#54. The Night they Robbed the Joss House

At four in the afternoon, Tom set his pocket watch to the same time as Sandy Myrtle’s and sent the big man into town with Larrikin. Their saddle bags bulged with costumes that had been the subject of much discussion, with some important input from Jake’s two girls. Larrikin had his dancing shoes tied by the laces to his Ds.

‘You’re the only man in the world I’d do this for, Tom,’ Sandy said.

‘I appreciate that,’ said Tom. ‘But without you two we wouldn’t have a hope in hell of pulling this off.’

‘I’m just a tad worried about my mare,’ said Larrikin. ‘Promise me someone will ride for Red Jack if she starts to foal. She’s close, her teats are full and she’s waxing …’

‘That’s a promise,’ Jack Dalley piped up ‘Don’t worry about her. The boys an’ me will be watching, and Scotty’s got his nag saddled up ready – he’ll have that red-haired witch here in a jiffy.’

Sandy and Larrikin rode off at a trot, and two hours passed before Tom, Fitz, Wonoka Jack, Carmody, and young Tommy the Rag chased up their steadiest packhorses and their own mounts. They dressed in dark shirts and dungarees, and strapped revolver pouches to their belts. All four of them had scarves ready to tie across their faces; ‘like Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne must’ve worn before they took to wearin’ ironmongery,’ as Tommy the Rag put it.

‘Now, remember boys, we’re not about to shoot anyone,’ said Tom. ‘We take what’s due to us and that’s it. Now come on, let’s ride.’

They took the journey into Hall’s Creek nice and slow, then wound their way down narrow tracks between the claims, keeping their mouths shut and trying not to attract attention.

But by God, thought Tom, it felt good to ride high in the saddle, wearing a good pair of boots, with a weapon at his hip and adrenalin flooding into his system. Sure, he had his Arab garb on top, complete with turban and cloak, but his regular bushman’s clobber was underneath. The night was perfect for this kind of work – dark, with air cool as crystal and the stars riding high. The moon was so thin it looked like a snip of fencing wire.

Heading into town, they moved off the main track, cutting through scrub between a couple of worked-out gullies before reaching the alleyway that served as the diggings’ Chinatown. Tom led a couple of pack horses. Fitz, Tommy the Rag, Carmody and Wonoka Jack came behind, talking and laughing and passing a bottle like men on a blow-out.

They reached the intersection alongside the Joss House. Tom dismounted, and the others followed suit. The Joss House was in full view, along with the open-air dance theatre across the road, where a noisy crowd occupied the tables, drinking and cat-calling, yelling for the next act to come out.

‘We’ll wait here,’ Tom said. ‘Try to look busy.’ He set to work checking one of the horses’ hoofs, swearing about the damn thing being lame, all for the benefit of anyone watching. After a minute or two he consulted his pocket watch and looked anxiously across at the dance stage. Still, nothing was happening.

‘Hurry up, damn you Larrikin,’ he muttered, and looked up to see his old mate Jack Martin, the ‘Orphan,’ pass along the street, giving him a subtle nod that surely meant that the gold was still there. That the ‘job’ was on. The adrenalin that buzzed inside Tom quickened his heartbeat.

Then, less than a minute after the appointed time, there was a burst of shouting and applause. The music started up, and Larrikin ran onto the stage, twirled once, then started to dance. Tom had forgotten how damn good he was. He started with a tap routine, then free danced in perfect time with the fiddle, accordion and banjo. How on earth a motherless child from the Norman River had learned to dance like that was one of life’s mysteries.

The crowd clapped, but Tom was watching the Joss House. Soon, the first of the young tong guards came out the door so he could see the show, and as Larrikin’s routine went on, the second emerged. The first called inside and the others joined them. All five were now watching Larrikin dance, but remained fixed against the wall near the door, making entry impossible. Still, Tom knew that it wouldn’t be long now, the next part of the act was about to start. That would surely draw them away a little. He tore the Afghan turban from his head, and removed the cloak. He tied the scarf he had brought over his face, leaving only his eyes free. The others followed his example.

‘Come on, Sandy,’ Tom said, under his breath. ‘Now!’

As if in response to the urging, and with an attention-seeking bellow, Sandy Myrtle, wearing nothing but a tiny skirt, his huge belly and man-breasts open to the crowd, wobbled onto the stage. The audience screamed with delight. How could every eye not be drawn to him? They shouted with delight, laughed until tears ran from their eyes. For Larrikin’s every step and twirl, Sandy followed, writhing his hips, shaking his chest. The five tong guards laughed and clapped, moving halfway across the road to get a better view.

‘Let’s go get it boys,’ said Tom, turning to his mates. ‘Remember that the Orphan reckoned we’d find it under the altar. We’ve got a couple of minutes at best.’

Leaving Tommy the Rag in charge of the horses, Tom, Carmody, and Fitz ran around the dark side of the building, then slipped inside like three shadows. Each of them carried a pair of canvas saddle panniers. Carmody had a shovel, and Fitz a short-handled mattock. Wonoka Jack followed, also entering the Joss House, but his only task was to watch the tong guards from just inside the doorway.

Joss House Altar. Photo by George Cole, NT Library.

The Joss House was lit by candles and smelled of incense. The altar was up towards the front, and all three of the men fell to their knees as if to pray, but instead pulling aside a floor covering, revealing the earth below.

Fitz started chipping away with the mattock, the iron head biting deep into the ground, while Carmody used the shovel to scoop away the spoil and chuck it willy nilly back on the temple floor.

They had penetrated only eight or ten inches when the mattock struck wood with a hollow thump.

‘That’s it,’ hissed Tom.

They went at it with their hands, revealing the lid of a wooden crate. Tom took a grip at one end, and Carmody the other. Fitz also found purchase, and the three of them lifted it out.

‘Bloody Christ it’s heavy,’ hissed Tom. His entire body was sweating, hands slick with clammy dust. Carmody slipped the shovel blade between the lid and body of the box, opening it to the accompaniment of a soft splinter of wood.

There was a groan from Fitz at the contents: calico bags of gold dust, soft and heavy as a policeman’s cosh.

‘Leave them,’ whispered Tom. ‘The dust isn’t ours, but these damn lumps of gold … by rights they belong to us.’ His fingers found them before his eyes. They were stored in larger bags, heavy and irregular. ‘Hurry boys, they’ll be getting weary of Sandy in a minute, and he’ll be getting weary of them.’

They tore open the canvas panniers, and shoved gold in, trying to keep a balance as best they could. Now there was only the sound of three breathing men and the occasional hiss of a candle. They blocked out the laughter and music from outside, concentrating on the work of taking the gold.

‘Hurry you bastards,’ hissed Wonoka George from his post near the doorway. ‘I think they’re about to come back.’

Tom was half on his feet as he scrabbled in the box one last time. ‘We’ve got it all, lads. Let’s fly.’ He was last out the door, bolting past the guards, who had mercifully turned to watch the show again. He and the others worked with nervous fingers to strap the heavy panniers to the pack horses. Then came first shout of alarm. He turned to see the Chinese running into the Joss House, exclaiming loudly, audible even over the sound of music.

On the other side of the road, one of the hecklers had got too much for Sandy Myrtle, who had stopped dancing. Red in the face, he was shouting down at a man sitting at a table near the stage, brandishing a giant fist, threatening to punch his ‘stupid head off his shoulders.’

‘Go, now lads,’ shouted Tom, swinging onto his horse. He turned to see one of the guards emerge from the Joss House, stopping to aim and fire a revolver. Being in front of the blast, the discharge was shockingly loud, and the weapon flashed a tongue of flame, but where the bullet landed Tom had no idea. When next he looked the five tong guards were in hot pursuit, and other Chinese were melting out of shopfronts and alleys up ahead, forming what seemed to be an impenetrable barrier.

The gang were mounted, however, and they charged for the end of the alley, scattering men, dogs, and a donkey that had come from nowhere. More commotion came from behind, and Tom turned to see that it was the half-naked Sandy, and then Larrikin, galloping hell-for-leather to join the rest of the crew.

There were more gunshots, but so much dust was being raised, and the column was charging down so fast, that they must have had little hope of a target.

‘Stay with me,’ cried Tom, setting his sights on the gully across the road. Once they were into the scrub, he would back these ragged mates of his against anybody.


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


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