The first idea was, in case of one wanting to give the other the office that he was to look out his very brightest for danger, and not to trust to what appeared to be the state of affairs, the sign was to hold up your hat or cap straight over your head. If the danger threatened on the left, to shift to that side. If it was very pressing and on the jump, as it were, quite unexpected, and as bad as bad could be, the signalman was to get up on the saddle with his knees and turn half round.
We could do this easy enough and a lot of circus tricks besides. How had we learned them? Why, in the long days we had spent in the saddle tailing the milkers and searching after lost horses for many a night.
As luck would have it Jim looked round to see how we were getting on, and up went my cap. I could see him turn his head and keep watching me when I put on the whole box and dice of the telegraph business. He ‘dropped’, I could see. He took up the brown horse, and made such a rush to collar the mare that showed he intended to see for himself what the danger was. The cross-grained jade! She was a well-bred wretch, and be hanged to her! Went as if she wanted to win the Derby and gave Jim all he knew to challenge her. We could see a line of timber just ahead of her, and that Jim was riding for his life.
‘By——! they’ll both be over it,’ said the young shearer. ‘They can’t stop themselves at that pace, and they must be close up now.’
‘He’s neck and neck,’ I said. ‘Stick to her, Jim, old man!’
We were all close together now. Several of the men knew the place, and the word had been passed round.
No one spoke for a few seconds. We saw the two horses rush up at top speed to the very edge of the timber.
‘By Jove! they’re over. No! he’s reaching for her rein. It’s no use. Now—now! She’s saved! Oh, my God! they’re both right. By the Lord, well done! Hurrah! One cheer more for Jim Marston!’
Three minutes after Mr. Falkland overtook us, and we rode up together. His face was white, and his dry lips couldn’t find words at first. But he managed to say to Jim, when we got up—
‘You have saved my child’s life, James Marston, and if I forget the service may God in that hour forget me. You are a noble fellow. You must allow me to show my gratitude in some way.’
‘You needn’t thank me so out and out as all that, Mr. Falkland,’ said Jim, standing up very straight and looking at the father first, and then at Miss Falkland, who was pale and trembling, not altogether from fear, but excitement, and trying to choke back the sobs that would come out now and then. ‘I’d risk life and limb any day before Miss Falkland’s finger should be scratched, let alone see her killed before my eyes. I wonder if there’s anything left of the mare, poor thing; not that she don’t deserve it all, and more.’
Here we all walked forward to the deep creek bank. A yard or two farther and the brown horse and his burden must have gone over the terrible drop, as straight as a plumb-line, on to the awful rocks below. We could see where the brown had torn up the turf as he struck all four hoofs deep into it at once. Indeed, he had been newly shod, a freak of Jim’s about a bet with a travelling blacksmith. Then the other tracks, the long score on the brink—over the brink—where the frightened, maddened animal had made an attempt to alter her speed, all in vain, and had plunged over the bank and the hundred feet of fall.
We peered over, and saw a bright-coloured mass among the rocks below—very still. Just at the time one of the ration-carriers came by with a spring cart. Mr. Falkland lifted his daughter in and took the reins, leaving his horse to be ridden home by the ration-carrier. As for us we rode back to the shearers’ hut, not quite so fast as we came, with Jim in the middle. He did not seem inclined to talk much.
‘It’s lucky I turned round when I did, Dick,’ he said at last, ‘and saw you making the “danger-look-out-sharp” signal. I couldn’t think what the dickens it was. I was so cocksure of catching the mare in half-a-mile farther that I couldn’t help wondering what it was all about. Anyhow, I knew we agreed it was never to be worked for nothing, so thought the best thing I could do was to call in the mare, and see if I could find out anything then. When I got alongside, I could see that Miss Falkland’s face was that white that something must be up. It weren’t the mare she was afraid of. She was coming back to her. It took something to frighten her, I knew. So it must be something I did not know, or didn’t see.
‘“What is it, Miss Falkland?” I said.
‘“Oh!” she cried out, “don’t you know? Another fifty yards and we’ll be over the downfall where the trooper was killed. Oh, my poor father!”
‘“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “We’ll not go over if I can help it.”
‘So I reached over and got hold of the reins. I pulled and jerked. She said her hands were cramped, and no wonder. Pulling double for a four-mile heat is no joke, even if a man’s in training. Fancy a woman, a young girl, having to sit still and drag at a runaway horse all the time. I couldn’t stop the brute; she was boring like a wild bull. So just as we came pretty close I lifted Miss Falkland off the saddle and yelled at old Brownie as if I had been on a cattle camp, swinging round to the near side at the same time. Round he came like one o’clock. I could see the mare make one prop to stop herself, and then go flying right through the air, till I heard a beastly “thud” at the bottom.
‘Miss Falkland didn’t faint, though she turned white and then red, and trembled like a leaf when I lifted her down, and looked up at me with a sweet smile, and said—
‘“Jim, you have paid me for binding up your wrist, haven’t you? You have saved me from a horrible death, and I shall think of you as a brave and noble fellow all the days of my life.”
‘What could I say?’ said Jim. ‘I stared at her like a fool. “I’d have gone over the bank with you, Miss Falkland,” I said, “if I could not have saved you.”
‘“Well, I’m afraid some of my admirers would have stopped short of that, James,” she said. She did indeed. And then Mr. Falkland and all of you came up.’
‘I say, Jim,’ said one of the young fellows, ‘your fortune’s made. Mr. Falkland ’ll stand a farm, you may be sure, for this little fakement.’
‘And I say, Jack,’ says old Jim, very quiet like, ‘I’ve told you all the yarn, and if there’s any chaff about it after this the cove will have to see whether he’s best man or me; so don’t make any mistake now.’
There was no more chaff. They weren’t afraid. There were two or three of them pretty smart with their hands, and not likely to take much from anybody. But Jim was a heavy weight and could hit like a horse kicking; so they thought it wasn’t good enough, and left him alone.
Next day Mr. Falkland came down and wanted to give Jim a cheque for a hundred; but he wouldn’t hear of so much as a note. Then he said he’d give him a billet on the run—make him under overseer; after a bit buy a farm for him and stock it. No! Jim wouldn’t touch nothing or take a billet on the place. He wouldn’t leave his family, he said. And as for taking money or anything else for saving Miss Falkland’s life, it was ridiculous to think of it. There wasn’t a man of the lot in the shed, down to the tarboy, that wouldn’t have done the same, or tried to. All that was in it was that his horse was the fastest.
‘It’s not a bad thing for a poor man to have a fast horse now and then, is it, Mr. Falkland?’ he said, looking up and smiling, just like a boy. He was very shy, was poor Jim.
‘I don’t grudge a poor man a good horse or anything else he likes to have or enjoy. You know that, all of you. It’s the fear I have of the effect of the dishonest way that horses of value are come by, and the net of roguery that often entangles fine young fellows like you and your brother; that’s what I fear,’ said Mr. Falkland, looking at the pair of us so kind and pitiful like.
I looked him in the face, though I felt I could not say he was wrong. I felt, too, just then, as if I could have given all the world to be afraid of no man’s opinion.
What a thing it is to be perfectly honest and straight—to be able to look the whole world in the face!
But if more gentlemen were like Mr. Falkland I do really believe no one would rob them for very shame’s sake. When shearing was over we were all paid up—shearers, washers, knock-about men, cooks, and extra shepherds. Every soul about the place except Mr. M’Intyre and Mr. Falkland seemed to have got a cheque and a walking-ticket at the same time. Away they went, like a lot of boys out of school; and half of ’em didn’t show as much sense either. As for me and Jim we had no particular wish to go home before Christmas. So as there’s always contracts to be let about a big run like Banda we took a contract for some bush work, and went at it. Mr. M’Intyre looked quite surprised. But Mr. Falkland praised us up, and was proud we were going to turn over a new leaf.
Nobody could say at that time we didn’t work. Fencing, dam-making, horse-breaking, stock-riding, from making hay to building a shed, all bushwork came easy enough to us, Jim in particular; he took a pleasure in it, and was never happier than when he’d had a real tearing day’s work and was settling himself after his tea to a good steady smoke. A great smoker he’d come to be. He never was much for drinking except now and again, and then he could knock it off as easy as any man I ever seen. Poor old Jim! He was born good and intended to be so, like mother. Like her, his luck was dead out in being mixed up with a lot like ours.
One day we were out at the back making some lambing yards. We were about twenty miles from the head station and had about finished the job. We were going in the next day. We had been camping in an old shepherd’s hut and had been pretty jolly all by ourselves. There was first-rate feed for our horses, as the grass was being saved for the lambing season. Jim was in fine spirits, and as we had plenty of good rations and first-rate tobacco we made ourselves pretty comfortable.
‘What a jolly thing it is to have nothing on your mind!’ Jim used to say. ‘I hadn’t once, and what a fine time it was! Now I’m always waking up with a start and expecting to see a policeman or that infernal half-caste. He’s never far off when there’s villainy on. Some fine day he’ll sell us all, I really do believe.’
‘If he don’t somebody else will; but why do you pitch upon him? You don’t like him somehow; I don’t see that he’s worse than any other. Besides, we haven’t done anything much to have a reward put on us.’
‘No! that’s to come,’ answered Jim, very dismally for him. ‘I don’t see what else is to come of it. Hist! isn’t that a horse’s step coming this way? Yes, and a man on him, too.’
It was a bright night, though only the stars were out; but the weather was that clear that you could see ever so well and hear ever so far also. Jim had a blackfellow’s hearing; his eyes were like a hawk’s; he could see in about any light, and read tracks like a printed book.
I could hear nothing at first; then I heard a slight noise a good way off, and a stick breaking every now and then.
‘Talk of the devil!’ growled Jim, ‘and here he comes. I believe that’s Master Warrigal, infernal scoundrel that he is. Of course he’s got a message from our respectable old dad or Starlight, asking us to put our heads in a noose for them again.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I know it’s that ambling horse he used to ride,’ says Jim. ‘I can make out his sideling kind of way of using his legs. All amblers do that.’
‘You’re right,’ I said, after listening for a minute. ‘I can hear the regular pace, different from a horse’s walk.’
‘How does he know we’re here, I wonder?’ says Jim.
‘Some of the telegraphs piped us, I suppose,’ I answered. ‘I begin to wish they forgot us altogether.’
‘No such luck,’ says Jim. ‘Let’s keep dark and see what this black snake of a Warrigal will be up to. I don’t expect he’ll ride straight up to the door.’
He was right. The horse hoofs stopped just inside a thick bit of scrub, just outside the open ground on which the hut stood. After a few seconds we heard the cry of the mopoke. It’s not a cheerful sound at the dead of night, and now, for some reason or other, it affected Jim and me in much the same manner. I remembered the last time I had heard the bird at home, just before we started over for Terrible Hollow, and it seemed unlucky. Perhaps we were both a little nervous; we hadn’t drunk anything but tea for weeks. We drank it awfully black and strong, and a great lot of it.
Anyhow, as we heard the quick light tread of the horse pacing in his two-feet-on-one-side way over the sandy, thin-grassed soil, every moment coming nearer and nearer, and this queer dismal-voiced bird hooting its hoarse deep notes out of the dark tree that swished and sighed-like in front of the sandhill, a queer feeling came over both of us that something unlucky was on the boards for us. We felt quite relieved when the horse’s footsteps stopped. After a minute or so we could see a dark form creeping towards the hut.