#35. Staking a Claim

Just as the sun’s first rays touched the gully, a cupped handful of water from the shallow brown waterhole hit Tom Nugent’s face. When the ripples had stilled he used his reflection on the surface to comb his hair with his fingers. He had washed his shirt the night before and, hung it on a branch. It was almost dry but not quite, raising goosebumps on his skin in the morning cool.

Sandy Myrtle walked across to join him. ‘Important day,’ said the big man.

‘Oh I don’t know,’ said Tom. ‘I like to take days as they come. Yet, we need to find some ground to work, that’s true, and the boys are all keen.’ He nodded towards Tommy the Rag, who was already dressed, ‘bandicooting’ for nuggets on the surface. Back up around the camp, most of the others were throwing down a quick breakfast.

When this was done, they gathered around, tacking up the horses and stowing hunks of Johnny cake and corned beef in saddle bags. None of them knew whereabouts on the diggings they’d be at dinner time, and no one wanted to go hungry.

By the time Tom had walked back and mounted his own horse he looked around at the rest of the Thirteen. ‘You blokes ready?’

They replied with a series of nods and quiet murmurs of agreement.

‘Then let’s go find the piece of dirt that’s going to make us rich.’

Ruby Queen Mine, 20 Miles from Hall’s Creek. State Library of Western Australia

Together in a group, all on fine horses, the Thirteen were a sight as they rode from claim to claim across the diggings, at once both desolate and industrious. Most of the flats had already been excavated to one degree or another, and some had shafts to various depths.

One such mine, sited on a hill of tilted slate, was for sale, and the owner took Tom below ground, where they crawled down narrow tunnels that seemed even hotter than the land above. By torchlight Tom saw the reef for himself, a variable yellow line cased in quartz, and surrounded by layers of soft, red sandstone.

Sandy refused to enter the shaft. ‘I’m a man, not a fucking wombat. I’ll work as hard as any two normal blokes, make no mistake, but I’ll do it on the surface.’

The Thirteen briefly discussed buying the claim, on the basis of proven, payable gold, but it would have taken every cent they could raise between them, and leave nothing for equipment. Besides, with claims free for the taking, apart from a registration fee, no one was keen to part with cash.

‘I was born lucky,’ said Larrikin. ‘We’ll find the gold, don’t fret about that, and without having to sell every damn horse we own.’

Everywhere they went – Macphee’s Camp, Hall’s Gully, and along the Elvire, they found the miners busy digging, panning, hauling and dry-blowing. Few were willing to offer the time of day. Those few who talked called them fools and told them to ride back to wherever they had come from.

‘Enough gold to buy a loaf of bread a day,’ said one. ‘This place isn’t a rush, it’s a damned fraud.’

Dispirited but still determined, in the middle of the afternoon the Thirteen reined in, overlooking a set of claims on the edge of an area called Rosie’s Flat.

Tom ran his eyes over the site. There was water in a gully, and even a couple of reasonable shade trees had survived the work. To look at, this spot was a cut above most of what they had seen.

‘Let’s see if we can turn anything up,’ Tom said, dismounting and removing the spade and pan strapped to the saddle. It was one of the few claims with enough water to be able to pan, rather than separate the gold dry.

Down in the gully, with Sandy on the shovel, they took a few pounds of gravel from a likely-looking natural trap. With the pan half-filled, Tom moved to the water and started swishing the load, scouring like a wire brush on the hard metal.

Tom was good at panning, fast but careful, and he was not even to the last fines before he caught the glint of yellow in the pan. He turned to Sandy and smiled. When he had finished the pan held a dozen or more specks of gold, but best of all a tiny nugget the size of a match head.

Larrikin bent over to look, then shouted. ‘What a thing it is to pull a little nugget out of your first pan-load! I told you I was lucky.’

‘It’s a good area,’ said Fitz. ‘Those trees for a start – the horses will be grateful for the shade.’

‘They can take turns at it,’ smiled Tom. ‘But I agree. Gold in the first pan is a good sign.’

The Thirteen walked the area, locating the pegs for eight adjoining claims.

Then, while the others reset the boundaries, Tom wrote down the claim numbers and went in with Sandy to the Warden’s office to register them.

As they rode back towards town the batteries were stamping, the sound carrying across the landscape. This heavy beat was matched with the swish of gravel being worked through home-made shakers. These were used on claims with no access to water, the resulting fines being winnowed to separate gold from dust.

Down past the mud brick post office, they left the horses at a public hitching post and walked towards the Warden’s office. They were passing a shop when Sandy spat on the pavement, at which time the storekeeper appeared at the door.

‘Hey you, fatty, spit somewhere else.’

Tom laughed, but Sandy turned and hissed. ‘I’ll spit where I bloody well like …’

The altercation would have developed further, but Tom Nugent pushed Sandy hard between the shoulder blades, away from the store. ‘You want to get us arrested?’

When the big man still wanted to have a go at the shopkeeper Tom dragged him bodily down two doors and into the Warden’s office. The interior was well lit, due to windows fronting both the street and a narrow alley on the far side.

A very thin man, decked out in black and whites, with a hanging watch chain, rose from a desk littered with papers, a pot of ink and a good supply of quills.

‘Good morning gentlemen. Let me introduce myself, I’m Charlie Price, the Mine Warden.’

‘Nice to meet you, Mr Price. I’m Tom, and this is Sandy.’

‘You blokes want coffee?’

‘Yes, why not.’

A face appeared at the alley window. The urchin’s cheeks were as grimy as that of a coal miner’s, but tinged more red in line with the local dirt. He wore clothes many times too large for his frame, and the once-white shirt was now grimy with grease and dirt.

‘Hey you,’ shouted Charlie. ‘Got an errand for ye.’

The child scurried around the corner, through the doorway and into the room.

The Warden tossed a shilling in the air, and the urchin caught it with a flick of his right wrist, opening his hand to view the coin. ‘So whaddya want with this?’

‘Three coffees from Esau the Afghan, an’ a coupla them little cakes too.’

‘Before ya can blink, Mister,’ said the urchin, and tore off through the door.

‘Esau the Afghan?’ Sandy inquired.

‘Yeah. That man the best bleeding coffee in the goldfields, providing you like it strong. Raises a few quid for the hospital with his sales.’

‘Strong is good,’ Tom agreed. ‘Now when does the “wet” start around here?’

‘We’ve had a storm or two, but no serious falls just yet.’

They were still discussing the weather when the urchin returned with coffee and cakes, as bold as brass with them, ‘Here you go gents, coffee fresh-made from Esau’s pot.’

Tom took a sip of his coffee, enjoying the strong flavour with a hint of cardamom. ‘Handy lad,’ he said, when the child was gone, ‘but talk about filthy.’

The broker lowered his voice. ‘No lad that one – she’s a girl – but the general riff raff around here don’t know that.’

‘A girl? What’s she doing here?’

‘There are three kids working a claim, two girls and their older brother Jake. He’s about fourteen or so – works like a bloody Trojan. I keep a bit of an eye on the poor buggers, and the girls often pop over and see if I’ve got any odd jobs to run – honest little imps they are. Between you and me they’re not seeing much sparkle off the claim, and sometimes the only money coming in is a few pennies from errands.’

Now that Tom thought about it he recognised the more feminine aspects of the child’s features. There was a softness to her eyes, and something about her lips. Partly because of his kindness to a struggling little family, Tom felt himself warming to the Warden.

‘Now,’ Charlie said finally. ‘Now that we have coffee, I wonder if you gentlemen would enlighten me as to how I might be of assistance.’

Tom took out the sheet of paper with the claim numbers on it. ‘We’d like to register these abandoned claims.’

The Warden looked up the numbers on a sheet. ‘Two of these belonged to a young bloke from Perth, and the others to a syndicate that split up a few weeks ago. Those blokes are gone for good as far as I know, so I have no objections provided you have the ten pounds claim fee per plot.’

Tom fished in his pocket. ‘You’ll accept a cheque, of course sir?’

‘Provided it’s a good one.’

‘Oh it’s a good one, alright,’ said Tom.

‘Good-o then. What might be the full names of you gentlemen?’

‘Thomas Nugent and Alexander McDonald, more commonly known as Sandy Myrtle.’

The mine Warden’s face fell. He put down his pen and fell to rummaging through the papers on his desk. He located a paper and started reading it. ‘Oh dear,’ he began. ‘This isn’t good.’

‘What the bloody hell is going on?’ complained Tom. ‘Can we just register the claims and get to work?’

‘No, I’m terribly sorry, but we’ve had a letter from the Northern Territory police stating that you two gentlemen, along with five other named men and six unnamed, are of unsound character, wanted for serious offences in the Territory, and are not to be issued with licences or be allowed to register claims.’

Tom locked eyes with Sandy. ‘It’s that damn Searcy, who’s done this,’ he said. Then to the Warden, ‘This is a grossly unfair. We have committed no crime on Western Australian soil.’

‘That’s as may be, but under the terms of the Mining Act the Commissioner may refuse to issue permits or claims to persons believed to be of unsound character. That he has done on the basis of the letter. In other words,’ he said. ‘I can no longer help you … much as I would like to of course.’

Tom saw the rage building in Sandy’s eyes, and shot him a harsh glare. Putting this man off side would be a mistake. ‘We’re disappointed of course,’ he said, ‘but do thank you at least for your consideration. And please do allow me to pay you back for the coffee.’

‘No, I won’t hear of it.’

‘Then we’ll be heading off.’ Tom shook hands with the Warden and managed to get Sandy out the door while the steam was still building.

Out on the street the big man pushed Tom’s restraining hand away. ‘That snivelling bastard Searcy. I wish I’d killed him when I had the chance. He must have had that letter delivered by hand for it to get here before us.’ Seeing that they were passing the shop again, Sandy paused to spit on the front window.

‘Wishing won’t help us,’ said Tom, ‘and neither will pissing-off shopkeepers. We have to work out how to get those bloody claims signed up to us somehow.’

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

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