Copyright
Edward Dyson.

In the Roaring Fifties online

. (page 6 of 21)
Online LibraryEdward DysonIn the Roaring Fifties → online text (page 6 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


stones dropped into the sea, Done found it hard to believe.

'You're a curious kind of devil, Jim,' said Mike, who had been watching
Done closely during the last few minutes.

'How's that?'

'You don't talk. Worse still, you don't smoke.'

'No; in England I had neither mates nor friends, and smoking's a
convivial disease - a kid catches it from his companions.'

'I might have guessed you were bred a "hatter"; you're as dumb as a
mute.'

'Same reason, Mike; but I'm getting over it. I'm getting over a good many
things rather too suddenly. I'm sort of mentally breathless. A year ago
I'd have sworn that friendship and good-fellowship were impossible to me.'

'Go on!'

'And just now I'm feeling things too keenly to talk much about them.'

''Nough said, Jimmy; I ain't complaining.' Mike knocked the ashes from his
pipe on his boot. 'I s'pose I'd best get somethin' for breakfast,' he
said, rising and stretching himself.

'What, here?' Jim looked about him into the darkness.

'Here or hereabouts. Keep an eye on the swags. I won't be gone more'n an
hour at the outside.'

Micah Burton went off into the dense Bush, that to Jim looked grimly
unpromising, and the latter lay back upon the grass again, with quite a
luxurious sensation. The hard day's walking made this rest peculiarly
agreeable: he had eaten well, his mind was at peace - he no longer
concerned himself with psychological theories - he was content to live and
feel.

Sharply out of the silence came a ringing report. Jim was jerked to a
sitting posture, listening with all his ears. The report was repeated
several times, a fusillade of shots, followed by faint echoes of a voice
raised in anger. There was an interval of quiet, and when the sound broke
in again Done sighed contentedly, and relapsed into his former position.
He recognised the crack of a cattle-whip. In a minute or two he heard the
voice of the bullocky admonishing Bally and Spot with a burst of
alliterative invective, and presently the leaders came labouring out of
the darkness, the great red bullocks, with bowed heads, moving slowly and
with that suggestion of impassive invincibility that goes always with a
big team of good working bullocks in action.

'Hello, mate!' cried someone beyond in the shadows.

'Hello, there!'

'Plenty o' water 'bout?'

'A creek down to the left.'

'Right-o! We'll camp here, Stony. Woa, Strawberry! Woa, there, Spot!
Bally! Blackboy!'

The cattle came to a standstill, and while the others busied themselves
unyoking the team, one man went off through the trees, and presently
returned, carrying a billy he had just filled. He kicked the fire
together, threw on a few pieces of wood, and began to prepare a meal,
paying no attention to Jim, who lay watching him. It was not customary to
say 'By your leave!' in little matters of this kind. On the track every
man's company was supposed to be welcome. Following a habit of
observation, Jim examined the man without curiosity. He was thin,
sandy-haired, and wiry, about forty-five, with restless hands, and a
cowed, half-sullen expression - a drinker of strong drinks of the kind
manufactured at the shanties, corrosive liquids that ate the souls out of
men in quick order.

Having disposed of the bullocks, the tinkling of whose bells was a
foreign note in the night, two others came to the fire, carrying the
tucker-box. They were brothers, long, bearded, brown-faced Australians of
the runs, going up to the rush with stores for Coolan and Smith, or
Aberdeen, the universal providers of the Roaring Fifties.

'Hurry up that blasted quart-pot, Stony!' ejaculated the elder of the
two. 'I feel as if I'd done a three days' perish-me!'

The men ate hungrily, sitting about in the light of the fire, drinking
the hot tea from pannikins and from the billy lid, and as they ate they
talked. Done was beginning to find himself at home in the society of men.
The humanities were finding place in his soul. Everything about these
people interested him - their work, their pleasures, their ideas. They
were so closely in touch with vital things, so tolerant. They cherished
no political, social, and religious convictions to the exclusion of their
fellow-men.

Burton returned, swinging four featherless birds. The invasion of their
camp did not surprise him. He greeted the strangers cheerfully, and held
the birds up for Jim's inspection.

'Our breakfast,' he said. 'Fat 'n young.'

'Where did they come from?'

'A lagoon half a mile up the creek. Four shots, four duck.' He touched
his revolver.

'But Nature doesn't provide plucked birds for our benefit.'

'Skinned an' cleaned 'em at the water.'

The teamsters were not averse to boiled duck and broth for breakfast, and
the two billies were soon steaming on the camp-fire, while the company
yarned and smoked. It was nearly ten o'clock, and all hands were thinking
of taking to their blankets for the night, when a sixth man came quietly
through the trees, unobserved until his greeting disturbed them. Done had
to turn on his side to look at the newcomer, a handsome, beardless man in
the garb of a digger, but much more scrupulous in the matter of
cleanliness and fit than the majority.

'I did not like the society at the Rest,' he said, 'and walked on,
looking for quieter company.'

'Make yourself at home,' answered Mike. 'There's tea in the pannikin, an'
there's grub in the dilly-bag. You're not carryin' traps.'

'No. Sent everything ahead but this 'possum rug. Thanks for - '

He ceased speaking. His face had been composed, almost colourless; into
it there sprang an expression of amazement, which deepened into an animal
ferocity shocking to see. The mouth twitched spasmodically, the eyes
caught the glare of the flame, and glowed with a catlike lustre.
Surprised, Done turned in the direction of his glance, and discovered the
man Stony crouching on the other side of the fire, his weak, tremulous
hands stretched out before him, his face gray as ashes and convulsed with
horror. Glaring at the stranger, he lifted his hands, thrusting the
vision from him, and a cry of terror burst in his throat, as the man
sprang at him, bearing him to the ground as a tiger might have done,
groping fiercely at his throat with iron fingers. Stony lay on his back;
his enemy, kneeling on his body, choking him, bent his face down, and
cried fiercely:

'It is you, then? I am not mistaken! You know me, you dog, and you know
that I mean to tear the heart out of you!'

Releasing his grip on the flesh, he wrenched at Stony's shirt, ripping it
at the neck.

'Help!' gasped the prostrate wretch. 'For the love of God, help!'

'There's your brand - your brand, Peter!' He thrust his face into Stony's
again, and all the hate that a face can carry and that a voice can convey
was betrayed in his expression and his words. 'Do you know what I have
endured, Peter? Do you know what I have suffered?'

Clutching at Stony's throat again, he bored his knee into the body under
him, his arms became rigid with the power of his grip, and Stony lay
choking, clawing feebly at the other's sleeves, his face distorted into a
hideous caricature.

The other men stood about, watching, the Australians reluctant to
interfere in a quarrel they did not understand. It was Done who seized
the stranger, tearing him off his victim, and then Mike and a teamster
laid hands upon him, while Stony was writhing and panting on the ground.
The digger offered no resistance; he seemed unconscious of everything but
his hatred and his vengeance, and his eyes never moved from Stony.

'We draw the line at cold-blooded murder, mate!' said Mike, but the other
gave no answer.

Stony had picked himself up, and, casting one horrified look at his
enemy, turned away, and plunged into the blackness of the Bush, running
like a frightened animal.

'What's he been up to, anyhow?' asked one of the teamsters, as they
released the stranger. The latter did not reply, but instantly darted
after the runaway. The four men listened to the retreating footsteps, and
presently the Bush echoed two pistol shots fired in rapid succession. The
birds murmured and moved in the trees, a monkey-bear grunted disgustedly,
and then all was still again.

VIII

FOR some little time the four men stood with their faces turned in the
direction Stony and his pursuer had taken, listening breathlessly, and
then they went to their blankets again. Done was greatly disturbed; the
others took it more as a matter of course.

'You won't follow them?' said Jim.

'Well,' one of the brothers replied, 'I ain't particularly busy just now,
but my hands are too full for that kind of foolishness.'

'He meant murder!'

'Somethin' too like it to please old Stony.'

'What do you think it was all about?'

'Can't say. Long grudge, evidently.'

'The clean-shaven man was a lag,' said Mike. 'Convict,' he added, seeing
a question in Jim's eye. 'Maybe your friend lagged him.'

'Don't know him from a crow,' replied the teamster addressed. 'We're
taking some traps and ware up to the Creek for him on our load, and he
travelled along.'

'I think you're mistaken about that man being a convict, Burton,' said
Done to Mike later, breaking a long silence.

'Sure I'm not. Saw the cuff-marks on his wrists as he was battling with
Stony. Why?'

'He's the man who was in the trap with Macdougal of Boobyalla the other
day in Swanston Street.'

'The swell in the choker and double-decker?'

'Yes. For some reason his face impressed me. I couldn't mistake it.'

'Didn't notice it; but if he's own brother to Governor Latrobe himself,
I'll take my affie he's a lag.'

The mates overtook the carter with their tent and stores and tools within
a day's journey of the rush, and pushed on to secure a claim. Done's
first sight of a busy goldfield was gained on a clear, sunny morning,
when, after passing through Sawpit Gully, they came upon the beginning of
the long lead that comprised many rushes, known as Forest Creek. The
impression Jim retained was a semi-humorous one of humans reduced to the
proportions and the dignity of ants, engaged upon the business of ants
wrought to a pitch of excitement by some grand windfall at their doors.
Little figures bustled about, carrying burdens; pigmies swarmed along the
lead. The holes, with their white and yellow tips, were clustered as
close together as the cells in a great honeycomb, and into the shafts and
out of them bobbed hurrying, eager creatures. The whirring of windlasses,
the clatter of nail-keg buckets, the incessant calls, 'Look up below!'
and the distinct ringing of hammer on anvil, blended into a quaint
symphony of labour. The swish, swish, swish, of the wet dirt in the
cradle-hoppers and the rattling of the tailings thrown from the shovels
providing an unvarying substratum of sound. There were tents everywhere,
large and small, dotting the distance, but clustering into a township of
canvas to the right of the Creek, and over the scene floated a faint
mirage, so that the whole field and all in it quivered in the warm
ascending air, the gauzy effect aiding the idea of stagy unreality.

At the first sight of the lead Mike threw his hat into the air and
cheered wildly. Another party coming in were beating their jaded horses
to a run, the men jumping beside the team mad with joy, shouting like
maniacs. On all hands were the waggons and drays unloading by tents not
yet fully erected. The men who were not busy at their claims or puddling,
cradling or panning-off dishes by the creek, were breathlessly engaged
upon the work of getting their canvas houses into order and be stowing
their goods; newcomers passed unheeded, however boisterous.

'Before tea we'll have our pegs in here, Jim,' said Mike joyfully.

They had been walking since two hours before daybreak, but elation
possessed them to the exclusion of all thought of fatigue. The sight of
the field of action set Jim's sinews twitching; he longed for the strife,
and found some difficulty in restraining himself from running with the
preceding party pell-mell on to the creek. But he had nothing of the
gold-seeker's fever in his blood; the thought of amassing a fortune had
merely occurred to him: it was the free, strong, exhilarating life that
stirred him most deeply.

Burton discovered an old acquaintance in a sooty blacksmith perspiring
copiously over an open-air forge, and the mates left their swags in his
tent and hastened to the high-walled, square tent occupied by the warden
of the field to secure their licenses. Here Jim had his first taste of
officialdom in Australia, and he did not like it. The tent was thronged
with miners eager to secure their papers; they were met with cold-blooded
intolerance by a class of officials often bred to their business in the
infamous convict system, and now incapable of putting off their tyrannous
insolence in the faces of free men. Several foot police - Vandemonians
from the convict settlements - were stationed in the tent to enforce the
mandate of Commissioner McPhee, or any understrapper who might resent the
impatience of a digger, and order him to be propelled into the open on
the toe of a regulation boot. The new hands bore the indignities
carelessly, but the experienced diggers came up to the rough counter
grimly and silently, conveying in their attitude Some suggestion of a
reckoning almost due. They under stood all the injustice and flagrant
abuse the licenses implied, the new chums did not.

'Take care o' that, Done,' said Mike, flipping his own license with his
thumb; 'they're important. I've heard em called tickets of admission to
the new republic.'

'What do they stand for, Mike?'

'One month. For one month James Done is entitled to burrow for gold in
Her Majesty's mud hereabout, an' for that time he's reckoned to have a
right to be alive. At the end of the month he trots up to renew, and the
price is thirty bob every time.'

'But if James Done doesn't happen to have thirty bob?'

'Then his right to be alive is null and void, and if he's caught so much
as scraping dirt to bury a pup he's dealt with according to law. If in
his month's work he doesn't earn enough to buy grease for his windlass,
he must take out his miner's right or run the chance of being scragged.'

'That seems strangely out of place here. And the men stand it?'

'And heaps more. This license qualifies a miner to be dragged out of his
hole at any moment, like a blasted wombat, by the scruff, to be
bully-damned from Geelong to breakfast by some lag-punching, lop-eared
ex-warder with a string of troopers at his heels!' Jim saw his mate in a
bitter mood, for the first time.

'But why the license, if it confers no benefit?'

'To rob the diggers mercilessly, and to provide swine like those in there
with a chance of riding the high horse over better men!' Mike was mixing
his metaphors in his wrath. 'But you'll know all about it in time. If
you're in the habit of using your hands, keep 'em tight in your pockets
when the traps are out man-hunting. It's worse than manslaughter to punch
a trooper. They'd have you in the logs in ten ticks less 'n no time.'

Done refused to be depressed by the prospect. He understood that with his
right in his pocket a miner was safe, and the charge did not seem to him
a serious grievance in this land of plenteous gold.

The mates had a crib with Duffy, the blacksmith; and after the meal,
armed with wooden pegs, a pick, and a shovel, they set out to secure a
claim. Acting on the urgent advice of Duffy, they headed for Diamond
Gully, nearly two miles off; and here Mike loitered about amongst the
claims, chatting with the men on top, keeping his eyes wide open, and
gathering information as he went. The majority of the miners were quite
enthusiastic; they were doing well, and had no desire to conceal the
fact. One showed a prospect in the tin dish that wrung a wondering oath
from Mike, and yet he moved on. Done could not understand. There was
plenty of free land on either side, extending for miles.

'Why not here, Burton?' he asked, indicating a pleasant spot.

'Off the lead, probably,' answered Mike. 'We don't want to waste time
bottoming shicers - sinking duffers,' he added in explanation. Done was
still unenlightened. 'Putting down shafts where there isn't a colour,'
continued Burton. 'We'll get right on the lead, or I'm a spud-miner from
Donegal.'

In due course they came to a claim that interested Burton deeply, but the
man at the windlass was gloomy, almost despairing. He didn't believe he'd
got a tucker show, and sadly advised Mike to shepherd a hole down to the
left.

'We ain't in sight of her here,' he said.

Burton took a pinch of dirt from the side of the bucket at his feet,
rubbed it between his finger and thumb, and grinned at the digger.

'Take me for a Johnny Raw, don't you?' he said. 'This is good enough for
me. Quick, Jim, the pegs!'

The exclamation was drawn from him by the sight of three men running
along the lead in their direction.

As Burton hammered in his first peg, the newcomers started hammering a
peg for the same holding. Mike paced the twenty-four feet, and kicked the
stranger's peg out of the ground. Not a word was spoken. The intruding
digger, a stoutly-built, cheerful-looking Geordie, promptly struck at
Mike, and they fought. Done stood aside, nonplussed by the suddenness of
all this, and for a minute a hard give-and-take battle raged on the
claim. Jim discovered the Geordie's mate busying himself driving in a
peg. Seizing the man by the back of the neck, he dragged him to his feet,
and sent him spinning with a long swing. After which he gripped Mike's
opponent in the same way, and bowled him over and over.

'Now you get the pegs in, Mike,' said Jim. 'I'll attend to these.'

The Geordie arose and rushed at Jim with the vehemence of an old fighter,
but Done stopped him with a straight left, closed, and threw him. Mike
ceased hammering the peg to applaud.

'Neat and nice!' he cried. 'Would any other gentleman like a sample?'

'I'm quite satisfied,' said the Geordie, without a trace of ill-feeling.

'Then peg out the next,' continued Mike. 'It should be quite as good a
spec as this if your friend's on anything like a gutter.'

'Ay, ay, lad!' responded the Tynesider, who had a mouse on his cheek as
big as his thumb, and he set cheerfully to work to peg out two men's
ground further on. His bluff having failed, he cherished not the
slightest resentment, and two minutes later, to Jim's great amusement,
all concerned were indulging in affable conversation. The newcomers were
friends of the party in the working mine, where the lead had been cut, a
prospect from the headings promising so well that the holders had
hastened to acquaint the Geordie with the fact. The latter arrived too
late, however - first come, first served, being the law of the diggings,
and first peg in meant legal possession.

Two men's ground measured twelve feet by twenty-four feet. Mike had taken
the twenty-four feet in the direction in which the lead seemed to be
running, and now he lined out a shaft about four feet by two feet, and
commenced sinking. He dug down to the depth of his waist, and at sunset
the mates returned to Forest Creek. That night the teamster arrived with
their goods, and Done and Burton slept under canvas, the tent having been
hastily thrown across a hurdle to provide a screen from the glowing
moonlight, the trees here being stunted and widely scattered.

'So you're a wrestler, Jim said Mike, when they had turned in for the
night.

'I know a fall or two,' answered Done.

'You put Long Aleck down on his chin in short order, an' he fancied his
mutton, I can tell you. Know how to turn a fist to the best advantage,
too, don't you? That Geordie's an old sailor who's been through the mill.
I know the breed. You stopped him like a stone wall. I'm satisfied I
struck it lucky when we met.'

'Glad you think I'll be useful. I don't seem to have been of much account
up to now.

'Useful! A man's got to fight 'r knuckle under. The rushes ain't peopled
with penny saints. You've got to punch a few to get yourself respected.'

Done was not long learning the truth of this. He found in time that the
feats of arms he had mastered with the idea of impressing his enemies in
Chisley were his most valuable accomplishments in Australia.

Next day the mates carted their belongings to their claim, and the
morning was spent in erecting the tent, rigging bunks, and making things
shipshape. They got to work in the shaft again after dinner, Done taking
his first lesson in sinking. Within two hours they came upon the wash
dirt, the sinking at Diamond Gully being very shallow. While they were
busy Jack Thorn, the Geordie, came up from the creek and approached them,
grinning broadly, and hiding something under his hat.

'Hope yer eyesight's good, mates,' he said. 'I've got a bit of a dazzler
here to spring on you. What d'yer think o' that?' He removed his hat, and
exposed a pint pannikin filled to the brim with clean, coarse nuggets.

'Whew!' whistled Jim. 'You've hit it thick.'

'Yes,' he said. 'That's from three buckets off the bottom. I s'pose
you'll get her just ez good. My mate's got a few ounces o' finer stuff.
We're mightily obliged to you boys for puttin' us in this hole.'

'You're welcome,' said Mike, grinning. 'We did it for your own good.'

'What weight is there in that?' asked Done.

'Over two hundred ounces. Eight hundred pounds' worth, perhaps.'

Jim gasped and turned to his work again, digging rapidly. Later, Burton
took a sample of the gravel in the dish, and carried it away to the
creek. He returned in ten minutes with a little water in the pan. Jim
could see only a few specks of gold in the bottom of the pan, and his
face fell.

'A shicer?' he said.

'Not a bit of it. That's a good enough prospect. Let me have a cut at
her.'

The hole was now too deep for Done to throw the dirt to the surface,
inexperienced as he was in the use of a shovel in so narrow a space.
Burton continued the work till sundown, and then washed a prospect that
made his eyes glisten. Next morning they bottomed. Jim was at the mouth
of the shaft when Burton called from below:

'Look out on top! Catch, old man

Jim caught the object thrown up to him. It was coated with clay, but the
gold shone through, and Done handled his first nugget - a plump one of
about ten ounces. A little later they set to work, puddling the best of
the wash dug out in the course of sinking; and then the debris was put
through the cradle, and Jim awoke at last to the full zest of the
digger's lust. Pawing among the gravel in the hopper of the cradle, he
picked out the gold too coarse to pass through the holes, and the
gleaming yellow metal fired him with a passion that had in it all the
frenzy the winning gambler feels, with an added sense of triumph and
success. When Mike lifted the slides out and sluiced water over them,
showing the gold lying thick and deep, he felt a miser's rapture, and yet
had no great desire for wealth. He did not fear work, and had no love of
luxury, so that the hunger for riches never possessed him; but this joy
was something apart from avarice. The yearnings of untold generations
after the precious gold have filtered the love of it into our blood, made
the desire for it an instinct. Jim went to bed that night richer by over
one hundred pounds than he had been when he rose in the morning.

Done and Burton logged up their shaft and rigged the windlass, and set
about the methodical working of the claim. The second day's cleaning up
was not as good as the first, but it was highly satisfactory. It was not
usual for the miners to keep the gold about them for any length of time.
If it was not carried to the storekeepers at Forest Creek, there were
gold-buyers - buying for the Melbourne banks, as a rule - who called
regularly, eager to exchange bank-notes for the virgin gold. On the
afternoon of their third working day, Jim and his mate were leaning on
the windlass, talking to two or three men who had gathered about, waiting
for one of the gold-buyers then riding along the lead, when they were
joined by a tall, fine-looking digger, with a remark ably handsome brown
beard and bushy brows.

'Good-day, mates! Got a good thing here?' he said, seating himself on one
of the logs.

'Oh, not so bad!'

The newcomer had dropped his revolver, apparently by accident. He stooped
and picked it up, but instead of returning it to his belt, toyed with it
absently as he made inquiries about the lead and the yields on the field.
All eyes were attracted by the peculiar manner in which he handled the


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryEdward DysonIn the Roaring Fifties → online text (page 6 of 21)