The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXVIII

Rolf Boldrewood

HE WAS evidently searching for the gray horse which we had seen hobbled, and to secure which he carried a bridle in his left hand. He came unsuspiciously forward till within about thirty yards of our post. Then Merlin, stalking forward from behind his tree, cried ‘Stand! in the Queen’s name!’ in a voice which sounded strangely loud and incongruous amid the hushed solitudes in the chill, gray, ghostly dawn. At the same instant, from beside the tree that had apparently sheltered the hilarious opossum, sprung the black tracker, uttering a yell which made the forest ring to its farthest extent.

Ben Wall, for it was he, showed no surprise; he had carried his life in his hand too long, doubtless had foreseen precisely this description of reveillée far too often, to betray astonishment when the fated hour arrived.

Dropping the bridle, he faced round upon Merlin with wonderfully instinctive quickness, firing one barrel of his revolver with apparently the same movement of his arm, and giving Sir Watkyn the benefit of a second shot with the slightest change of aim. That agile son of the forest leaped high at the report, but whether from the result of the shot, or from natural elasticity of spirits, could not then be ascertained.

Mr. Merlin stood unmoved, but simultaneously with Wall’s first shot he brought the breechloader to his shoulder and fired with deliberate aim. The robber threw up his arms with a convulsive motion, stood statue-like for an instant, during which every rifle and revolver in the party was emptied, and fell heavily upon his face—dead, and, but for convulsive graspings of the tufted grass and autumn leaves that strewed the soil, motionless.

We walked over to the body, headed by the tracker, who rubbed his fore-arm with a vengeful expression of countenance. It had been more than grazed by the second bullet, and the red drops fell fast across the sable skin.

‘Turn him over,’ said Mr. Merlin. ‘I thought I should hold straight this time. There’s the track of my green cartridge. Bright was not far wrong. It’s too cold for the pistol at this hour of the morning when there’s no coffee to steady one’s nerves.’

Merlin’s aim had been true. The cartridge of heavy shot, hardly scattering at the short distance, had torn through the robber’s breast like a grapeshot. Death must have been instantaneous. But every Snider and Colt in the party had left a mark. The corpse was riddled with bullet wounds.

‘Ha!’ soliloquised Merlin, ‘there lies Ben, stark and stiff, and not the worst of the gang either. I know a man and so do you, Pole, that better deserves to be there. However, wishing won’t hang people, more’s the pity sometimes, so let us get back to our horses and return to the camp. I wish to heaven these fellows would choose decent weather to be shot in. I feel a precious sight more like a dead man myself than a live one.’

We betook ourselves to where the horses had been left, having previously had the corpse of the bushranger carried into the deserted hut whence he had issued, there to abide until a vehicle could be sent for it. We caught the noble gray horse with his companion, and led him back to camp with us whence he was restored to his owner, much to that gentleman’s satisfaction. And ofttimes a merry girl, as in after days she felt his free elastic stride beneath her, as he stretched tireless over the forest turf, grew pale when told that this was the horse that carried the boldest bushranger of Lardner’s gang on his death ride.

Of the final destiny of the gang mention may be made here. Nemesis, pede claudo, was in their case sufficiently effective in the long run.

Gilbert Hawke, like Ben Wall, was surrounded and shot dead. O’Rourke and Daly had perished before by the hands of gentlemen whose houses they had attacked. Gunn was captured and hanged; while Frank Lardner, the Robin Hood of the Australian outlaws, the planner and contriver of an evil which far outran the original conception, escaped to a neighbouring colony, and there, as a storekeeper on a distant goldfield, lived unsuspected a life of quasi-respectability.

Discovered, however, at length, he was apprehended with singular dexterity and boldness by a member of the detective force, and safely lodged in the gaol in Sydney, there to abide his trial.

Strange as it may seem—and this is no fiction, but sober historic fact, which can be authenticated by official records—there were technical legal difficulties in the way of full proof of his identity and complicity in the wilful murders and attempts thereat which had been committed by his band.

So, in vindication of the unsullied ermine of a British court of justice, the highway robber and homicide was spared the last penalty and adjudged but to undergo a lengthened sentence of imprisonment. Even this, at the expiration of a term of years, during which he had earned a good gaol character for propriety and subordination, was commuted. And in answer to a mistakenly merciful popular request, he who had attempted deliberate murder, had compassed robbery under arms, and had indirectly been the cause of the loss of the lives of scores of better men, was permitted to go free. He now breathes the free air of heaven, and walks unchallenged in another land; while the victims of his lawless greed, his recklessness, and his evil example, lie rotting in premature or dishonoured graves.

.     .     .     .     .

The year 186— was evidently the commencement of a cycle of rainy seasons. It promised to be a year of flood and tempest. But the more widely the windows of heaven were opened, the weather keener, the blasts of the spring-time which, with storm and inundation, seemed never willing to ripen into summer, the more laden the alluvial levels of the Oxley appeared to be with gold.

The yield continued to be enormous. The escorts were fabulous; and save that the continuously severe weather necessitated heavier payments for carriage, and through this increased rates of prices for all things that the miner consumed, no other untoward result took place.

No one particularly cared. It was a land where all were rich; and men had lost the memory of the relative values of commodities dating from a period when money was scarce.

Olivera was perhaps the only man on the goldfield who had not at one time or another enjoyed his share of luck. He did, indeed, get sufficient of the root of all evil to live comfortably and pay all expenses. But he never seemed, somehow or other, to drop upon a ‘golden hole,’ though such might be above, below, even within a few inches of his claim, wherever he might chance to select it.

To him, however, a scholar, a traveller, above all a philosopher, this persistent run of ill luck made little or no apparent difference. He was always ready to explain the apparently inconsistent behaviour of Providence in his particular case.

‘No doubt,’ he would observe, ‘this total absence of what ordinary people call success, would be dangerous to natures unaccustomed to take a widely comprehensive group of occurrences. For instance there’s Ned Wright, ex-pugilist, rowdy, blackleg, what not; he is pursued by the police, and finally so much harassed that in despair he attacks honest work; he sinks with Tommy the Clock and two mates hardly better than himself No. 2 shaft on the Pink Lead; and what is the result? Why, that after getting down without rock or water, they bottom in the best claim on the whole lead, and make five thousand pounds a man in less than three months!’

‘It’s dreadfully aggravating,’ says the Major. ‘How you stand it, old fellow, I can’t think.’

‘Stand it!’ said Olivera, carefully filling his pipe, ‘what else is to be done? One can’t bring an action against Providence. My idea is that I’m being reserved for something better than the Ned Wrights and Tommy the Clocks.’

‘Harry Poles, Majors, Jack Bulders, and so on,’ said I, laughing.

‘Well, of course, there are several ways of looking at it. But after all (one’s powers of mind and body remaining unimpaired of course) perhaps the longer the day of full fruition is deferred the better,’ pursued Mr. Olivera musingly. ‘Still I shall never give up mining until I die; and I’ll take the long odds I land a big thing before I drop.’

Not so calmly philosophical by any means was our latest acquaintance and partner, Jack Bulder. Whether it was the wet weather and the unfriendly sky, or the absence of his brother, before whom he always preserved a comparatively dignified demeanour, or both these things, joined to the monotonous regularity of our washings-up and the swelling of our credit balance, which acted unfavourably upon his nerves, but so it fell out that John Bulder became careless and unpunctual in returning to the claim from the hotel where he had now permanently taken up his quarters.

It began to be whispered about that Bulder of Greenstone Dyke was going crooked, queer in his talk at times, not so steady as he had been when he first ‘come on the rush.’ Gradually—for gossip, so rife in older communities where events are rare and of modest magnitude, is singularly slow and accurate on goldfields—the rumour became confirmed that John Bulder ‘drank.’

And one unlucky morning, after a lengthy absence of our defaulting mate, a messenger came up from the Ballarat Hotel with a note from the landlord—a very decent fellow who had known him in that gold city—that Mr. Bulder had been ‘on the burst’ for several days, and that some one from the claim, he thought, ought to come down and look after him.

This was not good news. But neither was it unexpected. The Major had prophesied as much. We did not moralise on it. We knew exactly how much it meant; how much and no more.

A certain percentage of men on every goldfield, on every large cattle or sheep station, in every country town in all the Australian colonies, is subject to this morbid phase of alcoholism. Not by any means the weakest or the worst members of society either.

The attitude of the public to the individual who may thus transgress is much like that of the gaoler in the Old Curiosity Shop on the occasion of Kit’s incarceration. He did not reason much on the causes which led to parties being committed to his keeping. Crime, as he noticed it, was a variable and epidemic occurrence. Some had it, some hadn’t, others mildly—much like measles, smallpox, or scarlet fever.

Many men in all the localities and societies referred to drink more than is good for them, perhaps become intoxicated frequently. But a man who has a regular burst, or ‘goes on the spree’ habitually and periodically, is classed in a different category. He is known both to friends and foes to be one who, while having the power to refrain wholly from intoxicating liquor for a given and definite, often a protracted period, must have his full swing, must yield in an uncontrolled state of utter abandonment to the craving for a debauch when the temptation suffices, or when his hour has come.

For weeks, for days, for months, years even it may be, the restraining power is known to last. Then chance or continuous pressure breaks the bond of self-denial, and over the broken embankment the pent-up passion seeks its lowest level, sweeping away tumultuously in its flow all good intent and manly resolution.

For a space, days and nights are recklessly devoted to the delirium of drunkenness. Then, wonderful to relate, the possessed one is suddenly discovered clothed and in his right mind, though grievously shaken by the ‘unclean spirit which had come out of him.’ A new era of perfect sobriety, energy, and propriety then sets in.

The Major and I, therefore, much as if we had heard that Jack Bulder had sustained severe accidental injury, or otherwise come to grief, concluded to set out and see about him.

‘I’m sorry he’s broken out,’ said the Major, ‘the fellow’s such a strong nature, for good or evil, that there’s no saying what he may not say or do.’

‘It doesn’t matter what he says, that I know of,’ quoth I, ‘and I don’t see what he can do. However, we shall soon know all about it.’

When we arrived at the Ballarat Hotel, Mr. Hennessy the landlord met us with a very solemn face. He motioned us into the little room beside the bar which did duty as a snuggery and general office.

‘Morning, Hennessy!’ said the Major, ‘what’s up with Bulder; anything out of the common? All the same, Pole and I are obliged to you for sending us word.’

‘Well, Major,’ said our boniface, an extensively travelled man, who knew San Francisco, New York, and Panama better than the Australian capitals, ‘I shouldn’t have troubled about a little temp’ry kick-up, but I knew Jack at Ballarat, and it’s worse than that.’

‘How worse?’ I inquired.

‘In this way. He hasn’t been sober for a fortnight, as one might say, till last Monday; since then he hasn’t touched a drop but soft stuff and tea. The curus part of it is that he seems worse and worse. I’m afraid he’s got the jumps coming on.’

‘The jumps?’ said I.

‘Yes, the jim-jams, or whatever you make of ’em; the doctors call it D.T., or something of that kind.’

‘Delirium tremens,’ I returned, ‘very likely, indeed. Is he noisy?’

‘He ’asn’t slep’ for three nights, or stopped talking; keeps on gassin’ about Ballarat, and the soldiers, that’s why I sent for you. Some of the p’leece might tumble, you know.’

Here Mr. Hennessy looked extremely knowing.

‘Well, suppose he does talk about Ballarat, who cares?’ I said rather hotly, irritated with the show of concealment for which I saw no necessity. ‘Suppose all the world knew he was there.’

‘But not in Eureka stockade; not as Ballarat Jack, one of the principal leaders, for whom there is five hundred pounds reward offered, and who was strongly suspected of killing Captain Wayse.’

‘Good God!’ I said, ‘you don’t say so? I knew poor Wayse well, and used to dine at the mess with him in Melbourne. Do you think he was the man that stabbed him?’

‘He’s in there,’ said the host in a low tone, pointing to a room upstairs. ‘You can hear him talking and going on as soon as you get to the head of the stairs. Here’s the key. I’ve locked the door at the other end of the passage; you take it with you and go up.’

We went quickly up the staircase, knowing that it led to a large room on the first story, which was used for masonic dinners, quadrille parties, political meetings, and other purposes for which more than ordinary accommodation is required. A dozen or more bedrooms were situated on the other side of the corridor. Of one of these Jack Bulder had permanently possessed himself. And the other occupants being absent on work or business, he had at this time the suite pretty much to himself.

We could hardly imagine that he was alone, for as we approached the door of the passage at the head of the stairs we could hear a voice denouncing, beseeching, defying, by turns, as if in earnest conversation with some one.

As we turned the lock in the door we heard him call out, ‘Stand! not one foot farther! I’ll shoot the first man that leaves the stockade.’ We paused for one moment, doubtful whether he had arms, and then, smiling at our faint-heartedness, pushed open the door and entered the room.

It was a strange uncanny sight. Near the centre of the room, to which he had withdrawn himself, stood John Bulder, barefooted, in his shirt and trousers, much in the same state of apparel generally as he must have used when superintending the washing of his ship’s decks in tropical seas.

His eyes, widely opened, were fixed with dreadful intensity upon a corner of the room. The expression of his face was utterly changed, so thoroughly that ordinary acquaintances might well have looked on him without recognition.

Then his eyes, dilated with horror, rested upon us. His head moved unwillingly and slowly away from the spot at which he had been gazing as he cried aloud, in tones of unutterable anguish—

‘Good God! they are almost touching him, the blood from his breast drips over them! Will they carry his blood about to follow me through the world and torment me before my time?’

‘What’s the matter, old fellow?’ said the Major. ‘You’re rather high-fed to-day. It doesn’t do to play with D.T.’

‘Who are you, and what authority have you to question me?’ said the possessed, for such beyond doubt he seemed to be for the time, still turning back his head as if fascinated to the first point of his regard.

‘Oh! you know us,’ I said; ‘it’s only the Major and Harry Pole, your mates. You had better come home and have a good sleep.’

‘How can I sleep?’ he said in a quiet conversational tone, ‘when he is there, night and day, by my bedside in the darkness, and here when I am awake and would leave him if I could.’

‘Who is there?’ I said, thinking to humour him, and knowing it to be an optical illusion, such as are common to those suffering from a disordered nervous system.

Who is there?’ he wailed forth, in tones that made me almost doubt his identity, so strangely awful were they with shuddering dread and despair. ‘Who is there? who should it be but the man I killed at Ballarat stockade, while he was smiling in my face, Captain Wayse of the 80th. Don’t you see the wound in his breast where my sword went through him, and the blood—the blood running still?’

Here the unhappy man threw himself down on his face as one who grovels in the dust, and drew his hands over his forehead as if to shut out the terrible sight.

‘This looks serious,’ said the Major. ‘He may have been in the Ballarat riot, as a few men we both know here have been. But as to poor Wayse, who died of his wounds the next day, after pluckily leading his company when they stormed the stockade, he may have dreamt all about it.’

‘I don’t know that,’ I said; ‘it seems to have burned itself in on his brain in a way that another man’s guilt could scarcely have reached. I met poor Wayse once. He knew the Leys well, and told me he had been shooting at a house close by the year before I went there.’

Here John Bulder raised himself on his knees cautiously, and then turning away his head, sat down.

‘Who spoke about the Leys?’ he said in a hoarse whisper. ‘He was there, too. I was a boy; he was little better—but a gentleman, just got his commission, and he seemed a little god to a country lout like me. How handsome he was, and jolly, kind to all and free with his money like a prince. Many a half-crown he gave me in the old days, for he used to take me out with him to carry the bag. Perhaps he’ll forgive me yet before I die. Why can’t I die? I couldn’t be worse in hell.

Here the wretched man sobbed and bewailed himself as if he had been the soft untravelled rustic his wanderings described.

After another interval he went on more collectedly, while we, seeing that unless he was placed in charge of the police for protection nothing could be done with him, and doubtful of how great a proportion of truth was mixed up with these revelations, listened without remark.

‘One day I had snared a hare; I used to poach a little—most of us boys did, as much for the sport as anything, and I was just taking her out when the keeper collared me. I was being taken off to gaol—Lord, lord! how frightened I was—when he came by, and never stopped till he begged me off. I could have followed him over the world when he left the country. He gave me a sovereign, and told me either to ’list or go to sea, that I was too mettlesome a lad to make a ploughboy of. I went to sea, he went to his regiment, and now here am I, and he is—there. My God, my God!’

Here he leaped to his feet and commenced walking up and down the room like a sailor on a deck, always turning back at the same place and markedly avoiding the corner where, according to his delusion, the appearance still abode.

‘Why did I join the rioters at Ballarat? why did heaps of good men? because the diggers were badly treated, hunted for their licenses, chained up like dogs, knocked down by bullies like Strongbow, and tyrannised over by raw lads fresh from England. I fought Strongbow fair once, and beat him too. He was as strong as a bullock, but I was too active. He was a man, too; he wouldn’t let the troopers touch me. There was a lot of foreigners in it, too; some good, some bad, and Americans.’

‘Wasn’t Yankee Jake there, too?’ said I, by way of a distraction.

‘He! Curse him, wherever he is! He was not an American at all, only a white-washed one. He was an Englishman, of a good family, too, turned out for villainy of some kind. He was a traitor, too. He sold us at Ballarat or we should have had time to strengthen the stockade before the military came upon us. But that’s not all he did.’

‘Why, what else could he do?’

‘What does a man like him do? work harm and misery all his days. I had a mate, a sailor-man, a real honest chap as ever pulled a rope or carried a tar bucket. He’d come over in a West Indian ship after one of his voyages, married a Spanish-American girl, the prettiest young thing you ever saw. Poor Dick used fairly to worship her, and she seemed that fond of him she was never happy out of his sight. Dolores and he was like two children.’

‘Dolores Lusada?’ I said; ‘did you know her in those days?’

‘Know her, yes, and respected her, too, and every man at the White Hills where we worked. A neater, cheerier, better wife no man had, till this Jake, with his wheedling ways and lies and fine airs, flattered her out of her true and safe-sailing course, and persuaded her to dowse her flag and scud under bare poles before the wind with him.’

‘And what did her husband do?’

‘Followed them everywhere to kill him. Then came back and drank—drank till he forgot all about his troubles. But when he did, he was mad like me.’ Here he laughed in an unnatural ghastly manner. ‘So they had to lock him up for a few months. Then he came out quite quiet, poor Dick, and went away, and I never saw him again. But why should he have gone mad; he never killed any one.’

‘Nor you, either,’ said the Major. ‘Somebody has told you all this. You’re only fancying these stories. Come along home with us and tell Mrs. Yorke about it. She’ll make you some tea and you’ll get a good sleep after it all, and that will set you right.’

‘I would come, for I am sure you’re kind,’ he answered humbly, but as if he had never seen us before; ‘but he would come too, and in a small place it would be too dreadful. His blood would run on the floor, too. You could not help standing in it. Ah-a—h!’

Here he again assumed an attitude and expression of fear and shuddering horror beyond all control.

The Miner’s Right - Contents    |     Chapter XXIX

Back    |    Words Home    |    Rolf Boldrewood Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback