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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XIX

page 125

Chapter XIX.

On the departure of the boat, Lilly undertook to drive the horses that had been used by our visitors back before him, whilst I turned Selim's head down the road for Wentworth, beyond which, on a station a few miles further down the banks of the Murray, there were some business matters that required my presence.

The fourth day after I had left Menindie was far advanced when I again entered Wentworth on my return journey, and I learned that the steamer, that seemed for some cause to have been delayed on its passage down the Darling, had only a few hours before passed by. From here it had again turned up the Murray, whither, for business purposes, it was bound before returning down stream to Adelaide.

That I regretted having missed this opportunity of again meeting my kind friends, by such a narrow shave, I need not say; but there was no help for it now, and I recollected that in the decrees of fate “a miss is as good as a mile”. Instead, however, of turning my horse's head directly up the Darling road from Wentworth, crossing there on the punt, I rode on with a young man named Williams, with whom I had foregathered on the road on the further side of Wentworth, to a cattle station owned by him and some brothers, and situated a few miles further on up the Murray. My object in this was to inspect a young bull he had been telling me he wished to dispose of, and that from his description I thought might be suitable for Lilly.

By the time that we had reached Mr. Williams' station and duly inspected this bull, that seemed satisfactory enough, but whose purchase I deferred until I had had Lilly's own opinion on the matter, the setting sun had already begun to crimson the horizon of the western sky. Therefore, putting Selim into the stable to hearten him with a good corn feed, I followed my new friends, at their pressing invitation, to join in their substantial, but plain supper of bush fare, though their urgent request that I would pass the night with them I was obliged to decline, as I thought it better to ride on to Mr. Fletcher's station, situated about fourteen miles above the Darling from Wentworth. This course I thought the wisest, because it enabled me to better equalise the next three days' stage homeward, whilst, as the night was looking fine, and there would be a clear moon by-and-bye, this distance could be easily accomplished in two or three hours by Selim, who had only travelled a few miles altogether, that day.

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Being a good horseman, and finding on inquiry that it was possible to ride straight through the scrub and bush to Fletcher's, I determined to go that way, thereby shortening my journey by four or five miles.

With this determination, I waited where I was till the moon began to rise; then, mounting Selim, and bidding all the brothers a hearty good-bye, without the least concern about road or guide, save that afforded by the moon, I set off on my night journey.

Though the country along my route was occasionally traversed by belts of mallee scrub, through which I had to force my way, and also occasionally by swamps, through some of which my horse had to wade, yet the directions I had received from my late hosts, who of course were conversant with every inch of the ground, had been so explicit that I was able to avoid all the worst places and to take advantage of what open forest and plain country there was along my route.

Thus I pursued my way with a light and confident heart—now through the open country stretching away at Selim's luxurious canter, at other times varying the pleasure by the slower, but equally enjoyable, sensation of his long, easy, walking stride.

The moon was shining so calm and clear, that my way was considerably lightened with its beams, and Selim, snorting in the pride of his power, and with pricked ears, was stepping out freely at a walking pace. The night was mild and balmy.

Reader, have you ever experienced the exhilaration of spirits that a ride on such an animal, and at such an hour, can give? If you have, and if you are naturally fond of a horse, you then will bear me out when I say, that such a feeling is the most bracing and manly sense of enjoyment that can be well conceived. This feeling was at that particular time greatly enhanced with me by the character of my surroundings: their natural wild and solitary appearances rendered more so by the transforming effect that moonlight always exercises on a landscape, while the weird howls of those denizens of the scrub, the Australian dingoes, could be heard all around in dismal harmony with the time, producing an effect that might well have affected the nerves of a traveller unused to such scenery. Not so, however, those of a bushman; in the ears of squatters, overseers, or shepherds the howls of these destructive pests create no other sensation than those of vengeance and the desire of being provided with strychnine-dosed bait, to scatter along his road for the especial benefit of the dingo with his keen scent.

Meanwhile I need hardly say that in the course of this ride my thoughts were chiefly occupied with those in whose society page 127 I had spent lately a period of such felicity. Yes, and they were proud thoughts, too; for healthy young blood was flowing in my veins, and, as its natural consequence, hope was buoyant in my heart; for, with the proud consciousness of success crowning my efforts in my present sphere, prospects of a prosperous future seemed even then to loom large before me, in spite of my feelings of bitterness at my vain homage to my ideal love.

Such were my musings, when suddenly and rudely their course was interrupted.

I had just emerged from one of those scrub belts that occasionally traversed my path, into a patch of open country, when my ears were greeted with the deep, savage growl that proceeds only from the watch-dog, be it bull, mastiff, or retriever, but which I heard instantly silenced by a stern, quick “Hush”.

I had now struck the point of one of the swamps, or lagoons, that were thickly surrounded by lignums (poligonum is, I believe, their botanical name), a green succulent bush, in appearance at first sight not unlike Cape broom, though not of such a firm, woody texture as the latter. These bushes being rather thickly strewn over the open ground, I had not as yet seen the shepherd's hut or tent, that from the growl of the dog and the accompanying “hush” I doubted not was near. But I had already seen a further sign of the correctness of my surmise that some sort of party were encamped here—three horses that neighed on seeing mine—all securely tethered; one of these, a rather fine-looking black animal, and the nearest to me, I was just in the act of glancing at, in passing, when my further progress was suddenly arrested by the stern command to “Bail up”.

Though, from my familiarity with Colonial annals, well acquainted with the terrible significance of this pithy order when applied to anyone in my lonely condition, in all the course of my wanderings, that had covered some of the most exciting years of Colonial history, I had happily never been stopped in this way before.

I now, in my surprise on hearing such a command, perceived what till then I had failed to notice, standing in the shadow cast by the reflection of the moon, by one of the largest lignum bushes, two men, one of whom was armed with a gun, that he now held levelled at my head, whilst he called out again in a brutal and savage tone of voice, “Up with your——hands, or I'll send a bullet through your——brains”.

I believe that at bottom and with time given me to collect my thoughts, I am master of as much courage as most men, but I will not attempt to deny that, thus taken by surprise, the page 128 thought of sudden death staring me straight in the face sent the blood tumultuously to my heart. I obeyed the order mechanically by holding up both hands. In my right I had been carrying a loaded hunting whip, that without dropping I still held, which singularly enough my “stickers” up did not appear to observe. This oversight evidently arose from a circumstance that from what followed I soon perceived, viz., that at the time the men were considerably muddled with drink.

Both men now approached my horse, the armed man still keeping his gun in its levelled position, now dangerously close to me.

“Get off your——horse,” was the next command, delivered in the same brutal voice as before.

Somehow this command, which showed me that they meant to take Selim from me, seemed to nerve me up to the determination of making a desperate effort to preserve my grand old horse in a way that the mere thought of danger to my own life or purse would have failed to arouse. Barring my life, Selim was indeed the most valuable property that they could have dispoiled me of, as I believe I had only £20 in money about me in coin and bank-notes, whilst I should have considered the loss of five times that sum as cheap compared with that of my brave horse. The manner, too, in which the bushrangers comported themselves also favoured my design of resistance, for, instead of the armed man keeping his position, with his gun covering me until his companion had securely bound me, they both swaggered up to seize me on my dismounting. This action, and a movement that I immediately made of a rapid inclination of my body to one side, brought me to one side of the line of the gun. Ere the bushranger could rectify it I managed by a sudden spring forward to get inside of his weapon's reach, which I at the same time struck to one side with my whip handle. The oscillation thus given to it, by bringing an increased pressure to bear on the trigger from the fellow's finger, at once caused it to explode. At the same time as this occurred, with the buttend of my whip handle I struck the unarmed man over the head, not with sufficient force to kill or even to stun him, as he was too close to me, and the blow too hurried, to admit of its being fetched with a sufficient force, but still with enough to cause him to be sent reeling backwards to the ground. I then repeated the blow violently at the second man, but he, with the barrel of his gun held in both hands, managed to avoid it. Fearing for the second barrel, I now let my whip drop, and seizing the gun with both hands endeavoured to wrench it from him. This, however, I saw at once I should be unable to do as my antagonist was a big, burly-framed man, so instantly page 129 closing with him and giving him a back-heel, I sent him over on his back, I falling on the top of him. Seizing him now by the throat, I attempted by strangling to compel him to let me gain possession of his gun. This I might eventually have accomplished but for the assistance of his companion, who, recovering from his fall and the half stunning effect of the blow I had dealt him, now rushed forward, and seizing me by the collar dragged me off my antagonist, although my fingers still held their grip of the miscreant's windpipe with bull-dog tenacity, he calling hoarsely to the other to get a stick and knock my brains out. That such would quickly have been my fate there is no possible doubt, but at that moment I became aware of the approach of the quick trampling sound occasioned by a galloping horse, whose rider's voice I heard almost at the same instant shouting out in tones of stern reproof:—

“What hell's game is this that you are up to now, you blundering blockheads? Are you mad, or drunk, or both? What do you mean by such work as this here?”

At the stranger's stern, commanding voice my assailants at once quitted their hold, when I sprang to my feet, and in the new-comer who had thus providentially arrived in the nick of time to save my life, and who was now on his feet and holding the bridle of his dapple grey horse, I at once recognised Marsden.

I might, under other circumstances, have been astounded at the sudden unveiling of the true character of this man of mystery, so wondrously in keeping with the accuracy of Lilly's suspicions, that had from the first pointed to such a probability; but at that time I was too excited for the sensation of any such emotion, and, perhaps my mind, by these very suspicions of Lilly's, together with my own vague uneasy thoughts about the uncertainty of this man's character, had so paved the way in my mind for the reception of the truth, that when it did flash full upon me, I received it as a matter of course.

Without, however, appearing to notice who I was, Marsden continued his stern interrogatories to my two assailants, who now with scowling countenances confronted him. Their features I had no chance of identifying, as their heads were closely cropped, and, with the exception of their moustaches, their faces were free from beard and whiskers and were, besides, smudged with charcoal, not very completely, to be sure, yet enough to make identification difficult.

“You two cut-throat devils,” said Marsden, now addressing them fiercely, laying his hand at the same time on his revolver, “it is well for you both that you had not accomplished your page 130 purpose ere I came up, or I swear to both of you that you would each have got the contents of one of the chambers of this revolver” (he half drew it from his belt as he spoke). “What have you to say for yourselves? You, Morgan, you are always scheming about some devilment or other; why don't you speak?”

“I dunno, boss,” said the burly villain who had been armed with the gun, “but I think, now we're on the road, it is right to pick up anything as falls in our way.”

To pick up anything that falls in your way! Do you call murder a thing that falls in your way to pick up? You know me, sir, and that what I intend doing I'll do clean; but when you want to start throat-cutting, you'll start on your own account, and not do it in my company. Anyhow, you knew that it did not suit my plans to do anything in this neighbourhood that would rouse the suspicions of the police as to any such characters as we are being about here. You knew these instructions, didn't you; but who can put any dependence on swill hogs like you?”

“Well, the cove came riding on to our camp and we had to bail him up, or he would have peached on us; and then he brought the mess he was like to have got into on hisself, for instead of bailing up quiet like, he fought, and was like to have killed Wilson with his whip, and he got me down and would have choked me had it not a been for Wilson getting up, and collaring him as he did.”

“Ay! he may thank his pluck and spirit that he is not lying in that water-hole by this time. You would have treated him kindly, would you not, if he had given up quiet? I know you, Morgan, and have heard of what you have done before now; it would not be the first nor yet the second cold-blooded murder that I know you have been guilty of, under like circumstances. Now, hear me. I have told you already, that for your idle time here, I will pay you out of my own share of spoil; but, let me catch you at any slippery throat-cutting tricks again, and I can tell you that I will spare the hangman some trouble with both of you. If he is not able to lay his hand on you when he would like to, it won't take me long to do it. Now you had better go back to the camp, both of you.”

At this command, with which he concluded, which was rendered all the more imperative by his sternness of tone, the two ruffians literally slunk, with the most hang-dog look, away back to their tent, evidently relieved to get away from their chief, and thoroughly cowed by his manner.