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Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

Part 5 out of 11

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in this world, so that I am comfortable and well off, as far as that goes.
If I am not happy that is your fault -- your fault, I say,
because I am not able to tear your false image and false self
from my thoughts. Whatever happens to me in the future you may consider
yourself to blame for. I should have been a happy and fairly good woman,
as far as women go, if you had been true, or rather if everything about you
had not been utterly false and despicable.

You think it fortunate after reading this, I daresay,
that we are separated for ever, BUT WE MAY MEET AGAIN, Richard Marston.
THEN you may have reason to curse the day, as I do most heartily,
when you first set eyes on

Not a pleasant letter, by no manner of means. I was glad I didn't get it
while I was eating my heart out under the stifling low roof of the cell
at Nomah, or when I was bearing my load at Berrima. A few pounds more
when the weight was all I could bear and live would have crushed the heart
out of me. I didn't want anything to cross me when I was looking
at mother and Aileen and thinking how, between us, we'd done everything
our worst enemy could have wished us to do. But here, when there was
plenty of time to think over old days and plan for the future, I could bear
the savage, spiteful sound of the whole letter and laugh at the way
she had got out of her troubles by taking up with a rough old fellow
whose cheque-book was the only decent thing about him. I wasn't sorry
to be rid of her either. Since I'd seen Gracey Storefield again
every other woman seemed disagreeable to me. I tore up the letter
and threw it away, hoping I had done for ever with a woman that no man living
would ever have been the better for.

`Glad you take it so quiet,' Jim says, after holding his tongue
longer than he did mostly. `She's a bad, cold-hearted jade,
though she is Jeanie's sister. If I thought my girl was like her
she'd never have another thought from me, but she isn't, and never was.
The worse luck I've had the closer she's stuck to me,
like a little brick as she is. I'd give all I ever had in the world
if I could go to her and say, "Here I am, Jim Marston,
without a penny in the world, but I can look every man in the face,
and we'll work our way along the road of life cheerful and loving together."
But I CAN'T say it, Dick, that's the devil of it, and it makes me
so wild sometimes that I could knock my brains out against
the first ironbark tree I come across.'

I didn't say anything, but I took hold of Jim's hand and shook it.
We looked in each other's eyes for a minute; there was no call
to say anything. We always understood one another, Jim and I.

As we were safe to stop in the Hollow for long spells at a time
we took a good look over it, as far as we could do on foot.
We found a rum sort of place at the end of a long gully that went easterly
from the main flat. In one way you'd think the whole valley had been
an arm of the sea some time or other. It was a bit like Sydney Harbour
in shape, with one principal valley and no end of small cover and gullies
running off from it, and winding about in all directions.
Even the sandstone walls, by which the whole affair, great and small,
was hemmed in, were just like the cliff about South Head;
there were lines, too, on the face of them, Jim and I made out,
just like where the waves had washed marks and levels on the sea-rock.
We didn't trouble ourselves much about that part of it.
Whatever might have been there once, it grew stunning fine grass now,
and there was beautiful clear fresh water in all the creeks
that ran through it.

Well, we rambled up the long, crooked gully that I was talking about
till about half-way up it got that narrow that it seemed stopped by a big rock
that had tumbled down from the top and blocked the path. It was pretty well
grown over with wild raspberries and climbers.

`No use going farther,' says Jim; `there's nothing to see.'

`I don't know that. Been a track here some time. Let's get round and see.'

When we got round the rock the track was plain again; it had been
well worn once, though neither foot nor hoof much had been along it
for many a year. It takes a good while to wear out a track in a dry country.

The gully widened out bit by bit, till at last we came
to a little round green flat, right under the rock walls
which rose up a couple of thousand feet above it on two sides.
On the flat was an old hut -- very old it seemed to be,
but not in bad trim for all that. The roof was of shingles,
split, thick, and wedge shaped; the walls of heavy ironbark slabs,
and there was a stone chimney.

Outside had been a garden; a few rose trees were standing yet,
ragged and stunted. The wallabies had trimmed them pretty well,
but we knew what they were. Been a corn-patch too -- the marks
where it had been hoed up were there, same as they used to do
in old times when there were more hoes than ploughs and more convicts
than horses and working bullocks in the country.

`Well, this is a rum start,' says Jim, as we sat down on a log outside
that looked as if it had been used for a seat before. `Who the deuce
ever built this gunyah and lived in it by himself for years and years?
You can see it was no two or three months' time he done here.
There's the spring coming out of the rock he dipped his water from.
The track's reg'lar worn smooth over the stones leading to it.
There was a fence round this garden, some of the rails lying there
rotten enough, but it takes time for sound hard wood to rot.
He'd a stool and table too, not bad ones either, this Robinson Crusoe cove.
No end of manavilins either. I wonder whether he come here
before them first -- Government men -- chaps we heard of.
Likely he did and died here too. He might have chummed in with them,
of course, or he might not. Perhaps Starlight knows something about him,
or Warrigal. We'll ask them.'

We fossicked about for a while to see if the man who lived so long by himself
in this lonely place had left anything behind him to help us make out
what sort he was. We didn't find much. There was writing on the walls
here and there, and things cut on the fireplace posts. Jim couldn't make
head or tail of them, nor me either.

`The old cove may have left something worth having behind him,' he said,
after staring at the cold hearth ever so long. `Men like him often leave
gold pieces and jewels and things behind them, locked up in brass-bound boxes;
leastways the story-books say so. I've half a mind to root up
the old hearthstone; it's a thundering heavy one, ain't it?
I wonder how he got it here all by himself.'

`It IS pretty heavy,' I said. `For all we know he may have had help
to bring it in. We've no time now to see into it; we'd better make tracks
and see if Starlight has made back. We shall have to shape after a bit,
and we may as well see how he stands affected.'

`He'll be back safe enough. There's no pull in being outside now with
all the world chevying after you and only half rations of food and sleep.'

Jim was right. As we got up to the cave we saw Starlight
talking to the old man and Warrigal letting go the horse.
They'd taken their time to come in, but Warrigal knew some hole or other
where they'd hid before very likely, so they could take it easier than we did
the night we left Rocky Creek.

`Well, boys!' says Starlight, coming forward quite heartily,
`glad to see you again; been taking a walk and engaging yourselves
this fine weather? Rather nice country residence of ours, isn't it?
Wonder how long we shall remain in possession! What a charm there is in home!
No place like home, is there, governor?'

Dad didn't smile, he very seldom did that, but I always thought
he never looked so glum at Starlight as he did at most people.

`The place is well enough,' he growled, `if we don't smother it all
by letting our tracks be followed up. We've been dashed lucky so far,
but it'll take us all we know to come in and out, if we've any roadwork
on hand, and no one the wiser.'

`It can be managed well enough,' says Starlight. `Is that dinner
ever going to be ready? Jim, make the tea, there's a good fellow;
I'm absolutely starving. The main thing is never to be seen together
except on great occasions. Two men, or three at the outside,
can stick up any coach or travellers that are worth while.
We can get home one by one without half the risk there would be
if we were all together. Hand me the corned beef, if you please, Dick.
We must hold a council of war by and by.'

We were smoking our pipes and lying about on the dry floor of the cave,
with the sun coming in just enough to make it pleasant,
when I started the ball.

`We may as well have it out now what lay we're going upon
and whether we're all agreed in our minds TO TURN OUT,
and do the thing in the regular good old-fashioned Sydney-side style.
It's risky, of course, and we're sure to have a smart brush or two;
but I'm not going to be jugged again, not if I know it,
and I don't see but what bush-ranging -- yes, BUSH-RANGING,
it's no use saying one thing and meaning another -- ain't as safe a game,
let alone the profits of it, as mooching about cattle-duffing
and being lagged in the long run all the same.'

Chapter 23

`Because it's too late,' growled father; `too late by years.
It's sink or swim with all of us. If we work together
we may make ten thousand pounds or more in the next four or five years,
enough to clear out with altogether if we've luck. If any of us
goes snivelling in now and giving himself up, they'd know
there's something crooked with the lot of us, and they'll run us down somehow.
I'll see 'em all in the pit of h--l before I give in, and if Jim does,
he opens the door and sells the pass on us. You can both do what you like.'
And here the old man walked bang away and left us.

`No use, Dick,' says Jim. `If he won't it's no use my giving in.
I can't stand being thought a coward. Besides, if you were nabbed afterwards
people might say it was through me. I'd sooner be killed and buried
a dozen times over than that. It's no use talking -- it isn't to be --
we had better make up our minds once for all, and then let the matter drop.'

Poor old Jim. He had gone into it innocent from the very first.
He was regular led in because he didn't like to desert
his own flesh and blood, even if it was wrong. Bit by bit he had gone on,
not liking or caring for the thing one bit, but following the lead of others,
till he reached his present pitch. How many men, and women too,
there are in the world who seem born to follow the lead of others
for good or evil! They get drawn in somehow, and end by paying
the same penalty as those that meant nothing else from the start.

The finish of the whole thing was this, that we made up our minds to turn out
in the bush-ranging line. It might seem foolish enough to outsiders,
but when you come to think of it we couldn't better ourselves much.
We could do no worse than we had done, nor run any greater risk to speak of.
We were `long sentence men' as it was, sure of years and years in prison;
and, besides, we were certain of something extra for breaking gaol.
Jim and Warrigal were `wanted', and might be arrested by any chance trooper
who could recollect their description in the `Police Gazette'.
Father might be arrested on suspicion and remanded again and again until
they could get some evidence against him for lots of things that he'd been in
besides the Momberah cattle. When it was all boiled down it came to this,
that we could make more money in one night by sticking up a coach or a bank
than in any other way in a year. That when we had done it,
we were no worse off than we were now, as far as being outlaws,
and there was a chance -- not a very grand one, but still a chance --
that we might find a way to clear out of New South Wales altogether.

So we settled it at that. We had plenty of good horses --
what with the young ones coming on, that Warrigal could break,
and what we had already. There was no fear of running short of horse-flesh.
Firearms we had enough for a dozen men. They were easy enough to come by.
We knew that by every mail-coach that travelled on the Southern
or Western line there was always a pretty fair sprinkling of notes
sent in the letters, besides what the passengers might carry with them,
watches, rings, and other valuables. It wasn't the habit of people
to carry arms, and if they did, there isn't one in ten that uses 'em.
It's all very well to talk over a dinner-table, but any one
who's been stuck up himself knows that there's not much chance of doing much
in the resisting line.

Suppose you're in a coach, or riding along a road. Well, you're expected
and waited for, and the road party knows the very moment you'll turn up.
They see you a-coming. You don't see them till it's too late.
There's a log or something across the road, if it's a coach,
or else the driver's walking his horses up a steepish hill.
Just at the worst pinch or at a turn, some one sings out `Bail up.'
The coachman sees a strange man in front, or close alongside of him,
with a revolver pointed straight at him. He naturally don't like to be shot,
and he pulls up. There's another man covering the passengers
in the body of the coach, and he says if any man stirs or lifts a finger
he'll give him no second chance. Just behind, on the other side,
there's another man -- perhaps two. Well, what's any one,
if he's ever so game, to do? If he tries to draw a weapon, or move
ever so little, he's rapped at that second. He can only shoot one man,
even if his aim is good, which it's not likely to be. What is more,
the other passengers don't thank him -- quite the contrary --
for drawing the fire on them. I have known men take away a fellow's revolver
lest he should get them all into trouble. That was a queer start, wasn't it?
Actually preventing a man from resisting. They were quite right, though;
he could only have done mischief and made it harder for himself
and every one else. If the passengers were armed, and all steady and game
to stand a flutter, something might be done, but you don't get
a coach-load like that very often. So it's found better in a general way
to give up what they have quietly and make no fuss about it.
I've known cases where a single bush-ranger was rushed
by a couple of determined men, but that was because the chap was careless,
and they were very active and smart. He let them stand too near him.
They had him, simple enough, and he was hanged for his carelessness;
but when there's three or four men, all armed and steady,
it's no use trying the rush dodge with them.

Of course there were other things to think about: what we were to do
with the trinkets and bank-notes and things when we got them --
how to pass them, and so on. There was no great bother about that.
Besides Jonathan Barnes and chaps of his sort, dad knew a few `fences'
that had worked for him before. Of course we had to suffer a bit in value.
These sort of men make you pay through the nose for everything
they do for you. But we could stand that out of our profits,
and we could stick to whatever was easy to pass and some of the smaller things
that were light to carry about. Men that make 300 or 400 Pounds of a night
can afford to pay for accommodation.

The big houses in the bush, too. Nothing's easier than to stick up
one of them -- lots of valuable things, besides money, often kept there,
and it's ten to one against any one being on the look-out when the boys come.
A man hears they're in the neighbourhood, and keeps a watch
for a week or two. But he can't be always waiting at home all day long
with double-barrelled guns, and all his young fellows and the overseer
that ought to be at their work among their cattle or sheep on the run
idling their time away. No, he soon gets sick of that,
and either sends his family away to town till the danger's past,
or he `chances it', as people do about a good many things in the country.
Then some fine day, about eleven or twelve o'clock, or just before tea,
or before they've gone to bed, the dogs bark, and three or four chaps
seem to have got into the place without anybody noticing 'em,
the master of the house finds all the revolvers looking his way,
and the thing's done. The house is cleared out of everything valuable,
though nobody's harmed or frightened -- in a general way, that is --
a couple of the best horses are taken out of the stable,
and the next morning there's another flaring article in the local paper.
A good many men tried all they knew to be prepared and have a show for it;
but there was only one that ever managed to come out right.

We didn't mean to turn out all in a minute. We'd had
a rough time of it lately, and we wanted to wait and take it easy
in the Hollow and close about for a month or so before we began business.

Starlight and I wanted to let our beards grow. People without
any hair on their faces are hardly ever seen in the country now,
except they've been in gaol lately, and of course we should have been
marked men.

We saw no reason why we shouldn't take it easy. Starlight was
none too strong, though he wouldn't own it; he wouldn't have fainted as he did
if he had. He wanted good keep and rest for a month, and so did I.
Now that it was all over I felt different from what I used to do,
only half the man I once was. If we stayed in the Hollow for a month
the police might think we'd gone straight out of the country
and slack off a bit. Anyhow, as long as they didn't hit the trail
off to the entrance, we couldn't be in a safer place,
and though there didn't seem much to do we thought we'd manage
to hang it out somehow. One day we were riding all together in the afternoon,
when we happened to come near the gully where Jim and I
had gone up and seen the Hermit's Hut, as we had christened it.
Often we had talked about it since; wondered about the man
who had lived in it, and what his life had been.

This time we'd had all the horses in and were doing a bit of colt-breaking.
Warrigal and Jim were both on young horses that had only been ridden
once before, and we had come out to give them a hand.

`Do you know anything about that hut in the gully?' I asked Starlight.

`Oh yes, all there is to know about it; and that's not much.
Warrigal told me that, while the first gang that discovered
this desirable country residence were in possession, a stranger accidentally
found out the way in. At first they were for putting him to death,
but on his explaining that he only wanted a solitary home,
and should neither trouble nor betray them, they agreed to let him stay.
He was "a big one gentleman", Warrigal said; but he built the hut himself,
with occasional help from the men. He was liberal with his gold,
of which he had a small store, while it lasted. He lived here many years,
and was buried under a big peach tree that he had planted himself.'

`A queer start, to come and live and die here; and about the strangest place
to pick for a home I ever saw.'

`There's a good many strange people in the colony, Dick, my boy,'
says Starlight, `and the longer you live the more you'll find of them.
Some day, when we've got quiet horses, we'll come up and have
a regular overhauling of the spot. It's years since I've been there.'

`Suppose he turned out some big swell from the old country?
Dad says there used to be a few in the old days, in the colony.
He might have left papers and things behind him that might turn
to good account.'

`Whatever he did leave was hidden away. Warrigal says he was a little chap
when he died, but he says he remembers men making a great coroboree over him
when he died, and they could find nothing. They always thought he had money,
and he showed them one or two small lumps of gold, and what he said
was gold-dust washed out from the creek bed.'

As we had no call to work now, we went in for a bit of sport every day.
Lord! how long it seemed since Jim and I had put the guns on our shoulders
and walked out in the beautiful fresh part of the morning
to have a day's shooting. It made us feel like boys again.
When I said so the tears came into Jim's eyes and he turned his head away.
Father came one day; he and old Crib were a stunning pair for pot shooting,
and he was a dead game shot, though we could be at him
with the rifle and revolver.

There was a pretty fair show of game too. The lowan (Mallee hen,
they're mostly called) and talegalla (brush turkey) were thick enough
in some of the scrubby corners. Warrigal used to get the lowan eggs --
beautiful pink thin-shelled ones they are, first-rate to eat,
and one of 'em a man's breakfast. Then there were pigeons, wild ducks, quail,
snipe now and then, besides wallaby and other kangaroos.
There was no fear of starving, even if we hadn't a tidy herd of cattle
to come upon.

The fishing wasn't bad either. The creeks ran towards
the north-west watershed and were full of codfish, bream, and perch.
Even the jewfish wasn't bad with their skins off. They all
tasted pretty good, I tell you, after a quick broil, let alone
the fun of catching them. Warrigal used to make nets out of cooramin bark,
and put little weirs across the shallow places, so as we could go in
and drive the fish in. Many a fine cod we took that way.
He knew all the blacks' ways as well as a good many of ours.
The worst of him was that except in hunting, fishing, and riding
he'd picked up the wrong end of the habits of both sides.
Father used to set snares for the brush kangaroo and the bandicoots,
like he'd been used to do for the hares in the old country.
We could always manage to have some kind of game hanging up.
It kept us amused too.

But I don't know whatever we should have done, that month we stayed there,
at the first -- we were never so long idle again -- without the horses.
We used to muster them twice a week, run 'em up into the big receiving yard,
and have a regular good look over 'em till we knew every one of 'em
like a book.

Some of 'em was worth looking at, my word! `D'ye see that big upstanding
three-year-old dark bay filly, with a crooked streak down her face,'
Starlight would say, `and no brand but your father's on. Do you know
her name? That's young Termagant, a daughter of Mr. Rouncival's racing mare
of the same name that was stolen a week before she was born,
and her dam was never seen alive again. Pity to kill a mare like that,
wasn't it? Her sire was Repeater, the horse that ran the two three-mile heats
with Mackworth, in grand time, too.' Then, again, `That chestnut colt
with the white legs would be worth five hundred all out
if we could sell him with his right name and breeding, instead of having to do
without a pedigree. We shall be lucky if we get a hundred clear for him.
The black filly with the star -- yes, she's thoroughbred too,
and couldn't have been bought for money. Only a month old and unbranded,
of course, when your father and Warrigal managed to bone the old mare.
Mr. Gibson offered 50 Pounds reward, or 100 Pounds on conviction.
Wasn't he wild! That big bay horse, Warrior, was in training
for a steeplechase when I took him out of Mr. King's stable.
I rode him 120 miles before twelve next day. Those two browns
are Mr. White's famous buggy horses. He thought no man
could get the better of him. But your old father was too clever.
I believe he could shake the devil's own four-in-hand --
(coal black, with manes and tails touching the ground, and eyes of fire,
some German fellow says they are) -- and the Prince of Darkness
never be the wiser. The pull of it is that once they're in here
they're never heard of again till it's time to shift them to another colony,
or clear them out and let the buyer take his chance.'

`You've some plums here,' I said. `Even the cattle look pretty well bred.'

`Always go for pedigree stock, Fifteenth Duke notwithstanding.
They take no more keep than rough ones, and they're always saleable.
That red short-horn heifer belongs to the Butterfly Red Rose tribe;
she was carried thirty miles in front of a man's saddle
the day she was calved. We suckled her on an old brindle cow;
she doesn't look the worse for it. Isn't she a beauty? We ought to go in
for an annual sale here. How do you think it would pay?'

All this was pleasant enough, but it couldn't last for ever.
After the first week's rest, which was real pleasure and enjoyment,
we began to find the life too dull and dozy. We'd had quite enough
of a quiet life, and began to long for a bit of work and danger again.
Chaps that have got something on their minds can't stand idleness,
it plays the bear with them. I've always found they get thinking and thinking
till they get a low fit like, and then if there's any grog handy
they try to screw themselves up with that. It gives them a lift for a time,
but afterwards they have to pay for it over and over again.
That's where the drinking habit comes in -- they can't help it --
they must drink. If you'll take the trouble to watch men (and women too)
that have been `in trouble' you'll find that nineteen out of every twenty
drink like fishes when they get the chance. It ain't the love of the liquor,
as teetotalers and those kind of goody people always are
ramming down your throat -- it's the love of nothing.
But it's the fear of their own thoughts -- the dreadful misery --
the anxiety about what's to come, that's always hanging
like a black cloud over their heads. That's what they can't stand;
and liquor, for a bit, mind you -- say a few hours or so --
takes all that kind of feeling clean away. Of course it returns,
harder than before, but that says nothing. It CAN be driven away.
All the heavy-heartedness which a man feels, but never puts into words,
flies away with the first or second glass of grog. If a man was suffering
pains of any kind, or was being stretched on the rack (I never knew
what a rack was till I'd time for reading in gaol, except a horse-rack),
or was being flogged, and a glass of anything he could swallow
would make him think he was on a feather bed enjoying a pleasant doze,
wouldn't he swig it off, do you think? And suppose there are times
when a man feels as if hell couldn't be much worse than what he's feeling
all the long day through -- and I tell you there are
-- I, who have often stood it hour after hour -- won't he drink then?
And why shouldn't he?

We began to find that towards the end of the day we all of us found the way
to father's brandy keg -- that by nightfall the whole lot of us
had quite as much as we could stagger under. I don't say we regularly
went in for drinking; but we began to want it by twelve o'clock every day,
and to keep things going after that till bedtime. In the morning
we felt nervous and miserable; on the whole we weren't very gay
till the sun was over the foreyard.

Anyhow, we made it up to clear out and have the first go-in
for a touch on the southern line the next week as ever was.
Father was as eager for it as anybody. He couldn't content himself
with this sort of Robinson Crusoe life any longer, and said
he must have a run and a bit of work of some sort or he'd go mad.
This was on the Saturday night. Well, on Sunday we sent Warrigal out
to meet one of our telegraphs at a place about twenty miles off,
and to bring us any information he could pick up and a newspaper.
He came back about sundown that evening, and told us that the police
had been all over the country after us, and that Government had offered
200 Pounds reward for our apprehension -- mine and Starlight's --
with 50 Pounds each for Warrigal and Jim. They had an idea
we'd all shipped for America. He sent us a newspaper. There was some news;
that is, news worth talking about. Here was what was printed in large letters
on the outside: --


We have much pleasure in informing our numerous constituents that gold,
similar in character and value to that of San Francisco, has been discovered
on the Turon River by those energetic and experienced practical miners,
Messrs. Hargraves and party. The method of cradling is the same,
the appliances required are simple and inexpensive, and the proportional
yield of gold highly reassuring. It is impossible to forecast
the results of this most momentous discovery. It will revolutionise
the new world. It will liberate the old. It will precipitate Australia
into a nation.

Meanwhile numberless inconveniences, even privations, will arise --
to be endured unflinchingly -- to be borne in silence. But courage, England,
we have hitherto achieved victory.

This news about the gold breaking out in such a place as the Turon made
a great difference in our notions. We hardly knew what to think at first.
The whole country seemed upside down. Warrigal used to sneak out
from time to time, and come back open-mouthed, bringing us all sorts of news.
Everybody, he said, was coming up from Sydney. There would be
nobody left there but the Governor. What a queer start --
the Governor sitting lonely in a silent Government House,
in the middle of a deserted city! We found out that it was true
after we'd made one or two short rides out ourselves.
Afterwards the police had a deal too much to do to think of us.
We didn't run half the chance of being dropped on to that we used to do.
The whole country was full of absconders and deserters, servants, shepherds,
shopmen, soldiers, and sailors -- all running away from their work,
and making in a blind sort of way for the diggings, like a lot of caterpillars
on the march.

We had more than half a notion about going there ourselves,
but we turned it over in our minds, and thought it wouldn't do.
We should be sure to be spotted anywhere in New South Wales.
All the police stations had our descriptions posted up, with a reward
in big letters on the door. Even if we were pretty lucky at the start
we should always be expecting them to drop on us. As it was,
we should have twenty times the chance among the coaches,
that were sure to be loaded full up with men that all carried cash,
more or less; you couldn't travel then in the country without it.
We had twice the pull now, because so many strangers, that couldn't possibly
be known to the police, were straggling over all the roads.
There was no end of bustle and rush in every line of work and labour.
Money was that plentiful that everybody seemed to be full of it.
Gold began to be sent down in big lots, by the Escort, as it was called --
sometimes ten thousand ounces at a time. That was money if you liked
-- forty thousand pounds! -- enough to make one's mouth water --
to make one think dad's prophecy about the ten thousand pounds
wasn't so far out after all.

Just at the start most people had a kind of notion that the gold
would only last a short time, and that things would be worse than before.
But it lasted a deal longer than any of us expected.
It was 1850 that I'm talking about. It's getting on for 1860 now,
and there seems more of it about than ever there was.

Most of our lives we'd been used to the southern road,
and we kept to it still. It wasn't right in the line of the gold diggings,
but it wasn't so far off. It was a queer start when the news got round about
to the other colonies, after that to England, and I suppose
all the other old world places, but they must have come by ship-loads,
the road was that full of new chums -- we could tell 'em easy
by their dress, their fresh faces, their way of talk, their thick sticks,
and new guns and pistols. Some of them you'd see dragging a hand-cart
with another chap, and they having all their goods, tools, and clothes on it.
Then there'd be a dozen men, with a horse and cart, and all their swags in it.
If the horse jibbed at all, or stuck in the deep ruts
-- and wasn't it a wet season? -- they'd give a shout and a rush,
and tear out cart and horse and everything else. They told us
that there were rows of ships in Sydney Harbour without a soul
to take care of them; that the soldiers were running away to the diggings
just as much as the sailors; clergymen and doctors, old hands and new chums,
merchants and lawyers. They all seemed as if they couldn't keep away
from the diggings that first year for their lives.

All stock went up double and treble what they were before.
Cattle and sheep we didn't mind about. We could do without them now.
But the horse market rose wonderfully, and that made a deal of odds to us,
you may be sure.

It was this way. Every man that had a few pounds wanted a horse
to ride or drive; every miner wanted a wash-dirt cart and a horse to draw it.
The farmer wanted working horses, for wasn't hay sixty or seventy pounds
a ton, and corn what you liked to ask for it? Every kind of harness horse
was worth forty, fifty, a hundred pounds apiece, and only to ask it;
some of 'em weedy and bad enough, Heaven knows. So between
the horse trade and the road trade we could see a fortune sticking out,
ready for us to catch hold of whenever we were ready to collar.

Chapter 24

Our first try-on in the coach line was with the Goulburn mail.
We knew the road pretty well, and picked out a place
where they had to go slow and couldn't get off the road on either side.
There's always places like that in a coach road near the coast,
if you look sharp and lay it out beforehand. This wasn't on the track to
the diggings, but we meant to leave that alone till we got our hand in a bit.
There was a lot of money flying about the country in a general way
where there was no sign of gold. All the storekeepers began
to get up fresh goods, and to send money in notes and cheques to pay for them.
The price of stock kept dealers and fat cattle buyers moving,
who had their pockets full of notes as often as not.

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 Pounds 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 Pounds 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.

. . . . .

We got back safe enough, and father opened his eyes when he saw
the roll of notes Starlight counted over as the price of the colts.
`Horse-breeding's our best game,' says the old man, `if they're going to pay
such prices as this. I've half a mind to start and take a lot
over to Port Phillip.'

Chapter 25

Our next chance came through father. He was the intelligence man,
and had all the news sent to him -- roundabout it might be,
but it always came, and was generally true; and the old man
never troubled anybody twice that he couldn't believe in,
great things or small. Well, word was passed about a branch bank
at a place called Ballabri, where a goodish bit of gold was sent to wait
the monthly escort. There was only the manager and one clerk there now,
the other cove having gone away on sick leave. Towards the end of the month
the bank gold was heaviest and the most notes in the safe.
The smartest way would be to go into the bank just before shutting-up time
-- three o'clock, about -- and hand a cheque over the counter.
While the clerk was looking at it, out with a revolver and cover him.
The rest was easy enough. A couple more walked in after,
and while one jumped over the counter and bailed up the manager
the other shut the door. Nothing strange about that.
The door was always shut at three o'clock sharp. Nobody in town
would drop to what might be going on inside till the whole thing was over,
and the swag ready to be popped into a light trap and cleared off with.

That was the idea. We had plenty of time to think it over and settle it all,
bit by bit, beforehand.

So one morning we started early and took the job in hand. Every little thing
was looked through and talked over a week before. Father got
Mr. White's buggy-horses ready and took Warrigal with him to a place
where a man met him with a light four-wheeled Yankee trap and harness.
Dad was dressed up to look like a back-country squatter. Lots of 'em
were quite as rough-looking as he was, though they drive as good horses
as any gentleman in the land. Warrigal was togged out something like a groom,
with a bit of the station-hand about him. Their saddles and bridles
they kept with 'em in the trap; they didn't know when they might want them.
They had on their revolvers underneath their coats. We were to go round
by another road and meet at the township.

Well, everything turned out first-rate. When we got to Ballabri
there was father walking his horses up and down. They wanted cooling,
my word. They'd come pretty smart all the way, but they were middlin' soft,
being in great grass condition and not having done any work to speak of
for a goodish while, and being a bit above themselves in a manner of speaking.
We couldn't help laughing to see how solemn and respectable dad looked.

`My word,' said Jim, `if he ain't the dead image of old Mr. Carter,
of Brahway, where we shore three years back. Just such another hard-faced,
cranky-looking old chap, ain't he, Dick? I'm that proud of him
I'd do anything he asked me now, blest if I wouldn't!'

`Your father's a remarkable man,' says Starlight, quite serious;
`must have made his way in life if he hadn't shown such a dislike
to anything on the square. If he'd started a public-house and a pound
about the time he turned his mind to cattle-duffing as one of the fine arts,
he'd have had a bank account by this time that would have kept him as honest
as a judge. But it's the old story. I say, where are the police quarters?
It's only manners to give them a call.'

We rode over to the barracks. They weren't much. A four-roomed cottage,
a log lock-up with two cells, a four-stalled stable, and a horse-yard.
Ballabri was a small township with a few big stations,
a good many farms about it, and rather more public-houses
than any other sort of buildings in it. A writing chap said once,
`A large well-filled graveyard, a small church mostly locked up,
six public-houses, gave the principal features of Ballabri township.
The remaining ones appear to be sand, bones, and broken bottles,
with a sprinkling of inebriates and blackfellows.' With all that
there was a lot of business done there in a year by the stores and inns,
particularly since the diggings. Whatever becomes of the money
made in such places? Where does it all go to? Nobody troubles their heads
about that.

A goodish lot of the first people was huddled away in the graveyard under
the sand ridges. Many an old shepherd had hobbled into the Travellers' Rest
with a big cheque for a fortnight's spree, and had stopped behind
in the graveyard, too, for company. It was always a wonderful place
for steadying lushingtons, was Ballabri.

Anyhow we rode over to the barracks because we knew the senior constable
was away. We'd got up a sham horse-stealing case the day before,
through some chaps there that we knew. This drawed him off about fifty mile.
The constable left behind was a youngish chap, and we intended to have
a bit of fun with him. So we went up to the garden-gate and called out
for the officer in charge of police quite grand.

`Here I am,' says he, coming out, buttoning up his uniform coat.
`Is anything the matter?'

`Oh! not much,' says I; `but there's a man sick at the Sportsman's Arms.
He's down with the typhus fever or something. He's a mate of ours,
and we've come from Mr. Grant's station. He wants a doctor fetched.'

`Wait a minute till I get my revolver,' says he, buttoning up his waistcoat.
He was just fresh from the depot; plucky enough, but not up to
half the ways of the bush.

`You'll do very well as you are,' says Starlight, bringing out his
pretty sharp, and pointing it full at his head. `You stay there
till I give you leave.'

He stood there quite stunned, while Jim and I jumped off and muzzled him.
He hadn't a chance, of course, with one of us on each side,
and Starlight threatening to shoot him if he raised a finger.

`Let's put him in the logs,' says Jim. `My word! just for a lark;
turn for turn. Fair play, young fellow. You're being "run in" yourself now.
Don't make a row, and no one'll hurt you.'

The keys were hanging up inside, so we pushed him into the farthest cell
and locked both doors. There were no windows, and the lock-up,
like most bush ones, was built of heavy logs, just roughly squared,
with the ceiling the same sort, so there wasn't much chance
of his making himself heard. If any noise did come out the town people
would only think it was a drunken man, and take no notice.

We lost no time then, and Starlight rode up to the bank first.
It was about ten minutes to three o'clock. Jim and I popped our horses
into the police stables, and put on a couple of their waterproof capes.
The day was a little showery. Most of the people we heard afterwards
took us for troopers from some other station on the track of bush-rangers,
and not in regular uniform. It wasn't a bad joke, though,
and the police got well chaffed about it.

We dodged down very careless like to the bank, and went in a minute or two
after Starlight. He was waiting patiently with the cheque in his hand
till some old woman got her money. She counted it, shillings, pence, and all,
and then went out. The next moment Starlight pushed his cheque over.
The clerk looks at it for a moment, and quick-like says,
`How will you have it?'

`This way,' Starlight answered, pointing his revolver at his head,
`and don't you stir or I'll shoot you before you can raise your hand.'

The manager's room was a small den at one side. They don't allow much room
in country banks unless they make up their mind to go in for
a regular swell building. I jumped round and took charge of the young man.
Jim shut and locked the front door while Starlight knocked
at the manager's room. He came out in a hurry, expecting to see
one of the bank customers. When he saw Starlight's revolver,
his face changed quick enough, but he made a rush to his drawer
where he kept his revolver, and tried to make a fight of it,
only we were too quick for him. Starlight put the muzzle of his pistol
to his forehead and swore he'd blow out his brains there and then
if he didn't stop quiet. We had to use the same words over and over again.
Jim used to grin sometimes. They generally did the business, though,
so of course he was quite helpless. We hadn't to threaten him
to find the key of the safe, because it was unlocked and the key in it.
He was just locking up his gold and the day's cash as we came in.

We tied him and the young fellow fast, legs and arms, and laid them down
on the floor while we went through the place. There was a good lot of gold
in the safe all weighed and labelled ready for the escort,
which called there once a month. Bundles of notes, too; bags of sovereigns,
silver, and copper. The last we didn't take. But all the rest
we bundled up or put into handy boxes and bags we found there.
Father had come up by this time as close as he could to the back-yard.
We carried everything out and put them into his express-waggon;
he shoved a rug over them and drove off, quite easy and comfortable.
We locked the back door of the bank and chucked away the key,
first telling the manager not to make a row for ten minutes
or we might have to come back again. He was a plucky fellow,
and we hadn't been rough with him. He had sense enough to see
that he was overmatched, and not to fight when it was no good.
I've known bankers to make a regular good fight of it,
and sometimes come off best when their places was stuck up;
but not when they were bested from the very start, like this one.
No man could have had a show, if he was two or three men in one,
at the Ballabri money-shop. We walked slap down to the hotel
-- then it was near the bank -- and called for drinks.
There weren't many people in the streets at that time in the afternoon,
and the few that did notice us didn't think we were any one in particular.
Since the diggings broke out all sorts of travellers
a little out of the common were wandering all about the country --
speculators in mines, strangers, new chums of all kinds;
even the cattle-drovers and stockmen, having their pockets full of money,
began to put on more side and dress in a flash way. The bush people
didn't take half the notice of strangers they would have done
a couple of years before.

So we had our drinks, and shouted for the landlord and the people in the bar;
walked up to the police station, took out our horses, and rode quickly off,
while father was nearly five miles away on a cross-road,
making Mr. White's trotters do their best time, and with
seven or eight thousand pounds' worth of gold and cash under the driving seat.
That, I often think, was about the smartest trick we ever did.
It makes me laugh when I remember how savage the senior constable was
when he came home, found his sub in a cell, the manager and his clerk
just untied, the bank robbed of nearly everything, and us gone hours ago,
with about as much chance of catching us as a mob of wild cattle
that got out of the yard the night before.

Just about dark father made the place where the man met him
with the trap before. Fresh horses was put in and the man drove slap away
another road. He and Warrigal mounted the two brown horses and took the stuff
in saddle-bags, which they'd brought with 'em. They were back at the Hollow
by daylight, and we got there about an hour afterwards. We only rode sharp
for the first twenty miles or so, and took it easier afterwards.

If sticking up the Goulburn mail made a noise in the country,
you may depend the Ballabri bank robbery made ten times as much.
Every little newspaper and all the big ones, from one end of the colony
to the other, were full of it. The robbery of a bank in broad daylight,
almost in the middle of the day, close to a police station,
and with people going up and down the streets, seemed too out-and-out cheeky
to be believed. What was the country coming to? `It was the fault
of the gold that unsettled young fellows' minds,' some said,
`and took them away from honest industry.' Our minds had been unsettled
long before the gold, worse luck. Some shouted for more police protection;
some for vigilance committees; all bush-rangers and horse-thieves
to be strung up to the next tree. The whole countryside was in an uproar,
except the people at the diggings, who had most of them been in other places,
and knew that, compared with them, Australia was one of the safest countries
any man could live or travel in. A good deal of fun was made
out of our locking up the constable in his own cell. I believe
he got blown up, too, and nearly dismissed by his inspector for not having
his revolver on him and ready for use. But young men that were any good
were hard to get for the police just then, and his fault was passed over.
It's a great wonder to me more banks were not robbed when you think of it.
A couple of young fellows are sent to a country place;
there's no decent buildings, or anything reasonable for them to live in,
and they're expected to take care of four or five thousand pounds
and a lot of gold, as if it was so many bags of potatoes.
If there's police, they're half their time away. The young fellows
can't be all their time in the house, and two or three determined men,
whether they're bush-rangers or not, that like to black their faces,
and walk in at any time that they're not expected, can sack the whole thing,
and no trouble to them. I call it putting temptation in people's way,
and some of the blame ought to go on the right shoulders. As I said before,
the little affair made a great stir, and all the police in the country
were round Ballabri for a bit, tracking and tracking till all hours,
night and day; but they couldn't find out what had become of the wheel-marks,
nor where our horse tracks led to. The man that owned the express waggon
drove it into a scrubby bit of country and left it there; he knew too much
to take it home. Then he brought away the wheels one by one on horseback,
and carted the body in a long time after with a load of wool,
just before a heavy rain set in and washed out every track
as clean as a whistle.

Nothing in that year could keep people's thoughts long away from the diggings,
which was just as well for us. Everything but the gold was forgotten
after a week. If the harbour had dried up or Sydney town been buried
by an earthquake, nobody would have bothered themselves about such trifles
so long as the gold kept turning up hand over hand the way it did.
There seemed no end to it. New diggings jumped up every day,
and now another big rush broke out in Port Phillip that sent every one
wilder than ever.

Starlight and us two often used to have a quiet talk about Melbourne.
We all liked that side of the country; there seemed an easier chance
of getting straight away from there than any part of New South Wales,
where so many people knew us and everybody was on the look-out.

All kinds of things passed through our minds, but the notion we liked best was
taking one of the gold ships bodily and sailing her away to a foreign port,
where her name could be changed, and she never heard of again,
if all went well. That would be a big touch and no mistake.
Starlight, who had been at sea, and was always ready for anything
out of the way and uncommon, the more dangerous the better,
thought it might be done without any great risk or bother.

`A ship in harbour,' he said, `is something like the Ballabri bank.
No one expects anything to happen in harbour, consequently there's
no watch kept or any look-out that's worth much. Any sudden dash
with a few good men and she'd be off and out to sea before any one
could say "knife".'

Father didn't like this kind of talk. He was quite satisfied where we were.
We were safe there, he said; and, as long as we kept our heads,
no one need ever be the wiser how it was we always seemed
to go through the ground and no one could follow us up.
What did we fret after? Hadn't we everything we wanted in the world --
plenty of good grub, the best of liquor, and the pick of the countryside
for horses, besides living among our own friends and in the country
we were born in, and that had the best right to keep us.
If we once got among strangers and in another colony we should be `given away'
by some one or other, and be sure to come to grief in the long run.

Well, we couldn't go and cut out this ship all at once, but Jim and I
didn't leave go of the notion, and we had many a yarn with Starlight about it
when we were by ourselves.

What made us more set upon clearing out of the country was that
we were getting a good bit of money together, and of course
we hadn't much chance of spending it. Every place where we'd been seen
was that well watched there was no getting nigh it, and every now and then
a strong mob of police, ordered down by telegraph, would muster at
some particular spot where they thought there was a chance of surrounding us.
However, that dodge wouldn't work. They couldn't surround the Hollow.
It was too big, and the gullies between the rocks too deep. You could see
across a place sometimes that you had to ride miles round to get over.
Besides, no one knew there was such a place, leastways that we were there,
any more than if we had been in New Zealand.

Chapter 26

After the Ballabri affair we had to keep close for weeks and weeks.
The whole place seemed to be alive with police. We heard of them
being on Nulla Mountain and close enough to the Hollow now and then.
But Warrigal and father had places among the rocks where they
could sit up and see everything for miles round. Dad had taken care
to get a good glass, too, and he could sweep the country round about
almost down to Rocky Flat. Warrigal's eyes were sharp enough without a glass,
and he often used to tell us he seen things -- men, cattle, and horses --
that we couldn't make out a bit in the world. We amused ourselves for a while
the best way we could by horse-breaking, shooting, and what not;
but we began to get awful tired of it, and ready for anything, no matter what,
that would make some sort of change.

One day father told us a bit of news that made a stir in the camp,
and nearly would have Jim and me clear out altogether
if we'd had any place to go to. For some time past, it seems,
dad had been grumbling about being left to himself so much,
and, except this last fakement, not having anything to do with the road work.
`It's all devilish fine for you and your brother and the Captain there
to go flashin' about the country and sporting your figure on horseback,
while I'm left alone to do the housekeepin' in the Hollow. I'm not going
to be wood-and-water Joey, I can tell ye, not for you nor no other men.
So I've made it right with a couple of chaps as I've know'd these years past,
and we can do a touch now and then, as well as you grand gentlemen,
on the "high toby", as they call it where I came from.'

`I didn't think you were such an old fool, Ben,' said Starlight;
`but keeping this place here a dead secret is our sheet-anchor.
Lose that, and we'll be run into in a week. If you let it out
to any fellow you come across, you will soon know all about it.'

`I've known Dan Moran and Pat Burke nigh as long as I've known you,
for the matter of that,' says father. `They're safe enough,
and they're not to come here or know where I hang out neither.
We've other places to meet, and what we do 'll be clean done, I'll go bail.'

`It doesn't matter two straws to me, as I've told you many a time,'
said Starlight, lighting a cigar (he always kept a good supply of them).
`But you see if Dick and Jim, now, don't suffer for it before long.'

`It was as I told you about the place, wasn't it?' growls father;
`don't you suppose I know how to put a man right? I look to have my turn
at steering this here ship, or else the crew better go ashore for good.'

Father had begun to drink harder now than he used; that was partly the reason.
And when he'd got his liquor aboard he was that savage and obstinate
there was no doing anything with him. We couldn't well part.
We couldn't afford to do without each other. So we had to patch it up
the best way we could, and let him have his own way. But we none of us liked
the new-fangled way, and made sure bad would come of it.

We all knew the two men, and didn't half like them. They were
the head men of a gang that mostly went in for horse-stealing,
and only did a bit of regular bush-ranging when they was sure
of getting clear off. They'd never shown out the fighting way yet,
though they were ready enough for it if it couldn't be helped.

Moran was a dark, thin, wiry-looking native chap, with a big beard,
and a nasty beady black eye like a snake's. He was a wonderful man
outside of a horse, and as active as a cat, besides being a deal stronger
than any one would have taken him to be. He had a drawling way of talking,
and was one of those fellows that liked a bit of cruelty
when he had the chance. I believe he'd rather shoot any one than not,
and when he was worked up he was more like a devil than a man.
Pat Burke was a broad-shouldered, fair-complexioned fellow, most like
an Englishman, though he was a native too. He'd had a small station once,
and might have done well (I was going to say) if he'd had sense enough
to go straight. What rot it all is! Couldn't we all have done well,
if the devils of idleness and easy-earned money and false pride
had let us alone?

Father said his bargain with these chaps was that he should send down to them
when anything was up that more men was wanted for, and they was always
to meet him at a certain place. He said they'd be satisfied with a share
of whatever the amount was, and that they'd never want to be shown the Hollow
or to come anigh it. They had homes and places of their own,
and didn't want to be known more than could be helped. Besides this,
if anything turned up that was real first chop, they could always find
two or three more young fellows that would stand a flutter,
and disappear when the job was done. This was worth thinking over, he said,
because there weren't quite enough of us for some things, and we could keep
these other chaps employed at outside work.

There was something in this, of course, and dad was generally near the mark,
there or thereabouts, so we let things drift. One thing was that these chaps
could often lay their hands upon a goodish lot of horses or cattle;
and if they delivered them to any two of us twenty miles from the Hollow,
they could be popped in there, and neither they or any one else the wiser.
You see father didn't mind taking a hand in the bush-ranging racket,
but his heart was with the cattle and horse-duffing that he'd been
used to so long, and he couldn't quite give it up. It's my belief
he'd have sooner made a ten-pound note by an unbranded colt
or a mob of fat cattle than five times as much in any other way.
Every man to his taste, they say.

Well, between this new fad of the old man's and our having a notion
that we had better keep quiet for a spell and let things settle down a bit,
we had a long steady talk, and the end of it was that we made up our minds
to go and put in a month or two at the diggings.

We took a horse apiece that weren't much account, so we could either
sell them or lose them, it did not make much odds which, and made a start
for Jonathan Barnes's place. We got word from him every now and then,
and knew that the police had never found out that we had been there,
going or coming. Jonathan was a blowing, blatherskiting fool;
but his very foolishness in that way made them think he knew nothing at all.
He had just sense enough not to talk about us, and they never thought about
asking him. So we thought we'd have a bit of fun there before we settled down
for work at the Turon. We took old saddles and bridles,
and had a middling-sized swag in front, just as if we'd come a long way.
We dressed pretty rough too; we had longish hair and beards,
and (except Starlight) might have been easy taken for down-the-river
stockmen or drovers.

When we got to Barnes's place he and the old woman seemed ever so glad
to see us. Bella and Maddie rushed out, making a great row,
and chattering both at a time.

`Why, we thought you were lost, or shot, or something,' Bella says.
`You might have sent us a letter, or a message, only I suppose
you didn't think it worth while.'

`What a bad state the country's getting in,' says Maddie.
`Think of them bush-rangers sticking up the bank at Ballabri,
and locking up the constable in his own cell. Ha! ha!
The police magistrate was here to-night. You should have heard Bella
talking so nice and proper to him about it.'

`Yes, and you said they'd all be caught and hanged,' said Bella;
`that it was settin' such a bad example to the young men of the colony.
My word! it was as good as a play. Mad was so full of her fun,
and when the P.M. said they'd be sure to be caught in the long run,
Maddie said they'd have to import some thoroughbred police to catch 'em,
for our Sydney-side ones didn't seem to have pace enough.
This made the old gentleman stare, and he looked at Maddie
as if she was out of her mind. Didn't he, Mad?'

`I do think it's disgraceful of Goring and his lot not to have
run them in before,' says Starlight, `but it wouldn't do for us to interfere.'

`Ah! but Sir Ferdinand Morringer's come up now,' says Maddie. `He'll begin
to knock saucepans out of all the boys between here and Weddin Mountain.
He was here, too, and asked us a lot of questions about people
who were "wanted" in these parts.'

`He fell in love with Maddie, too,' says Bella, `and gave her
one of the charms of his watch chain -- such a pretty one, too.
He's going to catch Starlight's mob, as he calls them. Maddie says
she'll send him word if ever she knows of their being about.'

`Well done, Maddie!' says Jim; `so you may, just an hour or two after
we're started. There won't be much likelihood of his overhauling us then.
He won't be the first man that's been fooled by a woman, will he?'

`Or the last, Jim,' says Bella. `What do you say, Captain? It seems to me
we're doing all the talking, and you're doing all the listening.
That isn't fair, you know. We like to hear ourselves talk,
but fair play is bonny play. Suppose you tell us what you've been about
all this time. I think tea's ready.'

We had our innings in the talking line; Jim and Maddie made noise enough
for half-a-dozen. Starlight let himself be talked to,
and didn't say much himself; but I could see even he,
that had seen a lot of high life in his time, was pleased enough
with the nonsense of a couple of good-looking girls like these
-- regular bush-bred fillies as they were -- after being shut up in the Hollow
for a month or two.

Before we'd done a couple of travellers rode up. Jonathan's place
was getting a deal more custom now -- it lay near about the straight line
for the Turon, and came to be known as a pretty comfortable shop.
Jonathan came in with them, and gave us a wink as much as to say,
`It's all right.'

`These gentlemen's just come up from Sydney,' he said, `not long from England,
and wants to see the diggings. I told 'em you might be going that way,
and could show 'em the road.'

`Very happy,' says Starlight. `I am from Port Phillip last myself,
and think of going back by Honolulu after I've made the round of the colonies.
My good friends and travelling companions are on their way for the Darling.
We can all travel together.'

`What a fortunate thing we came here, Clifford, eh?' says one young fellow,
putting up his eyeglass. `You wanted to push on. Now we shall have company,
and not lose our way in this beastly "bush", as they call it.'

`Well, it does look like luck,' says the other man. `I was beginning to think
the confounded place was getting farther off every day. Can you show us
our rooms, if you please? I suppose we couldn't have a bath?'

`Oh yes, you can,' said Maddie; `there's the creek at the bottom
of the garden, only there's snakes now and then at night.
I'll get you towels.'

`In that case I think I shall prefer to wait till the morning,'
says the tall man. `It will be something to look forward to.'

We were afraid the strangers would have spoiled our fun for the evening,
but they didn't; we made out afterwards that the tall one was a lord.
They were just like anybody else, and when we got the piano to work after tea
they made themselves pleasant enough, and Starlight sang a song or two
-- he could sing, and no mistake, when he liked -- and then
one of them played a waltz and the girls danced together,
and Starlight had some champagne in, said it was his birthday,
and he'd just thought of it, and they got quite friendly and jolly
before we turned in.

Next day we made a start, promising the girls a nugget each for a ring
out of the first gold we got, and they promised to write to us and tell us
if they heard any news. They knew what to say, and we shouldn't
be caught simple if they could help it. Jim took care, though,
to keep well off the road, and take all the short cuts he knew.
We weren't quite safe till we was in the thick of the mining crowd.
That's the best place for a man, or woman either, to hide
that wants to drop out of sight and never be seen again.
Many a time I've known a man, called Jack or Tom among the diggers,
and never thought of as anything else, working like them,
drinking and taking his pleasure and dressing like them,
till he made his pile or died, or something, and then it turned out
he was the Honourable Mr. So-and-So, Captain This, or Major That;
perhaps the Reverend Somebody -- though that didn't happen often.

We were all the more contented, though, when we heard the row of the cradles
and the clang and bang of the stampers in the quartz-crushing batteries again,
and saw the big crowd moving up and down like a hill of ants,
the same as when we'd left Turon last. As soon as we got into the main street
we parted. Jim and I touched our hats and said good-bye to Starlight
and the other two, who went away to the crack hotel. We went and made a camp
down by the creek, so that we might turn to and peg out a claim,
or buy out a couple of shares, first thing in the morning.

Except the Hollow it was the safest place in the whole country just now,
as we could hear that every week fresh people were pouring in
from all the other colonies, and every part of the world.
The police on the diggings had their own work pretty well cut out for them,
what with old hands from Van Diemen's Land, Californians --
and, you may bet, roughs and rascals from every place under the sun.
Besides, we wanted to see for ourselves how the thing was done,
and pick up a few wrinkles that might come in handy afterwards.
Our dodge was to take a few notes with us, and buy into a claim
-- one here, one there -- not to keep together for fear of consequences.
If we worked and kept steady at it, in a place where there were
thousands of strangers of all kinds, it would take the devil himself
to pick us out of such a queer, bubbling, noisy, mixed-up pot of hell-broth.

Things couldn't have dropped in more lucky for us than they did.
In this way. Starlight was asked by the two swells to join them,
because they wanted to do a bit of digging, just for the fun of it;
and he made out he'd just come from Melbourne, and hadn't been six months
longer in the country than they had. Of course he was sunburnt a bit.
He got that in India, he said. My word! they played just into his hand,
and he did the new-chum swell all to pieces, and so that natural
no one could have picked him out from them. He dressed like them,
talked like them, and never let slip a word except about shooting in England,
hunting in America and India, besides gammoning to be as green
about all Australian ways as if he'd never seen a gum tree before.
They took up a claim, and bought a tent. Then they got
a wages-man to help them, and all four used to work like niggers.
The crowd christened them `The Three Honourables', and used to have
great fun watching them working away in their jerseys,
and handling their picks and shovels like men. Starlight used to drawl
just like the other two, and asked questions about the colony;
and walk about with them on Sundays and holidays in fashionable cut clothes.
He'd brought money, too, and paid his share of the expenses,
and something over. It was a great sight to see at night,
and people said like nothing else in the world just then.
Every one turned out for an hour or two at night, and then was the time
to see the Turon in its glory. Big, sunburnt men, with beards,
and red silk sashes round their waists, with a sheath-knife and revolvers
mostly stuck in them, and broad-leaved felt hats on. There were Californians,
then foreigners of all sorts -- Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, Spaniards,
Greeks, Negroes, Indians, Chinamen. They were a droll, strange,
fierce-looking crowd. There weren't many women at first,
but they came pretty thick after a bit. A couple of theatres were open,
a circus, hotels with lots of plate-glass windows and splendid bars,
all lighted up, and the front of them, anyhow, as handsome at first sight
as Sydney or Melbourne. Drapers and grocers, ironmongers,
general stores, butchers and bakers, all kept open until midnight,
and every place was lighted up as clear as day. It was like
a fairy-story place, Jim said; he was as pleased as a child
with the glitter and show and strangeness of it all. Nobody was poor,
everybody was well dressed, and had money to spend, from the children upwards.
Liquor seemed running from morning to night, as if there were creeks of it;
all the same there was very little drunkenness and quarrelling.
The police kept good order, and the miners were their own police mostly,
and didn't seem to want keeping right. We always expected the miners
to be a disorderly, rough set of people -- it was quite the other way.
Only we had got into a world where everybody had everything they wanted,
or else had the money to pay for it. How different it seemed
from the hard, grinding, poverty-stricken life we had been brought up to,
and all the settlers we knew when we were young! People had to work hard
for every pound they made then, and, if they hadn't the ready cash,
obliged to do without, even if it was bread to eat. Many a time
we'd had no tea and sugar when we were little, because father hadn't the money
to pay for it. That was when he stayed at home and worked for what he got.
Well, it was honest money, at any rate -- pity he hadn't kept that way.

Now all this was changed. It wasn't like the same country.
Everybody dressed well, lived high, and the money never ran short,
nor was likely to as long as the gold kept spreading,
and was found in 10, 20, 50 pound nuggets every week or two.
We had a good claim, and began to think about six months' work
would give us enough to clear right away with. We let our hair grow long,
and made friends with some Americans, so we began to talk a little like them,
just for fun, and most people took us for Yankees. We didn't mind that.
Anything was better than being taken for what we were. And if we could get
clear off to San Francisco there were lots of grand new towns springing up
near the Rocky Mountains, where a man could live his life out peaceably,
and never be heard of again.

As for Starlight he'd laid it out with his two noble friends
to go back to Sydney in two or three months, and run down to Honolulu
in one of the trading vessels. They could get over to the Pacific slope,
or else have a year among the Islands, and go anywhere they pleased.
They had got that fond of Haughton, as he called himself -- Frank Haughton --
that nothing would have persuaded them to part company. And wasn't he a man
to be fond of? -- always ready for anything, always good-tempered except
when people wouldn't let him, ready to work or fight or suffer hardship,
if it came to that, just as cheerful as he went to his dinner --
never thinking or talking much about himself, but always there
when he was wanted. You couldn't have made a more out-and-out all round man
to live and die with; and yet, wasn't it a murder, that there should be
that against him, when it came out, that spoiled the whole lot?
We used to meet now and then, but never noticed one another
except by a bit of a nod or a wink, in public. One day Jim and I were busy
puddling some dirt, and we saw Sergeant Goring ride by with another trooper.
He looked at us, but we were splashed with yellow mud, and had handkerchiefs
tied over our heads. I don't think mother would have known us.
He just glanced over at us and took no notice. If he didn't know us
there was no fear of any one else being that sharp to do it. So we began
to take it easy, and to lose our fear of being dropped on at any time.
Ours was a middling good claim, too; two men's ground; and we were lucky
from the start. Jim took to the pick and shovel work from the first,
and was as happy as a man could be.

After our day's work we used to take a stroll through the lighted streets
at night. What a place it had grown to be, and how different it was
from being by ourselves at the Hollow. The gold was coming in that fast
that it paid people to build more shops, and bring up goods from Sydney
every week, until there wasn't any mortal thing you couldn't get there
for money. Everything was dear, of course; but everybody had money,
and nobody minded paying two prices when they were washing, perhaps,

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