Read CHAPTER XXVII of The Tale of Timber Town , free online book, by Alfred Grace, on ReadCentral.com.

The Signal-Tree.

“I jest walked in,” said Dolphin, “an’ I says, ’About thisyer gold-escort: when does it start?’ I says. The shrivelled party with the whiskers looks at me acrost the counter, an’ e’ says, ’What business is that of yours, my man?’ ‘None,’ I says, ‘’xcept me an’ my mate is nervous of swaggin’ our gold to town ourselves.’ ’Don’t you bother about that,’ ’e says. ’All you’ve got to do is to sell your gold to our agent on the field, and leave the rest to him.’ The escort will leave reg’lar, accordin’ to time-table; so we can stick it up, sure as Gawd made little apples.”

“And what about goin’ through the Bank?” asked Sweet William.

“Now I ask you,” said Dolphin, “what’s the use of messing with the Bank, when we can clean out the gold-escort, an’ no one the wiser?”

“Same here. My opinion,” said Gentleman Carnac.

“I’m slick agin letting the Bank orf,” growled Garstang. “Why not let the escort get its gold to the Bank, and then nab everything in the show. The original plan’s the best.”

“I gave you credit for more sense, Garstang.” The leader of the gang looked darkly at his subordinate. “I gave you credit for knowing more of your trade.”

“More credit, eh?” asked the man with the crooked mouth. “For why?”

The four rascals were in the cottage where they had met before, and the room reeked with the smoke of bad tobacco.

“Why?” replied Dolphin. “Because you’re the oldest hand of the lot, an’ you’ve been in the business all your life.”

“Jes’ so,” said Garstang, with an evil smile. “’Xcept when I’ve bin the guest of the Widow.”

“Which has been pretty frequent,” interjected Sweet William.

“To clean the Bank out is easy enough,” said Dolphin: “the trouble is to get away with the stuff. You ought to see that with half an eye. To stick up the escort requires a little skill, a little pluck; but as for gettin’ away with the gold afterwards, that’s child’s play.”

“Dead men don’t tell no tales,” remarked Sweet William.

“But their carcases do,” objected Garstang.

“You beat everything!” exclaimed the leader, growing almost angry. “Ain’t there such a thing as a shovel? No wonder you were copped pretty often by the traps, Garstang.”

“You two men wrangle like old women,” said Carnac. “Drop it. Tell us what’s the first thing to do.”

“To go an’ look at the country,” answered Dolphin.

“That’s it.... Go it.... Dolphin controls the whole push.... Jest do as ’e tells.” Garstang was evidently annoyed that the leadership of the murderous gang, which had once been his, had passed out of his hands.

Dolphin took no notice of the remarks. “We shall have plenty time to get to work, ’cause the Bank can’t bring the gold to town till it’s bought it, and it can’t begin to buy it till the agent reaches the field, an’ he only started to-day.”

“Every blessed thing’s ready,” chimed in Sweet William, who was evidently backing the new leader strongly. “Carny an’ me’s bin through the guns, an’ they’re all clean an’ took to bits ready for putting in the swags. When they’re packed, not a trap in the country but wouldn’t take us for the garden variety of diggers, 2 dwts. to the dish, or even less. Quite mild, not to say harmless, gruel-fed, strictly vegetarian a very useful an’ respectable body of men.”

Dolphin smiled at the young man’s witticism. “It doesn’t need for more than two to go,” he said. “There’s no use in making a public show of ourselves, like a bloomin’ pack-train. Two’s plenty.”

“I’ll stop at ’ome,” growled Garstang. “It’s your faik, Dolphin you planned it. Let’s see you carry it out.”

“I’ll go,” volunteered William. “Carny can stop behind an’ help keep Garstang’s temper sweet.” In his hilarity he smacked the sinister-faced man on the back.

“Keep your hands t’ yerself,” snarled Garstang, with an oath. “You’re grown too funny, these days a man’d think you ran the show.”

“Lord, what a mug!” Young William grimaced at Garstang’s sour face. “But it’ll sweeten up, olé man, when the gold’s divided.”

“We’re wasting time,” broke in Dolphin. “We must be getting along. Pack your swag, William: mine’s at The Bushman’s Tavern.”

“Matilda is ready,” exclaimed the youthful member of the gang, picking up his swag from the floor, and hitching it on to his shoulders. “Gimme that long-handled shovel, Carny it’ll look honest, though it weighs half a ton. Well, so-long.”

He shook the bad-tempered Garstang, slapped Carnac on the back, and followed Dolphin from the cottage.

While this ominous meeting was being held, Jake Ruggles might have been observed to be acting in a most extraordinary manner in the back-garden of Tresco’s shop. In the middle of a patch of ill-nourished cabbages which struggled for existence amid weeds and rubbish, he had planted a kitchen chair. On the back of this he had rested a long telescope, which usually adorned the big glass case which stood against the wall behind the shop-counter. This formidable instrument he had focussed upon the pinnacle of a wooded height, which stood conspicuous behind the line of foot-hills, and, as he peered at the distant mountain-top, he gave vent to a string of ejaculations, expressive of interest and astonishment.

Upon the top of the wooded mountain a large tree, which he could distinguish with the naked eye, stood conspicuous; a tree which spread its branches high above its fellows, and silhouetted its gigantic shape against the sky-line. Directing his telescope upon this remarkable giant of the forest, by aid of its powerful lenses he could see, projecting from the topmost branch, a flag, which upon further observation proved to be nothing less than the red ensign employed on merchant ships; and it was this emblem of the mercantile marine which so amazed and interested the youthful Ruggles.

“The olé beggar’s got his pennant out,” he exclaimed, as he smacked his lean shanks and again applied his eye to the telescope. “That means a spree for Benjamin. The crafty olé rascal’ll be comin’ in to-night. It means his tucker supply’s given out, an’ I must fly round for bacon, tea, sugar, bread, flour; an’ I think I’ll put in a tin or two of jam, by way of a treat.”

He took a long look at the signal, and then shut up the telescope.

“It’s quite plain,” he soliloquised: “the old un’s comin’ in. I must shut up shop, and forage. Then, after dark, I’ll take the tucker to the ford.”

But, as though a sudden inspiration had seized him, he readjusted his instrument and once more examined the conspicuous tree.

“Why, he’s there himself, sittin’ in a forked bough, an’ watchin’ me through his glass.” Placing the telescope gently on the ground, Jake turned himself into a human semaphore, and gesticulated frantically with his arms. “That ought to fetch ’im,” and he again placed his eye to the telescope. “Yes, he sees. He’s wavin’ his ’at. Good old Ben. It’s better than a play. Comic opera ain’t in it with this sort o’ game. He’s fair rampin’ with joy ’cause I seen ’im.” Shutting up his instrument, Jake gave a last exhibition of mad gesticulations, danced a mimic war-dance, and then, with the big telescope under his arm, he went into the house.

It was a long stretch of tangled forest from the big tree to Tresco’s cave, but the goldsmith was now an expert bushman, versed in the ways of the wilderness, active if not agile, enduring if still short of breath. His once ponderous form had lost weight, his once well-filled garments hung in creases on him, but a look of robust health shone in his eye and a wholesome tan adorned his cheek. He strode down the mountain as though he had been born on its arboreous slopes. Without pause, without so much as a false step, he traversed those wild gullies, wet where the dew still lay under the leafy screen of boughs, watered by streams which gurgled over mighty boulders a wilderness where banks of ferns grew in the dank shade and the thick tangle of undergrowth blocked the traveller’s way.

But well on into the afternoon Tresco had reached the neighbourhood of his cave, where his recluse life dragged out its weary days. His route lay for a brief mile along the track which led to the diggings. Reaching this cleared path, where locomotion was easier, the goldsmith quickened his pace, when suddenly, as he turned a corner, he came upon two men walking towards him from Timber Town.

In a moment he had taken cover in the thick underscrub which lined each side of the track, and quickly passing a little way in the direction from which he had come, he hid himself behind a dense thicket, and waited for the wayfarers to pass by.

They came along slowly, being heavy laden.

“I tell yer I seen the bloke on the track, Dolly, just about here,” said the younger man of the two. “One moment he was here, next ’e was gone. Didn’t you see ’m?”

“I must ha’ bin lookin’ t’other way, up the track,” said the other. “I was thinkin’ o’ somethin’. I was thinkin’ that this place, just here, was made a-purpose for our business. Now, look at this rock.”

He led his companion to the inner edge of the track, where a big rock abutted upon the acute angle which the path made in circumventing the forest-clad hill-side. Placing their “swags” on the path the two men clambered up behind the rock, and Tresco could hear their conversation as he lay behind the thick scrub opposite them.

“See?” said Dolphin, as he pointed up the track in the direction of Timber Town. “From here you can command the track for a half-a-mile.”

Sweet William looked, and said, “That’s so you can.”

“Now, look this way,” Dolphin pointed down the track in the direction of the diggings. “How far can you see, this way?”

“Near a mile,” replied William.

“Very good. We plant two men behind this rock, and two over there in the bush, on the opposite side, and we can bail up a dozen men. Eh?”

“It’s the place, the identical spot, Dolly; but I should put the other two men a little way up the track we don’t want to shoot each other.”

“Just so. It would be like this: we have ’em in view, a long while before they arrive; they’re coming up hill, tired, and goin’ slow; we’re behind perfect cover.”

“I don’t see how we can beat it, unless it is to put a tree across the road, just round the corner on the Timber Town side.”

“No, no. That’d give the show away. That’d identify the spot. There’re a hundred reasons against it. A tree across the track might stop the diggers as well, and the first party that come along would axe it through, and where would our log be then? It would never do. But let’s get down, and have a drink. Thank Gawd, there’s a bottle or two left in my swag.”

Tresco saw them clamber down from the rock, and drink beer by the wayside. Only too quickly did he recognise these men, who looked like diggers but behaved so strangely; but the sight of the liquor was almost more than he could bear, yet not daring to stir a finger lest he should be discovered he was forced to see them drink it.

Indeed, they made quite a meal; eating bread and cheese, which they washed down with their favourite beverage. When the bottles were empty, Dolphin flung them into the bushes opposite to him, and the missiles, shivering into hundreds of pieces, sprinkled the goldsmith with broken glass.

He stifled a wordy protest which rose to his lips, and lay still; and shortly afterwards he had the pleasure of seeing the undesirable strangers hump their “swags” and retrace their steps towards Timber Town.

When they had disappeared, Tresco came from his hiding-place. He looked up and down the track. “Just so,” he soliloquised, “half-a-mile this way, a mile that. Good cover.... Commanding position. What’s their little game? It seems to me that there are bigger rascals than Benjamin in Timber Town.” And with this salve applied to his conscience, the goldsmith pursued his way towards his dismal cavern.