Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 6

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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 Crib 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 waterholes. 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 smouldering 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, 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, or 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 spyglass which father brought out. By and by 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 timber or behind rocks.

Father got the spyglass 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 Starlight's 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 a-fire, 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 the bottom; hold on a bit longer and you'll be all right.'

Just then the leading horse came out into the open before 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 stepping down that beastly rocky goat-track, he, a clean thoroughbred that ought never to have trod upon anything rougher than a rolled training track, or 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 his 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 —— 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 nearly 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 horse went. Ha, ha!'—here the young devil laughed till the trees and rocks rang again. `Gallop different ways, too, and met at the old needle-rock. 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 —— 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 the 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 chestnut 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.

We stayed for about ten days, while the stranger's arm got well. With care and rest, it soon healed. He was pleasant enough, too, when the pain went away. He had been in other countries, and told us all kinds of stories about them.

He said nothing, though, about his own former ways, and we often wondered whatever could have made him take to such a life. Unknown to father, too, he gave us good advice, warned us that what we were in was the road to imprisonment or death in due course, and not to flatter ourselves that any other ending was possible.

`I have my own reasons for leading the life I do,' he said, `and must run my own course, of which I foresee the end as plainly as if it was written in a book before me. Your father had a long account to square with society, and he has a right to settle it his own way. That yellow whelp was never intended for anything better. But for you lads'—and here he looked kindly in poor old Jim's honest face (and an honest face and heart Jim's was, and that I'll live and die on)—`my advice to you is, to clear off home, when we go, and never come back here again. Tell your father you won't come; cut loose from him, once and for all. You'd better drown yourselves comfortably at once than take to this cursed trade. Now, mind what I tell you, and keep your own counsel.'

By and by, the day came when the horses were run in for father and Mr. Starlight and Warrigal, who packed up to be off for some other part.

When they were in the yard we had a good look at his own horse—a good look—and if I'd been a fellow that painted pictures, and that kind of thing, I could draw a middlin' good likeness of him now.

By George! how fond I am of a good horse—a real well-bred clinker. I'd never have been here if it hadn't been for that, I do believe; and many another Currency chap can say the same—a horse or a woman—that's about the size of it, one or t'other generally fetches us. I shall never put foot in stirrup again, but I'll try and scratch out a sort of likeness of Rainbow.

He was a dark bay horse, nearly brown, without a white hair on him. He wasn't above 15 hands and an inch high, but looked a deal bigger than he was, for the way he held his head up and carried himself. He was deep and thick through behind the shoulders, and girthed ever so much more than you'd think. He had a short back, and his ribs went out like a cask, long quarter, great thighs and hocks, wonderful legs, and feet of course to do the work he did. His head was plainish, but clean and bony, and his eye was big and well opened, with no white showing. His shoulder was sloped back that much that he couldn't fall, no matter what happened his fore legs. All his paces were good too. I believe he could jump—jump anything he was ridden at, and very few horses could get the better of himfor one mile or three.

Where he'd come from, of course, we were not to know then. He had a small private sort of brand that didn't belong to any of the big studs; but he was never bred by a poor man. I afterwards found out that he was stolen before he was foaled, like many another plum, and his dam killed as soon as she had weaned him. So, of course, no one could swear to him, and Starlight could have ridden past the Supreme Court, at the assizes, and never been stopped, as far as this horse was concerned.

Before we went away father and Starlight had some terrible long talks, and one evening Jim came to me, and says he—

`What do you think they're up to now?'

`How should I know? Sticking up a bank, or boning a flock of maiden ewes to take up a run with? They seem to be game for anything. There'll be a hanging match in the family if us boys don't look out.'

`There's no knowing,' says Jim, with a roguish look in his eye (I didn't think then how near the truth I was), `but it's about a horse this time.'

`Oh! a horse; that alters the matter. But what's one horse to make such a shine about?'

`Ah, that's the point,' says poor old Jim, `it's a horse worth talking about. Don't you remember the imported entire that they had his picture in the papers—him that Mr. Windhall gave £2000 for?'

`What! the Marquis of Lorne? Why, you don't mean to say they're going for him?'

`By George, I do!' says Jim; `and they'll have him here, and twenty blood mares to put to him, before September.'

`They're all gone mad—they'll raise the country on us. Every police trooper in the colony'll be after us like a pack of dingoes after an old man kangaroo when the ground's boggy, and they'll run us down, too; they can't be off it. Whatever made 'em think of such a big touch as that?'

`That Starlight's the devil, I think,' said Jim slowly. `Father didn't seem to like it at first, but he brought him round bit by bit—said he knew a squatter in Queensland he could pass him on to; that they'd keep him there for a year and get a crop of foals by him, and when the "derry" was off he'd take him over himself.'

`But how's he going to nail him? People say Windhall keeps him locked up at night, and his box is close to his house.'

`Starlight says he has a friend handy; he seems to have one or two everywhere. It's wonderful, as father told him, where he gets information.'

`By George! it would be a touch, and no mistake. And if we could get a few colts by him out of thoroughbred mares we might win half the races every year on our side and no one a bit the wiser.'

It did seem a grand sort of thing—young fools that we were—to get hold of this wonderful stallion that we'd heard so much of, as thoroughbred as Eclipse; good as anything England could turn out. I say again, if it weren't for the horse-flesh part of it, the fun and hard-riding and tracking, and all the rest of it, there wouldn't be anything like the cross-work that there is in Australia. It lies partly between that and the dry weather. There's the long spells of drought when nothing can be done by young or old. Sometimes for months you can't work in the garden, nor plough, nor sow, nor do anything useful to keep the devil out of your heart. Only sit at home and do nothing, or else go out and watch the grass witherin' and the water dryin' up, and the stock dyin' by inches before your eyes. And no change, maybe, for months. The ground like iron and the sky like brass, as the parson said, and very true, too, last Sunday.

Then the youngsters, havin' so much idle time on their hands, take to gaffin' and flash talk; and money must be got to sport and pay up if they lose; and the stock all ramblin' about and mixed up, and there's a temptation to collar somebody's calves or foals, like we did that first red heifer. I shall remember her to my dying day. It seems as if I had put that brand on my own heart when I jammed it down on her soft skin. Anyhow, I never forgot it, and there's many another like me, I'll be bound.

The next morning Jim and I started off home. Father said he should stay in the Hollow till Starlight got round a bit. He told us not to tell mother or Ailie a word about where we'd been. Of course they couldn't be off knowin' that we'd been with him; but we were to stall them off by saying we'd been helping him with a bit of bush-work or anything we could think off. `It'll do no good, and your mother's quite miserable enough as it is, boys,' he said. `She'll know time enough, and maybe break her heart over it, too. Poor Norah!'

Dashed if I ever heard father say a soft thing before. I couldn't 'a believed it. I always thought he was ironbark outside and in. But he seemed real sorry for once. And I was near sayin', `Why don't ye cut the whole blessed lot, then, and come home and work steady and make us all comfortable and happy?' But when I looked again his face was all changed and hard-like. `Off you go,' he says, with his old voice. `Next time I want either of you I'll send Warrigal for you.'

And with that he walked off from the yard where we had been catching our horses, and never looked nigh us again.

We rode away to the low end of the gully, and then we led the horses up, foot by foot, and hard work it was—like climbing up the roof of a house. We were almost done when we got to the tableland at the top.

We made our way to the yard, where there were the tracks of the cows all round about it, but nothing but the wild horses had ever been there since.

`What a scrubby hole it is!' said Jim; `I wonder how in the world they ever found out the way to the Hollow?'

`Some runaway Government men, I believe, so that half-caste chap told me, and a gin[1] showed 'em the track down, and where to get water and everything. They lived on kangaroos at first. Then, by degrees, they used to crawl out by moonlight and collar a horse or two or a few cattle. They managed to live there years and years; one died, one was killed by the blacks; the last man showed it to the chaps that passed it on to Starlight. Warrigal's mother, or aunt or something, was the gin that showed it to the first white men.'

  1. A black woman.