There wasn’t a breath of air that night. Not a leaf stirred—not a bough moved of all the trees in the forest that we rode through. A ’possum might chatter or a night-owl cry out, but there wasn’t any other sound, except the ripple of the creek over the stones, that got louder and clearer as we got nearer Rocky Flat. There was nothing like a cloud in the sky even. It wasn’t an over light night, but the stars shone out like so many fireballs, and it was that silent any one could almost have fancied they heard the people talking in the house we left, though it was miles away.
‘I sometimes wonder,’ Aileen says, at last, raising up her head, ‘if I had been a man whether I should have done the same things you and Jim have, or whether I should have lived honestly and worked steadily like George over there. I think I should have done so, I really do; that nothing would have tempted me to take what was not my own—or to—to—do other things. I don’t think it is in my nature somehow.’
‘I don’t say as you would, Ailie,’ I put in; ‘but there’s many things to be thought of when you come to reckon what a boy sees, and how he’s brought up in the bush. It’s different with girls—though I’ve known some of them that were no great shakes either, and middling handy among the clearskins too.’
‘It’s hard to say,’ she went on, more as if she was talking to herself than to me; ‘I feel that. Bad example—love of pleasure—strong temptation—evil company—all these are heavy weights to drag down men’s souls to hell. Who knows whether I should have been better than the thousands, the millions, that have fallen, that have taken the broad road that leads to destruction. Oh! how dreadful it seems to think that when once a man has sinned in some ways in this world there’s no turning back—no hope—no mercy—only long bitter years of prison life—worse than death; or, if anything can be worse, a felon’s death; a doom dark and terrible, dishonouring to those that die and to those that live. Oh that my prayers may avail—not my prayers only, but my life’s service—my life’s service.’
Next morning I was about at daybreak and had my horse fed and saddled up with the bridle on his neck, ready all but slipping the bit into his mouth, in case of a quick start. I went and helped Aileen to milk her cows, nine or ten of them there were, a fairish morning’s work for one girl; mothering the calves, bailing up, leg-roping, and all the rest of it. We could milk well, all three of us, and mother too, when she was younger. Women are used to cattle in Ireland, and England too. The men don’t milk there, I hear tell. That wouldn’t work here. Women are scarce in the regular bush, and though they’ll milk for their own good and on their own farms, you’ll not get a girl to milk, when she’s at service, for anybody else.
One of the young cows was a bit strange with me, so I had to shake a stick at her and sing out ‘Bail up’ pretty rough before she’d put her head in. Aileen smiled something like her old self for a minute, and said—
‘That comes natural to you now, Dick, doesn’t it?’
I stared for a bit, and then burst out laughing. It was a rum go, wasn’t it? The same talk for cows and Christians. That’s how things get stuck into the talk in a new country. Some old hand like father, as had been assigned to a dairy settler, and spent all his mornings in the cowyard, had taken to the bush and tried his hand at sticking up people. When they came near enough of course he’d pop out from behind a tree in a rock, with his old musket or a pair of pistols, and when he wanted ’em to stop ‘Bail up, d—— yer,’ would come a deal quicker and more natural-like to his tongue than ‘Stand.’ So ‘bail up’ it was from that day to this, and there’ll have to be a deal of change in the ways of the colonies and them as come from ’em before anything else takes its place, between the man that’s got the arms and the man that’s got the money.
After we’d turned out the cows we put the milk into the little dairy. How proud Jim and I used to be because we dug out the cellar part, and built the sod wall round the slabs! Father put on the thatch; then it was as cool and clean as ever. Many a good drink of cold milk we had there in the summers that had passed away. Well, well, it’s no use thinking of those sort of things. They’re dead and gone, like a lot of other things and people—like I shall be before long, if it comes to that.
We had breakfast pretty comfortable and cheerful. Mother looked pleased and glad to see me once more, and Aileen had got on her old face again, and was partly come round to her old ways.
After breakfast Aileen and I went into the garden and had a long talk over the plan we had chalked out for getting away to Queensland. I got out a map Starlight had made and showed her the way we were going to head, and why he thought it more likely to work than he had done before. I was to make my way down the Macquarie and across by Duck Creek, George’s station, Willaroon; start from there with a mob of cattle to Queensland as drover or anything that would suit my book.
Jim was to get on to one of the Murray River boats at Swan Hill, and stick to her till he got a chance to go up the Darling with an Adelaide boat to Bourke. He could get across from there by Cunnamulla towards Rockhampton, and from there we were safe to find plenty of vessels bound for the islands or San Francisco. We had hardly cared where, as far as that goes, as long as we got clear away from our own country.
As soon as Jeanie got a word from Jim that he’d sailed and was clear of Australia, she’d write up to Aileen, who was to go down to Melbourne, and take mother with her. They could stop with Jeanie until they got a message from San Francisco to say he’d safely arrived there. After that they could start by the first steamer. They’d have money enough to take their passages and something handsome in cash when they got to land.
Aileen agreed to it all, but in a curious sort of way. ‘It looked well,’ she said, ‘and might be carried out, particularly as we were all going to work cautiously and with such a lot of preparation.’ Everything that she could do would be done, we might be sure; but though she had prayed and sought aid from the Blessed Virgin and the saints—fasting and on her bare knees, night after night—she had not been able to get one gleam of consolation. Everything looked very dark, and she had a terrible feeling of anxiety and dread about the carrying it out. But she didn’t want to shake my courage, I could see; so she listened and smiled and cheered me up a bit at the end, and I rode away, thinking there was a good show for us after all.
I got back to the Hollow right enough, and for once in a way it seemed as if the luck was on our side. Maybe it was going to turn—who was to know? There had been men who had been as deep in it as any of us that had got clean away to other countries and lived safe and comfortable to the day of their death—didn’t die so soon either—lived to a good round age, and had wives and children round them that never knew but what they’d been as good as the best. That wouldn’t be our case; but still if we once were able to put the sea between us and our old life the odds would be all in our favour instead of being a hundred to one that we weren’t placed and no takers.
Starlight was glad enough to see me back, and like everything he tackled, had been squaring it all for our getting away with head and hand. We wanted to take everything with us that could do us any good, naturally. Father and he had made it right with some one they knew at Turon to take the gold and give them a price for it—not all it was worth, but something over three-fourths value. The rest he was to keep for his share, for trouble and risk. There was some risk, no doubt, in dealing with us, but all the gold that was bought in them days wasn’t square, not by a lot. But there was no way of swearing to it. Gold was gold, and once it was in the banks it was lumped up with the rest. There was a lot of things to be thought of before we regularly made a move for good and all; but when you make up your mind for a dart, it’s wonderful how things shape. We hadn’t much trouble dividing the gold, and what cash there was we could whack easy enough. There was the live stock that was running in the Hollow, of course. We couldn’t well take them with us, except a few of the horses. We made a deal at last with father for them. He took my share and Starlight’s, and paid us in cash out of his share of the notes. All we wanted was a couple of horses each, one to carry a pack, one to ride.
As for dad, he told us out, plump and plain, that he wasn’t going to shift. The Hollow was good enough for him, and there he was going to stop. If Jim and I and Starlight chose to try and make blank emigrants of ourselves, well and good. He didn’t see as they’d have such a rosy time getting over to these new townships on the other side. We might get took in, and wish we was back again before all was said and done. But some people could never let well alone. Here we had everything that any man in his senses could wish for, and we wasn’t contented. Every one was going to cut away and leave him; he’d be all by himself, with no one but the dog for company, and be as miserable as a bandicoot; but no one cared a blank brass farden about that.
‘Come with us, governor,’ says Starlight, ‘have a cruise round the world, and smell salt water again. You’ve not been boxed up in the bush all your life, though you’ve been a goodish while there. Make a start, and bring old Crib too.’
‘I’m too old and getting stiff in the j’ints,’ says dad, brightening up a bit, ‘or I don’t say as I wouldn’t. Don’t mind my growling. But I’m bound to be a bit lonely like when you are all drawed off the camp. No! take your own way and I’ll take mine.’
‘Next Monday ought to see us off,’ says Starlight. ‘We have got the gold and cash part all right. I’ve had that money paid to Knightley’s credit in the Australian Bank I promised him, and got a receipt for it.’
‘That’s just like yer,’ says father, ‘and a rank soft thing for a man as has seen the world to drop into. Losin’ yer share of the five hundred quid, and then dropping a couple of hundred notes at one gamble, besides buying a horse yer could have took for nothing. He’ll never bring twenty pound again, neither.’
‘Always pay my play debts,’ says Starlight. ‘Always did, and always will. As for the horse—a bargain, a bargain.’
‘And a dashed bad bargain too. Why didn’t ye turn parson instead of taking to the bush?’ says father, with a grin. ‘Dashed if I ain’t seen some parsons that could give you odds and walk round ye at horse-dealin’.’
‘You take your own way, Ben, and I’ll take mine,’ says Starlight rather fierce, and then father left off and went to do something or other, while us two took our horses and rode out. We hadn’t a long time to be in the old Hollow now. It had been a good friend to us in time of need, and we was sorry in a kind of way to leave it. We were going to play for a big stake, and if we lost we shouldn’t have another throw in.
Our horses were in great buckle now; they hadn’t been doing much lately. I had the one I’d brought with me, and a thoroughbred brown horse that had been broken in the first season we came there.
Starlight was to ride Rainbow, of course, and he had great picking before he made up his mind what to choose for second horse. At last he pitched upon a thoroughbred bay mare named Locket that had been stolen from a mining township the other side of the country. She was the fastest mare they’d ever bred—sound, and a weight-carrier too.
‘I think I’ll take Locket after all,’ says he, after thinking about it best part of an hour. ‘She’s very fast and a stayer. Good-tempered too, and the old horse has taken up with her. It will be company for him.’
‘Take your own way,’ I said, ‘but I wouldn’t chance her. She’s known to a lot of jockey-boys and hangers-on. They could swear to that white patch on her neck among a thousand.’
‘If you come to that, Rainbow is not an every-day horse, and I can’t leave him behind, can I? I’ll ship him, if I can, that’s more. But it won’t matter much, for we’ll have to take back tracks all the way. You didn’t suppose we were to ride along the mail road, did you?’
‘I didn’t suppose anything,’ says I, ‘but that we were going to clear out the safest way we could. If we’re to do the swell business we’d better do it apart, or else put an advertisement into the “Turon Star” that Starlight, Marston, and Co. are giving up business and going to leave the district, all accounts owing to be sent in by a certain date.’
‘A first-rate idea,’ says he. ‘I’m dashed if I don’t do it. There’s nothing like making one’s exit in good form. How savage Morringer will be! Thank you for the hint, Dick.’
There was no use talking to him when he got into this sort of humour. He was the most mad, reckless character I ever came across, and any kind of checking only seemed to make him worse. So I left him alone, for fear he should want to do something more venturesome still, and went on with my packing and getting ready for the road.
We fixed up to start on the Monday, and get as far away the first couple of days as we could manage. We expected to get a good start by making a great push the first day or two, and, as the police would be thrown off the scent in a way we settled—and a good dodge it was—we should have all the more time to be clear of New South Wales before they regularly dropped that we were giving them leg bail for it.
The Sunday before Starlight started away by himself, taking a couple of good horses with him—one he led, and a spare saddle too. He took nothing but his revolver, and didn’t say where he was going, but I pretty well guessed to say good-bye to Aileen. Just as he started he looked back and says—
‘I’m going for a longish ride to-day, Dick, but I shall be here late if I’m back at all. If anything happens to me my share of what there is I give to her, if she will take it. If not, do the best you can with it for her benefit.’
He didn’t take Warrigal with him, which I was sorry for, as the half-caste and I didn’t hit it well together, and when we were by ourselves he generally managed to do or say something he knew I didn’t like. I kept my hands off him on account of Starlight, but there was many a time my fingers itched to be at him, and I could hardly keep from knocking some of the sulkiness out of him. This day, somehow, I was not in the best of tempers myself. I had a good lot on my mind. Starting away seems always a troublesome, bothering sort of thing, and if a man’s at all inclined to be cranky it’ll come out then.
Next day we were going to start on a long voyage, in a manner of speaking, and whether we should have a fair wind or the vessel of our fortune would be wrecked and we go down with it no one could say. This is how it happened. One of the horses was bad to catch, and took a little trouble in the yard. Most times Warrigal was quiet enough with ’em, but when he got regular into a rage he’d skin a horse alive, I really believe. Anyhow, he began to hammer the colt with a roping-pole, and as the yard was that high that no beast could jump it he had him at his mercy. I wouldn’t have minded a lick or two, but he went on and on, nearly knocking the poor brute down every time, till I could stand it no longer, and told him to drop it.
He gave me some saucy answer, until at last I told him I’d make him. He dared me, and I rushed at him. I believe he’d have killed me that minute if he’d had the chance, and he made a deuced good offer at it.
He stuck to his roping-stick—a good, heavy-ended gum sapling, six or seven feet long—and as I came at him he struck at my head with such vengeance that, if it had caught me fair, I should never have kicked. I made a spring to one side, and it hit me a crack on the shoulder that wasn’t a good thing in itself. I was in at him before he could raise his hands, and let him have it right and left.
Down he went and the stick atop of him. He was up again like a wild cat, and at me hammer and tongs—but he hadn’t the weight, though he was quick and smart with his hands. I drew off and knocked him clean off his pins. Then he saw it wasn’t good enough, and gave it best.
‘Never mind, Dick Marston,’ says he, as he walked off; and he fixed his eyes on me that savage and deadly-looking, with the blood running down his face, that I couldn’t help shivering a bit, ‘you’ll pay for this. I owe it you and Jim, one a piece.’
‘Confound you,’ I said, ‘it’s all your own fault. Why couldn’t you stop ill-using the horse? You don’t like being hit yourself. How do you think he likes it?’
‘What business that of yours?’ he said. ‘You mind your work and I’ll mind mine. This is the worst day’s work you’ve done this year, and so I tell you.’
He went away to his gunyah then, and except doing one or two things for Starlight would not lift his hand for any one that day.
I was sorry for it when I came to think. I daresay I might have got him round with a little patience and humbugging. It’s always a mistake to lose your temper and make enemies; there’s no knowing what harm they may do ye. People like us oughtn’t to throw away a chance, even with a chap like Warrigal. Besides, I knew it would vex Starlight, and for his sake I would have given a trifle it hadn’t happened. However, I didn’t see how Warrigal could do me or Jim any harm without hurting him, and I knew he’d have cut off his hand rather than any harm should come to Starlight that he could help.
So I got ready. Dad and I had our tea together pretty comfortable, and had a longish talk. The old man was rather down in the mouth for him. He said he somehow didn’t expect the fakement to turn out well. ‘You’re going away,’ he said, ‘from where you’re safe, and there’s a many things goes against a man in our line, once he’s away from his own beat. You never know how you may be given away. The Captain’s all right here, when he’s me to look after him, though he does swear at me sometimes; but he was took last time. He was out on his own hook, and it’s my belief he’ll be took this time if he isn’t very careful. He’s a good man to fight through things when once he’s in the thick of ’em, but he ain’t careful enough to keep dark and close when the play isn’t good. You draw along steady by yourself till you meet Jim—that’s my advice to ye.’
‘I mean to do that. I shall work my way down to old George’s place, and get on with stock or something till we all meet at Cunnamulla. After that there ain’t much chance of these police here grabbing us.’
‘Unless you’re followed up,’ says the old man. ‘I’ve known chaps to go a deuce of a way, once they got on the track, and there’s getting some smart fellows among ’em now—native-born chaps as’ll be as good at picking up the tracks as you and Jim.’
‘Well, we must take our chance. I’m sorry, for one thing, that I had that barney with Warrigal. It was all his fault. But I had to give him a hardish crack or two. He’d turn dog on me and Jim, and in a minute, if he saw his way without hurting Starlight.’
‘He can’t do it,’ says dad; ‘it’s sink or swim with the lot of you. And he dursn’t either, not he,’ says father, beginning to growl out his words. ‘If I ever heard he’d given away any one in the lot I’d have his life, if I had to poleaxe him in George Street. He knows me too.’
We sat yarning away pretty late. The old man didn’t say it, but I made out that he was sorry enough for that part of his life which had turned out so bad for us boys, and for mother and Aileen. Bad enough he was in a kind of way, old dad, but he wasn’t all bad, and I believe if he could have begun again and thought of what misery he was going to bring on the lot of us he would never have gone on the cross. It was too late, too late now, though, to think of that.
Towards morning I heard the old dog growl, and then the tramp of a horse’s feet. Starlight rode up to the fire and let his horse go, then walked straight into his corner and threw himself down without speaking. He had had a precious long ride, and a fast one by the look of his horse. The other one he had let go as soon as he came into the Hollow; but none of the three would be a bit the worse after a few hours’ rest. The horses, of course, were spare ones, and not wanted again for a bit.
Next morning it was ‘sharp’s the word’, and no mistake. I felt a deal smarter on it than yesterday. When you’ve fairly started for the road half the journey’s done. It’s the thinking of this and forgetting that, and wondering whether you haven’t left behind the t’other thing, that’s the miserablest part of going a journey; when you’re once away, no matter what’s left behind, you can get on some way or other.
We didn’t start so over and above early, though Starlight was up as fresh as paint at sunrise, you’d thought he hadn’t ridden a yard the day before. Even at the very last there’s a lot of things to do and to get. But we all looked slippy and didn’t talk much, so that we got through what we had to do, and had all the horses saddled and packed by about eight o’clock. Even Warrigal had partly got over his temper. Of course I told Starlight about it. He gave him a good rowing, and told him he deserved another hammering, which he had a good mind to give him, if we hadn’t been starting for a journey. Warrigal didn’t say a word to him. He never did. Starlight told me on the quiet, though, he was sorry it happened, ‘though it’s the rascal’s own fault, and served him right. But he’s a revengeful beggar,’ he says, ‘and that he would play you some dog’s trick if he wasn’t afraid of me, you may depend your life on.’
‘Now,’ says he, ‘we must make our little arrangements. I shall be somewhere about Cunnamulla by the end of this month’ (it was only the first week). ‘Jim knows that we are to meet there, and if we manage that all right I think the greatest part of the danger will be over. I shall get right across by Dandaloo to the back blocks of the West Bogan country, between it and the Lachlan. There are tracks through the endless mallee scrub, only known to the tribes in the neighbourhood, and a few half-castes like Warrigal, that have been stock-riding about them. Sir Ferdinand and his troopers might just as well hunt for a stray Arab in the deserts of the Euphrates. If I’m alive—mind you, alive—I’ll be at Cunnamulla on the day I mean. And now, good-bye, old fellow. Whatever my sins have been, I’ve been true to you and your people in the past, and if Aileen and I meet across the seas, as I hope, the new life may partly atone for the old one.’