Warrigal left his horse at the edge of the timber, for fear he might want him in a hurry, I suppose. He was pretty `fly', and never threw away a chance as long as he was sober. He could drink a bit, like the rest of us, now and then—not often—but when he did it made a regular devil of him—that is, it brought the devil out that lives low down in most people's hearts. He was a worse one than usual, Jim said. He saw him once in one of his break-outs, and heard him boast of something he'd done. Jim never liked him afterwards. For the matter of that he hated Jim and me too. The only living things he cared about were Starlight and the three-cornered weed he rode, that had been a `brumbee', and wouldn't let any one touch him, much less ride him, but himself. How he used to snort if a stranger came near him! He could kick the eye out of a mosquito, and bite too, if he got the chance.
As for Warrigal, Starlight used to knock him down like a log if he didn't please him, but he never offered to turn upon him. He seemed to like it, and looked regular put out once when Starlight hurt his knuckles against his hard skull.
Us he didn't like, as I said before—why, I don't know—nor we him. Likes and dislikes are curious things. People hardly know the rights of them. But if you take a regular strong down upon a man or woman when you first see 'em it's ten to one that you'll find some day as you've good reason for it. We couldn't say what grounds we had for hating the sight of Warrigal neither, for he was as good a tracker as ever followed man or beasts. He could read all the signs of the bush like a printed book. He could ride any horse in the world, and find his way, day or night, to any place he'd ever once been to in his life.
Sometimes we should have been hard pushed when we were making across country at night only for him. Hour after hour he'd ride ahead through scrub or forest, up hill or down dale, with that brute of a horse of his—he called him `Bilbah'—ambling away, till our horses, except Rainbow, used to shake the lives out of us jogging. I believe he did it on purpose.
He was a fine shot, and could catch fish and game in all sorts of ways that came in handy when we had to keep dark. He had pluck enough, and could fight a pretty sharp battle with his fists if he wasn't overweighted. There were white men that didn't at all find him a good thing if they went to bully him. He tried it on with Jim once, but he knocked the seven senses out of him inside of three rounds, and that satisfied him. He pretended to make up, but I was always expecting him to play us some dog's trick yet. Anyway, so far he was all right, and as long as Starlight and us were mixed up together, he couldn't hurt one without the other. He came gliding up to the old hut in the dull lightby bits of moves, just as if he'd been a bush that had changed its place. We pretended to be asleep near the fire.
He peeped in through a chink. He could see us by the firelight, and didn't suppose we were watching him.
`Hullo, Warrigal!' sung out Jim suddenly, `what's up now? Some devil's work, I suppose, or you wouldn't be in it. Why don't you knock at a gentleman's door when you come a visiting?'
`Wasn't sure it was you,' he answered, showing his teeth; `it don't do to get sold. Might been troopers, for all I know.'
`Pity we wasn't,' said Jim; `I'd have the hobbles on you by this time, and you'd have got "fitted" to rights. I wish I'd gone into the police sometimes. It isn't a bad game for a chap that can ride and track, and likes a bit of rough-and-tumble now and then.'
`If I'd been a police tracker I'd have had as good a chance of nailing you, Jim Marston,' spoke up Warrigal. `Perhaps I will some day. Mr. Garton wanted me bad once, and said they'd never go agin me for old times. But that says nothin'. Starlight's out at the back and the old man, too. They want you to go to them—sharp.'
`Dunno. I was to tell you, and show the camp; and now gimme some grub, for I've had nothing since sunrise but the leg of a 'possum.'
`All right,' said Jim, putting the billy on; `here's some damper and mutton to go on with while the tea warms.'
`Wait till I hobble out Bilbah; he's as hungry as I am, and thirsty too, my word.'
`Take some out of the barrel; we shan't want it to-morrow,' said Jim.
Hungry as Warrigal was—and when he began to eat I thought he never would stop—he went and looked after his horse first, and got him a couple of buckets of water out of the cask they used to send us out every week. There was no surface water near the hut. Then he hobbled him out of a bit of old sheep-yard, and came in.
The more I know of men the more I see what curious lumps of good and bad they're made up of. People that won't stick at anything in some ways will be that soft and good-feeling in others—ten times more so than your regular good people. Any one that thinks all mankind's divided into good, bad, and middlin', and that they can draft 'em like a lot of cattle—some to one yard, some to another—don't know much. There's a mob in most towns though, I think, that wants boilin' down bad. Some day they'll do it, maybe; they'll have to when all the good country's stocked up. After Warrigal had his supper he went out again to see his horse,and then coiled himself up before the fire and wouldn't hardly say another word.
`How far was it to where Starlight was?'
`Long way. Took me all day to come.'
`Had he been there long?'
`Yes; had a camp there.'
`Anybody else with him?'
`Three more men from this side.'
`Did the old man say we were to come at once?'
`Yes, or leave it alone—which you liked.'
Then he shut his eyes, and his mouth too, and was soon as fast asleep as if he never intended to wake under a week.
`What shall we do, Jim?' I said; `go or not?'
`If you leave it to me,' says Jim, `I say, don't go. It's only some other cross cattle or horse racket. We're bound to be nobbled some day. Why not cut it now, and stick to the square thing? We couldn't do better than we're doing now. It's rather slow, but we'll have a good cheque by Christmas.'
`I'm half a mind to tell Warrigal to go back and say we're not on,' I said. `Lots of other chaps would join without making any bones about it.'
`Hoo—hoo—hoo—hoo,' sounded once more the night-bird from the black tree outside.
`D—— the bird! I believe he's the devil in the shape of a mopoke! And yet I don't like Starlight to think we're afraid. He and the old man might be in a fix and want help. Suppose we toss up?'
`All right,' says Jim, speaking rather slowly.
You couldn't tell from his face or voice how he felt about it; but I believe now—more than that, he let on once to me—that he was awfully cut up about my changing, and thought we were just in for a spell of straightforward work, and would stash the other thing for good and all.
We put the fire together. It burnt up bright for a bit. I pulled out a shilling.
`If it's head we go, Jim; if it's woman, we stay here.'
I sent up the coin; we both bent over near the fire to look at it.
The head was uppermost.
`Hoo—hoo—hoo—hoo,' came the night-bird's harsh croak.
There was a heavyish stake on that throw, if we'd only known. Only ruin—only death. Four men's lives lost, and three women made miserable for life.
Jim and I looked at one another. He smiled and opened the door.
`It's all the fault of that cursed owl, I believe,' he said; `I'll have his life if he waits till it's daylight. We must be off early and get up our horses. I know what a long day for Warrigal and that ambling three-cornered devil of his means—seventy or eighty miles, if it's a yard.'
We slept sound enough till daybreak, and could sleep then, whatever was on the card. As for Jim, he slept like a baby always once he turned in. When I woke I got up at once. It was half dark; there was a little light in the east. But Warrigal had been out before me, and was leading his horse up to the hut with the hobbles in his hand.
Our horses were not far off; one of them had a bell on. Jim had his old brown, and I had a chestnut that I thought nearly as good. We weren't likely to have anything to ride that wasn't middlin' fast and plucky. Them that overhauled us would have to ride for it. We saddled up and took our blankets and what few things we couldn't do without. The rest stopped in the hut for any one that came after us. We left our wages, too, and never asked for 'em from that day to this. A trifle like that didn't matter after what we were going in for. More's the pity.
As we moved off my horse propped once or twice, and Warrigal looked at us in a queer side sort of way and showed his teeth a bit—smile nor laugh it wasn't, only a way he had when he thought he knew more than we did.
`My word! your horse's been where the feed's good. We're goin' a good way to-day. I wonder if they'll be as flash as they are now.'
`They'll carry us wherever that three-cornered mule of yours will shuffle to to-night,' said Jim. `Never you mind about them. You ride straight, and don't get up to any monkey tricks, or, by George, I'll straighten you, so as you'll know better next time.'
`You know a lot, Jim Marston,' said the half-caste, looking at him with his long dark sleepy eyes which I always thought were like a half-roused snake's. `Never mind, you'll know more one of these days. We'd better push on.'
He went off at a hand-gallop, and then pulled back into a long darting kind of canter, which Bilbah thought was quite the thing for a journey — anyhow, he never seemed to think of stopping it—went on mile after mile as if he was not going to pull up this side of sundown. A wiry brute, always in condition, was this said Bilbah, and just at this time as hard as nails. Our horses had been doing nothing lately, and being on good young feed had, of course, got fat, and were rather soft.
After four or five miles they began to blow. We couldn't well pull up; the ground was hard in places and bad for tracking. If we went on at the pace we should cook our horses. As soon as we got into a bit of open I raced up to him.
`Now, look here, Warrigal,' I said, `you know why you're doing this, and so do I. Our horses are not up to galloping fifty or sixty miles on end just off a spell and with no work for months. If you don't pull up and go our pace I'll knock you off your horse.'
`Oh! you're riled!' he said, looking as impudent as he dared, but slackening all the same. `Pulled up before if I knowed your horses were getting baked. Thought they were up to anything, same as you and Jim.'
`So they are. You'll find that one of these days. If there's work ahead you ought to have sense enough not to knock smoke out of fresh horses before we begin.'
`All right. Plenty of work to do, my word. And Starlight said, "Tell 'em to be here to-day if they can." I know he's afraid of some one follerin' up our tracks, as it is.'
`That's all right, Warrigal; but you ride steady all the same, and don't be tearing away through thick timber, like a mallee scrubber that's got into the open and sees the devil behind him until he can get cover again. We shall be there to-night if it's not a hundred miles, and that's time enough.'
We did drop in for a long day, and no mistake. We only pulled up for a short halt in the middle, and Warrigal's cast-iron pony was off again, as if he was bound right away for the other side of the continent. However, though we were not going slow either, but kept up a reasonable fast pace, it must have been past midnight when we rode into Starlight's camp; very glad Jim and I were to see the fire—not a big one either. We had been taking it pretty easy, you see, for a month or two, and were not quite so ready for an eighty-mile ride as if we had been in something like training. The horses had had enough of it, too, though neither of them would give in, not if we'd ridden 'em twenty mile farther. As for Warrigal's Bilbah he was near as fresh as when he started, and kept tossin' his head an' amblin' and pacin' away as if he was walkin' for a wager round a ring in a show-yard.
As we rode up we could see a gunyah made out of boughs, and a longish wing of dogleg fence, made light but well put together. As soon as we got near enough a dog ran out and looked as if he was going to worry us; didn't bark either, but turned round and waited for us to get off.
`It's old Crib,' said Jim, with a big laugh; `blest if it ain't. Father's somewhere handy. They're going to take up a back block and do the thing regular: Marston, Starlight, and Company—that's the fakement. They want us out to make dams or put up a woolshed or something. I don't see why they shouldn't, as well as Crossman and Fakesley. It's six of one and half-a-dozen of the other, as far as being on the square goes. Depend upon it, dad's turned over a new leaf.'
`Do you fellows want anything to eat?' said a voice that I knew to be Starlight's. `If you do there's tea near the fire, and some grub in that flour bag. Help yourselves and hobble out your horses. We'll settle matters a bit in the morning. Your respected parent's abed in his own camp, and it's just as well not to wake him, unless you want his blessing ere you sleep.'
We went with Starlight to his gunyah. A path led through a clump of pines, so thick that a man might ride round it and never dream there was anything but more pines inside. A clear place had been made in the sandhill, and a snug crib enough rigged with saplings and a few sheets of bark. It was neat and tidy, like everything he had to do with. `I was at sea when I was young,' he once said to Jim, when he was a bit `on', `and a man learns to be neat there.' There was a big chimney outside, and a lot of leaves and rushes out of a swamp which he had made Warrigal gather.
`Put your blankets down there, boys, and turn in. You'll see how the land lies in the morning.' We didn't want asking twice, Jim's eyes were nigh shut as it was. The sun was up when we woke.
Outside the first thing we saw was father and Starlight talking. Both of these seemed a bit cranky. `It's a d—— shame,' we heard Starlight say, as he turned and walked off. `We could have done it well enough by ourselves.'
`I know what I'm about,' says father, `it's all or none. What's the use of crying after being in it up to our neck?'
`Some day you'll think different,' says Starlight, looking back at him.
I often remembered it afterwards.
`Well, lads,' says father, looking straight at us, `I wasn't sure as you'd come. Starlight has been barneying with me about sending for you. But we've got a big thing on now, and I thought you'd like to be in it.'
`We have come,' says I, pretty short. `Now we're here what's the play called, and when does the curtain rise? We're on.' I was riled, vexed at Starlight talking as if we were children, and thought I'd show as we were men, like a young fool as I was.
`All right,' says father, and he sat down on a log, and began to tell us how there was any quantity of cattle running at the back where they were camped—a good lot strayed and mixed up, from the last dry season, and had never been mustered for years. The stockmen hardly ever came out till the autumn musters. One of the chaps that was in it knew all this side and had told them. They were going to muster for a month or so, and drive the mob right through to Adelaide. Store cattle were dear then, and we could get them off easy there and come back by sea. No one was to know we were not regular overlanders; and when we'd got the notes in our pockets it would be a hard matter to trace the cattle or prove that we were the men that sold 'em.
`How many head do you expect to get?' says Jim.
`A thousand or twelve hundred; half of 'em fat, and two-thirds of them young cattle.'
`By George! that's something like a haul; but you can't muster such a lot as that without a yard.'
`I know that,' says father. `We're putting up a yard on a little plain about a mile from here. When they find it, it'll be an old nest, and the birds flown.'
`Well, if that ain't the cheekiest thing I ever heard tell of,' says I laughingly. `To put up a yard at the back of a man's run, and muster his cattle for him! I never heard the like before, nor any one else. But suppose the cove or his men come across it?'
`'Tain't no ways likely,' says father. `They're the sleepiest lot of chaps in this frontage I ever saw. It's hardly worth while "touching" them. There's no fun in it. It's like shooting pheasants when they ain't preserved. There's no risk, and when there's no risk there's no pleasure. Anyway that's my notion.'
`Talking about risks, why didn't you work that Marquis of Lorne racket better? We saw in the papers that the troopers hunted you so close you had to kill him in the ranges.'
Father looked over at us and then began to laugh—not long, and he broke off short. Laughing wasn't much in his line.
`Killed him, did we? And a horse worth nigh on to two thousand pounds. You ought to have known your old father better than that. We did kill A chestnut horse, one we picked out a purpose; white legs, white knee, short under lip, everything quite regular. We even fed him for a week on prairie grass, just like the Marquis had been eating. Bless you, we knew how to work all that. We deceived Windhall his own self, and he thinks he's pretty smart. No! the Marquis is all safe—you know where.'
I opened my eyes and stared at father.
`You've some call to crow if you can work things like that. How you ever got him away beats me; but not more than how you managed to keep him hid with a ring of troopers all round you from every side of the district.'
`We had friends,' father said. `Me and Warrigal done all the travelling by night. No one but him could have gone afoot, I believe, much less led a blood horse through the beastly scrub and ranges he showed us. But the devil himself could not beat him and that little brute Bilbah in rough country.'
`I believe you,' I said, thinking of our ride yesterday. `It's quite bad enough to follow him on level ground. But don't you think our tracks will be easy to follow with a thousand head of cattle before us? Any fool could do that.'
`It ain't that as I'm looking at,' said father; `of course an old woman could do it, and knit stockings all the time; but our dart is to be off and have a month's start before anybody knows they are off the run. They won't think of mustering before fat cattle takes a bit of a turn. That won't be for a couple of months yet. Then they may catch us if they can.'
We had a long talk with Starlight, and what he said came to much the same. One stockman they had `squared', and he was to stand in. They had got two or three flash chaps to help muster and drive, who were to swear they thought we were dealers, and had bought cattle all right. One or two more were to meet us farther on. If we could get the cattle together and clear off before anything was suspected the rest was easy. The yard was nearly up, and Jim and I wired in and soon finished it. It didn't want very grand work putting into it as long as it would last our time. So we put it up roughly, but pretty strong, with pine saplings. The drawing in was the worst, for we had to `hump' the most of them ourselves. Jim couldn't help bursting out laughing from time to time.
`It does seem such a jolly cheeky thing,' he said. `Driving off a mob of cattle on the quiet I've known happen once or twice; but I'm dashed if ever I heard tell of putting up duffing improvements of a superior class on a cove's run and clearing off with a thousand drafted cattle, all quiet and regular, and him pottering about his home-station and never "dropping" to it no more than if he was in Sydney.'
`People ought to look after their stock closer than they do,' I said. `It is their fault almost as much as ours. But they are too lazy to look after their own work, and too miserable to pay a good man to do it for them. They just get a half-and-half sort of fellow that'll take low wages and make it up with duffing, and of course he's not likely to look very sharp after the back country.'
`You're not far away,' says Jim; `but don't you think they'd have to look precious sharp and get up very early in the morning to be level with chaps like father and Starlight, let alone Warrigal, who's as good by night as day? Then there's you and me. Don't try and make us out better than we are, Dick; we're all d—— scoundrels, that's the truth of it, and honest men haven't a chance with us, except in the long run—except in the long run. That's where they'll have us, Dick Marston.'
`That's quite a long speech for you, Jim,' I said; `but it don't matter much that I know of whose fault it is that we're in this duffing racket. It seems to be our fate, as the chap says in the book. We'll have a jolly spree in Adelaide if this journey comes out right. And now let's finish this evening off. To-morrow they're going to yard the first mob.'
After that we didn't talk much except about the work. Starlight and Warrigal were out every day and all day. The three new hands were some chaps who formed part of a gang that did most of the horse-stealing in that neighbourhood, though they never showed up. The way they managed it was this. They picked up any good-looking nag or second-class racehorse that they fell across, and took them to a certain place. There they met another lot of fellows, who took the horses from them and cleared out to another colony; at the same time they left the horses they had brought. So each lot travelled different ways, and were sold in places where they were quite strange and no one was likely to claim them.
After a man had had a year or two at this kind of work, he was good, or rather bad, for anything. These young chaps, like us, had done pretty well at these games, and one of them, falling in with Starlight, had proposed to him to put up a couple of hundred head of cattle on Outer Back Momberah, as the run was called; then father and he had seen that a thousand were as easy to get as a hundred. Of course there was a risky feeling, but it wasn't such bad fun while it lasted. We were out all day running in the cattle. The horses were in good wind and condition now; we had plenty of rations—flour, tea, and sugar. There was no cart, but some good packhorses, just the same as if we were a regular station party on our own run. Father had worked all that before we came. We had the best of fresh beef and veal too—you may be sure of that—there was no stint in that line; and at night we were always sure of a yarn from Starlight—that is, if he was in a good humour. Sometimes he wasn't, and then nobody dared speak to him, not even father.
He was an astonishing man, certainly. Jim and I used to wonder, by the hour, what he'd been in the old country. He'd been all over the world—in the Islands and New Zealand; in America, and among Malays and other strange people that we'd hardly ever heard of. Such stories as he'd tell us, too, about slaves and wild chiefs that he'd lived with and gone out to fight with against their enemy. `People think a great deal of a dead man now and then in this innocent country,' he said once when the grog was uppermost; `why, I've seen fifty men killed before breakfast, and in cold blood, too, chopped up alive, or next thing to it; and a drove of slaves—men, women, and children—as big nearly as our mob, handed over to a slave-dealer, and driven off in chains just as you'd start a lot of station cattle. They didn't like it, going off their run either, poor devils. The women would try and run back after their pickaninnies when they dropped, just like that heifer when Warrigal knocked her calf on the head to-day.' What a man he was! This was something like life, Jim and I thought. When we'd sold the cattle, if we got 'em down to Adelaide all right, we'd take a voyage to some foreign country, perhaps, and see sights too. What a paltry thing working for a pound a week seemed when a rise like this was to be made!
Well, the long and short of it is that we mustered the cattle quite comfortably, nobody coming anext or anigh us any more than if we'd taken the thing by contract. You wouldn't have thought there was anybody nearer than Bathurst. Everything seemed to be in our favour. So it was, just at the start. We drafted out all the worst and weediest of the cattle, besides all the old cows, and when we counted the mob out we had nearly eleven hundred first-rate store cattle; lots of fine young bullocks and heifers, more than half fat—altogether a prime well-bred mob that no squatter or dealer could fault in any way if the price was right. We could afford to sell them for a shade under market price for cash. Ready money, of course, we were bound to have.
Just as we were starting there was a fine roan bull came running up with a small mob.
`Cut him out, and beat him back,' says father; `we don't want to be bothered with the likes of him.'
`Why, I'm dashed if that ain't Hood's imported bull,' says Billy the Boy, a Monaro native that we had with us. `I know him well. How's he come to get back? Why, the cove gave two hundred and fifty notes for him afore he left England, I've heard 'em say.'
`Bring him along,' said Starlight, who came up just then. `In for a penny, in for a pound. They'll never think of looking for him on the Coorong, and we'll be there before they miss any cattle worth talking about.'
So we took `Fifteenth Duke of Cambridge' along with us; a red roan he was, with a little white about the flank. He wasn't more than four year old. He'd been brought out from England as a yearling. How he'd worked his way out to this back part of the run, where a bull of his quality ain't often seen, nobody could say. But he was a lively active beast, and he'd got into fine hard fettle with living on saltbush, dry grass, and scrub for the last few months, so he could travel as well as the others. I took particular notice of him, from his little waxy horns to his straight locks and long square quarters. And so I'd need to—but that came after. He had only a little bit of a private brand on the shoulder. That was easily faked, and would come out quite different.