Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 16
When we got home it was pretty late, and the air was beginning to cool after the hot day. There was a low moon, and everything showed out clear, so that you could see the smallest branches of the trees on Nulla Mountain, where it stood like a dark cloud-bank against the western sky. There wasn't the smallest breeze. The air was that still and quiet you could have heard anything stir in the grass, or almost a 'possum digging his claws into the smooth bark of the white gum trees. The curlews set up a cry from time to time; but they didn't sound so queer and shrill as they mostly do at night. I don't know how it was, but everything seemed quiet and pleasant and homelike, as if a chap might live a hundred years, if it was all like this, and keep growing better and happier every day. I remember all this so particular because it was the only time I'd felt like it for years, and I never had the same feeling afterwards—nor likely to.
`Oh! what a happy day I've had,' Aileen said, on a sudden. Jim and I and her had been riding a long spell without speaking. `I don't know when I've enjoyed myself so much; I've got quite out of the way of being happy lately, and hardly know the taste of it. How lovely it would be if you and Jim could always stay at home like this, and we could do our work happy and comfortable together, without separating, and all this deadly fear of something terrible happening, that's never out of my mind. Oh! Dick, won't you promise me to stop quiet and work steady at home, if you—if you and Jim haven't anything brought against you?'
She bent forward and looked into my face as she said this. I could see her eyes shine, and every word she said seemed to come straight from her heart. How sad and pitiful she looked, and we felt for a moment just as we did when we were boys, and she used to come and persuade us to go on with our work and not grieve mother, and run the risk of a licking from father when he came home.
Her mare, Lowan, was close alongside of my horse, stepping along at her fast tearing walk, throwing up her head and snorting every now and then, but Aileen sat in her saddle better than some people can sit in a chair; she held the rein and whip together and kept her hand on mine till I spoke.
`We'll do all we can, Aileen dear, for you and poor mother, won't we, Jim?' I felt soft and down-hearted then, if ever I did. `But it's too late—too late! You'll see us now and then; but we can't stop at home quiet, nor work about here all the time as we used to do. That day's gone. Jim knows it as well as me. There's no help for it now. We'll have to do like the rest—enjoy ourselves a bit while we can, and stand up to our fight when the trouble comes.'
She took her hand away, and rode on with her rein loose and her head down. I could see the tears falling down her face, but after a bit she put herself to rights, and we rode quietly up to the door. Mother was working away in her chair, and father walking up and down before the door smoking.
When we were letting go the horses, father comes up and says—
`I've got a bit of news for you, boys; Starlight's been took, and the darkie with him.'
`Where?' I said. Somehow I felt struck all of a heap by hearing this. I'd got out of the way of thinking they'd drop on him. As for Jim, he heard it straight enough, but he went on whistling and patting the mare's neck, teasing her like, because she was so uneasy to get her head-stall off and run after the others.
`Why, in New Zealand, to be sure. The blamed fool stuck there all this time, just because he found himself comfortably situated among people as he liked. I wonder how he'll fancy Berrima after it all? Sarves him well right.'
`But how did you come to hear about it?' We knew father couldn't read nor write.
`I have a chap as is paid to read the papers reg'lar, and to put me on when there's anything in 'em as I want to know. He's bin over here to-day and give me the office. Here's the paper he left.'
Father pulls out a crumpled-up dirty-lookin' bit of newspaper. It wasn't much to look at; but there was enough to keep us in readin', and thinkin', too, for a good while, as soon as we made it out. In pretty big letters, too.
IMPORTANT CAPTURE BY DETECTIVE STILLBROOK, OF THE NEW SOUTH WALES POLICE.
That was atop of the page, then comes this:—
This looked bad; for a bit we didn't know what to think. While Jim and I was makin' it all out, with the help of a bit of candle we smuggled out—we dursn't take it inside—father was smokin' his pipe—in the old fashion—and saying nothing. When we'd done he put up his pipe in his pouch and begins to talk.
`It's come just as I said, and knowed it would, through Starlight's cussed flashness and carryin's on in fine company. If he'd cleared out and made for the Islands as I warned him to do, and he settled to, or as good, afore he left us that day at the camp, he'd been safe in some o' them 'Merikin places he was always gassin' about, and all this wouldn't 'a happened.'
`He couldn't help that,' says Jim; `he thought they'd never know him from any other swell in Canterbury or wherever he was. He's been took in like many another man. What I look at is this: he won't squeak. How are they to find out that we had any hand in it?'
`That's what I'm dubersome about,' says father, lightin' his pipe again. `Nobody down there got much of a look at me, and I let my beard grow on the road and shaved clean soon's I got back, same as I always do. Now the thing is, does any one know that you boys was in the fakement?'
`Nobody's likely to know but him and Warrigal. The knockabouts and those other three chaps won't come it on us for their own sakes. We may as well stop here till Christmas is over and then make down to the Barwon, or somewhere thereabouts. We could take a long job at droving till the derry's off a bit.'
`If you'll be said by me,' the old man growls out, `you'll make tracks for the Hollow afore daylight and keep dark till we hear how the play goes. I know Starlight's as close as a spring-lock; but that chap Warrigal don't cotton to either of you, and he's likely to give you away if he's pinched himself—that's my notion of him.'
`Starlight 'll keep him from doing that,' Jim says; `the boy 'll do nothing his master don't agree to, and he'd break his neck if he found him out in any dog's trick like that.'
`Starlight and he ain't in the same cell, you take your oath. I don't trust no man except him. I'll be off now, and if you'll take a fool's advice, though he is your father, you'll go too; we can be there by daylight.'
Jim and I looked at each other.
`We promised to stay Chris'mas with mother and Aileen,' says he, `and if all the devils in hell tried to stop us, I wouldn't break my word. But we'll come to the Hollow on Boxing Day, won't we, Dick?'
`All right! It's only two or three days. The day after to-morrow's Chris'mas Eve. We'll chance that, as it's gone so far.'
`Take your own way,' growls father. `Fetch me my saddle. The old mare's close by the yard.'
Jim fetches the saddle and bridle, and Crib comes after him, out of the verandah, where he had been lying. Bless you! he knew something was up. Just like a Christian he was, and nothing never happened that dad was in as he wasn't down to.
`May as well stop till morning, dad,' says Jim, as we walked up to the yard.
`Not another minute,' says the old man, and he whips the bridle out of Jim's hand and walks over to the old mare. She lifts up her head from the dry grass and stands as steady as a rock.
`Good-bye,' he says, and he shook hands with both of us; `if I don't see you again I'll send you word if I hear anything fresh.'
In another minute we heard the old mare's hoofs proceeding away among the rocks up the gully, and gradually getting fainter in the distance.
Then we went in. Mother and Aileen had been in bed an hour ago, and all the better for them. Next morning we told mother and Aileen that father had gone. They didn't say much. They were used to his ways. They never expected him till they saw him, and had got out of the fashion of asking why he did this or that. He had reasons of his own, which he never told them, for going or coming, and they'd left off troubling their heads about it. Mother was always in dread while he was there, and they were far easier in their minds when he was away off the place.
As for us, we had made up our minds to enjoy ourselves while we could, and we had come to his way of thinking, that most likely nothing was known of our being in the cattle affair that Starlight and the boy had been arrested for. We knew nothing would drag it out of Starlight about his pals in this or any other job. Now they'd got him, it would content them for a bit, and maybe take off their attention from us and the others that were in it.
There were two days to Christmas. Next day George and his sister would be over, and we all looked forward to that for a good reminder of old times. We were going to have a merry Christmas at home for once in a way. After that we would clear out and get away to some of the far out stations, where chaps like ourselves always made to when they wanted to keep dark. We might have the luck of other men that we had known of, and never be traced till the whole thing had died out and been half-forgotten. Though we didn't say much to each other we had pretty well made up our minds to go straight from this out. We might take up a bit of back country, and put stock on it with some of the money we had left. Lots of men had begun that way that had things against them as bad as us, and had kept steady, and worked through in course of time. Why shouldn't we as well as others? We wanted to see what the papers said of us, so we rode over to a little post town we knew of and got a copy of the `Evening Times'. There it all was in full: —
When we mention the name of the notorious `Starlight', no one will be surprised that the deed was planned, carried out, and executed with consummate address and completeness. It seems matter of regret that we cannot persuade this illustrious depredator to take the command of our police force, that body of life-assurers and property-protectors which has proved so singularly ineffective as a preventive service in the present case. On the well-known proverbial principle we might hope for the best results under Mr. Starlight's intelligent supervision. We must not withhold our approval as to one item of success which the force has scored. Starlight himself and a half-caste henchman have been cleverly captured by Detective Stillbrook, just as the former, who has been ruffling it among the `aristocratic' settlers of Christchurch, was about to sail for Honolulu. The names of his other accomplices, six in number, it is said, have not as yet transpired.
This last part gave us confidence, but all the same we kept everything ready for a bolt in case of need. We got up our horses every evening and kept them in the yard all night. The feed was good by the creek now—a little dried up but plenty of bite, and better for horses that had been ridden far and fast than if it was green. We had enough of last year's hay to give them a feed at night, and that was all they wanted. They were two pretty good ones and not slow either. We took care of that when we bought them. Nobody ever saw us on bad ones since we were boys, and we had broken them in to stand and be caught day or night, and to let us jump on and off at a moment's notice.
All that day, being awful hot and close, we stayed in the house and yarned away with mother and Aileen till they thought—poor souls—that we had turned over a new leaf and were going to stay at home and be good boys for the future. When a man sees how little it takes to make women happy—them that's good and never thinks of anything but doing their best for everybody belonging to 'em—it's wonderful how men ever make up their minds to go wrong and bring all that loves them to shame and grief. When they've got nobody but themselves to think of it don't so much matter as I know of; but to keep on breaking the hearts of those as never did you anything but good, and wouldn't if they lived for a hundred years, is cowardly and unmanly any way you look at it. And yet we'd done very little else ourselves these years and years.
We all sat up till nigh on to midnight with our hands in one another's—Jim down at mother's feet; Aileen and I close beside them on the old seat in the verandah that father made such a time ago. At last mother gets up, and they both started for bed. Aileen seemed as if she couldn't tear herself away. Twice she came back, then she kissed us both, and the tears came into her eyes. `I feel too happy,' she said; `I never thought I should feel like this again. God bless you both, and keep us all from harm.' `Amen,' said mother from the next room. We turned out early, and had a bathe in the creek before we went up to the yard to let out the horses. There wasn't a cloud in the sky; it was safe to be a roasting hot day, but it was cool then. The little waterhole where we learned to swim when we were boys was deep on one side and had a rocky ledge to jump off. The birds just began to give out a note or two; the sun was rising clear and bright, and we could see the dark top of Nulla Mountain getting a sort of rose colour against the sky.
`George and Gracey 'll be over soon after breakfast,' I said; `we must have everything look ship-shape as well as we can before they turn up.'
`The horses may as well go down to the flat,' Jim says; `we can catch them easy enough in time to ride back part of the way with them. I'll run up Lowan, and give her a bit of hay in the calf-pen.'
We went over to the yard, and Jim let down the rails and walked in. I stopped outside. Jim had his horse by the mane, and was patting his neck as mine came out, when three police troopers rose up from behind the bushes, and covering us with their rifles called out, `Stand, in the Queen's name!'
Jim made one spring on to his horse's back, drove his heels into his flank, and was out through the gate and half-way down the hill before you could wink.
Just as Jim cleared the gate a tall man rose up close behind me and took a cool pot at him with a revolver. I saw Jim's hat fly off, and another bullet grazed his horse's hip. I saw the hair fly, and the horse make a plunge that would have unseated most men with no saddle between their legs. But Jim sat close and steady and only threw up his arm and gave a shout as the old horse tore down the hill a few miles an hour faster.
`D—n those cartridges,' said the tall trooper; `they always put too much powder in them for close shooting. Now, Dick Marston!' he went on, putting his revolver to my head, `I'd rather not blow your brains out before your people, but if you don't put up your hands by —— I'll shoot you where you stand.' I had been staring after Jim all the time; I believe I had never thought of myself till he was safe away.
`Get your horses, you d——d fools,' he shouts out to the men, `and see if you can follow up that madman. He's most likely knocked off against a tree by this time.'
There was nothing else for it but to do it and be handcuffed. As the steel locks snapped I saw mother standing below wringing her hands, and Aileen trying to get her into the house.
`Better come down and get your coat on, Dick,' said the senior constable. `We want to search the place, too. By Jove! we shall get pepper from Sir Ferdinand when we go in. I thought we had you both as safe as chickens in a coop. Who would have thought of Jim givin' us the slip, on a barebacked horse, without so much as a halter? I'm devilish sorry for your family; but if nothing less than a thousand head of cattle will satisfy people, they must expect trouble to come of it.'
`What are you talking about?' I said. `You've got the wrong story and the wrong men.'
`All right; we'll see about that. I don't know whether you want any breakfast, but I should like a cup of tea. It's deuced slow work watching all night, though it isn't cold. We've got to be in Bargo barracks to-night, so there's no time to lose.'
It was all over now—the worst had come. What fools we had been not to take the old man's advice, and clear out when he did. He was safe in the Hollow, and would chuckle to himself—and be sorry, too—when he heard of my being taken, and perhaps Jim. The odds were he might be smashed against a tree, perhaps killed, at the pace he was going on a horse he could not guide.
They searched the house, but the money they didn't get. Jim and I had taken care of that, in case of accidents. Mother sat rocking herself backwards and forwards, every now and then crying out in a pitiful way, like the women in her country do, I've heard tell, when some one of their people is dead; `keening', I think they call it. Well, Jim and I were as good as dead. If the troopers had shot the pair of us there and then, same as bushmen told us the black police did their prisoners when they gave 'em any trouble, it would have been better for everybody. However, people don't die all at once when they go to the bad, and take to stealing or drinking, or any of the devil's favourite traps. Pity they don't, and have done with it once and for all.
I know I thought so when I was forced to stand there with my hands chained together for the first time in my life (though I'd worked for it, I know that); and to see Aileen walking about laying the cloth for breakfast like a dead woman, and know what was in her mind.
The troopers were civil enough, and Goring, the senior constable, tried to comfort them as much as he could. He knew it was no fault of theirs; and though he said he meant to have Jim if mortal men and horses could do it he thought he had a fair chance of getting away. `He's sure to be caught in the long run, though,' he went on to say. `There's a warrant out for him, and a description in every Police Gazette in the colonies. My advice to him would be to come back and give himself up. It's not a hanging matter, and as it's the first time you've been fitted, Dick, the judge, as like as not, will let you off with a light sentence.'
So they talked away until they had finished their breakfast. I couldn't touch a mouthful for the life of me, and as soon as it was all over they ran up my horse and put the saddle on. But I wasn't to ride him. No fear! Goring put me on an old screw of a troop horse, with one leg like a gate-post. I was helped up and my legs tied under his belly. Then one of the men took the bridle and led me away. Goring rode in front and the other men behind.
As we rose the hill above the place I looked back and saw mother drop down on the ground in a kind of fit, while Aileen bent over her and seemed to be loosening her dress. Just at that moment George Storefield and his sister rode up to the door. George jumped off and rushed over to Aileen and mother. I knew Gracey had seen me, for she sat on her horse as if she had been turned to stone, and let her reins drop on his neck. Strange things have happened to me since, but I shall never forget that to the last day of my miserable life.