This was the first time Dad had every let me go with him on one of these trips; the sun wasn’t even up yet and we were already cantering along the road towards the mine. Just like every other time I’d gone riding with Dad, “Toby”, my pony, was fighting the reins; he always wanted to be ahead of “Smokey”, Dad’s big thoroughbred, so I had to work hard to keep him back to an easy canter. Sometimes Dad would tell me to let him have his head, then he’d keep Smokey just ahead of me so Toby would gallop flat out. That wasn’t happening today though; today we had a long ride ahead of us, so we had to pace the horses or they’d tire out long before our days’ work was over.
A little pony like Toby has a jerky gait, so it was always a pretty rough ride compared to Dad’s big thoroughbred, but still Dad’s voice came back to me over the clatter of the horse’s hooves; “Back straight son, lean slightly forward so your weight’s over his withers”. I knew he was right, but it was hard to resist the urge to hunch forward; then I’d remember how proud and strong Dad and my uncles looked, galloping after a bolting bullock, sitting straight in the saddle, heads held high while they plied the air with their stockwhip. Their straight backs always seemed to flow with the movement of the horse while their stockwhip traced a lazy arch over their head, before it fell to deliver a thunderous crack inches from the wayward beast. The bullock they were chasing would shy away from the sound of the whip and, once its charge was broken it could usually be turned back into the herd. Only occasionally did a beast continue to fight, then they would use their whips to keep the animal turning right and left, the thunderous clap of the whip lashing the air on alternate sides of its huge head until the poor animal became to confused to run. Finally it would stand, huge chest heaving and its head moving from side to side as if it could still hear the whips lash, then it would turn obediently back into the herd at the slightest move of the horse and man that had hunted it down.
Even when Dad broke in the wild Brumbies that he and his brothers ran down off the High Plains, his back was straight and he looked more like he was sitting on a kitchen chair, than on a wild horse with fire in its eyes and his death in its heart. I’d gone with him up onto the High Plains many times; we’d dragged logs and fallen branches behind our horses to build a tumble-down yard before driving a herd of wild horses into it. Dad and my uncles never considered chasing Brumbies to be work, to them it was fun, and after my first time galloping across the Plains and through the Snow Gums after the wild horses I understood why; there was a freedom on The Plains that I never felt anywhere else.
Today was different though, and Dad had always said this was far too dangerous for a youngster; yesterday, I’d turned twelve, and last night, without ceremony, he had simply said; “You’d better get to bed early son, we have to get up at four O’clock to ride up and check the mine.” This was his way of saying I was now a man, and even though he made no fuss of it, I knew that he was as proud as I was when he said those words.
Even though Dad, as the oldest son, had inherited the farm, he and his four brothers ran the place as a team; their mum had had her first four sons in the first five years of her marriage. Dad, Colin, John and Bill were all born in the first five years of their parents’ marriage and finally Andrew was born two years and four months after Bill. Even though there was only seven years between Dad and Uncle Andrew, the older brothers always considered him the baby and treated him accordingly. The work, and the profits from the farm and mines had always been shared equally between the boys; Dad wouldn’t have it any other way. Although the farm was our main business and took up most of our working hours, the mine made most of our money. Just like we had to watch over the cattle to stop cattle duffers or the Blacks spiriting them away, so we had to keep an eye on the mine to stop the bloody Chinks stealing all our gold.
Every morning, rain, hail or shine, Dad or one of my uncles made the fifteen-mile ride up to the mine. The mine itself had armed guards on it; two blokes all night, every night, with shotguns. Dad said the guards had shot a few Chinamen over the years, but mostly they skedaddled as soon as they heard the challenge; “Halt in the name of the King”. By law the guards had to call that challenge three times before they were allowed to shoot, so most people who were sneaking around just started running as soon as they heard the first call.
The place where we usually lost gold was in the sluice boxes; these boxes were downhill from the mine opening, below a water race that channelled water from about three miles up the creek. The sluice boxes were where the gold was washed out from amongst all the dirt and rocks that had been dragged out of the mine with it. It was these sluice boxes that attracted the attention of the Chinese from their mining camp over in the Buckland Valley; the gold that they could get easily, by panning and fossicking, was running out over there so they’d often make the journey over the hills to pilfer from the sluice boxes of real miners. Every night, when the men knocked off, there would still be some gold left in the boxes; the Chinese would sneak in and work in the dark to carry of everything in there, then they’d pan out the gold later.
It was pretty expensive to keep armed guards on the sluice boxes all night, and it wasn’t really worth it for the little specks of gold that were pilfered, so often the men just set a few mantraps around the place to scare the buggers off. A mantrap is a vicious apparatus; a big round trap, like a dingo trap, but about three foot across when it’s set; they’d take a man’s leg off above the knee if he was stupid enough to step in one. We’ve five of them set around our boxes and those sneaky bloody Chinamen still pinch our gold, Dad said they’d walk up to the sluice boxes poking the ground ahead of themselves with a big stick to set the trap off.
We were coming up to the mine now and we reined our horses to a walk; there were armed guards up there so Dad said that we had to approach slowly. The guards had to shout their challenge, but Dad was still careful; once he’d come up here when there was a new Irish guard on duty. This new bloke had been told that he had to shout “Halt in the name of the King” three times, so he jumped up when Dad rode up the track, yelled; “Halt in the name of the King three times” and let rip with both barrels of his twelve gauge shotgun. Dad reckoned he heard the pellets whizzing past his ears; he congratulated the Irishman for being vigilant the sacked the bloke for being a lousy shot and using both barrels at once. “You always need to leave a shot in reserve and if you can’t hit someone with two barrels of a shotgun you may as well bugger off back to Ireland!” Dad announced as he sent the man packing.
Since that day though, Dad was always very careful when he explained the challenge to new guards, and when he approached the mine. We brought our horses to a stop just before we left the trees; “Hello at the mine” Dad called to the guards, “it’s Mister Fleming, I’ve got my son with me”. “Alright, proceed at a walk” came back the correct response. These men had worked for us for years and they did their job well; even though they recognised Dads’ voice, their guns were at the ready until they could see clearly who was coming up the track.
“Quiet night boys?” Dad asked as we dismounted to warm our hands at the fire the men kept burning in a drum for warmth and somewhere to make themselves an occasional cup of tea. “Quiet up here Mister Fleming,” replied one of the pair “but there was a fair bit of racket down at the boxes about three O’clock; we were just waiting for you to turn up before we went down to have a look.” These two men knew their job, they were paid to protect the mine and the ore carts full of rich ore that waited inside to be processed this morning; no matter what happened they would stay at the mine mouth until they were relieved.
“The lad and I will go down and have a look; you two’ve done a good job and deserve a bit of a break” Dad said as he moved over to the side of the clearing to tie up his horse; silently I mirrored his moves. Dad lifted the double barrelled shotgun out of the rifle bucket that held it to his saddle, opened the breach and deliberately placed a cartridge into each chamber; Dad usually carried his Lee Enfield .303, but when he came up to the mine he always replaced it with his shotgun. When Dad worked on the farm he was always shooting roos and dingos, but when they came up to the mine the only thing he was likely to shoot was Chinamen, and he said a shotgun was better for that.
We followed the track down beside the wooden railway track that carried the ore carts out of the mine on their way down to the sluice boxes. The gentle downhill grade had been covered with small stones to stop it getting muddy when it rained; walking down that track you could have been anywhere in the Australian bush. The sun was hitting the treetops now and the chorus of birds had started; the sharp, distant cry of magpies was intermingled with the myriad of mimicked sounds from a Lyre Bird somewhere off to our right. The only signs of human intervention were the track we walked on, the mine entrance behind us and the occasional clattering crash as a Lire Bird imitated the sound of an ore cart hitting the stops at the bottom of the track before spilling its load into the feed chutes for the sluice boxes.
In about half an hour, I knew the silence would be driven from this place by the constant din of the mining operations and the sound of men shouting over it all. It was times like these when I really liked being out in the bush with Dad; we never spoke much, but out here there was a bond I never felt with him anywhere else. Ahead, I could hear the sound of water rippling in the race; that sound, the birds and the crunching of our feet on the gravel filled our world and my mind drifted with it.
As we came over the last little rise in the track, the peaceful bush setting vanished; a large clearing had been hacked from the virgin bush below the platform where the little railway line terminated. Below this platform, directly in line with the end of the railway line, a huge swinging funnel shaped chute hung ponderously above four smaller chutes that shot out like fingers clutching at the broken bush below. Each of these smaller chutes fed into a sluice box; on either side of the sluice boxes wooden walkways provided workspace for the men who retrieved the gold; everything below this, right to the creek was a sea of mud, kept wet by the constant flow of water from the race, through the sluice boxes and down into the creek. Huge mullock heaps, where the unwanted rocks were thrown formed small hillocks below each sluice box, and between these the mud from the sluicing ran down into the creek like thick, brown stains on the landscape.
None of this interested Dad though; he was here to check the traps. We didn’t head down onto the tables, instead we took a small path that ran at right angles up the devastated gully. “Keep your wits about you son” Dad’s voice came back to me as we skirted the work area. I followed close in Dad’s footsteps, there were five of the big, steel mantraps hidden through here and I didn’t want to stumble into one of them accidently. Dad knew exactly where each of those traps was set, and, in a soft voice, told me where each was as we passed it; he’d told me earlier not to stop to look, or point, in case the Chinamen were watching.
It wasn’t until we got down near the fourth trap that we found what had caused the racket the guards had described; the churned up earth was caked with reddish brown blood. The trap lay on its side over at the far edge of the whole mess, smeared with blood, two broken saplings that had obviously been used to pry it open was still wedged between its sharply toothed jaws.
“Looks like the Chinamen have been here again” Dad said casually, knocking his pipe on his heel to dislodge the old tobacco in preparation to refill for a smoke while he surveyed the scene. “Remember where all the traps are son?” he asked. When I nodded he added; “Good, nip back up and get one of the men to ride in and fetch your Uncles, and tell him to hurry; alright.”
It wasn’t until I’d breasted the final rise onto the wide flat expanse in front of the mine that I remembered the need to identify myself before I ran towards the guards; “Halt in the name of the King” the booming voice brought me to a skidding halt on the gravel track. The smiles on the faces of the two men as I approached showed the enjoyment they’d got out of scaring the pants off the bosses’ son and hearing him quickly stammer his name with his hands held high in the air; but I knew that I’d got what I deserved for forgetting.
One of the men rode off towards the farm just as the wagonload of miners arrived and I heard him yell to them as he passed at a full gallop; “Boss’s here, we got a chink.” His call brought a cheer from the wagon; these men all hated the thieving chinks, and if one of them got caught in a trap, they wouldn’t have to start work until after we left on our ride to hunt down the rest of the thieves before they got back to the safety of their filthy camp.
After exchanging greetings with the men, I headed back down to where I’d left Dad; I found him sitting on his haunches looking over “the scene of the crime” puffing quietly on his pipe. “What do you reckon?” he asked, nodding towards the trap as I approached. “I reckon we’ve got a dead Chinaman out there somewhere” I responded, trying to sound casual and ignore the feelings and thoughts that were rushing through my head. “Either that or one with a pretty bad limp” Dad said with a smile; I smiled in response as I joined him, sitting on my haunches and looking out over the carnage around the trap site.
“There were four of the little bastards with him” Dad said casually “they carried his carcass off in that direction; the bloody Buckland Camp!” he spat, pointing off to the northwest. “It’ll be at least an hour before your Uncles get here” he said after a short while “we might as well go up for some breakfast and a cup of tea with the men, we’ve got a long, hard ride ahead of us today; hunting Chinamen’s bloody hard work and a good feed in your belly will make it easier.” I was a bit confused when Dad said we were going hunting; “Will he still be alive with all this blood?” I asked, waving towards the churned up ground, much of it turned to red mud between the blood pools. “He’s dead;” Dad replied with a nod “you only get that much blood when you cut an artery, he bled to death a few minutes after the trap got him, but his mates are still out there and they’ll come back tomorrow unless we do something to stop them.” He added with emphasis.
Unlike when we’d first arrived, the scene around the mine entrance was now all hustle and bustle; most of the activity was around the campfire and the little kitchen over on the left side of the clearing. Working busily in the kitchen was the only Chinaman tolerated in the camp; the Chinese cook was stirring a large pot of porridge hanging from a steel tripod over one of the three open fires that served as a stove for his cooking. Under another tripod hung a huge billy, made from an old four gallon kerosene drum; the steam coming from this drum showed that the tea was ready for drinking.
Even though this man had worked for my family since before I was born and at the mine since it had opened, I had never known his real name; he was just “Cookee”. Some of the men called him “Slop Sling” which was an unfair slur on his cooking which was incredible, the meals I saw that man make with a bit of roo meat, some spuds and onions and a handful of flour never ceased to amaze me.
Whatever else Cookee was though, he was a Chinaman; he didn’t dress like a normal man, he didn’t talk like a normal man, he didn’t even eat like a normal man. Even though he served up normal food for the men, he cooked separate food for himself and I never saw him use a knife and fork; he ate with two sticks.
Everybody knew they could never be trusted, even ones who’d worked for you for years like Cookee; when it came down to it they were all “thieving bloody Chinamen.” Cookee busied himself about his kitchen talking to nobody in particular about “Bloody Chinaman, he come here to steal the bosses gold, he deserve to die like a Chinaman dog. I hope the boss run them all out of the country. Bloody gold belong to white men not thieving bloody Chinaman” and glancing towards the men to make sure they could hear his calls for justice for all white men.
My four Uncles reached the mine a little over an hour after the man had been dispatched to fetch them; they leapt from their saddles whooping and hollering about hunting Chinamen. Colin threw Dad the sabre that Dad immediately hung from his saddle with the call “Hunting time.” The five brothers had gone through a war together and from each saddle hung the highly polished cavalry sabres they had brought back with them.
The brothers’ high spirits were infectious and soon everybody around the campfire was enthusiastic with the idea of a Chink hunt; the disappointment of the miners was evident when Dad told them they had to stay behind and keep working on the mine; chasing Chinese through the bush was a lot better than swinging a pick all day.
The five brothers squatted around the fire, steaming cups of tea in their hands while Dad explained what we had found down at the trap site. Dad asked me to join the group of men explaining “Because you’re here, you’re going to be part of this hunt son so you need to know what’s happening.” The plan was simple; Dad said it would be too slow to follow their trail, so we’d just head straight over The Gap to the Buckland Camp and try to beat them there. The idea was to round them up and hand them over to the Police; or ride them down if they tried to resist.
It was eleven O’clock when we headed up the eastern side of The Gap; even though they’d be miles past here by now, or hiding in the bush, everyone had their eyes peeled for the Chinamen as we rode up the clear trail at an easy, mile-eating canter.
After an uneventful ride we reached the Buckland Camp about noon; most of the Chinamen and their womenfolk were off working down at their sluice boxes by the creek, all there was left in the camp were a few poorly dressed urchins playing amongst the ramshackle huts and tents that were home to several hundred Chinese. A couple of very old men, who, barely even seemed aware of, us lay together on mats with long thin pipes held loosely in their lips.
Dad and my uncles all checked their shotguns and carried them at the ready as we rode through the camp; I followed suit with my .32 calibre Cadet rifle. My chest swelled out with pride as I rode into that camp; I rode into battle with my Dad, gun at the ready, with a group of men who had won renown with the British Cavalry in the Crimean War – this was a twelve year olds dream come true. Urchins darted into tents all around us as one of the older boys ran ahead yelling a warning in their high-pitched, jabbering tongue and a second bolted toward the creek, no doubt to warn the grown-ups of our impending arrival.
Without a word my Uncles spread out behind Dad to form a “V” formation with my father at its point and they quietly ushered me into the relative safety of the “V’s” centre.
With military precision, the formation moved down through the squalid Chinese camp; even their mongrel dogs slinked like curs behind the tents in fear of us. As we travelled down through the shantytown I could see my uncles heads move slightly from side to side as they surveyed the scene, in front and to the sides. I knew that every detail of the camp was being scrutinised for evidence of the men we sought or for signs that the Chinese might be gathering to resist our advance. Occasional short soft, words passed between the horsemen; “Left, up high, three men”, “Two moving up from the creek” and similar succinct messages kept everyone informed of movements and any possible threats.
The Chinamen are usually a cowardly rabble but every boy had heard stories of their sneaky, backstabbing attacks when they were cornered; my Dad used to say “Always watch Dingoes and Chinamen when their backs are to the wall”. I couldn’t imagine any Chinaman being game enough to stand up to the formidable presence of five mounted, well-armed white men mounted on Thoroughbreds; even from behind they looked like a solid wall of muscle and steel, but still, it was best to be careful. I tried to watch behind while looking as aloof as the men in front of me and without moving my head, but I wasn’t very good at it and it didn’t take long before my neck was hurting from the strain.
I knew that from the front, we would be a truly terrifying sight to these poor little Chinamen. After a long, journey over The Gap, the horses had worked up a sweat but were eager for a good run; held back to a walk, they snorted continually and tossed their heads high as they fought the bit in their urge to gallop. I knew that at the slightest flick of the reins our formation could turn into a full cavalry charge in an instant, but I also knew that without the command from my father the formation would hold to a walk; Dad was the oldest son and therefore, the ranking officer here. Even my little pony, who had worked hard to stay with the other, much larger horses, was prancing high as he fought the short rein I held on him.
Chinamen scurried all over the place like rats when we breasted the rise before the track dropped down to the creek; one small group stood in the centre of the track awaiting our arrival. A tall Chinaman, dressed in what looked like brightly coloured pyjamas stood at their head; I saw my Uncles cock their shotguns as we slowed our horses to a walk.
I’d seen Mr Sing before, he was the Chinese gold buyer who Dad said robbed his own people by buying their gold at half the going rate; the poor wretches let themselves be swindled by this crafty Chinaman simply because they were scared to go to town after a few minor incidents with drunken miners. Every white man hated My Sing because every white man knew that it was Mr Sing who told the Chinks it wasn’t safe for them to go to town to sell their gold, and by this simple ruse he kept them poor so that he could force them to raid our sluice boxes. There was not a true white man alive who wouldn’t kill Mr Sing if they got the chance; myself included.
The haughty Chinaman was flanked by a dozen burly, and very rough looking Chinamen who I knew were his bodyguards, and ruffians of the worst type; as we approached I prepared to reign Toby in at my father’s command. Rather than ordering us to stop, as I anticipated, he continued our advance; without word or gesture in command all the men lowered their shotguns, pointing them directly into the chests of the gaggle of swaggering Chinamen and kept riding.
The sight of the comically aristocratic Mr Sing in all of his silken pyjama finery and his gang of big, tough bully-boys scampering off the track like mongrel was laughable. Rather than stopping us in our tracks, as had been his intent, Mr Sing was reduced to running along behind us like some ridiculous errand boy in fancy dress, with his long silken topcoat dragging in the mud behind him. “Mr Fleming, Mr Fleming,” he called frantically after my father in his high pitched, almost effeminate voice “it is very good to see you Mr Fleming. Can I ask Sir why you have come to visit us on this beautiful day sir?” We rode on without giving any recognition to the scampering Chink until he was puffing from the exertion of running along the broken ground.
The command was short and definite; “Right Wheel!” my father said and I suddenly found myself looking into the faces of my uncles and father, all of their horses having magically spun to face the ragtag bunch of Chinamen who had been following them. A space appeased between my fathers horse and the one to its left and a quick gesture of his head told me to ride through. I quickly moved Toby out of the space, which had been the protective “V”, and now placed me at the fore, as soon as I was through the space disappeared. The turn of the horses had been done with military precision and now with the same precision, the shotguns barrels, which had lifted skyward during the turn, dropped as one to stare at the chests of the Chinese bully-boys; a quiet but excited babble amongst these petrified looking men left no uncertainty that they knew the danger they were in.
“You know why I’m here you thieving bastard!” said Dad in a calm voice; “I want the thieves you sent to rob me during the night.”
“No one here would ever try to rob you Mr Fleming; we are your friends Mr Fleming; we all come Australia, work very hard, be good friends to everybody.” Replied Mr Sing in a voice that sounded like it was coated with butter.
“Then where is that slimy, bald headed little cur who’s always running along at your heel like a mongrel dog?” Dad asked in reply.
“Oh, you mean “Mr Sang”, he go Meleeborn.” said Mr Sing, gesturing down the track. “He go Meleeborn yesterday Mr Fleming sir – I see him go with my own eyes Mr Fleming.” He continued as his entourage of ruffians nodded furiously in affirmation.
“Well maybe you go Meleeborn one of these days too if you keep sending your scum to steal from me and my family” Dad said to him quietly. “Maybe it won’t be too long until you go Meleeborn and we see you depart with our own eyes Chinaman!” he said as he lifted his shotgun out at arm’s length and pointed it directly at Mr Sing’s face. With that, the horsemen spurred their horses into a canter straight through the panic stricken bully-boys who were all frantically scrabbling to get off the track and out from under the hooves of the excited horses.
“Every time one of them gets caught in one of our traps and dies, it’s always the same story” Dad explained to me as we rode, “they always say ‘He go Meleeborn’, gone to the great big Melbourne in the sky more likely” he added with a short laugh. “We’re not going to find anything here boys” Dad said as we reined our horses in at the edge of the camp “We may as well head for home. Mr Sing has his message and he’ll have his day.”
We took our time on the journey home, happy in the knowledge that the Chinks wouldn’t be back at our mine for a while. The wily Mr Sing wouldn’t be that silly and his main thief, Sang, is dead and buried somewhere out there in the bush; “and good riddance to him!” I thought as I looked at dad and my Uncles with open admiration. “One day we’ll get rid of them for good!” I thought as we rode home in victory.