Five Miners

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs


Five miners and their plan

Submitted: December 06, 2017

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Submitted: December 06, 2017

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Five miners drifted into Naseby’s Ancient Briton pub to cook up a dirty deed. Since the Parker Brothers found gold in the Hogburn back in May 1863, men and a few women, came to the diggings to seek their fortune. As well as honest, hard-working men there were the dregs, looking to sponge, swindle or thieve whatever they could. Two thousand miners attracted a following of providers who hoped to wheedle hard-won grains of gold from the miners’ grasp, the likes of publicans, grocers, tinkers, tailors and the seedy.

Always first to arrive at any pub, O’Hara was never one to nurse a shot of whiskey. He came to the diggings early in the piece, jumping on a ship, not because of the news of a new gold discovery across the Tasman, but he had to make a hasty retreat from the goldfield at Echunga, South Australia. Nobody knew O’Hara’s first name, but he was a surly bugger. He’d had a barney with Tom Swales over a cut pack-saddle strap on Tom’s mule. With good reason, Tom had accused O’Hara. That night, as Tom was walking to his tent, O’Hara lay in wait and whacked him on the back of his head with a shovel!

Mick James and Donny Morrison arrived together, and searched through the throng of beer-guzzlers for O’Hara. Mick and Donny had been together aboard the Ivanhoe and had been caught helping themselves from the rum cask. They’d been at it regularly since crossing the equator but familiarity caused them to become sloppy, so were easily nabbed. When the drunken captain mistakenly guided the Ivanhoe into Dunedin Harbour, and because of the sickness on board, there was enough confusion to allow Mick and Donny to slip off the ship and join the hopeful drifting towards Central Otago. Breaking a quarantine.

Nobody noticed Hec Muldoon slip into the pub, nobody ever noticed Hec. He made his living by picking pockets and lifting whatever was left unguarded. He found it easiest when unsteady miners made their way back to their tents or lodgings after two or three hours boozing in one of the fourteen public houses.  He wasn’t above pushing a man over and then helping him to his feet, deftly plucking items from vulnerable pockets as he did so.

Last to arrive, the pallid face of Ike Ledbetter was known in most of the public houses. He had sixteen girls on his roster, taking seventy five percent of their earnings, his fee for organising and protecting them. He oozed in beside O’Hara. None of them mentioned the fresh bloodspots on his white, celluloid collar. That afternoon he had knocked one of Bessie’s front teeth out with the cosh he always carried down his trouser leg. She was dodging work because she had some uncomfortable itching, and he was damn sure he wasn’t going to put up with any of her malingering! 

There had always been simmering resentment about the Chinese miners, but the five had their own, personal reasons for not liking Orientals. A good measure was simply to do with racism. The usual, skin colour and the eyes, but also because the Chinese worked longer hours than anyone else and they were frugal with won gold, which they often had converted into currency to send back to China. Ike had a huge dislike for Ah Lee, because he spent more time with Rose than a decent bang should take! It wasn’t only Rose’s lost time, Ike had the distinct impression Rose actually liked being with Ah Lee, and that wasn’t good and proper!

O’Hara said he had stolen a beer barrel from The Royal with the idea of filling it with dry tussock laced with kerosene. They planned to take it to the top of the hillock yonder, set it afire then bowl it down the hill into the Chinese tent-camp below. Hopefully, it would set fire to a few tents and they’d get the message to bugger off! With any luck, some might even get burnt!  It never took Hec Muldoon much booze to make him cocky enough to stand his ground against any bugger, he was dead keen to get on with the job because the night had settled in.

They drank up and four of them slipped out to collect the barrel, while Donny went to Hanson’s Store to buy a gallon of kerosene. Out on the road, Ike spotted Ah Lee making his way to the Chinese tent-camp after another over-long session with Rose. It wasn’t hard for Ike to cajole Hec and O’Hara into roughing up the Chinaman and to ‘encourage’ him to push the barrel up the hill for them. As the battered Ah Lee pushed the barrel, Ike enjoyed himself by kicking him, sometimes a aimless kick would strike his testicles, but he didn’t cry out. Ike’s eyes glistened.

Donny arrived at the same time the others reached the top of the hillock, but he was empty handed. All the stores were waiting for a new shipment! O’Hara swore violently and cast dispersions on Donny’s ancestry, his curse included the slack-arsed storekeepers too! Hec was keen to just beat the shit out of Ah Lee, plain and simple, but Ike had a better idea. Donny ruined a boot by kicking a couple of boards out of the top of the barrel. O’Hara and Mick took hold of the Chinaman and forced him headfirst through the narrow gap into the barrel, breaking his nose on the way through!

Ike bounced happily around, directing operations with a satisfied smirk on his face, while Mick, Donny and Hec aimed the barrel in the direction of the tent camp below. O’Hara set it off, down the hill with a shove of his boot. The barrel picked up speed, but they couldn’t quite see what happened on account of the dark, but they didn’t really care, the loud crash was enough. It didn’t end well for Ah Lee. The barrel hit two tents, ripping them to shreds. Nobody was in the first but it broke a sleeping man’s leg in the other. The camp encircled a large boulder, which finally stopped the barrel, smashing it into kindling! Ah Lee tumbled out of it, broken and stone dead!

There was no law. The Chinese community buried Ah Lee in the cemetery but without ceremony. Nobody missed him and there would never justice for him. His family back home in China never heard what happened to him, two of his children died of malnutrition as a result of their poverty. The episode never bothered the consciences of the five miners, but they never made it rich, and all met untimely deaths, deserved untimely deaths, in a raw and savage new land.


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