"How is this?" I asked; "are we not to start immediately? Delays are dangerous."
"Patience, my friends," returned the officer, leading the way towards the stockman's hut. "I value your lives too much to think of asking you to undertake a jaunt of twelve or thirteen miles at noonday, when the sun is hottest."
"But we are capable of the task," replied Fred, energetically.
"I have no doubt of it, gentlemen; but if you can endure heat and privation, my men and horses cannot. Why, before we could gain the edge of yonder wood, half of the men would be sun-struck, and two-thirds of the animals would expire for the want of water. No, no, trust to me, and let us take the cool of the evening."
"But we shall reach the woods too late to make an investigation," I said.
"It is very probable," answered the officer, entering the hut, where the convict's daughter was lying on a rude bedstead, made of the skin of an ox.
"But have you no fear of an ambuscade?" exclaimed Fred, who began to entertain an opinion that the lieutenant was not well posted on the subject of bush-fighting.
"Not in the least," replied the Englishman, removing his coat and heavy sword belt, and stretching himself on a box.
"O, then you will keep skirmishers in advance of the main body, I suppose?" Fred said.
"No," answered the officer, lighting his pipe: and then, observing an expression of surprise on our faces, he continued,—
"Do you take me for such a greenhorn as to suppose that I would enter a wood after dark? No, sir; I've studied the habits and cunning of bushrangers for many years, and seen much service during that time. I shall start near dark, halt half a mile from the edge of the forest, and remain there until daylight. Does that suit your ideas of our peculiar kind of warfare?"
We could offer no objections to the plan proposed; and as we were to spend the day in idleness, looked around the hut for something to make a breakfast on. The policeman guessed our thoughts, for he called one of his men, and gave him an order.
"Get coffee and breakfast ready, Maurice," he said, "and when ready, serve it here."
The man bowed, saluted his superior, and retired with military precision.
"An old soldier," said the lieutenant, carelessly; "he has served through half a dozen campaigns in India."
"And did he never rise above the ranks?" I asked.
"Never obtained a position higher than that of corporal; but that is not extraordinary in the English army. Promotion with us goes with birth and influence, not merit and brave deeds. Maurice has distinguished himself in many a hotly-contested field; yet now, in his old age, he draws a trifling pension, and is glad to be enrolled in the police force of Melbourne, where better pay and quick promotion awaits him."
"As you have been in the country for many years, suppose that you give us a short account of your experience," cried Fred.
"Willingly; but wait until after breakfast. That woman is getting better—hear her breath, regular and natural. Let her father come in to tend her, if he wishes."
The latter remark was made to one of his privates, who stood at the door, and had prevented the entrance of the aged convict. The father entered with a humble air, and seated himself near his daughter's side.
He appeared too grateful for the privilege of thus remaining in the presence of his superior to pay any attention to his conversation; and when breakfast had been disposed of, and our pipes were lighted, each of us chose a comfortable place to rest at full length on the floor of the hut, and discuss matters and things in Australia. I found the lieutenant a rare companion, and a man that had seen much service in the country.
"We have a number of hours to spare before we undertake our expedition," said Fred, during a pause in the conversation; "suppose you favor us with a short history of some of your adventures in this country. You have seen many years' service as a police agent, and tales of no ordinary kind must be familiar to you."
"If I should tell you of the murders which the bushrangers sometimes commit, when they have a thirst for blood, you would think I was romancing," answered the officer.
We both protested against such an idea, and Lieutenant Murden—that was his name, and I am glad to see that, since I left Melbourne, he has been promoted to a captaincy—knocked the ashes from his pipe, carefully reloaded it, told the sentinel at the door to keep his eyes open, and not let a gang of robbers approach the hut unperceived, wet his lips with the contents of a flask, which he carried about his person, lighted his pipe with a match, and then began.
* * * * *
LIEUTENANT MURDEN'S STORY.
"Not long since, the whole police force of the country was thrown into a state of great excitement and vigilance, owing to the desperate deeds of two convicts, who seized a schooner on the coast, compelled the crew, on the pain of instant death, to navigate her to a distant part of the island, and by keeping their guns pointed at the heads of the frightened men, and relieving each other at the task, were enabled to accomplish their ends.
"The convicts were landed, and to repay the sailors for their kindness and forbearance, they shot the two men that rowed them ashore; and, from the time that they set foot on land, until the day of their death, their course was marked with blood.
"They took the life of every human being that stood in their way. The most unreasonable request, if there was a moment's hesitation, was rewarded with a bullet; and it seemed as though demons, not men, were thirsting for the blood which was shed so profusely.
"The news of the murderers' doings was brought post haste to Melbourne, and I and my troop were ordered to start immediately for the bush, and secure them, dead or alive. Extraordinary powers were granted me by the government. I could take horses or cattle, or even press men into my service, if I thought desirable, for the purpose of capturing the bushrangers. Hardly a moment of preparation was allowed me, beyond the choice of twelve men, whom I knew I could rely upon; and even while I was conversing with the superintendent, another messenger arrived with the news of fresh butcheries, more bloody and brutal than the last.
"At eight on the evening of the day that I was ordered to take my departure, my troop was leaving Melbourne on the road leading towards Ballarat, in which direction I learned the convicts were travelling.
"At two o'clock we halted at a cattle station; and while some of our men changed saddles from our tired horses to fresh ones, the remainder cooked a kettle of coffee, and broiled a piece of beef, to stay our stomachs during our long ride. From the stockman we obtained some information, as the bushrangers had visited his cattle station two days before, selected what animals they wished, and then shot the companion of the man we were conversing with.
"At seven o'clock we again halted at a cattle station, but for ten minutes we could not find a soul to answer our questions. We searched the hut and an adjoining piece of woods, in hope of finding somebody who would give us a little information. As time was precious, however, I was on the point of borrowing what animals I wanted, when two of my men brought in a native, half dead with fear. He had been found secreted under some brush in the woods, and all our persuasions could hardly convince him that his life was not in danger.
"After an immense amount of questioning, I learned that the two murderers had visited the cattle station the day before, had shot the keeper, and would have killed the native had he not fled to the woods for protection. After the deed, they ransacked the hut thoroughly, possessed themselves of a quantity of rum which they found, renewed their supply of ammunition, mounted fresh horses, and were off in the direction of Ballarat at full gallop, according to the account of the native.
"It only remained for us to follow as fast as possible. In twelve hours we had travelled a distance of one hundred miles; and although we felt the want of rest, yet I knew that time was too precious to waste in sleep. A hasty breakfast, and we were off; but before we had rode twelve miles our attention was attracted near the roadside by seeing a flock of birds hovering in the air and uttering shrill cries. I endeavored to get my horse to approach the place, but with starting eyes and every indication of terror, he refused to move.
"I dismounted, and entered the hushes, and found my suspicions confirmed. Two men were lying dead on the ground, both with bullet holes through their heads. I made a short examination, and satisfied myself that the murders were committed the day before, and that the bodies were dragged amongst the bushes, after being robbed of every thing valuable about their persons.
"Time was too precious to give Christian burial to the dead men, even if we had had the proper tools to open the earth. With a sigh, we left the birds their prey, and once more continued our journey through the wildest part of the sterile country between Melbourne and Ballarat.
"On, on, we went, urging our panting, tired beasts without mercy; and just as we thought we should have to halt, to allow the animals a resting spell, we reached the large cattle station of Witon Martells. Here we found every thing in confusion; and although usually half a dozen men were employed at the station, only two came out to greet us, and they wore frightened visages.
"We soon heard their story. The murderers had rode up to the hut about six o'clock the evening before, and wished to exchange horses. The stockmen refused; and hardly were the words from their mouths before one of the convicts drew a revolver, and fired upon those standing in front of him; and while he was thus amusing himself, his companion sat on his horse, and laughed to see those not instantly killed endeavor to get away! Three men fell under the fire, and hardly knew what caused their death, it was so sudden. One man, mortally wounded, was just dying as we rode up; and the two that came to greet us had saved their lives by taking to their heels, and entering the bush.
"They had watched the convicts pick from the herd of horses the most able and strongest nags, and then, after eating what they could find ready cooked in the hut, started for Ballarat, where, no doubt, amongst the crowd of miners, they thought they would escape detection.
"Throughout the long night we spurred onward, and when daylight appeared, tired and sore with our journey, we stopped at another station to change horses. The murderers had left their mark at that place also, and in front of the door was the stockman shot through the heart, and stone dead.
"The men selected a number of animals, and after our never-failing stimulant, a cup of coffee, and a piece of broiled meat, we were in the saddle again, and galloping towards the next station, where I knew it would be impossible for the convicts to obtain fresh horses, as sheep only were kept there.
"At twelve o'clock we reached the station, and drew up at the door. There was no sign of life about the premises, and with sad misgivings, I dismounted, and entered the hut; but I started back in horror, for on the floor were a dozen men, motionless and lifeless, as I at first thought; but a closer examination convinced me that they were bound hand and foot, and their mouths gagged.
"It may seem to you incredible, but it is nevertheless true, and only proves what resolute men can accomplish when opposed to weakness. Twelve men were surprised and bound, and made to lie flat on their backs at the word of command, and so well did they obey the instructions of the murderers, that the latter, very probably, were too much pleased with their compliance to waste powder on them.
"I did not upbraid them with their cowardice, for I know what human nature is, and perhaps, had I been of the party, I might have submitted to the same degradation.
"There was one thing that I learned from the released prisoners that pleased me. The convicts had left their horses at the station, and expressed a determination to return in a few hours' time for them. Where the villains had gone they did not know, or in what direction they departed. A native, however, who was employed at the station, searched for their footsteps, and was not long in finding them.
"The trail led to the woods, and the men stationed at the hut expressed an opinion that the convicts were in search of a gang of bushrangers, that had been secreted in the vicinity for many months, but had recently disbanded, and gone to the mines.
"I expected that the murderers would return to the hut for their horses, when they found that the men they wished to join were no longer organized as a gang; so bidding the men conceal the horses, and retire within the walls of the stock-house, I waited hour after hour for them to come in sight.
"About four o'clock, my wish was gratified. Two stout, black-whiskered, desperate looking men, with rifles in their hands, and revolvers in their belts, came in sight, and advanced towards the hut, conversing in earnest tones, and apparently unsuspicious of the change that had taken place during their absence.
"I can only account for their boldness in returning, by the supposition that they had been so long accustomed to see men tremble when they raised their deadly weapons, that they were regardless whether the prisoners had released themselves or not.
"In fact, when the two convicts were advancing, I looked around on the numerous stockmen, and was surprised to see that they trembled and turned pale; and yet they were surrounded by twelve policemen, as brave as Melbourne could produce.
"When the convicts were within a dozen paces of the door, they suddenly stopped, surprised by the number of prints of horses' feet which they discovered in the soft earth. They glanced suspiciously at the hut, and cocked their rifles, and debated the question as to whether they should advance or retire.
"The latter course was decided on, and as they turned to go, I ordered half a dozen of our light carbines to be discharged at their retreating forms.
"The effect was like magic, for, although both were wounded, yet instead of endeavoring to make their escape, they turned towards the hut, and charged towards it with a cheer and a yell, as though determined to have blood for their injuries.
"Almost before the remainder of my men could bring their guns to a cock, the villains were upon us, discharging their revolvers to the right and left, and creating such a scene of confusion as I never witnessed before. The stockmen endeavored to make their escape from the windows, and those who could not squeeze through, tried to shelter themselves behind my men, and some of the cowards even seized the police around their waists, and held them as shields to ward off the shots which were flying thick in that little square room, densely crowded with human beings.
"I saw two of my men fall, owing to the struggle which the station men made to escape, and then fearful that we should all be defeated and murdered, I seized a carbine that one of my people had dropped, and with a blow, I struck one of the murderers senseless to the ground.
"The remaining one fought like a demon. After discharging the contents of two revolvers which he carried about his person, he drew his bowie knife and rushed into our midst, cutting to the right and left; and so impetuous was his onset that we fell back a few feet, which the villain seeing, turned and attempted to escape. Before he had taken two stops towards the door, my men recovered from their surprise, and rushed upon him. He fought like a devil, and his knife was red with the heart's blood of one of my bravest men, before he was lying powerless, with irons on his hands and ankles, at our feet.
"The villain that I had struck senseless, now began to show signs of animation; but before he had recovered, he was loaded down with irons, and a watch placed over both, with orders to blow their brains out if they made the least attempt to escape.
"You would hardly expect that men, conquered as they were, and momentarily expecting death at our hands, would have the hardihood to boast of their deeds, and plan other crimes in case of their escape. Yet those convicts dared to tell me to my face that we should never live to reach Melbourne, and death was far from their thoughts.
"I had a great mind to end their days on the spot; but doubtful of my authority in the premises, and fearing their deaths would be the subject of a judicial examination, prevented me. My men, half of them wounded, and three dead, were frantic for the villains' blood, and it was with difficulty that I could restrain them.
"I attended to the injuries of the men as well as I was able, and then making the stockmen provide as good a supper as they could get, we satisfied our appetites; but even while doing so, sleep overpowered us, so tired were we with our long journey.
"I determined to halt for that night, at the station, and let the men get recruited. One of the stockmen and one of my men were placed on guard over the prisoners, and relieved every two hours during the night, with express orders to shoot them if they moved hand or foot in the way of attempting to escape, was the means of keeping the murderers quiet, and enabling my men to attain that rest which they stood so much in need of.
"Not to tire you too much with minute particulars, we next day buried our killed and started for Melbourne, where we arrived safe with our prisoners, and a few days afterwards they were hung in the jail-yard."
"Maurice," said the lieutenant to the sentinel at the door, who had been listening to the recital, "do you wish to meet with two more such villains?"
"God forbid, your honor," answered Maurice, crossing himself; for he was a devout Catholic. "I have hardly recovered the use of my arm where the devils struck me with a knife."
By the time the lieutenant had concluded, and we had drank a strong cup of tea, the sun was just setting behind the dark forest, which we had penetrated the day before, and word was passed from mouth to mouth to bring up the horses and get ready for a start.
SAGACITY OF A DOG.—A NIGHT'S ADVENTURES.
"Gentlemen," asked Lieutenant Murden, as the policeman brought the horses to the door, "I hope you know how to ride."
"We have done a little in that line," answered Fred.
"Then I shall allow three of my men to remain behind, to lend the stockman and his daughter such assistance as they may want, while Smith and yourselves will take their animals. Now, then, mount."
We slung our rifles over our shoulders by the means of leather straps, and in a few minutes were cantering across the prairie at an easy gait, and in the direction of the bushrangers' late retreat.
It was near nine o'clock when we reached the edge of the forest, and drew up near the spot where we had entered the day before by the secret path.
The stillness of the woods was oppressive; for not a tree waved its bough, nor did a breath of air sigh over the plain. The night owl alone sent forth its discordant shriek, as though troubled with ominous forebodings regarding its future fate, and was protesting against them.
"This silence is more dreadful than the howling of wolves," cried Fred, at length, as he sat in his saddle, and regarded the dark forest before him.
"Those trees, if they could speak, would tell of tales of blood and cruelty, equal to that which I related yesterday," said Murden, after a short pause.
"And do you think that there are other gangs of bushrangers concealed in those dark recesses?" I asked.
"There must be near half a dozen different ones, for it's the most extensive forest in Australia; and ten thousand soldiers, with every, equipment necessary, would be obliged to retire from its shades, baffled and defeated, before a few hundred men who knew the ground thoroughly."
"Well, let us get beyond the range of a bullet," cried the lieutenant, after a moment's pause; and as we presented a fair mark for any robber who might be in ambush, we were not slow to turn our horses' heads and trot a short distance from such dangerous concealment.
We were about to dismount, and post our sentinels, when I heard a deep bay in the direction of the stockman's hut, which recalled to my mind the many scenes through which Fred and myself had passed since the same sound had first broken upon our ears.
"Do you hear any thing?" I asked, of my companion, pausing to listen.
"No," he replied; "why do you inquire?"
"Did you, Smith, hear no sound that is familiar to your ear?"
"No, sir," he replied, pressing forward, "I did not hear any sound but the shrieking of yonder owl."
"Our friend is getting nervous," cried Murden, with a laugh.
"There," I cried, suddenly, as a deep bay, many miles distant, came floating over the prairie, "you must have heard that howl. The hound is on our trail, and his following us at this time of night means something."
"You are right," said Fred, quietly; "I could distinguish that dog's bay amid a hundred. Let us return, lieutenant, and find out what has happened at the hut."
Murden laughed at our folly, as he termed it, and could not he induced to understand that the animal was endowed with rare instinct; and even when we related how he had sought us out on the night that Black Darnley had murdered his master, he tried to argue that it was purely accidental; but even while we debated, the bays of the hound grew louder and nearer as the scent became fresher, and while we were listening attentively, as the animal searched along the edge of the woods for a trail, I thought I heard the report of firearms, but at such a distance, that I did not venture to call attention to my surmise.
In a few minutes the dog was with us, bounding towards Fred and myself, as we sat on our horses, and seeking to attract, our attention by a number of artifices. With a low whine, he would look in the direction of the hut, where his mistress was supposed to be, and then trot off a short distance, when, finding that we paid no attention to his movements, he would return and whine as though his heart was breaking by our coldness, in refusing to notice his appeals.
"I can't stand this any longer," cried Fred, suddenly. "Lieutenant, if you will not lead your troop back to the stock-hut, Jack and myself will go alone. I am satisfied that there is something wrong going on there, and that the dog has been sent by the old convict to recall us."
"What can have happened to them since we left? There were no indications of bushrangers in that quarter, and to return would be waste of time," returned the commanding officer.
"Then we will go alone. We should like Smith as a companion if you have no objections; but as the horses are under your charge, we will leave them, and walk to the hut. If matters are right there, we can join you by daylight in the morning."
As Fred spoke, he dismounted, and I was about to imitate his example, when Murden altered his mind.
"Do you think," he said, with all the warmth of an honest John Bull, "that I will permit you two Don Quixotes to leave me, and cross this wide prairie on foot, at this time of night. No, sirs. If you are determined to go, thinking there is fighting, why, I am bound to accompany you, and get my share. A quick trot, men, and keep in a compact body."
The men, without a murmur at the sudden order, struck their spurs into their horses' sides, and followed us at a gallop, the dog leading the way in the direction of the stock-hut, and no longer uttering loud bays.
An hour quickly passes when there is something to occupy the mind, and at the end of that time we were not more than half a mile from the house which we had left at sundown.
"You see," said the lieutenant, "your surmises were groundless. We have had our journey for nothing, and for once the dog has proved a false prophet."
I began to fear that I had rendered myself liable to ridicule, and was thinking how I should recede, when the sharp report of a gun was heard, in the direction which we were travelling.
"The d——!" cried Murden, suddenly; "I know the sound of my carbines as well as I know when pay-day comes. That gun was discharged by one of my fellows, and there is trouble, or he would have been asleep before this."
Three or four flashes of light were seen, and then the report of an irregular volley was heard, as though some force outside of the hut was firing at it from spite.
"The affair is explained," the lieutenant said; "a gang of bushrangers have attacked the hut, and my men are defending it bravely. Forward, men, to the rescue."
"One second," cried Fred, laying his hand on Murden's arm. "Let us reason for a moment, because there is no pressing haste; those in the hut can keep twenty men at bay until daylight, and I think if we use a little stratagem, we can secure a few of the gang, and run but little risk."
"Speak quick," cried the impatient officer, who longed to be where he could smell the burning powder, and as another discharge of muskets was heard, he almost broke away from the cool, indifferent Fred.
"There are two suggestions which I have to offer," Fred said. "In the first place, the party that is attacking the station think that the force under your charge is gone for the night."
"Well, what then?" cried Murden.
"Or else the party, not knowing that your command is near here, rallied to avenge the death of Black Darnley and his comrades. Now, if we charge up to the very door of the station, we shall most probably get a volley, not only from the bushrangers, who will hear the sound of the horses' feet, but as likely as not receive a shot from our friends."
"At any rate, we can capture two or three of the villains," cried the officer.
"I doubt it," answered Fred. "Knowing that they will have to raise the siege, two or three saddles will be emptied, and when we seek to return their fire, we shan't find an enemy to contend against. They will scatter in various directions if their force is small; and if large, why; a bushranger is a dangerous foe, and fights with a halter around his neck. Let us oppose craft to craft, and surprise the scamps, as they have surprised us."
"But how?" asked Murden.
"You have never lived in a country where waging war against Indians is regarded as mere pastime, or you would have comprehended my meaning. Let us dismount from our horses where we are, and let my friend and myself steal forward, and mingle with the bushrangers; or if that is impracticable, find out their numbers, and whether they have made any impression on the hut—where the main body is stationed, and whether they suspect the presence of your force. An hour will be ample time to go and return. What say you to the proposition?"
"I like it," answered the lieutenant, after a moment's musing; "but I object to one thing."
"The idea of your going forward and exposing your lives in a service that does not concern you. You remain with my men, and I alone will venture into the midst of these villains."
"And let the Australian government lose a valued officer? No, sir, stay with your men, and let Fred and myself do the scouting duty," I said.
"But you're not going without me," Smith exclaimed, abruptly; "I made a bargain with you, gentlemen, to take you to the mines, and I'm not going to lose sight of you for a moment."
"You shall go with us, Smith," we answered; and I could feel the warm pressure of the honest fellow's hand at being allowed the privilege of still adhering to our fortunes, although the duty which we were about to enter upon was one fraught with no common danger.
"I don't see but that I shall be obliged to give my consent, after all," Murden said; "if you are rash enough to thrust your heads into the lion's mouth, why, take my best wishes for your success, and start at once. Ah, there speaks one of my carbines again. The garrison is on the alert."
As we started on our expedition, the hound, which had been lying near without a sign of impatience, bounded to his feet and led the way. We debated for a moment as to the expediency of allowing him to accompany us; but while discussing the question, he returned, and, as though guessing that he was the subject of our talk, looked into our faces and uttered a low whine.
"Let him go with us," I pleaded; "I'll warrant that he'll prove discreet."
The animal planted his fore paws upon my shoulder, and sought to lick my face, in gratitude. It might have been accidental, but to me it looked as though there was something besides animal instinct in the act.
There was a unanimous vote in favor of the dog, and we once more started on our way.
Gun after gun was discharged, both by besiegers and besieged; but as the night was dark, and it was very evident that those in the hut did not understand the Indian mode of warfare, of firing at the flash of their enemies' pieces, it was pretty certain that not much harm was done to the bushrangers.
"Come," said Fred, in a whisper, after we had watched the conflict for a short time, "let us forward and count the number of our opponents, and perhaps make a prisoner. Smith," he continued, addressing our stout friend, "I need not tell you to be cautious, and make no reply if you chance to encounter one of the scamps, and he speaks. The tones of your voice would betray us if the party is small. Now let us move forward and take up our positions near yonder clump of bushes by the bank of the stream."
Fred led the way, and by his side walked the dog, with head erect, and eyes glaring like balls of fire; but not a single yelp issued from his capacious throat, as we strode towards the bushes and concealed ourselves.
We had not remained long at our station before two men passed us, talking earnestly together; and we learned enough to know that the presence of the police was not suspected by the bushrangers, and that the party attacking the hut was one got up for the purpose of avenging the death of Black Darnley and his gang.
Smith's cart, filled with merchandise when we started, had been rifled of every thing which it contained of value, and I could hear the poor fellow groan as he thought of his loss.
"I tell you, Jim," cried one of the gang, "we are only wasting time here; let's pack up what we've got, and be off. Bill says that he saw a police force on the road day before yesterday, and our wasting so much powder may bring 'em to this spot."
"And let the death of Darnley go unrevenged?" exclaimed the ruffian addressed; "I'm blastedly ashamed of you, to hear a man talk that way! You knows as well as I does that these fellers has got all the money that Darnley's gang has made for six months past, and now there's a chance of making a spec you want to be off."
"But I don't like the idea of getting nabbed by the police. I'm well known, and curse 'em, there'd be a jolly time in Melbourne if they could put the hemp around my neck."
"Your neck's no more precious than mine," replied the second bushranger; "I for one don't quit this place till I've cut the throat of every man in the hut. I'll learn 'em to attack our people. They shall be made examples of."
"Well, Jim," replied the milder ruffian, "if you have set your heart on fighting 'em, why, I'll stand by. But let's make short work of it, and storm the hut without delay."
"And lose half of our gang, hey?" answered the bushranger. "There's good marksmen in the hut, as the death of Sam just now should convince you. We can't afford to throw away men, as we've none too many to do the work."
"Then how are we going to get at 'em?"
"I'll tell you the plan I've hit on, and I think we needn't lose more than one man in putting it into execution. Remove every thing from that cart, and let half a dozen men keep up a brisk fire in front of the hut, while I with the rest, will take the team to the back of the shanty. We can push it close under the roof and shelter ourselves from the fire of those within, if they discover the trick, which I don't think they will. By starting a board or two, without much noise, we can command every part of the room, and pour in half a dozen volleys without being injured."
"That is a deused good idea, and I'll go and tell the boys. They've got hold of that keg of rum, and I suppose I shall have hard work to choke 'em off; but they must leave it for a while, and attend to business."
The two bushrangers, who appeared to be the leaders of the gang, separated, one stealing towards the object of his attack, and the other hastening in the direction of the ford which crossed the stream—possibly where the men were carousing.
"My poor goods," whined Smith, "the cursed brutes have stolen them all. I wish that keg of rum had a pound of arsenic in it; there would be some consolation in knowing that the devils were destroying themselves."
"Hush!" cried Fred, for that instant the growl of the dog gave token that some one was approaching. With one hand on the animal's leather collar to restrain him, and another on his massive jaws, we waited his approach.
The bushranger walked with hasty step towards us, and then suddenly stopping, he spoke aloud,—
"Jim," he said, evidently thinking that he should find his companion still there, "the men won't leave their rum; come and speak to the devils."
He turned in every direction to get sight of his companion, and as he was facing the hut, I felt a warm pressure from Fred's disengaged hand, and understood him without a word being spoken.
We noiselessly arose, and relinquished our hold of the dog; but strange to say the animal appeared to understand our movements, and did not spring forward as we feared he would. He looked into our faces, wagged his tail, and remained silent.
"Jim!" cried the bushranger, in a louder tone of voice than he had used before, "Jim, the boys—"
He had no time to utter more. Fred placed his strong hands around the fellow's throat, and compressed his grasp until I fancied I heard bones crack; at the same moment I dropped upon my knees, and seizing both his legs we had him at our mercy. He kicked violently, and struggled manfully, but in spite of all we bore him to the bushes, when Smith, beginning to understand our attack, uttered a chuckle of delight, and threw his whole weight upon the prostrate bushranger, and began to bind his arms with cords which he always carried about him in case of need.
Even the hound was not idle, for standing over the astonished ruffian, with his powerful jaws in close proximity to his face, he showed such a set of strong teeth that the bushranger manifested many symptoms of terror, and endeavored to move from such a dangerous neighborhood of ivory.
The feet and hands of the robber were soon bound by the active Smith, and then holding a knife at his throat, with an understanding that it should be plunged into him if he gave an alarm, Fred relinquished his grasp, and asked a few questions.
"How many are in your gang to-night?" Fred inquired.
The villain looked from one face to the other, as though he was almost resolved to evade the question; but receiving no encouragement from the scowling countenances which he encountered, replied,—
"There's twelve of us."
"Who's your leader?" he demanded.
"As big a scamp as ever went unhanged!" ejaculated Smith; "I have heard of his tricks, before."
"What is your object, in attacking the stock-hut?"
"To recover the gold which was stolen from Darnley, and also to revenge his loss."
"And you expect to succeed?" demanded Fred, ironically.
The bushranger made no reply, and as we had got all the information that we expected, and had other work in view, we gagged him, and had just secured the wretch, when a low growl from the hound attracted our attention.
"If this is the leader," whispered Smith, "you had better let me have a clip at him first, as he is a man of great strength, and a regular dare-devil!"
"You may pin his arms, while Jack looks out for his feet," replied Fred.
"I understand," answered Smith, and we fell back into the darkest shade of the bushes, as Jim came in sight.
He walked with a hasty step towards the spot where his companions were drinking, and we knew that they must be getting drunk quite fast, for more than once had we heard their voices mingled with oaths and execrations.
We stole after him, following on tiptoe to prevent our steps from being audible, and at a given signal, threw ourselves upon his burly form.
Although taken by surprise, he readily shook us off and gained his liberty. Once did he free one of his arms from Smith's embrace, and brought it down upon that unfortunate man's head with a clang that sounded as though he had fractured his skull; the stout-hearted Englishman only clung the closer.
Once the bushranger, by his desperate struggles, freed his neck from Fred's vice-like compression; but instead of using his voice in calling for help, as a more cowardly man would have done, he uttered fierce invectives and expressions of defiance.
We bore him to the earth and closed his mouth, and threatened with steel, but he still defied us; and not until his limbs were securely bound, and a piece of Smith's flannel shirt was thrust into his mouth, and the hound standing over him, expressing, by his deep growls, the most intense desire to taste the robber's flesh, did he become calm and submit to his fate with resignation.
"Curse you," muttered Smith, "what have you done with my goods?"
"Never mind the goods now, Smith," said Fred. "We shall find them all, I think, when we capture the gang. Do you take care of the prisoners, and above all things, keep them quiet. Jack and myself will take a near survey of the rest of the robbers, and then return."
"I'll keep them quiet—never fear," replied Smith, and he glanced towards his long knife in an unmistakable manner.
We followed the edge of the stream along for a few rods—each step bringing us nearer the voices which we had heard while lying in ambush; and although the bushrangers were sensible enough not to build a fire to reveal their location, yet the clamor which they raised while drinking from Smith's cherished keg of rum, was sufficient to lead a party to their seclusion without fear of being discovered.
We skulked behind a clump of bushes, and for a few minutes listened to the conversation. Oaths, robbery, and murder were themes as common on their lips as prayers from a minister desirous of getting an increase of salary.
"We have heard enough of this, Fred," I said. "Let us return, bring up Murden and his party, and take the villains alive."
"Agreed," cried my companion; and retracing our steps, we were once more by the side of Smith, who sat, in company with the hound, watching his two prisoners with great diligence.
"Your keg of rum is a blessing, Smith," I said. "The bushrangers are taking to it finely, and in an hour's time they will be unconsciously drunk."
"We are now going to join Murden and his policemen, and bring them up for the purpose of capturing the remainder of the gang."
"Good—I'll wait here with these two, and give a good account of them when you return. Let me keep the dog," he said, as the hound rose to follow us.
I spoke a few words to the animal, and he quietly returned to the chief bushranger, and laid down by his side with a brilliant show of teeth.
There had not been a shot fired from the hut for more than half an hour. The inmates were evidently puzzled at the silence of those on the outside, and as the gang were too busy getting drunk to attend to business, it was not probable that another attempt would be made before our return.
Ten minutes' brisk travelling brought us in sight of Murden's force. They were on the alert, for we were challenged as we drew near, but were received joyfully by the officer and his men. They suspected, from the sudden ceasing of the guns, that we had been surprised; and it was with the utmost astonishment that they listened to an account of the capture of the two men.
"We will lose no time," cried the lieutenant "Mount, men, and proceed."
As we trotted towards the hut, Fred suggested to give those on the inside an intimation of our presence, and as they would be likely to recognize the voice of their officer sooner than any body else, Murden rode to the door, dismounted, and rapping, spoke to his men in tones they well knew.
The bars were removed cautiously, but when convinced that their officer was speaking, the men were overjoyed. They rushed out to be congratulated by their comrades, and tell the short story of their siege. But there was no time to lose, if we desired to capture the bushrangers; so, leaving the horses in charge of one man, we joined Smith, and finding that his prisoners were safe, left them in charge of the dog, and then walked rapidly in the direction of the gang, still swilling from the rum keg.
They did not suspect our presence, although we heard a number of calls for their chief, and a few drunken surmises as to the reason of his long absence; and in the midst of their discussion, the loud voice of Murden rang out,—
"Surrender, villains, you are surrounded!"
We could hear them start to their feet, and search for their guns, and then whisper together; and then a deep-toned voice exclaimed,—
"Who asks us to surrender?"
"The police of Melbourne!" cried Murden.
"Curse the police of Melbourne! Come, my hearties, let's give it to the fools!"
An irregular discharge of half a dozen muskets followed his words, and a man at my side was struck down, and wounded terribly. He was shot through the heart, and died instantly.
Their firing revealed their position, and we saw that they were determined to rush to close quarters, and try the odds, drunk as they were. Murden no longer hesitated.
"Give them a volley, my men," he cried; and the police, enraged at the loss of a comrade, poured in a murderous discharge from their carbines.
Yells and imprecations followed, and loud above the groans we could hear one or two shouting that they would surrender, and begging the police not to fire again. Murden granted their prayer, and when daylight made its appearance, the dead bodies of four bushrangers, and three mortally wounded, were lying by that quiet stream, the waters of which received their blood, and bore it to the ocean.
DISCOVERY OF A MASONIC RING.—FUNERAL PYRE OF BLACK DARNLEY.
Knowing the treacherous character of the bushrangers, Murden would not allow one of his men to venture to the assistance of the wounded robbers. He formed a circle around them, and with carbines on the cock, his force waited until daylight before relieving their wants.
In vain Fred and myself offered to venture among the wounded, and take to them water. Murden would not listen to the proposal for a moment; not that he was naturally hard-hearted, but he knew the men whom he had to deal with better' than ourselves; and he imagined that we should get a few inches of cold steel for our charity.
As daylight appeared, one by one of the gang that had escaped uninjured, were called out, manacled, and confined to a tree, to prevent all possibility of flight. There were many fierce oaths uttered by the wretches, as they felt the bracelets slipped over their wrists by Murden; and two of the hardened villains boasted of the murders which they had committed, and laid plans for a continuance of their crimes when they escaped, as they expected to do.
It was with difficulty that the policemen could be restrained; and once when Murden was absent for a few moments, and had left the charge of the prisoners to Fred and myself, one of the men, carried away by sudden rage at the taunts which the bushrangers hurled at him, raised his carbine, and if Fred had not struck up the barrel just as he did, the sheriff of Melbourne would have been spared the necessity of finding hemp for one robber. As it was, the ball whistled harmlessly over his head.
"You are mad!" cried Fred; "would you murder the wretches in cold blood?"
"Ay!" shouted the indignant policeman; "they have committed many murders, and it is time their career was ended."
"I grant that," returned Fred; "but these men are now in the hands of the law, and are entitled to a fair trial. You are paid for protecting them, as well as apprehending. Do not let your conscience ever accuse you of murdering a prisoner."
"You are right, sir," returned the policeman, with evident respect; "I was foolish to be so moved, and beg you to forgive me."
"I have nothing to forgive," replied Fred, amused at the man's earnestness; "but if you wish to do a really good action, lend Jack and myself aid to bind up the wounds of these poor, grumbling wretches."
"That I will," cried the policeman, laying down his carbine, and following us to the bank of the river, where the sufferers were still lying, groaning with pain.
Just as we began washing the blood from their wounds, Murden joined us. He looked astonished to think that we took so much interest in the men, and after a moment's hesitancy, said,—
"I have been trying to arrange with Smith to return to Melbourne with his team, and carry these wounded men and my prisoners. He refuses to consent until he has obtained your acquiescence in the measure. I have told him that his goods, which are scattered around here, are nearly ruined by rough handling, and that he will have to sell them at a sacrifice at the mines. While he is gone, they can be stored at the hut, and sold most any time to travellers at an advance, while, if taken where the market is glutted, he is sure to lose on them."
We were so much surprised at the communication, that we looked at the lieutenant in astonishment, and for a few minutes did not answer.
"Come, come," said Murden, with a smile, "don't look as though you had lost all your friends. Say you will go with us. Two weeks' time is all we ask, and then you can go to the mines in any other part of the island you please."
"But you forget," I said, "that we are not rich, and can but ill afford this inactive life. We came to Australia to make a living, and so far, with the exception of the booty which we captured from Black Darnley's gang, we have not made a dollar. Even our prize money will have to be given up to the government, to be returned to its rightful owners, and besides—"
"There, there, that will do, most honest Americans," said Murden, with a smile. "Now listen to me for a moment. You made a good thing by seizing on what treasure Darnley had. The government will be too rejoiced at his death to care whether he had money at the time he was killed, or not. Keep what you have got—say not a word about it to any one, for if you do, you will be the laughing-stock of all Australia. The originality of the act would surprise our good people, and you would be looked upon as fit subjects for an insane asylum."
Fred and myself looked at each other, and I read in my companion's face that he considered the advice, in our present circumstances, as being sound and rational.
"We have resolved to keep the money," we said; "but as for retracing our steps to Melbourne, we hardly think that it will pay. We have already been two weeks in the country, and have not dug the first ounce of gold."
"And you may be six months here, and yet be unable to do so. Let me reckon, and see how badly you have done. In the first place, there are one thousand pounds reward offered for Darnley, dead or alive. Prove to me that he is dead, and the money is your own. For every bushranger killed or captured, one hundred pounds are offered, and I need not tell you that we have twelve here which I can verify—four dead, two wounded, and six prisoners. That is not a bad night's work, I should think."
"But we think it wrong to accept of money for shedding human blood," Fred said.
"But you don't think it wrong to delay your journey half a dozen days for the purpose of hunting men who would have cut your throats for a sixpence. Throw aside all such ideas of propriety, and remember that you are in a country where the struggle for gold engrosses all other passions; men will look upon you as fools, to reject that which you are entitled to. Go with me to Melbourne. Help escort these villains to the city, for remember my force is weakened now, and I promise that you shall receive more pay for the service than you can make at the mines."
"It is to help me to freedom," cried Smith, who had approached us unperceived, during our conversation, and had listened to it attentively.
"For you we will do any thing, old friend," we said, extending our hands to the honest convict, who grasped them eagerly, and shed tears of joy at the fair prospect which he possessed of once more being called a free man.
After making up our minds in regard to the course which we intended to pursue, we entered into the spirit of the undertaking with our whole hearts. We prepared lint and bandages, and bound up the wounds of the bushrangers, and placed them beneath the roof of the hut which they had endeavored to storm the night before. After we had accomplished this painful duty, we selected a place for the burial of those killed.
Beneath the branches of a cedar tree we scooped out the earth with a broken shovel, and then were about to place the bodies of the bushrangers in the grave, when the glistening of a ring on the middle finger of the right hand of one of the dead men attracted my attention. I stooped down and removed the ring, and attentively examined it.
To my surprise, I found that it bore the emblems of the masonic fraternity—a square and compass upon a broad disk, while on each side were small flakes of gold in their native state, placed layer upon layer, like the scales of a fish. The ring I judged to weigh near an ounce, and was a massive hoop of gold, and made by some artist of rare talent.
I knew that the ruffian could not be a mason, and I was lost in conjecture, for a few moments, as to the probable fate of the owner. There was no doubt that the robber had taken a fancy to it, and to obtain possession, had undoubtedly committed murder. While it was passed from hand to hand, Smith suddenly exclaimed,—
"I knew the owner of this ring. It was I that freighted him and his goods to the mines. He was an American, and had had the ring manufactured in California expressly to order. I am certain that I am correct, for when we passed this very stream, the owner requested me to wear it while he bathed."
"But his name?" I asked.
"I only heard him called Edward by his companions; but I know that he was an American, and he said he belonged in New York, or New England city, I don't know which."
I could but smile at Smith's geography, although the scene before me was not well calculated to provoke mirth. I sighed over the unhappy fate of Edward, and handed the jewel to Murden, when he returned it, saying,—
"Keep it, my friend, and may you at some future day be enabled to trace the family of the owner, and tell them of the sad fate which their relative probably met."
[With this object in view, I have left the ring with the publishers of the American Union, thinking that probably these sketches might attract the attention of some person cognizant of the manufacture of the jewel, and the rightful ownership. The publishers in Boston will be happy to answer all questions concerning the property, and considering the scenes which the ring has gone through, it may indeed be regarded as a curiosity. I shall always retain the ring, and when I gaze at the emblems which are engraved upon it, my thoughts will wander back to the sad scenes which I witnessed while in Australia, and the violent death of the wearer.]
"In with the bodies," cried Murden, "we have much to do before sunset."
As soon as the grave was filled in, the troop regained their former jocularity, and they began dividing among themselves the property which they had found upon the persons of the bushrangers.
The amount was not large, not more than a hundred pounds, yet Murden received his share without a blush, appearing to think that he was doing no more than his duty. Even the dead policeman was remembered, and as he had left a widow in Melbourne, his portion was deposited with the lieutenant, to be paid to her. As Fred and myself were offered our portion, we declined, and begged that it might be given to the lady in question, which action on our part raised us in the estimation of the men immensely.
"Dare you venture across the prairie this forenoon?" asked Murden; "I would not ask you, were it not necessary to use all despatch to reach Melbourne as soon as possible; but to benefit you and your friends, the convicts, I must get a sight of Darnley and his gang."
"If that is your object," we replied, "we are prepared to accompany you as soon as you are ready. Let us get a cup of coffee and a piece of broiled lamb, and then start."
"But my prisoners?" suggested the lieutenant.
"Leave them in charge of a portion of your men until we return," I replied.
"That is easily said; but while I am gone, my men, who are but human, will probably make free with that keg of rum, which I have thus far kept from their reach; and if they are without restraint, would be just as likely to let the prisoners escape, or shoot them, or get to quarrelling among themselves, as any thing else."
"Where is the keg?" asked Fred.
The officer poked aside some bushes where he had placed it, and revealed its hiding place.
"I'll soon quiet your anxiety," Fred said, and as he spoke he pulled out the spigot, and the Jamaica rum mingled with the earth.
"A harsh proceeding, but the best under the circumstances," cried the lieutenant, with a mournful look, as he heard the rum gush forth as though saying "good, good;" "I love a drop of good liquor, but men, when drinking, have no discretion."
Murden turned away with a sigh, as though the strong fumes which assailed his nostrils were suggestive of lost hopes, and for the remainder of the day, he was melancholy.
On reentering the stockman's hut, we found him seated beside his daughter's rude couch, tenderly bathing her head with fresh river water. She was conscious now, but still very weak and feeble, and spoke in whispers. She held out her hand to us when we entered, and smiled, as though thanking us for the care which we had taken to revenge her injuries.
Her pulse we found to be more regular, and if she received no fresh shock, we thought there was a prospect of her being entirely well in a few days, and so we told her.
At our request Murden stationed one of his men at the door with strict orders to admit no one who would be likely to disturb her, and after we had partaken of our rude repast, we got ready for our hot ride over the plain to the forest.
Before we started, however, we paid a visit to the bushrangers, still chained to trees, and incapable of assisting each other. We were greeted with derisive shouts and fierce taunts, which did not disturb our equanimity in the least; and when the robbers discovered such to be the case, they again stretched themselves upon the ground, as well as their irons would permit, and relapsed into sullenness.
Murden left eight of his men to take charge of the prisoners, with strict orders for two of them to keep guard without rest or sleep. We were about to mount our horses, when a brawny ruffian we had made prisoner the night before shouted,—
"Aren't you going to give us something to eat, or are we to be starved like dogs? You are all cowards, and dare not give us fair play, and an open fight, but I didn't suppose that you were so frightened as to refuse to let us have a mouthful."
"Dress a sheep for them, and let them eat their fill," ordered Murden; "but mind that they escape not, on your lives."
We rode off, followed by the shouts and maledictions of the gang, and even when we were one hundred rods distant I could hear the ruffians call after us, bidding us return and learn bravery from them.
"You now know why I feared to leave the prisoners in charge of my men when a keg of rum was near at hand. The bushrangers, knowing that hanging is certain, would try and provoke a sudden and easier death. I do not fear the temper of the men when free from liquor."
Smith, Fred and myself, besides two policemen, composed the party, and regardless of the heat, which poured down as though it would melt our brains, we urged our panting horses over the plain, and hardly drew rein until we reached the edge of the forest, where we halted for consultation.
It was a bold experiment to venture with a small force to the retreat of the once formidable outlaw, for there was no telling whether or no a portion of his gang were living at his haunt. The officer looked up to us for advice, and we consulted the hound, which had accompanied us, and now stood by our sides panting and lolling out his great tongue, and wondering, I suppose, why we did not stop at the river.
"Let us dismount, and shade the animals as well as possible," I advised, "and then trust to the sagacity of the dog to detect an ambush. My life on his shrewdness."
The advice was acted on, when leaving one man to take charge of the animals, we examined our guns and pistols, and made sure that they were in order; and then, with a few words of encouragement to the hound, which he appeared to understand, we moved along the path we had travelled when on our first visit.
With guns on the cock, and examining every thicket of bushes to see if it concealed an enemy, we made but slow progress. Yet trusting more to the dog than to ourselves, we at length came in sight of the scene of our former exploits. All was quiet and still in the vicinity. Not a twig moved, unless displaced by a gaudy-colored parrot, too lazy, under the withering influence of the heat, to even chatter.
The hound had bounded into the enclosure, and rushed towards a pile of branches which had been placed in the clearing since we were there. Regardless of every thing else he tore away at the wood with his teeth, and uttered fierce growls, as though he had found an enemy beneath that pile, and was determined to get at him.
We sent a man to examine the neighborhood, and then went to our four-legged friend's assistance. With angry growls the dog helped us to throw aside the branches, but long before reaching the last one, we suspected the contents of the pile. A horrible stench had for some time warned us that we were in the vicinity of carrion.
The last branch was removed, and lying in all their ghastly ugliness were Black Darnley and his crew. Darnley had greatly altered since his death; but there was no mistaking that massive mouth, filled with strong teeth, firmly set together, as though striving even with his last breath to overcome the King of Terrors.
"Are you satisfied?" we asked of Murden, turning away from the sickening sight with a shudder.
"I am," he replied. "Black Darnley has committed his last crime in this world; and the man who has caused the police of Australia to turn pale with fear is now but a home for worms."
"Let us rid the earth of his remains," cried Fred, "and not let them fester here to breed pollution in the air."
"Well said," replied we all; and after every one had satisfied his curiosity, we gathered up dry branches and leaves and heaped them upon the pile, and then set it on fire, and as the flames roared and crackled, and licked the green corpses, we took our leave of that black forest, the home of bushrangers, natives, and poisonous reptiles.
As we turned to have a last glance at the fire, we saw the hound stalking solemnly around that putrid pile, and watching as though not satisfied until every particle of his enemy had mingled with his mother earth.
THE STOCKMAN AND HIS PARROT.—DARING PLOT OF A ROBBER CHIEFTAIN.
Tired with a hot, dusty ride across the prairie, we felt more like resting after the sleepless night and busy scenes through which we had passed, than commencing our journey at sundown, and so we intimated to Murden; but he was deaf to our hints, and gave his orders for getting ready regardless of them.
A hasty supper of roast lamb and hot coffee was awaiting us when we returned from the water, and while we were eating, a number of the policemen were despatched along the banks of the river to drive in Smith's cattle, while others stored his goods, which they had collected during our absence, in the hut, and returned to the stockman a correct schedule of the same.
About sundown, the oxen were yoked together and attached to the cart. The horses were saddled, and awaited their riders, and the only thing that detained us was the transfer of the bushrangers from the trees to the cart in which they were to be transported to Melbourne. The wounded men were too seriously hurt to endure the journey, and, indeed, it was doubtful whether the poor wretches would survive many days, removed, as they were, hundreds of miles from a physician's reach, and with no fit nourishment to sustain them.
Murden, when we remonstrated against the wounded men being disturbed, and given an opinion of the fatality of the act, received the news with the utmost sang froid, and expressed no particular desire that the men should live, under any circumstances; and finding that he could do nothing with them, and that they would never survive the journey to grace his triumphant entry into Melbourne, he wisely turned them over to the care of the aged convict and his daughter, both of whom promised to take care of them to the best of their ability, and in case they recovered, to hold them close prisoners until the lieutenant sent an order for their delivery.
One by one the prisoners were transferred from the trees to the cart. Desperate was their resistance, and loud were the curses which were heaped upon our heads. Manacled as they were, with heavy handcuffs around their wrists, in some instances four men were required to lift one of the villains to his place in the team, and it was no easy task at that.
The police worked with patience, and never once lost their temper, although I expected every moment that they would resort to extreme measures. To keep the robbers quiet, and prevent their committing any violence on those who rode in the team, a stout, spare chain was passed from the forward end of the cart to the back part, and fastened underneath. To this the feet of the men were secured, so that it was impossible for them to move, or commit any sudden act of violence. The method was severe, but the only safe plan, and Murden was too old a hand at rogue-taking to adopt half-way measures.
At eight o'clock we were ready for our journey. Three of the police were to ride on the cart as a means of precaution, and Fred and myself were promoted to horses. Smith resumed his old position by the side of his cattle, and after an affectionate leave-taking with the old convict and his child, we started; but, to our surprise, the hound trotted along by my side, and all words or gestures were useless in forcing him to return to his mistress.
Knowing that she valued the animal, I rode back with him, and requested her to call him into the hut and close the door, but to my astonishment, she declined; and when I urged that I could not induce the animal to return unless I accompanied him, she requested me, in a quiet manner, to accept of him as a gift, and the only conditions that she imposed were, that I should treat him kindly during his life.
I joyfully accepted her offer, and once more saying good-by, I rejoined the troop, and with Rover, as I called the dog after I owned him, by my side, bounding towards me to receive a friendly pat on the head, as though he rejoiced in the change that had been made, I journeyed on, in company with Murden and Fred.
All night long did we urge the oxen to their quickest paces, so that we could reach a stock-hut by sunrise, where we could obtain food and rest, both of which we needed. A dozen times did I fall asleep in the saddle, only to awaken when I found that I was likely to pitch headlong to the ground, and when, by the sudden efforts which I made to recover myself, I got thoroughly awakened, I saw that my companions were equally as sleepy.
Had a strong force of bushrangers but attacked us that night, not a man would have been left to tell the story; for so thoroughly used up were the force, that I doubt if even the report of a gun could have roused them from their lethargy.
About daylight we left the main road, and took a course nearly parallel, over a plain where not a sign of a wagon wheel was visible. After we had lost sight of the road, we began to meet cattle grazing upon the prairie, and by their wildness, we imagined that visitors were a rare sight to them.
At length, two Australian natives were discovered, nearly naked, and armed with their favorite weapons, spears and boomerangs, squatting under a tree, and watching our cavalcade with great interest.
Murden spoke to them in their native language, of which he understood a little, and inquired the distance to a stock-hut; and with an almost imperceptible motion of their heads, they intimated the direction which we were to pursue, and then relapsed into their former state of stoicism.
"Some of our heaviest cattle-raisers are trying an experiment," said Murden, as we rode. "Thinking that these poor devils are fit for something, they are employing them to look after cattle on these immense plains. The plan has worked admirably so far, for they appear especially adapted for this kind of work, as it suits their idea of freedom and idleness."
"And what pay do they get?" I asked.
"Their pay is trifling, but they are assured of good, healthy food, and clothing if they will wear it, which in some cases they reject with disdain. Our countrymen have never treated the natives as human beings, and hence they have never looked upon us with any love; fear alone keeps them in subjection. A new theory is to be attempted, and with what success remains to be seen."
When we came in sight of the hut, we started our horses, and left the cart and men to follow at their leisure. The place was not very inviting, and did not reflect much credit on the stockman who had charge of the station.
The hut was built of rough boards, patched in a dozen different places with bullocks' hides, to keep out the rain in the winter, and the hot sun in the summer. A small shed was placed at one end of the house, under which all the cooking was done during wet weather.
Two upright sticks, with necks, on which a cross bar was placed, formed the fireplace, and that was all that was required by men who live on meat day after day, and year after year, until, as one stockman informed me, he "felt horns growing on the sides of his head."
Basking in the sun, which was high in the heavens, was a parrot, confined in a rough board cage, evidently whittled out with a jackknife, during the leisure hours of its master. The bird was shrieking out a few words of unmistakable English, and appeared to utter them with the greatest glee, as though charmed by having a number of new listeners to whom it could show off its perfections.
"D—— it, where do you come from?" the bird yelled; and then changing his tune, he shouted, "take that dog away—take him away! take him away—cuss him!"
We could but feel amused at such proficiency in the English language, and were admiring the display of his rare talent, when the proprietor of the bird came to the door, evidently awakened from a nap by his protege. He first told the parrot to "shut up," and then turned his languid attention on his visitors, whom he did not appear pleased to see, or indeed displeased. In fact, he seemed too lazy to exhibit much emotion any way; and the only energy he displayed was when he used his long, dirty finger nails on his head, the hair from which hung down on his shoulders in tangled masses, and afforded refuge to thousands of animals, that would have been homeless, had he had those locks clipped close to his skull.
The stockman was barefooted, and his feet looked tougher than any sole leather ever brought to market. Dirt, a hot sun, and an entire absence of water as a cleansing agent, had rendered them of an indescribable color, and us he afterwards boasted, he was "not afeerd of any varmin biting them 'ere, 'cos they was toughened."
An old flannel shirt, and a pair of canvas trousers, completed the costume of a man who said he preferred to live on a cattle station, and receive about ten dollars per month, than to trust to luck, and work hard at the mines.
"Hullo, Bimbo," shouted the lieutenant, as the stockman came in sight, and leaned languidly against the door, as though too lazy to support his own weight.
The fellow muttered something which we did not hear, and Murden shouted again,—
"Did we disturb you from a refreshing nap, Bimbo, or have you grown lazier than ever? Come, stir yourself, and start a fire; we want breakfast. In a few minutes there will be a dozen more here, and they will eat you out of house and home, unless you are smart. Bushrangers always have good appetites."
It might have been fancy, but I thought I saw the indolent Bimbo suddenly start at the word "bushrangers," and his apparently heavy-looking eyes were lighted up with an energetic look that I little expected from a man such as his outward appearance denoted. Whether my surmises were correct or not, the man resumed his old habit in a moment, and if possible looked more fatigued than ever.
"I don't see what you want, coming here at this hour in the morning," Bimbo said, with a yawn. "I was just dreaming that I could live without work, when you roused me. What is up that takes you from Melbourne?"
The question was asked in the most indifferent tone that a person can imagine; but I thought I detected an eagerness to know the mission upon which Murden had been engaged that but ill compared with the man's general indifference and lazy deportment.
"We have been after bushrangers, Bimbo," answered the lieutenant, dismounting from his horse and approaching the stockman, who still retained his reclining position against the side of the door.
"And did you meet any?" asked the stockman, indifferently, stealing a look at the face of the officer as though anxious to obtain his answer before he uttered it.
"Meet any?" replied Murden, "why, of course we did. You will not be troubled with robbers in this part of the country for some time to come, I'll warrant you."
I saw a black frown gather on the stockman's brow, but it was dispelled as soon as formed, although I could not help feeling that the news troubled the man exceedingly.
"Come, stir yourself," cried the lieutenant, when he saw that the stockman did not appear disposed to move, and as he spoke, he laid his hand lightly upon the fellow's shoulder, and pulled him from his position in the doorway.
"Come, awaken, old fellow, and let us have the best quarter of beef you possess, for we are all hungry, and I'll warrant that Jim Gulpin and his gang—"
"So help me, God, lieutenant," cried Bimbo, hurriedly, "I don't know him or his men, and I don't see what right—"
"Why, what is the matter with the man?" laughed Murden. "I didn't say that you knew him. I meant that he and his gang, or what remained of them, are my prisoners, and in less than a week their necks will be stretched a few inches longer. There's news for you, Bimbo."
"Gulpin and his band prisoners," I heard the fellow say, in an undertone, as though he could scarcely comprehend the news, and then an expression stole over his face, that for a moment was frightful to contemplate.
"Ah, here they come at last," Murden said, pointing to the cart, which was slowly creeping along, and had been screened from view by the house.
"You don't mean to say you and your men took the bushrangers without, any 'sistance from others, do you?" Bimbo asked.
"Why, these two Americans lent their valuable aid," replied the officer, pointing to Fred and myself.
"P'raps it would have been as well if they staid in their own country and looked after robbers, instead of coming to Australia," replied the dirty scamp, with an aside glance at us that spoke murder as plainly as if he had a knife at our throats.
"Cease your grumbling," shouted Murden, angrily, "or I'll lay my bridle over your shoulders until they ache. Why, you miserable dog, have you not complained to me a dozen times that you feared your life was in danger from these same prowling gangs, and that they stole your cattle in spite of all you could do? Another word, and I'll give you cause for muttering. Away with you. Start a fire, and then I'll set one of my men to cook breakfast. You are too dirty to be intrusted with food."
Bimbo must have exercised a strong control over his emotions, for in spite of the dirt and grease with which his face was smeared, I saw it flush angrily; but no other sign of passion was displayed. He thrust his hands into his pockets, and with a slouching gait, as though too indolent to move without strong inducement, sauntered towards the shed and began kindling a fire.
"A grumbling cur," muttered Murden, looking after him; "I have half a mind to tie him up and scar his back, and see if it will not make him a little more energetic." But with all of the bluster of the officer, I saw that he did not suspect the man's honesty, and I was glad that he did not.
By the time Smith had joined us with his cart and prisoners, Bimbo had started a fire, and produced a hind quarter of a young bullock, killed the day before, and which had been rubbed over with fine salt to protect it from the millions of insects which infest the air of Australia. The fellow made an offer to cut the meat for us, but a look at his hands was sufficient to deter us from accepting the proposition.
Maurice, the lieutenant's never-failing resort when a meal was to be prepared, was set at work to get breakfast for the officer, Fred, and myself, while one of the men was detailed to perform the same duty for his companions. Another man was stationed as guard over the bushrangers, and the balance were ordered to look to their animals, which attention consisted in watering them at a spring near the hut, and then turning them loose with their fore legs tied together to prevent their straying to any great distance. One animal, however, was kept ready saddled in case of an emergency, and not permitted to roam beyond the extent of a long rope, like the reattas of Spain or Mexico.
Although I must confess that I was intensely hungry, and tired and sleepy with my long journey on horseback all night, yet I felt too uneasy in my mind to spend much time eating greasy beefsteaks and drinking strong coffee. I had watched Bimbo from the time the cart had reached the hut to the period when the prisoners were to be allowed to eat their morning meal; and I had noticed the nervous manner in which the fellow had acted in spite of his assumed indifference.
Twice had he sauntered towards the cart in which the bushrangers were still confined, and each time had the sentry ordered him back, as no communication was allowed with the prisoners; but I saw the grim face of Jim Gulpin raised as he heard the voice of Bimbo, and an almost imperceptible sign passed between them.
More than ever convinced that there was an understanding with the parties, I watched for other tokens, but in vain; and it was not until one of the policemen ordered the stockman to carry the bushrangers' food to them that I determined to be present and keep an eye upon his actions.
The handcuffs were removed from the prisoners' wrists to enable them to eat, but the irons were not taken from their feet, for Murden had no idea of trusting them with their liberty even for a moment.
"Here's your grub," shouted Bimbo, who was allowed to pass the sentry this time, as he had a wooden pail in his hand, none too clean, in which the food of the prisoners was placed. "Here it is," he continued, as he set it down in their midst, "and a darn'd sight too good for you it is too, and mighty thankful you had oughter be that you fell into a gentleman's hands, and one that knows how to treat you. If I had the right I'd starve you all, blast your picters."
The ruffians replied with oaths and jeers, but they were too energetic to be sincere, and I suspected they were intended expressly for my ear, as I stood not far from them listening to every word that was uttered.
Had the bushrangers not said so much, I should have suspected less, and while I pretended to be admiring the parrot, I still watched the doings in the cart.
I saw the stockman glance around to see if his actions were observed, and that stealthy look was like a cat's watching for its prey—I saw that the sentry was examining the lock of his carbine, and paying no attention to Bimbo's movements, while the rest of the men were engaged in smoking and lounging near—and then for a moment the heads of Jim Gulpin and the stockman were close together, as though whispering confidentially. It was only for an instant, however. With renewed oaths and abuse Bimbo hurried the robbers in their meal, until Murden interfered, and ordered that they be allowed to eat in peace.
"The idea of letting such scamps as these eat," cried Bimbo, with a kick of his bare, horny foot against one of the bushranger's ribs. "I'd sarve 'em if I had my way."
Bimbo was replied to with interest by the robbers, and to stop the noise the lieutenant sent the fellow to the hut to get it ready for the reception of the latter, as it was thought to be a good place to keep them during our halt, which we expected to extend to sundown, owing to the intense heat of the day.
The robbers were removed to the hut, and their manacles taken from their feet, but the handcuffs still confined their hands, and as they were chained two by two they were powerless. A sentry was posted, and the men, glad to obtain a few hours' sleep, stowed themselves under the shed, and wherever they could screen their faces from the sun.
Fred and myself, taking our saddles for pillows, repaired to the back part of the hut, the coolest place we could find, and in a few minutes both of us were sleeping soundly. I had not slept long, however, before I was awakened by a peculiar noise, that sounded like the grating of a saw. Instead of starting up to investigate, I pretended to sleep, and partly opening one eye, saw to my surprise that Bimbo was on his knees near my feet, and working with cautious energy upon a board which he was endeavoring to remove. The instrument he was operating with was an old knife, with notches on the blade, made to resemble a saw.
I continued my position, and by my regular breathing convinced the fellow that I was sleeping soundly. A dozen times did he pause and listen, and scrutinize my face, and then I read the man's true character in his wicked eyes, for they gleamed like those of a serpent, and I saw murder in every look.
I resolved to continue counterfeiting, and await the result. Half a dozen times did Bimbo suspend work, and steal to the front part of the hut to discover if his operations were suspected, and each time he returned, and after a glance at Fred and myself, commenced work with renewed energy.
At length a hole large enough to run his hand in was obtained, and then I heard low whispers pass between Bimbo and the robber chief.
"You must get us out of this scrape," said Jim, authoritatively.
"But how can I at present? Better wait till night, and then I know half a dozen coves what will strike for you. We can easily get ahead and wait for you near the Three Forks."
"It wont do," said Gulpin, impatiently. "Go and pick the pocket of the man that has got the key of our irons, and then we can kill every devil connected with the troop."
"Hush," replied Bimbo, after a hurried glance at my face. "Them two blasted Yankees are sleeping close here, and I think both of 'em has spotted me. I'd like to cut their throats bloody well."
"I have no doubt of it," I thought, "but I'll save you the trouble."
"Go and get the key," repeated Gulpin, with an oath, "and then pass in all the guns and knives that you can get hold of. When I give a signal, knock down the sentry at the door, and mind that you hit him hard enough to prevent his squalling—you understand?"
"Yes, yes; but if I do all that, what share'll I get in the swag in the cellar? I've kept it for a long time now, and you know it."
"You shall have Darnley's share, if you do as I tell you," replied Gulpin.
"What'll Darnley say to that?"
"He won't say much, 'cos he's stiffened out—dead as the devil."
This piece of information so elated the stockman that he did not stop to make further inquiries, but disappeared around the corner of the house, and when I raised my head to consult with Fred in regard to the matter, I found that he was as wide awake as myself, and was apparently debating what course he should pursue.
"Have you heard all?" I whispered.
Fred nodded his head, and laid his hand upon his lips. Then, by a gesture which I understood, he counselled that we should remain quiet for a short time, and see how matters worked.
Following this advice, however, did not prevent us from examining our revolvers and rifles, and also bringing the handles of our bowie knives to a better position. When Bimbo returned, with a cat-like tread, I could see by his carrying a carbine that he had been successful; and when I saw him thrust it into the hole, and then give up the key of the irons, I had a great mind to shoot him on the spot.
"Here," cried Bimbo, "is the key of the ruffles. Remain quiet for half an hour, and by that time I'll be ready for you. Remember your word—Darnley's share."
"All right!" exclaimed the robber, grasping with his manacled hand the precious key to his irons, and as soon as he had possession of it, Bimbo glided away to complete his plot.
"We must be acting," said Fred, springing to his feet; and as he spoke we sauntered to the front of the hut, and saw that the stockman was just raising a carbine, which he had taken from a sleeping policeman.
Bimbo looked astonished when he caught sight of us, and I saw by the flashing of his eyes that he was almost determined to begin the battle immediately, and trust to the robbers for the result.
If such was his intention, however, he had no time to carry it into effect, for with a sudden spring Fred landed in front of him, and with a blow of his fist knocked the dirty fellow down, and before he could rise a revolver was pointed at his head, and instant death threatened, if he moved.
The noise awakened Murden and his men; and just as they began inquiring the reason of our violence, there was a loud shout heard within the hut, the door was rudely thrown open, and at the head of the robbers, brandishing his carbine, was Gulpin.
The police fell back a few paces in astonishment; but a rallying cheer from Murden reassured them, and in spite of the known desperate characters of the bushrangers, they charged on them.
Gulpin did not stop to discharge the weapon which he held, but swinging it over his head he brought it down upon the skull of the foremost man, with a crash, shivering the gun into a hundred pieces, and knocking the fellow senseless.
Gulpin did not wait to repeat the blow, but eluding the many hands thrust out to seize him, he sprang one side, and leaving his gang to continue the unequal combat, ran swiftly across the prairie, as though determined to escape at all hazards, even if his gang were captured.
"The villain will escape!" shouted Murden, more anxious to secure the person of Gulpin than his men.
The lieutenant rushed to the shed to mount the horse usually kept in readiness, but Bimbo had turned him loose upon the plain.
With a bitter oath the officer grasped one of his men's carbines and discharged its contents after the runaway. The ball flew wide of its mark, and we could hear a taunting laugh from the fugitive, at his aim.
"Show me a specimen of your American skill," cried Murden, after a hasty glance at his men, and finding that every robber was secured excepting the chief; "cripple that devil for me, and I am your debtor for life."
Gulpin was about forty rods from us, when the lieutenant spoke, and was running almost as rapidly as a kangaroo dog. In a few minutes he would have been beyond our reach, and recommenced his career of crime.
Under these circumstances, Fred felt that he owed a duty to the world. Hastily bringing his rifle to his shoulder, he glanced along its deadly tube and fired. For a few seconds we could not perceive that the shot had affected the bushranger, and I was about to try my skill, when the villain staggered and fell heavily to the earth.
His leg was broken near the knee, and the bone was terribly shattered by the rifle ball.
DISCOVERY OF STOLEN TREASURES IN THE STOCKMAN'S CELLAR.
Lying upon the ground were the bushrangers, bruised, bloody, and dirty, groaning with disappointment and pain, and one or two of the most violent ones cursing so loudly that the air smelt sulphurous. Across the bodies of the fallen wretches were the policemen, with huge beads of perspiration standing on their brows, and faces red with the sudden and unusual exertion which they had endured to conquer the desperate robbers.
The poor fellow whom the leader of the robbers had injured by breaking a carbine over his head, was lying on the ground, bleeding profusely from a long gash in his skull. He was assisted into the hut, and left for a few minutes, until more pressing demands had been attended to; and after the prisoners were once again ironed, and chained to the cart, some one asked what had become of Bimbo; as that individual had not been seen since the commencement of the attack.
"I'll warrant the lazy rascal has gone to sleep somewhere, and not awakened during the disturbance," Murden said, not suspecting the trick which the stockman had played him.
"And what has become of my dog?" I asked, surprised to think that he had also disappeared.
Fearful that he had got tired of my society, and left for his mistress, I whistled shrilly, and was happy to hear a response, in the shape of a deep bay, back of the hut. We hurried where we could get a view of him, and, to my surprise and delight, I saw that he was standing over the prostrate body of the miserable, treacherous Bimbo, and showing a set of ivories at every movement of the wretch, which would have delighted a gentleman versed in dentistry, or an admirer of white teeth.
The Lieutenant, Fred, and myself, proceeded to the spot, and as we approached, Bimbo attempted to rise, but the vigilant animal, with an angry growl, grasped him by the neck, and the dirty fellow was content to lie quiet, although he used his voice well, and broke forth with lamentations at the hound's rough treatment.
"Is this the kind of usage a cove meets for giving you something to eat, and looking after yer hanimals. Take the cuss off, can't ye, and not let him stand over me this way?"
"Call off the dog," whispered Murden; "I am afraid that the animal will choke him to death, and then, lazy as he is, he still would be a loss, for he gives me information at times concerning the movements of bushrangers, which I can obtain nowhere else."
"Did he ever give you tidings that led to the arrest of thieves?" I asked.
"No. I think not," replied the officer, after a moment's reflection; "but that, you know, is no fault of Bimbo's. By his advice, I have twice been near capturing parties of marauders. Something, however, has happened to prevent me—either I would get the intelligence too late, or the robbers had just changed their haunts."
"I see," replied Fred, with a grin; "the lazy, ignorant Bimbo has blinded the eyes of one of the smartest lieutenants of police in Australia, and by pretending to furnish information, has gained his confidence, simply to place him on the wrong track."
"What mean you?" asked Murden, astonished.
"I mean that this scamp"—and by this time we were beside the fellow, whose face bore every mark of the most abject terror—"has been in league with the bushrangers for years; that he just entered into a contract with Jim Gulpin, to set his gang free, and that he picked the pocket of Maurice to get the key of the robber's irons, and that our deaths were deliberately planned, and would have been carried into effect, had we not chanced to overhear the bargain."
"So help me God, lieutenant, it's a lie!" shouted Bimbo, struggling to his feet, a proceeding which the hound did not exactly like, and he looked into my face as much as to ask whether it was all right, and manifested hostility even when I called him away.
"You knows very well, lieutenant, that I've been the best spy on this route for years, and that I always tells you all that happens, and now to think that these strangers should come here, and try and take my character away, it's too bad, it is," and the dirty scamp dug his filthy fingers into his eyes, and tried to force a tear, but the effort was a failure.
"How about the stolen articles in the cellar of the hut, a portion of which you were to receive for setting the gang free?" asked Fred.
"There's none there," whined the fellow, "so help me God, there's none there, and there's no use in searching."
"Well, examine the hut at all events," replied Fred; and bidding Bimbo walk to the house, we followed close at his heels, and threatened him with the fangs of the dog when he hesitated.
By the time we had reached the station hut, the policemen were just depositing Gulpin near the door, having brought him in a blanket from the spot where he fell. The wretch was suffering great pain, and huge beads of perspiration were streaming down his forehead from its effects. The men had stripped off the leg of his trousers, and revealed bones protruding near the knee. But little blood flowed from the wound where the ball had penetrated, and I considered it, with my imperfect knowledge of surgery, as looking decidedly bad for saving the robber chief's life.