a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Three Years with Thunderbolt Author: Ambrose Pratt * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305801h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2013 Date most recently updated: October 2013 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
CHAPTER I.—THE MEETING.
CHAPTER II.—THE COMPACT.
CHAPTER III.—I START BUSHRANGING.
CHAPTER IV.—MY FIRST ROBBERY UNDER ARMS.
CHAPTER V.—THE BUSHRANGER AT HOME.
CHAPTER VI.—THE BITER BITTEN.
CHAPTER VII.—"THUNDERBOLT'S LEAP."
CHAPTER VIII.—THE UPS AND DOWNS OF BUSHRANGING.
CHAPTER IX.—I SAVE THUNDERBOLT'S LIFE.
CHAPTER X.—TURNING THE TABLES.
CHAPTER XI.—"THE RIFT WITHIN THE LUTE."
CHAPTER XII.—AN EVENTFUL MEETING.
CHAPTER XIII.—IN THE MIRE.
CHAPTER XIV.—THE "DUMMY" PISTOL.
CHAPTER XV.—AN ALARM, FALSE OR——?
CHAPTER XVI.—THE PLUCKY HAWKER.
CHAPTER XVII.—A BRUSH WITH THE POLICE.
CHAPTER XVIII.—A NEW CAREER.
CHAPTER XIX.—A CURIOUS ADVENTURE.
CHAPTER XX.—THE RACE.
CHAPTER XXI.—AN INTERLUDE.
CHAPTER XXIII.—A DASTARDLY TRICK.
CHAPTER XXV.—THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
CHAPTER XXVI.—THE LAST.
It is within the memory of many living Australians that a lad named William Monckton was tried in the year 1869 at Armidale, N.S.W., before Mr. Justice Meymott and a jury, charged with having committed numerous robberies under arms in company with the famous outlaw, Captain Thunderbolt. Monckton made no serious effort to defend himself, and was convicted. But the youth of the culprit (he was under 18 years of age), and the fact, attested to by a clergyman and several other respectable witnesses at the trial, that parental cruelty had driven him to the bush, operated to secure for the lad the comparatively trifling sentence of three years' imprisonment, with hard labour, in Darlinghurst Gaol, Sydney.
Monckton, however, was released after having served only fourteen months of his sentence, for good conduct in prison; and from that day forward he led a life of such exemplary rectitude that he has long been regarded by all who know him as a worthy citizen of the Commonwealth.
He is at present a well-to-do farmer, resident at Howell, N.S.W., and the head of a large family much respected in the neighbourhood. An easily intelligible delicacy of feeling has during the last thirty years prevented Mr. Monckton from publishing any record of his lawless and romantic youth. Lapse of time, however, and the persuasion of his friends, have combined of late to overcome his long habit of silence, and induced him to lay his experiences before the world. In the work of editing his memoirs I have received valuable assistance from Mr. F. Herbert Gall and from Mr. M. O'Shannessy, of Howell, two acquaintances of Mr. Monckton, who have been at pains to verify wherever possible, the more important details of his narrative.
My name is William Monckton. I was born at Mr. Dangar's station at Gostwick, in the year 1853. My father died when I was six years old, and from that time forward my childhood was excessively unhappy. Soon after my father's death, my mother, who was very poor, married a Yarrawick selector. She took that course, I believe, less for her own sake than in order to provide a home for my brothers and sisters and myself. Unfortunately for me, however, my stepfather conceived a dislike for me, almost from the first. I was the youngest of all our family, and on that account, perhaps, he considered that he had a right to demand from me implicit and unquestioning obedience. Looking backwards now across the long stretch of intervening years, I am fain to acknowledge that there were faults on both sides. He was a stern, hard-natured man, capable of genuine kindness to those who did not cross him, but of a disposition which opposition always rendered obstinate and even brutal. It was my duty, perhaps, to have submitted my will to his, but even when a very young child, I was extremely proud and passionate, and the least injustice, real or apparent, stung me to revolt. A kind word had more effect with me than the most intemperately uttered command. My father, moreover, had ever treated me with kindness, and my first experience of ill-usage came from the hands of the man who had, it seemed to me, usurped my father's place.
I well remember our first quarrel. I had been so tenderly attached to my father that when my mother married again I felt, in a vague, childish way, that some wrong had been done to the dead, and I could not, try as I would, bring myself (as did my brothers and sisters with facility) to treat my stepfather as a real parent. To me he was a usurper, and ever he remained so. I do not wish it to be thought that I behaved to him with the remotest resemblance of indolence. On the contrary, he inspired me with fear, and while I kept out of his way as much as possible, when we unavoidably met, I showed him the utmost deference. There was one thing, however, in which I could not obey him. I could not call him "father." The word stuck in my throat whenever I tried to use it, and planted a burning pain in my breast. For a time I escaped addressing him by name, but at length he remarked a disposition which had long been obvious to the others, and which had already cost my mother a deal of pain in unsuccessfully striving to overcome. She, poor woman, would have had us all at peace, and very frequently had she reasoned with and tried to persuade me to look upon her husband in the way she wished. But I was unable to yield to her first entreaties, and the passing of time only made matters worse. One evening he called me to him and coldly commanded me to call him "father!"
I was afraid to refuse, and yet I could not obey. I stood silently before him. A little wise kindness then—a few persuasive words—might have altered the whole course of my life. But they were not spoken. I was half overcome, and on the verge of tears. My stepfather repeated his command. I turned with brimming eyes to my mother, who stood by, trembling like a leaf.
"Mother!" I cried piteously, "I can't!"
My stepfather caught my arm in a sudden rage and began to beat me. The first blow made my heart as hard as stone. I cried no more, despite the punishment, and I did not speak, but sullenly and silently defied him. He beat me until he grew tired, and then permitted me to slink away, a bruised but unbroken thing, to bed. From that hour we hated each other with remorseless bitterness, and neither lost a chance in the years that followed to make the other suffer.
But he was a powerful man—I a child. It was only natural that I should have suffered the more. I was my mother's favourite. For that reason he included her in his bitterness, and on the smallest pretext he beat me cruelly before her. He forced me, moreover, to do work about the selection—work that was more properly fitted for a grown man. As I grew up I was obliged to plough, to split rails, to herd the cattle, to break in and ride wild young horses; in fact, to do everything that his ingenuity could devise which might weary my limbs or bend my stubborn spirit. The immediate consequence of his treatment was to increase my hate for him; but a more indirect yet enduring result was that I outstripped my years in physical development and hardiness, and by the time I was fourteen years old I was noted all over the district as an expert rider and backwoodsman.
For my part, I lost no opportunity to torment and outwit my tyrant. Whenever I could I disobeyed him, and cheerfully suffered the consequent beating he gave me. I can, however, remember no act of open or covert malice which I committed for which he did not brutally requite me, and I cannot claim to have ever gained the smallest advantage over him. This was neither because he was extraordinarily clever in detecting my pranks, nor because I was dull-witted in devising them. The reason was that I was nearly always directly under his supervision, and he must necessarily have been a fool or I a genius had I succeeded in escaping the reward of my misdeeds. While still very young I was supported with the hope of one day becoming strong enough to repay his cruelty in kind. But as I grew older I perceived how very long I should have to postpone my revenge, and the prospect of suffering his tyranny for long years sickened and dismayed me. One day he gave me a particularly savage thrashing for an offence so trifling that I felt I could not any longer endure the life he led me. That night I ran away from home, and walked some twelve miles through the bush to the house of another selector. My stepfather pursued me next day on horseback, and caught me as I was just preparing to set out in order to increase the distance between us. He gave me a beating on the spot, and another before my weeping mother when we had arrived at the homestead.
Three months later I ran away again, and was similarly ill-used when caught. I was by then nearly 15 years of age. My resolution to escape from my cruel stepfather was intensified by the punishment my failures had met with. Watching my chance, I soon ran away again, but he suspected my intention, and, having discovered the direction in which I had departed, he chased me on horseback through the bush and overtook me before I had covered five miles. On that occasion he tied my hands together with a rope, whose other end he fastened to his saddle. He then set off at a round trot for home, and, in order to save myself from being dragged along the road, I was obliged to run the whole way at his horse's heels at the top of my speed. Well was it then for me that I was strong and toughly fibred, for I believe that the tyrant, had I fallen, would have disdained to check his horse's pace.
When we arrived he bound me, worn out and panting as I was, with my face to the trunk of a tree that grew a few yards from the house, and he gave me so terrible a flogging with his stockwhip that for three days afterwards I lay a groaning wreck in my bed, unable to move a muscle without shrieking aloud with pain. My purpose, however, was neither broken nor changed. I determined to escape or die trying. Hitherto I had been compelled to run away on foot, so close a watch did my brutal stepfather keep over his horses. I resolved that when I recovered I would make a great effort to steal one. He frustrated me, however. Anticipating my design, he sent all the horses away. But that arrangement gave me a chance that he had neglected to consider. He would have had to follow me on foot did I fly again, and I felt confident that I could outpace him. Fearing lest he might perceive and repair his error, I scarcely waited to get well before I was once more in the bush. This time I made for Casher Creek, a direction which I believed my tyrant would consider the least likely for me to pursue, and when daylight broke I was fifteen miles from home. I was tramping along, feeling very hungry and footsore, when I came of a sudden to the edge of a small treeless plain and saw, not a hundred yards away, a lad of about my own age, seated on horseback mounting guard over a herd of cattle.
I knew him by sight. His name was Charley———, and he was the son of a selector who had been a friend of my father. I had never spoken to him, however, for my stepfather seldom permitted me leisure to make acquaintances; he preferred to work me like a bullock on the farm.
The boy perceived me as soon as I saw him—otherwise I should have darted back among the trees and endeavoured to conceal myself—so much did I fear and distrust my kind. As it was I stared at him defiantly, and I fiercely envied him the half damper which he had been munching when I came upon him, and which he now held in his hand, poised in mid-air between his knee and mouth.
"Hello!" he remarked. "Will Monckton, ain't it?"
"Not run away from home again, have yer?" he demanded.
I was so surprised to learn that any strangers had heard of my previous attempts that I could not reply.
"Have yer?" he repeated.
"Yes!" I answered. "But don't put me away, Charley, will you?" I added imploringly.
He shook his head, "Not much!" he cried. "That stepfather of yours is a brute beast, he is. I'd a' killed him with a tommy axe long ago if I'd been you—and he'd treated me like they say he has you. Why the whole district has him set."
"It would be murder!" I replied.
"My troubles!" cried Charley. "He deserves it. Where are you making for, Will?"
"Anywhere to hide from him, Charley. I'll die before I go back."
"He'll make you if he catches you! You look pretty dead beat, Will."
I shuddered. "I'm done!" I gasped, and sat down weakly on the grass, suddenly conscious that I was very weary.
"I'm that hungry," I said presently.
Charley gazed at me for a moment, then leisurely swung himself to the ground and approached me, stretching out his half-eaten damper, and looking away as he did so. I thanked him and ate it ravenously. I had never enjoyed a meal before one-half so well. I washed it down with a draught from Charley's water bottle, and then arose, refreshed and re-invigorated.
"Say," said Charley. "I know a place where you can hide if you want to!"
"Where?" I asked excitedly.
"'Taint fur from here. Just over by Casher Creek. I found it one day when I was after a stray steer. If you like to go there I'll fix you up for vittles. As for your stepfather, he'd never catch you where I mean."
I immediately agreed to his proposal, whereupon the boy invited me to mount his horse behind him, and we set off at a canter, regardless of the cattle in Charley's charge. A smart ride of half-an-hour brought us to the edge of a ravine, where we dismounted. A rough scramble thereafter down some rocks soon displayed to view a long flat grassy ledge, that overhung a small spring of fresh water, and which had been shielded from observation from above by the hollow walls of the ravine.
"Not a bad camping ground, eh?" said Charley.
"It's magnificent!" I cried in admiration. "No one would ever find me here."
"Not without a tracker, at all events," said Charley. "Well, Will, you'd better stay here to-day, and this evening I'll bring you some tucker and a billy, if I can sneak one, so you can boil yourself some tea. It'll be like playing Robinson Crusoe, won't it?"
With that he left me and I lay down upon the grass and soon fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke it was late in the afternoon, but I had not long to wait before Charley arrived, bearing with him, in fulfilment of his promise, a billycan and a fair store of provisions. For the next three days I lived very happily in my secluded little nook, undisturbed by a living soul except Charley, who brought me all my meals and spent with me whatever time he could snatch from his occupation. I had lost by then so much of my fear of being discovered by my stepfather that on the fourth morning I strolled out upon the plain and made my way to where Charley was minding his cattle. The boy was delighted to see me, and I assisted him at his task for the remainder of the day. That very night, however, he brought me news that made me shake with terror. It seemed that Charley had been foolish enough to boast to one of his acquaintances, a stockman, that he knew of my hiding-place, and this man informed my stepfather.
"You must change your camp at once," cried Charley. "Your stepfather has been searching the district for you, and he is bound to get a black-tracker to help him before long if he can't find you himself. Wild horses wouldn't make me split on you. But he knows pretty well where you are now; so come along."
As may be imagined, I followed him with alacrity, and I slept that night in a hollow tree not far from the house where Charley lived. The boy came to me early on the following morning and advised me to go with him after the cattle, promising to show me later in the day another hiding-place.
We had scarcely covered half a mile when a man who was mounted on a magnificent chestnut horse passed us at a gallop.
"What a lovely horse, Charley," I cried. "I have never seen such a beauty—have you?"
Charley shook his head, but when horse and rider had disappeared he turned to me and said, "That was Captain Thunderbolt on his horse Combo. He is going down to see my father. They are friends!"
I was both surprised and excited, for I had heard a great deal of the famous bushranger; indeed, his name was at that time ringing through the whole country, and only a day or two before I had run away from home for the last time he had stuck up a coach and robbed a store in our own district. But my stepfather had always spoken of him in such terms of fear and abhorrence that it astonished me to learn that Charley's father regarded him as a friend.
"It's funny your father would be friends with an outlaw!" I remarked.
Charley gave a peculiar laugh. "My dad helped him to stick up ———'s store the other day," he replied; "and he did pretty well out of it, too. You take my tip for it, Will, there are worse sorts than Thunderbolt,—your beastly stepfather, for instance!"
"Your father must be a robber, then!" I gasped, much shocked.
"Bah!" said Charley. "We're all robbers in some way or another if it comes to that—so Dad says at all events. Why, the very land we're walking over belongs by right to the blacks!"
We exchanged no further remarks just then, but all that forenoon I thought of Thunderbolt, and wondered if he could be as brutal a man as my stepfather. I did not think he could be. I had only seen his face for a moment, but I fancied it was a kind one. Early in the afternoon Charley left me, riding home for lunch. On his return he reported that my stepfather had called at his father's house only a few hours before, making inquiries for me. The news threw me into a panic, and scarcely knowing what I said I implored Charley to tell me where I might find Thunderbolt. At first he refused, but at length taking pity on me, he asked me why I wanted to know, and I replied that I wished to beg Thunderbolt to protect me because I believed that my stepfather was afraid of him.
Charley then directed me to the fork of a certain creek about four miles away, whereupon, so sharp was my fear, I set off, running at full speed without even thanking him for the information, or taking the food he had brought for me from his home.
At that moment I had no idea in the world except to escape from my stepfather's clutches, and no criminal impulse was in my mind. My plan was to reach Thunderbolt as soon as possible, and throw myself upon his mercy for protection. Terror had taken hold of all my faculties, and there was no room in my brain for another sentiment. Heedless, therefore, of both past and future, and governed only by a blind fear of the man who had for so many years made my life a hell upon earth, for half-an-hour without a pause I fled through the bush like one pursued by furies, and with every step I took I fancied that I heard the hoof-beats of my stepfather's horse galloping in chase of me; or that I saw his stern face glowering at me from behind each tree or bush I passed. Obliged by failing strength, however, to slacken pace at last, I paused in the very heart of the forest, panting and almost spent. I was still fighting for breath when of a sudden at no great distance from where I strode unsteadily along a male voice burst forth in song. The notes were sweet and mellow, yet thrillingly distinct.
I stopped abruptly, spellbound, at first with astonishment, and then with a quick ensuing rapture. In one second I had forgotten my stepfather and my terror—everything in the world, indeed, except the wild, sweet music of the unseen singer's voice, which poured forth in an unbroken stream of harmony, growing, nevertheless, momentarily more pathetic and melancholy. It seemed to me that the singer's own heart was wistfully vibrating in tune with the touching little story that his song unfolded.
"Oh, don't you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?
Sweet Alice with hair so brown,
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile,
And trembled with fear at your frown!"
The tears started to my eyes as the verse approached its end:—
"In the old churchyard in the valley, Ben Bolt,
In a corner obscure and alone,
They have fitted a slab of granite so grey,
And sweet Alice lies under the stone!"
To the last deep, vibrant note a heavy silence succeeded, during which I could hear my own heartthrobs, but nothing else. I was profoundly moved, and for a long while I did not even wish to stir from my position. Curiosity at length, however, mastered me, and, eager to discover who the singer might be, I stole through the forest with the noiseless caution of an aboriginal. In fifty paces I came upon the edge of a little glade, whence, peering from behind the trunk of a gnarled old red-gum, I beheld, within a dozen feet of me, a man bare-headed, who lay among the grasses, upon the broad of his back, gazing steadily up into the sky's cloudless blue. Quite near him was a saddle, a silver-bitted bridle, and a swag. A magnificent chestnut horse, evidently a thoroughbred, stood nosing at his hobbles at a little distance off. At a glance I recognised the horse. It was "Combo," Thunderbolt's famous steed.
Was, then, the man lying so still before me Thunderbolt himself? The question flashed into my mind, and involuntarily I sighed, whereupon whatever doubts I had entertained were rapidly resolved.
With a speed that dazzled me, the man sprang from his recumbent attitude to his knees. One hand plucked a revolver from his belt, and, before I could move or speak I was looking over the muzzle of a cocked six-shooter into a pair of keenly watchful dark-brown eyes.
"Hands up!" he commanded curtly.
I obeyed him instantly, and yet, boy as I was, I experienced no fear. Some instinct told me that the man who could sing as I had heard that man sing a moment since would not harm one so friendless and miserable as I.
"Are you Thunderbolt?" I asked.
"I am Thunderbolt!" he replied. "Who are you?"
"I am Will Monckton," I answered quietly. "I have been looking for you, sir!"
A Man Bareheaded, who lay among the Grasses.
Thunderbolt got slowly to his feet and leisurely surveyed me, without, however, ceasing to keep me covered with his pistol. I returned his regard respectfully and yet curiously, for I was more than anxious to discover what manner of man he might be from whom I had been driven to seek help and protection.
He was about five feet nine or ten inches in height, strongly and yet gracefully built. He wore a full dark beard, but his head was a little bald, which made me think him older than he was. He seemed to me very good-looking. His nose was straight and shapely. He had a kind, yet grave expression, and I thought his mouth resembled my mother's, and I was glad; also his eyes, although they were larger and darker than hers.
My poor mother! I know now that Thunderbolt's expression resembled hers merely by reason of its sadness. But I was too young then to understand that melancholy marks even traces on its victims, although their fates be as widely separated as the Poles.
"I have heard of you," said Thunderbolt presently. "I saw you this morning with Charley, didn't I?"
"Did he tell you where to find me?"
"You are alone, of course?"
"What do you want with me?" he demanded.
"I have run away from home, sir. If my stepfather catches me he will half kill me. Even if he didn't I would not go back to him. He is a brute, and I hate him."
"Let me stay with you, sir—will you, please?"
Thunderbolt quietly uncocked his pistol and returned it to his belt. He looked me up and down for another full minute, and then, without saying a word, he sat down upon the ground. Leaning backwards, he put his hands behind his head and rested thus against his saddle, staring up at me.
"Please let me stay with you, sir," I entreated.
"Do you want to be an outlaw?" he demanded.
"Anything!" I cried. "Anything rather than let my stepfather catch me."
Such was my reply to his question, and I was sincere in what I said. But in very truth, at that moment I had never even dreamed of becoming a bushranger.
"Rob coaches?" asked Thunderbolt.
I nodded, feeling myself grow pale.
"Fight the police?"
I felt completely frightened at that prospect, but the die was cast, and I nodded again.
"Risk hanging, Will Monckton? You'd be hanged if you were caught, boy."
"So would you," I cried. "But they have been after you for years."
"Bah! they'll never take me—alive," he retorted fiercely. "But with you it would be another matter. I have had two boys already. The first—poor young Thompson—was shot last April twelve months near Bathurst in a fight with the police. The other—Mason—was taken a month ago, and he is now in gaol. You had better go home, Will."
"I will never go home. I'll die first," I said desperately.
He shook his head. "I've heard a good deal about the way your stepfather has treated you," he said quietly. "But tell me your story, Will, and we shall see."
Nothing loth, I poured out the full history of my wrongs, and did my best to prove to him how desperate I felt, and how utterly impossible it was that I should go home.
He listened to me very gravely without once interrupting, but when I had finished and was silent, he sat up, and pointed a finger at my breast. "Your stepfather is a cruel ruffian," he said quietly, "but listen to me, Will Monckton——" he paused.
"Yes, sir," I said anxiously.
"You are in the right of it now, lad," replied the bushranger. "But you've no excuse to become a criminal. A few beatings more or less, what do they matter to a hard young rip like you? Why you'll soon grow too big to beat—big enough to beat your stepfather, in fact. Take my advice, Will, and go back home. Remember, you have a mother to think of. How would she feel if you turned bushranger?"
I was silent, for mention of my mother had brought a lump to my throat.
"Let me tell you my own story," went on Thunderbolt, after a little pause. "When I was a boy, not much older than you, Will, I got mixed up with some bad companions—cattle-thieves they were, though I didn't know it then. One day I was with them in the bush, and the police came on us, and arrested us all. We were tried for stealing cattle, and though I tell you before God, Will, that I was innocent, I was convicted with the others, and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment on Cockatoo Island. I think I felt then pretty much as you do now—just as if the whole world was against me, and I against the world. Well, boy, I swore to be revenged on the world that had treated me so badly; and I have. You have heard, no doubt, how I broke out of gaol, and swam from Cockatoo Island to the mainland, and how I made good my escape. Well, that was years ago, and I've been a criminal ever since. For the last four years I have been outlawed—every man's hand against me, I alone against them all. I'm not denying I have had a pretty fair time—and the life is full of pleasure and excitement to a man of spirit. But I tell you this, Will Monckton—if I had my time to come over again, I would serve out my sentence on Cockatoo Island, and try afterwards to lead an honest life. I would, so help me, God!"
He spoke with such solemn earnestness that I was deeply impressed. But at the same time I felt such a sympathy for him, and admired him so much, I did not wish to leave him at all. Beyond and above that, I was of a very stubborn disposition, and I had always had a great pride in sticking to my word.
"I have left home, and for ever," I muttered.
Thunderbolt gravely shook his head. "Be guided by my advice, boy, and go back!" he said.
"I have left home for ever," I repeated doggedly.
The outlaw shrugged his shoulders and got to his feet. Paying me no further heed, he took up his bridle and strolled over to where his beautiful horse was feeding. Two minutes later Combo was saddled, and Thunderbolt had climbed to his back.
"You are not going to leave me?" I cried out in alarm.
"I am going to my camp," replied Thunderbolt. "It is about a mile and a half down the creek."
"Let me go with you."
"No, not now. Think over what I have told you, Will, for a few hours, and then, if you are still in the same mind, come to my camp. I like your looks, boy, and I'd be glad to have you for a partner, for I'm cursed lonely sometimes. But, for your own sake, and for the last time, I advise you not to look me up again. Go home, boy! Good-bye."
He touched Combo with his heels, and the horse bounded away at half a gallop through the trees.
I shouted out to him to wait, to stop for one moment, but the outlaw did not even turn his head. I watched until the trees had shut him from my view, and then, my brain whirling with excited thoughts, I threw myself down in the grass where Thunderbolt had been lying, and buried my head in my arms.
I did not stir until the sun went down. When I finally arose, my mind was firmly resolved. "Better Thunderbolt than my stepfather," I thought. "For even if I do become an outlaw and am caught and hanged, I shall not be beaten every day like a dog, as I would be if I went back home."
An hour later, as I stole along through the bush, I saw glimmering among the trees a hundred yards ahead of me the light of a small camp fire.
I made a good deal of noise as I approached it, and shouted out my name, for fear lest Thunderbolt should shoot me by mistake. He, however, was seated before the fire on a log, looking as careless and indifferent as though he were a respected citizen at his own hearth-side.
A billy swung on a forked stick above the flames, and the outlaw was toasting some chops as a woman might toast bread, by means of a long wire fork.
"You haven't taken my advice then, Will?" he observed, as I halted beside him.
"I want to stay with you," I replied.
He nodded, and glanced up at me. "You have fully considered the consequences?"
"All right, my boy. We'll eat first, and then talk. Sit down."
I seated myself upon the log beside him, and the pair of us presently made a hearty yet silent meal. When it was over, Thunderbolt washed his billy and pannikin in the creek, and then spread out a large rug on the ground, upon which he cast himself.
"Now for a talk," said he. "They tell me you are a good rider, Will."
"I can ride anything that was ever foaled," I answered boastfully.
"Can you handle a revolver?"
"I'll soon teach you," he said. "But our compact first. Do you understand what an oath is, Will?"
"You wouldn't break one if you took one."
"No, nor my word either."
"Good. Now kneel down and repeat what I say."
I obeyed, wondering what was to follow.
"I, Will Monckton," said he, "swear by the most high God that I will be true to Captain Thunderbolt to the death."
I repeated the words solemnly, and waited for more. But Thunderbolt smiled, "That's all, Will," he said gently. "I want no more than truth from you. Truth contains everything. Now, listen to me." He got upon his knees, and raised his right hand.
"I, Frederick Ward, known as Thunderbolt, call God to witness that I shall be true to Will Monckton to the death."
"Thank you, sir," I muttered gratefully.
"You may call me Fred," he said. "We are partners now, Will—full partners in everything. You have nothing to fear from your stepfather any more. We'll stick up his house to-morrow if you like."
"No, no," I cried. "There is my mother."
"True," said he. "I forgot your mother. Say, Will, there are one or two things I want to tell you. Things I want you to remember."
"I'm against bloodshed," he said very gravely. "I have never killed a man yet, and I hope I never shall. While you are my partner you must follow my example, and I always make a point to run rather than fight when the police are after me. Of course, if we got into a tight corner, and it meant our lives or someone else's, I'd shoot to kill, and expect you to do the same. But not unless. Do you understand me?"
"And you agree?"
"With all my heart, Fred!"
"That's all right. Another thing. I've never robbed a poor man or a woman yet, and never shall."
I thrilled all over when he said that. "By jove, I do like you, Fred," I stammered. "You are a real noble man!"
His face flushed at my boyish praise, but he looked pleased, I thought, and I liked him all the more because of it.
"How is your pluck?" he asked presently. "Do you think you'd be afraid if we struck the police and they took after us?"
"I don't know, Fred," I answered doubtfully. "I've never been afraid of anyone except my stepfather. But then that is different. I never had any chance with him."
"I guess you are game enough!" said Thunderbolt, after eyeing me thoughtfully a while. "You only want a little practice and self-confidence to make a first-rate bushranger. I don't mean a bushranger like that brutal ruffian, Morgan, boy. That fellow is a bloodthirsty murderer, and if I ever met him I'd shoot him like the dog he is!"
He spoke those words with such savage energy that I was quite startled. "How do you mean, Fred?" I asked.
"Why," said he, more calmly, "a fellow like Morgan is nothing better than a mad dog, and it would be a good act to kill him. Brutes like him destroy all public sympathy with our profession. I want you to be like me—a gentlemanly robber—like some of the English highwaymen I've read of. They were rogues, but lots of good people liked and admired them, because they were chivalrous to women, and only stole from those who could afford it, and were kind to the poor. I have always tried to act up to their standard, and I want you to do so too."
"I'll do whatever you tell me, Fred," I answered warmly.
"Then you'll never hang," he cried, "whatever other fate attends you, and, by Gad, you'll not have very much to be ashamed of either, whatever the priests and parsons say. Why, Will, I tell you I have staunch friends dotted all over the country, who would rather lose their hands than see me caught. Many a time I've given the police leg-bail through a timely warning given me by as honest men as ever breathed."
"Good luck to them!" I cried. "But wouldn't they be arrested if the police knew."
"Like a shot, but you don't think I'd give them away do you?"
"Not likely, Fred."
Thunderbolt filled his pipe and began to smoke.
Presently he asked me if I drank, and he produced a bottle of gin from his swag. I took a little, but he drank half a pannikin at a draught.
"That's the right stuff," he remarked, his eyes glistening. "It puts new life into a man. I'm afraid, though," he added, with a sigh, "I like it too well."
"Do you make much money, bushranging?" I questioned presently.
"At times," he replied. "I'm well supplied just now. I have about £200 in notes in my swag."
Such an amount appeared to me an immense fortune. I had never had more than a shilling in my hands in my life.
"Good Lord!" I cried, "why, that's a fortune, Fred!"
"Not bad," he said, smiling. "We won't starve for a bit, at all events."
"Why, Fred," I cried, of a sudden, "it would be enough to take you out of the country, and give you a clear start in some other land, where you would not be known."
He averted his face, but did not reply. In the silence that followed I could not help wondering if he had been really sincere when he told me that if his time were to come over again he would lead an honest life. The doubt irritated me so much that I had to express it.
"You don't truly wish to lead an honest life, do you?" I muttered. "If you did you could easily escape out of the country, couldn't you?"
"Easily," he said, quietly.
"Then, why don't you? I'd go with you, Fred!"
"Ah, Will," he answered very softly, "you don't know all about me yet. I'm married, boy."
"Married!" I gasped.
"Yes, and I have some kiddies, too, that I'm very fond of. I couldn't leave them, Will."
"But why not take them with you?"
"Impossible. The police are always watching my wife. They would have imprisoned her long ago as my accomplice only they know that she is lawfully married to me—and that would be against the law."
"But why not escape first, and send for them afterwards?"
He shook his head, and smiled mournfully. "I would have done that long ago, Will, if it had been possible. But my wife won't leave this district, let alone the country, on any account. You see (his voice fell, and he looked steadily at his pipe)—you see, Sunday has always lived here, and she has—she has black blood in her veins!"
"Oh!" I gasped.
He looked up defiantly, evidently offended at my tone. "I'm not ashamed of her!" he declared harshly. "She is as good as any white lady in the land, and as true as steel besides."
"I'm sure of it, Fred," I said quickly. "Is—is she pretty, Fred?"
"I think so, Will."
"And—do—do you love her, Fred?"
"Yes!" He sighed, then smiled. "Are you superstitious, Will?" he asked, of a sudden.
"I wouldn't kill a spider for anything," I answered, much surprised at a question so irrelevant. "But why did you ask?"
"Because I am superstitious—and because when Sunday and I were getting married a very strange thing happened. It showed me my fate. A man can't fight against his fate, Will!"
"What was it, Fred?"
"As I kneeled down before the minister, my revolver fell out of my pocket to the floor," he answered, very gravely.
"But I see nothing in that, Fred," I cried.
He shook his head. "It was an omen," he muttered, "an omen that showed me as plain as words can speak that my marriage must be ended by the pistol. I'll die by a bullet, Will. I'm sure of it. But, there, let us stop this talk—it's too grisly. My grave clothes aren't spun yet. What say? Shall I sing you a song?"
I warmly agreed, and a moment later his full, rich voice was poured forth in a quaint old song, "Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still." I listened entranced, and when it was over I begged him for another. But his mood had changed, and he declared that it was time for a little boy like me to go to bed. I protested, but he commanded, and I yielded at once, so great a mastery had he already acquired over me. Giving my hand a close, strong grip, he bade me good-night, and pointed to his rug, which he directed me to share.
I thereupon lay down, with my feet to the fire, and before many minutes had passed I was sleeping as peacefully as though my mother's care encompassed me.
Next morning when I awoke I had utterly forgotten what had happened on the previous night, but as I drowsily turned over on my side I caught sight of Thunderbolt's sleeping face, and, with a rather painful shock, I remembered, and I realised, moreover, that I had pledged myself to a career of crime. A thrill of fear shot through my breast, and I asked myself was it yet possible for me to turn back. Could I not, while Thunderbolt still slept, steal away from his side, and plunge into the bush? Next instant, however, a thought of my stepfather stifled the awakening impulse, and before I could answer my own questions Thunderbolt and I were looking into each other's eyes.
"Will, my boy," he said, smiling kindly, "I see you are here still. I dreamed that you had cleared out, and I can tell you I feel quite cut up about it."
"No fear, Fred," I answered, with a little guilty shiver, "I'll not leave you like that."
He got up and produced two cakes of soap from his swag. One he tossed to me, and with the other he strolled off towards the creek, saying he would take a bath. I followed suit, and a little later we were splashing in the creek, shouting and singing like a pair of blithe-hearted children. The hot morning sun served us for a towel, and when we had dressed again Thunderbolt directed me to prepare breakfast while he looked after his horse. He was away for so long that I began to feel quite anxious about him, when of a sudden I heard distant hoof-beats, and he soon appeared, approaching me at full gallop, mounted on Combo, and leading another horse by a bridle. The led horse was by no means such a fine animal as Combo, but he looked speedy, and did not lack breeding, as I perceived at a glance.
"Hello, Fred!" I shouted. "I thought you had cleared out. Where did you get that horse?"
"Oh, not far off. I had him stalled in Clarke's paddock. What do you think of him, Will?"
"No slouch," said I. "He looks as if he could both run and stay."
"I'm glad you like him," replied the outlaw, "for from this moment he is yours!"
I shouted with delight, and darted forward to examine my prize more closely. The more I looked at him the more I liked him. He was an upstanding grey with black points. His head was small and beautifully shaped, and although his barrel was a trifle long his chest was broad, and he was ribbed up like a greyhound. "I annexed him from a station down south about three months ago," said Thunderbolt. "Fortunately, he is as quiet as a lamb, for you'll have to ride him barebacked until I can steal a saddle for you."
"That won't trouble me," I cried, and a second later I was astride the animal, and off at a smart canter through the bush to try his paces. When I returned Thunderbolt was half through his breakfast, so tying my horse I joined him, and made a hearty meal. During that forenoon Thunderbolt gave me my first lesson in pistol shooting, and so apt a pupil did I prove that the outlaw presented me with his spare revolver.
After lunch he decided to shift camp, as his habit was never to stay in one spot for any length of time, lest the police should get wind of his whereabouts. We mounted, therefore, and set out towards the house of Charley ———'s father, at which place we intended to call for news. We had not proceeded for more than three miles, however, when we came upon the selector himself and a mounted trooper, with whom the former was in animated converse.
"Shall we run for it, Fred?" I muttered excitedly.
Thunderbolt smiled. "Not much," he replied. "There is not a policeman in the country who would dare to tackle me single-handed. You watch!"
He set spurs to his horse and approached the pair at a slow trot. I close behind him.
The policeman looked at us very sharply, but he made no attempt to interfere with our progress, and he even returned a surly, "Good morning," in answer to Thunderbolt's genial greeting.
Nothing had ever so thoroughly surprised me, for in my boyish innocence I had until that moment believed a policeman to be the incarnation of stern and reckless bravery. I confess, however, that long after we had passed the talking pair I had a curious cold feeling in my back, just as though I expected a bullet to pursue and strike me.
Thunderbolt made very merry over the trooper's cowardice, and when I explained my old opinion to him, he laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks. "Why, Will," he cried at last, "policemen are human beings like ourselves, and they don't care about courting bullets any more than other men do. Did you think they were made to order like machines?" I recognised then the folly of my previous impression, and I never afterwards felt much fear of the police.
Late in the afternoon we reached Carlisle Gully, but while we were still half a mile away from the public-house there Thunderbolt explained to me a plan that he had formed to procure me a saddle. Acting on his instructions, I dismounted and walked to the Carlisle Hotel, leaving him to follow later on leading my horse.
I found the landlord standing in the bar-room.
"Good-day," said he.
"Good-day, sir," I replied. "Have you seen a drover riding a chestnut horse and leading a grey?"
He shook his head. "None that I know of, my lad."
"Dash it!" I cried. "He should be here by now."
"Where are you camped?" asked the landlord.
"Down the road a bit, with a cart," I answered, carelessly.
Just then Thunderbolt rode up. "Hallo, Jack!" he cried to me. "Where is the cart?"
"About a quarter of a mile down the road," I replied. Thunderbolt then asked me if I had any feed in the cart for the horses. I replied that I had none left, and he pretended to be very annoyed.
"Why not feed them in my stables?" suggested the landlord.
Thunderbolt hesitated a bit, but finally agreed. The landlord called the groom, and our horses were led off, whereupon Thunderbolt entered the bar and invited the landlord to drink. When the groom re-appeared Thunderbolt shouted for him, too, and they kept on drinking for the next couple of hours, by which time both the landlord and the groom were very drunk. Thunderbolt, however, although he took quite as much liquor as the others, did not seem to be affected, and at a nod from him I stole at length away from the bar, and made my way to the stables. There were four saddles there on the rack besides Thunderbolt's. I chose the best of the lot, and strapped it upon my grey horse. I then saddled Combo, and returned to the hotel.
"All right!" I said to the outlaw. "What about getting back to camp, Harry?"
"Net yet," replied Thunderbolt. "The Bendemeer coach will be here soon, and, as I'm expecting a parcel, I reckon we will wait."
"I want to see if there are any police aboard," he added, in an undertone. "If there are not, we'll stick it up!"
I felt very excited at that, and had to walk about in order to keep control over my nerves. Thunderbolt, on the other hand, was as cool as possible, and he kept on shouting for the landlord and the groom for the next hour, when both fell asleep in their chairs. He then went behind the bar and emptied the till into his pockets. We were still counting the money (it amounted to about £3) when we heard the mailcoach coming in the distance. We at once slipped out of the house and darted for our horses, which we led out from the stables to the side of the hotel, which was darkest. Peering from the shadows, we watched, unseen, the coach draw up before the hotel. It had scarcely stopped before the driver and five policemen climbed down on to the road and began to stretch their cramped limbs.
"The odds are too great," said Thunderbolt, in a whisper. "Come on, Will!" We very quietly mounted, and when the police had gone into the bar we walked our horses out upon the road, and slipped, unnoticed, away. A few minutes later we were galloping along in the direction from which the coach had come, and we made our camp that night a few miles further on, and not 50 yards from the main Bendemeer road, so frank a contempt had Thunderbolt for the police.
For the next few months we led a very quiet life, and did not commit a single crime. When we needed provisions we rode into a village, after reconnoitring for police, and bought what we required at the stores. The police were after us the whole time, it is true; but we never once encountered them, for among the settlers all over the New England district Thunderbolt had many staunch friends, and these kept us informed of all the plots formed by the police to trap us or track us down. Our life during that time was extremely pleasant, although uneventful. Thunderbolt was a most charming companion to me. He had read a great many romantic novels in his younger days, and he had so wonderful a memory that he could repeat them almost by rote. Moreover, he liked relating these stories as much as I did listening to them, so we were mutually entertained. We occupied the hours of daylight shifting camp, roving about leisurely from place to place, far through the lonely bush, so that we might never be located by our hunters. I loved the evenings best, however, for then we always lazed by the camp fire, and Thunderbolt either told me exciting stories of adventure by flood and field or sang sweet songs to me with his pathetic and melodious voice. I had never been so happy in my life before, and I grew to like my outlawed partner more and more with the passing of each day; aye, and respect him, too. Thunderbolt was doubtless a bad man in the sense that he was a law-breaker and lived by the crime of violent theft. But in most other ways he was as good a man as I have met before or since. For one thing, he was exceptionally clean minded, and in all our intercourse I never heard him use any foul language, nor say a thing that a woman would have blushed to hear. He hated meanness of any sort, and all the small vices bred of bush life and ways of living. In his personal habits he was almost finickingly particular, and if deprived by force of circumstances of his morning bathe in a creek or stream, he was out of sorts for the rest of the day. He was as careful of his hands as a city gentleman, and on one occasion when I broke his nail scissors he obliged me to ride with him 30 miles out of our course in order to visit a town where he could procure another pair. His worst fault was his temper. It was quick and frightfully passionate, and once aroused he stormed like a fury until the fit passed. Then, however, he was so full of remorse for what he had said and done that it was impossible not to forgive him. Our first quarrel occurred when I broke his scissors. He saw me do it, and although he must have perceived that it was by accident, he lost his self-control on instant. His face turned scarlet, and he advanced upon me with clenched fists, shouting and cursing like a madman. I was so terrified by the suddenness of the attack that I fell back until I was brought up by a tree. I thought he meant to kill me. Next moment, however, he stopped short, his face white as a sheet, and in a trembling voice he began to ask my pardon, calling himself intermittently by all the evil names that he could think of.
On another occasion, late one afternoon, on which it was my turn to prepare our evening meal, I inadvertently allowed the damper to burn, whereupon he broke out into another fit of ungovernable rage. I was better prepared for him then, however, and I returned him as good as he gave, for I thought to myself that the best way to cure him would be to show him that I had a spirit equal to his own. Seizing a brand from the fire I whirled it in his face, and I swore that unless he withdrew his threats at once I would mark him for life. The affair ended very curiously. He burst out on a sudden into an immoderate fit of laughter, which was so infectious that soon I was laughing too, and we shook hands on a common impulse. But he told me afterwards that he was very glad I had shown so much pluck, and he begged me, if ever he lost his temper again, not to give way to him. "For," said he, "I would not hurt you for the world when in my senses, Will, my lad, and if you were to strike me I'd calm off quickly, since, whatever else I am I'm not a coward, and I'd shoot myself before I'd strike a young 'un like you!"
The encounters that I have related, instead of breeding bitterness between us, rather sealed our friendship than otherwise, and for my part, before three months had gone by, I felt such a lively affection for my companion that I was ready to lay down my life for him. This was not such a strange thing as it might appear to some of those who read these pages, for it must be remembered that since I was a child of six I had been treated by my stepfather with the utmost brutality, and seldom had a day passed while I was at home in which I was not kicked or thrashed—often quite unjustly.
Thunderbolt, on the other hand, treated me with the greatest kindness and courtesy. It was within his power to have made me his servant had he liked, and to have obliged me to perform the major portion at least of the rough work attendant upon our gipsy wandering life.
The man was, however, too fine a gentleman at heart to take advantage of my youth, even despite the fact that he was naturally of an indolent disposition. He shared what work there was to do equally between us, and, although I was more than willing to perform the lion's portion, he never allowed me to do more than his sense of justice had originally allotted me. Beyond that, he invariably displayed an affectionate consideration for my health and comfort, and when we camped for the night he always took care to see that I was "snugger," as he called it, before he lay down to sleep himself.
It can, therefore, scarcely be wondered at that I, a boy of 15, with such a past as I had to look back upon, should have become speedily reconciled to a life which, however lawless, seemed infinitely preferable to that which I hated to remember. It is true that I often pined to see my mother, and sometimes, too, I felt apprehensive of the future. But I cannot claim that I was more reflective than other bush lads of my age. I lived for the most part from day to day, and it only required that Thunderbolt should sing me a song, or tell me one of his stirring stories, to banish from my heart all traces of dull care.
By the end of the period I have named we had wandered as far north as the Queensland border. I thought that the outlaw intended to cross the line, but, to my surprise, one morning as we were riding along he pulled up, without giving me a previous hint of his intention, and pointed south.
"Look!" he cried.
I peered for a moment or two in the direction indicated, but, although I strained my eyes, I could see nothing unusual—only road, sky, and plain.
"What is it, Fred?" I asked at last.
"The Moonbi Ranges," he replied.
"What nonsense," I gasped. "You cannot see them, I'm sure—they are nearly 200 miles away!"
"I can see them!" he protested. "Ay, and I can see my wife and kiddies, too. Will, I am homesick."
"Homesick!" I repeated, stupidly.
"Yes, laddie; I am homesick. I want to see my wife again, and the kiddies. And now is the time. I've been so long away from the Moonbi that the police will have grown careless by this, and they won't be watching out for me. Besides, we have had a good holiday. We must get to work. My wife will be wanting money."
"All right, Fred," I replied. "But I thought you had plenty of coin left yet."
"No, Will, only enough to last us on the road. I left a hundred with a friend at Barraba to give Sunday before we started, and we have lived like fighting cocks since then. Come on!"
Without more ado we forthwith began our journey back towards our starting point, and we reached the Moonbi less than a week afterwards without having met with any adventure worthy of note. On the afternoon of our arrival we pitched our camp in a big gully situated a few hundred yards from the main Barraba road, and about four miles from the cottage in which Thunderbolt's wife and family resided. All that day the outlaw had been hilariously rejoicing at the prospect of seeing his wife again so shortly, and the nearer we approached our destination the more like an excited schoolboy he behaved, shouting and singing as blithely as though he were the happiest man in the world, rather than a robber, with a price set upon his head. As soon as dusk fell he mounted his horse, and would not even wait to partake of the supper that I had prepared for him. Indeed, I fancy that he had had to fight himself to wait for the dark, necessary as such a precaution was.
With a cheery "Good-bye, Will. I'll be back when you see me!" he swung off down the gully at a reckless pace, and I soon lost sight of him. It was the first time that I had been alone for several months, and I felt miserable. But, fortunately, I was very weary, and before long I fell asleep.
When I awoke the sun was shining, and Thunderbolt was standing over me, holding Combo by the bridle, a black frown upon his face.
"What, Fred!" I cried, "back already? Is anything the matter?"
"The police! Damn them!" he replied. "I hadn't been in the house two hours before a sergeant and two troopers came along. I had to slip out of the back and take to the bush."
"Did they see you?"
"No; but they are watching Sunday as if she was a mouse, and they were cats. They never let her alone for a day at a time. They would arrest her as my accomplice if they dared. But, thank God, they can't do that. Its against the law, as she is my lawfully wedded wife."
"Did you wait till they went?"
"I waited a bit, but the swine camped on the verandah, and I had to sneak away at last. Never mind, I'll fix 'em. I'll give 'em something to do besides terrorising women. And I'll see my wife again as well before two days go by, if I die for it—by God!"
"What will you do, Fred?"
"Rest ourselves, and let the horses rest to-day; but to-night we'll light out for the Moonbi, and to-morrow morning we'll stick up the mail coach. And then, Will, I'll show you how to outwit the police. But I'm tired out, laddie, now, and I guess I'll take a sleep."
Suiting the action to his words, he handed over Combo to me, and crept beneath a ledge of the gully that was shaded from the sunlight. There he spread out his rug, and, casting himself down, was soon slumbering in a fashion that showed me how utterly worn out he must have been.
Thunderbolt slept for about six hours without moving, and he awoke in a much better temper. He was, however, still bitterly incensed at the action of the police in keeping his wife so strictly under espionage, and he vowed that in revenge he would make them the laughing-stock of the country. After supper that night we collected our belongings and mounting our horses, we set out under the outlaw's guidance to a spot known as "Poison Swamp," where we arrived, after a hard ride, just before daylight on the following morning. The place was badly named, for the swamp was quite dried up, and the road passed through it. The timber was very thick thereabouts, and we discovered without difficulty an excellent hiding place for our camp. Thunderbolt began to give me a lecture as soon as we were settled, and he told me that my career as a bushranger depended upon the manner in which I should bear myself during that day. "For," said he, "much as I like you, Will, if you want to continue as my mate and partner, you must show me that I can rely upon you at a pinch to behave with pluck and resolution. You see, I don't want to die before my time, and a man like I am cannot afford to carry a coward about with him. There is nothing so dangerous in the world to those who trust him as a coward!"
I assured him that I was not a bit afraid, and that I would do my best, whereupon he shook his head rather doubtfully, and told me not to make too sure, as I had never yet been under fire.
I was a good deal nettled at that, and I retorted, with an oath, that I was as brave as he.
He laughed heartily, and cried, "Boast away, Will; boast away, my boy. I'll never stop you, for this reason; boasting will sometimes force even the whitest-livered coward to try and make his words good."
Seeing, however, that I had lost my temper at his jeering, he vowed that he had been only half serious, and that he believed thoroughly I would prove a credit to his teaching. He then gave me most particular instructions concerning the plan that he had formed to rob the mail, and the part I was to play, after which we both turned in to enjoy a few hours' sleep. We arose about 9 o'clock, and made all our preparations. Thunderbolt, who knew the district like a book, informed me that the coach would reach the swamp about 11 a.m.
At a little past ten, therefore, we concealed our horses some fifty yards from the road behind a big rock, and planted ourselves not far away in a spot where we could watch for the coming of the coach. Thunderbolt had taken the trouble to change his clothes and disguise himself as a swagman. He wore a blue jumper and a pair of white moleskin trousers, while he had strapped his swag across his back. For the next hour neither of us had much to say. I was too painfully excited to wish to talk, although I did not feel afraid. In any case, I determined that I would rather die than allow Thunderbolt to see me show the white feather. The outlaw, on the other hand, was just as calm as usual, but he was too occupied in watching the road to converse. He was anxious that we should have no interruption, and at the same time much exercised in mind lest there might be police aboard the coach. He offered to bet me that there would be, half a dozen times; but I did not reply to him. That, however, did not prevent him laying the odds to himself, and he concluded several jocular wagers between his right hand and his left. The day was very hot, and a warm wind sent clouds of dust along the road. It was very unpleasant, waiting and keeping still under such circumstances, but Thunderbolt did not move, so I did not either. To my immense relief, at length, however, after a period that seemed to have lasted a century, we heard the noise of shrieking wheels in the distance, and next moment Thunderbolt stepped out upon the road.
"It's a cursed shame to starve axles like that," cried the outlaw to me. "That driver ought to lose his billet."
They certainly needed greasing, for we could hear the squealing and wailing distinctly, although the coach was not yet in view. It soon appeared, however, and Thunderbolt waited patiently in the middle of the highway until it was within fifty yards of him. He then took a square piece of paper from his pocket, which he had previously prepared for the occasion, and waved it aloft in the air. There were three men seated on top of the coach, besides the driver. All were dressed in civilian's clothes, but that was by no means proof that they were not constables, for ever since Thunderbolt had taken charge of the New England district the police had tried every trick they could think of to secure him; and as often as not they wore mufti. When the driver saw Thunderbolt waving the paper, he evidently mistook the outlaw for a tramp who wished to post a letter. Pulling up his horses at once, he stopped the coach.
"I want you to be good enough to take charge of a letter for me," said Thunderbolt, approaching him. "It's to a fellow who owes me some money, and I want to raise the wind!"
The driver said, "All right, mate, give it here!" He put the reins and whip in his left hand, and bending down from the box-seat he stretched out his hand to take the supposed letter.
Next instant, however, he uttered a sharp cry of fear, for Thunderbolt had cleverly substituted for the paper a cocked revolver, and the driver snatched his hand back with a shudder from the ugly muzzle.
"Up with your hands, the lot of you!" shouted Thunderbolt. They obeyed him, with ludicrous haste, but as that cry was also a signal to me, I sprang from my lurking place and rushed out on to the road, my revolver in my hand. Acting upon pre-arranged instructions, I darted to the door of the coach and looked inside, but only a lady was seated there. I felt a good deal disconcerted on seeing that I was matched against a woman, and I scarcely knew what to do. Thunderbolt, however, soon came to my relief. I heard him sternly command the male passengers to dismount, and a moment later he touched my arm.
"Take charge of the men, Jack!" he said curtly, "I'll attend to the lady!"
"She is blind!" observed the driver.
I stepped aside, and saw the three gentlemen passengers standing in line by the roadside, holding their hands above their heads, and gazing upwards at the sky, their chins high in air.
I covered them with my revolver, and announced in loud tones: "The first one that drops a hand or looks down I'll plug through the heart!"
Thunderbolt gave a chuckle of amusement, and immediately assisted the blind lady from the coach, making her all the time a very handsome apology for the trouble he was giving her. When he had led her up to where the men stood he searched their pockets while I kept all covered with my pistol, and he relieved them of their valuables, not one of them saying a word nor daring to resist.
When he came to the lady, she produced her purse of her own accord, and offered it to him. Thunderbolt, however, swept off his hat and bowed to the ground. I think he must have forgotten that she was blind for the moment.
"Madam," said he, in a curiously stilted fashion, "oblige me by putting your purse back into your pocket. I never war with women!"
The lady smiled, and did as she was bid. She did not seem at all frightened I thought, and I could not help but admire her calmness, so great a contrast did it offer to the trembling terror of the men.
The outlaw's next act was to rip open the mail-bags, and toss their contents out upon the dusty ground.
"I was not intended by Nature for a letter-sorter," he remarked, "but practice makes perfect, and I am not too proud to take on any useful occupation."
There were over a hundred letters in the bag, many of which were registered. In five minutes he had torn them all open, and had pocketed whatever cheques and bank-notes they contained.
That done, he courteously assisted the blind lady to climb back into the coach.
He then turned to our prisoners.
"I'm Thunderbolt," he began, addressing them very quietly, with a broad smile on his face. "I dare say you guessed it before, but I want you fellows to be quite sure, so that no one will give an innocent man the credit of my doings. When you get to Tamworth, or if you meet the police before you get there, you can give them my love, and tell them that if they want me I'll be staying for the next four-and-twenty hours with my wife."
"All right, Captain," said the driver, winking hard at the outlaw. "I'll give 'em your message. But do you fancy they'll swallow a yarn like that?"
"I don't care a hang whether they do or not," retorted Thunderbolt. "Anyway, I'm off now—and if you fellows don't want to stop a bullet you'll stand to attention for the next ten minutes. Good day to you!"
"Come on, Jack!" he added to me, and without another word or backward look, and in the most careless fashion in the world, he strode away in the direction of our horses. I followed him, doing my best to imitate his reckless swagger. A couple of minutes later we had mounted and returned to the road. The driver and three gentlemen passengers remained just as we had left them, their arms above their heads, gazing up into the sky. They looked so funny that I burst out laughing.
Thunderbolt, however, told me to "shut up," and setting spurs to our horses we set off at a wild gallop towards the Manning River, which lay in exactly the opposite direction to the place in which the outlaw's wife lived. But we had not covered a mile before Thunderbolt gave me the word to slacken speed, and at the first bend of the road we left the track and took to the bush. An hour's brisk riding brought us to the foot of a range of hills, at a point only about five miles equidistant from the outlaw's home and from Poison Swamp, we having executed a big half-circle through the forest in the meanwhile.
"There," said Thunderbolt, pulling up and dismounting as he spoke. "I reckon we have done enough work for one day. What do you say, Will?"
"I don't know," I answered doubtfully. "It seems to me that we are in none too safe a place, Fred. The police could find us here easily enough!"
"If they knew where to look for us," he retorted, with a laugh. "Safety, my lad, lies less in distance than in throwing the hounds off the scent. The police will never dream that we have doubled on our tracks. You mark my words, they will be chasing us to-morrow thirty miles away in the opposite direction.'
"I only hope so," I replied.
He shrugged his shoulders, and having unsaddled and hobbled Combo, he cast himself down upon the ground, and began to count the spoils, while I prepared our midday meal.
"Come here, Will," he called out presently.
I strolled over to where he was lying.
"We netted £30 by that deal, partner," he said smiling. "Here is your share. Fifteen notes. Count and see that it is right!"
I took the money and stuffed it into my pockets, trying to appear indifferent, but in reality I was tremendously excited, for I had never even held so much in my hands before at one time. I felt very grateful, too, for I scarcely ventured to believe that Thunderbolt would really keep his word and go "halves" with me.
"Thanks, very much," I said, or rather stammered.
"You are as red as a turkey cock!" observed the outlaw, looking at me with a twinkle in his eye. "Feel like a young Nabob, don't you, Will? Want to go straight off to town and blue it, eh, lad?"
"Well, I do need some clothes pretty badly," I replied shamefacedly.
He laughed outright, then getting to his feet of a sudden, he seized my hand, and said very earnestly, "Don't mind my chaff, Will, my lad. I'm proud of the way you behaved to-day, and after this I'd trust my life to you without a care."
"But," I objected, "after all there was no danger to-day, Fred, and remember I've not been under fire yet."
"No matter," he retorted. "I have eyes in my head. I watched you to-day, and I saw you are a plucked 'un through and through. But enough of that. What's for dinner?"
"Cold corn beef and damper. You'll have to take your gin neat, Fred, there's no water."
He nodded and sat down. We made a good meal despite of our lack of water, and all that afternoon the outlaw sang his favourite songs to me. But before nightfall we caught our horses and saddled up.
"We'll have beds to sleep on to-night, Will," said Thunderbolt, as he mounted. "Think of it, boy, beds!"
"Where?" I demanded.
"At my wife's place."
"Are you going to take me with you, Fred?"
"Most certainly. There is not a spark of danger, come along!"
For the next six hours we rode slowly through the darkness, for the ground was rough and our steeds had to pick their way with care. By that time, however, we had crossed and left the ranges far behind, and were in country with every step of which the outlaw was familiar. Increasing our pace to a smart canter we made good progress, despite the gloom, and Thunderbolt at length exultantly informed me that we were nearly at our journey's end. He was very excited. He had been drinking gin at short intervals during the journey, and the liquor had increased his natural recklessness. Uttering a sudden shout, he urged his horse to a gallop, and there followed the wildest ride I had yet known. The night was profoundly dark, for there was no moon and the sky was overcast with clouds. The country was rugged, hilly, and thickly grown with timber. Moreover a storm was brewing, and the wind blew half a gale, making a great noise as it tore through the trees. Thunderbolt had said never a word to me as he started off, and the gloom swallowed him up in a second. There seemed nothing for it but to follow him, however, or lose myself, so I gave my horse his head and struck the spurs into his sides. How it came to pass that we escaped without injury I cannot tell. The ghostly trunks of trees passed me like flying phantoms, sometimes almost brushing my legs. Giant rocks loomed up straight ahead, and only swerving rushes, hard to sit, saved us from destruction time and again. My horse frequently leaped chasms that I did not see before I was aware, and only a desperate knee clutch held me to the saddle. Nay, more than once I found myself clinging round the neck of my half-maddened steed. But by a miracle we came through uninjured, and at length I found myself racing along the hard high road fifty yards behind Combo's thundering heels. It had begun to rain by then in a steady, driving downpour, and in a few minutes I was drenched to the skin.
A quarter-hour later Thunderbolt's voice came to me most welcomely, raised in a shout. I saw a gleam of light, and in another moment my tired horse carried me through a broken sliprail into a big paddock, in which I saw dimly outlined a cottage and a row of sheds.
I rode up towards the light, calling out "Fred, are you there?"
"Right, oh! Will!" he replied, with a loud laugh.
"A messenger came here for the police two hours ago, and they went off like the fools they are to Bendemeer. What did I tell you? But get down and come right in, Will. Peter will see to your horse."
Nothing loth, I sprang to the ground, and a grinning blackboy, who held a lanthorn in his hand, seized my reins.
Thunderbolt was waiting on the verandah in the open doorway. He took my hand at once and led me, all dripping as I was, into the house.
"Sunday!" said he, "let me introduce you to my new partner and very good friend, Mr. Will Monckton!"
"I am very glad to meet you, Mr. Monckton," said a woman's voice, and I felt my hand caught and warmly pressed. "You must change your clothes at once, and you too, Fred, or nice colds you will get," proceeded the speaker.
My eyes were at first too dazzled by the light to see clearly, but in a moment or two I perceived that I stood in a rather showily-furnished room that only needed a carpet to make it perfect, in my opinion. It looked too good to me, and made me ashamed of my shabby and dripping garments.
Thunderbolt's wife next claimed my attention. I had been very curious for a long while to see her, and now that we stood face to face I confess I was disappointed, for the outlaw had told me that she was pretty. Perhaps his affection for her made him believe that; he certainly was sincerely attached to her, as his whole life proved, for it was his regard for her, and no other consideration, that prevented him from leaving the country and beginning life anew, far removed from any danger—as he might easily have done at almost any time he wished. To my mind she was plain, and everything about her showed her hybrid origin. Her features, it is true, were fairly well-shaped and regular, but her hair resembled an aboriginal's, and her skin was quite yellow.
Thunderbolt slipped his arm round her waist and gave her a hearty kiss before I had been able to find a word.
"All right, my dear," he said, with a laugh, as she stepped coquettishly away from him. "Will doesn't mind. We'll change our clothes in a jiffy, and then we'll be ready to eat you out of house and home, I can tell you!"
He led me to another room at that, and showed me a chest that was full of suits of clothes belonging to himself.
"You can take your pick, Will," he said, and he began to tear off his wet things as he spoke.
I followed his example, and was soon dry-clad, but looking like a scarecrow in clothes much too big for me. Mrs. Ward laughed heartily at me when we returned to the living room. No doubt I did look funny, but I did not like her any the better for giving way to her mirth. She was very kind to me, however, and I soon got over my first bad impression. Thunderbolt was in most extravagant spirits at his success in outwitting the police, and he drank a great deal more gin than was good for him, and behaved otherwise in the most reckless fashion, considering our proximity to the high road—shouting, laughing, and singing lustily. His wife, to my surprise, showed no desire to check him. On the contrary, she seemed as delighted as he was, and she applauded his outbursts with shrieks of laughter. I have often wondered since if she was as fond of him as he was of her. That she liked him well was very evident; but it seemed to me that she entertained some little fear of him, or else she was a woman destitute of caution. At any rate, boy as I was, I considered that she should, if she truly loved her husband, have tried to restrain him for his own sake, and I have not altered my opinion since. My protests were simply laughed aside. The pair were so excited at Thunderbolt's latest feat that they were ready to commit any excess, and the outlaw even went so far as to open the window and shout, "Help! Murder! Police!" at the top of his voice. But Mrs. Ward, at that outrageous act of folly, at last began to exhibit signs of possessing a little common-sense. She called in the black boy Peter, and bade him, in a whisper, to go up the road a bit, and keep watch. She moreover declared to her husband that it was time to go to bed, and signed to me to back her up in her suggestion.
Thunderbolt, however, point blank refused, and he would not move until after midnight, by which time he was almost intoxicated, and more amenable to persuasion. Well was it then for him that his cunning had thrown the police entirely off the scent, for I was quite tired out, and slept as soon as my head touched the pillow, and I do not believe that Thunderbolt would have been able to either fight or fly if our hunters had appeared.
He turned up for breakfast next morning, however, as fresh as paint, and not a bit the worse for his carouse, in either health or spirits. He was, nevertheless, more subdued in manner, much to my satisfaction, and he informed me that we must hold ourselves in immediate readiness for a bolt. It was still raining so steadily, that I was sorry to think it might be necessary to leave our comfortable quarters to fly for our lives through the bush; but determined not to neglect any precaution, I went out myself after breakfast to the stables, and gave both our horses a careful grooming. When I returned to the house I found Thunderbolt playing with his children, three queer little towselled black-haired beggars, who seemed as passionately fond of him as he was of them. He was creeping about the floor on all fours, acting as horse for them, and they climbed and tumbled all over him, with shrill outcries, like a pack of squirrels. Thunderbolt invited me to join in the game, but I considered it beneath my dignity, and made some excuse to get away to the kitchen, where I spent the morning chatting with the outlaw's wife. I soon discovered Mrs. Ward was very proud of her husband, and that she was not at all ashamed of his occupation. I have read in books since then that very few half-castes have much moral sense, and I believe that to be the truth, for the only half-caste I have had much to do with, a champion runner, stole my watch from me at Armidale.
Mrs. Ward told me a number of stories of Thunderbolt's achievements that I had not heard of before, for the outlaw was never a man to boast about himself. She also declared that wherever he went women fell in love with him, a fact that seemed to please her immensely, to my great astonishment. "He wouldn't give me up for all the ladies in the land," she explained. "I'd trust him anywhere!"
I thought her very vain and foolish then, but I knew better afterwards, for I had good reason later to know that Thunderbolt kept true to his wife through many a temptation which would have overcome most men's powers of resistance.
Altogether I passed a very entertaining morning. Mrs. Ward and I became very good friends, and it was a happy little party that sat down to luncheon. We had scarcely finished, however, when the signal for which we had waited arrived. Peter, the black boy, came running up to the house at full speed to tell us that Mr. Gibson, a neighbouring squatter, had just passed, and had told him that the Tamworth coach was coming along a mile or two behind him with an escort of seven mounted troopers. For an instant all was commotion, Mrs. Ward uttered a scream, and flung herself weeping into her husband's arms, while the children began to howl in concert. Glad to escape the noise, I slipped out, and ran to the stable to saddle the horses. They had had a fine rest, and as much corn as they could eat, and they looked fit to run for a kingdom. I gave them half a bucket of water apiece, and led them to the front of the house where Thunderbolt stood waiting for me, looking very gloomy indeed.
"Can I say good-bye to your wife?" I asked.
"No, boy," he answered, with a queer catch in his voice. "Poor Sunday is all broken up. Come on!"
He sprang on Combo's back, and headed at once for the bush, nor did another word pass between us until we stopped some hours later at the foot of a big mountain, some twenty miles nearer the Manning River.
After turning our horses loose to feed, I left Thunderbolt to light a fire while I climbed down to a creek with the billy in order to procure some water. When I returned, I found the outlaw leaning up against a tree with his face hidden in his hands, and a glance around showed me that he had not even attempted to collect wood for a fire. His breast was heaving up and down, and if I am any judge of signs, strong, big man as he was, he was crying as if his heart would break. I felt so ashamed to witness his weakness, and so very miserable myself, that I stole away on tip-toe into the scrub, and sitting down on a rock half a mile away I burst out crying, too, in sheer sympathy for my friend's grief. I stayed there for quite an hour, by which time the earth was wrapped in darkness, and the rain, too, which had given over since midday, began to fall again. A little later, I crept back towards the camp as wretched and bedraggled a figure as ever crawled through the bush. Conceive, then, my astonishment, to see on turning an angle of the mountain's knee, an immense fire blazing near where I had left Thunderbolt, and the outlaw himself standing before it, carolling at the top of his voice an absurd old comic song which he never sang except when he was in the best of good humors.
We remained hidden in the bush in the mountains at the head waters of the Manning River for about a fortnight, in order to allow the sensation caused by our sticking up the Moonbi coach to fade a little from people's memories. During that time Thunderbolt gradually recovered from the melancholy state in which his last visit to his wife, and their sudden enforced separation, had thrown him. His abrupt transitions of mood, from black gloom to hilarious excitement, had at first given me considerable uneasiness. But his fits of depression became rapidly more infrequent, and I was soon made to feel that my old careless and light-hearted companion had returned to me. As may be guessed, I welcomed the change with a blithe heart, for no one could be more charming than the outlaw when he liked, and I am by nature too sympathetic ever to feel happy while those I care for are miserable.
Thunderbolt, growing tired of inaction, ordered a move at last towards the northern coastal districts, where he was not known, and where he fancied that we might find a chance to improve our fortunes. For precaution's sake, it was determined that we should undertake the journey in the role of honest pilgrims, lest our ill-fame should precede us and kill the geese which we hoped would lay us golden eggs. He, therefore, assumed the name of Fred Blake, and bade me remember that henceforth I must be his son "Jack!" It would occupy too much space to recount our adventures by the road. Suffice it to say that we accomplished our journey without mishap, and had a very jolly time indeed, despite the fact that we were obliged by lack of funds to proceed very slowly. Indeed, it was over a month before we reached our destination, and during that time we often had to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows. Once we took on a job of fencing that kept us hard at work for several days, and we both prodigiously enjoyed the jest of toiling to earn what we might have demanded, had we chosen, at the point of the pistol. But such short spells of honest labour provided us with just that necessary spark of variety in our lives of vagabond villainy which was necessary to season the dish to our liking; and I never remember having been so merry, nor to have seen Thunderbolt so entirely good-humored and at peace with all the world, as when we were splitting rails and digging post holes side by side together on the clearing of a poor selector, who would have swooned in sheer terror if he could have known that the man whose clever axe work he often praised was the reckless outlaw who had so long terrorised the northern colony, and set the police at defiance. It was most entertaining, too, to sit by our camp fire of nights (when we were always joined by the other hands at work on the selection), and spin yarns. Curiously enough the conversation almost invariably turned on bushranging, and many a quiet smile did Thunderbolt and I exchange when some unsuspecting storyteller would dilate extravagantly upon his host's misdeeds, little dreaming that two of his smooth-faced listeners could have set him right in his exaggerations.
We entered the Grafton district about the middle of the month of May, but, rather to our disgust, we soon discovered that it was not the class of country in which we cared to transact our usual business. It was, in fact, too settled, and although it contained plenty of forest land and thick, impenetrable scrub, it would have taken us more time to get the hang of it than we liked to spare, before it would have been in any wise safe for us to commence operations. The place, moreover, was so thoroughly well patrolled with mounted troopers that Thunderbolt resolved, although reluctantly, to allow discretion to rule his valor. I think, however, that his longing to return to Barraba, in order to see his wife again, had some influence with his decision. He was never really at ease when far away from her, poor fellow. At any rate, he artfully suggested that our long absence from New England must by this have allayed the public fear of us, and so persistently did he bring the matter up that at last I earned his gratitude by myself suggesting our return. I stipulated, however, that we should just have a look at the town of Grafton, a place of which I had heard a great deal, and wished much to see; for I had never yet visited any town of consequence, except Tamworth. Thunderbolt having agreed to my proposal, thitherwards one fine morning we rode. A trifling circumstance altered our plans. We passed the Taraldal Hotel, a place situated some 25 miles north of Grafton, soon after daylight, and before any of the inmates were awake. Thunderbolt's keen eyes were immediately attracted by a small placard fastened to the trunk of a tree that was growing before the inn door. Bidding me ride on, he walked up to read the contents, which we both of us half-suspected might prove a proclamation offering a reward for our arrest.
Much to our relief, however, it was merely a notice of a race meeting to be held on a course near the hotel on Queen's Birthday, just a week ahead. When Thunderbolt overtook me his eyes were glittering with excitement. He had formed a plan to enrich himself and me on instant, and he could hardly wait to tell me what the placard had to say before he began to explain his design.
"These clod-hoppers can't possibly have a horse that could beat Combo!" he cried. "See here, Will, you ride on to Grafton, and enjoy yourself as much as you want. You have a few pounds in your pockets, so you ought to put in the time all right. As for me, I'll put up at this pub, and see how the land lies. Then I'll enter Combo for the race, and engineer the betting market. By Gad, if I know what's what, we'll make a pot over this deal!"
"But where do I come in?" I asked.
"You—lad. Why, you must come back the night before the races—and see the thing through. I don't want you here with me, as your presence might make me suspected. The police know that Thunderbolt is travelling with a boy, and they have our descriptions, though they have never seen us. Another thing, Will, don't recognise me or claim my acquaintance until after the races. We can't be too careful, as I shall be quite a public character, you understand!"
I agreed, and after a few more instructions, and a close hand-grip, we parted—I for Grafton, Thunderbolt returning to the inn.
As this narrative concerns Thunderbolt's doings rather than my own, I shall dismiss my sojourn in Grafton with the remark that I spent a pretty lonely time in that little riverside city, although I made a few boyish friends there who made part of my stay at least agreeable enough. My last act was to purchase a suit of smart store clothes, clad in which I returned to the inn of our rendezvous the day before the races. I cut quite a figure in my new apparel as I rode up to the place early in the afternoon, on my showy horse, whom a week's rest and corn-feeding had made very skittish. There was a crowd of loungers gathered before the "pub," as I appeared, and very little to my liking (for I had hoped not to attract attention), my horse must needs take it into his head to start bucking viciously at the moment when I was about to dismount. I discovered afterwards that a fly had stung him. He almost unseated me, but I just managed to stick on, and slipping back into my seat I gave the crowd quite involuntarily an exhibition of rough riding that astonished them so much that they greeted me with a loud hand-clapping when I finally mastered my truculent brute. Thunderbolt saw it all, for he was standing among the others talking to the inn-keeper. He pretended not to recognise me, however, and I took care to follow his example.
The innkeeper was loud in his praises of my feat. He declared he had never met a better rider, and he invited me to drink at his expense. I accepted the offer, and we went inside the inn. He asked me my name, and where I was going? I replied that my name was Jack Ford, and that I had come there to see the races, and wished to stay at his house. He seemed very pleased at that, and led me at once to a room.
"You ride well enough to be a jockey," he remarked, as I sat down on the bed and prepared to take off my riding boots.
"I am a jockey," I answered, lying on the impulse of the moment, for that seemed a good excuse to offer for coming to so out-of-the-way a place.
"The devil you are!" cried the landlord. "Do you want a mount, boy?"
"I don't mind," said I.
He shut the door, and came up close to me. "See here, my lad," he said, with a cunning look. "I've taken a fancy to you, and for two pins I'd mount you on my own horse for the big race to-morrow."
"Haven't you got a rider?" I demanded, thoroughly surprised by so curious a proposition.
"I have, Jack, but he is not up to much, and I can't depend on him for a hard race, as I'm afraid it's like to be."
"How is that?"
"Well, I'll take you right into my confidence." He sat down on the edge of the bed, and eyed me like a hawk. "You look honest," he declared.
"Right oh!" said I.
"It's this way," he began. "I've got a horse here named Skinner, that I've been keeping for this big race for months past. No one knows what he can do but me. He's ugly and rough, but he has a good drop of blood in him, and he can run like a machine. I reckoned he was a dead cop until a day or two ago, and I've backed him for a pot on the quiet—you savvy?" he winked.
"But," he proceeded, "about a week ago a drover chap named Fred Blake turned up here one morning on a chestnut, and as soon as he heard of the races he stays on, and what does he do but enter his blooming chestnut for the big event."
"What of that?" I demanded, trying hard to look unconcerned, for of course Fred Blake was Thunderbolt.
"Well," replied the landlord, "I'm—if I like the look of that chestnut. He's a rank outsider in the betting, but Blake takes all the wagers that offer, and I smell a rat, and a stinking rat, Jack!"
"What do you mean?"
"That chestnut is a dark horse as well as mine, boy. That's what I mean. I haven't seen him run, but I'm afraid of him. I had a good look at him at about 2 o'clock this morning, while Blake was asleep, and I'm ready to bet a heap that he's a thoroughbred."
"You don't say!" I gasped, trying hard to look astonished.
"That's why I want a good boy to ride 'Skinner,'" said the landlord, "and I believe you are the one for my money."
"I'll ride him," I replied.
"It will be worth £5 to you," said the landlord, "and ten if you win, money down!"
I nodded, and we shook hands on the bargain, after which my host left me, saying that it would not do for us to be too much together, but that he would see me later, when no one was around.
I did not understand what he meant then, but it was not long before I discovered the fellow to be a scoundrel, and a mean coward. It was about midnight, and I was in a deep sleep, when of a sudden a light was flashed into my eyes, and a man's hand was pressed over my mouth.
I woke up with a start to see the landlord bending over my bed.
"Hist!" he muttered.
"What's up?" I stammered, considerably startled by the apparition.
"It's that—race," he whispered. "I must win it, Jack, or I'll be broke."
"It's too early to ride it yet," I grumbled angrily. "What on earth did you wake me up for?"
"Not so loud," he replied with a fierce frown. "Look here!"
He opened his hand and showed me five sovereigns. "Do you want to earn those?" he muttered in my ear.
I nodded, full of wonder.
He pressed a key into my hand. "It's the key of the feed-loft," he whispered. "Slip on your clothes, and sneak downstairs into the shed. The horse-boxes are just underneath the loft. I want you to shove an armful of barley into that infernal chestnut's trough. Do that, and the quids are yours!"
"Do it yourself!" I muttered, very angry by then. But in a second I realised that I had made a mistake. He might take me at my word, and in that case Thunderbolt's chance of winning the race would be spoiled utterly.
"I daren't!" said the landlord. "If I were spotted I'd be ruined. But a kid like you could do it and never be caught. Even if you were caught you could easily clear out, and I'd always act a friend to you!"
"It's worth more than five quid!" I protested.
At that he began to haggle, but we finally made a compromise on seven pounds, money down, and ten minutes later I crept stealthily up into the hayloft. A match cautiously struck and held downwards showed me dear old Combo's face, and in another box near by "Skinner"—the dark horse of the rascally innkeeper, that I was to ride upon the morrow.
They snorted when they saw the light, but I spoke to them soothingly to calm their fears, and soon they were quieted. I then collected a good armful of green barley and threw it down the shoot into "Skinner's" feed trough. He gave a low whinny of delight, and began to eat it at once; whereupon, stifling a chuckle, I slipped down the steps and out of the shed back to the house. None observed me, and I got back to my room without arousing a soul. Indeed, I made so little noise that I doubt if even my villainous employer heard my return. At any rate, he was far too cowardly to venture near my room again, and I was soon sound asleep; nor was I disturbed for the remainder of the night. In the morning I wrote a short account of what I had done on a piece of paper, which I contrived to slip into Thunderbolt's hand unnoticed by any other as we were all trooping into breakfast. Quite a number of the surrounding settlers were stopping at the inn in order to see the races, and they all had fancies for the main event. The consequence was that during the meal many wagers were concluded, and Thunderbolt was one of the foremost gamblers. Each speculator paid his money into the hands of the landlord, who it seemed had been elected public stakeholder some days previously. The rascal took an early opportunity to ask me, in a guarded manner, if I had succeeded in my undertaking overnight. I felt no remorse in deceiving him, and nodded in answer to his query, whereupon he began to back his own horse, "Skinner," quite recklessly. Thunderbolt was the first to leave the table; doubtless he wished to read my note. The others soon followed him, however, and an early start was made to the course, which lay about a quarter of a mile from the hotel. There arrived, I anxiously inspected the various horses entered for the big race. In a very short time I felt satisfied that none of them was a match for "Combo" except "Skinner," who, although an ugly brute, had the look of a racer. Remembering the barley that he had eaten during the night, however, I entertained no fears for the result, and I prepared to enjoy myself to the top of my bent. Looking round for Thunderbolt, I perceived him, much to my surprise, conversing with a very pretty girl, with whom he appeared to be on intimate terms. I was not able to watch him long, however, before a man came up to me, and asked me point blank if I was going to ride "Skinner" for the big event.
The man's name was Jack Holmes, and I had been introduced to him at the inn overnight.
Not caring to deceive him, I answered "Yes."
He shook his head at that, and moved off, muttering angrily, to a group of his friends who stood some distance away. Ten minutes later a large crowd had collected to see "Skinner," and they seemed very annoyed as they examined his points. One man shouted out in a loud voice that the innkeeper had rung in a "dark horse" on them, and called upon the crowd to hoot him. The groans were given with such a hearty goodwill that the wily landlord slunk into his beer-shed, without offering a word in explanation.
"Skinner" immediately went up in the betting, and before the bell rang for the first race he was a hot favourite at 3 to 1 on. Just after the third race Jack Holmes came up to me again, and asked me what I wanted to ride his mare for the fourth race, the "Maiden Plate." "I'm only a poor 'splitter'," he declared, "and I can't afford to give you much unless you win, for I've put every shilling I have on the mare."
I had taken a good look beforehand at the filly, and I liked her cut—so I replied that I would ride her for nothing if he would give me five pounds if I won.
He delightedly agreed, so I went up and saddled the mare myself. A bystander asked me if I would back my mount. I asked how much he was worth, and he replied, amid roars of laughter, that he guessed he could buy a kid like me. At that I turned out my pockets and produced nineteen pounds.
"Cover that!" I cried, "and if the mare loses you can take it!"
I'm sure he had had no idea of making such a big bet, but the jeering of the people nettled him so much that he fished out the money. We handed our stakes to the innkeeper over the bar, and a moment later I was in the saddle, cantering towards the starting-post. When the flag fell I got well away to the front at once, and stayed there. Indeed, the mare was so superior to her competitors that I did not need to call upon her powers, and she galloped home an easy winner, the only excitement provided by the race having been a hard-fought-out battle for second place. Poor Jack Holmes was so delighted at his win that he made me take seven pounds instead of five, which, with the nineteen pounds I had won on the wager, brought up my little fortune to the respectable sum of forty-five pounds.
I had hardly collected the money, and was still stuffing the notes into my pouch, when the bell rang for the principal event of the day.
A glance showed me that eight horses would compete, two having been scratched a short time before.
Thunderbolt, who had been leading his horse about among the crowd and freely discussing with the bystanders the chances of the race, carelessly swung himself into the saddle, and rode out upon the course, first of the field. I mounted Skinner in his stall, having to be lifted upon his back, while two men held his head, for the brute was a vicious biter. When he felt the bit, however, he calmed down, and as I rode towards the course a dozen speculators were shouting the odds and freely offering four to one in my favour. The landlord, who had left his bar in order to watch the race, looked thoroughly delighted, and he shouted out to me to ride for all I was worth.
We had a very good start, and the whole eight got away well together. But after we had settled down to real work several fell back, and quite a procession was formed, the field thinning back for almost half of a furlong, Thunderbolt, on Combo, in the lead, I riding at his quarter. I heard the crowd begin to speak, about just then, for they could already see that the fight was to be fought out by only two or three, and each horse had his supporters. As we swung round the turn Combo dropped back a little, whereupon a mighty yell went up, "Skinner wins—Skinner, Skinner!"
I was so excited that I quite forgot I wanted Thunderbolt to win. Indeed I had only one thought in the world, to win myself. But the barley had done its work! Skinner was blowing like a grampus, and before we came to the straight he was labouring frightfully. I plied whip and spur, however, and Thunderbolt and I began the run home locked together. The roar that greeted our approach was simply deafening. It looked as though the race would end in a dead heat, and perhaps it might have, if Skinner had not eaten the barley, for the beast was as game and good a runner as I have ever ridden, and I am not sure but that he was a trifle faster even than Combo. Fifty yards from the winning-post, however, he was done. I felt him falter, swerve, and totter in his stride. I had only just time to kick my feet from the stirrups and made ready for a spring when he plunged forward, and fell to the ground stone dead. I jumped clear of him, and with the luck of a cat escaped scathless. But within a minute I was surrounded with an excited, yelling crowd, and up came the innkeeper with a face as white as chalk. A glance at the dead animal showed him what had happened. Frantic with rage, he clenched his hands, and screaming like a madman rushed at me. No doubt he would have killed me had he caught me, but right in the nick of time Thunderbolt galloped up on Combo, and riding in between us thrust a pistol into the furious landlord's face. "Stand back!" he commanded very sternly.
"Stand back, yourself!" shrieked the fellow. "That cursed boy has stiffened my horse. Look at him!"
"Bah!" said Thunderbolt. "The tin you wanted to tie on my dog's tail has been tied on your own, that's all. It would have been all right though if my horse had got the barley, you skunk, eh?"
In the breathless silence that followed the outlaw's words, I slipped through the transfixed crowd, and darting up to the bar, quickly mounted the well-fed hack which the innkeeper himself had ridden to the course. A moment later I was by my leader's side. The innkeeper stood before Thunderbolt's pistol, livid and speechless with fear and rage commingled. Thunderbolt eyed him with a savage sneer for a moment longer, then seeing that I was safe and ready for anything, he cocked his revolver.
"Now hand over the stakes," he commanded. "Perhaps by this you have guessed who I am. If you have not, I may tell you that I am Thunderbolt. So don't you fool with me if you want to save your skin!"
The fellow without more ado, and trembling like a leaf with terror the while, produced a big roll of notes which he handed to the outlaw, saying never a word.
Thunderbolt slipped the notes into his shirt, and gathered up his reins.
"Come along, Will," he said to me, and turning his horse he rode leisurely off, still, however, holding his pistol well in view, in case of accidents. The crowd parted before us like water, in a silence deep as death, and although a loud murmur began to rise and swell behind us, no hand was raised to bar our progress.
Thunderbolt rode straight up to a group of women who had been watching the proceedings from a distance, and he halted before them, swinging off his hat with the grace of a foreign chevalier.
"Ladies," said he, "I beg you to pardon me for having in some measure perhaps spoiled the pleasure of your day. I shall, however, atone for my fault by ridding you of my presence. I have the honour to wish you a long good-bye!"
He bowed again and would have departed. But at that instant the pretty girl with whom I had seen him talking earlier in the morning, stepped of a sudden from among her companions, and tripping forward caught at Combo's bridle. "Stoop down to me," she said in a low tone, "I have something to tell you!"
Thunderbolt bent over his saddle bow at once.
"I have heard all that passed over there," muttered the girl, and it seemed to me that she had tears in her eyes, as she spoke. "But I knew who you were from the first," she proceeded. "You are a bad man, Fred. But, never mind, I must give you this warning. Young Bourke has just told me that two policemen camped at his place last night, and they are bound to be here soon."
Thunderbolt took her outstretched hand, and stooping still lower, he kissed it. "You are a brick, Nelly!" he cried, very earnestly. "Bless you for the hint. I'll never forget you for it."
She stepped back, her face red as a peony. "Good-bye, Fred. Ride for your life!" she said. "I don't want to see you caught, bad as you are!"
Thunderbolt smiled at her, and for a last time raised his hat.
A moment later we were going at full gallop across country, and although we afterwards heard that the police were soon in chase of us, it is almost needless to say that with the start we had secured, we gave them the slip with ease. Indeed, they were still searching for us through the coastal districts with black trackers and special constables when we had safely returned to the New England, and lay in a snug hiding place near Armidale.
Having been informed by one of Thunderbolt's many friends (at whose house, by the way, we spent a very pleasant week), that the police still kept Mrs. Ward under constant surveillance, the outlaw came to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to visit his home until he had done something which would lead our hunters to believe that they were taking needless trouble in that direction.
We therefore cut our holiday short and moved off to Ben Lomond, where we stuck up the Glen Innes-Armidale coach. The affair, however, was most unexciting, for there was not a single passenger aboard, and all we got for our pains out of the mailbag was one bank-note for £1 and a number of crossed cheques, which were valueless as far as we were concerned. Thunderbolt waxed quite eloquent on that occasion about what he described as the "pernicious system growing up with the public of preferring common paper currency to notes and gold!"
Next day we rode to Wellingrove, where we met with equal ill-fortune, for after going to the trouble of sticking up the store there, our labour was only rewarded with the small sum of twopence, the owner having gone to Armidale to bank his money on the previous day. Thoroughly disgusted with our bad luck, we beat a hasty retreat to the Queensland border, where we kept quiet for a full month. By that time, however, we were delighted to receive news that public attention had been distracted from our misdeeds by outrages committed by another gang of bushrangers in the south-western part of the country.
We therefore prepared to return to the New England, feeling pretty confident that our advent would not be expected. It had been our intention not to act the highwaymen upon the road, but when we arrived at Merrylands (near Tenterfield), Thunderbolt's purse and mine gave out, and it was necessary to replenish our stores. We therefore determined to bail up the first person we encountered, and fate sent us a German Band of five performers, who were upon their way to the Tenterfield races.
The poor Germans were horribly surprised when we ordered them to bail up, but they instantly obeyed. Conceive our disappointment, however, when, on searching them all, we could discover no more than thirty shillings. Thunderbolt was at first very angry, but his love of fun soon got the better of his bad humour. The musicians looked so funny standing in the road with their hands above their heads, and their instruments lying at their feet, that presently he burst out laughing, and declared that as they could not fill our pockets they should, at all events, show us what talent they possessed.
He thereupon obliged them all to sit down upon the roadside and play to him selections from all the operas, the names of which he had ever heard of. They were disinclined at first to follow their new leader harmoniously, but he reduced them to submission with his revolver, and soon they were playing more earnestly, I think, than they had ever played before. We both enjoyed the music very much. Thunderbolt was particularly delighted with an air out of "Traviata," the name of which I have forgotten, and he made his victims repeat it more than five times. They performed for our benefit for nearly three hours without a break. But they were then so worn-out that Thunderbolt took compassion upon them, and, handing them back their thirty shillings with the air of a grand seigneur, he commanded them to proceed upon their way. Some two hours later we overtook a horseman, who gave us "Good-day!" and seemed quite willing to enter into conversation. He told us that his name was "Steve Hart," and that he owned a racehorse which was to compete at the Tenterfield meeting on the following day. He was just advising us to back his horse, when Thunderbolt, of a sudden, whipped out his revolver, and ordered him to "bail up." Hart did not willingly obey. He began to protest, and when a second time, and more sternly addressed, he attempted to get off his horse upon the wrong side.
Thunderbolt, however, intercepted his purpose, and, riding up very close to him, thrust the muzzle of his cocked revolver within an inch of Steve Hart's face. The victim thereupon gave up the struggle, and a moment later I drew from his pockets a revolver and a hundred pounds in bank-notes. Taking his horse with us, we left him to brood upon his loss, and rode at a gallop to Jennings' Hotel. There we bought the provisions we needed, and two bottles of gin, with which we escaped to the Mod Ranges, and remained there in a secluded spot for the next three weeks.
Tiring of inaction, we made our way next to Emmaville, at that time a thriving little mining town, which we intended to raid.
When we came to the Tenterfield Creek, however, we found it in flood, and were obliged to ride along its banks for some miles in search of a safe crossing-place. We discovered a spot at last which looked negotiable, and I, wanting to show my pluck, at once drove my horse into the stream, while Thunderbolt watched me from the bank. I had hardly entered the water, however, when glancing at the opposite bank I saw two men seated there silently observing me.
"Look out, Will!" Thunderbolt called out to me in low tones. "Those men are police. I know them both, and they know me!" I was much frightened, but I managed to conceal my fears. "I'm afraid the current is too strong, Fred!" I shouted, "we'd better go further down." Saying which I turned my horse, and after a heavy flounder, for the stream was very strong, I regained my leader's side.
At that one of the police put his hands to his mouth and called out, "Come up this way, mates, there is a good crossing here. We have just come over and are spelling our nags!"
"No thanks!" cried Thunderbolt. "I know a better place a bit further down!"
The police, however, not perceiving that they had been recognised, pressed us to cross, and followed us, walking along the bank. Thunderbolt answered them very civilly, but presently on turning a bend of the creek we saw that the stream was growing quickly much more narrow.
"The game is up!" he said to me. "Come on, Will," and setting spurs to his horse he trotted away at right angles to the creek.
The police knew then that the "dingo had scented the air," and they abandoned all disguise, calling upon us by name to stop and surrender. We returned them no reply, but set to work to escape. The ground before us, however, was so hilly and rugged that we had to proceed very slowly, and we were still well in view when the police had crossed the creek on their horses and were in full chase of us. That they were well mounted, too, we saw at a glance, and it thrilled me to think that they might possibly effect our capture. Choosing to chance the dangers before us rather than the peril behind, Thunderbolt set the way, at a pace that made my blood turn cold considering the nature of the ground over which we passed. The troopers, however, seemed to the full as reckless as he. On they came at the top speed of their horses, and they even gained upon us. Soon they were within range. I heard the sharp crack of revolvers, and the bullets began to fly about our heads. Twelve shots in all were fired, and then we seemed to creep ahead. At the end of a furious gallop of perhaps four miles we reached the top of a jagged hill. There Thunderbolt pulled up to breathe his darling Combo. We had a drink of gin apiece, and the outlaw then turned to view the situation. The police were already beginning to climb the hill.
"Curse them!" cried Thunderbolt. "What say, Bill; our horses are tired. Shall we dismount and fight it out here to a finish?"
"No," said I, "let's ride for it first. We can always fight if we have to. Besides, it's down-hill now, and we know the country!"
Thunderbolt nodded, and without another word we set off again. A wild, plunging gallop down the hillside brought us to a deep creek, the banks of which were sheer and vertical, nearly thirty feet apart. To cross it by any other means than a leap was impossible, and yet the leap seemed too great for mortal horse to undertake. Thunderbolt was far in advance of me. As he approached the chasm, he turned in his saddle and called out, "Good-bye, laddie!" His face was chalk white. I shouted out, "Stop, Fred, for God's sake, stop!"
Next instant, however, he touched his horse with the whip, and the gallant brute, gathering himself together, sprang into the air like a veritable Pegasus. I lived a lifetime in the ensuing second, but in a sort of breathless wonder I saw Combo land safely on the opposite bank. The shock, however, was so great that the noble animal went down under his rider. He struggled up again before my eyes, but I had not time to mark more, for my own trial was at hand. Setting every nerve on strain, I pulled my horse up and sent him at the leap with spur and whip, uttering a loud yell as I did so. But the task was too great. He leaped short. His forefeet struck the turf, but his hind legs doubled under him beneath the bank, and we fell rolling over and over, with a sickening crash, into the bed of the creek. By marvellous good fortune the horse fell undermost. He was killed instantaneously, but I escaped with a bad shaking and a broken ankle. I dragged myself to my feet and stood for a moment with the world swinging around me.
Then I heard Thunderbolt's voice, "Quick, Will. Up the bank with you, quick, and climb up behind me."
I looked up and saw his face peering down at me over the chasm's edge. "My leg is hurt," I muttered. "Don't mind me, Fred. I'm safe enough. I can hide if you take off, for the police will be sure to follow you!"
"All right!" he answered quickly. "But don't go too far, Will. I'll soon give the hounds the slip, and then I'll come back for you!"
The world ended for me then for a while, because I fainted. When I recovered consciousness, it was to see Thunderbolt kneeling beside me, rubbing my hands, and calling upon me to wake. He shouted with joy when he saw my eyes open, and very soon he was telling me all that had happened while I had been insensible. It appears that the police had reached the top of the hill just as Thunderbolt was disappearing round a bend of the valley. Never dreaming that one of their quarry had met with a mishap, they did not doubt but that both of us had successfully accomplished the frightful leap I have described. But they were not brave enough to follow an example so desperate, and they contented themselves with standing for a while near the edge of the chasm, and marvelling at the outlaw's wonderful horsemanship and daring; after which they gave up the chase in disgust and rode away. Thunderbolt had examined their tracks out of curiosity, and he assured me that they must have halted within twenty paces of where I lay. But apparently neither had troubled to look down into the creek, for had they done so they must have discovered me! Never was there an escape so narrow in my experience! To this day that spot is known as "Thunderbolt's Leap!" and hundreds of people have journeyed thither from far afield, to gaze wonderingly at the scene of an exploit unrivalled in the annals of this country's adventurous spirits. I myself once revisited the place, after long intervening years, and I almost doubted the faithfulness of my recollections, so wide was the chasm, so terrible the leap. No longer then did I wonder that the police refused the hazard. Indeed, I only marvelled that I had found courage to follow my desperate leader as I did, even though unsuccessfully and to my own undoing.
When I felt well enough to stand, Thunderbolt made me take a strong nip of gin, and he half-led, half-carried me down the bed of the creek, to a place where the bank was less precipitous. There by dint of much toil my leader at last got me to the top, but not before I had again fainted with the pain of my injured ankle, which had by then swollen so much that he was obliged to cut off my boot. I shall never forget his kindness to me in the agonising hours that followed. Placing me on Combo's back, and strapping my bad leg over the pommel of the saddle, he led me, walking beside the horse, all through the night in the direction of Bundarra. The pain I suffered was excruciating, and I am afraid that in my torment I often bitterly reviled the poor fellow who was doing his best for me. Sometimes, too, I implored him, for the love of God, to shoot me, and put me out of my pain. He tended upon me, however, as gently as a woman, and he answered all my outcries with cheery, soothing words. Early next morning, while I lay sleeping with exhaustion, Thunderbolt wandered from the camp and stole another horse. After that we pushed on more rapidly, but I knew very little of what passed, for I was half the time either delirious or insensible. We came at length, however, to the selection and house of a Good Samaritan, a friend of Thunderbolt's, named Clark. This kind fellow took me home to his mother, who put me at once to bed, and there I lay for several weeks, waited upon by the whole family with the utmost sweetness, until I was entirely recovered. I shall never forget those people, nor cease to remember them with heartfelt gratitude. They did not know I was an outlaw, it is true, but neither did they know anything else about the waif that fate had brought to their door. It was sufficient for them to perceive that I was a suffering human being to unlock their hearts to my necessities, and never did one more undeserving than I find such kind and charitable friends to minister to him in his hour of sorest need. I learned to love them all, and when at last I took my leave of them, and rode away, it was with tears in my eyes, and a feeling in my breast impossible to describe, but which it still aches me to remember.
Our escape from the police at Tenterfield Creek had, curiously enough, disarmed the pair of us. Thunderbolt lost both his revolvers during the ride for life, while mine had been damaged beyond repair by my fall over the chasm. It was, therefore, with considerable nervousness that we approached Cope's Creek, since we were weaponless and nigh penniless besides. A friendly selector, however, sheltered us for the night, and supplied us with the information that two Chinese gold-diggers were in the habit of passing his place every Saturday, on their way to Bendemeer, to sell the gold that they had won during the week. That day being Saturday, we determined to waylay the celestials, and for that purpose we cut two stout cudgels from the bush, and ensconced ourselves under cover beside the road. After a weary wait of two hours, our victims hove in view, and when abreast of our hiding-place we pounced out upon them, brandishing our clubs, with awe-inspiring yells.
The Chinamen understood at once what we wanted, but when Thunderbolt requested them to fork out their gold, they replied in chorus, "No sabbee gold. Allee samee we go alongum get um lashions on cledit. No sabbee gold!"
Thunderbolt winked at me. "What charming innocence!" he cried. "They 'no sabbee gold,' Will!"
"Strip!" he commanded, grimly, turning to the smiling Chows.
With amazing docility they immediately obeyed, and presently stood upon the road barefooted and as naked as when they were born. We searched their motley garments inch by inch, and even pried into their boots, but we discovered not so much as a halfpenny. Thunderbolt, convinced at last that they had told us the truth, threw them back their clothes, which their were glad enough to resume, for the day was bitterly cold; after which we permitted them to go about their business.
The artful Celestials, however, had, with the cunning of their race, actually outwitted us, despite the keen and thorough search to which we submitted them, for two days later we were informed by a friend that they had sold twenty pounds' worth of gold immediately after, on their arrival at Bendemeer, which said gold had been all the time bound up and concealed in their pigtails. Thunderbolt was very much laughed at over this affair, and we both were subjected to a lot of chaffing by our friends, for news of it spread over the district like wildfire. It put the police on our trail as well, and we were soon obliged to make tracks for Bundarra. We came just after dark one evening to a Chinaman's hut, about two miles from the town. I was for passing it, but Thunderbolt said, "No, Will, not till we have examined its owner's pigtail, at all events!"
He was, in fact, still sore at the trick that the Bendemeer Celestials had played upon him, and I think he wanted to get his revenge. However, as we were riding up to the hut the Chow came running out, and going straight up to the outlaw he muttered in a low voice, "Me know you. You Mistle Thundelbolt. Two pliceeman in-si my housee. You lun away quick!"
A glance showed us two police horses tied up at a neighbouring fence, so with a word of hearty thanks to our friendly saviour, we turned tail and set off at a gallop. The troopers were soon in hot pursuit of us, but we knew the country so well that we easily eluded them, and by daylight we were well on the way to Armidale. Thunderbolt said to me that night, "I'll never try to rob a Chow again, Will, as long as I live, just for the sake of that kind-hearted beggar that warned us. I feel really ashamed of myself when I remember that I intended to rob him. But I'll show my gratitude by respecting his countrymen for the future!"
On the following afternoon we broke into a selector's house whose owner was absent, and secured about two pounds in gold and silver. This was a boon, for it was absolutely necessary to supply ourselves with firearms, and owing to our weaponless condition we could only procure such things by paying for them. After a deal of cogitation we decided to ride boldly into Armidale, and visit a store. The risk was sharp, but so was our necessity. We had not tasted food for twelve hours, and we dared not ply our usual trade without the requisite implements. Thunderbolt declared that it would be better to enter the city from the Uralla side, and we therefore made in that direction. As we passed the Rocky River we were fortunate enough to find a pick and shovel lying by the side of the road, that had probably been left there by some maintenance man. Thunderbolt took the pick and I the shovel, armed with which novel weapons we soon afterwards trotted into Armidale, trying hard to look like conventional diggers. In order to help along his disguise my leader slyly caused Combo to become restive, whereupon he allowed himself to bump up and down in the saddle like a new-chum rider, greatly to the amusement of the passers-by, some of whom called after and jeered at him.
We rode straight to Richardson's store, and there pulled up. Thunderbolt got off his horse from the wrong side, and said aloud to me, "I don't know how I'm going to ride that beastly brute back home, Jack!"
Entering the store, he told the shopkeeper that he wanted a gun because the native dogs were getting frightfully daring and troublesome about his claim at the Rocky Diggings. The storekeeper showed him several guns, but Thunderbolt artfully complained that their price was beyond him. "I can't afford more than a couple of pounds!" he declared.
"Then," said the storekeeper, "I can't fix you up I'm afraid, unless you buy a revolver instead, for the cheapest gun I have is £4 10s."
"What are your revolvers?" asked Thunderbolt.
Thunderbolt looked at one or two, and after a lot of pretended hesitation he allowed the man to persuade him to buy one. With his remaining ten shillings he purchased a supply of ammunition and some food, whereupon he got to horse again, and a few minutes later we were safely back in the bush. The very next morning we were informed by one of Thunderbolt's many friends that the authorities had decided to strain every nerve to effect our capture, and in that behalf had already despatched from headquarters a large body of mounted troopers to reinforce the New England police. This bad news decided Thunderbolt to "light out" for "fresh fields and pastures new." We therefore headed south, and made our way as quickly as possible to Bathurst, where we lay for the next six weeks in close hiding, at the house of a farmer to whom Thunderbolt had once rendered a signal service. I believe he had saved the life of the man's daughter. Our sudden disappearance caused the greatest astonishment in our old haunts, and many speculative theories were advanced to account for the phenomenon. At first the Sydney papers (with which our host regularly supplied us) declared that Thunderbolt was lying "perdu" in the Moonbi Ranges, waiting for an opportunity to perpetrate some new crime in safety; but as time wore on and nothing fresh was heard of us, they seemed to believe that he was attempting to repeat a former experiment that he had made to settle down in some place where he was unknown, and live honestly. Curiously enough, this hypothesis made my leader's critics quite venomous in his regard, and the journals solemnly warned the police who guarded outlying and secluded districts to keep the strictest possible look-out for strangers, with a view to securing us at the earliest possible moment. Thunderbolt became so angry when he read these articles that I thought he would completely lose his head and do something reckless that would betray us into the hands of our hunters. He vowed that the whole world was against him; that every attempt he had ever made to reform had only made society more surely his enemy; and he took a frightful oath that he would make the world repent the cruelty with which it had pursued him. I did my best to persuade him to a calmer mood, but he would not listen to me.
"I must do something or burst," he cried. "I'm off this minute. As for you, Will, if you don't care to come with me, stay behind! It will be the best thing for you in the long run!"
But I had not the heart to desert him, and a hour later we were both galloping towards Mudgee like a pair of maniacs. Next morning we stuck up the Mudgee mail coach. No opposition was offered to us, and the affair passed tamely. We earned, however, very little for our pains, for the passengers had no more than £5 between them, and the letter bag, although full of registered letters, proved almost valueless. The fact is that particular district was infested with bushrangers, and the mails were so often overhauled during transit by thieves that people who wished to send money from place to place had acquired cunning from experience, and their custom was either to transmit bank notes on separate occasions, half a bank note at a time, or to do all their business by means of crossed cheques. On the occasion in question we obtained so many half one-pound notes and five-pound notes, that Thunderbolt grimly declared there were enough to make a rug for his horse; and he actually began to put them to that use by pining and sticking them together soon after we had left the scene of the robbery. They were, after all, however, insufficient for that purpose, so he made a flag of them and tacked it, as his banner, to a sapling in the heart of the forest. I have often wondered if any person ever found his peculiar ensign, or whether it was suffered to rot to pieces at the instance of the weather, where he left it. The robbery I have last described was, strange to say, for we had not attempted to disguise ourselves, attributed by the authorities to Morgan's gang of bushrangers, and when Thunderbolt heard of that he was mightily pleased. He had long been pining to see his wife again, and he declared the present a favourable opportunity. We, therefore, headed for home, and journeying by easy stages we soon passed Moree. One morning as we were leisurely jogging along a very quiet patch of road we noticed two men riding in our direction about a quarter of a mile behind us. Thunderbolt gave them a good look, and then remarked to me, "I believe they are hawks, Will!"
"Shall we run for it?" I asked.
"Not yet," said he, "we don't want to kill our nags for nothing. They may be pigeons, too, and our pockets are not over full!"
The cavaliers overtook us a few minutes later, and at once slowed down, so that we were soon all riding together.
"Good morning!" said they.
We answered their civility in kind, and the four of us furtively began to size each other up. I must confess that I could make nothing of our fellow-travellers. To me they seemed ordinary chance wayfarers, and not different from a dozen others we had passed that very morning. One glance at Thunderbolt's face, however, informed me that he held other views. We exchanged a quick look, and then I knew that I must be prepared for the worst. We traversed perhaps a mile in thoughtful silence. By that time I was sure that the police—for they were police—were aware of our identity, and even now I cannot understand what they could have been waiting for. Perhaps they were working up their courage to the striking point. Thunderbolt was the first to make a move. Bending forward of a sudden over his saddle, so that the police could not see what his game was, he slipped his revolver out of his belt, and stuck it in his riding boot. He then sat upright again, and looked as though nothing had happened. I meanwhile stuck closely to his side. Another hundred yards were covered in the most absolute silence, and I was feeling as if I could shout out or go mad, when one of the troopers unexpectedly fell back a few yards, and then spurred his horse forward, trying to come between Thunderbolt and myself. Thunderbolt, however, was not to be outwitted so easily. He touched Combo on the shoulder with his spur, and the clever animal responded with a pig-root, so nicely timed that the wily trooper was obliged to resume his former position in the cavalcade. This little incident, instead of bringing matters to a crisis, seemed to make the police more than ever cautious, and the former nervous silence repeated itself. Thunderbolt, however, grew weary at last of a game so horribly protracted.
"Bob, old man," said he to me, "you ride on to the camping-place, and get our breakfast ready. I'll soon come up!"
The bolt was shot! The police saw that they must act, but it seemed to me that they disliked their task, for both were pale as ghosts.
"Don't move!" cried one. "We'll all camp together, and have breakfast!"
But I paid them no heed. Setting spurs to my horse I sent him forward at a gallop, and at the same moment Thunderbolt uttered a wild yell, and charged into the bush. "Follow me if you can!" he shouted, and threw himself at full length along Combo's back. Within a second the police were replying to his challenge with their revolvers; but although their bullets whistled all about us, not one took effect. The trees, I think, confused their aim; or perhaps they were too excited to shoot straight. However that may be, we escaped unscathed, and although they followed us for a mile or two, we soon outpaced them, and left them in the bush to con the last failure which they had to add to their long score against us.
Well aware that the Moree district would shortly be full of police, we proceeded without delay towards Drake, our intention being to double about for a while, and then cross over the border into Queensland. We had just selected a spot for a camp two evenings later, when our enemies were once more upon us. I had my leg over the saddle, and was in the act of dismounting when Thunderbolt muttered, "'Ware hawks, lad!" and an instant later three mounted troopers came crashing out of some underbrush close at hand, where they had been lying in waiting. We had actually been about to camp within fifty paces of their ambuscade, and had they waited for a couple of minutes, they must have taken us at complete disadvantage. As it was, they had surrounded us, and a desperate expedient was required in order to escape. But Thunderbolt was equal to the occasion. Whipping out his revolver, he fired point blank at the nearest trooper's horse, and disregarding the summons of the others to surrender, he dashed past his discomfited adversary like a rocket. I followed him, and another wild chase ensued, two of the police hot on our heels, and firing steadily as they came. We had not covered two hundred yards when I felt a burning pain in the calf of my right leg. Glancing down, I saw that my trousers were stained with blood, and I sang out to Thunderbolt that I was wounded. "Cheer up!" he shouted back to me. "Hang on for a bit, Will; we'll soon outpace the hounds, and then I'll attend to you!"
I did my best to obey him, and trying hard to disregard the pain, I urged on my horse with whip and spur. The bullets were still hailing about us, but on turning an angle of the mountain, we presently escaped that danger, for a time at least, and I noted with satisfaction that we had already gained a comfortable lead from our pursuers. A moment later, however (I should explain that we had been galloping along the edge of a deep mountain gorge) we turned another angle of the hill, and were brought to an abrupt halt by an immense bluff of high rocks. It looked as though we were in an unescapable trap, for we could not go back, and if we had attempted to climb the mountain its side was so steep that we could have gone no distance before the police would have come upon us, and shot us down with all the ease in the world. Made quite desperate by so grave a peril I forgot all about my wound and hastily dismounted; leading my horse up to the edge of the chasm I shouted with joy to discover that there was a narrow ledge between the bluff and the precipice. It was scarcely three feet wide, and one false step would have meant instant death, through being precipitated to the rocks a hundred feet below. With never a thought of that, however, I hurried along the dangerous path, leading my horse behind me. I had barely negotiated the pass when I turned to see Thunderbolt riding along in my wake at a brisk trot. Such daring held me spellbound. I had thought myself sufficiently brave to try the pass on foot! "For God's sake be careful, Fred!" I gasped involuntarily. He uttered a reckless laugh and raised his whip. He almost paid for his temerity, however, with his life. Combo, startled by the shadow of the whip, swerved aside and slipped. I screamed with fear and horror, for I saw Combo's hindquarters hanging over the precipice, and I believed that all was lost. I never wish to live through such another dreadful moment. Thunderbolt's wonderful horsemanship alone saved him from destruction. With the rapidity of lightning he threw his weight on one side of the horse, using whip and spur on the other. Combo made a supreme effort, and although his hind legs were over the cliff he struggled a little forward and there fell on his side against the perpendicular wall of the bluff. As for Thunderbolt, with incredible coolness he merely swung one leg over the saddle when Combo fell, and then he sat the brute with a smile on his lips until the noble creature staggered tremblingly to his feet again. I implored him to dismount, but he laughed and rode on, and he had just cleared the pass when we heard the thundering of the troopers' horses as they galloped up to the other side of the bluff.
"Quick, quick!" I cried, turning my own horse as I spoke. "They are on us, Fred!"
But Thunderbolt answered me with another of his laughs. "I'm not going any farther to-night, Will," he said, coolly swinging himself to the ground. "Take my word for it, lad, the police won't follow us round that ledge. As for the rest, this is not a bad camping ground, and if we keep quiet for a bit the hounds will never dream but that we are miles away from them by this!" His assurance was justified by events. The troopers did not venture to essay the pass, and we soon heard them depart by the way they had come.
Thunderbolt then attended to my leg. The wound proved to be painful rather than dangerous, for the bullet had not lodged. It had merely torn its way through the fleshy part of my calf, and although I had lost a good deal of blood, I suffered no ill that a week's idling could not cure. As an instance of the extraordinary and persistent kindness with which dame Fortune protected Thunderbolt, I may mention that as he unstrapped his oilskin coat that night from his saddle, where it had been fastened before him, during that, our latest ride for life, a bullet dropped from it to the ground. A closer examination of the coat revealed the fact that the bullet had penetrated its every fold!
During the period that I was laid up in camp by my wound, Thunderbolt once more placed me under heavy obligations to him by his care and constant kindness. He performed all the work of the camp, and would not permit me to stir so much as a finger if he could help it. He dressed my wound himself with hot water several times a day, and if I had been his brother he could not have more overwhelmed me with affectionate attentions. Looking back to that time I cannot wonder at the deep attachment that I felt for him, and indeed still feel for his memory, poor fellow! And I cannot help thinking that if the inscrutable Fate which governs men's actions had not over-handicapped his destiny with injustice at its outset, he would have led a life that must have won the respect and affection of his kind; for whatever his faults, Thunderbolt was at heart a brave and kindly gentleman. His nature, too, was perfectly simple and straightforward. I remember that I used often to marvel at him as from my couch of suffering I watched him cooking our meals or cheerily performing the other little tasks that camp life entails. And when he lay upon his back staring up at the sky and singing by the hour his quaint old love-songs for my amusement, I used to ask myself was this gentle, sweet-mannered nurse of mine the real man, or that other, the bold and reckless ruffian of the world's opinion. Perhaps there were two spirits in him. I cannot declare it was not so, but I still love to think that the spirit I knew best and liked best was nearer the man's true heart and nature than the evil bent that prompted him to crime. As soon as I was well enough to sit my horse we rode off to Bundarra, and the bushranger's home, which we were fortunate enough to find not in the occupation of the police. There we passed two very pleasant days, Thunderbolt happy in the company of his beloved Sunday, while I, waited upon by the whole family, rapidly recovered my health and strength. A timely warning of the approach of a strong posse of mounted troopers drove us to the bush again. Our horses were by that time sorely in need of a spell. They were both in such bad condition from poor feeding and over-work that Thunderbolt, who loved all animals like a true bushman, and horses in particular, declared that at all costs we must give them a long and complete rest. With that end in view we swooped down upon Abbington Station, and, after sticking up the homestead, we abstracted from its stables the two finest steeds that they contained. We then repaired to the house of a friendly selector, some twenty miles away in the heart of the forest, in whose care we placed Combo and Silver Leg. The selector promised to feed and look after them, and, as he was a man whom my leader had good reason to trust, we left them with light hearts, and set out for the Moonbi on our new mounts. There arrived, we stuck up the Tamworth-Moonbi coach in exactly the same spot in which we had robbed it on the first occasion, but with better luck, for we encountered no opposition, and the mailbags yielded us £28 in bank-notes. With this booty we retreated swiftly to the Denison Diggings. After reconnoitring the place, we discovered that the police who should have guarded it were actually chasing us some thirty miles away; so Thunderbolt, taking his fortune in both hands, decided upon a carouse, and we rode up boldly to the principal hotel. As the outlaw took no pains to conceal his identity, word was soon passed round the camp that the famous Thunderbolt and his boy were drinking at ———'s hotel. Quite a mob of miners collected to watch us, and the bar was soon crowded to excess. Thunderbolt, who had already drunk a great deal, instead of appearing to be alarmed, accepted the attention he received as a compliment, and he invited everyone to drink at his expense. Not a soul refused, and very soon I was in the midst of as lively and exciting a scene as I have ever witnessed. Thunderbolt "shouted" drinks again and again, and the fun grew fast and furious. The miners declared that Thunderbolt was a jolly good fellow, who robbed the rich to give to the poor, whereupon he made them a speech, which they applauded vociferously. He then sang them a song, "Home, Sweet Home," which brought the tears to many of those rough diggers' eyes, and I verily believe that, had the police come up at that moment, half the town would have fought to the death for Thunderbolt. There was, however, one snake in the grass among the merry-making company. A big, strong Scotchman named McGuiness had secretly conceived the idea of achieving fame by effecting, single-handed, the capture of the noted outlaw. Cherishing his purpose, he pressed close to Thunderbolt's side and pretended the greatest affection for him. Thunderbolt, who was by that time incapable of differentiating between sincerity and affectation, responded to McGuinness' advances with effusion, and the pair were just about to swear eternal friendship, when of a sudden the burly Highlander flung his arms around the outlaw's breast and pinioned his hands to his sides with a grip of iron. "I arrest you in the name of the Queen!" shouted McGuinness, "and I call on all law-abiding citizens to help me hold this scoundrel!"
Thunderbolt struggled vainly in that giant's clutch, while I looked on almost stunned with surprise. Only for a moment, however, for my leader suddenly ceased to fight, and, standing still, he looked at me over his captor's shoulder. "Will!" said he, very quietly.
I was unarmed, for, as will be remembered, I had lost my revolver when Thunderbolt took his famous leap, and I had not been able to procure another since that time. But when Thunderbolt looked at me in that way, and seemed to call upon me to help him, I felt as strong as a lion and most terribly angry. But I must have some weapon. I looked around, and saw a carving-knife thrust into the space between two bottles of rum on the shelf behind the bar. With one spring I gained the bar counter. Stretching out my hand, I seized the knife, and with a yell of rage I rushed towards McGuinness, brandishing the blade and swearing like a bullock-driver. The Scotchman, however, was contented with one glance at my scarlet face. Hastily releasing his prisoner, he burst a passage through the crowd and rushed out to the road. Thunderbolt snatched out his revolver and followed him. A second later I heard the crack of a shot and a loud shout of rage. Thunderbolt then re-appeared at the door. "Furies seize the hound," snarled the outlaw, "I missed him, and he has got away!"
"Friends!" he proceeded, in ringing tones, addressing the silent and almost stupefied crowd. "That is the first shot I have ever fired in anger and hoping to take a man's life. I hope it will be the last. But, understand this, and mark me well. By the God above us, if I can, I'll kill at any time any civilian who dares to attempt my arrest. With the police it is different. I bear them no grudge. It is their business to try and take me; and the trooper that does it will have my best wishes. But there are enough police, quite enough, and the man that wants to play the spy or the amateur policeman at my expense, I look upon as a damned blood-hunter, and I'd shoot him as I would a dog! Good day to you!"
With that he swung upon his heel, and strode over to where our horses were tethered. I followed him, and a little later we were cantering quietly away towards the bush. We did not exchange a word for the rest of that day, for Thunderbolt was in one of his taciturn moods, and I did not care to interrupt his thoughts. When, however, we were about to bunk for the night, Thunderbolt unexpectedly stretched out and seized my hand.
"You saved my life to-day, Will," he said, quietly. "I say so advisedly, for although most of those diggers seemed friendly enough, and were glad enough to drink my rum, they would have turned on me like dogs if McGuinness had been able to hold me!"
"Oh! I guess not," I muttered. "In any case, Fred, I only did my duty."
He squeezed my hand, then dropped it. "Your duty," he repeated, and his brows met in a dark frown. "No, lad; if you had done your true duty—that is, your duty to society—I'd be lodged in gaol by now."
"What bosh, Fred!" I cried, indignantly. "Damn society. Do you think I care a fig for society!"
For answer, he covered his face with his hands, and groaned aloud.
"What is the matter with you, Fred, old man?" I asked, in deep concern.
"I'm thinking of you, boy," he muttered, brokenly. "I like you as well as I like myself—and I'm giving you the proof of my attachment by leading you with me to the gallows!"
With that he heaved a big moaning sob, and throwing out his arms like one in despair, he rushed away from the camp into the darkness of the trees, nor could all my prayerful outcries induce him to return. That night was one of the most miserable of my life, for Thunderbolt's passionate outbreak had aroused within my breast a flood of painful memories and self-accusing reflections. I had not been bred up for a scoundrel, and the recollection of my poor old mother and her gentle teachings contrasted with the realisation of the sinful life I was leading (the knowledge of which I knew must be a constant agony to her, whose favourite child I was), combined to drive me nearly mad. I paced the lonely ledge on which our camp was pitched for hours, in a veritable anguish of dejection, and so sharp at length became my torment that I believe if I had been possessed of a weapon, I would there and then have committed suicide. As it was, I cast myself down upon the ground at last, shaken with a benedictive storm of weeping, and (I feel no shame in the confession), I cried myself to sleep.
When I awoke I found Thunderbolt in the merriest possible mood. His fit of gloomy self-reproach of the previous night was seemingly entirely forgotten. He hailed me with a gay laugh and chaffing me upon my having overslept myself, cheerily invited me to the breakfast which he had already prepared. I was so surprised at the change in him that I rubbed my eyes to make sure he was the same man. But although I felt out of sorts and still very unhappy, I could not long remain proof against his spontaneous jollity and infectious merriment. Indeed, so great was the outlaw's influence over me that before many minutes had passed I was laughing and chaffing with him, and my short-lived repentance had been smoothed out of my memory.
We started that day for King's Plains, where we lived quietly for a week or two until the police once more got upon our trail. On that occasion two young troopers from Glen Innes, anxious to win their first stripes, no doubt, essayed the feat which so many others had failed to carry out. Having discovered the locality of our retreat they stole upon us through the bush, and almost took us by surprise. Thunderbolt, however, whose perceptive faculties were always abnormally sensitive, caught sight of the top of a helmet as one of them was peering at us from behind the trunk of a tree a hundred yards off. Giving the alarm, we had just time to mount when they came charging down upon us at the gallop, for as soon as they perceived we had scented them they abandoned their cautious tactics and rushed for their horses. With barely fifty paces start we set off at top speed, crouching low over our saddles so as to offer less mark for a chance bullet. The revolvers of our pursuers soon began to bark, but fortunately for us they did not bite, and although our horses were not so fresh as those of the troopers they were better bred, and we slowly but surely increased our lead. Anxious to depart as quickly as possible from the plain country where the running was level and cover scanty, Thunderbolt headed for a mountain about three miles away. When we arrived at its base we were a good furlong ahead of our hunters, but the mountain was steep, and before we reached the top our horses were badly blown. Once behind the crest Thunderbolt pulled up and dismounted. "There is only one thing to do, Will!" he said, with a grim little laugh. "Our horses are spent, and the odds are they'd fall if we rode them down the hill!"
"What is the game?" I cried.
"Watch me!" he replied. Producing his revolver he crawled up to the crest of the mountain on his hands and knees, and threw himself flat upon the ground. I crept after him, and for a moment we lay there very still. Presently we heard the troopers toiling up the hillside towards us, talking about us as they came.
"Never say die, Jack," said one to the other. "I know the country on the other side, they can't go far, for its too broken, and the creek will stop them, anyhow!"
"Do you think they will show fight?" asked the other.
Thunderbolt replied to the question. Springing suddenly erect he presented his pistol at the astonished pair, who were within a dozen paces of the crest. "Hands up, or you are dead men!" he shouted.
One trooper immediately obeyed. "My God, he'll shoot me!" he cried out, and dropping his reins he threw his arms above his head.
His companion, however, who was a little in the rear, tore his horse's head round and set off at a wild gallop down the mountain.
"Don't shoot me! For God's sake don't shoot me!" pleaded the prisoner. He was white to the lips with terror.
Thunderbolt gave a mocking laugh. "The hunters hunted!" he sneered. "But don't be afraid, young fellow, I would not hurt a hair of your head—only be off with you—as fast as you can, and don't try to catch Thunderbolt again if you value your skin!"
The trooper uttered a great gasp of relief, and without more ado he swung round and followed his cowardly companion as fast as his tired horse could go.
We watched them descend the mountain and cross the plain, chuckling together like a pair of schoolboys the while. But indeed it was very funny to see how thoroughly the outlaw had terrified the foolish young policemen. They rode away like a pair of whipped children, hunched up on their saddles as though they were afraid of being shot, and they did not even dare to turn their heads until they were separated from us by quite a mile. Thunderbolt declared that he would never be caught if the authorities continued to send such silly boys against him, and he would not allow me to praise the clever manner in which he had handled them and turned our peril into a triumph.
"I deserve no credit for outwitting kids!" he said.
Our next feat of any consequence was the sticking-up of the Barraba-Bingara mail coach. We accomplished it without mishap, and secured a fairly good haul of notes and gold from the mailbags; but an incident occurred in that connection which renders the affair a landmark in my memory. We found a letter in one of the bags addressed to "Mr. Ted Clarke, Bundarra." Now, Mr. Clarke was the man who had shown me so much kindness, and who had so hospitably entertained me at his mother's house after my ankle had been injured by my fall into the gorge which Thunderbolt had crossed in his famous leap. For some reason or other Thunderbolt had conceived a dislike for Mr. Clarke. He would not tell me why, but I fancy he thought the selector a canter, because whenever they met Mr. Clarke did his best to turn the outlaw from his lawless way of living, advancing moral arguments in support of his advice. However that may be, Thunderbolt tore the letter open, and when he saw that it contained a cheque he said with a rather bitter sneer, "I'm afraid, Bill, that canting humbug Clarke will have to whistle for his two quid!"
I was up in arms at once, for I liked Mr. Clarke and all his family, and I felt, besides, deeply indebted to them for their kindness to me.
"Why, Fred," I cried, "the cheque is no good to us in any case, and even if it was, he is our friend, and we are bound to send it along to him!"
"Bah!" snarled the outlaw. "He is no friend of mine; a damned amateur sky pilot like him! Not much!"
He folded up the cheque and began to tear it across. But I darted forward and snatched it out of his hands. "He is my friend!" I cried angrily; "and you are a cad, Fred, to think of injuring him! I shall post it to him at the first town we come to!"
Thunderbolt turned purple with rage at my daring to cross his will. "Give that back to me at once!" he commanded savagely.
We confronted each other at that moment with no love in either of our hearts, and the spirit of each most thoroughly aroused. I think that mine was at first the harder part to play, for although I felt myself to be in the right, I had so long been accustomed to yield to Thunderbolt's lightest wish with the implicit and unquestioning obedience of a child to its parent, that the sudden break in our affectionate relationship made me, angry as I was, feel cold all over and almost sick. But once having chosen my course it was not in my nature to turn back, whatever the cost, and I faced him, tremulously no doubt, yet with a determination equal to his own.
Putting the cheque in my pocket, I folded my arms, and, trying hard to speak quietly, I said: "Fred, old man, you are in the wrong, and you ought to know it!"
He eyed me for a long minute, biting his lips, and with both hands tightly clenched. He was so evidently fighting for self-control that I felt a warm flood of pity swell my heart for him, and, impulsively starting forward, I placed my hand on his shoulder. "Fred, old man!" I muttered pleadingly. But he shook me off with a gesture of contempt, and, swinging on his heel, he marched away.
It was the first little rift within the lute of our friendship. For, although we never reverted to the subject, and soon to all appearances we were good comrades again, I could never afterwards bring myself to feel quite the same to him. It was not that I liked him less, but I did not, indeed, I could not, respect him so much once I had discovered that he was capable of committing a mean and petty act.
I may say that I posted Mr. Clarke's cheque to him about a week later at the Cobbadah post-office.
For a long while after the Barraba-Bingara coach robbery, it was quite impossible for Thunderbolt to visit his wife owing to the constant surveillance maintained by the police over his little homestead.
So greatly nevertheless did he wish to see her and so much did he fret at his enforced absence from her side that in very desperation at last he determined upon a double outrage to be performed at Moonbi and Ben Lomond, two places widely separated, within as short a time as possible, calculating to confuse the police thereby, and throw them entirely off his trail.
His plan necessitated a ride so far and fast that it could only be accomplished by securing relays of horses en route. Difficulties, however, Thunderbolt delighted in, and once having conceived the idea he was soon prepared to carry it out.
The first robbery was accomplished early in the morning without an incident, for there were no passengers in the coach, and the driver yielded at the summons with praiseworthy promptitude. We then rode off as fast as we could travel to Balala station. Dismounting there we left our knocked-up horses in the bush, and boldly abstracted two well-fed thoroughbreds from the stables, mounted upon which we proceeded at a breakneck speed to Abbington station. We arrived about nine o'clock in the evening, whereupon cautiously approaching the homestead we soon got hold of a Chinese cook, who informed us, under pressure, that Superintendent Brown and another constable had put up at the station for the night. We gagged the Chinaman, and having tied him to a tree for safety's sake, we crept up to the house, and peering through the windows we soon verified our informant's story. The two policemen were seated in the dining-room, chatting with the squatter over a friendly glass of whisky. Thunderbolt uttered a low chuckle of amusement as he surveyed that peaceful little scene, but after a moment's contemplation he led the way with great caution towards the stables, passing en route the kitchen, where all the station hands were gathered, smoking and yarning about the fire. We found the policemen's horses in the stable yard, and so well did we like their appearance that we immediately resolved to apply them to our own requirements. Having caught and saddled them, we led them as softly as possible out of the yard, and away from the station, without exciting in the act the least attention. As we mounted, Thunderbolt remarked to me in a tone of triumph, "Well, Bill, old man, if the 'traps' don't soon catch us, we'll have to turn and catch them!" Our new mounts were so fresh and hardy that we finished our journey as daylight was breaking, arriving at our destination in excellent time to stick up the coach. The affair passed over very tamely, for once again we encountered no opposition. But much to our disappointment neither did we make much money; for the mailbags were almost empty, and we were obliged to be satisfied with a paltry four pounds.
After a brief halt to rest our fagged horses, we doubled on our tracks (following Thunderbolt's original plan), and proceeded towards Barraba, but very slowly in order that the news of our latest crime might precede us. The consequence was exactly as the outlaw had anticipated. The police, who kept watch and ward over Thunderbolt's home, did not dream that he would dare to venture thitherwards so soon, believing, as was indeed only natural (since they were unaware of the full extent of his cunning and temerity) that on the contrary he would be occupied in putting as great a distance as possible between himself and them. We found, therefore, on our arrival at Barraba that those of our hunters whom we wished particularly to outwit had set off at a gallop for the scene of our latest exploit immediately the news of it had reached them, and we must actually have passed each other on our several ways; perhaps, quite closely, for although Thunderbolt had kept to the bush, we had never gone very far from the road.
We put up that night at the outlaw's house, where we were received with expressions of the most extravagant delight. The meeting indeed between Thunderbolt and his wife, the poor half-caste, Sunday, was extremely affecting, for they had been long apart. She threw herself, weeping with joy, into her husband's arms, and Thunderbolt's eyes were not free from tears as he responded to her embrace. Soon afterwards, however, the usual wild merry-making and carouse, which ever attended his infrequent homecomings, commenced, but, as I was feeling out of sorts that evening, I took an early opportunity to escape from the revellers, and strolled out to the gate that opened on the main road. The night was very dark and gloomy, strangely in sympathy with my mood. The sight of Thunderbolt's warm and affectionate welcome by his family had previously depressed me. It made me feel lonely and miserable, and altogether out in the cold. I said to myself: "Thunderbolt has a home, outlaw as he is, with a price on his head; but I have none!" For well I knew that did I venture to revisit the home I had deserted, my stepfather would have gloried at the chance of securing and handing me over to the police, while of all the others my poor old mother alone would have been even faintly glad to see me. The thought of her brought an aching lump to my throat, and hot tears to my eyes. I struggled for a while to suppress my emotion, but overcome with misery at last I laid my forehead on the rail of the fence and wept unrestrainedly. How long I stayed there I do not know. I was far too wretched to take account of time. But at length I was aroused by the sounds of horses' hoofs upon the road. I thought it might be the police, and, hastily drying my tears, I waited with every nerve on strain, ready to make a dash for the house to give the alarm.
A moment later, however, a man came riding up the track alone, and my fears evaporated. Dismounting at the gate, he threw his bridle over the post, and then, standing still, he struck a match, and began to light his pipe. We were only separated by a yard, and presently he saw me. With a little start of astonishment, he held the match above his head, and in that instant our recognition was mutual.
"Ted Clarke!" I cried.
"Well, Bill, old man," said he. "Is this where you are? I have come over purposely to see you."
"What for?" I demanded, stepping back a pace, for his manner was solemn, indeed almost threatening.
But he held up one hand. "Don't think for a moment, boy, that I came here to injure you," he declared, with earnestness. "I would not hurt a hair of your head, Will, as well you ought to know."
"You were very good to me when my ankle was hurt," I muttered. "I've not forgotten that, Mr. Clarke, and I'm very grateful for it."
"I did not know who you were then, my boy," he replied. "But ever since I have known I have been trying to get hold of you. You are wondering why," he continued, presently, "Well, lad, I'll not keep you long in doubt. We all took a fancy to you when you stayed at our place, and it was a great shock to us to discover that you had taken—so young a lad as you, Bill—to so cursed and wicked a life as bushranging."
I hung my head before him, but, though I tried hard enough, I could not find a word to say.
"It's an ungodly game you are playing," continued Mr. Clarke. "It must end badly, Bill. Give it up, my lad. Your poor old mother is fretting her life away about you. Your crimes are tearing her heart to pieces. If you could see her day after day sitting, worn away with the sorrow and disgrace you have brought upon her, you would not hesitate, for I think you have a heart. Give it up, lad. Give it up!"
I felt the tears trickling down my cheeks again, but still I could not speak. Mr. Clarke put a kind hand on my shoulder, and said, gently, "Isn't it better, Will, to suffer a short term of imprisonment, as you would if you gave yourself up to the police now, than to keep on in this reckless way of yours. It can only end in your being shot down like a dog in the bush at last, or in dying a felon's death on the gallows!"
A big sob tore at my throat, and all that he had said of my mother made me wish to die there and then, but in spite of my misery and a sudden wild longing to follow this disinterested and good man's advice, the memory of Thunderbolt's many kindnesses to me, and the protection he had given me in my hour of need, held me in chains. Moreover, I had vowed never to leave him. "I wish to God I was dead," I blurted out, half-choking with emotion. "But I can't desert Thunderbolt, Mr. Clarke. I'd be a low coward if I did. I can't; I can't, indeed."
He would have continued his entreaties, and, perhaps, who knows, he might have succeeded in persuading me to his wishes, but fate willed it that at that instant the door of the house opened, and Thunderbolt's voice called to us.
"Will!" he shouted. "Will, where are you? Is that you talking out there?"
There was nothing for it, but to answer him, and advance to the house, which we did. But Thunderbolt greeted my good angel so coldly that Mr. Clarke did not care to remain very long, and we parted presently with a silent handshake, not to meet again—for years. I can, however, truthfully aver that the words addressed to me by Mr. Clarke that night were never afterwards forgotten, and they planted in my heart the seeds of a disposition which eventually bore fruit in sincere repentance and atonement.
May God bless Ted Clarke wherever he may be, and whether living or dead. I owe him more than I can ever repay.
Next morning, at break of day, we took leave of the outlaw's family, and set out for a tract of very wild and rugged country, situated some twenty miles from Bundarra, and in a direction in which we felt sure that the police would not think of looking for us. It was a melancholy journey, for Thunderbolt brooded over his enforced separation from his wife, and I, for my part, was unable to rid myself of the recollection of my chat with Mr. Clarke on the previous night. I kept thinking constantly of the future which lay before me. Mr. Clarke had told me that unless I gave up bushranging, I could only end in one of two ways—either I must be shot like a wild dog in the bush, or die upon the gallows! Neither was a pleasant picture to contemplate, and yet I could not deny the truth that they presented; nor could I devise any other escape for myself than was entailed in the deliberate desertion of a man who had treated me as an attached father might treat his favourite child. Small wonder then that I felt miserably dejected, for although I had begun to detest a life of crime, and I wanted to give up bushranging, I was tied to Thunderbolt by a vow, and, moreover, I liked him so well that I felt I would almost as lief die as desert him.
We reached our destination before I had come to any definite conclusion as to my future conduct, but that night I determined that I would do my best to reform Thunderbolt and induce him, if I could, to lead an honest life. This resolution gave me great comfort at the moment, but looking back upon it now I cannot help remarking, between a smile and a sigh, on my youthful self-confidence and vanity. As may very easily be imagined, I failed signally in the task I undertook so hopefully. It is true I set about it as sincerely as possible, and for a couple of days we spent most of our time in arguing and discussing moralities and the hereafter. Thunderbolt, however, was more than my match in such a contest. He had read a number of atheistical books, and his memory was so prodigious that he was able to reply to the heartfelt, but stilted expression of my convictions—with reams of finely rounded sententious sounding periods, written by men who in their wicked pride of intellect had dared to deny the goodness of God and the truths of Holy Writ. It is with mortification I confess that I yielded him the victory at last, and even joined with him in scoffing at sacred things; not because he had convinced me, but because I was unable to answer him convincingly, and I was ashamed to keep silence. That same false shame, moreover, quickly betrayed me into deeper sin. I pretended to agree with him when he declared for a short life and a merry one; and because he had jeered at what he called my "silly fit of repentance," I longed for an opportunity to show him that I could out-Herod Herod, even though in my heart of hearts the while I was hating myself for my weakness and vainly sighing for deliverance from the pit into which I had fallen.
On the afternoon of the third day of our concealment we roamed abroad and chanced upon a man who informed us that the Barraba coach on the morrow would carry a large parcel of gold to Bingera. Now as I had been bragging of what I would do in order to prove to Thunderbolt how perfectly I had recovered from my desire to reform I needs must urge him to stick up the coach and steal the gold. He pointed out to me that in all human probability the gold would be accompanied by a police escort, but I laughed at his fears and dared him to essay the deed.
A little while earlier I had been entreating him to abjure crime. I still hated the thought of crime, and yet I found myself its active and mischievous agent, scarcely conscious of how the change had come about, and certain of only three things in the world, that I was a loathsome coward, a traitor to my conscience, and the most miserably unhappy creature in New South Wales.
Thunderbolt, however, was quite deceived. He declared that I was a credit to his training, and he gave me a lecture on recklessness, that was more than half sincere. I answered him with taunts which stung him to retort with deeds, and he forthwith led the way to the "Devil's Elbow," a place that seemed to have been especially designed by Providence to enable robbers to pursue their calling. It was perched on the side of a rocky mountain, and overlooked a creek into which the Barraba road dipped after describing a circuit of the hill. The country thereabouts was, moreover, so wild and rugged that escape was easy, and pursuit well nigh impossible once the depredators had secured a fair start. We camped in the pass that night, and early on the ensuing morning concealed our horses over the ridge within a short distance of the road. We then hid ourselves among the rocks that overhung the creek, and waited for the coach to come along. It should have arrived at about 11, but it was an hour late, and our patience was strained to the limit when it finally appeared, toiling round the mountain-side, enveloped in a cloud of dust. A glance showed us two constables, dressed in plain clothes, seated on the box seat beside the driver, and two others inside the vehicle.
"Hawks aboard, Bill!" said Thunderbolt. "I expected it. She is not ours!"
"Nonsense!" I retorted. "Police are just as easy to handle as civilians. You have only to get the drop on them. Come along, Fred!"
But he shook his head. "You are a young fool," he remarked; "those fellows have their pistols in their hands. Besides, my rule is never to attack the police unless I can't help myself!"
"Well, Fred," said I, "if I did not know you so well, I'd call you a coward!"
What possessed me I don't know. Some devil seemed to be driving me on. Thunderbolt frowned darkly, and muttered in an undertone, "My courage has been proved a hundred times!"
He assured me afterwards that he had not intended to sneer at me; but I thought he had laid a jeering emphasis on the word "my," as though to insinuate that it behoved me to rebut a less defensible charge of cowardice than that which I had made against him.
In one second I had sprung to my feet, the blood boiling in my veins with rage. The coach had by then crossed the creek, and was lumbering noisily up the opposite incline, nearly a hundred yards away. It left as it proceeded a tail of dust so thick that even the horses were hidden from our view. Leaping down the road, without a word to Thunderbolt of my intention I set off after the coach as fast as my legs could carry me, and speedily caught up with it. In another moment I had clambered up behind and rested in spread-eagle fashion across the canvas covering of the mail bags, clinging on for dear life to the straps that held them in place. I had so far acted without premeditation, animated only with a blindly angry impulse to perform some desperate deed that might put Thunderbolt's caution to shame. I fancy that I had half thought of climbing over the coach to the box and clapping my pistol to the policemen's heads. If that were so, however, I soon changed my mind, for when, as presently I did, I realised my dangerous proximity to the accredited guardians of law and order, I found my anger cooling, and my courage oozing out of my fingers' ends. The driver and the constables (never dreaming that they carried such an eavesdropper behind them, for the dust and the noise of the wheels had covered my movements) were chatting confidentially together about Thunderbolt the outlaw and William Monckton—my humble self. I listened to them for two or three minutes, and although I could not make out all that was said, I heard enough to be sure that a trap had been laid for us, and that the policemen were ardently hoping that we would mistake them for civilians and attack the coach. I gathered, moreover, that there was in reality no gold aboard, but that the police had spread such a report abroad in order, as one of them remarked, "to put salt on Thunderbolt's tail!"
By that time I was feeling pretty sick and heartily sorry that I was where I was. But the idea of returning empty-handed to my leader and submitting to the jeers with which he would inevitably receive me, was so unendurably revolting that between fear and rage I was on the verge of despair. Of a sudden, however, a plan occurred to me by means of which I might redeem my reputation for courage as far as Thunderbolt was concerned, even though I sank lower in my own esteem. With a gasp of wicked joy I pulled out my jack-knife and began to hack at the canvas that covered the mails. Very soon I had made a big hole, through which I pulled out one of the bags and a sack of rations, which we afterwards discovered belonged to the police. These I threw down upon the road, and I was just dipping in to get another mail-bag when my revolver slipped out of my hand and fell through the hole in the canvas to the door of the coach.
I was so startled by the suddenness of my mishap, and so frightened by the crash, that I slipped to the ground, and darting to the roadside cast myself flat upon my face behind a rock. I had taken needless trouble, however, for the rumbling and groaning of the coach had drowned the noise I had made, and the constables, hearing nothing unusual through the din, did not even turn their heads.
When the coach had disappeared behind a bend in the hill, I arose, feeling very brave indeed, and I marched up to inspect my booty with all the pride of a peacock. The two bags were as much as I could carry, but I made shift to cast them athwart my shoulders, and I staggered along gaily beneath their weight towards the spot where I had left Thunderbolt. But he saw me coming from afar, and he advanced to meet me with such an expression of wonder and admiration on his face that I had my work cut out to keep my countenance.
"Bill, old man," he cried heartily, as I cast the bags at his feet. "Give me your hand. You are the pluckiest lad in Australia, and I'm proud of you!"
Miserable little wretch that I was, I accepted his praise as if I had truly deserved it, and not only that, when he had finished lauding me, what must I do but begin to brag and boast and puff myself out like a Yankee Cheap Jack praising his wares, until it was a wonder that Thunderbolt did not box my ears to stop my vain and idiotic vapourings. I make this confession reservelessly, because I wish all who read it to understand how low a person may fall who allows fear of ridicule and pride to be his guiding stars. The one had prevented me from mending my ways, even while wishing with all my soul to do so, and the other had made me a liar. So that now as it were, in spite of myself, I had become an infinitely worse and more wicked lad than I was before Mr. Clarke had given me the kind and wise advice that had so touched my heart and stirred my conscience. Nor is this all, the knowledge of my evil case so hardened me that for a great while thereafter I would not listen to my conscience, because I knew how bitterly it would condemn me, and I was as one lost to every good feeling, and ready to plunge into any villainy, just so that I might drown thought in action, and thereby lull my self-contempt to sleep.
In my opinion pride is the most damnable sin in the calendar, for it makes its victims love themselves too much, and when it can find no virtue in them to feed upon, it drives them on to try and outstrip their fellow beings in vice; since it requires for its sustenance pre-eminence of any sort. From that day, forward it was my ambition to become a more notorious bushranger than Thunderbolt—while the sun was up. Of a night, however, after we had both retired, and when I had either to shut my eyes or gaze up into the star-spangled Heavens it was but seldom that I could successfully defy the self-accusing reflections that would arise to plague my mind in spite of all that I could do, and often I cried myself to sleep.
The mailbag yielded us £5 in cash, and the sack of rations contained, as well as a good supply of provisions, several delicacies to which we had long been strangers, such as pots of jam and other tinned dainties. We had quite a feast, therefore, at the expense of the police, and Thunderbolt paid me so many compliments during the meal that for a time I was intensely elated. Later in the day we turned our faces towards the Moonbi, it being the outlaw's intention to once more rob the Moonbi mail. When we arrived at our point of destination (at an early hour on the following day), Thunderbolt declared that it would not do to stick up the coach unless we "appeared" to be properly equipped for the enterprise. He referred to my unarmed condition, for as I have previously related, I had lost my revolver while sneaking the mailbag from the Barraba coach. I did not know how he designed to repair my want, but I was soon to see. Strolling up to a currajong tree, he cut a small crooked branch therefrom, which he soon lopped and fashioned into the shape of a revolver. While I was still breathlessly admiring his handiwork, he approached the roadside fence and twisted away from the rail a piece of wire. This he screwed into my sham pistol so as to form a hammer, and so very deftly that at a few yards' distance it looked for all the world as venomous as a real weapon held at full cock. When the proper time came, we concealed ourselves at either side of the road at a place where it inclined gently upwards. The coach presently approached, whereupon, springing from our cover, we darted up to the horses and brought them quickly to a standstill, presenting at the same time our one real and one "dummy" pistol at the driver, with the usual command to bail up. He submitted without a protest, and Thunderbolt, having directed me to keep him covered, marched over to the door of the coach. Presently I saw five passengers—three gentlemen and two ladies—descend to the road, and stand with their hands above their heads. Thunderbolt bowed low to the ladies, and addressed them in the kindest terms. He assured them that there was no occasion for them to be the least alarmed and that he would rather die than steal the value of a pin from either of them. The men, however, he searched closely, and then attacked the mail bags, while I kept our victims awed with my "dummy." The letter-sorting yielded such handsome results (about £20) that the outlaw became merry, and began to chaff his male victims.
"You are really very foolish to be frightened of a boy!" he said to them. "Why don't you rush him? I don't believe he has the heart to fire at you!"
"Haven't I?" I cried; "let one of them move a finger and he will see!"
"Bah!" retorted Thunderbolt, with a grin; "I'd let you fire at me all day with that revolver of yours, for sixpence an hour!"
"Gentlemen," he added, turning to my prisoners, "I'm going now for our horses. Take my advice, and while I am away, rush the boy; he is a poor shot, and his pistol is of local make!"
With that he strode off, shouting with laughter at his joke, to where our horses were tethered.
For a moment I was afraid that the passengers would follow Thunderbolt's advice, and turn his jest into a tragedy. They were, however, far too alarmed to do any such thing, and they stood like mutes until the outlaw returned, leading our horses, with the bridles over his arm. Just then an accident happened which gave us both food for subsequent amused remembrance. The outlaw had almost reached my side when one of the horses, startled by a fluttering piece of paper (one of the letters from the rifled mail bags) drew back violently. The bridle jerked the outlaw's hand in which he held his pistol ready for use, and the weapon was inadvertently discharged. The report was greeted with loud shrieks from the lady passengers, one of whom sank to the ground, swooning with terror. The driver of the mail, evidently believing that my "dummy" had exploded, shouted out in angry tones, "Look here, Fred, you ought to stop that d———d boy; he'll be shooting someone yet!" The tableau was curiously humorous, and yet dramatic. Thunderbolt was so surprised at his recognition by the driver that he stood bolt still, staring at the man. I was startled, and a little terrified, for I had not seen the accident, and for a moment I fancied that the police had stolen up and fired upon us. Our gentlemen victims, influenced by the driver's speech, imagined that I had fired at one of them, and they all began to speak at once, imploring me to be careful, and protesting that they had done nothing to deserve being shot at. The lady who had retained her senses, maintained a shrill outcry, waving and wringing her hands, while even the horses were snorting and trembling. Thunderbolt was the first to recover. Uttering a gay laugh, he strode over to the lady who had fainted, and kneeling beside her in the dust of the road, he began to chafe her hands. She soon awoke, and when he saw she was conscious, Thunderbolt courteously assisted her into the coach, assuring her the while that his revolver had only been discharged by accident, and that no one regretted more than he the shock she had received.
The pair of us then mounted our horses, and after making a sweeping bow to the ladies Thunderbolt led the way at a smart gallop towards Oaky Creek, where we had decided to camp for the night.
We camped that night within a mile of the Oaky Creek Hotel, and in the morning we proceeded to the house, in order to procure a bottle of rum. As we rode up we saw two miners standing on the verandah busily quarrelling with each other. We dismounted, and watched them for a while, for it seemed to us that the discussion would end in a fight, the men were so angry. After a minute or two, however, Thunderbolt slipped into the bar, and made his purchase. Returning to the verandah, he leaned against a post; and surveyed the now furious disputants. Of a sudden one of them appealed to him to give them a ring and fair play.
"Oh!" said Thunderbolt. "I'll be umpire with pleasure, and see you both get fair play. Step out on the grass, and fight it out like men!"
The men followed his direction at once, and the outlaw was hard at work describing a ring on the turf when the landlord appeared. He looked hard at Thunderbolt, and making a peculiar sign with his hand, said in a low voice.
"Look here, you fellows, you'll have to stop this row. You know there are police in the house!"
Both Thunderbolt and I perceived at once the true meaning of the landlord's well-intentioned hint, and after a quick glance at each other, we simultaneously started for our horses.
At that moment, two constables in uniform came out on the verandah, no doubt attracted by the row.
We mounted quietly under their very eyes, and moved carelessly away. The police stared at us for a moment, and then they must have suspected our identity, for they shouted out, "Hi! you fellows, don't go away!"
Thunderbolt winked at me, and turned in his saddle.
"No more drink for me to-day, thanks, old chap!" he cried back. "I've had enough!"
"Ride for your life, Bill!" he added to me, in an undertone, and in a second we were off at a gallop.
The police, however, did not follow us. Probably their horses were not saddled, but in any case they could not have caught us with the start we had secured.
We held a conclave over our lunch that day, and unanimously decided that, in consideration of recent events, the New England district was a good place to get out of as quickly as possible. We therefore made our way to the mountainous region about the head waters of the Manning River. There we remained for about a month, wandering about like gypsies, but doing nothing to attract attention. When we ran short of provisions one of us would disguise himself as a swagman looking for work, and visit a settlement to buy the food we needed. Otherwise we had no excitement, and we passed our time pleasantly if tamely, yarning, singing, and frequently carousing, for we took care never to go short of rum or gin. Sometimes Thunderbolt, who was a first-rate cook, would as an especial treat to me, make a huge "double decker" in a big quart pot, or "Jackshay." The "double deckers" are known as "sea-pies" now, and much art is devoted to their construction. But although I have tasted many since that time, made by professed cooks in well-appointed kitchens, not one of them could compare with the savory double deckers which Thunderbolt used to bake for me, in his old Jackshay over a greenwood fire in the wild, open bush at the head of the Manning River.
One night we got a terrible fright. We had camped on the banks of a small creek, and were enjoying a reposeful slumber, when we were suddenly awakened about 12 o'clock by sounds of leaves and sticks crackling under the hoofs of horses. The darkness was profound. After a whispered interchange of words, to assure ourselves that we were both awake, we got to our hands and knees, and peered about us. Presently, over a slope of rising ground I caught sight of several dark, slowly-moving forms. Thunderbolt perceived them at the same instant, and seizing me by the shoulder he whispered in my ear, "Up, Bill, the hawks are on us!"
In a flash we got noiselessly to our feet, but for a while we stood there stupidly, not knowing what to do, for sounds now came to our ears from all directions that proved we were completely surrounded. Thunderbolt, however, soon collected his wits, and ordered me to take to the creek as our one hope of escape. We had only to creep backwards a few paces to reach the edge. We then slipped over and dropped to the bed, which was about five feet deep. Scarcely, however, had our feet touched the bottom when a rush was made in our direction. The sounds informed us that at least half a dozen horses were charging us, and we had no doubt but that the police had at last cornered the quarry for whom they had so long hunted in vain.
Thunderbolt gave my shoulder a convulsed grip, and muttered, "Good-bye, Bill, old man. I reckon our time has come. It is fight or die now!"
He then stood erect, with his head and shoulders over the bank, and fired four shots rapidly in the face of our charging enemy. I had no revolver, but I drew out my jack-knife and desperately resolved to sell my life as dearly as possible. After Thunderbolt's last shot, there followed a second's breathless stillness. Then we heard a wild, shrill neigh, and a hundred dark forms whinneying loudly dashed along the bank of the creek in a mad gallop towards the hills. Our supposed enemies had been a mob of wild horses!
For several minutes neither of us moved. The shock of our first fear and surprise had been so great and painful that the relief also came to us as a shock. I felt thoroughly unstrung, and so upset that I was half-inclined to burst out laughing or crying—I scarcely cared which. Then Thunderbolt's voice came to me, and it was so hoarse that I hardly recognised it.
"That is the first time in my life that I've been beaten for a move!" he said. "And, more than that, it's the first time in my life I have understood the meaning of fear. Bill, old man, listen to my teeth—they are chattering!"
But so, too, were my own. Presently we crawled out of the creek, and, returning to our camp, we piled up fresh wood on the fire until we had made a big blaze, before which we sat down to try and recover our composure. Neither of us could endure the thought of wooing sleep again that night, so we sat there side by side, until the dawn, talking over the affair in all its aspects. Thunderbolt, who was a superstitious man, was strongly of opinion that the wild horses had been sent by Fate to warn us that we should at once depart from that locality, under pain of some dreadful calamity. He spoke so positively that I was deeply impressed, and it did not take much persuasion to induce me to agree to set out on the following morning for Grafton. After that he began to tell me ghost stories, which made the blood curdle in my veins. I listened, shivering with terror, longing for him to give over, and yet not daring to ask him to change the subject lest he should laugh at me for my fear. I shall never forget the joy with which I welcomed the rising of the sun. It dispelled the gloomy phantoms of my imagination as by the touch of an enchanter's wand, and I got to my feet and stretched out my arms with a sigh of pure delight. Thunderbolt also arose, and, leaving his last grisly narrative for ever unfinished, he cried out, "Thank God, Bill, we are alive and free!"
Governed by a common impulse we turned and exchanged glances, and into our minds flashed the same thought, "I never expected to see this day!"
We looked at each other furtively and sheepishly for a moment, and then burst out laughing.
"I was a fool, Bill!" said Thunderbolt.
"So was I, Fred!" I echoed heartily.
"By heaven, it's good to be alive," said the outlaw with a shudder.
"One lives such a little while in any case, and one is dead such a long time! But, Great Caesar, what is that over there?"
I followed the direction of his pointing finger, and saw about twenty paces from the camp fire the figure of a horse lying apparently asleep among the ferns near the bank of the creek. We crossed over at once to examine it more closely, but it did not stir on our approach, and to our surprise we found presently that the beast was dead. It was one of the wild mob, a finely-shaped animal, and it had fallen a victim to Thunderbolt's revolver on the previous night, when we thought that the police were charging up. Two of the outlaw's bullets had found their billets in its body. One had struck it on the shoulder blade, the other had pierced it to the heart.
For a moment or two we stared into each other's eyes, and then Thunderbolt muttered very solemnly, "Bill, this is the seal on our warning. We must not linger here even for breakfast!"
Five minutes later we were on the road to Grafton, and just in time, for some three days afterwards we learned that by an extraordinary coincidence a strong force of police, guided by a black tracker, had visited our deserted camp within a perilously short period of our departure. We read the account of the affair in a Sydney newspaper. It was headed in big letters, "Hot on the heels of Thunderbolt," and it described how the police had crept up on their hands and knees, surrounded the still smoking camp fire of the bushrangers in the grey light of early morning, how they had, on a given signal sprang to their feet and rushed forward, only to find the birds once more flown.
Needless to say, after that experience Thunderbolt grew more superstitious than ever—and I must confess that I too for a long while thoroughly believed that Providence had especially intervened to save us from capture or destruction. I had heard but little of the long arm of coincidence in those days.
Near Newton-Boyd we overtook a hawker, who was journeying along from place to place in a waggonette filled with goods. Thunderbolt rode up to him, and thrust a pistol in his face. "Bail up!" he commanded curtly; "I'm Thunderbolt!"
The hawker stopped his horse at once, but he did not appear to be alarmed.
"What do you want?" he coolly demanded.
"Your money or your life!" replied the outlaw.
The hawker shook his head, and said very quietly: "Oh, no you don't, Captain; or, if you do, you belie your reputation. It's not the poor who are frightened of you one little bit. I've heard a lot about you to your credit."
"No blarney!" snapped my leader. "Out with your purse, and be quick about it!"
The hawker shrugged his shoulders, and produced, after searching his pockets, ten sovereigns.
"I'm disappointed in you, Captain," he remarked, as he passed it over. "I never thought you'd rob a poor man."
"A poor man!"
"Yes, that's all the money I have, and I need it badly. Say, if you want to rob me, take what goods you like out of the trap, and leave me my cash!"
"I suppose you want the money for your poor widowed mother, eh?" jeered Thunderbolt.
"For your wife and six starving nippers, then?"
"I want it to buy a fresh stock of the things I'm run out of," replied the hawker, with great dignity. "And, see here, Captain Thunderbolt, when I feel like lying I can lie without your assistance, and be damned to you!"
Thunderbolt looked hard at the fellow for a moment, and then he observed with a smile: "You don't seem scared—and that's a fact!"
"Scared!" sneered the hawker. "There's only one thing I'm scared of, and that is that we'll be interrupted before you hand me back my money!"
Thunderbolt laughed heartily. "You'll wait a long time," he declared, "unless you give me a better reason than you have found yet."
"As man to man," said the hawker earnestly, "I tell you I'll be put in a hole if you keep that coin. I can't say more, and I wouldn't if I could. If you are the good fellow people say you are, you'll act accordingly; if not, kindly allow me to proceed on my way, and as well as the money, I'll make you a present of my contempt."
"You are a man!" cried Thunderbolt, "and a good sort besides. Here, take the coin!"
The hawker silently received the money, and tucked it away in his pocket, his face as grave as that of a judge.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked, a second later, seeing that the outlaw did not move.
"Thanks," said Thunderbolt.
"Bosh!" retorted the hawker; "what thanks do you deserve? The money was always mine, though it had changed hands. Good day!"
He nodded to us both, then, chirruping to his horse, he leisurely resumed his interrupted journey, leaving us petrified with astonishment.
"Well, I'm d——d!" gasped Thunderbolt, a full minute later.
"Of all the cheek!" I cried, indignantly.
"Cheek! Rubbish!" he retorted. "The hawker was right, and, damme, but I like the fellow for his backbone. I tell you, Bill, I hate those d—— curs who are afraid to speak out what they think, just because I stick them up. That chap was a man to his finger-tips, and I feel better for having met him! But, I tell you what, Bill—I'm mighty glad he is not a member of the police force. If he was, I guess he'd catch me, or die trying!"
Three days later we reached Tamworth, where we camped for four and twenty hours on the banks of the Peel River, just outside the town. While there we were approached by an emissary of Gardener's gang of bushrangers, who offered Thunderbolt the leadership of that band if he would proceed to Bathurst, and undertake a big gold escort robbery. Thunderbolt declined the proposal with contempt, for he held Gardener in poor respect; but the stories that the messenger had told us of the rich plunder to be found in the Bathurst district, soon induced him to change his plans, and proceed in that direction. The consequence was that a fortnight later we stuck up the Mudgee-Bathurst coach, and obtained a fairly good booty. I remember the incident very well, because we found in one of the mail bags, all of which we took on that occasion with us into the bush, a gold watch (that had been cunningly concealed in a round hole cut out of the leaves of a book), and because another of the bags was filled with parcels of children's toys, socks, and other clothes. The sight of those tiny little garments deeply affected Thunderbolt. He said to me: "Bill, old man, I can't bear to think of these kiddies wanting their toys and things. I have kids myself!" He thereupon restored the articles to the bag, and, bidding me follow, he mounted and rode off at a gallop after the coach, to the driver of which he presently handed the bag, with his blessing. In some things, Thunderbolt was curiously human and soft-hearted. He loved children dearly; and all brute beasts, particularly dogs and horses. On one occasion, when riding through the bush, we chanced upon a mare that had staked herself, and was hideously wounded. How astonished his enemies would have been could they have seen him then. Thunderbolt threw himself from his horse, and walked up to the poor animal, speaking to it the while in a voice that shook with feeling. The mare, with an intelligence almost human, recognised a friend in him at once, and instead of retreating from his advance she turned her poor head, and looked at him in a way that wrung my heart. Just as though she had tried to speak with her eyes, and say: "Help me. Put me out of my pain!" When Thunderbolt saw that no skill could save her life, he patted her nose with one hand, and with the other he drew out his revolver, and pressed it to her ear. As he walked away from her dead body, he hid his face in his hands, and he muttered to me in a voice that told me he was much upset, "I can't help it, Bill. If it was a man, I wouldn't care; but the poor dears can't help themselves when they're hurt. Think of it, Bill. They can't help themselves!" The attachment I felt for Thunderbolt was nourished on experiences such as that.
On the morning after the Mudgee coach robbery, while we were still seated before the camp fire having breakfast, two men, dressed like bushmen, appeared quite suddenly and close at hand, riding towards us. Our horses were feeding, hobbled some distance off, so that, although we immediately suspected the newcomers to be police, there was no chance to escape. But Thunderbolt had previously instructed me what to do in any such event; and our rule was that we should stroll to the nearest tree and set our backs against the trunk, and against each other, so that we might not be separated or outflanked without notice, should we be attacked.
As the horsemen approached, I sauntered up carelessly to a large peppermint tree that grew near by, and leaned against it as if I was tired. Thunderbolt followed, but came to a halt about three paces in front of me.
"Good morning to you," said one of the strangers, as both pulled up. This man acted then and afterwards as spokesman for the pair.
"Good morning," Thunderbolt replied.
"Any chance of rain, do you think?"
"Not if it keeps on like this," replied Thunderbolt, with a grin.
"We want rain pretty bad hereabouts," said the stranger. "I have a farm over there, a few miles back, and my crop will spoil if it don't rain soon."
"You say you are a farmer, ay?"
"Then," said Thunderbolt, smiling broadly, "what is that pair of handcuffs doing under the tail of your coat?"
The fellow clapped his hand to his back with an exclamation of surprise, looking at the same time extremely foolish.
"Police, aren't you?" said Thunderbolt, as carelessly as possible. "I saw through you at once. You ride too straight in your saddles to pass for bushies with people who can use their eyes."
"You are pretty smart, I must say!" gasped the trooper. "Where do you come from, my man?"
"New England way."
"What are you doing here?"
"Young Jack there," (he pointed to me) "and I are going to the shearing."
"Oh!" said the policeman, looking at him very hard. "Have you heard that the Mudgee coach was stuck up yesterday?"
"Not a word!" cried Thunderbolt. "You're gammoning, aren't you? Who'd dare to stick a coach up with smart coves like you about?"
"Some scoundrels dare anything," replied the trooper, frowning darkly. I suppose he was not sure whether he was being chaffed or not.
There was silence for a bit, then the trooper said: "If you come from New England, you must know Thunderbolt."
"I do," replied the outlaw, boldly. "Many's the time poor Freddy Ward and I have camped together. He's a good sort, Freddy, though you fellows want him so badly. But there, give a dog a bad name, and you might as well hang him!"
The trooper sniffed, and remarked very sourly that if Thunderbolt had not so many idiotic sympathisers he would have been laid by the heels years ago.
The pair then, with a surly "Good-day," rode off.
You may be sure that as soon as they had disappeared we wasted no time in getting our horses saddled. And it was as well we did so, for just as we were mounting Thunderbolt's sharp eyes detected troopers lurking in a belt of heavy scrub about 300 yards from our camp-fire. We pretended not to have remarked their presence, however, and set off carelessly in the opposite direction, keeping the while a sharp look-out behind us. But the country was so thickly timbered that our task was difficult, and in the end our ears gave us the necessary warning. We heard the crash of horses' hoofs chasing us at the gallop, and we had barely time to get our own steeds going when the troopers appeared, charging us at a breakneck pace, like a pair of bloodhounds, their revolvers in their hands. Thunderbolt fired two shots over their heads, with the idea of checking their ardour, and then we prepared for a long chase. We had not gone more than a mile, however, when we found that we could no longer hear our pursuers, and we soon afterwards pulled up in order to make sure. But it was as we had suspected. The police, whether afraid of our pistols or suddenly inspired with charity—I dare not say which—had abandoned the pursuit. The poor police! They hunted us about a lot, I must confess, but they nearly always paid us handsomely for the trouble by providing us with a hearty laugh at their expense when the chase was done.
For the rest of that day, Thunderbolt was silent and preoccupied. He seemed to be thinking, and whenever I addressed him he answered so absent-mindedly that I soon resigned all attempts at conversation. Towards evening, however, he brightened up, and as we sat at our camp fire after tea, he asked me of a sudden how I would like to give up bushranging for a while, and take to riding races.
"I'd like it well," I replied excitedly, but presently I pointed to Combo, who stood a few yards away, with his head hanging dejectedly between his legs, and added, "There's no hope for that, though, Fred, Combo needs a long rest. He is as poor as a crow!"
"That's all right," said the outlaw. "I know a place where we can get a first-rate racehorse, blooded, too. We'll make that way to-morrow, and when we have collared the nag, we'll travel up to Queensland, and scoop every country race meeting we come across. Shearing time is on us, too, so we'll never want for a match!"
So it was decided, and on the morrow we made a start for Singleton. Ten days later we arrived at our destination. Mr. McDougall's station, which was situated near the town I have named. We camped out in a secluded part of the run, and for a few days kept very quiet. Thunderbolt, however, found means at the end of that period to chum in with some of the shepherds, and from these men he learned that Mr. McDougall was engaged in training a likely young thoroughbred at the homestead, which he expected to shortly win for him a big race. I was not with Thunderbolt at the time, having, at his command, kept to our camp, lest if we were seen together our identity might be suspected. He did not need my help, however. With his usual boldness, he made some excuse to get away from the shepherds, and he rode straight up to the station. Night had fallen when he arrived, and the men were at supper. Tying up his horse at the stockyard fence, he marched up to the stables, and going from one stall to another, inspected their contents as calmly as though he owned the station. Being a splendid judge of horseflesh, he very soon hit upon the colt about which the shepherds had informed him, and having satisfied himself that the animal was really the best of the lot presented for his selection, he coolly slipped a halter on the colt, and led him away. An hour later, just as I was beginning to wonder if some accident had happened to him, I heard the sound of hoofs, and presently up came Thunderbolt to our camp fire, mounted on Combo, and leading one of the finest young racehorses I had ever seen.
A few words explained the whole affair, but while I still stood there lost in surprise at my leader's daring, he had bolted his supper and made all preparations for departure.
"We'll have to ride all night, Bill," he remarked. "Get to horse, lad. The sooner we are off the better for our skins!"
"Where to?" I asked.
"To Queensland, as straight as we can go!"
Strange as it may appear, the robbery of the racehorse was not discovered until the following day, and by that time we were in the heart of the bush and well on our way to Tamworth.
Near Currabubula we fell in with a farmer, who informed us that a two-days' race meeting was to be held in Tamworth, starting on the morrow, which happened to be St. Patrick's Day. Thunderbolt at once decided to be present, so we pushed on and camped that night a few miles from Tamworth, and not far from the Somerton-road. In the morning, at the outlaw's desire, I cut his full brown beard to a point, lopping off a good four inches of its length. The alteration and improvement this made in his appearance was simply amazing, and I assured him in perfect confidence that I did not believe even Sunday, his wife, could recognise him. I think I have remarked before that Thunderbolt was a very particular man in his habits, for a bushman, being extremely clean in his person and so on; but I fancy I have neglected to state that in most of our journeys he always carried in his pack a change of clothes. Such, however, was the case, and on the occasion in question his second suit was almost brand-new. When he put it on, he looked a cross between a city gentleman and a "flash" stockrider. But perhaps I had better describe him more exactly. His sac coat and trousers were city cut, and plain grey tweed. Vest he had none, but he wore a black silk handkerchief around his waist over a soft green-coloured shirt. In place of collar, his neck was encompassed with a scarlet silk handkerchief. His hat was a wide-brimmed grey felt, and finally he wore high-topped riding boots. Altogether his appearance was gay and splendid, and I admired him immensely.
After breakfast we rode through the bush towards the back of the racecourse, which was situated about a mile from the town on the west side of the Peel River. Having securely concealed our horses in a patch of thick timber, we tramped over to the clearing, and quietly climbed the race ground fence, this move being perfectly safe on our part, for the course was round, and, the track only having been cleared, quite a little forest shielded us from the observation of those who had collected about the grandstand to witness the races. Having presently discovered a tree that suited our purpose, we climbed into the lower branches and prepared to spend the day there, for neither of us cared about running into danger unnecessarily, and we reckoned that we could obtain all the enjoyment we required watching the proceedings from where we were. Thunderbolt presently pointed out to me a section of the track, about fifty paces from our vantage post, which looked heavy. "That's a nasty half furlong," he remarked. "See, Bill, it's thick and muddy; they must have had rain here lately. Look how it glistens!"
"Yes," said I; "it's an ugly patch for a heavyweight."
"And if I know anything about racing, I guess it will bring some of the cracks to grief to-day," declared the outlaw, "unless they have first-rate jockeys up!"
"That will give some of the light-weighted outsiders a chance, eh, Fred?"
A distant bell rang at that moment, and soon we heard the bookmakers shouting out the odds, as some racehorses appeared on the track. The first race was not exciting, for a poor lot engaged, and one horse had it all his own way from the very start. The second race, however, aroused some enthusiasm among the crowd at the stand, and seemed to wake them up. After that, matters were quite lively, and we enjoyed ourselves very much. Thunderbolt and I had a little wager on each event between ourselves. Each selected the horse he fancied from the batch as they took their preliminary canter, and more than once one or the other of us selected winners. I was the luckier, for by lunch-time I had won £4. We ate our midday meal where we sat, having brought provisions in our pockets. Soon afterwards it was evident that the big handicap, the principal event of the day, was about to take place, for we observed a great stir in the distant crowd, and the shouts of the bookmakers echoed and re-echoed through the trees. When the din was at its loudest we heard of a sudden the sound of footfalls quite close at hand, and presently perceived a man stealing cautiously towards us from the direction of the town. Thunderbolt gave me a swift sign for silence, and we watched him thereafter with the anxiety of those who are obliged to suspect enemies in every human being they encounter. This man, however, was certainly not a policeman, for he was no more than five-foot-three in height. Passing quite close to the tree in which we were perched, he marched over to the heavier piece of track which Thunderbolt had remarked earlier in the day, and there he stood for some minutes, looking silently down upon the ground.
"Hum!" he said, at last, speaking to himself, but loud enough for us to hear him distinctly, "I reckon I'm safe enough!"
"Don't make too sure of that, mate!" called out Thunderbolt.
I was so surprised to hear my leader speak that I nearly fell off my perch. But the little stranger was even more amazed. He stared about him in every direction, with an expression of face so ludicrous that I longed to burst out laughing. Not dreaming, however, of searching in the trees, he failed to perceive us, and when he had convinced himself he was alone he seemed more alarmed than ever. Crossing himself, like a good Catholic, he muttered something or other, and began to hasten off towards the stand, as though he fancied the devil was after him.
But at that Thunderbolt gave a loud laugh, and swung himself to the ground.
"It's only me, Colin!" he shouted.
The little man stopped dead, and looked at the outlaw very keenly.
"That's my name," he said presently, "but who the deuce are you?"
The little fellow advanced, shading his eyes with his hand.
"Well, I'm blowed!" he gasped at last. "It's you, Fred, sure enough; but what have you done to your beard?"
They shook hands, and Thunderbolt commanded me to descend.
"There's two of you!" cried the little man.
"My boy, Bill Monckton," said Thunderbolt. "Bill, this is an old school friend of mine, Colin Nead. As white a chap as ever lived, and the best judge of a horse Windsor ever produced."
Mr. Nead shook my hand, and said he was pleased to make my acquaintance. Thunderbolt then asked him what game he was up to, looking at the track.
"Oh," said Mr. Nead. "I don't mind telling you about it, Fred. The fact is there are only two horses in the big handicap that have a chance—McDougall's and Dine's. McDougall's is the better, but his jockey is a fool, and I just heard Mac. order him to go from the jump. Now, as I went over the track last night, I saw that mud patch yonder. I straight off backed Dine's horse for all I could spare!"
"I see; but suppose Dine's jockey sends his mount, too."
"He won't. I gave him the tip this morning to ease up over the mud. But there goes the bell; I must get back. Come over with me, won't you, Fred?"
"I guess I'm safer here, Colin."
"But I'll see you again, ay?"
"I don't know, Col."
"Oh, rot! No one could recognise you in that rig out. See here, Fred, I'm staying over at the pub yonder; you can't miss it, it is the first one you come to between here and Tamworth, on the main road. Come over and see me to-night!"
"All right, Colin; I'll chance it, and hang the odds."
"That's right, Fred. No danger, old boy. Your own mother wouldn't know you. By, bye!"
With that he set off at a smart run towards the crowd, and we returned to our perches on the tree. A few minutes afterwards five horses appeared on the track, and we witnessed an excellent start. As the flag dropped they sprang away in a bunch, running nose by nose. The race was to be over a mile and a half. For perhaps a quarter of the distance they kept together, but as they passed the judge's box for the first time, the field began to string out, and very soon the two favourites forged to the front, keeping shoulder to shoulder. When abreast of us the leaders had a good five lengths' advantage of the others, and were still gaining at every stride, racing side by side. But immediately they touched the heavy ground, Dine's horse eased off, and allowed his competitor to plough through the mud at top speed.
When Thunderbolt saw that, he uttered an oath, and cried out, "McDougall's boy is an idiot! Had he saved his horse in that mud it was a certainty for him! Now his chance is gone!"
The result verified the prediction, for presently the heavy ground having been left behind, Dine's horse caught and passed the other as though it were standing still, and the race assumed the appearance of a procession.
"Trust Colin to nose out a good thing!" muttered the outlaw. "I bet he has made a pot out of that race, Bill!"
"Are you really going to the pub to see him to-night, Fred?" I asked, very anxiously, if the truth be told.
"Why not?" demanded Thunderbolt. "We may as well, Bill. It's true there are a lot of chaps hereabouts know me, but you saw for yourself that Col. Nead did not recognise me until I told him my name, and we were boys together.
"But," I protested, earnestly; "he hasn't seen you for years!"
"Oh, shut up, do!" growled the outlaw. "Where's the fun in living if one can't occasionally have a good time. You can stay behind if you like, but I'm going if I hang for it!"
"I'm likely to stay behind!" I cried indignantly. "No, Fred, we'll swing together!"
"We won't swing, lad," he said, with a laugh. "Trust me; I'm not such a fool as I look. I tell you we'll be safe enough—safer, perhaps, than in the bush. For who would think of looking for Thunderbolt so near Tamworth, with every second man you meet a constable? Answer me that!"
But I had no answer to give him, and two hours later we were seated in the bar-room of the public-house, drinking gin and water, while we awaited the arrival of Mr. Nead.
We had been there for perhaps an hour when we heard a noise of steps and loud talking and laughing outside, and presently the inn was crowded with people, most of whom had followed us from the course. They were far too occupied with drinking and telling each other about their gains and losses to notice us, and I soon got over the nervousness I very naturally felt about being recognised. Thunderbolt, who, I honestly believe, had never been afraid of that at all, was not the man to rest long in a convivial company without making his voice heard.
Singling out the landlord, who was talking to two other men, he caught his eye, and asked him in loud tones what good he had done for himself on the day.
"None at all!" replied the landlord. "I won at first, but I lost all I had won, and ten quid to boot on McDougall's bay in the big handicap; and, what's more, I was fool enough before the race came off, to back the bay in his match to-morrow for a level twenty! This d—— meeting is going to cost me dear."
"Oh!" said Thunderbolt. "The bay is going to run again to-morrow, is he? What against? I'm a stranger here and haven't heard the news. I only arrived this morning!"
"Dine's horse, to be sure," replied the landlord. "But it's no news! The match was made a month ago; it is for fifty quid a side!"
"Have a drink with me, and your friend, too, won't you?" said Thunderbolt.
The three agreed pleasantly enough, and when their glasses were filled Thunderbolt threw down a sovereign on the bar counter and remarked, "I suppose the odds are against the bay now?"
"Three to one," said the landlord. "Do you want to bet; if you do, I'm your man. I'm looking for a chance to hedge."
The others laughed, but Thunderbolt shook his head. "I saw the race," he said, "and, in my opinion, the bay is the better horse; he was ridden badly though. But, I tell you what, sir, I'll lay you a level five pounds he'll win to-morrow, providing you can arrange for me to put up another jockey."
"What's that?" cried the landlord, looking of a sudden keenly interested.
Thunderbolt repeated his proposition.
"Well," said the landlord, "I know Mr. McDougall, and I have half a mind to tell him what you say. I don't think he is very pleased with the way his horse was ridden. There may be something in it."
"There is a lot; all the difference between winning and losing," declared the outlaw earnestly. "You tell him from me that I can find him a rider."
"Can you, where?"
Thunderbolt smiled. "That's my business. But he'll be there when he is wanted. When will you see McDougall?"
"The sooner the better."
"Well, I'll go off and look him up at once, blowed if I don't. But what is your name, mister?"
"Wardhill, Fred Wardhill," said Thunderbolt.
"Where are you staying?"
"I'm camped near by."
"How will I find you?"
"I'll be here with the jockey first thing to-morrow morning, on the off-chance that McDougall will fall in with the idea!"
"That's right—and I believe he will, for the fact is the boy who rode the bay to-day is a pick-up. He brought his own lad up from Singleton with him, but he broke his collar-bone, falling off the coach on the way. If McDougall catches on, I'll get him to meet you here."
"Did you say that Mr. McDougall comes from Singleton?" asked Thunderbolt, with a fine assumption of carelessness.
"Yes," replied the landlord. "He is a squatter, and owns a big station down that way. Why, do you know him?"
"I've heard of him," said the outlaw, smiling in a peculiar manner. "Isn't he the man that had a promising young colt stolen out of his stable a bit ago?"
"The same. They say that scoundrel Thunderbolt was the thief. But I must be going, if I want to catch him. Mr. McDougall is a society man, and he's bound to be dining out somewhere. Good-bye till to-morrow, Mr. Wardhill."
Thunderbolt said "Good-bye," and then giving me a quick look, which told me not to follow him immediately, he nodded to the men who had been drinking with him, and strolled out of the bar at the landlord's heels, to where our horses were tethered in front of the house.
"That's a nice-looking young 'un you have there!" observed the landlord, as Thunderbolt calmly mounted the horse they had been talking about—the very horse, indeed, that he had stolen from Mr. McDougall's station at Singleton. "Can he gallop?"
"Not as fast as I'd like," replied the outlaw. "But he'll do better by-and-bye."
The landlord mounted his own horse, and the pair stood talking for a minute or two longer, when they separated, the landlord riding towards the town, and Thunderbolt taking the direction of Currabubula.
As soon as I judged it to be safe I slipped out of the bar, and, getting quickly on horseback, set off after my leader. I was aflame with excitement, and for the life of me I could not wait even to get out of sight of the inn before I urged my horse to his top speed. I overtook Thunderbolt about two miles further on. He was ambling along as leisurely as though there was not a policeman within a hundred miles of him, or as if he followed any other occupation in the world than that of a highway robber.
"My word, Fred," I burst out excitedly, "what an escape? Just fancy if we had unsuspectingly gone into town to-morrow morning to meet Mr. McDougall, and he had recognised his horse!"
"It's a dashed nuisance that he is the man he is," muttered the outlaw. "But, as you say, it is certainly a lucky thing for us that we found it out in time!"
We turned from the road at that moment into the bush, in order to seek out our camp.
"Did Mr. Nead come after I left?" Thunderbolt asked.
"Hum!" said he. "I'll have to get hold of him to-morrow, early, so as to put him fly to my assumed name. I may have to call upon him for a reference—as to character."
"But, great Lord!" I gasped; "you don't mean to say you are going back to the pub?"
"Why, Mr. McDougall may be there!"
"Well, and what then? He doesn't know me! He has never seen me in his life!"
"But we stole that horse from him!"
"All the more reason why we should try and do him a good turn now. If he lets you ride his bay, as I'm going to try and persuade him to do and if you pull off the race for him, I reckon we'll be paying him pretty handsomely for this colt!"
"By George, Fred, you are a game un!" I exclaimed, admiringly.
But Thunderbolt began to laugh. "It's the loveliest joke," he chuckled, "the very loveliest I ever had a chance of playing on anybody in my life, barring the time I caught Sergeant F———, and after taking his horse and revolver from him obliged him to pad the hoof with his tail between his legs for 18 miles to the nearest town. But, see here, sonny!"
He grew serious of a sudden, and eyed me quite sternly.
"What is it, Fred?" I asked.
"Just this. If McDougall does give you the mount you've got to win or burst. You'll have to ride the bay, ride him I say over every foot of the way, and if you don't save him properly over that heavy patch of the track I'll choke you."
"I guess I have ridden a race before!" I answered somewhat heatedly, "I'm not quite an idiot."
"Yes, but you've got a bad habit of always wanting to be in front. I've told you about it before, and I tell you about it now again for the last time. Remember this, in a long race, and a mile and a half is a long race, pace kills endurance, and its endurance that always wins, other things being anything like equal. I want you to just hang on to the other fellow's girths the whole way till you get to the straight. Let him break the wind for you! You can even fall farther back over the heavy ground. Let him go to H—— there if he likes, the faster the better, but he won't. Dine's boy knows how to ride!"
"That means I don't, I suppose!" I snarled.
"I'll tell you what I think of your riding to-morrow night!" said Thunderbolt. "And it will be as well for the two of us if I'm able to pass a good opinion, for I like the look of McDougall's horse so well in spite of his beating to-day, that if you get the mount I'm going to bet my last copper on him, and yours too. You'll have to hand me over all your cash after tea!"
"Keep a shilling for a drink!" I said disgustedly. "My word, you can be a bear when you like, Fred!"
"Yes, I can, but you haven't begun to feel my claws yet. After tea, after you have shelled out your cash, I shall make you go straight to bed, which is the proper place for little boys who are thinking of riding races on the morrow!"
"I'll see you hanged first!" I cried indignantly. "I'll not turn in one minute sooner than I want to."
But I did all the same; not because Thunderbolt made or tried to make me, but because he bribed me to do so by promising to sing me to sleep. And so it came about that I slipped into dreamland that night while listening to the sweet strains of the outlaw's voice as he sang over and over the quaint and pathetic old songs which we both loved best, and which I still love best.
Next morning at an early hour, after having hidden the stolen colt in the bush, Thunderbolt mounted his old favourite "Combo," and set out with me for the hotel. The landlord was just opening the bar when we arrived, and he welcomed us effusively. He said that he had seen Mr. McDougall overnight, and that although Mr. McDougall had not actually agreed to the proposal he had promised to call at the inn immediately after breakfast in order to meet Mr. Wardhill and have a chat over the matter.
Thunderbolt was delighted at this news, and he readily accepted the landlord's invitation to stay to breakfast. While the meal was preparing, however, he made inquiries for his friend, Mr. Nead, and got permission to visit that gentleman in his room, as he was not yet out of bed. I waited for him on the verandah of the inn, where I made great friends with a pretty little girl of about five years old, the landlord's youngest daughter. She had a pet kitten that was very playful, and the three of us romped together for about an hour, enjoying ourselves mightily. We were still in the midst of this merry fun when Thunderbolt and Mr. Nead came out and told me to go in with them to breakfast. The little girl, however, seeing she was about to lose her playmate began immediately to weep, dropping her kitten and digging her tiny knuckles into her poor eyes. I have said before that Thunderbolt loved all children dearly; and he gave an example of that disposition now. In two seconds he had caught the girlie in his arms and he tossed her up into the air again and again, talking and laughing to her so merrily the while that in a minute or two she was shrieking with delight. He then gave her a handful of silver and told her to run away and buy herself some sweets, whereupon she trotted off perfectly contented. I have mentioned this incident just to show what a curious mixture of a man the outlaw was; at all times just as ready for good as for evil. He would one day give every cent he possessed to some poor beggar down on his luck (as many a time I have seen him do), and on the next he would atone for his generosity by robbing a coach.
While we were at breakfast he chatted with Mr. Nead and the landlord about the chances of the race, and the chances of my getting the mount. I came in for a lot of attention from the others, because Thunderbolt praised my riding so much. Indeed, he told them lie upon lie about me, and to have heard him one must have thought I was qualified to win a Melbourne Cup on a cab horse! I had hard work not to laugh outright at some of his inventions, they were such wild falsehoods, and yet he told them so well and he sprinkled them with such a lot of little details that they sounded true, and it was easy to see the others believed every word he uttered.
Mr. McDougall arrived before we had got up from the table, and he came straight into the dining-room. I saw at a glance that he knew Mr. Nead, but he seemed surprised to meet him there. After he had been introduced to Thunderbolt and me he addressed Mr. Nead, saying: "I hear you won yesterday, Colin!"
"Yes," said Mr. Nead. "I won, Mac, and so would you if you had come with me to look at the track, when I asked you to the evening before the race! As you wouldn't come, you can't blame me for using the information I acquired to my own advantage!"
Mr. McDougall looked angry, but he recovered in a minute, and said to Thunderbolt, "What is your opinion, Mr. Wardhill?"
"The bay is the better horse without a doubt," replied the outlaw. "But he needs a better rider. Give my young brother, Jack, here the mount to-day, and I'm willing to stake up £25 (which is all the money I have in the world) that he'll win in a canter!"
"What do you think, Colin?"
"You can't do better, Mac. Fred Wardhill is an old friend of mine, and although I've never seen his brother ride, I'm game to back Fred's opinion every time!"
Mr. McDougall looked deeply impressed. "Money talks!" he said, after a little thoughtful pause. "But you have had me before, Nead, and I want to be sure?"
"You doubt my word?" demanded the little man, very haughtily.
"No, no, Colin," said Mr. McDougall, with haste, "Not if you pass it without reserve."
"I've told you——"
"Yes, but—am I to understand that you will back my horse if I allow young Wardhill here to ride him?"
"Then," said Mr. McDougall, "all we have to do is to fix terms. Mr. Wardhill, I am prepared to pay your brother five pounds for the mount, and ten if he wins the race!"
"It is a bargain!" replied the outlaw. "I accept gladly, and I can assure you that you will not regret your decision, sir. I advise you to get all the money on your horse you can while he is still at odds, for he is bound to even up when the public hears that you have changed your jockey."
"Bother the public," said the squatter. "We'll keep them in the dark as long as possible. If you have no objection, Mr. Wardhill, I'll ask you and your brother to keep out of the way until lunch at all events. The race will not be run till three o'clock!"
"Very good, sir. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying is. I guess we'll get back to camp, and not go near the course till about one. But naturally I want to have an interest in the event. Who will accept a commission for me. Will you, Mr. McDougall?"
The outlaw's amazing impudence made me gasp, but Thunderbolt had not a smile on his face, though he must have been chuckling inwardly at his own assurance.
"You want me to back my horse for you?" asked the squatter.
"If you will, sir. Here is my money—£25!"
Thunderbolt produced a handful of sovereigns and a roll of notes, and extended them to the man whose horse he had stolen scarcely a week ago. If only the squatter had known!
But Mr. McDougall did not know, and before such convincing evidence of the outlaw's confidence in the result of the match, his own doubts fled. He took the cash, and said heartily: "I'll do it with pleasure, Mr. Wardhill, and I hope that I'll have the pleasure of returning you the money more than doubled to-night."
"This afternoon, sir, after the race, if you don't mind!" said the outlaw. "Jack and I leave Tamworth this evening at latest, for we are on an important journey, and although we have broken it to attend this meeting, we really ought to be much further on. I can't delay our departure a minute later than five o'clock!"
"If we win the race," replied Mr. McDougall, "I shall settle up with you by four. I give you my promise!"
With that we shook hands all round, and within five minutes thereafter Thunderbolt and I were cantering back to our camp. There arrived, we fixed up everything for an immediate start in case of need, and afterwards chatted away the time till about half-past twelve, when we partook of a light lunch and then set out for the race ground. We rode upon the course as the hands of the stand clock were pointing to 1.30, and we hitched our horses to the inner rails of the outer paddock. Mr. McDougall, who had most probably been anxiously expecting our arrival, perceived us at once, and he beckoned us inside the enclosure, where he was standing among a lot of his friends, some of whom were women.
We were immediately surrounded, and introduced all round. I kept very silent, for I was extremely shy when a boy, in company; but Thunderbolt, with his free, gay, and yet gentlemanly manners and his ceaseless fund of chat soon made himself a general favourite, and the ladies especially paid him a deal of flattering attention. While we stood waiting there, preparations were being made for a race—the Maiden Plate—to be run, and the horses were already out upon the track. In answer to a challenge from one of the ladies, Thunderbolt, who had been bragging about his ability to judge a horse, took a look at those about to compete, and selected one, which he declared would win. It lost, and he was much laughed at, but he accepted his defeat so good-humoredly that I could see they liked him all the better. At any rate, the lady who had challenged him presently invited him to attend a dance which was to be held at her house that evening. He, however, told her that he thanked her a thousand times, but he deeply regretted he could not go, as he had a prior engagement. I guessed what that prior engagement was, for at that moment two mounted policemen rode up, and, checking their horses, fixed their eyes curiously upon the outlaw. I saw Thunderbolt's hand steal quietly and carelessly to his pistol pocket, but he never stopped his chatting for an instant. The police, however, had really not suspected his identity in the least, and presently they departed, having merely come up in order to satisfy their curiosity, for by then the public had got wind of McDougall's contemplated change of jockeys, and everyone was talking about Mr. Wardhill, and wanting to see both him and me.
At a little after 2 o'clock Mr. McDougall took me off to the dressing-room, where he rigged me out in his colours. I can tell you I fancied myself not a little when I looked in the mirror and saw myself in full regalia. I had never been such a swell in my life before. And when I returned to the ground, how the people stared and thronged about me. They surrounded me, in fact, in such swarms that I had to worm my way along to where Thunderbolt stood holding my mount by the bridle. The noise, too, was simply deafening! The bookmakers were yelling out, "Even money" at the top of their voices. It was a scene of eager and seething excitement. The crowd seemed simply bubbling over, and everyone who wanted to talk had to shout to make himself heard.
When I finally got up to him, Thunderbolt took the bay by the head, and, giving me his hand for a step, hoisted me with a swing into the saddle. The bay was very nervous at first, and he trembled with terror at the noise, but I spoke to him in a coaxing voice, and soon got him in hand. Thunderbolt then darted away, and a few minutes later he returned mounted on Combo, whereupon we rode out on to the track together.
"There are too many police here for my liking!" he muttered, as we left the crowd. "I've counted seven already, and four are old acquaintances. Be prepared, Bill, my lad, and if any attack is made on me, never mind the race, but ride off on the bay for your life. Don't wait for me; I can take care of myself!"
I nodded, and he then said: "Remember what I told you about the heavy part of the track!"
I nodded again, and he left me. My opponent came out on the track a second later, and we took a preliminary canter together, after which we were called to the post.
It was a fair start, and we got away well together. Acting on Thunderbolt's instructions, however, I secured a good hold of the bit, and pulled my horse back until his nose was abreast of the other's withers. In that position we galloped along at a steady, even pace for the first half-mile. By then I was thoroughly in touch with the animal I rode, and I liked his action so much that I felt all through me I could win the race. As we approached the heavy ground I took a hard pull and allowed my opponent to get a lead of nearly two lengths. I heard the "books" yelling out two to one against the bay at that juncture, but I did not allow myself to be troubled, for he was going like a train, and I had not once let him out. Next moment, however, we were both ploughing through the loose soil, and as I was in the rear I was quickly smothered in mud. It was a beastly experience for both horse and rider, for our opponent's heels threw up the grimy stuff in our faces at every bound, and I had often to shut my eyes to avoid being blinded. I got rather a shock, too, when we came through and reached the firm ground, for I found that I had lost another full length, and I felt it was time to creep up. I, therefore, sat down to ride, and although even then I did not call upon my horse, I managed to decrease the distance by half a length before we rounded the turn into the straight. But, then, I made him run. For the first time I lifted my whip. The bay responded to the call, and in a dozen yards I was on my opponent's heels. I could see that the latter was in trouble, and I uttered an exultant cry, for the jockey was using whip and spur as though his life depended on it, while I had but given the bay one cut. A tremendous cheer from the waiting crowd greeted my advance. No doubt until that instant they had been thinking to witness a repetition of yesterday's performance. At that idea I myself grew a little anxious, for the judge's box was looming near. I, therefore, raised the whip again, and riding, riding, I crept up on my opponent until at the end of another hundred yards we were racing neck and neck. But still I crept on and now steadily I forged ahead. I was a nose ahead, a neck ahead, half a length ahead. Then a mighty outburst of wild shouts informed me that the race was over, and looking back I saw that I had passed the judge's box.
I saw a thousand hats flung into the air. My horse pulled up of its own accord, in the midst of a deliriously excited crowd. I was plucked from the saddle before I knew where I was and carried over to a bullock-waggon, from which I was obliged to shake hands with a surging, yelling multitude of people, who shrieked their congratulations into my ears. How I escaped I do not know, but at last, it seemed to me hours afterwards, I found myself in the dressing-room with Thunderbolt and Mr. McDougall, who assisted me, for I was quite exhausted, to change my mud-bespattered garments, and who almost quarrelled with each other for the honour of serving me. It was really too funny! The squatter was almost beside himself with delight. He paid me my fee for riding the race, and he handed Thunderbolt seventy-five pounds, the money he had won for him. After that we had a few drinks together, and finally parted with mutual expressions of goodwill.
Thunderbolt and I returned immediately to our camp, whence, having collected our possessions, we set out on the road to Queensland just as night was falling, leading with us the colt that the outlaw had stolen from Mr. McDougall.
So ended the most exciting day of my life, and, perhaps, the happiest.
We travelled the whole of that night, and the next, and we made such good progress that we pitched our camp at dusk of the third day within thirty miles of the outlaw's home. Next evening we ventured thither, and were lucky enough to find the place temporarily untrammelled with the unwelcome attentions of the police. We stayed there only a few hours, however, for, although Thunderbolt, as usual, experienced great pain in parting from his beloved wife, he was so bent upon turning himself into a racing man that he feared to spoil his plans by suffering the police to get wind of our movements.
Just before we departed, he called me aside and begged me to grant him a favour, the first favour he had ever asked at my hands.
I replied that I would do anything in the world for him.
"Then," said he, "I want you to let me give poor Sunday all our money except about ten pounds. It may be many months before I see her again, and I can't bear to think that she and the kiddies should want for anything while I am away!"
"I'll pay you back!" he added, earnestly.
My answer was to turn out my pockets and hand him every farthing I possessed. He wrung my hand, and said to me, with tears in his eyes: "Bill, old man!"—just that and nothing more. But I shall never forget his look and tone, nor how my heart went out to him as he said it. There are many people who think that criminals are brute beasts, unworthy the name of men. But my experience goes to prove that they are softer-hearted and more truly human beings than numbers who have not sinned. There is an old proverb which supports me that occurs to my mind: "It is human to err!" It is, indeed—most human!
Two days later we rode boldly into the town of Armidale, and put up at one of the principal public-houses, moulding our actions on the maxim that the boldest course is the wisest.
The Armidale races were just about to come off, and the town was full of horsey men and gamblers, many of whom were staying at our inn. Thunderbolt, therefore, wasted no time in arranging to replenish our exchequer, and that very night he made a match with one of our fellow-guests, to be run off on the following morning, for £5 a-side, between a horse owned by his opponent and the colt we had stolen from Mr. McDougall, which colt, by the way, we had previously christened "The Chicken."
I rode the race, and won easily, whereupon we immediately resumed our Queensland journey, for so many people in that district knew Thunderbolt that we dared not remain to attend the public meeting. I must not neglect to mention, however, that we left good old "Combo" in the care of a trusted friend, who lived near Armidale, so that he might enjoy a well-earned holiday while we were working over the border.
For the next four months we enjoyed ourselves as perfectly, I think, as it is possible for human beings to enjoy themselves, and during the whole of that time neither of us committed a crime, nor was guilty of a single shady or dishonourable action. I like to look back upon that period, for it is a comfort to remember that I did not spend all my bushranging career breaking the laws of society. Beyond that, it was a godsend to me in more ways than one. I mixed with my kind more closely than ever I had done before, and I began to see, by observing the ways of honest men, and contrasting them with the ways of rascals, that it was only right and just that the former should protect themselves and the fruits of their toil with those laws which Thunderbolt despised, and which he was always trying to teach me to despise.
But enough of moralising. My business is rather to record our doings than the gradual process of my regeneration.
We entered Queensland in the guise of shearers, and everywhere we went we pretended to be brothers—Fred and Jack Wardhill. We wandered about from place to place, living the while like fighting cocks, and having a really splendid time. "The Chicken" turned out a grand racer, and a gold mine to us, for he carried everything before him. At the Stanthorpe race meeting he won the two principal events, and at almost every other place we visited he more than paid our expenses. The result was that at the end of the period I have named, Thunderbolt and I carried in our belts the tidy sum of two hundred pounds apiece. But then came the end. One evening, feeling a little seedy, I retired early to bed at a public-house at which we were staying near Toowoomba, leaving the outlaw to sit up carousing with some boon companions. When I awoke next morning he was seated on a chair beside my bed, looking at me with an expression of solemnity that had long been a stranger to his visage.
"What is up, Fred?" I asked, starting up in sudden anxiety—for my thoughts had flown at once to the ever-present peril of discovery.
"I have sold The Chicken!" he replied.
"Whatever did you do that for?" I demanded, thoroughly astonished, and a little angry, too, for I thought he should have consulted me in such a matter.
But Thunderbolt passed his hand over his brow, and he answered in a low voice, "It's the home-sickness, lad! I'm selfish, I dare say, but I can't help myself!"
I could not find a word to say, and presently he went on. "It's been coming on for weeks, Bill, and I've fought against it all I know. But, Bill, do what I will I can't keep away from the New England. There's danger there—death perhaps—but I can't keep away. I know every hill and creek and turn and twist of it, nearly every tree! And all my friends are there—good friends some of them as ever a man had. And then, too, there are my wife and the kiddies! Don't be angry, Bill."
"It means going back to the bushranging, robbing coaches and the like!" I stammered. "I think this might content you, Fred. It's a better life!"
"It's hell being so far away from Sunday!" he muttered, with a catch in his voice.
His emotion touched me, so I blurted out—"All right, Fred, let's go back!" But on that he sprang up and caught my hand, another man in an instant. And he was so charmingly grateful for my consent, and so delighted and happy at the thought of seeing his wife again, that although I loathed the idea of going back to the bushranging I had not the heart to put a damper on his spirits by confessing to my own gloomy feelings.
Three weeks later we rode into the paddock that enclosed the outlaw's home, and poor Sunday, near frantic with joy, rushed out of the house to welcome us.
She had a pleasing story to relate. It seemed that the authorities, deceived by our long absence from the district, and having heard no word of our doings good or bad in the meanwhile, had come to the satisfactory conclusion (to us) that we had departed altogether from the country. Travellers had recovered confidence in the roads, and now ventured freely abroad, and the mail coaches performed their journeys without escort. Above all, the police had for several weeks past ceased to trouble Sunday with their espionage.
Thunderbolt was charmed with the good news, for it enabled him to spend several happy days with his family, unmarred with the old haunting anxiety. His incurably restless and reckless disposition, however, would not long allow him to remain eating the bread of peace. Excitement was as the breath of life to him. Without it, existence lost its savour and its most potent charm. Knowing him as well as I did I scarcely felt surprised when one evening he marched straight up to me and said, "Bill, old man, I'm pining for a gallop. To-morrow morning you and I will take a run up Uralla way."
I knew what he meant. But argument was useless, protestation vain. He had dominated me so long that my will was as a reed for him to bend as he pleased. We came nigh to quarrelling that night, it is true, for my conscience was awake again; nevertheless on the morrow we departed for the Rocky Diggings.
It happened much as I had foreseen. Crime was his motive! But Thunderbolt it seemed had even planned a robbery before we started. Having heard that a man named Weston, who kept a store at the diggings, had of late been buying gold there, the temptation to bleed the buyer had been too keen for the outlaw to resist.
The store was situated on the road-side within a quarter-mile of the police station; but a little circumstance like that only added zest to Thunderbolt's pleasure in carrying out such an enterprise as he contemplated. Timing our attack, we rode up to the place a little past midnight, and after dismounting and fastening our horses to the rail, Thunderbolt knocked at the door.
Presently a light appeared within the house, and a man's voice asked us our business.
"Is that you, Mr. Weston?" Thunderbolt called out. "I'm awfully sorry to trouble you at this hour, but I'm going a journey and I want a pound of tobacco."
The door was thereupon opened and Mr. Weston himself unsuspiciously invited us to enter.
"What sort of tobacco do you want?" he inquired, and as he spoke he put down the candlestick upon the counter behind which he stepped in order to serve us.
"Queen's Head, please," replied the outlaw, with a chuckle. Mr. Weston looked at him in a puzzled fashion for a minute and then he said—"I don't keep that brand. Never heard of it either. Won't twist do or plug? I have the very best."
"Not for Thunderbolt!" replied the outlaw, thrusting his revolver in the storekeeper's face. "Pardon my jest, Mr. Weston, I said tobacco, but I want your money!"
"For God's sake!" gasped the other, falling back apparently overcome with terror. "Is it really Captain Thunderbolt?"
"Buck up, man, I won't hurt you if you are sensible. But I want your money, and your money I will have!"
"As the Lord hears me, I have none!" whined Mr. Weston, who was trembling violently. Indeed, he shook so much that I thought his knees would give under him.
"Oh, yes you have!" said Thunderbolt, sternly; "lies won't avail with me, sir!"
"Before Heaven——" he began. But the outlaw grew impatient.
"Bill," he interrupted, angrily, "go behind the counter and search the till!"
I obeyed, but the till was empty.
"Nothing here, Fred!" I reported.
Thunderbolt cocked his revolver. "Search the house, then!" he commanded, "while I keep this chap covered. Look sharp!"
In five minutes I had examined the whole store, but without success. I then went up to the door that communicated with the interior of the house. I tried the handle, but it was locked, and from the inside. I told Thunderbolt, who said curtly, "Take the axe yonder and break it open."
On that, however, Mr. Weston spoke up.
"For heaven's sake don't do it!" he cried. "Mrs. Jackson is in that room!"
"A lady!" said Thunderbolt. "I don't war with women. It's the worse for you, though, Mr. Weston. I'm afraid I shall have to kill you!"
"No, no, no," gasped the gold buyer. "Spare my life and I'll give you my money."
"Produce it, then!"
"It—it isn't here," stuttered Mr. Weston, who seemed by then on the verge of collapse. "I—I keep it in a safe in a room at—at the back of the house. See, here is the key of the door. Come round with me by the outside, and—and I'll show you how to get it."
"Very well," said Thunderbolt; "come along, and no tricks, or I'll put daylight through you!"
He strode to the door and stopped just outside the threshold, motioning for us to go before him. We followed, I just behind the storekeeper. When we were within a foot of the door, however, we walked almost abreast, and Mr. Weston seized the chance for which no doubt he had been waiting. He turned of a sudden, and clutching my shoulder, sent me spinning forward against Thunderbolt. In another second he had banged the heavy door, and before the outlaw and I had well recovered from our collision, we heard him shooting the bolts and laughing the while like mad.
"Ha! ha!" he shouted presently. "You thought to stick up old Weston, did you, my lads? But you didn't get up early enough. Try it again some other time. Good night. Sleep well!"
"Done, by Gad!" gasped the outlaw. "And beautifully, too!"
"Can I sell you some tobacco?" cried the mocking voice from within.
"I have a first-rate brand here—a new brand, brand new. They call it 'Queen's Head.'"
"Oh, go and drown yourself!" snapped Thunderbolt, thoroughly enraged. "For two pins I'd smash your door down now just to even things up."
"Better not try, my lad. I have a revolver here, and there are police about!"
It is possible, however, despite this warning, that Thunderbolt would have carried out his threat, for his blood was up; but at that moment we heard the sounds of horses galloping towards us on the road near by. He therefore cried a go, and, mounting hastily, we set off at top speed in the opposite direction.
Next day the whole country was ringing with the news of our return, and we were informed by certain of our friends that the police had been ordered to join hands all over the district to hunt us down and effect our capture, dead or alive. We were a match for them at that game, however, and although for the next week we had a lively time, being chased about like dingoes from point to point by different bands of the force, we contrived to elude them all without a single encounter; and finally we reached a place of comparative safety, where we enjoyed a much-needed breathing spell.
Early one morning, some time later, as we were journeying through the bush, not far from Yarrowick, we came somewhat unexpectedly upon the camp of two men, who sat before their fire on the branch of a fallen tree, eating their breakfast. They looked so much like ordinary bushmen that we rode up to them without fear, and gave them "Good day!"
They replied civilly enough, whereupon Thunderbolt, who never robbed a poor man, offered to buy some provisions from them, as we had run out.
The elder of the two, however, answered quietly: "Dog don't eat dog, Mate! I reckon we're all about equals here. Get off your horses and have breakfast with us!"
As we were pretty hungry, we gladly accepted the invitation; but while in the act of dismounting I intercepted a meaning glance exchanged between the two men, which aroused my suspicions.
"Can they be police in disguise?" I asked myself.
They looked like ordinary sundowners, it was true; but I reflected that appearances are deceitful, and I determined to watch them narrowly. When we had found seats they handed us a pannikin of tea apiece, and some bread and meat. I noticed, however, that the one who poured out our tea sweetened it with some sugar which he took from a bottle, and all the time there was a big bag of sugar on the ground beside him. That seemed so strange a circumstance that I sipped the tea at once from my pannikin, and, as I had half-suspected, I discovered that it had a most peculiar flavour.
I immediately put down my pannikin upon the ground, saying aloud: "It's as hot as mustard!" Then I muttered very low, but without turning my head: "Lean over, Fred. Hawks!"
Thunderbolt, who was as quick as light in taking a hint, stretched right across me, saying, by way of explanation: "Will, have you any mustard?"
"Tea is poisoned!" I whispered in his ear.
He sat up again without turning a hair, and, after just touching his tea to his lips, he exclaimed: "By God, boy, you are right. It is hot!"
"It will soon cool," observed one of the men.
Thunderbolt and I began munching at the bread and meat, for we guessed it would be alright. We did not look at each other, but I dare swear we were thinking the same thought, "What to do?" It would have been a hateful thing to accuse our hosts of trying to poison us on mere suspicion, and yet I felt certain they were guilty. Presently they got into a political conversation with the outlaw, leaving me out in the cold. But in any case I could not have spoken to them had it been to save my life, I was so upset and nervous. Perhaps ten minutes passed like that when of a sudden their dog came up to me, wagging his tail and begging for a scrap. In a flash I saw what to do. I patted the poor brute on the head, and then stooping over the log I quietly poured out some of my tea into the saucer and offered it to him. As fate had it, he was thirsty, and he lapped up every drop.
Thunderbolt perceived what I had done, but he pretended not to notice, and kept our hosts so busy talking to him about the Government's mistakes that they never dreamed of the counter trap which I had set for them.
They talked and talked. Heavens! how I did admire Thunderbolt then and wonder at him! He was as cool as a cucumber. He kept steadily to the thread of his argument, and he slated the Government with the eloquence of a practised demagogue, with never a break in his voice, and never a backward glance to mark what was going on behind him. As for me, I was cold and yet I perspired freely. I was in an agony of suspense. I began to count the minutes second by second. Two, three, four passed! I fell to shivering at intervals try as I would to keep calm. The dog meanwhile lay at my feet looking affectionately up at me out of his big brownish yellow eyes. All at once, however, he got up and shook himself as though he had just come out of water. You can imagine how anxiously I watched him. But soon he lay down again and rested his head upon his paws. Again I counted the minutes. Four, five, six passed! At last it came! The dog got up, and walked uneasily forwards, then backwards, only a few paces each time. Then he sat down and whisked a paw across his face. A second later he sprang erect, his hair bristling like a wild cat's, and he began to run round and round in a short circle howling like a soul in pain.
We all jumped to our feet and stared at him.
"Good God, what ails the brute?" cried one of our hosts.
Thunderbolt gave me a look of intelligence and whipped his revolver out of his pocket. There followed a flash of fire, a loud report, and the dog fell to the ground stone dead, with a bullet through his brain.
"What the devil did you do that for?" demanded our elder host in a voice of rage. "That dog is mine; I've had him for years, and he is a valuable animal! You had no right——"
"Stop!" said Thunderbolt, calmly, pointing his pistol at the man's breast. "That dog was yours, you say?"
"Yes!" gasped the other.
"He served you faithfully, I suppose?"
"And you are sorry to lose him!"
"Yes—but what is the meaning of this? Put down your pistol. I——"
"Silence!" interrupted Thunderbolt, in a voice of thunder. "Listen to me. You are sorry to lose your dog, but not half as sorry as I am, for the poor brute has helped to save my life. He died in my place. He drank some of the poisoned tea that you served out to us. Now, do you understand?"
There was no doubt but that both the men understood. Without attempting to deny the charge, they fell on their knees before the outlaw, and in the most abject and cowardly fashion began to whine for mercy.
But Thunderbolt cut them short. "Pray to God for mercy!" he said, in a low, savage voice, "for, as sure as I live, I shall shoot the pair of you in exactly five minutes!"
He took his watch out of his pocket with his left hand as he spoke, and glanced at the time. "It is five minutes to 7," he remarked; "at 7 precisely you die!"
For a moment afterwards they gazed at him, spellbound with horror, but then, finding their voices, they broke out into the most piteous entreaties and apologies. I listened to them like one dazed; I could move neither hand nor foot.
Thunderbolt answered never a word, only he kept them covered always, with his steady eye glancing along the sights of the revolver. He was like a man of stone.
"You have three minutes to live!" he announced presently.
They redoubled their protestations.
"You have two minutes to live!" said Thunderbolt.
The younger man uttered a piercing shriek and threw himself full length, face downwards, on the ground.
"As you hope for mercy yourself hereafter, spare us now!" cried the older man, flinging out his arms with a wild and tragic gesture. "You contemplate a deed that will stain your hands with the blood of fellow-beings, and which you will repent all the rest of your life. As yet you are not a murderer, Captain Thunderbolt. I call upon you now, as though we both stood before the throne of God, to forgive us, and save your own soul. For as you treat us your Maker will treat you!"
"You have one minute to live!" responded the outlaw, in tones of ice, and, speaking, he raised the hammer of his pistol.
But the sound of that click galvanised me into action. I sprang to my leader's side, and cried out earnestly:
"Fred, Fred! you must not do this thing!"
"I shall!" He pushed me back with his left hand, holding me in a grip of iron, so that I could not move.
"You have about thirty seconds," he said, addressing his victims.
"For my sake, Fred!" I cried.
"I shall kill them, by God! They are skunks, unfit to live!"
"Fred, I have saved your life twice now—once within this hour. If you don't grant me this favour, I swear to you by God that we part here and now!"
My speech broke up his frightful, savage calm. He gave me a terrible frown, and said in a voice hoarse with passion, "Curse you to hell! Why do you plead for these damned double-dealing hounds?"
"Because," I cried out, in a whirl—"because in their light they are justified in doing what they did. Are we not outlaws, you and I? That means that any law-abiding citizen has a perfect right to kill us when and where and how they like or can. Besides, these are poor men, and you forget the price on your head—five hundred pounds. That would make them rich. Moreover, they are strangers to us, not friends. If they ever had been our friends, I'd help you shoot them. But they are strangers, and they owe us no duty. If they had succeeded, the world would have applauded their act. We have no right to judge them—we alone out of all mankind! We may regard their trick as dastardly—but no one else would think so! You must not kill them, Fred!"
"Very well," said Thunderbolt. "Let us go."
He put up his pistol, and without another glance at our enemies, swung on his heel and strode over with sullen visage to the horses. I, however, turned to look at the men, and to my surprise I saw that both were prostrate.
I walked up and touched the older with my foot. "Take my advice," I said, "and leave this district. I won't answer for your lives if Thunderbolt crosses your path again!"
The fellow looked up at me. His face was ashen white, and he was trembling like a leaf.
"I will!" he muttered. "God bless you, young man, for what you did for us."
I did not reply, for although I had prevented Thunderbolt from killing them, I loathed and despised them bitterly enough to almost want to kill them myself.
I may remark that we never, to our knowledge, met either of those men again, and although we tried hard to discover who they were we failed utterly to do so. Thunderbolt ever afterwards suspected them of having been police in disguise, but I did not share his opinion. The force in those days contained many fools, but few cowards—and such cowards, none, I hope!
"We seem to have struck a streak of bad luck since we took up bushranging again. First came our unsuccessful attack upon the store at the Rocky Diggings, next the poisoned trap laid for us by the apparent sundowners at Yarrowick, from which we so narrowly escaped, and now—what next, I wonder?"
Thunderbolt made this speech to me as we were riding along towards Carlisle Gully, where we intended to stick up the Bendemeer coach.
"More bad luck, I suppose!" I replied, dejectedly.
"I hope you turn out a false prophet, Bill. But it is curious, isn't it?"
"Our bad luck."
"It's a warning to us to turn from our evil ways," I ventured.
"Oh! Rubbish!" he answered, laughing. "All the same, I wish it would end. We haven't sixpence between us, and unless we make a rise soon, we are likely to starve."
"Let's go back to Queensland, Fred," I said, earnestly. "We did so well there, and honestly too. I, for one, was as happy as a king!"
"I wasn't," he replied. "It was too safe and dull. I'd rot if it wasn't for an occasional brush with the police!"
"Suppose there are police on board the coach to-day?"
"In that case, we'll go hungry for dinner, Bill."
"I wish you'd go back to Queensland, Fred."
"Now, you've said that before; don't harp on it! Hang Queensland. Here, I'll give you a song."
In another second he had begun to warble, "Her Bright Smiles Haunt Me Still," while I listened, thinking disconsolately to myself that there was no use trying to wean Thunderbolt into leading an honest life, and that if I wished to do so I would have to break away from him. I hated the thought of such a thing, and the vow I made never to desert him still had the force of a ban, yet no longer an irrefragible one. The fact is, I was just growing from a boy into a man, and I was beginning to realise the change in myself from the change in my ideas. The maxim, "A short life and a merry one," no longer appealed to me as being a desirable guiding rule. I wanted, on the contrary, to live as long as possible, and reason told me that in order to do so I must cease being a criminal. Self-interest was my animating motive, of course, but I am not ashamed of that, for I do not think a man ever lived who worked his own reform for another being's benefit. Self-preservation is the first law of Nature, and only unthinking fools despise selfishness when it moves in legitimate channels. Besides, a man cannot improve the world without, in the first place, he improves himself, and, in my opinion, the noblest acts ever performed by the heroes of history were inspired by desire for glory, which is the purest and most perfect form of selfishness.
At exactly what period I came to question the validity of the vow I had given Thunderbolt, I cannot remember. But, at the time of which I write, I had already concluded that I would sin more in keeping than in breaking it. And all that held me to him then was affection and the natural dislike of incurring his contempt; perhaps, also habit. But yes, on reflection, certainly habit—most certainly! It requires powerful resolution to break a habit long continued, and for more than two years, I had been accustomed to defer to Thunderbolt in everything, to accept his opinions, to almost bow blindly to his desires, to follow him indeed as though he were a superior being, and I his petted bond slave.
The resolution I speak of was growing in my breast, but, as yet, it was of feeble substance, wanting in initiative, lacking in purpose. I knew what I wanted, and I was conscious of the desire to obtain it—some day—that was all. So it came about that, although most unwillingly and, as it were, in spite of my better judgment, I continued to participate in his crimes.
That day we stuck up the coach at Carlisle Gully. No police were aboard, and we made a fairly good haul.
Our wants being thus relieved, we rode over to the McDonald River and camped there for the night, it being Thunderbolt's intention to make a raid on Bendemeer within a day or two, for we knew that a great deal of gold had been of late stored in that little town.
On the following morning, however, while shifting camp in order to obtain better feed for our horses, we met with an adventure that came near to ending our career. We had left the river bank about a mile behind and were riding loosely through some hilly, sparsely-timbered country, when, of a sudden, two policemen rode out of a clump of bushes a hundred yards ahead of us, and charged us at the gallop. We turned as quickly as we could and made for the nearest hill, up which we urged our horses at full speed. The police followed hot on our heels, firing as they came, but we reached the top unhurt.
"Make for the river!" shouted Thunderbolt to me. "We can get no cover on this side!"
"It's running a banker!" I reminded him, loudly.
"Never mind!" cried he. "It's our best chance!"
We were down the hill in a twinkling and ascending the next. The troopers fired across at us from the hill we had left, keeping up a constant fusillade as they advanced. I was struck in the leg just as we reached the second top. The pain was sharp, but I repressed the scream that came to my lips and rode on for dear life. In another moment, however, we were over the crest and under cover.
"I'm hit, Fred!" I cried.
"Badly?" he demanded.
"I don't know!"
"Then, you are not. Carry on till we reach the river, and I'll attend to you there."
I did as I was bid, and at such a reckless pace did we travel that we had pulled up on the river bank before the troopers had appeared over the hill. Thunderbolt thereupon hastily dismounted, and, having glanced at my wound, he tied his kerchief tightly round my calf. "The bullet has gone clean through!" he said, cheerfully. "No danger, Bill! Come on!"
The sight of the blood, however, with which my trousers and boot were drenched made me feel very sick, and if it was not that the horses quickly entered the fast-flowing stream I believe I must have swooned. But the cold of the water revived me, and Thunderbolt's voice, always raised in cheery encouragement, stirred me on to renewed effort. The outlaw tried his best to keep me above him, fearing the current would prove beyond my strength to master, but, once we were in mid-stream, such attempts were futile. My horse, less manageable than dear old Combo, refused to obey the bit, and I was swept down by the flood like a straw. By wonderful good luck, however, a moment later my horse was stranded on a shoal, and, urging him forward with the whip, I was soon standing on a spur of the farther bank. Turning to mark my leader's fate, I saw him still battling gamely in the middle of the river, trying hard to avoid a huge rock that reared its head over the surface of the swirling water. Even as I watched, however, the current won the fight. Combo was hurled against the rock, and completely overturned, while Thunderbolt disappeared! But I knew him for a splendid swimmer, and the circumstance did not alarm me. I was far more alarmed to see the police racing towards the river-bank, for I thought to myself, they will come up and shoot Thunderbolt before he can find a landing, or get out of the water. The situation was desperate, and for a moment I gave up hope. But then came a flash of inspiration. "If," thought I, "if I can only keep them away from the bank for a while by somehow distracting their attention, they will not know that Fred is struggling for his life in the water, and, before they guess it, he will have landed!"
Suiting deed to thought I spurred my horse along the bank for about a hundred yards up the stream, around the nearest bend of the river, whereupon the police, marking my action from afar, foolishly changed their course, and followed me. In another few seconds it was impossible for them to see Thunderbolt without leaving me and going down the stream for some distance, but this they did not do. Quite satisfied with the success of my ruse, I dismounted, full in their view, and took shelter behind some rocks. My leg was by that time stiff as a log, and I was so weak from loss of blood that I could hardly move. But, with a supreme effort I climbed the rocks and peered over at the police. They were just taking to the water. Much shocked, I whipped out my revolver and fired at them point-blank. The range was too great to hit them, but apparently they did not think so, for they drew back as if they had been bitten, and immediately darted for some trees, behind which they took cover. For the next five minutes I suffered tortures of apprehension, fearing that my leader had been drowned. But the police did not know of that, and they waited behind their trees watching me as a cat would a mouse. In fact, playing my game for me, the fools! At the end of that time I heard hoof-beats behind me, and, turning, saw Thunderbolt riding up.
"It's the third time you've saved my life, Bill, old man!" he cried, as he swung himself to the ground. "How is your leg?"
"Bad!" I muttered, feeling of a sudden very sick again.
He caught me in his arms, and, gentle as a woman, lifted me on my saddle.
"The police won't follow us, I think. But I must get you to some place where you can lay up as quick as may be, laddie!" he said softly. "Do you think you can stick on, Bill?"
"I'll try," I groaned, for I was in great pain; and off we started,
Thunderbolt was right—the police did not follow us. Had they done so (and why they did not Heaven only knows) they must have caught us, for so rapidly did my pain and sickness increase that soon we could only travel at a snail's pace. Thunderbolt was obliged to pitch our camp that evening within ten miles of the river, so pitiful had been our progress.
It was a wretched nook in which we halted, and a bitter cold wind blew across it, but better shelter was not in sight, and farther I could not go. Thunderbolt made me as comfortable as he could with rugs and coats, but I cared nothing except for the torture of my leg. It was a long while before he could coax a fire to light, for rain had been falling, and all the wood was damp. Yet when the blaze finally sprang up our situation was still desperate, for we had lost all our provisions except a little meat, and even our pannikins and billies; so that he could not even make a cup of tea. He broiled me some meat, but I could not eat it; indeed, I could do nothing but toss about and groan.
Thunderbolt was concerned to the point of despair. He saw me helpless and in agony, and we were thirty miles from the house of our nearest friend. When he failed in persuading me to eat, and found that he could do nothing for me, his lamentations matched my own. He cursed the day that he was born, and reproached himself so wildly for having brought me to the pass I was in, that I was constrained at last to try and cheer him, for it looked almost as though he were going mad.
"For goodness sake stop cursing yourself and do something to try and help me!" I cried in pretended anger. "Oh, if only I could bathe my leg with hot water! Couldn't you ride somewhere, Fred, and get a billy?"
"There is not a house within a dozen miles, and, besides, how can I leave you!" he replied.
"I'd rather you left me, Fred, if it was for my ultimate relief. Truly, I won't be able to stand this much longer!"
Thunderbolt looked at me for a moment with his brows knitted, then of a sudden he uttered a joyful cry. "The fool I am!" he said. "The fool I am. Bear up, Bill, I'll have some hot water for you in ten minutes!" With that he darted away into the bush, but presently he returned carrying a number of big smooth water-worn pebbles, which he cast into the fire. Throwing himself then upon his knees he scooped out a large round hole in the ground with his knife, over which he spread a portion of his oilskin coat, patting down thereafter the cloth into the hollow so that presently a basin was formed capable of holding water. He next seized his hat and running to the creek filled it with water which on his return he poured into his impromptu basin. The scheme was so ingenious that I exclaimed in admiration, and again a few minutes later when as he began to drop the red hot pebbles into the fluid, a cloud of hissing steam rose up into the air. The water was soon sufficiently heated to be of use, and then Thunderbolt acted as my nurse, with a tenderness that I love to think of now, but which I rewarded then with angry scoldings. The worst and the best of us are beasts—in pain. The bathing, however, gave me such ease that I snatched some sleep, and when I awoke there was the outlaw ready with fresh hot water to dress my wound again.
It was an inferno of a night for both of us. In the morning I was half delirious. Thunderbolt's patience, however, seemed inexhaustible. He once more dressed my wound, and then having swathed my leg in bandages, sacrificing half his clothes for the purpose, he bound me to Combo's back in a reclining posture with my feet in the air. He then straight away set out at a slow walk—riding his horse and leading mine, for civilisation, determined to risk everything so that I might receive proper medical attention.
I do not care to speak of the period that followed. Indeed, I have only mentioned my sufferings in order to pay tribute to the outlaw's powers of resource and the self-sacrificing kindness and devotion that he lavished so unweariedly upon me. By dint of travelling very rapidly during my fits of coma or insensibility Thunderbolt contrived to bring me late that night to the house of a settler, a friend of his, who resided some 34 miles from our starting point. This kind-hearted fellow had me at once put to bed, and he himself drove into town for a doctor, whom he brought back in his buggy. The surgeon's report was serious. He declared that I must lay up for several weeks if I wished to save my leg, and he strongly advised me to go into the town and enter the hospital.
This, however, was not to be thought of, and, bad luck still pursuing us, it became necessary for me to choose next day between my leg and my liberty. The police had got wind of our whereabouts, and were coming after us in force! Such was the news that the settler brought us on his return from driving the doctor back to town.
I made my choice very quickly, and an hour later I was being carried on a bush log cart towards the deep falls which lie to the east of Armidale. Thunderbolt decided upon that retreat because he knew the great gorges beyond the falls by heart, and he had some years before discovered a secret path leading into the big hollow, near where the town of Hillgrove is now situated. By nightfall we had reached the foot of the gorges, and early next morning we toiled up the heights on horseback. I can remember nothing of that climb, for I was unconscious throughout. But I awoke to find myself lying in a camp the situation of which was wonderfully beautiful. It was perched on the side of a mountain, and it overlooked a precipitous and splendid valley, surrounded on all sides with bold and rugged hills. The point is now known as "Johnson's Failure," and it lies only a little below the "Sunlight" gold mine, which I believe is still working and turning out payable ore.
There we remained for the next two months, enjoying an undisturbed rest in absolute solitude and security. And there Thunderbolt, the outlaw, whom the world regarded as a wolf, with more than the goodness of a parent waited upon me every hour of all the days until by dint of his unremitting care and loving kindness I was finally restored to perfect health and strength.
As soon as I was able to travel we cut across country to Moree, where we stuck up the mail coach, a venture that returned a profit of about £15 apiece. Although I did not guess it then, that was the last crime I ever committed. We then headed for Queensland, and near the McIntyre River we had another brush with the police. This affair, however, so much resembled a dozen others which I have fully described, that I shall not trouble to relate it in detail, and the more especially because the time approaches when I must draw my long story to a close. Let it suffice then to state that we escaped only by the skin of our teeth, for so hot were the troopers on our heels, after a long chase, that it was necessary, at the last, to blindfold our horses and force them to leap over a precipice into the bed of a deep sunken creek, in order to present our hunters with a task which might prove too arduous for their liking.
They must have thought us mad, I fancy, when they watched our desperate act, but, mad or sane, by some miracle we accomplished it without mishap, and once more we got clean away from our enemies, since they were afraid to follow where he had led.
After that we wandered leisurely for several days through the heavily-timbered country about the McIntyre River, camping like gypsies, where the night found us, ever ready for instant flight, and living like the birds, from hand to mouth. Each of us was working out his own fate. Thunderbolt spent his time intermittently singing sweet songs for hours together, and planning fresh crimes. I mine in gradually arriving at an understanding of myself, and in vainly trying to make up my mind to do what I knew to be the right thing.
My long silences and deep fits of abstraction often excited Thunderbolt's attention, and he frequently demanded to know what I was thinking about. But I either gave him evasive answers or did not reply to him at all, whereupon he would sullenly shrug his shoulders and endeavour to amuse himself without my assistance. One evening, however, when our evening meal was finished, in a fit of irritation he attacked me on the subject of my moodiness.
"Hang it all, Bill!" he suddenly exclaimed, "you have not uttered a dozen words the entire day, and yesterday you were the same. You are getting a cursed poor companion, let me tell you! What is the matter? Are you in love—or what?"
He spoke so angrily and looked so fierce that, wishing to placate him, I made an effort, and resolutely put my gloomy thoughts aside.
"I have been suffering from a bad attack of the blue devils, Fred," I answered, forcing a smile. "You must help me to drive them away—will you?"
"How?" he demanded, shrugging his shoulders.
"Well," said I, an idea entering my mind as I spoke, "ever since I have known you—and that is nearly three years now—you have been promising to tell me the story of your early life, and how it was you became a bushranger. But you have always made some excuse to postpone the relation. Redeem your promise to-night, will you?"
"Bah!" said he. "You want to cure yourself of the blue devils by passing them along to me!"
"Is your story such a sad one, then?"
"Black, my lad—black as a starless night."
"Then, sing me a song!"
"No!" said he, frowning heavily. "I made you the promise, as you say, and I might as well keep it now as never, especially as you have made a point of asking me."
"Not unless you wish to, Fred! I don't want to make you unhappy."
"Oh, hang the odds!" he muttered. "The thing's in my mind, and it has put me in the dumps already. I might as well go through with it. But pass me the rum!"
He poured himself out half a pannikin of spirit, and, having taken a few mouthfuls, he stared for some time steadily into the fire. "I was born at Windsor," he began at last, in low but uneven tones. "My people were respectable folk—not rich, but pretty comfortably off—and as good as God makes. They gave me a fairish education, and until I grew up to manhood I did nothing to disgrace their training or ill repay their love. Indeed, I was one of the most popular lads in the district, and steady, too, as boys go. You see, I," (he paused and shaded his eyes with his hand)—"I—I had someone to keep me straight, even if I'd wanted to go crooked. There was a dear little girl lived near us—the daughter of some old friends and neighbours—Jess Anson was her name. We'd been to school together, we'd always ridden to and from together every day. Once I saved her life, too, from a wild bullock. Well, we'd been sweethearts since we were kiddies, and as we grew up the liking grew. Our folks weren't against the match either, so at last it was fixed we'd marry as soon as I could get a home for her. But, you see, there wasn't much doing in our little sleepy hollow of a place, and I got impatient soon. It was so hard to save money, and I wanted to make a lot, so we could get married quickly. I," (he paused again)—"I was miles deep in love with her," he added huskily, a minute later.
"Poor old Fred!" I muttered.
He glanced at me with glistening eyes, and nodded his head. "You know I'm fond of Sunday," he said, pleadingly. "You know that, Bill; but the other was different somehow—she was the first."
"I know, Fred!"
"I got an offer at last to go droving," he resumed. "The pay was good, and the prospects too. Jess was against it, but I went."
"It was just Fate!" he said, in harsh tones. "The fellows I went with were scoundrels, and men, too—all twice my age. They were practised cattle-duffers and horse-thieves. I was but a lad—and I had to have money, I was so mad to get married! Well, Bill, you can guess the result. I made about £200 on a cross deal on horses. We sold them in Windsor, and then just before the wedding—came—Hell! We were caught and tried! I got seven years with the rest!"
"Oh, Fred! What did your people say, and Jess?"
"It broke them up, but they stuck to me, God bless them, and Jess too. She, poor girl, couldn't ever believe I was really guilty, though I was. She came to say good-bye to me before they took me off to gaol, and she swore she would wait for me for ever."
"And did she?"
"They let me out of gaol on ticket-of-leave after I had served three years," he replied. "I went straight home to Windsor."
He looked at me with glowing eyes. "There are a lot of fine people in the world, Bill, if one only knew where to look for them," he said, earnestly. "All my old friends turned up in a body to welcome me, and they made me see that they pitied rather than blamed me. You see, I was so young that they thought I had been led away by older scoundrels—as indeed I was—and they made full allowances!"
"She was the first. She threw her arms round my neck, and kissed me, before them all!"
"She was a true woman, Fred."
"She was an angel, my lad!" he answered, hoarsely. "An angel. Well, well, to cut it short, Bill—and I must, for this sort of talk is too damned racking—we made it up that I was to go away for a bit, and try and make a home for her somewhere else. Then there came a good offer from an old friend to go up Singleton way and work on a station there. It seemed to come right in the nick of time, and just then I thought it was a heaven-sent opportunity. Now—now (he repeated vehemently), I know it was a message manufactured in Hell! I said good-bye to Jess and the dear old folks at home, and went up there. Well, Bill, it wasn't long before a kronk set got hold of me. You see, there was a lot of racing going on up there, and, as I was a pretty fair jockey, that sort laid themselves out to make me think them the best on earth. As I was a young fool, and easily won by flattery, they succeeded quick enough! Not that they made me do anything wrong. I declare to God they never even asked me, Bill. In all good faith I thought them straight-goers, but in reality they were cattle-duffers on the quiet, and so ill-reputed to the authorities that I, with my gaol record behind me for horse-stealing, was soon a marked man with the police. Without my guessing it the law hounds were watching me like cats a mouse for a chance to scrag me, and they got one pretty soon. Being a ticket-of-leave man, I had to report myself to the police at intervals. Well, like the young idiot I was, in those days I never dreamed of dates and times, and after a bit I failed to make a report when I should have done. Even yet I can hardly understand properly what came after. You see so many crushing blows were crowded on me in such a little while, such a very little while.
"I was arrested one day and clapped into prison, just charged with neglecting to report myself when I should have done. I laughed at the whole thing, thinking it just police spite, and never fancying but that I'd be let out in a day or two. Then before I knew where I was, they had me before a judge, and I was accused of frequenting bad company and being guilty of cattle-duffing, and I'm damned if I know what else. The whole thing was monstrous—and I was near mad with rage. But I was alone, and it was my word against a world of law. The next thing I remember was hearing the judge sentence me to serve out the four years of my sentence that had been remitted for good conduct in gaol, and condemning me to an extra seven years, hard labour beyond that—for what? I don't know, Bill. Only God knows for what!"
"Fred!" I cried, utterly horrified. "But it was unjust, cruel, wicked, monstrous!"
He gave me a melancholy smile. "They took me to Cockatoo Island," he said quietly. "For weeks I was dazed. I went about and did my work like a man in a dream. Do you know how I awoke from that dream, Bill?"'
"One day they allowed my poor old mother to come and see me."
"She looked centuries old with grief—and there was death in her face. Bill, she did not even cry over me! Her tears had all run dry. She just cursed the law—it was terrible to hear her—and then she told me—told me——" He sprang to his feet and threw out his hands—his face working frightfully.
"What, Fred?" I gasped.
"She told me that Jess—my sweetheart—had gone mad with grief; that she was a raving lunatic!"
"Fred!" I shouted, "Fred!"
"Yes," he groaned, "and it was true! Do you wonder that I turned outlaw then? I went mad, too, for a time. No prison could have held me. I escaped! You have heard of my fight with the warders and the way I took to the water and swam to the mainland. I made straight for Windsor—and Jess! They—they would not let me see her for fear the sight of me would kill her! Later, she died! No policeman has laid a hand upon my shoulder since! None ever shall!"
He gave a hollow laugh, and then, manifestly overcome with emotion, he strode suddenly away into the darkness, to fight with the miseries of memory alone!
As for me, I sat on by the fire for hour on hour, thinking, thinking. Thunderbolt's terrible story had worked in my mind, strange as it may appear, the unexpected miracle of awakening to perfect vigor the resolution which I had so long striven to call up in vain. He had scarcely departed before I felt in my soul that I would leave him, desert him if you will, upon the first opportunity that offered. And yet I had never liked him one-half so well, nor so profoundly sympathised with him, as at that moment! But I must describe the movements of my brain, as afterwards I came to understand them, so that these apparent contradictions may be explained.
My first thought, and it was a conclusion, nay, rather an overwhelming conviction than a thought, was this: "Thunderbolt has an excuse for being—aye, and even for continuing to be, a bushranger! The law ill-used him, and, from his point of view, he rightly revenges himself upon the society which makes the law!"
Then, very swiftly, my conscience put to me the question: "But you, Will Monckton, have you such an excuse?"
I answered: "My stepfather's cruelty drove me to seek Thunderbolt's protection!"
"Granted," said my conscience, "and even for the sake of argument let it be conceded that there is a valid excuse for your past crimes. But you are now almost a man. You no longer stand in awe of your stepfather. Now, moreover, you know right from wrong. What, then, of the future? An individual sinned against you it is true; but shall you continue to visit against the world the injuries you sustained at the hands of one man? If society had wronged you, you would be right to fight society. But such is not the case. It is you who have been wronging society. Your duty is plain!"
"I would be a hound to desert Thunderbolt," I retorted, "more especially now, when he has shown me his heart, and told me the story of his wrongs!"
"Fool!" came the answer, swift and sure. "Will you damn your soul out of pity for one lost man. Hell is full of lost souls, all of whom command our pity because of their irretrievable damnation, but why should we publish our sympathy by following them into the pit? Two ways stretch straight before you. You know whither they lead. You know your duty, too. Choose your path, then—for good or evil?"
It was the compelling gospel of selfishness which my conscience preached to me, yet at that, the greatest and most poignant crisis of my life, I can honestly aver my heart bled at my inevitable decision, and I would gladly have welcomed death as a way out, so that I might thereby spare Thunderbolt the stinging pain with which I knew any other form of parting would afflict him.
But death was not for me, and as all human beings are at one time or another in their lives obliged to do, I stood at the parting of the ways, in utter solitude of soul. Destiny waiting to act upon my nod, for once, and once only, my servant—nay, my slave.
I resolved to do my duty. Peace fell upon me then, and soon came sleep, sleep, deep and dreamless.
When I awoke the day was just dawning, and the eastern sky was blushed with many different and most charming tints of rose. Thunderbolt lay at a little distance, his head pillowed on his saddle, his feet pointing to the dying fire, slumbering profoundly. I got up very softly, and stood gazing eastwards, watching for the sun; then as it rose above the greenish-purpled, tree-girt horizon, I quietly repeated over to myself the determination I had come to on the previous night: "Henceforth, come what, may, I shall do no more bushranging!"
The words had all the force of a vow, but not such a vow as I had given Thunderbolt, for this time I passed my word to Heaven, instead of man.
Feeling wonderfully tranquil and comforted in mind, I then went down to the river for a bathe, and was soon splashing about in the limpid, swift-running waters of the stream. But in the midst of my enjoyment a trivial and commonplace little incident happened to me, which was nevertheless destined to bring about something resembling a tragedy, and ultimately the realisation of my ambition. And in this regard I cannot help remarking how often Providence, as though in cynical mood, seems to delight in balancing large issues upon comparatively contemptible events.
The accident which befell me was that I lost the soap which I had used in cleansing my body, and which happened to be at the moment the only piece in our joint or several possession. It slipped out of my hand as I was taking a dive, and the swift current in a second bore it for ever from my view. In order to explain what followed I must remind my readers of two traits in Thunderbolt's character, upon which I have previously remarked. He was an extremely short-tempered man, quick to take offence, and passionate to the point of fury in expressing his anger. And again, of all the virtues he loved best, and practised most, was that of personal cleanliness.
With these facts in mind, it will be the easier to understand the outlaw's conduct when he became acquainted with my carelessness.
I had just left the water, and was drying myself with a towel, when he came along, intent upon a bath. I noticed that he looked rather haggard, like a man who had not slept either long or well.
"Good morning, Fred," I said.
"Good morning. Give me the soap!" he returned.
"I am awfully sorry, Fred," I answered humbly. "I—I lost it!"
It was extraordinary to mark how instantly his passion woke and blew to flame. He uttered an angry oath, and with lowering brows and flashing eyes he began to pour out such a flood of stinging abuse on my devoted head as could only have been deserved had, for instance, he caught me in the act of betraying him to the police. In spite of myself I grew angry too. But although I felt the blood boil in my veins I managed to keep a still tongue in my head, and as soon as I could I silently returned to the camp.
Thunderbolt followed me about ten minutes later. But his swim had rather irritated than cooled his resentment, and as soon as he saw me, he resumed his complaints if possible more bitterly than ever.
I listened for a while, hoping vainly for him to stop; but at length I was unable to endure any longer the insults he heaped upon me. Moreover, I said to myself, "Here is such an excuse to leave him as may not occur again. Far better too to part in hot blood than in cold!"
I therefore strode over to where our saddles and bridles lay, and picking up my own I faced him, saying, "That is quite enough, Fred. After this we cannot be mates any longer. I'll get my horse and clear out on my own. Good-bye to you!"
His face turned simply livid! In one second he had grasped his revolver and pointed it at my heart!
"Don't you dare move from here or I'll drop you!" he shouted.
The threat, however, made me recklessly infuriated. It was now my turn to lose my self control.
Flinging down my saddle to the ground, I pulled out my pistol, and levelled it at his head.
"Fire!" I cried. "Fire if you dare, and then if there is life left in me I will drop you!"
For a long minute we stood thus, staring into each other's eyes over the sights of our weapons, our fingers trembling on the triggers. Of course now I know that Thunderbolt deliberately spared my life, for he had held the drop on me all along and he might, had he wished, have killed me long before I could have armed myself. But then I thought of nothing, cared for nothing, except the fact that our wills seemed finally and desperately opposed. That minute seemed an age; then all of a sudden Thunderbolt's arm fell to his side. His fury had fled!
"It's all my fault, Bill, old man," he muttered in a broken voice. "I can't keep down my stubborn temper. You may shoot me if you like!"
How curiously we poor human beings are constructed. All fire and wool. In one instant I had been ready to take the outlaw's life. The next I felt a rush of hot tears in my eyes. Hardly knowing what I did I hurled my pistol far into the river and stumbled blindly forward to seize his outstretched hand. And so we were reconciled with a silent hand grasp, for neither of us was able for some time thereafter to mouth a syllable.
After bravely pretending to eat some breakfast, we caught our horses and prepared to change our camp. By that time, however, my mind was in a chaotic state. I felt that I had missed a grand opportunity to do the right thing—namely, to leave Thunderbolt—and that in some inexplicable fashion I had failed in my duty, and would be punished for my failure. Yet, though I blamed myself, I could not perceive how I could have acted otherwise. Only I knew it would be harder than ever now to do what I wished to do. A mood of gloom settled upon me, and never had the future looked blacker or more dismal.
Then, all unexpectedly, came the last straw. Just before we mounted Thunderbolt walked over to me holding in his hand one of his revolvers, a beautiful silver-mounted weapon that he had treasured for some time, and which he prized above all his other possessions.
"You'd better take this!" he said in a low, apologetic voice. "It was my fault you lost your own!"
He thrust it into my hands and strode away.
I was in despair. The gift called for gratitude. Therefore it constituted another bond to chain me to the outlaw's side. How, then, could I immediately desert him? You see, I liked him so much that the idea of incurring his hatred and contempt was a pain hardly to be borne.
I mounted my horse without speaking, my heart aching with conflicting emotions. And as we started on our journey I continued to hold the pistol in my hand. I could not put it in my belt. I felt if I did that I would be returning in some way to a life of crime. I do not know why I felt so. It was a foolish thought, but I could not fight against it. So I rode along, holding the pistol in my hand, staring at it, and dully wondering what to do with it.
Thunderbolt believed, poor fellow; that I was unable to put it away because of my delight in having it, and he was pleased.
At last I hung it on the saddle before me, and with a huge effort I obliged myself not to look at it any more—to try, moreover, to forget it. After that I became feverishly gay, laughed at nothing, talked absurdities, and filled the bush with silly shouting.
Thunderbolt, delighted to see me so merry, grew merry, too, and the forest re-echoed with the sounds of our wild frolickings.
We travelled until the fall of dusk, whereupon the outlaw cried a halt, and we dismounted to pitch our camp for the night.
As we were unsaddling our horses, however, I noticed with a gasp of astonishment that the pistol had vanished. It must have fallen unnoticed from my saddle by the way.
Thunderbolt remarked its absence at the same instant that I did.
"Hullo!" he cried. "Where is the revolver I gave you?"
Quick as a flash I replied, "It's all right; I have it in my belt!"
It was the first real lie I had ever uttered.
Fear inspired me. Remember, for all my heroic resolution to give up bushranging and lead an honest life, I was still only a boy. In the morning I had faced the outlaw bravely enough, it is true, and I had defied him at the pistol-point. But then my courage had been worked up to a point of desperation by rage and insult. Now I was unarmed, and my blood was cool. I was afraid to arouse his anger again, as I knew it would be aroused if he discovered I had lost the revolver. Therefore I lied to him.
But, before another five minutes had gone by, I was reduced to the last stage of misery with self-contempt and shame. I said to myself, "I am a detestable coward—but, to-night later, after tea, I shall confess it all to him!"
Thunderbolt noticed my dejection and gaily rallied me. But I could not answer him in kind, although I strove to do so, and soon he let me be. Being very tired, he lay down by the fire immediately the meal was done, and he seemed to be reflecting, for he did not speak.
I passed some time trying to gather courage for the ordeal of my confession. It was very hard, but I succeeded at length, and, in a tremulous voice. I broke the long silence.
"Fred," said I, speaking very quickly, for I was afraid that I might break down and change my mind. "Fred, I told you a lie this evening. I lost the revolver you gave me. I'm very, very sorry."
I had expected him to leap to his feet and hurl his rage at me. Conceive then my surprise when he continued to lie still, replying with never a word. I held my breath in agonised suspense, for a while, imagining awful things.
But, all at once, he sighed deeply and turned over on his side. He was fast asleep! As for me, I buried my face in my hands and cried like a baby, for I knew that there was a Providence directing me even in the lie that I had told, and in my failure to confess it; and I had a strange overpowering presentiment that I had already looked upon Thunderbolt's living face for the last time.
For hour on hour thereafter, I sat, movelessly gazing into the slowly dying fire, brooding and grieving; more miserable than I had ever been before. I watched the last red coal expire beneath a covering of ash, and then I said, "The death of one life is the beginning of another. It is time for me to go!"
The stars told me it was after midnight. I was about to arise when the way of my escape was made easy for me by an interposition of fate. Thunderbolt unexpectedly spoke out of the darkness.
"Will," said he. "Are you awake?"
"Yes!" I answered; my heart beating wildly.
"I've been listening for the horses for the last ten minutes," said he, "and I can't hear a sound of 'em. You might go and have a look round, if you don't mind."
"Alright, Fred," I muttered, huskily. I could hardly articulate, I was so intensely excited, so deeply moved. My saddle lay beside me and my bridle. Very carefully I picked them up, holding the loose metal parts to my side in order to keep them from clinking, lest my purpose be betrayed. Then I turned and, with never a backward glance, I stumbled off into the bush, the tears rolling down my cheeks like rain.
Five minutes later, I had caught and mounted my horse, and was riding like a maniac through the dark and silent forest—alone.
I never saw Thunderbolt again, for when next I looked upon his face he had been for many hours a corpse.
After leaving Thunderbolt in the manner that has been related, the lad Will Monckton made his way by slow stages back to his native district, where, under an assumed name, he for some time supported himself by honest work, shearing, and so on, at the various squatters thereabouts. At length, however, near Mr. Campbell's station, at Wellingrove, he encountered his former good friend and adviser, Mr. Edward Clarke, who persuaded him that it was his duty to surrender to the authorities, and manfully suffer whatever penalty the law might inflict upon him for his crimes.
Monckton laid this charge upon his conscience, and a short time later he submitted to arrest.
He was tried at Armidale by a jury presided over by Justice Meymott. But his case excited such a great amount of public sympathy, that it was a foregone conclusion that he would not be severely dealt with. It may be remarked that a local and widely respected clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Hungerford, who gave evidence on his behalf at the trial, testified to the main facts in Monckton's earlier life and history, which have been detailed in the first chapter of these memoirs; and the reverend gentleman not only declared that the lad had borne an excellent character prior to his taking to the bush, but he unhesitatingly advanced his opinion that Monckton's stepfather's cruelty had driven him to seek Thunderbolt's protection.
Monckton was sentenced to serve three years (with hard labour) in Darlinghurst Gaol. At the end of fourteen months, however, he was set at liberty, and, by a curious coincidence, he was released on the very day that Thunderbolt fell mortally wounded by Constable Walker, near Uralla.
Monckton journeyed to that place in order to identify his old leader's body, and so the two met for the last time—with the grave between them.
The following interesting account of an adventure with the famous outlaw has been supplied me, and is now published for the first time, by the courteous permission of Wm. Pearse, Esq., of Plasketh, Jerry's Plains, N.S.W.—THE EDITOR.
Jerry's Plains, via Singleton,
11th September, 1905.
AMBROSE PRATT, ESQ.
MY DEAR SIR,
I was learning station life on my father's station, Collymongle, some time in the year 1863, when the adventure which I am about to relate occurred to the manager of Collymongle, Mr. Hugh Brydon, whom I knew very well, and who informed me of it a few hours after it had happened. And it is still so vividly impressed upon my memory that I never hear Thunderbolt's name mentioned but I think of it. The facts are as follow:—
Mr. Brydon had been away from the station for some week or two, and in the meantime a drover had come for fat cattle, which I had given him.
When Brydon returned to the station, I was at home. He greeted me with the words, "It has come at last." I asked him what had happened, and he replied, "I have been stuck up at last!"
I may mention that some short time before this Brydon had been out with the police in search of Thunderbolt, and afterwards he always travelled with two revolvers strapped to his saddle.
"Well," he said, "as a matter of fact I stuck Thunderbolt up. I was coming along the Thalaba (creek), and I saw two men riding and leading a pack-horse off the road a bit, and I went over to inquire if they had seen any cattle (fat travelling), as I wanted to have a look at the ones you (meaning me) had started. When I got to them, the first thing I knew was two revolvers pointed at my head; so my revolvers were after all not of much use to me. One of the men was Thunderbolt. They told me to dismount, which I did, and then Thunderbolt began searching my swag, and while he was in the act of doing so his mate was flourishing his revolver about, and the blessed thing went off, and might have hit me or Thunderbolt, or himself, even; but, instead, it killed Thunderbolt's horse, the bridle reins of which he had in his hand.
"Thunderbolt remarked: 'Poor horse. I am sorry for you; you have carried me many a day. That will be my fate some day, I expect. However, I would rather that than go back to Cockatoo' (old name of Biloela, the severe prison at that time)."
As I said before, Brydon had been out after Thunderbolt, and thereafter it had been currently reported that if Thunderbolt ever did catch him he would put him to unmentionable torture.
This must have come to Brydon's ears, and he was very frightened, hence the precaution of carrying two revolvers.
"Well," he continued, "after seeing Thunderbolt's horse killed, the least I expected was having to walk home; but after he had finished with my swag he said, 'I have a bottle of good brandy in my swag, you may as well come down to the creek and have a nip with me.' I thought they just wanted to entice me down to the creek to make away with my body; but I did not like to show the white feather, so I went with them, and we began yarning. Amongst other things, I asked him how he got the name of 'Thunderbolt.' He said it was some drunken fellow in a public-house who first called him by that name. And after a bit, as they did not seem to want me any more, I got on my horse to ride away, but before I had gone far I turned back and asked Thunderbolt if he would return me my watch, as I valued it more than he could; and if he complied with my request I said I would give him a cheque for whatever amount he thought was the value of the watch, or I would send the money to any third party he liked to name.
"Thunderbolt remarked, 'Here is your watch, I never take personal property,' whereupon I rode away without further molestation."
The name of the place where this occurred on the creek is called "Brydon's Point" to this day, or it was a few years ago, when I passed there; but I suppose very few people now know why it was called so.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia