In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

IT WAS now almost day; the fighting was over. A smart shower had fallen during the struggle, and the wet pipeclay within the stockade was strewn with dead and wounded diggers, and along the line of attack taken by the three companies of infantry wounded and dead soldiers lay scattered, their red coats dotting the white ground with curious blotches of colour, the figures of the men still vague and indefinite in the mist and the feeble light of the dawning day. A wounded soldier near the logs writhed in his agony, with worm-like movements terrible to see. Confusion remained within the stockade. The killing was ended, but the prisoners were to be collected and guarded. Many of the insurgents had escaped, some by hiding in the claims, others by making a run for the surrounding diggings. A few brave friends who had hidden Peter Lalor under slabs sloped against a log succeeded in carrying the wounded leader away under the noses of the soldiers, and he escaped.

The fight had not lasted half an hour, and by the time the people of Ballarat fully realized what was happening it was too late to give help to the devoted few within the stockade; and the men gathered as near the miniature battlefield as they were permitted to go, with white faces, awed and penitent, many feeling the keenest pangs of remorse, knowing how bitterly the earnest souls had paid for their neglect.

One woman had made her way into the stockade within a few minutes of the firing of the last shot. She passed unnoticed in the confusion; her face was hidden in a shawl, and she went quickly amongst the fallen rebels. Some of the wounded men lay in puddles—these she helped; but it was evident that she was seeking someone she knew as she passed from one to another, peering into their faces, seeking to identify them in the feeble light.

This was Aurora Griffiths, and she was seeking Jim Done, cherishing an agonized hope that she might not find him. One wounded man dragged himself to a puddle to satisfy his craving for drink, and died with his face in the thick water; another, a mere boy, was sitting with his back to a log, staring with a puzzled expression at the gory fingers he had dipped in his wound. Presently, coming to a man lying face downward where the soldiers had broken through, Aurora uttered a sharp cry. The figure was familiar. Quickly she turned the face to, the light. It was pale and bloodless; the only disfigurement was a small purple wound in a slight depression near the temple, but the man was dead.

‘It’s Mike!’ murmured Aurora. She knelt in the mud; her trembling hand sought his heart. ‘Dead!’ she cried. She looked about her in terror, then, rising to her feet, she ran to others lying near. They were strangers. ‘Thank God!’ she cried—‘thank God!’ Aurora returned to Mike’s side, and, kneeling there, gazed upon him with streaming eyes. Burton’s face had assumed a Spartan dignity in death. ‘Poor, poor boy!’ she said, and with her fingers upon his eyelids she whispered a prayer for his soul. It was long since she had minded to pray for her own, but the dead are so helpless. They invite even the intercession of the faithless.

A soldier touched her on the shoulder.

‘You’ll have to get out of this, miss,’ he said. Glancing at the dead face, he corrected himself, and called her Mrs.

Aurora went with him. She looked closely at the prisoners as they passed, but Jim Done was not amongst them. Beyond the cordon of troopers she was liberated, and returned wearily to Mrs. Kyley’s tent, for the Kyleys had shifted their prosperous business to the vicinity of Bakery Hill a month before. At the tent-door she was met by Mary.

‘He is not amongst the dead, thank God!’ said Aurora, ‘and he’s not with the prisoners. Jim is safe, but poor Mike Burton—’

‘Wounded, is he?’

‘Dead. Shot through the head.’

Mrs. Kyley threw up her hands. ‘My God!’ she said. ‘The poor lad! Oh, Aurora, my dear girl, it’s a bad, bad business!’ The tears were trickling down Mrs. Ben’s plump cheeks.

‘Why, Mary, what else has happened?’

Mrs. Kyley had set her large bulk before the girl, barring the door.

‘You’d better not go in yet awhile, Joy darling.’

‘What is it—is it Ben?’

‘No, no, it’s not Ben, but someone is in there who is hurt pretty badly.’

‘Somebody I know?’ Aurora clutched Mary Kyley’s arm, and stared into her face with a sudden new fear.

‘Yes, deary, somebody you know.’

‘It’s Jim!’

Mary Kyley nodded her bead, and mopped her tears. ‘Yes, it’s Jimmy Done.’

Aurora paled to her eyes, her lips tightened to thin purple lines across her white teeth, and she fought with Mary for a moment, seeking to make her way into the tent; but Mrs. Kyley was a powerful woman, and in her grasp, when she was really determined, Aurora was as a mere child.

‘For God’s sake, let me see him!’ said the young woman.

‘You mustn’t be a fool, Aurora,’ the washerwoman said firmly. ‘I can’t let you go blundering in on to a sick man—and this one is a very sick man.’

‘He’s dying!’

‘No, no; he’ll not die easily—he’s tough stuff; but he’s got two ugly wounds, and we’ll have to handle him fine and gently. Pull yourself up, Aurora dear.’ She wound her strong arms fondly about the girl and kissed her cheek, and, with a restraining arm still about her, led her into the tent.

Jim Done lay on Mary Kyley’s comfortable white bed. His face was ghastly. Aurora uttered a little cry of pain and terror at the sight of him. There was blood upon the sheets and the pillows, and Wat Ryder, working in his shirt-sleeves, was deftly closing a gaping scalp wound with horsehair stitches.

Ryder had carried Jim straight to Kyley’s tent, and Mrs. Ben received the wounded man with open arms.

‘We may be followed,’ he said. ‘I’ve brought him out of the thick of it. Keep watch, please, and give me warning if you see anything of the troopers. May I use your bed?’

‘My bed! Yes, and my blood and bones if they’re any good to you.’

‘Your eyes can do me better service. I’m a done man if the police lay a hand on me, and Jim here needs attention.’

‘Then, go to work with an easy mind.’

So Mary kept watch while Ryder worked over Jim with the quickness and decision of a surgeon. It was not the first time by many that he had dealt with ugly wounds.

‘Don’t neglect the watch,’ he said, a minute after Aurora’s entrance.

Mary looked at Aurora. The girl was now apparently quite composed; she had cast aside the shawl, and was hastily tying on an apron. So Mrs. Kyley slipped out again, quite reassured.

‘It would be better, perhaps, if I held his head,’ said Aurora.

‘Yes,’ answered Ryder shortly.

She seated herself on the bed, and took Done’s head between her hands, raising it, and Ryder continued his work rapidly. No further words were spoken till the scalp wound was stitched, and Aurora, gazing into the seemingly lifeless face of the patient, had a strange feeling of insensibility, as if all her emotions were numbed for the time. There was not a tremor in her fingers; she felt that under the influence that possessed her she could have suffered any trial without a cry.

‘Now hunt up anything that will do for bandages,’ said the man.

She lowered Jim’s head gently to the pillow again, and made haste to obey, while Ryder examined the bullet-wound. He showed her how to tear the material, and then bandaged the patient’s head.

‘I was assistant in a hospital for a time,’ he said, in explanation of his masterly work, but he did not say that it was a gaol hospital in which he had gathered his experience.

Aurora watched the man’s hands. They were extraordinary hands, long and very narrow—wonderfully capable they seemed. They inspired her with complete faith. He was feeling for the ball in Jim’s shoulder. She helped him to turn the young man upon his face, and the slim, dexterous fingers probed the flesh above the shoulder-blades.

‘Ah!’ he said, with a sigh of relief; and taking his knife, he cut boldly, and, behold—the bullet! It was like a feat of legerdemain. This cut was washed with fluid from a small bottle on the table, smartly stitched, and then, after the wound in front had been treated, the shoulder was firmly bandaged, and Ryder seemed satisfied. He was none too soon, for at that moment Mary Kyley darted in.

‘Half a dozen troopers are coming along the hill,’ she said.

‘Bluff them!’ said Ryder quickly. ‘If they insist on searching, swear the boy was hurt at a blast. Cover his shoulders. Show no surprise in any alteration in my appearance. I am a customer.’ He snatched his coat and revolver, and sprang into the next tent.

At that moment the sound of horses’ hoofs was heard on the gravel, and a voice cried ‘Halt!’ Mrs. Kyley’s broad figure filled the doorway.

‘How many of those blackguard rebels are you hiding in your tent, Mother Kyley?’ said the sergeant.

‘Is that you, Sergeant Wallis? Was there ever so attentive an admirer? You’d follow me to the world’s end for the love you have of me. I’ve a dozen rebels inside. Come and be introduced.’

A tall bearded digger with a loaf of bread under his arm had slouched from the business tent, and stood watching the scene with incurious eyes.

‘Who the devil are you, and where did you spend last night, my man?’ said the trooper.

‘I’m a party by the name of Smith, Ephraim Smith—called Eph. I spent last night in my bunk, bein’ too damn drunk to join the boys down there, worse luck!’

‘Your license, Mr. Ephraim Smith.’

The license was handed up, and found correct. ‘You had too much discretion to burn your license with the rest of the seditious blackguards, at any rate, Mr. Smith.’

‘As it happens.’

‘And your ruffianly husband, Mrs. Kyley?’

‘I haven’t such a thing about me; but if you mean Ben Kyley,’ said Mary, ‘come down in your private capacity, sergeant, and put the question to him in the same gentlemanly way. I’ll hold your coat and see you get fair play, if I have to referee the argument myself.’

‘Where is Kyley, you harridan?’

‘He went out an hour ago to watch the murder and manslaughter going on down at Eureka, Sergeant Wallis, and if you miscall me again, you Vandemonian pig-stealer, I’ll drag you from your horse and drown you in a tub of suds!’

Wallis struck his horse with his open hand, and rode away, followed by his men, laughing back at the seemingly furious Mrs. Kyley, whose assumed anger, however, suddenly gave place to a broad grin as they passed from sight, and she winked a mischievous aside at the bearded digger.

‘My oath, but that’s a beautiful beard you have,’ she said. ‘I’ve a mind to see how it would suit me.’

‘Get a doctor to Done as quickly as you can. There are several among the diggers who’ll stand by you,’ said Ryder, disregarding Mary’s levity. ‘You’ll look after him? You can draw on me for money to any amount.’

‘I’ll look after the poor boy, and I won’t draw on you for a sixpence.’

‘He’s with good friends, I know.’

‘He is. There’s a girl in there who would work the fingers off her two hands to serve him.’

‘I will call again when I can, and as often as I can, but I’m in no little danger myself.’

‘I understand. You were one of Lalor’s men.’ Ryder nodded. That idea would suit him very well.

‘Then, if it wasn’t that I love the boy in there, I’d do it for your sake as a good man and true,’ continued Mary.

Ryder gave a few directions as to the treatment of the patient and then turned and sauntered away, carrying the loaf under his arm. Mary reentered the tent, and found Aurora, very pale but apparently quite calm, busying herself about the patient. She had removed all the blood articles, and they lay in a heap on the floor. These Mrs. Kyley would have gathered up, but the girl interfered.

‘No, no,’ she said, ‘leave it to me—leave it all to me! I must work—I must be busy! If I stopped now my heart would break. Look at him!’

‘My God! it is very like death,’ whispered Mrs. Kyley.

It was not easy to get a doctor in Ballarat that day. Ben was entrusted with the mission, and warned to proceed cautiously. He found the doctors in urgent demand. There were wounded men hidden away in many places, and the authorities had obtained a monopoly of the services of the practising physicians. At ten o’clock that night Ben led a young Scotchman named Clusky in triumph to the tent. Clusky had qualified but gold on the rushes had proved more attractive than the wearisome hunt for fees in a Scottish villages and on Ballarat Dr. Clusky was a working miner.

‘He’s the third to-day,’ Clusky said to Mary, ‘and the worst—by far the worst. No fool did that, though,’ he continued, referring to the bandaging of the shoulder, as he rapidly removed the linen. ‘The damage is not so very great here, after all,’ he said a moment later; ‘but there’s no blood to spare left in his veins, poor devil!’

The doctor refused to interfere with Ryder’s stitching in the scalp wound, and gave a long prescription and much advice, and Jim was left to the tender mercies of Aurora, Mary, and Ben. Ryder called every night for a week, and then, having received a favourable verdict from the doctor, disappeared, his disappearance being satisfactorily accounted for by the earnest inquiries of a police officer who called upon Ben a few days later. Meantime, Harry Peetree, who had remained in Ballarat to try and discover the whereabouts of Jim and Mike, hunted the Kyleys out, and learned the truth. He left a message for Jim, and then followed his father and brother, who had made for Simpson’s Ranges again immediately after their escape from the stockade. But ere this, and long before Jim Done was again conscious of the world about him, poor Mike Burton had been buried with the rest of the slain insurgents in a common grave.

Fever supervened on Jim Done’s injuries, and December passed as he lay helpless in Mary Kyley’s tent, babbling of Chisley, of life on the Francis Cadman, and of Diamond Gully and Boobyalla. The injury to his head proved the most serious wound, and there were moments when despair filled the heart of Aurora; but she nursed him with a devotion that overlooked nothing, and Mrs. Kyley, and Ben, and the business were all sacrificed to the patient’s needs. Mrs. Kyley and Ben made the sacrifice gladly, the former because of the big soft heart she hid under her formidable bulk, and Ben because gall and wormwood were sweet compared with the bitterness he felt in being one of the many whose neglect had contributed to the sacrifice of the rebels in the stockade. Business was practically suspended in the shanty while Done lay in the adjoining tent, only peaceful drinkers being permitted to refresh themselves with Mary’s wonderful rum. Mrs. Ben, too, was indefatigable in her care of the wounded man; but Aurora was jealous of her labour of love, and Mary was sometimes compelled to force her to take rest, and to go out in the open air and make some effort to drive the pallor from her cheeks.

Aurora’s beauty was entirely the beauty of perfect health and fine vitality; under the influence of her long labours and the wearing anxiety she endured her good looks faded. She was apparently years older than she had seemed a month before.

‘Your prettiness is all dying out of you, dear,’ said Mary; ‘you must rest yourself, you must go into the air and let the roses freshen again, or the boy won’t look at you when he wakes.’

‘’Twill all come back fast enough when he is well,’ Aurora would answer; and it was into her pale face that Jim gazed with a long look of childlike gravity when he opened his eyes to consciousness. She detected the light of reason in his gaze, and her fingers clasped his hand. From her face his eyes went slowly round the apartment, lingering with an intent look on familiar objects, and then they went to the roof, and for fully twenty minutes he watched the glowing patch where a sunbeam struck the canvas cover, and there was in his face something of the wonder of a creature born into a new world. Aurora was very grave: she did not smile, her heart felt no elation—it was numb and old. Jim had a perplexing sensation of feathery lightness; he felt like a frail snowflake in an unsubstantial world. The bed under him was a bed of gossamer, if not wholly visionary. He might fall through at any moment, and if he did he might go on falling endlessly, a pinch of down in a bottomless abyss. He tried to close his fingers on Aurora’s strong hand. He knew she was there, and she was real, substantial, although something of the wanness of this mysterious world was about her.

‘Joy,’ he whispered. She bent her head to him. ‘Where—what—’ He relapsed with a sigh. After all, it did not matter.

‘You have been very ill, Jimmy,’ she said.

His eyes moved to her face again, and he tried to nod, but found that that was too much trouble too. It was too much trouble to pretend to understand even. Aurora would hold him and prevent his floating out into the fantastical, fairy atmosphere. It seemed right and natural that she should be there. He had quite expected it. But had he? The train of thought was too laborious: he abandoned it. Joy gave him something to drink. She poured it into his mouth, and it ran down his throat. It was good, wonderfully good—nectar, surely. Had he been told it was water he would have resented the lie with as much energy as he was capable of putting into any thought, and that was just the thin, silken line, next to none at all. As a matter of fact, Joy had given him nothing but water. It seemed to add to his weight, to give some little quality of substance to his being. He thought he might thank her with a pressure of his fingers presently, but the necessary power did not come, and he drifted into sleep.

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