By the Mouth of the Shaft
The red light from the lanterns
Lit the faces round the shaft,
Faces swarthy, stern, and tanned,
As they cut the fallen timber,
Cleared the rotten windlass aft,
Rigged another roughly planned.
One man fancied, leaning over,
Fastening on the jagged rope,
A faint movement in the brown
Foul ferment of the darkness;
Then Black Bill, the leader, spoke:
“He’s alive, boys! W ho’ll go down?”
Pushing through the crowd that started,
Sam the Skiter forward sprung, –
Caught the rope with steady hand;
“Lower down!” he cried, “I’m ready!”
Round the creaking windlass swung,
Strained the rope in every strand.
Half-way down the foul air met him,
And the candle flickered out
And the vapour seized his brain,
Clutched his throat with demon fingers,
But he raised a reeling shout
And they hauled him up again.
“It’s the gas, mates! Where’s the tommy?
Cut those smoke bushes here –
Beat the air in! Haul ‘em round!
Now let down a lighted candle:
Steady, boy! the air is clear”–
And they wound him under ground.
Through the foul breath of the darkness;
And the grinding windlass turned
Till the vapour hung like smoke,
And the slinking shadows cowered
Where the candle dimly burned,
Flickered on the straining rope;
Lit the damp and slimy shingles,
And the rotten beams abaft;
The lad felt a sudden chill, –
He could hear the water dripping
From the mullock up the shaft
To the bottom black and still.
Down below him, doubled over
‘Neath a fallen cedar stump,
Something red and battered lay,
Where the coil of stagnant water,
Like a crawling viper slunk
With its dazed and broken prey.
* * * *
As they stood in silence round him,
One dark-bearded digger spoke:
“Give him air, he’s coming to!”
But the Skiter, leaning over,
Shook his head: “Boys, there’s no hope;
See, the lips are going blue!”
And he raised him like a woman:
“Ain’t he altered , as he lies
There so quiet-like and strange –
A damned lump of mullock struck me,
Boys, the sand’s got in my eyes –
God! old fellow, what a change!
“And the girl at Kelly’s shanty –
We must break the blow to her;
They had fixed it up last week;
And he meant to chuck prospectin’–
‘Twas his last day at the Spur –
And then leave for Golden Creek.
“Hurt her; bless you, it won’t hurt her.
She’d have chucked him for a kiss
From that measle of a toff,
Who some say – but nothing matters:
Poor old chap, he’s come to this! ...
Boys, the rain is keeping off,
“But the wind’s from a bad quarter ...
Yes, a brother, so I’ve heard,
But he hasn’t wrote for years;
Send the yellow dust to Liza –
It was all she ever cared,
And she’ll soon pan off her tears!”
And they laid him on a stretcher,
With the night-wet on his hair
And the blood-wet on his breast:
Harder weight than head of woman
That had leaned across him there
Where the beam had pinned his chest.
O’er the blue line of the ranges
Rose the dawning faint and chill,
And the moon, a shadow dim,
Like a sorrow-stricken woman
Leaned her pale brow on the hill,
As the New Day broke for him.
‘By the Mouth of the Shaft,’ Bulletin 23 Nov 1901: 3. Lola. ML.
See also Verses 58-61.