ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Former journalist, businessman and entrepreneur, Richard Tomkies has travelled extensively throughout a number of countries, including both Canada and the United States of America, both of which he resided in for some time.
Spending much of the last 39 years in tropical North Queensland, he has visited all the areas written about in his books. Now retired, he lives in the small far northern Queensland town of Mt. Surprise. However, a great deal of his time is spent writing and travelling throughout Queensland, researching material for further books, of which some are due to be published in the near future.
The actual story in this book is completely fictional and, apart from some actual persons living during the period in which this story is set, for example, the first explorers and pioneers in early Queensland, other names and characters bear no resemblance to any person living or dead.
The principal characters are entirely fictitious although the story is woven around and based on actual events, particularly on the Palmer River goldfields on Cape York, North Queensland Australia.
Some of the accounts of cannibalism are purely fictitious, although many of the acts are based on real events recorded at the time. Parts of this work may be disturbing and could be considered somewhat racist. However, it is based on historical events and attitudes of the time and in no way can it be considered the author’s personal view.
The official amount of gold recovered is based on fact, and although many prospectors did succeed in obtaining a fortune in gold from the fabulously rich Palmer River goldfields, many more did not.
The method used by the principal characters in this story to find their gold is also entirely fictitious and although some of the precious metal may indeed have been found in this way, very little, if any, was actually recovered in this manner, to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Many thousands of Chinese and Europeans made the hazardous journey from the burgeoning Cooktown on Australia’s Cape York Peninsula in the 1870’s.
Officially, some 250,000 ounces were recorded as having been taken from the Palmer River goldfields alone in 1874. This region was one of the richest in Australia. With gold around four pounds (in the old currency) an ounce in 1874-75 and diggers recovering up to a pound in weight of gold per day, every day, many men made literal fortunes – but many more lost them. Hundreds of hopeful diggers died in vain. The Australian “Pound” in currency, was the equivalent of $2-00, or on the present day’s exchange rate in 2001 roughly $US3-50.
It is recorded that one man struck it so rich, and prospered so greatly, that he actually had a blacksmith fashion shoes for his horse from bars of gold from another goldfield called the Hodgkinson!
The author has spent a great part of his life living in tropical North Queensland and has had gold prospecting experience including on the famous Palmer goldfields. He has also been to all the towns and early-settled areas mentioned in this narrative, taking some 18 months of research into the writing of this book.
This third edition has been completely rewritten and with much new material, thanks to a number of suggestions from readers including those from a television producer who read the first edition.
The corrugated iron and calico shanty that served as a public house stood to one side of the muddy track which was the main street of the newly formed Cooktown, one of Australia’s northernmost towns in 1874.
Men jostled each other to grab a drink at the rough-hewn bar, the air filled with rank tobacco smoke and the strong smell of men whose bodies had not had a good encounter with soap and water for more days than one would care to remember.
John Webb downed his raw rum and banged his tin mug onto the grimy bar top, gesticulating as he did so to the bald and sweating barman for a refill. He paid the sixpence demanded for it and turning, eyed the man standing next to him.
A little over six feet, John was heavily built and his neighbour was of like stature, sporting an extremely bushy beard generously sprinkled with grey. The man returned his glance, wiping his mouth on a shirtsleeve.
‘Yer be a new chum, eh?’ the man asked of John.
‘That’d be so,’ John replied with a friendly grin. ‘I’ve not long arrived on the steamer down there,” indicating with a nod of his head in the direction of the crowded wharf at the eastern end of the town, where men with their wagons and horses were busily loading their supplies preparatory to heading off to the newly-discovered Palmer River goldfields some 120 miles away.
‘Been here long?’ John inquired eager to make conversation.
‘Aye, Oi ‘ave,’ the other replied in a soft but strong Irish accent, taking a swig from his pannikin. ‘Bout six months since, an’ Oi jest got back from the diggin’s. If yer’ve a mind to git yerself up there yer’d be well advised to git afore too much longer, since the wet season kin start anytime after November, an’ take it from me, yer don’t want to be stuck in them places when that arrives, to be sure!’
‘So you’re a miner, too, then?’ John replied, holding out his hand. ‘The name’s Webb. John Webb.’
The large Irish miner grasped his hand with a big, rough callused paw.
‘Mmmph – O’Riley, but me mates call me Pete,’ he said, gripping John’s hand in a vice-like grip. ‘Know anyt’in’ ‘bout gold minin’, young fella?’ he asked, giving John an appraising look, taking in the red flannel shirt tucked into reasonably new moleskin trousers and at the same time noting the Colt revolver nestling in a holster hanging from John’s leather belt.
‘Some. Did a bit in New Zealand, on the West Coast back in ’71. I heard about the Palmer find while I was down in Brisbane.’
‘Hmm. Well yer’ll find conditions a bit diff’rent ‘ere and yer’ll be needin’ that an’ a bit more,’ remarked the Irishman, indicating the Colt. ‘Yer’ll need a rifle as well, methinks. Best yer git yerself a Snider rifle afore ye head out. The blacks are a mite troublesome these days - an’ they’re developin’ a real likin’ for fresh meat on two legs - though Oi ‘spose,’ he added thoughtfully, stroking his large beard, ‘ Oi ‘spose they prefer Chinks – and there’re plenty of those gittin’ up there.’ He sniffed as though to give emphasis to his observation.
‘Well I might just do that – and thanks for the advice Pete. Guess I’d best make a move whilst the day’s still young,’ said John waving the barman away from his empty mug. ‘Any ideas on the best place to get a rifle and perhaps a few more things that I might need?’
‘Well,’ Pete said slowly, once again tugging on his beard, ‘Yer might try Walshe’s down the road a bit. They’ll ‘ave most of what yer’ll need - an’ good luck mate,’ he added with a grin.
The wind was freshening as John trudged along a track crowded with miners, experienced as well as new chums, together with scores of Chinese wearing huge brimmed hats, their worldly possessions balanced on long poles.
The dust from hundreds of pairs of feet blew to the side, to settle in a grey cloud on the vegetation alongside the track. From time to time John passed other men returning from the diggings looking exhausted and he was surprised at the number of old white-haired men, many of whom had boots coming apart at the seams. Large numbers of the Chinese were even bare-footed.
Soon John noticed the smoke from dozens of campfires as men boiled their billies and prepared their evening meal. Selecting a likely spot near a group of miners who were obviously returning from the goldfields, he set up his camp and it was not long before he too had made his tea and prepared an evening meal.
Men of all kinds and description continued to file past, heading inland towards the fields, interspersed with packhorses and teams of bullocks and horses drawing wagons and drays, all piled high with stores and provisions.
As the sun dipped low in the western sky, it was accompanied by a sharp drop in the temperature and the wind that had gusted constantly all day and which had taken the heat out of the August sun, suddenly died away. Clouds of brightly coloured rainbow lorikeets flashed noisily above, heading towards their evening roosts. A small flock of pink and grey galahs, a parrot found almost everywhere in the Australian outback, alighted in a tree overhead, squawking loudly as though in protest at the newcomers.
Having filled his pipe, John lit the tobacco and, leaning back on his swag against a nearby tree, idly watched a heavily-laden horse-drawn wagon rumbling and creaking over the rocks and ruts, enveloped in a heavy cloud of dust. As John sipped his tea between puffs of his pipe, one of the men sitting around the fire nearby stood up and wandered over slowly, dusting his hands as he did so.
‘G’day mate, ‘ow ya goin’?’ grinned the friendly newcomer, obviously a miner.
‘Very well thanks,’ replied John as he glanced over in the man’s direction. ‘And how is it with you?’ He gestured graciously towards a spare patch of ground near the fire.
‘Ta, mate,’ acknowledged the miner, pushing his battered felt hat back off his forehead. ‘I was wondering if you could spare a little t’bacca? We’re a mite short of the necessaries y’unnerstand. We’ve been on the road back from the Palmer fer a few days now, but I figure we’ll be right once we hit Cook’s Town termorrer.’
‘Most certainly. Here, have a fill,’ offered John, generously handing over a battered leather pouch.
The miner reached across and gratefully accepted the tobacco. ‘Much obliged friend. There’re many that would give you naught around these parts.’ The man filled his pipe and handed the pouch back to John before he tamped the contents down with a gnarled and grubby finger. Leaning forward, he extricated a burning twig from the edge of the embers with which to light his pipe. He sucked on the stem a number of times taking several deep puffs before he removed the pipe from his mouth, inspected it, and presumably satisfied the tobacco was burning satisfactorily, pointed the stem at John.
‘So yer be heading to the diggin’s then?’ he queried.
‘That’s right; I thought I’d try my luck. I heard they’re making some good finds up there….been working on some fields over in New Zealand and had some success there a while back.’
The miner studied him for a minute, as though digesting this information. Meanwhile the evening shadows had started to lengthen while some noisy black crows squabbled over some tid-bit stolen from a campsite. The man’s face illuminated by the dancing flames of the fire showed deep furrows and wrinkles in stark relief. ‘Tell yer what friend, why don’t yer join me and me mates for a bit o’ a yarn. It’d be good ter speak with a newcomer. Mebbe yer can give us some news of the outside world.’
‘Right. Thanks. I might just do that,’ accepted John, grateful for the company and the possibility of gleaning some first-hand information about the gold diggings. He picked up his mug and emptied the dregs onto the fire. The embers hissed momentarily, giving off a small puff of steam. He scraped the edges of the coals inwards towards the centre of the fire with a scuffed elastic-sided boot. Quickly he reached down into his swag and deposited something into the back pocket of his moleskins.
Joining up with his newfound friend who swept his arm casually in the direction of four other men, John was introduced.
‘This ‘ere’s Baldy, Tom, Charlie and that’s Paddy,’ he said, pointing to the last man who was a small, wizened miner whose hat seemed a size or so too big, for it came down to his ears, while a scraggly beard and moustache mostly hid the remainder of his face. Not a tooth was to be seen when he spoke. ‘An’ I’m Mick,’ he added, almost as an afterthought.
‘Hello. I’m John and it’s nice to make your acquaintance,’ he grinned as he looked at the assembled group.
‘Well, sit yerself down, then,’ offered his host. The other men acknowledged him by nodding or lifting a hand in greeting. ‘Yer ‘avin’ a brew?’ asked Mick, indicating John’s empty pannikin.
John Webb nodded and took the blackened billycan off the hook which hung over the coals. Pouring himself a mugful of the strong black tea, he questioningly held the billy up as he glanced around at the others. The man introduced as Tom nodded and held out a filthy and battered enamelled mug.
‘Fill ‘er up,’ he mumbled. He was a big man, almost as tall as John and sported also a bushy black beard. His hair beneath a sweat stained hat was long enough to cover his collar. Leaning on one elbow, his feet towards the fire, he studied the visitor. His attitude was neither friendly nor aggressive. Charlie, on the other hand, seemed eager to make friends, as he leant across the others to shake hands. He was a comparatively small man and what he lacked in stature he appeared to make up with quick and witty comments. ‘Pleased to meet you John and you can top up mine if you will – my mug appears to have a hole in it…at the top!’ He threw his head back and laughed uproariously at his own joke, showing a mouthful of bad teeth.
Paddy glanced at Charlie shaking his head sadly as he did so. ‘Don’t mind ‘im mate, ‘e’s the life and soul of the party…yer find one in every bunch!’
With the ice having been well and truly broken in a manner of speaking, John reached into the back pocket of his trousers, producing as he did so, a flask of rum. The reaction was instantaneous. Suddenly every man seemed to take a keener interest in this new chum. Even the quiet Tom nodded approvingly. Baldy, a quiet and reserved man whose bald brown pate reflected the glow of the campfire also appeared to come alive, a quiet grin on his face, his eyes gleaming with anticipation. Obviously it was the prospect of a slug of rum in his tea.
With a generous tot of the fiery brown liquid served all round, the talk soon turned to gold. John suddenly found himself the popular centre of attention. The laughter and the stories increased proportionately as the level in the flask decreased.
It soon became obvious to John Webb that his new-found friends had surely struck it rich on the diggings and the warming liquor loosened their tongues to no little degree.
Mick heaved himself up from where he was squatting by the fire and, after fiddling a few moments with his swag, he came back into the light of the fire producing as he did so a somewhat grubby chamois leather bag. Judging by the way Mick handled it, the bag was no light weight. Opening it, he displayed on an outstretched palm of his hand a number of large golden nuggets that glittered with a deep rich colour in the flickering light of the flames. It was immediately obvious that the bag held considerable wealth.
‘That’s a little of what I got, and thar’s much more’n that where it came from,’ said Mick quietly. ‘And if you’ve a mind to work ‘ard and you be a little lucky, you should be able ter do the same! Mind you –‘he added, leaning forward conspiratorially and tapping the side of his nose with a work-calloused finger, ‘You ‘ave ta mind yer “P’s and Q’s” – keep ta yerself an’ don’t give too much away if you hit paydirt like! Thar’s a lot o’ tough country ahead o’ you as well. Only ‘bout two days back some blacks attacked a coupla fellas where they were camped up fer the night after a-comin’ back from the diggin’s. Poor beggers never ‘ad a chance. Them niggers surprised ‘em while they were eating their vittles. The blighters got ‘em with spears – then carted ‘em off quicker’n yer coulda blink, so they say. Prob’ly et ‘em an’ all – but methinks those diggers might’ave been mighty tough chewin’ I wouldn’t be s’prised!” He picked up a piece of wood and tossed it into the flames. Sparks showered up into the night sky, outlining the men’s faces – suddenly sober at the recollection of the recent events.
‘Well,’ said John grimacing into the remains of his rum-laced tea and nodded gratefully. ‘I’ll certainly be keeping a sharp look-out! Anyway, I thank you for your advice, however I think I can look after myself, because, you see,’ he added, patting the butt of his revolver on his hip, ‘I have my little friend here for company and I have just bought a new Snider rifle for back-up, you might say. I stocked up on ammunition too!’
The five others looked at him in surprise. Charlie cackled, ‘Hah! We’ve got a right trooper ‘ere in the making!’
‘Oi be thinkin’ ‘e might’ve been right ‘andy an’ all back at the diggin’s to be sure, to be sure!’ – It was little Paddy this time.
‘Kin yer shoot straight with them guns, mate?’ asked Tom. ‘’Cos with all them savages killin’ folks every day yer’ll sure be able to use ‘em proper like!’
John climbed to his feet; he seemed to tower over the recumbent men. He looked older than his twenty four years. ‘Well, I fancy I’ll be turning in. Figure I’ll be making a real early start on the morrow….and to answer your question Tom, yes, I believe I’m a fairly dab hand with my firearms. You see, I served a few years with the New Zealand Police Force.’ So saying, with a deft movement of his right hand, he whipped out the Colt spinning the chamber as he did so, before automatically checking the rounds in the gun.
‘I managed to get plenty of practice with this little beauty before I went gold fossicking back home. Had a bit of practice with rifles, too,’ he added, in an understatement not exactly lost on the ogling miners.
John looked down at the little miner sitting cross-legged on his swag. ‘So I guess I could say you weren’t far short of the mark there, Charlie!’
With that he bade the others goodnight and headed towards his bedroll beside the dying embers of what remained of his own campfire.
Each succeeding day was much the same as the first, with hundreds of would-be miners jostling each other on the track in their haste to get to the goldfields on the Palmer. John passed a number returning to Cooktown to purchase fresh supplies. Here they could hire a packer equipped with fresh horses and a wagon to carry their supplies back. The sides of the track, John noticed, were dotted with hastily dug graves of the less fortunate – some from unknown causes and many from Aboriginal spears. Many graves carried no inscription other than perhaps a battered billycan and or a tattered felt hat but most were left unmarked and forgotten.
Safety was ensured by groups of men staying together with the Chinese tending to keep to themselves. John heard a great many tales of attacks by the Aborigines who were inclined to ambush the unwary. Although preferring, it was said by many, the unfortunate Chinese – since they were better eating! Already John had noticed many abandoned baskets with the remains of their contents, mainly rice and tea, scattered about and trodden into the dusty track.
A few days later, John came to what seemed like an oasis. It was a valley with a river called the Laura which wandered through it, bordered on each side in many places with grass. Here were the camps of literally hundreds of men, most of them heading inland. Dozens of teamsters with their horses were camped here, giving their animals a couple of days’ spell.
Bullockies and their teams took advantage of the lush grazing, the fresh water and the opportunities affording a well earned rest.
Many were the stories of men, leather bags filled with gold from the gullies of the Palmer, returning to Cooktown to buy fresh supplies – only to be relieved of their newly acquired wealth by unscrupulous publicans and the many card sharps, pimps and prostitutes that also poured into the raw new town of Cooktown.
It was here at the Laura that John learned of a section of the trail that became known as Hell’s Gate, a steep and precipitous track that led upwards through large boulders, so narrow in places that it was virtually one way. This trail was not available to the teamsters and bullockies who were forced to endure a much longer track to the gold fields, but although dangerous for those on foot this new route proved a great deal shorter. According to many, this particular area at Hell’s Gate was a favourite spot for the ambush of careless travellers by vengeful Aborigines, eager to augment their larder with fresh meat. In many places the edge of the track was lined with the bones of both packhorses and unburied travellers.
Undaunted by the prospect of coming face to face with spear-wielding natives, John decided that his safety would be ensured by staying within a group of other would-be miners. He was confident of his ability to protect himself with his firearms.
One night, while sitting beside his camp fire he thought about all the various stories of the many fortunes that had been hard-won from the gullies and creek-beds of the Palmer goldfields. Filled with enthusiasm he was impatient to get there to join the others and stake his claim. He thought of all the miners who had met their demise not only from the spears of the natives but from other causes as well. Many of those that had been killed had been heading towards the goldfields, but there were some who had been travelling back to the relative luxury of Cooktown with all that had to offer after the hardships endured on the diggings.
Suddenly a thought occurred to him. It was just a germ of an idea but it remained with him and he constantly mulled it over throughout the following few days. Eventually he arrived at the headwaters of the Palmer River after a relatively uneventful journey. He was lucky. There had been many attacks on the diggers, some of whom survived by firing their weapons at the marauding natives, many of whom were killed by the hail of lead from the defending miners.
It wasn’t long before the newcomers were working feverishly at their claims along the many dry gulches and small valleys that segmented the hard, dry country which they hoped would release glittering golden nuggets and smaller grains of the alluvial metal.
The claim in the gully that John Webb worked proved no exception and it wasn’t long before he realized that this particular area was proving to be the richest he had ever experienced. Although water was scarce at this time of the year, he concentrated on working the easy and shallow crevices. Many of the other miners were not quite so lucky but some diggers were getting several ounces a week.
Concentrating on several narrow gutters John found that there were some exceptionally rich patches of good alluvial gold as well as several dozen nuggets. These were smooth and water-worn, some were quite large and over an ounce in weight. Washing a dish of dirt from the bottom of a gutter nearly always brought a gleaming tail of the yellow metal as he swirled the last heavies in the pan.
In many places, gold pieces could be picked up by hand, especially under or around rocks and boulders. The clay bottom under the wash yielded gold almost by the pan-full where the heavy particles had become embedded, thus his success was repeated on a daily basis giving him an enthusiasm which he had not experienced in previous prospecting ventures – but then nothing he had experienced previously could compare with this field. The amount of gold being produced was simply unbelievable.
Although the yellow metal was still being found in abundance, food was becoming scarce and prices for commodities like flour, sugar and tea had begun to rise sharply, being paid for mainly in gold. The price of flour on the field had risen to around two shillings or 20 cents in today’s currency and sugar was the same. They were outrageous prices in those days. It was said that the packers with their horse or bullock teams and wagons were sometimes making more money than were the hard working miners.
One night, John climbed wearily into his bedroll – it had been a long but satisfying day and he had all but finished cleaning one of the gutters and removed more gold than he had ever done in a single day previously. Now he lay in his swag listening to the muted murmur of men’s voices coming from the many camps close by. Somewhere an owl hooted to the accompaniment of a number of crickets chirruping near his tent. Thinking about his newly gained wealth made him realize that he had reached a time when he should consider returning to Cooktown before the onset of the fast approaching wet season. It was now November and the storms were beginning to build up. The heat of the sun during the middle of the day was becoming increasingly intolerable and sudden downpours during the afternoons gave only temporary respite, although they did ease the water shortage to some degree. He knew from speaking with others who had experienced the previous wet or monsoon season that one had to be well prepared in order to survive the monsoon months on the field. Many diggers had died on the field previously, suffering from dysentery and starvation. All the gold in the world could not help them. Weak from sickness and hunger they were unable to endure the long trek back to the coast, let alone run the gauntlet of raiding cannibalistic Aborigines.
The night was hot and sultry. Unable to sleep, John got up and stepped out of his tent. The fire had died down, the odd flame flickering on the last piece of wood. He bent down and pushed the end further into the embers, idly contemplating putting his billy to boil into the coals to make a brew but then decided against it. He was not that thirsty and anyway, his supply of tea was running low.
Suddenly a piercing scream rent the night air immediately followed by men shouting ‘blacks!’ Diving back into his tent John grabbed his Snider, stuffing a handful of the heavy cardboard cartridges with their large calibre lead bullets into his pocket. Automatically he checked the chamber of his revolver which he had made the habit of keeping loaded and to hand at all times. Quickly making for the cover of a nearby fallen tree, away from his tent and the dim light of the fire, he peered into the darkness trying to make out any moving shapes that might indicate the raiding Aborigines’ position.
With a succession of thuds, wooden spears materialized out of the darkness and tore into his tent, where only moments before he had been resting!
John peered into the night, his eyes becoming adjusted to the dim light and he became aware of several figures moving stealthily and quickly towards his camp. Carefully he raised the heavy loaded rifle to his shoulder, taking aim at one that appeared to be the closest. He squeezed the trigger and the rifle bellowed with a tremendous flash.
All hell seemed to break loose and suddenly there were loud shrieks as Aborigines began to attack, their naked bodies decorated with red and yellow ochre markings outlined in the campfire’s dim light. With no time to reload the rifle, John drew his revolver and fired repeatedly at point blank range. There were a number of natives running towards him, their arms upraised. Three attackers fell in quick succession with no time to launch their spears. They were close enough so that John could hear the thwack as the bullets found their mark. One tribesman, who was just about to throw his spear, hesitated just long enough for John to aim and fire. The impetus of the bullet caught the man in mid-stride as he threw his weapon, throwing him backwards and luckily for John, causing the spear to land wide of its mark, for it thudded harmlessly into the fallen tree in front of him. Crouching low, John waited. Screams and shouting could be heard from every direction. Confusion seemed to erupt all over the diggings. Then, as suddenly as they had attacked, the remaining Aborigines turned and ran.
The rattle of gunfire which had added to the cacophony of sound slowly died away, replaced by men shouting, bewildered, and then reassuring one another. Camp fires began flaring up as more fuel was added, casting some extra light on the area. Lighted lanterns appeared, along with several men carrying firebrands as the diggers searched around their camps checking on one another.
Sleep evaded them now and men belatedly posted sentries in case of a further attack, although it was unlikely again this night.
Early morning light revealed the bodies of a number of Aborigines lying where they had fallen on the perimeter of the diggings and scattered amongst the men’s camps. A number of men were checking the bodies and were beginning to dig shallow graves in which to throw them. One of the ‘bodies’ stirred when unceremoniously checked with a booted foot. A digger yelled that he had found a ‘live one.’ A man armed with a revolver walked over to the unfortunate black who opened his eyes wide with fear as his life blood oozed from a large stomach wound to coagulate on the ground around him.
Taking aim, the armed digger walked over and casually pointed the revolver at the native’s head and squeezed the trigger. The report echoed around the valley. Bone and brain matter sprayed across the ground.
Having put the myall out of his misery, the digger muttered something about ‘one less black nigger to worry about,’ and unconcernedly went about his business of digging a grave.
As soon as it had become light, John had inspected the bodies of his four attackers, three of whom were sprawled in fairly close proximity to one another not far from his camp. The fourth, obviously the first man that John had shot, lay on his back barely fifteen feet from the tree which John had used as cover from the attack. The naked body, he noticed, had been heavily daubed with some kind of red and yellow clay. John inspected the body curiously. It was the first time he had seen a ‘wild Aborigine’ at close quarters. In the middle of the man’s chest was a hole the size of a half-crown piece, nearly an inch in diameter. Blood had run down the man’s chest and trickled from the side of his body to form a large pool on the ground. The brown eyes, now glazed, stared vacantly up from the white-painted face, the chin covered with a sparse beard. The native’s even white teeth gleamed from the wide-open mouth as though stopped short in the midst of a war cry.
It took little effort to roll the body over onto its stomach, since the Aborigine was not particularly heavy. The full effect of the Snider’s large lead bullet was immediately obvious. Whereas the chest showed only a relatively small entry wound in comparison, a hole, the size of a small plate was left between the shoulder blades, the bullet having removed an entire section of the man’s backbone to leave blood and gore behind.
John straightened up, unconsciously wiping his hands on the sides of his moleskins. Used as he was to death and handling dead bodies, he couldn’t help being amazed at the effect the heavy Snider bullets had on the human body. He walked over to the remaining bodies of the other three who had attacked him. They were painted in similar fashion and although it was still early, the flies were beginning to swarm around them and already the heat of the early morning sun was beginning to make itself felt. There was no time to lose. Grabbing a shovel, John began to dig a hole large enough to bury the remains of the four. It wouldn’t take long to dig a shallow grave in the relatively soft sand and dirt in the gully near the river’s edge.
With some semblance of order beginning to return to the field, a tally of the dead and wounded revealed that ten Aboriginal attackers had been accounted for, with an unknown number running off, nursing wounds. Of the diggers, spears had killed three. Five other men had been wounded; four by spears and another with a nulla nulla wielded by a black attacker who had managed to get within striking distance before being shot at point blank range by a miner. One digger had a spear through a thigh and although someone had unsuccessfully tried to remove the weapon from his leg, before breaking the shaft, the man remained in agony. Eventually the barbed end was pushed through the flesh before the wound could be attended to. Another miner was extremely lucky, since a spear had penetrated the sleeve of his shirt pinning him temporarily to the ground where he had been lying, before he had wrenched himself free, enabling him to fire his revolver in the direction from whence the spear had come.
It was late morning by the time the diggers had restored order. The attack dominated their conversations, as it would do for some time, as men recounted their actions and told of their various ‘close escapes.’
The next few days passed by uneventfully. Many of the miners’ thoughts were now centred on returning to Cooktown. Despite the increasing numbers of hopeful diggers swarming into the headwaters of the Palmer River, many were still finding plentiful gold. Problems began to surface because of the ever increasing numbers of Chinese who were prepared to scour the areas that their European counterparts considered unprofitable. Food was becoming scarce and prices on the field were still soaring. John and most of his fellow miners, who had been working the field nearby, were of like mind.
It was time to leave and head back. Packers who had brought supplies to the goldfields were rehired to make the return trip. A group of approximately twenty men would travel together – there was safety in numbers. Signs of the impending monsoon added haste to their departure preparations. Each afternoon heavy cumulous cloud formations would appear on the horizon, with black ominous clouds lit up by flickering lightening flashes followed by the deep rumble of thunder. Often this would be accompanied by a short but violent thunderstorm, with heavy drops of rain belting down across the countryside. The heavy rain would usually be of short duration, filling the gullies with reddish-brown water rushing down, to stop almost as suddenly as it had begun, bringing with it a temporary, but welcome drop in temperature.
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