`All right,' said I, `he must have got there a day before his time. It is a big mob and no mistake. I wonder where they're taking them to.' Aileen shrugged her shoulders and walked in to mother with a look of misery and despair on her face such as I never saw there before.
She knew it was no use talking to me now. The idea of going out to meet a large lot of unknown cattle had strongly excited us, as would have been the case with every bush-bred lad. All sorts of wonders passed through our minds as we walked down the creek bank, with our bridles in our hands, towards where our horses usually fed. One was easy to catch, the other with a little management was secured. In ten minutes we were riding fast through the dark trees and fallen timber towards the wild gullies and rock-strewed hills of Broken Creek.
It was not more than an hour when we got up to the cattle. We could hear them a good while before we saw them. `My word,' said Jim, `ain't they restless. They can't have come far, or they wouldn't roar so. Where can the old man have "touched" for them?'
`How should I know?' I said roughly. I had a kind of idea, but I thought he would never be so rash.
When we got up I could see the cattle had been rounded up in a flat with stony ridges all round. There must have been three or four hundred of them, only a man and a boy riding round and wheeling them every now and then. Their horses were pretty well knocked up. I knew father at once, and the old chestnut mare he used to ride—an animal with legs like timbers and a mule rump; but you couldn't tire her, and no beast that ever was calved could get away from her. The boy was a half-caste that father had picked up somewhere; he was as good as two men any day.
`So you've come at last,' growled father, `and a good thing too. I didn't expect to be here till to-morrow morning. The dog came home, I suppose—that's what brought you here, wasn't it? I thought the infernal cattle would beat Warrigal and me, and we'd have all our trouble for nothing.'
`Whose cattle are they, and what are you going to do with them?'
`Never you mind; ask no questions, and you'll see all about it to-morrow. I'll go and take a snooze now; I've had no sleep for three nights.'
With our fresh horses and riding round so we kept the cattle easily enough. We did not tell Warrigal he might go to rest, not thinking a half-caste brat like him wanted any. He didn't say anything, but went to sleep on his horse, which walked in and out among the angry cattle as he sat on the saddle with his head down on the horse's neck. They sniffed at him once or twice, some of the old cows, but none of them horned him; and daylight came rather quicker than one would think.
Then we saw whose cattle they were; they had all Hunter's and Falkland's brands on, which showed that they belonged to Banda and Elingamah stations.
`By George!' says Jim, `they're Mr. Hunter's cattle, and all these circle dots belong to Banda. What a mob of calves! not one of them branded! What in the world does father intend to do with them?'
Father was up, and came over where we stood with our horses in our hands before we had time to say more. He wasn't one of those that slept after daylight, whether he had work to do or not. He certainly could work; daylight or dark, wet or dry, cold or hot, it was all one to father. It seems a pity what he did was no use to him, as it turned out; for he was a man, was old dad, every inch of him.
`Now, boys,' he said, quite brisk and almost good-natured for him, `look alive and we'll start the cattle; we've been long enough here; let 'em head up that gully, and I'll show you something you've never seen before for as long as you've known Broken Creek Ranges.'
`But where are you going to take 'em to?' I said. `They're all Mr. Hunter's and Mr. Falkland's; the brands are plain enough.'
`Are the calves branded, you blasted fool?' he said, while the black look came over his face that had so often frightened me when I was a child. `You do what I tell you if you've any pluck and gumption about you; or else you and your brother can ride over to Dargo Police Station and "give me away" if you like; only don't come home again, I warn you, sons or no sons.'
If I had done what I had two minds to do—for I wasn't afraid of him then, savage as he looked—told him to do his own duffing and ridden away with Jim there and then—poor Jim, who sat on his horse staring at both of us, and saying nothing—how much better it would have been for all of us, the old man as well as ourselves; but it seemed as if it wasn't to be. Partly from use, and partly from a love of danger and something new, which is at the bottom of half the crime in the bush districts, I turned my horse's head after the cattle, which were now beginning to straggle. Jim did the same on his side. How easy is it for chaps to take the road to hell! for that was about the size of it, and we were soon too busy to think about much else.
The track we were driving on led along a narrow rocky gully which looked as if it had been split up or made out of a crack in the earth thousands of years ago by an earthquake or something of that kind. The hills were that steep that every now and then some of the young cattle that were not used to that sort of country would come sliding down and bellow as if they thought they were going to break their necks.
The water rushed down it like a torrent in wet winters, and formed a sort of creek, and the bed of it made what track there was. There were overhanging rocks and places that made you giddy to look at, and some of these must have fallen down and blocked up the creek at one time or other. We had to scramble round them the best way we could.
When we got nearly up to the head of the gully—and great work it was to force the footsore cattle along, as we couldn't use our whips overmuch—Jim called out—
`Why, here comes old Crib. Who'd have thought he'd have seen the track? Well done, old man. Now we're right.'
Father never took any notice of the poor brute as he came limping along the stones. Woman or child, horse or dog, it's the same old thing—the more any creature loves a man in this world the worse they're treated. It looks like it, at any rate. I saw how it was; father had given Crib a cruel beating the night before, when he was put out for some trifling matter, and the dog had left him and run home. But now he had thought better of it, and seen our tracks and come to work and slave, with his bleeding feet—for they were cut all to pieces—and got the whip across his back now and then for his pains. It's a queer world!
When we got right to the top of this confounded gully, nearly dead-beat all of us, and only for the dog heeling them up every now and then, and making his teeth nearly meet in them, without a whimper, I believe the cattle would have charged back and beat us. There was a sort of rough table-land—scrubby and stony and thick it was, but still the grass wasn't bad in summer, when the country below was all dried up. There were wild horses in troops there, and a few wild cattle, so Jim and I knew the place well; but it was too far and too much of a journey for our own horses to go often.
`Do you see that sugar-loaf hill with the bald top, across the range?' said father, riding up just then, as we were taking it easy a little. `Don't let the cattle straggle, and make straight for that.'
`Why, it's miles away,' said Jim, looking rather dismal. `We could never get 'em there.'
`We're not going there, stupid,' says father; `that's only the line to keep. I'll show you something about dinner-time that'll open your eyes a bit.'
Poor Jim brightened up at the mention of dinner-time, for, boylike, he was getting very hungry, and as he wasn't done growing he had no end of an appetite. I was hungry enough for the matter of that, but I wouldn't own to it.
`Well, we shall come to somewhere, I suppose,' says Jim, when father was gone. `Blest if I didn't think he was going to keep us wandering in this blessed Nulla Mountain all day. I wish I'd never seen the blessed cattle. I was only waiting for you to hook it when we first seen the brands by daylight, and I'd ha' been off like a brindle "Mickey" down a range.'
`Better for us if we had,' I said; `but it's too late now. We must stick to it, I suppose.'
We had kept the cattle going for three or four miles through the thickest of the country, every now and then steering our course by the clear round top of Sugarloaf, that could be seen for miles round, but never seemed to get any nearer, when we came on a rough sort of log-fence, which ran the way we were going.
`I didn't think there were any farms up here,' I said to Jim.
`It's a "break",' he said, almost in a whisper. `There's a "duffing-yard" somewhere handy; that's what's the matter.'
`Keep the cattle along it, anyway. We'll soon see what it leads to.'
The cattle ran along the fence, as if they expected to get to the end of their troubles soon. The scrub was terribly thick in places, and every now and then there was a break in the fence, when one of us had to go outside and hunt them until we came to the next bit. At last we came to a little open kind of flat, with the scrub that thick round it as you couldn't hardly ride through it, and, just as Jim said, there was the yard.
It was a `duffing-yard' sure enough. No one but people who had cattle to hide and young stock they didn't want other people to see branded would have made a place there.
Just on the south side of the yard, which was built of great heavy stringy-bark trees cut down in the line of the fence, and made up with limbs and logs, the range went up as steep as the side of a house. The cattle were that tired and footsore—half their feet were bleeding, poor devils—that they ran in through the sliprails and began to lay down.
`Light a fire, one of you boys,' says father, putting up the heavy sliprails and fastening them. `We must brand these calves before dark. One of you can go to that gunyah, just under the range where that big white rock is, and you'll find tea and sugar and something to eat.'
Jim rushed off at once, while I sulkily began to put some bark and twigs together and build a fire.
`What's the use of all this cross work?' I said to father; `we're bound to be caught some day if we keep on at it. Then there'll be no one left to take care of mother and Aileen.'
He looked rather struck at this, and then said quietly—
`You and your brother can go back now. Never say I kept you against your will. You may as well lend a hand to brand these calves; then you may clear out as soon as you like.'
Well, I didn't quite like leaving the old chap in the middle of the work like that. I remember thinking, like many another young fool, I suppose, that I could draw back in time, just after I'd tackled this job.
Draw back, indeed! When does a man ever get the chance of doing that, once he's regularly gone in for any of the devil's work and wages? He takes care there isn't much drawing back afterwards. So I said—
`We may as well give you a hand with this lot; but we'll go home then, and drop all this duffing work. It don't pay. I'm old enough to know that, and you'll find it out yet, I expect, father, yourself.'
`The fox lives long, and gives the hounds many a long chase before he's run into,' he said, with a grim chuckle. `I swore I'd be revenged on 'em all when they locked me up and sent me out here for a paltry hare; broke my old mother's heart, so it did. I've had a pound for every hair in her skin, and I shall go on till I die. After all, if a man goes to work cautious and runs mute it's not so easy to catch him in this country, at any rate.'
Jim at this came running out of the cave with a face of joy, a bag of ship-biscuit, and a lot of other things.
`Here's tea and sugar,' he said; `and there's biscuits and jam, and a big lump of cheese. Get the fire right, Dick, while I get some water. We'll soon have some tea, and these biscuits are jolly.'
The tea was made, and we all had a good meal. Father found a bottle of rum, too; he took a good drink himself, and gave Jim and me a sip each. I felt less inclined to quarrel with father after that. So we drafted all the calves into a small pen-yard, and began to put our brand on them as quick as we could catch 'em.
A hundred and sixty of 'em altogether—all ages, from a month old to nearly a year. Fine strong calves, and in rare condition, too. We could see they were all belonging to Mr. Hunter and Mr. Falkland. How they came to leave them all so long unbranded I can't say. Very careless they often are on these large cattle-stations, so that sharp people like father and the Dalys, and a lot more, get an easy chance at them.
Whatever father was going to do with them all when he had branded 'em, we couldn't take out.
`There's no place to tail or wean 'em,' whispered Jim. `We're not above thirty miles from Banda in a straight line. These cows are dead sure to make straight back the very minute they're let out, and very nice work it'll look with all these calves with our brand on sucking these cows.'
Father happened to come round for a hot brand just as Jim finished.
`Never you mind about the weaning,' he snarled. `I shan't ask you to tail them either. It wouldn't be a nice job here, would it?' and father actually laughed. It wasn't a very gay kind of a laugh, and he shut up his mouth with a sort of snap again. Jim and I hadn't seen him laugh for I don't know how long, and it almost frightened us.
As Jim said, it wouldn't do to let the cattle out again. If calves are weaned, and have only one brand on, it is very hard for any man to swear that they are not the property of the man to whom that brand belongs. He may believe them to be his, but may never have seen them in his life; and if he has seen them on a camp or on the run, it's very hard to swear to any one particular red or spotted calf as you would to a horse.
The great dart is to keep the young stock away from their mothers until they forget one another, and then most of the danger is past. But if calves with one man's brand on are seen sucking another man's cows, it is pretty plain that the brand on the calves has been put on without the consent of the owner of the cows—which is cattle-stealing; a felony, according to the Act 7 and 8 George IV, No. 29, punishable with three years' imprisonment, with hard labour on the roads of the colony or other place, as the Judge may direct.
There's a lot of law! How did I learn it? I had plenty of time in Berrima Gaol—worse luck—my first stretch. But it was after I'd done the foolishness, and not before.