We were desperate fidgety and anxious till the day came. While we were getting ready two or three things went wrong, of course. Jim got a letter from Jeanie, all the way from Melbourne, where she'd gone. It seems she'd got her money from the bank—Jim's share of the gold—all right. She was a saving, careful little woman, and she told him she'd enough to keep them both well for four or five years, anyhow. What she wanted him to do was to promise that he'd never be mixed up in any more dishonest work, and to come away down to her at once.
`It was the easiest thing in the world,' she said, `to get away from Melbourne to England or America. Ships were going every day, and glad to take any man that was strong and willing to work his passage for nothing; they'd pay him besides.'
She'd met one or two friends down there as would do anything to help her and him. If he would only get down to Melbourne all would yet be well; but she begged and prayed him, if he loved her, and for the sake of the life she hoped to live with him yet, to come away from his companions and take his own Jeanie's advice, and try and do nothing wrong for the future.
If Jim had got his letter before we made up matters, just at the last he'd have chucked up the sponge and cleared out for good and all. He as good as said so; but he was one of them kind of men that once he'd made a start never turned back. There'd been some chaff, to make things worse, between Moran and Daly and some of the other fellows about being game and what not, specially after what father said at the hut, so he wouldn't draw out of it now.
I could see it fretted him worse than anything since we came back, but he filled himself up with the idea that we'd be sure to get the gold all right, and clear out different ways to the coast, and then we'd have something worth while leaving off with. Another thing, we'd been all used to having what money we wanted lately, and we none of us fancied living like poor men again in America or anywhere else. We hadn't had hardly a scrap from Aileen since we'd come back this last time. It wasn't much odds. She was regular broken-hearted; you could see it in every line.
`She had been foolish enough to hope for better things,' she said; `now she expected nothing more in this world, and was contented to wear out her miserable life the best way she could. If it wasn't that her religion told her it was wrong, and that mother depended on her, she'd drown herself in the creek before the door. She couldn't think why some people were brought into this miserable world at all. Our family had been marked out to evil, and the same fate would follow us to the end. She was sorry for Jim, and believed if he had been let take his own road that he would have been happy and prosperous to-day. It was a pity he could not have got away safely to Melbourne with his wife before that wicked woman, who deserved to be burnt alive, ruined everything. Even now we might all escape, the country seemed in so much confusion with all the strangers and bad people' (bad people—well, every one thinks their own crow the blackest) `that the goldfields had brought into it, that it wouldn't be hard to get away in a ship somehow. If nothing else bad turned up perhaps it might come to pass yet.'
This was the only writing we'd had from poor Aileen. It began all misery and bitterness, but got a little better at the end. If she and Gracey could have got hold of Kate Morrison there wouldn't have been much left of her in a quarter of an hour, I could see that.
Inside was a little bit of paper with one line, `For my sake,' that was all. I knew the writing; there was no more. I could see what Gracey meant, and wished over and over again that I had the chance of going straight, as I'd wished a thousand times before, but it was too late, too late! When the coach is running down hill and the break's off, it's no use trying to turn. We had all our plan laid out and settled to the smallest thing. We were to meet near Eugowra Rocks a good hour or two before the escort passed, so as to have everything ready. I remember the day as well as if it was yesterday. We were all in great buckle and very fit, certainly. I don't think I ever felt better in my life. There must be something out-and-out spiriting in a real battle when a bit of a scrimmage like this sent our blood boiling through our veins; made us feel as if we weren't plain Dick and Jim Marston, but regular grand fellows, in a manner of speaking. What fools men are when they're young—and sometimes after that itself—to be sure.
We started at daylight, and only stopped once on the road for a bite for ourselves and to water the horses, so that we were in good time. We brought a little corn with us, just to give the horses something; they'd be tied up for hours and hours when we got to the place pitched on. They were all there before us; they hadn't as good horses by a long chalk as we had, and two of their packers were poor enough. Jim and I were riding ahead with Starlight a little on the right of us. When the fellows saw Rainbow they all came crowding round him as if he'd been a show.
`By George!' says Burke, `that's a horse worth calling a horse, Captain. I often heard tell of him, but never set eyes on him before. I've two minds to shake him and leave you my horse and a share of the gold to boot. I never saw his equal in my life, and I've seen some plums too.'
`Honour among—well—bush-rangers, eh, Burke?' says Starlight cheerily. `He's the right sort, isn't he? We shall want good goers to-night. Are we all here now? We'd better get to business.'
Yes, they were all there, a lot of well-built, upstanding chaps, young and strong, and fit to do anything that a man could do in the way of work or play. It was a shame to see them there (and us too, for the matter of that), but there was no get away now. There will be fools and rogues to the end of the world, I expect. Even Moran looked a bit brighter than he did last time. He was one of those chaps that a bit of real danger smartens up. As for Burke, Daly, and Hulbert, they were like a lot of schoolboys, so full of their fun and larks.
Starlight just spoke a word to them all; he didn't talk much, but looked hard and stern about the face, as a captain ought to do. He rode up to the gap and saw where the trees had been cut down to block up the road. It would be hard work getting the coach through there now—for a bit to come.
After that our horses and the two packers were left behind with Warrigal and father, close enough for hearing, but well out of the way for seeing; it was behind a thick belt of timber. They tied up some to trees and short-hobbled others, keeping them all so as to be ready at a moment's notice. Our men hid themselves behind rocks and stumps on the high side of the road so as they could see well, and had all the shadow on their side. Wall and Hulbert and their lot had their mob of horses, packers, and all planted away, and two young fellows belonging to their crowd minding them.
We'd been ready a good bit when a cove comes tearing up full bat. We were watching to see how he shaped, and whether he looked likely to lay on the police, when I saw it was Billy the Boy.
`Now I call this something like,' says he, pulling up short: `army in readiness, the enemy not far off. My word, it is a fine thing to turn out, ain't it, Dick? Do you chaps feel shaky at all? Ain't yer gallied the least little bit? They're a-comin'!'
`How long will they be?' Starlight said. `Just remember that you're not skylarking at a pound-yard, my boy.'
`All right, Captain,' he answered, quiet enough. `I started on ahead the moment I saw 'em leave the camp. They're safe to be here in ten minutes now. You can see 'em when they come into the flat. I'll clear out to the back for a bit. I want 'em to think I come up permiskus-like when it's over.' So the young rascal galloped away till the trees hid him, and in a quarter of an hour more we saw the leaders of the four-horse drag that carried the escort gold turn round on the forest road and show out into the flat.
It gave me a queer feeling just at first. We hadn't been used to firing on the Queen's servants, not in cold blood, anyhow, but it was them or us for it now. There was no time to think about it. They came along at a steady trot up the hill. We knew the Turon sergeant of police that drove, a tall man with a big black beard down to his chest. He had been in an English dragoon regiment, and could handle the ribbons above a bit. He had a trooper alongside him on the box with his rifle between his knees. Two more were in the body of the drag. They had put their rifles down and were talking and laughing, not expecting anything sudden. Two more of the mounted men rode in front, but not far. The couple behind were a good way off. All of a sudden the men in front came on the trees lying across the road. They pulled up short, and one of them jumped down and looked to see if anything could be done to move them. The other man held his horse. The coach drove up close, so that they were bunched up pretty well together.
`Who the devil has been doing that?' sung out the sergeant. `Just as if the road isn't bad enough without these infernal lazy scoundrels of bullock-drivers cutting down trees to make us go round. It's a beastly track here at the best of times.'
`I believe them trees have been fallen on purpose,' says the trooper that was down. `There's been men, and horses too, about here to-day, by the tracks. They're up to no good!'
The order was given in Starlight's clear, bold voice. Just like a horn it sounded. You might have heard it twice as far off. A dozen shots followed the next second, making as much row as fifty because of the way the sound echoed among the rocks.
I never saw a bigger surprise in my life, and wasn't likely to do, as this was my first regular battle. We had plenty of time to take aim, and just at first it looked as if the whole blessed lot of the police was killed and wounded.
The sergeant threw up his arms and fell off the box like a log, just under the horses' feet. One of the troopers on ahead dropped, he that was holding the horses, and both horses started off at full gallop. The two men in the body of the drag were both hit—one badly. So when the two troopers came up full gallop from the back they found us cutting the traces of the team, that was all plunging like mad, and letting the horses go.
We opened fire at them directly they showed themselves; of course they couldn't do much in the face of a dozen men, all well armed and behind good cover. They kept it up for a bit till one of their horses was hit, and then made tracks for Turon to report that the escort had been stuck up by twenty or thirty men at Eugowra Rocks—the others had come up with the pack-horses by this time, along with Master Billy the Boy firing his revolver and shouting enough for half-a-dozen; so we looked a big crowd—that all the men were shot dead, wounded, or taken prisoners, and that a strong force had better be despatched at once to recapture the gold.
A good deal of this was true, though not all. The only man killed was the sergeant. He was shot clean through the heart, and never stirred again. Of the five other men, three were badly wounded and two slightly. We attended to them as well as we could, and tied the others so that they would not be able to give any bother for an hour or two at any rate.
Then the trouble began about dividing the gold. We opened the sort of locker there was in the centre of the coach and took out the square boxes of gold. They held canvas bags, all labelled and weighed to the grain, of about 1000 oz. each. There were fourteen boxes in all. Not a bad haul.
Some of the others couldn't read or write, and they wouldn't trust us, so they brought their friend with them, who was an educated man sure enough. We were a bit stunned to see him, holding the sort of position he did at the Turon. But there he was, and he did his work well enough. He brought a pair of scales with him and weighed the lot, and portioned it all out amongst us just the same as Mr. Scott, the banker, used to do for us at the Turon when we brought in our month's washing-up. We had 5000 oz. Starlight had an extra share on account of being captain, and the rest had somewhere about 8000 oz. or 9000 oz. among them. It wasn't so bad.
Dad wasn't long before he had our lot safely packed and on his two pack-horses. Warrigal and he cleared out at a trot, and went out of sight in a jiffy. It was every man for himself now. We waited a bit to help them with their swag; it was awful heavy. We told them that their pack-horses would never carry it if there was anything of a close run for it.
`Suppose you think you've got the only good horse in the country, Dick Marston,' says Daly. `We'll find a horse to run anything you've got, barrin' Rainbow. I've got a little roan horse here as shall run ever a horse ye own, for three mile, for a hundred notes, with twelve stone up. What do you think of that, now?'
`Don't take your shirt off, Patsey,' I said. `I know the roan's as good as ever was foaled' (so he was; the police got him after Patsey was done for, and kept him till he died of old age), `but he's in no condition. I'm talking of the pack-horses; they're not up to much, as you'll find out.'
We didn't want to rush off at once, for fear the other fellows might say something afterwards if anything happened cross. So we saw them make a fair start for a spot on Weddin Mountain, where they thought they were right. We didn't think we could be caught once we made tracks in earnest. After a couple or three hours' riding we should be pretty safe, and daylight would see us at the Hollow.
We stopped, besides, to do what we could for the wounded men. They were none of them regularly done for, except the sergeant. One man was shot through the lungs, and was breathing out blood every now and then. We gave them some brandy and water, and covered them all up and left them as comfortable as we could. Besides that, we sent Billy the Boy, who couldn't be recognised, to the camp to have a doctor sent as soon as possible. Then we cleared and started off, not the way we had to go, but so as we could turn into it.
We couldn't ride very slow after such a turn as that, so we made the pace pretty hot for the first twenty miles or so. By Jove! it was a great ride; the forest was middling open, and we went three parts speed when we could see before us. The horses seemed to go as if they knew there was something up. I can see Rainbow now, swinging along with that beautiful bounding style of going he had, snorting now and then and sending out his legs as if one hundred miles, more or less, was nothing. His head up, his eye shining like a star, his nostrils open, and every now and then, if anything got up, he'd give a snort as if he'd just come up out of the bush. They'd had a longish day and a fast ride before they got to Eugowra, just enough to eat to keep them from starving, with a drink of water. Now they were going the same style back, and they'd never had the saddles off their backs. All the night through we rode before we got to the top of Nulla Mountain; very glad to see it we were then. We took it easy for a few miles now and again, then we'd push on again. We felt awful sleepy at times; we'd been up and at it since the morning before; long before daylight, too. The strangeness and the chance of being followed kept us up, else I believe we'd have dropped off our horses' backs, regular dead beat.
We lost ground now and then through Warrigal not being there to guide us, but Jim took the lead and he wasn't far out; besides, the horses knew which way to steer for their grass at the Hollow. They wouldn't let us go much off the line if it was ever so dark. We gave 'em their heads mostly. The sun was just rising as we rode across the last tableland. We got off and stumbled along, horses and men, down the track to the Hollow. Dad and Warrigal hadn't come back; of course they couldn't stand the pace we did. They'd have to camp for a bit, but they both knew of plants and hiding holes, where all the police in the colony couldn't find them. We knew they'd turn up some time next day. So we let go our horses, and after a bit of supper laid down and slept till well on in the afternoon.
When I looked round I saw the dog sleeping at Jim's feet, old Crib. He never left father very far, so of course the old man must be home, or pretty close up. I was that dead beat and tired out that I turned over and went to sleep for another couple of hours. When I next woke up I was right and felt rested, so I put on my things, had a good wash, and went out to speak to father. He was sitting by the fire outside smoking, just as if he'd never been away.