Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 19

No hope arose of being freed

And my dim eyes of death had need.

About noon the band of bushrangers and their unwilling companion crossed the Cowpasture river upon a rude catamaran, made of apple tree boughs tied together with vines, and in a short time had gained the rough broken country at the foot of those lofty mountains that traverse the whole of the centre of New Holland, then even more solitary than it is now, the poverty of the sod forbidding any cultivation whatever; while the natural grasses are so scanty that they do not afford pasturage even for the indigenous animals of Australia. Through such sterility as this they journeyed during three days without seeing a single habitation or even a human being. Their provisions again began to grow short, when, on the fourth morning from the death of O’Leary, a few hours after they had quitted the spot of their past night’s sojourn, they came to the summit of a lofty range, where a prospect equally unexpected as it was beautiful and varied burst upon the sight of the enraptured Rashleigh, whose tormenting feelings, induced by the fear of what fate might have in reserve for him as punishment of his involuntary association with the desperate and blood-stained ruffians who now formed at once his guard and his masters, all gave way before the majesty of nature, and he drank in large draughts of delight in contemplating the lovely scene now expanded before him.

Immediately in front of his present position was a precipice some hundred feet in height, whose ragged breast sank sheer down to the broad expanse of the low country; but immediately at its base the Nepean river, here narrowed to about the distance of a hundred yards between its banks, rushed with tumultuous force around the greater part of the hill on which they stood, from which immense masses of rock had apparently been detached by some long past convulsion of nature, and now lay in the bed of the torrent, causing the rapid waters to flash around them in sheets of snowy foam. Far to the right and left the winding convolutions of the stream might be seen at intervals appearing through the foliage, here in magnificent sheets of water, and anon, beyond a projecting promontory forming a low range of hills, the river seemed contracted into the semblance of a dazzling silvery riband that sparkled in the beams of the morning sun.

In the background rose the lofty heights of gloomy mountains, whose variously undulating sides were chiefly clad with the dark evergreen foliage of New Holland, though here and there might be seen upreared the giant form of some rude and fantastically shaped peak or rifted cliff whose grey bosoms were boldly exposed in naked sublimity. As far as the eye could reach in front was an expanse of nearly level woodland, broken here and there by cultivated patches of a greater or less extent, and thinly studded with solitary farmhouses, cots and one or two hamlets with their churches.

The houses were for the most part embosomed in peach orchards, whose leaves of more delicate green contrasted well with the sombre hue of those that clad the neighbouring indigenous trees. The maize fields, too, which were now in full blossom, and gracefully waved their lofty tasselled tops over many an acre of the rich soil on the river bank, formed no inconsiderable item in the charms of the landscape, the appearance of which Rashleigh surveyed in a reverie of pleasure, until the iron hand of Foxley smote upon his shoulder, and his deep harsh voice demanded, “Are you dreaming?”

Aroused to a sense of the dull and dread realities of his present condition, Rashleigh turned mechanically and followed the party, who struck more deeply among the hills. At an early hour in the afternoon Foxley warned his mates that they were approaching the Great Western Road, leading over the mountains to Bathurst, which it was necessary they should cross, and therefore it behoved them to keep a sharp look-out, that they were not surprised by any straggling party of constables or mounted police, which were frequently much on the alert just on the edge of the highlands in order to prevent the escape of any of the prisoners — who at that time were employed working in irons, in order to form the new line of road — as the latter frequently absconded in large or small parties, carrying plunder and havoc into the settled districts during their brief career wherever they came.

The warning had scarcely been given by the leader, whose two companions reloaded their fire-arms, when they heard a shrill cry of a peculiar kind, which is in the Colony called a cooee, and which is chiefly used by parties in the bush to denote their positions or make known their desire of help, guidance, etc. The bushrangers halted and listened attentively; the cry was two or three times repeated, apparently by the same voice. At length, after a brief consultation, McCoy went towards the place from where the sound proceeded, while Foxley, Ralph and the other plunged into the heart of a thicket a little apart, and in a short time the voice of their companion who had gone to reconnoitre was heard hard by. They now got up and went to meet him.

He was accompanied by a short stout man seemingly past the middle age, rather decently dressed, who carried a thick walking-stick, and was introduced to the party by the name of “Mr Huggins, the overseer of No. 1 Iron Gang, who had lost his way while looking after bushrangers”. This introduction was made in a very peculiar manner by his companion to Foxley, who received it with a most significant look, in which Rashleigh fancied he could observe traces of malignant and ferocious satisfaction that made him shudder; while Huggins glanced apprehensively from one to the other of the party who now stood before him.

Silence was broken in a few minutes by Foxley, who said briefly that he thought he could put Mr Huggins in the right way to find some bushrangers very soon; at any rate he’d “be sure to put him into a way that would be certain to take him home”.

Satisfied by this ambiguous speech, Huggins placed himself under the treacherous guidance of his foe, and they all moved on towards the west. Ralph could hear fits and snatches of conversation between Foxley and the newcomer, by which it appeared the former described the party as bush constables belonging to Campbelltown, who were in search of Foxley and his gang of bushrangers, then supposed to be lurking somewhere in the fastnesses of the Blue mountains. Imbued with this idea, Huggins talked much and long of the necessity of putting a period to the depredations of this notorious horde of daring scoundrels and wound up his speech by declaring that if he (Huggins) should come across the rascal in question, he’d never change a word with him, but shoot him down like a dog. Upon this declaration of his sentiments by the overseer, Foxley turned his head to McCoy and Smith, who marched last of the five — Rashleigh being kept in the centre — and shot forth a glance of sarcastic contempt, twisting his naturally coarse features into a truly Satanic as well as sardonic grin, at the effusion; while the other two responded to the gesture by gripping their guns more closely, with expressively grim looks at their leader’s companion.

After they had thus walked about an hour, Huggins began to be alarmed at the duration and tendency of their journey, as they did not reach any road. He repeatedly asked Foxley if he were certain of being in the right direction, to which the other replied, as before, ambiguously, that they would be “as safe as the bank directly”!

In a few minutes more, as they were descending a very deep and rugged glen, or gully, Foxley placed his foot before Huggins, who of course fell some feet forward; and in order to prevent any resistance, Foxley secured him by falling on his back. In his overthrow, Huggins had struck his head with some force against a stone, and before he could recover the effects of this blow his treacherous assailants had firmly bound both his hands and feet.

When the captive regained his senses, his astonishment could only be equalled by his affright; and now, too late perceiving the real character of his captors, he begged in the most moving terms for mercy, abjectly supplicating for heaven’s sake that they would not harm him; but he might have spared this humiliation of himself, for no tiger was ever more pitiless to his prey than the fiend in human shape into whose power he had now fallen. No reply whatever was vouchsafed by Foxley, who seized him by the collar, and assisted by one of his confederates, they thus between them partly led and partly dragged their captive to the bottom of the narrow valley, which was a dreary spot almost inaccessible to the light, and looking as if in fact it were a mere rift, or chasm, in the range, formed by an earthquake, each side being chiefly shut in by naked and jagged rocks, some of which were blackened by age until it appeared as if they had been split by the agency of fire.

A small space, level and clear from obstructions having with some difficulty been found, Foxley seated himself upon a fallen rock, while his companions stood before him with Huggins between them; and now, with a smile of malignant cruelty about to be gratified, the bushranger informed his captive, “As you have such a mighty great wish to see Philip Foxley, I think ’tis a pity so reasonable and harmless a desire should not be granted; and as you’re a nice sort of a man, you shall have your own way . . . I am Foxley. What do you think of me, eh? You won’t speak. Well now, that’s what 1 call being very ungrateful. However, it’s no odds. As it’s a very great favour to see me and my mates, I mean to take care you shan’t tell anybody you have done so!”

As these words were spoken with cool and concentrated malignity which left no doubt of the fell meaning they implied, the hapless wretch to whom they were addressed gave himself up for lost, but endeavoured to move his iron-hearted captor by supplications for mercy.

“Silence!” said one of the bushrangers. “Don’t you know me? Ay, look! What! Not know Sandy McCoy?”

Huggins looked at him, but shook his head and burst out into a fresh paroxysm of lamentations and entreaties.

“Ah,” resumed McCoy, “You know me too well! It is not twelve months ago since I was under you in your infernal gang, and one day when I wanted to go and see the doctor, you put me in the lock-up. You left me there thirty-six hours, handcuffed over a beam, both wrists twisted above my head, all my weight hanging on my hands, and my toes only resting on the ground. You delighted in nothing but tyranny, as long as you had the power. But now, our turn is come; and you may say your prayers, for you are standing on your own grave!”

“Oh,” remarked Foxley. “That tricing men up to a beam is a very common trick of his. Why, not a month ago one of the deputy overseers was tried for killing a poor devil of a crawler who was very sick and wanted to go to hospital; but Mr Huggins ordered him to be triced up, and the other obeyed him, and handcuffed the man over a pole for two days and a night. The first night the deputy was told the man was dying; but he only answered, ‘Let him die and be damned, there’s too many of his sort in the country.’ So the next night, when the doctor came at last to see him, the poor fellow was dead and stiff. That scoundrel, though he was committed, managed to pull through it. He made shift to escape from the Law. But I’ll take rattling good care you don’t escape from Justice, my fine fellow, for I’m judge in this here Court, and I never acquitted a tyrant like you in my life.”

At this Huggins threw himself on the ground in an agony of despair. He beat his head against the earth. He knelt to Foxley, alternately invoking blessings on his head if he would be merciful, and denouncing the most awful imprecations if he deprived him of his life.

At length Foxley roared out, “Damn the crying beggar; he’ll make us all deaf. Gag him at once.”

As he spoke thus the outlaw rose from his seat, and it appeared to his fellows that their chief had suddenly gone mad; for he jumped about, he threw himself down, he raved and swore most vehemently, and as a finale to this extraordinary performance, tore off all the clothes he had on, until he stood before them stark naked; nor did his energetic exertions cease even then, for he danced, whistled, sang, halloed and swore all in a breath.

In vain did his companions ask for many moments what was the matter with him. At length they gathered that their chief, in the pride of his triumph over Huggins, had sat down incautiously within a very dangerous proximity to a huge nest of those ants which are called by the lower classes in the Colony light-horsemen. They are of immense size, upwards of one and a half inches long, of blue and green colours, and the most fierce and virulently biting insects in the bush. So long as Foxley sat quiet they did not molest him, but the moment he put himself in motion he was stung by scores at once; and now his whole body presented a most singular appearance, being completely covered with swellings the size of a hazelnut, very deeply inflamed, which arose instantaneously after the bite of these sanguinary insects, and to judge by the grimaces of this dauntless ruffian, who had frequently endured the most severe floggings without wincing, the pain must have been intense. When it was in some measure allayed, Foxley gathered his clothes, shook them free from the intruders, and vented several bitter execrations upon Huggins, whom he considered as the origin of his mishap, and who now lay grovelling in the dust, completely senseless with the agony of fear.

“Blast you!” roared Foxley, with inexpressible ferocity of tone and manner. “I’ll waken you directly, with a vengeance.”

With that he directed the other two bushrangers to get some bark to twist into ropes; and this being soon accomplished, all of them set to work making cordage, by laying two or three plies of the inner coat of the bark up, until a good-sized line was formed by each.

Foxley, who had first completed the fabrication of a stout and tolerably long cord, next proceeded to cut a number of stakes about two feet long, which he also pointed with his knife at one end, and then directed the others to gather as many short logs of timber together as they could. At length all these methodical preparations — the meaning of which Rashleigh could not divine — had been completed, and the ruffians approached their victim, who still appeared paralyzed by fear.

He was first stripped entirely of his clothing, and then maugre his struggles, carried, or rather dragged, along until they reached the ant-bed. The dreadful nature of the torture intended to be inflicted upon the helpless wretch now flashed upon the mind of our adventurer, who had before heard of bushrangers having thus wreaked their vengeance upon persons inimical to them; and he began by using every argument he could think of to endeavour to move Foxley to pity or remorse and to induce him to forbear his horrid purpose, pointing out to him that sooner or later it must come to his turn to suffer for the crimes he seemed so much to delight in committing.

At last the patience of the bushranger gave way. He had before only shot darksome glances at Rashleigh from beneath his shaggy eyebrows; but now he burst out in tones of thunder, “Hold your infernal tongue, you blasted crawling wretch, or else I’ll lay you alongside of him. I know damned well that if ever I am taken alive 1 shall swing; but that can never be while I have one charge for a bulldog left. So while 1 live I’ll be revenged on all such bloody tyrants as this is.”

His speech was delivered with such a suitable emphasis and seconded by so many appalling denunciations against Rashleigh as well from the others as from Foxley, that the poor fellow was fain, for very fear of his own life, to cease his supplications, and he withdrew to a short distance, turning his back upon the scene. He would now most willingly have stolen away altogether from his ruthless companions but that he knew not which way to turn himself and was well aware if they pursued him with success his doom would be certain death, perhaps with additional and cruelly refined torments. On the other hand, if he lost his way amid these pathless mountains, there could be no doubt of his dying a miserable death by starvation, as many others had done, who like him had wandered away from companions on or near the only road that then traversed that inhospitable tract.

After a short time a piercing yell attracted his attention and forgetting his resolution, he involuntarily looked around. The ruffians had now placed Huggins on the ant-bed. When he felt the stings of the enraged insects, despair lent him herculean strength and he burst from the grasp of his three captors. He was free! Alas, he had run but a few yards when a stone hastily caught up in the race by McCoy, but thrown with all the fury of disappointed malignity, struck him between the shoulders, felling him to the earth. Foxley now roared out for the assistance of Rashleigh, swearing that if he did not come and aid them he should die the death of a dog; and thus coerced, our trembling adventurer was compelled to help carry the senseless man back to his bed of torment.

Huggins was now hurled again on the ant-bed, from whence he had so nearly escaped, and the top of which having been flattened down, a slight trench had been made in it to receive the luckless wretch. The insects, angered into madness at the injuries inflicted on their storehouse, were swarming in thousands around it; but the moment the fresh shock was felt from the fall of Huggins’s body, they all rushed to the spot and he was completely covered with them directly afterwards. The bushrangers, being thus relieved from the attacks of the furious ants, now coolly set to work, and tied the wretched sufferer fast down with several cords passing over his thighs and body, two to each arm and leg, and two crossing his neck. The ends of the cords were secured to the pegs cut by Foxley, which were now driven tight into the ground in a sloping direction the better to retain them. The struggles of the wretched victim to escape from these bonds, which were at length so numerous as to form a complete network over him, were further rendered nugatory by logs that were piled upon the cords, between his body and the pins on every side, so that they were tightened until they cut into the flesh.

All these dire arrangements were completed before Huggins had recovered from the effects of that fatal blow which had caused his recapture. When he again became conscious, the convulsive throes of agony that heaved the mass of flesh, cord and logs were so appalling that a sensation of dizzy sickness came across the brain of Rashleigh, who fell to the earth and cut his head severely. Perhaps the flow of blood from the wound removed his faintness, for he felt no more of it, and was now permitted to withdraw under the guidance and guardianship of McCoy on a search after water. It was long before they found any of this necessary fluid; but having done so, Ralph prepared a scanty supply of food, all that they had left. When Foxley and Smith joined them, the former, upon noticing their slender stock of eatables, observed that “only it would put that rascal (meaning Huggins) out of his pain too soon, he would go and cut a steak off his body.”

Perceiving that Rashleigh looked rather incredulous as well as disgusted at this abominable idea, the truculent desperado verified his assertion with a volley of energetic oaths, winding up the whole by declaring, “There can’t be a sweeter morsel cooked for a man than the heart of a tyrant.”

Such, it is to be observed, is the term used by all the convicts of New South Wales to designate any person, whether magistrate, overseer or constable, who may perform his duty more strictly than is agreeable to the exalted notions these worthies entertain of the deference and consideration with which they ought to be treated.

After supper the party lay down to rest, and at an early hour in the morning were again in motion up the valley, on their return towards the western road, from which, it now appeared, Foxley had turned on meeting with the ill-fated Huggins, whose lair they now shortly passed, when what was Rashleigh’s astonishment, upon casting a furtive glance at the spot for an instant, to find that nothing remained of him but bones, not quite clean certainly, but with little indeed of flesh to be seen upon any part, except the head, which was still nearly untouched. While our adventurer was amazed at the voracity of these tremendous insects, he also felt a little comforted at the idea that the sufferer’s death could not have been so painfully lingering as he had anticipated; and Foxley, seeing the astonishment depicted in Rashleigh’s features, observed with a sort of grim chuckle, “Aye! Them’s the little boys for polishing a bone. In a few hours there won’t be a morsel of Huggins left but his bare skeleton.”

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