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Title: The Outlaws of Weddin Range Author: Ambrose Pratt * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402271h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2014 Most recent update: June 2014 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of 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.
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I.—The Manufacture of a Bushranger.
II.—A New Cog in the Machine.
III.—The Wheels Begin to Move.
IV.—Justice at the Crank.
V.—The Machine Grows.
VI.—The Machine is Perfected.
VII.—The Telegraphic System.
IX.—Robbery Under Arms.
XII.—At the Sign of Diggers' Rest
XIII.—A Paleolithic Woman.
XIV.—The Carcoar Raid.
XV.—Black and White.
XVI.—Ben Gets a Racehorse.
XVII.—The Hunters Hunted.
XVIII.—An Atrocious Crime.
XIX.—Julia Thorpe Succeeds.
XX.—Enslaved by a Vixen.
XXI.—The Capture of a City.
XXII.—On the Vale Road.
XXIII.—A Prisoner to Ransom.
XXV.—With Fire and Sword.
XXVI.—A Woman Speaks.
XXVII.—Mad or Sane?
XXIX.—Three Wolves and Parliament.
XXX.—The Last Forfeit.
THE famous (or infamous) Ben Hall was born at the township of Breeza, in the Liverpool Plains, New South Wales, on February 21, 1837. His parents were reputable, law-abiding people. His father was a rough and uneducated stockman, but of high personal character, and of not unsubstantial means, and his mother boasted "the good drop" of blood in her veins. Young Ben was brought up according to the best standards obtaining in the somewhat cabined society and circumstances of the remote bush district of his home. His mother taught him, while she lived, to fear God and to hold up his head before his fellows—mindful of the genealogy in which she took much secret pride. His father made of him one of the most expert riders and stockmen in Australia (while still in his teens), and caused him also to attend school daily for three years at Murrurundi, where Ben learned to read and write and reckon—accomplishments which at that time pertained almost exclusively to the children of another class.
Ben's superior education and his habitual manner of superiority (acquired from his mother's training) made him an unpopular figure on his return to Breeza. The local lads were quick to resent his affectation of the gentleman, and he was promptly brought to book. He soon discovered that in the bush no claims to captaincy are recognised that cannot be enforced with the strong hand, and he abandoned grammar for the gloves. His manner, however, had already become too intimately a part of him to be resigned, then or later, and to the last hour of his life an elegant and cynically arrogant deportment distinguished him from his kind.
It is recorded of him that he fought and beat all the boys residing in the neighborhood of Breeza of within five years above his own age, and the only occasion on which he lowered his flag was when he met and was worsted in the ring by a young man seven years his senior. But even that defeat enhanced his reputation, since he refused to surrender until he was beaten into unconsciousness, when his opponent claimed victory by default.
Ben Hall was still a mere youngster when his mother died. Soon afterwards his father removed to the Lachlan River to assume the management of Mr. Hamilton's run or station, situated some fifteen miles from Forbes, on the road to the Pinnacle. Ben accompanied his father, and remained on the station until he was eighteen years old. It says much for him that when he quitted Breeza the youths of that district were inconsolable at his departure, and they testified their affection and regret by presenting the boy they had formerly disliked with a silver-mounted saddle and bridle.
Arrived at the Lachlan, Ben immediately began to earn his own living. Although little more than a child, he sought and secured a probationary appointment as accountant and stock-keeper to the station. In this he was speedily confirmed by Mr. Hamilton, who was both surprised and delighted by the lad's cleverness and accuracy; and he retained the position for several years, completely to the satisfaction of his employer. Young Ben's duties rapidly extended. It was part of his father's arrangement with Mr. Hamilton that the manager should be permitted to graze his own cattle on the squatter's holding. Ben was given charge of his father's stock, and thus received a double wage. Being naturally of a thrifty disposition, he saved money, and ere long he had sufficient capital at command to become a stock-holder in a small way on his own account. As Mr. Hamilton freely accorded of the boy the same rights of grazing that the elder Hall enjoyed, and in other ways generously encouraged the youngster's enterprise, Ben started out on his career with the fairest prospects.
For a considerable period fortune was his devoted mistress. The seasons were good, grass was plentiful, and all the herds in his control multiplied and throve unceasingly. There can be no doubt that in this stage of his life Ben was as honest as the sun. And he was as capable as he was honest, and brimful of energy into the bargain. His complex trust was discharged in the most exemplary manner. Not a single dispute as to brands ever arose on the station. Mr. Hamilton's herds were attended to with unfailing care, and the elder Hall, although a hard and exacting man, had never a complaint to make of his son. In view of subsequent happenings, too much emphasis can hardly be laid upon the upright and sterling character which Ben exhibited during these early years. He was in a position to benefit greatly by employing methods of chicane, but his conduct was always unimpeachable. His capacity as a stockman was of a remarkably high order. He knew every beast on the station by heart, and such was his power of perception, and so retentive was his memory, that he could recognise and unerringly locate young cattle which he had only seen once and casually when just calved a year before. These exceptional faculties were at all times loyally disposed to the advantage of the squatter and of his father, and his own interests occupied a minor place.
In the circumstances it is not surprising that his name became a synonym for good judgment and integrity, and that his word was cheerfully accepted in settlement of every contention, small or large, that seemed to fall within the scope of his elastic and constantly expanding jurisdiction. Everybody on the station and in the surrounding district liked and trusted Ben, and he fully justified the confidence reposed in him. Before three years had elapsed he was virtually the manager of the estate and of all the diverse interests its boundaries contained. His father, it is true, continued to administer the office, but his rule was formal. Ben was the real authority. He eclipsed his father in all directions, even as a salesman, and the elder Hall rarely ventured on any important action without having previously taken counsel with his son, in whose business capacity he placed unbounded faith.
The sprightly French philosopher of the Middle Ages who equipped posterity with his sardonic probe wherewith to expose the secret causes of the troubles that afflict and ruin men, might well have written with a foreknowledge of Ben Hall's career. "Cherchez la femme," advised the Frenchman—"In every disaster that overtakes a man, seek out the woman; for, be sure, a woman will be found at the bottom of it." It was a woman who wrecked Ben Hall's life, perverted his nature, and brought him to a premature and dreadful death.
At seventeen years of age his reputation was deservedly above reproach, his prospects were brilliant, and the whole world was his friend. Suddenly he met the woman predestined to be his evil genius. That was his darkest and most fateful hour; but Ben imagined it his most gloriously fortunate. He fell in love with her as immature boys so often do with women who are at once beautiful and experienced coquettes—madly, blindly, desperately in love—and he was deliriously happy in that she seemed to return his affection. To recount in detail the story of his wooing would be to pay too high a compliment to the memory of a worthless coquette, for such she afterwards proved herself to be.
The main facts, however, must be related. At that juncture she was a mere girl, and not much older than Ben. Her name was Bridget Walsh. Her father was a squatter, stationed near Wheogo, and there Bridget lived. To Ben's dazzled and inexperienced eyes she appeared a veritable angel of purity and loveliness. He was an excellent stockman, but a poor appraiser of women. It must be confessed that the girl had a pretty face, and was a physically perfect specimen of her sex, but no other virtues, if she possessed them, have been revealed to us. She was notorious throughout the district as a heartless flirt. It was her pride and pleasure to keep several admirers at a time dangling on a string, and to make each believe himself the sole repository of her favors. She hated work, and she adored finery. Her moral sense belonged to the palaeolithic era. In short, she was an idle, sly, and irresponsible person.
It was a flattering triumph to the vanity of such a girl to secure so popular a youth as Ben Hall as the captive of her bow and spear. Not a handsomer lad was to be found in the countryside. His generous disposition and unfailing willingness to assist his neighbors had endeared him to all, and everyone held in high esteem the enterprise, energy, and acumen he evinced in the conduct of business affairs. Moreover, he was already, despite his years, quite a substantial citizen. He owned a flourishing herd, and he was reputed to possess a large sum of ready money at call in the hands of his employer, Mr. Hamilton.
Miss Walsh encouraged Ben, and her parents, who had long been anxious as to her future, enthusiastically welcomed his suit. Mr. Hall, however, was of another mind. Having taken pains to acquaint himself with the girl's character, he perceived danger in the connection to his son, and he opposed the match with all his force. There was re-enacted the old, old tragic-comedy of blind and sanguine faith triumphing to its own undoing above experience. Mr. Hall brought convincing evidence to Ben that Bridget Walsh was trifling with him, that she had many lovers, and that one in particular, a young police constable whom we shall call James Garrett (for reasons that our readers will readily appreciate) had a better right than all others to become her husband. Ben sturdily refused to believe anything detrimental of his lady love. He passionately asserted his unconquerable faith in her integrity, and when his father persisted in attempting to open the boy's eyes, the pair quarrelled violently. Mr. Hamilton then intervened, hoping to save Ben from a mistake which he foresaw might wreck the lad's career. But Ben stubbornly refused to listen to any counsel, and proclaimed his resolve to marry Bridget, even though all the world should range against him.
Matters having come to this pass, Mr. Hall made a final desperate effort to prevent the marriage, which, in view of his opposition, the Walsh family was secretly arranging to expedite, notwithstanding the youth of the lovers. Apprehending that Bridget's parents considered Ben a desirable husband for their daughter principally on account of the lad's cattle and the money he had stored up, Mr. Hall decided on a coup d'etat. Exercising his legal right as the father of an infant, he withdrew from Mr. Hamilton's keeping the whole of Ben's little fortune, and, quitting the station, he removed both his own and his son's cattle to the other side of the country, returning to his earlier home near Murrurundi.
Ben, of course, could not be kept in ignorance of his father's intentions, but he was helpless to avert them. He witnessed the preparations for the exodus in a state of burning indignation. But his rage was futile. Mr. Hall proved inexorable alike to menaces and abject protestations. He believed that it was his duty to do what he was doing, and nothing could turn him from his purpose. Ben was in despair. He saw himself bereft of all the property that he had toiled for years to amass, and it was no comfort to him to know that he might regain it, for he could only do so by giving up the girl he loved and abandoning the district. One last stormy interview took place between father and son. It was fruitless. Cruel speeches were exchanged, and the pair parted—for ever.
That night Ben left the station surreptitiously on foot, saying good-bye to no one, and, very probably, uncertain of his future course, for he had no mind, being a proud lad, to beg help of any man, least of all from the father of his sweetheart. Calf-love, however, is a compelling force, and daylight found Ben on the road to Wheogo. He arrived there at even-fall, tired out, hungry, and infinitely miserable. Mr. Hall had made one mistake. It was a crucial one. In assuming that Mr. John Walsh, Bridget's father, was a mere worldling, he had profoundly erred. Ben's sterling character and abilities, and not Ben's herds and money, had been this worthy man's chief motive in accepting the lad's suit for Bridget's hand.
Penniless and starving, Ben received a warmer welcome from John Walsh than had ever been accorded him when at the top of his fortunes. He was instantly appointed head stock-keeper of the station, at a high salary, and that very night Ben and Bridget were formally betrothed before an assembly of the station hands and servants over which the squatter presided; and the young couple's health and happiness were toasted in flowing bumpers of champagne.
Twelve months later the lovers were married, and took up their residence on a run named Sandy Creek, adjoining Wheogo, which Ben was helped to stock with cattle and horses through his father-in-law's generosity.
The ensuing six years passed like a happy dream for Ben, only a single untoward incident occurring to disfigure its blissful tranquillity. One winter evening he returned home late and unexpectedly from a journey after stock. Entering the house softly, intent upon giving his wife a pleasant little surprise, he found her standing before the fire in the living room locked in the embrace of Constable James Garrett. But Bridget was a clever woman. She saw the door open, and, guessing the intruder, she at once began to rant and struggle and to cry out. Ben dashed to her assistance, and hurled the constable aside. A fight followed, in which Garrett was severely beaten and almost killed before he could effect his escape. Then came confidences, and Ben indignantly lamented that he was not a homicide when he learned how his darling's innocent hospitality had been abused, and how only his own fortunate return had preserved her (for it seems that her strength had been all but spent in strife with her cowardly assailant) from outrage worse than death.
Ben's confidence in Bridget's fidelity increased rather than diminished as time proceeded. His love for her was an all-absorbing passion, amounting very near to sheer idolatry. She bore him two children, and he was, perhaps, the only person for fifty miles around who never questioned her faithfulness, for he did not dream that it was her practice to entertain admirers in his absence. And Ben was often absent from the homestead, since his manifold duties and growing enterprises called him constantly afield.
The end came like a bolt shot from the blue. Early in the year 1862 Ben was required to attend to a big muster at Bland. He took a most affectionate leave of Bridget and the babies, and the former lovingly entreated him not to be long away. He hurried home at the earliest moment possible to find the house a desert. His wife and her children had vanished. A letter was pinned to the central panel of her bedroom door. It was addressed to Ben. He tore the envelope across, and the following lines were unfolded to his gaze:—
Try to forgive me, for I shall never forgive myself. But I cannot help what I am doing. I love Jack Taylor, and I cannot live without him. Do not follow us. It would be useless. I never cared for you like I do for Jack, and I would not go back to you if you gave me gold to walk on.
Until that instant Ben had never as much as heard of the man with whom his wife had eloped.
The black hour found Ben Hall utterly unprepared to meet it. Respect for women as a sex had been with him from childhood a cardinal sentiment, something more, indeed, than an article of faith. And he had held his wife in outstanding veneration, believing her the epitome and personification of all the sweetest female virtues. He conned over the missive which proclaimed the creature of his worship a meretricious jade with an incredulous and speculative mind. It was not a jest, of course. No true woman could steep her robe of honor in the mire of pleasantry.
But why had she written such a letter?
Had she been forced to pen those words of infamy?
He searched the house again and found evidence enough to assure him it had been unoccupied for at least two days. The maid servants had vanished with their mistress. He opened cupboard after cupboard. All were bare. It struck him that the house was too well lighted. He glanced at the windows and perceived that the blinds and curtains had disappeared. A little later he missed many familiar articles of furniture, knick-knacks, and petty valuables. He laughed stridently and pursued his investigations. The plate and household linen had melted into air.
In good truth, little had been left save furniture too heavy to be easily removed.
The thought flashed: "A cavalcade was needed with such a flitting." Ben laughed again, and strode out of the house to the stable. He glanced into the stalls, then swept the stockyard with eyes that had begun to blaze. Two well-bred hacks and three stout pack-horses were missing. A heavy silence brooded over the station. Had his men gone too? He walked down the line of huts. All seemed empty, but as he passed the last he heard a suppressed guffaw, and swinging on his heel he saw three stockmen skulking behind an angle of the building which, till then, had screened them from his sight. They stiffened and shrank as he angrily confronted them. He read knowledge, contempt, and a little pity, too, in their would-be non-committal looks. He realised suddenly that they knew infinitely more than he of one matter at least, and mayhap of many things. A frantic thirst for larger wisdom awoke in him, but hand in hand with a new and unsuspected cunning. He dissimulated the fire that was burning in his heart, smoothed his face and smiled.
"Well, boys," he said, "so it's come at last, hey?"
They exchanged quiet glances, then looked at him; but reassured by his composed and confidently expectant demeanor, they relaxed in grins. "My!" exclaimed one, "if you ain't a deep one, boss, I'd like to know who is."
"Strike me!" said another.
The third was content with a gesture eloquent of surprise and admiration. Such material was as clay to the potter's hand. Ben easily turned the trio inside out, and learned as much as he required, more than was true, perhaps. But there was room and reason for exaggeration in such a parlous case, and when Ben closed the inquisition he brushed all petty details from his memory. Only two facts concerned him. He had been living for a lustrum with a wanton. He had reverenced this woman like a saint. He returned to the house, and in the shelter of his little office he threw himself upon a couch to think.
An hour later he arose, pallid and purposeful. He would follow the woman (he had learned where she had gone) to the Fish River, and kill her, kill her in her latest lover's arms. But first he must have drink, and plenty of it; the pain in his breast must be numbed, or he would go mad before he could do what he wished to do. He proceeded to the storeroom, where the station liquor was kept, but it was to find the rum puncheon stone dry.
Then he remembered the carouse given to the servants by his wife on the eve of her elopement—whereof the men had told him. He ground his teeth upon a curse. He must be content with wine. A case of sparkling Burgundy had come by waggon from Forbes just before he left for Bland. He had put it in the pantry himself. He went to the pantry. The case was there, but it was empty of bottles, and it bulged untidily with a mess of shades and wrappings of straw.
Ben had purchased the wine for a feast that he had intended to give in honor of his eldest child's birthday. He gazed at the straw and felt all the laughing imps of Eblis tugging at his heartstrings. "No doubt sparkling Burgundy is Mr. Jack Taylor's favorite tipple," he said aloud. "I remember now how keen Bridget was that I should order it rather than champagne." Then he leaned against the wall and laughed with maniacal immoderation. He laughed and laughed until he sank a helpless, sore, and shuddering heap upon the floor; and still spasms of laughter shook him furiously, even when the slightest movement of any muscle had become an agony. It was long before Dame Nature condescended to be kind to him. But at last, after a period of anguish unspeakable, some vital cord or fibre seemed to snap. There came a noise of rushing water in Ben's ears. He flung out his arms and fought as a drowning man for breath, but the visionary waters closed upon him, and peace settled on his tortured spirit.
Ben Hall's mind was blessedly purged of murderous intention in that deep slumber of exhaustion. When his senses returned to him his sole desire was to murder thought and to stifle the glowing pain of recollection. Wandering like a ghost through the house where he had spent so many blissful years, he made a brave effort to discover fresh material for the reconstruction of his life. He made several resolutions. He would neither abandon the district nor his home. He would oppose a face of granite to the world, and allow none to suspect the havoc that Bridget had wrought in his heart, but force people to believe, on the contrary, that he was quietly glad to be rid of her. He would devote himself, soul and body, to the task of amassing money, and he would become a power in the land. Thus he would wipe out his dishonor and avenge his hurts, by wringing the vanity of his faithless wife. He would compel her to suppose, by his disdainful indifference to her defection, that his love, too, had been a mockery and a fraud; and by augmenting his fortunes he would oblige her to look up to his eminence from the depths of her own infamy and covet helplessly the brilliant prize that she had forfeited.
Poor Ben Hall! The end of all these desperate determinings was that he hung himself upon his marriage bed in a wild fit of weeping, and sent forth vain heart-broken cries into the still and empty twilight for his darling to return to him. When the mountains of his grief were dry, he stole out to the stables and mounted his best horse. Riding at headlong speed to the nearest village, he entered a public house and essayed the anodyne of drink. The bar-room had its usual tale of loafers—some waggoners whose teams were staked out on the roadside, a bibulous squatter named Hale, and a sundowner or two. Ben nodded to Hale, and called on the publican to supply all hands. The loungers enthusiastically breasted the counter, and prepared for a rousing spree. They had already heard of Bridget Hall's elopement (it is probable indeed that Ben had been the last man in the district to learn of it, for such news travels at the speed of light to all except the interested), and they could see at a glance that Ben's mood was entirely reckless—ergo, his purse would be at their disposal. It was. Three rounds were consumed in as many minutes, but in dead silence, because the loungers were obsessed with a single thought, and they hesitated to offer Ben their sympathy, because of his silence and the inscrutability of his face.
The company was just about to drain the fourth round—supplied noiselessly in response to a peremptory nod—when the outer door opened, and Constable James Garrett stalked into the room. His face was flushed (he had just hurried away from a neighboring inn, having heard of Ben's arrival) and he was obviously not his own master. He strode to the counter (a sundowner obsequiously made room for him) and noisily called for a glass of rum. Ben spoke for the first time. "I'm in charge here, Garrett. If you drink, you drink with me."
"Of course, I will drink with you," cried the constable. Seizing the ready glass he held it on high. "And I'll give you a toast," he bawled; "Good luck to Jack Taylor, the eye-opener of Sandy Creek!"
Ben Hall fell back a step, and his face slowly blanched. Garrett swallowed his liquor and turned to meet his enemy, bringing into prominence his pistol as he moved. "Now, I'm even with you," he jeered. "You took me at an advantage once, but never again. It's my turn now. Offer to touch me, and I'll send you up!"
The warning was apposite, for Ben's rage was in a flame, and his eyes gleamed madness. With a visible effort he controlled his passion, then he muttered, in a queer stammering way: "You've said enough for revenge, Garrett, let it go at that."
"Ay, ay, let it go at that," chimed in Hale, who thirsted for more free liquor, and was impatient at this interruption. "Shake hands and be friends," he added yearningly. But the constable was not to be satisfied with a little triumph, A beggar on horseback, he needs must ride to the devil. He named Bridget Hall, and with a biting jibe besmirched her reputation from the cradle. Ben laughed hoarsely and called for more rum. Garrett, always keeping his revolver pointed and at cock, plied the victim with still coarser insults. But he paused at length to drink, and Ben's chance arrived. The pistol cracked, but the bullet sped harmlessly into the ceiling.
Almost simultaneously the two men crashed to the floor, locked in each other's arms; but Garrett was a mere child in the powerful young squatter's grip, and in a few seconds he was screaming for mercy. As profitably he might have cried to the moon. The punishment meted out to him was brutally severe, but he had labored to deserve it, and neither then nor later did it win the ruffian any sympathy. Garrett was thenceforth known as "the Black Snake," for it was rumoured and generally believed that he carried in his mouth a pronged tongue as the result of his encounter with Ben Hall in the Maid of Arens Hotel, at Wheogo.
Ben spent the next ten days riding from one township to another, drinking heavily and ceaselessly. During all the time he was never once sober, yet never once completely intoxicated. Always he was profoundly miserable, and his wanderings were inspired by the hope of somewhere discovering a cordial potent to obliterate consciousness and memory. Although he never once guessed it, his every moment was shadowed by a watchful and ruthless enemy, who had vowed to destroy him.
Ben's companions of this era were the riff-raff of the countryside; sundowners, drunken teamsters and stockmen, and suspected highwaymen—all those, indeed, who customarily sought relaxation, excitement, or information in the low social change-houses of vice and gossip provided by the remote wayside public-houses of the period. Ben's commerce with this scum was entirely innocent of any ulterior criminal intention, but Garrett chose to think otherwise, and laid his plans accordingly.
On the eleventh day Ben found himself at Wowingragong. A race meeting chanced to be in progress, and some idlers whom he met at the local tavern persuaded him to visit the course. Ben had scarcely entered the enclosure when he was accosted and publicly arrested by Sir Frederick Pottinger, chief of police of all that district, and charged with having lately committed highway robbery under arms.
Numbers of Ben's respectable friends and neighbors were present. They clustered round the officer and his prisoner, and were so indignant when they heard the ridiculous charge that they threatened to make trouble. Ben, however, was perfectly indifferent. He advised his sympathisers to let him alone, and submitted quietly to arrest, holding up his wrists for the hand-cuffs. The truth was, he cared nothing what happened to him, and so vain had been his quest of oblivion in drink that he was almost prepared to welcome the new experience. Sir Frederick Pottinger haled him to the lock-up, and thrust him into a cell. Next morning he was formally committed.
The police then carried him to Orange, and lodged him in the town prison, the committing magistrate having refused him bail. Ben lay in the Orange gaol awaiting his trial for five weeks. His enemy devoted the time to amassing evidence against him. Ben spent the days in painful reflection. He soon recovered from the effects of his reckless debauch, which had, in fact, in no wise distressed his magnificent constitution. But he remained terribly unhappy. The friends who visited him always found him silent and morose. He refused all help, all consolation. He would not consent that a lawyer should be employed to defend him, and he seemed only to desire to be left in solitude.
What were his thoughts can only be guessed, but that they did not greatly concern the charge hanging over him is a certainty, since he made not the slightest preparation at any time for his defence.
At length came the day of his trial. The court was crowded to the doors with excited and curious spectators. Ben stood in the dock, chained hand and foot like a desperate felon. Many cried "Shame," as he made his appearance thus accoutred. But Ben seemed not to feel the degradation. His handsome face was perfectly composed, and his bearing was self-possessed and proud. He gave the impression of being quite detached from his surroundings and quietly scornful of the humiliating position in which he was placed.
During the formal preliminary ceremonies he was seen to smile contemptuously once or twice, but he took no part in them, except to say, "Not guilty," in a firm and resonant voice, when required to plead. The Crown exhausted its rights of challenge while the jury was being empanelled; but Ben challenged no man, nor did he cross-examine a single witness for the prosecution. One might have thought that he desired to be convicted. The judge, however, was concerned that justice should be done. He had conceived, moreover, an interest in the prisoner (whom he afterwards described to a friend as one of the finest-looking men he had ever seen), and he put a number of shrewd questions to each witness.
The result was sensational.
When the Crown case was closed, the perspiring prosecutor was constrained to admit that there was no case for the prisoner to answer. Every witness had broken down in the box before his Honor's cross-examination, and Ben's innocence was manifest. The judge made a few stinging comments on the methods of the police, and curtly directed the jury to acquit the prisoner, which they did at once, without leaving their seats.
Ben's triumph was complete. The sergeant struck off his gyves in the midst of a noisy public demonstration, which the Court criers could not suppress. Ben bowed gravely to the judge, and strode quietly through a lane of loudly cheering sympathisers to the door, a free man.
Half an hour later he left Orange for Sandy Creek, his mind as to the future fully resolved. He intended to sell his station, muster his stock, and forthwith remove with all his horses and cattle to another and distant part of the colony.
In all likelihood the plan had been conceived and elaborated while he lay in prison. Certainly it was a wise one. It seemed highly improbable that he could ever be happy on the Lachlan, where every association was identified with memories of the faithless wife, whose image even yet he had been unable to tear out of his heart; and beyond that, the Lachlan held an active enemy possessed of the power and opportunity to annoy and hurt him, and determinedly bent upon his ruin. Ben's aspiration now was to seek in some far territory, the peace and quiet of which his life had been so sadly bereft. He was still young, barely five and twenty years of age, and what right had he to suppose that the present darkness would not lighten?
Now and then fate and circumstance appeared too strong for him, but might he not, in some remote and even fairer district, among fresh faces, and helped by people to whom his story was unknown, found another home, build up a new and brighter career, and at length, perhaps, come on speaking terms with happiness again? At any rate he would make the experiment, and put all his soul and strength into the effort. Should he let it be said that a worthless woman had spoiled his life, beaten him to earth, and robbed his strong young Manhood of the power to rise again? Perish the notion! A curse upon such weakness! He could live lonely and prosper thus in all things best—and he would! Ben shook a shut fist skyward as he rode, as though defying all the slings of fortune. But the next moment all that loneliness means to the married heart smote his consciousness with misery, and, bowed upon his horse's neck by a force beyond control, he groaned.
Ben had no difficulty in disposing of the lease of his run. As soon as his wishes were known, John McGuire, a man who had been associated with him in several business transactions, made an offer which he promptly accepted, and Ben thereupon commenced the work of mustering his horses. The task was not a light one. The run straggled over a wide expanse of difficult and broken country, and as dividing fences were non-existent, Ben's neglected stock had scattered far and wide during his imprisonment. His first care was to patch up the yards, which he found in a disgraceful condition of disrepair, the hand of the fire vandal and the panel thief being everywhere apparent. Ben suspected Constable Garrett, but, lacking proof, he accused nobody. His anxiety, however, to evade the district greatly increased, and he labored like a Titan to get everything in order. Assisted as he was by two willing, capable, and reputable stockmen, the job proceeded apace; nevertheless, although all hands toiled night and day, no more than three-fourths of his horses had been collected at the end of seven weeks. The work was still in full swing when Sir Frederick Pottinger and Sub-inspector Sanderson suddenly appeared upon the scene. They came upon Ben and his two assistants just as the trio, tired out from a very hard day's exertions, were about to discuss the evening meal, seated about their camp-fire near the north end of the stock-yards. The house was not far distant, but Ben hated the sight of it, and, ever since the work of mustering began, he had eschewed its shelter, preferring to live and sleep in the open air. And his men, who knew his reasons and respected his feelings, had never grumbled to forfeit the superior comfort they ought have enjoyed by occupying the empty homestead. Perfectly unconscious of the cause of the police visitation, Ben gave the officers a cordial bush welcome to his camp, and invited them to supper. The invitation was accepted, and Ben hospitably ransacked his stores to set his best dainties before the unexpected guests. During the meal the talk was general, but when pipes were lighted, Ben politely asked what had brought the officers to Sandy Creek. Sir Frederick Pottinger's reply was a startling one. "The Eugowra escort robbery," he said. Ben Hall and the stockmen gazed at him in frank surprise, having heard nothing of the affair, and they eagerly requested information. Pottinger smiled meaningly. "On the fifteenth of this month (June)," said he, "Frank Gardiner and his gang stuck up and overcame the Lachlan gold escort, on the Forbes-road, near Eugowra. They severely wounded one trooper, and they carried off fifteen thousand ounces of gold. It is the greatest highway robbery that has ever been perpetrated. The robbers are still at large."
"What an amazing story!" cried Ben, and his men exclaimed in unison. Their astonishment was sincere, but Sir Frederick Pottinger (let us hope) believed they acted a part. With studied carelessness he got afoot, and at a nod from him Sanderson also rose. Next second Ben and his stockmen were staring into the muzzles of cocked revolvers. "I want you all in the Queen's name," said Pottinger; "you are charged with complicity in the outrage, and I require you to accompany me immediately to Forbes." The prisoners offered no resistance. Indeed, for a time, they were too dazed even to protest. But as the hand-cuffs snapped on Ben's wrists his mind cleared, and he found his tongue. "Look here, Sir Frederick," he began, "you are making a cruel mistake. I give you my word of honor that you are. For the last seven weeks we three have never for one moment been absent from this run. We have been fencing and mustering all the time. I can guess the name of the man who set you on to me. But surely your last experience of his untrustworthiness should have taught you what he is. He hates me, and would stop at nothing to——"
"I'll hear nothing against Constable Garrett," interrupted the chief of police with warmth. "He is a zealous officer, and I esteem him highly."
Ben shrugged his shoulders. "Surely he is not unsusceptible to error," he protested. "Look around you, Sir Frederick. Examine the work we have been doing, and I'm sure you will speedily be convinced that I am perfectly innocent, and that for a second time I have been falsely accused."
"It is too dark to examine anything," observed Sub-inspector Sanderson.
"Then," cried Ben, "for heavens' sake wait until to-morrow. Nay, Sir Frederick, do not say 'Impossible.' I implore you to do it. You will lose but a night, and you will gain my eternal gratitude."
"You are very anxious that we should stay the night here," said Pottinger suspiciously.
"It is because my interests are at stake. Because I am certain that when you have seen what we have been doing you will realise how utterly impossible it is that I or either of my hands could have been with Gardiner—a man I have never even seen."
Pottinger smiled meaningly. "Methinks you do protest too much," he quoted; "it seems to me that your anxiety might just as well arise out of a hope of being rescued. Gardiner has been traced to yonder mountains, and for aught I know he may at this very moment be overlooking us. Say no more, Hall. I would like to oblige you, and I trust you may be able to clear yourself as effectively as you did last May at Orange. But my duty is clear. We start at once for Forbes. Sanderson (he turned to the sub-inspector), do you go and saddle up for our prisoners while I keep them under cover here. And use despatch, please. We have a long ride before us, and have lingered here too long already."
Ben Hall looked his captor straight in the eye: "For seven weeks I have been toiling here like any nigger," he said quietly; "my muster is on the verge of completion. If you persist in your intention all my work will be undone and wasted, and a whole season will be lost to me. As I am situated, that would mean something very like my ruin. Will you really put such an injustice on an innocent, and, as God hears me, an honest man? Think the matter over for a moment, Sir Frederick, before you finally decide. And remember this: I have lived in this district ever since I was a little lad. For fifteen years no man has had a fault to find with me. I dare to say that no man could, for I have wronged none and benefited many. Moreover, I am no pauper. In yonder stockyard is enough living wealth, all mine, to put me always over and beyond the reach of want; why, then, should I have broken out to become a thief and an outlaw? My whole life refutes the notion, and paints it either as a senseless fancy or the deliberate invention of an enemy."
Sir Frederick Pottinger listened civilly to Ben's address; but at the last word he shook his head. "You speak well and speciously," he responded, "but my information is precise, and it definitely points to your guilt."
"Although it comes from a tainted source," cried the other pointedly.
Pottinger frowned. "Constable Garrett has been slandered by you before," he said, "I shall listen to no more abuse of him."
"He has sworn to ruin me," cried Ben, "sworn it publicly before a crowd of people."
"Before a crowd of tap-room loungers and criminals, whose word would not hang a mangy dog," sneered the chief.
"And every one of them a better man than he."
Sir Frederick's lips curled, as he kicked the firelight into a brilliant glow. "You are prejudiced," he remarked.
"And you are infatuated."
The chief was seen to flush. "I can well afford to ignore your impertinence," he said loftily, "and let me tell you that Garrett can equally afford to ignore your splenitic hate of him. There was some rivalry between you concerning a woman, was there not? But you need not answer, Mr. Hall, I am tired of gossip. Garrett is a respectable man and a valuable officer, and I am quite satisfied that he would not wilfully mislead me."
Ben, at length, threw every diplomatic consideration to the winds. "Sir Frederick Pottinger," said he, "malignant and unscrupulous constables like Garrett, and infatuated fools of commanders like you are a danger to the community. You are mighty poor thief-catchers, as the records prove, but your worst fault is that you manufacture criminals; not satisfied to fail repeatedly and almost constantly in your duty to protect the public from born rogues, you harry and hound down decent men against whom any member of the force has conceived a grudge until in very desperation they take to the bush. You and your protege would like me to be a robber, and you are trying to make one of me, although you know that I am an honest man. I warn you to take care, for if you succeed I shall be a robber to some purpose, and, by the Lord above us, I shall never rest until I get my full revenge."
The chief of police had a scarlet face before this diatribe was over, yet he did not lose his self-control. Sir Frederick was by no means a brilliant officer, and his many notorious failures to put down and punish violent crime had brought his professional capacity into general discredit. Every word that Ben had spoken hurt him sorely and bitterly galled his self-esteem. But he was an upright man, and his sense of justice was keen. He reflected that Ben might, after all, be innocent, in which case his outbreak might be granted some excuse. Collecting his dignity, he said, coldly. "You have a hot imagination, Mr. Hall; nobody wants you to become a robber; and I, for one, sincerely hope you are as honest as you pretend to be. That, however, remains to be proved. In the meantime I must insist that you keep your malicious and wholly unwarrantable opinions to yourself."
Ben shrugged his shoulders, and said no more. A few moments later the journey to Forbes commenced. It was a long way, and, for the most part, a silent ride. It ended at the town gaol, but Ben was the only one of the three prisoners put into durance vile. The stockmen were merely required to promise that they would report themselves from time to time, and then, much to their surprise, they were set at liberty. The police despised such small game, perhaps.
The police case against Ben Hall was of the flimsiest possible description. Trooper Garrett had seen one of Gardiner's associates making in the direction of Sandy Creek soon after the Eugowra robbery, and another member of the same gang had been tracked across the Weddin Mountains, which lay to the south of Ben's run. Such were the facts which had determined the unfortunate man's arrest, and evidence of any other sort against him there was none. Two days after his arrival at Forbes, Ben was brought before the bench of magistrates, and, at the instance of the police, he was remanded for a week for the production of further evidence. Ben forcibly proclaimed his innocence, and asked for bail. Some of his friends who were in court testified to his high character, and signified their willingness to go surety for him for any amount, but the application was curtly refused. The explanation seems to be that the Eugowra robbery had thrown the community into a state of consternation. Frank Gardiner's name was held in almost universal terror, and the magistrates, reflecting public opinion, dared not set at large any person suspected, however remotely, of having associated with the outlaw. Ben was taken back to prison and securely confined. He strove hard to endure his misfortunes with composure, but he did not perfectly succeed. It was impossible for one so abused not to feel himself a persecuted and deeply injured man. Ben was of a peculiarly ardent and enthusiastic temperament; essentially a man of action.
The indignity and compulsory inactivity of gaol life played havoc with his proud spirit and undermined his health. Confident as he was that his innocence would at length be fully established and his reputation cleared, he began to brood darkly on his wrongs. The iron of injustice had entered his soul. He could not eat, he could not sleep. His guardians appear to have treated him with great sympathy and kindness. They supplied him with good food and furnished him, against the regulations, with tobacco; they found him a docile prisoner, for he was always sunk in apathy, and he obeyed all directions with indifference; but they could not induce him to converse, nor could they win him over to take the faintest apparent interest in his surroundings.
When the bench re-assembled, it was a sick man who was brought before the Court. The sergeant in charge of the prosecution had no fresh evidence to prefer, and he applied promptly for a further remand. Ben feebly protested, but the application was granted. Ben spent the next fortnight in the infirmary attached to the lock-up. By then his bodily strength had returned, but his mental condition was one of settled gloom. Once more he was haled before the Court, and again remanded, bail again being refused. He laughed loudly as the police removed him from the dock, but he made no remark. At his next appearance a lawyer, engaged by some of his friends, made a vigorous attempt to procure his release, but the bench stubbornly stuck to its guns, and Ben was taken back to prison. This sort of thing, however, could not go on for ever, and at length the day of his emancipation dawned. Ben had been, in all, seven weeks and two days falsely and unjustly imprisoned, when he was brought for the last time before the Court. As before, the police applied for a remand, but they found the magistrates for the first time uncomplaisant. The chairman's answer is on record. He said:—
"We consider, sergeant, that you have had ample time and abundant opportunity to substantiate your charge against the accused. You have completely failed to produce a shred of evidence against him, and we have decided to admit accused to bail if he is able to give satisfactory assurances that he will appear if called upon. We have fixed bail at £500 for accused, and two sureties of £250 each."
It is almost needless to remark that from first to last the whole of the magisterial proceedings were flagrantly illegal. The bench had no warrant at law to grant so many and such lengthy remands without admitting Ben to bail, and when at last the magistrates actually admitted him to bail they were legally bound either to have acquitted him or to have committed him for trial. The Crown law authorities subsequently took a very strong view of these high-handed irregularities, and severely censured both the magistrates and the police. As a matter of fact, Ben was never committed at any time for the charge on which he had been arrested, and as soon as the papers in the case reached headquarters, the Attorney-General of the colony directed that his sureties should be discharged from their recognisances.
Ben, however, for reasons presently to be related, never obtained any compensation for the abuses to which he had been subjected, and to the very last moment of his imprisonment his oppressors persisted in abusing him. It was known to everybody that he was well off, and that his bond for such a sum as £500 might be accepted without risk, but the police refused to accept it, and obliged Ben to produce and lodge in court the amount stated in cash. Thus was he, in the final act of the police drama, not merely wronged, but robbed.
He was sent out into the world with a disgraceful charge hanging over his head from which he ought both at law and in justice to have been freely absolved, and before obtaining even thus much liberty he had been compelled, in outrage of the law, to entrust the police indefinitely with the control of almost every penny of ready money that he possessed.
We can easily imagine Ben's feelings as he stepped from the court-house into the street. He knew the law well, he had taken pains to learn it during his confinement, but he saw all the officers and machinery of the law banded together to deprive him of his civic rights and to deny him justice. It would be little wonder if Ben had forthwith committed some desperate deed in order to avenge himself on his enemies, but he did nothing of the kind. Resentment burned fiercely in his heart, but his spirit was sorely bruised, his pride crushed into the dust. His one desire was to escape from all men's sight. His one hope was to fly for ever, and as quickly as possible, from the place where he had been so cruelly maltreated. Friends clustered round him, proclaiming their sympathy and warmly offering their help. They would have made his release the subject of a big public demonstration, and indeed great preparations had been made to that end. But Ben would not allow it. Tearing himself from the kindly crowd, he mounted the horse which one of them had thoughtfully provided, and, only pausing to implore his friends not to consider him ungrateful, he left the township at a reckless gallop. He had not been gone half an hour before a trooper and a black tracker quietly set out from the police station and followed on his trail.
It was not a good policy in those primitive days for any bushman to make an enemy of a policeman. Beyond doubt, the thought had entered into the mind of at least one local constable: "Surely now, at length, Hall will do something to vindicate our suspicions and the loving attentions we have paid him." Perhaps it was a thought even more uncharitable, still Sir Frederick Pottinger justified his action on the grounds of common prudence. He may have been perfectly sincere, but a haunting doubt must be confessed, for the trooper he sent to spy on Ben was James Garrett, and Sir Frederick Pottinger was not ignorant of the bad blood that flowed between the men.
In order to reach Sandy Creek by the route Ben had chosen (the shortest) he was obliged to traverse the run of his father-in-law at Wheogo. Hitherto he had given his wife's family's home a wide berth, and had steered clear of all her relations, and they had avoided him. Feelings of delicacy had been responsible for this mutual avoidance. They Walshes held Ben blameless in the matter of his wife's elopement, and they deeply sympathised with him in that and his subsequent misfortunes, but they suspected that he must regard them less than kindly as the kin of the woman who had dishonored him. On his part, Ben had not been able to endure the thought of meeting people whom he had not ceased to like, but upon whom he instinctively felt a certain reproach had been fastened by virtue of his marriage—or, rather, the unhappy fashion in which that bond of union had been severed. Time, however, had already begun to armour the sorest of Ben's wounds, and, not a little to his own astonishment, he failed to experience the sharp pain he had expected when, soon after dawn next morning, the once familiar and well loved landmarks rose in view. "I am growing callous," he reflected, and he rode on, touched perversely with a new regret. It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that, while we dread sorrow, and suffer it with keen impatience, we cherish our sensibilities, and we cannot relinquish our outworn capacity for grief without a pang of some queer emotion narrowly resembling shame. Ben made a detour to escape passing near the station, but he was not to quit Wheogo before encountering its chief. He had hardly regained the road when, on mounting from a long declivity, he came face to face on the crest with his father-in-law, who was sauntering homewards from a shooting excursion along the creek, his gun upon his shoulder, a brace of wild duck dangling by his side. The pair halted when abreast, and silently clasped hands. A hard lump rose in Ben's throat. The older man's eyes brimmed with sodden tears. He had always liked Ben well, and the lines which a few short months had scarred in the young fellow's face formed a sight that cut him to the quick. His daughter's handiwork! He forced himself to speak:—
"Macgregor told me last week," he gruffly, "that he saw the entire you bought from Clusky running with half a score of brumby mares near McEwan's boundary, at the Gap!"
"Hang the luck!" growled Ben. "I left the brute in the home paddock at Sandy Creek when Pottinger arrested me. Have any of your fellows been over to my place of late?"
Mr. Walsh shook his head. "No, my lad. You'll be guessing why, perhaps."
Ben nodded. "I suppose John McGuire's there and all fixed up by this?"
"Not yet, Ben. He went north for cattle a month ago, and he'll hardly be back come another fortnight."
"Then I'll be moving on," said Ben. "I'd nearly finished mustering when the police took me, and I left the bulk of my horses in the yards. It's time someone saw to them, I guess."
"If I'd known——" began Mr. Walsh.
But Ben cut him short. "You needn't tell me; I know your kindness, father, of old. Good-bye!" And he spurred off at a gallop.
The name made the old man groan, and he stood there long, gazing mournfully after the dwindling figure of his son-in-law. Bridget Walsh had blighted more than one life when she fled to the Fish River with her fancy man.
Ben Hall made Sandy Creek just before dusk. He rode straight to the stock-yards and drew rein at the first fence. He had previously noted that the small brook which watered both the yards and the home paddock had ceased flowing—the signs pointed to weeks ago—and he had made up his mind that he must be prepared for a shock. But not for the awful scene of desolation that now unfolded to his gaze. Of life in either yards or paddock there was not a sign. Death ruled unquestioned and supreme across that little tract of countryside. The ground was dotted in all directions with the skeletons and shrivelled carcases of what had once been splendid horses, many of them thoroughbreds. Ben counted forty heaps of hide and bones. He scanned the fences, and found their lines unbroken. Half his mustered stock had evidently leaped to life and liberty, but, dispersed far and wide long ago, they were lost to him for that season utterly. The rest had perished miserably of starvation and of thirst.
The place was like a great roofless charnel-house, but one that had been long deserted. Even the crows had gone, disdaining to banquet further on those forty sun-dried mounds of carrion. Ben dismounted and flung himself face downward on the sod. Those poor horses! What must their sufferings have been! Like many of his kind, Ben's love for horses was a sort of passion. He had a sincere affection for all the breed, but his own stock he had almost worshipped. He knew every one of them from ear to fetlock. He had studied them, and learned by heart all their separate little tricks and ways and idiosyncrasies. They were his dear friends, the partners of his industry, the makers of his fortune, the children of his soul, whose real children had been reft from him. Ben pictured the tortures which his unhappy stock had undergone before released by death, and his big frame shook with sobs. He had hardly grieved more keenly when his wife deserted him, but this was an unselfish grief.
When the storm had passed it left him stern and cold—not fierce and quivering with anguished self-abasement like the other grief. He rose and leaned his arms upon the rail. Slowly it was borne in upon his mind that he was a ruined man—a homeless, landless, and well-nigh penniless outcast. When the summer came he might recover some of his scattered horses, but for the present he lacked even the wherewithal to live. It was no longer possible for him immediately to leave the district and build up a new career elsewhere, for he must stay where his stock ranged, lest he lose finally and irremediably the last fragment of his once rich possessions. Strange to say, more than an hour elapsed before it crossed Ben's fancy to attribute his evil case to any other agent than a cruel and purblind Fate. He had turned away from the stockyard to catch his horse, that nibbled the grass at a little distance, trailing the bridle on the ground, when he suddenly perceived the weathered remnants of an old camp fire lying at his feet. A surging flood of memories brought him sharply to a halt. At that very camp-fire he had been seated nearly two months ago when Sir Frederick Pottinger and Sub-inspector Sanderson made him prisoner. He remembered how earnestly he had pleaded with his captors to remain overnight so that they might satisfy themselves upon his innocence. He recalled Pottinger's refusal; the long and gloomy ride to Forbes; the gaol; his protracted imprisonment on a trumped-up charge without a trial; the repeated attempts he had made, and all in vain, to be liberated on bail, so that he might return to Sandy Creek, attend to his stock, and complete his muster; and finally, the crowning act of injustice which had set him free, but only after wresting from him all his ready money, and leaving him still unabsolved from the unfounded criminal accusation that had inspired his persecution.
Ben reviewed these matters bitterly, but without passion, closely examining each link in the chain of circumstances that had wrought his ruin. It appeared to him that, from first to last, the law had been his tyrant and his bane. Although guiltless of any offence against the law, the local ministers of justice had arbitrarily assumed him to be capable of any infamy of which they might be pleased to accuse him. They had fastened crimes upon him which he had never even contemplated, and, having utterly failed to sustain their charges, they had persistently continued to abuse him. Had he been a ruffian and a lawless character from infancy he could not have been treated with greater ignominy. A life-time of good conduct, the high repute he enjoyed throughout the countryside, the possession of substantial wealth, and the warm friendship of scores of respectable men loyally exerted in his favor had all proved powerless to protect him. The prejudiced authorities of the law had scornfully ignored his rights, trampled his reputation in the mire, and brought him to the verge of beggary. Were they satisfied even yet? he asked himself. Would, indeed, they ever be content until thy had succeeded in proving him a criminal? Ben caught and mounted his horse, and slowly set off in a south-easterly direction. His instinct was to put a distance between himself and the police, and so obtain a respite from persecution. Hence his course. He wanted leisure for reflection; above all, he wanted to be alone. He chanced soon after moonrise on a shepherd's hut, and there he spent the night.
Daylight saw him in the saddle. He journeyed across country all day, and at even-fall he struck the Lambing Flat-road at a point very near the residence of Mr. William Allport, a farmer of his acquaintance. Ben rode up to the house, tired and hungry, yet doubtful of a welcome, for the Allports were reputed to be straight-laced people, and he was still under a cloud. But he need not have feared. Mr. Allport gave him a most cordial reception, assuring him that every settler in the country believed him a deeply wronged man; and he attested his own opinion by insisting that Ben should remain his honored guest for as long as he would—a fortnight at least. Poor Ben was quite overwhelmed at so unexpected and practical a display of sympathy. He had not only found an oasis in the desert, but an affectionate greeting where he had been prepared for a rebuff. And he was to be still further surprised. As though by preconcerted arrangement, Mrs. Allport and her girls vied to console and entertain him. He was given the best room in the house for his lodging. Clean clothes and fresh linen were forced on his acceptance; and a dinner was prepared, fit (as Ben said) for a prince. Nor was that all.
After dinner Ben was pressed to relate his story before an audience of warmly sympathetic souls, and it had no sooner come to an end than Mr. Allport, with the enthusiastic approval of his wife, insisted that Ben should accept the loan of a considerable sum of money. Such was the hospitality of the good old days. Ben lingered with this genial family for nearly a week, and the holiday, combined with the kind attentions of his new friends, did much to soothe his embittered feelings and to restore his self-respect. But the unhappy fellow would seem to have been especially marked out by a relentless destiny for a miserable end. Throughout this little interlude of peace and happiness the meshes of a cruel fate were closing round him. Trooper Garrett, after having tracked and shadowed Ben to the Allport haven, temporarily drew away in search of reinforcements and fresh instructions from his chief. He reported that Ben seemed to be absconding from his bail and was consorting with bad companions; and he suggested that a warrant should be issued. Fortune played into the hands of the disaffected constable. On the evening of the fifth day of Ben's sojourn with the Allports, a man named Patsy Daley presented himself at the house, demanding a night's lodging. Daley was a notorious scamp and a suspected follower of Frank Gardiner, but he was a stranger to the Allports, and his request was granted as a matter of course.
When Ben, coming in late for dinner, saw Daley seated at the table, he could not restrain an exclamation of disgust. He spoke out at once. "That man," said he, "is supposed to be one of Gardiner's associates, and I know him from personal experience to be a thief. A reward has been offered for his apprehension!"
Daley promptly got afoot and faced his exposer with an ugly look. But Mr. Allport did not permit him to speak. "Kindly resume your seat, Mr. Daley," he commanded. "Whatever else you may be, you are my guest for the night, and under my protection." He then turned to Ben, and said in an underbreath, "Of course, I believe you, my dear boy, but the rules of hospitality are paramount and tie my hands." Daley laughed triumphantly, and sat down again. Ben shrugged his shoulders.
The meal quietly and silently proceeded. When it was over, Daley, who had drunk freely from a private flask, became garrulous and offensively confident. He boldly declared himself a bushranger, and bragged of his exploits. More especially did he boast that he had just stuck up and robbed single-handed the police station at the Pinnacle, and he said he was on his way to join Gardiner with the swag. Neither the Allports nor Ben credited his improbable story for an instant, but it was, in fact, the truth. And one listened unseen who knew it to be the truth. The spy was Trooper Garrett's black-tracker, who was at that moment crouched under the lintel of the dining-room window in the darkness without. He carried the story swiftly to the police station at Bang Bang, and long before dawn the police were on the road. Daley, suspecting nothing of his danger, slept comfortably, and set off from the farmhouse in a very leisurely fashion after an early morning breakfast. Three hours later a sergeant and five troopers galloped up to the homestead. Ben was at that moment in the dairy, helping one of the girls to make butter. The noise of the churn had prevented him from hearing the sounds of external happenings, and he continued his work in complete ignorance of the visitation. A sudden closure of the light drew his attention to the open door. Mr. Allport stood there beckoning with one hand, two fingers of the other pressed across his lips. Ben dropped the handle of the churn and hurried to his host's side. Mr. Allport turned and pointed to the south. Ben followed the direction of the pointing finger, and saw five troopers cantering slowly, at a little distance behind a mounted black-tracker, who (evidently an expert at his trade) was tracking at a smart trot, stooping low across his saddle bow, his head beneath the level of the horse's withers, his eyes glued to the ground. Even then a whistle would have halted the cavalcade. "They are after Daley?" said Ben, inquiringly.
"And you," said Mr. Allport.
"Me!" cried Ben. "What can they possibly want with me? And if they want me, why have they left me here?"
Mr. Allport rested his hand on Ben's shoulder. "My dear lad," said he, "it is possible that I have done you an injury, but it is one that can be readily undone, and, in any case, I acted for the best. The police have a warrant for your arrest for absconding from bail, but they have also another charge against you. Some spy of theirs was here last night, and heard Daley bragging to us of robbing the Pinnacle station. Unhappily, he actually committed the outrage. On that account the police have set you down as Daley's accomplice, and they accuse you of having pre-arranged with Daley to meet here. I assured them they were mistaken, but they laughed me to scorn. Nothing can convince them that you are not a scoundrel, and they seem fully determined to hunt you down."
"Then why have they left me here?" cut in Ben, excitedly.
"Because they jumped to the conclusion that you set out from my house with Daley this morning. You see, Daley came here with one horse and left with two. He bought a packhorse from young Jordan while we were at breakfast. The police were misled by the double set of tracks. I could have undeceived them, of course, but I did not. You must tell me if I have done you a wrong."
"Done me a wrong! Mr. Allport, how can you ask such a thing? You have saved me from a shameful arrest."
"Ah! my lad, but don't you see that the police, believing that you are in company with Daley, now have reasonable grounds for suspecting your honesty? The man is an outlaw, remember! However, the matter can be easily mended. Do you want my advice?"
"Of course I do."
Mr. Allport nodded. "Then I advise you to go immediately with me to Forbes and report yourself to the authorities. You can thus prove that you are not an absconder, and my story, supporting yours, will absolve you from all suspicion of being implicated with Daley. I need hardly say that I shall be very glad to make the pilgrimage with you."
"You had this course in mind when you let those fellows go off on their wild-goose chase after me just now?" asked Ben.
"You have guessed it, Ben. I thought it would be far better for you to go voluntarily to headquarters than to be taken there in custody. Well, what do you say?"
"I say that you have been a grand friend to me, and that I would be both a fool and an ingrate not to follow your advice. I hate putting you to trouble and dragging you away from home, but if you are willing I dare not refuse the kindness. It is more than clear that I am a marked man, and unless I do something promptly to checkmate the police, I believe they'll end up by lagging me. Mr. Allport, I've got something to tell you. I'm afraid! I've never feared man or devil before, but now I'm afraid!"
"Afraid, my lad! Nonsense! You have nothing to fear. Here, I say! Buck up, Ben. You are shaking like a leaf! For shame, lad! Of what are you afraid?"
"Of myself," muttered Ben. "I am coming to the end of my tether. This persecution is killing me!" He leaned against the wall as he spoke, and buried his face in his hands. Mr. Allport gazed at his friend for a moment, and made as if to speak, then checked himself and hurried on to the house. A few moments later he emerged with his wife. Mrs. Allport went to Ben, and began, as only a good woman can, to soothe and comfort the stricken spirit. Mr. Allport hastened to the stables and saddled up. When he appeared again, leading the horses he had prepared for the journey (he had purposely lingered over the operation), Ben was in a happier and more resolute frame of mind, thanks to Mrs. Allport's gentle ministrations. Affectionate farewells were exchanged all round, and presently the journey to Forbes commenced. Unhappily, it was never completed. When the pair had covered about twenty miles of the route, Mr. Allport's horse slipped on a stone while crossing a dry creek bed, and badly sprained its shoulders. The misfortune necessarily altered their plans. A long council was held, and finally it was decided (both men realising the supreme importance of Ben's prompt appearance in Forbes), that Ben should press on alone, and that Mr. Allport should follow as soon as he could procure another horse. Ben thereupon resumed his journey, and Mr. Allport made off across country on foot towards a neighboring station, where he hoped to be remounted, leading his injured horse.
The toils now began to close around Ben with a rush. He had scarcely proceeded a couple of miles from where he had left Mr. Allport, when a man galloped out of a dense patch of bush through which the road at that point was winding, and drew rein at Ben's side. The man was Patsy Daley. He looked wild and desperate, and his horse was badly blown. Ben was astounded, for he had thought the rascal fully fifty miles away; but Daley quickly explained his unexpected appearance. It seems that the police had almost overtaken him while leisurely riding south before he realised that he was pursued. Hoping to avoid them and throw them off the scent, he had doubled in his tracks for a bit, then had taken to the bush and ridden at an angle across country to make the Forbes road, his intention being to regain the Pinnacle, where he had friends and could secure a refuge. The police, however, had not been deceived by his adroit move, and they were following hard on his trail. When Ben learned this he laughed. What use struggling any longer and kicking against the pricks, when Fate played so obdurately into the hands of his enemies? Of a sudden something struck the road sharply about fifty yards before him and kicked up a tiny cloud of dust. What was it? Ben's doubt only lasted an instant, for the strange little phenomenon was quickly complemented by a loud report. He glanced behind and saw three troopers charging at the gallop, and firing as they came. Daley at once wheeled and spurred frantically away among the trees. Ben hesitated for one fateful second, hardly knowing what to do. The issue was resolved for him. A bullet grazed his plunging horse's belly, ploughing up the hide, and the wounded beast, already startled by the firing and the frantic shouts of the approaching troopers, took the bit between his teeth and bolted. The troopers heard a harsh, maniacal laugh ring out as their quarry vanished round a turn in the road.
Ben Hall had become a bushranger.
The police had never experienced any difficulty in finding Ben Hall, or trouble in arresting him, while he was an honest man, but they were to prove him harder to deal with afterwards. From the moment the die was cast Ben determined that he would not be captured alive. He registered a vow to that effect as he fled along the old Lachlan-road, the troopers behind him. It was a gallop to his liking. He had been under fire. He had heard the zip of bullets whistling by his ears, and he had felt no fear. A fine elation thrilled his nerves, and ever his spirits mounted as he rode. Henceforth his course was clear. There could be no looking back. The police had driven him to the devil, and, deuce take it, but a devil they should find him! Gradually he drew away from his pursuers, being better mounted than they were, and at length, suspecting they had abandoned the chase, he pulled up. It was as he had thought; not a sound was to be heard, though he dismounted and pressed his ear to the ground. With a nod and a smile, he turned to examine his horse's wound. It was a mere scratch, and had already stopped bleeding.
"Turn about is fair play," said Ben, and, remounting, he rode slowly back towards the police along his own tracks. No definite plan was in his mind, but he desired to keep in touch with his hunters. The gathering dusk favored his vague intention. He had not proceeded very far when a spark of light in the distance told him all he wished to learn. "A camp fire and a beacon in one," he muttered, thoughtfully. "Their forces are scattered, and they'll need to collect and rest before they are fit to resume the chase." He plunged into the bush a rod or two, dismounted, staked out his horse for a feed, and then quietly supped from the cold provisions in his saddlebags.
An hour later he stood up and stretched his limbs. "Now," said he, "to give those fellows a taste of my quality, and teach them that they would have been wiser men to let me be." The task he had set himself was difficult, but Ben was a peerless bushman, and his physical courage was unbounded. Like a phantom or a snake he glided on his way, never making the slightest sound, never a misstep. So accurate was his direction, so perfect his craft, that he reached at length the edge of the road again at a point exactly opposite the camp-fire, without having given the faintest warning of his approach. Three troopers sat upon a handy log smoking their pipes. The sergeant, another trooper, and the black-tracker crouched on horserugs much closer to the blaze. The night was as cold as it was dark and damp, and cheerless. The carbines of the police were stacked at the end of the log that supported the smoking troopers. Ben's eyes glistened as he saw them. He had come for arms, having never a weapon of his own, except a sheath knife; and how may a man be a bushranger without arms? The camp-fire talk was listless and utterly unimportant. The troopers were tired and not a little dejected at the vain ending of a hard day's toil. They conversed chiefly of their discomfort, disjointedly, and with weary bitterness. They cursed the Government for giving them poor horses, poor food, and bad arms; they cursed the weather, and they cursed their work. The sergeant seemed too tired and listless to call any man to order. He only spoke once, and that was to damn Trooper Garrett for having taken no part in a mission which he had inspired. "He will reap the credit; we shall get the blame," said the officer, gloomily.
Ere long the talk gave over altogether. The fire was twice replenished in a heavy silence. Then one by one the smoking troopers put out their pipes and sought the shelter of their rugs and oilskins. No watch was set, and soon the camp was sleeping peacefully. Ben's time had come.
He arose like a tall, dim shadow from his lurking place, and stepped noiselessly upon the road. His movements were orderly and quite unhurried. He took the newest and best furbished carbine from the stack, and slung it across his shoulder. He fastened a belt of cartridges about his waist. This done, he glided over to the slumbering circle and leisurely surveyed the sleepers by the firelight's friendly gleams. He wanted a revolver. Conceiving that the sergeant would be sure to own the best, he paid that officer particular attention. A careful scrutiny showed him that the weapon lay under the flap of the saddle which served the unconscious policeman for a pillow. Ben abstracted it easily and without an accident, and stuck it in his belt. A wild impulse to indulge a shout of laughter possessed him, but he crushed it down. He had still some work to do. Quitting the camp, he stealthily proceeded to the troopers' horses, which were tethered at intervals along the roadside. He slashed their halters with his knife, rid such as were hobbled of their shackles, and gently impelled the mob in the direction of Lambing Flat.
When the last had trotted out of sight he returned to the fire and warmed himself for a few moments before the glow. His last act but one was to light his pipe with an ember. His final act was to heap—and very noisily—some fresh wood on the dwindling glow, this half in pity, half in derision, of his sleeping enemies. Not a man of them was roused. Ben laughed contemptuously, and stalked off to regain his own horse and camp a mile away. There arrived, he lighted a big fire and threw himself beside it to rest and to sleep. When he awoke the sun was high, but he did not immediately arise. For the police he entertained an unmeasured disdain. They had been able to harry and hurt him at their pleasure while he remained a law-abiding citizen; but the odds had been "evened" now. He had become a bushranger. Moreover, he was armed. Ben turned on his side, laughed at an amusing thought, and quietly composed himself for another doze.
As it chanced, Ben might have camped undisturbed at that spot for a fortnight had he chosen, since the police were drawn in pursuit of their horses towards Lambing Flat, and they did not return by the same route to Forbes. But Ben had work to do. Having definitely embraced the profession of the road, it seemed necessary to make his position as far as possible secure.
Fifteen years spent as a stock accountant had given him a sober love of orderliness and method. He liked to do things by rule, and he did not see why a highwayman should transact his undertakings any less methodically than a bookkeeper or a "carpet-bagger." The first thing needful was to organise his new business and put it on a firm foundation. He must establish lines of communication, an efficient transport and intelligence system, and a favorably-situated base of operations. Then there was the question of trade rivalry to consider.
Bushrangers, at that era, were numerous, and competition, in the commerce of cutting purses was pretty keen. Ben foresaw that he would have trouble in dealing with some of the older highwaymen. Established firms are always jealous of the advent of fresh and independent enterprise into the field, and Gardiner's gang, in particular, was reputed to consider itself entitled by prescription to monopolistic rights along the Lachlan Valley.
Ben reviewed the situation long and carefully. The result of his cogitations was a cleverly conceived and elaborate plan of action, which he immediately proceeded to put into execution. He commenced forthwith a grand tour of the district. His purpose was to call at the house of every farmer and settler whom he thought in any degree likely to sympathise with him, and to inform such people in person and very fully why he had become a bushranger. To those who would promise to assist him with prompt intelligence of police plans and movements, and who would also agree to supply him with occasional succour as he might require it, he would guarantee immunity from robbery by any man, and he would also engage to pay them liberally for services tendered. To those, on the contrary, who might hold aloof from him and prefer to serve the police, he would issue a frank warning of calamities to come.
The task was a big one, and it took Ben several months to complete. On the whole it was brilliantly successful. Fully five out of every six settlers he visited cordially welcomed the curious species of protection which Ben offered. They also agreed to perform their part of the bargain loyally. As to that, however, Ben took no chances. Loose and haphazard methods were his abomination, and he was determined to make his new calling an assured success. He therefore personally supervised all the arrangements for promoting his own safety and comfort, and not a single robbery did he commit until he felt satisfied that he had reduced the risk of capture to an absolute minimum.
The system he established really deserves a chapter by itself. It was not merely unique in the annals of crime; it explains how it came about that Ben was able to pursue his business for several years almost without a serious check, and to hold the police in disdainful defiance all that time. The outstanding feature of Ben's system was simplicity. In the first instance he made a big map of the district, nicely regulated as to distances, and on this map he fixed the locations of all friendly settlers. Each friendly settler was furnished with a copy of the map. In each friendly settler's household one member of the family was selected and detailed for special duty. It was this person's obligation to be constantly on the watch for the police. Should they appear, he would at once mount a swift horse, kept always prepared for the emergency, and gallop over to the nearest friendly settler's house in the direction Ben was supposed to be, and warn that house. There a second courier would take up the message, and so on, until it finally reached Ben himself. Ben's part in the system was to keep the various friendly settlers continually informed as to his general whereabouts, so that there should never be any hesitation as to the direction in which his warning messengers should ride. As to payment, Ben agreed to pay every friendly settler £1 per week, and to safeguard his herds and possessions from spoliation by any other "gentleman of the road," and in order to keep the various riders keen in his service, he agreed to pay, in addition, £5 spot cash for each piece of important information so communicated to him—this reward being the special perquisite of the last communicating courier.
Such, in brief, was the system that made Ben Hall the most successful robber of his time, and at once the detestation and despair of the police. Other bushrangers before him had employed spies and look-outs to perform similar services, but only in a loose and desultory fashion. It was Ben's distinction to have systematised the practice, and to have reduced the whole procedure to a smoothly working, practical science. The police and the public knew the system as "bush telegraphy." They called Ben's army of scouts "telegraphs," and a time was presently to come when the term was seldom employed by any policeman unaccompanied by a wrathful expletive. All told, it took Ben nearly nine months to bring his system into a state of perfection precise enough to please him. During that period he lived as the guest of his friends and allies. The police hunted him without cessation, but they never once clapped eyes on him, although he must have ridden a thousand miles or more in his peregrinations, and was almost continuously on the road.
It is impossible not to be struck by a sensation of amazement that Ben found it practicable for so many months to retain and positively to strengthen the loyalty of his supporters without compensating them. Yet he did so, and was not once put in danger by his apparent neglect of their interests. But the explanation is not far to seek. First and foremost, a great wall of sympathy defended him. With scarce an exception, every settler in the district liked and respected him, and without any exception everybody regarded him as having been villainously persecuted by the police. But that is only half the story. Ben had laid his plans most astutely.
No sooner had his telegraphic organisation begun to develop than he sent out warnings far and wide proclaiming the names of his allies, and declaring them under his protection. These warnings were intended for the ears of Gardiner's gang and of other bushrangers. And well did they serve their purpose. When Ben's trade competitors learned that such and such a family enjoyed Ben's championship, and that Ben had sworn to punish any injury dealt out to them by any bushranger, they very naturally felt disinclined to test the challenge. They all had the police to fight, and they did not relish the notion of having to fight a bushranger as well. The consequence was that Ben's proteges were let severely alone, and they began to enjoy an immunity from depredation wholly foreign to their experience. For years past most of them had been plundered at frequent intervals, and the police, generally speaking, had proved powerless both to guard them from outrages and to capture the offenders. Thus it was that one day the whisper went abroad and flew throughout the district:—
"Ben Hall is a better policeman than Sir Frederick Pottinger, and if you want to secure your possessions, make terms with him."
That whisper did Ben an enormous amount of good, and helped him exceedingly in his self-appointed task. It reached the ears of the police, and exasperated them to the point of fury. It made of Sir Frederick Pottinger a public laughing-stock; and as its truth became more fully demonstrated, it reconciled Ben's assistants to work for him without definite payment until such time as he should be ready to compensate them more substantially. Of course, that hour could not be postponed forever, and Ben was not fool enough to think so. But he delayed as long as he possibly could.
Truth to tell, he felt an intense reluctance to proceed to extremes. As yet he had robbed no private citizen, and the only real crime he had ever committed consisted in having abstracted the carbine and revolver from the sleeping police camp on the Lambing Flat-road. It is difficult to break through the holiest habits of a life-time, and Ben found it so. He could make preparations easily enough to evade arrest after having robbed, and devise plans with equal facility to rob, but he stuck fast at the point of criminal action. It seemed to him such a mean thing to do to bail up an absolute stranger and forcibly to deprive him of his money—money that the proposed victim had probably toiled long and hard to earn. A dozen times at least Ben sallied forth to rob, and on each occasion he abandoned his resolve in utter disgust. We shall see presently how circumstance first dragged and later smothered his conscience.
On the first day of June, 1863—almost exactly twelve months after the Eugowra escort robbery—Ben Hall was riding along the Tumut-road, intending to pay a visit to his friend, Robert Bates, of Tilambil, when he descried a distant buggy and pair advancing towards him from the opposite direction. Ben's first impulse was to turn aside in order to avoid recognition, but a glance at the thick scrub on either side of the road induced a bolder course. "Hang the consequences!" he muttered, and proceeded on his way. As he approached the buggy, he perceived that it contained only a single occupant, a man who was bearded to the eyes, and heavily rugged and coated against the cold. "I ought to know that face," thought Ben. A moment later he reined his horse sharply to a halt, and stood up in the stirrups, his eyes ablaze, his body tense and quivering. He had recognised in the driver of the buggy Mr. Cecil Wharton, one of the magistrates who had so harshly and illegally abused him when a prisoner at Forbes. In a very few moments the buggy was abreast of him, and the recognition was mutual. "Hi, you Ben Hall, get out of my way!" cried the J.P.
Ben laughed, and whipped out his revolver. "Bail up!" he commanded. "I've a word to say to you."
The magistrate had no option save to obey, but he protested loudly that he would be revenged. Ben reduced him to silence with a fierce threat, and ordered him to descend to the ground. Ben thereupon advanced and thrust the muzzle of his cocked revolver almost into his victim's mouth. "You——!" he hissed. "You and your friends have ruined my life and driven me to the bush! Why should I not have your blood for it? Answer me that, you miserable Jack-in-office!" Mr. Wharton was no coward. His cheeks were pale, and he trembled not a little, but he answered courageously enough: "Because you will most surely be hunted down and hanged if you murder me, Ben Hall!"
Ben laughed grimly. "The police have been hunting me in vain for nigh a year. You must give me a better reason if you want to save your skin."
Mr. Wharton saw death in his captor's eyes, and his confidence forsook him. He began to plead. He admitted that Ben had been wronged. He offered a frank apology, and he promised that if he were allowed to live he would try and make amends by procuring Ben a pardon.
Ben listened gloomily, and at the last word he shook his head. "Your penitence comes too late," he declared. "I have sworn to be revenged, and I'll keep my vow. I give you five minutes to say your prayers."
"You really intend to murder me?" cried the other, horrified.
"I do," said Ben. "But I do not admit that murder is the proper word. You destroyed my career and killed my reputation. I shall destroy your body by way of just return. I look upon the matter as an execution."
"And is it in your code to shoot down in cold blood an unarmed man?"
"I was as helpless as you are now, and far more innocent of any punishable fault, when you and your brother magistrates maltreated me at Forbes. Man, you signed your own death-warrant when you denied me justice then."
"I acted for the best within my lights," asserted Mr. Wharton, earnestly. "As God is above us, I believed you guilty of the charge the police had brought against you; and so did we all. For pity's sake, Mr. Hall, do not murder me and put a rope around your own neck. Be content with a less horrible revenge. There is a large sum of money in my buggy; take that and let me go. I beg you to do this in the name of my wife and little ones. If you kill me you will orphan five young children, Mr. Hall."
Ben reflected darkly for a moment, then of sudden be uncocked his pistol. "Very well," he said, "fetch me the money."
Mr. Wharton darted over to the buggy and quickly drew a heavy satchel from beneath the seat.
Ben received it with a frown. "You do not travel with so much gold unarmed," he declared.
Mr. Wharton reluctantly produced a revolver and extended it by the barrel.
Ben slipped the weapon into his belt. "Your cartridges," he demanded.
A belt was given him.
"Now, your watch and chain and purse," cried Ben. "You made me a highwayman. I must prove to you that I am a thorough tradesman, lest you should have cause for disappointment in your handiwork."
Slowly and grudgingly Mr. Wharton yielded up the demanded tribute. His face was as black as night when the stripping process was complete, and anger induced him to exclaim: "I would not have thought this meanness of you, Mr. Hall. I had always been led to believe you were a generous and high-minded man."
Ben's retort flashed out like lightning: "Yet you shut me up in gaol for eight weeks on a false and obviously trumped-up charge, and refused me the common privilege of bail. To the devil with your reproaches, Mr. Magistrate. They are as irrational as irritating. Think yourself fortunate to escape with a whole skin. You would have been a stark corpse before now if you had not invoked mercy in the name of your babies. Be off with you, and take this bit of advice to heart upon your journeying: Beware to cross my path again. I have not forgiven you, and I shall never forget you. Now, good-day!"
Mr. Wharton climbed into his buggy and took up the reins. "That watch belonged to my dead mother," he said, quietly.
Ben took the timepiece from his pocket and threw it on the rug which Mr. Wharton was at the moment folding across his knees.
The magistrate's eyes flashed. "Ah!" he cried, "you have some consideration and sentiment in you, after all."
"Bah!" sneered Ben. "The watch is an old one, and I dare swear it keeps bad time."
"You jeer at me, but I thank you all the same," said Wharton.
Ben ironically raised his hat.
Mr. Wharton gravely returned the salute. "Take my advice and get out of the country," he said earnestly. Then he whipped up his horses and drove rapidly away.
Ben musingly resumed his interrupted journey. He had robbed by way of revenge; but none the less he had robbed. And his crime had a legal name—robbery under arms. Ah! but in any case, revenge was sweet! The sweetness of his adventure was like a soothing ointment to an angry wound. He had made an enemy plead abjectly for mercy, and his saddle-bag now bulged with his enemy's gold. It would be useful, that gold. He could forthwith commence paying their wages to his "telegraphs," and act the fairy godfather to many of his poorest friends. Some would say he had got the money evilly, but what cared he? He had been injured, and he had retaliated on one of his oppressors. That was all. It was a honeyed thought. It lulled his soul into a cloyed slumber, and while the anodyne still operated, his evil genius wrought to kill the sleeper painlessly. Within the hour Destiny brought Ben face to face, on a sudden twist of road, with one of her Majesty's Royal Mail coaches, toiling distressfully across a patch of corduroy. On the box beside the driver sat Trooper Garrett. Ben acted as one surprised and overtaken by desperate misfortune in a dream. His voice seemed another man's to himself as it ran out sharply, "Bail up! Your money or your lives!"
Garrett's carbine clattered to the boards at his feet as his hands flew above his head. A few moments and, still quite a-dream, Ben saw five men and a woman lined up before him on the reeking logs that bestrode the morass. They had acted in obedience to orders which he had rapped out semi-consciously. One by one they stepped forward and gave him their revolvers, their purses, and their jewels. All save the woman. To her, Ben, a-dream, was chivalrous and kind. He bade her have no fears, and at his request she returned to her seat in the coach. Garrett shivered for his life, but Ben was incapable of murder in his strange, rapt state. A humorous revenge occurred to his charmed fancy. At the pistol point he forced the trooper to rip open and dismantle the mail bags, and to sort the mail, saying with audacious irony, "Her Majesty's property should only be explored by an accredited servant of her Majesty."
Garrett performed the task with many sore complaints. To Ben each groan and protestation was a source of almost drunken ecstasy. He bestowed the registered letters that Garrett compulsorily handed over to him in his second saddle-bag. The rest of the mail he ordered to be fastened up again. Then he turned to the passengers. "I am sure," he said, "that I can rely on you gentlemen to notify the authorities how admirably Constable Garrett has behaved. He has evidently mistaken his vocation. Without doubt his proper place is in the post-office. Such exceptional talent as he has shown us should not be lost to that branch of the public service. Mr. Garrett, madam, and gentlemen, I wish you a pleasant drive and a safe one into Lambing Flat. Farewell!" He swept off his hat, bowed to the very saddle bow, and rode off at a dramatic hand gallop across the quaking marsh among the trees. Ben's drugged conscience slept unbrokenly. It awoke no more.
Ben had not ridden many miles after robbing the Tumut coach when he was arrested by the sight of a signal smoke, which made known to him, according to the code of his telegraphic system, that important information was to be obtained by visiting the smoke-maker's homestead. The signal consisted of two columns of dense black fumes. A single column would have signified urgent danger, and three. "Be cautious; the police are in the neighborhood." Ben only paused to make sure he had not overlooked a column, and then he made his way at speed to the signaller's domicile. He there found awaiting him a lad named Dunn, who had arrived scarcely an hour earlier from a station thirty miles distant. He was the last scout of a chain, and he bore a message that had been carried post haste across country for fully a hundred miles.
The message informed Ben that a public-house owned by a woman named Thorpe, a friend of Ben's, had been stuck up and robbed by a gang of bushrangers two days before, during the absence of the landlady on a business trip to Forbes. The tavern was located about twelve miles to the east of the Lachlan gold-field. Mrs. Thorpe claimed the fulfilment of Ben's promise of protection. She had not notified the police. Ben was in a mood to welcome such a call to arms whole-heartedly. He had tasted blood, and his appetite was whetted for more. It pleased him immensely to find that his scouting machinery, when put to a practical test, had operated so perfectly; and he was still more delighted at the confidence so evidently reposed in him. Here was he, a robber and virtually an outlaw, yet he was expected to act the policeman in defence of respectable people, and his services were notably preferred to those of the genuine police.
He made up his mind on the spot. He would post to the Lachlan, follow the depredators, and exact a stern account from them for having dared to trespass on his preserves. But first he had a new and gratifying duty to perform. His bags bulged with stolen gold. He was in a position to pay every one of his scouts, and handsomely. He commenced by giving Dunn £5, and making that young man his courier to shower sovereigns among the other "telegraphs." Thus he got rid of £35. There remained a sum of £175. Ben retained £25 for his immediate personal use, and he directed the entire balance to be handed over as a gift to a poor widow named Theresa Blake, who lived near Bang Bang, and whose farm was pledged to a money-lender, who had been threatening for some time past to sell it over her head because she could not meet her interest obligations.
Ben's splendid "generosity" was loudly acclaimed by the family of the settler, and the news of it leaped abroad and spread like wildfire through the district, even outstripping Ben's own rapid march to the Lachlan. Everybody applauded the lavish act, and proclaimed Ben a benefactor of his species. Nobody stopped to consider that he had been liberal with another man's money. That trifling circumstance was wholly lost to sight in the brilliance of his kindness. He had protected the widowed and the orphaned. He had rescued the helpless from dire distress, and had put bread into the mouths of the starving. In face of these beautiful deeds, what mattered that a wealthy magistrate had been robbed and a Royal Mail coach looted? Ben became a hero on the instant, and an object no longer of pity, but of admiration, and the proper care of every decent settler to safeguard from the minions of the law. And not the least amusing feature was that Ben, too, thought himself, if not exactly a hero—well, a very fine fellow indeed. He set out upon his journey all aglow with pride and self-satisfaction. True it was, he had done wrong, had become a thief, but he had turned his knavery to a noble use. He had robbed from the rich, but he had given to the poor. And so he would continue to act as long as Destiny would let him.
From the ashes of his dead conscience, Phoenix-like, arose another monitor; but no plaguey grumbler this; rather an approving and enthusiastically complaisant friend and special pleader. Almost could Ben affirm that he had never been happier in all his chequered days. He made beautiful plans as he rode along his way. He would spend his life in sweet and loving benefactions. He would give and give and give, scattering a smiling plenty on the plains of destitution. No suffering creature should be allowed to seek his help in vain. And should he prematurely fall—why, he would die deplored by those he really cared for. Outsiders might say of him. "Ben Hall was a highwayman," but he would write a sweeter epitaph in the hearts of his friends. "And," cried Ben, glancing with a certain proud defiance into heaven's blue, "who are my friends, if not the poor, the down-trodden, and the miserable?"
Unfortunate Ben Hall! Like thousands of criminals before him, and like other thousands who will follow, he must needs excuse the flaunting tinsel wave of vice by selling virtue into harlotry. Ben Hall was never more than half a scoundrel, and like all such, he has a claim to the pity of mankind that none but churlish prudes will venture to dispute. His enterprises in wickedness were many and various, but if we judge him as we should, we shall admit that he was not as naughty as any of his evil deeds. He ought to have been a good man. He ought to have descended into the tomb undistinguished from the countless millions of his mediocre kidney who live and die and leave no imprint on their times. He did not desire infamy, yet he achieved it. The blame was not entirely his. Society was assuredly, in some degree, responsible. Let us not fear, then, to pity him, and more especially as he journeyed to the Lachlan, gazing into heaven's blue the while, and laying plans to storm Paradise through the gates of Eblis. Surely if heaven sends her spirits forth to guide the erring steps of man, as some of us believe, there was a spectacle to make a guardian angel weep.
Ben had almost reached the last stage of his journey when he received news that deflected his course. Three members of the gang of bushrangers which Gardiner had formerly captained had been seen proceeding to one of their strongholds in the Weddin Mountains, and they were the persons accused of having stuck up Mrs. Thorpe's tavern. Ben procured a fresh horse, and immediately set out in chase of the robbers.
The odds he prepared to face did not daunt him in the least. He was well mounted, well armed (a perfect travelling arsenal, indeed), and he believed himself, moreover, to be a superior bushman to any of the gang. His plan was to steal a march upon his adversaries and take them by surprise. If they showed fight, so much the worse for them. He was a quick and straight shot, and he would shoot to kill. The men were outlaws and reputed murderers. He thought of destroying them without a shadow of compunction. They had injured one of his friends and proteges, and policy demanded that he should make an example potent to deter other highwaymen from like outrages. He had proclaimed himself master of the Lachlan Valley, and he must, at all hazards, assert his authority and secure his domain.
Helped by a well-informed "telegraph," he soon got on the bushrangers' tracks. He then took leave of the scout and pressed into the wilderness alone. The tracks were twenty hours old, but he experienced no great difficulty in following them, for the outlaws had taken no trouble to conceal their route. Obviously they had not dreamed of any pursuit. Ben's march was rapid and incessant. He covered twenty miles without drawing rein, and by nightfall he was in the heart of the ranges.
After a cold supper he climbed a rocky hill on foot, and carefully surveyed the horizon in search of smoke. Nor was he disappointed. He promptly detected sure signs of a camp-fire some three or four miles to the south. Pausing merely to note the direction, he descended the hill and resumed the chase, leading his horse behind him. The night was dark, and the way extremely rough, precipitous, and full of pitfalls. But to a bushman of Ben's calibre the task was as child's play. He made such excellent progress that at the end of two hours the pungent and aromatic smell of burning eucalyptus wood became distinctly evident.
At this point Ben tethered his horse and made his final preparations—that is to say, he reassured himself that his weapons were loaded and in working order. This done, he began to pursue the methods of the aboriginal or the American Red Indian. Every step was tested of foothold ere the taking. He crouched low as he walked, peering fiercely at the ground. The rolling of a stone the crackling of a dry twig, might give the alarm. No alarm could he afford to give. It is an easy thing to think about, or write about—to stalk an unsuspicious quarry along the rugged course of a shaggy mountain side, but the doing is another thing. Even with the daylight for coadjutor, none but an expert bushman could proceed a dozen yards without sending in advance a dozen sounds to put the least watchful quarry on his guard. And Ben was straining through a gloom as black as Erebus. With all his care, sometimes a leaf would crackle in despite of him, sometimes a stone or pebble would tremble perilously under foot. But such a marvel was his skill—acquired as a boy long years before in tracking brumbies, the most sensitive and timid of living creatures—that his purpose did not fail, and never once was seriously jeopardised.
The work, however, told severely on his iron frame, and when at length he came to a pause—it had taken him eighty minutes to cross a space of under five hundred yards—he was bathed from head to heel in perspiration, although the temperature could have been no more than ten degrees above zero.
The bushrangers were camped on a sloping ledge of greensward that dipped into an angle formed by the transverse meeting of two steep granite hills. Several towering, jagged monoliths guarded the lips of the pass, the ledge beyond seem almost like a cavern. The place well deserved the name of a retreat. It could have been defended with ease by a dozen men against a host. An immense log fire blazed in the middle of the ledge. Three men sat or lolled beside it at their ease, basking like great cats in the comfortable glow. Fifty paces behind them five or six fine horses grazed on the sedgy margin of a tarn, their bodies swathed in rugs. So bright was the firelight that the buckles on the distant horses' wrappings sparkled starwise as they moved, and the edges of the monoliths were flushed from base to summit with a lambent and almost dazzling aureole.
Ben never guessed how weird and almost grandly beautiful the picture was that he beheld. All his thoughts were concentrated and intently fastened on his mission. Only a moment's rest did he permit himself; then, like a shade from out the shadows, he flickered soundlessly across a patch of light that had willy nilly to be traversed, and slipped behind the shelter of a monolith. None remarked him. He drew a deep breath of relief when satisfied of this, and brought his arms to hand. Twenty anxious seconds followed that he measured with his noiseless steps and counted with his throbbing heart beats.
Then he paused and spoke: "I reckon, boys, I've got the drop on you!"
The outlaws stared up at him breathlessly, reduced as much to frozen helplessness by sheer astonishment as by the frowning muzzles of Ben's cocked revolvers.
A moment of intense and almost tragic stillness, then Ben spoke again. "I'll kill the first man who moves a finger till I give him leave. I'm a dead shot, boys, with either hand, and I've got you where I want you. Shall we talk?"
"It's Ben Hall!" gasped Johnny Gilbert, once Gardiner's lieutenant, now leader of the gang. He was a slight and smooth-faced youth of two and twenty; a good-looking fellow, with bold, grey eyes and a large, mobile, and wonderfully humorous mouth. "Say, captain," he added, his confidence recovered on the instant. "This is scarcely friendly. What!"
His smile was irresistibly comical, but Ben did not remark it. He was watching John O'Meally, whose face flew signals of a rising anger. "Easy!" said Ben, sternly. "It's death that faces you, my lad!"
"Humph!" grunted the third robber, a big, stolid, square-faced fellow named John Dunn. "I never heard of you joining the force, Ben Hall, and you're not in uniform, either. What's the game?"
"Restitution," declared Ben. "A day or two back you stuck up Mrs. Thorpe's pub, and plundered her till. You ought not to have done that. She is a friend of mine, and I let it be known long ago that my friends must be respected. I have come for the swag. Pay up, and we needn't quarrel. Refuse, and there'll be trouble. Make up your minds quick, boys, and don't forget I've got the drop on you."
The three Johns stared round-eyed at Ben for a moment; then they turned and stared at one another. Suddenly Johnny Gilbert began to laugh uproariously. Ben watched him with impatience. "I should be glad to have amused you," he said, ironically, "but my arms grow tired, and my pistols have hair triggers. Better let me share the joke, Mr. Gilbert."
Johnny Gilbert at once became serious. "No offence, Mr. Hall," he responded hastily and earnestly. "I wasn't laughing at you, but at things in general. Someone has put up a fake on you and us all. We never robbed Mother Thorpe, and we never wanted to, for she's a friend of ours, too. On top of that, we haven't been near her pub for a month. Straight wire, Mr. Hall. It's gospel I'm giving you. Whoever said we robbed her is a liar."
Ben hardly needed to glance at the others to realise that the man was speaking the truth. The candor of Johnny Gilbert's eyes and voice was unmistakable. "It's a wild-goose chase I've come on then. Well, I'll be hanged!" he exclaimed disgustedly.
"It's a wild-goose chase all right, but I hope you won't be hanged!" said Johnny Gilbert, and there was so much humor in his tones that in a second the whole four were shaking with laughter. Ben was the first to recover. He quietly uncocked his revolvers and restored the weapons to his belt. "You chaps got anything to eat?" he demanded, coolly, and, stepping forward, he sat down upon the log. "Bet cher life!" cried the others in a breath, and there was an instant rush to serve him. Within half a minute a billy was set upon the fire to boil, and three oilskin knapsacks of provisions were produced and opened. If Ben had been the dearest friend of the three robbers, they could not have entertained him with a greater warmth of hospitality. Each man pressed cherished tit-bits on him, and grumbled loudly if anything was not accepted. Ben would have needed a Gargantuan appetite to satisfy his hosts. He ate heartily, but he could not please them. Yet their kindness pleased him inexpressibly. To Johnny Gilbert he had taken an immediate fancy, the young man was so bright and spontaneously light-hearted, so comical in all his ways. John O'Meally was less attractive, being obviously of a taciturn and choleric disposition; and Johnny Dunn would have rivalled an ox for dullness and stolidity. Nevertheless, Ben could not but like both, they were so transparently anxious to court his good opinion, to set him at his ease, and to make him feel that, although he had come upon them as an enemy, he was an honored and most welcome guest. Ben had been so much alone of late, and so completely cut off from any sort of real comradeship, that he found the adventure as grateful as it was unexpected. When he could eat no more he lighted his pipe and gave partial expression to his thoughts. "You boys," he quietly observed, "are not as black as you are painted. I've to thank you for a jolly supper. If I'd been Gardiner himself, you couldn't have treated me better."
Johnny Gilbert made a wry face, then smiled. "Gardiner has gone. He's turned over a new leaf, and we'll never see him more." He paused, and his grin broadened. "But you are here, and we want to see you again," he added suggestively.
"Oh!" said Ben.
"We need a leader," pursued Gilbert, "a permanent leader. I'm too flighty to be any good at that sort of thing, though I says it myself as shouldn't. And O'Meally's too pigheaded and reckless, and Dunn is too well-meaning and silly. Ain't it so, boys?"
To Ben's astonishment, O'Meally and Dunn placidly acknowledged the limitations that had been set on their capacities. "Bet cher life," they said in unison, and nodded to emphasise the words.
"Oh! we know ourselves from A to Z," said Gilbert, in answer to Ben's look of surprise. "And we ain't a scrap conceited. We know we're good stuff, but we ain't fools enough to suppose we don't want keeping in by a firm hand. Fact is, we're all liable to go off the hooks at a pinch, unless there's someone to stop our hanky-panky. And it's bad business for the gang, that. Eh, boys?"
"Bet cher life," chorused O'Meally and Dunn.
"So, you see, that's a good billet going abegging," said Gilbert, and he grinned again. "Any applications?"
"You're the man we want," declared O'Meally. "I've said it before, and I says it again."
"And I said it afore, too," cried Dunn, "and I says it again here and now. Ben Hall's the man for us."
Ben flushed scarlet. He was entirely taken by surprise. The compliment touched him not a little, and he could not doubt its sincerity. But he did doubt in his own mind, and he also doubted his ability to lead. He temporised. "How do you chaps know I'd make the sort of leader you want?" he demanded after a considerable pause.
Johnny Gilbert answered quickly: "Because we ain't absolute idiots," he cried. "Haven't we seen the way you've organised the 'telegraphs' and put the whole district under your protection? Haven't we watched you fool the police for nigh a year, and never once be put to the trouble of sleeping out or riding for your neck? And ain't you just a king of bushmen? I reckon we three chaps are pretty smart, but the way you got the drop on us to-night puts you in a class by yourself. I tell you, straight griffin, Ben, first thing I thought when you called your full-decker an hour ago, and I looked up into your gun, was this: We've got to get that cove for our captain or pass in our blanky cheques." Johnny Gilbert was an American by birth and whenever he became excited, as then, he always broke out into Yankee idioms, which were heightened in interest by a strong accompanying nasal twang.
"Hear, hear!" cried O'Meally and Dunn. "That's the talk, Johnny! That's the talk!"
Ben colored again, but he was still undecided. "That's all very well," he protested; "but it's not enough for a successful leader to be a good bushman and an organiser of intelligence. He ought to be able to command obedience in his men, and to enforce order and discipline."
Johnny Gilbert slapped his thigh. "If you haven't got those dualities I'll eat my hat!" he shouted. "What do you say, boys?"
"Bet cher life!" shouted the others.
"Besides," proceeded Gilbert, a shade more slowly, "we'll take the oath to obey your orders, Ben; the same oath as we took to Gardiner, and he never had any cause to grumble, although as often as not his orders used to run over each other and play hunt the slipper with his meaning. He used to get confused at a pinch, you'd ought to know. I don't think you would. You look like as if you'd always know your mind and stick to it, too."
"Well," said Ben, "that's just where you are mistaken. I tell you frankly, boys, I made up my mind nearly a year ago that I'd work on my own always, and never join a gang. Yet here am I listening to your offer and wanting to accept it. What have you got to say to that?"
"What have we got to say to that?" echoed Gilbert. "Johns, a-foot!" The three lads sprang erect on the instant. "Brother Johns," began Gilbert, with his inimitable grin, "being all alike Johns or Johnnies, we wouldn't never be anything but equal, eh, Johns?"
"Bet cher life," said the others, solemnly.
"Three John captains in command of a gang of three Johns ain't a workable proposition. What?"
"Bet cher life!"
"But one Ben would be."
"Bet cher life!"
"Then, brother Johns, equal peers of the realm, and rascals all, we are agreed to take Ben for our leader."
"Hurrah!" shouted the pair.
"And woe befall us if we disobey him or go back on him!"
"Woe befall us!" cried the three, and they raised their hands on high.
"And woe befall him if he goes back on us!"
"Woe befall him!"
Johnny Gilbert turned to Ben, who now also was a-foot. "Ben Hall," he said, quietly, "if you agree to be our leader, you can say it in three words—the words of the oath we've sworn to you."
Ben raised his hand on high. "Woe befall me!" he answered gravely. The words were greeted with a cheer that waked a thousand echoes in the glen. Thus Ben Hall's gang was formed in the Weddin Mountains on the 21st day of June, in the year of our Lord, 1863.
Some two days later, Mrs. Thorpe was seated in an armchair on the verandah on her little tavern, knitting busily while she awaited the arrival of the mail coach from Lambing Flat, when her attention was directed by her daughter to an approaching cloud of dust on the branch road to Cometrees. "It'll be custom, mother," said the sharp-eyed girl. "Four men they be, and their horses ain't fresh the way they go. Perhaps they'll stay overnight if you bring out the over-proof."
"Sure they bean't troopers?" asked the old lady, peering keenly at the distant dust.
"No fear of that, mother. They come from the wrong direction. They're diggers, likely, but I swear they'll be as dry as bones, whatever."
Mrs. Thorpe produced a bunch of keys, which she handed to the daughter. "You'd best get out the over-proof, then, Julia."
"Which brand, the thunder and lightnin'?"
"No, my girl, the brimstone and treacle will do for a start. All diggers love rum; look slippy, they're coming fast."
The girl tripped off on her errand, but she had scarcely entered the house when a cry recalled her. "I declare to my gracious," sang out Mrs. Thorpe, "if it ain't Ben Hall with some of Gardiner's boys. Never mind the over-proof, Julia, they won't touch it."
Julia stared open-mouthed at the rapidly approaching cavalcade. "I know what," she presently exclaimed, "Ben's bringing those coves here to make them sorry for sticking up the pub while we was away at Forbes. Charley Green told me yesterday as Ben swore he'd make 'em do the right thing by you, or fit 'em out for coffins if they wouldn't. My! I am excited!"
Mrs. Thorpe arose from her chair, and as she dropped her knitting she was probably excited too. "I won't take a penny less than ten pounds," she declared with emphasis; "it was a dirty trick to play on a poor widow, and they'll have to pay for it or I'll know the reason why."
A moment later Ben and his gang rode up to the verandah. Ben doffed his big felt hat to the women, and stooped over the saddle to shake hands with them. "It's all right, mother," he said pleasantly—noting the indignant glance she cast at his companions—"justice is going to be done. Where is the man who minded the pub for you while you were absent at Forbes?"
"Jack Gibbs," said Mrs. Thorpe. "He's in the stable yard, I expect, but what has he got to do with it?"
"You go out into the yard," said Ben, "and we'll ride round; then you'll see for yourself. You've been fooled, mother, and we are here to prove it."
Without further ado, Ben wheeled his horse, and, followed by the gang, he clattered into the neighboring enclosure. At the sound of his approach a couple of stable hands emerged from the barn. "Which of you is Jack Gibbs?" demanded Ben.
"I be," said one of them.
Ben cried, "Oho!" and with a sharp and sudden movement he got between his quarry and the barn. The stable hands were evidently disconcerted, but they still did not understand. "Be you police?" quavered Gibbs.
"Yes," laughed Ben. "I am the new superintendent of this district; I've come here to learn from you the exact details of the recent sticking-up here? You were in charge, Gibbs, eh?"
"Yes, I was. Mrs. Thorpe can tell you all about it best, though."
Ben looked at Mrs. Thorpe and signed for her to be silent. "I guess not, Gibbs," he said genially, "she was in Forbes, you see, and you were an eyewitness. Pray tell us all about it. Now, now, don't be foolish, Gibbs; my men have got you covered, and you can't possibly escape."
"I don't want to escape," persisted Gibbs. "I done nothing. You don't think I was in with the bushrangers, do you. Mr. Superintendent?"
"I don't know," replied Ben judicially, "some folks say you were."
"Well, they're liars," cried Gibbs, with a fine show of anger. "I wouldn't do such a thing. I'm straight, I am."
"I'm very glad to hear that, Gibbs," smiled Ben. "Now, please answer my questions. I won't keep you long."
"Yes, sir; certainly, sir. Anything you like, sir."
"Well, Gibbs, who were the bushrangers?"
"They was Gardiner's gang, sir."
"Just so—and how many?"
"Three, sir, and all armed to the teeth; they got the drop on me, or I'd have fought 'em to save Mrs. Thorpe's property from being robbed, sir."
"Now," said Ben, "that's the sort of talk I really do like to hear; you are evidently a brave as well as a straight man." Of a sudden he turned sharply on the gang, all of whom were giggling. "Silence, men!" he shouted sternly; "silence in the ranks, or I'll report you. How dare you laugh while I am holding an examination. Senior-constable Gilbert, I am ashamed of you."
"I humbly beg pardon, sir," muttered Johnny Gilbert; "it won't occur again."
"See that it does not," Ben rapped out sternly. Once more he turned to Gibbs.
"So they got the drop on you, Mr. Gibbs?" he said, with his most deferential air.
Gibbs was now quite self-confident. "Unfortunately they did, sir," he replied, "they took me quite by surprise, and before I knew where I was. I was helpless, sir, me revolver took clean away."
"The infernal rascals," sighed Ben. "Never mind, Mr. Gibbs, with your help I hope we shall soon be able to lay them by the heels. I'm sure you'll help me, Mr. Gibbs."
"Help you," echoed Gibbs, evidently not relishing the idea, "how can I help? I—I—ain't a policeman, sir. Of course, I—I—; well, you see—I——"
"Oh, I don't want you to ride after them, Mr. Gibbs, that's police work; but you can help me when I've caught them. You can identify them, I hope."
"Oh, I'll do that, sir," cried the fellow eagerly, "anything like that, sir."
"Well, Mr. Gibbs, as to their names, you heard their names, I expect?"
"Oh, yes, sir, there was Johnny Gilbert, and Johnny Dunn, and Johnny O'Meally."
"Just so, Mr. Gibbs. Now kindly cast your eyes on my officers yonder. Were they the robbers?"
"Oh! you are joking, sir."
"Were they the robbers?" A new tone in Ben's voice made the fellow start.
"No, sir, of course not, sir."
"Look again!" Ben ordered grimly. "Have you ever seen one of those men before?"
"Are you sure? Be quite certain, mind!"
"Yes, sir. I never saw one of 'em before. I'll swear to that on any Bible."
"Thank you, Mr. Gibbs," said Ben smiling cruelly, "out of your own mouth you have proved yourself a champion liar, and a fool into the bargain. Learn, my man, that I am no policeman, but Ben Hall, the bushranger, and my companions here are Gilbert, Dunn, and O'Meally, the men you have falsely accused of robbing this hotel. Now, what have you to say why we should not shoot you on the spot for your miserable attempt to discredit three gallant gentlemen of the road. Speak up, Gibbs, and remember your life is in the balance."
The wretched stable hand promptly fell on his knees in the dust of the yard. "For heaven's sake don't kill me, sir, and I'll confess in full. I'll tell you the truth, sir," he whined.
"Confess!" demanded Ben.
"It was all the fault of the drink," wailed the fellow. "When Mrs. Thorpe went to Forbes I started out on a spree. The temptation was too much for me, and s'help me, sir, I couldn't help it. Then other coves came in, and they started on a bender too, and 'fore we knew what happened, Mrs. Thorpe was expected home, and the spirits was all gone, and we was desperate, Mr. Hall. We didn't one of us know what to do, we—we——"
"Go on," ordered Ben.
"We reckoned the best thing for us was to tell Mrs. Thorpe as how the bushrangers had come and done what we did. So when she arrived we told her the bushrangers had taken the liquor, and she believed it. And then——"
But at this point Mrs. Thorpe interrupted. "But you said they'd taken the till money, too!" she cried shrilly.
"It's all hid in the barn," whined the kneeling man, "every copper of it; I never meant to steal it, but I thought you wouldn't believe about the bushrangers, ma'am, if the money wasn't took."
"Go fetch it," said Ben curtly. The fellow scrambled to his feet and hurried into the barn. He returned within the minute, carrying a bag of money. Mrs. Thorpe snatched it from his hands, and began to count the coins on the steps before the kitchen doorway. Everybody watched her in silence. "Nine pounds sixteen," she announced at length.
"Well, mother," said Ben, "I hope you are satisfied. I agreed to protect you from bushrangers, not from your own knavish servants; yet I've done something in that direction, too."
"I'm quite satisfied, Ben," returned Mrs. Thorpe, "and very grateful for what you've done."
"And so am I," said Julia. "It's been as good as a play; but is it finished yet? What are you going to do with Gibbs, Mr. Hall."
Ben shrugged his shoulders. "That poor cur!" he said contemptuously; "nothing whatever. You people may deal with him as you please, he is beneath our notice. Say, here comes the mail!"
The Royal Mail coach drew up before the yard as he spoke, and several passengers alighted. Gibbs slunk off to bait the horses. Mrs. Thorpe and Julia hurried to the bar. Ben Hall and his gang, still mounted, waited quietly, chatting and exchanging jests. They were highly delighted with themselves and the complete success of their adventure. Presently a well-dressed gentleman—one of the coach passengers—strolled over from the hotel and addressed Ben. "I hear you are bushrangers?" he said, with an unbelieving smile, "is it true?"
"Don't you think we might be?" queried Johnny Gilbert.
"You don't look the part, at any rate," replied the stranger, "nor do you act it."
The gang laughed quietly. "How ought we to look and act?" asked Ben.
"Why, like desperadoes, I should think. Your money or your life! All that sort of thing."
"Have you ever been stuck up, sir?"
"From England, are you not?"
"You guess well; my name is Robert Inchman; I am a recent arrival."
"Mine, sir, is Ben Hall; yonder are John Gilbert, John Dunn, and John O'Meally. The three Johns, the people call them; possibly you have heard of us."
"I have heard those names, certainly; but surely you are joking when you claim them as your own?"
"Then you are really bushrangers?"
"Why don't you rob me, then?"
"Not here; we rob nobody here to-day," said Ben.
"We are not to be expected to spend all our lives at toil, I hope," laughed Johnny Gilbert. "Surely even a bushranger may claim his leisure moments; but upon my soul, sir, you look disappointed."
"Life is a dull affair," grumbled Mr. Inchman. "I was led to expect exciting adventures hereabouts, but they elude me. Good afternoon, gentlemen."
"Good afternoon, sir," chorused the four.
A few minutes later the coach collected its passengers and rumbled off. Mr. Inchman, seated on the mail bags, waved his hand to the gang. They returned his salute and laughed heartily as they did so. "He took us for a pack of braggarts," said Gilbert, "but he'll know better some day, when I'm wearing that lovely gold watch of his." He turned to Ben. "And now that the coast is quite clear, what says your royal highness to a spell and a feed?"
"I say yes!" returned Ben, "but no liquor, boys, not a single drop. I'll captain a sober gang or none. Do you agree?"
"You have our oath," said Gilbert drily, and he swung to the ground. The others instantly dismounted and led their horses into the barn.
The gang remained at the Diggers' Rest for the three ensuing days, paying their way like ordinary travellers, and behaving in all things like ordinary sober and law-abiding citizens.
Meanwhile the police industriously hunted for them in the Eugowra district, misled by false reports that had been circulated at Ben's orders by his "telegraphs." The police had all the worst of the game just then, and for a considerable time to come.
Julia Thorpe was a typical backblocks Lush girl of the period. Her education was of the most primitive description. She could barely read and write, and there it began and ended. Nobody had ever taken the trouble to invest her with an intelligent code of morals, so she had invented one of her own, nicely adapted for practical use in her environment. Honesty seemed to her an excellent policy when the police were about; but as she had been accustomed from infancy to help her parents to "lamb down" ignorant diggers and shearers with the aid of doctored liquor, she had very small respect for the rights of other people's property. The important thing was to get money—honestly, if possible, of course, but to get it. She was naturally of a rather loose disposition, but her instinctively indulgent attitude towards vice was limited by a liberal understanding of its consequences to a woman.
Many men had wooed her honorably, and a few with mean intentions; but although as amorous as a cat, as untutored as a savage, she had remained physically virtuous. She bore the reputation of a sharp-tongued, clever, and unscrupulous siren; but everybody liked her, and none doubted her chastity. The general opinion was that she would ultimately marry well—that is to say, above her station—by dint of her own astuteness and the fortune she must inherit from her money-worshipping mother. In person she was distinctly attractive in a large and somewhat florid way. Everything about her was big. She had the body of a Juno, the untrammelled graceful carriage of a negress. Her hands and feet were large but shapely. Her eyes were black as sloes, as big almost as the eyes of a cow. Her teeth were built to scale, but white as alabaster. Her hair, when unbound, reached to her ankles. Her nose was of the aquiline and predacious type; her mouth vied with her splendid amplitude of bust to suggest the careless bounteousness of a Ceres.
It was Ben Hall's fate to inspire this girl with the first sentiment of real passion that she had ever experienced. Probably, if, like the three Johns, he had fallen promptly at her feet and made love to her, she would not have given him a second thought. But he did not. Time had salved the wounds in Ben's heart which Bridget had inflicted, but his matrimonial troubles had made him both scornful and fearful of the sex. He distrusted all women, and shrank from their society with the instinct that preserves a cauterised child from a second visit to the fire. So—instead of wooing Julia, he carefully avoided her. The girl was piqued at once. It was part of her nature, inherited from Eve, to want anything she might not have, to want it imperiously. The more, therefore, that Ben held aloof, the more she noticed him, and thought about him, and coveted his submission.
To the primitive, passion lacks a calendar, and moves with an expedition unparalleled in the sluggish currents of civilised society. Eight and forty hours sufficed for Julia Thorpe to fall madly in love with a man she had known all her days, and had never previously regarded with a shadow of affection. She had no sooner discovered that in all sincerity Ben was quite indifferent to her than she made up her mind she could not live without him. He stood for everything that the forbidden fruit represented to the First Woman. She must win him, then, even though the result should spell destruction. Primitive women know nothing of the subtle arts which their trained sisters employ for the reduction of masculine resistance. They can be as cunning and secretive as the "old gentleman" himself. But their methods are direct, if furtive. Thus it was with Julia. She allowed nobody to suspect her infatuation, but she watched Ben as a cat might a mouse for a chance to attack him secretly. Her opportunity came on the evening of the second day of the gang's sojourn at the tavern. The three Johns had strolled over immediately after dinner to a neighboring settler's house to pay the family a friendly call. Ben had remained at the inn, as he expected the visit of a "telegraph." Mrs. Thorpe was attending some drunken shearers in the bar. Julia saw her chance and seized it. Ben was seated in the living room, smoking his pipe and reading a book. She glided to his side. "Mr. Hall," said she, "there is somebody who wants to see you down the road a bit, but won't come here. I said I'd bring you to 'im."
"Who is it?" demanded Ben.
"I said I wouldn't tell. Maybe it's a woman. But you folly me, and you'll find out for yourself," replied Julia, and she flitted off on the instant. Ben was greatly mystified, but, of course, he followed her. Julia did not lead him very far. At the first turning of the path that hid the lights of the tavern behind a bank of trees, she paused and allowed him to overtake her. Ben peered all about him. "But there's nobody here!" he exclaimed at last.
"Am I nobody, Mr. Hall?" asked Julia in a tragic voice. "I guess I must be to you, though, the way you've been treating me." Not even a young paleolith like Julia could have so addressed a man except in the dark. Ben was astounded, but he understood, or, at all events, he guessed. Certain strange remembered glances recurred to mind to help his comprehension.
"I might have been an ugly old granny!" murmured the girl in a tremulous undertone.
Ben gave a little shiver. "It's foolish to say such things," he declared, and not without emotion. "I'm not a woman's man, my girl, and so experience has taught me."
"Ah!" cried Julia, "but we're not all nasty cats like Bridget. I just hate her for what she did to you. She ought to have been flogged!"
Ben shook his head. "Come back to the house," he said, quietly. "Your mother will be missing you."
"D'ye think I mind if she does? I'm not going; you can if you like."
"Don't be a fool, my girl. I'm going, of course."
"I knew you didn't care!" said Julia, and she burst into a fit of sobbing.
Ben stood like a stone, staring dumbly at the dim, shaking figure. He was one of those men who can resist anything better than a woman's tears. "But I'm married!" he blurted out at length, in a tone of horror.
"I don't mind," wailed Julia.
"I'm a robber—an outlaw!"
"I don't mind what you be; I love yer!" cried the girl, and she threw herself upon his breast.
Ben had greatly degenerated, but he was still far from being a thoroughly bad man. He was tempted, tempted sorely, but he clenched his teeth and resolved to save Julia from herself. He did so very cunningly. He kissed her and protested himself enslaved by her devotion. He even suggested plans for an elopement; but all the while he drew her gently but firmly towards the tavern. There chance assisted his unselfish purpose in the sudden return of the three Johns from their visit. Julia was hardly satisfied. She had expected a far more ardent return to her advances, but it was not a time to administer reproaches; she did not want the gang to know just yet. She withdrew at once, on a promise to meet her lover secretly again as soon as possible. Ben gave the promise heartily, and immediately proceeded to break it. He called a business conference with the gang, and made a proposal which they cordially agreed upon. Three hours later, when Julia and all in the house were fast asleep, Ben and the three Johns quietly mounted and took the road to Lambing Flat.
In the course of the following day they stuck up and robbed six travellers and two wayside stores. Then they repaired swiftly to the Weddin Mountains, carrying with them three pack-horses loaded with stolen provisions to the value of £100, and fully another £100 worth of stolen bank notes and gold. Very quickly the whole country rang with their doings. A substantial reward was offered by the Government for their arrest, and Sir Frederick Pottinger was supplied with a large reinforcement of mounted troopers from headquarters, and ordered to effect their capture—dead or alive.
The cavalierly deserted Julia heard of all these things with a sore and bitter heart; but her determination to bring Ben to her feet only increased. She considered that he had treated her very badly, but that was merely the more reason why he must be hers. She knew no other man who would or could have used her so. Thus Ben acquired a still greater distinction in her eyes. Such was her infatuation that she would rather have been beaten by him than loaded with favors by any other man.
It is a proverbial truth that a perverted appetite grows by what it feeds upon. Ben Hall's acquired taste for crime and the infamous notoriety that belongs to violent deeds of crime quickly developed into a species of passion. He could not rest, and he would not let his followers rest either. He made a furious dash across country and descended upon the Young district. There the gang spent five or six exciting days. They robbed five stores, more than twenty travellers, and they stuck up and looted three mail coaches. Another cross-country dash took them from the clutches of the police, who had ridden hot foot to Young (called thither by news of the depredations), and brought them back to the Lachlan. There Ben distributed the plunder among his friends and "telegraphs," scattering stolen gold on every side with a lavishness that startled as much as it delighted the recipients. The gang thereupon divided. Ben ordered Dunn and O'Meally to proceed to Caloola and stick up the village. He, himself, accompanied by Gilbert, rode to Carcoar, a much larger town, intending to rob the Commercial Bank. He arrived at midday. The two bushrangers cantered down the main street and quietly pulled up before the bank. Numbers of people were about, but although the robbers were not recognised, their "flash" attire (scarlet shirts, velvet riding breeches, and high top boots), and also the splendid horses they bestrode, attracted a deal of attention. Ben saw this, and directed Gilbert to make haste. The pair alighted swiftly and strode into the bank. The chief clerk, a man named Parker, stood behind the counter; Mr. McDonald, the manager, was momentarily absent, having gone across the street to drink with a customer at the hotel opposite. Parker looked up from his ledger to see a revolver pointed at either side of his head.
"You are suspended," grinned Johnny Gilbert. "Head office is not satisfied with your operations, Mr. Parker, and we have been sent to examine the books."
Ben Hall was less whimsical. "Make the least noise, offer the slightest resistance, and you will look for your brains upon the floor," he sternly announced. Gilbert leaned across the counter and plunged his free hand into an open till. But he had no time to abstract more than a single bundle of notes when a diversion occurred. The manager had entered the bank. Mr. McDonald grasped the situation at a glance, and he set up a a loud shouting. "Help! Murder! Robbery!" he yelled. The bushrangers swung round to deal with the disturber, but too late. Mr. McDonald had already bolted, and his voice could be heard shouting wildly as he ran in the direction of the police station. The disconcerted robbers had foolishly neglected Parker. It was only for an instant, but Parker was a man of resource and courage. He used his opportunity to snatch a revolver from underneath the desk. This he now presented at the bushrangers, and peremptorily ordered them to surrender. But they were desperate men, and Parker was a poor shot. They laughed at his command, and hurried to the door. Parker fired, but missed.
Hall and Gilbert found quite a crowd assembled on the road. A young girl named Miss Harrison was very pluckily attempting to loose their horses from the post to which they had been hitched. Ben darted forward and seized the reins. "Not so fast, if you please, young lady," he said, angrily.
"You are bushrangers!" cried Miss Harrison, "but I am not afraid of you!" Then she turned on the crowd of men. "Why don't you stop them? Are you cowards? Why don't you take their horses and then they cannot escape?"
She made a very dramatic picture, standing there, her eyes flashing, her whole person emanating scorn as she rated the loiterers who wished but were afraid to go to her assistance.
Ben smiled as he surveyed her. "They prefer life to fame, and they are right," he observed genially. "One lives such a few years at most, young lady, and one is dead such a deuce of a time. You ought not to blame them!"
"They are cowards!" stormed the girl. "I would not let you go—if I had one to help me!"
Ben mounted his horse and swept off his hat. "It would be a great pleasure to be your prisoner," he declared, "but it is a pleasure that I must deny myself just now." He covered the crowd with his pistol, and so permitted Gilbert to mount, too.
Johnny Gilbert's humorous mouth twisted in a crooked smile as he gazed at the young Amazon, whose hardihood still disputed the path. "With a wife like you, I would have been a bishop before this," he said, solemnly. "But do stand out of the way, my dear! The police are sure to come along some time, and I'd just hate to ride you down."
The crowd roared with laughter. The police, as a fact, were already in view, yet they were coming into action, not at a gallop, but at a restrained and inoffensive trot. Miss Harrison contemptuously stepped aside. The bushrangers bowed to her with exaggerated courtesy, and, with no appearance of haste, cantered down the street.
Mr. Parker, from the door of the bank, had held them covered during the colloquy with his pistol, but, as he afterwards explained, he had been reluctant to shoot for fear of "missing a crow and killing a pidgeon."
The police never satisfactorily explained their tardiness. They pursued or pretended to pursue the robbers for a couple of miles, and then returned to Carcoar, declaring that their first duty was to defend the town, which, in their absence, might be attacked by another gang! Little wonder that the police of that period were a public laughing-stock.
The following humorously-conceived telegram, that was published about this time in a leading Sydney journal, will give some idea into what a pass of ignominy the force had deservedly fallen in the public esteem:—
NARROW ESCAPE OF THE POLICE.
Last evening two bushrangers espied a large body of troopers in the neighborhood of Carcoar, and immediately gave chase. The dark of the evening favored the escape of the troopers and baffled the outlaws. The appetites of Sir Frederick Pottinger and of Captain McLerie continue in undiminished vigor.
When Ben and Gilbert reached the appointed rendezvous of the gang, they found Dunn and O'Meally awaiting them with a big load of provisions and a bag of money stolen from Caloola. Dunn's raid had been a complete success, but Ben was rather nettled than pleased to hear of it, since his own attack on Carcoar had proved a failure. He at once ordered the gang to proceed with the booty to the Weddin Mountains, and rode off, himself, in a north-westerly direction towards Orange.
O'Meally had laughed at him, and he desired to be alone. He had been minded to shoot O'Meally for that laugh, and had barely repressed the inclination. Ben Hall was deteriorating rapidly, and he knew it. He still cared little, but not enough to make a real effort to pull up. It is true that an idea entered his head as he travelled northwards to extend his journey into Queensland and never return, but he did not entertain it long.
Just before dusk he came upon the camp of a German hawker, who was touring the district with a waggon-load of drapery and gew-gaws for traffic with the farmers' wives. Ben knew the man well, and rather liked him. Such was his mood, however, that he hailed up the poor fellow, and forced him to surrender his last farthing in the world. The German complained bitterly that if anyone had told him he should meet with such treatment at the hands of Ben Hall he would have given the slanderer the lie. "More fool you!" was Ben's sole comment as he resumed his journey.
After this mean and despicable act (which netted him a beggarly five pounds, all in silver and copper money), Ben turned due west and made towards Canowindra. He spent two days at the house of a "telegraph" near that village, and then cut across country some twenty-eight miles to Mr. Edwards's station at Tintern.
He had already robbed a poor man on the highway; he now proceeded to play the part of a petty sneak thief. He had heard that Mr. Edwards had recently purchased a thoroughbred racing stallion. Ben coveted the horse, and was resolved to steal it. He arrived at the station about midnight, and made his way promptly to the stables. But there was not a horse worth his taking in any of the boxes—nothing, indeed, save heavy draught stock.
The marauder was extremely disgusted at having come so far on a wild-goose chase. He was also very angry with Mr. Edwards. What right had the squatter only to keep horses of no use to bushrangers? It was a sin that called loudly for chastisement. Ben searched the dark stables with a tallow dip, and at length he descried something worth while—a brand new silver-mounted hogskin saddle, carefully bestowed on a rack in the harness cupboard. He took the saddle out to where his horse was tethered, and effected an exchange, leaving his own tattered old saddle on the ground. But still he was not satisfied. He craved a more substantial revenge for not having been provided with an opportunity of stealing a racehorse.
Suddenly his eyes fell on a great dark mound shaped like a barn that loomed up against the horizon line about a hundred yards to the west of the stables. It was a hayrick, filled with last season's gatherings of sweet oaten hay—five hundred tons of splendid provender at the lowest computation. Ben made up his mind on the spot. He strode over to the rick, and for several minutes worked industriously with flint and steel. By that time the rick was alight in several places, and burning steadily. Ben mounted his horse, and, seated in his stolen saddle, watched the conflagration spread and grow until the flames bathed the sleeping station in a lurid flood of light. Then at last he was satisfied, and he trotted contentedly away, highly pleased with the reflection that, at all events, Mr. Edwards could not laugh at him.
Next morning, soon after daylight, he stuck up the Canowindra mail coach at The Gap. There were no passengers, but the mailbags brought him a rich haul—bank notes to the value of £118. Delighted with his success, Ben turned south-west, intending to cross the Lachlan and join forces with the gang again. He had not proceeded far, however, when signal fires warned him of police in his path. He promptly executed a half-double, and headed towards Carcoar. Ben camped in the bush that night, and, not daring to light a fire, he was nearly frozen. In the morning a heavy fall of snow set in. Hungry, wet, and chilled to the very marrow of his bones, he pushed on as fast as his tired horse would go, in search of food and shelter. Soon he saw a smoke wreath curling through the trees. It might be the fire of an enemy, but Ben was desperate. He drove in his spurs and rode at speed towards the column.
A few minutes and he was face to face with the German hawker whom he had so meanly robbed less than a week before. Ben Hall knew what shame meant then. He dismounted stiffly, and staggered over to the fire to warm his frost-bitten hands, saying never a word to the man he had abused. The hawker observed the outlaw's evil plight, and saw at once that he could turn the tables if he chose, for he was warm, well-fed, and armed—Ben was helpless.
But he was not that sort of human being. Disdaining to take advantage of the situation, he set food and drink before the robber, and he even cared for Ben's worn and starving horse with a bulging nose-bag that he extracted from his cart. He only permitted himself one reproachful remark:—
"Money is nod everydings," he said.
Ben was deeply touched. "There is a hundred pounds reward offered for my capture, dead or alive," he muttered brokenly, "and you wouldn't earn it!"
The German shrugged his shoulders. "Ach, Himmel! how it snows!" he grumbled. "No farther can any man dis day travel. You must stay mit mine camp, Ben Hall, bad mans as you be. But nod longer as von day, because no more meat have I, nich wahr?"
But Ben shook his head. He had eaten heartily, and was his own man again. "I must push on to the Murphy's," he declared. "It is only ten miles, and I must get a new mount, for the police are out in force against me. Have you got such a thing as a warm overcoat in your outfit, Dutchy? Don't fear; I'll buy it from you."
The hawker nodded, and climbed into his hooded cart. He returned presently with a heavy worsted great coat. "None bigger or better I haf in mine stock," he said impressively. "It gost you yoost five pound."
Ben slipped on the coat and praised it enthusiastically. "It's worth more than five pounds," he asserted. "It's a life-saver, that's what it is. Name your own figure, Dutchy."
"It gost you yoost five pound," repeated the stolid German.
Ben smiled, and drew from an inner pocket the plunder he had taken from the Canowindra mail. "It's worth a hundred, and a hundred I will pay for it," he said; and as he spoke he began to count the notes. The hawker stared at him in the utmost bewilderment. "But I was tell you it gost you yoost five pound!" he gasped.
"Won't you take more?" grinned Ben. "It's good money, Dutchy, however come by."
"But why gif it you to me?"
"Because you are a good sort, Dutchy, and because I am dashed ashamed that I bailed you up the other day. Here, take the notes, and we'll call quits. Is it a go?"
The astonished hawker took the notes and put them with great deliberation into his pouch. "Sapperment!" he stammered, "but dot vas mine best bargain ever I haf made."
Ben mounted his horse. "I am 'bad mans' all right, Dutchy, but not all black, hey?"
"You vas de best mans ever," cried the hawker, earnestly; "and all I visit is dot all my gustomers vas like you—hein!" The pair shook hands heartily.
"You forgive me?" asked Ben.
"Gott bless you! I haf not to forgif, but to tank," exclaimed the hawker. "May der police never catch you, Ben Hall. I will do pray for dat. I loaf you like mein brudder!"
And Ben rode into the waste of falling snow with a glow in his heart that matched the comfortably-blazing camp-fire he left behind him. Once more he felt a hero of old romance. He had made a poor man happy. He had scattered largesse like a prince. No common bandit he—but a knight errant and a paladin! If Satan is a thought-reader, as they say, what a rousing laugh he must have laughed that morning!
The Murphys were old friends of Ben Hall, and they welcomed him cordially. He spent two days with the family, and then departed on a borrowed horse for Curbethong, having first despatched a "telegraph" to Johnny Gilbert, directing him to assemble the gang on August 1 at Coombing, the residence of Mr. Icely, a magistrate, and one of the richest squatters in the district. Ben proposed to attack Coombing in order to furnish the gang with remounts, and he had selected Mr. Icely as a victim because the squatter was famed widely for his thoroughbred stock.
In the meanwhile the police must be thrown off the scent, so he travelled post haste to Curbethong, changing horses at every friendly settler's house; and the very next day he fell like a thunderbolt upon the unsuspecting hamlet of Bang Bang. There he did little damage beyond terrifying the townspeople, but he made a vast deal of noise. And he gained his end. The Cowra police were promptly notified of his visitation, and they hurried in force to the scene of the outrage. As they galloped south-west, Ben galloped north-east, and he arrived at Cowra about the same moment that the police reached Bang Bang. He rode through the town unrecognised by any save a couple of sympathisers, and pushed on at once along the Bathurst-road towards Carcoar. Three strong police detachments passed him, going south that day, but Ben carefully avoided them all, and his superior bushmanship kept his presence unsuspected, although he never once departed more than a hundred yards from the main road.
Fortune favored all his plans. On the evening of August 1 the three Johns met him at the rendezvous in charge of a "telegraph," another "John"—surnamed Vane, who acted as their guide. This young man had long pleaded for admission to the gang, and as soon as Ben arrived he renewed his suit. His was a handsome, well-built youth, a typical Australian bushman, fearless, active, intelligent, and, above all, a magnificent horseman. Ben was indifferent, and put the matter to the vote. As Vane had done favors to all the gang at various times, he was popular. They very promptly elected him a member, and put him to the oath. So the "three Johns" became four, and Ben's command increased in magnitude.
The evening was spent before a blazing fire, making plans of mischief and bragging of their evil deeds. Ben was the biggest braggart of the lot. He vaunted himself a cross between Robin Hood and Claude Duval, and he lied like a Munchausen of the wonderful things that he had accomplished single-handed during the past few weeks. The episode of the German hawker was transformed in his relation into a sort of Arabian Nights story, in which the narrator was shown in the guise of an Antipodean Haroun-al-Raschid. And he had others for their entertainment equally marvellous, which were wholly fanciful. The wonder was that the gang not merely believed him, but hung adoringly upon his words. Ben was older than they, and his ready, cultivated speech, his romantic views, and his distinguished manner endowed him in their eyes with a glamor that obscured his sordid faults and biassed all judgment. His ascendency over his followers grew into heroic proportions that night, and it was never afterwards subverted.
On the following evening, after a day of lies and false philosophising, Ben called boot and saddle, and the gang mounted. Each man wore a scarlet shirt, white velvet riding breeches, high top boots, and a big black felt hat. Such was the uniform Ben had fixed for them, and they had very enthusiastically adopted it. Each man, moreover, wore a smart leather waist belt, furnished with four revolvers and a sheath knife; while a rifle was slung across his shoulders. Never did a more dandified set of bushrangers take the field against law-abiding citizens, nor one more heavily armed. Their horses were not so brave, but they would soon repair that defect. Riding leisurely and talking gaily all the way, they reached Coombing homestead about two hours before midnight. The house was brightly lighted, for Mr. Icely had distinguished company. He was entertaining, amongst other guests, Inspector Morrissett and Sub-inspector Davidson, two high officials of the police, who had spent the day scouring the bush for Ben Hall, and at nightfall had sought the squatter's hospitality. Ben and his followers rode over to the dark stables and dismounted quietly in the shadows. The stables were situated about 150 yards from the house, and the grooms in charge had left their posts to go over and listen to the music of the squatter's piano. They were grouped about the back doors and windows of the homestead, peeping in at the guests, and otherwise amusing themselves. The coast was quite clear to the robbers. They proceeded to work with the most impudent deliberation. Entering the stables, they made a careful inspection by lamplight of the squatter's stock, and, as they were amply qualified to do, they selected the five best horses the building contained. Ben chose for himself a splendid grey thoroughbred named Comus, a horse which Mr. Icely valued above all others, and treasured as the very apple of his eye. Johnny Gilbert took Sub-inspector Davidson's bay stallion, also a famous horse, and beyond question the best then belonging to the Government in the whole length and breadth of the countryside. Johnny Dunn, Johnny O'Meally, and Johnny Vane, perforce, took less valuable animals; nevertheless each obtained a racer and a thoroughbred.
The selection over, each robber helped himself to a bridle or a halter from the harness room and quietly secured his prey. The stolen steeds were then led out of the stables and over to the gang's own horses, on which they immediately proceeded to mount. So far no alarm had been given, but suddenly Comus uttered a piercing neigh. The head groom heard, and, startled by the sound, he suspected that something was wrong. As he chanced to be armed, he forthwith hurried towards the stables, cocking his weapon as he ran. The trampling of hoofs drew his attention to the right, and on a sudden the grey coat of Comus led behind Ben's horse loomed into view. The groom quickened his steps, and at length, perceiving Ben's figure silhouetted against the sky, he discharged his piece. He missed. Ben replied on the instant with an aim of deadly accuracy. His bullet struck the groom full in the mouth, and the unfortunate man fell screaming to the ground, desperately wounded. The noise of the firing and the groom's screams threw the homestead into a state of frantic consternation. Mr. Icely and his visitors hastily snatched up arms, and rushed into the courtyard, but, of course, they were too late. They could see nothing for the dark, and all they heard was the groaning of the groom and a fast dwindling thunder of hoofs as the bushrangers made off. The wounded man was taken in and cared for. Ultimately he recovered, although at first his life was despaired of.
Inspector Morrissett mounted at once and galloped madly into Carcoar, which place was plunged into a seething ferment of excitement by his news. There a considerable police force was in barracks, but the frightened townsfolk implored the authorities not to leave the town unguarded. The police mercifully listened to their prayers. They remained in barracks until the Mayor and the local magistrates had organised a large band of special constables to protect the town against a surprise attack. Thereupon Inspector Morrissett took the field with thirty troopers, all armed to the teeth. For three days they scoured the surrounding country like a pack of hungry bloodhounds; then they returned to Carcoar dispirited and utterly exhausted. Of course, they had never sighted a single bushranger, and had found not a sign of the robbers. It was the usual fate of police adventures in those days.
Ben Hall and his followers did not immediately depart far from the scene of their latest depredation. Nor was there any real necessity to do so. Their "telegraphs" kept them accurately informed of the operations of the police, and so they were enabled to avoid their pursuers by quietly moving from one settler's house to another, without once being put to the bother of a gallop. And they lived in comfort and always found a hospitable roof to shelter them, whereas the unfortunate police were continually obliged to camp out in the snowy ranges, and often went short of food. Morrissett was not slow to realise the great disadvantage he was under, and at length he determined on a new expedient. He would give up hunting the outlaws for a while and chase the "telegraphs" instead. After a brief rest, he led out a second expedition from Carcoar, and at the end of two days of privations and desperate exertion, he succeeded in arresting four young men, whom he caught in the act of lighting signal fires on a hill-top.
Morrissett's subsequent movements are distinctly funny to read about. The fact that he was in charge of prisoners who, he had good reason to believe, were friends of the bushrangers, seems to have suddenly inspired his soul with terror. No sooner had he captured the "telegraphs" than he bolted wildly back with them to Carcoar, and not even there did he feel safe. He placed his prisoners at once aboard a coach, and set out for Bathurst, accompanied by a strong guard of senior constables and troopers. Ben Hall got prompt news of these doings, and he quickly divined their significance. The police were obviously afraid of a rescue. Well, why net attempt a rescue? The gang welcomed the proposal with enthusiasm, and the hunted forthwith became the hunters. Ben, however, was in a lazy mood, and he did not venture forth himself. He rested comfortably at Murphy's farm, and put Johnny Gilbert in command of the expedition. The well-mounted outlaws easily overtook the coach before it had left Carcoar half a dozen miles behind, and they charged it at the gallop, firing as they charged. There ensued a comic opera battle. Morrissett and his men alighted from the coach and returned the fire of the gang. The gang halted and volleyed back again. The police advanced at the double, and once more fired. The bushrangers retreated. The police stopped to reload. Once more the bushrangers fired and charged. The police, in their turn, retreated. The outlaws paused to reload. The police again fired and charged. The bushrangers retreated, paused, and fired. The police retreated, paused, and fired, then charged again. Again the bushrangers retreated. Again they turned and charged. Again the police retreated. Again they paused, fired and charged. The thing was growing absurdly monotonous.
Never more than seventy or eighty yards separated the adversaries, yet the ridiculous battle proceeded for longer than twenty minutes, and more than a hundred shots had been exchanged before a man was hit. Suddenly a bullet pierced a constable's right arm near the shoulder, and he retired, groaning, to the coach. The bushrangers cheered loudly, and returned with redoubled energy to the attack. The police fired and retreated, and fired again. Then, at length, the end came. Johnny Gilbert unexpectedly shouted, "'Ware hawks, lads, or we'll be taken between fires!" and he pointed down the road towards Carcoar, where a cloud of advancing dust apparently portended the advance of police reinforcements. It was enough for the gang. With one accord they wheeled their horses into the bush and rode off as fast as they could gallop.
The cloud of dust turned out to be really nothing but a little whirlwind, but that the outlaws never knew. The police had been saved from ignominy, and, possibly, from destruction by such a chance; it is certain, at least, that not a man of them was qualified to hit a haystack. They were brave, undoubtedly, but marksmen of the poorest quality. It must be remembered that they were a-foot and the bushrangers mounted, so they had all the advantage in the struggle. Yet they had discharged fully forty volleys without even grazing a horse. It is little wonder that when Morrissett reached Bathurst he issued orders instantly to all the troopers in his control to practise shooting; and, what is more, he took lessons himself. The pity was that the police only began to equip themselves to hunt bushrangers when the bushranging evil had already developed into a full-fledged danger to the public weal.
The upshot of the Bathurst road fight was simply nil. The constable recovered, and the prisoners whom the outlaws had tried to rescue were presently discharged for lack of evidence against them. Ben Hall was so disgusted when he heard of Gilbert's failure to release the "telegraphs" that he mounted Mr. Icely's famous grey, and proceeded alone to Teasdale, resolved to redeem the reputation of the gang by an act of bold and single-handed black-guardism. He arrived there at seven o'clock the same evening and "stuck up" Chesher's Inn at the muzzle of his pistol, securing a money booty of £40. Pressing on to Trunkey's Creek with one of his "telegraphs," he stuck up three stores and one hotel, and looted the entire village, carrying off money, stores, and general provisions, loaded on three stolen pack-horses, to the value of £800. Ben despatched this great treasure straight to the Weddin haunt of the gang in charge of two sympathisers, and then doubled back to Carcoar.
When about twelve miles from Murphy's, he met a friend who told him that Sergeant Treherne and two troopers were resting at that moment in the hut of a settler named Marsh. Ben knew the place well. It was perched on the banks of a little lagoon, about two leagues from the town. He thanked the spy for his information, and rode at top speed to Marsh's hut, where, arriving, he dismounted in full view of the open door. The hut contained but a single room. The three policemen were lounging before the fire, chatting idly, and warming themselves more busily, for the evening was bitterly cold. Ben's arrival did not disturb them in the least. What could there be to fear in the advent of a single man? And, besides, were they not police? They glanced at him, no more. Ben tethered Comus to a sapling, and strolled leisurely to the doorway. "Good evening, mates," he said, pausing at the threshold, "Ha! troopers, I see! is this the way you hunt bushrangers?"
His scornful tone gained him their complete attention. Sergeant Treherne answered for the lot. "What have our methods got to do with you?" he demanded, angrily.
"A good deal!" flashed Ben, "but please don't mistake me; I quite approve of them!" Then his tone changed from banter to a ring of stern command. "Hands up, or you are dead men!" And as he spoke the words, he whipped out a brace of cocked revolvers.
The police had no option but to obey. Ben forced the sergeant to handcuff the wrists of Marsh and the two troopers behind their backs, and, that done, to handcuff himself. He then pinioned the troopers together with ropes, and he fastened the tethered band with another cord to the slab wall of the hut. The hobbled horses of the troopers were grazing in a neighboring yard. Ben sallied forth, selected the best of the three, and loaded it with the troopers' arms and accoutrements, feeding his victims with caustic jibes the while. The men were almost frantic with rage and shame, but as they saw that Ben was about to depart, they besought him almost in tears not to leave them in such a disgraceful predicament.
Ben's reply was as cruel as his acts. "You wretches!" he said. "I hate you all! You made a criminal of me. It's war to the knife between us. Be thankful I have spared your lives." And with that he rode callously away, leading the loaded troop horse.
The police were not released from their odious position until the following afternoon, when they were found by a passing wayfarer who had chanced to look in, wondering at the deserted appearance of the place. This man the troopers swore under threats to secrecy as to the plight in which he had discovered them, and on their return to Carcoar they reported that they had been surprised and overcome, not by a single bushranger, but by the entire gang. But the lie was soon exploded, and presently the whole district knew the truth. More than anything he had done did this exploit seal Ben's fame; it divided the world between laughter and rage; and it won him the worship of his satellites. But it produced one effect that Ben had not foreseen, and that would, perhaps, have dismayed him had he known. It set Parliament at odds with the Government, and thereby compelled the Ministry to order extraordinary measures for the extirpation of the gang.
Captain McLerie, the Inspector General and Commander-in-Chief of the New South Wales Police Force, was the man chosen by the Government to bring Ben Hall's gang to book. He was despatched from Sydney to Carcoar in charge of a special band of carefully selected senior constables, all good marksmen and splendidly mounted; and he was invested, for the purposes of his mission, with supreme authority over the affected district. Captain McLerie arrived at Carcoar towards the middle of September, and was there met by Sir Frederick Pottinger. The two officers held a long conference, during which it was decided to split up their separate forces into numerous small detachments, which should operate over definite sections of the bush, and by their constant movements to and fro compel the harried bushrangers to go farther afield in search of sustenance and rest. The plan seemed a good one, and as it contained provision for rapid concentration and pursuit work as soon as the outlaws should be located and dislodged from their present haunts, hopes ran high that a general drive and round up would very soon eventuate and result in important captures.
Captain McLerie had no sooner effected these arrangements than he set out for Cowra, intending to make that town his headquarters. Sir Frederick Pottinger as promptly returned to Bathurst, leaving Carcoar in charge of Superintendent Morrissett. Ben Hall lay at the moment with Gilbert and O'Meally in a secluded camp on the banks of a tributary of the Belabula River, some fifteen miles from Carcoar. Several spies brought him news of Captain McLerie's menacing disposition, and more than one advised him to fly. But Ben only laughed at such counsel. As soon as he had definitely ascertained the whereabouts of his more distinguished adversaries, he made a long detour through the bush, and struck the main road between Bathurst and Blayney shortly after Sir Frederick Pottinger had passed.
The three bushrangers, at Ben's direction, took up a position on the top of a steep hill, and waited leisurely for victims. About two o'clock in the afternoon three horsemen appeared and began to climb the hill, coming from the direction of Carcoar. They were Mr. Beardmore, a police-magistrate; Constable Brown, and a Caloola storekeeper named Burke. They were permitted to toil up the height without molestation, but as they drew rein to breathe their horses on the summit, the bushrangers suddenly dashed out from their shelter and called upon the startled travellers to surrender.
The order was obeyed.
The travellers were obliged to dismount and march a little way into the scrub, where they were disarmed, tied to trees, and exhaustively searched and robbed. Mr. Beardmore and the constable submitted to these indignities with barely-restrained fury, but no attention was paid to their complaints. The bushrangers were cool and quite indifferent to insult; but they were also merciless. During the next hour they took four more prisoners, all horsemen, and served them in the same fashion. The Bathurst-Carcoar mail coach soon afterwards appeared. It was at once stuck up, unhorsed, and overhauled. It contained only one passenger, who was robbed of £5, all the money he possessed in the world, but on explaining this, some few shillings were grudgingly restored to him. The mail bags yielded a booty of £500 in cheques, notes, and drafts. The bank notes were kept, but the cheques were tossed contemptuously on the road.
The last traveller to arrive that day was a groom riding a racehorse back from the Bathurst races to its owner on the Lachlan. The gang took the racehorse, but as the groom was a native they gave him one of their own in exchange. Their next act was to release their prisoners, and to restore the watches, of which they had previously deprived them. Ben explained this piece of complaisance in his loftiest manner.
"Time was made for slaves, and we are free men," he declared.
As they mounted to depart, Mr. Beardmore drew a cheque-book from his pocket and made a singular proposition.
"Look here, you rascals!" he exclaimed. "I'm willing to write a cheque for £60 and fight a duel for it with any man of you. Pistols at twelve paces. Dare one of you accept the challenge?"
The bushrangers glanced at him and at each other. Johnny Gilbert giggled mirthfully. "What a fool I'd be!" he gurgled. "What! Give you a chance to kill me? Not much! And what a fool you'd be, too; for, if you shot me, my mates would kill you. Thank you, old chap, but not to-day. Some other day. Good day!" With that the gang rode off, laughing heartily, and all the louder when, glancing back, they saw the magistrate furiously shaking his fist at them.
The news of this outrage reached Bathurst and Carcoar at about the same time. It sent both Captain McLerie and Sir Frederick Pottinger galloping madly back to Carcoar, where they again foregathered. No time was wasted in talk, but both officers took the field in force immediately, and they began to scour the country immediately surrounding the scene of the crime. The unfortunate thing was that Ben Hall had fully expected them to do this, and had made his plans accordingly. As the police concentrated and rode north-east, he passed them at a respectful distance in the bush, riding south-west. He arrived at Cowra just about the time they reached Caloola, and, of course, he found the place practically undefended. He did not enter the town, but crossed the Lachlan and swooped down upon the hamlet of Cootamundra—now a fair-sized township, but then a mere hamlet. The principal store was owned by a wealthy man named Barnes, who lived at Murrumburrah. Hall and his companions captured the place without difficulty, and made themselves free of its contents.
Unhappily for himself, Mr. Barnes was in the neighborhood, and when he heard that his property was being looted, he started hot foot for Cootamundra. He met the bushrangers on the road, loaded with his goods. Rage overcame him at the sight, and, careless of the odds, he fired upon them until he had emptied his revolver. The gang scattered in surprise, but swiftly re-assembled. Mr. Barnes, now practically unarmed, realised his peril, and galloped away. O'Meally followed him. Mr. Barnes was well mounted, and he rode for his life, but O'Meally bestrode a thoroughbred, and gradually gained upon him.
After a wild gallop of two miles, Mackay's station hove in view. Mr. Barnes spurred desperately towards the welcome refuge, but when on the very point of safety, O'Meally's pistol cracked. The bullet struck Mr. Barnes square between the shoulders, and the poor gentleman toppled from his horse, a corpse. This atrocious murder was witnessed by several of Mr. Mackay's hands. They stood helplessly gazing, in a state of stupefaction, while O'Meally coolly dismounted and rifled the pockets of his victim. Nor did the spell lift when the bushranger presently approached them, and demanded the keys of the station store. Such was O'Meally's hardihood that he robbed the station as carefully as he would have done a coach, and no man dared lift a finger to stay him. He departed with a large swag of money and provisions loaded on the back of the squatter's favorite thoroughbred, and so little did he appear to feel the dreadful fact that he had become a murderer that he rode off whistling a merry operatic tune.
O'Meally overtook his companions some four hours later on the southern road. They were just going to camp for the night, and Ben Hall was in the act of lighting a fire as the murderer rode up. O'Meally halted, but did not offer to dismount. "Say," he suggested, grinning tranquilly, "better not waste trouble, lads; we'll not be camping to-night."
Ben looked up. "And why not?" he demanded. "What's the matter with you, Jack?"
"Nothing wrong with yours truly," responded O'Meally, "but I've killed old Barnes. He's as dead as a crow, and, of course, there'll be hell to pay."
"Are you serious?"
"Never more so, Ben. I shot him through the back, and he died before he reached the ground. And what is more, four men saw me do it. The word is up and away, ain't it, Captain?"
There was no discussion. Horror and terror took immediate possession of the gang. Until that day none of them had actually killed a man. Nearly always they had taken care when using their firearms aggressively to aim at an arm or a leg, so as to avoid the crime of murder. But the bolt had fallen now. They were thrust suddenly beyond the pale of decent human sympathy, and they knew in their hearts that from that day forth many even of their warmest friends would turn against them, for Mr. Barnes had been a good citizen, and all classes liked and respected him. On a common silent impulse Ben Hall and Gilbert hurriedly proceeded to resaddle, and a few moments later all three were flying through the bush by different routes towards the Weddin Mountains. They had separated in order to confuse pursuit.
Ben Hall had by mere chance selected a path on the eastern flank of the general movement north. It was the most dangerous, since it forced him to cross the main road between Bang Bang and Cowra, and to traverse country infested with police. He soon discovered that he would need to employ all his bushcraft to win through. During the night he all but stumbled upon a vigilant police camp, and he heard the hum of a rifle bullet as it whistled past his ear. In the early dawn he sighted two police parties from a hill top, and saw signal fires all about him. Proceeding with extreme caution, he penetrated skilfully between the meshes, and gradually worked his way towards the home of a trusty spy. He found it in the possession of Superintendent Morrissett and two troopers, who greeted his approach with a point-blank volley. Ben must surely have been either shot or captured at that juncture were it not for the hysterical impatience of the police. He was walking unsuspiciously into the trap they had so carefully prepared for him, but they could not wait for the gin to spring. They fired while he was still eighty yards from the house (whose inmates they had gagged and bound), and nervous excitement destroyed their aim.
Ben swung in his tracks an on a pivot, and made off like the wind. The police followed pell-mell, but their sole reward was Ben's led horse, which he was obliged to discard to save his neck. This rencontre pushed him so far east that when he turned again that afternoon (having shaken off pursuit) and doubled back he was brought within a furling of Allport's homestead. He was too tired and hungry by then to be nice in his actions, so he trotted forthwith to the house. Mr. Allport was standing in the open doorway with arms folded and a frowning face. "I want food for myself and my horse—a rest and a shelter, if only for an hour or two," said Ben.
Mr. Allport shook his head. "My house gives nothing to bushrangers and murderers," he responded sternly. "Once you were an honored guest here. You can never enter again except by force."
"I will pay you handsomely for what I need."
"With stolen money!"
Ben flushed hotly. "I never harmed you or yours," he protested. "What right have you to hound me down?"
"The right of an honest man, whose duty it is to refuse any sort of help to ruffians and breakers of the law."
"You tempt Fate to taunt me so cruelly!" cried Ben. "I am a desperate man, I tell you. If you won't serve me by fair means, there are foul that I can use." And as he spoke he flashed his pistol into view.
But Mr. Allport was not to be intimidated. "I do not believe," he said, slowly, "I cannot believe that you have fallen as low as that." For a little tense space the eyes of the two men questioned and contested. Then Ben's eyes fell. He shrugged his shoulders and turned silently away, hating venomously the man who had refused him, but ashamed to show his hatred in the manner that he would. "Some day I will kill him!" he muttered in his throat, and he meant it fully. Mr. Allport, however, was not as hard-hearted as he seemed. He was aware that his family liked Ben well, and he suspected that they were secretly preparing to succor the outlaw. For that reason he went into his bedroom and shut himself in for many minutes. He did not want to see what might transpire. And this happened: Ben had hardly reached the outer sliprails when a fleet, slight figure darted from the house and sped like a doe in his pursuit. "Ben! Ben!" the girl cried presently.
Ben reined up, and his hungry eyes caught fire to see the bundle carried by his good samaritan. "Don't think too badly of father," panted Miss Allport, as she put the bundle in the outlaw's hands. "You know his principles. I'm certain he was deeply pained to cast you adrift."
Ben shook his head—all his anger gone. "Your father gave me nothing but my deserts," he confessed in sudden humbleness. "But you, Mary—you are an angel of mercy!"
"It was mother," sighed the girl. "She was always fond of you. She sends you her love; and, oh! she wants you to give up this life of yours. Will you, Ben?"
The bushranger muttered something that was inarticulate. His eyes were blurred with mist, and his face was strangely white. With a swift fierce gesture he wrenched his horse's head around, clapped in his spurs, and clattered at a gallop into the bush, leaving the girl staring after him amazedly. She did not know that her mother's sweet little message of affection had wounded Ben more sorely than a policeman's bullet.
Two days later, after a score of hair-breadth escapes and more or less thrilling adventures, the hunted bandit found himself in the wild country neighboring on Sandy Creek, yet effectually barred from his mountain refuge by a cordon of police.
For nearly a week he lay hidden in the thick scrub above Wheogo, fed daily by trusty "telegraphs," who brought him news as well as food. He then moved obliquely west a full day's journey, and zig-zagged to the north another two, until he touched the southern environs of the goldfield. Rain fell almost continually, and, despite the encroaching summer, the weather continued piercingly cold. Ben suffered sharp privations in those days, and he learned all the miseries that beset the lives of hunted vermin.
There was no longer any romance to him in the life of a bushranger. He abhorred it, but its fetters held him close. One morning he drew rein before a tree whereon was nailed a flaunting proclamation. Ben read it carefully. It contained an accurate description of each member of the gang, and it offered £500 reward for the capture, dead or alive, of each and every one of them. Ben's lips tightened as he read. None of his spies had told him of this proclamation. Why? Were they thinking of betraying him? The notion cast him in a sweat of fear. He rode forty miles that day, and at even-fall he reached the Diggers' Rest.
Instinct told him there was at any rate one creature in the world upon whose faith he could rely, and terror took him hot foot to her house. Julia Thorpe greeted him with marked coldness, but her eyes were kinder than her tongue. Ben gave his horse to a groom, and followed Julia into the bar-room of the tavern. It was filled with strangers, mostly new-chum diggers on their way to the goldfield. Ben introduced himself as a trooper on the search for bushrangers, and, spending money lavishly, he contrived in an hour or two to make every man of the loungers drunk, without touching a drop of liquor himself. He purchased Mrs. Thorpe's good graces with a handsome gift of stolen gold and notes, and sent her happy to bed. At length he was free to talk with Julia. The girl had been watching him covertly all the while, and she had divined that he had some pressing need of her. She led him out on the verandah, and motioned him to a seat upon a bench. Ben would have embraced her, but she quietly repulsed him. "No, thank you, Mr. Hall," she said, cuttingly. "That foolishness belongs to the past. I've quite got over it."
"I haven't," sighed Ben.
"Hypocrite!" cried Julia. "You left me when—oh! I wonder I can speak to you at all!"
"I left you because I wasn't cad enough to drag you down to my lot," the bushranger said, gravely. "Don't let us talk of that, however. Maybe I was a fool, but you profited by it."
"Why have you come back?" demanded the girl.
"To get a truth which you can give me, and which nobody else will."
"What is it?"
"The Government has doubled the reward for me, and none of my spies has let me know. What is the gossip, Julia? Is there any talk anywhere round here of earning blood money?"
"Ah!" sighed the girl; "I might have known it was your skin you was frightened of."
"Eh! What—What ails you, girl?"
"Did you only come here for that?"
"To see you—yes."
"And not because you heard that Charley Frey was courting me?"
"Confound Charley Frey!" grumbled Ben. "I'd wring his neck for two pins."
The vigor of his tone comforted Julia amazingly. Her manner relented at once. "Then you do care for me a little bit?" she whispered. Ben seized her roughly in his arms and kissed her on the mouth. "Now, answer my question!" he commanded.
Julia had never intended to submit so easily. For days and weeks she had dreamed of cruelly punishing her recreant lover when an opportunity occurred, but her resolution melted at the first contact of his arms; indeed, it had begun to soften at the first kind word. Her surrender was sudden and complete. "You've got nothin' to fear, darlin'," she murmured, as she nestled into his side. "The Transomes ain't to be trusted; they never was. But the rest of the boys is all right, and they just swear by you. You could git a gang of twenty as easy as five if you wanted 'em."
"Are you sure, Julia?"
"As sure as you're born, Ben."
"When were the police here last?"
"Yesterday, and no chance of any of 'em coming back afore Tuesday; they're all huntin' round and makin' for the Weddin."
"Was there much talk of the murder of Mr. Barnes?"
"Heaps, Ben, of course; but no bad talk of you. We all know O'Meally done it, and you ain't to blame! Have I lighted your mind, darlin'?"
"You have, indeed," said Ben, and he kissed her very gratefully. Next morning Julia set out from the tavern on a business visit for her mother to Forbes. Ben rode south—that is to say, in the opposite direction. The lovers met again six hours afterwards at a rendezvous they had fixed in the bush some twelve miles to the west of Cooper's Flat. Truly spoke the cynic who said that no man may fall so low that he cannot win a woman or a dog to love him.
The elopement of Ben Hall and Julia Thorpe (for such in effect it was) was soon made known to the other members of the gang. The birds of rumor twittered the news across the countryside, and within a few days the whole district was discussing it very volubly, yet under breath. It passed from mouth to mouth as a secret, and always with a direction by the informer that the story must be kept dark, lest Ben Hall be offended. The police alone heard nothing, for among the settlers their friends were few and far between. Mrs. Thorpe was one of the first to be enlightened, for her suspicions had been actively awakened long before. But she was discreet—a canny old woman who loved money above all things, and made all things serve her craze for heaping money. She was momentarily indignant at her daughter's folly, but she told nobody of her anger. She knew that Julia would, perforce, presently return to the Diggers' Rest and she foresaw that her tavern would thenceforth be a lighthouse to beckon the outlaw, wherever his steps might stray. Well, so much the better for her bank account. Ben would have to pay her well if he desired her to be complaisant. She would bleed him to the very bone.
Johnny Gilbert and his mates were far less philosophical. Moral objections to Ben's philandering, of course, they had none. They feared, however, that the entanglement might make their leader careless, and cause him to endanger their safety and his own. And their fears were thoroughly sincere. They discussed the matter from every point of view, and they united in denouncing Ben's conduct as grossly anti-social and improper. It was agreed that he must be rescued from Julia's clutches and put back in the path of duty. They acted promptly. Breaking from the Weddin Mountains one dark and stormy night, they pierced the police cordon without much difficulty, and rode in a body to the shepherd's hut where the lovers were supposed to be honeymooning. But they did not surprise Ben. His "telegraphs" had served him well, and Julia was already far on the road to Forbes when the gang appeared. They found their captain waiting for them, mounted on Comus, the famous thoroughbred. His greeting was brisk and cool—exquisitely laconic.
"We ride to Grubbenbong," he said, and, waiting for no response, he dashed off at a hand gallop towards the Lachlan.
The dumfounded gang galloped in his tracks, and not even Johnny Gilbert could raise a laugh, although he appreciated the humor of the situation. They had come to discipline their leader, and he had disciplined them instead, turning the tables on them as easily as a man might wink his eyelid. Their respect for him sensibly increased. Ben guided the gang in an almost direct line to Canowindra, and with every step they took they left the outwitted police the further behind them. Ben always rode far in the front, and he took no man into his confidence; he permitted none to converse with him. He was passing through a curious psychological crisis. He had fallen in love with Julia Thorpe, and was fighting against a powerful inclination to rejoin her forthwith, whatever might be the risk, whatever the sacrifice. Will he had none. Passion was his master. The devil kept muttering in his ear, "A short life and a merry one! Return, return!" That he kept on was not because he was strong, but because he knew deep in his heart that Julia would not welcome an empty-handed lover, and for the moment he was penniless. For the first time in his life he was a robber with a purpose. He had selected Grubbenbong station because its owner, Mr. Louden, was one of the wealthiest settlers in the district.
The gang fell upon the place at dusk of the ensuing day, having executed a march rapid beyond all previous records. Mr. Louden was at home with his family, and the house contained six other men. Ben carried the place with a rush, and immediately secured and bound all the male inmates. The frightened women were ordered to prepare a sumptuous meal for the bushrangers, and the house, meanwhile, was searched from roof to basement. The search yielded a considerable treasure of money, gold, and jewellery. The gang enjoyed a hearty dinner, graced with music (Mrs. Louden was induced to play the piano for them while they ate), and washed down with bumpers of champagne. Ben's followers wished to spend the night there, but he sternly vetoed the proposal. He must have plenty of money at any cost, and at once. He drove them to the stable, mounted them on fresh horses, and set off instantly for Cliefden, the home of another rich settler, Mr. Rothery. There arrived, the process of sticking up, feasting, and looting was hastily repeated.
Once more remounted on thoroughbreds stolen from Mr. Rothery's well-stocked stalls, the gang proceeded like the wind to Mr. Grant's station, near Belabula, which they ravaged in precisely the same fashion. Johnny Gilbert and his mates now pleaded earnestly for a decent rest, but Ben was inexorable. "We shall rest at Canowindra," he said, and spurred his latest stolen racer towards that township. They reached the outskirts of the village about nine o'clock in the morning. There Ben halted for a few moments and ordered his four followers to spread out in all directions, so as to surround the town. When sufficient time had elapsed for this disposition to be effected, he fired his rifle in the air. The five outlaws promptly galloped towards a common centre, each from a different direction, and in their rush they swept up every horse within half a mile of the settlement, finally rounding them up at the appointed rendezvous, the flat before the Canowindra Hotel.
The design of this movement was to prevent any local resident from escaping with news of the outrage before the bushrangers should be prepared to leave. It was perfectly effective. Ben ordered all the horses to be secured in a paddock in sight of everyone; and that done, the male inhabitants were similarly rounded up, robbed of their money, and deprived of their arms. There was one constable in the place, but he surrendered on the spot at the first demand, and was imprisoned. The bushrangers now proceeded to amass treasure, and generally to enjoy themselves. They visited, searched, and looted every house in the town, and finally ensconced themselves in the hotel, of which they took possession. Presently a bell was set ringing to assemble the townsfolk. When all were gathered, Ben mounted a box and made them a speech. This is what he said:—
"Ladies and gentlemen,—We have robbed you, but we don't intend to hurt you, provided that you behave yourselves and don't try any monkey tricks at our expense. Meet us as friends, and you will find us rollicking good fellows. We intend to remain here a couple of days, because we are hungry for fun, and we need a rest. During that time we propose to act as your hosts at this hotel, and that you shall be our guests. Do not fear—we shall pay for everything. This is a pleasure party. Roll up, therefore, and order what you will. Eat, drink, and be merry to-day, for to-morrow we may die."
The townspeople were at first, and very naturally, loath to accept the invitation, but as time passed and the bushrangers continued to be kind in manner, they gradually took confidence and entered into the fun of the thing. The gang rapturously received each hesitating recruit, and soon the scene began to wear the appearance of a public carnival. All hands were treated to whatever they would drink. A great banquet was prepared in the kitchen of the hotel, and slab tables were erected in the open air for its consumption. Presently fiddles and concertinas were produced, and men to play them. Attendants busily served the crowd with negus and hot punch. Women appeared and began to dance with their husbands and brothers. At last the whole township, down to the very infants, were merrymaking and enjoying themselves to the top of their bent, and a festival was in progress such as Canowindra had never known before, and doubtless will never know again.
When the fun was at its very height Ben Hall, who had been acting as master of ceremonies, slipped quietly into the hotel and flung himself upon the landlord's bed. Nobody missed him for a couple of hours; then Johnny Gilbert noticed his absence, and instituted a search. Ben was speedily discovered, but he was not disturbed. He slept for eight hours on end, and awoke on the stroke of midnight. The place by then was quiet. The carnival was over for the nonce, and the town slumbered. Ben arose and tip-toed to the door of the tavern. Johnny Gilbert mounted guard. Ben put his finger to his lips and whispered, "I am going off, my son. I leave the gang in your charge. You may rest and enjoy life here for two more days if you please, but not longer, for that would be suicidal. When you leave, make north-east and raid Caloola. The police will expect us to make south, so that is the best course possible. When you have done all that, strike west, and pick me up at Selden's farm. I shall be there on Monday next, by noon at latest."
Johnny Gilbert nodded. "All right, cap'n," he whispered; then added with a leer, "I'd sooner have my job than yours, Ben. You'll find the old woman will want to scratch your eyes out, I guess."
Ben shrugged his shoulders. "She'd sell her soul for money, and I have plenty," he said, disdainfully. "Don't forget my instructions." He passed out of the hotel and strode to the stables. Five minutes later he was on the road to the Diggers' Rest, mounted on one thoroughbred, and leading another. The way was long, but he traversed it as only the nag-ridden or the desperate can travel, and within twelve hours he stood face to face with Mrs. Thorpe. She was seated in a rocking chair on the verandah. "You brute!" she said. "What have you got to say for yourself? Oh, you brute, to serve a lone widder woman so!"
"Easy, mother," retorted Ben. "Now, don't get up, mother. Rest quiet, and see what I've got to give you." He plunged his hands, as he spoke, into his pockets, and drew them forth filled with bank notes and gold, which he tossed into the old woman's lap. She uttered the cry of an animal, and her fingers snatched at the treasure like the talons of a famished hawk. Ben smiled at her derisively, conscious that he had bought her, soul and body. Then a plaintive, girlish voice arrested him: "Ain't you brought nothin' for me, dearie?" and he looked up to see Julia regarding him with a gleam in her eyes almost as hungrily expectant as that which he had noted a moment earlier in the mother's.
Ben Hall dimly realised at that moment that Julia's love for him, ardent as it had been, was burnt out, and that her nature's master passion—avarice—had been enthroned supreme again. A sickening feeling swept him through and through; but he was a lost man, and he knew it. Julia might be the basest of wretches, but he loved her like a slave. Her chains bound him, and never more could he escape the yoke that she had put upon him. His answer was to produce a heavy bag of trinkets, the loot of three stations and a town. There were watches, bracelets, rings, and earrings by the score; and chains, too, heavy chains of solid gold. Julia caught up the treasure, and with a startled cry rushed with it to her room, terrified lest any prying stranger's eye had seen it or marked the transfer.
Ben found her crouching before a mirror, gloating like a lonely miser over the pretty baubles, and fastening them about her hands and wrists and neck with a madly feverish activity. He watched her long and silently, but spoke at last. "I gave them to you, my girl," he said.
Julia divined his thought, and set herself to drive it out. She turned to him, her face aglow with vanity and pride and kindling sensuality. "Oh, I love you so!" she cried, and threw herself into his arms. Ben tasted death in her kisses, but he was past caring. A short life and a merry one. It was to be short enough, poor fool—but merry? Never again, not even for an instant.
It is bad enough for a man to be a highway robber, and carry a noose round his neck on his own account. But what depths of miserable degradation does the wretch explore who robs and woos the gallows not for his own enrichment, but at the bidding of a grasping tyrant whom he dare not disobey? And Ben had two such tyrants, mutual competitors in infamy, who were bent implacably on using and abusing him. He was soon made to understand that a welcome from Mrs. Thorpe and a tender greeting at Julia's hands were not to be expected under any circumstances unless he approached the Diggers' Rest with a pocket full of coin. He also discovered that Mrs. Thorpe's welcome and Julia's tenderness were of a quality that wore thin with astonishing rapidity. They would flame into a white heat at the sight of stolen treasure, but as soon as the treasure was handed over and safely bestowed, the fire would abate, and after a few hours show nothing but embers. Ben studied these phenomena attentively; it is always advisable for a slave to learn promptly exactly how far his chains will stretch. Soon he had not the shadow of an illusion left. He knew that Mrs. Thorpe had not the semblance of a kindly thought for him; he knew that Julia's affection was inspired by a despicable expectation of favors to come. His contempt for both women was infinite, but his infatuation for Julia only became the more desperate as his respect for her diminished. He was miserable in sight of her, more miserable still when he held the sordid creature in his arms—but to be apart from her was to live in agony, for well he knew that circumstance alone would keep her true to him, and jealousy tortured him night and day like a raw and gaping wound.
The next few weeks were spent by him in a furious series of rushes to and fro between the haunts of the gang in the Carcoar district and his sweetheart's tavern. He would leave the tavern, bolt across country to rejoin the gang, and make a raid. He would then return post haste to the Diggers' Rest and purchase a few hours of hateful relaxation with the proceeds of his latest crime—sallying forth again even a more profoundly uneasy and unhappy man. By the end of the first week of October, Ben was in a condition of malignant desperation; his last visit to the tavern had been a mistake. He had gone there almost empty-handed, because a sudden access of police vigilance had prevented him from plying his trade with profit and had forced the gang to lie close. He had explained these matters to the Thorpes, but they had listened with the coldest disdain. Barely had they shown him any hospitality, and Julia had even refused him her lips. Ben joined the gang in a mood to ravage mankind like a wolf. Putting himself at their head he gave a command that staggered the most daring of the band. "The police are south, we ride north," said he. "Bathurst is a big city and a rich one; we shall raid it. Forward!"
There were whisperings of fear and mutterings of mutiny, but Ben frowned them down ferociously. "Cowards to the south!" he growled—"Two men will follow me!" They all followed him. They reached Bathurst on the evening of Saturday, October 10, 1863, as the citizens were enjoying their evening meal. It was a beautiful night, calm, cool, and exquisitely clear. The stars were just beginning to peep out in the shadowed turquoise of the sky. The citizens had not yet lighted their houses or the streets. The five bushrangers entered Williams-street, and quietly trotted through the soft gloaming towards the market place. Many people were abroad, but nobody particularly remarked the unobtrusive travellers, or if any did, they were taken for decent countrymen coming in to see the sights of the town. When they had reached a point opposite the well-known gunsmith's shop kept by Mr. Pedrotta, Ben Hall whispered a direction in an underbreath. Vane, O'Meally, and Burke instantly dismounted, handed the reins of their horses to Dunn, and strode into the store. Ben and Johnny Gilbert as instantly pressed on down the street, and a few seconds later drew rein before McMinn's handsomely appointed jewellery establishment. Dismounting sedately, they tethered their horses to the keep post, and stepped into the shop. Mr. McMinn and his family were at that moment eating their evening meal in a room at the rear of the building; and the store was in charge of an assistant salesman, a young man named Perani. The salesman courteously greeted the visitors, taking them, of course, for customers. "What can I show you, gentlemen, if you please?" he asked.
"Thanks," relied Gilbert, "but we are quite able to help ourselves. Kindly be very silent, my young friend, for a few minutes, or you will for a certainty be silent for ever!"
The salesman looked down the barrel of an ugly cocked revolver, and terror froze him to the likeness of a graven image. Ben Hall at once got to work; slipping behind the counter, he opened the nearest show case and swept the glittering contents into a bag which he had brought for the purpose. Happily for Mr. McMinn, his best show case was locked, and the outlaws dared not break it for fear of raising an alarm. However, they appropriated every article within reach, and in a few minutes they had secured what must have seemed to them a princely booty. They would have remained longer and stolen more but for the sudden appearance of the jeweller's eldest daughter. Miss McMinn realised the situation at a glance, and she uttered a loud scream. Her father heard and hurried to her side. The bushrangers menaced the pair with their revolvers, and, having reduced them to silence, they returned to the street and remounted their horses. O'Meally, Burke, and Vane were awaiting them half a furlong down the street, laden with new weapons, and eating oranges which they had just stolen from a fruit shop. Ben Hall and Gilbert joined the three, and the whole gang clattered off at a quiet jog, eating the juicy oranges as they rode, but they were not to proceed far so easily. Of a sudden, Mrs. McMinn rushed into the street, crying out at the top of her voice that her store had been robbed, and pointing to the departing gang as the robbers. Quick as a flash the neighbors poured out from every side, and the scene became as busy as a disturbed ant-hill. Ben saw threatening faces before as well as behind him. There was need for bold action, and at once. He rapped out a sharp order to his followers, fired his revolver point blank at those who sought to stay his progress, and, setting spurs to his horse, he turned briskly into Howick-street, and thundered at a stretching gallop to the Square, the gang hard upon his heels.
Ben's revolver shot had hurt nobody, but its effect was that of a bugle blast to an excited army. A thousand citizens sprang silently to arms; a thousand more rushed out shouting and yelling from their houses. The shopkeepers hurriedly began to put up their shutters and secure their doors, fearing they knew not what. Suddenly the police appeared in a body from the barracks, well-mounted and armed to the teeth. A thousand eager voices shouted them the proper road; they wheeled and set off in pursuit as hard as they could ride, leaving behind them a tumult indescribable.
Alas! for those unfortunate police. Never doubting that their quarry had already departed terror-stricken from the city, they raced through and from the town along the road which they supposed the outlaws had taken, and thence plunged into the open country on a senseless wild-goose chase. Ben Hall had wanted and expected them to act like that, and had laid his plans accordingly. He had ridden no further than to the top of the town, and had then quietly turned into a dark side lane leading from the main road; there the gang paused and rested, hidden by the shadows, until the police had thundered by within a stone's throw of the outlaws' lurking-place.
How the robbers laughed and chuckled as their would-be captors vanished may be as well imagined as described. They were now at liberty to do what they would without restraint. They showed themselves skilful tradesmen at the least. They proceeded leisurely but swiftly from one pretentious house to another, and they overhauled every house they visited, piling up a booty that began to be colossal, and everywhere leaving overawed and trembling victims in their wake. The last place they stuck up was the hotel kept by Ald. De Clouet, in Piper-street; there they collected a substantial sum in gold and notes, and appropriated all Mrs. De Clouet's ornaments and jewellery. They stayed in possession of the hotel for some hours, feeding their horses and feasting themselves, and then at last, in the early dawn, they unobtrusively decamped—disappearing in the direction of Caloola.
Thus was brought to a successful conclusion the boldest raid every attempted by a gang of robbers, either in Australia or any other part of the world. Not very long after they had departed, some of the police returned wearily to Bathurst—returned to be informed that while they had been chasing phantoms among the gullies and ranges, the bushrangers had been looting the city and making merry in the house of one of the foremost citizens, an alderman of the borough. Next day a great public meeting was held in the town under the presidency of the police magistrate, with a view to taking steps to protect the people from another raid. It resulted in a unanimous resolution denouncing the police, and calling upon the Government for extraordinary measures of relief; and also in the immediate enrolment of a large force of special constables, sworn to patrol the city constantly and to defend the lives and property of the townsfolk. Within a few hours Bathurst wore the appearance of a military camp, and so it continued for many weeks. But the citizens had locked the stable door after the horse was stolen. Ben Hall had no intention of tempting fate by a second raid on what was now a fortress, and at the moment their menacing dispositions were being arranged to receive him at Bathurst, he was buying the grudging hospitality of Mrs. Thorpe, and the facile smiles of Julia, at the Diggers' Rest, with a treasure great enough to satisfy their avarice for a while, and even to extort manifestations, however insincere, of real affection.
The gang meanwhile had never travelled further than three or four miles from the looted city. Johnny Gilbert, who had been put by Ben in charge during the latter's absence, was a firm believer in the aphorism: "The nearer the church, the further from God." He sought refuge, therefore, in the house of a sympathiser on the very outskirts of the town, and there the gang rested in perfect security, awaiting the return of their captain, while the luckless police were out their strength and spirits, and rode their horses to death, in a vain microscopic search of the remoter countryside.
Ben Hall rejoined the gang on the afternoon of the third day following the great raid. He stood in sore need of rest after his tremendous exertions in the saddle, but on hearing that the police had just returned to headquarters, exhausted by their fruitless chasings, he could not resist the temptation to win further notoriety (and profit) at their expense. He snatched a hasty meal, called for a fresh horse, and promptly took the field again, leading the gang along the Vale-road to a point within a mile of the Bathurst Police Barracks. There the little band halted, swung right about face, and just as the dark began to fall they commenced operations by sticking up Mrs. Edward Mutton's store.
While they were searching this place for treasure, O'Meally accidentally set fire to some curtains with a candle, and in a second the room was ablaze. Mrs. Mutton, who was present in their custody, implored the bushrangers not to ruin her, and they were good-natured enough to work like niggers in extinguishing the flames. During this task Johnny Vane burnt his left hand rather severely.
Mrs. Mutton dressed the wound with ointment and bound it up for him, while the others stood around. The good woman seized the opportunity to exhort the outlaws to turn from their evil courses. They mocked at her advice, but they were grateful for her kindness none the less, and to mark their appreciation they voluntarily restored the plunder they had collected from her. She warned them that she would immediately inform the police of their visit, but they merely laughed and rode leisurely away. Mrs. Mutton kept her word. She posted her son into Bathurst with the news, and within half an hour Captain McLerie, the Inspector-General, and six troopers were on the scene.
There now ensued a series of comic opera incidents, which, when related in the press next day, threw the entire colony into a ferment of alarm and burning indignation. At the exact moment the police arrived at Mutton's store, Ben Hall and his followers dismounted before Walker's Hotel, less than a mile and a half further down the main road. They stuck up the place and looted it from the ground floor to the gables. The job took them precisely twenty minutes to accomplish, and when it was over they quietly moved off, carrying booty valued at £100. They had not been gone longer than ten minutes when the police arrived. Captain McLerie was immediately told by the landlord, Mr. Walker, how near the bushrangers were to him, but for some reason, known only to himself, he insisted upon carefully searching premises before ordering an advance.
Meanwhile the Hall gang were busily robbing a store situated on the main road, within 600 yards of the hotel. There they got a valuable haul of money, and some £50 worth of tobacco, tea, and sugar. They decamped with the plunder exactly four minutes prior to the appearance of Captain McLerie. When the gallant captain heard this he set spurs to his horse and galloped—back to Bathurst. The thing sounds incredible, but it is absolutely true. Arrived home again, Captain McLerie despatched Superintendent Morrissett with a strong force in pursuit of the depredators, and went to bed! The excitement of the chase had wearied him, poor man. Superintendent Morrissett was far too loyal an officer to dream of surpassing the brilliant exploits and the splendid daring of his chief. He greatly admired the Inspector-General, and he determined to pay him that sincerest of all compliments—imitation. A ride of seven or eight minutes brought him to Mutton's store. There he had a colloquy with the Mutton family, and, having learned all they had to say, he pushed on to Walker's Hotel. Another halt and confabulation followed. Morrissett thence proceeded to the store which had involuntarily supplied the bushrangers with so much tobacco, tea, and sugar, and from which Captain McLerie had so inexplicably returned to Bathurst. The superintendent duly examined the place and took elaborate notes of what the outlaws had stolen.
Said the storekeeper to him, "Hall and his mates are only half-an-hour or so ahead of you, sir, and they went as slowly as if they owned the earth. You've only got to push your horses a bit and you are bound to catch them red-handed, they are so loaded down with stolen goods."
Morrissett accepted the advice with a shrug of the shoulders, and once more took to the road. A ride of just about a mile brought him to Butler's Hotel. As the troopers approached the building, five splendidly mounted men departed from it, leading three heavily laden pack-horses, one of which was a big draught stallion. They took no notice of the police, but trotted on towards Caloola with all the sang-froid conceivable. They were Ben Hall and his four followers. They had just finished sacking Butler's Hotel, and the draught stallion which he led had been forcibly abstracted from the hotel stables to carry off the plunder. Superintendent Morrissett was bitterly disappointed when he heard the story the hotel people had to tell him. So near and yet so far. He went out on the road and listened, first calling to everybody to be silent. Yes, the hoof beats of the departing bushrangers' steeds could still be heard, faintly, yet quite distinctly. Every soul there heard them. Morrissett gazed at the troopers; the troopers gazed at Morrissett. Mrs. Butler was a plain, blunt woman. She had been robbed, and she wanted to recover her property. We should not, therefore, think too hardly of her for what she did.
"What the divil d'ye mane by wastin' precious time?" she shrilled out suddenly; "why don't you take after the rapscallions at once. They can't escape you, for they are all riding heavy; they have led horses—one me own draught entire by the same token—and the road is fenced on both sides for miles, so they can't take off into the bush. Is it afraid of them yez are?"
Superintendent Morrissett frowned and flushed at the vulgarity. "Be quiet, my good woman," he said sternly, then he fell into a brown study. "His not to do and die, his but to reason why," as the poet sings. No doubt he was meditating a brilliant plan of action, but the bystanders (irresponsible creatures) were impatient.
Mrs. Butler turned to the nearest trooper. "What the ——— are yez all waitin' for?" she demanded, savagely.
The man she spoke to was quite out of sympathy with his officer's thoughtful methods. "For orders," he answered tartly.
Superintendent Morrissett immediately wrote the man's name in his notebook. Such an impertinence sharply offended his sense of propriety. Every good leader of men is a strict disciplinarian. He jotted down against the offending trooper's name these pregnant words: "To be reprimanded."
This important duty (nobly discharged in the very teeth of distracting circumstance) having been faithfully attended to, the superintendent mounted his horse and gave the order to proceed. At the end of a hundred yards he halted suddenly, swung his column round, and trotted back to the hotel. "I want a guide," he announced to the expectant crowd. "Is there any man here who will accompany me in that capacity?"
There was not.
Superintendent Morrissett was greatly disgusted. It occurred to him that the civilians so sheepishly standing in front of him were cowards, but he was too polite to say so. His silent scorn, however, so disturbed the company that one of them uttered a boorish protest. "See here," he said, "you don't want a guide, mate; the road is fenced on both sides and you couldn't miss it if you tried. It's not a guide you want, it's a wet nurse." And the crowd unfeelingly guffawed.
The superintendent realised that his pearl of thought had been cast among a lot of swine, but he did not lose his dignity. Ignoring the scoffers as though they were not and had never been, he once more ordered the advance, and a moment later the column thundered away in pursuit of the robbers.
Two miles further on they came to a house bright with lights, and buzzing with excited people; all its inmates had been scientifically looted, and the bushrangers had left it scarcely a moment before. The sound of their horses could still be heard in the distance. Superintendent Morrissett glanced at his watch; it was very nearly ten o'clock. He glanced at his men, and a deep compassion awoke in his heart. Poor fellows! how tired they looked; what a shame it would be to wear them out in such a chase as this, the night already nearly spent. Those devils of bushrangers always contrived to keep a few yards ahead, and so no doubt it would always be. What right had he or any man to exhaust such brave fellows as he commanded in a vain struggle with an adverse destiny? There is a time to sacrifice one's followers remorselessly, but there is also a time to consider their comfort before all else. The intrepid superintendent decided that his troopers had already done enough for glory. Well had they earned a rest; a rest at all hazards they should have! A weaker man, or a less famous thief-catcher, might have gone on and followed Ben Hall to the bitter end; but not Morrissett. A moment's thought and the mind of the hero was inexorably resolved. Suddenly his voice rang out, grim, stern, and infinitely thrilling. "Fall in line there! Right about turn! Forward, trot!"
The bystanders could not believe their ears. They were scarcely better able to believe their eyes! The police were going back to Bathurst. Nonsense! Absurd! Impossible! A thousand times impossible! Impossible or not, it was a fact. Those silly citizens had yet to learn that their philosophy was a crude and quite unfurnished thing. Impossible forsooth! As though such clodhoppers could fathom the motives of a man like Morrissett!
"They have only gone back along the road a bit, they'll return in a minute," said a woman.
Everyone believed her, yet her theory was ridiculously inaccurate and quite unworthy of credence. The crowd waited an hour; they waited two; by that time most of the police were snugly tucked in their little barrack beds at Bathurst. But still the despoiled householders waited on the roadway, hoping against hope. Hope, says the great French epigrammatist, is a cowardly endeavor to postpone facing the inevitable. The watchers deserved to be punished for their meticulous self-indulgence, and they were; the troopers never returned. The watchers lost their night's rest, and some of them caught colds.
The Vale-road outrages, following so swiftly on the Bathurst raid, threw not merely New South Wales, but all Australia, into a prolonged convulsion of excitement. The principal journals in every capital city published scathing strictures on the inefficiency and puerile incompetence of the New South Wales police, and in New South Wales itself monster public indignation meetings became the order of the day. A strong Government was in office, but only the most extraordinary expedients saved it from destruction.
A censure motion was launched against the Ministry in Parliament, and it must have been carried were it not that the Opposition hesitated to undertake the responsibility of making good the failures of the existing administration. The plea was raised in defence of the Government that the country was in a state of war analogous to an armed invasion, and that no political changes should be risked until the bushrangers had been suppressed; and this plea actually availed to cause a suspension of party hostilities, the two parties reluctantly agreeing for the moment to co-operate against the national foe which had entrenched itself within the borders of the colony. Ben Hall had made history, indeed! The arrangements next adopted for the extirpation of his gang were of a character bordering on the amazing, and Australians of the present day will rub their eyes to read of them.
The Colonial Secretary wrote a scarifying letter to Captain McLerie, in which he threatened "to set the regular police aside and organise another band under an entirely different management," and in the same official minute he declared his intention to remove the Inspector-General, "if within one month, Hall, Gilbert, and party are not apprehended." So much for words. In acts the Colonial Secretary was still more vigorous; he issued a proclamation offering rewards amounting to £2000, to be paid privily, direct from the Treasury, to any private person who would give him (independently of the police) secret information of the movements of the gang; and he sent into the disturbed districts six special parties of specially enrolled constables, who were to act only on his instructions, and who should be responsible alone to himself. These bands were each comprised of six expert bushmen, good riders and marksmen, specially armed and mounted. They were ordered to dress like ordinary civilians, without uniform; they were provided with pack-horses, tents and provisions, so that they might keep to the bush for a lengthy period, and camp out in all weathers. Each party was furnished with the services of a black-tracker, and each party was placed in charge of an officer of proved ability and courage.
So energetic was the Government that all six bands reached Bathurst within eight days of the Vale-road robberies. They made no noise to advertise themselves, but each party as it arrived quietly slipped out of the city and plunged into the bush. Ben Hall and his gang were now at last put on their mettle to save themselves from justice. Two separate forces operated competitively against them—forty irregulars who burned to win their spur, and at least eighty regular police, who were desperately determined, down to the last, now at all hazards to redeem their tattered reputations. Added to that, the latest astutely proferred Government reward's were more than likely to tempt every luke-warm adherent of the outlaws to betray them. Ben, as usual, had ridden straight from the scene of his last out rage to the Diggers' Rest, leaving the gang in charge of Johnny Gilbert. There he rested four days, utterly careless of what betided in the outer world, for his pockets were full, and Julia was kind to him. On the fifth day, Burke broke in upon his musings with news to stir the blood—news that had been deemed too critical to entrust to any "telegraph." Ben Hall heard of the newest dispositions of the Government without any sign of dismay. He professed to be delighted, indeed, saying coolly that he hoped the special bands would prove foemen worthy of his steel, as the regular police had given him no excitement for months past, and had bored him nearly to death; but he was quick to act.
Hastily, collecting four of his most trusted "telegraphs," he despatched them to Cowra with orders to report to all and sundry that the gang had crossed the Lachlan River. He then bade Julia farewell, and, magnificently mounted, he set out with Burke in the direction of Bathurst. The gang lay at that moment in some thick scrub on the banks of the Fish River, about twenty-five miles to the south-east of the city. Ben Hall and Burke rejoined their companions without the slightest difficulty or mishap, meeting none but friends upon their journey. News reached them during the day that the police were all moving south-west, and they held a feast to honor the occasion. Next morning a miner came to the camp with a complaint against Mr. Keightley, the Gold Commissioner, who resided at Dunn's Plains. The man declared that Mr. Keightley had unjustly deprived him of a valuable claim which he had "jumped," and had forcibly restored it to the original owners. He demanded that the gang should avenge him.
Neither Ben Hall nor his mates had any sympathy for claim "jumpers," but they could not afford to disregard any such petition even preferred by the very worst of their adherents. Such a course, indeed, would be suicidal, for it would assuredly create one enemy able to betray them, and it would be very likely to breed discontent and treachery all around them. Their resolution was soon taken. At all costs their "friend" must be protected and his oppressor punished. In this case, however, the gang were not loath to find an excuse for action, for Mr. Keightley had given them serious cause of offence; he was a brave man and a most energetic officer. During the past fortnight he had lent vigorous personal aid to the police in their efforts to hunt down and capture the bushrangers, and he had publicly stated that if ever he came across the outlaws he would fight them to the death and show them no mercy.
Mr. Keightley's words and doings had long since reached their ears; the gang's spies were everywhere. The bushrangers were rich, and they rewarded all informants liberally. Every saying or movement of their adversaries was, in consequence, rapidly and faithfully reported to them. It was decided to stick-up Keightley's house, and thus kill three birds with one stone—please their "friend;" teach the general body of civilians that they would not be permitted to assist the police with impunity; and, last, but not least, secure fresh plunder for themselves.
They reached the Gold Commissioner's residence at sunset on the evening of Saturday, October 24, 1863. Mr. Keightley was standing in the doorway of the house chatting to his friend and guest, Dr. Pechey, when he suddenly observed five men riding across the paddock toward him. He took them for police, but, wishing to play a joke on his friend, he exclaimed: "Good heavens, Pechey, here are the bushrangers!"
"Nonsense!" returned the doctor, "you cannot come it on me like that, Keightley," and he began to laugh.
Mr. Keightley laughed, too, but presently he stopped short. "By gad!" he cried, "I believe they are. They are strangers, anyhow."
The five men drew momentarily nearer. Of a sudden they halted and flung themselves to the ground in one act, like a machine. "Stand or die," rang out the voice of Ben Hall.
"In with you, doctor!" shouted Mr. Keightley, "they are bushrangers!"
A volley thundered, but, although bullets spattered all about them, the two men gained the shelter of the house uninjured. Ben Hall instantly ordered his followers to cover, saying: "We'll have to fight it out, boys. Keightley is not the man to surrender till he's forced." And so it proved. The outlaws spread out in the shape of a fan, taking shelter where they could, and commanding the house in all directions. Mr. Keightley, within, paused only to place his wife in a position of comparative security, and then he hurried to give battle to his assailants. Unfortunately for himself, he had been caught largely unprepared; all his weapons and ammunition were stored in an out-house, excepting a double-barrelled gun and a revolver. However, he determined to make these serve his purpose if he could. Handing the revolver to his friend, he snatched up the fowling-piece and cautiously approached the open door. Not a soul was to be seen. With more recklessness than wisdom he boldly exposed himself, hoping to tempt the bushrangers to follow suit; the venture was partially successful. Burke, who was crouched behind a cask, drew out from cover to fire, and Mr. Keightley promptly slung up his gun and discharged the right barrel. Four bullets whistled by his ears, and drove him back to shelter; but he had got his man. Burke fell to the ground desperately hurt and screaming dismally; he had been shot in the abdomen. Ben Hall rushed to his wounded mate's assistance, but before he could reach his side, Burke put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger.
This tragic happening acted like a spark to a magazine of gun cotton. The outlaws uttered a frightful howl, and charged the house, firing as they ran. Mr. Keightley banged and barred the door in their faces, and hurried to the roof, which had been previously barricaded. Peering over the coping he snapped the left barrel of his gun at the furious mob below, but the charge refused to explode. He flung down his gun, and snatched up the revolver, but only two chambers were loaded, and he missed with both. Meanwhile the outlaws fired at him every second, or as often as they caught a glimpse of him. Mr. Keightley crept to the manhole, and implored those in the house below to search for ammunition; they obeyed him, but the quest was vain, and Dr. Pechey presently joined the Commissioner on the roof, bringing with him counsels of despair—the bushrangers were making ready to burn the house down. Mr. Keightley thought of his wife and dependents, and not his courage wavered, but his will. Ben Hall determined him. Ben stepped into the open and cried out: "You had better surrender, Mr. Keightley. Do so at once and I will spare your life; refuse, and no earthly power will save you, for I shall burn the house under your feet."
Mr. Keightley stepped at once to the coping: "Can I trust you to keep your word?" he demanded.
"Honor bright," replied the outlaw.
"Very well," said the Commissioner, "we will come down!" and he and Dr. Pechey immediately descended into the garden by the roof ladder. As Dr. Pechey set foot on the ground, Johnny Vane darted forward and struck him over the head with a revolver, crying. "Take that you ——; you killed my mate, you ——— wretch." John Vane was a cousin of Burke, the outlaw suicide, who had been wounded by Mr. Keightley. The boy was beside himself with passion, and evidently intent on a sanguinary revenge. But the Commissioner faced him dauntlessly. "Dr. Pechey did not shoot your mate," he said, "it was I."
John Vane uttered the snarl of a wolf: "You are Keightley, then, are you?" he shrieked. "Well, prepare to die, you———," and he raised his revolver.
"Ben Hall," shouted the Commissioner, "you promised me my life!"
Ben Hall seized Vane's arm. "Not so fast, my lad," he said quietly; "Burke is still alive—and he may recover. Go you and look to him; I will take care of our prisoner." A very heated colloquy ensued. Vane stoutly declaring that he would rather die than suffer Mr. Keightley to live; and O'Meally took his side. Gilbert supported Hall, but the united authority of the leaders hardly overawed the infuriated mutineers, and it looked as though a bloody battle would be fought by the divided gang.
Strange to say, it was Mrs. Keightley who saved the situation. Running out from the house, she threw herself between her husband and the quarrelling bushrangers, and vowed that they must kill her first before they touched the Commissioner. The diversion so created gave Ben an idea. He turned to Dr. Pechey, and asked him to examine the dying outlaw. The doctor complied, and he said he thought Burke's life might be saved, but it would necessitate an immediate operation, and his instruments were at his house in the neighboring township of Rockley. He was curtly directed to fetch them on the instant, and supplied with a horse for the journey, Ben saying as he departed: "Remember, doctor, no word of this to the police, or by the Lord above us you will sign the death warrant of all your friends." While the doctor was absent on his errand, Burke breathed his last. Ben Hall, however, had seen the end coming, and he made his preparations accordingly. Of a sudden he clapped a pistol at Vane's forehead, and said, in his grimmest manner: "A spur to your memory, my lad; you swore a vow to obey me as your leader, implicitly, and without a question; is that not a fact?"
"Then see you keep your vow, and do not threaten Mr. Keightley. I promised him his life."
"He killed Burke," cried Vane; "he ought to suffer for it."
"He shall," replied Ben; "but in my way, not in yours; do you understand?"
"Have you come to your senses?"
"Good. For the future keep them at command, or you'll be likely to get hurt." He put up his pistol, and turned coolly to O'Meally. "What I said to Vane applies equally to you," he said cuttingly; "you have been insubordinate, the pair of you. Here and now I fine you and Vane £100 apiece, to be paid from your share of our next booty to the rest of the band; let it be a lesson to you!"
O'Meally was silent, he looked angry, but he was overawed, and he thought it best to swallow his resentment.
Mr. and Mrs. Keightley, who had been anxious spectators of the little drama, now ventured to ask Ben what was to happen to them.
The outlaw captain's reply was anything but reassuring. "Here is the position," he said coldly; "you have killed one of my followers, Mr. Keightley; that is bad, but worse is to follow. The Government, if you live; will pay you a reward of £500 for killing Burke. It is a thing I cannot permit, that you should profit by destroying a member of my band. When I promised you your life, I did not know that Burke was dying. He is now dead; what can I do but send you after him?" The question was answered with yells of applause from Vane and O'Meally. "Shoot the——" they shouted fiercely.
Ben Hall folded his arms across his breast. "Mr. Keightley," he said, "your life is in question. What have you to say?"
"I say that you dare not murder me; moreover, I have your promise," cried the Commissioner.
Ben shrugged his shoulders. "Both your picas are absurd," he commented quietly; "give me a better one, or say your prayers."
"What do you want?"
"Money, sir, money. You have killed a man whose life has been valued by the Government at £500. That money belongs of right to us, because Burke's services were ours, and we have been deprived of them. Give me £500, and we shall spare you; refuse, and by heaven your doom is sealed."
"But," cried Mr. Keightley, "I have not so much money in the world; I am quite a poor man."
"Your wife's father is a rich man, and he does not live so far away. He will pay up to save your life. Listen, here is my decree. We shall hold you prisoner to ransom until midday to-morrow; if by that time we are paid you go free; if not, I shall shoot you with my own hand. O'Meally!"
"Sir," cried the outlaw addressed.
"I put Mr. Keightley in your charge; take him over to yonder rocks and guard him well, if he attempts to escape, kill him." The place pointed out was a small rocky eminence about 400 yards from the homestead. Ben had obviously selected it for strategic purposes. It commanded all the surrounding country.
"Ay, ay, captain," said O'Meally. He saluted his chief, and with a menacing gesture ordered his prisoner to proceed before him. Mr. Keightley yielded to the inevitable, and went submissively. Mrs. Keightley, who was crying bitterly, wished to accompany her husband, but Ben ordered her to remain. "This is not the time for tears, madam," he said curtly, "your husband's life depends on your exertions. Take my advice and go straight to your father; I am sure he will assist you. Anyhow, it is your only chance." Dr. Pechey returned at that moment with his instruments from Rockley, and he was quickly apprised of the situation. He immediately offered to accompany Mrs. Keightley to Bathurst and help her to procure the ransom. Ben assented, and all was bustle and excitement. Mrs. Keightley, like the brave woman she was, gave over useless lamentations, and made energetic preparations for the thirty-mile journey to Bathurst. Mr. Keightley's best horse was caught and harnessed, and Mrs. Keightley put him into the trap herself. After that she was allowed a brief interview with her husband, and then helped into the buggy, where Dr. Pechey already sat holding the reins. Ben Hall had a last word to say: "Bring the money in £5 bank notes," he commanded, "and be sure to give no information to the police. I am not afraid that you will, for you know the consequences to your husband, but I want you to remember! Now go, and good luck to you."
The pair drove off at the top speed of the horse, and presently disappeared. The bushrangers thereupon turned their attention to the house and looted it thoroughly, securing a little money and a considerable store of arms and ammunition. The booty was conveyed to the little rocky hill where Mr. Keightley was held prisoner, and there the outlaws entrenched themselves for the night, each man taking turn about at sentry go. The night passed uneventfully. When morning dawned Ben ordered breakfast to be prepared for the whole party and carried from the house. Mr. Keightley had not slept a wink, and his anxiety must have been acute, but he contrived to eat a hearty meal, and the bushrangers warmly commended him for his courage. He had need of all that he possessed. Eight, nine, ten o'clock passed, and still the Bathurst-road was a desert. At eleven o'clock the bushrangers grew extremely uneasy; at half-past eleven they saddled up their horses and secured their plunder on led mounts in readiness for a hasty departure. At ten minutes to twelve they held an angry colloquy apart from the prisoner. Mr. Keightley's fate was becoming a matter of seconds. He strained his desperate gaze in the direction of Bathurst and prayed aloud; he had all but given up his last hope of salvation when suddenly a tiny cloud of dust leapt into view. "Oh! thank God! thank God!" he cried. The bushrangers heard, and hastily scrambled to the top of the highest rocks. Presently a buggy was plainly to be perceived approaching them at speed, the horses that drew it being forced under the whip to maintain a jerky gallop. In the trap two men were seated. Dr. Pechey and Mr. Rotton, Mrs. Keightley's father. Ben Hall said a word to Gilbert, and Gilbert promptly descended the hill to meet the messengers. The buggy stopped, and Dr. Pechey alighted. "Have you brought the money?" demanded Gilbert.
"Yes," replied the surgeon; "how is Mr. Keightley?"
"Safe and well; he'll be glad to see you. Follow me!" With that Gilbert returned swiftly to the outlaws' camp. Dr. Pechey at his heels.
As Mr. Keightley caught sight of the latter his long pent up emotion broke out. "Oh, Pechey," he gasped, "the money, the money! Do I die or live?"
"It is here," said Dr. Pechey, and he offered the notes to Ben Hall, who took and began to count them.
Pechey and Keightley silently grasped hands. "You came just in time," muttered the latter presently. "God bless you, Pechey. How is my wife?"
"Well, but nearly crazy with anxiety, of course; you must go to her at once. We had the devil's own trouble to get the ransom. The banks were closed. However, all that later—the great thing is that you are safe."
"Ay," said Ben Hall, who had heard the doctor's last words, "You are safe, Mr. Keightley, and I am glad of it. The money is all right. You may go, the pair of you." The two friends were quick to take advantage of the outlaw's permission. They waited for no more, but hurriedly scrambled down the hill and towards the house, where Mr. Rotton had already proceeded.
The bushrangers were equally expeditious. Within half a minute all were mounted and riding off at their topmost speed.
Two days after the news of the Dunn's Plains outrage reached headquarters, the following proclamation was issued, and appeared in all the leading news papers of the colony:—
for the apprehension of
JOHN GILBERT, JOHN VANE, JOHN O'MEALLY, and BENJAMIN HALL.
Whereas the above-named persons are charged with the commission of numerous and serious offences, and have hitherto eluded the efforts to apprehend them:
It is hereby notified that the Government will pay a reward of One Thousand Pounds for such information as will lead to the apprehension of each of the offenders named.
The Government will also pay a reward of One Hundred Pounds for such information as will lead to the conviction of any person or persons for harboring, assisting, or maintaining either of the above-named offenders.
All such information communicated by any person charged with the commission of an offence will entitle his case to favorable consideration by the Crown, and will in all cases be regarded by the police authorities as strictly confidential; and in the event of payment of any of the rewards above offered, the name of the recipient will not be disclosed.
The above rewards are offered in lieu of all others previously payable by Government for the apprehension or conviction of the offenders above-named.
Colonial Secretary's Office, October 26, 1863.
Hall, Gilbert, O'Meally and Vane read that proclamation on October 28, as they rested at the selection of Thomas Murphy on their way to Carcoar, and it was responsible for a bitter quarrel between Vane and Hall, which had the strange effect of prolonging Vane's days in the land, and perhaps of saving his soul. Vane said, when he had finished his perusal:
"So, captain, although by your fining me I go without a cent of Keightley's ransom, I have had £1000 put on my head by the Government; I call it unfair!"
"You resisted my authority," retorted Ben; "it is your own fault that you were fined. You deserve your punishment thoroughly. Be advised, and put up with it like a man." But Vane loved money, and he was of a very quick temper.
"A nice sort of a man you are to preach to me," he cried; "you with my share of the boodle in your kick! Curse you, I know what you fined me for; it was to collar my share to give to your—sweetheart." Ben's answer was not of words. His clenched fist darted out and caught Vane on the jaw; the lad fell to the ground like a shot bullock, but he was up again in a moment and armed. So quick were his movements that he fired before another of the band could stay his hand, and so narrow was his aim that the bullet sliced the lobe of Ben's left ear. Johnny Gilbert, a fraction of an instant later, flung his arms about the infuriated lad and held him helpless.
Ben Hall nodded to O'Meally. "Disarm him!" he said quietly.
"Set him free, Gilbert," said Ben.
Vane was immediately released. He clenched his fists and sprang at his leader like a tiger, Ben met him with two crashing short-arm blows left and right, delivered from the shoulder. Vane went down again, but not to stay. The punishment had maddened rather than disabled him, and he possessed the frame and stamina of a giant. Leaping afoot he rushed at his adversary, his arms whirling like the sails of a mill in a gale of wind. If his skill had matched his strength he must have vanquished Ben with ease, but his science was as scanty as his rage was great. Ben, on the other hand, although a weaker man, was perfectly cool and an accomplished boxer. He deftly avoided the mad rush of his powerful assailant, and planted a rattling blow on Vane's jaw bone as he passed. Vane swung round as on a pivot, only to get a terrible jab between the eyes that momentarily dazed and blinded him; he howled like a wounded beast and battered wildly at the air. Ben coolly measured his distance, awaited an opportunity, and when it came a second later, he struck out with all his strength. The blow caught Vane full upon the chin. A sound between a groan and a sob issued from his bleeding mouth; for a second or two he staggered dizzily, his hands extended, clutching spasmodically at nothing, and then he collapsed and fell, a huddled and insensible heap, to the sward.
When Vane awoke to consciousness he was still lying where he had fallen, but he was alone. Painfully arising, he dragged himself into the house, a very sore and horrid-looking spectacle. His eyes were hideously blackened, his nose broken, and many of his teeth were smashed. Mrs. Murphy led him pitifully to a couch and gave him a refreshing drink. Miserably Vane looked about him. "Where are the others?" he demanded hoarsely. Tom Murphy shook his head. "They have gone," he answered, "but where I do not know."
"Did they leave me any message?" muttered Vane.
"This letter," said Murphy.
Vane tore the missive open with trembling fingers, and a quaking soul. He read these words:—
"John Vane, twice have you broken your oath of service. For the first offence you were justly punished; the second cannot be condoned. Take notice that you have been expelled from the gang. If you attempt to interfere with us you will be shot on sight. We have no use for rebels and no pity for mad dogs.
Ben Hall, Captain."
Vane put his head between his hands and broke into a storm of anguished weeping. His heart was broken. Next day he quitted the Murphy's house, and traversing the bush in lonely wretchedness he hid himself in a cave at the back of Mount Macquarie. There he remained for nearly a fortnight, nursing his grief and ever growing more desperately unhappy. Some kindly "telegraphs" divined his whereabouts and brought him food, but he would speak with none, and he only ate when famine forced him.
At length a whisper reached a good priest named Father McCarthy, whose cure was in the Carcoar district, of the bushranger's unhappy plight. Father McCarthy was one of those rare men whose hearts are without guile, who spend their lives ministering to the needs of the afflicted, and who account it as their dearest privilege to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. This priest made at once a secret pilgrimage to Vane's retreat. The outlaw at first refused to speak with him, but Father McCarthy so lovingly persisted that at last the lad's stubborn resolution was broken down. A long conversation ensued, and the priest pleaded eloquently that Vane should forsake his wicked courses for ever, and give himself voluntarily up to justice. Vane would not consent, but he was sufficiently softened to promise not to leave his refuge until Father McCarthy visited him again. The gentle priest forthwith hastened to the house of the Vanes, and put the case before the outlaw's mother. The Vanes were Presbyterians, but, like people of all denominations in that district, they loved Father McCarthy dearly, and trusted him completely.
The poor woman wept bitterly when she learned that there was a possibility of her son's repentance; but they were tears of joy. She accompanied her kind friend at once to Johnny Vane's retreat, and her prayers and protestations were effectual. At eleven o'clock that night the lad bade a sorrowful farewell to his mother, and set out with Father McCarthy on the road to Bathurst. The strangely assorted pair proceeded directly to the headquarters of the police, and there Vane formally surrendered himself to the astounded superintendent. Never was there a deeper or more memorable public sensation than was caused by this unexpected event. For many days thousands of people refused to credit it, and the colony was still in a ferment of doubt and disquietude when Vane was brought to trial for his crimes. He was defended by the famous Mr. W. B. Dalley, subsequently Prime Minister of the State, and was proven guilty of many dreadful outrages. In consideration of his youth, however, and his voluntary surrender, the law was strained in his favor to unusual clemency. His life was not only spared, but he escaped with the comparatively lenient sentence of 15 years penal servitude on the roads.
A last word of Father McCarthy. The good priest had legitimately earned the reward of £1000 which the Government had offered for Vane's arrest. The Ministry tendered him the money and warmly urged him to accept it. Father McCarthy respectfully but rigidly refused to take a shilling. His reply deserves to be inscribed on the public records in letters of gold for it compels the admiration of mankind.
"My priestly office," wrote this generous spirit to the Colonial Secretary, "does not contemplate the acceptance of a material reward for the performance of a spiritual duty. It is my humble mission to preach repentance unto sinners in the name of our Great Master, Jesus Christ. There is a Master who pays His servants in a coin altogether priceless, and who rewards them always far beyond their merits. Suffer me, then, already over-compensated on earth by the approbation and lovely kindness of my fellows, to decline to profit from the bounty of your Government.
Believe me, your very humble and deeply grateful servant."
After the summary expulsion of Vane from the gang, Ben Hall proceeded with his remaining followers to Canowindra, having been warned that the police were concentrating east of Carcoar. The three outlaws raided Canowindra without difficulty, but their movements were reported to one of the Government parties of irregular police, under Superintendent Chatfield, and they were promptly and vigorously pursued. Chatfield's party surprised and almost overtook them about seven miles from the township, but the bushrangers just managed to win clear. They were compelled, however, to ride for their lives, and the chase was hotly maintained for more than forty miles. By that time the horses of the irregular police were spent, and as no remounts were obtainable, Superintendent Chatfield reluctantly retraced his steps. Hall instantly checked his flight, and with the most impudent daring he followed his late pursuers back towards Canowindra. On the road he collected fresh mounts for himself and Gilbert from a "friend," and, making a detour, he got ahead of the police, and boldly stuck up Mr. Icely's station, while Chatfield and his men were leisurely approaching the place a dozen miles away—confident in the belief that the outlaws were thirty miles behind them at Bangaroo.
Before Chatfield arrived the bushrangers decamped, and doubled back towards Toowong and while the astounded superintendent was listening to Mr. Icely's story, the gang were hard at work robbing travellers on the Toowong-road. Chatfield procured fresh horses and energetically took the field again. He found the gang feeding their horses on the roadside with chaff and corn, which they had looted from a carrier. The outlaws mounted and retired before the charge of the police, but slowly, in good order, and firing as they went. For an hour a brisk exchange of shots was maintained without damage to either side, then Hall and his mates grew tired of the game and galloped off in an easterly direction, outdistancing their pursuers with the greatest ease. When they had shaken off the police they once more doubled, and all that night they rode west, making towards Forbes.
On the evening of the next day they reached the house of a friend, and there they rested quietly until November 18, the police searching everywhere else for them in vain. On November 18, the outlaws paid liberally for their reckoning, and bade their hosts farewell.
Next evening they fell like a thunderbolt on the station of Mr. Campbell, at Goimbla (about 30 miles from Forbes), but there, for the first time in their career, they encountered an unconquerable spirit. Mr. Campbell and his wife were not made of the stuff to surrender their property to criminals, and they had no fear of death. As the gang rode up they were quietly reading in the dining-room, and their first intimation of danger was the appearance of O'Meally in the open doorway, menacing them with a brace of revolvers.
Mr. Campbell got slowly to his feet; Mrs. Campbell remained seated for the moment. She did not scream nor made the least fuss. "Your money or your lives," sang out the bushranger. Mrs. Campbell stretched out her arm across the table, and in one instant had snuffed out the light. The room was plunged into sudden darkness. "Your gun, dear," said the lady quietly; Mr. Campbell sprang to a corner of the room and snatched up a fowling-piece which he kept there.
O'Meally uttered a furious oath, and emptied one of his revolvers into the shadows. He then turned tail and ran into the yard to rejoin his mates. The squatter darted after him into the passage between the dining-room and the kitchen, and, taking careful aim, discharged his gun. O'Meally flung out his arms and fell dead in his tracks without a single cry.
Hall and Gilbert were dumbfounded at the tragedy, and for a full minute they stood like statues. This respite enabled Mr. Campbell to reload his gun and, Mrs. Campbell also to arm herself.
Suddenly Ben Hall recovered his senses. He loudly demanded that Mr. Campbell should surrender immediately, and threatened him with dire penalties if he refused. The squatter's answer was a scornful laugh and a shot, which drove the bushrangers to cover. Hall and Gilbert thereupon circled the house at respectful distance, seeking for a weak spot to attack; but they found none, and always from some door or window the squatter or his courageous wife menaced them with guns. Grinding their teeth and shouting blasphemies, the baffled outlaws turned their attention on revenge.
Not far from the house was an immense newly built barn filled with sweet hay, with stables attached well stocked with valuable horses. The bushrangers selected the two best horses from the stables, and locked the rest in. They then set fire to the hay, and within two minutes there was a conflagration that mounted into the skies, and could be seen for twenty miles around. It speaks volumes for the utter state of degeneration in which Ben Hall had sunk, that he, a lover of horses, could have deliberately sentenced a number of innocent animals to so terrible a death; but he did more. He stood by and gloated over their screams as they were roasted by the flames, and wildly taunted the squatter with the destruction of his favorites and the obliteration of his property.
"You have killed my mate," he yelled: "but I have my revenge—I shall ruin you!"
And ruined Mr. Campbell would have been, save for the subsequent bounty of the Government, for the fire cost him a loss of many thousands sterling.
Not until the fire had passed its height and began to burn low did the savages depart; and before they went they rifled the dead body of O'Meally, and left the corpse almost naked.
Twenty hours later sixty police were on the scene, and scouring the surrounding neighborhood like hungry bloodhounds. One cannot cease to marvel at the crass unteachable stupidity of the troopers and their ineffably inefficient leaders. Never did they learn anything from experience. Never could they be prevailed upon to take a leaf from the book of outlaw's methods. Their operations invariably followed the one idiotic plan. As soon as they heard of an outrage they hurried and swarmed from all points of the compass to the spot, leaving the country behind them unguarded and deserted; and not once did they fail to squander hours and days of precious time searching the place from which the bushrangers had vanished. It makes the blood boil to discover from the records that no fewer than sixty-five police were still concentrated about Goimbla when news suddenly reached them of twenty-seven highway robberies committed by Hall and Gilbert in a single day nearly seventy miles to the south on the road to Burrowa! And what happened then? The police galloped pell-mell to the Burrowa district, only to learn soon after their arrival that the gang had cut back towards Bathurst, and were ravaging the country between Carcoar and Blayney like a pack of wolves.
To follow in detail the course of Ben Hall's depredations during the next few months would be the work of an encyclopedist. He crossed from Blayney to the Weddin mountains and pressed two trusted "telegraphs"—Dunleavy and Gordon—into service as active members of the gang to replace Vane and O'Meally. He swooped down on Caloola, raided that village for the fifth time, then dashed towards Carcoar, where he stuck-up the house of a magistrate, and secured a large booty. He next appeared in the neighborhood of Forbes, where he stuck-up three coaches, robbed innumerable travellers, and raided half a score of stores and homesteads. At Wheogo, he had a brush with the police under Sir Frederick Pottinger. Dunleavy was badly wounded; Gordon was captured, but Hall and Gilbert escaped and carried off with them all the treasure of the band. The pair disappeared for a few days to plant their booty, then reappeared with Johnny Dunn in their train, and for five days they took charge of the Lambing Flat-road, during which time they raided two hamlets and stuck-up and looted several coaches and robbed, at fewest, twenty wayfarers. The police, as usual, hurried to the spot, and lo! the gang were ravening and robbing near Eugowra. The police rushed to Eugowra at top speed, and the bushrangers, simultaneously with their arrival, stuck-up a station a few miles west of Carcoar. It was a continuous game of hide and go seek—the seekers always hopelessly outwitted by the hiders. It proceeded steadily for three months, then ceased abruptly. The gang melted into thinnest air, and no man seemed to know what had become of them.
The truth is the bushrangers were weary. Men and horses alike needed a substantial rest. Moreover, for two full months Ben Hall had not seen his sweetheart. He sent Gilbert and Dunn into the Weddin with strict orders not to move until he joined them, and he himself proceeded to the Diggers' Rest. He reached the tavern at midnight on February 14. The place was wrapped in darkness, and all the inmates were asleep. Ben stabled his horse and rapped sharply on the back door. After some delay a light appeared, and Mrs. Thorpe's voice asked who was there.
"Me, Ben," answered the outlaw.
Mrs. Thorpe unfastened the door and peered out. "Alone?" she queried.
"Come in, then."
Ben followed the old lady into the ill-furnished coffee room. Her frowsy grey hair was done up in greasy curl papers, and she wore a hideously dirty dressing gown.
Ben eyed her disgustedly. "Well, you fat old cormorant," he said, "what are you waiting for? Where is Julia?"
"Haven't you got something for me, Ben, dear?" whined the hag; "you know how fond I am of you, Ben."
"Indeed I do," sneered the outlaw, "I know it too well to come here empty handed. Catch!" and he threw at her a roll of notes.
Mrs. Thorpe snatched at her prey like a greedy old crow. "Oh, thank you, Ben, dear," she sniffed. "You are the best boy I ever had to do with, and I've always said it. Sit down, dearie, and I'll git yer some'at to eat and drink."
"Not now, mother; I'm not hungry. What is keeping Julia? Isn't she awake?"
The crone sat down and shook her greasy head. "Julia ain't here, she's gone," she said.
"Gone, gone where?"
"Away; right away."
Ben's eyes flashed. "Out with it," he growled; "where it she?"
"She's married!" replied Mrs. Thorpe. "She got married two weeks back, and she's gone off with her husband to live at his place nigh to Forbes. You've heard of him maybe, it's Bob Pringle—him what owns that nice little run on the Billybong Creek. 'E's bin making up to Julia for quite a long while back, allus wanting her to git spliced. So at last she done it. She took it in her 'ead that you'd get tired of her, never coming and never sendin' her a present for all those weeks; so she caught on ter Bob the last time of asking, and now she's his lawful wedded wife. We'd a lovely weddin' breakfast I can tell yer, the folks came in from miles around to the cerrymonie, and everyone said as how Julia was the 'ansomest bride ever seed in these parts. I'm sorry you wasn't here to see 'er, Ben, dear; you'd av took a fit to see 'ow proud her 'usband was of her."
The malicious old beldame knew that every word she uttered must plant a dagger in Ben's heart, but she affected the completest innocence and rambled on as though she were relating a story in which he would take the keenest pleasure. As for Ben Hall, he sat spellbound in his chair, gazing sightlessly before him. The two words, "She's married" had paralysed his faculties. He heard the rest of Mrs. Thorpe's discourse, and he subsequently remembered everything she said, but just then he was mentally and physically benumbed, and had a trooper suddenly appeared before him he could have offered no resistance. Julia Thorpe was married! For the second time in his life a woman had betrayed and deserted him; and this second woman had not been wooed by him, but had forced herself upon him.
Of his own will he would never have attempted to possess her, but she had taken his senses by storm. She had first captured and then enslaved him—enslaved him soul and body. In her hands he had been a mere effigy, a puppet, a toy. To gratify her avarice and slake her passion for finery and money he had risked his life a score of times, and had committed more violent crimes than he could easily enumerate. Even now he carried in his pockets a rich treasure which he had amassed for her delectation from half a hundred robberies. But she was not there to receive it; she had gone off with another man. Fatuously he pictured her delight if she had been there; she adored trinkets so. A dozen times he had watched her adorn herself with his ill-gotten presents, crying out little sharp epithets of joy the while, and every now and then checking to kiss him to prove her gratitude. Those moments had compensated the outlaw in a dreadful sort of way for all his hardships; and their memory had ever made him glad to serve her still.
Of course, he had always despised her, always known that she was bad, untrustworthy, impure of soul, and steeped in petty tricks and treachery. But, lo! she was beautiful, and how her kisses were a balm. He would never know again that piercing consolation! She had left him like the callous courtesan he had ever known her in his heart to be. And that poor fool, her husband, what of him? Ben tried to hate the man, but failed immediately. He saw only a fellow victim at whom the world would laugh as amusedly as at himself—was laughing then, perhaps.
Suddenly a great enthralling weariness descended on the outlaw's spirit. "What a tiresome thing, this dreary game of nights an days! No peace, no comfort no heartsease anywhere. Oh! to rest, to forget, to feel no more, to sink into the unending calm of nothingness; and so easy too! A movement of the arm and hand; a touch with a crooked finger on a trigger. Why not? Why, not, indeed?"
Mrs. Thorpe was still talking. She rambled on and on; her speech flowing like the sluggish current of a muddy tidal stream. But at length she stopped abruptly. Ben had shifted in his chair, a pistol was in his hand.
"Ben!" she screamed; "don't do it. For heaven's sake don't do it."
She fancied he had threatened her. He had forgotten her existence. There was a flash, a loud report, and the outlaw, pitching forward, fell to the boards bleeding from a wound in his neck.
Mrs. Thorpe nursed Ben Hall back to life and strength with all the apparent tenderness and loving kindness of a mother. Who shall explain her motives? Perhaps she feared the talk of her customers and neighbors and of Ben's sympathisers if she should have acted otherwise. Perhaps she desired to earn his gratitude, and wished him to continue bringing rich grist to her mill of miserliness. Perhaps, after all, there was a streak of real compassion in the beldame's composition. Whatever the cause, she, at any rate, treated him something more than passing well, and she risked a good deal to befriend him.
No fewer than three times during the three weeks Ben lay sick and helpless beneath her roof, police parties visited the Diggers' Rest, but they heard no whisper of the wounded outlaw's whereabouts. He occupied Mrs. Thorpe's own bedroom, and never a trooper dreamed of penetrating that locked chamber. Anyone of the tavern servants would have earned £1000 reward by lifting a finger, but all were faithful. It is wonderful what pitiful and loyal creatures even the lowest and worst of human beings really are. There were settlers in the neighborhood who knew or guessed the identity of Mrs. Thorpe's patient—honest men some of them—men who dreaded and hated the crime of bushranging. But they kept their counsel.
Ben was ill, and none would betray the sick ruffian, or give him up to justice. His wound was rather ugly than serious, and at no time was his life in jeopardy. The bullet had torn up the flesh and passed through some of the tissues of the neck, but by some miracle had avoided the principal arteries, and had glanced past the base of the skull without inflicting worse injury than a severe concussion. Mrs. Thorpe's very simple surgery was all that was required. She kept the wound fairly clean, and Ben's splendid constitution did the rest. For several days he was extremely weak from loss of blood, but within a fortnight he was convalescent. Never did any woman have a more silent and unobtrusive patient. He only spoke in monosyllables, and only then to thank his nurse for her good offices. He spent his waking hours in a coma-trance of thought. Self-pity was the source and spur of all his cogitations. He blamed himself for nought that he had done—the world for everything. Providence was his oppressor and his enemy. From the cradle he had been marked out for the cruelest abuses of a sportive and savagely malignant destiny. He had fought against his fate, and that proved him a man. A coward or a weakling would have succumbed. He had battled against adversity and would struggle still. His attempt at suicide had been a mistake, but one that he could pardon, and one that he would never make again. He admired himself immensely.
As he grew stronger he thought less and less of Julia, and, strange to say, more and more of his wife. He discovered a new curiosity to learn what had become of her, where she lived, how she did. He wondered why it had never occurred to him to punish her. Again he wondered why it was he bore no great resentment to Julia now. Surely here was fresh proof of his excellence and moral magnanimity. Not to hate those who injure one surely testifies superiority.
The longer Ben considered his merits the more admirable they appeared to him. Self-contentment slipped gradually into self-worship. The outlaw eventually gave himself carte-blanche to harry the universe or not to hurt a living soul. In either case, he would do right, because he was a perfect man, and a perfect man can do no wrong. It was a very satisfactory doctrine. It drove Ben into queer courses.
As soon as he was well enough to sit a horse he said good-bye to Mrs. Thorpe, after giving her all the treasure he had intended for Julia, in payment for her trouble, and set out for his old homestead at Sandy Creek. The station had long previously passed into strange hands. Ben stuck up the place, drove all the inmates out at the point of his pistol, and for nearly two days he shut himself up in the room which had once been his wife's bedroom—the room where her children had been born.
The police interrupted his gloomy meditations. He was very nearly taken, and he escaped with difficulty. There is reason to suppose that at this stage in his career Ben Hall was partially, if not completely, insane. For several days he wandered about in the neighborhood of Wheogo, often appearing unexpectedly at different places in quest of food, but robbing nobody. And then of a sudden he vanished beyond the ken of man, and the countryside heard no more of him for many months.
Now, to explain his disappearance. From Wheogo he plunged unseen by any living being into the heart of the Weddin Mountains. The whim had seized him to rejoin the gang. At his journey's end he found Johnny Gilbert camped in the remote stronghold where he had originally taken over the captaincy of Frank Gardiner's deserted followers—two of whom had already met violent deaths under his leadership. Ben rode up to his lieutenant with a mysterious smile on his face, and looking as wan and haggard as a ghost. "You must depart from this place at once," said Ben. "I need it for my refuge; and I must not be disturbed. But stay; before you go you must swear upon your soul and body to tell no man of my whereabouts."
Gilbert was very naturally astounded at so strange a demand, and he attempted to argue the matter out. But he was not permitted any license. Ben's revolver menaced him, and eyes that gleamed with the fires of insanity admonished him behind the barrel. Ben would tell him nothing, except that a "call" had come to him to dwell alone, and be an anchorite; and in order to save his life Gilbert was obliged to take the required oath and execute a rapid and undignified retreat. Nothing whatever is known of Ben Hall during the interval between that moment and the following September, save that be lived in the Weddin as a hermit, for Gilbert loyally kept his vow.
Gilbert himself lost all heart for bushranging, wandered south. It is said that he made his way into Victoria, and for a term led an honest life among people who did not dream of his identity, and the tale is likely to be true. At any rate, he, too, vanished from the district, and did not show himself again until the middle of October, 1864.
Ben Hall, if he had so desired, might well have spent all his life in his remote retreat without much peril of discovery. The camp contained enough stolen tinned meat and other provisions to maintain one man in comparative comfort for years. The hills abounded in wild game, and there was a plentitude of water. We can only guess at the reasons of Ben's singular behaviour. Perhaps he was really mad; perhaps he only feigned madness. One thing alone is certain, he was sane enough when at length he issued from his long seclusion, and once more became an active terror to the State.
He made his reappearance on September 23, on the road between Cowra and Carcoar, and there, acting single-handed, in a single day, looted two mail coaches and stuck up and robbed eight parties of travellers. The news of this outrage threw the whole colony into an unparalleled ferment of excitement. There had been so long an interval of peace from bushranging depredations that the community had come to believe (the wish fathering the thought) that Ben Hall had either died or had escaped the country in disguise. So startling a piece of evidence to the contrary was received with a universal outcry of almost frantic indignation. The police were fiercely denounced, and the Government was furiously assailed. Ben had committed scores of more serious crimes in his earlier career, but never before had one nor all of them put together caused a fraction of such widespread rage as his sensational resumption of warlike operations. Johnny Gilbert was at that moment working as a rail-splitter in a farm on the distant Murray. He heard of Ben's outrage with the deepest delight, and forthwith determined to join his old leader. He was already sick to death of honest ways, and, mad or sane, he loved Ben. That very night he stole a thoroughbred from a neighboring squatter, and set out for the Lachlan. It was quite easy to find Ben.
Many of the "telegraphs" were still anxious and ready to assist the gang, and Gilbert soon found one who knew Ben's hiding place. It was at Wheogo. Thither Gilbert hastily proceeded, and he found Ben and Johnny Dunn in camp together. The meeting between the old associates in crime was quite pathetic.
Gilbert cried like a child, and Ben kissed him on the forehead. There may not be honor among thieves, but there is often room for genuine affection. The re-assembled bandits did not waste much time at Wheogo. They needed good horses and plenty of them for remounts. They resolved to secure the best horses in the district. And they succeeded. Swooping across country like hawks from their retreat, they visited nine stations in four days, and carried off eleven splendid thoroughbreds, including Mr. Chisholm's famous racing stallion, Troubadour, and the well-known performers, Harkaway and Teddington. After bestowing those they did not need immediately for future use in secret places, the gang crossed the Lachlan and invaded Bang Bang.
They found the village in charge of three troopers, who at once showed fight. A pitched battle ensued in front of the Koorawatha Hotel, which lasted fifteen minutes. The troopers fired twenty times at the outlaws, and the gang returned every shot. But not a soul on either side was injured. The end of it was that the troopers retired into the inn, which they barricaded against attack, and the gang rode off noisily, protesting that they would return, and that they were only going away to secure reinforcements. The threat was effectual to seal the troopers at Bang Bang and to prevent them from immediately sending out news to other quarters. That was exactly what the outlaws wished. Instead of returning, as they had promised, to Bang Bang, they made a swift journey back across the Lachlan, secured fresh mounts on the north side of the river, and galloped hot foot to Canowindra. Here there was only one policeman stationed, and him they promptly captured and imprisoned. They ransacked every store and house in Canowindra, then hurried to Mr. Rothery's station, where they fired his barns and secured four valuable horses, but did not attack the homestead.
Hearing at this juncture from their spies that the whole body of southern and western districts police were concentrating on Carcoar, they suddenly turned south, and, after a lightning journey of over 100 miles, they took charge of the road between Young and Yass. They arrived at Bagan Bagan on October 27, and immediately stuck up the store of Mr. McCansh, getting a booty of £150. Two days later they robbed the Gundagai-Yass Royal Mail coach, and abstracted cheques and drafts to the value of £7000 from the mail bags. The same day they robbed a store at Jugiong, stuck up several travellers, and captured a special constable named Barnes, whom they flogged within an inch of his life with raw-hide whips, because he had dared, although a private citizen, to join the regular police and carry arms against them. Quitting Jugiong, the gang proceeded easterly towards Goulburn, and for the next fortnight they scourged that district, committing outrages beyond count, and everywhere leaving ruin and desolation in their train. The last of their exploits was to stick up the Sydney mail within a few moments' walk of the city, and to set fire to the coach after they had sacked it.
Of course, the authorities of the law were not idle while these violent doings were afoot at Goulburn; indeed, the Government strained all the resources of the colony to bring the outlaws to book. Orders were issued for a strong Police escort to accompany every coach, and every day that passed saw scores of fresh troopers pouring into the turbulent district from the metropolis. Perfectly reliable records are not now extant to show exactly how many police were employed in attempting to hunt down the gang, but since almost every town in New South Wales had been depleted of its accustomed measure of police protection (not without grave protests from the local inhabitants) in order to reinforce Ben Hall's pursuers, we shall be well under the mark in setting down the number of regulars in the field on the second week in November at 200, and of volunteers at 130. And this estimate does not include the special constables specially enrolled for the protection of the cities and larger towns, such as Bathurst, Forbes, Yass, Goulburn, Burrowa, and Cowra.
The marvel is that, with this army of men opposed to them, the bushrangers found leisure to commit any crimes at all. One would naturally suppose that they would be kept constantly in the saddle, flying for their lives. But the facts were otherwise. They moved about with the measured dignity of aldermen, eluding the police with superlative ease, and whenever they took a really rapid journey, it was not to escape, but to attack. On November 11 they finally left the environs of Goulburn and trotted quietly along the main road to Yass, each of the three mounted on a thoroughbred and leading a racehorse behind him. At a point almost due north of Collector they stuck up the Yass-Goulburn mail, and detained the coach four hours after robbing it, while they rested and cracked jokes at the expense of two constables whom they found in the vehicle.
Resuming their journey west, they passed Yass at a little distance, and a few miles on the other side of the town they stuck up an inn, not far from the main road, and, taking possession of the place, they remained there its undisturbed masters for three days, living like fighting cocks the while, at the expense of their victims. Tired of inaction, they pressed on towards Jugiong, and early on the morning of November 17 they took up a position on the Great Southern-road at a spot quite near the town that seemed to have been designed by nature for the purposes of an ambuscade. Rocks and trees flanked the highway at a sharp bend affording perfect hiding for the robbers, and between the rocks was a broad and fairly open space, very suitable for the entertainment of horses and prisoners.
"Made to order, boys," was Ben's remark as he pulled up and dismounted. "Camp O! and let us make this a day to remember."
The outlaws did that very thing. They had hardly bestowed their horses when a buggy containing a woman and two men turned into the pass. "First blood!" laughed Gilbert, and he bailed up the travellers. They surrendered at discretion, descended to the ground, and were lined up against a rock. John Dunn picked the pockets of the men, but did not rob the woman! He said he was too chivalrous to war with women! The gang always traded on such miserable catch phrases, and earned golden opinions from fools in consequence.
A party of five pedestrians—Chinese gold-diggers—next appeared. They yielded humbly, were scientifically looted, and put to stand alongside of the first three. The bushrangers then had breakfast, and a right merry feast they made of it. Soon afterwards a swagman, dirty and dishevelled, and carrying a filthy blanket pack, strode wearily round the bend. His capture afforded much amusement, but he was so dirty that none of the outlaws would search him. They made one of the Chinamen do it for them, but got nothing for their pains. The next victim paid them better. He was a squatter, and the unlucky man had just sold a number of sheep, and had the purchase money in his pocket—£98.
A mounted trooper presently hove in sight. He was a plucky man, but a wickedly bad shot. He vainly emptied his revolver and then surrendered to join the throng of penniless prisoners. Some of these now began to grumble at their detention, but Ben soothed them with his most convincing silencer, a pistol, after first explaining that he must keep everybody there until the Royal Mail arrived, lest the coach be warned and not come at all.
"Would you interfere with my unlawful business?" he demanded, with mock sternness. "Fie upon you, gentlemen!—you would crush all enterprise! How can this great country be developed if we put obstacles in the way of industry?" The prisoners laughed indulgently at the jest, but we can well imagine how wryly.
From that moment onwards the outlaws were obliged to work like bees. A constant stream of travellers poured steadily to and from the town. There were draymen, carters, swaggies, farmers, selectors, miners, bank clerks, storekeepers, squatters, and carpenters. Some of them came in buggies, some in carts and waggons, some mounted, some on foot. They were all treated with a fine democratic impartiality. Rich men and poor men—they were all carefully robbed and then lined up with the ever-growing crowd against the rock. By noon the prisoners numbered sixty-nine, and they had yielded to the outlaws an aggregate treasure of close on £300.
Suddenly the Albury-Sydney mail, for which the bushrangers had been so long waiting, rumbled heavily into the bend. Hiding in front of it, were two mounted troopers, officers both, who acted as escort—Sub-inspector O'Neil and Sergeant Parry; and seated on the box was Constable Roche, of the Yass police force, and Mr. Rose, the stipendiary police magistrate of Gundagai. As soon as the occupants of the coach saw the outlaws, Mr. Rose commanded Constable Roche who sat beside him, not to fire from the vehicle, evidently fearing that the bushrangers might return the fire, in which case he (the P.M.) might have been hit. Roche was probably glad to obey. He slipped hastily to the ground and darted into the bush. But Sub-inspector O'Neil and Sergeant Parry were made of better stuff. Setting spurs to their horses, they charged the outlaws at full speed, firing wildly as they charged. The gang awaited the charge with grim determination, and at the right moment they replied to the police fire, but with far better aim. Ben Hall's bullet brought O'Neil's horse to its knees; Gilbert shot Sergeant Parry through the heart. The unfortunate trooper pitched headlong from the saddle, and was dead before he touched the ground. Sub-inspector O'Neil was so overcome with horror to see his comrade fall that he slid from his stricken horse and cried out, "Shoot no more! I surrender!"
He was searched on the spot, relieved of his arms, watch, and money, and conducted by Dunn over to the other prisoners. Gilbert strode over to the body of Sergeant Parry, and, kneeling down, he examined him to see if life was extinct. Rising a moment later, he said in a loud voice. "He was a brave man, and I am sorry for him. I never shot a man before. I wouldn't now if I could have helped it. It was my life or his! As God is my judge, I am sorry, but I can't help the poor fellow now. He is stone dead."
Ben Hall struck in with: "That's quite enough Jack. Don't mourn! The milk is spilt. Get to work on the mail bags."
Gilbert nodded, and obeyed.
Ben Hall pointed his pistol at Mr. Rose, who was still seated on the box. "Come down out of that!" he commanded, dourly. "I ought to know you, you ———! Used not you to bench it at Forbes?"
"Never!" cried the P.M. "My district is Gundagai. I never sat at Forbes."
"—— lucky for you that you didn't," said the outlaw. Then, as Mr. Rose reached the road. "Shell out!" he shouted.
The police magistrate submitted with alacrity. He meekly handed over his unused revolver, and very soon his pockets were empty. He was then marched across to the crowd of prisoners, and contemptuously told to hang himself.
It should be mentioned in passing that Mr. Rose and Constable Roche were subsequently brought to account for their conduct, and tried officially for cowardice, but both were exonerated. It is not for us to re-judge them now. They acted strangely, but we have not been in their case, and they may have honestly believed the odds too great to fight against.
The outlaws secured a heavy booty from the mail bags, and while they were still "letter sorting" they arrested several more travellers, all of whom they robbed. In their own good time they departed with their plunder, heading south. But that was a ruse. Very soon they doubled on their tracks and executed one of their rapid marches to the Lachlan. Next day fifty troopers reached Jugiong and began to scour the country to the south.
Between November 19, 1864, and January 26, 1865, the outlaws robbed and plundered without ceasing, but were never once sighted by the police. As often as the troopers would rush north they would ride south, penetrating the lines of their pursuers as if by some enchantment. Suddenly they would strike west, and as soon as followed they would vanish and reappear presently far to the east. And always the marauders grew more resolute in their attacks and more callously indifferent to the ruin and sufferings that they inflicted. It began to be their practice to burn down any house or store which did not yield them a satisfactory booty, and to beat or grievously insult such travellers as they stuck up whose purses were ill-furnished.
Only to their "telegraphs" and to sympathising settlers whom they trusted fully did they display any human feelings, and that, perhaps, was merely out of policy. It was necessary not only to treat kindly, but to pay well, those who could betray them; so pay they did. It was estimated by a local journalist of the period, whose published views were never contradicted, that they distributed fully £800 a month among their "telegraphs"; and this estimate deliberately allowed for large sums in specie which they were known to have taken at various times and planted in their secret haunts in the Weddin Mountains. Fully a thousand violent crimes now rested on their shoulders, but the measure was yet to be increased.
On the evening of January 27 the gang appeared at Collector, and stuck up the Kimberley Hotel. Judge Meymott was holding the Criminal Sessions in the court-house at the moment, sitting late in order to clear the list. Hall and his mates were perfectly acquainted with the fact. Indeed, they relied upon it to assist their purpose, for they knew that most of the police would be gathered in the court. They took possession of the inn without much trouble, and after robbing the inmates and sacking the house, they forced the landlord to prepare them a sumptuous dinner. They were in the middle of the meal when a craven prisoner gave them an alarm. "The police are coming!" cried the fellow.
Ben Hall turned to Dunn. "I guess you can manage them, Jack," he coolly observed. "You are nearer finished than Gilbert or me," and with the utmost sang-froid he went on eating.
Dunn dutifully arose and strolled out upon the road. The warning was a true one. Constable Nelson was advancing upon the tavern, armed with a carbine. Some whisper had reached him of the outlaws' presence, and, being a brave man, he had hurried to investigate the matter for himself. Better for him had he been a coward. When he had come within ten yards of the verandah Dunn challenged him. "Bail up!" he commanded.
Nelson's reply was to fling the carbine to his shoulder; but Dunn was too quick for him. The robber's pistol cracked, and Nelson fell in a heap, shot through the heart. A moment later the dreadful young murderer resumed his place at the dinner table. "I bagged a constable," he said, speaking as calmly as if he were referring to a rabbit. "He's quite dead. Pass me the pickles, Gil; I've collected a second appetite."
Gilbert went out and surveyed the corpse, which he stripped of its belt of cartridges and arms. He is said to have uttered one of his usual whining laments over the body, and Hall is reported to have scolded him severely for his squeamishness. However that may be, the trio made no haste to depart, and were still loafing about the tavern when the police appeared in force from the court-house. Even then they did not hurry, but mounted leisurely and drew off slowly and in good order, taking care to carry off all the booty they had collected. The troopers mounted and gave chase, witlessly firing as they charged, but their disdainful quarry did not reply the fire, and, the night being dark, they evaded their hesitating pursuers without being put to the trouble of a gallop.
From Collector they marched towards Braidwood, and stuck up the Goulburn mail. Subsequently they raided two stores near Towrang, and set fire to a third; then they cut across country towards Binalong, and robbed four stations en route. On February 18 they stuck up the hamlet of Molonglo, and secured three fine horses as well as a large sum of money. Five days later they raided Mutbilly, and had a pitched battle with several police, one of whom they wounded seriously. On March 6 they stuck up the Gundaroo mail at Geary's Gap, and got a booty of £80. On March 11 they stuck up Jinglemoney Station, and added two thoroughbreds to their string. On March 13 they attacked the Araluen gold escort, severely wounded two constables, and escaped with a big haul of gold. On March 21 they were over on the Bathurst side again; and there they robbed Mr. Suttor's station, taking among much else several valuable horses. Two days later they ravaged the property of Mr. Morton, and got two more racehorses. Finally, on March 23, they raided the big store of Mr. Jones, at Forbes, and escaped with a rich treasure of gold and goods. These, it should be stated, were merely their principal outrages; the few that have been placed on permanent record. But they only represent a fraction of the depredations of the gang, and are related to mark their tracks from one locality to another, so that the curious reader may follow on the map their movement if he choose.
Fully a hundred lesser robberies were committed in between whiles, whereof reliable accounts are still in existence; added to which many a poor devil of a traveller was stuck up and looted who never reported his injuries to the police at all, fearing to bring down upon himself the vengeance of the gang.
About this date the Government of the country came to the conclusion that it was quite hopeless to repose any further confidence in the efforts of the police. A conference between Ministers and their supporters was held, and later Ministers met and consulted with the leader of the Opposition. What took place at these debates did not transpire, but the broad result was a special session of Parliament to pass a specific Act of Outlawry directed at Ben Hall, his associates, "telegraphs," and friends. The famous bushranger had by that time been operating against society for three years. During the whole of the period his capture had never once been brought by his pursuers within the reach of a practical issue.
It was known to everybody that he held the police in scorn, and it was also a matter of common knowledge that the police themselves completely despaired of taking him. The Government now felt that it must strike deeper at the root of Ben's power than had ever before been attempted. Ministers had tried every ordinary and extraordinary expedient known to precedent without success. They had experimented with all sorts of systems and all sorts of commanders. They had employed every officer of note in the public service, and the most capable had achieved no better success than the least competent. All had utterly and most lamentably failed. What use, then, pleaded the Government, to continue exhausting the men and brow-beating, condemning, and breaking its officers? Clearly the police had been set an impossible task, and the time to recognise the truth and seek another remedy was at hand.
Ministers had analysed the situation, and their opinion was that Ben Hall essentially owed his power and his immunity from capture to the loyalty and good services rendered him by his "telegraphs" and friendly harborers. At all costs, these persons must be detached from their allegiance to the outlaw chief, and forced by specially-invented terrors to repudiate his service. That done, it might really be hoped at last to lay him by the heels. The logic was sound, the reasoning irrefutable. Our only marvel is that it took the Government three years to discover the weak spot in Ben's armor. However, once having seen light, the Government acted fearlessly and with becoming expedition. Parliament was called together, and the special bill brought forward. It passed rapidly through both Houses; it was immediately signed by the Governor, and as promptly proclaimed the law of the land. It may be asserted as an incontrovertible fact that neither before nor since, in any British-speaking country, has such a searching and vindictively ingenious penal statute braved and survived the fire of public contemplation. It was called the Felons Apprehension Act.
The first two sections contained provisions not merely enabling, but encouraging, any private citizen to shoot the outlaws down like dogs, saving thereafter the said citizen absolutely immune from any legal need to answer for or to explain his act. These sections definitely removed Ben Hall and his gang beyond the pale of the law, and for ever shut them out, as well, beyond the wider bounds of human mercy. In effect they declared all bushrangers dangerous wild animals, ravenous carnivors, whose speedy destruction was demanded in the national interest; and incidentally they proclaimed any destroyer of any bushranger a particularly meritorious citizen and servant of the State. But Section 3 was, after all, the most important and the most decisively useful feature of the Act. We must transcribe it without apology. It ran as follows:—
"If any person shall voluntarily and knowingly harbor, conceal, or receive, or give any aid, shelter, or sustenance to such outlaw, or provide him with firearms or any other weapon, or with ammunition, or any horse, equipment, or other assistance, or, directly or indirectly, give, or cause to be given, to him, or any of his accomplices, information tending, or with intent, to facilitate the commission by him of further crime, or to enable him to escape from justice, or shall withhold information, or give false information, concerning such outlaw from or to any officer of police or constable in quest of such outlaw—the person so offending shall be guilty of felony, and, being thereof convicted, shall forfeit all his lands, as well as goods, and shall be liable to imprisonment with or without hard labor for such period not exceeding fifteen years as the Court shall determine, and no allegation or proof by the party so offending that he was at the time under compulsion shall be deemed a defence, unless he shall as soon as possible afterwards have gone before a justice of the peace, or some officer of the police force, and then, to the best of his ability, given full information respecting such outlaw, and make a declaration on oath voluntarily and fully of the facts connected with such compulsion."
The statute was no sooner enacted than its full text was published in every newspaper, and pasted up on every public notice-board in New South Wales. A copy speedily found its way into Ben's hands. He read it carefully, and knew at once that he was doomed—bushranging with him. He was a mentally able man, and a clear thinker. He had no illusions. He realised on the instant that as soon as his friends had grasped the true purport of the statute they would fall away from him and shun him as though he were pestilence personified.
While it was merely a question of disdaining to betray him for the sake of a Government reward, there were scores upon whom he could continue to rely. But now that his friends were threatened by the law with forfeiture of property, and fifteen years' hard labor on the roads, merely for giving him a meal, there would be none so poor as would take all the gold that he could give them for an hour's entertainment or a night's refuge. And the bush was simply alive with police watching every house, and keeping every suspected friendly settler under the most vigilant espionage.
Ben laughed mordantly, and took to his horse. It had chanced that he was spending the day at an old friend's farm near Bingo (a man named Marshall), when the newspaper was brought there from the township by the farmer's son. Ben was the first to read that paper, and the last—on Marshall's farm; for he crushed it into his pocket on the spot, feeling that he would be a madman to trust even a brother with such news. The others of the gang were hiding at the moment in one of their haunts at Wheogo. Ben rode there on the wings of fear, and killed a splendid racehorse on the journey. Only Dunn was at the camp. "Where is Gilbert?" cried Ben, as he flung himself to the ground.
"Gone over to the Sievers for some sugar. He has a sweet tooth, and we've run short," answered Dunn. Then he saw his captain's face. "Hang it!" he exclaimed, starting erect. "What's the matter with you, Ben?"
Ben controlled his face, and marching over to the fire, he took a seat upon a log. "I'm all right, laddie," he muttered. "Don't you worry about me; I've had a shock, that's all! Here, read this paper."
Dunn perused the statute eagerly. Section 3 he read twice. "Hang it!" he said again, when he had finished, and glanced anxiously at Ben. "Hey! was this here your shock?" he demanded.
Dunn recited the section aloud. "What do you make of it, Ben?" he asked.
Ben shrugged his shoulders. "Our race is run, my lad. We are the last of the bushrangers. There will be no more after us. That infernal statute makes bushranging impossible. It cuts the earth from under our feet, and leaves us swinging in space. We had plenty of good friends yesterday, Jack, and heaps of trusty 'telegraphs.' To-day we have none. We are as lonely as Robinson Crusoe, and we have just about as long to live as an iceberg in the middle of the Sahara!"
"What will we do?"
"We must get out of the country if we can, and make for parts unknown. This place is death to us. Ah! here comes Gilbert."
Gilbert rode up, singing blithely. Ben sprang to his feet, black as a thundercloud. "Stow that singing, you infernal fool!" he cried.
Gilbert laughed heartily. "The statute has evidently given you the jumps!" he jeered.
"What! Have you seen it, Gil?"
"You bet! The Sievers had it pasted on their back door. I had to drill a bullet through the silly old shaver's calf before he'd give me a paltry pound of sugar."
"Are you mad, Gil?"
"Not an ounce, my son. But if a man turns on me, I turn on him, and hang the consequences. We'll have to leave this country, Ben, and mighty slick, too, judging by the signs. What do you think?"
"I just said much the same thing to Jack, here. Back up, Jack. We start right away to the Weddin."
Gilbert laughed again. "Start as soon as you like," he said, "but we'll ride north, I guess. There are 50 troopers between us and Wheogo. I got it from Sinkweed, and he hadn't seen the statute."
Ben thought for a moment, and then he said: "Very well, we'll make for Canowindra and dig up our plant at Canalong. We'll want all our money very soon, boys."
"Victoria?" asked Gilbert.
Ben shook his head. "No. Queensland, Gil; it's farther away, but it's safer, and they'll be less likely to look for us thereaway."
"Why, America," said Ben. "I never thought to leave Australia, but there's no choice that I can see, except the gallows. What do you say, Gil?"
"Where you lead I follow, if it takes me to blazes," cried Gilbert.
"And you, Jack?"
Dunn grinned sheepishly. "What's good enough for you chaps 'll do for me. I ain't stuck up," he answered.
They shook hands all round, and then broke camp. Heading north.
It is a matter passing strange to relate that Ben Hall was brought to his fate in a manner that is only indirectly attributable to the Statute of Outlawry. It was owing to the passing of the Act that he rode north instead of south, and that circumstance is the solitary link which can be held to connect his destruction with the statute. For of all the people who successfully co-operated and conspired to destroy him, not one had the vaguest notion of the stern measure which Parliament had adopted.
It has been said earlier in this narrative that Ben Hall was destined to meet his doom at the hands of a woman. We have seen how his wife's treachery was initially responsible for his criminal career, and how his mad passion for Julia Thorpe thrust him down into the steepest declivities of crime. There remains only to show how fatally susceptible Ben ever remained to feminine influences and contrivings. It is necessary to hark back a little.
Temporarily stationed at Forbes at the time of the big store robbery, Ben's last considerable crime, was an officer of police (a sub-inspector) named James Henry Davidson. This officer had been scathingly reprimanded by headquarters, both for failure to prevent the above-mentioned robbery, and subsequently to apprehend the outlaws. He took the censure so much to heart that soon afterwards he led a strong party of troopers into the bush and vowed that he would not return until he could bring in at least one of the gang as a prisoner—or in default, an outlaw's corpse.
He had been out some weeks, and was still no nearer to the attainment of his quest (he was continually misled by false concocted information given him by Ben's spies), when one evening he went into camp at a carrier's fire in the neighborhood of Canowindra. The carrier was a man who had lived in the district all his life; he knew every soul for 50 leagues around, and as he had been once stuck up and robbed of all his portable possessions by Ben Hall, he had no love to spare for bushrangers.
Seated at the camp fire that night the carrier gave the police party more intimate news of Ben Hall and his doings than they could have acquired by any other means. And above all, he told them the full story of Ben's long infatuation for Julia and her marriage with Robert Pringle. Now, Sub-inspector Davidson knew the Pringles fairly well, and had several times visited their farm, but without knowing aught of Mrs. Pringle's connection with the bushranger.
He did not sleep that night; all through the silent hours he lay staring up at the stars and revolving in his mind a plan. Next morning early he parted with the carrier and set out for Billybong Creek. By dint of hard riding the troopers reached the farm soon after dusk. The sub-inspector immediately took the pair aside and propounded his plan to them. It was nothing less than that Julia should write a letter to Ben Hall and send it to him by one of his "telegraphs."
For a time the worthy pair refused; indeed at first they rejected the proposal with every appearance of honest indignation; but the sub-inspector was very persistent and insinuating. He declared that it was every good citizen's bounden duty to assist the police against criminals, and ridiculed all their objections to behaving like traitorous informers. He offered them, moreover, one half the Government reward of £1000 if Ben should be trapped and captured through the suggested device. Gradually he won his way with them, and finally, by making an astute appeal to Julia's greedy vanity, he got her consent. She wanted to show her husband, (and the officer) that even after months of married life her charms could lure. The letter she wrote was crude in its diction, but none the less a masterpiece of infamy.
"Ben," it ran, "if you want your revenge on me, you've got it. He beat me nigh to death this morning, and he's gone off with a cursed judy which was my sarvint. I don't know what to do; won't you come and see me? The farm's sold, and I'll have to quit in a few days. Don't tell mother; she'll know soon enough. I'm waiting for you, Ben.
A blackfellow put this infernal missive into Ben's hands two days later. Ben, Gilbert, and Dunn were riding north of the Orange-road when the messenger reached them, making towards Dubbo. They carried a big treasure, and their souls were bent on Queensland. They had successfully evaded all their enemies, and the path of freedom lay clear before their horses' feet. Ben Hall studied Julia's artless words, and after a third reading he put the letter in his pocket. His heart was like water within him. A woman who had once been all in all to him had cried to him for help; he would go to her. He told the gang nothing except that they were to wait for him, and turning his horse he followed the blackfellow to Billybong. He came in sight of the homestead at half-past six on the following morning. Dismounting at the edge of the scrub, he off-saddled and turned his horse loose to feed, then turned towards the house.
At that instant his horse snorted. Ben glanced over his shoulder to ascertain the reason, and saw himself surrounded by police. The nearest man to him was Davidson, who was armed with a double-barrelled gun. This weapon the sub-inspector promptly discharged. The doomed outlaw was severely hit; he staggered over to a sapling, and clutching at a branch, steadied himself from a fall.
Sergeant Condell, 50yds. on the right, fired his rifle; then came a volley from the others. Ben had never thought of fighting; he was too busy thinking.
Suddenly, to the amazement of the police, he began to laugh. He had realised the plot. He laughed heartily as at some consummately amusing joke. Another volley; Ben's laughter died away to a chuckle; his body was already riddled with slugs and bullets, and he was dying fast; but still he clung to the supporting bough and held himself erect. The police fired again. Ben staggered and swayed; but even yet he did not fall. His last words were a jest.
"You fellows' marksmanship is on the mend," he gasped out jerkily, "but it—could be—improved. I'm wounded, won't somebody kindly shoot me dead?"
His prayer, if such it could be called, was answered by a trooper, who ran quite close to the dying outlaw and mercifully shot him through the breast. Ben Hall sank gently backwards then, and measured his length upon the turf. Slowly, hesitantly, with their loaded rifles thrust before them, just as cautious hunters might approach the body of a stricken lion, the troopers one by one drew near, but the still figure did not move, and a glance at the quiet face proclaimed the fact that Ben Hall was surely dead. Davidson had kept his vow.
They searched the riddled body (30 bullets had pierced it) and found a large sum in notes and gold. Within his shirt and secured over his heart by a golden safety pin was a locket containing a portrait of the outlaw's faithless wife. Poor Ben Hall! Truly he was a great fool.
The corpse was conveyed at once to Forbes and an official inquest held upon it. On the following Sunday it was buried outside the Forbes cemetery, and a large train of relatives and friends (who shall say they were not mourners?) followed it to the grave. Poor Ben Hall's betrayers received their blood money; no man grudged it them. They had earned it to the last penny.
Little remains to be told. Lacking their old leader and his matchless craft and bushmanship, Johnny Gilbert and Jack Dunn fell an easy prey to the police. They were tracked down and shot like mad dogs, with as little mercy, and as much—no more—remorse.
After having read this narrative, can anyone see romance to flatter the charmed fancy of a dreaming or a nascent rogue in a life of outlawry?
Alas! for the facile glamor of deeds of daring do, wild rides, desperate adventures, mad sinning, and the sad, impotent, and inevitable end. Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Ben Hall; they are all one. Prick the gleaming bubble that surrounds their reputations, and we see not heroes, but pitiful and most unhappy scoundrels, murderers, and thieves.
Picture Ben Hall clinging to the sapling branch, laughing hoarsely as the bullets seared and quivered through his flesh! Ay, and guess his laughter's cause! We give him our pity freely. His history extorts it—but with all our pity we cannot but admit that he deserved no better fate. Who would be a bushranger?
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