Robbery Under Arms, by Rolph Boldrewood

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-inhand — (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:—

WONDERFUL DISCOVERY OF GOLD AT THE TURON.

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.

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