Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 27

At once there rose so wild a yell

Within that dark and narrow dell,

As all the fiends from heaven that fell

Had pealed the banner-cry of hell.

The party of convicts that had thus so far succeeded in making their escape from the limeburners consisted of six men beside Rashleigh and Roberts the steersman, whose courage, and the skill he had displayed in conducting their boat in safety through the dangers of the reef, had caused him to be much looked up to by his comrades, who seemed by general though tacit consent to consider him as their captain and leader.

Of the others, McClashin was a native of Belfast who had earned considerable ill will among the convicts because he had, in order to save his own life, prosecuted to conviction four other men some time before that had engaged with him in the commission of a robbery, when his associates in crime had been hanged upon his evidence.

Phelim Hennessy was from Tipperary, and had been transported for life to New South Wales in consequence of his having participated in the popular though anything but humane amusement common in Ireland at that time, of “carding a tithe proctor”. This man used often to boast of his achievements prior to his exile in the most exulting terms, speaking of the most sanguinary deeds with a cool gusto that showed the bloodthirsty temperament of the man. He had been violently suspected since he came to the Colony of no less thin three murders, and was at length retransported to Newcastle for a most ruffianly assault upon an overseer.

The remaining four men, whose names were Perkins, Shawl, Hanlan, and Owens, were remarkable in no way as being either better or worse than the usual run of convicts. Of course, they were common thieves, and their knack of illicit appropriation, after having caused their banishment from their native land, had at length, upon some fresh offence, conducted them to the Coal river, from whence to the limeburners the transition was very easy.

Roberts the steersman had been a Nottingham boatman. He was transported for rioting and demolition of machinery. On his arrival at Sydney he had been employed in one of the government boats, but attempting to escape from the Colony, he was retaken and sent to Newcastle for seven years.

The party continued to watch the ocean from the hill upon which they had posted themselves, as related in the last chapter, until evening; and just before it became dark they had the mortification to see the pilot-boat standing out to sea, towing after it the little vessel that had borne them in safety thus far, and upon which they had depended for aiding them to escape altogether from the Colony.

Some of the men were disposed to raise a violent outcry against our adventurer, at whose instance the plan of sinking the boat had been resorted to; but upon his asking them in a cool and contemptuous tone why they had not proposed some better method of disposing their vessel when it was spoken of first, they were silent, except Hennessy, who swore that it had been his opinion all along the best way would have been to fight a passage out of the reef, in spite of the soldiers; and even he was calmed on Roberts observing, “If you think we can beat those that are in the pilot-boat, it’s not too late to have a bellyful of fighting now. Because you may take my word for it, if we go down to the beach and show ourselves, the redcoats will come back quick enough to have a slap at us!”

As even Hennessy, in spite of his boasting, did not quite approve of this plan, no more was said about the boat, but all began to deliberate what they had better now do.

McClashin, supported by Hanlan and Hennessy, was for turning inland to the west until they gained the settled part of Hunter’s river; then, after robbing the settlers about Wallis’s Plains, that they should pursue their route southwards and join some of the other parties of bushrangers who were laying waste the country in the neighbourhood of the Hawkesbury, finishing off by seizing on some vessel from the mouth of that stream and carrying their original intention of going to Timor Coupang into effect.

Upon the other hand, our adventurer, who had acquired from past circumstances an invincible detestation of the life of a bushranger, impressed upon the minds of his present associates the great danger they would incur of apprehension by adopting the last speaker’s project; and after dwelling upon the improbability of all their present party keeping together, even if they survived the perils of so long a journey, Rashleigh proposed as the more feasible plan, that they should persevere even now in marching along the beach, whether the party in the pilot boat had discovered all their concealed stores or not. But if they found any of the tools had been left behind, he submitted they might surely be able to contrive the construction of a double canoe the first cedars they came to, when they could at once proceed on their voyage to the northward without beginning, as preparation for it, a journey of more than five hundred miles, which the course spoken of by McClashin would subject them to, but which Ralph considered as outrageously ridiculous.

All the party now wished to hear what Roberts would say, and it was obvious that he would command the majority of voices in favour of the plan he might be inclined to pursue.

They did not wait long, for he said, “Our way lies north. And if only one man will go with me, I’ll take the beach for it. But I think those that want to go any other way are fools for their pains, as they are sure to be grabbed by some means before they get half the distance that’s talked about. No, no . . . Here we are, so far on our journey. We have the sea before us, and we can’t starve while there’s a fish in it; and besides, I’ve heard there’s plenty of wrecked ships along this shore. Who knows but we may make or find a better boat than the one we’ve lost!”

This settled the question, for the men who had not offered any opinion now sided with their captain and Ralph, so that they were five to three of those who wished to turn west. And after having in vain tried to bring Roberts over to their way of thinking, McClashin and his companions were fain to submit to the majority, though they did so with a very bad grace.

They reposed on the ground they had occupied during the day, nearly eaten alive by mosquitoes, which Rashleigh had never before felt so troublesome since he had been in the Colony; and by dawn the next morning they were in motion, anxious to see whether anything had been left of all they had hidden in the sand the day before.

Upon their arrival at the beach they soon found out that all except the boat remained in statu quo, although the thicket was much trampled down; and other indications presented themselves that the soldiers had instituted a rigorous search in every spot but the right one near the place where they discovered the boat. Every man now set himself busily to work to prepare a knapsack and other conveniences for carrying provisions, etc.; all the food, their arms, the tools and a couple of sails, with a quantity of cordage, being equitably apportioned, so that each man bore a fair proportion of the public burden. The only things they did not carry with them were the water-cask and a barrel of salted meat, which they left buried in the sand, being determined if they could succeed in manufacturing a canoe within any reasonable distance, they would return to fetch these articles as supplies for their proposed voyage.

It was noon before they had completed all their preparations, so they got ready some food. After having eaten this, they departed, each man bearing a burden, besides his clothes and arms, of nearly fifty pounds weight, which made their progress necessarily slow. The nature of their path, too, which lay along the sandy beach, would have tended to fatigue men much stronger than these emaciated beings just escaped from an abode of horrors “the like of which no eye bath seen, no heart conceived, and of which no tongue can adequately tell”.

At sunset they had not gained more than six miles towards their long march, but were much inspirited by seeing on a distant hill, a very short space inland, what one or two of the men confidently declared were cedar trees; and they came to a halt, flattering themselves that perhaps one more day’s toil would place them near this timber, which they now wished most anxiously for in order that they might try their hands at the proposed experiment of canoe-making.

Just before they ceased their march, Rashleigh had placed his burden upon the ground to rearrange it, and ere he completed doing so to his satisfaction, the others had got a trifling distance ahead of him. When he was about to reassume his load, chancing to look into the bush beside the beach, he fancied he saw a native black. Upon this he gazed more steadfastly, and though the sable son of nature slunk more deeply into the covert, yet Ralph was certain of his proximity, and argued no goodwill from him, as he was so apparently unwilling to be seen.

Roberts, to whom he mentioned this circumstance, fully agreed with him as to its being a prognostication of danger, and when the arrangements were made for the night, the party camped in as open a place as they could select, where no neighbouring thicket might afford harbourage for a lurking foe. Good fires were also made, and one of the men agreed to watch for a time, when he was to be relieved by another, thus maintaining a vigilant guard throughout the hours of darkness.

Nor were these preparations needless, for long after all the band of weary fugitives, except their sentinel, were buried in slumber, the man on watch observed a number of dark bodies wriggling over the sandy spot that encompassed their temporary camp, which he at first conceived to be some kind of wild animals; but on their nearer approach the glare of the fire betrayed their real forms. They were black warriors, who, with savage treachery and cunning, hoped thus to surprise the sleeping white men; but the latter, being awakened by their fortunately vigilant guard, yet kept themselves still, by desire of Roberts, who, conceiving that in such cases as this the failure of a first attempt would be likely utterly to discomfit the savages, directed them all to “lay quiet”, only keeping their arms in readiness, and to await his signal for firing all at once, which was to be the single word “Now!”

The savages, meanwhile, had approached, in their own broken English mode of expression, “murry close up”, when all at once they halted and remained motionless on their faces, save one, who crawled a little nearer to the white men’s camp. Then, raising himself partially, he uttered a single guttural monosyllable, apparently as a token to the others that the objects of their attack were asleep; for his sooty companions, the instant after he spoke, recommenced their sinuous, crawling mode of advance, and when they had got to the burdens which each of the fugitives had borne during the day, and which now lay disposed in a circle around the white men, the sable warriors yelled simultaneously and leaped on their feet with a cry which awakened the erewhile slumbering echoes of that lone and silent beach.

At this instant Roberts gave the promised word. The flashes of his companions’ musketry and the loud cheering hurra that accompanied their discharge completely amazed the assailants, several of whom fell by the bullets of this volley; while the remainder, exchanging their barbarous note of attack for cries of surprise and affright, bounded off into the forest with the speed of their own native emblem, the fleet kangaroo. The blacks who had fallen, too much wounded to follow their example, rent the air with exclamations of pain, until Hennessy rushed upon them and battered out their brains with repeated blows from the stock of his musket.

To sleep any more during this night was of course impossible, so the fugitives sat up and passed the remaining hours of it in watching the numerous torches which, after the repulse of their sable antagonists, had appeared to illuminate the neighbouring bush, but the bearers of which took great care to keep at a respectful distance from the dreaded muskets of the white men. Towards morning the moon rose, and Roberts, with another man, scratched some holes in the sand where the advancing tide would cover them and placed the dead bodies of the fallen blacks in these rude places of sepulture, because he knew that the sight of their slaughtered companions would be sure to excite the wildest passions of revengeful fury in the breasts of their black enemies.

When daylight appeared there was no vestige of any foe to be seen around them, and the band of runaways enjoyed their morning meal in peace. They then resumed their toilsome march, which still lay along the sea-beach, and had gone about two miles from the scene of the attempted surprise when their path led them beneath some lofty cliffs that nearly overhung the shore. Rashleigh, who now chanced to be among the first of the party, proposed to the others that somebody should ascend the nearest high rock and look out in order to ascertain whether their intended line of road was clear from enemies, as he much misdoubted, from the tales he had heard of aboriginal cunning, that the blacks might be concealed in, or near, these cliffs with a design of attacking them as they should pass beneath.

This advice, however, was overruled by the majority, who seemed to think that one of the men showing himself in so conspicuous a position would most probably invite their sable foes to attack him at least, when he might be killed before his companions could come to his rescue. They therefore continued their march, only keeping as near the water’s edge as possible, by which means they were generally out of the reach of any ordinary native weapons. For the space of nearly half a mile they went on unmolested. Here the cliffs receded a little, but returned to the very brink of the ocean about a quarter of a mile farther along, the intermediate little bay being thickly strewn with rocks. The last man of the fugitive party had scarcely passed the point entering on this spot when the discordant yell of the native warriors was heard from every part of it and a host of armed blacks was seen by the terrified runaways, among whom a volley of spears was thrown by their cunning foes, who the instant they had discharged their weapons threw themselves down behind the rocky lurking-places that had at first concealed them.

The prevailing feeling among the little band of white men on this sudden attack, made when they had begun to deem the peril of the place had been passed, was undoubtedly one of fear, and those who were unwounded turned to fly by the same road they had approached this fatal spot. But this was no longer in their power. A strong party of blacks had seized that outlet, and brandishing their weapons, seemed to defy the white men, daring them to the attempt.

Roberts had fallen with a spear through his leg. Hanlan also had been struck down by a waddy. But the former now arose and breaking off the spear point that protruded behind him, dragged the remaining portion of the weapon out of his flesh, calling Out, “Don’t be afraid, my lads, we’ll beat the black vagabonds yet.”

Not a musket had yet been fired on the side of the white men, and perhaps this made their enemies fear to rise for the purpose of discharging any more spears.

Not far from where Roberts then was there stood a flat-topped rock about eight feet above the level of the beach. On this, in spite of his wound, did this brave fellow clamber and surveyed the spot around. When he had marked all the places of danger in their route, he came down again and proposed to his companions that they should fight their way through the blacks to a part where a ledge of rocks overhung considerably, beneath which, he suggested, they would be safe from all attacks save those made from the front. This being agreed to, the wounded man Hanlan was supported by another and placed in the centre. The others, four in front and three behind, began to move slowly towards the appointed place, keeping their weapons ready for instant service, and the last three walking backwards.

They had gone but a short distance when they discovered a party of about twenty blacks that lay concealed in the bed of a small torrent, and who consequently were unseen by the white men until the latter, in making for their proposed post, arrived at the brink of the declivity which crossed their way. Nor were the savages aware of the approach of their foes. But the instant the cry of one of their number gave the alarm, all his companions, starting up to their feet with a dreadful yell, rushed furiously at the fugitives, who had scarcely time to take aim when the blacks, nothing daunted by the fall of six of their number, were mixed among them, every man grappling with at least one enemy, fighting hand to hand for dear life.

The white man’s superior stamina at length prevailed. The butt ends of their heavy muskets proved much more effective weapons than the waddies of their sable antagonists, who, maugre their numbers, began to give way, thus affording time to the runaways for reloading their fire-arms, one discharge of which completely dispersed their wavering foes, who fled pell-mell to the nearest shelter of rocks, leaving thirteen of their number on the field, while of the whites, two were put hors de combat, namely Shaw, who was quite dead, and Hanlan, who in addition to the wound he had before received, had a severe contusion on the head. But now, taking advantage of the terror inspired by the late defeat of the onslaught made by the savages, the white men were enabled to gain the place of comparative security proposed by Roberts. Here they were permitted to take breath only for a short time before the blacks, working themselves into a paroxysm of fury at the sight of their slain companions, rushed among them like so many mad demons. The volley of musketry that was discharged with fearful effect into the thick of their advancing body only caused them to waver for an instant; but speedily recovering from this slight panic, they leaped upon the white men, and another arduous struggle ensued.

The fugitives, now reduced to six capable of exerting themselves, placed their backs against the rocky cliff and defended themselves with the butt ends of their guns. Rashleigh was soon busily engaged protecting himself against the attacks of four stout blackfellows, who appeared to be resolved on immolating him. Having heard that the legs of an aboriginal warrior are his most vulnerable part, he confined his blows to those limbs of his adversaries and had brought two of them down, when having in striking the last stepped a pace forward from the rock, he was seized round the body by another, who, lifting him up in his arms, was carrying him out of the throng; when our adventurer, whose hands were at liberty, dropping his musket, opened his pocket-knife and stabbed the other repeatedly until he fell, his loud and frequent yells for help being unheeded by his brethren, who were each and all too busy to lend him any aid.

To catch up his relinquished musket and rush at the backs of some of their sable opponents, who had got Roberts down, was but the work of a moment to Ralph, who plied his weapon so vigorously that his endangered companion was soon enabled to rise and give his assistance in repulsing the foe, who, now wearied with their long continued exertion, once more gave way. And finally, seeing that Roberts and Rashleigh were reloading their muskets, those of the blacks who were able to do so ran without stopping out of sight, leaving to the white men the possession of their rude fortress, which had cost them so dear to defend, Rashleigh being the only one of the fugitives that was left unwounded, while three of his companions were dead outright.

Nor had the aborigines effected this slaughter with impunity. Twenty-two of their body lay around, few of whom were killed, however, until Hennessy, the instant that he saw their assailants retreating, began to mangle the wounded wretches with his clasp-knife, as it seemed to our adventurer, needlessly prolonging their torture, until the latter and Roberts commiserated them, and put an end to their sufferings.

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