Robbery Under Arms, by Rolph Boldrewood

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, two or three pounds’ weight of gold out of a tub of dirt.

One night Jim and I were strolling about with some of our Yankee friends, when some one said there’d been a new hotel opened by some Melbourne people which was very swell, and we might take a look at it. We didn’t say no, so we all went into the parlour and called for drinks. The landlady herself came in, dressed up to the nines, and made herself agreeable, as she might well do. We were all pretty well in, but one of the Americans owned the Golden Gate claim, and was supposed to be the richest man on the field. He’d known her before.

‘Waal, Mrs. Mullockson,’ says he, ‘so you’ve pulled up stakes from Bendigo City and concluded to locate here. How do you approbate Turon?’

She said something or other, we hardly knew what. Jim and I couldn’t help giving one look. Her eyes turned on us. We could see she knew us, though she hadn’t done so at first. We took no notice; no more did she, but she followed us to the door, and touched me on the shoulder.

‘You’re not going to desert old friends, Dick?’ she said in a low voice. ‘I wrote you a cross letter, but we must forgive and forget, you know. You and Jim come up tomorrow night, won’t you?’

‘All right, Kate,’ I said, and we followed our party.

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