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.
When we mention the name of the notorious 'Starlight', no one will be surprised that the deed was planned, carried out, and executed with consummate address and completeness. It seems matter of regret that we cannot persuade this illustrious depredator to take the command of our police force, that body of life-assurers and property-protectors which has proved so singularly ineffective as a preventive service in the present case. On the well-known proverbial principle we might hope for the best results under Mr. Starlight's intelligent supervision. We must not withhold our approval as to one item of success which the force has scored. Starlight himself and a half-caste henchman have been cleverly captured by Detective Stillbrook, just as the former, who has been ruffling it among the 'aristocratic' settlers of Christchurch, was about to sail for Honolulu. The names of his other accomplices, six in number, it is said, have not as yet transpired.
This last part gave us confidence, but all the same we kept everything ready for a bolt in case of need. We got up our horses every evening and kept them in the yard all night. The feed was good by the creek now -- a little dried up but plenty of bite, and better for horses that had been ridden far and fast than if it was green. We had enough of last year's hay to give them a feed at night, and that was all they wanted. They were two pretty good ones and not slow either. We took care of that when we bought them. Nobody ever saw us on bad ones since we were boys, and we had broken them in to stand and be caught day or night, and to let us jump on and off at a moment's notice.
All that day, being awful hot and close, we stayed in the house and yarned away with mother and Aileen till they thought -- poor souls -- that we had turned over a new leaf and were going to stay at home and be good boys for the future. When a man sees how little it takes to make women happy -- them that's good and never thinks of anything but doing their best for everybody belonging to 'em -- it's wonderful how men ever make up their minds to go wrong and bring all that loves them to shame and grief. When they've got nobody but themselves to think of it don't so much matter as I know of; but to keep on breaking the hearts of those as never did you anything but good, and wouldn't if they lived for a hundred years, is cowardly and unmanly any way you look at it. And yet we'd done very little else ourselves these years and years.
We all sat up till nigh on to midnight with our hands in one another's -- Jim down at mother's feet; Aileen and I close beside them on the old seat in the verandah that father made such a time ago. At last mother gets up, and they both started for bed. Aileen seemed as if she couldn't tear herself away. Twice she came back, then she kissed us both, and the tears came into her eyes. 'I feel too happy,' she said; 'I never thought I should feel like this again. God bless you both, and keep us all from harm.' 'Amen,' said mother from the next room. We turned out early, and had a bathe in the creek before we went up to the yard to let out the horses. There wasn't a cloud in the sky; it was safe to be a roasting hot day, but it was cool then. The little waterhole where we learned to swim when we were boys was deep on one side and had a rocky ledge to jump off. The birds just began to give out a note or two; the sun was rising clear and bright, and we could see the dark top of Nulla Mountain getting a sort of rose colour against the sky.
'George and Gracey 'll be over soon after breakfast,' I said; 'we must have everything look ship-shape as well as we can before they turn up.'
'The horses may as well go down to the flat,' Jim says; 'we can catch them easy enough in time to ride back part of the way with them. I'll run up Lowan, and give her a bit of hay in the calf-pen.'
We went over to the yard, and Jim let down the rails and walked in. I stopped outside. Jim had his horse by the mane, and was patting his neck as mine came out, when three police troopers rose up from behind the bushes, and covering us with their rifles called out, 'Stand, in the Queen's name!'
Jim made one spring on to his horse's back, drove his heels into his flank, and was out through the gate and half-way down the hill before you could wink.
Just as Jim cleared the gate a tall man rose up close behind me and took a cool pot at him with a revolver. I saw Jim's hat fly off, and another bullet grazed his horse's hip. I saw the hair fly, and the horse make a plunge that would have unseated most men with no saddle between their legs. But Jim sat close and steady and only threw up his arm and gave a shout as the old horse tore down the hill a few miles an hour faster.
'D--n those cartridges,' said the tall trooper; 'they always put too much powder in them for close shooting. Now, Dick Marston!' he went on, putting his revolver to my head, 'I'd rather not blow your brains out before your people, but if you don't put up your hands by ---- I'll shoot you where you stand.' I had been staring after Jim all the time; I believe I had never thought of myself till he was safe away.
'Get your horses, you d----d fools,' he shouts out to the men, 'and see if you can follow up that madman. He's most likely knocked off against a tree by this time.'
There was nothing else for it but to do it and be handcuffed. As the steel locks snapped I saw mother standing below wringing her hands, and Aileen trying to get her into the house.
'Better come down and get your coat on, Dick,' said the senior constable. 'We want to search the place, too. By Jove! we shall get pepper from Sir Ferdinand when we go in. I thought we had you both as safe as chickens in a coop. Who would have thought of Jim givin' us the slip, on a barebacked horse, without so much as a halter? I'm devilish sorry for your family; but if nothing less than a thousand head of cattle will satisfy people, they must expect trouble to come of it.'
'What are you talking about?' I said. 'You've got the wrong story and the wrong men.'
'All right; we'll see about that. I don't know whether you want any breakfast, but I should like a cup of tea. It's deuced slow work watching all night, though it isn't cold. We've got to be in Bargo barracks to-night, so there's no time to lose.'
It was all over now -- the worst HAD come. What fools we had been not to take the old man's advice, and clear out when he did. He was safe in the Hollow, and would chuckle to himself -- and be sorry, too -- when he heard of my being taken, and perhaps Jim. The odds were he might be smashed against a tree, perhaps killed, at the pace he was going on a horse he could not guide.
They searched the house, but the money they didn't get. Jim and I had taken care of that, in case of accidents. Mother sat rocking herself backwards and forwards, every now and then crying out in a pitiful way, like the women in her country do, I've heard tell, when some one of their people is dead; 'keening', I think they call it. Well, Jim and I were as good as dead. If the troopers had shot the pair of us there and then, same as bushmen told us the black police did their prisoners when they gave 'em any trouble, it would have been better for everybody. However, people don't die all at once when they go to the bad, and take to stealing or drinking, or any of the devil's favourite traps. Pity they don't, and have done with it once and for all.
I know I thought so when I was forced to stand there with my hands chained together for the first time in my life (though I'd worked for it, I know that); and to see Aileen walking about laying the cloth for breakfast like a dead woman, and know what was in her mind.
The troopers were civil enough, and Goring, the senior constable, tried to comfort them as much as he could. He knew it was no fault of theirs; and though he said he meant to have Jim if mortal men and horses could do it he thought he had a fair chance of getting away. 'He's sure to be caught in the long run, though,' he went on to say. 'There's a warrant out for him, and a description in every "Police Gazette" in the colonies. My advice to him would be to come back and give himself up. It's not a hanging matter, and as it's the first time you've been fitted, Dick, the judge, as like as not, will let you off with a light sentence.'
So they talked away until they had finished their breakfast. I couldn't touch a mouthful for the life of me, and as soon as it was all over they ran up my horse and put the saddle on. But I wasn't to ride him. No fear! Goring put me on an old screw of a troop horse, with one leg like a gate-post. I was helped up and my legs tied under his belly. Then one of the men took the bridle and led me away. Goring rode in front and the other men behind.
As we rose the hill above the place I looked back and saw mother drop down on the ground in a kind of fit, while Aileen bent over her and seemed to be loosening her dress. Just at that moment George Storefield and his sister rode up to the door. George jumped off and rushed over to Aileen and mother. I knew Gracey had seen me, for she sat on her horse as if she had been turned to stone, and let her reins drop on his neck. Strange things have happened to me since, but I shall never forget that to the last day of my miserable life.