The four men sat around the fire, sipping tea through their teeth to avoid the bitter leaves. Not far from camp, the rocky basin of Dead Man’s Gulch flooded with shadows as the sun sank behind the eucalypts.
Clarence wiped dust from his moleskin trousers. He eyed his three companions. Spat a tea leaf at his feet. “You got something to say, just come out and say it.”
The two brothers, Frank and Jim, shared a look.
“We’re done, mate,” said Frank. “It’s a duffer. There’s no colour down there.”
Clarence winced as he sucked his tea. “There’s quartz. And where there’s quartz, there’s a fair chance for gold.”
“Bull,” said Jim. “Eight days, mate. Eight days of climbing up and down that bloody rock. For what? A few specks that wouldn’t pay for our tools. We’re going back to the fields. Maybe head west. Try our fortune there.”
“There’s no water out that way, Jim. I’ve heard stories. Diggers gone mad with thirst, opening their wrists to drink their own blood.”
Clarence turned to Tom, an older man knotted with sinew and thick dark curls. “What about you?”
Tom leaned forward and turned the chook roasting over the fire. He’d caught the stray chicken that morning, along with a couple of rabbits. “Reckon we’re done here, fella.”
Clarence kicked the dirt and flicked his tea in the fire. The flames hissed at him like an angry serpent. “Bugger the lot o’ ya!”
He reached into a sack and pulled a bottle. Popped the lid. Took a few hard swigs.
The ground rumbled under them.
A log slipped in the fire, shooting embers into the dusky sky. The sounds of scuttling rocks echoed within the gulch.
Second tremor today.
“This place don’t want us here,” said Tom. “My mother belonged to this land. Before they come and stole her from it. I remember her words: If the earth speaks… you listen.”
Smoke stung Clarence’s eyes. A tear broke loose, smudging grime down his cheek. “You do what you feel is right. I’m not going anywhere.”
He saluted with the bottle, raised it to his lips.
The staccato laugh of a kookaburra woke Clarence, cutting deep into his hangover.
The others had gone early. He’d heard them pack but didn’t bother rousing for pleasantries. He’d see them soon anyway. When he wheeled into town pushing a barrow full of gold.
He ate a joyless breakfast of jerky and stale damper. Listened to the morning chorus of the bush. The kookaburra joined him, pecking at the carcass of last night’s chicken.
Clarence struck camp. His companions had been dead set against pitching in the gulch. He knew better. Wet season wasn’t for a few months. He’d save a lot of time and effort not having to navigate the rocks each day.
The way down was tricky, but he took his time and managed his gear well. He set his tent on the surest ground he could find, grabbed his dishpan, and went about scouring the creek for something that snagged his eye.
The day was a scorcher once the sun rose over the basin.
Clarence worked the creek, sloshing water and silt in his pan for the faintest trace of colour.
Come afternoon, frustration finally got the better of him. Clarence moved down the creek. The going was tougher, footing less reliable, but he was keen to toil new ground.
He thought he spied a glint as he rounded a harsh bend. Clarence dropped to his knees. He dragged his fingers through the clay, tracing the grooves in the bedrock. His hands shook as he raised them to the light.
Flecks of gold sparkled in the trickle of clay.
Clarence laughed; it sounded strange in his ears.
He dug his pan into the creek and scooped a mound of muck. Water and clay flew everywhere as he thrashed the pan. Then he spotted a flash of colour in a deep crack of the rock wall. He ditched his pan and reached in.
Clarence gasped. His hand shot back out.
The snake had bitten him three times.
He took a few hasty steps back and studied his wounds: several angry pocks spotted with blood. The serpent slowly emerged from the crack, golden brown scales catching the sun. It ignored him as it weaved its way down the gulch.
Clarence swore at himself. He glanced around at the looming rock walls. The sun hung low. Panic pushed up into his throat but he swallowed it like he did everything else. He took off his cabbage tree hat, wiped the sweat from his brow with the crook of an arm, and strolled back up the creek.
Clarence whistled a tune as he watched the billy boil on the fire. He didn’t think he’d be drinking the tea. His guts were furious. His head pounded. The bad hand was so swollen that the heat of his pulse throbbed up his arm and into his neck.
He soon buckled over. Fell to the uncaring earth.
Clarence gazed up at the late afternoon sky. He struggled to focus. The gentle run of the creek was lulling him to sleep.
The ground bucked. Groaned and shook.
There were several loud cracks of rock and a gush of water. The creek surged with renewed life. Fresh water from the earth flowed through the gulch.
Clarence twisted to face the ruckus. His crooked breath stuck in his lungs.
The creek shone gold.
It glittered like stars in the southern night sky.
Clarence strained as he reached for the stars. He barely budged, his body as rigid as the rock it rested on.
He sighed. Stopped clutching the air. Flopped his good arm over his chest.
Clarence smiled. Sobbed. Fought for the next breath. All the while marvelling at the glorious sight before him.
Further down the creek, a kookaburra dived into the gulch, hooked a snake in its beak, and flew for the nearest tree.