`Now then, you boys!' says father, coming up all of a sudden like, and bringing out his words as if it was old times with us, when we didn't know whether he'd hit first and talk afterwards, or the other way on, `get out the lot we've just branded, and drive 'em straight for that peak, where the water shines dripping over the stones, right again the sun, and look slippy; we're burning daylight, and these cows are making row enough, blast 'em! to be heard all the way to Banda. I'll go on and steady the lead; you keep 'em close up to me.'
Father mounted the old mare. The dog stopped behind; he knew he'd have to mind the tail—that is the hindmost cattle—and stop 'em from breaking or running clear away from the others. We threw down the rails. Away the cattle rushed out, all in a long string. You'd 'a thought no mortal men could 'a kept 'em in that blind hole of a place. But father headed 'em, and turned 'em towards the peak.The dog worried those that wanted to stay by the yard or turn another way. We dropped our whip on 'em, and kept 'em going. In five minutes they were all a-moving along in one mob at a pretty sharpish trot like a lot of store cattle. Father knew his way about, whether the country was thick or open. It was all as one to him. What a slashing stockman he would have made in new country, if he only could have kept straight.
It took us an hour's hard dinkum to get near the peak. Sometimes it was awful rocky, as well as scrubby, and the poor devils of cattle got as sore-footed as babies—blood up to the knee, some of 'em; but we crowded 'em on; there was no help for it.
At last we rounded up on a flat, rocky, open kind of a place; and here father held up his hand.
`Let 'em ring a bit; some of their tongues are out. These young things is generally soft. Come here, Dick.' I rode up, and he told me to follow him.
We walked our horses up to the edge of the mountain and looked over. It was like the end of the world. Far down there was a dark, dreadful drop into a sort of deep valley below. You couldn't see the bottom of it. The trees on the mountain side looked like bushes, and they were big ironbarks and messmates too. On three sides of us was this awful, desolate-looking precipice—a dreary, gloomy, God-forsaken kind of spot. The sky got cloudy, and the breeze turned cold and began to murmur and whistle in an odd, unnatural kind of way, while father, seeing how scared and puzzled I was, began to laugh. I shuddered. A thought crossed my mind that it might be the Enemy of Souls, in his shape, going to carry us off for doing such a piece of wickedness.
`Looks queer, doesn't it?' says father, going to the brink and kicking down a boulder, that rolled and crashed down the steep mountain side, tearing its way through scrub and heath till it settled down in the glen below. `It won't do for a man's horse to slip, will it, boy? And yet there's a track here into a fine large paddock, open and clear, too, where I'm going to put these cattle into.'
I stared at him, without speaking, thinking was he mad.
`No! the old man isn't mad, youngster,' he said; `not yet, at least. I'm going to show you a trick that none of you native boys are up to, smart as you think yourselves.' Here he got off the old mare and began to lead her to the edge of the mountain.
`Now, you rally the cattle well after me,' he said; `they'll follow the old mare after a bit. I left a few cows among 'em on purpose, and when they "draw" keep 'em going well up, but not too fast.'
He had lengthened the bridle of the mare, and tied the end of a light tether rope that he had round her neck to it. I saw her follow him slowly, and turn down a rocky track that seemed to lead straight over a bluff of the precipice.
However, I gave the word to `head on'. The dog had started rounding 'em up as soon as he saw the old mare walk towards the mountain side, and the cattle were soon crushed up pretty close to the mare's heels.
Mind this, that they were so footsore and tender about the hoofs that they could not have run away from us on foot if they had tried.
After `ringing' a bit, one of the quiet cows followed up the old mare that was walking step by step forward, and all the rest followed her like sheep. Cattle will do that. I've seen a stockrider, when all the horses were dead beat, trying to get fat cattle to take a river in flood, jump off and turn his horse loose into the stream. If he went straight, and swam across, all the cattle would follow him like sheep.
Well, when the old mare got to the bluff she turned short round to the right, and then I saw that she had struck a narrow path down a gully that got deeper and deeper every yard we went. There was just room for a couple or three calves to go abreast, and by and by all of 'em was walking down it like as if they was the beasts agoing into Noah's Ark. It wound and wound and got deeper and deeper till the walls of rock were ever so far above our heads. Our work was done then; the cattle had to walk on like sheep in a race. We led our horses behind them, and the dog walked along, saving his sore feet as well as he could, and never tried to bite a beast once he got within the walls. He looked quite satisfied, and kept chuckling almost to himself. I really believe I've seen dogs laugh. Once upon a time I've read of they'd have taken poor Crib for a familiar spirit, and hanged or burnt him. Well, he knew a lot, and no mistake. I've seen plenty of Christians as he could buy and sell, and no trouble to him. I'm dashed if the old mare, too, didn't take a pleasure in working cattle on the cross. She was the laziest old wretch bringing up the cows at home, or running in the horses. Many a time Jim and I took a turn out of her when father didn't know. But put her after a big mob of cattle—she must have known they couldn't be ours—and she'd clatter down a range like the wall of a house, and bite and kick the tail cattle if they didn't get out of her way. They say dogs and horses are all honest, and it's only us as teaches 'em to do wrong. My notion's they're a deal like ourselves, and some of 'em fancies the square racket dull and safe, while some takes a deal kindlier to the other. Anyhow, no cattle-duffer in the colonies could have had a better pair of mates than old Sally and Crib, if the devil himself had broken 'em in special for the trade.
It was child's play now, as far as the driving went. Jim and I walked along, leading our horses and yarning away as we used to do when we were little chaps bringing in the milkers.
`My word, Dick, dad's dropped into a fine road through this thundering mountain, hasn't he? I wonder where it leads to? How high the rock-walls are getting above us!' he says. `I know now. I think I heard long ago from one of the Crosbies of a place in the ranges down towards behind the Nulla Mountain, "Terrible Hollow". He didn't know about it himself, but said an old stockman told him about it when he was drunk. He said the Government men used to hide the cattle and horses there in old times, and that it was never found out.'
`Why wasn't it found out, Jim? If the old fellow "split" about it some one else would get to know.'
`Well, old Dan said that they killed one man that talked of telling; the rest were too frightened after that, and they all swore a big oath never to tell any one except he was on the cross.'
`That's how dad come to know, I suppose,' said Jim. `I wish he never had. I don't care about those cross doings. I never did. I never seen any good come out of them yet.'
`Well, we must go through with it now, I suppose. It won't do to leave old dad in the lurch. You won't, will you, Jim?'
`You know very well I won't,' says Jim, very soberlike. `I don't like it any the more for that. But I wish father had broke his leg, and was lying up at home, with mother nursing him, before he found out this hell-hole of a place.'
`Well, we're going to get out of it, and soon too. The gully seems getting wider, and I can see a bit of open country through the trees.'
`Thank God for that!' says Jim. `My boots'll part company soon, and the poor devils of calves won't have any hoofs either, if there's much more of this.'
`They're drawing faster now. The leading cattle are beginning to run. We're at the end of the drive.'
So it was. The deep, rocky gully gradually widened into an open and pretty smooth flat; this, again, into a splendid little plain, up to the knees in grass; a big natural park, closed round on every side with sandstone rockwalls, as upright as if they were built, and a couple of thousand feet above the place where we stood.
This scrub country was crossed by two good creeks; it was several miles across, and a trifle more in length. Our hungry weaners spread out and began to feed, without a notion of their mothers they'd left behind; but they were not the only ones there. We could see other mobs of cattle, some near, some farther off; horses, too; and the well-worn track in several ways showed that this was no new grazing ground.
Father came riding back quite comfortable and hearty-like for him.
`Welcome to Terrible Hollow, lads,' says he. `You're the youngest chaps it has ever been shown to, and if I didn't know you were the right stuff, you'd never have seen it, though you're my own flesh and blood. Jump off, and let your horses go. They can't get away, even if they tried; they don't look much like that.'
Our poor nags were something like the cattle, pretty hungry and stiff. They put their heads down to the thick green grass, and went in at it with a will.
`Bring your saddles along with you,' father said, `and come after me. I'll show you a good camping place. You deserve a treat after last night's work.'
We turned back towards the rocky wall, near to where we had come in, and there, behind a bush and a big piece of sandstone that had fallen down, was the entrance to a cave. The walls of it were quite clean and white-looking, the floor was smooth, and the roof was pretty high, well blackened with smoke, too, from the fires which had been lighted in it for many a year gone by.
A kind of natural cellar had been made by scooping out the soft sandstone behind a ledge. From this father took a bag of flour and corn-meal. We very soon made some cakes in the pan, that tasted well, I can tell you. Tea and sugar too, and quart pots, some bacon in a flour-bag; and that rasher fried in the pan was the sweetest meat I ever ate in all my born days.
Then father brought out a keg and poured some rum into a pint pot. He took a pretty stiff pull, and then handed it to us. `A little of it won't hurt you, boys,' he said, `after a night's work.'
I took some—not much; we hadn't learned to drink then—to keep down the fear of something hanging over us. A dreadful fear it is. It makes a coward of every man who doesn't lead a square life, let him be as game as he may.
Jim wouldn't touch it. `No,' he said, when I laughed at him, `I promised mother last time I had more than was good for me at Dargo Races that I wouldn't touch it again for two years; and I won't either. I can stand what any other man can, and without the hard stuff, either.'
`Please yourself,' said father. `When you're ready we'll have a ride through the stock.'
We finished our meal, and a first-rate one it was. A man never has the same appetite for his meals anywhere else that he has in the bush, specially if he has been up half the night. It's so fresh, and the air makes him feel as if he'd ate nothing for a week. Sitting on a log, or in the cave, as we were, I've had the best meal I've ever tasted since I was born. Not like the close-feeling, close-smelling, dirty-clean graveyard they call a gaol. But it's no use beginning on that. We were young men, and free, too. Free! By all the devils in hell, if there are devils—and there must be to tempt a man, or how could he be so great a fool, so blind a born idiot, as to do anything in this world that would put his freedom in jeopardy? And what for? For folly and nonsense. For a few pounds he could earn with a month's honest work and be all the better man for it. For a false woman's smile that he could buy, and ten like her, if he only kept straight and saving. For a bit of sudden pride or vanity or passion. A short bit of what looks like pleasure, against months and years of weariness, and cold and heat, and dull half-death, with maybe a dog's death at the end!
I could cry like a child when I think of it now. I have cried many's the time and often since I have been shut up here, and dashed my head against the stones till I pretty nigh knocked all sense and feeling out of it, not so much in repentance, though I don't say I feel sorry, but to think what a fool, fool, fool I'd been. Yes, fool, three times over—a hundred times—to put my liberty and life against such a miserable stake—a stake the devil that deals the pack is so safe to win at the end.
I may as well go on. But I can't help breaking out sometimes when I hear the birds calling to one another as they fly over the yard, and know it's fresh air and sun and green grass outside that I never shall see again. Never see the river rippling under the big drooping trees, or the cattle coming down in the twilight to drink after the long hot day. Never, never more! And whose fault is it? Who have I to blame? Perhaps father helped a bit; but I knew better, and no one is half as much to blame as myself.
Where were we? Oh, at the cave-mouth, coming out with our bridles in our hands to catch our horses. We soon did that, and then we rode away to the other cattle. They were a queer lot, in fine condition, but all sorts of ages and breeds, with every kind of brand and ear-mark.
Lots of the brands we didn't know, and had never heard of. Some had no brands at all—full-grown beasts, too; that was a thing we had very seldom seen. Some of the best cattle and some of the finest horses—and there were some real plums among the horses—had a strange brand, JJ.
`Who does the JJ brand belong to?' I said to father. `They're the pick of the lot, whose ever they are.'
Father looked black for a bit, and then he growled out, `Don't you ask too many questions, lad. There's only four living men besides yourselves knows about this place; so take care and don't act foolishly, or you'll lose a plant that may save your life, as well as keep you in cash for many a year to come. That brand belongs to Starlight, and he was the only man left alive of the men that first found it and used it to put away stock in. He wanted help, and told me five years ago. He took in a half-caste chap, too, against my will. He helped him with that last lot of cattle that you noticed.'
`But where did those horses come from?' Jim said. `I never hardly saw such a lot before. All got the JJ brand on, too, and nothing else; all about three year old.'
`They were brought here as foals,' says father, `following their mothers. Some of them was foaled here; and, of course, as they've only the one brand on they never can be claimed or sworn to. They're from some of Mr. Maxwell's best thoroughbred mares, and their sire was Earl of Atheling, imported. He was here for a year.'
`Well, they might look the real thing,' said Jim, his eyes brightening as he gazed at them. `I'd like to have that dark bay colt with the star. My word, what a forehand he's got; and what quarters, too. If he can't gallop I'll never say I know a horse from a poley cow.'
`You shall have him, or as good, never fear, if you stick to your work,' says father. `You mustn't cross Starlight, for he's a born devil when he's taken the wrong way, though he talks so soft. The half-caste is an out-and-out chap with cattle, and the horse doesn't stand on four legs that he can't ride—and make follow him, for the matter of that. But he's worth watching. I don't believe in him myself. And now ye have the lot.'
`And a d—d fine lot they are,' I said, for I was vexed with Jim for taking so easy to the bait father held out to him about the horse. `A very smart crowd to be on the roads inside of five years, and drag us in with 'em.'
`How do you make that out?' says father. `Are you going to turn dog, now you know the way in? Isn't it as easy to carry on for a few years more as it was twenty years ago?'
`Not by a long chalk,' I said, for my blood was up, and I felt as if I could talk back to father and give him as good as he sent, and all for Jim's sake. Poor Jim! He'd always go to the mischief for the sake of a good horse, and many another `Currency' chap has gone the same way. It's a pity for some of 'em that a blood horse was ever foaled.
`You think you can't be tracked,' says I, `but you must bear in mind you haven't got to do with the old-fashioned mounted police as was potterin' about when this "bot" was first hit on. There's chaps in the police getting now, natives or all the same, as can ride and track every bit as well as the half-caste you're talking about. Some day they'll drop on the track of a mob coming in or getting out, and then the game will be all up.'
`You can cut it if you like now,' said father, looking at me curious like. `Don't say I dragged you in. You and your brother can go home, and no one will ever know where you were; no more than if you'd gone to the moon.'
Jim looked at the brown colt that just came trotting up as dad finished speaking—trotting up with his head high and his tail stuck out like a circus horse. If he'd been the devil in a horsehide he couldn't have chosen a better moment. Then his eyes began to glitter.
We all three looked at each other. No one spoke. The colt stopped, turned, and galloped back to his mates like a red flyer with the dogs close behind him.
It was not long. We all began to speak at once. But in that time the die was cast, the stakes were down, and in the pool were three men's lives.
`I don't care whether we go back or not,' says Jim; `I'll do either way that Dick likes. But that colt I must have.'
`I never intended to go back,' I said. `But we're three d—d fools all the same—father and sons. It'll be the dearest horse you ever bought, Jim, old man, and so I tell you.'
`Well, I suppose it's settled now,' says father; `so let's have no more chat. We're like a pack of old women, blessed if we ain't.'
After that we got on more sociably. Father took us all over the place, and a splendid paddock it was—walled all round but where we had come in, and a narrow gash in the far side that not one man in a thousand could ever hit on, except he was put up to it; a wild country for miles when you did get out—all scrub and rock, that few people ever had call to ride over. There was splendid grass everywhere, water, and shelter. It was warmer, too, than the country above, as you could see by the coats of the cattle and horses.
`If it had only been honestly come by,' Jim said, `what a jolly place it would have been!'
Towards the north end of the paddock was a narrow gully with great sandstone walls all round, and where it narrowed the first discoverers had built a stockyard, partly with dry stone walls and partly with logs and rails.
There was no trouble in getting the cattle or horses into this, and there were all kinds of narrow yards and pens for branding the stock if they were clearskins, and altering or `faking' the brands if they were plain. This led into another yard, which opened into the narrowest part of the gully. Once in this, like the one they came down, and the cattle or horses had no chance but to walk slowly up, one behind the other, till they got on the tableland above. Here, of course, every kind of work that can be done to help disguise cattle was done. Ear-marks were cut out and altered in shape, or else the whole ear was cropped off; every letter in the alphabet was altered by means of straight bars or half-circles, figures, crosses, everything you could think of.
`Mr. Starlight is an edicated man,' said father. `This is all his notion; and many a man has looked at his own beast, with the ears altered and the brand faked, and never dreamed he ever owned it. He's a great card is Starlight. It's a pity he ever took to this kind of life.'
Father said this with a kind of real sorrow that made me look at him to see if the grog had got into his head; just as if his life, mine, and Jim's didn't matter a straw compared to this man's, whoever he was, that had had so many better chances than we had and had chucked 'em all away.
But it's a strange thing that I don't think there's any place in the world where men feel a more real out-and-out respect for a gentleman than in Australia. Everybody's supposed to be free and equal now; of course, they couldn't be in the convict days. But somehow a man that's born and bred a gentleman will always be different from other men to the end of the world. What's the most surprising part of it is that men like father, who have hated the breed and suffered by them, too, can't help having a curious liking and admiration for them. They'll follow them like dogs, fight for them, shed their blood, and die for them; must be some sort of a natural feeling. Whatever it is, it's there safe enough, and nothing can knock it out of nine-tenths of all the men and women you meet. I began to be uneasy to see this wonderful mate of father's, who was so many things at once—a cattle-stealer, a bush-ranger, and a gentleman.