Will Jones and the Blue Dog
Will Jones and his crew travelled on as summer waned into autumn, and the mornings grew cold and crisp as a dry lancewood twig. They followed the Alice River where it swung east near Barcaldine, enduring days of dry country before they camped on the headwaters of the Belyando River, the first easterly drainage they had encountered.
‘There’s gold around Clermont,’ said Will, and their eyes brightened. Even Sam had a spring in his step. They all knew gold and how to win it from the ground. Around the campfire, while Little Blue either rampaged or slept with his chin on his leg, they talked endlessly about snippets they had heard – the names of established fields with enticing names such as The Springs, Venus, McDonald’s Flat, and Wild Cat. They talked eagerly about which areas the gold was apparently reef or alluvial, and reported traveller’s verdicts on the current state of the fields.
Fifty miles out from Clermont they passed a couple of miners who told them to avoid the worked-out fields south of the town.
‘They’re pulling payable gold out at Black Ridge and Miclere,’ said one wizened character leading an overloaded mule, his beard as wind-swept and dust streaked as the bush itself. ‘Fifteen mile north of the town. That’s where I’d be heading if I were you.’
The following day they reached Miclere, where mullock heaps rose like anthills from the stony earth, headgear abounded, and taciturn men stared daggers at Will and his party as they passed as if they might pose a threat.
Near the middle of the diggings the landscape looked as if it had been turned upside down, with disturbed earth in all directions. Any substantial trees had been felled and used as boards. Jim reined in his horse, and spat at the ground, a grim expression on his face.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ asked Will.
‘Look at it, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘A damn shame what they done to the land. You fellas can stay here if you want. I’m goin’ back to where every blade a’ grass hasn’t been torn out.’
‘Ain’t ya never seen a gold diggin’s before?’ asked Will.
‘Not like this,’ said Jim.
‘Well you shoulda been at the Turon,’ said Will, ‘it was worse than this fer fifty miles. Come on mate, let’s at least get a peek at the town.’
Jim shook his head. ‘I don’t like it, bloke. No respect for the land.’
Will sighed and looked at Lainey who shrugged, then Sam.
‘If Jim wants to go back to find good camp I ride with him,’ said Sam.
‘We’ll all go,’ said Will, turning his horse. ‘But it’s a two-mile ride back to country that’s anything like natural.’
In fact, it was nearer three miles before they found a half decent waterhole in Miclere Creek. Even here there were piles of spoil, some six feet high, and abandoned shafts to match, but there were plenty of trees, grass for the horses, and the creek was stunning. Little Blue approved of the site straight off, and fetched himself into the water for a dip, heading back into camp to shake all over Lainey, who chased him out of the camp. All of this was great fun to the pup, and he set off to repeat the process.
Once they’d set up camp Will was restless, unable to settle. ‘I’ve a taste for a beer,’ he declared. ‘An’ it should be safe enough. There’s no way in hell Long Douglas will have chased us this far north, and even he ain’t enough to stop me from slakin’ me thirst.’
Sam regarded Will gravely, with his arms folded in front of his chest. ‘Remember what bad thing happen last time you went drinkin’,’ he said.
‘Ah good Jesus I hate you barsteds with long memories. There’ll be no lock-up for me this time, I guarantee it. You want to come, Jim?’
‘Back into that wasteland? No thanks, bloke. I’ll stop here an’ help Sam and the dog watch the horses. If you see fit to bring us back a bottle or two I’d be grateful, but.’
‘I’ll go with you,’ said Lainey, ‘but as I said before, I aren’t playin’ your wife.’ She balled her fists. ‘Me name’s Albert and no cove better give me any lip or I’ll fight him there and then.’
The others laughed at her pluck, and soon went about their business. By the time Will and Lainey had washed, dressed and mounted up, Fat Sam already had the small gold pan out and was heading down to a gravel bank, with Little Blue wandering along excitedly at this new game. Will used his heels to ease his gelding into a trot, a little nervous about the excursion, but comforted by the Webley revolver in the holster at his side.
Back in Miclere the main street was a swathe of hoof prints and piles of dung. There were a couple of stores, just shanties really – a store, and an eatery that doubled as a sly grog shop on the creek.
Lainey, her hair beneath her hat, walked in with Will towards the bar – a long slab of yellow messmate, sawn by giants with crosscut saws. Will reached out to trace the pattern of the grain, the story told by that old tree.
He ordered two pots of ale, and the roast meal on offer, then explained, ‘Me an’ a couple of mates are looking to make a dollar or two here. ‘Ow does a bloke get a foothold in this place?’
The shanty owner looked like an old military man, complete with a handlebar moustache, waxed and twisted at the ends. ‘Depends if you ‘as capital or not.’
‘No capital mate, just strong backs.’
‘Just about everything payable ‘as been pegged and worked already. There’s some big players ‘ere though, and they’re always looking for labourers—ten bob a week an’ all found or near enough. One of ‘em is working the reef we call the “Deep Lead.” Everyone who’s tried before has been beaten by water over the basalt, but these blokes are through it now, working payable wash 128 feet down. That’s the deepest mine in Queensland,’ he added proudly.
Will passed a shilling coin and took his change, surprised at having just bought the most expensive drink of his life, then accepted the two pots of ale, passing one to Lainey.
They took a seat outside, and Will noticed that at an adjacent table sat a man with a silk tie and jacket, nursing what looked like rum and water in a glass. Will grunted ‘G’day,’ at him, then turned to Lainey. ‘I don’t fancy the notion of labourin’ fer some damned company; workin’ ourselves to the bone. Swingin’ a pick and pushin’ barrows a hundred feet underground fer two pounds a month ain’t my cup of tea.’ He looked at Lainey. ‘Maybe we should head back to sheep an’ cattle country – find ourselves a station job.’
Lainey shook her head, a line of froth from the ale like a high tide mark on her upper lip. ‘We come here to find gold. I reckon that’s what we should do. Sam’s a clever prospector, you told me that yerself. It’s just a matter headin’ up and down the creeks until we find somethin’ payable, isn’t it?’
Will shrugged, ‘This area has been worked for a good number of years, there would have been prospectors combing the area all that time. We’ll need to be lucky to find what they missed.’
They fell silent for a while, and Will went up to the bar and returned with a second round. ‘It’s a costly ale,’ he said as he steadily lowered the level. ‘But I don’t reckon I’ve ever had better.’ By the third drink they had also collected plates of roast mutton, potatoes and gravy, and were attacking it ravenously.
A commotion from inside made Will break off eating, and they both looked as a wiry digger staggered through, holding a tankard by the handle. His drunken eyes focussed on Lainey.
‘Oi, mate!’ he said. ‘Take yer hat off when yer eating.’
Lainey looked up at him. ‘What’s it got to do with you?’
‘I jes know bad manners when I see ‘em. Take your hat off?’
Lainey put on her huskiest voice, and stood up. ‘Well I appreciate your thoughts, but if you don’t piss off it’ll be the worse for ya.’
The drunk stopped, swaying on his feet, staring at Lainey, ‘Well ain’t you a fresh-faced young feller, scarcely seen a razor that face has. Is that what you gotta wear a hat for, to keep your skin pretty?’
The man in the silk tie at the adjacent table suddenly rose from his seat, a shilling coin in his hand. ‘Here son,’ he said in a deep voice. ‘Take this and go buy another drink.’
The man’s eyes fell on the coin. He took it, and looked back at the giver. ‘That young feller should take ‘is damn hat off. E needs to be taught manners.’
‘Just go and have a drink,’ said the man. ‘There’s a good fellow.’
With a last look at Lainey, the drunk wandered off towards the bar.
Will turned, ‘That was good of you, mate. Thanks muchly, though I don’t reckon that bloke was worth a shilling. Albert here was about to knock ‘is block off fer free.’
The man simply inclined his head, and continued to sit there, keeping his own company while Lainey and Will finished their meal and another pot of ale.
‘That drunken cow is still inside there,’ said Will. ‘Keeps looking out and muttering to some of his mates. Maybe we’d better head back to camp.’
After purchasing a couple of bottles of beer and securing them in their saddle bags, they mounted up, and rode through town, watching the mining camps segueing from day business to that of the night, parties of rowdy diggers just beginning their carousing. Two horsemen raced neck and neck along the track so fast that Will, Lainey and Jim had to ride out of the way, their whooping and carrying on making the horses skittish.
‘Crazy place,’ said Lainey.
They were just riding through the outskirts of the town when they looked back to see that the man in the silk tie was fifty yards behind them, mounted on a handsome bay thoroughbred.
‘He trailin’ us, do you reckon?’ Lainey asked.
But as they left town, and diverted down and around a few mullock heaps, the man remained doggedly on their trail.
Will loosened his squirt in its holster. ‘He’s playin’ a dangerous game, but I’ve got no intention of leadin’ the barsted to our camp. Let’s stop an’ see what he wants.’
The two of them drew into the side of the track and waited. The man with the silk tie continued to ride towards them at a slow amble. Will drew his weapon, broke it to check the load, then held it loosely across his knees.
At a distance of perhaps ten paces the other man stopped his mount.
‘Who are you?’ called Will. ‘An’ what the hell do you mean by follerin’ us like that?’
© Greg Barron 2022
New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
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Photo is of Clermont in 1870. State Library of Queensland.