`We done that job to rights if we never done another, eh, lad?' says father, reaching out for a coal to put in his pipe.
`Seems like it,' I said. `There'll be a deuce of a bobbery about it. We shan't be able to move for a bit, let alone clear out.'
`We'll show 'em a trick or two yet,' says dad. I could see he'd had a tot, early as it was. `I wonder how them chaps got on? But we'll hear soon.'
`How shall we hear anything? Nobody'll be mad enough to show out of here for a bit.'
`I could get word here,' says father, `if there was a police barrack on the top of Nulla Mountain. I've done it afore, and I can do it again.'
`Well, I hope it won't be long, for I'm pretty full up of this staying-at-home business in the Hollow. It's well enough for a bit, but it's awful slow when you've too much of it.'
`It wouldn't be very slow if we was all grabbed and tried for our lives, Mr. Dick Marston. Would ye like that better for a change?' says the old man, showing his teeth like a dog that's making up his mind to have ye and don't see where he's to get first bite. `You leave the thing to them as knows more than you do, or you'll find yourself took in, and that precious sharp.'
`You'll find your pals, Burke and Moran, and their lot will have their turn first,' I said, and with that I walked off, for I saw the old man had been drinking a bit after his night's work, and that always started his temper the wrong way. There was no doing anything with him then, as I knew by long experience. I was going to ask him where he'd put the gold, but thought it best to leave that for some other time.
By and by, when we all turned out and had some breakfast, we took a bit of a walk by ourselves and talked it over. We could hardly think it was all done and over.
`The gold escort stuck up. Fourteen thousand ounces of gold taken. Sergeant Hawkins shot dead. The robbers safe off with their booty.'
This is the sort of thing that we were sure to see in all the papers. It would make a row and no mistake. It was the first time such a thing had been thought of, much less carried out `to rights', as father said, `in any of the colonies.' We had the five thousand ounces of gold, safe enough, too. That was something; whether we should be let enjoy it, or what chance we had of getting right away out of the country, was quite another matter. We were all sorry for Sergeant Hawkins, and would have been better pleased if he'd been only wounded like the others. But these sorts of things couldn't be helped. It was the fortune of war; his luck this time, ours next. We knew what we had to expect. Nothing would make much difference. `As well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.' We were up to our necks in it now, and must fight our way out the best way we could.
Bar any man betraying the secret of the Hollow we might be safe for years to come, as long as we were not shot or taken in fair fight. And who was to let out the secret? No one but ourselves had the least notion of the track or where it led to, or of such a place as the Hollow being in the colony. Only us five were in possession of the secret. We never let any of these other men come near, much less to it. We took good care never to meet them within twenty miles of it. Father was a man that, even when he was drunk, never let out what he didn't want other people to know. Jim and I and Starlight were not likely to blab, and Warrigal would have had his throat cut sooner than let on about anything that might be against Starlight, or that he told him not to do.
We had good reason, then, to think ourselves safe as long as we had such a place to make for whenever we were in danger or had done a stroke. We had enough in gold and cash to keep us comfortable in any other country—provided we could only get there. That was the rub. When we'd got a glass or two in our heads we thought it was easy enough to get across country, or to make away one by one at shearing time, disguised as swagsmen, to the coast. But when we thought it over carefully in the mornings, particularly when we were a bit nervous after the grog had died out of us, it seemed a rather blue look-out.
There was the whole countryside pretty thick with police stations, where every man, from the sergeant to the last-joined recruit, knew the height, size, colour of hair, and so on of every one of us. If a suspicious-looking man was seen or heard of within miles the telegraph wires could be set to work. He could be met, stopped, searched, and overhauled. What chance would any of us have then?
`Don't flatter yourselves, my boy,' Starlight said, when we'd got the length of thinking how it was to be done, `that there's any little bit of a chance, for a year or two at any rate, of getting away. Not a kangaroo rat could hop across from one scrub to another if there was the least suspicion upon him without being blocked or run into. Jim, old man, I'm sorry for you, but my belief is we're quartered here for a year or two certain, and the sooner we make up our minds to it the better.'
Here poor old Jim groaned. `Don't you think,' he said, quite timid-like, `that about shearing-time a man might take his chance, leading an old horse with a swag on, as if he wanted to get shearing in some of the big down-the-river sheds?'
`Not a bit of it,' says Starlight. `You're such a good-looking, upstanding chap that you're safe to be pulled up and made answer for yourself before you'd get fifty miles. If you rode a good horse they'd think you were too smart-looking for a regular shearer, and nail you at once.'
`But I'd take an old screw with a big leg,' pleaded Jim. `Haven't I often seen a cove walking and leading one just to carry his blankets and things?'
`Then they'd know a chap like you, full of work and a native to boot, ought to have a better turn-out—if it wasn't a stall. So they'd have you for that.'
`But there's Isaac Lawson and Campbelltown. You've seen them. Isaac's an inch taller than me, and the same cut and make. Why shouldn't they shop them when they're going shearing? They're square enough, and always was. And Campbelltown's a good deal like Dick, beard and all.'
`Well, I'll bet you a new meerschaum that both men are arrested on suspicion before shearing. Of course they'll let them go again; but, you mark my words, they'll be stopped, as well as dozens of others. That will show how close the search will be.'
`I don't care,' says Jim, in his old, obstinate way, which he never put on except very seldom. `I'll go in a month or two—police or no police. I'll make for Melbourne if there was an army of soldiers between me and Jeanie.'
We had to settle where the gold was to be hid. After a lot of talk we agreed to keep one bag in a hole in the side of the wall of the cave, and bury the others in the place where we'd found old Mr. Devereux's box. His treasure had laid many a year safe and sound without anybody touching it, and we thought ours might do the same. Besides, to find it they must get into the Hollow first. So we packed it out bag by bag, and made an ironbark coffin for it, and buried it away there, and put some couch-grass turfs on it. We knew they'd soon grow up, and nobody could tell that it hadn't always been covered up the same as the rest of the old garden.
It felt pretty hard lines to think we shouldn't be able to get away from this lonely place after the life we'd led the last year; but Starlight wasn't often wrong, and we came to the same way of thinking ourselves when we looked at it all round, steady and quiet like.
We'd been a week or ten days all by ourselves, horse-breaking, fishing, and shooting a bit, thinking how strange it was that we should have more than 20,000 Pounds in gold and money and not be able to do anything with it, when dad, sudden like, said he'd go out himself and get some of the newspapers, and perhaps a letter or two if any came.
Starlight laughed at him a bit for being foolhardy, and said we should hear of his being caught and committed for trial. `Why, they'll know the dog,' says he, `and make him give evidence in court. I've known that done before now. Inspector Merlin nailed a chap through his dog.'
Father grinned. `I know'd that case—a sheep-stealing one. They wanted to make out Brummy was the man as owned the dorg—a remarkable dorg he was, too, and had been seen driving the sheep.'
`Well, what did the dog do? Identify the prisoner, didn't he?'
`Well, the dashed fool of a coolie did. Jumps up as soon as he was brought into court, and whines and scratches at the dock rails and barks, and goes on tremenjus, trying to get at Brummy.'
`How did his master like it?'
`Oh! Brummy? He looked as black as the ace of spades. He'd have made it hot for that dorg if he could ha' got at him. But I suppose he forgived him when he came out.'
`Why should he?'
`Because the jury fetched him in guilty without leaving the box, and the judge give him seven years. You wouldn't find this old varmint a-doin' no such foolishness as that.'
Here he looks at Crib, as was lyin' down a good way off, and not letting on to know anything. He saw father's old mare brought up, though, and saddled, and knowed quite well what that meant. He never rode her unless he was going out of the Hollow.
`I believe that dog could stick up a man himself as well as some fellows we know,' says Starlight, `and he'd do it, too, if your father gave him the word.'
While we were taking it easy, and except for the loneliness of it as safe as if we had been out of the country altogether, Moran and the other fellows hadn't quite such a good time of it. They were hunted from pillar to post by the police, who were mad to do something to meet the chaff that was always being cast up to them of having a lot of bush-rangers robbing and shooting all over the country and not being able to take them. There were some out-of-the-way places enough in the Weddin Mountains, but none like the Hollow, where they could lie quiet and untroubled for weeks together, if they wanted. Besides, they had lost their gold by their own foolishness in not having better pack-horses, and hadn't much to carry on with, and it's not a life that can be worked on the cheap, I can tell you, as we often found out. Money comes easy in our line, but it goes faster still, and a man must never be short of a pound or two to chuck about if he wants to keep his information fresh, and to have people working for him night and day with a will.
So they had some every-day sort of work cut out to keep themselves going, and it took them all their time to get from one part of the country where they were known to some other place where they weren't expected. Having out-and-out good hacks, and being all of them chaps that had been born in the bush and knew it like a book, it was wonderful how they managed to rob people at one place one day, and then be at some place a hundred miles off the next. Ever so many times they came off, and they'd call one another Starlight and Marston, and so on, till the people got regularly dumbfoundered, and couldn't tell which of the gang it was that seemed to be all over the country, and in two places at the same time. We used to laugh ourselves sometimes, when we'd hear tell that all the travellers passing Big Hill on a certain day were `stuck up by Wall's gang and robbed.' Every man Jack that came along for hours was made to stand behind a clump of trees with two of the gang guarding them, so as the others couldn't see them as they came up. They all had to deliver up what they'd got about 'em, and no one was allowed to stir till sundown, for fear they should send word to the police. Then the gang went off, telling them to stay where they were for an hour or else they'd come back and shoot them.
This would be on the western road, perhaps. Next day a station on the southern road, a hundred and twenty miles off, would be robbed by the same lot. Money and valuables taken away, and three or four of the best horses. Their own they'd leave behind in such a state that any one could see how far and fast they'd been ridden.
They often got stood to, when they were hard up for a mount, and it was this way. The squatters weren't alike, by any manner of means, in their way of dealing with them. Many of them had lots of fine riding-horses in their paddocks. These would be yarded some fine night, the best taken and ridden hard, perhaps returned next morning, perhaps in a day or two.
It was pretty well known who had used them, but nothing was said; the best policy, some think, is to hold a candle to the devil, especially when the devil's camped close handy to your paddock, and might any time sack your house, burn down your woolshed and stacks, or even shoot at your worshipful self if he didn't like the way you treated him and his imps.
These careful respectable people didn't show themselves too forward either in giving help or information to the police. Not by no means. They never encouraged them to stay when they came about the place, and weren't that over liberal in feeding their horses, or giving them a hand in any way, that they'd come again in a hurry. If they were asked about the bush-rangers, or when they'd been last seen, they were very careful, and said as little as possible.
No one wonders at people like the Barnes's, or little farmers, or the very small sort of settlers, people with one flock of sheep or a few cows, doing this sort of thing; they have a lot to lose and nothing to get if they gain ill-will. But regular country gentlemen, with big properties, lots of money, and all the rest of it, they're there to show a good example to the countryside, whether it paid for the time or whether it didn't; and all us sort of chaps, on the cross or not, like them all the better for it.
When I say all of us, I don't mean Moran. A sulky, black-hearted, revengeful brute he always was—I don't think he'd any manly feeling about him. He was a half-bred gipsy, they told us that knew where he was reared, and Starlight said gipsy blood was a queer cross, for devilry and hardness it couldn't be beat; he didn't wonder a bit at Moran's being the scoundrel he was.
No doubt he `had it in' for more than one of the people who helped the police to chevy Wall and his lot about. From what I knew of him I was sure he'd do some mischief one of these days, and make all the country ten times as hot against us as they were now. He had no mercy about him. He'd rather shoot a man any day than not; and he'd burn a house down just for the pleasure of seeing how the owner looked when it was lighted.
Starlight used to say he despised men that tried to save themselves cowardly-like more than he could say, and thought them worse than the bush-rangers themselves. Some of them were big people, too.
But other country gentlemen, like Mr. Falkland, were quite of a different pattern. If they all acted like him I don't think we should any of us have reigned as long as we did. They helped and encouraged the police in every possible way. They sent them information whenever they had received any worth while. They lent them horses freely when their own were tired out and beaten. More than that, when bush-rangers were supposed to be in the neighbourhood they went out with them themselves, lying out and watching through the long cold nights, and taking their chance of a shot as well as those that were paid for it.
Now there was a Mr. Whitman that had never let go a chance from the start of running their trail with the police, and had more than once given them all they knew to get away. He was a native of the country, like themselves, a first-class horseman and tracker, a hardy, game sort of a chap that thought nothing of being twenty-four hours in the saddle, or sitting under a fence watching for the whole of a frosty night.
Well, he was pretty close to Moran once, who had been out by himself; that close he ran him he made him drop his rifle and ride for his life. Moran never forgave him for this, and one day when they had all been drinking pretty heavy he managed to persuade Wall, Hulbert, Burke, and Daly to come with him and stick up Whitman's house.
`I sent word to him I'd pay him out one of these fine days,' he drawled out, `and he'll find that Dan Moran can keep his word.'
He picked a time when he knew Whitman was away at another station. I always thought Moran was not so game as he gave himself out to be. And I think if he'd had Whitman's steady eyes looking at him, and seeing a pistol in his hand, he wouldn't have shot as straight as he generally did when he was practising at a gum tree.
Anyhow, they laid it out all right, as they thought, to take the place unawares. They'd been drinking at a flash kind of inn no great way off, and when they rode up to the house it seems they were all of 'em three sheets in the wind, and fit for any kind of villainy that came uppermost. As for Moran, he was a devil unchained. I know what he was. The people in the house that day trembled and shook when they heard the dogs bark and saw five strange horsemen ride through the back gate into the yard.
They'd have trembled a deal more if they'd known what was coming.