Our dart now was to get to the Hollow that night some time, and not to leave much of a track either. Nobody had found out the place yet, and wasn’t going to if we knew. It was too useful a hiding-place to give away without trouble, and we swore to take all sorts of good care to keep it secret, if it was to be done by the art of man.
We went up Nulla Mountain the same way as we remembered doing when Jim and I rode to meet father that time he had the lot of weaners. We kept wide and didn’t follow on after one another so as to make a marked trail. It was a long, dark, dreary ride. We had to look sharp so as not to get dragged off by a breast-high bough in the thick country. There was no fetching a doctor if any one was hurt. Father rode ahead. He knew the ins and outs of the road better than any of us, though Jim, who had lived most of his time in the Hollow after he got away from the police, was getting to know it pretty well. We were obliged to go slow mostly—for a good deal of the track lay along the bed of a creek, full of boulders and rocks, that we had to cross ever so many times in a mile. The sharp-edged rocks, too, overhung low enough to knock your brains out if you didn’t mind.
It was far into the night when we got to the old yard. There it stood, just as I recollect seeing it the time Jim and I and father branded the weaners. It had only been used once or twice since. It was patched up a bit in places, but nobody seemed to have gone next or nigh it for a long time. The grass had grown up round the sliprails; it was as strange and forsaken-looking as if it belonged to a deserted station.
As we rode up a man comes out from an angle of the fence and gives a whistle. We knew, almost without looking, that it was Warrigal. He’d come there to meet Starlight and take him round some other way. Every track and short cut there was in the mountains was as easy to him as the road to George Storefield’s was to us. Nulla Mountain was full of curious gullies and caves and places that the devil himself could hardly have run a man to ground in, unless he’d lived near it all his life as Warrigal had. He wasn’t very free in showing them to us, but he’d have made a bridge of his own body any time to let Starlight go safe. So when they rode away together we knew he was safe whoever might be after us, and that we should see him in the Hollow some time next day.
We went on for a mile or two farther; then we got off, and turned our horses loose. The rest of the way we had to do on foot. My horse and Jim’s had got regularly broke into Rocky Flat, and we knew that they’d go home as sure as possible, not quite straight, but keeping somewhere in the right direction. As for father he always used to keep a horse or two, trained to go home when he’d done with him. The pony he rode to-night would just trot off, and never put his nose to the ground almost till he got wind of home.
We humped our saddles and swags ourselves; a stiffish load too, but the night was cool, and we did our best. It was no use growling. It had to be done, and the sooner the better. It seemed a long time—following father step by step—before we came to the place where I thought the cattle were going to be driven over the precipice. Here we pulled up for a bit and had a smoke. It was a queer time and a queer look-out.
Three o’clock in the morning—the stars in the sky, and it so clear that we could see Nulla Mountain rising up against it a big black lump, without sign of tree or rock; underneath the valley, one sea of mist, and we just agoing to drop into it; on the other side of the Hollow, the clear hill we called the Sugarloaf. Everything seemed dead, silent, and solitary, and a rummier start than all, here were we—three desperate men, driven to make ourselves a home in this lonesome, God-forsaken place! I wasn’t very fanciful by that time, but if the devil had risen up to make a fourth amongst us I shouldn’t have been surprised. The place, the time, and the men seemed regularly cut out for him and his mob.
We smoked our pipes out, and said nothing to each other, good or bad. Then father makes a start, and we follows him; took a goodish while, but we got down all right, and headed for the cave. When we got there our troubles were over for a while. Jim struck a match and had a fire going in no time; there was plenty of dry wood, of course. Then father rolls a keg out of a hole in the wall; first-rate dark brandy it was, and we felt a sight better for a good stiff nip all round. When a man’s cold and tired, and hungry, and down on his luck as well, a good caulker of grog don’t do him no harm to speak of. It strings him up and puts him straight. If he’s anything of a man he can stand it, and feel all the better for it; but it’s a precious sight too easy a lesson to learn, and there’s them that can’t stop, once they begin, till they’ve smothered what brains God Almighty put inside their skulls, just as if they was to bore a hole and put gunpowder in. No! they wouldn’t stop if they were sure of going to heaven straight, or to hell next minute if they put the last glass to their lips. I’ve heard men say it, and knew they meant it. Not the worst sort of men, either.
We were none of us like that. Not then, anyhow. We could take or leave it, and though dad could do with his share when it was going, he always knew what he was about, and could put the peg in any time. So we had one strongish tot while the tea was boiling. There was a bag of ship biscuit; we fried some hung beef, and made a jolly good supper. We were that tired we didn’t care to talk much, so we made up the fire last thing and rolled ourselves in our blankets; I didn’t wake till the sun had been up an hour or more.
I woke first; Jim was fast asleep, but dad had been up a goodish while and got things ready for breakfast. It was a fine, clear morning; everything looked beautiful, ’specially to me that had been locked up away from this sort of thing so long. The grass was thick and green round the cave, and right up to the big sandstone slabs of the floor, looking as if it had never been eat down very close. No more it had. It would never have paid to have overstocked the Hollow. What cattle and horses they kept there had a fine time of it, and were always in grand condition.
Opposite where we were the valley was narrow. I could see the sandstone precipices that walled us in, a sort of yellowish, white colour, all lighted up with the rays of the morning sun, looking like gold towers against the heavy green forest timber at the foot of them. Birds were calling and whistling, and there was a little spring that fell drip, drip over a rough rock basin all covered with ferns. A little mob of horses had fed pretty close up to the camp, and would walk up to look curious-like, and then trot off with their heads and tails up. It was a pretty enough sight that met my eyes on waking. It made me feel a sort of false happiness for a time, to think we had such a place to camp in on the quiet, and call our own, in a manner of speaking.
Jim soon woke up and stretched himself. Then father began, quite cheerful like—
‘Well, boys, what d’ye think of the Hollow again? It’s not a bad earth for the old dog-fox and his cubs when the hounds have run him close. They can’t dig him out here, or smoke him out either. We’ve no call to do anything but rest ourselves for a week or two, anyhow; then we must settle on something and buckle to it more business-like. We’ve been too helter-skelter lately, Jim and I. We was beginning to run risks, got nearly dropped on more nor once.’
There’s no mistake, it’s a grand thing to wake up and know you’ve got nothing to do for a bit but to take it easy and enjoy yourself. No matter how light your work may be, if it’s regular and has to be done every day, the harness ’ll gall somewhere; you get tired in time and sick of the whole thing.
Jim and I knew well that, bar accidents, we were as safe in the Hollow as we used to be in our beds when we were boys. We’d searched it through and through last time, till we’d come to believe that only three or four people, and those sometimes not for years at a time, had ever been inside of it. There were no tracks of more.
We could see how the first gang levied; they were different. Every now and then they had a big drink—‘a mad carouse’, as the books say—when they must have done wild, strange things, something like the Spanish Main buccaneers we’d read about. They’d brought captives with them, too. We saw graves, half-a-dozen together, in one place. They didn’t belong to the band.
We had a quiet, comfortable meal, and a smoke afterwards. Then Jim and I took a long walk through the Hollow, so as to tell one another what was in our minds, which we hadn’t a chance to do before. Before we’d gone far Jim pulls a letter out of his pocket and gives it to me.
‘It was no use sending it to you, old man, while you was in the jug,’ he says; ‘it was quite bad enough without this, so I thought I’d keep it till we were settled a bit like. Now we’re going to set up in business on our own account you’d best look over your mail.’
I knew the writing well, though I hadn’t seen it lately. It was from her—from Kate Morrison that was. It began—not the way most women write, like her, though—
So this is the end of your high and mighty doings, Richard Marston, passing yourself and Jim off as squatters. I don’t blame him—[no, of course not, nobody ever blamed Jim, or would, I suppose, if he’d burned down Government House and stuck up his Excellency as he was coming out of church]—but when I saw in the papers that you had been arrested for cattle-stealing I knew for the first time how completely Jeanie and I had been duped.
I won’t pretend that I didn’t think of the money you were said to have, and how pleasant it would be to spend some of it after the miserable, scrambling, skimping life we had lately been used to. But I loved you, Dick Marston, for yourself, with a deep and passionate love which you will never know now, which you would scorn and treat lightly, perhaps, if you did know. You may yet find out what you have lost, if ever you get out of that frightful gaol.
I was not such a silly fool as to pine and fret over our romance so cruelly disturbed, though Jeanie was; it nearly broke her heart. No, Richard, my nature is not of that make. I generally get even with people who wrong me. I send you a photo, giving a fair idea of myself and my husband, Mr. Mullockson. I accepted his offer soon after I saw your adventures, and those of your friend Starlight, in every newspaper in the colonies. I did not hold myself bound to live single for your sake, so did what most women do, though they pretend to act from other motives, I disposed of myself to the best advantage.
Mr. Mullockson has plenty of money, which is nearly everything in this world, so that I am comfortable and well off, as far as that goes. If I am not happy that is your fault—your fault, I say, because I am not able to tear your false image and false self from my thoughts. Whatever happens to me in the future you may consider yourself to blame for. I should have been a happy and fairly good woman, as far as women go, if you had been true, or rather if everything about you had not been utterly false and despicable.
You think it fortunate after reading this, I daresay, that we are separated for ever, but we may meet again, Richard Marston. then you may have reason to curse the day, as I do most heartily, when you first set eyes on
Not a pleasant letter, by no manner of means. I was glad I didn’t get it while I was eating my heart out under the stifling low roof of the cell at Nomah, or when I was bearing my load at Berrima. A few pounds more when the weight was all I could bear and live would have crushed the heart out of me. I didn’t want anything to cross me when I was looking at mother and Aileen and thinking how, between us, we’d done everything our worst enemy could have wished us to do. But here, when there was plenty of time to think over old days and plan for the future, I could bear the savage, spiteful sound of the whole letter and laugh at the way she had got out of her troubles by taking up with a rough old fellow whose cheque-book was the only decent thing about him. I wasn’t sorry to be rid of her either. Since I’d seen Gracey Storefield again every other woman seemed disagreeable to me. I tore up the letter and threw it away, hoping I had done for ever with a woman that no man living would ever have been the better for.
‘Glad you take it so quiet,’ Jim says, after holding his tongue longer than he did mostly. ‘She’s a bad, cold-hearted jade, though she is Jeanie’s sister. If I thought my girl was like her she’d never have another thought from me, but she isn’t, and never was. The worse luck I’ve had the closer she’s stuck to me, like a little brick as she is. I’d give all I ever had in the world if I could go to her and say, “Here I am, Jim Marston, without a penny in the world, but I can look every man in the face, and we’ll work our way along the road of life cheerful and loving together.” But I can’t say it, Dick, that’s the devil of it, and it makes me so wild sometimes that I could knock my brains out against the first ironbark tree I come across.’
I didn’t say anything, but I took hold of Jim’s hand and shook it. We looked in each other’s eyes for a minute; there was no call to say anything. We always understood one another, Jim and I.
As we were safe to stop in the Hollow for long spells at a time we took a good look over it, as far as we could do on foot. We found a rum sort of place at the end of a long gully that went easterly from the main flat. In one way you’d think the whole valley had been an arm of the sea some time or other. It was a bit like Sydney Harbour in shape, with one principal valley and no end of small cover and gullies running off from it, and winding about in all directions. Even the sandstone walls, by which the whole affair, great and small, was hemmed in, were just like the cliff about South Head; there were lines, too, on the face of them, Jim and I made out, just like where the waves had washed marks and levels on the sea-rock. We didn’t trouble ourselves much about that part of it. Whatever might have been there once, it grew stunning fine grass now, and there was beautiful clear fresh water in all the creeks that ran through it.
Well, we rambled up the long, crooked gully that I was talking about till about half-way up it got that narrow that it seemed stopped by a big rock that had tumbled down from the top and blocked the path. It was pretty well grown over with wild raspberries and climbers.
‘No use going farther,’ says Jim; ‘there’s nothing to see.’
‘I don’t know that. Been a track here some time. Let’s get round and see.’
When we got round the rock the track was plain again; it had been well worn once, though neither foot nor hoof much had been along it for many a year. It takes a good while to wear out a track in a dry country.
The gully widened out bit by bit, till at last we came to a little round green flat, right under the rock walls which rose up a couple of thousand feet above it on two sides. On the flat was an old hut—very old it seemed to be, but not in bad trim for all that. The roof was of shingles, split, thick, and wedge shaped; the walls of heavy ironbark slabs, and there was a stone chimney.
Outside had been a garden; a few rose trees were standing yet, ragged and stunted. The wallabies had trimmed them pretty well, but we knew what they were. Been a corn-patch too—the marks where it had been hoed up were there, same as they used to do in old times when there were more hoes than ploughs and more convicts than horses and working bullocks in the country.
‘Well, this is a rum start,’ says Jim, as we sat down on a log outside that looked as if it had been used for a seat before. ‘Who the deuce ever built this gunyah and lived in it by himself for years and years? You can see it was no two or three months’ time he done here. There’s the spring coming out of the rock he dipped his water from. The track’s reg’lar worn smooth over the stones leading to it. There was a fence round this garden, some of the rails lying there rotten enough, but it takes time for sound hard wood to rot. He’d a stool and table too, not bad ones either, this Robinson Crusoe cove. No end of manavilins either. I wonder whether he come here before them first—Government men—chaps we heard of. Likely he did and died here too. He might have chummed in with them, of course, or he might not. Perhaps Starlight knows something about him, or Warrigal. We’ll ask them.’
We fossicked about for a while to see if the man who lived so long by himself in this lonely place had left anything behind him to help us make out what sort he was. We didn’t find much. There was writing on the walls here and there, and things cut on the fireplace posts. Jim couldn’t make head or tail of them, nor me either.
‘The old cove may have left something worth having behind him,’ he said, after staring at the cold hearth ever so long. ‘Men like him often leave gold pieces and jewels and things behind them, locked up in brass-bound boxes; leastways the story-books say so. I’ve half a mind to root up the old hearthstone; it’s a thundering heavy one, ain’t it? I wonder how he got it here all by himself.’
‘It is pretty heavy,’ I said. ‘For all we know he may have had help to bring it in. We’ve no time now to see into it; we’d better make tracks and see if Starlight has made back. We shall have to shape after a bit, and we may as well see how he stands affected.’
‘He’ll be back safe enough. There’s no pull in being outside now with all the world chevying after you and only half rations of food and sleep.’
Jim was right. As we got up to the cave we saw Starlight talking to the old man and Warrigal letting go the horse. They’d taken their time to come in, but Warrigal knew some hole or other where they’d hid before very likely, so they could take it easier than we did the night we left Rocky Creek.
‘Well, boys!’ says Starlight, coming forward quite heartily, ‘glad to see you again; been taking a walk and engaging yourselves this fine weather? Rather nice country residence of ours, isn’t it? Wonder how long we shall remain in possession! What a charm there is in home! No place like home, is there, governor?’
Dad didn’t smile, he very seldom did that, but I always thought he never looked so glum at Starlight as he did at most people.
‘The place is well enough,’ he growled, ‘if we don’t smother it all by letting our tracks be followed up. We’ve been dashed lucky so far, but it’ll take us all we know to come in and out, if we’ve any roadwork on hand, and no one the wiser.’
‘It can be managed well enough,’ says Starlight. ‘Is that dinner ever going to be ready? Jim, make the tea, there’s a good fellow; I’m absolutely starving. The main thing is never to be seen together except on great occasions. Two men, or three at the outside, can stick up any coach or travellers that are worth while. We can get home one by one without half the risk there would be if we were all together. Hand me the corned beef, if you please, Dick. We must hold a council of war by and by.’
We were smoking our pipes and lying about on the dry floor of the cave, with the sun coming in just enough to make it pleasant, when I started the ball.
‘We may as well have it out now what lay we’re going upon and whether we’re all agreed in our minds to turn out, and do the thing in the regular good old-fashioned Sydney-side style. It’s risky, of course, and we’re sure to have a smart brush or two; but I’m not going to be jugged again, not if I know it, and I don’t see but what bush-ranging—yes, bush-ranging, it’s no use saying one thing and meaning another—ain’t as safe a game, let alone the profits of it, as mooching about cattle-duffing and being lagged in the long run all the same.’