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.
A bush telegraph ain't a bad thing. They're not all as good as Billy the Boy. But the worst of 'em, like a bad sheep dog, is a deal better than none.
A bush telegraph, you see, is mostly worked about the neighbourhood he was born in. He's not much good anywhere else. He's like a blackfellow outside of his own 'tauri'. He's at sea. But within twenty or thirty miles of where he was born and bred he knows every track, every range, every hill, every creek, as well as all the short cuts and by-roads. He can bring you miles shorter than any one that only follows the road. He can mostly track like a blackfellow, and tell you whether the cattle or horses which he sees the tracks of are belonging to his country or are strangers. He can get you a fresh horse on a pinch, night or day, for he knows everybody's paddocks and yards, as well as the number, looks, pace, and pluck of everybody's riding horses -- of many of which he has 'taken a turn' out of -- that is, ridden them hard and far, and returned them during the night. Of course he can be fined -- even imprisoned for this -- when he is caught in the act. Herein lies the difficulty. I felt like another man after a wash, a nip, and a real good meal, with the two girls sitting close by, and chattering away as usual.
'Do you know,' says Bella, 'it half serves you right. Not that that Port Phillip woman was right to peach. She ought to have had her tongue torn out first, let alone go open-mouthed at it. But mightn't you have come down here from the Turon on Sundays and holidays now and then, and had a yarn with us all?'
'Of course we ought, and we deserve to be kicked -- the lot of us; but there were good reasons why we didn't like to. We were regularly boxed up with the diggers, nobody knew who we were, or where we came from, and only for this Jezebel never would have known. If we'd come here they'd have all dropped that we were old friends, and then they'd have known all about us.'
It wasn't long before I was in the saddle and off again. I'd made a bit of a bargain with Jonathan, who sold me a pair of riding boots, butcher's, and a big tweed poncho. The boots were easier to take a long rough ride in than trousers, and I wanted the poncho to keep the Ballard rifle under. It wouldn't do to have it in your hand all the time.
As we rode along I settled upon the way I'd try and set poor Jim free. Bad off as I was myself I couldn't bear to see him chained up, and knew that he was going for years and years to a place more wicked and miserable than he'd ever heard of.
After riding twenty miles the sun was getting low, when Billy pointed to a trail which came broad ways across the road, and which then followed it.
'Here they are -- p'leece, and no mistake. Here's their horses' tracks right enough. Here's the prisoner's horse, see how he stumbled? and this road they're bound to go till they cross the Stony point, and get into Bargo Brush, near a creek.'
We had plenty of time by crossing a range and running a blind creek down to be near the place where the troopers must pass as they crossed the main creek. We tied up the horses a hundred yards' distance behind us in the forest, and I made ready to rescue Jim, if it could be managed anyhow.
How was it to be done? I could depend on the rifle carrying true at short ranges; but I didn't like the notion of firing at a man behind his back, like. I hardly knew what to do, when all of a sudden two policemen showed up at the end of the track nearest the creek.
One man was a bit in front -- riding a fine horse, too. The next one had a led horse, on which rode poor old Jim, looking as if he was going to be hanged that day, as Billy said, though I knew well he wasn't thinking about himself. I don't believe Jim ever looked miserable for so long since he was born. Whatever happened to him before he'd have a cry or a fight, and it would be over. But now his poor old face looked that wretched and miserable, as if he'd never smile again as long as he lived. He didn't seem to care where they took him; and when the old horse stumbled and close upon fell down he didn't take notice.
When I saw that, my mind was made up. I couldn't let them take him away to his death. I could see he wouldn't live a month. He'd go fretting his life about Jeanie, and after the free life he'd always led he'd fall sick like the blacks when they're shut up, and die without any reason but because a wild bird won't live in a cage.
So I took aim and waited till they were just crossing the creek into the forest. The leading man was just riding up the bank, and the one that led Jim's horse was on the bit of a sand bed that the water had brought down. He was the least bit ahead of Jim, when I pulled trigger, and sent a ball into him, just under the collar-bone. I fired high on purpose. He drops off his saddle like a dead man. The next minute Billy the Boy raises the most awful corroboree of screams and howls, enough for a whole gang of bush-rangers, if they went in for that sort of thing. He emptied four chambers of his revolver at the leading trooper right away, and I fired at his horse. The constable never doubted -- the attack was so sudden and savage like -- but there was a party of men hid in the brush. Billy's shots had whistled round him, and mine had nearly dropped his horse, so he thought it no shame to make a bolt and leave his mate, as seemed very bad hit, in our hands.
His horse's hand-gallop growed fainter and fainter in the distance, and then we unbound poor Jim, set his feet at liberty, and managed to dispose of the handcuffs. Jim's face began to look more cheerful, but he was down in the mouth again when he saw the wounded man. He began at once to do all he could for him. We stopped a short distance behind the brush, which had already helped us well.