Australia again! Well, what does it matter how many years had passed!
Sandy Magee (the coach driver), a bit grayer, a little more furrowed round the eyes, petted and hustled and swore and drove a four-horse team along the deep-rutted bush track between Grafton and Solferino. We were alone; I on the box-seat beside him.
Sandy and I coached that track once before alone together, but we were going the other way then, and I was pretty well broken up, and showed the raw red of healing scars I shall always carry with me. We crossed the old ford on the Clarence again, with the green island a few yards from the bank, and the broad, flat shelf of rock in the middle—with a deep drop into a dozen feet of water a few inches off the near wheels—into which my mate and I went headlong—pack horses and all—the first time we ever attempted it. By the way, we built the first punt that ever carried a dray across it in flood times—a good punt; it floats to-day—and we were driving quietly through old paddocks on the Yugilbar-Ogilve's, the very gum trees of which were familiar. We ring-barked many an acre of those same paddocks, my mate and I, at a price which was never paid us; but that doesn't matter now. Presently we came to a dip, where the track led through heavy timber down a gorge, at the foot of the ranges in which the Solferino diggings lay.
"You remember Dago" said Sandy, pointing with his whip to a little grass-grown heap of mullock about a dozen yards from the track on our right.
"Do I remember Dago?" Yes, I remembered Dago well. My hand went involuntarily to a heavy scar on my chin. "That's Dago, Sandy," said I pointing to it.
"Well—that's Dago—over there," nodded Sandy with his head. I looked round at the mullock heap, and as I turned, my companion flicked at a blowfly on the off-leader's rump, who, suddenly jumping forward, jerked the old rattle-trap of a coach half across the track.
"Whoa, mare! Whoa! Yes (as we swung into line again at a gallop), that's Dago! Whoa, can't yer?"
But they'd all four got the fidgets, and we flew along the next hundred yards as if the devil was after us.
So that was Dago! It set me thinking—wandering back to New South Wales when I was a lad—a lad on the tramp for gold. Gold I couldn't win in coined sovereigns at home, but with hope in my heart and the dreams of youth, I set out from my ship to dig for from the hard earth of a strange land.
And Sandy told me his memories as we drove through the silent bush. I told Sandy mine in return; and some of the terrible minutes of our lives came back to us both out of the past, and we lived them over again.
I have had other memorable minutes, but I don't remember so much being crammed into one of them as into that one which flashed back through our minds when Sandy said, "You remember Dago?" Yes, I remembered the city of Grafton, which now revels in a bishop, a cathedral and other appliances of civilization when it was only a straggling bush settlement consisting of one accommodation house, perhaps a dozen weatherboard shanties, a forge and a few tents dotted about at irregular distances from one another on either side of one long, straight, grass-grown street.
But Grafton was looked upon even in those days as quite a "place," for it boasted an annual race meeting and a wharf on the river bank, where once a fortnight a steamer from Sydney used to call, an occurrence of the greatest importance to the entire population, which gathered regularly at the waterside to witness it.
Grafton was the receiving place on the Clarence river for produce coming off the stations to the north; and it suddenly sprang into importance through being the nearest point of debarkation for the new gold rush that broke out at Solferino, a point in the Yugilbar ranges, seventy-five miles away. It was on a scorching day in the seventies that I and my mate, a young Scotchman who had passed for the army, and who, while waiting for his commission, had come out to Australia in the same ship with myself, first set eyes on the place.
We landed, and the same evening left for the diggings by the one long, straggling street, which gradually dwindled away into a track, and soon lost itself in the depths of the primeval bush.
We steered northward by the compass. Besides ourselves there was our dog, a shambling, long-legged, yellow kangaroo hound we called "Jack," and one pack-horse, a raw-boned Waler, christened "Rosinante."
Somehow or other we soon lost the blazed-tree line, the only indication of a way to the gold fields; but after many hardships and mishaps we recovered the track, made Solferino at last, pitched camp, and then settled down to the life of the diggings among some hundreds of others attracted there by the more or less exaggerated reports of the rich "finds" on the reefs.
I still possess my miner's right, which I treasure as a relic of past days. It is reproduced on the following page. There was little or no alluvial gold at Solferino, however, the work being nearly all reefing; and we at once started out to prospect, soon stumbling on a blow-up of gold-bearing quartz, and following it down to a reef which we duly registered as the "Don Juan."
There were six of us in it—my mate, the army officer; Sam Devere, an Irishman and a barrister; Abbott, a smart young fellow who had been in the police; Harry Allen, a Royal Academy of Music man from London, who played divinely on the fiddle and the concertina; "Dago," a Spaniard, and myself.
We picked up "Dago"—as we called him—not because we cared about him, but because we wanted an extra man to make up the six necessary to enable us to apply for a twelve-acre claim along the line of our reef; and "Dago" was loafing around doing nothing. That's how we roped him in. He was rather a sullen chap—dark, handsome, with a black moustache, very white teeth, and a trick of showing them when he smiled, which wasn't often. He talked a little English, of a sort, not unsparsely sprinkled with deities and "big-big-D's," and he camped by himself about a quarter of a mile below the claim on a bend of the Yugilbar creek, where he had put up a log humpy, thatched with sheets of stringy bark.
I strolled down there one Sunday, but he didn't make me welcome, so I never went near him again. "Dago," my mate and I worked in the same shift, two of us down the hole and one on top to wind up.
"Dago" and I had a difference of opinion one night—about a girl, of course. It was Christmas, and they had been having a jamboree in the camp and some dancing. The girl—there were only two altogether on the reefs—gave me a dance, and "Dago" didn't like it. So we quarreled, "Dago" and I, and he gave me some of his special brand of "English." I slipped into him and hurt him. In the middle of my forehead there is a sear—you can see it now—where the haft of the "Dago's" knife caught me in the scrimmage.
There were some words, but our mates separated us, and we went our ways. But "Dago" was never friends after that, and I hated being down the hole with him. Weeks went by, and I had forgotten all about it. I thought "Dago" had, too, but he hadn't, and this is what happened.
We had sunk on the reef about a hundred feet when we came on water, which made so fast that we couldn't work at the bottom of the shaft at all. There was nothing for it but to build a floor about thirty feet up from the bottom and work at that level until the shaft below us was filled up. So we got on.
This floor was simply made of young saplings with the bark left on, laid loosely on a couple of cross-pieces, one at each end of the shaft, which measured the usual six feet by three. The country we were going through was as hard as iron, and we could do nothing with it with the gads and hammers, so started blasting.
It is necessary in order to understand properly what follows for me to describe our work and the way we did it. At the top of the shaft was a windlass, by which one of us hauled up iron buckets from below whilst the other two filled them with stone andas it was broken out. The buckets simply hooked onto an iron hook, which in turn was spliced onto the end of a manila rope working round the windlass-barrel. It was our custom when the bucket was full and hooked on to shake the rope. Then, whoever was at the windlass immediately wound up, and when the bucket reached the top emptied the contents into a paddock and then sent it down below again.
In the shaft we were obliged to blast, as I said before. This was done by drilling holes in the rock, which were then loaded with the blasting powder, the fuse inserted, and then the hole tamped down hard and fired. The firing was done by lighting a bit of candle over the flame of which we bent the fuse. While the easing of the fuse was burning through whoever fired the shot would have plenty of time to put his foot in the hook, shake the rope and be hoisted up out of danger. Then off would go the blast, and when the smoke cleared away we went down again and sent up the rock broken out by the shot. After we put in the sapling floor over the water-hole we began to drive along the face of the reef, and had worked in about a foot when my gold-mining days were almost brought to a sudden stop.
My mate, the army man, had injured his hand, and knocked off work for a spell to get well. So "Dago" and I had to shift for ourselves. It was my turn down the hole, and I had succeeded after great labor in putting in two shots about eighteen inches deep, one each side the shaft where we were driving.
The labor of this was terrific, as, being single-handed, I had to swing my hammer—an eight-pounder—with one hand and turn my drill with the other. However, I got through, loaded up the two holes, bent my fuses over two pieces of candle, which I lit, and then shook the rope as the signal to hoist away. Just as I put my foot in the hook, however, I noticed that one of the fuses had buckled up with the heat and turned out of the candle flame, so I stooped down to bend it straight again. The casing of the other fuse blazed away merrily, and I knew that in a few seconds the fuse itself would catch. There was no time to lose. I turned to grasp the rope—but it was gone!
Looking up the shaft, I saw it disappearing high above my head. I shouted to "Dago," but he didn't seem to hear me. The hiss of the fuses, which I had timed for a half minute, attracted me, fascinated me. I remember looking helplessly at them, and thinking I could, perhaps, drag them out. I tried; but no! I had tamped them in so tight that they would not budge. My God! What was I to do?
There was about twenty seconds between me and eternity. I heard nothing but the infernal hissing of the fuses, and it seemed to get louder and louder.
Suddenly an idea struck me! If I could climb up the shaft I might get above the worst of the blast. I put my back against the face of the shaft and my feet against the other and tried to work up that way. It answered at first. I had got a few feet above the level of the drive when I slipped and came down with a thud on the floor of the shaft.
I heard the saplings crack, but the noise was almost drowned by the awful hissing of the fuses. As I scrambled to my feet a sapling broke under me and my leg went through the floor. With an inspiration, I thought of the well beneath! Still that awful hissing! I knew I had only a few seconds now between me and utter annihilation. I tore away at the saplings like a mad man. My God! how hard they had been jammed down. I saw the water below me; the bright light from the top of the shaft was reflected in it.
Was it my fancy? Did I see "Dago's" face reflected there, or was it my own?
The water was about ten feet down below me. There was no time to hesitate. The only chance of safety lay that way. I made one wild plunge, and as I fell I heard the splitting, hurtling, thundering roar of the blasts as they both went off above me. Then I knew no more.
They told me it was days afterwards when I woke up. I was lying in my humpy, conscious of great pain. My head was all bound up, my left arm was strapped to a piece of wood, and I felt awful.
"Dago's" girl was sitting on a wood heap in the big chimney of the bumpy heating something over the fire.
She came up presently beside me and saw I was awake. Dimly the remembrance of something happening in the mine dawned on me.
"What has happened?" I murmured, feebly. She bent down over me. "Hush, you mustn't talk."
"Where's 'Dago'?" I wondered. I must have said it aloud, for she answered——
The tears welled up in her eyes. Then it all got dark again.