Just as you got nearly through Bargo Brush on the old road there was a stiffish hill that the coach passengers mostly walked up, to save the horses—fenced in, too, with a nearly new three-rail fence, all ironbark, and not the sort of thing that you could ride or drive over handy. We thought this would be as good a place as we could pick, so we laid out the whole thing as careful as we could beforehand.
The three of us started out from the Hollow as soon as we could see in the morning; a Friday it was, I remember it pretty well—good reason I had, too. Father and Warrigal went up the night before with the horses we were to ride. They camped about twenty miles on the line we were going, at a place where there was good feed and water, but well out of the way and on a lonely road. There had been an old sheep station there and a hut, but the old man had been murdered by the hut-keeper for some money he had saved, and a story got up that it was haunted by his ghost. It was known as the ‘Murdering Hut’, and no shepherd would ever live there after, so it was deserted. We weren’t afraid of shepherds alive or dead, so it came in handy for us, as there was water and feed in an old lambing paddock. Besides, the road to it was nearly all a lot of rock and scrub from the Hollow, that made it an unlikely place to be tracked from.
Our dodge was to take three quiet horses from the Hollow and ride them there, first thing; then pick up our own three—Rainbow and two other out-and-outers—and ride bang across the southern road. When things were over we were to start straight back to the Hollow. We reckoned to be safe there before the police had time to know which way we’d made.
It all fitted in first-rate. We cracked on for the Hollow in the morning early, and found dad and Warrigal all ready for us. The horses were in great buckle, and carried us over to Bargo easy enough before dark. We camped about a mile away from the road, in as thick a place as we could find, where we made ourselves as snug as things would allow. We had brought some grub with us and a bottle of grog, half of which we finished before we started out to spend the evening. We hobbled the horses out and let them have an hour’s picking. They were likely to want all they could get before they saw the Hollow again.
It was near twelve o’clock when we mounted. Starlight said—
‘By Jove, boys, it’s a pity we didn’t belong to a troop of irregular horse instead of this rotten colonial Dick Turpin business, that one can’t help being ashamed of. They would have been delighted to have recruited the three of us, as we ride, and our horses are worth best part of ten thousand rupees. What a tent-pegger Rainbow would have made, eh, old boy?’ he said, patting the horse’s neck. ‘But Fate won’t have it, and it’s no use whining.’
The coach was to pass half-an-hour after midnight. An awful long time to wait, it seemed. We finished the bottle of brandy, I know. I thought they never would come, when all of a sudden we saw the lamp.
Up the hill they came slow enough. About half-way up they stopped, and most of the passengers got out and walked up after her. As they came closer to us we could hear them laughing and talking and skylarking, like a lot of boys. They didn’t think who was listening. ‘You won’t be so jolly in a minute or two,’ I thinks to myself.
They were near the top when Starlight sings out, ‘Stand! Bail up!’ and the three of us, all masked, showed ourselves. You never saw a man look so scared as the passenger on the box-seat, a stout, jolly commercial, who’d been giving the coachman Havana cigars, and yarning and nipping with him at every house they passed. Bill Webster, the driver, pulls up all standing when he sees what was in Starlight’s hand, and holds the reins so loose for a minute I thought they’d drop out of his hands. I went up to the coach. There was no one inside—only an old woman and a young one. They seemed struck all of a heap, and couldn’t hardly speak for fright.
The best of the joke was that the passengers started running up full split to warm themselves, and came bump against the coach before they found out what was up. One of them had just opened out for a bit of blowing. ‘Billy, old man,’ he says, ‘I’ll report you to the Company if you crawl along this way,’ when he catches sight of me and Starlight, standing still and silent, with our revolvers pointing his way. By George! I could hardly help laughing. His jaw dropped, and he couldn’t get a word out. His throat seemed quite dry.
‘Now, gentlemen,’ says Starlight, quite cool and cheerful-like, ‘you understand her Majesty’s mail is stuck up, to use a vulgar expression, and there’s no use resisting. I must ask you to stand in a row there by the fence, and hand out all the loose cash, watches, or rings you may have about you. Don’t move; don’t, I say, sir, or I must fire.’ (This was to a fidgety, nervous man who couldn’t keep quiet.) ‘Now, Number One, fetch down the mail bags; Number Two, close up here.’
Here Jim walked up, revolver in hand, and Starlight begins at the first man, very stern—
‘Hand out your cash; keep back nothing, if you value your life.’
You never saw a man in such a funk. He was a storekeeper, we found afterwards. He nearly dropped on his knees. Then he handed Starlight a bundle of notes, a gold watch, and took a handsome diamond ring from his finger. This Starlight put into his pocket. He handed the notes and watch to Jim, who had a leather bag ready for them. The man sank down on the ground; he had fainted.
He was left to pick himself up. No. 2 was told to shell out. They all had something. Some had sovereigns, some had notes and small cheques, which are as good in a country place. The squatters draw too many to know the numbers of half that are out, so there’s no great chance of their being stopped. There were eighteen male passengers, besides the chap on the box-seat. We made him come down. By the time we’d got through them all it was best part of an hour.
I pulled the mail bags through the fence and put them under a tree. Then Starlight went to the coach where the two women were. He took off his hat and bowed.
‘Unpleasant necessity, madam, most painful to my feelings altogether, I assure you. I must really ask you—ah—is the young lady your daughter, madam?’
‘Not at all,’ says the oldest, stout, middle-aged woman; ‘I never set eyes on her before.’
‘Indeed, madam,’ says Starlight, bowing again; ‘excuse my curiosity, I am desolated, I assure you, but may I trouble you for your watches and purses?’
‘As you’re a gentleman,’ said the fat lady, ‘I fully expected you’d have let us off. I’m Mrs. Buxter, of Bobbrawobbra.’
‘Indeed! I have no words to express my regret,’ says Starlight; ‘but, my dear lady, hard necessity compels me. Thanks, very much,’ he said to the young girl.
She handed over a small old Geneva watch and a little purse. The plump lady had a gold watch with a chain and purse to match.
‘Is that all?’ says he, trying to speak stern.
‘It’s my very all,’ says the girl, ‘five pounds. Mother gave me her watch, and I shall have no money to take me to Bowning, where I am going to a situation.’
Her lips shook and trembled and the tears came into her eyes.
Starlight carefully handed Mrs. Buxter’s watch and purse to Jim. I saw him turn round and open the other purse, and he put something in, if I didn’t mistake. Then he looked in again.
‘I’m afraid I’m rather impertinent,’ says he, ‘but your face, Miss—ah—Elmsdale, thanks—reminds me of some one in another world—the one I once lived in. Allow me to enjoy the souvenir and to return your effects. No thanks; that smile is ample payment. Ladies, I wish you a pleasant journey.’
He bowed. Mrs. Buxter did not smile, but looked cross enough at the young lady, who, poor thing, seemed pretty full up and inclined to cry at the surprise.
‘Now then, all aboard,’ sings out Starlight; ‘get in, gentlemen, our business matters are concluded for the night. Better luck next time. William, you had better drive on. Send back from the next stage, and you will find the mail bags under that tree. They shall not be injured more than can be helped. Good-night!’
The driver gathered up his reins and shouted to his team, that was pretty fresh after their spell, and went off like a shot. We sat down by the roadside with one of the coach lamps that we had boned and went through all the letters, putting them back after we’d opened them, and popping all notes, cheques, and bills into Jim’s leather sack. We did not waste more time over our letter-sorting than we could help, you bet; but we were pretty well paid for it—better than the post-office clerks are, by all accounts. We left all the mail bags in a heap under the tree, as Starlight had told the driver; and then, mounting our horses, rode as hard as we could lick to where dad and Warrigal were camped.
When we overhauled the leather sack into which Jim had stowed all the notes and cheques we found that we’d done better than we expected, though we could see from the first it wasn’t going to be a bad night’s work. We had £370 in notes and gold, a biggish bag of silver, a lot of cheques—some of which would be sure to be paid—seven gold watches and a lot of silver ones, some pretty good. Mrs. Buxter’s watch was a real beauty, with a stunning chain. Starlight said he should like to keep it himself, and then I knew Bella Barnes was in for a present. Starlight was one of those chaps that never forgot any kind of promise he’d once made. Once he said a thing it would be done as sure as death—if he was alive to do it; and many a time I’ve known him take the greatest lot of trouble no matter how pushed he might be, to carry out something which another man would have never troubled his head about.
We got safe to the Murdering Hut, and a precious hard ride it was, and tried our horses well, for, mind you, they’d been under saddle best part of twenty-four hours when we got back, and had done a good deal over a hundred miles. We made a short halt while the tea was boiling, then we all separated for fear a black tracker might have been loosed on our trail, and knowing well what bloodhounds they are sometimes.
Warrigal and Starlight went off together as usual; they were pretty safe to be out of harm’s way. Father made off on a line of his own. We took the two horses we’d ridden out of the Hollow, and made for that place the shortest way we knew. We could afford to hit out—horse-flesh was cheap to us—but not to go slow. Time was more than money to us now—it was blood, or next thing to it.
‘I’ll go anywhere you like,’ says Jim, stretching himself. ‘It makes no odds to me now where we go. What do you think of it, dad?’
‘I think you’ve no call to leave here for another month anyhow; but as I suppose some folks ’ll play the fool some road or other you may as well go there as anywhere else. If you must go you’d better take some of these young horses with you and sell them while prices keep up.’
‘Capital idea,’ says Starlight; ‘I was wondering how we’d get those colts off. You’ve the best head amongst us, governor. We’ll start out to-day and muster the horses, and we can take Warrigal with us as far as Jonathan Barnes’s place.’
We didn’t lose time once we’d made up our minds to anything. So that night all the horses were in and drafted ready—twenty-five upstanding colts, well bred, and in good condition. We expected they’d fetch a lot of money. They were all quiet, too, and well broken in by Warrigal, who used to get so much a head extra for this sort of work, and liked it. He could do more with a horse than any man I ever saw. They never seemed to play up with him as young horses do with other people. Jim and I could ride ’em easy enough when they was tackled, but for handling and catching and getting round them we couldn’t hold a candle to Warrigal.
The next thing was to settle how to work it when we got to the diggings. We knew the auctioneers there and everywhere else would sell a lot of likely stock and ask no questions; but there had been such a lot of horse-stealing since the diggings broke out that a law had been passed on purpose to check it. In this way: If any auctioneer sold a stolen horse and the owner claimed it before six months the auctioneer was held liable. He had to return the horse and stand the loss. But they found a way to make themselves right. Men generally do if a law’s over sharp; they get round it somehow or other. So the auctioneers made it up among themselves to charge ten per cent on the price of all horses that they sold, and make the buyer pay it. For every ten horses they sold they could afford to return one. The proof of an animal being stolen didn’t turn up above once in fifty or a hundred times, so they could well afford the expense when it did.
It wasn’t an easy thing to drive horses out of the Hollow, ’specially those that had been bred or reared there. But they were up to all that kind of thing, dad and Starlight. First there was a yard at the lower end of the gully that led up where we’d first seen Starlight come down, and a line of fence across the mountain walls on both sides, so that stock once in there couldn’t turn back. Then they picked out a couple or three old mares that had been years and years in the Hollow, and been used to be taken up this track and knew their way back again. One they led up; dad went first with her, and another followed; then the colts took the track after them, as stock will. In half-an-hour we had them all up at the top, on the tableland, and ready to be driven anywhere. The first day we meant to get most of the way to Jonathan Barnes’s place, and to stop there, and have a bit of a spell the second. We should want to spell the horses and make ’em up a bit, as it was a longish drive over rough country to get there. Besides, we wanted all the information we could get about the diggings and other matters, and we knew Jonathan was just that open-mouthed, blatherskitin’ sort of chap that would talk to everybody he saw, and hear mostly all that was going on.
A long, hard day was that first one. The colts tried to make back every now and then, or something would start them, and they’d make a regular stampede for four or five miles as hard as they could lay leg to ground. It wasn’t easy to live with ’em across broken country, well-bred ’uns like them, as fast as racehorses for a short distance; but there were as good behind ’em, and Warrigal was pretty nearly always near the lead, doubling and twisting and wheeling ’em the first bit of open ground there was. He was A1 through timber, and no mistake. We got to a place father knew, where there was a yard, a little before dark; but we took care to watch them all night for fear of accidents. It wouldn’t do to let ’em out of our sight about there. We should never have set eyes on ’em again, and we knew a trick worth two of that.
Next day, pretty early, we got to Barnes’s, where we thought we should be welcome. It was all right. The old man laughed all over his face when he saw us, and the girls couldn’t do enough for us when they heard we’d had scarce a morsel to eat or drink that day.
‘Why, you’re looking first-rate, Captain!’ says Bella. ‘Dick, I hardly knowed ye—the mountain air seems to agree with you. Maddie and I thought you was never going to look in no more. Thought you’d clean forgot us—didn’t we, Mad? Why, Dick, what a grand beard you’ve grown! I never thought you was so handsome before!’
‘I promised you a trifling present when I was here last, didn’t I, Bella?’ says Starlight. ‘There.’ He handed her a small parcel carefully tied up. ‘It will serve to remind you of a friend.’
‘Oh, what a lovely, splendid duck of a watch!’ says the girl, tearing open the parcel. ‘And what a love of a chain! and lots of charms, too. Where, in all the world, did you get this? I suppose you didn’t buy it in George Street.’
‘It was bought in George Street,’ says he; ‘and here’s the receipt; you needn’t be afraid of wearing it to church or anywhere else. Here’s Mr. Flavelle’s name, all straight and square. It’s quite new, as you can see.’
Jim and I stared. Dad was outside, seeing the horses fed, with Warrigal. We made sure at first it was Mrs. Buxter’s watch and chain; but he knew better than to give the girl anything that she could be brought into trouble for wearing, if it was identified on her; so he’d sent the cash down to Sydney, and got the watch sent up to him by one of father’s pals. It was as right as the bank, and nobody could touch it or her either. That was Starlight all over; he never seemed to care much for himself. As to anything he told a woman, she’d no call to trouble herself about whether it would be done or not.
‘It’ll be my turn next,’ says Maddie. ‘I can’t afford to wait till—till—the Captain leaves me that beauty horse of his. It’s too long. I might be married before that, and my old man cut up rough. Jim Marston, what are you going to give me? I haven’t got any earrings worth looking at, except these gold hoops that everybody knows.’
‘All right,’ says Jim. ‘I’ll give you and Bell a pair each, if you’re good girls, when we sell the horses, unless we’re nailed at the Turon. What sort of a shop is it? Are they getting much gold?’
‘Digging it out like potatoes,’ says Bella; ‘so a young chap told us that come this way last week. My word! didn’t he go on about the coach being stuck up. Mad and I nearly choked ourselves laughing. We made him tell it over twice. He said a friend of his was in it—in the coach, that is—and we could have told him friends of ours was in it too, couldn’t we?’
‘And what did he think of it all?’
‘Oh, he was a new chum; hadn’t been a year out. Not a bad cut of a young feller. He was awful shook on Mad; but she wouldn’t look at him. He said if it was in England the whole countryside would rise up and hunt such scoundrels down like mad dogs; but in a colony like this people didn’t seem to know right from wrong.’
‘Did he, indeed?’ says Starlight. ‘Ingenuous youth! When he lives a little longer he’ll find that people in England, and, indeed, everywhere else, are very much like they are here. They’ll wink at a little robbery, or take a hand themselves if it’s made worth their while. And what became of your English friend?’
‘Oh! he said he was going on to Port Phillip. There’s a big diggings broke out there too, he says; and he has some friends there, and he thinks he’ll like that side better.’
‘I think we’d better cut the Sydney “side”, too,’ says Starlight. ‘What do you say, Maddie? We’ll be able to mix up with these new chum Englishmen and Americans that are coming here in swarms, and puzzle Sergeant Goring and his troopers more than ever.’
‘Oh! come, now! that would be mean,’ says Maddie. ‘I wouldn’t be drove away from my own part of the country, if I was a man, by anybody. I’d stay and fight it out. Goring was here the other day, and tried to pick out something from father and us about the lot of you.’
‘Ha!’ says Starlight, his face growing dark, and different-looking about the eyes from what I’d ever seen him, ‘did he? He’d better beware. He may follow up my trail once too often. And what did you tell him?’
‘We told him a lot of things,’ says the girl; ‘but I am afeared they was none of ’em true. He didn’t get much out of us, nor wouldn’t if he was to come once a week.’
‘I expect not,’ says Jim; ‘you girls are smart enough. There’s no man in the police or out of it that’ll take much change out of you. I’m most afraid of your father, though, letting the cat out of the bag; he’s such an old duffer to blow.’
‘He was nearly telling the sergeant he’d seen a better horse lately here than his famous chestnut Marlborough, only Bella trod on his toe, and told him the cows was in the wheat. Of course Goring would have dropped it was Rainbow, or some well-bred horse you chaps have been shaking lately.’
‘You’re a regular pearl of discretion, my dear,’ says Starlight, ‘and it’s a pity, like some other folks, you haven’t a better field for the exercise of your talents. However, that’s very often the way in this world, as you’ll perhaps find out when you’re old and ugly, and the knowledge can’t do you any good. Tell us all you heard about the coach accident.’
‘My word! it was the greatest lark out,’ says Maddie. She’d twice the fun in her the other had, and was that good-tempered nothing seemed to put her out. ‘Everybody as come here seemed to have nothing else to talk about. Those that was going to the diggings, too, took it much easier than those that was coming away.’
‘How was that?’
‘Well, the chaps that come away mostly have some gold. They showed us some pretty fair lumps and nuggets, I can tell you. They seemed awfully gallied about being stuck up and robbed of it, and they’d heard yarns of men being tied to trees in the bush and left there to die.’
‘Tell them for me, my fair Madeline, that Starlight and Company don’t deal with single diggers; ours is a wholesale business—eh, Dick? We leave the retail robbery to meaner villains.’
We had the horses that quiet by this time that we could drive them the rest of the way to the Turon by ourselves. We didn’t want to be too big a mob at Barnes’s house. Any one might come in accidental, and it might get spread about. So after supper Warrigal was sent back; we didn’t want his help any more, and he might draw attention. The way we were to take in the horses, and sell them, was all put up.
Jim and I were to drive them the rest of the way across the ranges to the Turon. Barnes was to put us on a track he knew that would take us in all right, and yet keep away from the regular highway. Starlight was to stay another day at Barnes’s, keeping very quiet, and making believe, if any one came, to be a gentleman from Port Phillip that wasn’t very well. He’d come in and see the horses sold, but gammon to be a stranger, and never set eyes on us before.
‘My word!’ said Barnes, who just came in at the time, ‘you’ve made talk enough for all the countryside with that mail coach racket of yours. Every man, woman, and child that looks in here’s sure to say, “Did you hear about the Goulburn mail being stuck up?” “Well, I did hear something,” I says, and out it all comes. They wonder first whether the bush-rangers will be caught; where they’re gone to that the police can’t get ’em; how it was that one of ’em was so kind to the young lady as to give her new watch back, and whether Captain Starlight was as handsome as people say, and if Mrs. Buxter will ever get her watch back with the big reward the Government offered. More than that, whether they’ll stick up more coaches or fly the country.’
‘I’d like to have been there and see how Bill Webster looked,’ says Maddie. ‘He was here one day since, and kept gassin’ about it all as if he wouldn’t let none of you do only what he liked. I didn’t think he was that game, and told him so. He said I’d better take a seat some day and see how I liked it. I asked him wasn’t they all very good-looking chaps, and he said Starlight was genteel-lookin’, but there was one great, big, rough-lookin’ feller—that was you, Jim—as was ugly enough to turn a cask of beer sour.’
‘I’ll give him a hammerin’ for that yet,’ grumbles old Jim. ‘My word, he was that shaky and blue-lookin’ he didn’t know whether I was white or black.’
We had a great spree that night in a quiet way, and got all the fun as was to be had under the circumstances. Barnes came out with some pretty good wine which Starlight shouted for all round. The old woman cooked us a stunning good dinner, which we made the girls sit down to and some cousins of theirs that lived close by. We were merry enough before the evening was out. Bella Barnes played the piano middling, and Maddie could sing first-rate, and all of them could dance. The last thing I recollect was Starlight showing Maddie what he called a minuet step, and Jonathan and the old woman sitting on the sofa as grave as owls.
Anyhow, we all enjoyed ourselves. It was a grand change after being so long alone. The girls romped and laughed and pretended to be offended every now and then, but we had a regular good lark of it, and didn’t feel any the worse at daylight next morning.
Jim and I were away before sunrise, and after we’d once got on the road that Jonathan showed us we got on well enough. We were dressed just like common bushmen. There were plenty on the road just then bringing cattle and horses to the diggings. It was well known that high prices were going there and that everybody paid in cash. No credit was given, of course.
We had on blue serge shirts, moleskin trousers, and roughish leather gaiters that came up to the knee, with ponchos strapped on in front; inside them was a spare shirt or two; we had oldish felt hats, as if we’d come a good way. Our saddles and bridles were rusty-looking and worn; the horses were the only things that were a little too good, and might bring the police to suspect us. We had to think of a yarn about them. We looked just the same as a hundred other long-legged six-foot natives with our beards and hair pretty wild—neither better nor worse.
As soon as Starlight came on to the Turon he was to rig himself out as a regular swell, and gammon he’d just come out from England to look at the goldfields. He could do that part wonderfully well. We would have backed him to take in the devil himself, if he saw him, let alone goldfields police, if Sergeant Goring wasn’t about.
The second day Jim and I were driving quietly and easy on the road, the colts trotting along as steady as old stock horses, and feeding a bit every now and then. We knew we were getting near the Turon, so many tracks came in from all parts, and all went one way. All of a sudden we heard a low rumbling, roaring noise, something like the tide coming in on the seashore.
‘I say, Jim, old man, we haven’t made any mistake—crossed over the main range and got back to the coast, have we?’
‘Not likely,’ he said; ‘but what the deuce is that row? I can’t reckon it up for the life of me.’
I studied and studied. On it went grinding and rattling like all the round pebbles in the world rolling on a beach with a tidy surf on. I tumbled at last.
‘Remember that thing with the two rockers we saw at the Hermit’s Hut in the Hollow?’ I said to Jim. ‘We couldn’t make out what it was. I know now; it was a gold cradle, and there’s hundreds and thousands rocking there at the Turon. That’s what’s the matter.’
‘We’re going to see some life, it strikes me,’ says he. ‘We’ll know it all directly. But the first thing we’ve got to do is to shut these young ’uns up safe in the sale-yard. Then we can knock round this town in comfort.’
We went outside of a rocky point, and sure enough here was the first Australian gold-diggings in full blast. What a sight it was, to be sure! Jim and I sat in our saddles while the horses went to work on the green grass of the flat, and stared as if we’d seen a bit of another world. So it was another world to us, straight away from the sad-voiced solitudes of the bush.
Barring Sydney or Melbourne, we’d never seen so many men in a crowd before; and how different they looked from the crawling people of a town! A green-banked rapid river ran before us, through a deep narrow valley. The bright green flats looked so strange with the yellow water rippling and rushing between them. Upon that small flat, and by the bank, and in the river itself, nearly 20,000 men were at work, harder and more silently than any crowd we’d ever seen before. Most of ’em were digging, winding up greenhide buckets filled with gravel from shafts, which were sunk so thickly all over the place that you could not pass between without jostling some one. Others were driving carts heavily laden with the same stuff towards the river, in which hundreds of men were standing up to their waists washing the gold out of tin pans, iron buckets, and every kind of vessel or utensil. By far the greater number of miners used things like child’s cradles, rocking them to and fro while a constant stream of yellow water passed through. Very little talk went on; every man looked feverishly anxious to get the greatest quantity of work done by sundown.
Foot police and mounted troopers passed through the crowd every now and then, but there was apparently no use or no need for them; that time was to come. Now and then some one would come walking up, carrying a knapsack, not a swag, and showing by his round, rosy face that he hadn’t seen a summer’s sun in Australia. We saw a trooper riding towards us, and knowing it was best to take the bull by the horns, I pushed over to him, and asked if he could direct us to where Mr. Stevenson’s, the auctioneer’s, yard was.
‘Whose horses are these?’ he said, looking at the brands. ‘B.M., isn’t it?’
‘Bernard Muldoon, Lower Macquarie,’ I answered. ‘There’s a friend of his, a new chum, in charge; he’ll be here to-morrow.’
‘Go on down Main Street [the first street in a diggings is always called Main Street] as you’re going,’ he said carelessly, giving us all a parting look through, ‘and take the first lane to the right. It takes you to the yard. It’s sale-day to-morrow; you’re in luck.’
It was rather sharp work getting the colts through men, women, and children, carts, cradles, shafts, and tin dishes; but they were a trifle tired and tender-footed, so in less than twenty minutes they were all inside of a high yard, where they could scarcely see over the cap, with a row of loose boxes and stalls behind. We put ’em into Joe Stevenson’s hands to sell—that was what every one called the auctioneer—and walked down the long street.
My word, we were stunned, and no mistake about it. There was nothing to see but a rocky river and a flat, deep down between hills like we’d seen scores and scores of times all our lives and thought nothing of, and here they were digging gold out of it in all directions, just like potatoes, as Maddie Barnes said. Some of the lumps we saw—nuggets they called ’em—was near as big as new potatoes, without a word of a lie in it. I couldn’t hardly believe it; but I saw them passing the little washleather bags of gold dust and lumps of dirty yellow gravel, but heavier, from one to the other just as if they were nothing—nearly £4 an ounce they said it was all worth, or a trifle under. It licked me to think it had been hid away all the time, and not even the blacks found it out. I believe our blacks are the stupidest, laziest beggars in the whole world. That old man who lived and died in the Hollow, though—he must have known about it; and the queer-looking thing with the rockers we saw near his hut, that was the first cradle ever was made in Australia.
The big man of the goldfield seemed to be the Commissioner. We saw him come riding down the street with a couple of troopers after his heels, looking as if all the place, and the gold too, belonged to him. He had to settle all the rows and disputes that came up over the gold, and the boundaries of the claims, as they called the twenty-foot paddocks they all washed in, and a nice time he must have had of it! However, he was pretty smart and quick about it. The diggers used to crowd round and kick up a bit of a row sometimes when two lots of men were fighting for the same claim and gold coming up close by; but what he said was law, and no mistake. When he gave it out they had to take it and be content. Then he used to ride away and not trouble his head any more about it; and after a bit of barneying it all seemed to come right. Men liked to be talked to straight, and no shilly-shally.
What I didn’t like so much was the hunting about of the poor devils that had not got what they called a licence—a printed thing giving ’em leave for to dig gold on the Crown lands. This used to cost a pound or thirty shillings a month—I forget rightly which—and, of course, some of the chaps hadn’t the money to get it with—spent what they had, been unlucky, or run away from somewhere, and come up as bare of everything to get it out of the ground.
You’d see the troopers asking everybody for their licences, and those that hadn’t them would be marched up to the police camp and chained to a big log, sometimes for days and days. The Government hadn’t time to get up a lock-up, with cells and all the rest of it, so they had to do the chain business. Some of these men had seen better days, and felt it; the other diggers didn’t like it either, and growled a good deal among themselves. We could see it would make bad blood some day; but there was such a lot of gold being got just then that people didn’t bother their heads about anything more than they could help—plenty of gold, plenty of money, people bringing up more things every day from the towns for the use of the diggers. You could get pretty near anything you wanted by paying for it. Hard work from daylight to dark, with every now and then a big find to sweeten it, when a man could see as much money lying at his foot, or in his hand, as a year’s work—no, nor five—hadn’t made for him before. No wonder people were not in a hurry to call out for change in a place like the Turon in the year 1850!
The first night put the stuns on us. Long rows of tents, with big roaring log fires in front hot enough to roast you if you went too near; mobs of men talking, singing, chaffing, dealing—all as jolly as a lot of schoolboys. There was grog, too, going, as there is everywhere. No publics were allowed at first, so, of course, it was sold on the sly.
It’s no use trying to make men do without grog, or the means of getting it; it never works. I don’t hold with every shanty being licensed and its being under a man’s nose all day long; but if he has the money to pay for it, and wants to have an extra glass of grog or two with his friends, or because he has other reasons, he ought to be able to get it without hardships being put in his way.
The Government was afraid of there being tremendous fights and riots at the diggings, because there was all sorts of people there, English and French, Spaniards and Italians, natives and Americans, Greeks and Germans, Swedes and negroes, every sort and kind of man from every country in the world seemed to come after a bit. But they needn’t have been frightened at the diggers. As far as we saw they were the sensiblest lot of working men we ever laid eyes on; not at all inclined to make a row for nothing—quite the other way. But the shutting off of public-houses led to sly grog tents, where they made the digger pay a pound a bottle for his grog, and didn’t keep it very good either.
When the police found a sly grog tent they made short work of it, I will say. Jim and I were close by, and saw them at the fun. Somebody had informed on the man, or they had some other reason; so they rode down, about a dozen troopers, with the Commissioner at their head. He went in and found two casks of brandy and one of rum, besides a lot of bottled stuff. They didn’t want that for their own use, he believed.
First he had the heads knocked in of the hogsheads; then all the bottled wine and spirits were unpacked and stowed in a cart, while the straw was put back in the tent. Then the men and women were ordered to come outside, and a trooper set fire to the straw. In five minutes the tent and everything in it was a mass of flame.
There was a big crowd gathered round outside. They began to groan when the trooper lit the straw, but they did nothing, and went quietly home after a bit. We had the horses to see after next day. Just before the sale began, at twelve o’clock, and a goodish crowd had turned up, Starlight rides quietly up, the finest picture of a new chum you ever set eyes on. Jim and I could hardly keep from bursting out laughing.
He had brought up a quiet cobby sort of stock horse from the Hollow, plain enough, but a wonder to go, particularly over broken country. Of course, it didn’t do to bring Rainbow out for such work as this. For a wonder, he had a short tail. Well, he’d squared this cob’s tail and hogged his mane so that he looked like another animal. He was pretty fat, too.
He was dressed up to the nines himself, and if we didn’t expect him we wouldn’t have known him from a crow. First of all, he had a thick rough suit of tweed clothing on, all the same colour, with a round felt hat. He had a bran new saddle and bridle, that hadn’t got the yellow rubbed off them yet. He had an English hunting whip in his hand, and brown dogskin gloves. He had tan leather gaiters that buttoned up to his knees. He’d shaved his beard all but his moustache and a pair of short whiskers.
He had an eyeglass in his eye, which he let drop every now and then, putting it up when he wanted to look at anybody.
When he rode up to the yard everybody stared at him, and one or two of the diggers laughed and began to call out ‘Joe.’ Jim and I thought how sold some of them would have been if he turned on them and they’d found out who it was. However, he pushed up to the auctioneer, without looking out right or left, and drawled—
‘May I—er—ask if you are Mr.—er—Joseph Stevenson?’
‘I’m Joe Stevenson,’ says the auctioneer. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Oh!—a—here is a letter from my friend, Mr. Bernard Muldoon, of the Lower Macquarie—er—requesting you to sell these horses faw him; and—er—hand over the pwoceeds to—er—me—Mr. Augustus Gwanby—aw!’
Stevenson read the letter, nodded his head, said, ‘All right; I’ll attend to it,’ and went on with the sale.
It didn’t take long to sell our colts. There were some draught stock to come afterwards, and Joe had a day’s work before him. But ours sold well. There had not been anything like this for size, quality, and condition. The Commissioner sent down and bought one. The Inspector of Police was there, and bought one recommended by Starlight. They fetched high prices, from fifty to eighty-five guineas, and they came to a fairish figure the lot.
When the last horse was sold, Starlight says, ‘I feel personally obliged to you, Mr.—aw—Stevenson—faw the highly satisfactory manner in which you have conducted the sale, and I shall inform my friend, Mr. Muldoon, of the way you have sold his stock.’
‘Much obliged, sir,’ says Joe, touching his hat. ‘Come inside and I’ll give you the cheque.’
‘Quite unnecessary now,’ says Starlight; ‘but as I’m acting for a friend, it may be as well.’
We saw him pocket the cheque, and ride slowly over to the bank, which was half-tent, half-bark hut.
We didn’t think it safe to stay on the Turon an hour longer than we were forced to do. We had seen the diggings, and got a good notion of what the whole thing was like; sold the horses and got the money, that was the principal thing. Nothing for it now but to get back to the Hollow. Something would be sure to be said about the horses being sold, and when it came out that they were not Muldoon’s there would be a great flare-up. Still they could not prove that the horses were stolen. There wasn’t a wrong brand or a faked one in the lot. And no one could swear to a single head of them, though the whole lot were come by on the cross, and father could have told who owned every one among them. That was curious, wasn’t it?
We put in a night at Jonathan Barnes’s on our way back. Maddie got the earrings, and Bella the making of a new riding habit, which she had been wanting and talking about for a good while. Starlight dressed up, and did the new chum young Englishman, eyeglass and all, over again, and repeated the conversation he had with the Inspector of Police about his friend Mr. Muldoon’s illness, and the colts he recommended. It was grand, and the girls laughed till they cried again. Well, those were merry days; we did have a bit of fun sometimes, and if the devil was dogging us he kept a good way out of sight. It’s his way at the start when fellows take the downward track.