Tom Nugent knew a bit about prison cells. He had once been thrown in the Blackall lock-up with his mate Harry Readford, accused of possessing eight stolen horses. It took three days for Harry’s bribes to filter out to all the witnesses. The charges were dropped and the pair walked free. Tom had also earned a night or two in police cells from Brisbane to Burketown, usually for being disorderly or fighting.
His Wyndham cell, Tom decided, was not too bad. His first act was to pace it out with long strides from wall to wall. Six paces wide and eight deep, with a sleeping bench along one side, and a drum that served as a latrine. The floor was coated with greasy bones and other scraps from past meals.
Once his investigations were complete, he set about cleaning up, rolling the grimy blanket and using it as a broom, sweeping the scraps under the bars and out of the cell. The gaoler watched incredulously throughout.
‘Hey you! Stop making such a Godawful mess for fuck’s sake.’
‘Ah shut your fat mouth,’ said Tom. ‘You should be ashamed of putting a gentleman in a filthy shithole like this one.’
‘I don’t see no gentleman, just a dirty horse-thief.’
‘That’s yet to be proved.’
‘An officer has been sent out to Alexandria Station to check your story about the horse being a gift. Unless it checks out, which I highly doubt, you’ll be facing a magistrate soon enough.’
‘If they find enough evidence to convict me I’ll dance naked on the Anton’s Landing jetty at sunset,’ Tom said.
‘No you won’t, because you’ll be locked up, right where you bleeding well belong.’
‘Just get me a clean blanket,’ said Tom, ‘and you and me will get along well enough.’
The policeman, disarmed by the overture, dropped the belligerent stare and turned away.
‘Make that two blankets, would you mate?’ Tom called after him. ‘I’m fond of using one as a pillow.’
The best thing about that cell was a large, barred window. It was possible, Tom soon discovered, to stand on his latrine-drum and look outside over a small grassy park, and a neat white-painted building, all the way to the Cambridge Gulf.
The stone window was a good yard square, and though broken by eight thick, vertical bars, the sea-breeze, once it got up in the late morning, flowed easily through the spaces, and Tom swore he could smell the spice of distant islands. Either way, it sparked his imagination and passed the time.
On the third morning he noticed a bustle of activity in the building in the foreground of his view. Standing on his chair he realised that this must be a school house. Children started arriving at eight-thirty, escorted by parents and siblings, many riding double on horseback or sitting up in carts, most walking up from the close-packed shanties. They were a boisterous lot, boy and girl alike, the children of lugger skippers, store keepers and publicans – many shades of brown, yellow and white.
From nine until eleven there was strict silence, and little to see, as the children attended their lessons inside. Yet Tom heard for the first time a species of voice he had not heard for a while. Cultured, feminine, yet undoubtedly in control. Tom breathed as soft as he could so as to hear all the better. Even when the fat gaoler walked past and attempted to needle him with a comment, Tom ignored him.
At eleven a handbell rang, and the children erupted into the yard. A young woman swept after them, and Tom stopped breathing altogether. She was tall and blonde, bustling around the children. Tom decided that she was the singularly most beautiful human being he had ever seen. And from that moment on, he thought of nothing else.
Back in Halls Creek, the Ragged Twelve-and-a-Half were cleaning their tools and putting them away for the night. Bitterness permeated the camp like a drug. They all still dreamed, but those dreams had gone stale.
Three really big nuggets had come from other claims in the last two weeks. Life-changing nuggets, plucked from the surface, while the gang had sweated their guts out underground for months, for a few ounces of colour. It hurt too much to speak of.
Sandy Myrtle was sipping weak tea when he saw the figure of young Jake sprinting over the mullock heaps and scrub between the claims. All arms and legs, he was instantly recognisable.
Knowing something was wrong Sandy sat his mug of tea on a rough lump of sandstone that served as a table and came slowly to his feet.
Jake shook his head. ‘Have you blokes seen young Nellie?’
Sandy felt a chill in his chest. ‘No.’
‘She was here around noon and I haven’t seen her since.’
‘Have you ridden in and asked the Warden?’
‘Yes, he said he saw her once, around one. She borrowed a map off him, said it was for me, then booked up some flour and matches from the store. One of me waterbags is missing, and a spade and pan. Last night Nellie was bangin’ on that we needed to find a new place to dig. She’d heard about those damned nuggets those lucky bastards found.’
‘Jesus,’ said Sandy, while the others gathered ’round. ‘She’s gone into the bloody desert? Right you blokes, we split up and look for her. Meet back here in two hours if no one’s found her in that time.’
‘Me and Bob Anderson will go around the main camps,’ said New England Jack. ‘If she’s there we’ll find her.’
‘I’ll ride north,’ said Fitz.
‘South,’ said Sandy.
Sandy called out. ‘Hey, Blind Joe. Get up here, we got work to do.’
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