Two days to the new moon and the sky darkened quickly. A faint yellow glow on the western horizon was the last remnant of a warm dry-season day. Tom Nugent’s eyes, however, were as good as a cat’s in low light. Years of night watches on droving jobs, and desperate dusk-to-dawn rides had honed that sense to blade-sharpness.
Tom also knew the lay of the land around the Ragged Thirteen’s old claim at Rosie’s Flat. His current position, lying prone in an old trench near where Jake and the girls had camped, overlooked the Chinese diggings, without offering himself to view.
His eyes were fixed on the man he had spoken to a few days earlier: the guard with the rifle, protecting the Celestials and their rich new find. Ever since Tom had stopped to talk to that guard, something had bothered him. ‘I know the bastard from somewhere,’ he said to himself. Everything about the man: his walk, the way he handled his rifle, was familiar. Tom continued to watch while the Chinese miners finished up for the day, performing the last few chores by the light of slush lanterns.
The last miners came up from the shaft, and a barrow of rich ore was drawn up into the centre of the camp so it could not be pilfered. Tom was more interested in the heavy lumps of pure gold that had come from the ‘jeweller’s shop’ they’d found, deep down in the shaft.
‘The Ragged Thirteen’s gold,’ said Tom quietly. ‘The gold that should have been ours.’
The Thirteen had been digging, out at the new claim, with high hopes. Tom had stayed positive as they stripped load after load of spoil off the surface of the hill, running in a ribbon parallel with the direction of the first leader. But in his heart he knew that it was dead ground. There was no second vein of gold underneath. No miracle, and he had been wrong to talk the others into staying. Now he had to make things right for them.
Tom watched as one of the Celestials, a boss to judge from the swagger, counted a number of coins into the white man’s hand, and bowed. The guard shouldered his rifle, and left the claim, walking along the track towards town, whistling as he went. At that moment, Tom remembered a name, and a drunken meeting some two or three years earlier.
Picking himself up, he dusted down his clothes, and set off in pursuit, leaving his gelding where he had tethered him, at the base of a black wattle tree. He followed on foot for half a mile, some hundred yards behind, until they reached a sly grog shop run by an old cheat called Hobbs.
The place was near empty, and the guard pulled up a chair. Once seated, he shouted for rum. Old Hobbs himself skidded out with a bottle and glass, pouring it full. He was scarcely half way back to the bar before his customer demanded another.
‘A man’s not a bloody camel, ya know. He doesn’t carry moisture in his damned hump!’
Tom waited until the man had downed the second rum before he stepped out of the shadows, adjusted his turban, and sat down at the table. The rum drinker’s face darkened with annoyance.
‘Scuse me, but I don’t recall inviting such as you to sit down with me.’
‘I know who you are,’ said Tom. ‘You’re Jack Martin – the man they call the Orphan.’
The reaction to this was instant. In a fraction of a second the rifle that had been leaning against the table appeared, laying across the tabletop to point at Tom’s gut. ‘Who the hell might you be, then?’
Tom lifted off his turban, keeping it off for a moment or two before replacing it. ‘My name’s Tom Nugent.’
‘Tom Nugent? The captain of the Ragged Thirteen? The poor bastards who used to work that claim I’m mindin’ the Celestials on?’
‘You got it, old mate. You and me met up in Borroloola once, at Billy McLeod’s shanty.’
‘I remember now, you were ridin’ with Harry Readford.’
‘And proud to do so,’ said Tom.
The Orphan drained the last of his glass, then banged the table to get the barman’s attention. ‘More rum, and hurry it up.’ Hobbs hurried over, and waited for a coin, which was slow in coming. The Orphan said loudly, ‘Bein’ an Afghan and all,’ he winked, ‘I take it you won’t be drinking.’
‘That’s right,’ smiled Tom. ‘No rum for me.’
When Hobbs had gone the Orphan squinted slyly. ‘I heard that the traps were out looking for you.’
Tom inclined his turbaned head. Two days had passed since word reached his ears that Alfred Searcy had sailed back to the NT. ‘I know they were, and I’d say that they’re still looking for you too. I heard about the robbery on the Palmer River. Is that what you’re planning here?’
‘To be honest, they’re paying me so well I’m not even thinking that way.’ The Orphan paused. ‘So why did you follow me?’
‘I’ve got a bit of a hankering to find out where the Celestials have stashed the gold from my claim.’ Tom smiled. It was a well-known fact that they always took their gold home to China rather than cashing it in locally, mainly because it was worth more per ounce over there.
‘Why would I tell you that? If I wanted to steal it, I’d take it myself, but as I said, things are good, and I’m keeping clear of the law in this state.’
‘Just tell me where it is and I’ll make it worth your while.’
‘And what do I get out of it?’
‘A one-sixteenth share, fair dinkum and risk free. You don’t have to raise a finger.’
‘I’m listening,’ said the Orphan.
Half an hour later, both men, mounted now, rode into the Hall’s Creek township. They steered clear of a prize fight going on between two bloodied and shirtless men before a yelling, betting crowd on the main strip. Leaving the horses tethered to public hitching posts they walked away from the gas-lit area, and into the lantern-lit alleys of the town’s little Chinatown.
Winding their way past smells of Asian cooking and gambling dens, they reached an intersection with an outdoor dance hall and pub on one corner. The two men took a table closest to the street, with the Orphan looking pointedly across at the opposite side.
‘There’s three types of Celestial on the diggings here,’ said the Orphan. ‘The Pekinese, Cantonese and a smaller group from Macao. The ones working your claim are from Canton, which is why they wear their hair in a bun and not a pig-tail. That’s their Joss House, across the street.’
Tom looked. The diggings-style temple was built of poles, and clad with sawn timber, as substantial a building as any around here. Chinese letters were painted in red above the open door.
‘They bury the gold in the ground under the altar, and a courier takes it up to Wyndham and back to China every three or four weeks.’
‘When’s the next shipment?’ asked Tom.
‘Soon. Prob’ly the next few days, but I have to warn you, four or five of their best men sleep in there every night. They’re young tong fighters, tough as nails, and they’re armed.’
Without any warning, a band consisting of an accordion, a drum and fiddle started up behind them. The two men turned to see a dance act come out onto the stage. One of the dancers was a graceful Aboriginal girl, and the other a grown man no more than four feet tall, hamming it up, making a hash of the dance to make the crowd laugh.
From the Joss House across the road, a young Chinese emerged, then another. Both were square-jawed, athletic types. They laughed at the act, then called for three more of their mates to come and watch, laughing amongst themselves.
‘That’s them,’ said the Orphan in a low voice. ‘They like the free entertainment.’
Tom wasn’t listening. He was watching how the young Chinese men left the Joss House, moving closer, half way across the street to get a better view of the act. After the dance was over, they turned and disappeared into the red Chinese lantern light of the interior.
Tom continued to sit, thinking hard, the seed of an idea germinating in his mind.
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