Category: Will Jones and the Blue Dog

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

Chapter One – The Runaway Wagon

1886, Southwestern Queensland

That old echidna was no fast mover, but he ambled along the stony earth with his stumpy legs moving in a hunched-over left-right rhythm, a layer of red dust powdered over the brown of his quills. He’d scented a termite mound over yonder, near where the mulga started. These termites, he could tell, were plentiful and active, and he was keen to lick them up with his long, sticky tongue.

It was late afternoon, and the burning orb of the sun was easing down towards the earth, though the ground still hoarded its warmth. The echidna had spent the day in his burrow, sleeping and dreaming of juicy termite nymphs and succulent queens. Now, finally, he was on the hunt, hungry and single-minded.

Abruptly he stopped; his snout twitching, the sensitive receptors there telling him that he had come to a road. The wagon ruts were deep in places, formed back in February when the northern wet season had dipped south from the tropics and dumped five inches of rain in a couple of days. The echidna remembered it well, for his burrow had partially filled with water. He sniffed again, and set off across the road.

The echidna was halfway there when he sensed a vibration in the ground, barely noticeable at first. He felt it in his nasal passages, in the hollow spaces of his quills, and even his claws. He had seen and heard human vehicles in the past, always at a safe distance, and was able to identify the sounds of spinning wheels and of hooves on earth.

If he’d hurried, the old echidna might have made it across the track, but that opportunity passed. Instead, he looked up and with his tiny eyes saw two horses drawing a wagonette, heading directly towards him. On the driver’s box was a wild-eyed man, and he was yelling at the horses.

Frightened now, the echidna rolled himself into a ball and gripped the earth with his claws so tightly that no jaws, hand or talon would ever lift him. He heard more yelling, and the thunder of hooves. Even in his protective ball, he was frightened. Fortunately though, it didn’t take long before the sound moved on and away down the track.

The echidna opened his eyes and lifted his head, only to see three horses with riders crouched in their saddles galloping towards him at a terrifying speed. These were, he was sure, the fastest-moving animals he had ever encountered in his slow-moving life.

Down went his head until they too had passed. After a minute or two a third rider came, leading a string of horses at a more sedate pace.

Still the echidna waited, until finally the vibrations faded into the distance. Now the old fellow eased his claws loose, lifted his head, then committed to the crossing. His mind again turned to the feast of termites that would make up his evening meal.

***

Almost a mile ahead by then, Will Jones was coming up to the out-of-control wagonette at a gallop, urging his gelding to approach the offside horse, while Lainey did the same on the other side. Will’s hat flew from his head in the slipstream and he hoped that Fat Sam would pick it up for him as he brought up the horses.

 Will could see the reddened, terrified face of the driver, but even worse the wheel of the wagonette was wobbling like a shearer on a spree and it was obvious that it would soon part ways from the vehicle. Up ahead the track degenerated as it descended into a gibber plain of rocks, most of them red with iron as big as two clenched fists. It didn’t take a genius to predict that the out-of-control horses might lose their footing on the stones and the rickety wheel shatter or slide from the axle.

Coming up to the offside horse Will saw that foam had begun to fly from its nostrils, and that sweat coated its hide. Lainey was on the other side, also at a frantic gallop.

‘Try for the bridle,’ Will shouted.

Lainey did not answer, but he saw that she was already leaning inwards from the saddle, reaching with her left hand and holding the reins with her right, calling soothing words to the horses. ‘Come on, my darlings, slow up now.’

Will was doing the same, but with more force and no less finesse, taking a grip on the bearing rein, his own horse starting when its thigh touched the shaft. But now with a rider on either side, each with a grip on the harness, Will and Lainey exerted slowing force with the weight of their own mounts. This effort, together with Lainey’s pleaded words of comfort, was causing a gradual slackening of pace.

 With enough time now to look, Will saw that that Gamilaroi Jim was parallel to the wagonette, attempting to climb from his horse onto the vehicle. As always he wore long grey dungarees and no shirt at all, the muscles standing proud on his dark skin. Jim took a grip on the wagonette hoops, climbed from his horse, and slipped down next to the driver.

‘Good work,’ called Will.

Now they hit the first of the rocky ground, and the offside wheel parted ways from the wagonette. The whole vehicle sunk to one side and skidded. Jim held himself and the driver in place by dint of his strength, while Will and Lainey concentrated on slowing the horses and preventing another panic. All in all, the thing was done with some control, and finally the wagonette, and the horses that drove it, stopped in a broiling sea of dust.

For a moment or two, no one moved. Men, woman and animals alike remained still, chests heaving. It was as if they were collectively worried that a single word might panic the runaway horses all over again.

Finally, Jim and the driver of the wagonette half-fell, half-climbed out of the steeply sloping vehicle, reaching the ground and dusting themselves off.

Will looked at the driver curiously. He was full-bearded in the same shade of white as his hair, with a compact body and long limbs that made him seem spider-like.

‘Dear Gawd in Heaven,’ the driver said. ‘I swear that I can’t thank you people enough. If you hadn’t a’ come along in time the Lord alone knows what might’a happened.’

Will backed his horse a length or two, to give the man some room. ‘We were in the right place at the right time, and that’s for sure. I’m Will by the way. That’s me sister Lainey, an’ Jim were the one what jumped on board the wagon with ya.’ Fat Sam was just coming up with the packs and spare horses, also carrying Will’s lost hat and leading Jim’s horse. His eyes took in the scene with his usual calm. ‘This quiet barsted ‘ere is Sam – you can see that he’s Cantonese, but he’s one of us.’

‘Darn pleased to meet you all. My name is Scotty McCrae – part owner of Mudie Station thirty mile yonder. All this help is unexpected but welcome.’

‘Got to help each other out in the bush,’ said Will. ‘But tell us, will you, what startled the poor bloody horses in the first place?’

Scotty made a face, then spat heavily into the dust between his feet. ‘Oh it were a darn fool anteater – echidna or whatever ya they call them. I tried to swerve around, but that didn’t help. The horses didn’t like the look of him an’ went straight into a bolt.’  

Will accepted the explanation. ‘Well, it’s a good thing we were follerin’ so closely behind. It’s too late to move on now, so we might as well set up camp back before the rocks start. We just passed a creek bed that should have a hole or two – we can help you get these horses to water and in the morning we’ll put that wheel back on.’

‘That’s nice of you, sir,’ said Scotty. ‘I’ve plenty of tucker, ‘an’ I can use a saucepan better than most.’ He bowed low, ‘I’d be honoured to prepare a slap-up feed for all tonight.’

In the silence that followed this promise there came a strange sound from the back of the damaged wagon. Will imagined that it might be the squeal of a rat at first, but then it came again – once, twice, then a third time. It was a yap, a bark, yet from an animal too small to deliver any depth to the sound.

‘What the hell is that?’ asked Will, but Lainey, who always beat him hollow in the curiosity stakes, was already dismounting from her horse and walking towards the rear of the wagonette.

by Greg Barron


New chapter next Sunday.

Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.

Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

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2. Inside the Tea Chest

Scotty McRae hurried to the rear of the wagon, and with Lainey looking over his shoulders he lifted a wooden tea chest down to the dusty track, opening a lid into which many holes had been bored, and looking deeply into the interior. ‘Oh Jesus, the poor little beggars,’ he said.

Lainey held a hand to her chest and made a soft sound in her throat that sounded like concern mingled with amazement.

Curious about this development, Will dismounted and handed his reins to Sam. Then, walking up to the chest, he too stared inside. He saw three furry bundles – pups of course, but of a breed he had not seen before. Their coats were blue, flecked with darker shades, and white too, beautifully patterned.  

Unfortunately, the shock of the wagon lurching to its axle had not been kind to the pups. One of the three had blood around its nose, and had left a blotch of red against one wall of the chest. Another was crying pitifully, trying to walk unsuccessfully. The third seemed to be unharmed.

Scotty picked the one with the bloodied snout up by the scruff of its neck and lifted it close to his face. ‘You alright there big fella?’ Then to Will and his sister, ‘Just a nasty little knock, I’d say.’

‘I could get a cloth with some spirit on it to clean his nose up,’ suggested Lainey.

‘That’d be a big help,’ agreed Scotty, and he passed the pup across to her, careless of a new daub of blood on his sleeve.

The next pup began to yelp as soon as Scotty picked it up. Changing his grip he cradled the animal’s belly in his palm, and felt along its ribcage with the other forefinger. ‘Oh bugger – feels like he has some broken ribs. Darn it, he was such a nice little fellow too – I call this one Little Blue.’

Will felt a twinge of unhappiness at this, ‘Oh that’s a bloody shame, the poor little mite.’ He peered up close at the injured pup. ‘I’ve never seen a dog like these ones before.’

‘They’re a new breed,’ said the driver. ‘A mate of mine’s been experimentin’ with the husbandry. They’re calling them the blue cattle dog – originally a cross between a blue merle collie, dingo and some dalmatian. Some people call them Hall’s Heelers after the bloke who first bred them, or Queensland Blue Heelers but the official name is gonna be the Australian Cattle Dog.’

‘They really are blue,’ Will marvelled.

Scotty smoothed back the pup’s ears, which seemed to help calm the animal’s cries for a moment. ‘Yeah, and the breed is second to none – loyal, tough, smart, and better with cattle than most English breeds. I was taking these three back to me own farm. Sad it’s only gonna be two now.’

Will was shocked at this announcement. He inclined his head at the pup in Scotty’s hand. He had more striking markings than the other two: a white blaze on his forehead, black masks around both eyes and a daub of tan for eyebrows. ‘You’re not gonna put him down, are you? Won’t those ribs heal up?’

‘I doubt it, but I suppose I can try – we don’t want him to suffer though. I’m no animal doctor but if we bind him up it might help.’

‘I’ll get a clean shirt and make some strips,’ said Will helpfully, and it was one of his own shirts he sacrificed to the cause, using his sheath knife to cut and tear three long strips from the tail.

When he returned they wrapped the little dog’s middle up tight, then encouraged him to drink a little water from a saucepan lid on the ground. Will stood, watching the damaged little creature try to stand and lap the cool liquid, wondering why his heart ached so hard.

***

Within an hour the horses were watered and hobbled, grazing on the sparse grasses, bells clunking gently as they moved. Night had fallen by then, but the moon was already high, and Sam had a good fire that provided its own flickering glow.

The wagonette itself was not yet repaired, but they had lifted the left side, slipped the wheel back onto the axle then repacked the load. In the morning Jim, who was a dab hand at such things, would finish the repair.

Fat Sam had a good fire roaring, and Scotty McRae was making good his promise to cook. He had beef that was still fresh enough to eat once the pale outer skin had been trimmed away. Two of the three pups eagerly ate the trimmings, and made nuisances of themselves around the camp. The biggest was called Noah, always first to the food, and seemingly unconcerned by the small cut on his snout. The sister was Molly, almost as big, but not as enterprising.

Little Blue, with his broken ribs, had been confined to the tea chest, in the hope that he might not strain himself, and fits of his wheezy yelps mingled with the call of a nearby stone curlew.

When the meal was over Lainey had Molly in her lap, and even Sam was enjoying Noah’s antics around the camp. Will said to Scotty, ‘Can I get the poor little barsted out?’

Scotty looked at him strangely, then, ‘Why yes, a’course you can.’

Will opened the lid of the tea chest, picked up Little Blue, and carried him back to his spot beside the blaze. He was wearing the blue serge jacket he had once won in a card game with a naval officer. The little dog seemed to forget his injuries for long enough to be attracted to the brass buttons, worrying them with his teeth until Will gently moved him away.  

‘Now, now,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be sewing any of them buttons back on again.’

‘Count yourself as lucky,’ said Scotty. ‘These blue dogs don’t take to strangers easy – even at that age. He’s taken a shine to you.’

Will held the dog on his lap while Scotty recited a poem he had penned, a song of the brown scrub and the red earth of places west – the lowing of cattle strung out along the track, dingos howling near lonely campfires. Gamilaroi Jim followed up with a yarn that seemed not be the least bit fantastical on that sullen red terrain, of spirits in the watercourses, and silent things that move across the outback skies on cold winter nights.

Fat Sam smoked his pipe with his usual dedication, and Scotty seemed interested in his Cantonese background, and why he had hooked up with such a carefree crew as this.

‘Will you go back to China one day, do you think?’ Scotty asked.

Fat Sam shook his head. ‘Never go back,’ he said.

Scotty cracked a grin, ‘What’d you do, kill someone?’

Sam looked away, ignoring the question, and there was no hint of a smile on his face.

***

Later, when the fire had burned low but was not yet out, Will woke in his swag, hearing the sound of whimpering from the tea box. It cut through his heart like a bowie knife.

He lay rigid in his swag for ten or more minutes, then muttered to himself something about ‘keepin’ the little fella warm.’ He got up, walked to the tea chest and lifted the pup with the little belt of bandages, and carried him to his swag.

  At first the animal still whimpered and tried to burrow into his warmth. Will felt a cold nose on his cheek, then the sandpaper lick of a tongue. The little dog crept in under the blanket.

‘You’re a funny bugger, aren’t you, Little Blue,’ Will said under his breath. ‘Shame you had to go and get hurt.’

Worried that he might roll and hurt the dog, Will was determined to remain awake, listening to every harsh breath and whimper. There was no doubt that the pup was struggling with pain on each breath.

Through the long early hours, when the moon had sunk to leave a black sky spread with stars, he willed the little dog to survive.

***

The next morning, with the wheel repaired, and two calm and rested horses in the traces, Scotty packed the last of his things in the wagon and prepared to leave. The three pups went into their wooden chest, and Will held Little Blue for as long as he could, before placing him in with his brother and sister.

The little pup would not take a feed that morning and Scotty had sighed. ‘Little Blue might be injured inside his gut, the poor little beggar. Things don’t look too bright for him.’

Will was surprised at himself for feeling melancholy at seeing the pup go. ‘I hope he heals up alright,’ he said.

‘So do I.’

 ‘They’ll love being at your place, I’m sure,’ Will went on. ‘Learning to muster and such. Maybe we’ll drop in one day and see how they’re getting’ on.’

‘I’d like that,’ said Scotty. ‘In fact, can I offer you some work? We can always do with a few more men in the stock camps?’

Will thought for a moment. They were still less than a hundred miles from the border with New South Wales, where there was a price on his head, and a couple of days ride from the scene of a man’s death that they had watched with their own eyes, and did not particularly want to be questioned about.

‘Not just now,’ he said. ‘We’re hell bent on seeing some of the country up north, but maybe next season.’ Will couldn’t help but let his eyes drop to where the pup he had shared his swag with was looking up at him with eyes that seemed less bright than they had been the previous afternoon.

‘I don’t have a fortune in cash on me,’ Scotty said, ‘but will you take a couple a’ bob for the assistance you gave me yesterday?’

Will shook his head. ‘No chance, old mate, you cooked a top feed and the company of you an’ the blue dogs was worth every minute. Now get on the road and take those pups home. Hopefully all three will be soon chasin’ around like they’re meant to.’

They all shook hands, and swore to meet again. The wagon set off at a sedate pace, rattling on the stones. Will suddenly felt like it was going to be a long day, worried sick about what would happen to the little dog he had felt such a connection to.

by Greg Barron


New chapter next Sunday.

Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.

Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

3. Hard Decisions

‘P’raps you should have taken up that job offer,’ said Gamilaroi Jim as he, Sam, Will and Lainey rode out along the Adavale road. ‘We could do with a quid or two, an’ Scotty seems like he’d be a good boss.’

‘Nah,’ said Will. ‘The plan is to head north so let’s stick to it.’

Normally he might have said more, but instead he rode in silence, while Gamilaroi Jim ambled his mare along nearby, bare chested as usual, repeating every bird call. When a golden whistler whistled, so did Jim. When a raven issued his abrasive caw Jim answered it perfectly. He even captured the butcher bird’s pure song and the chatter of willy wagtails.

Yet nothing seemed to lift Will’s spirits, and he wasn’t prone to feeling low. Not even having half the New South Wales constabulary after him, for a crime he didn’t commit, had affected him as much as the mortal illness of one little pup.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ asked Lainey, her blonde hair in a ponytail extending from the back of her cabbage-tree hat. ‘Never seen you look like such a misery guts.’

‘Nothing wrong with me,’ said Will. ‘Looking forward to town – a good pub feed and pot or two of dark and I’ll be right as rain.’

‘I suppose we could stop an’ boil the billy soon,’ said Lainey.

‘Barely got enough tea left for a whiff each,’ said Will. ‘But I suppose we may as well use it up.’

‘Hey Will,’ called Jim from his position a hundred yards ahead of them. ‘Aren’t that Scotty’s wagon up ahead at that intersection?’

Will slowed his horse and stared, ‘I think you’re right. It is.’

He tried not to hurry at all, but even from a hundred yards distance he could see that Scotty had pulled his wagon off the track a way, horses still in the traces, and that he was working at a hole in the ground with his shovel, in a clearing beside a patch of bluebush.

As he came up, Will dismounted, and walked his horse in. Scotty’s face was red from exertion, and it was easy to see that he was upset.

‘What’s up?’ asked Will.

Scotty stopped digging and leaned on his shovel. ‘That poor little pup is getting’ worse. I have to put him out of his misery,’ he said, ‘and I figgered I’d dig the hole first – if this here ground weren’t hard as concrete I’d have finished by now and been on me way.’

Will turned to see Lainey over near the wagon, where the little dog was laying on a scrap of soiled blanket, trying to sit up to investigate the newcomers. Leading his horse over, Will tethered it to the same mulga tree as Lainey had done, then walked across and kneeled down beside the stricken animal.  

Scotty joined them with his shovel still in his hands. ‘I don’t want to have to do this, but the damn pup hasn’t stopped whimpering since I left you this morn, and as you can see he’s been passing stools with blood in them. The only responsible thing is to end the poor fellow’s pain.’

Will stared dumbly. ‘You mean, put him down?’

Scotty sighed and wiped his sweat-streaked forehead with the back of his free hand, ‘Yes, I have to put the poor little fella to the sword, so to speak.’

Lainey looked stricken, and she turned away. ‘Oh that ain’t good,’ she said.

‘How will you do it?’ asked Will, barely glancing up as Jim and Sam also tethered their horses and came in on foot.

‘That’s just what I were figgerin’ out. I thought I’d dig a nice hole for ‘im first, then decide.’

Will felt for his pipe in his top pocket, packed it full of Dixson fine cut from his pouch and caught the packet of vestas that Jim threw to him. ‘Don’t do it, mate. Let God decide the little bloke’s fate.’

Scotty face burned a brighter shade of red, contrasting strongly with the white of his beard. ‘Now I don’t want to get shirty with you, after the good turn you done me yesterday, but that ain’t your decision to make. It’s mine. I’m responsible for him and I don’t believe in allowin’ an animal a lingering death when he can have a quick one.’  

Pipe in his mouth, Will bent to the blanket, and lifted Little Blue in his arms, cradling him against his chest. There was no doubt that the pup was less active than he had been that morning, but yet, he snuffled at Will’s shirt, and tried to lick at his neck. ‘He wants to live, see?’

Scotty slammed the blade of his shovel down on the ground, glancing off a stone so it made a ringing sound. ‘Damn it. No!’ He pointed with his free hand at the track that came off the main road, winding out to the west. ‘That’s my turn-off home, but I’ve got another night’s camp before I get there. We run a rough homestead and I’ll be straight out with cattle – I got no way of nursing a sorely wounded dog. Best you can do mister, is ride on and leave me to what must be done.’

‘He’s right Will,’ said Lainey. ‘Just leave it.’

But Will was getting in a mood of his own, leaning down to tap out his pipe and crossing his arms in front of his chest. ‘It ain’t right, to kill the poor little beggar like that. It weren’t his fault that the horses bolted.’

Scotty’s face grew redder still, and his lips clamped together. ‘Don’t think I dunno who you are. Everyone’s talkin’ about the gang from New South Wales riding north – a white, a celestial and a Gamilaroi man with no shirt. There’s a troop of pinks waitin’ for you at Adavale from what I’ve heard, led by a New South Welshman called Sergeant Douglas – who has an extradition warrant for yez.’

‘Long Douglas,’ breathed Jim. ‘He’s follered us all this way?’

‘Sounds like it,’ said Will, then, to Scotty. ‘So you knew all this and didn’t tell us last night?’

‘I only figured out who you are as I moved on this morning – you were such decent types that it threw me off the scent – I wouldn’t pick yez for a murderous gang.’ He sighed heavily. ‘Now, for the love of Jove, take heed of my warning about what’s waiting for you in Adavale, get on your horses and ride away, an’ leave me to do what needs to be done.’

‘I’ll do that, but don’t kill Little Blue,’ said Will. ‘Take him home with you.’

Scotty turned and threw the shovel as far as he could, and it landed near the hole. ‘You want to save him, dash it all, then you take the pup, and see if you can perform some miracle on the poor bastard yourself.’

Will stared back at him. ‘I-I can’t take him. Not on horseback. Not on the run like this.’

‘Well there’s your choice,’ said Scotty. ‘Either you take him, or ride on and I’ll do what needs to be done.’ With those words, the station owner stalked back to his shovel, picked it up and resumed his digging. Sam, Jim, Lainey and Will stood in a circle around the dog.

Lainey’s eyes flashed. ‘Now you just think about this, brother of mine. You’d be takin’ on a dog that’s sick and in pain, with no wagon to carry ‘im. Even if he survives you ‘ave to be around to feed the damn thing every day, an’ not let it get ate by hawks or snakes ‘til it’s growed enough to look after itself. Then you have to think about what Scotty said about Long Douglas on our tail. We can’t ride fast and hard with a sick bloody dog with us … ‘ She looked down at Little Blue. ‘But I do wish that he could live.’

Jim blew a stream of smoke towards the sky, then turned to Will, ‘You can’t even look after yerself, bloke,’ he said, ‘let alone a pup – specially one as crook as this.’

‘I look after me horses well enough,’ said Will. ‘no animal ‘as ever suffered in my care.’ He turned to Sam, ‘What are your thoughts?’

‘Makes no difference,’ said Sam. ‘You not ever listen anyhow.’  

Will lifted the pup and looked into its eyes, while the little paws scrabbled at thin air. ‘What about you, little fella, are you in so much pain that you’d want it all to end? Or do ya want to take your chances with a down and out rover like me?’

There was no sound but for Scotty’s shovel biting into the hard earth, and a distant raven, and they all waited for Will to speak again.

by Greg Barron


New chapter next Sunday.

Read the story so far all in one place here.

Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.

Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter 4: Long Douglas

Further north, in the front bar of Adavale’s Imperial Hotel, New South Wales police sergeant Roger Gerald Humphrey Douglas took a last, fortifying mouthful of rum from a crystal glass. Through the dusty panes of the window he could see the troop of Queensland Mounted Police who had been seconded to his command lined up outside with their horses. They were hard, bearded men, lean from living rough: Troopers Johnson, Chandler, Smith and Davies. Corporals Elfick and Dunn. The other three were trackers – Ginger, Willy and Bob. A small crowd of locals had gathered to watch the patrol move out.

 ‘Long’ Douglas, as he was known, stood up, collected his pith helmet and started to head for the door. His nickname was an ironic one, bestowed on him because of his small stature. As if to make up for this handicap he wore his tunic with upright pride, his shoes shining black and silver spurs that jangled with each step.

As Long Douglas started to make his way to the door, however, the publican appeared from around the side of the bar, blocking his path, and in his hand he held a yellow square of paper. He was an outrageously tall man, lanky as a colt, and with neatly trimmed sideburns. ‘Excuse us a minute Sergeant, but I’d be obliged if you could settle your bill before you ride out.’

Long Douglas opened his mouth in surprise, ‘Any expenses incurred will be settled by the New South Wales Police. Kindly direct your invoice to them.’

The publican raised the paper, ‘Will they be pleased to pay for Coq au Vin, some of the ingredients for which we had to send a rider to Charleville?’

‘Well,’ spluttered Douglas. ‘A man must eat.’

‘And Bollinger champagne?’

‘They will not begrudge their champion, far from home and in regions remote, a suitable refreshment after the rigours of the track.’

‘Nevertheless,’ said the publican. ‘I require your cheque for the amount of nineteen pounds, three shillings and sixpence before you step through that door.’

Long Douglas raised himself on his toes. ‘You dare to threaten an officer of the law?’

The publican did not raise his voice but there was an iron glint in his eye, ‘I am not threatening you, but I aim to be paid. If you do not, I can assure you that I will send the word out, making sure that you will not be welcome in any pub in any town in Southern Queensland.’

Douglas sighed, put down his helmet, accepted the invoice and read through it grimly. He reached into an inside pocket, retrieving a folded chequebook. Using the quill and inkpot offered by the other man he leaned on a bar table, still sticky with the residue of yesterday’s beer. ‘This is most inopportune,’ he said as he scratched an amount and his signature, ‘and I can assure you that my former high opinion of your establishment is now very low indeed.’

The publican said nothing, just watched as Long Douglas tore off the cheque and passed it across with deadpan eyes.

With the cheque in the publican’s hand Long Douglas secured his pith helmet on his head and stalked his way out through the front doors, across the creaking, pit-sawn ironbark verandah and outside into the already burning morning sun. His ‘boy’ had brought his horse around and placed a stump to assist his sergeant in mounting. Once Long Douglas’s rather plump behind had settled into the saddle leather, he looked out at the local people who had gathered to watch the patrol ride out – four or five of whom were noticeably drunk. A couple of others were businessmen in hats and waistcoats.

Long Douglas decided that these people would expect him to say a few words, just as a Greek hero might have addressed his fellow Athenians before riding into battle. He sat up straight in the saddle. ‘Dear people of Adavale,’ he said, in a voice pitched low for a man of his small frame. ‘I have in my possession a warrant for the arrest and extradition to the colony of New South Wales of one William Jones, his sister Elaine Phillips, Wu Yan-tou – also known as Fat Sam, and a Gamilaroi Aboriginal man most often known as Jim. This is for the crimes of murder and conspiracy to murder, evading arrest and affray. In addition William Jones faces charges in the colony of Queensland for escaping lawful custody in the town of Eulo.’

There was laughter amongst the spectators at this, for the story of Will Jones’s escape from the Eulo lock-up, under cover of a diversionary fire had kept the bush telegraph humming a few months earlier. One of the drinkers, reminded of this, threw an arm around one of his fellows, and hooted with mirth.

Long Douglas glared at the pair but spoke on regardless. ‘This pursuit will not be an easy one. We know for a fact that the fugitives are armed to the teeth, for apart from the Snider carbines and Colt revolvers they were already carrying, Will Jones and his companions did steal a repeating Henry rifle from the New South Wales police.’ He paused, waiting for a reaction of shock and surprise from the bystanders. There was none, unless the lighting of a pipe or two could be counted as such.

‘We have outsmarted these vicious outlaws,’ he went on, ‘by gathering our forces ahead of their intended march, and will now cast our net southwards, to swoop them up like minnows in our net. Fear not, the force of law cannot be contained. It cannot be thwarted. It cannot be run-away from successfully.’ Now, with a dramatic flourish, Long Douglas turned to his gathered troop, ten men in all, with twice that number of spare horses and loaded packs, and raised an arm. ‘Come, my merry band. Let us ride forth and bring the forces of lawlessness to justice.’

By now the drunks were contorted with laughter, all but rolling around on the ground, but Long Douglas focussed instead on the town’s Church of England minister, a very thin young man and his wife, who were clapping heartily. Two members of the world’s oldest profession, standing oddly beside this pair, also seemed impressed.

As the patrol rode out of town, past the Divisional Board Hall, a row of houses and the first of several itinerant camps, Long Douglas reflected on how proud his mother would be of him, if she could see him leading such a formidable force as this, out into the wilderness. A forlorn place indeed, he decided, as the track wound in and around the channels of Blackwater Creek that lay dry and dusty like an endless claypan.

His father had been a merchant – part owner of a small fleet of coastal traders. With a house at Double Bay his early life lacked for nothing. When the company flagship, the brigantine Progress was lost off Byron Bay, however, Roger Douglas’s father was on board. Raised by his mother, Roger’s childhood was one of books and Sydney Harbour skiffs and fishing for flathead in the little bays near their slowly decaying home.

At first apprenticed to a draper, he joined the New South Wales police force at the age of nineteen. Newly qualified, he was posted to Grafton, in Northern New South Wales, then Bellingen, Taree and Armidale. At just twenty-eight he was promoted to sergeant-in-charge at Coonabarabran. The town suited him, straddling the Western Plains, and with the Warrumbungles a dramatic backdrop.

It was there that Long Douglas first came up against Will Jones. A man who was everything Roger Douglas hated – a larrikin who everyone seemed to like; a terrible thief from whom no horse was safe, and a man born to the bush, an advantage that no amount of experience later in life could seem to match.

As for the murder of which Will Jones was accused, only Long Douglas knew the truth. He took the reins in one hand and fingered the stock of his Winchester rifle in its scabbard with the other. Jones’s presence at that creek bed on that fateful day was a useful accident. It was vital that he did not get taken alive; that he must not live to tell his story.

by Greg Barron


New chapter next Sunday.

Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.

Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.

Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Five: The Bulloo River

When Will Jones called out to Scotty McCrae and told him that he would take the blue heeler pup and try to nurse him back to health, he had no real idea how difficult that would be.

Lainey stood with her hands on her hips. ‘You’re soft in the head,’ she spat. ‘Would Ned Kelly have taken a sick dog with ‘im to Glenrowan?’

‘I ain’t Ned Kelly,’ Will replied. ‘An’ I don’t plan on stagin’ me own Glenrowan.’

After Scotty had moved off with his wagon, however, Lainey went from angry to practical, fashioning a sling for her brother to carry the pup under his arm. Gamilaroi Jim and Fat Sam watched with bemused expressions on their faces, not wanting to say the obvious – that the animal was not likely to survive the rigors of life on the road.

Before long, however, they were walking the horses up the track, with Jim in the lead, scouting ahead. Little Blue was asleep in the warmth of his sling. Every now and then Will slipped a hand inside to feel for the animal’s heartbeat, reassuring himself with its regular rhythm.

With no real plan but to skirt Adavale when they got closer, they were all a little wary of what was coming, and when Jim came riding back towards them in a hurry, Will could see by his face that he was alarmed.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Will.

‘P’lice troop – havin’ dinner camp up ahead. Must be small water, for the tailers bringin’ horses in one by one ter drink.’

‘Is Long Douglas there?’

‘Yeah, seen the little barsted there too.’ Jim moved his arms and head in a parody of a rooster walking.

‘He’s a cow of a man,’ Will said, ‘but e’s persistent. We’d best get off the track quick smart. They’ll be coming this way soon, so we’d best get to it. Jim, can you sweep our sign?’

Jim gave Will a look as if he were deficient. They all knew that no one could do it better.

***

First they rode back the way they had come until sparse kangaroo grass gave way to iron-red stones, and there they made their departure, with Jim following on foot, using a branch torn from a brigalow tree to sweep the surface where their tracks diverged from the well-trodden centre, then straightening spinifex stalks or turning stones that had been scored by a horse shoe. For a quarter mile Jim kept this up, while Sam, Lainey and Will walked their mounts, until finally the stones became sparse.

Now they performed a trick Jim had taught them. They picked out a recognisable distant landmark, in this case a flat-topped hill some three miles away, then separated, making complicated and erratic trails before meeting up again on the summit of that rise.

‘That should throw them off,’ said Jim as he slid from the saddle and took up a vantage point behind a great slab of stone. And while Sam held the horses Will, Lainey and Jim watched the far-off road as the police broke camp and rode by.

Will clapped his hands as the troop – fifteen men in all – continued past the point where he and his friends had detoured. ‘We fooled them,’ he said,

‘Maybe for now,’ said Jim, ‘but one a’ them trackers; he saw something; he went off the road a little, but the p’liceman called him back.’

Standing, brushing off their clothes, they returned to the horses, and Will poured some water into a pannikin for Little Blue, who did take a small drink, but had to be supported around his bandaged body while he did so.

‘We’ve got decisions to make,’ Will said, standing with the small dog in his arms. ‘We can’t go south again, and I’m not sure we should go anywhere near Adavale neither.’ He turned to Sam. ‘What do you think?’

Sam pointed to the west. ‘That way we reach the Bulloo. Camped there a few year ago. Good river.’

‘Good thinking,’ agreed Will. ‘We could maybe hide out there for a spell – let the dog come good again. Queensland is a fair lump of a place, an’ they can’t follow us forever.’

‘I for one would be grateful for a river camp tonight,’ Lainey said. ‘It’s been days since a proper bogey. Maybe latch onter a fish or to – Sam always has a line handy.’

‘Yes, that’d be a fine thing, a river camp,’ said Will.

And they rode the afternoon hard through lancewood scrub and brigalow, or bare plains of bluebush and spinifex, with the yellow splash of everlasting daisies or fields of waving mitchell grass. The scene rarely stayed the same for long, and with the eyes of bushmen the differences were more apparent than they might be to a newcomer.

They reached the Bulloo before sunset and river was welcome and shaded sight, yet there was no feeling of sanctuary or relief. The banks had been scoured by the passage of stock, grass sparse on the flats alongside.

‘Drovers been through,’ commented Sam.

‘Not just one,’ agreed Will. ‘Thousands of head, muddying the damn river, and eatin’ out every last blade. I should have guessed that we’d be fair smack on a droving track, headin’ north, all that country up there every squatter has his sights on, an’ this might not be the best place to hide.’

‘It’ll do for tonight though, won’t it?’ asked Lainey hopefully.

‘Yeah, it’ll do for tonight – any drovers nearby will be in camp by now so they won’t trouble us before morning.’

Scouting around, they found a bend in the river with a steep bank that the cattle and sheep had avoided, but there was a small rock ledge below that could be reached with a careful descent. Will clambered down to fetch a canvas pail of fresh water, and Little Blue eyed the river warily and snuggled back against the warmth of Will’s navy jacket, with the reflections of the coolabahs and red gums all around them, and a crimson sun glaring as it hurried for the horizon.

While Sam took the horses out to find some feed, the others soon had clothes out of swags and were washing everything from underwear to shirts, scrubbing the cloth against itself, whacking them against tree branches, then hanging them on makeshift clothes lines.

Jim pulled a handful of very long and thin green leaves out of a shirt pocket and showed them to Will. ‘Here bloke, try some of this on the dog.’

‘What is it?’

‘Gumbi gumbi – powerful medicine – haven’t seen it much aroun’ here but passed by a couple a’ healthy shrubs up the track. Might help ya dog, bloke, but he need meat to go with it.’

‘That’s if he’ll eat,’ said Will.

‘He has to eat,’ said Jim, ‘or we’ll be buryin’ him soon enough.’

***

The Snider being far too much gun for the task, Will borrowed Jim’s new Henry carbine—the one that he had inherited from the New South Wales police force in the Pillaga. Leaving Little Blue in Lainey’s care he wandered away from their camp, down along the bank until he came upon a wallaby that had come to drink.

Working the lever, enjoying the smoothness of the action, he took the shot standing, aiming for the head for an instant kill and to avoid meat spoilage. The beautiful creature fell dead, never knowing what had hit it, and Will picked it up by the legs, away from the mud, and skinned and gutted it on the high bank.

Jim looked up as Will arrived back at camp, ‘How many bullets it take you to kill that skinny little feller?’

‘One,’ said Will.

Jim made a mocking smile. ‘I never seen you hit the thing you aimed at first shot in yer life, bloke.’

‘Well, this time I did.’

Settling down with his roll of knives and a chopping board of Macleay blackbutt, grooved by many blades, he went to work. A section of the backstraps he diced into tiny pieces for the dog, and these he mixed with chopped gumbi gumbi leaves. The rest of the backstraps he pierced with the point of a knife many times, then rubbed with handfuls of salt, tucking the result in a canvas bag. Without this preparation the meat would be close to spoiled by morning.

While the wallaby haunches roasted in the coals, Will begged, cajoled and encouraged the little dog to eat, but he would do little more than whimper and sniff. Jim watched for a bit, then asked with his eyes if he could take the dog. Will passed him across, and watched Jim’s big, dark hands gently handle the animal. Leaning over, he took a lump of Will’s meat mixture between his fingers, then rolled it into a ball. He used his free hand to prise open the little dog’s jaws, and thrust the meat deep inside with his finger. The pup struggled for a moment, then recovered.

‘You try,’ said Jim. ‘Just a little bit more.’

Will, a little disturbed not to have thought of such a neat trick, took back the pup and mimicked Jim’s actions, and by now Sam and Lainey were both watching too. He took a lump of meat and herbage the same size as Jim had done, and opened the dog’s mouth. He didn’t get it down quite as far as his mate had managed.

‘Close ‘is mouth and stroke it down,’ said Jim.

This worked also, and when Will offered the water dish the pup lapped up more than he had all day. It was encouraging, and it was a happier camp as they risked building the fire up for light and warmth and chewed fresh meat and were grateful for it.

Yet Will was not feeling safe enough to abandon all caution, and they agreed to draw straws to keep watch. Lainey, drawing the easiest, early shift, walked out after sunset with just a revolver in her belt, heading for a small rise nearby.

Later, however, just as Will was thinking of unrolling his swag, there was a shout from Lainey out in the darkness: a challenge. Then the voice of a stranger echoing amongst the coolabahs.

by Greg Barron 2022

New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Six: The Drovers

The stranger strode out of the darkness of the riverside canopy, with Lainey close behind. He wore stained moleskin trousers, ‘lastic-sided boots and a striped shirt. His hair was dark but a little thin, plastered to his head from a day of sweating under a hat, though he was now bare-headed. He was leading a long-legged stock horse by the reins, a poley saddle on its back. Following warily was a short-haired collie, distrustful of this new camp, choosing to sit at the edge of the firelight and pant softly.

‘Welcome, stranger,’ said Will, coming to his feet, turning to signal to Sam with a tiny shake of his head to put away the carbine he had trained on the man as he entered the firelight. ‘Come and warm yourself. We have a little wallaby meat, if you’re hungry.’

‘Why thank you,’ said the stranger, fixing his eyes on Will, ‘but I’ve just ate a good feed of mutton an’ johnny-cakes. We’ve a mob two mile ahead, and we’re missin’ half a dozen ewes – came scoutin’ down for them and seen yer fire. Figured I’d find out who it was.’

‘Which way are you headin’?’ Will asked.

‘North. Up to a run west of Blackall – two thousand maiden ewes and a hundred and fifty rams. We’re Liverpool Plains folk originally, but these lot are from another run we own out near Burke. Ted White’s me name, by the way.’

‘Well damn it all,’ said Will. ‘Liverpool Plains? I know a White family from the range country south of Willow Tree. Arthur White is an old mate of mine.’

The drover cracked a grin. ‘Well, Arthur’s me own brother – would’ve been along on this drove if his missus wasn’t expectin’ a third. Now I’m guessin’ that you’re the famous Will Jones – I ain’t seen you since you were a young tacker.’

‘That’s me,’ Will said, ‘here, tie up your horse an’ stop for a yarn.’ Sam left the carbine lying on his blanket, and as if to apologise for his hostility, he took the reins himself, and secured the horse nearby.

Ted White thanked the quiet Cantonese for this courtesy, then squatted down near the fire, fumbling in his top pocket for a pipe and the makings. ‘None of us could believe our ears when we heard you was wanted for murder.’ He turned to Lainey, ‘You must be Elaine, is it?’

‘That’s me.’

‘F’give me if I stare a bit, but I ain’t seen a good lookin’ sort like you for many a long week.’

‘Oh, I don’t mind so much,’ said Lainey. It was a while since Will had seen his sister’s face turn red, but it now took on a shade of crimson that a fresh slice of beetroot would have been proud of.

‘Do you know the country up ahead?’ Will asked.

‘Well enough, I’ve done this trip half a dozen times, over the years.’

‘Then I’ll pick yer brains, if you don’t mind,’ said Will. ‘We’re aiming to amble up north, but we need to hide out for a few days.’ He waved a hand to where Little Blue was asleep on an old jacket near the fire. ‘We’ve got a sick pup, an’ need somewhere we won’t be disturbed. Is there anyplace you know where we can lay low for a spell?’

Ted White, having packed his pipe, lit up from a burning stick and drew deeply. Dogs, in his world, were a valuable commodity – a good one was worth two men – and the idea of changing plans to nurse one back to health made perfect sense to him. He considered the idea for a moment or two then snapped his fingers. ‘Oh yeah, Hellhole Gorge, on Powell Creek. The stock route skirts it, but there’s a couple of waterholes up in the stone country where it aren’t easy to take stock and you won’t get bothered. Best of all most of the Queensland trackers won’t go near the place – it has a sad history – a bad history. You’d be safe enough there for a few days.’ He paused to smoke in silence for a few minutes, then his eyes lit up. ‘Here’s an idea. If you can be in the saddle at first light, an’ catch us up, we’ll tuck you up in front of the mob. No tracker alive will be able to follow after a thousand odd sheep have walked behind you.’

Will looked around at the others. ‘That’s the best blasted plan I’ve heard all day,’ he said. ‘Now help yourself to what food we have. If only we had a bottle of rum to share with a mate on this night.’

‘No rum needed,’ said the stranger, ‘an’ I’d best ride on and find them sheep. You’ll see us along the left bank – as early as you can get there.’

***

In the morning they rose with the sun still just an underglow in the east, and Little Blue seemed a little better, eating several more lumps of meat mixed with herbs, even taking most of these on his own, along with a healthy drink of water.

An hour later Will, Jim, Sam and Lainey were making their way around the mob, greeting the drovers with their dogs on the wings, moving across the sunshine of the morning feeling as safe and protected as they had ever been. The pissy smell of sheep was almost overpowering, but as familiar as home, and the bleating a comfort rather than an annoyance.

 The mob moved slowly, less than a mile an hour, and when they went into dinner camp Jim became restless. He rode ahead, reaching as far as where the cook had driven his wagon to set up for the evening.

That night they shared the drovers’ camp, well-stocked as it was with flour and tea. They sat around a hearty fire, sharing yarns, talking of the bush, and far distant places. Ted made no secret of his admiration for Lainey, but he was nothing but gentlemanly and considerate towards her.

Little Blue had begun to take an interest in his surroundings and there was a moment of hilarity when Midge, Ted’s Collie, sniffed the injured pup out, and the two dogs, young and old touched noses. The bitch must have known that the little blue dog was poorly, for she licked his side solicitously, then left him alone.

‘Might be able to take them bandages off tomorrow, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘Help him move around if he wants to.’ No one dared to say it, but the little dog seemed to be out of real danger and on the mend.

Will snuggled up with him that night, and for a full minute he stared at the girl in the postcard – his silent obsession – before settling down to sleep. He, like the others slept without fear of traps or discovery, nor even the horses straying, for there were men on watch through the night. In the morning they assisted with catching horses and the cook provided a good breakfast before they headed out, once again enjoying a day of riding at the head of the mob.

Late on the third afternoon, after hours of parched saltbush country, the drive reached Powell Creek – not so much a waterway as a dry sheet of rock. There was a hole downstream a little, for the sheep had scented it and were hurrying in that direction. While the other men watered the mob Ted White rode in to talk to Will and the rest of the group, Midge matching pace with his horse.

‘We have to part ways here,’ said Ted, keeping the flies from his face with a swipe of his hands, but if you follow the creek bed upstream, you’ll reach the gorge country. This is all part of Milo Station, but it’s a darn country in itself — find a quiet spot and I doubt anyone will bother you.’

There were handshakes all round, and Will swore that one day he’d pay back the many kindnesses Ted and his mates had shown. ‘Just one thing before we leave,’ Will said. ‘You say that the trackers won’t go near this Hellhole Gorge. That something bad happened there. What was it?’

Ted shook his head. ‘I dunno much about it. Just that a station owner called Welford was tomahawked and speared fifteen or so year ago, not too far west of here.’ He then jabbed a thumb upstream. ‘They say that Hellhole Gorge is where the Native Police and a posse of landowners caught up with the Kungkari people that done the murder.’

Jim showed his horror on his face, and Will shook his head slowly, as if to clear an unpleasant thought. ‘I don’t blame the trackers for not wanting to go there then. But it still sounds like a handy place for us to hide out for a bit.’

Leaving the droving party was a wrench – it had been nice to be amongst a crew that had adopted them as friends. Now, however, it was time to regroup, and bring the little dog back to full health. With Will in the lead, they turned away up the creek, and slowly the sounds of bleating sheep and the smell of the mob receded into the distance.

When Lainey turned around and saw Ted still watching after them, she blew him a kiss.

‘What’d you do that for?’ asked Will. ‘He’s got it bad enough for you already.’

‘The poor barsted deserved it,’ said Lainey. ‘An’ if he’d had a bath in the last six months I woulda done more than blow a kiss.’

‘Yer a married woman,’ growled Will.

‘Not to my mind I ain’t,’ she said. ‘Most boring years of me whole existence, they were, bein’ the little woman. I’d rather the life of an outlaw, any day.’

Will scowled and urged his gelding into a trot, heading out to the front, horseshoes clumping on the hard stone of Powell Creek.

Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Seven: The Trackers

Will Jones and The Blue Dog

Long Douglas and his patrol had ridden on for the rest of the day after missing Will Jones and his crew south of Adavale, heading down through Bulloo River station country: Bull’s Gully, Glencoe and an outstation of Milo called Tintinchilla.   

By late afternoon, after many uneventful miles, Long Douglas had his sights set on the homestead at North Comongin, just an hour’s ride ahead. He had shared a table with one of the station’s owners, a man by the name of McLean, in Eulo a few weeks earlier, and he had seemed like a very nice fellow indeed – had offered shearer’s quarters for the men and a room in the house for Douglas himself if the patrol happened to come through that way.

The comforts of a homestead, which apparently also boasted a very scenic billabong, appealed to Long Douglas far more than a night in camp. He pictured in his head a meal of hot lamb roast, gravy and potatoes, the station missus solicitously pouring his drinks and admiring his uniform.

Up ahead, in defiance of his haste, he spotted the patrol’s three trackers off their horses and in earnest conversation. This, surely, was an unnecessary delay to a hot bath and meal. Outraged, Long Douglas urged his mount into a trot.

‘What in heaven’s name is going on here?’ he demanded as he came up to them.

The three troopers turned to look at their sergeant, then continued to talk amongst themselves in their own language. This casual disregard, along with the fact that he couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying, infuriated Long Douglas, and he was a man capable of instant transformation from calm to rage. He made a scoffing sound in his throat. ‘Excuse me. Did you happen to hear the ranking officer give you an order? Now, mount your horses and take the trail.’

Again they ignored him, despite the fury in his eyes and the spittle that flew from his lips. Douglas dismounted from his horse, and hurrying forward, grabbed the nearest of the three trackers by the hair. This was no mean feat, for the man was at least a head taller than he was. The man squealed, reeling backwards in the direction of the hair-pull.

‘Now that I finally have your attention,’ spat Long Douglas. ‘I told you to take the trail.’ He gave the man’s hair a last tug then pushed him in the back. Preparing to mount his horse again, he was surprised to see the man making no move to do the same. ‘Holy hell trooper. I you want a thrashing, you’re going the right way about it. Never in my life have I seen and heard such insolence. You’ve got three seconds to mount up and take the trail.’

‘Trouble is sergeant, that the trail don’t go this way no more.’

‘Then where on earth does it go?’

The tracker pointed to the north. ‘Sometime back Mister Will Jones leave the road.’

‘Damn your eyes, are you telling me that we’ve been following a cold trail?’

The tracker inclined his head, cringing with his eyes and lips and if knowing that his revelations would bring on a tantrum from Long Douglas.

‘What’s your name, Trooper?’

‘Joseph, sir, Trooper Joseph.’

‘How much of a bonus were you promised for this venture? A shilling a day was it?’

Again he nodded.

‘Well kiss today’s shilling goodbye, for you and your blasted mates. We’ll ride on to North Comongin and start retracing our steps in the morning.’

The Queensland police corporal, lounging on his horse throughout the exchange, said, ‘Beggin’ your pardon, sergeant, but I can’t see the use in ridin’ another ten miles onwards, then having to come back this way again first thing tomorrow. Trooper Joseph here was sayin’ a minute ago that he thinks he might know where we missed them, and it were a fair ways back – we could make up some lost ground now – there’ll be enough starlight to get by, and the moon will rise soon enough. Then we could go into camp not far from the spot and have an early start at them.’

Long Douglas turned on the tracker furiously. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that you saw something.’

‘I try to Sergeant, and you call me back.’

Long Douglas stuck his foot in the stirrup and swung up onto his horse, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. Being made to look in dereliction of his duty was even worse than having to camp rough – and they had passed a public house of sorts up the track so the night may yet be passed in comfort. ‘Very well then, we’ll ride back the way we have come, but this oversight will be mentioned in my report, Trooper Joseph, and you can expect a reprimand from your commanding officer when the time comes.’

***

Twenty miles to the north, a little after ten the following morning, Long Douglas watched Trooper Joseph work in concert with his two mates. It took them an hour of searching to find the place where Will Jones and his gang’s spoor had stopped. This done, they began to cast around for the spot where the fugitives had left the road, narrowing it down to the edges of a gibber plain.

The sergeant was in a better mood than he had been the previous afternoon, having taken a room at a roadside pub operated by a Scotsman called Gunne. It was little more than a shanty, really, but the food had been hot, the mattress soft, and the liquor hard. Long Douglas prided himself on his head for drink. He had risen at dawn, with scarcely a hangover, and joined his patrol, who were camping outside, in time to rouse the stragglers out of their swags.

Trooper Joseph turned to look at the sergeant, smiling. ‘This feller a clever one,’ he said, then tapped his own head with a forefinger. ‘Proper good puzzle.’

Slowly they crossed the plain of stones. One clue at a time: a scuffed rock; a bent grass stalk. Clues that were only visible when Trooper Joseph or one of the others pointed it out.

When the stony expanse ended the single trail became four, and several hours of unravelling multiple threads followed. It was noon when Trooper Joseph showed Long Douglas the rocks on the hillock from which the fugitives had watched the police patrol ride along the road.

When they reached the river, the spoor was complicated by drovers and their herds coming through. Even now the last of a northbound mob of cattle were strung along the Bulloo pools, hereford and angus breeders moving slowly, urged along by tough men on tougher horses.

Once the mob had moved on the three trackers separated, and while Long Douglas waited in camp with the billy boiling and damper on the coals, they scouted up and down gullies, in dense thickets and along the banks. Finally, the sharp eyes of Trooper Joseph won through. He found a two-day-old camp on the western bank, and rode back to fetch the sergeant and corporal.

 The tracker pointed out the earth-covered fireplace, along with the prints of boots and bare feet in the dust. ‘Three feller camp here.’ And a small distance away he pointed out a smeared black stool on the ground. ‘Little dog,’ he said. ‘Sick-fella.’

Long Douglas smiled to himself. Now it was only a matter of speed. With twelve armed men they could not fail to overcome Will Jones and his little band when the time came.

© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Eight: The Hellhole

Over the next day of riding upstream along Powell Creek, the weather changed from a sun-fired burning heat to a different kind of discomfort. A greasy layer of cloud stole across the sky from the north, and with it came a clinging, broiling humidity that kept up day and night. Shirts were drenched, and sweat ran in trails down Jim’s bare dark torso. When Lainey tucked her dress into her pantaloons no one was interested in commenting.

They found more than one waterhole along the creek, and several times Will, Jim, Sam and Lainey yarned from the saddle, discussing the merits of the place as a campsite. Will, however, was looking for true solitude, and he urged the others to ride on. This area, Ted had told them, was part of the vast Milo Station, and there were signs of stock and the cold fires of their keepers here and there.

Finally, however, they had to dismount to deal with increasingly wild terrain. Leading their horses they reached a small but deep waterhole, surrounded by craggy shelves of orange and grey stone. With no more signs of people or stock this looked like the perfect place to regroup, and for the little dog to heal.

In many ways this was a beautiful camp. It was certainly dramatic, with turkey bush amongst the stone faces, bright red lolly bush fruit and even fuchsia flowers where soaks bled from the cracks and dampened the soil. A pair of Major Mitchell cockatoos in a river red gum watched them come, a little wary at these unaccustomed visitors, and a brace of turtles dived into the deep.

Yet, for all that, it was a brooding place. An uncomfortable place. And there were other, more deadly creatures here.

As the travellers dismounted, they disturbed a big old mulga snake, and she lifted her blunt head, riven by the tessellated plates of her scales. Her tongue came and went from between hard lips, tasting their scent in the air. She viewed the interlopers with calculating eyes. It wasn’t often that humans came to these stony reaches. Reluctantly she left her favourite place on the warm stone and slithered away into the crags before they saw her. For the two decades of her life she had been queen of this place. Two-legged visitors were not welcome.

***

‘I don’t like it here, bloke,’ Jim said to Will as they lifted saddles from their horses and unburdened the packs. ‘Especially after what Ted said had happened here. I can almost hear the ghosts.’

Will did not disagree. ‘I know what you mean, but those old dead warriors got no complaint with us. They won’t mind us hidin’ out from the traps on their country.’

Jim made a face, ‘That Long Douglas is on our trail, I can feel it. Two nights here, maybe three, and no more. We have to move on.’

‘I agree,’ said Will. He knew Jim too well to dismiss his instincts.

***

Fat Sam was an artist with the fishing gear, and few things made him as happy as tying one of his needle-sharp hooks onto his catgut line, wound around an old rum bottle. After catching a pocketful of grasshoppers for bait, he threaded one wriggling specimen onto the hook and crouched at the edge of the pool, a study in concentration, one hand extended over the water, the line held by his forefinger.

That night they ate small grunter fish cooked on the coals, and for the dog Will prepared balls of fish mixed with dry gumbi gumbi leaves. Now, it seemed, the pup needed little encouragement to eat. He wolfed down the flesh as fast as Will could prise a lump off the backbone and roll it around to check for bones.

Then, long after the four had retired to their swags, Little Blue was restless, and Will tried to keep him still. Yet. there were things in the night the pup did not care for.

 For just outside the firelight, that big old mulga snake slithered along the edges of the camp. Every inch of her was hard-country muscle, forged on rock and dust. Her fangs were hollow needles; her venom potent enough to kill a bullock.

***

The second day Little Blue was looking much better. He was beginning to scurry around the camp, and he had an appetite to match. Wandering off to look for meat, Will found a lost Milo ram in poor condition and alone. Having separated from the flock the animal had somehow evaded the many dingos in the area. It seemed to Will like a mercy when he dropped the animal with the Henry rifle.

Later, Will saw Jim working away at some greenhide.

‘Not like you to be doing any work,’ Will commented, lighting his pipe and squatting down to watch the other man’s nimble fingers.

The Gamilaroi man sneered, ‘I can work the legs off a lazy barsted like yourself, bloke.’

‘What are you making.’

‘A collar for the dog.’

And that, more than anything else, was a declaration that the pup was now with them to stay. He was well again, and his broken ribs healed. Will felt a wild sense of exhilaration in his chest. He had made the right decision to keep the dog and care for him.

‘I’ve still got a bad feeling though, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘I reckon we’d best make a push in the morning.’

Even Lainey, listening nearby, inclined her head. ‘I think we should too.’

***

That second night, while Will dozed in the sweaty heat, the little dog heard something disturbing. He left Will’s swag and listened again to a low rustling sound that bothered him deep in the pit of his gut. He walked to the edge of the firelight and there he saw the dark slithering shape. He started to growl, ominously for such a small dog.

Like all good snake dogs no one needed to teach Little Blue the danger, he knew it instinctively. The mulga snake – some people called them king browns – was as long as a man is tall, with an armoured head and black eyes that missed nothing.

The snake, for her part, smelled the warm bundle of fur and veered closer, as if to investigate a possible food source. Identifying the blue furred creature she stopped, tongue flicking from between her lipless mouth.

Little Blue stood his ground, growling deep in his throat, and when he jumped forward with his jaws open, white milk-teeth bared, he showed something of the fight he would have in his heart every day of his life.

As if knowing that she had met a greater creature, albeit a small one, the snake veered away. There were frogs near the water, and they did not have teeth.

© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Nine: Between the Rivers

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

The three trackers with the police party were from different homelands. Trooper Joseph was Kungkari, from the Barcoo. Trooper Jeremiah was a Pitta Pitta man from around Boulia—they called him the Plains Turkey Man for his long legs and manner of walking with his neck swaying forward and back like that bird. Trooper Matthew was from the coast near Rockhampton, a member of the Darumbal people. In order to communicate amongst themselves they spoke Kriol mixed with some English and the more widely used words of their own tongues.

While Long Douglas enjoyed a long dinner camp the three trackers gathered ahead of the patrol to talk. For two days they had ridden blind, unable to find any spoor made by Will Jones and his crew amongst the hoof marks of many thousands of sheep, making even their significant skills impotent.

Now, however, casting along the edges of the drive, Trooper Matthew had found Will Jones’s boot imprinted in the dust, signalling the moment that he and three others deviated from the droving party they had ridden with.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘One man say g’bye an’ ride off with them sheep. That outlaw an’ his mates they follow the creek bed here, up sunrise way now.’

Trooper Joseph made a face and spat onto the earth. ‘I won’t go up that Powell Creek. Bad country up there.’ He told the others the story of a white man called Welford, who his own Kungkari people had killed, and then how the rest of the tribe had been cornered and slaughtered here by settlers and the Native Police. ‘Bad country, sooner ride off home than go there.’

‘This Long Douglas from down South,’ said Matthew. ‘He’s a bad man – an’ he’ll whip us all if we say no to ‘im.’

The Kungkari man brightened, ‘How about we just take ‘im somewhere else?’

‘Where?’

Trooper Joseph shrugged and pointed to the Northwest. ‘Up that way, between the rivers. Lotsa empty country round there – ride around until he gets plenty tired – pretend we still on the trail.’

The other two men grinned back. It was a good plan.

***

As the three trackers rode back into camp Long Douglas was mounting up with the aid of a handy rock. Settling into the saddle he unclipped the waterbag and took a swig. ‘You on the trail yet boys?’

‘Yes sir,’ said Trooper Joseph. ‘Plenty good trail.’

‘Well, that’s good news anyway. Carry on.’

With the rest of the patrol mounted, they crossed the creek, putting spurs to the horses, charging into the scrub on the other side. The trackers knew how to play the game, finding fictitious ‘sign’ here and there, and Long Douglas seemed happy enough through the afternoon.

‘Look,’ Trooper Joseph would say. ‘That log is where Will Jones run along, then slide down branch over there.’

Trooper Jeremiah would join in the game. ‘Then he hop from rock to rock.’

Picturing these events, Long Douglas would nod his head slowly. ‘How far ahead?’ he asked, over and over.

‘Not far now.’

Slowly they penetrated deeper into a wilderness country between the rivers, but Long Douglas was no fool, and by the middle of the next day he was smelling a rat. ‘It doesn’t make any sense why they would go Northwest now. Show me some of these tracks,’ he demanded. ‘Blessed if I’ve seen any sign for a day or more.’

With no tracks to show, Trooper Joseph changed his story. ‘Can’t find any more tracks now sergeant. We are casting around, looking.’

Long Douglas’s face turned a bright shade of red. ‘Well look harder, or starve. No bloody rations for you bastards tonight.’ He paused, then approached the white constable in charge of the Queensland contingent, ‘I really must say that I’m in need of a bath and a meal – is there any kind of homestead within an hour or two’s ride.’

‘Nothing sir,’ he said, then grinned. ‘Your Lordship might ‘ave to go without.’

‘Excuse me, you are being insubordinate, sir.’

The constable smirked and walked away.

***

That evening the Queensland mounted constable wandered up to the trackers, giving them each a plug of tobacco. They were miserable without tucker, and the baccy helped fill the void. Trooper Jeremiah, who did not burden himself with the paraphernalia of smoking, simply bit off a chunk and chewed it happily.

‘I’m jack of this caper,’ said the white constable. ‘I want to head home. I don’t like this Long Douglas fella, this bastard from New South Wales, and neither does anyone else. I got an idea, right?’

When he had finished outlining his proposal the three troopers grinned, and the Kungkari man summed up his feelings for the three of them. ‘Plenty good thinking, constable.’

‘We’ve got to do this properly,’ said the constable, ‘and by tomorrow night we’ll be riding home.’

***

When the embers of the fire had burned low, and the stars and moon offered enough light for secret business, the constable rose in the night, taking two men on an erratic night ride, leaving a trail that even Long Douglas would be able to see.

They did just enough anti-tracking to suggest that the trail had been made by fugitives, then returned before dawn for an hour’s hard sleep.

After a breakfast of johnny-cakes and tea, Trooper Joseph showed Long Douglas the sign. ‘Them bad men not covering their spoor now sir. We follow no trouble now Sergeant.’

Yet the going was tough. This was a country of sand, dry channels, gidyea, claypans and spinifex. Long Douglas was in a hurry now, and would brook no delay.

At noon they reached the base of a small hill, and the three troopers climbed to the summit, leaving the rest of the party down below.

Long Douglas waited until they returned, and Trooper Joseph came to him and hissed. ‘I can see Will Jones in his camp from the top sir. Come up and look.’

Scenting victory, Long Douglas unsheathed his Winchester and dismounted, before calling for his field glasses from one of the packs. ‘Lead me carefully, Trooper. For I dislike thorns.’

‘No thorns,’ he was assured, and together the two men set off up the face of the hill, an ancient sandhill hardened to the consistency of stone. At the far side Trooper Joseph insisted that his sergeant fall prone to the ground, then slither forwards slowly.

‘Now look carefully,’ said the tracker. ‘You’ll see his camp in the distance.’

Long Douglas didn’t stop to ponder why Trooper Joseph’s voice was now behind instead of beside him. Laying the rifle down he picked up the field glasses and began to scan the fore and middle ground, looking for a column of smoke, men, or horses.

At length he said, ‘Where are they? I can’t see anyone.’ He looked around and the tracker was nowhere to be seen. ‘Damn your eyes,’ he muttered, but resumed searching through the glasses. A good five minutes passed before he lowered them for the last time, collected the rifle, and got to his feet. ‘Damn you, Trooper Joseph, show yourself. What manner of trick is this?’

The trooper had gone.

***

By the time Long Douglas made it down to the base of the hill there was no one there, not even his own horse.

The enormity of the situation he was in: alone in the wilderness with only the six cartridges in the tube magazine of the rifle, and no food or vesta to light a fire, dawned on him.

‘Damn you,’ he shouted to the sky, but there was no answer, not even an echo.


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Ten: Heading North

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

With five riding horses, four packs and one dog, the little group rode to the north at a good clip, anxious to leave Long Douglas and his extradition warrant far behind. They kept to bridle tracks along the Barcoo, leaving the main roads to Cobb and Co coaches, bearing travellers and government officials, and honest folk with nothing to fear from the law.

Within a few days Little Blue could walk alongside Will’s gelding for most of the day. Tiring by the middle afternoon, Will would lift him up onto his horse, where he would sit forward of the saddle.

After a week or two the pup seemed to gain a mountain of energy. Not only could he match the horses all day, but in camp he became a crazy whirlwind, stealing boots and chewing any unattended object, as well as scavenging from plates left on or near the ground. He also gained a prodigious appetite. Keeping the dog fed became a preoccupation.

‘Time to start training that pup,’ warned Jim, and Will took up the challenge. Before long Little Blue could sit, drop, and stay. Most of the time.

Travelling at a steady but not hectic pace, keeping clear of drovers and station hands, they camped each night on a suitable waterhole, and ate yellowbelly from the river, caught with Sam’s skill on the cat-gut line. Several times Jim retraced their steps to check for pursuit, and found no sign of police on their tail.

Even so, assuming that Long Douglas and his patrol were somewhere behind them, they had decided not to travel openly by their real names. Will introduced himself to the few station workers or travellers they encountered as Thomas; Jim posed as a horse tailer and no one asked his name. Sam pretended to be a Chinese cook.

‘I ain’t posin’ as yer damn wife again,’ said Lainey to Will. ‘Jest about made me vomit last time I ‘ad to do it – down in Eulo before ya got yer stupid self locked up.’

‘Well how do we explain a woman ridin’ with us then?’

‘Simple, I’ll pretend to be a bloke.’

Lainey packed her hair up into her hat, borrowed men’s clothes from Will, altering them around the waist to fit. She practiced a gruff voice, and became ‘Albert.’ This was a role she seemed to love playing, and she would swear like a trooper and cultivated phrases like, ‘darn you blokes need a good talkin’ to wiv me fists,’ or ‘let’s go to town and git us some lassies.’

***

Near Isisford, a settlement they kept a good distance from, they came upon a wagon loaded down with stores, bogged to the bolsters on the far side of a river crossing, in a wallow of slick mud. In attendance were two poor station rouseabouts, and an overseer with a jumped-up attitude.

‘Here you,’ he called to Will. ‘Get down here and help us.’

‘Where did you learn yer manners, mate, a pig-pen?’ drawled Will.

‘Now you listen to me,’ said the overseer. ‘I’m from Wakefield Station yonder and I’m overdue with these rations.’

Will dismounted, fixed his horse to a tree branch with the reins, then walked up to the wagon, examined the half-buried wheels, while the two workers took the opportunity to lean on their shovels. The horses in the traces were sweating from the work of trying to haul the load out.

‘Best thing, I reckon is to unload the blasted wagon,’ said Will. ‘Them horses won’t have too much trouble draggin’ it out then.’

‘There’s five ton there,’ said the overseer. ‘We don’t have the bloody time.’

‘You will if we help out,’ said Will. He walked to the wagon and lifted one corner of the tarpaulin cover. He saw sacks of flour, sugar, tea, even some pickled meat in tins. ‘We could do with some provisions,’ he commented.

‘One sack of flour,’ said the overseer.

Will shook his head. ‘One bag fer each of us, and some grain for our nags if you’ve got it. Otherwise we pile on our horses an’ ride off.’

‘Very well then. One bag each and some feed for your horses.’ The overseer spat on his hand and they shook on the deal.

Will, Jim, Sam and ‘Albert’ worked like dogs to stack the goods on dry ground, with the cover tarp spread beneath to keep out the damp. It was hot work, and the men soon had their shirts off, sweating in the sun, though ‘Albert,’ for obvious reasons, laboured on fully clothed.

When it seemed that overseer planned to simply supervise the stacking, without lifting a finger himself, Will called out. ‘Hey sunshine, what makes you think you’ve got the right to stand there an’ watch?’

With an unhappy grumble the man joined in, while Little Blue sniffed his way around the carthorses, lifted his leg on the wheels, and patrolled the stacked goods as if it was he who was supervising.

They stacked the load high, all five ton of it, and when it was done, and the wagon empty, it didn’t take long for the horses to haul the wagon out of the bog.

With the cart free at last, they piled all the stores back on again, with the overseer snapping instructions as to exactly where this or that had to be stowed.

When the wagon rolled on, Will cracked a grin and showed the others a little stash he had made in the scrub beside the bog.  As well as the flour bags and a bushel of grain the overseer had given him, Will had five more bags of flour, plenty of sugar and tea, and enough tobacco to last them three months hidden in the grass.

Jim laughed, ‘You got nimble hands,’ he smiled. ‘I never even seen you do that.’

‘He were a rude barsted,’ said Will. ‘I would’ve taken more, if our packs could’ve carried it all.’


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

Photo courtesy: State Library of WA

Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Eleven: The Goldfields

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

Will Jones and his crew travelled on as summer waned into autumn, and the mornings grew cold and crisp as a dry lancewood twig. They followed the Alice River where it swung east near Barcaldine, enduring days of dry country before they camped on the headwaters of the Belyando River, the first easterly drainage they had encountered.

‘There’s gold around Clermont,’ said Will, and their eyes brightened. Even Sam had a spring in his step. They all knew gold and how to win it from the ground. Around the campfire, while Little Blue either rampaged or slept with his chin on his leg, they talked endlessly about snippets they had heard – the names of established fields with enticing names such as The Springs, Venus, McDonald’s Flat, and Wild Cat. They talked eagerly about which areas the gold was apparently reef or alluvial, and reported traveller’s verdicts on the current state of the fields.

Fifty miles out from Clermont they passed a couple of miners who told them to avoid the worked-out fields south of the town.

‘They’re pulling payable gold out at Black Ridge and Miclere,’ said one wizened character leading an overloaded mule, his beard as wind-swept and dust streaked as the bush itself. ‘Fifteen mile north of the town. That’s where I’d be heading if I were you.’

The following day they reached Miclere, where mullock heaps rose like anthills from the stony earth, headgear abounded, and taciturn men stared daggers at Will and his party as they passed as if they might pose a threat.

Near the middle of the diggings the landscape looked as if it had been turned upside down, with disturbed earth in all directions. Any substantial trees had been felled and used as boards. Jim reined in his horse, and spat at the ground, a grim expression on his face.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ asked Will.

‘Look at it, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘A damn shame what they done to the land. You fellas can stay here if you want. I’m goin’ back to where every blade a’ grass hasn’t been torn out.’

‘Ain’t ya never seen a gold diggin’s before?’ asked Will.

‘Not like this,’ said Jim.

‘Well you shoulda been at the Turon,’ said Will, ‘it was worse than this fer fifty miles. Come on mate, let’s at least get a peek at the town.’

Jim shook his head. ‘I don’t like it, bloke. No respect for the land.’

Will sighed and looked at Lainey who shrugged, then Sam.

‘If Jim wants to go back to find good camp I ride with him,’ said Sam.

‘We’ll all go,’ said Will, turning his horse. ‘But it’s a two-mile ride back to country that’s anything like natural.’

In fact, it was nearer three miles before they found a half decent waterhole in Miclere Creek. Even here there were piles of spoil, some six feet high, and abandoned shafts to match, but there were plenty of trees, grass for the horses, and the creek was stunning. Little Blue approved of the site straight off, and fetched himself into the water for a dip, heading back into camp to shake all over Lainey, who chased him out of the camp. All of this was great fun to the pup, and he set off to repeat the process.

Once they’d set up camp Will was restless, unable to settle. ‘I’ve a taste for a beer,’ he declared. ‘An’ it should be safe enough. There’s no way in hell Long Douglas will have chased us this far north, and even he ain’t enough to stop me from slakin’ me thirst.’

Sam regarded Will gravely, with his arms folded in front of his chest. ‘Remember what bad thing happen last time you went drinkin’,’ he said.

‘Ah good Jesus I hate you barsteds with long memories. There’ll be no lock-up for me this time, I guarantee it. You want to come, Jim?’

‘Back into that wasteland? No thanks, bloke. I’ll stop here an’ help Sam and the dog watch the horses. If you see fit to bring us back a bottle or two I’d be grateful, but.’

‘I’ll go with you,’ said Lainey, ‘but as I said before, I aren’t playin’ your wife.’ She balled her fists. ‘Me name’s Albert and no cove better give me any lip or I’ll fight him there and then.’

The others laughed at her pluck, and soon went about their business. By the time Will and Lainey had washed, dressed and mounted up, Fat Sam already had the small gold pan out and was heading down to a gravel bank, with Little Blue wandering along excitedly at this new game. Will used his heels to ease his gelding into a trot, a little nervous about the excursion, but comforted by the Webley revolver in the holster at his side.

Back in Miclere the main street was a swathe of hoof prints and piles of dung. There were a couple of stores, just shanties really – a store, and an eatery that doubled as a sly grog shop on the creek.

Lainey, her hair beneath her hat, walked in with Will towards the bar – a long slab of yellow messmate, sawn by giants with crosscut saws. Will reached out to trace the pattern of the grain, the story told by that old tree.

He ordered two pots of ale, and the roast meal on offer, then explained, ‘Me an’ a couple of mates are looking to make a dollar or two here. ‘Ow does a bloke get a foothold in this place?’

The shanty owner looked like an old military man, complete with a handlebar moustache, waxed and twisted at the ends. ‘Depends if you ‘as capital or not.’

‘No capital mate, just strong backs.’

‘Just about everything payable ‘as been pegged and worked already. There’s some big players ‘ere though, and they’re always looking for labourers—ten bob a week an’ all found or near enough. One of ‘em is working the reef we call the “Deep Lead.” Everyone who’s tried before has been beaten by water over the basalt, but these blokes are through it now, working payable wash 128 feet down. That’s the deepest mine in Queensland,’ he added proudly.

Will passed a shilling coin and took his change, surprised at having just bought the most expensive drink of his life, then accepted the two pots of ale, passing one to Lainey.

 They took a seat outside, and Will noticed that at an adjacent table sat a man with a silk tie and jacket, nursing what looked like rum and water in a glass. Will grunted ‘G’day,’ at him, then turned to Lainey. ‘I don’t fancy the notion of labourin’ fer some damned company; workin’ ourselves to the bone. Swingin’ a pick and pushin’ barrows a hundred feet underground fer two pounds a month ain’t my cup of tea.’ He looked at Lainey. ‘Maybe we should head back to sheep an’ cattle country – find ourselves a station job.’

Lainey shook her head, a line of froth from the ale like a high tide mark on her upper lip. ‘We come here to find gold. I reckon that’s what we should do. Sam’s a clever prospector, you told me that yerself. It’s just a matter headin’ up and down the creeks until we find somethin’ payable, isn’t it?’

Will shrugged, ‘This area has been worked for a good number of years, there would have been prospectors combing the area all that time. We’ll need to be lucky to find what they missed.’

They fell silent for a while, and Will went up to the bar and returned with a second round. ‘It’s a costly ale,’ he said as he steadily lowered the level. ‘But I don’t reckon I’ve ever had better.’ By the third drink they had also collected plates of roast mutton, potatoes and gravy, and were attacking it ravenously.

A commotion from inside made Will break off eating, and they both looked as a wiry digger staggered through, holding a tankard by the handle. His drunken eyes focussed on Lainey.

‘Oi, mate!’ he said. ‘Take yer hat off when yer eating.’

Lainey looked up at him. ‘What’s it got to do with you?’

‘I jes know bad manners when I see ‘em. Take your hat off?’

Lainey put on her huskiest voice, and stood up. ‘Well I appreciate your thoughts, but if you don’t piss off it’ll be the worse for ya.’

The drunk stopped, swaying on his feet, staring at Lainey, ‘Well ain’t you a fresh-faced young feller, scarcely seen a razor that face has. Is that what you gotta wear a hat for, to keep your skin pretty?’

The man in the silk tie at the adjacent table suddenly rose from his seat, a shilling coin in his hand. ‘Here son,’ he said in a deep voice. ‘Take this and go buy another drink.’

The man’s eyes fell on the coin. He took it, and looked back at the giver. ‘That young feller should take ‘is damn hat off. E needs to be taught manners.’

‘Just go and have a drink,’ said the man. ‘There’s a good fellow.’

With a last look at Lainey, the drunk wandered off towards the bar.

Will turned, ‘That was good of you, mate. Thanks muchly, though I don’t reckon that bloke was worth a shilling. Albert here was about to knock ‘is block off fer free.’

The man simply inclined his head, and continued to sit there, keeping his own company while Lainey and Will finished their meal and another pot of ale.

‘That drunken cow is still inside there,’ said Will. ‘Keeps looking out and muttering to some of his mates. Maybe we’d better head back to camp.’

After purchasing a couple of bottles of beer and securing them in their saddle bags, they mounted up, and rode through town, watching the mining camps segueing from day business to that of the night, parties of rowdy diggers just beginning their carousing. Two horsemen raced neck and neck along the track so fast that Will, Lainey and Jim had to ride out of the way, their whooping and carrying on making the horses skittish.

‘Crazy place,’ said Lainey.

They were just riding through the outskirts of the town when they looked back to see that the man in the silk tie was fifty yards behind them, mounted on a handsome bay thoroughbred.

‘He trailin’ us, do you reckon?’ Lainey asked.

‘Dunno yet.’

But as they left town, and diverted down and around a few mullock heaps, the man remained doggedly on their trail.

Will loosened his squirt in its holster. ‘He’s playin’ a dangerous game, but I’ve got no intention of leadin’ the barsted to our camp. Let’s stop an’ see what he wants.’

The two of them drew into the side of the track and waited. The man with the silk tie continued to ride towards them at a slow amble. Will drew his weapon, broke it to check the load, then held it loosely across his knees.

At a distance of perhaps ten paces the other man stopped his mount.

‘Who are you?’ called Will. ‘An’ what the hell do you mean by follerin’ us like that?’


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

Photo is of Clermont in 1870. State Library of Queensland.

Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Twelve: The Offer

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

The man with the silk tie walked his horse up close, and his steely eyes never deviated from Will’s, ignoring the revolver that was aimed directly at his gut. He sat ramrod straight in what looked like an English hunting saddle, and the stub of a cigar, unlit, protruded from the corner of his lips.

‘Stop right there, mister,’ said Will. ‘I don’t care who y’are, I’ll ruin yer day if you come any closer.’

At this the silk tie man reined in at last, plucked the cigar from his mouth and inclined his head. ‘Forgive me for following you in the dark, sir, and I can understand your misapprehension. Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Edward Sutton, formerly of London Town. I simply wish to talk to you. That’s all. I’ve got a proposal that you might find interesting, and of great profit to us both.’

‘I don’t like strangers much,’ said Will, still not lowering his weapon, ‘an’ you’re a strange stranger if ever I met one, with yer fancy duds and posh talk.’

‘Give me ten minutes of your time, that’s all. If you don’t like what you hear I’ll ride off and never bother you again.’ Seeing that Will was still hesitating he opened his jacket wide to show that he carried no knife or gun. ‘I am unarmed and bear you no malice. I will be at your mercy.’

Will looked at Lainey, who shrugged and said, ‘Can’t hurt to listen, Will.’

With a final scowl Will holstered the revolver. ‘Alright then, come back to camp, but stay behind me an’ ride slow or ya might cop a bullet from our mates – they’re trigger happy cows and no mistake.’

‘You won’t regret this,’ said the man, and when they set off he was careful to stay behind Lainey and Will, who rode abreast, through a long ride in the dark to the creek-side camp.

As they approached the spot Will called ahead to Sam and Jim, and they came out of the firelight, both armed and on edge. Little Blue trotted beside Jim, and, having seen the visitor, his tail was up high, almost rigid, and his ears lying flat. A low growl emanated from deep in the back on his throat.

‘Boys,’ said Will. ‘This cove ‘ere is called Edward Sutton, an’ he’s keen to tell us about some proposal or other he’s cooked up. I’ve promised him our ears for a bit, then he’ll ride away – he’s unarmed, so no need fer weapons.’

Neither Sam nor Jim looked impressed, but they both helped to sort the horses. It was Little Blue, however, who took the dimmest view of their guest. He sat as far away as he could, while still being within the firelight, and continued to growl softly until Will told him to stop.

 Edward Sutton, meanwhile, settled down before the fire with a new cigar burning, while Will lit his pipe and passed a quart pot of tea. Jim and Sam shared one of the bottles of beer Will had brought back, pouring it into frothy mugs and drinking heartily.

For the first little while Will picked the stranger’s brains about the goldfields from Clermont north to Charter’s Towers. He wanted to know how many people were making money, and how many weren’t. He wanted to know the weights of some recent nuggets and areas to avoid. For Sam’s benefit he asked where on the fields they might find Cantonese Chinese – Sam’s own people of whom he was in fear of his life.

For all his posh ways the stranger knew the area well, and had obviously made a close study of other men’s business. He spent much more than the agreed ten minutes – twice that amount of time – in summarising the Central Queensland goldfields – including where the Wardens were located and what they were like.

Finally, Will said, ’So now, what’s this proposal you want to talk to us about?’

‘Well,’ said the stranger, who paused to cough into a handkerchief. ‘Some partners and I have a small mining company of our own, and we’ve recently started working a new field to the north-west of here, in the Lyver Range. We’ve got five claims running there ourselves plus half a dozen independents. We’ve just installed a steam powered battery. I’m looking for more parties to work claims and bring the ore to my plant for crushing.’

Will saw that both Jim and Sam were listening intently, and there was barely a sound but for the crackling of the fire and a distant curlew. ‘Go on,’ he said.

‘The idea is simple. I give you a claim to register in your name – all pegged out and ready to go. You bring your ore to the battery I own, and I process it and pay cash for the gold.’

‘Why?’

‘Simply because I’m running my own mines, but I need more diggers in the area to make the machinery pay its way.’

‘Why not just employ more men and work the claims yourself?’

‘Under the terms of the Goldfields Act the Warden has already granted us the maximum number of claims we can work – the original claim plus four more. We could go bigger but we have to jump through a fair number of hoops in order to do so. That’s why I’m looking for people to stake their own claims on the field.’

‘How much gold?’

‘Most of the claims are running three to five ounces to the ton along the seam.’

Fat Sam whistled and grinned, his long-stemmed pipe in his hand.

‘It sounds too good to be true,’ said Will. ‘Why us?’

‘I’ve been looking out for groups like you—new to the area. Hardworking folk keen on a piece of the action but no real capital to speak of.’

Will said nothing. His share of the hundred pounds from the Kyungra Station affair was sewn up in his swag. ‘I’ll tell you what. We’d like to have a look around Miclere and Black Ridge fer a day or two – it’s been a long journey an’ we need to plan our next move. We’ll talk about it, an’ might ride up for a look in a day or two, fair enough?’

‘Very fair indeed,’ Sutton said, and he passed across a pamphlet titled, Miners Wanted. ‘This will give you more information, and there’s a map on the inside.’

‘Here,’ said Will, taking the pamphlet. ‘I’ll get your nag for ya, and thanks for the chin-wag, I learned a lot. Might see you in a day or two an’ we might not. See what ‘appens.’

The stranger smiled and made his farewells to each of them in turn, before mounting up and riding out into the night.

After Edward Sutton rode away he stopped down the road and reached behind him for the tiny derringer pistol that he’d stuck in the back of his waistband. It was getting quite uncomfortable by then. He was pleased that he hadn’t needed to use the weapon. It seemed certain to him that Will Jones and his mates would do what he wanted without any need for violence.


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

Image is artwork by Samuel Thomas Gill, courtesy State Library of New South Wales

Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Thirteen: Jim Rides Home

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

For the next three days Sam wandered the banks, flats and gullies of Miclere Creek with Jim, panning old mullock heaps or digging fresh gravel samples from likely patches on the creek. Will wore his gelding flat learning the lay of the land; looking at claims for sale and getting a grasp of the extent of the diggings.

Lainey, meanwhile, became mates with a woman digging a claim with her husband half a mile away, a sassy young Irishwoman called Bridget, and she was often in the camp, drinking rum and carrying on, a couple of ankle-biters terrorising the pup until he learned to hide when he saw them coming.

In the evenings Jim was silent and morose, not quite himself, and though Will tried to jolly him up, he seemed disinclined to respond with his usual wit.

‘Watch out ya don’t trip over on your own lip, mate,’ Will called. ‘It aren’t like you to look so down.’

‘I can’t see too much to be happy about, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘I liked it better back home, before you decided we had to take Clarkie’s letter halfway across the country, an’ you got pegged for ‘is murder.’

‘I didn’t see you complainin’ when we split the hundred pounds.’

Jim shrugged, ‘The money was good, but I’d rather be home.’

Will narrowed his eyes, ‘You got a woman down there, is that it?’

Lainey was protective of their comrade. ‘Maybe he has,’ she said. ‘At least it would be a real woman, not just a pitcher on a post card like the one that you stare at all day.’

‘I don’t look at her all day, and shut yer gob anyway – she’s none of your damn business.’

Lainey’s hands were on her hip, by now, ‘Well just leave Jim alone. Everybody’s allowed their own feelin’s.’

Most of the conversation in and around the camp centred on their next move as a group. Staying put was one possibility – Sam was finding small flakes in the wash, just a few drams all up – but in time they might find richer ground worth pegging. Buying a working claim with payable gold, Will had found out, was out of their price range,  

The general agreement seemed to be that they would soon ride north to investigate Edward Sutton’s new field, though it wasn’t until the third evening at the camp that they discussed it in detail. It was Sam’s opinion that checking out the Sutton claims was worth the ride. Lainey was happy to move on and give the plan a go.

‘We’re resolved then,’ said Will, taking Jim’s silence as agreement. ‘We’ll ride up and have a look at this new field of Edward Sutton’s.’

‘Not me,’ said Jim. ‘I’m goin’ off, for a bit.’

The declaration was like a charge of powder going off in the middle of the camp. Even Sam looked stunned. A long silence ensued, until finally Will gathered the wit to speak. ‘You aren’t coming wif us? What the devil do you mean by that? Are you plannin’ on stoppin’ here by yerself?’

‘Nah mate. I mean that I’m ridin’ away fer a spell. Diggin’ holes and pickin’ through dirt aren’t for me.’

‘What are you going to do then?’

‘I’m gonna head south. I need to see my people—my own country.’

‘You’re going to ride all the way back past the border?’ Will knew that Jim’s homelands were centred on the plains around the town of Coonamble, east to the banks of Teridgerie Creek where he had been born.

Jim inclined his head, ‘Yes, bloke. That’s what I have to do – see my people – spend some time on my country. I figure that on my way down I can find out whether Long Douglas is still on our trail, or if he’s given up.’

Lainey busily making tea, gave a little groan, ‘Oh c’mon Jim. I hate us to split up.  Give it three months, an’ if it hasn’t worked for us then we’ll all give up on it.’

‘No. I’ve made up me mind. I’ll pack up tonight and ride away at dawn.’

Will turned on Sam, ‘You ain’t saying much there.’

It was always hard to read much on the Cantonese man’s rounded face, but when he shrugged it seemed to take an effort. He and Jim were best of mates and thick as thieves. It would be a hard separation for Sam. ‘Jim has to do what he must,’ was all he said.

‘Well it’s a bit of hard luck for us,’ said Will. ‘Now we’re a man short for working a claim, when we finally get one. But yes, it would be worthwhile knowing what’s goin’ on with Long Douglas.’

***

The next morning, a wedge-tailed eagle, flying high in the morning sun, catching the early thermals over the hard dirt of the diggings, saw one man ride away from the camp, heading south, trailing a roan pack horse. The man looked good in the saddle, as competent a rider and bushman as any of his kind.

Holding his station, the eagle watched the man’s former companions breaking camp and heading north, with a dog, spare horses and packs.

If the eagle wondered why the fellowship had been broken he gave no sign, just saw the lone rider look up and find him in the sky, lifting his left hand in a wave of silent companionship.

Men like Jim are never alone in the bush.


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.

Image is artwork by Thomas Blacket Stephens, appearing in the Queenslander, 1936

Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Fourteen: Faith, Hope and the Prodigal

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

Will, Lainey and Sam rode to the north-west on the Charters Towers track, then veered off according to the map on the brochure Edward Sutton had given them. Little Blue ran alongside, straying now and then to investigate the scent of wallaby or dingo until a sharp whistle from Will brought him back.

By and by they saw less mining activity along the track, through prospectors could be seen working in and along the creek beds, while drovers and their dogs flanked herds of sheep or cattle strung for a mile or more along the tracks and winding creeks, wheeling unruly bullocks; whips cracking against the blue sky. Watching them, Will felt a pang for the simple hardships and pleasures of stock work, and when he locked eyes with Sam he saw that he was watching them too.

‘I reckon Little Blue will make a good working dog, when the chance arises,’ Will said. ‘I’d like to try him out one day.’

‘When we’re rich from the diggings,’ said Lainey, ‘you can buy yer own place an’ Little Blue can chase sheep or cattle ‘round as much a ‘e sees fit.’

Will grinned, and the thought kept him warm through noon and the early afternoon, at which time they passed a small township with a pub and store, then arrived at the top of a rise. From there they looked upon Edward Sutton’s goldfield, spread out across a set of further hills and their valleys. The three riders reined in and studied the area without a word, and Will’s practiced eye was already summing up the opportunities presented below.

The diggings were scattered around the hills, with some substantial buildings in the centre of the first valley. Dark smoke trailed from the stack of a steam engine, and the clatter of the stamp mill carried on the warm air. There was activity at every turn—men, horses, wagons. Mine headgear bristled from more than a dozen sites.

‘Looks busy,’ grunted Will.

‘Surely does,’ agreed Lainey.

Sam said nothing. He had his pipe going by then, taking in smoke at a furious pace.

‘Does it look like gold-bearing ground to you Sam?’ Will asked.

Sam shrugged, ‘Not very well certain just now.’ But he pointed to the broken ground on which their horses stood, sharp with feldspar, and the glint of galena. There was no doubt this was a highly mineralised area.

A couple of men near the battery seemed to spot them, one pointing up with an extended arm.

‘Should we ride down?’ asked Lainey.

‘I don’t reckon we have to,’ replied Will. ‘Looks like Sutton himself saddling up down there.’

This observation turned out to be correct, for the Englishman was soon taking the slope at a canter towards them, finally reining in and walking up close enough to shake Will’s hand, and take off his hat to greet Lainey.

After this, Sutton turned his horse to take in the view. ‘I’m glad we’re up here, for it gives me a chance to explain the geology of the field.’ He pointed the stub of a cigar down to the valley. ‘The parent rock—through these hills – is a granodiorite, containing feldspar, and through it winds fault-fissures of gold-bearing quartz. There are three of these leaders, we call them Faith, Hope and the Prodigal. Sometimes just a few inches wide, sometimes four or five feet. The best thing is that they are close to the surface, often only ten or twelve feet, but varying down to thirty. There’s also some alluvial gold in the gullies.’

‘So what are you offering us?’ asked Will.

‘I’ve got some choices for you – claims that can potentially access one or other of the gold leaders. We’ll ride the area and you can decide.’ He paused. ‘What happened to the other fellow?’

‘Jim had to ride south, means we’re shorthanded but …’

‘It so happens that a man rode in today, looking for partners. I’ll introduce you later – you might be able to work something out with him. Now, are you ready for a tour?’

‘We are,’ said Will. ‘Please lead on.’

For the next hour and a half, they rode with Sutton, starting with the company leases, all neatly pegged and headgear built in solid fashion. They shook hands with overseers and engineers, and viewed some half dozen leases that were pegged and ready for registration.

They stopped to talk to several other sets of battlers working leases.

‘We ain’t getting’ rich,’ was the general refrain, ‘but we’re making steady money, and hoping for the good patches.’

Will was impressed. Most fields had big winners and big losers. This one seemed to be producing consistently. Of the three gold leaders, it seemed that Faith was the most consistent but unspectacular in terms of return, Hope was less reliable but very rich in places, while the Prodigal was frustratingly hard to find, often petering out completely, but yielded incredible gold returns in places.

Edward Sutton smiled when Will made his observations, ‘It’s a good field—no one is riding around in golden carriages, but there’s money for all, and the halcyon days are still to come.’

Finally, with the horses being cared for by one of Sutton’s men, they toured the stamp battery on foot. Here the gold ore was machine-crushed to access the yellow metal hidden in the quartz. This monster was powered by a Robey steam engine, the main cylinder shalt shining with chrome as it cycled, the eccentric working the slide valve with a huff and snort of steam.

Out the front of the engine house was a terrier cross, with unknown ancestry—a haughty, superior kind of dog – short haired and scarred around the neck. Will paid the animal scarcely any mind – he was more interested the battery – its eight stamps working furiously in turn to crush the ore to a powder.

The final, and most interesting shed was where a slurry of crushed ore was mixed with mercury, which then dissolved the gold therein. The mercury was removed from the mix and boiled away, leaving gold in its natural state. These pellets of near-pure gold were an intoxicating sight, and a man sat watchfully near the door, with a carbine over his knees.

Outside the building Will shook Sutton’s hand. ‘I’m impressed with the capital you an’ yer partners have poured in here.’

‘We’ve spent a pretty penny getting this place set up,’ agreed Sutton. ‘We’ve done everything right, so far. Now what’s your thoughts? Do you want to be a part of it or not?’

Will scraped at the stubble on his chin between his thumb and forefinger. ‘We’ll camp the night by the claims you suggested. We’ll wash a panful or two from the creeks around and talk amongst ourselves. You’ll have an answer tomorrow.’

Just then there was a shout and that garbled, barking, growling snarl of two dogs in combat. It was Lainey’s cry that made Will realise that one member of the whirling fight, enfolded in a swirl of dust, was Little Blue, and the other was the terrier from near the doorway.

Lainey turned to him, terrified, ‘Stop ‘em Will.’

It was obvious that Little Blue was getting the worst of it, but he was scrapping bravely against a much bigger and more experienced opponent.

A man had appeared from inside, arms folded over his chest.

‘Is that your dog?’ asked Will.

‘Yeah, that’s my Rossie.’

‘Well call him off.’

‘Well I would, but he won’t listen anyhow.’

Will swore and hurried into the fray, trying to grab Little Blue’s tail, but it was moving way too fast. He moved off to the side and grabbed a thin, straight branch, fallen from a gum tree. He looked up at the other man.

The terrier had a hold on Little Blue’s throat, still on the loose ruff, but he was improving his grip. Little Blue was yelping now, becoming more muffled.

‘I’m going to hit your dog,’ he said, and he swung the stick as hard as he could into the terrier’s rump. The blow did the trick. The animal released Little Blue and scampered away from the fight to the nearby shadows.

Lainey was at Little Blue’s side in a moment. ‘Oh you poor thing,’ she said.

‘You ever hit my dog again and I’ll hit you,’ said the man.

Will was in no mood for threats. ‘I can’t see any point waiting,’ he said. ‘You want to fight let’s do it now.’

Edward Sutton came striding out from inside. ‘There’ll be no fighting. Get back to work Johnson, and if I see that dog off a chain again I’ll shoot him.’

Will was disappointed, but he slowly relaxed as the other man walked back into the factory, stopping only to tie his dog, smirking at Will as he went.

‘I hope this little incident won’t affect your decision of whether to stay or not?’ the Englishman said.

Will kneeled and clapped to bring Little Blue to him. The pup had a streak of blood on his muzzle. ‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘I ain’t ever run from trouble, and I won’t start now.’


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Fifteen: The Blue Dog Mine

‘Ain’t never run from trouble?’ Lainey said laughingly that evening at their camp. ‘Not long ago I seen you run from New South Wales with half the traps in the state after yer … and then there was that time when …’

‘That’s different,’ said Will.

‘How?’

‘Even Ned Kelly bolted from the traps when he had to.’

‘Not at Glenrowan, he didn’t. Or Ben Hall – now he were a man who faced up to things.’

‘Well, it did him a lot of good, being six feet under and full of lead, like he is.’

Will was watching Sam panning through a shovel full of gravel he had gleaned from one of the gullies. He was near the last wash now, and Will leaned closer to see the small ‘tail’ of gold that remained. ‘Just a few specks, but it’s the real thing,’ he declared.

Sam set about removing the gold dust he had panned with the tip of his finger, transferring each grain to a glass bottle filled with water.

‘That’s hardly a fortune,’ said Lainey.

Sam pointed at the ground, ‘Down there is real gold. The gully just where it washed out.’ He paused, put down the pan and wiped his brow with his sleeve.

‘If we stay here,’ said Will. ‘We have to decide on a claim, and to do that we have to choose which of the three quartz leaders we want to mine.’

They’d all heard Edward Sutton explain the nature of the three leaders – nice safe Faith, which should allow them to earn a living, the possibly more lucrative Hope, and the frustrating, elusive Prodigal, with it’s potential for big money—or total failure.

‘I vote for the Prodigal,’ said Lainey. ‘I ain’t here to grub a living – if there’s a chance of striking it rich I want to take it.’

‘I’m thinkin’ along the same lines as you,’ said Will. ‘Sam?’

The Cantonese put the pan down, came to his feet and inclined his head. ‘Me too. The Prodigal,’ he said. He looked in the direction of the most western of the three hills, where the claims mining that more elusive reef were located.  There were four or five available. ‘Shame Jim not here with us.’

‘Yeah, it’d be good to have the barsted along on this lark,’ agreed Will, ‘even just to hold a shovel and look like e’s busy. He’ll be back directly, and we’ll be rich enough to ride off with him. So which of those claims do you reckon will pay?’

Sam exhaled and wrapped his arms around his middle. ‘Sometime quartz reef get richer as she backs into the harder ground on the hill—that banatite layer fold up there, maybe. Furthest of them claims our best chance.’

‘Then let’s register the damn thing and get to work – we’re only risking the five-pound fee, and a bit of shoring timber and what-not. When all’s said and done if we find nothing worth finding we can move on.’ Will grimaced, ‘But are you two really up for digging a shaft – we’re in for months of hellish work?’

Sam made a face, as if the question had insulted his dignity. ‘We need one more man.’

‘That we do. I wonder who this cove is that Sutton has lined up for us.’

***

The next morning Will rode up to the battery office to talk to Edward Sutton. They shook hands on the claim that Sam had decided on.

‘Welcome to the our little enterprise,’ Sutton said. ‘I’ve got some good news too. I’ve had word that the Mine Warden will be out here tomorrow – that’ll save you a ride to Clermont to register the claim.’

‘That’s good news,’ said Will. ‘Means we can get stuck into things straight off.’ He paused. ‘Now you mentioned that you had a bloke here who’s looking for partners. We could do with extra pair of hands.’

‘I did,’ said Sutton. ‘You actually met him yesterday.’

Will scratched his head, ‘Not the bloke with that blasted dog?’

‘Yes, Johnson, that’s him – you two didn’t get off to a good start, but he’s a regular good fellow and just the kind you’ll want beside you when the going’s hard. I’ve had him doing some labouring here at the plant – he’s a fair stoker so I know he’s good with a shovel and doesn’t mind heavy labour. Here, I’ll bring him in.’

Sutton left and returned a few minutes later with Johnson, who sat down, his feet leaving prints of dust across the office floorboards. Now that Will had time to look at the man he noted that he had a stiff moustache, the rest of his face stubbled with whiskers, and piercing eyes.

‘I dunno if me dog would appreciate us taking you on as a partner,’ Will said.

‘Well, I gen’rally make decisions for meself,’ said the man. ‘An’ leave the dog out of it.’

Will cogitated on that for a moment then, ‘Where ya from, anyway?’

‘Dairy country on the Manning River down New South Wales. Missus started messin’ around with me brother who I shared the farm with an’ I walked out.’ He paused and looked down, then felt in his pocket for his pipe. ‘I have to admit that I know next to nothin’ about mining, but I know how to work.’

‘Dairy farmers generally do,’ said Will, feeling a little more kindly disposed towards the man. He went on to explain the claim that he, Sam and Lainey had decided on.

Johnson agreed. ‘Sounds like the right caper to me. I’ll either make good money or move on. No point bustin’ a gut for no reason.’

Sutton said, ‘I’m happy for Alec to keep on bunking down over here, rather than having to camp on site, and he can leave his dog chained up here, at least at first. That’ll prevent any problems.’

Will clamped his lips together in a resolute line. ‘Right then – we’ll give it a go. You, me, Lainey and Sam, split the work and go quarter shares in the payouts, fair enough?’

Johnson lifted an eyebrow, ‘One of the four is a woman, is she gonna earn a full share?’

‘Oh yes, she will. Lainey’s me sister, if she aren’t down the shaft doin’ a full shift she’ll be pullin’ her weight one way or another.’

‘Orright then, sounds like a deal.’

They shook on it.

‘Wander over when you’re ready,’ said Will, ‘and we’ll start working out how we’re goin’ to approach this. Meanwhile we’ll move camp over to the claim.’

‘What are you going to call your mine?’ asked Sutton.

‘Oh, Lainey’s already decided on that,’ Will said. ‘It’s going to be called the Blue Dog Mine.’ He looked at Johnson quizzically. The name was a kind of declaration as to who the senior partners were in this enterprise. ‘Is that alright with you.’

‘I don’t care what we call the blasted thing as long as we pull gold out of it,’ he said.

Before Will left, Edward Sutton produced a contract for him to sign. It was a simple enough document. It stipulated that Will and his partners agreed that all ore produced by the mine would be processed by the battery. More unusually, however, it went on to set a minimum of ten ton of ore per working week.

Will frowned, reading through the clause. ‘Ten ton minimum? What if we’re not on the leader yet, and just bringing out dross?’

Sutton lifted a quill from a holder, inked it, and held it out for Will. ‘We’ve found that there are small amounts of gold all through the substrate, and we like to keep the battery going – keeps the men and machinery busy. The ten ton minimum is mainly to stop people speculating on these claims – we want working, productive mines here wherever possible.

Will signed the contract – ten ton wasn’t that much, after all – then walked back to their camp. As he passed by the busy little mines of the field he started to wonder why it all seemed to be a little too easy, but then he dismissed the thought from his mind.

That night he dreamed of gold ingots, piled high in the middle of their camp. He was riding a thoroughbred that might have graced the Brisbane Cup. Beside him walked the girl in the post card, dressed in a silk dress of pure white.


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Sixteen: Joe and Long Douglas

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Gamilaroi Joe rode south and west, retracing his previous journey with Will, Lainey and Sam along the Alice and the Barcoo. Most often he found a glade along the river to camp through the afternoon, then set off again my night and rode until noon the next day. The coastal route would have been faster, but there were more people, smaller farms and he had promised Will that he would investigate whether Long Douglas and his men were still on his trail.

Near Blackall Jim’s roan mare became reluctant to trot, and developed a strange roll to her walk. The cause, Jim found, was an abscess in the offside front hoof, and he could not afford the time to rest her.

Instead, with a caressing hand on her neck, he thanked her for the many miles they had covered together, then released her into a dark Mulgrave Station horse paddock, roping a buckskin stallion in return. It was a victimless crime, he reckoned, for the two horses were roughly comparable in quality.

 Riding onwards in the night, Jim enjoyed the wildness of the stallion, edgy and energetic; pig-rooting a couple of times in the first few hours, or stopping dead and stubbornly dropping his head to feed. When Jim let him run, however, the stallion had a turn of speed that was both exhilarating and a little dangerous.

By sunrise, when Jim stopped to brush his new mount, boil the billy and make johnny cakes on the coals they both knew who was boss, and the horse had a name – Cartridge. While Jim ate, the stallion made a nuisance of himself with the packhorse, a ten-year-old mare who wanted nothing to do with his youthful ways, and Jim had to separate them with different lead ropes.

The station brand on Jim’s new mount didn’t bother him too much – he didn’t intend on visiting towns until he reached the New South Wales border in any case. Jim could see or hear other parties moving through the bush from a great distance, and it was rare that he was spotted when he did not want to be.

Past Diamond Downs, on the Barcoo, Jim decided that he would take a few days off the track to follow up what had happened to the police patrol that had followed them. To this end he set off on a short cut through the back-blocks of Albilbah Station and Gilgunyah.  

After a day’s hard ride, in light scrub on orange dirt, Jim cut the track of a man, barefooted and with a heavy limp. He dismounted to study the spoor up close, noting the mark in the ground made by a stick the man had used to walk with. The tracks were several weeks old.

Jim began to follow, and it was soon obvious that the man was lost, stumbling in great, wide circles through this vast and mostly uninhabited land. The tracks took him into rough country – a range that was marked on Jim’s map as the Strathconan Highlands.

Over the next twelve hours Jim found campsites, some scattered with wallaby bones, and he found a spent brass case lying on the earth where it had been discarded. The man was armed and able to shoot meat, it seemed.

Forced to camp by the darkness of a new moon, Jim was back in the saddle early, and now the sign changed – lots of comings and goings – as if the man he was following had taken up residence in this area. He found the sites of several more kills.

Finally, he rode towards a rocky peak, jagged with plates of hard rock, with outstretched wings like buttress roots and an overhanging ledge deep in the lee. Jim’s sensitive nose picked up the scent of a campfire, and he dismounted and walked in.

There, beside a hearth of dead coals was a heavily bearded man dressed in tattered clothing, close to death it seemed, though he sat up and coughed, saw Jim and tried to run – fell back to the ground. One of his legs was swollen and red and the very air smelled of putrefaction.

There was a rifle beside the man but he made no effort to pick it up. Jim guessed that he was out of cartridges.

It was the remnants of the clothing that gave the man’s identity away to Jim, then the face became visible amongst the grime and dirt. Yet it was a terrified face, for he also had recognised his visitor.

‘Inspector Douglas,’ said Jim. ‘What happen to you, bloke?’

‘Get away from me,’ said Long Douglas.

‘You’re gonna die if I leave you here, an’ I ain’t about to do that.’

‘They left me,’ said Long Douglas. ‘They left me in the bush to die. Murdering curs. I’ll have them dismissed from the force … horse-whipped.’

‘You ain’t gonna do anything ‘cept for letting me take a look at that leg,’ said Jim. ‘Right now I ain’t yer enemy, bloke – I’m yer best mate.’


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Seventeen: A Lonely Grave

‘I won’t be ministered to by a damn outlaw,’ spat Long Douglas.

Jim knelt beside him in any case. The policeman’s left leg had obviously been broken – and badly – it was swollen to twice the size of the other.  The scent of gangrene was deep, like old cheese, and the extent of this murderous flesh-rot showed in the angry stripes that wound around the leg, visible through the ragged strips of his breeches.

‘Don’t touch it,’ warned Long Douglas.

‘Orright then,’ said Jim. ‘If you’d rather I’ll cook us a feed and brew some tea.’

While Jim gathered sticks and built the fire, Long Douglas lolled back and seemed to doze. It was dark before he stirred again, at which point he raised his head, ate some fresh johnny-cake and sipped a pint pot of tea. All the while droplets of sweat flowed down his forehead, and Jim could only imagine the fever that raged inside the sick man’s head.

‘Can you tell me what happened, bloke?’

Long Douglas’s eyes rolled back like marbles, and there was a pause before he began to speak. ‘Like I said before, those cursed Queensland troopers took my horse and stole away like thieves. They didn’t like me from the start.’

‘But that don’t explain the leg?’

‘After they abandoned me I walked for three days. At a dirty little waterhole – just a puddle really – I came upon a small herd of brumbies. Most of the mob ran, but one was interested in me – a bay mare of about fourteen hands with a snow-white blaze. When the others shied she came a little way towards me. I could see her brand and the scars of old saddle-galls. I sweet talked her for an hour before I got close. There was no doubt in my mind that she had once been a riding horse but God alone knew for how long she had been running wild.’ Long Douglas paused to hold his head between the flat of both hands as if squeezing the memories out. Then he went on; ‘I had no rope for a halter, and no other tack at all, so my only chance was to try to get on her back and tame her – stay on until I reached a station or town – even a damned track or fence line.

‘Finally she let me rub her neck, and with a light grip on her mane I steered her towards uneven ground where I’d have a chance of mounting up. As you know I am not a tall man. I had only my rifle slung on my back so I had nothing to impede me.’

‘It was a good plan, bloke,’ Jim commented, ‘an’ you done well to get up close to her.’

‘When we reached the rocky ground I took my opportunity, found a handy clump and clambered aboard. Well,’ he tried to laugh but it came out as a wheeze. ‘I knew she was going to buck but not how. She knew every trick in the New South Wales Mounted Police horsemanship manual, and then some. In no time at all I was on the ground and my leg broken below the knee.’ He sighed deeply. Almost a wail. ‘I was a proud man once, but everything just got worse … and worse. Too many weeks to count of pain … oh I learned to sit with the rifle for hour after hour ‘til a kangaroo happened along, but the bullets are all gone now, and my only rescuer is a dammed outlaw … and he came too late.’

Jim shook his head sadly. ‘Will you let me look at the leg now?’

Long Douglas shook his head, ‘If you’d come along a week ago something might have been done, but I’m finished now – even taking my leg won’t help.’

Jim saw no reason to contradict him. The disease had progressed too far for even drastic measures. There were, however, things he would like to know from Long Douglas, and now seemed as good a time as any to ask them. ‘You know that Will Jones never murdered anyone, don’t you bloke? Clarkie was dead in the saddle when he rode into our camp on the Castlereagh country. What really happened on that day?’

Long Douglas put his pint pot down on the dust and stared into the flames, shaking his head slowly. ‘I didn’t kill him either.’

‘I know you pinned it on Will. That’s why you’ve chased him so hard. You want him dead so he can’t prove you wrong.’

‘This is bigger than just me and that cursed Will Jones. Now stop talking and let me rest.’

Within minutes Long Douglas was asleep, and Jim draped a blanket over the top to keep him warm.

 Jim had seen sick men come to nefarious life before, so he was careful to set up his swag some distance away, sleeping with his revolver under his arm. He needn’t have worried, however, for Long Douglas was on his way to another world, shouting in his sleep at times – shouting a name over and over.

‘Curse you Tom Brody,’ he yelled. Then, ‘Don’t shoot him down, Tom.’ Finally he cried, ‘You can have my share in exchange for my life. You can have it all.’

Towards dawn the calling out stopped, and Jim rose to a golden dawn, awoken by the pure tones of a butcher bird in the trees, and the chattering of fairy wrens. Long Douglas was stiff and cold, as dead as any corpse Jim had seen, and he’d come across a few in his days.

Jim closed the dead man’s eyelids and used the spade from the packhorse to dig a grave – away from the rocks where the going was easier. He wrapped Long Douglas in his blanket and lowered him down, filled the hole and fashioned a rough cross from mulga sticks. It was a lonely duty and he wished Will and Sam were with him.

After a few words over the grave, that even Jim knew were pretty much meaningless, he rode away, still wondering who Tom Brody was, and whether he might be the perpetrator of the murder of which Will had been falsely accused.


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.

Chapter Eighteen: An Unexpected Cheque

Will Jones and the Blue Dog

In a crack between boulders, ten feet from the main shaft of the newly named Blue Dog mine, there lived a blue-tongue lizard, as scaly and tough as the ground itself. About the length of a man’s forearm, he was broad and thick with stored fat. His tail was hard to distinguish from his mouth, for both were stumpy and stubby. There was only one difference – his mouth had teeth.

This last fact was something that Little Blue learned early on in his relationship with the blue-tongue, for the young cattle dog hated that reptile like city dogs hate cats. He devoted much of the day to attempting to catch it.

After breakfast, when Will, Sam, Lainey and Johnson had started work, Little Blue would sit back at a distance, waiting for the fat little lizard to emerge from the cleft in the stone where it lived. Then, every muscle frozen, Blue would watch the creature appear at the opening of his bolt hole, tongue flicking from between his lips. The dog was smart enough to wait, even as the lizard moved out into the morning sun.

A foot … two feet … a yard.

Finally now, Little Blue would pounce; and just as quickly the blue-tongue would scurry for the hole. Blue’s jaws would close on empty air, and his nose, often as not, struck hard rock. It was at this point, bewildered and snuffling at the crack, that the lizard would dart out far enough to give the pup a nip on his sensitive nose.

 After a period of confusion, and a canine yelp or two, the game would start all over again. Even after a week, Little Blue was still the sorry loser of this exchange, with a scab on his nose from one particularly deep bite.

Meanwhile, the shaft had deepened slowly. The fractured granodiorite of the hillside gave way only with the application of blisters to hands and the power of dynamite. Johnson, it soon proved, was a dab hand with a blasting cap, and when Will asked how a Manning River cow cocky had become so adept at using explosives, he muttered something about blasting old stumps and the like.

Late in the week, the partners of the Blue Dog Mine loaded their contractual ten ton of ore onto a company dray, drawn by as fine a team of draught horses as Will had seen. He and Sam took a breather, watching the load heading off towards the Lyver Hills Company battery.    

‘I won’t be expecting much from that lot,’ Will said to Sam. ‘Never seen so much as a sparkle and we won’t, I’m guessing, until we find this darned leader.’

Sam inclined his head in agreement, watching the dray go with his thick arms folded across his chest, and his battered derby hat down low. His hair had grown, in the past few months, and it hung down past his ears on either side, lank and dusty.

It was only Lainey who held out any hopes for that first load. ‘We’ll see,’ she said. ‘Didn’t Henry say that there are low values of gold right across the valley?’

‘That’s true,’ said Will. ‘He did say that.’

He still didn’t hold out much hope.

***

Two days later Henry Sutton rode up to the mine and swung off his horse. From the saddle bags he produced a document, a pencil and what looked like a cheque.

Being hospitable, Will settled the visitor at the fireside and fixed a pint pot of tea in his hands. Johnson and Sam, who had been working on the headgear, came across to listen.

‘You’ve made good progress,’ said Henry, lighting a cigar. ‘Not many small crews get so far in a week.’

Will took off his hat and wiped his brow with his sleeve. It was a warm day, for August, and he’d been at the face since sparrow’s fart. ‘Thanks Mr Sutton. We’ve done our best.’

‘Well here’s some good news for you – a report on your first crushing,’ he said. ‘Your ore realised around fourteen pennyweight of gold to the ton – seven ounces nine pennyweight in total. At the current price of three pounds sixpence an ounce, that’s not a bad start. Just sign your certificate here, and here’s your cheque.’

Will gave a funny little laugh, ‘Well that beats everything – I didn’t expect a penny from that lot.’ He looked at Lainey, who was grinning from ear to ear. It was an exciting moment – a paying lease right from the first week meant that they could buy hardwood for shoring – even pay for extra labour if necessary. It meant that they could eat beef and bread. Most of all it meant that they were not wasting their time and energy.

Will took the processing certificate from Henry Sutton’s hand and scanned through it. Then, with a pencil he scrawled his signature on the line, and accepted the cheque with the other hand.

When Sutton had gone, and Will sat down, staring at the cheque, Little Blue left his vigil near the lizard and came to sit at Will’s feet, head against his knees.

‘So what do we do now?’ Lainey asked while Will scratched his dog’s ears.

‘Oh I reckon I’ll ride to the store at Wilga, cash this barsted and buy us a bottle of beer or three.’ Will said. ‘Then tomorrow we get back to work.’ He smiled. ‘The deeper we go the better this caper is going to pay.’


© Greg Barron 2022


New chapter next Sunday.
Read earlier chapters of Will Jones and the Blue Dog here.
Get a PDF copy of the first book, Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here for free.
Buy a paperback copy of Will Jones and the Dead Man’s Letter here or an eBook here.
Visit ozbookstore.com for more great titles.
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