The shaft went twenty-five feet straight down before angling back towards Halls Creek. The work was done square and neat; well-shored and precise. Tom had seen how successful miners cut their shafts and he was keen to emulate them.
After weeks of sweat and ten hard-won yards on the flat, speculation mounted that the leader might not be far away, but when they finally found it, there were no shouts or carrying on. The Thirteen knew enough about goldfields to keep good fortune quiet.
Larrikin emerged from the shaft, shiny with sweat, took a long pull from a water bag, then walked over to Tom, who had come off his shift an hour earlier.
‘Hi there Tom,’ Larrikin said quietly. ‘I think you’d better come down and take a gander at something.’
Tom put down his mug and followed, down the shaft-ladder, then walking bent over, near crawling at times until they reached the face.
In the light of a slush lantern Tom saw veins of yellow and red, in thick seams of blue quartz, running in jagged, random lines in the sandstone parent rock.
‘The red is hematite,’ said Tom, ‘and the yellow is gold.’ He turned and grinned back at Larrikin. ‘Looks like you’ve just found the Heartbreaker.’
Within an hour the Thirteen made up an anxious group pretending to be nonchalant, hanging around the camp while Tom and Larrikin brought the first bucket-load of ore out. They crushed a few handfuls with a hammer in a pan, then took it down to the water.
Tom used one of the bigger pans to do the work, taking his time, sluicing it back and forth so a little spilled each time. It was a hot, still afternoon anyway, but the heat seemed to go up a notch, and the world stood still.
When it was done they could all see the gold in the pan. Not as much as they might have hoped, but it was real gold not pyrites or mica. Tom took a pinch of it on the end of his finger and held it up.
‘Now at least we’ve got something worth taking up to the battery,’ he said. ‘We’ll get two or three ounces to the ton, quite likely.’
The others stared back, adding and subtracting figures in their heads. Taking into account crushing fees at the battery, and gold at three and half pounds an ounce, there was profit at the end of the process, but nothing wild unless the leader thickened.
‘Maybe the find will get richer as we go along,’ said Tom. ‘Let’s hope so anyway.’
The following afternoon, fresh from a dinner-time argument with Sandy Myrtle over horses, Tommy the Rag swung his pick at a lump of quartz, missed and buried the point in the middle of his foot. The wound spurted blood like a hose, and he sat, gripping the wound and cursing Sandy for upsetting him. Bob Anderson wrapped it in a clean rag and helped him up to camp.
Despite the application of ‘Moore’s Sovereign Remedy’, the only medicine they had to hand, Tommy’s lower leg was soon swollen, streaked with red and hot to touch. Within a day or two the wound leaked pus, and the gang started wearing worried frowns.
Missus Dead Finish arrived on her weekly run and was at Tommy’s bedside as soon as she heard. With a useful medicine kit to draw from she tut-tutted at the dirty bandages and ‘medicine’ Tommy’s mates had used.
She cradled the sick man’s head in one huge elbow. ‘You poor little barsted,’ she said. ‘C’mere and I’ll have ya on ya feet in no time.’
And she set to wiping his brow on her hands and knees, made him soup, delivered spoonful by spoonful, followed by shots of neat rum.
The rest of the gang were touched by the devotion in that night-long vigil. Tom Nugent commented several times that it was like there was a yellow shaft of light shining down from the moon, directly on the pair. ‘I never thought the old girl had it in her,’ he said.
But even these ministrations failed, and the next morning Missus Dead Finish stalked to the main fire, where the men were lounging around, eating Johnny cakes and smoking pipes.
‘Get up, one of yez, and help me carry Tommy to the wagon. I’ll be taking the poor barsted to Wyndham. He won’t get better without a doctor.’
It was a while since Missus Dead Finish had lost her husband, and since then she hadn’t seen much in the way of attachment. Now, for some reason the injured Tommy filled her heart. It was a strange feeling but she liked it, and the thought of him dying made her afraid in a way she hadn’t felt for while.
The four draught horses, that she normally nursed on the journey, she now drove with single minded determination, talking to them long into the night. They had hearts as big as their bodies, part-Shire, part-Clydesdale and a touch of Irish. They plodded on, while Dead Finish used the big moon as her guide.
‘We can’t let Tommy die, boys and girls. He’s a good one. So pick your pace and hold it, for we won’t be resting ‘til we hit the Ord.’
It was early in the morning before she saw the river shining like polished steel, and the horses strained against their harness to reach it. There, on stony banks of that fast-running waterway, Missus Dead Finish found her usual camp. There were other fires there that night, prospectors heading to and from the diggings, but she kept apart from them.
She left her patient in the wagon while she took the horses down for water then hobbled and belled them to graze. Then she lifted Tommy down and propped him by a cheery campfire, fed him with broth she had brought in a cooking pot.
‘How you holding up, young feller?’ she asked.
Tommy found the strength to nod while Dead Finish piled both their swags on top of one another, to increase his comfort, and when the time came for sleep she stretched out beside him on the bare ground, with only her pillow and a spare garment or two for bedding. She slept but lightly, and started awake with his every noise, dribbling water or rum between his lips.
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