The breath was hardly out of him when a horse comes tearing through the scrub on to the little plain, with a man on his back that seemed hurt bad or drunk, he rolled in his saddle so. The head of him was bound up with a white cloth, and what you could see of it was dark-looking, with bloodstains on it. I knew the figure and the seat on a horse, though I couldn't see his face. He didn't seem to have much strength, but he was one of those sort of riders that can't fall off a horse, that is unless they're dead. Even then you'd have to pull him down. I believe he'd hang on somehow like a dead 'possum on a branch.
It was Warrigal!
They all knew him when he came close up, but none of the troopers raised their pieces or thought of stopping him. If a dead man had rode right into the middle of us he'd have looked like that. He stopped his horse, and slipped off on his feet somehow.
He'd had a dreadful wound, any one could see. There was blood on the rags that bound his head all up, and being round his forehead and over his chin it made him look more and more like a corpse. Not much you could see, only his eyes, that were burning bright like two coals of fire.
Up to Starlight's body he goes and sits himself down by it. He takes the dead man's head into his lap, looks down at the face, and bursts out into the awfullest sort of crying and lamenting I ever heard of a living man. I've seen the native women mourning for their dead with the blood and tears running down their faces together. I've known them sit for days and nights without stirring from round a corpse, not taking a bite or sup the whole time. I've seen white people that's lost an only child that had, maybe, been all life and spirits an hour before. But in all my life I have never seen no man, nor woman neither, show such regular right-down grief as Warrigal did for his master—the only human creature he loved in the wide world, and him lying stiff on the ground before him.
He lifts up the dead face and wipes the blood from the lips so careful; talks to it in his own language (or leastways his mother's) like a woman over a child. Then he sobbed and groaned and shook all over as if the very life was going out of him. At last he lays the head very soft and gentle down on the ground and looks round. Sir Ferdinand gives him his handkerchief, and he lays it over the face. Then he turns away from the men that stood round, and got up looking that despairing and wretched that I couldn't help pitying him, though he was the cause of the whole thing as far as we could see.
Sudden as a flash of powder he pulls out a small revolver—a Derringer—Starlight gave him once, and holds it out to me, butt-end first.
`You shoot me, Dick Marston; you shoot me quick,' he says. `It's all my fault. I killed him—I killed the Captain. I want to die and go with him to the never-never country parson tell us about—up there!'
One of the troopers knocked his hand up. Sir Ferdinand gave a nod, and a pair of handcuffs were slipped over his wrists.
`You told the police the way I went?' says I. `It's all come out of that.'
`Thought they'd grab you at Willaroon,' says he, looking at me quite sorrowful with his dark eyes, like a child. `If you hadn't knocked me down that last time, Dick Marston, I'd never have done nothing to you nor Jim. I forgot about the old down. That brought it all back again. I couldn't help it, and when I see Jimmy Wardell I thought they'd catch you and no one else.'
`Well, you've made a clean sweep of the lot of us, Warrigal,' says I, `poor Jim and all. Don't you ever show yourself to the old man or go back to the Hollow, if you get out of this.'
`He's dead now. I'll never hear him speak again,' says he, looking over to the figure on the grass. `What's the odds about me?'
I didn't hear any more; I must have fainted away again. Things came into my head about being taken in a cart back to Cunnamulla, with Jim lying dead on one side of me and Starlight on the other. I was only half-sensible, I expect. Sometimes I thought we were alive, and another time that the three of us were dead and going to be buried.
What makes it worse I've seen that sight so often since—the fight on the plain and the end of it all. Just like a picture it comes back to me over and over again, sometimes in broad day, as I sit in my cell, in the darkest midnight, in the early dawn.
It rises before my eyes—the bare plain, and the dead men lying where they fell; Sir Ferdinand on his horse, with the troopers standing round; and the half-caste sitting with Starlight's head in his lap, rocking himself to and fro, and crying and moaning like a woman that's lost her child.
I can see Jim, too—lying on his face with his hat rolled off and both arms spread out wide. He never moved after. And to think that only the day before he had thought he might see his wife and child again! Poor old Jim! If I shut my eyes they won't go away. It will be the last sight I shall see in this world before—before I'm——
The coroner of the district held an inquest, and the jury found a verdict of `justifiable homicide by Sir Ferdinand Morringer and other members of the police force of New South Wales in the case of one James Marston, charged with robbery under arms, and of a man habitually known as "Starlight", but of whose real name there was no evidence before the jury.' As for the police, it was wilful murder against us. Warrigal and I were remanded to Turon Court for further evidence, and as soon as we were patched up a bit by the doctor—for both of us looked like making a die of it for two or three weeks—we were started on horseback with four troopers overland all the way back. We went easy stages—we couldn't ride any way fast—both of us handcuffed, and our horses led.
One day, about a fortnight after, as we were crossing a river, Warrigal's horse stopped to drink. It was a swim in the middle of the stream, and the trooper, who was a young chap just from the depot, let go his leading rein for a bit. Warrigal had been as quiet as a lamb all the time, and they hadn't a thought of his playing up. I heard a splash, and looked round; his horse's head was turned to the bank, and, before the trooper could get out of the river, he was into the river scrub and away as fast as his horse could carry him. Both the troopers went after him, and we waited half-an-hour, and then went on to the next police station to stop till they came back.
Next day, late, they rode in with their horses regularly done and knocked up, leading his horse, but no Warrigal. He had got clear away from them in the scrub, jumped off his horse when they were out of sight, taken off his boots and made a straight track for the West Bogan scrub. There was about as much chance of running him down there as a brumbie with a day's start or a wallaroo that was seen on a mountain side the week before last. I didn't trouble my head that much to think whether I was glad or sorry. What did it matter? What did anything matter now? The only two men I loved in the world were dead; the two women I loved best left forsaken and disgraced; and I—well, I was on my way to be hanged!
I was taken along to Turon and put into the gaol, there to await my trial. They didn't give me much of a chance to bolt, and I wouldn't have taken it if they had. I was dead tired of my life, and wouldn't have taken my liberty then and there if they'd given it me. All I wanted was to have the whole thing done and over without any more bother.
It all passed like a dream. The court was crowded till there wasn't standing room, every one wanting to get a look at Dick Marston, the famous bush-ranger. The evidence didn't take so very long. I was proved to have been seen with the rest the day the escort was robbed; the time the four troopers were shot. I was suspected of being concerned in Hagan's party's death, and half-a-dozen other things. Last of all, when Sub-Inspector Goring was killed, and a trooper, besides two others badly wounded.
I was sworn to as being one of the men that fired on the police. I didn't hear a great deal of it, but 'livened up when the judge put on his black cap and made a speech, not a very long one, telling about the way the law was set at naught by men who had dared to infest the highways of the land and rob peaceful citizens with arms and violence. In the pursuit of gain by such atrocious means, blood had been shed, and murder, wilful murder, had been committed. He would not further allude to the deeds of blood with which the prisoner at the bar stood charged. The only redeeming feature in his career had been brought out by the evidence tendered in his favour by the learned counsel who defended him. He had fought fairly when opposed by the police force, and he had on more than one occasion acted in concert with the robber known as Starlight, and the brother James Marston, both of whom had fallen in a recent encounter, to protect from violence women who were helpless and in the power of his evil companions. Then the judge pronounced the sentence that I, Richard Marston, was to be taken from the place whence I came, and there hanged by the neck until I was dead. `And might God have mercy upon my soul!'
My lawyer had beforehand argued that although I had been seen in the company of persons who had doubtless compassed the unlawfully slaying of the Queen's lieges and peace officers, yet no proof had been brought before the court that day that I had wilfully killed any one. `He was not aware,' would his Honour remark, `that any one had seen me fire at any man, whether since dead or alive. He would freely admit that. I had been seen in bad company, but that fact would not suffice to hang a man under British rule. It was therefore incumbent on the jury to bring in a verdict for his client of "not guilty".'
But that cock wouldn't fight. I was found guilty by the jury and sentenced to death by the judge. I expect I was taken back without seeing or hearing to the gaol, and I found myself alone in the condemned cell, with heavy leg-irons—worn for the first time in my life. The rough and tumble of a bush-ranger's life was over at last, and this was the finish up.
For the first week or two I didn't feel anything particular. I was hardly awake. Sometimes I thought I must be dreaming—that this man, sitting in a cell, quiet and dull-looking, with heavy irons on his limbs, could never be Dick Marston, the shearer, the stock-rider, the gold-miner, the bush-ranger.
This was the end—the end—the end! I used to call it out sometimes louder and louder, till the warder would come in to see if I had gone mad.
Bit by bit I came to my right senses. I almost think I felt sharper and clearer in my head than I had done for ever so long. Then I was able to realise the misery I had come down to after all our blowing and roving. This was the crush-yard and no gateway. I was safe to be hanged in six weeks, or thereabouts—hanged like a dog! Nothing could alter that, and I didn't want it if it could.
And how did the others get on, those that had their lives bound up with ours, so that we couldn't be hurt without their bleeding, almost in their hearts?—that is, mother's bled to death, at any rate; when she heard of Jim's death and my being taken it broke her heart clean; she never held her head up after. Aileen told me in her letter she used to nurse his baby and cry over him all day, talking about her dear boy Jim. She was laid in the burying-ground at St. Kilda. As to Aileen, she had long vowed herself to the service of the Virgin. She knew that she was committing sin in pledging herself to an earthly love. She had been punished for her sin by the death of him she loved, and she had settled in her mind to go into the convent at Soubiaca, where she should be able to wear out her life in prayer for those of her blood who still lived, as well as for the souls of those who lay in the little burying-ground on the banks of the far Warrego.
Jeanie settled to stop in Melbourne. She had money enough to keep her comfortable, and her boy would be brought up in a different style from his father.
As for Gracey, she sent me a letter in which she said she was like the bird that could only sing one song. She would remain true to me in life and death. George was very kind, and would never allow any one to speak harshly of his former friends. We must wait and make the best of it.
So I was able, you see, to get bits of news even in a condemned cell, from time to time, about the outside world. I learned that Wall and Hulbert and Moran and another fellow were still at large, and following up their old game. Their time, like ours, was drawing short, though.
Well, this has been a thundering long yarn, hasn't it? All my whole life I seem to have lived over again. It didn't take so long in the telling; it's a month to-day since I began. And this life itself has reeled away so quick, it hardly seems a dozen years instead of seven-and-twenty since it began. It won't last much longer. Another week and it will be over. There's a fellow to be strung up before me, for murdering his wife. The scoundrel, I wonder how he feels?
I've had visitors too; some I never thought to see inside this gaol wall. One day who should come in but Mr. Falkland and his daughter. There was a young gentleman with them that they told me was an English lord, a baronet, or something of that sort, and was to be married to Miss Falkland. She stood and looked at me with her big innocent eyes, so pitiful and kind-like. I could have thrown myself down at her feet. Mr. Falkland talked away, and asked me about this and that. He seemed greatly interested. When I told him about the last fight, and of poor Jim being shot dead, and Starlight dying alongside the old horse, the tears came into Miss Falkland's eyes, and she cried for a bit, quite feeling and natural.
Mr. Falkland asked me all about the robbery at Mr. Knightley's, and took down a lot of things in his pocket-book. I wondered what he did that for.
When they said good-bye Mr. Falkland shook hands with me, and said `he hoped to be able to do some good for me, but not to build anything on the strength of it.'
Then Miss Falkland came forward and held out her beautiful hand to me—to me, as sure as you live—like a regular thoroughbred angel, as she always was. It very nigh cooked me. I felt so queer and strange, I couldn't have spoken a word to save my life.
Sir George, or whatever his name was, didn't seem to fancy it over much, for he said—
`You colonists are strange people. Our friend here may think himself highly favoured.'
Miss Falkland turned towards him and held up her head, looking like a queen, as she was, and says she—
`If you had met me in the last place where I saw this man and his brother, you would not wonder at my avowing my gratitude to both of them. I should despise myself if I did not. Poor Jim saved my life on one occasion, and on another, but far more dreadful day, he—but words, mere words, can never express my deep thankfulness for his noble conduct, and were he here now I would tell him so, and give him my hand, if all the world stood by.'
Sir George didn't say anything after that, and she swept out of the cell, followed by Mr. Falkland and him. It was just as well for him to keep a quiet tongue in his head. I expect she was a great heiress as well as a great beauty, and people of that sort, I've found, mostly get listened to when they speak. When the door shut I felt as if I'd seen the wings of an angel flit through it, and the prison grew darker and darker like the place of lost souls.