In the summer of ‘72 I was a lad of fifteen. My father, an old cove even then, ran a station on the Diamond Creek with a small complement of stockmen. Besides me and father on the farm were my mother and my sisters Essie, Mary Ann, and Kate. The girls were always bustling about the place doing chores, but my duties were to tend the horses. Being a good groom could get you into some nice places in those days and girls were always interested in a handsome young groom. Mind you, back then I was all elbows and knuckles.
For a week the weather had been very stifling. Father complained daily about the parched soil and his skinny cattle. Coming from England, he had never heard of such heat as he found in Australia. I don’t believe he had ever seen a man with black skin before he came here and was quite afraid of the Aborigines. On this occasion it was near the end of February and for the first time in months we got proper rain. So much, in fact, that our milkshed flooded. Most of the stockmen were at the races in Eltham for the day when we were visited by three rugged individuals on thoroughbreds. They rode through the gate and towards the homestead. Mother sent me out to see what they wanted.
As I approached, I surmised from their brands that the horses had been stolen. There was a K in a circle on the shoulder of a chestnut stallion, which indicated it was the property of Mr. Kilmorgan, but I had never seen these people at Kilmorgan’s place.
The lead horseman’s eyes burned like fresh bullet holes in soft wood. He had an enormous beard the colour of soot. Across his lap I could see a rifle wrapped up in a bit of an old ship’s sail. Rain dribbled over his shoulders from the brim of his hat.
“Can I help you, sir?” I asked him.
“We’re in haste to get out of this rain. Do you have shelter?”
I looked at the other two. One was slumped in the saddle, the other seemed to be a boy no older than myself, with a smooth face hidden behind a crimson scarf. I directed the riders to the stable.
“I see you’ve rifles there. Have you been out hunting?”
I put the leader’s horse in a stall and his companions had already begun to shed some of their sodden clothes.
“That’ll do. We’ll stay in here until the rain dies down. What’s your name, boy?”
The leader gestured to his mates, “That’s Jack and Bill. You can call me Dan. Can you fetch us some food?”
“I shall let mother know and I will be back directly,” I said.
When I returned to the house, my mother was in the kitchen.
“What did those men want?”
“They’re waiting out the rain and want food and tea. They were on some of Kilmorgan’s thoroughbreds. I think they’re duffers.”
“We had best notify the police,” said mother, wiping her hands on her apron.
“No, they have rifles. What if they shoot us?”
Mother thought to herself.
“This is what we shall do,” she said, “While you take the food and tea out, I will send Essie to your father. Then he can send one of the stockmen to fetch the constable.”
As I took the refreshments out, Essie bolted through the rain to the paddock. She borrowed a pair of my trousers as her pretty dresses were no good for running in. It was quite a sight; that spry girl of fourteen dashing barefoot in the rain in her brother’s borrowed trousers.
The strangers ate eagerly. I examined the one identified as Jack. One eye was green and the other brown, and he kept one hand over his ribs to touch a wound that troubled him.
Beside him was Bill, who was skinny and frail looking, with hair much longer than was normal for a lad. The larrikins in those days wore their hair long as a way of thumbing their nose at the police, for the length showed how long they had avoided punishment for their mischief as they shave your head in prison. Within a few minutes, the bread was gone, with only a few crumbs on the board to indicate where it had been. Dan licked marmalade off his filthy fingers and slurped tea from one of mother’s dainty porcelain cups.
“S’good,” Dan grunted. The others nodded. Jack poked around his ribs and Dan struck him on the shoulder. Jack shot the bigger man a look of indignation.
“What’s that for?”
“If yer going to keep fingering that hole at least get it some flowers!”
Outside the rain fell in sheets and the distant rumble of thunder began to tumble across the sky.
“Don’t like the sound of that,” I heard Bill mumble quietly in a fluty voice.
“We’re fine. We’ll be away from here just as soon as the rain clears.”
Without a word of warning father burst in with two of the stockmen, Arthur and Johnny. Arthur aimed a revolver at Dan, but Johnny, who was an Aborigine, had not been permitted a firearm by father. Instead he carried the nulla nulla club he used on possums. The strangers snatched up their rifles and jumped to their feet; Dan grabbed me.
“Let him go!”
Arthur shot Dan through the shoulder and he collapsed. Jack fired at father and the bullet came so close to my ear I heard it buzz like a mayfly. I ducked and saw father hit the ground. Jack and Bill ran for cover in a stall. Johnny helped me drag father to cover behind the sacks of chaff.
Dan recovered enough to draw a pistol from his belt and fired at Arthur, striking him in the knee. Furious, Johnny charged at Dan and struck him with the club. Dan flopped back dead. Blood streamed from his skull like wine from a broken bunghole.
I took father’s gun and shouted for the others to surrender. Suddenly Jack fired through the stall. Johnny ducked to avoid the splinters. I fired and father’s shotgun kicked like a mule, nearly jolting my shoulder out of place. Jack’s scream told me I had hit my mark. We opened the stall and we saw Bill cradling Jack.
We tied Bill up and searched Dan’s coat. We found a scrunched up calico poster stating Daniel LaRue, John Plunkett and Wilhelmina Plunkett were wanted for highway robbery and murder, with a reward of £750 for their capture. Bill was really a woman in disguise, which I had discovered after getting a good grip on her.
In the end, Jack lived long enough to get hanged, while Bill managed to escape the noose on account of being pregnant. Arthur ended up losing his leg from the knee down, but bought a wooden one with the reward money. Father soon recovered from his wound. He was still afraid of Aborigines, but he regarded Johnny as one of the bravest coves he had ever met.
© Aidan J. F. Phelan, 2020