In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

FINDING only one man following, Jim Done ceased running on reaching a clump of trees, and presently he was joined by the young Australian who had aided him.

‘My colonial, you sprint like an emu!’ gasped the latter. ‘All the same, that was a mad sort o’ thing to do.’

‘What was?’

‘Why, showin’ yourself ’bout here with the cheek of a dashed commissioner, while there’s five hundred on your head, hot or cold, live or dead, an’ every trooper in the country whim’ to give his long ears to pot you.’

‘But you are quite wrong; I’m not this Solo.’

‘Not Solo! That won’t wash. Wasn’t I there with Long Aleck when you got away with the gold Hoban hid in our nosebag other side o’ Geelong?’

‘You’re on the wrong scent. My name is Done. I’m a new chum, landed only this morning off the Francis Cadman.’

‘Here, let’s look you over again.’ The stranger struck a match, and, shielding it with his hands, examined Jim’s face. ‘Dunno,’ he said, ‘but p’r’aps you are a bit young. Still, rig a beard around that chiv of yours, and it’s Solo to the life.’

‘If it’s worth while, walk down to the ship with me, and I’ll satisfy you in two minutes.’

‘Your word’s good enough for me. Solo or no, taint my deal.’

‘Well, you’ve gone to some trouble to help me out of a hole, and I’m obliged.’ Done offered his hand, and the other shook it heartily. ‘You might tell me who and what this Solo is,’ continued Jim.

‘Smartest, coolest, most darin’ gold-thief in Australia. Outlawed for robbery under arms, wanted by all the police ’tween here and the Murray, and his head’s worth five hundred to you ‘r me, ‘r any yob that can rob him of it. He works alone. What his right name is no one knows.’

‘That’s all a bright look-out for me!’ laughed Jim. ‘But if he’s such an infernal scoundrel, and he’s robbed you among the rest, why come to his rescue?’

‘’Pon my soul, I dunno I’ replied the Australian, scratching his head dubiously, ‘’less it’s ’cause of his pluck ’n’ the dashed pleasant, gentlemanly way he has o’ doin’ things. By the way, what ’re you out for? Goin’ diggin’? Got a mate? Where ’re you makin’?’

‘I’m going digging. I have no mate. I can’t say what field I’m making for till I know more about them.’

‘Look here, take in my points.’ The native struck another match, and held it that Done might make an inventory of his perfections. ‘Five foot ten high, strong as a horse, sound in wind and limb, know the country, know the game, been on three fields, want a mate. Name’s Micah Wentworth Burton—Mike for short. Got all traps, pans, shovels, picks, cradle, tub, windlass, barrow. Long Aleck—chap that attacked you—was my mate; he’s turning teamster. Take me on, an’ here’s my hand. We’re made for a pair.’

Burton stopped for lack of wind. He jerked his words with a slight nasal intonation, and his manner and his action indicated a characteristic impetuosity. Done was astounded at his own seeming good fortune and the other’s rash confidence.

‘Come,’ he said doubtingly, ‘do you mean to say you’ll go into partnership in this desperate way with a man you don’t know, but whom you suspect of being a notorious rogue, and give him all the advantages of your property and your knowledge?’

‘Will I? My oath! Is it a deal? All that about Solo is off. I might ’a’ known he had too much horse-sense to mooch about Melbourne disguised only in a daily shave. As for the rest, blast it! we’re men. I take you on chance, you take me on spec. We can look after ourselves, I s’pose. Well, what say?’

‘I couldn’t ask for anything better. The only objection to the arrangement is that I take all and give nothing.’

‘Done, then! But don’t you run away with a wrong idea. There ’re heaps o’ decent men an’ good miners in Melbourne who’d jump at a mate of your stamp. Come along to my tent up Canvas Town to-night. There’s a spare bunk. Aleck started on a jamboree that won’t mature for a week. We can talk things into order.’


Jim Done awoke next morning with a fear in his heart that he had made a fool of himself. His mate was sitting just without the tent, grilling chops on a piece of hoop-iron twisted into a grid. Jim’s head felt new to him, and ached badly; old doubts, old prejudices, possessed him. Why should all the regard this stranger expressed have developed in an acquaintanceship of minutes? Why should Burton be so eager to bestow benefits upon him? That was not the customary way of men. He got up, dressed and washed, and took breakfast with his mate, and the sullen suspicion lingered; but Mike talked volubly, questioning nothing, and as the morning wore on his obvious sincerity won on Done, and ere they turned their backs upon Melbourne the Australian’s spontaneous, careless confidence in him and his open-hearted cordiality planted in Done the seeds of one of those strong, lasting friendships which are never half expressed in words, although they may sometimes be attested in eloquent and heroic actions.

On the afternoon of his second day in Melbourne Jim saw Lucy Woodrow once more. She passed in Macdougal’s trap as Done and his mate were walking along Swanston Street. She looked very pretty, and was laughing gaily at something her companion had said. The sight of that companion affected Jim in a peculiar way. He looked a man of about forty, strongly but sparely built; his face, clean-shaven but for the triangle of hair coming just below the ears, had a cameo-like correctness of outline; the lips were firm and full, the eyes deep. He wore one of the flat-brimmed bell-toppers fashionable at the time, a skirted coat, and a high collar. In a flash the whole man was photographed on Jim’s mind—why he could not understand. The sensations given him by the sight of that face were quite apart from the pang he experienced on noting Lucy’s apparent interest in the man. Jim felt for the miniature in his pocket. It was hard to believe that only about twenty-four hours had sped since their parting. Looking back now over so much that was strange, he thought as many weeks might have gone in the interval.

‘Monkey Mack,’ said Mike, following the direction of Jim’s eyes.

‘Do you know him?’

‘Everybody knows of him. Owns the best-stocked station out of New South. Made a pile through the rushes, selling stock at famine prices. Richest squatter in Vic, an’ that dirty mean he won’t wash ’cause o’ the ruinous wear and tear on soap. Used to go round collecting the wool the sheep scraped off on his fences an’ trees, an’ for years cadged his toby, (tobacco, you know) off passing teamsters; then, when the teamsters shied at him, gave up smokin’. Owns thousands of acres an’ hundreds o’ thousands o’ pounds, an’ wears toe-rags, an’ yet lets his wife have what she likes, an’ spend what she pleases. That was his wife ’long side him.’

‘Yes, she came over in our ship.’

‘Shipmates, eh? That’s as good as first-cousins.’

‘Who was the other man?’

‘Donno. Looked like something just blown ashore. Very superior, likely. Mrs Mack’s got a weakness for gentility. She was a neighbourin’ squatter’s milkmaid, they say.’

‘Well, Macdougal’s not mean in the matter of horseflesh.’

‘Right. That’s his other great extravagance. See, he gets about badly on those spider-legs of his, and makes up for his misfortune when he splits across a horse. He breeds the best, drives like a fiend, an’ can ride anythin’ lapped in hide.’


A week later Done and Burton were on their way to Forest Creek diggings. Everything worth working on Ballarat was pegged out, Mike said. Forest Creek was the new Eldorado. Their tools and stores were four days ahead, in the care of an experienced teamster whom Mike knew well, and whom he could trust to pull through, despite the abominable roads and the misfortunes that had knocked up many a well-found team and marked the track with crippled horses and stranded wagons. For two days Jim had carried his swag through the Australian Bush, and one night he had slept on the brown grass, using his folded blanket for a pillow, the camp-fire flickering palely at a distance, the wide-branching, dreamy gum-trees spreading their limbs above him, the warmth of summer in the scented air Already the instincts of the Bushman were developing in him. He began to feel a friendship for the towering gums in their flaunting independence; their proud individuality pleased him. To his mind they reflected the spirit of the people—it must be the spirit of the land. Nowhere in their feathery elegance did he find a law of conformity; each tree was a law unto itself, tall and strong and slender, youthful and buoyant, opening fond arms to the blue sky. The absence of the sap-greens of England conveyed at first an impression of barrenness, but that wore off, and the artistic side of his nature fed upon the soft harmonies of faded grass and subdued green foliage nursing misty purples in its shade. The ground was his bed and chair and table; never had he been so intimate with Mother Earth. Here she was uncontaminated, the soil was sweet, and it gave no hint of untold generations of dead fattening the grass upon which he couched as in sweet hay. From the earth he drew an ardent patriotism. He was already a more enthusiastic Australian than the loose-limbed native with whom he fraternized.

They camped five miles beyond Miner’s Rest on the second night, preferring the comparative solitude of the Bush to the scant accommodation and some what boisterous company at the shanty lately established to cater for the fortune-hunters streaming to the new rushes. Mike selected the spot and dropped his swag.

‘We’ve tramped far enough to-day,’ he said. ‘You’ll find water just over that rise there. I’ll light the fire.’

‘So you’ve been over this part before,’ said Jim, unstrapping the billy from his mate’s swag.

‘No; this is new country to me.’

‘Then, how do you know I shall find water beyond that hillock?’

‘’Pon my soul, I don’t know why I know,’ Mike answered; ‘but I’ll wager my share of our first tub it’s there.’

Jim found the water. There was a water-hole in a small creek at the spot indicated. His mate’s knowledge of things about him in the Bush, things unseen and unheard, had seemed uncanny at first; he was getting used to it now. Mike was born in the Bush, and the greater part of his life had been spent in it. He knew it as thoroughly as its familiar animals did, and much in the same way, without being aware of his knowledge, which was mainly instinctive. The billy was on the blazing fire, and Done sat watching Mike smartly mixing a damper in the lid. To Jim this, too, was a wonderful accomplishment. Water and flour were deftly manipulated until a ball of dough that quite filled the small lid resulted. It was done with the cleanness and quickness of a conjuring trick. The dough was divided into two pats, to be cooked under the hot ashes. Then Mike improvised his wire grid again, and in a few minutes the steak he had carried in a dilly-bag from Miner’s Rest was sizzling and spitting over the embers.

Done’s admiration for his mate was growing rapidly. Mike looked like a model in new copper, kneeling by the fire, his face thrown back, reflecting the glow of the flame in the surrounding dusk. Jim realized what had gone to the making of that hard, lean frame, and, proud as he was of his own strength, envied the other his endurance. He knew that Burton had been making concessions to him throughout their journey, that he could have walked miles further in the time without fatigue, carrying his swag as jauntily as if it were a butterfly poised on his back. His boyish exuberance of manner when stirred was in direct contrast to the quiet assurance with which he went about ordinary affairs. He was never in difficulties, never at a loss; the Bush was his living-room, bedroom, and larder. He had already shown himself independent of what the stores could provide when a meal was wanted. Mike might have been a pink Adonis in another climate and under other conditions; his gray eyes and fair moustache were in almost ludicrous contrast with his tanned hide—he appeared to be bound in morocco.

After their meal Jim spread himself upon the ground, his head pillowed on the swag, stretching his tired limbs. Mike sat smoking, and there was silence over and about them. One of those brief hushes, when all the night voices are stilled and the trees merge into black, motionless masses, was upon the Bush, and it infected the men. All day they had marched with the throng; their tramp had never been lonely, thousands of men were moving upon Forest Creek, and every now and again they passed a toiling party burdened with tools and utensils, or were passed in turn by more enthusiastic spirits pushing on, eager for a share in the treasure of Red Gully, Diamond Gully, and Castlemaine. The shouts of the joyous travellers were still echoing in Done’s ears.

He had seen diggers on the track under varying fortunes, cursing dreadfully by broken-down teams, urging on their dull bullocks—slow, but very sure—singing exuberantly as they paced by, carrying heavy swags with light hearts, shouting as they went, under the impulse of a common hope that begot friendliness in all; and yet each man was armed now—there was a revolver or a pistol in every belt. They came out of the Bush, and the Bush swallowed them again—strange groups. Two Jim passed he recognised as sailors off the Francis Cadman: one was in the shafts of a loaded wheel barrow, the other, with a rope over his shoulder, trudged ahead, towing manfully, both as merry as boys at play, despite the ten days’ journey ahead of them.

‘Good luck, mate!’ ‘Good luck!’ The trees showered kindly wishes, and hearty compliments danced from lip to lip. A spirit of irrepressible jollity laughed in the land. Drays, waggons, buggies, cabs, vehicles of all kinds, were pressed into the service of the adventurers. Four diggers went roaring by in a dilapidated landau that had seen vice-regal service in Hobart Town, driven by a fifth blackguard dressed in an old livery, and they brandished champagne bottles, and scattered the liquid gold like emperors—lucky pioneers from Buninyong. A ragged, bare-footed, hatless urchin, a stowaway fresh from the streets of London, whipped behind, as he might have done a few weeks earlier on a Bishop’s carriage in Rotten Row. The mates next encountered a band of Chinamen carrying their burdens on bamboos, covering the ground smartly with their springing trot and cackling gaily as they went; then a ‘hatter,’ drunk as a lord rolling heavily, his hands in his pockets, his hat jauntily set on the back of his head, bellowing the latest comic song, a lonely soul; then a dray, piled high with cradles, pans, picks, shovels, swags, and a miscellaneous cargo, on the top of which perched a bulky Irishwoman, going to the diggings to make her fortune as the proprietress of the Forest Creek Laundry. This and much more in the depths of a pathless forest, the grave solitude of which was disturbed only for the moment as each jocund company hastened on into the mysterious vastness ahead, or fell back into the dense Bush that lay behind. That anybody could have a definite idea whither he was going in this ocean of trees, that engulfed them all like 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.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     VIII

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