Gold fever [by P. R. Stephensen]

[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]

Gold fever

When Old Steve came into the township he had a heavy little canvas bag in his rolled swag. For more than six months he had been prospecting alone out in the mountains, so long that he had been forgotten, almost, in the township. His hair and beard were tangled like a bird’s-nest; his brown-burned arms and neck were scratched with prickly-pear thorns; his hob-nailed boots were worn in holes; and his grey flannel shirt and dungaree trousers were ventilated with rents. About the wide brim of his hat flapped pieces of cork on short strings, to scare away the flies from his bloodshot eyelids. As he ambled along in the dusty road, he grumbled nonsense to the corks, calling each by a pet name. In his white eyes, rolling, there was madness. In his heavy little canvas bag there was gold.

He marched straight into Brasch’s pub, and dumped his swag, with his billycan, and his pick and shovel, and his tin-dish, clattering on the verandah. Then he unrolled the blue blanket of his swag, and took out the heavy little canvas bag, and rolled the swag up again neatly, saying:

“Lie still, Bluey!”

Then he clumped into the Bar, of fixed purpose; and when the lads boozing inside saw his bag and his fixed idiotic grin they shouted:

“Hell!”

“Jesus!”

“A strike!”

But Old Steve just untied the rawhide thong at the lips of his little canvas bag, and poured the gold out in a heap on to the Bar counter, saying to Tony Brasch:

“Cut that out, Har, Har!”

Which Tony Brasch and every man present immediately understood to mean drinks for the crowd till the gold was all done. So there was tremendous excitement as the foaming pints were drawn and served all round, everybody waiting for Old Steve to speak and locate his strike.

All that Old Steve said as the beer swirled gurgling down his throat, was:

“More!”

So they filled him up again, all waiting for the one word from him which would set them scurrying to stake claims on the newest El Dorado. But Old Steve only cackled when they asked him direct, and looked right through them with his rolling eyes, and then yelled hilariously:

“Gold in the gullys, Matilda, me darling! More beer I say, Boss! Cripes, that’s good! Har! Har! Har!” And there was his gold smoothly piled on the counter, with the publican already beginning to measure it out in scales. So they filled him again in the hope that the beer would loosen his gullet to intelligible wisdom. But Old Steve only bellowed with joy:

“Pup, pup, puppy; drink, puppy, drink!”

The crowd, growing by telepathic action at the rumour in the air, watched Tony Brasch weighing out the trickling grains, and an old lust glinted in their eyes, reflected, seemingly, from that metallic heap. Still Old Steve performed capers like a circus-bear, until a tough egg, Sandy Henderson by name, could stand the strain of suspense no longer. He shook Old Steve violently by the shoulders, and yelled, trembling:

“For Christ’s sake, where is yer strike, Steve?”

Steve blinked like a bat in daylight, and rubbed his shoulder reflectively, wincing. Then he burst into a quavering melody, pointing through the Bar-door at the vast bulk of the Wongarah Mountains, blue in the distance, tremulous in the heat.

“When I was young and had no sense,
I bought a fiddle for eighteenpence,
And the only tune that I could play
Was Over the Hills and Far Away.”

Sandy Henderson snarled at the mocking last words.

“I’ll belt yer on the kisser, Steve!” And a huge fist came within an inch of Old Steve’s nose.

“Hey, you! Leave him alone, can’t yer?” It was the publican speaking. “Leave him alone. Give him time. All you blokes think about is gold. Let him have a drink. He’ll tell in good time where he struck it? Won’t you now, Steve?”

Tony Brasch never joined in gold rushes. The gold came to him all the same. He poured Old Steve another long drink.

For a week Old Steve rolled filthily drunk about Brasch’s pub, and everywhere he wallowed — on the verandah, in the Bar, out in the yard, disgusting, a crowd of anxious bushwhackers paid court to him, wheedling information, their horses and packs ready for an immediate start. But the demented prospector only laughed, or slept swine drunk for hours, to awaken screaming and slobbering and incoherent. Till a Committee of Action, formed under the leadership of Sandy Henderson, decided to sober Old Steve up somehow.

They carried him, sotted and raving, to the creek nearby; soused him in a waterhole; then tied him to a gumtree, and said:

“Stay there, y’old bastard, till yer tell us where yer struck it!”

But old Steve just went blue in the face, and howled:

“Hell on your souls!”

And died of apoplexy before their eyes. And it is not known to this day where he filled the little canvas bag with heaviness.



Source:
P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, [1929], pp. 93-99

Editor’s notes:
bluey = a blanket; also may refer to a swagman’s bundle (a “swag”, being a number of items rolled up in a blanket)

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