Excerpt for Shadows of the Mountain by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Robert Prince

Published by Robert D Prince


Copyright © Robert D Prince 2017

Smashwords Edition, License Notes:

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is a work of historical fiction set in the Mossman River valley, North Queensland, Australia 1874 to 1974. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

ISBN 978-1-3705-907-5-9

Cover art and design: Glen Holman www.glenholman.com

Editing and interior design: Philip Newey http://www.philipnewey.com/All-read-E

Another historical novel by the same author: The Farrier’s Son

To all fair-minded people



An Aboriginal warrior with spears in hand stands on the grassy summit of Mount Beaufort surveying the country. To the north, Daintree and Cape Tribulation lie within view of the mysterious Thornton Peak. To seaward lies Port Douglas, jutting into the Pacific Ocean. To the south stretches the hunting ground of Cassowary Range, and to the west stands Mount Demi, protector of his people, the Aborigines of the Mossman River valley. Below him the Mossman River, with its corridor of tropical rainforest, meanders across the valley floor from the towering mountains to the glittering sea.

Never could he imagine that one day his tribal land would be occupied by Europeans and the traditions and practices of his people gone forever. Furthermore, it is strange that the social catastrophe of his valley has, till now, never been told. The author, drawing on seventy years of close association with the valley and extensive research, portrays what happened to the Aborigines during this epic period in the history of Northern Australia. The author’s contact includes riding his horse to King Diamond’s camp in his youth and playing in the river with the tribal chief’s children.

In the story Marku, a noble Aboriginal woman and central character, witnesses events from pre-European times to the eventual destruction of her culture. Midst all the turmoil she falls in love with James, allowing her to experience both cultures.

The portrayal is typical of the events that occurred during European settlement of Aboriginal tribal lands in Australia. The setting of this story in the Mossman River valley in no way suggests that the settlers of this district were any more intrusive than those who settled elsewhere in the Australian colonies. Indeed, apart from intruding on tribal lands, some settlers of the Mossman River district showed a genuine interest in the welfare of the Aborigines.

Words used to describe people of varying ethnicity are consistent with usage at the time of the story. References considered to be offensive have been avoided. Any perceived mis­rep­resentation of culture is not intended.













Bajal’s birth had not been easy. Old Kija, midwife to his mother, Marku, had told of the ordeal. Kija and two other women of the tribe secreted Marku to a secluded place on the Mossman River. A place well upstream, away from biting insects and the sea tides that brought crocodiles; a hideaway where the stream ran cool and a light breeze drifted through the trees. Apart from the safety of this site Marku chose it for a spiritual reason. She believed that, if she gave birth under the water cherry tree, here by the river, her child would grow up to be strong and wise. Though Marku’s labour had begun the previous evening her delivery remained stalled. Now weakened and fearful of dying in childbirth she asked to be taken to the water where she could ask the water spirit for help. The women lifted her to her feet and assisted her to the stream. She then lay, transfixed as the spirit of the passing stream brought fresh hope and renewed strength. With the women assisting she tried anew and soon delivered a healthy baby. Upon hearing its cry and being told it was a boy she cried tears of joy. She remained seated in the cool stream and, with the breeze whispering in the leaves above, placed the babe to her full breast. Upon returning to Jinkalmu, their home village in the shadow of Mount Demi, a celebration marked the birth. The men daubed themselves with ochre clay and the women adorned themselves with shell necklaces, some of which had been traded from as far away as Torres Strait. While a wallaby roasted on the communal fire the clan honoured Marku and the new arrival with ritual song and dance.

Bajal’s first memory of his childhood remained with him. While the men were away hunting the women took the children swimming at a pool on the north branch of the river. The women sat by a smouldering fire on a sandbar making dilly bags till one of them suddenly screamed, ‘Bilngkumu!’ Sand, ash and dilly bags scattered as the women grabbed their digging sticks and scrambled to save the children. As a front they rushed to the water’s edge shouting at the crocodile. They risked their lives, entering the water to waist deep, yelling and slapping the water with their sticks. The crocodile turned its attention to the women, changing direction, making a bow wave as it charged towards them. The women, knowing that unity of strength was their only hope, stood their ground, screaming and pounding the water. The crocodile advanced to within a few yards of them and then wavered, turned tail and swam to the deep, where it disappeared from sight. Marku spun around to make sure all the children had made it to safety and then rushed from the water to clutch Bajal. That night she slept on her bed of animal skins with Bajal in her arms. Bajal, though only five years old at the time, remembered her gazing at the stars, thanking the spirits.

At this age Bajal realised he was different from the other children. While the others shared a bed with their parents and sat as a family by the fire, he had no father and most times sat alone with his mother. He thought little of this at the time but when he reached his early teens and was old enough to go fishing with the other boys their talk made him wonder.

Bajal’s grandfather, Bujur, sat cross-legged beside the embers of a camp fire. Though almost blinded by ash and smoke his mind remained nimble. He sensed Bajal’s approach, turned his head and greeted him with a nod. Bajal sat beside Bujur and placed a hand on his bony knee. Moments of silent reverence followed, with each thinking of the other—the old man with his wisdom and Bajal his youth. The old man knew that Bajal had come to learn more about Aboriginal legend. He remained still and quiet, slowly drifting into a trance, and then began to tell the story of Mount Demi that overlooks the Mossman River and its valley.

In the Dreamtime of long ago spirits rose from a flat earth to form the landscape and all life, including human. These spirits—some good, some bad—often quarrelled and fought. The people of the valley were persecuted by a bad spirit till a good spirit overpowered it and set them free. Since that time Mount Demi, the totem of the good spirit, has stood, guarding them against evil. Bujur went further, speaking in a quiet, monotone voice, interpreting the deep meaning behind the legend. After he finished the story and the fire burnt to ash Marku came forward carrying a baler shell of water. The old man, now tired and thirsty, took her hands in his and lifted the shell to his mouth. When he had finished she sat beside him, clasped his hands in hers and comforted him into the night. Bujur’s weak condition remained a constant concern for Marku and she wondered how many more seasons would pass before he departed to the spirit world. She knew, as Bujur did, that when a warrior is reduced to roasting nuts on a fire and weaving baskets his time was near. If only she could get him to the healing spring in the mountains! Its special powers would bring relief and maybe heal his limbs so he could again join the men in the hunt. When Bujur began to doze Marku cradled him in her arms. When he was asleep she laid him down with his head resting on a soft, possum-skin pelt. Back at her hut she found Bajal also asleep, curled up with Murramu, his dingo puppy.

Marku took Bajal to the river, dug for worms and settled him on the bank with a twine fishing line in hand. While keeping him in sight she moved upstream to a backwater that pooled beside the bank. Here she sat, peering down at her own reflection in the water. She remained still, admiring her nakedness and thinking about what the future might hold. Her beauty, both of body and spirit, captivated men, with many having offered her a place in their huts. So far she had declined, shielding behind Dari, who was Bujur’s second wife and her stepmother. Hurtful memories came to mind of the time when, little more than a child, she attended a corrobboree at the Mowbray River and was raped at spear point by a man from a tribe to the south. Marku had never since taken a man and had no intention of doing so.

Bajal sat naked on a rock, drying himself in the sun after having bathed in the river by the village. He shook his mop of black, curly hair, sprinkling drops of water into the bright sunlight. As he raised his head he caught a glimpse of a young village girl spying on him from across the river. He turned his head aside, pretending not to see her, waited for a while and then casually rose and walked back to the village. He knew Nganka well by sight but had seldom spoken with her. Her parents, for some reason, shepherded her away each time they came close. He thought of her often during the next few weeks and smiled each time he recalled her pretty face peeping at him by the river. He asked Bujur what he should do. Bujur told him that Nganka was betrothed and by tribal law she could not be his wife. In spite of this objection the young couple became friends and, with time, almost inseparable. They swam and hunted together, venturing through the forest naked and carefree, with Nganka, a slip of a girl with budding breasts, walking behind Bajal admiring his youthful body. Relatives of the husband-to-be became suspicious and took exception. They stalked the young couple and spread whispers around the village to disgrace them. Before long they were ostracised by many and subjected to constant harassment. Bajal and Nganka coped with the situation till, one morning, relatives of the betrothed man sooled their wild dogs upon Nganka, mauling her badly. The ordeal terrified Nganka and left her so shaken that she and Bajal decided to leave. They gathered their few possession, said their goodbyes and set out to make a fresh start downstream at an old fishing site on the north branch of the river. They slept under the stars in a pocket of open forest till completing a thatched hut and then, with Murramu by their side, they settled in for what they thought would be a quiet life, living off the land in the solitude of the wild as their ancestors had done for thousands of years.





Nganka stood by the riverside at their camp gazing thoughtfully at the river. Water grass, lush and sprawling, covered the bank and spilt across the water below. A pearly-white sandbar on the opposite bank lay between the water’s edge and the tropical rainforest that had flourished for millennia. Nganka’s thoughts flickered, causing her to raise her head and look into the distance. Manjal Dimbi, Mount Demi, with its rock formation of a spiritual parent caring for a child, stood as her people’s guardian. Wundu, Thornton Peak, shrouded in misty cloud and home to a cloud forest, held secrets of the past. Jalkaraburr, Mount Beaufort, with its all-round view of the valley, drew her attention. Since early childhood she had joined in its wallaby hunts; exciting times when the women and children beat the grass to herd wallabies into the pathway of armed tribesmen. Bajal and Murramu came into view after having been for their morning walk. As they approached, Nganka thought how lucky she was to have them; Bajal the one she loved and Murramu a faithful companion. When Bajal came near she took him into her arms and pressed her breasts to his bare chest. Their embrace soon clouded all thoughts that had gone before. They hugged, searched each other’s eyes momentarily and then, hand in hand, turned and entered the hut.

Their decision to leave the tribe some months before had been vindicated. They lived a carefree lifestyle; playing in the river, hunting and gathering, preparing favourite foods, sitting by the fire at evening time and loving tenderly by night. They visited Marku and Dari often and sometimes surprised them with fresh fruit and game. An understanding evolved with the tribespeople whereby they associated with those who were friendly and ignored those who sought revenge. Most surprisingly, the tribal elders, the wise old men who ruled the tribe, accepted their decision.

Their blissful lovemaking was not without purpose. Ever since they first made love Nganka yearned to have Bajal’s baby; to cradle a child made of their image, to nurture the young spirit to become strong, to be someone that would make her and Bajal proud. Nganka lay exhausted and panting beside Bajal, hoping that the spirit child of her hope had been planted. Bajal understood Nganka as she understood him and believed that their union would eventually fulfil their dream of having a piccaninny who could hunt with them and share the fire in the quiet of night.

They basked in the afterglow till Murramu began to whine. Bajal called for him to come in but when he continued whining Bajal went to investigate. To his surprise he found Murramu sitting on the riverbank, peering downstream. Nganka soon appeared from the doorway and joined them.

‘He can hear something downstream,’ whispered Bajal.

Nganka took Bajal’s hand, cocked an ear and together they listened, trying to identify Murramu’s concern. Suddenly, they heard clink, followed by another sound. They had no idea what it could be and shot each other a questioning glance. Soon it became a rhythmic clink, clink, clink … Murramu bristled and fidgeted, ready to leap from the embankment. All three waited, mesmerised, until from around the corner appeared a boat carrying three strange-looking men. Nganka thought of lights she had seen sailing across the cosmos at night and how she had imagined them to be people moving between the constellations. Bajal, locked into his earthly existence, saw them as members of the spirit world, transformed from stone into human form to deliver them a message. Either way, confusing as it may be, both accepted the appearance as a friendly visit and stood to their feet.

Those in the whaleboat, two men handling an ore each and James Partridge, the boss, standing at the stern, responded, with the oarsmen resting their oars and James waving. Nganka instinctively waved back. They then rowed closer, with the rowlocks clinking in their metal keepers with each stroke. More could be seen of them, with their beards, shoulder-length hair, bushman’s clothing, bare feet and seasoned looks. They pulled over to the sandbar where James dipped a bucket into the stream and lifted it high to show that it held water. He repeated the motion a few times and then held it out as a gift. With gift giving common within their tribe Bajal and Nganka had no hesitation in coming forward. Bajal picked up a spear and, with Nganka and Murramu following, made down the steep track to the water’s edge and waded across. Although Bajal and Nganka were oblivious to their nakedness, Nganka’s sensuous form was a distraction to these men who had not seen civilisation for a month. After handing them the bucket, James took a chip of wood from a pouch strapped around his waist and, using sign language, enquired whether they knew of the tree. Bajal recognised it at once as a cedar tree, the same tree they used for making dug-out canoes. With further gestures James asked if Bajal could show him some trees. Bajal nodded and led the way into the rainforest, with Nganka and the others following. With little effort they found several of high quality. When ready to leave, James treated them to English handshakes and, although they had no idea of its significance, it conveyed a sense of warmth that lingered with them.

The men returned downstream to their camp at a deep-water landing where they had been set ashore from a schooner. By the fire that evening James noted the discovery in his diary.

4th April 1874: I have struck Red Gold. A magnificent stand of red cedar trees that will make me a fortune in the southern market! The Mossman River, only recently explored and named, is in North Queensland on the eastern coast of northern Australia. Apart from Cooktown that services the Palmer River gold rush there are no seaboard towns for hundreds of miles. I know the dangers are many but I can’t let the opportunity pass me by. Although we are the first I have heard that more will soon join us. I have two reliable men who are working on a share basis …

As Bajal and Nganka anticipated, the men appeared again the next morning with the whaleboat loaded with goods. A wave from James brought them across and soon they stood in awe at the items being unloaded: tents, rifles and ammunition, timber-getting equipment, sleeping swags, clothing, food, cooking utensils and personal items. James took care of a tin trunk that contained his diary and a goat-skin satchel filled with money and papers. Bajal watched closely as James took the trunk from the boat and placed it carefully to one side. Bajal guessed that it was something important and wondered if it contained items for making magic. James then introduced himself as James Partridge and the others as Walt and Alex. Bajal and Nganka similarly introduced themselves. James and his men carried the shipment of goods to a sandbank set well back from the water’s edge and then busied themselves, erecting tents and stretching a tarpaulin over a ridge pole for outdoor living. Once done Walt and Alex rowed back to the landing to get the food stores which, in addition to local game, would last them for three months.

When the men disappeared from sight James opened a trunk and took out two sets of clothes. He passed them to Bajal and Nganka, gesturing for them to dress. The pair giggled as they fumbled to dress themselves for the first time. When dressed, Nganka, like a girl seeking approval of her new ball gown, stepped back and twirled around on the sand. Bajal began clapping, followed by James, and the more they clapped the higher she stepped. She twirled gleefully till dizziness pulled her to a halt. They joined in laughter, capturing this moment that would seal their loyalty long into the future.

Although James had laid claim to the best stand of cedar on the river there lay before him the difficult and dangerous tasks of felling, logging and rafting the timber to cargo ships stationed out at sea. Also, until a bullock team came to the district they would be restricted to harvesting trees close to the river where they could be cut into lengths and rolled on skids to the river’s edge.

With time at a premium work began the following day. Bajal and Nganka were not satisfied just sitting and watching from the opposite bank and, after carrying their new clothes across the river, they dressed and presented themselves. James welcomed their arrival and soon put them to work. Within a few weeks a routine evolved whereby Bajal and Nganka, when it suited them, would assist with clearing tracks in return for lunch and sometimes a little extra to take home to their camp.

The first time James fired a rifle Bajal and Nganka froze with fear as the sound ricocheted across the river to their camp. The rest of the tribe first became aware of the European’s presence when further gun shots echoed up the river. One old man said the sound was so loud that it shook the dew from the grass. Another tribesman reported that he had seen one of the strangers kill a wallaby at one hundred paces by pointing a magic stick. Since then a few hunting parties had passed close by but so far none had dared make an approach.

Bajal and Nganka now crossed the river most days to lend a hand with the logging. While Nganka remained content clearing tracks and laying logs as skids, Bajal soon mastered the art of tree felling and felled as many trees as the other men. The mature trees, some one hundred feet high, crashed to the ground, taking a swathe of forest trees and wildlife in their wake. The moment the tangled mass settled on the forest floor Murramu dashed in to ferret for animals. Bajal and Nganka followed with machetes, killing possums, snakes and whatever else moved. They saw this as a bounty, an easy way to hunt, and looked forward to each day a giant of the rainforest was felled. For the men, each tree meant more money to buy provisions, enabling them to extend their stay on the river.

The rainforest began to retreat for the cool months of the year. The growth of foliage slowed, leaves fell to the ground, leaf litter dried underfoot and visibility improved, making it easier for the team to move about. The men were about to saw a tree into lengths when Nganka rushed to their side, almost hysterical and heaving for breath.

‘Nganka! What is it! What’s wrong!’ asked James, taking her by the arm.

Walt and Alex, believing it to be the first of the inevitable native attacks, took up axes.

After a brief exchange they followed Nganka to the sandbar and found a man casually looking about the camp.

‘Hello there,’ called James, stepping into the open.

The Scotsman turned and returned the greeting. After introductions were passed around James quickly staked his territory.

‘My claim stretches downstream for two bends, upstream for three and back to where the rainforest joins the open forest country. The perimeter is clearly marked.’

Dougal McEwan, dressed in flannel and boots, wanted to stay shy of any disagreement. ‘Not a problem. Where do you suggest I set up camp?’

‘Just downstream of my marker. There’s good timber and it’s still well above the tide margin …’

During the talk that followed Dougal revealed that he had a crew of four including himself, ample equipment and enough provisions to last four months.

James noted his interest in Bajal and Nganka and, as he was about to leave, cautioned him, ‘They’re not all as friendly as these two. Best to make friends rather than foes.’

James routinely took his diary from the tin trunk and updated it before breakfast. Even if he had nothing of importance to note he placed a tick to keep tally of the date. He conducted business with the outside world through the Bank of New South Wales and Pacific Stevedoring in Cooktown and needed to keep track of the date to meet scheduled visits by supply vessels and cargo ships that freighted cedar logs south.

Dougal McEwan visited again, this time to express a concern.

‘A new crew arrived on the river last week. Their overseer has staked a claim downriver from me and says they’re going to log the whole river. Says they’re backed by venture capitalists in Sydney, that they have experience on the Clarence and other rivers in New South Wales. Apparently he has a big camp with several axemen and a cook. I’m worried he might try to push me out.’

‘He can’t do that!’ interjected James. ‘Crown land is up for grabs to whoever makes the first claim. That is, providing they’ve paid their licence fee.’

‘I paid mine at Cooktown,’ Dougal hastened to say.

‘Then you have no problem. Have you marked your boundary?’

‘That I have.’

‘Well, tell him to go to blazes.’

‘But it’s my four against his eight and I imagine they’re well armed!’

‘Your four and my five gives us nine, which will be a fair match. And I might be able to muster some reinforcements,’ he said, referring to Bajal’s tribe in an offhanded manner. ‘I expect this capitalist stooge has pulled his men out of Sydney and, if so, most of them will be tossers who’ll run at the first shot. Our best bet is to join forces and let him know we’re watching.’

Dougal, a hardy Highlander, knew he was in the right company and readily agreed to the pact.



James woke to a clear, crisp Sabbath morning with gaily coloured parrots chattering in the blossoms of the trees above. He kindled the fire, put a billy on to boil and set about trimming his beard by the reflection in a mirror, tinged with yellow. He recalled earlier days and questioned how life’s journey had brought him to one of the most remote places in the Australian colonies.

He brought to mind an early memory when, as a six-year-old, Selene, his sixteen-year-old live-in governess, brushed his auburn locks, morning, noon and night. So gentle, so caring. He touched his hair with the tips of his fingers. Even at that tender age, he had loved her. Selene devoted herself to his care till, at the age of twelve, he, James Partridge, an only child, was sent to King’s College, Sydney, to receive the best education and to be groomed as one of the gentry. Although only a carriage ride from his home and Selene, no visits home were allowed till the end of the first term. The moment the carriage drew to a halt he rushed inside, greeted his parents with the formality they expected and then asked for Selene. His father, William Partridge, owner of the prestigious Partridge & Company, Timber Merchants, anticipated the request and took James aside. He explained that Selene was now a parlour maid and that he expected him not to associate with her. James took exception, disobeyed his father and next morning found Selene alone, polishing silver candlesticks in the sun room. At his approach she looked downwards to avoid his advance.

‘Selene!’ he almost shouted as he rushed forward. ‘Selene, I love you,’ he murmured, putting his arms around her and pressing his face against her cheek.

Selene had been forbidden to speak to James and, as the sole provider for her mother and five siblings, she needed to heed the master’s word. She held James’ hands tenderly and explained the situation. James remained incredulous that his father could not understand the depth of his feeling for Selene. The vacation remained one of torment, with his hatred of his father growing by the day. When he returned to school he kept the dream alive night and day and ignored his school studies as a means of retribution against his father. Each vacation thereafter was met by his father’s reminder and Selene’s explanation of why she could not show affection towards him. At age fifteen, James returned home at the end of the first term to find that Selene’s employment had been terminated. He confronted his father, demanding Selene’s home address, and when his father refused he struck him across the head with a fire poker and fled, never to return. He hated his father and, as he had done since the day of his departure, wished his father was dead.

Now in his early thirties James still dreamed of her. The image he had formed as a child remained indelibly imprinted in his mind. Since leaving home other women had made approaches, only to be brushed aside. This fixation had stifled his life and it seemed he was destined to remain a recluse, hiding away in rough timber camps. Sadly, his mother, Marie, also remained unreconciled. All she wanted for James was happiness and cared not that Selene was a member of the lower class. She thought Selene to be of good character and had never forgiven William for his action. James had left without a parting word and she stilled pined to hear his voice.


Laughter from across the river stirred James from his wistful thoughts. There were four black people: Bajal, Nganka and two strangers giggling like children by the hut. The visitors were both women and naked except for a headband holding their hair in place. At seeing James, Nganka waved for him to join them. He waved back, bundled two sets of clothes under his arm and crossed the river. The greetings were profuse, with Nganka introducing Marku and Dari with the intimacy that attaches to special friends. The newcomers obviously had knowledge of him because curiosity rather than fear framed their expressions. The women came close and, when Marku touched his white skin, James felt a desire to reach out for her but quickly covered himself by handing them the clothing. With Nganka’s help they slid into the clothes and thanked him with their poses and gleeful smiles. Nganka, using English words she had learned from James, explained the family relationship between them.

James set about establishing a rapport that he hoped would eventually extend to the whole tribe and place him in a commanding position in the valley. Using sign language and Nganka as a vocal intermediary, they managed a meaningful interchange. In fact it became clear that both parties wanted to foster a lasting friendship. A large jadi, sand goanna, that the women had caught somewhere along the track lay roasting on the coals, and at lunchtime Nganka expertly carved the white flesh and served it with dukal fruit and kalirr bush cherries. Following lunch they moved to the shade of a tree where James learned more about the tribe: its size, location of camps and possible attitude towards the presence of white people. Marku engaged James constantly and would have stayed the night if Dari had not insisted they return home before dark.

When they entered their tribal village a commotion erupted as tribespeople, young and old, gathered about to inspect the mysterious regalia worn by the women. While most realised that the garments had come from the white-coloured people cutting the logs, their curiosity extended to who or what were these beings that had suddenly appeared in their valley. Marku and Dari set about allaying their fears, telling that the newcomers had the blessing of the spirits. They paraded their newfound clothes as proof of their goodness and told of other treasures they had seen at Nganka’s camp and on the sandbar across the river. Marku lived in her clothes almost constantly, day and night, often pressing her face to a shirt sleeve to remind her of James. Dari, savvy in the ways of women and courtship, encouraged Marku to explore her feelings and perhaps arrange another meeting with James. Talk of waybala, white person, now became a theme of conversation amongst members of the community.



James, with his rifle in hand, crossed the river, spoke to Bajal and Nganka and then continued downstream to make himself known to the overseer of the new gang of cutters whom he called the Capitalist. He left the open gum forest of Bajal’s camp, entered the nearby rainforest and followed the river, passing through a mosaic of shadows. He paused opposite Dougal’s camp and peered through the foliage to check Dougal’s progress. Several logs lay on the sandbar ready for rafting and James guessed that Dougal would soon have enough for a shipment. He continued on to the Capitalist’s territory and halted when opposite his camp, where a shirtless man, presumably the cook, knelt by the river cleaning a pot. James called an ‘Ahoy there’ to alert him and then crossed. The cook had met Dougal previously and guessed the visitor must be the cutter from further upstream. He seemed pleased to see a new face and spoke freely of the headway his gang had made since arrival. James declined a cup of tea and, after gathering all the information he thought the man could provide, asked of the overseer’s whereabouts. The cook pointed to a track leading into the rainforest and said the men were up there ‘rolling logs’. James found them wrestling with a huge log and wondered if, by manpower alone, they would manage to get it to the river. When the overseer came over, James introduced himself.

‘I’m James from upriver. Guess you’re the overseer?’

‘That’s right. Bill Rowland.’ He extended a hand of friendship.

‘Nice log.’ James pointed to the rich red grain of its butt end.

‘Only one of many to come. This country will be cleaned out by the time we’re finished,’ said the overseer, gloating about his intentions.

‘Where will you log next?’ queried James.

‘Oh, downstream to the landing and then upstream from your camp. We’ve got to fell it before others arrive, otherwise there’ll be strife. Too many logging the same patch never works. That happened on the Clarence; cutters poaching and setting rafts adrift … Then there’s the blacks. They never learn and we’ve had to shoot them in the past. Not sure what they’re like here but we’re ready for them if they want trouble—’

James cut short the overseer’s unwanted comments. ‘When do you plan to send your first consignment?’

‘Probably in a couple of weeks’ time and monthly after that. What’s your plan?’

‘I’ve arranged for a lighter to tow our first lot out of the heads and load to the Aquarius on the thirtieth of the month. She’s a 180-ton steamer and usually runs to schedule.’

The overseer then let slip something of interest. ‘We’re financed by Matheson and Son, wholesale timber merchants of Sydney. They’re good operators and pay well.’

James took the opportunity to ask, ‘Have you heard of Partridge & Co, Timber Merchants?’

‘Yeah. The old geezer is filthy rich. He and his wife are perched up on the North Shore with no one to leave it to.’

James, for the first time since fleeing his parent’s home and forgoing the fortune he would have inherited, felt a pang of regret; not for his father or the money but for his mother’s sake. He struggled with the thought for a few moments while the overseer took time out to lift his trouser leg and scrape a leech from his shin with the blade of a machete.

Their attention then turned to the men handling the big log. James thought they looked a motley lot. The man closest, raw boned and underfed, wheezed each time he took weight on his bar; the scantily clad man next to him bore scars from the prison lash. The third along had long suffered a travesty of birth with a liver-coloured birth mark covering most of his face. The fourth, a gaunt little man with glassy eyes and a tobacco-stained beard, appeared ready for the bone yard, while the fifth, a strapping brute of a man with a scowl, bowed his bar with each lift. A self-appointed foreman with a throaty voice stood at the far end, calling instructions and grunting each time the men took the strain. The overseer, one of those brash and demanding men, offered no help and watched while the log was manoeuvred into position. James acknowledged the men’s effort with a nod, told the overseer he would be in touch and headed back across the river. As he walked the path homewards he considered Matheson and Son’s gang of men. No doubt for one reason or another most, if not all, were social outcasts; people squeezed from society and seeking refuge in obscurity. He retracted his notion of them being tossers and instead saw them as men of broken spirit who posed no threat to his or Dougal McEwan’s interests.


The first ever consignment of red cedar logs lay ready to be shipped from the Mossman River. The sawn logs strewn on the sandbar at James’ camp represented three months’ work. Walt and Alex branded the ends of the logs with the letters ‘J P’. Next morning the rafting began. Logs were rolled into the river, chained together and set afloat. With Murramu standing at the bow of the whaleboat the team, rowing and poling, managed to raft the first load to the landing where a ship waited.

‘Ahoy there,’ shouted James when the skipper appeared. All went aboard the steamer and were greeted by him and his crew of two. The skipper, equipped for rafting, supplied additional chains needed for rafting at sea. They also borrowed his row boat and, within an hour, headed back up the river. The team worked as two crews, with Walt and Alex manning the whaleboat and James, together with Bajal and Nganka, using the row boat. As the bundles of logs arrived the ship’s crew tethered them to trees on the bank. During the day and a half it took to shift the full load, those at Dougal McEwan’s and the Capitalist’s camps watched keenly. The landing, two miles upstream from the river’s mouth and tidal, had never before been used as a wharf. Prior to the timber cutters the only white visitors had been a couple of explorers who made brief visits. The high south bank, treed with wattle, became the first established access point to the valley. Both James and Walt had rafted cedar on the Tweed River in northern New South Wales and began assembling the rafts. The largest logs were laid side by side, smaller ones crossways, and then another layer of large logs on top. Chains were wrapped around each raft and twitched tightly. Murramu, sensing the presence of a crocodile, whined each time Bajal dived under a raft to pass a chain. That night the whites slept on the foredeck under the cover of a tarpaulin while Bajal, Nganka and Murramu slept under the stars on the bare boards of the aft deck.

The skipper woke to a bright moon at 4.00 am and sounded reveille with a brisk call. He had not slept well and held concerns about hauling several large rafts to sea in rough weather. With a steamer appointed to be at Snapper Island to take the cargo, a change of plan could only be made if the conditions became impossible. Bajal ignored the roar from a crocodile nearby and volunteered to step to the rafts and secure them to the ship’s stern. The chug, chug of the ship as it steamed downstream at dawn woke the whole river, including a mob of Aborigines camped on a sandbar at its mouth. Upon rounding the last corner the skipper spotted them, called an alarm and then raced to the wheel house and grabbed his rifle.

‘Take cover!’ he shouted, putting the rifle to his shoulder.

‘No! Wait! Stop!’ screamed Nganka.

James took her cue. ‘Hold your fire, Skip!’

With the strong current pushing the rafts towards the stern there could be no turning back. The skipper yelled to the engineman, ‘Hold your speed o’wise we’ll be smashed.’ He turned to the helmsman. ‘Stay your course!’

Nganka, now hysterical, pleaded, ‘No shoot my people!’

Some of the men among the family group on the sandbar raised their spears which, if thrown, could well make the distance to the ship. It seemed there would be carnage with deaths on both sides and the rafting aborted with the rafts floating out to sea. Nganka heard her people’s excited voices and shouted for them to stay calm. James, understanding a few words of what she said, appealed to the skipper to hold his fire. Nganka then took the initiative. She ran along the deck to the skipper and bravely put her hand over the muzzle of the rifle barrel. The blacks, all relatives of Nganka, heeded her action, with the men easing their stance. The engineman held the speed, with the propeller churning the water to froth and the helmsman holding his course as they sailed through the heads. The blacks watched incredulously as this magic of the white man towed logs to the open sea and set a course northwards. James thanked Nganka for her action which he believed had prevented a bloodbath.

Before the silhouettes of the blacks fell from sight a new threat arose. The south-easterly trade wind began blowing a gale. White caps, far out to sea, told of a huge swell. The skipper kept to himself for a few minutes and then spoke with James. His thoughts were twofold: to try to re-enter the river, risking the wild surf crashing the rafts into the ship, or chance a crossing to Snapper Island? James wished to continue but left the decision to the skipper. The skipper cast the helmsman a glance and received a shrug in reply.

The trip that normally took four hours developed into a nightmare. The engineman, a seasoned seaman, made a run for the island. He stoked the furnace, raised the steam pressure as high as he dared and fully released steam to the pistons. The thump, thump of the pistons rattled the engine on its blocks, threatening to topple it into the bilge. The packing gland on the propeller shaft ran hot, and each time the propeller lifted above the surf it roared a hideous howl. The engineman knew well the dangers but they were beyond the point of return. The helmsman held tight to the wheel, struggling to hold the rudder against the undercurrent of the ten-foot swell. Breaking waves crashed broadside into the ship, causing it to tilt precariously. Sea spray smashed against the wheelhouse glass. The rafts, being dragged to the portside by the surge of the swell, made it nigh on impossible to hold the ship on course. Each time the ship crested a wave and then fell into the trough, the planking of the hull groaned from the impact. James’ crew, with Bajal clutching Murramu, huddled behind the wheelhouse, holding a lifeline. They battled for four hours into the journey with no reprieve. If the rafts were cut loose their chances of survival would increase tenfold.

James shouted to the skipper above the siren of the wind, the crashing sea and the roar of the engine, ‘Cut them loose. Let them go, Skip!’

The skipper made his way forward, grappling a lifeline to stay upright. To go aft and release the chains held its own danger. They could lose a man overboard. The skipper withheld his reply till the ship rode the crest of a wave and then called back, ‘We’ll take the chance! This old girl’s got enough grunt!’

After they had battled the treacherous conditions for six hours, Snapper Island loomed large before them. The skipper took the ship to seaward of the island rather than risk the passage between it and the mainland. He navigated past the island and, when entering the calm water on its northern side, the engineman throttled back the engine. The helmsman hung to the wheel exhausted and the chains holding the rafts slackened. In a sheltered cove lay a steamer, anchored in deep water, ready to load James’ cargo and ship it to Sydney. Loading continued throughout the night and by midday the next day the cargo had been made safe on board. Documents were exchanged and both vessels set sail in fair weather.



Following dispatch of the first load of logs James left Bajal and Nganka at the camp while he, together with Walt and Alex, rowed downstream to meet a supply ship. Upon arrival he left the men to wait for the ship and set out to explore the countryside. With a rifle in his hand and a long bush knife hanging from his belt, he stepped ashore and disappeared into the scrubby mulga. A flight of ducks caught his attention, leading him to a lagoon brimming with wildlife. Ducks paddled amongst the water weed, ducking their heads and feeding. Rather than having a shot James leant against a paperbark tree, watching the ripples and sparkles. Waterlilies lay open, bearing their petals to the sun, while dragonflies rested on lily pads. A jabiru, with patience found only in nature, stalked small fish in the shallows. James stood absorbed in this wonderland of nature until a flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos settled in the treetops above and screeched their raucous call. On lifting his hand from the paperbark he noticed that the Aborigines had judiciously harvested strips of its bark for making gunyahs. As he turned to leave, two white cranes lifted off and settled a few paces further away. It was noontime and, being thirsty, James moved up the bank and dug a hole in the sandy soil with his bush knife. He then brushed his hair aside, cupped his hands, and drank from the pooled water. For lunch he ate a piece of corned meat he took from his shirt pocket.

He left the lagoon and trekked towards the mountain range to the west. After skirting a high peak he crossed a freshly burnt area that the blacks had burnt while hunting and then ascended a ridge. At the top a panoramic view of the valley stretched before him. The patchwork of the valley floor exceeded his expectations, with thousands of acres of fertile agricultural and grazing land lying before him. More astounding was the fact that he was the first non-Aboriginal person to command this view. He breathed deeply to appreciate this unique moment. In his exuberance he began partitioning the landscape, imagining where the town and farms might be and a network of roads connecting people. James Partridge, he thought, explorer and business man. This is your place in the world. From here you can build to great heights and earn a name. He even thought of names for the town: Jamestown, Partridgeville.

He stood there as a thirty-three-year-old, dressed in rags, casting back to earlier times when he had struggled to convince bank managers to finance his forays into the timber industry. He could now fulfil his ambition, aspire to heights of wealth equal to that of Partridge & Company, Timber Merchants. He let escape from his mind all the tough times and near failures he had experienced. There could be no mistaking it this time. This was his valley, the gateway to his life’s dreams. In his reverie he thought of Selene, of how he could send for her, bring her to his side, and how they could live together happily in this tropical paradise. Every person in the Bank of New South Wales holding the position of senior clerk or above would have knowledge of Partridge & Company and, as a courtesy, could trace Selene’s whereabouts if she held an account with them. He had resisted this avenue in the past due to his utter contempt for his father but now considered making an enquiry. His blue eyes twinkled in the stardust of his dreams. He remained locked into this flight of fancy until he realised the lateness of the hour. The schooner would have berthed and his men and the ship’s crew would be supping from a keg of rum. Sure enough, upon his return to the landing he found them inebriated and full of merriment. He joined them for a drink or two and then retired to his swag to savour his discovery.

Walt, Alex and the ship’s crew presented themselves as a dreary lot the next morning. However, with the need to catch the tide the men unloaded the cargo early while James and the skipper attended to the paper work. James handed the skipper cheques for the supplies and shipping plus a sealed envelope addressed to the manager of the Bank of New South Wales, Cooktown.


Dougal’s gang was the next to send a shipment, followed soon after by the Capitalist. Thereafter, regular consignments of log cedar were exported to destinations as far away as London. Mossman River cedar became known for its close grain and intense colour and the cutters earned reputations as dependable suppliers. By the onset of the storm season hundreds of thousands of super feet of log timber had been felled and shipped. James made the following entry in his diary:

22nd December 1874: We are busy putting together the last shipment for the year. The summer rain will soon be here and we’ll not be able to work for three months. Apparently the river rages with flood waters and any logs left will be swept away. The natives have been peaceable and the young native couple working for me have been particularly helpful. The boy’s mother visits regularly and seems keen to join their camp. I plan to move my camp across the river to high ground for the wet season. Will visit the bank manager in Cooktown to sort the finances. Expect to find a healthy balance in the account.


Alex gave notice that he would not be returning the following year. He enjoyed the work and the challenge but had difficulty coping with the isolation and lack of social contact. Walt, a confirmed bachelor, agreed to stay on. James spoke with Bajal and Nganka, who wished to continue working for food and handy items, and accepted them as a replacement for Alex. When it came time for the men to leave he wrote each of them a handsome cheque. Walt would stay in Cooktown till the end of March and then return. Alex thought he might try his hand at prospecting for gold on the Palmer River goldfield. Bajal and Nganka accompanied James to the landing to take delivery of supplies that would last the three of them till the end of March.

By coincidence or otherwise, Marku and Dari arrived early on the morning that James proposed shifting camp across the river and erecting his tent beside Bajal and Nganka’s hut. They brought their clothes tucked under their arm and carried dilly bags of food. They then dressed, with Dari paying little attention to her appearance. Marku, on the other hand, took time to dress. She pulled on the trousers, carefully tucked the shirt under the waist band and then pulled the belt tight about her slim waist. Dari helped with her head band, drawing Marku’s hair back from her face and placing the band snugly across her forehead. Dari then took Marku’s hands, stood at arm’s length and admired her stepdaughter, whose dark eyes revealed a woman in love.

All joined in the shift across the river. Several loads of camp items and timber equipment were ferried across in the boat and hauled up the steep bank. By lunchtime three calico tents with heavy tarpaulins above for added protection had been erected—one for James’ sleeping quarters and two to house the provisions. They hoisted another tarpaulin to cover a dining area, set with a tea chest as a table and packing crates as chairs. That afternoon they all went fishing, using hooks, lines and sinkers from stock brought across the river. James thoroughly enjoyed himself. These carefree people accepted him as family, showing him their way of life and sharing the experience with the occasional smile and giggle.

For the evening meal the girls prepared fish, eel and turtle, while James cooked fire-baked bread called damper and served it with syrup. James filled a kerosene lamp, lit the wick and hung it above the makeshift table as a special treat. However the others, wary of the shaded light that burnt with a strange smell, sat cross-legged around the open fire. James happily joined in and for the first time felt a true nearness to these people. Later, after relishing the damper and syrup, they sat till late, talking, humming traditional tunes and sometimes just sitting in silence. When Bajal and Nganka retired to their hut, Marku and Dari settled by the fire. James lay awake on his swag in his tent till the early hours of the morning, sorting the thoughts passing through his mind. The next day Marku and Dari left it till the last moment before leaving for the Jinkalmu village. With the evening shadows beginning to fall they bid goodbye, with Marku casting James a longing look and shedding tears as she hugged Bajal and Nganka. Dari then shepherded Marku away in her arms.


The schooner Pearl Shell, under full sail, set a brisk pace as it passed Snapper Island, slicing through a slight ocean swell. A pod of dolphins came alongside and followed the ship till their interest took them elsewhere. James stood on the foredeck and contemplated the business he would have to attend to when ashore at Cooktown.

Upon arrival he hailed a coach driver who recommended a hotel close to the business centre. The receptionist, buxom and cheap, thought him a grubby bushman and booked him into a cheap room at the rear of the hotel and insisted he pay in advance. James settled into the room and then took a hot tub in the bathroom allocated to those in the lower-class rooms. He didn’t care that the tin-clad bathroom had no roof and only a hessian drape for a door. His first hot bath for nearly twelve months felt so good that he refilled the tub and soaked while musing about his time on the river.

For the evening meal and breakfast he sat at the worker’s table at the rear of the hotel. With plenty of barber shops in the main street of this frontier town he soon found himself shorn of his sprawling hair and his beard removed. Further down the street the owner of a workman’s clothing shop greeted him with a big smile as he entered, looking tattered and torn. Within an hour the owner had outfitted him with new shirts, trousers, boots and bathroom needs. James scouted about the town, lunched in the shade of a tree by the harbour, and then set out to buy a suit to wear when visiting the bank manager.

Sedgwick & Co, stockists of gentleman’s wear, lured him inside with their display of mannequins dressed with the latest European fashions. The attendant thought him a man of empty pockets but gave of his time. To his surprise James took the lead, sorting through the garments and asking discerning questions. The attendant agreed with James’ choice of a fawn corduroy suit, white cotton shirts, blue cravat and black shoes. He was even more surprised when James paid him with musty £10 notes. At the sight of the money he suggested James might like a hat to accompany his apparel. James declined. He had not worn a hat since leaving King’s College.

Upon returning to the hotel James entered by the rear tradesman gate rather than the main hallway. He sat on his bed and chewed soft pumice stone to clean his teeth. At mealtime he styled his hair with a comb and donned his best wear. The waiter in the first-class dining room received him as one of the gentry, pulling his chair back and placing a napkin on his lap. He chose an expensive wine from the list, ate heartily and paid the waiter, placing an extra shilling in his hand. The female staff serving breakfast the next morning were drawn by his cultured appearance. They whispered in the kitchen, wondering if he travelled alone and was in need of company. He bought a copy of the Cooktown Herald and read about strife on the goldfield and the mounted police using gunfire to disperse Aborigines in the region.

After wandering the ant-bed pavements for a couple of hours, James entered the Bank of New South Wales. The middle-aged bank clerk brought the appointments book to the counter, but when James gave his name as James Partridge he excused himself and soon returned, saying that the manager would see him now. The manager, having met James before, greeted him with gusto.

‘Pleased to see you, James. How was the trip?’

‘Fine. Fair skies and a sober skipper always makes a difference.’

The manager waved him over to the ledger desk where a large, leather-bound ledger lay open at James’ page. They traced through the transactions since his last visit, checking if the amounts deposited by wholesale merchants in Sydney agreed with James’ estimates.

‘They’ve left me short on every transaction,’ said James, taking his diary from his satchel. ‘Look at this. In every instance they’ve underpaid me by about ten percent.’

‘How is that?’ queried the manager.

James explained that the amount payable was calculated by taking the length of a log and the average diameter and applying a standard formula.

‘Then how?’ asked the manager.

Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-28 show above.)