History Stories

#37. Missus Dead Finish

#37. Missus Dead Finish

When the Ragged Thirteen took possession of those eight adjoining claims, they had minimal experience with mining. One or two had swirled their pans around Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, or rocked a cradle on the Palmer, but none of them had any idea about chasing reef gold; sinking shafts. Their mindset was on adventure, not gold mining as a business, and Tom soon realised that the success of their venture depended on the latter strategy.

Thinking things through, he let them have their initial frenzy of panning the gully and specking for nuggets, then soothed them through their grumbles when these efforts bore little fruit. It was Bob Anderson who grasped the need for a concerted, professional effort, and possessed the mind of an engineer, to boot. He and Tom spent those first days snooping around other mines, studying operations at two shafts owned by one of the big companies.

‘The reef they call the Heartbreaker,’ Tom told the others around the fire, ‘runs around this area, but it peters out, breaks into smaller veins here and there. If we sink a shaft and hit a thick streak of it we’ll make real money, otherwise we’re stuffed. We have to work together from here on, and any man who isn’t prepared to spit on his hands and work like a dog might as well speak up now and ride off.’

Tom waited and watched, but apart from some shuffling of feet no one moved.

Bob Anderson produced his plans and they were passed from hand to hand gravely. Questions were asked and answered. Finally Sandy said, ‘I have to say, young Bob, that you’ve a flair with the drawing pen.’

Bob’s grin was as wide as the mine shaft in the drawings. ‘It looks right easy on paper, but will nae when we’re shovellin’ rock. Tha gold is down there, it must be, yet it cannae always be easily won.’

Bradshaw Collection, NT Library

The first need was timber for the poppet head and shoring. They swarmed out into the scrub on horseback, looking for cypress trees. These termite-resistant trees had been cut out for miles around but they found a stand on the Elvire.

‘This one,’ Tom shouted. ‘Nice and straight. And Fitz, there’s two or three towards that ridge that look the goods from here.’

After marking the trunks, Tom took up the axe, swivelled it through his hands once, then swung with a practiced long stroke that buried the broad head deep into the sapwood, sending chips flying.

Before long the men had pulled off their shirts, and glossy with sweat they competed to bring down trees with the fewest number of strokes. To reduce haulage weight, they stripped and roughly squared the timbers with broad axes, and to bring in the logs Missus Dead Finish rolled up with her wagon in a cloud of dust and curses.

Missus Dead Finish was a woman in her fifties, hunch-shouldered with skin tanned by the suns of wild plains and valleys. She drove a four-in-hand team, carrying freight and the odd passenger from Wyndham to Hall’s Creek and back single-handed, twice a week. The price was fifty pounds a ton, landed at the fields. If that was too high, ‘You can damn well find some other fool to haul yer shit.’

Rumour had it that she had bashed her husband ‘down south’ to death with a candlestick holder, but got off with manslaughter because he was a drunk who kicked her ‘round the kitchen every evening. Other gossips had it that he was teamster, who’d died on the road over from Queensland. Sitting up on the box seat, with a shortened double barrel in the tray directly behind, if she was waylaid by armed robbers her method was to empty both barrels then whip the horses into a frenzy, leaving the scene at a rate too fast for whatever was left of her would-be attackers.

Instead of using the regulation lead shot in the cartridges she packed herself, she used less expensive missiles, including fine but hard Kimberley gravel, small nails, and scrap sheet steel cut into fragments with tin snips.

Missus Dead Finish took no humbug from anyone, man or woman.

She hauled the Ragged Thirteen’s logs and helped unload them back at the claims, unharnessing the horses with a firm hand and sharp tongue. ‘Lo, back up there, Roly. Behave yourself.’ Her voice snarled and crashed around the horse team like a lightning storm. Then came the sound of a slap as her open hand landed hard on a horse’s rump.

Before long the Thirteen and their visitor had settled around the fire. Missus Dead Finish drank rum with the best of them, and told yarns of successes and failures on the fields. The men were themselves flushed with the good feeling of a hard, productive day.

When they had drunk and yarned for a bit, exhaustion took over and they wandered away to their swags.

Missus Dead Finish unrolled her swag on the wagon, and then snored like a whip-saw until dawn. The sound was strangely amplified and deepened by the body of the wagon like the bowl of a guitar.

For the Thirteen who were wakened by the noise there was plenty to think about. Tom, with the help of Bob Anderson, had given them a vision, and they wanted it badly.

Sandy Myrtle wished for a fine home in Kensington, Adelaide, with a drawing room and library. He pictured a garden for him to walk in, attended by an army of men in grey overalls.

Carmody wanted a tall ship, sailing with some beautiful woman at his side from one end of the world to the other, gold in his pocket and a diamond earring in each earlobe.

Tommy the Rag wanted a new horse. Jimmy Woodford loved horses so much he’d only be satisfied with a whole stud. Bob Anderson wanted a bit of land to make a start on. Jack Woods made plans to start his own butchering business. Fitz just wanted to make a pile and piss it up against a wall.

Larrikin wanted to own his own public house in Toowoomba or Roma. He pictured himself walking downstairs in his dance shoes to an adoring crowd. Jack Dalley wanted a Colt revolver and new boots. Wonoka Jack imagined how it would feel to travel the world. His brother George just wanted to go home.

Scotty thought only of Red Jack; pictured himself riding beside her on a horse equally as magnificent as Mephistopholes. He imagined sliding a ring onto her finger; being with her all day and night, loving her.

Tom had seen his mate Harry Readford settled on Brunette Downs, and he too wanted a cattle station of his own – not as big as Brunette, mind you – just a few hundred square miles he could call his own. He liked the country around Newcastle Waters, and there was a block that just might come up for sale pretty soon.

While Missus Dead Finish snored through the night, the Ragged Thirteen fell back to sleep, dreaming of what life would be like when they struck the reef.



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





#38. Jake and the Girls

#38. Jake and the Girls

Hard work on the claim brought on a fierce hunger. Fitz had seen a mob of station bullocks on their logging forays and rode out with Jack Woods, three pack-horses, and a .577 calibre rifle to investigate.

Twenty-four hours later they were back, loaded down with Durack beef, and Jack soon had tongue, rounds and briskets soaking in his own special corning solution.

‘We had to ride a fair old distance,’ said Fitz, ‘but there’s plenty more where this came from.’

Eye fillets went straight into a searing hot pan, and full bellies contributed to a sense of confidence and well-being. ‘Best feed since Christmas day,’ said Sandy.

‘This here is more tender,’ reckoned Larrikin, talking with difficulty through a mouth chock-full of steak.

The easy availability of beef, there for the taking, gave Tom an idea. He tacked up his gelding in the dawn, filled a water bag and rode out of camp alone, against a sky fringed with black, purple and yellow thunderheads, lying dormant but threatening on the horizon.

It was a while since Tom had been alone in the bush, and within a mile or two he was enjoying himself a great deal. Recent storms had brought on a goose-picking of new grass, while the dry husks of last year’s speargrass crackled under his horse’s hooves.

For a time he followed a meandering dry creek bed. It was easy riding, with hardly any vegetation on the floor. Tom liked old creek beds: the layers of clay and quartz in rows, ancient logs embedded in the banks and bones of long-dead marsupials. It was cool, too, shaded by paperbarks, the air somehow older and richer.

He saw wells that had been dug by the local Kija people on a bend, brimming full. He filled his water bag and took the smallest of his gold pans from his saddlebag, washing the gravel from some likely looking spots.

Other prospectors, he was certain, had already swarmed over this area and rejected it, so Tom was not surprised when his efforts were unrewarded. He didn’t care – he was enjoying himself. Twice he saw signs of Kija food-gathering along the creek, but they melted away long before his approach, leaving just footprints in the sand, and once, a still-smoking cooking fire.

By smoko time the sun was high and it was time to head home. Reaching the first and only substantial waterhole on that creek, he quickly panned a few more loads of gravel without success, then packed up.

He climbed the grey up the steep right-hand bank, and, consulting the folding compass that he always carried, took a bearing on a distant high pillar of stone that climbed high into the air.

Even at the trot it took a while to reach the landmark, and when he got there it Tom gentled his horse up the slopes to the summit. Once there, he could scarcely believe his eyes, there was not one, but two pillars of stone. Between them was a sunken circle of ground.

Tom knew that this was exactly what he was looking for – a natural holding yard. With steep sides over most of its length he decided that with the addition of some rough fencing it was a perfect place to hold a few head of cattle, maybe twenty or thirty.

No water, of course, but still Tom tucked away the location in his mind and rode on, taking a new bearing to the north east as he again rose to the trot to eat up the miles in a direct path home.

NT Library

As the Warden had suggested, a nearby claim was worked by a teenager called Jake and his two little sisters. It was a poor claim, elevated and dry, far from water and filled with boulders that had to be shifted with pick and crow bar.

Tom walked over late in the day. The boy stuck his crowbar in the earth and came to meet him. Wearing only a pair of dungarees, and pint-sized to begin with, he was a lean as a whip, with not a bit of fat on his frame.

‘Hi there young fellow.’

‘Hullo Mister.’

‘My name’s Tom Nugent. Me and my mates have taken up a bunch of claims in the gully yonder.’

‘Yeah alright, good to meet ya. Well … I’ve got a bunch of work to do.’

Tom pointed at one of the two slim figures at work winnowing fines. ‘I met one of the young’uns in the Warden’s office. I know all about you and … well … I just wanted to say that you’ve got thirteen new mates now. Ever have any trouble and we’ll help out.’ Tom hefted a cloth-wrapped parcel in his hands. ‘Brought you something too.’

Jake turned, ‘Hey Nellie, fetch that billy off the coals and get a cuppa for the visitor.’

They sat on stumps and drank tea from chipped enamel mugs. It was a poor camp, and the sugar jar was empty. One of the girls unwrapped the cloth from Tom’s gift. Inside was a big lump of silverside, and she couldn’t resist a little cry of excitement. Tom guessed that they’d be eating well for the first time in days.

‘So why are you three here all alone?’ he asked.

‘Mother and Pa brought us up from Perth, all the way to Broome. Mother was going to stay in town while Pa came to the diggings.’ The boy’s eyes settled on the ground, studying it intently. ‘They went out one evening for a sail on Roebuck Bay and never come back. They was both drownded. We had the deed for the claim Pa had bought, sight unseen, and some diggin’ equipment, so I brought the little ‘uns here. I didn’t know Hall’s Creek would be like this – it ain’t like Pa was describing it.’ Jake looked out on the desolation of those fields.

‘I’m sorry to hear of your bad fortune, Jake, but I’m guessing,’ he looked upwards, ‘that they’d be proud of what you’re doing here.’

Jake had a tear in his eye. ‘Sorry I weren’t so welcoming when you first turned up. I admit I was a bit scared when I seen you men arriving. You look pretty rough – all them beards and swearin’ and yelling and carryin’ on.’

Tom smiled, ‘Yeah, we’re a bit of a wild bunch, and none of us care much for the so-called laws of the state. But we’ve got our own laws, and they’re iron-hard. We look after each other, and help out people where we can.’ He drained his mug. ‘Thanks for the cuppa. I’d best get back to shovelling, or the other blokes will think I’m a shirker.’

‘I hope you find some gold soon.’

‘Well, we’ve been finding a little, here and there.’

Jake looked at the big lump of beef and seemed to be on the verge of tears. ‘Of course you have, but I hope you find a nugget the size of your bloody heart.’



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






#39. The Heartbreaker

#39. The Heartbreaker

The shaft went twenty-five feet straight down before angling back towards Halls Creek. The work was done square and neat; well-shored and precise. Tom had seen how successful miners cut their shafts and he was keen to emulate them.

After weeks of sweat and ten hard-won yards on the flat, speculation mounted that the leader might not be far away, but when they finally found it, there were no shouts or carrying on. The Thirteen knew enough about goldfields to keep good fortune quiet.

Larrikin emerged from the shaft, shiny with sweat, took a long pull from a water bag, then walked over to Tom, who had come off his shift an hour earlier.

‘Hi there Tom,’ Larrikin said quietly. ‘I think you’d better come down and take a gander at something.’

Tom put down his mug and followed, down the shaft-ladder, then walking bent over, near crawling at times until they reached the face.

In the light of a slush lantern Tom saw veins of yellow and red, in thick seams of blue quartz, running in jagged, random lines in the sandstone parent rock.

‘The red is hematite,’ said Tom, ‘and the yellow is gold.’ He turned and grinned back at Larrikin. ‘Looks like you’ve just found the Heartbreaker.’

Within an hour the Thirteen made up an anxious group pretending to be nonchalant, hanging around the camp while Tom and Larrikin brought the first bucket-load of ore out. They crushed a few handfuls with a hammer in a pan, then took it down to the water.

Tom used one of the bigger pans to do the work, taking his time, sluicing it back and forth so a little spilled each time. It was a hot, still afternoon anyway, but the heat seemed to go up a notch, and the world stood still.

When it was done they could all see the gold in the pan. Not as much as they might have hoped, but it was real gold not pyrites or mica. Tom took a pinch of it on the end of his finger and held it up.

‘Now at least we’ve got something worth taking up to the battery,’ he said. ‘We’ll get two or three ounces to the ton, quite likely.’

The others stared back, adding and subtracting figures in their heads. Taking into account crushing fees at the battery, and gold at three and half pounds an ounce, there was profit at the end of the process, but nothing wild unless the leader thickened.

‘Maybe the find will get richer as we go along,’ said Tom. ‘Let’s hope so anyway.’

Horses pulling loaded dray. NT Library

The following afternoon, fresh from a dinner-time argument with Sandy Myrtle over horses, Tommy the Rag swung his pick at a lump of quartz, missed and buried the point in the middle of his foot. The wound spurted blood like a hose, and he sat, gripping the wound and cursing Sandy for upsetting him. Bob Anderson wrapped it in a clean rag and helped him up to camp.

Despite the application of ‘Moore’s Sovereign Remedy’, the only medicine they had to hand, Tommy’s lower leg was soon swollen, streaked with red and hot to touch. Within a day or two the wound leaked pus, and the gang started wearing worried frowns.

Missus Dead Finish arrived on her weekly run and was at Tommy’s bedside as soon as she heard. With a useful medicine kit to draw from she tut-tutted at the dirty bandages and ‘medicine’ Tommy’s mates had used.

She cradled the sick man’s head in one huge elbow. ‘You poor little barsted,’ she said. ‘C’mere and I’ll have ya on ya feet in no time.’

And she set to wiping his brow on her hands and knees, made him soup, delivered spoonful by spoonful, followed by shots of neat rum.

The rest of the gang were touched by the devotion in that night-long vigil. Tom Nugent commented several times that it was like there was a yellow shaft of light shining down from the moon, directly on the pair. ‘I never thought the old girl had it in her,’ he said.

But even these ministrations failed, and the next morning Missus Dead Finish stalked to the main fire, where the men were lounging around, eating Johnny cakes and smoking pipes.

‘Get up, one of yez, and help me carry Tommy to the wagon. I’ll be taking the poor barsted to Wyndham. He won’t get better without a doctor.’


It was a while since Missus Dead Finish had lost her husband, and since then she hadn’t seen much in the way of attachment. Now, for some reason the injured Tommy filled her heart. It was a strange feeling but she liked it, and the thought of him dying made her afraid in a way she hadn’t felt for while.

The four draught horses, that she normally nursed on the journey, she now drove with single minded determination, talking to them long into the night. They had hearts as big as their bodies, part-Shire, part-Clydesdale and a touch of Irish. They plodded on, while Dead Finish used the big moon as her guide.

‘We can’t let Tommy die, boys and girls. He’s a good one. So pick your pace and hold it, for we won’t be resting ‘til we hit the Ord.’

It was early in the morning before she saw the river shining like polished steel, and the horses strained against their harness to reach it. There, on stony banks of that fast-running waterway, Missus Dead Finish found her usual camp. There were other fires there that night, prospectors heading to and from the diggings, but she kept apart from them.

She left her patient in the wagon while she took the horses down for water then hobbled and belled them to graze. Then she lifted Tommy down and propped him by a cheery campfire, fed him with broth she had brought in a cooking pot.

‘How you holding up, young feller?’ she asked.

Tommy found the strength to nod while Dead Finish piled both their swags on top of one another, to increase his comfort, and when the time came for sleep she stretched out beside him on the bare ground, with only her pillow and a spare garment or two for bedding. She slept but lightly, and started awake with his every noise, dribbling water or rum between his lips.


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






#40. Bow River

#40. Bow River

Missus Dead Finish and her patient, Tommy the Rag, passed through Baobab Wells at noon and reached Anton’s Landing a little after two on the third day. A crowd gathered while the big woman carried the once slight, now wasted, young man into the Wyndham hospital, a stone building run on a skeleton crew of nursing sisters and a single doctor.

The doctor examined the patient and turned to Missus Dead Finish. ‘Are you his mother?’

‘Nah, just a mate,’ she said, too worried to be offended.

‘You’ve done well in getting him up here alive, but he’s a sick boy. That foot has turned septic and the poison has all but reached his heart.’

Tommy tossed fitfully, burning with fever in his hospital cot, while the freight piled up for Missus Dead Finish, and her customers pleaded with her to hitch up her team and get back to work. This she refused to do, but stayed doggedly, defending Tommy’s interests. When the sisters tried to take his stockwhip away from the bedside she shook her head.

‘Don’t touch that whip. It stays by Tommy’s side day and night, sick or well. He’ll get better quicker with it than without it.’

Wyndham, Western Australia in the 1880s. JM Nielson. Victoria State Library

After five days, Tommy was sitting up in bed, and finally, back on his feet. Now they loaded up the cart and headed back towards Halls Creek. As they trundled out of town a group of disillusioned diggers lined the track, passing a demijohn of rum from hand to hand and lip to lip, singing a song popular then in the town:


Behold in me a digger bold, I’ve just come down of late,

I spent my time just like the rest, midst spinifex and slate,

Of tucker it is plentiful, and more than can be sold,

There’s lots of pebble and other metal, but the devil’s run away with the Gold.

For the Bow runs into the Ord,

And the Ord runs into the sea,

And we rushed down to Cambridge Gulf,

To clear from Kimberley.


Missus Dead Finish had always been proud of her speed, but that journey back to Hall’s Creek took on a dream-like quality that threw a blanket over any desire to hurry on.

The first day they managed just thirteen lazy miles, to Parry’s Lagoon. The second they did better, but lingered on the Denham River crossing ‘for the damned horses to get a good feed.’ The third they camped on the second branch of the Bow River, where granite boulders made handy camp furniture.

The next day, in the stony hills towards Turkey Creek, Tommy saw a blaze of brown movement just off the track, and through the trees. It was a spot sometimes used as a camp, stony and sparse, but useful because of a number of old wells made in days of yore by the Kija people.

Getting gingerly down from the box, Tommy heard the sound of buzzing flies, a horde of them. The brown shapes he had seen turned into kite-hawks, squabbling over something, with the flies rising and falling in clouds as they moved in or out of the way. A wedge-tailed eagle was also on the scene, and there seemed to be a battle developing between that giant bird and the kites.

The smell hit Tommy at the same time as the kites scampered onto the wing and away.

‘What is it, lad?’ came from behind him.

Tommy slipped his stockwhip from his belt. ‘Don’t move, Missus, for Christ’s sake. And get yer shotgun handy.’ He swallowed down rising nausea, for there on the ground was the body of a man, his body transfixed with a spear through the chest, both hands gripping the shaft as if trying to pull it from his body. The birds had opened the skin and torn strips of flesh from his cheeks, neck and upper chest. One of his ankles above the boots had also provided an entry point. A revolver lay on the ground beside the corpse.

The wedge-tailed eagle was the only one of the birds who had not yet taken flight, staring back at Tommy as if to say. ‘This old meat is mine now.’

Missus Dead Finish came up beside Tommy, with the shotgun in her hands. ‘The Kija got the poor bastard.’

‘Yeah, looks like it.’

‘Do yer know him?’

‘Nah. What about you?’ Tommy uncoiled his stock whip, took aim at the wedge-tailed eagle and let fly, cracking it not a yard from the bird’s head. The bird admitted defeat, flapping those stately wings and flying off to the nearest branch.

Tommy kneeled beside the body, not daring to breathe through his nose.  The spear would not come out, and Tommy used an axe to sever it where it left the chest cavity.

‘Should we just bury him here?’ asked Dead Finish. ‘Gawd knows I’ve done it before.’

‘We dunno who he is,’ said Tommy. ‘Best we get him to town, someone will know him.’

Wrapping the corpse in a blanket they placed it in the back of the cart. The smell was horrendous.

‘How far to town?’ Tommy asked.

‘Probably eighty mile.’

‘Let’s not stop again,’ said Tommy.

Missus Dead Finish agreed. Neither of them could countenance spending a night with a dead man for company.


A crowd gathered in the street when they stopped the cart opposite the police station. Sergeant James Sherry took charge of the body, but allowed the people of Hall’s Creek to view it on the cart, in the hope of an identification.

‘By God, that’s George Barnett,’ someone said. ‘He’s a good man, and I knew his Ma back in Queensland. I know him well enough to dig a hole for the poor bastard.’

‘Can we count on you to write a letter back and let his family know?’ Sergeant Sherry asked.

‘Well I would, but I can’t write a word except me own name.’

Charlie Price, the Mine Warden, scratched his beard. ‘Come with me, I’ll take the words down for you and you can sign it.’

The policeman turned to the crowd and said, ‘Go back to your claims, all of you. Be assured that justice will be done. With Big Johnny Durack barely cold in his grave just two months past, this proves that the natives have not learned. I will track down the killers of this man and bring them to justice.’

Sherry was true to his word. He rode out with two trackers looking for the killers and came back a week later with five black men in chains, walking behind his horse in a line.

‘That’s not the end of this,’ said Tom Nugent to Sandy Myrtle. ‘From what I hear Barnett came from a big family and they’re yelling for blood.’


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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






#41. Desert Rose

#41. Desert Rose

The Hall’s Creek area, being on the northern fringes of the Great Sandy Desert, was sparsely vegetated except along the river courses. Much of the ground was bare: soils of red, white, grey, or shades in between, relieved by hummocks of grass, curly spinifex and mean acacia shrubs.

After rain, however, green pick came through from the burned or dried stubs of last year’s grass, along with some flowers. The most beautiful of these was called the desert rose. It had green leaves, and mauve-coloured blooms, bright red at the centre.

These flowers weren’t common either, but after working like a fiend all morning, when the others settled down in the shade to wait out the hours where the heat hammered down in unbearable waves, Scotty saddled up a reluctant horse and set off into the scrub.

‘Where ya headed?’ Tom Nugent asked.

‘Nowt in particular, Tom. Jest a ride.’

Sandy Myrtle shook his head sadly. ‘The sun has gotten to your head, lad.’

Scotty didn’t care, he just rode away, not minding the sweat that ran down between hat and forehead, down over his neck and even the deep channel of his spine.

Leaving the diggings, he rode the sweeps of ancient sand ridges, eyes scanning for a splash of colour. In an hour of searching he found just two of those wild roses in bloom, cutting the stems carefully with his pocket knife and wrapping them in cloth dampened from his water bottle.


In the evening, when Red Jack came out of the shade to work her horses, Scotty was watching, leaning on the rails. He saw her eyes fall on the flowers sitting on a fencepost. The vase was an old bottle of Lee and Perrins sauce but it worked well enough.

Scotty watched her walk across to the flowers, pick them up, and lift the delicate blooms delicately to her nose. Then she turned and looked at him. There was something in her eyes; wistful and disturbing. He could have sworn that she came alive in that moment. As if her head suddenly filled with possibilities; regrets banished. Then, a curtain closed on her face, and she nodded once. Thanks. Acknowledgement.

Still without speaking she took the flowers into the basic little bough shed she inhabited. A moment later she came out without them, did not look in his direction and started working the horses as if nothing had happened.

The Government Residency, Darwin. Peter Spillett Collection. NT Library.

One thousand miles away, in the Northern Territory capital of Palmerston, Alfred Searcy nursed his gin and tonic as he looked out across the lawns of Government House, past Fort Hill to the harbour dazzling in the afternoon light. To his left was a long row of trestles covered with spotless white tablecloths. The bar staff, all Larrakeyah youths, shook cocktails and dropped ice in glasses with tongs, scarcely saying a word.

The lawns were trod by leather shoes belonging to the cream of the city of Palmerston. No Lords here, but certainly gentlemen and their ladies. Station owners, mine owners, merchants, ships’ captains, senior public servants and ranking police officers. For Searcy and O’Donohue attendance at the reception had been well worth the three-day voyage on the steamer from Borroloola.

Standing in the shade beside the gazebo, crowned by a maze of bougainvillea flowers, was the Government Resident, the Honourable John Langdon Parsons and his wife Marianna; Darwin royalty. Like Alfred himself, the Resident and his Lady wore clothes that were inappropriately hot for the afternoon. Everyone tried to pretend that they weren’t sweating – much too stoic to take out a kerchief and dab the sweat away.

Food was being carried around the crowd on silver platters by Larrakeyah girls in prim white aprons and matching pinafores. Searcy, as he chose a sausage-meat-filled pastry, couldn’t help but admire the serving girl’s glossy dark skin and liquid eyes. Out of scientific interest only, of course.

Turning away from the platter Alfred realised that the young architect he had been talking to had drifted away. Scanning the crowd he saw a man in the uniform of the West Australian Police, replete with medals and of military bearing. He had obviously just arrived, received a drink but had not yet attached himself to any of the groups on the lawn.

Alfred walked across and held out his hand. ‘Well met good fellow. My name is Alfred Searcy, former customs Inspector and incumbent officer of the law, stationed at Borroloola.’

‘Ah, Mr Searcy, why I have heard of you, of course. I’m Sub-Inspector Lawrence. Of Fremantle and more lately, Roebourne. I’ve spent time in the Kimberley in recent weeks and I’ve been meeting with Paul Foelsche here in Palmerston about how you fellows do things over here.’

Alfred could hardly believe his luck. ‘The Kimberley, eh? Then I imagine you’ve had occasion to visit Hall’s Creek?’

‘Most certainly, why do you ask?’

Alfred narrowed his eyes. ‘Have you had anything to do with a gang of vagabonds called the Ragged Thirteen?’

‘Ah yes, I remember your letter to the Commissioner about them. Our gold warden did stop them from registering any claims, but unfortunately they found a third-party to do it for them. From all reports they’ve been fairly quiet … so far.’

Alfred looked around for O’Donahue. To his dismay he saw that his friend was earnestly in conversation with one of the young waitresses. He turned back to Lance. ‘Please don’t go anywhere, I have a comrade who should join this discussion.’

Striding over, Alfred pinched O’Donahue under the armpit and dragged him away. ‘If you are determined to disgrace yourself … then do it, but not in front of the Resident, confound you.’

‘I wasn’t doing anything. I was only talking …’

‘Leave it please. I want you to meet someone. Hurry along.’

After the introductions O’Donahue still, infuriatingly, cast predatory glances back at the girl he had been grooming. Searcy kicked him in the back of the ankle.

‘Now,’ said Alfred, ‘my dear Sub-Inspector Lawrence. As I stated in my letter, on their way west the Ragged Thirteen robbed Victoria River Downs Station. I neglected to mention, that the theft included a valuable grey stallion. I have a warrant for the arrest of Tom Nugent or Tom Holmes, he goes by either name, as the man who stole the horse in question. If I give you the details of the animal will you arrange to have Nugent arrested?’

The WA policeman smiled. ‘I’ll have Sergeant Sherry down at Hall’s Creek and his men bring him in at once. We can try him at Wyndham if you’ll have witnesses brought over.’

‘Excellent, excellent,’ said Alfred, then took a moment to remember how, so many times, the Ragged Thirteen had humiliated he and O’Donohue. Talked their way out of custody at the Roper Bar. Chased away the police horse plant in the Gulf. Out-foxed and out-paced them at the Katherine, then finally made fools of them at the Negri River. Now at last, Tom Nugent, the ringleader, was in his sights.

‘I’m so pleased to have met you,’ Alfred said finally. ‘Good men are hard to find in this land of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells.’ He paused, puffing out his chest. ‘And I can’t wait to see Nugent in chains, in fact I do believe I’d cross hell barefoot to testify against him myself.’


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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






#42. The Vengeance Seekers

#42. The Vengeance Seekers

The Wet Season arrived for two weeks in February. Less work was done, replaced with horseplay and drinking. Some days the rain was so heavy that the best course of action was to cover the shaft with canvas, find some shelter, and open a bottle

There was never a dull moment. Jake and his sisters became fixtures around the camp, and some of the Thirteen lent a hand with a shovel or a gift of beef when it was needed. Missus Dead Finish hung around between carrier jobs, swearing and smoking and drinking rum with the best of them.

Some Irish lads had a claim nearby, always fighting and getting into trouble, and everyone knew Russian Jack, the man who had once carried a mate all the way to Wyndham in a wheelbarrow for medical help. It was a fascinating community to be a part of, and the Thirteen enjoyed the company and laughs while they fought to make a living from stone, gravel, and an erratic gold leader called the Heartbreaker.

The rain lifted as fast as it had arrived, and the land turned dry again, burned mercilessly by a sun that seemed to have rejuvenated from the pause. At least now the gullies and creeks were full of water, and the work of panning and cradling carried on apace.

One afternoon, when Tom came off his shift, he saddled up and rode into Halls Creek for a beer. He was enjoying the cool feel of the glass against his hand when some horsemen came down the road. Six riders in all. Lean horses and hard men, with Martini-Henry and Snider rifles in leather scabbards, trailing packhorses.

Even the busiest diggers paused to watch them arrive. There was no doubt they’d been on a long road, and had ridden hard. Tom sipped his beer as he watched them dismount outside the shanty. The only one of the six he recognised was a lawman for hire called Lucanus. Tom’s sense of unease deepened.

Old Joe Templeton owned the stables across the road and offered a public tough for a penny a time. Tom watched the newcomers take the horses across.

Joe was out in a flash. ‘That’s my water, gentlemen. You want it, you pay up.’

For a moment Tom thought they would refuse, but after much scowling and angry looks some coins were produced and thrown to the dust at Joe’s feet.

‘No manners!’ cried Joe.

‘Shut ya gob you old bastard, or I’ll give you more than you bargained for in return for the cursed water.’

Finally, with the horses watered, unsaddled and tied to hitching posts, the six riders headed for the bar. The leading man, older than the others, face twisted into a permanent scowl, nodded his head at Tom, then said, ‘Whoever heard of a shithole where a man has to pay to water his horse.’

Tom explained. ‘Water’s at a premium here – even after rain that water has to be carted up from the river in a dray. What’s your business? You don’t look like diggers.’

‘No we ain’t. My name’s Edward Barnett. It was my brother George who got murdered by the blacks up near Hell’s Gate. We’ve just been fixing up his grave.’

‘It oughtn’t take six of you to do that,’ Tom said. ‘And you blokes look girded for war.’

The man grinned wickedly. ‘We plan to unleash hell on the Kija for doing what they did. We’re just in town to wet our throats and fill the packs with tucker. Those savages will wish they never messed with my brother.’

‘Five of them have already been arrested, by Sergeant Sherry, and sent up to Wyndham in chains.’

‘All five were released,’ spat Barnett. ‘The judge said there weren’t enough evidence to convict them.’

‘Well how the hell are you s’posed to work out which one’s guilty or not?’ asked Tom.

‘Oh, we’ll know.’

‘And what’s the point, anyway?’ Tom put down his glass. ‘Revenge isn’t going to do anybody any good – just stir things up.’

‘I don’t know who you are and I don’t give a flying fuck. Just get out of my way.’

State Library of Western Australia

Within two or three days refugees started to arrive at Brockman, a settlement about seven miles from Halls Creek. Esau the Afghan came from town to assist the midwife O’Neil, with tending the wounded in her shanty there. When Tom heard he rode out to see for himself.

Gunshot wounds were ugly things, Tom decided as he viewed them, the .452 projectile fired by the Martini-Henry rifles opening gaping wounds in belly, thigh or arm. Anyone struck closer to the vitals, Tom guessed, would already be dead.

He asked one of the lesser wounded, who had once worked as a tracker, and thus knew some English, what had happened.

‘All-up proper finish. Fambly all g’wei or prop’ly dead.’

‘Can you tell me where the white men’s camp is?’

The black man nodded grimly. ‘Magoombarra Country. Panton River you white mob callim.’

Tom rode back to the claim in a rage. ‘Stop work you bastards. We’ve got a job to do. Mount up, load your weapons, we’re going to do what the so-called authorities in this part of the world are too gutless to do.’

It was the first time the Thirteen had ridden together in a while, and Tom wasn’t the only one who wondered if it might be the last. Blind Joe rode bareback in the lead, for he’d learned the local country well, and had not lost the keenness of his eye.

On the way north they found a Kija camp, the wurlies torched and fresh ground disturbed from fresh spade-work. Tom felt a lump of anger in his throat that he just could not swallow down.

They found Edward Barnett’s camp less than a mile away, on a good Panton River waterhole. The Thirteen surrounded the Six, who were lounging around the fire drinking rum.

‘Go back to where you came from,’ Tom said. ‘You’ve had your revenge, and I hope it sickens your heart until the day you die. I’m Tom Nugent by God, and I’m slow to anger, but if you push me I’ll bring hell down on you fast enough.’

August Lucanus rose to his feet, hands in the pockets of his dungarees. He looked around at the horsemen and sneered. ‘The Ragged Thirteen! I’ve heard of you – breakers and enterers – horse thieves. Tea and sugar bushrangers. Not the smartest crew in history. If you think you scare me – or any of us – you’ve got it wrong.’

The Thirteen trained the sights of their weapons on Barnett and his men. Sandy Myrtle had a double-barrelled shotgun. He raised it also, tucking the butt under his armpit.

‘I haven’t shot anyone with an eight-gauge before,’ he commented. ‘I’ll be interested in the results.’

‘Get out of here,’ whispered Tom. ‘Now.’

Sullenly, the Six caught their horses, packed stores into saddlebags and rifles into scabbards.The Ragged Thirteen followed them as far as the Nicholson River, and lined a ridge, watching until they had passed away into the East.

‘Good riddance,’ said Tom. ‘But mark my words. We’ll be paying for the actions of murderous bastards like that for a long time to come.’


Continues next Sunday …

©2019 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



#43. The Ragged Twelve-and-a-Half

#43. The Ragged Twelve-and-a-Half


No one said a word when Missus Dead Finish started sharing Tommy the Rag’s swag, her draught horses hobbled and wandering with nosebags of oats, and some to spare for the rest of the plant, who were rarely well enough fed.

As fond of rum as the rest of the crew, Dead Finish never failed to produce a bottle from under the driver’s box. She and Tommy would sit up after the others had wandered off, telling jokes and yarning. The bond between the pair seemed too ludicrous for words – scrawny young Tommy, and a woman at least three decades older than him (no one really knew) – with white bloomers, washed and hanging from a line stretching from wagon to tree. These, Larrikin mused aloud could, with the addition of a pole or two, be used as tents.

In any case, the relationship continued to develop, and Missus Dead Finish’s arrival came to be a regular thing. Those who grumbled about a woman in the camp were sweetened by the horse feed, free grog, and the lack of any need to moderate their language or behaviour. This was a woman who could curse with the best of them.

Tom Nugent said to Tommy one day, ‘You and the old girl seem to get on uncommonly well.

‘Yeah, not too bad.’ Tommy looked embarrassed. ‘Dunno why. But she aren’t like other gals I’ve known. I feel like she’s watching my back. That she’d never give up on me.’

‘Cripes Tommy, sounds like you’re in love with her.’

‘Maybe I am.’ There was a long pause, while Tom took a cigar from his pocket, straightened it and bit the end off. ‘Do you think the other coves are laughing at me, because she’s old, and not real pretty.’

‘Maybe a bit, but don’t let that bother you, Tommy.’

‘Hey Tom?’


‘You’ve been around. How does a man know when he’s in love?’

Tom smoked his pipe in silence for a few moments, watching the swirling smoke reflectively. ‘Love’s a bit like wind. Sometimes it blows in hot gusts that last an hour or two, making a lot of dust and noise. Other times it twists and turns all over the place, changin’ direction all the time. Real love, now that’s another thing. It blows like a prevailing wind, almost all the time, so steady a man can rely on it.’

Tommy the Rag grinned, and quicker than the eye could see he uncoiled his stock whip and cracked it so hard Tom’s ears rang and a pair of foraging pigeons took to the wing and flew off into the sky.

Mounted police. State Library of Western Australia

The diggers and townsfolk of Halls Creek could tolerate Sergeant Sherry. Mostly he was content to sit on his verandah, sometimes investigating a serious theft or murder, but he never worried too much about a brawl or even a riot at one of the shanties.

Things changed, however, when a full police patrol came into town. No one liked it. Word spread on the bush telegraph, shouted from claim to claim, or carried by running children.

One afternoon when Tom was down the shaft, working away at the face with a hand pick, he heard the high ringing tone of a steel pipe being beaten hard at the entrance. It was the usual recall signal, able to penetrate the depths for some distance.

Crawling in his hands and knees for the first part of the shaft, Tom reached the ladder and started to climb, filthy with rock dust and sweating like crazy. He was half way up when he saw Larrikin leaning over, his head surrounded by the cloudless blue sky.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘You’d best get up here. Word is that there are two out-of-town traps with some armed boys asking for you in town, and now they’re riding this way.’

Tom thought for a moment. He and the boys had lately been stealing a few Durack cattle and stocking the hidden valley he had found. New England Jack had even butchered one or two and sold the meat. Still, it seemed unlikely that the police would be able to pin that on him.

‘What the fuck do they want with me?’

‘I dunno. But here they come now.’

As Tom emerged into the sunlight, Larrikin aimed a finger back along the track that weaved its way down the gully between the claim boundaries. Two policemen, still in clean enough clothes to indicate that they hadn’t been on patrol for long, were walking their horses towards the Thirteen’s claim, and behind them rode a bunch of police boys with rifles.

The police party didn’t enter the camp at first, but diverted down towards the base of the gully, where the horse plant were munching on a few scraps of grass. Tom watched, wondering what the hell they were doing. He hoped for a moment that they might keep riding on. Then, he felt a prickle of unease as the trap pointed out the grey Tom had taken from Victoria River Downs. One of the police boys put a halter on him.

Leading the animal, they rode across to the camp. ‘Are you Tom Nugent?’ the policeman asked Tom.

‘Yes, that’s me.’

‘Is this your horse?’

Tom knew that he had two choices, either take responsibility for the horse or implicate some or all of the others. It was important, he decided, that the others stayed here to work the claim.

‘Yes, he’s mine. His name’s Gumnut, and I bought him from a bloke who said he was branded at Alexandria Station, and that’s the brand there.’ Tom flashed a glance at Larrikin, who had told the story originally.

‘I put it to you that the animal’s name is actually Wickfield Chesterton,’ said the trap. ‘The brand has been cleverly altered, but he is actually the property of Charles Brown Fisher, joint owner of Victoria River Downs station. You, Tom Nugent, have been accused of stealing him.’

Tom’s eyes went wide with mock-innocence. ‘Why, that’s a terrible accusation to make. Here I am, a dedicated miner and member of the Halls Creek Digger’s Committee.’

The policeman grinned wickedly. ‘Spare us the fine words attestin’ to your virtue. A colleague of mine was talking to Alf Searcy of the Northern Territory Customs Service. He told some pretty tales about you and your so-called mates.’

‘I beg to differ sir, they are real mates, not so-called mates, but I doubt you’d know about such things. Neither would Searcy, I dare say.’

‘Enough talk. The horse is stolen property. You are under arrest for the theft of this horse, worth over four hundred pounds, property of CB Fisher.’

Tom looked across and locked eyes with Sandy, whose eyes had moved to the shotgun propped against a tree nearby. Tom shook his head, telling the big man clearly not to think about it. ‘Lads,’ he said. ‘We all know this is a mistake. I’ll go quietly, clear my name, and be back digging gold before you know it.’

The police gave him time to roll his swag and saddle a spare horse, then fixed iron bracelets to his wrists.

Tom, having mounted his horse awkwardly, turned back to the others. ‘Isn’t it strange how these gentlemen allowed a gang of killers to ride here and commit bloody murder unchecked for a week until we stopped them, but they’ll drag a man away in chains over a horse.’

Just as Tom was about to ride off, the boy from Borroloola ran out from the woman holding him. He grabbed on to Tom’s leg, tears rolling down his cheeks. Tom leaned down and mussed his curly hair.

‘Don’t fret, kid. I’ll just go along with these men. It’s only for a day or two.’

Sandy came forward and unclasped the boy’s arms, holding him firmly but gently as the police column moved off in a welter of dust, on the long road to Wyndham.

When Tom had gone the others gathered around the fire. Sandy said sombrely, ‘By God, that wasn’t good. I guess we’re just the Ragged Twelve now.’

Missus Dead Finish stood up from her place beside Tommy. ‘You’re wrong there,’ she said. ‘I’m here too, and I’m as good as any man, even if I’m only half as tall.’

Sandy inclined his great head. ‘Right you are Madam, the Ragged Twelve-and-a-Half it is.’


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







Review: The Queen’s Colonial by Peter Watt

Review: The Queen’s Colonial by Peter Watt


1845, a village outside Sydney Town. Humble blacksmith Ian Steele struggles to support his widowed mother. All the while he dreams of a life in uniform, serving in Queen Victoria’s army.

1845, Puketutu, New Zealand. Second Lieutenant Samuel Forbes, a young poet from an aristocratic English family, wants nothing more than to run from the advancing Maori warriors and discard the officer’s uniform he never sought.

When the two men cross paths in the colony of New South Wales, they are struck by their brotherly resemblance and quickly hatch a plan for Ian to take Samuel’s place in the British army.

Ian must travel to England, fool the treacherous Forbes family and accept a commission into their regiment as a company commander. Once in London, he finds love with an enigmatic woman, but must part with her to face battle in the bloody Crimean war.


My first Peter Watt novel was Cry of the Curlew, more than twenty-five years ago. Finally, I thought, someone was bringing a vivid, Wilbur Smith style of writing to Australian history. I’ve been a fan ever since, reading avidly along through the Frontier series. Later, when my own first book was coming out, I was introduced to Peter, and visited him up in Maclean where Peter, myself, and Pete’s good mate, talkback host John Carroll, had a great yarn over a coffee or two.

When I heard that Peter had started a new series I got hold of a copy straight off, and was thrilled to find that I was listed in the acknowledgements. I’m still not sure why I deserve that honour, but was thrilled nonetheless. So what did I think of The Queen’s Colonial?

It’s a cracker of a story. Peter never lets the story get bogged down with excessive description or gets carried away with his prose. The action moves along at a brisk trot, and as I reader I was drawn ever deeper into the characters and their lives.

Ian Steele is an admirable lead, with his own strong ethics and sense of fair play. He’s also forgiving to those willing to make amends. When he fulfils his dream to serve in the British army, he’s a caring and capable officer. Unfortunately, men like Ian foster jealousy in lesser beings, and he’s in fear of his life from both Russian bullets and scheming officers, some of whom are in league with his half-brother in England.

The battle descriptions in the second half of the book made me feel like I was there, with an Enfield rifle in my hands, and Russian cannonballs bouncing through the ranks, maiming and wounding as they went. Through The Queen’s Colonial I learned a lot about a war I knew nothing about, and applaud Peter for his research and attention to detail throughout.

I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait for the next in the series.

Greg Barron 2019

#44. Wyndham Prison

#44. Wyndham Prison


Tom Nugent knew a bit about prison cells. He had once been thrown in the Blackall lock-up with his mate Harry Readford, accused of possessing eight stolen horses. It took three days for Harry’s bribes to filter out to all the witnesses. The charges were dropped and the pair walked free. Tom had also earned a night or two in police cells from Brisbane to Burketown, usually for being disorderly or fighting.

His Wyndham cell, Tom decided, was not too bad. His first act was to pace it out with long strides from wall to wall. Six paces wide and eight deep, with a sleeping bench along one side, and a drum that served as a latrine. The floor was coated with greasy bones and other scraps from past meals.

Once his investigations were complete, he set about cleaning up, rolling the grimy blanket and using it as a broom, sweeping the scraps under the bars and out of the cell. The gaoler watched incredulously throughout.

‘Hey you! Stop making such a Godawful mess for fuck’s sake.’

‘Ah shut your fat mouth,’ said Tom. ‘You should be ashamed of putting a gentleman in a filthy shithole like this one.’

‘I don’t see no gentleman, just a dirty horse-thief.’

‘That’s yet to be proved.’

‘An officer has been sent out to Alexandria Station to check your story about the horse being a gift. Unless it checks out, which I highly doubt, you’ll be facing a magistrate soon enough.’

‘If they find enough evidence to convict me I’ll dance naked on the Anton’s Landing jetty at sunset,’ Tom said.

‘No you won’t, because you’ll be locked up, right where you bleeding well belong.’

‘Just get me a clean blanket,’ said Tom, ‘and you and me will get along well enough.’

The policeman, disarmed by the overture, dropped the belligerent stare and turned away.

‘Make that two blankets, would you mate?’ Tom called after him. ‘I’m fond of using one as a pillow.’

View of Wyndham to the Jetty.

The best thing about that cell was a large, barred window. It was possible, Tom soon discovered, to stand on his latrine-drum and look outside over a small grassy park, and a neat white-painted building, all the way to the Cambridge Gulf.

The stone window was a good yard square, and though broken by eight thick, vertical bars, the sea-breeze, once it got up in the late morning, flowed easily through the spaces, and Tom swore he could smell the spice of distant islands. Either way, it sparked his imagination and passed the time.

On the third morning he noticed a bustle of activity in the building in the foreground of his view. Standing on his chair he realised that this must be a school house. Children started arriving at eight-thirty, escorted by parents and siblings, many riding double on horseback or sitting up in carts, most walking up from the close-packed shanties. They were a boisterous lot, boy and girl alike, the children of lugger skippers, store keepers and publicans – many shades of brown, yellow and white.

From nine until eleven there was strict silence, and little to see, as the children attended their lessons inside. Yet Tom heard for the first time a species of voice he had not heard for a while. Cultured, feminine, yet undoubtedly in control. Tom breathed as soft as he could so as to hear all the better. Even when the fat gaoler walked past and attempted to needle him with a comment, Tom ignored him.

At eleven a handbell rang, and the children erupted into the yard. A young woman swept after them, and Tom stopped breathing altogether. She was tall and blonde, bustling around the children. Tom decided that she was the singularly most beautiful human being he had ever seen. And from that moment on, he thought of nothing else.


Back in Halls Creek, the Ragged Twelve-and-a-Half were cleaning their tools and putting them away for the night. Bitterness permeated the camp like a drug. They all still dreamed, but those dreams had gone stale.

Three really big nuggets had come from other claims in the last two weeks. Life-changing nuggets, plucked from the surface, while the gang had sweated their guts out underground for months, for a few ounces of colour. It hurt too much to speak of.

Sandy Myrtle was sipping weak tea when he saw the figure of young Jake sprinting over the mullock heaps and scrub between the claims. All arms and legs, he was instantly recognisable.

Knowing something was wrong Sandy sat his mug of tea on a rough lump of sandstone that served as a table and came slowly to his feet.

‘You alright?’

Jake shook his head. ‘Have you blokes seen young Nellie?’

Sandy felt a chill in his chest. ‘No.’

‘She was here around noon and I haven’t seen her since.’

‘Have you ridden in and asked the Warden?’

‘Yes, he said he saw her once, around one. She borrowed a map off him, said it was for me, then booked up some flour and matches from the store. One of me waterbags is missing, and a spade and pan. Last night Nellie was bangin’ on that we needed to find a new place to dig. She’d heard about those damned nuggets those lucky bastards found.’

‘Jesus,’ said Sandy, while the others gathered ’round. ‘She’s gone into the bloody desert? Right you blokes, we split up and look for her. Meet back here in two hours if no one’s found her in that time.’

‘Me and Bob Anderson will go around the main camps,’ said New England Jack. ‘If she’s there we’ll find her.’

‘I’ll ride north,’ said Fitz.

‘South,’ said Sandy.

Scotty: ‘East.’

Larrikin: ‘West.’

Sandy called out. ‘Hey, Blind Joe. Get up here, we got work to do.’


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







#45. The Second Stone

#45. The Second Stone


The dingo pack were starving, with rib bones sharp as knives and shrunken, high bellies. There were five altogether, led by the matriarch, with dugs as black as night, and her teeth worn with age.

The pack had recently taken to shadowing the camps of prospectors, existing on bones or scraps left behind, and even, when desperate, eating shit and sullage. When the old bitch found the scent of blood on the wind she knew it as a human smell. This made her wary, but hunger was a powerful force.

Still unsure, she led her offspring in a wary, winding course, following the tracks that led aimlessly into the arid landscape.


Blind Joe was as keen-eyed a tracker as Sandy Myrtle had ever seen, but he struggled to locate Nellie’s trail. They did not know her departure point from Hall’s Creek, and it was necessary to cast wide around the diggings.

Sandy, Jake, Tommy the Rag and Larrikin followed Blind Joe in silence, reliant on the senses of this master bushman. By late afternoon they were tense with frustration, and when Blind Joe pointed out a lone man’s tracks, Sandy told him to follow it up.

‘Let’s see who it is, anyway,’ said Sandy.

The tracks were like a highway to Blind Joe, and at a jog-trot they soon came to a swagman’s camp. He was long-bearded, and lean, busy at the fire, standing when they rode in.

‘Welcome, brothers, come and have a cuppa. The billy just biled. Or a tot of rum if youse would prefer.’

The five men stayed in the saddle. Sandy spoke for all of them.

‘We’re looking for a girl? Have you seen her?’

‘What girl? D’ye mean black or white?’

Tommy flicked his right wrist, releasing his stockwhip, but Larrikin’s hand struck out like a snake, seizing the whip just above the ironwood shaft, stopping the blow.

‘Let’s not start taking our frustrations out on the innocent,’ said Larrikin.

Sandy cleared his throat, and addressed the prospector again. ‘Thanks for the offer, but we’ve no time for drinking. It’s a white girl gone missing from her camp.’ He pointed to Jake. ‘This feller here’s sister. If you see her, kindly take her in to the mine warden.’

‘I’ll do that. What’s the lass’s name?’

‘Ellen, but we mainly call her Nellie,’ said Jake.

‘Good luck then, to you fellers. This aren’t a good country to be lost in.’

The search took on a frantic urgency. They all knew that Blind Joe could follow a track after dark, but only if he was on it in the first place. By sheer good luck, not far from an abandoned claim on two joined hills called the Red Widows, Blind Joe gave a shout.

‘Hey Sandy. I seen Miss Nellie been alonga here.’

Jake confirmed it. He knew his sister’s print and there it was in the dust, clear as day.

‘Good work, Joe,’ said Sandy. ‘There’ll be a pouch full of tobacco for that. If you find her alive it’ll be an armload.’

Blind Joe took to the trail with dogged flair, and even in the hours before moonrise he never lost the spoor for long. Around midnight they found much of the equipment the girl had been carrying. A pan, a spade, and much of the food, lying abandoned on the ground.

It had been a while since Sandy had spent so many hours in the saddle, but the old muscles were still there, creaking and groaning. After a few hours the aches and pains had hardened into resolve.

Ah, he thought to himself, it was like a grave yard that night, the moon-silvered plain of termite mounds and small trees, glowing like diamonds, and so silent that it was like some nether world between life and death; past and future. The bush at night held no fears for Sandy, but he had learned to be watchful. He was alert for shapes and shadows that seemed out of place, for movement and sounds. A little ahead and to the right Blind Joe was a constant, sometimes riding, sometimes walking with the reins bunched in his right hand, and occasionally dropping to one knee.

Even more rarely the tracker would toss his reins to one of the men, or secure his mount to a tree, while he cast around the area, muttering to himself before reporting to Tom and pointing. ‘Here Miss Nellie run into a branch,’ he said once. ‘And leave blood on the ground, see?’

‘Poor little mite,’ said Jake. ‘But the blood ain’t hardly dried. She can’t be far away.’

But another hour passed before the next change in the trail.

‘There Miss Nellie make water,’ Blind Joe said. ‘Just li’l bit water. No more blood.’ Then he creased his brow, pointing out an unmistakable dog print in the red dirt.

‘Yella dog foller alonga Miss Ellen,’ said Blind Joe, then held up five fingers. ‘This many.’

Sandy spurred his horse. ‘That’s it, you fellows. Go. As fast as Blind Joe can lead us.’

Photo: NT Library

Nellie stopped walking and sat on a stone on a rise. First she took a drink from her canvas water bottle and then she allowed herself to cry, partly from fear and loneliness, and partly from the pain of her bruised and bloodied nose.

The sound of howling made her freeze inside. She saw the shapes of five dingoes out in the moonlight, sitting up, and howling with snouts pointing up towards the moon. She was frozen in fear. She had seen many dingoes, but not at night and alone like this. The sound of their howling crawled inside her skin.

Finally, the howling stopped, and the dingoes gathered courage. The old bitch slunk forward. The girl picked up a stone and threw it hard. It fell short, and the wary old matriarch scampered back. Not far, however.

Nellie picked up another stone, satisfyingly heavy in her hand.


In the distance Sandy saw something. Was it a splash of white? He wasn’t sure. Blind Joe gave a shout too, and the riders put their spurs to their mounts. They all saw the yellow dogs flee into the night, but there was no time or light to shoot at them.

Jake was there first, off his horse and with Nellie in his arms, cooing at her and letting her sob with relief against his neck. ‘There, there,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever scare me like that again. Thanks to Blind Joe and these gentlemen here.’

Later, when they took her home, Jake prised the second stone from Nellie’s fingers, and found it streaked with rich native gold.


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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






#46. The Long Arm of the Law

#46. The Long Arm of the Law

Billy had been waiting under a lancewood tree, just outside the Newcastle Waters Telegraph Station, since the new moon. Sometimes, at night, he slept. During the day he smoked his clay pipe, or boiled up a billy of tea, but most of the time he just waited, like Mister Alfred Searcy had told him to.

Finally, early one morning, the operator wandered outside, holding a sheet of paper in his hand. ‘Hey Billy,’ he called. There’s a message here addressed to Mr Searcy. All the way from Wyndham, Western Australia. Is that what you was waiting for?’

Billy took the message, folded it, and buttoned it carefully into his top pocket. This done, he hurried off to catch his horse, an energetic chestnut filly, with a striking, flaxen mane and tail. Billy had stolen her from a brumby-runner’s bush yard and broken her himself. She came trotting up to his whistle, and he saddled her up for the ride of her life, wheeling her away towards the Gulf.

In thirty hours of alternating trot, canter and walk, Billy reached the rugged cliffs of the Abner Range, then followed the Kilgour down to the Macarthur, riding into Borroloola at noon on the third day. His filly was spent, but still alert. He loved her more than ever.

Alfred Searcy, spotting Billy from his verandah, walked down to meet him, taking the telegram in hand. ‘Good work, Billy. See to your horse, then head out the back, and the cook will make you some tucker.’

Alfred, unable to wait another moment, unfolded the paper out on the street, taking in the words eagerly.


Alfred frowned and headed back in to his desk to think, calling out for O’Donohue to help him do so, while Billy sat in the lean-to kitchen and ate his own weight in beef and johnny cakes.

Now that the rat was in the trap, Alfred thought, there had to be a way to keep him there.

Alfred Searcy. Photo by TH Harwood


Meanwhile, in Wyndham, after a day or two of watching the school mistress in the playground, Tom Nugent borrowed a quill and sheet of writing paper. After thinking through the words he wrote.

Dear Madam, I hav ben admiring from a distence the exemplery way in wich you conduct your school, and also the manor in which you comport yourself. If only I was not forced by vile circumstance (no fault of my own) to be constrained by the constabulary (only temporary I assure you) then I would be most pleased to make your aquaintaence. Yours Truly Thomas Nugent

Later that day one of the senior girls, opening the playtime batting, slogged a slow delivery Tom’s way. The hard cork cricket ball rolled to the grassy area just below the barred window of his cell. A boy jumped the low police yard fence, long limbed, carefree and unafraid. As he approached Tom called out. ‘Hey lad, will you run an errand for me?’

The boy nodded his freckled face. ‘I reckon so.’

‘Will you take a note to your teacher?’

‘I guess I will, if you want me to.’

Tom folded the note tightly and threw it out between the bars, watching it flutter to the ground from where the boy picked it up.

‘What’s her name?’ asked Tom. ‘Your teacher, I mean.’

‘Miss Byrne it is, mister. I’ll give her the note directly.’

Tom settled down to watch while the boy hurried back, chucking the ball to his mates in a long, looping underarm, just as the school teacher appeared on the verandah with a hand bell. The lad walked up and handed her the note, pointing back towards the police lock-up.

The teacher took the note without reading it, pausing only to look Tom’s way. As he watched, she folded and tucked the message up her sleeve. This done, she raised the handbell and began to ring it. The children streamed into two ragged lines at the foot of the stairs, then marched inside. Peace settled on the school house, and Tom went over to lie on his bed, staring at the ceiling, a strange little smile fixed on his face.

Later in the day, long after the students had gone home, Tom watched as the school mistress came out from the school house, locking it behind her, staring at the lock-up, narrowing her eyes as if trying to see inside. He wasn’t sure if she could see his face in the darkness of the cell behind the bars, but he stared back at her nonetheless.

NT Library


With Blind Joe, and Tom’s boy leading the way, it was strange procession that readied themselves for a move out to ‘Nellie’s Reef,’ as they were already calling it. Preparations, though, had to be made without attracting too much attention, for the diggers roundabout were always looking for signs of a new strike.

‘Why have me and Carmody got to stay behind?’ complained Tommy the Rag.

Sandy flared. ‘Because if we abandon the claim the Chinese or some new chum will take it – we’ve put too much hard work into it for that.’ Then, to the others. ‘Right you lot, let’s move out.’

Sandy took the lead, riding Jonathan James, followed by Jake, Nellie and little Mary. Fitz rode with Bob Anderson, then Larrikin, leading his now heavily pregnant mare. Wonoka Jack and George came next, with New England Jack. The rest of the camp followed – mostly women, some of whom had been with some of the Thirteen all the way from Queensland or the Centre. Right at the back rode Scotty, looking back constantly in the direction of Red Jack’s camp.

By noon, they had reached the dry hill where Nellie had fended off the dingoes, and with the gear dumped and the horses grazing, the men were soon out specking. Within an hour, two more gold-bearing fragments had been found.

‘There’s no damn water so we’ll be dry-blowing,’ said Fitz, ‘but there’s gold here, no doubt.’

Sandy agreed. ‘Let’s peg every square inch for half a damn mile. This one is ours.’ He glanced at Jake. ‘You happy, partner?’

Jake grinned while little Mary hugged his leg. ‘Haven’t been happier for a long while.’


That evening, back at the old claim, Tommy the Rag poured two full pannikins of rum for he and Carmody. The fire was a lonely place with just two of them. Missus Dead Finish was out carting from Wyndham, and Carmody had no woman, like most of the others did.

‘Those bastards are trying to cut us out of our share of gold at the new claim,’ drawled Carmody. ‘It just isn’t fair.’

‘D’you reckon?’

‘I do. I’ve never felt too equal with this gang, no matter how they talk it up – this whole Ragged Thirteen thing is all for the benefit of Sandy Myrtle and Tom Nugent, I say.’

‘Oh I dunno,’ said Tommy. ‘They’re good men – and Tom’s in bloody gaol – took the rap without a word.’

Carmody gulped at his drink, and a drip of rum ran down from each corner of his mouth and into his beard. ‘Those horse thievin’’ charges won’t stick – that brand change was as slick a job as I’ve ever seen. Nugent will be back here to take the lion’s share of any gold in no time.’

‘I don’t reckon you’re right there, Carmody.’

‘Let’s wait and see, eh? They’ll never forgive me for Maori Reid bein’ my brother in law. They’ve cut me and you out of this new claim, and left us here on this useless square of ground to scratch our balls. You might be too dumb to see it, but it’s clear enough to me.’

‘Ah, have another rum, complainin’ won’t help,’ said Tommy. But the thought of the rest of the crew out on a rich new field made him feel sick inside.

He slept badly enough as it was, but the following morning, over a late breakfast of johnny-cakes and treacle, nursing splitting rum hangovers, the beat of horses’ hooves had them on their feet and watchful. A moment later, Bob Anderson and Jake rode in at speed, pack horses trailing.

‘Hey,’ Tommy cried as they reined in, ‘back so soon you two?’

‘That’s it,’ said Jake. ‘Don’t say a word, of course, but the new claim is alive with gold. We’ve got eight ounces in my saddlebags to buy supplies, and we’re here to register the claims.’

‘And whose name will the claims be registered under?’ sneered Carmody.

‘Jake an’ ‘is twa lasses,’ said Bob. ‘Ye ken thet belter o’ a Warden won’t gee’z us our own.’

Carmody stood back, arms crossed over his chest. ‘That’s what they say. Well don’t let us keep you. Tommy and me are riding out to this new claim to make sure we get what’s ours.’

Tommy stared at his mate. ‘We can’t just leave this place, after all those months.’

‘Let the damned Celestials have this God-forsaken slice of hell, I say, but listen: it has to lie unworked for seven days before it’s classed as abandoned. Someone can ride in once a week and turn a hand for an hour or two – dead easy.’

Bob Anderson shrugged. ‘*Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye. Jake ‘an me hev work to do.’

After they had gone, Carmody tacked up his horse and assembled his gear. He turned to Tommy. ‘Are you coming with me, mate?’

‘Yeah,’ said Tommy at last. ‘I’m coming.’



Continues next Sunday …

*What will happen, will happen.

©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







#47. Mud crabs and Mullock heaps.

#47. Mud crabs and Mullock heaps.

When Tommy the Rag and Carmody rode up, accompanied by a cloud of their own dust, Sandy swore so hard he had to stop and spit. ‘You bastards are s’posed to be watching the old claim. What the bloody hell are you doing here?’

Carmody swung off his horse. ‘Well that was a fair cow of an idea. If you think we’re going to wait on a heartless piece of rock at Rosie’s Flat while you mob fill your pockets with gold, you’ll have to think again.’

‘Everything we find is shared between all of us,’ Sandy explained.

‘Oh really?’ said Carmody. ‘I’ve had a wide experience of sharing, over the years. It usually means that someone else gets everything, an’ I get fuck all.’

‘You still shouldn’t have ridden off,’ spluttered Sandy. ‘We agreed—’

‘No,’ said Carmody. ‘You agreed, and the rest of us had to go along with it. Anyhow, why can’t we just take it in turns to ride in and throw some dirt around for half a day? That’ll keep us in proper legal ownership.’

Sandy scratched his beard, ‘Well I suppose you’ve got a point. We’ll have a chat about it later. In the meantime you’d best get yerselves a feed.’

‘Bugger food,’ said Tommy. He pointed to his eyes. ‘I’m gonna speck me up some of that gold before I do anything else.’


The new claim was different to what the gang were used to. Within a few days they had panned or dry-blown alluvial gold in the gullies, and found more-gold streaked stones on the ridge. Nellie’s Reef had been exposed, reckoned Bob Anderson, by the parent rock weathering away, leaving the gold there for the taking.

After months of living close together, working as a unit on the same shaft, here the gang all had different theories about how to approach the dig. Without Tom to hold them together, they split off into twos and threes.

Wonoka Jack and Wonoka George choose a spot half way down the hill and began a deep scrape along the line of the gold they’d found to that point. Bob Anderson camped at the top and tried to enthuse the others about chopping trees for shoring and beginning a deep shaft.

‘If t’were one line a’gold here, there cuid be more, ‘neath the ground, like.’

‘Never again will I squirm like a worm underground,’ swore Jack Dalley. ‘Not when there’s gold to be plucked from near the surface. If there’s to be a shaft you can dig the bastard yourself.’

Still, they were all happy enough, and the gold came in, ounce by ounce, first on the surface then scraping the upper layers with picks and shovels. The result did not amount to a fortune, but it was better than the disappointment they had left behind. The gang decided to take it in turns, as Carmody had suggested, to ride in and work the old claim, but after a few days, no one bothered. It was a long ride, just to work in the sun. The chances of finding a big nugget were more promising here, and everyone talked about the prospect.

Eventide at Wyndham. State Library of Western Australia.

Word came back to the Wyndham police, from Alexandria Station, that of course there had been the gift of a grey horse, and yes he had impeccable breeding. The manager and head stockman there were old mates of Tom and Larrikin, and owed Tom a good turn or two.

‘Tom Nugent. We’re releasing you for lack of evidence,’ the police constable said, jangling the keys. ‘But every man from here to Camooweal, and south to bloody Burra knows that you’re a lying dog and you should be in gaol for life if not hanged.’

‘Fetch my things for me,’ said Tom, ignoring the tirade. ‘There’s a good chap. I hope you’ve looked after my horse for me.’

Yet Tom had no intention of riding straight back to Hall’s Creek. Instead he rode down to the landing and sold the grey to a new chum for twenty guineas, with a lesser horse thrown in – a bay gelding with clean legs and a deep chest. The grey was worth many times that, of course, but now, with Tom’s proof of ownership all over town, was the time to sell.

With money to spend, Tom visited Black Pat Durack’s store, where he purchased a new pair of moleskin trousers, heeled riding boots and a couple of striped Crimean shirts. Thus prepared, he booked into the Cable family’s pub, paying up front for a hot bath.

Tom spent an hour in the tub, soaking and scrubbing himself. When he was done there was almost as much dark-brown water on the floor as there was in the tub.

He dried himself, shaved, and walked back to his room with the towel wrapped around his middle. He dressed in new clothes and smoked a pipe before walking to the post office, where he asked at the counter for the address of Miss Byrne, the schoolteacher.

‘Why she lives in the boarding house over yonder,’ said the postmaster. ‘But if you’ve taken a shine to her, let me just mention that you ain’t the first … and no one has succeeded yet.’

When Tom knocked on the boarding house door, it was four in the afternoon according to his pocket watch, the perfect time to catch her, being at the end of the school day. An older woman answered the door, and when Tom asked for Miss Byrne she disappeared without a word. He waited a minute or two before the young schoolteacher appeared in the doorway. She was no longer wearing the bustled gown she wore to work, but a simple dress that had seen better days, and a practical outdoor hat.

She seemed younger than he had imagined, up close. Her skin was lightly freckled, with mocking eyes and happy lips. Her hair was blonde and tied back in a sensible pony-tail.

‘Hello Miss,’ he said, holding his hat in his hand. ‘I’m—’

‘I know who you are, well enough,’ said Miss Byrne. ‘I got your note. Besides, everyone’s talking about Tom Nugent, captain of the Ragged Thirteen and famous horse-thief.’

‘Are they really?’

‘It’s all I’ve heard about. Even the school children know who you are.’

Tom wasn’t sure what to say next. She saved him the trouble.

‘What are you like with a pair of oars?’ she asked.

Tom started with surprise. ‘Well, not bad I guess. I’ve rowed a bit, here and there in me time. Why’s that?’

‘I’m just heading off to check my pots. You can help.’

‘Your what?’

‘My crab pots. The tide’s just right about now. I can row myself, but crabbing’s lighter work with two.’

Tom tipped his hat. ‘I’d be honoured to help you out, Miss Byrne.’

‘Oh, bugger calling me that all the time. I get it all day and it becomes tiresome. My name’s Emily. Just wait a moment, I’ve got a bucket of bait.’ She reappeared a moment later with an evil-smelling pail. ‘Here, you can carry it, if you like.’

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ said Tom.

Emily Byrne, it turned out, kept a dinghy down by the landing – a sturdy, clinker-built unit of about ten foot in length, flat-bottomed so she drew ‘barely as much water as a duck.’

The tide was in over the flats, and Tom slipped the oars into the rowlocks, watching wide-eyed as Emily lifted her dress to her waist, and tucked it into her bloomers. ‘Don’t look,’ she said, seeing the direction of his eyes. ‘They’re only legs, and I can’t have my dress sitting in bilge water the whole time.’

Emily pointed out the direction of travel, upstream along the mangrove-lined banks of the inlet. Tom bent to his task, making a show of keeping straight and pulling powerfully into the tide.

‘You’re a fine rower, Mr Nugent.’

‘Thanks, but if I have to call you Emily, you’d better address me as Tom.’

They continued up the channel, and Tom was enjoying the burn of his chest, arm and shoulder muscles. Ahead, around the inlet of a small creek, he could see the first coloured cork float, bobbing on the surface.

‘I heard they let you out today,’ she said. ‘I was glad about that … and hoping maybe you’d come and introduce yourself.’

‘I haven’t been able to think of nothing else,’ said Tom, just as they reached the pot. He used the oars to hold position in the tide, while Miss Byrne bent over, plucked the cork from the surface, and started pulling in the rope. Up came the trap, woven from wicker cane. Trapped inside was a single mud crab as big as a dinner plate – dark brown, almost black, with an armoured carapace and claws that looked like they’d cleave through a man’s finger.

‘A beauty!’ cried Emily, expertly pinning the crab, bringing it out through the trap door, then using twine to bind its claws. Disarmed, the crab was then free to clamber around the floor of the dinghy wherever it liked. Tom regretted having taken off his flash new boots.

He couldn’t help thinking what an amazing woman he had chanced upon. Miss Emily Byrne thought nothing of balancing on the gunwale with bare feet and bare legs, hauling in the pots, heedless of the ‘gators that slid in off the mud bars and raised their jagged heads nearby.

They got eight more crabs, two of which had eggs and went back, with Tom rowing all the way up to the mouth of a river Emily called the King. Thankfully, the return journey was assisted by a rollicking tide. The water had dropped a little over the flats, and Tom had to drag the dinghy through shallow mud to the stake that served as a berth.

They boiled the crabs in a copper, on a fire in the backyard of the boarding house – joined by some of the other guests for a feast of sweet crab meat, using hammers and nutcrackers to split claws and legs. They drank bottled beer and laughed over nothing, ignoring the mosquitoes and sand flies, sharing yarns for an hour or two, before Emily announced that it was time to retire for the night.

‘School day tomorrow,’ she said. ‘I’m as shirty as hell when I’m tired so I try to get a good night’s sleep for the sake of my pupils, bless them.’

She walked with Tom to the front gate of the boarding house, the air thick with fragrant air moving off the tidal flats. Tom loved rivers. Tom loved riding with the Ragged Thirteen. He loved the plains of Western Queensland, the Gulf, and the grasslands of the Barkly. He loved being free, but tonight he was feeling something else. Something even stronger.

‘Do you reckon I can see you again?’ he asked.

‘Of course you can,’ she smiled. ‘You’re an artist with those oars.’ She reached out with her forefinger and touched him on the tip of his nose. ‘See you tomorrow, Tom Nugent, if you’re willing.’

‘I’m willing,’ said Tom, smiling. He watched her walk inside, then turned back down the street towards the pub.



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






#48. Red Jack and the Mare

#48. Red Jack and the Mare

When a Cantonese syndicate moved in on the old claim at Rosie’s Flat, most of the gang pretended not to care. But it was generally agreed that such an act wasn’t ‘right.’

‘It’s not that I bloody liked the place,’ spat Sandy Myrtle, ‘but I don’t like the idea of them just walking in and taking that mine we worked so hard to build.’ He glared at Carmody and Tommy the Rag. ‘This would never have happened if you two had just done what you was asked to and stayed put.’

‘Why didn’t you stay, if you liked the damn place so much?’ glowered Carmody.

This ill-feeling was compounded by the slow but steady drying up of gold in the new claims. By the second month they were scarcely winning five ounces a week. Just enough for tucker and tools.

Larrikin and Jack Woods were soon riding out in the late evenings, dodging Durack cattle, holding them in that secret niche that Tom had found, and butchering them in a bough-shed slaughterhouse. The sly meat business not only fed the gang, as well as Jake and the girls, but brought in some much-needed coin at the same time.

Larrikin’s mare, now some eight months pregnant, was one thing that the gang was still excited about, but there was concern in this direction also. Fitz was the first to notice that she seemed to have bagged up way too early, and then, a week or two later, started discharging. Not much, but enough to spark some worry.

‘Maybe it’s just the poor grass here,’ said Tommy the Rag. The dry season was underway, the rains now just a memory.

‘Grass aren’t the problem,’ said Larrikin. ‘Someone should go fetch Red Jack. It’ll be her foal after all, and they say that what she doesn’t know about horses isn’t worth knowing.’

‘I’ll ride fer Red Jack,’ said Scotty, beaming at the chance. He had a horse saddled in record time, and was back not long after nightfall, with Red Jack beside him on her black stallion.

Red Jack started by running her hand slowly along the mare’s flanks, then stopped and turned to the bystanders. ‘I can’t do this with you bastards ogling me.’ Then, at Larrikin. ‘She’s yours aren’t she? Just hold her head and keep her calm.’

The examination took around thirty minutes, after which time Red Jack washed her hands from a steel bucket, then joined the gang around the camp fire.

‘Bad news,’ she said. ‘The poor old girl’s carrying twins. Most times a mare will absorb the extra foetus. This one hain’t done that.’

The more experienced horsemen shook their heads sadly at the news. They knew what this meant. Sandy had even suggested twins as a possibility. But they all wanted to hear the verdict from Red Jack’s lips.

‘Two things will happen from here,’ she said. ‘Either she’ll miscarry both foals, or they’ll go full term and be born weak and sickly. Both will probably die.’

‘Jesus, that’s rough,’ said Tommy the Rag, and none of them looked at Larrikin’s face.

The Township of Wyndham, WA. Engraving by Samuel Calvert. State Library of Victoria

A couple of hundred miles to the north, Northern Territory trooper Alfred Searcy, stood at the rail of the schooner Levuka. He was full of nervous excitement as they rounded Adolphus Island, took the Western Channel, tacked carefully around a series of shallow sandbars, then finally anchored in seven fathoms off the bustling township of Wyndham.

The landing here was of tidal mud, planked all the way to deeper water, several teams on hand for the unloading. Another two-master, the Simla, had just finished discharging horses, and they were being yarded up from the landing, many of them caked in mud to the flanks.

Searcy did not look for a porter, but carried his own swag and portmanteau. He was impressed by the activity all around – carpenters building shops or houses and travellers hammering in tent pegs. There were at least three stores, and some jerry-built grog shops along with the impressive Wyndham Hotel.

Despite a hefty thirst, inspired by a fast steamer trip to Darwin, then a berth on the first available ship heading for Wyndham, Searcy ignored the hotel, walking straight to the police station. The place seemed deserted, but a solid rap on the door brought a tired looking sergeant to the door, seeming somewhat surprised at Alfred’s uniform.

‘We weren’t expecting a visit from the NT police?’ he said, stifling a yawn. ‘To what do we owe the honour?’

‘My name is Alf Searcy. I’m here on a mission of some urgency …’

‘Alfred?’ came a booming voice from inside. ‘Is that you?’

A ramrod straight figure appeared in the passage. Alfred recognised Sub-Inspector Lawrence, who he had met on the Resident’s lawns in Palmerston.

‘Why hello, it’s good to see you here!’

Five minutes later Alfred was sipping tea in a cool stone room, exchanging pleasantries about his journey and the situation in the Kimberley. Finally, on the second cup, he cut to the chase.

‘Now I know you’ll be wondering about the purpose of my visit. I’m here with fresh new charges against Tom Nugent. I take it that he’s still in custody?’

The two WA cops looked at each other, then Lawrence answered. ‘We had to release the man, unfortunately. The manager and head stockman of Alexandria Station backed him up on the horse story. And since the grey’s real owner, Fisher, is currently in London, the prosecution case couldn’t proceed. We know Nugent changed the brand but just can’t prove it.’

Alfred shook his head as if in silent condemnation of their inability to do their job. ‘Well, please oblige me by arresting him again. I have evidence, and witnesses.’ He unbuttoned a document from his top pocket. ‘This here is an extradition order for Thomas Nugent to be returned to the Northern Territory in chains, there to face charges of robbery, assault, and malicious damage at Abraham’s Billabong and the Katherine River.

‘You have eyewitnesses?’ Lawrence inquired.

‘Yes,’ said Alfred. ‘The case is watertight, I can assure you.’ He frowned, ‘You haven’t allowed this criminal to leave Wyndham, I hope?’

Lawrence shook his head quickly. ‘No, not yet. He’s still here, chasing after the young school teacher from what I understand.’

‘Then let us strike now,’ said Alfred, ‘before he hears that I’m in town.’ He puffed out his chest. ‘Every criminal has his nemesis, and I am Tom Nugent’s.’


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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







#49. Too Close for Bloody Comfort

#49. Too Close for Bloody Comfort

Weeks had passed, and the routine varied little. Almost every afternoon, Tom rowed Miss Emily Byrne up the channel: crabbing and sometimes fishing. By the third week he was permitted to kiss her on the cheek. By the fifth they were holding hands when he walked her home after dinner at the pub.

While Emily was teaching, Tom worked shifts down at Anton’s Landing, unloading steamers and sail craft as they discharged stores, cattle or horses. He also broke a couple of nags for Mr Katiford, the Government Surveyor. All in all, things were looking up, though he missed life on the track, and the constant fun of riding with the Ragged Thirteen.

Late one morning, Tom was in the bar of the Wyndham Hotel, with a glass of beer in hand and a pipe drawing nicely, when one of the stevedores from the port hurried in, leaned close to Tom and lowered his voice. ‘I was just talking to the skipper of the Levuka. A Territory walloper’s arrived in town – name of Searcy. It sounds like he’s got it in for you.’

Tom’s beer turned sour in his throat. ‘That jumped up, arrogant dog! Why did he have to land here, of all places? Just when things were going right for a change.’

‘Searcy told the Levuka’s skipper that he’s ah, assembled … fresh evidence against you. Something about robberies over in the Territory, and an assault at the Vic River Depot.’

‘What?’ spluttered Tom. ‘All we done was throw a thieving sly grog seller in the river!’

‘Well I dunno, but this Searcy was boasting that he’s got an extradition order to take you away in chains. They’re havin’ a cuppa in the police station, then they’re comin’ for you.’

‘On the level?’

‘Yeah, worse luck.’

Tom drained his beer and slammed down the glass. ‘Thanks mate. Life was just gettin’ too bloody good.’

Wyndham Hotel, NT Library

Leaving the bar, Tom hurried down to his hotel, using the side entrance to avoid the desk. He couldn’t see any point settling his bill, if the police were going to chase him anyway. Besides, he’d need every penny he could get his hands on for life on the run.

Back in his room, Tom rolled everything he owned up into a swag, then opened the window. Throwing his gear out ahead, he jumped to the ground. He hurried out back, catching his gelding from the horse yard, then tacking him up inside the stable. Before riding out he checked that he had, in his pockets or saddle bags, all the things he valued most – pocket book, folding knife, and two small volumes of poetry – Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall. Most precious of all was a ferrotype image of his mother in a tiny bronze and glass frame, wrapped in waxed paper.

Leading his horse by the bridle, down dusty back streets, he visited the Adcock brothers’ store, where he provisioned himself for a couple of days. With one more stop in mind, he walked another half block, then tied his horse’s reins to the schoolhouse gate. He adjusted his collar and walked to the open door.

The school students turned as one to see Tom Nugent standing in the door frame. Silence descended. Miss Byrne herself was frozen, chalk in hand. To Tom she had never looked so beautiful, her hair tied back, but some lighter strands remaining free, falling around her neck. She wore a cream-coloured dress with silk sleeves and a modest bustle.

Tom cleared his throat. ‘Excuse me for interrupting, Miss Byrne. But I must see you on a matter of importance.’

Some of the children now whispered and giggled, until Miss Byrne shut them up with an icy stare. Finally, when silence reigned again, she passed her chalk to a nearby older girl and turned to the children. ‘Seniors, please complete the third and fourth exercises on your slate, juniors carry on with your letters. Mary, you will stand and record the name of any pupil who talks, or otherwise takes advantage of my absence.’

Every young eye was on Miss Byrne as she walked to the schoolhouse entrance, passed through, and closed the door behind her.

Tom led her by both hands further away, out of earshot. ‘Bad news,’ he said. ‘I have to run, the Territory police have lobbed in, with more charges against me.’

‘Oh … Tom. That is bad news.’

‘I’m thinking that I’ll find a place for us. Somewhere safe where life will be grand. Will you come, if I send for you?’

‘That depends,’ she said, lifting her hand and laying her palm along his cheek. ‘I won’t live with you in a gaol cell.’ She was smiling now, but he could see that she was trying not to cry.

On impulse, Tom kissed her on the lips. A long and deep kiss. Their first real kiss.

There was a shout of delight from a boy with his head glued to the schoolhouse window. Then uproar from inside.

‘Oh God,’ she said, breaking off but still holding his hand. ‘The cheeky little devils. I have to go.’

‘Goodbye, Miss Emily Byrne.’

‘Goodbye, Tom Nugent, Captain of the Ragged Thirteen.’

‘I’ll send for you, when I’m fixed.’

‘Make it soon,’ she cried, then hurried back through the door and inside.

Tom was about to mount his horse when he heard activity from the police station just down the block. He ducked deeper into the shade and crept forward to watch two Wyndham traps, along with a narrower figure that could only be Searcy, and a couple of armed trackers, march off towards the hotel.

Tom waited until they were well down the street before he mounted up and rode away. He was full of mixed feelings: anger, a touch of panic but most of all, surprise and excitement at the love that had just burst into full flower outside that school house.


Tom knew better than to try and leave town by the back roads. The safest way to get distance under his belt, and to fool the trackers, was to head down the main road. Of course, as he rode, he kept well away from the Landing or groups of people on the way out, keeping his hat low.

The new gelding started out with a will, but after an hour he had slowed appreciably. Tom cursed the man who’d offered him as part-exchange for the exceptional grey. He was a nice enough animal, but without the wind needed for a fast escape. Tom cursed the gelding, cursed Alfred Searcy, and cursed himself for being a fool and not making his move on Emily sooner.

Using a switch to keep the gelding motivated, Tom diverted around the extended Byrne family’s hotel at the Six Mile. These were all Emily’s relatives, of course, and although he had not formally met them, they knew of the developing relationship, and did not approve.

By late afternoon Tom was getting close to Parry’s Lagoon. Unfortunately, by that stage, getting his mount to keep up anything more than a reluctant trot was growing impossible.

There was, he decided, no option but to camp for the night, resting the horse and preparing for a big day. Searcy and his new mates, he decided, were unlikely to have set off after him just yet. It would have taken an hour or two to figure out that Tom had left town, and they would then have had to provision and prepare a patrol.

Still, taking no chances, Tom watered his horse in the stony bed of the fast-flowing Ord, then forced him into one last big effort, climbing a good-sized peak in the ranges, with a view along the track back towards Wyndham. On a flat shelf in the rock, he lit a small, miserable fire, and made a meal of hot tea and salt beef.

When he was done eating, the sun was low, with the stone hills glowing red all around him. Up high as he was, the sight made him pleased to be back in the bush. It was only this that gave him peace at last, a feeling that did not last for long.

A glance back along the track, laid out like a ribbon far below him, showed a pall of dust rising from five horsemen heading fast, south from Wyndham. Tom felt a prickle of apprehension. Could it be them?

Yes it could, he decided. Searcy was a persistent bastard, and was probably on a tight schedule. These riders were travelling too light to be diggers or travellers.

‘It’s them alright,’ Tom said to himself. ‘Too close for bloody comfort.’

Aware that he was in for the chase of his life, he saddled the reluctant gelding and prepared to brave the descent in the half-dark.



Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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






#50. Tom the Afghan

#50. Tom the Afghan

Within a mile, Tom knew that he was never going to outpace the police patrol. He wished he’d thought to steal a better horse before he left Wyndham, but from here there’d be no opportunity to upgrade before Turkey Creek.

His only chance now was to leave the road, and try to throw the trackers off the scent with a cross-country ride. Yet, he needed a creek to divert into, or a shelf of flat rock next to the track. Otherwise the trackers would clearly see his exit point. They would almost certainly have already followed his spoor to the abandoned night-camp of just half an hour earlier, for a good moon had risen.

Riding slowly now suited Tom’s purpose of looking for an escape route. Even a fallen tree would help, but the side of the track remained featureless: just kerosene grass, stones and dry acacias. The police could only be a short distance behind now, and Tom knew that they would not stop while there was light to see.

There had been few times in Tom’s life when he had doubted himself, but now he began to wonder if he would soon feel manacles on his wrists and ankles. That he’d be thrown aboard a steamer, across the Gulf to Palmerston, with Alf Searcy crowing like a cock rooster over him.

Tom wished that he was back in Wyndham, taking Miss Emily Byrne out for supper, settling into the pub dining room with a good steak. It was all Alf Searcy’s fault, that arrogant, jumped-up man.

Tom was filled with a building sense of indignation, when he saw a series of uncommonly tall rocks just off the track to the left. This was strange because, for one thing, he couldn’t remember having ever seen them before. It also seemed that the rocks were lit with flickering light from a campfire.

With no real weapon to draw, he rode on, getting closer, peering at the scene. He still hadn’t quite worked out what was going on when one of the rocks moved. Even more incredibly, the lower portion of it proved to have four legs. A long neck extended as if pulled by strings from a puppeteer, and the thing made a noise that broke the silence like thunder.

It was just one of several camels, Tom realised, aware that his pulse rate had gone nuts. Next he heard a gentle voice, not in English, but in the Persian tongue of the Afghan cameleers.

Tom recognised the man before the voice. It was Esau, well-known Hall’s Creek identity, coffee maker extraordinaire, and best friend of midwife and store keeper Susan O’Neil.

‘Bloody hell,’ Tom cried. ‘Is that you, Esau?’

Esau stood up from the fire. Behind him stood a tent of hides. His voice was as slow and smooth as silk as he addressed Tom with a military rank, as always, in deference to his leadership of the Thirteen. ‘Captain Nugent. What are you doing here, and why such a hurry?’

Tom dismounted and led his horse over to the Afghan’s camp. ‘Jesus, you’re a sight for sore eyes. I’ve got the wallopers in hot pursuit, and this gelding has no stamina. He’s the weirdest thing – steps high like he’s on show, and breaks out in a cold sweat when you push him.’

‘How distant are the police?’ asked Esau.

‘Maybe just a mile or two, and I get the feeling they’re not planning on throwing their swags out any time soon.’

Esau scratched his long beard in contemplation for a moment, then, ‘Captain Nugent. If you don’t mind, please unsaddle that horse and chase him off. If you please, I’ll drive my camels up and down over the track to wipe your trail.’ The Afghan walked to one of the enormous camel packs, now leaning against a small boab, rummaged through and removed a clean set of clothes. ‘Wear these, and we’ll pack away your saddle and the things you have on.’

After chasing off the horse, hiding his gear and dressing in pantaloons, tunic, robe and turban, Tom scarcely had time to smoke a pipe at the fireside before they heard the thunder of hooves. The police party came up, slowing to a walk and riding directly into the camp. Only the trackers held back, nosing around on the road for sign.

‘Just a couple of Afghans,’ complained one of the policemen.

‘Hey, you two ‘Ghans,’ shouted another. ‘Stand up straight when the law of the land rides into your camp.’

Tom, looking through the folds of cloth that partially covered his face, recognised Alf Searcy. He and Esau both did as they were told.

‘Have you two seen a white man ride past?’ asked Searcy.

‘Yessah,’ said Esau. ‘If you please sah, I saw one white man ride past. In a big hurry, too. Just a little while ago.’

‘What’s wrong with your friend? Can’t he talk?’

‘Sorry sah, he cannot speak no English.’

‘Salaam, salaam,’ said Tom, keeping his face pointed low, and facing away from the moon.

‘Right then,’ said Searcy, ‘we’ll get on the road after our man.’ He wheeled his horse and applied his spurs with a loud and showy shout of ‘Yah.’ The others followed, and the sound of horses at the canter receded south towards Hall’s Creek.

Tom and Esau laughed together so hard they almost fell over.

‘Thanks mate,’ Tom said. ‘If it wasn’t for you I’d probably be taking off cross country, and on that poor neddy I wouldn’t have lasted a mile before those trackers had me.’ Like most rogue bushmen, he wasn’t overly concerned about the white police, but trackers were another matter.

Tom slept with camel smell strong in his nostrils, and the next morning, after a good breakfast, he helped Esau load and balance the packs. When this was done, the Afghan ordered two camels to kneel with a mysterious command.

‘Now climb aboard, Captain Nugent,’ said Esau.

‘I’m not so sure about this.’

‘It’s not hard, I promise you,’ Esau replied. ‘Hall’s Creek is a long way on foot.’

Tom felt himself swaying as the camel rose, finding the sheer height uncomfortable. Yet, within a mile or two he was enjoying the ride. Esau smiled in approval.

Strangely, however, as they moved at a good clip towards the Denham River, a dusty brown shape emerged from the scrub and began to follow them at a distance of two chains or so.

‘It’s that damned gelding,’ cried Tom. ‘Can’t get rid of him.’

And for the next three days, all the way to Hall’s Creek, the gelding stuck to them like honey, coming up close and staying with the camels at their night camps on the Denham and the Bow.

‘I’m starting to like that crazy horse,’ said Tom. ‘He’s not much to ride any distance, but he never gives up.’

The only anxious moment was near Turkey Creek, when Searcy and his patrol came riding back the other way, obviously drawing a blank in Hall’s Creek in their search for Tom. They reined in alongside the camels.

‘Hey you,’ shouted Searcy. ‘Any sign of that white man you saw riding past the other night?’

‘No sah,’ said Esau. ‘Never saw him again.’

The police party would have ridden on past, but then they spotted the gelding plodding along in the rear.

‘Hey! That horse, where did he come from?’

Esau did not bat an eyelid. ‘I don’t know sah, he started following us yesterday.’

There was much examination of brands and discussion between the constabulary. Soon forgotten, Tom and Esau rode on. Within an hour, then gelding appeared behind them, taking his place up behind the last of the camels.

Gorle Collection. NT Library

Esau and Tom parted just before Hall’s Creek. Saddling up the gelding, and packing his own clothes back into his swag, Tom remained in the Afghan’s robes so as to appear incognito around the town.

‘I’ll get them back to you shortly, and I can’t ever thank you enough.’

‘My pleasure, Captain Nugent. It was the least a friend could do.’

Unwilling to ride, for an Afghan on a horse would have been an unusual sight, Tom led the gelding through the outer diggings, avoiding stores and grog shanties. Esau had told him of how the rest of the Thirteen, along with Jake and the girls, had moved to a new claim out of town, but he still wanted to see the old place.

When he finally trudged into Rosie’s Flat, he expected the mine to be busy with industrious Chinese, like most of their claims. He did find the place alive with pig-tailed diggers, but few seemed to be working. Most were celebrating, singing and dancing. Even more strangely, there were white guards standing around with rifles. Tom guessed they had been hired to protect the claim, and that meant only one thing.

Tom sidled up to one of these guards. ‘What’s going on here?’ he asked.

The man looked at him sideways. ‘You speak well for a ‘Ghan.’

‘Yeah, I guess I do. But what are these Celestials so worked up about?’ Tom felt a lump in his throat. He almost didn’t want to know. ‘Why are they celebratin’?’

‘They just stumbled on a “jeweller’s shop” down that shaft. They’ve hired us to stop anyone who might want a slice of it.’

Tom swallowed, staring across at the shaft that he had started with his own hands and given so much in sweat and fingernails to deepen. A ‘jewellers shop’ was the diggers’ name for a gold reef that has widened into a hollow filled with slugs of solid gold.

‘Jesus,’ Tom breathed. ‘How many ounces?’

‘They dunno really. Not yet, but they reckon maybe three or four hundred.’

Tom stared, then laughed a little in the back of his throat. ‘How did they find it?’

‘They reckon there was two reefs, one below the other. The Ragged Thirteen was working the top one: a real thin leader, barely worth the trouble. The Chinese dug the shaft deeper and found a second reef. The bottom one is much richer.’

Tom had nothing more to say. Feeling hollow in the chest, he turned away. As soon as he was out of sight, he mounted the gelding. Esau had given him directions to the new claim and, if the gelding felt rested enough for the ride, he hoped to be there by midday.


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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






#51. To Hell with Hall’s Creek

#51. To Hell with Hall’s Creek


To Hell with Hall’s Creek

by Larrikin (With help from Fitz and Sandy Myrtle)


I’ve been thrown by horse, and gored by bull,

An’ trampled by the same,

I’ve been bit by dogs and old Joe Blake,

Been rocked by storm and rain.


I’ve worn out boots, on the desert routes,

An’ near drownded in the Wet,

But this last twelve month I found me match,

The toughest bastard yet.


Yes, I met my match in Hall’s Creek town,

The bane of young and old,

The worstest cur I ever saw,

A mongrel thing called gold.


My mates and I, we dug a shaft,

We dug half way to hell,

Some other folks from across the sea,

found a fortune hidden well.


It don’t seem fair, but that’s just it,

we rode away and left,

Not knowing that our futures sat,

a little deeper down that cleft.


I’m going back, to cattle work,

Out on the furthest runs,

and leave this place to memory,

and other fools their ruin.


I’ll do a hard day’s work, for stockman’s pay,

Forty shillings every week,

I’ll gladly take on horse and bull,

And to hell with old Hall’s Creek.


Tom rode up to the new claim, and he could see in a moment that news of the Chinese strike had reached the camp. Most of the gang were sitting, drinking rum around smoky fires. And how different was a day time rum-drinker’s fire from a night time one!

Carmody and Tommy the Rag were packing the last of their things, the hostility against them plain to see. All-in-all the mood was ugly, and only the sight of Tom, in Afghan clothes, riding a very tired horse into the camp, distracted them.

‘What’s this?’ shouted Sandy Myrtle, lumbering to his feet. ‘Who’s so bad mannered as to ride up without so much as a cooee?’

Tom swung down from his horse, then swept the turban from his head. ‘It’s Tom Nugent, and I thought I’d find the Ragged Thirteen here, not a bunch of beaten-down lags.’

The announcement buzzed through the air, and they all came around. Tom could scarcely stop chuckling as the kid from Borroloola hugged him around the legs and every one of the Thirteen wanted to shake his hand and clap him on the back. Someone took the gelding away to water and graze, and someone else brought a pannikin of rum. Jake and the girls arrived on the scene, and Tom thought that it was just like a birthday celebration.

‘Oh it’s us, alright,’ said Sandy at last. ‘But you’re here just in time for the break-up.’

‘Break-up? Why would that be?’

‘Haven’t you heard what the Celestials found in our old claim?’ spat Fitz. ‘Tommy here, an’ Carmody, were supposed to stay there and look after the place.’

‘I’ve heard alright, but why did you move here, if there weren’t any gold?’

‘Oh there was, at first, but it ran out fast enough – there’s a few pounds in the bank to account for your share.’

Tom drank his rum down, then insisted on a tour of the claims. Jack Woods showed him how the reef gold had lain at the top of the rise, weathered and lying exposed.

Tom walked around the claim. ‘Have you dug underneath at all?’

‘Not much. No one was keen. We’ve mainly been panning the gullies these last few weeks.

‘Well listen. There were two leaders at our old claim, with the poorest one on top. What if there’s another one underneath, right here, just like the Chinese found.’

‘I’m not digging another bloody shaft.’ said Fitz.

‘That’s not what I mean, let’s strip it off with shovels and barrows.’

Jake cut in. ‘Ned Shaw has a horse drawn bucket. It’d be perfect for that.’

Carmody had his arms crossed in front of his chest. ‘Sorry Tom, but I’m outta here.’

Even Jack Woods shook his head. ‘No one has the stomach for digging no more, Tom. There’s news of colour down in the Pilbara. I’m going to head that way.’

‘What about you, Sandy?’

‘I’ll probably head back to the Centre. I heard whispers of a strike at Arltunga. Might head that way.’

Tom was thinking to himself. To entice Emily away from her school room he needed land. He had to make something of himself. He knew of a block near the Overland Telegraph Line that could be had for a good price, but a few pounds was not enough. He needed a nest egg.

‘Give my idea a try,’ cried Tom. ‘Let’s dig for two more weeks, that’s all. If it doesn’t work out, then we just shake hands and ride our separate ways. Can we really afford to ride away from a second claim without knowing what’s underneath?’

There was a dead silence at first, then Sandy was the first to speak. ‘I s’pose not.’

The others grumbled in the affirmative.

‘Alright, then,’ said Tom. ‘Let’s drink today and be proud of how it feels to be the Ragged Thirteen. Tomorrow we start work.’ He paused. ‘And keep an eye out for those damned traps.’ He placed the turban back on his head. ‘If anyone asks, I’m just a poor Afghan cameleer.’

Prospector in front of his hut. State Library of Western Australia

Scotty had been taking the occasional wild desert rose to Red Jack for months. Yet, he did not have time to ride out and search for them every day. Now that Tom was back, if there was even a breath of breeze the men worked right through. When Scotty’s shift came around he laboured ‘til dark without complaint.

Given a spare hour or two, however, he went searching for flowers. Finding them was getting harder, for the season was so dry that even beauty had trouble finding sustenance. No matter how dowdy or dried up the bloom, however, he still took it to Red Jack, and each time her face would light for those few magic moments. And Scotty would sit on the top rail and watch her work the horses.

One the third day after Tom came back, Scotty found a special flower near a bend in the Black Elvire. There was a tiny soak between two sides of a hard wall of rock, dampening the sandy soil. Ferns and tiny flowers grew in profusion. Amongst them was just one desert rose, almost perfect.

Red Jack lifted the flower to her nose and her face lit up. Scotty felt his heart thump like hoofbeats in his chest. It was a special moment. The sun was just clipping the horizon behind the yards, and her hair glowed like fire. Mephistopheles was in the yards, a great black shape, muscled and graceful. Other horses waited also, ready to be broken by one of the best horse breakers the bush had ever seen.

‘I thought I should tell you,’ said Red Jack, ‘that I’m moving on soon. As soon as Larrikin’s mare drops those twins, and that should be soon, I’ll be ready.’

‘We’ll be finishing up here shortly as well.’ Scotty said. He hesitated for a moment, then spilled his heart. ‘When you go, I wish tae go with you.’

Red Jack placed a hand on either side of Scotty’s chin and kissed him delicately on the lips.

‘No. I ride alone. That won’t change.’

As she walked away from him, across the dusty yards, his vision blurred with pain. There had to be some way to change her mind.


Continues next Sunday …

©2019 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







#52. The ‘Orphan’

#52. The ‘Orphan’

Two days to the new moon and the sky darkened quickly. A faint yellow glow on the western horizon was the last remnant of a warm dry-season day. Tom Nugent’s eyes, however, were as good as a cat’s in low light. Years of night watches on droving jobs, and desperate dusk-to-dawn rides had honed that sense to blade-sharpness.

Tom also knew the lay of the land around the Ragged Thirteen’s old claim at Rosie’s Flat. His current position, lying prone in an old trench near where Jake and the girls had camped, overlooked the Chinese diggings, without offering himself to view.

His eyes were fixed on the man he had spoken to a few days earlier: the guard with the rifle, protecting the Celestials and their rich new find. Ever since Tom had stopped to talk to that guard, something had bothered him. ‘I know the bastard from somewhere,’ he said to himself. Everything about the man: his walk, the way he handled his rifle, was familiar. Tom continued to watch while the Chinese miners finished up for the day, performing the last few chores by the light of slush lanterns.

The last miners came up from the shaft, and a barrow of rich ore was drawn up into the centre of the camp so it could not be pilfered. Tom was more interested in the heavy lumps of pure gold that had come from the ‘jeweller’s shop’ they’d found, deep down in the shaft.

‘The Ragged Thirteen’s gold,’ said Tom quietly. ‘The gold that should have been ours.’

The Thirteen had been digging, out at the new claim, with high hopes. Tom had stayed positive as they stripped load after load of spoil off the surface of the hill, running in a ribbon parallel with the direction of the first leader. But in his heart he knew that it was dead ground. There was no second vein of gold underneath. No miracle, and he had been wrong to talk the others into staying. Now he had to make things right for them.

Tom watched as one of the Celestials, a boss to judge from the swagger, counted a number of coins into the white man’s hand, and bowed. The guard shouldered his rifle, and left the claim, walking along the track towards town, whistling as he went. At that moment, Tom remembered a name, and a drunken meeting some two or three years earlier.

Picking himself up, he dusted down his clothes, and set off in pursuit, leaving his gelding where he had tethered him, at the base of a black wattle tree. He followed on foot for half a mile, some hundred yards behind, until they reached a sly grog shop run by an old cheat called Hobbs.

The place was near empty, and the guard pulled up a chair. Once seated, he shouted for rum. Old Hobbs himself skidded out with a bottle and glass, pouring it full. He was scarcely half way back to the bar before his customer demanded another.

‘A man’s not a bloody camel, ya know. He doesn’t carry moisture in his damned hump!’

Tom waited until the man had downed the second rum before he stepped out of the shadows, adjusted his turban, and sat down at the table. The rum drinker’s face darkened with annoyance.

‘Scuse me, but I don’t recall inviting such as you to sit down with me.’

‘I know who you are,’ said Tom. ‘You’re Jack Martin – the man they call the Orphan.’

The reaction to this was instant. In a fraction of a second the rifle that had been leaning against the table appeared, laying across the tabletop to point at Tom’s gut. ‘Who the hell might you be, then?’

Tom lifted off his turban, keeping it off for a moment or two before replacing it. ‘My name’s Tom Nugent.’

‘Tom Nugent? The captain of the Ragged Thirteen? The poor bastards who used to work that claim I’m mindin’ the Celestials on?’

‘You got it, old mate. You and me met up in Borroloola once, at Billy McLeod’s shanty.’

‘I remember now, you were ridin’ with Harry Readford.’

‘And proud to do so,’ said Tom.

The Orphan drained the last of his glass, then banged the table to get the barman’s attention. ‘More rum, and hurry it up.’ Hobbs hurried over, and waited for a coin, which was slow in coming. The Orphan said loudly, ‘Bein’ an Afghan and all,’ he winked, ‘I take it you won’t be drinking.’

‘That’s right,’ smiled Tom. ‘No rum for me.’

When Hobbs had gone the Orphan squinted slyly. ‘I heard that the traps were out looking for you.’

Tom inclined his turbaned head. Two days had passed since word reached his ears that Alfred Searcy had sailed back to the NT. ‘I know they were, and I’d say that they’re still looking for you too. I heard about the robbery on the Palmer River. Is that what you’re planning here?’

‘To be honest, they’re paying me so well I’m not even thinking that way.’ The Orphan paused. ‘So why did you follow me?’

‘I’ve got a bit of a hankering to find out where the Celestials have stashed the gold from my claim.’ Tom smiled. It was a well-known fact that they always took their gold home to China rather than cashing it in locally, mainly because it was worth more per ounce over there.

‘Why would I tell you that? If I wanted to steal it, I’d take it myself, but as I said, things are good, and I’m keeping clear of the law in this state.’

‘Just tell me where it is and I’ll make it worth your while.’

‘And what do I get out of it?’

‘A one-sixteenth share, fair dinkum and risk free. You don’t have to raise a finger.’

‘I’m listening,’ said the Orphan.

Chinese man with gold cradle. NT Library

Half an hour later, both men, mounted now, rode into the Hall’s Creek township. They steered clear of a prize fight going on between two bloodied and shirtless men before a yelling, betting crowd on the main strip. Leaving the horses tethered to public hitching posts they walked away from the gas-lit area, and into the lantern-lit alleys of the town’s little Chinatown.

Winding their way past smells of Asian cooking and gambling dens, they reached an intersection with an outdoor dance hall and pub on one corner. The two men took a table closest to the street, with the Orphan looking pointedly across at the opposite side.

‘There’s three types of Celestial on the diggings here,’ said the Orphan. ‘The Pekinese, Cantonese and a smaller group from Macao. The ones working your claim are from Canton, which is why they wear their hair in a bun and not a pig-tail. That’s their Joss House, across the street.’

Tom looked. The diggings-style temple was built of poles, and clad with sawn timber, as substantial a building as any around here. Chinese letters were painted in red above the open door.

‘They bury the gold in the ground under the altar, and a courier takes it up to Wyndham and back to China every three or four weeks.’

‘When’s the next shipment?’ asked Tom.

‘Soon. Prob’ly the next few days, but I have to warn you, four or five of their best men sleep in there every night. They’re young tong fighters, tough as nails, and they’re armed.’

Without any warning, a band consisting of an accordion, a drum and fiddle started up behind them. The two men turned to see a dance act come out onto the stage. One of the dancers was a graceful Aboriginal girl, and the other a grown man no more than four feet tall, hamming it up, making a hash of the dance to make the crowd laugh.

From the Joss House across the road, a young Chinese emerged, then another. Both were square-jawed, athletic types. They laughed at the act, then called for three more of their mates to come and watch, laughing amongst themselves.

‘That’s them,’ said the Orphan in a low voice. ‘They like the free entertainment.’

Tom wasn’t listening. He was watching how the young Chinese men left the Joss House, moving closer, half way across the street to get a better view of the act. After the dance was over, they turned and disappeared into the red Chinese lantern light of the interior.

Tom continued to sit, thinking hard, the seed of an idea germinating in his mind.


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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


#53. Dear Tom

#53. Dear Tom


My Dear Tom

I pray that this letter reaches you in whatever lonely extremity you have reached. I imagine that you are on the run and far from here. Please know that my thoughts and prayers have followed you every step of the way.

Yesterday the strangest thing happened. A woman who looked like her poor old hide had been pegged out in the sun for the last fifty years, pulled up outside my boarding house. She stopped her horse team in the middle of the road, smelling of strong spirits and swearing like a trooper at anyone who complained. She knocked on the door, introducing herself as ‘Missus Dead Finish,’ and told me that I could write to you by addressing my letters to Aazar the Afghan, care of Hall’s Creek Post Office.

Oh Tom, isn’t it a crime how happiness was snatched from us! Checking my crab pots is now a lonely task, and every stroke of the oar makes me think of you. It’s strange how life twists and turns, and how sometimes the events of the past, that we think are far behind us, creep out of the shadows again to choke the fun out of life.

I pray that you are free, sound in mind and body, and that your circumstances are such that I might soon hope to see you again. For my part, little has changed, apart from three new students, the sons of a teamster, who prefer horseplay and mischief to arithmetic. These young imps are making my days a little harder than before. On the positive side, however, I’m getting much better at swinging a cane!

I won’t carry on too much, until I’m sure that this letter has reached you, lest it is really being read by ‘Aazar the Afghan’ (in which case, hello, but can you please see if you can find my dear Tom and pass this on to him).

Your loving correspondent

Emily Byrne


Thomas Nugent. National Library of Australia


Dearest Emily


Your letter was a mitey burst of fresh air in this lonely circumstance. Please forgive my little ruse, for I have played the part of an Afghan these last weeks to throw that dog Alfred Searcy off my scent. It seems to have worked, so far, as word lately reached my ears that he has sailed back to his post at Borroloola. Even so, my time here in the diggings will soon be done.

The good news is that it seems that my mates and I have located the gold we worked so hard to unearth. Not exactly in the manner we expected, but we’ve found it nonetheless. Something tells me that tonight is the night. All the stars seem to be lining themselfs up for great deeds like a string of packhorses in the sky.

At the same time, Larrikin’s mare (remember I told you about her) is showing signs of getting ready to drop. It seems that she’s having twins, which is rare and dangerous for horses as you would know. It’s unlikely that both will survive, but we hope and pray that they might. She is getting very close to her time, and one of the boys is watching her every minute.

If all goes well I will probly hit the road tomorrow, back towards the Territory. If the Almighty smiles down on me in the business of tonight, I’ll soon be settled on a cattle run of my own. I first saw it some two year ago and discreet enquiry tells me that it’s still available, overlooked by the rich men who lust for holdings much more vast. I, for my part, just want somewhere I can be my own boss and raise cattle the way I wish. I’ll take the boy with me, and prob’ly Blind Joe, if he wants to come, along with his women.

It’s a block of some two hundred square miles, with its share of poor country, I’ll admit. Yet around the winding creek you’ll find acre after acre of Mitchell grass flats, glowing yellow in the sunshine. Oh what cattle I’ll grow there. Searcy and his vindictive soul will never find me, as I’ll register the lease under a different name (not Aazar the Afghan). My first big effort, after a set of solid yards and some fencing, will be to build a homestead fit for a queen.

It will have a cool verandah out the front, paved with slabs of river stone, a kitchen out the back, and spare bedrooms so we can welcome visitors in style. The sitting room will be big enough that we can push the lounge chairs back and hold dances for the nearby station people, maybe the odd race meeting in the Dry. The front yard we’ll water from a hole in the creek, growing soft couch grass and shade trees. In time we could hang a swing from a heavy bough. I recall such from my own childhood days, back in Lochinvar, when my mother would push me to and fro.

Every year or two we’ll drove a mob of fat store bullocks to Queensland. The cheques will come in and there’ll be a spree in Palmerston, with new clothes. Just picture me (and somebody else I fervently do hope) strolling down Cavenagh Street like nobody’s business.

When the block is registered in my name, I’ll be writing to you again, and there will be heady matters for us to discuss. Yet, it all depends on this night. I’ve gathered my most loyal mates: Larrikin, Sandy, Wonoka Jack and Fitz. Also I have reckoned on giving Tommy the Rag and Carmody the chance to redeem themselves. This time tomorrow I believe that I will be a man of means, worthy of your hand if I may be so bold as to say so.

Next time you write, please address your letter to Tom Holmes, (a name I have used before, and a good one), care of Tennant Creek Telegraph Station. I’ll think of you every mile on that long road back to the Territory, and look forward to the time when we can be together.

Your affectionate rowing companion,

Tom (Aazar the Afghan)



Continues next Sunday …

©2019 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
#54. The Night they Robbed the Joss House

#54. The Night they Robbed the Joss House

At four in the afternoon, Tom set his pocket watch to the same time as Sandy Myrtle’s and sent the big man into town with Larrikin. Their saddle bags bulged with costumes that had been the subject of much discussion, with some important input from Jake’s two girls. Larrikin had his dancing shoes tied by the laces to his Ds.

‘You’re the only man in the world I’d do this for, Tom,’ Sandy said.

‘I appreciate that,’ said Tom. ‘But without you two we wouldn’t have a hope in hell of pulling this off.’

‘I’m just a tad worried about my mare,’ said Larrikin. ‘Promise me someone will ride for Red Jack if she starts to foal. She’s close, her teats are full and she’s waxing …’

‘That’s a promise,’ Jack Dalley piped up ‘Don’t worry about her. The boys an’ me will be watching, and Scotty’s got his nag saddled up ready – he’ll have that red-haired witch here in a jiffy.’

Sandy and Larrikin rode off at a trot, and two hours passed before Tom, Fitz, Wonoka Jack, Carmody, and young Tommy the Rag chased up their steadiest packhorses and their own mounts. They dressed in dark shirts and dungarees, and strapped revolver pouches to their belts. All four of them had scarves ready to tie across their faces; ‘like Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne must’ve worn before they took to wearin’ ironmongery,’ as Tommy the Rag put it.

‘Now, remember boys, we’re not about to shoot anyone,’ said Tom. ‘We take what’s due to us and that’s it. Now come on, let’s ride.’

They took the journey into Hall’s Creek nice and slow, then wound their way down narrow tracks between the claims, keeping their mouths shut and trying not to attract attention.

But by God, thought Tom, it felt good to ride high in the saddle, wearing a good pair of boots, with a weapon at his hip and adrenalin flooding into his system. Sure, he had his Arab garb on top, complete with turban and cloak, but his regular bushman’s clobber was underneath. The night was perfect for this kind of work – dark, with air cool as crystal and the stars riding high. The moon was so thin it looked like a snip of fencing wire.

Heading into town, they moved off the main track, cutting through scrub between a couple of worked-out gullies before reaching the alleyway that served as the diggings’ Chinatown. Tom led a couple of pack horses. Fitz, Tommy the Rag, Carmody and Wonoka Jack came behind, talking and laughing and passing a bottle like men on a blow-out.

They reached the intersection alongside the Joss House. Tom dismounted, and the others followed suit. The Joss House was in full view, along with the open-air dance theatre across the road, where a noisy crowd occupied the tables, drinking and cat-calling, yelling for the next act to come out.

‘We’ll wait here,’ Tom said. ‘Try to look busy.’ He set to work checking one of the horses’ hoofs, swearing about the damn thing being lame, all for the benefit of anyone watching. After a minute or two he consulted his pocket watch and looked anxiously across at the dance stage. Still, nothing was happening.

‘Hurry up, damn you Larrikin,’ he muttered, and looked up to see his old mate Jack Martin, the ‘Orphan,’ pass along the street, giving him a subtle nod that surely meant that the gold was still there. That the ‘job’ was on. The adrenalin that buzzed inside Tom quickened his heartbeat.

Then, less than a minute after the appointed time, there was a burst of shouting and applause. The music started up, and Larrikin ran onto the stage, twirled once, then started to dance. Tom had forgotten how damn good he was. He started with a tap routine, then free danced in perfect time with the fiddle, accordion and banjo. How on earth a motherless child from the Norman River had learned to dance like that was one of life’s mysteries.

The crowd clapped, but Tom was watching the Joss House. Soon, the first of the young tong guards came out the door so he could see the show, and as Larrikin’s routine went on, the second emerged. The first called inside and the others joined them. All five were now watching Larrikin dance, but remained fixed against the wall near the door, making entry impossible. Still, Tom knew that it wouldn’t be long now, the next part of the act was about to start. That would surely draw them away a little. He tore the Afghan turban from his head, and removed the cloak. He tied the scarf he had brought over his face, leaving only his eyes free. The others followed his example.

‘Come on, Sandy,’ Tom said, under his breath. ‘Now!’

As if in response to the urging, and with an attention-seeking bellow, Sandy Myrtle, wearing nothing but a tiny skirt, his huge belly and man-breasts open to the crowd, wobbled onto the stage. The audience screamed with delight. How could every eye not be drawn to him? They shouted with delight, laughed until tears ran from their eyes. For Larrikin’s every step and twirl, Sandy followed, writhing his hips, shaking his chest. The five tong guards laughed and clapped, moving halfway across the road to get a better view.

‘Let’s go get it boys,’ said Tom, turning to his mates. ‘Remember that the Orphan reckoned we’d find it under the altar. We’ve got a couple of minutes at best.’

Leaving Tommy the Rag in charge of the horses, Tom, Carmody, and Fitz ran around the dark side of the building, then slipped inside like three shadows. Each of them carried a pair of canvas saddle panniers. Carmody had a shovel, and Fitz a short-handled mattock. Wonoka Jack followed, also entering the Joss House, but his only task was to watch the tong guards from just inside the doorway.

Joss House Altar. Photo by George Cole, NT Library.

The Joss House was lit by candles and smelled of incense. The altar was up towards the front, and all three of the men fell to their knees as if to pray, but instead pulling aside a floor covering, revealing the earth below.

Fitz started chipping away with the mattock, the iron head biting deep into the ground, while Carmody used the shovel to scoop away the spoil and chuck it willy nilly back on the temple floor.

They had penetrated only eight or ten inches when the mattock struck wood with a hollow thump.

‘That’s it,’ hissed Tom.

They went at it with their hands, revealing the lid of a wooden crate. Tom took a grip at one end, and Carmody the other. Fitz also found purchase, and the three of them lifted it out.

‘Bloody Christ it’s heavy,’ hissed Tom. His entire body was sweating, hands slick with clammy dust. Carmody slipped the shovel blade between the lid and body of the box, opening it to the accompaniment of a soft splinter of wood.

There was a groan from Fitz at the contents: calico bags of gold dust, soft and heavy as a policeman’s cosh.

‘Leave them,’ whispered Tom. ‘The dust isn’t ours, but these damn lumps of gold … by rights they belong to us.’ His fingers found them before his eyes. They were stored in larger bags, heavy and irregular. ‘Hurry boys, they’ll be getting weary of Sandy in a minute, and he’ll be getting weary of them.’

They tore open the canvas panniers, and shoved gold in, trying to keep a balance as best they could. Now there was only the sound of three breathing men and the occasional hiss of a candle. They blocked out the laughter and music from outside, concentrating on the work of taking the gold.

‘Hurry you bastards,’ hissed Wonoka George from his post near the doorway. ‘I think they’re about to come back.’

Tom was half on his feet as he scrabbled in the box one last time. ‘We’ve got it all, lads. Let’s fly.’ He was last out the door, bolting past the guards, who had mercifully turned to watch the show again. He and the others worked with nervous fingers to strap the heavy panniers to the pack horses. Then came first shout of alarm. He turned to see the Chinese running into the Joss House, exclaiming loudly, audible even over the sound of music.

On the other side of the road, one of the hecklers had got too much for Sandy Myrtle, who had stopped dancing. Red in the face, he was shouting down at a man sitting at a table near the stage, brandishing a giant fist, threatening to punch his ‘stupid head off his shoulders.’

‘Go, now lads,’ shouted Tom, swinging onto his horse. He turned to see one of the guards emerge from the Joss House, stopping to aim and fire a revolver. Being in front of the blast, the discharge was shockingly loud, and the weapon flashed a tongue of flame, but where the bullet landed Tom had no idea. When next he looked the five tong guards were in hot pursuit, and other Chinese were melting out of shopfronts and alleys up ahead, forming what seemed to be an impenetrable barrier.

The gang were mounted, however, and they charged for the end of the alley, scattering men, dogs, and a donkey that had come from nowhere. More commotion came from behind, and Tom turned to see that it was the half-naked Sandy, and then Larrikin, galloping hell-for-leather to join the rest of the crew.

There were more gunshots, but so much dust was being raised, and the column was charging down so fast, that they must have had little hope of a target.

‘Stay with me,’ cried Tom, setting his sights on the gully across the road. Once they were into the scrub, he would back these ragged mates of his against anybody.


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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


#55. A Tale of Two Foals

#55. A Tale of Two Foals


An hour before midnight, Scotty rode off to fetch Red Jack. By the time he returned with her, Larrikin’s mare was agitated and sweating, milk seeping from her teats. The red-haired woman washed her hands and examined her.

‘They’re sitting well, I reckon,’ she said, ‘and the contractions are strong. Let’s see if we can bring the poor things out alive. You blokes could make a bed of dry grass for when she wants to lay down, and someone please fetch another lantern or two.’

In a flurry of activity, the members of the Ragged Thirteen who weren’t out on the raid, cut dry grass from around the gully, and packed it down to make a bed. When it was done, Red Jack wrapped the strands of the mare’s tail with clean rags, to keep it out of the way. She was already opening up, and out came a steady trickle of fluid.

‘Right boys, her waters are breaking,’ said Red Jack. ‘Our girl means business. This a special thing, I hope you fellas know, for a horse or a woman doesn’t make any difference.’ Then, ‘Where’s that damned Larrikin, why would he have gone out when his mare was about to drop her foal?’ Jack Woods was about to answer, but she turned and glared at him. ‘Actually, given that half the camp is missing, I don’t want to know.’

Red Jack gentled the already tiring mare down, legs splayed out at first, though she constantly altered position in an attempt to ease the spasms. The whole crew, black and white, settled down to watch, helping where they could. There was nothing they wanted more than to see this end well. Out in the darkness, the other horses were vocal and agitated, as if they knew what was happening, talking to the mare with their whinnies and nickers.

‘Wouldna’t be grand if auld Tom an’ Larrikin were back for this moment eh,’ said Bob Anderson. ‘No doubt it’s been a long time comin’.’

The mare turned herself upright, still on the ground, with her legs folded under her. There was another rush of brown fluid, then a bubble of clear tissue appeared, followed by a foot. The mare was pushing in waves, with a heavy grunt each time. Yet as the minutes passed, and a second foot appeared, they seemed to come no further, pulsing in and out with each spasm of the mare’s great muscles.

‘I have to hurry things up,’ said Red Jack. ‘It’s taking too long.’

And while she kneeled behind the mare, delving inside, adding her own grunts of effort to those of the mare, there was the sound of rushing hooves. Into camp rode Tom, and five of the others, pack horses following. They pulled the horses up, with Blind Joe and a couple of the boys running to grasp bridles and steady them down.

Tom and Larrikin led the way in on foot. Seeing what was happening, they said nothing, made no fuss. Just gathered around to watch wordlessly. One or two of the others clapped them on the shoulders gently to mark their return.

Even the horses out there in the darkness fell silent as Red Jack used her hands to assist. The two feet were soon followed by two long legs, a snout, then an immense bag of tissue and fluid, squeezing out in a rush. Even as they watched, that shapeless thing in the lantern light became a living foal, struggling onto his sternum and wriggling his way free of the sack that had contained him, breathing air on his own account.

‘Chestnut,’ opined Bob Anderson.

‘Sorrel maybe,’ said Wonoka George. ‘But it’s hard to tell just yet.’

Horse and foal. Daly Waters – approximately 1886. National Library of Australia

Red Jack was still at work, her hands again delving inside the mare, gently aiding, smoothing the way, and pulling a little where she could. The second bag was smaller than the first, erupting out from the mare, falling shapelessly on the straw. That second foal lay uncommonly still.

‘Of all the blessed luck,’ cried Red Jack ‘The little one ain’t breathing.’

Men who had not prayed in twenty years were fumbling for long-forgotten words, calling for the bright stars above to be their witness as they swore to be better men if only God would spare that helpless little creature.

Red Jack’s face was lined with worry as she broke the sack herself and manipulated the foal’s head to clear the fluid, stroking and shaking in an effort to clear its windpipe and nasal passages. Then, in a moment that no one there would ever forget, Red Jack closed the left nostril of that undersized bundle with her left thumb and forefinger, and gently breathed into the other.

Most of them had seen this done before, but not like this. With the healthier twin already trying to wriggle towards his dam, the sight of the red-haired woman blowing life into the tiny animal was almost mystical. Then … the magic happened. They all saw the little foal jerk her hind leg. Red Jack laid her down. It was obvious to all that the little foal was breathing now, kicking at the tissue that still constrained her lower limbs.

Red Jack turned, face shining in the lantern light. ‘It worked. My blessed soul it worked. The poor little mite is breathing.They are both alive … this one’s on the small side, but bloody perfect.’

The second foal was a patchwork of black, brown and white, a combination known as skewbald, her dark eyes taking in everything around her for the first time as she broke free of the last of the sack that had surrounded her for so many months.

Larrikin went up close on his hands and knees, like a man in a trance, tears spilling down his cheek. Some of the others might have wondered what this moment meant for a man who’d never known a mother or father.

The mare was resting, but turning weakly, summoning the energy to bring out the placenta, but trying to look at her twins at the same time.

‘Bless me if those two aren’t the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,’ said Tom. No one there could have disagreed.


Within a quarter hour the stronger of the two foals was trying to stand, falling comically over in his eagerness. The men laughed and tut-tutted and tried to think up names for them both. The smaller foal took almost an hour to find her feet, but once she was up she was even steadier than her twin. Long before dawn, both were able to find a teat, and the rum bottle was being passed from man to man.

Red Jack refused. ‘I don’t need it. I’ve had my fill of something better tonight.’

‘You sure have,’ said Larrikin. ‘I know these two foals are yours now. But I count myself a lucky man just to have seen what you done tonight, and I’ll go to my grave thankful for it.’

Now that the foals were out of danger Tom called the gang together. ‘Forget sleep. Roll your swags and get ready to leave. We’ve got every Cantonese for twenty miles around on our tails. They won’t follow us out here tonight, it’s too dark, but they’ll have a tracker on our trail by dawn.’


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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






#56. The Break-up

#56. The Break-up

With dawn not far off, Tom sent Blind Joe on a good night horse to a peak about a mile away, to watch for any signs of pursuit. Then, while camp was struck, horses saddled and packs loaded, Tom and Larrikin divided the gold into sixteen fair parcels.

Jack Martin, ‘The Orphan,’ rode in for his share, whooping with delight when he saw the glint of gold. ‘You blokes,’ he warned, ‘aren’t out of this yet. You’ve got those tongs stirred up and no mistake, and they’re mobilising every Celestial for miles around.’

‘Thanks for the advice,’ said Tom. ‘And good luck to you.’ The Orphan rode off into the night, whistling a tune as he went.

Within the hour, the eastern half of the sky was saffron yellow, and the birds chattering and singing in the scrub. The men were ready, their mounts saddled and packed. One by one they took their gold and stowed it deep in saddle bags or rolled into swags.

Only Red Jack refused her portion. ‘I’ve got these two foals, they’re worth more than gold. Dole it out between the rest of them.’

As if they knew that words needed to be said before they rode off, the Ragged Thirteen, along with Jake and his sisters, formed up in a rough circle, shuffling feet and smoking pipes.

‘Well I suppose this is the break-up,’ Tom said. ‘It’s been an honour and privilege to be mates with you bastards.’

They didn’t know what to do, so they clapped and hollered, all aware that this was the end of something special. When the cheering stopped they formed a rough line to take their leave of Tom, one by one.

Sandy Myrtle was first, huge and humble. Touched with the sadness of the moment. ‘I’m proud to have ridden with you, mate.’

Tom took a massive fist in his own. ‘Likewise, Sandy. Where are you headed?’

‘Back to the Centre. I’ve heard rumours of a gold find out of Stuart. Little place called Arltunga.’ He waved one arm at Jimmy Woodforde, who was standing lankily beside him. ‘Jimmy’s riding with me.’

‘Good luck with the mining then. I thought you’d have had enough?’

Sandy shook his head. ‘No more grubbin’ for gold for this feller. You’re looking at a storekeeper from here on.’

‘You too, Jimmy?’ asked Tom.

‘Nah, I’m not the storekeeper type. I’ll find somefin’ to do.’

‘Good on you both,’ said Tom. ‘And all the luck in the world.’

Scotty came next, big and handsome, his hat in his hands. ‘Guidbye, Tom. And may fortune foller yew around, all yer days.’

‘I’ll miss your tucker mate,’ said Tom. ‘You’re a born cook. Are you going to stick with Red Jack?’

‘I will, fer a bit. She’ll have to tarry while those little neddies grow a tad, but then she swears she must ride alone. Most likely I’ll be there ‘til Larrikin rides back fer his mare.’

‘Well,’ said Tom. ‘She’s a force of nature, that woman. There aren’t no point arguin’ with her.’

Photo: NT Library

Young Jake was waiting for his turn, shaking Tom’s hand like a grown man. ‘I can’t thank you enough Tom. Me and the girls’ll head for Broome now. I hear they’ve found some pearling grounds, and the bay’s alive with luggers. Thanks to you, I’ve got enough of a stake to set up as a chandler.’

‘You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?’

‘I have – and I’ve an uncle down in Perth who’s in that line of work and can be me supplier. I’ve already written to him.’

Carmody and Jack Dalley, along with Wonoka Jack and George, were planning on riding together as far as the Katherine. ‘At least I can hold my head high, having redeemed meself,’ said Carmody. ‘And I’ve you to thank for that, Tom.’

‘You’re alright Carmody. There’ll always be a place at my table for you – as long as you don’t bring that damned brother-in-law of yours – Maori Jack.’

They both laughed fit to bust, but when Carmody went off to finish readying his horse, he turned quickly away so the others didn’t see the tear in his eye.

‘And you two?’ Tom asked of the Brown brothers.

‘Dunno,’ said Wonoka George. ‘Hopefully we’ll pick up some work on the Katherine.’

‘But we’ll never forget these days,’ added Jack.

Bob Anderson came next, his lips were turned down at the corners. ‘I lairned it all from you, Tom, best of all how to love this country. Now, I want acres of me own – and we passed some braw lands, on the Queensland side of the Territory.’

‘We’ll compare notes one day,’ said Tom. ‘When we’re genteel old farts on some verandah, getting drunk an’ telling bullshit.’ He caught sight of Tommy the Rag, who was the only one really crying, tears streaming down his face. ‘Hey Tommy, are you going to come over here and shake me hand or not?’

The young fellow, with his stockwhip looped around his shoulders ready to ride, wiped his face, walked over and shook hands.

‘Cheer up Tommy,’ said Tom. ‘It’s not the end of the world. Plenty of places to see, and things to do.’

Tommy shrugged his shoulders. ‘All alone it don’t seem like any fun. Can’t we all just split up then meet up again, somewhere?’

‘Sorry mate, but one of the tricks of life it to know when to start things, and when to finish them. We’ve had a good run, but it’s time for the next stage.’

‘You can ride with me, Tommy,’ said New England Jack. ‘I’ve only seen a bit of Western Australia so far. I hear tell of more goldfields.’ He grinned wickedly. ‘There’ll be cattle to steal and beef to sell – all the fun we can handle.’

Tommy smiled through a new batch of tears. ‘Thanks mate. I’ll ride with you happily, for as long as you’ll have me.’

Larrikin and Fitz were planning on sticking together, and both seemed energised. ‘We’re thinking that we might ride for a few days,’ said Larrikin, ‘then find a likely looking station … maybe Rosewood or Nicholson. We’ll work cattle by day and piss it up against a wall at night.’

‘Larrikin doesn’t want to go too far away,’ added Fitz. ‘He’ll come back for his mare when the foals are weaned.’

‘Makes sense,’ said Tom. ‘Might have some stock work for you myself, one day, if all goes to plan.’

The sun arrived over the horizon, sending sharp rays of light on the deep red ground. A crow cawed from a nearby tree.

Red Jack and Scotty left first, carrying each of the two foals over their saddles, for they were too small to walk any distance. Tom wanted to make sure that they had a good start, and resolved to give them at least an hour.

‘Let’s slip the bottle round one last time, before we go,’ called Tom, and they passed the rum from hand to hand. The last dram slid down Carmody’s throat, just as Blind Joe rode in at the gallop. It was rare to see him rattled, but his eyes were wide.

He didn’t have to say a thing. They all heard a sound, more like roar. A hundred, maybe two hundred Cantonese on the march. They came over the rise some half a mile away, carrying shovels, and pick axes, even one or two shotguns.

‘Looks like it’s time to go,’ said Tom.

‘What if they catch us?’ said little Ellen, mounted on her pony next to Jake.

‘Catch us?’ laughed Tom. ‘Why with us mounted, and them afoot? We might be going our separate ways, but we’re still the damned Ragged Thirteen, from now until the day we die. Farewell, good mates,’ he called, and one by one they touched spurs to their horses’ flanks, and rode away.


Continues next Sunday …


©2019 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


#57. Banka Banka

#57. Banka Banka

On the long ride to the Territory border, Tom Nugent had plenty of time to think. After months of hard labour on the goldfields, and those life-changing months in Wyndham as a prisoner and free man, it felt good to be back in the saddle, riding past red cliffs, dramatic river gorges, and plains of waving speargrass taller than the horses.

Tom did not ride alone. A little way ahead rode Blind Joe, and behind him, Joe’s two women and one picaninny, all on the one horse. The boy from Borroloola was old enough to ride on his own now, and he rarely kept steady for long.

Tom liked it when the boy rode alongside and asked questions like, where did the clouds come from? Why did the trees know how to grow the right way up? Where did the Queen live? He was sturdy kid, and bright as a pin.

When they reached the Territory border Tom set up camp, then led the boy down to the banks of the Negri. ‘It’s time, and past time, that I gave you a name,’ Tom said.

‘I already got a name.’

‘You need a whitefeller name. I want you to grow up with some learnin’ and able to fit in where you have to. I’m fixing things to have some land of my own, and you’ll be a part of it too.’ Tom reached down to where the clear water ran in a glassy sheet over the stones. He lifted a handful, and smoothed it onto the child’s hair.

‘This aren’t a proper, churchy kind of christenin’, but from now on,’ Tom said, glancing at Blind Joe and his women. ‘This young fellow will be called George. Not just that, but, I’m changing names too.’ He pointed to the east. ‘As soon as I cross the Territory border I’m no longer Tom Nugent, but Tom Holmes. That should keep those wallopers off my tracks for a while.’

 Blind Joe thought that Tom putting water on the boy’s head was a great joke, and laughed until his wives led him back to the campfire.

Tom’s second traverse of the Murranji Track was easier than the first, for the endless thickets of bullwaddy and lancewood now held no fears for him. On the third day they found a ‘dropped’ bullock. Tom brought it down with one shot from his Snider rifle, and the five of them ate beef until they could hardly move, drying the rest over a smoky fire, with the dingos prowling out in the darkness, waiting for the bones.

At the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station, Tom refused to tarry, but turned his little party north. He had a map, deep in his saddlebags, and consulted it, along with a compass. After half a day’s ride, the frenetic pace slowed, and Tom began to look with interest at every tree, every gully, and particularly the creeks and part-dried lagoons.

He took careful note of the location of every field of Mitchell and Flinders grass, each stand of cypress, of proud woollybutts, and every hillside soak. They camped at broad waterholes, and at dusk Tom took out an old catgut line. He used a hook baited with dried beef or frogs to bring in catfish and black bream.

They saw bare footprints here and there, and plenty of old cooking fires or abandoned wurlies around the waterholes, but no people. Not yet. Tom looked with interest. He was not a rich man, who could afford to push the people who belonged here out, and bring in his own white workforce. He’d need goodwill to get the locals on board with his pastoral enterprise, and he knew well that the Australian Aborigine was the world’s best natural stockman.

‘This good country,’ said Blind Joe, picking the last morsels from a catfish skeleton, still with ash from the fire clinging to its head and tail.

Finally, three days after they arrived in the area. Tom selected a flat and dry section with access to the creek, and good pasture for horses. It was close to the main north-south track, and central to other sections of the run. There wasn’t much water, but enough for horses, household uses and a vegetable garden.

‘This is it,’ he told his little band. ‘This here is where we stop, and make new lives.’

Blind Joe thought it was funny how Tom spent the rest of the afternoon pacing out little squares, here and there, back and forth. ‘That’s the sittin’ room,’ Tom announced, ‘big enough for a regular party. And here will be the kitchen, right at the back of the house, made of good stone from that hillock yonder.’

‘What you goin’ call this place, boss?’ asked Blind Joe.

‘I’m going to call it Banka Banka,’ Tom said, after the little creek that wound around below the homestead site.

Banka Banka Station Homestead. NT Library

Tom left his new family in camp, and rode like the wind to Palmerston. He was careful of being spotted, even by old friends; camping alone, out of town, keeping his hat low, and crossing the road if he saw a policeman.

First he called on one of the less reputable gold dealers. Then, a wad of cash in his pocket, he visited the Government Lands Office, where he paid a filing fee, and the first five years’ lease, registering the block as Banka Banka Station in the name of Tom Holmes.

The next morning, before leaving town, he stopped to write a letter, scarcely able to contain his excitement.

Dear Miss Byrne

Sorry, for the long passage of time since I last wrote, but towns and post offices have been scarce as chicken’s teeth for a while. My lack of words don’t speak for any lack of good wishes.

There’s big news. I’ve done it, anyway. A place of me own, all legal and registered in my name. (Well, pretty close to my own name, anyhow). It’s called Banka Banka Station. It’s dry country, but with dams built, and yards, it’ll carry more than enough stock to keep me busy, and bring in good money.

I’m riding back today with three new packhorses and enough nails to start bilding you the homestead you can be proud of. I’m hoping you will come and marry me and share this life. Please answer back with your thorts.

Yours Afectionatly


Back at Banka Banka, Tom laboured like a dog on the homestead. He built a saw pit, enticing a couple of muscled local Warlpiri lads, who came in looking for flour and tobacco, to work for him. As he suspected, they stayed only a week or two, but that was enough to get a pile of timber sawn. Tom laid termite mound floors, and compacted them ‘til they were as hard as granite. He waited a month, then rode to the Telegraph Station looking for mail. There was nothing. He wrote again, and posted it before he left.

Dear Miss Byrne

I guess my last letter must not have reached you. I enclose twenty pounds in cash for you to take the steamer over if you’ll please say you’ll marry me. The Banka Banka homestead ain’t too much yet, but it’ll be a mansion by the time I’m done. It’s a sight, for sure.

I started out with no cattle at all, but a few hundred cleanskins have mysteriously appeared, and now carry my brand. There’s wealth for men with the strength to build it, in this country.

Please write back, soon if you can. Better still come along yourself.


Tom rode into the Telegraph Station to post the new letter, then hurried back to the half-finished homestead.

The final instalment next Sunday …

©2019 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

#58. Epilogue

#58. Epilogue

What happened to these legends? These larrikins who rode, robbed and drank rum together? Many of the facts have been lost, but these, as far as can be ascertained, from historical records, grave sites, and information from family members, were the fates of the Ragged Thirteen.

Alexander McDonald, better known as Sandy Myrtle, rode back to Central Australia, where a new rush, first for gemstones, then gold, was underway at Arltunga, fifty miles east of the town of Stuart, now Alice Springs. He built a pub there, amongst the ghost gums and spinifex, calling it the Glencoe Arms. This was a life Sandy enjoyed, plenty of rum and company, sitting on a stool up behind the bar, pouring beers and yarning with travellers and diggers. Fighters and troublemakers found themselves out on the street, and few dared argue. By then Sandy weighed twenty-eight stone in his boots.

Legend has it that he got so fat, his workers had to lift him up into a buggy when he went to visit a station he part owned, out in the scrub.

A young Arrernte woman called Korulya used to do odd jobs around the pub, and Sandy allowed her to sit inside out of the heat. Slowly he fell in love with her. When their daughter came along they called her Myrtle, after Sandy’s nickname, and the station he had managed back in his youth.

Late in life Sandy returned to the care of his sister, Annie, in South Australia. He died at Miss Lawrence’s Private Hospital in Adelaide, on the 4th of May, 1919.

Jimmy Woodford rode with Sandy back to the Red Centre. For many years he earned beer and tucker money collecting meteorites and selling them. Later, it seems, he ended up in Queensland, but the trail goes cold after that.

Bob Anderson, the man who, according to family lore, the Ragged Thirteen called the ‘foot runner,’ arrived in Normanton, Queensland, where he purchased a bullock team. He learned his trade the hard way, carrying stores between Croydon, Georgetown and Cloncurry, while he looked around for options. He married at around this time, and fathered sixteen children, not all of whom lived to adulthood.

Seizing an opportunity, Bob set up Tobeymorey Station, on the Territory/Queensland border. He also ran the Urandangi Store in the early 1900s. He was killed in a fall from his horse on the 19th of January, 1923. A memorial stands on the site where his body was found, though his grave is at the Urandangi cemetery. Bob left hundreds of descendants, many of them hard bush characters who helped forge the Queensland and NT pastoral industries.

‘Larrikin’ and ‘Fitz’ went back to stock work, droving and ringing across Northern Australia. They most likely lie in remote graves, lovingly made by their mates on the track. There are thousands of graves like this; men (and women too), buried far from loved ones, hospitals and proper fenced graveyards. Many have rotted away or sunk into the red sands or black soils of the inland.

Jack Dalley settled near Cloncurry, droving when the mood took him. His sons were all drovers, and served in World War One with distinction. He was knocked over by a car in the late 1920s, in Ramsay Street, Cloncurry, but recovered quickly. He was over seventy when he died.

‘Wonoka’ George and Jack Brown found work at Katherine, sawing timber in a pit, for hotelier Barney Murphy. When this work was finished they headed for a new goldfield not far from the town, out on Maude Creek. Jack grew ill, possibly from a condition related to tapeworms, and was forced to return to South Australia, where he died.

Jim Carmody, was also at the Katherine, and it was the river itself that was his undoing. After a long bout of fever, he went fishing one morning in 1889, and failed to return. His body was retrieved from the water a few hours later. Some theories ran that he fell in, became entangled in his own catgut line, and drowned. Others supposed that he had been seized by a cramp while sitting on a log over the water.

Jim Carmody’s brother in law, Maori Jack Reid, lived on the Two-mile Creek out of Pine Creek, neighbours with Charlie Gaunt, until the late 1930s. Presumably he died around that time.

Red Jack rode off without Hugh Campbell, the man they called Scotty, as soon as her twin foals were old enough to do the hard miles. Scotty wandered for a while, looking for Red Jack, but she was always a step ahead; not just a myth, but an obsession. He cooked on Flora Valley Station for a while, but later became very ill, with a condition that stopped him from sweating. He headed back home for Scotland, where he died, still a young man.

‘New England’ Jack Woods continued to follow the gold, and butcher stolen beef. Tommy the Rag was presumably his partner for at least some of his adventures. This 1936 article in the Western Mail describes Jack’s movements:

From there (Hall’s Creek) Jack followed all the rushes through the Nor’-West: Murchison, Coolgardie and outlying fields. There was frequently a strong suspicion as to the source of his meat supply, but nothing wrong was ever proved against him. He was a true bush lawyer, and openly boasted that he preferred a crooked deal to a straight one. There was more thrill, he said, in the former. But money was only a medium to get drink – which was his great weakness.

Jack Woods eventually returned to New England, and lived out the rest of his days with family. Of Tommy the Rag I can find no record.

Alfred Searcy found the strain of policing larrikins like the Ragged Thirteen, and the genuine lawlessness of the north, too much for his health, and he returned to Adelaide in 1890. He was unemployed for six years, then took over his brother’s job as a clerk with the South Australian parliament. He wrote several books; some fact, some fiction, that still make good reading today. He never mentioned being out-smarted by the Ragged Thirteen. He did, however, relate the time that he and O’Donohue had marched some of them into Roper Bar station. He also grumbled that some ruffians had chased off their horses on the way into Borroloola.

And what about Tom Nugent?

No letter from Emily Byrne ever came, yet he would not be alone for long. On a cattle drive he met Alice Nampin, a Garrwa woman who would be his companion for the rest of his life. They had at least two children, Maudie and Mysie.

Even today, prejudice runs deep, but despite a history littered with unforgivable instances of kidnap, slavery and rape, there were also many loving, long-lived relationships between white and black that stood the test the time, and left children who were strong, proud, and resilient. The offspring of such couples were not so often taken by authorities – they lived in rough bush homesteads with their white fathers and Indigenous mothers. Many grew up on horseback, working cattle, and were the backbone of the NT pastoral industry for four generations.

The little boy from Borroloola, George, was a natural rider and stockman. In the early 1900s, Tom was able to expand, purchasing Buchanan Downs Station. In an admirable show of trust, for the time, it was managed by George for many years. Surely he was one of the earliest Aboriginal managers of a cattle station. As Tom explained in a 1907 interview with the Australian Star newspaper:

In 1884 I came across a tiny little black toddler, just able to crawl on all fours. He was a few months old, and had apparently been lost. When I came across him he was making for a waterhole. I took him home and reared him on mare’s milk, and he is the man, now in charge of Buchanan Downs.

In 1900, Jack Woods came to visit, and stayed for a few months. According to Bill Linklater, who left the most accurate account of the Ragged Thirteen, and was working on Banka Banka at the time, if anyone talked about the old Ragged Thirteen days, Tom would say, ‘Why bring that up? It’s ancient history.’

Life on Banka Banka Station, meantime, was good. In the same article as the above, Tom goes on to say:

‘We have a piano at Banka Banka but (with a smile) we have no one to play it. We have a gramophone too, and of course we are all good at playing that. There is hardly a thing a man could wish for that is not there. We’ve got all the meat we want; I grow plenty of vegetables, while fish, such as the black bream and jewey abound in the fresh water. Other necessaries we get from Port Darwin, 700 miles away. We send to Anthony Horderns for clothing and boots.’


Two graves at the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station. The one on the left is Tom Nugent’s. NT Library


Down on Banka Banka Creek, there was a waterhole where Tom liked to sit in the evenings and read. In his last days he liked poems that stirred up memories of his youth best of all. Will Ogilvie was his favourite wordsmith, and Tom would sip from his rum bottle, read a line or two and savour it while he watched the red sun glow red and the rainbow bee-eaters flick their wings over the water.

In 1911, however, Tom grew sick from dropsy (oedema), and he died on the 7th of August at the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station. He was 63. His grave still stands there today, in the scrub nearby.

Of all the pioneering Australians I’ve researched, I like Tom, the ‘captain’ of the Ragged Thirteen the most. He had his own code, and it wasn’t the same as ours, but he was loyal, wise, funny and strong. He was a better man than most of those who looked down on him and the wild, special life he led. Rest in peace, Tom Nugent.

Finally, what happened to Red Jack?

She rode on, from town to town, with her black stallion Mephistopheles, her string of horses and her memories. No one understood her, no one could contain her. As far as I know she rode and broke horses until she grew too old and frail to stay in the saddle.

We’ll let the story end there.



That was the last instalment of Red Jack and the Ragged Thirteen. You can preorder the paperback version here for delivery in June.


©2019 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





Donegan and the Divorce

Donegan and the Divorce

Roper Bar Police Station. William Henry Lillicrapp Collection. NT Library

Mounted Constable Michael Donegan woke up in his cot at the Leichhardt’s Crossing Police Station, with a hangover so bad he’d been dreaming that he was back home in Derry, Ireland, where a huge shirtless man was hitting the side of his head with a ten-pound hammer.

His sleeping mind had wandered back to a dark little factory terrace, with Da putting on his boots before leaving for work, while oat porridge bubbled on the stove. The man with the hammer was Da’s supervisor in the foundry where he worked. Michael had always been frightened of him.

But the walls, revealed in the light of dawn, were not the whitewashed bricks of home, but split raw timbers. The air was hot and humid, and the pillow damp from sweat. Michael Donegan realised that the terrace house, and the man with the hammer, were ten thousand miles away, and that the blows were coming from inside his own head, heavy from the whisky he had drunk the night before. He and some blow-ins: brumby runners, ringers, prospectors and a couple of Malay sailors from a schooner at anchor below the bar, had been playing poker, with a dram all round each time the cards were dealt.

As the local officer of the law, Donegan presided over a huge part of the Gulf, an area larger than all the counties of his native Ireland put together. This was no easy task. The Gulf was a refuge for the lawless, the adventurous, and the uncivilised. Many of the inhabitants had outstanding warrants. Others were hurrying to goldfields near Pine Creek and the Kimberley, some to dig for gold, others for the opportunities that gold might bring them.

For a while he lay in bed, letting his aches subside a little, going over the day to come. It was a Sunday, and thus he was perfectly entitled to spend it as he pleased. With luck, no lawless ruffians would ride into town. No one would be speared or shot. No one would be taken by a ‘gator, steal, or fight.

Donegan hoped for a quiet day. The afternoon, he decided, might be passed reading the bible on the riverbank, fulfilling the promise he had made to his Ma to keep the faith of his forefathers. It was also a good way to avoid the heat of the day, just far enough from the water to be safe from ‘gators.

He had managed to get out of bed, pull on a pair of trousers, collect the bowl of shaving water placed for him by one of the Ngalakgan girls who tended the house, and was half way through shaving when he heard a couple of horses ridden hard, coming into the station.

Donegan paused, razor in hand. Please God, he prayed silently, let them ride on, for pity’s sake.

Unfortunately, whoever it was reined in on the road outside. Two riders, at least. Next came raised voices, followed by a pounding on the door. Donegan lay still, scarcely breathing, hoping the sound would stop. Instead it came again, louder than before.

‘Ye can just bally well wait,’ he muttered to himself. This was a thankless job, he decided, being liable to be called upon at just about any hour of the day or night for anything from a murder, a complaint of violence against or by any of three or four local Aboriginal nations, or simply to help get a message south. Today, having planned a day of rest and peace, he was in no mood to be hurried.

The knocking resumed, harder than before, along with a few curses in a woman’s voice. The choice of words was not lady-like.

Wondering what in the name of the Saviour had turned up on his door Michael Donegan wiped his face clean with a towel, buttoned on a shirt and walked towards the door. His head thumped in time with each footstep.

A woman stood in the doorway, wild with unkempt hair, dirt and anger. At her waist was strapped a revolver seemingly too big for her to carry, yet she managed it somehow.

‘It’s about bleedin’ time,’ she said, ‘I’ve a ridden two hundred mile to get here, and it aren’t nice to be kept waiting at the door.’

Peering past her, Donegan perceived a man: a thin, shifty, nervous looking type who would not have looked out of place as a Derry pickpocket.

‘So what is troubling ye enough to ride two hundred miles?’ Donegan asked.

‘Let us in,’ said the woman, ‘yer slow-witted Irishman, and you’ll learn our business soon enough.’

‘Well I might. Just tell me what ye want first.’

‘Me and this old cock – me husband Tommy here – want a divorce.’

Donegan had been approached for all kinds of assistance in his months at Roper Bar, but this was a first. ‘Jaysus woman, on what grounds?’

The woman grinned slyly. ‘See here, Tommy can no longer do his job as a man.’ With those words she marched past a surprised Donegan and inside.

Her husband stopped beside the policeman. ‘What me wife just said aren’t true. She’s happened to find another feller on the Barkly, better lookin’ and richer than me, and he’s even gonna pay me for her. That’s why we need a divorce, so they can get hitched straight up.’

Donegan glared at her. ‘T’at’s irregular, I warn ye both …’

The woman pushed her face close to his, missing teeth and bad breath and all. ‘Listen you. Tommy’s in a hurry for his cash, and I’m in a hurry for me new man. So jus’ divorce the pair of us an’ we’ll be outta your way.’

‘Bless you, woman, but will you let me put a word in? I can’t divorce ye.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I don’t have t’power. I’m a mounted constable, not a magistrate. Besides, ye have to engage yerselves a solicitor, that’s how t’e law works.’

The woman pulled the revolver from her belt and pointed it at the terrified husband, eyes still on the policeman. ‘Hark now to me you daft little bastard. Divorce us now or I’ll shoot poor Tommy right here on yer floor.’

Donegan placed a hand on either side of his aching skull, then looked upwards, as if praying, but all he could see was the python that had recently taken up residence in the rafters. ‘Put t’at damned gun away before I confiscate it for good and all.’ He reached out to grab her, but she skipped out of reach.

The woman climbed atop a chair and sighted her weapon at the terrified Tommy, who dropped down behind a desk.

Donegan walked towards the woman, crooning softly in his brogue. ‘Now, now, put the gun away, and let’s talk about this.’

Eyes wild, the woman fired the revolver in the general direction of her husband, leaving a slug embedded deep in the slab wall.

‘That’s it,’ shouted Donegan, ears ringing. ‘I’m going to arrest ye. Madwoman!’

Jumping down from her perch, with a wild cry, the woman took to her heels, running out the back door and into a stout little outhouse behind the main building. Behind it were the three separate cell blocks – solid, windowless sheds made of split timber.

Donegan and Tommy, along with a station dog – a dingo crossed with a kangaroo dog called Kip – all hurried out after her.

‘Divorce me and Tommy right now,’ the voice screeched from behind the door of the outhouse, ‘or I’ll kill myself. I swear I will.’ Then followed the sound of the inner lock being slipped home.

‘I told ye already,’ Donegan spluttered. ‘I cannot divorce ye. I’ll swear on the bible to t’at effect. It just cannot be done. Not by me. Not here.’

The woman began to cry, high pitched wails followed by deep throaty grunts as she searched for air. ‘I just want me new bloke, ah fer Chrissake, can’t you see? Tommy’s a useless damn wretch, and never done me a moment’s good in his life. I’ll kill meself, I swear it. Just divorce us, even if it aren’t proper. I’m gonna count to ten …’

Donegan walked to the side of the stricken husband. ‘Do you reckon she’ll do it?’

‘There aren’t no tellin’ what she’ll do when she gets like this.’

Donegan walked to the door and rattled it. ‘Unlatch t’at door right now. T’is exact second.’

More sobbing then ‘… Four, five …’

Head feeling as if it was about to explode, Donegan walked to the woodheap where the axe was stuck blade-first in a stump. At first it resisted his efforts to pull it out. He kicked it with his foot, and out it came. He hefted it by the handle. He pushed past Tommy, who was ineffectually trying to open the outhouse door, then took a mighty swing at the upper hinge.

‘ … Nine, ten …’

A terrific scream as Donegan struck the other hinge and the door fell inwards.

‘Yerve killed me you stupid Irish bastard, I’ll get meself a lawyer alright …’ she cried. ‘An’ I’ll see you hung like a dog.’

Dropping the axe and throwing the door aside, Donegan marched in. He grabbed the woman by the arm, and removed the revolver with his free hand.

In an instant, her demeanour changed. She went limp, and leaned back against him, fluttered her eyelids and looking up at him admiringly. ‘Oh, you’re very strong,’ she said.

The change totally disarmed him. ‘Why, t’ank you.’

She pressed a little closer to him. ‘Mister Policeman, I declare that you never even asked me my name. What kind of policeman doesn’t ask names?’

Donegan shrugged. ‘What’s ye name then, lass?’

‘Esther, it is. Now is that a pretty name or is it not?’

‘Well I don’t know. To me it’s just a name as-like any other.’

The woman curled her hand around his bicep. ‘Now, would you please get on and divorce me and Tommy, and I’ll give you a gift you won’t forget in a hurry.’

‘What gift?’

The woman poked out a furred tongue, and lolled it around her lips.

Donegan was horrified. ‘T’at’s it,’ he cried. ‘I’ll divorce ye. But only if you promise never t’a come near to me again as long as I live.’

‘And you’ll give me back my revolver?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

Marching the unhappy couple back inside, followed by the dog, Michael lined them up in the office, then fetched two trackers from their hut to witness the transaction. Opening a copy of the ‘Laws of the Colony of South Australia’ he found the section on divorce, and read out the Act from start to finish.

About one-third of the way through, Esther yelled out, ‘Do yer really have to read all that guff?’

Donegan took a perverse pleasure in making her wait. ‘I do, now be silent or it will only take longer.’ When he had finished reading he decided that he needed some kind of pronouncement. ‘I declare, ye Esther, an’ Tommy, divorced, an’ t’erefore free of any encumbrance. Now get t’ hell out of my police station an’ never come back.’

But Esther was too smart for that. ‘Put it in writing, copper. I’m not going ‘til you do.’

He stared at her, close to exploding, ‘I have no right t’ divorce you. Let alone write it down. Can you even read lass?’

‘I can’t read a word, and neither can Tommy, but me new ‘usband can. He wants to see evidence of me divorce.’

‘Very well t’en,’ Michael scowled, sitting down behind the desk and taking up a sheet of stationery. On the top, the coat of arms of South Australia was embossed in gold. With quill and ink he wrote the words carefully, pressing hard on his quill as was his habit, despite the attempts of many a nun to cure him of doing so. When he was done with the note he signed it with a flourish. Esther snatched the paper off the desk.

‘At last,’ she said, ‘now give me back my gun.’

Donegan gave her the weapon. ‘Please be careful wit’ it.’

The woman grinned with a mouthful of brown teeth at him, and was out the door like a shot. Tommy smiled, and shook Donegan’s hand. ‘Good luck sir. An’ I can’t believe I’m free of her at last.’

Donegan grinned, ‘I can’t believe that I’m free of her either.’

When they were both gone, Donegan shouted to the cook for a cup of tea and sat down at his desk. He was feeling more than a little pleased with himself. When he looked down at his notepad he could still see the impression of the note he had written for Esther.

This is to certify that any man who marries this woman is insane and will regret his folly every day, for the rest of his life.


M.C. Michael Donegan


Authors Note: I'm indebted to Judy Robinson for the seeds of this yarn. I also have an inkling as to the identity of the lady in question, but don't have any evidence at this stage.
The Ballad of Tom Coolon

The Ballad of Tom Coolon

Thomas Cuthbert Coolon was born in Richmond, New South Wales, on the tenth of April 1859. His mother, Sarah Douglass, died when he was seven years old. His father remarried and moved out west of the Darling River where Tom was abducted by a group of Aborigines.

For the next decade Tom was raised by wild blacks, learning and honing bush skills that would become legendary. He also learned harsh laws of retribution and payback that would lead, later in life, to a shocking tragedy.

As squatters and their stock pushed further out into the scrub Tom found himself once more part of white society. With his lean frame and general toughness he quickly fell into station work. Some cattle stealing on the side saw a policeman ride out with an arrest warrant in Tom’s name.

Tom, however, had the “trap” in his sights long before he arrived, and shot the horse out from under him.

This, it seemed to Tom, was a good time to take a change of scenery up in Queensland where he worked as a ringer, dog-baiter, and roo-shooter. In his spare time he developed an interest in prospecting.

Tom was a striking looking man; tall with blue eyes and a blazing red beard. In 1890 he married Catherine Mongovan. The couple had two daughters and a son, living in the Clermont district, Queensland.

The turn of the century saw Tom droving with Ted Drewer up to the Territory, taking a mob of brood mares to one of the vast Fisher and Lyons properties. When the mares had been delivered he headed for Darwin, intending to take a ship home to Queensland. The wet season had struck early, rivers were flooded and impassable all the way down the Top End and across the Gulf country. Riding home would have been impossible.

News hit Darwin of a droving camp near Newcastle Waters facing starvation and fever, cut off from the world. A desperate call went out for a volunteer to ride five hundred miles south with supplies for the stricken men.

Tom Coolon stepped forward, and with three riding horses and two packs he set out on a mission few men would have attempted.

Swimming the horses across flooded rivers he managed to cover an astonishing fifty miles each day. Sadly that perilous rescue mission came too late, for the last of the drovers died on the day Tom arrived.

Tom was now a legend in the Territory, but back in Queensland things went bad. First, the Coolons’ twelve-year-old daughter Mary died. Then Tom took up a partnership on a station called Prairie Run, near Clermont, but the business arrangement degenerated into a bitter feud that included the odd gunfight.

Tom and Catherine took up the adjoining property, Spoonbill Farm, but Tom’s former partners, the Kirkups, were out to get him, framing him for the possession of stolen livestock, a “crime” that saw him imprisoned for two years at hard labour.

After his release Tom Coolon was a changed man.


It was race day in Clermont when Tom came up against the law again. He was drinking at the pub when a stranger tried to pick a fight. The two men were shaping up when a huge policeman called Ormes banged their heads together and threw them against a wall.

Legend has it that Tom Coolon slowly stood up, then fixed his eyes on Constable Ormes. “I won’t forget this. It will be evened up.”

When, a few months later, the policeman’s corpse was found at a place called Camp Oven Hole on the Charters Towers Road, Tom was naturally a suspect.

From a recollection in the Townsville Bulletin:

It was in that country later that Constable Ormes was shot at the 33 Mile, better known as Camp Oven Waterhole, on the Clermont-Charters Towers Road. The head of Ormes’s horse was still hanging on a limb of a tree when I was along that road in 1938. It seems whoever did it, shot the horse behind the shoulder and then killed poor Ormes with either a stick or a rifle barrel.

Australian folklore has had Coolon pinned as the murderer ever since, but an eyewitness report by an old man called “T.C.W.” fifty years later clears his name.

Coolon (was) an outstanding bushman and a deadly rifle shot; he could hit anything as far as he could see. I knew Coolon very well, and he could be a good friend. I also knew Mrs Coolon, a fine Irishwoman, their eldest daughter Violet, and son Hector, the latter only a baby then. Regarding Constable Ormes’s death on the Charters Towers-Clermont road, there was no foul play; he was not murdered nor was his horse shot.

I was coming into Clermont from the Suttor River about 1903, when, at the 60 Mile on the Charters Towers road, I found a dead man, perished from thirst, about three miles on the Clermont side of Lanark Station on Mistake Creek, then deserted. I pushed on to the Black Ridge Hotel. It was a gold mining place that was in full swing at the time, twelve miles from Clermont.

I reported finding the dead man to the police. Constable Ormes was sent out to bury the dead man. It was about three days to Christmas and very hot weather. So he rode out and stayed at the hotel that night and left next morning for the 60 Mile to bury the man. He said he could do it and be back that night, a round trip of 96 miles, no water anywhere, and only one horse to do the journey. He reached and buried the man and was no doubt trying to make the journey back in the night, was very thirsty and his horse galloped off the road and ran into a fallen tree. This killed the horse, and the policeman was found dead some distance away from the horse; the limbs of the tree were responsible for his death also.

Either way, Tom Coolon went about his business, kangaroo shooting in the Belyando River country, prospecting and working as a stockman. As one of his old comrades wrote:

(Tom) was also a marvellous bushman, and as a buckjump rider he was above average, although not in the Lance Skuthorpe class. Coolon was never guilty of riding a poor or weak horse, and if a buckjumper ran loose he would ride him, but not in a yard. He was one of the cleverest scrub riders that ever steered a horse through the mulga.

Though he loved horses, Tom had a mortal fear of dogs, and would not suffer them anywhere near him. He would never refuse a bet, one night riding seven miles with no moon to locate a tomahawk he had left in the scrub, winning twenty pounds in the process. He also spent much more time away from his wife and children than near them. This last fact must have occurred to him, and he decided that it was time to settle.

One day, working around Yaccamunda Station, Tom came across a recently-pegged gold mine. The owner was nowhere to be seen. A few washes with the pan, however, told Tom that it was a rich claim, and he decided then and there that he wanted it.

The gold mine that Tom Coolon found on Yaccamunda Station was in a remote area, far from other diggings. With his knowledge of prospecting Tom suspected that it would be the start of something big. He cunningly learned everything he could about the man who had pegged the claim.

The words on a claim notice fixed to a stake meant nothing to the illiterate Tom. He instead used his tracking skills to learn of the claimant’s movements. Footprints led to a nearby campsite, a small waterhole, and finally, horse tracks heading north towards Charters Towers.

Tom must have grinned to himself when he realised that the claimant was heading in the wrong direction. Mineral rights in this area, he knew, were under the jurisdiction of the mining warden in Clermont, to the south. Without wasting any time Tom saddled up and galloped off to find the warden, registering the claim in his own name. He was in full, legal possession of the claim when the man who originally pegged it, Luke Reynolds, arrived.

Reynolds had ridden all the way to Charters Towers, only to be told that he needed to go to Clermont, and was calling in to check on his claim on the way through. Tom was ready and waiting, his trusty lever-action Winchester close at hand.

‘Who the bloody hell are you?’ Reynolds asked.

‘I’m the legal owner of this claim,’ Tom replied. ‘So if you value your life you’ll turn around and keep riding.’

Reynolds was too smart to take Coolon head on, instead talking him into a partnership. This arrangement lasted only a few weeks before it fell apart. Reynolds decided that discretion was the better part of valour and pegged a new claim just along the ridge.

By this time Tom had built a sturdy hut and brought Catherine out to live with him. His mine had a thick seam of gold-bearing quartz, and hundreds of diggers flocked to the area, now named Mount Coolon. Within months the first stamper mill was on site, crushing piles of rich ore for the miners.

Finally, in his fifties, things seemed to have come together for Tom Coolon. He lived at home with Catherine. They had a garden and a flock of goats. The mine was making good money without too much hard work.

Yet, with no employees, Tom was obliged to travel away at times for supplies. Greedy eyes were watching when he rode off to Clermont with Catherine in late October, 1918. Under the law at the time a claim became void if it was left unattended by the owners.

Mount Coolon in 1932. John Oxley Library

A mining entrepreneur called Bernard Thompson waited until Coolon had been away for a few days then went to the local mining warden, filing for forfeiture of the mine because of Tom’s absence. The warden backed him up, and Thompson now had title to the mine, obtained in a similar tricky way to how Tom had stolen the mine in the first place.

Thompson took on three partners to help work the claim: Harold Smith, Robert Wells and William Brown. When Tom returned from Clermont he found four armed strangers in legal possession of his mine. He flew into a terrible rage, demanding that the men leave immediately. They stood their ground. Thompson had decided to take Tom on in full knowledge of his reputation. He too was a hard man, and not easily cowed. Tom filed an appeal against the warden’s decision but the District Court confirmed the forfeiture.

Tom was forced to watch from his hut as Thompson and Company brought gold ore up from the depths of a mine he had dug with his own hands.

On the morning of Wednesday November 13, 1918, Tom walked to the camp of a man called Charles Woodland, a JP, and asked him to take down his last will and testament. Once this was done, signed and witnessed, Tom walked back to his hut, fetching his Winchester and horse.

Riding up to his old claim he saw Bernard Thompson working up top. ‘You’ve got five minutes to get off my claim,’ Tom said.

Thompson shook his head. ‘I’m not going.’

Tom raised the butt of his rifle to his shoulder and fired into the ground between them. Thompson went for the revolver on his belt. He fired but missed, and Tom’s second shot took him under the arm, the third ploughed into his chest, killing him.

People had heard the shots, and news of Tom Coolon taking vengeance with a rifle spread like a grass fire. Men dived down mineshafts and hid. One of Tom’s targets, Robert Wells, reckoned he owed his survival to sheer laziness, for he was having a smoke down the mine and couldn’t be bothered going up when he heard someone yelling for him at the top.

The Native Bear Mine: John Oxley Library

Tom stopped at the Native Bear mine where he found an employee of Thompson’s called William Bloom, who turned and ran. But to the old roo hunter a running man was easy prey. He brought him down with one shot.

Another man that Tom had intended to kill – Alexander Smith – fell to his knees and declared that he was Tom’s friend, and that they had no quarrel. They shook hands and Tom declared that his plan was to kill a few more men and then “do himself in.”

Tom rode fast, ahead of the rumours, to the stamp mill two miles away. There he found two more of Thompson’s associates: Harold Smith and William Brown. He shot them both dead.

Finally, having killed four men all up, Tom rode off into the bush, leaving Catherine at home in the hut. Police from all over the district, led by an Inspector Quinn, scrambled to collect bodies and come to terms with what had happened.

A manhunt of epic proportions followed, but Tom, with his bush skills, had no trouble evading the police. Every man who had ever had reason to argue with Tom Coolon now believed himself a possible target. There was a sudden exodus from Mt Coolon and also Clermont of men who believed themselves to be on his hit list. On horseback and motor vehicle they fled, vowing to stay away until the murderer was caught.

Three days after the murders, however, Tom slipped through the police cordon and rode home to the hut he shared with Catherine. He kissed her for the last time, then turned the gun on himself. They found him there, in a pool of blood, with his wife of almost thirty years crying over him.


Greg Barron 2019

OUTLAW – New Serial Story

OUTLAW – New Serial Story

New Stories of Oz serial story starting next Sunday September 15 and continuing in weekly instalments.


written by Greg Barron

When anthropologist Robert Morris arrives at the old Doomadgee Mission, at Bayley Point near Burketown in 1934, he’s intent on learning local languages and customs. One very old woman living there, he discovers, was originally from South-western Queensland, and is something of an outcast amongst the Waanyi and Gangalidda locals.

On delving deeper, Morris discovers that the old woman was the ‘wife’ of a white stockman for more than thirty years in the frontier days, and claims to be the mother of one of the north’s most notorious outlaws. Determined to record the facts of her son’s crimes from her perspective, Robert sits with her each afternoon.

This is the story she told …

1. The Mother of an Outlaw

1. The Mother of an Outlaw

Len Akehurst at the door of his family dwelling at Old Doomadgee (Photo: Vic Akehurst)

In 1934 I applied to the School of Anthropology, Sydney University, to undertake field research for my doctoral thesis. A cousin of my father’s was a member of the Waitara branch of the Christian Brethren, and through them I was invited to ‘visit and assist’ at Doomadgee Mission, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. While there I would compile a dictionary of the languages spoken by the Gangalidda and Waanyi people.

Being just twenty-two years old, six-feet-tall but lanky and ‘short on common sense,’ as my father used to say, my mother was rightly worried at my chances of reaching my destination, let alone surviving six months in the wild Gulf. Yet, with her tears still damp on my shirt, I steered my four-cylinder Riley motor car out of our depression-ravaged suburb of Burwood, north to Newcastle, then onto the New England Highway with the windows wide open and the warm November air on my face.

I’d changed and repaired my first flat tyre before I was through the Hunter Valley, broke an axle in Tingha, got bogged in the black soils near Moree. I camped each night beside my car, learned to cook on a fire and make the best of what I had. These skills would stand me in good stead in the sands of North Africa, eight or nine years later, when I carried a Lee-Enfield rifle for my country, but that’s another story.

This journey north was character building, to say the least. I waited three days for the repair of a front spring in Augathella and swore like a teamster when the petrol tank ran dry five miles short of Longreach. Near Winton I picked up a swagman to keep me company for a hundred miles, then discovered, a short time after, that he had emptied my wallet of cash. Luckily I’d followed my father’s advice and hidden the bulk of my funds under the dash.

Finally, I reached the outpost of Burketown, filling the trunk with provisions for the Mission, and obtaining a hand-drawn mud map of the final leg. Two days later; four weeks after my mother’s final kiss, the Riley churned through the ruts over a tidal clay pan, and spun her rear wheels up the rise into the old Doomadgee Mission, west of Arthur’s Creek at Bayley Point.  

I looked around me with the eye of a young man eager for adventure, anxious to learn what my home over the next months would be like. The mission occupied, essentially, but not strictly, an island of green, some six miles by two or three in extent, surrounded by marshes and saltwater inlets on all sides. To the north was the ocean – of a colour unfamiliar to me – a kind of blue-green-grey. A mangrove-lined creek snaked its way past the Mission lands to the east. Most of the high ground, I saw, was lightly wooded. Soon enough I would learn to tell a carbeen tree from a messmate, but that first day they were just trees, and a scrubby type they were too.

The Mission itself, when we reached it, occupied a sandy ridge overlooking more swamps. It was neat, but more primitive than I had expected. All the buildings – a couple of outhouses, and two dormitories, presumably one for boys and one for girls – were made of pandanus-palm logs standing on end, with corrugated tin or speargrass thatch roofs. I noted horse yards, a vegetable garden fenced with wire netting, and the beginnings of an orchard. A woman was carrying a bucket of water up from the well on the edge of the marshes, some of which apparently held freshwater.

The Missionaries, Len and Dorothy Akehurst, along with their young son, Frank, met me at the car, bustled me inside their home and had me drinking tea in no time.

Len was taller than me, and thin as a whip, but with big hands and a wiry knottiness to his muscles. His corded neck was the exact same width as his face. His wife Dorothy looked small beside him, with kind eyes and dark curls. They were, all in all, serious but friendly souls, and related to me how they had first tried their luck at building a mission in Burketown itself, but were forced out here, to this genuine wilderness, by the attitude and lifestyles of the local white population.  

The Akehursts gave me a private room in one of the outbuildings, with a kapok mattress and bed-base cleverly made of timber branches. The floor was of crushed termite mound, almost as hard as concrete. Most of the furniture, it turned out, had been made by or under the supervision of an old white man called Bob Gates, a carpenter from Tasmania. He lived in another room in the same dwelling as I, and proved to be a good company.

In those first days, let me tell you, I set about my task with energy. I had an indexed notebook for words and their meanings, one for grammar rules and one for phrases. Len and Dorothy provided my first few Waanyi and Ganglalidda words, for they had been doing their best to learn the local tongue when they could. They let me loose on the mission children, who had mostly been brought from Burketown, and who further enlightened me to the secrets of their dialects, making me smile in the process. Meanwhile, the good missionaries dosed me up on quinine to keep the Gulf Fever at bay, and I did not have to raise a hand to feed myself, apart from sometimes indulging in the pleasurable sport of fishing.

In my free time, I was drawn to the country itself. I took rambling walks to the beach, venturing carelessly at times into the sucking mud of the mangroves. I sketched Pains and Bayley Islands, mangrove swamps and stands of pandanus trees. I saw brolgas dance, morning glory clouds, and one day I watched Nichol, one of the Gangalidda workers, whistle up an emu, bewitching it into coming close, at which point he rose and clubbed it to death for the pot.

I met all the pivotal characters in the local scene: Bob Gates and his offsider, Frank: the aforementioned Nichol, young Stanley, and his brother Willie. Lizzie and her daughter, Dulcie. There was also Mahomet Hussein, who lived along the coast a little, but idled away much of his time at the mission.

Growing in confidence, and seeking older, more accomplished speakers of the local tongues, I also ventured into the camp of itinerants on the eastern side of the ‘island,’ along the banks of Doomadgee Creek, the western arm of Arthur’s Creek. I found that if I took a little tobacco with me, the inhabitants were much more interested in conversation.

I met an old man called Charlie, who knew hardly a word of English but loved to go to the missionaries’ Saturday night prayer meetings, dressed only in a loincloth. I also made the acquaintance of a famous dugong hunter called Old Jack, who still hunted the aquatic beasts with a spear and sixteen-foot dugout canoe. Others sat around smoky fires, with scores of whippet-thin dogs in attendance, these half-starved canines chewing on fish bones and tortoise shells; anything that resembled food.

One particular old woman interested me from the start, for several reasons. One was her age, she looked to be at least eighty years, and her eyes were pale with the effects of sandy blight. The other reason was that the others spoke to her little and she kept her own fire. Her ‘white’ name, I learned, was Kitty. Her deep, dusty skin was pitted by a multitude of old scars, most notably on her forehead. She sat in the shade through much of the day, usually in her own camp, but sometimes alongside the creek near the jetty, or occasionally venturing up near to the mission buildings.

When I queried Len Akehurst about her, he told me that Kitty was not from this country like the others, her birthplace being outback New South Wales. Learning that she was a fellow New South Welshman piqued my interest still further.

Then came the bombshell. Kitty, Len told me, had been the wife of a white cattleman for more than thirty years, and her long-dead son was an infamous outlaw.

Outlaw? My ears pricked like those of a rabbit. Being young, and a romantic at heart, I was fascinated by feats of arms and drawn by nature of my profession to the science of crime.

The next few afternoons I spent sitting in the shade with Kitty. The first thing that I noticed was that she spoke English better than most of the others in that camp, perhaps because of her years in company with a white man. A clay pipe, scorched around the bowl, sat between her lips or in her hand most of the time, sometimes lit, sometimes not.

Occasionally, tiring of my questions, she would stand up and move. At other times she would accept gifts of tea or tobacco, and let me sit for hours, feigning deafness when I probed too deep.

Day by day, however, I suspected that she was growing to like me. I learned that she preferred Capstan tobacco to Barrett’s, and despite her near-blindness she could tell the difference straight off. Her bad vision, it seemed, bothered her little. She could do anything a comparable woman of her age could do, including cook, fish, and walk reasonably long distances. She had a wicked sense of humour, and one day, when we lounged and talked down at the creek, she sitting against a tree, and myself with my back to the water, she kept chuckling to herself.

‘What’s so funny?’ I asked.

Kitty pointed out into the racing ebb tide and said, ‘Big-feller ‘gator many time poke him head up an’ look at you. Might be he wanna eat you up.’

That afternoon, as if to reward me for amusing her, she told me a little about her husband, whose name was Henry, or Harry to his mates. Unlike most white stockmen and their women, Kitty proudly told me that she and Henry were ‘proper way married.’ From a pocket in her dress she produced a grimy pewter ring of the cheapest kind.

Henry’s family were German immigrants, she told me, his father Casper Flecke having been a vine dresser. If I was surprised that Kitty knew the term, I was even more surprised that she could tell me exactly what work vine dressers did, conjuring imaginary vines and the dresser’s secateurs with her hands. It was not the first time she would surprise me. I was to find that her memory for places – people, conversations; things that people had told her – was as sharp as a Kodak print.

She went on to relate how the Flecke family’s passage to Australia was paid for by the famous Macarthur family of Sydney, so Casper could work on their vineyards at Camden. After the five-year contract expired the family drifted north to Maitland, where Casper became a spirit merchant, and young Henry fell into bush work on outlying stations, drifting further afield as he grew older.

Henry had been working on Mungyer Station, near Moree, when he took Kitty from a camp along the Mehi River.

‘He took you?’ I asked.

Kitty agreed that yes, he had found her alone, ridden her down and taken her on his horse. Of course she had been terrified. He taught her to ride, wear stockman’s clothes and tend cattle. Kitty, in dungarees and shirt, worked beside her man by day, and shared his swag at night.  

When Kitty became pregnant she continued to ride beside Henry and work with cattle. Their son, Joe, was born in a stock camp on Mungyer Station. Henry was enamoured of the child, and pronounced him the best-formed little fellow he had seen.

Our talks were interrupted when the first days of heavy rain came. I now learned why the Mission lands were so often described as an island, for the encircling arms of water joined hands and cut us off. The humidity grew to unbearable levels, so that I sweltered day and night, and Mrs Akehurst was struck down with Gulf Fever.

Then, when the sun was shining again, producing an intensity of damp heat I could scarcely bear, I walked into Kitty’s camp with a lump of damper and some tea. That day Kitty started to tell me about Joe. Later I was able to add to her story some details that I researched and learned first-hand from court records, and the like, for Kitty cared little for dates and time.

In the main, however, what follows is the story she told. I learned, in the coming days, that for people who do not write, recollections and stories travel from lip to lip with perfect accuracy. And for them, truth can be a matter of life and death. Those parts of Joe’s life Kitty had not seen with her own eyes, she had learned from others, and related word-for-word.

Quite early in our talks, she told me that the police shot Joe fourteen times before he fell dead, and I began to understand that few people carried such a burden of pain as that old woman. From that time on, neither heat nor monsoonal downpours could stop my time with Kitty.

Before long, sweating in my bed, under a net besieged by centipedes and mosquitoes, I was dreaming of Kitty’s outlaw son. Dreaming of the way it might have been near the end, with bullet wounds oozing blood from his gut, thigh, chest and limbs, and his lean face like a deaths-head in the dusk, and God only knew what police skulking nearby.

I came to understand that Joe Flick, the grandson of a German vine dresser and a Kamilaroi warrior, was the truest wild colonial boy of them all. I hungered for his story like a starving man.

© 2019 Greg Barron

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2. The Brook Hotel

2. The Brook Hotel

Lawn Hill Station in the early days. Queensland Library

At the Mission; that island in the clay and salt of the wild Gulf shore, came days of building heat, followed by thunderstorms such as I had never dreamed possible. Raking winds and black thunderheads roving ahead of a packed, boiling cloud mass, spitting lightning over a shallow sea churned to a furious white.

Years later I would see ranks of German soldiers and their Panzer IV tanks through the blowing sands of El Alamein and feel that same sense of awe and powerlessness. I was learning something that my city upbringing had not taught me; that there are powers in the world far greater than our pitiful selves.

I took to visiting with Kitty in the late mornings, while the Mission children were still at their lessons. So enamoured of the story was I, that in those days I scarcely touched ink to my notebooks. Len Akehurst lectured me mildly for neglecting my work, but I felt myself bound up with Kitty’s story, and could not let go.

When Joe was still an infant, Kitty told me, Henry Flick moved the small family up into Queensland, where he found a job working sheep on Murweh Station. He kept Kitty and their son in a wurlie made of bark and scraps of tin on the waterhole near the homestead, coming home after days out on the run smelling of wool, dust and rum. He was a hard man, with steely blue eyes, and knife-scars on his hand and left thumb, but he loved his little boy.

 One morning Henry rode back from a weekend of drinking and gambling in Charleville, and took from his pocket a ring he’d won at cards. He slid it onto Kitty’s finger.

‘There you go. Now we’re prop’ly married,’ he said.

This gesture didn’t dampen Henry’s interest in other women, for around this time at Murweh he became enamoured of a Kunja girl named Lizzie, who worked as a maid at the homestead. He studied her movements – noticing that round ten pm, when she finished her work, Lizzie usually walked alone out back to the servant’s huts. Henry laid his plans with care.

Murweh Station Homestead, 1888. Queensland State Library

The following night, with Kitty and Joe packed up and waiting. Henry rode up to the homestead, hid behind a bush with a spare horse, and waited for the girl to come. He clamped a hand over her mouth and carried her to his horse. With a good moon, he, Kitty, little Joe and Lizzie were soon on their way to the Bulloo River.

Jenkins, the station owner, was furious at the loss, and he, his eldest son and a tracker set off in pursuit of their missing housemaid. Henry, however, was expecting them. Fifty miles down the track, he sent Kitty, Joe, and Lizzie on ahead, and waited behind a convenient outcrop.

When the riders came up, Henry appeared with a double-barrelled rifle in his hands, and a hatchet in his belt. ‘Go home you bastards,’ he said, addressing Jenkins and his son. ‘I’ve got one bullet for each of you, and an axe for whatever’s left.’

Jenkins and his son spat and swore, but turned their mounts for home. That, however, wasn’t the end of the matter.

The police were soon in pursuit, and Joe was four years old when he watched uniformed men knock his father from his horse with a rifle butt, then force him to kneel and wear chains. In that state they dragged Henry Flick, with his family following miserably behind, to Charleville, where he was charged with aggravated assault and sentenced to six months in Roma gaol. Lizzie was returned to the Jenkins family.

Kitty was not judged to be a fit carer for her son without Henry, so the little boy stayed with a succession of police families, while his mother made camp by the river and waited, pining for her boy, starving herself until her legs were like sticks and the townspeople fed her out of pity.

Despite publicly swearing that he would ‘scalp’ the entire Jenkins family for calling the traps on him, Henry left the district as soon as he was released. Feeling increasingly like outcasts, the little family rode north on ‘borrowed’ horses for the Gulf, where a score of new stations needed good stockmen – and Henry was handy with horses, sheep and cattle – resilient and self-reliant.  

Packhorses carried everything they owned to Lawn Hill station. There, for the first time they saw the homestead and creek where much later Joe would make his last bloody stand, but it was the picturesque pandanus and paperbark lined waterway, with its dramatic ochre-hued cliffs, that caught their eyes at the time. It seemed, back then, like a land of promise.

Lawn Hill Station in the early days. Queensland State Library

Frank Hann, the owner, hired Henry on the spot, and offered them a place to camp nearby. ‘Play straight with me,’ he said, ‘and we’ll get on famously.’

Within a year or two Joe was riding his own horse, and could crack a stockwhip like a man. By eight years of age he could shoot a small-bore rifle, drop a running wallaby at a hundred yards, and dress it for the pot in a blink.    

Like many stockmen, Henry Flick kept an eye out for precious metals. One day, out on the run, he camped on a small hill with a vein of quartz. The chunks he extracted were filled with a dark metal. He knew enough to test it by heating some fragments and dropping them into water. When a greasy sludge rose to the surface, he knew it was silver. He rode to Cloncurry to lodge a series of claims with the Mining Warden.

With Henry now officially a miner, life changed. The days of travelling were over, and the new camp near the mine become a home. Father and son built a couple of stout huts, and the small family put down roots. It was a busy, friendly camp, with a couple of labourers, raised from the local Waanyi, thrown in. Henry brought other women into his bed, when they took his fancy, but Kitty was too intent on the survival of herself and her son to indulge in jealousy. Most days, when the other chores were done, she sat in the shade and plaited cabbage-tree hats to sell to stockmen and travellers.

By the age of thirteen, Joe had roamed every inch of the surrounding wilderness, learning everything he could from the Waanyi men. Before long he was supplementing the family income with stock work on Lawn Hill and other nearby stations such as Punjaub and Westmoreland. The family lived on bush food, bronzed barramundi and catfish from the creeks, and the occasional ‘lost’ bullock.

Joe could whistle so beautifully it would make you cry, and stun a goanna at fifty yards with a stone. He had a smile that won over men and women alike. He grew to manhood in this way, close to both his parents, and as fine a bushman as any man alive. He was part horse, part bush spirit, Henry used to say. Neither tobacco nor drink tempted him, and he did a man’s work well in every role he cared to fill, always with a flashing smile and good grace.

This was the first time, since I’d arrived at Doomadgee Mission, that I saw Kitty truly smile. It was like she’d forgotten I was there. Her white eyes looked skyward, and her toothless lips cracked open.

‘Sounds like your son was something special,’ I said.

Kitty closed her eyes and nodded thoughtfully.

Her boy was twenty-one years old, when the day came that changed it all.

‘Hey Joey, we got no sugar,’ Henry growled one morning, head and shoulders into the tucker-box that held their supplies.

‘No dad.’

‘Not much tea neither.’

‘Scarcely a week, I reckon,’ said Joe.

Harry Flick turned a whiskey bottle upside down and nary a drop appeared.

‘Looks like a trip to Burketown, son. Take your mama with you to tail the horses.’

Joe strapped his revolver belt on, and whistled up the packs. They were on the road before the sun had peered over the red stone ridges around the mine.

And didn’t mother and son love to ride together? Laughing, speaking a mix of English, Kriol, and her native tongue from down south. They crossed to the Gregory River along a dry scrub of bloodwood and termite mounds, that had come to be known as Kitty’s Plains.

The Gregory was still full from the Wet, the pandanus roots submerged, and the water retreating, leaving green couch grass patches on the banks. Striped archer fish patrolled the shallows, and rainbow bee-eaters flicked low over the surface. Kitty and Joe saw the first dragonflies, that day, and knew that the season’s change was coming.

Later in the day, riding along the high western bank of the river, Kitty spotted a tell-tale hole up high in a woollybutt tree, and tiny stingless bees emerging. She climbed the trunk like a possum, shimmying up with a hatchet and wrapping chunks of sweet sugar-bag honey in paperbark. They ate honey and dried meat by the fire that night, then amused each other by mimicking the creatures of the bush, and Kitty told stories from her inexhaustible supply.

Just before they reached the small settlement at Beame’s Brook, Joe’s gelding, newly broken as he was, was squeezed against a tree by Kitty’s mount and he lashed out with his back legs. His aim was bad, and his near hoof struck the woman’s shin. Within an hour the limb was swollen red, blue and painful. It seemed better that she would wait and rest the injury while Joe went on to Burketown.

Joe made a camp for his mother along the creek where she could sit and fish, then went to the hotel – a well-built affair of split logs and dressed timber. Jim Cashman, the owner, was behind the bar. His young wife Mary, sat on a chair at the nearest table, an infant girl on her legs below her belly, already well-rounded with the next arrival.

‘Well if it isn’t Yella Joe,’ Cashman said. He was originally from Sydney, but had made his name and modest fortune looking out for the main chance in North Queensland. A well-known businessman on the Palmer Fields, he had moved on after the death of his first wife, Margaret, in Cooktown. ‘Where’s your old man?’

‘Back home, Mister Cashman. I’ve left Mama down the creek with a crook leg, I didn’t want to take her down the black’s camp while I go into Burketown. Will you keep an eye on her?’

‘Course I will, Joey. She’ll be safe here.’

While Joe pushed on with the packs, Kitty sat, fished with grasshoppers and flies for bait, and waited. The next day a man from the camp came down to the river to water his horse. He was heavy in the gut, and his teeth rotten from too much sugar. Kitty recognised him as a slave-boy belonging to Jim Cashman.

The intruder stared at Kitty, but said nothing.

The next day he came back again. She hid when she heard him coming, but he found her, knocked her down, examined her face up close, then looped a noose around her neck and took her to his camp.

On the way they passed the pub, and Cashman himself was standing out the front.

‘Hey, boy, you know that’s Harry Flick’s woman?’

‘She’s mine now, boss.’

‘I don’t recommend crossing Flick, but that’s your look out.’

At the camp Kitty’s new ‘husband’ told her to cook him up some tucker and she had no choice but to obey. Later on, when the meal was finished, he raped her.

Meanwhile Joe hurried the thirty miles to Burketown, with the very different scents of the tidal Albert River in his nostrils. Only a few dozen whites lived permanently in the town, though seamen from regular shipping traffic, and passing droving teams, helped support the two pubs.

Most of the inhabitants treated Joey with tolerant politeness. They called him Yella Joe, but took him seriously. After all, he dressed like a white man, talked like one, and could out-ride and out-shoot most of them.

Burketown had two stores, one owned by Watson Bros, and another much larger owned by Philp, Burns and Company, managed by Mister Amsden. The competition between the two was such that discounts could be had, particularly for a man with slugs of crudely refined silver to trade.

Joe worked through his list, and finally, with pack-saddles bulging, he rode back to the Brook in high spirits, but was stunned to find his mother’s camp abandoned, still with some of her things there.

Guessing what might have happened, he picked up her belongings, then rode through the riverside camps until he found Kitty at the fire of Cashman’s slave-boy, her captor sitting at the entrance of his wurlie, grinning like a king and fingering a long knife.

When Joe pulled up his horse, dismounted, and met his mother’s eye, something like a Gulf-country storm grew inside him. And as Kitty described that moment I could feel every heartbeat, even then, forty-five years afterwards.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

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3. The ‘Shooting’ of Cashman

3. The ‘Shooting’ of Cashman

Horses crossing the Gregory River. State Library of Queensland

Cashman’s boy saw Joe coming, and rose to his full height, brandishing the knife. ‘You been lookout for trouble with me?’ he asked.

Yet he hadn’t reckoned on the way Joe covered the ground between them, scarcely having time to raise his guard before copping a right-cross flush to his jaw. Joe was not a big man – five feet eight or nine – but his hands were over-sized, hard from work, and he was lightning quick.

Henry had taught Joe the basics. The rest he’d worked out for himself. The other man’s knife swung on empty space, then fell to the ground from an arm numbed to the shoulder. Joe fought with instinctive grace, whip-like speed and savage power.

The one-sided fight attracted a crowd, and in the end three men were needed to drag Joe from his victim, now a pitiful sight, holding a broken jaw and wailing, his face slick with blood. One of his trouser cuffs was smoking, and his foot was blistered, from a backwards step into the fire.

‘Let me go,’ shouted Joe, and he stood, chest heaving, while the crowd surged back out of reach. ‘That man deserved a beating, and none of you can deny it.’

When he had calmed down, Joe helped his mother to a horse, hating the shame on her face. Shame that was not her fault. Shame that had been foisted on her by an act of violent lust.

They rode in silence, heading back to Kitty’s camp for her things. Then, Joe’s anger still undampened, he bathed his face in the river, dabbing the cool liquid where a few despairing blows had landed. Then, watching the insects swirling in the sunlight around the pandanus, tears pricked his eyes at the thought of what had happened.

‘I shouldn’t have left you,’ he said.

‘It’s not your fault,’ said Kitty. ‘It was him – a bad man – who took me, and Cashman saw him drag me along his camp. He could have stopped it.’

‘Cashman saw him take you?’

Kitty nodded fearfully.

Joe saw her mounted again, and sent her home, with the pack horses on a string. ‘Go ahead now,’ he told her. ‘I’ll follow along directly.’

‘Don’t do anything you can’t take back,’ she warned.

Once Kitty had gone, Joe climbed onto his own saddle, and urged his gelding up to the pub. Riding up to the front verandah, he saw Jim Cashman, red faced and furious, standing in the doorway.

James Cashman, taken in 1902. State Library of Queensland.

‘How dare you lay a hand on my boy,’ Cashman shouted. ‘You’ve broken his jaw. I’ll see you arrested, Yella Joe.’

But Joe’s temper was flickering and rumbling, building power and menace. ‘You let him take my Mama, you saw him do it. She told me.’

‘I don’t interfere with your lot,’ retorted the pub owner. ‘There’s no profit in doing so, and you know it. Now make yourself scarce or I’ll have you charged with assault, you damned half-breed.’

Joe was about to spur his horse and follow his mother, but this last insult broke something inside him. Without stopping to think he did something that changed his life. Shortened his life. Made him a wanted man.

Taking out his revolver, and waving it with a flourish, he fired a shot into the wall just above the door where Cashman was standing. For a boy such as Joe to fire on a white man was bad enough, but Mary Cashman, without Joe’s knowledge, had walked up behind her husband and copped a face full of wood splinters and dust, causing her to cry out and fall.

Joe saw the woman go down. Believing that he had accidentally shot her, he applied his spurs to the gelding and galloped away in a panic. He had never come up against the law in his life, and apart from a few ‘dodged’ cattle he had not given them reason. That fact, he now knew, had changed.

Kitty reined in some five miles up the track, watching anxiously for Joe. Her bruised off-side leg had mostly healed, but riding was causing her some pain, so resting while she waited seemed like the best course of action.

Before long, she heard urgent hoofbeats. Her relief at seeing Joe changed to alarm as she saw the troubled expression on his face.   

‘I’ve maybe shot Mrs Cashman. I don’t know,’ he said, reining in beside her.

Kitty’s first reaction was a pitiful wail. Finally she managed, ‘How?’

‘I fired a shot. I just wanted to warn Cashman. I didn’t know that she was standing behind him.’

Neither of them could think of any plan better than to keep heading for home, though Kitty wept a little as they rode. Both were skilled riders, and their pace was limited only by the packs. Continuing long into the night, Kitty ignoring the nuisance pain in her leg, they stopped only to water the horses, finally reaching their camp around midnight.

Henry came out from the hut to meet them. ‘Strange time to be getting home,’ he said. ‘What’s happened?’

Joe dismounted, and while they unloaded the supplies, he told his father everything. ‘I lost my temper,’ he explained.

Henry covered his face with his hands. His reaction seemed to emphasise the gravity of the situation. ‘You were right to punish the man who hurt your mother, and you saved me the trouble of wreaking havoc on him myself.’

‘But I might have shot Missus Cashman.’

‘Pah,’ said Henry. ‘One thing I know about you, Joey, is that you hit what you aim at. Besides, that damn Mary Kearney, she was nothing but a housemaid until she got her hooks into Jim, and every man-jack knows that she’s a one-woman melodrama into the bargain.’ Henry packed and lit his pipe, deep in thought. ‘If you run, Joey, they’ll hunt you down,’ he said. ‘You have to ride into Burketown and give yourself up.’

Kitty was shaking her head from side to side, keening softly. ‘No, no, no.’

‘It’s the best thing to do,’ Henry insisted. ‘My guess is that Mary won’t be hurt too bad, and Joey will get only a light sentence.’

None of them slept that night, but sat around the fire, watching the deep orange coals spit and spark, talking of horses and the bush, and the constellations of stars that sprawled across the heavens above the red earth and rock that surrounded them.

In those hours of waiting Joe thought deeply about what had happened at Beames Brook. After more than twenty years of living with Henry Flick, the cheap ring on Kitty’s finger did not fool anybody. She was not Henry’s wife. To the world out there she was just Henry’s gin. She was property, and property could be stolen and used. Likewise, Henry felt free to take other women when he felt the urge, sometimes living with them for months on end before he tired of them.

Joe was glad, then, that he had stood up for his mother, whatever the consequences, and vowed that he would go on doing so. The system, he realised, was weighted against those caught in the twilight of one world and the dawn of another.

In the first flush of dawn, Joe said goodbye to his father, then put his arm around his mother’s shoulders, kissed her tearful cheeks, then saddled and bridled a fresh horse. He was about to ride off, when Henry walked up and plucked Joe’s revolver from its holster.

‘No guns, son. For all our sakes, just give yourself up and take what they dish out.’

Joe agreed, but he hated riding off into a now-hostile land without a weapon.

The German vine-dresser’s son was far from perfect, but he loved his boy.

After stewing through the early part of the morning, Henry told Kitty to stay at home, saddled his horse and set off for the Brook. Riding hard, he reached the pub just after dark, with the interior lit by slush lanterns, and the drinking just warming up – ringers, prospectors and travellers gripping their frothy glasses – and an Irishman’s fiddle caterwauling in a corner.

Ignoring the crowd, Henry walked unarmed but still dangerously into the bar. He was no longer young, but stood almost six feet tall, his arms and shoulders bunched with muscle from long days swinging a hammer or pick at the mine.

Not only was Jim Cashman present, but his wife Mary as well, large as life and seemingly unhurt. She ducked out as soon as she recognised the visitor, but Cashman himself stood his ground, even when Henry walked up as close at the slab bar allowed him to.

‘Where’s my son?’ Henry demanded.

Cashman’s right hand delved under the bar, and Henry guessed that he had a weapon there ready. ‘On his way to Burketown with Constable Hasenkamp and his trackers. Joe tried to kill me, you know.’

‘Like hell he did,’ Henry snarled. ‘If Joe wanted to kill you you’d be dead. Now tell me, what have they charged him with?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You do know, for you made the complaint. Tell me.’

Cashman licked his lips, his eyes now furtive. Slowly he raised his hand until the barrel, cylinder and cocked hammer of a Smith and Wesson Model 3 appeared over the bar. ‘Get out of here or I’ll be within my rights to shoot you dead.’

Henry was not afraid. He slapped the revolver from Cashman’s hand, and it clattered to the floor. The fiddle stopped scraping and all conversation ceased. Every eye in that bar was on the confrontation now.

‘Tell me, you bastard,’ shouted Henry. ‘What crime have they charged my boy with?’

‘Attempted murder,’ said Cashman. ‘They’ve charged the yella bastard with attempted murder.’

Henry’s hand stiffened, and his heart seemed to stop beating. He walked outside, where the horses were lined up, tethered to hitching posts, and the drinkers’ ‘boys’ sat talking around small fires nearby.

Henry looked up at the darkened sky, still touched with the last pink shades of sunset.

‘Oh God what have I done,’ he croaked out. ‘I should have let my Joey run.’

© 2019 Greg Barron

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4. Hasenkamp

4. Hasenkamp

Work at the Doomadgee Mission continued, despite rain and humid heat. Through it all, Len Akehurst toiled from before dawn to long after dusk, assisting with building works, teaching lessons, carrying water, performing the occasional baptism and preaching at prayer meetings. He had, during his training, completed a course in basic dentistry, and ringers from nearby stations would sometimes ride in to get a tooth removed, or an abscess drained.

Meanwhile I found that if I applied myself to my thesis work for an hour or two each morning, my grasp on the local languages grew apace. I became quite fond of Dorothy, and I know that she understood my interest in the story of Joe Flick. We both felt in our souls the sadness that underpinned the tale. A friend from Brisbane sent her an old newspaper clipping about Joe from one of the city papers – sensationalist nonsense, it seemed to me – and this she presented to me, as an addendum to my notes on Kitty’s retelling.

Meanwhile, amidst the occasional berthing of the supply boat Noosa down in the river, the shenanigans and politics of the camp, and the never-failing delight I took in the chattering, friendly joyfulness of the mission children, my meetings with Kitty continued.

I learned to wait while she rolled tobacco between her palms, stuffed the bowl of her pipe full and lit it with an ember from the fire. Seeing how badly some parts of Joe’s story affected her, this ritual allowed her time to collect herself.

‘By and by I’ll tell you about that Constable Hasenkamp,’ she said to me. ‘That p’liceman who took Joey in.’

‘If you want to,’ I said.

Kitty took a deep draw on her pipe, watched the stream of smoke she exhaled critically, and began.

Mounted Constable Harry Hasenkamp was square-jawed, five feet ten in height, broad shouldered and handsome in his blue serge jacket, and as hard as granite. Like Joe Flick, he was the son of a German immigrant, his father Adolphus then being the pound-keeper down south in Ipswich.

Harry Hasenkamp. Image taken during his internment as a German alien (2nd gen) WW1. Photo: War Memorial

Harry Hasenkamp was good mates with Jim Cashman. Their children played together when the publican was in Burketown, and they drank beer shoulder to shoulder at Missus Synott’s Commercial Hotel. Both men were shocked that Joe would have had the gall to shoot at a white businessman, no matter what the reason.

Now, riding with two trackers up the Gregory on their way to Henry Flick’s claim, with the purpose of arresting Joe, Hasenkamp took no chances. He prided himself on never shirking from his duty, but nor did he take unnecessary risks. With his wife, Mary Jane, four daughters and a son back in Burketown, he had no desire to be carried home in a wagon tray.  

When the lead tracker spotted Joe heading towards them, along that narrow river track, Hasenkamp ordered his men to dismount, take cover in the scrub, and train their Martini-Henry carbines on the lone figure as he walked his horse towards them.

‘Stop there, Joe Flick,’ called Hasenkamp as soon as Joe was within earshot. ‘Dismount and kneel.’

Joe had seen men shot for running, so he did as he was told, getting down on one knee with his arms in the air, still holding the reins in his right hand. The police surrounded him, forefingers resting on their triggers. One took the reins, another lifted him by the shoulders and patted him down, taking his knife and a couple of cartridges for the revolver he no longer carried, rattling around in the pockets of his dungarees.

‘Where are you off to, Joe?’ asked Hasenkamp.

‘I’m riding in to give myself up.’

‘Smart boy, at least that saves us the trouble of looking for you.’

‘Did I kill Mrs Cashman?’

‘No, you did not. Though you tried hard enough to kill her husband. You shot nothing but a wall, yet if your aim was better you’d be swinging from a rope inside a week. As it is you’ll spend a good deal of your youth learning better manners.’

Joe said nothing. He instinctively understood something about men in authority. That they were friendly as long as he was a good and respectful ‘boy,’ and played the part they expected him to play. Now that he had turned on one of them, the reaction was swift.

Hasenkamp secured Joe with a neck-chain, fastening it with a Yale lock. The cold iron sat hard against his young skin, but the humiliation sat harder still. This treatment didn’t seem fair. After all, apart from the man who raped his mother, and was rightly deserving of a beating, Joe had hurt no one. 

Burketown in the early days. State Library of Queensland

The following day, at Burketown Police Station, after a sleepless night camped in irons, and many hard miles on horseback, Joe was formally charged. Hasenkamp wrote words on a page that made him legally responsible for the ‘Attempted Murder of Patrick James Cashman.’

Joe could not read, but saw the ink-lines that made up those words winding like snake-trails across the charge-sheet and they chilled him to the bone.

 The lock-up was a fortified hut just behind the station, and Joe was too miserable to do anything but sit on the wooden bench inside. He was the only occupant, with the sounds of drunken laughter from the pubs, the occasional cries of curlew and owls, and chattering geckoes for company.

The next morning Constable Hasenkamp, with freshly-shined Napoleon boots and pressed cord breeches, walked Joe to the court house, gripping his arm like a big-game hunter with his kill, for the benefit of the crowd of local business types and loafers who gathered to see Joe face court.

Inside, the magistrate occupied the bench in self-important silence, in his dark suit and bow tie. His name was Alick Clarence Lawson, just thirty years of age. His wife Olympia sat in the third row, looking admiringly up at her husband, while the buttons of her bodice strained against her generous proportions.

Alick and Olympia had been married the previous December, in the midst of an Albert River flood, and the wedding party were forced to trudge through a foot of mud and water to attend the ceremony. Reports of the best man, diminutive Lawn Hill Station owner Frank Hann, lifting the eighteen-stone Olympia down from her palanquin outside the National Bank were now local legend.

Yet, in spite of the local fun-poking at his wife and nuptials, Police Magistrate Lawson was a young man who took himself and his job very seriously. He peered down at Joe from a seeming lofty height, his bowler hat sitting beside him on the bench.

In near silence Lawson considered the evidence as it was presented: written testaments from witnesses, a scrap of weatherboard complete with embedded slug, formerly a panel from the Beames Brook Hotel, and a matching revolver cartridge from Joe’s pockets

Jim Cashman swept in, wearing a morning coat, knee-high riding boots and carrying a safari hat in one hand. He shook hands with Harry Hasenkamp, swore on the Bible to tell the truth and nothing but the truth so help him God and stepped solidly up to the stand, affecting the air of a man torn from the important work of his day.

Glossing over the incident with his ‘employee’ and Joe Flick’s mother, Cashman spun a tale of Joe riding up to the pub, armed and raving, taking deliberate aim and ‘missing’ due only to the Grace of the Almighty. No one there doubted that Cashman was an eloquent and capable witness.

When Joe was asked to present his side of the story his mouth clamped up, and he could not speak, cowed into silence by confusion, fear, and this terrible turn his life had taken. Various members of the court, including Hasenkamp, the clerk, and then the Magistrate himself attempted to cajole and gentle Joe into speaking, but he remained silent, shoulders hunched, and shaking visibly.

‘Struck dumb by guilt,’ called a heckler from the audience.

In blessed relief, they let Joe sit again, while Police Magistrate Lawson scribbled notes and re-read statements. Finally, he looked up, ‘Will the prisoner now stand.’

Joe came to his feet, shaking in every muscle and limb, cowed by this first experience of English justice. He saw no pity on Alick Lawson’s face, just self-belief in his role in delivering the law, a cog in the wheels of justice that stretched all the way to Queen Victoria herself.

‘Joe Flick,’ Lawson said. ‘I have examined the evidence, and find that there is sufficient cause to believe that you did, most feloniously, attempt to murder Mister Patrick James Cashman. I commit you for trial on the twenty-second day of March 1888, at the Supreme Court, Normanton. Bail is refused.’

There was a smattering of applause from the audience, and a muted but heartfelt wail of anguish from one woman, right at the back of the room, for Kitty herself, with Henry beside her, had come to see her son face court.

From his place near the front of the court, Harry Hasenkamp smiled.

And while the rain pattered down on the canvas tarpaulin I’d roped to four trees at Kitty’s camp, to improve her living conditions somewhat, and so we could talk without getting wet, I marvelled at how fast lives can change. At how one thoughtless act can send a soul hurtling down the wrong path.

‘We went along there that day in the Burketown courthouse, you know,’ Kitty told me. ‘Me an’ Henry up the back. By an’ by they bring Joey along outside. He couldn’t look at my eyes, poor boy. What a thing for a woman to see the babe she suckled, there in chains, and all because he fought for her, because he loved his Mama and fought for her.’

‘It broke your heart?’ I said.

‘Yeah, my heart broke,’ Kitty agreed. Her eyes became as weathered and old as the country she walked on. I saw something inside – a relic of the cycles of life, of mother and child, all down through the generations.

Kitty took up her pipe, and would not speak another word to me that day.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

5. Escape from Normanton

5. Escape from Normanton

The Police Quarters, Normanton, in the 1880s. State Library of Queensland.

Hasenkamp and his men shackled Joe with iron chains, and escorted him 130 miles to Normanton, a five-day ordeal on horseback. There had been some late rain, and the black soil country was hard going in the mud.

By the time they reached the town’s neatly surveyed streets, laid out on the western bank of the Norman River, Joe had calluses on his neck and wrists, and his spirits were so low that he could scarcely stomach the johnny-cakes and tea that they fed him on the track.

This was Kurtijar country; the people of the river plains. Joe saw them – men, women and children – watching from the camps on the fringes of town as he rode in with his neck chain firmly and humiliatingly in place.

The Normanton lock-up was located behind the Police Quarters in Borck Street, and was more substantial than Burketown’s. It had an exercise yard, and four cells in a line. The whole complex was built up on stumps, and all solidly made of heavy timber slabs secured with iron spikes. The windows were too small for a goanna to shimmy through, and the iron door would have resisted a bull. The prison compound was enclosed by walls of iron sheet, ten feet high.

Joe shared his cell with two other men. One was on remand for assaulting his wife. The other, a young Irishman, was serving thirty days for riding a horse without permission, and swearing at a policeman.

‘They’ve charged ye fer the ‘tempted murder of a white man?’ the horse ‘borrower’ asked.

Joe nodded miserably.

‘T’ey’ll give ye ten t’ fifteen year fer that. No question.’

‘Ten to fifteen years in here?’ asked Joe, gesturing at the bare cell.

‘Not here,’ piped up the wife-beater. ‘They’ll take you to a proper gaol, with stone walls. Rockhampton probably, or p’raps Brisbane.’

Those four walls crushed in on Joe, and his world reeled. The thought of being taken away, far from here, to a stone prison, seemed to him much worse than death. A despondent sense of doom settled heavily on him, and he huddled into a corner like a spiny anteater, digging into the earth with sharp points all around, where nothing could dislodge him, nothing could hurt him.

Joe stayed like that until late in the afternoon, when he had a visitor – the owner from Lawn Hill Station, Frank Hann, a family friend if there was such a thing for the Flicks.

Frank Hann

Born in Dorsetshire, England, and immigrating while still a child, Frank Hann’s feats of exploration and endurance were well known and celebrated amongst his peers. Yet, he was not big or robust as might be expected of a man with his reputation. Rather, he was more bird than bull, with red bushy eyebrows and flaming hair. He lived somewhat openly with Opal, a young Wambaya woman he had obtained from Cresswell Creek in the Territory, although his white friends pretended that she was his housemaid.

Now, the station owner approached the cell, in company with the gaoler, who unlocked the door and let Joe out to speak with him.

‘Hell, Joey,’ Hann cried. ‘What’s this I hear about you shooting at Mister Cashman?’  

Joe clammed up again. He didn’t mean to; it just happened. He looked down at the ground and avoided Hann’s eyes.

‘I can’t help if you don’t talk to me, lad.’

Still, Joe said nothing, arms folded protectively around his body, and eyes glazing over like window shutters. He wanted to go back inside the cell and be like an anteater again.

Hann went on, ‘I hear your old man went and had a word to Cashman. Told him that there was no harm done, and that he should drop the complaint. Jim Cashman said he wouldn’t, and well, I guess that’s his decision.’

There was not even a flicker in Joe’s eyes at the station owner’s words.  

Hann shook his head. ‘I’ll help if I can, but I don’t think there’s much I can do.’

It was only when Hann stamped in frustration, and turned to walk away that Joe found his voice. ‘Fifteen years in a stone prison, for the little what I done? I can’t face that, Mister Hann.’

‘You just might have to, Joey, but wait and see, for the judge might sympathise, and I’ll put in a character reference for you.’

The gaoler pushed Joe back inside with the others, and slammed the door. Heavy cast-iron doors, it seemed to Joe, made a sound deeper and more final than any other sound on earth.

Normanton Police Quarters and Lock-up. State Library of Queensland

In the late afternoon of the next day, when the sun was at its hottest, and the iron-plate wall like a branding iron to the touch, the prisoners were allowed outside to exercise, under the eyes of two warders armed with Martini-Henry carbines.

Joe kept himself apart from the other inmates, now including a bunch of Burns Philp seamen who had been arrested the night before on assault and drunkenness charges. He walked in aimless circles, shoulders slumped and hands in his pockets. So deep was his reverie that he did not heed it at first – a very distant, but high and piercing bird call from outside the prison grounds. When it came again, however, he stopped walking and listened – a clear twin whistle, with the second note higher in pitch than the first.

Every muscle and nerve in Joe’s body came alive. That was the call of a quail-thrush, a creature of the mulga a thousand miles to the south of Normanton. Joe knew with deep certainty that there was only one person who could so perfectly mimic that bird. Somewhere, outside those walls, was his mother, and she was calling him.

Joe looked at the guards. They had noticed nothing. Now he eyed off the walls. They were ten feet high, but someone had stacked some firewood for the kitchens quite close. If the stack held it could be used to help jump the full height of the wall, and he was not lacking in agility. The iron would be hot, yes, but his hands were callused from hard work.  

Joe waited until the guards were distracted, one tamping his pipe, carbine held in the crook of his arm. The other man was trying to get a vesta to strike.

Sprinting towards the wall, Joe instinctively chose the right moment, jumped for the wood pile, then used his left foot on the peak to take a flying leap. He was a born athlete, and his fingers just managed to grip the top of the burning hot iron. With a tremendous heave of his shoulder and arm muscles he lifted himself, his face contacting the hot metal in the process, yet his knee rising just high enough to find the top of the wall. Adroitly Joe’s left foot came up, and for an instant he stood poised with both feet on the edge.

A rifle discharged, and a bullet stung through the air like a wasp. Joe cocked his knees and jumped, and for a young man who’d been thrown by rough horses since the age of five or six, landing safely on the hard ground was no challenge, using the flex in his legs and ankles to absorb the impact.

Wasting no time in recovery, he ran with all his considerable speed, heading into the sun, across the series of horse paddocks and outbuildings that made up the police reserve. Ahead he could see the start of the bush. If only he could make it before the police were out and mounted up.

Joe’s luck held. Within a minute he was dodging saplings and termite hills. His hearing was as sharp as a wallaby’s, and again he heard the quail-thrush call. He altered his direction a fraction.

The bird call sound moved seemingly as fast as he was. It was eerie, almost supernatural. He reached a shallow gully, where the wattle and box trees grew more thickly, and was sprinting up the other side when the call came again to his left. He saw a fallen bloodwood trunk, and then his mother’s face appeared from behind it, beckoning him to her.

He saw what she had done, hollowed a space in the soil beneath the decaying base – a small cave, and as Joe slithered in beside her, she raked a cache of branches and leaves in behind them.

For a long time there was silence. Twenty minutes or more. Then the sound of hoofbeats and shouting voices, close at first, then fanning out into the distance.

‘They’ll be back,’ Kitty whispered.

‘… and track me here,’ Joe whispered, but Kitty shook her head and showed him the pair of his old boots that she had worn, crisscrossing the area, heading out in a dozen false trails. ‘All night I done that,’ she said.

Kitty was right, though, the police came back to search the area again. Mother and son lay close together, listening to the sounds of the hunt around them, often fading into the distance, sometimes very close. Once Joe saw a pair of police boots so near that he felt he could have reached out and touched them. Soon, however, the man passed on by.

Once the night was fully dark, Kitty and Joe left their hiding place.

‘Listen good, Joe,’ she said. ‘You walk to Magoura Station, Missus Franny Trimble expecting you, and will be ready with horses and tucker. By and by you ride for the Nicholson River. Your father is heading there directly, with plenty tucker for you to get to the Territory.’

‘Where will I meet him?’

‘You savvy that place close by Nudjabarra, the little waterhole, where we all three of us camp that time?’

‘I know it.’

‘Go there. Then he’ll tell you where to go.’

Joe hugged her with happiness. He should have known that his family would look out for him.

Kitty again donned Joe’s old boots. ‘I’ll lead them away,’ she said, ‘give ‘em a good trail to follow up tomorrow.’

They embraced one last time, then Joe watched his mother melt into the shadows and disappear.

Joe gave Kitty a start, then prepared for his departure. Travelling the eighteen miles to Magoura on foot, however, didn’t appeal. Instead he worked his way from the scrub near the prison into the township, keeping to the shadows when he could, and avoiding the pubs.

With a race meeting scheduled for the following week, many of the contenders were already in town, being put through their paces on the track each day. Joe made his way out to the paddock in which several of these racehorses were grazing. He recognised the stallion Marathon, belonging to a carrier called Darcy, a horse that tested the field every year at the Normanton and Burketown carnivals. He was a lively, spirited animal, just the kind that Joe loved to ride.

His next step, however, was to hurry back to the police station. Where else would he find the best saddlery in the township? The stable door was held by iron staples, but Joe levered them out as quietly as he could. Once inside he visited the tack room, choosing a saddle blanket, bridle and saddle. As an afterthought he chose a felt hat from a peg, and placed it on his head. Looking just like any bushman heading home, he walked openly down the street.

Marathon, in Joe’s mind at least, seemed to be waiting for him to return, snuffing the air. Hadn’t his father said that his boy was part horse? Joe spent a precious minute or two stroking the stallion’s neck, asking for and offering trust. The animal seemed to come alive at a sense of adventure in the offing, a change from the tedium of the racetrack. He stamped and snorted a little as Joe fed the bit into his mouth, tightened the chin strap, then gently positioned the saddle and tightened the girth.

Their friendship sealed, Joe walked Marathon with a loose hand on his bridle, through the gate and ever so quietly out of town, wrinkling his nose at the smells of civilised life, the smoke from kitchen stoves, cooked food, and chicken coops.

With a sense of leaving that settled world behind, rejecting it utterly, Joe swung up into the saddle, and set off for Magoura Station at a canter.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

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Joe Flick: Chapter 1-5 Catch-up PDF

If you’ve missed some chapters or you’ve been meaning to catch up on the story so far, here it is in PDF format. Then you’ll be ready for the next chapter, which will be posted on Sunday afternoon.

You can either download the PDF by clicking here or read it below.


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6. Magoura

6. Magoura

Photo credit: Catriona Martin

Being interested in the original people of the Gulf and their culture, I often stopped to talk to an old man called Charlie after my meetings with Kitty. He was a wiry fellow, knotted like old rope, with a sharp mind and encyclopedic knowledge of that strip of coast. Somehow, after a few of these conversations, I earned myself an invitation to take a ride in his dug-out canoe.

By then I knew enough language for the pair of us to communicate. He told me to come early in the morning, when he predicted gentle breezes and clear skies. This forecast proved to be perfectly accurate, and he was already impatient to launch when I wandered up after my breakfast.

The canoe was some fourteen feet long, still with the marks of stone adzes along the interior. It was no lightweight, I discovered, helping Charlie heave it into the water. Two carved paddles lay inside the hull, along with a dugong spear – a weapon some eight feet long, with a head barbed on one side, fixed to the shaft by tightly wound bindings.

Charlie reckoned we had little chance of spotting dugong or turtle, for the water along the coast was coloured with wet-season outflows from the many creeks and rivers. Even Doomadgee Creek, as we called the western branch of Arthur’s Creek where we launched the canoe, was flowing brown.

Stepping gingerly aboard, while Charlie held the stern, I soon found that the craft was not particularly stable. After wobbling alarmingly at first, I learned to keep my weight to the centreline. Charlie gave us a shove out into the stream, then clambered aboard with such agility that the canoe seemed as solid as the HMAS Canberra.

My guide took his place in the stern, grabbed a paddle, and I did the same, with the old man shouting at me when to change sides. It was a fine feeling to fly down the channel, with the help of a strong ebb tide, while armoured crocodile heads surfaced amongst the mangroves, small baitfish skittered from the water, and kites or eagles took to the wing from tree-top vantage points at our approach.

Soon it was not a matter of paddling for thrust, only steering the vessel through the bends. Before I knew it we were racing out from between the mangrove lined heads of the creek into the wide-open ocean, the hull thumping against a small chop.

I felt like an adventurer indeed, with islands scattered on the horizon, and the wide Gulf shore seemingly untouched by governments, empire builders and settlement.

After some half a mile of paddling in a westerly direction, Charlie put down his paddle, took up his spear, and asked to exchange places. This we managed, somehow without ending up in the water.

The next hour or more will remain like a cinema-picture in my memory: Charlie poised in the bow with his spear at the ready, peering down into the water and the sea surface around us, while I paddled us gently onwards in the direction of his pointed commands. His dark skin was free of any trace of fat, every muscle of his shoulders and back portrayed in stark relief.  

Once or twice I saw him tense, as if he had noticed some sign that was invisible to my eyes, but then he relaxed again. Eventually he sat down, chuckled and shrugged.

‘Today, they live, and we go hungry,’ he said, then indicated that we should exchange places again.

Later, when I arrived at Kitty’s camp, she seemed a little put out that I had made a new friend from amongst her neighbours. She called Charlie a few names that I dare not translate here.

Then, pausing only for the ritual of filling and lighting her pipe, she took up the story where she had left it the day before.

Sub-Inspector Patrick Brannelly, Kitty told me, was the officer in charge at Normanton at the time Joe made his escape over the wall. Brannelly had cut his teeth in the Royal Irish Constabulary before emigrating to Australia.

Brannelly had a close-trimmed beard, turning grey at forty-five years of age, a down-turned mouth that was inclined to sourness, and a hot temper. His intolerance for foolishness and time-wasting was legendary, as was his thick Galway dialect.

The evening after Joe’s escape he was enjoying a drink with Mister Brodie, Normanton’s mayor, at Hely’s pub. The barmaid had just mixed him a Bushmills and water, and he had scarcely lifted the glass to his lips when Sergeant Ferguson hurried in, touched his superior’s shoulder and whispered into his ear.

‘Excuse me sir, we’ve had an escape.’

Brannelly placed the glass on the table, then stood abruptly. ‘Good Gahd man. An escape?’

‘That’s right sir.’

The room had gone quiet. Even Missus Hely herself, dressed in heliotrope silk, stopped her earnest study of her customers and the cash in the drawer and listened.

‘Now tell me. Whech o’ de despicable and low examples o’ ‘umankend behend ooehr walls ded manage to escape?’

‘Joe Flick, sir.’

‘‘Ow in de name o’ Gahd ded ‘e do it?’

‘He jumped the wall, sir.’

‘‘E joehmped a ten-foot irahn wall? Dat’s a tall tale to be sure, sergeant. ’Ow lahng ago ded dis ooehtrage ahcur?’

‘Ah, several hours sir.’

‘And why was I naht tahld earlier?’

‘We were trying to locate him sir, and we did not think it would take long.’

Brannelly downed his glass in one long swallow, then tapped his chest. ‘I regret to say Mester Brahdie, dat me subardinates ‘ave let me down.’ He glanced sharply at the sergeant. ‘Let oehs all down. Oenfahrtunately, I moehst leave you.’

The Inspector and his subordinate walked out the door, past a group of men showing off a giant mud crab trapped from the Norman River. The left pincer had clamped on a stick, while the other was opening and closing menacingly.

Ignoring the show, the sub-inspector and his subordinate walked briskly back to the police station. The quarters were all but deserted, with most of the constables out looking for Joe.

Brannelly gathered the remainder, including any trackers left in the quarters, and gave them a tongue-lashing. ‘You let a weld boehsh lad outwit you?’ he cried. ‘Get ahn yooehr horsches and fend Joe Fleck tahnight. Fend ‘im ahr be damned to ye all and start lookin fahr new jahbs.’

Not all the absent police constables were following false trails laid by Kitty. Others were smart enough to expect that Joe might equip himself with a horse and ride from town after dark. Some three miles out, a sixth sense warned Joe that there was trouble ahead. He slowed Marathon to a walk, then reined in and dismounted.

Moving onwards, scarcely breathing, he heard voices up the track. Leaving the horse tethered to a tree, he moved closer and saw the glow from a pipe bowl as someone inhaled, and the smell of tobacco smoke. Up closer he made out the buttons on a serge jacket, and the shape of a rifle barrel. Joe shivered, if he had ridden straight on into the checkpoint they would have opened fire on him.

Doubling back, Joe rode up into the scrub, and bypassed the area, though he slowed his pace and moved more cautiously.

By dawn Joe had reached Magoura Station, and was now crossing open downs studded with knee-high termite mounds, and a bountiful covering of Landsborough, Mitchell, and blue grasses. The cattle were so settled that they scarcely looked at horse and rider as they passed.

Magoura was one of the Gulf’s finest stations, a mix of freehold and leasehold, with 10 000 cattle feeding on the plains. Some 800 square miles in all, it was watered by the Flinders River, and the Bynoe, a tributary.

The owner, one of the most respected pioneers of the district, Irishman George Trimble, had died after a brief illness the previous year, and his widow Frances was keeping the place going with a manager, an old and faithful head stockman called Holmes.

Joe arrived at the homestead in the mid-morning, snooping in slowly, in case the police were there waiting for him. There was no sign of them yet, however, and he rode up to the homestead. Holmes and the other men were out on the run, and as Kitty had promised, Frances Trimble was waiting for him.

She was tall and slight, with no figure to speak of, and often wore cattlemen’s gear instead of a dress, doing any job the men could do, from dressing a bullock to breaking a colt. Joe had always liked her a great deal, and the sight of her kind face made him feel more hopeful.

‘You’re a young fool, Joey,’ she said, ‘shooting at Mister Cashman was a mad act, even though what happened to your mama was despicable.’

‘I know it was. I’m sorry, but I can’t take it back.’

‘No you can’t, more’s the pity. And where did you get that stallion, isn’t he Mister Darcy’s racehorse?’

‘Yes, that’s him. Marathon.’

‘Yes. Well unsaddle him and let him go. Like as not he’ll head home and you can choose a couple of mounts from here to take with you. Run in a mob from the horse paddock and take your pick while I bring out a pack and some tucker.’

The cook, a thin man with knobbly knees and greying hair pulled tight in a bun at the back of his head, was watching nonchalantly from the verandah, there rarely being such high entertainment as the arrival of an escaped prisoner on the premises.

Franny Trimble turned to him and cried, ‘Hey you, Ah Fong.’

‘Yes Missus.’

‘Climb up on the roof and watch for horsemen on the track. If you see anyone coming call out. You understand?’

‘I unnerstand, Missus.’

The gangly cook headed for the side of the house where he scrambled up a trellis, to the water-tank, then onto the roof, carefully keeping to the main beams and avoiding the unsupported grass thatch in between. Once he reached the ridge he made his way along to the chimney. There he stood, making a show of staring into the distance with one hand held parallel above his eyes to shade them.

‘Keeping plenty proper look out, Missus,’ he called down.

Franny Trimble ignored him and went to fetch the tucker and pack she had promised.

Meanwhile the help of a stockwhip that had been left coiled on a yard post, Joe ran a dozen station horses into the yards and made his selection, looking for good overall conformation, straight shoulders, depth in the chest and a spirit to match his own. Quiet horses were not Joe’s thing.

Choosing two, he tacked up the best prospect, an active bay, and when Frances reached the yards they fitted packs on the second, balancing them by eye as best they could.

‘Nothin’ yet, Missus,’ came a shout from the cook on the rooftop, as if to remind them that he was still up there, doing as he had been bidden. Meanwhile, Joe ponied Marathon up with a rope so he could string behind the others.

‘Aren’t you going to let him go?’ Frances asked.

‘Yes, but not here. In case he hangs around and gets you in trouble.’ Joe paused. ‘Can you let me have a rifle?’

Frances considered the question then shook her head. ‘No, Joey. I know you might have need of a weapon on the track, but if the police come up on you you’re better off without one. Just give yourself up if they catch you. Promise me that.’

Joe was ready to mount up when a tremendous screech came from the cook on the rooftop. ‘Missus, Missus. Mounted men coming this way directly. Four maybe five all-up.’

‘How far away?’ she called back.

‘One mile, maybe more, Missus.’

‘That’ll be the police,’ she said to Joe. ‘I’ll delay them for as long as I can.’ She grinned. ‘No policeman alive can resist tea and scones. Now go, and the best of luck to you.’

Joe had no spurs, but his boot heels were hard enough. Even in a hurry, however, he retained his natural caution. He chose his route carefully, letting the marks of his escape mingle with the countless hoof-marks that had been made when he ran in the mob. This done, he set off across the horse paddock, letting himself through a bush gate on the other side.

Joe set off in a westerly direction, cross country, anti-tracking where he could. Even with the traps breathing down his neck, it was a good feeling to be on a fine horse, with another carrying enough tucker to get him to his father’s camp at least.

It was only the lack of a weapon that bothered him now, and Joe turned his mind, as he rode, to how he might acquire one.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

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7. Hunted

7. Hunted

Team of horses with a fully laden wagon. Inverleigh Station. State Library of Queensland

The feeling of being hunted …

Of every rocky outcrop hiding an ambush. Every traveller an informer. Trackers poring over every impression of hoof and boot; reading the sign each time Joe dismounted to eat or brew tea.

Joe directed his mount along shallow stony creek beds, walking both horses backwards up the banks several times, at intervals of hundreds of yards, before continuing on his way. He laid false trails to the north and south of his true path. He left red herrings such as horsehairs in bushes, reversed around large trees and set off in erratic directions, even slipped from his saddle while his plant plodded on, running on foot in a wide circle before re-joining them. These tricks, however, were time consuming, and good trackers would find the correct trail eventually.

Twenty miles on from Magoura, and back on the main road, Joe passed the sign-posted track heading into Inverleigh Station. This sprawling cattle run was owned by Will Fleming, in partnership with a woman called Jessie Kennedy. Joe had done cattle work there in the past, and he remembered the storehouse behind the homestead where weapons were kept.

Reining in on the cross roads he considered his position. He was used to carrying a revolver at least, and if he were armed the police would have to think twice about tackling him. Everyone knew that trackers hated following men with rifles most of all.

The decision made, Joe nudged his new bay gelding off the road, heading down to the creek that wound back towards the homestead. It was an hour before he stopped just short of the old people’s camp, in view of the homestead and outbuildings from the rear. Then, leading all three of his horses back into the waterside scrub, he tethered them within reach of shade and water.

Banking on the stockmen having gone out to work already, and the servants being busy inside, he approached the storehouse. It was simple enough, he found with his strength and thin frame, to force an iron shutter and squeeze through. The interior was dark, but Joe’s eyes soon adjusted. From a wooden rack inside he chose a .577 calibre Snider carbine, a heavy, brutal-looking weapon. This he lowered to the ground out through the window, along with a box of cartridges. Heart hammering with excitement, Joe squirmed through and outside. There he flipped the hinged block out of the receiver, sliding in a cartridge and replacing the block. This done, he slung the loaded carbine over his right shoulder for ease of travel.

Keeping under cover as much as possible, Joe reached the horses again without being seen. He rode off the way he had come, finally re-joining the main route to Floraville. It was there that Joe decided to set Marathon free.  

With the knots untied and the rope removed, however, the stallion wasn’t keen on leaving his new friends.

‘Ah, you can’t stay with us, boy,’ Joe muttered. ‘Though I’d love to keep you … I promised Missus Trimble I’d let you go.’ With those words he delivered a firm slap on the animal’s rump.

Just at that moment, Will Fleming came down the track from Normanton way, riding casually towards him. Joe was not particularly frightened; Fleming was better known for his skills at the game of chess than gun play. Yet the shock of recognition came quickly to the station-owner’s face.

‘Hey, Joe Flick,’ shouted Fleming. ‘Is that you?’

‘Yah,’ cried Joe, digging his heels in hard. He took off at speed, the packhorse following, leaving only Marathon behind, and Will Fleming wondering what the hell was going on, and anxious to report that he had just seen the wanted man.

Not sparing the horses, Joe travelled fast to the Nicholson, bypassing Corinda Station, then the Turn Off Lagoon camps – the police station and pub – wheeling around the area with its smells of woodsmoke and beer, and the sounds of men at work and play. He saw a gang unloading timber from a dray, bullocks lowing and someone shouting. Joe had the sense of being on the outside now. They had locked him out, taken away his ability to participate in society.

Turn-off Lagoon was so named because this was where the Territory stock routes began. The inland path, across the Border Ranges to the Barkly Tableland was called Hedley’s Track, and the more northerly alternative was the Coast Track, known for its fever, humidity and mud.

Joe spent several hours heading up the coast track, then cleverly doubling back and going the other way, crossing the Nicholson upstream of the settlement, from which point he followed the river to its wild headwaters.

Finally, after twenty straight hours in the saddle, he left the main course of the Nicholson, and turned up a scrubby, rocky little creek. There he saw a smudge of smoke, and Henry Flick sitting beside a cooking fire, walking to meet him with a worried smile on his face.

Joe dismounted and grinned widely.

The vine-dresser’s son clapped his son’s back, tut-tutting at the weight he had lost and the haunted shadows around his eyes.

Henry had a good beef stew simmering in a camp oven, and before long Joe was eating his fill. There with his father he felt free for the first time since he had first suffered the bite of iron chains on his skin. Henry Flick had always been such an authority in Joe’s life that the Queensland police now seemed only about as potent as March flies and their hot needle stings.

‘Where did you get the rifle from?’ Henry asked Joe while he spooned stew into his mouth.


‘You stole it?’ Henry Flick cast a sharp glance at his son.

Joe met it with a steady eye. ‘Yes, and some cartridges. Fleming saw me riding away, so the “pinks” know I’ve got it. Should help keep them off my back.’

‘We’ll talk about that later.’

Joe put down his tin plate and smiled, white teeth in the firelight. ‘Are you gonna ride with me to the Territory?’ He could not hide his good spirits. With his father beside him he felt safe.

‘No, I’m not coming with you, Joey.’

Joe took a long swig of tea from his pintpot, and looked sideways at his father. ‘That’s a shame. I would have liked to ride with you – and it’s all new country for me.’

‘That’s true, but it’s the road you have to take, Joey. You’ve done what you done and there’s no way back. I’m here to help you, but my life is back Lawn Hill way. We can’t afford to lose the mine, and if I leave it unworked, some bastard will take it. You know the rules.’

‘I don’t really want to go to the Territory without you and Mama. How am I supposed to fit in there?’

‘You’re as good a man with cattle as I’ve ever known.’

‘That’s not what I mean. I’m not one of the old people, and not white either.’ Joe pointed to the south. ‘Mama’s country is a thousand miles from here. Maybe that’s where I should go. Maybe that’s where I belong.’

Henry Flick shook his head. ‘Put that out of your mind, son. Look at me. I was born in Germany, but I was just a crawling babe when we sailed for this country, and I can’t remember it one bit. I’ve lost touch with my family down south too. I heard that my old man – your grandfather – died just two or three years ago at a place called Taree. This is our country now – yours and mine both.’

 ‘I’d give anything just to be back at our camp,’ Joe sniffed, ‘settlin’ down around the fire with Mama tellin’ her stories.’

‘Well you can’t. Just have to make the best of it now,’ said Henry. ‘Life is not easy for anyone. And there’s always be people, like ol’ mate Jim Cashman, who try to bring you down. Who try to stop you from being the man you need to be.’

‘I’m scared,’ Joe said at length.

Henry Flick did something he had not done for many years, he moved next to his son and drew him close, feeling the trembling in that hard, thin frame. ‘I know that. Now stay just one night here – you know they’ll be tracking you as we speak, and they never ever give up. Tomorrow you can ride on to the Territory – all the way to Hodgson Downs – Minyerri the old people call it. My mate, Jimmy Crawford is the manager. Just tell him that you’re my son and he’ll give you a job. You can lay low there.’ He paused then said, ‘I’m proud of you, Joey, for standing up for your mother. Whatever happens, I’m proud of that.’

And then, with Joe half asleep in his arms, Henry Flick sang a lullaby in his rough and gravelly voice – one that he remembered his mother Rosina singing to him through his childhood.

Wie ist die welt so stille,

und in der dämmrung hülle.

So traulich und so hold!

Als eine stille kammer,

Wo ihr des tages jammer

verschlafen und vergessen sollt.

How the world stands still,

in twilight’s veil.

So sweet and snug!

As a still room,

Where the day’s distress

you will sleepily forget.

When Joe finally moved to the swag Henry had prepared for him, he slept soundly, with his father keeping watch. In the piccaninny dawn he was breakfasted, mounted and ready to ride, while the chatter of wrens, spinifex pigeons and honey-eaters reverberated between the faces of that rocky creek.

Henry reached up to clasp his son’s hand. ‘Put all this behind you, Joey. We’re counting on you to rebuild your life.’

‘I’ll do my best.’

‘One last thing,’ Henry said. ‘See that rifle, I want you to throw it in the creek.’

Joe laid a protective hand on the wooden stock. ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Take the damn thing and throw it in the creek. It’ll cause only trouble.’

Joe made a face, but he unslung the carbine and with a heave of his arms speared it far out into the waterhole, where it made a splash and sank without trace.

Then, with a last clasp of his father’s hand, and many a backwards glance, he rode off towards the Territory. Very soon Joe was to rue the lack of that rifle, for it may well have prevented a wound that would almost take his life.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

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8. Wounded

8. Wounded

NT Library

Kitty told me how her son Joe rode to the west in the wild upper Nicholson country, through a river gorge intersected with knife blades of red stone, ancient cycads and calm, clear pools rich with turtle and fish. She told me about Wanggala – the age of creation – when the river was formed; this artery snaking through the land.

She told me of a line of ranges white men called the China Wall, and the sacred dreaming places of the old people along the route. She told me how the Waanyi still talk of the turbulent years – the Wild Time – when the cattle moved in, and the trouble began.

Then she told me of how proud Waanyi men almost took her son’s life, for Joe was riding a horse, wearing a hat. To them he was all the same as a white man: anyone in white men’s clothes and mounted on a horse was a target, and especially one who dared to ride alone and unarmed into the border country.

By late that afternoon, Joe reckoned that he must have crossed into the Territory, and he breathed easier. Back then, Queensland and the Territory were separate colonies, the latter being part of South Australia. The police could not move freely across borders and Joe felt safe from them, for the time being.

He was riding through cave country, slow going between rocks hidden by tussock-grass and spinifex, when three tall Waanyi warriors, wearing head-pieces adorned with feathers, rose from the broken ground to his right. Another group appeared, blocking his path ahead. Knowing some words of their language, Joe shouted that he was a friend, and meant them no harm. His hands wished for a weapon with which to frighten them off, but his father had made him throw the Snider carbine away. His knife seemed small and ineffectual, but he drew it anyway.

The terrified packhorse reared up, slowing any chance Joe had of burning them off with speed. Spears flew, driven by long woomeras at close to the speed of a bullet. Each of these weapons was some nine feet long, and tipped with a barbed and razor-sharp worked head of stone.

Joe deliberately jinked his horse, but a spear drove into his foot, cleaving through the leather of his boot, and driving deep into sinew and flesh, then tearing out from the sheer weight of the hanging spear. The point left a deep, bloody gash, and the pain was deep and shrill.

A spear struck the pack horse in the chest, and it kneeled, mortally hit, bellowing blood from its open mouth. Blanking out the pain, Joe turned and cut the lead rope, and kicked his mount onwards, blood from his foot smearing its flank.  

Joe aimed his horse, thankful that its courage matched his own, directly towards the group that had gathered ahead of him, one spear missing his head by a whisker. The thundering hooves of his gelding were lethal weapons in themselves, and the Waanyi parted enough to give Joe space to gallop through.

He kept that pace up until his horse’s sides were flecked with foam. Ten miles, fifteen, he rode, until finally he slowed enough to look at the wound in his foot. It was still ebbing blood, and he felt weak and light headed. He took off his boot and bound the wound with strips cut from the only spare shirt he still had.

There was no way back, only forward, his best hope to head for Brunette Downs, managed, at that time, by the famous cattle duffer Harry Readford.

For three more days Joe hung on, with no rifle to get meat, scarcely with the energy to stay in the saddle, guessing himself to be on the Northern boundaries of the vast Alexandria Station. He plucked bush food when he came across it – billy goat plum from the tree, biting the tangy abdomen of the green ant, or grubbing for water lily tubers and mussels in the very few waterholes he came across once he left the Nicholson.

Finally, he struck the waving grasses of the Barkly savannahs – flatter even than the ‘Plains of Promise’ near Burketown, and easy going for a horseman. It was also possible to see a great distance all around, making him feel safe from mounted men.

In a forlorn condition, Joe followed a faint smudge of smoke from a distant cooking fire. Near sundown, a week after his break-out from Normanton, he stumbled on a stock camp on Corella Creek. It was just a bark hut and set of bush yards, with a white man leaning in the doorway smoking a pipe. A couple of black girls in stockman’s gear, generally known as ‘boys’, were hanging around a fire.

‘You’re Joe Flick, aren’t you?’ the white man cried, walking towards Joe. He was of medium height, with brown hair and eyes, wiry rather than solid, but with an athletic air about him. ‘Everyone’s heard about your escape, and they said you might ride this way.’

Joe could see no point trying to hide his identity. ‘You guessed it. But I’m hurt. I got speared in the foot on the Nicholson.’

The stranger looked down at the foot, swollen and wrapped in cloth to keep the flies off. ‘The cheeky wretches! I thought Jack Watson had dealt with that lot.’

‘Please don’t give me up,’ Joe pleaded. ‘I’ll do anything but go back behind bars.’

‘No chance. My name’s Charlie Gaunt, by the way.’

The names of these white men seemed to cause Kitty pain. She hugged herself with her arms and looked down at the smouldering fire, the bones and skull of a catfish slowly turning to charcoal there in the embers.

When I asked her who Jack Watson was, she screwed up her face and spat tobacco-stained spit into the dust. ‘Bad man. Head stockman at Lawn Hill.’

I later researched something of Watson’s life, finding that he was a private school boy from Melbourne with a reputation for cruelty, who nailed black ears to the walls of the Lawn Hill homestead, and cleared whole river valleys of the old people, as Kitty called them. The only come-uppance was that he was much later taken by a crocodile at Knott’s Crossing, Katherine.

‘What about this Charlie Gaunt?’ I asked.

Kitty shivered, despite the heat of the day. ‘Another bad one. Charlie Gaunt a killer too. But he helped my Joey.’

After a pause to collect her thoughts, Kitty continued with the story.

‘We heard you were on the run,’ said Charlie Gaunt, ‘and you’ll get only assistance from me and Ned here – I’ve no love for that tight-fisted mongrel Jim Cashman, and don’t get me started on Hasenkamp.’ Another white man appeared from inside the hut, smelling of rum, bleary eyed and tousled. ‘Here’s Ned,’ said Charlie. ‘Heat some stew up for Joe, will you mate? He’s done in.’

Joe tried to dismount, and would have fallen in the process, had the other men not come forward to catch him. They laid him out in Charlie’s own bed, while Ned heated some tucker and the ‘boys’ saw to Joe’s horse.

Unwrapping the wound was a trial, for Joe’s hastily applied cloth had stuck to the wound like glue. Each turn caused a shudder in Joe’s body and a soft whimper of pain. Once it was finally uncovered, however, Ned took the bandages outside and burned them, while Charlie asked Joe to wiggle his toes, making sure that the tendons weren’t damaged. When this was done he used hot water to bathe the wound, soaking away the pus and half-formed scabs.

‘How bad is it?’ asked Joe.

‘Bad enough, but I’ve seen worse,’ said Charlie, folding a belt and passing it to Joe to chew on, while he swabbed undiluted whisky onto the wound. ‘We’ll do the same again tomorrow. You’re young, and you’ll heal.’

For eight days Joe stayed in the camp, with the very few visitors from outlying cattle camps sworn to secrecy about his presence. At first, however, he could scarcely sleep with nervousness.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Charlie. ‘No man around here believes you should have been charged for what you did, and now you’ve told me what happened I think it even less.’

At night, as Joe healed, he was able to sit around the fire and listen to Charlie Gaunt tell his stories, of great cattle drives, of fights and massacres, and the underlying sadness of a lonely life left unspoken. Ned’s tucker was good, and there was no hint of a threat, yet there was something about Charlie Gaunt that made Joe nervous.

Each day he forced himself to walk with a stick to hurry the healing of his wound, and he was impatient to ride, though he knew that turning up at Hodgson Downs half-crippled would make a manager think twice about hiring him.

Finally, however, when he could walk well enough, and ride even better. Joe decided that he was ready to continue his journey. The thought of working again as a stockman, living a normal life, appealed to him, and he knew that his father’s mate at Hodgson Downs would do right by him. Henry Flick had few mates, but the ones he had were like brothers.

Before Joe left, Charlie gave him a rifle, cartridges, three good horses, and a pack full of tucker. The kindness overwhelmed Joe.

‘Hodgson Downs is two hundred miles from here,’ said Charlie, ‘and if Crawford is expecting you so much the better. No one will ever hear a word from us.’

Joe shook hands with both men, then rode off into the grasslands, countless seed-heads turning golden with the morning sun.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

9. Hodgson Downs

9. Hodgson Downs

Hodgson Stock Boys (NT Library)

Again the monsoon retreated, and apart from storms bustling out from the horizon in the evening, the weather was better. I had my first touch of Gulf fever, but Dorothy Akehurst’s store of quinine kept it at bay, and I remained on my feet, most of the time.

I fished for barramundi in the creek, using a cat-gut line, and small fish for bait. Hussein caught these for me using a cast net that he had made himself from plaited pandanus strands. Once or twice I caught huge saw sharks, and while most people in the itinerant camp were keen to eat them, they had some significance to old Charlie as a creation-being, and he would clamber down the bank, help me to cut the hook free, talking to the strange and primeval creature while we gentled it back into the water.

The fish I did catch, of course, were welcomed by the Akehursts for the mission kitchen, and I’ll always remember how the children would skip along beside me while I carried a silver-scaled barramundi up from the creek, gill rakers cutting into my fingers, while Stanley and Willie whetted their knives to prepare this welcome change from beef.

Kitty was proud of my efforts, and boasted to the others that she’d somehow trained up my fishing skills. In any case, she beamed at me when I brought her down a chunk of fillet, though she liked turtle better, she told me.

After settling the fish-flesh on the coals to cook, she started to tell me how, a few days after leaving Corella Creek, Joe watered his horses in the stunning calm of the wide green Anthony’s Lagoon. After satisfying himself that there were no police in attendance, he dared to walk up the grassy hill and into the cluster of sly-grog shops and bark shanties that made up the settlement. The store was scarcely worthy of the name, but the shelves had not long before been replenished by dray from Newcastle Waters. Joe limped a little as he headed inside.

After selecting all the flour and tea he could carry he fronted the counter.  

‘On account, please mister,’ said Joe, bold as brass.

The store keeper planted his elbows on the counter and narrowed his eyes. ‘And whose account would that be?’

‘Sub-Inspector Brannelly, of Burketown,’ said Joe without hesitation. ‘Some constables an’ the rest of us trackers are camped down Kilgour River way, trailing one true bad feller from Queensland.’ He lifted one finger to his lips. ‘But shhh … big secret.’

The storekeeper hesitated only for a moment, then shook Joe’s hand. ‘Tell your boss that the rations are on the house, and that I hope you and the constables get your man, whoever he is.’ He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘And if that man happens to be the fugitive Joe Flick that goes double.’

Joe gave a knowing grin, lifted his finger to his lips once more, and backed out of the entrance.

Kitty, forty-odd years later threw back her head and laughed, holding her belly to stop it jiggling too much. Then she continued with the story.

Joe, Kitty told me, fell in love with the Minyerri country long before he reached the homestead itself. The western reaches were broken limestone country, rugged and beautiful, and the river itself a ribbon of silken green, sweet for cattle and men alike. Mitchell, Flinders, kangaroo and blue grasses grew on the better soils of the plains, and horses thrived.

James Crawford, the manager of Hodgson Downs Station was a fierce Scotsman in his late forties. ‘I’m helping yew, Joe, for the sake of yer father. He’s a guid man an’ a true mate. My own help depends on ‘ow yew be’ave from now on. Yew try a trick like pointin’ guns at people an’ that help comes to an end. I’ll give yew twenty shillin’s a week an’ all found. We’ll call you Jack, and no one need ken where yew came from.’

Within a week, ‘Jack’ had proved himself to be an exceptional horseman and one of the cleverest cattleman Crawford had ever seen. Joe was set on proving himself, and showed no interest in the usual stockmen’s diversions of drinking rum and kidnapping Alawa girls.

Before long he was a trusted hand, both in the cattle camps and the yards. Back at the homestead, he took whatever corner of the men’s camp was given him, and ate whatever tucker the cook cared to dish up. Travelling with cattle was no hardship for Joe, and he never missed a night watch, shirked or complained. If there was a rush he was the first man onto a night horse and the first man to ‘bend’ the herd.

 Arriving just in time for the station muster, Joe joined in the preparatory work of running in horses, shoeing, repairing or plaiting new hobbles, ropes and bridles. Saddles were oiled, and tucker packed for the camps.

Mustering on Hodgson Downs was carried out in sections. It was far too big an area to muster in one go. The strategy, in the main, centred on the waterholes, where mobs of cattle would drink daily.

After establishing a camp, and knocking up some rough yards, the men would ride out at dawn, fanning out for miles around a huge area of pasture. This done, they would begin to ride in, cracking stockwhips and shouting, herding wild cattle that might not have seen a horseman since the previous year’s muster, if at all, along their usual pads or trails to the waterhole. Intractable, evil-tempered scrub bulls were thrown and tied, or if all else failed, shot.

On the banks of the waterhole, usually by noon, a dinner camp was made, while a couple of horsemen quieted the mob. Soon afterwards, the drafting and branding started. And in the mayhem, with dust and smoke rising to the sky, and stockwhips cracking like thunder, someone would shout as a game weaner broke from the mob and a mounted man galloped close after, guiding the animal expertly back to the fold. It was no place for weaklings, and black men and white worked together as equals.

 Joe, soon heading up his own team, had a favourite waterhole to work from. It was very long, narrow and brown, and curved in a gentle archer’s bow to the west. The shape assisted in its efficacy and soon they were calling it Flick’s Hole. (Kitty told me that it bears his name to this day).

 Weeks passed in hard but thrilling toil, and one night a travelling Queenslander turned up at Joe’s camp and asked to speak to him privately. They stood on a knoll just near the camp with the sun glowing red in a smoke-tinged dry season sunset.

‘Relax,’ said the man. ‘I know who you are but I won’t give you away. I’ve got a message from your mama, Kitty. She says that she sends big love to you, that she and your old man are well. What answer shall I take back to her?’

‘Say that I love her too.’

‘That’s all?’

‘Nah, also tell her that I wish I was home but that things are good here. Tell her I’m alright.’

The man rode away in the dawn, and Joe’s heart felt warm from his mother’s soul brushing his across the distance, with the magic of a few words. He went back to his work with a will. The Queensland police seemed to be a long way behind him.

As the season lengthened, the plains were practically exhausted of new cattle to muster, and the camps moved into the limestone country, where stones, hidden by dry kangaroo grass, were sharp as needles, and escarpments rose on every side.

The cattle here were even wilder, and with fewer waterholes to work from, coacher herds of quiet cattle were used as focal points for the muster. Many of the free-ranging beasts had to be shouldered to the ground by horse and rider. Some small mobs, that had seen horsemen come and go before, sought refuge in the least accessible crags, and the men who brought them in with spur, rein and stockwhip were true artists.

Once the newly-mustered cattle were in with the coachers the mob was usually over-excited and rampaging mad. At that stage the horsemen would circle around them, over and over, talking or singing quietly, watching for any attempts to rush or escape from the mob.

Not everyone in the camp appreciated Joe’s skills. One man who became jealous of the admiration others felt for Joe was called Clarence Jones, a heavily built South Australian. He spent most of his days doing as little as circumstances permitted, interspersed with the occasional act of great daring and bravado that cemented his reputation and quietened grumbles about his lazy ways. Cruel with horses, women, and dogs alike, he was not popular in the camp.

One thing a shirker hates is a natural. The man who does everything well, and is humble besides, never drawing attention to himself, but is respected through his sheer reliability and talent. Joe Flick, then known as Jack, was such a man.

One night, towards the end of the season, Joe’s crew were in camp, eating johnny cakes and fresh beef, while the night watchman controlled the herd. The head stockman had just ridden up, and paid Joe a compliment about the efficacy of the day’s muster.

 Clarence Jones stewed for a while, then started musing aloud. ‘It’s strange, you know. How we hear that a yella boy called Joe escapes from the Normanton lock up, then a month later Jack rides into Hodgson Downs. A hell of a coincidence, don’t youse all reckon?’

Joe said nothing, and neither did any of the others. Those who had come to see him as a mate merely lowered their eyes in sadness. Most of them had worked that same coincidence out for themselves some time earlier. No more was said that night, or the next.

 For many months, into the wet season, while most of the ringers rode off to Darwin or Katherine to wait out the season, Joe stayed on, living the life of an honest stockman. The real work of the year was done, but there was plenty to do: breaking horses, plaiting greenhide ropes and yard-building, even a couple of late season grass fires that Joe helped fight, shoulder to shoulder with Crawford and his family, while dry storms crackled and spat from dark clouds overhead.

Clarence Jones, meanwhile, happened to ride through Roper Bar on a roundabout way to the Katherine for an end-of-year spree. He called in at the store, then happened to catch sight of a poster showing a sketch of Joe Flick, and the words WANTED on the noticeboard out the front of the police station.

‘Oh, that’s ‘Jack’ over at Hodgson Downs alright,’ said Jones to himself, cradling the jug of rum he had purchased to assist him on the long ride to slightly more civilised parts. He took the poster down, walked inside the police station and addressed the constable lounging behind the counter.

‘I know where this yella dog is hiding out,’ said Jones, holding up the poster.

Mounted Constable Stott sat up – yet another Scotsman, this time from Kincardineshire. ‘Yew can tell me where Joe Flick is?’

‘Sure do.’

Stott smiled, ‘Well laddy. If yew’re not jest blatherin’ yew’d best sit down an’ tell me where.’

Continued next week

© 2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

10. Under Arrest

10. Under Arrest

Mounted Constable Robert Stott of Roper Bar, Kitty told me, was something of an enigma. A man who would one day go on to become Central Australia’s first Police Commissioner, he was maligned by some, and lionised by others. On his police record were awards for courage, yet he was once fined for brutally striking a Chinese boy who had disobeyed an instruction.

Born in a blacksmith’s loft in Nigg, Kincardineshire, Stott was an ambitious and capable lawman. He had joined the South Australian police not long after his arrival in Australia, and soon requested a transfer to the Territory, chasing dreams of adventure and exotic landscapes. His colourful life continued, until he was run over and fatally wounded by a train in 1928.

Even though he now knew the whereabouts of Joe Flick, and was keen to add this arrest to his growing reputation, Bob Stott was nothing if not patient. The rivers were flooded, so, knowing that Joe Flick would not stray far, Stott bided his time. Apart from anything else, he did things by the book, and a warrant was required.

Finally, when the Wet Season floods had begun to recede, Stott took a leisurely ride up along the Roper track to the Elsey. From there he telegraphed Palmerston, seeking a warrant for the arrest of Joe Flick on charges of escaping lawful custody in Queensland. The request was duly facilitated by the Commissioner, Paul Foelsche.

A week or two later, a mounted constable rode south, bringing the warrant, but also prepared to stay and assist in the capture of Joe Flick. Red Lily Lagoon was the agreed rendezvous, and there Bob Stott had made camp with his two trackers.

The man with the warrant rode in the next day, and the two comrades hailed each other, catching up on the news while their trackers hobbled out the plant and pitched tents.

The new man, Friedrich Wilhelm Haedge, anglicised to Frederick William, was, like Hasenkamp back in Queensland, a second-generation German. He was a solid horseman and a tough customer. Stott was glad to have him on hand for the arrest of Flick.

Red Lily lagoon was a beautiful sight – a vast sheet of still water – fringed with reed beds, and dotted with lily pads and their flowers. Thousands of waterbirds floated or fossicked on narrow legs in the shallows. Pig-nosed turtles touched their snouts to the surface, and on the banks, agile wallabies flirted with the visitors, torn between curiosity and safety.

Haedge shot a goose, plucked it and arranged it on a wooden spit to roast on the coals. Then, he pulled a round bottle of Franken wine from his saddle bags and Stott matched it with one of whisky. Before long Stott was slapping his new mate on the back and calling him a gentleman.

‘Have you a plan of how we’ll bring this rascal in?’ Haedge asked.

‘There’s one a’ him an’ four of us, wit’ the trackers,’ said Stott, ‘so it shouldna be tae hard, but I’ve devised a ruse that should put him at ease.’

The next day the two policemen and their trackers rode downstream along the Roper track for the first few miles, then turned off towards Minyerri. All had revolvers and rifles loaded, in holsters and scabbards.

The afternoon was well advanced when they reached the homestead. Not attempting to hide their approach, the policemen rode in on the main track, right up to the verandah, where James Crawford waited for them with a pipe in his mouth.

‘What brings yew lads this way?’ Crawford called.

‘Serious matters indeed,’ said Stott, dismounting and greeting his countryman with a handshake. ‘T’ere’s been an attack on Newcastle Waters homestead by a mob a’ Jingili spearmen. We’re formin’ a troop tae ride over an’ put an end tae the mischief.’

Of course this was a ruse, but it was enough to get Joe off guard. Unsure of whether the officers were coming for him or not, he had been hiding behind an outbuilding. When he heard that they were not after him, but were looking for men to ride with them, he came out in the open.

‘Hoy there Jack,’ cried Crawford. ‘Are yew keen on a mission of righteousness?’

Joe slowly walked towards the verandah, hands in his pockets. He wasn’t keen at all. In fact he had no desire to go anywhere at all, most particularly not as a member of a police attack party.

‘So t’is is Jack then,’ said Stott. Then, peering down at Joe, ‘I’ve heard that yew’re a braw stockman. Come up here an’ throw down a drink, then we’d be pleased if ye rode with us.’

Stott himself walked to the waterbag hanging from a verandah post, and filled a tin pannikin for Joe, who had slowly made his way up the steps and was standing, still hesitantly, next to Crawford.

 When Joe accepted the pannikin and took a sip, Bob Stott seized him from behind, while Haedge whipped out his revolver, and levelled it at Joe’s face.

‘You’re under arrest for the escape of lawful custody in Queensland, Joe Flick,’ Haedge bellowed. ‘Come quietly or we’ll bury you here, and save everyone a pile of trouble.’

‘Yew sneakin’ belters,’ said Crawford, red in the face and furious. ‘Yew’ll take t’e ablest ringer in the Territory off me, an’ fer no gid reason?’

 Stott scowled and twisted Joe’s arm viciously behind his back. ‘T’is lad here is Joe Flick … a criminal, a lag on the run. Are yew saying you’d already ken his identity? T’is a criminal offence to harbour a fugitive from t’e law.’

‘All I ken is that this man here, called Jack. Is a good an’ honest lad an’ is no more a criminal than yew and me. Now ease up on him, yew’re hurting him.’

Stott relaxed his grip on Joe’s arm a tad, but addressed Crawford. ‘Dinna stand in ta way of justice, James.’

‘Whose justice, English justice? You should be ‘shamed a’ yersel’, you’re a disgrace tae yer countrymen, arrestin’ honest men fer to make yer own self look big.’

Bob Stott was starting to lose his temper. ‘I’ll ask ye again. Did yew ken that this ‘ere Jack was Joe Flick? If so we’ll arrest ye too.’

‘Nah,’ muttered Crawford, backing down. ‘I didna ken.’

‘Weel shut yer trap an’ leave it there.’

Joe, for his part, felt like a wallaby caught between two fires. He wished with all his heart that he had leapt on the back of the nearest horse as soon as he had seen the police coming. His self-protective instincts had softened with an easy life here.  

The two policemen led him off the verandah and out to where the trackers were readying travelling chains for the prisoner. Joe did not, at that time, think to wonder why they charged him only with escaping custody, rather than the original charge of attempted murder.

 That strange omission was to have terrible consequences for him later, but Joe had no idea of that now. His first and only thought was how he might get away from these men at the first possible opportunity.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

11. Escape at Mount McMinn

11. Escape at Mount McMinn

Bound by light chains and an iron collar, Joe rode just behind the two policemen, deep in a state of bitter recrimination and disbelief. The horse he’d been given was flat from work, and Stott constantly wheeled back to slap it encouragingly on the rump with a switch.

‘There’ll be nae hanging back an’ trying to run fer it,’ warned the Scotsman, lifting a clay pipe from his lips with one hand, and gripping the reins with the other. ‘I ken ever’ trick in the book, even tae ones that ‘aven’t been invented yet.’

That first day they followed the Hodgson River up to the junction, often at a distance to avoid rugged riverside hills, finally reaching Roper Bar after dark. Joe spent the night in the lock-up there alone, pacing the cell from back to front, looking for a weak point he could exploit to escape.

Meanwhile, Stott and Haedge celebrated the arrest with whisky and loud singing from the police quarters just a stone’s throw away. By morning Joe’s fingernails were bloody from trying to prise sheets of tin away from the cypress frame, and his eyes had sunk deep in their sockets.

Joe’s hosts slept late, and from dawn onwards, local ne’er-do-wells, brumby runners, unemployed ringers and seamen from a barque at anchor in the river came to look through the peephole at the caged fugitive. They made comments about the colour of his skin, his downcast mien, and the circumstances of his crimes, while Joe hissed at them from the shadows at the back of the cell.

Around ten-thirty the policemen rose, chased the sight-seers away and packed for a long ride to Palmerston. Joe was fed and exercised outside. He again submitted to the chains, though he was given a change of horse.

‘Mount up an’ let’s ride,’ shouted Stott. ‘We’re Palmerston bound, to deliver a true rascal onto the scales of justice.’

Joe’s chains stayed on all through the afternoon, as they followed the river track westwards. On the Roper’s south bank, near the towering bluff faces of Mount McMinn, the party stopped for the day, in a campsite that had been used by drovers and other travellers for at least a decade, and for perhaps fifty thousand years before that by the Mangarayi people of the Middle Roper lands.

It was a picturesque bend of the river – a safe crossing place – with the channel narrowing around a bar and sand spit on the other side. A couple of ‘gators scurried for the water as the mounted party approached. Still with his chains on, Joe was given a shovel and made to dig a latrine for the white men behind some screening bushes.

‘Deeper,’ cried Haedge, covering Joe with his revolver. ‘Put your back into it. No man wants to look at another’s turds while he squats.’

‘It’d be easier without these chains on,’ said Joe.

‘It’d be easier without wastin’ your breath complainin’,’ retorted Haedge.

Joe grunted with effort, and finally finished the hole, passing the spade back to his guard, who shepherded Joe back to camp, where Stott was busy with the trackers, hobbling the plant and relieving the packhorses of their loads.

‘You need a hand there?’ asked Haedge.

‘Nae lad,’ said Stott. ‘We’re all but done.’

Joe saw that Haedge had half turned his back on him. To encourage this carelessness he sat down on a stump near the fire with his head in his hands, looking like he was too fatigued from digging to pose a threat.

After a sharp look back, Haedge moved closer to Stott. ‘I’ll set the prisoner to cooking some tucker then. Might as well keep him being useful – he looks like he’s ready to drop from just a bit a’ spade work.’

If Haedge had not chosen that moment to repeat a dirty joke that had been doing the rounds up in Palmerston, Joe might not have tried anything. The joke, however, ended with both policemen laughing, eyes closed and doubled over.

Taking this opportunity, Joe leapt to his feet and sprinted away, chains jangling as he went. He headed south, away from the river, back along the little detour that they had taken from the main track, then towards the towering, forbidding cliffs of Mount McMinn itself.

Shouts came first, ‘Halt, or I’ll shoot.’

The report of a revolver followed, the slug from which Joe heard collide with a tree trunk some ten paces to his left. The solid boom of a rifle discharge followed soon after, but by then Joe had some distance, into thicker scrub, changing direction, hearing the whinny of a horse back at the camp as a rider prepared to mount.

Joe ran like he had never run before, ignoring the weight of the chains and the drag they made on his muscles, mingling blood with sweat where the collar cut deep. Prison to him seemed worse than death. He could not bear the thought of going back. Not after he had spent so long proving himself at Hodgson River.

The sun was glowing deep red as it dipped into the river valley to the west, and Stott had no choice but to take just one tracker to chase Joe, leaving the other with Haedge to protect the plant. More than a few escapees on foot had been known to double back and cut out a police horse.

‘Thank God there’s a guid moon,’ said Stott, ‘while I fetch this wild boy back.’

‘Take care out there,’ said Haedge.

‘I’ll be back in an hour, with Joe Flick on ‘is blasted knees.’

And Stott rode into the south with the tracker, a strapping Yuruwinga man called Paddy, from the border country around Lake Nash, a fierce and competent figure in his own right.

Paddy was a clever tracker and afraid of nothing. He was also mounted, in the lead, leaning down from his saddle so his eyes were scarcely a yard above the ground. After a half mile he sat up and turned back to Stott. ‘Joe Flick movin’ plenty fast boss.’

‘Then we move faster. The weight o’ the chains will tell on him. We’ll run the cheeky bastard down.’

Over the following hours, the light gradually lessened, until the tracker sometimes lost the spoor and had to find it again. Joe was anti-tracking as best he could in the circumstances, using the wagon-sized boulders of bare stone as thoroughfares to hide his tracks as they neared Mount McMinn itself.

‘It’s like he jump into the air himself,’ said Paddy. But the speed of the horses told against a man weighed down with iron.

Stott’s saddle clock was showing close to nine pm, when Paddy hissed that he could hear Joe’s chains close by. The constable slipped from his horse and followed on foot. Now and then they heard the light jingle, but echoes from the stone were deceptive.

A stone flew from nowhere with the speed of bullet, striking the policeman in the small of the back. Stott cried out with pain, then whirled in all directions with his Colt aimed at the night. ‘Where are ye? Are yew a damned ghost.’

The policeman walked onwards, the tracker just a dozen yards ahead. Joe’s right arm had a deadly aim, and uncommon strength. Another swish of air and a stone flew close past the policeman’s ear.

‘I’ll tan yer hide, lad,’ warned Stott, but another stone struck him a glancing blow high in the forearm, almost forcing him to drop the revolver. They were deeper into the broken country beneath the cliffs now, and Stott began to despair, for if the country grew any tougher they would be forced to leave the horses.

Paddy, however, walked back and handed the reins of his horse to Stott, then leaned down to whisper in his ear. ‘Joe Flick up there on the rocks. Me-feller go up an’ flush him out. Wait, then by ‘n’ by go on – all the same ready.’

While Paddy climbed up a rough staircase of sandstone, expertly picking his way around a wild tangle of turkey bush and stone, Stott tethered both horses to a nearby branch, then walked slowly on. Every sense was alive, waiting for the stone that might fly from the darkness and strike him down.

Then, emerging from between two slabs of rock, Stott found himself on the edge of a clearing. A moment later there came the thump of a jumping man landing, the clang of chains, then Joe running across that moonlit space.

‘Stop, in the Queen’s name,’ called Stott.

When Joe failed to stop Stott fired twice above his head. This not being effective he took careful aim at Joe’s back. At extreme pistol range, and in bad light, his bullet was guided only by good luck. There was the thump of a slug striking flesh, a cry, and the sight of Joe crumpling to the ground.

‘Got him,’ exulted Stott. He hurried forward with the gun raised. Joe lay in a patch of bloody, dry grass, writhing like a clubbed goanna, wounded in the back. Stott kicked him in the side of the head.

‘Lay still, you young cur.’

Paddy came up beside the policeman, and the two men, white and black, stood over Joe’s injured form. Both were thinking the same thoughts. That it would be so easy to put one more bullet in Joe. Dig a shallow grave and save everyone a great deal of trouble.

Stott, however, believed in operating by the book. When Joe’s struggles subsided, the constable knelt and took a cursory look at the wound, and plugged it with a handful of dirt from a termite hill. ‘It doesn’t look mortal,’ he commented. ‘We’ll fetch him back to camp.’

The two men laid Joe’s shaking, bleeding body over Paddy’s horse, and thus carried him five miles back to camp. Joe was shivering with shock, pale in the firelight as they propped him against a tree with a blanket draped all the way up to his chin.

‘He looks near jiggered,’ Haedge commented.

‘Not yet. But he’s lost a pint or two of blood.’

Joe’s eyes opened and he saw his captors around the firelight, felt the chains that still bound him, and at that moment he wished with all his heart that Stott’s bullet had found his heart.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

12. Fannie Bay

12. Fannie Bay

Telling the story of Joe getting shot distressed Kitty. The sandy blight that afflicted her eyes – that near blindness – made her somewhat inscrutable. Yet as I grew to know her better I could tell when the howling dog of grief inside her slipped the leash and brought her down.
Kitty explained to me that she did not blame Joe for running. He had grown up as free as any boy alive, at home in the woodlands and savannahs, the red gorges, the clear waters and dark paperbark swamps. Then, after being chained and dragged away like an animal, the policeman’s bullet tore through his flesh, leaving him bleeding and weak.
To Kitty, her son was the hero of this tale. Hadn’t all the trouble started when Joe stood up for her against a predatory man? Hadn’t he done only what every son should do? Everything that happened from that moment was as much a part of Kitty’s story, as his.

Joe’s wound had only half healed when they set off again. Stott’s bullet had struck at an angle, burrowed in through the meat of his back, struck a rib and torn back out, leaving a bloody wound but not harming the vital organs inside.
Within a week the five men were back on the track north to Palmerston, and the policemen took no chances with Joe from then on. At every stop he was chained to a tree, forced to sleep sitting up or half lying with the links stretched tight and the collar pulling at his neck. In Katherine he languished in the lock-up for three days, his wound still leaking blood and fluids while Stott and Haedge rested up and drank beer and whisky at Barney Murphy’s hotel.
In the middle of April the party arrived in Palmerston, and Joe had his first experience of a real prison. Fannie Bay Gaol was built from porcellanite stone, quarried from Doctor’s Gully, and was imposingly solid, shut off with iron and rock from any view of the bay or Point Emery. Most of the inmates were black, others Chinese and a few whites. Many were on trial for their lives. The hangman was busy in 1889.
Two warders greeted Joe and his escort for a formal handover. His details were recorded. He was showered, his hair cut, and prison clothes issued. As was the custom he was placed in a cell alone for observation before being allowed to join the general prison population.
When they opened the barred door of the ‘welcome’ cell for him, Joe hesitated. This was the natural reaction of a man who instinctively knew a trap when he saw it. The warder saw the hesitation as insolence, and pushed Joe so hard between the shoulder blades that he flew inside, sprawling against the far wall, crushing his lip, tearing his wound afresh.
The door slammed shut behind him. The warders laughed and wandered off, leaving Joe lying on the floor. Sobbing with pain he finally lifted himself so he could sit on the cot. The humid air was foetid, and smelled of captivity.
All the time new prison sounds reached his ears. Someone screaming; a voice raised in anger; a distant stationary steam engine huffing and cycling. Occasionally the smack of a whip or baton, or the sound of a distant snare drum.
After perhaps an hour, a new face appeared at the door. It was a white man in late middle age, with drinker’s veins on his face. ‘You’re the Queenslander, aren’t you, Joe Flick?’
There was something kind about the man, so Joe looked up and nodded.
‘The guards here are mostly mongrels,’ said the warder. ‘But you’ve got nothing to fear from me. My woman and me, we have a lad. He looks a lot like you. My name’s Tommy Cook.’
Almost a whisper: ‘Mine’s Joe.’
The man’s face creased in concern. ‘That’s blood on your shirt.’
‘I’ll get you in to see Doctor Wood at the infirmary. Leave it to me.’
‘Thank you.’

The doctor treated Joe kindly, tut-tutting over the wound, binding it tightly with clean bandages, and berating Haedge and Stott, in their absence, for forcing him to travel before the wound had healed properly.
‘Now watch out Joe,’ warned Doctor Wood. ‘They’ll put you in a cell with three others tomorrow. The gaol is so overcrowded that they’re squeezing four men into cells designed for three. Wash your hands every time you use the privy, and be careful what you drink and eat. Dysentery and typhoid fever can kill you, and both are rife here, do you understand?’
‘Yes sir.’

The next morning Joe was taken to a cell with three white men, one of whom had been convicted of robbery with violence on the Pine Creek goldfields; one was a deserter from the British Navy, and the other a Welshman who would say nothing about who he was or what he had done. The latter spat on the floor when Joe arrived. They did not want the extra man, no matter who or what he was. There was no floor room left. No space to walk. The cell was twelve feet long by twelve feet wide, with exactly twelve feet of ceiling space. The latrine bucket was in the corner, in view of all.
The day started with the clang of a bell at seven am. At this stage all prisoners had to make their beds, then stand for inspection as the warders walked through. Then, when the cells were unlocked, the prisoners shuffled through to the dining hall for a breakfast of oatmeal porridge. In the mornings most of the prisoners had work, and Joe was assigned to the prison garden, chipping out weeds with a hoe under the watchful eyes of men with rifles. At noon there was bread and tea. Then two hours in the exercise yard. Those two hours kept Joe alive. He walked the grass in bare feet, with the green stalks soft between his toes. He talked to no one, and instinctively he avoided forming any association. He avoided confrontation, turning away when the gaol toughs tried to rile him up.

On Thursday, April the 18th 1889, Joe was cuffed and walked to the courthouse, in the company of a Northern Territory policeman called Corporal Waters. When Joe’s case came up he was brought into the dock before Justice TK Pater who glared down at him with kindly, but authoritarian eyes.
Justice Pater was from a distinguished English family. His grandfather had served under the Duke of Wellington, and Pater had himself been a London barrister before emigrating to Australia. Known for a quirky nature, and saying much more than his masters would have liked, Pater wore a full black beard and had a flashy dress style.
Corporal Waters stood and was sworn in. He said: ‘I produce a telegram received from the Commissioner of Police in Adelaide, which states the offence and gives a description of the prisoner, Joe Flick. I also produce a copy of the Queensland Police Gazette stating the offence committed.’
Mounted Constable Bob Stott was next to take the stand, and his story was simple. ‘I am a mounted constable stationed at the Roper River. I arrested the prisoner on a provisional warrant at Hodgson Downs on the 28th day of March.’
‘Very well,’ said Justice Pater, his voice a slow and gravelly drawl. ‘Do we have a representative of the Queensland police here to take charge of the prisoner?’
‘Not yet, your honour,’ said Waters.
‘Have they been informed that he is here?’
‘Yes, sir, they have.’
Justice Pater’s eyes hardened with some indignation. ‘Well it’s not up to us to feed and clothe every Queensland fugitive that comes our way. Tell them that they need to hurry up.’ He banged his gavel down, ‘Joe Flick you are remanded in custody for seven days pending representations from Queensland.’
Joe was taken back to his cell, still in some pain from his wounds, full of fear at what would happen. He lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Seven days. Just seven days then back to Queensland. He didn’t want that, but how could it be worse than this place?
Two days after the court appearance, Joe suffered the first chronic stomach pains. Within an hour he was on the bucket, face contorted, and the emissions would not stop. By midnight they had no choice but to take him to the infirmary, half walking, half carried like an invalid.
There Joe lay, for three days, curled up like a baby, shaking with pain from his gut, while every bed filled, emptied only when those who had died from the full-blown typhoid fever that ravaged the gaol were carried away.
Tommy Cook looked in on him every day. He read to Joe from slim books he carried in a pocket, or brought small parcels of food. Tommy was with Joe when he returned from the hospital to his cell. Only three men slept in there now, for the Welshman had died of typhoid during the week.

The court process ground away, for British justice was as unstoppable as time. Corporal Waters came for Joe again the next Thursday, and he was again handcuffed for the walk to the courthouse.
Justice Pater glared down from the bench. ‘Has a representative of the Queensland police arrived to take Joe Flick?’
‘Not yet your honour.’
‘Have they expressed any intention of doing so?’
‘Not yet sir, but we have written to them again,’ said Corporal Waters.
Pater banged his gavel. ‘The prisoner is remanded for a further seven days, but let it be known that I am not impressed.’
More diarrhoea, more days of cramping pain followed. On the following Saturday the prisoners, fifty-three in all, were marched to the exercise yard to watch a prisoner who had struck a guard three times around the face and head, being whipped.
The charge was read aloud by the head warder. The miscreant’s shirt was removed and he was tied to the whipping post. A guard took a cat o’ nine tails from a calico bag, and whipped the man until his back was in bloody shreds.

The following Thursday came, and still no officer from Queensland had arrived.
‘Do they intend to come for the prisoner at all?’ asked Justice Pater.
‘I have received a letter saying that they will despatch an officer of the law to collect Joe Flick as soon as arrangements can be made,’ said Corporal Waters.
Pater shook his head, ‘I am heartily sickened by this business.’ He looked down on Joe. ‘It is not fair for any man, no matter what his crime, to be hauled up every week and kept in suspense as to his fate. Can I remind you that Joe Flick has not yet been convicted of any crime? Still, at this stage I have no choice but to continue this farce.’ A bang of the gavel. ‘Remanded for a further seven days.’
Weeks passed, all of May and June. In prison Joe’s wound slowly healed, but dysentery revisited him time and time again, though he avoided the more serious typhoid. He was bashed once, by two men who didn’t like the way he ‘slunk around’ the yard. His cell mates came and went. He was called a yella mongrel and a half breed.
Each Thursday Joe was hauled up before Justice Pater. Each time it was established that no one had yet come to collect the prisoner. Each week he was remanded in custody for a further seven days.
Finally, by the end of June, the long wait became too much for Justice Pater. ‘I must again express my extreme dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the Queensland Police.’ He looked down at Joe. ‘If they do not send someone to collect you by the time you appear before me in seven days’ time, I intend to set you at liberty.’
Joe had scarcely spoken a word in that courtroom. Now, however, he looked up at the judge, his eyes like deep brown pools. ‘You’ll set me free?’
‘If they do not come for you, I will.’

Three days later, Tommy Cook walked towards Joe in the exercise yard. His face was grave. ‘Joe, I’ve got bad news. Constable Hasenkamp just arrived on the steamer to take you back to Queensland.’
Joe sat down on the grass, face in his hands. The new hope that had filled him drained away, leaving only bitter despair.

Continues next Sunday

© 2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

13. A Dirty Trick

13. A Dirty Trick


Not since the Great Flood could such a deluge have fallen. We endured days when it barely let up at all. The rise on which the mission stood became a real island as the salt-pans filled, joining with Arthur’s Creek. The grass turned a vivid green, and the sky a battlesmoke grey.

Conditions, overall, were unpleasant. Our clothes remained ever damp and reeked of mildew. Day and night, the frogs and bugs never ceased their cacophony. Pythons and other snakes competed with us for space and caused constant fright. A salt-water crocodile took Len Akehurst’s best laying hen from just behind the mission house. One of the older mission girls ran after it, prepared to belabour the reptile with a garden stake, until reliable Lizzie restrained her.

Kitty and I continued our meetings under the sheet of canvas with which I had equipped her camp. Thus protected from the rain she told me how, when her Joey was in the Territory, she rode from camp all the way into Burketown where she walked into Watson’s store and asked him to read her anything relating to Joe in the newspaper.

Even if he was busy, the kindly shop-keeper would pour Kitty a cup of tea and sit her down on the bench seat that ran along the store front, deep in the shade of the verandah. Court news from Darwin dragged on for so long that it became quite the talk of the town, and most people thought that Joe should be released.

‘They won’t release him,’ warned the storekeeper. ‘They never do. Joe doesn’t even have a lawyer to speak on his behalf.’

‘How we get Joey one of them?’ Kitty asked.

‘Money,’ Watson explained, rubbing his thumb and forefinger.

Kitty rode back home, and together she and Henry figured how much cash they could get their hands on. A cheque had just come back from the smelter, and they had been saving two small but rare silver nuggets that had been ‘bandicooted’ from the claim. They did not know if it was enough to pay a solicitor, so when they rode together to Normanton, Henry first arranged to sell the nuggets, then left Kitty on the street with the horses while he walked into Heley’s pub. There he addressed the bar, and collected another three pounds ten shillings from well-wishers. The total sum he converted to a teller’s cheque at the Queensland National Bank.

Their final call was on the skipper of a ketch, anchored in the Norman River and intending to sail with the morning tide for Port Darwin. The man was known to Henry, and they trusted each other.

Henry pressed the cheque into the skipper’s hands. ‘I need you to take this to Palmerston for me. I want you to find the best lawyer in that town and give him this. It’s for our boy Joey, so he can be saved.’

View from Fort HIll to Palmerston, ships moored in Kitchener Bay. Photo: Paul Foelsche

On the twenty-ninth day of June, 1889, Constable Harry Hasenkamp strolled down the gangplank of the SS Catterthun onto the Government Jetty near Fort Hill. He cast an appreciative eye on the town up on the ridge, and with his kit bag on his back, navigated the Chinaman’s Walk up to Cavenagh Street.

The township of Palmerston seemed like the height of civilization to Harry. Even the chaos of Chinatown seemed like a nice change for the bush policeman.

Palmerston’s German-born Commissioner of Police, Paul Foelsche, welcomed the Queenslander as a countryman and colleague, providing digs at the police barracks, and dinner that night at his residence. They drank wine, ate bush turkey baked in the oven, and spoke of progress, justice, and development.

The following day Hasenkamp made arrangements to collect Joe Flick as soon as his case could be squeezed in. The hearing was booked for the following Tuesday, and passage arranged on a steamer two days after that.

That same afternoon, the warder Tommy Cook opened the door of Joe’s cell, and with him was a man in a suit and frock coat.

‘Joe,’ said Tommy. ‘This is a solicitor. His name is Mr John Joseph Symes, and he’s going to try and help you.’

Joe looked up at the newcomer. He was in his mid-thirties, with an intelligent spark to his eyes. ‘Isn’t it too late, now that Hasenkamp is here?’

‘Perhaps,’ Symes said honestly, his Dorsetshire accent still strong after more than a decade in Australia. ‘But I’ve received some money from Burketown … your parents and some other sympathetic parties, I believe.’

That news alone – knowing he was not forgotten – was enough to lift Joe’s spirits. He walked with Symes to the visiting room, where the solicitor began by telling Joe a little about himself. He had been admitted to the Inner Temple in London while still a young man, and had bought passage to Adelaide out of sheer curiosity and the need for a new challenge. After a few years there the same quality had brought him to Palmerston. ‘It’s not fair, what’s been done to you Joe. I’m here to help.’

‘Can you get them to set me free?’

‘Probably not. But you can be sure that I will scrutinise Hasenkamp’s every move, and if there is a legal challenge to be made, I will make it. Now, I want you to tell me every single thing that has happened since the day you committed the alleged offence …’ He looked at Joe. ‘Since the day you fired your revolver in the direction of Jim Cashman.’

Joe did not look at the man once as he told his story, only at a patch of blue sky through the bars of the window.

On Tuesday Joe appeared in court for the extradition hearing, and Justice Pater looked down at him, eyes welling with sympathy. After all, this was the prisoner he had so nearly released.

Joe tried not to look across the room at Harry Hasenkamp, but could not resist a glance or two. That strong jaw and arrogant glare dominated the court room.

‘Constable Hasenkamp,’ said Pater. ‘Have you come for the prisoner, Joe Flick?’

‘That I have.’

 ‘Swear him in, Bailiff, and let’s get this business over with.’

The bailiff brought out a King James Bible and swore Hasenkamp in. When it was done, the policeman gave the following statement:

‘I am a constable in the Queensland Police Force, at present stationed at Normanton. I know the prisoner Joe Flick. I remember arresting him on the thirteenth day of March last year on a charge of attempting to murder James Cashman. The arrest was made about fifty miles from Burketown. He was brought before the court there, and committed for trial on the twenty-second of March, at the Supreme Court, Normanton. No bail was allowed.

‘Joe Flick was escorted to Normanton gaol. I have tendered the depositions taken at the Police Court before Mr. A. Clarence Lawson, Police Magistrate. On the first day of April last year, the prisoner made his escape from gaol. I, and many others, were in pursuit of him for some time, and followed him towards the South Australian (NT) border. I now intend to take the prisoner back to Normanton to stand trial.’

Pater called Joe’s solicitor. ‘Mr Symes, have you any objection to the handover of your client?’

‘I do not sir, provided that the Queensland officer shows the court the warrant he is carrying for that purpose?’

Hasenkamp looked confused. ‘I have already tendered a warrant.’

Symes chimed in. ‘Yes, Constable, but that warrant you tendered is for the crime of Attempted Murder. Joe has not been charged with that crime in the state of South Australia, only Escaping Lawful Custody.’

Justice Pater wiped his face with his hands, then glared at Hasenkamp. ‘Mr Symes is technically correct. Unless you produce a Queensland warrant for Escaping Lawful Custody I cannot hand the prisoner over.’

Hasenkamp paled. ‘Your honour, I have no such warrant. I didn’t know it was required to be for the specific charge.’

Pater folded his arms. ‘Really? How long have you been in the police force?’

‘I have been in the force about seven years. I did not know that a provisional warrant had been issued for prisoner’s arrest in the Territory. Furthermore, I have had no experience in such business before. Inspector Douglas is my superior officer at Normanton and he did not tell me.’

‘Well,’ said Pater. ‘Here are the facts. I will not let the prisoner go without the correct warrant, and in fact I was on the verge of releasing him. Hurry, get the warrant, or I will make good my promise to him.’

Another four weeks passed. Another four court appearances, and each time John Joseph Symes ridiculed Hasenkamp, increasing the pressure on Justice Patel.

‘The warrant is coming,’ said Hasenkamp, time after time.

Still no new warrant arrived.

Finally, on the 27th of July, Justice Pater banged his gavel.

‘Do you, Constable Hasenkamp, have the required documents?’

‘No your honour. The judge is out of Normanton at the present time. We have sent to Brisbane, but it may still take another week.’

Joe looked at the policeman. There was something sly about the crooked grin on his face. It made him afraid of what might happen next.

 Symes stood. ‘Your honour. I wish to remind you that, in the last four months my client has been remanded in custody sixteen times. Sixteen times he has been taken back to his cell to rot. You cannot let this travesty continue.’

‘You are right, Mr Symes,’ said Patel. He fixed his formidable attention on Joe, ‘I’m very sorry for what you’ve been through. I am releasing you now. You are free to go.’

Joe looked up. ‘I can just walk out of here?’

‘That’s correct. Corporal! Unchain him.’

Joe glanced again at Hasenkamp. The Queensland policeman still did not look disturbed. It was as if he still had something up his sleeve.

Once the cuffs had been removed, Joe thanked Symes, then walked down the aisle, pausing only to say good bye to Tommy Cook, who was in the gallery.

 Fielding curious stares from bystanders and officials, Joe walked out of the courthouse and into the mild dry-season daylight. No one moved to stop him. Then, as he left the main door of the courthouse, he looked back to see both Corporal Waters and Constable Hasenkamp following him.

He had a terrible feeling of impending disaster. He did not feel free. The two policemen hurried to catch up with him. Joe felt a strong hand grip his arm.

‘Not so fast,’ growled Hasenkamp, twisting Joe’s hand behind his back, and slapping on a handcuff.

‘What are you doing? I’ve been released. The judge let me go.’

Corporal Waters took over. ‘You were arrested for the charge of Escaping Lawful Custody, and for that you have been released. I’m now rearresting you in the state of South Australia on the original charge of Attempted Murder, for which Constable Hasenkamp holds a Queensland warrant. You are going back to Normanton, Joe.’

The sound of the rain on the sheet of canvas that covered that portion of Kitty’s camp became a roar in my ears.

‘Oh, the sodding mongrels,’ I said. ‘How could they be so dastardly?’

Kitty looked down at the ground, where a small channel of rainwater was snaking through near her sleeping place, carrying fragments of grass, leaves and the small, powerless, bodies of ants along with it.

©2019 Greg Barron

Continues next week.

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

14. Of Steamers and Saw-blades

14. Of Steamers and Saw-blades

Port Darwin jetty with S.S.Taiyuan and Catterthun. Railway trucks on the jetty. Taken from Stokes Hill. (NT Library)

A letter from Sydney arrived on the Noosa, when she next chugged her way up Arthur’s Creek to the Doomadgee landing. My superiors had written to enquire of my progress and to request the despatch of a substantial report. Time was slipping away, I realised, and in the following days I put in a serious effort to complete this task, despite my fervour to hear the rest of Joe’s story from Kitty.  

My handwritten dictionaries of the Waanyi and Gangalidda languages now exceeded three thousand words, though there were aspects of sentence construction and general grammar rules that eluded me. I practiced my skills on Stanley and Willie, often provoking fits of laughter at my earnest but misguided attempts to speak as they did.

More time passed than I had anticipated, and the next time I went down to Kitty’s camp, a couple of fresh plugs of tobacco in my pockets, her camp was deserted, the ashes in her fireplace cold. Charley admitted to taking her across the floodwaters to the other side in his canoe. I asked him where and why she had gone and he just shrugged and muttered something about ‘she ‘goin’ walk to see if the bush plum all the same ripen up.’

Yet, there was more to it than that, I could see in his face.

For some weeks Kitty was absent from her place near the creek. I despaired, not only for her, but of ever hearing the rest of Joe’s story. The only positive was that I continued to apply myself to my work, and I spent my spare time writing down the aspects of Joe’s story that she had already told me.

Then, one day in early March, Kitty returned, walking across the still boggy saltpans. I saw her coming, a lone stick-figure in a glare of white haze. She was, I soon found, thinner even than before, but seemed to have regained some peace in her heart.

I gave her a day or two to recover, then took her a fresh-baked loaf of bread, some tea and tobacco. She was keen to talk, settling down by the fire, filling her pipe and asking me questions about happenings at the mission while she was gone.

Then, her pipe drawing nicely, she settled down on a ragged old tartan blanket and started to talk.

Harry Hasenkamp, she told me, along with Joe, boarded the SS Catterthun, a steamship bound for Southern Ports. Pride of the Eastern and Australian Steamship Company, the Catterthun was a two-thousand-ton iron passenger steamer, three hundred feet long, and with a crew of mainly Malays and Chinese. I know for a fact that she later sank off Port Stephens, New South Wales, with a significant loss of life.

Joe was locked in the brig, joined occasionally by drunks or disrespectful seamen. This steel enclosure, surrounded by pipes carrying water and steam, was seething-hot all day and night. Joe, regarded by reputation as a dangerous prisoner, remained chained on the orders of Captain J Miller. Hasenkamp, meanwhile, enjoyed the facilities of the second-class lounge.

At Thursday Island Hasenkamp and his prisoner were transferred to a smaller steamer, the Black and Noble-built Truganini. At two hundred and three gross tons and with a beam of just twenty feet, she was just one-tenth the size of the Catterthun.

The Truganini had no brig, and Joe was chained to a pipe near the funnel, vomiting into a bucket from rough conditions and the yawing, pitching progress of the steamship.

In Normanton, as they came off the ship and onto the main wharf, Joe saw that a crowd had formed outside the Burns and Philp warehouse. Some had come to welcome loved ones but most were there to gawk at Joe.

As he passed, Joe saw Kitty and Henry, waving to their son, eyes filled with tears. His heart beat like the hooves of a galloping horse to see them again.

The moment didn’t last. A police wagon was on hand to carry Joe back to the Normanton gaol, and Joe managed his first wry smile in some weeks to see that the height of the wall had been raised by some three feet in preparation for his return.

Inspector Brannelly himself took possession of Joe, and all the local constables turned out to watch while Joe was forced to stand on the front verandah of the police station, still chained and wearing Territory prison fatigues.

‘Joe Fleck, scon are pleased ter clap yer in custody wha yer belong. Justice ‘as been delayed, but ‘ill be al’ de firmer for dat.’

Joe said nothing, just looked at the ground so fixedly that Brannelly barked at Hasenkamp to grasp the prisoner’s chin and drag his eyes up. This was done so roughly that Joe all but fell, earning himself a clip on the side of the head.

‘That’s better,’ said Brannelly. ‘You nade ter learn respect. You’ve caused us al’ a deadly dayle av mischief, but oi ‘ope yer nigh understan’ dat de law ‘ill win oyt, naw matter wha yer run ter. Is dat de case?’

Joe had dropped his eyes again, and a great deal of trouble was taken by two men to not only raise Joe’s eyes, but to forcibly waggle his chin up and down as if to say yes.

Brannelly, tired of the intransigence of the prisoner, ordered him to be taken and incarcerated until a court date could be decided. Joe was unchained, marched out the back inside the enclosure, and placed in Cell Three. The door slammed closed behind him.

The sullenness left Joe. His mood was different. Seeing first these more familiar bushlands on the banks of the Norman River, then Kitty and Henry, had awakened a fire inside his heart. He prowled. He glared. He vowed that these walls would not contain him.

‘You must be Joe Flick,’ said a voice.

Joe turned to see a much older man with a long grey beard, an unlit clay pipe in one hand. ‘And who are you?’

‘I’m Ted Bell, you might have heard of me when I was on the road with a bullock team.’

Joe’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘What are you in here for?’

‘I lighted a shanty afire on the Saxby River – drunk as a king when I done it, an’ the German shanty keeper was burned to death.’

Joe paled, his own crimes seemed minor in comparison. ‘They’ve charged you with murder then?’

‘Yeah, but that’s not all,’ admitted Bell. ‘I’m charged with murder, arson and rape. I’ll prob’ly hang from a rope before the month is out.’

Ted Bell gave Joe the creeps, and his desire to leave that cell grew stronger. He paced the floor, looking for a way out. The walls were solid, sheathed with sheet metal. The windows were lined with iron bars three-quarters of an inch thick. It was only the floor that gave him hope, for the cells were set up on stumps. The boards were two inches thick, but in one corner the termites had been busy, and the wood was not as strong as it had once been.

‘If you’re thinking of breaking out,’ said Ted Bell. ‘Count me in.’

Joe nodded, but he was already deep in thought.

The following day, Joe was remanded in custody by the police magistrate, for Judge Cooper was out of town, over in Cairns, and the much-anticipated trial would have to wait. Joe behaved well in the exercise yard, and caused no trouble. Within the week he was allowed visitors. Kitty and Henry came on the very first day that this restriction was relaxed. There was no visiting room, just a few chairs in a corner of the yard, near the water tank.

Mother and son embraced until the gaoler tried to separate them, but Henry growled. ‘Leave ‘em alone. She hasn’t held her boy for sixteen long months, and who would deny a mother from her own flesh and blood?’

When their time was up Joe and Kitty embraced again. He whispered in her ear. ‘Please help me. I need a thin, light saw blade. Throw it over the wall down the southern end, and I’ll find it when they let us out at exercise time.’

This of course, was a dilemma for Kitty, for she had seen what happened last time she had incited Joe to escape. The sensible thing was to let him take his punishment. But there was something else at work inside her. Joe was on a course that she could not control. If she refused to supply the saw blade he would try some other way. She had seen in Joe’s eyes that he had reached the end of his forbearance.  

Strangely, when Kitty and Henry left the gaol that day, no sooner had they returned through the police station to where their horses were waiting out the front, that Kitty fell to her knees, and let out a terrible wail.

She told me that it had suddenly struck her that she would never see her boy alive again.

The saw blade that Kitty and her husband threw over the wall the next day, was fine-toothed and flexible, made for a small coping saw and scarcely adequate for the task. The cutting of the boards, furthermore, was impossible to attempt without involving Ted Bell.

‘I don’t care if you escape with me or not,’ said Joe to his cell mate. ‘But keep your mouth shut.’

‘I won’t say a word,’ said Ted Bell, ‘an’ like as not I’ll follow you out.’

The sawing made noise, so Joe was forced to do his secret work only in the time between lockdown and lights out, when there was still activity in the cells. He also had to be careful not to break the tiny blade. Each night he disguised his work with saw dust mixed with soap.

On the third night he left just enough material to hold the planks in place, then lay in his cot, feigning sleep until the small hours of the morning. He slipped out of bed, pushed the two sections of floor timber through to the ground, then went to wake up Ted Bell.

‘I’m going now. Follow if you want to.’

With nothing to take but the clothes he wore, Joe slithered through the hole in the floor, then wriggled under the building, emerging near the station’s back verandah. Getting out of the enclosure was the next problem, but Joe had a plan. He hurried to the rear of the main barracks building, where on one side stood a corrugated water tank. He opened the tap, letting the water drain out onto the grass.

While he waited, he saw Ted Bell emerge from under the cell block, then lost sight of him in the shadows. He didn’t care, the water tank idea was his, and he didn’t want to share it.

When the tank was empty, he silently tipped it onto its side and began to roll it towards the wall, where he intended to use it as a ladder.

Ted Bell, in his work as a bullock driver, had made money by carefully weighing options; profit against risk; effort against return. Before blindly following Joe, he wondered if it might not be better to create himself a bargaining chip when his case came up in court.

Sounding the alarm that Joe was escaping was just such an opportunity. Surely the judge would look kindly on him for doing so, and he had no real desire to live the rest of his life on the run for murder. Without any further thought, keen to act before the moment had passed, Ted squeezed through the gap, wormed under the building, and slunk through the shadows, around the corner of the police quarters, finally rapping on one of the police constable’s barred windows.

Joe was busy clambering up the water tank when he heard a commotion. The back door of the police station opened.

‘There he is,’ cried Ted Bell to the half-dressed troopers who accompanied him. ‘I told you that he was escaping!’

Joe redoubled his efforts, pushing the tank against the wall, clambering up on top, using this extra height to grip the top of the extended wall. He tumbled up and over the Normanton gaol wall for the second time, landing safely, rolling and getting up. Unlike the last occasion he did not look for a hiding place or a horse, he just started to run for the scrub at the southern end of town, away from the river.

Before thirty minutes had passed he was two miles away, starting to anti-track as he went. Already he could hear the sound of hoof beats in the distance as mounted police galloped on his trail. Then, worse, the sound of dogs barking, taking his scent.

With sweat running down his face, and his breath coming in torrid gusts, Joe swore that he would die rather than be captured again. That he would never wear an iron chain again as long as he lived.

With that declaration, he became an outlaw. There was no turning back from that moment.

Continues next week

©2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

15. Mary Theresa

15. Mary Theresa

Turn-off Lagoon Police Station

Joe led the police on the merriest dance of their lives. He walked backwards in his prints, swung from tree branches, and waded through every waterhole. He doubled back and stampeded police horses at night, sleeping only in short winks, leaning against a tree, or buried in a hollow under a creek bank.

In this way, while feinting in numerous directions, Joe reached the Nicholson River. There he followed the main channel still sluggish after the long dry season. He passed the pools where, much later, Len Akehurst would baptise souls from the relocated Doomadgee Mission.

At Corinda he allowed himself breathing space. Nearby was the most northerly point of Lawn Hill Station, and home ground for Joe. Around here he knew every knoll and ant-hill studded plain, the swampy ground on the river bends where paperbarks matted the soil with their fibrous surface roots.

Without a weapon he had eaten only bush fruits, one turtle, and some emu eggs along the way, and hunger for meat was enough to send him into the scrub near Turn-off Lagoon, watching Tom Anderson’s grog shanty, sniffing the air at the smell of cooking beef and vegetables, but there were too many people coming and going, loafers outside arguing and drinking. The police camp was also close by, making him wary.

Instead Joe moved on to the homestead owned by the Andersons. He watched from the gardens for a time; a couple of the house girls singing while they hung out washing; another playing with two young children; a boy and a girl, on a patch of green lawn.

When Joe saw Mrs Anderson walk down towards the river he followed her. In a white dress she looked clean and angelic to Joe, and she had always been nice to him.

To Joe’s surprise, on the bank of the river she lifted her dress over her head, then slipped out of her underwear. Mrs Anderson was in her late twenties, and despite the children she had borne, she remained slim and pretty. Joe could not tear his eyes away from her as she climbed into the water, washing and soaking in the effervescent pool.

It was a brave act to swim alone. Joe knew that ‘gators were sometimes seen in the river near here, though a barrage of lead generally accompanied any sighting. Even so, she did not stay in long, and when she had finished, she emerged from the water. Naked and wet she dried off in the morning sun, singing softly to herself. Joe waited until she had dressed, and fixed her hair back in a complicated arrangement that seemed to include multiple pins.

Finally, as she turned to head back up to the house, Joe stepped from the shelter of the trees and stood, watching her, his face imploring her for help.

Mrs Anderson stopped dead still. ‘Joe Flick, is that you?’


‘What are you doing here? They’re looking for you everywhere.’

‘I’m hungry for tucker, if you have anything.’

‘Oh God, you poor thing … we can’t tell Tom. Now listen to me, there’s a tool shed just up behind the house, the small one. Go back and hide in there and I’ll bring you some food.’

Later she came to the outhouse where he was hiding. A dog, a brindle-coloured beast of a thing, came with her, uttering a throaty growl when he saw Joe.

‘Pet him a little, and he’ll be friends with you,’ she said.

Joe did as she suggested, nervously stroking the animal’s head between his ears. The growling stopped and the dog moved to a corner where he settled down, laying his head on one paw, yellow eyes flickering open to watch Joe warily.

Mrs Anderson, for her part, hadn’t experienced such excitement in a long time. Mary Theresa by name, she liked men and they liked her. Tom was her second husband, though he had not proved to be much more interesting than the first, though she loved the winding Nicholson and its pandanus-lined banks, the homestead and her bevy of servants – much better than her home town of Forbes, in New South Wales, and her years with William Green in Eulo.

Mary Theresa passed Joe a plate heaped with beef, potatoes and gravy, then watched him eat ravenously.

‘Did you like looking at me, when I was in the water, Joe?’

Joe shook his head. ‘No Missus Anderson. I just wanted to talk to you. Because you’ve always been good to me.’

‘Call me Mary, won’t you please?’

‘Yes, Mary,’ Joe grinned, feeling content with the best meal he had eaten in months.

‘Is there anything else you want?’

Joe decided to push his luck, she reminded him of a cat rubbing itself against the legs of its owner, purring and anxious to please. ‘I need a gun. Can you get me one?’

The young woman felt a shock. This man was an outlaw, and she imagined what might happen down the track if she put a firearm in his hand.

Still, the next day she came back with a bundle wrapped in cloth. Inside, Joe found, was a revolver, along with a supply of caps, powder, and bullets.

‘It’s one of Tom’s old ones,’ Maria said, ‘but I know it works.’

Joe hefted it, examined the bore and spun the cylinder. ‘Thank you.’

The food came three times a day, and the activity was noticeable. The house girls, Joe noticed, started looking in his direction, and the gardener finally came close to the shed and looked inside.

Joe raised the revolver. ‘Tell anyone I’m here and I’ll kill you.’

The gardener ran away across the lawn. Joe knew he should leave that night, but he wanted to say goodbye to Mary, so he stayed.  

The food came three times a day, and the activity was noticeable. The house girls, Joe noticed, started looking in his direction, and the gardener finally came close to the shed and looked inside.

Joe raised the revolver. ‘Tell anyone I’m here and I’ll kill you.’

The gardener ran away across the lawn. Joe knew he should leave that night, but he wanted to say goodbye to Mary, so he stayed.  

It was a mistake. At dawn the next day one of the girls hurried to the outhouse, where Joe was enjoying an oatmeal porridge Mary had brought out for him.

‘Missus say the p’lice are riding up. You’d better go.’

The warning gave Joe just enough time to take his revolver and head into the scrub, finding a good vantage point of the homestead drive as Troopers Wavell and Noble, along with four black police rode up. On foot beside them, lathered in sweat, was the gardener.

Mary came out to meet them, for Tom had already gone out to work cattle for the day.

‘We’ve heard from your gardener here that Joe Flick was seen near the house,’ said Wavell.

Mary was unflustered. ‘Well he’s mistaken then.’ She looked at the gardener. ‘There was one light-skinned boy who came and asked for work a day or two back and I gave him a feed, but it wasn’t Yella Joe. I’d know him a mile off, seen him lots of times before.’

‘Can we have a look around?’ asked Wavell.

‘Of course you can. Go wherever you like.’

Joe turned, and careful not to leave any sign, headed down to the river.

That night, troopers Wavell and Noble ate dinner at the grog shanty, in a private dining room to one side. Seeing his opportunity, Joe came out of the scrub, and crawled under the building. From underneath the boards he listened to the policemen talk.

Joe picked out Wavell’s voice, and that of the other trooper. He thought of firing up at them between the cracks in the boards, but it seemed too easy, too cruel.

‘Do you think it was wise to leave only one man with the horses?’ said Wavell.

‘Flick’s not here,’ said Noble. ‘That gardener was lying through his teeth.’

‘Still, they’re just there in the river paddock getting good feed. If he really is around, then …’

Horses! Joe’s heart gave a jolt. He knew well that the police always kept plenty of good mounts, and only one man was watching them. Joe slithered out from under the building, and hurried past the police hut to a roughly fenced paddock along the river.

Creeping close in the evening he could see the horses there, grazing on the green pick near the banks. He waited for full darkness before he made his move.

The ‘guard’ by then was fast asleep. Joe wasted no time. He mustered all the horses, including one that he knew was called Collector, and another handy looking bay. The latter he tacked up with the saddle he found on a rail. Mounted at last, and with the pistol in his belt, he drove the small mob out towards the track, finally waking the sleeping man who shouted after him and ran for his rifle.

It would have been easy enough to ride away from there, perhaps head for the Territory border again, but that plan did not appeal to Joe, not this time. He drove the mob of police horses at a canter back to the Turn-off Lagoon shanty, rousing all and sundry as he passed along the route. They came from wurlies, humpies and tents, or stood from camp fires to see the commotion passing by.

Joe let the mob mill in confusion outside the grog shanty, shielding him in a cloud of dust, as he paused to untie and lead away the policemen’s mounts while they were still drinking and eating inside. One was a well-known and indefatigable police mount with the unlikely name of Railway.

‘Yah,’ shouted Joe, whirling in that maelstrom, waving the revolver in his right hand while the raucous drinkers on the verandah shouted and even the policemen ran to see, drawing their revolvers as they came. But the front of a pub was confused with running horses and a lone rider who moved so fast that no one could hope to take a shot at him.

Taking control of the horses again, Joe drove them from town, safe in the knowledge that the police would need to procure new mounts before they could follow, and that they were unlikely to go after an armed man in the night.

Two miles out from town, Joe rounded the police horses into a set of disused yards. He dismounted, and methodically shot all but two in the head with his revolver, feeling no remorse, just a deadly determination. They fell like bags of sand to the dirt, kicked a few times while the others shied and whinnied at the sound and smells of death.

Then, mounted on the bay, and with another as a spare, Joe set off for his home country. The Lawn Hill country that made his heart beat with longing.

Continues next week

©2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

16. On Joe’s Trail

16. On Joe’s Trail

The next morning, before dawn, Senior Constable Alfred Wavell lit a slush lantern and sat down at his desk at the Turn-off Lagoon Police Station. He had been up during the night, forced out of bed by the dysentery that had afflicted him for weeks, leaving him lethargic and dehydrated.

The necessity of finding new horses and setting out after Joe Flick, was a heavy weight on Alfred’s shoulders. Somehow, in his heart, he knew that dire consequences were coming, one way or another.

Inking a fresh quill, he wrote a letter to his mother, Harriet, far away on the Isle of Wight. Once this was done he prepared a last will and testament and called on Constable Noble to witness it. At thirty-eight years Alfred was no longer feeling young, and with his recent illness he’d been wondering if he might soon return to the green fields and dramatic cliffs of home, before he grew too old to make a meaningful start there.

When the letter and document were done, Alfred wrote in the station journal that he was about to set off after Joe Flick, and of his determination to catch him at all costs. He vowed not to leave the outlaw’s tracks until the day was won or lost.

This done, Alfred instructed Noble to ready their packs and firearms, while he took Troopers Garrie and Jimmy to the Andersons. There they faced the embarrassing task of borrowing horses to replace those that Joe Flick had taken.

As the police party was about to leave, with nine good horses haltered on the roadway, Alfred bid Mrs Anderson farewell on the verandah. 

‘We appreciate the horses, but please, tell me something. You knew that it was Joe Flick hanging around here. Why didn’t you tell us?’

Mary Theresa’s face turned white and her lips pursed with shock. ‘That’s a bloody lie.’

Alfred stared her down. He saw many things in the woman’s face and he didn’t like any of them.

Within an hour they were on the road downstream to Corinda. Garrie, the best tracker, easily followed the sign made by Joe’s mob of stolen horses as he left town the previous evening. Two miles out they found the old yards and the fallen, bloodied corpses, attended by a cloud of flies that must have numbered in the millions. Alfred felt sick as he walked that bloodstained ground. Several of the horses had been his, and highly valued they were too.

‘What kind of man would do this?’ wondered Constable Noble.

Alfred did not reply, but the clenched knot of dysentery in his gut was writhing, combining with the strength of this horror and the dangers that might face them when they found Joe Flick.

Tracking from this point onwards was not easy, for the humidity and heat were building, leaving a film of sweat that soaked shirts and ran down over eyes. Besides, Joe Flick was in his element. At one stage, Garrie was confused for some time, and they made no progress, until the tracker discerned that the outlaw had bound sheaves of grass to his horses’ hooves. Only the keenest of eyes and attention to detail allowed Garrie to follow a trail of broken stalks, that a lesser observer would never have noticed.

Very early the next morning they reached Bannockburn, where they found that the manager, Symes and his wife, had been up all night, frantic with worry after a horseman had ridden close-up in the night, and pelted the place with stones. The stone-throwing had stopped only when Symes fetched his rifle.

Later that day, Alfred was considering a quick dinner stop, when there came a shout from some hundred paces ahead. ‘Boss, boss, there he is, Joe Flick!’

Wavell touched his spurs to his horse and charged off the back legs, heedless of deep holes and wayward paperbark trunks. He could hear Noble doing the same down behind and Jimmy on his flank. The riverine brush swept by his face and adrenalin flooded his system.

Ahead they saw Joe, mounted up on the near bank, turning his horse to face them, then rearing up with an angry shout, waving his pistol. The creek was a sheet of vivid blue, dotted with lily-pads, and fringed with gravel sands.

‘Stop there,’ Joe shouted. ‘Go back home. Follow me no more.’

With those words Joe urged his horses into the water, churning the surface into white froth. By now Alfred and the others had extracted their firearms, peppering the air with lead, and clouds of black powder smoke, but Joe was by then on the other side and galloping away.

Noble and Jimmy took up the pursuit, while Alfred rode into Joe’s camp, where a smouldering fire and almost-cooked johnny-cakes told the story. A welcome sight was a horse tied to a branch of a she-oak.

‘Well if it isn’t my old boy Collector,’ said Alfred, dismounting. The roan gelding was one of his favourite horses, and he was pleased to add him to the train, despite his wasted condition.

By the time they had crossed the creek, Noble and Jimmy were on their way back, having lost sight of their quarry, ready for a horse change and shaking their heads at how Joe Flick rides like the wind itself down gullies and through scrub as if it’s not even there.

But it was dogged persistence, not speed, Alfred knew, that would win the day, and Garrie was already on the spoor, leading them southwards along that picturesque waterway. Within hours Joe detoured across to where the upper Weddallion cut through slabs of yellow-orange stone; a world of rock, water and sky.

They found another abandoned horse, ridden almost into the ground. Nearby were signs that showed how Joe had stumbled on a small mob of station brumbies and cut one out. Only the most skilled and desperate horseman would attempt to break and ride a mount on the run. That’s what Joe had done.

The tracks showed how close he came to being bucked off, but Joe somehow seemed to have kept his seat. Garrie shook his head in wonder. ‘That horse pig-root long time here. That bloke never fall.’

On stony ground, even Garrie could not follow unshod horse tracks and the process became more guess-work than certainty. Still, they rode on at snail’s pace into the evening, when a build-up season storm began to flicker and rumble on the horizon.

‘It’s getting too dark for tracking in this country,’ said Alfred, ‘and the lightning doesn’t help. My guess is that Joe’s heading for Lawn Hill Homestead. It might be best now to get there first and stop any mischief that he might be planning.’  

On that long night ride, dysentery again tightened its grip. Alfred had to stop several times, and he was so weak that he tied himself to the saddle as a precaution. The tracking of Joe Flick seemed to be an ordeal without end.

Kitty told me how that night she was sleeping next to Henry in their camp at the silver mine, of how the night was dark apart from the storm clouds throwing lightning bolts to the earth like bullets. She related how they heard an unearthly wail from out in the night, the sound of weeping so terrible it tore her heart asunder.

She told me how she gripped Henry’s shoulder, and sobbed. ‘Oh mercy, it’s Joe. He’s out there.’

She told me how the pair of them went out of the hut, where coals from the cooking hearth-fire glowed hellish orange. Of how they heard the sound of a horse’s hooves moving skittishly out in the scrub, as if the rider had reached an impassable but imaginary barrier.

‘Mother,’ cried the voice, unearthly, low, but unmistakeable.

‘Joe,’ cried Kitty, ‘my son. Come in to us, please do.’

In reply came the sound of more weeping; great sobs and wails that rose and fell through the night winding around the white trunks of gums and the stones and mullock heaps of the mine.

‘I’m sorry … forgive me,’ Joe went on. ‘For what I done … for what I know I will do.’

‘Come to us, boy,’ said Henry. ‘It’s not too late.’

More weeping then, and those same sideways movements of the horse. ‘I can’t. Forgive me …’

‘Please Joe,’ wailed Kitty.

‘Good bye,’ Joe cried.

Then, accompanied by the sound of hoof beats, he rode away from her for the last time.

The next morning, just in time for breakfast, Wavell, Noble and the two trackers, saw the flat-topped mount that gave Lawn Hill its name, and rode up to the homestead, relieved to see no signs of trouble.

A group of people, including an elderly visitor from a nearby station, a man by the name of Doyle, were sitting down to breakfast in the outbuilding that served as a dining room. Frank Hann himself was out on the run ‘dealing with’ some horse-spearing Waanyi.

‘We need rations,’ Alfred cried to the cook, ‘and breakfast too, as fast as you can manage.’ Knowing that even though he was still having trouble keeping food in his system, he needed the sustenance. He and Noble joined the others at the table. Garrie and Jimmy ate outside.

 They had just finished eating, waiting for another cup of tea when Frank Hann’s woman, beautiful dark Opal, arrived at the door, telling them breathlessly that she had just seen Joe Flick trying to catch a horse in the house paddock. Wavell stood and grabbed his rifle. Within a moment he was out the door, calling for Troopers Garrie and Jimmy.

‘The escaped prisoner is here,’ cried Alfred. ‘And justice, at last, is nigh.’

Continues next week

©2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

17. The Battle of Lawn Hill

17. The Battle of Lawn Hill

Lawn Hill Station Homestead. Queensland State Library.

One early morning in the beginning of April, I rose, left the bunk house and headed outside. The Gulf waters were mirror-calm in the distance and the air felt drier and cooler than it had in all the months since my arrival. As I walked, listening to the chatter of a pair of blue-wing kookaburras in the carbeen trees, I was surprised to see Kitty waiting for me. She was carrying a dilly bag with some tucker and a canvas water bag that looked like it had seen better days.

I walked across to greet her. ‘Hello Kitty, you’re up here early.’

Grunting a low greeting she turned her pearl-shell eyes away. ‘Might be you an’ me go drive in your car,’ she said. It wasn’t really a question.  

I was surprised. I had plans for the day, and my little Riley motor car had not travelled more than five miles since I arrived at the mission. ‘Where do you want to go?’

‘Three days out bush, all up, maybe. No more.’

‘I guess we can, if you want to. Will you give me an hour to get ready?’

Kitty nodded, and sat down on the grass. She had her pipe out, but looked around carefully before she lit up. The Brethren had a thing about women smoking, though they didn’t seem to mind the same activity being practiced by the men.

While Kitty smoked I cleared the trip with Len Akehurst, cadged a full tank of fuel and a couple of jerry cans, then packed the gear I’d need for a few nights of sleeping rough. Dorothy gave me a box of rations for the trip, and tutted at my frustration at not knowing the destination for our journey.

‘Feel privileged,’ she said. ‘Old Kitty trusts you, and that’s a precious thing.’

We drove out, dodging bog-holes still treacherous after the wet season. After an intrepid day’s travel, talking only intermittently, we camped the first night on the Nicholson River. At bed-time I stretched out on the back seat of the car and Kitty curled up beside the fire, snoring softly as she slept.

The next day we forded the river at Corinda, and followed trails that were worse still than those of the previous day, crawling along a bridle track through stations with names that remain implanted on my memory: Merton Vale, Hinton, Lochinvar and Lincoln. Kitty directed me with sharp commands, showing a sense of direction that was uncanny in a strange world of twisted scrub and termite hills.

Eventually we came up to a place from which we could see the complex of buildings around the Lawn Hill Station homestead. We saw men, dust, a motor truck, and someone bringing a mob of horses into the yards. Kitty asked me to stop the car.   

Sitting cross-legged on the dry grass, she began to cry, fat drops falling from her eyes, and a low, throaty keening sound emanating from deep down in her chest.

It was the twenty-seventh of October, in the year 1889, a fateful day in the history of Queensland’s North. Joe Flick had been awake all night, and now lurked restlessly on the fringes of the station’s home paddock, waiting for an opportunity to replace the magnificent but wild horse that had fought him every step through the dark hours. Tired of running, Joe was filled with a burning anxiety, a desperation to bring on the climax he now knew must now come.

Watching Wavell’s party of police arrive and head into the station, Joe knew that he had to act. He waited until they were in the mess eating breakfast before opening a wire gate and riding in. There were plenty of good mounts there, some of which he remembered from doing stock work for Frank Hann.

Dismounting, Joe had the saddle and bridle off in a moment. Carrying both, he approached one of the station horses, yet when he took a step forward the animal whinnied and backed away.

‘Come on boy,’ he said, forcing himself to relax, clicking his tongue and talking quietly. Reassured, the gelding allowed him to come close, at which point Joe put the saddle on the ground. After gently petting the horse’s neck he slipped his right forearm around the off side of its head, effortlessly sliding the bit between its teeth with his left hand, then adjusting the crown over his ears. The saddle followed, all very quickly done, and all without alarming the horse.

Joe had just tightened the girth and mounted up when an armed contingent reined in at the top of the rise. Two Native Police troopers began to walk their horses down towards him, rifles extended.

Joe cried ‘Yah,’ and dug in his heels. Within ten paces he was galloping at full tilt, the humid-hot air on his face, and dirt flying from pounding hooves. In a fateful decision he rode not away from the troopers, but towards them, splitting them neatly.  

The first shot directed towards Joe disrupted the air around his ears, yet he did not flinch. Headed directly towards the homestead now, he jumped a fence and bypassed the armed party, a move that they had not expected.  

 Bullets, however, fly faster than a man can ride. Whipping and cracking through the air, one soon found its mark, taking Joe’s new mount in the chest and bringing him down in a tumbled heap. Joe freed his feet from the stirrups, then sprinted for the nearest of the outbuildings.

‘He’s unarmed,’ Alfred Wavell cried from the saddle, his voice carrying clearly. ‘Now’s the time, boys. Bring him down.’

Joe, however, was fast and elusive, soon reaching the relative safety of a small stone hut. The door was closed but unlocked. He twisted the handle and shoved with his shoulder. Inside were stacked bags of lime and cement, heavy iron tools and some old harness. No weapons. Joe swore to himself, and hurried out the way he had come.

Looking around the corner to see the police dismounting and preparing to follow, Joe ran for the next building; an old dining room that now served as a bunkhouse for the head stockman. Inside, rummaging in and around a cupboard he located a revolver. Mounted on a gun rack he found a Greener choke-bore shotgun. Cartridges for both firearms were on a shelf.

Feeling more positive now that he was armed, Joe barricaded himself inside the hut, forcing a table against the door, knowing that police and station staff would be taking cover all around. After loading both shotgun and revolver he opened the window shutters. From surreptitious movement and the sound of furtive voices he realised that most of the police were now behind cover nearby.

Joe glared out the window, sweat dripping from his hair and coating his wiry arms. The gun felt good in his hands, with the stock resting on the window sill.  

Five minutes passed, then a voice called: ‘Joe Flick, listen to me.’

The words came from behind the station store.

‘My name is Senior Constable Alfred Wavell. I want to talk.’

‘Go on then,’ yelled Joe. ‘Talk.’

Wavell showed himself, walking out from behind the store and slowly coming closer. His revolver was in its holster, and he carried no other weapon. ‘Surrender now,’ the policeman said. ‘We have armed men on all sides. Walk out of the building with your hands up or face the consequences.’

Wavell had made a fatal mistake. Whether it was the dysentery affecting his mind, or just a moment of carelessness, he came too close. Too far from cover. Too late to run. Most fatefully of all, he had misjudged Joe Flick’s state-of-mind.

Joe sighted on Alfred Wavell’s chest, and held his aim despite the trembling inside. The years of being called Yella Joe and counted as something less than a man; the months of running; the taunts; the gunshot wound in the back; the sixteen court appearances in Palmerston, and the way that they had tricked him into thinking that he had been released, had all built inside him to a rage he could not control.

Now, in an instant of time that could never be taken back, Joe squeezed the trigger and the tightly-packed charge of pellets struck Wavell in the chest. The policeman reacted with that strange little leap of a heart-shot animal, then crumpled without a cry and barely a tremble.

Joe felt a great calmness descend on him as he watched the policeman’s blood stain the earth, and listened to the horrified exclamations of the men still hidden behind the outbuildings.

No one came out to try to take Wavell’s body. It lay there, mourned only by clouds of flies and shrouded in heat, a long way from his mother and his birthplace on the Isle of Wight.

Frank Hann. Queensland State Library

For a long time Joe was left to his own thoughts and the ravages of his conscience. Fittingly, that afternoon a storm swept in, darkening the sky and smelling of sweet rain after the terrible heat of the day. It brought deep rumbles and spears of lightning from clouds blacker than pitch.

Frank Hann rode back from a day of ‘dispersing’ blacks with blood on his shoes and a Martini-Henry rifle in his hand. A bandolier of cartridges hung diagonally from one shoulder.

Opal met her man at the house fence, flinging her arms around him as soon as he had dismounted. ‘Murder, murder,’ she cried. ‘There’s been murder done here this day.’

‘Was it Joe Flick that done it?’

‘Yes, it was Joe.’

‘Who did he kill?’

‘Constable Wavell.’

‘Damn him,’ Hann snorted. ‘How did it come to this?’

Hann gave her his horse to see to, and conferred with Doyle, listening to the story grimly before walking around the side of the store. There he saw Wavell’s body still lying where it had fallen, on the ground near the old dining room, in the light rain that had just started to patter on the cane-grass thatch roofs.

The station owner turned back to address the two troopers, Noble and Garrie, along with the house-slave Nym. ‘Hadn’t any of you the gumption to fetch in Alfred’s body? Shame on you.’

Still holding his loaded rifle, Hann walked out in the open. He was not a big man but he prided himself on his pluck. ‘Joey,’ he called, ‘don’t shoot. You know I’ve not done you a wrong turn in all my days.’

‘Go back, Mr Hann,’ cried Joe.

‘For the love of God, why did you do it, Joey? Come out of there now.’

‘I won’t come out.’

Hann walked to Wavell’s body, squatted beside it, and examined the wound. ‘It’s a terrible thing you’ve done, Joey.’

‘If I hadn’t shot Wavell he would have shot me,’ Joe said, his voice almost breaking with the strain. ‘I suppose they’ll hang me for this.’

 Hann stood up again. ‘That’s true enough, but there’s a chance that if you surrender now the judge will look kindly on it.’

‘Perhaps,’ Joe said, then whispered. ‘Yet I lived my life saying yes sir and no sir, and taking kicks and slaps from men like you. Could you promise me that they won’t clap irons on me? I swore I wouldn’t let that happen again.’

Mistakenly taking this as some kind of promise, Frank Hann walked around to the front door of the hut, and pushed it open, forcing back the table barricade. As the door swung open, and in a flash of lightning, Hann saw Joe’s sweating face, and the tense muscles of his hands holding a revolver. Then came a heavy boom, the muzzle flash. The ball struck Hann’s chest and passed out between his shoulder blades.

Hann fell to his knees, and raised his Martini Henry. He fired once, though the bullet went astray. Bleeding badly and afraid that the killing shot would come next, Hann staggered back to where Doyle remained behind cover. The older man took his shirt off and used it to bind the wound.

‘The treacherous snake,’ Doyle swore.

Almost sick with pain, Hann sagged against a wall, sorely hit. ‘Fire on him, kill him. Joe Flick has gone to the devil now.’

Continues next week

©2019 Greg Barron

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

18. Joe’s Last Stand

18. Joe’s Last Stand

Troopers Garrie and Noble, along with Fred Doyle and Bird the stockman, fired their weapons into the galvanised iron sides of the hut until it was peppered with holes. The senior policeman was dead, and Hann was bandaged up in bed, so Fred Doyle placed himself in charge of the effort to end the bloody siege. When two handy local cattlemen, Harry Shadforth and Dan Carlyon rode in, Doyle felt that they had enough manpower on hand to ask Bird to mount up and ride to Burketown for assistance.

Still the firing went on. It sounded like a battle, with booming discharges and clouds of powder smoke. Now and then, a window shutter would ease open and Joe Flick reply with revolver or shotgun. Towards dark the cloud cover thickened, and rain began to fall.

Inside the bunkhouse, Joe understood that the police were no longer interested in taking him alive. With the station and its ample store of ammunition at their disposal, they used ammunition like water, while Joe could scarcely see a target worthy of the name. He piled furniture against the doors and windows, for he knew the penetrative power of bullets, and over the following hours he flinched each time they crashed and whined through the walls and inside. The floor was by then littered with flattened slugs and flakes of lead, along with spent cartridge cases from Joe’s return fire.

A ricocheting projectile glanced off the point of Joe’s ankle, and he howled with pain. The bullet shattered the bone, and damaged nerves behind it. With the wound wrapped tightly, he could only just manage to stand on his feet, wincing and hissing with pain as he did so. Meanwhile thunder cracked and rain hammered on the roof.

Around midnight a .577 calibre Snider bullet smashed its way through the wall. It ploughed through one side of Joe’s stomach and out the other, opening an ugly wound. Blood flowed through jagged slits in his skin, and set off a deep pain, as if some terrible creature had taken up residence inside him.

Sobbing in the darkness, Joe staunched the flow as best he could, using some kerchiefs he found in a valise. Unwilling to believe that he was mortally hit, he decided that if he was to hold the police off, and have any chance to escape into the wild Lawn Hill gorge country to heal his wounds, he had to leave now.

Soon after, when the rain was heaviest, and fearing that the police might storm the hut, Joe pushed open the door, looked around for activity, then crawled away from the darkened buildings, moving towards the escarpment that led down to the creek.

This broken slope was difficult to manage in the rain, with mud running between the stones and his legs slick with blood. His hands gripped roots and the stiff stalks of small shrubs. The shotgun, slung over his back, and supply of cartridges slowed him down. Lightning lit his way, and his breath hacked in and out of his lungs. His eyes crinkled tightly against the pain that made frontal assaults on his senses.

Over an hour of effort, Joe made it down to the creek, heading to the water to clean his wounds and drink. By the time dawn arrived he had made it only five or six hundred yards southwards along the creek. Soon the trackers would be on his trail, Joe knew, and he was close to the end of his energy.

Crawling through thick spear and kangaroo grass, he stopped in a thicket of pandanus, shielded by green fronds, and supported on a carpet of dry, fallen strands. There, Joe decided, he could make a stand, and perhaps, he told himself, hold them off and get away.

That morning, bandaged and sore, Frank Hann impressed everyone by insisting that he rise, dress, and join the action. When Fred Doyle led an early morning rush into the hut Joe had occupied, Hann limped along in the rear of the party. They found the floor covered in smeared blood stains and spread with spent cases.

‘Joey’s hit bad,’ said Hann. ‘He must be close to finished.’

After a hearty breakfast, Hann took command back from his neighbour, splitting the company into two. One group would dig Alfred Wavell’s grave, the other start tracking Joe.

Soon after, Joe Flick watched the wounded Hann, a white stockmen and Fred Doyle carry Wavell’s body down from the homestead area and select a site not more than a hundred yards away from his hiding place. Of course, Joe understood that they would bury the dead constable on the riverbank, for the rocky ground around the homestead would have been too hard to dig the required six feet down. He felt sorry to see the sheet-wrapped corpse with its blood stains, but was too far gone to truly know remorse.

He had not slept beyond short naps since he left Mary Theresa’s shed, and lost more blood than his body could regenerate. His hands shook on the shotgun stock, and his eyes were bleary.

A second party soon came into view, descending the steep ground down from the homestead, following Joe’s trail. He recognised Troopers Noble and Garrie, Hann’s boy Nym, and Harry Shadforth. Of course, even with the rain, Joe’s route was easy to follow, and the men shouted with excitement at each new sighting of a mark where a foot had slid, or the deep red pigment of Joe’s blood on a stone.

The tracking party continued past where their mates were digging Wavell’s grave, then walked on towards Joe, rifles loaded and ready, studying the ground as they came. Trooper Garrie found the place where Joe had gone to the water’s edge, and then where he had left it again.

It was the station ‘boy’ Nym, with his sharp eyes, who looked ahead and saw Joe’s shotgun barrel amongst the pandanus fronds.

‘Look out,’ he cried, pointing. ‘There’s Joe Flick now.’

Joe took steady aim at Nym’s chest, and fired. The choke-bore shotgun thumped against his shoulder and Nym went down. The other members of the party, including the gravediggers, fell into cover like skittles.

Despite being struck in the chest by a charge of pellets, Nym did not die quickly, but twitched and thumped, and cried out. Frank Hann made a sound, a bellowing cry of rage and crawled to the dying man, cradling him in his arms and comforting him with soft, crooning words until Nym finally fell silent.

The police contingent responded to Nym’s death with a barrage of gunfire. Joe let go of the shotgun and brought up his revolver. As he extended his arm and squeezed off a shot, a bullet struck him in the upper leg, and another grazed across the side of his chest.

By the middle of the afternoon Joe was passing in and out of consciousness. He fought death like a warrior, but apart from one half-hearted charge by Trooper Noble, still the police party would not rush him. Instead they raised hats on sticks to tempt Joe to use his ammunition. He obliged by riddling them with gunfire. He was desperate for the coming of another night, still believing that he would crawl away and escape to the gorge country.

The next tactic, suggested by Trooper Noble, and ordered by Frank Hann, was the lighting up of the thick grass. Joe watched them circle upwind and drop matches into the vegetation.

While flames danced through the stalks towards him, Joe fought down a rising panic, and emptied all six chambers of his revolver towards the firelighters.

Yet, after some initial success, the fire did not take well in the wet grass. It burned fitfully, yet streamed acrid smoke so Joe could scarcely breathe. More bullets came. One struck him high up in the skull. It felt just like the impact of a hammer, but it was the stomach wound that was slowly strangling the life out of him.

Not long after sunset, having lost all function in his gut, and having bled almost dry, Joe fired his last, despairing shot across the partially burned ground. Then, a few hours later, during the night; alone, frightened, crying with pain, but still dreaming of the gorge country and a life of freedom, the last living breath slipped from Joe Flick’s lips and he died where he lay.

All night the police party kept watch, firing into the pandanus at intervals, but no one was willing to risk going close in the darkness.

‘Surely he’s dead,’ grumbled Hann, whose wound was bleeding and becoming more painful. But no man in the party could be persuaded to go in after Joe. After all, he had killed two men and wounded another. No one wanted to be next.

A little after sunrise, however, Hann nodded to Trooper Noble. ‘For God’s sake now. Go in and see.’

Noble loped forward, holding his loaded Snider rifle at the balance point. Shadforth and Garrie followed close behind.

Reaching the pandanus clump, they all watched Noble lean forward, lift the rifle to his shoulder, then fire into Joe’s head ‘just to make sure.’

‘Joe Flick is properly dead, boss,’ reported Garrie, waving his rifle like a flag.

‘Of course he is,’ said Hann, limping forward with a grin on his face. ‘I told you as much and we’ve been sitting here all night for no reason.’

More shouts of excitement came, and the white men competed to be first to reach Joe’s body. They dragged him out of the pandanus by the heels, and laid him in the open near where Wavell’s grave was now being finished.

Joe wore no shirt, only trousers, though dried blood covered his trunk and arms. His body was marked with between nine and fourteen gunshot wounds, including the posthumous head wound. The figure was unclear as there was much argument about entry and exit points.

When Kitty and Henry Flick arrived at the creek, the men in the party were busy digging two more graves: one for Joe Flick next to Wavell, and another for Nym, some distance back towards the homestead. The men took turns on the shovels while the others souvenired spent cartridges, items from Joe’s pockets and even locks of his hair.

Kitty saw her son’s bloody wounds, his thin body without any trace of fat, as lean as a goanna. She cried out and wailed, fell and smashed her face to the ground. With a shriek she raised a stick and drew a bloody trail down between her breasts.

‘Get the gin away,’ growled Doyle, and they took Kitty far enough away that all she could do was watch as they lifted Joe, ready to drop him into his grave.

‘Plant him facing hell, boys,’ cried Hann.

And that was what they did. They buried Joe Flick face-down. Two of the men leaned down to spit on his body before the first shovelful of earth went in.

When Kitty had finished telling me the story, she took me down to the creek below the homestead. We first passed two graves, one for a house ‘girl’ called Jenny, the second for the ‘boy,’ Nym. Some distance to the west, towards the creek, we found a fine headstone dedicated to Wavell, and beside it a mound, surrounded by a frame made of iron pipe, marking the final resting place of Joe himself. Kitty was silent by then, her eyes as old as stone.

I walked to the creek bank and stared at the pale green water, with its archer fish and tiny insects, the heads of little crocodiles hunting fish out in the steam. My hands were opening and closing, wishing I had a weapon. I wanted to avenge Joe. I wanted blood. But the men who killed him were just spirits and ghosts. And of course I felt sorry also, for Nym and Alfred Wavell, who Joe had murdered. They were victims too, caught in the crossfire of Joe’s circumstances.

I sat down there, on the bloodstained bank of that creek, and waited until Kitty was ready to go home.

©2020 Greg Barron

Epilogue next week.

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.



Doomadgee in the 1940s showing Read’s cottage, store, meat house, workshop and dormitories. Nicholson River at top. Photo from “A Light in the Darkness” by Vic Akehurst.

These pages dim with my tears as I attempt to record what happened next, as if the death of Joe was not enough for Kitty to endure.  

Less than two years after the death of Joe, she rode into Turn-off Lagoon for supplies. A man called Tom Perry, manager of Creswell Downs Station, passing through on his way back to the Territory, took a fancy to her. Fresh from an all-day drinking session at Anderson’s shanty he blocked her way as she tried to walk into the store.

‘Well hello there,’ he said. ‘How about you come on home with me, an’ warm me swag? I got plenny tucker. Plenny tabacker.’

‘No,’ said Kitty, backing away, then turning to run, heading for her own horse. Perry mounted up and rode to block her off. With that avenue of escape closed to her, Kitty ran for the scrub around the waterhole.

Chasing her down on horseback, Perry struck her to the ground with a stirrup iron. Later, he cuffed her to his saddle Ds, forcing her to walk and run alongside as he took her up the wild Nicholson and across the border into the Territory.

Henry Flick was furious when he heard, and swore that he would get Kitty back. Now Henry had abducted many women himself over the years. Each had, for a time, shared his bed in preference to Joe’s mother. It was partly a sense of pride and property that made him go after Kitty, and partly his genuine feelings for her.

Since Joe’s death, Henry was no longer working. He was in a poor financial state. He outfitted his rescue mission by stealing horses, tack and rations from Frank Hann at Lawn Hill. Thus prepared, he set off in pursuit, in the heat of the build-up season.

The Hedley Track was notorious for taking lives when things went wrong. Henry Flick, son of a vine dresser and father of an outlaw, died of dehydration and heat exhaustion near Cresswell Creek, Northern Territory. The police later found his body twisted and wracked from the pain and distress of his last hours. His rifle was still gripped in his hands in testament to what he might have done to Tom Perry if he had reached him alive.

As for Kitty herself, she remained enslaved by Tom Perry for several years. His full name was Thomas Augustus Perry, a nephew of the great mariner John Lort Stokes. His appetite for black women was legendary, and there were several attempts on his life by angry husbands. He was eventually shot and killed at the Bowgan outstation, by an unknown assassin who fired into his hut from the doorway.

I sometimes fancied that it was Kitty herself who did the deed. May God forgive me, but I hope that she did. I can almost picture the deep brown pools of her eyes as she pulled the trigger and sent Perry slumping to the floor in a puddle of his own rapacious blood.

But then, as happens with all of us, Kitty began to age. Men no longer wanted her. This was a relief to Kitty. For thirty years she drifted, sometimes to the blacks’ camp at Lawn Hill where she could be close to her son’s grave. Then to Burketown, and finally the mission at Old Doomadgee, where our talks began. She stayed only a little longer than I, however. Not a year after I left, a cyclone destroyed the mission, and the facility was removed to the Nicholson River, where New Doomadgee remains to this day.

Len Akehurst’s successor, Mel Read, wrote to me a year or two after the move to inform me that Kitty had died. I never forgot her, not even when I fought my battles in North Africa. After the war I had a strong desire to put my notes and jottings together into a readable format but could not summon the strength to do so.

Kitty’s story had touched my heart and opened my eyes. I visited Joe’s grave again several times, and travelled to the gorges south of the Lawn Hill homestead. Goosebumps prickled under my shirt when I stood on those precipices and gazed down steep red cliffs to the mysterious pools below. This was the wilderness Joe was heading for, the place that might have healed him.

I spent a week in New Doomadgee in 1968, attending the opening of a hospital. Watching the faces of the young men and old women, I had a flash of insight. I understood why Kitty’s words had to be recorded, and on my return to Sydney I took up my pen to do so.

I had, over the years, travelled much of this country for my work as a linguist, from Wave Hill to Gove, Wilcannia to Palm Island. It dawned on me that there is, and has been, not just one Joe Flick, but thousands. And thousands of mothers like Kitty too.

They are still out there now.

©2019 Greg Barron

This was the final instalment of Outlaw: The Story of Joe Flick. It will be out in book form soon.

Feel free to browse the Stories of Oz bookstore below for other Australian titles. These are all paperbacks, always in stock, with $4 delivery anywhere in Australia. Most titles can be purchased on Amazon and iBooks. Click on the images to learn more about each title.

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 Palmer River Gold Rush

by Greg Barron

If you wanted to cook up a wild adventure story, start with a Queensland river blessed with rich alluvial gold. Throw in a bunch of self-reliant prospectors, an uncontrolled stream of Chinese diggers, Martini-Henry rifles, spirited horses, and a tough indigenous nation that resented and fought the intrusion. Throw it all in a pressure-cooker of Cape York heat, and you’ve got the Palmer River Gold Rush.

In 1872, two brothers from Victoria, William and Frank Hann, along with a botanist, a geologist and others travelled north on a Queensland Government sponsored expedition to investigate the country “North to the 14th Parallel”. Rugged country even now, in those days Cape York was an area even the toughest settlers and adventurers avoided.

Hann located a river beginning in the hills west of Port Douglas, flowing westwards for six-hundred-kilometres before it emptied into the Mitchell River, ultimately reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria. He named this waterway the Palmer River after the Chief Secretary of Queensland, Arthur Palmer. Hann and his comrades were the first to pan gold from the river in 1872. The amounts were not significant, but enough to excite some interest back in civilization.

The lure of a brand-new find attracted James Mulligan, a tough Irishman scraping a living on the Etheridge fields, but dreaming of better things. Staking everything on the venture, he outfitted an expedition with five solid mates and rode north into the wilderness.

They returned to Georgetown, on the Etheridge fields, after weeks of panning the Palmer River gravels. It was September 1873, when the Mine Warden posted a notice on the walls of his hut: “JV Mulligan reports the discovery of payable gold on the Palmer River. Those interested may inspect at this office the 102 ounces he has brought back.”

Within a few days, just about every miner in the worked-out Etheridge field had started on the five-hundred-kilometre trek north. Prospectors knew that getting in early on a rush was the key. Some rode horses or perched on a wagon box. Others walked. Many pushed barrows loaded with all their tools and possessions.

Word went out by ship, telegram, word-of-mouth and mail. News reached Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, then Shanghai and San Francisco. The rush was on.

With the wet season not far away, authorities warned of fever, flooded rivers and trouble. Even Mulligan himself wrote to the Queenslander newspaper: “I do wish to stop this before it grows any more. Already exaggerated accounts and too much excitement exist here. If people rush the place without rations they must perish.”

Yet nothing dimmed the excitement, and when the Government opened a landing on the Endeavour River the gold-seekers poured in by boat as well.

From beginning to end, the Palmer River yielded a fantastic amount of gold. One hundred tons was the official count, but much more was taken away by the Chinese (gold prices were better in China) or carried home by diggers. It was a genuine El Dorado, but harsh beyond belief, and wild by any standards.

The local Merkin people were not nomadic by nature, rather in villages of bark-lined huts on the ridges near good hunting and fishing grounds. They went from living in a relatively unspoiled domain, to a hell-hole of shafts, camps, mullock heaps and fires. Trees fell to the axe, waterholes were muddied, and white men and their guns were everywhere. Some shot blacks on sight, and the strong, able spearmen retaliated.

A letter dated October 5, 1873 from an early arrival stated: “At present the blacks are very bad. It is war to the knife between the whites and them.”

Unsuccessful diggers, handy with their weapons, hired themselves out as bodyguards, standing sentry with their Martini-Henry or Snider rifles, watching for Merkin raiders. Two such characters were “Sam the Tracker” and Jack Martin, better known as “The Orphan.” Bored of earning a pittance standing guard for a party of Chinese diggers, the pair instead murdered and robbed the Chinese gold courier headed for Cooktown on his weekly run. With the law on their trail, the pair doubled back and stole seven of the pursuing police horses.

“The Orphan” was later noted for causing trouble, including cattle stealing, in the Gulf, but was never arrested for the Palmer River crimes. In Borroloola, during a drunken fight, he accidentally shot off his own thumb and forefinger.

The town of Palmerville slowly took shape with two stores. Stock was at a premium in the early days, however, and commodities like flour and beef sold out almost as soon as it arrived. The first pubs were basic affairs, little more than bark sheds, filled to capacity with brawling miners and echoing with arguments over territory, for there was no mine warden in the early days. The miners were prospecting for themselves in a free-for-all, centred mainly on the river itself. Gold lying in shallow depressions in the rapids could often be collected by hand. Exclusive territory came only through the use of fists, knives, and revolvers.

As the mining frenzy moved upstream, a new administrative and service centre was formed. This prosperous little settlement was called Maytown. The numbers of Chinese on the fields also exploded. In 1877 the population of the more important settlements was reported by Warden Selheim as follows:

Maytown, 900 Europeans and 800 Chinese.

Palmerville, 12 Europeans and 600 Chinese.

Jessop’s, 6 Europeans and 1000 Chinese.

Stony Creek, 16 Europeans and 1200 Chinese.

Byerstown, 16 Europeans and 800 Chinese.

The large numbers of Chinese compared to Europeans was a feature of the fields. They kept to themselves, to a large degree, often re-working areas that the whites had already picked over. They built their own little Chinatowns, with joss houses and opium dens in narrow alleys amid mullock heaps.

The Chinese presence on the fields was not all incense and opium, however. At one stage, the Pekinese and Cantonese elements turned on each other in a frenzied battle that lasted for several days. It culminated in the building of a fort by miners from Macao, who moved in on disputed ground while the others were busy fighting.

With the fort under siege by up to 2000 Chinese miners, hundreds were wounded or killed, and only a determined troop of police stopped the fighting. Thirty ringleaders were arrested and charged, while the fight, known as the Battle of Lukinville, was largely ignored by the Australian public and later historians.

Despite the relatively small number of white miners remaining on the fields as the rush went on, the area continued to produce brash, larger than life characters.

The Palmer River was the birthplace of “Australia’s Annie Oakley,” Claudie Lakeland. Claudie’s father Billy was a goldfields character famous for battling both black and white, and prospecting deep into the wilds of Cape York where few other gold-seekers dared to go. Claudie grew up on horseback, and with a gun in her hand.

Her fame as a dead-shot grew, and as a young teen she was challenged to, and won, a shooting contest against the policeman from Coen, Roly Garraway. One of her tricks was shooting, with a rifle, pennies thrown into the air.

The notorious “Maori” Jack Reid and his wife Henrietta operated a store on the fields. Reid had crewed on a notorious blackbirder, the brigantine Carl in the South Pacific waters. This murderous career culminated with the slaughter of sixty captives when the crew saw a British destroyer approaching. The Carl’s officers, first mate and some other seamen were charged, though all had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. “Maori” Reid escaped these unpleasant consequences and enjoyed life in the wilder parts of Australia for many years, before dying alone in a hut near Pine Creek, NT, in the 1930s.

While reflecting on the adventurous characters who answered the call of gold, the saddest aspect of this gold rush was how it tore both a river system and the Merkin people apart. For the survivors and the landscape itself, nothing would ever be the same.

Gold was a terrible lure, and in reality, only a few diggers got rich in a life-changing way. For many, prospecting became a way of life, listening for the next whispered talk of a “find” in some distant and remote location; time to pack the saddle bags and head off, always in the hope of that elusive fortune.

2020 Greg Barron

Book Release

Book Release

We’re pleased to announce the release of our new hardback book: Outlaw, The Story of Joe Flick by Greg Barron.

Joe Flick was both victim and killer, a young man caught between two worlds. His story stretches from outback New South Wales to lawless Burketown, from Hodgson Downs Station in the Territory to drab Fannie Bay Prison. The final scenes, set against the backdrop of picturesque Lawn Hill Station, are both thought provoking and violent. It’s a book to be devoured, a frontier parable, and a must-read for all Australians.

About the book:

When anthropologist Robert Morris arrives at the old Doomadgee Mission, at Bayley Point near Burketown in 1934, he’s intent on learning local languages and customs. One very old woman living there, he discovers, was originally from outback New South Wales, and is something of an outcast amongst the Waanyi and Gangalidda locals.
On delving deeper, Morris discovers that the old woman was the ‘wife’ of a white stockman for more than thirty years in the frontier days, and claims to be the mother of one of the north’s most notorious outlaws. Determined to record the facts of her son’s crimes from her perspective, he sits with her each afternoon.
This is the story she told …

Click on the main link to get your hardback copy delivered to your door (featuring Yvonne Bauer’s Competition-winning cover), or grab the ebook at http://tiny.cc/lzhykz. If you’d prefer, ask for it at your local library or bookshop. If they don’t have it they can order it in.

The Paddle Steamer Providence

( Twin fireboxes, once attached to the Providence’s boiler, still lie on the banks of the Darling near Kinchega Station. )

The year was 1872, and for twelve months the 78-foot-long wooden paddle steamer Providence, under the leadership of Captain John Davis, sat on a waterhole north of Menindee waiting for the Darling River to rise. Drought had tightened its grip across western NSW and dried the river to a series of pools. Not even a rowboat could get through.

Finally, rain fell upriver, far away on the Balonne, the Macintyre, the Gwydir and the Namoi. As the river rose the Providence and her crew ambled downstream again, stopping at Menindee to load 200 wool bales and for a much-needed night on the town. The journey was paused for a night of riotous drinking and celebration at Maiden’s Hotel.

The next morning, the crew, much the worse for wear, stoked up the firebox again, but neglected to check that the boiler had water. Around ten miles downstream, on a bend near Kinchega Station, the pressure reached catastrophic levels.

To say that the boiler exploded is an understatement. It tore the ship apart in a storm of flying metal fragments. The captain, engineer and stoker were all killed. The cook was blown into a treetop, and survived long enough to be rescued before dying of his injuries. Another young man had both legs broken and though Menindee’s Dr Cotter tried desperately to save him, he also died. Henry Trevorah, a miner from Adelaide who had joined the boat at Menindee, was one of the few survivors.

A first-hand account, posted by a crew member of another paddle steamer from Kinchega Station in the days after the tragedy, gave the following account:

“We had been wooding last night between 6 and 7 o’clock, and had just got under steam again when the captain called my attention to the large quantities of painted boards that were floating down, remarking that he supposed a collision had taken place between two of the boats. The Ariel was just ahead of us, and the Providence was expected down. We picked up a cabin window, a door, and a large quantity of boards, also a swag containing some clothing, a little money, and a pin. We. steamed on for about a couple of hours, and when we arrived at (Kinchega Station), were at once greeted with the shocking intelligence that the boiler of the Providence had burst and blown the vessel to pieces.

“Four of the hands on board were missing, while four others were saved — one, however, with a splintered leg and a gash in his arm, from which, the doctor is doubtful whether he will recover. This morning after breakfast we walked up to the scene of the disaster, about a mile from the station. The scene you must imagine, for I cannot describe. The banks were strewn with boards and debris of all kinds; while high up in the neighbouring trees were lodged pieces of timber, bedding and rugs, firewood, etc. A bag of flour was thrown over the tops of trees, and landed about 70 yards from the bank of the river, while a sledge hammer and several heavy pieces of casting were carried to an incredible distance. The wreck is lying in the middle of the river with her stern down stream. The appearance she presents is of being broken in two, the after part lying on top of the bow, one portion of the fore part being visible.”

Greg Barron 2020

The Incredible Life of Nat Buchanan

When Irishman, Lieutenant Charles Henry Buchanan and his wife, Annie, emigrated to Australia and took up a New England station called Rimbanda, they had no idea that their son Nathaniel would one day become known as the greatest drover the world has ever seen. Nat grew from a cheerful and adventurous lad into a competent man, 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 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.

A few years earlier, Nat’s working life had started out with the taking up of a station north of Guyra called Bald Blair, in partnership with his brothers Andrew and Frank. The trio also embarked on an unsuccessful trip to the Californian goldfields. When they returned, Bald Blair was laden with debt and had to be sold.

Nat polished up his droving skills, taking herds of sheep or cattle to the goldfields and interstate, following this profession for at least a decade before heading for Queensland and the vast frontier. His first real foray into Western Queensland 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, on the Burnett River near Rockhampton. According to Bobbie Buchanan, Nat’s grand-daughter, Kate was ‘a natural horsewoman, and an accomplished rider. ’ She was also a stunning young woman, and Nat was captivated.

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 country around Burketown, looking for suitable pastoral land for his business partners.

The strain of constant travel did tell on him, and Kate was by then pleading for some normality. In 1870 Nat and his brother Andrew took up a selection of land on Deep Creek, near Valla, NSW. This was still wild country then, frequented by cedar-getters and fugitives. The brothers and their families built bark and slab houses on the river bank, where they raised goats and chickens, planted a few acres of corn and cleared land for cattle. The plentiful fish in the creek varied the diet nicely.

Essential supplies were purchased via a fifty-mile ride to Kempsey, and mail was delivered into a letterbox nailed to a tree on Valla Beach, accessible by a long row downstream. Kate must have hoped that her man had grown roots, but Nat’s adventurous years were barely getting started.

Pining for open country, and sick of the humidity, Nat moved Kate and their sons Gordon and Wattie north again. He managed Craven Station for a while, then took on his first big droving contracts. He was the first European 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.

Nat’s descendant and biographer, 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.

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, allowed some very insistent Aborigines who knew a few words of pidgin to talk their way into the camp. Bridson then 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 next plan was to bring his 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 the two most important issues.

Nat, by the way, was known for a generally conciliatory approach to Aboriginal people, and was spoken of fondly by Indigenous workers in oral histories from the region. Cattle, fences and men were not welcomed by traditional owners – the Europeans were invaders after all – and conflict was a fact of the frontier. Buchanan, however, was never party to the ‘shoot on sight’ mentality of some frontiersmen.

In the 1920s Territory bushman, and chronicler Tom Cole came across an old Jingali man on Wave Hill Station, who the whites called Charcoal. Charcoal had worked on Wave Hill and in droving camps with Nat Buchanan as a boy and young man.

During an attack by wild blacks on the station, Charcoal used his rifle to shoot one attacker out of a tree. Bluey Buchanan, or Old Paraway, as his men called him, was furious, Charcoal had never seen him so angry. ‘You shot one of the poor bastards dead?’ Bluey roared. ‘Jesus Christ! You shouldn’t have done that!’
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 and long-suffering Kate. He died two years later, and his gravestone stands in the Walcha cemetery, along with a plaque commemorating his life. Kate lived on until 1924, at which time she was buried beside her husband.

The most fitting epitaph for this great man is perhaps the words some of his contemporaries wrote about him. Charlie Gaunt wrote: ‘Buchanan had the gift of bushmanship and location. He was a fine, genial companion to have; you only had to look at Nat Buchanan to see in his physique, actions and general appearance a thorough typical bushman with the face showing dogged determination and strong will power; one who would stand by you until the bells of eternity rang. ’

Stockman Billy Linklater, in his memoir, Gather No Moss, wrote of Nat Buchanan: ‘His willpower was indomitable, yet he was mild-mannered and of a most kindly disposition. ’

Finally, in the words of singer/songwriter Ted Egan:

Nat Buchanan, old Bluey, old Paraway
What would you think if you came back today? It’s not as romantic as in your time, Old Nat, Not many drovers and we’re sad about that.
Fences and bitumen and road trains galore.
Oh they move cattle quicker, but one thing is sure Road trains go faster, but of drovers we sing
And everyone knows Nat Buchanan was King.

Written and Researched by Greg Barron, September 2020

This story is part of the revised story collection: Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History, available here: https://storiesofoz.selz.com/item/gallopingjones

The Ragged Thirteen: ‘Tea and Sugar’ Bushrangers

The Ragged Thirteen: ‘Tea and Sugar’ Bushrangers

Part legend, part fact, their adventures embellished and exaggerated around a thousand campfires, the story of the Ragged Thirteen has been beloved of bush story tellers for a hundred and thirty years.

The Ragged Thirteen were brilliant horsemen, fugitives, consummate bushmen, lovers of bush poetry and champions of the underdog. They embodied the new Australian nationalism of the latter part of the nineteenth century, with all its colour, larrikinism, love of the bush and suspicion of authority.

The story begins when a party of men travelling to the Hall’s Creek goldfields via Queensland, led by Tom Nugent, joined up with another group heading for the same destination from South Australia and the Centre. The second group were led by a giant of a man, Alexander McDonald, better known as Sandy Myrtle. The two groups met up at Abraham’s Billabong, on the Roper, just upstream from Mataranka’s Bitter Springs, and the rum was soon flowing.

Tom Nugent took over as ‘captain’ of the gang, now thirteen in number, and promised his new mates some serious mischief. From the Hunter Valley originally, Tom had moved to Queensland, working his way up to head stockman at Carandotta Station on the Georgina River. Later, cattle magnate John Costello hired Tom to manage Lake Nash Station on the Territory/Queensland border, but Tom always had a wild streak, and enjoyed life ‘on the cross’ more than working for a salary. He was, incidentally, good mates with Harry Readford, Australia’s most famous cattle duffer.

Harry Readford (State Library of South Australia)

There are a many different perspectives on how the name ‘Ragged Thirteen’ came about. One story is that famous drover Nat Buchanan had seen the South Australian contingent camped at Johnston’s Waterhole, further south, and called them a ragged bunch. Another contemporary credits a boundary rider named Steve Lacey with tagging them as ‘The Thirteen. ’ Either way, the Ragged Thirteen they became, and they would soon be the most talked- about characters in the North.

Few accounts of their exploits agree on the names of those who made up the gang, but the most credible record, written by stockman Billy Linklater, records the names  as Tom Nugent, Sandy Myrtle, Larrikin Bill Smith, Jim Fitzgerald, Bob Anderson, Hugh Campbell, Tommy the Rag, ‘Wonoka’ Jack and George Brown, ‘New England’ Jack Woods, Jim Carmody, Jack Dalley and Jimmy Woodford.

All were fine bushmen, with a passion for the outback. They looked down on members of the establishment, and most had Indigenous partners who rode with them on the journey west. A plant of at least forty good horses followed in their wake, controlled by young stock boys. The Ragged Thirteen loved good horses above all else.

The gang kicked off their exploits by walking from their campsite on the waterhole to the Abraham’s Billabong store. Taking advantage of a ‘new chum’ storekeeper, they proceeded to ring up a fortune in worthless cheques, then made off with most of a beef carcass that was hanging on a gallows nearby.

When one of the store owners, renowned pugilist Matt Kirwan, arrived, he challenged the Thirteen to produce their best man to fight him. Hughie Campbell, a Scots seaman who had jumped ship in Port Augusta, volunteered, not only winning the fight, but breaking Kirwan’s arm in the process. One observer claimed, however, that Kirwan was only just getting over a bout of malaria. ‘Had he been in trim he would have whipped any one man in the bunch. ’

Customs officer and policeman, Alfred Searcy relates in his book, By Flood and Field, that he and his partner, O’Donohue, first heard of the gang on the Roper.

When at the shanty at Abraham’s Billabong, the keeper informed us that word had come from the Bar (Roper) that a gang of cowardly ruffians, known as ‘The RaggedThirteen, ’ were making their way to Kimberley ‘on the nod, ’ that is, helping themselves to cattle from the stations, food from travellers and shanties, and using their revolvers when resisted. He greatly feared a visit, which he subsequently received, the scoundrels leaving him nothing but what he stood up in, and that, in the tropics, is precious little.

Searcy claims that he and his partner apprehended the gang, surprising them by offering tobacco, and then drawing their revolvers. The innovative lawmen apparently then cut their prisoners’ braces so they were forced to hold up their trousers, making it hard for them to cause any trouble.

The timing of this coup, however, doesn’t seem to fit with the facts. At best Searcy and O’Donohue held up only the Queensland crew, on their way west from Roper Bar. Either way, the gang members were soon released, for it turned out that there were no formal charges pending, on which they could be held.

Proceeding on their journey, the Thirteen robbed Jim Cashman’s store in Katherine, then trekked down the Flora and Victoria Rivers to the huge Fisher and Lyon pastoral run, Victoria River Downs. Here, Tom Nugent posed as a land speculator to infiltrate the station, eating a slap-up dinner on the homestead verandah while the rest of the gang made off with several fine horses, and emptied the station store of horseshoes, nails, flour, tea and sugar.

Despite pursuit from the Territory police, the gang crossed the Negri River, into Western Australia, well provisioned and still ready for fun. They reached Hall’s Creek when the gold rush was past its peak; but the town was still flourishing, with police, post office, numerous stores, hotels and grog shanties. Stories of gold nuggets lying around like chicken’s eggs, were soon proved to be false.

Taking up a couple of claims, the Ragged Thirteen traded rifles for shovels and cradles. While digging for gold by day, however, the gang kept themselves afloat by duffing cattle from nearby stations at night; butchering them and selling the meat to hungry miners. ‘New England’ Jack Woods was the ringleader in these expeditions, and the nearby Durack cattle stations lost many a bullock to the Ragged Thirteen. The gold mining itself, however, was proving to be much tougher than expected. It was certainly not as much fun as roving the country and skylarking. The gang’s days were numbered, in any case. They were wanted in the Territory, and the WA ‘traps’ were also keen to pin horse-stealing charges on Tom. After six months or so of hard work and little return the gang dispersed.

Bob Anderson took up Tobermorey Station on the Eastern edge of the Territory, where he fathered a brace of children. A fall from a horse cut short his life. Sandy Myrtle returned to Central Australia where he set up a pub at the new Arltunga Goldfields. He reputedly grew so fat that he had to be lifted on and off his wagon by four strong assistants. Jimmy Woodford made a living finding and selling meteorites. George and Jack Brown worked as saw-millers before returning south. Hugh Campbell worked as a camp cook for a while, but grew ill and went home to Scotland to die. Jack Woods followed the goldfields, butchering other people’s livestock wherever he went, and drinking the proceeds. The others spread out all over the north, including poor Jim Carmody, who drowned in the Katherine River while fishing.

Tom Nugent made a new home for himself on Banka Banka Station, near Tennant Creek, running the property successfully for many years, with a Garrwa (Borroloola) woman called Alice who became his life partner. He died in 1911, from dropsy, and his grave is still visible near the Telegraph Station today.

Greg Barron 2020

The paperback book Red Jack and the Ragged Thirteen by Greg Barron is available from good bookshops and at the Stories of Oz bookstore https://storiesofoz.selz.com/item/redjack

A Lost Soul

(An excerpt from Rusty’s Tale by Russell Carrington)

Like many other mustering pilots I was called on from time to time to search for someone who was lost, sometimes with a good result, sometimes not so good.

Once I had to go to Floraville Station to help search for a little three-year-old girl who was missing. This was the daughter of my old friends, the Camp family. She had been missing for around five hours by the time I got there, and my good friend and fellow pilot Craig had already arrived and commenced the search.

Now the Camp family were very old school with their stockwork and did not use helicopters to muster, consequently their children had never seen or had much to do with helicopters. Their homestead was not far from the Leichardt River. There was a large and deep waterhole with a precarious steep bank down to the water. A saltwater crocodile had also been sighted there recently.

The weather and flying conditions were atrocious with a cyclone bearing down hard on Burketown which is around sixty kilometres away, there was also very low cloud with around a one-hundred foot ceiling, vicious gusts and driving rain squalls, and I was told that the station measured eight inches of rain that day.

So Craig and I searched most of the day in ever widening circles and things were looking grim, the weather conditions had eased as the day went on and the cyclone had gone past. Meanwhile, the aunty of the little girl was searching down around the causeway about three kilometres away from the homestead and she thought she heard a cry when the helicopters were elsewhere.

It was a good result with her finding the little girl cowering behind a conkleberry bush down below the causeway on the saltwater side. It turned out that the little girl was terrified of the choppers and we had inadvertently been driving her further and further away as we searched.

An incident of note is that because it was so cold and wet I was busting for a leak. I landed in the muddy ground and stood on the skid so as not to bring mud back into the chopper. This caused that skid to drive into the mud a bit and when I took off, the chopper became subject to Dynamic Rollover. It was only good luck that saved me, it happened so fast there was no way I was able to bottom the collective in time but fortunately the skid broke free and all was well.

A few years later I got an early morning call from Thorntonia Station. One of their stockmen was missing overnight so I went over and picked up Lloyd the boss and away we went to where the man was last seen. This fellow was riding a motorbike, and following his tracks through the hills and valleys we could see that he had really taken a wrong heading and was making in the wrong direction very fast.

After a while we spotted some smoke up ahead and flew straight to it. It was obviously lit by the stockman as it was only a fresh fire but try as we might, flying round and round that fire, we couldn’t see him.

Then I remembered what had happened at Floraville so I landed on the good flat and gave Lloyd my handheld radio. I then flew away and pretty soon Lloyd was calling up saying ‘Come back, he is here.’

Now this bloke just about qualified for the dumbest bloke in Australia. Whenever the helicopter had got close to him while we searched he would rush to the top of this little hill that was covered in lancewood scrub and wave his heart out. I still remember how he looked, though, with no shirt and his chest and mouth all covered in dried foam. I left Lloyd there and flew him back to the station, and then I returned and picked up Lloyd. We backtracked him and found the bike where it had stopped, having run out of fuel. Lloyd switched the tank onto reserve and rode it home!

You can get a copy of Rusty’s Tales and other great books at https://storiesofoz.selz.com/

Rusty’s Tale

Rusty’s Tale

When I first learned that Russell Carrington had written down his yarns and memories I knew that they should be published for posterity. Russ grew up on Planet Downs station, near Burketown, in the very last of the ‘old days’ before mobile phones, internet and modern roads.

Russ grew up surrounded by formidable women and great outback characters — Fiery Ted, Jack Mac, Carney the Cook, and Hussein the hermit, who divided his time between a sandstone cave and a wild Gulf beach.

Russ operated machinery and worked as a ringer, then put himself through flying school, becoming one of the top mustering chopper pilots in Australia’s north. His story is a special one, short and succinct, with no filler, and easily read in one rainy afternoon. It’s also very sad in parts, the truth from start to finish, and I think it deserves a place on every bookshelf.

Here’s the link if you want a copy https://storiesofoz.selz.com/item/rustystale

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