‘I think it’s a fair thing,’ says Starlight at last, looking at his watch. Mr. Knightley wasn’t the first to speak, no fear. ‘Take us all our time to get to the Black Stump. We shall have to ride, too.’ Moran and Wall got up and fetched their horses. Mr. Knightley’s was led up by one of his men. He was a big handsome roan, in top condition, and the man was riding a black horse with a tan muzzle that looked a trifle better, if anything. Mr. Knightley turned out in boots and breeches, with a gold fox’s head on his scarf, swell hunting fashion, as they do it at home, Starlight said.
When Starlight’s horse came up he was as lame as a tree, couldn’t put his foot to the ground; got a kick or a strain, or trod on a glass bottle or something. Anyhow he had only three legs that he could rise a move out of. Starlight looked rather glum. He wasn’t his second best or his third best either. All the same, a horse is a horse, and I never saw the man yet that a lame horse didn’t put out a bit.
‘Confound it,’ says he, ‘what a nuisance! It’s just the way with these infernal half-bred brutes; they always let me down at the wrong time.’
‘Look here, old fellow,’ says Mr. Knightley, ‘leave him behind and take this black horse the boy’s on; he’s one of the finest hacks you ever crossed. I refused sixty guineas for him the other day from Morringer.’
‘Thanks, very much,’ says Starlight, brightening up a bit; ‘but I hardly like to deprive you of him. Won’t you want him yourself?’
‘Oh, I can manage without him,’ says Mr. Knightley. ‘I’ll let you have him for fifty and allow you ten pounds for your screw. You can add it on to your I O U, and pay it in with the other.’
We all laughed at this, and Moran said if he was dealing with Mr. Knightley he’d get him a pound or two cheaper. But Starlight said, very serious-like, that the arrangement would suit him very well. So he had his saddle shifted, and the groom led back the bay and turned him loose in the paddock.
We mounted then, and it looked as if we were all matched for a race to the Black Stump. Moran had a good horse, and when he set him going in the first bit of thick timber we came to, it took a man, I tell you, to keep him in sight. Starlight made the black horse hit out in a way that must have been a trifle strange to him unless he’d been in training lately. As for Mr. Knightley, he took it easy and sailed away on one side with Joe Wall and me. He played it out cool to the last, and wasn’t going to hurry himself for anybody.
Half-an-hour before sundown we rode up to the Black Stump. It was a rum-looking spot, but everybody knew it for miles round. There was nothing like it anywhere handy. It was within a reasonable distance of Bathurst, and not so far from a place we could make to, where there was good shelter and hiding too, if we were pushed.
There were two or three roads led up to it, and crossed there—one from Bathurst, one to Turon, and another straight into the forest country, which led range by range to Nulla Mountain. We could see on a good way ahead, and, though there was no one at the tree when we came, a single horseman was riding along the road for Bathurst. We all drew rein round the stump. It had been a tremendous big old ironbark tree—nobody knew how old, but it had had its top blown off in a thunderstorm, and the carriers had lighted so many fires against the roots of it that it had been killed at last, and the sides were as black as a steamer’s funnel. After a bit we could make out the doctor’s short-tailed, mousy mare and him powdering along at a sort of hand gallop.
When he came up close, he took off his hat and made a bow. ‘Chentlemen of the roat, I salude you,’ he says. ‘You haf kebt your bromise to the letter, and you will fint that Albert von Schiller has kept his. Hauptman!’ says he to Starlight, ‘I delifer to you the ransom of dies wothy chentleman and his most excellend and hoch-besahltes laty, who has much recovered from her fadigues, and I demant his freetom.’
‘Well done, most trust-repaying and not-ever-to-be-entirely-forgotten herald,’ says Starlight. ‘I hand over to these worthy free companions the frank-geld; isn’t that the term?—and when they have counted it (for they won’t take your word or mine), the Graf here—most high-born and high-beseeming, but uncommonly-near-ending his glorious career magnate—will be restored to you. Very pleasant company we’ve found him. I should like to have my revenge at picquet, that’s all.’
While this was going on Starlight had collared the bundle of notes from the doctor, and chucked it over quite careless-like to Moran. ‘There it is for you,’ says he. ‘You can divide it between you. Dick and I stand out this time; and you can’t say you’ve done badly.’
Moran didn’t say anything, but he and Wall got off their horses and sat down on their heels—native fashion. Then they turned to, counting out the notes one by one. They were all fivers—so it took some time—as they neither of ’em weren’t very smart at figures, and after they’d got out twenty or thirty they’d get boxed, like a new hand counting sheep, and have to begin all over again. It must have been aggravating to Mr. Knightley, and he was waiting to be let go, in a manner of speaking. He never showed it, but kept smoking and yarning with Starlight, pointing out how grand the sun was just a-setting on the Bulga Mountains—just for all the world as if he’d given a picnic, and was making himself pleasant to the people that stayed longest.
At long last they’d got to the end of the conning, and divided the notes. Moran tied his up in a bunch, and rolled ’em in his poncho; but Wall crammed his into his pocket and made ’em all stick out like a boy that’s been stealing apples. When they mounted their horses, Mr. Knightley shook hands with me and Starlight. Then he turns round to Moran and Wall—‘We’re parting good friends after all’s said and done,’ he says. ‘Just as well matters have been settled this way. Come, now, in cool blood, ain’t you rather glad, Moran?’
‘Dashed if I know,’ growls he. ‘All I know is, you’re deuced well out of it; your luck mayn’t be so good another time.’
‘Nor yours either, my friend,’ says Mr. Knightley, drawing up his bridle-rein. ‘I had only a snap-shot at you when that bullet went through your poncho, or you’d be lying alongside of Daly. However, I needn’t waste my breath talking to that brute,’ he says to Starlight. ‘I know well all I owe to you and Dick Marston here. Some day I may repay it.’
‘You mean what I owe you,’ says Starlight, turning it off with a laugh. ‘Never fear, you’ll find that paid to your credit in the bank. We have agents in all sorts of places. Good-bye, and a safe ride home. My respectful compliments to Mrs. Knightley. Perhaps you’d better follow the doctor now.’ The old gentleman had got tired waiting, and ridden on slow and easy.
Two or three weeks after, Starlight and I were taking a ride towards the Bogan Road, not that we was on for anything particular, but just having a turn round for want of something else to do, when we saw a big mob of cattle coming along, with three or four stock-riders behind ’em. Then we met a loaded dray and team in front, that had rations and swags and a tent. The driver asked us if we knew a good place to camp. He was a talking sort of chap, and we yarned away with him for a bit. He told us how the boss was behind in a dogcart and tandem, with two led horses besides. The cattle were going to take up a new run he’d bought on the Lower Bogan, an out-and-out wild place; but he’d got the country cheap, and thought it would pay in the end. He was going ahead after a stage or two, but just now he was camping with them.
‘My word, he’s well in, is the cove,’ says the horse-driver; ‘he’s got half-a-dozen stations besides this one. He’ll be one of the richest men in Australia yet.’
After we saw the cattle (about a thousand head) we thought it would be a middling day’s work to ‘stick up’ the cove and put him through. Going to form a new station, he’d very like have cash about, as he’d have to pay for a lot of things on the nail just at first. If he was such a swell too, he’d have a gold watch and perhaps a few more trifles. Anyhow, he was good for the day’s expenses, and we thought we’d try it on.
So we passed the cattle and rode quietly along the road till we saw his dogcart coming; then we stopped inside a yarran scrub, just as he came by—a square-built man he seemed to be, muffled up in a big rough coat. It was a cool morning. We rode up sharpish, and showed our revolvers, singing out to him to ‘bail up’. He pulled up quick and stared at us. So we did at him. Then the three of us burst out laughing—regular roared again.
Who should it be but old George Storefield.
‘Well, this is a prime joke,’ says he. ‘I knew you were out somewhere on this road; but I never thought I should live to be stuck up by you, Dick Marston.’
I looked foolish. It was rather a stunner when you come to think of it.
‘I beg a thousand pardons,’ says Starlight. ‘Ridiculous mistake. Want of something to occupy our time. “For Satan finds some mischief still,” etc. Isn’t that the way the hymn runs? Wonderfully true, isn’t it? You’ll accept our apologies, Mr. Storefield, I trust. Poor Dick here will never get over it.’
‘How was I to know? Why, George, old man, we thought it was the Governor turned squatter, or old Billy Wentworth himself. Your trade pays better than ours, let alone being on the square. Well, shake hands; we’ll be off. You won’t tell the girls, there’s a good fellow, will you?’
‘I can’t promise,’ says old George; ‘it’s too good a joke.’ Here he laughed a good one. ‘It isn’t often a man gets stuck up by his friends like this. Tell you what; come and have some lunch, and we’ll talk it over.’
His man rode up then with the spare horse. Luckily, he was a good way behind, as fellows will keep when they’re following a trap, so that they can’t be any good when they’re wanted. In this case it was just as well. He hadn’t seen anything.
‘Hobble the horses out and put on their nose-bags, Williams,’ says he, ‘and then get out the lunch. Put the things under that tree.’
They took out the horses, and the chap got out a basket with cold beef and bread and half a tongue and a bottle of good whisky and water-bag.
We sat down on the grass, and as we’d been riding since sunrise we did pretty well in the feed line, and had a regular good bit of fun. I never thought old George had so much go in him; but good times had made him twice the man he used to be.
After a bit he sends the groom down to the Cowall to water the horses, and, says he—
‘Captain, you’d better come and manage Willaroon down there, with Dick for stockman. There’s a fortune in it, and it’s a good way off yet. Nobody would think of looking for you there. You’re a new chum, just out from home, you know. Plenty of spare country. I’ll send you some cattle to start you on a new run after a bit.’
‘If we could throw our past behind us, I’d do it, and thank God on my knees,’ said Starlight. ‘It would make me almost a happy man again. But why think of that or any other honest life in this colony now? We’ve debarred ourselves from it now and for ever. Our only hope is in another land—America—if we can get away. We shan’t be long here now; we’re both sick of this accursed work.’
‘The sooner the better,’ says George, taking his hand and giving it a hearty grip. ‘And, look here, you work your way quietly down to Willaroon. That’s my place, and I’ll give you a line across to the Queensland border. From there you can get over to Townsville, and it’s easy to sail from there to the islands or any port out of reach of harm from here.’
‘We’ll tackle it next month if we’re alive,’ says I. So we parted.
Not long after this we got a letter from Jim. He’d heard all about the way to do it from a man he’d met in Melbourne that had worked his way down overland from the North. He said once you were there, or near there, there was little or no chance of being interfered with. Jeanie was always in a fright every day Jim went away lest he might be taken and not let come back. So she was always keeping him up to the mark, making him inquire here and look out there until he got a bit of information which told him what he wanted.
This man that worked in the store with him was a fast sort of card, who had been mate of a brig cruising all about and back to Sydney with sandalwood, bêche-de-mer, and what they call island trade.
Well, the captain of the craft, who was part owner, had settled in his mind that he’d trade regular with San Francisco now, and touch at Honolulu going and coming. He was to be back at Gladstone in about three months, and then start for California straight away.
This was the very thing, just made to suit us all to pieces. If we could make out to one of the Queensland northern ports it would be easy enough to ship under different names. Once in America, we’d be in a new world, and there’d be nothing to stop us from leading a new life.