‘Hello, Dick, what’s up?’ says Jonathan. ‘No swag, ’lastic-side boots, flyaway tie, new rifle, old horse; looks a bit fishy don’t it?’
‘I can’t stop barneying,’ I said. ‘Have you a decent horse to give me? The game’s up. I must ride night and day till I get home. Heard anything?’
‘No; but Billy the Boy’s just rode up. I hear him a-talkin’ to the gals. He knows if anybody does. I’ll take the old moke and put him in the paddock. I can let you have a stunner.’
‘All right; I’ll go in and have some breakfast. It’s as much as I dare stop at all now.’
‘Why, Dick Marston, is that you? No, it can’t be,’ said both girls together. ‘Why, you look like a ghost. He doesn’t; he looks as if he’d been at a ball all night. Plenty of partners, Dick?’
‘Never mind, Dick,’ says Maddie; ‘go and make yourself comfortable in that room, and I’ll have breakfast for you while you’d let a cow out of the bail. We don’t forget our friends.’
‘If all our friends were as true as you, Maddie,’ I said, rather down-like, ‘I shouldn’t be here to-day.’
‘Oh! that’s it, is it?’ says she; ‘we’re only indebted to somebody’s laying the traps on—a woman of course—for your honour’s company. Never mind, old man, I won’t hit you when you’re down. But, I say, you go and have a yarn with Billy the Boy—he’s in the kitchen. I believe the young imp knows something, but he won’t let on to Bell and I.’
While the steaks were frying—and they smelt very good, bad as I felt—I called out Master Billy and had a talk with him. I handed him a note to begin with. It was money well spent, and, you mark my words, a shilling spent in grog often buys a man twenty times the worth of it in information, let alone a pound.
Billy had grown a squarish-set, middle-sized chap; his hair wasn’t so long, and his clothes were better; his eye was as bright and bold-looking. As he stood tapping one of his boots with his whip, he looked for all the world like a bull-terrier.
‘My colonial oath, Dick, you’re quite the gentleman—free with your money just the same as ever. You takes after the old governor; he always paid well if you told him the truth. I remember him giving me a hidin’ when I was a kiddy for saying something I wasn’t sure of. My word! I was that sore for a week after I couldn’t button my shirt. But ain’t it a pity about Jim?’
‘Oh, that’s it. What about Jim?’
‘Why, the p’leece grabbed him, of course. You fellers don’t think you’re going on for ever and ever, keepin’ the country in a state of terrorism, as the papers say. No, Dick, it’s wrong and wicked and sinful. You’ll have to knock under and give us young uns a chance.’
Here the impudent young rascal looked in my face as bold as brass and burst out laughing. He certainly was the cheekiest young scoundrel I ever came across. But in his own line you couldn’t lick him.
‘Jim’s took,’ he said, and he looked curiously over at me. ‘I seen the p’leece a-takin’ him across the country to Bargo early this morning. There was poor old Jim a-lookin’ as if he was goin’ to be hanged, with a chap leading the screw he was on, and Jim’s long legs tied underneath. I was gatherin’ cattle, I was. I drew some up just for a stall, and had a good look.’
‘How many men were with him?’
‘Only two; and they’re to pass through Bargo Brush about sundown to-night, or a bit earlier. I asked one of the men the road; said I’d lost myself, and would be late home. Ha! ha! ha!’
And how the young villain laughed till the tears came into his eyes, while he danced about like a blackfellow.
‘See here, Billy,’ I said, ‘here’s another pound for you, and there’ll be a fiver after if you stick well to me to-day. I won’t let Jim be walked off to Berrima without a flutter to save him. It’ll be the death of him. He’s not like me, and he’s got a young wife besides.’
‘More fool he, Dick. What does a cross cove want with a wife? He can’t never expect to do any good with a wife follerin’ of him about. I’m agin marrying, leastways as long as a chap’s sound on his pins. But I’ll stick to you, Dick, and, what’s more, I can take you a short cut to the brush, and we can wait in a gully and see the traps come up. You have a snack and lie down for a bit. I seen you were done when you came up. I’ll have the horses ready saddled up.’
‘How about the police? Suppose they come this way.’
‘Not they. They split and took across towards the Mountain Hut, where you all camped with the horses. I didn’t see ’em; but I cut their tracks. Five shod horses. They might be here to-morrow.’
A bush telegraph ain’t a bad thing. They’re not all as good as Billy the Boy. But the worst of ’em, like a bad sheep dog, is a deal better than none.
A bush telegraph, you see, is mostly worked about the neighbourhood he was born in. He’s not much good anywhere else. He’s like a blackfellow outside of his own ‘tauri’. He’s at sea. But within twenty or thirty miles of where he was born and bred he knows every track, every range, every hill, every creek, as well as all the short cuts and by-roads. He can bring you miles shorter than any one that only follows the road. He can mostly track like a blackfellow, and tell you whether the cattle or horses which he sees the tracks of are belonging to his country or are strangers. He can get you a fresh horse on a pinch, night or day, for he knows everybody’s paddocks and yards, as well as the number, looks, pace, and pluck of everybody’s riding horses—of many of which he has ‘taken a turn’ out of—that is, ridden them hard and far, and returned them during the night. Of course he can be fined—even imprisoned for this—when he is caught in the act. Herein lies the difficulty. I felt like another man after a wash, a nip, and a real good meal, with the two girls sitting close by, and chattering away as usual.
‘Do you know,’ says Bella, ‘it half serves you right. Not that that Port Phillip woman was right to peach. She ought to have had her tongue torn out first, let alone go open-mouthed at it. But mightn’t you have come down here from the Turon on Sundays and holidays now and then, and had a yarn with us all?’
‘Of course we ought, and we deserve to be kicked—the lot of us; but there were good reasons why we didn’t like to. We were regularly boxed up with the diggers, nobody knew who we were, or where we came from, and only for this Jezebel never would have known. If we’d come here they’d have all dropped that we were old friends, and then they’d have known all about us.’
‘Well, I’m glad you’ve lost your characters,’ says Maddie. ‘You won’t have to be so particular now, and you can come as often as Sir Ferdinand will let you. Good-bye. Billy’s waving his hat.’
It wasn’t long before I was in the saddle and off again. I’d made a bit of a bargain with Jonathan, who sold me a pair of riding boots, butcher’s, and a big tweed poncho. The boots were easier to take a long rough ride in than trousers, and I wanted the poncho to keep the Ballard rifle under. It wouldn’t do to have it in your hand all the time.
As we rode along I settled upon the way I’d try and set poor Jim free. Bad off as I was myself I couldn’t bear to see him chained up, and knew that he was going for years and years to a place more wicked and miserable than he’d ever heard of.
After riding twenty miles the sun was getting low, when Billy pointed to a trail which came broad ways across the road, and which then followed it.
‘Here they are—p’leece, and no mistake. Here’s their horses’ tracks right enough. Here’s the prisoner’s horse, see how he stumbled? and this road they’re bound to go till they cross the Stony point, and get into Bargo Brush, near a creek.’
We had plenty of time by crossing a range and running a blind creek down to be near the place where the troopers must pass as they crossed the main creek. We tied up the horses a hundred yards’ distance behind us in the forest, and I made ready to rescue Jim, if it could be managed anyhow.
How was it to be done? I could depend on the rifle carrying true at short ranges; but I didn’t like the notion of firing at a man behind his back, like. I hardly knew what to do, when all of a sudden two policemen showed up at the end of the track nearest the creek.
One man was a bit in front—riding a fine horse, too. The next one had a led horse, on which rode poor old Jim, looking as if he was going to be hanged that day, as Billy said, though I knew well he wasn’t thinking about himself. I don’t believe Jim ever looked miserable for so long since he was born. Whatever happened to him before he’d have a cry or a fight, and it would be over. But now his poor old face looked that wretched and miserable, as if he’d never smile again as long as he lived. He didn’t seem to care where they took him; and when the old horse stumbled and close upon fell down he didn’t take notice.
When I saw that, my mind was made up. I couldn’t let them take him away to his death. I could see he wouldn’t live a month. He’d go fretting his life about Jeanie, and after the free life he’d always led he’d fall sick like the blacks when they’re shut up, and die without any reason but because a wild bird won’t live in a cage.
So I took aim and waited till they were just crossing the creek into the forest. The leading man was just riding up the bank, and the one that led Jim’s horse was on the bit of a sand bed that the water had brought down. He was the least bit ahead of Jim, when I pulled trigger, and sent a ball into him, just under the collar-bone. I fired high on purpose. He drops off his saddle like a dead man. The next minute Billy the Boy raises the most awful corroboree of screams and howls, enough for a whole gang of bush-rangers, if they went in for that sort of thing. He emptied four chambers of his revolver at the leading trooper right away, and I fired at his horse. The constable never doubted—the attack was so sudden and savage like—but there was a party of men hid in the brush. Billy’s shots had whistled round him, and mine had nearly dropped his horse, so he thought it no shame to make a bolt and leave his mate, as seemed very bad hit, in our hands.
His horse’s hand-gallop growed fainter and fainter in the distance, and then we unbound poor Jim, set his feet at liberty, and managed to dispose of the handcuffs. Jim’s face began to look more cheerful, but he was down in the mouth again when he saw the wounded man. He began at once to do all he could for him. We stopped a short distance behind the brush, which had already helped us well.
Jim propped up the poor chap, whose life-blood was flowing red through the bullet-hole, and made him as comfortable as he could. ‘I must take your horse, mate,’ he says; ‘but you know it’s only the fortune of war. A man must look after himself. Some one’ll come along the road soon.’ He mounted the trooper’s horse, and we slipped through the trees—it was getting dark now—till we came to our horses. Then we all rode off together. We took Billy the Boy with us until he put us on to a road that led us into the country that we knew. We could make our own way from there, and so we sent off our scout, telling him to ride to the nearest township and say he’d seen a trooper lying badly wounded by the Bargo Brush roadside. The sooner he was seen to, the better chance he’d have.
Jim brightened up considerably after this. He told me how he’d gone back to say good-bye to Jeanie—how the poor girl went into fits, and he couldn’t leave her. By the time she got better the cottage was surrounded by police; there was no use being shot down without a chance, so he gave himself up.
‘My word, Dick,’ he said, ‘I wished for a bare-backed horse, and a deep gully, then; but it wasn’t to be. There was no horse handy, and I’d only have been carried into my own place a dead man and frightened the life out of poor Jeanie as well.’
‘You’re worth a dozen dead men yet, Jim,’ I said. ‘Keep up your pecker, old man. We’ll get across to the Hollow some time within the next twenty-four hours, and there we’ll be safe anyhow. They can’t touch Jeanie, you know; and you’re not short of what cash she’ll want to keep her till this blows over a bit.’
‘And what am I to do all the time?’ he says so pitiful like. ‘We’re that fond of one another, Dick, that I couldn’t hardly bear her out of my sight, and now I’ll be months and months and months without a look at her pretty face, where I’ve never seen anything yet but love and kindness. Too good for me she always was; and what have I brought her to? My God! Dick, I wish you’d shot me instead of the constable, poor devil!’
‘Well, you wasn’t very far apart,’ I says, chaffing like. ‘If that old horse they put you on had bobbed forward level with him you’d have got plugged instead. But it’s no use giving in, Jim. We must stand up to our fight now, or throw up the sponge. There’s no two ways about it.’
We rattled on then without speaking, and never cried crack till we got to Nulla Mountain, where we knew we were pretty safe not to be followed up. We took it easier then, and stopped to eat a bit of bread and meat the girls had put up for me at Jonathan’s. I’d never thought of it before. When I took the parcel out of the pocket of my poncho I thought it felt deuced heavy, and there, sure enough, was one of those shilling flasks of brandy they sell for chaps to go on the road with.
Brandy ain’t a good thing at all times and seasons, and I’ve seen more than one man, or a dozen either, that might just as well have sawed away at their throats with a blunt knife as put the first glass to their lips. But we was both hungry, thirsty, tired, miserable, and pretty well done and beaten, though we hadn’t had time to think about it. That drop of brandy seemed as if it had saved our lives. I never forgot it, nor poor Maddie Barnes for thinking of it for me. And I did live to do her a good turn back—much as there’s been said again me, and true enough, too.
It was a long way into the night, and not far from daylight either, when we stumbled up to the cave—dead beat, horses and men both. We’d two minds to camp on the mountain, but we might have been followed up, hard as we’d ridden, and we didn’t like to throw a chance away. We didn’t want the old man to laugh at us, and we didn’t want to do any more time in Berrima—not now, anyhow. We’d been living too gay and free a life to begin with the jug all over again.
So we thought we’d make one job of it, and get right through, if we had to sleep for a week after it. It would be slow enough, but anything was better than what we’d gone through lately.
After we’d got down the mountain and on the flat land of the valley it rested our feet a bit, that was pretty nigh cut to pieces with the rocks. Our horses were that done we dursn’t ride ’em for hours before. As we came close, out walks old Crib, and smells at us. He knew us in a minute, and jumped up and began to try and lick Jim’s hand: the old story. He just gave one sort of sniff at me, as much as to say, ‘Oh! it’s you, is it?’ Then he actually gave a kind of half-bark. I don’t believe he’d barked for years, such a queer noise it was. Anyhow, it woke up dad, and he came out pretty sharp with a revolver in his hand. As soon as he saw the old dog walking alongside of us he knew it was right, and begins to feel for his pipe. First thing father always did as soon as any work or fighting or talking was over was to get out his pipe and light it. He didn’t seem the same man without it.
‘So you’ve found your way back again, have ye?’ he says. ‘Why, I thought you was all on your way to Californy by this time. Ain’t this Christmas week? Why, I was expecting to come over to Ameriky myself one of these days, when all the derry was over—— Why, what’s up with the boy?’
Jim was standing by, sayin’ nothing, while I was taking off the saddles and bridles and letting the horses go, when all of a sudden he gives a lurch forward, and if the old man hadn’t laid hold of him in his strong arms and propped him up he’d have gone down face foremost like a girl in a dead faint.
‘What’s up with him, Dick?’ says father, rather quick, almost as if he was fond of him, and had some natural feeling—sometimes I raly think he had—‘been any shooting?’
‘Yes; not at him, though. Tell you all about it in the morning. He’s eaten nothing, and we’ve been travelling best part of twenty-four hours right off the reel.’
‘Hold him up while I fetch out the pannikin. There’s plenty of grub inside. He’ll be all right after a sleep.’
A drop of rum and water brought him to, and after that we made ourselves a cup of tea and turned in. The sun was pretty high when I woke. When I looked out there was the old man sitting on the log by the fire, smoking. What was a deal more curious, I saw the half-caste, Warrigal, coming up from the flat, leading a horse and carrying a pair of hobbles. Something made me look over to a particular corner where Starlight always slept when he was at the Hollow. Sure enough there was the figure of a man rolled up in a cloak. I knew by the way his boots and things were thrown about that it could be no other than Starlight.