I came along quiet. I knew she’d be glad to see me—but, bless you, she and mother cared more for Jim’s little finger than for my whole body. Some people have a way of gettin’ the biggest share of nearly everybody’s liking that comes next or anigh ’em. I don’t know how it’s done, or what works it. But so it is; and Jim could always count on every man, woman, and child, wherever he lived, wearing his colours and backing him right out, through thick and thin.
When I came up Aileen was saying—
‘Oh, Jim, my dear old Jim! now I’ll die happy; mother and I were only talking of you to-day, and wondering whether we should see you at Christmas—and now you have come. Oh, Dick! and you too. But we shall be frightened every time we hear a horse’s tread or dog’s bark.’
‘Well, we’re here now, Aileen, and that’s something. I had a great notion of clearing out for San Francisco and turning Yankee. What would you have done then?’
We walked up to the house, leading our horses, Jim and Aileen hand in hand. Mother looked up and gave a scream; she nearly fell down; when we got in her face was as white as a sheet.
‘Mother of Mercy! I vowed to you for this,’ she said; ‘sure she hears our prayers. I wanted to see ye both before I died, and I didn’t think you’d come. I was afraid ye’d be dreadin’ the police, and maybe stay away for good and all. The Lord be thanked for all His mercies!’
We went in and enjoyed our tea. We had had nothing to eat that day since breakfast; but better than all was Aileen’s pleasant, clever tongue, though she said it was getting stiff for want of exercise. She wanted to know all about our travels, and was never tired of listening to Jim’s stories of the wonders we had seen in the great cities and the strange places we had been to.
‘Oh! how happy you must have been!’ she would say, ‘while we have been pining and wearying here, all through last spring and summer, and then winter again—cold and miserable it was last year; and now Christmas has come again. Don’t go away again for a good while, or mother and I’ll die straight out.’
Well, what could we say? Tell her we’d never go away at all if we could help it—only she must be a good girl and make the best of things, for mother’s sake? When had she seen father last?
‘Oh! he was away a good while once; that time you and Jim were at Mr. Falkland’s back country. You must have had a long job then; no wonder you’ve got such good clothes and look so smartened up like. He comes every now and then, just like he used. We never know what’s become of him.’
‘When was he here last?’
‘Oh! about a month ago. He said he might be here about Christmas; but he wasn’t sure. And so you saved Miss Falkland from being killed off her horse, Jim? Tell me all about it, like a good boy, and what sort of a looking young lady is she?’
‘All right,’ said Jim. ‘I’ll unload the story bag before we get through; there’s a lot in there yet; but I want to look at you and hear you talk just now. How’s George Storefield?’
‘Oh! he’s just the same good, kind, steady-going fellow he always was,’ says she. ‘I don’t know what we should do without him when you’re away. He comes and helps with the cows now and then. Two of the horses got into Bargo pound, and he went and released them for us. Then a storm blew off best part of the roof of the barn, and the bit of wheat would have been spoiled only for him. He’s the best friend we have.’
‘You’d better make sure of him for good and all,’ I said. ‘I suppose he’s pretty well-to-do now with that new farm he bought the other day.’
‘Oh! you saw that,’ she said. ‘Yes; he bought out the Cumberers. They never did any good with Honeysuckle Flat, though the land was so good. He’s going to lay it all down in lucerne, he says.’
‘And then he’ll smarten up the cottage, and sister Aileen ’ll go over, and live in it,’ says Jim; ‘and a better thing she couldn’t do.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Poor George, I wish I was fonder of him. There never was a better man, I believe; but I cannot leave mother yet, so it’s no use talking.’ Then she got up and went in.
‘That’s the way of the world,’ says Jim. ‘George worships the ground she treads on, and she can’t make herself care two straws about him. Perhaps she will in time. She’ll have the best home and the best chap in the whole district if she does.’
‘There’s a deal of “if” in this world,’ I said; ‘and “if” we’re “copped” on account of that last job, I’d like to think she and mother had some one to look after them, good weather and bad.’
‘We might have done that, and not killed ourselves with work either,’ said Jim, rather sulkily for him; and he lit his pipe and walked off into the bush without saying another word.
I thought, too, how we might have been ten times, twenty times, as happy if we’d only kept on steady ding-dong work, like George Storefield, having patience and seeing ourselves get better off—even a little—year by year. What had he come to? And what lay before us? And though we were that fond of poor mother and Aileen that we would have done anything in the world for them—that is, we would have given our lives for them any day—yet we had left them—father, Jim, and I—to lead this miserable, lonesome life, looked down upon by a lot of people not half good enough to tie their shoes, and obliged to a neighbour for help in every little distress.
Jim and I thought we’d chance a few days at home, no matter what risk we ran; but still we knew that if warrants were out the old home would be well watched, and that it was the first place the police would come to. So we made up our minds not to sleep at home, but to go away every night to an old deserted shepherd’s hut, a couple of miles up the gully, that we used to play in when we were boys. It had been strongly built at first; time was not much matter then, and there were no wages to speak of, so that it was a good shelter. The weather was that hot, too, it was just as pleasant sleeping under a tree as anywhere else. So we didn’t show at home more than one at a time, and took care to be ready for a bolt at any time, day or night, when the police might show themselves. Our place was middling clear all round now, and it was hard for any one on horseback to get near it without warning; and if we could once reach the gully we knew we could run faster than any man could ride.
One night, latish, just as we were walking off to our hut there was a scratching at the door; when we opened it there was old Crib! He ran up to both of us and smelt round our legs for a minute to satisfy himself; then jumped up once to each of us as if he thought he ought to do the civil thing, wagged his stump of a tail, and laid himself down. He was tired, and had come a long way. We could see that, and that he was footsore too. We knew that father wasn’t so very far off, and would soon be in. If there’d been anybody strange there Crib would have run back fast enough; then father’d have dropped there was something up and not shown. No fear of the dog not knowing who was right and who wasn’t. He could tell every sort of a man a mile off, I believe. He knew the very walk of the police troopers’ horses, and would growl, father said, if he heard their hoofs rattle on the stones of the road.
About a quarter of an hour after father walks in, quiet as usual. Nothing never made no difference to him, except he thought it was worth while. He was middlin’ glad to see us, and behaved kind enough to mother, so the poor soul looked quite happy for her. It was little enough of that she had for her share. By and by father walks outside with us, and we had a long private talk.
It was a brightish kind of starlight night. As we walked down to the creek I thought how often Jim and I had come out on just such a night ’possum hunting, and came home so tired that we were hardly able to pull our boots off. Then we had nothing to think about when we woke in the morning but to get in the cows; and didn’t we enjoy the fresh butter and the damper and bacon and eggs at breakfast time! It seems to me the older people get the more miserable they get in this world. If they don’t make misery for themselves other people do it for ’em; or just when everything’s going straight, and they’re doing their duty first-rate and all that, some accident happens ’em just as if they was the worst people in the world. I can’t make it out at all.
‘Well, boys,’ says dad, ‘you’ve been lucky so far; suppose you had a pretty good spree in Melbourne? You seen the game was up by the papers, didn’t you? But why didn’t you stay where you were?’
‘Why, of course, that brought us away,’ says Jim; ‘we didn’t want to be fetched back in irons, and thought there was more show for it in the bush here.’
‘But even if they’d grabbed Starlight,’ says the old man, ‘you’d no call to be afeard. Not much chance of his peaching, if it had been a hanging matter.’
‘You don’t mean to say there ain’t warrants against us and the rest of the lot?’ I said.
‘There’s never a warrant out agin any one but Starlight,’ said the old man. ‘I’ve had the papers read to me regular, and I rode over to Bargo and saw the reward of £200 (a chap alongside of me read it) as is offered for a man generally known as Starlight, supposed to have left the country; but not a word about you two and me, or the boy, or them other coves.’
‘So we might as well have stayed where we were, Jim.’ Jim gave a kind of groan. ‘Still, when you look at it, isn’t it queer,’ I went on, ‘that they should only spot Starlight and leave us out? It looks as if they was keepin’ dark for fear of frightening us out of the country, but watching all the same.’
‘It’s this way I worked it,’ says father, rubbing his tobacco in his hands the old way, and bringing out his pipe: ‘they couldn’t be off marking down Starlight along of his carryin’ on so. Of course he drawed notice to himself all roads. But the rest of us only come in with the mob, and soon as they was sold stashed the camp and cleared out different ways. Them three fellers is in Queensland long ago, and nobody was to know them from any other road hands. I was back with the old mare and Bilbah in mighty short time. I rode ’em night and day, turn about, and they can both travel. You kept pretty quiet, as luck had it, and was off to Melbourne quick. I don’t really believe they dropped to any of us, bar Starlight; and if they don’t nab him we might get shut of it altogether. I’ve known worse things as never turned up in this world, and never will now.’ Here the old man showed his teeth as if he were going to laugh, but thought better of it.
‘Anyhow, we’d made it up to come home at Christmas,’ says Jim; ‘but it’s all one. It would have saved us a deal of trouble in our minds all the same if we’d known there was no warrants out after us two. I wonder if they’ll nail Starlight.’
‘They can’t be well off it,’ says father. ‘He’s gone off his head, and stopped in some swell town in New Zealand—Canterbury, I think it’s called—livin’ tiptop among a lot of young English swells, instead of makin’ off for the Islands, as he laid out to do.’
‘How do you know he’s there?’ I said.
‘I know, and that’s enough,’ snarls father. ‘I hear a lot in many ways about things and people that no one guesses on, and I know this—that he’s pretty well marked down by old Stillbrook the detective as went down there a month ago.’
‘But didn’t you warn him?’
‘Yes, of course, as soon as I heard tell; but it’s too late, I’m thinking. He has the devil’s luck as well as his own, but I always used to tell him it would fail him yet.’
‘I believe you’re the smartest man of the crowd, dad,’ says Jim, laying his hand on father’s shoulder. He could pretty nigh get round the old chap once in a way, could Jim, surly as he was. ‘What do you think we’d better do? What’s our best dart?’
Father shook off his hand, but not roughly, and his voice wasn’t so hard when he said—
‘Why, stop at home quiet, of course, and sleep in your beds at night. Don’t go planting in the gully, or some one ’ll think you’re wanted, and let on to the police. Ride about the country till I give you the office. Never fear but I’ll have word quick enough. Go about and see the neighbours round just as usual.’
Jim and I was quite stunned by this bit of news; no doubt we was pretty sorry as ever we left Melbourne, but there was nothing for it now but to follow it out. After all, we were at home, and it was pleasant to think we wouldn’t be hunted for a bit and might ride about the old place and enjoy ourselves a bit. Aileen was as happy as the day was long, and poor mother used to lay her head on Jim’s neck and cry for joy to have him with her. Even father used to sit in the front, under the quinces, and smoke his pipe, with old Crib at his feet, most as if he thought he was happy. I wonder if he ever looked back to the days when he was a farmin’ boy and hadn’t took to poaching? He must have been a smart, handy kind of lad, and what a different look his face must have had then!
We had our own horses in pretty good trim, so we foraged up Aileen’s mare, and made it up to ride over to George Storefield’s, and gave him a look-up. He’d been away when we came, and now we heard he was home.
‘George has been doing well all this time, of course,’ I said. ‘I expect he’ll turn squatter some day and be made a magistrate.’
‘Like enough,’ says Jim. ‘More than one we could pick began lower down than him, and sits on the Bench and gives coves like us a turn when we’re brought up before ’em. Fancy old George sayin’, “Is anything known, constable, of this prisoner’s anterseedents?” as I heard old Higgler say one day at Bargo.’
‘Why do you make fun of these things, Jim, dear?’ says Aileen, looking so solemn and mournful like. ‘Oughtn’t a steady worker to rise in life, and isn’t it sad to see cleverer men and better workers—if they liked—kept down by their own fault?’
‘Why wasn’t your roan mare born black or chestnut?’ says Jim, laughing, and pretending to touch her up. ‘Come along, and let’s see if she can trot as well as she used to do?’
‘Poor Lowan,’ says she, patting the mare’s smooth neck (she was a wonderful neat, well-bred, dark roan, with black points—one of dad’s, perhaps, that he’d brought her home one time he was in special good humour about something. Where she was bred or how, nobody ever knew); ‘she was born pretty and good. How little trouble her life gives her. It’s a pity we can’t all say as much, or have as little on our minds.’
‘Whose fault’s that?’ says Jim. ‘The dingo must live as well as the collie or the sheep either. One’s been made just the same as the other. I’ve often watched a dingo turn round twice, and then pitch himself down in the long grass like as if he was dead. He’s not a bad sort, old dingo, and has a good time of it as long as it lasts.’
‘Yes, till he’s trapped or shot or poisoned some day, which he always is,’ said Aileen bitterly. ‘I wonder any man should be content with a wicked life and a shameful death.’ And she struck Lowan with a switch, and spun down the slope of the hill between the trees like a forester-doe with the hunter-hound behind her.
When we came up with her she was all right again, and tried to smile. Whatever put her out for the time she always worked things by kindness, and would lead us straight if she could. Driven, she knew we couldn’t be; and I believe she did us about ten times as much good that way as if she had scolded and raged, or even sneered at us.
When we rode up to Mr. Storefield’s farm we were quite agreeable and pleasant again, Jim makin’ believe his horse could walk fastest, and saying that her mare’s pace was only a double shuffle of an amble like Bilbah’s, and she declaring that the mare’s was a true walk—and so it was. The mare could do pretty well everything but talk, and all her paces were first-class.
Old Mrs. Storefield was pottering about in the garden with a big sun-bonnet on. She was a great woman for flowers.
‘Come along in, Aileen, my dear,’ she said. ‘Gracey’s in the dairy; she’ll be out directly. George only came home yesterday. Who be these you’ve got with ye? Why, Dick!’ she says, lookin’ again with her sharp, old, gray eyes, ‘it’s you, boy, is it? Well, you’ve changed a deal too; and Jim too. Is he as full of mischief as ever? Well, God bless you, boys, I wish you well! I wish you well. Come in out of the sun, Aileen; and one of you take the horses up to the stable. You’ll find George there somewhere.’
Aileen had jumped down by this time, and had thrown her rein to Jim, so we rode up to the stable, and a very good one it was, not long put up, that we could see. How the place had changed, and how different it was from ours! We remembered the time when their hut wasn’t a patch on ours, when old Isaac Storefield, that had been gardener at Mulgoa to some of the big gentlemen in the old days, had saved a bit of money and taken up a farm; but bit by bit their place had been getting better and bigger every year, while ours had stood still and now was going back.