In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

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 weapon, tossing it to and fro carelessly, and twirling it through his fingers with remarkable rapidity.

‘That’s a pretty clever trick,’ said Thorn.

‘This is no great shakes.’ The owner of the beautiful beard twirled his revolver more rapidly. ‘Lend me another.’

Thorn threw his, and the stranger caught it smartly, and juggled with the two.

Brigalow Dick, the gold-buyer, rode up. A particularly bright ex-trooper from Sydney, Brigalow Dick had a reputation as a safe man, and the horse he rode was one of the finest on the field. On one side of the front of his saddle was strapped the stout leather case carrying the gold, on the other was a bag containing money.

‘Any gold to sell to-day, Burton?’ asked Dick.

‘Yes, in half a minute, old man,’ replied Mike, deeply interested in the tricks of the juggler.

Brigalow Dick drew his horse up closer and watched the performance.

‘Bet you’re Californian, Whiskers,’ he said.

The stranger nodded. ‘Let me have another shooter,’ he said.

A third was thrown to him, and he twirled the three in the air, discharging each into the tip as it reached his hand.

‘Bravo! bravo!’ The performance was growing quite exciting.

‘That’s simply nothing,’ said the amateur prestidigitateur modestly. ‘Throw me another, and I’ll show what I call a damn good trick.’ He cast his eye around the group. It lit upon the gold-buyer casually.

‘Here you are.’ Brigalow drew his revolver from his belt, and threw it.

‘Very good, and many thanks,’ said the stranger. He coolly placed the other revolver in his shirt, turned the gold-buyer’s long six-shooter on its owner, and said: ‘Come down off that horse, Richard, my boy!’ Brigalow laughed uneasily, but did not stir. ‘Comedown, curse you!’ cried the other with sudden ferocity; and, springing to his feet, he seized Dick, and brought him heavily to the ground over his horse’s rump. ‘Lie there, or, by God, I’ll scatter your brains on the grass!’ said the juggler. ‘The first man that moves will peg out a claim in hell to-night,’ he continued, leading the horse away, and walking backwards himself, with the revolver pointed. No man doubted his word. Dick crouched on the ground, staring after him, furious, but quite beaten. Suddenly the robber sprang to the horse’s back with a clean jump. ‘Now, that is what I call damn good sleight of hand, Brigalow!’ he cried; and, producing a short, heavy green-hide whip from his shirt, he lashed the horse mercilessly, and went riding at a breakneck pace down the gully, heading for the distant timber.

‘Tricked!’ cried the ex-trooper, jumping to his feet—‘tricked by the great Blue Bunyip! Tricked like a kid!’ He turned and ran for the troopers.

‘I surmise Mr. Solo was lurkin’ behind them there whiskers,’ said a tall, thin Californian, when the party had somewhat recovered the surprise.

Jim started, recalling the encounter with Long Aleck in the Melbourne bar.

‘Was that Solo, do you think?’ he asked.

‘Dead cert’ replied the Californian. ‘Them’s his playful ways.’

‘If you guessed it, why didn’t you give a hint?’

‘Not knowin’, can’t say; but it’s just pawsible I ain’t pushin’ myself forward as a target this spring.’

Done found this indisposition to interfere in ‘other people’s business’ very marked amongst the diggers; and their toleration of notorious evildoers was a pronounced feature of their easy-going character, encouraged, no doubt, by their contempt for the law, which appealed to them only as an instrument of oppression.

‘This means a gallop for the troopers,’ said Mike.

‘They’ll run him down!’ ejaculated Jim at a venture.

‘The man occupyin’ my socks is bettin’ ten ounces agin all the feathers off a wart-hog that they don’t,’ answered the Californian.

‘But look at the weight he carries!’

‘You’re a bright boy—a most remarkably bright boy!’ drawled the American, ‘an’ I guess you’ll pick up a heap o’ knowledge afore you die out, but up to now you don’t know much about Solo. He kin ride like the devil, an’ fight like the hosts of hell, an’ he’s ez full o’ tricks ez a pum’kin’s full o’ pips. I tell you, Amurka’s proud of her son.’

‘Who sez he’s American?’ asked a digger, resenting the appropriation.

‘Well, sir, if he ain’t he’s that good an imitation he might’s well be the real thing.’

About half an hour later three troopers came cantering through Diamond Gully, looking very smart in their Bedford cords and shining top-boots, and the diggers yelled derisive orders, and greeted them with cries of contempt, jeering them from every hole along the lead. ‘Jo!’ was the favourite epithet hurled at the troopers and all representatives of constituted authority. Done never discovered the origin of the term, but into it the diggers compressed all the hatred they felt for unjust laws, domineering officials, and flagrant maladministration.

‘I thought you knew this Solo,’ said Jim to his mate that evening.

‘Well,’ replied Mike, ‘I reckoned I did; but he changes his disguises pretty smartly, ’r else that was another party in the same line o’ business.’

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     IX

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