A beautiful autumn
morning greeted four passengers as they waited near their Cobb & Co coach.
It was a new model, pulled by a team of four powerful horses.
‘Good morning folks,’ the driver summoned the waiting group toward him. ‘Bring your baggage forward for Jess to stow on the roof rack. I have five names on the passenger list but only four of you are here. Has anyone seen our other passenger?’
‘Here she comes around the corner of the station house.’ All heads turned to look at a slender, young woman dressed entirely in black. Smiling she acknowledged the driver with a nod. Then she approached Jess and offered him her small, shabby valise.
‘You are Mrs Fiona McCall?’ She nodded. ‘You two ladies will board first then the gentlemen will follow. We must be away now, so we can reach Stanum well before sundown.’ With a flourish he signed his travel book and noted the date: 5th May, 1874. Taking the reins he commanded the horses to move forward. The coach was on its way.
The passengers settled comfortably as two of the men opened books and began to read. Fiona admired the scenery as the coach lurched along through a mixed forest of shrubs, grey and spotted gums and the occasional towering tallowwood tree. The other woman passenger smiled at Fiona as she spoke quietly. ‘I am Mrs Mabel Prentice, on my way to visit my sister and her husband. She has taken a bad turn and could use some help with the housework and the bookkeeping she does for their apple orchard. Where will you be leaving the coach?’
‘I am Fiona McCall, staying in Stanum with my Aunt Elizabeth. She has a shop there and could use my help.’
‘You are dressed in widow’s mourning clothes, Mrs McCall. Have you lost a family member?’
‘My husband, Iain, and I were married two years ago. He died from a riding accident only a few months into our marriage. I still cannot forget it.’
‘I’m so sorry to hear this. Please accept my condolences. I buried my husband several years ago, and much time is needed to recover from the loss of a loved one.’
‘Your words encourage me, Mrs Prentice. Stanum will be a good place to begin again. A new school has been built in the little town and I may find a way to help the teachers or work with the children. Since the tin mine was opened, my aunt’s shop is becoming very busy, and she needs a helper. I hope your stay with your sister will be a happy one.’
After lunch the coach grew quiet as the party moved on. The countryside formerly filled with trees and native shrubs began to change. Fewer trees were sighted as huge rocks and boulders now filled the land. On a distant horizon, a massive pile of giant stones and tors appeared. One of the men aboard pointed to this monolith and enlightened the travelers as to its name.
‘This amazing rock formation is Donnelly’s Castle, named after old Ned Donnelly, the first early settler of the area. It makes a perfect hideout for the infamous “Captain Thunderbolt,” the bushranger leader of an outlaw gang. Thunderbolt knows every inch of this country and has never been apprehended by the law. Let’s hope we don’t meet him today.’
Both women lapsed into silence and their journey continued peacefully until a small group of mounted men appeared from nowhere to encircle the coach. ‘This is a hold-up,’ was loudly shouted and the coach slowed to a stop. Everyone grew uneasy, when one of the passengers spoke out, ‘These riders are bushrangers, thieves and robbers. Give them what they want and they will leave.’ The coach door was pulled open and a wild looking man holding a pistol thrust an old cap toward the men.
‘Fill the cap with your money and valuables and be quick about it.’ The three men emptied their money and watches into the cap. Mrs Prentice took off her gold earrings, her locket, and two rings. She filled the cap, and passed it to Fiona who added her loose coins, and her gold stud earrings. She passed the cap back to the man.
‘I see your wedding ring. Put it in here now.’
‘You will not have my ring.’ She spoke with quiet determination then folded her hands in her lap.
The man pointed his pistol directly at her forehead and the coach travelers heard a click as he prepared to fire it. ‘The ring, right now!’ he snarled.
‘No,’ she answered, lifting her right arm to touch her forehead, her heart, her left and right shoulders, tracing the sign of the cross while looking straight into the barrel of his gun.
A shout came from outside. ‘Everyone, out. Mount up. Troopers are following us!’ The man snatched the cap and backed away from the door. As the travelers watched from the coach windows, the group of outlaws rode away at breakneck speed toward Donnelly’s Castle.
The coach driver appeared at the door. ‘Is everyone aboard safe? We should all step outside for a moment and steady ourselves before we move on. By heaven, I never thought I’d come face to face with Captain Thunderbolt himself! His men only got away with your belongings and a strong box filled with cash for the bank. I am sorry for your losses but at least no one was shot or injured.’
When the passengers climbed aboard one of the men took Mrs McCall’s arm. ‘You are a brave little woman, and you are fortunate that you weren’t shot.’ As the coach pulled away for the final leg of its journey, Fiona ran her fingers over the smooth gold band of her precious wedding ring. Oh Iain, whenever I feel your ring on my hand I am comforted. I know you are with me and will care for me all the days of my life. Nothing will ever take your ring away from me.
The word, bushranger, was first used in Australia in 1805 to describe the criminals who attacked travelers and stagecoaches along the roads. Bushranger gangs grew from the rise of escaped convicts, to the colonial-born sons of the poor who wanted an easier life than mining or farming offered. Bushrangers often adopted flamboyant names: Captain Thunderbolt, Captain Starlight, and Captain Moonlight. By 1830, Jack Donahue was deemed to be the most dangerous in the country and was known by all as, the Wild Colonial Boy.
Bushranging happened all over Australia while Van Diemen’s Land (later known as Tasmania) produced the most violent ones. Hundreds of criminals roamed at large in the bush, farms were given up, and the army was finally brought in to round up and capture these men. As the years passed, an increasing push of settlement, a greater police presence, better rail transport, and the telegraph, made it difficult for bushrangers to evade capture. Among the last of the bushrangers was the Kelly Gang, led by Ned Kelly and captured in Glenrowan, Victoria in 1880. By early 1900 the scourge of the bushrangers had all but died out. They live on today in Australian folklore, immortalized as part of a long history of men that rose to fame such as Robin Hood and Dick Turpin in England, and Jessie James and Billy the Kid in the United States.
We have our own family bushranger story that has come down through Constable Charles King. As a member of the Queensland Mounted Police, King captured Captain Starlight who was armed and well mounted, after his escape from a prison in Rockhampton. Constable King and a black tracker followed Starlight on horseback for hundreds of miles, moving through harsh country, flats and scrub-lands. Though the journey was a difficult one, King always got his man. He described Captain Starlight as ‘A vain fellow of graceful manner.’ As the lock-up for prisoners was in a secure back room behind the police station house, it was expected that the constable’s wife would cook for any prisoners as well as her own family. King’s wife, Holly, was pleased when Captain Starlight complimented her on her fine cooking and particularly enjoyed her scones. Such was the life of a colonial policeman.