Will Jones and the Blue Dog by Greg Barron
That evening the wind gathered enough strength to chase leaves around the camp, and clouds rallied in, blacking out the stars and moon. Soon afterwards, a steady rain began to fall. The diggers who had dispersed to their camps huddled under tarps, tried to keep cooking fires going, and covered mine shafts as best they could. Rain wasn’t good for miners, but they knew how to cope with it just the same.
Water had been in short supply on the Lyver Hills diggings and many of the inhabitants were pleased at first to see the gullies run, filling depressions into pools that would last a while. The problem was that the rain didn’t stop. It fell for all of the next day, and then, in the evening, it became torrential. Most of the leases in the lower valley, and the battery site itself were subject to local flooding, and when Will rode over to see if any of the others needed help, water splashed to his gelding’s knees.
By midnight the miners were dragging themselves and their belongings to the hilltops, their frightened horses hobbled close-by, while the rain hammered down in drops as heavy as molten lead, and men drank rum, shouted, argued and asked God to ‘stop that bloody rain.’
Around midnight, Will, Lainey, Luke, Sam and Jim reluctantly abandoned their lease and joined the others on high ground, leading horses loaded haphazardly with gear and provisions, finding a patch of their own in the long grass and scrub, where they raised a couple of tarps and hobbled their mounts.
Will had donned the old blue serge Navy jacket he rarely wore in these northern climes, but had once been his trademark. ‘I ain’t seen rain like this since the Macleay in eighty-four,’ said Will, ‘and that flooded the whole valley for three weeks.’
‘There’s no great river here, bloke,’ Jim replied. ‘Just water on the low ground, an’ the gullies runnin’. It’ll all go down quick when the rain stops.’
‘If the blarsted rain ever stops at all,’ said Lainey.
At that moment it didn’t seem likely.
It was almost dawn when Will left the shelter of the tarpaulin, his felt hat and old Navy jacket his only protection from the torrent, heading off into the dark of the scrub to relieve himself. He stood in the rain, cursing it, while he unbuttoned his fly and let loose against a tree trunk. He had scarcely fastened back up again when he felt something blunt and hard in the small of his back, that could only be the muzzle of a carbine or handgun.
‘Don’t move, Will Jones.’
It was Johnson’s voice, and there in the miserable rain it carried a terrible menace.
Will froze. He had left the camp unarmed, not intending to be gone for more than a minute. ‘What do you want, Johnson? You’re playin’ a dangerous game pointing guns at people.’
‘Dangerous for you, but not me. I know that you and your crew found gold,’ Johnson said. ‘And now you’re gonna take me to where you’ve been stashin’ it.’ He paused. ‘In case you’re thinking of any tricks, I know it’s at the Chinaman’s garden somewhere.’
‘His name’s Sam, and you know it,’ said Will. ‘I’d appreciate if you’d call him that, and anyhow, that garden’s bloody miles away. We’d be maniacs to try in this weather.’
‘You an’ me are both bushmen, a rainy night never stopped work that needs doing before.’
‘I’ll have to hunt up my gelding,’ breathed Will.
‘And let you sick your mates onto me?’ laughed Johnson. ‘Nah. I’ve got two saddled horses and a pack down the gully yonder. Start walking, Will Jones, and you can be assured that I’m right behind you.’
From the top of the hill, the slowly lightening sky revealed a landscape of muddy water, only the piles of spoil and mine headgear still clear. The further side of the valley could not be seen at all, for the rain made it impossible to see more than a quarter mile.
They came to the horses, tethered to trees, sulking at being forced to work in weather like this. Johnson mounted up first, always keeping the barrel of his revolver pointed at Will, and fixed the horses together with lead ropes, the pack trailing along behind.
‘Now,’ said Johnson. ‘Lead the way.’
Will glanced back at Johnson, the revolver held steady and true in spite of the rain. He had worked with the man on the diggings for some weeks. Johnson was a dogged character, and rarely did he make a threat or promise that he didn’t carry through. That revolver was surely loaded, and he would shoot if he had to. With no other option at hand, Will told the horse to walk, and encouraged him with a jab of his heels, heading off in the direction of the garden, three miles of rain and sodden earth away.
He felt the invisible aim of Johnson’s revolver as he rode, and prayed that an opportunity would arise to turn the tables.
© Greg Barron 2022