In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

AURORA! What would she say? What would she do? It was less the thought of his losing Aurora than the picture of her great distress that worried him. She would be broken-hearted. And yet go he must, there was no question of that; he had not come to Australia to tether himself to a woman’s apron strings, even though that woman be the brightest and winsomest of her sex—excepting one. He smuggled that saving clause in in a cowardly way. He had carefully masked his treachery even to his own eyes, and yet it was treachery that was in his bones. Of course, he must assure her that they would meet again: they were not necessarily parting for ever; but even as these thoughts worked in his mind he was not conscious of any anxiety at the prospect of a lasting separation. Jim did not realize to what extent the passion for Aurora had fastened upon his blood; he still liked her, there remained a decided tenderness, and he hated the idea of hurting her or causing her grief. This was the better part of his liking for the girl, but the vehement selfishness seemed to have gone from his love, and without a fierce note of selfishness love becomes as pale as friendship. She had been a wonder, a revelation, a great glory; she had become merely an attractive, handsome girl, rather exuberant in her affection. If Done were our villain we could show him unmanly, ignoble, and vile for all this, but not one voluntary impulse went to the making of his present attitude; it was a development entirely foreign to his will, and that much at least must be remembered in the defence of our hero.

Mike put off their departure a day. He had intended leaving the tools and camp-ware with his mate, but now it was necessary to make arrangements with a teamster to follow them to the new rush with their property.

Done approached Aurora with great misgivings; he expected a passionate demonstration. There had been no sign of waning affection on her part; on the contrary, she had seemed to grow more devoted to him.

‘Burton thinks this field is pretty well worked out,’ said Jim, as a preparatory announcement.

‘Well, I suppose it is, Jimmy. Been panning out badly of late?’

‘Not very badly, old girl; but not good enough compared with what we hear of from the other fields.’

She was sitting on the counter, holding his arm, and turned and looked sharply into his face.

‘You’re off?’ she said.

Done nodded his head, and watched her apprehensively. She was not disturbed; next moment there was merriment in the eyes turned up to him from where her head nestled on his breast.

‘Mike thinks we are wasting valuable time here.’

‘And you are, too. Good luck go wid you, ma bouchal.’ She kissed the point of his chin.

‘You don’t mind, Aurora?’ He had come in shivering with apprehension at the prospect of a passionate outburst, knowing the possibilities of her fervid temperament, and now experienced some sense of disappointment at finding her unmoved.

‘Mind, darlin’? Cud I expect to be keepin’ you here all the days of your life? Where are you going?’

‘To the new diggin’s, Jim Crow.’

‘It’s a wild field, they tell me, Jimmy. No fighting, mind. Leastwise, none for other girls.’

‘We start early in the morning.’

‘I’ll be up to throw an old shoe after you.’

‘I came to say good-bye to-night.’

‘Good-bye, is it?’ She flashed upon him, her face crimsoned, and a look, half fearful, half angry, glowed in her splendid eyes. But the feeling was only momentary; laughter rippled into her cheeks again, and she wound her arms about his neck. ‘Good-bye?’ she said. ‘And isn’t it breakin’ your heart you are to be sayin’ good-bye to me?’

Done clasped her closer, and kissed her, stirred by her warmth and her beauty.

‘Ah, my dear, dear boy, you may say good-bye to me a thousand times if you’ll cure the sting with such kisses,’ she said softly.

When Jim returned to their tent he found Burton already abed. Mike continued to read his paper, smoking placidly, but he was feeling no little concern. He had feared the result of that last interview with Aurora, and now waited the word from Done, who seated himself on his bunk and unlaced his boots in silence.

‘She took it without a whimper,’ he said presently.


‘She didn’t speak a word or raise a finger to keep me.’

‘Well, I’m blowed!’ Burton was openly delighted; not so Done, who, true to the contrariness of poor human nature, was apparently quite depressed.


Jim Crow, maddest of fields, like Tarrangower, which came later, resort of the most turbulent spirits, and a favourite centre with runaway convicts, gold-robbers, and the riffraff of the rushes, was still young when Burton and Done went, hastening down the hills on to the lead, with the thin but turbulent stream of diggers, but its character was already formed. Here the revolver was counted among the necessities of life, and although the main body of the diggers, as on all the other fields, were sober, industrious, and decent men, there was so strong a leaven of dare-devils and so varied an admixture of rogues and vagabonds that Jim Crow quickly won itself an unenviable reputation on all the rushes, from Buninyong to Bendigo, and, rich as it was, diggers found it as difficult to keep their gold as to win it. The Jim Crow ranges were within an hour’s flight, and offered splendid cover for the members of Coleman’s gang, or the friends of Black Douglas, or any other rapscallion who preferred stealing gold to seeking it.

On the day of their arrival at Jim Crow the mates pegged out a claim and pitched their tent, which Mike had added to his swag. With the help of Mrs. Ben Kyley, they had succeeded in depositing the larger part of their earnings at Diamond Gully in a Melbourne bank, and now they were hampered with no great responsibility in the way of riches. That night Jim and Mike walked over the field, through the clustering tents, and Jim discovered that what he had taken for a wild life at Diamond Gully was peace itself compared with the devilment and disorder of a new field. Jim Crow had opened well, the first discoveries were enormously rich, and the restless diggers were pouring in from all quarters, and glare and confusion and a babel of music and tongues rioted in the camp. Here, again, Jim was struck with the untamed boyishness of the miners; their levity was that of coarse, healthy children. ‘Is it civilization that is choking gaiety out of the souls of men?’ he asked himself.

Done had a curious experience on the following day. He had gone to the tent to light the fire, boil the billy, and prepare the mid-day meal, and was carrying water from a convenient spring, when, in passing the tent of their nearest neighbours, twin brothers named Peetree, the first prospectors of Jim Crow, he was startled by a furious yell, more like the howl of a madman than the cry of a sentient creature. Jim turned and looked about. There was nobody within sight from whom the amazing sound could have come, but as he stood the cry was repeated. Done set down his billy, and, approaching the tent, peeped in. There was nobody there, but again the wild cry rang out. He looked under the bunks, and then walked round the tent, but discovered nothing to explain the mystery. He paused dubiously, suspecting a trick, when for the fourth time he heard the marrow-chilling scream, and this time so near that he sprang aside in real alarm. Against the side of the tent, chocked to prevent its rolling, was a barrel, brought to Jim Crow by the Peetrees to be cut into two puddling-tubs, no doubt. Jim examined it suspiciously.

‘Le’ me out, yer swines! le’ me out!’ cried a shrill old voice, following the words with a long dolorous howl, not unlike that of a moonstruck cur.

‘Who the devil are you?’ asked Done. ‘What are you doing in there?’

His words only served to enrage the man in the cask; he had a paroxysm of linguistic fury, and curses spouted from the bunghole a geyser of profanity.

‘I’ll be the death o’ you when I get loose!’ screamed the prisoner. Another long-drawn yell followed, and then sounds as of a terrible struggle going on inside, with occasional cries and curses.

Done was greatly perplexed, but there was, he thought, only one course open to him. A fellow-creature was pent in the barrel, and it was manifestly his duty to go to the rescue. He had seized the Peetrees’ axe with the intention of knocking in the head of the cask, when a warning shout from the direction of the lead caused him to desist. One of the Peetree brothers was running up from their claim. He arrived angry and breathless.

‘What in thunder ’re you up to?’ he panted.

‘There’s a man in that barrel,’ answered Jim.

‘Well, I’m likely to know all about that, ain’t I? Drop that axe and mooch along after your own business.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Done, ‘but it seems to me that this is almost any man’s business. You’re not at liberty to keep a fellow-creature cooped in a barrel at your own pleasure, even on Jim Crow.’

‘That’s just so, but the man in there’s my father, which makes a dif’rence, perhaps.’

‘Your father? Are you keeping the old man in pickle?’

‘No; we’re keeping him outer mischief, an’ that ought to be enough for you.’

‘Of course, I don’t want to interfere with your family arrangements, but this is a bit out of the ordinary, and you’ll admit my action was only natural.’ Jim picked up his billy and crossed to his own tent, the man in the barrel breaking into fresh clamour, and calling down Heaven’s vengeance on his son’s head through the bunghole.

‘Shut up, you infernal ole idiot!’ cried the dutiful son. While Done was busy over the fire, Peetree junior drove the bung into the barrel, and then rejoined our hero.

‘Naturally, you wouldn’t understan’,’ he said, jerking his thumb towards the barrel, ‘but the ole man’s such a dashed nuisance when he’s on we gotter do somethin’ with him.’ The tone was apologetic.

‘I dare say you are quite justified,’ Jim answered. ‘A man doesn’t keep his father in a barrel for mere amusement.’

‘No, he don’t ordinary, does he?’ answered the native gravely. ‘Fact is, the dad goes on a tear now ’n again, an’ we pen him up to sober off. We can look after him all right after knocking off, but if we was to let him loose while we was at work he’d go pourin’ Bill Mooney’s fork-lightnin’ gin into him till he had his bluchers full o’ snakes ’an the whole lead swarmin’ with fantods. So when he starts to work up a jamboree we pull off his boots an’ tuck him in the tub, fastens the head, an’ leave him till he’s willin’ to think better of it.’

‘Well, that’s bringing up a father in the way he should go,’ laughed Jim. ‘I apologize for attempting to break into your inebriates’ retreat.’

‘Inebriates’ retreat!’ A wide grin slowly developed on Peetree’s gaunt face. ‘That’s a first name for it,’ he said. ‘Hanged if we don’t have it painted up!’

‘A sign of some kind is necessary. But isn’t the old man likely to suffocate with that bung in?’

‘Not he; there’s heaps o’ breathin’ in the cask. That bung’s just to gag him awhile.’

That evening after tea the two sons, with old Peetree under guard between them, joined the mates at their fire. Harry, Jim’s friend of the morning’s adventure, was about twenty-eight, tall and bony, with the shoulder stoop of a hard worker. Con and the father had the same general peculiarities. The three were identical in height and complexion, and in their mannerism and tricks of speech; but to-night the old man had a vacant, helpless expression, and seemed for the greater part of the time unconscious of the company he was in, and looked furtively about him into the night, muttering strangely to himself, and picking eagerly at his shirt-sleeves. The sons pressed their father to a sitting position, and then seated themselves one on each side, mounting guard.

‘See, we got him loose again,’ said Harry.

‘He’s milder to-night,’ answered Done. ‘What’s the matter with him?’

‘Only a touch o’ the jims. He’s liable to howl a bit now ’n again, but don’t mind him. He’s all right. Ain’t you, dad?’ He gave the old man’s head an affectionate push.

‘Once he takes to smoke he’s comin’ round,’ said Con Peetree, making a vain attempt to induce the old man to draw at his pipe.

‘There ain’t a finer ole tough walkin’ when he’s off the licker,’ said the elder proudly, ‘an’ not a better miner-ever lived.’

Done watched the group with keen delight. The young men’s respect for their bibulous parent was quite sincere, their care of him was marked with a rough but unmistakable liking. The conversation turned upon the characteristics of the lead at Jim Crow, and drifted to the inevitable subject, the development of the agitation for the emancipation of the miners and the doings and sayings of the insurgent party at Ballarat, and every now and again Peetree senior would whisper ambiguously: ‘There ain’t such a thing ez a drop of gin? No, of course not.’

Once Harry drew a small flask from his pocket, poured a little spirit into a pannikin, and gave it to the old man. ‘Hair off his dog, you know,’ he said. And two or three times Con made an effort to induce his father to take a whiff of smoke, but old Peetree shook his head disgustedly, and returned to his mutterings and the picking of imaginary tarantulas off his sleeves.

In the morning Jim noticed that the words ‘Inebrits’ Retreet’ had been printed on the barrel with pipeclay.

The good luck that had marked their initial effort on Diamond Gully followed the mates to Jim Crow. They struck the wash-dirt in their first claim, and Jim, in sinking through the alluvial, stuck his pick into the largest nugget he had yet seen, a lump of rugged gold, pure and clean, which Mike estimated to be worth four hundred pounds. It glowed in the sunlight with the lustre of a live ember, and, gazing upon it, Done trembled again with the vehement joy that thrills in the veins of the least avaricious digger at the sight of such a find.

‘If there’s a large family o’ these we’re made men,’ said Burton, fondling the nugget.

‘Unless some of Douglas’s men take a fancy to them when we’ve unearthed them.’

‘Or Solo chips in an’ lifts the pile. We must keep it dark till this field sobers up a bit.’

The tub of dirt taken from the bottom of their hole—that is, the deepest part of the strata of alluvial deposit, to which the best of the gold almost in variably gravitates—was extremely rich. The dregs in the tub, after all the clay and dirt had been washed away, blazed with coarse pieces, and Done carried away at least five hundred pounds’ worth in nuggets wrapped in his gray jumper. The coarse gold was picked out of the washed gravel, and then the remainder of the stuff was put through the cradle, the slides of which captured and retained the smaller gold, with a certain amount of sand, and this was washed again in the tin dish, the last grains of base material being got rid of by shaking the gold on a sheet of paper after it had been thoroughly dried, and blowing with the mouth, a process at which the diggers became so expert that very little of even the finest gold-dust was lost in the operation.

The mates finished their third day’s work on Jim Crow, wet to the hips, smeared from top to toe with yellow clay, dog-weary, but quite jubilant. They were as well satisfied with their next day’s work, and the next. They had succeeded in keeping the knowledge of their big find to themselves; but returning to their camp one night about a week later, Done was amazed to find the earthen floor of the tent dug up to a depth of about a foot. Burton grinned.

‘Someone’s bottomed a shicer to-night,’ he said.

‘What’s the meaning of this?’ asked Done.

‘We’ve had a little visit from some damn scoundrel who thought we’d buried our gold here. Must ’a’ taken us for a pair o’ Johnnie-come-latelies.’

At that moment a shot rang out on the night air, and sounds of angry voices and scuffling came from the direction of the Peetrees’ tent.

‘By the Lord Harry, they’ve nabbed him!’ said Mike. ‘Come along!’

They found Con Peetree holding a man down with a persuasive revolver, while Harry, with a burning match sheltered in his palm, examined the captive.

‘Cot him diggin’ in our tent. He broke ’way, but I’ve winged him,’ said Harry.

‘He gave us a look in, too,’ said Mike.

‘Lose any stuff?’

‘Not a colour.’

‘Same here; but we can’t let him go scot-free. That kink in the calf counts for nothing, and handin’ him over to the beaks means too much worry. Here, give’s a light, Burton.’

Mike struck a match, and, taking the thief by the ear, Harry Peetree drew a knife.

‘Good God!’ cried Jim, ‘you don’t mean to—’ Jim’s intervention was too late to help the prostrate man; Peetree had already slashed off the lobe of his left ear. He threw the fragment in the man’s face.

‘Now scoot!’ he said, ‘an’ don’t show yer ugly chiv on Jim Crow again, ’r you’ll catch a fatal dose o’ lead.

The crippled thief limped away without a word, pressing a palm to his streaming ear.

‘That seemed an infernally brutal thing to do,’ said Jim to his mate, when they were discussing the incident.

‘Not a bit of it,’ answered Burton. ‘We’ve got to mark his sort, an’ a brand like that’s known every where. A bloke with an ear stripped off can’t pretend to be a honest man here; he’s got to be either a trooper or one of Her Majesty’s commissioners.’

‘But you weren’t at all bitter about Solo.’

‘Solo ain’t a tent-robber; he generally robs the people who rob us. A tent-robber is the meanest kind of hound that runs.’

Jim was grateful for this lesson in diggers’ ethics, and went peacefully to sleep on it, having by this time acquired complete confidence in Burton’s hiding-place.

When the mates had more gold than they could carry in their belts with comfort, and trustworthy gold-buyers were not available, choosing a suitable hour long after midnight, Burton dug a hole near the tent, Jim keeping careful watch the while to make sure they were not observed. The gold was placed in a pan, and buried in this hole, and after that the camp-fire was built on the spot, and kept burning day and night. It never occurred to anyone to look under the fire for hidden gold.

Their first claim was nearly worked out, and the two young men were busy below digging out the last of the wash-dirt, when a voice calling down the shaft caused both picks to be suspended simultaneously, and the mates looked curiously into each other’s faces in the dim candle-light.

Hello below, there!’

‘Aurora!’ said Mike.

Jim went up the rope suspended in the shaft hand over hand. Aurora was standing by the windlass smiling down at him. The girl was remarkably well dressed. The gown she wore was too florid, perhaps, for that sickly refinement which abhors colour, but it suited her tall figure and her hale and exuberant good looks. As he came up the shaft the picture she made standing in the sunlight, with a background of sun-splashed, vari-coloured tips, and one drowsing gum-tree fringed with the gold and purple of young growth, gave him a thrill of joy, so vivid she seemed, so fresh. She had occupied his mind little since the departure from Diamond Gully; but seeing her again so radiant, he was glad through and through, and laughed with pure delight when she met him at the shaft’s mouth with a kiss. Once upon his feet, he clasped her in his arms. Her walk along the lead had attracted a good deal of attention, and the embrace was the signal for a sympathetic cheer from the miners about, and the men whirled their hats in the air.

‘Arrah! Won’t ye sarve the bla’gards all alike, darlin’?’ cried a young fellow on the left.

Aurora bowed low, and scattered kisses over the field with both hands, winning another cheer. Jim watched her with pride. After all, she it was who stood as his goddess of gaiety in the twelve months of absolutely happy life that had marked the reaction from the brutal stupidity and sourness of that other existence. He owed her much gratitude, much tenderness. He kissed her again almost reverently.

‘Did you think I was never coming, Jimmy?’ she asked softly.

Jim practised the virtue of equivocation. It had never occurred to him that she would come, but he would rather have bitten a piece off his tongue than have said so just then.

‘So you made up your mind to follow the moment I told you I was going?’ he said.

‘What else? Could I have bid you good-bye so glibly? Could you have walked off with a smile and a kiss, and never a word of coming again?’

‘Darling, I can never want to lose you.’

‘Whist’ no words fer the future!’ she said, reverting to her whimsical brogue. ‘We’re weak mortals, an’ every one iv us is born again wid the new sun. I’d not have ye bind the strange man ye may be to-morrow wid oaths, an’ I won’t bind the unknown colleen I may be for the likes iv ye.’

‘But to-day?’

‘To-day? To-day I love you with a big, big heart!’ she said, with deep feeling. ‘Kiss me!’

‘Knock off!’ cried Burton, whose head appeared suddenly at the mouth of the shaft. ‘I reckoned you’d had time to get through with that.’

‘Och! we’ve been a long time gittin’ through wid it, an’ we’re not through yet,’ said Aurora, shaking Mike warmly by the hand. ‘You may have one for yourself—there.’ She placed her finger on a dimple, and Mike kissed her gallantly enough. ‘Ah!’ she sighed, ‘you love another. The kiss betrays you.’

Something that might have been a blush, had the deep tan of his skin permitted such a thing, warmed Burton’s cheek.

‘And where’s Mrs. Ben?’ he asked.

‘Somewhere about the field.’

‘They are with you?’ said Jim.

‘To be sure; and the whole business—bakery, laundry, and light refreshments—has followed at my skirt with proper humility.’

‘They pitch tents here?’

‘Ben and Mary are now seeking a good business site.’

‘Adjacent to a hollow tree?’

‘The same bein’ a convanyint haunt fer Mary Kyley’s familiar evil shpirits.’

Done laughed, giving Aurora a one-armed, parenthetical hug. ‘They wouldn’t part with you, then?’

‘They would not, nor I with them. Dan’s been as good as a mother to me. But how is the luck, boys?’

‘Great,’ answered Mike. ‘We dropped on a patch here.’

‘Come and see us cradle the last tubful, and I’ll give you the prettiest bit in the hopper,’ said Jim.

‘Not a colour! The heart nugget you gave me long ago has worn tender places all over me.’ She tugged at the thin ribbon about her neck. ‘I’ll carry no more.’

Done did not press the point, although he knew that she took gifts of quaintly-shaped nuggets from the other men with the indifference of a queen accepting tribute.

Mrs. Ben Kyley greeted the mates with noisy joviality when they met, and Ben took his pipe from his mouth, and said he was ‘right down blarsted glad,’ which amounted to quite a demonstration, coming from him. Within two days the tents were up, and Mrs. Kyley’s business was resumed, and was carried on as at Diamond Gully, and with much the same success. But here for some time Ben’s services as ‘chucker-out’ were more in requisition, spirits being more unruly on Jim Crow. One night he even had to fight a five-round battle with a riotous young Cousin Jack, in which engagement Done seconded him by special request. Ben triumphed, but came out of the contest with a black eye and an inflamed nose of a preposterous size, at which Mary was virtuously indignant.

‘You, a professional, fighting for diversion like any fool of a gentleman!’ she said scornfully.

‘Man mus’ keep his hand in,’ replied Ben.

‘If you can’t attend to your duties without making such a mess of yourself, you’d better have a month’s notice. What was the good of me taking on a pugilist if I’m to have fighting about the place continually?’

‘Come, come, Mrs. Ben,’ said Jim; ‘if you treat him like this when he wins, what would you do if he lost?’

‘Divorce him and take up with the Cornishman!’ replied the raffish washerwoman, exploding into Gargantuan laughter.

Done had often thought of Ryder since the night of the troopers’ raid on Mrs. Kyley’s grog-store, but had seen nothing of him in the meantime. Mike recalled him to his mind again as they were lying out in the moonlight on a Sunday night about two weeks later.

‘Remember the chap that tried to throttle Stony that night in the Black Forest?’ he said. ‘Saw him on the lead to-day.’

‘You did? Ryder was hunting Stony on Diamond Gully.’

‘He’s gettin’ pretty warm, then. Stony’s here too. That’s his tent above the bend to the left. He’s a hatter, an’ works a lone hand in the shallow ground.’

‘Then trouble’s brewing for Mr. Stony.’

‘You seemed to feel for him. Better drop him the word, hadn’t you?’

‘No. My sympathies are with the other man, and as he means something short of manslaughter, Stony can take his chances.’

It was not long after this that Jim encountered Stony in Mary Kyley’s tent. He was drinking alone, and drinking with the feverish haste of a man who deliberately seeks intoxication. He was more tremulous than when Done first met him, and his face had the colour, and looked as if it might have the consistency, of putty. The man was an instinctive hater: he lived alone, worked alone, and desired no companionship. Previous to the gold discoveries he had served for years in the capacity of shepherd on one of the big Australian sheep-runs, and had lived cut off from communion with his kind in the great lone land, absorbing into his blood the spirit of solitude that broods in the Bush and in time robs man of his gregarious impulses.

Jim had been in the shanty about an hour, and was standing with his back to the counter; Stony was sitting in the corner, his hands clasped between his knees, his eyes fixed upon the floor, unconscious of his surroundings, when the flap of the tent was lifted, and Ryder stepped in, running a keen, searching eye over the company. Jim saw him start as his gaze encountered Stony. He paused for a moment, and then slipped back into darkness, dropping the tent-door after him. Done understood his intention. ‘He will wait,’ he said to himself, and determined to watch events. Ryder had awakened in him an extraordinary interest.

Stony sat in a state of abstraction for close upon half an hour, and when he arose and left the place Jim followed him. The night was dark, and Stony had disappeared, but the young man walked quietly in the direction of the hatter’s camp. He could see nothing of either man, and had decided that he was mistaken regarding Ryder’s intention, when a low but blood-chilling sound—the noise made by a man fighting against strangulation—broke upon his ear. He had been seeking for this, but the shock unnerved him for a moment.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     XIII

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