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  ― 64 ―

The Lost Reef.

On the cool night air was borne the distant cry of the curlew. The plaintive note roused in the mind of the man who sat gazing dreamily into the camp fire memories of years ago. Memories associated with certain events of his young manhood; memories, too, which painfully connected the past with the present. The past, with all its ambitions and promises; the present with its almost hopeless work, and incidentally the future with all its uncertainty.

The full light of the fire shone on his face, and the surrounding gloom was occasionally enlivened by the fitful flames which ever and anon burst out as they caught some of the more inflammable twigs and leaves attached to the wood just thrown on. The silence and solitude, only occasionally disturbed, by night birds flitting from tree to tree, or by the peculiar grunt of the native bears as they fed on the leaves of the gum-trees, would have been oppressive had the man been less intent upon the pictures which his mind was actively presenting to him. A solitary dingo howled dismally in the gloom behind him, and the howl was responded to by a pack in the distance.

Watkin Meares, brooding over the past, sat on late into the night, still gazing intently at the fire, until rain began to fall. Then he went into his tent, and after reading for some hours settled himself for sleep.

At an early hour in the morning, when Meares came from the tent, he was startled to see lying outside, apparently very ill, an old man. He at once recognised him as an old prospector, who had been wandering about for some months past. The poor old fellow was one of the many human wrecks met with on goldfields. Always hoping, but never realising, they end their days still confident in being able to strike something rich, and make the fortune which has so consistently eluded them.

A movement of the man showed that he was regaining consciousness, and he was soon able to answer a few questions put to him. It appeared that he had been prospecting about five miles away. About two days previously he had felt very ill, and the previous afternoon, anxious to obtain assistance, he made an effort to get to Meares' camp, and only managed to reach it in an exhausted condition after midnight. Bush hospitality had many a time been extended to Meares in his wanderings, and he cheerfully responded to the call now made upon him. He realised that in all probability he would have this unfortunate fellow on his hands for weeks, but he willingly faced the inconvenience.

Two days passed, and the man appeared much worse. At times he became delirious, and talked incessantly of a rich reef he had discovered, and


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which had been stolen from him. A week had gone by, and one night Meares was reading by the side of the stretcher on which the sick man lay. Suddenly the silence was broken by a yell from the stranger, who jumped up, and with a bound disappeared out of the tent. His action was so unexpected that Meares sat for a few seconds motionless, then, recovering himself, he sprang after him. It soon became evident, however, that he could never overtake the fugitive, for the delirium had lent him superhuman strength and speed. Reluctantly Meares gave up the pursuit, and slowly retraced his steps to the camp, determining to make an early search for him in the morning. About noon next day he found him lying insensible about a mile and a half away. He had fallen down, and there he lay, with his arm encircling the outcrop of a quartz reef, almost as though he was embracing it. The presence of someone else seemed to have a peculiarly disturbing effect upon the insensible man, for as Meares approached him he made a restless movement. As he did so Meares caught sight of something glittering just below the poor fellow's arm. Upon closer inspection he was astonished to notice that the glitter proceeded from a piece of gold embedded in the quartz. With almost callous indifference he seized the old man to move him so that he might observe the extent of the out-crop. His attempt to do so produced an astonishing result. The old fellow no sooner felt himself being moved off the reef than he so far regained consciousness as to resist. With an almost animal-like cry he jumped up and threw himself on to Meares with savage fury.

The attack was so sudden and unexpected that Meares was quite unprepared for it, and had to give way before it. He suddenly realised he had to do with a madman with all a madman's strength and cunning. The old man looked almost demoniacal in his fury. He had seized Meares by the throat, and with savage force endeavoured to choke him. “It's mine, it's mine, no one else shall have it,” he hoarsely muttered. … Then suddenly relinquishing his hold he turned round, and with folded arms stood gazing abstractedly at the outcrop. All signs of his madness had disappeared. His face bore no indication of the insane struggle of the past few minutes, and Meares gazed with astonishment at the transformation. The old man stood there utterly oblivious of the presence of anyone else. He was under the influence of some deep emotion, the tears running down his furrowed cheeks, while an occasional sob shook him. “At last, at last,” he muttered, “after all these years of waiting and searching.” He buried his face in his hands, and stood for some moments motionless; then, turning round, he gazed at Meares in bewilderment, seeming unable to understand what he was doing there. Some sort of recollection of having been with Meares in his tent came to him in a jumbled, hazy way, and a smile of recognition passed over his face.

The old man was now as passively obedient as he had previously been violently resisting. He allowed Meares to lead him back to the tent, and, sinking wearily on to the stretcher, was soon sound asleep.

Meares waited some time for him, then retraced his steps to the reef, his mind in a turmoil of excitement as the thought of what that outcrop might mean to him. Curiously enough, he had not associated the old man with the


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reef, and it had never occurred to him that the man's resistance and violence were in any way connected with it.

He reached the spot, and leisurely examined the stone. It was undoubtedly marvellously rich at the top, but he was too experienced in such matters to come to any hasty decision as to the value of the reef below the surface. He was too well seasoned with disappointments to be led away by any wild anticipations at this early stage. Working vigorously he collected about eighty pounds of stone, with which he returned to the tent. The old man was still sleeping soundly. A rough assay which Meares there and then made of the contents of his bag gave 30oz to the ton. He trembled with excitement. “Thirty ounces to the ton—thirty ounces—to—the—ton!” his mind kept repeating.

The following day Meares again proceeded to the place, and for hours and hours worked continuously. As his work progressed he felt confident that the discovery would prove a phenomenal one. His mind dwelt upon all it would mean to him. Presently he started as he heard a voice call out, “Good day, mate. Struck something good there?”

For a moment he made no reply, but ceased working, and gazed in surprise at his questioner, who was on horseback, leading a packhorse. Unexpected as had been the man's appearance, it now flashed through his mind what another's knowledge of the discovery might mean to him. He knew how often prospectors had been defrauded of the reward of their discoveries by the many mining pirates who roamed about in the guise of genuine prospectors. As he stood silently gazing at the new arrival he trembled.

“Good day,” he replied; and added, “I don't know yet what I've got here. I'm prospecting a bit.”

The newcomer dismounted, and with a miner's freedom and curiosity approached a little heap of stone, and picking up a piece wet it with his tongue. Then, drawing from his pocket a small magnifying glass, he proceeded to examine it more critically. Meares watched him with some anxiety, and noted the look of astonishment that passed over his face.

“Yes, mate, you've struck it this time,” he said as he stooped down and picked out another piece, which he subjected to the same examination as the first. “There's 50oz in that if there's a pennyweight.”

As he spoke Meares could not fail to notice the suppressed excitement under which the man was labouring. The appearance on the scene of this stranger was disquieting. Meares resolved to peg out his claim as soon as the man cleared away.

An hour passed before the stranger mounted his horse again, and rode off with the words, “Well, so long, mate. Hope you'll have good luck.”

Meares watched him as he disappeared over the hill, but with an uncomfortable feeling that he had not seen the last of him, and that mischief was brewing. One thing he was plainly conscious of, and that was that he must at once peg out the land he required, and get his application in to the gold warden.

When he returned to the tent he found the old man out of bed and examining a piece of the quartz. He turned round in some embarrassment as


  ― 67 ―
Meares entered, and placing the stone down returned to the stretcher, where he sat for some minutes watching Meares as he moved about the tent. He appeared so much better that Meares spoke to him about the reef. To his surprise the old man said, “I know all about it, for it is my reef; I found it.”

“Your reef!” Meares exclaimed. “Have you pegged it out?”

“No,” came the reluctant answer, and as he heard it Meares experienced a feeling of relief.”

He looked over to the old fellow, and noticed that he was under the influence of some deep emotion. His eyes sparkled, and his face twitched nervously. Then, after a little pause, he said:—

“I am an old man now, and the days of my early manhood sometimes seem a tremendous distance in the past, but as far as they are away, and much as I have crowded into my life, some of the events are distant enough even now. I married when I was about 26, and from the day of my marriage I longed to become rich, so that I might place my children in such a position that only wealth could secure. I won't weary you with details. I speculated in mining and lost everything. Years went on, and instead of becoming wealthy I remained miserably poor, but still hoped to make a fortune by discovering a rich reef. It was while keen upon this idea that I met a man named Collins, who was forming a party to go and search for a reef which he had found when lost in the bush, and was unable to locate again. He had some of the stone, which assayed richly. We went out, and for fully 12 months searched everywhere, but were unable to find it again. The party was disbanded, and Collins died, but up to the end always stuck to his statement about the reefs. The conviction took possession of me that it would be my destiny to locate it. “Years passed,” he continued wearily, as he passed his fingers thoughtfully through his hair, “and I still continued the search, ignoring in my blind folly the effect my fruitless work was having on my wife. Embittered and disappointed, she died, leaving me with a son and daughter. The son is now in South Africa, and the daughter, a Public school teacher, is stationed at Bathurst. What I failed to do for my wife and children when they were young I am struggling to do now for my girl. I want to remove her from all future poverty and dependence, and if I accomplish that I shall be quite content to join my wife. When I lay here a few nights ago I had a strange dream. I saw, as plainly as I see you now, old Collins digging and exposing the lost reef. As he stood there examining a piece of the stone, I also saw a man creeping up behind him with the evident intention of killing him. I gave a great cry to warn him, and rushed up to save him. Then everything disappeared, and when I came to myself, you were pulling me off the reef, and for the moment I thought you were the man from whose attack I wanted to save Collins.”

He paused, and looked at Meares inquiringly. Meares had followed him with the closest attention, and it had dawned upon him with a force he could not ignore that if anyone could be entitled to a share in that reef, this old man was the one. He therefore told him the result of the assay, and also referred to the unexpected appearance of the stranger at the reef, and his remarks. The old man jumped up in a state of excitement, exclaiming:


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“What was he like? What was he like? Did he walk with a limp?” Meares now recalled what he had not taken particular notice of at the time, that the stranger did limp slightly. “Yes,” he replied.

“Then,” returned the old man, “it's old Springton, and he's on his way now to the warden to apply for the claim. He was one of our party with Collins. There's no greater pirate in all Australia than that man. He does no genuine prospecting if he can get what he wants by jumping. Good heavens!” he continued, as though speaking to himself, “am I yet to be done out of it?”

The necessity for immediate action was apparent, and Meares at once decided to start there and then for the township, which lay about forty miles away, to lodge his application with the warden. With his old horse, he could not expect to accomplish the journey in less than twelve hours, but if any of the creeks happened to be running a banker, as was very likely from the heavy rains that had recently fallen, he might be very much delayed.

Within an hour he was on his way. Some of the creeks were swollen, and although he managed to ford them, he knew that there was a difficult crossing at the river, and he questioned whether it would be wise to venture across; yet it was imperative that he should reach the township before the other man. He reached the crossing at daybreak, and was dismayed to find the river running a banker. He stood looking at the broad expanse of water, upon the surface of which he could see a number of floating trees and logs, when suddenly his ears caught the sound of an approaching horse. He looked round, and there, silhouetted against the skyline, he saw the figure of a man on horseback. Even that hasty glance told him that it was the stranger who had visited the reef that afternoon, and he instinctively knew that he was on the same mission as himself, and it was now to be a keen race between them.

Ever prompt to act upon an impulse, Meares urged his horse forward, and plunged without hesitation into the boiling torrent. With persistent effort the animal struggled against the force of the current, which was bearing him steadily down-stream, and it was only when Meares threw himself off its back and swam with his hand firmly grasping one of the stirrup-leathers that the horse managed to make headway against the stream. Even then the beast's struggle was intense, and Meares himself had to make the most strenuous exertions to keep float. All thought of the reef and the object of his journey had disappeared now that he was face to face with a life-and-death struggle. At last he lost his grip of the stirrup. Suddenly he felt his feet touching the bottom, and he realised that they had reached the other side and were now out of danger. With a frantic effort he struggled up the bank, where his horse, panting and trembling, already stood.

Meares sank down on the bank and rested for a few minutes to recover from his exertions. A shrill cry of terror rang out, and, looking up, he saw Springton struggling in the water, his horse having evidently sunk. He was not many yards from the bank, and was being carried down with the current. Meares was too exhausted to plunge in to his rescue, but he saw that the stream was carrying him down to a fallen tree which projected over the bank. He


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ran down to this tree, and, getting astride of it, worked himself out upon the overhanging part, from which he could grasp Springton as he was carried by. The struggling man came closer and closer, and in response to the shouts of Meares made a desperate effort to work himself nearer the tree. Meares braced himself up for the strain, and, as Springton passed under, he leaned down and seized him. Had Springton remained passive he would have been saved, but with the terror and fear of a drowning man he grasped Meares's arm and commenced to struggle, with the result that his would-be rescuer was precipitated into the water. As Meares felt the water close over him, and found himself in the clasp of the drowning man, a thrill of awful fear passed through him, and he had to fight to free himself from that awful embrace. Suddenly he felt the grasp relax, and with an effort he shook himself free and rose to the surface. A few strokes brought him to the bank, up which he clambered. He could see nothing of Springton, and, fatigued and knocked up as he was, he walked some distance along the bank to see if he could discover any trace of him. He failed to do so, however, and could only conclude that the poor fellow was drowned.

Meares hastened to his horse, and, mounting, pushed on for the township, which he reached in a couple of hours. He reported what had occurred to the police, and two troopers were despatched to the scene of the accident. He then went to the warden's office and lodged his application for the reef, but it was not until he had done this that he was relieved from all anxiety. He felt that he could now breathe freely; and, after making himself more comfortable by a change of clothes, he was able to take the rest he so much required.

He commenced his return journey the following day, and met the troopers returning with the body of Springton, which they had recovered about two miles below where the accident had occurred.

Within a month all the necessary formalities had been complied with, and the warden issued the lease for the ground to Meares, who gave the old man a half-interest in it. The reef proved to be richer than they had expected, and they sold out to a syndicate for £ 60,000.

Meares is now living in the south of France, and his partner, old Dan Parker, lives with his daughter in Tasmania.

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