What a different feel from prison air the fresh night breeze had as we swept along a lonely outside track! The stars were out, though the sky was cloudy now and then, and the big forest trees looked strange in the broken light. It was so long since I'd seen any. I felt as if I was going to a new world. None of us spoke for a bit. Jim pulled up at a small hut by the roadside; it looked like a farm, but there was not much show of crops or anything about the place. There was a tumble-down old barn, with a strong door to it, and a padlock; it seemed the only building that there was any care taken about. A man opened the door of the hut and looked out.
`Look sharp,' says Jim. `Is the horse all right and fit?'
`Fit enough to go for the Hawkesbury Guineas. I was up and fed him three hours ago. He's——'
`Bring him out, and be hanged to you,' says Jim; `we've no time for chat.'
The man went straight to the barn, and after a minute or two brought out a horse—the same I'd ridden from Gippsland, saddled and bridled, and ready to jump out of his skin. Jim leaned forward and put something into his hand, which pleased him, for he held my rein and stirrup, and then said—
`Good luck and a long reign to you,' as we rode away.
All this time Starlight had sat on his horse in the shade of a tree a good bit away. When we started he rode alongside of us. We were soon in a pretty fair hand-gallop, and we kept it up. All our horses were good, and we bowled along as if we were going to ride for a week without stopping.
What a ride it was! It was a grand night, anyway I thought so. I blessed the stars, I know. Mile after mile, and still the horses seemed to go all the fresher the farther they went. I felt I could ride on that way for ever. As the horses pulled and snorted and snatched at their bridles I felt as happy as ever I did in my life. Mile after mile it was all the same; we could hear Rainbow snorting from time to time and see his star move as he tossed up his head. We had many a night ride after together, but that was the best. We had laid it out to make for a place we knew not so far from home. We dursn't go there straight, of course, but nigh enough to make a dart to it whenever we had word that the coast was clear.
We knew directly we were missed the whole countryside would be turned out looking for us, and that every trooper within a hundred miles would be hoping for promotion in case he was lucky enough to drop on either of the Marstons or the notorious Starlight. His name had been pretty well in every one's mouth before, and would be a little more before they were done with him.
It was too far to ride to the Hollow in a day, but Jim had got a place ready for us to keep dark in for a bit, in case we got clear off. There's never any great trouble in us chaps finding a home for a week or two, and somebody to help us on our way as long as we've the notes to chuck about. All the worse in the long run. We rode hardish (some people would have called it a hand-gallop) most of the way; up hill and down, across the rocky creeks, through thick timber. More than one river we had to swim. It was mountain water, and Starlight cursed and swore, and said he would catch his death of cold. Then we all laughed; it was the first time we'd done that since we were out. My heart was too full to talk, much less laugh, with the thought of being out of that cursed prison and on my own horse again, with the free bush breeze filling my breast, and the free forest I'd lived in all my life once more around me. I felt like a king, and as for what might come afterwards I had no more thought than a schoolboy has of his next year's lessons at the beginning of his holidays. It might come now. As I took the old horse by the head and raced him down the mountain side, I felt I was living again and might call myself a man once more.
The sun was just rising, the morning was misty and drizzling; the long sour-grass, the branches of the scrubby trees, everything we touched and saw was dripping with the night dew, as we rode up a `gap' between two stiffish hills. We had been riding all night from track to track, sometimes steering by guesswork. Jim seemed to know the country in a general way, and he told us father and he had been about there a good deal lately, cattle-dealing and so on. For the last hour or so we had been on a pretty fair beaten road, though there wasn't much traffic on it. It was one of the old mail tracks once, but new coach lines had knocked away all the traffic. Some of the old inns had been good big houses, well kept and looked after then. Now lots of them were empty, with broken windows and everything in ruins; others were just good enough to let to people who would live in them, and make a living by cultivating a bit and selling grog on the sly. Where we pulled up was one of these places, and the people were just what you might expect.
First of all there was the man of the house, Jonathan Barnes, a tall, slouching, flash-looking native; he'd been a little in the horse-racing line, a little in the prize-fighting line—enough to have his nose broken, and was fond of talking about `pugs' as he'd known intimate—a little in the farming and carrying line, a little in every line that meant a good deal of gassing, drinking, and idling, and mighty little hard work. He'd a decent, industrious little wife, about forty times too good for him, and the girls, Bella and Maddie, worked well, or else he'd have been walking about the country with a swag on his back. They kept him and the house too, like many another man, and he took all the credit of it, and ordered them about as if he'd been the best and straightest man in the land. If he made a few pounds now and then he'd drop it on a horse-race before he'd had it a week. They were glad enough to see us, anyhow, and made us comfortable, after a fashion. Jim had brought fresh clothes, and both of us had stopped on the road and rigged ourselves out, so that we didn't look so queer as men just out of the jug mostly do, with their close-shaved faces, cropped heads, and prison clothes. Starlight had brought a false moustache with him, which he stuck on, so that he looked as much like a swell as ever. Warrigal had handed him a small parcel, which he brought with him, just as we started; and, with a ring on his finger, some notes and gold in his pocket, he ate his breakfast, and chatted away with the girls as if he'd only ridden out for a day to have a look at the country.
Our horses were put in the stable and well looked to, you may be sure. The man that straps a cross cove's horse don't go short of his half-crown—two or three of them, maybe. We made a first-rate breakfast of it; what with the cold and the wet and not being used to riding lately, we were pretty hungry, and tired too. We intended to camp there that day, and be off again as soon as it was dark.
Of course we ran a bit of a risk, but not as bad as we should by riding in broad daylight. The hills on the south were wild and rangy enough, but there were all sorts of people about on their business in the daytime; and of course any of them would know with one look that three men, all on well-bred horses, riding right across country and not stopping to speak or make free with any one, were likely to be `on the cross'—all the more if the police were making particular inquiries about them. We were all armed, too, now. Jim had seen to that. If we were caught, we intended to have a flutter for it. We were not going back to Berrima if we knew it.
So we turned in, and slept as if we were never going to wake again. We'd had a glass of grog or two, nothing to hurt, though; and the food and one thing and another made us sleep like tops. Jim was to keep a good look-out, and we didn't take off our clothes. Our horses were kept saddled, too, with the bridles on their heads, and only the bits out of their mouths—we could have managed without the bits at a pinch—everything ready to be out of the house in one minute, and in saddle and off full-split the next. We were learned that trick pretty well before things came to an end.
Besides that, Jonathan kept a good look-out, too, for strangers of the wrong sort. It wasn't a bad place in that way. There was a long stony track coming down to the house, and you could see a horseman or a carriage of any kind nearly a mile off. Then, in the old times, the timber had been cleared pretty nigh all round the place, so there was no chance of any one sneaking up unknown to people. There couldn't have been a better harbour for our sort, and many a jolly spree we had there afterwards. Many a queer sight that old table in the little parlour saw years after, and the notes and gold and watches and rings and things I've seen the girls handling would have stunned you. But that was all to come.
Well, about an hour before dark Jim wakes us up, and we both felt as right as the bank. It took a good deal to knock either of us out of time in those days. I looked round for a bit and then burst out laughing.
`What's that about, Dick?' says Jim, rather serious.
`Blest if I didn't think I was in the thundering old cell again,' I said. `I could have sworn I heard the bolt snap as your foot sounded in the room.'
`Well, I hope we shan't, any of us, be shopped again for a while,' says he, rather slow like. `It's bad work, I'm afraid, and worse to come; but we're in it up to our neck and must see it out. We'll have another feed and be off at sundown. We've the devil's own ride before daylight.'
`Anybody called?' says Starlight, sauntering in, washed and dressed and comfortable-looking. `You told them we were not at home, Jim, I hope.'
Jim smiled in spite of himself, though he wasn't in a very gay humour. Poor old Jim was looking ahead a bit, I expect, and didn't see anything much to be proud of.
We had a scrumptious feed that night, beefsteaks and eggs, fresh butter and milk, things we hadn't smelt for months. Then the girls waited on us; a good-looking pair they was too, full of larks and fun of all kinds, and not very particular what sort of jokes they laughed at. They knew well enough, of course, where we'd come from, and what we laid by all day and travelled at night for; they thought none the worse of us for that, not they. They'd been bred up where they'd heard all kinds of rough talk ever since they was little kiddies, and you couldn't well put them out.
They were a bit afraid of Starlight at first, though, because they seen at once that he was a swell. Jim they knew a little of; he and father had called there a good deal the last season, and had done a little in the stock line through Jonathan Barnes. They could see I was something in the same line as Jim. So I suppose they had made it up to have a bit of fun with us that evening before we started. They came down into the parlour where our tea was, dressed out in their best and looking very grand, as I thought, particularly as we hadn't seen the sight of so much as a woman's bonnet and shawl for months and months.
`Well, Mr. Marston,' says the eldest girl, Bella, to Jim, `we didn't expect you'd travel this way with friends so soon. Why didn't you tell us, and we'd have had everything comfortable?'
`Wasn't sure about it,' says Jim, `and when you ain't it's safest to hold your tongue. There's a good many things we all do that don't want talking about.'
`I feel certain, Jim,' says Starlight, with his soft voice and pleasant smile, which no woman as I ever saw could fight against long, `that any man's secret would be safe with Miss Bella. I would trust her with my life freely—not that it's worth a great deal.'
`Oh! Captain,' says poor Bella, and she began to blush quite innocent like, `you needn't fear; there ain't a girl from Shoalhaven to Albury that would let on which way you were heading, if they were to offer her all the money in the country.'
`Not even a diamond necklace and earrings? Think of a lovely pendant, a cross all brilliants, and a brooch to match, my dear girl.'
`I wouldn't "come it", unless I could get that lovely horse of yours,' says the youngest one, Maddie; `but I'd do anything in the world to have him. He's the greatest darling I ever saw. Wouldn't he look stunning with a side-saddle? I've a great mind to "duff" him myself one of these days.'
`You shall have a ride on Rainbow next time we come,' says Starlight. `I've sworn never to give him away or sell him, that is as long as I'm alive; but I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll leave him to you in my will.'
`How do you mean?' says she, quite excited like.
`Why, if I drop one of these fine days—and it's on the cards any time—you shall have Rainbow; but, mind now, you're to promise me'—here he looked very grave—`that you'll neither sell him, nor lend him, nor give him away as long as you live.'
`Oh! you don't mean it,' says the girl, jumping up and clapping her hands; `I'd sooner have him than anything I ever saw in the world. Oh! I'll take such care of him. I'll feed him and rub him over myself; only I forgot, I'm not to have him before you're dead. It's rather rough on you, isn't it?'
`Not a bit,' says Starlight; `we must all go when our time comes. If anything happens to me soon he'll be young enough to carry you for years yet. And you'll win all the ladies' hackney prizes at the shows.'
`Oh! I couldn't take him.'
`But you must now. I've promised him to you, and though I am a—well—an indifferent character, I never go back on my word.'
`Haven't you anything to give me, Captain?' says Bella; `you're in such a generous mind.'
`I must bring you something,' says he, `next time we call. What shall it be? Now's the time to ask. I'm like the fellow in the Arabian Nights, the slave of the ring—your ring.' Here he took the girl's hand, and pretending to look at a ring she wore took it up and kissed it. It wasn't a very ugly one neither. `What will you have, Bella?'
`I'd like a watch and chain,' she said, pretending to look a little offended. `I suppose I may as well ask for a good thing at once.'
Starlight pulled out a pocket-book, and, quite solemn and regular, made a note of it.
`It's yours,' he said, `within a month. If I cannot conveniently call and present it in person, I'll send it by a sure hand, as they used to say; and now, Jim, boot and saddle.'
The horses were out by this time; the groom was walking Rainbow up and down; he'd put a regular French-polish on his coat, and the old horse was arching his neck and chawing his bit as if he thought he was going to start for the Bargo Town Plate. Jonathan himself was holding our two horses, but looking at him.
`My word!' he said, `that's a real picture of a horse; he's too good for a—well—these roads; he ought to be in Sydney carrying some swell about and never knowing what a day's hardship feels like. Isn't he a regular out-and-outer to look at? And they tell me his looks is about the worst of him. Well—here's luck!' Starlight had called for drinks all round before we started. `Here's luck to roads and coaches, and them as lives by 'em. They'll miss the old coaching system some day—mark my word. I don't hold with these railways they're talkin' about—all steam and hurry-scurry; it starves the country.'
`Quite right, Jonathan,' says Starlight, throwing his leg over Rainbow, and chucking the old groom a sovereign. `The times have never been half as good as in the old coaching days, before we ever smelt a funnel in New South Wales. But there's a coach or two left yet, isn't there? and sometimes they're worth attending to.'
He bowed and smiled to the girls, and Rainbow sailed off with his beautiful easy, springy stride. He always put me in mind of the deer I once saw at Mulgoa, near Penrith; I'd never seen any before. My word! how one of them sailed over a farmer's wheat paddock fence. He'd been in there all night, and when he saw us coming he just up and made for the fence, and flew it like a bird. I never saw any horse have the same action, only Rainbow. You couldn't tire him, and he was just the same the end of the day as the beginning. If he hadn't fallen into Starlight's hands as a colt he'd have been a second-class racehorse, and wore out his life among touts and ringmen. He was better where he was. Off we went; what a ride we had that night! Just as well we'd fed and rested before we started, else we should never have held out. All that night long we had to go, and keep going. A deal of the road was rough—near the Shoalhaven country, across awful deep gullies with a regular climb-up the other side, like the side of a house. Through dismal ironbark forests that looked as black by night as if all the tree-trunks were cast-iron and the leaves gun-metal. The night wasn't as dark as it might have been, but now and again there was a storm, and the whole sky turned as black as a wolf's throat, as father used to say. We got a few knocks and scrapes against the trees, but, partly through the horses being pretty clever in their kind of way, and having sharpish eyesight of our own, we pulled through. It's no use talking, sometimes I thought Jim must lose his way. Starlight told us he'd made up his mind that we were going round and round, and would fetch up about where we'd started from, and find the Moss Vale police waiting there for us.
`All right, Captain,' says Jim; `don't you flurry yourself. I've been along this track pretty often this last few months, and I can steer by the stars. Look at the Southern Cross there; you keep him somewhere on the right shoulder, and you'll pull up not so very far off that black range above old Rocky Flat.'
`You're not going to be so mad as to call at your own place, Jim, are you?' says he. `Goring's sure to have a greyhound or two ready to slip in case the hare makes for her old form.'
`Trust old dad for that,' says Jim; `he knows Dick and you are on the grass again. He'll meet us before we get to the place and have fresh horses. I'll bet he's got a chap or two that he can trust to smell out the traps if they are close handy the old spot. They'll be mighty clever if they get on the blind side of father.'
`Well, we must chance it, I suppose,' I said; `but we were sold once, and I've not much fancy for going back again.'
`They're all looking for you the other way this blessed minute, I'll go bail,' says Jim. `Most of the coves that bolt from Berrima takes down the southern road to get across the border into Port Philip as soon as they can work it. They always fancy they are safer there.'
`So they are in some ways; I wouldn't mind if we were back there again,' I said. `There's worse places than Melbourne; but once we get to the Hollow, and that'll be some time to-day, we may take it easy and spell for a week or two. How they'll wonder what the deuce has become of us.'
The night was long, and that cold that Jim's beard was froze as stiff as a board; but I sat on my horse, I declare to heaven, and never felt anything but pleasure and comfort to think I was loose again. You've seen a dog that's been chained up. Well, when he's let loose, don't he go chevying and racing about over everything and into everything that's next or anigh him? He'll jump into water or over a fence, and turn aside for nothing. He's mad with joy and the feeling of being off the chain; he can't hardly keep from barking till he's hoarse, and rushing through and over everything till he's winded and done up.Then he lies down with his tongue out and considers it all over.
Well a man's just like that when he's been on the chain. He mayn't jump about so much, though I've seen foreign fellows do that when their collar was unbuckled; but he feels the very same things in his heart as that dog does, you take my word for it.
So, as I said, though I was sitting on a horse all that long cold winter's night through, and had to mind my eye a bit for the road and the rocks and the hanging branches, I felt my heart swell that much and my courage rise that I didn't care whether the night was going to turn into a snowstorm like we'd been in Kiandra way, or whether we'd have a dozen rivers to swim, like the head-waters of the M`Alister, in Gippsland, as nearly drowned the pair of us. There I sat in my saddle like a man in a dream, lettin' my horse follow Jim's up hill and down dale, and half the time lettin' go his head and givin' him his own road. Everything, too, I seemed to notice and to be pleased with somehow. Sometimes it was a rock wallaby out on the feed that we'd come close on before we saw one another, and it would jump away almost under the horse's neck, taking two or three awful long springs and lighting square and level among the rocks after a drop-leap of a dozen feet, like a cat jumping out of a window. But the cat's got four legs to balance on and the kangaroo only two. How they manage it and measure the distance so well, God only knows. Then an old 'possum would sing out, or a black-furred flying squirrel—pongos, the blacks call 'em—would come sailing down from the top of an ironbark tree, with all his stern sails spread, as the sailors say, and into the branches of another, looking as big as an eagle-hawk. And then we'd come round the corner of a little creek flat and be into the middle of a mob of wild horses that had come down from the mountain to feed at night. How they'd scurry off through the scrub and up the range, where it was like the side of a house, and that full of slate-bars all upon edge that you could smell the hoofs of the brumbies as the sharp stones rasped and tore and struck sparks out of them like you do the parings in a blacksmith's shop.
Then, just as I thought daybreak was near, a great mopoke flits close over our heads without any rustling or noise, like the ghost of a bird, and begins to hoot in a big, bare, hollow tree just ahead of us. Hoo-hoo! hoo-hoo! The last time I heard it, it made me shiver a bit. Now I didn't care. I was a desperate man that had done bad things, and was likely to do worse. But I was free of the forest again, and had a good horse under me; so I laughed at the bird and rode on.