Billy had been waiting under a lancewood tree, just outside the Newcastle Waters Telegraph Station, since the new moon. Sometimes, at night, he slept. During the day he smoked his clay pipe, or boiled up a billy of tea, but most of the time he just waited, like Mister Alfred Searcy had told him to.
Finally, early one morning, the operator wandered outside, holding a sheet of paper in his hand. ‘Hey Billy,’ he called. There’s a message here addressed to Mr Searcy. All the way from Wyndham, Western Australia. Is that what you was waiting for?’
Billy took the message, folded it, and buttoned it carefully into his top pocket. This done, he hurried off to catch his horse, an energetic chestnut filly, with a striking, flaxen mane and tail. Billy had stolen her from a brumby-runner’s bush yard and broken her himself. She came trotting up to his whistle, and he saddled her up for the ride of her life, wheeling her away towards the Gulf.
In thirty hours of alternating trot, canter and walk, Billy reached the rugged cliffs of the Abner Range, then followed the Kilgour down to the Macarthur, riding into Borroloola at noon on the third day. His filly was spent, but still alert. He loved her more than ever.
Alfred Searcy, spotting Billy from his verandah, walked down to meet him, taking the telegram in hand. ‘Good work, Billy. See to your horse, then head out the back, and the cook will make you some tucker.’
Alfred, unable to wait another moment, unfolded the paper out on the street, taking in the words eagerly.
TOM NUGENT ARRESTED AND DETAINED STOP UNFORTUNATELY PROOF OF CRIME DIFFICULT DUE TO ALTERED BRAND STOP ADVISE OTHER AVENUES STOP J LANCE WA POLICE
Alfred frowned and headed back in to his desk to think, calling out for O’Donohue to help him do so, while Billy sat in the lean-to kitchen and ate his own weight in beef and johnny cakes.
Now that the rat was in the trap, Alfred thought, there had to be a way to keep him there.
Meanwhile, in Wyndham, after a day or two of watching the school mistress in the playground, Tom Nugent borrowed a quill and sheet of writing paper. After thinking through the words he wrote.
Dear Madam, I hav ben admiring from a distence the exemplery way in wich you conduct your school, and also the manor in which you comport yourself. If only I was not forced by vile circumstance (no fault of my own) to be constrained by the constabulary (only temporary I assure you) then I would be most pleased to make your aquaintaence. Yours Truly Thomas Nugent
Later that day one of the senior girls, opening the playtime batting, slogged a slow delivery Tom’s way. The hard cork cricket ball rolled to the grassy area just below the barred window of his cell. A boy jumped the low police yard fence, long limbed, carefree and unafraid. As he approached Tom called out. ‘Hey lad, will you run an errand for me?’
The boy nodded his freckled face. ‘I reckon so.’
‘Will you take a note to your teacher?’
‘I guess I will, if you want me to.’
Tom folded the note tightly and threw it out between the bars, watching it flutter to the ground from where the boy picked it up.
‘What’s her name?’ asked Tom. ‘Your teacher, I mean.’
‘Miss Byrne it is, mister. I’ll give her the note directly.’
Tom settled down to watch while the boy hurried back, chucking the ball to his mates in a long, looping underarm, just as the school teacher appeared on the verandah with a hand bell. The lad walked up and handed her the note, pointing back towards the police lock-up.
The teacher took the note without reading it, pausing only to look Tom’s way. As he watched, she folded and tucked the message up her sleeve. This done, she raised the handbell and began to ring it. The children streamed into two ragged lines at the foot of the stairs, then marched inside. Peace settled on the school house, and Tom went over to lie on his bed, staring at the ceiling, a strange little smile fixed on his face.
Later in the day, long after the students had gone home, Tom watched as the school mistress came out from the school house, locking it behind her, staring at the lock-up, narrowing her eyes as if trying to see inside. He wasn’t sure if she could see his face in the darkness of the cell behind the bars, but he stared back at her nonetheless.
With Blind Joe, and Tom’s boy leading the way, it was strange procession that readied themselves for a move out to ‘Nellie’s Reef,’ as they were already calling it. Preparations, though, had to be made without attracting too much attention, for the diggers roundabout were always looking for signs of a new strike.
‘Why have me and Carmody got to stay behind?’ complained Tommy the Rag.
Sandy flared. ‘Because if we abandon the claim the Chinese or some new chum will take it – we’ve put too much hard work into it for that.’ Then, to the others. ‘Right you lot, let’s move out.’
Sandy took the lead, riding Jonathan James, followed by Jake, Nellie and little Mary. Fitz rode with Bob Anderson, then Larrikin, leading his now heavily pregnant mare. Wonoka Jack and George came next, with New England Jack. The rest of the camp followed – mostly women, some of whom had been with some of the Thirteen all the way from Queensland or the Centre. Right at the back rode Scotty, looking back constantly in the direction of Red Jack’s camp.
By noon, they had reached the dry hill where Nellie had fended off the dingoes, and with the gear dumped and the horses grazing, the men were soon out specking. Within an hour, two more gold-bearing fragments had been found.
‘There’s no damn water so we’ll be dry-blowing,’ said Fitz, ‘but there’s gold here, no doubt.’
Sandy agreed. ‘Let’s peg every square inch for half a damn mile. This one is ours.’ He glanced at Jake. ‘You happy, partner?’
Jake grinned while little Mary hugged his leg. ‘Haven’t been happier for a long while.’
That evening, back at the old claim, Tommy the Rag poured two full pannikins of rum for he and Carmody. The fire was a lonely place with just two of them. Missus Dead Finish was out carting from Wyndham, and Carmody had no woman, like most of the others did.
‘Those bastards are trying to cut us out of our share of gold at the new claim,’ drawled Carmody. ‘It just isn’t fair.’
‘I do. I’ve never felt too equal with this gang, no matter how they talk it up – this whole Ragged Thirteen thing is all for the benefit of Sandy Myrtle and Tom Nugent, I say.’
‘Oh I dunno,’ said Tommy. ‘They’re good men – and Tom’s in bloody gaol – took the rap without a word.’
Carmody gulped at his drink, and a drip of rum ran down from each corner of his mouth and into his beard. ‘Those horse thievin’’ charges won’t stick – that brand change was as slick a job as I’ve ever seen. Nugent will be back here to take the lion’s share of any gold in no time.’
‘I don’t reckon you’re right there, Carmody.’
‘Let’s wait and see, eh? They’ll never forgive me for Maori Reid bein’ my brother in law. They’ve cut me and you out of this new claim, and left us here on this useless square of ground to scratch our balls. You might be too dumb to see it, but it’s clear enough to me.’
‘Ah, have another rum, complainin’ won’t help,’ said Tommy. But the thought of the rest of the crew out on a rich new field made him feel sick inside.
He slept badly enough as it was, but the following morning, over a late breakfast of johnny-cakes and treacle, nursing splitting rum hangovers, the beat of horses’ hooves had them on their feet and watchful. A moment later, Bob Anderson and Jake rode in at speed, pack horses trailing.
‘Hey,’ Tommy cried as they reined in, ‘back so soon you two?’
‘That’s it,’ said Jake. ‘Don’t say a word, of course, but the new claim is alive with gold. We’ve got eight ounces in my saddlebags to buy supplies, and we’re here to register the claims.’
‘And whose name will the claims be registered under?’ sneered Carmody.
‘Jake an’ ‘is twa lasses,’ said Bob. ‘Ye ken thet belter o’ a Warden won’t gee’z us our own.’
Carmody stood back, arms crossed over his chest. ‘That’s what they say. Well don’t let us keep you. Tommy and me are riding out to this new claim to make sure we get what’s ours.’
Tommy stared at his mate. ‘We can’t just leave this place, after all those months.’
‘Let the damned Celestials have this God-forsaken slice of hell, I say, but listen: it has to lie unworked for seven days before it’s classed as abandoned. Someone can ride in once a week and turn a hand for an hour or two – dead easy.’
Bob Anderson shrugged. ‘*Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye. Jake ‘an me hev work to do.’
After they had gone, Carmody tacked up his horse and assembled his gear. He turned to Tommy. ‘Are you coming with me, mate?’
‘Yeah,’ said Tommy at last. ‘I’m coming.’
Continues next Sunday …
*What will happen, will happen.
©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