Below and On Top

A Zealot in Labour

Edward Dyson

THE CREEK was hacked and mangled out of all semblance to a sylvan rivulet.

The ruin effected looked like the work of many men. The muddy, yellow stream had been diverted from its course several times within half a mile, and all along the banks were torn down, great cuttings made, piles of gravel heaped up, dams built, and races dug. But the ravisher was there—a lone man, gouging his way into a bank at the head of the flat where it met the hill, looking a mere midge amongst the destruction he had wrought with his two good hands.

“Humpy” Bannon was puny and weazened and old; he had a hump between his shoulders, and no intelligence to speak of, but he had the spirit of a little red ant, magnified to suit his size. He loved labour, and he had chosen Grim Creek as his vineyard. From a miner’s point of view Bannon was the discoverer of Grim Creek. He it was who prospected it and found gold in it, and he was exceedingly proud of his field, although it was a starvation hole at the best, and rewarded him for his tremendous labours—digging, shovelling, puddling, cradling, wading in water, and grubbing in sludge—with a few wretched pennyweights where ounces would have been poor pay. But Humpy never thought of leaving. Wet days and fine found him, smeared with clays of many colours, struggling in a wet shaft or delving at the banks, full of enthusiasm, without resource, without horse sense, but all grit.

“Leave the creek?” he would say in answer to the advice of casual visitors. “Why, where’d I go ter?”

“Well, there’s some good gold gettin’ at Black Cap, an’ I hear about somethin’ worth prospectin’ ten miles out by Double-U Hill.”

“No fear! you don’t catch me leavin’ the creek. Why, some o’ them minin’ sharks from the city would be down here an’jump the claim afore I’d bin gone a week.”

“Jump this show, Humpy! Why, there is not gold enough in a mile of it to buy a peanut.”

Bannon couldn’t restrain his temper when the creek—his creek—was disparaged, and at this point always became incoherent between extravagant predictions as to the fabulous richness of the wash he was going to cut presently and insulting reflections upon the intelligence of the maligner, and he would fall to working again more fiercely than ever, jigging his old head the while, and chummering bitterly.

How he did graft! Little, and skinny, and aged, and ill-fed as he was, he cheerfully faced mountains of labour, and wore them down by sheer pertinacity—shifted them by faith and works. What wonders of toil can one determined man perform in a year! To know you must see the man struggling amongst the evidences of it, with the work of his hands piled up about him, and the man’s sole master must be a belief, sane or otherwise.

Humpy’s faith in Grim Creek was transcendent. That the creek gave him no justification mattered not a scrap. He lived in a little bark hut, comfortless as a mia-mia, on nothing in particular; he dressed at work in a worn shirt, patched extravagantly, and deplorable trousers and boots, and he wound lengths of sugee about his shins. His hat, a battered boxer, a gift from a sympathetic selector, had a big hole fore and aft—driven to extremes, he had once run a handle through it, and used it for a ladle when cradling—and the whole costume was cemented and frescoed with the grit and clay of the unspeakable creek.

The old man never had a mate—he never wanted one. He designed all sorts of hare-brained, unworkable contrivances in the shape of dumb-waiters, and cranks, and feed-pipes, and sluices, to overcome the difficulties that hamper a lone hand, but through disappointments and dangers and endless tribulation he struggled on, and turned up regularly every Saturday afternoon at the log store on the Piper road with his pathetic little packet of gold and his long familiar story of the good day that was coming for Grim Creek and the surrounding district when he finally “got on to it.”

A few of the farmers and selectors in the district, thinking that possibly, by reason of an unlooked-for contingency, Humpy might some day “get on to it” and boom the place a bit, helped with gifts of food and old clothes that to him were as good as new. One or two, from pure wooden-headed good nature, visited him at times, especially on Sundays, and sat with him in the sun or in his smoky hut, and let him talk to them by the hour about his creek. Next to grafting in the creek like a tiger, nothing pleased Humpy better than to prattle about his work, and invent, and lie, and rhapsodize to a sympathetic audience.

Tom Hughes was the old digger’s best friend. He had secured a selection in the locality of Grim Creek within the last six months, built a hut upon it, and settled down to take life as easily as a selector can who observes the covenants. Hughes was a hatter—a big, hairy man, physically slow, mentally alert, with a golden faculty of extracting amusement out of anything and everything, from the capers of his waddling terrier pup or the solicitude of a motherly hen to the foibles of his fellows. Hughes enjoyed Humpy Bannon enormously. He cultivated him. He would sit and study him by the hour, ponderous and apparently as grave as a fat frog between meals, but with a soul full of laughter. Humpy reminded him of an ant that he had once seen attempt to shift Mount Macedon. The ant thought the mount obstructed its view, or felt that it had a call; anyhow, Tom kept track of the insect for a week and neglected his duties to watch progress, and when he left the ant was still going strongly. Now, here was this other midge ripping up the face of nature and tearing at the bowels of the earth after something he didn’t really want and wouldn’t know how to appreciate. Wifeless, childless, without a taste superior to mutton and bread or an aspiration above the puddling tub, and with very few years of life before him, he worked from daylight to dusk, moving mountains, and grew radiant describing the treasure he must win some day. Yet ten shillings a week would have satisfied his needs, twelve would have embarrassed him with riches.

Walking along the creek one day Hughes came upon the old man clambering out of a prospecting hole on a rise. He was dripping wet, and coated with mud; clay was in his hair and his ears, and the dirty water ran from him as he stood. Humpy was too busy for conversation; he seized the windlass handle and began hauling with terrific energy. There were two buckets on the rope—one a kerosene tin, the other an ordinary water bucket. Humpy landed and emptied these, and then, lowering the rope into the shaft again, began to fish about. Presently he hooked another bucket and brought it to the surface. After fishing once more he landed a nail keg. Then he proceeded to let himself down again, sliding on the rope.

“What’s the little game, old man?” asked Hughes as the dripping head disappeared.

“After a bit o’ wash here. Tremenjis rich, I think,” answered Bannon up the shaft.

“But it’s too wet; you’ll never be able to bottom, workin’ her alone.”

“Bet I will, though!”

Further comment was deferred by the pit-pit of the old man’s pick in the wet hole. Tom Hughes hooked the nail keg, and put in an hour or so at the windlass, and was rewarded later with Humpy’s confidence. As usual, the little man was on the eve of a discovery that was going to revolutionize the district, and bring a big town humming about their ears on Grim Creek in less than no time. Hughes was a better miner than old Bannon, and thought the latter was fighting after a vain thing, but he offered no advice, understanding that it would be wasted, and remembering that it was Humpy’s policy to go and find out for himself at whatever cost of sweat and patience.

Humpy did bottom that hole, and scraped up a prospect that promised about ten “weights ” to the load to a sanguine man, but the water was up within three feet of the surface next morning, and eight hours’ vigorous baling had no appreciable effect. The claim could not be worked without a diving-suit and apparatus.

So Humpy went apart and thought. He wasted little time in speculation, and presently took a bee-line from his shaft to the foot of the rise, 250 yards off, and commenced an open cutting. His idea was to carry this narrow cutting into the hill on a level as long as he could throw the dirt, and then, when the sides became too high, to tunnel to the shaft, and so drain the ground he wished to work. This represented about a year’s labour to an average man working decent hours and in moderation. It was an utterly fatuous and foolhardy undertaking; as far as it was possible to judge, the ground would not pay for the working, let alone compensate for this gigantic “dead horse;” but Bannon did not calculate—he worked. On the occasion of Hughes’s next visit he found Humpy pegging away industriously in his cutting. He had covered a good distance in the shallow ground.

“Well, old party, what’re you coursin’ after now?” asked Tom.

Humpy explained between blows.

“Gee-rusalem, but you do lick ’ell an’ all!”

Tom proceeded to explain the difficulties of the job, and the ridiculousness of it; but the digger’s under­hand pick was going busily all the time, and at last Hughes seated himself upon a log and overlooked the toiler in silent enjoyment of his wonderful courage, his dunderheadedness, and the comical little ape-like figure and quaint tricks and turns of the man.

Humpy persisted, and in the weeks wore by his cutting extended and deepened, and at length he was forced to take on another contract. It was necessary to get the water away. He felled trees, and split palings, and laid down a box drain all along the cutting—a wonderful drain, representing much time and trouble. He timbered his job where timber was needed, and continued as before eating his way into the hill, and as he progressed his pride in his work increased. The cutting was trim and true; Humpy bestowed the most loving care upon it, and Tom Hughes brought all the strangers he came across to inspect and admire it as the one spectacle of Grim Creek, and to gaze upon Humpy and wonder over him. And whilst Tom stood aloft eulogizing the digger with something of the air of a showman, and amiably explaining his humours and eccentricities for the pleasure of these strangers, Humpy hammered away eagerly on the job below.

“He ain’t got common-sense about minin’,” Hughes would say; “have you, old man?”

Humpy, with his pick driven to the eye in the wall before him, would turn up his puckered, tanned, hairy face with the aspect of a venerable mandril, and damn his friend—hide, bones, and soul—as the selector went on:—

“But in a tunnel or a drive he’d work any man I ever knew stone-blind inside a week. Wouldn’t you, Humpy?”

More profanity from below.

“See, he’s built for it. Them shoulders was built fer pokin’ round in low black drives an’ muddy tunnels, but he’s wasted fer want of horse sense. He’s a blessed steam-engine whirling away like blazes, but doin’ nothin’ that matters a hang. Look at him! He’s the only man in Australia that likes work—he’d rather be workin’ than drinkin’—an’ he’s only happy when he’s clayed up to the ears and sweatin’ quarts.”

Sometimes a visitor dropped Humpy a half-crown or a shilling, and often a settler or farmer gave him help; but for all that he was compelled to leave his cutting now and again and go fossicking in the creek for a pennyweight or two, and then he was given over to a great discontent. Whilst he was working in the cutting it preserved its spick-and-span appearance; when he was away dead leaves accumulated in it, and Monaghan’s sheep sometimes destroyed the symmetry of its edges, and that affected Humpy as dirt and litter about a room irritate a good housewife.

But as time passed the great work progressed, and at length the tunnel had been opened out, and was being driven towards the shaft. It was the most elegant of tunnels, with a beautiful entrance, and carefully squared throughout, and it went in and in until at length, when Humpy was within a week of his goal, there came jangling up the creek one day a mounted policeman. The officer of the law examined Bannon’s hut carefully, and tossed things about and turned the place upside down with the placid insolence with which power endows most men; and then he rode to Humpy’s cutting, called the little man into the light of day, handcuffed him, and led him off.

The charge was sheep-stealing. There was no doubt of Bannon’s guilt: one skin with the brand on it was found doing service as a rug on his bunk another, quite fresh, was tacked up in his shed; and the best part of a fine lamb was rescued from his pickling-tub, and produced in court. The spirit of the early squatter still survives in the particular and express abomination of sheep-stealing manifested by our virtuous and humane judges. The sentence was two years.

Tom Hughes tried hard to preserve Humpy’s cutting from destruction, and kept a careful eye on his hut, but, walking down the creek one day twenty months later, he came upon the little old digger standing surveying the ruins of his great work. The sides of the cutting had tumbled in, the tunnel was down, and the drained ground was worked out. Humpy was smaller-looking and more shrunken, and ten years seemed to have been added to his age; he was bent nearly double, and was bleached a deadly dough-colour; his limbs trembled as he stood, and he snivelled miserably like a boy. No greeting passed between the two men.

“’Twas three fellers from Melbourne done it,” said Hughes, indicating the cuttings.

“Damn ’em!” snapped Bannon.

“I tried hard to stop ’em,” continued the selector. “I explained it was your job; I argued, an’ pleaded, an’ preached, but ’twasn’t no good.”

Tom had also fought the intruders, singly and in a bunch, and had been severely manhandled for his kindness and consideration, but he did not explain this.

“Hows’mever, Wasn’t worth a cuss,” he added eagerly. “They skursly knocked out tucker, an’ only hung on jest from pure villainy.”

This was a lie: the young men had done fairly well out of Humpy’s claim, and had taken to town with them when they left sufficient gold to run a month-long “bender” of the most virulent and dazzling description.

“Damn ’em!” said Humpy again.

“Better track up to yer hut, old man,” Hughes said. “You’ll find it in order. You can spell-oh till you pick up a bit, an’ then you can get down to graft. You’ll be all right, you know.”

“Yes, yes,” grasped Bannon with a feeble return of his old fire, “there’s somethin’ above the fork I’m goin’ after. I’ll have to turn the creek. B’lieve there’s some ten-ounce stuff there.”

Hughes had to lead him to his hut, and attend to him for a few days, but presently Humpy was out and about again, with pick and shovel, pottering weakly here and there. Once Tom found him struggling to clean out the old cutting. By-and-by he started making great raids upon the hills, digging aimless holes, and throwing up heaps of dirt anywhere. Two or three times he was discovered lying helplessly by his work. At length the same policeman came trotting up the gully again, and once more Humpy Bannon was led away. This time he did not come back. He finished his days performing extraordinary feats of labour with a little wooden shovel at Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, destroyed in mind and body by eighteen months of comparative peace and rest and comfort in Her Majesty’s gaol.

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