"Hunted, and haunted, and hounded,
Outlawed from human kin,
Bound with the self-forged fetters
Of a long career of sin,
Hands that are red with slaughter,
Feet that are sunk in
A harvest of tares and thistles
For the pending scythe of Time."
In the early days of Australia one of the great terrors and dangers of a country life was the bushrangers.
"Bush" meant all land unknown and unreclaimed beyond the few towns and settlements. It might be "open bush," "thick bush," or "scrubby bush"—it was all bush, whether dark forest with high trees and tangled vines, or great plains of tall, waving grass. And the bushrangers were the brigands of the wilds—the Robin Hoods of the Australian forests, except that the bushrangers were, as a rule, brutal and bad, and we have come to think that Robin Hood was a good fellow.
Bushrangers were at first convicts who had escaped into the wilds. For as convicts were hired out to farmers and others as servants, it was much easier for them to escape than it is for a gang of prisoners working under the eye of a warder. Sometimes as many as thirty or forty would escape in a year. They fled to the woods, often living with the savages and doing dreadful deeds. They thought little of committing a murder for a meal, but many of their wicked deeds were done out of a kind of wild revenge for having been imprisoned. Now and again, however, the life in the bush would prove too hard even for these criminals, and after suffering fearful hardships they would return, begging to be forgiven and taken back.
But enough remained to become a terror to the peaceful inhabitants. And at one time, both in Tasmania and in New South Wales, the bushrangers became so bad that the settlers worked in the fields with pistols in their belts, and the women in the houses kept loaded guns always to hand.
One of the most famous Tasmanian bushrangers was Michael Howe. He was a convict who had been a sailor, and who had been condemned to seven years' hard labour for robbery. But not long after he arrived in Tasmania, Howe escaped and joined a band of bushrangers. He soon became their chief, and he ruled like a tyrant. He was very haughty, calling himself "The Governor of the Ranges." The governor of the colony he called the "Governor of the Town."
Howe and his gang soon became the terror of the neighbourhood, but although £100 was offered for his head, none dared try to earn it, for most feared him too much, while others admired him.
At last an old sailor named Worral, also a convict, determined to win the reward. Helped by two other men, he hunted his prey for many days, and at last tracked him to his hiding-place. He was a strange figure, this wild terror of the hills. Clothed in kangaroo skin, with a haversack and powder-flask across his shoulders, and a long, dark beard flowing over his breast, he faced his enemies. Howe fought well for his life, but the struggle was short, and he fell to the ground. Then hacking off his head. Worral carried it, a ghastly prize, to the governor, much as in days long, long ago men carried the heads of wolves to the king for a reward. Worral received his promised reward, and was sent home a free man, loaded now, not with fetters, but with the thanks both of colonists and governor.
Years went on, and convicts were no longer sent to Australia. For as more and more free settlers came, they began to object to the convicts being sent there. Into South Australia they had never been allowed to enter. And in 1868, just eighty years after Sydney had been first founded, the last convict-ship sailed for Australia. After that, evildoers were shut up in prisons at home.
But although convicts no longer came, bushrangers did not die out Others took to the wild life. Sometimes they were the descendants of these convicts or of ticket-of-leave men, as freed convicts were called, or others who had a grudge against mankind, and hated law and order, and above all hated work. They were wild, fearless men, splendid horsemen, deadly shots.
"The coach would be 'held-up' and all the passengers robbed."
In the great pastures of Australia horses and cattle are not shut into small, fenced fields as at home, but each animal has the initial of its owner branded on its hide. There were men who made a trade of stealing cattle. With a hot iron they changed the letters of the brand, and drove the beasts off to some town far enough away where buyers could be found who would not ask too many questions about where they had come from. These men were called "cattle-duffers" or "bushwhackers." They often carried on their trade for years, but when they became known, and the police were in search of them, they would take to the bush and become regular bushrangers.
Then when gold was found bushrangers became yet more rife. For the gold had to be carried to towns or to the coast to be shipped home. It went always guarded by troops or policemen, but gangs of bushrangers banded together and very often managed to carry off the treasure. Or sometimes the coach, which carried miners and others from the mines to the towns, would be "held up" and all the passengers robbed.
One of the most dreaded of bushrangers was a man called Daniel Morgan. He was a wild, bad man, and, unlike other bushrangers, he was always alone. He was utterly brutal, and his one desire seemed to be to kill. One day he walked into a farmhouse, alone as usual, with a pistol in either hand and demanded brandy. It was given to him. and then, either from drunkenness or mere cruelty, he began firing among the men with his pistols. Three of them were so badly wounded that one man asked leave to go for a doctor. Morgan said he might go, but when the farmer was on his horse he repented, and, firing at him from behind, shot him dead.
With such doings as these Morgan kept the countryside a-tremble. But at last he came to his end.
The dreaded bushranger appeared one evening at a farmhouse called Peachelba, owned by a Mr. MacPherson. He ordered tea, and after tea commanded Mrs. MacPherson to play upon the piano. With trembling fingers the poor lady did her best. But, as you may imagine, at such a time she could not give her mind to piano-playing, and all the thanks she got was to be yelled at and told that she played very badly.
All the household had been gathered into the room by Morgan's orders, so that he might have them under his eye and pistol Only one little child who was ill was allowed to stay in bed. But now the child began to cry, and Mrs. MacPherson begged to be allowed to send her servant to look after it.
Morgan gruffly gave permission, and the servant left the room. Presently the crying ceased, and Mrs. MacPherson, looking out of the window, saw some one running from the house.
It was the servant. As fast as her feet could carry her she ran to another farm near. Panting and breathless, she rushed into the house and told her news. "But I must go back," she added, "or he will miss me."
"All right," said the farmer, and the brave servant fled back again and returned to the sick child before any one, except Mrs. MacPherson, knew that she had been out of the house.
Quickly the farmer sent messages to the country round about, and by morning twenty-eight men had gathered to surround Peachelba, eager to catch Morgan.
It was a long, weary night to the folk at the farm, but at last day dawned. Breakfast over, Morgan picked up his pistols. "Now, MacPherson," he said, "we will go and get a horse."
MacPherson agreed, for he could do nothing else. But as they walked to the yard a man suddenly slipped from behind a tree. He levelled a gun, there was a loud report, and the dreaded Morgan fell to the ground. Then as if by magic men hurried from their hiding-places and surrounded him. A few hours later Morgan died, having hardly spoken except to grumble that he had not been challenged to a fight—had not had a "fair chance."
A very famous band of bushrangers was a gang called the Kellys. The whole family, both men and women, were a wild, horse-stealing, house-breaking lot. So much feared were they that the country they lived in came to be known as the Kelly district. But they, too, came to their end. Ned Kelly was hanged, others of the gang met their deaths in different ways, and the country settled down into peace once more. But so famous had they been that a theatre manager bought their horses, and made a good deal of money by bringing them into a Christmas pantomime in Melbourne.
Now, happily, the bushranger has gone from the land of Australia as pirates have vanished from the seas. And we may be glad. Their doings may make thrilling stories to read, but most of us would rather not meet them in real life. And it is strange to think that they lived so lately. Robin Hood seems a long way off in the story of our little island, but it is less than thirty years since the last Australian bushranger met his death, and there are men still living who can remember the days when Morgan and the Kellys and others like them held the countryside in thrall.
But Australia is a country which makes rapid strides. One hundred and eighty years ago there was no such place, so far as the white man was concerned. Now in the Island-Continent there are more than five million white people. And what is more wonderful is that a whole continent is under one flag, a thing which in the history of the world has never been before, not even in the days of Alexander, of Cæsar, or of Napoleon. And that flag is the red, white, and blue—the Union Jack. For although since 1901, when all the five colonies united in one, Australia has been a commonwealth, it is still a part of the British Empire.