Our next chance came through father. He was the intelligence man, and had all the news sent to him—roundabout it might be, but it always came, and was generally true; and the old man never troubled anybody twice that he couldn't believe in, great things or small. Well, word was passed about a branch bank at a place called Ballabri, where a goodish bit of gold was sent to wait the monthly escort. There was only the manager and one clerk there now, the other cove having gone away on sick leave. Towards the end of the month the bank gold was heaviest and the most notes in the safe. The smartest way would be to go into the bank just before shutting-up time—three o'clock, about—and hand a cheque over the counter. While the clerk was looking at it, out with a revolver and cover him. The rest was easy enough. A couple more walked in after, and while one jumped over the counter and bailed up the manager the other shut the door. Nothing strange about that. The door was always shut at three o'clock sharp. Nobody in town would drop to what might be going on inside till the whole thing was over, and the swag ready to be popped into a light trap and cleared off with.
That was the idea. We had plenty of time to think it over and settle it all, bit by bit, beforehand.
So one morning we started early and took the job in hand. Every little thing was looked through and talked over a week before. Father got Mr. White's buggy-horses ready and took Warrigal with him to a place where a man met him with a light four-wheeled Yankee trap and harness. Dad was dressed up to look like a back-country squatter. Lots of 'em were quite as rough-looking as he was, though they drive as good horses as any gentleman in the land. Warrigal was togged out something like a groom, with a bit of the station-hand about him. Their saddles and bridles they kept with 'em in the trap; they didn't know when they might want them. They had on their revolvers underneath their coats. We were to go round by another road and meet at the township.
Well, everything turned out first-rate. When we got to Ballabri there was father walking his horses up and down. They wanted cooling, my word. They'd come pretty smart all the way, but they were middlin' soft, being in great grass condition and not having done any work to speak of for a goodish while, and being a bit above themselves in a manner of speaking. We couldn't help laughing to see how solemn and respectable dad looked.
`My word,' said Jim, `if he ain't the dead image of old Mr. Carter, of Brahway, where we shore three years back. Just such another hard-faced, cranky-looking old chap, ain't he, Dick? I'm that proud of him I'd do anything he asked me now, blest if I wouldn't!'
`Your father's a remarkable man,' says Starlight, quite serious; `must have made his way in life if he hadn't shown such a dislike to anything on the square. If he'd started a public-house and a pound about the time he turned his mind to cattle-duffing as one of the fine arts, he'd have had a bank account by this time that would have kept him as honest as a judge. But it's the old story. I say, where are the police quarters? It's only manners to give them a call.'
We rode over to the barracks. They weren't much. A four-roomed cottage, a log lock-up with two cells, a four-stalled stable, and a horse-yard. Ballabri was a small township with a few big stations, a good many farms about it, and rather more public-houses than any other sort of buildings in it. A writing chap said once, `A large well-filled graveyard, a small church mostly locked up, six public-houses, gave the principal features of Ballabri township. The remaining ones appear to be sand, bones, and broken bottles, with a sprinkling of inebriates and blackfellows.' With all that there was a lot of business done there in a year by the stores and inns, particularly since the diggings. Whatever becomes of the money made in such places? Where does it all go to? Nobody troubles their heads about that.
A goodish lot of the first people was huddled away in the graveyard under the sand ridges. Many an old shepherd had hobbled into the Travellers' Rest with a big cheque for a fortnight's spree, and had stopped behind in the graveyard, too, for company. It was always a wonderful place for steadying lushingtons, was Ballabri.
Anyhow we rode over to the barracks because we knew the senior constable was away. We'd got up a sham horse-stealing case the day before, through some chaps there that we knew. This drawed him off about fifty mile. The constable left behind was a youngish chap, and we intended to have a bit of fun with him. So we went up to the garden-gate and called out for the officer in charge of police quite grand.
`Here I am,' says he, coming out, buttoning up his uniform coat. `Is anything the matter?'
`Oh! not much,' says I; `but there's a man sick at the Sportsman's Arms. He's down with the typhus fever or something. He's a mate of ours, and we've come from Mr. Grant's station. He wants a doctor fetched.'
`Wait a minute till I get my revolver,' says he, buttoning up his waistcoat. He was just fresh from the depôt; plucky enough, but not up to half the ways of the bush.
`You'll do very well as you are,' says Starlight, bringing out his pretty sharp, and pointing it full at his head. `You stay there till I give you leave.'
He stood there quite stunned, while Jim and I jumped off and muzzled him. He hadn't a chance, of course, with one of us on each side, and Starlight threatening to shoot him if he raised a finger.
`Let's put him in the logs,' says Jim. `My word! just for a lark; turn for turn. Fair play, young fellow. You're being "run in" yourself now. Don't make a row, and no one'll hurt you.'
The keys were hanging up inside, so we pushed him into the farthest cell and locked both doors. There were no windows, and the lock-up, like most bush ones, was built of heavy logs, just roughly squared, with the ceiling the same sort, so there wasn't much chance of his making himself heard. If any noise did come out the town people would only think it was a drunken man, and take no notice.
We lost no time then, and Starlight rode up to the bank first. It was about ten minutes to three o'clock. Jim and I popped our horses into the police stables, and put on a couple of their waterproof capes. The day was a little showery. Most of the people we heard afterwards took us for troopers from some other station on the track of bush-rangers, and not in regular uniform. It wasn't a bad joke, though, and the police got well chaffed about it.
We dodged down very careless like to the bank, and went in a minute or two after Starlight. He was waiting patiently with the cheque in his hand till some old woman got her money. She counted it, shillings, pence, and all, and then went out. The next moment Starlight pushed his cheque over. The clerk looks at it for a moment, and quick-like says, `How will you have it?'
`This way,' Starlight answered, pointing his revolver at his head, `and don't you stir or I'll shoot you before you can raise your hand.'
The manager's room was a small den at one side. They don't allow much room in country banks unless they make up their mind to go in for a regular swell building. I jumped round and took charge of the young man. Jim shut and locked the front door while Starlight knocked at the manager's room. He came out in a hurry, expecting to see one of the bank customers. When he saw Starlight's revolver, his face changed quick enough, but he made a rush to his drawer where he kept his revolver, and tried to make a fight of it, only we were too quick for him. Starlight put the muzzle of his pistol to his forehead and swore he'd blow out his brains there and then if he didn't stop quiet. We had to use the same words over and over again. Jim used to grin sometimes. They generally did the business, though, so of course he was quite helpless. We hadn't to threaten him to find the key of the safe, because it was unlocked and the key in it. He was just locking up his gold and the day's cash as we came in.
We tied him and the young fellow fast, legs and arms, and laid them down on the floor while we went through the place. There was a good lot of gold in the safe all weighed and labelled ready for the escort, which called there once a month. Bundles of notes, too; bags of sovereigns, silver, and copper. The last we didn't take. But all the rest we bundled up or put into handy boxes and bags we found there. Father had come up by this time as close as he could to the back-yard. We carried everything out and put them into his express-waggon; he shoved a rug over them and drove off, quite easy and comfortable.We locked the back door of the bank and chucked away the key, first telling the manager not to make a row for ten minutes or we might have to come back again. He was a plucky fellow, and we hadn't been rough with him. He had sense enough to see that he was overmatched, and not to fight when it was no good. I've known bankers to make a regular good fight of it, and sometimes come off best when their places was stuck up; but not when they were bested from the very start, like this one. No man could have had a show, if he was two or three men in one, at the Ballabri money-shop. We walked slap down to the hotel—then it was near the bank—and called for drinks. There weren't many people in the streets at that time in the afternoon, and the few that did notice us didn't think we were any one in particular. Since the diggings broke out all sorts of travellers a little out of the common were wandering all about the country—speculators in mines, strangers, new chums of all kinds; even the cattle-drovers and stockmen, having their pockets full of money, began to put on more side and dress in a flash way. The bush people didn't take half the notice of strangers they would have done a couple of years before.
So we had our drinks, and shouted for the landlord and the people in the bar; walked up to the police station, took out our horses, and rode quickly off, while father was nearly five miles away on a cross-road, making Mr. White's trotters do their best time, and with seven or eight thousand pounds' worth of gold and cash under the driving seat. That, I often think, was about the smartest trick we ever did. It makes me laugh when I remember how savage the senior constable was when he came home, found his sub in a cell, the manager and his clerk just untied, the bank robbed of nearly everything, and us gone hours ago, with about as much chance of catching us as a mob of wild cattle that got out of the yard the night before.
Just about dark father made the place where the man met him with the trap before. Fresh horses was put in and the man drove slap away another road. He and Warrigal mounted the two brown horses and took the stuff in saddle-bags, which they'd brought with 'em. They were back at the Hollow by daylight, and we got there about an hour afterwards. We only rode sharp for the first twenty miles or so, and took it easier afterwards.
If sticking up the Goulburn mail made a noise in the country, you may depend the Ballabri bank robbery made ten times as much. Every little newspaper and all the big ones, from one end of the colony to the other, were full of it. The robbery of a bank in broad daylight, almost in the middle of the day, close to a police station, and with people going up and down the streets, seemed too out-and-out cheeky to be believed. What was the country coming to? `It was the fault of the gold that unsettled young fellows' minds,' some said, `and took them away from honest industry.' Our minds had been unsettled long before the gold, worse luck. Some shouted for more police protection; some for vigilance committees; all bush-rangers and horse-thieves to be strung up to the next tree. The whole countryside was in an uproar, except the people at the diggings, who had most of them been in other places, and knew that, compared with them, Australia was one of the safest countries any man could live or travel in. A good deal of fun was made out of our locking up the constable in his own cell. I believe he got blown up, too, and nearly dismissed by his inspector for not having his revolver on him and ready for use. But young men that were any good were hard to get for the police just then, and his fault was passed over. It's a great wonder to me more banks were not robbed when you think of it. A couple of young fellows are sent to a country place; there's no decent buildings, or anything reasonable for them to live in, and they're expected to take care of four or five thousand pounds and a lot of gold, as if it was so many bags of potatoes. If there's police, they're half their time away. The young fellows can't be all their time in the house, and two or three determined men, whether they're bush-rangers or not, that like to black their faces, and walk in at any time that they're not expected, can sack the whole thing, and no trouble to them. I call it putting temptation in people's way, and some of the blame ought to go on the right shoulders. As I said before, the little affair made a great stir, and all the police in the country were round Ballabri for a bit, tracking and tracking till all hours, night and day; but they couldn't find out what had become of the wheel-marks, nor where our horse tracks led to. The man that owned the express waggon drove it into a scrubby bit of country and left it there; he knew too much to take it home. Then he brought away the wheels one by one on horseback, and carted the body in a long time after with a load of wool, just before a heavy rain set in and washed out every track as clean as a whistle.
Nothing in that year could keep people's thoughts long away from the diggings, which was just as well for us. Everything but the gold was forgotten after a week. If the harbour had dried up or Sydney town been buried by an earthquake, nobody would have bothered themselves about such trifles so long as the gold kept turning up hand over hand the way it did. There seemed no end to it. New diggings jumped up every day, and now another big rush broke out in Port Phillip that sent every one wilder than ever.
Starlight and us two often used to have a quiet talk about Melbourne. We all liked that side of the country; there seemed an easier chance of getting straight away from there than any part of New South Wales, where so many people knew us and everybody was on the look-out.
All kinds of things passed through our minds, but the notion we liked best was taking one of the gold ships bodily and sailing her away to a foreign port, where her name could be changed, and she never heard of again, if all went well. That would be a big touch and no mistake. Starlight, who had been at sea, and was always ready for anything out of the way and uncommon, the more dangerous the better, thought it might be done without any great risk or bother.
`A ship in harbour,' he said, `is something like the Ballabri bank. No one expects anything to happen in harbour, consequently there's no watch kept or any look-out that's worth much. Any sudden dash with a few good men and she'd be off and out to sea before any one could say "knife".'
Father didn't like this kind of talk. He was quite satisfied where we were. We were safe there, he said; and, as long as we kept our heads, no one need ever be the wiser how it was we always seemed to go through the ground and no one could follow us up. What did we fret after? Hadn't we everything we wanted in the world—plenty of good grub, the best of liquor, and the pick of the countryside for horses, besides living among our own friends and in the country we were born in, and that had the best right to keep us. If we once got among strangers and in another colony we should be `given away' by some one or other, and be sure to come to grief in the long run.
Well, we couldn't go and cut out this ship all at once, but Jim and I didn't leave go of the notion, and we had many a yarn with Starlight about it when we were by ourselves.
What made us more set upon clearing out of the country was that we were getting a good bit of money together, and of course we hadn't much chance of spending it. Every place where we'd been seen was that well watched there was no getting nigh it, and every now and then a strong mob of police, ordered down by telegraph, would muster at some particular spot where they thought there was a chance of surrounding us. However, that dodge wouldn't work. They couldn't surround the Hollow. It was too big, and the gullies between the rocks too deep. You could see across a place sometimes that you had to ride miles round to get over. Besides, no one knew there was such a place, leastways that we were there, any more than if we had been in New Zealand.