Spotlight: Will Monckton meets Captain Thunderbolt

The following is extracted from Three Years With Thunderbolt by Will Monckton and Ambrose Pratt. It portrays Monckton’s first meeting with Thunderbolt after fleeing his abusive stepfather, and his attempt to join him in bushranging. The book (originally published as a serial in The Argus, Melbourne,) purports to be a memoir, though it is likely that more than a few liberties were taken by Pratt for dramatic effect. It reads as a novel from Monckton’s perspective and offers very important insights into the life of a bushranger as well as Captain Thunderbolt himself. – AP


Source: Three Years With Thunderbolt; Ambrose Pratt (ed.) 1905. Via: Project Gutenberg


Will Monckton [illustrated by Aidan Phelan]

I paused in the very heart of the forest, panting and almost spent. I was still fighting for breath when of a sudden at no great distance from where I strode unsteadily along a male voice burst forth in song. The notes were sweet and mellow, yet thrillingly distinct.

I stopped abruptly, spellbound, at first with astonishment, and then with a quick ensuing rapture. In one second I had forgotten my stepfather and my terror—everything in the world, indeed, except the wild, sweet music of the unseen singer’s voice, which poured forth in an unbroken stream of harmony, growing, nevertheless, momentarily more pathetic and melancholy. It seemed to me that the singer’s own heart was wistfully vibrating in tune with the touching little story that his song unfolded.

“Oh, don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?
Sweet Alice with hair so brown,
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile,
And trembled with fear at your frown!”

The tears started to my eyes as the verse approached its end:—

“In the old churchyard in the valley, Ben Bolt,
In a corner obscure and alone,
They have fitted a slab of granite so grey,
And sweet Alice lies under the stone!”

To the last deep, vibrant note a heavy silence succeeded, during which I could hear my own heartthrobs, but nothing else. I was profoundly moved, and for a long while I did not even wish to stir from my position. Curiosity at length, however, mastered me, and, eager to discover who the singer might be, I stole through the forest with the noiseless caution of an aboriginal. In fifty paces I came upon the edge of a little glade, whence, peering from behind the trunk of a gnarled old red-gum, I beheld, within a dozen feet of me, a man bare-headed, who lay among the grasses, upon the broad of his back, gazing steadily up into the sky’s cloudless blue. Quite near him was a saddle, a silver-bitted bridle, and a swag. A magnificent chestnut horse, evidently a thoroughbred, stood nosing at his hobbles at a little distance off. At a glance I recognised the horse. It was “Combo,” Thunderbolt’s famous steed.

Was, then, the man lying so still before me Thunderbolt himself? The question flashed into my mind, and involuntarily I sighed, whereupon whatever doubts I had entertained were rapidly resolved.

With a speed that dazzled me, the man sprang from his recumbent attitude to his knees. One hand plucked a revolver from his belt, and, before I could move or speak I was looking over the muzzle of a cocked six-shooter into a pair of keenly watchful dark-brown eyes.

“Hands up!” he commanded curtly.

I obeyed him instantly, and yet, boy as I was, I experienced no fear. Some instinct told me that the man who could sing as I had heard that man sing a moment since would not harm one so friendless and miserable as I.

“Are you Thunderbolt?” I asked.

“I am Thunderbolt!” he replied. “Who are you?”

“I am Will Monckton,” I answered quietly. “I have been looking for you, sir!”

Thunderbolt got slowly to his feet and leisurely surveyed me, without, however, ceasing to keep me covered with his pistol. I returned his regard respectfully and yet curiously, for I was more than anxious to discover what manner of man he might be from whom I had been driven to seek help and protection.

He was about five feet nine or ten inches in height, strongly and yet gracefully built. He wore a full dark beard, but his head was a little bald, which made me think him older than he was. He seemed to me very good-looking. His nose was straight and shapely. He had a kind, yet grave expression, and I thought his mouth resembled my mother’s, and I was glad; also his eyes, although they were larger and darker than hers.

My poor mother! I know now that Thunderbolt’s expression resembled hers merely by reason of its sadness. But I was too young then to understand that melancholy marks even traces on its victims, although their fates be as widely separated as the Poles.

Captain Thunderbolt [illustrated by Aidan Phelan]

“I have heard of you,” said Thunderbolt presently. “I saw you this morning with Charley, didn’t I?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did he tell you where to find me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are alone, of course?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you want with me?” he demanded.

“I have run away from home, sir. If my stepfather catches me he will half kill me. Even if he didn’t I would not go back to him. He is a brute, and I hate him.”

“Well?”

“Let me stay with you, sir—will you, please?”

Thunderbolt quietly uncocked his pistol and returned it to his belt. He looked me up and down for another full minute, and then, without saying a word, he sat down upon the ground. Leaning backwards, he put his hands behind his head and rested thus against his saddle, staring up at me.

“Please let me stay with you, sir,” I entreated.

“Do you want to be an outlaw?” he demanded.

“Anything!” I cried. “Anything rather than let my stepfather catch me.”

Such was my reply to his question, and I was sincere in what I said. But in very truth, at that moment I had never even dreamed of becoming a bushranger.

“Rob coaches?” asked Thunderbolt.

I nodded, feeling myself grow pale.

“Fight the police?”

I felt completely frightened at that prospect, but the die was cast, and I nodded again.

“Risk hanging, Will Monckton? You’d be hanged if you were caught, boy.”

“So would you,” I cried. “But they have been after you for years.”

“Bah! they’ll never take me—alive,” he retorted fiercely. “But with you it would be another matter. I have had two boys already. The first—poor young Thompson—was shot last April twelve months near Bathurst in a fight with the police. The other—Mason—was taken a month ago, and he is now in gaol. You had better go home, Will.”

“I will never go home. I’ll die first,” I said desperately.

He shook his head. “I’ve heard a good deal about the way your stepfather has treated you,” he said quietly. “But tell me your story, Will, and we shall see.”

Nothing loth, I poured out the full history of my wrongs, and did my best to prove to him how desperate I felt, and how utterly impossible it was that I should go home.

He listened to me very gravely without once interrupting, but when I had finished and was silent, he sat up, and pointed a finger at my breast. “Your stepfather is a cruel ruffian,” he said quietly, “but listen to me, Will Monckton——” he paused.

“Yes, sir,” I said anxiously.

“You are in the right of it now, lad,” replied the bushranger. “But you’ve no excuse to become a criminal. A few beatings more or less, what do they matter to a hard young rip like you? Why you’ll soon grow too big to beat—big enough to beat your stepfather, in fact. Take my advice, Will, and go back home. Remember, you have a mother to think of. How would she feel if you turned bushranger?”

I was silent, for mention of my mother had brought a lump to my throat.

“Let me tell you my own story,” went on Thunderbolt, after a little pause. “When I was a boy, not much older than you, Will, I got mixed up with some bad companions—cattle-thieves they were, though I didn’t know it then. One day I was with them in the bush, and the police came on us, and arrested us all. We were tried for stealing cattle, and though I tell you before God, Will, that I was innocent, I was convicted with the others, and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment on Cockatoo Island. I think I felt then pretty much as you do now—just as if the whole world was against me, and I against the world. Well, boy, I swore to be revenged on the world that had treated me so badly; and I have. You have heard, no doubt, how I broke out of gaol, and swam from Cockatoo Island to the mainland, and how I made good my escape. Well, that was years ago, and I’ve been a criminal ever since. For the last four years I have been outlawed—every man’s hand against me, I alone against them all. I’m not denying I have had a pretty fair time—and the life is full of pleasure and excitement to a man of spirit. But I tell you this, Will Monckton—if I had my time to come over again, I would serve out my sentence on Cockatoo Island, and try afterwards to lead an honest life. I would, so help me, God!”

He spoke with such solemn earnestness that I was deeply impressed. But at the same time I felt such a sympathy for him, and admired him so much, I did not wish to leave him at all. Beyond and above that, I was of a very stubborn disposition, and I had always had a great pride in sticking to my word.

“I have left home, and for ever,” I muttered.

Thunderbolt gravely shook his head. “Be guided by my advice, boy, and go back!” he said.

“I have left home for ever,” I repeated doggedly.

The outlaw shrugged his shoulders and got to his feet. Paying me no further heed, he took up his bridle and strolled over to where his beautiful horse was feeding. Two minutes later Combo was saddled, and Thunderbolt had climbed to his back.

“You are not going to leave me?” I cried out in alarm.

“I am going to my camp,” replied Thunderbolt. “It is about a mile and a half down the creek.”

“Let me go with you.”

“No, not now. Think over what I have told you, Will, for a few hours, and then, if you are still in the same mind, come to my camp. I like your looks, boy, and I’d be glad to have you for a partner, for I’m cursed lonely sometimes. But, for your own sake, and for the last time, I advise you not to look me up again. Go home, boy! Good-bye.”

He touched Combo with his heels, and the horse bounded away at half a gallop through the trees.

I shouted out to him to wait, to stop for one moment, but the outlaw did not even turn his head. I watched until the trees had shut him from my view, and then, my brain whirling with excited thoughts, I threw myself down in the grass where Thunderbolt had been lying, and buried my head in my arms.

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