Excerpt 3

from Chapter 7

 

“Hot tea ‘ere lads,” someone was shouting. “Put down ya pick, give ya cradles a rest and get some warmth into ya.”
Patrick was amazed. Some enterprising bugger had hit on to the perfect venture to make some extra coin in these hard times. He cursed himself for not coming up with the idea himself.
As he climbed out of the shaft he could see heads popping out of shafts all around, and men stopped in their tracks and turned to see where the voice was coming from. Two men were standing in a clear¬ing beside a copper tub with about two gallons of boiling water sitting on top of a makeshift cart.
“Bring ya mugs boys, and form an orderly line. There’s plenty for everyone.”
From all over men converged, their spirits instantly brightened, joking with each other and pretending to hold each other back. This was the sort of communal good-will that made life as a digger worth it.

You didn’t get that sort of universal comradery anywhere else. Most felt that it was a good opportunity to take a short break and catch up with some of the colleagues they hadn’t seen for some time, while enjoying a nice warm drink.

Everyone was so engrossed in their conversations they didn’t notice the line of blue uniforms that had quietly encircled them while they were distracted, and was now advancing on them. It was only when the brighter red coats of the 99th Regiment showed through the thick mist that people started to realise something wasn’t right.

All of a sudden, the two generous men who only moments earlier had been enthusiastically handing out tea and laughing with the miners, threw off their long coats to reveal the blue uniform of the constabulary.

“Righto, gentlemen,” one of them sneered. “While your all ‘ere, let’s see ya licenses. Hurry up then!”

Startled, most of them stood on the spot and stared at the encroach¬ing circle of police and soldiers. Licence hunts were nothing new, but the men usually knew when they were coming, and those without licence would scatter and head down the shafts until the all clear was given. It now appeared that the officials had changed their tactics, and they’d netted nearly everyone in the area with their ruse.

Those who had licences reluctantly took them out, but those who didn’t have licences were left with two choices – go quietly, or go fight¬ing. Patrick unfortunately didn’t have a licence. They hadn’t found much gold, and as others were in the same situation, Fergus’ still wasn’t bringing in its usual contribution to their finances. They had drawn straws to see who would get the licence, and Patrick had lost.
 
He could see the nearest shaft was about halfway between him and the approaching line of authority. He knew it was barely a chance, but it was the only chance he had. He sprinted.

He managed to cover some distance before any of the officers noticed him, but when he saw them point to him and quicken their pace, he knew the game was up. Still, he didn’t want to give up, so he willed his legs to pump faster and put every ounce of effort he had into winning the impossible race. He felt that even though he wouldn’t make the safety of the shaft before the police, he’d at least stand half a chance of breaking through the line.
He was wrong.

As he approached the line, he singled out an officer he recognised as Sergeant Milne, a man he had often felt was just a coward in a uni¬form. He felt that it wouldn’t be too difficult to run right over the top of him and head into the scrub, but the officer possessed an agility that surprised Patrick. At the last moment, he stepped to Patrick’s right, and at the same time swung his baton with unexpected force into Patrick’s stomach. Patrick doubled over and fell sprawling into the muddy ground.