Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 17

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179857Robbery Under Arms — Chapter 17Rolf Boldrewood


I wasn't in the humour for talking, but sometimes anything's better than one's own thoughts. Goring threw in a word from time to time. He'd only lately come into our district, and was sure to be promoted, everybody said. Like Starlight himself, he'd seen better days at home in England; but when he got pinched he'd taken the right turn and not the wrong one, which makes all the difference. He was earning his bread honest, anyway, and he was a chap as liked the fun and dash of a mounted policeman's life. As for the risk—and there is some danger, more than people thinks, now and then—he liked that the best of it. He was put out at losing Jim; but he believed he couldn't escape, and told me so in a friendly way. `He's inside a circle and he can't get away, you mark my words,' he said, two or three times. `We have every police-station warned by wire, within a hundred miles of here, three days ago. There's not a man in the colony sharper looked after than Master Jim is this minute.'

`Then you only heard about us three days ago?' I said.

`That's as it may be,' he answered, biting his lip. `Anyhow, there isn't a shepherd's hut within miles that he can get to without our knowing it. The country's rough, but there's word gone for a black tracker to go down. You'll see him in Bargo before the week's out.'

I had a good guess where Jim would make for, and he knew enough to hide his tracks for the last few miles if there was a whole tribe of trackers after him.

That night we rode into Bargo. A long day too we'd had—we were all tired enough when we got in. I was locked up, of course, and as soon as we were in the cell Goring said, `Listen to me,' and put on his official face—devilish stern and hard-looking he was then, in spite of all the talking and nonsense we'd had coming along.

`Richard Marston, I charge you with unlawfully taking, stealing, and carrying away, in company with others, one thousand head of mixed cattle, more or less the property of one Walter Hood, of Outer Back, Momberah, in or about the month of June last.'

`All right; why don't you make it a few more while you're about it?'

`That'll do,' he said, nodding his head, `you decline to say anything. Well, I can't exactly wish you a merry Christmas—fancy this being Christmas Eve, by Jove!—but you'll be cool enough this deuced hot weather till the sessions in February, which is more than some of us can say. Good-night.' He went out and locked the door. I sat down on my blanket on the floor and hid my head in my hands. I wonder it didn't burst with what I felt then. Strange that I shouldn't have felt half as bad when the judge, the other day, sentenced me to be a dead man in a couple of months. But I was young then.

Christmas Day! Christmas Day! So this is how I was to spend it after all, I thought, as I woke up at dawn, and saw the gray light just beginning to get through the bars of the window of the cell.

Here was I locked up, caged, ironed, disgraced, a felon and an outcast for the rest of my life. Jim, flying for his life, hiding from every honest man, every policeman in the country looking after him, and authorised to catch him or shoot him down like a sheep-killing dog. Father living in the Hollow, like a blackfellow in a cave, afraid to spend the blessed Christmas with his wife and daughter, like the poorest man in the land could do if he was only honest. Mother half dead with grief, and Aileen ashamed to speak to the man that loved and respected her from her childhood. Gracey Storefield not daring to think of me or say my name, after seeing me carried off a prisoner before her eyes. Here was a load of misery and disgrace heaped up together, to be borne by the whole family, now and for the time to come—by the innocent as well as the guilty. And for what? Because we had been too idle and careless to work regularly and save our money, though well able to do it, like honest men. Because, little by little, we had let bad dishonest ways and flash manners grow upon us, all running up an account that had to be paid some day.

And now the day of reckoning had come—sharp and sudden with a vengeance! Well, what call had we to look for anything else? We had been working for it; now we had got it, and had to bear it. Not for want of warning, neither. What had mother and Aileen been saying ever since we could remember? Warning upon warning. Now the end had come just as they said. Of course I knew in a general way that I couldn't be punished or be done anything to right off. I knew law enough for that. The next thing would be that I should have to be brought up before the magistrates and committed for trial as soon as they could get any evidence.

After breakfast, flour and water or hominy, I forget which, the warder told me that there wasn't much chance of my being brought up before Christmas was over. The police magistrate was away on a month's leave, and the other magistrates would not be likely to attend before the end of the week, anyway. So I must make myself comfortable where I was. Comfortable!

`Had they caught Jim?'

`Well, not that he'd heard of; but Goring said it was impossible for him to get away. At twelve he'd bring me some dinner.'

I was pretty certain they wouldn't catch Jim, in spite of Goring being so cocksure about it. If he wasn't knocked off the first mile or so, he'd find ways of stopping or steadying his horse, and facing him up to where we had gone to join father at the tableland of the Nulla Mountain. Once he got near there he could let go his horse. They'd be following his track, while he made the best of his way on foot to the path that led to the Hollow. If he had five miles start of them there, as was most likely, all the blacks in the country would never track where he got to. He and father could live there for a month or so, and take it easy until they could slip out and do a bit of father's old trade. That was about what I expected Jim to do, and as it turned out I was as nearly right as could be. They ran his track for ten miles. Then they followed his horse-tracks till late the second day, and found that the horse had slued round and was making for home again with nobody on him. Jim was nowhere to be seen, and they'd lost all that time, never expecting that he was going to dismount and leave the horse to go his own way.

They searched Nulla Mountain from top to bottom; but some of the smartest men of the old Mounted Police and the best of the stockmen in the old days—men not easy to beat—had tried the same country many years before, and never found the path to the Hollow. So it wasn't likely any one else would. They had to come back and own that they were beat, which put Goring in a rage and made the inspector, Sir Ferdinand Morringer, blow them all up for a lot of duffers and old women. Altogether they had a bad time of it, not that it made any difference to me.

After the holidays a magistrate was fished up somehow, and I was brought before him and the apprehending constable's evidence taken. Then I was remanded to the Bench at Nomah, where Mr. Hood and some of the other witnesses were to appear. So away we started for another journey. Goring and a trooper went with me, and all sorts of care was taken that I didn't give them the slip on the road. Goring used to put one of my handcuffs on his own wrist at night, so there wasn't much chance of moving without waking him. I had an old horse to ride that couldn't go much faster than I could run, for fear of accident. It was even betting that he'd fall and kill me on the road. If I'd had a laugh in me, I should have had a joke against the Police Department for not keeping safer horses for their prisoners to ride. They keep them till they haven't a leg to stand upon, and long after they can't go a hundred yards without trying to walk on their heads they're thought good enough to carry packs and prisoners.

`Some day,' Goring said, `one of those old screws will be the death of a prisoner before he's committed for trial, and then there'll be a row over it, I suppose.'

We hadn't a bad journey of it on the whole. The troopers were civil enough, and gave me a glass of grog now and then when they had one themselves. They'd done their duty in catching me, and that was all they thought about. What came afterwards wasn't their look-out. I've no call to have any bad feeling against the police, and I don't think most men of my sort have. They've got their work to do, like other people, and as long as they do what they're paid for, and don't go out of their way to harass men for spite, we don't bear them any malice. If one's hit in fair fight it's the fortune of war. What our side don't like is men going in for police duty that's not in their line. That's interfering, according to our notions, and if they fall into a trap or are met with when they don't expect it they get it pretty hot. They've only themselves to thank for it.

Goring, I could see by his ways, had been a swell, something like Starlight. A good many young fellows that don't drop into fortunes when they come out here take to the police in Australia, and very good men they make. They like the half-soldiering kind of life, and if they stick steady at their work, and show pluck and gumption, they mostly get promoted. Goring was a real smart, dashing chap, a good rider for an Englishman; that is, he could set most horses, and hold his own with us natives anywhere but through scrub and mountain country. No man can ride there, I don't care who he is, the same as we can, unless he's been at it all his life. There we have the pull—not that it is so much after all. But give a native a good horse and thick country, and he'll lose any man living that's tackled the work after he's grown up.

By and by we got to Nomah, a regular hot hole of a place, with a log lock-up. I was stuck in, of course, and had leg-irons put on for fear I should get out, as another fellow had done a few weeks back. Starlight and Warrigal hadn't reached yet; they had farther to come. The trial couldn't come till the Quarter Sessions. January, and February too, passed over, and all this time I was mewed up in a bit of a place enough to stifle a man in the burning weather we had.

I heard afterwards that they wanted to bring some of the cattle over, so as Mr. Hood could swear to 'em being his property. But he said he could only swear to its being his brand; that he most likely had never set eyes on them in his life, and couldn't swear on his own knowledge that they hadn't been sold, like lots of others, by his manager. So this looked like a hitch, as juries won't bring a man in guilty of cattle-stealing unless there's clear swearing that the animals he sold were the property of the prosecutor, and known by him to be such.

Mr. Hood had to go all the way to Adelaide himself, and they told me we might likely have got out of it all, only for the imported bull. When he saw him he said he could swear to him point blank, brand or no brand. He'd no brand on him, of course, when he left England; but Hood happened to be in Sydney when he came out, and at the station when he came up. He was stabled for the first six months, so he used to go and look him over every day, and tell visitors what a pot of money he'd cost, till he knew every hair in his tail, as the saying is. As soon as he seen him in Adelaide he said he could swear to him as positive as he could to his favourite riding horse. So he was brought over in a steamer from Adelaide, and then drove all the way up to Nomah. I wished he'd broken his neck before we ever saw him.

Next thing I saw was Starlight being brought in, handcuffed, between two troopers, and looking as if he'd ridden a long way. He was just as easy-going and devil-may-care as ever. He said to one of the troopers—

`Here we are at last, and I'm deuced glad of it. It's perfectly monstrous you fellows haven't better horses. You ought to make me remount agent, and I'd show you the sort of horses that ought to be bought for police service. Let me have a glass of beer, that's a good fellow, before I'm locked up. I suppose there's no tap worth speaking of inside.'

The constable laughed, and had one brought to him.

`It will be some time before you get another, captain. Here's a long one for you; make the most of it.'

Where, in the devil's name, is that Warrigal? I thought to myself. Has he given them the slip? He had, as it turned out. He had slipped the handcuffs over his slight wrists and small hands, bided his time, and then dashed into a scrub. There he was at home. They rode and rode, but Warrigal was gone like a rock wallaby. It was a good while before he was as near the gaol again.

All this time I'd been wondering how it was they came to drop on our names so pat, and to find out that Jim and I had a share in the Momberah cattle racket. All they could have known was that we left the back of Boree at a certain day; and that was nothing, seeing that for all they knew we might have gone away to new country or anywhere. The more I looked at it the more I felt sure that some one had given to the police information about us—somebody who was in it and knew all about everything. It wasn't Starlight. We could have depended our life on him. It might have been one of the other chaps, but I couldn't think of any one, except Warrigal. He would do anything in the world to spite me and Jim, I knew; but then he couldn't hurt us without drawing the net tighter round Starlight. Sooner than hurt a hair of his head he'd have put his hand into the fire and kept it there. I knew that from things I'd seen him do.

Starlight and I hadn't much chance of a talk, but we managed to get news from each other, a bit at a time; that can always be managed. We were to be defended, and a lawyer fetched all the way from Sydney to fight our case for us. The money was there. Father managed the other part of it through people he had that did every kind of work for him; so when the judge came up we should have a show for it.

The weary long summer days—every one of them about twenty hours long—came to an end somehow or other. It was so hot and close and I was that miserable I had two minds to knock my brains out and finish the whole thing. I couldn't settle to read, as I did afterwards. I was always wishing and wondering when I'd hear some news from home, and none ever came. Nomah was a bit of a place where hardly anybody did anything but idle and drink, and spend money when they had it. When they had none they went away. There wasn't even a place to take exercise in, and the leg-irons I wore night and day began to eat into my flesh. I wasn't used to them in those days. I could feel them in my heart, too. Last of all I got ill, and for a while was so weak and low they thought I was going to get out of the trial altogether.

At last we heard that the judge and all his lot were on the road, and would be up in a few days. We were almost as glad when the news came as if we were sure of being let off. One day they did come, and all the little town was turned upside down. The judge stopped at one hotel (they told us); the lawyers at another. Then the witnesses in ours and other cases came in from all parts, and made a great difference, especially to the publicans. The jurors were summoned, and had to come, unless they had a fancy for being fined. Most of this I heard from the constables; they seemed to think it was the only thing that made any difference in their lives. Last of all I heard that Mr. Hood had come, and the imported bull, and some other witnesses.

There were some small cases first, and then we were brought out, Starlight and I, and put in the dock. The court was crammed and crowded; every soul within a hundred miles seemed to have come in; there never were so many people in the little courthouse before. Starlight was quietly dressed, and looked as if he was there by mistake. Anybody would have thought so, the way he lounged and stared about, as if he thought there was something very curious and hard to understand about the whole thing. I was so weak and ill that I couldn't stand up, and after a while the judge told me to sit down, and Starlight too. Starlight made a most polite bow, and thanked his Honour, as he called him. Then the jury were called up, and our lawyer began his work. He stood alongside of Starlight, and whispered something to him, after which Starlight stood up, and about every second man called out `Challenge'; then that juror had to go down. It took a good while to get our jury all together. Our lawyer seemed very particular about the sort of jury he was satisfied with; and when they did manage to get twelve at last they were not the best-looking men in the court by a very long way.

The trial had to go on, and then the Crown Prosecutor made a speech, in which he talked about the dishonesty which was creeping unchecked over the land, and the atrocious villainy of criminals who took a thousand head of cattle in one lot, and made out the country was sure to go to destruction if we were not convicted. He said that unfortunately they were not in a position to bring many of the cattle back that had been taken to another colony; but one remarkable animal was as good for purposes of evidence as a hundred. Such an animal he would produce, and he would not trespass on the patience of jurors and gentlemen in attendance any longer, but call his first witness.

John Dawson, sworn: Was head stockman and cattle manager at Momberah; knew the back country, and in a general way the cattle running there; was not out much in the winter; the ground was boggy, and the cattle were hardly ever mustered till spring; when he did go, with some other stock-riders, he saw at once that a large number of the Momberah cattle, branded HOD and other brands, were missing; went to Adelaide a few months after; saw a large number of cattle of the HOD brand, which he was told had been sold by the prisoner now before the court, and known as Starlight, and others, to certain farmers; he could swear that the cattle he saw bore Mr. Hood's brand; could not swear that he recognised them as having been at Momberah in his charge; believed so, but could not swear it; he had seen a short-horn bull outside of the court this morning; he last saw the said bull at the station of Messrs. Fordham Brothers, near Adelaide; they made a communication to him concerning the bull; he would and could swear to the identity of the animal with the Fifteenth Duke of Cambridge, an imported short-horn bull, the property of Mr. Hood; had seen him before that at Momberah; knew that Mr. Hood had bought said bull in Sydney, and was at Momberah when he was sent up; could not possibly be mistaken; when he saw the bull at Momberah, nine months since, he had a small brand like H on the shoulder; Mr. Hood put it on in witness's presence; it was a horse-brand, now it resembled J-E; the brand had been `faked' or cleverly altered; witness could see the original brand quite plain underneath; as far as he knew Mr. Hood never sold or gave any one authority to take the animal; he had missed him some months since, and always believed he had strayed; knew the bull to be a valuable animal, worth several hundred pounds.

We had one bit of luck in having to be tried in an out-of-the-way place like Nomah. It was a regular outside bush township, and though the distance oughtn't to have much to say to people's honesty, you'll mostly find that these far-out back-of-beyond places have got men and women to match 'em.

Except the squatters and overseers, the other people's mostly a shady lot. Some's run away from places that were too hot to hold 'em. The women ain't the men's wives that they live with, but somebody else's—who's well rid of 'em too if all was known. There's most likely a bit of horse and cattle stealing done on the quiet, and the publicans and storekeepers know who are their best customers, the square people or the cross ones. It ain't so easy to get a regular up-and-down straight-ahead jury in a place of this sort. So Starlight and I knew that our chance was a lot better than if we'd been tried at Bargo or Dutton Forest, or any steady-going places of that sort.

If we'd made up our minds from the first that we were to get into it it wouldn't have been so bad; we'd have known we had to bear it. Now we might get out of it, and what a thing it would be to feel free again, and walk about in the sun without any one having the right to stop you. Almost, that is—there were other things against us; but there wasn't so much of a chance of their turning up. This was the great stake. If we won we were as good as made. I felt ready to swear I'd go home and never touch a shilling that didn't come honest again. If we lost it seemed as if everything was so much the worse, and blacker than it looked at first, just for this bit of hope and comfort.

After the bull had been sworn to by Mr. Hood and another witness, they brought up some more evidence, as they called it, about the other cattle we had sold in Adelaide. They had fetched some of the farmers up that had been at the sale. They swore straight enough to having bought cattle with certain brands from Starlight. They didn't know, of course, at the time whose they were, but they could describe the brands fast enough. There was one fellow that couldn't read nor write, but he remembered all the brands, about a dozen, in the pen of steers he bought, and described them one by one. One brand, he said, was like a long-handled shovel. It turned out to be |—|D. TD—Tom Dawson's, of Mungeree. About a hundred of his were in the mob. They had drawn back for Mungeree, as was nearly all frontage and cold in the winter. He was the worst witness for us of the lot, very near. He'd noticed everything and forgot nothing.

`Do you recognise either of the prisoners in the dock?' he was asked.

`Yes; both of 'em,' says he. I wish I could have got at him. `I see the swell chap first—him as made out he was the owner, and gammoned all the Adelaide gentlemen so neat. There was a half-caste chap with him as followed him about everywhere; then there was another man as didn't talk much, but seemed, by letting down sliprails and what not, to be in it. I heard this Starlight, as he calls hisself now, say to him, "You have everything ready to break camp by ten o'clock, and I'll be there to-morrow and square up." I thought he meant to pay their wages. I never dropped but what they was his men—his hired servants—as he was going to pay off or send back.'

`Will you swear,' our lawyer says, `that the younger prisoner is the man you saw at Adelaide with the cattle?'

`Yes; I'll swear. I looked at him pretty sharp, and nothing ain't likely to make me forget him. He's the man, and that I'll swear to.'

`Were there not other people there with the cattle?'

`Yes; there was an oldish, very quiet, but determined-like man—he had a stunnin' dorg with him—and a young man something like this gentleman—I mean the prisoner. I didn't see the other young man nor the half-caste in court.'

`That's all very well,' says our lawyer, very fierce; `but will you swear, sir, that the prisoner Marston took any charge or ownership of the cattle?'

`No, I can't,' says the chap. `I see him a drafting 'em in the morning, and he seemed to know all the brands, and so on; but he done no more than I've seen hired servants do over and over again.'

The other witnesses had done, when some one called out, `Herbert Falkland,' and Mr. Falkland steps into the court. He walks in quiet and a little proud; he couldn't help feeling it, but he didn't show it in his ways and talk, as little as any man I ever saw.

He's asked by the Crown Prosecutor if he's seen the bull outside of the court this day.

`Yes; he has seen him.'

`Has he ever seen him before?'

`Never, to his knowledge.'

`He doesn't, then, know the name of his former owner?'

`Has heard generally that he belonged to Mr. Hood, of Momberah; but does not know it of his own knowledge.'

`Has he ever seen, or does he know either of the prisoners?'

`Knows the younger prisoner, who has been in the habit of working for him in various ways.'

`When was prisoner Marston working for him last?'

`He, with his brother James, who rendered his family a service he shall never forget, was working for him, after last shearing, for some months.'

`Where were they working?'

`At an out-station at the back of the run.'

`When did they leave?'

`About April or May last.'

`Was it known to you in what direction they proceeded after leaving your service?'

`I have no personal knowledge; I should think it improper to quote hearsay.'

`Had they been settled up with for their former work?'

`No, there was a balance due to them.'

`To what amount?'

`About twenty pounds each was owing.'

`Did you not think it curious that ordinary labourers should leave so large a sum in your hands?'

`It struck me as unusual, but I did not attach much weight to the circumstance. I thought they would come back and ask for it before the next shearing. I am heartily sorry that they did not do so, and regret still more deeply that two young men worthy of a better fate should have been arraigned on such a charge.'

`One moment, Mr. Falkland,' says our counsel, as they call them, and a first-rate counsellor ours was. If we'd been as innocent as two schoolgirls he couldn't have done more for us. `Did the prisoner Marston work well and conduct himself properly while in your employ?'

`No man better,' says Mr. Falkland, looking over to me with that pitying kind of look in his eyes as made me feel what a fool and rogue I'd been ten times worse than anything else. `No man better; he and his brother were in many respects, according to my overseer's report, the most hard-working and best-conducted labourers in the establishment.'