Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 21

Dogs! Think of your chiefs by this hand that were slain.

Exhaust all your tortures, you try them in vain;

For the chief of oswego shall never complain.

Long ere dawn the next day the bushrangers were afoot, bringing with them the wretched Rashleigh, who, though he was perforce compelled to swallow a large draught of the fiery spirit that morning to revive his prostrate energies, yet felt so ill that he would fain obtain permission to lie down and die. And never did he hail a place of repose with more heartfelt joy than spread itself over him when they at length arrived at the cavern and he was at liberty to stretch his palsied limbs upon the rocky floor of that secure retreat.

Here he lay all day in a state of semi-insensibility, until, in the evening, he was aroused by the full deep tones of Foxley, who ordered him to get up directly and come along with them, a command which he was fain to obey, though every nerve in his body trembled like the leaves of an aspen through the latent effects of his involuntary but deep debauch.

The moon was in its first quarter, and its pale light was just glimmering above the trees when the little band of plunderers set forth from their hiding-place, as Rashleigh doubted not, upon remembering the last night’s conversation, to carry havoc, and perhaps slaughter, to some peaceful fireside. By the great caution evinced among the party, it was evident they feared detection more than was their custom, and the oft-repeated baying of watch-dogs near them proved that human habitations were numerous and close to the route they were pursuing.

For some hours they continued their journey in silence and at length entered a spacious clearing, in the centre of which a cluster of huts appeared, that they boldly approached. All was silent within, nor was there any light to be seen, and the outer door being fastened only by a latch, the whole party soon stood in an apartment which served the usual purposes of dining-room and kitchen to the family, none of whom were yet apparently awake; though many dogs, who had probably been absent at the critical moment of the marauders’ approach, were now exerting their vigilance too late, by baying most furiously around the door, which some of them were making fierce efforts to open, but in vain, for the uninvited visitors had taken the precaution of shutting it fast behind them.

A light was obtained by McCoy, and at that instant a man clad in sleeping dress came out of an inner apartment to that occupied by the intruders, grumbling, as he came forth, sundry drowsy imprecations against the dogs for their clamour. He had, however, scarce placed his foot upon the floor of the outer room when the hand of Foxley upon his shoulder and the muzzle of a pistol presented at his forehead caused him to start and utter an equivocal sound, which the robber at once checked by growling in a suppressed tone, “Silence! On your life! Or I’ll drive a brace of bullets through your skull!!”

Foxley then dragged him to the opposite side of the room, when he continued, “What men are there asleep in the house?”

“Only my two sons and a stranger,” was the reply.

“Where are they?” was the next demand.

“In yonder,” returned the old man, shaking as if with an ague fit, and pointing out a door different from that at which himself had entered.

Foxley now, with a mute motion to Smith that he should guard the settler, took a light, entered the room with McCoy, and soon his rude voice was heard arousing the inmates, who then, to the number of three, as the old man had said, came forth in their shirts and were ordered to take their places beside the first prisoner.

“Now,” said Foxley, addressing the old farmer, “call your wife and daughters out here; but mind! if there’s any more men, even another one, he shall die and all of you too!”

The women soon made their appearance, pale, disordered and trembling; but McCoy desired them to lay aside their fears, assuring them no harm was intended to their personal safety, an assurance which was echoed by Foxley, who ordered the mistress of the house and her daughters to prepare a feed for all the party.

While this request was being complied with, Foxley spoke to the settler himself, who now stood motionless in the corner where he had been placed, evidently suppressing strong feelings of indignation at the unceremonious behaviour of the bushranger.

“Well, Mr Shanavan,” said the robber chief, “I’ve been informed that you came up from Sydney with a swag of property the other day. I mean to have my share of it. So look sharp and bring it out here to the light; and mind that there is not one article deficient in the lot you bought; for if there is I shall be able to tell in a minute and I’ll cob you within an inch of your life . . . Where is it?” resumed the ruffian after a pause.

“In my bedroom,” stammered out the old man at length.

“Then come with me,” was the next direction given by the outlaw in such a tone of command that Shanavan dared not deny him, and taking up a lamp, he marshalled the bold intruder into another room.

In the mean time Smith the bushranger had been steadfastly looking in the face of the stranger whose ill fortune had brought him that night to partake of Shanavan’s hospitality, and who was now standing beside the two young men, sons of his host. This man did not seem at all easy under the scrutiny of Smith and repeatedly changed his position in order to evade the ruthless gaze of the other, which was evidently fraught with no kindly meaning.

At length Foxley returned with the master of the house, whom he compelled to carry out a quantity of wearing apparel and other goods, which were consigned to the care of McCoy.

Smith now addressed his leader thus, “I say, Foxley. who do you think we ve nailed upon the ground hop at last?”

“I can’t tell, I’m sure. Who is it?” replied the other, examining the man whom Smith’s gesture indicated, but whose face was now hidden from view, until the bushranger, stepping over to him, laid hold of that ear which was nearest to him, and with a sudden jerk, turned his head completely round to the light, saying, as he did so, in tones of the coarsest sarcasm, “Come, Mr McGuffin, let us have a look at your pretty mug (face). You didn’t use to be so bashful!”

“Why, ’tis McGuffin the tyrant!” roared Foxley in tones of savage triumph.

“You may well say that,” rejoined Smith. “Why, the very last time I ever saw him, he flogged our whole gang, fifteen in number, overseer and all, giving all us that were working hands fifty lashes each, and the overseer a hundred without being charged with any crime, and of course without the shadow of a trial; and when jack Bunn, the overseer, as good a fellow as ever broke the world’s bread, asked what we were all to be flogged for, this scoundrel said, ‘Why, to keep the hair out of your eyes, to be sure, you rascal!’”

“Aye, aye. I know him well by report!” now remarked Foxley. “An’t he the beautiful inspector of falling parties that Major Fireplace got the Governor to grant power to, so that he might flog any or all the men in the gangs under him without the trouble of bringing them to Court? And ever since that time, hasn’t he gone about on horseback all through the country, with a flogger at his heels for a running footman, sarving out stripes to all and sundry, so as to show, not only that he had got the power, but also that he was determined not to let it go to sleep in his hands. And now, my gentleman, I’ve got you. I’ll try if I can’t clear off all scores with you. At any rate, you’ve sarved out your last slops!!!”

McGuffin. who was a tall, weather-beaten, dark-complexioned man with unusually stern and determined features, seemed quite appalled by the ferocity of Foxley’s tone and manner when the latter began to talk; but by the close of the robber’s speech he recovered self-possession, and said, in a cone as resolved and stern as that of the other, “Well, you infernal, cold-blooded, murdering, treacherous ruffian, and what can you do after all but only take my life? And that you may do and be damned, if you like. Yes, I have had hundreds of such crawling caterpillars as you and your mob well flogged before now, and I’ve got one comfort left yet. It is this, that neither God nor man can much longer keep you from the gallows; for the Devil has almost done with you, and Jack Ketch must soon get his due in choking you and your loblolly boys. So you may do your worst, for I defy you!”

The bushrangers appeared paralyzed by his indomitable boldness. At almost his first word Foxley had taken a pistol from his belt, which he deliberately cocked, and with a scornful sneer, as coolly levelled at the captive’s head, still, as it seemed, suspending his final purpose, though his brow, true index to a tragic page, grew black with the darkness of tenfold night. As for Smith and McCoy, they stood gaping at McGuffin as though they were charmed with the audacity of his defiance; but the instant he had ceased to speak, McCoy, whose face was perfectly livid with the intensity of his rage, lifted his musket and felled the prisoner to the earth with the butt end of his weapon; while a loud shriek burst from one of the girls, who dropped senseless on the floor.

Foxley sprang up and said, “Now, by all my hopes of deep and black revenge, I’m glad you knocked the bragging bully down! For I was just that instant going to shoot him, and it would have been ten thousand pities he should get such an easy death! Is he hurt much?”

This query being satisfactorily replied to, Foxley next demanded what had ailed the girl who cried out, and having elicited that she had fainted through fear at the fate she supposed intended for McGuffin, to whom she was about to be married, the heartless ruffian roared out, striking his hand with tremendous energy upon the table, “Better and better . . . Why, this is glorious. We shall have most capital sport here presently. Bring the wench to, as quick as you can.”

He paced the apartment for a few moments with hurried strides as if under the influence of some extraordinary excitement, and presently broke out again with, “McCoy, throw a bucket of water over that grovelling beast. So! That will revive him! And now, mistress, let’s have our supper directly!”

McGuffin was then bound fast to a mill post that stood on one side of the room. The bushrangers had before this secured Shanavan and his two sons by placing them back to back, next tying their arms, legs and bodies together with many cords and lastly girthing them tight up with a horse’s surcingle.

Foxley and the other two now sat down to supper in such a position that they could keep their eyes upon the prisoners. Rashleigh was also invited by the former to partake, but he declined. He in truth felt such a sensation of nausea, which arose from apprehending that perhaps a scene of worse atrocity might here be perpetrated than any he had yet witnessed, that it was quite impossible for him to swallow any food whatever; and he sat shivering with dread and longing for a means of escape, yet completely cowed and fascinated by the searching glances which Foxley directed towards him from time to time.

This ruffian compelled the girl betrothed to McGuffin to serve him with food upon her knees and to taste everything on the table prepared for their supper. He also bade her, “Remember, as nobody else but such a superfine scoundrel as McGuffin would do you for a husband, his life is now in my hands; so you’d better try to keep me in good temper.”

After supper was over the involuntary attendants were obliged to produce spirits, and Foxley, having ascertained there was very little flour in the house, directed one of the girls to fill the hopper of the steel mill with wheat. This being done, McGuffin was partially unbound and ordered by McCoy to set to work and grind the grain.

His reply was equally brief and energetic. “I’ll see you all in hell first!”

Foxley heard this, and leaping up, cried, “Oho, you mutiny, do you? I’ll see how game you are!”

And he ran to a saddle, from which he stripped the stirrup-leather. Then, pouncing upon McGuffin, he tore the shirt from his back and this being his only garment, the latter was quite naked. The bushranger then began to beat him with the buckle end of his heavy weapon. The prisoner struggled violently; yet, though he was a very powerful man, he could not loosen the ligatures with which he was tied; but from the peculiar manner in which they were secured, his efforts only served to make the rude cords cut into his flesh.

For all this, the sufferer, whose courage and fortitude appeared indomitable, instead of deprecating the barbarity of Foxley, only continued to excite him with the keenest sarcasms, such as, “Strike, scoundrel! You couldn’t knock a sprat off a gridiron. You couldn’t brush a fly off your mother’s nose!”

Although through the powerful blows inflicted by his bulky antagonist his back was sorely mangled and the blood running in a fair stream down to the ground, yet his courage quailed not, until Foxley was fairly exhausted and compelled to leave off for lack of strength.

McGuffin then roared out. “Ah, you beast. I knew from your looks you was nothing but a flogger the first time I set eyes upon you. And you can’t say ever I flogged a man myself in my life!”

Stung to the very quick by this sarcasm — for the reproach attached to the name of a flogger is synonymous with that which attends the hangman in New South Wales, both offices being there considered as being upon a par, and a man who has once borne either being scouted from society as the vilest of the human race — Foxley now threw down his implement of torture, and muttering as well as his loss of breath would permit that he would be deeply revenged on the other, left him to himself.

His eyes next rested suddenly upon the females, who had been shrieking in concert at the sight of the cruel punishment; but now, awed to silence by the brutal threats of McCoy and Smith, they sat sobbing together. The girls clung round their mother, who appeared more dead than alive; and when Foxley saw them in this posture, a thought worthy of a demon rushed into his mind.

“Ha!” he suddenly roared. “I have it!” And springing upon McGuffin’s betrothed, he tore her from the maternal embrace, and went on, “McCoy, take the other girl . . . Smith, push that old bitch into the bedroom. And mind she don’t get out again!”

In spite of the poor mother’s resistance and heart-breaking entreaties, she was forced from the apartment, when Rashleigh, whose blood began to curdle within him at the horrid anticipations he formed respecting Foxley’s purpose, jumped out of his seat and entreated that ruthless villain to be merciful for once and spare the girls, adjuring him to think of his own mother, of his sisters, and what he would think of such an outrage being offered to them. The only reply he received was, at last, as in his energy, he had laid hold of the fainting girl, hoping to prevail, a blow from the butt end of Foxley’s pistol in the centre of his forehead stretched him senseless on the floor. And alas, upon his reviving, he saw enough to convince him that the worst of crimes had been perpetrated upon the poor girls by all three of his villainous associates, one of whom shortly afterwards demanded if Rashleigh were satisfied now to mind his own business, or whether he would like to have a blue pill (bullet) to finish the sports of the night.

Ralph, almost mad, and quite sick of this wretched life, clasped his hands, saying, “Go on, shoot me! And end it at once. As well die that way as by the hangman!”

“What’s all this?” now demanded Foxley.

“Only this jackass is tired of his life,” returned Smith. “And I think ’twere a good deed to finish it for him!”

“No, no, you shan’t,” rejoined the chief. “The crawling beggar shan’t get out of our hands half so easy as that! We’ll make him wish himself dead a hundred times over before we have done with him!” And so saying, he pushed the captive to the door.

It was now dawn, and Foxley, directing Ralph to follow him, went to a neighbouring open hovel, under which there stood a horse that the bushranger made his unwilling companion prepare for riding and lead to the house. When this was done, Foxley called out to McCoy, directing him to bring out McGuffin, who accordingly made his appearance with his hands tied fast together. The chief having mounted the horse, Rashleigh was ordered to take up a huge bundle of plunder and bring it along. This he steadily refused to do, nowithstanding the blows and kicks which he received from Smith and McCoy, who at last bound the load upon his back, and he was himself then fastened to Foxley’s stirrup by his wrists.

While the bushrangers were completing this, McGuffin was left standing alone, and Rashleigh saw the unfortunate girl who was to marry him come out of the house with a knife in her hand. As quick as thought she cut the cord that bound her lover’s arms. They instantly slipped back into the dwelling, the door of which was directly shut.

This last operation, however, was not so quietly performed but that it attracted the attention of Foxley, who was before intent on directing the others how best to secure the recalcitrant Ralph; but now, turning his head, he missed McGuffin.

“Ten thousand devils seize the bloody dog, he’s gone!” yelled the astonished robber, gazing round for an instant, then digging both his heels into the flanks of his horse.

The animal, which was quite young, leaped forward in great alarm, dragging Rashleigh to the ground and pulling him on a few feet; but the horse, growing more restive, plunged, reared, and finally flung Foxley over his head, while the stirrup-leather giving way at the same moment, Ralph was freed from the furious animal, which started off at full speed. Foxley, however, regained his feet, and gazing around, saw McGuffin, who had gone through the house without stopping, and who now, in his frantic race, was nearly at the river’s bank. The three bushrangers levelled their guns, and the charges of all their muskets appeared to plough the ground on either side of McGuffin, who still ran unharmed. Foxley and McCoy started after him, Smith being left to watch our luckless adventurer, whom, tied as he was, the bushranger began to beat with the butt end of his gun, swearing that he had turned obstinate on purpose for McGuffin to escape.

In the mean time the latter had reached the stream. At the moment he plunged into it his two pursuers again discharged their pieces, which they had reloaded as they ran; but in an incredibly short space the fugitive reappeared on the opposite bank, which echoed his loud shout of defiance as he dived into a thicket that effectually concealed him from further observation.

Foxley and McCoy now returned with sullen looks and slow pace to the house, where Rashleigh and Smith still remained. They both fell upon the former and gave him a severe beating, until at last Foxley remarked, “There, blast him! I think he’s had enough now! And we must be off or we shall have all Richmond after us.”

The burden of spoil was now divided and apportioned among all the party, who began their retreat, forcing their unhappy prisoner along with many blows and oft-repeated execrations. In this guise they got to the riverside once more, and plunged among the tall reeds on its banks, through which they waded often up to their middles in mud or water, McCoy urging the adoption of this plan, as he remarked they should thus leave no trace behind, and besides, if pursued, no person would think of looking there for them.

After some hours of most fatiguing toil in this new Slough of Despond, they arrived at a large tree, which had long previously fallen into the river; but the water being shallow at this place, many of its yet undecayed limbs were still above the surface, though so much overgrown by reeds as not to be at all visible to any person from the bank, however near. This formed a welcome resting-place to the weary runaways, and to none more so than to Rashleigh, who, finding a forked limb in which he could he down without the danger of falling, stretched his bruised and toil-worn limbs upon it, and overcome by pain and fatigue, slept for some time.

His rest was perturbed by fearful dreams. He fancied himself engaged in mortal struggle with his oppressive tyrant Foxley, whom he had almost overpowered, when McCoy gripped him by the throat and presented a pistol close to his head, which at length went off, inflicting a painful wound, with the anguish of which our exile awoke to find that it was not all a dream; for Smith’s hand was really grasping his throat, while with demoniac gestures he pointed to the shore, motioning him at the same time to shift with silence and caution to a place of more secure concealment.

Rashleigh obeyed this mandate, and his new position on the log enabled him to see the high ground on the river bank, though it was next to impossible any person standing there could observe him. He could scarcely analyze his own feelings as he perceived there were a number of armed men close at hand, one of whom, mounted on horseback, he soon recognised to be McGuffin, their late prisoner. The other two he found were the sons of Shanavan. The former swearing, as they could most distinctly hear, that he saw a man down among the reeds only a few moments since, young Shanavan suggested, “If you think there’s anybody there, let’s fire down a volley or two; and it’s ten to one but among so many bullets one might tell; or if not, we might make them sing out.”

This advice being apparently considered excellent by all the others, a discharge from full twenty muskets rattled among the reeds and logs close by the party of bushrangers. Foxley was apparently struck by one of the balls, for Ralph observed him to change colour, and he seemed to stagger, as if about to fall from the cowering attitude he had assumed upon one of the limbs. But an instant removed the hope Rashleigh was forming that the wretch had at last got his deserts, for the bushranger sternly compressed his lips and tightened his grasp of the bough that upheld him.

The experiment having thus failed, the party on shore, apparently deeming that it was impossible any human beings were harboured in the suspected spot, moved slowly off, firing from time to time into the reeds as often as they saw anything to attract their attention. It was very late at night before the fugitives dared to leave their place of concealment, and when they did so, they had several miles to walk before they once more gained the cavern in which they had made their temporary abode.

There, however, they found other occupants, being no less than the three young women at whose dwelling they had so recently passed a night, and who, as it now appeared, had been waiting in this gloomy place since long ere dawn of the previous day for the return of the bushrangers from their marauding expedition. These wantons, at the instance of one of whom the nefarious excursion had at first been planned, were anxious, it seemed, until their temporary lovers should return, that they might, according to promise, share in the spoils of the ill-fated Shanavan, whose purchase of many articles of unwonted female finery, to grace his eldest daughters’ approaching nuptials with McGuffin, had led to the envy of the girls in question, to whom they had often boasted of their new acquisitions. And one of their visitors, being an old sweetheart of the bushranger McCoy, had eagerly embraced the opportunity afforded by his unexpected visit, to incite himself and Foxley to the commission of this act of violence, so that they might not only participate in the plunder, but deprive their rivals, the Shanavans, of their fine clothing.

When, therefore, the young women saw the plunderers return, and when each laid down the share of spoil he bore, requesting them to take what they thought fit, and when, beyond all, the silks, ribands, laces, etc., of which they had received such glowing descriptions from the former proprietors, were now unfolded to their longing eyes, it may be conceived that they most warmly welcomed the men who had thus risked more than life for the gratification of their own paltry vanity.

They eagerly requested to hear all about it, and when the party sat down to a meal which had been prepared by the females during the absence of their male companions in villainy, a full description of the whole affair was given by Foxley in the coarsest terms, not even excepting the disgusting details of the violation of the poor girls’ chastity, which only made these fiends in female shape laugh heartily; and one of them observed that the Shanavan girls would not hold up their heads so high any more above any other young women who were fond of sweethearting.

Rashleigh could hardly believe the evidence of his senses. These girls, so fair and yet so callous, so totally lost to all womanly pity or shame, appeared to him absolute anomalies, though he had before heard that the most sinful deeds of shame were of common occurrence among the children belonging to the lower class of settlers in that early day. The long-continued evil habits of their parents, who generally on both sides had served sentences of transportation, had rendered them quite indifferent to virtue and inured to vice. Means of instruction there were none, and the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, either at work, at their merrymakings, or bathing in the rivers, which last the heat of the climate renders indispensable, all these very early destroyed any innate principles of modesty. Still, there were many and very honourable exceptions even among the convict parents, some of whom often thought, and as often expressed their thought, that “If we have been bad all our lives, that is no reason why our children should be so too.”

Our adventurer had ample leisure, during the progress of this merry meal in the cavern, to observe the fulsome conduct of the damsels in question, who each. attached herself to one of the bushrangers as if it were a matter of course. And after supper was over, each pair retired together to their rude sleeping-places, leaving to Rashleigh, who was not now permitted to eat with his imperious tyrants, the fragments of their meal for his refreshment, and the choice of any unoccupied portion of the cavern for his repose.

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