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Title: In the Mine
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: In the Mine
Author: Fred M White

*

Published in the Wagga Wagga Express, Saturday 4 May, 1901.

*


I.

Driftwood Creek swayed with a new sensation. Not that the inviting and
engaging community wanted for sensations, as a rule. No day passed
without its mining disaster or shooting affray. The scum of two
continents was gathered at Driftwood Lead and the manager of the great
Driftwood Lead pointed to his grey hairs as testimony to the fact,
though he was only three and forty, and a man of fine nerve and steady
resolution.

Right away from the huts clustering round Driftwood Lead, up the
hillside where the white tents of the free miners were dotted, there
was but one topic under discussion. The new parson had openly defied
Ned Kelly, and prophesied trouble for him, unless he left Masson alone.
Up to now Parson Lee had but a congregation of one. Masson was the only
convert he had made in three months, and even the most moderate of men
must admit that one individual formed but an indifferent congregation.
The miners were free-handed as a rule; the silver was panning out well,
and they had no objection to come down with the dust for the little
corrugated iron church, so long as parson didn't want them to come
inside. And John Lee, who was wise in his day and generation, accepted
the dollars and waited patiently.

A wild, reckless, gambling, drinking crew they were. Every man there
had his history, and every man there knew that his neighbour passed
under a name other than his own. Most of them were inherently bad,
others were merely reckless. Most of the hideous poison in the shape of
Driftwood alcohol was swallowed to reach the stage where remorse can be
drowned for the moment.

But Ned Kelly, overseer of B gang, Driftwood Lead, was a blackguard
and a bully of the swaggering type. His one law was force, his sole
arbiter the revolver. There were notches in the stock of his "shooting
iron" indicative of the men he had "dropped" in fair fight. There was
only one man who did not fear him, and that was the "Don," otherwise
known as Edward Foster, who had a claim up yonder by Pine Tree Hill.
Tradition had it that the "Don" had been a gentleman, and that, at one
time he had ruffled it with the best of them at Oxford.

This statement was neither encouraged or denied by Foster. He drank
and gambled with them, but his language was clean and sweet as became
a gentleman, so that perhaps he was more respected than any other man
there in the camp. And, when he had the temerity to say that Kelly
would assuredly get the worst of it over the Masson business, men
marvelled. Kelly's great coarse face flushed with passion. It was not
a bad-natured face, and under better auspices Kelly might have been a
better man.

"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.

Foster smiled as he lounged against Mike Sweeney's saloon counter. The
place was fairly full, and other miners paused to listen.

"Just what I say," Foster drawled. "Lee will get the best of you. He's
little, but he's grit right down to his heels. There's an eye for
you, it's like a bradawl. Take my advice and leave Masson alone. Why
shouldn't he go to church if he pleases. And if he saves his money
instead of spending it in this poisonous hole, it's no business of
ours."

That was all very well, Kelly growled, but Masson had been giving
himself airs. In sooth, he had all the intolerance and excess of zeal
of the ignorant convert. Kelly, for one, wasn't going to stand it.
The first time Masson came into town again, he was to be dragged into
Sweeney's and filled with liquor, or Kelly would know why. This threat
had reached parson Lee's ears, and he had publicly warned Kelly that,
unless he abandoned his polite intentions, he would get the worst of
it. Therefore Driftwood was swaying to a new sensation.

Kelly had been too astonished even to swear. His big form towered over
that of the parson, his great coarse face was filled with passion. But
the little lean, brown man with the penetrating grey eyes had looked
him through and through. There was no fear in his face. He quietly
reiterated his warning. All this Kelly repeated subsequently with
crimson face and vivid speech. He was telling it for the tenth time,
when a free miner came in and drawled the pleasing information that
Masson was coming down the street. All eyes were turned upon Kelly.
That individual rose to the occasion. From his hip pocket he produced
a large Colt and strode into the roadway. Masson came strolling along,
apparently in blissful ignorance of his danger.

"Bill Masson," Kelly said, sweetly, "come in here."

"Why, it's Kelly! How are you, my friend? No, thank you; I have given
up drinking. Strong drink is----"

"Stow it! Come right in here at once! You're going to drink with me,
and, what's more, I'm in a liberal frame of mind to-night."

Masson protested, but at the same time he followed. Kelly's revolver
clicked ominously. His temper was proverbially short. There were
something like tears in Masson's eyes as he made his way into the
stuffy, crowded bar. The man was somewhat of a fanatic, but he was
obviously sincere. There were certain murmurs of disapproval.

"Any gentleman like to argue the matter with me?" Kelly asked, sweetly.

"Your behaving like a blackguard," Foster said, quietly; "but we shan't
interfere. We are going to have all the fun we want, but it won't be at
Masson's expense."

Kelly's reply was to force a glass of some liquid poison into Masson's
hand with a lurid suggestion that he had two minutes in which to finish
it. To this explanation he added a rider to the effect that there was
more to follow.

"Put down that glass!"

The crowd panted breathlessly. A little brown man with a pair of keen
grey eyes was standing opposite Kelly. He was small, but well made and
he looked like a compact mass of muscles and whipcord. Kelly turned
upon him with a sneer. An instant later, and the glass was snatched
from Masson's limp hand, and the contents dashed into the face of the
bully.

Like lightning his hand went to his hip. Along the whole range of hills
away to Carson City there was not one man as quick on the drop as
Kelly. As a matter of fact, this was the secret of his power.

The eye could scarce follow the quickness of the hand. It seemed as if
the revolver had leapt to it. Kelly's arm was raised on a level with
his face, and then, to his staggering amazement, he found that Lee had
covered him. It was magic--conjuring; no mere ordinary man could have
done such a thing unaided.

"I've got the drop on you," Lee said, quietly. "If you raise your elbow
the fraction of an inch further, I'll shoot you between the eyes."

Kelly's arm dropped to his side. He was dumbfounded and abashed in the
presence of a master. A score pair of eyes were roundly set on Lee,
only Foster smiled. It is always pleasing to have one's prophecies come
true. Lee stood there with his revolver pointed still as a statue. They
still tell the story in the silver hills.

"You are a braggart, and a blackguard, and a dully," Lee said; "but I
am going to tame you and make a man of you yet. I could shoot you as
I stand, and these men here would say you had had no more than your
deserts. You would have shot me had I not been too quick for you.
According to your queer code of honour your life is mine. But I cannot
send you into the presence of your Maker as you are. Throw down your
gun!"

The command rang clear and crisp. Kelly dropped his revolver. Not for
all the wealth of all the silver hills could he have told why he did
so, but the fact remains. Perhaps it was the magnetism of those clear
grey eyes. His revolver clanged on the floor, and Lee kicked it away.
He tossed his own to Foster.

"I am not going to let you off quite so easy as you imagine. See here.
You and I will settle this in good old English fashion. Put up your
fists and fight like a man."

He squared up to Kelly and his left shot out. The bully fairly
staggered before the force of the blow. He was nearly double the weight
of his antagonist, there was no proportion between the strength of the
two, but the science and the training and the condition were all on one
side. Driftwood looked on in pleased, flattering silence, not with the
feeling that they were being deprived of a good thing. And it was a
beautiful thing so far as it went, but it did not nearly go far enough.
At the end of five minutes Lee had his man well beaten. He lay back
heavily and sleepily on the floor whilst the other stood over him with
a calm philosophical criticism.

"You are satisfied for the present, I see," he said. "Come, Masson."

Without a glance for the rest of them Lee passed out of the saloon,
followed by his dazed convert. Kelly sat up and gasped for water. Truly
it was an evening of surprises.

"I'm dreaming, that's what I'm doing," Kelly groaned. "It's a hidjus
nightmare. Fust I meet a man who gets the drop on me--a little dried up
chap I could fall on and kill--and then I meet a machine disguised as a
human being that knocks me all to pieces. But I'll have my revenge yet."

He was trembling from head to foot with pain and passion. His great
coarse face was livid with rage; he looked round for the sympathy he
failed to find.

"I never heard of but one man in these parts who could do that," he
muttered; "and that man was Gilbert James. But he returned respectable
and went to Europe. No, it couldn't have been Gilbert James."

The name was listened to with respect worthy of its greatness. A decade
ago the fame of Gilbert James had spread to two hemispheres. A halo
was about the reputation of that man, who would have passed a city of
Kelly's without molestation; and Parson Lee was as great a man.

"Who is he?" Kelly asked almost pitifully; "tell me that?"

Nobody could solve the problem, everybody was quiet and solemn but
Foster. And he smiled with the air of a man who knows.

"At any rate," he said, "this man is more than a match for Kelly."




II.

Graham Willoughby, like another manager, a famous prototype of his, was
full of care. What with the men and those constant fires in the mines,
he had his hands full. Anyone but a Scotchman would have flung up the
job long ago, despite the princely salary.

There was always some trouble with the hands, and for the last few days
they had been more dangerous than usual. Ned Kelly seemed disposed
to let his shift do as they pleased. He had come on duty two days
before with a face swollen almost beyond recognition, and he had been
dangerously sullen ever since. Why would those maniacs smoke in the
mines, Willoughby wondered. How many lives had been sacrificed to the
craving for tobacco down in the 700 feet level? It only wanted a spark
to set fire to the dry and floating timber dust; then followed the
explosion, and the generation of a gas beyond the grasp of science.

It was awful stuff, this gas formed by the ignition of the dust from
thousands of decaying timber props and stays. Witness the tragedies
arising from it from time to time in the history of the great Comstock
Mine. Sometimes men escaped, but there were other times when the gas
struck them down swift as lightning. They had been brought up livid in
death with a laugh frozen on their lips; and there were the most rigid
rules on the subject of smoking.

Willoughby called Kelly to him.

"I was down in the second level last night," he said; "I smelt tobacco."

Kelly scowled. Parson Lee was coming up the road. There were moments
when Kelly felt like going up to Lee and asking his pardon, and there
were other moments when he cherished the warmest feelings of revenge.
His power was not broken in Driftwood, but it was on the wane. And
Kelly was an ambitious man in his way.

"If tobacco's about," he said, "I guess you can smell it, unless you
are painfully afflicted. Guess I smelt that tobacco myself, boss."

This was insolence, pure and simple, but Willoughby was constrained
to swallow it. No other man in the mine had the same influence over
the hands as Kelly, and, when he deigned--which was pretty often--to
exercise his autocratic power, no man dared to bring a pipe within
yards of him. But he was sulky and baffled and beaten now.

"You must stop it," Willoughby said, sharply. "Do you hear?"

Kelly thrust his big coarse face forward.

"And who's to make me?" he asked, huskily.

"Suppose we try Parson Lee," Willoughby said, incautiously.

He saw the veins swelling on the big neck, he saw the red passion
flaming in Kelly's eyes. The man was a bully and a braggart, but he
was no coward. He was ready to face death recklessly enough, and life
was of small account to him at the present moment. The great source
and fount of his pride was his sway and influence over Driftwood. He
was a born leader of men; with education and faith he might have led
a nation. And now all the sweetness and savour had gone out of life,
been beaten out of him by a parson. That was the cruellest blow of
all. Had he tackled the illustrious Gilbert James, for instance, under
a mistaken impression, it would have been different. There would have
been some excuse for failure then.

"Better give him my job," he growled. "Better set me going."

Willoughby was discreetly silent. He was blind to the fact that Kelly
had ostentatiously lighted his pipe as he proceeded to the head of
the shaft, and that he was going down the mine with the glowing bowl
between his teeth.

"I'll be bald as well as grey before long," he groaned. "What would you
do with a pack like mine, Mr. Lee?"

Lee asked crisply for information, and got it. No explanation was
needed, for Lee had a knowledge of Western mines that was extensive
and peculiar. There was nothing strange to him in the fact that a man
should deliberately court death for the mere sake of spiting somebody
else.

"I expect I am as much to blame as anybody else," he said. "I have been
a painful surprise to Kelly. I have tumbled him down from high places.
In his own queer way Kelly is suffering from remorse. Under that rugged
exterior of his is a heart, and I mean to get at it. You are going to
see Kelly become a respectable member of society."

Willoughby smiled in an exhausted manner.

"It is possible," he said dubiously. "I am a liberal-minded man, and I
admit that you may be correct. When that happens there will be no more
smoking in the mines. How old do you take me to be?"

"About fifty, I should say, perhaps more."

"Well, I'm three-and-forty, and when I came here three years ago my
raven locks were worthy of an early Victorian novel. This is what I
have come to, thanks to the hands, and smoking in the mine."

Lee was duly sympathetic. He watched the ventilating machinery and
heard the quick drumming throb of the electric fan, and there was
retrospection in his grey eye. Underfoot over three hundred men were
slaving in the mine.




III.

Somebody was bending over Lee, a hand was on his shoulder, and a
lantern gleamed in his eyes. Outside the pines were sighing in the
night breeze. Beyond, further up the valley, was a murmur, a disturbing
cry, something that might have been the call of a woman in distress.
Lee rolled out of his blankets.

"That you, Foster," he drawled. "There is something wrong, eh?"

"An explosion in the mine," Foster explained. "We've got all out but
four, and three of them are married men. Kelly is the fourth."

Lee huddled into his clothes without saying anything. A moment later
and he was speeding up the valley with Foster. In the darkness was a
thick scrub, where yesterday, the hillside had been as bare as the hand
of a child. The scrub was a dense mass of humanity, silent, still, yet
quivering. Not a sound came from the men there. Outside the pit shaft
two women stood wringing their hands and crying aloud. This was tragedy
in its grimmest and most terrible form.

Lee pushed his way steadily through the crowd. A day or two ago, and
he would have been thrust back with pungent suggestion that he was
not wanted there. Now he was respectfully made way for. Up from the
pit shaft a thin smoke was rising. The fans were screaming as they
revolved, but the ventilators were entirely inadequate. At the shaft
head stood Willoughby, a black figure, with dishevelled hair, and face
grimed with smoke and dust. He was drinking cold tea greedily from a
tin can.

"You can't do any good here," he said.

"Can't I?" Lee replied curtly. "You don't know what I am capable of
till I try. Is there any chance for those fellows?"

"Don't know. We can hear them knocking, and we are pretty certain that
they are not far off. We've got the fans going down below, with a dozen
men at work, trying to clear the gas away; but it isn't much use till
we can locate the fire and put it out. You can do nothing."

"I suppose I can go down?"

Willoughby shrugged his shoulders. It was risking death, but he was
talking to a man who, if he made up his mind to a thing, was not likely
to be turned from his purpose.

"Go down with the next shift, if you like," he said.

Lee peeled off his coat and vest. At that moment four men came up;
men stripped to the skin and glistening like great fish. They rolled
out on the ground and gasped hoarsely for water. Lee slipped into the
descending cage, followed by four others. The acrid smoke stung his
eyes and throat; ever and again was a sweetish odour that caused his
head to swim and his limbs to turn to water. The heat was something
fearful. Down below a score of men almost nude were working away at
the ventilating machinery, whilst others were playing upon their bare
bodies with a hose. It seemed almost impossible that men could remain
in such an atmosphere and survive.

Neither could they have done for long. There were ten minutes' shifts,
and then their places were occupied by others. Every man there was a
hero, every man took his life in his hand, and nobody thought anything
of it. And these were the drunken, brawling, dicing scoundrels who
made Driftwood a byword and a reproach. There was something sad in the
thought.

The men were working like demons. A big Irishman was making jokes that
were not altogether free from hysteria. There was less smoke now, but
the atmosphere was just as oppressive. Down the black, inclined shaft
yonder were the prisoners. They might have been close at hand, they
might have been a quarter of a mile away--it was all the same. To
breathe the air a little way along the shaft, if only for an instant,
was death. As Lee knew, it was possible to be close by the foul poison
and yet in pure air. But any current might draw it in a new direction,
and then it was impossible to say what might happen. They were getting
the fire under by this time, Lee could see that. How long it would be
before it was possible to penetrate the mine it was impossible to say.
Lee sat on the floor and gasped sleepily. An exhausted miner going up
dragged him into the cage forcibly but kindly.

"You've had enough," he said. "Come along."

Lee made no protest; he was utterly exhausted. He rolled out of the
cage at the top, and drew a long breath of delicious cool air. It was
like coming out of a long illness to strength and vigour again.

"Had enough?" Willoughby asked grimly.

"No," Lee snapped out; "I haven't. I am going down again presently.
They say that the fire is coming under nicely. How did it happen?"

"The old story," Willoughby replied. "Smoking in the mine."

Nobody spoke for a long time after that. There was a constant whirr of
machinery, a thin trail of smoke rising from the shaft, the sob of wild
grief from the women, silence in the dense mass of men, save where a
little knot broke off from the rest and volunteered for the dangerous
task below.

A long streak of light crossed the sky beyond the pines. Day was
coming. Presently the red flush of dawn fell upon the faces of the
three women there and shone in their hopeless eyes. There was a shout
from below, a murmur on top, and then something seemed to hit the
packed mass of miners, and a cheer ran in the still air. Two men were
lifted from the cage, two men in the last stage of exhaustion. Three
women darted forward with shrill cries--cries half despair, half
quivering hope--but one of of them racked herself to and fro, weeping.
Her husband was not there.

A quarter of an hour more, and the men were on their feet again. Ten
minutes more, and another limp figure came up, to be cried over and
fondled by the third woman, to stagger to his feet and demand what it
was all about. They were all here now but Kelly. Lee pushed his way
through the mad, excited crowd till he came to the first man whose life
had been so providently spared.

"Were you far along the shaft?" he asked.

"Not far," was the reply. "You see, the night shift was just coming
out. Kelly stopped to light his pipe--wanted to show off his
foolishness to the boss, I guess--when it came booming along like a
gust of wind. We'd just time to turn at a little siding, when the fire
was all round us. We might have made a dash for it, in spite of the
fire, but the thought of the gas took the sand of us. Just a sniff of
that and it's all over with you. So we just lay and waited.

"Kelly had got into a heading on the far side of the cutting. We could
talk to him and he could talk to us, but we dare not try and get to one
another. The first big rush of wind had knocked Kelly down, and he'd
hurt his head pretty bad. Carrying on like a lunatic; he was saying
he'd murdered us, and all the rest of it. Just as if we hadn't all been
smoking the same as him."

"Why do you do it?" Lee asked.

The other grinned foolishly. Snatched back from the valley of the
shadow, with all its grim horrors still thrilling him to the core, he
could see the criminal folly, the rank blasphemy of it all.

"I dunno," he said. "Kind of follow one another like sheep, I expect.
All the same, I guess Kelly has smoked his last pipe."

"You couldn't make him hear, then?"

"No, he stopped talking all at once. Then I got mad, and made a bolt
for it. I got a taste of the gas, but not enough to bowl me over. I
called to the others that the way was clear, and when they got their
courage up, they followed. And the gas came after us--regular followed
along the passage like a cat after a mouse."

Lee waited to hear no more. He caught the cage just as it was
descending and jumped in. Down below it was as hot as ever. In his
shirt and boots only Lee moved for the cutting whence the three men had
made their escape. A detaining hand was laid on his arm.

"Do you want to commit suicide?" the other asked.

"No, I want to find Kelly. He's not far off, and he's badly hurt, I
fear. I must find that man. I tell you I must seek him. Not for myself,
but for my Master. My duty is as clear before me as if an angel from
Heaven came with a message."

The glow of inspiration was in Lee's eyes. Foster stepped back with
involuntary admiration. All the same, he had not the slightest
intention of letting him pass. The latter divined this, and darted by
Foster into the tunnel.

He stumbled blindly on for some three hundred yards. He had his life in
his hands, and he knew it too well. He paused at length and called. His
heart was beating like a hammer; his limbs trembled under him. At any
moment the deadly gas might come down upon him, and that would be the
end.

He called again, and a feeble voice answered him. Once more he shouted,
and the reply came clearer still. A little stumbling about, a fall or
two, and his hand rested on a prostrate body. Lee thrilled with a sweet
sense of triumph.

"God be praised," he said; "I have you! Come along. You can't stand on
your feet? Then get on my back. Each moment is precious. Come."

Kelly managed to get up somehow. With the great burden on his
shoulders, Lee stumbled along over what seemed to him to be weary
miles, until the light was reached at last.

"There," he cried, "I never did a better day's work in my life!"

They were on the top again presently. A yelling, cheering crowd
gathered round. The victory had been won, and no single life had paid
the penalty. Revived by the fresh, sweet air, Kelly rose to his feet.
There was a half-shamed flush upon his face, but a stern resolution in
his eyes.

"Three cheers for the parson," he cried. "Three cheers for the man who
risked a good life for the sake of a hopeless blackguard like me."

They gave three cheers and three more, until Lee burst through the pack
and fled as for his life to his hut. He sat on the edge of his bed
breathlessly, his eyes gleaming.

"I've won a soul to-night," he murmured; "a soul for the Master. And I
shall never have any trouble in Driftwood any more."

Kelly sidled in sheepishly. He had heard the last few words. His head
was bandaged up, but he seemed cheerful, if a little ashamed.

"That you won't," he said. "Boss, I've had my lesson at last. I don't
suppose I shall ever be what you call a respectable member of society."

"My dear friend, there is nothing to stop you."

"Think not?" Kelly said dubiously. "Well, I'll try. You saved my life
to-night, and I am going to give it to you to do what you please with.
And what I say the boys will listen to. And you're going to have the
biggest church and best congregation this side of Carson City. But
there's one thing----"

Kelly paused confusedly. Lee urged him to speak.

"Well, it's this way," Kelly confessed. "Where did you learn to be
so quick with your gun and your hands? There was only one man I ever
heard of who could touch you, and that was Gilbert James. But James got
respectable, and went East."

"And found salvation, too, Ned," said Lee, with his hand on the other's
shoulder. "There is a secret for you to keep, Ned. I am Gilbert James."

Kelly gasped. A new awe and wonder came into his eyes. He would like
to shake his friend by the hand, not to make a practice of that
familiarity, but as a special occasion.

"And now you will come to church on Sunday?" Lee asked.

"You bet," Kelly said significantly, "and all Driftwood too."

* * * * *

The little church was packed to suffocation. A perspiring throng
followed Lee with a breathless attention that no archbishop or cardinal
could have commanded. They waited till the last simple, sincere word
was uttered, and then they cheered themselves hoarse and carried Lee
shoulder high home to dinner. Foster came in to the frugal meal, as had
been his wont lately.

"I hope you are pleased?" he said.

"Pleased is a poor word for it," Lee replied. "Of course I must get
those fellows out of the habit of cheering in church, but they are in
earnest. Foster I am going to do a great work in Driftwood."

The "Don" nodded gravely.

"I am certain of it," he said. "A rigid cleric would not have
considered your services exactly orthodox, but there are many ways to
the Great White Throne. Give them the simple doctrine of Christ, and
they will want no more."



The End.



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