[Editor: This poem by Henry Lawson was published in In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses, 1896.]
The diggings were just in their glory when Alister Cameron came,
With recommendations, he told me, from friends and a parson ‘at hame;’
He read me his recommendations — he called them a part of his plant —
The first one was signed by an Elder, the other by Cameron’s aunt.
The meenister called him ‘ungodly — a stray frae the fauld o’ the Lord,’
And his aunt set him down as a spendthrift, ‘a rebel at hame and abroad.’
He got drunk now and then and he gambled (such heroes are often the same);
That’s all they could say in connection with Alister Cameron’s name.
He was straight and he stuck to his country and spoke with respect of his kirk;
He did his full share of the cooking, and more than his share of the work.
And many a poor devil then, when his strength and his money were spent,
Was sure of a lecture — and tucker, and a shakedown in Cameron’s tent.
He shunned all the girls in the camp, and they said he was proof to the dart —
That nothing but whisky and gaming had ever a place in his heart;
He carried a packet about him, well hid, but I saw it at last,
And — well, ’tis a very old story — the story of Cameron’s past:
A ring and a sprig o’ white heather, a letter or two and a curl,
A bit of a worn silver chain, and the portrait of Cameron’s girl.
* * * * * *
It chanced in the first of the Sixties that Ally and I and McKean
Were sinking a shaft on Mundoorin, near Fosberry’s puddle-machine.
The bucket we used was a big one, and rather a weight when ’twas full,
Though Alister wound it up easy, for he had the strength of a bull.
He hinted at heart-disease often, but, setting his fancy apart,
I always believed there was nothing the matter with Cameron’s heart.
One day I was working below — I was filling the bucket with clay,
When Alister cried, ‘Pack it on, mon! we ought to be bottomed to-day.’
He wound, and the bucket rose steady and swift to the surface until
It reached the first log on the top, where it suddenly stopped, and hung still.
I knew what was up in a moment when Cameron shouted to me:
‘Climb up for your life by the footholes. I’ll stick tae th’ haun’le — or dee!’
And those were the last words he uttered. He groaned, for I heard him quite plain —
There’s nothing so awful as that when it’s wrung from a workman in pain.
The strength of despair was upon me; I started, and scarcely drew breath,
But climbed to the top for my life in the fear of a terrible death.
And there, with his waist on the handle, I saw the dead form of my mate,
And over the shaft hung the bucket, suspended by Cameron’s weight.
I wonder did Alister think of the scenes in the distance so dim,
When Death at the windlass that morning took cruel advantage of him?
He knew if the bucket rushed down it would murder or cripple his mate —
His hand on the iron was closed with a grip that was stronger than Fate;
He thought of my danger, not his, when he felt in his bosom the smart,
And stuck to the handle in spite of the Finger of Death on his heart.
Henry Lawson. In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1903 [first published 1896], pages 172-175
dart = in a romantic context, one of “love’s darts” (such as from Eros, the Greek god of love, or from Cupid, the Roman god of love)
proof = in a resistant context, being able to repel, resist, or withstand; being impervious or invulnerable against a particular force (such as being “bullet proof”)