I'd settled in my mind that it couldn't be any one else, when he sat up, yawned, and looked round as if he had not been away from the old place a week.
`Ha! Richard, here we are again! "Feeds the boar in the old frank?" The governor told me you and Jim had made back. Dreadful bore, isn't it? Just when we'd all rubbed off the rust of our bush life and were getting civilised. I feel very seriously ill-treated, I assure you. I have a great mind to apply to the Government for compensation. That's the worst of these new inspectors, they are so infernally zealous.'
`You were too many for them, it seems. I half thought you might have been nailed. How the deuce did you get the office in time?'
`The faithful Warrigal, as usual, gave me timely warning, and brought a horse, of course. He will appear on the Judgment Day leading Rainbow, I firmly believe. Why he should be so confoundedly anxious about my welfare I can't make out—I can't, really. It's his peculiar form of mania, I suppose. We all suffer from some madness or other.'
`How the blazes did he know the police were laid on to the lot of us?' I said.
`I didn't know myself that your Kate had come the double on you. I might have known she would, though. Well, it seems Warrigal took it into his semi-barbaric head to ride into Turon and loaf about, partly to see me, and partly about another matter that your father laid him on about. He was standing about near the Prospectors' Arms, late on Friday night, doing nothing and seeing everything, as usual, when he noticed Mrs. Mullockson run out of the house like a Bedlamite. "My word, that missis big one coolah!" was his expression, and made straight for the camp. Now Warrigal had seen you come out just before. He doesn't like you and Jim over much—bad taste, I tell him, on his part—but I suppose he looks upon you as belonging to the family. So he stalked the fair and furious Kate.'
`That was how it was, then?'
`Yes, much in that way. I must say, Dick, that if you are so extremely fond of—well—studying the female character, you should carry on the pursuit more discreetly. Just see what this miscalculation has cost your friends!'
`Confound her! She's a heartless wretch, and I hope she'll die in a ditch.'
`Exactly. Well, she knocked, and a constable opened the outer door.
`"I want to see Sir Ferdinand," she says.
`"He's in bed and can't be disturbed," says the bobby. "Any message I can deliver?"
`"I have important information," says she. "Rouse him up, or you'll be sorry for it."
`"Won't it do to-morrow morning?" says he.
`"No, it won't," says she, stamping her foot. "Do what I tell you, and don't stand there like a fool."
`She waited a bit. Then, Warrigal says, out came Sir Ferdinand, very polite. "What can I do for you," says he, "Mrs. Mullockson?"
`"Should you like to know where the Marstons are, Sir Ferdinand," says she, "Dick and Jim?"
`"Know? Would I not?" says he. "No end of warrants out for them; since that Ballabri Bank robbery they seem to have disappeared under ground. And that fellow Starlight, too! Most remarkable man of his day. I'd give my eyes to put the bracelets upon him."
`She whispered something into his ear.
`"Guard, turn out," he roars out first; then, dropping his voice, says out, "My dear Mrs. Mullockson" (you should hear Warrigal imitate him), "you have made my fortune—officially, I mean, of course. I shall never forget your kindness. Thanks, a thousand times."
`"Don't thank me," she says, and she burst out crying, and goes slowly back to the hotel.
`Warrigal had heard quite enough. He rips over to Daly's mob, borrows a horse, saddle, and bridle, and leads him straight down to our camp. He roused me up about one o'clock, and I could hardly make any explanation to my mates. Such stunning good fellows they were, too! I wonder whether I shall ever associate with gentlemen again? The chances are against it.
`I had all kinds of trouble to tell them I was going away with Warrigal, and yet not to tell too much.
`"What the dickens," says Clifford, "can you want, going away with this familiar of yours at this hour of the night? You're like the fellow in Scott's novel (Anne of Geierstein) that I was reading over again yesterday—the mysterious stranger that's called for at midnight by the Avenger of Blood, departs with him and is never seen more."
`"In case you never see me afterwards," I said, "we'd better say good-bye. We've been good mates and true friends, haven't we?"
`"Never better," he said. "I don't know what we shall do without you. But, of course, you're not going very far?"
`"Good-bye, in case," I said. "Anyhow, I'll write you a line, and as I shook hands with them—two regular trumps, if ever there were any in the world—I had a kind of notion I'd never see them again. Hardly think I shall, either. Sir Ferdinand surrounded the hut about an hour later, and made them come out one by one—both of them and the wages man. I daresay they were surprised.
`"Where's the fourth man, Clifford?" says Sir Ferdinand. "Just ask him to come out, will you?"
`"What, Frank Haughton?" says he.
`I heard most of this from that young devil, Billy the Boy. He saw Sir Ferdinand ride up, so he hid close by, just for the fun of hearing how he got on. He'd seen Warrigal and me ride away.
`"Frank Devil!" bangs out Sir Ferdinand, who'd begun to get his monkey up. "How should I know his infernal purser's name? No man, it seems to me, has his right name on this confounded goldfield. I mean Starlight—Starlight the cattle stealer, the mail robber, the bush-ranger, whose name is notorious over the three colonies, and New Zealand to boot—your intimate friend and partner for the last nine months!'
`"You perfectly amaze me," says Clifford. "But can't you be mistaken? Is your information to be depended upon?"
`"Mine came from a jealous woman," says Sir Ferdinand. "They may generally be depended upon for a straight tip. But we're losing time. When did he leave the claim, and which way did he go?"
`"I have no idea which way he went," says Clifford. "He did not say, but he left about an hour since."
`"On foot or on horseback?"
`"Any one with him?"
`"Yes, another horseman."
`"What was he like?"
`"Slight, dark man, youngish, good-looking."
`"Warrigal the half-caste! By George! warrants out for him also," says Sir Ferdinand. "On a good horse, of course, with an hour's start. We may give up the idea of catching him this time. Follow him up as a matter of form. Good-bye, Clifford. You'll hear news of your friend before long, or I'm much mistaken."
`"Stop, Sir Ferdinand, you must pardon me; but I don't exactly understand your tone. The man that we knew by the name of Frank Haughton may be, as you say, an escaped criminal. All I know is that he lived with us since we came here, and that no fellow could have behaved more truly like a man and a gentleman. As far as we are concerned, I have a material guarantee that he has been scrupulously honest. Do you mean to hint for one moment that we were aware of his previous history, or in any way mixed up with his acts?"
`"If I do, what then?" says Sir Ferdinand, laughing.
`"The affair is in no way ludicrous," says Clifford, very stiff and dignified. "I hold myself to have received an insult, and must ask you to refer me to a friend."
`"Do you know that I could arrest you and Hastings now and lock you up on suspicion of being concerned with him in the Ballabri Bank robbery?" says Sir Ferdinand in a stern voice. "Don't look so indignant. I only say I could. I am not going to do so, of course. As to fighting you, my dear fellow, I am perfectly at your service at all times and seasons whenever I resign my appointment as Inspector of Police for the colony of New South Wales. The Civil Service regulations do not permit of duelling at present, and I found it so deuced hard to work up to the billet that I am not going to imperil my continuance therein. After all, I had no intention of hurting your feelings, and apologise if I did. As for that rascal Starlight, he would deceive the very devil himself."
`And so Sir Ferdinand rode off.'
`How did you come; by Jonathan's?'
`We called nowhere. Warrigal, as usual, made a short cut of his own across the bush—scrubs, gullies, mountains, all manner of desert paths. We made the Hollow yesterday afternoon, and went to sleep in a nook known to us of old. We dropped in to breakfast here at daylight, and I felt sleepy enough for another snooze.'
`We're all here again, it seems,' I said, sour enough. `I suppose we'll have to go on the old lay; they won't let us alone when we're doing fair work and behaving ourselves like men. They must take the consequences, d—n them!'
`Ha! very true,' says Starlight in his dreamy kind of way. `Most true, Richard. Society should make a truce occasionally, or proclaim an amnesty with offenders of our stamp. It would pay better than driving us to desperation. How is Jim? He's worse off than either of us, poor fellow.'
`Jim's very bad. He can't get over being away from Jeanie. I never saw him so down in the mouth this years.'
`Poor old Jim, he's a deal too good for the place. Sad mistake this getting married. People should either keep straight or have no relatives to bear the brunt of their villainies. "But, soft," as they say in the play, "where am I?" I thought I was a virtuous miner again. Here we are at this devil-discovered, demon-haunted old Hollow again—first cousin to the pit of Acheron. There's no help for it, Dick. We must play our parts gallantly, as demons of this lower world, or get hissed off the stage.'
We didn't do much for a few days, you may be sure. There was nothing to do, for one thing; and we hadn't made up our mind what our line was to be. One thing was certain: there would be more row made about us than ever. We should have all the police in the country worried and barked at by the press, the people, the Government, and their superior officers till they got something to show about us. Living at the diggings under the nose of the police, without their having the least suspicion who we were, was bad enough; but the rescue of Jim and the shooting of a policeman in charge of him was more serious—the worst thing that had happened yet.
There would be the devil to pay if they couldn't find a track of us. No doubt money would be spent like water in bribing any one who might give information about us. Every one would be tried that we had ever been known to be friendly with. A special body of men could be told off to make a dart to any spot they might get wind of near where we had been last seen.
We had long talks and barneys over the whole thing—sometimes by ourselves with Starlight, sometimes with father. A long time it was before we settled upon any regular put-up bit of work to do.
Sooner or later we began to see the secret of the Hollow would be found out. There was no great chance in the old times with only a few shepherds and stock-riders wandering through the bush, once in a way straggling over the country. But now the whole colony swarmed with miners, who were always prospecting, as they called it—that is, looking out for fresh patches of gold. Now, small parties of these men—bold, hardy, experienced chaps—would take a pick and shovel, a bucket, and a tin dish, with a few weeks' rations, and scour the whole countryside. They would try every creek, gully, hillside, and river bed. If they found the colour of gold, the least trace of it in a dish of wash-dirt, they would at once settle down themselves. If it went rich the news would soon spread, and a thousand men might be gathered in one spot—the bank of a small creek, the side of a steep range—within a fortnight, with ten thousand more sure to follow within a month.
That might happen at any time on one of the spurs of Nulla Mountain; and the finding out of the track down to the Hollow by some one of the dozens of rambling, shooting, fishing diggers would be as certain to happen as the sun to rise.
Well, the country had changed, and we were bound to change with it. We couldn't stop boxed up in the Hollow day after day, and month after month, shooting and horse-breaking, doing nothing and earning nothing.
If we went outside there were ten times more men looking out for us than ever, ten times more chance of our being tracked or run down than ever. That we knew from the newspapers. How did we see them? Oh, the old way. We sent out our scout, Warrigal, and he got our letters and papers too, from a `sure hand', as Starlight said the old people in the English wars used to say.
The papers were something to see. First he brought us in a handbill that was posted in Bargo, like this: —
FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS REWARD.
The above reward will be paid to any one giving information as to the whereabouts of Richard Marston, James Marston, and a man whose name is unknown, but who can be identified chiefly by the appellation of Starlight.
`Pleasing way of drawing attention to a gentleman's private residence,' says Starlight, smiling first and looking rather grim afterwards. `Never mind, boys, they'll increase that reward yet, by Jove! It will have to be a thousand a piece if they don't look a little sharper.'
We laughed, and dad growled out —
`Don't seem to have the pluck, any on ye, to tackle a big touch again. I expect they'll send a summons for us next, and get old Bill Barkis, the bailiff at Bargo, to serve it.'
`Come, come, governor,' says Starlight, `none of that. We've got quite enough devil in us yet, without your stirring him up. You must give us time, you know. Let's see what this paper says. Turon Star! What a godsend to it!
`STARLIGHT AND THE MARSTONS AGAIN.
`The announcement will strike our readers, if not with the most profound astonishment, certainly with considerable surprise, that these celebrated desperadoes, for whose apprehension such large sums have been offered, for whom the police in all the colonies have made such unremitting search, should have been discovered in our midst. Yet such is the case. On this very morning, from information received, our respected and efficient Inspector of Police, Sir Ferdinand Morringer, proceeded soon after midnight to the camp of Messrs. Clifford and Hastings. He had every reason to believe that he would have had no difficulty in arresting the famous Starlight, who, under the cognomen of the Honourable Frank Haughton, has been for months a partner in this claim. The shareholders were popularly known as "the three Honourables", it being rumoured that both Mr. Clifford and Mr. Hastings were entitled to that prefix, if not to a more exalted one.
`With characteristic celerity, however, the famous outlaw had shortly before quitted the place, having received warning and been provided with a fast horse by his singular retainer, Warrigal, a half-caste native of the colony, who is said to be devotedly attached to him, and who has been seen from time to time on the Turon.
`Of the Marston brothers, the elder one, Richard, would seem to have been similarly apprised, but James Marston was arrested in his cottage in Specimen Gully. Having been lately married, he was apparently unwilling to leave his home, and lingered too long for prudence.
`While rejoicing, as must all good citizens, at the discovery of evil-doers and the capture of one member of a band of notorious criminals, we must state in fairness and candour that their conduct has been, while on the field as miners, free from reproach in every way. For James Marston, who was married but a short while since to a Melbourne young lady of high personal attractions and the most winning amiability, great sympathy has been expressed by all classes.
So much for the Star. Everybody is sorry for you, old man,' he says to Jim. `I shouldn't wonder if they'd make you a beak if you'd stayed there long enough. I'm afraid Dick's dropping the policeman won't add to our popularity, though.'
`He's all right,' I said. `Hurrah! look here. I'm glad I didn't finish the poor beggar. Listen to this, from the Turon Banner:—
`The good old days have apparently not passed away for ever, when mail robberies and hand-to-hand conflicts with armed robbers were matters of weekly occurrence. The comparative lull observable in such exciting occurrences of late has been proved to be but the ominous hush of the elements that precedes the tempest. Within the last few days the mining community has been startled by the discovery of the notorious gang of bush-rangers, Starlight and the Marstons, domiciled in the very heart of the diggings, attired as ordinary miners, and—for their own purposes possibly—leading the laborious lives proper to the avocation. They have been fairly successful, and as miners, it is said, have shown themselves to be manly and fair-dealing men. We are not among those who care to judge their fellow-men harshly. It may be that they had resolved to forsake the criminal practices which had rendered them so unhappily celebrated. James Marston had recently married a young person of most respectable family and prepossessing appearance. As far as may be inferred from this step and his subsequent conduct, he had cut loose from his former habitudes. He, with his brother, Richard Marston, worked an adjoining claim to the Arizona Sluicing Company, with the respected shareholders of which they were on terms of intimacy. The well-known Starlight, as Mr. Frank Haughton, became partner and tent-mate with the Hon. Mr. Clifford and Mr. Hastings, an aristocratic society in which the manners and bearing of this extraordinary man permitted him to mingle without suspicion of detection.
`Suddenly information was furnished to the police respecting all three men. We are not at present aware of the source from which the clue was obtained. Suffice it to say that Sir Ferdinand Morringer promptly arranged for the simultaneous action of three parties of police with the hope of capturing all three outlaws. But in two cases the birds were flown. Starlight's, a half-caste named Warrigal, had been observed on the field the day before. By him he was doubtless furnished with a warning, and the horse upon which he left his abode shortly before the arrival of Sir Ferdinand. The elder Marston had also eluded the police. But James Marston, hindered possibly by domestic ties, was captured at his cottage at Specimen Gully. For him sympathy has been universally expressed. He is regarded rather as a victim than as an active agent in the many criminal offences chargeable to the account of Starlight's gang.
`Since writing the above we have been informed that trooper Walsh, who with another constable was escorting James Marston to Bargo Gaol, has been brought in badly wounded. The other trooper reports that he was shot down and the party attacked by persons concealed in the thick timber near Wild Horse Creek, at the edge of Bargo Brush. In the confusion that ensued the prisoner escaped. It was at first thought that Walsh was fatally injured, but our latest report gives good hope of his recovery.
`We shall be agreeably surprised if this be the end and not the commencement of a series of darker tragedies.'