2. Chapter II

“Hard Up”

During that drought-stricken Christmas-time my mate was down at the “Cross,” trying to carry through some business by which our coffers might be replenished; for work how we would on alluvial or quartz reefs, no gold could we find. That we worked with a will, the remark made to me by an old fossicker will go to show. After watching me “belting away” at a solid mass of quartz for some time without speaking, “Which,” said he, “is the hammer-headed end of your pick?” Then shaking his head, “Ah! I could guess you were a Scotchman—brute force and blind ignorance!” He then proceeded to show me how to do twice the amount of work at half the expenditure of labour. I never remember a real digger who was not ready to help one, both with advice and in practice, and I never experienced that “greening” of new chums which is a prominent feature of most novels that deal with Australian life.

In the absence of Lord Douglas, an old horse-artilleryman, Richardson by name, was my usual comrade. A splendid fellow he was too, and one of the few to be rewarded for his dogged perseverance and work. In a pitiable state the poor man was when first we met, half dead from dysentery, camped all alone under a sheet of coarse calico. Emaciated from sickness, he was unable to follow his horses, which had wandered in search of food and water, though they constituted his only earthly possession. How he, and many another I could mention, survived, I cannot think. But if a man declines to die, and fights for life, he is hard to kill!

Amongst the prospectors it was customary for one mate to look after the horses, and pack water to the others who worked. These men, of course, knew several sources unknown to the general public. It was from one of them that we learnt of the existence of a small soak some thirteen miles from Coolgardie. Seeing no hope of rain, and no prospect of being able to stop longer at Coolgardie, Mr. Davies, who camped near us, and I, decided to make our way to this soak, and wait for better or worse times. Taking the only horse which remained to us, and what few provisions we had, we changed our residence from the dust-swept flats of Coolgardie to the silent bush, where we set up a little hut of boughs, and awaited the course of events. Sheltered from the sun's burning rays by our house, so low that it could only be entered on hands and knees, for we had neither time nor strength to build a spacious structure, and buoyed up by the entrancement of reading “The Adventures of a Lady's Maid”, kindly lent by a fellow-digger, we did our best to spend a “Happy Christmas.”

Somehow, the climate and surroundings seemed singularly inappropriate; dust could not be transformed, even in imagination, into snow, nor heat into frost, any more easily than we could turn dried apples into roast beef and plum-pudding. Excellent food as dried fruit is, yet it is apt to become monotonous when it must do duty for breakfast, dinner, and tea! Such was our scanty fare; nevertheless we managed to keen up the appearance of being quite festive and happy.

Having spread the table—that is, swept the floor clear of ants and other homely insects—and laid out the feast, I rose to my knees and proposed the health of my old friend and comrade Mr. Davies, wished him the compliments of the season, and expressed a hope that we should never spend a worse Christmas. The toast was received with cheers and honoured in weak tea, brewed from the re-dried leaves of our last night's meal. He suitably replied, and cordially endorsed my last sentiment. After duly honouring the toasts of “The Ladies,” “Absent Friends,” and others befitting the occasion, we fell to on the frugal feast.

For the benefit of thrifty housewives, as well as those whom poverty has stricken, I respectfully recommend the following recipe. For dried apples: Take a handful, chew slightly, swallow, fill up with warm water and wait. Before long a feeling both grateful and comforting, as having dined not wisely but too heavily, will steal over you. Repeat the dose for luncheon and tea.

One or two other men were camped near us, and I have no doubt would have willingly added to our slender store had they known to what short commons we were reduced. Our discomforts were soon over, however, for Lord Douglas hearing that I was in a starving condition, hastened from the “Cross,” not heeding the terrible accounts of the track, bringing with him a supply of the staple food of the country, “Tinned Dog”—as canned provisions are designated.

Wandering on from our little rock of refuge, we landed at the Twenty-five Mile, where lately a rich reef had been found. We pegged out a claim on which we worked, camped under the shade of a “Kurrajong” tree, close above a large granite rock on which we depended for our water; and here we spent several months busy on our reef, during which time Lord Douglas went home to England, with financial schemes in his head, leaving Mr. Davies and myself to hold the property and work as well as we could manage and I fancy that for a couple of amateurs we did a considerable amount of development.

Here we lived almost alone, with the exception of another small party working the adjoining mine, occasionally visited by a prospector with horses to water. Though glad of their company, it was not with unmixed feelings that we viewed their arrival, for it took us all our time to get sufficient water for ourselves. I well remember one occasion on which, after a slight shower of rain, we, having no tank, scooped up the water we could from the shallow holes, even using a sponge, such was our eagerness not to waste a single drop; the water thus collected was emptied into a large rock-hole, which we covered with flat stones. We then went to our daily work on the reef, congratulating ourselves on the nice little “plant” of water. Imagine our disgust, on returning in the evening, at finding a mob of thirsty packhorses being watered from our precious supply! There was nothing to be done but to pretend we liked it. The water being on the rock was of course free to all.

How I used to envy those horsemen, and longed for the time when I could afford horses or camels of my own, to go away back into the bush and just see what was there. Many a day I spent poring over the map of the Colony, longing and longing to push out into the vast blank spaces of the unknown. Even at that time I planned out the expedition which at last I was enabled to undertake, though all was very visionary, and I could hardly conceive how I should ever manage to find the necessary ways and means.

Nearly every week I would ride into Coolgardie for stores, and walk out again leading the loaded packhorse, our faithful little chestnut “brumby,” i.e., half-wild pony, of which there are large herds running in the bush near the settled parts of the coast. A splendid little fellow this, a true type of his breed, fit for any amount of work and hardship. As often as not he would do his journey into Coolgardie (twenty-five miles), be tied up all night without a feed or drink—or as long as I had to spend there on business—and return again loaded next morning. Chaff and oats were then almost unprocurable, and however kind-hearted he might be, a poor man could hardly afford a shilling a gallon to water his horse. On these occasions I made my quarters at Bayley's mine, where a good solid meal and the pleasant company of Messrs. Browne and Lyon always awaited me. Several times in their generosity these good fellows spared a gallon or two of precious water for the old pony.

They have a funny custom in the West of naming horses after their owners—thus the chestnut is known to this day as “Little Carnegie.” Sometimes they are named after the men from whom they are bought. This practice, when coach-horses are concerned, has its laughable side, and passengers unacquainted with the custom may be astonished to hear all sorts of oaths and curses, or words of entreaty and encouragement, addressed to some well-known name—and they might be excused for thinking the driver's mind was a little unhinged, or that in his troubles and vexations he was calling on some prominent citizen, in the same way that knights of old invoked their saints.

Thus, our peaceful life at the “Twenty-five” passed on, relieved sometimes by the arrival of horsemen and others in search of water. Amongst our occasional visitors was a well-known gentleman, bearing the proud title of “The biggest liar in Australia.” How far he deserved the distinction I should hesitate to say, for men prone to exaggerate are not uncommon in the bush. Sometimes, however, they must have the melancholy satisfaction of knowing that they are disbelieved, when they really do happen to tell the truth. A story of my friend's, which was received with incredulous laughter, will exemplify this.

This was one of his experiences in Central Australia. He was perishing from thirst, and, at the last gasp, he came to a clay-pan which, to his despair, was quite dry and baked hard by the sun. He gave up all hope; not so his black-boy, who, after examining the surface of the hard clay, started to dig vigorously, shouting, “No more tumble down, plenty water here!” Struggling to the side of his boy, he found that he had unearthed a large frog blown out with water, with which they relieved their thirst. Subsequent digging disclosed more frogs, from all of which so great a supply of water was squeezed that not only he and his boy, but the horses also were saved from a terrible death!

This story was received with laughter and jeers, and cries of “Next please!” But to show that it had foundations of truth I may quote an extract from The Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia (part i. p. 21), in which we read the following:—

…The most interesting animal is the Burrowing or Waterholding Frog, (Chiroleptes platycephalus). As the pools dry up it fills itself out with water, which in some way passes through the walls of the alimentary canal, filling up the body cavity, and swelling the animal out until it looks like a small orange. In this condition it occupies a cavity just big enough for the body, and simply goes to sleep. When, with the aid of a native, we cut it out of its hiding-place, the animal at first remained perfectly still, with its lower eyelids completely drawn over the eyes, giving it the appearance of being blind, which indeed the black assured us that it was…

Most travellers cannot fail to have noticed how clay-pans recently filled by rain, even after a prolonged drought, swarm with tadpoles and full-grown frogs and numberless water insects, the presence of which must only be explained by the ability of the frog to store his supply in his own body, and the fact that the eggs of the insects require moisture before they can hatch out.

Many a laugh we had round the camp-fire at night, and many are the yarns that were spun. Few, however, were of sufficient interest to live in my memory, and I fear that most of them would lose their points in becoming fit for publication. “Gold,” naturally, was the chief topic of conversation, especially amongst the older diggers, who love to tell one in detail how many ounces they got in one place and how many in another, until one feels that surely they must be either millionaires or liars. New rushes, and supposed new rushes, were eagerly discussed; men were often passing and repassing our rock, looking for somebody who was “on gold”—for the majority of prospectors seldom push out for themselves, but prefer following up some man or party supposed to have “struck it rich.”

The rumours of a new find so long bandied about at length came true. Billy Frost had found a thousand! two thousand!! three thousand ounces!!!—who knew or cared?—on the margin of a large salt lake some ninety miles north of Coolgardie. Frost has since told me that about twelve ounces of gold was all he found, And, after all, there is not much difference between twelve and three thousand—that is on a mining field. Before long the solitude of our camp was disturbed by the constant passing of travellers to and from this newly discovered “Ninety Mile”—so named from its distance from Coolgardie.

As a fact, this mining camp (now known as the town of Goongarr) is only sixty odd miles from the capital, measured by survey, but in early days, distances were reckoned by rate of travel, and roads and tracks twisted and turned in a most distressing manner, sometimes deviating for water, but more often because the first maker of the track had been riding along carelessly, every now and then turning sharp back to his proper course. Subsequent horse or camel men, having only a vague knowledge of the direction of their destination, would be bound to follow the first tracks; after these would come light buggies, spring-carts, drays, and heavy waggons, until finally a deeply rutted and well-worn serpentine road through the forest or scrub was formed, to be straightened in course of time, as observant travellers cut off corners, and later by Government surveyors and road-makers.

Prospectors were gradually “poking out,” gold being found in all directions in greater or less degree; but it was not until June, 1893, that any find was made of more than passing interest. Curiously, this great goldfield of Hannan's (now called Kalgoorlie) was found by the veriest chance. Patrick Hannan, like many others, had joined in a wild-goose chase to locate a supposed rush at Mount Yule—a mountain the height and importance of which may be judged from the fact that no one was able to find it! On going out one morning to hunt up his horses, he chanced on a nugget of gold. In the course of five years this little nugget has transformed the silent bush into a populous town of 2,000 inhabitants, with its churches, clubs, hotels, and streets of offices and shops, surrounded by rich mines, and reminded of the cause of its existence by the ceaseless crashing of mills and stamps, grinding out gold at the rate of nearly 80,000 oz. per mouth.

Arriving one Sunday morning from our camp at the “Twenty-five,” I was astonished to find Coolgardie almost deserted, not even the usual “Sunday School” going on. Now I am sorry to disappoint my readers who are not conversant with miners' slang, but they must not picture rows of good little children sitting in the shade of the gum-trees, to whom some kind-hearted digger is expounding the Scriptures. No indeed! The miners' school is neither more nor less than a largely attended game of pitch-and-toss, at which sometimes hundreds of pounds in gold or notes change hands. I remember one old man who had only one shilling between him and the grave, so he told me. He could not decide whether to invest his last coin in a gallon of water or in the “heading-school.” He chose the latter and lost… subsequently I saw him lying peacefully drunk under a tree! I doubt if his intention had been suicide, but had it been he could hardly have chosen a more deadly weapon than the whiskey of those days.

The “rush to Hannan's” had depopulated Coolgardie, and the next day saw Davies and myself amongst an eager train of travellers bound for the new site of fortune. “Little Carnegie” was harnessed to a small cart, which carried our provisions and tools. The commissariat department was easily attended to, as nothing was obtainable but biscuits and tinned soup. It was now mid-winter, and nights were often bitterly cold. Without tent or fly, and with hardly a blanket between us, we used to lie shivering at night.

A slight rain had fallen, insufficient to leave much water about, and yet enough to so moisten the soil as to make dry-blowing impossible in the ordinary way. Fires had to be built and kept going all night, piled up on heaps of alluvial soil dug out during the day. In the morning these heaps would be dry enough to treat, and ashes and earth were dry-blown together—the pleasures of the ordinary process being intensified by the addition of clouds of ashes.

A strange appearance these fires had, dotted through the brush, lighting up now a tent, now a water-cart, now a camp of fortunate ones lying cosily under their canvas roof, now a set of poor devils with hardly a rag to their backs. Oh glorious uncertainty of mining! One of these very poor devils that I have in my mind has now a considerable fortune, with rooms in a fashionable quarter of London, and in frock-coat and tall hat “swells” it with the best!

How quickly men change to be sure! A man who at one time would “steal the shirt off a dead black-fellow,” in a few short months is complaining of the taste of his wine or the fit of his patent-leather boots. Dame Fortune was good to some, but to us, like many others, she turned a deaf ear, and after many weeks' toil we had to give up the battle, for neither food, money, nor gold had we. All I possessed was the pony, and from that old friend I could not part. The fruits of our labours, or I should say my share in them, I sent home in a letter, and the few pin's-heads of gold so sent did not necessitate any extra postage. Weary and toil-worn we returned to Coolgardie, and the partners of some rather remarkable experiences split company, and went each his own way.

It is several years since I have seen Mr. Davies; but I believe Fortune's wheel turned round for him at length, and that now he enjoys the rest that his years and toils entitle him to. I have many kindly recollections of our camping days together, and of the numerous yarns my mate used to spin of his palmy days as a Queensland squatter.