A new, startling, and flagrant outrage had been committed. The affair had been arranged with laborious foresight. The details had been carried out with only too great elaboration. The result was complete and successful. Her Majesty’s servants and lieges had been shot down in cold blood. The escort, always intimately associated with Government guarantee and protection, had been captured. Hard-working miners had been despoiled of their well-earned gold. And by whom had this been done? By whom planned, by whom carried out? Not by the fierce desperadoes of other climes, the probable outcome of piracies on the Spanish Main, of murders in Sonora, or gambling in the hells of San Francisco, but by ‘sons of the soil,’ as political patriotism forcibly expressed the fact, by men reared amid the forest-farms of the interior, who in their youth had been peaceful stockmen and station-labourers, who had followed the flocks or hunted the wild horse from boyhood, amid the streams and gullies of that very Yedden Mountain which rose dark and as if frowningly in the sight of the scene. It was to the philanthropist a grievous and discouraging fact. To the pessimist an unholy triumph. Well might the poet deprecate the auri sacra fames. Better hopes hitherto had been entertained. But now the country was obviously going to perdition; the men and women reared therein would be basely degenerate from a race whose flag the world had been forced to fear in war and respect in peace for a thousand years.
Such were the reflections of many honest Australian citizens, who deplored as deeply the nationality of the criminals as the criminality of the deed. In the meantime all imaginable steps were taken for the capture of the outlaws and the recovery of the treasure. With this latter attempt greater success was reached than with the former. So complete was the cordon with which the robber band was surrounded, so ceaseless the vigilance that left no hour of the day or night free from tireless tracking and close pursuit, that the heavily laden pack-horses with which they had commenced the transport of the gold boxes were abandoned, and the larger portion of the original gold recovered.
Among the treasure-trove lay, fortunately, sealed and accurately labelled, as were all the separate parcels, the leathern bag which contained the contribution of Greenstone Dyke, addressed to Mr. Hereward Pole, Bank of New Holland, Sydney. So that with the somewhat serious deduction of ‘a vision of sudden death,’ a gunshot wound hard by a vital spot, considerable loss of time, money, and peace of mind, matters in a few weeks would be much as they had been before my departure for Sydney.
But the capture of the band of outlaws was not so soon accomplished. Of all outlaws, the Australian bushranger has proved the most difficult to secure after a series of crimes has rendered him desperate.
‘Native, and to the manner born,’ he possesses natural advantages amid the wilds and fastnesses of the interior, with which the officials of the law find it difficult, in some cases impossible, to contend. A horseman of matchless skill and daring from childhood, with the best blood in England, aye even of the desert, often at his control, he is the equal of the Apache or the Comanchee in the saddle, their superior in strength and courage. In the broken and mountainous country near which he is generally concealed, he has the advantage of scouts of unrivalled activity and acuteness. These ‘bush telegraphs,’ as the modern robber slang has dubbed them, are of all avocations and both sexes.
The brown-faced urchin lounging after his father’s cows on a three-legged screw, with a ragged saddle and green-hide girth, fixes his watchful half-savage eyes upon the troopers as they enter the forest and disappear up the winding slate-strewed ravine. They wear rough tweed suits, and old felt hats; they are riding on stockmen’s saddles with rusty stirrup irons. But he knows them for all that, and marks them down unerringly. The bare-legged girl tending the small flock of sheep, or racing after the milker’s calves, meets the strange horsemen then camped by a creek, and demurely answers their questions as to strayed bullocks. She knows ‘the traps’ by a dozen signs visible to the initiated. And at midnight or before dawn the robber in the traditional cave or the dismal deserted hut knows that the avengers of blood are on his trail, and flees noiselessly as the night-hawk to yet more secluded haunts.
How should they be run down, surrounded, or surprised? Well armed, well mounted, fearless horsemen, and for the most part quick-eyed and keen of hearing as the hunted deer before the questing hound; strong in desperate need, and brave with the demoniac feeling that liberty and life have been forfeited irrevocably, small wonder that the latter-day bushrangers of the Australian continent have, ere now, for months and even years defied the concentrated efforts of the respectable portion of the community to arrest or exterminate them. Such bands have for months, even longer periods, sufficed to keep a whole country-side in a constant state of peril and anxiety. Appearing here on a given day, robbing the mail, and parading every traveller on a certain line of road with almost ludicrous impartiality—within forty-eight hours besieging an isolated station, or robbing a bank two hundred miles away.
After more weary days Dr. Winthrop, who had ridden hundreds of miles in my case alone, at length thought I was well enough to be moved.
‘By Jove! Harry, a narrow squeak,’ he said; ‘if the bullet had been from a navy revolver instead of one of those derringer toys, it would have made all the difference. Couldn’t have gone a thread closer without rupturing the cœliac axis. Mrs. Whats-her-name here has nursed you admirably. Old friend of yours, she says. Helped to save you as much as anything. Very pretty woman she is too. What’s she going to do now she’s left that brute her husband?’
‘Going home to her friends in England, and so you can tell any one that takes an interest in my affairs,’ I said, rather stiffly.
‘Quite right, quite right, glad to hear it,’ said the doctor. ‘People will talk, you know, especially at the diggings. Glad to know there’s no foundation, etc. Yarns get about. So the sooner you’re back at you’re own camp the better. I’ll tell the Major or Bulder they can drive over for you any day. A mattress laid on one of those light American traps wouldn’t shake you much. I suppose you heard about Merlin’s men picking up the pack-horse, with ever so many gold-bags—Greenstone Dyke lot all right among them, and so on.’
‘I did hear of it,’ I said languidly. ‘Caught any of the gang yet?’
‘No, confound them, and not likely to. The police are worked off their legs. Though they’ve been very near them once or twice, they’ve always got off. Been sticking up people and places all over the country; might catch me as I go back—no knowing. They’re never hard on the learned professions though. Sure to want them all some day. Good-bye, Harry.’
The day after this conversation Joe Bulder arrived with a quiet horse and a light tray buggy, the movable seat of which had been taken out. A mattress with all requirements in the shape of feather pillows, etc., contributed by a lady neighbour and Mrs. Yorke (for Cyrus had come over to work my share, and his wife refused to remain) was placed therein. With Joe’s help and that of Jane I was able with great difficulty, pale, tottering, and death-like, feeble as I was, to stretch myself on my improvised ambulance. Jane sat by my side, while Joe walked by the horse’s head, and patiently led the animal with a careful avoidance of all inequalities in the road.
‘Yon’s a queer start,’ he said, after a long pause. ‘If some of the folk at the Leys could see us three now, they’d think all the gold in Jewellers’ Point wouldn’t ha’ tempted them to cross seas. When word coomed as you was killed along o’ the sergeant and all the escort clean gutted, I felt loike as though I’d never stay another day in the land. I offered my share to Mr. Olivera for ten thousand down, and I’d ha’ been off back next mail sure as there’s hops in Kent. Dang the country and the people too. I’m nigh sick on it all. I could wish, loike some folk says, I’d never seen it.’
Jane gave a deep, half-unconscious sigh.
Joe had relapsed into his provincial dialect, as he generally did in moments of excitement, and doubtless failed for a short time to realise the very decided advance of his personal and pecuniary position, maugre even such adventures as gunshot wounds, escort robberies, and revolutions.
‘Never mind Joe, the battle’s not over yet,’ I said. ‘It’s not like an Englishman to jack up and give these fellows best. We’ll see some of these fellows hanged yet—those that are not shot, I mean. And talking of being hanged, was that fellow Malgrade at the township when the news came?’
‘Nay, that he was na,’ replied Joe, looking surprised, ‘for a man I know told me as he should go to his camp to borrow a long-handled shovel early that morning. They was both away, he and his mate too; yon long chap, as he always called Harry, him with the big whiskers. This man tells me they didn’t get back till nine o’clock; more than that, Harry’s big bay horse was knocked up, and Malgrade’s hadn’t no more than a crawl in him. They’d come a goodish step by that’n, and no mistake.’
‘How do you know, Joe?’
‘Why, you see, Malgrade’s horse is a bit of blood—only on the cross like himself; he’s won a good many races on the sly like, droppin’ in at country meetings on the quiet, and always in condition, and big Harry has been a cattle stealer every one says. He’s a heavy weight, but yon bay horse of his can carry him like as he was a schoolboy. They’d ridden no twenty mile that night, nor fifty neither, it’s my thinkin’.’
‘Had they anything with them?’
‘Not as he could see. Malgrade had a poncho on, and might have carried a bushel bag inside without any one being the wiser. But they didn’t want to talk. Malgrade had a stiff arm—said his nag had fell with him and chucked him ont’ the shovel, and he went off, as he was late for his work.’
‘I’ll lay my life both those fellows were in the robbery. I have a kind of recollection of a tall man on a big bay horse in the confusion, but of course they were all masked.’
‘They’d both rob a church, it’s my opinion of ’em,’ said Joe, ‘and Malgrade wouldn’t stick at cutting the priest’s throat after if there was aught to be made of it. As for big Harry, he’s an old pal of all those Yedden Mountain boys, for I’ve heard him say as much.’
‘If you talk any more you’ll undo all my nursing,’ said Jane with a wistful look, ‘and you do want to see the Leys again, and—another place, Hereward, don’t you?’
When I found myself back at the tent at the Oxley things looked much as usual. Indeed the passing wave of excitement consequent on ‘the unparalleled outrage,’ as the Beacon for once truly characterised the late occurrence, had long subsided. Events of considerable magnitude are so quick and recurrent in large mining centres that, as human nature is constituted, the mental expense of prolonged interest is too great to be borne. So having well digested the facts, stupendous as they might have appeared in an old-world place like the Leys, that the escort had been robbed, policemen shot, the gold carried off and partly recovered, Harry Pole, of No. 4 Liberator, and Greenstone, badly hurt, and the bushrangers still at large, eating and drinking, work and play, digging and dicing, litigation and love-making, crushing and washing up, were all being eagerly transacted at the Oxley, much as though nothing had ever happened contrary to the ordinary course of life.
Jane was temporarily located with Mrs. Yorke, and Cyrus bidden by his wife to betake himself to the nearest hotel for the present.
‘There’ll have to be some one to nurse Harry for a good month to come,’ said that matron, ‘and I’ve not got the time to do it, though I’d be willing enough, as he knows; but the cooking and the washing and the children’s quite enough for one woman these short days. Jane had better keep with me till Harry’s about again. She won’t do me no harm, poor thing, and my belief is she’d have been straight enough only for that brute of a husband of hers. Of course us poor women are blamed for everything. But what’s going to come of her when this hole through your poor side’s mended, Harry? She can’t live here for ever. There’ll be a lot of yarns about it as it is.’
‘Of course, she will go home to her friends in England, Mrs. Yorke. I was going to see about a ship for her this time, if I hadn’t been stopped. It’s very kind of you to have her here, I know. You may take my word for it that everything will be done for her by me that a man could do for his sister. We’re old friends, you know; and a man may have a true friendship for a countrywoman in her distress, I should hope.
‘Oh yes, I suppose so,’ said Mrs. Yorke, a little doubtfully, ‘not that I hold with running it too fine; when folks is young, and one of ’em that pretty as people in the street turn round to look at her, partic’lar on the diggings, where there’s a lot of curious women. Anyway, my character ain’t to be shook that easy, not if I was to take in worse than her for a spell. But I’ve known you, Harry Pole, these years, so I’ll take your word that everything’s on the square, and Cyrus says the same.’
‘Thank you very much, Mrs. Yorke, you may trust me. I hope I shall soon cease to be a bother to any one. And now tell me some of the news. None of these scoundrels caught yet?’
‘Not a half a one. The p’leece is doing their best night and day, nothing but telegrams and camping out and half killing themselves and their horses. Merlin’s lamed his old gray-horse, and got an awful cold, and is that savage no one durst speak to him. Malgrade met him one day, though, in the street.’
‘Ha! what did he say?’
‘Oh, he stops as cool as you please, and says, “Good morning, Mr. Merlin, may I ask if you have any news of the escort robbers?”
‘“The ruffians are neither shot nor taken yet, Mr. Malgrade,” and he looks as if his eyes was gimlets and would bore two holes right through him in no time. “I believe they receive intelligence from meaner villains than themselves who probably shared the plunder without the danger. I have reason to think there are men on this field even now that ought to be arrested on suspicion.”
‘Malgrade looked just as straight at him, Cyrus says, you’d have thought he was the honestest man in the world. Then he smiles a bit and shows his white teeth.
‘“Indeed,” he says, “how very interesting. No doubt you will get them all in time. Good morning.”
‘And he walks down the street as if the Banks belonged to him.’
‘Then Merlin suspects him?’
‘Of course he does; he and big Harry was in it up to their necks the diggers all say. But there’s no evidence, and I suppose law’s law. Yankee Tom says if they’d been where he’s been they’d have been “lynched” afore now.’
‘That’s all very well,’ I rejoin, ‘when you’re quite sure of the right man. But it’s awkward if mistakes are made. British law is the best and fairest, and quite generally reaches far enough in the long run.’
‘Well, it ought to be sure, for it’s awful slow at times; and if we lose No. 4 I’ll never believe in law nor justice again as long as I live. However, this claim’s shaping first-rate now. All you’ve got to do is to get on your legs again, and we’ll all have enough to keep us without soiling our hands for the rest of our lives, if every other man round Murderer’s Flat was a bush-ranger, and I don’t believe they’re much better.’
‘All’s well that ends well, Mrs. Yorke—which means that a good “washing-up” will fetch everything straight. We must trust in the Oxley “dirt” and a kind Providence.’
My wound, thanks to the tender tireless nursing of poor Jane, and the treatment of one of the cleverest surgeons in the southern hemisphere—a man well-nigh faultless, so that you could keep brandy from him and him from brandy—healed apace. Three months only had passed since the day when, with darkening eyes and flowing blood from a mortal-seeming wound, I was dimly conscious that our gold was in the hands of the spoiler.
Short seemed the interval, yet how had the great healer, Time, amended our lot. My hurt was as good as cured. I felt almost as well as ever. And the gold was all restored but a trifle of ten thousand ounces, hidden to this day. But Sergeant Webber lay quiet in his grave, and near him the young trooper, Rowan, poor, plucky, bright-eyed boy, not a year from England.
For a while now a season of unusual quietude seemed to have set in at the Oxley. There were no wars or rumours of wars as far as were known to us. The bushrangers certainly were not yet captured, but they did not again molest our district, and were beginning to wax faint as impressions on men’s minds. My full strength returned and I found myself soon as well fitted as ever to do my work and enjoy ‘God’s glorious oxygen’ again.
The washings-up were frequent and flourishing. Our credit balance mounted to a most respectable figure in the books of the Bank of New Holland. From time to time we saw Jane (who had resolutely refused to rejoin her husband) when she came out from her retirement to have a talk to Mrs. Yorke, by whose children she was held to be a beneficent fairy.
Having made so indifferent a start on this ever memorable occasion, it was only natural that I should postpone my next visit to the metropolis. The game was patently not worth the candle if one was liable to the trifling risk of losing one’s gold and being shot through the body afterwards. So I decided to stay quietly at my work until Christmas-time at least, then five or six months distant, and go down by Cobb and Co.’s coach in regular orthodox fashion.
Then the question of Jane Mangold (I never could call her by any other name) was a difficult one to settle. She took a lodging in the town, at an inn kept by a very decent kindly widow, who allowed her the free use of her own private parlour, and in every way maternised her. But it was a dismal, unsatisfactory mode of life. She resolutely refused to make other acquaintances, male or female, secluding herself as much as possible, and only appearing on such occasions as were necessary for her health. A blameless sequestered life in every sense was hers. Still we thought it unnecessary that our friendly intercourse should be altogether broken off. I was her only friend, and from time to time we indulged ourselves in conversation and harmless friendly intercourse. I promised her also that she should follow me down to Sydney when I went at Christmas-time, when I would make all arrangements for her passage and see her on board ship myself.
‘Oh, if you would!’ she said. ‘Sorry as I should be to see your face no more, still I should feel so utterly free from all care and anxiety—so uplifted to a region of bliss, if I were once fairly on board ship, homeward bound—that I could almost die for pure joy.’
‘And that joy you shall have, Jane,’ I said, ‘as sure as Christmas comes and we both live. I will not leave till you are safe on board and the vessel sailing. So have no further care in the matter. It is only four months now.’
‘But it is so much trouble,’ she sobbed, ‘and my passage money will be an expense to you. How shall I ever thank you, my only friend in this sore need?’
‘Where should I have been if you had not looked after me at Eugowra?’ I said jokingly. ‘Why, the doctor told me that nothing but your good nursing pulled me through. You have saved my life, remember.’
‘And you have given me mine in return,’ she said passionately. ‘A new life, a true and pure one henceforth, I swear to you, one that the angels will not blame when my hour comes. Always remember that, Hereward Pole; and may the good deed bring you the happiness you deserve, if ever man did, in the future.’
‘But, Jane,’ I said—
She lifted her hand with a rapid gesture of farewell—and was gone.