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Title: In the Mine
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1402151h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  May 2014
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In the Mine


Fred M. White

Cover Image

Published under syndication, e.g., in:
The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, N.S.W., Australia, May 4, 1901


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."


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.


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."


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