Will Jones and the Blue Dog by Greg Barron
Will ordered his last glass of rum at the little shanty at Wilga, three miles from the Blue Dog Mine, and took a sip. It no longer had the bite it had earlier on in the evening but still he enjoyed the warmth in his gut and mind. It was late, the moon three days past full but already shining through the treetops, and Will guessed that it must be around midnight.
Little Blue, quiet under the table, gave a whimper and looked hopefully up at his master. Sam had left the shanty more than an hour ago, and Lainey had stayed at camp tonight. Little Blue was ready to head home.
Yet, something was troubling Will – more than just a cool breeze through the stony hills. Ever since he arrived he had felt that someone was watching him from outside the lantern-lit shanty.
Twice he had left his bench to walk around in the shadows, but there were men, and a few women with them, camped all through the area, their fires twinkling between lancewood and wattle trunks. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but still he remained on edge.
With a calming hand he reached down and stroked Little Blue’s ears. ‘We’re headin’ home in a minute,’ he said. ‘Just making sure there’s nothin’ here that’s gonna bother us, fair enough?’
Little Blue cocked his head at an angle, as if working hard to understand what his master was saying. Finally, satisfied, he settled down again. Will turned his attention back to his rum, thinking, not for the first time that perhaps his little crew should pack up and leave the area. It seemed unlikely that any real good was going to come of staying longer, even with five pounds a week each coming in.
Oh, they were still working the shaft hard enough, with Sam still optimistic about their prospects. Besides, coming up with ten ton of material a week was easy enough, and if they hadn’t extracted enough from the shaft itself, they simply shovelled in old spoil that was laying around in piles.
Will always had the knack of knowing when one more drink would be too many, and he decided that no good would come of staying here longer tonight. Drinking down his last mouthful, Will pocketed his pipe and tobacco pouch, stood and put on his hat. With a nod to the owner he turned and walked out from under the shadow of the bough roof, towards his horse, tied to a rail with the saddle behind him.
Throwing on the leather and tightening the girth took no time at all, and soon Will, with Little Blue padding along beside him, was riding back towards home. He was in no rush, even with the good light, and he maintained a walking gait through the scrub, and a trot in open country.
The cool night had raised a light ground mist, and this gave the night a ghostly quality. This was enough to disturb the mood on its own, but worse was to come. Up ahead, on the track, he saw the figure of a man, standing tall and proud. Little Blue started to growl.
Will was not easily spooked, and he rode on towards the figure, but he made sure that his revolver was within reach, taking the reins with one hand so his other was free.
‘Will Jones,’ the man called.
Will felt a shiver of supernatural dread, and the horse, catching the mood, stopped, unwilling to go on. Forced to dismount in order to continue, Will used a hand on the bridle to encourage his mount onward.
As Will drew closer, the moment of recognition came. ‘Luke Phillips?’ he cried. ‘Is that you?’
‘Oh yes, it’s me alright. I should slap your face for what you did to me – leavin’ me hog-tied on the side of the track and ridin’ away like that. I could have died.’
‘Maybe so,’ mused Will. ‘But I still wouldn’t try slappin’ me on the face.’
Phillips wasn’t finished his tirade; ‘You left me tied up on the side of a track, and carried Lainey, the love of my life, a thousand mile away. It’s taken me all these months to find you. Where is she? Take me to her.’
Will shook his head sadly. It seemed that Lainey’s husband, for this was him; Luke Phillips, didn’t know when to give up. He was the last person he’d expected to find stalking them. He coughed, a little embarrassed for the other man, then said, ‘Might be a wasted journey, for Lainey’s told me plenty of times that she’d rather stick her tongue in an ant-nest than go home with you.’ Little Blue punctuated this statement by sitting back and growling.
Phillips crossed his arms in front of his chest. ‘She’s my wife, by golly, and I want to see her.’
Will shrugged, ‘I’ll take you to her. What happens then is up to Lainey herself.’
‘I’ll get me horses,’ said Luke, and he was soon tagging along behind, with two pack horses in train.
When finally they reached the mine Will helped the visitor to unload his packs and see to the animals. This done he went to the fireplace, threw on some sticks from the pile and set the billy on to boil. This done, he threw in some tea leaves and made a brew for each of them by the warming blaze.
‘See that tent over there,’ said Will, pointing a finger at a grubby canvas tent. ‘That’s Lainey’s.’
They drank down their tea. Luke was obviously having an attack of nerves now that he had come so close. He’d taken off his hat and was running one hand repeatedly through his lank dark hair, as if trying to comb it into some kind of order. ‘Maybe it’d be best not to wake ‘er up now,’ he muttered into his pint pot. ‘If I wait ‘til morning she might be more welcoming.’
‘Up to you mate,’ said Will. ‘But from my experience Lainey aren’t any more good-natured first thing in the morning than a black snake. If I was you I’d get it over with.’
This conversation became irrelevant, for the sound of scratching canvas came, and Lainey herself appeared at the door of her tent, dressed in her usual bed-time garb of pantaloons and an oversized man’s shirt.
‘I knew it!’ she cried. ‘That voice couldn’t be any other than me ‘usband. Luke Phillips! What in the name of tarnation are you doin’ here?’
And didn’t Will smile when Lainey’s husband came over all bashful and shy. ‘Well I wasn’t gonna trouble you tonight. I’ll sleep in me swag tonight and talk in the morning.’
‘The hell you will, you think I’d let me own ‘usband sleep outside with the dingoes? Get over ‘ere now.’
Luke looked at Will, shrugged, then hurried over to the tent, stopping only at the entrance to remove his boots when Lainey demanded that he do so.
Will watched him go, then the buttons of the tent close up again, followed by the sound of laughter and soft talking in the night. He looked up at the stars and wished he didn’t have to be alone tonight either. Even later, as he lay in his swag, the girl in the postcard, the love of his life, failed to give him comfort.
© Greg Barron 2022
New chapter next Sunday.
Image credit: State Library of South Australia