J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh.

The lost valley online

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all they had a carelessness of life and a free hand with their
easily-earned wealth that found them friends wherever they went.

Bradby pulled up suddenly and held up his hand in warning to his
companion. Some faint noise had caught his ear, and, excellent bushman
that he was, he would not rest content until he had located and defined
it. Silently as a shadow he slipped from his saddle and dropped
recumbent on the ground. With one ear to the earth beneath he listened.
He remained in this posture for perhaps a minute and a half, then he
rose abruptly and turned to Mr. Cumshaw.

"Horses," he said laconically.

"Must be them," Mr. Cumshaw replied with almost equal brevity.

Deftly, and without haste of any sort, each man knotted a red and white
spotted handkerchief across the lower half of his face, leaving only the
eyes and forehead visible. Then each tilted his hat so that the shadow
thrown by the brim shrouded the uncovered portion of the face. Mr.
Cumshaw, with the amazing simplicity of a conjurer, produced a pair of
ugly-looking revolvers from apparent nothingness, while his companion
slipped his holsters round so that his weapons were within easy and
immediate reach. He did not, however, remount his horse, but threw the
reins to Mr. Cumshaw, who draped them over his arm in such a way that
they did not hamper his movements in the least.

* * * * *

The little group of horsemen, four, or perhaps five in all, clattered
down the track as unsuspiciously as a man could wish. They were chatting
quite easily, even joyously, of the thousand and one little matters that
supplied their daily lives with interest, and nothing must have been
further from their thoughts than what actually occurred. The bank that
had sent them had departed from all precedent in parcelling out the gold
amongst the messengers. It was certainly against the rather strict
regulations of the bank, but the man who had instructed them had that
contempt for rules and regulations which is the mark of a man destined
to rise in the world.

"The expense of sending you," he had said, "is certainly no greater than
that of the recognised method of forwarding by coach. The security of my
method is even greater as you are not at all open to suspicion."

As a matter of fact, all would have gone well had not one of the chosen
messengers been a little too fond of his nightly drink, and more or less
inclined to talk when in his cups. True, on this particular evening he
had exercised a kind of maudlin caution, but the tactics of Mr. Jack
Bradby were of the sort to extract valuable information in the least
noticeable way possible, and as a consequence the man, while keeping a
strict guard of his tongue, at the same time let fall enough information
to satisfy the curiosity of the 'ranger.

The first intimation the little cavalcade had of the presence of the
knights of the road was when a shadow moved out from behind a huge gum
and a clear resounding voice invited them to halt or take the
consequences. With one accord the riders pulled up, one man swore
violently, and the hand of another dropped round to his belt in a
hesitant manner. But Mr. Jack Bradby had eyes like an eagle, for he
cried sharply, "Put your hands up instantly!"

All the men shot their hands skywards with a precision that could not
have been bettered by weeks of training.

"You look ever so much better like that," said Mr. Jack Bradby
pleasantly. "Just keep still. I'd hate to make corpses of any of
you - you all look so much better alive."

The humor of this was apparently lost on the captured ones, for they
received it in silence, much to Mr. Bradby's disgust.

"Laugh when I crack a joke!" he roared. "Laugh, all of you, damn you!"

Somebody giggled in a half-hearted manner.

"That's no sort of a laugh," snorted Mr. Bradby. "When I say laugh, I
mean laugh. I don't want you to bubble like that jackass did." He
indicated the giggler with one of his ugly-looking revolvers. "Now laugh
altogether as if you meant it. One, two, three; off you go!"

They all roared at that, but there was a lack of enthusiasm in their
voices. Mr. Bradby, however, passed that over and proceeded to the
business of the evening.

"Now please keep your hands in the same position," Mr. Bradby continued.
"You've got quite a lot of valuables in those saddle-bags of yours, and
I'm going to annex them. And don't any of you move a hand or foot or
you'll be shot before you can say 'Jack Robinson.' There's men in plenty
in among those trees, so don't play any hanky-panky tricks if you value
your lives."

The scared horsemen with one accord glanced toward the trees that
fringed the road. Mr. Bradby had stage-managed the affair with such
consummate skill that they could only see the dim forms of several
horses. The shadows were cast so that it was impossible to say how many
there were; as far as the captives were concerned a regiment of cavalry
might have been massed behind the trees for all they could say to the
contrary. They had a feeling that unseen eyes watched them and invisible
firearms covered their every movement. A solitary ray of moonlight,
glinting for an instant on one of Cumshaw's revolvers lent color to this
suggestion, so like wise men they surrendered to the inevitable and
allowed the explosive Mr. Bradby to relieve them first of all of their
weapons, and, when he had "drawn their teeth," as he succinctly
expressed it, to rifle their saddle-bags for the little packages of gold
that it was their mission to guard with their lives. Life at all times
is dearer than gold, and the men realised that they were in a trap from
which there was only one way of escape. They submitted meekly to their
fate, saw the saddle-bags rifled without a word of protest, and,
deceived by the shadows, watched what they took to be half a dozen men
at least loading up with the gold. It speaks well for the dominant
personality of Mr. Bradby that no one seemed to have suspected that only
two men were concerned in the hold-up, despite the fact that they really
only saw one man and the shadowy outline of another.

"Turn round, all of you!" Mr. Bradby commanded when the transfer had
been completed. "Turn round and keep your hands in the air!"

Obediently, albeit clumsily, since they could not use their hands, the
horsemen wheeled their mounts around, and Mr. Bradby surveyed the scene
with satisfaction.

"You all look nice from the rear," he remarked. "Some of you've got real
fine backs. Just you keep like that now and see what the fairies'll send
you."

So silently that he might have been a disembodied spirit he turned on
his heel, seized the reins Mr. Cumshaw threw him and vaulted into the
saddle. As softly as two shadows the horses melted into the night, their
muffled hoofs making no sound on the hard earth.

Ten minutes later one of the horsemen, grown tired of the unearthly
inaction and suspecting something of what had happened, slewed his head
round very cautiously. In a flash he realised the position and imparted
his discovery to his companions.

"We can't follow them," the leader said. "We're unarmed. Furthermore
we've got no idea which way they went. The only thing we can do is to
get back to the nearest police station and report."

The man who had first discovered the absence of the bushrangers had been
employing his time in examining the ground for traces of the gang, and
very shortly he came across the tracks that the precious pair had made
earlier in the evening. An exclamation from him drew the others to the
spot. By the flickering light of a match they inspected the hoof-marks,
and then the leader of the party gave vent to a snort of disgust.

"There's only two of them," he said. "What fools we've been!"

"They completely took us in," remarked another member of the party.

"That's so," agreed a third, "but we can't make people understand. If we
tell them how two men stuck us up, we're going to look a lot of goats. I
For one think we'd better keep the number to ourselves, or, better
still, we might say that there was a big party of them."

One or two demurred at this, but the bulk of the party knew well the
ridicule that the truth would attach to them, and the result was that
between them a story carrying the marks of probability was invented,
and, thus armed against the laughter of the State, the party set out for
the nearest town.

In the meanwhile Bradby and Cumshaw had doubled back on their tracks and
were heading for the Grampians. Though neither of them had explored the
mountains before, they were quite satisfied from what they knew of the
general formation of the country that there were gullies, even valleys,
where an army might lie hidden. So confident were the two adventurers
that there was no danger of pursuit that they did not press forward at
anything like a reasonable speed. They took things easy. Somewhere about
two o'clock in the morning they halted and removed the blanket-pads from
their horses' hoofs. Mr. Cumshaw was just going to throw them into the
bushes when Mr. Bradby stopped him.

"Don't do that," he said, "we'd better destroy them outright."

"How?" queried Abel.

"Burn 'em, I should say," Mr. Bradby answered. "You make a good job of
it, and you don't leave anything behind. If you throw them away
someone's sure to find them just when it's most awkward for you. No,
Abel, burn them and hurry up about it."

So it came about that presently a tiny spot of light glowed like a red
warning beacon from the lower slopes of the range. A lonely prospector,
a few miles to the east, saw the spark and wondered at it. He knew that
no one lived in that part of the country. The more he thought of it the
more it puzzled him, though with the morning there came an unexpected
solution.




CHAPTER II.

THE PURSUIT.


A body of mounted troopers left Ararat an hour or so before daylight the
next morning, and by seven o'clock had reached the scene of the robbery.
They had with them a capable black tracker who had figured in recent
events in the Wombat Ranges. He was a silent individual who answered to
the name of "Jacky," a name that seems to be the heritage of all blacks
who serve in the police force. He quickly picked up the false scent, and
the party turned east. It wasn't until the horses stumbled over the heap
of stones that some brilliant intellect dropped to the trick that had
been played on them. Then, with the better part of an hour to the bad,
the party returned to the starting-point of the trail.

"Seems to me," the sergeant in charge remarked to his subordinate, "that
they've laid this trail with a good reason. Now if a man wanted to put
you on the wrong track, what would you think he'd naturally do?"

"Send us in the opposite direction," said the other promptly.

"Quite so," said the sergeant. "Now the false trail leads east, so it's
only reasonable to suppose that they've gone west."

"That's so," the other agreed. "Get-up, you brute." The latter remark
was addressed to the horse, which showed an inclination to drop into a
walk.

"Here you, Jacky!" the sergeant called, and when the black came to him
he said, "Those white men have gone this way," pointing westward. "Look
out for their tracks, though I don't fancy we'll see any for some time."

The black grunted non-committally. He had much the same idea himself,
though he could not understand how the white man had guessed. Still he
knew enough of the white men to realise that they were very, very
clever, and sometimes found out things that even the black trackers did
not understand. The black went back to his work in silence. Presently he
grunted again. His quick eyes had noticed a grey woollen thread stamped
into the earth. He lifted it gingerly up in his hand and held it out to
the police. The sergeant took it, examined it carefully, and then,
without any comment, handed it round to the others. There was no need to
ask what it meant. All knew without being told that someone had lately
passed that way, and who could that someone be unless one of the
rangers?

The black went back again to the trail, bending down close to the ground
for all the world like a little dog following the scent of the chase. He
turned sharply off into the bushes and the troop went after him. Here
and there - wherever the earth had chanced to be a little softer than
usual - one could see round depressions somewhat about the size of a
saucer, and one patch of damp soil gave a remarkably clear imprint of
the fibres of some material.

"Clever chaps, by George!" the sergeant remarked. "They've got brains
among them."

"How's that?" queried one of the police.

"They've tried the old duffers' dodge of blanketing the horses' hoofs.
Sort of thing that works, too, unless a man happens to have his eyes
well open. Luckily I've stumbled up against this sort of thing before."

The other man, who had his own ideas about the matter, nodded his head,
but otherwise made no comment.

About ten o'clock the troopers debouched from the trees into a low-lying
stretch of land. One could not call it a gully; it was more of a
depression, a fault in the earth due to some local subsidence. On the
nearest ridge a prospector's hut was perched, from the chimney of which
a wisp of smoke ascended. When one of the mounted men dropped from the
saddle and opened the door he found no one in charge, though a dinner
was merrily simmering away on the fire.

"Whoever he is he can't be far away," the sergeant commented. "He
wouldn't leave his dinner unless he was handy. Have a look for him,
boys. He might be able to tell us something."

The men scattered in different directions down the depression, and
presently a shout from one of them announced that the prospector had
been found. He came toiling slowly up the slope, side by side with his
discoverer. He was a small wiry man, with a heavy iron-grey beard, and
his age, as well as one could guess, was something near to sixty.

"You don't happen to have seen a body of men, horsemen, passing this way
late last night or early this morning?" the sergeant queried.

"Nobody passed this way last night," the man answered in a colorless
voice. "Why?"

"A gold escort was robbed yesterday evening," the sergeant said, "and
we've got information that the robbers came this way."

The man turned slowly and studied the lower slopes of the distant range.
He saw, or seemed to see, something that interested him, and he stared
so long that the sergeant said impatiently, "Well, what about it?"

"I was just wondering," said the little man in the same colorless voice.
"I was just wondering if that was them."

"If who was?" the sergeant demanded. "Out with it, man, and don't keep
us waiting all day."

"Last night," said the man distinctly, "there was a fire up on those
ranges. It wasn't a bush-fire. I know a bush-fire. It was just a tiny
little glow from here. I thought it was a fire showing through the open
door of a hut, until I remembered that nobody lived up there. It didn't
last long; it must have burnt out in ten minutes or so, so I knew that
it was started by some traveller. It wasn't a camp-fire and they weren't
cooking anything."

"How do you know that?" the sergeant said quickly.

"How do I know that?" the little man repeated slowly. "It's easy enough.
The fire was only alight ten minutes at the most, and you can't cook
anything or boil a billy in that time, I know."

"The old chap's right," one of the troopers said in an undertone to his
superior.

The sergeant nodded. He turned again to the old prospector. "You're sure
you didn't see anyone pass this way?" he queried.

"No, I'm not sure," said the man. "I'm only saying that I didn't hear
anyone."

"What do you mean by saying you're not sure that you didn't see anyone?"
the sergeant asked curiously.

"When there's shadows in the trees," said the old man, "there's times
when you can't tell whether they're men or not. That's what I mean. I'm
only saying that I didn't hear anyone. I'd have heard horses."

"The man's a hatter," the sergeant remarked as the troop galloped off
towards the ranges. "As mad as a March hare."

The other grinned cheerfully. "Still there's a lot in what he said," he
answered. "Now that about the fire - - "

"I wonder why they lighted it," the sergeant cut-in.

"Don't know," the other said. "What's the sense of worrying anyway?
We'll know soon enough. But don't you think we should have brought the
old chap along with us?"

The sergeant shook his head. "What'd be the good?" he said. "He couldn't
do any more than he's done already."

He swung round in his saddle and faced the troop. "Now, men," he said,
"we've got to put our best foot foremost. Those 'rangers are somewhere
ahead of us, making for the mountains. Keep your eyes skinned, for you
never know the minute we'll catch up to them. They can't have such a big
start of us, and they're heavily loaded at that."

The troopers unslung their carbines and examined the loading, then,
satisfied that every preparation had been made, they set spurs to their
horses and cantered up the track that led to the ranges.

It was Mr. Abel Cumshaw who first discovered the pursuers. Early in the
afternoon the two men commenced to ascend the mountains proper. Just
before they disappeared into the belt of timber that fringed the slopes
the younger man turned in his saddle and cast one last backward glance
at the valley they had left beneath them. Far away below them, in among
the misty shapes of the distant trees, he caught a glimpse of a
collection of dark little dots whose unfamiliar look puzzled him. He
called Mr. Bradby's attention to them, and that gentleman glanced at
them in an offhand way and pronounced them to be kangaroos.

"Come on," he added in a different tone. "Hurry up with you there!"

Mr. Cumshaw had no intention of moving until he was fully satisfied in
his own mind that the little black dots were really kangaroos. Something
seemed to whisper that they weren't.

"They're not kangaroos," he said with conviction. He had caught the
glint of sunlight on metal, a brass button of a man's uniform, or
perhaps the polished barrel of a carbine.

"Oh," said Mr. Bradby, "so you've tumbled."

"They're police," Mr. Cumshaw stated. "That's what they are."

"Didn't you know that, Abel? I guessed it as soon as I saw them. I'd
never confuse a trooper with a kangaroo. I only said that to - well, I
didn't want to scare you unnecessarily."

"You needn't be afraid of that," said Mr. Cumshaw airily. "I'm in the
game for good or ill, and I'm taking all risks equally with you. It's as
much my funeral as yours."

"It doesn't matter whose funeral it is," Jack Bradby said impatiently.
"We've got to get away and do it smart. You must remember that neither
of us knows anything at all about this country, and it's ten to one that
those infernal police have got a black tracker or some other imp of
Satan who'll be able to follow us, even if we left as little trace as so
many flies."

"Where are we heading for anyway?" Abel Cumshaw enquired as he spurred
his horse alongside his companion's.

"That's more than I can say," Bradby retorted. "If we'd had any gumption
we'd have explored the place before we took on this last job. But we
hadn't the time, and that's all there is to say about it. It's my
impression that this section of the State is as full of hiding-places as
ever the Blue Mountains or the Wombats were. If we only keep up this
spurt of ours we'll make a gully or a valley where we can hide for
months without a soul being a whit the wiser."

"I hope so," said Cumshaw, in the manner of a man who has very grave
doubts.

"Hold your breath for your work," Mr. Bradby advised. "You might need it
all yet."

They had made good headway by this, and the path that they had picked
out took them every hour deeper into the unexplored heart of the
country. On every side of them stretched the unbroken fastnesses of the
primeval wilderness, sheer precipices dropping suddenly into infinite
space, jagged peaks towering dizzily into the misty vault of heaven,
quaintly situated valleys so masked by timber and brushwood that one
came across them only by accident. There is something in the naked face
of Nature, in the sheer magnificence of incredible heights and the
marvellous massiveness of big timber that somehow dwarfs man into
insignificance and makes him realise the puniness of his strength. There
was something in the scenes now opening up before the rangers that
subdued them and beat them into silence. There was beauty in the sight,
the soft eternal beauty of an unravished land, but over and above that
was the suggestion that the travellers were fighting not merely against
their kind but against the untrammelled forces of an all-powerful
wilderness.

The time was early December, and the golden wattle in full bloom. From
end to end the ranges were a blaze of color, near at hand deep gold,
fading away in the distance into that hazy blue-grey peculiar to
Australian mountains. Hour by hour the men rode on in silence, at times
galloping down the slopes, at others crawling slowly and painfully up
hills that stretched apparently to heaven, hills that yet dropped
suddenly into space when one had almost given up all hope of ever
reaching the summit.

They had lost all sight of the pursuers, though once Bradby caught a
glimpse of smoke far away to the east, smoke that he fancied came from
the mid-day fire of the troopers.

They halted at sunset in the shadow of a clump of red gums and made the
first meal since morning. As a result of a hurried consultation they
decided to press on until midnight. But the horses were wearied with the
rough and constant travelling, and it took the better part of two hours
for them to cover a little under three miles.

"They've got to have a rest and so have we," Bradby said finally. "The
pace is killing, and I'm quite satisfied that the police are taking it
fairly easy. We've got scared over nothing. They might not even be on
our track. At any rate I suggest we finish for the night and get what
sleep we can."

Abel Cumshaw raised no objection to this - as a matter of fact he was
almost falling from his mount out of sheer saddle-weariness - so a halt
was called, the horses were unsaddled, the men unrolled their blankets
and settled down to slumber just as the silver ghost of the moon flooded
the place with its cool white light.

It was broad daylight when they awoke, and the sun was already high up
in the heavens.

"Somewhere about nine or ten o'clock," Cumshaw guessed. "We've slept in,
Jack."

Bradby ruefully admitted that this was so, but excused it on the ground
that they would be better fitted for the day's work.

"I'm hanged if I like this game," Cumshaw growled as they made a meagre
breakfast on almost the last of their rations. "The food's running
short, and it's only a matter of time until they wear us down. You know
what it means for us, Jack, if they catch us with the gold. Now I've got
an idea, and if we carry it out I see a chance of escaping scot-free.
The gold's weighing us down, so what we've got to do is to get rid of
it."

"You're surely not going to throw it away after all we've gone through,"
said Bradby, aghast at the proposal.

"No, I'm not," Cumshaw told him. "What I suggest is that we hide it
somewhere handy, make a note of the spot, and then clear out of this
particular section for a time. We can easily keep afloat for a couple of
months, and when the hue and cry has died down, we can come back and dig
it up at our leisure. We'll gain nothing by sticking to it now and we'll
run a chance of losing everything."

"Not a bad idea," Bradby agreed. "But the trouble's to find a suitable
spot."

"We passed dozens of such places already, Jack. We're just as likely to
strike something as good or even better during the course of the day.
The whole country-side is honeycombed with hiding-places; it's like a
rabbit-warren."

"There's nothing like being an optimist," Bradby said. "Have it your
way, Abel. Now the sooner you find some nice secure little spot the
better for us, I'm thinking. For one thing the food's running short, as
you just remarked, and for another I don't intend keeping up this
dodging game for ever. We can't last; they'll wear us down."

"That's supposing they don't get tired and go home," said the cheerful
Mr. Cumshaw.

"Not much chance of that," Mr. Bradby retorted. "I only wish they
would."

During the morning Bradby's horse developed lameness, and, though the
two men slackened the pace in order to give it every chance, by mid-day


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Online LibraryJ. M. (James Morgan) WalshThe lost valley → online text (page 7 of 16)