AN ORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN TALE. ' ..
BY F. S. WILSON.. : - >
Author of "Woonoona," "Aunt -Milly's Christmas Box,"
"Shot in the Heart" &c .
' CHAPTER XIV. ... ;?
? . ' . SNOW ! ? ....... ???
The light of the .rising sim shone in long ^straggling-streaks across the grassy ranges of Kiandra, as our two friends rode down the principal street, their horses''legs caked to the saddle
girths with mud and clay, the ' effect of travelling the boggy '?. plains which barely gave footing to the jaded animals.
Life was already astir in what Avas, figuratively called a street,
literally it Avas a ,muddy lane, lined on each side with TOAVS of . figurative shops, literally hovels of calico, slab, and weather- board. Lines of buildings of every;conceivable shape and size flourished on the road banks, like thé; rank Aregetation flinging a coral island, Avhiie betAveen them lay a long canal of semi-fluid mud, rendering navigation a task, dirty and uncomfortable, if not difficult and dangerous. *
Haggard-faced men, Avho hadn't yet' come across the ' colour' ? of gold, sneaked along, nmking .their lessening purses still loAver by expending another shilling in a .vicious compound of British spirits, strengthened with tobacco and vitriol',' diluted Arith Avater, and re-christened Avith the name of Brandy !' Men, Avith
faces no less haggard, turned out after" a night's Avild carousing, ' based on the results of a lucky dajr, and made of their throats trannvays for the rubbish Avhich had laid them prostrate the night before. Slip-shod, draggle-tailed Avomcn sauntered along, gazing at the sleepy shops that hadn't yet opened their eyes to business ; Avomen intent on the purchase of chops and steaks for breakfast, and flour at the rate of eighteenpence a pound ; as for meat it Avas plentiful enough, though commanding a high price considering the market from Avhich it Avas originally sup- plied, the herds, stolen or strayed, driven over by the Jingera * gully-rakers.' Then when the sun began to open his eyes in earnest, people seemed to follow his example, and the wretched hole of a toAvn, apparently so dilapidated and poverty-stricken, SAvarmed with the hum of human A'oices and the tread of human, feet, and seemed aroused to a pitch of business and excitement that many a long-founded and. densely-populated city might
DoAA'n among the bed-claims and Avorking ground fringing the
river, diggers began to cluster like bees ; the breakfast-fires of . the cooks told off from the Avorking parties began to send up light columns of smoke, and thc usual morning sounds of Nature had to share possession of the place Avith the clash of pick and shovel, the tiundiing' of wheelbarroAvs, the patter of Avater turned into races to feed ' loiig-toms,' and the short monotonous rock of the less pretentious cradle.
Kiandra and its enA'irons teemed Avith sudden life, as a hive or ant-hill abruptly overturned would send forth its myriad inhabitants, and the labour and business of the day fairly com-
Chewter and Claston, on the morning of their arrival, soon disposed of their horses to a speculator, Avho intended them for , pack-travelling, for the transmission of 4 swags ' and provisions
to various points of the diggings, and haA'ing had a good 4 claim' marked out, proceeded to erect their dwelling-house at as short a distance as they possibly could from the spot they intended to Avork. Still, Avith all their care, this lay nearly a quarter of a mile from their claim, the ground in the immediate vicinity being already pegged out, or intended to be so, for digging pur- poses. They designed their building on rather a grand scale, and decided to construct it of sods, which (\vhen properly settled, and provided not too much rain tries their durability) form walls far superior for warmth and comfort to the ordinal y Avind searching slab hut, or the even less desirable canAras shanty. The plan to be carried into execution consisted of stout turf walls, enclosing a space ten feet by eight, independent of the chimney and fire-place, Avhich joined on to the end of the house in the open air, making the Avhole resemble some huge insect Avith a double body connected by a narroAV Avaist. The end walls terminated in a straight and uniform height, but the;
gables were formed by two forked saplings built into the sods and sup- porting a transverse pole, over -which the tent canvas was stretched and pegged securely to the ground. This enviable habitation, though possessing a doorway of most ample proportions, and two window , openings to match, boasted neither door, glazed casements, nor shutters,
so that in the absence of the proprietors its contents were at the mercy of thievish pigs and dogs, mischievous children, and the general, and j
by no means particular, populace of Kiandra.
The hut was thoroughly completed before any attempt was made to break ground, but the notice-board ' registered ' gave evidence to all inquirers that the little nook in the sharp bend of the river was taken
Then, when everything was fairly housed, and the dwelling-place was rendered as comfortable as their wretched appliances would permit, Claston and Chewter turned out of bed one morning and turned the
first sod of their « lotterv' claim. I Their intention was toi dam off a '
portion of the stream, and thus get at the river bed. Three days were spent in effecting this part of their plan; then they were employed, several days more in removing the drift and stones deposited on their digging area, and set heartily to work to get at -the wash-dirt and collect a large parcel, so that it might be secured against the intermittent and
oftentimes unlooked-for rises of the river.
All this takes not-so many minutes to describe as it exhausted days to transact, and just on the eve of their intended grand ' washing day,', a storm, succeeded by a 'set-in' rain, confined them to their turf mansion for a couple of days, which", however, they passed not unprofitably by manufacturing a 'long tom,' abandoning their former idea of using the short primitive cradle. * The boards (eight inches wide) of which this
sluice-box was constructed, cost twenty shillings each, and were con- ] sidered by the independent merchant who disposed of them, ' cheap at the price,'an opinion which new-comers found rather difficult to endorse.
Each, night so much soakage found its way through the walls of their dam, that Claston and his mate expended two hours every morning in clearing it fit for the .day's operations, and this, with the time taken up in cooking, getting meals, and making flying visits to the hut to assure themselves that every vestige of personal property therein deposited had not made to itself wings and flown away, eat into a good portion of each day. Added to this, when the rain subsided they found that a good portion of their wasliing-stuff had subsided with it ; what with the drifting flow of the flooded creek at its base, and the incursions of sundry weak-principled people who didn't mind the wet and had no very decided opinions as to honesty, who, moreover, seemed to consider it a great pity that so much stuff should be waiting to be washed, and accordingly filched several loads of it. So it was, that when the pile had been passed through the sluice
box, the proceeds were so rascally shabby, that our friends returned to j their habitation one evening dispirited and disgusted.
Three weeks had passed away-three weeks of hard labour from willing '
hands, nerved by sanguine hearts, and now they were but a few degrees from absolute want. The past few weeks seemed black and gloomy enough when looked back upon, but who could contemplate, without foreboding, the grim Future-how bleak and chill that looked. Blacker and less cheer- ful than the night outside, and that came on stark and grim enough, Heaven knows ! The rising wind crooned a doleful wail down the echoing bends and mountain gulches, its rumblings intermingled with sounds of fast-rushing waters and the crash of rending branches. Higher, and still higher, rose the elemental din, as of a world in agony, and then, in that cold May night a chilling cry of apprehension fled in whispers, from ear to ear,
that the snow had commenced to fall !
Captain Chewier in his snug hut took a most philosophic view of the alarming intelligence, and grunted, " "Wa'al, let it fall! so long as the j wind doesn't blow the Bhelter from, our heads, we won't set up our backs I and snarl'like badgers at a little snow dusting the roof;" at the same
time he threw an additional log into the wide-mouthed chimney as if he were throwing a bone into the gaping jaws of some ravening beast.
People who lived in wild and lonely situations, however, couldn't look on things in this contented light, so they hurried in closer to the town ; while hundreds, whose timid hearts could not bear the thought of approach- ing danger, packed their ' traps,' some even deserting them on the road, and fled for their lives to the nearest settlement. -
" Let's peg a bit of that 'are canvas over the window chink, proposed the Captain, as the wind howled like a native dog in at the shutterless casement, and the wild-featured night gibbered at them with strange fantastic shadows. " Ah J I calculate that's better. It's a ciar' case for thanks that Ave've got ! a hum' (home) to be in, if it is but a rough one," he said gratefully as he i shook the feathery snow from his clothing, " Sakes alive, Harry ! but it's j a skeary sort of night outside."
' So somebody else seemed to think, for a rough hail came in at the door
demanding permission for its owner's body to enter, and almost before
the request was granted a couple of diggers stood in the opening.
" Who, or what on airth, takes a liking to bein' out on such a night as this ?" inquired Chewier ; " air you critters as have never bin out in mud and snow afore, and come out to enjoy it by way of a change? or air you so used to it that this sort of element comes as nata'ral to you as laziness does to a nigger ?" " Neither one nor the other," answered the foremost Of
the new comers.
" Because," continued Chewier, drawlingly, *' I was going to explainify¿ that if it was either you'd better continher the movement ; but if not, why I guess you'd better come in and toast the darned numbness off your
Acting on this suggestion, the new-comers did come in, and showed themselves to be remarkable only in the fact of each possessing a very red nose, and a pair of very blinking eyes surmounted by a sort of snow
" We come, hospitable strangers, as benighted travellers to claim your gracious shelter until the storm abates, and your direction afterwards," explained the first speaker-the youngest of the two.
" The whole fact of the matter lies in a very small compass," interposed the other, " my mate and myself, not being blessed (as yet) with the golden
smiles of luck, were taking a stroll to the township to procure a small . quantity of spirits (to keep our own from going down into the bottomless shaft of Despair) and when about to return to our tent, situate on New Chum Hill, were caught in this storm, which compels us to solicit a shelter. * As the weather has placed us under this obligation, it must assist us to
apologise for our intrusion."
" Intrusion be blowed," commented Captain Chewter, as the weather'took him at his word and roared savagely down the chimney, "why if a dog grabbed the only corn-cake I had, and snarled at me afterwards, I wouldn't turn him out in such a night. How on airth you ventured across from 'New Chum'with the weather wearing such a nigger's frown all the after-
noon, reg'larly pulls the wool over my eyes. You see, we ain't much calkilated to wash out all the sense of your long lawyer's poetical speeches but if you mean, can you come in and jine us by the fire, I'm agreed—so's my mate, I know. Why, a pair o' three-days old bear-cubs 'ud have more sense! but, darn it all, come in, and if there's anything left in the 'tucker box' you're welcome to go smacks likewise."
Thus invited, the visitors willingly exchanged their position from the biting cold without to the comfortable warmth within ; the elder one (a bald headed man) remarking that he "wouldn't indent for anymore weather aceording to the sample now being displayed."
Mr. Chewter at this moment returned with an assertion that it was "cold enough to freeze the tail off a beaver," and brought in with him the 'tucker box'—a sort of portable pantry, which was hoisted by means of a rope and pulley to one of the gable poles of the hut, out of the reach of all four-footed
thieves if not safe from the 'pickings and stealings ' of felonious-minded bipeds.