Well, Mr. Knightley wasn’t one of that sort, though I saw him keep his eye a trifle longer on Moran than the rest of ’em.
‘Now then, boys,’ he says, ‘we’ve had our flutter out. I’ve done my best, and you’ve done yours. I’ve bagged one of your lot, and you’ve done your best to pot me. See here,’ and he lifts up the collar of his coat and shows a hole through it, touches his head on the side, and brings away a red mark; and takes out his watch with the case all battered in by a revolver bullet. ‘You can’t say I hadn’t cause to show fight,’ and he points to his wife. ‘Where’s the man among you that wouldn’t have done the same? An Englishman’s house is his castle. What am I to expect?’
He looked over at Starlight, but he didn’t take no notice, and made no sign. I saw Mrs. Knightley look over at him too. It was the first time I ever seen him look hard when there was a woman in the case, and such a one! But he kept his face set and stern-like.
Then Moran breaks in—
‘Expect, be blowed! What the —— do you expect now we’ve got yer to rights; are we going to let you off after knocking over Daly? No dashed fear, mister, we’ll serve you the same way as you served him, as soon as we’ve had some grub and another glass or two of your grog. You’ve got some fairish stuff here.’
‘Why, Moran,’ says Mr. Knightley, still making believe to joke—and, by George! if he could laugh then, he could sing a song with a bullet through him—‘you’re getting bad-tempered since you used to be horsebreaking for Mr. Lowe. Don’t you remember that chestnut Sir Henry colt that no one else could ride, and I backed you not to get thrown, and won a fiver? But I’m a man of the world and know how to play a losing game at billiards as well as most men. Look here now! Daly’s dead. We can’t bring him to life again, can we? If you shoot me, you’ll be nothing to the good, and have every spare man in the three colonies at your heels. This is a game of brag, though the stakes are high. I’ll play a card. Listen. You shall have a hundred fivers—£500 in notes—by to-morrow at four o’clock, if you’ll let Mrs. Knightley and the doctor ride to Bathurst for the money. What do you say?’
‘D—n you and your money too,’ growled Moran. ‘We’ll have your blood, and nothing else. D’ye hear that? You’re a dead man now; if you’re not buried by this time to-morrow, it won’t be because you’re not as ready for it as Patsey is.’
I saw Mrs. Knightley turn round and clasp her hands; her face grew as white as death, but she said nothing, only looked over at Starlight, and her eyes grew bigger and bigger, while her mouth trembled just the least bit.
‘You’re off your head, Moran,’ says Mr. Knightley, pulling out a cigar and lighting it. ‘But I suppose you’re the chief man, and all the rest must do as you tell them.’
‘Suppose we talk it over,’ says Starlight, very quiet, but I knew by the first word that he spoke something was coming. ‘Daly dropped, and it can’t be helped. Accidents will happen. If you play at bowls you must take rubbers. It has been a fair fight; no one can say otherwise. Let us put it to the vote. I propose that Mr. Knightley’s offer be accepted. Not that I intend to take a shilling of the money.’
‘Nor me either,’ says I. ‘So you three chaps will have it to share between you. I don’t see that we can do better. A fight’s a fight, and if Patsey got his gruel it might have happened to Mr. Knightley himself. As for shooting in cold blood, I’m not on, and so I tell you.’
‘I suppose you think you and Starlight’s going to boss the lot of us, because you’ve been doing it fine at the Turon races along with a lot of blasted swells as ’ud scrag us if they had the chance, and we’re to take so much a head for our dashed lives, because we’re only working chaps. Not if Dan Moran knows it. What we want is satisfaction—blood for blood—and we’re a-goin’ to have it, eh, mates?’
Wall and Hulbert hadn’t said anything before this. They were not bad chaps underneath, but Moran was such a devil when he was raised that they didn’t like to cross him. Besides, they had a down on Mr. Knightley, and wanted to sheet it home to him somehow. They had got to the brandy too, and it didn’t make matters any better, you take my word for it.
Starlight didn’t speak for a minute or two. I couldn’t think what he was at. If Jim had been there we should have been right, three to three. Now we were two to three. I knew Starlight had a good card to play, and was ready to play it, but he was waiting on the deal. Mr. Knightley must have had some sort of notion of the hand; he was wonderful quick at picking up the points of the game.
He said nothing, and looked as cool as you please, smoking his cigar as if he had nothing on his mind and wanted a rest. The lady sat quite still and pale, but her beautiful eyes kept wandering round from one to another, like some pretty creature caught in a trap. Dr. Schiller found it hard lines on him to keep quiet all this time—he couldn’t hold it in no longer.
‘Good heafens!’ he says, ‘are you men, and will not say nodings when you haf such an ovver as dis? Subbose you shood us all, what then? Will not the whole coundry rice and hund you down like mat docks?’
‘That won’t make it any better for you, mate,’ says Moran, with a grin. ‘When you and he’s lying under that old tree outside, it’ll make no odds to yer whether our rope’s a long or a short ’un.’
‘Quite right, Moran,’ says Mr. Knightley. ‘Doctor, he has you there.’
Starlight moved a step or two over towards him, as if he was uncertain in his mind. Then he says to Wall and Hulbert—
‘See here, men; you’ve heard what Moran says, and what I think. Which are you going to do? To help in a brutal, cowardly murder, and never be able to look a man in the face again, or to take this money to-morrow?—a hundred and seventy each in notes, mind, and get away quietly—or are you going to be led by Moran, and told what you are to do like children?’
‘Oh come, Dan, let’s take the stuff,’ says Wall. ‘I think it’s good enough. What’s the use of being contrary? I think the Captain’s right. He knows a dashed sight more than us.’
‘He be hanged!’ says Moran, with eyes glaring and the whole of his face working like a man in a fit. ‘He’s no Captain of mine, and never was. I’ll never stir from here till I have payment in blood for Daly’s life. We may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. I’ve sworn to have that man’s life to-night, and have it I will.’
‘You’ll have ours first, you bloodthirsty, murdering dog,’ says Starlight; and, as he spoke, he slipped his revolver into Mr. Knightley’s hand, who covered Moran that moment. I drew mine, too, and had Wall under aim. Starlight’s repeating rifle was up like lightning.
Mrs. Knightley covered her eyes, the old woman screamed, and the doctor sat down on a chair and puffed away at his meerschaum pipe.
‘We’re three to three, now,’ says Starlight; ‘you’ve only to move a finger and you’re a dead man. Wall and Hulbert can have a hand in it if they haven’t had shooting enough for one evening. Do your worst, you black-hearted brute! I’ve two minds to take you and run you in myself, if it’s only to give you a lesson in manners.’
Moran’s face grew as black as an ironbark tree after a bush fire. He raised his revolver, and in one second we should have been in the middle of a desperate hand-to-hand fight; and God knows how it might have ended hadn’t Hulbert struck up his arm, and spoke out like a man.
‘It’s no use, Dan, we won’t stand it. You’re a dashed fool and want to spoil everything for a bit of temper. We’ll take the notes and let Mrs. Knightley and the doctor clear out for Bathurst if you’ll say honour bright that you’ll be at the Black Stump by to-morrow evening at five, and won’t give the police the office.’
Moran, slow and sulkily, put down his hand and glared round like a dingo with the dogs round him—as if he didn’t know which to snap at first. Then he looked at Mr. Knightley with a look of hellish rage and spite that ten devils couldn’t have improved upon, and, throwing himself down on a chair, drank off half a tumbler of brandy.
‘Settle it amongst yourselves, and be —— to you,’ he said. ‘You’re all agin me now; but, by ——, I’ll be square with some of ye yet.’
It was all over now. Mr. Knightley took a match out of the silver match-box at his watch-chain, and lit another cigar. I saw the tears trickling through Mrs. Knightley’s fingers. Then she turned away her head, and after a minute or two was as calm and quiet as ever.
‘You know your way about the place, Wall,’ says Mr. Knightley, as if he was in his own house, just the same as usual; ‘run up the horses, there’s a good fellow; they’re in the little horse paddock. Mrs. Knightley’s is a gray, and the doctor’s is a mouse-coloured mare with a short tail; you can’t mistake them. The sooner they’re off the sooner you’ll handle the cash.’
Wall looked rather amused, but went out, and we heard him rattle off to go round the paddock. The doctor went upstairs, and buckled on a long-necked pair of old-fashioned spurs, and Mrs. Knightley walked away like a woman in a dream to her own room, and soon afterwards returned in her riding-habit and hat.
I foraged about and found the side-saddle and bridle in the harness-room. Everything was in tip-top order there—glass sides for keeping the dust off the four-in-hand harness and all that kind of thing. All the bits and stirrup-irons like silver. There wasn’t much time lost in saddling-up, you bet!
We watched pretty close lest Moran should take a new fancy into his head, but he stuck to the brandy bottle, and very soon put himself from fighting or anything else. I wasn’t sorry to see it. I was well aware he was as treacherous as a dingo, and could sham dead or anything else to gain his ends and throw people off their guards.
Well, the horses were brought out, and when Mr. Knightley lifted his wife up on to her saddle on the high-crested gray thoroughbred with a dash of Arab blood from an old Satellite strain, I guess he was never better pleased with anything in the world. They looked in each other’s eyes for a minute, and then the old horse started off along the road to Bathurst with his fast, springy walk. Starlight took off his hat and bowed low in the most respectful way. Mrs. Knightley turned in her saddle and tried to say something, but the words wouldn’t come—she could only wave her hand—and then her head went down nearly to her saddle. The doctor scrambled on to his horse’s back, and trotted off after her. The gray moved off, shaking his head, at a beautiful, easy, springy canter. We raised a cheer, and they swept round a corner of the road and out of sight.
‘You’ll find these rather good, Captain,’ says Mr. Knightley, handing Starlight his cigar-case. ‘There’s a box upstairs in my dressing-room. If you’ll allow me I’ll order in dinner. There ought to be something decent if my old cook hasn’t been frightened out of his life, but I think he has seen too much to be put out of his way by a little shooting.’
‘Now I think of it,’ says Starlight, ‘I do really feel disposed for refreshment. I say, Wall, see if you can’t get that ferocious friend of yours into a room where he can sleep off his liquor. I really must apologise for his bad manners; but you see how the case stands.’
‘Perfectly, my dear fellow,’ says Mr. Knightley. ‘Don’t mention it. I shall always feel personally indebted to you for far more than I can express. But let that pass for the present. What shall we do to pass the evening? You play picquet and hazard, of course?’
‘Do I not,’ says Starlight, his eyes lighting up in a way I didn’t remember. ‘It’s many a day since I’ve met with any one near my old form.’
‘Then suppose we have a game or two,’ says Mr. Knightley, ‘after dinner or supper, whichever we choose to call it. I have cards; they luckily came up the other day. In the meantime you will find the claret very fair, and this cold wild turkey—I shot a brace last Thursday—is not to be despised.’
We had a rattling good feed, and no mistake, whatever it was. The turkey was a grand bird, and weighed 21 lb., he told us. The cook had sent in some hot potatoes, and chaps like us that had been riding, walking, and fighting for twenty hours right on end had just the sort of appetite that a bird of that kind deserved. He was as fat as butter, too. They feed on dandelion seeds at that time of the year. It gives ’em a sort of gamy flavour such as no other bird, wild or tame, has. To my liking the wild turkey beats the black duck even. He’s the best game bird that flies in the bush.
Mr. Knightley, too, now his wife was safe on her way to Bathurst, and things seemed going well, was full of fun, and kept us all going. He helped everybody twice over, and wouldn’t hear of any one keeping the bottle standing. The night was close rather, and we were all that thirsty it went down like mother’s milk. Wall and Hulbert got pleasant enough and joined in, now that Moran was out of the way. He was snoring in a back room, and, like a man in the deadhouse of a bush shanty, not likely to wake before sunrise. Mr. Knightley told us some out-and-out good yarns, and Hulbert and Wall swore that if they’d known he was such a good sort they’d never have thought of sticking up the place. He said he had been quite mistaken about them, and that another time he should know better than to volunteer for work that was not part of his duty. By that time the claret had gone round pretty often; and without being screwed we’d all had our tongues loosened a bit.
After that we lit our pipes, and we three began to play all-fours and euchre, sometimes one pair, sometimes another. As for Mr. Knightley and Starlight, they got out a curious filigree sort of a little card-table and began to play some outlandish game that I didn’t know, and to look very serious over it.
They had notes for counters, and I could see, as I looked over every now and then, that each man was doing all he knew to best the other. Sometimes one had the show; sometimes the other. We got tired and had another smoke and turned in. The beds were snug and comfortable. Mr. Knightley showed us where to go, and we wanted a good night’s rest bad enough.
Just before I turned in I went up to the table. They looked as keen at it as if they’d just began, and I heard Starlight say, ‘I owe you a hundred now. I’ll play you double or quits.’ So I left them to it. I could see they were not on for bed just then. Both men were cool enough, but I could see that Starlight (and I’d never known him to touch a card before) was one of those men that would never rise from the table as long as he had a shilling left, and would stake everything he had in the world upon the turn of a card.
We all slept sound, but most of us were up at sunrise. It doesn’t do for chaps in our line to be caught napping, and the police might have got wind where we were at work. We had our horses to look to, and to give a look round in a general way to see if things were right.
Starlight and Mr. Knightley didn’t turn out, they took it easy, perhaps they’d been up later than us; anyhow, they didn’t show till breakfast, when they both made pretty fair time over the eatables.
My word! it was a breakfast, though we’d got a bit tired waiting for it. The old cook had hashed up the turkey; it was stunning, almost better than the day before. Then bacon and eggs, grilled steak, fresh bread and butter, coffee and tea, watercresses. Really, I thought we never should stop. It was lucky the police didn’t come, or we shouldn’t have done much in the fighting line, or the runaway either. As it turned out, Sir Ferdinand wasn’t so very far off the line, but he took another road. He never had any luck somehow in following us up, though he had some first-rate chances. Moran was off his feed, and wouldn’t come in. He took a nip and walked down to the creek. We were all glad enough to get shut of him.
After breakfast and a turn round the stables, blest if Starlight and Mr. Knightley didn’t have out the cards again, and at it they went as fresh and keen as ever. We didn’t know what in the world to do with ourselves till it was time to start to ride out to the Black Stump, where we were to meet the doctor and collar the £500. They didn’t waste a minute of their time, till about half-past twelve Starlight puts down his cards very gently, and says he—
‘I’m afraid we have no more time to spare. I’ve enjoyed the play more than I have done anything for years. I leave you £100 now in notes, and you must take my I O U for the balance. What bank shall I pay it into?’
‘The Australian,’ says Mr. Knightley. ‘At your convenience, of course.’
‘Within a month,’ says Starlight, bowing. ‘And now a glass of wine and a biscuit, it’s time to be off.’
We had something as good, nearer the mark than that, and Moran sat down too, and played a good knife and fork. He’d come to, after his booze, and was ready for any fresh villainy, as usual. He didn’t let on to be nasty, but he looked sulky enough, and I saw his eye fixed on Mr. Knightley and Starlight now and then as if he’d have given a good deal to have had them where they hadn’t so many at their backs.