He shook hands with me and dad, threw his leg over Rainbow, took Locket’s bridle as if he was going for an easy day’s ride, and cantered off.
Warrigal nodded to both of us, then brought his pack-horse up level, and followed up.
‘There goes the Captain,’ says father. ‘It’s hard to say if we’ll ever see him again. I shan’t, anyhow, nor you either, maybe. Somehow I’ve had a notion coming over me this good while as my time ain’t going to be long. It don’t make no odds, neither. Life ain’t no great chop to a man like me, not when he gets the wrong side o’ sixty, anyhow. Mine ain’t been such a bad innings, and I don’t owe much to any man. I mean as I’ve mostly been square with them that’s done me a bad turn. No man can say Ben Marston was ever back’ard in that way; and never will be, that’s more. No! them as trod on me felt my teeth some day or other. Eh, old man?’ Crib growled. He understood things regular like a Christian, that old dog did. ‘And now you’re a-goin’ off and Jim’s gone — seems only t’other day as you and he was little toddlin’ chaps, runnin’ to meet me when I come home from work, clearin’ that fust paddock, and telling me mammy had the tea ready. Perhaps I’d better ha’ stuck to the grubbin’ and clearin’ after all. It looked slow work, but it paid better than this here in the long run.’ Father turns away from me then, and walks back a step or two. Then he faces me. ‘Dash it, boy, what are ye waitin’ for? Shake hands, and tell Jim the old man han’t forgot him yet.’
It was many a day since I’d felt father’s hand in kindness; he didn’t do them sort of things. I held out mine and his fingers closed on it one minute, like a vice — blest if I didn’t expect to feel the bones grate agin one another; he was that strong he hardly knew his own strength, I believe. Then he sits down on the log by the fire. He took out his pipe, but somehow it wouldn’t light. ‘Good-bye, Crib,’ says I. The old dog looked at me for a bit, wagged his tail, and then went and sat between dad’s knees. I took my horse and rode away slowish. I felt all dead and alive like when I got near the turn in the track. I looked back and seen the dog and him just the same. I started both horses then. I never set eyes on him again. Poor old dad!
I wasn’t very gay for a bit, but I had a good horse under me, another alongside, a smartish lot of cash in notes and gold, some bank deposits too, and all the world before me. My dart now was to make my way to Willaroon and look sharp about it. My chance of getting through was none too good, but I settled to ride a deal at night and camp by day. I began to pick up my spirits after I got on the road that led up the mountain, and to look ahead to the time when I might call myself my own man again.
Next day after that I was at Willaroon. I could have got there overnight, but it looked better to camp near the place and come next morning. There I was all right. The overseer was a reasonable sort of man, and I found old George had been as good as his word, and left word if a couple of men like me and Starlight came up we were to be put on with the next mob of cattle that were going to Queensland. He did a store cattle trade with the far-out squatters that were stocking up new country in Queensland, and it paid him very well, as nearly everything did that he touched. We were to find our own horses and be paid so much a week — three pounds, I think — and so on.
As luck would have it, there was a biggish mob to start in a week, and road hands being scarce in that part the overseer was disappointed that my mate, as he called him, hadn’t come on, but I said he’d gone another track.
‘Well, he’ll hardly get such wages at any other job,’ says he, ‘and if I was Mr. Storefield I wouldn’t hire him again, not if he wanted a billet ever so bad.’
‘I don’t suppose he will,’ says I, ‘and serves him quite right too.’
I put my horses in the paddock — there was wild oats and crowsfoot knee-high in it — and helped the overseer to muster and draft. He gave me a fresh horse, of course. When he saw how handy I was in the yard he got quite shook on me, and, says he —
‘By George, you’re just the chap the boss wants to send out to some new country he’s going to take up in Queensland. What’s your name? Now I think of it he didn’t tell me.’
‘William Turner,’ says I.
‘Very well, William,’ says he, ‘you’re a dashed good man, I can see, and I wish I could pick up a few more like you. Blessed if I ever saw such a lot of duffers in my life as there are on this side. I’ve hardly seen a man come by that’s worth his grub. You couldn’t stop till the next mob starts, I suppose? I’d make it worth your while.’
‘I couldn’t well this time,’ says I; ‘my mate’s got a friend out north just from home, and we’re tied to time to meet him. But if I come back this way I’ll put in a year with you.’
‘Well, an offer’s an offer,’ says he. ‘I can’t say more, but I think you’ll do better by stopping on here.’
I got away with the cattle all right, and the drover in charge was told to do all he could for me. The overseer said I was as good as two men, and it was ‘Bill’ here and ‘William’ there all the time till we were off. I wasn’t sorry to be clear away, for of course any day a trooper might have ridden up and asked questions about the horses, that were a little too good for a working drover.
Besides, I’d had a look at the papers, and I saw that Starlight had been as good as his word, in the matter of the advertisement. Sure enough, the ‘Turon Star’ and a lot of other papers had, on the same day, received the same advertisement, with a pound note enclosed, and instructions to insert it four times.
To all whom it may concern.
The Messrs. Marston Brothers and Co., being about to leave the district, request that all accounts against them may
be sent to the Police Camp, Turon, addressed to the care of Sir Ferdinand Morringer, whose receipt will be a sufficient
For the firm,
I couldn’t have believed at first that he’d be so mad. But after a bit I saw that, like a lot of his reckless doings, it wasn’t so far out after all.
All the papers had taken it up as usual, and though some of them were pretty wild at the insult offered to the Government and so on, I could see they’d most of them come to think it was a blind of some sort, meant to cover a regular big touch that we were going in for, close by home, and wanting to throw the police off the scent once more. If we’d really wanted to make tracks, they said, this would be the last thing we’d think of doing. Bit by bit it was put about as there should be a carefully laid plot to stick up all the banks in Turon on the same day, and make a sweep of all the gold and cash.
I laughed when I saw this, because I knew that it was agreed upon between Aileen and Gracey that, about the time we were fairly started, whichever of them saw Sir Ferdinand first should allow it to be fished out of her, as a great secret, that we were working up to some tremendous big affair of this sort, and which was to put the crown on all our other doings. To make dead sure, we had sent word to Billy the Boy (and some money too) to raise a sham kind of sticking-up racket on the other side of the Turon, towards Bathurst way. He was to frighten a few small people that would be safe to talk about it, and make out that all the bush-rangers in the country were camped about there. This was the sort of work that the young villain regularly went in for and took a pleasure in, and by the way the papers put it in he had managed to frighten a lot of travellers and roadside publicans out of their senses most.
As luck would have it, Wall and Hulbert and Moran had been working up towards Mudgee lately and stuck up the mail, and as Master Billy thought it a great lark to ride about with them with a black mask on, people began to think the gangs had joined again and that some big thing, they didn’t know what, was really on the cards. So a lot of police were telegraphed for, and the Bathurst superintendent came down, all in a hurry, to the Turon, and in the papers nothing went down but telegrams and yarns about bush-rangers. They didn’t know what the country was coming to; all the sober going people wishing they’d never got an ounce of gold in Australia, and every little storekeeper along the line that had 100 Pounds in his cash-box hiding it every night and afraid of seeing us ride up every time the dogs barked.
All the time we were heading for Cunnamulla, and leaving New South Wales behind us hand over hand.
The cattle, of course, couldn’t travel very fast; ten or twelve miles a day was enough for them. I could have drowned myself in the creeks as we went crawling along sometimes, and I that impatient to get forward. Eighty miles it was from Cunnamulla to the Queensland border. Once we were over that we’d have to be arrested on warrant, and there were lots of chaps, like us, that were ‘wanted’, on the far-out north stations. Once we sighted the waters of the Warrego we should feel ourselves more than half free.
Then there was Jim, poor old Jim! He wrote to say he was just starting for Melbourne, and very queer he felt about leaving his wife and boy. Such a fine little chap as he’d grown too. He’d just got his head down, he said, and taken to the pulling (he meant working) like our old near-side poler, and he was as happy as a king, going home to Jeanie at night, and having his three pounds every Saturday. Now he was going away ever so far by land and sea, and God knows when he might see either of ’em again. If it wasn’t for the fear he had of being pitched upon by the police any day, and the long sentence he was sure to get, he’d stay where he was. He wasn’t sure whether he wouldn’t do so now.
After that Aileen had a letter, a short one, from Jeanie. Jim had gone. She had persuaded him for the sake of the boy, though both their hearts were nearly broken. She didn’t know whether she’d done right. Perhaps she never might see him again. The poor fellow had forfeited his coach fare once, and come back to stay another day with her. When he did go he looked the picture of misery, and something told her it was their last parting.
Well, we struck the river about ten miles this side of Cunnamulla, where there was a roadside inn, a small, miserable kind of place, just one of those half-shanties, half-public-houses, fit for nothing but to trap bushmen, and where the bad grog kills more men in a year than a middling break-out of fever.
Somewhere about here I expected to hear of the other two. We’d settled to meet a few miles one side or the other of the township. It didn’t much matter which. So I began to look about in case I might get word of either of ’em, even if they didn’t turn up to the time.
Somewhere about dinner time (twelve o’clock) we got the cattle on to the river and let ’em spread over the flat. Then the man in charge rode up to the inn, the Traveller’s Rest, a pretty long rest for some of ’em (as a grave here and there with four panels of shickery two-rail fence round it showed), and shouted nobblers round for us.
While we was standing up at the bar, waiting for the cove to serve it out, a flash-looking card he was, and didn’t hurry himself, up rides a tall man to the door, hangs up his horse, and walks in. He had on a regular town rig — watch and chain, leather valise, round felt hat, like a chap going to take charge of a store or something. I didn’t know him at first, but directly our eyes met I saw it was old Jim. We didn’t talk — no fear, and my boss asked him to join us, like any other stranger. Just then in comes the landlady to sharpen up the man at the bar.
‘Haven’t you served those drinks yet, Bob?’ she sings out. ‘Why, the gentlemen called for them half-an-hour ago. I never saw such a slow-going crawler as you are. You’d never have done for the Turon boys.’
We all looked at her — not a bad-looking woman she’d been once, though you could see she’d come down in the world and been knocked about a bit. Surely I knew her voice! I’d seen her before — why, of course —
She was quicker than I was.
‘Well, Dick!’ says she, pouring out all the drinks, taking the note, and rattling down the change on the counter, all in a minute, same as I’d often seen her do before, ‘this is a rough shop to meet old friends in, isn’t it? So you didn’t know me, eh? We’re both changed a bit. You look pretty fresh on it. A woman loses her looks sooner than a man when she goes to the bad. And Jim too,’ she goes on; ‘only to fancy poor old Jim turning up here too! One would think you’d put it up to meet at the township on some plant of that sort.’
It was Kate, sure enough! How in the world did ever she get here? I knew she’d left the Turon, and that old Mullockson had dropped a lot of his money in a big mining company he’d helped to float, and that never turned out gold enough to pay for the quicksilver in the first crushing. We’d heard afterwards that he’d died and she’d married again; but I never expected to see her brought down so low as this — not but what we’d known many a woman that started on the diggings with silks and satins and a big house and plate-glass windows brought down to a cotton gown and a bark shanty before half-a-dozen years were over.
Jim and I both looked queer. The men began to laugh. Any one could see we were both in a fix. Jim spoke first.
‘Are you sure you’re not making a mistake, missis?’ says he, looking at her very quiet-like. ‘Take care what you say.’
He’d better have held his tongue. I don’t know whether she really intended to give us away. I don’t think she did altogether; but with them kind of women it’s a regular toss up whether they’ll behave reasonable or not. When they’re once started, ‘specially if they think they’ve not been treated on the square, they can’t stop themselves.
‘Take care what I say!’ she breaks out, rising her voice to a scream, and looking as if she’d jump over the bar-counter and tear the eyes out of me. ‘Why should I take care? It’s you, Dick Marston, you double-faced treacherous dog that you are, that’s got a thousand pounds on your head, that has cause to care, and you, Jim Marston, that’s in the same reward, and both of you know it. Not that I’ve anything against you, Jim. You’re a man, and always was. I’ll say that for you.’
‘And you’re a woman,’ groans out poor Jim. ‘That’s the reason you can’t hold your infernal tongue, I suppose.’
Kate had let the cat out of the bag now and no mistake. You should have seen the drover and his men look at us when they found they had the famous bush-rangers among them that they’d all heard so much about this years past. Some looked pretty serious and some laughed. The drover spoke first.
‘Bush-ranger here or bush-ranger there,’ he says, ‘I’m going to lose a dashed good man among cattle; and if this chattering fool of a woman had held her tongue the pair of ye might have come on with the cattle till they were delivered. Now I’m a man short, and haven’t one as I can trust on a pinch. I don’t think any more of you, missis,’ he says, ‘for being so dashed ready to give away your friends, supposing they had been on the cross.’
But Kate didn’t hear. She had fallen down in a kind of fit, and her husband, coming in to see what the row was about, picked her up, and stood looking at us with his mouth open.
‘Look here, my man,’ says I, ‘your wife’s taken me and this gentleman,’ pointing to Jim, ‘for some people she knew before on the diggings, and seems to have got rather excited over it. If it was worth our while to stay here, we’d make her prove it. You’d better get her to lie down, and advise her, when she comes to, to hold her tongue, or you might be made to suffer by it.’
‘She’s a terror when she’s put out, and that’s God’s truth,’ says the chap; and starting to drag her over to one of the bits of back bedrooms. ‘It’s all right, I daresay. She will keep meddling with what don’t consarn her. I don’t care who yer are or what yer are. If you knowed her afore, I expect ye’ll think it best to clear while she’s unsensible like.’
‘Here’s a shout all round for these men here,’ says I, throwing a note on the bar. ‘Never mind the change. Good-bye, chaps. This gentleman and I have some business together, and there’s no bush-ranging in it, you may take my word.’
We all left then. The men went back to their cattle. Jim rode quietly along the road to Cunnamulla just like any other traveller. I went down and saddled up my horse. I’d got everything I wanted in my swag, so I’d left the other horse at Willaroon.
‘Never mind the settlement,’ says I to the drover. ‘I’ll be coming back to the station after I’ve finished my business in Queensland, and we can make up the account then.’
The overseer looked rather doubtful.
‘This seems rather mixed,’ says he. ‘Blest if I understand it. That woman at the pub seems half off her head to me. I can’t think two quiet-looking chaps like you can be the Marstons. You’ve been a thundering good road hand anyhow, and I wish you luck.’
He shook hands with me. I rode off and kept going along the road till I overtook Jim.
When I’d gone a mile or two there was Jim riding steadily along the road, looking very dull and down-like, just the way he used to do when he was studying how to get round a job of work as he wasn’t used to. He brightens up a bit when he sees me, and we both jumped off, and had a good shake-hands and a yarn. I told him about mother and Aileen, and how I’d left dad all by himself. He said Jeanie and the boy were all right, but of course he’d never heard of ’em since, and couldn’t help feeling dubersome about meeting her again, particular now this blessed woman had dropped across us, and wouldn’t keep her mouth shut.
‘As sure as we’ve had anything to do with her, bad luck’s followed up,’ says Jim; ‘I’d rather have faced a trooper than seen her face again.’
‘She can’t do much now,’ says I. ‘We’re across the border. I wonder where Starlight is — whether he’s in the township or not? As soon as we meet him we can make straight for the ship.’
‘He’s there now,’ says Jim. ‘He was at Kate’s last night.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘I heard her mutter something about it just when she went into that fit, or whatever it was. Devilment, I think. I never saw such a woman; and to think she’s my Jeanie’s sister!’
‘Never mind that, Jim. These things can’t be helped. But what did she say?’
‘Something like this: “He thought I didn’t know him, passing himself off as a gentleman. Warrigal, too. Kate Morrison’s eyes are too sharp for that, as he’ll find out.”’
‘Think she’ll give us away again, Jim?’
‘God only knows. She mightn’t this time, unless she wants to smother you altogether, and don’t mind who she hurts along with you.’
‘There’s one good thing in it,’ says I; ‘there’s no police nearer than Trielgerat, and it’s a long day’s ride to them. We made it all right before we left the Turon. All the police in the country is looking for us on the wrong road, and will be for a week or two yet.’
Then I told him about Aileen putting Sir Ferdinand on the wrong lay, and he said what a clever girl she was, and had as much pluck and sense as two or three men. ‘A deal more than we’ve ever showed, Dick,’ says he, ‘and that’s not saying much either.’
He laughed in his quiet way when he heard about Starlight’s advertisement in the ‘Turon Star’, and said it was just like him.
‘He’s a wonderful clever fellow, the Captain. I’ve often thought when I’ve been by myself in Melbourne, sitting quiet, smoking at night, and turning all these things over, that it’s a wonder he don’t shoot himself when he thinks of what he is and the man he ought to be.’
‘He’s head enough to take us safe out of this dashed old Sydney side,’ says I, ‘and land us in another country, where we’ll be free and happy in spite of all that’s come and gone. If he does that, we’ve no call to throw anything up to him.’
‘Let him do that,’ says Jim, ‘and I’ll be his servant to the day of my death. But I’m afeard it isn’t to be any more than going to heaven right off. It’s too good, somehow, to come true; and yet what a thing it is to be leading a working honest life and be afraid of no man! I was very near like that in Melbourne, Dick,’ he says; ‘you’ve no notion what a grand thing it was — when I’d done my week’s work, and used to walk about with Jeanie and her boy on Sundays, and pass the time of day with decent square coves that I knew, and never dreamed I was different; then the going home peaceful and contented to our own little cottage; I tell you, Dick, it was heaven on earth. No wonder it regular broke my heart to leave it.’
‘We’re close up to the township now,’ says I. ‘This wire fence and the painted gate ain’t more than a couple of miles off, that chap said at the inn. I wish there was a fire-stick in it, and I’d never gone inside a door of it. However, that says nothing. We’ve got to meet Starlight somehow, and there’s no use in riding in together. You go in first, and I’ll take a wheel outside the house and meet you in the road a mile or two ahead. Where’s your pistol? I must have a look at mine. I had to roll it up in my swag, and it wants loading.’
‘Mine’s a good tool,’ says Jim, bringing out a splendid-looking revolver — one of these new Dean and Adams’s. ‘I can make prime shooting at fifty yards; but I hope to God I shan’t want to use it.’
‘There’s no fear yet a bit,’ says I; ‘but it’s as well to be ready. I’ll load before we go any farther.’
I loaded and put her back in the belt. We were just going to push on when we heard the sound of galloping, and round a patch of scrub comes a horseman at full speed. When he sees us he cuts off the road and comes towards us.
There was only one horse that carried himself like that, even when he was pulling double. We spotted him the same second. Rainbow and Starlight on him! What in thunder makes him ride like that?
When he came closer we saw by his face that something was up. His eyes had the gloomy, dull fire in them that put me in mind of the first time I saw him when he came back wounded and half dead to the Hollow.
‘Don’t stop to talk, boys,’ he sings out, without stopping, ‘but ride like the devil. Head to the left. That infernal Warrigal has laid the police on your track, Dick. They were seen at Willaroon; may be up at any minute.’
‘Where’s Warrigal now?’ I said, as we all took our horses by the head and made for a patch of dark timber we could see far out on the plain.
‘He dropped when I fired at him,’ says Starlight; ‘but whether the poor beggar’s dead or not I can’t say. It isn’t my fault if he betrays any one again.’
‘How did it come out?’
‘I was tired of waiting at that confounded hotel — not a soul to speak to. I rode back as far as Kate’s, just to see if you had passed. She didn’t know me a bit.’
‘The deuce she didn’t! Why, she broke out on me and Jim. Said something about you and Warrigal too.’
‘Wonderful creatures, women,’ says he, thoughtful-like; ‘and yet I used to think I understood them. No time to do anything, though.’
‘No; the nearest police station’s a day off. I’d give a trifle to know who’s after us. How did you find out Warrigal’s doubling on me? not that it matters now; d — n him!’
‘When I talked about going back he was in a terrible fright, and raised so many objections that I saw he had some reason for it; so I made him confess.’
‘How did he do it?’
‘After we’d passed Dandaloo, and well inside the West Bogan scrubs, he picked up a blackfellow that had once been a tracker; gave him a pound to let them know at the police camp that you were making out by Willaroon.’
‘I knew he had it in for me,’ said I; ‘but I depended on his not doing anything for fear of hurting you.’
‘So I thought, too; but he expected you’d be trapped at Willaroon before there would be time for you to catch me up. If he hadn’t met that Jemmy Wardell, I daresay he wouldn’t have thought of it. When he told me I was in such an infernal rage that I fired point blank at him; didn’t wait to see whether he was dead or alive, and rode straight back here to warn you. I was just in time — eh, Jim, old man? Why, you look so respectable they’d never have known you. Why didn’t you stay where you were, James?’
‘I wish to God I had!’ says poor old Jim. ‘It’s too late to think of that now.’
We hadn’t over much time for talking, and had to range up close to do it at all at the pace we were going. We did our best, and must have ridden many a mile before dark. Then we kept going through the night. Starlight was pilot, and by the compass he carried we were keeping something in a line with the road. But we missed Warrigal in the night work, and more than once I suspected we were going round and not keeping a straight course.
We didn’t do badly after all, for we struck the main road at daylight and made out that we were thirty miles the other side of Cunnamulla, and in the right direction. The worst of it was, like all short cuts and night riding, we’d taken about twice as much out of our horses as we need have done if we’d been certain of our line.
‘This ought to be Murrynebone Creek,’ says Starlight, ‘by the look of it,’ when we came to a goodish broad bit of water. ‘The crossing place is boggy, so they told me at the hotel. We may as well pull up for a spell. We’re in Queensland now, that’s one comfort.’
It took us all we knew to get over; it was a regular quicksand. Rainbow never got flustered if he was up to his neck in a bog, but my horse got frightened and plunged, so that I had to jump off. Jim’s horse was a trifle better, but he hadn’t much to spare. We weren’t sorry to take the bridles out of their mouths and let them pick a bit on the flat when we got safe over.
We didn’t unsaddle our horses — no fear; we never did that only at night; not always then. We took the bits out of their mouths, and let them pick feed round about, with the bridle under their feet, stockhorse fashion. They were all used to it, and you’d see ’em put their foot on a rein, and take it off again, regular as if they knew all about it. We could run full pelt and catch ’em all three in a minute’s notice; old Rainbow would hold up his head when he saw Starlight coming, and wait for him to mount if there was a hundred horses galloping past. Lucky for him, he’d done it scores of times; once on his back there was no fear of any other horse overhauling him, any more than a coolie dog or a flying doe kangaroo.
Pretty well settled it came to be amongst us that we should be well into Queensland before the police were handy. Starlight and Jim were having a pitch about the best way to get aboard one of these pearling craft, and how jolly it would be. The captains didn’t care two straws what sort of passengers they took aboard so long as they had the cash and were willing to give a hand when they were wanted.
We were just walking towards the horses to make a fresh start, when Starlight puts up his hand. We all listened. There was no mistaking the sound we heard — horses at speed, and mounted men at that. We were in a sort of angle. We couldn’t make back over the infernal boggy creek we’d just passed, and they seemed to be coming on two sides at once.
‘By ——! they’re on us,’ says Starlight; and he cocks his rifle, and walks over quite cool to the old horse. ‘Our chance, boys, is to exchange shots, and ride for it. Keep cool, don’t waste your fire, and if we can drop a couple of them we may slip them yet.’
We hadn’t barely time to get to our horses, when out of the timber they came — in two lots — three on each side. Police, sure enough; and meeting us. That shook us a bit. How the devil did they get ahead of us after the pace we’d ridden the last twenty-four hours, too? When they came close we could see how it was, Sir Ferdinand and three troopers on one side; Inspector Goring, with two more, on the left; while outside, not far from the lead, rode Sir Watkin, the Braidwood black tracker — the best hand at that work in the three colonies, if you could keep him sober.
Now we could see why they took us in front. He had kept out wide when he saw the tracks were getting hot, so as to come in on the road ahead of us, and meet us full in the teeth.
He had hit it off well this time, blast him! We couldn’t make back on account of the creek, and we had double our number to fight, and good men too, before we could break through, if we could do that.
Our time was come if we hadn’t the devil’s own luck; but we had come out of as tight a place before, and might do it again.
When they were within fifty yards Sir Ferdinand calls out, ‘Surrender! It’s no use, men,’ says he; ‘I don’t want to shoot you down, but you must see you’re outnumbered. There’s no disgrace in yielding now.’
‘Come on!’ says Starlight; ‘don’t waste your breath! There’s no man here will be taken alive.’
With that, Goring lets drive and sends a bullet that close by my head I put my hand up to feel the place. All the rest bangs away, black tracker and all. I didn’t see Sir Ferdinand’s pistol smoke. He and Starlight seemed to wait. Then Jim and I fires steady. One trooper drops badly hit, and my man’s horse fell like a log and penned his rider under him, which was pretty nigh as good.
‘Steady does it,’ says Starlight, and he makes a snap shot at the tracker, and breaks his right arm.
‘Three men spoiled,’ says he; ‘one more to the good and we may charge.’
Just as he said this the trooper that was underneath the dead horse crawls from under him, the off side, and rests his rifle on his wither. Starlight had just mounted when every rifle and pistol in the two parties was fired at one volley. We had drawn closer to one another, and no one seemed to think of cover.
Rainbow rears up, gives one spring, and falls backward with a crash. I thought Starlight was crushed underneath him, shot through the neck and flank as he was, but he saved himself somehow, and stood with his hand on Rainbow’s mane, when the old horse rose again all right, head and tail well up, and as steady as a rock. The blood was pouring out of his neck, but he didn’t seem to care two straws about it. You could see his nostril spread out and his eye looking twice as big and fiery.
Starlight rests his rifle a minute on the old horse’s shoulder, and the man that had fired the shot fell over with a kick. Something hits me in the ribs like a stone, and another on the right arm, which drops down just as I was aiming at a young fellow with light hair that had ridden pretty close up, under a myall tree.
Jim and Sir Ferdinand let drive straight at one another the same minute. They both meant it this time. Sir Ferdinand’s hat turned part round on his head, but poor old Jim drops forward on his face and tears up the grass with his hands. I knew what that sign meant.
Goring rides straight at Starlight and calls on him to surrender. He had his rifle on his hip, but he never moved. There he stood, with his hand on the mane of the old horse. ‘Keep back if you’re wise, Goring,’ says he, as quiet and steady as if he’d been cattle-drafting. ‘I don’t want to have your blood on my head; but if you must ——’
Goring had taken so many men in his day that he was got over confident-like. He thought Starlight would give in at the last moment or miss him in the rush. My right arm was broken, and now that Jim was down we might both be took, which would be a great crow for the police. Anyhow, he was a man that didn’t know what fear was, and he chanced it.
Two of the other troopers fired point blank at Starlight as Goring rode at him, and both shots told. He never moved, but just lifted his rifle as the other came up at the gallop. Goring threw up his arms, and rolled off his horse a dying man.
Starlight looked at him for a minute.
‘We’re quits,’ he says; ‘it’s not once or twice either you’ve pulled trigger on me. I knew this day would come.’
Then he sinks down slowly by the side of the old horse and leans against his fore leg, Rainbow standing quite steady, only tossing his head up and down the old way. I could see, by the stain on Starlight’s mouth and the blood on his breast, he’d been shot through the lungs.
I was badly hit too, and going in the head, though I didn’t feel it so much at the time. I began to hear voices like in a dream; then my eyes darkened, and I fell like a log.
When I came to, all the men was off their horses, some round Goring — him they lifted up and propped against a tree; but he was stone dead, any one could see. Sir Ferdinand was on his knees beside Starlight, talking to him, and the other saying a word now and then, quite composed and quiet-like.
‘Close thing, Morringer, wasn’t it?’ I heard him say. ‘You were too quick for us; another day and we’d been out of reach.’
‘True enough. Horses all dead beat; couldn’t raise a remount for love or money.’
‘Well, the game’s up now, isn’t it? I’ve held some good cards too, but they never told, somehow. I’m more sorry for Jim — and — that poor girl, Aileen, than I am for myself.’
‘Don’t fret — there’s a good fellow. Fortune of war, you know. Anything else?’
Here he closed his eyes, and seemed gone; but he wakes up again, and begins in a dreamy way. His words came slowly, but his voice never altered one bit.
‘I’m sorry I fired at poor Warrigal now. No dog ever was more faithful than he has been to me all through till now; but I was vexed at his having sold Dick and poor Jim.’
‘We knew we should find you here or hereabouts without that,’ says Sir Ferdinand.
‘How was that?’
‘Two jockey-boys met you one night at Calga gate; one of them recognised Locket by the white patch on her neck. He wired to us at the next station.’
‘So you were right, after all, Dick. It was a mistake to take that mare. I’ve always been confoundedly obstinate; I admit that. Too late to think of it now, isn’t it?’
‘Anything else I can do?’ says Sir Ferdinand.
‘Give her this ring,’ he pulls it off his finger, ‘and you’ll see Maddie Barnes gets the old horse, won’t you? Poor old Rainbow! I know she’ll take care of him; and a promise is a promise.’
‘All right. He’s the property of the Government now, you know; but I’ll square it somehow. The General won’t object under the circumstances.’
Then he shuts his eyes for a bit. After a while he calls out —
‘Dick! Dick Marston.’
‘I’m here,’ says I.
‘If you ever leave this, tell Aileen that her name was the last word I spoke — the very last. She foresaw this day; she told me so. I’ve had a queer feeling too, this week back. Well, it’s over now. I don’t know that I’m sorry, except for others. I say, Morringer, do you remember the last pigeon match you and I shot in, at Hurlingham?’
‘Why, good God!’ says Sir Ferdinand, bending down, and looking into his face. ‘It can’t be; yes, by Jove, it is ——’
He spoke some name I couldn’t catch, but Starlight put a finger on his lips, and whispers —
‘You won’t tell, will you? Say you won’t?’
The other nodded.
He smiled just like his old self.
‘Poor Aileen!’ he says, quite faint. His head fell back. Starlight was dead!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48