In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

THE CHINESE, most of whom were on the surface, viewed the approach of the enemy with great uneasiness, but did not anticipate the worst. Evidently they trembled only for their tails, and a few took to their claims like startled rabbits. The others stood watching the advance, jabbering excitedly, with the volubility of so many monkeys.

‘Wha’ for? wha’ for?’ cried the foremost, when confronted by the Europeans.

‘This here’s an eviction, I reckon,’ drawled Long.

‘Go!’ said Burton, pointing threateningly.

‘Away with the lepers!’ yelled the men.

The Chows understood monosyllables, and began to expostulate in pigeon English.

‘Charge!’ cried Long, and the drive commenced in earnest.

Keeping a solid front, the whites drove the yellow men before them along the lead. Those below were dragged to the surface, and their movements were accelerated by prods from the pick and presently the whole mass was going at a run across the field, the Chinese in front, flying, as they thought, for their lives, the whites following, and the howls of the pursued and the yells of the pursuers united to make an uproar unprecedented on Simpson’s Ranges.

‘The troopers!’ The warning voices came from the left, and the full strength of the force on Simpson’s came riding gallantly from that direction, between white men and yellow.

‘Pull ’em down!’ cried Mike, ‘but do no damage.’

‘Halt there!’ ordered the sergeant, rising in his stirrups, but the crowd took little account of him and his four gallant followers. It swarmed round them for a moment, plucked the five men from their saddles, and passed on, leaving the troopers sprawling on the ground, and driving their horses before them with the terrified Celestials.

The chase continued all the way to Carisbrook, and for a mile or so beyond; but at the river, where the main body of Chinese was overtaken, there was a brief but vigorous fight. The Chinese used their shovels and sticks and stones, and what other weapons presented themselves, in defence of their property, and for about five minutes the hand-to-hand conflict raged with a rattle of pick-handles, a thud, thud, thud of busy clubs, oaths in good round English, and a squeaking and yelling in shrill Chinese, and then the Chows, overborne by numbers, backed, broke, and fled, and the hunt was continued. In two hours’ time there was not a Chinaman in sight, and virtuous Europeans were busy washing the golden gravel left near the river, satisfying their consciences when they pinched that only even handed justice had been done in robbing the robbers.

Five weeks passed before the Chinese went creeping back to Simpson’s Ranges, and by this time the diggers were engrossed in more important affairs, and offered no serious opposition. It seemed that the trouble was rapidly coming to a head at Ballarat. Wearying of the effort to secure reform by peaceful agitation, the men were arming themselves as best they could. The lawful endeavours of the miners had resulted only in spurring their enemies to greater activity in oppression, and blundering and brutal officials had chosen the moment when the agitation was at its height to institute one of the most strenuous and tyrannical license-hunting expeditions that had been inflicted upon the miners of Ballarat. Diggers were brutally man-handled; in some cases their clothes were torn from their backs, in others they were insulted and beaten by the troopers. The hunt was manifestly an organized and deliberate effort to display the contempt officialdom felt for the men and their cause. Blood ran hotly; there were casual skirmishes between the people and the police, who, while serving as the zealous and willing instruments of oppression, offered the diggers absolutely no protection from the thieves and ruffians infesting the fields.

Arrangements had been made to convey the news of a general rising to the men at Simpson’s Ranges in time to enable them to reach the disturbed centre before the outbreak of hostilities, and on a Friday morning, shortly after midnight, Jim Done, Mike Burton, and the three Peetrees set off together. They left their tents as they stood, and carrying only a blue blanket apiece and such arms as they possessed, started on their long tramp to Ballarat as gaily as if bent upon a pleasure excursion. They slept in the Bush on Friday night, and reached the Australian Eldorado on Saturday at about noon. Approaching the field from the north, they were bailed up on the edge of wide lagoon fringed with gum-trees and scrub by a party of men on horseback.

‘Halt!’ cried the leader.

‘What’s the matter now?’ said Mike.

‘I demand all arms and ammunition you may have about you.’

‘Then I’m hanged if you’ll get them!’

‘For the use of the forces of the republic of Victoria,’ continued the leader.

‘But we’re goin’ to join the rebels.’

‘That’s all right. You’ll be given arms in the stockade. Peter Lalor has been elected chief of the insurgents. I have his warrant here for my action. Arms are badly needed. We can take no chances.’

The mates conferred, and after examining the warrant signed by the rebel leader, resolved to comply with the demand.

‘Has there been any fighting?’ asked Jim.

‘A bit of a shindy with the swaddies in Warrenheip Gully, and an attack on the troopers at the Gravel Pits. Nothing really serious. The Imperial troops were drawn up under arms at our big meeting on Bakery Hill on the 29th. The flag has been floated, the men have taken the oath under it, and are now drilling within the stockade on Eureka.’

‘We are none too soon.’

‘Not a moment.’

The five men had only their revolvers and a stock of cartridges; these they handed over to the emissary of the ‘republican forces,’ and continued their journey with eager feet, greatly elated. Ballarat was at this time the centre of the feverish interest the Victorian gold discoveries had excited throughout the world. Men were digging fortunes out of the prodigal earth with a turn of the hand. The Gravel Pits, Golden Point, Bakery Hill, Specimen Hill, Canadian Hill, White Hills, White Flat, and half a dozen other local rushes, were in the height of their amazing prosperity; economists were gravely considering the possibility of this tremendous output reducing gold to the status of a base metal, and Main Road seethed with life.

Done’s experiences on Forest Creek and at Jim Crow and Simpson’s Ranges had not prepared him for the stormy exuberance of Ballarat. This was the largest, most populous, and most prosperous of all the fields. In a little over two years’ time the population of a large town had overrun the Bush, swept the trees from the face of the earth, and had dug at and torn and tortured the wide fields till the landscape resembled a great cemetery where thousands of open graves yawned in advance of a mighty sacrifice. The work of devastation climbed up the hills, overthrowing them piece by piece, and through the debacle the sloven creeks, filled with yellow slurry, and thrown out of their natural courses a score of times by the ravishers, wound their painful way. Tents, glowing whitely under the bright sun, dotted the flats, and gathered into villages of canvas on the sides of the hills. Here and there a flag fluttered in the breeze, and men were everywhere—men remarkably alike in type, strong, bearded, sun burnt, their digger’s garb as monotonous as a uniform, but picturesque and easy. Evidently little work was going forward. The excitement of the revolt was at its height, a sense of the imminent climax was in the air, and the men were gathered in knots and meetings discussing the position.

As Jim and his friends came in by Specimen Hill, they saw bodies of troopers being moved as if in drill at the camp on their left. These operations were watched by hundreds of diggers. Further on they saw the massed red coats of swaddies, and heard the faint rattle of kettle-drums. The British flag floated over the camp. A mounted officer in crimson and gold passed them, riding at a gallop, and the sound of a gunshot struck upon their ears, a sharp note of war.

Main Road and Plank Road were well-defined streets of tents and stores. The great majority of the dwellings and places of business were of canvas still, but here and there a pretentious weatherboard hotel, iron-roofed, stood proudly eminent, luring the diggers with a flaring topical sign. Here again the way was crowded with blue-shirted men, smoking, talking, gesticulating, never a coat nor a petticoat amongst them. There were a good many women in Ballarat in ’54, but nearly all miners’ wives, little was seen of them where the men assembled. Jim noted yet again juvenile levity of the diggers.

The situation was serious enough in all conscience, but the great majority of the miners refused to see it in that light. They had endured much; they felt that it was necessary to assert their rights as men, but the consciousness of their wrongs was borne down in a measure by the light-heartedness that follows great good fortune. Under the influence of a digger-drive or the stimulus of an impassioned speech they could feel keenly; but the sun shone upon them, the virgin gold glowed in their hands, the riot of devil-me-care existence, unchecked by social restraints, called them, and bitterness could not live in their hearts. They danced, and sang, and roared, and were glad, who two or three hours earlier might have offered their lives freely to avenge a slight or to mark their sense of a gross injustice.

Jim and his friends were served with a rough dinner at one of the hotels. The waiter, an old Frenchman, told them that bands sent out by the insurgent leader were taking levies on all hands.

‘Some gather at Eureka. Ze fight mus’ be soon,’ he said; ‘but ze crowd—ah, zey laugh, zey drink, zey dance wis ze fiddle, zey will not believe! Et ces a great pity, but zey haff not ze—what, ah?—ze experience.’

‘Are many coming in from the other fields?’ asked Jim.

The Frenchman shook his head. ‘Et ees expect zey will come; but the men say always, “Oh, et will go over!” Ze soldier say not so: they are ver’ bitter. My friend, the blow come soon; I go to the army of the republic this to-night.’

‘The men are rolling up all right,’ said a digger at another table. ‘They’re rallying them at Creswick again, and on the other fields. We’ll have an army of thousands in a week.’

‘A week!’ cried the waiter. ‘My soul! in two day more et will all be up wiss ze republic, suppose zey are not here!’

‘That Frenchman’s an all-fired skite,’ said the digger disgustedly. ‘The swaddies don’t like the job: they won’t strike. We’ll have the making of the fight, and we’ll call time when it suits us.’

‘All the same,’ commented Mike later, ‘the Frenchman’s got the safest grip o’ things, it seems to me.’

In the streets the watchword of the most serious of the diggers was ‘Roll up!’ and the friends heard it passing from lip to lip. They did not lack company on their way to Eureka, but Done experienced a keen disappointment in the absence of deep and genuine emotion amongst the main body of the men. The popular impression was that there would be no fighting; it was thought that the demonstration Lalor and his men were making would have the effect of bringing the powers to reason, and this opinion was held in spite of past bitter experience of the stupid immobility of the Legislative Council in Melbourne.

The five friends were challenged at the stockade, and on expressing their wish to be enlisted were marched before an officer of the rebel forces and sworn in. Standing under the blue Australian flag, with its five silver stars, they took Peter Lalor’s oath: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’

There was really no stockade in the military sense. The enclosure was little more than a drill-ground fenced with rough slabs. These slabs, a few logs, and two or three drays, represented all that had been attempted in the nature of a barricade, and could not have been expected by the least experienced of the insurgent leaders to offer any serious impediment to a charge of regulars. Two or three small companies of men were being drilled within the limited space, and Done and Burton were attached to one of these and the three Peetrees to another. At this point Jim was again sadly disillusioned. He was given no weapon but a pike—a short, not too sharp, blade of iron secured to a pole about five feet long. Pikes were the only arms the men of his company possessed, and a blacksmith, who had his smithy within the stockade, was hard at work manufacturing the primitive weapons. One small company was armed with rifles, and another with pistols, but ammunition was so scarce that these could be of no great value in the event of an early attack.

Done estimated that there were about two hundred and fifty men within the stockade. He heard that there had been many more, but that the volunteers had returned to their camps on the surrounding fields to make further preparations, believing that there was no likelihood of an early encounter. There was much confusion on Eureka, and Jim could not see how the men were to benefit from the simple drill in which they were being instructed with great assiduity. The site chosen was an old mining ground, and the field was broken with holes and piles of dirt, rendering proper formation impossible; and although the leaders were serious and earnest men, the bulk of the rank and file preserved a spirit of careless levity, and were like big boys playing a game.

The rebel leader addressed the men during the afternoon, and Jim listened to him with deep interest. Peter Lalor was a young Irishman, not yet thirty-five, not far short of six feet in height, and splendidly proportioned; keen-eyed, too, with regular features and a resolute, convincing air. There was a note of domination in the man’s character, and he was certainly the strongest personality in the republican movement. He pleaded for zeal in the sacred cause for which they might presently be called upon to shed their hearts’ blood, and although his language was as simple as the diggers’ speech, there was a warmth in his manner that stirred the men, and a whole-hearted conviction pointed every phrase; but even while his rebels were gathered under arms and drilling behind a palisade within a short distance of the regular troops sent to suppress the expected out break on Ballarat, Lalor did not expect the authorities to take the initiative.

As night fell fires were lit within the stockade. A slaughtered bullock lay on its skin, near the smithy, and from this the rebels who remained on Eureka cut steaks, and they cooked their own rough meal. It was Saturday, and a number of the diggers left the encampment to participate in the gaieties peculiar to the evening in the Main Road dancing-booths and in the pubs and shanty bars. As yet, so backward were the preparations, there was only the feeblest attempt at military discipline in the stockade, and the password was common property. A few zealous recruits continued their drilling by the light of the fires, and the smith toiled nobly at his pikes. His hammer rang a spirited tattoo on the anvil till far into the Sunday morning, and he and his grimy but tireless boy helper made a dramatic picture against the night in the glow of their open forge. The rebels played and sang, and there was a little skylarking amongst the younger men; but Done and his companions, wearied by their long tramp and the drilling, had spread their blankets on the ground, and made themselves as comfortable as possible, Jim watching the antics of the rebels through half-closed eyes, the others smoking thoughtfully.

‘Well, ole man, what d’yer think of it?’ said Josh.

‘I don’t like it,’ answered Jim, feeling himself addressed.

‘Mus’ say there ain’t a very desperate air about the business so far.’

‘Why doesn’t Paisely attack?’ continued Done. ‘He must know what’s going on here. There’s nothing to hinder him knowing as much of the rebels’ business as Lalor himself, so far as I can see. Why doesn’t he come on?’

‘You might join me in a little prayer that he won’t,’ said Mike. ‘What sort o’ chance ’re we goin’ to have if he drops in on us here with his mounted men?’

‘Mighty poor, and you can bet the Colonel knows it. Unless he’s afraid of precipitating a general rising, he’ll charge down here and wipe this place out.’

‘If there should be any fightin’, gi’ me a call, won’t you?’ said Harry, with a yawn.

The others laughed and took the hint. Slowly the fires faded, and the encampment sank into stillness and silence, save for the slow movements of the sentinels and the clang of the smith’s hammer. The night had been warm, the early hours of Sunday morning were cold, but the men were all accustomed to camping in the open, and, huddling together, they slept soundly. The lights of Ballarat had flickered out; the whole field lay in darkness. The slow hours stole on, the sentinels were changed, and absolute quiet descended upon Eureka, for even the heroic blacksmith had stretched himself by his forge, and was sleeping, with the boy by his side.

‘The swaddies are on us!’

At about three o’clock that one fierce cry shook the camp into action. The men sprang from the ground; there was an almost simultaneous rush into position—the pikemen nearest the pickets, the rifle men to the left, the revolver corps to the right. It was a false alarm, but it gave Jim more confidence in the men, who had shown much better order than he had expected, and their promptness and determination pleased him.

‘They’ll make a good fight of it when the swaddies do come,’ he said cheerfully, as they settled down in their blankets.

‘My oath!’ replied Mike. ‘But we were chumps to give up our revolvers. What good can a man do pokin’ round in the dark with a blanky spike?’

The men lay with their primitive weapons in their hands. There was a little growling and cursing and once more the encampment was given over to sleep.

Jim Done awoke as the grayness of dawn was creeping through the night—awoke with an idea that he was sleeping under the gum-trees. There was a vague belief in his head that he and his mates were on the wallaby, but where they were going to, he was too sleepy to decide. A slight drizzle was falling, but he curled himself in his blanket, and disposed himself to sleep again. Then, with the shock of a heavy blow, he heard a sharp voice challenging. A gunshot followed.

This time there was no mistake. The men rushed to their positions, and the sudden confusion fell as suddenly into order. Jim found himself standing with his column, his pike grasped firmly in two hands, without quite realizing how it had come about that he was there. Mike was on his right; on his left was a little wild Irishman, and even in the intense excitement of that moment, when he could see the black line of infantry coming down upon them through the heavy dusk of early dawn, he marked the fierce, semi-conscious jabbering of the Paddy, with an inclination to laugh aloud.

‘Glory be, they’re comin’! they’re comin’! they’re comin’! Plaze the pigs, I’ll have wan! Jist wan ’ll satisfy me. Blessed saints, make it the wan that shot O’Keif! Och, they’re comin’, th’ darlin’s! Hit home, Tim Canty, an’ Holy Mary make it the wan that shot Barty O’Keif!’

Jim’s eyes were fixed upon the dark mass charging the stockade. The soldiers were now not more than sixty yards off, and he could see a horseman leading. He heard the order to charge, and heard Lalor’s sharp, stern reply. There followed a blast of rifles from the stockade, and the shadowy equestrian figure leading the Imperial infantry became blurred and broken in the dusk and the thin rain, and the riderless horse at the head of the column cantered on, and leapt into the stockade through the smoke.

‘First blood!’ muttered Mike, as the officer fell.

Finding the attack concentrated on one point of the stockade, Lalor gathered his handful of rifles here, and they met the charge of the regulars with another volley, checking their advance. A volley from the carbines replied, and the lead whistled into the stockade. A pikeman ran forward a few steps, plunged on his face at Jim’s feet, and lay still.

‘Holy Mother, if I can git wan iv them I’ll be content—almost!’ continued the little Irishman in his fierce monologue.

‘Down, men! Take cover under the logs!’ said the captain of the pikes, and Done obeyed with the rest; and crouching there, hearing the cracking of the carbines, the terrible impatience of Canty began to work in his own blood. He felt himself to be utterly useless; his pike was impotent against the carbines of the enemy, and the lust of battle was in him. He burned for the stress of action, longed for the order to dash upon the enemy. It was difficult to repress the impatience that spurred him to jump to his feet, and, calling his mates to follow to throw himself against, the soldiers.

That wait under the logs seemed interminable, and meanwhile the riflemen within the stockade and the carbineers without exchanged several volleys, and in between there was an indecisive pattering of independent rifles, and Jim saw the vague figures of his comrades falling in the gloom, falling falteringly, without apparent motive. He could not connect the discharge of the guns with the dropping of the wounded: it was all so cold-blooded, so dispassionate.

‘They’re not comin’!’ cried Canty, whose frenzy would not permit of his keeping cover. ‘Why don’t they come on like min? God sind me wan—jist—’

He fell like a man whose legs had suddenly lost all power, and lay there, his face pressed to the moist earth, and Jim felt the dying man’s fingers moving upon his leg in a trifling way. Presently a hand clutched his own, and he was drawn down.

‘Are you hit badly, old man?’ said Done.

‘Mortal! I’m hit mortal bad!’ The hand clung desperately, and Jim peered into Canty’s face, and saw a smear of blood about his mouth. He was shot through the breast. ‘Mate,’ he said eagerly, ‘kill wan fer me! Kill wan—if it’s only a little wan!’

‘I’ll do my best, old man.’

‘But one fer me, an’ fer the good man they murthered. Say “Take that for Barty O’Keif!” when you hit him.’

‘So help me God, I will!’

Jim placed Canty well under the cover of the logs, with his head pillowed on a clod.

‘Give me me pike here in the right hand. Good enough!’ He lay quite still now, and muttered no more, but Jim could see his bright eyes stirring in the semi-darkness.

The firing from without was maintained, but the swaddies were in no hurry to cover the patch of ground that lay between them and the stockade, although the insurgents had already almost exhausted their ammunition. Lalor sprang to the top of the barrier, and stood for a moment, turning as if to give an order, but the order was never spoken. A ball struck him, and he fell into the enclosure, severely wounded. The rebels had fought bravely so far. While their powder lasted they beat off the well armed, well trained regulars, and for twenty minutes held the swaddies at bay across their poor palisade; but at the expiration of that time there were not two dozen charges left in the stockade, and now the riflemen were ordered to retreat to the shallow shafts and use them as pits; and presently the noble 40th finding the resistance broken, was tearing at the logs and pickets, and at last the pikemen were on their feet and face to face with the foe.

The infantry poured into the stockade with fixed bayonets, and against their experience and their efficient weapons the insurgents made a poor show; but they fought stubbornly, if clumsily, and now Jim found himself fighting in grim earnest. He saw a big Lanky spring at him from the logs, with bayonet set stock to hip, and with a lucky twist of his pole he beat down the other’s weapon. But the long hafts of the pikes made them most unwieldy, and in the few seconds that followed Jim stood cheek-by-jowl with death. Suddenly his eyes encountered the face of Canty over the left shoulder of the swaddy. The little Irishman had pulled himself to his feet, his back was to the logs, his pike raised in his two hands. Lurching forward, he plunged the blade into the neck of the soldier. The Lanky’s bayonet dropped from his hand, and he fell backwards. The haft of the pike striking the ground stopped him for a moment, and then he swung sideways and dropped on to his face; the pike remaining wedged in his spine, the shaft sprang into the air in a manner that was never after quite free of a suggestion of the hideously ludicrous in Jim’s mind. Canty stared for a moment at his fallen enemy, and then, uttering a strange Irish cry of exultation, he fell back across the logs, never to stir again.

The fight at the logs was brief, but fierce. Finding the pikes useless for thrusting, many of the diggers clubbed them. Following this example, Jim swept a second soldier off his feet, and was laying about him with all his strength, when a cavalryman drove his horse at the stockade, and came over almost on top of him, slashing wildly right and left as he came. The soldier’s sword struck Done on the left side of the head, inflicting a wound extending from the neck almost to the crown. Jim fell against the horse, clinging weakly to his pike, feeling the hot blood rolling down his neck. He saw the sword raised again, but at that instant a revolver flashed over his shoulder, and the mounted man dived forward, rolled on the neck of his horse, and slid slowly to the ground—dead. Jim turned and recognised the pale face of his brother in the dim light of morning, but at the same instant was struck again, and fell with a bullet in his shoulder.

Wat Ryder uttered a fierce oath, and sprang at the bridle of the riderless horse. With the rein over his arm, he knelt by Jim’s side, and endeavoured to rouse him. The infantry were now all within the stockade, pressing forward, firing amongst the scattered insurgents and into the holes where the riflemen were, and the cavalry and mounted troopers were pursuing the rebels, cutting them down ruthlessly.

Ryder succeeded in getting Jim to his feet, and he clung limply to the horse’s mane, only dimly conscious of what was happening.

‘For God’s sake, make an effort, Jim!’ cried Ryder. ‘Here, up with you, stranger! I’ll give the boy a lift,’ said an insurgent, suddenly appearing from a hiding-place amongst the logs.

Ryder vaulted to the back of the horse, and, with the assistance of Levi Long, for it was the American who had intervened, soon had Jim in the saddle. A few blows from Long’s pike started the nag, and Ryder rushed him blindly at the slabs of the stockade, and the powerful animal blundered through. A shot from an infantryman, intended for the riders, struck the charger, and he plunged forward, snorting with pain, and bolted madly across the broken ground of Eureka, and Ryder, clinging to the unconscious man with one arm, made no attempt to check or regulate their dangerous flight.

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