Cry of the Curlew: The Frontier Series 1

BOOK: Cry of the Curlew: The Frontier Series 1
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Peter Watt’s life experiences have included time as a soldier, articled clerk, prawn trawler deckhand, builder’s labourer, pipe layer, real estate salesman, private investigator, police sergeant, and adviser to the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. He has lived and worked with Aborigines, Islanders, Vietnamese and Papua New Guineans. He speaks, reads and writes Vietnamese and Pidgin and has a reasonable grasp of the English language.

Good friends, fine food, fishing and the vast open spaces of outback Queensland are his main interests in life.
Cry of the Curlew
is his first novel. Currently living in Tweed Heads, Peter Watt has completed the next novel in this historical trilogy,
Shadow of the Osprey
, and is now working on the third instalment,
Flight of the Eagle

This work is purely fictional, although certain historical characters are mentioned. Otherwise, no reference is made to any persons living or dead. There are scenes in this work that may be considered disturbing and certain characters’ language and attitudes that may be considered racist. Any language or attitudes that may be considered racist are intended to be seen in the historical context of the novel and in no way reflect the personal views of the author.

First published 1999 in Macmillan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
This edition published 2000 in Pan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
1 Market Street, Sydney

Reprinted 2000 (twice), 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2009

Copyright © Peter Watt 1999

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

National Library of Australia
cataloguing-in-publication data:

Watt, Peter, 1949– .
Cry of the curlew.

ISBN 978 0 330 24601 7

1. Frontier and pioneer life – Australia – Queensland – Fiction.
2. Australia – history – 1851–1891 – Fiction. I. Title.

Typeset in 11.5/13 pt Bembo by Post Pre-press Group, Brisbane
Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group

These electronic editions published in 1999 by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd
1 Market Street, Sydney 2000

Copyright © Peter Watt 1999

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the publisher.

This ebook may not include illustrations and/or photographs that may have been in the print edition.

Cry of the curlew

Peter Watt

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                 EPub format  978-1-74262-928-5
              Online format   978-1-74262-926-1

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For Duckie and her daughters


am indebted to three mates from Cairns whose contributions must be acknowledged. They are Brian Simpson who took me to the rivers and rainforests of Far North Queensland. Len Evans who I had the fortune to work with in the Aboriginal communities of the Gulf Country. In those days we were forced to live on fresh barramundi and mud crabs because we could not afford meat pies. And Phil Murphy who had the knack of producing historical answers to even the most obscure matters raised in my research.

Publication of a novel is not done alone. As such, I would like to acknowledge Tony Williams, my agent, whose patience has finally been rewarded. Brian Cook, whose appraisal of the manuscript was the catalyst. Cate Paterson and Madonna Duffy, whose ideas and editing helped shape the final draft of the novel. And the wonderful staff at Pan Macmillan whom I have had the pleasure to work with.

Finally, a thank you to the Spirit of the Gulf Country whose power stole my soul forever. May that be a warning to any tourist who should stray away from the European luxuries of Australia’s coastal regions onto those beautiful sweeping plains of endless horizons. You too may learn what the Aboriginal people have known for thousands of years – that the Earth has a real spirit.

He crouches, and buries his face on his knees,
And hides in the dark of his hair;
For he cannot look up to the storm-smitten trees,
Or think of the loneliness there –
Of the loss and the loneliness there.

‘The Last of His Tribe’, Henry Kendall


his is my place of Dreaming.

I am Wallarie of the Nerambura clan of the Darambal people.

In your whitefella time I am almost one hundred years old and, although I am blind, I know I am sitting in the red dust under the bumbil tree where the elders used to sit and tell the stories of the Dreaming.

Although I am blind I can see the Dreaming, and I know the ancestor spirits up in the skies have spoken to me in many places I have travelled. You see me as a very old man whose body bears the scars of my tribal initiation . . . and the scars of the whitefellas’ bullets.

You ask me did I know the bushranger Tom Duffy . . . Ah! He and I were brothers and he taught me the killing ways of the white man.

How many whitefellas did I kill? (A long silence.)

Do I believe that the ancestor spirits have power over the living world? And now you ask me about the curse although you do not believe in the Dreaming.

I will tell you a story about two whitefella families who believed in the ancestor spirits. One family was called Macintosh and the other family was called Duffy. They were young when I was young and the story started here a long time ago when the black crows came to pick out the eyes of my people.

It is a long story and it started when the other black crows came on police horses before the sun rose over the brigalow scrub. (A long silence.)

I remember that day and I will tell you the story.




iccaninny dawn was behind the troop of eight horsemen as they rode in silence out of the fading bloom of the false light. Horses snorted and men shivered as a hint of the rising sun gave a touch of warmth to the cool night air.

Soon the sun would rise over an endless sea of tough and stunted brigalow scrub and the dark blue of the horsemen’s uniforms would become visible in the early morning shadows of the vast and ancient inland plain. The rising sun would be a soft kiss on the faces of the two white men who rode with their Aboriginal police troopers. By mid-morning the soft kiss would turn into a savage bite, blistering their paler skins.

Sergeant Henry James rode at the rear of the troop of mounted police. His knee ached, so he rubbed at the old war injury with his free hand. It had been the cool of the long night that had brought on the dull and persistent throb to the once badly damaged leg. He knew the hot sun would help ease the pain, but the sun was still a good hour away and so, too, was the Aboriginal camp they were about to descend on with carbine and sword.

He slipped his boot from the stirrup and slowly stretched the aching limb. Corporal Gideon twisted in the saddle as the column plodded forward in silence.

‘Leg baal?’ he hissed to the big bearded sergeant as Henry winced, bending his leg to slip his boot in the stirrup.

‘Yeah . . . Leg baal. Always bloody bad out here,’ he grumbled.

Corporal Gideon made a sympathetic clucking sound as he turned to regain sight of the horseman in front of him. Sar’nt Henry was a tough man. But he was also fair. Sar’nt Henry always stuck up for the Aboriginal police troopers of the patrol against the white devil, Lieutenant Mort.

The Aboriginal troopers of the patrol knew that the sergeant and the boss did not like each other. They had often heard the raised voices of the sergeant and lieutenant locked in confrontation. Mostly their heated words were over the welfare of themselves and their families back at the police barracks outside of Rockhampton Town. The heated clashes penetrated the bark and slab walls of the lieutenant’s office to reach the troopers who strained ears to listen and they would hear the Mahmy – the term used by the Aboriginal troopers to address a white officer – threatening the big sergeant with disciplinary action. But the Mahmy was astute enough not to carry out his threats against his second-in-command as he knew full well the efficiency of the troop rested on the popular sergeant’s shoulders.

Henry tested his leg in the stirrup. The stretching had taken away some of the stiffness and he sighed with pleasure for the relief. Eight long years of constant pain had plagued his life since he had received the wound, which had indirectly brought him to be three hundred miles – and two weeks west of Rockhampton – to this harsh and lonely place on the Australian frontier.

His worst nightmare, as a soldier of Queen Victoria’s army to the Crimean peninsula, was realised on the banks of the Tchernaya River near a little town called Inkerman. The formidable Russian soldiers had poured out of the nearby port city of Sebastopol; a thunder of Russian cavalry drowned by the awful crash of Russian artillery. And behind the wall of shrieking lead and thundering hooves, the grim-faced Russians had advanced to swamp the English army.

On a misty and bitterly cold morning, the nineteen-year-old soldier fell screaming as a shrapnel ball from the Russian guns opened his leg from thigh to knee. The initial searing and awful agony was long gone, but it had left him a legacy of a lifetime of suffering.

Discharged because of the permanent damage to his leg, he was left alone with his pain and a bleak future in England. He took stock of his life. Before he had enlisted, he had worked on his family’s small holding in Yorkshire. He knew farming as well as he knew soldiering and the distant colonies of Australia offered land to those willing to work hard. The former soldier was prepared for work and with his meagre savings from the army – and a loan from an older brother – Henry took passage to the far shores of Moreton Bay.

When he limped from the gangway of the migrant ship onto the banks of the Brisbane River he knew he would never be returning to England. Unlike many of his fellow passengers, he immediately fell in love with the vitality of the frontier town. Everything around him exuded a newness; the town itself, with its bark and pit-sawn timber buildings, was in such stark contrast to the cold stone houses of England. The very fact the town was built of timber and tin implied a state of flux, holding a promise of bigger and better things to come.

But it was the native-born colonialists themselves that impressed him most as he limped along the dusty and wagon-rutted streets of Brisbane Town. They were taller, stronger and healthier than the pallid and malnourished inhabitants of England’s smog-choked industrial cities. He was also awed by the fierce and proud bearing of the bearded, wild young men who recklessly galloped their mounts at breakneck speed past the lumbering teams of ox drays laden with supplies for the far-flung homesteads of the settlers on the frontier. The colonial centaurs wore brightly coloured shirts as vivid as the parakeets that flew in whirling clouds overhead and they wore riding breeches tucked into knee-length boots, with big revolvers strapped at their waists in holsters or slipped behind wide leather belts. On their heads they wore curious broad-brimmed hats made from the plaited leaves of the cabbage tree.

He had stepped off the migrant ship in the year 1856 and three years later the Colony of Queensland was given its independence from New South Wales. Brisbane Town, on the banks of the Brisbane River, was declared the capital of the new colony. A colony encompassing half a million square miles of yet to be explored territory stretching to the lush tropical islands of the north and Islands where cannibals and head hunters still roamed the Torres Strait in their long war canoes, as they had for centuries before the white man came with the flags of Portugal, Holland, France and England fluttering from the mastheads of their ships. The colony stretched west over the coastal spine of rugged mountains covered in tropical rainforest. Where the rainforests of the mountains ceased, grass and scrub plains extended further west into sand and gibber stone deserts seemingly without end. A land of limitless horizons.

While in Brisbane, Henry learned of a position with the Native Mounted Police as barracks sergeant and he was able to convince the commanding officer that, despite his war injury, he was more than capable of filling the position. The commanding officer was convinced when Henry demonstrated his ability to ride and handle horses – a legacy of growing up on an English farm – and he was appointed to Lieutenant Morrison Mort’s troop.

From their first meeting, the new barracks sergeant and the commanding officer of the troop took an instant dislike to each other. For Henry it was his commanding officer’s martinet behaviour. Henry might have found a rationale in the new officer’s petty bureaucratic manner if he had been born an Englishman, but he was colonial-born, and Henry avoided Mort whenever possible as he felt distinctly uneasy in his presence. Despite the man’s handsome and dashing appearance, his pale blue eyes held a madness that was terrifying in its intensity. More than the madness were the occasional flashes of a creature, less than animal, staring up from the burning pits of hell.

Henry shuddered superstitiously at the recollection of the madness. He had seen that same smouldering insanity in those cold blue eyes the evening before, when the officer had briefed the police troop and the shepherds who accompanied the squatter Donald Macintosh and his son Angus. Henry also knew the Aboriginal troopers instinctively sensed the madness as they had stood warily away from the
white debil
while Mort had scratched lines and circles in the red earth with the point of the infantry sword, marking a crude map which had outlined a creek and a range of low and broken hills to the west of a meandering string of water holes.

‘We are here,’ he had droned to the gathered party of men who stood – or squatted – in a semicircle around the sketch, etched in the crumbling dry earth. ‘The nigger camp is here.’ He jabbed with the sharp tip of the sword to indicate a place between the creek and the hills and he had then turned to the broad-shouldered Scottish squatter.

‘That is where you last knew of their whereabouts, I believe, Mister Macintosh?’

Donald nodded.

Donald Macintosh was an impressive man and his son, Angus, who stood beside him, was a replica of his imposing father. Both men had long, dark, bushy beards with a touch of red streaks through them. Donald – at fifty-five – had the physique of a man half his age. His face above the beard was tanned by the years he had spent under the Australian sun and he wore the same work dress as his shepherds; moleskin trousers tucked into knee-length boots, a flannel shirt of bright red. A brace of Tranter pistols tucked behind a wide leather belt around his waist set him apart from his men who carried rifled muskets. A casual observer would never have guessed that the burly and rustic-looking Scot was the patriarch of a family whose wealth rivalled that of the richest in any of Britain’s far-flung colonies. Land, shipping and merchandise formed the basis for the extensive financial interests of the Macintosh family. With the purchase of the Glen View pastoral lease, they were now adding sheep and wool to swell the coffers of the family’s considerable fortune.

‘Angus says he saw them gathering there last week,’ Donald growled. ‘It’s their traditional camping ground this time of year and it’s not likely they will be anywhere else.’

Mort sketched a line with the point of the sword in the red soil map to the east of the camp and continued, ‘My troopers will form up here . . . ’Bout a mile from the niggers’ camp. I suggest that you circle the camp tonight, Mister Macintosh, with your party, and take up a position . . . here!’ The sword tip came to rest between the creek and the range of low hills. ‘My guess is that when we go after the niggers they will break and make their way towards the high ground as they will no doubt run from us. All going well, they’ll run straight into you and your men,’ he concluded with grim satisfaction for the lethal simplicity of his plan. ‘Are there any questions on what we are doing tomorrow?’ He scanned the ring of men around the dirt map.

‘What about the gins and piccaninnies?’ Henry asked when Mort’s eyes met his. ‘Mister Jackson always ordered they be spared in a dispersal.’

The police lieutenant’s eyes narrowed as his expression barely concealed his contempt for the question. ‘This is a dispersal, Sergeant James,’ he replied. ‘You leave the gins and piccaninnies and they will breed their treacherous kind to become a nuisance in the future. Mister Macintosh has not called on us to have us come back to do this all over again. No . . . we do the job once, and we do it efficiently . . . I
allow the troopers to dally with the nigger women that they might take alive . . . But you will ensure that the problem of the gins’ disposal is met before we leave. Does that answer your question, Sergeant James?’

Henry nodded and stared down at the lines and circles on the ground which were now becoming vague patterns in the dust as the hot sun slowly sank in the west.

Before the sun set that evening, Donald Macintosh and the party of seven shepherds rode out of the police camp to take up a position to the west of the unsuspecting tribespeople. Neither European nor Aboriginal could imagine the terrible consequences the following day would bring to all their lives. Consequences that would stretch far beyond their time to haunt the living of both cultures. Even of those yet unborn.

Mort had ordered that no camp fires be lit and it had been a long night for Henry as the dark chill seeped through his body and gnawed at his damaged leg, while the mournful cry of the curlews deep in the brigalow scrub had also kept him awake. Although he knew the eerie cries came from a small ground-living bird, there was still something haunting in the sad wailing cry. Like the cries of the dead – which they were, according to Corporal Gideon. Henry could almost believe the trooper’s story as he lay shivering under a coarse blanket. First one curlew would cry out – then be joined by many others. The chorus of wailing like the pitiful cries of souls doomed to eternal damnation in hell.

‘Corporal Gideon!’

The whispered command from Mort was passed down the line of horsemen until it reached the tall and wiry police trooper who spurred his mount past the column of Aboriginal troopers to stop beside the Mahmy.

‘Yessa, Mahmy?’

‘I want you to go ahead and confirm the presence of the enemy on the creek.’

Gideon frowned. The white debil used words he did not understand – like confirm! Mort saw his perplexed expression and swore as he thrust his face belligerently at him.

‘Damned ignorant charcoal!’ he snarled. ‘I want you to go and see if your nigger brothers are at the camp on the creek. Then I want you to come back and tell me. Do you understand that much?’

‘I savvy,’ the trooper replied with a carefully controlled edge of anger as he reined away and was quickly swallowed by the scrub.

Gideon was unerring in his ability to guide his mount silently through the dry scrub of the brigalow but he rode cautiously as he approached the creek line. The police corporal had a grudging respect for the tribesmen of central Queensland who, given the tactical terrain of thick scrub and rocky hills, were men to stand and fight. The white man dared not pursue the warriors into the scrub because their mounted mobility and European firepower were negated by the terrain, and the lethal accuracy of the long hardwood spear hurled at close range had taken more than one foolish settler who had underestimated the tribesmen on their own ground.

The Aboriginal warriors of Queensland had quickly learnt to exploit the tactical weaknesses of the white invaders. Only Gideon and his fellow Aboriginal police troopers were any match for the skills of the painted black warriors in the close-quarter fighting of the thick bush and rocky hills.

Founded by the flamboyant and hard-drinking bushman Frederick ‘Filibuster’ Walker in 1848, the Native Mounted Police had come from the remnants of the southern tribes of the Riverina district of New South Wales. Gideon had been recruited from the banks of the Murrumbidgee River by Frederick Walker himself. He had been selected for his superb physical condition and ability to learn the killing ways of the white man.

BOOK: Cry of the Curlew: The Frontier Series 1
5.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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