From never thinking about anything or caring what came uppermost, he seemed to have changed all on the other tack and do nothing but think. I’d seen a chap in Berrima something like him for a month or two; one day he manned the barber’s razor and cut his throat. I began to be afraid Jim would go off his head and blow his brains out with his own revolver. Starlight himself got to be cranky and restless-like too. One night he broke out as we were standing smoking under a tree, a mile or so from the cave—
‘By all the devils, Dick, I can’t stand this sort of thing much longer. We shall go mad or drink ourselves to death’—(we’d all been pretty well ‘on’ the night before)—‘if we stick here till we’re trapped or smoked out like a ’guana out of a tree spout. We must make a rise somehow, and try for blue water again. I’ve been fighting against the notion the whole time we’ve been here, but the devil and your old dad (who’s a near relative, I believe) have been too strong for us. Of course, you know what it’s bound to be?’
‘I suppose so. I know when dad was away last week he saw that beggar and some of his mates. They partly made it up awhile back, but didn’t fancy doing it altogether by themselves. They’ve been waiting on the chance of our standing in and your taking command.’
‘Of course, the old story,’ he says, throwing his cigar away, and giving a half laugh—such a laugh it was, too. ‘Captain Starlight again, I suppose. The paltry vanity of leadership, and of being in the front of my fellow-men, has been the ruin of me ever since I could recollect. If my people had let me go into the army, as I begged and prayed of them to do, it might have been all the other way. I recollect that day and hour when my old governor refused my boyish petition, laughed at me—sneered at me. I took the wrong road then. I swear to you, Dick, I never had thought of evil till that cursed day which made me reckless and indifferent to everything. And this is the end—a wasted life, a felon’s doom! Quite melodramatic, isn’t it, Richard? Well, we’ll play out the last act with spirit. “Enter first robber,” and so on. Good-night.’
He walked away. I never heard him say so much about himself before. It set me thinking of what luck and chance there seemed to be in this world. How men were not let do what they knew was best for ’em—often and often—but something seemed to drive ’em farther and farther along the wrong road, like a lot of stray wild cattle that wants to make back to their own run, and a dog here, a fence the other way. A man on foot or a flock of sheep always keeps frightening ’em farther and farther from the old beat till they get back into a bit of back country or mallee scrub and stop there for good. Cattle and horses and men and women are awful like one another in their ways, and the more you watch ’em the more it strikes you.
Another day or two idling and card-playing, another headache after too much grog at night, brought us to a regular go in about business, and then we fixed it for good.
We were to stick up the next monthly gold escort. That was all. We knew it would be a heavy one and trusted to our luck to get clear off with the gold, and then take a ship for Honolulu or San Francisco. A desperate chance; but we were desperate men. We had tried to work hard and honest. We had done so for best part of a year. No one could say we had taken the value of a halfpenny from any man. And yet we were not let stay right when we asked for nothing but to be let alone and live out the rest of our lives like men.
They wouldn’t have us that way, and now they must take us across the grain, and see what they would gain by that. So it happened we went out one day with Warrigal to show us the way, and after riding for hours and hours, we came to a thick scrub. We rode through it till we came to an old cattle track. We followed that till we came to a tumble-down slab hut with a stockyard beside it. The yard had been mended, and the rails were up. Seven or eight horses were inside, all in good condition. As many men were sitting or standing about smoking outside the old hut.
When we rode up they all came forward and we had it out. We knew who was coming, and were ready for ’em. There was Moran, of course, quiet and savage-looking, just as like a black snake as ever twisting about with his deadly glittering eyes, wanting to bite some one. There was Daly and Burke, Wall and Hulbert, and two or three more—I won’t say who they were now—and if you please who should come out of the hut last but Master Billy the Boy, as impudent as you like, with a pipe in his mouth, and a revolver in his belt, trying to copy Moran and Daly. I felt sorry when I see him, and thought what he’d gradually come to bit by bit, and where he’d most likely end, all along of the first money he had from father for telegraphing. But after all I’ve a notion that men and women grow up as they are intended to from the beginning. All the same as a tree from seed. You may twist it this road or that, make it a bit bigger or smaller according to the soil or the way it’s pruned and cut down when it’s young, but you won’t alter the nature of that tree or the fruit that it bears. You won’t turn a five-corner into a quince, or a geebung into an orange, twist and twine, and dig and water as you like. So whichever way Billy the Boy had been broken and named he’d have bolted and run off the course. Take a pet dingo now. He might look very tame, and follow them that feed him, and stand the chain; but as soon as anything passed close that he could kill, he’d have his teeth into it and be lapping its blood before you could say knife, and the older he got the worse he’d be.
‘Well, Dick,’ says this young limb of Satan, ‘so you’ve took to the Queen’s highway agin, as the chap says in the play. I thought you and Jim was a-going to jine the Methodies or the Sons of Temperance at Turon, you both got to look so thunderin’ square on it. Poor old Jim looks dreadful down in the mouth, don’t he, though?’
‘It would be all the better for you if you’d joined some other body, you young scamp,’ I said. ‘Who told you to come here? I’ve half a mind to belt you home again to your mother;’ and I walked towards him.
‘No, you won’t, Dick Marston, don’t you make any mistake,’ says the young bull-pup, looking nasty. ‘I’m as good a man as you, with this little tool.’ Here he pulled out his revolver. ‘I’ve as much right to turn out as you have. What odds is it to you what I do?’
I looked rather foolish at this, and Moran and Burke began to laugh.
‘You’d better set up a night-school, Dick,’ says Burke, ‘and get Billy and some of the other flash kiddies to come. They might turn over a new leaf in time.’
‘If you’ll stand up, or Moran there, that’s grinning behind you, I’ll make some of ye laugh on the wrong side,’ I said.
‘Come on,’ drawls Moran, taking off his coat, and walking up; ‘I’d like to have a smack at you before you go into the Church.’
We should have been at it hammer and tongs—we both hated one another like poison—only the others interfered, and Billy said we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for quarrelling like schoolboys. We were nice sort of chaps to stick up a gold escort. That made a laugh, and we knocked off.
Well, it looked as if no one wanted to speak. Then Hulbert, a very quiet chap, says, ‘I believe Ben Marston’s the oldest man here; let’s hear what he’s got to say.’
Father gets up at once, and looks steady at the rest of ’em, takes his pipe out of his mouth, and shakes the baccy out. Then he says—
‘All on ye knows without my telling what we’ve come here about, and what there’s hangin’ to it. It’s good enough if it’s done to rights; but make no mistake, boys, it’s a battle as must be fought game, and right back to the ropes, or not at all. If there’s a bird here that won’t stand the steel he’d better be put in a bag and took home again.’
‘Never mind about the steel, daddy,’ says one of the new men. ‘We’re all good for a flutter when the wager’s good. What’ll it be worth a man, and where are we going to divide? We know your mob’s got some crib up in the mountains that no one knows about. We don’t want the swag took there and planted. It mightn’t be found easy.’
‘Did ever a one of ye heer tell o’ me actin’ crooked?’ says father. ‘Look here, Bill, I’m not as young as I was, but you stand up to me for three rounds and I’ll take some of the cheek out of yer.’
‘No fear, daddy, I’d sooner face Dick or Jim. But I only want what’s fair between man and man. It’s a big touch, you know, and we can’t take it to the bank to divide, like diggers, or summons yer either.’
‘What’s the good of growlin’ and snappin’?’ says Burke. ‘We’re all goin’ in regular, I suppose, share and share alike?’ The men nodded. ‘Well, there’s only one way to make things shipshape, and that’s to have a captain. We’ll pick one of ourselves, and whatever he says we’ll bind ourselves to do—life or death. Is that it, boys?’
‘Yes, yes, that’s the only way,’ came from all hands.
‘Now, the next thing to work is who we’re to make captain of. There’s one here as we can all depend on, who knows more about road-work than all the rest of us put together. You know who I mean; but I don’t want ye to choose him or any man because I tell you. I propose Starlight for captain if he’ll take it, and them that don’t believe me let ’em find a better man if they can.’
‘I vote for Dan Moran,’ says another man, a youngish farmer-looking chap. ‘He’s a bushman, like ourselves, and not a half-bred swell, that’s just as likely to clear out when we want him most as do anything else.’
‘You go back to the Springs and feed them pigs, Johnny,’ says father, walking towards the young chap. ‘That’s about what you’re bred for; nobody’ll take you for a swell, quarter-bred, or anything else. Howsoever, let’s draw lots for it. Every man put his fancy down on a bit of paper, and put ’em into my old hat here.’
This was done after a bit, and the end of it was ten votes for Starlight and two or three for Moran, who looked savage and sulkier than ever.
When this was over Starlight walked over from where he was standing, near me and Jim, and faced the crowd. He drew himself up a bit, and looked round as haughty as he used to do when he walked up the big room at the Prospectors’ Arms in Turon—as if all the rest of us was dirt under his feet.
‘Well, my lads,’ he said, ‘you’ve done me the great honour to elect me to be your captain. I’m willing to act, or I shouldn’t be here. If you’re fools enough to risk your lives and liberties for a thousand ounces of gold a man, I’m fool enough to show you the way.’
‘Hurrah!’ said half-a-dozen of them, flinging up their hats. ‘We’re on, Captain. Starlight for ever! You ride ahead and we’ll back up.’
‘That will do,’ he says, holding up his hand as if to stop a lot of dogs barking; ‘but listen to me.’ Here he spoke a few words in that other voice of his that always sounded to me and Jim as if it was a different man talking, or the devil in his likeness. ‘Now mind this before we go: you don’t quite know me; you will by and by, perhaps. When I take command of this gang, for this bit of work or any other, my word’s law—do you hear? And if any man disputes it or disobeys my orders, by——, I’ll shoot him like a dog.’
As he stood there looking down on the lot of ’em, as if he was their king, with his eyes burning up at last with that slow fire that lay at the bottom of ’em, and only showed out sometimes, I couldn’t help thinking of a pirate crew that I’d read of when I was a boy, and the way the pirate captain ruled ’em.