Daylight broke when we were close up to the Black Range, safe enough, a little off the line but nothing to signify. Then we hit off the track that led over the Gap and down into a little flat on a creek that ran the same way as ours did.
Jim had managed for father and Warrigal to meet us somewhere near here with fresh horses. There was an old shepherd's hut that stood by itself almost covered with marsh-mallows and nettles. As we came down the steep track a dog came up snuffing and searching about the grass and stones as if he'd lost something. It was Crib.
`Now we're getting home, Jim,' says Starlight. `It's quite a treat to see the old scamp again. Well, old man,' he says to the dog, `how's all getting on at the Hollow?' The dog came right up to Rainbow and rubbed against his fetlock, and jumped up two or three times to see if he could touch his rider. He was almost going to bark, he seemed that glad to see him and us.
Dad was sitting on a log by the hut smoking, just the same as he was before he left us last time. He was holding two fresh horses, and we were not sorry to see them. Horses are horses, and there wasn't much left in our two. We must have ridden a good eighty miles that night, and it was as bad as a hundred by daylight.
Father came a step towards us as we jumped off. By George, I was that stiff with the long ride and the cold that I nearly fell down. He'd got a bit of a fire, so we lit our pipes and had a comfortable smoke.
`Well, Dick, you're back agin, I see,' he says, pretty pleasant for him. `Glad to see you, Captain, once more. It's been lonesome work—nobody but me and Jim and Warrigal, that's like a bear with a sore head half his time. I'd a mind to roll into him once or twice, and I should too only for his being your property like.'
`Thank you, Ben, I'll knock his head off myself as soon as we get settled a bit. Warrigal's not a bad boy, but a good deal like a Rocky Mountain mule; he's no good unless he's knocked down about once a month or so, only he doesn't like any one but me to do it.'
`You'll see him about a mile on,' says father. `He told me he'd be behind the big rock where the tree grows—on the left of the road. He said he'd get you a fresh horse, so as he could take Rainbow back to the Hollow the long way round.'
Sure enough after we'd just got well on the road again Warrigal comes quietly out from behind a big granite boulder and shows himself. He was riding Bilbah, and leading a well-bred, good-looking chestnut. He was one of the young ones out of the Hollow. He'd broken him and got him quiet. I remembered when I was there first spotting him as a yearling. I knew the blaze down his face and his three white legs.
Warrigal jumps off Bilbah and throws down the bridle. Then he leads the chestnut up to where Starlight was standing smoking, and throws himself down at his feet, bursting out crying like a child. He was just like a dog that had found his master again. He kept looking up at Starlight just like a dog does, and smiling and going on just as if he never expected to see such a good thing again as long as he lived.
`Well, Warrigal,' says Starlight, very careless like, `so you've brought me a horse, I see. You've been a very good boy. Take Rainbow round the long way into the Hollow. Look after him, whatever you do, or I'll murder you. Not that he's done, or anything near it; but had enough for one ride, poor old man. Off with you!' He changed the saddle, and Warrigal hopped on to Bilbah, and led off Rainbow, who tossed his head, and trotted away as if he'd lots to spare, and hadn't had twelve hours under saddle; best part without a halt or a bait. I've seen a few good 'uns in my time, but I never saw the horse that was a patch on Rainbow, take him all round.
We pushed on again, then, for ten miles, and somewhere about eight o'clock we pulled up at home—at home. Aileen knew we were coming, and ran out to meet us. She threw her arms round me, and kissed and cried over me for ever so long before she took any notice of Starlight, who'd got down and was looking another way. `Oh! my boy, my boy,' she said, `I never thought to see you again for years. How thin you've got and pale, and strange looking. You're not like your old self at all. But you're in the bush again now, by God's blessing. We must hide you better next time. I declare I begin to feel quite wicked, and as if I could fight the police myself.'
`Well spoken, Miss Marston,' said Starlight, just lifting his hat and making a bit of a bow like, just as if she was a real lady; but he was the same to all women. He treated them all alike with the same respect of manner as if they were duchesses; young or old, gentle or simple—it made no odds to him. `We must have your assistance if we're to do any good. Though whether it wouldn't be more prudent on your part to cut us all dead, beginning with your father, I shouldn't like to say.'
Aileen looked at him, surprised and angry like for a second. Then she says—
`Captain Starlight, it's too late now; but words can never tell how I hate and despise the whole thing. My love for Dick got the better of my reason for a bit, but I could—— Why, how pale you look!'
He was growing pale, and no mistake. He had been ill for a bit before he left Berrima, though he wouldn't give in, and the ride was rather too much for him, I suppose. Anyhow, down he tumbles in a dead faint. Aileen rushed over and lifted up his head. I got some water and dabbed it over him. After a bit he came to. He raises himself on his elbows and looks at Aileen. Then he smiles quietly and says—
`I'm quite ashamed of myself. I'm growing as delicate as a young lady. I hope I haven't given you much trouble.'
When he got up and walked to the verandah he quite staggered, showing he was that weak as he could hardly walk without help.
`I shall be all right,' he said, `after a week's riding again.'
`And where are you going when you leave this place?' she asked. `Surely you and my brothers never can live in New South Wales after all that has passed.'
`We must try, at all events, Miss Marston,' Starlight answered, raising up his head and looking proud. `You will hear something of us before long.'
We made out that there was no great chance of our being run into at the old place. Father went on first with Crib. He was sure to give warning in some way, best known to father himself, if there was any one about that wasn't the right sort. So we went up and went in.
Mother was inside. I thought it was queer that she didn't come outside. She was always quick enough about that when we came home before, day or night. When I went in I could see, when she got up from her chair, that she was weak, and looked as if she'd been ill. She looked ever so much older, and her hair was a lot grayer than it used to be.
She held out her arms and clung round my neck as if I'd been raised from the dead. So I was in a kind of a way. But she didn't say much, or ask what I was going to do next. Poor soul! she knew it couldn't be much good anyway; and that if we were hunted before, we'd be worse hunted now. Those that hadn't heard of our little game with the Momberah cattle would hear of our getting out of Berrima Gaol, which wasn't done every day.
We hadn't a deal of time to spare, because we meant to start off for the Hollow that afternoon, and get there some time in the night, even if it was late. Jim and dad knew the way in almost blindfold. Once we got there we could sleep for a week if we liked, and take it easy all roads. So father told mother and Aileen straight that we'd come for a good comfortable meal and a rest, and we must be off again.
`Oh! father, can't Dick and Jim stop for a day?' cries out Aileen. `It does seem so hard when we haven't seen Dick for such a while; and he shut up too all the time.'
`D'ye want to have us all took the same as last time?' growls father. `Women's never contented as I can see. For two pins I wouldn't have brought them this way at all. I don't want to be making roads from this old crib to the Hollow, only I thought you'd like one look at Dick.'
`We must do what's best, of course,' said poor Aileen; `but it's hard—very hard on us. It's mother I'm thinking of, you know. If you knew how she always wakes u p in the night, and calls for Dick, and cries when she wakes up, you'd try to comfort her a bit more, father.'
`Comfort her!' says dad; `why, what can I do? Don't I tell you if we stay about here we're shopped as safe as anything ever was? Will that comfort her, or you either? We're safe today because I've got telegraphs on the outside that the police can't pass without ringing the bell—in a way of speaking. But you see to-morrow there'll be more than one lot here, and I want to be clean away before they come.'
`You know best,' says Aileen; `but suppose they come here to-morrow morning at daylight, as they did last time, and bring a black tracker with them, won't he be able to follow up your track when you go away to-night?'
`No, he won't; for this reason, we shall all ride different ways as soon as we leave here. A good while before we get near the place where we all meet we shall find Warrigal on the look-out. He can take the Captain in by another track, and there'll be only Jim and I and the old dog, the only three persons that'll go in the near way.'
`And when shall we see—see—any of you again?'
`Somewheres about a month, I suppose, if we've luck. There's a deal belongs to that. You'd better go and see what there is for us to eat. We've a long way and a rough way to go before we get to the Hollow.'
Aileen was off at this, and then she set to work and laid a clean tablecloth in the sitting-room and set us down our meal—breakfast, or whatever it was. It wasn't so bad—corned beef, first-rate potatoes, fresh damper, milk, butter, eggs. Tea, of course, it's the great drink in the bush; and although some doctors say it's no good, what would bushmen do without it?
We had no intention of stopping the whole night, though we were tempted to do so—to have one night's rest in the old place where we used to sleep so sound before. It was no good thinking of anything of that kind, anyhow, for a good while to come. What we'd got to do was to look out sharp and not be caught simple again like we was both last time.
After we had our tea we sat outside the verandah, and tried to make the best of it. Jim stayed inside with mother for a good while; she didn't leave her chair much now, and sat knitting by the hour together. There was a great change come over her lately. She didn't seem to be afraid of our getting caught as she used to be, nor half as glad or sorry about anything. It seemed like as if she'd made up her mind that everything was as bad as it could be, and past mending. So it was; she was right enough there. The only one who was in real good heart and spirits was Starlight. He'd come round again, and talked and rattled away, and made Aileen and Jim and me laugh, in spite of everything. He said we had all fine times before us now for a year or two, any way. That was a good long time. After that anything might happen. What it would be he neither knew nor cared. Life was made up of short bits; sometimes it was hard luck; sometimes everything went jolly and well. We'd got our liberty again, our horses, and a place to go to, where all the police in the country would never find us. He was going in for a short life and a merry one. He, for one, was tired of small adventures, and he was determined to make the name of Starlight a little more famous before very long. If Dick and Jim would take his advice—the advice of a desperate, ill-fated outcast, but still staunch to his friends—they would clear out, and leave him to sink or swim alone, or with such associates as he might pick up, whose destination would be no great matter whatever befell them. They could go into hiding for a while—make for Queensland and then go into the northern territory. There was new country enough there to hide all the fellows that were `wanted' in New South Wales.
`But why don't you take your own advice?' said Aileen, looking over at Starlight as he sat there quite careless and comfortable-looking, as if he'd no call to trouble his head about anything. `Isn't your life worth mending or saving? Why keep on this reckless miserable career which you yourself expect to end ill?'
`If you ask me, Miss Marston,' he said, `whether my life—what is left of it—is worth saving, I must distinctly answer that it is not. It is like the last coin or two in the gambler's purse, not worth troubling one's head about. It must be flung on the board with the rest. It might land a reasonable stake. But as to economising and arranging details that would surely be the greatest folly of all.'
I heard Aileen sigh to herself. She said nothing for a while; and then old Crib began to growl. He got up and walked along the track that led up the hill. Father stood up, too, and listened. We all did except Starlight, who appeared to think it was too much trouble, and never moved or seemed to notice.
Presently the dog came walking slowly back, and coiled himself up again close to Starlight, as if he had made up his mind it didn't matter. We could hear a horse coming along at a pretty good bat over the hard, rocky, gravelly road. We could tell it was a single horse, and more than that, a barefooted one, coming at a hand-gallop up hill and down dale in a careless kind of manner. This wasn't likely to be a police trooper. One man wouldn't come by himself to a place like ours at night; and no trooper, if he did come, would clatter along a hard track, making row enough to be heard more than a mile off on a quiet night.
`It's all right,' says father. `The old dog knowed him; it's Billy the Boy. There's something up.'
Just as he spoke we saw a horseman come in sight; and he rattled down the stony track as hard as he could lick. He pulled up just opposite the house, close by where we were standing. It was a boy about fifteen, dressed in a ragged pair of moleskin trousers, a good deal too large for him, but kept straight by a leather strap round the waist. An old cabbage-tree hat and a blue serge shirt made up the rest of his rig. Boots he had on, but they didn't seem to be fellows, and one rusty spur. His hair was like a hay-coloured mop, half-hanging over his eyes, which looked sharp enough to see through a gum tree and out at the other side.
He jumped down and stood before us, while his horse's flanks heaved up and down like a pair of bellows.
`Well, what's up?' says father.
`My word, governor, you was all in great luck as I come home last night, after bein' away with them cattle to pound. Bobby, he don't know a p'leeceman from a wood-an'-water joey; he'd never have dropped they was comin' here unless they'd pasted up a notice on the door.'
`How did you find out, Billy?' says father, `and when'll they be here?'
`Fust thing in the morning,' says the young wit, grinning all over his face. `Won't they be jolly well sold when they rides up and plants by the yard, same as they did last time, when they took Dick.'
`Which ones was they?' asks father, fillin' his pipe quite business-like, just as if he'd got days to spare.
`Them two fellers from Bargo; one of 'em's a new chum—got his hair cut short, just like Dick's. My word, I thought he'd been waggin' it from some o' them Gov'ment institoosh'ns. I did raly, Dick, old man.'
`You're precious free and easy, my young friend,' says Starlight, walking over. `I rather like you. You have a keen sense of humour, evidently; but can't you say how you found out that the men were her Majesty's police officers in pursuit of us?'
`You're Cap'n Starlight, I suppose,' says the youngster, looking straight and square at him, and not a bit put out. `Well, I've been pretty quick coming; thirty mile inside of three hours, I'll be bound. I heard them talking about you. It was Starlight this and Starlight that all the time I was going in and out of the room, pretending to look for something, and mother scolding me.'
`Had they their uniform on?' I asked.
`No fear. They thought we didn't tumble, I expect; but I seen their horses hung up outside, both shod all round; bits and irons bright. Stabled horses, too, I could swear. Then the youngest chap—him with the old felt hat—walked like this.'
Here he squared his shoulders, put his hands by his side, and marched up and down, looking for all the world like one of them chaps that played at soldiering in Bargo.
`There's no hiding the military air, you think, Billy?' said Starlight. `That fellow was a recruit, and had been drilled lately.'
`I d'no. Mother got 'em to stay, and began to talk quite innocent-like of the bad characters there was in the country. Ha! ha! It was as good as a play. Then they began to talk almost right out about Sergeant Goring having been away on a wrong scent, and how wild he was, and how he would be after Starlight's mob to-morrow morning at daylight, and some p'leece was to meet him near Rocky Flat. They didn't say they was the p'leece; that was about four o'clock, and getting dark.'
`How did you get the horse?' says Jim. `He's not one of yours, is he?'
`Not he,' says the boy; `I wish I had him or the likes of him. He belongs to old Driver. I was just workin' it how I'd get out and catch our old moke without these chaps being fly as I was going to talligrarph, when mother says to me—
`"Have you fetched in the black cow?"
`We ain't got no black cow, but I knowed what she meant. I says—
`"No, I couldn't find her."
`"You catch old Johnny Smoker and look for her till you do find her, if it's ten o'clock to-night," says mother, very fierce. "Your father'll give you a fine larrupin' if he comes home and there's that cow lost."
`So off I goes and mans old Johnny, and clears out straight for here. When I came to Driver's I runs his horses up into a yard nigh the angle of his outside paddock and collars this little 'oss, and lets old Johnny go in hobbles. My word, this cove can scratch!'
`So it seems,' says Starlight; `here's a sovereign for you, youngster. Keep your ears and eyes open; you'll always find that good information brings a good price. I'd advise you to keep away from Mr. Marston, sen., and people of his sort, and stick to your work, if I thought there was the least earthly chance of your doing so; but I see plainly that you're not cut out for the industrious, steady-going line.'
`Not if I know it,' said the boy; `I want to see life before I die. I'm not going to keep on milling and slaving day after day all the year round. I'll cut it next year as sure as a gun. I say, won't you let me ride a bit of the way with ye?'
`Not a yard,' says father, who was pretty cranky by this time; `you go home again and put that horse where you got him. We don't want old Driver tracking and swearing after us because you ride his horses; and keep off the road as you go back.'
Billy the Boy nodded his head, and jumping into his saddle, rode off again at much about the same pace he'd come at. He was a regular reckless young devil, as bold as a two-year-old colt in a branding-yard, that's ready to jump at anything and knock his brains out against a stockyard post, just because he's never known any real regular hurt or danger, and can't realise it. He was terrible cruel to horses, and would ruin a horse in less time than any man or boy I ever seen. I always thought from the first that he'd come to a bad end. Howsoever, he was a wonderful chap to track and ride; none could beat him at that; he was nearly as good as Warrigal in the bush. He was as cunning as a pet dingo, and would look as stupid before any one he didn't know, or thought was too respectable, as if he was half an idiot. But no one ever stirred within twenty or thirty miles of where he lived without our hearing about it. Father fished him out, having paid him pretty well for some small service, and ever after that he said he could sleep in peace.
We had the horses up, ready saddled and fed, by sundown, and as soon as the moon rose we made a start of it. I had time for a bit of a talk with Aileen about the Storefields, though I couldn't bring myself to say their names at first. I was right in thinking that Gracey had seen me led away a prisoner by the police. She came into the hut afterwards with Aileen, as soon as mother was better, and the two girls sat down beside one another and cried their eyes out, Aileen said.
George Storefield had been very good, and told Aileen that, whatever happened to us or the old man, it would make no difference to him or to his feelings towards her. She thanked him, but said she could never consent to let him disgrace himself by marrying into a family like ours. He had come over every now and then, and had seen they wanted for nothing when father and Jim were away; but she always felt her heart growing colder towards him and his prosperity while we were so low down in every way. As for Gracey, she (Aileen) believed that she was in love with me in a quiet, steady way of her own, without showing it much, but that she would be true to me, if I asked her, to the end of the world, and she was sure that she could never marry any one else as long as I lived. She was that sort of girl. So didn't I think I ought to do everything I could to get a better character, and try and be good enough for such a girl? She knew girls pretty well. She didn't think there was such another girl in the whole colony, and so on.
And when we went away where were we going to hide? I could not say about particular distances, but I told her generally that we'd keep out of harm's way, and be careful not to be caught. We might see her and mother now and then, and by bush-telegraphs and other people we could trust should be able to send news about ourselves.
`What's the Captain going to do?' she said suddenly. `He doesn't look able to bear up against hardship like the rest of you. What beautiful small hands he has, and his eyes are like sleeping fires.'
`Oh, he's a good deal stronger than he looks,' I said; `he's the smartest of the lot of us, except it is dad, and I've heard the old man say he must knock under to him. But don't you bother your head about him; he's quite able to take care of himself, and the less a girl like you thinks about a man like him the better for her.'
`Oh, nonsense,' she said, at the same time looking down in a half-confused sort of way. `I'm not likely to think about him or any one else just now; but it seems such a dreadful thing to think a man like him, so clever and daring, and so handsome and gentle in his ways, should be obliged to lead such a life, hunted from place to place like—like——'
`Like a bush-ranger, Ailie,' I said, `for that'll be the long and short of it. You may as well know it now, we're going to "turn out".'
`You don't say that, Dick,' she said. `Oh! surely you will never be so mad. Do you want to kill mother and me right out? If you do, why not take a knife or an axe and do it at once? Her you've been killing all along. As for me, I feel so miserable and degraded and despairing at times that but for her I could go and drown myself in the creek when I think of what the family is coming to.'
`What's the use of going on like that, Aileen?' I said roughly. `If we're caught now, whatever we do, great or small, we're safe for years and years in gaol. Mayn't we as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb? What odds can it make? We'll only have bolder work than duffing cattle and faking horse-brands like a lot of miserable crawlers that are not game for anything more sporting.'
`I hear, I hear,' says sister, sitting down and putting her head in her hands. `Surely the devil has power for a season to possess himself of the souls of men, and do with them what he will. I know how obstinate you are, Dick. Pray God you may not have poor Jim's blood to answer for as well as your own before all is done. Good-bye. I can't say God bless you, knowing what I do; but may He turn your heart from all wicked ways, and keep you from worse and deadlier evil than you have committed! Good-night. Why, oh why, didn't we all die when we were little children!'