Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 9

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Well, away we went to this township. Bundah was the name of it; not that there was anything to do or see when we got there. It was the regular up-country village, with a public-house, a store, a pound, and a blacksmith's shop. However, a public-house is not such a bad place—at any rate it's better than nothing when a fellow's young and red-hot for anything like a bit of fun, or even a change. Some people can work away day after day, and year after year, like a bullock in a team or a horse in a chaff-cutting machine. It's all the better for them if they can, though I suppose they never enjoy themselves except in a cold-blooded sort of way. But there's other men that can't do that sort of thing, and it's no use talking. They must have life and liberty and a free range. There's some birds, and animals too, that either pine in a cage or kill themselves, and I suppose it's the same way with some men. They can't stand the cage of what's called honest labour, which means working for some one else for twenty or thirty years, never having a day to yourself, or doing anything you like, and saving up a trifle for your old age when you can't enjoy it. I don't wonder youngsters break traces and gallop off like a colt out of a team.

Besides, sometimes there's a good-looking girl even at a bush public, the daughter or the barmaid, and it's odd, now, what a difference that makes. There's a few glasses of grog going, a little noisy, rattling talk, a few smiles and a saucy answer or two from the girl, a look at the last newspaper, or a bit of the town news from the landlord; he's always time to read. Hang him—I mean confound him—for he's generally a sly old spider who sucks us fellows pretty dry, and then don't care what becomes of us. Well, it don't amount to much, but it's life—the only taste of it that chaps like us are likely to get. And people may talk as much as they like; boys, and men too, will like it, and take to it, and hanker after it, as long as the world lasts. There's danger in it, and misery, and death often enough comes of it, but what of that? If a man wants a swim on the seashore he won't stand all day on the beach because he may be drowned or snapped up by a shark, or knocked against a rock, or tired out and drawn under by the surf. No, if he's a man he'll jump in and enjoy himself all the more because the waves are high and the waters deep. So it was very good fun to us, simple as it might sound to some people. It was pleasant to be bowling along over the firm green turf, along the plain, through the forest, gully, and over the creek. Our horses were fresh, and we had a scurry or two, of course; but there wasn't one that could hold a candle to Jim's brown horse. He was a long-striding, smooth goer, but he got over the ground in wonderful style. He could jump, too, for Jim put him over a big log fence or two, and he sailed over them like a forester buck over the head of a fallen wattle.

Well, we'd had our lark at the Bundah Royal Hotel, and were coming home to tea at the station, all in good spirits, but sober enough, when, just as we were crossing one of the roads that came through the run—over the `Pretty Plain', as they called it—we heard a horse coming along best pace. When we looked who should it be but Miss Falkland, the owner's only daughter.

She was an only child, and the very apple of her father's eye, you may be sure. The shearers mostly knew her by sight, because she had taken a fancy to come down with her father a couple of times to see the shed when we were all in full work.

A shed's not exactly the best place for a young lady to come into. Shearers are rough in their language now and then. But every man liked and respected Mr. Falkland, so we all put ourselves on our best behaviour, and the two or three flash fellows who had no sense or decent feeling were warned that if they broke out at all they would get something to remember it by.

But when we saw that beautiful, delicate-looking creature stepping down the boards between the two rows of shearers, most of them stripped to their jerseys and working like steam-engines, looking curiously and pitifully at the tired men and the patient sheep, with her great, soft, dark eyes and fair white face like a lily, we began to think we'd heard of angels from heaven, but never seen one before.

Just as she came opposite Jim, who was trying to shear sheep and sheep with the `ringer' of the shed, who was next on our right, the wether he was holding kicked, and knocking the shears out of his hand, sent them point down against his wrist. One of the points went right in, and though it didn't cut the sinews, as luck would have it, the point stuck out at the other side; out spurted the blood, and Jim was just going to let out when he looked up and saw Miss Falkland looking at him, with her beautiful eyes so full of pity and surprise that he could have had his hand chopped off, so he told me afterwards, rather than vex her for a moment. So he shut up his mouth and ground his teeth together, for it was no joke in the way of pain, and the blood began to run like a blind creek after a thunderstorm.

`Oh! poor fellow. What a dreadful cut! Look, papa!' she cried out. `Hadn't something better be bound round it? How it bleeds! Does it pain much?'

`Not a bit, miss!' said Jim, standing up like a schoolboy going to say his lesson. `That is, it doesn't matter if it don't stop my shearing.'

`Tar!' sings out my next-door neighbour. `Here, boy; tar wanted for No. 36. That'll put it all right, Jim; it's only a scratch.'

`You mind your shearing, my man,' said Mr. Falkland quietly. `I don't know whether Mr. M`Intyre will quite approve of that last sheep of yours. This is rather a serious wound. The best thing is to bind it up at once.'

Before any one could say another word Miss Falkland had whipped out her soft fine cambric handkerchief and torn it in two.

`Hold up your hand,' she said. `Now, papa, lend me yours.' With the last she cleared the wound of the flowing blood, and then neatly and skilfully bound up the wrist firmly with the strips of cambric. This she further protected by her father's handkerchief, which she helped herself to and finally stopped the blood with.

Jim kept looking at her small white hands all the time she was doing it. Neither of us had ever seen such before—the dainty skin, the pink nails, the glittering rings.

`There,' she said, `I don't think you ought to shear any more to-day; it might bring on inflammation. I'll send to know how it gets on to-morrow.'

`No, miss; my grateful thanks, miss,' said Jim, opening his eyes and looking as if he'd like to drop down on his knees and pray to her. `I shall never forget your goodness, Miss Falkland, if I live till I'm a hundred.' Then Jim bent his head a bit—I don't suppose he ever made a bow in his life before—and then drew himself up as straight as a soldier, and Miss Falkland made a kind of bow and smile to us all and passed out.

Jim did shear all the same that afternoon, though the tally wasn't any great things. `I can't go and lie down in a bunk in the men's hut,' he said; `I must chance it,' and he did. Next day it was worse and very painful, but Jim stuck to the shears, though he used to turn white with the pain at times, and I thought he'd faint. However, it gradually got better, and, except a scar, Jim's hand was as good as ever.

Jim sent back Mr. Falkland's handkerchief after getting the cook to wash it and iron it out with a bit of a broken axletree; but the strips of white handkerchief—one had C. F. in the corner—he put away in his swag, and made some foolish excuse when I laughed at him about it.

She sent down a boy from the house next day to ask how Jim's hand was, and the day after that, but she never came to the shed any more. So we didn't see her again.

So it was this young lady that we saw coming tearing down the back road, as they called it, that led over the Pretty Plain. A good way behind we saw Mr. Falkland, but he had as much chance of coming up with her as a cattle dog of catching a `brush flyer'.

The stable boy, Billy Donnellan, had told us (of course, like all those sort of youngsters, he was fond of getting among the men and listening to them talk) all about Miss Falkland's new mare.

She was a great beauty and thoroughbred. The stud groom had bought her out of a travelling mob from New England when she was dog-poor and hardly able to drag herself along. Everybody thought she was going to be the best lady's horse in the district; but though she was as quiet as a lamb at first she had begun to show a nasty temper lately, and to get very touchy. `I don't care about chestnuts myself,' says Master Billy, smoking a short pipe as if he was thirty; `they've a deal of temper, and she's got too much white in her eye for my money. I'm afeard she'll do some mischief afore we've done with her; and Miss Falkland's that game as she won't have nothing done to her. I'd ride the tail off her but what I'd bring her to, if I had my way.'

So this was the brute that had got away with Miss Falkland, the day we were coming back from Bundah. Some horses, and a good many men and women, are all pretty right as long as they're well kept under and starved a bit at odd times. But give them an easy life and four feeds of corn a day, and they're troublesome brutes, and mischievous too.

It seems this mare came of a strain that had turned out more devils and killed more grooms and breakers than any other in the country. She was a Troubadour, it seems; there never was a Troubadour yet that wouldn't buck and bolt, and smash himself and his rider, if he got a fright, or his temper was roused. Men and women, horses and dogs, are very much alike. I know which can talk best. As to the rest, I don't know whether there's so much for us to be proud of.

It seems that this cranky wretch of a mare had been sideling and fidgeting when Mr. Falkland and his daughter started for their ride; but had gone pretty fairly—Miss Falkland, like my sister Aileen, could ride anything in reason—when suddenly a dead limb dropped off a tree close to the side of the road.

I believe she made one wild plunge, and set to; she propped and reared, but Miss Falkland sat her splendidly and got her head up. When she saw she could do nothing that way, she stretched out her head and went off as hard as she could lay legs to the ground.

She had one of those mouths that are not so bad when horses are going easy, but get quite callous when they are over-eager and excited. Anyhow, it was like trying to stop a mail-coach going down Mount Victoria with the brake off.

So what we saw was the wretch of a mare coming along as if the devil was after her, and heading straight across the plain at its narrowest part; it wasn't more than half-a-mile wide there, in fact, it was more like a flat than a plain. The people about Boree didn't see much open country, so they made a lot out of what they had.

The mare, like some women when they get their monkey up, was clean out of her senses, and I don't believe anything could have held her under a hide rope with a turn round a stockyard post. This was what she wanted, and if it had broken her infernal neck so much the better.

Miss Falkland was sitting straight and square, with her hands down, leaning a bit back, and doing her level best to stop the brute. Her hat was off and her hair had fallen down and hung down her back—plenty of it there was, too. The mare's neck was stretched straight out; her mouth was like a deal board, I expect, by that time.

We didn't sit staring at her all the time, you bet. We could see the boy ever so far off. We gathered up our reins and went after her, not in a hurry, but just collecting ourselves a bit to see what would be the best way to wheel the brute and stop her.

Jim's horse was far and away the fastest, and he let out to head the mare off from a creek that was just in front and at the end of the plain.

`By George!' said one of the men—a young fellow who lived near the place—`the mare's turning off her course, and she's heading straight for the Trooper's Downfall, where the policeman was killed. If she goes over that, they'll be smashed up like a matchbox, horse and rider.'

`What's that?' I said, closing up alongside of him. We were all doing our best, and were just in the line to back up Jim, who looked as if he was overhauling the mare fast.

`Why, it's a bluff a hundred feet deep—a straight drop—and rocks at the bottom. She's making as straight as a bee-line for it now, blast her!'

`And Jim don't know it,' I said; `he's closing up to her, but he doesn't calculate to do it for a quarter of a mile more; he's letting her take it out of herself.'

`He'll never catch her in time,' said the young chap. `My God! it's an awful thing, isn't it? and a fine young lady like her—so kind to us chaps as she was.'

`I'll see if I can make Jim hear,' I said, for though I looked cool I was as nearly mad as I could be to think of such a girl being lost before our eyes. `No, I can't do that, but I'll telegraph.'