Jan Vennick sat at a small table in the dingy pub, looking over his shoulder and around the empty room.
"I thought this place was closed on Sundays."
Matthew Lawson loomed above him and placed a half pint of lager in front of him.
"Am I going to get arrested?"
Lawson settled down next to him with his own pint.
"Not for this."
Jan continued to look around nervously before finally lifting the drink, draining half of it in one gulp.
"That mine, it's cursed. And not just for that Pike bastard. Everyone who has ever touched it had fallen on misfortune."
"You're still here."
"Rubbish. I worked for more than ten years on that claim. What did I get for it? I live in a shack in the woods and live off rabbits while that bastard struck it rich."
Lawson looked at him sympathetically.
"That wasn't what it seemed."
Jan snorted derisively and drained the second half of his glass. Lawson motioned for the bar keep to bring him another.
"You know, I remember when my grandfather first came here. The mine wasn't all trees like it is now. It was part of the Ballarat East goldfield, open land as far as the eye could see in any direction. The pilings were ten feet high, sometimes higher. And everything that wasn't pilings or holes in the ground was shacks. Shacks for living, shacks for drinking, shacks for praying, shacks for whores."
"I didn't know your grandfather worked the claim."
"Yes. He bought it for a premium price in aught nine right from the mining company. They claimed it was too expensive for industrial extraction but they swore there was plenty of gold still there a man could dig up if he worked it by hand. They gave him reports, surveys, everything. Lying bastards."
Matthew said nothing, sipping his lager silently. Jan rubbed a rough hand across his jaw.
"My grandfather worked that claim for years. He went into debt. His wife left. He died alone at the bottom of the mine, right where you found that Springer fool. Heart attack they said."
"Jan," Lawson took a deep breath, "Most of the mines were closed by then, and the gold fields petered out decades before. He had to know it was a long shot."
Jan sneered, "It didn't stop your father. He was always out at the creeks, trying to find enough gold to pay off his gambling debts."
Lawson looked pale. Jan grinned.
"Ah you didn't know about that then, did you? He was always in here, not a penny to his name, bragging about the fortune he was going to find tomorrow. Always tomorrow. We used to call him Luckless Sam."
Lawson grimaced. His knuckles grew white as his hand tightened around his glass.
"If you want to walk out of here with both your legs I suggest you never mention my father again."
"Suit yourself. Anyway, my grandfather died, and the claim changed hands several times. Each time something bad happened. One bloke fell down the shaft and broke his neck. The next found some gold down an unused tunnel but he died trying to melt it down. Fumes or something. The next one, he also swore he found some gold, enough to settle down. He was the one who sold the claim to my brother."
"Well that fellow did alright then."
Jan glared at Lawson.
"Killed in a bar fight days after leaving town. Stabbed I heard. They never found the gold, I assume it was stolen."
Lawson smirked, "Right. Stolen."
Jan ignored him and continued.
"My brother and I worked the claim together for over ten years. All day and sometimes all night. We dug into the rock. Hauled gravel. Shored up walls. We did it with no one else to help. Then my brother died and I knew I couldn't do it alone."
"What terrible fate befell your brother?"
Jan looked down into his drink.
"Seizure. He'd always had them, since he was a boy."
"Thank you. My brother died penniless. I didn't have a shilling to my name. It made sense to sell it to the next fool who came along. I thought I was lucky to get a few pounds for the claim, enough to live off of for a little while. And then what happens? Not weeks later, that Pike bastard is running all over town showing off his gold. That was my gold! I worked for years to find it. I dug the tunnels, moved the rock, all so he could strike it rich! He made a fool of me.
And then what happens? He dies. Springer gets trapped in a cave-in. That mine has broken every man who has gone into it. Except me. My grandfather gave his life to that mine. My brother gave his life to that mine. But I survived. I'm still here. Now thanks to Pike all these men are hovering around the mine day and night, like wild dogs waiting for a kill. My blood and sweat is on that gold. It belongs to me! I have the right to defend what's mine."
Lawson finished the last of his lager, rising from his chair as he set the glass down.
"I think you're right. The mine probably is cursed. You got a crook deal with it. But I still have to arrest you for taking a shot at my police surgeon."
The bar keep turned around from where he was cleaning glasses.
"I knew it. What do I always tell you, Lawson? I don't trust blow-ins."
Jan leaped up, slamming his hands down on the table.
"My family's been here for seventy years you bastard!"
"Alright that's enough. Do me a favor Jan, put your hands behind your back and go with me quietly."
Jan bristled and let Lawson cuff him.
"This isn't over. I'm taking back that claim. The gold is mine!"
Lawson sighed as he led Jan out of the bar, exchanging glances with the bar keep.
"If you say so."