This bit of a barney, of course, made bad blood betwixt us and Moran's mob, so for a spell Starlight and father thought it handier for us to go our own road and let them go theirs. We never could agree with chaps like them, and that was the long and short of it. They were a deal too rough and ready for Starlight; and as for Jim and me, though we were none too good, we couldn't do some of the things these coves was up to, nor stand by and see 'em done, which was more. This time we made up our mind to go back to the Hollow and drop out of notice altogether for a bit, and take a rest like.
We hadn't heard anything of Aileen and the old mother for weeks and weeks, so we fixed it that we should sneak over to Rocky Flat, one at a time, and see how things were going, and hearten 'em up a bit. When we did get to the Hollow, instead of being able to take it easy, as we expected, we found things had gone wrong as far as the devil could send 'em that way if he tried his best. It seems father had taken a restless fit himself, and after we were gone had crossed Nulla Mountain to some place above Rocky Flat, to where he could see what went on with a strong glass.
Before I go further I might as well tell you that, along with the whacking big reward that was offered for all of us, a good many coves as fancied themselves a bit had turned amateur policemen, and had all kinds of plans and dodges for catching us dead or alive. Now, men that take to the bush like us don't mind the regular paid force much, or bear them any malice. It's their duty to catch us or shoot us if we bolt, and ours to take all sorts of good care that they shan't do either if we can help it.
Well, as I was sayin', we don't have it in for the regulars in the police; it's all fair pulling, `pull devil pull baker', some one has to get the worst of it. Now it's us, now it's them, that gets took or rubbed out, and no more about it.
But what us cross coves can't stand and are mostly sure to turn nasty on is the notion of fellows going into the manhunting trade, with us for game, either for the fun of it or for the reward. That reward means the money paid for our blood. We don't like it. It may seem curious, but we don't; and them as take up the line as a game to make money or fun out of, when they've no call to, find out their mistake, sometimes when it's a deal too late.
Now we'd heard that a party of four men—some of them had been gaol warders and some hadn't—had made it up to follow us up and get us one way or the other if it was to be done. They weren't in the police, but they thought they knew quite as much as the police did; and, besides, the reward, £5000, if they got our lot and any one of the others, was no foolish money.
Well, nothing would knock it out of these chaps' heads but that we were safe to be grabbed in the long run trying to make into the old home. This was what made them gammon to be surveyors when they first came, as we heard about, and go measuring and tape-lining about, when there wasn't a child over eight years old on the whole creek that couldn't have told with half an eye they wasn't nothing of the sort.
Well, as bad luck would have it, just as father was getting down towards the place he meets Moran and Daly, who were making over to the Fish River on a cattle-duffing lay of their own. They were pretty hard up; and Moran after his rough and tumble with Jim, in which he had come off second best, was ready for anything—anything that was bad, that is.
After he'd a long yarn with them about cattle and horses and what not, he offered them a ten-pound note each if they'd do what he told them. Dad always carried money about with him; he said it came in handy. If the police didn't take him, they wouldn't get it; and if they did take him, why, nothing would matter much and it might go with the rest. It came in handy enough this time, anyhow, though it helped what had been far better left undone.
I remember what a blinded rage father got into when he first had Aileen's letter, and heard that these men were camped close to the old house, poking about there all day long, and worrying and frightening poor Aileen and mother.
Well, it seems on this particular day they'd been into the little township, and I suppose got an extra glass of grog. Anyhow, when they came back they began to be more venturesome than they generally were. One chap came into the house and began talking to Aileen, and after a bit mother goes into her bedroom, and Aileen comes out into the verandah and begins to wash some clothes in a tub, splashing the water pretty well about and making it a bit uncomfortable for any one to come near her.
What must this fool do but begin to talk about what white arms she'd got—not that they were like that much, she'd done too much hard work lately to have her arms, or hands either, look very grand; and at last he began to be saucy, telling her as no Marston girl ought to think so much of herself, considerin' who and what she was. Well, the end of it was father heard a scream, and he looked out from where he was hidden and saw Aileen running down the garden and the fellow after her. He jumps out, and fires his revolver slapbang at the chap; it didn't hit him, but it went that close that he stopped dead and turned round to see who it was.
`Ben Marston, by all that's lucky, boys!' says he, as two of the other chaps came running down at the shot. `We've got the ould sarpint out of his hole at last.' With that they all fires at father as quick as they could draw; and Aileen gives one scream and starts running along the track up the hill that leads to George Storefield's place.
Father drops; one of the bullets had hit him, but not so bad as he couldn't run, so he ups again and starts running along the gully, with the whole four of them shouting and swearin' after him, making sure they got him to rights this time.
`Two hundred a man, boys,' the big fellow in the lead says; `and maybe we'll take tay with the rest of 'em now.'
They didn't know the man they were after, or they'd have just as soon have gone to `take tea', as they called it, with a tiger.
Father put on one of his old poacher dodges that he had borrowed from the lapwing in his own country, that he used to tell us about when we were boys (our wild duck 'll do just the same), and made himself out a deal worse than he was. Father could run a bit, too; he'd been fast for a mile when he was young, and though he was old now he never carried no flesh to signify, and was as hard as nails. So what with knowing the ground, and they being flat-country men, he kept just out of pistol-shot, and yet showed enough to keep 'em filled up with the notion that they'd run him down after a bit.
They fired a shot every now and then, thinking a chance one might wing him, but this only let Moran and Daly see that some one was after dad, and that the hunt was coming their way.
They held steady where they had been told to stop, and looked out for the men they'd been warned of by father. As he got near this place he kept lettin' 'em git a bit nearer and nearer to him, so as they'd follow him up just where he wanted. It gave them more chance of hitting him, but he didn't care about that, now his blood was up—not he. All he wanted was to get them. Dad was the coolest old cove, when shooting was going on, ever I see. You'd think he minded bullets no more than bottle-corks.
Well, he goes stumbling and dragging himself like up the gully, and they, cocksure of getting him, closing up and shooting quicker and quicker, when just as he jumps down the Black Gully steps a bullet did hit him in the shoulder under the right arm, and staggers him in good earnest. He'd just time to cut down the bank and turn to the left along the creek channel, throwing himself down on his face among the bushes, when the whole four of 'em jumps down the bank after him.
`Stand!' says Moran, and they looked up and saw him and Daly covering them with their revolvers. Before they'd time to draw, two of 'em rolls over as dead as door-nails.
The other two were dumbfoundered and knocked all of a heap by suddenly finding themselves face to face with the very men they'd been hunting after for weeks and weeks. They held up their pistols, but they didn't seem to have much notion of using them—particularly when they found father had rounded on 'em too, and was standing a bit away on the side looking very ugly and with his revolver held straight at 'em.
`Give in! Put down your irons,' says Moran, `or by ——, we'll drop ye where ye stand.'
`Come on,' says one, and I think he intended to make a fight for it.
He'd 'a been better off if he had. It couldn't have been worse for him; but the other one didn't see a chance, and so he says—
`Give in, what's the good? There's three to two.'
`All right,' says the other chap, the big one; and they put down their pistols.
It was curious now as these two were both men that father and Moran had a down on. They'd better have fought it out as long as they could stand up. There's no good got by givin' in that I ever seen. Men as does so always drop in for it worse in the end.
First thing, then, they tied 'em with their hands behind 'em, and let 'em stand up near their mates that were down—dead enough, both of them, one shot through the heart and one through the head.
Then Moran sits down and has a smoke, and looks over at 'em.
`You don't remember me, Mr. Hagan?' says he, in his drawling way.
`No,' says the poor chap, `I don't think I do.'
`But I remember you devilish well,' says Moran; `and so you'll find afore we leave this.' Then he took another smoke. `Weren't you warder in Berrima Gaol,' says he, `about seven year ago? Ah! now we're coming to it. You don't remember getting Daniel Moran—a prisoner serving a long sentence there—seven days' solitary on bread and water for what you called disobedience of orders and insolence?'
`Yes, I do remember now. I'd forgotten your face. I was only doing my duty, and I hope you won't bear any malice.'
`It was a little thing to you, maybe,' says Moran; `but if you'd had to do seven long days and long cold nights in that devil's den, you'd 'a thought more about it. But you will now. My turn's come.'
`I didn't do it to you more than to the rest. I had to keep order in the gaol, and devilish hard work it was.'
`You're a liar,' says Moran, striking him across the face with his clenched hand. `You had a down on me because I wouldn't knuckle down to you like some of them, and so you dropped it on to me every turn you could get. I was a youngster then, and might have grown into a man if I'd been let. But fellows like you are enough to turn any man into a devil if they've got him in their power.'
`Well, I'm in your power now,' says he. `Let's see how you'll shape.'
`I don't like ye any the worse for being cheeky,' says Moran, `and standing up to me, but it's too late. The last punishment I got, when I was kept in irons night and day for a month because I'd tried to get out, I swore I'd have your life if ever I came across ye.'
`You'll never shoot me in cold blood,' says the poor devil, beginning to look blue about the lips.
`I don't know what old Ben's going to do with the man he found chevying his daughter,' says Moran, looking at him with his deadly black-snake eyes, `but I'm a-goin' to shoot you as soon as I've smoked out this pipe, so don't you make any mistake.'
`I don't mind a shot or two,' says Daly, `but I'm dashed if I can stand by and see men killed in cold blood. You coves have your own reasons, I suppose, but I shall hook it over to the Fish River. You know where to find me.' And he walked away to where the horses were and rode off.
We got fresh horses and rode over quick to Rocky Flat. We took Warrigal with us, and followed our old track across Nulla Mountain till we got within a couple of miles of the place. Warrigal picked up the old mare's tracks, so we knew father had made over that way, and there was no call for us to lose time running his trail any longer. Better go straight on to the house and find out what had happened there. We sent Warrigal on ahead, and waited with our horses in our hands till he come back to us.
In about an hour he comes tearing back, with his eyes staring out of his head.
`I bin see old missis,' he says. `She yabber that one make-believe constable bin there. Gammon-like it surveyor, and bimeby old man Ben gon' alonga hut, and that one pleeceman fire at him and all about, and him break back alonga gully.'
`Any of 'em come back?' says Jim.
`Bale! me see um tent-dog tied up. Cake alonga fireplace, all burn to pieces. No come home last night. I b'lieve shot 'em old man longa gully.'
`Come along, boys,' says Starlight, jumping into his saddle. `The old man might have been hit. We must run the tracks and see what's come of the governor. Four to one's big odds.'
We skirted the hut and kept out wide till Warrigal cut the tracks, which he did easy enough. We couldn't see a blessed thing. Warrigal rode along with his head down, reading every tuft of grass, every little stone turned up, every foot of sand, like a book.
`Your old fader run likit Black Gully. Two fellow track here—bullet longa this one tree.' Here he pointed to a scratch on the side of a box tree, in which the rough bark had been shivered. `Bimeby two fellow more come; 'nother one bullet; 'nother one here, too. This one blood drop longa white leaf.'
Here he picked up a dried gum leaf, which had on the upper side a dark red spot, slightly irregular.
We had it all now. We came to a place where two horses had been tied to a tree. They had been stamping and pawing, as if they had been there a goodish while and had time to get pretty sick of it.
`That near side one Moran's horse, pigeon-toes; me know 'em,' says Warrigal. `Off side one Daly's roan horse, new shoes on. You see 'um hair, rub himself longa tree.'
`What the blazes were they doing hereabouts?' says Starlight. `This begins to look complicated. Whatever the row was, Daly and he were in it. There's no one rich enough to rob hereabouts, is there? I don't like the look of it. Ride on, boys.'
We said nothing to each other, but rode along as fast as Warrigal could follow the line. The sky, which was bright enough when we started, clouded over, and in less than ten minutes the wind rose and rain began to pour down in buckets, with no end of thunder and lightning. Then it got that cold we could hardly sit on our horses for trembling. The sky grew blacker and blacker. The wind began to whistle and cry till I could almost swear I heard some one singing out for help. Nulla Mountain was as black as your hat, and a kind of curious feeling crept over me, I hardly knew why, as if something was going to happen, I didn't know what.
I fully expected to find father dead; and, though he wasn't altogether a good father to us, we both felt bad at the notion of his lyin' there cold and stiff. I began to think of him as he used to be when we were boys, and when he wasn't so out and out hard—and had a kind word for poor mother and a kiss for little Aileen.
But if he were shot or taken, why hadn't these other men come back? We had just ridden by their tents, and they looked as if they'd just been left for a bit by men who were coming back at night. The dog was howling and looked hungry. Their blankets were all thrown about. Anyhow, there was a kettle on the fire, which was gone out; and more than that, there was the damper that Warrigal had seen lying in the ashes all burnt to a cinder.
Everything looked as if they'd gone off in a hurry, and never come back at night or since. One of their horses was tied with a tether rope close to the tent poles, and he'd been walking round and trampling down the grass, as if he'd been there all night. We couldn't make it out.
We rode on, hardly looking at one another, but following Warrigal, who rattled on now, hardly looking at the ground at all, like a dog with a burning scent. All of a sudden he pulls up, and points to a dip into a cross gully, like an old river, which we all knew.
`You see um crow? I b'leeve longa Black Gully.'
Sure enough, just above the drop down, where we used to gallop our ponies in old times and laugh to see 'em throw up their tails, there were half-a-dozen crows and a couple of eagle-hawks high up in the sky, wheeling and circling over the same place.
`By George! they've got the old man,' says Jim. `Come on, Dick. I never thought poor old dad would be run down like this.'
`Or he's got them!' says Starlight, curling his lip in a way he had. `I don't believe your old governor's dead till I see him. The devil himself couldn't grab him on his own ground.'