|Newspaper Title||The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1871 - 1912)|
|Trove Title||Robbery Under Arms|
Robbery Under Arms.
[By Rolf Boldrewood.]
Chapter V.— (Continued).
This scrub country was crossed by two good creeks; it was several miles across, and a trifle more in length. Our hungry weaners spread out and began to feed, without a notion of their mothers they'd left behind; but they were not the only ones there. We could see other mobs of cattle, some near, some farther off ; horses, too ; and the well-worn track in several ways showed that this was no new grazing ground. Father came riding back quite comfortable and hearty- like for him.
"Welcome to Terrible Hollow, lads," says he. "You're the youngest chaps it has ever been shown to, and if I didn't know you were the right stuff, you'd never have seen it, though you're my own flesh and blood. Jump off, and let your horses go. They can't get away, even if they tried ; they don't look much like that." Our poor nags were something like the cattle, pretty hungry and stiff. They put their heads down to the thick green grass, and went in at it with a will. "Bring your saddles along with you," father said, "and come after me. I'll show you a good camping place. You deserve a treat after last night's work." We turned back towards the rocky wall, near to where we had come in, and there, behind a bush and a big piece of sandstone that had fallen down, was the entrance to a cave. The walls of it were quite clean and white-looking, the floor was smooth, and the roof was pretty high, well blackened with smoke, too, from the fires which had been lighted in it for many a year gone by. A kind of natural cellar had been made by scooping out the soft sandstone behind a ledge. From this father took a bag of flour and corn meal. We very soon made some cakes in the pan, that tasted well, I can tell you. Tea and sugar, too, and quart pots, some bacon in a flour-bag; and that rasher fried in the pan was the sweetest meat I ever ate in all my born days. Then father brought out a keg and poured some rum into a pint pot. He took a pretty stiff pull, and then handed it to us. "A little of it won't hurt you, boys," he said, "after a night's work." I took some—not much ; we hadn't learned to drink then—to keep down the fear of something hanging over us. A dreadful fear it is. It makes a coward of every man who doesn't lead a square life, let him be as game as he may. Jim wouldn't touch it. "No," he said, when I laughed at him, "I promised mother last time I had more than was good for me at Dargo Races that I wouldn't touch it again for two years; and I won't either. I can stand what any other man can, and without the hard stuff either. "Please yourself," said father. "When you're ready we'll have a ride through the stock." We finished our meal, and a first-rate one it was. A man never has the same appetite for his meals anywhere else that he has in the bush, specially if he has been up half the night. It's so fresh, and the air makes him feel as if he'd ate nothing for a week. Sitting on a log, or in the cave, as we were, I've had the best meal I've ever tasted since I was born. Not like the close-feeling, close-smelling, dirty-clean graveyard they call a gaol. But it's no use beginning on that. We were young men, and free too. Free. By all the devils in hell, if there are devils, — and there must be to tempt a man, or how could he be so great a fool, so blind a born idiot, as to do anything in this world that would put his freedom in jeopardy! And what for ? For folly and non- sense. For a few pounds he could earn with a month's honest work and be all the better man for it. For a false woman's smile that he could buy, and ten like her, if he only kept straight and saving. For a bit of sudden pride or vanity or passion. A short bit of what looks like pleasure. Against months and years of weariness, and cold and heat, and dull half-death, with maybe a dog's death at the end ! I could cry like a child when I think of it now. I have cried many's the time and often since I've been shut up here, and dashed my head against the stones till I pretty nigh knocked all sense and feeling out of it, not so much in repentance, though I don't say I don't feel sorry, but to think what a fool, fool, fool I'd been. Yes, fool, three times over—a hundred times—to put my liberty and life against such a miserable stake,—a stake the devil that deals the pack is so safe to win at the end. I may as well go on. But I can't help breaking out some- times when I hear the birds calling to one another as they fly over the yard, and know its fresh air and sun aud green grass outside that I shall never see again. Never see the river rippling under the big drooping trees, or the cattle coming down in the twilight to drink after the long hot day. Never, never more ! And whose fault is it ? Who have I to blame ? Perhaps father helped a bit; but I knew better, and no one half as much to blame as myself. Where were we ? Oh, at the cave-mouth, coming out with our bridles in our hands to catch our horses. We soon did that, and then we rode away to the other cattle. They were a queer lot, in fine condition, but all sorts of ages and breeds, with every kind of brand and ear-mark. Lots of the brands we didn't know and had never heard of. Some had no brands at all—full-grown beasts, too ; that was a thing we had very seldom seen. Some of the best cattle and some of the finest horses—and there were some real plums among the horses—had a strange brand, JJ. "Who does the JJ brand belong to," I said to Father. "They're the pick of the lot, who'sever they are." Father looked black for a bit, and then he growled out, "Don't you ask too many questions, lad. There's only four living men besides yourselves knows about this place; so take care and don't act foolishly, or you'll lose a plant that may save your life, as well as keep you in cash for many a year to come. That brand belongs to Starlight, and he was the only man left alive of the men that first found it and used it to put away stock in. He wanted help, and told me five years ago. He took in a half-caste chap, too, against my will. He helped him with that last lot of cattle that you noticed." "But where did those horses come from ?" Jim said. "I never hardly saw such a lot before. All got the JJ brand on, too, and nothing else; all about three-year-old." "They were brought here as foals," says father, "following their mothers. Some of them was foaled here ; and of course, as they've only the one brand on, they never can be claimed or sworn to. They're from some of Mr. Maxwell's best thoroughbred mares, and their sire was Earl of Atheling, imported. He was here for a year." "Well they might look the real thing ! " said Jim, his eyes brightening as he gazed at them. "I'd like to have that dark bay colt with the star. My word, what a fore- hand he's got ; and what quarters, too. If he can't gallop I'll never say I know a horse from a poley cow." "You shall have him, or as good, never fear, if you stick to your work," says Father. "You mustn't cross Starlight, for he's a born devil when he's taken the wrong way. Though he talks so soft, the half-caste is an out- and-out chap with cattle, and the horse doesn't stand on four legs that he can't ride and make follow him for the matter of that. But, he's worth watching. I don't believe in him myself. And now ye have the lot. "And a d——d fine lot they are," I said, for I was vexed with Jim for taking so easy to the bait Father held out to him about the horse. "A very smart crowd to be on the roads, inside of five years, and drag us in with 'em !" "How do you make that out," says Father. Are you going to turn dog now you know the way in. Isn't it as easy to carry on for a few years more as it was twenty years ago?" "Not by a long chalk," I said, for my blood was up and I felt as if I could talk back to Father, and give him as good as he sent, and all for Jim's sake. Poor Jim. He'd always go to the mischief for the sake of a good horse, and many another "currency" chap has gone the same way. It's a pity for some of 'em that a blood horse was ever foaled. "You think you can't be tracked," says I, "but you must
bear in mind you hav'nt got to do with the old-fashioned mounted police as was potterin' about when this 'bot' was first hit on. There's chaps in the police getting now, "na- tives or all the same, as can ride and track every bit as well as the half-caste you're talking about. Someday they'll drop on the track of a mob coming in or getting out, and then the game will be all up." "You can cut it if you like now," said Father, looking at me curious like. "Don't say I dragged you in. You and your brother can go home, and no one will ever know where you were ; no more than if you'd gone to the moon." Jim looked at the brown colt that just came trotting up, as dad finished speaking; trotting up with his head high and his tail stuck out like a circus horse. If he'd been the devil in a horse-hide, he could'nt have chosen a better moment. Then his eyes began to glitter. We all three looked at each other. No one spoke. The colt stopped, turned and gallopped back to his mates, like a red flyer with the dogs close behind him. It was not long. We all began to speak at once. But in that time the die was cast, the stakes were down, and in the pool were three men's lives. "I don't care whether we go back or not," says Jim. "I'll do either way that Dick likes. But that colt I must have." "I never intended to go back," I said. "But we're three d——d fools all the same—father and sons. It'll be the dearest horse you ever bought, Jim, old man, and so I tell you." "Well, I suppose it's settled now," says Father ; "so let's have no more chat. We're like a pack of old women ; blessed if we ain't." After that we got on more sociably. Father took us all over the place, and a splendid paddock it was. Walled all round but where we had come in, and a narrow gash in the far side, that not one man in a thousand could ever hit on, except he was put up to it. A wild country for miles when you did get out— all scrub and rock, that few people ever had call to ride over. There was splendid grass every- where; water and shelter. It was warmer, too, than the country above, as you could see by the coats of the cattle and horses. "If it had only been honestly come by," Jim said, "what a jolly place it would have been." Towards the north-end of the paddock was a narrow gully with great sandstone walls all round, and where it narrowed the first discoverers had built a stockyard, partly with dry stone walls and partly with logs and rails. There was no trouble in getting the cattle or horses into this, and there were all kinds of narrow yards and pens for branding the stock if they were clear-skins, and altering or "faking" the brands if they were plain. This led into another yard, which opened into the narrowest part of the gully. Once in this, like the one they came down, and the cattle or horses had no chance but to walk slowly up one behind the other till they got on the tableland above. Here, or course, every kind of werk that can be done to help to disguise cattle was done. Earmarks were cut out and altered in shape ; or else the whole ear was cropped off. Every letter in the alphabet was altered by means of straight bars, or half circles, figures, crosses, everything you could think of. "Mr. Starlight is an edicated man," said Father. "This is all his notion; and many a man has looked at his own beast with the ears altered and the brand faked, and never dreamed he ever owned it. He's a great card is Starlight. It's a pity he ever took to this kind of life." Father said this with a kind of real sorrow that made me look at him, to see if the grog had got into his head, just as if his life, mine, and Jim's didn't matter a straw, compared to this man's, whoever he was, that had had so many better chances than we had, and had chucked 'em all away. But it's a strange thing, that I don't think there's any place in the world where men feel a more real out and out respect for a gentleman than in Australia. Everybody's supposed to be free and equal now; of course they couldn't be in the convict days. But somehow a man that's born and bred a gentleman will always be different from other men to the end of the world. What's the most surprising part of it, is that men like father, who have hated the breed and have suffered by them too, can't help having a curious liking and admiration for them. They'll follow them like dogs, fight for them, shed their blood and die for them. Must be some sort of a natural feeling. Whatever it is, it's there safe enough, and nothing can knock it out of nine- tenths of all the men and women you meet. I began to be uneasy to see this wonderful mate of father's, who was so many things at once— a cattle stealer, a bushranger, aud a gentleman ! Chapter VI. After we'd fairly settled to stay, Father began to be more pleasant than he'd ever been before. We were pretty likely he said, to have a visit from Starlight and the half-caste, in a day or two, if we'd like to wait. He was to meet him at The Hollow, on purpose to help him out with the mob of fat bullocks we had looked at. Father — it appears— was coming here by himself, when he met this outlying lot of Mr. Hunter's cattle, and thought he and old Cribb could bring them in by themselves. And a mighty good haul it was. Father said we should share the weaners between the three of us. That meant £50 a-piece, at least. The Devil always helps beginners. We put through a couple of days pleasantly enough, after our hardish bit of work. Jim found some fish-hooks and a line, and we caught plenty of mullet and eels, in the deep clear water-hole. We found a couple of double-barrelled guns, and shot ducks enough to last us a week. No wonder the old frequenters of The Hollow used to live here for a month at a time, having great times of it, as long as their grog lasted ; and sometimes, having the tribe of blacks that inhabited the district, to make merry and carouse with them, like the buccaneers of the Spanish Main, that I've read about, till the plunder was all gone. There were scrawls on the wall of the first cave we had been in, that showed all the visitors had not been rude, untaught people. And Jim picked up part of a woman's dress, splashed with blood, and in one place, among some mouldering packages and boxes, a long lock of woman's hair, fair, bright brown, that looked as if the name of Terrible Hollow might not have been given to this lonely and wonderful glen for nothing. We spent nearly a week in this way, and were beginning to get rather sick of the life, when Father, who used always to be looking at a bare patch in the scrub above us, said "They're coming at last." "Who are coming— friends ?" "Why friends of course. That's Starlight's signal. See that smoke? The half-caste always sends that up— like the blacks in his mother's tribe, I suppose." "Any cattle or horses with them ?" said Jim. "No ! If they had they'd send up two smokes. They'll be here about dinner time, so we must get ready for them." We had plenty of time to get ourselves, or anything else ready. In about four hours we began to look at them, through a strong spy-glass, which Father brought out. By-and-bye, we got sight of two men coming along on horseback, on the top of the range, the other side of the far wall. They wasn't particularly easy to see, and every now and then we'd lose sight of 'em, as they got into thick tim- ber, or behind rocks. Father got the spy•glass on to 'em at last, pretty clear, and nearly threw it down with an oath. "By——," he says, 'I believe Starlight's hurt somehow. He's so infernal rash. I can see the half-caste holding him on. If the police are on his tracks, they'll spring the plant here, and the whole thing 'll be blown." We saw them come to the top of the wall, as it were, then they stopped for a long while, then all of a sudden they seemed to disappear. "Let's go over to the other side,' says Father. "They're coming down the gully now. It's a terrible steep rough track, worse than the other. If Starlights hurt bad he'll never ride down. But he has the pluck of the Devil, sure enough." We rode over to the other side, where there was a kind of gully that came in, something like the one we came in by, but rougher, and full of gibbers (boulders). There was a path, but it looked as if cattle could never be driven, or forced up it. We found afterwards, that they had an old pack bullock, that they'd trained to walk up this, and down too, when they wanted him, and the other cattle followed in his track, as cattle will. Father showed us a sort of cave by the side of the track, where one man, with a couple of guns, and a pistol or two, could have shot down a small regiment, as they came down one at a time. We stayed in there by the track, and after about half-an- hour, we heard the two horses coming down slowly, step by step, kicking the stones down before them. Then we could hear a man groaning, as if he couldn't bear the pain, and partly as if he was trying to smother it. Then another
man's voice, very soft and soothing like, trying to comfort another. "My head's afire, and these cursed ribs are grinding against one another every step of this infernal ladder. Is it far now?" How he groaned then. "Just got to the bottom— hold on a bit longer— and you'll be all right." Just then, the leading horse came out into the open be- fore the cave. We had a good look at him and his rider. I never forgot them. It was a bad day I ever saw either; and many a man had cause to say the same. The horse held up his head and snorted, as he came abreast of us, and we showed out. He was one of the grandest animals I'd ever seen, and I afterwards found he was better than he looked. He came topping down that beastly rocky goat-track, he, a clean thoroughbred that ought never to have trod upon anything rougher than a rolled springy training track, or at anyrate the sound bush turf. And here he was with a heavy weight on his back—a half-dead, fainting man that couldn't hold the reins—and him walking down, as steady as an old mountain bull or a wallaroo on the side of a creek bank. I hadn't much time to look him over. I was too much taken up with the rider, who was lying forward on his chest across a coat rolled round and strapped in front of the saddle, and his arms round the horse's neck. He was as pale as a ghost. His eyes—great dark ones they were too— were staring out of his head. I thought he was dead, and called out to father and Jim that he was. They ran up, and we lifted him off after undoing some straps and a rope. He was tied on (that was what the half caste was waiting for at the top of the gully). When we laid him down his head fell back, and he looked as much like a corpse as if he had been dead a day. Then we saw he had been wounded. There was blood on his shirt, and the upper part of the arm was bandaged. "It's too late, father," said I. "He's a dead man. What pluck he must have had to ride down there." "He's worth two dead uns yet," said father, who had his hand on his pulse. "Hold his head up, one of you, while I go for the brandy. How did he get hit, Warrigal ?" "That d—— Sergeant Goring," said the boy, a slight, active-looking chap about sixteen, that looked as if he could jump into a gum tree and back again, and I believe he could— "Sergeant Goring. He very near grab us at Dilligah. We got a lot of old Jobson's cattle, when he came on us. He jump off his horse, when he see he couldn't catch us, and very near drop Starlight. My word, he very near fall off—just like that"'(here he imitated a man reeling in his saddle) ; "but the old horse stop steady with him, my word, till he come to. Then the sergeant fire at him again ; hit him in the shoulder with his pistol. Then Starlight come to his senses, and we clear. My word, he couldn't see the way the old hoss went. Ha, ha ! "— here the young devil laughed till the trees and rocks rang again. "Gallop different ways too, and met at the old needlerock. But they was miles away then." Before the wild boy had come to the end of his story, the wounded man had proved that it was only a dead faint, as the women call it, not the real thing. And after he had tasted a pannikin full of brandy and water, which father brought him, he sat up and looked like a living man once more. "Better have a look at my shoulder," he said ; "that d—— fellow shot like a prize-winner at Wimbledon. I've had a squeak for it." "Puts me in mind of our old poaching rows," said father, while he carefully cut the shirt off, that was stiffened with blood and showed where the bullet had passed through the muscle, narrowly missing the bone of the joint. We washed it, and relieved the wounded man by discovering that the other bullet had only been spent, after striking a tree, most like, when it had knocked the wind out of him and nearly unhorsed him, as Warrigal said. "Fill my pipe, one of you. Who the devil are these lads? Yours, I suppose, Marston, or you wouldn't be fool enough to bring them here. Why didn't you leave them at home with their mother? Don't you think you and I and this devil's limb enough for this precious trade of ours ?" "They'll take their luck as it comes, like others," growled father; "what's good enough for me isn't too bad for them. We want another hand or two to work things right." "Oh ! we do, do we?" said the stranger, fixing his eyes on father as if he was going to burn a hole in him with a burning-glass ; "but if I'd a brace of fine boys like those of my own, I'd hang myself before I'd drag them into the pit after myself." "That's all very fine," said father, looking very dark and dangerous. "Is Mr, Starlight going to turn parson ! You'll be just in time, for we'll all be shopped if you run against the police like this, and next thing to lay them on to Hollow by making for it when you're too weak to ride." "What would you have me do ? Pull up and hold up my hands? There was nowhere else to go; and that new sergeant rode devilish well, I can tell you, with a big chest- nut well-bred horse that gave old Rainbow here all he knew to lose him. Now, once for all, no more of that, Marston, and mind your own business. I'm the superior officer in this ship's company— you know that very well — your business is to obey me, and take second place." Father growled out something, but did not offer to deny it. We could see plainly that the stranger was or had been far above our rank, whatever were the reasons which had led to his present kind of life. (To be continued.)