The Wet Season arrived for two weeks in February. Less work was done, replaced with horseplay and drinking. Some days the rain was so heavy that the best course of action was to cover the shaft with canvas, find some shelter, and open a bottle
There was never a dull moment. Jake and his sisters became fixtures around the camp, and some of the Thirteen lent a hand with a shovel or a gift of beef when it was needed. Missus Dead Finish hung around between carrier jobs, swearing and smoking and drinking rum with the best of them.
Some Irish lads had a claim nearby, always fighting and getting into trouble, and everyone knew Russian Jack, the man who had once carried a mate all the way to Wyndham in a wheelbarrow for medical help. It was a fascinating community to be a part of, and the Thirteen enjoyed the company and laughs while they fought to make a living from stone, gravel, and an erratic gold leader called the Heartbreaker.
The rain lifted as fast as it had arrived, and the land turned dry again, burned mercilessly by a sun that seemed to have rejuvenated from the pause. At least now the gullies and creeks were full of water, and the work of panning and cradling carried on apace.
One afternoon, when Tom came off his shift, he saddled up and rode into Halls Creek for a beer. He was enjoying the cool feel of the glass against his hand when some horsemen came down the road. Six riders in all. Lean horses and hard men, with Martini-Henry and Snider rifles in leather scabbards, trailing packhorses.
Even the busiest diggers paused to watch them arrive. There was no doubt they’d been on a long road, and had ridden hard. Tom sipped his beer as he watched them dismount outside the shanty. The only one of the six he recognised was a lawman for hire called Lucanus. Tom’s sense of unease deepened.
Old Joe Templeton owned the stables across the road and offered a public tough for a penny a time. Tom watched the newcomers take the horses across.
Joe was out in a flash. ‘That’s my water, gentlemen. You want it, you pay up.’
For a moment Tom thought they would refuse, but after much scowling and angry looks some coins were produced and thrown to the dust at Joe’s feet.
‘No manners!’ cried Joe.
‘Shut ya gob you old bastard, or I’ll give you more than you bargained for in return for the cursed water.’
Finally, with the horses watered, unsaddled and tied to hitching posts, the six riders headed for the bar. The leading man, older than the others, face twisted into a permanent scowl, nodded his head at Tom, then said, ‘Whoever heard of a shithole where a man has to pay to water his horse.’
Tom explained. ‘Water’s at a premium here – even after rain that water has to be carted up from the river in a dray. What’s your business? You don’t look like diggers.’
‘No we ain’t. My name’s Edward Barnett. It was my brother George who got murdered by the blacks up near Hell’s Gate. We’ve just been fixing up his grave.’
‘It oughtn’t take six of you to do that,’ Tom said. ‘And you blokes look girded for war.’
The man grinned wickedly. ‘We plan to unleash hell on the Kija for doing what they did. We’re just in town to wet our throats and fill the packs with tucker. Those savages will wish they never messed with my brother.’
‘Five of them have already been arrested, by Sergeant Sherry, and sent up to Wyndham in chains.’
‘All five were released,’ spat Barnett. ‘The judge said there weren’t enough evidence to convict them.’
‘Well how the hell are you s’posed to work out which one’s guilty or not?’ asked Tom.
‘Oh, we’ll know.’
‘And what’s the point, anyway?’ Tom put down his glass. ‘Revenge isn’t going to do anybody any good – just stir things up.’
‘I don’t know who you are and I don’t give a flying fuck. Just get out of my way.’
Within two or three days refugees started to arrive at Brockman, a settlement about seven miles from Halls Creek. Esau the Afghan came from town to assist the midwife O’Neil, with tending the wounded in her shanty there. When Tom heard he rode out to see for himself.
Gunshot wounds were ugly things, Tom decided as he viewed them, the .452 projectile fired by the Martini-Henry rifles opening gaping wounds in belly, thigh or arm. Anyone struck closer to the vitals, Tom guessed, would already be dead.
He asked one of the lesser wounded, who had once worked as a tracker, and thus knew some English, what had happened.
‘All-up proper finish. Fambly all g’wei or prop’ly dead.’
‘Can you tell me where the white men’s camp is?’
The black man nodded grimly. ‘Magoombarra Country. Panton River you white mob callim.’
Tom rode back to the claim in a rage. ‘Stop work you bastards. We’ve got a job to do. Mount up, load your weapons, we’re going to do what the so-called authorities in this part of the world are too gutless to do.’
It was the first time the Thirteen had ridden together in a while, and Tom wasn’t the only one who wondered if it might be the last. Blind Joe rode bareback in the lead, for he’d learned the local country well, and had not lost the keenness of his eye.
On the way north they found a Kija camp, the wurlies torched and fresh ground disturbed from fresh spade-work. Tom felt a lump of anger in his throat that he just could not swallow down.
They found Edward Barnett’s camp less than a mile away, on a good Panton River waterhole. The Thirteen surrounded the Six, who were lounging around the fire drinking rum.
‘Go back to where you came from,’ Tom said. ‘You’ve had your revenge, and I hope it sickens your heart until the day you die. I’m Tom Nugent by God, and I’m slow to anger, but if you push me I’ll bring hell down on you fast enough.’
August Lucanus rose to his feet, hands in the pockets of his dungarees. He looked around at the horsemen and sneered. ‘The Ragged Thirteen! I’ve heard of you – breakers and enterers – horse thieves. Tea and sugar bushrangers. Not the smartest crew in history. If you think you scare me – or any of us – you’ve got it wrong.’
The Thirteen trained the sights of their weapons on Barnett and his men. Sandy Myrtle had a double-barrelled shotgun. He raised it also, tucking the butt under his armpit.
‘I haven’t shot anyone with an eight-gauge before,’ he commented. ‘I’ll be interested in the results.’
‘Get out of here,’ whispered Tom. ‘Now.’
Sullenly, the Six caught their horses, packed stores into saddlebags and rifles into scabbards.The Ragged Thirteen followed them as far as the Nicholson River, and lined a ridge, watching until they had passed away into the East.
‘Good riddance,’ said Tom. ‘But mark my words. We’ll be paying for the actions of murderous bastards like that for a long time to come.’
Continues next Sunday …
©2019 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