Not that we troubled our heads over much about things of this sort. We had set our minds to go on until our claims were worked out, or close up; then to sell out, and with the lot we’d already banked to get down to Melbourne and clear out. Should we ever be able to manage that? It seemed getting nearer, nearer, like a star that a man fixes his eyes on as he rides through a lonely bit of forest at night. We had all got our eyes fixed on it, Lord knows, and were working double tides, doing our very best to make up a pile worth while leaving the country with. As for Jim, he and his little wife seemed that happy that he grudged every minute he spent away from her. He worked as well as ever—better, indeed, for he never took his mind from his piece of work, whatever it was, for a second. But the very minute his shift was over Jim was away along the road to Specimen Gully, like a cow going back to find her calf. He hardly stopped to light his pipe now, and we’d only seen him once up town, and that was on a Saturday night with Jeanie on his arm.
Well, the weeks passed over, and at long last we got on as far in the year as the first week in December. We’d given out that we might go somewhere to spend our Christmas. We were known to be pretty well in, and to have worked steady all these months since the early part of the year. We had paid our way all the time, and could leave at a minute’s notice without asking any man’s leave.
If we were digging up gold like potatoes we weren’t the only ones. No, not by a lot. There never was a richer patch of alluvial, I believe, in any of the fields, and the quantity that was sent down in one year was a caution. Wasn’t the cash scattered about then? Talk of money, it was like the dirt under your feet—in one way, certainly—as the dirt was more often than not full of gold.
We could see things getting worse on the field after a bit. We didn’t set up to be any great shakes ourselves, Jim and I; but we didn’t want the field to be overrun by a set of scoundrels that were the very scum of the earth, let alone the other colonies. We were afraid they’d go in for some big foolish row, and we should get dragged in for it. That was exactly what we didn’t want.
With the overflowing of the gold, as it were, came such a town and such a people to fill it, as no part of Australia had ever seen before. When it got known by newspapers, and letters from the miners themselves to their friends at home, what an enormous yield of gold was being dug out of the ground in such a simple fashion, all the world seemed to be moving over. At that time nobody could tell a lie hardly about the tremendous quantity that was being got and sent away every week. This was easy to know, because the escort returns were printed in all the newspapers every week; so everybody could see for themselves what pounds and hundredweights and tons—yes, tons of gold—were being got by men who very often, as like as not, hadn’t to dig above twenty or thirty feet for it, and had never handled a pick or a shovel in their lives before they came to the Turon.
There were plenty of good men at the diggings. I will say this for the regular miners, that a more manly, straightgoing lot of fellows no man ever lived among. I wish we’d never known any worse. We were not what might be called highly respectable people ourselves—still, men like us are only half-and-half bad, like a good many more in this world. They’re partly tempted into doing wrong by opportunity, and kept back by circumstances from getting into the straight track afterwards. But on every goldfield there’s scores and scores of men that always hurry off there like crows and eagles to a carcass to see what they can rend and tear and fatten upon. They ain’t very particular whether it’s the living or the dead, so as they can gorge their fill. There was a good many of this lot at the Turon, and though the diggers gave them a wide berth, and helped to run them down when they’d committed any crime, they couldn’t be kept out of sight and society altogether.
We used to go up sometimes to see the gold escort start. It was one of the regular sights of the field, and the miners that were off shift and people that hadn’t much to do generally turned up on escort day. The gold was taken down to Sydney once a week in a strong express waggon—something like a Yankee coach, with leather springs and a high driving seat; so that four horses could be harnessed. One of the police sergeants generally drove, a trooper fully armed with rifle and revolver on the box beside him. In the back seat sat two more troopers with their Sniders ready for action; two rode a hundred yards ahead, and another couple about the same distance behind.
We always noticed that a good many of the sort of men that never seemed to do any digging and yet always had good clothes and money to spend used to hang about when the escort was starting. People in the crowd ’most always knew whether it was a ‘big’ escort or a ‘light’ one. It generally leaked out how many ounces had been sent by this bank and how much by that; how much had come from the camp, for the diggers who did not choose to sell to the banks were allowed to deposit their gold with an officer at the camp, where it was carefully weighed, and a receipt given to them stating the number of ounces, pennyweights, and grains. Then it was forwarded by the escort, deducting a small percentage for the carriage and safe keeping. Government did not take all the risk upon itself. The miner must run his chance if he did not sell. But the chance was thought good enough; the other thing was hardly worth talking about. Who was to be game to stick up the Government escort, with eight police troopers, all well armed and ready to make a fight to the death before they gave up the treasure committed to their charge? The police couldn’t catch all the horse-stealers and bush-rangers in a country that contained so many millions of acres of waste land; but no one doubted that they would make a first-rate fight, on their own ground as it were, and before they’d let anything be taken away from them that had been counted out, box by box, and given into their charge.
We had as little notion of trying anything of the sort ourselves than as we had of breaking into the Treasury in Sydney by night. But those who knew used to say that if the miners had known the past history of some of the men that used to stand up and look on, well dressed or in regular digger rig, as the gold boxes were being brought out and counted into the escort drag, they would have made a bodyguard to go with it themselves when they had gold on board, or have worried the Government into sending twenty troopers in charge instead of six or eight.
One day, as Jim and I happened to be at the camp just as the escort was starting, the only time we’d been there for a month, we saw Warrigal and Moran standing about. They didn’t see us; we were among a lot of other diggers, so we were able to take them out of winding a bit.
They were there for no good, we agreed. Warrigal’s sharp eyes noted everything about the whole turn-out—the sergeant’s face that drove, the way the gold boxes were counted out and put in a kind of fixed locker underneath the middle of the coach. He saw where the troopers sat before and behind, and I’ll be bound came away with a wonderful good general idea of how the escort travelled, and of a good many things more about it that nobody guessed at. As for Moran, we could see him fix his eyes upon the sergeant who was driving, and look at him as if he could look right through him. He never took his eyes off him the whole time, but glared at him like a maniac; if some of his people hadn’t given him a shove as they passed he would soon have attracted people’s attention. But the crowd was too busy looking at the well-conditioned prancing horses and the neatly got up troopers of the escort drag to waste their thoughts upon a common bushman, however he might stare. When he turned away to leave he ground out a red-hot curse betwixt his teeth. It made us think that Warrigal’s coming about with him on this line counted for no good.
They slipped through the crowd again, and, though they were pretty close, they never saw us. Warrigal would have known us however we might have been altered, but somehow he never turned his head our way. He was like a child, so taken up with all the things he saw that his great-grandfather might have jumped up from the Fish River Caves, or wherever he takes his rest, and Warrigal would never have wondered at him.
‘That’s a queer start!’ says Jim, as we walked on our homeward path. ‘I wonder what those two crawling, dingo-looking beggars were here for? Never no good. I say, did you see that fellow Moran look at the sergeant as if he’d eat him? What eyes he has, for all the world like a black snake! Do you think he’s got any particular down on him?’
‘Not more than on all police. I suppose he’d rub them out, every mother’s son, if he could. He and Warrigal can’t stick up the escort by themselves.’
We managed to get a letter from home from time to time now we’d settled, as it were, at the Turon. Of course they had to be sent in the name of Henderson, but we called for them at the post-office, and got them all right. It was a treat to read Aileen’s letters now. They were so jolly and hopeful-like besides what they used to be. Now that we’d been so long, it seemed years, at the diggings, and were working hard, doing well, and getting quite settled, as she said, she believed that all would go right, and that we should be able really to carry out our plans of getting clear away to some country where we could live safe and quiet lives. Women are mostly like that. They first of all believe all that they’re afraid of will happen. Then, as soon as they see things brighten up a bit, they’re as sure as fate everything’s bound to go right. They don’t seem to have any kind of feeling between. They hate making up their minds, most of ’em as I’ve known, and jump from being ready to drown themselves one moment to being likely to go mad with joy another. Anyhow you take ’em, they’re better than men, though. I’ll never go back on that.
So Aileen used to send me and Jim long letters now, telling us that things were better at home, and that she really thought mother was cheerfuller and stronger in health than she’d been ever since—well, ever since—that had happened. She thought her prayers had been heard, and that we were going to be forgiven for our sins and allowed, by God’s mercy, to lead a new life. She quite believed in our leaving the country, although her heart would be nearly broken by the thought that she might never see us again, and a lot more of the same sort.
Poor mother! she had a hard time of it if ever any one ever had in this world, and none of it her own fault as I could ever see. Some people gets punished in this world for the sins other people commit. I can see that fast enough. Whether they get it made up to ’em afterwards, of course I can’t say. They ought to, anyhow, if it can be made up to ’em. Some things that are suffered in this world can’t be paid for, I don’t care how they fix it.
More than once, too, there was a line or two on a scrap of paper slipped in Aileen’s letters from Gracey Storefield. She wasn’t half as good with the pen as Aileen, but a few words from the woman you love goes a long way, no matter what sort of a fist she writes. Gracey made shift to tell me she was so proud to hear I was doing well; that Aileen’s eyes had been twice as bright lately; that mother looked better than she’d seen her this years; and if I could get away to any other country she’d meet me in Melbourne, and would be, as she’d always been, ‘your own Gracey’—that’s the way it was signed.
When I read this I felt a different man. I stood up and took an oath—solemn, mind you, and I intended to keep it—that if I got clear away I’d pay her for her love and true heart with my life, what was left of it, and I’d never do another crooked thing as long as I lived. Then I began to count the days to Christmas.
I wasn’t married like Jim, and it not being very lively in the tent at night, Arizona Bill and I mostly used to stroll up to the Prospectors’ Arms. We’d got used to sitting at the little table, drinking our beer or what not, smoking our pipes and listening to all the fun that was going on. Not that we always sat in the big hall. There was a snug little parlour beside the bar that we found more comfortable, and Kate used to run in herself when business was slack enough to leave the barmaid; then she’d sit down and have a good solid yarn with us.
She made a regular old friend of me, and, as she was a handsome woman, always well dressed, with lots to say and plenty of admirers, I wasn’t above being singled out and made much of. It was partly policy, of course. She knew our secret, and it wouldn’t have done to have let her let it out or be bad friends, so that we should be always going in dread of it. So Jim and I were always mighty civil to her, and I really thought she’d improved a lot lately and turned out a much nicer woman than I thought she could be.
We used to talk away about old times, regular confidential, and though she’d great spirits generally, she used to change quite sudden sometimes and say she was a miserable woman, and wished she hadn’t been in such a hurry and married as she had. Then she’d crack up Jeanie, and say how true and constant she’d been, and how she was rewarded for it by marrying the only man she ever loved. She used to blame her temper; she’d always had it, she said, and couldn’t get rid of it; but she really believed, if things had turned out different, she’d have been a different woman, and any man she really loved would never have had no call to complain. Of course I knew what all this meant, but thought I could steer clear of coming to grief over it.
That was where I made the mistake. But I didn’t think so then, or how much hung upon careless words and looks.
Well, somehow or other she wormed it out of me that we were off somewhere at Christmas. Then she never rested till she’d found out that we were going to Melbourne. After that she seemed as if she’d changed right away into somebody else. She was that fair and soft-speaking and humble-minded that Jeanie couldn’t have been more gentle in her ways; and she used to look at me from time to time as if her heart was breaking. I didn’t believe that, for I didn’t think she’d any heart to break.
One night, after we’d left about twelve o’clock, just as the house shut up, Arizona Bill says to me—
‘Say, pard, have yer fixed it up to take that young woman along when you pull up stakes?’
‘No,’ I said; ‘isn’t she a married woman? and, besides, I haven’t such a fancy for her as all that comes to.’
‘Ye heven’t?’ he said, speaking very low, as he always did, and taking the cigar out of his mouth—Bill always smoked cigars when he could get them, and not very cheap ones either; ‘well, then, I surmise you’re lettin’ her think quite contrairy, and there’s bound to be a muss if you don’t hide your tracks and strike a trail she can’t foller on.’
‘I begin to think I’ve been two ends of a dashed fool; but what’s a man to do?’
‘See here, now,’ he said; ‘you hev two cl’ar weeks afore ye. You slack off and go slow; that’ll let her see you didn’t sorter cotton to her more’n’s in the regulations.’
‘And have a row with her?’
‘Sartin,’ says Bill, ‘and hev the shootin’ over right away. It’s a plaguey sight safer than letting her carry it in her mind, and then laying for yer some day when ye heven’t nary thought of Injuns in your head. That’s the very time a woman like her’s bound to close on yer and lift yer ha’r if she can.’
‘Why, how do you know what she’s likely to do?’
‘I’ve been smokin’, pard, while you hev bin talkin’, sorter careless like. I’ve had my eyes open and seen Injun sign mor’n once or twice either. I’ve hunted with her tribe afore, I guess, and old Bill ain’t forgot all the totems and the war paint.’
After this Bill fresh lit his cigar, and wouldn’t say any more. But I could see what he was driving at, and I settled to try all I knew to keep everything right and square till the time came for us to make our dart.
I managed to have a quiet talk with Starlight. He thought that by taking care, being very friendly, but not too much so, we might get clean off, without Kate or any one else being much the wiser.
Next week everything seemed to go on wheels—smooth and fast, no hitches anywhere. Jim reckoned the best of our claim would be worked out by the 20th of the month, and we’d as good as agreed to sell our shares to Arizona Bill and his mate, who were ready, as Bill said, ‘to plank down considerable dollars’ for what remained of it. If they got nothing worth while, it was the fortune of war, which a digger never growls at, no matter how hard hit he may be. If they did well, they were such up and down good fellows, and such real friends to us, that we should have grudged them nothing.
As for Jeanie, she was almost out of her mind with eagerness to get back to Melbourne and away from the diggings. She was afraid of many of the people she saw, and didn’t like others. She was terrified all the time Jim was away from her, but she would not hear of living at the Prospectors’ Arms with her sister.
‘I know where that sort of thing leads to,’ she said; ‘let us have our own home, however rough.’
Kate went out to Specimen Gully to see her sister pretty often, and they sat and talked and laughed, just as they did in old times, Jeanie said. She was a simple little thing, and her heart was as pure as quartz crystal. I do really believe she was no match for Kate in any way. So the days went on. I didn’t dare stay away from the Prospectors’ Arms, for fear she’d think I wanted to break with her altogether, and yet I was never altogether comfortable in her company. It wasn’t her fault, for she laid herself out to get round us all, even old Arizona Bill, who used to sit solemnly smoking, looking like an Indian chief or a graven image, until at last his brick-coloured, grizzled old face would break up all of a sudden, and he’d laugh like a youngster. As the days drew nigh Christmas I could see a restless expression in her face that I never saw before. Her eyes began to shine in a strange way, and sometimes she’d break off short in her talk and run out of the room. Then she’d pretend to wish we were gone, and that she’d never seen us again. I could hardly tell what to make of her, and many a time I wished we were on blue water and clear away from all chance of delay and drawback.