The Elvire River wound down towards Hall’s Creek, with an established trail on the high ground beside it, marked with heavy wagon ruts and bush camps along the way. Graves were common, as were cairns of stones and timber crucifixes.
On a short cut between loops of the river, propped up at the foot of a boab tree, the Thirteen came upon the body of a man. There were no kite-hawks or crows circling in the air above him, for they were busy on the ground, pulling the flesh from his cheeks and the eyes from their sockets. The sharp beaks had also found entry through a hole in his chest. Clouds of flies crawled like a living mass over his body and swarmed in the air.
Tom used his revolver to dissuade the kite-hawks, shooting one dead and scattering the others into slow flight, dragged down by the weight in their bellies. The Ragged Thirteen, either standing or mounted, looked down on the remains of the man.
‘Poor bastard,’ said Larrikin. ‘I wonder what got him.’
‘A bullet or a knife, I’d say,’ said Fitz. ‘Those birds got into his chest easy enough – must’ve been a wound to start them off.’
‘Let’s bury him,’ said Tom. ‘No man deserves to be eaten by a pack of damned birds.’
The others agreed, and while Larrikin and Scotty started off, Tommy the Rag went through the dead man’s pockets and swag. There was a battered old chequebook from the Bank of South Australia, and Tommy examined it briefly and slipped it into his top pocket. He caught Sandy Myrtle’s eyes.
‘He won’t be needing that where he’s going.’
The grave was a shallow one, and they compensated by piling rocks on top. No one talked or smiled until they had moved on to the river, where the main track ran, busy with men hurrying to the diggings. Others were leaving, eyes sunken with fatigue and disappointment. Many offered to sell information or the few shovels and pans they still had.
‘I’ve got a hand-drawn map of the diggings,’ one of them offered. ‘Two and sixpence for hard-won intelligence that’ll save you time.
They crossed a dry tributary, the Black Elvire, and struck the first diggings soon after, up Saunders Gully; hundreds of men hunched over their sluices and shovels, but also a surprising number of claims lying abandoned. A waterhole on the main junction was clogged with men and horse teams taking water, washing gravel. No one stopped to talk, but hurried like ants in that world of mullock heaps and shafts, pistols at their hips, watching through narrowed eyes as the newcomers rode in.
‘Friendly bunch, aren’t they?’ Wonoka Jack muttered.
‘Diggings are all like this,’ Tom Nugent said. ‘Anyone with a decent patch is dead certain someone’s going to jump their claim, or strike it rich next door, or steal their gold. Don’t expect the time of day from these people.’
It was another seven or eight miles ride to Hall’s Creek itself, and the Elvire River now became a rocky gully, with flat topped red hillocks in a landscape dry as dust. The creek that gave the town its name was no better, apart from a couple of small pools here and there.
‘No wet season here, as yet,’ commented Tom. He noticed more abandoned claims, testament to the fickle nature of greed, as he led the Thirteen half a mile north of the township, looking for a campsite. Blind Joe scouted out some poor-quality blue grass, located above a bend in the river bed that held a reasonable puddle. With the exhausted horses hobbled, and unlikely to stray, the men dressed in their best clobber, and strapped revolvers to their waists.
Leaving the stockboys to watch the camp, they walked in a group back towards town. The sun was starting to sink into a dusty horizon when they arrived. It was a village of shanties, lively and noisy with lanterns up on poles and half a dozen grog shops. All the stores were open into the night, even the mud-brick post office and police station.
One man was offering a patch of common on which new arrivals could water and feed their horses, for there was not a blade of grass to be seen. Silage worked out to a shilling a horse per day.
‘That’s why we left the horses back at camp,’ Tom said, and they walked down narrow streets lined with shanties and bough shelters. The original inhabitants of these dry ridges sat in the dust under the few surviving trees, and their children played with cast-off things from the miners.
In one of those alley-like streets they came upon the darkest den in that dark den of Hayes Creek, a twenty-four-hour cesspit of drink and opium.
There was a card game going on in one corner. The croupier was a man with one eye, a sawn off double barrel on the green felt table in front of him, and a wall of split logs to protect his back. He dropped cards with monotonous practice, always perfectly in place, talking only when necessary.
The players were diggers. Most played with small nuggets or bags of pure gold. They scarcely glanced up as the Thirteen arrived.
The other drinkers in that dingy bar were more interested in the gang’s arrival. One was a whiskered old Irishman, drinking often from a jug of ale, yet with a canny look in his eye. There were two young men at the bar itself, and judging from their clothes, they were fresh on the fields. Another was too well dressed to be a local, with the look of a remittance man about him.
There was a mean-eyed rascal with a huge Colt strapped to his hip, glaring at the newcomers as they walked in. A table of Chinese played mah-jong on ivory tiles, opium pipes lying idle in a tray.
Tom fronted the bar and shouted to the mangy-thin attendant. ‘Bring us thirteen bottles of rum and thirteen glasses,’ he called. ‘And food.’
The Thirteen dragged three tables together and planted their elbows down. When the rum came, Sandy Myrtle poured his glass full and raised it. ‘Here’s to a long journey’s end, and a successful quest for gold.’
The others followed suit, and soon a waitress was bringing plates of beef and real yeasty bread, dripping with butter. Fresh produce too! Tomatoes and cucumbers from the Chinese market gardens. The Thirteen ate hungrily, while, with the coming of night, the shanty started to fill with diggers coming off their claims, thirsty and tired.
One such man had scarcely walked in the door before he spotted Tom, and shouted, ‘Well if it isn’t old Tom Nugent from the Hunter Valley.’
Armed with a tumbler of rum the new man squeezed in with the Thirteen.
‘Hey you blokes,’ said Tom, ‘this is Luke Frey, I used to work with him in the Gulf.’
There were some handshakes and murmured greetings, but the new arrival didn’t interest them much, the food and rums, and yarns between themselves being of more interest.
After a while a prostitute started working the bar, leaning over the men, slapping hands away from her bosom, disappearing now and then with a man for a small nugget of gold or a half crown.
‘Are yer tempted?’ Tommy the Rag asked Sandy Myrtle.
‘Not at all, boy. I’m happy with she who waits for me back at camp. Let these daft yokels waste their nuggets and get a dose of the clap as the price of their pleasure.’
Pleasantly content with the food and rum, Tom Nugent got down to quizzing his mate about how things worked at Hall’s Creek.
‘The diggings are winding down,’ opined Luke Frey. ‘You blokes have missed the best of it.’
‘That remains to be seen,’ said Tom. ‘Who’s to say there’s not a rich reef just yet undiscovered and that this place will end up like Hill End or Ballarat?’
‘That’s very true,’ said his mate, ‘but such a reef ain’t been found yet.’
‘So what’s the best way to get a claim?’ Tom asked. ‘Find new ground to peg?’
‘Just take yer pick from what’s been abandoned. Under the rules here, once the claimants been gone for seven days they’re anyone’s. You just have to check with the Mine Warden and register it for your own self. You feel like a walk?’
The Thirteen took their half empty bottles and walked down the narrow lanes that wound between the claims, following gully and dry creek, hill and tailings heap while Luke Frey talked and took swigs of their rum.
‘See that place there? Old Roly Phelps from England hung himself from the headgear after working it night and day for months, garnering barely a speck for his trouble. Had no funds even to get home. The claim over there was worked by two Russians, then two Adelaide lads. A few nuggets was all that was took.’
‘But there’s still gold here?’
‘Yes there is, but it’s patchy. The blokes who are still here are mostly finding enough to keep afloat … just.’
‘So where do we start looking for claims?’ asked Tom.
‘Anyplace, really. Take a ride around tomorrow. Most of the productive diggings are in an area from Holes Creek in the south, to the Black Elvire in the east, and to the China Wall in the north.’
‘The China Wall?’
‘An exposed quartz reef that runs for a couple of miles, like the backbone of a beast standing proud from the earth. It’s rather spectacular; take a look when you get a chance. Anyhow, there’s the diggings south of here, along Hall’s Creek itself, but the main action is now to the south east – Nuggetty Gully, Rosie’s Flat, and the Twelve Mile. Most of these have no water so you’d either have to buy it in or dry blow your ore. I’d be panning some of the gullies ‘til you find some encouragement – choose your claim where you find colour.’
They came, finally, to Like Frey’s own claim, with a candle light winking from a slab hut and a dark woman’s face in the glassless window. The Thirteen took turns to shake his hand and thank him for the information. Then, neither sober nor drunk, they walked back to their camp, full of the scent of rum, dirt, gold, and adventure.
Continues next Sunday …
©2018 Greg Barron
Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com