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   Chapter 27 No.27

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 11048

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"Hansen's Rush" was one of the richest, noisiest, and the "rowdiest" of all the many newly-discovered fields, and contained more of the elements of villainy amongst its six hundred inhabitants than any other rush in the Australian Colonies. Perhaps about two-thirds of the men were genuine diggers, the rest were loafers, card-sharpers, horse and cattle thieves, sly grog-sellers, and men "wanted" by the police for various offences, from murder down to simple robbery with violence. So far, however, the arm of the law had not yet manifested its power at "Hansen's," although at first when the field was discovered by the prospector after whom it was named, a solitary white trooper and one native tracker had reached there, expecting to be reinforced. But one day he and the aboriginal rode out of camp to visit a party of diggers, who were working at the head of the creek, and never returned.

Months afterwards, the body of the white man was found lying near a heap of huge boulders, and it was concluded that either the unfortunate trooper had been thrown from his horse and killed, or that he had been murdered by his black subordinate, for the latter was never seen again at the camp, and most of the diggers asserted that he had deserted to the coastal blacks, where he would be safe from capture. When the body was discovered a careful search was made for some gold which had been entrusted to the policeman, but it could not be found; and this confirmed the theory of the tracker being the murderer.

Then, nearly three months after, "Moses," as the black tracker was named, walked into Somerset carrying his carbine and revolver, and told another story, which was accepted by the authorities as true. The party of miners whom he and the trooper visited, had complained of their tent having been entered when they were absent at their claim, and some hundreds of ounces of gold stolen. This was some weeks previously, and heavy rain, since then, had obliterated all traces of the robbers' tracks. The diggers, said Moses, then gave the trooper a bag of small nuggets containing about fifty ounces, and asked him to take it to Hansen's to await the monthly gold escort.

That night he and Moses camped near the boulders, and at daylight the latter went after the horses, leaving the poor trooper asleep. Half an hour later, he heard the sound of a shot, and saw three mounted men galloping towards him. They halted when they saw him, and then all three fired at him, but missed. Then they tried to head him off-he was on foot-but he was too fleet, and after an hour's pursuit he gained some wild country in the ranges, where he was, he thought, safe. Feeling hungry as the morning went on, he penetrated a thick scrub in the hope of finding a scrub turkey's nest. He did find one, and whilst engaged in eating the eggs, was dealt a sudden blow from behind with a waddy, and when he became conscious, found he had been captured by a wandering tribe of mountain blacks. They did not treat him harshly, but kept a strict watch on him for two months. One wild night, however, securing his carbine and revolver, he managed to escape, and finally reached Somerset.

"Hansen's," in addition to the several bark-roofed drinking shanties of bad reputation, also possessed a combined public house and general store, kept by a respectable old digger named Vale, who was doing a very thriving business, the "Roan Pack-Horse Hotel" being much favoured by the better class of men on the field. The loafers, rowdies, and such gentry did not like Vale, who had a way of throwing a man out if he became objectionably drunk and unduly offensive.

One afternoon, about five, three men entered the "hotel" part of Vale's establishment, and entered what was termed "the parlour." They were very good customers of Vale's, although he did not much care about them, being somewhat suspicious as to their character and antecedents. The three men were Forreste, the Jew Barney Green, and Cheyne.

The former had grown a thick beard, and looked what he professed to be-a digger pure and simple; and Green and Cheyne also had discarded the use of the razor, and in their rough miners' garb-flannel shirts, moleskin pants, and slouch felt hats-there was nothing to distinguish them from the ordinary run of diggers at Hansen's Rush. They had, Vale knew, a supposedly paying claim, but worked it in a very perfunctory manner, and employed two "wages men" to do most of the pick and shovel work. Their esteemed American confrère was not with them this afternoon-one of them always remained about their claim and tent on some excuse, for it contained many little articles which, had they been discovered by the respectable diggers at Hansen's, would have led to their taking a very hurried departure from the field.

"What's it to be?" said Vale, coming to the door of the room.

"Oh, a bottle of Kinahan," said Forreste, tossing the price of it-a sovereign-upon the table. "Got any salt beef to spare?"

"Not a bite. Wish I had. But that mob of cattle can't be far off now. They were camped at the Green Swamp two nights ago. There's a hundred head-all fine, prime young cattle, I hear."

"Are you buying the lot?"

"Every hoof-at ten pound a head. Plenty of fresh beef then-at two bob a pound. No charge for hoofs, horns, and the end of the tail," and with this pleasantry, the landlord of the "Roan Pack-Horse" withdrew, to bring the whisky.

A step sounded outside, and Randolph Aulain entered and nodded to the three

men. He had been at Hansen's for some months, and had one of the richest "pocket" claims on the field, but most of the gold it produced went in gambling. He had made the acquaintance of Forreste and his gang, and in a way had become intimate with them, although he was pretty certain of their character. But he did not care.

"Have a drink, Aulain?" said Barney Green.

Aulain nodded, and sat down, and then a pack of cards was produced, and the four men began to play-Aulain as recklessly as usual, and drinking frequently, as was now habitual with him.

Night had fallen, and the diggers' camp fires were everywhere blazing among tents and humpies, as the ex-officer and his villainous acquaintances still sat at their cards, too intent upon the game to think of supper. Vale's black boy, however, brought them in some tea, damper, and a tin of preserved meat, and they made a hurried meal. Just as they had begun to play afresh, they heard a horseman draw up outside, and a voice say "Good-evening, boss," to Vale.

All four men knew that voice, and Aulain's dark face set, as turning down his cards, he held up his hand for silence.

"I'm Gerrard from Ocho Rios," went on the voice as the rider dismounted, and, giving his horse to the black boy, followed Vale into the combined bar and store. "I've camped the cattle five miles from here, and pushed on to let you know. Can you take delivery tomorrow morning pretty early, as I want to get down to the coast again as soon as I can?"

"You bet!" said Vale with a laugh; "I'm all ready, and so is the money-not in cash, but in nuggets at four pounds the ounce. Is that right?"

"Quite," was the answer, and then the four listeners heard Vale drawing the cork of a bottle of beer-a rare commodity at Hansen's Rush. "Come round here, Mr Gerrard, and sit down. There's another room, but just now there are four chaps gaffing there, and so if you don't mind we'll sit here, and talk until my nigger gets you some supper." Then they began to talk about the cattle, Vale frankly telling Gerrard that if he had asked another five pounds per head, he would have paid it, as the diggers had had no fresh meat for nearly five months.

"Well, I've been very lucky," said Gerrard, and Forreste saw Aulain's teeth set, and wondered. "We-three black boys and myself-started out from the station with a hundred and ten head, and have not lost a single beast-no niggers, no alligators, no poison bush, nothing of any kind to worry us for the whole two hundred miles."

"I'll give him something to worry over before long," said Green viciously to Forreste.

"And so shall I," said Aulain in a savage whisper.

"Do you know him?" asked Forreste eagerly.

Aulain replied with a curt nod, and then again held up his hand for silence.

"Curse you, keep quiet; I want to hear what he is saying."

"Well, I'm glad to see you, Mr Gerrard," went on Vale. "I've heard a lot about you, and was sorry to hear of your loss in the big fire. I wish you luck."

"Thank you, Mr Vale. And I'm glad to meet you, and sell you my cattle. Every one that I have heard speak of you says that you will never try to 'skin' a digger over the price of his liquor and 'tucker.'"

Vale was pleased. For a bush publican and store-keeper he had an unusual reputation for honesty-and well deserved it, for all his roughness and lurid language when aroused to wrath. He asked Gerrard to stay for the night.

"No, I cannot. I must get back to the cattle to-night, and do my watch. But I think I shall spell here at Hansen's for a day or two, have a look at the field, and see if I can buy a share in one of the claims. As I'm getting my money out of the diggings I ought to put something back, even if I strike a rank duffer."

"Ah, you're one of the right sort of men, Mr Gerrard. I daresay I can put you on to something that won't displease you in the end. But I'm sorry you can't camp here to-night."

"No, I must not. It would not be fair to my men to leave them with a mob of cattle out in the open all night in such thunder-stormy weather. If they broke away they would clear off into the ranges."

Then he added that whilst two of his black stockmen were returning to Ocho Rios after they had had a spell at "Hansen's," he was striking across country to the coast-seventy miles distant-to the mouth of the Coen River.

"You see, Mr Vale, my luck is coming in, 'hand over fist,' as the sailors say. I'm going to be married at Ocho Rios next month by the Gold Commissioner, and there is a pearling lugger bringing me a lot of stores round from Somerset, and I have arranged to meet her at the Coen on the 22nd, and sail round in her. I'm taking one black boy with me, who will take my horse back with him to the station, and I'll get the benefit of a short sea-trip of a few days, or perhaps a week."

Vale opened another bottle of beer-more valued at Hansen's than even whisky at a sovereign a bottle.

"Here's to your very good fortune and happiness, Mr Gerrard! Will you mind my mentioning it to the boys here to-night? You see, I arranged to give a sort of a shivoo as soon as the cattle got here, and I had killed and dressed a couple of beasts."

Gerrard laughed. "I don't mind. And I'll come to the shivoo myself, and eat some of my own beef. Now, I must be getting back to the cattle."

Aulain and the other three men waited until they heard his horse brought. And then the dark-faced ex-inspector turned to Forreste.

"Come outside. I want to talk to you."

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