However, one day, as we was sitting on the rails, talking away quite comfortable, we heard one butcher say to another, ‘My word, this is a smart bit of cattle-duffing—a thousand head too!’ ‘What’s that?’ says the other man. ‘Why, haven’t you heard of it?’ says the first one, and he pulls a paper out of his pocket, with this in big letters: ‘Great Cattle Robbery.—A thousand head of Mr. Hood’s cattle were driven off and sold in Adelaide. Warrants are out for the suspected parties, who are supposed to have left the colony.’ Here was a bit of news! We felt as if we could hardly help falling off the rails; but we didn’t show it, of course, and sat there for half-an-hour, talking to the buyers and sellers and cracking jokes like the others. But we got away home as soon as we could, and then we began to settle what we should do.
Warrants were out, of course, for Starlight, and us too. He was known, and so were we. Our descriptions were sure to be ready to send out all over the country. Warrigal they mightn’t have noticed. It was common enough to have a black boy or a half-caste with a lot of travelling cattle. Father had not shown up much. He had an old pea-jacket on, and they mightn’t have dropped down to him or the three other chaps that were in it with us; they were just like any other road hands. But about there being warrants out, with descriptions, in all the colonies, for a man to be identified, but generally known as Starlight, and for Richard and James Marston, we were as certain as that we were in St. Kilda, in a nice quiet little inn, overlooking the beach; and what a murder it was to have to leave it at all.
Leave the place we had to do at once. It wouldn’t do to be strollin’ about Melbourne with the chance of every policeman we met taking a look at us to see if we tallied with a full description they had at the office: ‘Richard and James Marston are twenty-five and twenty-two, respectively; both tall and strongly built; having the appearance of bushmen. Richard Marston has a scar on left temple. James Marston has lost a front tooth,’ and so on. When we came to think of it, they couldn’t be off knowing us, if they took it into their heads to bail us up any day. They had our height and make. We couldn’t help looking like bushmen—like men that had been in the open air all their lives, and that had a look as if saddle and bridle rein were more in our way than the spade and plough-handle. We couldn’t wash the tan off our skins; faces, necks, arms, all showed pretty well that we’d come from where the sun was hot, and that we’d had our share of it. They had my scar, got in a row, and Jim’s front tooth, knocked out by a fall from a horse when he was a boy; there was nothing for it but to cut and run.
‘It was time for us to go, my boys,’ as the song the Yankee sailor sung us one night runs, and then, which way to go? Every ship was watched that close a strange rat couldn’t get a passage, and, besides, we had that feeling we didn’t like to clear away altogether out of the old country; there was mother and Aileen still in it, and every man, woman, and child that we’d known ever since we were born. A chap feels that, even if he ain’t much good other ways. We couldn’t stand the thought of clearin’ out for America, as Starlight advised us. It was like death to us, so we thought we’d chance it somewhere in Australia for a bit longer.
Now where we put up a good many drovers from Gippsland used to stay, as they brought in cattle from there. The cattle had to be brought over Swanston Street Bridge and right through the town after twelve o’clock at night. We’d once or twice, when we’d been out late, stopped to look at them, and watched the big heavy bullocks and fat cows staring and starting and slipping all among the lamps and pavements, with the street all so strange and quiet, and laughed at the notion of some of the shopkeepers waking up and seeing a couple of hundred wild cattle, with three or four men behind ’em, shouldering and horning one another, then rushing past their doors at a hard trot, or breaking into a gallop for a bit.
Some of these chaps, seeing we was cattle-men and knew most things in that line, used to open out about where they’d come from, and what a grand place Gippsland was—splendid grass country, rivers that run all the year round, great fattening country; and snowy mountains at the back, keeping everything cool in the summer. Some of the mountain country, like Omeo, that they talked a lot of, seemed about one of the most out-of-the-way places in the world. More than that, you could get back to old New South Wales by way of the Snowy River, and then on to Monaro. After that we knew where we were.
Going away was easy enough, in a manner of speaking; but we’d been a month in Melbourne, and when you mind that we were not bad-looking chaps, fairishly dressed, and with our pockets full of money, it was only what might be looked for if we had made another friend or two besides Mrs. Morrison, the landlady of our inn, and Gippsland drovers. When we had time to turn round a bit in Melbourne of course we began to make a few friends. Wherever a man goes, unless he keeps himself that close that he won’t talk to any one or let any one talk to him, he’s sure to find some one he likes to be with better than another. If he’s old and done with most of his fancies, except smokin’ and drinkin’ it’s a man. If he’s young and got his life before him it’s a woman. So Jim and I hadn’t been a week in Melbourne before we fell across a couple of—well, friends—that we were hard set to leave. It was a way of mine to walk down to the beach every evening and have a look at the boats in the bay and the fishermen, if there were any—anything that might be going on. Sometimes a big steamer would be coming in, churning the water under her paddles and tearing up the bay like a hundred bunyips. The first screw-boat Jim and I saw we couldn’t make out for the life of us what she moved by. We thought all steamers had paddles. Then the sailing boats, flying before the breeze like seagulls, and the waves, if it was a rough day, rolling and beating and thundering on the beach. I generally stayed till the stars came out before I went back to the hotel. Everything was so strange and new to a man who’d seen so little else except green trees that I was never tired of watching, and wondering, and thinking what a little bit of a shabby world chaps like us lived in that never seen anything but a slab hut, maybe, all the year round, and a bush public on high days and holidays.
Sometimes I used to feel as if we hadn’t done such a bad stroke in cutting loose from all this. But then the horrible feeling would come back of never being safe, even for a day, of being dragged off and put in the dock, and maybe shut up for years and years. Sometimes I used to throw myself down upon the sand and curse the day when I ever did anything that I had any call to be ashamed of and put myself in the power of everything bad and evil in all my life through.
Well, one day I was strolling along, thinking about these things, and wondering whether there was any other country where a man could go and feel himself safe from being hounded down for the rest of his life, when I saw a woman walking on the beach ahead of me. I came up with her before long, and as I passed her she turned her head and I saw she was one of two girls that we had seen in the landlady’s parlour one afternoon. The landlady was a good, decent Scotch woman, and had taken a fancy to both of us (particularly to Jim—as usual). She thought—she was that simple—that we were up-country squatters from some far-back place, or overseers. Something in the sheep or cattle line everybody could see that we were. There was no hiding that. But we didn’t talk about ourselves overmuch, for very good reasons. The less people say the more others will wonder and guess about you. So we began to be looked upon as bosses of some sort, and to be treated with a lot of respect that we hadn’t been used to much before. So we began to talk a bit—natural enough—this girl and I. She was a good-looking girl, with a wonderful fresh clear skin, full of life and spirits, and pretty well taught. She and her sister had not been a long time in the country; their father was dead, and they had to live by keeping a very small shop and by dressmaking. They were some kind of cousins of the landlady and the same name, so they used to come and see her of evenings and Sundays. Her name was Kate Morrison and her sister’s was Jeanie. This and a lot more she told me before we got back to the hotel, where she said she was going to stay that night and keep Mrs. Morrison company.
After this we began to be a deal better acquainted. It all came easy enough. The landlady thought she was doing the girls a good turn by putting them in the way of a couple of hard-working well-to-do fellows like us; and as Jim and the younger one, Jeanie, seemed to take a fancy to each other, Mrs. Morrison used to make up boating parties, and we soon got to know each other well enough to be joked about falling in love and all the rest of it.
After a bit we got quite into the way of calling for Kate and Jeanie after their day’s work was done, and taking them out for a walk. I don’t know that I cared so much for Kate in those days anyhow, but by degrees we got to think that we were what people call in love with each other. It went deeper with her than me, I think. It mostly does with women. I never really cared for any woman in the world except Gracey Storefield, but she was far away, and I didn’t see much likelihood of my being able to live in that part of the world, much less to settle down and marry there. So, though we’d broken a six-pence together and I had my half, I looked upon her as ever so much beyond me and out of my reach, and didn’t see any harm in amusing myself with any woman that I might happen to fall across.
So, partly from idleness, partly from liking, and partly seeing that the girl had made up her mind to throw in her lot with me for good and all, I just took it as it came; but it meant a deal more than that, if I could have foreseen the end.
I hadn’t seen a great many women, and had made up my mind that, except a few bad ones, they was mostly of one sort—good to lead, not hard to drive, and, above all, easy to see through and understand.
I often wonder what there was about this Kate Morrison to make her so different from other women; but she was born unlike them, I expect. Anyway, I never met another woman like her. She wasn’t out-and-out handsome, but there was something very taking about her. Her figure was pretty near as good as a woman’s could be; her step was light and active; her feet and hands were small, and she took a pride in showing them. I never thought she had any temper different from other women; but if I’d noticed her eyes, surely I’d have seen it there. There was something very strange and out of the way about them. They hardly seemed so bright when you looked at them first; but by degrees, if she got roused and set up about anything, they’d begin to burn with a steady sort of glitter that got fiercer and brighter till you’d think they’d burn everything they looked at. The light in them didn’t go out again in a hurry, either. It seemed as if those wonderful eyes would keep on shining, whether their owner wished it or not.
I didn’t find out all about her nature at once—trust a woman for that. Vain and fond of pleasure I could see she was; and from having been always poor, in a worrying, miserable, ill-contented way, she had got to be hungry for money and jewels and fine clothes; just like a person that’s been starved and shivering with cold longs for a fire and a full meal and a warm bed. Some people like these things when they can get them; but others never seem to think about anything else, and would sell their souls or do anything in the whole world to get what their hearts are set on. When men are like this they’re dangerous, but they hardly hurt anybody, only themselves. When women are born with hearts of this sort it’s a bad look-out for everybody they come near. Kate Morrison could see that I had money. She thought I was rich, and she made up her mind to attract me, and go shares in my property, whatever it might be. She won over her younger sister, Jeanie, to her plans, and our acquaintance was part of a regular put-up scheme. Jeanie was a soft, good-tempered, good-hearted girl, with beautiful fair hair, blue eyes, and the prettiest mouth in the world. She was as good as she was pretty, and would have worked away without grumbling in that dismal little shop from that day to this, if she’d been let alone. She was only just turned seventeen. She soon got to like Jim a deal too well for her own good, and used to listen to his talk about the country across the border, and such simple yarns as he could tell her, poor old Jim! until she said she’d go and live with him under a salt-bush if he’d come back and marry her after Christmas. And of course he did promise. He didn’t see any harm in that. He intended to come back if he could, and so did I for that matter. Well, the long and short of it was that we were both regularly engaged and had made all kinds of plans to be married at Christmas and go over to Tasmania or New Zealand, when this terrible blow fell upon us like a shell. I did see one explode at a review in Melbourne—and, my word! what a scatteration it made.
Well, we had to let Kate and Jeanie know the best way we could that our business required us to leave Melbourne at once, and that we shouldn’t be back till after Christmas, if then.
It was terrible hard work to make out any kind of a story that would do. Kate questioned and cross-questioned me about the particular kind of business that called us away like a lawyer (I’ve seen plenty of that since) until at last I was obliged to get a bit cross and refuse to answer any more questions.
Jeanie took it easier, and was that down-hearted and miserable at parting with Jim that she hadn’t the heart to ask any questions of any one, and Jim looked about as dismal as she did. They sat with their hands in each other’s till it was nearly twelve o’clock, when the old mother came and carried the girls off to bed. We had to start at daylight next morning; but we made up our minds to leave them a hundred pounds apiece to keep for us until we came back, and promised if we were alive to be at St. Kilda next January, which they had to be contented with.
Jeanie did not want to take the money; but Jim said he’d very likely lose it, and so persuaded her.
We were miserable and low-spirited enough ourselves at the idea of going away all in a hurry. We had come to like Melbourne, and had bit by bit cheated ourselves into thinking that we might live comfortably and settle down in Victoria, out of reach of our enemies, and perhaps live and die unsuspected.
From this dream we were roused up by the confounded advertisement. Detectives and constables would be seen to be pretty thick in all the colonies, and we could not reasonably expect not to be taken some time or other, most likely before another week.
We thought it over and over again, in every way. The more we thought over it the more dangerous it seemed to stop in Melbourne. There was only one thing for it, that was to go straight out of the country. The Gippsland men were the only bushmen we knew at all well, and perhaps that door might shut soon.
So we paid our bill. They thought us a pair of quiet, respectable chaps at that hotel, and never would believe otherwise. People may say what they like, but it’s a great thing to have some friends that can say of you—
‘Well, I never knew no harm of him; a better tempered chap couldn’t be; and all the time we knowed him he was that particular about his bills and money matters that a banker couldn’t have been more regular. He may have had his faults, but we never seen ’em. I believe a deal that was said of him wasn’t true, and nothing won’t ever make me believe it.’
These kind of people will stand up for you all the days of your life, and stick to you till the very last moment, no matter what you turn out to be. Well, there’s something pleasant in it; and it makes you think human nature ain’t quite such a low and paltry thing as some people tries to make out. Anyhow, when we went away our good little landlady and her sister was that sorry to lose us, as you’d have thought they was our blood relations. As for Jim, every one in the house was fit to cry when he went off, from the dogs and cats upwards. Jim never was in no house where everybody didn’t seem to take naturally to him. Poor old Jim!
We bought a couple of horses, and rode away down to Sale with these chaps that had sold their cattle in Melbourne and was going home. It rained all the way, and it was the worst road by chalks we’d ever seen in our lives; but the soil was wonderful, and the grass was something to talk about; we’d hardly ever seen anything like it. A few thousand acres there would keep more stock than half the country we’d been used to.
We didn’t stay more than a day or so in Sale. Every morning at breakfast some one was sure to turn up the paper and begin jabbering about the same old infernal business, Hood’s cattle, and what a lot were taken, and whether they’ll catch Starlight and the other men, and so on.
We heard of a job at Omeo while we were in Sale, which we thought would just about suit us. All the cattle on a run there were to be mustered and delivered to a firm of stock agents that had bought them; they wanted people to do it by contract at so much a head. Anybody who took it must have money enough to buy stock horses. The price per head was pretty fair, what would pay well, and we made up our minds to go in for it.
So we made a bargain; bought two more horses each, and started away for Omeo. It was near 200 miles from where we were. We got up there all right, and found a great rich country with a big lake, I don’t know how many feet above the sea. The cattle were as wild as hares, but the country was pretty good to ride over. We were able to keep our horses in good condition in the paddocks, and when we had mustered the whole lot we found we had a handsome cheque to get.
It was a little bit strange buckling to after the easy life we’d led for the last few months; but after a day or two we found ourselves as good men as ever, and could spin over the limestone boulders and through the thick mountain timber as well as ever we did. A man soon gets right again in the fresh air of the bush; and as it used to snow there every now and then the air was pretty fresh, you bet, particularly in the mornings and evenings.
After we’d settled up we made up our minds to get as far as Monaro, and wait there for a month or two. After that we might go in for the shearing till Christmas, and then whatever happened we would both make a strike back for home, and have one happy week, at any rate, with mother and Aileen.
We tried as well as we could to keep away from the large towns and the regular mail coach road. We worked on runs where the snow came down every now and then in such a way as to make us think that we might be snowed up alive some fine morning. It was very slow and tedious work, but the newspapers seldom came there, and we were not worried day after day with telegrams about our Adelaide stroke, and descriptions of Starlight’s own look and way of speaking. We got into the old way of working hard all day and sleeping well at night. We could eat and drink well; the corned beef and the damper were good, and Jim, like when we were at the back of Boree when Warrigal came, wished that we could stick to this kind of thing always, and never have any fret or crooked dealings again as long as we lived.
But it couldn’t be done. We had to leave and go shearing when the spring came on. We did go, and went from one big station to the other when the spring was regularly on and shearers were scarce. By and by the weather gets warmer, and we had cut our last shed before the first week in December.
Then we couldn’t stand it any longer.
‘I don’t care,’ says Jim, ‘if there’s a policeman standing at every corner of the street, I must make a start for home. They may catch us, but our chance is a pretty good one; and I’d just as soon be lagged outright as have to hide and keep dark and moulder away life in some of these God-forsaken spots.’
So we made up to start for home and chance it. We worked our way by degrees up the Snowy River, by Buchan and Galantapee, and gradually made towards Balooka and Buckley’s Crossing. On the way we crossed some of the roughest country we had ever seen or ridden over.
‘My word, Dick,’ said Jim one day, as we were walking along and leading our horses, ‘we could find a place here if we were hard pushed near as good for hiding in as the Hollow. Look at that bit of tableland that runs up towards Black Mountain, any man that could find a track up to it might live there for a year and all the police of the country be after him.’
‘What would he get to eat if he was there?’
‘That long chap we stayed with at Wargulmerang told us that there were wild cattle on all those tablelands. Often they get snowed up in winter and die, making a circle in the snow. Then fish in all the creeks, besides the old Snowy, and there are places on the south side of him that people didn’t see once in five years. I believe I shall make a camp for myself on the way, and live in it till they’ve forgot all about these cursed cattle. Rot their hides, I wish we’d never have set eyes on one of them.’
‘So do I; but like many things in the world it’s too late—too late, Jim!’