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 they got into the carriage and drove off the whole church was cleared, and they got such a cheer as you might have heard at Tambaroora. The parson was the only living soul left near the building in five minutes. Everybody was in such a hurry to get back to the course and see the big race of the meeting.
Starlight slipped away in the crowd from his two friends, and managed to get a quiet few minutes with me and Gracey and Aileen; she was scolding him between jest and earnest for the kissing business, and said she thought he was going to leave off these sort of attentions to other girls.
'Not that she knew you at first, a bit in the world,' Aileen said. 'I watched her face pretty close, and I'm sure she thought you were some grand gentleman, a friend of the Commissioner's and the Mr. Dawsons.'
'My dearest girl,' said he, 'it was a promise I made months since that I should attend Bella's wedding, and I never break my word, as I hope you will find. These girls have been good friends and true to us in our need. We all owe them much. I don't suppose we shall cross each other's path again.'
There wasn't much more time. We both had to move off. He had just time to catch his drag, and I had to get my horse. The Dawsons bullied him a bit for keeping them waiting, and swore he had stayed behind to flirt with some of the girls in the church after the wedding was over.
'You're not to be trusted when there's temptation going,' Jack Dawson said. 'Saw you talking to that Marston girl. If you don't mind you'll have your head knocked off. They're a rum lot to deal with, I can tell you.'
'I must take care of myself,' he said, laughing. 'I have done so in other lands, and I suppose yours is no exception.'
'This is a dashed queer country in some ways, and with deuced strange people in it, too, as you'll find by the time you've had your colonial experience,' says Bill Dawson; 'but there goes the saddling-bell!'
The course had 20,000 people on it now if there was one. About a dozen horses stood stripped for the race, and the betting men were yelling out the odds as we got close enough to the stand to hear them. We had a good look at the lot. Three or four good-looking ones among them, and one or two flyers that had got in light as usual. Rainbow was nowhere about. Darkie was on the card, but no one seemed to know where he was or anything about him. We expected he'd start at 20 to 1, but somehow it leaked out that he was entered by old Jacob Benton, and that acted as a damper on the layers of the odds. 'Old Jake's generally there or thereabouts. If he's a duffer, it's the first one he's brought to the post. Why don't the old varmint show up?'
This was what I heard about and round, and we began to get uneasy ourselves, for fear that something might have happened to him or the horse. About 8 or 9 to 1 was all we could get, and that we took over and over again.
As the horses came up the straight, one after the other, having their pipe-openers, you'd have thought no race had been run that week, to see the interest all the people took in it. My word, Australia is a horsey country, and no mistake. With the exception of Arabia, perhaps, as they tell us about, I can't think as there's a country on the face of the earth where the people's fonder of horses. From the time they're able to walk, boys and girls, they're able to ride, and ride well. See the girls jump on bare-backed, with nothing but a gunny-bag under 'em, and ride over logs and stones, through scrub and forest, down gullies, or along the side of a mountain. And a horse race, don't they love it? Wouldn't they give their souls almost -- and they do often enough -- for a real flyer, a thoroughbred, able to run away from everything in a country race. The horse is a fatal animal to us natives, and many a man's ruin starts from a bit of horse-flesh not honestly come by.
But our racing ain't going forward, and the day's passing fast. As I said, everybody was looking at the horses -- coming along with the rush of the thoroughbred when he's 'on his top' for condition; his coat like satin, and his legs like iron. There were lots of the bush girls on horseback, and among them I soon picked out Maddie Barnes. She was dressed in a handsome habit and hat. How she'd had time to put them on since the wedding I couldn't make out, but women manage to dress faster some times than others. She'd wasted no time anyhow.
She was mounted on a fine, tall, upstanding chestnut, and Joe Moreton was riding alongside of her on a good-looking bay, togged out very superior also. Maddie was in one of her larking humours, and gave Joe quite enough to do to keep time with her.
'I don't see my horse here yet,' she says to Joe, loud enough for me to hear; but she knew enough not to talk to me or pretend to know me. 'I want to back him for a fiver. I hope that old Jacob hasn't gone wrong.'
'What do you call your horse?' says Joe. 'I didn't know your father had one in this race.'
'No fear,' says Maddie; 'only this horse was exercised for a bit near our place. He's a regular beauty, and there isn't a horse in this lot fit to see the way he goes.'
'Who does he belong to?' says Joe.
'That's a secret at present,' says she; 'but you'll know some day, when you're a bit older, if you behave yourself. He's Mr. Jacob Benton's Darkie now, and you bet on him to the coat on your back.'
'I'll see what I think of him first,' says Joe, who didn't fancy having a horse rammed down his throat like that.
'If you don't like him you don't like me,' says Maddie. 'So mind that, Joe Moreton.'
Just as she spoke there was a stir in the crowd, and old Jacob came along across the course leading a horse with a sheet on, just as easy-going as if he'd a day to spare. One of the stewards rode up to him, and asked him what he meant by being so late.
The old chap pulls out his watch. 'You'll stick to your advertised time, won't you? I've time to weigh, time to pull off this here sheet and my overcoat, time to mount, and a minute to spare. I never was late in my life, governor.'
Most of the riding mob was down with the racehorses, a distance or so from the stand, where they was to start, the course being over two miles. So the weighing yard and stand was pretty well empty, which was just what old Jacob expected.
The old man walks over to the scales and has himself weighed all regular, declaring a pound overweight for fear of accidents. He gets down as quiet and easy as possible to the starting point, and just in time to walk up steadily with the other horses, when down goes the starter's flag, and 'Off' was the word. Starlight and the Dawsons were down there waiting for him. As they went away one of the ringmen says, 'Ten to one against Darkie. I lay Darkie.' 'Done,' says Starlight; 'will you do it in tens?' 'All right,' says the 'book'. 'I'll take you,' says both the Dawsons, and he entered their names.
They'd taken all they could get the night before at the hotel; and as no one knew anything about Darkie, and he had top weight, he hadn't many backers.