Will Jones and the Blue Dog by Greg Barron
Will couldn’t help feeling protective about the richness of their find, so he took to closing the shaft at night with sheets of tin. He also moved his swag closer to the mine headgear. With Little Blue keeping watch beside him, no prowler could approach the mine at night without rousing the camp.
Even so, Will was finding it hard to sleep. He was sick with worry. If he declared the find to Henry Sutton he imagined that trouble would follow. Yet, getting the gold out and selling it under the noses of other diggers would be no picnic either.
As happened so often, it was Sam who provided the solution. He leased a plot of land on the arable flats near a waterhole on Black Wattle Creek, three miles away from the claim. He started by building a brush fence around two acres near the river, then tilled the earth with borrowed tools – planting and watering seeds – tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and more.
‘No gold around here,’ he’d tell anyone who would listen. ‘Best make money from garden.’
Within a couple of weeks Sam had not only planted his first crop, but had also dug an underground storehouse in the midst of his seedling beds. Six feet straight down into the earth, supported by hardwood slabs he split from along the creek, then a cavernous space inside. The top was itself a thick slab of coolabah, hidden some eighteen inches under the earth, with loose soil on top so no one would suspect that it was there.
It was up to Luke, Will and Lainey to extract the rich ore from the Prodigal leader, and each morning, when Sam rode off to work his garden he carried in his saddlebags anything up to a couple of pounds of gold-rich ore. Then, in the safety of the overhanging trees by the creek he would crush the ore, pick out the pure lumps, then pan the rest to extract almost pure gold.
It was back-breaking work, but Sam didn’t mind. He recognised the face of good fortune when it smiled upon him. When the work was done he cached the treasure in that carefully prepared hiding place. Through it all, the partners delivered their weekly ten tons of rock to the company battery and received their commission each week with good grace.
These happenings, however, did not go unnoticed. It was Johnson who saw the change in demeanour of the men and woman who worked the Blue Dog Mine, and he took to hanging round a little, wandering past with his dog, a habit that led to the third vicious fight between Will’s blue heeler and that mongrel terrier Rossie.
One early morning Johnson trailed Sam all the way to the beginnings of his market garden, and wasted a morning watching the Cantonese man transplant seedlings and spread manure. Still. Johnson’s suspicions were fully aroused.
One night, in the mine office, with a lantern burning yellow, and three men playing poker for crowns and guineas, Johnson made his feelings known. ‘They’re up to something,’ he said to Henry Sutton. ‘That Will Jones and his mates. Whatever it is it ain’t good news for us.’
Sutton held his cards steady and glared at Johnson. ‘The float’s only a matter of days away. We can’t afford problems. Find out what they’re up to, there’s a good fellow.’
It was a funny thing, but in the evenings, Will Jones had got in the habit of climbing the tallest of the nearby hills, just to the west of their lease. The walk allowed him to stretch his legs and exercise Little Blue, who bounded along, sniffing out wallabies in the crackling dry grass, rolling in the dust and generally carrying on like young dogs do.
‘Get back ‘ere ya little barsted,’ Will growled now and then, but there was a gentle humour in his voice, for he loved to see the young dog run free.
Little Blue was full grown now, at least in height, with a thick coat of icy white-blue. He still had his bandit-masks over both eyes, and it gave him a rascally look. Yet, he had also developed the best qualities of his breed – a good brain, patience and loyalty.
At the top of the hill, Will sat down on one of the many granodiorite boulders, with the dog beside him. There, with a view in all directions he smoked his pipe and fondled the dog’s ears while the sunset glowed vermillion over the wild country around.
Will had lost weight, in those last few months, and his arms, flanks and back were lean and tight with muscle. The finding of the gold had brought a sense of responsibility, however, along with dreams of a future that might be a little easier to fund than it had been in the past.
Lost in thought, Will noticed that Little Blue had pricked up his ears and was looking into the scrub to the south-west. Will followed the direction of his gaze. In the failing light he could see a horseman riding fast towards the diggings.
Will stood up, then jumped lightly up onto the boulder he had been sitting on. From that vantage point he peered into the distance. Could it be? he whispered to himself.
As the rider neared Will noted the dark skin of his bare chest. It was Jim; it had to be, with no pack horse and a lean and flat mount that looked like it had been ridden hard and long.
Will waved his hat and gave a cooee, loud and clear, pitched over the evening squabble of lorikeets in the branches above. Pretty soon he saw Jim veer towards him.
Jim looked like he had been to hell and back. There was a new scar on his flank and his face seemed pasty and ill. Even so, there was a wild building warmth in Will’s chest at seeing Jim again. Mates are like brothers, and they are made to ride together, not apart. Jim had been gone for too long.
When Jim came up, he all but tumbled from his horse, and Will had to put his arms out and stop him from falling. He saw in his friend’s eyes the extremes of the journey home, and the obvious rawness of the wound still fresh in his abdomen.
Will wanted to say a lot of things, but instead he simply said; ‘You took your bloody time.’ When Jim didn’t answer, he whistled for Little Blue, then helped his mate back onto the saddle. ‘Let’s take you down to camp, Jim mate. And get a feed into you.’
© Greg Barron 2022