‘Ain’t never run from trouble?’ Lainey said laughingly that evening at their camp. ‘Not long ago I seen you run from New South Wales with half the traps in the state after yer … and then there was that time when …’
‘That’s different,’ said Will.
‘Even Ned Kelly bolted from the traps when he had to.’
‘Not at Glenrowan, he didn’t. Or Ben Hall – now he were a man who faced up to things.’
‘Well, it did him a lot of good, being six feet under and full of lead, like he is.’
Will was watching Sam panning through a shovel full of gravel he had gleaned from one of the gullies. He was near the last wash now, and Will leaned closer to see the small ‘tail’ of gold that remained. ‘Just a few specks, but it’s the real thing,’ he declared.
Sam set about removing the gold dust he had panned with the tip of his finger, transferring each grain to a glass bottle filled with water.
‘That’s hardly a fortune,’ said Lainey.
Sam pointed at the ground, ‘Down there is real gold. The gully just where it washed out.’ He paused, put down the pan and wiped his brow with his sleeve.
‘If we stay here,’ said Will. ‘We have to decide on a claim, and to do that we have to choose which of the three quartz leaders we want to mine.’
They’d all heard Henry Sutton explain the nature of the three leaders – nice safe Faith, which should allow them to earn a living, the possibly more lucrative Hope, and the frustrating, elusive Prodigal, with it’s potential for big money—or total failure.
‘I vote for the Prodigal,’ said Lainey. ‘I ain’t here to grub a living – if there’s a chance of striking it rich I want to take it.’
‘I’m thinkin’ along the same lines as you,’ said Will. ‘Sam?’
The Cantonese put the pan down, came to his feet and inclined his head. ‘Me too. The Prodigal,’ he said. He looked in the direction of the most western of the three hills, where the claims mining that more elusive reef were located. There were four or five available. ‘Shame Jim not here with us.’
‘Yeah, it’d be good to have the barsted along on this lark,’ agreed Will, ‘even just to hold a shovel and look like e’s busy. He’ll be back directly, and we’ll be rich enough to ride off with him. So which of those claims do you reckon will pay?’
Sam exhaled and wrapped his arms around his middle. ‘Sometime quartz reef get richer as she backs into the harder ground on the hill—that banatite layer fold up there, maybe. Furthest of them claims our best chance.’
‘Then let’s register the damn thing and get to work – we’re only risking the five-pound fee, and a bit of shoring timber and what-not. When all’s said and done if we find nothing worth finding we can move on.’ Will grimaced, ‘But are you two really up for digging a shaft – we’re in for months of hellish work?’
Sam made a face, as if the question had insulted his dignity. ‘We need one more man.’
‘That we do. I wonder who this cove is that Sutton has lined up for us.’
The next morning Will rode up to the battery office to talk to Sutton. They shook hands on the claim that Sam had decided on.
‘Welcome to the our little enterprise,’ Sutton said. ‘I’ve got some good news too. I’ve had word that the Mine Warden will be out here tomorrow – that’ll save you a ride to Clermont to register the claim.’
‘That’s good news,’ said Will. ‘Means we can get stuck into things straight off.’ He paused. ‘Now you mentioned that you had a bloke here who’s looking for partners. We could do with extra pair of hands.’
‘I did,’ said Sutton. ‘You actually met him yesterday.’
Will scratched his head, ‘Not the bloke with that blasted dog?’
‘Yes, Johnson, that’s him – you two didn’t get off to a good start, but he’s a regular good fellow and just the kind you’ll want beside you when the going’s hard. I’ve had him doing some labouring here at the plant – he’s a fair stoker so I know he’s good with a shovel and doesn’t mind heavy work. Here, I’ll bring him in.’
Sutton left and returned a few minutes later with Johnson, who sat down, his feet leaving prints of dust across the office floorboards. Now that Will had time to look at the man he noted that he had a stiff moustache, the rest of his face stubbled with whiskers, and piercing eyes.
‘I dunno if me dog would appreciate us taking you on as a partner,’ Will said.
‘Well, I gen’rally make decisions for meself,’ said the man. ‘An’ leave the dog out of it.’
Will cogitated on that for a moment then, ‘Where ya from, anyway?’
‘Dairy country on the Manning River down New South Wales. Missus started messin’ around with me brother who I shared the farm with an’ I walked out.’ He paused and looked down, then felt in his pocket for his pipe. ‘I have to admit that I know next to nothin’ about mining, but I know how to work.’
‘Dairy farmers generally do,’ said Will, feeling a little more kindly disposed towards the man. He went on to explain the claim that he, Sam and Lainey had decided on.
Johnson agreed. ‘Sounds like the right caper to me. I’ll either make good money or move on. No point bustin’ a gut for no reason.’
Sutton said, ‘I’m happy for Alec to keep on bunking down over here, rather than having to camp on site, and he can leave his dog chained up here, at least at first. That’ll prevent any problems.’
Will clamped his lips together in a resolute line. ‘Right then – we’ll give it a go. You, me, Lainey and Sam, split the work and go quarter shares in the payouts, fair enough?’
Johnson lifted an eyebrow, ‘One of the four is a woman, is she gonna earn a full share?’
‘Oh yes, she will. Lainey’s me sister, if she aren’t down the shaft doin’ a full shift she’ll be pullin’ her weight one way or another.’
‘Orright then, sounds like a deal.’
They shook on it.
‘Wander over when you’re ready,’ said Will, ‘and we’ll start working out how we’re goin’ to approach this. Meanwhile we’ll move camp over to the claim.’
‘What are you going to call your mine?’ asked Sutton.
‘Oh, Lainey’s already decided on that,’ Will said. ‘It’s going to be called the Blue Dog Mine.’ He looked at Johnson quizzically. The name was a kind of declaration as to who the senior partners were in this enterprise. ‘Is that alright with you.’
‘I don’t care what we call the blasted thing as long as we pull gold out of it,’ he said.
Before Will left, Sutton produced a contract for him to sign. It was a simple enough document. It stipulated that Will and his partners agreed that all ore produced by the mine would be processed by the battery. More unusually, however, it went on to set a minimum of ten ton of ore per working week.
Will frowned, reading through the clause. ‘Ten ton minimum? What if we’re not on the leader yet, and just bringing out dross?’
Sutton lifted a quill from a holder, inked it, and held it out for Will. ‘We’ve found that there are small amounts of gold all through the substrate, and we like to keep the battery going – keeps the men and machinery busy. The ten ton minimum is mainly to stop people speculating on these claims – we want working, productive mines here wherever possible.
Will signed the contract – ten ton wasn’t that much, after all – then walked back to their camp. As he passed by the busy little mines of the field he started to wonder why it all seemed to be a little too easy, but then he dismissed the thought from his mind.
That night he dreamed of gold ingots, piled high in the middle of their camp. He was riding a thoroughbred that might have graced the Brisbane Cup. Beside him walked the girl in the post card, dressed in a silk dress of pure white.
© Greg Barron 2022