[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
When first Johnson told his story, Cameron sat as a man stunned. Then, as he realized that the horror which filled even his sleep with anxious dreams had come, the old squatter became possessed by a feverish anxiety to place his child beyond the reach of fiends, who he now knew were more to be dreaded than the Russians themselves.
Heather, while experiencing that fear which under such conditions must strike the heart of every woman, crushed back her first impulse of terror for the sake of the trembling old man, who took her in his arms and fell into a passion of self-upbraiding.
Powerless to offer comfort, Johnson slipped out of the room, and, calling a black boy, ordered him to run in and stable four harness horses. Then, going into the buggy-shed, he began to oil a waggonette, generally used as a ration-cart, but now the only trap left in which to escape. While he was tightening up some bolts, Cameron came up to him.
Now that he had got over the first shock of surprise, the old squatter was once more the self-reliant pioneer. From the first his only fear had been for his daughter, and now the girl had succeeded in imbuing him with a hopefulness as to her future which she hardly felt in her own heart. Helping Johnson, and discussing with him future possibilities, Cameron decided that they had little to fear from the direction of Cloncurry. From the Hughenden side, however, always supposing a force was advancing from Normanton, both men agreed that danger was likely to come. Though off the direct line of march, the enemies’ scouts were nearly certain to reach Isis Downs on their foraging expeditions.
‘If we don’t hear from Hatten to-night, I will start at daybreak for Longreach with Heather,’ said Cameron, ‘and send her by train to Springsure; where she ought to be safe with the Westlys.’
‘I’d go whether I heard or not.’
‘You’re right; then I can be back all the sooner to strike a blow for Queensland with you all,’ exclaimed the old man.
‘Never mind us, sir,’ said Johnson; ‘ you look after Heather; we’ll fight all the better if we know you’re out of harm’s way.’
‘I never shirked work this fifty years, and I’m not going to do it now,’ replied Cameron stoutly.
After a hurried lunch Johnson started away to deliver Dick’s orders. As he had to call at the man’s place who had lent him the horse, he rode it and led another on which to get back. All the hot afternoon he cantered over the treeless, broken Downs, delivering his call to arms, and at last, about eleven at night, began to again draw near Isis Downs. Now that his work was over, weariness began to creep into the man’s iron sinews, and to lie like a leaden weight on his eyelids. Jogging along with his bridle-reins lying loose on his neck, the stock-horse made a bee-line for home, and at last, worn out with the fatigue and excitement of the past two days, the manager fell asleep in his saddle. Retaining his balance instinctively, Johnson slept on for a couple of miles, when his horse, like himself overcome with weariness, stumbled.
Losing his balance, Johnson fell forward. Then, roused by the shock, he pulled himself together, and, shaking his horse up, looked round. A glance told him that he was passing a bend of the stony creek, and that he was still six miles from home. Just as he hit his heels into his mount’s ribs again, he caught a strange, eerie sound rising from the other side of the creek. Filled with a certain curious desire to solve the mystery, he fastened up his horse, and, crouching down, crept to the edge of the bank. As he looked cautiously through the coolibahs, a flame shot up on the farther side, while the guttural murmurings became more distinct. A camp of strange beings was close to him. Half of them were still mounted, the others were cutting up the carcases of a couple of bullocks. In the firelight he could catch the gleam of arms, and as the blaze rose between him and the butchers, their broad, yellow faces and coarse masses of hair stood out with ghastly distinctness against the sombre background. They were Kalmucks, men such as he had seen flash past him two mornings ago at Cloncurry. How they had come, he took no time to think. Their presence was enough for him. Judging from those he could see, Johnson reckoned there were at least fifty in sight; how many more might be round the bend he wasted no time in trying to discover. Great God! others might be at Isis Downs even now. As this thought flashed through his mind, he crept back noiselessly to his horse, and, blindfolding him, led him carefully past the light. Once out of earshot, he jumped on his back, and, driving home the spurs, raced for his life in the direction of Isis Downs.
Taking Cameron into the smoking-den, Ted told of his fearful discovery. To the squatter the news was both unexpected and appalling. In the face of the enemies’ near presence, could he dare to travel South unprotected as he was? while, on the other hand, Hatten’s letter, brought from Hughenden by Billy, told of approaching peril. According to Hatten, the town was full of vague rumours of trains from Normanton crowded with troops, of telegraph-wires cut, of the horses mustered in Spero’s yards along the line being mounted by savage horsemen, and also whisperings of fire and slaughter, repeated, but not believed. As all telegraphic communication with Normanton was blocked, Hatten warned Cameron to be prepared for instant flight South, and expressed the opinion that bands of mounted devils might appear on the Downs at any moment. He was busy rallying what forces he could muster, and in throwing up a defence of fallen timber; but, as he had no artillery and few arms, he had no hope of holding the town, and intended, after feeling the enemy, to fall back on Fort Mallarraway.
In face of Hatten’s message, Cameron had decided to start at daybreak; but now that Ted had come on Kalmucks within six miles of the station, this determination appeared more than foolhardy. At last it was decided to make for Fort Mallarraway; then if, as they hoped, Hughenden was still safe, Heather could be sent by train to Rockhampton. If not, her chances among its defenders would be greater than if pursued by the savages, with no bigger escort to protect her than Isis Downs could provide.
Now that the danger was at their very doors, the two discussed every possibility with the calmness of brave men conscious of their peril and determined to throw away no chance in their efforts to escape from it.
At Heather’s earnest request it was decided that she should ride Io. Knowing how Dick valued the mare, the girl insisted that she should not be left behind, and, as she explained, she would be safer on horseback than in the waggonette. As it was, the trap would be well loaded, for, besides old Margaret and the two other girls, their belongings and an extra supply of firearms and ammunition must be carried in it.
Outside, the moonless sky was now covered with heavy, riftless clouds, and the night had settled down as black as pitch. Still, something had to be done at once, for the Kalmucks would certainly strike the main station track after sunrise.
Besides Cameron and Johnson, there were only Ewan, Billy, and a priceless black boy, named Micky Nerang, at the house. The plan of escape was soon arranged. First, Io was saddled, and then, after one silent embrace from her father, Heather rode away under Micky’s guidance, parallel with the road, but not upon it. Muffling its wheels, the men then dragged the waggon across the creek, and left it about half a mile off the road. They could do little more till dawn. Heather, led by Micky, could creep on at a foot-pace in comparative safety, but those who remained had perforce six hours of black darkness to get through. An hour before the dawn, the men led the four horses over to the waggonette, and hooked them to.
‘You’d better come up on the box-seat with me, Maggie,’ said Johnson.
‘Bedad, is it the Chows yer boltin’ from?’ demanded Maggie, with strong disgust; ‘by the powers! oi’d foight tin of them yaller divils meself.’
‘That’s all right; now please hold your tongue,’ muttered Johnson. ‘When the fighting’s about to begin, I’ll let you know.’
Cameron had insisted upon Ted driving, both because he was a singularly cool and masterly whip, and, further, for the reason that he felt it his duty to guard the rear.
‘I mean to see the last of the old place,’ he said in answer to Ted’s protest, ‘so say no more about it. When there is a streak of light, jog on; then, when you can see, let the horses go for twenty minutes. That will give you a good start. After that nurse them; don’t go above seven miles an hour. We will be within two miles of you, and one of us will race up as soon as it is time to make a rush. Remember that you have twenty miles to go; still, a stern chase is a long one, and if these devils can knock fifteen miles an hour out of their horses, this team if put to it can do twelve. If we are run close, let Heather ride for it while we block the road and make the most of our cartridges.’
There was another reason why Cameron had decided to stay. In the cellar of the house was stored a stock of firearms and ammunition intended for the use of the Isis Downs troop. These warlike supplies had been purchased by Cameron privately, and it had been his intention to have given them out to the troop as a surprise at their next parade. This was now impossible, but the old squatter had decided to provide a surprise for all that. He had determined to tempt the enemy to make an assault upon the house in force, and then to blow them into the air. Rude dummy figures, constructed during the long night hours, stood on the veranda and at the windows, while loaded guns, securely strapped to the posts, pointed down the road, with wires stretching from their triggers to the clump of azaleas where the horses stood.
When all their preparations were completed, Cameron, Ewan, and Billy, now brought to the broad level of brotherhood by this common danger, drank a last solemn ‘cup of kindness’ in memory of the old house.
Then they sat in the growing light and watched. At last Cameron lifted his finger, and pointed to the swell of the Downs to the south. A black cloud was drifting over the surface as if blown by a hurricane. Presently the dark mass began to resolve itself into distinct atoms.
‘Hadn’t we better make tracks, boss?’ muttered Billy.
‘Take it easy,’ replied Cameron coolly; ‘we must let them sight the bait, lad.’
As he spoke, the old man rose, and with his companion walked up and down the long veranda. When the horde was within about a quarter of a mile they caught sight of the moving figures, and came to a halt, yelling like all the fiends in hell. Then one half began to sweep round in a half-circle, while the other dismounted and dashed straight for the veranda.
‘Now for it,’ said Cameron, as the three men crawled among the azaleas.
Mounting their horses, Billy and Ewan sat, holding in their right hands the wires connected with the rifle triggers.
Now Cameron was also in the saddle.
As a score of wild figures jumped into the veranda, he gave the signal, and three rifle-shots rang out above the hoarse shouts of the Kalmucks. Then, as the assailants poured in, the squatter pulled the wire he held in his own hand. In an instant the roof of the old house parted in a blaze of fire, and from the blackened sky timber, wreckage, and fragments of human bodies fell earthward in gruesome confusion. Driving spurs into their plunging horses, the three men galloped away unnoticed.
‘Ewan,’ said Cameron, as soon as they had got under cover of the creek, ‘go ahead, boy, and keep Ted moving; this blow-up won’t stop these fiends long.’
Johnson had driven so well that he had picked up Heather and done nine miles of the road before Ewan pulled him up. Heather was now riding in the waggonette, while Micky Nerang was cantering beside it, leading Io.
In a few words Ewan told what had happened, but on the subject of advice as to pace he held his tongue. The young Scot did not see how they could be doing better. The team was fresh, and had to be held, for Ted was saving them for a rush, if wanted. Pulling his horse into a walk, Ewan kept steadily on, watch in hand. It was a close calculation of miles and minutes. Seventeen minutes after the waggon left him, Cameron arrived at full gallop. ‘Ted’s about two miles ahead!’ said his nephew.
‘And these hell-hounds are not above two behind!’ exclaimed Cameron. ‘Gallop on, and push Johnson; he’s sure to lose time at that infernal pinch this side of the Fort.’
Riding desperately, the young Scotchman caught the waggon up again just five miles from their destination. But again his cool, practical brain warned him not to interfere. ‘If Johnson makes the rush now,’ he reasoned, ‘will the horses be fit to face the pinch, and to do the last two miles? He is doing well, and will be at the top of the hill in less than twenty minutes, and the Kalmucks must be at least three miles behind us. I’ll let him gang his ain gait.’
In less than ten minutes Cameron was once more beside him.
‘They’re within a mile of us!’ shouted the squatter, his eyes blazing with apprehension. ‘Tell Johnson to race for dear life!’
Thoroughly alarmed, Ewan again galloped on, scarcely daring to breathe until he reached the foot of the rocky rise.
Heather was again mounted, and was climbing up the steep ascent after Micky, while the team was beginning to crawl up behind.
‘Thank God; he’s done the right thing,’ muttered Ewan, driving his horse up the hill.
As the waggonette neared the top, distant sounds of pursuit fell on his ears, and turning his horse on the summit, he caught sight of Cameron and Billy racing not five hundred yards ahead of a cloud of dust, out of which rose the gleam of steel and the shadowy forms of the yelling Kalmucks. Gazing from his vantage-ground, the reckless horsemanship of the savages appalled Ewan. With spurs like knives, and quirts of hide dripping with blood hanging from their wrists, they forced on the unhappy animals they rode until they stumbled and fell, dying under them. Then, with practised quickness, they changed their saddles, and mounted the spare horses which, after the manner of their race, many of them led. On the pinch they left a trail of crippled and dying horses, and many of the riders fell behind; but some twenty or thirty still held on, galloping up the steep face of the rock.
As soon as Cameron and Billy came up, the three men raced on for their lives. A mile ahead they met two scouts from the Fort. They had just seen a lady and a black boy, followed by a trap driven hard. The thunder of hoofs now showed that the Kalmucks were upon them, and round the edge of a patch of scrub they came at a whirling gallop. With one common impulse the five men poured their rifles into them, and spurred off, sending their revolver bullets into their faces as they raced for the Fort. As they dashed up to the stockade, Johnson and Heather passed through the gates, and a volley from the picket drove the men sent by Leroy to capture Heather reeling back out of fire, uttering fierce yells of disappointment and rage.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 258-268