The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXI

Rolf Boldrewood

A STRICT WATCH had been kept at the camp the whole night through. In the ghostly dawn, gray creeping o’er darksome hill and hollow, the figures could be faintly discerned of armed men who, with their centurion, stood at their posts, as did the Roman sentinels in long-buried cities before the gloom and crash of the volcano. Yet, as the van of the great hosts of insurgents neared them, the wings of which stretched as far as could be seen, some natural anxiety must have arisen as to their intentions in approaching the tiny citadel. The police barracks and temporary gaol, popularly termed ‘The Logs,’ from the massive timber employed in all parts of their construction, were substantial if rude edifices, calculated to stand a siege against any reasonably superior attacking force. But the present league, if such it proved to be, would be as the tidal-wave of the ocean to the fisherman’s boat-shed—the lake-flood to the beaver-dam. A few shots might be fired in desperation; a score or two of the rioters killed and wounded. And then every man in uniform would lose his life, had he a dozen to spare—might even be lynched or torn limb from limb by the infuriated rioters. Crowds, in their delirious hour, have been cruel ere now.

Still no sign of unsteadiness should be shown by the representatives of law. The officers were grave and resolved. The men firm, in their usual mechanical state of non-inquiring obedience.

‘There are enough of them to eat us,’ said Captain Blake. ‘I wonder what the beggars are going to do? That’s Radetsky in front carrying the flag. But they’re not all such crack-brained enthusiasts as he is. Sonora Joe is near him, and our friends, the Major, Harry Pole, and that big Cornstalk. They will all be for moderation. I see some other fellows I don’t like so well; but we must take our chance. Here they come.’

The leading body, having made a short wheel, now advanced to the edge of the open space in front of the police camp. I most unwillingly displayed myself in semi-martial array. All who possessed them carried revolvers. Radetsky had girded on an old cavalry sword.

‘We must go out and meet them,’ I heard Mr. Merlin say distinctly. ‘Hang it, we’ll show them we’re not afraid. Attention! left wheel! march!’

The police troopers and foot constables, who are always instructed in infantry drill at an early stage of their career, immediately stepped out after the immovable British fashion, making as if they were about to advance in the very teeth of the aroused multitude. Merlin himself, on his grey Arab, rode on at their head as though he had the command of something like an equal force. We could hear him say, ‘Steady, men, mark time!’ as the little band executed their manœuvre with most creditable precision.

The Commissioner, with his usual expression of half humorous gravity, loungingly sat on his well-known horse, close to whose feet his greyhounds crowded, looking wistfully at the multitude as if, with the fine instinct of their species, they had divined that a storm was imminent.

So invariably accustomed were the greater portion of the people to render implicit submission to the law as represented by the personages now present, that even when their absurd inadequacy as combatants was so sharply contrasted, a curious feeling of schoolboy shamefacedness and moral inferiority was uppermost for the moment. Then the reactionary element prevailed, and with a mingled sentiment of admiration for the dauntless front of the small army of regulars and a half painful derision of their own instinctive deference, a storm of cheers burst from the multitude, which was taken up again and again, till the forest rang to its mountain buttresses.

The Commissioner promptly seized the opportunity, and in a sonorous, resolute voice addressed them.

‘Sorry to see you here, men, in open defiance of the law, threatening the Queen’s representatives. I do not deny your grievances, but by constitutional means, and those only, they would have been redressed. Now, at the bidding of bad advisers, you have deliberately chosen to use physical force, thereby placing yourselves in the false position of rebels and outlaws against the Queen’s Government.

(Here there was a hoarse ominous murmur, with cries of—‘We’ll show the Sydney officials we’re not to be trampled on.’)

‘You know I don’t mince my words, and always speak my mind to you. I shall do so now. Take my advice and go back to your work. Represent your cause of complaint, which I will see duly brought before the Government, and will back up with all the means in my power, for in the Chinese question I am quite of your way of thinking. (Cheers.) But, once commit yourselves to lawless acts and you’ll all repent it. Mr. Merlin, here, and myself, can do nothing with our handful of men, good as they are. We cannot rout twenty thousand men or take them prisoners. So we shall not try. But, mark my words—that you will have every man of the 70th Regiment, down to the drummer boys, up here within a month, the volunteers and all sailors and marines that may be on the station. Can’t you see that you must be beaten if they bring artillery with them—perhaps some of you shot or hanged, who knows? You have not gone too far as yet, though your attitude is disorderly. Take my advice—don’t be led away by foreigners, and trust to your own Government and your own officers. They have always dealt out justice, and will again.’

Here Mr. Bagstock, who had been an unwilling participator in the inconveniences of the bivouac, anticipating even yet more undesirable experiences, impatiently broke in, shouting to supplement practically and effectively his superior officer’s speech.

‘Look here, m-m-m-en,’ he said; ‘w-w-w-hat’s the use of all this m-m-mummery? it’s b-b-beastly cold, this w-w-watching, I can t-t-tell you! Suppose you go and r-r-r-register block claims in G-g-g-reen Gully—most of those Ch-ch-chows haven’t got Miners’ Rights, you know—that’s the easiest way to g-g-get possession, and quite l-l-legal too.’

A tremendous burst of laughter followed this proposition, made with the greatest coolness and apparent earnestness, joined with cries of—

‘Well done you, Mr. Bagstock, you stay and stick to your papers. We won’t touch a hair of your head,’ etc.

The point of the joke, however, which was that Mr. Bagstock received a fee for each act of registration, and that in this hour of danger he had been sufficiently wide awake to his own interests to suggest the registration of a revolutionary mob at half a crown a head, so tickled the more humorous spirits that their infectious mirth went far to divert the rioters from their stern purposes. Even the iron-visaged police troopers could scarcely control their features, albeit under the terrible eye of Mr. Merlin.

The sergeant stared fiercely at an adjacent gum-tree, while the Commissioner slapped Mr. Bagstock jocularly on the back, and declared he would rise in the Civil Service, to which he was an honour and an ornament.

This ludicrous contretemps, joined with the sensible address of the Commissioner, whom all respected and believed, nearly had the effect of allaying irritation and sending most of the men back to their homes. But exorcists of all lands, since the world’s dimmest eld, have ever found the fiend more easy to invoke than to lay. So it was in the present state of matters. All the worst characters in the various mining camps were now gathered together. Also, those mercurial spirits upon whom numbers and opportunity act as a spell for evil, found their fitting sphere and opportunity. The moderate men were overpowered by the subtle influence of an aroused multitude, while the wilder elements rejoiced recklessly in their hour of triumph. Scarcely had the legitimate miners raised their voices to cheer the Commissioner, and to suggest that after all they had better leave the matter in his hands, than a storm of cries, howls, and a surging rush towards the camp showed that the time of temporising measures was past.

‘What!’ shouted the fierce exile, maddened by the fear of losing his last chance of revolt against a settled government, and mingling in his excited brain a host of old-world wrongs with present grievances, ‘are we to go back like beaten hounds at the beck of a tyrant, an oppressor of the people, who looks upon the toiling masses as dogs, the minion of a despotic government, based as are all governments upon the blood and labour of the foolish people, of us—of us! whom they chain and enslave and rob, and flog and slay—do I not, Stanislas Radetsky, bear the marks of their accursed rods? And are we to be lower than Chinese? But I will strike the first blow for liberty, let who will follow! Comrades, advance, we must have the camp!’

As he spoke he rushed towards the police, his eyes glaring with half-maniacal fury, and fired his pistol point-blank at Mr. Merlin, who sat unmoved upon his well-drilled horse, as one hardly believing that any actual overt act of warfare would follow. At the same time a few dropping shots were fired by men evidently acting in concert with Radetsky, who no doubt had been secretly working for a more compendious scheme of revolt.

The sudden report seemed to transform the impassive Merlin, who promptly gave the word—fire! and at the same time, raising his revolver without any appearance of haste, fired at the self-constituted leader, who staggered, but was immediately lifted up by those nearest to him and carried inward. At the same time an effective volley was fired by the whole body of police, who then retreated in good order towards their camp. I heard a bullet or two whiz unpleasantly near me. I saw the man on my left throw up his arms and drop in a ghastly heap by my side. And I was then hurried forward as by a resistless wave by the maddened crowd which passed onward with overwhelming force.

Then, indeed, ensued a tumult such as no man could imagine or describe, and such as in all my previous experience I had never dreamed of. Cries and curses, groans and shrieks, as an occasional bullet sped home, arose from all around. In vain did those in the van try to stem the mad rush onward, not willing to mix themselves up with the insane act of Radetsky, and unwilling to provoke a further firing from the police, who had only given a second volley, and stopped as soon as the fire from our side ceased. All order was lost. All feeling merged, apparently, in mad demoniac rage and thirst for blood and vengeance.

The police had retreated within their citadel, which was capable of being well and effectively defended, as long as their ammunition should hold out. Built with a view to resist a sudden onslaught, it was massively constructed of heavy hardwood logs. The heavy doors were strong and clamped with iron. It was not particularly easy to set on fire, so that deadliest of all resorts of the besieger was in abeyance. The iron-bark shingles defied hasty ignition, so that the besieged with their repeating rifles could have shot down any number of men engaged in carrying combustibles. Moreover, the timber cleared away by the reckless use of firewood by a large population left bare considerable space around the camp. Hence, even with the immensely superior attacking force, it was seen that they had a long and dangerous task before them in compelling the surrender of the little fortress. To storm it would have been a most useless expenditure of blood, and only justifiable in the case of the death of every single one of the garrison being resolved upon. Such few shots as had been fired by the police had been more deterrent than irrevocably disastrous fortunately. Radetsky was badly but apparently not mortally wounded. Others were more or less hurt, but no man had been slain outright. The rioters, much worked upon by all the moderate party, among whom Mark Thursby, the Major, the Bulders, and myself of course, canvassed unremittingly, began to consider whether it was worth while sitting down for a lengthened siege before the unpromising-looking camp, where the police could certainly hold out for several days, or whether they had better go on and drive out the Chinese, who after all were legitimate enemies, in possession of their gold and the cause of the whole disturbance.

Here Sonora Joe, who meant business rather than revolt, and who was extremely cute, like most of his countrymen, in the management of the sovereign people, saw his way to a diversion.

‘I don’t see,’ he commenced, as soon as the turmoil had sufficiently subsided to secure him a hearing, ‘what all this army work is going to do with getting back our shallow ground in Green Gully! Here’s these cussed Chows working away and rootin’ out the gold like spuds, while we’re foolin’ round these darned old logs and waitin’ for the myrmidons of this all-fired, old Sydney one-horse Government to shoot some more of us. They can’t well be off it—and when we’ve got all these boys’ scalps in the block-house, I don’t see how we can realise on ’em. They won’t be half as good trade as those shallow claims, and we’re losing them all the time. Guess we’d better make tracks; put the prospectors back on to their claims; wire in on the block, and send the hull darned lot o’those yaller niggers to h—l.’

This characteristic address, more particularly the concluding sentiment, seemed at this juncture to strike the fancy of the capricious crowd mightily. The artful allusion to rich gold in shallow workings, the Miners’ Eldorado, was difficult to resist. Nothing but hard knocks were to be got by staying where they were. Gold, adventure, revenge, were to be obtained by the onward march. Our party enthusiastically applauded and indeed took the lead for Green Gully, whither we had the satisfaction to find ourselves followed by the whole crowd, a comparatively small force being left to guard the guardians of the peace.

It may have been some seven or eight miles from the Oxley proper to the Green Gully. A concourse of individuals, whether brute or human, does not advance so quickly as a smaller number. Nevertheless, once started on the road every man apparently put his best leg forward, and very good time was made. Was it not a ‘rush’? That magic word in mining parlance! How many times had we all seen people strip themselves of the last shilling, the last shred of property they had in the world, to improve their fortune by risking their lives to ensure their chances of being early at a rush which was perhaps utterly worthless and barren when they got there.

For the miner proper, splendid possibilities seem to be the resistless lure, and he is so constituted that the undefined mysterious future is quite sufficient to overbalance the prosaic present, however satisfactory and solvent soever.

In this case the majority had made up their minds that Green Gully combined the profits of a ‘rush’ with the excitement of a revolt, and their gamblers’ nature was stirred accordingly to its lowest depths.

After little more than two hours’ march, we came in sight of the far-famed Green Gully, the fame of which was soon to be so widely bruited abroad. There we saw a horde of yellow men, the Huns of this gold-empire of ours, spread over it apparently with the multiform ceaseless industry of an ant-hill.

A hoarse roar broke from the crowd as they marked the steady passage of lines of workers from the claim to the creek, bearing on their shoulders what they knew to be rich washdirt,—or why should they so sedulously keep up the laborious process of washing and ‘cradling’ the ore?

‘There’s my prospecting claim as thick as a bit of honeycomb with ants, blast ’em!’ cried out Sonora Joe. ‘Isn’t that enough to make a white man own himself first cousin to a blind mule in a sugar-mill? Is this what we came across those infernal sage brush deserts to ’Frisco, and across sea hyar fur? Is the British Empire played out? and is this here Miner’s Right a bit of waste paper?’

Then he drew out the parchment document so well known to his hearers, and flourished it on high, as though it had been the title deed of the whole Caucasian race.

The effect was electrical. By this time the main army of miners, with camp followers and concomitant personages of all kinds, had arrived, and were so to speak broadside on to the incurious automatons of Celestials, who went on without sign of doubt or trepidation, yarning up the yellow dross as though their privilege was to last to the day of doom. Such was it, in fact, to them.

With a hungry sudden rush as of one man, the vast crowd, like a tidal wave, rolled on and over the host of inferior race. It was an instant mean eclipse, followed by annihilation. The next moment, as it seemed, the whole superficial area of the Green Gully was occupied with European miners. In every direction were seen Chinese flying madly in panic, their pigtails floating behind them, their loose clothes fluttering in the breeze, their slippers discarded or only visible on one foot, their broad-brimmed hats flying in the breeze or lying prone and curiously suggestive on the earth. Picks and shovels were raised in the mêlée, not altogether in vain. The Chinese that remained were kicked, struck down, hustled, in every way maltreated until they joined, like the rest, the unreasoning panic of which they had been the victims. Sonora Joe, waving a brace of pigtails suspiciously resembling scalps at the thicker ends, bore down on the dignified and supercilious boss, who had so quietly sat down upon his prospecting claim. He was then running and yelling in the most ignominious manner. Joe could not avoid the triumph of sounding a war whoop over his departure, and intensifying by a simple stratagem his agony and despair at the onslaught of the white barbarians.

In half an hour all was apparently quiet. Sonora Joe was again in possession of his prospecting claim. Many of the others had apparently taken up claims with the greatest promptitude and despatch. There was not a bit of spare ground left in the whole Green Gully. A couple of thousand men were settled, apparently, upon as rich a bit of alluvial as had been seen or heard of since old Eaglehawk. The great thing was to keep it.

‘Fancy a mob of Chinamen getting hold of a bit of ground like this,’ said more than one steady-going old hand, delighted to quit the conflict for easy sinking. ‘Let’s see who’ll turn us out again.’

As for the constables at the camp, they had nearly forgotten all about them. They could forgive them, and only trusted they wouldn’t make fools of themselves and bring more bloodshed and danger on their heads.

In those days the area of the claims was small, so that, as the combatants carefully retained the legal measurement as between one another, the Green Gully, which was patently rich, absorbed a very large proportion of the leading miners, and also of the dangerous classes. In a comparatively short time the rapid transformation, therefore, had taken place from an invading army into a body of peaceful miners wielding pick and shovel, or marking out their claims with painstaking accuracy. Of the routed Celestials, not a solitary individual remained. After a hurried consultation they had formed themselves into some kind of marching order, and departed at a jog trot in the direction whence they had come.

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