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.
'How do you mean?' says she, quite excited like.
'Why, if I drop one of these fine days -- and it's on the cards any time -- you shall have Rainbow; but, mind now, you're to promise me' -- here he looked very grave -- 'that you'll neither sell him, nor lend him, nor give him away as long as you live.'
'Oh! you don't mean it,' says the girl, jumping up and clapping her hands; 'I'd sooner have him than anything I ever saw in the world. Oh! I'll take such care of him. I'll feed him and rub him over myself; only I forgot, I'm not to have him before you're dead. It's rather rough on you, isn't it?'
'Not a bit,' says Starlight; 'we must all go when our time comes. If anything happens to me soon he'll be young enough to carry you for years yet. And you'll win all the ladies' hackney prizes at the shows.'
'Oh! I couldn't take him.'
'But you must now. I've promised him to you, and though I am a -- well -- an indifferent character, I never go back on my word.'
'Haven't you anything to give me, Captain?' says Bella; 'you're in such a generous mind.'
'I must bring you something,' says he, 'next time we call. What shall it be? Now's the time to ask. I'm like the fellow in the "Arabian Nights", the slave of the ring -- your ring.' Here he took the girl's hand, and pretending to look at a ring she wore took it up and kissed it. It wasn't a very ugly one neither. 'What will you have, Bella?'
'I'd like a watch and chain,' she said, pretending to look a little offended. 'I suppose I may as well ask for a good thing at once.'
Starlight pulled out a pocket-book, and, quite solemn and regular, made a note of it.
'It's yours,' he said, 'within a month. If I cannot conveniently call and present it in person, I'll send it by a sure hand, as they used to say; and now, Jim, boot and saddle.'
The horses were out by this time; the groom was walking Rainbow up and down; he'd put a regular French-polish on his coat, and the old horse was arching his neck and chawing his bit as if he thought he was going to start for the Bargo Town Plate. Jonathan himself was holding our two horses, but looking at him.
'My word!' he said, 'that's a real picture of a horse; he's too good for a -- well -- these roads; he ought to be in Sydney carrying some swell about and never knowing what a day's hardship feels like. Isn't he a regular out-and-outer to look at? And they tell me his looks is about the worst of him. Well -- here's luck!' Starlight had called for drinks all round before we started. 'Here's luck to roads and coaches, and them as lives by 'em. They'll miss the old coaching system some day -- mark my word. I don't hold with these railways they're talkin' about -- all steam and hurry-scurry; it starves the country.'
'Quite right, Jonathan,' says Starlight, throwing his leg over Rainbow, and chucking the old groom a sovereign. 'The times have never been half as good as in the old coaching days, before we ever smelt a funnel in New South Wales. But there's a coach or two left yet, isn't there? and sometimes they're worth attending to.'
He bowed and smiled to the girls, and Rainbow sailed off with his beautiful easy, springy stride. He always put me in mind of the deer I once saw at Mulgoa, near Penrith; I'd never seen any before. My word! how one of them sailed over a farmer's wheat paddock fence. He'd been in there all night, and when he saw us coming he just up and made for the fence, and flew it like a bird. I never saw any horse have the same action, only Rainbow. You couldn't tire him, and he was just the same the end of the day as the beginning. If he hadn't fallen into Starlight's hands as a colt he'd have been a second-class racehorse, and wore out his life among touts and ringmen. He was better where he was. Off we went; what a ride we had that night! Just as well we'd fed and rested before we started, else we should never have held out. All that night long we had to go, and keep going. A deal of the road was rough -- near the Shoalhaven country, across awful deep gullies with a regular climb-up the other side, like the side of a house. Through dismal ironbark forests that looked as black by night as if all the tree-trunks were cast-iron and the leaves gun-metal. The night wasn't as dark as it might have been, but now and again there was a storm, and the whole sky turned as black as a wolf's throat, as father used to say. We got a few knocks and scrapes against the trees, but, partly through the horses being pretty clever in their kind of way, and having sharpish eyesight of our own, we pulled through. It's no use talking, sometimes I thought Jim must lose his way. Starlight told us he'd made up his mind that we were going round and round, and would fetch up about where we'd started from, and find the Moss Vale police waiting there for us.
'All right, Captain,' says Jim; 'don't you flurry yourself. I've been along this track pretty often this last few months, and I can steer by the stars. Look at the Southern Cross there; you keep him somewhere on the right shoulder, and you'll pull up not so very far off that black range above old Rocky Flat.'
'You're not going to be so mad as to call at your own place, Jim, are you?' says he. 'Goring's sure to have a greyhound or two ready to slip in case the hare makes for her old form.'
'Trust old dad for that,' says Jim; 'he knows Dick and you are on the grass again. He'll meet us before we get to the place and have fresh horses. I'll bet he's got a chap or two that he can trust to smell out the traps if they are close handy the old spot. They'll be mighty clever if they get on the blind side of father.'
'Well, we must chance it, I suppose,' I said; 'but we were sold once, and I've not much fancy for going back again.'
'They're all looking for you the other way this blessed minute, I'll go bail,' says Jim. 'Most of the coves that bolt from Berrima takes down the southern road to get across the border into Port Philip as soon as they can work it. They always fancy they are safer there.'
'So they are in some ways; I wouldn't mind if we were back there again,' I said. 'There's worse places than Melbourne; but once we get to the Hollow, and that'll be some time to-day, we may take it easy and spell for a week or two. How they'll wonder what the deuce has become of us.'
The night was long, and that cold that Jim's beard was froze as stiff as a board; but I sat on my horse, I declare to heaven, and never felt anything but pleasure and comfort to think I was loose again. You've seen a dog that's been chained up. Well, when he's let loose, don't he go chevying and racing about over everything and into everything that's next or anigh him? He'll jump into water or over a fence, and turn aside for nothing. He's mad with joy and the feeling of being off the chain; he can't hardly keep from barking till he's hoarse, and rushing through and over everything till he's winded and done up. Then he lies down with his tongue out and considers it all over.
Well a man's just like that when he's been on the chain. He mayn't jump about so much, though I've seen foreign fellows do that when their collar was unbuckled; but he feels the very same things in his heart as that dog does, you take my word for it.
So, as I said, though I was sitting on a horse all that long cold winter's night through, and had to mind my eye a bit for the road and the rocks and the hanging branches, I felt my heart swell that much and my courage rise that I didn't care whether the night was going to turn into a snowstorm like we'd been in Kiandra way, or whether we'd have a dozen rivers to swim, like the head-waters of the M'Alister, in Gippsland, as nearly drowned the pair of us. There I sat in my saddle like a man in a dream, lettin' my horse follow Jim's up hill and down dale, and half the time lettin' go his head and givin' him his own road. Everything, too, I seemed to notice and to be pleased with somehow. Sometimes it was a rock wallaby out on the feed that we'd come close on before we saw one another, and it would jump away almost under the horse's neck, taking two or three awful long springs and lighting square and level among the rocks after a drop-leap of a dozen feet, like a cat jumping out of a window. But the cat's got four legs to balance on and the kangaroo only two. How they manage it and measure the distance so well, God only knows. Then an old 'possum would sing out, or a black-furred flying squirrel -- pongos, the blacks call 'em -- would come sailing down from the top of an ironbark tree, with all his stern sails spread, as the sailors say, and into the branches of another, looking as big as an eagle-hawk. And then we'd come round the corner of a little creek flat and be into the middle of a mob of wild horses that had come down from the mountain to feed at night. How they'd scurry off through the scrub and up the range, where it was like the side of a house, and that full of slate-bars all upon edge that you could smell the hoofs of the brumbies as the sharp stones rasped and tore and struck sparks out of them like you do the parings in a blacksmith's shop.
Then, just as I thought daybreak was near, a great mopoke flits close over our heads without any rustling or noise, like the ghost of a bird, and begins to hoot in a big, bare, hollow tree just ahead of us. Hoo-hoo! hoo-hoo! The last time I heard it, it made me shiver a bit. Now I didn't care. I was a desperate man that had done bad things, and was likely to do worse. But I was free of the forest again, and had a good horse under me; so I laughed at the bird and rode on.