In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

NATURALLY, Aurora’s popularity was greatly increased, and the tent of Mrs. Ben Kyley became a favourite rendezvous. The girl’s good looks and her good and Mrs. Kyley’s own breezy, genial disposition, were sufficient to assure a large interest on the part of the men; but Aurora, in taking action against the troopers, had identified herself with the enemies of officialdom. Thenceforth she was a public character. There were not so many women about the rush but that scores of sober, reputable diggers would have travelled far and drunk much indifferent rum merely for the privilege of gazing upon the merry, handsome face of a girl like Aurora Griffiths. Now she was in some measure their championess there was more reason for offering devotion at her shrine, and Kyley’s saw busy nights.

‘Why did you do it?’ asked Jim a few nights later, throwing into his words a hint of reproach. Done was unconsciously assuming some little air of proprietorship over Aurora. Whenever the girl noticed it smiles sparkled in the corners of her brown eyes.

‘Pure devilment! What else?’ she answered.

‘Wasn’t it a little—just a little—’ He was at a loss to express himself, and Aurora’s laugh chimed in.

‘The dear boy’s brought his sinse iv propriety wid him!’ she cried. ‘Maybe ye’ have a few words to say on moral conduct an’ the dacent observances iv polite society, an’ ye’ll be axin’ me to put on a proper decorum before the min. Arrah! ye have some purty maxims for young ladies, an’ a heap iv illegant an’ rare ideals iv yer own as to what’s good an’ becomin’ in young persons iv the other sex, haven’t ye, dear?’

‘No, no, no!’ cried Done, shocked to find how easily he had slipped into the attitude of the common moralist.

‘I stand on my merits and my lack of them, Jimmy. There’s only one of me here!’ She touched her breast. ‘And good, bad, or indifferent, my friends must take me whole.’

‘Whole, then.’

‘Wait, boy, you don’t know a fifth of it yet.’

‘Do your worst, and test my devotion, Aurora. I defy you!’ Jim was getting on.

‘Devil doubt you. You’re a bold man, Mister Jimmy Done, an’ I like your cheek, for all it’s as smooth as my own.’ She touched his face caressingly with her fingers, and turned to serve clamouring customers at the other end of the counter.

‘Good-night, mate,’ said a quiet voice at Jim’s elbow. Done turned quickly, and started back a step with some amazement on beholding the pale, impassive face of the stranger who had attacked Stony at their camp in the Black Forest. The man was smoking a cigar. He was dressed after the manner of a successful digger, with a touch of vanity. He regarded Jim earnestly, and the young man experienced again the peculiar feeling the first sight of this stranger had provoked.

‘Good-night,’ he said.

‘I see you recollect me.’

‘Oh yes. Did Stony quite escape you that night?’

‘He did, thank’s to you, Done.’

‘A man couldn’t see murder done under his very nose without stirring a hand.’

‘Don’t apologize. I have no grievance. If I had killed him I should have regretted it more than the death of my dearest friend, although no man from the time of Cain had better excuse for murder. I suppose you have not seen the man since?’

‘No!’ answered Jim with emphasis.

‘Meaning that you would not tell me if you had. You need not fear being an accessory before the act. I want Stony alive, Mr. Done.’

‘Mister Done!’ Jim laughed. ‘I did not think there was a Mister on the camp. But how do you know my name?’

‘I have heard it here to-night half a dozen times. My name is Wat Ryder—Walter Ryder, but mono syllabic Christian names are insisted on amongst our friends.’ He pointed his cigar towards the diggers at the tables. ‘Forgive me,’ he continued in an even voice, ‘but your scrutiny of me is suggestive. May I ask what there is in my appearance or my manner that disturbs you?’

The question was put without feeling of any kind, but it startled Jim a little. He was surprised to find that he had betrayed any trace of his emotion.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘my experience of you has not been commonplace.’

‘You mean that affair in the Bush?—a casual fight, with the usual loud language merely, for all you know.’ Ryder maintained silence for a few moments. He was studying his cigar when he spoke again. ‘By the way,’ he said abruptly, ‘I know a good deal about you, Done, if you came out in the Francis Cadman.’ He expected this announcement to have some effect.

‘I saw you one day in Melbourne,’ Jim replied. ‘You were driving with Mrs. Macdougal.’

‘Mrs. Donald Macdougal of Boobyalla,’ said Ryder gravely.

‘She was a shipmate of mine.’

‘Yes; and you saw my face for a moment in Melbourne and remembered it. You observe narrowly and quickly, Mr. Done. It was not Mrs. Macdougal who was most communicative on the interesting subject I have broached, however, but a very charming young friend of hers, Miss Woodrow. The young lady’s concern was excusable in view of certain services, but nevertheless flattering. She asked me to constitute myself a sort of foster-Providence over you if we ever met, Mr. Done.’

Jim laughed to smother a pang.

‘Do I need it, Mr. Ryder?’ he asked. He fancied there was a flutter of the other’s eye towards Aurora, but Ryder did not reply to the question. ‘Miss Woodrow told me of the rescue,’ he said, ‘of your solitary disposition, and spoke of a life of suffering in England.’

Done’s lips tightened; he squared his shoulders. The fear that had possessed him on leaving his birthplace was no longer upon him, but he desired no revelations, no digging into the past, and there was a hint of motive in the other’s tone—he was inviting confidence. For a few moments Ryder bent a keen glance upon the younger man, his face bowed and in shadow, toying with his cigar.

‘Jo!’ yelled a voice out in the darkness.

Instantly every pannikin was emptied on the floor, and thrust into a digger’s shirt.

‘The traps!’ cried Mrs. Ben, and her rum-jug flew into a tub of water behind the counter. Several bundles of washing were tossed out, a loaf of bread was thrust upon Done, and at the same moment the door was thrown back, and in marched Sergeant Wallis, followed by five police. Mrs. Ben Kyley was not surprised, and had expected that Aurora’s imposition would bring a raid down upon her sooner or later, and here it was.

‘You’re selling sly grog here, ma’am,’ said Wallis, sniffing like a retriever.

Ben Kyley rose silently from his stool and approached Wallis.

‘Sit you down, Ben Kyley!’ roared Mrs. Ben; and Kyley returned as silently to his seat, and sat smoking throughout the scene that followed, apparently quite listless.

‘Am I selling sly grog, Mr. Sergeant? Then it’s a miracle where it comes from. I haven’t a drop in the place, or I’d stand you a nobbler gladly. It’s my opinion there are worse-looking men than Sergeant Wallis in gaol.’

‘Rubbish, ma’am! the place reeks of rum,’ said Wallis.

‘A bit of a bottle Quigley shouted for the boys, this being his birthday.’

‘Quigley has too many birthdays. Search the place, boys!’

The police commenced a systematic search of the tent, examining both compartments, and trying the earthen floor for a secret cellar. They found nothing, and meanwhile Mrs. Kyley was bantering Wallis with boisterous good-fellowship.

‘The idea of an officer of your penetration, sergeant, mistaking a poor washerwoman’s tent for a grog-shop.’

‘The poor washerwoman does a big business, Mrs. Kyley.’

‘Not amongst the police, Sergeant Wallis. It is a miserable living a washerwoman would make out of them. I hear they beat their shirts with a stick once a month, as we dusted the carpets in the old Country.’

‘We can find nothing, sergeant,’ said one of the police.

‘Remember how Imeson tricked you all at Bendigo, Wallis, with a hollow tent-pole that held ten gallons of brandy.’

‘I do, Mrs. Kyley. You were Mrs. Imeson then.’

‘And if you have the luck I may be Mrs. Wallis one of these days.’

‘Heaven forbid, ma’am!’

‘Don’t waste your prayers on me, sergeant. Maybe I deserve even that, my sins being many and various.’

‘And sly grog-selling is one of them. But I’ll have you there yet, my good woman.’ Wallis turned his thumb down.

‘Remember I am only a poor weak woman when that happens, sergeant. Will you have a drink before going? There’s a nip left in Quigley’s bottle.’

‘No, ma’am, I don’t drink,’ answered Wallis from the door.

‘Then, sergeant, commit your nose for perjury. It’s bearing false witness against you all over the field.’

There was a yell of laughter, interspersed with the usual cries of ‘Jo!’ as Wallis passed out after his men, and the diggers bombarded Mrs. Kyley with the bundles of washing that had been hastily distributed amongst them. Ben Kyley followed the police out, and presently returned and nodded to Mary, who seized her jug and dived through the canvas partition. She was back again in a minute with a jug full of spirits.

‘My shout, lads!’ she cried. ‘Roll up, and drink the health and long life of Mary Kyley!’

The device that enabled the washerwoman to deceive the police was known to a few of the diggers, but they kept the secret well. Her tent was pitched close to a big hollow gum-tree. High up in the butt nestled a barrel of rum, the bottom coated with cinders, like the interior of the burnt tree. From this barrel a pipe came down under the bark to a neatly disguised little trap-door where the canvas lay against the butt. A hidden slit in the tent corresponded with the trap-door. It was Ben’s office to replenish the barrel at night, with kegs brought from their safe hiding-place in an abandoned claim, over which was pitched the tent of his mate, Sandy Harris. Mary had adopted this plan on three rushes, and her savings, regularly banked in Melbourne, already assumed the proportions of a modest fortune.

When the police were gone Jim looked about him in search of Ryder, but his acquaintance had disappeared. As his friendship with Aurora Griffiths ripened, Done shook off thoughts of Lucy Woodrow, since they never came without an underlying sense of accusation. He was enjoying his present life to the full. In his heart was a great kindness towards the people with whom he mingled. He was naturally sociable, a lover of his kind, and recognised now that half the torment of his life since coming to manhood had arisen from his isolation, from the lack of opportunities of gratifying this affection. He admired Aurora, comparing her with his youthful ideal, the strong animal, self-reliant, careless of custom. True, she lacked the intellectual superiority with which he had endowed his defiant Dulcinea, but he had even forgotten to take delight in his own mental excellence of late, so that did matter. He only concerned himself with living now. He was quite at his ease in Aurora’s society, and the atmosphere on the Kyley establishment pleased him. The place was full of interest, but his warmest interest was in the full-blooded pagan who officiated as Hebe to the assembled diggers.

He had quite respectable qualms at times, seeing her the object of so much rough gallantry—qualms he stifled instantly as being in flat rebellion to his fine philosophy of individualism as applied to behaviour. His rights of man must be rights of women too. But, for all that, there was much comfort in the belief that Aurora showed no preference elsewhere. Quigley’s prominence as a suitor was not due to any partiality on the part of the girl, but rather to Quigley’s own aggressive character, and his imperturbability under her eloquent banter. To be sure, she persisted in treating Jim as an interesting boy, a line of conduct he found somewhat absurd, but which was partly the vein of her humour, and partly due to his inexperience in the role of Don Juan.

So the merry months passed, and the mates worked claim after claim on Diamond Gully, doing much prospecting work and sinking sundry duffers, but unearthing sufficient gold to make Done’s riches a good deal of a nuisance to him, although translated into the biggest bank-notes available. During all this time Quigley’s dislike for Jim was only kept within bounds by the vein of flippancy that ran through Aurora’s demonstrations of preference for the younger man. The quarrel was inevitable, however, and it was precipitated by a half-drunken demonstration of affection towards Aurora on Quigley’s part, which the girl resented with a savageness that betrayed an unexpected trait.

One Saturday night Done and Burton were partners in a four-handed game of euchre going on at one of the tables, when a sudden disturbance arose at the counter. Mrs. Ben Kyley’s familiar rum-jug crashed and flew to pieces on the table amongst the men. The players were on their feet in an instant. At the other end of the compartment Aurora was struggling in the hands of Pete Quigley. Pete held her wrists firmly, and Aurora’s fingers clutched the neck of a bottle. Her face was distorted with passion, no trace of its habitual humour remained; the fury of a mountain cat blazed in her eyes, her lips were drawn back from her large white teeth, which were clenched with a biting vindictiveness. The other men reseated themselves, watching the struggle without much concern. Mrs. Kyley shouted an uncomplimentary summary of Quigley’s character from behind the counter. Jim alone advanced to interfere.

‘Drop it, Quigley,’ he said quietly, but his warmer feelings stirred. ‘Blast it, man, let the girl be!’

‘An’ have my brains knocked out with a bottle? I’ll see you flaming first!’

Done pressed Aurora’s fingers apart, and threw the bottle behind the counter.

‘Now release her!’ he said in a tone conveying a threat.

‘Mind your own infernal business!’ answered Pete. ‘I’ll deal with you in half a minute.’

‘Release her!’ Done was at Quigley’s throat with a grip that started Pete’s eyes from their sockets, and the elder digger abandoned his hold on Aurora to fight for his own breath. There was a brief struggle, and Jim sent Pete sprawling over a stool.

Quigley picked himself up. He did not rush at Done: he was apparently composed. He undid the wrist and collar buttons of his jumper, drew the garment over his head, and threw it on the floor at Jim’s feet.

‘I suppose you’ll take it fighting!’ he said. ‘If you won’t I’ll thump the soul out of you, anyhow.’

Aurora rushed between them, and endeavoured to grapple with Pete again.

‘You shall not fight!’ she cried. ‘You coward! You brute!’

At this juncture Kyley, who had been away replenishing the rum-barrel, entered the tent. He took in the situation at a glance.

‘Look after Aurora, Ben!’ ordered Mrs. Kyley, and Kyley calmly took the struggling girl in his arms, and handed her bodily over the counter into the washer-woman’s gentle care.

Mike was promptly at his mate’s back. ‘Stave him off, Jim,’ he said. ‘Use your straight left, and if he gets in throw him. He’s a dirty in-fighter.’ Mike had boxed a good deal with Done lately, and did not tremble for his friend.

Kyley came forward again. It was no part of his duty to prevent an honourable settlement of a quarrel between man and man, and very far from his inclination.

‘If yer meanin’ fight,’ he said, ‘it’s got to be fair, square, an’ in order. First man that fouls ’ll hear from me. Are you ready?’

The men had formed themselves into ranks along the sides and the end of the tent, leaving a clear space about eighteen feet square. Jim threw aside his shirt, and stood erect and composed. The flannel he wore was sleeveless, and his uncommon length of arm excited the attention of the cognoscenti, and if there was a miner on Diamond Gully who did not know the points of a fighter, he was ashamed to admit it. Done had done most of the windlass work since coming to the field, and his forearm was corrugated with muscle, while the flexors responded to movements like balls of iron starting under the brown skin. His shoulders were broad and set well back, his poise buoyant, and his air of absolute confidence gave a dubious tone to the words of the quidnuncs who were allowing Quigley three minutes to whip him out of all recognition. Done looked slight and small before his big opponent, but Pete’s bigness was due largely to surplus material, and Pete had been anything but a temperate man of late. Jim recollected this in calculating his chances and determining his methods.

‘Time!’ cried Kyley.

Done took his ground easily, with his left arm well up, and his right in for defence, a style so unusual at that date as to provide a little derision amongst the onlookers. Mike, standing with his arms outspread and his shoulders to the crowd, keeping the ring, smiled complacently. Pete, confident in his height, weight, and strength, was determined to make a short, hot fight of it, and went straight at Jim, both hands up, and launched his right for the young man’s face with terrific force. This must have been a decisive blow had Jim’s face remained there to receive it, but Done ducked neatly, and the next moment his left was shot into Quigley’s cheek, sending the big man staggering, and raising a purple wheal under the eye almost instantly. Pete’s composure forsook him at the first set back, and uttering a furious oath he rushed in again, swinging both fists; but that shooting left hand met him full in the mouth, and balked him again, his own sledge-hammer blows falling short of his opponent. He pushed in recklessly, punching right and left, but Jim dodged smartly, slipped under his arm, and jumped to the other end of the ring. Quigley swung round and dashed at him, and once more Done’s hard left shot into his face, while the heavy blow of the giant was neatly parried, and again Jim bewildered his man by ducking and slipping from him.

‘Why don’t you stand up and fight him like a Briton?’ cried one of the supporters of the big digger.

‘He’s fightin’ fair, an’ as long as he fights fair he’ll fight as he dom well pleases!’ said Ben Kyley, who had constituted himself referee.

Already Quigley was bleeding freely and panting from his exertions, while Done, who betrayed no excitement and conserved his energies with miserly care, was no more disturbed than if he had been taking a hand at cards. He faced his foe as before, presenting as little as possible of his body for a target, and met Pete’s rush this time with an adroit side movement and a heavy lifting blow in the body that made Quigley gasp, and robbed him of the little bit of sense that had remained. He went blundering at Jim, lashing out with left and right. There was a rapid exchange, and using his guard arm in offence for the first time, Jim sent in a swinging blow that crashed on Pete’s chin; and Pete dropped as if his legs had suddenly broken under him, and lay in a grotesque attitude, his cheek pressed to the earthen floor, while the assembled miners sent up yells of excitement that presently settled into a babel of criticism.

Quigley made an effort to rise, but collapsed, and was lifted into his corner, and freely sprayed and towelled by his seconds. Jim sat unmoved, while Mike and an aristocratic digger, known as the Prodigal, fanned him with the towels Mrs. Kyley had thoughtfully provided.

Quigley came up again at the call. He was still blinking and a little dazed, but far from being beaten, and the first round had taught him a lesson. He advanced more warily, displaying some little respect for his enemy’s darting left, but Jim’s tactics puzzled and disgusted him. The young man was as nimble as a cat, and no matter how Pete pushed him, he always broke ground and slipped away when it seemed that his towering opponent had him at his mercy.

‘Why don’t you fight, blast yer!’ stuttered Pete, swinging on the runaway for the third time in two minutes.

‘Yes, stand up to it. This ain’t a dancing lesson!’ his second growled.

Jim’s answer was a quick feint and a hard drive on the nose with the left, following up quickly with the right on Quigley’s ear. Both blows sank in deeply, and Jim eluded Pete’s rush, jumped out of his reach, and, coming at him from the side, punched him heavily in the neck, whereat Mike and his friends clamoured joyously. Quigley rushed at Jim, spitting oaths, but he was a better fighter than he appeared to be, and was prepared for the other’s swift, cutting left hand by this, and, ducking, he landed both fists on Jim’s body. Jim countered on the ear and neck, there was a fierce rally that set the crowd jumping and shouting madly, and Jim slid out and skipped away, then got back at Pete before he had quite realized what had happened with a powerful blow over the kidneys.

Pete’s blood was up; he set his teeth, and went at Done with hungry passion. The young man’s style of fighting was new to most of the onlookers, and few of them appreciated it. What they liked was to see combatants stand up to each other, giving punch for punch, a system in which the strong brute had all the advantage. Adroitness in avoiding punishment was not regarded with favour; but, in spite of the derisive cries of Quigley’s backers, Jim kept strictly to his methods.

‘Shut up, you!’ cried Kyley. ‘The lad’s fightin’ his own battle, an’ fightin’ it well. He could wipe the floor with a bunch of you.’

Breathing heavily, and looking extremely ugly under his blood and bruises, Pete followed Jim round, watching for an opportunity to rush in and grip him. He felt that it was only necessary for him to get the smaller man in his arms to settle the contest once and for all; but Jim fought him warily, sparring, ducking, and dodging, cutting Pete again and again with left-hand punches, or clipping him neatly with a swinging right when an opening offered. Taking advantage of an instant when Done was driven against the line of men, Quigley bore in, shaking his head from a blow that might have felled a bullock, and, clasping Jim round the waist, deliberately carried him into the centre of the ring, making nothing of the short-arm punches that cut like a hammer. Three times he tried to dash Done to the ground, but the latter was lithe as a serpent, and his limbs writhed themselves about Quigley and clung tenaciously. The crowd was shouting the two men’s names, and exchanging cries of triumph and abuse. Suddenly an arm shot across Pete’s breast, an elbow was driven into his throat, the two men wheeled, and the big one was sprung from his feet and sent down, with a stunning shock. The yelling ceased suddenly, every eye was upon Quigley.

‘My God! he’s killed!’ said one awed voice.

They dragged Pete to his corner, and Jim submitted himself to the attentions of his seconds. All the passion had gone out of his heart before the first round was finished: there remained no emotion but the lust of conquest. Aurora, who had watched the fight lying across the counter under the washer-woman’s restraining arm, her dark eyes shining, her face ablaze, beat the boards with her knuckles, and cried out incessantly, a prey to a fever of excitement that quivered in all her flesh.

‘Time!’ cried Ben Kyley, and the men came to the scratch for the third round, Pete badly shaken, but game and still eager.

‘Stand in an’ fight me, an’ I’ll belt the hide off you!’ he said savagely.

Jim laughed mockingly, and pushed his face forward, inviting the other to lead, and when Pete lunged at it he ducked, and got right and left on to his enemy’s ribs, slipping, away under Pete’s arm when he endeavoured to return the blows. For a time Jim simply led the big man a dance round the ring, landing a stinging blow now and then, to add to Pete’s discomfiture; but the latter got him cornered at last, and the thud, thud, thud of the blows stirred the crowd to enthusiasm once more. Pete got after Jim smartly when the latter broke ground, and landed his best blow, a heavy right swing on the temple that sent Done down, and left him confused for a few seconds. Quigley’s friends shouted themselves hoarse as Mike helped his mate to the chair.

‘How goes it, Jim?’ asked Burton anxiously.

‘He’s beaten, but my hat won’t fit me for a day or two,’ answered Done, smiling through the water.

Quigley showed his bad condition very markedly when he came up, and Jim, excepting for a cut chin and a big lump over his temple, appeared none the worse. Pete maintained his wild policy, rushing the young man about the ring, wasting energy in terrible blows that were rarely within a foot of their object, while Done, who scarcely seemed to be fighting at all, slipped in every now and again and battered Pete’s body, chary of hitting his cut and swollen face. This was maintained for two rounds more, and three times Quigley went down. When time was called for the seventh round Jim said decisively:

‘I’ll fight the man no more! He’s beaten!’

There was a yell from Quigley’s corner, and Pete rushed Jim, forcing him back among the men. Again they clinched, but Jim broke away, and Quigley followed, almost blind, and scarcely able to stagger. Done put him off with the left, and drove in a right-hand blow that took Pete on the point of the chin, sending him to earth, helpless and hopelessly beaten.

‘Jimmy Done’s the winner,’ said Kyley authoritatively, when a measure of quiet was restored, ‘an’ I don’t mind sayin’ I ain’t seen a prettier bit o’ fightin’ this five year. You’ve got a lot o’ Tom Sayers’s dainty tricks, my lad!’ he added, shaking Done by the hand.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     XI

Back    |    Words Home    |    Edward Dyson Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback