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Over the Sliprails

They Wait on the Wharf in Black
"Seems to me that honest, hard-working men seem to accumulate the heaviest swags of
trouble in this world." -- Steelman.
Told by Mitchell's Mate.
We were coming back from West Australia, steerage -- Mitchell, the Oracle, and I. I had
gone over saloon, with a few pounds in my pocket. Mitchell said this was a great mistake
-- I should have gone over steerage with nothing but the clothes I stood upright in, and
come back saloon with a pile. He said it was a very common mistake that men made, but,
as far as his experience went, there always seemed to be a deep-rooted popular prejudice
in favour of going away from home with a few pounds in one's pocket and coming back
stumped; at least amongst rovers and vagabonds like ourselves -- it wasn't so generally
popular or admired at home, or in the places we came back to, as it was in the places we
went to. Anyway it went, there wasn't the slightest doubt that our nearest and dearest
friends were, as a rule, in favour of our taking away as little as we could possibly manage
with, and coming back with a pile, whether we came back saloon or not; and that ought to
settle the matter as far as any chap that had the slightest consideration for his friends or
family was concerned.
There was a good deal of misery, underneath, coming home in that steerage. One man
had had his hand crushed and amputated out Coolgardie way, and the stump had
mortified, and he was being sent to Melbourne by his mates. Some had lost their money,
some a couple of years of their life, some their souls; but none seemed to have lost the
heart to call up the quiet grin that southern rovers, vagabonds, travellers for "graft" or
fortune, and professional wanderers wear in front of it all. Except one man -- an elderly
eastern digger -- he had lost his wife in Sydney while he was away.
They sent him a wire to the Boulder Soak, or somewhere out back of White Feather, to
say that his wife was seriously ill; but the wire went wrong, somehow, after the manner
of telegrams not connected with mining, on the lines of "the Western". They sent him a
wire to say that his wife was dead, and that reached him all right -- only a week late.
I can imagine it. He got the message at dinner-time, or when they came back to the camp.
His mate wanted him to sit in the shade, or lie in the tent, while he got the billy boiled.
"You must brace up and pull yourself together, Tom, for the sake of the youngsters." And
Tom for long intervals goes walking up and down, up and down, by the camp -- under the
brassy sky or the gloaming -- under the brilliant star-clusters that hang over the desert
plain, but never raising his eyes to them; kicking a tuft of grass or a hole in the sand now
and then, and seeming to watch the progress of the track he is tramping out. The wife of
twenty years was with him -- though two thousand miles away -- till that message came.
I can imagine Tome sitting with his mates round the billy, they talking in quiet, subdued
tones about the track, the departure of coaches, trains and boats -- arranging for Tom's
 
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