The Miner’s Right

Chapter XIX

Rolf Boldrewood

IN the tiny forest-shaded pools, in lonely mountain tarns or stilly meres, amid placid restful surroundings, the influence of the fallen stone or branch agitates the surface for comparatively long protracted periods. The unwonted disturbance is succeeded by a series of ripples in ever-widening circles until the gazer marvels when the lakelet will subside into pristine unruffled calm. But in the roaring flood-tide of great rivers, or on the turbulent bosom of the mighty main, fleets with whole crews may disappear, or argosies laden with the treasures of Ind be whelmed with scarce a momentary displacement.

So in the wide and complicated goldfields society, had even my life fallen forfeit to the robber’s aim, short would have been the moan made, and brief the requiem sung for me at the Oxley. The tribute of respect and regret would have been sincere if transitory. A day’s cessation of labour would have been ordered at many a claim, doubtless. A long procession of vehicles in all grades, horsemen and foot, would have followed Hereward Pole, a brother miner deceased, to the often-visited cemetery under the pine-covered hill. But that duty well and truly performed, a few rough expressions of sorrow, a few extra glasses to the memory of a comrade ‘gone where we all must go,’ and the circumstance would be dismissed, myself almost as utterly forgotten as if I had never been.

What wonder then that even the still uncaptured band of bushrangers, question ardente as it was, commenced to lose novelty and interest.

The public were evidently beginning to think the piece had enjoyed too long a run, and that the management should bestir themselves to replace the tragedy with a genuine novelty.

That desired melodrama was already forward in rehearsal, if we had but known it, and the leading actors were becoming so perfect in their parts that the rise of the curtain bade fair to be demanded at no distant date.

In the early days of mining, when great yields of gold were freely won from the shallow alluvial deposits, a great influx of Chinese had taken place. These aliens, for the most part harmless and industrious, became stubborn and rebellious as their numbers made them formidable.

To the European miners, apart from their legitimate competition, they became especially distasteful. Their filthy habits when congregated in large camps prevented all ordinary residents from living in their vicinity. They swarmed over the alluvial diggings directly gold was found, monopolising the auriferous tracts. At the same time they rarely prospected for themselves.

For a year past the great body of miners had been sullenly enduring rather than acquiescing in this state of matters. The Commissioner had no love for the Mongolian or other dark-skinned aliens; still they were all equal before the law, and as long as each man could produce his talisman, in the shape of a Miner’s Right, he strictly enforced his privilege as against the most popular and influential miner on the field. He had, indeed, privately represented at headquarters that the rapid absorption of newly-discovered alluvial tracts by these swarming aliens would sooner or later lead to an émeute. He had gone so far as to suggest that they should only be permitted to work the abandoned portions of the gold areas, where their patient and frugal habits always secured them ample returns.

As before remarked, they were distasteful to the Commissioner, and one morning I had reason to note the Captain’s autocratic acts and deeds. I had called early at the camp on some matter of mining business when the Commissioner, who was always afoot soon after daybreak, whatever had been the carousals of the previous night, espied me and insisted that I should breakfast with him. At that time the camp resembled a military mess, at which, besides the ordinary mining officials, there were sure to be a few strange guests, tourists, with perhaps a surveyor or other members of the Civil Service on leave. Blake’s hospitality was unbounded, and a good cook was often available from among the crowd of wanderers who made their temporary home at the Great Rush.

So I cheerfully complied, and a very merry meal it was, save for one incident, which bordered on the tragic and might have been funereal. It would seem that his mightiness the Lord High Commissioner had been annoyed by the intrusion of certain irreverent miners upon the grounds immediately in front of the official residence. They had made a short cut to a dam on the creek, and the sight of all kinds of ‘fossickers’ and such small deer trampling across the sacred enclosure commenced to irritate our Czar. He immediately issued a ukase disallowing such trespass, and caused a notice to be affixed to the largest gum-tree at the entrance of the forbidden path.

Chatting carelessly, some one made an incautious remark reflecting upon the courage of his kangaroo dogs, a grand-looking, wiry-haired pair, which looked as though they might be ‘black St. Hubert’s breed.’ This nettled our host, who was passionately attached to his dogs. He then and there swore that there was not only no old man kangaroo in the land that Ban and Buscar would not tackle, but they would go at any living thing that he (Blake) chose to set them on. A few moments after this slight contretemps, I saw his brow suddenly corrugate as he fixed his eyes upon the entrance to the path about which the late order had arisen.

We all looked, and waited the explosion. There, sure enough, were two Chinamen, heavily laden with pans, picks, and other mining implements, essaying to pass on. They looked for a moment with stolid faces at the warning placard, but, less enlightened than Mr. Jingles’s historical pointer, dismissed the subject with customary ‘no savey,’ and clambered over the fence.

‘Good God!’ exclaimed Blake, with his brow as black as thunder. ‘Am I never to be left in peace? Here, Wharton, Somers, Hayward, where are you all?’ he roared out. ‘See those infernal Chinamen—I’ll teach them a lesson. Loose the dogs!’

The police troopers, who dwelt generally at the rear—his orderly and another or two—knowing from experience that when the Captain was in one of his moods he brooked no delay, ran at once to the kennel and opened the door, when not only Ban and Buscar aforesaid, but half a score of the other big greyhounds, came teeming out through the house like a canine avalanche on hearing their master’s voice.

‘Hold ’em, boys, hold ’em!’ shouted Blake, and with one glance round the eager dogs dashed into speed, and sighting the luckless Celestials, by this time nearly through the enclosure, made for them as if they had been a brace of stray ‘foresters’ from the adjacent ranges.

The shouting had apparently only just reached the ears of the doomed ones, for they turned inquiringly, when, catching sight of the eager hounds stretching out, open mouthed, directly in their tracks, they dropped their loads, and with a yell of affright made for the high fence at the outlet.

Before they could reach it, the swifter savage brutes were upon them. Both men were down and apparently half worried before we could do more than start hurriedly to their rescue.

‘By Jove,’ said Blake, picking up his hunting crop, ‘this looks serious. Run, boys, all of you, or that brute Buscar will have the throat out of his man.’

We did our best, I need not say; but just as we got up one man, rising to his feet, broke through the pack, climbed up to the top of the fence, with bleeding limbs and nearly every rag torn off him, and stood there yelling continuously in tones that might have been heard at Sailor’s Gully, five miles off. As for the other poor fellow, old Smoker and Ban were dragging him along the ground by the arm, Ban with red jaws that showed he had found something other than cotton or silk to tear.

The troopers charged desperately with us in a body, and carried off both the men to the camp before the crowd of diggers which had begun to assemble could interfere.

‘No harm done, “boys,”’ said Blake, addressing them with his humorous audacity, which always stood him in good stead; ‘only a couple of Chinamen that couldn’t read plain English, and I sent the dogs over to translate it to them. The big man was in luck that Smoker gripped his arm instead of his throat. His jacket was mighty well padded, for it tangled the poor fellow’s teeth.’

The crowd laughed and dispersed; and although the Beacon was loud on the ‘man and a brother’ question, nothing more came of it. Blake’s sharp eye had discovered that the assaulted Chinamen, having lately arrived, were habited in garments thickly padded with cotton, which prevented the serious damage which might otherwise have taken place; only an ugly laceration of the muscles of the arm showed where Smoker’s sharp teeth had at length penetrated, but nothing more than the doctor speedily set right. And when Sing Foo and Chong Mow left the camp that evening with considerably more strong waters on board than they were in the habit of taking, each with a new suit of clothes and a couple of sovereigns of the Captain’s money, the younger and less injured individual of the two was heard to express himself thus—

‘Welly good man Captain Blake—welly bad dog. All litee.’

If the whole Chinese question could have been settled as promptly by the Commissioner and his dogs, much anxiety on the part of the Government, and, indeed, both blood and treasure might have been saved. Dis aliter visum.

Blake had in truth long foreseen the danger. He had drafted a series of regulations by the adoption of which all dissatisfaction might have been removed and subsequent evils prevented. Ever decisive and clear-headed, he would have cut the Gordian knot, as events proved, had a larger measure of discretionary power been allotted to him after his report went in.

It is in the nature of all great moral outbursts that minor matters should prepare the way previously. The fuel is laid, the combustive forces are gradually generated, the contact of metallic substance is alone wanting; supplied through apparently fortuitous agency, the rending explosion follows, and the volcano bursts forth in Titanic might, whelming man and the labour of his hands with swiftest, resistless destruction.

At our eventful corner of the earth the proximate cause of the disturbance was the annexation by the Chinese of a newly-discovered and very rich patch of ground called the Green Valley. Distant some few miles from the actual township, it had been prospected by an old acquaintance of Gus Mainard, an ex-Californian of the wild old days—quite a different sort of person from the orderly and pacific Gus. Having fallen upon a remarkably rich patch at the head of what he called a ‘gulch,’ he had marked out his prospecting claim, had come in to report and register—as also to tell a few of his intimate friends—and to ‘lay them on,’ reserving a certain interest himself.

When he and his friends after a toilsome march returned, Sonora Joe hardly knew the lonely gully among the hills which he had left that morning. They could hear the hum of strange voices, too, long before they reached the place.

‘It’s them darned Chows,’ said Joe wrathfully. ‘If I was in hail of Suttor’s Mill, and had a few of the old Forty-niners with me, I’d have the ragged bullet through some of their hides before morning. But there’s no shooting worth a cent in this cussed country. These blawsted Britishers have no imaginations, darn ’em!’

The scene before him and his mates might have raised a better tempered man than the scared ex-trapper and Indian fighter. The broad gully was turned into a great Chinese encampment. Lanterns were flitting to and fro, giving a ghoul-like appearance to the strange-costumed, bare-legged figures that moved and chattered in the uncertain light. By the stakes and trenches which Joe’s friends tumbled against they could see that hundreds of claims had been marked out, and every inch of the ground legally appropriated. Where did the foreigners all come from? There were not anything like the number at the Oxley, and what were there were chiefly employed at present on the River Sluicing Claims, about which there had been many quarrels and bitter disputes lately. One boss or headsman had indeed gone so far as to strike his pick into a dam in defiance of the Commissioner before his very face. But the Captain, snatching a revolver from a trooper, had put it to his ear, and dragging him out from among his astonished comrades, handed him over to the sergeant, by whom he was carefully locked up for the night. He was only released upon his payment of a fine of five pounds and a week’s imprisonment for disobeying a Commissioner.

‘Wal, I heard there was a big camp of these darned skunks, under two bosses, making their way across the mountains,’ said Sonora Joe. ‘They’ve had a fresh shipload or two for the Six Companies. But some of them, or this child, ’ll have to go under before I lose my ground, if the whole British army was here, and the United States’ regulars to help ’em.’

When they went up to the claim which he had left almost virgin in the morning, Sonora Joe cursed and swore with frightfully elaborate profanity. Beside his very pegs, which had been pulled up, sat a fat and stolid ‘Heathen Chinee’ whose gratified expression of countenance contrasted strangely with the deadly scowl which darkened the Caucasian features. The claim itself had evidently been rooted about in an unscientific and exasperating manner; while some of the wash-dirt, piled in a heap close by, showed that the Mongolian instinct for gold had not been at fault. Sonora Joe rushed forward and, seizing the astonished pagan by the pigtail, dragged him to his feet, and then hurled him violently to the ground.

‘Clear out of this, you infernal yaller image!’ roared the infuriated miner, ‘pig-rooting a man’s very prospecting claim, as if it was “old ground.” Hav’n’t ye eyes to see pegs and trenches? By all the devils from here to Lone Mountain, I’ll have the next man’s life that comes inside them pegs agin.’

But the men of a superior race were not likely to have things all their own way on such an occasion. Numbers give boldness even to the most timid animals. The man who had been thus rudely ejected raised himself with difficulty and yelled out several words in an unknown tongue. In an instant the human hive was aroused—it was not long before it began to demonstrate the possession of stings. Sonora Joe and his mates were bold and hardy men, not unaccustomed to fight against odds. They made for some time a desperate stand. Fortunately they were not armed with revolvers, as would have inevitably been the case in their own land. But with the long-handled shovels and other mining tools which lay scattered on the claim they made a desperate rally, and more than once drove back the thronging foe.

Still they were powerless after a while against the forest of sticks which appeared to surround them, with thickly-flying stones, even more serious and disabling in their effects. After a short but obstinate conflict they were compelled to beat a retreat; and when they reached the Oxley about daylight, sore and bruised, wounded and discomfited, to tell the tale that the whole of the Green Gully, for which a large division of their fellow-miners had been preparing to start that very day, was monopolised by the invading foreigner, nothing was wanting to supply the torch for the fires of insurrection which had been smouldering so long.

The day which succeeded this occurrence was long remembed on the Oxley, at Yatala, and indeed throughout the length and breadth of Australia.

Soon after sunrise, both the heralds of the community were observed to patrol the streets with increased solemnity of mien and preternatural importance of visage as they sounded forth in the intervals of their tintinnabulary warnings, the customary formula for convention of the goldfields gemote.

‘Roll up, roll up. All true miners are requested to attend a monster meeting at twelve o’clock sharp, opposite the Court-house, to consider the injustice which has been done to the mining community by the Chinese monopoly at Green Gully. Not a yard of this rich alluvial find now available for Europeans. The prospectors ill-used and hunted. Roll up, roll up.’

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