘That’s a grand jest,’ cried Larrikin, ‘but they won’t fall for your act dressed like you are now.’

‘No,’ agreed Tom thoughtfully. ‘I need to bung it on somehow.’

Each of the Thirteen, it seemed, had a prized item of clothing at the bottom of a kitbag that they figured would be perfect for the occasion.

Sandy Myrtle delved in his packs like a wombat digging a hole, broad bottom high in the air, showing a deep and wide crack, so tempting that many a stick or rock had been lodged in there over the weeks the Thirteen had been together. So often in fact that Sandy never displayed his rear end without wary glances behind him.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Tweed trousers. Perfect for the job.’

‘Yeah,’ drawled Tom. ‘And five sizes too big for me.’

Fitz supplied an English riding saddle, stolen off a new chum’s horse outside the Burketown Hotel. ‘The blasted thing’s almost brand new,’ he said. ‘I stole it only three months back. The owner was just off the boat from Brisbane. I would have taken the horse too – nice looking chestnut he was – but the blessed thing bit me on the shoulder.’ His voice took on a haughty tone. ‘I won’t steal a horse that bites.’

Larrikin sat Tom on a fallen log and used a sharp pair of scissors to trim his hair, then produced a cut-throat razor so rusty and chipped that Tom paled at the thought of it scraping his neck and cheeks.

‘No bloody fear, yer not touching my face with that thing.’

‘Listen Tom, you’re either going to look the part or not. I’ll be careful mate, promise.’

When the time came to go, Tom mounted his own horse. He was a fine animal, a gelding with more than a few bad habits, but a dark bay in colour, with clean legs and straight back. Tom’s tanned face and wrists were set off nicely by a piratical white shirt. A silk cravat owned by Bob Anderson was the final, distinctive touch.

‘I don’t mind what you do,’ warned Larrikin, ‘but don’t get blood on that shirt. It’s dashed hard to wash out.’

Tom mounted up and looked down at the others. ‘I say old chaps,’ he said, ‘my name is Thomas Holmes, formerly of London town. I’m looking for speculate in this new country. My business partners are keen to invest in land, so I’m here to see what’s about.’

The company clapped until the bush rang with it. Sandy Myrtle summed up the general feeling. ‘You’re perfect. Keep ‘em busy and we’ll come in and do our thing.’

Tom rode off, and as the sun dropped towards the horizon, Fitz clambered up into one of the tree’s top-most branches, making easier work of it than Tom had.

‘It’s working, boys. I can see Tom and another couple of blokes on the verandah.’

‘What’re they doing, mate?’ Scotty asked the question for them all.

‘Well there’s a table and chairs there. Oh Lord, Tom looks every inch the gentleman. Haha, they’re sitting down and a girl is bringing them supper.’

‘Jesus, real food. What are they eating, Sandy?’

‘It’s hard to tell at this distance, but I swear it looks like taters, and roast beef, and peas, and gravy …’

‘Oh Gawd, peas and gravy,’ someone said.

Collective hunger brought on a long silence, and Sandy sighed wistfully.

After a few minutes of watching the men eat Fitz announced. ‘They’ve got tinned fruit coming, for dessert. Lucky old Tom.’

‘Well it’s going to be lucky us in an hour or two,’ said Sandy, ‘because as soon as the signal comes we’re going to raid that store. We’ll be feasting like pigs before you know it.’

‘How are we going to raid the fucking thing?’ asked Larrikin from below. ‘As Tom said before, there’s a lot of armed ringers around.’

‘We’ll sneak in, lever a couple of slabs off the walls and take what we want.’

Wonoka George scoffed. ‘If we were real bushrangers we’d ride in, guns drawn, take what we want and shoot anyone who stands in our way. All this sneaking around gives me the shits.’

‘If we were real bushrangers,’ Sandy said wisely, ‘we would have been hung by now. A man can get away with a lot in this world, so long as he doesn’t cross a certain line. So anyway, shut your trap and let’s do this the smart way.’

As darkness fell it became harder for Fitz to see, and he was getting more than a little uncomfortable. The plates were cleared, however, and a bottle of port wine appeared on the table. Glasses filled. A moment later Tom scratched his ear, slow and deliberate.

‘Alright boys,’ Fitz called. ‘That’s the signal.’

They left their horses saddled there under the trees, bridled up with only the bits out of their mouths for a fast getaway. Tommy the Rag was deputised to watch the plant while the raid took place. On hearing this, he screwed his face up like a child.

‘Why do I have to wait here, you miserable bastards?’

Sandy Myrtle hardly looked at him. ‘Because you walk like you got a shovel strapped to your leg and you’ve got a big mouth. And if you get caught we’re all fucked. If anyone finds you here, just fire off a few shots with your squirt and we’ll double-time it back here.’ He looked at the others. ‘Alright boys, let’s go relieve Misters Fisher and Lyons of their surplus goods and provisions.’

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

#29. The VRD Raid

#29. The VRD Raid

Setting off towards the Victoria River Downs station outbuildings, ducking under ironwood rails into the station horse paddock, Sandy Myrtle attempted to move with stealth, but his bulk made it difficult. Every time he bent over he felt a twinge of pain that shot up his spine and down through his thighs. Moving ahead of him was Larrikin, perfectly balanced, carrying a steel jemmy bar.

The station horses were alarmed by the eleven men moving amongst them at night. Some walked up curiously, nickered and sprang away. The men made soft sounds of comfort as they hurried on, finally reaching the far end of the paddock and crossing the fence.

They paused behind the far wall of a stable to catch their breath. ‘Inside will be the best horses on the run,’ whispered Fitz. ‘We’d better take a look.’

How could they resist? Every one of them loved horses, and particularly good horses, with a passion.

They let themselves in through a side door, and walked along the stalls. It was dark inside, but it was easy to see that these were the cream of the station plant. The best of all was an attractive grey, with clean legs, long neck and high withers – surely the station manager’s or even an owner’s thoroughbred.

Jimmy Woodford couldn’t stop staring at the animal, even as they moved on towards the open front entrance.

‘C’mon you,’ hissed Sandy.

‘He’s a marvel that horse. Have you ever seen the like of him?’

‘Alright mate, but we’ve got work to do. I’m starving hungry, and starin’ at horses won’t fix that.’

In twos and threes they crossed the dark station track, bent over and moving slowly, thereby reaching the store itself. The raiders circuited their way around to the back, sandwiched between outbuildings so that they were finally out of sight.

Larrikin knelt with his bar and started to attack the slab wall. The nails were long and stubborn, and he was forced to move along the studs underneath, levering and prying. One of the nails screeched as it came.

‘Shut that noise,’ hissed Sandy.

Luckily there were some distant sounds, men laughing around some fire somewhere, others talking. A voice broke into song, yodelling out a few lines of a song popular around the stock camps back then.

 

She rode into town on a chestnut mare,

Wearing just her golden hair,

I asked her please to marry me,

And took her horse and virgin-i-ty,

 

The singing was well timed, for it allowed Larrikin to work faster at the slabs, finally opening a man-sized hole in the side of the wall, though Sandy opted to draw his revolver and act as guard while the others went inside.

‘I’m not too good on my hands and knees,’ he said.

Larrikin went in first with a candle stub and vestas to provide some light. The others followed, one at a time, and after a minute or two they started to reappear, pushing goods ahead of them.

The Ragged Thirteen “requisitioned” everything away that could be carried – horseshoes, flour, treacle, rum, tinned goods and more.  When they were fully laden, Larrikin replaced the slabs as tightly as possible, then joined the others in hurrying off.

Jimmy Woodford took a detour to the stables and returned leading the three finest horses, including the grey, opening the slip rails to get them into the horse paddock.

‘Are you mad?’ Sandy hissed. ‘They’ll never pin us for a few horseshoes and the stores, but they’ll get us for these nags straight. Especially the grey, anyone with eyes in their head can see he’s a stand-out horse. At least leave that one.’

‘Alright, I’ll leave the grey,’ Jimmy said. ‘But I’m taking the others. That mongrel Maori Reid shot my horse, and I’m sick of riding old rubbish.’

Sandy held the two horses as the younger man led the grey back, and secured it in its stall.

‘C’mon,’ he said, when Jimmy came back. ‘Let’s get moving.’

Boerner Collection. NT Library.

Back at the camp under the tree, there was a hurried bout of shoving food into mouths, filling packs and preparing for a night run to the Western Australian border, some one hundred miles to the west.

They had scarcely half an hour until moonrise. They set off then, heading straight west and travelling fast to put some distance between them and any pursuit.

‘I hope Tom’s alright back there,’ drawled Larrikin.

‘He’ll be fine,’ commented Sandy, ‘I’d back that bastard against a pit full of brown snakes.’

At first they followed the Wickham River, then, in the interests of speed, struck out across the plains. It was good country to ride with a moon shining white on the grasslands, and hills with pillars of stone on the horizon.

Carmody’s navigation skills, honed on the quarterdeck of a ship but equally applicable here on the savannah, proved invaluable that night in choosing the straightest route to the border. The point at which a line through the Southern Cross intersected with another perpendicular line from the pointers showed due south, they all knew that, but Carmody, knowing the relative positions of the stars for this time of year, used two or three other constellations as well.

‘It’s like a bloody road map,’ he said.

Most of the time, however, there was no time to talk. They kept the horses at a jog trot, and for even the best of them it was an exhausting pace, but they ate up the miles.

There was a thrill in watching the coming dawn, then the glory of the sun, lifting spirits of man and horse alike. Poor Jonathan James for all his strength, carrying Sandy Myrtle’s great bulk, had slowed to a walk during the night, and the others loitered to let him catch them.

‘For pity’s sake let’s stop for breakfast,’ moaned Sandy.

‘Not yet,’ said Fitz. ‘Not until we cross the Negri River, then you can eat all you bloody want.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

 

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#30. Across the Murranji

#30. Across the Murranji

 

‘There’s only one way to save time,’ said Alfred. ‘We’ll have to take the Murranji Track.’

After a frantic ride from Borroloola, up through Anthony’s Lagoon and Brunette, they had reached Newcastle Waters in four days of hard riding. Arriving at the homestead, they’d enjoyed the hospitality of the manager, a friendly man by the name of Giles, with comfortable cots in the ringers’ quarters, half empty because of the Wet. They had just finished a hearty meal of beef and fresh garden produce.

From here they had two choices. North to the Elsey then across the Dry River country, or west from here on the dreaded Murranji stock route, pioneered by Nat Buchanan a handful of years earlier. Over a hundred miles of narrow track through limestone country, with hollow ground that spooked cattle and made stockmen’s lives a misery. It was a last resort.

O’Donohue paled. ‘Good Christ, Alfie. T’ey call it the death track. They say t’ere’s graves and ghosts at every stop, and from all reports t’ere’s only two waterholes of any note – no water otherwise for fifty moiles or more.’

‘That’s in the Dry,’ Searcy argued. ‘There’s been some rain, Giles said so. Besides, we’re not drovers, forced to cover only eight or ten miles a day at best. We can get through as fast as we want.’ He paused, then, ‘Do you want to catch the Ragged Thirteen or not?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘Then we can carry water and get through that damned track. Lesser men than us have done it.’ Alfred turned the wick down on the lantern until it was barely glowing. ‘Let’s get a couple of hours sleep then head off in the cool of the morning.’

‘If you t’ink we should.’

‘I do, my friend. I think we must.’

Newcastle Waters Station. NT Library

 

They were saddled up and ready long before dawn, the two policeman leading and Jimmy, the police tracker, bringing up the spare horses and packs in the rear. At first the going was easy, a formed station road, and wide grasslands. By sunrise, the scrub had started to close in, and the trail narrowed. The January sun gathered heat like a storm gathers cloud. By noon it was a fireball, and both men pulled their hats down low.

When they stopped for the midday meal the track was a mean and insidious scar, through scrub so thick on either side that Alfred jokingly suggested that not even a snake could penetrate. Lancewood they were used to, but the bullwaddy was a brutal plant, thick and strong as a pole, but equipped with thorns like daggers.

They did indeed pass graves, one at a shallow little waterhole. O’Donohue crossed himself and hurried on, and even Alfred said a prayer,

The horses did not like this place, not one little bit. And neither did their owners. The superstitious O’Donohue kept himself together until near dark, when swarms of mosquitoes came from nowhere, descending in relays of a hundred or more at a time.

‘We’ll ride all night,’ said Alfred, ‘but let’s stop and eat now while we wait for the moon to rise’

They had already dismounted and had a camp fire burning before either of them noticed a nearby rough cross of split timber and the raised mound of a grave nearby.

‘Jaysus,’ said O’Donohue. ‘Did we haf’t stop right on the resting place of another poor sod?’

Alfred leaned close with a lighted brand and read the words that had been scratched in to the cross. Here lies Jack Hall. Dyed of fever, July 23 1883.

‘See!’ he said. He’s been dead for a couple of years.’

‘Yeah,’ agreed the Irishman. ‘Just long enough for his shade to get stirred up and look for mischief.’

They ate corned beef and fresh bread from Newcastle Waters. Instead of cheering them, the meal made O’Donohue look more worried than before. To make matters worse Jimmy was jittery and impatient, throwing down his food as if to hasten their time of departure.

Alfred walked off into the bush for a leak, then as he came back the landscape seemed to have closed in darkly around the fire. Even the silhouettes of their horses in the firefight seemed still and mysterious.

Searcy was not a man to allow such things to get him down, and seeing his mate huddling at the fire, looking this way and that, he decided that it was necessary to lighten the mood.

With this in mind he started creeping around so he was directly behind O’Donohue, but hidden by a bush from view. From this position, Alfred began a low and mournful wailing, slowly increasing the pitch. The effect on O’Donohue was dramatic. He jumped up, drew his pistol and cried. ‘Sweet Jaysus, what’s t’at noise?’

At this point Alfred strolled into the firefight. ‘What noise? I didn’t hear a thing?’

‘How could you not, Alfie? It was bloody horrible.’

‘Probably a bird.’

‘A bird?’ He spat. ‘Not even a curlew could make a deathly sound to touch it.’

‘I think you’re hearing things,’ said Alfred. ‘Let’s get going.’

O’Donohue seemed much happier back in the saddle, but Alfred, whether from the sameness of the ride, could not resist a little more fun.

He dropped back so he was riding alongside his mate. ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘but I keep thinking I can see someone following us.’

O’Donohue’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Blacks?’

‘No, not blacks. A horseman, but a strange one.’

‘You’re talking shit, Alfie. How can t’ere be a horseman? Jimmy’s up ahead of us, out on the flank, I just seen him meself.’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps it was only a fancy. A trick of the night.’

‘What did this horse look like?’

‘The horse was kind of silvery. Strange. The rider’s hat looked like that same colour too.’

They rode on for a little further, with Alfred constantly looking searchingly behind him. After a few minutes of this he stopped his horse, turned one hundred and eighty degrees in the saddle, then shouted at the top of his voice. ‘Gawd help us. It’s coming for us.’

 

Alfred Searcy later boasted that he and his mate had set a new record crossing the Murranji Track: just three days after leaving Newcastle Waters they arrived at Victoria River Downs.

The policemen and their tracker were lean from the saddle and eyes in dark pits from lack of sleep. O’Donohue had recovered his composure, but no one mentioned the terror of that night.

The manager walked out from the homestead. ‘Good to see men in uniform here, we’ve been done over and no mistake.’ He extended a huge and work-hardened hand. ‘My name’s Lindsay Crawford. Get your boy to run the horses into the yard there and I’ll tell someone to bring them some feed. They look near perished.’

‘Nice to meet you,’ Searcy said. The manager was tall and rangy, with a bunch of black curls escaping from his hat. ‘Done over? Have the Ragged Thirteen have been here?’

‘Been here is a damned understatement,’ said the manager.

The two lawmen watched as Jimmy led their horses into the house yard, removing the saddles and hanging them on the rail. A stock boy brought in bale of hay and spread it around. Crawford watched with a critical eye. ‘Now you blokes come and get a bite or two into you, and we’ll talk about the thieving mongrels who paid us a visit.’

They sat on the verandah while a young black woman brought tea on fine crockery and fresh baked scones. Searcy, ever polite, ate delicately, but O’Donohue couldn’t resist stuffing the warm food into his mouth so fast he could scarcely talk.

Crawford, observing this, said, ‘A hard trail then, fellas?’

‘Yes, soon as we heard that the Thirteen had assaulted a storekeeper at the Victoria River Depot we saddled up and hit the road.’

They ate and drank for a bit, accepted a second cup of tea, and O’Donohue’s eyes turned to the young black woman as she came to clear the cups and plates. As she was about to walk away the policeman cleared his throat.

‘Don’t go just yet, lass, stop here for a moment.’

She stopped, and there was a tremble in her, for one of the cups rattled on the saucer.

‘Nice features on t’is one,’ O’Donohue said to Crawford. ‘Is she local stock?’

‘I think she’s a Walbiri from down Wave Hill way. One of the men found her and her ma wanderin’ after a shootin’ party had been through. Her ma died years ago but this one’s been brought up by my missus.’

‘What’s your name, girl?’ O’Donohue asked.

‘Judith, Mister.’

O’Donohue leaned forward on his chair and placed the flat of his hand on her belly. ‘You gettin’ plenny good tucker or you growin’ ‘im picaninny in there?’

The three men laughed, but Crawford stopped first. ‘Let her go now, she’s got work to do.’ He stood. ‘Now come and have a look at the mischief the Ragged Thirteen have managed to wreak.’

The two lawmen followed the manager down to the store. It was a standard place of white-washed split slab walls, with top-hinged windows propped open with sticks, and a bark roof. A couple of station blacks were sitting in the shade outside, looking quizzically at the newcomers as they wandered up.

Searcy walked through the ransacked store, noting the slabs that had been removed to gain entry. ‘Typical of the Ragged Thirteen, they display a low animal cunning,’ he said.

‘Cunning, alright, one of them presented at the station and pretended to be a land speculator. I weren’t here, being out on the run at the time, but Lockhart the book-keeper was in charge. The fool gave the king of thieves a top-notch feed and every possible entertainment.’

‘That would have been Tom Nugent. He’s the only one with the smarts to carry that kind of thing off.’ Searcy shook his head sadly. ‘They’ve got a good start towards the border, but you never know with these riffraff – they might have stopped to get drunk just twenty or thirty miles away.’ He thought for a moment, they really needed more firepower to take on the Thirteen. ‘If you would lend us a couple of ringers who are handy with their rifles, and another tracker, we’ll get after them.’

Crawford nodded slowly, ‘I should think that volunteers won’t be hard to come by. Would you plan on leaving at first light?’

‘We won’t wait that long. It’ll be dark soon, but the moon rises before midnight. I’ll send our tracker out now to get a fix on their route, while we try for a couple of hours of sleep. Then we’ll assemble at the yards and move off as soon as there’s light to see.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#31. On The Border

#31. On The Border

Reaching the Negri River was like a homecoming for the gang. There, camped on the opposite bank, were the stock boys and women they had sent ahead. Blind Joe stood watching the Thirteen ride in, one hand on the shoulder of Tom Nugent’s orphan from Borroloola, who looked disappointed when the leader did not appear.

‘Don’t worry lad,’ called Larrikin, still wet to the leggings from crossing the river. ‘Old Tom Nugent will be along shortly.’ He looked at the camp, then back across the brown swollen waterway. ‘This here river is the border, but I think we need to ride another ten or twelve miles to be safe from the traps.’

‘No bloody way,’ snapped Sandy Myrtle, swinging out of his stirrups and hitting the ground with a lurch. ‘I’m stopping here for a feast, and ain’t moving again ’til tomorrow, and even then only when Tom Nugent rides up.’

‘The wallopers might still follow us, don’t you reckon?’ asked George Brown.

Sandy Myrtle shook his head, ‘Not much chance of that. They’re hundreds of miles away. Besides, the bastards aren’t supposed to follow us over the border. Now, enough talk. It’s time to cook up a feed and enjoy the fruits of all that hard work.’

Scotty, as usual, took up the job of chief cook, and before long there were plates of johnny cakes and treacle, tinned peaches, hot tea and tinned beans. They ate until they were full, and restlessness soon took over. Jim Carmody got up a game of mumble the peg, the stock-camp favourite involving pen knives being flicked from various positions into the ground.

Later in the afternoon, Tom Nugent arrived on a grey stallion, leading his own horse. Sandy Myrtle watched him cross the river, unsure at first, but as he neared the quality of that stallion became apparent. ‘The bloody idiot,’ he turned and shouted to the others. ‘Tom stole the fucking grey.’

Jimmy Woodforde crossed his arms over his chest, annoyed. ‘That’s because he didn’t have an old woman there telling him not to.’

Normally Sandy would have reacted to this, but now he kept his attention on Tom, waiting until he rode up and dismounted. ‘Are you mad?’

‘What do you mean?’ Tom said. ‘I hope you left some tucker for me, I’m famished.’

‘You took the grey.’

‘You lot nicked a couple for yourselves from what I can see, and besides, we’re safe over the border.’

‘Safe are we? Your new friend at the Downs won’t let that horse slide, and Searcy hates our guts. Best to turn him loose now.’

Nugent dismounted. ‘Not a chance, Sandy. Now shut your mouth, there’s a good bloke. He rubbed his hands together. ‘Now for some tucker.’

‘Well don’t listen to me then,’ said Sandy, ‘but mark my words. Duffing that horse was a mistake. A man can get away with a lot in this life as long as he don’t …’

‘Cross a certain line,’ Tom finished for him. ‘I’ve heard you say it before. Now lead me to dinner, before I pass out.’

Negri River. National Library

Late in the afternoon, at Tom’s suggestion, Scotty Campbell and Larrikin forded the Negri again and climbed a nearby slope to watch for anyone who might be in pursuit.

They settled themselves down about half way up the hill, sitting on a natural contour, surrounded by turkey bush and tussocks. Seeing nothing at first, but spying a bull ant nest ten paces down the slope, Larrikin collected small stones and threw them at the insects. The first missile landed just shy of the entrance, and the ants went mad, climbing all over the stone.

Scotty joined in the fun, sending first one stone then another.

‘I reckon you hit one,’ said Larrikin. ‘I seen it jump in the air and fall down.’

‘One tae meself then,’ Scotty said.

They were so busy raining missiles down on the ants that they didn’t, at first, notice a lone rider in the distance. It was only that Scotty, tired of the game, finally flicked his eyes up and saw the raised dust in the scrub to the east.

‘Och, Larrikin, belay that for a taim. Ah ken we ‘av company.’

‘Looks like you’re right,’ drawled Larrikin, and they watched in silence as the form of a lone rider, with two spares and three packs strung out behind, became clear.

‘Shid we be calling the others?’

‘Nah, one walloper wouldn’t come after us alone. It’s just a traveller. But we’ll watch just in case.’

The rider was not hurrying, but came closer slowly. Finally, when they came abreast of the hill Scotty saw red plaits hanging down from the broad cattleman’s hat. ‘That’s Red Jack,’ he blurted.

Larrikin whistled, ‘By all that’s holy I think you’re right.’

As they watched she crossed their sign, and reined in. Scotty could almost see her eyes following their trail heading up the slope, scanning the hillside until, at the distance of half a mile she had picked them out.

‘She’s spied us,’ cried Scotty.

‘Well she’s not exactly dangerous, who cares?’

‘Hell an’ all, she’s comin’ this wae.’

Larrikin seemed to forget his bravado, and together they wriggled into the thicket of turkey bush, raising their heads just far enough that they could see her canter up the slope, directly towards them.

‘That lass can ride,’ breathed Scotty. There was something about her, he thought to himself. Something like the faeries in the illustrated Scots books that his mother had read to him. This woman had that glow. Not just beauty, but inner goodness. Hugh Campbell wanted her in a way that wasn’t only physical. He wanted to make a sacrifice for her. Prove himself.

‘Christ, what’s she doing?’ Larrikin muttered. ‘Is she working for the traps?’

‘Nah,’ Scotty said, ‘she’s only curious.’

At that point Larrikin jumped sharply. ‘Fuck,’ he hissed.

‘What is it?’ Scotty asked. But just then something sharp pierced the soft skin behind his knee. Hugh looked down to find that their hiding place was only a short distance from the ants they had been stirring up. Now those ants were swarming over them, crawling up their moleskins and biting bare flesh, finding the gap between trousers and shirt.

The red-haired woman momentarily forgotten, they both jumped up, swatting at their legs like madmen.

Finally, when Scotty raised his eyes it was to look straight into the eyes of Red Jack as she stopped, just a few paces away from them.

After a long silence she said, ‘Well damn me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two jackasses so overgrown before.’

Then she wheeled her horse and trotted away, her packs and spares following obediently behind.

Scotty slowly picked himself up, and stared after her. ‘Ach she’s bonnie. Ah only just seen her and already me pair heart is achin’ for the lack.’

Larrikin shook his head sadly. ‘That’s only because you’re young and stupid. Red Jack leaves broken hearts behind her wherever she goes, and she doesn’t give a fuck who they belong to.’

 

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

 

 

 

 

 

#32. Changing the Brand

#32. Changing the Brand

‘Listen to me Tom, and listen good,’ Sandy Myrtle said after breakfast, still licking crumbs from his beard. ‘You have to do something about that horse.’

‘What can he do, apart from turnin’ it loose?’ asked Fitz

‘I’m not letting the horse go,’ Tom said, ‘and that’s flat.’

‘You know,’ said Larrikin, relighting his pipe and taking a deep puff, ‘last year I was working at Alexandria Station over on the Barkly. Their brand is a capital A in a box, this one has a B in a circle. When I left I bought three horses, one of them was a grey stallion. He was a poor old bugger that I used as a packhorse until he died. It seems to me that with a hot knife and a steady hand the brand could be changed. It might be enough of a story to keep a man out of gaol.’

Tom shook Larrikin’s hand. ‘You, my friend, are a genius.’

They heated the knife in the fire until it glowed red, and the handle had to be wrapped in a rag to be held. Since altering the brand was Larrikin’s idea he was deputised to do the work, and he oversaw the project, demonstrating with a stick in the dust just how he might make the change most efficiently.

The stallion, meanwhile, was no idiot, and he watched the proceedings with a wary eye. When Larrikin took the knife from the fire and walked towards him, the stallion reared. He was a big strong horse, and was not going to be held while the hot knife was in proximity.

‘There, there mate,’ Larrikin cooed. ‘It’ll all be over in an instant.’ The high-spirited beast responded with a kick that would have taken Larrikin’s head off if he hadn’t moved.

They tried everything, but the horse would not let the knife get close to him.

‘We’ll have to throw the bastard,’ said Larrikin. ‘It’s the only way.’

The Thirteen gathered around while Larrikin made a loop in a rope and firmed it up around the stallion’s neck. The ends went down through the forelegs, in a complicated arrangement around the rear fetlocks. Then, while the animal fought and kicked every inch of the way, Larrikin had Tom pull from the front rope-end and he on the side. The stallion’s rear legs gathered up, and he went down, held by willing helpers while the knife burned into the hair and skin of his shoulder.

When it was done, the area was thick with dust raised from the activity, and the air smelled of singed horsehair. They all agreed that the brand looked much like Larrikin had promised it would. He’d fined up the top of the B to resemble an A, and rounded the square into a circle. It was messy, sure, but not all brands were applied expertly.

‘What was the name of that old nag of yours, Larrikin?’ asked Tom. ‘The one with this brand.’

‘Gumnut.’

Some of the men laughed, but Tom shrugged. ‘Well I guess we’d better call this one the same then, though it don’t really suit.’ He looked at Larrikin. ‘We might as well do the other two horses you blokes took from the homestead, while we’re on the job.’

Jim Francis at Wirraminna Station. State Library of South Australia .

The Thirteen were too busy to notice when riders came up on the other side of the river: Searcy, O’Donohue, eight armed ringers from VRD and two trackers. The horses were blown from hard riding, and the men were weary but alert. They were veterans of stock camps and long droves, more at home in the saddle than any feather bed.

Leaving the horses and creeping up to the edge of the scrub, the police party gazed out at the Negri and the slow rise of stale smoke on the other side.

‘That’s them,’ growled O’Donohue. ‘But that river’s the border, damn it. They’re in the sovereign colony of Western Australia and there’s nothing we can do about it.’

Searcy grinned. ‘That’s not the case. All these bushmen think that the Negri River is the actual border. It’s not. The real border is the 129th meridian, which the river runs along, here and there. I’m telling you right now that the Ragged Thirteen are still half a mile within the Jurisdiction of the Northern Territory of South Australia. And the best thing is that they don’t even know it.’

O’Donnell smiled. ‘Alright then. How are we going to take them?’

‘I’ve got a brilliant idea,’ said Alfred, ‘of how we can have the whole lot of those rascals in chains. But, it will only work in the morning. Alright lads. Let’s go back and sleep well. There’s men’s work to be done in the dawn.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


 

 

 

 

#33. The Call of Nature

#33. The Call of Nature

An hour before dawn Alfred Searcy led a line of horsemen across the Negri, half a mile upstream from the Ragged Thirteen’s camp. Moving carefully in the dark, armed with coils of rope and loaded carbines, the police party worked their way back down on foot, taking up their positions around the camp, spaced at regular intervals just a long stone’s throw from the sleeping men.

Searcy himself had chosen a boab tree as thick around as a garden rotunda as his post, waiting for the Thirteen to stir. The instructions he had given to the men in his party were simple. The gang of ruffians had been gorging on stolen food. They would wake around dawn, and the call of nature would take them, one by one, out of the camp. When they did so, a quick gag and a few lashings of rope would allow them to be spirited away, back here to the boab. Searcy would guard the captives while the rest of the gangwere taken.

‘Won’t Tom Nugent get suspicious when people keep disappearin’?’ O’Donohue asked.

‘Eventually, yes,’ answered Searcy, ‘but by then their numbers will have been whittled down and we can take the rest by force.’

It had rained during the night, but the sun rose clear and burning yellow, just as two of the Victoria River ringers brought in their first captive. This, Searcy saw, was the lad called Tommy the Rag, wrists secured around his back with his own stockwhip. His eyes were furious, and he attempted to kick at them with his feet until they too were lashed together, and he had no choice but to lay down.

‘What’s that smell?’ Searcy asked suspiciously.

‘Well now,’ said the ringer. ‘You can’t expect to apprehend a man er, performing a call of nature without things getting messy.’

‘It’s a weakness in the plan,’ said the other.

Searcy bristled, ‘Stop griping and get on with it. Before long we’ll have the whole lot of them in custody, and they can wash themselves off in the river.’

For a while nothing happened. Searcy was forced to watch Tommy the Rag trying to chew through his gag for entertainment, but the next two captives came together. Wonoka George; then ‘New England’ Jack Woods. Both were strong men, fighting the ropes and those who carried them like ‘gators caught in a net.

O’Donohue was just as strong, however, and he brought each of these men in with the help of the trackers and some ringers, throwing them under the trees, binding their feet, then giving Wonoka George a kick in the side for good measure.

‘I must admit, Alfie,’ the big Irishman said, with his chest heaving. ‘I doubted yer plan at first. Yet it seems t’ be working.’

Mounted Constables. State Library of South Australia

Sandy Myrtle had experienced a troubled sleep, and laid abed a tad longer than usual. Finally, however, he lumbered to his feet, found a pannikin of water and a pipe he had packed ready the night before. He swallowed the water thirstily, then walked to the fire, leaning over to light the pipe on a burning stick. Tom, Fitz, Carmody and Larrikin were warming themselves and toasting lumps of damper.

‘Where is everyone?’ Sandy asked.

‘Dunno,’ said Fitz. ‘Out and about.’

When the pipe was finished Sandy’s bowel started making its presence felt. He stood and walked from the camp, into the scrub, scouting around. Being such a big, heavy man, nineteen stone last time he checked, he did not like to squat. His preferred latrine was a fallen trunk that he could sit on. He would often spend some time looking for the right one.

The search was hastened by the growing urgency in his gut, and in the end the best he could do was an old fallen sapling, no thicker than his arm, supported at knee height by its spindly branches. Stripping off his dungarees he perched himself on the trunk, sighing with relief.

He had eaten well the previous day, wolfing down johnny cakes and treacle until he felt sick, along with tinned beans and salted meat. The result was a fully ripe discharge, depositing in a rush below his perch.

A sudden noise from behind had Sandy turning. He saw two men, strangers both, carrying carbines. One also held a length of cloth ripped into a gag. Sandy tried to get up, but at that moment the old trunk he was sitting on broke with a sharp crack, and down he went, plumb into a hot pile of his own effluent.

The men rushed forward with the gag. But not before Sandy managed a loud shout of surprise. He rose like a bear, howling with rage, lashing out with a huge arm, so unbalanced and unsteady that he fell back into the same patch of filth he had just risen from, now mixing with reddish mud from the previous night’s rain.

Bellowing and lashing out mindlessly, Sandy got up again and rushed at the two Victoria River ringers, who turned tail and ran, thinking now of nothing but their own safety.

 

Tom, back at the fire, heard the sound and stood up, holding an enamel mug of tea in his right hand, every sense attuned. ‘What was that?’

‘Dunno,’ replied Fitz, ‘sounds like old Sandy Myrtle just lost his temper.’

A moment later the sound of a gunshot echoed through the bush and they were all on their feet, scrabbling for weapons.

‘Hey Blind Joe,’ called Tom.

‘Yes Tom?’

‘Get the rest of the stock boys, women and horses together and ride west until noon-time. We’ll catch up with you there. We’ve got trouble.’

Then, to the gang members who were at the camp. ‘Mount up, boys, we’ll find out what the devil’s going on out there.’

 

Sandy Myrtle charged like a bull through the bush after the two men. He wore no trousers at all, and a singlet that had once been white was stuck to his torso. He was a fast runner, over a short distance, and it wasn’t far to where Alfred Searcy waited with his prisoners. Sandy was roaring, face red with anger, his half-naked body covered in foul-smelling brown and reddish slime.

‘Good God,’ shouted Searcy as the two ringers ran in, with this apparition behind them. He had time to lift his rifle and fire a warning shot over the huge man’s head. It had no effect.

‘Arrest him,’ shouted Searcy to the ringers.

‘Arrest that?’ one of the ringers shouted back. ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking.’

Searcy was forced to run for his life, Sandy’s huge fist swinging wildly and missing his head by a whisker. The smell was intense. Terrible. Almost life changing.

Laughter rang out around the boab tree, as the prisoners in their bonds laughed at the sight. But Sandy was not distracted, his heart set on punishing the men who had interrupted his morning ablutions. He ran with every ounce of strength, fists clenched, eyes narrowed, and droplets of sweat flying from his forehead at every stride.

Alfred Searcy was smart enough to double back, but the two ringers ran on, terrified and disgusted, all the way to the horses, and it was only when Sandy saw them mounted and swimming back across the river that he recovered some of his composure, walking back to where Tom Nugent and the others had just arrived on horseback.

Searcy and O’Donohue had rallied with one of the trackers, their carbines trained on Tommy the Rag, Wonoka George and ‘New England’ Jack.

‘These men are our prisoners,’ shouted Searcy. He was hoping for the rest of the contingent from Victoria River Downs to turn up, but the sound of horses sloshing their way across the river told him that they had already joined their mates in making a retreat.

‘The devil they are,’ replied Tom holding his heavy Snider rifle like a toy. ‘Turn around and walk away. If you’re still on this side of the river on the count of fifty we’ll throw you in.’

The tracker, having a sense for which side was on the ascendancy, turned and went after the ringers. Searcy and O’Donohue stared at each other. Then slowly lowered their weapons.

‘This won’t be t’e end of t’e matter,’ warned O’Donohue.

At that moment, however, Sandy Myrtle emerged from the trees, still showing off the lower half of his body, sheeted with sweat and filth from top to toe.

Seeing Searcy and O’Donohue, he roared with rage, and gave chase. The two policemen had no choice but to run, and while Tom and his mates untied the ropes, the riverbank rang with laughter, and the slowly receding sound of Sandy Myrtle yelling as he chased his prey to their horses and over the river.

‘I don’t think I’ve seen old Sandy lose his temper before today,’ said Tom.

‘It’s a sight,’ said Wonoka Jack, rubbing his wrists. ‘I seen him go berserk once in the town of Stuart, on the telegraph line. Damn near killed five men, he did.’

Tom smiled, ‘Still and all, I think it’s best that we all get mounted and ride some distance into Western Australia, away from those damn traps. They’re going to be spoiling to get us after this little fracas. Besides, we’re so close to that darned gold I can smell it.’

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com


Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


 

 

 

 

#34. Hall’s Creek

#34. Hall’s Creek

The Elvire River wound down towards Hall’s Creek, with an established trail on the high ground beside it, marked with heavy wagon ruts and bush camps along the way. Graves were common, as were cairns of stones and timber crucifixes.

On a short cut between loops of the river, propped up at the foot of a boab tree, the Thirteen came upon the body of a man. There were no kite-hawks or crows circling in the air above him, for they were busy on the ground, pulling the flesh from his cheeks and the eyes from their sockets. The sharp beaks had also found entry through a hole in his chest. Clouds of flies crawled like a living mass over his body and swarmed in the air.

Tom used his revolver to dissuade the kite-hawks, shooting one dead and scattering the others into slow flight, dragged down by the weight in their bellies. The Ragged Thirteen, either standing or mounted, looked down on the remains of the man.

‘Poor bastard,’ said Larrikin. ‘I wonder what got him.’

‘A bullet or a knife, I’d say,’ said Fitz. ‘Those birds got into his chest easy enough – must’ve been a wound to start them off.’

‘Let’s bury him,’ said Tom. ‘No man deserves to be eaten by a pack of damned birds.’

The others agreed, and while Larrikin and Scotty started off, Tommy the Rag went through the dead man’s pockets and swag. There was a battered old chequebook from the Bank of South Australia, and Tommy examined it briefly and slipped it into his top pocket. He caught Sandy Myrtle’s eyes.

‘He won’t be needing that where he’s going.’

The grave was a shallow one, and they compensated by piling rocks on top. No one  talked or smiled until they had moved on to the river, where the main track ran, busy with men hurrying to the diggings. Others were leaving, eyes sunken with fatigue and disappointment. Many offered to sell information or the few shovels and pans they still had.

‘I’ve got a hand-drawn map of the diggings,’ one of them offered. ‘Two and sixpence for hard-won intelligence that’ll save you time.

They crossed a dry tributary, the Black Elvire, and struck the first diggings soon after, up Saunders Gully; hundreds of men hunched over their sluices and shovels, but also a surprising number of claims lying abandoned. A waterhole on the main junction was clogged with men and horse teams taking water, washing gravel. No one stopped to talk, but hurried like ants in that world of mullock heaps and shafts, pistols at their hips, watching through narrowed eyes as the newcomers rode in.

‘Friendly bunch, aren’t they?’ Wonoka Jack muttered.

‘Diggings are all like this,’ Tom Nugent said. ‘Anyone with a decent patch is dead certain someone’s going to jump their claim, or strike it rich next door, or steal their gold. Don’t expect the time of day from these people.’

It was another seven or eight miles ride to Hall’s Creek itself, and the Elvire River now became a rocky gully, with flat topped red hillocks in a landscape dry as dust. The creek that gave the town its name was no better, apart from a couple of small pools here and there.

‘No wet season here, as yet,’ commented Tom. He noticed more abandoned claims, testament to the fickle nature of greed, as he led the Thirteen half a mile north of the township, looking for a campsite. Blind Joe scouted out some poor-quality blue grass, located above a bend in the river bed that held a reasonable puddle. With the exhausted horses hobbled, and unlikely to stray, the men dressed in their best clobber, and strapped revolvers to their waists.

Elevated View of Halls Creek. National Library of Australia

Leaving the stockboys to watch the camp, they walked in a group back towards town. The sun was starting to sink into a dusty horizon when they arrived. It was a village of shanties, lively and noisy with lanterns up on poles and half a dozen grog shops. All the stores were open into the night, even the mud-brick post office and police station.

One man was offering a patch of common on which new arrivals could water and feed their horses, for there was not a blade of grass to be seen. Silage worked out to a shilling a horse per day.

‘That’s why we left the horses back at camp,’ Tom said, and they walked down narrow streets lined with shanties and bough shelters. The original inhabitants of these dry ridges sat in the dust under the few surviving trees, and their children played with cast-off things from the miners.

In one of those alley-like streets they came upon the darkest den in that dark den of Hayes Creek, a twenty-four-hour cesspit of drink and opium.

There was a card game going on in one corner. The croupier was a man with one eye, a sawn off double barrel on the green felt table in front of him, and a wall of split logs to protect his back. He dropped cards with monotonous practice, always perfectly in place, talking only when necessary.

The players were diggers. Most played with small nuggets or bags of pure gold. They scarcely glanced up as the Thirteen arrived.

The other drinkers in that dingy bar were more interested in the gang’s arrival. One was a whiskered old Irishman, drinking often from a jug of ale, yet with a canny look in his eye. There were two young men at the bar itself, and judging from their clothes, they were fresh on the fields. Another was too well dressed to be a local, with the look of a remittance man about him.

There was a mean-eyed rascal with a huge Colt strapped to his hip, glaring at the newcomers as they walked in. A table of Chinese played mah-jong on ivory tiles, opium pipes lying idle in a tray.

Tom fronted the bar and shouted to the mangy-thin attendant.  ‘Bring us thirteen bottles of rum and thirteen glasses,’ he called. ‘And food.’

The Thirteen dragged three tables together and planted their elbows down. When the rum came, Sandy Myrtle poured his glass full and raised it. ‘Here’s to a long journey’s end, and a successful quest for gold.’

The others followed suit, and soon a waitress was bringing plates of beef and real yeasty bread, dripping with butter. Fresh produce too! Tomatoes and cucumbers from the Chinese market gardens. The Thirteen ate hungrily, while, with the coming of night, the shanty started to fill with diggers coming off their claims, thirsty and tired.

One such man had scarcely walked in the door before he spotted Tom, and shouted, ‘Well if it isn’t old Tom Nugent from the Hunter Valley.’

Armed with a tumbler of rum the new man squeezed in with the Thirteen.

‘Hey you blokes,’ said Tom, ‘this is Luke Frey, I used to work with him in the Gulf.’

There were some handshakes and murmured greetings, but the new arrival didn’t interest them much, the food and rums, and yarns between themselves being of more interest.

After a while a prostitute started working the bar, leaning over the men, slapping hands away from her bosom, disappearing now and then with a man for a small nugget of gold or a half crown.

‘Are yer tempted?’ Tommy the Rag asked Sandy Myrtle.

‘Not at all, boy. I’m happy with she who waits for me back at camp. Let these daft yokels waste their nuggets and get a dose of the clap as the price of their pleasure.’

Pleasantly content with the food and rum, Tom Nugent got down to quizzing his mate about how things worked at Hall’s Creek.

‘The diggings are winding down,’ opined Luke Frey. ‘You blokes have missed the best of it.’

‘That remains to be seen,’ said Tom. ‘Who’s to say there’s not a rich reef just yet undiscovered and that this place will end up like Hill End or Ballarat?’

‘That’s very true,’ said his mate, ‘but such a reef ain’t been found yet.’

‘So what’s the best way to get a claim?’ Tom asked. ‘Find new ground to peg?’

‘Just take yer pick from what’s been abandoned. Under the rules here, once the claimants been gone for seven days they’re anyone’s. You just have to check with the Mine Warden and register it for your own self. You feel like a walk?’

The Thirteen took their half empty bottles and walked down the narrow lanes that wound between the claims, following gully and dry creek, hill and tailings heap while Luke Frey talked and took swigs of their rum.

‘See that place there? Old Roly Phelps from England hung himself from the headgear after working it night and day for months, garnering barely a speck for his trouble. Had no funds even to get home. The claim over there was worked by two Russians, then two Adelaide lads. A few nuggets was all that was took.’

‘But there’s still gold here?’

‘Yes there is, but it’s patchy. The blokes who are still here are mostly finding enough to keep afloat … just.’

‘So where do we start looking for claims?’ asked Tom.

‘Anyplace, really. Take a ride around tomorrow. Most of the productive diggings are in an area from Holes Creek in the south, to the Black Elvire in the east, and to the China Wall in the north.’

‘The China Wall?’

‘An exposed quartz reef that runs for a couple of miles, like the backbone of a beast standing proud from the earth. It’s rather spectacular; take a look when you get a chance. Anyhow, there’s the diggings south of here, along Hall’s Creek itself, but the main action is now to the south east – Nuggetty Gully, Rosie’s Flat, and the Twelve Mile. Most of these have no water so you’d either have to buy it in or dry blow your ore. I’d be panning some of the gullies ‘til you find some encouragement – choose your claim where you find colour.’

They came, finally, to Like Frey’s own claim, with a candle light winking from a slab hut and a dark woman’s face in the glassless window. The Thirteen took turns to shake his hand and thank him for the information. Then, neither sober nor drunk, they walked back to their camp, full of the scent of rum, dirt, gold, and adventure.

 

Continues next Sunday …

 

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com


 

 

 

 

#35. Staking a Claim

#35. Staking a Claim

Just as the sun’s first rays touched the gully, a cupped handful of water from the shallow brown waterhole hit Tom Nugent’s face. When the ripples had stilled he used his reflection on the surface to comb his hair with his fingers. He had washed his shirt the night before and, hung it on a branch. It was almost dry but not quite, raising goosebumps on his skin in the morning cool.

Sandy Myrtle walked across to join him. ‘Important day,’ said the big man.

‘Oh I don’t know,’ said Tom. ‘I like to take days as they come. Yet, we need to find some ground to work, that’s true, and the boys are all keen.’ He nodded towards Tommy the Rag, who was already dressed, ‘bandicooting’ for nuggets on the surface. Back up around the camp, most of the others were throwing down a quick breakfast.

When this was done, they gathered around, tacking up the horses and stowing hunks of Johnny cake and corned beef in saddle bags. None of them knew whereabouts on the diggings they’d be at dinner time, and no one wanted to go hungry.

By the time Tom had walked back and mounted his own horse he looked around at the rest of the Thirteen. ‘You blokes ready?’

They replied with a series of nods and quiet murmurs of agreement.

‘Then let’s go find the piece of dirt that’s going to make us rich.’

Ruby Queen Mine, 20 Miles from Hall’s Creek. State Library of Western Australia

Together in a group, all on fine horses, the Thirteen were a sight as they rode from claim to claim across the diggings, at once both desolate and industrious. Most of the flats had already been excavated to one degree or another, and some had shafts to various depths.

One such mine, sited on a hill of tilted slate, was for sale, and the owner took Tom below ground, where they crawled down narrow tunnels that seemed even hotter than the land above. By torchlight Tom saw the reef for himself, a variable yellow line cased in quartz, and surrounded by layers of soft, red sandstone.

Sandy refused to enter the shaft. ‘I’m a man, not a fucking wombat. I’ll work as hard as any two normal blokes, make no mistake, but I’ll do it on the surface.’

The Thirteen briefly discussed buying the claim, on the basis of proven, payable gold, but it would have taken every cent they could raise between them, and leave nothing for equipment. Besides, with claims free for the taking, apart from a registration fee, no one was keen to part with cash.

‘I was born lucky,’ said Larrikin. ‘We’ll find the gold, don’t fret about that, and without having to sell every damn horse we own.’

Everywhere they went – Macphee’s Camp, Hall’s Gully, and along the Elvire, they found the miners busy digging, panning, hauling and dry-blowing. Few were willing to offer the time of day. Those few who talked called them fools and told them to ride back to wherever they had come from.

‘Enough gold to buy a loaf of bread a day,’ said one. ‘This place isn’t a rush, it’s a damned fraud.’

Dispirited but still determined, in the middle of the afternoon the Thirteen reined in, overlooking a set of claims on the edge of an area called Rosie’s Flat.

Tom ran his eyes over the site. There was water in a gully, and even a couple of reasonable shade trees had survived the work. To look at, this spot was a cut above most of what they had seen.

‘Let’s see if we can turn anything up,’ Tom said, dismounting and removing the spade and pan strapped to the saddle. It was one of the few claims with enough water to be able to pan, rather than separate the gold dry.

Down in the gully, with Sandy on the shovel, they took a few pounds of gravel from a likely-looking natural trap. With the pan half-filled, Tom moved to the water and started swishing the load, scouring like a wire brush on the hard metal.

Tom was good at panning, fast but careful, and he was not even to the last fines before he caught the glint of yellow in the pan. He turned to Sandy and smiled. When he had finished the pan held a dozen or more specks of gold, but best of all a tiny nugget the size of a match head.

Larrikin bent over to look, then shouted. ‘What a thing it is to pull a little nugget out of your first pan-load! I told you I was lucky.’

‘It’s a good area,’ said Fitz. ‘Those trees for a start – the horses will be grateful for the shade.’

‘They can take turns at it,’ smiled Tom. ‘But I agree. Gold in the first pan is a good sign.’

The Thirteen walked the area, locating the pegs for eight adjoining claims.

Then, while the others reset the boundaries, Tom wrote down the claim numbers and went in with Sandy to the Warden’s office to register them.

As they rode back towards town the batteries were stamping, the sound carrying across the landscape. This heavy beat was matched with the swish of gravel being worked through home-made shakers. These were used on claims with no access to water, the resulting fines being winnowed to separate gold from dust.

Down past the mud brick post office, they left the horses at a public hitching post and walked towards the Warden’s office. They were passing a shop when Sandy spat on the pavement, at which time the storekeeper appeared at the door.

‘Hey you, fatty, spit somewhere else.’

Tom laughed, but Sandy turned and hissed. ‘I’ll spit where I bloody well like …’

The altercation would have developed further, but Tom Nugent pushed Sandy hard between the shoulder blades, away from the store. ‘You want to get us arrested?’

When the big man still wanted to have a go at the shopkeeper Tom dragged him bodily down two doors and into the Warden’s office. The interior was well lit, due to windows fronting both the street and a narrow alley on the far side.

A very thin man, decked out in black and whites, with a hanging watch chain, rose from a desk littered with papers, a pot of ink and a good supply of quills.

‘Good morning gentlemen. Let me introduce myself, I’m Charlie Price, the Mine Warden.’

‘Nice to meet you, Mr Price. I’m Tom, and this is Sandy.’

‘You blokes want coffee?’

‘Yes, why not.’

A face appeared at the alley window. The urchin’s cheeks were as grimy as that of a coal miner’s, but tinged more red in line with the local dirt. He wore clothes many times too large for his frame, and the once-white shirt was now grimy with grease and dirt.

‘Hey you,’ shouted Charlie. ‘Got an errand for ye.’

The child scurried around the corner, through the doorway and into the room.

The Warden tossed a shilling in the air, and the urchin caught it with a flick of his right wrist, opening his hand to view the coin. ‘So whaddya want with this?’

‘Three coffees from Esau the Afghan, an’ a coupla them little cakes too.’

‘Before ya can blink, Mister,’ said the urchin, and tore off through the door.

‘Esau the Afghan?’ Sandy inquired.

‘Yeah. That man the best bleeding coffee in the goldfields, providing you like it strong. Raises a few quid for the hospital with his sales.’

‘Strong is good,’ Tom agreed. ‘Now when does the “wet” start around here?’

‘We’ve had a storm or two, but no serious falls just yet.’

They were still discussing the weather when the urchin returned with coffee and cakes, as bold as brass with them, ‘Here you go gents, coffee fresh-made from Esau’s pot.’

Tom took a sip of his coffee, enjoying the strong flavour with a hint of cardamom. ‘Handy lad,’ he said, when the child was gone, ‘but talk about filthy.’

The broker lowered his voice. ‘No lad that one – she’s a girl – but the general riff raff around here don’t know that.’

‘A girl? What’s she doing here?’

‘There are three kids working a claim, two girls and their older brother Jake. He’s about fourteen or so – works like a bloody Trojan. I keep a bit of an eye on the poor buggers, and the girls often pop over and see if I’ve got any odd jobs to run – honest little imps they are. Between you and me they’re not seeing much sparkle off the claim, and sometimes the only money coming in is a few pennies from errands.’

Now that Tom thought about it he recognised the more feminine aspects of the child’s features. There was a softness to her eyes, and something about her lips. Partly because of his kindness to a struggling little family, Tom felt himself warming to the Warden.

‘Now,’ Charlie said finally. ‘Now that we have coffee, I wonder if you gentlemen would enlighten me as to how I might be of assistance.’

Tom took out the sheet of paper with the claim numbers on it. ‘We’d like to register these abandoned claims.’

The Warden looked up the numbers on a sheet. ‘Two of these belonged to a young bloke from Perth, and the others to a syndicate that split up a few weeks ago. Those blokes are gone for good as far as I know, so I have no objections provided you have the ten pounds claim fee per plot.’

Tom fished in his pocket. ‘You’ll accept a cheque, of course sir?’

‘Provided it’s a good one.’

‘Oh it’s a good one, alright,’ said Tom.

‘Good-o then. What might be the full names of you gentlemen?’

‘Thomas Nugent and Alexander McDonald, more commonly known as Sandy Myrtle.’

The mine Warden’s face fell. He put down his pen and fell to rummaging through the papers on his desk. He located a paper and started reading it. ‘Oh dear,’ he began. ‘This isn’t good.’

‘What the bloody hell is going on?’ complained Tom. ‘Can we just register the claims and get to work?’

‘No, I’m terribly sorry, but we’ve had a letter from the Northern Territory police stating that you two gentlemen, along with five other named men and six unnamed, are of unsound character, wanted for serious offences in the Territory, and are not to be issued with licences or be allowed to register claims.’

Tom locked eyes with Sandy. ‘It’s that damn Searcy, who’s done this,’ he said. Then to the Warden, ‘This is a grossly unfair. We have committed no crime on Western Australian soil.’

‘That’s as may be, but under the terms of the Mining Act the Commissioner may refuse to issue permits or claims to persons believed to be of unsound character. That he has done on the basis of the letter. In other words,’ he said. ‘I can no longer help you … much as I would like to of course.’

Tom saw the rage building in Sandy’s eyes, and shot him a harsh glare. Putting this man off side would be a mistake. ‘We’re disappointed of course,’ he said, ‘but do thank you at least for your consideration. And please do allow me to pay you back for the coffee.’

‘No, I won’t hear of it.’

‘Then we’ll be heading off.’ Tom shook hands with the Warden and managed to get Sandy out the door while the steam was still building.

Out on the street the big man pushed Tom’s restraining hand away. ‘That snivelling bastard Searcy. I wish I’d killed him when I had the chance. He must have had that letter delivered by hand for it to get here before us.’ Seeing that they were passing the shop again, Sandy paused to spit on the front window.

‘Wishing won’t help us,’ said Tom, ‘and neither will pissing-off shopkeepers. We have to work out how to get those bloody claims signed up to us somehow.’

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com
#36. The Silent Partner

#36. The Silent Partner

The next afternoon, back at the camp in the gully north of the town, the Thirteen mused over the problem of legally registering the claims. Most had pipes between their lips, while a rum bottle made a slow journey from one hand to the next.

‘Why not register the claims in Scotty’s name, or me own?’ asked Bob Anderson. ‘The traps doan ‘ave a skiffy of who we all are. You sayed so yourself, Tom.’

‘That Warden knows that we’re together,’ replied Tom. ‘We’re not going to get away with it. If we try to do something like that they can declare the whole transaction null and bloody void. We need someone we can trust, outside the gang, to register the claims for us.’

‘What about your mate we ran into at the grog shanty, Luke, wasn’t it?’ Fitz asked. ‘He seemed like a straight-up bloke.’

Tom shook his head sadly. ‘I trust Luke so far and no more. If we struck it rich he’d have the deeds in his hands and we’d have no leg to stand on if he tried to take over.’

Carmody, who had been listening with his usual long face, stood. ‘Well we need someone who ain’t interested in mining on their own account, but is happy to be cut in for a share.’

‘A share?’ asked Sandy. ‘Who said anything about a share?’

‘Carmody’s right I reckon,’ said Tom. ‘We need a silent partner, someone who’ll be happy to take a share for holding the deeds and shutting their mouth.’

Tommy the Rag had been thinking hard, coiling and uncoiling his stock whip. ‘Well I seen that red-headed woman with the big black horse earlier. Maybe she’d do it for us?’

Scotty was the first to reply, head up like a wallaby in the grass. ‘You saw Red Jack? Where?’

‘She rode past with her plant this morning. I was wanderin’ around lookin’ for nuggets while you blokes were sittin’ by the fire like youse are now. She said she was headin’ fer a spot they call Caroline Pool, she’s settin’ up a horse breaking camp there.’

Just then Larrikin arrived on the scene. He’d been busy brushing his mare down by the waterside, now leading her with a greenhide halter, the muddy water still glossy wet on her swollen belly. ‘That sounds like an idea,’ he said, having overheard the conversation. ‘Red Jack would never rip us off. She don’t care about anything ‘cept for horses. The only thing would be convincing her to do it.’

‘I’ll do the blathering, if ye all are agreed,’ said Scotty. ‘I daena ken if she’ll care fer the plan or not. But I’d as like to try.’

‘Can’t hurt to ask,’ said Tom. ‘Are we all agreed, that we’ll ask Red Jack to register the claims for us, in exchange for a one-fourteenth share of every ounce of gold we win?’

Only Sandy wasn’t keen, but he was so fully out-voted that he accepted defeat. ‘If yez are all dead keen on giving away our hard-won gold to a mere lass then don’t let me stand in yer way.’

‘Without a silent partner,’ Tom warned. ‘There won’t be any bloody gold.’

Photo by Bill Lillicrapp. NT Library

Scotty rode off with just Blind Joe leading the way, both of them on horseback, enjoying the twists and turns of the Elvire. A bank of black cloud was building in the north, and the smell of rain was a heady delight for them both.

‘Will it be goin’ ta rain, Joe?’

‘Yeah Scotty, maybe plenty rain dreckly.’

They had no idea exactly how far it was to the Caroline Pools, but before long they saw the glistening surface of a good waterhole, and a number of horses surrounding it.

Red Jack was sitting at the fireside, plaiting greenhide into rope. Scotty rode in until he was sure that he had seen her, at which time he reined in and dismounted, while Blind Joe pulled up to wait, holding both the horses.

‘Strange,’ said Red Jack loudly. ‘I don’t remember inviting anyone into my camp.’

Scotty stopped dead. God she was bonny, red hair hanging in waves down the side of her face. Eyes like limestone pools. He could hardly get his tongue to work. It was like a dry piece of leather in his mouth. ‘I’m ‘ere fir tae ask a fa’our.’

‘Well alright, spit it out then. Unlike some people I like to concentrate on what the hell I’m doin’.’

‘The boys an’ I, being on some manner of police black list, canna register claims in our own names. We need a virtuous soul like yesel’ tae sign up for ’em in our place.’

Red Jack stopped what she was doing. ‘An’ what would I get fer helpin’ out a bunch of ruffians who I hardly even know.’

‘A one-f’teenth share a’ the proceeds of the mine.’

Red Jack threw back her head and laughed. ‘One fourteenth share of nothing is nothing. I’ve got a better idea.’

Scotty stayed for a cuppa, and when he rode back to camp it was almost dark. Blind Joe stopped him once to let a king brown snake slither off the path ahead of them. The Scotsman hardly cared, for his heart was singing with love, drunk on the sound of Red Jack’s voice and the texture of her skin.

Finally they reached the camp, enjoying the smell of roasted johnny cakes, firesmoke and rain, for a few heavy drops had started to fall, turning to balls in the dust.

They men gathered around as Scotty rode in, giving him time to get down off his horse, and for Blind Joe to lead it away. They made room at the fire and placed a mug in the Scotsman’s hand.

‘Well,’ said Tom Nugent finally. ‘What did she say?’

‘Red Jack has agreed tae act as our silent partner,’ said Scotty. ‘First thing temorra Blind Joe an’ Tom’s boy will gae’p tae her camp with the claim numbers. They’ll mind her plant while she rides intae the Warden’s office an’ registers for us.’

There was scattered applause and murmurs of approval from the others, but Scotty hadn’t finished yet. ‘There’s one wee problem,’ he said. ‘Red Jack daena want a fourteenth share a’ the mine.’

‘Well what on earth does she want?’ asked Tom.

Scotty’s eyes met Larrikin’s. ‘Red Jack is wantin’ the foal out’a Larrikin’s mare, when the taim comes.’

‘The hell she does,’ spat Larrikin. ‘That foal is mine.’

‘That’s better than giving her a share of our bloody gold,’ said Sandy.

‘Since when is it better?’ demanded Larrikin. ‘I’ve been looking forward to raising that one meself. How does Red Bloody Jack even know about it?’

Tommy the Rag spoke up. ‘She saw your mare when she rode through this morning. I remember her saying how she likes the look of her.’

‘Well of course she would,’ grunted Larrikin. ‘Anyone would. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving her away. You blokes wouldn’t expect me to, would you?’ No one answered, and he picked up a small stick and chucked it into the fire so hard a shower of sparks went up. ‘Bastards,’ he muttered under his breath.

Tom winked at Scotty, as if to say. ‘Leave Larrikin to me.’ And as the rain started to fall in earnest it was as if the camp breathed a communal sigh of relief. They were not just a bunch of deadbeats sitting in a gully. They were about to become the owners of a real gold mine.

Continues next Sunday …

©2018 Greg Barron

Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com

Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com

Red Jack by Mary Durack

Red Jack by Mary Durack

The cover of the picture book, published by Modern Curriculum Press.

Readers of Red Jack and the Ragged Thirteen will be interested to read this haunting poem by Mary Durack, which became a popular children’s book (still in print). The story told in the poem was sparked by a chance meeting between Mary’s father, Patsy, and Red Jack in Western Queensland.

RED JACK by Mary Durack

She rises clear to memory’s eye
From mists of long ago,
Though we met but once, in ’98—
In the days of Cobb and Co.

‘Twas driving into Hughenden
With mail and gold for load
That I saw Red Jack, the wanderer,
Come riding down the road.

Red Jack and Mephistopheles—
They knew them far and wide,
From Camooweal to Charters Towers,
The route they used to ride.

They knew them round the Selwyns where
The Leichhardt has its source,
Along the winding cattle ways—
A woman and a horse.

And strange the tales they told of them
Who ranged the dusty track:
The great black Mephistopheles
And the red-haired witch Red Jack.

She claimed no name but that, they said,
And owned no things but these:
Her saddle, swag and riding-kit
And Mephistopheles.

And often travellers such as I
Had seen, and thought it strange,
A woman working on the line
That crossed McKinlay Range.

Had seen her in the dreary wake
Of stock upon the plains,
Her brown hand quick upon the whip
And light upon the reins.

With milling cattle in the yard
Amid the dust-fouled air,
With rope and knife and branding iron—
A girl with glowing hair.

“Red Jack’s as good as any man!”
The settlers used to own;
And some bold spirits sought her hand,
But Red Jack rode alone.

She rode alone, and wise men learned
To set her virtue high,
To weigh what skill she plied her whip
With the hardness of her eye.

I saw Red Jack in ’98,
The first time and the last,
But her face, brown-gaunt, and her hair, red-bright,
Still haunt me from the past.

The coach drew in as she rode in sight;
We passed the time of day;
Then shuffled out the mail she sought
And watched her ride away.

And oh! her hair was living fire,
But her eyes were cold as stone:
Red Jack and Mephistopheles
Went all their ways alone.

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