On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales and unleashed itself on the fly-speck town of Flint. Sarah’s murder became the warm, still heart of several days of frantic activity in which almost every one of the town’s two hundred or so residents had a tale of chaos or loss. Trees cowered and snapped in the winds; horses bolted. Desperate to escape the river’s rising waters, snakes invaded the Porteous house, forcing Mrs Porteous and her two infant daughters to spend several hours perched atop the kitchen table with dresses hoisted about their knees until husband Reginald returned from work to save them. Jack Sully the blacksmith broke his arm trying to secure his roof, although there were well-founded rumours he was actually drunk at the time. Dead cows, swollen tight, bobbled about in the floodwaters for days. And old Mrs Mabel Crink lost her sight, which partly accounted for the name by which the maelstrom became known: the Blinder.
Sarah’s father, Nathaniel Walker, said he scoured the entire area for Sarah and her older brother Quinn, neither of whom had been seen for most of the afternoon. He searched their usual hideaways: behind the chook shed; under the house; in the hollowed-out gum by the eastern fence of their property. Nothing. Eventually, he stumbled upon them in the abandoned shed by the lake at Wilson’s Point, two miles from home. By then it was too late, of course. Nathaniel was speechless. The boy appealed to his father, but his words were drowned out by a rumble of thunder. Nathaniel’s brother-in-law, Robert Dalton, appeared huffing that very moment at Nathaniel’s shoulder, saying, ‘Good God, what happened here?’ even though — what with the blood on Sarah’s thigh, the disarranged clothing, the knife in Quinn’s fist and the blue of his sister’s lips — Blind Freddy could have seen what had taken place. Young Quinn flung down the knife, clambered through a hole in the shed wall and vanished into the storming darkness. It all happened so quickly, Nathaniel and Robert were too stunned to give chase. The boy was able to slip away unhindered.
Sarah and Quinn’s mother, Mary, was home reading at the bedside of her eldest son, William, who was that week stricken with a fever. Rainwater spooled heavily over the eaves, and the air rattled with thunder. Their house was solid, well built, but she feared for them all and for many years afterwards she recalled stopping mid-page and looking up with a prick of dread. It was the feeling she recognised from when she lost another child back in 1890, the half-formed one that slithered from between her legs three months too soon. Come in, Huck, but doan look at his face — it’s too gashly. Mary closed the book softly so as not to disturb the drowsing William.
She was a woman of faith, mildly superstitious, and for the remainder of the dark afternoon was unable to shake off a sensation of doom so acute that when Nathaniel arrived home in the evening, bedraggled, weeping, it was with a certain resigned stoicism that she listened to the appalling news. Of the precise details she refused to hear anything, saying that it was enough it had happened, it was enough such a thing had happened at all.
Naturally, the town was aghast and the particulars of the horrific crime — such as they were known or deduced — were speculated upon wherever people gathered: at the bar of The Mail Hotel; in clattering kitchens; on verandas; round the back of Sully’s place where men huddled to smoke; on blustery, wintry street corners. A reporter from the Sydney Sun with the unlikely name of Mr Philby Rochester arrived in Flint and proceeded directly to The Mail, where he gathered information for the wide-eyed delectation of his city readers. The town had not seen such drama for many years, certainly not since the gold rush had faltered, and there hovered about its public places a guilty air of ill-gotten excitement.
With the Walker family in mourning, Robert Dalton took on the role of unofficial chronicler of the event. He told the reporter and anyone else at The Mail who would listen that he had always known something sinister was brewing between the two siblings and that he could have prevented the terrible crime had he or the boy’s father arrived on the scene earlier. ‘Just a few minutes,’ he would say, emphasising the tragic smallness of the moment with thumb and forefinger almost pincered. ‘If that boy so much as shows his face around here again, I’ll hang him from a tree.’
He claimed there had always been something unusual about Quinn, a feeling the boy’s father Nathaniel also professed to have shared, much to his eternal regret now that it was too late to do anything about it. He had tried to keep them apart but they clung to each other like bloody burrs to a sock.
The town’s notoriety was brief. On the third day after the murder, the reporter Mr Rochester was found passed out drunk in an area by the river known as the Flats and unceremoniously bundled aboard a coach bound for Bathurst, some thirty miles away. Despite their best efforts, police and the local tracker Jim Gracie were unable to locate Quinn Walker, as the heavy rain had washed away all traces of the murderer. Sarah was buried several days later in soil still sodden from the storms.
Although police forces in Victoria and Queensland were notified, and a reward of £200 posted, Quinn was never found. It was generally assumed the sixteen-year-old fugitive had met a fate satisfying to the world’s innate sense of justice. Theories popular for a time held that he had been eaten by wild dogs that roamed the nearby ranges; had fallen into a disused mine shaft; had been speared by blacks.
Flint residents continued to tell stories of the dreadful crime, particularly on stormy afternoons that prompted men to remark to their wives something along the lines of: ‘Terrible day. Always reminds me of the Walker girl murder.’ Whereupon the fellow’s wife would stop rolling out pastry or plucking a chicken, stare wistfully into the middle distance and shake her head. ‘That poor, poor woman. To have a son like that.’
Years later, in 1916, Mary Walker received a telegram from an officer serving in the Australian Imperial Force in France regretting to inform her that her son Quinn was missing in action, presumed killed, but that he had been a wonderfully brave man etc. etc. It seemed the boy had escaped all those years earlier after all, only to die somewhere far from home. When he heard the news, Nathaniel sniffed his good riddance and went about his business. Mary wept all over again.
Over the years, the townsfolk indulged their human propensity to make something from tattered scraps. They embroidered a tale as one might a blanket or quilt — a rumour here, a supposition there — until the story of Sarah Walker’s rape and murder became historical, complete with a beginning, a middle and an end.