A Ring For Angelina by Lindsay Johannsen

If you should ever happened to find yourself driving around the bush north-east of Alice Springs on the eastern end of the old Harts Range mica fields, you may very well come on evidence of an old overgrown and washed out track that once went through there. This is all 
A Ring For Angelina
A Ring For Angelina by Lindsay Johannsen

that remains of what in earlier days was the original track through to Queensland – or the section at least from Harding Springs in the eastern Harts Ranges themselves to Red Tank soak on the Plenty River (now the Huckitta Station homestead site).

On a whim you might attempt to follow what is left of this old track – toward the ranges, say, in a general south-westerly direction. Should you do so, and should you miss where it went through the scrub into the ranges, then you might just be fortunate enough to come across the remains of an old mica mine – abandoned in the early 1950's when the mica price crashed. It's on the last two hundred metres of flat country before the ranges, adjacent to a sizeable notch in the first line of big hills.

The first thing you’ll notice there is the fallen-in pit and the fresh-looking rocks of the spoil heaps and, off to one side of them, a neatly built corrugated-iron hut, still standing and complete.

It’s a miner’s hut typical of those earlier days, so it might strike you as odd that it’s still standing, certainly given the appetite of the local termite species. An inspection soon gives the answer to this apparent anomaly, however: instead of bush-timber, the hut's posts and rails are light steel tramline, the type used for running skip-trucks in small mining operations.

Should you choose to stay – overnight perhaps or just to look a little further afield – you might come across the grave. It’s just a marker and some white rocks, though passing cattle seem to like milling around there and kicking the rocks out of place.

The marker once had writing engraved on it but you can’t read it now. I know because I saw the grave when it was fresh. Sometimes, when I can manage it, I go back there – to straighten the rocks and make it tidy again.

And the memory of this place will remain with you somehow, long after you return home. It’s because of the grave, I suppose, it being in such a lonely place. Yet even those who miss seeing the grave will remember the iron hut, because everyone remembers the iron hut.

This is the story of Angelina Spinelli and Johnny Doss, of some others who lived there and a very special Christmas.

I first met Johnny Doss in 1949, when I was a skinny kid about eight years old. We were travelling around the bush at the time, Mum and Dad, and me – in our big green Oldsmobile. Dad was doing some prospecting and would call in to places here and there to visit old friends. It was just an ordinary sedan car, but he used it like a four-wheel drive and went wherever he wanted, more or less, track or no track.

We'd camp in the bush during these trips – on a clay pan or in a dry sandy creek bed. Mum and Dad had a big double swag but I slept on the back seat of the car. It was so wide I could lie without my head or feet touching the doors.

We’d driven a long way that day and arrived at the iron hut just before sundown. Dad knew the man who came out to greet us. His name was Gino Spinelli.

Gino owned the mica mine there – I can’t remember what it was called. Anyhow, we were invited to join them for dinner and to stay the night. My Dad was always interested in looking at the different mines about the place, so that’s what we did. And that’s how I came to meet Johnny Doss.

Johnny would’ve been somewhere around twenty-three, I suppose. And he’d only been working there a few weeks. Another man worked there too – an Italian bloke about the same age. Alfredo, his name was.

Johnny and he did the mining; Gino and Mama sorted and cut the mica.

The workers’ accommodation was a bush shelter. It had a few sheets of iron for a roof and walls of acacia brush. A sooty old hurricane lamp hung from the rail spanning the centre. It had a spare camp-bed and I was invited to sleep there instead of in the car.

After dinner Mum and Dad got talking to our hosts so I went off with the workers to their donga. Alfredo only had a little English and it was easy to see that Johnny was desperate for a conversation – glad even to talk to a brainless ratbag like me.

He showed me puzzles he’d made out of nails and number-eight wire, like the two bent pieces which somehow fell apart in his hands as I watched. Then he put them back together and handed the puzzle to me. Any fool could have seen that it was physically impossible for the two to come apart – yet somehow they did.

He showed me card tricks, too. And it didn’t matter which card I secretly selected, because Johnny would either produce the card or tell me what it was – and sometimes both. When I tried to fox him by changing my mind half way through he immediately knew, and at the end produced both cards. From his shirt pocket!

Now as it happened, Gino and Mama had three daughters. Mama refused to be separated from her husband so the girls had to stay in Alice Springs with Mama’s sister and her husband. The two youngest went to high school there, while the eldest, Angelina, worked as a waitress in her uncle’s cafe. Alina everyone called her.

Alina was a big girl, sturdily built and neither shy nor retiring. It was widely known, too, that she would accept no rowdy behavior in her uncle’s cafe. She was the right sort of person to have around whenever a truck was being loaded or if one of its tyres had to be changed. She’d have been an asset at her father’s mica mine as well (or at any mine for that matter), but Gino wouldn’t hear of it. He had no intentions of having Angelina weather the rigours of life at their isolated bush camp.

Gino and Mama were happy to have their daughters visit whenever they could, though, and, as it happened, Angelina’s uncle was to deliver a truck load of supplies to the mine just a week after we were there. And with him on that occasion came the fair Alina.

For both Johnny Doss and Angelina Spinelli this proved a fateful event, for within forty-eight hours of Alina’s arrival there the two were in love – hopelessly, gloriously and overwhelmingly in love.

Yet not a word had passed between them that wasn’t witnessed by at least one of her parents, and even these were just common courtesies. Yet so intense were their feelings that the tension in the air between them was like a thundercloud the moment before releasing a lightning bolt.

Two days later Gino Spinelli’s bags of cut mica were loaded onto the truck for the trip back to town. Alina went too, smiling happily and waving cheerio via her own self-imposed mental straight-jacket. She hadn’t the faintest idea what was to happen, but knew instinctively that the slightest show of emotion could have disastrous consequences.

Mama and Gino had noticed nothing. Alfredo was suspicious but Johnny denied any thoughts of Angelina. Then his appetite began to wane and he soon became desperate for sleep – sleep that would not come. Within a few days Johnny had lost his energy, and his ability to do the heavy mining work fell away.

Alfredo was watching as this happened ... and became even more suspicious. One afternoon, while he barrowed a load of dirt from the workface to the shaft for hauling out, Johnny sat on the water-tin for a breather and went to sleep. Without a word Alfredo continued, doing the work of both.

Then Johnny fell over and awoke. He was so embarrassed about not pulling his weight that he confessed.

Now Alfredo was a friendly enough sort of fellow, though he tended to keep his thoughts to himself. His apparent lack of English was mostly to do with him being a man of few words. On this occasion, however, because it was work-time, he gave Johnny a friendly pat on the shoulder and told him not to worry, they'd talk about it later.

The confessing helped Johnny’s appetite at least, for that evening, much to Mama's delight, he wolfed down his usual monster dinner. And later that night, in the seclusion of their accommodation, Alfredo had a great deal to say on the subject of Angelina Spinelli and Johnny Doss.

Angelina was in a similar predicament. For a couple of weeks after returning from the iron hut she was barely able to put two rational thoughts together. Then a means of returning there presented itself. Her uncle’s neighbours in Alice Springs were mica miners as well. They intended returning to the mica field after being in town a short time replenishing supplies.

Gino and Mama were surprised to see their daughter again so soon. Angelina explained that she’d returned because she wanted to stay at the mine with them. She told her parents how much she missed them and how much she wanted to help Mama instead of working in Alice Springs.

Mama liked the idea. Gino was uncomfortable about it at first but was touched by his daughter’s devotion. In the end he agreed.

After this turn of events Alfredo’s advice to Johnny was stark. Either go away now, he said, or go very, very carefully. One word out of place, an unguarded touch or glance even, might see Gino offended and Johnny banished. Or worse.

For Johnny the strain was too much. Within forty-eight hours he’d gone to Gino and resigned.

Gino was extremely disappointed. What could be the problem? Was he not a good honest boss? Did he not pay a fair wage? Perhaps Johnny was tired of all the Italian food, he thought. But Mama’s cooking was so good. And Johnny Doss could neither explain his predicament nor lie, so he said nothing.

And Gino never saw the pain in his eyes.

Feeling responsible for the separation and believing it wrong to impose on Gino, Johnny resolved to look after himself. The weather was too hot to walk by day so he resolved to go by night, reckoning that a couple nights on the march would see him at the Harts Range Police Station. From there he could get a ride into Alice Springs. Somehow, though, his thoughts would take him no further than Harts Range.

Gino would not hear of it and insisted on driving Johnny there the next morning, but while they were discussing the issue there came a sudden shout from the bush nearby and an elderly aboriginal man came hobbling up as quickly as he could. It was Juggler Panungka, the fire minder from the Wildcat Mine – the closest operation to the iron hut.

Juggler’s broken English came tumbling out thick and fast, and Johnny was the only one who could make anything of it. Apparently there had been some sort of accident in the mine. All thoughts about resignations were forgotten as the men ran to Gino’s truck. With a roar and a cloud of dust they bounded off along the rough track – old Juggler only just making it onto the back in time.

The iron hut lay on flat country, but the Wildcat Mine was situated in the ranges. The operation there was different to that at Gino’s mine, too. There a drive had been developed in a pegmatite vein in the side of a steep hill.

A rockfall had occurred near the workface. The owner, Sergio Domenici, had taken a glancing blow to the head and his assistant had a badly injured foot. They were lucky it wasn’t more serious. Only fifty kilograms or so had come down but it was enough to kill a man. And neither had been wearing a helmet.

Gino quickly decided that Johnny Doss should stay with Sergio while he and Alfredo took the injured miner to the Police Station. Sergio insisted he was all right, but, as Gino pointed out, he might easily be concussed and later need assistance. And so, as a result of these events, Johnny Doss found himself working for Sergio Domenici.

For Johnny this proved very convenient. Gino might have been offended if, after leaving, he looked for employment nearby. It also left Johnny in a position to follow Alfredo’s advice. He could drop in at the iron hut occasionally – for a short visit, perhaps, or to help out a little and stay for a meal. Whatever the case, Alfredo was always close by to temper Johnny's passion.

About four months passed. Then one Sunday afternoon at the iron hut, Johnny told Alfredo of his inner turmoil and explained that without Angelina he couldn't see a way forward. There was nothing for it, he said. He would front-up to Gino and ask his permission to propose.

Alfredo was not surprised. He was sympathetic to Johnny’s situation and had been half expecting this for some time. He also realised that, sooner or later, this was something Johnny would have to face.

So the following Sunday, before the sun came up – and leaving Sergio to the wood and water – Johnny Doss put on his best clothes and his bravest face and set off walking to the iron hut. And there, a couple of hours later, in the lean-to at the back of the hut where Gino Spinelli was cutting mica, Johnny sought permission to ask Angelina if she might consider a proposal of marriage.

Now Angelina was Gino’s most precious jewel and the favourite of his daughters. But he knew as surely as the sun’s rising that one day some knight in shining armour would come and carry her away. He was also aware that this alleged "knight" would be disguised as either an oaf or an idiot, or be some hot-blooded colt playing the acceptable suitor. Yet Gino knew this was the way of things and he was ready to deal with the situation when the time came, whatever it might be.

Mama by this time knew well the way of her daughter’s heart. Mama also knew her husband and so said nothing about the matter. Gino was suspicious, but when he confronted her, Mama crossed herself, clutched her bosom and pretended to nearly faint. He didn’t trouble her further.

It was not that Gino didn’t appreciate Johnny Doss. From all appearances Johnny was a decent, hard working, well-intentioned and clean living young man. He was no Michelangelo’s "David" in the physical sense, but he was not an unsightly figure. Rough-featured perhaps, solid even – in an awkward sort of way. But not unsightly.

Gino’s problem was that, as a person, Johnny was largely unknown to him. Where were the attributes that might show he could provide Angelina with a secure future? In particular, the sort of future Gino wanted for her.

Gino tried to explain some of these latter sentiments to Johnny in his carefully considered reply, realising as he did that Alina would scarcely refuse him. Because of this he chose his words carefully, knowing that he could lose control of the situation if he appeared in any way opposed to the union. After all, hadn’t he and his own precious bride had to stand against her father when they’d wanted to marry?

So what he said to Johnny Doss was this: He couldn’t, for the present at least, give his approval. Johnny must show himself to be someone worthy of Alina’s hand before he could allow him to propose.

Inside the iron hut, on the other side of the thin iron sheeting, the two women listened intently – breaths held, eyes locked.

They heard Gino suggest to Johnny that first he go out and make something of himself. He should only return when he had in his possession a ring for Angelina that was appropriate to the occasion. Its diamond should be in keeping with his angel’s beauty and stature, he added, with a band generous enough for her dainty finger.

Johnny was devastated. This was not what he’d expected. Then Gino instructed Alfredo to escort Johnny from the lease. Instead Alfredo took the time to walk back with him to the Wildcat Mine, and, as they walked, Alfredo tried to explain how things were nowhere near as bad as Johnny imagined.

“Look on the bright side,” Alfredo told him. “At least Gino didn’t shoot you. In fact you haven’t even been banished.” In Alfredo’s opinion Gino actually approved of Johnny. “You’re being put to the test,” Alfredo explained, “ to see if you prove sound enough.”

All Johnny had to do, he said, was save up and buy a ring big enough to impress Gino. And Gino was no expert. Almost any ring would do, as long as it had a nice little diamond. Then Johnny could go back and propose to his beloved Alina.

By the time they reached the Wildcat mine Johnny had stiffened his resolve. He would work until his back broke, he decided – something Alfredo advised against doing in the literal sense – and he would save every penny he earned. In time he would return to the iron hut for Angelina. And it would be as a man of means, bearing a diamond ring of such size and beauty that Gino would be dumbfounded.

Yet these were not the easiest of times. Mining was tough work and the pay was meager. If times were hard, then saving was harder. Johnny knew he was lucky just to have a job. Then one day Johnny thought it might help if he worked on Sundays as well.

But Sergio wouldn’t let him. What was he, Sergio asked – some kind of heathen? Sunday was a day of rest. This was the day for the washing. This was the day to mend the flat tyre on the truck and go out for a load of wood and water. It wasn’t a day for work. Mama mia!

So of a Sunday Johnny Doss would wash his clothes and help get some wood and a load of water. And if the truck had a flat he would help mend that, too. But every Sunday, after washing his clothes and helping get water and wood, he would wander off to explore the gorges and gullies in the rugged geology near the main range. He didn’t realise this brought him nearer to Angelina and the iron hut.

Nor was this surprising, as the track to the iron hut went in a totally different direction, via a roundabout route. From the Wildcat Mine it first headed west, and after three kilometres or so joined onto the old Queensland Road. This then skirted some biggish hills and descended into a narrow gully, after which it climbed a steep gradient to a break in the main range. Out on the plains it went north-east to Queensland, while the iron hut's access track branched to the south-east.

Johnny’s lonely wanderings were quite aimless. One Sunday his aimless wandering took him to a very particular, average-looking hill near the edge of the ranges. There Johnny started climbing, without any real purpose in mind and, at the summit, made a surprising discovery. A break existed in the bigger range nearby, a notch through which he could see the iron hut. It was no more than five or six hundred metres away. And even as he stood there he thought he saw Angelina and his poor heart nearly burst.

He remained there until sundown, sitting on the hill's topmost rock, watching intently, hoping to catch sight of Angelina again. At that distance the figures were tiny, but he could make out who was who. Mama came and went a couple of times and he caught sight of the men, but not Angelina. Reluctantly, with the light failing, he set off down the hill and began making his way home.

Each Sunday after that, after washing his clothes, helping with the wood and water and having a quick lunch, Johnny would walk the three kilometres to his hill. Sometimes it was only after helping Sergio with the flat tyre, too, because the tyres were thin and the rocks were sharp. And if he saw Angelina he would take off his shirt and wave it.

One day Johnny had an idea. He tied his shirt to a stick, like a flag, and every time Angelina appeared he'd wave it from side to side over his head.

Late in the afternoon Angelina appeared to wave back. At first Johnny couldn’t believe it, and when she went back toward the hut and disappeared from view he knew he was mistaken. But she had noticed and she'd realised who it was. She'd been looking in that direction, watching an eagle circling in a thermal, and the movement had caught her eye.

A few moments later Angelina came into view again and began waving a large cloth.

Johnny was overwhelmed with joy. He jumped about on his boulder waving and shouting like a man possessed. He knew Angelina couldn’t hear him, but the nature of her response was as clear to him as if she had whispered her acceptance in his ear.

She then returned to the hut, and a few moments later came out again. Following this she began to fuss about in front of the iron hut – raking or sweeping, Johnny couldn't make out which. Whatever the case, every so often she would stop as if taking a breather and stare in his direction.

Every Sunday after that, around mid afternoon, Angelina would take out Mama's tablecloth or have something on the clothesline which she would give a good shake. She would also spend time raking and tidying the area in front of the iron hut – where they often sat out in the twilight at the end of the day.

Meanwhile, back at the Wildcat Mine, Sergio Domenici was beginning to wonder about Johnny Doss' regular Sunday wanderings. One day, wood and water replenished, camp duties attended to and with little to occupy his mind other than stare at the camp fire and reflect on life, Sergio decided to follow him – out of simple curiosity, really, just to discover where it was Johnny kept going. He made sure he was not observed, however, and he took great care to leave no tracks that Johnny might later find.

What Sergio saw that day puzzled him greatly, but, being wise in the ways of life, he kept his thoughts very much to himself.

So all through winter and right up to the last week of November, this was the state of affairs. Every Sunday afternoon Johnny would walk to his lookout and wave to Angelina. And every Sunday Angelina would wait to see him and have something handy to "give a good shake".

Now, in the normal course of their mining, Sergio and Johnny would drill blast holes in the softer rock next to the mica-bearing pegmatite, then set their explosives and fire it out. By this means they could expose the reef itself, allowing them to fracture the host seam with smaller ‘gentler’ charges. They could then extract the mica without damaging it too much, a factor critical to its value.

Late in November they came on a section of the pegmatite containing some exceptionally large books of mica. It was clear, clean muscovite and the best looking mica either of them had seen.

There was a problem, however. At an earlier stage of the mine’s development Sergio had encountered a change in the geology, where the hard gneiss of the hanging wall had given way to a slick looking schist of some sort. Unbeknown to Sergio, the pegmatite beyond that point comprised the underlying side of a major shear-zone. It was some of this weaker rock that had fallen in the previous accident.

For the next three weeks mica mining at the Wildcat Mine was like money for gum leaves, and during this time Sergio and Johnny extracted a greater amount of better-quality mica than had been produced over the whole of the previous year. But, as the workings advanced, the rock adjacent to the mica-bearing formation became softer. Fracturing the pegmatite and recovering the big books became easier as well. The only other problem – if indeed it was a problem – was that they had fallen well behind with the cutting and sorting.

Then, a week before Christmas, the pair once again drilled the soft rock adjacent to the mica bearing reef and lit the fuses as they knocked off for the day. The following morning Johnny went up to the mine early, while Sergio and Juggler finished off the camp duties. When Sergio arrived up at the workings he lit his carbide lamp and walked into the portal. There he met Johnny coming out. Johnny was carrying a large windowpane-like segment of mica which he handed to Sergio. It was part of a huge book that had been exposed by the blasting.

Sergio looked it over with approval, then put it to one side and went to continue in to the work face. Johnny stopped him. It didn’t look good, he said. Water was issuing from the new section where they’d fired-out the schist. A couple of rocks had even come down while he was in there.

Sergio said it was nothing. They’d hit pockets of water before. It was all right to go in.

Johnny said that he really didn’t like the idea, arguing that it might be worthwhile to leave everything settle for another hour or so before starting work – in case there was more movement. Sergio maintained that it’d had all night to settle and if Johnny didn’t get out of the way and let him past then he’d knock him out of the way.

Johnny said it would take a number of men better than Sergio to make him move aside and as far as he was concerned no one would be going into the mine for at least an hour.

The two glared at each other in silence for a moment. Suddenly Sergio lunged with a powerful right hook. Johnny shifted balance and deflected the blow. Sergio tried to bulldoze through. Johnny’s ham-like fist slammed into the side of Sergio’s head as he went by. Sergio stumbled against the wall then quick as a cat he spun around and grabbed Johnny in a bear hug. Johnny had the same idea. Down they went, kicking and wrestling on the ground between the tracks of the skip truck.

Inside the mine things were becoming critical. The last firing had left more rock suspended in the roof-arch than there was strength to sustain. Despite the generous number of supporting pillars left in developing the stope, it chose that exact moment to crumble.

Half the mountain seemed to fall in with it.

The compression created in its coming down shot Johnny and Sergio from the mouth of the mine like rag dolls from a cannon and hurled them, helpless, out over the edge of the mullock heap.

Down the rocky waste slope the pair tumbled, their descent overtaken by the skip truck. That had a slightly different trajectory and missed them both by centimetres as it plummeted by.

Sergio was the least dazed of the two. He lay amongst the rocks at the bottom of the waste slope, every part of him in pain. After a while he struggled to his feet. A couple of metres away Johnny was trying to sit up. Both were covered in cuts and gashes, their faces bloody, their clothes in tatters. Sergio helped Johnny to his feet then took him in a powerful embrace.

Johnny was amazed. He thought Sergio wanted to continue the fight.

But Sergio wasn’t fighting. He’d realised what had happened, even as he flew over the end of the mullock heap. But for Johnny Doss he would now lie entombed under a mountain of broken rock.

“Johnny!” (Kiss) “Johnny!” (Kiss) “I love you like my brother!” he shouted. “You have saved my life!” (Kiss) “An angel of the Lord, you are!” (Kiss kiss) “Sent to protect me from my own stupidity.” ...and so on, along with a great deal more flowery, over-emotional sentiment. And all Johnny could do was try and get himself to arms length.

They never went back into the Wildcat Mine. Instead they moved their camp to a site about seven kilometres south of there, near a fresh mica deposit that Sergio had come across some time before.

The new prospect was near the top of a steep ridge and Sergio decided they should call it Christmas Tree Mine. This was not exactly going out on a limb: only two days remained before Christmas, the ridge abounded with native pines and it was already known as Christmas Tree Ridge.

It was a good prospect, however, for it carried many large books of outcropping mica. Others had known of the occurrence but no one had taken it up because the ridge was steep and lacked any access. Even climbing to the site was difficult. When Johnny Doss was shown the deposit's difficult circumstances he had a clever idea.

Close by the mica occurrence lay a second, lower ridge, with a steep gully separating the two. Making a track to the summit of the second hill would not be difficult, he realized, and from there they could suspend a cable and flying-fox across the intervening gap.

As a result of this and previous events Sergio invited Johnny Doss to be his partner. Johnny certainly appreciated the gesture, but the general hopelessness of his situation in respect of the fair Angelina and the realisation that his lookout hill was now more than ten kilometres away had him feeling increasingly despondent.

That night, after a bottle or two of fairly sturdy vino, Johnny could hold his tongue no more. Suddenly he found himself pouring out his troubles to Sergio.

Sergio listened in silence to Johnny's tale of heartache and longing and, when Johnny stood up and walked off into the dark, he felt unable to offer any comment. By the time Johnny returned, however – pain all cried-out and ready to crawl into the sanctuary of his swag – Sergio had much to say. “Come and sit over here, Johnny,” he said quietly. “I want to tell you one or two things about Sergio Domenici.

Johnny settled himself on his four-gallon tin and for a while they both stared at the fire in silence.

“Nineteen thirty-four we came out from Italy,” Sergio began eventually, “Mum and Dad and six of us kids - three boys and three girls. I was the oldest. I was nineteen. Melbourne we went to.

“I tried my hand at a few different jobs, doing this and doing that. Course in those days you took any work you could get. But I didn’t like the city, Johnny, and I started looking for jobs out in the country. Coupla years later I'm workin' for an old feller called Jackson on a farm near Bendigo – goin' good too; it was a good job.

“One day about six months later I’m out ploughing on his old tractor. She’s got a crook radiator, see – the old tractor. Leakin’ leakin’ leakin’. Every now and then I have to stop and fill it up from a four-gallon tin.

“This day I slips and spills some water down the front. When I look down I see this lump of gold – with the dirt washed off from the water I spilled. It’s a good sized piece, too. Next morning I says to Mister Jackson, ‘Hey boss. What if a man finds some gold while he’s ploughing out there in the paddock?’

‘“No gold on this farm,’ says Jackson. ‘You can keep everything you find.’

“Next time I’m in town I takes my gold to the bank. They give me cash for it – more cash than I ever seen before. But I already know what I’m going to do.

“I go to the jewelers, see, to buy a ring. Jackson’s daughter Mary and me... Well, we’ve been talking. We want to get married. But she says we have to do it all properly. She wants to get engaged first, with a ring and everything.

“So now I’ve got a ring, and I go up to the house to see Mister Jackson. Well, he just goes crazy! He rushes inside to the kitchen and after a couple of seconds Mary’s mother gives this terrible scream. He’s shouting and Mary’s mother is screeching and Mary is crying – it’s a terrible racket.

“Then Jackson stops shouting and comes back out. ‘Hey! Where did you get the money for a ring like that?’ he demands. ‘From a lump of gold I found in the paddock,’ I says.

“‘Why, you dirty thievin’ mongrel dago rat!’ he yells. ‘I’ll give you ten minutes to pack your things and clear out before I put a bullet in your stinkin’ hide.’

“Then he goes back to the kitchen. His wife is still there but Mary has gone. When I get to the quarters she’s waiting outside. Before she can say anything old Jackson turns up. He’s got his rifle and he’s just insane with rage.

‘“Get back to the house!’ he yells. Mary is so frightened she’s nearly fainting, but she looks at him and says real quiet, ‘I’m going with Sergio, Dad.’

Jackson works the bolt and points the gun at me. ‘If you don’t get back in the house Sergio won’t be going anywhere.’ he says.

“Mary starts crying again and runs away. Jackson keeps the rifle pointed at me and says – real cold like, ‘You got another five minutes.’ Then he goes.

“I stuff my clothes in my bag and clear out down the track. ‘I’ll be coming back, Mister Jackson,’ I keep saying to myself as I walk along. ‘And I’ll be coming back for Mary.’

“In Bendigo I go around to a friend’s place. He says I should keep going because old Jackson might tell the police I stole the gold. But I don’t reckon it is the gold. I think he’s just using the gold as an excuse, see – to go crazy about some eye-tie wanting to marry his daughter. But I keep going anyway, back to Mum and Dad’s place in Melbourne.

“Well, they got sick of me pretty quick. I was like a wild bull with a sore head and no breakfast. I just locked myself in my bedroom and wouldn’t talk to anyone. A couple of days later Dad hears something on the wireless about a girl on a farm near Bendigo.

“She has a big row with her father and runs away. Next day they find her drowned in the dam.

“Now my Dad was always pretty good at working things out, see, and he comes straight up to my room. ‘Pack your stuff,’ he says. ‘You’re going away.’ He knows that if I heard about it I’d go straight back to Jackson's farm and kill him.

“That night we’re on the train to Adelaide. He won’t let me out of the compartment and he won't tell me anything. A cousin of Dad’s meets us at the station and takes us to an empty house. The people are away somewhere. I’m not allowed out. One of them is with me all the time.

“Two days later Dad and I are on the train to Alice Springs. Two days after that I’m at a mica mine in the Harts Ranges – working for Gino Spinelli. Dad says I’ve got to stay there until I hear from him. It’s a matter of family honour, he says. He won’t tell me any more than that.

“But my Dad never lied to me, see. It was family honour. He knew that if I found out what had happened I’d have gone back and killed that dirty mongrel like a mangy dog.

“At first I was impossible to get along with but eventually I woke up to myself and started thinking straight. I was wrong about the first part but I didn’t know that at the time. So what could this “family honour” business be? I was sure it was nothing to do with me and Mary Jackson because he knew nothing about it. I mean, how could he?

The second thing I worked out was that being here in the bush working at Gino Spinelli’s mica mine was just about the best job in the world. Course I was still planning to go back and have a few words with Jackson – like just before Mary and me cleared out together. I just had to wait until I heard from Dad, see. And I knew Mary would be waiting, no matter how long it all took.

“About fifteen months later Dad rolls up with Gino’s brother in the old Chev’ truck. It’s a bit of a surprise but it’s good to see him again. Course I reckon he must be going to tell me how this “family honour” stuff has all been settled. I’ve saved up a fair bit of money by then, too, so straight away I decide to go back to Victoria with him – you know, to get Mary.

“After dinner that night he and I sit outside and he explains about all the things that have happened. First he tells me how two weeks back old Jackson’s tractor rolled on him and killed him. I was pretty shocked, but not as shocked as I was when he told me about poor Mary. I just wanted to crawl down a rabbit hole and die. Actually, I came pretty close. I ran off into the dark cryin’ like a baby and kept going till I dropped. I don’t know how far it was; it must have been miles.

“Two days it look them to find me – the copper from the Harts Range Police Station and his tracker. It was the middle of January, too. I wouldn’t have lasted much longer but that's what I wanted; I just wanted to die.

“They took me back to the iron hut and Mama and Gino looked after me. I don’t know why, though. I was no good to anyone for months.

“And this is where I stayed. Nothing worked out for me and Mary, Johnny, but I have to admit I’m pretty content – you know, all things considered. See, in the end, mate, you can only come to terms with life. There’s nothing you can do about it. But I never want to see a farmhouse and tractor again, Johnny. Not for as long as I live.”

He fell silent for a time, then stood up and put a couple more sticks on the fire. “I reckon I'll have another mug of tea before I go to bed,” he added quietly. He filled a billy with water from the drum and set it on the coals, then went to his stretcher, took a tin of tobacco from his bag and put it in his pocket.

“And I thought I had troubles,” Johnny muttered when he came back. “It’s been a bed of roses compared to what you’ve been through.”

“I’ll tell you something else,” Sergio said as he sat down. “Gino Spinelli is a man of his word. Whatever he says is the way things go, even if he doesn’t like it.”

Then suddenly he changed the subject. “Hey, Johnny. What’ll we do for Christmas?”

“Christmas?” said Johnny. I hadn’t even thought about Christmas. All I’ve been thinking about is my woes. Well – that, and how I can ever save enough money to meet Gino’s terms.”

“But Johnny, what about Alina? You’ll have to give her something for Christmas.”

“Hell, Sergio. You’re right. And what a bloody fool I am. Now it’s too late to do anything but try and find her a few wildflowers.”

“And coming from you I’m sure she’ll be enchanted. But, Johnny. Why not give her this.” He reached into his pocket and passed over the tobacco tin.

“Tobacco?!!” said Johnny, suddenly angry. “She doesn’t bloody smoke, Sergio. “And it’s not even bloody FULL!”

He turned the lid and opened it as if to confirm Sergio’s insanity. And lying there in a bed of cotton wool was the ring that Sergio had bought for Mary Jackson those twelve long years before.

“And don’t say you can’t accept it Johnny Doss. I owe you for my life, remember, and I’m not taking it back.

“You should know, too, Johnny; no one except my mate in Bendigo knows about that ring – not even Gino and Mama. I was keeping it for Mary, see; afterward I kept it for her memory. I know she’d want you to have it, Johnny, and I don’t think I’ll ever need it again.

“But look, mate. There's only one thing they're good for, so give it a go; see if it works. Hey! And if I ever do need it again I'll just borrow it back!”

So on Christmas day Sergio Domenici and Johnny Doss put on their very best clothes and drove to the iron hut to join the celebrations. And there, after dinner, in front of the Spinellis and all their guests, Johnny knelt before his beloved Angelina and offered his proposal. Angelina, speechless – breathless – could only nod her acceptance.

Her father sat there, paralysed, stunned into momentary silence as the unexpected scene unfolded, his chest tightening and his face reddening with rage. Sergio grabbed Gino’s arm before he exploded. “Wait!” he hissed urgently. Then Johnny produced the ring. It fitted Angelina’s finger perfectly. Mary Jackson had been a sturdy girl too, after all.

Gino was just dumbfounded. The ring he’d set as a precondition for Johnny’s proposal had been met, and handsomely so. But had the thing simply fallen from the heavens? If not, then how could Johnny have acquired it? At that moment (and, to a lesser degree for the rest of his life) Gino would almost have sold his soul to have known, yet he could never bring himself to ask.

So Johnny and Angelina became blissfully and ecstatically engaged. And what a celebration there was. The Spinelli’s friends and family had come from all over the mica fields to join them for Christmas, some from as far as Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.

Because of numbers the Christmas festivities were held outside in the cool evening air, on Angelina's beautifully raked and maintained area of hard-packed sand in front of the iron hut. Gino played his piano-accordion while Johnny and Alina danced, then Johnny danced with Mama and Alina danced with Sergio. Later, laughing uproariously, Sergio and Johnny danced with each other.

Four months later Johnny and Angelina were married in a beautiful wedding ceremony in Alice Springs, following which they were blessed with a long and happy life together. After the mica-mining era Johnny went bore sinking and windmill contracting, or took employment on cattle stations. And, apart from just one short period, they never did return to living in town.

They raised five of the wildest hairem-scarem bush kids you ever would have the misfortune to meet – all boys – and educated them via School Of The Air (if ‘educate’ is the right word here). In time they scattered like waxbills on a windy day.

On retiring from work Johnny and Angelina did move back into Alice Springs for a while, but they were so used to bush living that it simply didn’t suit them. After a time they loaded up what little they owned and moved back out to the iron hut. It was still there. It’s there even now.

By this time everything had changed and the iron hut was now a long way from anywhere. Most of the old mining tracks had disappeared and new station tracks in the area went elsewhere. The old Queensland Road through the hills was no longer used, abandoned for one which stayed on the flat country north of the ranges. A few rock-hounds were starting to fossick in the Harts Ranges for gem stones as well, but they mostly stayed at the western end or in The Inkamulla Valley. No one ventured near the iron hut.

People who wanted to visit Johnny and Alina during this time had to know exactly where to go, which of the old tracks to use and which of the teatree lined creeks to drive along. From time to time there'd be fresh tyre marks to follow as Johnny and Alina would load their empty drums and drive the old Chev truck to Inkamulla Bore for water. Sometimes they'd leave their empties at the bore and go on to the Police Station to collect mail and supplies; more rarely they would continue on to Alice Springs.

And there they lived for many years. Then one day it was noticed that their occasional visit to the Police Station had not taken place for some time. This was of no concern at first, because Johnny and Alina lived their lives very much at their own pace, in their own company.

Then one day acting Senior Constable Chantal Parsons decided she should go and see how they were faring – Chantal being the Harts Range Region Police Officer at the time. A few days prior to this I was in a store in Alice Springs and discovered that Johnny and Alina had sent in a supplies order with someone. It was packed, ready to go.

As it happened I was at a loose end more or less over the Christmas break, with a couple of invites to come around for a beer and Christmas Dinner in Alice Springs and another in Darwin. But I hadn't decided on what to do and when this cropped up I realised it would be a good way to spend the time – get out of town, see a couple old mates, deliver their goods, stay for a few days relaxing and having a good yarn. And so, before setting off, I purchased some extra Christmas goodies for them as well – some fresh bread, a leg of ham, a couple cartons of beer and some perfume and toiletries for Angelina. Next morning I called in to the Police Station to say g'day.

Chantal was busy when I arrived. She was of the same mind, apparently, and invited me in for a quick mug of tea while her Aboriginal Police Aid, Peter Carmody, finished readying the four-wheel-drive police wagon.

Once into the ranges it was a slow drive. Storms had washed away all evidence of the track in places and there was no sign of subsequent vehicle movement, but both Chantal and Carmody knew the way. I just followed in my old ute, having a scrape and a bump here and there but getting along okay.

The iron hut appeared deserted, as if no one had been about for a month or so. Chantal set Carmody looking for tracks then she and I began checking the place over.

The old Chev was standing there, tyres all pumped up. The battery was okay and the engine started readily enough. This seemed a bit odd, so Chantal went across to the hut. Inside was all neat and tidy, she said on returning. The table was clear, the dishes all put away, the bed neatly made.

We then separated to investigate further – me going down past the workings while she checked around the hut generally. And it was there, under a big old ghost gum, that I found the answer. The lettering on the marker was still fresh then, of course, and easily read.

“Dearest Angelina, ” it said – in a declaration of love, “You are the air I breathe and the water of my life. May you rest forever in peace. Your loving husband, Johnny Doss.” Only it wasn’t a headstone, it was a rusty sheet of flat tank-iron – painstakingly engraved with a small chisel.

Chantal wanted to get the tracker and mount a search for Johnny. “Don’t worry about searching,” I said quietly. “I know where Johnny will be. Tell Peter to wait here while you and I go for a walk.”

And that’s where she and I buried him. We couldn’t dig a grave, of course. Neither did we try and move him. We just spent the rest of the day covering him in a great mound of rocks, exactly where he lay; exactly where he wanted to be buried. You can’t dig a grave in the top of a hill when that hill is solid, unfractured gneiss.

About half way through our labours I stopped for a breather. “Hey Shaz,” I said. “How’s all this going to took in your report? ...Aren’t you supposed to take the deceased’s remains back to Alice Springs for a proper post mortem? And what about Angelina?”

Chantal added the rock she was carrying to the pile. Then she came over to where I was standing and put a firm hand on my shoulder. The look in her ice-blue eyes left me in no doubt that I was to say nothing of our afternoon’s quarrying and drystone construction-work.

Then lifting her gaze to the heavens and in tones of absolute innocence, Acting Senior Constable Chantal Parsons quoted from her yet-to-be-written journal. “‘Permission given, as acting Coroner’s Constable, for Angelina Doss to be buried,’” she said, and “‘Johnathon Doss; whereabouts unknown but presumed deceased, following an extensive search of the area by Aboriginal Tracker Peter Carmody, one volunteer and myself.’ And don’t you forget it.”

I thought of asking as to why she didn’t give herself permission to bury Johnny as well but decided against it. Probably doing it this way meant a whole lot less paperwork.

By the time we arrived back at the iron hut it was late in the afternoon and we decided to camp there for the night. And it was then that one of those strange series of events took place which can only happen in the bush. First Peter Carmody informed us that he could hear a vehicle approaching. It was coming cross country from the east, he said, from what remained of the old Queensland track. In the event it turned out to be two geologists heading home for Christmas, after having completed the last leg of a reconnaissance expedition for their mineral exploration company.

They were at the point of stopping somewhere to set up camp for the night, and were just as surprised to see us as we were them. Carmody already had a campfire going, so Chantal proposed they join us for the evening, an invitation they happily accepted.

Folding chairs came out and cold beers were produced from a car fridge, but before we could settle ourselves Carmody said he could hear another vehicle, this time coming from the ranges, as we had done. In due course the sound of an engine reached our own ears and a short time later its source arrived – the station owner and his wife in one of their work Toyotas.

The stockmen had all departed on their Christmas break, the owner explained, so to ensure everything was going okay before starting on their own Christmas celebrations they were doing a final check of all the windmills and watering points. And rather than trying to get around the property in the one day they’d decided to take their time seeing where the storms had fallen and to visit Johnny and Angelina. Then, when they’d found themselves following fresh vehicle tracks heading toward the iron hut, they began to wonder if Johnny and Angelina might already have visitors and were curious as to whom it might be.

Then it was sad and sobering thoughts all round again as Chantal explained once more why we'd come and what we’d found here, and then followed up by giving her official version as to what had taken place. A lengthy silence followed as we reflected on Johnny and Angelina's personalities and the lives they'd lived, following which we began to reminisce about our experiences at the iron hut and to retell the many stories about them we'd heard over the years. The two geologists were able to contribute here as well, as during an earlier visit Johnny had spent a couple of days showing the two around – having, after all, during his time in the locality, accumulated a good working knowledge of the eastern Harts Range geology and its minerals.

As for the Christmas goodies… Well, the problem of what to do with them more or less solved itself, because the wake we held for Johnny and Angelina that night was the best I have ever had the privilege of attending. And, I would venture to add, one of the very best Christmas parties.

May that wonderful pair rest in peace.

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