Below and On Top

The Fossickers

Edward Dyson

THE BOY carried under his arm an old, rusty fryingpan, minus the handle. He was a small, sober-looking boy of about twelve years, with red hair and plenteous freckles; his big felt hat was tucked in in the approved style, and dusted with pipe-clay—he had carefully dusted it for the sake of verisimilitude; his shirt sagged artfully over the top of his moleskin trousers, which were tied under the knees with the customary “bowyangs.” No detail was missing; the boots were covered with moist yellow clay, and the trousers were stained with mud from the dam and rust from the iron puddlers. Dickie was quite a realistic fossicker, a man of experience, invested with the dignity of labour.

The pan was full of greyish dust, in which were bits of gritty rope-yarn and many splinters. He sank it in the water of the dam, where stones were set for a footing, and began puddling the dirt, working with great care and a due sense of importance. He would have given much to have had a pipe and real tobacco—a bit of dry root, he felt, would not be equal to the occasion, he having “struck it”—his last dish realized quite ten grains.

Dickie puddled slowly, working his hands with the machine-like movement he had copied so accurately from the men at Pig Creek. He unravelled the bits of rope, and washed all the grit from them before they were thrown aside. No spot of clay that could hide a colour was left upon the chips, and when at length the dirt was completely puddled, he began the more interesting work of panning off.

Only about half a pint of material was left in the pan—sand and pebbles and rusty nails. The boy handled this deftly, pawing the stones and nails and throwing them out between his legs with the skill of an old hand; and then, shaking and dipping, he washed away the sand, until the yellow gold began to show through. Taking a little water in the dish he swirled the contents, and his heart bounded again. A streak of fine gold, with here and there a coarse speck, ran along the edge of black sand, and every lap widened the yellow band.

“Gimminy! Sonny, that’s good ernuff!”

A little, grizzled, hard-looking old man, splashed with wet clay, was leaning over Dick, peering excitedly into the dish.

“Must be ten weights there, boy. Where’d yer get the stuff?”

“Find out!” said Dick, sulkily.

It is contrary to strict etiquette and accepted professional usage for one fossicker to go sneaking around another fossicker when the latter is panning off; it suggests an encroachment. Dickie filled with resentment. He shook the gold down, and moved away from the old man.

“Clear rout, can’t you?” he growled.

“Only thot I’d show yer ’ow ter pan ’er off,” piped the other, with a poor show of disinterestedness. This was a grievous insult to Dick, who flattered himself that he could always get a decent prospect out of Tinker’s tailings, and who had been complimented on his art by an expert. Dickie felt it keenly.

“You jes’scoot—go on!” he said, resentfully. “You want ter find out where I got this, so’s you can collar the stuff, don’t you? You sneaked that patch what I found by the office door, didn’t you? ’n got thirty-bob’s worth outer it. I know you!”

“But no one else ain’t ’lowed ter fossick roun’ this mine but me,” said Tinker. “The right was given ter me by the board uv directors, see!”

“Ger out!” cried the boy, dubiously.

“Didn’t they, but? Seehere!”

The old man drew a piece of crumpled paper from his breast—the piece he had had his tobacco wrapped in.

“See here, here’s the blessed deed all draw’d up, an’ with the Queen’s signitur in ’er own ’andwritin’.”

“Le’s see.”

The boy reached for the paper, but Tinker restored it hastily to his breast, “’Somever,” he said, “if you’ll lay me on where yer got that dirt I don’ mind lettin’ yer wash a few dishes now ’n again. ’R yer on?”

“No, I ain’t. My father was killed in this mine, an’ I got ez good er right ez you.”

“Oh, very well, young feller me lad! When the mounted p’lice comes along, I jes’ fixes yer up for ten years’ ’ard labour, with three floggin’s, fer gold-stealin’.”

Dickie looked consternated for a moment, but soon recovered himself after recollecting that Tinker was always particularly and peculiarly anxious to avoid the police, and arguing inwardly that those great, proud men on the polished horses, who pranced through the township once a month or so, would certainly have nothing to do with a mean, dirty little hatter like Tinker Smith.

“If you don’t gib out I’ll climb up ter the wheels an’ paste you with grease,” he said, “an’ drop rocks in yer puddlin’ tub.”

Tinker stood, eyeing the boy dispassionately, and clawing his scrubby beard.

“Ten years’ ’ard labour, an’ three floggin’s,” he repeated, musingly.

Dickie had armed himself with a stone, and struck an offensive attitude. “’R you goin’, once?” he said.

“A dirty, dark gaol!” said Tinker, apparently to himself.

“’R you goin’, twice?”

“No tucker, no bed, nothin’ but lickin’s an’ leg-irons!”

“’R you goin’, fer the third an’ last time?”

Tinker moved off slowly, reciting as he went:

“Ten years an’ three floggin’s! Floggin’s with the cat-o’-nine-tails -cat-o’-nine-tails with bits o’ lead on ’em!”

But Dickie was not in the least impressed, and when Tinker had returned to his tub up the race, set eagerly to work to finish his prospect. About half an ounce of clean gold was the result, and the sight of it added to the feverish elation that was in the boy’s blood. He had never washed such a rich dish before. Hundreds and hundreds of dishes he had taken from all sorts of holes and corners about the old mine, but hitherto the best result had been a pennyweight or so from a shovelful of surface dirt dug out just near the office door, where the sweepings were scattered, and Tinker had promptly confiscated a large area, and robbed him of his right as discoverer. An unconscionable fossicker was Tinker, with no respect for the nice observances of the craft and the unwritten code which forbids one man to take advantaoe of another’s discoveries, to poach his preserves, or encroach upon his “dirt.”

But since then Dick had learned to assert himself he had found that Tinker was not invulnerable, and now he knew that, when perched up by the great black twin wheels, on the swimming height at the top of the poppet-legs, he was master of the situation, and commanded the field. They were by far the highest legs in the country, and the old man never dared venture further than the brace, not half­way up; so that from his proud eminence Dick could bombard his foe with lumps of the congealed tar and grease that flaked the wonderful pulleys, until Tinker was glad to signal a truce.

Dick washed the gold from his pan into the up-turned bottom of a broken beer bottle, along with the few grains earned during the afternoon, and, after hiding it in a rabbit burrow under the bank, hastened up the wide wooden stair leading to the high brace of the deserted mine. Along by the machines he set to work on the floor of the puddling plat with an improvised broom and a scraper, collecting the dust that lay between the boards into his dish, gathering it with as much care as if it had been pure gold. Near here had stood one of the sluice-boxes—long since torn away and burnt for the sake of the gold secreted in its crevices—and Dick, noticing that the floor was double boarded, was inspired to pull up the top planks and wash the dust collected underneath and in the cracks. Fine gold is as insinuating as quicksilver; about an old alluvial mine you find it in the most unexpected places. Tinker once put in a good day’s work washing the dust from above the Peep-o’-Day boilers, where the “knock-off” men had hung their clay-covered working clothes to dry, shift after shift, for many years; and anywhere within a hundred yards of the mine the colour could be got for the trying.

Tinker had followed Dick to the brace, and stood greedily overlooking the boy, who was digging dirt out of the cracks with a long, pointed nail, and deeply absorbed in his work. Tinker drew nearer, his little red eyes gleaming amongst their wrinkles. He had the reputation of a miser in Waddy, and certainly gold-dust had fascinations for him that did not arise wholly from its intrinsic value; but Dickie commanded respect—his power for mischief was great. Enthroned above, he had often taken summary and complete vengeance for injustices done him. It was an occasion for diplomacy.

“Ho, ho, young feller! I’ve cot yer, have I? ” cried the old man. “This is burglary an’ house-breakin’.”

Dick Haddon armed himself in defence of his property, and faced his enemy, glaring defiance.

“Yer in fer it this time right ernough, Mister Haddon. Le’s see,” continued Tinker, eyeing the boy’s stick dubiously, “I b’lieve they hangs fer robbery with vi’lence.”

“Don’ care!” snorted Dick. “You come near me an’ I’ll break yer head.”

“Look here, Dickie, you don’ split on me, an’ I won’t split on you. We’ll go harves. I works at this end, an’ you at that. That’s a fair do.”

“No, you don’t!” answered Dick, sturdily. “I found this patch, an’ I ain’t goin’ t’give it up t’no-body.”

It was a bad place for a scuffle. All the boards had been stripped from the plat at the far end, and between the big pine beams supporting the puddlers, and on which the floor had been laid, was a clear fall of about eighty feet to the clean white boulders below. But Tinker’s cupidity was aroused; he believed that if the whole of the plat were stripped as the boy was doing it the dust would yield five or six ounces, and he was furious at having over-looked the job so long. He edged towards Dickie cunningly.

“I don’t wanter get yer inter quod, ’cause o’ yer pore widder mother,” he said, “but the board o’ directors said I wasn’t t’allow no one ’round this mine, an’ if yer don’t clear I’ll have ter go t’town an’ ’ave yer took at once. Dooty’s dooty!”

“Who cares?” shouted Dick, valiantly.

“Ger out, blast yer!”

Tinker closed with the lad, and there was a struggle. Dick struck out blindly with his stick, and it cracked on his enemy’s head, and Tinker went tottering back, with out-thrown arms, over the edge of the floor, and fell among the beams, clutching wildly at their smooth sides. Dick saw his blanched face, horrified eyes, and his gaping, toothless mouth for one moment, and then he disappeared between the beams with a shrill and terrible cry, echoed by one yet shriller from the lips of the boy.

But Tinker had not fallen. A long nail in the side of one of the beams had caught in the slack of his capacious trousers at the back, and the old fossicker hung, head downwards, above the enormous stones, clawing like a suspended cat, and screaming like a frightened child. His trousers were far from new, and the nail was old and rust-eaten.

“Tinker, don’t wriggle!” cried Dick. “Your trousers!—they’ll tear—they’ll tear!”

Instantly Tinker became as rigid as a dead man, but the awful consciousness that he was slowly slipping out of his clothes redoubled his terror, and he never ceased to yell.

The boy, lying face downwards on a beam, made an attempt to pull him up by the shirt, but desisted instantly on perceiving that the effort only served to jeopardize Tinker’s one poor hold. Then Dick was inspired with a great idea. He ran for the long nail which he had been using, seized an old tooth from a puddling harrow, and returning to the pendulous fossicker, drove the spike through the old man’s trousers into the beam, taking in as much material as possible. A shriek of extraordinary vigor convinced him that he had skewered Tinker’s leg to some extent, but it was no time for nice distinctions.

“Don’t wriggle, Tink’!” gasped the boy. “Don’t stir a wink ’r you’ll fall outer yer pants. I’m off for help.”

Tinker, head downwards and transfixed, with starting eyes glaring upon the stones far beneath him, where already in imagination he saw his mangled corpse, answered only with a groan, and Dickie fled along the puddling plat, across the brace, and down the wooden steps, missing the last six and landing in a heap with a blinding shock. When he quite recovered his senses again he found himself tearing across the paddocks towards the cattle-yards, with a strange feeling in his head and one arm hanging at his side like a piece of old rope. Over two fences and through a blackberry hedge, and Dick, white as a sheet, streaked with blood, ragged, and gasping, burst upon Michael Minahan at the yards.

“Tinker!” panted the boy. “Quick! Quick! Tinker! He’s hanging! hanging! hanging!”

Michael was a man slow of comprehension under ordinary circumstances; but a glance at Dick and a glance in the direction of his outstretched finger sent him racing towards the mine, with poor maimed, winded Dickie toiling gamely in the rear.

Meanwhile Tinker was slipping, slipping through his clothes. His voice had failed him, and he could only cry with a hoarse, thin treble, breaking into a poor squeal of mortal fear when a decided slip set him clutching frantically at the thin air, and convinced him that his end had come.

When Minahan reached the steps, the fossicker had slipped through his moleskins, and hung by the feet, moaning piteously. The cords tied below his knees delayed the great catastrophe. There was still hope. Minahan mounted the stairs with a rush, three at a bound, and Dickie, prostrate upon the dam bank, completely exhausted, watched the inverted figure of Tinker Smith with wide, terrified eyes.

Presently a large hand shot down and grasped one leg, and then to Dickie’s mind the world seemed to go out like a candle. When he knew anything again he was in a white hospital ward, with his arm in splints and his head in many bandages; and long before he could use that arm again Tinker had scraped the puddling plat as clean as a dining table, and, although he told no one, it yielded seven ounces.

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