In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

IT WAS February, and the Honourable Walter Ryder lingered at the homestead. He had broached to Macdougal an intention of buying the whole of the next season’s wool-clip at Boobyalla, and carrying it back to England with him. He thought it might be a profitable investment. He had talked of going, but was pressed to stay; and meanwhile the change in Mrs. Macdougal was so marked that Lucy had often commented on it to Ryder. A real romance had come into Marcia’s life—a terrible one, she thought it—and her poor little foolish dreams were swept away. They had been innocent enough, those fanciful imaginings of hers, and had given her some joy. This reality filled her with agonies of apprehension. She was never free of terror, and found herself studying her husband’s impassive face, wondering what was behind those dull eyes, fearing the worst always.

Ryder had been most attentive to Lucy Woodrow during the last two or three weeks. He accompanied her and the children on their daily ride, and he had taught Lucy to shoot with both fowling-piece and revolver. She was a good pupil, and enjoyed the sport. Her facility gave her a peculiar pleasure that was sweetened by his praise. He still greeted her with studied deference, and in his transient moments of melancholy he spoke feelingly of a life’s sorrow.

‘There was a wound I thought would never heal,’ he told her one day; ‘but the pain is gone—the memory will go. What cannot a good woman do with the life of a man? But how few of us learn the potency of these sweet and tender hands until perhaps it is too late!’ He bent over her hand, and, turning away, left her abruptly.

Marcia noticed his marked attentions to Lucy, and complained tremblingly and with tears.

‘Nonsense!’ he said; ‘there is nothing in it. It is to divert suspicion. I want the people about to think it is Miss Woodrow I love. They must never know it is you, my queen!’ He kissed her cheek. ‘And you need have no fear, Marcia. She is devoted to that man Done.’

But at length Ryder announced his intention of leaving. He could put off his departure no longer than a week, he told Marcia, and a few minutes later conveyed the news to Lucy. He was sitting in one of the windows when she came on to the veranda.

‘Have they told you I am leaving?’ he asked abruptly.

‘Leaving!’ She was about to take a book from the small table, but did not do so. She turned from him, and stood with face averted, plucking at the vine tendrils. ‘At once?’ she asked.

‘Almost. I fear I have outstayed my welcome.’

‘That is hardly fair.’

‘True, you have been very, very kind. I can never forget your goodness.’

‘You owe me no gratitude. After all, I am only governess here.’

‘I owe you more than anyone else—I owe you the happiness Boobyalla could never have given me without you.’

‘You have not told me when you leave.’

‘In a week.’

‘A week! Oh, that is quite a long time!’ Her voice had become stronger, and she passed down the steps and along the garden walk to the children without having turned her face to him. It seemed that she could not trust herself.

He watched her closely, pressing his lower lip between finger and thumb, and a mirthless smile curled the corners of his mouth.

To Marcia’s great surprise, her husband insisted on her arranging another party in honour of their guest, and to give their neighbours an opportunity of bidding him good-bye. To be sure, nothing like the Christmas gathering could be attempted, but the Cargills and two or three other families living within twenty miles were to be invited, and Yarra and Bob Hooke were despatched with the invitations. Hooke had been a shepherd at the five-mile hut till within three days, when a new hand Mack had employed was sent to take his place, and now Bob was acting rouse-about. Ryder had heard of this new hand as a man of atrocious ugliness—in fact, the man had been sent away, Marcia said, because the children were frightened half out of their wits at the sight of him.

Lucy received a letter from Jim Done on the afternoon of the day on which Ryder announced his impending departure. The letter was not a long one, and it lacked the cheerfulness that had characterized Jim’s previous letters to Lucy. It told of Burton’s death, of his own injuries and his long sickness, and of Ryder’s gallant conduct. He was now almost recovered, he said, and by the time she received his letter would be back at Jim Crow with the Peetrees, who had returned and pegged out claims on Blanket Flat, having failed to do anything for themselves at Simpson’s Ranges. Jim admitted that his mate’s death had been a heavy blow. ‘I had not realized how strong our friendship was,’ he wrote. ‘He was the best man I have known, and I do not think it probable I shall ever make such another friend.’ Done concluded with a fervent wish that he might see her soon. There was the melancholy and the weakness of an invalid in the letter, and it disturbed Lucy greatly. She recalled, with a poignant sense of remorse, how little he had been in her mind during the past two months while he lay struggling for life. She felt that she had done him a wrong, and, scarcely understanding herself, gave way to a flood of tears over the wavering lines, every word of which bore evidence of the enfeebled hand of the convalescent.

Later she told Ryder of the letter, and of Done’s return to Jim Crow.

‘And you did not tell me of his injuries,’ she said reproachfully.

‘I could not find it in my heart to spoil your Christmas,’ he said. ‘He was getting on famously when I left Ballarat, and he has a magnificent constitution. I knew he was safe, but felt that you would be certain to worry. You see, it is best.’

‘I cannot think so. You were silent because you feared to speak of your own splendid bravery.’

‘Believe me, no. It was nothing to pick up a wounded man and carry him to safety. I was silent to spare you.’

‘I am grateful for your kind intentions, and more than grateful for what you have done for him. To Mr. Done I owe my life, and I feel that a service done to him is something for which I, too, am much beholden.’

‘And for a life that is precious to you I would—’ He ceased suddenly, but was careful that she should understand him well.

‘A life that was precious to her!’ The phrase seemed to have an extraordinary significance. Were the words a test? Her heart beat quickly; for a moment she looked into his eyes. It was as if his whole soul burned in them. Her face paled, a faint cry broke on her lips, and she moved back with faltering feet. He dropped his extended hands with a hopeless gesture, and turned from her. A footstep was heard in the passage.

The party was fixed for the third evening prior to the date of Ryder’s departure, and it was a great success. All the resources of a well-appointed station were brought into play for the gratification of the guests. The night was warm; the company were gathered in the big drawing the French window of which opened on to the wide veranda. Lucy was at the piano, providing an accompaniment, and the Sydneyside girl was singing an ardent love song. Yarra paused before Ryder with a tray, on which was a cool drink. In the act of lifting the glass the latter noticed that a uniformed trooper had suddenly appeared in the doorway. A turn of the eye satisfied him that there was another at the French window. He gave no sign of emotion, but leaned forward and spoke in a low voice to Yarra.

‘You remember, Yarra, what I have told you. Trooper fellow come now, maybe.’ He added a few words in the aboriginal tongue. ‘Go quick!’ he said.

There was a wait of some minutes, during which Ryder sat sipping at his drink, apparently entirely unconscious of anything but the singing. But presently he knew that he was the third point of a triangle, from the other points of which two regulation revolvers covered him. He satisfied himself with a movement of his elbow that his own revolver was in its place under his vest.

‘Wat Ryder, alias Solo, I arrest you in the name of the Queen!’ The trooper from the door had advanced into the room. ‘You are my prisoner. Stir a finger, and I’ll shoot you where you sit.’

Ryder had shown no disposition to stir; he was still sipping at the glass, the coolest man in the room. The other guests looked unspeakably stupid in their open-mouthed amazement. Ryder saw that another trooper had taken the sergeant’s place at the door, and that the man at the French window was now on the inside.

The first trooper had advanced to within a few feet of Ryder before it seemed to occur to the latter that he was the person addressed.

‘Do you mean me, my man?’ he said.

‘I do; and I may tell you hanky-panky won’t be healthy for you. We’ve got you cornered.’

Ryder arose quite unruffled, and set down his glass. Looking round upon the guests, he smiled and said:

‘This is another of the possibilities of social life in Victoria. Will you tell me who I am supposed to be, and what I am supposed to do?’

‘You are supposed to take these on for one thing,’ said the trooper, swinging a pair of handcuffs in his left hand.

‘Oh, certainly, if it’s in the game.’ Ryder offered his wrists.

‘Behind you, please.’

‘To be sure.’ With his clenched fists behind him, Ryder submitted to the handcuffs, and then, as he stood manacled, his eye fell upon Donald Macdougal. The squatter was almost at his elbow, leaning against a small table, rolling his tongue under his teeth. The eyes of the two men met, and under the bushy brows of Monkey Mack there was a reddish gleam in which the Honourable Walter Ryder read a baboon-like malignancy, and in a moment the latter realized that in all his plans and precautions he had never made due allowance for the cunning and depth of this extraordinary man; but his face expressed nothing.

‘Ah—h!’ The sergeant gave a sigh of relief as he dropped his pistol hand. ‘That’s better.’

‘Now,’ said Ryder coldly, ‘will you tell me if this is a new parlour game, or are these actual troopers who are a little more idiotic than the average?’

Ryder addressed Cargill. He was standing with his back to the piano; the gaping guests formed a semicircle in front of him. Marcia, sitting on a couch, motionless, with cheeks of deadly whiteness, uttered no sound, and her eyes looked like patches of darkness in her icy face. Lucy, standing at the piano, never took her eyes from Ryder. She could see what the others could not see—the long, thin hands of the prisoner slowly but easily working themselves out of the grip of the handcuffs.

‘Call it a parlour game if you like, Mr. Solo, but I’m the winner, and I’ll trouble you to come with me.’

‘Wait a moment. Macdougal, this farce has gone far enough. As your guest, I demand an explanation.’

Macdougal looked at Ryder in silence for a moment, and then said quietly: ‘They’re callin’ the new man yonder at the five-mile Brummy the Nut; maybe ye mind him.’

‘I do not. I—’

He was interrupted by the report of a revolver out in the darkness. The trooper at the French window remained upright for a moment, then fell to his knees, and then forward upon the carpet. For two or three seconds all eyes but Lucy’s and Ryder’s were fixed upon the window, and there was apprehension in every face. Lucy’s eyes were upon Ryder’s hands; she saw the handcuff fall from one, saw him swing with a sudden, swift movement of the right arm, and the heavy manacle struck the trooper at his side on the temple, and the man fell without a groan. Then Ryder made a dash for the French window, and was gone before a hand could be raised to stay him. Lucy, who had had some understanding of his plan before he acted upon it, followed him swiftly, closing the windows after him; and she stood there, confronting the people, pale, but with determination in her face and the flash of courage in her eyes. The trooper from the other side dashed across the room, faltered for a moment, perceiving that time would be lost in a struggle with the girl, and then turned and rushed back through the door. The suddenness of all this had robbed the majority of the guests of their wits; they stood as if petrified. The wounded trooper rose slowly from the floor—it occurred to no one to offer to help him—staggered a few steps into the room, and fell again, and lay amongst the guests, his blood dyeing the carpet at their feet. Mean while Marcia had not moved; but now her white face had the expression of one listening with the intensity of an unspeakable fear for the message of death, and the sergeant in command was groping for the door, still dazed from the blow he had received, and almost blinded by the blood flowing from his wound.

Outside two troopers had jumped into their saddles, and were off in hot pursuit of the fugitive, who had galloped out of the thick cover of the orchard on Galah, Ryder’s beautiful gray, and was riding at a breakneck pace for the heavily-timbered country to the east. It was a stern chase, and once Trooper Casey came so near to overhauling the gray horse that he ventured a revolver shot; but after that the hunted man drew away, and the troopers lost sight of him in the timber. The pursuit was maintained for about an hour, and then the pursuers came upon Galah trotting quietly back towards Boobyalla, riderless and without a saddle. Imagining that Solo had been swept from the horse by the limb of a tree, the troopers made a long search, and while they sought, Yarra—for it was he who had led the police away on this wild-goose chase—had doubled on his pursuers, and was making a bee-line for the station again on foot. He was found in his bed at home two hours later, cowering under the blankets, pretending an overpowering fear of the shooting and the blood.

Walter Ryder, when he passed through the window, sprang from the veranda, and dashed into the garden. A voice called to him to stand in the name of the law, and a revolver bullet clipped his shoulder, but he ran on until the thick growth of trees and shrubbery quite covered him, then, turning sharply to the left, he hid in the hollow of an old gum-tree, the creeper overgrowing which offered a perfect screen. From here he uttered the mopoke’s call, repeating it twice. He had made himself familiar with all the advantages the garden and orchard offered a hunted man ere he had been a week at Boobyalla. Ryder remained in this hiding-place for some time. He heard the thunder of Galah’s hoofs and the cries of the troopers. Yarra had timed his break from cover to a second. When the sound of the chase died out in the distance, Solo walked quietly to the corner of the orchard opposite to that from which the black boy had started, where a horse was standing. This was Wallaroo. The saddle had been hastily thrown on to the entire’s back, and the bridle was looped over a post. Ryder fastened the girths, buckled the bridle securely, and, mounting the horse, walked him to the slip panels, keeping well under cover of the trees. When about a quarter of a mile off, he stirred Wallaroo to a canter, but kept to the track thickly seared with new hoof-prints, so that it should be impossible for any but a clever tracker to follow him. After riding for about three miles, he bore to the right along the course of a small creek, and made his way into the ranges up a deepening gorge, the sides of which were clothed with heath and scrub, and ribbed thickly with the trunks of tall gums as straight as lances, shooting high into the air, and spreading their branches in the moonlight over two hundred feet above him. He turned from this gorge into a narrower ravine, which widened into a gully. Ryder continued for another half-mile to where three or four gigantic rocks thrown together formed a sort of natural stronghold with a rampart of white gums. Here he dismounted. Having rolled a boulder from a niche in the rocks, he drew out a rope, and with this tethered Wallaroo. Then, after removing the bit from his mouth and loosening the girths, he left the horse to graze.

The niche in the rocks was well stocked with food, and contained a rug, a bottle of brandy, several small parcels of ammunition, two revolvers, a few other articles, a miner’s ‘rig-out,’ and the false beards Ryder had been in the habit of using as disguises.

Having removed the suit he was wearing, Ryder bathed and dressed the wound in his shoulder as best he could. He put on the digger’s clothes, and, wrapping himself in the rug, lay under the sloping rock on a couch of dry bracken, and slept as if in a comfortable bed and at peace with the world.

The sun was throwing oblique rays into the heath on the side of the gully when Ryder awoke. He found his bridle-arm very stiff and painful, and dressed the wound again. He breakfasted on biscuits and smoked fish, and drank water flavoured with brandy. The greater part of that day he spent collecting fodder for Wallaroo, and leading the horse about to those spots where the grass was most luxuriant. He was waiting with absolute confidence and the greatest composure. The vicissitudes of his life had taught him patience.

At about a quarter past ten that night Ryder was sitting on the rug with his back to the rock, smoking reflectively, when a voice called almost at his elbow:

‘Hist! Yarra bin come, boss!’

‘Good boy!’ Ryder replaced his revolver on a convenient ledge, and as Yarra appeared before him, grinning in-the moonlight, he added a few words of thanks and of praise in the native tongue.

‘What happen by Boobyalla?’

‘Mine bin chase it that feller all day.’ Yarra pointed at Solo, and his white teeth glittered like tiny mirrors. ‘Track him longa trooper plenty far.’ He pointed beyond Boobyalla ‘My word, Yarra make it big one damn fool that trooper.’ The thought of the manner in which he had tricked the police tickled the black boy, and he emitted a yell of laughter that startled the Bush sleepers for a mile round, and filled the trees with movements and murmurs of complaint. Ryder, knowing the susceptibilities of the race, to gratify the boy laughed too.

‘Yarra plenty clever,’ he said.

‘My word! Yarra follow track all away topside Shepherd’s Scrub. Go this way, that way, make much plurry humbug. Say: “This feller gone lame, limp it bad. Some time he creep by scrub, lie down.” Trooper go search it scrub all day, nex’ day, nex’ day. They catch it that fellar by’n-by.’ Again he pointed at Ryder, and again his laugh echoed in the gorge. ‘Mine tink it trooper search him scrub plenty long time. Boss tink I go hunt by scrub to-morrow, mine come sit down longa here.’

All of which meant that Yarra had been employed by the troopers to follow the track of Ryder, and had led them as far astray as possible, and left them with the impression that the fugitive was wounded and lying in hiding in Shepherd’s Scrub, a dense ti-tree growth to the north-east of Boobyalla, extending for two or three miles.

Ryder rewarded his accomplice with a nobbler of brandy and a cigar, and the black sat smoking with a grand air, while the former explained that he would remain where he was until his arm was in a more serviceable state, trusting to Yarra to keep him apprised of what was going forward, and to warn him instantly danger threatened. During the last few hours the idea of inducing Lucy Woodrow to visit him there in the Bush had been stirring in Ryder’s mind, and he reckoned upon turning his wound to good advantage. For the troopers he had the greatest contempt, and his confidence in Yarra was absolute. The half-caste remained with him for about an hour, and then returned into the gorge, and keeping to the bed of the creek picked up his horse, a sober old cattle nag, where he had left him at the foot of the range.

Yarra returned to Wat Ryder early in the forenoon of the following day. The trooper the boy shot at the window was being nursed at Boobyalla, the others were away beating the scrub. The half-caste brought with him a wild duck he had trapped, and set about cooking this in its feathers. The two dined together shortly after mid-day, and the sun was streaming into the gully, the air was heavy with the odour of wild musk, and the Bush was as silent as if no life remained in the intense heat. Ryder had risen, and was looking at Wallaroo standing with his nose in the shade of a gum-butt, fighting the avaricious flies with his tail. At that instant a loud report rang along the gully, and Ryder staggered a few paces, and fell with his back to one of the boulders, stunned. A bullet ricocheting from the rock had struck him in the neck. Yarra threw himself forward, face downward, at a space between the boulders. He saw a wreath of smoke in the gully and a slight movement in the thick growth, and fired twice, but the distance was too great for a revolver. The enemy, whoever he was, was armed with a gun. The half-caste listened for a moment, and his black eyes searched the gully. Then he heard the beat of a horse’s hoofs. A look of enlightenment came to his face. There was one horseman only; he was riding at a pace which, in such country, threatened death at every stride.

The boy looked at Ryder, pointing back in the direction from which the shot had come.

‘That feller mine boss,’ he said, and fear tinged his blackness a slaty gray.

Ryder had slipped to a sitting position—one hand held a blood-stained handkerchief to his neck, the other clutched a revolver. He was white to the lips, but his eyes blazed with life and the passion of a wounded lion.

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