Robbery Under Arms, by Rolph Boldrewood

Chapter 12

We didn’t go straight ahead along any main track to the Lower Murray and Adelaide exactly. That would have been a little too open and barefaced. No; we divided the mob into three, and settled where to meet in about a fortnight. Three men to each mob. Father and Warrigal took one lot; they had the dog, old Crib, to help them. He was worth about two men and a boy. Starlight, Jim, and I had another; and the three stranger chaps another. We’d had a couple of knockabouts to help with the cooking and stockyard work. They were paid by the job. They were to stay at the camp for a week, to burn the gunyahs, knock down the yard, and blind the track as much as they could.

Some of the cattle we’d left behind they drove back and forward across the track every day for a week. If rain came they were to drop it, and make their way into the frontage by another road. If they heard about the job being blown or the police set on our track, they were to wire to one of the border townships we had to pass. Weren’t we afraid of their selling us? No, not much; they were well paid, and had often given father and Starlight information before, though they took care never to show out in the cattle or horse-stealing way themselves. As long as chaps in our line have money to spend, they can always get good information and other things, too. It is when the money runs short that the danger comes in. I don’t know whether cattle-duffing was ever done in New South Wales before on such a large scale, or whether it will ever be done again. Perhaps not. These wire fences stop a deal of cross-work; but it was done then, you take my word for it — a man’s word as hasn’t that long to live that it’s worth while to lie — and it all came out right; that is as far as our getting safe over, selling the cattle, and having the money in our pockets.

We kept on working by all sorts of outside tracks on the main line of road — a good deal by night, too — for the first two or three hundred miles. After we crossed the Adelaide border we followed the Darling down to the Murray. We thought we were all right, and got bolder. Starlight had changed his clothes, and was dressed like a swell — away on a roughish trip, but still like a swell.

‘They were his cattle; he had brought them from one of his stations on the Narran. He was going to take up country in the Northern Territory. He expected a friend out from England with a lot more capital.’

Jim and I used to hear him talking like this to some of the squatters whose runs we passed through, as grave as you please. They used to ask him to stay all night, but he always said ‘he didn’t like to leave his men. He made it a practice on the road.’ When we got within a fortnight’s drive of Adelaide, he rode in and lived at one of the best hotels. He gave out that he expected a lot of cattle to arrive, and got a friend that he’d met in the billiard-room (and couldn’t he play surprisin’?) to introduce him to one of the leading stock agents there. So he had it all cut and dry, when one day Warrigal and I rode in, and the boy handed him a letter, touching his hat respectfully, as he had been learned to do, before a lot of young squatters and other swells that he was going out to a picnic with.

‘My confounded cattle come at last,’ he says. ‘Excuse me for mentioning business. I began to hope they’d never come; ‘pon my soul I did. The time passes so deuced pleasantly here. Well, they’ll all be at the yards tomorrow. You fellows had all better come and see them sold. There’ll be a little lunch, and perhaps some fizz. You go to the stock agents, Runnimall and Co.; here’s their address, Jack,’ he says to me, looking me straight in the eyes. ‘They’ll send a man to pilot you to the yards; and now off with you, and don’t let me see your face till tomorrow.’

How he carried it off! He cantered away with the rest of the party, as if he hadn’t a thought in the world except about pleasure and honest business. Nobody couldn’t have told that he wasn’t just like them other young gentlemen with only their stock and station to think about, and a little fun at the races now and then. And what a risk he was running every minute of his life, he and all the rest of us. I wasn’t sorry to be out of the town again. There were lots of police, too. Suppose one of them was to say, ‘Richard Marston, I arrest you for ——’ It hardly mattered what. I felt as if I should have tumbled down with sheer fright and cowardliness. It’s a queer thing you feel like that off and on. Other times a man has as much pluck in him as if his life was worth fighting for — which it isn’t.

The agent knew all about us (or thought he did), and sent a chap to show Mr. Carisforth’s cattle (Charles Carisforth, Esq., of Sturton, Yorkshire and Banda, Waroona, and Ebor Downs, New South Wales; that was the name he went by) the way to the yards. We were to draft them all next morning into separate pens — cows and bullocks, steers and heifers, and so on. He expected to sell them all to a lot of farmers and small settlers that had taken up a new district lately and were very short of stock.

‘You couldn’t have come into a better market, young fellow,’ says the agent’s man to me. ‘Our boss he’s advertised ’em that well as there’ll be smart bidding between the farmers and some of the squatters. Good store cattle’s been scarce, and these is in such rattling condition. That’s what’ll sell ’em. Your master seems a regular free-handed sort of chap. He’s the jolliest squatter there’s been in town these years, I hear folk say. Puts ’em in mind of Hawdon and Evelyn Sturt in the old overlander days.’

Next day we were at the yards early, you bet. We wanted to have time to draft them into pens of twenty to fifty each, so that the farmers and small settlers might have a chance to buy. Besides, it was the last day of our work. Driving all day and watching half the night is pretty stiffish work, good weather and bad, when you’ve got to keep it up for months at a time, and we’d been three months and a week on the road.

The other chaps were wild for a spree. Jim and I had made up our minds to be careful; still, we had a lot to see in a big town like Adelaide; for we’d never been to Sydney even in our lives, and we’d never seen the sea. That was something to look at for the first time, wasn’t it?

Well, we got the cattle drafted to rights, every sort and size and age by itself, as near as could be. That’s the way to draft stock, whether they’re cattle, sheep, or horses; then every man can buy what he likes best, and isn’t obliged to lump up one sort with another. We had time to have a bit of dinner. None of us had touched a mouthful since before daylight. Then we began to see the buyers come.

There’d been a big tent rigged, as big as a small woolshed, too. It came out in a cart, and then another cart came with a couple of waiters, and they laid out a long table of boards on trestles with a real first-class feed on it, such as we’d never seen in our lives before. Fowls and turkeys and tongues and rounds of beef, beer and wine in bottles with gilt labels on. Such a set-out it was. Father began to growl a bit. ‘If he’s going to feed the whole country this way, he’ll spend half the stuff before we get it, let alone drawing a down on the whole thing.’ But Jim and me could see how Starlight had been working the thing to rights while he was swelling it in the town among the big bugs. We told him the cattle would fetch that much more money on account of the lunch and the blowing the auctioneer was able to do. These would pay for the feed and the rest of the fal-lals ten times over. ‘When he gets in with men like his old pals he loses his head, I believe,’ father says, ‘and fancies he’s what he used to be. He’ll get “fitted” quite simple some day if he doesn’t keep a better look-out.’

That might be, but it wasn’t to come about this time. Starlight came riding out by and by, dressed up like a real gentleman, and lookin’ so different that Jim and I hardly dared speak to him — on a splendid horse too (not Rainbow, he’d been left behind; he was always left within a hundred miles of The Hollow, and he could do it in one day if he was wanted to), and a lot of fine dressed chaps with him — young squatters and officers, and what not. I shouldn’t have been surprised if he’d had the Governor out with him. They told us afterwards he did dine at Government House reg’lar, and was made quite free and welcome there.

Well, he jumps down and shakes hands with us before them all. ‘Well, Jack! Well, Bill!’ and so on, calls us his good faithful fellows, and how well we’d brought the cattle over; nods to father, who didn’t seem able to take it all in; says he’ll back us against any stockmen in Australia; has up Warrigal and shows him off to the company. ‘Most intelligent lad.’ Warrigal grinned and showed his white teeth. It was as good as a play.

Then everybody goes to lunch — swells and selectors, Germans and Paddies, natives and immigrants, a good many of them, too, and there was eating and drinking and speechifying till all was blue. By and by the auctioneer looks at his watch. He’d had a pretty good tuck-in himself, and they must get to business.

Father opened his eyes at the price the first pen brought, all prime young bullocks, half fat most of them. Then they all went off like wildfire; the big men and the little men bidding, quite jealous, sometimes one getting the lot, sometimes another. One chap made a remark about there being such a lot of different brands; but Starlight said they’d come from a sort of depot station of his, and were the odds and ends of all the mobs of store cattle that he’d purchased the last four years. That satisfied ’em, particularly as he said it in a careless, fierce way which he could put on, as if it was like a man’s —— impudence to ask him anything. It made the people laugh; I could see that.

By and by we comes to the imported bull. He was in a pen by himself, looking first-rate. His brand had been faked, and the hair had grown pretty well. It would have took a sharp hand to know him again.

‘Well, gentlemen,’ says the auctioneer, ‘here is the imported bull “Duke of Brunswick”. It ain’t often an animal of his quality comes in with a mob of store cattle; but I am informed by Mr. Carisforth that he left orders for the whole of the cattle to be cleared off the run, and this valuable animal was brought away in mistake. He was to return by sea; but as he happens to be here today, why, sooner than disappoint any intending buyer, Mr. Carisforth has given me instructions to put him up, and if he realises anything near his value he will be sold.’

‘Yes!’ drawls Starlight, as if a dozen imported bulls, more or less, made no odds to him, ‘put him up, by all means, Mr. Runnimall. Expectin’ rather large shipment of Bates’s “Duchess” tribe next month. Rather prefer them on the whole. The “Duke” here is full of Booth blood, so he may just as well go with the others. I shall never get what he cost, though; I know that. He’s been a most expensive animal to me.’

Many a true word spoken in jest. He had good call to know him, as well as the rest of us, for a most expensive animal, before all was said and done. What he cost us all round it would be hard indeed to cipher up.

Anyhow, there was a great laugh at Starlight’s easy way of taking it. First one and then another of the squatters that was going in for breeding began to bid, thinking he’d go cheap, until they got warm, and the bull went up to a price that we never dreamed he’d fetch. Everything seemed to turn out lucky that day. One would have thought they’d never seen an imported bull before. The young squatters got running one another, as I said before, and he went up to 270 Pounds! Then the auctioneer squared off the accounts as sharp as he could; an’ it took him all his time, what with the German and the small farmers, who took their time about it, paying in greasy notes and silver and copper, out of canvas bags, and the squatters, who were too busy chaffing and talking among themselves to pay at all. It was dark before everything was settled up, and all the lots of cattle delivered. Starlight told the auctioneer he’d see him at his office, in a deuced high and mighty kind of way, and rode off with his new friend.

All of us went back to our camp. Our work was over, but we had to settle up among ourselves and divide shares. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the cattle all sold and gone, and nothing left at the camp but the horses and the swags.

When we got there that night it was late enough. After tea father and I and Jim had a long yarn, settling over what we should do and wondering whether we were going to get clean away with our share of the money after all.

‘By George!’ says Jim, ‘it’s a big touch, and no mistake. To think of our getting over all right, and selling out so easy, just as if they was our own cattle. Won’t there be a jolly row when it’s all out, and the Momberah people miss their cattle?’ (more than half ’em was theirs). ‘And when they muster they can’t be off seein’ they’re some hundreds short.’

‘That’s what’s botherin’ me,’ says father. ‘I wish Starlight hadn’t been so thundering flash with it all. It’ll draw more notice on us, and every one ‘ll be gassin’ about this big sale, and all that, till people’s set on to ask where the cattle come from, and what not.’

‘I don’t see as it makes any difference,’ I said. ‘Somebody was bound to buy ’em, and we’d have had to give the brands and receipts just the same. Only if we’d sold to any one that thought there was a cross look about it, we’d have had to take half money, that’s all. They’ve fetched a rattling price, through Starlight’s working the oracle with those swells, and no mistake.’

‘Yes, but that ain’t all of it,’ says the old man, filling his pipe. ‘We’ve got to look at what comes after. I never liked that imported bull being took. They’ll rake all the colonies to get hold of him again, partic’ler as he sold for near three hundred pound.’

‘We must take our share of the risk along with the money,’ said Jim. ‘We shall have our whack of that according to what they fetched today. It’ll be a short life and a merry one, though, dad, if we go on big licks like this. What’ll we tackle next — a bank or Government House?’

‘Nothing at all for a good spell, if you’ve any sense,’ growled father. ‘It’ll give us all we know to keep dark when this thing gets into the papers, and the police in three colonies are all in full cry like a pack of beagles. The thing is, what’ll be our best dart now?’

‘I’ll go back overland,’ says he. ‘Starlight’s going to take Warrigal with him, and they’ll be off to the islands for a turn. If he knows what’s best for him, he’ll never come back. These other chaps say they’ll separate and sell their horses when they get over to the Murray low down, and work their way up by degrees. Which way are you boys going?’

‘Jim and I to Melbourne by next steamer,’ I said. ‘May as well see a bit of life now we’re in it. We’ll come back overland when we’re tired of strange faces.’

‘All right,’ says father, ‘they won’t know where I’m lyin’ by for a bit, I’ll go bail, and the sooner you clear out of Adelaide the better. News like ours don’t take long to travel, and you might be nabbed very simple. One of ye write a line to your mother and tell her where you’re off to, or she’ll be frettin’ herself and the gal too — frettin’ over what can’t be helped. But I suppose it’s the natur’ o’ some women.’

We done our settling-up next day. All the sale money was paid over to Starlight. He cashed the cheques and drew the lot in notes and gold — such a bundle of ’em there was. He brought them out to us at the camp, and then we ‘whacked’ the lot. There were eight of us that had to share and share alike. How much do you think we had to divide? Why, not a penny under four thousand pounds. It had to be divided among the eight of us. That came to five hundred a man. A lot of money to carry about, that was the worst of it.

Next day there was a regular split and squander. We didn’t wait long after daylight, you bet. Father was off and well on his way before the stars were out of the sky. He took Warrigal’s horse, Bilbah, back with him; he and Starlight was going off to the islands together, and couldn’t take horses with them. But he was real sorry to part with the cross-grained varmint; I thought he was going to blubber when he saw father leading him off. Bilbah wouldn’t go neither at first; pulled back, and snorted and went on as if he’d never seen only one man afore in his life. Father got vexed at last and makes a sign to old Crib; he fetches him such a ‘heeler’ as gave him something else to think of for a few miles. He didn’t hang back much after that.

The three other chaps went their own road. They kept very dark all through. I know their names well enough, but there’s no use in bringing them up now.

Jim and I cuts off into the town, thinking we was due for a little fun. We’d never been in a big town before, and it was something new to us. Adelaide ain’t as grand quite as Melbourne or Sydney, but there’s something quiet and homelike about it to my thinking — great wide streets, planted with trees; lots of steady-going German farmers, with their vineyards and orchards and droll little waggons. The women work as hard as the men, harder perhaps, and get brown and scorched up in no time — not that they’ve got much good looks to lose; leastways none we ever saw.

We could always tell the German farmers’ places along the road from one of our people by looking outside the door. If it was an Englishman or an Australian, you’d see where they’d throwed out the teapot leavings; if it was a German, you wouldn’t see nothing. They drink their own sour wine, if their vines are old enough to make any, or else hop beer; but they won’t lay out their money in the tea chest or sugar bag; no fear, or the grog either, and not far wrong. Then the sea! I can see poor old Jim’s face now the day we went down to the port and he seen it for the first time.

‘So we’ve got to the big waterhole at last,’ he said. ‘Don’t it make a man feel queer and small to think of its going away right from here where we stand to the other side of the world? It’s a long way across.’

‘Jim,’ says I, ‘and to think we’ve lived all our lives up to this time and never set eyes on it before. Don’t it seem as if one was shut up in the bush, or tied to a gum tree, so as one can never have a chance to see anything? I wonder we stayed in it so long.’

‘It’s not a bad place, though it is rather slow and wired in sometimes,’ says Jim. ‘We might be sorry we ever left it yet. When does the steamer go to Melbourne?’

‘The day after tomorrow.’

‘I’ll be glad to be clear off; won’t you?’

We went to the theatre that night, and amused ourselves pretty well next day and till the time came for our boat to start for Melbourne. We had altered ourselves a bit, had our hair cut and our beards trimmed by the hairdresser. We bought fresh clothes, and what with this, and the feeling of being in a new place and having more money in our pockets than we’d ever dreamed about before, we looked so transmogrified when we saw ourselves in the glass that we hardly knew ourselves. We had to change our names, too, for the first time in our lives; and it went harder against the grain than you’d think, for all we were a couple of cattle-duffers, with a warrant apiece sure to be after us before the year was out.

‘It sounds ugly,’ says Jim, after we had given our names as John Simmons and Henry Smith at the hotel where we put up at till the steamer was ready to start. ‘I never thought that Jim Marston was to come to this — to be afraid to tell a fat, greasy-looking fellow like that innkeeper what his real name was. Seems such a pitiful mean lie, don’t it, Dick?’

‘It isn’t so bad as being called No. 14, No. 221, as they sing out for the fellows in Berrima Gaol. How would you like that, Jim?’

‘I’d blow my brains out first,’ cried out Jim, ‘or let some other fellow do it for me. It wouldn’t matter which.’

It was very pleasant, those two or three days in Adelaide, if they’d only lasted. We used to stroll about the lighted streets till all hours, watching the people and the shops and everything that makes a large city different from the country. The different sorts of people, the carts and carriages, buggies and drays, pony-carriages and spring-carts, all jumbled up together; even the fruit and flowers and oysters and fish under the gas-lights seemed strange and wonderful to us. We felt as if we would have given all the world to have got mother and Aileen down to see it all. Then Jim gave a groan.

‘Only to think,’ says he, ‘that we might have had all this fun some day, and bought and paid for it honest. Now it isn’t paid for. It’s out of some other man’s pocket. There’s a curse on it; it will have to be paid in blood or prison time before all’s done. I could shoot myself for being such a cursed fool.’

‘Too late to think of that,’ I said; ‘we’ll have some fun in Melbourne for a bit, anyhow. For what comes after we must “chance it”, as we’ve done before, more than once or twice, either.’

 

Next day our steamer was to sail. We got Starlight to come down with us and show us how to take our passage. We’d never done it before, and felt awkward at it. He’d made up his mind to go to New Zealand, and after that to Honolulu, perhaps to America.

‘I’m not sure that I’ll ever come back, boys,’ he said, ‘and if I were you I don’t think I would either. If you get over to San Francisco you’d find the Pacific Slope a very pleasant country to live in. The people and the place would suit you all to pieces. At any rate I’d stay away for a few years and wait till all this blows over.’

I wasn’t sorry when the steamer cleared the port, and got out of sight of land. There we were — where we’d never been before — in blue water. There was a stiff breeze, and in half-an-hour we shouldn’t have turned our heads if we’d seen Hood and the rest of ’em come riding after us on seahorses, with warrants as big as the mainsail. Jim made sure he was going to die straight off, and the pair of us wished we’d never seen Outer Back Momberah, nor Hood’s cattle, nor Starlight, nor Warrigal. We almost made up our minds to keep straight and square to the last day of our lives. However, the wind died down a bit next day, and we both felt a lot better — better in body and worse in mind — as often happens. Before we got to Melbourne we could eat and drink, smoke and gamble, and were quite ourselves again. We’d laid it out to have a reg’lar good month of it in town, takin’ it easy, and stopping nice and quiet at a good hotel, havin’ some reasonable pleasure. Why shouldn’t we see a little life? We’d got the cash, and we’d earned that pretty hard. It’s the hardest earned money of all, that’s got on the cross, if fellows only knew, but they never do till it’s too late.

When we got tired of doing nothing, and being in a strange place, we’d get across the border, above Albury somewhere, and work on the mountain runs till shearing came round again; and we could earn a fairish bit of money. Then we’d go home for Christmas after it was all over, and see mother and Aileen again. How glad and frightened they’d be to see us. It wouldn’t be safe altogether, but go we would.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31