MURDER! It was murder! When the wires flashed the news that the Kellys had shot the police at the head of the King River, in Victoria—when word reached civilisation that the Kenniffs had “done for” Constable Doyle and young Dalke on the Maranva River in Queensland, and had burnt their bodies to a cinder to hide their crime, the excitement in Australia was indescribable. But when one December morning in the midst of all the Christmas festivities, the inhabitants of the small, peaceful, country township of Trackson awoke out of their sleep and learned that the three Maguire girls and their brother, all of whom had only the evening before left for their selection in a dog-cart at 8 o’clock, were lying dead in a paddock not a quarter of a mile out, the unfortunate girls brutally outraged and strangled with pocket handkerchiefs, the brother shot in the back with a rifle, the dog-cart, all blood-bespattered, tilted near the bodies, and the horse lying with its throat cut—Australia was staggered!
Fear and alarm filled the hearts of the people in the country, and from one end of the land to the other, the cry went up for protection and vengeance. Then the Police and the Press commenced their work—especially the Press. “Specials” were hurried to the scene of the tragedy on board police trains, and column after column of grim, gruesome details were wired to the cities, and sought and jostled for by the eager, horror-stricken citizens.
“Unfortunately,” said the specials, “the Sergeant in charge of the district, though recognised as a most capable officer, lost his head, and instead of roping off the scene of the outrage, unwittingly permitted the spectators to gather about the bodies and obliterate the tracks of the perpetrators of the deed. This unfortunate mistake has made the task of the black-trackers much more difficult than it would otherwise have been. When interviewed this morning, however, Chief-Inspector Banks, who has full charge of the case, intimated that the police have already a very strong clue, and an arrest may be expected at any moment.”
In one column of the various prints appeared exhaustive pedigrees and descriptions of the whole of the Maguire family, from the father, an inoffensive, struggling, old selector, to the baby at the mother’s breast, and illustrated with their alleged photographs. In another, just to balance the interest, was a long, vainglorious history of the uneventful career of Chief Inspector Banks, with loud and exaggerated accounts of deeds of daring he never did; of the long, hard rides he had ridden through drought-stricken country in the West; of the skill he possessed in the art of tracking; of his ability to go without food and water for weeks and carry home the corpses of several prisoners on his back before breaking his fast; of his marvellous, analytical mind, and of his genius for weighing and sifting evidence.
And when the excited people had ravenously read all these things, their hearts went out to Chief Inspector Banks, and they cheered silently for him. Then they went home and read the account of his life over, and decided amongst themselves how the murder was committed, who committed it, how many were concerned in it, what sort of murderers they were, and what tale they told their victims to lure them from the main road into the paddock. And finally they agreed that Banks was a clever officer. Then, expressing sympathy for their brothers and sisters of the bush who were without police protection, they retired to bed, and dreamt the dream of tragedies.
In the morning they would seek the newspapers for news of the expected arrest, and in bunches would gather round the one sheet and peer over each other’s shoulders. “There you are”—from the outside one of the group; and the centre man, in a voice full of emotion, would proceed to read for the benefit of the others.
THE TRACKSON TRAGEDY. POLICE ON THE TRAIL. SENSATIONAL DEVELOPMENTS EXPECTED. A BLOOD-STAINED SADDLE-CLOTH. AN EX-PRISONER SUSPECTED POLICE RETICENT. MORE HORSES REQUIRED.
And after repeating all the ghastly details printed on the previous day, the “Special” would proceed to tell how the blood-stained saddle-cloth had been picked up in the mountains, some twenty or thirty miles from the scene of the murder, but about the finding of which Chief Inspector Banks would permit no information to leak out.
LATER.“A man named Burke was to-day brought before the visiting magistrate, Mr, P. J. M. Smith, and Messrs. J. O. Jones and T. Brown, Js.P., and formally charged with vagrancy. The Courtroom was thronged with people anxious to catch a glimpse of the prisoner, many of whom had come twenty and thirty miles to see him. Burke who is a notorious character, has already served several sentences for horse-stealing and criminal assaults, and was only liberated from gaol six or eight weeks before the Maguires were murdered. A remand was granted.”
For a while there was a lull in the proceedings, and no more dead horses having been found, no more blood-stained saddle-cloths picked up, people began to get restive, and wondered what the police were doing and what had become of Burke, and if, after all, he was only a vagrant.