The Smoker’s Lot

by earthquakeinthepoorhouse

Though gold had lately been removed from the diggings in such quantity that a man might have expected the very rotation of the earth to be affected, however minutely, by the displacement of mass northward, the world wheeled on and autumn deepened. Frost and fog closed about the field, tempering the soil of Gibson’s Plain and the wending reaches of its river to the hardness of cold steel. Water froze in dam and cradle; blue slate cracked and cleaved upon the hillsides, while man, horse, and bullock alike commended gusts of white impermanence to the void-like cold. Of those vapours expelled from the mouths of men, no small portion consisted in the smoke of tobacco of all cuts and colours. Yet few miners remaining on the Snowy River exhaled that substance in such volume as Francis Keene, one-time woolshed clerk, of Sydney.

A chum of good standing on the diggings with a penitent’s taste for the work of the prospector, Keene now sat most days on a low wooden bench beside his hut, quietly cursing the want of commerciality that was, he felt, the very worst of Jack Frost’s native failings. Keene’s hands–so often engaged in the business of filling and setting a light to his filthy kaolin pipe–were heavily calloused, the nails split by countless hours spent at work in and on the earth. By contrast, the hands of his partner on the field–Mr. Joseph Taylor–were soft as a miser’s purse and near as fine besides. For Keene, work and smoke both had been undying sources of satisfaction here above the snowline. Now, though, the icebound soil of the Keene-Taylor claim was frozen solid, impervious to shovel and mattock alike. The two men had fallen necessarily to indolence. Taylor, being possessed of uncommon foresight, had decided against trying to work the winter ground before ever the first frost had settled on the plain.

For all the privations of the season, there came yet new arrivals to the Kiandra goldfield this late autumn, 1860. Leg by leg, the spiders felt their way up damp gulleys and through chill passes from the southern goldfields. Along the mountain roads they came, in loose formation, with tools and provisions slung across their backs. Their caravans were wreathed in an acrid blue vapour – it being the documented habit of the creatures constantly to smoke a peculiar blend of sundried native plants. This smoke, it was said, kept the spiders’ carapaces clear of pests and parasites. The toxicology of the drug, though, was rumoured also to heighten the pitch of Johnny Black Crab’s already vile disposition. Yet, as though in defiance of the primeval appearance and fearful reputation of their species, several individual spiders carried on their vast thoraxes tokens of an all too human civilisation. They brought with them lumber and weatherboard by the square acre, nails, currency, shovels, canvas, and even the several working parts of a heavy German letterpress.

As filthy grey clouds brought the first of many heavy snowstorms to bear on the goldfield, Joseph Taylor scooted across the frozen mud and icebound puddles of what passed for a street at the edge of the camp. Teeth on edge, he bounded into the squat slab hut he shared with Francis Keene bearing a newspaper beneath his muddied coat. The text of the broadsheet clung to the page at a seasick angle befitting the crude township that had given this first run of the Kiandra Pioneer both name and circulation. Taylor carried also such quantity of Barrett’s Twist as he had today been able to procure.

‘Once again, there are talks afoot at Kidd’s for the establishment of a hospital. This time, a vacant lot off Broadway is offered for the purpose,’ Taylor announced. A small flurry of snowflakes licked at his boot-heel as he closed the door against the day.

‘What good it will do us now,’ Keene remarked.

The bowl of Keene’s pipe was gone cold, emptied of all but a greasy layer of soot. He had not had his smoke in almost three hours. Such was Keene’s appetite for tobacco that he could no longer tell the difference between the noxious smoke of a cheap, Mephistophelean plug and the pure, gossamer vapours of a fine Virginia flake. It was the brute act of smoking alone that so forcefully directed the young prospector’s cravings. In this pursuit he was a man of rare genius. Keene had a special talent for keeping a fill alight in all weathers, and frequently obtained more than an hour’s enjoyment from a single bowl.

‘Though I hate to tell you your business,’ Taylor had once needled his partner beneath a markedly clearer alpine sky, ‘you might find you had a better eye for the colour if you removed your face from behind that veil of smoke – if only the once!’

‘But that would defeat the purpose of my being here,’ Keene had replied to the barb. ‘I gave away the woolshed that I might have my smoke and my work at the same time.’

Keene watched as Taylor placed the newspaper on a stool and removed his tin of fresh tobacco from an inside coat pocket. The youthful Taylor had always taken it for a necessary incident of equal partnership that Peter’s tobacco was likewise Paul’s to enjoy. As to the inverse proposition, Keene had yet to test his partner’s convictions.

‘Might I – ?’ Keene croaked.

Taylor looked up with a sharp jerk of his head.

‘Beg pardon?’ he asked, ‘the – of course.’

By a slow movement, Taylor offered up a portion of his new-bought twist. Keene stoked his pipe with deft precision, and struck a light.

‘Tell me,’ he began through a sudden cloud of smoke, ‘did you encounter Johnny Black Crab abroad this morning?’

‘I did not. Though talk is that certain of the headmen among the spiders have been reconnoitring for claims at the Nine-Mile with, as I heard it put, no small measure of tenacity.’

‘We shall have clear warning if they come looking for claims closer to the camp,’ Keene observed. ‘Lord knows we will smell them long before we see them in the flesh.’

Taylor bunched his beard in a cold fist. ‘The reek of death,’ he said.

Keene groaned and rolled over onto his back. He considered the condensation that clung to the canvas ceiling above his cot. Taylor, meanwhile, made to stew a joint of bacon on the blackened range of native stone at the near end of the hut. He chewed on a wedge of cheese and waited for the pot to boil. Cheese and bacon both were pregnant with the smoke of cheap tobacco.

Joseph Taylor, not twenty-two years old, had spent his first month on the Snowy River diggings possessed of neither claim nor industry. Francis Keene, by contrast, had been among the first of the chums to arrive on the newly proclaimed goldfield and (weather permitting) had spent every day here since his first hard at work upon the neatly staked riverbank claim that was his worldly lot. Taylor, though a beggar without rags as far as title to a working claim was concerned, had mulishly refused to take up payable new ground any distance from the encampment. He shuddered even now to think of the men on the outlying Five- and Nine-Mile diggings. Taylor despised the ubiquitous balled tussocks of the plains–their wiry foliage an indeterminate grey-green–and reviled the thickets of stunted eucalypts that broke in long, shallow-rooted waves over the surrounding hillsides. Even the camp, with its sloping roofs–the surest indication, when viewed from a distance, that human hands have been at work upon a landscape, for nature will frequently produce a square edge but almost never a triangle–seemed to Taylor an uncanny growth. While the warm chimneys of Kiandra proper gave the impression of security and comfort, Taylor felt it keenly that the nascent township offered only an illusory promise of safety. It was then well known, and much lamented, that a Magistrates’ Court had yet to be declared.

Upon first encountering Francis Keene in the breakfast-arrayed dining room of Reilly’s Inn, Taylor had been struck at once by the soil trapped beneath the overhang of Keene’s fingernails. Within the space of three or four meetings, the two men had struck up a serviceable rapport. Though a small opening, Taylor found in it room enough to employ his modest talent for wheedling.

‘I am burning through my capital in bed and board faster than seems fair,’ he had remarked at breakfast one morning. ‘The food here is dear by any scale, and to judge from the noise of the street I will soon be murdered in my bed into the bargain. I don’t expect the advance I have put down for my lodging will stretch to cover the cost of embalming fluid, coffin nails, and a casket, either.’

‘We might simply leave you in the river for the duration of the colder months, moored to a stake,’ Keene had quipped. ‘Come springtime, you would thaw out very nicely on a sunny bank. By then, perhaps, you may be better placed to afford your burial?’

‘Should there be any such shortfall, the hotelier had better not look to my father for reimbursement of the outlay.’

By this black-hearted exchange, Keene had unwittingly sealed for himself an impecunious union. While he was loth to carve up his tiny empire and to divide his energies between working the washdirt of his claim on the one hand and negotiating the exigencies of partnership with Taylor on the other, it was Francis Keene’s peculiar habit to offer up things he was either unable or unwilling to give in order to avoid the embarrassment of his friends.

‘I could hardly have you pay for a month’s bed and board only to see you leave the camp in a box, I suppose,’ Keene had offered with a leery smile.

‘Very Christian of you.’

‘Perhaps,’ Keene continued–the words dragging his throat and tongue with hook claws even as they were expelled–‘perhaps, given the likelihood you will not now secure a surface claim close to camp at a reasonable price, you might consider going in with me?’

Vain hope has its clearest expression in agonised silence.

‘You’re quite sure, Keene?’

‘Sure? No. Tired of offering you unpaid counsel, undeniably.’

‘I have twisted your arm, then?’

‘You have. Though you did well to catch it – I have hardly ceased to dig and pan and rock a cradle these weeks, and would probably be so occupied now, but that you are resolved to plague me.’

In this way, Joseph Taylor had wedded himself to the pragmatic Keene’s own spirit of possibility and enterprise. But it is axiomatic on the goldfield that the miner–whether partnered or otherwise–cannot hope to realise the possibility that is his claim without first committing to the application of industry. Until a man knows properly the feel of the tools and the tenor of the work, he will know only excitement and enthusiasm for the job at hand. But any hope of finding lasting satisfaction in the business of prospecting is false and reedy. It is all vacancy; the thrill of expectation a prelude to weariness, boredom, and frustration. For six days, Joseph Taylor bent his shoulders over the cradle and knew naught but dewy excitement in its every ebb and flow. But on the seventh day, he was struck with a brutal realisation.

‘My chest, Keene, is heavier by the hour. To breathe is agony.’

‘You ought feel free to take a draught from my canteen, there,’ Keene had replied, gesturing at the battered flask deposited on the riverbank.

‘Even rum, I feel, will not keep the chill off this afternoon.’

‘I hadn’t seen you take any.’

‘No. I wonder that you see anything from behind your smoke.’

‘Do you mean to break early?’

‘My partner permitting.’

‘I permit it. Will you go to Kidd’s, then, or to the Union?’

‘My lodgings are yet at Kidd’s.’

‘Yes.’ Keene, bent-backed, had considered his partner. ‘Will you take the week’s find to be weighed?’

‘I should be glad to – though I know nothing of the procedure.’

Slurry ran free from Keene’s cradle in volume, the admixture disappearing into a bed of wet gravel.

Drawing a laboured breath, Taylor had tasted disappointment on the lazy breeze. Where was the huge nugget he had lately felt so certain of finding? A week prior he had been secure in the knowledge that such a treasure would surface from the dirt before ever the first blister rose on his palm. Yet here he stood, blisters stinging feet and hands both, and a cold mountain wind gnawing at his knuckles. There was cold comfort to be found here in pocket or pan.

Whether or not the reek of weed-smoke heralded their arrival in Kiandra proper, the mining classes among the spiders were upon the camp within a fortnight. Heavily tooled teams ventured in from the outlying diggings, and set at once to working the hard winter earth. Who owned, by right, the vacant lots selected by the spiders for working, no one professed to know. Mr. Andersen, a neighbour of the Keene-Taylor enterprise, reported hearing it in The Union that an outfit comprising Messrs Hart, Pilgrim and Bishop had sold its own sizeable claim to a spider syndicate for a tolerable, if not strictly reasonable price. The spiders had been mild and fair in their dealings with the men, it was said, though Hart and his partners had since left the Snowy River and so could not be called upon to confirm the reports. Still, for the isolated men who remained on the lead, it seemed incontrovertible that Johnny Black Crab now worked the half-pinched claims of miners then absent from the diggings.

July unravelled, and the ground solidly refused to surrender its auriferous bounty to human hands. Funds, accordingly, ran short among the miners. This was itself no great problem, since supplies were likewise depleted in such stores as remained open for trade. The attendant malaise was Protestant in tone. Tobacco grew especially scarce. Keene, being possessed of wisdom enough to see that a little smoke each day was preferable to smoke in plenty for a week followed by a week of abstinence, took to rationing the small stockpile of foul plug he had managed to accumulate. If it did not see him through the worst of the winter, he reckoned, it would come close. In so reckoning, though, Keene did not factor upon Joseph Taylor.

‘I wonder if I might beg a fill, Keene?’ the younger man asked one clear alpine afternoon. ‘My twist, as you might imagine, does not burn half as long as that foul incense you yourself prefer – especially at this altitude.’

Keene stretched the fingers of each hand atop the blanket of his cot. He rued that his natural inclination toward generosity and goodwill had, like his partner, been sealed up with him in this hovel.

‘I can spare a very small portion this morning,’ he answered. ‘But we must resupply as soon as one of the storemen secures stock.’

‘Of course, Keene.’

In the impossible brightness of the day outside, the spiders were already hard at work along the length of the river. To count the plumes of blue-grey smoke that rose now from their claims gave as good an indication as any of their total number on the field. Keene stood for a time by the narrow window of the hut and watched them. Though the eight legs of a crab at first suggested confusion, he thought, to study one at work offered a unique lesson in precision. With the hooked feet of its frontmost limbs, the spider miner would cut out neat squares of snow and ice, which it would then peel away from the earth, exposing a workable portion beneath. By some mysterious and oddly genitive chemical process, the creatures were able to liquefy the frozen soil, scooping it up in great armfuls–four front legs pressed together two-by-two being uniquely suited to the task–and depositing it into their cradles. Keene was struck by the almost mechanical locomotion of the individual spider. Black, piston-like legs rose and fell in time, while individuals on friendly terms opened and closed the fleshy polyps that most men took for mouths in greeting or idle chatter. The vast clouds of exhaust-like smoke that gave out from the creatures’ lungs only added to the illusion of their mechanisation. It was as though the spider was an engine uniquely adapted to the task of mining the colour.

‘I’ve just had it from Booth,’ Taylor reported as he filled his pipe, ‘that a gang of spiders has sealed up a lone digger, alive, in the shaft of the Hastings Mine.’

Taylor was newly returned from Reilly’s Inn. The gossip of the drinkers holed-up there during the day–and in the camp’s other public bars besides–was now the only source of news to be had this side of Tumba-rumba. Acres of mocking snow had brought real isolation to the camp. The operations of the Pioneer had been shelved for some weeks.

‘On the Five Mile?’ Keene queried.

‘Or very near it.’

‘No. I cannot credit it that anyone remains on the Five Mile. What does Mr. Commissioner Cloete say?’

‘Certainly no one on two legs,’ Taylor snapped. ‘And the winter may have further horrors in store for us yet. There stand, after all, only a sheet of canvas and a half-inch thickness of board between us and half the crabs of the colony.’

Keene clenched his jaw tightly around the mouthpiece of his pipe.

‘Were the spiders minded to attack us,’ he answered, ‘we would not be safe on Pinchgut – yet here we are, still drawing breath.’

The following morning, while Keene lay sleeping in his cot, Taylor raided the older man’s tobacco tins and removed most of the plug they contained. Finding the hut a little cramped, he absented himself shortly thereafter and spent near to three days drinking and smoking in the public bar of the Kiandra Hotel. On the morning of the third day, having staggered out onto the Hotel’s porch to survey the township, Taylor looked up to see a spider standing out against a sky of dishwater grey atop the slope of New Chum Hill. It had ceased in the relentless activity that was, as much as a column of blue smoke, talismanic of its species. The spider stared at the inebriated man with fixed curiosity. Taylor, unnerved, averted his eyes and fiddled instead with a fill and light.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the camp, Keene struggled to shake the night’s rest from his weary eyes. Late the night before, upon checking his stockpiled plug for signs of damp and spoil, he had been dismayed to find the contents of his three remaining tins substantially scooped out. Today–his native pragmatism being undisturbed by the anger that now boiled inside him–Keene had resolved to defer the tongue-lashing he intended for his partner and to replenish his now tiny reserve of smoke, at any price. But several things had happened to thwart Francis Keene before ever he rose from the cot. Of the Kiandra storekeepers yet in business, one lay prone with fever, while another had taken advantage of back-to-back clear days and ventured on horseback to Lambing Flat – on business unknown to all but himself. The only fellow now trading, a Mr. Wright, had no tobacco to sell at all (‘not even a portion of spilled flake swept up from the floor? not a rank wad spoiled by moisture, or once-chewed?’) The scouring rigours of the winter economy having retarded the tides of commerce at Twofold Bay, Dixson & Sons Tobacconists had lately failed in its enterprise there, and no dray had succeeded in making it over the mountains from Tumut, or south from Goulburn, in more than a fortnight.

‘If only a man could smoke the snow and eat the mud, this would be Arcadia in the South,’ Wright quipped as Keene departed the store, slope-shouldered.

Outside of an equal partnership, it was an unspoken tenet on the diggings that a man must never beg a smoke from a fellow addict. This notwithstanding, Keene tried his luck at the bar of Kidd’s Exchange Hotel – his only concern being that he conserve the small stock of smoke now remaining to him for as long as possible. Happily, Keene found that a measure of charity yet inhered in several of the chums stationed there, and he spent a more pleasant afternoon than he had anticipated in their company – notwithstanding the tenor of the barroom conversation, which centred, often heatedly, upon the so-called “land question” then inflaming Parliament.

Returning to the hut in the salmon light of the late afternoon, Keene discovered a sour-smelling Taylor fast asleep, lying face down, in a soiled shirt and trousers. A quick inspection of the drunk’s coat pockets confirmed that which Keene already feared: nothing remained of his missing plug. Outside, the bright, clear sound of the spiders’ implements striking quartz and slate rang out across the clearing.

Ever, as we have seen, a man of singular tendencies, it was Francis Keene’s habit to punish those who had wronged him with inexplicable acts of kindness. Seeing in his every fellow–rightly or wrongly–his own good nature mirrored, Keene held it always that the guilty conscience must, when confronted with its smiling victim, contort and writhe in suffering like a snake thrown on the coals of a cooking fire. Yet there was perversity at play here, too. For Francis Keene–in most other respects an entirely worthy soul–actually delighted in the sensation of having been wronged. It was his pleasure to savour a thrill of righteous rage – to twist the barb, ever deeper, into his own flesh. All of this is to say that, when Taylor awoke the following morning–head sore, whiskers reeking of sour milk–Keene reached immediately for the last of his tobacco and wordlessly offered his dishevelled partner a smoke. Though the thieving ingrate accepted the proffered token with a grateful nod, yet Keene sensed a wary hesitation in Taylor’s movements. Not a word passed between the two bunkmates until well past midday. This standoff was all the more damaging to Keene’s rationing effort, since want of conversation is apt to bring on uninterrupted bouts of nervous smoking. So it came about that within the space of three short days, the partners had not a fill left between them.

Keene, prone, spent a day’s rest fuming in the close cold of the hut. He grew more irritated by the hour. The older man’s mood was made ever darker by the incessant twitching of Taylor’s booted feet, and the snatches of dance tunes the other man hummed from time to time without ever striving to resolve a single piece. Above all else, Keene was irritated by Taylor’s silent though resolute refusal to go out into the camp and to enquire of Mr. Wright when he next expected a consignment of stock. Keene began to notice for the first time the heavy scents of the hut: damp calico, stale leather, bacon tallow. The ubiquity and clinging quality of such odours further inflamed Keene’s temper, until he felt it vital that he take himself for a walk.

Outside, a miserable winter afternoon lay in ambush, though it was a clear day, and sunny. Keene brought the heel of his boot down sharply upon an ice-bound puddle and cursed that it should refuse to crack. He spat onto the surface of the ice in frustration. His spittle was clear, and very frothy.

‘I have nothing for you today, I’m afraid,’ Wright confessed from behind his well-scrubbed counter. ‘Any day now, I hope, but nothing today.’

‘Should Mr. Taylor–Joseph, my partner, whom I believe you know to look at–should he find you with a quantity of twist or plug in stock at any time, please advise him that you are instructed to jot up any such purchase of his to my account.’

‘I do, and I will.’

‘Thank you,’ said the unhappy Keene.

It was, by this time, the somewhat notorious habit of the very coarsest souls in the camp to hole-up in a hut or hovel for days at a stretch, there to smoke the putrid herb so favoured by Johnny Black Crab. Keene himself had heard more than one miner confess to having tried the drug with substantially enjoyable results.

‘Absent tobacco,’ a wizened chum had once told him, ‘the crabs’ smoke is the best a man can do for himself on the plain.’

Of course, reports and confessions such as these were neither the worst nor the strangest species of tale to be savoured in the dozen or more hotels of Kiandra and district. Almost from the very hour of their arrival on the lead, the spiders had attracted rumours of unnatural prostitution. By far the most notorious story in this vein was that of one Matthew Holt, being putatively a miner of flesh and blood now conspicuous in his absence from the diggings. A chum of remarkably small stature–he wore, it was said, the boots of a child–and over-fond of rum, to whit, Holt had reportedly found himself spurned one evening by those battlers then known to him on the field (the molls being uncommonly busy as a result of the heavy rain then fouling up the claims). Being then at the crest of a most lustful fervour, the desperate man was alleged to have sought out a spider procurer. Tellers of the tale milked for gales of laughter the image of the poor, drunken, diminutive Holt struggling to reach his goal with his modest tackle. Eventually, so the story went, the unfortunate and degenerate man–who was, it seems, far from deterred by his pains, though many a worser man would surely have taken them for the intercession of nature itself–called out for a stool.

‘But where did he put it?’ the greener of the chums among the audience would inevitably ask. Not one man in a hundred would offer clarification on that score, of course, though a substantially greater number were undoubtedly in possession of detailed insight.

Much like the hapless Holt, Keene was driven now to distraction by a craving it seemed he might never slake. He began instinctively to finger the pipe in his inside coat pocket. The implement was caked to the core with a black, creosote-like coke that gave out an oily scent even through the close weaves of gabardine and wool. Keeping to the leeside of New Chum Hill, Keene made his way boldly along the edge of the spiders’ stopes, drives and runs, heading determinedly toward what had long been taken for the crab camp on the edge of the bush. Only the occasional spider foreman glanced at Keene as the incongruous human prospector picked his way across the claims. The spiders worked on, liberating gold from the lead at a rate their human counterparts could only imagine.

As though in further demonstration of the species’ commitment to efficiency, the spiders’ camp was confined to the wooded area beyond the diggings. Not an inch of workable ground, Keene noted, had been given over to convenience or comfort. The creatures’ shelters were formed of calico sheets stretched tight over grass-lined pits. These dwellings were themselves grouped tightly together with a spider’s economy. Here was a creature content to live one atop the other in swarm- or- nest-like fashion. On the outskirts of the encampment, greying bones had been heaped against the trunk of a substantial eucalypt. Keene felt a cold bolus–an admixture of fear and withdrawal–condense in the pit of his stomach. His longjohns clung to his stomach and thighs. With a wary sigh, he crossed the alpine treeline, stepping into the chill, damp world beyond.

Young spiders darted into nests and hollows as Keene pressed deeper into their midst. Their presence was betrayed to the hapless miner’s dulled senses by little more than the suggestion of movement, the muted sound of scampering, and the faintest glint of a carapace or limb. Of adult crabs, Keene saw not a single one. Taking a careless step, he planted his foot in a shallow sphagnum bog. He sensed a strange movement in the moss and mud that had swallowed his extremity, and glanced downward. A choir of tiny yellow frogs, their backs pocked with raised black markings the shape and texture of plague sores, swarmed about his ankle. He pressed on.

Before a clearing at the far side of the spider settlement, Keene happened upon a crude gunyah of hessian, bark, earth, and iron. Beside the structure there grew a stout gum, into the flesh of which had been carved the ragged letters T-R-A-D-E. The deep gouging by which the word had been formed spoke to a hooked tool wielded with considerable force. Keene approached the lean-to with a nervous frown. He smelled the faintest ghost of an alien smoke. The proprietor of the store emerged from among a nearby stand of twisted snowgums. He–for Keene took the spider merchant for a male of its species–sputtered a greeting in a series of staccato noises no man could hope to replicate. The crab wore a tattered strip of coarse red cloth tied like a scarf around a hind leg. It smoked a spindly tin pipe and raked at the ground with clawed feet.

‘I am here to buy weed,’ Keene said. ‘What is the price?’

The crab retrieved a tattered sheet of ledger paper from some dark recess beneath its thorax and held it out for Keene’s inspection. Keene lifted it to his face to read. It was warm and greasy, and redolent of termites. A stock-list. The spider kept up its weird vibrato as Keene retrieved four shillings from his coat and received in return an old flour sack half-filled with green, resinous plant matter the consistency of coarse sugar.

‘Thank you,’ Keen said.

Wekkome,’ rasped the spider merchant.

From the corner of his eye, Keene watched as a decrepit old crab with half a leg missing twisted apart the limp carcass of a wallaby, shucking meat and gristle from ruptured joints with its terrible mandibles. Keene filled the bowl of his pipe as he walked, set a match, and was immediately enshrouded by a roiling blue cloud.

As the imperious mountain wind sought in vain for human chests to inflame, the afternoon drew out heavy and grey across Gibson’s Plain. Tussocks poked from beneath the receding snow-cover. A nagging curtain of rain and drizzle had just then ceased to spiral down onto the camp. Despite the thaw, the diggers who had abandoned the field in streams at the onset of winter showed as yet no sign of returning to Kiandra. Even the spiders had begun, very slowly, to work out their claims and move on to new finds across the range. Several, though, remained. Nothing had come of the camp’s proposed hospital, and there had not been a newspaper printed in town in almost a month. Those miners who lingered on the field laboured, for the most part, beneath New Chum Hill, working tunnels and shafts that had been driven considerably deeper into the lead by the pains of a spider gang. The camp had its laggards and wastrels, too.

Francis Keene woke from a nap he had not meant to take with a dry mouth and a nagging pressure behind his forehead for which there was no accounting. A fog the colour of a mallard egg hung before his eyes. He reached instinctively for his pipe, and planted it between his teeth. As the dim interior of the hut resolved itself to him, he spied the bent back of his partner at the far end of the room. Keene rose silently from his cot and crept up behind the younger man. Taylor was tipping a quantity of grainy green herb into an empty plug tin.

‘What remains of your original capital, Joseph – if I may ask?’ Keene enquired of the furtive Taylor.

Taylor, startled, pivoted on the balls of his feet and sought in vain to conceal his stealthy work.

‘Why should that interest you now, Keene?’

Keene removed the pipe from his mouth momentarily and spat a sticky web of grey-green mucous onto the packed earth floor of the hut.

‘Where the plot will, I believe, come free, I expect the price of embalming fluid to be somewhat inflated in town.’

‘You ought not look to my father, Keene,’ Taylor said with an implacable grin.

Outside on the lead, Johnny Black Crab paused in his labours. A dozen or so spiders–a sizeable portion of the creatures then at work upon the field–felt their way slowly over stope and drive, tailing and scree, drawn along as though by minute threads toward a squat little hut on the edge of the camp. The more curious among the spiders gathered just beyond the threshold of the shelter, peering in through gaps in the canvas lining as a digger with a dirty kaolin pipe between his lips raised an elbow high above his shoulder.

Gareth Hipwell

Advertisements