“Are you on, Aunt Jem?” she queries, eagerly pressing a matter that has been long in debate. “I think it’s spiffin’. I could manage that ole black horse what you talk about, King Billy, easy as winkin’. Usen’t I drive et the Parker’s Miners, anyhow, when the boys’d let me?”
“You could drive right enough; ’tain’t that,” answered Aunt Jem in a deep, manly voice, assumed, like most of her mannish attributes, for so long that at length it had become natural to her. “There’s the night shifts”—Aunt Jem paused, grimacing inhumanly over the wringing of a crimean shirt—“an’ besides, it’s breakin’ the law, I’m thinkin’.”
“But the law won’t know—nobody won’t know, ’ceptin’ you an’ me. An’, then, think uv the thirty-five bob a fortnight, seventeen an’ six a week—what lux’ries we could buy fer dad with that!”
This triumphant assertion of the advantages of the proposition was not without its effect upon Aunt Jem. She ceased work to muse, and she pensively scratched her chin the while. Aunt Jem’s chin was not innocent of a certain vagrant stubble, and Aunt Jem’s breath was suggestive of tobacco. Aunt Jem was large of limb and muscular and masculine. She had fought her own battle and taken excellent care of herself in the “early days;” she had roughed it at Ballarat, Bendigo, Blanket Flat, Eaglehawk, Fiery Creek—in fact, on most of the Victorian diggings in the “fifties” and “sixties;” she had washed dirt as well as clothes, and still boasted herself as expert on a sluice-box with the fork as any man living. In short, this worthy woman had faced the world “like a man” for twenty odd years, and at fifty-four was little disposed to set up any sentimental bounds to woman’s sphere.
“Are you quite certain no one knows you’re here?” she asked, after a few moments’ cogitation.
“Sure’s death,” replied the girl with enthusiasm. “Ain’t been away from the hut further’n them saplin’s there since I landed on the mine. Ain’t seen a soul, bar you.”
“The people down et the township might ’ve noticed us come through in the coach, then agen they mightn’t. Anyhow, there’re not likely to come pokin’ round here. By thunder, we’ll do it.”
The girl bounced off the table, danced about the room in a paroxysm of delight, and performed an extraordinary feat of tumbling, finishing in a huddled heap on the bunk.
Kitty Bennet was the only child of Mat Bennet, a digger whose luck was always out—a man who had dug and delved his way through Victoria—north, south, east, and west—without unearthing more gold than sufficed to provide the necessaries of life from year’s end to year’s end. Mat married late, and his wife died soon after Kitty’s birth, leaving her child to the affectionate but not very discriminating care of its nomadic father. Aunt Jemima “lent a hand” in bringing up the girl, “for natural love and affection,” as the lawyers put it; but, as the aunt’s ideas of conventional refinement had suffered much in the course of long familiarity with, and acquiescence in, the rough and ready customs of society in the camps and about the diggings, it may easily be understood that Kitty’s exuberant character was neither tamed nor toned by her fond maternal aunt, and the girl “had her fling,” whether sharing her father’s tents on some alluvial field, or living with Aunt Jem in whichever part of the wilderness that massive relation happened to be situated for the time being.
A week or so previous to the opening of our story Bennet was stricken down by the fossicker’s bane, rheumatic fever, and compelled to go into the hospital at Sale. His sister Jemima had recently accepted an honourable and responsible position on a mine in a comparatively new reefing district, in the hills about twenty miles beyond Bruthen, where she officiated as housekeeper for the manager, in consideration of which service she received fifteen shillings a week and the use of a “furnished” hut standing on the company’s lease, a wage she increased by washing for the men working on the Old Identity. Here Kitty found herself on the third day following her father’s, departure to the hospital.
Shortly after making the resolution recorded, Aunt Jem wrung out the last article in her tub, and half an hour later she departed for the township on the grocer’s waggon. This meant a walk back of eleven miles “by moonlight alone,” but Jem was superior to all feminine weaknesses, and too thorough a bush-woman to let a trifle like that trouble her. She returned in due time, bearing a bundle under her arm—returned over Camel Hill, having left the track and cut through the bush to save the long turn round.
Next morning Spence, the manager of the Old Identity, was bailed up at the dam by a bright-eyed, brown-faced boy, with closely-cropped hair, an intelligent if not particularly clean countenance, and an air of complete assurance.
“Say, boss, can you give us a job?”
The old miner looked down with surprise and amusement at his diminutive petitioner.
“Tendin’ ducks?” he queried with a grin.
“Naw!” (with sublime contempt) “drivin’ the whim.”
“And who are you anyhow, cherub?”
“Name’s Christopher Bennet, called Kit. That’s my Aunt Jem over to the log hut, an’ I want a job bad.”
“You bet I ain’t! I’ll ’tend whim with any kid round here. Used to drive onst. Give ’s a show, will you, please?”
“Well,” said Spence reflectively, “we do want a boy; the lads we’ve got are workin’ long shifts, and boys are scarce articles here. What’s yer age?”
“Sixteen,” answered Kit without a blush (she looked fourteen). “Aunt Jem brought me up from Bairnsdale, knowin’ you wanted a boy, an’ if you don’t put me on—well, you’ll lose a ringer on a whim, that’s all.”
“Your cheek has outgrown you, sonny,” he said, “but you’re spry. Go on with the afternoon shift.”
“With the old black horse, King Billy?”
“Yes; he’s the quietest an’ best edjikated. Take him.”
“Oh, boss, you’re a brick! What screw—seventeen an’ six?”
“A quid a week.”
“That’s great. My colonial! I am erbliged.”
The boy set his hat further back upon his handsome head, thrust his hands deeply into the pockets of his new “moles,” and swaggered on to the brace. He presently engaged the braceman in conversation on mining matters generally, and the Old Identity in particular. He desired to know the depth of the mine, the nature, the extent, and the “lay” of the lode, whether “she” was wet or dry, the quality of the air below, and the character of the explosives used. These questions were asked with the freedom of an interested party and the air of an expert, and with a quaint use of miners’ slang that pleased the braceman immensely.
With the ready faith of youth Kit conceived an immediate liking for the braceman, who was a young man of about nineteen, tall, strongly built, and clean limbed, with the easy but decisive movements of an athlete. His well-tanned face expressed a lively intelligence and betrayed his kindly disposition and his geniality at a glance.
“What’s your monicker, mate?” asked Kit after five minutes’ aquaintance.
“Charley Coleman, alias ‘Professor.’”
“Yes,” apologetically; “you see, I play the fiddle a bit.”
This explanation appeared to be quite satisfactory.
“Wish I was on with you, ‘Professor,’” continued Kit; “you’re jest my sort. What kinder bloke’s on the brace my shift?”
“Faith, he’s a sweet mahn; he’ll be a father to you, so he will.” Coleman’s whim boy, Tim Canty, offered this information. Tim was a large-headed, big-footed youth, with wonderfully wild hair, and great, obtrusive yellow freckles—a Bungaree-bred boy, blessed with the intense brogue of his father.
“Go on!” ejaculated Kit, who detected the sarcasm.
“Sure, yes,” continued Tim, “he’ll barrack the life out av yiz. He bosses the byes like he owned the bloomin’ mine—makes ’em yank all the timber fer him, an’ truck the mullock, an’ shovel the quartz. We calls him ‘The Bunyip.’ Be the holy, he’s ez ugly ez sin, an’ he shwears an’ curses loike fifty bullockies in a bog.”
Kit blew a long, melancholy whistle. “That is tough,” he murmured.
“You’ll be all right,” Coleman broke in consolingly. “Stick to your whim, and be as deaf as a stump when he begins to rip out. There is more bellow than anything else in ‘The Bunyip.’”
“S’pose I’ll pull through,” said the boy, brightening up.
The prospect of having an ill-tempered, lazy bully for a mate did not serve to dampen the youngster’s enthusiasm, and after going over the mine, scrutinizing the whim with the eye of an authority, and enlightening Tim on the points and merits of the big, sleepy roan horse trudging solemnly round and round the ring, he walked across to the hut to communicate his news to Aunt Jem, bearing himself with a gravity that became a worker with a grave responsibility and twenty shillings a week.
Kit found, when he went on with the 4 o’clock shift, that Tim Canty had not over-coloured the unlovable characteristics of “The Bunyip.” The man’s name was Pope; he was large and unwieldly, and common report credited him with an uncompromising antipathy to water, whether applied externally or taken as a beverage—a report which was wholly substantiated by his general appearance, and the vinous flavour of the atmosphere in his vicinity. Mr. Pope walked with the attitude of a gorilla, which amiable animal he also somewhat resembled in his habitual expression. His long arms swung loosely from his narrow shoulders, his face was nearly covered with short red hair, and his small eyes peered out through the slits where his puffed cheeks and bushy brows almost met. “The Bunyip” was said to possess great strength, but he never exerted his powers. He was naturally a tired man, and loved to “doss” upon the reef, or to sit, propped against one of the poppet-legs, smoking like a furnace, whilst the whim boy did his work. This, of course, during the night shifts or such times as the boss happened to be absent from the mine. He also enjoyed a local reputation as a pugilist of extraordinary staying powers and surprising science, till Welsh Harry, a man of little more than half his weight and with none of his bluster, whipped him to a standstill in a nine-round “mill” after he had been convicted of carrying superfluous cards in his shirt front one night in M‘Cubbin’s humpy.
Pope’s antipathy to exertion induced him to look with no favourable eye upon Kit. He wanted a strong boy, and one big enough to be trusted to land the bucket when bailing was going on, whilst he dozed on the chaff bags by the fire through the long, cold nights.
Kit, radiant with pride, led King Billy on to the whim-ring at 4 o’clock, relieved Tim, and harnessed the black horse in the iron bow, and “The Bunyip” scowled down upon him from the brace.
“Say, youngster,” he said presently, “who sent you round here?”
“Boss,” replied Kit shortly.
“An’ ev I gotter nuss yer?”
“Let the boy down easy,” interjected Charley Coleman, who was forcing his crib-bag under the billy-lid, preparatory to leaving. “He’s a smart little chap, and will pull through all right if you don’t scare the heart out of him.”
“Nice he’ll look humpin’ a cap-piece,” growled Pope.
“I reckon you’re paid to haul the timber,” said Charley, with a laugh. “Anyhow, if you don’t get along I’ll be agreeable to exchange boys.”
“Well,” responded “The Bunyip,” “I’ll soon be shut of this infant; that’s a comfort.”
True to his character, Pope lost no opportunity of making the work unpleasant for the boy. He bullied, cursed, and complained incessantly; but Kit affected to disregard his ill-humours, and whistled or sang with provoking complacence throughout, attending strictly to his fair share of the work the while.
The whim is only used on the Australian gold mines after the windlass and the “whip” have been abandoned, and before the proprietors feel justified in placing costly machinery upon a claim. It is simply an elevated drum around which the rope that hauls the buckets—one on each end—up and down the shaft is wound. The whim is turned by a horse harnessed under a crossbeam, and travelling in a circle below. The horses soon become so accustomed to the work that they will go through all the necessary evolutions when spoken to, and “back up,” “turn,” “pay out,” or “take up slack” as the order is given. Kit’s charge, King Billy, was, as Manager Spence expressed it, “edjikated;” he had worked in a whim for years, and performed his task with machine-like regularity. The “demnition grind” had become so much part of his nature that when turned out in the paddock ’tween shifts or during his “long shift off”—from Saturday morning till Monday afternoon—the old horse would doze at times, and suddenly start off as if in a dream, ambling round and round on an imaginary ring, till Kit rushed forth, and drove him back to his pasture by pelting him with sticks and clods of earth. King Billy was as intelligent and docile as he was industrious, and soon accepted Kit as his best friend, came to know the boy’s footstep and the sound of his voice, and would greet him with clumsy but unmistakable demonstrations of goodwill whenever he approached. All of which was a pride and delight to Kit, and his work at the mine would have been a continual pleasure were it not for the unamiable qualities of “The Bunyip,” complaints of whose behaviour were often made in the chock-and-log hut, and received by Aunt Jem with many expressions of enmity, and such demonstrations of a craving for vengeance as might have made Mr. Pope a little more reasonable in his conduct had he been there to see and hear. It was one of Aunt Jem’s manly boasts that she could “use her hands” when occasion required, and strike a blow the weight of which she told in pounds and ounces with unwomanly pride; besides, she had something of “a record,” and stories of her pugilistic efforts in her own defence had enlivened more than one mining camp in the past.
“I’ll go along an’ lay that man out one o’ these fine days!” cried Aunt Jem after an unusually bitter complaint of Pope’s cruelty, and she struck an attitude, and sparred at the hut door with her big, strong hands, looking really capable of fulfilling her threat.
“That ‘d jest serve him right,” said Kit, with thoughtful gravity. “Only,” and he squared his small shoulders, “it’d make me look a baby before the men, havin’ a woman fightin’ fer me. Best let’s wear him out.”
Matters remained in this unsatisfactory state for several weeks, when at length Pope’s desire to be rid of the boy was satisfied, but not without a disagreeable experience on his own part. “The Bunyip” was suffering the results of loss of sleep and of money at a card party at M‘Cubbin’s sly-grog shanty on the previous night, and his native unpleasantness was much aggravated in consequence, and he naturally sought to relieve his feelings on his whim boy, Kit being the only person near who was forced to put up with his nastiness. Throughout the morning he had vented all his choicest expletives on Kit’s devoted head, and had harassed him at his work, without, however, producing any apparent effect, and now, galled beyond bearing by the boy’s seeming cheerful imperturbability, he was bent upon taking satisfaction “out of his hide.” Kit was well aware of the man’s intention, and contrived to elude him for some time, but was captured at last.
“I’ll teach ye t’ give yer elders lip!” said Pope, shaking him by the neck.
“Never guv no lip,” protested Kit breathlessly.
“Oh, didn’t you but. Take that.”
“An’ you take that, you great cur!”
Pope received a heavy blow on the jaw that sent him sprawling off the whim-ring.
“Hit someone yer size—hit me!”
It was Aunt Jem; she stood in a scientific position, her sleeves rolled back, her powerful brown arms steaming from the wash-tub.
“Hit me, why don’t yer?”
Pope staggered to his feet, mad with rage, and made a rush at his assailant, but another arm interfered, and put him back. Charley Coleman, who happened to be on the mine, and who had seen the rise of the quarrel, stepped in, and took Kit’s cause upon his own broad shoulders, rather to Aunt Jem’s disgust.
“Stand back, Pope,” said the young man. “You deserved all you got. You have no right to knock the boy about.”
Furious at the thought of being overthrown by a woman, and galled out of bearing by the laughter of the surfaceman, Pope swore a great oath and plunged at Coleman like a wild beast.
Kit saw the men meet, saw blood flow, and heard the heavy thuds of their quick blows, and then shut out the dreadful sight in the folds of his aunt’s skirt. When he looked again, Pope lay on his back in the dust, his face badly cut and bruised. Three men held him, but he did not seem anxious to get up on his feet again. Charley was standing near, waiting; he was not marked, but all the amiability had gone from his handsome face, which was fierce and drawn with an ugly scowl.
The manager had now arrived upon the scene.
“What’s all this?” he asked.
Half a dozen voices offered an explanation.
“You see, sir,” said Charley when they had done, “Pope doesn’t like the boy, and doesn’t treat him fair. Suppose you change Kit on to my shift; I’d be glad to have him. ”
“Anythin’ for a quiet life,” growled Spence, scowling at “The Bunyip.” “And see here, Pope, next time you feel like makin’ a disturbance on this mine you’d best trot up to the office and draw your money.”
The braceman did not answer, but slouched up to his place, wiping the blood from his mouth.
“I’ll mark you for this, Coleman,” he said to Charley a few minutes later, with a black frown. Charley laughed.
“Don’t do anything foolish, old man,” he said.
So Kit and Tim Canty changed shifts, much to the latter’s disgust, and Kit worked for the future under “Professor,” between him and whom a warm friendship now existed. Kit was grateful to Charley for many kindnesses, and Coleman liked the boy, and found pleasure in his characteristic whimsicalities and his joyous nature.
The Old Identity claim was situated between two precipitous and heavily-timbered hills. The magnificent white gums on the side of Mount Mooney towered away above the whim in evergreen luxuriance, and across Brandy Creek, whose peculiar red waters rippled in the willow—like shade of the silver gums, Camel Hill arose in impassive grandeur and shut out the southern sky. On a clearing at the foot of Mount Mooney, about a quarter of a mile from the mine, stood the stringybark huts of the miners, and higher up the more pretentious weatherboard skillion of the manager looked painfully out of place and a sad blot on the primitive grandeur of the range.
In the beautiful summer days, when the gully was sweet with the fragrance of the gum blossom and the heavy perfume of the wild musk; when the parrots, the “keets,” and gorgeously-plumaged blue mountains and rosellas chattered and whistled amongst the honey-laden bloom, Kit, like a true child of the bush, reflected its spirit of light and joy, and darted hither and thither, with the mercurial gaiety of health and youth, mimicking the calls and tunes of the birds with marvellous fidelity, or singing till the gorges echoed back his song in a bewildering chorus, But there were times during the long night shifts when the ghostly moonlight flooded the gully, and the mountain lowered above them dark and forbidding, with the black pall of bush upon it; when only the faint rumble of the small battery up the creek, or the cry of a lone mopoke far up the range, broke the solemn stillness, and then the whim boy sat by his mate on the brace, awed into reverence, and called softly to the shadowy horse moving noiselessly on the bark-strewn ring below.
Charley’s conquest over “The Bunyip” served to intensify the great admiration Kit had for him, and the feeling increased with acquaintance. The young braceman had read a good deal of lighter literature, and the stories he could tell and the knowledge he was able to impart indicated to Kit, whose acquaintance with “the three R’s” was very superficial, an amount of learning that was positively stupendous.
Kit asserted Charley’s superiority over all other men with the placid assurance of simple faith, and frequently expressed surprise that he didn’t go down to Melbourne and own a big hotel. To own a big hotel was, to Kit’s mind, the pinnacle of greatness and magnificence.
But there were times when the whim boy became strangely reserved, even diffident, towards his mate, when he would sit for hours silently and dreamily upon the cross-beam, swinging his bare, sun-browned feet, regarding Charley occasionally with a shy glance as he circled by. These fits of abstraction were so foreign to the boy’s real nature that they puzzled the braceman not a little.
“What’s the matter, Kit?” he asked one day, after an hour’s silence. “Sick?”
“Naw,” replied Kit, blushing a little. “I was jest thinkin’.”
“Everythin’ like. Say, ‘Professor,’ did you ever have a sweetheart?” The question was asked with a timorous reluctance so peculiar in Kit that Coleman laughed aloud.
“Well, I suppose I’ve had a dozen or so, all told.”
“But I mean a reg’lar one—real M‘Ginnis, you know!”
“No; I was never particularly serious!”
“Oh!” said Kit, and relapsed into meditation again.
“What a peculiar kid it is,” was Charley Coleman’s mental comment.
On Sunday nights it was necessary for the brace-man and whim boy due on the 12 o’clock shift for the coming week to be at work an hour or so earlier than the rest of the hands in order to bale the water out of the drive in readiness for the men going below. The Old Identity was a comparatively dry mine. Kit and Charley went on to do this duty one particular night for the third time since their association as mates. It was a beautiful, bright night, and the boy was in excellent spirits, but, to his surprise, found his mate little disposed to respond to his merriment. Coleman was looking pale and depressed and feeling, as he told Kit, “a bit off.” The boy expressed his concern, and was silent in sympathy with his friend.
They had been at work about an hour; Kit was riding on the beam, directing his horse mechanically, and musing, with a thoughtful face. He and Charley were as yet the only people on the mine; it being still Sunday, the battery by the creek had not started crushing, and the night was unusually still. Not a sound broke the silence except the creaking of the king-post and the muffled tramp of the old horse. The candle in the lantern dangling from the poppet-legs over the brace burned with a pale, golden glow in the clear, white light of the moon, and the shadow of the whim cast upon the pipeclay below looked to the meditative Kit like a great-headed giant, tirelessly and vacuously throwing out his long arms and folding them again as the beam revolved. Suddenly the quiet was broken by the sound of angry voices near at hand. The boy sprang from his seat, and turning saw “The Bunyip” on the brace. Pope had been drinking; his face was an angry red and stamped with malignancy. He threatened Coleman, brandishing his gorilla-like arms, and cursing hoarsely.
“Keep off, madman!” cried Charley, “or one of us will be down the shaft.”
“What d’ yer think I’m here for, damn you?” spluttered the drunkard.
Pope struck at the young man, and they closed. They struggled for a brief moment, and then Coleman’s legs went from under him on the wet surface, and the next instant he had disappeared, and Kit heard the splash as his body struck the water in the shaft below.
For a short time ‘The Bunyip’ stood staring, then he turned, and staggered down the tip, and went blundering through the thick undergrowth along the toot of the mount.
Kit was at the mouth of the shaft in a second, peering into the dark depths. He called twice, but no answer came back to him. Then an appreciation of the situation flashed upon him. If Charley were not killed by the fall, without help he must drown in the well. It remained for him to act. Whilst busying himself he called for help, but there was no man within hearing. The long, iron-rimmed canvas bucket lay empty in the shoot; Kit seized it, and threw it into the open shaft.
“Back up!” he called in a firm voice, and the old horse backed till the top of the bucket was level with the surface.
Snatching the lantern from its hook, the boy took his stand upon the rim of the baling bucket, holding the rope with one arm, and calling to the horse —
“Get up, Billy!”
The next instant Kit was travelling down the shaft, steadying himself in the descent by touching the dripping slabs and centres with one foot every now and again. His idea was to save his mate if possible. He knew that King Billy would continue round the ring till the up bucket appeared above the surface, and then would come to a stand, and remain perfectly still—would go to sleep probably. The whim boy thought that if he could get hold of Charley in the water, by clinging to the rope, he might be able to support him until the night shift came on.
Down, down he went, the black slabs lining the shaft dancing up past his eyes in a seemingly endless procession, and the water raining upon him in great drops, stinging his cheeks and ears like stones. Splash! There came a rush of ill-smelling, brackish water into his ears and throat, and Kit was plunged into the well and carried down into the black depths. Even now the boy retained his presence of mind, and when he came to the surface again, gasping and kicking, no thought of his own danger entered his head—his object was still vividly before him. The rope was now stationary. He clutched it, and, drawing his head well out of the water, felt about the shaft with his feet, and, to his great joy, presently touched something that yielded to the light pressure. Reaching out, he grasped an arm and drew it towards him, and presently held the head of the braceman upon his shoulder. He was surprised to find it so easy to bear up such a big fellow.
Now it occurred to the boy that perhaps his efforts were in vain, and that in all probability Coleman had been battered to death against the timbers of the shaft ere he struck the water. He placed his ear against the cold lips of the unconscious man and listened, but could not detect the faintest respiration. He called Charley’s name, and screamed with a sudden terror, feeling something warm flowing on his hand. But the momentary fear was followed by a feeling of childish contrition, and he touched the wet cheek near him with his lips.
Several times Kit cried out, thinking he heard foot-steps on top, but no answer came down the black shaft. Looking upwards, far, far away he saw a large star glittering in the sky, and the sight of it gave him hope; there was a sense of companionship in it. Time abides with us in our trouble. The men were a long time coming. Kit felt that he had been in the cold water half an hour at least when it really was not ten minutes since he was riding comfortably on the whim-beam. The head upon his shoulder dragged heavier and heavier as the moments crept by, and the small hand clutching the 5-in. rope ached with an intolerable pain.
In a flash, at the moment his candle was extinguished, Kit had seen that the water was only about an inch above the flat sheet on the plat in the drive. He knew that if he could only get on to the plat there would be a better chance of his holding out till the men came. He acted upon the idea at once. Driving himself with his feet from the opposite side of the shaft, he suddenly let go the rope and succeeded in clutching the sole-piece. He had some difficulty in dragging himself into the drive whilst still holding his mate, but he managed it. Once safe in the drive Kit made an effort to pull his mate to the plat, but found himself too weak. Sitting with his back against the frame and his legs hanging in the water, the boy clasped Coleman under the arms, clutching his jumper at the back, and held on with the determination of a hero.
The drive was filled with a dense darkness; strange, low sounds echoed along its length. The water chilled Kit’s limbs, and pains were darting in his back and up and down his arms—pains that presently settled into an abiding torture; but he clung to Coleman, and waited. Burns and Harvey were the facemen on the night shift. It seemed as if they would never come. Two or three times the whim boy tried to cry out, but his voice was very weak and whistled in his burning throat. A dread that perhaps the miners were off on the spree flashed upon his mind, and he muttered a little prayer, a very little prayer, disjointed and irrelevant in its wording, but potent with Him to whom only the heart speaks.
The boy’s strength was leaving him, the pains in his back increased, and his arms felt as if being dragged from his shoulders. He spoke to his mate in piteous whispers, implored an answer, and wept; but his determination never failed nor flagged. At length he heard someone stirring on the brace, and his heart gave a great bound.
“Hello, below there!”
A hoarse gasp broke in Kit’s throat—he could not answer. And now all his limbs were trembling violently, and the agony of the strain was intensified with every second. Why didn’t they come down? What were they doing?
A long time seemed to elapse before he heard the bucket surge out of the well, and the water splashing down as it was borne quickly up the shaft. Kit made another effort, but his muscles failed to respond, and he could only cling to Charley’s form with frozen, tortured hands as it slipped, inch by inch, down deeper into the black waters.
Now came Kit’s greatest trial, the last terrible moments of waiting. He knew when the bucket reached the surface and when it started down again by the plunging of the other bailer into the water in the next compartment, which was not open to the drive, and the splashing of the falling water as it drew out again. But what long, wearing moments those were. How slowly the old horse crept round the whim-ring. Charley was sinking, sinking all the time, and Kit felt himself going down too, powerless to resist the weight that drew him, but ready to die rather than release his hold.
There came a flash of light, and Harvey’s candle showed him the drawn face of the whim boy, chalk white against the blackness of the drive, with wide, gleaming eyes and tightly-set teeth.
Kit knew nothing after the apparition of the face-man until he recovered consciousness in his aunt’s hut at midday. His limbs were aching, and there was a strange bewilderment in his brain, but as that passed away he recalled the incidents of the adventure in the shaft, and wondered how Coleman had fared. He was about to call for Aunt Jem, when he heard the voice of Spence, the manager.
“Coleman’s head’s knocked about a bit, an’ he’s had a bad soakin’, but he’ll be round agen in a few days, right ez rain. How’s the youngster, missus?”
“Sleepin’ like a lamb,” came the reply in Aunt Jem’s strong voice. “He ain’t none the worse that I can see.” A happy smile played about Kit’s lips when he heard the good news of “The Professor’s ” escape, and he turned his face to the wall, and soon slept again.
During Monday and the whole of the next day the miners from the Old Identity, and men working at the New Chum and other mines further up and down the gully, who had heard of the lad’s extraordinary action, called to inquire after him, and to express their admiration to Aunt Jem. Most of them asked to be allowed to have a peep at Kit as he lay upon his bunk, looking very small for so great a hero, and rather white and shamefaced.
The trooper from the township and a party of miners were out scouring the bush in pursuit of “The Bunyip,” who had not been seen since the Sunday night.
On Wednesday morning Charley Coleman limped to the door of the hut, where Aunt Jem was up to her elbows in the foaming suds, as usual. Charley’s head was swathed in an unnecessarily large and very unworkmanlike bandage, the handiwork of an amateur surgeon, and he was still pale and weak.
“Feelin’ O.K. agen, ole man?” cried Aunt Jem, in a hail-fellow tone of voice.
“Shickery here,” answered Charley, touching his legs, “and I’ve got a head on me, but otherwise pretty correct, thanks. S’pose I can see the boy?”
Aunt Jem’s head went down over the tub, and she churned up the water with unwonted energy.
“Yes,” she said, “I reckon you can; he’s there waitin’.” She pointed within.
Charley entered the hut, and saw only a little girl sitting on a camp-stool by the wide fireplace. She stood up to meet him. She was decidedly a handsome little girl of about sixteen, he thought; rather pale, with short hair that curled crisply over her small head, and with large, shy eyes. The braceman gazed at her wonderingly, and not without some youthful diffidence. It seemed that he should have known the girl, and yet he did not remember having seen her before.
“Beg pardon, miss,” said the braceman; “I’ve called to see Kit.”
The extraordinary little girl clasped her hands over her face, and then buried both hands and face in the pillow on Aunt Jem’s bunk. Presently she peeped out with one eye at Charley standing awkwardly in the middle of the hut.
“I’m Kit,” said a smothered voice from the depths of the pillow.
“What!” Charley strode to the side of the bunk, half-guessing the truth, and wild with astonishment. “What is the meaning of this, then?” He touched her skirt.
“Oh! ‘Professor,’ I was a girl all the time!”
“Kit a girl! Jerusalem!” Coleman dropped his hat. “My whim boy a girl!” He collapsed, overcome with amazement, and sat on the stool, dumbfounded, glaring at the back of Kitty’s head, which alone was visible above the pillow.
After a minute or so Charley arose and turned the girl’s face towards him.
“Let me see you, Kit.”
But Kitty covered her burning cheeks and her eyes with her hands, and tears oozed through her fingers.
“I can’t, Charley; I’m ashamed.”
“Kit a girl!” repeated the young man in a low voice. “You are Kit, and you did all the men have told me—you went down the shaft, and rescued me from death? How was it possible?”
“I just went down and caught hold of you,” murmured Kitty vaguely.
“I don’t understand it all, Kit,” Charley continued, taking her hand in his, “ but you have saved my life, and you must be the bravest girl that ever lived. I can’t say anything, but ‘Thanks, thanks!’ and that seems mean and little. I feel a fool, but I’m just full of gratitude, Kit.”
“I’m glad I done it—so glad!”
Kitty was transformed; a few weeks earlier the idea of assuming boys’ clothes and taking a job on the whim afforded her only delight; now she could not think of what she had done without a blush, and mention of it covered her with confusion. She had a suddenly-developed sense of propriety, of which the neat shoes and the stockings she now wore were an eloquent confession. There was coquetry, too, in the pretty ribbons at her throat and the flower in her hair. Nothing would ever again induce Kitty Bennet to ape the boy.
Aunt Jem was proud in her manly way of Kitty’s bravery, but could not understand that the fact of her proving to be a girl should cause anything more than a passing surprise. No harm had been done by the masquerade; it was a good joke, played out, that was all. This sense of the matter induced her to leave Coleman to discover the truth for himself; to have prepared him for it would have been to spoil a humorous situation, and Aunt Jem was a bigoted humorist.
Pope was found, four days after Coleman’s fall, lying at the foot of some high, precipitous rocks on the side of Camel Hill. He was quite dead, and this was held to be very considerate of him by the men of the Old Identity.
Charley and Kit have since married, but of late years Mrs. Charley has developed so keen a sense of propriety that the affair of the Old Identity is strictly tabooed in her family circle.