The Parson Of Jackman’s Gulch
He was known in the Gulch as the Reverend Elias B. Hopkins, but it was generally understood that the title was an honorary one, extorted by his many eminent qualities, and not borne out by any legal claim which he could adduce. “The Parson” was another of his sobriquets, which was sufficiently distinctive in a land where the flock was scattered and the shepherds few. To do him justice, he never pretended to have received any preliminary training for the ministry, or any orthodox qualification to practise it. “We’re all working in the claim of the Lord,” he remarked one day, “and it don’t matter a cent whether we’re hired for the job or whether we waltzes in on our own account,” a piece of rough imagery which appealed directly to the instincts of Jackman’s Gulch. It is quite certain that during the first few months his presence had a marked effect in diminishing the excessive use both of strong drinks and of stronger adjectives which had been characteristic of the little mining settlement. Under his tuition, men began to understand that the resources of their native language were less limited than they had supposed, and that it was possible to convey their impressions with accuracy without the aid of a gaudy halo of profanity.
We were certainly in need of a regenerator at Jackman’s Gulch about the beginning of ’53. Times were flush then over the whole colony, but nowhere flusher than there. Our material prosperity had had a bad effect upon our morals. The camp was a small one, lying rather better than a hundred and twenty miles to the north of Ballarat, at a spot where a mountain torrent finds its way down a rugged ravine on its way to join the Arrowsmith River. History does not relate who the original Jackman may have been, but at the time I speak of the camp it contained a hundred or so adults, many of whom were men who had sought an asylum there after making more civilised mining centres too hot to hold them. They were a rough, murderous crew, hardly leavened by the few respectable members of society who were scattered among them.
Communication between Jackman’s Gulch and the outside world was difficult and uncertain. A portion of the bush between it and Ballarat was infested by a redoubtable outlaw named Conky Jim, who, with a small band as desperate as himself, made travelling a dangerous matter. It was customary, therefore, at the Gulch, to store up the dust and nuggets obtained from the mines in a special store, each man’s share being placed in a separate bag on which his name was marked. A trusty man, named Woburn, was deputed to watch over this primitive bank. When the amount deposited became considerable, a waggon was hired, and the whole treasure was conveyed to Ballarat, guarded by the police and by a certain number of miners, who took it in turn to perform the office. Once in Ballarat, it was forwarded on to Melbourne by the regular gold waggons. By this plan the gold was often kept for months in the Gulch before being despatched, but Conky Jim was effectually checkmated, as the escort party were far too strong for him and his gang. He appeared, at the time of which I write, to have forsaken his haunts in disgust, and the road could be traversed by small parties with impunity.
Comparative order used to reign during the daytime at Jackman’s Gulch, for the majority of the inhabitants were out with crowbar and pick among the quartz ledges, or washing clay and sand in their cradles by the banks of the little stream. As the sun sank down, however, the claims were gradually deserted, and their unkempt owners, clay-bespattered and shaggy, came lounging into camp, ripe for any form of mischief. Their first visit was to Woburn’s gold store, where their clean-up of the day was duly deposited, the amount being entered in the storekeeper’s book, and each miner retaining enough to cover his evening’s expenses. After that, all restraint was at an end, and each set to work to get rid of his surplus dust with the greatest rapidity possible. The focus of dissipation was the rough bar, formed by a couple of hogsheads spanned by planks, which was dignified by the name of the “Britannia Drinking Saloon.” Here Nat Adams, the burly bar-keeper, dispensed bad whisky at the rate of two shillings a noggin, or a guinea a bottle, while his brother Ben acted as croupier in a rude wooden shanty behind, which had been converted into a gambling hell, and was crowded every night. There had been a third brother, but an unfortunate misunderstanding with a customer had shortened his existence. “He was too soft to live long,” his brother Nathaniel feelingly observed, on the occasion of his funeral. “Many’s the time I’ve said to him, ‘If you’re arguin’ a pint with a stranger, you should always draw first, then argue, and then shoot, if you judge that he’s on the shoot.’ Bill was too purlite. He must needs argue first and draw after, when he might just as well have kivered his man before talkin’ it over with him.” This amiable weakness of the deceased Bill was a blow to the firm of Adams, which became so short-handed that the concern could hardly be worked without the admission of a partner, which would mean a considerable decrease in the profits.
Nat Adams had had a roadside shanty in the Gulch before the discovery of gold, and might, therefore, claim to be the oldest inhabitant. These keepers of shanties were a peculiar race, and at the cost of a digression it may be interesting to explain how they managed to amass considerable sums of money in a land where travellers were few and far between. It was the custom of the “bushmen,” i.e., bullock-drivers, sheep tenders, and the other white hands who worked on the sheep-runs up country, to sign articles by which they agreed to serve their master for one, two, or three years at so much per year and certain daily rations. Liquor was never included in this agreement, and the men remained, per force, total abstainers during the whole time. The money was paid in a lump sum at the end of the engagement. When that day came round, Jimmy, the stockman, would come slouching into his master’s office, cabbage-tree hat in hand.
“Morning, master!” Jimmy would say. “My time’s up. I guess I’ll draw my cheque and ride down to town.”
“You’ll come back, Jimmy?”
“Yes, I’ll come back. Maybe I’ll be away three weeks, maybe a month. I want some clothes, master, and my bloomin’ boots are well-nigh off my feet.”
“How much, Jimmy?” asks his master, taking up his pen.
“There’s sixty pound screw,” Jimmy answers thoughtfully; “and you mind, master, last March, when the brindled bull broke out o’ the paddock. Two pound you promised me then. And a pound at the dipping. And a pound when Millar’s sheep got mixed with ourn;” and so he goes on, for bushmen can seldom write, but they have memories which nothing escapes.
His master writes the cheque and hands it across the table. “Don’t get on the drink, Jimmy,” he says.
“No fear of that, master,” and the stockman slips the cheque into his leather pouch, and within an hour he is ambling off upon his long-limbed horse on his hundred-mile journey to town.
Now Jimmy has to pass some six or eight of the above-mentioned roadside shanties in his day’s ride, and experience has taught him that if he once breaks his accustomed total abstinence, the unwonted stimulant has an overpowering effect upon his brain. Jimmy shakes his head warily as he determines that no earthly consideration will induce him to partake of any liquor until his business is over. His only chance is to avoid temptation; so, knowing that there is the first of these houses some half-mile ahead, he plunges into a byepath through the bush which will lead him out at the other side.
Jimmy is riding resolutely along this narrow path, congratulating himself upon a danger escaped, when he becomes aware of a sunburned, black-bearded man who is leaning unconcernedly against a tree beside the track. This is none other than the shanty-keeper, who, having observed Jimmy’s manoeuvre in the distance, has taken a short cut through the bush in order to intercept him.
“Morning, Jimmy!” he cries, as the horseman comes up to him.
“Morning, mate; morning!”
“Where are ye off to to-day then?”
“Off to town,” says Jimmy sturdily.
“No, now—are you though? You’ll have bully times down there for a bit. Come round and have a drink at my place. Just by way of luck.”
“No,” says Jimmy, “I don’t want a drink.”
“Just a little damp.”
“I tell ye I don’t want one,” says the stockman angrily.
“Well, ye needn’t be so darned short about it. It’s nothin’ to me whether you drinks or not. Good mornin’.”
“Good mornin’,” says Jimmy, and has ridden on about twenty yards when he hears the other calling on him to stop.
“See here, Jimmy!” he says, overtaking him again. “If you’ll do me a kindness when you’re up in town I’d be obliged.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a letter, Jim, as I wants posted. It’s an important one too, an’ I wouldn’t trust it with every one; but I knows you, and if you’ll take charge on it it’ll be a powerful weight off my mind.”
“Give it here,” Jimmy says laconically.
“I hain’t got it here. It’s round in my caboose. Come round for it with me. It ain’t more’n quarter of a mile.”
Jimmy consents reluctantly. When they reach the tumble-down hut the keeper asks him cheerily to dismount and to come in.
“Give me the letter,” says Jimmy.
“It ain’t altogether wrote yet, but you sit down here for a minute and it’ll be right,” and so the stockman is beguiled into the shanty.
At last the letter is ready and handed over. “Now, Jimmy,” says the keeper, “one drink at my expense before you go.”
“Not a taste,” says Jimmy.
“Oh, that’s it, is it?” the other says in an aggrieved tone. “You’re too damned proud to drink with a poor cove like me. Here—give us back that letter. I’m cursed if I’ll accept a favour from a man whose too almighty big to have a drink with me.”
“Well, well, mate, don’t turn rusty,” says Jim. “Give us one drink an’ I’m off.”
The keeper pours out about half a pannikin of raw rum and hands it to the bushman. The moment he smells the old familiar smell his longing for it returns, and he swigs it off at a gulp. His eyes shine more brightly and his face becomes flushed. The keeper watches him narrowly. “You can go now, Jim,” he says.
“Steady, mate, steady,” says the bushman. “I’m as good a man as you. If you stand a drink I can stand one too, I suppose.” So the pannikin is replenished, and Jimmy’s eyes shine brighter still.
“Now, Jimmy, one last drink for the good of the house,” says the keeper, “and then it’s time you were off.” The stockman has a third gulp from the pannikin, and with it all his scruples and good resolutions vanish for ever.
“Look here,” he says somewhat huskily, taking his cheque out of his pouch. “You take this, mate. Whoever comes along this road, ask ‘em what they’ll have, and tell them it’s my shout. Let me know when the money’s done.”
So Jimmy abandons the idea of ever getting to town, and for three weeks or a month he lies about the shanty in a state of extreme drunkenness, and reduces every wayfarer upon the road to the same condition. At last one fine morning the keeper comes to him. “The coin’s done, Jimmy,” he says; “it’s about time you made some more.” So Jimmy has a good wash to sober him, straps his blanket and his billy to his back, and rides off through the bush to the sheeprun, where he has another year of sobriety, terminating in another month of intoxication.
All this, though typical of the happy-go-lucky manners of the inhabitants, has no direct bearing upon Jackman’s Gulch, so we must return to that Arcadian settlement. Additions to the population there were not numerous, and such as came about the time of which I speak were even rougher and fiercer than the original inhabitants. In particular, there came a brace of ruffians named Phillips and Maule, who rode into camp one day, and started a claim upon the other side of the stream. They outgulched the Gulch in the virulence and fluency of their blasphemy, in the truculence of their speech and manner, and in their reckless disregard of all social laws. They claimed to have come from Bendigo, and there were some amongst us who wished that the redoubted Conky Jim was on the track once more, as long as he would close it to such visitors as these. After their arrival the nightly proceedings at the Britannia bar and at the gambling hell behind it became more riotous than ever. Violent quarrels, frequently ending in bloodshed, were of constant occurrence. The more peaceable frequenters of the bar began to talk seriously of lynching the two strangers who were the principal promoters of disorder. Things were in this unsatisfactory condition when our evangelist, Elias B. Hopkins, came limping into the camp, travel-stained and footsore, with his spade strapped across his back, and his Bible in the pocket of his moleskin jacket.
His presence was hardly noticed at first, so insignificant was the man. His manner was quiet and unobtrusive, his face pale, and his figure fragile. On better acquaintance, however, there was a squareness and firmness about his clean-shaven lower jaw, and an intelligence in his widely-opened blue eyes, which marked him as a man of character. He erected a small hut for himself, and started a claim close to that occupied by the two strangers who had preceded him. This claim was chosen with a ludicrous disregard for all practical laws of mining, and at once stamped the newcomer as being a green hand at his work. It was piteous to observe him every morning as we passed to our work, digging and delving with the greatest industry, but, as we knew well, without the smallest possibility of any result. He would pause for a moment as we went by, wipe his pale face with his bandanna handkerchief, and shout out to us a cordial morning greeting, and then fall to again with redoubled energy. By degrees we got into the way of making a half-pitying, half-contemptuous inquiry as to how he got on. “I hain’t struck it yet, boys,” he would answer cheerily, leaning on his spade, “but the bedrock lies deep just hereabouts, and I reckon we’ll get among the pay gravel to-day.” Day after day he returned the same reply with unvarying confidence and cheerfulness.
It was not long before he began to show us the stuff that was in him. One night the proceedings were unusually violent at the drinking saloon. A rich pocket had been struck during the day, and the striker was standing treat in a lavish and promiscuous fashion which had reduced three parts of the settlement to a state of wild intoxication. A crowd of drunken idlers stood or lay about the bar, cursing, swearing, shouting, dancing, and here and there firing their pistols into the air out of pure wantonness. From the interior of the shanty behind there came a similar chorus. Maule, Phillips, and the roughs who followed them were in the ascendant, and all order and decency was swept away.