Will Jones and the Blue Dog by Greg Barron
Even after the rain stopped, and the ground dried, getting the Blue Dog Mine back into production took a few days. The drift and face were filled with thigh-deep water, and removing it all by bucket was an relenting labour that even Luke complained about. The soft mud that remained was even more difficult to remove.
Will and his partners were not the only ones having to deal with this issue; most of the shafts in the area were flooded, even those belonging to the big company. There was a sense of unreality across the field, and with Johnson gone, the boiler remained cold and contracts worthless.
When a few groups began to pack up ready to leave, Will decided that he had a responsibility to help hold the place together.
‘Them blokes need to know that there’s gold down there,’ Will muttered into the campfire flames. ‘Otherwise they leave this place with pretty much nothin’—ripped off by that damned Sutton an’ his kind.’
‘You’re right,’ said Lainey. ‘An’ we can’t let all them investors lose their money. We have to do somefink.’
The next day it was Luke who rode around the camps, calling the diggers together, to assemble on the dry ground beside the stamp mill so ‘Will Jones could chew their ears orf about a matter of interest.’
When some fifty or sixty men and a few women had gathered from all around the diggings, some holding shovel handles or bottle necks, some looking friendly and some hostile, Will jumped up on a boulder, and shouted for attention. The crowd hushed up, more or less, and Will held his pipe in one hand like a pointer.
‘Orright you fellas,’ he said. ‘Youse have all heard that old Johnson was drowned like a bandicoot, the other night.’ Men nodded and muttered. Some looked towards the battery where the dead man’s dog, Rossie, had taken up his old place in the shade, living on handouts from the company men billeted in nearby huts.
Will went on, ‘An’ youse know that barsted Sutton set us all up, and made a pile by makin’ this place look like King Solomon’s mines in that stock exchange caper. Well ‘e might’ve just been too clever for his own good. For the fact is, cobbers, that these Lyver Hills ‘as got a trick up their sleeve. There is gold here, payable gold, on the prodigal leader at least.’ Will reached into his pocket and removed a lump of quartz thickened and heavy with the precious yellow stuff. ‘This is from our shaft. There’s more where that come from, though we’ve taken out the best of it.’ He tossed the lump to the nearest of the diggers, who caught it with a flick of his wrist, lifted the metal to his mouth and bit down on it.
‘By gum,’ he shouted. ‘That’s gold alright.’
There was a cheer and he passed the lump onto the next man.
‘Now,’ said Will, turning to the ragtag group of men who were employees of the Lyver Hills Company and had been living on rum since Johnson disappeared, unknowing of their employment status. ‘You lot get that firebox hot, steam up in the boiler an’ bail the shafts ready for work. In a few weeks you can bet that from the new company peoples will be here, an’ you’ll be paid – I’ll guarantee that once they see what’s under the ground.’ He singled out one man, ‘Snowy, you’re the foreman aren’t ya?’
That fair-haired specimen inclined his head. ‘Yeah, I’m s’posed to be.’
‘Well it’s up to you ta get things moving. There’ll be ore to process and these men need wages.’ Will paused for another cheer, then carried on addressing the main group of diggers, ‘Sam reckons that the Prodigal runs rich in a westerly direction from the Blue Dog. Best thing, if you want a slice of it, is to have some of that ground pegged. Jim rode off this morning to fetch the mine warden from Clermont, and he’ll be here later to record the claims.’
‘What about you, Will Jones?’ someone asked. ‘’Ow do we know you’re not just another mongrel tryin’ to pick the meat from our tired bloody bones?’
‘There’s no profit fer me in helpin’ you poor cows out. I’m jack of the mining life, and me feet is itchy. When the company people come we’ll sell them the claim, and then it’s time to ride on. Now go and peg that ground, afore some other barsted does.’
There was a moment’s hesitation, then a roar of voices and feet as the diggers headed back to their camps for hammers, string and pegs. Within three hours every possible run of the prodigal leader, excepting the large areas held by the Company, had been pegged, and some had even started digging, in spite of the warden not yet arriving on site.
The following day, Will, Luke, and Jim, with Little Blue running alongside, rode down to the creek flat where Sam’s garden had been. Half a yard depth of silt had covered the flat over. The garden had disappeared. Logs and drifts of river gravel were scattered here and there.
The three men spread out on horseback, mindful of snakes and noxious, bloated dead stock. The rotten flood smell was thick and cloying.
The task did not take long. Within an hour Will found Johnson’s body downstream a mile or two. With Jim’s help he fashioned a drag-sled from branches and canvas to take him back to dry ground, where they dug a substantial hole in the earth.
They laid him inside and built a neat cairn from surface stones. Luke said a few words over the grave, for he was a churchgoer and remembered a bigger chunk of the Lord’s Prayer than the others.
One day, Will decided, he would ride south to the Manning Valley and tell Johnson’s people what had become of him and where his remains lay. He was in no rush to do so, it just went onto the list of things he would need to do if the opportunity arose.
‘So what do we do about our gold?’ asked Lainey that night, while the campfire spat sparks, and hissed in the still waterlogged firewood. ‘Can’t we dig it up an’ get it put through the crushers?’
Will heaved a sigh, and reached a hand down to pat Little Blue, who had come up and sat against his leg. He had been considering the same question himself. ‘That would be a fair lump of money to carry around,’ he said. ‘There’s no place in the world that would be safer than under the ground on that creek flat. No one besides us knows that it’s buried there, and I’m not ready to give up the road and be a rich man just yet.’
‘There’s enough gold to buy and stock a cattle station there,’ said Luke.
‘An’ one day that’s just what we should do,’ said Will, wondering how Lainey’s husband had read his dreams so readily. ‘But we need to scout around the country more. I ain’t quite ready yet.’ He looked down at the ground and scraped his boot back and forth across the dust. He knew that there was one thing, more precious than wealth that he needed to find before the time came to settle down.
© Greg Barron 2023