When the Ragged Thirteen took possession of those eight adjoining claims, they had minimal experience with mining. One or two had swirled their pans around Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, or rocked a cradle on the Palmer, but none of them had any idea about chasing reef gold; sinking shafts. Their mindset was on adventure, not gold mining as a business, and Tom soon realised that the success of their venture depended on the latter strategy.
Thinking things through, he let them have their initial frenzy of panning the gully and specking for nuggets, then soothed them through their grumbles when these efforts bore little fruit. It was Bob Anderson who grasped the need for a concerted, professional effort, and possessed the mind of an engineer, to boot. He and Tom spent those first days snooping around other mines, studying operations at two shafts owned by one of the big companies.
‘The reef they call the Heartbreaker,’ Tom told the others around the fire, ‘runs around this area, but it peters out, breaks into smaller veins here and there. If we sink a shaft and hit a thick streak of it we’ll make real money, otherwise we’re stuffed. We have to work together from here on, and any man who isn’t prepared to spit on his hands and work like a dog might as well speak up now and ride off.’
Tom waited and watched, but apart from some shuffling of feet no one moved.
Bob Anderson produced his plans and they were passed from hand to hand gravely. Questions were asked and answered. Finally Sandy said, ‘I have to say, young Bob, that you’ve a flair with the drawing pen.’
Bob’s grin was as wide as the mine shaft in the drawings. ‘It looks right easy on paper, but will nae when we’re shovellin’ rock. Tha gold is down there, it must be, yet it cannae always be easily won.’
The first need was timber for the poppet head and shoring. They swarmed out into the scrub on horseback, looking for cypress trees. These termite-resistant trees had been cut out for miles around but they found a stand on the Elvire.
‘This one,’ Tom shouted. ‘Nice and straight. And Fitz, there’s two or three towards that ridge that look the goods from here.’
After marking the trunks, Tom took up the axe, swivelled it through his hands once, then swung with a practiced long stroke that buried the broad head deep into the sapwood, sending chips flying.
Before long the men had pulled off their shirts, and glossy with sweat they competed to bring down trees with the fewest number of strokes. To reduce haulage weight, they stripped and roughly squared the timbers with broad axes, and to bring in the logs Missus Dead Finish rolled up with her wagon in a cloud of dust and curses.
Missus Dead Finish was a woman in her fifties, hunch-shouldered with skin tanned by the suns of wild plains and valleys. She drove a four-in-hand team, carrying freight and the odd passenger from Wyndham to Hall’s Creek and back single-handed, twice a week. The price was fifty pounds a ton, landed at the fields. If that was too high, ‘You can damn well find some other fool to haul yer shit.’
Rumour had it that she had bashed her husband ‘down south’ to death with a candlestick holder, but got off with manslaughter because he was a drunk who kicked her ‘round the kitchen every evening. Other gossips had it that he was teamster, who’d died on the road over from Queensland. Sitting up on the box seat, with a shortened double barrel in the tray directly behind, if she was waylaid by armed robbers her method was to empty both barrels then whip the horses into a frenzy, leaving the scene at a rate too fast for whatever was left of her would-be attackers.
Instead of using the regulation lead shot in the cartridges she packed herself, she used less expensive missiles, including fine but hard Kimberley gravel, small nails, and scrap sheet steel cut into fragments with tin snips.
Missus Dead Finish took no humbug from anyone, man or woman.
She hauled the Ragged Thirteen’s logs and helped unload them back at the claims, unharnessing the horses with a firm hand and sharp tongue. ‘Lo, back up there, Roly. Behave yourself.’ Her voice snarled and crashed around the horse team like a lightning storm. Then came the sound of a slap as her open hand landed hard on a horse’s rump.
Before long the Thirteen and their visitor had settled around the fire. Missus Dead Finish drank rum with the best of them, and told yarns of successes and failures on the fields. The men were themselves flushed with the good feeling of a hard, productive day.
When they had drunk and yarned for a bit, exhaustion took over and they wandered away to their swags.
Missus Dead Finish unrolled her swag on the wagon, and then snored like a whip-saw until dawn. The sound was strangely amplified and deepened by the body of the wagon like the bowl of a guitar.
For the Thirteen who were wakened by the noise there was plenty to think about. Tom, with the help of Bob Anderson, had given them a vision, and they wanted it badly.
Sandy Myrtle wished for a fine home in Kensington, Adelaide, with a drawing room and library. He pictured a garden for him to walk in, attended by an army of men in grey overalls.
Carmody wanted a tall ship, sailing with some beautiful woman at his side from one end of the world to the other, gold in his pocket and a diamond earring in each earlobe.
Tommy the Rag wanted a new horse. Jimmy Woodford loved horses so much he’d only be satisfied with a whole stud. Bob Anderson wanted a bit of land to make a start on. Jack Woods made plans to start his own butchering business. Fitz just wanted to make a pile and piss it up against a wall.
Larrikin wanted to own his own public house in Toowoomba or Roma. He pictured himself walking downstairs in his dance shoes to an adoring crowd. Jack Dalley wanted a Colt revolver and new boots. Wonoka Jack imagined how it would feel to travel the world. His brother George just wanted to go home.
Scotty thought only of Red Jack; pictured himself riding beside her on a horse equally as magnificent as Mephistopholes. He imagined sliding a ring onto her finger; being with her all day and night, loving her.
Tom had seen his mate Harry Readford settled on Brunette Downs, and he too wanted a cattle station of his own – not as big as Brunette, mind you – just a few hundred square miles he could call his own. He liked the country around Newcastle Waters, and there was a block that just might come up for sale pretty soon.
While Missus Dead Finish snored through the night, the Ragged Thirteen fell back to sleep, dreaming of what life would be like when they struck the reef.
Continues next Sunday …
©2018 Greg Barron
Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com