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1815: SHEEP HEIST

Late on Friday night, April 8th, 1815 six men were resting round a camp fire at Stony Hut plains.

James Triffitt was there, sitting silently beside his youngest son Thomas and stockman, Billy Davis. Across from James was his old friend Bill Abel smoking a pipe. Behind this silent group was Dick Hutchinson, lately George Salter’s stockman. All were being held verbal hostage to the ubiquitous George King.

Conversation slowed to a trickle – even George King couldn’t rouse the group to campfire banter. They called him Jimmy Jackass – they were right. Gawd, he could talk. The George-ologue continued as the others stared silently into the embers. James and Tom Triffitt were just plain tired – they’d spent the best part of two days with Billy Davis herding these stupid bloody sheep from Back River to Stony Hut Plains to join the others, they’d had enough but George was determined to extract his pound of flesh. George wanted to talk. He spent too much time up here on his own to waste the rare occasion that five companions offered him.

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Just over the brow of a nearby hill another six men huddled round their fire.

One of them stood up and walked away into the darkness clutching his musket and a blanket. He stumbled slowly through the peeling gum trees up to the ridge that overlooked the plains, saw what he was looking for and sat down gently staring into the silver moonlight. He could easily make out the six men crouched in front of the rough shepherd’s hut, at times even hear George King’s braying laugh and the clank of tin mugs. Bumpy Jones sat still and waited. They’d keep.

Testosterone hung heavy in the air as the banditti planned their excursion. They huddled close, talking low, ears straining for any unexpected sound. It was a nerve-wracking business being a bandit at the best of times and since that bounty of fifty quid was put on their heads there were parties out to capture them right, left and centre. Corporal Thomas Miller and His Majesty’s 73rd Regiment of Foot went into the bush in search of bushrangers more than two weeks ago and still hadn’t come out – disaster could strike at any time. Bumpy sat on the ridge all alone.

Eventually the five bushrangers settled into their swags and stared at the night. Jimmy Whitehead lay rigid, his mind ticking over at a furious pace.

He and his mate, Michael Howe, arrived on the ‘Indefatigable’ just eighteen months before. Neither lasted too long before they headed for the bush, preferring to die a master rather than live a slave. Both eventually got their wish. Whitehead had precisely forty days and forty nights of life left to him. On the forty-first day his old shipmate, in an act of extreme friendship, would sever his head from his body and carry it off into the bush. There was to be a bit of fuss and bother before then.

Desperate men sleep surprisingly soundly. When Bumpy Jones came back from his solitary eyrie on the ridge, satisfied that nobody would stir again till dawn, he was met by a gentle chorus of snores. Whitehead spent the first of his last forty nights of sleep dreaming of vengeance – but on just who, or what, he wasn’t quite sure.

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George King fell silent, abandoned himself to the gentle wind in the trees and the rare companionship snoring around him. He rattled around the fire then stumbled off to his pile of bedding and slept soundly until dawn. James Triffitt woke him up with a gentle kick and a reminder to be vigilant, then prepared to head off down to New Norfolk for supplies. George was still sitting up in bed rubbing his eyes as James and his son Tom trotted off down the track.

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Saturday 8th April dawned cold and misty; the men stayed close to home. Their flocks were content, grazing stupidly on the hill a mile or so away while their masters yarned inside. George was leading the conversational charge as was to be expected but he wasn’t alone. At about 3 p.m., without the squawk of a cockatoo or the bark of a dog, four men with blackened faces surrounded his hut, then burst in with an oath and a loaded musket. The four men inside the hut froze, half sitting, half standing, petrified. Eventually their limbs unlocked sufficiently for them to sink back to earth and they were lined up side by side under the bed, tied fast with a kangaroo skin run covering them so they could neither move nor see.

Even George was struck, briefly, dumb.

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GEORGE KING, Ticket of Leave, Servant to William Abel at New Norfolk, on Oath deposes:

Bush rangers stop’d all Night and made Hutchinson cook for them, and, on the Sunday morning about 7 o’clock, they left the Hut; taking with them a Musket belonging to Triffitt, an Ax, two tin Dishes, a Bag containing about 15 lb. of Flour, two Tin pots, about 1 lb. of Gunpowder and Ten Musket Balls, some Onion and cabbage Seed, and one Gimblet; before they left, they enquired how far they were from the nearest Houses; they were told about five miles. They (the Bush-rangers) then went to the Sheep, which were lying on the Plain about 11/2 Mile from the Hut,’ and drove off 79 sheep, which they took away with them.

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Mary knew there was going to be trouble. She had an instinct for these things.  When James arrived home on Sunday night he was fuming. He’d just ridden in from Stony Hut Plains where they’d pinched 80 of his sheep. She sat him down and poured him some rum and listened, just the way a wife should. It took a while. He was tired and hungry – wisely she attended to those needs first then waited till he was ready to tell his story.

She was used to these long silences, always with a juicy story on the tip of his tongue. When she was about to throttle him slowly it would all come out – but it had to be in his own time. It was his story and he’d tell it when he wanted. James always enjoyed that special tittilation. He didn’t have much other pleasure.

He’d been away a few days already, but that was nothing new. The flocks were growing and he needed a place to graze them. Stony Hut Plains, now known as Gretna, was the perfect place. He and his servant, Billy Davis had away a day or so, moving the sheep and hanging out with some other of the Back River settlers, also grazing their mobs up there. Davis had built a hut overlooking the grazing pastures and lived out a lonely existance, only enlivened by occasional company and rum. James had come home laden with provisions last night, just to sleep, then was gone by breakfast, heading straight back from whence he’d come. She didn’t expect to see him for days.

Now here he was already, already nodding off by the fire. James stirred and grunted and she knew he wanted to talk. The fire had burnt down, as had his anger, so, after a furious bout of yawning, he began to tell her what had happened. He repeated Georgie King’s surprisingly brief story, had barely waited to hear it all before turning his horse around and heading back the way he had come to report to Bob Hay, the constable. His sheep were missing, that’s all he knew, and woe betide any bugger who had taken them.

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