Moondyne/Number 406

Some years before, the prisoner, now called Moondyne Joe, had arrived in the colony. He was a youth—little more than a boy in years. From the first day of his imprisonment he had followed one course: he was quiet, silent, patient, obedient. He broke no rules of the prison. He asked no favours. He performed all his own work, and often helped another who grumbled at his heavy task.

He was simply known to his fellow-convicts as Joe; his other name was unknown or forgotten. When the prison roll was called, he answered to No. 406.

In the first few years he had made many friends in the colony—but he had also made one enemy, and a deadly one. In the gang to which he belonged was a man named Isaac Bowman, one of those natures seemingly all evil, envious, and cruel; detested by the basest, yet self-contained, full of jibe and derision, satisfied with his own depravity, and convinced that everyone was secretly just as vile as he.

From the first, this fellow had disliked and sneered at Joe; and Joe, having long observed the man's cur-like character, had at last adopted a system of conduct toward him that saved himself annoyance, but secretly intensified the malevolence of the other. He did not avoid the fellow; but he never looked at him, saw him, spoke to him—not even answering him when he spoke, as if he had not heard him.

This treatment was observed and enjoyed by the other prisoners, and sometimes even adopted by themselves toward Bowman. At last its effect on, the evil nature was too powerful to be concealed. With the others he could return oath for oath, or jibe for jibe, and always came off pleased with himself but Joe's silent contumely stung him like a scorpion.

The convicts at length saw that Bowman, who was a man capable of any crime, held a deep hatred for Joe, and they warned him to beware. But he smiled, and went on just as before.

One morning a poor settler rode into the camp with a cry for justice and vengeance. His hut was only a few miles distant, and in his absence last night a deed of rapine and robbery had been perpetrated there—and the robber was a convict.

A search was made in the prisoner's hut, and in one of the hammocks was found some of the stolen property. The man who owned the hammock was seized and ironed, protesting his innocence. Further evidence was found against him—he had been seen returning to the camp that morning—Isaac Bowman had seen him.

Swift and summary is the dread punishment of the penal code. As the helpless wretch was dragged away, a word of mock pity followed him from Bowman. During the scene, Joe had stood in silence; but at the brutal jibe he started as if struck by a whip. He sprang on Isaac Bowman suddenly, dashed him to the ground, and, holding him there like a worm, shook from his clothing all the stolen property, except what the caitiff had concealed in his fellow's bed to insure his conviction.

Then and there the sentence was given. The villain was hauled to the triangles and flogged with embittered violence. He uttered no cry; but, as the hissing lashes swept his back, he settled a look of ghastly and mortal hatred on Joe, who stood by and counted the stripes.

But this was years ago; and Bowman had long been a free man and a settler, having served out his sentence.

At that time the laws of the Penal Colony were exceedingly cruel and unjust to the bondmen. There was in the colony a number of "free settlers" and ex-convicts who had obtained land, and these, as a class, were men who lived half by farming and half by rascality. They sold brandy to the convicts and ticket-of-leave men, and robbed them when the drugged liquor had done its work. They feared no law, for the word of a prisoner was dead in the courts.

The crying evil of the code was the power it gave these settlers to take from the prisons as many men as they chose, and work them as slaves on their clearings. While so employed, the very lives of these convicts were at the mercy of their taskmasters, who possessed over them all the power of prison officers.

A report made by an employer against a convict insured a flogging, or a number of years in the terrible chain-gang at Fremantle. The system reeked with cruelty and the blood of men. It would startle our commonplace serenity to see the record of the lives that were sacrificed to have it repealed.

Under this law, it came to Joe's turn to be sent out on probation. Application had been made for him by a farmer, whose "range" was in a remote district. Joe was a strong and willing worker, and he was glad of the change; but when he was taken to the lonely place, he could not help a shudder when he came face to face—with his new employer and master—Isaac Bowman.

There was no doubting the purpose of the villain who had now complete possession of him. He meant to drive him into rebellion—to torture him till his hate was gratified, and then to have him flogged and sent to the chain-gang; and from the first minute of his control he began to carry out his purpose.

For two years the strong man toiled like a brute at the word of his driver, returning neither scoff nor scourge.

Joe had years to serve; and he had made up his mind to serve them, and be free. He knew there was no escape—that one report from Bowman would wipe out all record of previous good conduct. He knew, too, that Bowman meant to destroy him, and he resolved to bear toil and abuse as long as he was able.

He was able longer than most men; but the cup was filled at last. The clay came when the worm turned—when the quiet, patient man blazed into dreadful passion, and, tearing the goad from the tyrant's hand, he dashed him, maimed and senseless, to the earth.

The blow given, Joe's passion calmed, and the ruin of the deed stared him in the face. There was no court of justice in which he might plead. He had neither word nor oath nor witnesses. The man might be dead; and even if he recovered, the punishment was the lash and the chain-gang, or the gallows.

Then and there, Joe struck into the bush with a resolute face, and next day the infuriate and baffled rascal, rendered ten-fold more malignant by a dreadful disfigurement, reported him to the prison as an absconder, a robber, and an attempted murderer.