Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 18

Come, read me my riddle! Come, hearken my tale!

And tell me the craft of bold Allen-a-Dale.

The imperfect light which streamed through the chinks of the slabbed partitions between the place of confinement in the lock-up house and the room occupied by the constables enabled Rashleigh to see that the other confine was a very tall and bulky man, who lay upon the rude floor, wrapped up in an opossum-skin cloak. He scarcely deigned any reply to Ralph’s salutation of good-evening, but aroused himself, after a little while, upon observing that our adventurer had brought in a lighted pipe with him, and asked the other to fill one for him, which the stranger could not do for himself, as he was handcuffed.

This little piece of kindness, being performed, seemed to abate something of the stranger’s sullen reserve, for he sat up, and in reference to the mirth of his captors, who, it appeared by their jovial conversation, were now getting merry over their grog, the new-comer observed, in a tone of grim irony, “Aye, booze away, my boys. You think you’re all right now; but my turn will come again yet.”

This remark exciting Rashleigh’s curiosity, he asked what his companion in captivity was confined for, but received only an evasive reply; and finding that the other eschewed any conversation, Ralph made a sort of bed with a few articles lent to him for that purpose by the lock-up keeper, on which he lay down and soon fell asleep.

Far in the night he was awakened by someone who said, “Get up, and come along,” shaking him as he did so. Not being thoroughly aroused, he could only at the moment notice that the door of the lock-up was open, and that a tall figure was going towards it. He involuntarily arose to dress himself; but before he had got his jacket on, the same figure reappeared, saying, “Why the hell don’t you make haste?”

Rashleigh thereupon went forth into the outer apartment, where he saw half a dozen men, in various dirty dresses, but all armed to the teeth. The two constables were fast asleep, with their arms resting on the table.

“Now,” said a voice which Ralph recognised as being that of the late captive, “get some fire sticks. We’ll set light to the hut and burn both it and these blasted dogs together.”

“Aye, aye!” responded his companions, thronging around the fireplace to obey the cruel mandate.

“For God’s sake,” cried Rashleigh, “don’t burn the men, but go away. As you’ve got out, they won’t know anything about it, and you may be far enough before they awaken.”

“Hold your infernal tongue!” retorted the other. “Or else we’ll handcuff you and chuck you neck and heels into the lock-up again, to be roasted like a snake in a log.”

Ralph was about to reply; but the man, whose strength was equal to his tremendous size, put one hand over his mouth, and gripping him by the collar with the other, led him out. They walked to a small distance in front of the hut, when Rashleigh’s companion halted and released him. Turning towards the lock-up, Ralph could see the roof was already in a light blaze; and as it was thatched with reeds, that combustible covering was rapidly consuming with a loud crackling noise, which contrasted fearfully with the perfect stillness of all around, and which, as our adventurer hoped, could not fail of awakening the slumbering inmates.

Apparently his huge captor thought so too, for he asked of those standing near, “Has anyone fastened the jigger and the jumps (door and windows)?”

“Yes, I did,” responded another. “I took blasted good care not to leave the rascals a hole to creep out of.”

“Heavens!” said the horror-stricken Rashleigh. “You surely will not let the poor wretches die such a dreadfully lingering death.”

“You mind your own business, and be damned to you,” was the reply.

“At least, then,” persisted Ralph; “save the woman and her children. Think of your own mothers,”

“Now by hell and the devils!” roared the former captive. “If you breathe another whisper, I’ll blow your head off!” And as he said so, he cocked a horse-pistol, which he held close to his prisoner’s ear.

The stern determination of this ferocious ruffian’s countenance, rendered plainly visible by the light of the burning hut, which cast a ruddy glare around, told Rashleigh he was not to be trifled with, and he wrung his hands in an agony of horror. Still, though the thatch of the lock-up house was now all consumed, and the flames had seized upon the slabbed ceiling, the doomed inmates slept on. Ralph supposed the men were insensible through intoxication, but knew not how to account for the sound sleeping of the woman, who, with her two children, had retired to rest at the same time that he was himself locked up. In a few minuters more, a portion of the roof that had stood over their sleeping-room fell in, blazing up bright and fiercely just before its fall, its concussion scattering myriads of burning flakes, which flew far up into the sky.

The next instant arose such a shrill and piercing scream that it agonised Rashleigh’s inmost soul, for he knew it emanated from the hapless mother just awakened to behold this dire calamity. Next came the wailing cry of the children, shriek upon shriek, and the vain attempts of the men to break the clumsy fastenings of the door and windows, accompanied by many oaths and exclamations of despair. The timber walls now began to blaze, when Ralph, seizing an opportunity that offered by his guard’s relaxed vigilance for an instant, rushed towards the hut, bent on rescuing the inmates by forcing the door. At this moment one of the constables, having succeeded in breaking down the window shutter, jumped out of the flames. In an instant four or five guns were discharged. The half-escaped wretch leaped convulsively up and fell to the earth, and immediately afterwards, Rashleigh received a violent blow from behind on the back part of his head, which stretched him, bleeding and insensible, on the ground.

When he recovered, he felt very stiff and sore; but on attempting to rise, he found himself fastened down to the earth so strongly as to prevent his doing so. His struggles apparently had the effect of attracting the attention of some watchful guard, who in a menacing tone bade him, “Lie still, and be damned to you, if you don’t want another knock on the head that will settle you altogether!”

This language effectually put an end to the attempts of our captive, who remained passive in his painful posture until the dawn of morning; in fact, from the mode in which he was bound, he was unable even to turn himself.

As soon as it became light he cast his eyes around and discovered that the party of men, whom he had seen at the lock-up house the night before, now lay in various positions upon the ground near him. The spot they occupied seemed to be only sheltered partially by an overhanging rock, and to be open to the bush on all sides save one, and from the edge of this semi-cavern the ground appeared to dip or sink into a valley. It was late in the morning when some of the party arose, made a fire, and commenced preparing breakfast, which consisted of tea made in tin quart pots, meat broiled upon the coals, and dough cakes cooked in the same way.

The remainder of the party, having now got up from their various lain, assembled round the fire, and Rashleigh then perceived that they were seven in all, variously dressed, some clad in government slops, and others in better habiliments, obviously unsuited to their station in society and most probably stolen from some settler. The nature of their avocation was now plain to Ralph. Their arms and the outrage they had committed after rescuing their captive leader from the lock-up spoke them to be one of those bands of ruthless bushrangers who then roamed at large in the wilds of Australia, carrying terror and devastation wherever they made their appearance.

While he was thus commenting upon the character of his guards or captors, and puzzling himself by vain conjectures as to what they could propose to do with him, the party had discussed their breakfast, which done, one of them approached our adventurer, and casting loose part of his fastenings, bade him get up. Rashleigh complied, and guided by the other, now approached the leader, who had seated himself on a small hillock near the entrance of the cavern. This man, whose name was Foxley, was of stature far above that of his fellows, and muscular in proportion; he was dressed in a fustian shooting-coat, with a broad riding-belt round the middle, containing two large pistols. Shaggy cloth trousers, a blue woollen shirt, fur cap and pampoos or rough hide boots completed his costume.

His first salute to the captive was, “Stand off, and don’t come too close. What were you in the lock-up for?”

“I gave myself up to complain of my master,” replied Rashleigh.

“Oh, you’re one of the complaining sort, eh? Who was your master?” demanded the other.

“One Arlack of Airds,” was the rejoinder.

“Well and what did he do to you?” enquired the bushranger.

“He wanted to starve me to death and work the flesh off my bones,” responded Ralph.

“Why the devil didn’t you knock the beggar’s brains out and take to the bush?” asked Foxley.

“Why, I thought it better to get away quietly,” was the answer.

“But wouldn’t you like to be revenged of the old tyrant?” demanded the outlaw.

“Why, yes,” returned Rashleigh, with some hesitation; “if 1 could without murdering him or his family.”

“Murder be damned!” said the other fiercely. “If it was me, I’d set fire to the old brute’s hut and burn both him and all that belonged to him in it. Bad egg, bad bird, as we used to say long ago in Tipperary!”

Ralph made no answer to this speech; but the truculently diabolical look that accompanied it, and a remembrance of the dreadful catastrophe of the last night, which it naturally excited, shot athwart his mind, and upon the recollection, too, of the woman’s piercing cry of horror, a shuddering fit seized our adventurer, which was plain enough to the bushranger, who added, with a strong expression of contempt, “But 1 can see you are a regular chicken-hearted crawling fool, who would stand anything and be trampled upon like a dog rather than turn out like a man. I wish I’d left you in the lockup, for you an’t worth saving; and maybe you’d hang us all if we was taken.”

“Aye, I told you so,” said another of the party, whose name was O’Leary. “I knew he was a cur.”

“Let’s knock the beggar on the head, to make sure of him,” said a third. And many threatening expressions burst from the rest of the party, who began to handle their weapons and eye poor Rashleigh with looks of the most hostile import.

“Silence!” cried the leader in a commanding voice. “I’ll not have him hurt, and you know I will have my way. We want somebody to carry our swag (plunder) and cook our grub, for you all grumble like hell to take it in your turns; and this fellow shall do that. It is damned hard if seven men can’t watch one; and if we find him out in any treachery, he shall die like a dog, if he were twenty times my own father.”

To this the rest grumbled a surly sort of acquiescence, and one of them was told by the chief that for one day he should be answerable for the captive, while another was warned to take charge of him at night, this duty being thus destined to all in turns.

Ralph was now completely unbound and informed that he might get his breakfast and then gather up the utensils and food in readiness to move off when he had done. In a very short time, all being prepared, the party set forward, Rashleigh bearing a heavy load and being closely followed by the person who had been directed to guard him. With this exception, no particular order appeared to be observed, nor were they very scrupulous in preserving silence. Indeed, from the nature of the country through which they passed, little danger was apprehended. They travelled on some hours over a succession of broken ranges and at nightfall they found themselves near a small running creek, the course of which they followed for a considerable distance. Having chosen a commodious spot, the fire was quickly kindled and Ralph prepared a meal, which all sat down together to partake of.

The conversation turned on their recent exploits. And now, for the first time, Rashleigh had reason to believe that the whole of the wretched inmates of the lock-up had perished miserably in the flames, for from words dropped in broken sentences, he learned that the man who had broken out in his sight and another who followed him through the same outlet had both been remorselessly shot dead, and their lifeless remains hurled into the blazing ruins. The fate of the woman and children was left to conjecture; but as he gathered that some of the bushrangers had stayed by the burning lock-up house until it was completely consumed, there remained not the slightest hope that any had escaped with life.

After the band had finished their meal, Rashleigh was directed to prepare some dough for baking in the ashes, and on the flour bag being produced, Foxley remarked that it was getting low, but it was no matter, they would soon fill it again. From this remark and other expressions which fell from individuals of the party, our adventurer concluded they contemplated the commission of some fresh act of violence very soon. It was wearing late before the party lay down to rest; and when they did so the man who now took charge of Rashleigh for the night handcuffed his prisoner to himself.

Early the next morning they arose and after taking a meal, proceeded on their route. About midday one of the men observed he knew, by the shape of a certain hill close by, that they were not far from Campbelltown, which rather surprised our adventurer, as, from his idea of the distance they had walked, he imagined they were much nearer to Sydney, or to Liverpool at least, towards the sea-coast; but he afterwards found that in order to avoid the settled districts the bushrangers had made a very wide circuit, first going towards the east and then returning westward,

The party now lay still in the heart of a very luxuriant scrub, or thicket of bushes, which was in fact so dense that nothing could be seen at the distance of a couple of yards. Here the men prepared their arms, made masks to conceal their features, and then lay quiet until dusk.

Shortly after nightfall they were again in motion, and having proceeded about four miles through a tract of open forest land, they again halted, two of the party being now sent forward to observe the intended object of attack. On their return they communicated their intelligence to Foxley, and all proceeded with stealthy caution in the way indicated by these spies. The bushrangers soon came to a narrow lane, and a dog was heard to bark at a very small distance. After a short consultation the body was divided, four of them getting over the right fence of the lane, along which the others continued to proceed in silence, Rashleigh being attached to the last-mentioned, who after proceeding a few rods farther, arrived before a small cottage, which Ralph, to his great pain, soon discovered was the neat little abode of Marshall, in which he had passed so pleasant a night a few weeks before. His consternation increased when he discovered, by the threatening execrations of their leader, that Bob, who had once been Foxley’s overseer, had in that capacity procured him the punishment of a flogging, for which the latter was now come to exact revenge according to his own brutal code of undiscriminating vengeance.

Ardently did Rashleigh pray that some lucky chance might defeat the vindictive object of this ruthless ruffian, whose cold-blooded atrocity, on the former occasion, had made a deep and heart-felt impression upon the mind of our adventurer; but all seemed as peaceful as the grave within and about the doomed dwelling. Not a light glimmered through any opening, nor did even a dog bark outside — a circumstance which much surprised Rashleigh, who knew that the owner had more than six of these animals, some of whom were tied up all day, but allowed liberty to roam about the yards at night. And Marshall had boasted to him respecting the vigilance of two of them in particular, who, he asserted, would not suffer even a leaf to fall without giving the alarm, and were so ferocious that they would tear a stranger limb from limb after dark. He afterwards found that all these faithful guardians had been fastened up for this occasion in a distant shed by the family, in order to avoid any accidental rencontre with the company they had invited to celebrate the christening of their youngest child. Of this gathering, of course, the bushrangers knew nothing; and they were consequently most amazed, while waiting the appointed signal from their detached confederates, to hear a peal of merry laughter emanating from some building in the rear of the cottage, whence also soon after issued the notes of a fiddle and tambourine, the staple music of a colonial sheevo, or merry-making. There was an open gate beside the dwelling, through which the bushrangers cautiously passed into a stockyard that seemed to contain the building the sounds proceeded from; and on passing round some smaller sheds, they found this to be the case, for just before them was a large barn, through the chinks of which much light streamed, and other indications of revelry were manifested which audibly proclaimed the occupants of the barn were amusing themselves with a dance. The marauders were now joined by their four companions, who had approached by some back way.

The leader, Foxley, now issued his commands, that all the outbuildings should be searched to secure any stragglers and prevent them from escaping. This being done and no person discovered, the bushrangers now approached the only door of the barn, where they knocked some time without being heard; but when at length the door was opened, and the grim array of armed and masked figures in their uncouth and dirty dresses met the gaze of the festive party gathered within, a scene of universal consternation ensued. The women shrieked, the children screamed with affright, and the men huddled themselves together.

Foxley now advanced into the middle of the floor, which terror had completely cleared, and he shouted out in loud and savage tones, “What! Are you all scared at a few young fellows that have come to your spree without being invited? Won’t anybody welcome us? No! Why, where’s the master of the house? Ha, I see you, Mr Marshall! Come out here”

And with that he very deliberately cocked his gun, which he levelled at the unfortunate man, while those who were near him slunk away, and he, seeing escape hopeless, reluctantly advanced towards the bushranger, saying as he did so, “You an’t a-going to murder an unarmed man, are you?”

Foxley deigned him no reply, but made a sign to one of his comrades whose name was O’Leary, who came to his side and having received a whispered command from his leader, produced a pair of handcuffs, with which he secured Marshall’s wrists and then retired with his prisoner.

Foxley now ordered all the terrified inmates of the barn to get together on one side of the door; and two of the other bushrangers coming in, one proceeded to search the pockets of the festive group, and laid whatever he found upon the floor at Foxley’s feet. The demented ones, after having been thus closely examined, were passed over to the other side of the barn, where they were strictly guarded.

It chanced however that one of the females was attacked by some sort of unusual fit, which produced a considerable degree of confusion, during which a young man and woman had the address to escape through die open door unobserved by any of the bushrangers. Rashleigh saw them, and going round the barn, suddenly confronted them as they were about to get over the fence.

The young woman, seeing him masked, shrieked; but our adventurer made a deprecatory motion and was about to approach her when her male companion said, “Stand back. I dare say you are armed; but by the heaven above us, you shan’t lay a finger on that girl, unless you do so over my dead body.”

“Be quiet,” returned our compulsory outlaw. “It seems the noise the young woman has made was drowned by the shrieks of that poor creature inside, or else you would find others who might not be inclined to let you go.

“Well,” replied the youth; “here’s all the money I’ve got, and my watch. I’ll give you that to let her go. I don’t care for myself.”

“No,” rejoined Rashleigh, suddenly making up his mind. “Go, both of you. I don’t want your money; but for the sake of heaven, make haste in to Campbelltown and tell the chief constable that Foxley the Murderer is here. Beg him to hurry; or Marshall will be slaughtered and all his family. Do not delay, as you hope for salvation.”

“I’ll run every step,” said the girl, now recovered from her terror; and, jumping, over the fence, both disappeared, while Rashleigh, fearing lest he might have been missed, crept back in the shade of the barn to the spot where he had been placed by the bushranger who had the care of him.

In the mean time the sufferers in the barn having been reduced to order by the stern threats of Foxley, the ceremony of fleecing them proceeded anew. Both sexes underwent this ordeal, being stripped of their money, trinkets, watches, and in several cases of their silk handkerchiefs, coats and waistcoats to boot, until there was a great heap of these articles of spoil upon the floor. All were plundered in this way, which, however, was not done without some delay, and a vast deal of tears, lamentations and entreaties from the females, as a cherished trinket or valued scrap of finery was snatched from its possessor by the rude hands of this unwonted toilet assistant; but Foxley was inexorable to all the prayers, entreaties, or all the soft artillery of blandishments with which he was plied by the fair victims, and in reply to their most moving supplications only ordered them to stand off.

At length, the whole party had been completely shorn of their disposables and the robber now directed the clothing to be stowed in some wheat sacks, loading his own pockets and filling his hat with the watches money and jewellery. When this was accomplished, the sacks were put outside the door, and all — but two, to whom was deputed the task of guarding the prisoners in the barn — the bushrangers withdrew into the stockyard, where O’Leary and poor Marshall were standing. Foxley directed them to accompany him and Rashleigh to follow with his provision bags; they then all went to the back door of the dwelling-house.

This entrance was fastened in some way; but a blow from the butt end of Foxley’s piece made it fly open, and all the party went in. The interior was in darkness, and O’Leary was dispatched to the barn for a light. When he returned they saw a goodly store of poultry and other eatables, ready dressed, together with many bottles of wine and spirits, apparently prepared for transmission to serve as a supper for the party assembled in the barn.

Foxley, directing his address to Marshall, said, “What money have you got in the house?”

“Only about four pounds,” was the reply.

“Where is it?” was the next brief demand of the bushranger; and on being informed it was in the bedroom, he ordered Marshall to point it out and they both withdrew.

Presently the noise of breaking woodwork was heard, and loud curses from Foxley, apparently produced by disappointment at the meagre amount of the plunder. The door being left open when they came out, Rashleigh cast a glance into the once neat bedroom, which was now strewn with articles of dress and bedding, broken drawers, boxes, etc., in dire confusion.

“Where’s your tea and sugar?” now demanded Foxley; and the chest of tea and cask containing sugar being indicated, Ralph, under the direction of O’Leary, began to fill the bags he had brought with him for this purpose.

While this was doing, Foxley demanded of their unwilling host what had become of the money he had lately received for the wheat he had sold, and was answered that it had been all paid away, except the sum Foxley had got.

“I know that’s a damned lie,” was the rejoinder. “But no matter. Though I can’t get it, I’ll take precious good care you don’t live to enjoy it!”

The poor man, upon whom the stern brutality of Foxley began to produce an effect of fear, now again asked with a tremulous voice, “surely you will not murder a defenceless man, who has not done you any harm.”

“Silence, liar!” was all the reply.

“For God’s sake, think of my poor wife and helpless children!” persisted Marshall.

“Think of your damned tyranny!” now roared Foxley, suddenly removing the crape from his face. “Look in my face, wretch! I am Philip Foxley, that you got flogged for neglect of work. Don’t you know me?” And then, sinking his voice to a sort of half whisper of concentrated malignity. “If you had as many lives as I got lashes through you, aye, ten times told, I’d take them every one tonight. So you may make up your mind to die . . . I’ve already slaughtered eleven of my old masters and overseers, and you shall make up the dozen!! For I’m a good mark. I never forget to pay my debts.”

Marshall’s whole frame shook with terror at the sight of a man whose face he knew too well and whose bloodthirsty name was a terror to the whole country; but after a, strong effort, apparently perceiving the inutility of more entreaties, he calmed his outward demeanour.

In the mean time Rashleigh had got a quantity of tea, sugar and flour put up, to which some of the cooked food and four bottles of spirits were added by Foxley, who then withdrew into the yard with his prisoner. Here they were met by Mrs Marshall and her sister, who had but just ascertained that Bob was a prisoner, and who, driven to desperation by the idea of his probable fate, had rushed past the guards, who did not know what to do, not liking to fire upon two women, whom however they could not otherwise stop. They now clung to the doomed man with frantic eagerness, demanding what the wretches were going to do with him.

“Drag those women away!” roared Foxley, absolutely foaming at the mouth with fury at this further delay of his revenge; and after a severe struggle they were brutally torn from the arms of Marshall and forced back into the barn.

Foxley now directed McCoy to take charge of our adventurer and lead him to a certain place. Next, addressing O’Leary, he demanded, “Is your piece loaded with ball?”

“It is,” was the reply.

“Then, Marshall, kneel down and pray as if you mean it,” continued Foxley in a very cool tone. “I’ll give you ten minutes to make your peace with God!” And he took out the poor man’s watch, which he held near a light carried by another bushranger.

By this time Rashleigh, urged by McCoy, had taken up his load to depart, and turning away, could still hear the prayers and entreaties for mercy made by the wretched man, who seemed to increase the intensity of his supplications as the awful moment drew nearer. Just as our adventurer and his guide had got on a fence and were about to cross it, the former looked back, aroused by a yell from Foxley, which reached him like the blast of a clarion on the breeze.

“Down! Down on your knees! Here, O’Leary. He won’t pray. So be ready; and when I give the word, aim right between his eyes.”

The wretched man appeared still to be imploring his murderers for mercy when flashes close at hand, followed by the reports of a dozen or more muskets, appalled the bushrangers, one of whom, the man who held the light close by Foxley’s face, fell with a piercing cry.

“Surrender, in the King’s name!” Was vociferated by many tongues.

“Fire at the beggars and keep close together, my lads. ’Tis your only chance!” roared out Foxley in reply; and again a stream of brilliant flashes gleamed on the darkness, followed by cries of pain, rage, anger and exultation, according to the different fortunes of those who uttered them.

After the bushrangers had fired their pieces, they thronged round Foxley and all made their way to the fence, on which McCoy and Rashleigh had remained, as it were entranced by the suddenness of the surprise; but now, joined by the others, they were urged into a rapid flight by the exclamations and example of Foxley, who, with all his haste, forgot not to enquire whether their slavey — meaning Ralph — had escaped; and on finding he had not, he told McCoy it was a good job, for if that beggar had got away, his life should have answered for it, an asseveration which produced the effect of making McCoy doubly anxious for the security of the captive.

The darkness of the night and the confusion of those who had attacked them favoured the escape of the bushrangers, and having run across Marshall’s clearing, they gained the covert of the standing timber unpursued. Halting now to breathe awhile, the first care of the discomfited ruffians was to ascertain how many of their body were missing. Three of the party were accordingly found absent, two of whom were known to have fallen at the first fire, but whether dead or only wounded was uncertain. After a brief rest, they pursued their way with as much speed as possible, directing their course eastward by the guidance of the stars; and when daylight came they sought a deep and rugged gully, in which they concealed themselves. But the food had been lost, together with all their plunder, in the hurry of their flight, except the more portable articles taken from the festive group, which had been deposited on the persons of Foxley and McCoy.

Rashleigh might certainly have escaped from the bushrangers at the time he had spoken to the two runaways behind the barn; but he then preferred remaining until the police, whom he hoped they would send, should arrive, thinking that perhaps something might occur in the interim to enable him to save the poor man Marshall. His being placed under the strict charge of McCoy and hurried away before the constables came prevented his either doing this or joining them later and helping to capture the ruffianly crew, whom he had come to hate. We have seen that during their retreat, hasty as it was, he was too closely looked after to run in any other direction than the one pointed out to him. Deeming that at any rate Marshall’s life was saved for the present, he was the more readily consoled for this disappointment, because he hoped some opportunity must certainly occur before long to enable him to bid adieu to his ruthless companions.

The party of bushrangers, after having slept a few hours, awoke in very ill humour, as they were exceedingly hungry; and they all united in venting their spleen upon Rashleigh, whom they asserted might, if he had chosen, have retained and preserved the bag of provisions. O’Leary, who from the first had appeared to dislike the prisoner, never allowed any opportunity of showing that he did so to escape him, and now not only abused him heartily, but struck him violently, and was about to repeat the blow when Foxley interfered to prevent him. An angry altercation then ensued between O’Leary and the leader, who seemed to be ready to fight over it. At the instance of the rest, who soothed and separated them, a hollow kind of peace was restored, though Rashleigh observed the former long afterwards muttered revengeful threats against both himself and Foxley, casting malignant glances at them from time to time.

The party, towards evening, began to consult who should venture into Campbelltown or Liverpool, from which places they were about equidistant, in order to purchase some necessary supplies of food. Prior to this being arranged, Foxley called up McCoy to produce the different articles of spoil he had carried, which being complied with and united to those in his own custody, the whole was divided into four parts and apportioned by lot among the surviving bushrangers, Rashleigh not being allowed any portion. After this distribution was over, lots were again drawn for the purpose of ascertaining who should be their messenger, and O’Leary being pitched upon, he received from each a sum of money, divested himself of his arms, and departed.

Shortly after he was gone, Foxley, McCoy and Smith — the other bushranger — held a sort of consultation together, from part of which, overheard by our adventurer, it appeared to consist of invectives against their absent confederate O’Leary; and many dark hints of apprehended treachery on his part were thrown out by the leader, who proposed they should remove from the place in which they then were, and seek some more secluded spot before he came back, so that, in case he should prove faithless, they might witch him as he returned, and if he was accompanied by any one, they might thus be enabled to fly. This being acceded to, in a little while they all removed more than half a mile farther away, into the bottom of a narrow valley overhung with trees. By this time it was nearly night, and Foxley went back to lie in wait near their first camping-ground, so that, if all was right, he might guide O’Leary to their new retreat.

Time wore on. Rashleigh and the remaining two bushrangers were dozing near the fire; and it seemed to be late in the evening when O’Leary, conducted by Foxley, returned. They brought a good store of tea, sugar, bread, and salt pork, also four bottles of rum. Some of the meat being hastily cooked in a calabash, in another of which some water was boiled and tea prepared, the whole party made a hearty and most welcome meal. After this, O’Leary proposed they should have some grog, and produced the tip of a bullock’s horn to serve as a drinking-cup.

The present manners of this man seemed to excite some surprise in the minds of the others, one of whom remarked that he was getting mighty good all at once, as he pressed the others continually to drink and did not seem anxious to do so himself, alleging that he had drunk half a pint to his own share at Campbelltown, where he had purchased the supplies. Rashleigh noticed that in proportion as O’Leary increased in gaiety, Foxley became more gloomy and taciturn, until at last he wrapped himself up in his skin cloak and lay down to rest, which Ralph also did soon after. Having drunk a little of the rum, the latter quickly fell asleep; but a sudden squall of wind, that caused the fire near which he was lying to roar very loudly, again awoke him. He now got up in order to remove to a greater distance from the huge burning pile of wood. Before he again lay down, he observed that the two men he had left sitting with O’Leary now lay, stretched at full length, snoring loudly and apparently insensible from the effects of intoxication. O’Leary himself lay at a little distance, and Rashleigh fancied that he was not asleep; indeed, as the latter passed him, a ruddy glare of light appeared to sparkle from beneath his bushy brows, as if he had been watching the movement of our adventurer, who, however, once more disposed himself to rest, and was half asleep when he observed O’Leary raise his head and look furtively around towards himself and Foxley, who was obviously deeply buried in slumber.

Ralph, willing to observe what O’Leary’s intentions were, settled himself to watch, but pretended to snore, counterfeiting sleep with all his might. In a few minutes O’Leary arose and taking in his hand the calabash in which the pork had been boiled, he crept slowly and stealthily towards McCoy and Smith, whose pieces lay beside them. Over the locks of these he dropped a small portion of the pot liquor, and then spilt some more upon the pistols which they wore in their belts. O’Leary now more cautiously approached Foxley, creeping along upon one hand and his knees, carrying the calabash in his right hand and an open knife in his mouth. When he had thus got dose to Foxley’s back, he raised himself a little and peered cautiously into the other’s face. Foxley lay with his gun secured fast between his knees, but still remained soundly asleep. After a pause, O’Leary took something out of his pocket, and appeared to the watchful Rashleigh bent upon turning the screw that secured the flint which lay conveniently exposed for his machinations, and which at last he effected, as Ralph could see by the firelight that the flint fell out when this was done. O’Leary made some futile attempts to possess himself of Foxley’s pistols, but fearing apparently to arouse the sleeper, he again desisted, and after a short delay, on reattempting, managed to open both the pans and shut them softly, thus permitting the priming to fall out. He next wetted the whole of both the locks, after which he arose, and glancing around, took up his musket and stealthily withdrew in the direction of Campbelltown.

Rashleigh made no doubt from these proceedings that O’Leary was playing the traitor, as the pains he took to render their arms useless proved that he expected an attack from someone whom he was now most probably going to seek, that he might guide them to the capture of his betrayed companions. Our adventurer was now much inclined to adopt the opportunity afforded him by the relaxed vigilance of his oppressors to withdraw and deliver himself into the hands of the police; but he reflected that if O’Leary’s plan proved successful, as there was every prospect of its doing, unless he should take steps to prevent it, they would all be tried together, in which case the traitor would unquestionably be accepted as an approver; and his well-known hatred to Rashleigh left no doubt of his evidence being directed to criminate the other, no matter how guiltless, as being actively concerned in the robbery and attempted murder of Marshall. Independent of the certain punishment to which he would be consigned if his guilty accession to this crime should be considered proved — and he knew too well the weakness of any exculpatory defence he could make, as it would be unsupported by any other evidence than his assertion, therefore he had every just cause, to dread such a result on the mere ground of fearing an ignominious death — he could not besides for a moment endure the idea that Marshall’s wife and sister-in-law, who had treated him with so much kindness, should suspect him of the base ingratitude of joining in an attempt so nefarious against them.

Actuated therefore by these double motives, he resolved upon denouncing the traitor to Foxley, whom he awakened for the purpose by touching him with his foot. The bushranger sprang up at once, gun in hand, and presenting his weapon at Rashleigh’s head, hurriedly exclaimed, “Stand off, or I’ll fire! I’ll never be taken alive!” Then, seeing who it was, he demanded angrily what he wanted.

Rashleigh now briefly acquainted him with the conduct of O’Leary and his suspicions of this man’s treacherous intention, which the missing gun flints and wet pistols of Foxley too abundantly confirmed. McCoy and Smith were now awakened and made to comprehend their danger with some difficulty, owing to the drunken confusion of their thoughts.

Their fire-arms were now put in proper order, loaded and primed anew. It was then resolved that they should all withdraw a short distance within the covert of the thickest neighbouring shrubs, there to await the issue of the event, Foxley’s opossum-skin rug and part of the other men’s clothing being disposed in such a manner where they had previously lain as to afford a slight resemblance to sleeping men, that might deceive any one approaching hastily, with only the fitful glare of the firelight to guide him.

They spent more than an hour, shivering for lack of their usual covering, in thus watching their late place of bivouac; and the intensity of the cold, together with their eager anxiety, made the time seem interminable. At length the noise of crackling twigs and a slight rustling in the brushwood denoted the approach of someone. Foxley stood next to our hero, who could not help remarking the diabolically savage expression of his features, the compressed lips and glaring eye-balls of the desperado evincing a ferocity and thirst for blood which were truly appalling.

O’Leary first approached with cautious and stealthy steps, like those of a cat endeavouring to surprise her winged prey. He bore a gun in his hand, and was followed by four other well-armed men, who emerged into the open space and looked around upon what they thought were the sleeping robbers. After a whispered consultation they separated and approached the places where the men seemed to lie. Foxley now motioned the other two to follow him, and while his opponents were still intent upon their supposed capture, the three bushrangers levelled their pieces and fired at the constables, one of whom fell, pierced by a ball in the forehead; and a second dropped directly afterwards. Foxley then clubbed his piece, and rushing upon O’Leary before the latter, amazed at this sudden surprise, could present his gun, he dealt the traitor such a fell blow that the stock of the musket broke short off and O’Leary sank on the ground without a groan. In the mean time the other two constables, having partially recovered from their alarm, fired their muskets at random and hastily made off in safety.

Foxley and his mates now surrounded O’Leary.

“He an’t dead,” cried Smith.

“Stand on one side and I’ll blow his brains out!” said McCoy, cocking and presenting his gun.

“Hold!” shouted Foxley, knocking up his comrade’s piece with the musket barrel he still retained. “Don’t hurt him for your life! I would not for a thousand pounds the traitor should die so easy a death! I’ll pay him off better than that.” And fetching some water, he bathed O’Leary’s head, until the wounded man recovered consciousness.

The banditti now examined the other fallen men, one of whom they found quite dead. While they were stripping the body naked, the other, whose thigh was broken, got partially up, and deliberately resting his gun on the log, took a steady aim at McCoy, who stood beside O’Leary and was not aware of the danger. Rashleigh saw it, but would have cared nothing if all the three were shot, so did not interfere; but unluckily, the bullet only whizzed close by the bushranger, burying itself deep in the bark of a tree against which he leaned. Foxley sprang upon the wounded wretch with his knife and stabbed him repeatedly until the yells of the dying man, which had at first rung through the forest, died away in inarticulate sobs, whereupon McCoy, who had stood threateningly over the prostrate wretch with the broken musket barrel but feared to strike while Foxley was engaged in his brutal work, now rained a shower of blows upon the victim’s skull until it was actually smashed into a shapeless pulp of hair and brains. Both bodies were now stripped and hauled to a deep waterhole close by, into which they were finally thrown and a number of large loose masses of stone piled on them.

The ruffians then turned their attention to their living captive, whom, traitor as he was, and ruffianly as had been his conduct towards himself, Rashleigh could scarcely help pitying, as he concluded the truculent wretches who had captured him no doubt designed a fearful fate and dreadfully lingering death in expiation of his attempted treachery. At present, however, he was safely tied to one of the party and driven forward amid the blows and execrations of the other two, which he endured with a sulky silence. Rashleigh, loaded with their remaining provisions, was obliged to accompany them, marching along in their front. In this guise they shortly after daylight crossed the Great South Road, one of the bushrangers first exploring the way so as to assure his confederates that the path was free from impediment and that no travellers were near. They now entered a tract of very gloomy and sterile country, which seemed to descend perpetually and bore scarcely any other than that kind of trees which in the Colony are called forest oak, from what reason seems totally unintelligible, as nothing, at any rate in external appearance, can be more dissimilar than this denizen of the Australian woods from the oak of old England.

At long past noon the party halted in a spot which to Rashleigh’s foreboding eyes appeared at any rate a fitting scene for the horrid tragedy he feared would here ensue. Not a blade of grass concealed the naked barrenness of the sod, which consisted of gravel only. Not a sunbeam could penetrate the umbrageous canopy of boughs, whose formation and evergreen hue bore a striking resemblance to that of the funereal cypress or yew. Not a sound disturbed the silence of the mighty world of forest, and all nature seemed hushed in horrid anticipation of the scene of barbarity which was about to disgrace the men here assembled, who, though they possessed the outward semblance of humanity, yet proved their hearts might vie with that of the tiger in ferocity.

Rashleigh was directed to make a fire and prepare some food, and O’Leary, being partially unbound, was confronted with Foxley, who eyed him with stern malignity for a few minutes, and at length broke silence, saying, “Well, have you got anything to say for yourself, you blasted wretch?”

The other replied with a voice of concentrated hatred, “No! I’m only sorry that you wasn’t all grabbed; for there’s nothing on earth I’d rather see than all three of you cowardly, blasted murdering dogs hanging.”

On this, McCoy, who was standing close by, raised his piece, and striking the scurrilous captive on the mouth, drove his front teeth down his throat with the brass-bound butt end of the musket. Of course O’Leary fell. But the remorseless Foxley cried out, “Fetch some water. Throw it on him . . . When he comes to, we’ll make him fast to a tree and flog him first as long as we can stand over him. After that we’ll hang him up to feed the crows.”

Soon after he was raised up perforce, as he refused to stand, and was bound to a neighbouring tree. Foxley, now taking off a broad leathern belt which he wore, flogged him with the buckle that secured it until to Rashleigh’s sickened sight it appeared as if large pieces of flesh were actually knocked off his back at each of the last blows. When Foxley was tired, he resigned the instrument of torture to Smith, who again applied the scourge until O’Leary, ceasing gradually his dreadful shrieks and the terms of bitter execration and abuse he had been heaping on his tormentors, suffered his head to sink on one side and hung, apparently lifeless, in his bonds.

McCoy next took the belt, saying, “Oh, you’re fainting, are you? Blast you, I’ll bring you to.” And he administered a sound thrashing in his turn to the now apparently insensible corpse, until all present really thought O’Leary was dead.

“Hold your hand,” said Foxley; “or he won’t have life enough left to be worth hanging.”

Some moments after he was taken down from the tree and Foxley again directed water to be brought. McCoy gave him some, which he threw over O’Leary’s head; but Smith scraped a piece of salt pork into some water in which Rashleigh had washed other slices; and this wretch now brought it to the seemingly lifeless sufferer, saying, “Clear the way. I have something will revive him with a vengeance!” And he began to rub their victim’s lacerated back with the saline fluid.

O’Leary almost instantly returned to consciousness, and the intolerable anguish occasioned by this smarting application made him howl with torment, he mingling his yells with the direst reproaches and most biting sarcasms against his tormentors.

“Gag the brute!” at last said Foxley; and a short stick having been forced into his mouth, it was tied fast at the back of his head.

A cord was next made of some supple green vines, and a tree having been selected, one of whose vast arms stretched out horizontally at a distance of about twelve feet from the ground, the most agile of the bushrangers climbed up with one end of the rope, which he fastened round the limb, a running noose being formed at the other extremity. A pile of logs was next made up immediately under the bough in such a manner that a slight push would throw them down again.

The wretched captive had watched all these movements with foreboding eyes. He now struggled violently to rid himself from his bonds, but in vain, biting furiously at the stick in his mouth and speaking incoherently in his abortive rage. The dread preparations being all made, Foxley came towards the detected traitor and began to drag him towards the place destined for his final exit; but O’Leary forcibly threw himself on the earth, and it was as much as the united exertions of Foxley and Smith could effect to bear the struggling ruffian to his death, and no sooner had they placed him on the logs, than his struggles knocked them all down. At length he seemed somewhat exhausted and they contrived to secure the rude noose around his neck. Foxley, with O’Leary in his arms, next got on a fallen tree and called out to his confederates above to tighten the rope. When this was done, the robber chief cast his burden rudely away, and O’Leary swung to and fro, distorting his limbs in convulsive spasms of agony.

Twice, through the stretching of the green vines, the rope lengthened so much that the feet of the dying victim touched the ground; and twice did Foxley hold his body up on high, so that his life might at last be ended, while Rashleigh, in pity to his prolonged agony, prayed that at least they would blow the quivering ruffian’s brains out.

“No!” was the brutal declaration of the leader. “I would not shorten his well-deserved struggles a single second, for a thousand pounds! He did worse than a dog’s deed. and he is now dying a dog’s death., as he ought!”

This truly dreadful scene, which harrowed every fibre in the body of our adventurer, was at length brought to a close. The awful death rattle and a final quivering convulsion that shook his whole frame announced that last dread struggle of nature to be over, and O’Leary was a rigid breathless corpse.

A meal was now prepared by Rashleigh, to which his three ruffianly companions did ample justice, making during its progress many coarse jests and brutal allusions to the death pangs of their treacherous associate, whose lifeless body hung within a very few feet of the spot they had selected for their repast.

It may easily be conceived that our adventurer had no appetite after the appalling scene of mortal suffering he had so recently witnessed, and he waited most anxiously for the signal to commence their march, so that he might at least be relieved from the sight of the dead ruffian. But he had a task to complete that he did not anticipate; for Foxley, seeing that he had put together the fragments of food and their humble cooking materials, ordered him to gather a pile of dry wood and place it beneath the body of O’Leary as it hung. This being quickly done, as there was abundance of fuel at hand, one of the party applied fire to the pile, and when it was alight another got on the limb to which the rope was fastened, which he cut through, and the corpse fell into the midst of the flames, while the bystanders laughed, and Foxley remarked, “The damned scoundrel has got a warmer bed now he’s dead than ever he had during his life!”

An additional quantity of dry timber being now thrown into the fire, until the corpse was completely concealed from view, the desperadoes only waited until the roaring progress of the devouring element assured the dead bushranger’s combustion, when they withdrew.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tucker/james/1952/chapter18.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05