Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/My golden hole
MY GOLDEN HOLE.
It was about midnight, towards the latter end of the month of June, that I stepped out of the Red-shirt store into the still, silent night. It was full moon, and clear and distinct as at noonday I could see the opposite bank of the gully, dotted with here and there a tent, while hundreds of bare poles and deserted chimneys told the tale of a diggings once prosperous, but now rapidly declining. Below me I could hear the swollen creek foaming and fretting in its bed, but its waters were invisible, for a dense mass of fog, which rose to within a few feet of where I was standing, brooded over and concealed them. On the opposite side of the gully, some twenty feet above the fog level, stood a solitary tent, the sparks issuing from the chimney of which showed that its occupant kept up a good fire.
“This is a nice night to cross the gully in,” thought I. “It is about ten to one that I shall miss the tree; and, even if I find it, it’s no fun groping one’s way in the dark across a slippery trunk with ten feet of water under one. If I thought old Jackson had turned in for the night, I’d go back and camp down before Sydney Bill’s fire.”
As I leant, irresolute, against an old charred stump, the flap of the tent was drawn back, and a man stepped out into the air, and, shading his eyes with his hand, gazed over towards the store.
“Ah, there he is. He has heard us singing and jollifying, and wonders, I suppose, that I don’t come over to impart to him the good news which has made us all so merry. It’s uncommon little that’s pleasant I have to tell him though. Ah, now he is gone in again. He couldn’t make me out against this black stump, though his eyes are as sharp as needles, too. Well, I suppose I must cross somehow or another; so here goes.”
I descended to the edge of the fog-bank, and then on my hands and knees crawled cautiously down towards the creek, feeling carefully about on all sides before every movement, to avoid tumbling headlong down one of the many old shafts by which I was surrounded. At last I heard the waters of the creek immediately below me, and at the same moment found myself amongst the branches of a tree. It was a large white gum, which had been felled so as to fall across the watercourse and form a rude bridge. Slowly I crawled along its slippery surface, in imminent danger more than once of losing my balance and being precipitated into the raging gulf below. At last, however, to my great relief, I found myself once more on terra firma, and, the holes on that side being less numerous, in another minute I emerged from the fog and resumed my usual upright attitude. As I opened the tent door, the savoury scent of beefsteaks greeted me.
“How late you are,” said my mate. “I heard you all talking at the door of the store, as you separated; so, as I had got uncommonly hungry with waiting, and thought you might be the same, I began to prepare a little supper. It will soon be ready, and afterwards you can tell me what luck you have had.”
“Oh, I can tell you that at once. As bad as could be. The hole was a duffer; it did not contain even the colour. Here have I been camped out now for upwards of ten days, with no shelter but a miserable mimi, which was about as much use to keep out the wet and cold as the frame of an umbrella without the cover. It has rained every day, and all day, and frozen every night, and all night. Jem, the black, like an ass, as he is, fell into Reedy Creek as we were going. We managed to fish him out about three-parts drowned; but we were less lucky with the bag containing the flour, tea, and sugar, so that I have been confined to a diet of mutton and water, till I am sick of the sight of them. However, as the steaks seem about ready, I shall just make myself some slight amends.”
“Well, now, I am sorry things have turned out so bad. I thought from your description the gully looked likely.”
“So it did, and so it does still, and I feel sure there must be gold in it somewhere; but, at any rate, it did not happen to be where we sank, for we put down one hole in the middle and one at each side, and drove fair across it, so that we must have dropped on the gutter had there been one. I shouldn’t mind trying some other part of it again when it gets warmer, but I can tell you this is the last prospecting expedition I mean to go upon in winter. And, now that I have told you of our failure, I want to know what we are to do with ourselves? This place is clean worked out. What is left wouldn’t keep a Chinaman. We haven’t got a pound in the world; and Sydney Bill, who is the only store-keeper left who will give us tick, talks of going up to the Avoca next week. He had a letter from there to-day, to say that things were pretty brisk, so he called me in this evening, as I was passing, to tell me the news, and when he heard of our bad luck, shouted any amount of old tom, to keep up our spirits, like a good fellow, as he is.”
“Yes, he is a true digger,” said Jackson. “Make it easily, spend it quickly, is his motto; and occasionally he discounts his luck beforehand so effectually, that very little is left for himself when it comes. And so he told you that things looked well on the Avoca?”
“Yes; and, what’s more to the purpose, he offered to take up our swags in his dray, and to trust us up there till we dropped on something good, so I don’t think we can do better than accept his offer.”
“Well, now,” said Jackson, “I happen to know Avoca well, and I have my doubts about the great finds that are being made there. I am pretty sure that there is some ground here yet which will pay us as well as ever Avoca did, or will, and that too without having to gad through twenty feet of ironstone cement, which is a nice amusement, truly, if your claim after all turns out a blank.”
“Ah, you are still hankering to try and recover the lost lead out of Nuggety Gully. Now, first of all, I don’t believe that it’s lost at all, my opinion being that it either ran out or joined the worked out one in White Horse Flat; and secondly, pray how are we to keep soul and body together while indulging your crotchets?”
“I think,” said Jackson, “I can provide for that; look here.”
As he spoke, he placed upon the table a sheet of writing paper, and then drawing from out his pocket a small leather bag, emptied the contents upon it. I gazed in mute astonishment upon a charming little pile of rough shotty gold which lay there before me.
“Forty-seven ounces, thirteen pennyweights, eight grains and a half,” said my mate calmly. “I think that will keep us during our experiment, and take us up to the Avoca, or anywhere else we may fancy afterwards, without laying ourselves under an obligation to a living soul.”
“But, Jackson,” I exclaimed, at last recovering my power of speech, “where on earth did you get all this from? You surely haven’t been sticking any one up?”
“Not exactly. I’ll tell you how I came to drop upon it. For the first few days after you were gone I went on working at the headings in the Smith’s old hole, and managed to get out just enough to keep me going. Last Sunday I took my usual walk down to the bottom of Nuggety, and on my way back, just as I had got about halfway up, my cap blew off and went down one of the holes. Well, as I didn’t care about losing it, and the shaft seemed pretty safe, I followed. When I had got to the bottom I thought I would take a look round, so, as I happened to have a bit of candle in my pocket, I lighted up. The claim appeared to me at first to have been completely driven out, and to be almost choked up with pipeclay, but on a closer observation I thought I saw a bit of solid stuff peeping out from among the rubbish. After a deal of trouble I managed to get near enough to touch it, and sure enough it was a large pillar which had been left to support the roof. It was the Macgregors who worked the claim, and they, as you may remember, went off in a great hurry to Ballarat, to join some old mates who had managed to get on the gutter. I suppose they did not think it worth while to waste time in getting this pillar out, and as they drove they had thrown back the pipeclay all round it, so that it was wellnigh hidden, and might easily have escaped the notice of any one visiting the hole subsequently. The next morning I came down immediately after breakfast, and went to work. It took me all day to get out the rubbish, for, having no one to help me, I had to fill my bucket, and then to go up to the top and haul it up myself, so that the operation proceeded but slowly. However, by evening I had got a clear space all round the pillar, and everything ship-shape. When I came down on the morrow I hesitated at first about taking it out without timbering up a bit; but as the headings there, as indeed in the whole gully, were white cement, which stands well with very little support as long as no water gets at it, and the hole was dry, I thought I might venture. It didn’t take me very long to have it down when I once began. I got about three tubs of stuff out of it, which yielded what you see on the table, and pretty mad our Scotch friends would be, to be sure, if they knew that they had left behind them untouched the best bit in their hole.”
“Why, really, I think,” said I, “that our luck must be going to take a turn. So let’s have a try at your Nuggety Gully lead, and welcome. But, as I haven’t been in a bed these ten nights, I will just recruit myself beforehand with a good dose of sleep.”
The next morning, after a rather late breakfast, for we were too well off to be in a hurry about rising, we shouldered our picks and walked down to the theatre of our operations. Nuggety Gully was a long, narrow, winding valley, with very steep sides. The claims in it had been exceedingly rich, and it had been thoroughly worked out down to its mouth, where it opened into the White Horse Flat. At this point another gully, called Chinaman’s, which had likewise produced a large amount of gold, also entered the flat, and then it was generally imagined that the two leads had united into one which had been traced and worked for several miles, until it had run out. When we reached the supposed junction, Jackson said:
“Now I have often told you why I think that the two leads did not join, but, as I don’t believe that you ever paid any attention to my remarks, will repeat them for your benefit just once more. You remember that all the gold out of Nuggety Gully was precisely such as that we have at home, rough and shotty, whilst that out of Chinaman’s, and nine-tenths of that out of the flat, was smooth and water-worn. This leads me to think that, even if there was some slight communication between the two leads, there must have been another channel down which the greater part of the Nuggety gold took its way, otherwise, as it was much the richer of the gullies, the rough gold must have largely preponderated over the water-worn in the flat, while the very opposite was the case. Again, the last claim in Nuggety, just at the point where the leads are supposed to have united, was worked by some new chums, who didn’t understand very well what they were about. It is true that they told me there was little or nothing to be got out of the lower right-hand side of it, but, as they admitted that the bottom dipped there a good deal, it appears to me very likely that the current may have been too rapid to allow of any considerable deposit in that particular spot, but that the gold will be discovered again at the lower end of the incline. What I propose, therefore, is to sink in the flat about one hundred feet from the New Chum hole, and about a couple of claims to the right of the lead already worked out.”
“Very well,” said I, “go ahead.”
With that he marked out the hole—a round one—three feet three inches in diameter, for long ones had not come into fashion in those days.
As the surface was very deep and wet, we had, first of all, to dig a trench all round, about three feet deep, which we filled up with well-puddled clay, firmly rammed down, in order to prevent the water getting into the shaft. This took us till late at night, so we had to put off sinking till the next morning. After supper I went over to the Red Shirt to pay our score, and to let Sydney Bill know that we did not mean to accompany him to Avoca. There were seven or eight fellows in the store when I entered, all of whom, on hearing where we were at work, pronounced our proceedings absurd, which, however, did not prevent them from coming down next day and marking out claims all around us in case we should be lucky enough to strike anything. Having sunk their holes, each about a foot, and placed in them a pick or shovel as a sign of ownership, they devoted themselves to the laborious occupation of shepherding, which consists in sitting by a huge fire with a pipe in your mouth, telling or listening to interminable yarns about the Ballarat riots or some kindred subject, grumbling at your present, and regretting your past luck, diversified by occasionally lounging up to the sinking party for the purpose of examining the “tack thrown up, and criticising the progress made.
We worked away very steadily, and by night we were down about twelve feet, and had our windlass fixed. The next day we got amongst some tough clay, which made the sinking anything but child’s play; however, we went at it with a will, and by knock-off time our hole was about twenty-two feet deep.
“The New Chum hole,” said Jackson, as he was putting on his shirt, after coming up from his last spell below, “was twenty-four feet. I allow a foot for dip, so that we must now be about three feet from the bottom.”
Next morning my mate went down first. On relieving him I had not sunk above three or four inches before, in making a vigorous blow, my pick came against something hard with such violence that for a moment I felt as if I possessed no arms at all, so benumbed were they by the shock.
“Granite boulders for a pound,” thought I. I cleared away the earth, and stooped down to look. No boulders were visible, but white cement, the very stuff which had overlain the wash-dirt everywhere in Nuggety, and had been utterly wanting in Chinaman’s and the Flat.
“Jackson,” I shouted, “send down the gads!”
“Hurrah! We are on it to a certainty.”
This bit of news quite roused up the shepherds. Some crowded round Jackson, others began to trench their holes; all was impatience and anxiety. But the cement was frightfully hard. After a whole hour’s labour there was nothing to show for it but about half a bucket of white dust, and it was noon the next day before my mate cried out, “I am through—red gravel below.” And now the excitement became intense. The shepherds, whose numbers had considerably increased since the preceding day, swarmed around the mouth of the shaft, so that I could hardly work the windlass, and an anxious silence succeeded to noise and rough jokes. After about half-an-hour’s suspense, Jackson sang out to me to send down the bucket. I did so, and drew it up again, filled with gravel of a dull red. A little way up Chinaman’s was a dam belonging to a deserted puddling machine. Thither we all adjourned in a body. The dirt was well watered and stirred about until all the clay was gone, and then the gravel that remained was emptied into the wash-pan. Now came the anxious moment. All heads were thrust forward to watch. Everything was as still as death. You might have heard a pin drop. Gradually, as the water passed backwards and forwards over the face of the dirt, its bulk grew less and less, till at last something bright became visible, and in another moment the pan was adorned with a little heap of rough gold weighing some seven or eight pennyweights.
“Rush oh!” was the cry, and away went the shepherds as hard as their legs could carry them. Off went shirts and flannels—to work went pick and shovel, and before evening at least fifty were down some half-a-dozen feet and upwards.
By the next morning the news had spread far and wide, and the whole of the small scattered population still left in those parts was upon the flat as busy as bees. If we could have kept matters dark we should have all made our piles half-a-dozen times over; but, as these things always get out somehow or another, only a few days passed before diggers came crowding in from all points of the compass, and the old township on the hill by the side of the flat was soon alive again with tents and stores, grog-shops and bagatelle-rooms.
Sydney Bill did not go to Avoca, but moved down to the flat instead; and my mate and I never from that time found it necessary to wash headings or to hunt about in old holes for forgotten pillars.
An Old Chum.