At last father got well, and said he didn't see what good Aileen could do stopping any longer in the Hollow, unless she meant to follow up bush-ranging for a living. She'd better go back and stay along with her mother. If George Storefield liked to have 'em there, well and good; things looked as if it wasn't safe now for a man's wife and daughter, and if he'd got into trouble, to live peaceable and quiet in their own house. He didn't think they need be afraid of any one interfering with them for the future, though. Here dad looked so dark that Aileen began to think he was going to be ill again. We'd all start and go a bit of the way with her next day—to the old stockyard or a bit farther; she could ride from there, and take the horse back with her and keep him if she liked.
`You've been a good gal to me,' he says to her; `you always was one; and your mother's been a good woman and a good wife; tell her I said so. I'd no call to have done the things I have, or left home because it wasn't tidy and clean and a welcome always when I came back. It's been rough on her, and on you too, my gal; and if it'll do her any good, tell her I'm dashed sorry. You can take this trifle of money. You needn't boggle at it; it's honest got and earned, long before this other racket. Now you can go. Kiss your old dad; like as not you won't see him again.'
We'd got the horses in. I lifted her up on to the saddle, and she rode out. Her horse was all on the square, so there was no harm in her taking him back with her, and off we went. Dad didn't go after all. We took it easy out to the old stockyard. We meant to camp there for half-an-hour, and then to send her on, with Warrigal to keep with her and show her the way home.
We didn't want to make the time too short. What a lovely day it was! The mountain sides were clogged up with mist for an hour after we started; still, any one that knew the climate would have said it was going to be a fine day. There wasn't a breath of air; everything was that still that not a leaf on any of the trees so much as stirred.
When we came to the pass out of the valley, we none of us got off; it was better going up than coming down, and it would have tired Aileen out at the start to walk up. So the horses had to do their climbing. It didn't matter much to them. We were all used to it, horses and riders. Jim and I went first, then Warrigal, then Aileen and Starlight. After we got up to the top we all stopped and halted a bit to look round.
Just then, as if he'd waited for us, the sun came out from behind the mountain; the mists lifted and rolled away as if they had been gray curtains. Everything showed clear out like a playhouse, the same Jim and I used to see in Melbourne. From where we stood you could see everything, the green valley flats with the big old trees in clumps, some of 'em just the same as they'd been planted. The two little river-like silver threads winding away among the trees, and far on the opposite side the tall gray rock-towers shining among the forest edges of the high green wall. Somehow the sun wasn't risen enough to light up the mountain. It looked as black and dismal as if it was nightfall coming on.
`Good-bye, old Hollow!' Aileen called out, waving her hand. `Everything looks bright and beautiful except the mountain. How gloomy it appears, as if it held some dreadful secret—doesn't it? Ah! what a pleasant time it has been for me. Am I the same Aileen Marston that went in there a few weeks since? And now I suppose there will be more misery and anxiety waiting for all of us when I get back. Well, come what will, I have had a little happiness on this earth. In heaven there must be rest.'
We all rode on, but none of us seemed to care to say much. Every step we went seemed to be taking us away from the place where we'd all been so happy together. The next change was sure to be for the worse. What it would be, or when it would come, we none of us could tell.
Starlight and Aileen rode together most of the way, and talked a good deal, we could see. Before we got to the stockyard she rode over to Jim and cheered him up as much as she could about Jeanie. She said she'd write to her, and tell her all about him, and how happy we'd all been together lately; and tell her that Jim would find some way to get down to her this spring, if he could manage it any road.
`If I'm above ground, tell her I'll be with her,' says poor old Jim, `before Christmas. If she don't see me then I'll be dead, and she may put on black and make sure she's a widow.'
`Oh, come, you mustn't talk like that, Jim, and look to the bright side a bit. There's a good chance yet, now the country's so full of diggers and foreigners. You try your luck, and you'll see your wife yet.'
Then she came to me, and talked away just like old times.
`You're the eldest, Dick,' she said, `and so it's proper for me to say what I'm going to say.' Then she told me all that was in her heart about Starlight. He and she had made it up that if he could get away to a foreign country she would join him there, and take mother with her. There was to be no marrying or love-making unless they could carry out that plan. Then she told me that she had always had the same sort of feeling towards him. `When I saw him first I thought I had never seen a man before—never one that I could care for or think of marrying. And now he has told me that he loves me—loves me, a poor ignorant girl that I am; and I will wait for him all my life, and follow him all round the world. I feel as if I could die for him, or wear out my life in trying to make him happy. And yet, and yet,' she said, and all her face grew sad, and put on the old look that I knew so well, so hopeless, so full of quiet bearing of pain, `I have a kind of feeling at my heart that it will never be. Something will happen to me or to him. We are all doomed to sorrow and misfortune, and nothing can save us from our fate.'
`Aileen, dear,' I said, `you are old enough to know what's best for yourself. I didn't think Starlight was on for marrying any woman, but he's far and away the best man we've ever known, so you can please yourself. But you know what the chances are. If he gets clear off, or any of us, after what's been done, you're right. But it's a hundred to one against it.'
`I'll take the odds,' says she, holding up her head. `I'm willing to put my life and happiness, what little there's left of it, on the wager. Things can't well be worse.'
`I don't know,' I said. `I ought to tell you—I must tell you something before we part, though I'd a deal rather not. But you'll bear it better now than in a surprise.'
`Not more blood, more wickedness,' she said, in a half-whisper, and then she looks up stern and angry-like. `When is this list of horrible things to stop?'
`It was none of our doing. Moran and Daly were in it, and——'
`And none of you? Swear that,' she said, so quick and pitiful-like.
`None of us,' I said again; `nor yet Warrigal.'
`Then who did it? Tell me all. I'm not a child. I will know.'
`You remember the man that was rude to you at Rocky Flat, and father and he fired at one another?'
`Of course I do, cowardly wretch that he was. Then Moran was waiting for them up the gully? I wondered that they did not come back next day.'
`They never came back,' I said.
`Why, you don't mean to tell me that they are all dead, all four?—those strong men! Oh, surely not, Dick?' and she caught hold of my arm, and looked up into my face.
`Yes, Aileen, all. We came after and followed up dad, when we got home; it's a wonder he did it by himself. But we saw them all four lying stretched out.'
She put down her head and never spoke more till we parted.
We turned back, miserable enough all of us, God knows. After having Aileen to make the place bright and pleasant and cheer us all up losing her was just as if all the little pleasure we had in our lives was dropped out of them—like the sun going out of the sky, and the wind rising; like the moon clouding over, and a fog burying up everything—dark and damp, the same as we'd had it many a time cattle-driving by night. We hardly spoke a word to one another all the way home, and no wonder.
Next day we all sat about, looking more down on our luck, dad said, than any day since we'd `turned out'. Then Starlight told him about him and Aileen, how they'd made it up to be married some day or other. Not yet, of course; but if he could get away by Melbourne to some of these places—the islands on the Pacific coast, where vessels were always sailing for—he didn't see why his luck shouldn't change. `I have always thought your daughter,' he says to father, `one of the grandest women I ever met, in any degree, gentle or simple. She has had the imprudence to care for me; so, unless you have some well-grounded objection—and I don't say you haven't, mind you, I should if I were in your place—you may as well say you're contented, and wish us luck!'
Father was a long time before he said anything. He sat there, looking very sullen and set-like, while Starlight lit a cigar and walked quietly up and down a few paces off.
Dad answers at last. `I don't say but what other lads would have suited better if they'd come off, but most things goes contrary in this world. The only thing as I'm doubtful of, Captain, is your luck. If that's bad, all the trying and crying won't set it right. And it's great odds as you'll be caught or shot afore the year's out. For that matter, every one of us is working for Government on the same road. But the gal's a good gal, and if she's set her fancy on you I won't block her. You're a pair of dashed fools, that's all, botherin' your heads with the like at a time like this, when you boys are all more likely to have a rope round your necks than any gal's arms, good or bad. Have your own way. You always managed to get it, somehow or other, ever since I knowed ye.'
After this father lit his pipe and went into the cave.
By and by he comes out again and catches the old mare.
`I ain't been out of this blessed hole,' he says, `for a month of Sundays. I'm dead tired of seeing nothin' and doin' nothin'. I'll crawl over to old Davy's for our letters and papers. We ain't heard nothing for a year, seems to me.'
Dad was strong enough to get about in the saddle again, and we weren't sorry to get shut of him for a bit. He was that cranky at times there was no living with him. As for ourselves, we were regular wild for some sort of get away for a bit of a change; so we hadn't talked it over very long before we made up our minds to take a run over to Jonathan Barnes's and have a bit of fun, just to take the taste out of our mouths of Aileen's going away.
We had to dress ourselves very quiet and get fresh horses—nags that had nothing particular about them to make people look, at the same time with a bit of go in them in case we were pushed at any time.
No sooner said than done. We went to work and got everything ready, and by three o'clock we were off—all three of us, and never in better heart in our lives—for a bit of fun or devilment; it didn't matter which came first.
When we got to Jonathan's it was latish, but that didn't matter to us or to the girls neither; they were always ready for a bit of fun, night or day. However, just at first they pretended to be rather high and mighty about this business of Hagan's.
`Oh! it's you, is it?' says Bella, after we walked in. `I don't know as it's safe for us to be knowing such dangerous characters. There's a new law against harbouring, father says. He's pretty frightened, I can tell you, and for two pins we'd be told to shut the door in your faces.'
`You can do that if you like now,' says I; `we shan't want telling twice, I daresay. But what makes you so stiff to-night?'
`Why, Hagan's business, of course,' says Maddie; `four men killed in cold blood. Only I know you couldn't and wouldn't be in it I'd not know any of ye from a crow. There now.'
`Quite right, most beauteous Madeline,' says Starlight; `it was a very dreadful affair, though I believe there was some reason for old Ben being angry. Of course, you know we weren't within miles of the place when it was done. You remember the night we were here last?'
`Of course we do, Captain, quite well. Weren't you going to dance at Bella's wedding and all? You'll have to do that sooner than we expected, though.'
`Glad to hear it, but listen to me, my dear; I want you to know the truth. We rode straight back to the—to where we lived—and, of course, found the old man gone away from the place. We tracked him right enough, but came up when it was all over. Daly and Moran were the chief actors in that tragedy.'
`Oh, we said it was Moran's work from the first, didn't we, Bill? It's just the line he's cut out for. I always think he ought to have a bowl and dagger. He looks like the villain on the stage.'
`On or off the stage he can support the principal part in that line most naturally,' says Starlight; `but I prophesy he will be cut off in the midst of his glorious career. He's beastly cunning, but he'll be trapped yet.'
`It's a pity Jim can't stay a few days with us,' says Maddie; `I believe we'd find a way of passing him on to Victoria. I've known more than one or two, or half-a-dozen either, that has been put through the same way.'
`For God's sake, Mad, lay me on!' says poor Jim, `and I'll go on my knees to you.'
`Oh! I daresay,' says Maddie, looking saucy, `but I like a man to be fond of some woman in a proper way, even if it isn't me; so I'll do what I can to help you to your wife and pickaninny.'
`We must get you into the police force, Maddie,' says Starlight, `or make you a sort of inspector, unattached, if you're so clever at managing these little affairs. But what's the idea?'
`Well,' says she, settling herself in a chair, spreading out her dress, and looking very knowing, `there's an old gentleman being driven all the way overland in a sort of light Yankee trap, and the young fellow that's driving has to find horses and feed 'em, and get so much for the trip.'
`Who is it?' says I.
`Oh! you know him,' says Maddie, looking down, `he's a great friend of mine, a steady-going, good-conducted chap, and he's a little—you understand—well, shook on me. I could persuade him a bit, that is——'
`I don't doubt that at all,' says I.
`Oh! you know him a little. He says he saw you at the Turon; he was working with some Americans. His name's Joe Moreton.'
`I remember him well enough; he used to wear a moustache and a chin beard, and talk Yankee. Only for that he was a good deal like Jim; we always said so.'
`Do you see anything now, Dick, you that's so sharp?' says Maddie.
`Bless my soul,' says Starlight, `of course, it is as clear as your beautiful eyes. Jim is to shave his beard, talk like a Yankee, and go in Joe Moreton's place. I see it all. Maddie persuading Joe to consent to the exchange of duties.'
`But what will his employer say?'
`Oh! he's as bad as bad can be with the sandy blight,' says Maddie, `wears green goggles, poor old gentleman. He'll never know nothing, and he'll be able to swear up for Jim if the police pull him anywhere this side of the Murray.'
We'd told Maddie that money needn't stand in the way, so she was to promise Joe the full sum that he was to get for his contract would be paid to him in cash that night—Jim to pay his own expenses as he went, the same as he was to do himself. Of course she could get the money from old Jonathan. A word from us then was worth a deal more than that'd come to. Money wasn't the worst thing we had to care about.
They would have to change clothes, and he'd tell Jim about the horses, the stages, and how to answer the old cove, and what to do to humour him as they went along. If he'd had his full eyesight he might have noticed some difference, but as it was, it was as much as the poor old chap, she believed, could see there was a driver at all. His eyes was bound up mostly; he had a big shade over 'em, and was half the night swabbing and poulticing, and putting lotion into 'em. He'd got sandy blight that bad it would take months to get right. Once you get a touch like that it's a terror, I can tell you. I've had it that bad myself I had to be led about.
After a lot of talking, that Jim was to try his luck as the Rev. Mr. Watson's coachman, he was mad to get away somehow, and such another chance might never turn up in a month of Sundays. He would have plenty of time to shave his beard and make himself look as like as ever he could to Joe Moreton. Maddie said she'd see after that, and it would be as good as a play. Lucky for old Jim we'd all taken a fancy at the Turon, for once in a way, to talk like Arizona Bill and his mates, just for the fun of the thing. There were so many Americans there at first, and they were such swells, with their silk sashes, bowie knives, and broad-leafed `full-share' hats, that lots of the young native fellows took a pride in copying them, and could walk and talk and guess and calculate wonderful well considering. Besides, most of the natives have a sort of slow, sleepy way of talking, so it partly came natural to this chap, Joe Moreton, and Jim. There couldn't be a better chance, so we thought we'd stay a day and give Jim a send off all square and regular. It wasn't no ways too safe, but we wanted a bit of a jollification and we thought we'd chance it.
That night we had a regular good ball. The girls got some of the young fellows from round about to come over, and a couple or two other girls, and we had no end of fun. There was plenty of champagne, and even Jim picked up a bit; and what with being grateful to Maddie for giving him this lift, and better in spirits on the chance of seeing Jeanie again, he was more like his own self. Maddie said he looked so handsome she had half a mind to throw over Joe Moreton after all.
Joe came rather latish, and the old gentleman had a cup of tea and went to bed at once, leaving word for Joe that he wanted to start almost before daylight, or as soon as he could see to drive, so as to get half-way on their stage before the sun was hot.
After Joe had seen to his horses and put the trap away he came into the house and had a glass or two, and wired in with the rest of us like a good 'un. After a bit we see Maddie corner him off and have a long talk, very serious too. After that they went for a walk in the garden and was away a good while. When she came back she looked over at Jim and nodded, as much as to say, `It's all right,' and I saw poor old Jim's face brighten up as if a light had passed over it.
By and by she came over and told us all about it. She'd had a hard matter to manage it, for Joe was a square sort of fellow, that had a place of his own, and at first didn't like the notion of being mixed up with our crowd at all. But he was regular shook on Maddie, and she went at him as only a woman can, and I daresay, though she didn't tell us, made it part of the bargain, if she was to marry him, to help Jim in this particular way. He was to be well paid for this journey by old Mr. Watson, and he wanted a bit of money before harvest or he wouldn't have taken the job at all.
The end of it was that Jim and Joe sat up ever so late, pretty well on to daylight, smoking and yarning, and Joe practising Jim in all the things he was to do and say, giving him a kind of chart of the stages, and telling him the sort of answers he was to give to the old chap. It was just before daylight when they knocked off, and then Joe goes and peels off his duds and hands 'em over to Jim, rough great-coat and all—up to his chin and down to his toes.
Joe takes Jim's togs. They fitted him all to pieces, and Jim hands him over his horse, saddle, revolver, and spurs, and tells him the old horse is a real plum, and he hopes he'll be good to him. Then Jim shakes hands with us all round. Blessed if the girls wasn't up too, and had some coffee smoking hot for us. `We can sleep when you're all gone,' says Maddie, `and perhaps we shan't see old Jim any more' (this was said when Joe was out of the room), `so here's good luck; and when you've got your wife and child again don't forget Maddie Barnes.' Then she shook hands with him, and made a quick bolt to her own room. Queer things women are, my word.
When old Jim drove round to the front with the pair of horses, setting up square with his big coat and Joe's `full-share' hat on him, we all bursted out laughing. He'd first of all gone to the old gentleman's room and sung out, `All aboard, sir, time's up,' just to liven him up a bit. Joe kept away down at the stable.
Well, presently out comes the old chap, with a veil on and his green goggles, winkin' and blinkin' as if he couldn't see a door from a window. He drinks off a cup of coffee and takes a munch of bread and butter, makes a kind of bow to Bella, and shuffles into his carriage. Jim touches up the horses and away they go. We rose a bit of a cheer. Maddie waved her handkerchief out of the window. Jim looked round and raised his whip. That was the last sight any of us had of him for many a day. Poor old Jim!