This section is from the book "Robbery Under Arms; A Story Of Life And Adventure In The Bush And In The Australian Goldfields", by Rolf Boldrewood. Also available from Amazon: Robbery under Arms; a story of life and adventure in the bush and in the Australian goldfields.
'I believe you,' I said, thinking of our ride yesterday. 'It's quite bad enough to follow him on level ground. But don't you think our tracks will be easy to follow with a thousand head of cattle before us? Any fool could do that.'
'It ain't that as I'm looking at,' said father; 'of course an old woman could do it, and knit stockings all the time; but our dart is to be off and have a month's start before anybody knows they are off the run. They won't think of mustering before fat cattle takes a bit of a turn. That won't be for a couple of months yet. Then they may catch us if they can.'
We had a long talk with Starlight, and what he said came to much the same. One stockman they had 'squared', and he was to stand in. They had got two or three flash chaps to help muster and drive, who were to swear they thought we were dealers, and had bought cattle all right. One or two more were to meet us farther on. If we could get the cattle together and clear off before anything was suspected the rest was easy. The yard was nearly up, and Jim and I wired in and soon finished it. It didn't want very grand work putting into it as long as it would last our time. So we put it up roughly, but pretty strong, with pine saplings. The drawing in was the worst, for we had to 'hump' the most of them ourselves. Jim couldn't help bursting out laughing from time to time.
'It does seem such a jolly cheeky thing,' he said. 'Driving off a mob of cattle on the quiet I've known happen once or twice; but I'm dashed if ever I heard tell of putting up duffing improvements of a superior class on a cove's run and clearing off with a thousand drafted cattle, all quiet and regular, and him pottering about his home-station and never "dropping" to it no more than if he was in Sydney.'
'People ought to look after their stock closer than they do,' I said. 'It is their fault almost as much as ours. But they are too lazy to look after their own work, and too miserable to pay a good man to do it for them. They just get a half-and-half sort of fellow that'll take low wages and make it up with duffing, and of course he's not likely to look very sharp after the back country.'
'You're not far away,' says Jim; 'but don't you think they'd have to look precious sharp and get up very early in the morning to be level with chaps like father and Starlight, let alone Warrigal, who's as good by night as day? Then there's you and me. Don't try and make us out better than we are, Dick; we're all d---- scoundrels, that's the truth of it, and honest men haven't a chance with us, except in the long run -- except in the long run. That's where they'll have us, Dick Marston.'
'That's quite a long speech for you, Jim,' I said; 'but it don't matter much that I know of whose fault it is that we're in this duffing racket. It seems to be our fate, as the chap says in the book. We'll have a jolly spree in Adelaide if this journey comes out right. And now let's finish this evening off. tomorrow they're going to yard the first mob.'
After that we didn't talk much except about the work. Starlight and Warrigal were out every day and all day. The three new hands were some chaps who formed part of a gang that did most of the horse-stealing in that neighbourhood, though they never showed up. The way they managed it was this. They picked up any good-looking nag or second-class racehorse that they fell across, and took them to a certain place. There they met another lot of fellows, who took the horses from them and cleared out to another colony; at the same time they left the horses they had brought. So each lot travelled different ways, and were sold in places where they were quite strange and no one was likely to claim them.
After a man had had a year or two at this kind of work, he was good, or rather bad, for anything. These young chaps, like us, had done pretty well at these games, and one of them, falling in with Starlight, had proposed to him to put up a couple of hundred head of cattle on Outer Back Momberah, as the run was called; then father and he had seen that a thousand were as easy to get as a hundred. Of course there was a risky feeling, but it wasn't such bad fun while it lasted. We were out all day running in the cattle. The horses were in good wind and condition now; we had plenty of rations -- flour, tea, and sugar. There was no cart, but some good packhorses, just the same as if we were a regular station party on our own run. Father had worked all that before we came. We had the best of fresh beef and veal too -- you may be sure of that -- there was no stint in that line; and at night we were always sure of a yarn from Starlight -- that is, if he was in a good humour. Sometimes he wasn't, and then nobody dared speak to him, not even father.
He was an astonishing man, certainly. Jim and I used to wonder, by the hour, what he'd been in the old country. He'd been all over the world -- in the Islands and New Zealand; in America, and among Malays and other strange people that we'd hardly ever heard of. Such stories as he'd tell us, too, about slaves and wild chiefs that he'd lived with and gone out to fight with against their enemy. 'People think a great deal of a dead man now and then in this innocent country,' he said once when the grog was uppermost; 'why, I've seen fifty men killed before breakfast, and in cold blood, too, chopped up alive, or next thing to it; and a drove of slaves -- men, women, and children -- as big nearly as our mob, handed over to a slave-dealer, and driven off in chains just as you'd start a lot of station cattle. They didn't like it, going off their run either, poor devils. The women would try and run back after their pickaninnies when they dropped, just like that heifer when Warrigal knocked her calf on the head to-day.' What a man he was! This was something like life, Jim and I thought. When we'd sold the cattle, if we got 'em down to Adelaide all right, we'd take a voyage to some foreign country, perhaps, and see sights too. What a paltry thing working for a pound a week seemed when a rise like this was to be made!
Well, the long and short of it is that we mustered the cattle quite comfortably, nobody coming anext or anigh us any more than if we'd taken the thing by contract. You wouldn't have thought there was anybody nearer than Bathurst. Everything seemed to be in our favour. So it was, just at the start. We drafted out all the worst and weediest of the cattle, besides all the old cows, and when we counted the mob out we had nearly eleven hundred first-rate store cattle; lots of fine young bullocks and heifers, more than half fat -- altogether a prime well-bred mob that no squatter or dealer could fault in any way if the price was right. We could afford to sell them for a shade under market price for cash. Ready money, of course, we were bound to have.
Just as we were starting there was a fine roan bull came running up with a small mob.
'Cut him out, and beat him back,' says father; 'we don't want to be bothered with the likes of him.'
'Why, I'm dashed if that ain't Hood's imported bull,' says Billy the Boy, a Monaro native that we had with us. 'I know him well. How's he come to get back? Why, the cove gave two hundred and fifty notes for him afore he left England, I've heard 'em say.'
'Bring him along,' said Starlight, who came up just then. 'In for a penny, in for a pound. They'll never think of looking for him on the Coorong, and we'll be there before they miss any cattle worth talking about.'
So we took 'Fifteenth Duke of Cambridge' along with us; a red roan he was, with a little white about the flank. He wasn't more than four year old. He'd been brought out from England as a yearling. How he'd worked his way out to this back part of the run, where a bull of his quality ain't often seen, nobody could say. But he was a lively active beast, and he'd got into fine hard fettle with living on saltbush, dry grass, and scrub for the last few months, so he could travel as well as the others. I took particular notice of him, from his little waxy horns to his straight locks and long square quarters. And so I'd need to -- but that came after. He had only a little bit of a private brand on the shoulder. That was easily faked, and would come out quite different.