Hard work on the claim brought on a fierce hunger. Fitz had seen a mob of station bullocks on their logging forays and rode out with Jack Woods, three pack-horses, and a .577 calibre rifle to investigate.
Twenty-four hours later they were back, loaded down with Durack beef, and Jack soon had tongue, rounds and briskets soaking in his own special corning solution.
‘We had to ride a fair old distance,’ said Fitz, ‘but there’s plenty more where this came from.’
Eye fillets went straight into a searing hot pan, and full bellies contributed to a sense of confidence and well-being. ‘Best feed since Christmas day,’ said Sandy.
‘This here is more tender,’ reckoned Larrikin, talking with difficulty through a mouth chock-full of steak.
The easy availability of beef, there for the taking, gave Tom an idea. He tacked up his gelding in the dawn, filled a water bag and rode out of camp alone, against a sky fringed with black, purple and yellow thunderheads, lying dormant but threatening on the horizon.
It was a while since Tom had been alone in the bush, and within a mile or two he was enjoying himself a great deal. Recent storms had brought on a goose-picking of new grass, while the dry husks of last year’s speargrass crackled under his horse’s hooves.
For a time he followed a meandering dry creek bed. It was easy riding, with hardly any vegetation on the floor. Tom liked old creek beds: the layers of clay and quartz in rows, ancient logs embedded in the banks and bones of long-dead marsupials. It was cool, too, shaded by paperbarks, the air somehow older and richer.
He saw wells that had been dug by the local Kija people on a bend, brimming full. He filled his water bag and took the smallest of his gold pans from his saddlebag, washing the gravel from some likely looking spots.
Other prospectors, he was certain, had already swarmed over this area and rejected it, so Tom was not surprised when his efforts were unrewarded. He didn’t care – he was enjoying himself. Twice he saw signs of Kija food-gathering along the creek, but they melted away long before his approach, leaving just footprints in the sand, and once, a still-smoking cooking fire.
By smoko time the sun was high and it was time to head home. Reaching the first and only substantial waterhole on that creek, he quickly panned a few more loads of gravel without success, then packed up.
He climbed the grey up the steep right-hand bank, and, consulting the folding compass that he always carried, took a bearing on a distant high pillar of stone that climbed high into the air.
Even at the trot it took a while to reach the landmark, and when he got there it Tom gentled his horse up the slopes to the summit. Once there, he could scarcely believe his eyes, there was not one, but two pillars of stone. Between them was a sunken circle of ground.
Tom knew that this was exactly what he was looking for – a natural holding yard. With steep sides over most of its length he decided that with the addition of some rough fencing it was a perfect place to hold a few head of cattle, maybe twenty or thirty.
No water, of course, but still Tom tucked away the location in his mind and rode on, taking a new bearing to the north east as he again rose to the trot to eat up the miles in a direct path home.
As the Warden had suggested, a nearby claim was worked by a teenager called Jake and his two little sisters. It was a poor claim, elevated and dry, far from water and filled with boulders that had to be shifted with pick and crow bar.
Tom walked over late in the day. The boy stuck his crowbar in the earth and came to meet him. Wearing only a pair of dungarees, and pint-sized to begin with, he was a lean as a whip, with not a bit of fat on his frame.
‘Hi there young fellow.’
‘My name’s Tom Nugent. Me and my mates have taken up a bunch of claims in the gully yonder.’
‘Yeah alright, good to meet ya. Well … I’ve got a bunch of work to do.’
Tom pointed at one of the two slim figures at work winnowing fines. ‘I met one of the young’uns in the Warden’s office. I know all about you and … well … I just wanted to say that you’ve got thirteen new mates now. Ever have any trouble and we’ll help out.’ Tom hefted a cloth-wrapped parcel in his hands. ‘Brought you something too.’
Jake turned, ‘Hey Nellie, fetch that billy off the coals and get a cuppa for the visitor.’
They sat on stumps and drank tea from chipped enamel mugs. It was a poor camp, and the sugar jar was empty. One of the girls unwrapped the cloth from Tom’s gift. Inside was a big lump of silverside, and she couldn’t resist a little cry of excitement. Tom guessed that they’d be eating well for the first time in days.
‘So why are you three here all alone?’ he asked.
‘Mother and Pa brought us up from Perth, all the way to Broome. Mother was going to stay in town while Pa came to the diggings.’ The boy’s eyes settled on the ground, studying it intently. ‘They went out one evening for a sail on Roebuck Bay and never come back. They was both drownded. We had the deed for the claim Pa had bought, sight unseen, and some diggin’ equipment, so I brought the little ‘uns here. I didn’t know Hall’s Creek would be like this – it ain’t like Pa was describing it.’ Jake looked out on the desolation of those fields.
‘I’m sorry to hear of your bad fortune, Jake, but I’m guessing,’ he looked upwards, ‘that they’d be proud of what you’re doing here.’
Jake had a tear in his eye. ‘Sorry I weren’t so welcoming when you first turned up. I admit I was a bit scared when I seen you men arriving. You look pretty rough – all them beards and swearin’ and yelling and carryin’ on.’
Tom smiled, ‘Yeah, we’re a bit of a wild bunch, and none of us care much for the so-called laws of the state. But we’ve got our own laws, and they’re iron-hard. We look after each other, and help out people where we can.’ He drained his mug. ‘Thanks for the cuppa. I’d best get back to shovelling, or the other blokes will think I’m a shirker.’
‘I hope you find some gold soon.’
‘Well, we’ve been finding a little, here and there.’
Jake looked at the big lump of beef and seemed to be on the verge of tears. ‘Of course you have, but I hope you find a nugget the size of your bloody heart.’
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