With dawn not far off, Tom sent Blind Joe on a good night horse to a peak about a mile away, to watch for any signs of pursuit. Then, while camp was struck, horses saddled and packs loaded, Tom and Larrikin divided the gold into sixteen fair parcels.
Jack Martin, ‘The Orphan,’ rode in for his share, whooping with delight when he saw the glint of gold. ‘You blokes,’ he warned, ‘aren’t out of this yet. You’ve got those tongs stirred up and no mistake, and they’re mobilising every Celestial for miles around.’
‘Thanks for the advice,’ said Tom. ‘And good luck to you.’ The Orphan rode off into the night, whistling a tune as he went.
Within the hour, the eastern half of the sky was saffron yellow, and the birds chattering and singing in the scrub. The men were ready, their mounts saddled and packed. One by one they took their gold and stowed it deep in saddle bags or rolled into swags.
Only Red Jack refused her portion. ‘I’ve got these two foals, they’re worth more than gold. Dole it out between the rest of them.’
As if they knew that words needed to be said before they rode off, the Ragged Thirteen, along with Jake and his sisters, formed up in a rough circle, shuffling feet and smoking pipes.
‘Well I suppose this is the break-up,’ Tom said. ‘It’s been an honour and privilege to be mates with you bastards.’
They didn’t know what to do, so they clapped and hollered, all aware that this was the end of something special. When the cheering stopped they formed a rough line to take their leave of Tom, one by one.
Sandy Myrtle was first, huge and humble. Touched with the sadness of the moment. ‘I’m proud to have ridden with you, mate.’
Tom took a massive fist in his own. ‘Likewise, Sandy. Where are you headed?’
‘Back to the Centre. I’ve heard rumours of a gold find out of Stuart. Little place called Arltunga.’ He waved one arm at Jimmy Woodforde, who was standing lankily beside him. ‘Jimmy’s riding with me.’
‘Good luck with the mining then. I thought you’d have had enough?’
Sandy shook his head. ‘No more grubbin’ for gold for this feller. You’re looking at a storekeeper from here on.’
‘You too, Jimmy?’ asked Tom.
‘Nah, I’m not the storekeeper type. I’ll find somefin’ to do.’
‘Good on you both,’ said Tom. ‘And all the luck in the world.’
Scotty came next, big and handsome, his hat in his hands. ‘Guidbye, Tom. And may fortune foller yew around, all yer days.’
‘I’ll miss your tucker mate,’ said Tom. ‘You’re a born cook. Are you going to stick with Red Jack?’
‘I will, fer a bit. She’ll have to tarry while those little neddies grow a tad, but then she swears she must ride alone. Most likely I’ll be there ‘til Larrikin rides back fer his mare.’
‘Well,’ said Tom. ‘She’s a force of nature, that woman. There aren’t no point arguin’ with her.’
Young Jake was waiting for his turn, shaking Tom’s hand like a grown man. ‘I can’t thank you enough Tom. Me and the girls’ll head for Broome now. I hear they’ve found some pearling grounds, and the bay’s alive with luggers. Thanks to you, I’ve got enough of a stake to set up as a chandler.’
‘You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?’
‘I have – and I’ve an uncle down in Perth who’s in that line of work and can be me supplier. I’ve already written to him.’
Carmody and Jack Dalley, along with Wonoka Jack and George, were planning on riding together as far as the Katherine. ‘At least I can hold my head high, having redeemed meself,’ said Carmody. ‘And I’ve you to thank for that, Tom.’
‘You’re alright Carmody. There’ll always be a place at my table for you – as long as you don’t bring that damned brother-in-law of yours – Maori Jack.’
They both laughed fit to bust, but when Carmody went off to finish readying his horse, he turned quickly away so the others didn’t see the tear in his eye.
‘And you two?’ Tom asked of the Brown brothers.
‘Dunno,’ said Wonoka George. ‘Hopefully we’ll pick up some work on the Katherine.’
‘But we’ll never forget these days,’ added Jack.
Bob Anderson came next, his lips were turned down at the corners. ‘I lairned it all from you, Tom, best of all how to love this country. Now, I want acres of me own – and we passed some braw lands, on the Queensland side of the Territory.’
‘We’ll compare notes one day,’ said Tom. ‘When we’re genteel old farts on some verandah, getting drunk an’ telling bullshit.’ He caught sight of Tommy the Rag, who was the only one really crying, tears streaming down his face. ‘Hey Tommy, are you going to come over here and shake me hand or not?’
The young fellow, with his stockwhip looped around his shoulders ready to ride, wiped his face, walked over and shook hands.
‘Cheer up Tommy,’ said Tom. ‘It’s not the end of the world. Plenty of places to see, and things to do.’
Tommy shrugged his shoulders. ‘All alone it don’t seem like any fun. Can’t we all just split up then meet up again, somewhere?’
‘Sorry mate, but one of the tricks of life it to know when to start things, and when to finish them. We’ve had a good run, but it’s time for the next stage.’
‘You can ride with me, Tommy,’ said New England Jack. ‘I’ve only seen a bit of Western Australia so far. I hear tell of more goldfields.’ He grinned wickedly. ‘There’ll be cattle to steal and beef to sell – all the fun we can handle.’
Tommy smiled through a new batch of tears. ‘Thanks mate. I’ll ride with you happily, for as long as you’ll have me.’
Larrikin and Fitz were planning on sticking together, and both seemed energised. ‘We’re thinking that we might ride for a few days,’ said Larrikin, ‘then find a likely looking station … maybe Rosewood or Nicholson. We’ll work cattle by day and piss it up against a wall at night.’
‘Larrikin doesn’t want to go too far away,’ added Fitz. ‘He’ll come back for his mare when the foals are weaned.’
‘Makes sense,’ said Tom. ‘Might have some stock work for you myself, one day, if all goes to plan.’
The sun arrived over the horizon, sending sharp rays of light on the deep red ground. A crow cawed from a nearby tree.
Red Jack and Scotty left first, carrying each of the two foals over their saddles, for they were too small to walk any distance. Tom wanted to make sure that they had a good start, and resolved to give them at least an hour.
‘Let’s slip the bottle round one last time, before we go,’ called Tom, and they passed the rum from hand to hand. The last dram slid down Carmody’s throat, just as Blind Joe rode in at the gallop. It was rare to see him rattled, but his eyes were wide.
He didn’t have to say a thing. They all heard a sound, more like roar. A hundred, maybe two hundred Cantonese on the march. They came over the rise some half a mile away, carrying shovels, and pick axes, even one or two shotguns.
‘Looks like it’s time to go,’ said Tom.
‘What if they catch us?’ said little Ellen, mounted on her pony next to Jake.
‘Catch us?’ laughed Tom. ‘Why with us mounted, and them afoot? We might be going our separate ways, but we’re still the damned Ragged Thirteen, from now until the day we die. Farewell, good mates,’ he called, and one by one they touched spurs to their horses’ flanks, and rode away.
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