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- While the Billy Boils - 6/51 -
He had almost made up his mind to go below again, on some excuse, when his mate shouted from the top of the shaft:
"Tom! Tom! For Christ's sake come here!"
Tom's heart gave a great thump, and he ran like a kangaroo to the shaft. All the diggers within hearing were soon on the spot. They saw at a glance what had happened. It was madness to sink without timber in such treacherous ground. _The sides of the shaft were closing in_. Tom sprang forward and shouted through the crevice:
"To the face, Jack! To the face, for your life!"
"The old Workings!" he cried, turning to the diggers. "Bring a fan and tools. We'll dig him out."
A few minutes later a fan was rigged over a deserted shaft close by, where fortunately the windlass had been left for bailing purposes, and men were down in the old drive. Tom knew that he and his mates had driven very close to the old workings.
He knelt in the damp clay before the face and worked like a madman; he refused to take turn about, and only dropped the pick to seize a shovel in his strong hands, and snatch back the loose clay from under his feet; he reckoned that he had six or, perhaps, eight feet to drive, and he knew that the air could not last long in the new drive--even if that had not already fallen in and crushed his brother. Great drops of perspiration stood out on Tom's forehead, and his breath began to come in choking sobs, but he still struck strong, savage blows into the clay before him, and the drive lengthened quickly. Once he paused a moment to listen, and then distinctly heard a sound as of a tool or stone being struck against the end of the new drive. Jack was safe!
Tom dug on until the clay suddenly fell away from his pick and left a hole, about the size of a plate, in the "face" before him. "Thank God!" said a hoarse, strained voice at the other side.
"All right, Jack!"
"Yes, old man; you are just in time; I've hardly got room to stand in, and I'm nearly smothered." He was crouching against the "face" of the new drive.
Tom dropped his pick and fell back against the man behind him.
"Oh, God! my back!" he cried.
Suddenly he struggled to his knees, and then fell forward on his hand and dragged himself close to the hole in the end of the drive.
"Jack!" he gasped, "Jack!"
"Right, old man; what's the matter?"
"I've hurt my heart, Jack!--Put your hand--quick!...The sun's going down."
Jack's hand came out through the hole, Tom gripped it, and then fell with his face in the damp clay.
They half carried, half dragged him from the drive, for the roof was low and they were obliged to stoop. They took him to the shaft and sent him up, lashed to the rope.
A few blows of the pick, and Jack scrambled from his prison and went to the surface, and knelt on the grass by the body of his brother. The diggers gathered round and took off their hats. And the sun went down.
THE MAN WHO FORGOT
"Well, I dunno," said Tom Marshall--known as "The Oracle"--"I've heerd o' sich cases before: they ain't commin, but--I've heerd o' sich cases before," and he screwed up the left side of his face whilst he reflectively scraped his capacious right ear with the large blade of a pocket-knife.
They were sitting at the western end of the rouseabouts' hut, enjoying the breeze that came up when the sun went down, and smoking and yarning. The "case" in question was a wretchedly forlorn-looking specimen of the swag-carrying clan whom a boundary-rider had found wandering about the adjacent plain, and had brought into the station. He was a small, scraggy man, painfully fair, with a big, baby-like head, vacant watery eyes, long thin hairy hands, that felt like pieces of damp seaweed, and an apologetic cringe-and-look-up-at-you manner. He professed to have forgotten who he was and all about himself.
The Oracle was deeply interested in this case, as indeed he was in anything else that "looked curious." He was a big, simple-minded shearer, with more heart than brains, more experience than sense, and more curiosity than either. It was a wonder that he had not profited, even indirectly, by the last characteristic. His heart was filled with a kind of reverential pity for anyone who was fortunate or unfortunate enough to possess an "affliction;" and amongst his mates had been counted a deaf man, a blind man, a poet, and a man who "had rats." Tom had dropped across them individually, when they were down in the world, and had befriended them, and studied them with great interest--especially the poet; and they thought kindly of him, and were grateful--except the individual with the rats, who reckoned Tom had an axe to grind--that he, in fact, wanted to cut his (Rat's) liver out as a bait for Darling cod--and so renounced the mateship.
It was natural, then, for The Oracle to take the present case under his wing. He used his influence with the boss to get the Mystery on "picking up," and studied him in spare time, and did his best to assist the poor hushed memory, which nothing the men could say or do seemed able to push further back than the day on which the stranger "kind o' woke up" on the plain, and found a swag beside him. The swag had been prospected and fossicked for a clue, but yielded none. The chaps were sceptical at first, and inclined to make fun of the Mystery; but Tom interfered, and intimated that if they were skunks enough to chyack or try on any of their "funny business" with a "pore afflicted chap," he (Tom) would be obliged to "perform." Most of the men there had witnessed Tom's performance, and no one seemed ambitious to take a leading part in it. They preferred to be in the audience.
"Yes," reflected The Oracle, "it's a curious case, and I dare say some of them big doctors, like Morell Mackenzie, would be glad to give a thousand or two to get holt on a case like this."
"Done," cried Mitchell, the goat of the shed. "I'll go halves!--or stay, let's form a syndicate and work the Mystery."
Some of the rouseabouts laughed, but the joke fell as flat with Tom as any other joke.
"The worst of it is," said the Mystery himself, in the whine that was natural to him, and with a timid side look up at Tom--"the worst of it is I might be a lord or duke, and don't know anything about it. I might be a rich man, with a lot of houses and money. I might be a lord."
The chaps guffawed.
"Wot'yer laughing at?" asked Mitchell. "I don't see anything unreasonable about it; he might be a lord as far as looks go. I've seen two."
"Yes," reflected Tom, ignoring Mitchell, "there's something in that; but then again, you see, you might be Jack the Ripper. Better let it slide, mate; let the dead past bury its dead. Start fresh with a clean sheet."
"But I don't even know my name, or whether I'm married or not," whined the outcast. "I might have a good wife and little ones."
"Better keep on forgetting, mate," Mitchell said, "and as for a name, that's nothing. I don't know mine, and I've had eight. There's plenty good names knocking round. I knew a man named Jim Smith that died. Take his name, it just suits you, and he ain't likely to call round for it; if he does, you can say you was born with it."
So they called him Smith, and soon began to regard him as a harmless lunatic and to take no notice of his eccentricities. Great interest was taken in the case for a time, and even Mitchell put in his oar and tried all sorts of ways to assist the Mystery in his weak, helpless, and almost pitiful endeavours to recollect who he was. A similar case happened to appear in the papers at this time, and the thing caught on to such an extent that The Oracle was moved to impart some advice from his store of wisdom.
"I wouldn't think too much over it if I was you," said he to Mitchell, "hundreds of sensible men went mad over that there Tichborne case who didn't have anything to do with it, but just through thinking on it; and you're ratty enough already, Jack. Let it alone and trust me to find out who's Smith just as soon as ever we cut out."
Meanwhile Smith ate, worked, and slept, and borrowed tobacco and forgot to return it--which was made a note of. He talked freely about his case when asked, but if he addressed anyone, it was with the air of the timid but good young man, who is fully aware of the extent and power of this world's wickedness, and stands somewhat in awe of it, but yet would beg you to favour a humble worker in the vineyard by kindly accepting a tract, and passing it on to friends after perusal.
One Saturday morning, about a fortnight before cut out, The Oracle came late to his stand, and apparently with something on his mind. Smith hadn't turned up, and the next rouseabout was doing his work, to the mutual dissatisfaction of all parties immediately concerned.
"Did you see anything of Smith?" asked Mitchell of The Oracle. "Seems to have forgot to get up this morning."
Tom looked disheartened and disappointed. _"He's forgot again_," said he, slowly and impressively.
"Forgot what? We know he's blessed well forgot to come to graft."
"He's forgot again," repeated Tom. "He woke up this morning and wanted to know who he was and where he was." Comments.
"Better give him best, Oracle," said Mitchell presently. "If he
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