"Do you mean the two men near the muddy brook, or on the Ballarat Road?" inquired Steel Spring.
"The two last," replied Murden.
"Vell, don't strike, 'cos it hurts like thunder, and I don't mind telling you all about it. You see Nosey heard that they'd got the dust vid 'em; so I was sent to talk vid 'em and find out how much they had, and get 'em to stop in a convenient place; and then Nosey and two others comes up and pretends to be going our vay, and ven a good chance occurred the miners vere knocked in their heads, and Nosey took the dust and divided it around, but I didn't get any."
"Give him another cut, Maurice, for telling the last lie," cried Murden, coolly.
"Don't do that," shouted the long-legged wretch, as the blow fell with awful distinctness upon his back. "Darn it all, you hurt."
"I intended that the blow should," replied Maurice, making preparations to repeat it.
"Don't strike, for God's sake don't. I'll tell the truth this time," he yelled.
"How much money did the men have, and what was your share?" repeated Murden.
"I don't know how much they had, but I does know that I got a hundred pounds for my share in the affair. But I didn't kill the men. 'Pon honor I didn't"
"I believe you on that point. Wait a moment, Maurice; I have another question or two."
"I vish that you'd let me hanser 'em vithout bein' tied up," groaned the wretch.
"What became of that young girl who was on her way with a party of friends to join her father at Ballarat, and who was carried off by a gang of bushrangers?" questioned the lieutenant.
"She's dead," replied Steel Spring, dropping his voice and looking around anxiously, as though fearful he should see her ghost in the darkness.
"Who claimed her as a prize?"
"Nosey took charge of her, and threatened to kill any one vot spoke to her; but I believe that she got a knife and stabbed herself, sooner than submit to his vishes."
"This is horrid," I said, hardly knowing whether to believe all that I heard, or consider it the effect of imagination.
"Nevertheless, it is true. You have never heard all the cruelties that the gangs commit; if you had you would be ready to exclaim, Give them no quarter, for they deserve none!"
"Now that I've hanswered all you vant to know, you von't vip me any more, vill you?"
Murden was about to speak, but just then a new subject engrossed his attention, and he had no longer an opportunity to inflict chastisement upon the begging wretch.
REVENGE OF THE BUSHRANGERS.—FIRING OF THE FOREST.
The punishment of Steel Spring was suspended, and the stout sword belt remained in the hands of Maurice, inactive, while all eyes were directed towards the heavens, from whence a bright light proceeded, which illuminated the open space where we stood, so that even the ghastly faces of the dead and dying could be observed with awful distinctness.
For a few minutes' time, even the busy tongue of Steel Spring ceased to wag and each turned to the other, and asked the reason of such a bright light at that time and place.
"I think it's the moon just rising," one of the men ventured to say.
"There's no moon to-night," was the brief rejoinder.
"Then what is the meaning of the light?" was the inquiry; but no one seemed to fathom it.
Presently a few clouds passed over the heavens, and then we smelled smoke, of which they seemed composed.
"The bushrangers can't have set fire to the stockman's hut, can they?" asked Murden.
"They could not have crossed the prairie so soon, and the distance is too great to allow of such a reflection," was my answer.
"Hark, I hear the cracking of bushes," said Fred; "some one is approaching us."
"Look to your guns, men," called out Murden; "we do not know but this may be a device of the robbers to get a glimpse of us."
The policemen cocked their carbines, and sheltered their forms from the bright light behind trees and bushes.
We heard the quick panting of a person who appeared to make his way through the bushes with difficulty, and the next moment the old convict sprang into the clearing, trembling with fatigue and agitation.
"You are all lost," he shouted, sinking upon the ground, wringing his aged hands, and rocking his body to and fro.
"What do you mean, man?" demanded the lieutenant, sternly.
"I mean that there is no chance to escape—the bushrangers have fired the forest!"
I felt the blood at my heart grow cold, for too well did I know the import of those dreadful words.
"How do you know this?" asked Murden, calmly.
"I followed the bushrangers when they fled, and mixed with them and talked with them, without being discovered. They discussed a plan for being revenged upon you and your men. They did not dare attack you, openly, after you caused the fire to be extinguished; so that Satan upon earth, Nosey, suggested that the forest should be fired at three different places, and that you would seek to escape from the flames by going in an opposite direction."
"And what will prevent us?" asked Murden, glancing his eyes over his men, who were listening in silence to the revelation.
"All of the best marksmen are going in ambush to the left of us, waiting for your force to attempt to escape that way. They now guard the passes, and not one of us could get out alive," groaned the stockman.
"But we can make our way through that portion of the forest which is not burning," Fred said.
"Impossible," muttered the stockman; "the flames are spreading with the speed of a horse, and even now a huge wall of fire bars us from the prairie."
"Why did you not give us notice before?" I asked.
"I came to you the instant a torch was applied to the dry leaves and branches, but before I was twenty rods from the flames I could hardly have returned without danger of being burned."
"Well, gentlemen, what is to be done?" asked Murden; "shall we stay here and be singed like dead rabbits, or shall we push through the forest and endeavor to escape the ambush?"
"In either case I don't see but that our prospects of escape are hopeless," said Fred, quite calmly.
"Hark!" cried the stockman, starting to his feet; "do you not hear the flames?"
We all listened, and a noise like the roaring of the surf on a beach could be heard, but apparently at a distance.
"That does not sound encouraging, I confess," remarked Fred; "but I think that we can yet circumvent the devils."
"How?" cried Murden, eagerly.
"Will you be governed by me, for a few hours?" Fred asked.
"Yes, and my men also," answered Murden, heartily.
"Then let us commence work, for we have no time to lose. In the first place, collect all the powder that your men have, and cover it with dirt, a foot high, we want no explosion to dishearten the men, and encourage the enemy."
"Do you hear, men?" cried Murden; "bring to me your flasks without a moment's delay."
The policemen hastened to obey the order, and a few shovels full of earth secured our safety in that respect.
"Now, then, as many of you as can use shovels and pickaxes, dig away at that hole, which Steel Spring commenced. Do not spare your labor, for a gang will relieve you, when tired. Dig deep and wide."
"But I don't see of what use that is to be," remonstrated Murden.
"Remember that you have promised to be guided by me. Don't stop to question, but see that the men work with a will, while I attend to other important duties."
Murden no longer sought to fathom Fred's motives, but grasped a shovel, and set an example of energy which his men were not slow to follow.
"Now, Smith, you and the stockman and Jack help me. Rekindle the fire, which has almost died out, and burn every stick of timber within reach on the left side of us. We will catch the bushrangers in their own trap, if they are not quick."
"But vot is to 'come of me? Vho's to take care of me? Vhere's my friends?" yelled Steel Spring, making desperate efforts to break the bonds which confined him.
We were all too busy to attend to the wretch, and merely glanced towards him occasionally, to see if his bonds held; but Steel Spring was a man not easily discouraged, and every few minutes we were addressed with prayers and oaths, to make provision for his safety.
The fire, which Murden had given orders to extinguish, was easily rekindled, and then burning brands were thrown upon the dry bushes and leaves, raising flames that roared aloft and caught at the branches of the gum trees, and then spread to the trunks, and leaped from bough to bough, driving parrots and gaudy-plumed birds from their nests, that vented their displeasure at being disturbed by uttering hoarse croaks of rage.
"You will burn down the whole of the forest," cried Murden, alarmed at the rapidity with which the flames were spreading.
"I had rather see it down, than a man in this company should be injured," was the brief reply.
"Amen to that. But, Fred, it's growing warm here. Is not the hole which we have dug large enough?" asked the lieutenant, wiping his brow.
"Not half," replied Fred. "Do you see that long line of fire, which, urged by a strong wind, is rushing towards us like a furious wave of the ocean?"
"Well, a man can't very well keep his eyes off of it when he knows that it is to crisp him up like a baked pig," Murden answered, with a rueful look.
"We have hardly begun to experience the heat from that line of flames yet, and our only chance of escape is by entering the excavation which your men are making." "I see, I see!" cried Murden, a new light breaking in upon him. "It is our only chance, sure enough."
The officer spoke to the policemen, who, with coats off, were working like heroes, and they redoubled their exertions.
"The next question is, what shall we do with these wounded men?" Fred inquired. "We can hardly hope to save them all."
"There is but one of my force wounded, and if it is possible to save him, I will; but as for these cutthroats, I see no chance for them."
We looked into Murden's face to see if there was any show of pity for the bushrangers, but there was none. He had already calculated in his mind that the robbers deserved death, and the sooner they died, the better for the county.
"Let us speak to your wounded policeman, and see if he can bear removal," Fred said.
We passed over to the side of the clearing, where he was lying at the root of a tree which had as yet escaped the flames.
"Well, Sam, do you still feel like having another battle with bushrangers?" asked the officer.
There was no response. I stooped down and carefully removed the corner of a blanket from his face, and the open, staring eyes met my view. In the midst of the bustle and confusion, the spirit of Sam had taken its flight without uttering a groan, or one repining word. We gazed upon his face again, and left the corpse where we found it, to be licked by the greedy flames which were now roaring around on every side.
"We must burrow like rabbits," cried Murden, "or we shall be burned to death. It seems already as though I could hardly breathe. A breath of fresh air would now be worth all the gold of Australia."
"Don't talk of feeling suffocated yet," Fred replied, stripping off all of his surplus clothing—an example which the rest of us were glad to follow; and to prevent it from being burned, we rolled it into one pile, and covered it deep with dirt.
"When the fire reaches the edge of the clearing, and the wind blows the flames within a few inches of our heads, and the earth blisters the skin at a touch, then I shall not blame you for asking for fresh air," Fred continued.
"I certainly am obliged to you," Murden said, with a rueful look; "but if you will explain how we are to keep those same flames from melting our brains while we are huddled in that hole, like sheep in a pen, I shall feel gratified."
"Then I will explain immediately, for I see that only a few minutes will be allotted us by that moving circle of fire to make our preparations. Let the place which your men have excavated be covered over, with the exception of a hole to crawl into, with the pieces of half-burned timber which you see lying around."
"For what purpose?" asked Murden.
"To save our heads from being burned, as they otherwise would, unless protected," Fred replied.
"But the logs will get on fire."
"Not if they are protected by a heavy covering of dirt," answered Fred, composedly.
"An idea that I should not have entertained," muttered Murden, in astonishment.
"But now that you understand me, hasten the men in their work, for already our clothes give tokens of singeing."
Our situation was one which might well make a timid man fear for his life; for on each side of us the flames were roaring and surging like the grass of a prairie on fire, and over our heads the heavens were concealed by the black clouds of smoke which, urged by the wind, were traversing the sky at a rapid rate; and on that same night an alarm was entertained at Ballarat, ninety miles distant, that Melbourne had burned to the ground. So dense was the smoke occasioned by the consuming of hundreds of acres of trees in the black forest of Australia.
The five on the left of the clearing, which we had kindled to prevent the bushrangers from approaching us and thinning our numbers at leisure, had already assumed a fearful aspect, and was running along the ground rapidly. I hardly dared to stop my work and watch the scene, so fearful was it. I had serious doubts as to the practicability of the plan which Fred proposed, yet I gave no evidence of my want of faith, and encouraged the men with example and words, and when a number of the trees began swaying to and fro, as the fire consumed their trunks, I remonstrated against their seeking shelter until the work was entirely finished.
During our struggle to secure a place of safety, we had forgotten entirely the wounded bushrangers, who were stretched out, side by side, at the farther end of the clearing. Their cries for assistance, however, soon called our attention to the fact that we had made no provision for their safety, and while the policemen were hurriedly placing a roof upon our den, Murden and the rest of us held a brief consultation as to what we should do with the poor wretches.
"Speak quick," exclaimed Fred, as a burning tree fell with a tremendous crash into the clearing, sending the sparks high into the air, and causing the atmosphere to seem like the breath of a furnace.
"Speak quick," he continued. "We can endure the heat but a few minutes longer, and our lives are endangered by the falling of trees. Shall we save the bushrangers and perish ourselves, or shall we abandon them to their fate?"
"I am as humane as any man alive," said Murden, "but I can't think that I am called upon to expose my command to death for the sake of saving our most deadly enemy. Were there innocent and unoffending women here, I should know my duty and behave as become a man, but now I must remember that I am a commander."
"I expected that you would prefer your men's safety to that of robbers," Fred said; "but as you are an interested party, we will hear what Smith has to say."
"My life is as dear to me as the rest; but while I cannot see how we are to save the bushrangers, I would gladly give all my wealth for the privilege of so doing," was the honest answer.
"Spoken like a man," replied Fred, rubbing his side, which, owing to his neglect to turn at the right moment, was somewhat scorched.
Faint moans, uttered by men who stood upon the brink of the grave, hastened us in our deliberations. We glanced towards the poor wretches and found that they were endeavoring to work their maimed bodies towards us for the purpose of pleading for mercy.
There was one man, however, who did not move from the spot where the policemen had first deposited him, and although the flames were roaring within forty feet of his position, he merely turned a dimmed eye towards them, and appeared to be resigned to his fate. I thought I recognized his weather-beaten countenance and grizzly hair, and nearer inspection convinced me that my surmises were correct. It was the old sailor who had so manfully resisted the orders of Nosey, and insisted upon allowing me to administer consolation to the snake-bitten bushranger. "Here is a man who must be taken care of, if I go without shelter," I said, pointing to the sailor.
"It is impossible," Murden replied. "He is badly wounded, and would occupy the room of three or four men. Let us retreat, for already do I feel as though my lungs were being boiled."
"You may go," I answered, firmly, "but not a step do I stir until I see that old sailor provided for. He saved my life, and I will try and save his."
"Don't mind me, matey," cried the wounded man, in a feeble tone; "my cruise is nearly up, and the log book will soon record my fate."
"If you die you shall expire without the torture of fire. We cannot save your companions, and indeed hardly know whether we can save ourselves, but the experiment shall be tried."
"Well, well," Murden said, seeing that I was firm in my demand, "we will share our den with him. Lift him up, men, and place him in our vault as carefully as possible."
The policemen performed the duty with an alacrity that I did not anticipate, and after I had seen the old sailor placed in a corner of the vault, and Rover by the side of him, I turned to join Fred and Murden, who were still arguing whether they could desert the other bushrangers and yet appear honorable in the eyes of the world.
"The old follow seems a little cast down," said one of the police, as I prepared to leave the vault.
I answered in the affirmative, and was continuing on, when the man touched me on the arm.
"Hist," he whispered; "don't say a word, but it's a little wine I have in my canteen which the old robber is welcome to, if you think it will do him any good."
I grasped the treasure with more pleasure than I should have experienced had I found a bag of gold flung at my feet. I thanked the kind-hearted man for his offering, and in another instant. I had poured a portion of the contents of the canteen down the grizzly old fellow's neck.
The drink revived him. He expressed his pleasure at my kindness by a glance from his sunken eyes that told of a warm heart, even if it beat within the breast of a robber.
"Thank you, matey," the old man said; "but it's of little use to try and right the hull when there's a shot between wind and water, and the top-hamper is gone. Nevertheless, I take it in kindness."
I could not reply, for I understood enough of his nautical language to know that he had given up all hope of living, and that the two wounds which he had received were fatal.
I returned the canteen to its owner, and hastened to join Fred and Murden. The fire was still working its way towards us on one side, and receding on the other. The heat, however, had lost none of its intensity, and every breath which we drew appeared to parch our lungs and consume us internally.
"Have you decided what to do with the wounded men?" I asked, as I joined my friends.
"Our first decision still holds good," replied Murden. "We cannot save them and save ourselves."
"Hark! Do you hear that shout?" Fred said.
We listened intently for a moment, and above the roaring of flames and crushing of trees we could hear the shouts of exultation which the bushrangers in a distant part of the forest uttered, as they thought how we were struggling for life.
That cry, so joyful in the thought of our misery, steeled our hearts against the wounded wretches, who, with uplifted hands, were praying for drink, for life, for protection.
"In, men," shouted Murden. "We can endure the heat no longer. Already do yonder trees threaten to fall and crush us with their weight, and a minute's delay may prove our ruin."
There was no struggling to see who should first obey the order. With military precision the men filed in as calmly as though parading for a drill, and in a short time no one but Murden and myself were uncovered.
"Enter," motioning to me. "I will be the last man who seeks shelter."
"But what shall we do with this poor devil?" I said, pointing to Steel Spring, whose agonizing yells for help had often interrupted our deliberations.
Murden made no reply, but walked towards the scamp, who redoubled his calls for help when he thought it was to be rendered. The officer untied the hands which confined him, and without a word he retreated with us towards our vault.
Steel Spring eyed us for a moment, as though uncertain whether he was included in the invitation or not, but when he found that the latter was the case, he broke forth into lamentations that fairly rivalled the shrill yells of triumph which we had heard his companions utter.
He pleaded and threatened, promised and protested; and when he found that we were invulnerable and unmoved, he uttered curses upon our heads so bitter that it seemed as though he had spent all his life in framing them.
I crawled through the narrow opening and found that the men were seated so close together that not an inch of spare room was between them. A small space was reserved for Murden, Fred, and myself, but it did not look large enough to seat one of us comfortably. In the corner opposite to me was the wounded man, and partly resting upon one of the police was Rover, as quiet and orderly a dog as ever suffered confinement for the purpose of saving life.
"And von't you take me in?" asked Steel Spring, as Murden entered our over-crowded den.
"Your miserable system of treachery does not entitle you to that kindness. Burn, and get a foretaste of what you may expect in the next world," replied Murden.
"I'll see you all hanged first," was the indignant answer of the long-legged brute; and we did not hear another murmur escape him, although we felt that his sufferings must be intense, and his ultimate death certain.
PERILOUS SITUATION DURING THE FIRE.—STEEL SPRING TURNS UP.
As Murden crouched down by my side, he loosened his pistols in his belt, and whispering to me, requested that I would follow his example. While I wondered at his command, he spoke to his men, and then I understood his motive.
"During our long connection with the police force," the lieutenant said, "we have never been placed in a situation like the present. We have undergone almost starvation—we have had bushrangers howling at our heels and ready to kill all who fell behind while on the march—we have been nearly dead for the want of water—we have been surrounded by natives wielding poisoned spears, and you know that a prick from them is death—we have enjoyed good and bad fortune together, have we not?"
"We have," replied the men, with one accord.
"And during all the scenes through which we have passed, have I not shared your dangers and toils?" Murden asked.
"That you have," the police said, uttered in a tone of voice that showed they should like to see the man who would gainsay it.
"I ask you these questions, men, because all dangers through which we have, passed were nothing compared to the present. Our safety depends upon our actions."
"Our actions?" repeated the men, in great surprise.
"Yes, I repeat it. Our safety depends upon ourselves. You feel that the air is close and heated within our retreat. In half an hour's time the present temperature would seem like winter if offered in contrast to what we shall endure. We shall suffer for water, and perhaps none of us will survive the ordeal; but let me tell you that our hope of safety is in keeping still, and enduring all without a murmur. If a disturbance does come in our midst, and one of you loses his reason, remember I shall not hesitate to sacrifice him to preserve the rest. I have my pistols with me—they are loaded, and I seldom miss my aim."
The men listened in silence, and by their looks appeared to agree in the conclusion to which Murden had arrived.
For a few minutes not a word was spoken, and not a man moved from his position or even offered to fan his heated face, for fear the act would be construed into one of suffering.
Almost over our heads we could hear the roaring of flames as they gathered force and fury in their course; but worse than all, the groans of the wounded bushrangers fell upon our ears with awful distinctness, in spite of the falling trees, which at times crashed upon our heavy roof, and sifted down dirt through the cracks like falling rain.
The flames were almost forgotten—the heat, oppressive as it was, seemed endurable when compared to the sufferings which we knew the bushrangers were experiencing.
We listened attentively, and could tell when they expired, one by one, by the cessation of groans, oaths, and curses which they heaped upon us.
Those who survived the longest appeared to have become insane; and after dragging their mutilated bodies to the entrance of the vault, laughed as they told us of the delicious warmth which they were experiencing, and died cursing their Maker, and their mothers who bore them.
I stopped my ears, but, long after the most hardy had died, I fancied that I could hear their dreadful ravings; and even at this late day, I frequently start from my sleep as I dream of the frightful scenes which I encountered in that black forest. Better death a thousand times than again purchase life at such an expense of suffering at the hands of others.
Hour after hour passed, and it seemed as though we could not possibly survive many minutes longer. Our tongues were swollen and hanging from our months, dry, parched, and apparently ready to crack for the want of moisture.
Our eyes were expanded, fierce, and fixed—our brains seemed melting, and a heavy pressure rested upon our temples. I counted my pulse, and found that, as near as I could judge, it was beating at the rate of two hundred per minute. My heart appeared to keep pace with my pulse, and throbbed so violently that it seemed as though it would force itself through my side. A feeling of death-like sickness stole over me—I closed my eyes, and tried to fancy that I was by the side of a cool stream, and at length, I think that my senses did wander; for I was brought to myself by feeling a hand laid upon my shoulder, and no gentle shake aroused me.
"Courage, friend Jack," cried the consoling voice of Fred. "Cheer up, man! the worst is over, and in a short time we shall be free again. Come, cheer up."
I remember looking at my friend long and anxiously, and trying to settle in my mind where I had seen his face before. I think that I even laughed, and told him that he was taking great liberties with a stranger, and demanded what he meant by striking me on my shoulder.
I also think that I saw him carefully remove my revolver, and place it beyond my reach. But all was uncertain; a blur appeared to be before my eyes which prevented my seeing distinctly.
"Here, drink of this," whispered Fred, and as he spoke he raised a small bottle to my lips.
The draught restored me to full consciousness. The liquor was claret—warm, almost hot; yet I thought that I never tasted any thing half so sweet and reviving.
I saw a score of eager eyes fixed upon the bottle which I held, and even Murden glared like a famished wolf as he heard the gurgling of the liquor in my mouth.
"Softly," whispered Fred, as I was about to apply the bottle to my lips the second time. "Remember there are others suffering as well as yourself."
Noble-hearted Fred! when did you ever fail to sympathize in the sufferings of others, and use your utmost endeavors to contribute to their relief?
"If hell," groaned Murden, "is hotter than this hole, I have no desire to go there."
"You would not get liquor like this to cool your tongue there," Fred said, handing the lieutenant the bottle to wet his parched lips.
"The bushranger is dying, sir," cried one of the men, who was seated nearest to the wounded man.
Murden hesitated while raising the bottle to his lips for a moment.
"If I thought, that the contents of the flask would save him, I would yield it," he said; "but all the wine in the universe would not bring him to active life, while a few drops will help sustain me. My duty is clear. I will try and preserve my own existence."
He barely wet his lips, however, but even while he was doing so, I saw by the appearance of the men that they were perishing from thirst; yet such was their pluck and discipline that not one of them uttered a groan, or spoke in an angry tone.
"Divide it fairly, men," Murden said, passing the bottle to Maurice. "Remember, each one can only wet his lips."
The injunction was obeyed, and the half pint of claret went the rounds, and came back to Fred with a few drops remaining.
As though to reward the men for their forbearance, a slight breeze, deliciously cool, swept over our heads, and revived us with new life. At the same time we heard a hissing on the outside, which sounded like a piece of hot iron suddenly thrown into a pail of water. We all listened attentively at the sound, hardly daring to believe that what we heard was real. The noise grew louder and louder, and through the small opening we caught, sight of huge drops of rain falling.
"Hurrah!" yelled Murden, starting to his feet and poking his head out of the den; "we are all right now—it's raining in torrents."
The news was so good that we shook hands with each other, and congratulated ourselves as being under the especial care of Providence. Even Rover added his joyful barks to our cheers, and so eager was he that I suffered him to go out and roll in the wet to his heart's content.
The fire was being rapidly extinguished by the torrents of water which were falling, and so eager did our party feel to gain the open air once more, that they preferred to brave the rain and smoke to remaining in a place that liked to have been their grave.
It was rare to have rain at that time of year in Australia, and a number of the men construed it into an omen of the good will of Providence; but I reflected, and came to the conclusion that the cause was natural, and could be produced at any time if there were forests enough to burn so as to obtain the requisite amount of heat.
The danger, however, was not all passed. The ravages of the flames were stayed, but the ground which the fire had burned over was covered with smoking brands and livid coals, which, unless speedily extinguished by the rain, would keep us prisoners for a number of days—and with nothing to eat, the prospect was any thing but cheering. It is no wonder, then, we all mentally prayed that the rain would continue, and that our eyes were cast towards the heavens often to see if there was a prospect of the clouds breaking away.
Still the rain poured down in torrents, and huge clouds of mist and vapor filled the air and walled us in until we seemed as though confined in a steam box. We cared not for that, however; rain, rain in torrents was all that we prayed for; and so engrossed were we, that even the dead bodies of the bushrangers, lying almost at our feet, were neglected.
At length, however, our reason returned, and we found time to pay some respect to the dead. We resolved to bury them in a grave near the excavation in which we had sought shelter, and for this purpose three or four of the men commenced throwing dirt upon a large pile which we had previously thrown up. Hardly had the second shovelful been added before an extraordinary movement amongst the dirt took place, and the police started back in wonder and alarm.
"What are you afraid of?" demanded Murden.
"We are afraid of nothing," replied Maurice; "but the dirt appears to be bewitched."
"Nonsense! Strike the earth with the point of your shovels and let's see what witchery there is concealed there," cried the lieutenant, authoritatively.
Maurice no longer held back. He raised his shovel and drove it into the soft earth, and the effect was electrical.
"Blast yer hies, vot is ye 'bout," roared a voice that we instantly recollected; and before we could utter a word in astonishment, up rose the lank form of the genius Steel Spring.
"Is this the vay to treat a man vot does hevery thing he can to save ye?" the impudent wretch demanded, in an indignant tone.
"For God's sake, how came you alive?" asked Murden, looking at the man as though he expected to see him disappear from before his eyes at a moment's warning.
"O, it's wery vell to ax me how I does a thing after I get's out of a fix," Steel Spring replied, with one of his grins; "but I know'd that I varn't goin' to kick the bucket vithout vun trial for my life."
"Tell me how you managed to preserve your worthless life?" asked the officer, too much astonished to feel indignant, and almost inclined to believe that the fellow was under the protection of some good genii.
"Vell, I doesn't think my life very vorthless if you do, Mr. Hofficer; but in case you should ever get cotched in the same kind of a trap, I'll tell ye. Do ye see, ven I found that your company vas exclusive, I looks herround for means of safety, but I didn't find heny wery 'andy; if I 'ad I don't think that I should be here now; vell, the longer I stopped to consider, the wus I felt; and at length, ven the fire begins to burn the nice clothes vich I vore, I thought it bout 'time to do somethin'; so I 'appens to cast my hies on this loose dirt, and then quicker than lightning I digs a place, and lays down and covers me all hup, leaving only a leetle 'ole to breathe through. It vas varm, though—hawf'ul varm; and at one time I feared I should die; but the Lord supported me in my trouble, and here I is, safe and ready to be of service agin."
For a short time every one was silent, so astonished did we feel to hear the treacherous wretch use the name of his Maker in connection with himself.
"God has preserved your life for some object which we mortals cannot understand," Murden said. "I shall not punish you, neither shall my men. The courts of Melbourne must decide upon your guilt." "Vot, is you going to take me afore the big vigs?" asked Steel Spring, with dismay.
"There is only one chance to escape such a fate," replied the lieutenant.
"Name it, name it," cried Steel Spring, with avidity.
"By leading me to the hiding place of that arch fiend, Nosey."
"Is that all?" cried the fellow, with a look of intense delight.
"And do you consent?" asked Murden, disgusted at the fellow's treacherous instincts.
"Consent?" he repeated; "vy, of course I does; vouldn't Nosey 'ang me and all of his gang for the purpose of saving his life? and vy should I refuse; to 'elp stretch his neck ven I can keep mine free of the rope? Consent? of course I does."
"Remember," said Murden, with a stern look, "that we are to have no tricks here. If you even offer to lead me out of the right course I'll make a hole in your body big enough to throw a Bible through."
"I should then he sanctified, vouldn't I, lieutenant?" asked the wretch, with one of his cunning grins.
"How far from this place is the gang?" demanded Murden.
"Not more than four or five miles, I guess," was the answer.
"In the woods?"
"In the woods," repeated Steel Spring.
"Easy of access?"
"Vot is that?"
"I mean, can I and my men get at the gang without being surprised on our part?"
"Vell, if I hoffers to guide you there'll be no difficulty, 'cos I knows the vay, and no mistake. But my life is to be preserved, you know. Recollect that, lieutenant."
"I shall remember my word, and I will keep it in every respect. If you prove true, your life is safe, but if false, not a man under my command but will single you out for instant death. I know your tricks, and shall be watchful."
"I 'opes you vill, 'cos I can bear a great deal of that kind of vigilance. But I'm all right now. I know my friends."
"You'll know them better if you lead me into an ambush," remarked Murden; and here the conversation with Steel Spring dropped, but Fred and myself took occasion to speak to the lieutenant on the folly of trusting to him, but Murden was firm.
"If I can use this man," he argued, "to break up the gang of Nosey, and destroy that wretch, I shall think that I have been of real use to the country, and feel content to retire on my honors. There is some risk, you say. I grant that there is; but consider how many people have been murdered by the villains, and then reflect whether it is not better to entertain the danger and strike a blow that shall free this part of the country of bushrangers for months to come. Come, come, look at matters in their true light and promise me your cooperation."
How could we refuse him, after the trouble he had endured for our sake? We extended our hands, and with a warm pressure the compact was sealed.
CAPTURE OF THE BUSHRANGERS, AND DEATH OF NOSEY.
"Vot, is the Yankees going vid us?" asked Steel Spring, when he saw Murden shaking hands with us, to bind the contract.
The question was such an impudent one that I did not feel indignant, and perhaps our calmness restrained the lieutenant from giving vent to his wrath, which we saw blazing in his eyes. At any rate he managed to answer in a quiet tone that we were to accompany him, and that the rifles which we carried, and which he had previously expressed a great dread of, would cover his body during our march.
"Then Nosey is as good as dead," cried the lank wretch, hardly deeming it worth while to notice the allusion to himself; and so elated did he appear, that he actually borrowed a plug of tobacco from Maurice, and forgot to return it until asked to do so.
"A portion of the men may continue digging a grave, while the rest ran retreat to our late den and get our carbines and arms all ready. There is no knowing how soon we may want them."
The orders of Murden were obeyed promptly; and in spite of the rain which still poured down in torrents, the guns were put in complete order, and loaded ready for use. By the time the latter job was completed the grave was announced to be finished, and with not a prayer or a word of regret did we consign to the earth the remains of the dead bushrangers. They were all thrown in together, without much regard to order or decency, for the policemen were too accustomed to such a state of things to become sentimental; and with a last look at the weather-beaten face of the old sailor, I turned away and walked towards the opposite end of the clearing.
After concluding the burial of the men there was nothing for us to do but to sit down, light our pipes, and see the rain continue with unnatural fury. The progress of the flames was completely checked, and we hoped that if the storm continued an hour longer we should be enabled to pick our way over the burned district, find something to eat, and then fall upon Nosey before he thought it time to look after us.
That he supposed we were dead there was but little cause to doubt, for he would not anticipate the earthing process, and would feel some astonishment to find that we had passed through the ordeal in safety. At any rate, after we had concluded to proceed against him, we felt anxious to begin the good work, and have it off our minds.
The morning's sun, however, soon dispersed the clouds and dried up the rain, and when we examined the burned district we were rejoiced to find that we could pass over the ground if our feet were protected with shoes, a precaution which none will omit if an Australian forest is to be visited. In these important articles of clothing we were well supplied, and without delay we started. Murden gave the word to move forward, but first impressed upon the minds of the men the necessity of caution in regard to the manner in which their guns were carried, for, as he quietly observed, "we have enemies to kill, and can't afford to despatch each other. A spark of fire is sufficient to ignite our powder, and then where should we be?"
We found his advice good, for sparks from half-burned trees were showered upon our heads as we carefully picked our way through stumps that were black and charred and still aglow. On we went, as swift as possible, the soles of our shoes getting warmer and warmer each moment, until we feared that our feet would blister and burn with the exposure. At length, however, we saw the spot where we had left the team, and with a wild shout of exultation we rushed for it, each man striving to be first in the race.
Smith, nimble of foot, and urged by anxiety for the loss of his cattle, outstripped us all; but the poor fellow's face changed when he saw the wanton destruction of his property; for the bushrangers, not content with robbing our cart of every thing which it contained, had deliberately backed it into the fire, and the "body was completely burned off. The wheels, however, were good, and so were its axletrees, and I knew that it would enable us to reach the mines with a little patching. The most cruel part of the proceedings was the chaining of a yoke of oxen to huge trees and allowing them to die a lingering, terrible death. The villains were not prompted to the deed by hunger, for their bodies remained untouched, burned to a crisp, apparently.
"If I had a bushranger within reach," cried Smith, surveying the bodies of his favorites with almost tearful eyes, "I think that I should be tempted to roast him alive, as my poor oxen have been. Why, of all the mean acts that the devils were ever guilty of, this is the meanest."
"Don't repine, Smith," said Murden; "when you get back to Melbourne I'll see that you have a yoke of cattle to replace them."
"I don't wish to hurt your feelings, Smith," Fred exclaimed, "but as the cattle are dead and cannot be brought to life, I think that the best thing we can do is to satisfy our appetites from their carcasses. I, for one, am hungry, and think that a pound of steak is almost worth its weight in gold. Let's strip the skin from one of the brutes, and see whether the flesh is burned up."
"A good idea, and one that we will adopt," cried Murden, with alacrity. "Maurice, where is your knife?"
The officer did not wait for a second bidding, for he scraped off the worst of the burned portions of the hide, and then ripped it off, leaving about the hind quarters as juicy and wholesome looking meat as a man could wish for when in a state of hunger. Smith turned away, too much grieved to touch the food thus opportunely prepared, but the rest of us showed no such signs of delicacy, for in a twinkling our knives were out and cutting huge slices of the beef. The smell was very provoking of hunger, and so Smith thought, for he apparently could stand abstinence no longer. He joined us in our attack, and muttered as he did so:
"I don't see why the rest of you should fill up, while I starve; although I still contend, that to tie the poor things up and let them die such a death was cowardly and mean."
And always after that, if Smith wished to express the very quintessence of brutality and meanness, he would refer to the death of his favorites.
Our dinner was soon despatched, and once more we shouldered our arms, and under the direction of Steel Spring, skirted along the edge of the forest in quest of the lair of the bushrangers. We had proceeded but a mile or two when we saw the three men left in charge of the horses, galloping along apparently in search of us; and when they discovered that we were alive, and but little the worse for our fiery siege, their astonishment knew no bounds.
They stated that the flames had lighted up the country for miles in extent, and that they had tried to raise a party of miners, on their way to Melbourne, to come to our assistance; but that fear of being robbed or losing their lives prevented them. In fact, every one they had spoken to had construed the fire into a ruse of the bushrangers to entrap people, and would not believe that a large police force was in the woods, and surrounded by fire on all sides.
We gladly mounted our animals, for the men had taken the precaution, by the advice of the old convict's daughter, to bring our own horses with the rest; and then mounted Steel Spring behind Maurice, first taking the precaution of tying them together for fear of mistakes, as we told the former, and not from any doubts of his honesty—an admission which made the fellow grin until his huge mouth expanded from ear to ear.
The balance of our company was served in the same way, and after a sharp gallop of fifteen minutes, Steel Spring intimated that we had better dismount and approach the remainder of the distance with less noise if we wished to be successful in our designs. His advice was taken; when leaving two men to attend to the horses, we went forward at a brisk walk, and soon found an entrance to the forest that apparently had been long in use.
"This is the spot," whispered Steel Spring, "where Nosey's gang enters hafter a thieving job. Ah, many's the time I've been so loaded with plunder that I could 'ardly stand." But that's all passed now, you know, and in future I'm to be 'onest and good."
"How far from this entrance is the camp?" asked Murden.
"Not mor'n a mile, sir."
"Then lead the way. Maurice, walk by the side of him, and if—but you know what I mean."
"I think I do, sir," answered the policeman, drawing one of his formidable holster pistols, and examining the cap with a careful glance. "Vell, please don't pint it this way, 'cos I'm always nervous about firearms in the 'ands of inexperienced persons."
"Don't be alarmed," replied Maurice, composedly; "I'm well acquainted with the pistol, and once killed a bushranger with it at the distance of fifteen rods."
"Did it hurt him?" asked Steel Spring, with a shudder.
"I don't think that it did, for he never complained to me about the transaction," replied Maurice, with a grin. Steel Spring regarded the face of his companion for a moment in silence, and then seemed to decide that it would be better not to meddle with such a cool philosopher.
"Are we ready?" asked Murden, after every man had once more examined his gun and pistols.
"All ready, sir," answered the squad, eager to push forward.
"Then step light and keep your eyes about you. Smith, will you and the stockman defile to the left of us, while Fred and Jack perform the same duty on the right? It is the post of danger I offer you, gentlemen."
We readily accepted our location; for we had hinted to Murden that our safety required some such disposition of our forces, and he had acted on the suggestion.
On we stole, slowly, but noiselessly, each man looking to see where he planed his foot, so that no cracking of dry bushes should give warning of our approach. In fact, so well had the men improved under Fred's hints and observations, that they would have passed for old Indian hunters to a casual observer.
Rover, as though aware of the nature of the expedition, trotted along a few yards in advance of us, stopping every few minutes to snuff the air, and then glance at my face, saying as plain as language could express the words, "There's no danger yet—come along and I'll give you warning."
For over an hour we picked our way, at each step whispering our repeated vows to shoot our guide if he did not conduct us right; and when I had begun to think that the fellow was playing us false, he suddenly stopped, and repeated his caution for silence.
"Ve is close to um," he said. "A few steps more and ve'll be in sight of their camp. Now, don't you think I'd better go behind, 'cos I'm not good at fightin', and Nosey is the devil when he gets in a rage."
"Don't stop to remonstrate," Murden replied. "Lead us to the very camp of the bushrangers, and don't think that you can go to the rear, and escape the action of my pistol in case you play us false. Onward you go."
"Here's a precious fix," muttered Steel Spring. "I've got to lead the way to the presence of that old devil, Nosey, and I know's he'll pin me the fust."
"Stop your grumbling," said Maurice, "or I'll treat your lank body to a dose of this."
He pointed to his huge pistol, and the threat effectually silenced all objections on the part of the guide, who meekly continued to move on, as though under the influence of some charm which he could not resist.
Ten minutes brought us to the edge of a clearing similar to the one which Black Darnley and his gang had occupied. It was in the most dense part of the forest, and well chosen for secrecy. Near the edge was a spring of water, and directly in the centre of the vacant space was a log hut of large dimensions, with loopholes through which muskets could be poked in case of an assault.
There was no sign of life about the premises, and we were led to wonder whether the gang was within the hut sleeping off last night's fatigue, or whether they were off on an expedition. If the latter surmise was correct, we might have to wait three or four days before they returned, and that was something which we could not afford to do.
If the gang was asleep, an excellent opportunity was offered to capture them without the loss of a man; but who would venture to creep to the hut and find out, when there was a probability of a dozen men being encompassed behind those walls, waiting to take us by surprise, instead of our treating them to such a course of strategy!
Murden looked first at his men, but they rather avoided his eyes, and then his glance wandered to the old convict, but he did not appear to take the hint, and returned the stave with one of mildness. Fred's turn came next, and in him the right man was found.
"I see what you want, lieutenant," Fred said, with a smile, "and I am ready to comply. Keep me well covered with your guns, and think there is not much danger."
He left his rifle with me, and then, getting upon his hands and knees, crept forward, carefully sheltering his body, as far as possible, with stumps and tufts of grass, until he reached the door, which stood open. He glanced hastily in, and then, without wasting time, turned his steps towards us as fast as possible.
"Well," we whispered, "what have you to report?"
"The bushrangers are in the hut, and sleeping, I think."
"Are you sure?" asked Murden.
"No. I am not sure that they are sleeping, but I am sure that they are lying on the floor, and apparently are not aware of our approach," returned Fred.
"Then let us move onward without delay, for the cracking of a branch might cost us our lives, and that is something none of us wish to spare, just now."
With cautious steps the men moved towards the hut, led by Fred and Murden. We met with no opposition, although it would not have surprised me to have heard a discharge of musketry as we advanced.
We gained the door without awakening our adversaries, and saw them stretched upon the floor, little dreaming that danger was so near.
On we stole until all our force was within the hut, and each policeman held a cocked carbine at the head of a bushranger. Still they did not awaken, and it could only be accounted for on the supposition that they had been up all night making merry over our supposed death by fire.
"Kill the first man that offers to stir, in his defence," the lieutenant said, after having carefully collected all the guns that could be found handy.
The whisper, slight as it was, had the effect of causing the chief, the hideous Nosey, to open his eyes and look around, as though half dreaming; it, was not until his eyes met those of Murden that he fully awoke, then he made an effort to start to his feet, but he found the cold muzzles of Fred's and my own rifle pressed to his brain.
"We're betrayed!" he yelled, in a voice so shrill that it awoke every bushranger as suddenly as though the blast of a trumpet had rang through the room.
There were mingled oaths and exclamations, and desperate attempts to gain their feet; and one young fellow, who, in spite of warnings and threats, persisted in getting up, was shot through the head, and his brains spattered upon his comrades, who were lying by his side.
"Kill all who resist!" yelled Murden, scenting blood like a tiger; "if they submit, spare them, but death to the refractory."
The shooting of one appeared to have a good effect on the others, for although many a menacing glance was east upon us, and many a half-uttered oath was checked, yet there was no more struggling, or thoughts of resistance.
"I thought you dead," muttered Nosey, after a keen glance at the face of the lieutenant.
"It is not your fault that we are not," answered Murden, dryly.
"No, that it is not, for I meant to roast you and your force; in a few hours we intended to start on an expedition, and look for your bones. How did you escape?" asked the unabashed robber.
"That you will never know; be assured that Providence has no such fortune in store for you, and that if enough wood and rope can be found, the manner of your death will not remain a mystery."
"Perhaps you mean by that I shall die on the gallows?" demanded the bushranger.
Murden nodded his head in token of assent.
"I'll bet you two to one, that a rope will never end my existence," cried the fellow, with an impudence and coolness that almost surpassed belief.
"Bind the villains with stout cords, for the present," cried the lieutenant, returning no answer to the banter of Nosey, who fired with indignation at the epithet.
"Whom do you call villains?" he demanded. "We were forced to become robbers by the tyrants of the hulks, and all the wrongs which were there inflicted upon us we have returned; and we should not have been human had we acted otherwise."
"I have no time to bandy words with you, even if I had the inclination," returned Murden; "get upon your feet, and submit to be bound like the rest; we know no distinction, and serve all the same."
The bushranger slowly rose to his feet, and his hideous face seemed almost to burst, so livid were the scars which marked it; his eyes were injected with blood, and glared like those of a wild beast.
"Bind me as soon as you please; here are my hands; you see that I am harmless and unarmed; the lion can be taken by his mane, for his claws are clipped, and his teeth are broken."
"You bloodthirsty monster, do not compare yourself to a lion; bah! you are like the skulking wolf that sneaks and steals upon its prey, and after appeasing its hunger, slays for the sake of showing its strength. Give his cords an extra twist, men, for his impudence." Murden uttered the words with an expression of disgust that did not fail to convince the bushranger of the estimation in which he was held.
"You think, I suppose," Nosey said, with an angry scowl, "that you will have the pleasure and triumph of carrying me to Melbourne alive; you are mistaken."
"Look well to your prisoner!" shouted the officer, as the men prepared to slip a cord over his wrists.
He was too late in his warning, for the desperate robber suddenly thrust his hand into his bosom and drew forth a huge knife, which he waved over his head.
The policemen started back, surprised and confused at the suddenness of the action; and before they could rush and disarm the prisoner, he was outside of the door, nourishing the knife, and threatening death to all who opposed him.
"Fire on him!" yelled Murden, perfectly frantic at the thought of his escape. "Kill him—kill him!"
The robber rushed towards the woods, and it seemed as though he would escape in spite of the loaded guns which we carried in our hands; but one of the men, more cool than the rest of us, discharged his carbine, and the ball struck the right leg of Nosey, and crushed the bone as easily as though it was a pipe stem.
Wounded as he was, he did not immediately stop, but continued on, striving to gain the woods, as though his safety was secure if he could reach them. But the effort was too much for human endurance. He staggered, struggled to maintain his erect position, and then fell with a crash to the ground. We went towards him; he did not move; we turned him over, and found that he was lying in a pool of blood, quite dead. Either by accident or design, he had fallen upon his knife, and it was sheathed to the hilt in his heart.
RETURN TO THE STOCKMAN'S HUT.—SMITH IN LOVE.
The bushrangers were struck with awe at the sudden death of their chief, and made no resistance as they were bound in pairs. Indeed their audacity appeared to desert them, although they maintained a sulken aspect until they got a glimpse of Steel Spring, who, to prevent mistakes had been bound to a tree, while we secured his comrades.
The glances of hate and scorn which were cast upon their betrayer appeared to have no effect upon his well-tried nerves, and he seemed to act as though he had done his duty and was not ashamed of it, and didn't care who knew the part which he had played in the drama. The death of Nosey, however, appeared to astonish Steel Spring, for when he was allowed to see the body he grew pathetic.
"So old Nosey is dead!" he exclaimed, looking upon the face of the wretch; "veil, he vas a vonderful man, and used to rob more peoples than hany bushranger in those parts; ve shall miss him, I know ve shall miss him; and vere shall ve find a man to take his place?"
"Do you still think of robbery?" demanded Murden, sternly.
"No, sir; I vouldn't take a shillin' from a traveller to save my life. But ven I thinks of the times ve've had, I feels like shedding tears! A vonderful man vas Nosey; so 'andsome, too!"
"Cease your nonsense, and answer me one or two questions," Murden said; "the gang has plundered for months; do you know where they concealed their money?"
"I'm blessed if I do," replied Steel Spring, with alacrity.
"Do you think that our prisoners know?"
"Veil, that feller who is looking at me so cross, as though I'd hinjured him, could tell if he'd got a mind to," replied Steel Spring, pointing to a robber who seemed to be regarded as a sort of leader, now that Nosey was dead.
"Are you disposed to inform me where Nosey buried his money?" asked Murden, appealing to the man.
"And what inducements do you hold out, if I give you the information?" asked the robber, dryly.
"I do not promise you your life, but I think that I can get the sentence put off a few months," the lieutenant replied.
"And you suppose that I will reveal on such conditions?" demanded the bushranger, impudently.
"I do; you have every thing to gain, and nothing to lose."
"My life, I suppose, you call nothing; that is already forfeited, you seem to think; but you shall find that, robber as I am, I know how to keep a secret."
"Then you refuse to divulge?"' asked Murden.
The bushranger regarded him with a scornful air, and remained silent. Murden grew excited, and forgot that he was only an humble instrument of the law, and that life and death were not at his disposal after men had surrendered.
"Throw a tackle over the branch of yonder tree," he said, pointing to a sturdy gum tree which grew near; "we will save the courts of Melbourne the trouble of trying the fellow."
The bushranger did not seem surprised, or appear to be affected at the news.
Not so the policemen; they knew that their officer was exceeding his authority, but their discipline was too good to allow them to cavil at his orders, right or wrong.
They threw a rope over the shrub pointed out, and then making a slip-noose, passed it around the neck of the obstinate robber. Still he wore his scornful look, and did not even ask for mercy, which Murden had evidently anticipated.
"Will you reveal?" demanded the lieutenant.
"No!" he yelled: and with his refusal was a gesture of the most impudent and insulting nature.
"Up with him, men!" cried the officer, beside himself with passion.
The men tugged at the rope, but with all their strength they could not raise the man from the ground, owing to the cord being passed over a limb, instead of through a block, the friction was too great.
Smith, during all of this time, had been a spectator, instead of an actor in the tragedy; but when he saw that the policemen were unable to carry their designs into effect, he appeared to recollect the death of his oxen, and to think that the present was an excellent time to avenge their death.
He rushed to the rope, and pulled away at it with such good will that the bushranger was raised from the ground a few inches, and by the spasmodic movement of his feet, I saw that he was choking, and could exist but a few minutes longer.
"Are you mad?" I asked of Murden; "you have no authority to hang the man; the courts of Melbourne will make a noise about the matter, be assured."
The lieutenant appeared to reflect, and seemed to think that my advice was worthy of being taken, for he waved his hand, and the nearly strangled man was lowered to the ground, much to the disgust of Smith, who appeared to think that he was cheated of his prey.
"Once more, I ask you to reveal the hiding-place of the treasure," the officer said, when he found that the robber had sufficiently recovered to answer his question.
"I refused when a rope was tightened around my neck, did I not?" the bushranger asked, in a gasping manner.
Murden nodded his head in token of assent.
"And do you think that, after being half choked to death, I'll reveal now?" he demanded, in an indignant tone; "I'll see you and your cowardly police d——d first; and sooner or later I know that you will be."
"Up with him again!" cried the angry lieutenant; but his rage was only momentary, and before the men could put his order into execution, he countermanded it.
"You are too impudent a scoundrel to die immediately; a few months' solitary confinement in the prison at Melbourne, with nothing but bread and water to eat, and the certain prospect of a long, lingering death, will tame your spirit, and make you docile."
"Do you think so?" asked the bushranger, with a sneer.
Murden made no reply.
"If I am placed in solitary confinement," the robber said, "I shall have the more time to think upon the many poor devils who have begged their lives of me, and yet never got their prayers granted. I shall think of the meet revenge I have had for my injuries during a long term of imprisonment at the hulks. I shall think of the many pounds of gold dust which I have robbed from passing trains; and better than all, I shall laugh to know that the police force of Melbourne cannot find it to enrich themselves."
"Devil!" yelled one of the men, more fiery than the rest, "do you mock us?"
He raised his carbine, and with no gentle hand let the breech fall upon the fellow's head. The blow loosened the skin, and let loose a torrent of blood.
"Yes, this is a fair sample of the manner in which the police of Melbourne treat prisoners. Is there any wonder that they fight desperately to prevent being taken?"
He dipped his finger into his blood, and held it aloft for his comrades to see. Had those men been free, our number would have been lessened in a very few minutes; for such expressions of rage passed over their faces, that it seemed as though the devil had entered their bodies.
"You did wrong to strike him, Manuel," Murden said, and that was all the reproof the man received.
"When I'm arraigned before my judges, I shall tell them of the blow," muttered the bushranger, wiping the blood from his brow.
"Do so, if you think it will help your case any," answered Murden, indifferently. "When you get before the judges you speak of, let me advise you to keep a civil tongue, however, or the worse for you."
"I shall speak my mind," replied the bushranger, who appeared determined to have the last word.
Orders were now given to get ready for our passage through the woods; but before we started we threw the bodies of the dead robbers into the hut, and then set it on fire. Long before the flames ceased, we were safe out of the woods, and mounted on our horses, heading towards the old convict's hut.
Our travel was slow, as the bushrangers were compelled to walk with their hands tied behind their backs, and it was only by threatening to ride them down, that we could get them to move at any kind of decent pace.
Smith, whose whole ideas were concentrated on his lost cattle, left us to see if he could find one yoke which were unaccounted for. When we entered the woods in search of the gold buried by Jim Gulpin, we had left two yoke hitched to the cart and a tree, and after our severe ordeal of fire, we had found two oxen burned to death, while two more were missing.
Thinking that, they might have wandered to the corral where the remainder of the cattle were confined, Smith galloped across the prairie and was soon out of sight. He did not rejoin us until we reached the hut, where we found that he had regained his oxen, and was paying considerably more attention to the old stockman's daughter than to his own affairs.
There was one thing which he deserved credit for, and it was accorded him with all our hearts. The supper which he provided was capable of making us forget our pains and fatigue; for a roasted lamb was smoking on a table, and three or four gallons of coffee were all ready to be drank, to restore us to new life.
All the articles which we had left at the hut were found in good order, and nothing was missing. It may seem strange that a stockman's hovel, miles away from other habitations, should escape the assaults of bushrangers; but the latter knew their own interests too well to meddle with keepers of sheep and cattle.
Many stockmen are in league with escaped convicts, and give them the earliest information in regard to the pursuit or routes of policemen; and although such a charge could not be brought against my friend, the old convict, yet the bushrangers knew that if he was molested or injured, the owners of the animals under his charge would find it very hard work to fill his place, and be forced in the end to drive their herds to other grazing spots. Hence, the supply of provisions which the bushrangers were in the habit of always considering secure, would have been cut off, and uncertain means resorted to.
The only instance of attack on my friend's house, on record, was when Jim Gulpin and his band required the surrender of a number of policemen sheltered within its walls. The result of that assault is well known to the readers of these sketches; so I will not review the circumstances.
During our absence the old man's daughter, or, in other words, Mrs. Becky Lang, had attended to her few household duties, and also watched our cattle, to prevent their straying from the corral. She had supplied them with water from the small stream, and in every respect behaved like a courageous woman, as she was. She had, apparently, recovered from the deepest of her grief on account of the loss of her husband, and her full ruddy cheek gave ample tokens of good health.
I saw that Smith was more attentive on our return than perhaps there was any occasion for; and I also noticed that the woman appeared anxious that he should have the best of every thing, and helped him twice to our once.
There was no occasion for our complaining, however, although we did joke Smith upon the conquest he had made, and asked if he had named the happy day; questions which he took in very good part, in spite of the blushes which mantled his sun-burned face.
That evening I offered my sincere congratulations, when Smith, after a confused account of what he wanted to do, informed me with an air of secrecy, that he had spoken to Becky, and that she had returned an answer that she thought she could make him happy the remainder of his life.
"But when is the wedding to take place?" I asked, coolly lighting my pipe; for the reader will please to note that it was not I who contemplated the awful act, and therefore I could condole with other people's woes with great equanimity.
"Well, I'd like to have it take place immediately, but there's no parson near," replied Smith, with great deliberation and solemnity.
Like all lovers, he wished to hasten his fate, and have the affair off his mind.
"But what will you do with your wife while absent with a load at the mines?" I asked.
"O, we've fixed all that—Becky and I have. She will live at our house in Melbourne, where she can be nice and comfortable, until I'm rich enough to start some kind of business in the city, when I can remain at home and enjoy her society."
I looked at the man, and actually compared him to a young lover, sighing at the first thoughts of his mistress, and picturing to himself how happy he could be with her in a cottage.
I filled my pipe afresh, and smoked for a few minutes in silence.
"Becky tells me that she took a fancy to me on the night that Gulpin assaulted the house. She thought I acted like a man on that trying occasion." Ungrateful Beck, to thus forget the valuable services of Fred and myself. Love had indeed blinded her, for all that was noble and generous was centred in Smith.
"Well, Smith," I said, extending my hand, "I give you joy, and hope that nothing will ever occur to disturb your happiness. I should like to be present at the ceremony, but I fear that it will be impossible."
"I don't know as it is so very difficult. There are parsons at the mines, and Ballarat is nearer than Melbourne."
I knew what he wanted me to do, but I feared that we should waste too much valuable time. He looked hard at me to see if I was not intending to urge him to take the lady with us, but as I smoked on in silence, he did not continue the conversation.
We were all tired enough at sundown to stretch our weary limbs upon the ground, and endeavor to sleep in peace for one night. To prevent our being surprised, sentinels were stationed around the hut, with orders to keep their eyes open, and report if any thing of a suspicious character was seen.
Whether they acted up to the orders is more than I know, but of one thing I'm positive. After I rested my head upon my knapsack, I did not awaken until I felt a hand laid upon my shoulder, when, starting up, I found that Murden was standing by my side.
"Day is just breaking," he said; "I am sorry to disturb you, but you know we must be on the march to Melbourne by sunrise. Have breakfast with us for the last time, and then we'll to the saddle."
I could not resist the temptation, and when I had packed my blankets, I found that the policemen had nearly completed their arrangements for breakfast, and were feeding the prisoners with the remnants of last night's repast.
Coffee was swallowed hastily, and then the clear, ringing notes of the bugle gave the signal for bringing up the horses.
"You surely don't intend to make these poor devils walk all the way?" I asked of the lieutenant, just before he started.
"They will have to walk until we come across teams on the road to Melbourne, and then I shall let them ride. There is no other way that I can do," he replied.
Even while we were talking, the bugle sounded to mount, so anxious were the men to reach the city.
"There will be a large amount of money placed to your credit," Murden said. "Remember that each bushranger killed or taken prisoner is worth one hundred pounds."
"We hope we shall never be poor enough to ask for it," Fred replied.
"I hope that you never will be in want, certainly," Murden said, "but I do hope that your sensibilities will not prevent you from accepting that which is legally your own. I have no time to argue with you more, but in less than a month I shall be at Ballarat, when we will further discuss the subject."
"You will have business there at that time?" I asked.
"I think that I shall. The miners have suddenly become convinced that it is not right to pay government taxes for the privilege of digging gold. Nothing serious has occurred as yet; but how long the storm will hold off is quite uncertain."
"This is all news to me," Fred said, after a short pause, "and I hardly know how to act under the circumstances. We have no desire to violate your laws, or to foster rebellion, and I have half a mind to abandon our enterprise for the present."
"I should be happy to see you both residents of Melbourne, but I cannot advise you to turn from the course you have marked out. Go to the mines and satisfy yourselves that the labor of gold digging is the hardest labor that you ever undertook, and that a week of such work is sufficient to convince you of the fact."
We resolved to follow Murden's advice, and were about to bid him farewell, when he added,—"If you conclude to remain at the mines, write me a full account of how matters stand, and what you think of the demands of the miners. I can rely upon you, for you have not mingled with the men, and of course do not at present sympathize with them. I do not ask the favor because I wish you to act the part of a spy, but simply for my own gratification."
We promised faithfully to keep him advised of our movements, and also those of the disaffected part of the residents of Ballarat, and with a hearty shake of his hand, Murden wheeled his horse and galloped after his command, which had been gone some time.
"Now, Smith, we are once more dependent upon ourselves. Shall we first go after our cart, and repair it, or do you feel like resting for a day or two?"
"Well, I don't know," answered Smith, in response to Fred's question. "I feel as though I should like to rest for a few hours; you see the confounded hole where we roosted was so hot, that I'm pretty nearly used up."
I saw through his design, but concluded not to notice it. Like all lovers, he hated to tear himself from the idol of his heart, and thought that a few hours might alleviate his pain.
"Well, we'll postpone our trip until to-morrow, and to be certain that we shall be ready then, we will take two yoke of cattle and bring up the team and repair it. Had we not lost that bag of gold which we have wasted so much time for, I think that we should have bought you a new cart, of later pattern."
Fred spoke jestingly, and yet not without a sigh at the magnitude of our loss. The old stockman, who was seated on a bench at his door, overheard the conversation, and interrupted us.
"Who says the gold is lost?" he asked.
"We all do," replied Fred; "the bag was not to be found where Jack placed it."
"I know that," the old man answered, with a silent chuckle.
"How do you know that it was gone!' I demanded.
"Why, because when you threw it down, I picked it up, and made my way out of the woods as fast as possible."
"And the bushrangers took it from you?" I demanded.
"I didn't say so," the stockman replied, coolly.
"You don't mean to tell me that the money is safe?" asked Fred.
"Well, I should think it was, because I don't believe that any bushranger would discover the place where I hid it." "Bless your old heart!" cried Smith, slapping him on the shoulder; "you are worth a dozen of us young ones. But why didn't you say something about it before?"
"And let those police fellers share with us? No, no; I know too much for that; they would have required at least half the amount found, and I didn't think my young friends here would be willing to be bled to such an extent. They shall have the money, and can do as they please. I have redeemed my word; I promised to assist them, for they have assisted me; and when I have placed the gold in their hands, I shall think that I have only paid them a small portion of the debt which I owe them."
We were too much surprised and delighted to speak for some time, for the recovery of the money was something we were not prepared for.
RECOVERY OF THE GOLD.—ARRIVAL AT BALLARAT.
"Lead us to the spot where you have secreted our gold," we cried, with one accord.
"There's time enough," replied the old man; "I tell you that it is safe, and where I can get it any time. What more would you have?"
"We would have the assurance that we possess it, so that we can reward those who have aided us in searching for it. We wish to feel that we are indeed worth so much money, so that we can lay our plans for the future."
"Do you say that you wish to reward those who helped you obtain it?" asked the stockman, removing his pipe and pricking up his ears.
"Of course we do," replied Fred, eagerly; "do you think that we are so selfish as to claim the whole of the prize?"
"It's not for myself that I ask; 'tis for my daughter, who, in case I am called to rest, will be destitute. Every pound shall be returned to you, and then if you think from out of your abundant means, you can spare the old convict and his child a few grains of dust, why, we shall be thankful."
"Don't fear for me, father," the daughter said, with an expressive glance at the brawny form of Smith, which seemed to say that he is "strong enough to take care of me in this world of trouble."
"But I do care for you, for who else have I to love in this world?" answered the stockman, wiping away a tear.
"And will you not let another share that love?" she said, fondling his gray hairs, as though she had just awakened to a sense of his worth.
"What do you mean, girl?" he demanded, with a suspicious glance at her face, which was suffused with blushes.
"I mean," she replied, coloring with contusion, "that if a suitor should present himself, would you not be willing that I should marry again?"
"You have just lost one husband, and who thinks of whispering nonsense in your ears? Not these young gallants, I hope, for they never would be willing to introduce you to their homes; and if they mean false, the old gun is still capable of sending a bullet as true as the day that I took it from a bushranger for killing my sheep."
"O, no, father; the young gentlemen have hardly spoken to me, and if I should wait for them to make love, I should never be married."
"Then who has caught your fancy, and made you feel as though you wished to desert your old father?" demanded the old convict, sternly.
"Not to desert you, father, for you shall come and live with us, and give up your shepherd's occupation. The work is too hard and dangerous for one of your years, and if you wish to make money the city offers larger inducements."
"I don't understand all of this," cried the old man, wiping his brow, and staring at us as though he wished we would explain. "You want me to live with you, yet when, and where, I am left to conjecture."
"He will tell you all," cried the daughter, breaking away and entering the hut, her face nearly as red as Smith's, and the latter's seemed as though burning. He cast an imploring glance towards me, and I helped him out of the dilemma as well as I was able.
"A man whom you might well be proud to call son-in-law has taken a fancy to your daughter, and seeks to make her his wife. The match in one that you can't help approving, for he is able to support her and be a kind husband. What more can you ask for?"
"I ask for the name of the person, and you confuse me with a torrent of praise," exclaimed the old man, testily.
"Here he is to speak for himself," I said, leading Smith up. "This is the man who desires to become your son-in-law."
"Are you serious, Smith?" the stockman asked, with a suspicious glance of his keen, gray eye.
"I assure you that I am, and that I will labor with all my might to make your child a happy wife."
Smith bore the scrutiny without flinching, although his words were uttered by syllables.
"But my child is poor; I can give her neither wealth, nor a proud, untarnished name. I have been a sentenced convict."
"And what have I been?" asked Smith, with a tremulous voice, his head falling upon his breast.
"Let us not refer to such matters," cried the stockman, briskly, throwing off, with an effort, the constraint which the conversation had given him. "I ask you if you are willing to marry my daughter, poor as she is, and poor as you know me to be?"
The stockman's gray eyes were fixed upon the face of the suitor as though reading his most secret thoughts.
"I have already answered that question, and told you that I was willing and anxious to have the ceremony performed without delay. You shall live with us, and take care of the house while I am at the mines. You shall never want as long as I possess a shilling," answered Smith, heartily. "Do those words come from your heart?" asked the old convict, eagerly.
"Else I should not have uttered them," Smith answered.
"Then my daughter shall be your wife; but she will not be the penniless woman you think for. Follow me, and I will show you a sight that will surprise you."
Thinking that the invitation was not addressed to us, Fred and myself held back, and did not offer to follow the old man into his hut. The stockman saw that we hesitated, and he called to us.
"Come in, all of you. I can trust friends, and I am sure you have all proved to be such."
We followed, wondering what he meant by his words and hasty gestures, and half inclined to think that the late trials through which he had passed, had unsettled his brain.
"Come in," he whispered, "and shut the door. We don't want passing strangers to see what we have concealed. Becky, where is the iron bar?" he whispered, still lower.
His daughter handed a small iron bar to him, and with it he raised the corner of a heavy stone, which formed his hearth.
"Now hold the bar in that position for me," he said, addressing Smith.
The latter complied, with his request, when the stockman inserted his hand under the stone, and after groping about for a moment, pulled out a heavy sheepskin bag, and laid it beside him. Once more he reached, and again dragged to light another bag, similar in size and weight. He motioned to let the stone return to its place, and then turned to us with a triumphant air.
While the old man was thus employed, we remained silent, hardly knowing what the proceedings on his part meant. With trembling hands he untied the strings which confined the mouths of the bags, and held them up for us to view. To our amazement, we found they were filled with fine gold dust, of an excellent quality, and that the two sacks contained not less than twenty thousand dollars' worth.
We uttered an exclamation of astonishment, and could hardly believe that what we saw was real.
"Yes, yes; it's all good gold, God be praised," cried the stockman, eagerly; "you thought that the old man was poor and destitute, but you see that I'm not. I've wealth, and it's all my own. God be praised."
"But how came you in possession of so much gold dust?" asked Fred; a slight suspicion crossing his mind that the old convict might have employed his leisure hours at a bushranger's occupation.
"Honestly, good youth, honestly. God knows all things, and he will acquit me of obtaining the dust otherwise."
"The amount is large for a person to possess who has received only a few dollars per year for his services as shepherd," Fred remarked.
"I know—I know," cried the old man, trembling with eagerness, and hastily taking up the bags again, and depositing them under the stone.
"I know," he continued, when he saw that the stone was safe in its accustomed place, "that the amount is large; and I mean to add to it, and be rich, and have men bow to me, and say, 'There goes one of our most worthy men. He is worth a million.'"
The old convict actually straightened his lank body, and looked proudly upon his daughter, as he thought of the homage which he should receive as a wealthy man.
"But you have not told us how you became possessed of so much gold," Smith said, rather coolly.
"Never you mind how I got it—that is a secret. But be assured, one half goes to you on the day that you marry my daughter."
"I accept of the woman, but before the gold crosses my palm, I must know that it was—"
Smith hesitated, for he did not like to wound the old man's feelings.
"You would say honestly," cried the stockman, looking Smith full in the face with his calm, gray eyes. "I like you better for your reluctance to receive a portion with your wife until you know that you can use it with honor. Be assured that you can do so."
"Convince me of the fact by relating how it came into your possession, and I am satisfied," returned Smith.
"O James, James, have mercy," murmured the distressed daughter, who was a witness of the scene.
The sturdy Smith resisted her appeal, and did not withdraw his eyes from the face of the stockman, who seemed slightly discomposed at the pertinacity of his intended son-in-law.
The old man hesitated and muttered to himself, and at length appeared to recover sufficient confidence to speak.
"Will all three of you solemnly promise me that you will not divulge the secret which I am about to impart?" he demanded.
"We will readily give our consent, because we have fought too many battles, side by side, to injure a friend, even if he has been guilty of imprudence," he replied.
"And will you also promise not to interfere with my plans, and demand to share my profits?" he asked.
We smiled, for we thought how little he was capable of coping with the energy and enterprise of ourselves.
"I see that you consent," he cried; "and now for the friend that yielded all the wealth which I possess. Follow me a short distance."
He led the way at a rapid pace towards the small stream which we had crossed so many times, and near the very spot where we had encamped on our first visit to that part of the country.
"There is where I obtained my gold," he said, stopping suddenly, and pointing with his hand towards the bank of the stream.
"You are misleading us," I said, not knowing what he meant.
"So help me, Heaven, I am not. Here, on the banks of the stream, I have dug and washed thousands of pans full of earth, and yet no living soul ever saw me at work. Here did I collect my gold, a shilling's worth at a time, some days, and on other occasions by the ounce, until I gained what I possess. I have toiled for it during heat and wet, and every grain that you saw was obtained that way."
We were silent from wonder, and could hardly realize that he spoke the truth. At length, Fred remarked,—
"For months, then, you have been aware of the existence of gold in this particular spot?"
"Not only in one spot, but all along the stream can gold be found. Even where you stand scales of dust can be obtained. The earth is full of treasure, and requires but little stirring to enrich all who choose to work."
"Then there is no occasion for us to go farther," I said; "here will we rest and try our luck."
"You can't," shrieked the old man, shaking his withered hands, and gesticulating violently. "You have promised not to interfere with my work, and I hold you to your word. To me belongs the exclusive right of mining on this land. I cannot share it with strangers."
"Why, how unreasonable and selfish you are, to exclude us from the privileges which you enjoy!" returned Fred, angrily.
"Not so," replied the old man, somewhat mortified. "Let a rumor reach Melbourne that gold is to be found by the side of this small stream, and thousands of adventurers will flock here. My sheep would be driven off or destroyed—the stream would be dried up, for there is hardly water enough to supply my animals at the present time. Men would perish with thirst, and cut each other's throats in their despair. My home would be invaded, and the old man forced from the ground, and perhaps lose his all while struggling in the race for wealth."
There was too much truth in the old man's words, and we were not disposed to gainsay them. Still, we did not like to relinquish a chance for money-making, and therefore we were disposed to argue the question.
"Here are days," we said, "when not a team or a foot passenger passes this way. We could always be on the watch, and as soon as we saw strangers we could desist from digging. Besides, then you would have us near you to protect and look after your interest. Consider how much we could assist you."
"I considered every thing," replied the old man, with a shake of his gray head, as though he was determined not to be convinced. "I knew that, unless I exacted a solemn promise, you would be wild to take advantage of my information. But I know your hearts, and am well aware that you will not struggle against an old man's wishes."
"Our company is disagreeable to you, then," Fred said. "We will not force ourselves upon you, be assured. In an hour's time we shall turn our backs upon the place, and probably never return."
"Come, come," cried the old convict, extending his hand, which we were in no hurry to accept. "You are angry with me, and yet you have no just cause, for I would expose my life to assist you. You are richer than I, and need not quarrel with an old friend for the sake of working from the earth a few scales of gold. Let me remain here in peace; for the present, without being elbowed by strangers."
"We are agreed," I replied, pressing the stockman's hand: and as we did so, a vision of his services rose before us, and amply rewarded us for the slight sacrifice which we had made.
"Now," cried the stockman, "we are friends again; and to prove that I am such, before noon I will place in your hands the bag of gold which we came so near losing night before last"
"Ah, now we are convinced that you have our interest at heart," Fred said, joyfully. "Let us but touch the treasure and you shall share with us."
"I want no share—I've been repaid, ay, more than repaid, in obtaining my freedom through your instrumentality, and if I can make some return I shall be happy."
We no longer stopped to discuss the question of working upon his claim, and in less than ten minutes after our return to the hut, we had saddled our horses, and leaving Smith to follow with his oxen, for the purpose of bringing home his half-consumed cart, we started once more towards the still smoking woods.