Copyright
Edward Dyson.

In the Roaring Fifties online

. (page 16 of 21)
Online LibraryEdward DysonIn the Roaring Fifties → online text (page 16 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


spurring their enemies to greater activity in oppression, and blundering
and brutal officials had chosen the moment when the agitation was at its
height to institute one of the most strenuous and tyrannical
license-hunting expeditions that had been inflicted upon the miners of
Ballarat. Diggers were brutally man-handled; in some cases their clothes
were torn from their backs, in others they were insulted and beaten by
the troopers. The hunt was manifestly an organized and deliberate effort
to display the contempt officialdom felt for the men and their cause.
Blood ran hotly; there were casual skirmishes between the people and the
police, who, while serving as the zealous and willing instruments of
oppression, offered the diggers absolutely no protection from the thieves
and ruffians infesting the fields.

Arrangements had been made to convey the news of a general rising to the
men at Simpson's Ranges in time to enable them to reach the disturbed
centre before the outbreak of hostilities, and on a Friday morning,
shortly after midnight, Jim Done, Mike Burton, and the three Peetrees set
off together. They left their tents as they stood, and carrying only a
blue blanket apiece and such arms as they possessed, started on their
long tramp to Ballarat as gaily as if bent upon a pleasure excursion.
They slept in the Bush on Friday night, and reached the Australian
Eldorado on Saturday at about noon. Approaching the field from the north,
they were bailed up on the edge of wide lagoon fringed with gum-trees and
scrub by a party of men on horseback.

'Halt!' cried the leader.

'What's the matter now?' said Mike.

'I demand all arms and ammunition you may have about you.'

'Then I'm hanged if you'll get them!'

'For the use of the forces of the republic of Victoria,' continued the
leader.

But we're goin' to join the rebels.'

'That's all right. You'll be given arms in the stockade. Peter Lalor has
been elected chief of the insurgents. I have his warrant here for my
action. Arms are badly needed. We can take no chances.'

The mates conferred, and after examining the warrant signed by the rebel
leader, resolved to comply with the demand.

'Has there been any fighting?' asked Jim.

'A bit of a shindy with the swaddies in Warrenheip Gully, and an attack
on the troopers at the Gravel Pits. Nothing really serious. The Imperial
troops were drawn up under arms at our big meeting on Bakery Hill on the
29th. The flag has been floated, the men have taken the oath under it,
and are now drilling within the stockade on Eureka.'

'We are none too soon.'

'Not a moment.'

The five men had only their revolvers and a stock of cartridges; these
they handed over to the emissary of the 'republican forces,' and
continued their journey with eager feet, greatly elated. Ballarat was at
this time the centre of the feverish interest the Victorian gold
discoveries had excited throughout the world. Men were digging fortunes
out of the prodigal earth with a turn of the hand. The Gravel Pits,
Golden Point, Bakery Hill, Specimen Hill, Canadian Hill, White Hills,
White Flat, and half a dozen other local rushes, were in the height of
their amazing prosperity; economists were gravely considering the
possibility of this tremendous output reducing gold to the status of a
base metal, and Main Road seethed with life.

Done's experiences on Forest Creek and at Jim Crow and Simpson's Ranges
had not prepared him for the stormy exuberance of Ballarat. This was the
largest, most populous, and most prosperous of all the fields. In a
little over two years' time the population of a large town had overrun
the Bush, swept the trees from the face of the earth, and had dug at and
torn and tortured the wide fields till the landscape resembled a great
cemetery where thousands of open graves yawned in advance of a mighty
sacrifice. The work of devastation climbed up the hills, overthrowing
them piece by piece, and through the debacle the sloven creeks, filled
with yellow slurry, and thrown out of their natural courses a score of
times by the ravishers, wound their painful way. Tents, glowing whitely
under the bright sun, dotted the flats, and gathered into villages of
canvas on the sides of the hills. Here and there a flag fluttered in the
breeze, and men were everywhere - men remarkably alike in type, strong,
bearded, sun burnt, their digger's garb as monotonous as a uniform, but
picturesque and easy. Evidently little work was going forward. The
excitement of the revolt was at its height, a sense of the imminent
climax was in the air, and the men were gathered in knots and meetings
discussing the position.

As Jim and his friends came in by Specimen Hill, they saw bodies of
troopers being moved as if in drill at the camp on their left. These
operations were watched by hundreds of diggers. Further on they saw the
massed red coats of swaddies, and heard the faint rattle of kettle-drums.
The British flag floated over the camp. A mounted officer in crimson and
gold passed them, riding at a gallop, and the sound of a gunshot struck
upon their ears, a sharp note of war.

Main Road and Plank Road were well-defined streets of tents and stores.
The great majority of the dwellings and places of business were of canvas
still, but here and there a pretentious weatherboard hotel, iron-roofed,
stood proudly eminent, luring the diggers with a flaring topical sign.
Here again the way was crowded with blue-shirted men, smoking, talking,
gesticulating, never a coat nor a petticoat amongst them. There were a
good many women in Ballarat in '54, but nearly all miners' wives, little
was seen of them where the men assembled. Jim noted yet again juvenile
levity of the diggers.

The situation was serious enough in all conscience, but the great
majority of the miners refused to see it in that light. They had endured
much; they felt that it was necessary to assert their rights as men, but
the consciousness of their wrongs was borne down in a measure by the
light-heartedness that follows great good fortune. Under the influence of
a digger-drive or the stimulus of an impassioned speech they could feel
keenly; but the sun shone upon them, the virgin gold glowed in their
hands, the riot of devil-me-care existence, unchecked by social
restraints, called them, and bitterness could not live in their hearts.
They danced, and sang, and roared, and were glad, who two or three hours
earlier might have offered their lives freely to avenge a slight or to
mark their sense of a gross injustice.

Jim and his friends were served with a rough dinner at one of the hotels.
The waiter, an old Frenchman, told them that bands sent out by the
insurgent leader were taking levies on all hands.

'Some gather at Eureka. Ze fight mus' be soon,' he said; 'but ze
crowd - ah, zey laugh, zey drink, zey dance wis ze fiddle, zey will not
believe! Et ces a great pity, but zey haff not ze - what, ah? - ze
experience.'

'Are many coming in from the other fields?' asked Jim.

The Frenchman shook his head. 'Et ees expect zey will come; but the men
say always, "Oh, et will go over!" Ze soldier say not so: they are ver'
bitter. My friend, the blow come soon; I go to the army of the republic
this to-night.'

'The men are rolling up all right,' said a digger at another table.
'They're rallying them at Creswick again, and on the other fields. We'll
have an army of thousands in a week.'

'A week!' cried the waiter. 'My soul! in two day more et will all be up
wiss ze republic, suppose zey are not here!'

'That Frenchman's an all-fired skite,' said the digger disgustedly. 'The
swaddies don't like the job: they won't strike. We'll have the making of
the fight, and we'll call time when it suits us.'

'All the same,' commented Mike later, 'the Frenchman's got the safest
grip o' things, it seems to me.'

In the streets the watchword of the most serious of the diggers was 'Roll
up!' and the friends heard it passing from lip to lip. They did not lack
company on their way to Eureka, but Done experienced a keen
disappointment in the absence of deep and genuine emotion amongst the
main body of the men. The popular impression was that there would be no
fighting; it was thought that the demonstration Lalor and his men were
making would have the effect of bringing the powers to reason, and this
opinion was held in spite of past bitter experience of the stupid
immobility of the Legislative Council in Melbourne.

The five friends were challenged at the stockade, and on expressing their
wish to be enlisted were marched before an officer of the rebel forces
and sworn in. Standing under the blue Australian flag, with its five
silver stars, they took Peter Lalor's oath: 'We swear by the Southern
Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and
liberties.'

There was really no stockade in the military sense. The enclosure was
little more than a drill-ground fenced with rough slabs. These slabs, a
few logs, and two or three drays, represented all that had been attempted
in the nature of a barricade, and could not have been expected by the
least experienced of the insurgent leaders to offer any serious
impediment to a charge of regulars. Two or three small companies of men
were being drilled within the limited space, and Done and Burton were
attached to one of these and the three Peetrees to another. At this point
Jim was again sadly disillusioned. He was given no weapon but a pike - a
short, not too sharp, blade of iron secured to a pole about five feet
long. Pikes were the only arms the men of his company possessed, and a
blacksmith, who had his smithy within the stockade, was hard at work
manufacturing the primitive weapons. One small company was armed with
rifles, and another with pistols, but ammunition was so scarce that these
could be of no great value in the event of an early attack.

Done estimated that there were about two hundred and fifty men within the
stockade. He heard that there had been many more, but that the volunteers
had returned to their camps on the surrounding fields to make further
preparations, believing that there was no likelihood of an early
encounter. There was much confusion on Eureka, and Jim could not see how
the men were to benefit from the simple drill in which they were being
instructed with great assiduity. The site chosen was an old mining
ground, and the field was broken with holes and piles of dirt, rendering
proper formation impossible; and although the leaders were serious and
earnest men, the bulk of the rank and file preserved a spirit of careless
levity, and were like big boys playing a game.

The rebel leader addressed the men during the afternoon, and Jim listened
to him with deep interest. Peter Lalor was a young Irishman, not yet
thirty-five, not far short of six feet in height, and splendidly
proportioned; keen-eyed, too, with regular features and a resolute,
convincing air. There was a note of domination in the man's character,
and he was certainly the strongest personality in the republican
movement. He pleaded for zeal in the sacred cause for which they might
presently be called upon to shed their hearts' blood, and although his
language was as simple as the diggers' speech, there was a warmth in his
manner that stirred the men, and a whole-hearted conviction pointed every
phrase; but even while his rebels were gathered under arms and drilling
behind a palisade within a short distance of the regular troops sent to
suppress the expected out break on Ballarat, Lalor did not expect the
authorities to take the initiative.

As night fell fires were lit within the stockade. A slaughtered bullock
lay on its skin, near the smithy, and from this the rebels who remained
on Eureka cut steaks, and they cooked their own rough meal. It was
Saturday, and a number of the diggers left the encampment to participate
in the gaieties peculiar to the evening in the Main Road dancing-booths
and in the pubs and shanty bars. As yet, so backward were the
preparations, there was only the feeblest attempt at military discipline
in the stockade, and the password was common property. A few zealous
recruits continued their drilling by the light of the fires, and the
smith toiled nobly at his pikes. His hammer rang a spirited tattoo on the
anvil till far into the Sunday morning, and he and his grimy but tireless
boy helper made a dramatic picture against the night in the glow of their
open forge. The rebels played and sang, and there was a little skylarking
amongst the younger men; but Done and his companions, wearied by their
long tramp and the drilling, had spread their blankets on the ground, and
made themselves as comfortable as possible, Jim watching the antics of
the rebels through half-closed eyes, the others smoking thoughtfully.

'Well, ole man, what d'yer think of it?' said Josh.

'I don't like it,' answered Jim, feeling himself addressed.

'Mus' say there ain't a very desperate air about the business so far.'

'Why doesn't Paisely attack?' continued Done. 'He must know what's going
on here. There's nothing to hinder him knowing as much of the rebels'
business as Lalor himself, so far as I can see. Why doesn't he come on?'

'You might join me in a little prayer that he won't,' said Mike. 'What
sort o' chance 're we goin' to have if he drops in on us here with his
mounted men?'

'Mighty poor, and you can bet the Colonel knows it. Unless he's afraid of
precipitating a general rising, he'll charge down here and wipe this
place out.'

'If there should be any fightin', gi' me a call, won't you?' said Harry,
with a yawn.

The others laughed and took the hint. Slowly the fires faded, and the
encampment sank into stillness and silence, save for the slow movements
of the sentinels and the clang of the smith's hammer. The night had been
warm, the early hours of Sunday morning were cold, but the men were all
accustomed to camping in the open, and, huddling together, they slept
soundly. The lights of Ballarat had flickered out; the whole field lay in
darkness. The slow hours stole on, the sentinels were changed, and
absolute quiet descended upon Eureka, for even the heroic blacksmith had
stretched himself by his forge, and was sleeping, with the boy by his
side.

'The swaddies are on us!'

At about three o'clock that one fierce cry shook the camp into action.
The men sprang from the ground; there was an almost simultaneous rush
into position - the pikemen nearest the pickets, the rifle men to the
left, the revolver corps to the right. It was a false alarm, but it gave
Jim more confidence in the men, who had shown much better order than he
had expected, and their promptness and determination pleased him.

'They'll make a good fight of it when the swaddies do come,' he said
cheerfully, as they settled down in their blankets.

'My oath!' replied Mike. 'But we were chumps to give up our revolvers.
What good can a man do pokin' round in the dark with a blanky spike?'

The men lay with their primitive weapons in their hands. There was a
little growling and cursing and once more the encampment was given over
to sleep.

Jim Done awoke as the grayness of dawn was creeping through the
night - awoke with an idea that he was sleeping under the gum-trees. There
was a vague belief in his head that he and his mates were on the wallaby,
but where they were going to, he was too sleepy to decide. A slight
drizzle was falling, but he curled himself in his blanket, and disposed
himself to sleep again. Then, with the shock of a heavy blow, he heard a
sharp voice challenging. A gunshot followed.

This time there was no mistake. The men rushed to their positions, and
the sudden confusion fell as suddenly into order. Jim found himself
standing with his column, his pike grasped firmly in two hands, without
quite realizing how it had come about that he was there. Mike was on his
right; on his left was a little wild Irishman, and even in the intense
excitement of that moment, when he could see the black line of infantry
coming down upon them through the heavy dusk of early dawn, he marked the
fierce, semi-conscious jabbering of the Paddy, with an inclination to
laugh aloud.

'Glory be, they're comin'! they're comin'! they're comin'! Plaze the
pigs, I'll have wan! Jist wan 'll satisfy me. Blessed saints, make it the
wan that shot O'Keif! Och, they're comin', th' darlin's! Hit home, Tim
Canty, an' Holy Mary make it the wan that shot Barty O'Keif!'

Jim's eyes were fixed upon the dark mass charging the stockade. The
soldiers were now not more than sixty yards off, and he could see a
horseman leading. He heard the order to charge, and heard Lalor's sharp,
stern reply. There followed a blast of rifles from the stockade, and the
shadowy equestrian figure leading the Imperial infantry became blurred
and broken in the dusk and the thin rain, and the riderless horse at the
head of the column cantered on, and leapt into the stockade through the
smoke.

'First blood!' muttered Mike, as the officer fell.

Finding the attack concentrated on one point of the stockade, Lalor
gathered his handful of rifles here, and they met the charge of the
regulars with another volley, checking their advance. A volley from the
carbines replied, and the lead whistled into the stockade. A pikeman ran
forward a few steps, plunged on his face at Jim's feet, and lay still.

'Holy Mother, if I can git wan iv them I'll be content - almost!'
continued the little Irishman in his fierce monologue.

'Down, men! Take cover under the logs!' said the captain of the pikes,
and Done obeyed with the rest; and crouching there, hearing the cracking
of the carbines, the terrible impatience of Canty began to work in his
own blood. He felt himself to be utterly useless; his pike was impotent
against the carbines of the enemy, and the lust of battle was in him. He
burned for the stress of action, longed for the order to dash upon the
enemy. It was difficult to repress the impatience that spurred him to
jump to his feet, and, calling his mates to follow to throw himself
against, the soldiers.

That wait under the logs seemed interminable, and meanwhile the riflemen
within the stockade and the carbineers without exchanged several volleys,
and in between there was an indecisive pattering of independent rifles,
and Jim saw the vague figures of his comrades falling in the gloom,
falling falteringly, without apparent motive. He could not connect the
discharge of the guns with the dropping of the wounded: it was all so
cold-blooded, so dispassionate.

'They're not comin'!' cried Canty, whose frenzy would not permit of his
keeping cover. 'Why don't they come on like min? God sind me wan - jist - '

He fell like a man whose legs had suddenly lost all power, and lay there,
his face pressed to the moist earth, and Jim felt the dying man's fingers
moving upon his leg in a trifling way. Presently a hand clutched his own,
and he was drawn down.

'Are you hit badly, old man?' said Done.

'Mortal! I'm hit mortal bad!' The hand clung desperately, and Jim peered
into Canty's face, and saw a smear of blood about his mouth. He was shot
through the breast. 'Mate,' he said eagerly, 'kill wan fer me! Kill
wan - if it's only a little wan!'

'I'll do my best, old man.'

'But one fer me, an' fer the good man they murthered. Say "Take that for
Barty O'Keif!" when you hit him.'

'So help me God, I will!'

Jim placed Canty well under the cover of the logs, with his head pillowed
on a clod.

'Give me me pike here in the right hand. Good enough!' He lay quite still
now, and muttered no more, but Jim could see his bright eyes stirring in
the semi-darkness.

The firing from without was maintained, but the swaddies were in no hurry
to cover the patch of ground that lay between them and the stockade,
although the insurgents had already almost exhausted their ammunition.
Lalor sprang to the top of the barrier, and stood for a moment, turning
as if to give an order, but the order was never spoken. A ball struck
him, and he fell into the enclosure, severely wounded. The rebels had
fought bravely so far. While their powder lasted they beat off the well
armed, well trained regulars, and for twenty minutes held the swaddies at
bay across their poor palisade; but at the expiration of that time there
were not two dozen charges left in the stockade, and now the riflemen
were ordered to retreat to the shallow shafts and use them as pits; and
presently the noble 40th finding the resistance broken, was tearing at
the logs and pickets, and at last the pikemen were on their feet and face
to face with the foe.

The infantry poured into the stockade with fixed bayonets, and against
their experience and their efficient weapons the insurgents made a poor
show; but they fought stubbornly, if clumsily, and now Jim found himself
fighting in grim earnest. He saw a big Lanky spring at him from the logs,
with bayonet set stock to hip, and with a lucky twist of, his pole he
beat down the other's weapon. But the long hafts of the pikes made them
most unwieldy, and in the few seconds that followed Jim stood
cheek-by-jowl with death. Suddenly his eyes encountered the face of Canty
over the left shoulder of the swaddy. The little Irishman had pulled
himself to his feet, his back was to the logs, his pike raised in his two
hands. Lurching forward, he plunged the blade into the neck of the
soldier. The Lanky's bayonet dropped from his hand, and he fell
backwards. The haft of the pike striking the ground stopped him for a
moment, and then he swung sideways and dropped on to his face; the pike
remaining wedged in his spine, the shaft sprang into the air in a manner
that was never after quite free of a suggestion of the hideously
ludicrous in Jim's mind. Canty stared for a moment at his fallen enemy,
and then, uttering a strange Irish cry of exultation, he fell back across
the logs, never to stir again.

The fight at the logs was brief, but fierce. Finding the pikes useless
for thrusting, many of the diggers clubbed them. Following this example,
Jim swept a second soldier off his feet, and was laying about him with
all his strength, when a cavalryman drove his horse at the stockade, and
came over almost on top of him, slashing wildly right and left as he
came. The soldier's sword struck Done on the left side of the head,
inflicting a wound extending from the neck almost to the crown. Jim fell
against the horse, clinging weakly to his pike, feeling the hot blood
rolling down his neck. He saw the sword raised again, but at that instant
a revolver flashed over his shoulder, and the mounted man dived forward,
rolled on the neck of his horse, and slid slowly to the ground - dead. Jim
turned and recognised the pale face of his brother in the dim light of
morning, but at the same instant was struck again, and fell with a bullet
in his shoulder.

Wat Ryder uttered a fierce oath, and sprang at the bridle of the
riderless horse. With the rein over his arm, he knelt by Jim's side, and
endeavoured to rouse him. The infantry were now all within the stockade,
pressing forward, firing amongst the scattered insurgents and into the
holes where the riflemen were, and the cavalry and mounted troopers were
pursuing the rebels, cutting them down ruthlessly.

Ryder succeeded in getting Jim to his feet, and he clung limply to the
horse's mane, only dimly conscious of what was happening.

'For God's sake, make an effort, Jim!' cried Ryder. 'Here, up with you,
stranger! I'll give the boy a lift,' said an insurgent, suddenly
appearing from a hiding-place amongst the logs.

Ryder vaulted to the back of the horse, and, with the assistance of Levi
Long, for it was the American who had intervened, soon had Jim in the
saddle. A few blows from Long's pike started the nag, and Ryder rushed
him blindly at the slabs of the stockade, and the powerful animal
blundered through. A shot from an infantryman, intended for the riders,
struck the charger, and he plunged forward, snorting with pain, and
bolted madly across the broken ground of Eureka, and Ryder, clinging to
the unconscious man with one arm, made no attempt to check or regulate
their dangerous flight.

XIX

IT was now almost day; the fighting was over. A smart shower had fallen
during the struggle, and the wet pipeclay within the stockade was strewn
with dead and wounded diggers, and along the line of attack taken by the
three companies of infantry wounded and dead soldiers lay scattered,
their red coats dotting the white ground with curious blotches of colour,
the figures of the men still vague and indefinite in the mist and the


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryEdward DysonIn the Roaring Fifties → online text (page 16 of 21)