‘Great God!’ Starlight cries out, ‘what’s that?’ and he pointed to a small sloping bit of grass just underneath the bank. ‘Who are they? Can they be asleep?’
They were asleep, never to wake. As we stood side by side by the dead men, for there were four of them, we shook so, Jim and I, that we leaned against one another for support. We had never seen a sight before that like it. I never want to do so again.
There they lay, four dead men. We didn’t know them ourselves, but guessed they were Hagan and his lot. How else did they come there? and how could dad have shot them all by himself, and laid them out there? Were Daly and Moran with him? This looked like Moran’s damnable work.
We looked and looked. I rubbed my eyes. Could it be real? The sky was dark, and the daylight going fast. The mountain hung over us black and dreadful-looking. The wind whimpered up and down the hillside with a sort of cry in it. Everything was dark and dismal and almost unnatural-looking.
All four men were lying on their backs side by side, with their eyes staring up to the sky—staring—staring! When we got close beside them we could see they had all been shot—one man through the head, the rest through the body. The two nearest to me had had their hands tied; the bit of rope was lying by one and his wrist was chafed.
One had been so close to the man that shot him that the powder had burnt his shirt. It wasn’t for anything they had either, for every man’s notes (and one had four fives and some ones) were pinned to them outside of their pockets, as if to show every one that those who killed them wanted their blood and not their money.
‘This is a terrible affair, boys,’ said Starlight; and his voice sounded strange and hoarse. ‘I never thought we should be mixed up with a deed like this. I see how it was done. They have been led into a trap. Your father has made ’em think they could catch him; and had Daly and Moran waiting for them—one on each side of this hole here. Warrigal’—for he had tied up his horse and crept up—‘how many bin here?’
Warrigal held up three fingers.
‘That one ran down here—one after one. I see ’em boot. Moran stand here. Patsey Daly lie down behind that ole log. All about boot-nail mark. Old man Ben he stand here. Dog bite’m this one.’
Here he stooped and touched a dead man’s ankle. Sure enough there was the mark of Crib’s teeth, with the front one missing, that had been kicked down his throat by a wild mare.
‘Two fellow tumble down fust-like; then two fellow bimeby. One—two—three fellow track go along a flat that way. Then that one get two horses and ridem likit Fish River. Penty blood tumble down here.’
This was the ciphering up of the whole thing. It was clear enough now. Moran and Daly had waited for them here, and had shot down the two first men. Of the others, it was hard to say whether they died in fair fight or had been taken prisoners and shot afterwards. Either way it was bad enough. What a noise it would make! The idea of four men, well known to the Government, and engaged in hunting down outlaws on whose head a price was set, to be deliberately shot—murdered in cold blood, as there was some ground for thinking to be the case. What would be the end of it all?
We had done things that were bad enough, but a deliberate, cold-blooded, shameful piece of bloodshed like this had never been heard of in New South Wales before.
There was nothing more to be done. We couldn’t stay any longer looking at the dead men; it was no use burying them, even if we’d had the time. We hadn’t done it, though we should be sure to be mixed up with it somehow.
‘We must be moving, lads,’ said Starlight. ‘As soon as this gets wind there’ll be another rush out this way, and every policeman and newspaper reporter in the country will be up at Black Gully. When they’re found everybody will see that they’ve been killed for vengeance and not for plunder. But the sooner they’re found the better.’
‘Best send word to Billy the Boy,’ I said; ‘he’ll manage to lay them on without hurting himself.’
‘All right. Warrigal knows a way of communicating with him; I’ll send him off at once. And now the sooner we’re at the Hollow the better for everybody.’
We rode all night. Anything was better than stopping still with such thoughts as we were likely to have for companions. About daylight we got to the Hollow. Not far from the cave we found father’s old mare with the saddle on and the reins trailing on the ground. There was a lot of blood on the saddle too, and the reins were smeared all about with it; red they were to the buckles, so was her mane.
We knew then something was wrong, and that the old man was hard hit, or he’d never have let her go loose like that. When we got to the cave the dog came out to meet us, and then walked back whining in a queer way towards the log at the mouth, where we used to sit in the evenings.
There was father, sure enough, lying on his face in a pool of blood, and to all appearances as dead as the men we’d just left.
We lifted him up, and Starlight looked close and careful at him by the light of the dawn, that was just showing up over the tree tops to the east.
‘He’s not dead; I can feel his heart beat,’ he said. ‘Carry him in, boys, and we’ll soon see what’s the matter with him.’
We took his waistcoat and shirt off—a coat he never wore unless it was raining. Hard work we had to do it, they was so stuck to his skin when the blood had dried.
‘By gum! he’s been hit bad enough,’ says Jim. ‘Look here, and here, poor old dad!’
‘There’s not much “poor” about it, Jim,’ says Starlight. ‘Men that play at bowls must expect to get rubbers. They’ve come off second best in this row, and I wish it had been different, for several reasons.’
Dad was hit right through the top of the left shoulder. The ball had gone through the muscle and lodged somewhere. We couldn’t see anything of it. Another bullet had gone right through him, as far as we could make out, under the breast on the right-hand side.
‘That looks like a good-bye shot,’ says Starlight; ‘see how the blood comes welling out still; but it hasn’t touched the lungs. There’s no blood on his lips, and his breathing is all right. What’s this? Only through the muscle of the right arm. That’s nothing; and this graze on the ribs, a mere scratch. Dash more water in his face, Jim. He’s coming to.’
After a few minutes he did come to, sure enough, and looked round when he found himself in bed.
‘Where am I?’ says he.
‘You’re at home,’ I said, ‘in the Hollow.’
‘Dashed if I ever thought I’d get here,’ he says. ‘I was that bad I nearly tumbled off the old mare miles away. She must have carried me in while I was unsensible. I don’t remember nothing after we began to get down the track into the Hollow. Where is she?’
‘Oh! we found her near the cave, with the saddle and bridle on.’
‘That’s all right. Bring me a taste of grog, will ye; I’m a’most dead with thirst. Where did I come from last, I wonder? Oh, I seem to know now. Settling accounts with that —— dog that insulted my gal. Moran got square with t’other. That’ll learn ’em to leave old Ben Marston alone when he’s not meddling with them.’
‘Never mind talking about that now,’ I said. ‘You had a near shave of it, and it will take you all your time to pull through now.’
‘I wasn’t hit bad till just as I was going to drop down into Black Gully,’ he said. ‘I stood one minute, and that cursed wretch Hagan had a steady shot at me. I had one at him afterwards, though, with his hands tied, too.’
‘God forgive you!’ says Jim, ‘for shooting men in cold blood. I couldn’t do it for all the gold in Turon, nor for no other reason. It’ll bring us bad luck, too; see if it don’t.’
‘You’re too soft, Jim,’ says the old man. ‘You ain’t a bad chap; but any young fellow of ten years old can buy and sell you. Where’s that brandy and water?’
‘Here it is,’ says Jim; ‘and then you lie down and take a sleep. You’ll have to be quiet and obey orders now—that is if a few more years’ life’s any good to you.’
The brandy and water fetched him to pretty well, but after that he began to talk, and we couldn’t stop him. Towards night he got worse and worse and his head got hotter, and he kept on with all kinds of nonsense, screeching out that he was going to be hung and they were waiting to take him away, but if he could get the old mare he’d be all right; besides a lot of mixed-up things about cattle and horses that we didn’t know the right of.
Starlight said he was delirious, and that if he hadn’t some one to nurse him he’d die as sure as fate. We couldn’t be always staying with him, and didn’t understand what was to be done much. We didn’t like to let him lie there and die, so at long last we made up our minds to see if we could get Aileen over to nurse him for a few weeks.
Well, we scribbled a bit of a letter and sent Warrigal off with it. Wasn’t it dangerous for him? Not a bit of it. He could go anywhere all over the whole country, and no trooper of them all could manage to put the bracelets on him. The way he’d work it would be to leave his horse a good way the other side of George Storefield’s, and to make up as a regular blackfellow. He could do that first-rate, and talk their lingo, too, just like one of themselves. Gin or blackfellow, it was all the same to Warrigal. He could make himself as black as soot, and go barefooted with a blanket or a ’possum rug round him and beg for siccapence, and nobody’d ever bowl him out. He took us in once at the diggings; Jim chucked him a shilling, and told him to go away and not come bothering near us.
So away Warrigal went, and we knew he’d get through somehow. He was one of those chaps that always does what they’re told, and never comes back and says they can’t do it, or they’ve lost their horse, or can’t find the way, or they’d changed their mind, or something.
No; once he’d started there was no fear of him not scoring somehow or other. Whatever Starlight told him to do, day or night, foul weather or fair, afoot or on horseback, that thing was done if Warrigal was alive to do it.
What we’d written to Aileen was telling her that father was that bad we hardly thought he’d pull through, and that if she wanted to save his life she must come to the Hollow and nurse him.
How to get her over was not the easiest thing in the world, but she could ride away on her old pony without anybody thinking but she was going to fetch up the cows, and then cut straight up the gully to the old yard in the scrub on Nulla Mountain. One of us would meet her there with a fresh horse and bring her safe into the Hollow. If all went well she would be there in the afternoon on a certain day; anyhow we’d be there to meet her, come or no come.
She wouldn’t fail us, we were dead sure. She had suffered a lot by him and us too; but, like most women, the very moment anything happened to any of us, even to dad, everything flew out of her head, except that we were sick or sorry and wanted her help. Help, of course; wasn’t she willing to give that, and her rest and comfort, health, even life itself, to wear herself out, hand and foot, for any one of her own family?
So poor Aileen made her way up all alone to the old scrub stockyard. Jim and I had ridden up to it pretty early (he wouldn’t stop behind) with a nice, well-bred little horse that had shone a bit at country races for her to ride on. We waited there a goodish while, we lying down and our horses hung up not far off for fear we might be ‘jumped’ by the police at any time.
At last we sees the old pony’s head coming bobbing along through the scrub along the worn-out cattle track, grown up as it was, and sure enough there was Aileen on him, with her gray riding skirt and an old felt hat on. She’d nothing with her; she was afraid to bring a ha’porth of clothes or anything for fear they should any of ’em tumble that she was going a long way, and, perhaps, follow her up. So she had to hand that over to Warrigal, and trust to him to bring it on some way or other. We saw her before she saw us, and Jim gave a whistle just as he used to do when he was coming home late at night. She knew it at once, and a smile for a minute came over her pale face; such a sad sort of one it was too, as if she was wondering at herself that she could feel that pleased at anything.
Whatever thoughts was in her mind, she roused up the old pony, and came towards us quick as soon as she catches sight of us. In two seconds Jim had lifted her down in his strong arms, and was holding her off the ground and hugging her as if she’d been a child. How the tears ran down her cheeks, though all the time she was kissing him with her arms round his neck; and me too, when I came up, just as if we were boys and girls again.
After a bit she wiped her eyes, and said—
‘Very bad,’ I said; ‘off his head, and raving. It’ll be a close thing with him. Here’s your horse now, and a good one too. We must let the old pony go; he’ll make home fast enough.’
She patted his neck and we turned him loose. He slued round and went away steady, picking a bit as he went. He’d be home next day easy enough, and nobody the wiser where he’d been to.
We’d brought a bit to eat and a glass of wine for the girl in case she was faint, but she wouldn’t take anything but a crust of bread and a drink of water. There was a spring that ran all the year round near the cattle-yard; and off went we, old Lieutenant holding up his head and showing himself off. He didn’t get such a rider on his back every day.
‘What a dear horse,’ she said, as she pulled him together a bit like and settled herself fair and square in the saddle. ‘Oh, how I could enjoy all this if—if—— O my God! shall we ever know a moment’s peace and happiness in this world again? Are we always to be sunk in wretchedness and misery as long as we live?’
We didn’t lose much time after that, you be sure. Up and down, thick and open, rough or smooth, we made the pace good, and Aileen gave us all we knew to keep ahead of her. We had a good light when we got to the drop down into the Hollow. The sun was just setting, and if we’d had time or thought to give to the looks of things, no doubt it was a grand sight.
All the Hollow was lighted up, and looked like a green sea with islands of trees in it. The rock towers on the other side of the range were shining and glittering like as if they were made of crystallised quartz or diamonds—red and white. There was a sort of mist creeping up the valley at the lower end under the mountain that began to soften the fire colours, and mix them up like. Even the mountain, that mostly looked black and dreary, frowning at our ways, was of purple and gold, with pale shadows of green and gray.
Aileen pulled up as we did, and jumped off our horses.
‘So this is the Hollow,’ she said, half talking to herself, ‘that I’ve heard and thought so much about. What a lovely, lovely place! Surely it ought to have a different effect on the people that lived there.’
‘Better come off, Ailie, and lead your horse down here,’ says Jim, ’unless you want to ride down, like Starlight did, the first time we saw him.’
‘Starlight! is he here?’ she said, in a surprised sort of way. ‘I never thought of that.’
‘Of course he is; where else should he be? Why don’t you lead on, Dick?’
‘Won’t you get off? It’s not altogether safe,’ I said, ‘though Lieutenant’s all right on his old pins.’
‘Safe!’ she said, with a bitter sort of laugh. ‘What does it matter if a Marston girl does break her neck, or her heart either?’
She never said another word, but sat upright with a set face on her, as the old horse picked his way down after ours, and except when he put his foot on a rolling stone, never made a slip or a stumble all the way down, though it was like going down the side of a house.
When we got to the valley we put on a spurt to the cave, and found Warrigal sitting on the log in front of us. He’d got home first, of course, and there was Aileen’s bundle, a biggish one too, alongside of him. We could hear father raving and screaming out inside dreadful. Starlight wasn’t nigh hand anywhere. He had walked off when Warrigal came home, and left him to watch the old man.
‘He been like that all the time, Warrigal?’
‘No! Captain say big one sleep. Him give him medicine like; then wake up and go on likit that. I believe him bad along a cobra.’
Aileen had jumped off her horse and gone in to the old man the moment we came up and she heard his voice.
All that long night we could hear him talking to himself, groaning, cursing, shouting, arguing. It was wonderful how a man who talked so little as father could have had so many thoughts in his mind. But then they all are boxed up together in every man’s heart. At a time like this they come racing and tumbling out like a flock of sheep out of a yard when the hurdle’s down. What a dashed queer thing human nature is when you come to think of it. That a man should be able to keep his tongue quiet, and shut the door on all the sounds and images and wishes that goes racing about inside of his mind like wild horses in a paddock!
One day he’ll be smiling and sensible, looking so honest all the time. Next day a knock on the head or a little vein goes crack in the brain (as the doctor told me); then the rails are down, and everything comes out with a rush into the light of day—right and wrong, foul and fair, station brands and clearskins, it don’t make no difference.
Father was always one of the closest men that ever lived. He never told us much about his old life at home or after he came out here. Now he was letting drop things here and there that helped us to a few secrets he’d never told to no man. They made poor Aileen a bit more miserable than she’d been before, if that was possible; but it didn’t matter much to us. We were pretty tired ourselves that night, and so we got Aileen all she wanted, and left her alone with him.
While we were away to meet her some one had taken the trouble to put up a bit of a partition, separating that part of the cave from the other; it was built up of stone—there was plenty about—and not so roughly done either. It made Aileen feel a lot more comfortable. Of course there was only one man who could have done it; and that was Starlight.