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His Father's Mate.

Chapter I.—Worked Out.

IT was Golden Gully still, but golden in name only, unless, indeed, the yellow mullock-heaps, or the bloom of the hillside wattles furnished it with a claim to the title. But the gold was gone from the gully, and the diggers were gone, too, after the manner of Timon's friends when his wealth had deserted him. Golden Gully was a dreary place—dreary even for an abandoned gold-field. The tortured earth, with its wounds all bare, seemed to make a mute appeal to the surrounding bush to come and hide it; and as if in answer to its appeal the scrub and saplings were beginning to close in from the foot of the range. The wilderness was reclaiming its own again.

The two dark, sullen hills that stood on either side were clothed from tip to hollow with gloomy scrub and scraggy box-trees. The top of the western hill was shaped somewhat like a saddle, and, standing high above the eucalypti, on a point in position and appearance resembling the pommel, were three tall pines. These lonely trees, seek for miles around, had caught the yellow rays of many a setting sun long ere the white man wandered over the ranges.

The “predominant note” of the scene was a painful sense of listening, that never seemed to lose its tension, a listening as though for the sounds of digger-life, sounds that


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had gone and left a void—a void accentuated by the signs of a former presence. Years had passed since the army of diggers vanished to new rushes, like other armies, leaving its stragglers and deserters behind. These were men who were too poor to drag families about—men who were old and feeble, men who had lost their faith in Fortune. They dropped unnoticed from the ranks, and remained to scratch out a living among the abandoned claims.

Golden Gully had its little community of fossickers, who lived at the foot of the gully, in a cleared patch, called “Spencer's Flat” on one side and “Pounding Flat” on the other, but they lent no life to the scene—they only haunted it. The stranger might think the hand of man had not touched the ground for years, until he came suddenly upon a coat and hat lying at the top of some old shaft. These, and the thud of a pick in the shallow ground underneath, told him of some fossicker below rooting out what little “wash” remained.

Chapter II.—“Isley.”

One afternoon towards Christmas a windlass was erected over an old shaft of considerable depth at the foot of the gully. Next morning a green-hide bucket attached to a rope on the windlass was lying near the mouth of the shaft, and beside it, on a clear-swept patch, was a little mound of cool, wet wash-dirt.

A clump of saplings near at hand threw a shade over part of the heap, and in this shade, seated on an old coat, was a small boy of eleven or twelve years, writing on a slate.

He had fair hair, blue eyes, and a thin old-fashioned face—a face that would scarcely alter much as he grew


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to manhood—and was clad in a pair of trousers, upheld by a strip of hide, and a cotton shirt. He held the slate rigidly, with a corner of its frame pressed close against his ribs, while his head hung to one side, so close to the slate that his straggling hair almost touched it. The lad was regarding his work fixedly out of the corners of his eyes, whilst he painfully copied down the head-line, spelling it in a different way each time. In this laborious task he appeared to be greatly assisted by a tongue that lolled out of the corner of his mouth and made an occasional revolution round it, leaving a circle of temporarily clean face. His little, clay-covered toes also entered into the spirit of the thing, and helped him not a little by their energetic wriggling. He paused occasionally to draw the back of his small brown arm across his mouth.

Little Isley Mason, or, as he was afterwards called, “His Father's Mate,” had been a general favourite with the fossickers, and even with the diggers, from the days when he used to rise in early morning and run across the frosty flat. Long Tom Hopkins—nick-named “Tom the Devil”—would often tell how Isley once came home at breakfast-time naked, after his run in the long, wet grass, with the information that he had “lost his shirt.”

Later on, when most of the diggers had gone, and Isley's mother was dead, he was to be seen about the place with bare, sun-browned arms and legs, a pick and shovel, and a gold-dish, in diameter equalling about two-thirds of his height, with which he used to go “a-speckin' ” and “fossickin' ” among the old waste-heaps. Long Tom was Isley's special crony, and would often go out of his way to “lay the boy onter bits o' wash and likely spots,” lamely excusing his long yarns with the child by the explanation that it was “amusin' to draw Isley out.”

Isley had been sitting writing for some time when a deep voice called out from below:




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“Isley!”

“Yes, father.”

“Send down the bucket.”

“Right.”

Isley put down his slate, and going to the shaft dropped the bucket down as far as the slack-rope reached; then, placing his left hand above the bole of the windlass, and the right beneath, he let it slip round between his palms until the bucket reached the bottom. A sound of shovelling was then heard for a few moments, and presently a voice cried:

“Wind away, sonny!”

“Thet ain't half enough,” said the boy, peering down. “Don't be frightened to put it in, father. I kin wind up a lot mor'n thet.”

A little more scraping, and the boy braced his feet well upon the mound of clay which he had raised under the handle of the windlass to make up for his deficiency in stature.

“Now then, Isle'!”

Isley wound up slowly but sturdily, and soon the laden bucket appeared above the surface; then he carried it in short lifts and deposited its contents with the rest of the wash-dirt.

“Isley!” called his father again.

“Yes, father.”

“Have you done that writing-lesson yet?”

“Very near.”

“Then send down the slate next time for some sums.”

“All right.”

The boy resumed his seat, and fixing the corner of his slate well into his ribs, humped his back and commenced another wavering line.




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Chapter III.—Pictures on the “Face.”

Tom Mason was known on the place as a silent hard worker. He was a man of about sixty—tall and dark-bearded. There was nothing uncommon about his face, except, perhaps, that it had hardened, as the face of a man might harden who had suffered a long succession of griefs and disappointments. He lived in a little hut under a peppermint-tree at the far end of Pounding Flat, where his wife had died about six years before, and the memory detaining him—though new rushes had broken out, and Mason was well able to go—he had never left Golden Gully.

He was kneeling in front of the “face,” digging away by the light of a sperm candle stuck in the side. The floor of the drive was very wet, and his trousers were heavy and cold with clay and water; but the old digger was used to that sort of thing. His pick was not bringing out much today, however, for he seemed abstracted, and would occasionally pause in his work, while his thoughts wandered far away from the narrow streak of wash on the “face.”

He was digging out pictures from a past life. They were not pleasant ones, for his face was stony and white in the dim glow of the candle.

Thud, thud, thud, the blows became slower and more irregular as the fossicker's mind wandered into the past. The sides of the drive seemed to vanish slowly away, and the “face” retreated far out beyond a horizon that was hazy in the glow of the Southern Ocean. He was standing on the deck of a ship and by his side stood a brother. They were sailing southward to the Land of Promise that was shining there in all its golden glory! The sails pressed forward in the bracing wind, and the clipper-ship raced along burdened with the wildest dreamers ever borne in a vessel's hull! Up over long blue ocean ridges, down into long


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blue ocean gullies. On to lands so new, and yet so old, where above the sunny glow of the southern skies blazed the richly-gilt names of Ballarat and Bendigo. The deck seemed to lurch, and the fossicker fell forward against the face of the drive. The shock recalled him, and he lifted his pick once more.

The blows again slacken as another vision rises before him. It is Ballarat now. He is working in a shallow claim at Eureka, his brother by his side. The brother looks pale and ill—has been up all night dancing and drinking. Out behind them is the line of blue hills, in front is the famous Bakery Hill, and down to the left Golden Point. Two troopers ride up over Specimen Hill. What do they want?

They take the brother away handcuffed. Manslaughter last night. Cause, drink and jealousy.

The vision is gone again. Thud, thud, goes the pick, it counts the years that follow—one, two, three, four, ten, twenty, and then it stops for the next scene—a selection on the sunny banks of a bright river in New South Wales. The little homestead is surrounded by vines and fruit-trees. Many swarms of bees work under the shade of the trees, and a wheat-crop is nearly ripe on the hillside.

A man and a boy are engaged in clearing a paddock just below the homestead. They are father and son. The son is a powerful lad of about seventeen years.

Thud, thud, again. Horses' feet! Again comes Nemesis in troopers' uniform.

The mail was stuck up last night about five miles away, and a refractory passenger shot. The son had been out “shooting” with some “friends.”

The troopers bear the son away handcuffed: “Robbery under arms.”

The father was taking out a stump when the troopers came. His foot is still resting on the spade, which is half driven home. He watches the troopers take the boy up to


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the house, and then, driving the spade to its full length, he turns up another sod. The troopers reach the door of the homestead; but still he digs steadily, and does not seem to hear his wife's cry of despair. The troopers search the boy's room and bring out some clothing in two bundles; but still the father digs. They have saddled up one of the farm-horses and made the boy mount. The father digs. They ride off along the ridge with the boy between them. The father never lifts his eyes; the hole widens round the stump; he digs away till his brave little wife comes and takes him gently by the arm. He half rouses himself and follows her to the house like an obedient dog.

Trial and disgrace follow, and then other misfortunes, disease among cattle, drought, and poverty.

Thud, thud, thud, again! But it is not the sound of the fossicker's pick—it is the fall of sods on his wife's coffin.

It is a little bush cemetery, and he stands stonily watching them fill up her grave. She died of a broken heart and shame. “I can't bear disgrace! I can't bear disgrace!” she had moaned all these six weary years, for the poor are often proud.

But he lives on. He holds up his head and toils on for the sake of a child that is left, and that child is—Isley.

And now the fossicker sees a vision of the future. He seems to be standing somewhere, an old, old man, with a younger one at his side; the younger one has Isley's face. Horses' feet again! Ah, God! Nemesis once more in troopers' uniform!

The fossicker falls on his knees in the mud and clay at the bottom of the drive, and prays Heaven to take his last child ere Nemesis again comes attired as of old.




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Chapter IV.—“Tom the Devil.”

Tom Hopkins' profile, at least from one side, certainly did recall that of the sarcastic Mephistopheles, but the other side of his face, like his true character, was by no means devilish. His physiognomy had been much damaged, and one eye removed by a blast in some old Ballarat mine. The blind eye was covered with a green patch, which gave a sardonic appearance to the remaining features. He was a stupid and heavy, but good-natured Englishman. He stuttered a little, and had a peculiar habit of wedging the monosyllable “why” into his conversation at times when it served no other purpose than to fill up the pauses caused by his stuttering; but this by no means assisted him in his speech, for he often stuttered over the “why” itself. This peculiarity gave a flavour of originality and humour to Tom's utterances.

The sun was low, and its yellow rays reached far up among the saplings of Golden Gully, when the lumbering Tom came down by the path that ran under the western hill. He was dressed in cotton shirt, moleskin trousers, faded hat and waistcoat and blucher boots. He carried a pick over his shoulder, the handle of which was run through the heft of a short shovel that hung down behind, and he had a big dish under his arm. He paused opposite the windlassed shaft and hailed the boy—

“See—why—here, Isley!”

“What is it, Tom?”

“I seed a young—why—magpie up in the scrub, and yer oughter be able to catch it.”

“Can't leave the shaft; father's b'low.”

“How did yer father know there was any—why—wash in the old shaft?”




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“See'd old Corney in town Saturday, 'n he said thur was enough to make it worth while balin' out. Bin balin' all the mornin'.”

Tom came over, and letting his tools down with a clatter, he hitched up the knees of his moleskins and sat down on one heel.

“What are yer—why—doin' on the slate, Isley?” said he, taking out an old clay pipe and lighting it.

“Sums,” said Isley.

Tom puffed away at his pipe a moment.

“'Taint no use,” he said, sitting down on the clay and drawing his knees up. “Edication's a failyer.”

“Listen at 'im!” exclaimed the boy; “d'yer mean ter say it ain't no use learnin' readin' and writin' and sums?”

“Isley!”

“Right, father.”

The boy went to the windlass and let the bucket down. Tom offered to assist him, but Isley, proud of his strength, insisted on winding by himself.

“You'll be a strong—why—man some day, Isley,” said Tom, landing the bucket.

“Oh, I could wind up a lot more'n father puts in. Look how I greased the handles! It works like butter now,” and the boy sent the handle spinning round with a jerk to illustrate his meaning.

“What did they call you ‘Isley’ for?” queried Tom, as they resumed their seats; “it ain't yer real name, is it?”

“No; my name's Harry. A digger used to say I was an isle in the ocean to father 'n mother, 'n then I was nick-named Isle 'n then Isley.”

“You hed a—why—brother once, didn't yer?”

“Yes; but thet was afore I was borned. He died, at least mother used to say she didn't know if he was dead; but father says he's dead as fur's he's concerned.”




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“And yer father hed a brother, too. Did yer ever—why—hear of him?”

“Yes, I heard father talkin' about it wonst to mother. I think father's brother got into some trouble over a squabble in a bar where a man was killed.”

“And was yer—why—father—why—fond of him?”

“I heered father say that he was wonst, but thet was all past.”

Tom smoked in silence for a while, and seemed to look at some dark clouds that were drifting along like a funeral out in the west. Presently he said half aloud something that sounded like “All, all—why—past!”

“Aye?” said Isley.

“Oh, it's—why, why—nothin',” answered Tom, rousing himself “Is that a paper in your father's coat-pocket, Isley?”

“Yes,” said the boy, taking it out.

Tom took the paper and stared hard at it for a moment or so.

“There's somethin' about edication there,” said Tom, putting his finger on a tailor's advertisement. “I wish you'd—why—read it to me, Isley—I can't see the small print they uses nowadays.”

“No, thet's not it,” said the boy, taking the paper; “it's something about—”

“Isley!”

“'Old on, Tom, father wants me.”

The boy ran to the shaft, and resting his hands and forehead against the bole of the windlass, he leant over to hear what his father was saying.

Without a moment's warning the treacherous bole slipped round, a small body bounded a couple of times against the sides of the shaft, and fell into the well-hole at Mason's feet, where it lay motionless!

Heaven had listened to the fossicker's prayer. Nemesis could come now.




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Chapter V.—“He Never Knowed.”

“Mason!—Jim!”

“Aye?”

“Put him in the bucket and lash him to the rope with your belt!”

A few moments, and—

“Now, Tom!”

Tom's trembling hands would scarcely grasp the handle, but he managed to wind somehow.

Presently the form of the child appeared, motionless, covered with clay and water, while Mason, climbing up by the steps in the side of the shaft, slowly neared the light.

Tom tenderly unlashed the boy and laid him under the saplings on the grass. He then wiped some of the clay and blood away from the child's forehead, and dashed over him some clay-coloured water.

Presently Isley gave a gasp and opened his eyes.

“Are yer—why—hurt much, Isley?” asked Tom.

“Ba-back's bruk, Tom.”

“Not so bad as that, old man.”

“Where's father?”

“Coming up.”

Silence awhile, and then—

“Father! father! Be quick, father!” Mason reached the surface and came and knelt by the other side of the boy.

“I'll, I'll—why—run for some—why—brandy,” said Tom.

“No use, Tom,” said Isley, “I'm all bruk up.”

“Don't yer feel better, sonny?”

“No—I'm—goin' to—die, Tom.”

“Don't say it, Isley,” groaned Tom.

A short silence, and then the boy's body suddenly twisted with pain. But it was soon over. He lay still awhile. and then said quietly—


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“Good-bye, Tom!”

Tom made a vain attempt to speak. “Isley,” he said, “I—”

But the child turned and stretched out his hands to the silent, stony-faced man on the other side.

“Father—father, I'm—goin'!”

A shuddering groan broke from Mason's lips, and then all was quiet.

Tom had taken off his hat to wipe his forehead, and his face, in spite of its disfigurement, was strangely like the face of the moody man opposite.

For a moment they looked at one another across the body of the child, and then Tom said quietly—

“He never knowed.”

“What does it matter?” said Mason, gruffly; and taking the dead child in his arms, he walked towards the hut.

Chapter VI.

It was a sad group that gathered outside Mason's hut next day. The wife of Martin, the store-keeper, had been there all the morning, and one of the women had used up her husband's white shirts in making a shroud.

One after another the fossickers took off their hats and entered, stooping through the low door. Mason sat silently at the foot of the bunk, his head supported by his hand, and watched the men with a strange, abstracted air.

“Tom the Devil” had ransacked the camp in search of some boards for a coffin. “It will be the last I'll be able to—why—do for him,” he said.

At last he came to Mrs. Martin. That lady took him into the dining-room, and pointed to a large white table, of which she had been very proud.




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“Knock it to pieces,” she said, taking off the few things that lay upon it. Tom turned it over and began taking the top off.

When he had finished the coffin a fossicker's wife said it looked too bare, and she ripped up her black riding-skirt and made Tom tack the cloth over the coffin.

There was only one vehicle available as a hearse, and that was Martin's old dray; so about two o'clock Pat Martin attached his old horse, Dublin, to the shafts with sundry bits of harness and plenty of old rope, and dragged Dublin, dray and all, across to Mason's hut.

The little coffin was carried out, and two brandy-cases were placed by its side in the dray to serve as seats for Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Grimshaw, who mounted in tearful silence.

Pat Martin lit his pipe and mounted on the shafts. Mason fastened up the door with a padlock. A couple of blows on one of his sharp points roused Dublin from his reverie; with a lurch to the right and another to the left he started, and presently the little funeral disappeared down the road that led to the “town” and its cemetery.

Chapter VII.—“Father, Do you Want Another Mate?”

About six months afterwards Tom Hopkins went on a short journey, and returned in company with a tall, bearded young man. He and Tom arrived after dark and went straight to Mason's hut. There was a light inside, but when Tom knocked there was no answer.

“Go in; don't be afraid,” he said to his companion.

The stranger pushed open the creaking door and stood bare-headed just inside the doorway.




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A billy was boiling unheeded on the fire. Mason sat at the table with his face buried in his arms.

“Mr. Mason!”

There was no answer, but the flickering of the firelight made the stranger think he could detect an impatient shrug in Mason's shoulders.

For a moment the stranger paused irresolute, and then, stepping up to the table, he laid his hand on Mason's arm, and said, gently—

“Father, do you want another mate?”

But the sleeper did not—at least, not in this world.

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