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SHEEP HEIST 1815

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TO READ ABOUT JAMES’ ADVENTURES IN CONTEXT, CLICK BELOW

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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 his 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. His monologue continued as the five other men stared silently into the embers. James and Thomas were just plain tired; with Billy Davis they’d spent the best part of two days herding these stupid bloody sheep from Back River to Stony Hut Plains to join the other flocks, they’d had enough but George was determined to extract his pound of flesh. He spent too much time up here on his own to waste the rare occasion that five companions offered him. George wanted to talk but there was no one left to talk to.

*

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 over their fire, talking low, ears straining for any unexpected sound. It was a nerve-wracking business being a bandit at the best of times and since the Old Fellow’s proclamation, since that bounty of fifty quid was put on their heads there were parties out to capture them right, left and centre. Their network of spies and settlers had told them all about Corporal Thomas Miller and His Majesty’s 73rd Regiment of Foot who 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; even here, five miles from the nearest house they were on alert. So they whispered and planned and wound themselves up into a self-righteous lather while poor old Bumpy sat on the ridge all alone.

Eventually the five bushrangers settled into their swags and stared at the night sky. Jimmy Whitehead lay rigid, his mind ticking over at a furious pace. The lumpen brutes spread out around him could, combined, not even hope for an insight into the fevered workings of Jim’s mind – he was by far the smartest man in the valley.

He and his mate, Michael Howe, arrived on the ‘Indefatigable’ just 18 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 41st. day his shipmate Howe, 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.

*

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.

*

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. All the men were deep in thought, grizzling about the one thing that concerned them all. Bushrangers.

George thought later that he had conjured them up, so accurately had they timed their attack. 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, with a kangaroo skin run covering them so they could neither move nor see. Even George was struck, briefly, dumb.

*

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.

*

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.

*

The next morning, armed by Robert Hay, four men went out in search of the banditti. Constable Thomas Guy leant an official air to the proceedings, but that was about all. He was a kindly man, not overly pleased at this little excursion, but content to help out his old mate. Pete Gallagher, a servant to Abraham Hands, had been co-opted and was doggedly doing what he was told. Behind him rode young Thomas Triffitt. James, his father, was in a grump, barely able to speak, casting a black shadow around him. Tom Guy knew these moods well, knew to shut up and ride them out. For an hour not a word was spoken, the four horsemen followed the river inland in a glum silence, breath steaming around cold noses, just the occasional snort from the horses to remind them they were alive.

Eventually James’ mood lifted, the sun came out, he took a deep breath and rejoined the world.

‘Back with us, Jimmy, I see.’ Tom Guy winked and chuckled. James grunted and he glanced over his shoulder. There was a flicker of a smile on his face. He threw his head back and laughed into the fresh morning air.

‘Ahh, Tommy, you’re a good mate.’

They were the best of friends through the worst of times. Tom and James met a lifetime ago on the decks of the ‘Matilda’ headed for the unknown. That was in 1791. The two men knew each other backwards, had ridden together countless times. There was no need for bravado, no macho jostling amongst these men, they had both born witness to each other’s lives. They rode side by side, on this mission as in life, took rare silent pleasure in each other’s company.

James’ second son was called Thomas, whether by accident or design, and he rode behind them, whistling between his teeth. Tom was thinking about Lizzie Barnes. His thoughts were not pure.

They arrived at the hut, refreshed the horses and continued on their way. George King and Billy Davis joined the posse and, revived by a cup of tea and the growing warmth of a weak sun, six men set out across the plains, tracking the sheep right across the Fat Doe River. They tracked and they tracked and they tracked some more, following 79 sheep and five bushrangers deeper into the bush, camping out at night, sprawled by their campfire, listening to another episode of George King’s life. By the fourth day they had travelled as far as the Big River and were about seven miles along the south side when Tom Triffitt spied a hut.

The posse came to a halt behind the trees, dismounted and watched. It wasn’t long before Whitehead came out, lazily undid his pants and pissed into the wind. The watching men nodded, loaded their muskets and agreed on a quick plan of attack. Each of them was suddenly alert for the first time in days. The constant chill in the air, the relentless drone of King’s voice and the sheer bloody grind of constant travel had worn them down into a silent, plodding force, doggedly plunging across rivers and bush alike, ever moving, men on a mission.

*

James Triffitt came alive. His bushy eyebrows lifted and there was a strange light in his eyes. He fidgeted with his musket and licked his lips. His mouth was suddenly dry and a kind of extasy came upon him as they all crept closer and closer to the hut. The posse were close enough to see all the men quite clearly. Whitehead, Jones, McGwyre, Martin and Burn. On a signal from Constable Guy the men rushed the hut. They were a hundred yards away, heading in from three sides when the first shot rang out. George King saw Whitehead in the doorway for an instant, his arm raised, then a puff of smoke and an explosion. The bushranger ducked back inside and his place was taken by three others. They too shot at the approaching party but missed. The men vanished inside. There was one more gunshot from a hole in the wall then a second of silence.

The posse had been alternately running and crouching, but now they knew they had a minute to advance. All the bushranger’s muskets had been fired, the posse knew this was the moment. George King shouted, then, without warning there was a crash and the back door of the hut exploded in a splinter. The bushrangers charged through the gap and scattered into the brushwood. The posse fired their muskets at the retreating men but all of them missed. Pursuit was the only option.

A couple of them had headed off to the left, the rest were charging through the bush together. Triffitt and his party followed them. One bandit tumbled headlong into the brush. The others shouted but just kept going. No heroics at the end. Hugh Burn got up and rushed after them but King threw himself at his feet, grabbed one ankle and held on. Within a heartbeat a nimble Thomas Triffitt leapt upon the bushranger, followed closely by Gallagher, Guy and a redfaced James Triffitt.

‘Don’t shoot him!’ shouted Triffitt as he approached. ‘Hold him down!’

Triffitt didn’t care about the life of the bushranger, he just wanted to know where his sheep were. Constable Guy grabbed at Burn’s musket and pulled it from his hand. It wasn’t loaded anyway but Guy wasn’t to know that. He stood over Burn and gave him a kick.

‘Sit up.’

*

All the men stood around the bandit. They were puffing and laughing and swearing in a jumble of excited voices. Burn was a goner, he knew that and so did they, so he adopted the bushranger’s second line of defence. Talk. Talk hard, talk fast and furious, diffuse the situation. While Tom tied his hands he looked around, calmly appraising each of the men, and his chances of escape, in turn. Once secured, Tom helped him to his feet, dusted him off and pushed him a little too roughly back towards the hut.

PETER GALLAGHER, Prisoner, Servant to Abraham Hands, On Oath, States:

We then returned to the Hut, where we found two Forequarters of Mutton roasting at the Fire, and two hind quarters and a part of another Sheep and three Kangaroos hanging up. In the Hut  was found a loaded Musket, five tin Pots, two Tin Dishes, a kedgeree pot, about fifteen pound weight of Flour, about 1½  Pounds of Gunpowder, about 3 or 4 Pounds of Buck and Musket Ball shot and some Lead, we took away every thing which could be of service, at least I believe so; We then proceeded with the Prisoner and two Dogs to the Big River, where, we stop’d all night; this might be about 35 Miles Westward from New Norfolk

It was a long strange night. They took it in turns to stay awake and guard their prisoner, knowing that he would escape at the slightest inattention. James was at pains to warn the men to keep eyes peeled and ears alert. Anything might happen during the night. He was anticipating revenge, attack by bushranger, earthquake, fire – he didn’t know what but it was certainly going to be bad. James didn’t sleep a wink.

George King was guarding the bandit.

‘Not so brave now, are you Hugh Burn? Not such a tough fella without your gun and without your mates. How does it feel now, Hugh Burn, eh? How does it feel now?

The bushranger wisely stayed silent, letting the silky abuse wash over him. Stay calm, he thought, stay calm. Revenge is a dish best savored cold.

King used every opportunity to humiliate the bandit, alternately laughing at his predicament and treating him ill. He prodded the bushranger, puffed up with the power he felt he had, behaving all round as a bad winner, the kind that crows and kicks his victim when he’s down. King had a cruel streak. When he was alone, awake on watch with Burn he tortured his prisoner with words that Burn could not forget. Forgiveness wasn’t part of the bushranger’s creed. Burn vowed that if he got free George King would be on his list for some similar treatment. Not that the possibility was looking very likely. He was tied up and roped to a tree.

*

Eventually King retired and the bandit finally slept. Watched over by a terrified Tom Triffitt he snored loudly until dawn, then rolled over, growled and scratched furiously at his beard. Young Tom watched intently. He had never seen a bushranger before. For this Back River boy a bushranger was a superstar, a famous personage, a notorious thug. Tom stared into Burn’s sleeping face, trying to see what it was that made him so bad, but there was so much hair in the way it was difficult to tell. Burn’s eyebrows were bushy and thick, hung over his eyes like brushwood, drooping down towards the luxuriant moustache and beard that effectively covered the rest of him. Two tiny pink lips protruded through the reddish hair and two cavernous nostrils spouted thick red hairs. Even his ears were hairy, tufts of the stuff stuck out in either direction, ground together with dirt and wax into sticky pinnacles. In the midst of all this hair were two tiny eyes, softly closed in sleep. Tom stared and stared at Burn’s face until he could see no more. He melted into the bushranger’s forehead trying to see his thoughts.

Tom sat back abruptly and shook his head. He’d nearly fallen asleep. His dad would never forgive him if Burn escaped under his watch. Just the thought of his father’s towering indifference was too dreadful to contemplate. When James was mad he simply ignored the object of his anger. It was a truly terrible punishment. The thought of it was enough to snap Tom back into full alert. He changed position and squatted closer to the fire. All he could hear was the rhythmic breathing of his prisoner and the occasional snort from the sleeping men behind. The  silence was, even for a young buck in the bush, golden.

There was a crunch from the fire as another log collapsed into coals. Tom moved slowly to pile a fresh branch on the coals. He waited a moment till it ignited, used the extra light to look around him but all he saw were bushrangers, a hundred of them, dancing in the dark. For the first time in his life the lad was feeling real fear, for the first time he was responsible; he was surprised to note that somehow the two were compatible.

His father took over at first light, took the musket silently from his youngest son and patted him on the shoulder.

‘Off you go, boy,’ he said softly

Tom needed no more urging. He was dead to the world in minutes.

*

The next morning, Friday, Tommy Guy was the first to wake. He briefly consulted James Triffitt, and together they planned the day. The murmur of voices woke the others and the camp stirred into life. George King, Peter Gallagher, Billy Davis and young Tom Triffitt were sent back to the spot where they had captured Hugh Burn to recover 79 missing sheep. The bushranger had been very forthcoming during the night with James Snr., he’d told him where the sheep were hidden and, for good measure, identified four of the other men with him; Whitehead, McGwyre, Martin and Collyer, in charge of the sheep.

Once the others had quit the camp Guy, Triffitt and Hugh Burn relaxed.  They weren’t going anywhere till the sheep arrived so had a long day ahead and nothing to fill it, save for nominal duties guarding their prisoner. Relations were surprisingly cordial, given as Burn was destined to be hanged, drawn and very likely quartered on his arrival in Hobart. He can’t have been overly happy at the prospect but the bushranger was a professional. He knew all too well what punishment best fitted his crimes and spent some considerable time exercising his powers of reasoning trying to talk his way out of his predicament. James and Tom Gay were having none of it. They were civil, even respectful of a worthy opponent, but didn’t budge. James and Thomas were thinking of the fifty guineas.

Government is pleased to offer a Reward of Fifty Guineas to be paid to any Person or Persons, whether Free or Bond, who will Apprehend and lodge in safe custody any Felon or other Person so unlawfully associated or ranging in the woods.

Up till the attacks on Humphrey and Reardon’s places a month ago there had been little incentive for the settlers or their servants to turn the bushrangers in. Fear of pay-back, or a warped morality of shared beginnings held them back, but now times had changed. A prisoner could get his freedom and a passage home for information that lead to the capture of a bushranger as well as another fifty guinea reward for the capture of all who aided and abetted them. Juicy pickings indeed. Self interest far outweighed any feelings of remorse. If Thomas Guy and James Triffitt felt any qualms at sending their companion to the gallows it is certainly not recorded. Both men had seen way too much, between them bore witness to thirty years of atrocities, probably didn’t even possess the kind of compassion we take for granted.

*

So, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, the three men sat and chin-wagged, ranged their discussion over a hundred shared topics, aired unpopular views and found kindred spirits.  There were jokes and even a kind of strained laughter then James stood up, stretched and announced his intention to piss until he was dry. He turned and shuffled down to the river leaving Guy and Burn together.

‘Untie me hands, Tommy,’ wheedled Burn. ‘Me hands are tied too tight, me fingers are turning blue, they’ll drop off one by one and you’ll be held as a cannibal.’

Constable Guy chuckled and untied Hugh’s arms.

‘Promise me on yer mother’s grave you’ll not run, Hughie, promise me or I’ll shoot you dead.’

The bushranger lied and promised, rubbed his wrists and smiled.

‘Can I get you tea, Constable Guy?’ Butter wouldn’t have melted in his mouth.

When James returned Burn was busying himself around camp. He threw a look to Guy who shrugged and smiled, then sat down and let the bushranger serve him tea.

‘You right for a while, James?’ asked Tommy, ‘I’m in need of a piss and a wash as well.’

Triffitt grunted his approval and his mate wandered down to the river, unbuttoning his fly as he walked.

‘You can make us up some damper, Hughie,’ said James cheerily, ‘seeing as you’ve got your hands back.’

He leant over, turning his back to the bushranger, and began digging in his pack. He only looked away for a second but that was enough for Burn to grab his opportunity. He ran, zigzagging through thick brushwood, swallowed up by the fog. James turned, made a grab for his musket, aimed and fired. The heavy click, the distinct absence of an explosion made him curse and he began to run in the direction of his missing bushranger. The dogs were way ahead of him, howling through the mist. There was crashing and barking and a faraway shout – then silence. James knew he had lost him.

By the time he arrived back at camp Tom Guy was already there. He guessed what had happened. Neither man accused the other of anything. They both knew they shared the responsibility for that missed opportunity but a twenty-five year friendship wasn’t going to be tarnished by that. Tommy sat down and reached for his mug. The tea was nearly cold, but it was sweet and wet. There was a long silence before either of them spoke.

‘Bugger,’ said Tom Guy.

‘Bugger,’ said James Triffitt.

*

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