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 could cry like a child when I think of it now. I have cried many's the time and often since I have been shut up here, and dashed my head against the stones till I pretty nigh knocked all sense and feeling out of it, not so much in repentance, though I don't say I feel sorry, but to think what a fool, fool, fool I'd been. Yes, fool, three times over -- a hundred times -- to put my liberty and life against such a miserable stake -- a stake the devil that deals the pack is so safe to win at the end.
I may as well go on. But I can't help breaking out sometimes when I hear the birds calling to one another as they fly over the yard, and know it's fresh air and sun and green grass outside that I never shall see again. Never see the river rippling under the big drooping trees, or the cattle coming down in the twilight to drink after the long hot day. Never, never more! And whose fault is it? Who have I to blame? Perhaps father helped a bit; but I knew better, and no one is half as much to blame as myself.
Where were we? Oh, at the cave-mouth, coming out with our bridles in our hands to catch our horses. We soon did that, and then we rode away to the other cattle. They were a queer lot, in fine condition, but all sorts of ages and breeds, with every kind of brand and ear-mark.
Lots of the brands we didn't know, and had never heard of. Some had no brands at all -- full-grown beasts, too; that was a thing we had very seldom seen. Some of the best cattle and some of the finest horses -- and there were some real plums among the horses -- had a strange brand, JJ.
'Who does the JJ brand belong to?' I said to father. 'They're the pick of the lot, whose ever they are.'
Father looked black for a bit, and then he growled out, 'Don't you ask too many questions, lad. There's only four living men besides yourselves knows about this place; so take care and don't act foolishly, or you'll lose a plant that may save your life, as well as keep you in cash for many a year to come. That brand belongs to Starlight, and he was the only man left alive of the men that first found it and used it to put away stock in. He wanted help, and told me five years ago. He took in a half-caste chap, too, against my will. He helped him with that last lot of cattle that you noticed.'
'But where did those horses come from?' Jim said. 'I never hardly saw such a lot before. All got the JJ brand on, too, and nothing else; all about three year old.'
'They were brought here as foals,' says father, 'following their mothers. Some of them was foaled here; and, of course, as they've only the one brand on they never can be claimed or sworn to. They're from some of Mr. Maxwell's best thoroughbred mares, and their sire was Earl of Atheling, imported. He was here for a year.'
'Well, they might look the real thing,' said Jim, his eyes brightening as he gazed at them. 'I'd like to have that dark bay colt with the star. My word, what a forehand he's got; and what quarters, too. If he can't gallop I'll never say I know a horse from a poley cow.'
'You shall have him, or as good, never fear, if you stick to your work,' says father. 'You mustn't cross Starlight, for he's a born devil when he's taken the wrong way, though he talks so soft. The half-caste is an out-and-out chap with cattle, and the horse doesn't stand on four legs that he can't ride -- and make follow him, for the matter of that. But he's worth watching. I don't believe in him myself. And now ye have the lot.'
'And a d----d fine lot they are,' I said, for I was vexed with Jim for taking so easy to the bait father held out to him about the horse. 'A very smart crowd to be on the roads inside of five years, and drag us in with 'em.'
'How do you make that out?' says father. 'Are you going to turn dog, now you know the way in? Isn't it as easy to carry on for a few years more as it was twenty years ago?'
'Not by a long chalk,' I said, for my blood was up, and I felt as if I could talk back to father and give him as good as he sent, and all for Jim's sake. Poor Jim! He'd always go to the mischief for the sake of a good horse, and many another 'Currency' chap has gone the same way. It's a pity for some of 'em that a blood horse was ever foaled.
'You think you can't be tracked,' says I, 'but you must bear in mind you haven't got to do with the old-fashioned mounted police as was potterin' about when this "bot" was first hit on. There's chaps in the police getting now, natives or all the same, as can ride and track every bit as well as the half-caste you're talking about. Some day they'll drop on the track of a mob coming in or getting out, and then the game will be all up.'
'You can cut it if you like now,' said father, looking at me curious like. 'Don't say I dragged you in. You and your brother can go home, and no one will ever know where you were; no more than if you'd gone to the moon.'
Jim looked at the brown colt that just came trotting up as dad finished speaking -- trotting up with his head high and his tail stuck out like a circus horse. If he'd been the devil in a horsehide he couldn't have chosen a better moment. Then his eyes began to glitter.
We all three looked at each other. No one spoke. The colt stopped, turned, and galloped back to his mates like a red flyer with the dogs close behind him.
It was not long. We all began to speak at once. But in that time the die was cast, the stakes were down, and in the pool were three men's lives.
'I don't care whether we go back or not,' says Jim; 'I'll do either way that Dick likes. But that colt I must have.'
'I never intended to go back,' I said. 'But we're three d----d fools all the same -- father and sons. It'll be the dearest horse you ever bought, Jim, old man, and so I tell you.'
'Well, I suppose it's settled now,' says father; 'so let's have no more chat. We're like a pack of old women, blessed if we ain't.'
After that we got on more sociably. Father took us all over the place, and a splendid paddock it was -- walled all round but where we had come in, and a narrow gash in the far side that not one man in a thousand could ever hit on, except he was put up to it; a wild country for miles when you did get out -- all scrub and rock, that few people ever had call to ride over. There was splendid grass everywhere, water, and shelter. It was warmer, too, than the country above, as you could see by the coats of the cattle and horses.
'If it had only been honestly come by,' Jim said, 'what a jolly place it would have been!'
Towards the north end of the paddock was a narrow gully with great sandstone walls all round, and where it narrowed the first discoverers had built a stockyard, partly with dry stone walls and partly with logs and rails.
There was no trouble in getting the cattle or horses into this, and there were all kinds of narrow yards and pens for branding the stock if they were clearskins, and altering or 'faking' the brands if they were plain. This led into another yard, which opened into the narrowest part of the gully. Once in this, like the one they came down, and the cattle or horses had no chance but to walk slowly up, one behind the other, till they got on the tableland above. Here, of course, every kind of work that can be done to help disguise cattle was done. Ear-marks were cut out and altered in shape, or else the whole ear was cropped off; every letter in the alphabet was altered by means of straight bars or half-circles, figures, crosses, everything you could think of.
'Mr. Starlight is an edicated man,' said father. 'This is all his notion; and many a man has looked at his own beast, with the ears altered and the brand faked, and never dreamed he ever owned it. He's a great card is Starlight. It's a pity he ever took to this kind of life.'
Father said this with a kind of real sorrow that made me look at him to see if the grog had got into his head; just as if his life, mine, and Jim's didn't matter a straw compared to this man's, whoever he was, that had had so many better chances than we had and had chucked 'em all away.
But it's a strange thing that I don't think there's any place in the world where men feel a more real out-and-out respect for a gentleman than in Australia. Everybody's supposed to be free and equal now; of course, they couldn't be in the convict days. But somehow a man that's born and bred a gentleman will always be different from other men to the end of the world. What's the most surprising part of it is that men like father, who have hated the breed and suffered by them, too, can't help having a curious liking and admiration for them. They'll follow them like dogs, fight for them, shed their blood, and die for them; must be some sort of a natural feeling. Whatever it is, it's there safe enough, and nothing can knock it out of nine-tenths of all the men and women you meet. I began to be uneasy to see this wonderful mate of father's, who was so many things at once -- a cattle-stealer, a bush-ranger, and a gentleman.