The Crooked Stick

Chapter IX

Rolf Boldrewood

BEFORE the young man made his way into the stable-yard, Pollie meanwhile retreating to her mother’s room, the strange horseman had hung up his steed to a post and followed Mr. Gateward to the barracks, in the sitting-room of which unpretending but useful adjunct to the mansion proper Mr. Devereux found them in earnest conclave. They stopped speaking when he entered. The stranger looked searchingly at the young Englishman, who decided, after encountering the keen grey eye and marking the resolute face and wiry, athletic frame, that no ordinary man was before him.

Gateward, after looking round carefully, began in a tone of solemnity and mysterious import. ‘Mr. Devereux, this is Sergeant Herne, stationed at Warban, but now on duty out of uniform, for reasons as you’ll understand. He’s on the track of the men we’ve heard on.’ The stranger saluted in military style, and Bertram instinctively returned the courtesy in like form. ‘And bad news he’ve heard, I’m afraid,’ continued Mr. Gateward.

‘The sergeant will tell us himself,’ interposed Bertram. ‘These bushrangers are in the neighbourhood? We heard that before.’

‘It’s a trifle worse than that, sir,’ said the disguised man-at-arms, unbuckling a leather belt and placing a navy revolver, previously concealed by his coat, upon the table. ‘Unless my information is false—and I have every reason to think otherwise—the pair of them, the Doctor and Billy Mossthorne, will be here to-night.’

‘Here! good God!’ said Bertram. ‘Why the deuce should they come here? Fancy having to fight the scoundrels with ladies in the house! Can’t we meet them and have it out on the road?’

‘It’s impossible to say which way they’ll come in,’ said the sergeant thoughtfully. ‘Fellows like them don’t travel on roads. They know every inch of the bush from here to the Lachlan, and can go as straight as a blackfellow by night as well as by day. They’re hid in the Warrambong scrubs now, it’s a good way off, and my men have run them close. But by hard riding they’ll get here by midnight, expecting every one in the place to be sound asleep.’

‘But what do they want here?’

‘It’s hard to know what the Doctor wants. He’s one of the biggest scoundrels unhanged. But what Bill Mossthorne is after is a couple of your best horses, and as much clothes and grub as’ll see them across the Queensland border. He was hurt in the scuffle, and walking in his leg-irons for forty-eight hours gave him a terrible shaking. The Doctor had to carry him on his back part of the last day, I was told.’

‘Then we shan’t see them until they turn up here?’

‘Not if I’m laid on properly,’ said the hunter of men. ‘Between twelve and one o’clock to-night, if we’ve luck, they’ll drop into as pretty a trap as ever they were in in their lives.’

‘The Doctor, as they call that scoundrel—haven’t I heard something about him before?’ said Bertram musingly. ‘It must have been long ago, but I seem to have an indistinct memory concerning him.’

The two others looked meaningly at each other. Then Mr. Gateward spoke.

‘Perhaps it will be as well to keep it from the missis, sir. It might shake her a deal, thinkin’ on it. But the Doctor’s the man that shot her husband thirteen years ago this very month. The Captain hit him hard the same time, and he’s been heard to say he’ll leave his mark on Corindah yet.’

Bertram Devereux set his teeth, and a smile, such as men wear in the moment of hard and bitter resolve, passed slowly over his face, while his eyes lightened and gleamed, as if he saw his dearest hope realised.

‘By God! you don’t tell me so?’ he said, in so changed a voice that both of the men shifted position and gazed upon him as he spoke. ‘What an astonishing coincidence! I wouldn’t have missed this night for a fortune. To think, too, that I was so nearly off to that back station this morning, Gateward, wasn’t I? And now, sergeant, you are our commanding officer. You have the carte du pays. What is the order of the day, or rather of the night?’

The sergeant sat himself composedly down on the substantial table which took up the centre of the apartment, and in a businesslike tone of calculation and arrangement unfolded his plan of action.

‘You see, I had only one trooper with me,’ he said. ‘The rest are round Warrambong Mountains. I sent him with a note to Maroobil. Mr. Atherstone will be here to-night. That will be plenty. We don’t want a mob round the place. Some one might show out too soon, and then they wouldn’t come. If they’re let alone, and come in as I say, we’ll get them “to rights.” There’ll be some close shooting, but they can’t get away if we’ve a rag of luck.’

‘Which way will they attempt to enter?’ said Bertram, lighting a cigarette. ‘Here or at the house?’

‘From what I was told,’ said the sergeant, with an air of satisfaction, ‘they will come to the barracks, to this very room, and a better line—for us—they couldn’t have taken. They know this place and all the ins and outs of the premises well. Their dart is to knock up the storekeeper, Mr. Newman, and make him hand over whatever they want—or will—or the cash-box. They know the back entrance from here to the house.’

‘Which they’ll never set foot in,’ said Bertram. ‘If we don’t give a good account of them here, prepared as we shall be when they turn up, we deserve never to pull trigger again.’

‘I’ve had a few close brushes with men of their sort,’ said Herne, with a grim smile of satisfaction, ‘but I don’t know that ever I saw a neater thing than what we’re working now. We’ve got ’em on toast. You see, sir, what a beautiful room this is?’

Devereux looked round the unadorned apartment with a slight expression of inquiry.

‘I mean to be “stuck up in” of course. Don’t know that I ever saw the equal of it. They begin in the verandah. We’re safe to hear their step or voices. It’s all dark, of course. They light a match to rouse up Mr. Newman. They know that’s his room on the right-hand side there. You and I stand just inside this bedroom, Constable Gray and Mr. Atherstone about there. The moment they light their match, we call on them to surrender in the Queen’s name. Mr. Gateward, who’s behind the bale of sheepskins, lights a lantern that stands all ready, so as we can see what we’re about, and in a brace of shakes the thing’s over.’

‘It’s quite certain there’s no more than two of them, sergeant?’ said Mr. Gateward. ‘You’re sure of that, I reckon. Not that we mind much, but it might make a difference.’

‘There might be a third man. I heard that “Johnny the Pacer” was seen at Warrambong the other day. But he’s more in the horse-duffing line than where there’s shooting going on.’

‘However, you never know when these fellows will turn out. There’s been a warrant out for him these two years.’

‘We shall be all the better matched,’ said Bertram. ‘The more the merrier, as long as we’re only man to man. I wonder Atherstone isn’t over yet. I suppose the ladies had better not know anything about the visitors we expect.’

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ said Gateward, with a look of resolve upon his face. ‘It will be best to put them on their guard. It would give them a shock if they woke up and heard the shooting. They’re neither of them ladies as will scream and faint or act with any foolishness.’

‘I think Gateward is right,’ said the sergeant gravely. ‘If they’re prepared, depend upon it they’ll be brave and steady; ladies mostly are in the real push of danger. And Mrs. Devereux hasn’t lived here all these years without knowing about bushrangers, more’s the pity.’

‘Had reason to know ’em too well,’ said the overseer, shaking his head. ‘You won’t frighten Miss Pollie, sir, and the missus, for, as quiet as she looks, she isn’t to say timorsome.’

‘I hear horses now,’ said the young man. ‘Atherstone and your trooper, I suppose. If you think it’s best for the ladies to know, we will tell them.’

‘And I’ll go with Gateward and get something to eat,’ said the sergeant. ‘I’ve had a long ride, and nothing’s passed my lips since sunrise. We shall all want something before the night’s over.’

.     .     .     .     .

Harold Atherstone rode into the stable-yard, followed by a slight, wiry-looking young fellow in the uniform of the mounted police. He was mounted upon an upstanding, well-bred bay, and led a saddled roan, the points and condition of which denoted blood, good keep, and regular stabling.

‘You’ll find spare stalls or boxes there, constable,’ said Bertram. ‘Charley, the groom, is somewhere about. He’ll give you a hand to bed down your horses.’

‘This is a queer business, Atherstone,’ said he, when the trooper had departed with the horses. ‘We shall have sharp shooting if these fellows turn up, and I suppose there’s no doubt about it.’

‘It will be the first time I ever knew Miles Herne wrong,’ said Atherstone, ‘if they’re not here at the hour he says. I wish to Heaven they had picked Maroobil for their next bit of devilry. However, it can’t be helped. It’s lucky we were both in the way, and doubly fortunate that we’ve had timely warning.’

‘By Jove! yes,’ said the other, ‘and I was near as could be going away back this morning. How savage I should have been! Come into my room and dress. I can tell you all about Herne’s arrangements. What a smart fellow he is, and as cool as a cucumber!’

‘If you’d known all the close things I’ve seen him in, and the arrests he’s made, you’d say so,’ replied the other. ‘He’s the show trooper of the North-West. They always detail him when there’s anything specially dangerous to be done. He’ll be promoted this time if he bags these fellows, and I hope to Heaven he may.’

.     .     .     .     .

When the two young men made their appearance in the dining-room, there was but little need for them to speak.

‘I know there is something dreadful the matter,’ said Pollie, ‘by Harold’s grave face. I suspected Sergeant Herne didn’t turn up here for nothing. That was a trooper and two police horses that came with you, Harold, was it not? Better tell us at once. Mother is growing pale with anxiety.’

‘Do not be afraid for us,’ said the widow, with a sad smile. ‘I have borne too much sorrow to have room for fear.’

‘The whole mighty matter,’ said Harold, thinking that he could best describe the affair in the familiar terms which would perhaps divest the intelligence of sudden terror, ‘is that Herne has got news of these bushranger fellows. Thinks they might possibly pay Corindah a visit to-night.’

‘Is that all?’ exclaimed Pollie, her head raised, her face aglow with excitement, while her large bright eyes sparkled with an expression much more akin to pleasurable expectation than fear. ‘Why, I thought some one was dead—that some terrible, irrevocable accident had happened. And what time will they arrive? I suppose they won’t send in their cards?’

‘My darling, do not talk so lightly,’ said her mother, whose set, grave expression showed in how different a light she regarded the news. ‘These men have blood upon their hands. More will be shed yet, I fear, and whose it may be we know not.’

‘We must not be too serious over it either, Mrs. Devereux,’ said Atherstone. ‘With the preparations we have been able to make and a superior force well armed, the only fear in Herne’s mind, I suspect, is that one of their telegraphs may get wind of our plan, and warn them away. About midnight is the time they were likely to be about, if his scouts spoke truly.’

‘Why, it will be something like the midnight attack in Wild Sports of the West,’ said Pollie, ‘that I used to devour when I was a tiny girl. Don’t you remember, Harold, when the daughter of the house comes in with an apron full of cartridges? Oh! I shall be so disappointed if they don’t come after all.’

The young men felt much inclined to laugh at the genuine desire for fight, the keen enjoyment of a probable mêlée, which Pollie had evidently inherited with her Milesian blood. But one look at the white face and drawn lips of Mrs. Devereux checked them. ‘The names,’ she said, ‘have you heard the names?’

‘One of them is called——’ said Bertram, anxious to exhibit his knowledge of the affair.

‘Called Mossthorne—William Mossthorne,’ interposed Harold, with a meaning look at Devereux. ‘The other is a stranger. They are not sure whether he is the man they fancy or not. We shall know if he comes one way or the other.’

Mrs. Devereux looked relieved. Her face had a far-off, dreamy expression, as if she were recalling the old days of sudden misery, of woe unutterable, of hopeless agony, from which she had been so long recovering. But for the bright-eyed girl, that now with eager face and fearless brow brought back her father’s very face to her, she told herself that she never would have cared to live. And now, after all these years, the old accursed work was to recommence, with, perhaps, loss of valuable life, with enmity and bloodshed certainly. At their very gates too; beneath their hitherto inviolate roof-tree. When was it all to end?

However, she felt it incumbent on her as the chatelaine to put a brave face upon the matter. There was not the slightest chance of victory on the part of the outlaws, outnumbered and outmatched as they would be. She therefore exerted herself during the remainder of the meal to appear resolute and steadfast. She even gave advice which her long experience of colonial manners and customs enabled her to offer.

‘Bertram, above all things, you mustn’t be rash,’ she said. ‘Remember that these are not men to hold cheaply. They are cunning and artful, besides being brave with the desperation of despair. Don’t think because you have been a soldier, that these bush brigands are to be despised. My poor husband paid dearly for that mistake.’

The young man looked up cheerfully. ‘My dear aunt,’ he said, ‘I don’t despise our friends the bush robbers, or whatever they call them. I think them very ugly customers. Some of the shearers we had the row with last year would be truly formidable with arms in their hands. But I am a consistent fatalist in these matters. One man gets shot in such an affray; around another the bullets rain harmless. If I am fated to drop, I shall do so, and not otherwise.’

‘And what are we to do all the time?’ inquired Pollie, with an air of disapproval. ‘Go to bed and sleep? Just as if any one could, with a battle coming off next door. I suppose we must stay quiet till it is all over? What a dreadful thing it is to be a woman!’

‘Very likely there won’t be any engagement at all; it may not come off,’ said Harold. ‘So I would not advise you to lie awake on the chance of it. You may lose your rest for nothing. In fact, the chances are six to four—firstly, that they’ll surrender directly they see us prepared to receive them; secondly, that they won’t come into the barracks at all. They may turn back, like dingoes suspecting a trap.’

‘Pray Heaven it may be so!’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘I am not unwilling to take my share of the risk and loss for the country’s good. But oh! if it should turn out to be a false alarm, how thankful I should be!’

The evening passed off without much to distinguish it from other evenings, momentous as was the contingent finale. Mrs. Devereux was absent and preoccupied. Pollie was alternately in high spirits or depressed and silent. Atherstone and Bertram talked in a matter-of-fact sort of way about things in general, but made no further allusion to the subject which engrossed their thoughts.

At ten o’clock the ladies retired, rather to the relief of the young men. Mrs. Devereux did not omit, however, to again urge upon Bertram the necessity of caution and prudence.

‘I shall not risk my precious person unwisely,’ he said, a little impatiently; ‘but why do you not warn Atherstone here in the same maternal manner? I know you regard him as an old and valued friend. Is he so much more experienced than I—who have done a little soldiering, you will recollect—or is my life more precious than his in your eyes?’

‘Harold knows very well,’ said the widow simply, ‘how I feel towards him. But he can take care of himself among these people, whereas you, my dear Bertram, are at a disadvantage. I do you no injustice when I compare you with my darling husband, who lost his life, as you may do to-night, from contempt of his adversary and want of proper caution.’

‘Harold, you are to take care of yourself, and Bertram too. Do you hear?’ called out Pollie, who was in the passage. ‘You are to tell him what to do, for of course, being newly arrived, he will know nothing. You mustn’t be angry, Bertram. All you Jackaroos (as the Queenslanders call you) are the same; you leave cover and get shot down like an owl in the daylight, for want of the commonest woodcraft. So don’t be obstinate, or I shall be obliged to come down and stand alongside of you. Good-night! Good-night! That is one apiece.’

When the young men entered the room at the barracks, they found the sergeant and Mr. Gateward sitting over the fire smoking. The young constable was on guard outside, in case the attack might come off earlier than was anticipated.

The sergeant, though in an attitude of luxurious contentment, was in full uniform, and fully prepared for sudden action. By his side stood a Winchester rifle in excellent order, while within reach of his arm was a large-sized navy revolver. Mr. Gateward had girded on one of the same pattern.

‘You’re all ready, gentlemen, I suppose?’ said the officer. ‘Both with revolvers, I see. They’re pretty tools, but I prefer my rifle for close range. In an hour more we must put out the lights; so you’d better light up, and make the most of our smoking time.’

They did so, and for another hour the four men sat round the fire smoking placidly, occasionally exchanging remarks, while moment by moment the hour of mystery and doom grew closer. In spite of the high degree of courage and coolness which characterised every individual who sat in that room, a certain amount of anxious expectation could not be avoided.

There was no doubt that there would be shooting. One or two men would ‘lose the number of their mess’—the phrase by which among Englishmen the loss of life is generally indicated—and who would it be? That was the question. It was not in human nature to avoid the speculation as to whether the evil-doers would be laid low, or whether, on the contrary, one of themselves, now so instinct with life and vitality, would not be stretched lifeless upon the unpitying earth.

‘Half-past eleven, gentlemen,’ said the sergeant, looking at his watch. ‘We must take our places, and neither move nor speak until the time comes. Mr. Newman, you had better go to bed; we will take care to have a word with them before they rouse you up. Mr. Atherstone, will you please to take that corner? Mr. Devereux, you’ll stand here by me. That will give us the chance of first shot, if you care for it. Mr. Gateward, you’ll plant behind that bale in the corner—out of harm’s way. All you’ve got to think of is to light the fat-lamp we leave on the top of the wool-pack, and duck down again. They can’t hurt you. Constable Gray will stop outside. As soon as he hears horses coming across the plain, he’s to come in here and let us know. He’s a smart young native, isn’t he, Mr. Atherstone? He can track like a blackfellow, he’s a pretty shot, and at riding and bush work he’s a match for Billy Mossthorne or any other moonlighter that ever shook a clear skin.’

‘A quiet, manly young fellow, sergeant,’ said Atherstone; ‘I had a talk with him coming over. You want more natives in the police to be on equal terms with these down-the-river fellows. They are pretty smart, to do them justice, and it’s no use having a man who can’t ride to follow them. It’s like setting a collie dog after a flying forester buck.’

‘We are getting some fine young men in the police now,’ said the sergeant. ‘There’s three brothers out of one family I know, born and bred Australians; two out of the three promoted already and the other safe for it. But the time’s getting close; I hope nothing’s happened to the beggars.’

The sergeant’s voice expressed such a pathetic tone of anxiety that the young men could not help laughing. However, all relapsed into silence shortly. The hands of the clock in the room pointed towards midnight. Would they never come? or, in a few moments more, would the deep hush of the autumn night be broken by shots and strange sounds, groans and curses?

‘How the moments crawl!’ said Bertram, lighting a match and looking at the brass clock on the mantel, the ticking of which sounded loud and sonorous out of all proportions to its size. ‘Only a quarter-past now—it seems half an hour since I looked last.’

‘It reminds me of the scene in Old Mortality,’ said Atherstone, ‘when the fanatics are waiting for the clock to strike to put Harry Merton to death. You remember one of them hears a sound in the distance which he says is “the wind among the brackens”? Another declares it to be “the rippling of the brook over the pebbles.” Then a third says, “It is the galloping of horse.”’

‘Harry who?’ asked Bertram, rather impatiently. ‘I don’t remember Walter Scott’s characters very clearly. They all seem so devilish like one another to me.’

‘Hush!’ said the sergeant, in a low voice. ‘By—! here they are. They’ll come up fast because they know that the dogs will give the alarm. Their dart is to be in the house before any one has time to think about it.’

As the four men listened intently, a faint, dull noise in the distance gradually resolved itself into the familiar sound of hoof-beats, the measured strokes of horses ridden at speed, which came nearer and still nearer. In the stillness of the night each sound could be heard as plainly as though within the home paddock.

At this moment Constable Gray entered, his eyes glistening with excitement. ‘They’re near a mile off yet,’ he said. ‘I went to the paddock gate and listened. There’s three of ’em. Three horses, any road—that’s Johnny the Pacer has joined ’em; though I don’t expect he means fighting. The dogs’ll challenge when they come a bit closer.’

‘You stay outside till they dismount,’ said the sergeant. ‘See what door they make for, and then fall back on us. They don’t know what’s before them.’

The young trooper went quietly out, moving with cautious and wary tread. The roll of hoofs sounded yet closer. Suddenly there arose a chorus of furious barking and fierce growling from the pack of dogs of various breed which a head station always supports. It told that strangers—presumably hostile—had at that late hour invaded the premises.

Just then Gray re-entered. ‘One man left with the horses. Two coming this way, making for the back-door.’

‘It’s unlatched,’ said the sergeant. ‘Let them come.’

The Crooked Stick - Contents    |     Chapter X

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