Will Jones and the Blue Dog
For the next three days Sam wandered the banks, flats and gullies of Miclere Creek with Jim, panning old mullock heaps or digging fresh gravel samples from likely patches on the creek. Will wore his gelding flat learning the lay of the land; looking at claims for sale and getting a grasp of the extent of the diggings.
Lainey, meanwhile, became mates with a woman digging a claim with her husband half a mile away, a sassy young Irishwoman called Bridget, and she was often in the camp, drinking rum and carrying on, a couple of ankle-biters terrorising the pup until he learned to hide when he saw them coming.
In the evenings Jim was silent and morose, not quite himself, and though Will tried to jolly him up, he seemed disinclined to respond with his usual wit.
‘Watch out ya don’t trip over on your own lip, mate,’ Will called. ‘It aren’t like you to look so down.’
‘I can’t see too much to be happy about, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘I liked it better back home, before you decided we had to take Clarkie’s letter halfway across the country, an’ you got pegged for ‘is murder.’
‘I didn’t see you complainin’ when we split the hundred pounds.’
Jim shrugged, ‘The money was good, but I’d rather be home.’
Will narrowed his eyes, ‘You got a woman down there, is that it?’
Lainey was protective of their comrade. ‘Maybe he has,’ she said. ‘At least it would be a real woman, not just a pitcher on a post card like the one that you stare at all day.’
‘I don’t look at her all day, and shut yer gob anyway – she’s none of your damn business.’
Lainey’s hands were on her hip, by now, ‘Well just leave Jim alone. Everybody’s allowed their own feelin’s.’
Most of the conversation in and around the camp centred on their next move as a group. Staying put was one possibility – Sam was finding small flakes in the wash, just a few drams all up – but in time they might find richer ground worth pegging. Buying a working claim with payable gold, Will had found out, was out of their price range,
The general agreement seemed to be that they would soon ride north to investigate Henry Sutton’s new field, though it wasn’t until the third evening at the camp that they discussed it in detail. It was Sam’s opinion that checking out the Sutton claims was worth the ride. Lainey was happy to move on and give the plan a go.
‘We’re resolved then,’ said Will, taking Jim’s silence as agreement. ‘We’ll ride up and have a look at this new field of Henry Sutton’s.’
‘Not me,’ said Jim. ‘I’m goin’ off, for a bit.’
The declaration was like a charge of powder going off in the middle of the camp. Even Sam looked stunned. A long silence ensued, until finally Will gathered the wit to speak. ‘You aren’t coming wif us? What the devil do you mean by that? Are you plannin’ on stoppin’ here by yerself?’
‘Nah mate. I mean that I’m ridin’ away fer a spell. Diggin’ holes and pickin’ through dirt aren’t for me.’
‘What are you going to do then?’
‘I’m gonna head south. I need to see my people—my own country.’
‘You’re going to ride all the way back past the border?’ Will knew that Jim’s homelands were centred on the plains around the town of Coonamble, east to the banks of Teridgerie Creek where he had been born.
Jim inclined his head, ‘Yes, bloke. That’s what I have to do – see my people – spend some time on my country. I figure that on my way down I can find out whether Long Douglas is still on our trail, or if he’s given up.’
Lainey busily making tea, gave a little groan, ‘Oh c’mon Jim. I hate us to split up. Give it three months, an’ if it hasn’t worked for us then we’ll all give up on it.’
‘No. I’ve made up me mind. I’ll pack up tonight and ride away at dawn.’
Will turned on Sam, ‘You ain’t saying much there.’
It was always hard to read much on the Cantonese man’s rounded face, but when he shrugged it seemed to take an effort. He and Jim were best of mates and thick as thieves. It would be a hard separation for Sam. ‘Jim has to do what he must,’ was all he said.
‘Well it’s a bit of hard luck for us,’ said Will. ‘Now we’re a man short for working a claim, when we finally get one. But yes, it would be worthwhile knowing what’s goin’ on with Long Douglas.’
The next morning, a wedge-tailed eagle, flying high in the morning sun, catching the early thermals over the hard dirt of the diggings, saw one man ride away from the camp, heading south, trailing a roan pack horse. The man looked good in the saddle, as competent a rider and bushman as any of his kind.
Holding his station, the eagle watched the man’s former companions breaking camp and heading north, with a dog, spare horses and packs.
If the eagle wondered why the fellowship had been broken he gave no sign, just saw the lone rider look up and find him in the sky, lifting his left hand in a wave of silent companionship.
Men like Jim are never alone in the bush.
© Greg Barron 2022
New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
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Image is artwork by Thomas Blacket Stephens, appearing in the Queenslander, 1936