Black Spur – Chapter 1
This first chapter of my new Friday Novella is sent out to all my subscribers, paid and free, as a sneaky peek at the paid subscription.
My best wishes to all of you, and heartfelt thanks for your support. It’s appreciated; perhaps more than you know.
It is the nineteenth day of February 1863. Late summer in Her Majesty’s colony of Victoria. Mid-afternoon on what has proven, by general consensus, a stinking-hot Thursday.
Tall clouds to the north, dwarfing the high peaks of the Yarra Ranges, promise respite from the sun. Perhaps even much-needed rain. For the time being, they do not deliver. They merely trap the stifling heat in the thickly wooded hills and valleys.
It is an uncomfortable day to be travelling the Black Spur, not an easy route at the best of times. Yet even the most arduous journey must come to an end, one way or another. The track completes its precipitous and winding descent in a gentle gradient, straightens and runs to meet Dom Dom Creek.
At the droughty end of a long, hot summer the little watercourse is a meagre trickle of tannin-stained water fringed by dark-green rushes.
The lone rider attempts to press his mare onward, across the shallow ford. Not so fast, though. She is a horse of firm views and clear priorities. The man sighs. Although he can see his journey’s destination through the trees, he has neither heart nor authority to deny her. She drops her head for a long, thirsty drink.
His mount’s thirst slaked, they may cross. A few hundred yards further along the track they arrive at a low-roofed slab-and-bark shanty.
A fresh-painted sign with ornate, curlicued lettering announces: The Black Spur Inn.
With a groan the rider dismounts, stretches his aching limbs, ties up the mare to a post. Hat in hand, wiping the sweat from his brow with a shirt-sleeved forearm, he enters the twilight of the empty bar room.
‘Good day, Landlord!’ he calls, in a strong Central European accent. The addressee enters from the back room with the air of one called from more important matters.
Fred Fisher is an optimist at heart. The Welshman has set up his shanty – rough slab walls, two rooms under a shingle roof – next to the rutted track between Dom Dom Creek and the next modest watercourse, known to the handful of local settlers as Fisher’s Creek. For that is what the eponymous publican persists in calling it.
In his dream, Fisher sees himself as the proprietor of a busy changing station, when the Black Spur becomes the main thoroughfare between the goldfields of Woods Point to the east, the prosperous farms of the Acheron Valley to the north, and the growing city of Melbourne eighty miles to the southwest.
The dream recedes further with every passing month. Trade remains sparse. Narbethong remains a tiny clutter of huts amidst the oppressive grey-green of the forest. Traffic along the track is a slow dribble of packhorses and penniless men shoving handcarts. The new stagecoach service offers the promise of well-heeled patronage, but four coaches a month is not nearly enough.
Fisher looks the disturber of his peace up and down.
The slight form, the wispy blond beard on smooth though sunburnt cheeks, the shy, blue-eyed gaze: they suggest a man in his early twenties, maybe even younger. A scholarly air is at odds with ragged work clothes and the shapeless stockman’s hat in his hand.
‘A pint of ale, if you please.’
‘That’ll be fourpence ha’penny.’
The young man eyes the sour-smelling, greyish liquid which sloshes into the not-quite-clean glass, a thin scum of bubbles in lieu of a snowy, foaming head. He seems to suppress a sigh.
‘Tell me, pray: when will the stagecoach to Melbourne pass by your establishment?’
‘I mean, at what time?’
‘Travelling down to Melbourne, are you?’ Fisher eyes the man suspiciously.
There is something not quite right about this fellow, though he can’t put his finger on it. Bloody Continentals and their fancy way of speaking: giving themselves airs, even when they’re dressed in rags. No better than he ought to be.
‘Ah … No.’
‘Expecting a visitor from Yea?’
‘What’s it to you, then?’
‘I have … a … an urgent letter which must be delivered.’
‘The Melbourne-bound stage should come by about eleven. Unless it’s late. Which it usually is.’
‘Eleven o’clock in the morning. Thank you kindly.’
‘Well, give it here, then.’ Fisher holds out his large, blunt-fingered hand.
‘The letter. I’ll pass it on to the driver. That’ll be ninepence.’
‘Standard postage. It’s either that, or take it to Melbourne yourself, mate.’
The young patron seems flustered.
‘Very well … You have a sheet of paper and a pen that I might use?’
‘This is a public house, not a bloody stationer’s shop,’ mutters Fisher as he disappears into the back room. He emerges with a soiled scrap of paper, a quill and a bottle of ink. ‘There. That’ll be another ha’penny.’
The young man looks about to protest, but changes his mind. He gazes into the air for a few moments, as if composing a missive, then scribbles away. Scratch, scratch. A blowfly tumbles into the shack, buzzes drowsily around the room, settles at the edge of a puddle of beer on the counter. Fisher flicks at it with his dish rag, misses.
At length, the man folds the sheet, writes an address on the outside, then looks expectantly at Fisher. ‘You have sealing wax, perchance?’
Fisher’s heavy eyebrows clamber up his forehead. He places a guttering, smoky tallow candle before the young man. ‘Here. Use this.’
The man carefully drips a small puddle of hot tallow over the folded paper to seal it. Waves the letter to dry the seal, then hands it to the publican. ‘Thank you.’
‘That’ll be one and tuppence altogether.’
The man scrabbles in his purse. At length he scrapes together the sum. The purse is left well-nigh empty, Fisher notes with satisfaction.
‘Goodbye, now! Please do come again.’
From the threshold Fisher watches the man mount his dusty nag and amble back up the track towards the high Dom Dom Saddle. He frowns. Definitely something ‘off’ with that fellow.
As soon as he is sure that the man is gone for good, he takes a knife, prises up the still-warm tallow and reads:
I pray that this letter may find you and your parents well. I remember with great fondness our musical evenings on board the Sophie.
I am still alive, as you can see. Alas, the Beechworth venture did not turn out well, and I find myself in reduced circumstances. Nevertheless, I hope still to make good.
Would you do me a great kindness? It troubles me greatly that my parents have not received news from me in many months now and must wonder what has become of their only son. Would you please send word to my father that I am well?
If you would be so kind, you may reach him as follows: Herrn Simon Berger, Geigenbaumeister1, Bischofsgasse 14, Füssen, Ostallgäu, Bavaria.
With friendliest greetings,
Your devoted servant,
Fisher shrugs, reseals the letter, tucks it behind the bottles on the shelf.
Next week in Black Spur:
Chapter 2: Fernshaw
Preparations are made and charges laid.
Acknowledgement of Country: This story is set on the lands of the Taungurung and Woiwurrung peoples, while the author lives on Wadawurrung country. I would like to pay my respects to the Elders past, present and emerging of these peoples, members of the Kulin alliance.
Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction. Characters, institutions and organisations mentioned herein are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously without any intent to describe actual conduct. The locations are based on real places.
Geigenbaumeister (German) – master luthier