The whole district was buzzing with the news that the stagecoach had been bailed up on the road from Mandurra to Barradine Junction and the gold shipment stolen.
William Woleton, manager of the Mandurra branch of the English, Scottish & Australasian Bank, was seated at his breakfast table on the upstairs verandah, looking out at dry lawn and a row of stunted apple trees, the straggling settlement beyond the back fence, a cloudless sky, blazing blue. On the ridge a few hundred yards away, a team of men were knocking down the chimney of one of the town's earliest houses and throwing the bricks onto a tip-dray to be taken to the crushers; several other older chimneys had produced payable gold, the clay for the bricks having come from the 'good' side of the creek.
The bank manager sipped his tea and perused the newspapers. The Barradine Bugle and the Sydney papers all agreed that three, possibly four, men had blocked the road with branches. One masked man on horseback levelled a firearm at the coachman and his offsider. The passengers had been told to disembark and cross the road to a ditch, keeping their backs turned. The horseman's accomplices had ransacked the assigned goods; there was an 'undisclosed weight' in gold, some cash, promissory notes and general mail. One of the passengers - 'a little girl' - had noticed that the horseman had very shiny boots.
William Woleton knew precisely how much gold had been stolen, how much flake, what nature and weight in nuggets. The bank manager sipped his tea.
Sergeant Flynn prepared his men to make arrests over the gold robbery. "You worthless dogs will accompany me to Wombat Flat with guns loaded. Not for a moment will ye trust these beggars not to stretch the friendship. When we reach the creek, Edwards, you make for the back of the hut. Smith, you'll stick by me."
And so they rode out of town to Wombat Flat, two miles, and the Quinns' little slab hut at the end of the road. Ben was chopping wood, shirtless, when the police rode up. The sergeant called out, almost unnecessarily loudly, "Ben Quinn, I am arresting you for robbery under arms. Where is your brother Daniel?"
Ben carefully leaned the axe against his chopping stump. "He'll be out the back seeing to the hens. And Ma will be by the fire, making oatcakes."
Ben and Dan had not put up a fight, contrary to Sergeant Flynn's warning to his constables. The sergeant locked them in a cell at the rear of the police station and then duly visited the post office to telegraph the district superintendent. Almost as soon as the Quinn brothers were locked up, however, some men of the town came along to the police station, all to say the same thing: Ben had been with them in the Middle Pub when the robbery took place. And the local Catholic priest, Father Berrigan, told the sergeant that Dan had been in his company - "Just quietly, in the very confessional" - at exactly the fateful hour.
"And why would you have been after arresting the Quinns anyway?" asked the priest.
"The authorities had been provided certain information by a member of the public," replied Sergeant Flynn.
Father Berrigan gestured towards the cells - not the first time he had performed this act. "If I could trouble you, Sergeant?" Sergeant Flynn was not happy, but each of the boys had his alibi. He would have to telegraph the district superintendent again.
That evening, around the fire in the Quinns' dirt-floored dwelling, Ben, Dan, their aged mother and the priest tucked into wallaby stew and damper. Father Berrigan finished picking and sucking the last bits of goodness from between his teeth, then spoke, first addressing the mother. "A lovely meal, Mrs Quinn. Nothing better. And I am very glad to see your boys home."
"Praise the Holy Family," replied Mrs Quinn, rolling her eyes heavenward.
"Boys," said the priest, glancing to his right and to his left, "do you ever catch possums, for the pot or for their skins?" And for the next hour Father Berrigan extracted every bit of information Ben, Dan and their old mother had regarding possums. The priest, who was neither young nor old, had largely abandoned his interest in alleged occurrences in the Holy Land as recorded in sacred scripture and had turned his attention to the amazing revelations of Mr Charles Darwin. The strange beasts of this new old country had helped to open his eyes, and phalangers had become Michael Berrigan's passion. Any time not devoted to tending his flock - which he never resented or regretted - was spent investigating brushtails, ringtails and sugar gliders.
It was midnight and there was light rain falling over Mandurra when Sergeant Flynn heard a tapping at the window of the kitchen behind the police station. He was slightly startled but had the comfort of a loaded firearm within reach. And he still had his boots on, ready for action, though his shirt was undone and his braces hung loose at his sides. Of course it was Woleton, and Flynn regretted once again that he had ever joined forces with him. He was erratic, and the sergeant could tell at a glance through the dusty windowpane that the bank manager had been drinking. Erratic and dangerous, thought Flynn.
Once admitted to the kitchen, Woleton strutted up and down before the fire, his big round head turning left and right even quicker than his strutting pace. Flynn fetched a whisky and urged him to take a seat.
Woleton started his muttering. "Another shipment and by God we'll be close. Close, very close. But three will be the magic number." He was excited, and only minutes before Flynn had been sitting beside his fire, thinking the worst, expecting imminent arrest, cursing the drinks, the mutual admissions he had shared with the hot-and-cold bank manager.
"We must let the next go through unmolested," suggested the sergeant. "If the Barradine mob bring to bear then we're out."
"We take the next at the top of Busby's Pass," said Woleton. "Can you bring another man? That Smith seems - well - dim, let's say. And is he trustworthy?"
"If he was trustworthy he wouldn't be part of this already. He's a sworn offiicer of the crown. And we robbed the mail coach. Where's the trust in that?"
"I mean can we trust him?"
"I think, Mr Woleton, in the circumstances, we have no choice but to all trust each other."
The 'little girl' of the newspaper stories had returned to Mandurra from Barradine Junction. She was Alice Pegler, seven years old, and was telling Jones the storekeeper about her adventures. "And I've seen those boots before."
"Really?" asked Jones. "You pay great attention to footwear, do you? What am I wearing on my feet?" His lower half was hidden from Alice's view behind his counter.
"What you always have on when I see you in here. Not your Sunday shoes. They're brown, a bit old, though the laces are new, and... Mr Jones, I can tell by your heels that you walk on the outsides of your feet."
"I what?" He lifted one leg and looked down with genuine curiosity. "You know, perhaps I do."
Half an hour later, Jones repeated young Alice's remarks to Constable Edwards, and they both had a good laugh.
"But where had she seen the bushranger's boots before?" Edwards inquired.
Jones looked perplexed. "Do you know, I forgot to ask."
TO BE CONTINUED...