Will Jones and the Blue Dog
Will, Lainey and Sam rode to the north-west on the Charters Towers track, then veered off according to the map on the brochure Edward Sutton had given them. Little Blue ran alongside, straying now and then to investigate the scent of wallaby or dingo until a sharp whistle from Will brought him back.
By and by they saw less mining activity along the track, through prospectors could be seen working in and along the creek beds, while drovers and their dogs flanked herds of sheep or cattle strung for a mile or more along the tracks and winding creeks, wheeling unruly bullocks; whips cracking against the blue sky. Watching them, Will felt a pang for the simple hardships and pleasures of stock work, and when he locked eyes with Sam he saw that he was watching them too.
‘I reckon Little Blue will make a good working dog, when the chance arises,’ Will said. ‘I’d like to try him out one day.’
‘When we’re rich from the diggings,’ said Lainey, ‘you can buy yer own place an’ Little Blue can chase sheep or cattle ‘round as much a ‘e sees fit.’
Will grinned, and the thought kept him warm through noon and the early afternoon, at which time they passed a small township with a pub and store, then arrived at the top of a rise. From there they looked upon Edward Sutton’s goldfield, spread out across a set of further hills and their valleys. The three riders reined in and studied the area without a word, and Will’s practiced eye was already summing up the opportunities presented below.
The diggings were scattered around the hills, with some substantial buildings in the centre of the first valley. Dark smoke trailed from the stack of a steam engine, and the clatter of the stamp mill carried on the warm air. There was activity at every turn—men, horses, wagons. Mine headgear bristled from more than a dozen sites.
‘Looks busy,’ grunted Will.
‘Surely does,’ agreed Lainey.
Sam said nothing. He had his pipe going by then, taking in smoke at a furious pace.
‘Does it look like gold-bearing ground to you Sam?’ Will asked.
Sam shrugged, ‘Not very well certain just now.’ But he pointed to the broken ground on which their horses stood, sharp with feldspar, and the glint of galena. There was no doubt this was a highly mineralised area.
A couple of men near the battery seemed to spot them, one pointing up with an extended arm.
‘Should we ride down?’ asked Lainey.
‘I don’t reckon we have to,’ replied Will. ‘Looks like Sutton himself saddling up down there.’
This observation turned out to be correct, for the Englishman was soon taking the slope at a canter towards them, finally reining in and walking up close enough to shake Will’s hand, and take off his hat to greet Lainey.
After this, Sutton turned his horse to take in the view. ‘I’m glad we’re up here, for it gives me a chance to explain the geology of the field.’ He pointed the stub of a cigar down to the valley. ‘The parent rock—through these hills – is a granodiorite, containing feldspar, and through it winds fault-fissures of gold-bearing quartz. There are three of these leaders, we call them Faith, Hope and the Prodigal. Sometimes just a few inches wide, sometimes four or five feet. The best thing is that they are close to the surface, often only ten or twelve feet, but varying down to thirty. There’s also some alluvial gold in the gullies.’
‘So what are you offering us?’ asked Will.
‘I’ve got some choices for you – claims that can potentially access one or other of the gold leaders. We’ll ride the area and you can decide.’ He paused. ‘What happened to the other fellow?’
‘Jim had to ride south, means we’re shorthanded but …’
‘It so happens that a man rode in today, looking for partners. I’ll introduce you later – you might be able to work something out with him. Now, are you ready for a tour?’
‘We are,’ said Will. ‘Please lead on.’
For the next hour and a half, they rode with Sutton, starting with the company leases, all neatly pegged and headgear built in solid fashion. They shook hands with overseers and engineers, and viewed some half dozen leases that were pegged and ready for registration.
They stopped to talk to several other sets of battlers working leases.
‘We ain’t getting’ rich,’ was the general refrain, ‘but we’re making steady money, and hoping for the good patches.’
Will was impressed. Most fields had big winners and big losers. This one seemed to be producing consistently. Of the three gold leaders, it seemed that Faith was the most consistent but unspectacular in terms of return, Hope was less reliable but very rich in places, while the Prodigal was frustratingly hard to find, often petering out completely, but yielded incredible gold returns in places.
Edward Sutton smiled when Will made his observations, ‘It’s a good field—no one is riding around in golden carriages, but there’s money for all, and the halcyon days are still to come.’
Finally, with the horses being cared for by one of Sutton’s men, they toured the stamp battery on foot. Here the gold ore was machine-crushed to access the yellow metal hidden in the quartz. This monster was powered by a Robey steam engine, the main cylinder shalt shining with chrome as it cycled, the eccentric working the slide valve with a huff and snort of steam.
Out the front of the engine house was a terrier cross, with unknown ancestry—a haughty, superior kind of dog – short haired and scarred around the neck. Will paid the animal scarcely any mind – he was more interested the battery – its eight stamps working furiously in turn to crush the ore to a powder.
The final, and most interesting shed was where a slurry of crushed ore was mixed with mercury, which then dissolved the gold therein. The mercury was removed from the mix and boiled away, leaving gold in its natural state. These pellets of near-pure gold were an intoxicating sight, and a man sat watchfully near the door, with a carbine over his knees.
Outside the building Will shook Sutton’s hand. ‘I’m impressed with the capital you an’ yer partners have poured in here.’
‘We’ve spent a pretty penny getting this place set up,’ agreed Sutton. ‘We’ve done everything right, so far. Now what’s your thoughts? Do you want to be a part of it or not?’
Will scraped at the stubble on his chin between his thumb and forefinger. ‘We’ll camp the night by the claims you suggested. We’ll wash a panful or two from the creeks around and talk amongst ourselves. You’ll have an answer tomorrow.’
Just then there was a shout and that garbled, barking, growling snarl of two dogs in combat. It was Lainey’s cry that made Will realise that one member of the whirling fight, enfolded in a swirl of dust, was Little Blue, and the other was the terrier from near the doorway.
Lainey turned to him, terrified, ‘Stop ‘em Will.’
It was obvious that Little Blue was getting the worst of it, but he was scrapping bravely against a much bigger and more experienced opponent.
A man had appeared from inside, arms folded over his chest.
‘Is that your dog?’ asked Will.
‘Yeah, that’s my Rossie.’
‘Well call him off.’
‘Well I would, but he won’t listen anyhow.’
Will swore and hurried into the fray, trying to grab Little Blue’s tail, but it was moving way too fast. He moved off to the side and grabbed a thin, straight branch, fallen from a gum tree. He looked up at the other man.
The terrier had a hold on Little Blue’s throat, still on the loose ruff, but he was improving his grip. Little Blue was yelping now, becoming more muffled.
‘I’m going to hit your dog,’ he said, and he swung the stick as hard as he could into the terrier’s rump. The blow did the trick. The animal released Little Blue and scampered away from the fight to the nearby shadows.
Lainey was at Little Blue’s side in a moment. ‘Oh you poor thing,’ she said.
‘You ever hit my dog again and I’ll hit you,’ said the man.
Will was in no mood for threats. ‘I can’t see any point waiting,’ he said. ‘You want to fight let’s do it now.’
Edward Sutton came striding out from inside. ‘There’ll be no fighting. Get back to work Johnson, and if I see that dog off a chain again I’ll shoot him.’
Will was disappointed, but he slowly relaxed as the other man walked back into the factory, stopping only to tie his dog, smirking at Will as he went.
‘I hope this little incident won’t affect your decision of whether to stay or not?’ the Englishman said.
Will kneeled and clapped to bring Little Blue to him. The pup had a streak of blood on his muzzle. ‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘I ain’t ever run from trouble, and I won’t start now.’
© Greg Barron 2022