Gunning, New South Wales; a small town on the Old Hume Highway, south of Goulburn, and in the 1840’s, a frontier settlement. For the handful of pastoralists holding land grants in the vicinity, the little town was home to the general store, the hotel and the church. Therefore a lifeline for those living in the back and beyond of nowhere.
One such settler was John Kennedy Hume, brother of the famous pioneer colonial explorer Hamilton Hume, who, with his colleague William Hovell, first discovered the route to Port Philip, the line of road now known as the Hume Highway.
John Kennedy Hume lived close to Gunning and must have visited the general store many times to stock up on provisions for his wife and growing family of nine children. One day, unhappily, he would never return to his loving wife Elizabeth.
The notorious bush-ranger, Thomas Whitton, was prowling the district, causing mayhem everywhere he and his gang appeared. Baling up bosses, and freeing their servants, with an offer to join up with him. While Whitton’s men, pillaged the property of anything valuable they could find. It is even recorded that Tom Whitton had one unfortunate gentleman farmer tied up and whipped to within an inch of his life by one of his own servants.
On that fateful day in late autumn 1840, my characters, Luke Wlliam Reddall and his newly acquired friend, John Baker, from England, happen to call at Gunning on their way to Luke’s property ‘Durra Durra,’ south of Ten Mile Creek. Little do they know what awaits as they enter the general store.
Snippet taken from chapter one of my soon to be published novel ‘Durra Durra; Insurgence and Inheritance’
After loading the packhorses with supplies and saying goodbye to Martha and Anne, Luke and John headed down the track towards the Cullarin Road, the morning air keen and crisp as it is on the plains when autumn turns to winter.
“We’ll stop at Coopers in Gunning,” Luke said. “We’ll need tobacco and tea. I didn’t want to run the stores down on the farm.”
“The vastness is amazing,” John said, overwhelmed by the expanse and beauty of the scenery, “But you must be accustomed to it.”
“Not at all. The landscape was the reason I decided to take up the grant. I was in two minds whether to come this far south, but when I saw the place I fell in love with it.”
Passing through the little hamlet of Cullarin, the men rode on talking casually for the most part, Luke asking questions about England.
“I didn’t tell you, John,” he said, “I’ve found mothers journals. They’re in the saddlebags. They’re in a bit of a mess, but I’ve managed to find the two that should be the most revealing. They’re the diaries from 1815 to 1820. The years before we came here. I might find some clues to the names you mentioned. What were they again?”
“Sorry Luke?” John said, pretending not to have heard.
“The names you mentioned from your birthplace. What were they?”
“I can’t remember. What did I say?”
“The place where you’re from.”
Despite his reluctance, John had to answer.
“Suffolk. I’m from Suffolk.”
“Then you mentioned the school and the man who founded it.”
“Sir Stephen Soame.” John replied, unwillingly.
“Yes, that was it. I’ll read through them and see if they crop up.”
John was silent, determined not to mention any more places or surnames. How honest had Mrs Reddall been to her diary, he wondered? Had she needed to tell it everything to unburden herself? Perhaps, though, even this would have been too much to reveal to a blank piece of paper. Anyhow, even if they did finally reveal to Luke the secret of his birth and the identity of his mother, he would still only have half the story. Mrs Reddall never knew the real father. Only John knew, and aware that when the time came to tell the lad he would need to choose his moment well.
Very soon, beside the long, straight road, the township of Gunning came into sight, simply a jumble of houses lining the street. There was no mistaking Mr Cooper‘s store as eight bullocks and a dray stood in front, along with a string of horses tied to the rail, the bullocky inside buying provisions no doubt.
Luke and John rode up and, tying off the horses, strode onto the veranda, the doorbell ringing merrily as they stepped inside.
“Hold fast!” a voice growled from behind the door, “Or I’ll blow your brains out!”
Luke and John froze.
“Throw down your guns.”
Luke felt under his coat for his gun belt, dropping his pistol on the floor.
“You too mate,” the man said to John, kicking the pistol away.
“I don’t wear a gun.”
“Well, ain’t you the brave’un. But then, by the looks of you, I reckon you could certainly take care of yourself.”
Luke felt the barrel of a fowling piece digging into his back. John, a pistol.
“Now, move inside.”
Entering the store Luke and John quickly realised they had walked in on a hold up.
Standing behind the counter, his face white as ash, Tom Cooper had his arms above his head, while a man held Cooper’s wife in his arms, his hand clasped over her mouth. Her eyes stared at Luke hysterically, while three men ransacked the shelves and boxes, pulling out draws and cupboards.
“Come on you bloody bastard!” one of them shouted, “Where do you keep it?”
“That’s all I have,” pleaded Cooper, “I’ve nothing else. I swear!”
“You’re a bloody liar,” yelled the man behind John and Luke. “Everyone knows you’re fucking loaded. If you don’t tell us where it is, your wife gets it. I feel ready for a jump this morning. I’m as randy as a roo.”
All of a sudden, Luke saw a man lying on the floor, his body large and wearing leather trousers and a sacking jacket. It’s the bullocky, he thought and, seeing blood running from beneath him and across the earth floor, Luke realised he was dead.
“I bet you’re sorry you dropped by gentlemen.” the man said in Luke’s ear, “But if you’re lucky enough to survive this day, you’ll be able to tell your grand kids you were stuck up by the Whitton Gang.”
Obviously, Luke knew of Tom Whitton. His gang were lately working the Great South Road, from Goulburn to Yass. In fact, all the way to the border with the Port Phillip District, holding up mail coaches, travellers, homesteads, inns, and stores. Nothing was exempt from their trail of despotism.
“Have I the pleasure of addressing the man himself?” Luke asked calmly.
“You do sir. Now move over to the counter and turn around.”
Doing so, Luke was surprised to see how young Tom Whitton was; possibly, by the looks of his fresh face; he and Luke were practically the same age.
“Now, gentlemen,” Whitton said, “Empty your pockets on the counter and be quick about it.”
Luke and John dug into their breeches, fishing out the contents. Everything John had was outside in the saddlebags; therefore, the only things he lay down were his pipe and tobacco pouch. Luke however possessed a wallet and his watch and, as the rest of the gang continued hollering at Cooper and manhandling his wife, Whitton crossed the store, brandishing the fowling piece and pistol.
“What have we here then?” he snarled, picking up the wallet and looking inside, then casting an eye over the watch. “Not much I see. Except a handsome timepiece. I thank you, sir.”
“It has great family sentiment Mr Whitton,” Luke said, “Please don’t take it.”
Whitton flipped open the lid.
“What’s it say here?” he said, squinting at the engraved inscription.
Luke’s voice suddenly filled with emotion,
“It says, ‘To my son, Luke William Reddall on reaching twenty one. Your loving father, Thomas Reddall, Clergyman, Campbelltown, sixth April, Eighteen Hundred and Thirty Six.’ Please let me have it back Mr Whitton.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Reddall. I can’t do that. It’s a nice piece and I’ll probably get a good price for it, once I’ve got rid of the words that is. But there again, I might just keep it. I’ve a need for a new one.”
He put Luke’s watch into his waistcoat pocket and opened the wallet again.
“Not much in here for the likes of a gentleman such as you.”
“We only came to buy tobacco.”
“With two packhorses and saddlebags outside.”
Whitton was quick. Luke had to give him that.
“I just might have a look in them bags, if I may” Whitton continued.
Gesturing to Luke and John to move back to the door, they went outside and, keeping the firearms aimed at their chests, Whitton crossed to the first pack-horse and began unbuckling the straps holding down the canvas covers.
“Stick your hands up!” a voice shouted from across the street, “I’ve got you in my sights Whitton. One move and you’re a dead man.”
Startled, and struggling to see where the voice came from, Whitton looked around, giving Luke and John enough time to run into the shadow at the side of the store.
“Where have you gone, you bastards?” Whitton cried, reeling round.
At that moment, a shot rang out, a bullet smacking into the wooden boarding of the storefront, Whitton ducking under the horse, attempting to see where the shot came from.
“What do you want?” he shouted.
“You Whitton. You and your gang.”
“You’ll never take us alive,” Whitton screamed, “You’ll have to kill me first.”
“Well Mr Whitton that will be my pleasure.”
From out of the shadows, Luke’s eyes searched the houses on the other side of the street, only seeing a curtain twitch here and there, as people watched the fight through their windows. Then suddenly, something inside an open doorway drew his attention. It was light flashing off the barrel of a gun. Whitton must have seen it too, because in a split second, a loud report preceded a windowpane shattering in a house across the street.
“Out here you blokes!” shouted Whitton to his men, “But keep your heads down.”
John and Luke huddled in the darkness against the wall.
“Come on,” John whispered, “Let’s get out of here while we’ve the chance.”
With Luke following, he and John scurried down an alleyway beside the store, and finding the back door open, ducked inside.
With all of the gang outside in the street, Luke and John were able to run into the rear of the store unchallenged, finding Mr Cooper consoling his weeping wife.
“Find my pistol,” Luke said, “Whitton kicked it over there somewhere.”
Together, they hunted amongst the boxes and barrels, all the while hearing shots resounding from the street.
“Who do you think is firing at Whitton?” John asked, turning aside a sack of flour.
“I don’t know. Could be the troopers, but to me it appears like one man.”
“If you‘re right, whoever he is, he’s doing a grand job holding them off.”
“Here it is!” John yelled, finding the gun behind the sack.
“Come on!” Luke shouted as he and John ran and opened the front door.
“They’ve spread out,” Luke said, peering into the street, “We’ll be clear if we get to the horses.”
Using the animals as a shield, they quickly established the position of the gang.
“I can see one bloke next to the post office.” John said, over the clatter of gunfire.
Luke squinted in the glare of the sun.
“There’re three ranged along the front of the hotel,” he said, “I can see the smoke from the guns.”
“Where’s Whitton?” John shouted.
Looking around, they could see no sign of him.
What about the man in the doorway? Luke wondered whether he was still there. Yes. He could see the shadowy shape and the barrel of the gun as he rapidly reloaded between rounds. It was then Luke saw Tom Whitton creeping along the veranda, hugging the wall, getting nearer every second to the open doorway.
“Whitton!” Luke shouted, letting off a round in his direction, “Hey you inside,” he called, “You better watch it or you’re a dead man.”
Whitton however was young and fast and, with one barrel of the fowling piece, sent a volley of shot over Luke’s head. Then, rushing into the open doorway fired the other barrel into the house, Luke quickly reloading, but it was too late.
“Come on mates,” Whitton shouted to his gang, “Let’s get out of here.”
Firing his pistol while running across the street and back to the store, Whitton grabbed the reins of Luke’s horse.
“Fine bit of horse flesh mate,” Whitton shouted, “I’ll take him if I may.”
“You bloody bastard!” Luke shouted, running into the street, firing at him, “I’ll kill you!”
Laughing, Whitton climbed into the saddle.
“No you won‘t,” he shouted, “You’ll have to catch me first.”
“I’ll hunt you down Whitton, mark my words. There’ll never be a day pass, without you won’t look for me over your shoulder and one of those days, I’ll be there.”
“And what makes you think; I’ll not search you out first and finish you off.” Whitton shouted, joining his men. “I’ve got you name Mr Reddall. So look out.”
With the gang galloping away, all Luke heard was the scream of a terrified horse.
Once the dust cleared, Luke and John peered into the doorway.
Everything was still.
“Hey you!” Luke shouted, “Are you alright?”
There was no reply.
“Who is it?” John whispered.
“I don’t know. Cover me.”
Giving John his pistol, Luke moved slowly towards the open door.
“We’re friendly!” he called inside, “Whitton’s gone,”
Still there was silence.
“I’m coming in!” Luke shouted.
His eyes growing accustomed to the darkness, Luke saw the man lying flat on the floor, a pistol still in his hand. It was obvious he was dead. Who was the mysterious fellow he thought? Certainly a brave man, to say the least, since, had it not been for his intervention, they might all be dead.
The man was well dressed and obviously one of means. So, leaning over the corpse to see his face, Luke instantly recognised him. He was Luke’s neighbour, his property, Collingwood, bordering the eastern edge of Mutt Billy. It was John Kennedy Hume.