A FEW days after, the writer of these pages received the following letter from an Under-Secretary:
“I have the honour to inform you that prisoner Burke, at present serving sentence for vagrancy in H.M. prison, Muddy-road, is to he escorted hy the police over the route which he travelled when discharged from gaol in November last, and to request that you will make the necessary preparation to join the party which is to leave on Monday next in charge of Inspector Black, and take full shorthand notes of all the evidence and forward same along with your report to the Commissioner of Police as soon as the journey is completed.”
The sun was just rising when I picked the Police up outside the city on the following Monday morning. They were waiting for me on the main road. At first glance one would have thought they were a travelling show just breaking camp. The party consisted of one inspector, four mounted troopers, two black-trackers (each leading a pack-horse burdened with blankets, hobbles, quart-pots, &c.), while the police van, driven by two constables, in which Burke had travelled from the gaol, was wheeling round in the act of returning. Burke himself was standing handcuffed between two constables. As I approached he eyed me curiously. He seemed to wonder what part I was to play in the expedition. I made no speculations as to his part.
“You’re a bit late,” the Inspector said. And looking over the “show” I asked him what sort of a house he had had last night. The rest of the Force smiled, and Burke, who was watching me from under the rim of a soft felt hat that had once been white—white until he started sleeping in it and using it for a bellows—broke into a rasping, grating laugh and said:
“He thinks we’re a bloomin’ circus!”
The troopers smiled and fumbled with their saddle gear, and gathered up their bridle reins; the two trackers grinned hard and showed their white teeth, and the Inspector said cynically:
“Yes; and unless you prove all you say you can, the last item of it will be Richard Burke performing on the end of a tight rope.”
“I know bloomin’ well,” Burke snapped back, “that that’s what you would like to bill me for, but by——”
“Come along”—sharply to Senior-Constable Adam Jackson—“Put him on his horse and let us make a start.”
Jackson saluted his Inspector, and, ordering the prisoner to mount, said: “Can you get on?” [wondering if the gaol bird could climb into the saddle handcuffed]. But Burke, with several oaths, despised assistance, and gripping the pommel with both hands started to mount. The burly constable stood holding the horse by the head. The rest of us sat on our horses looking on. The animal Burke was mounting, a longlimbed chestnut with a game, clean-cut head, was just off the grass after six months’ spell in the police paddocks, and was fresh and touchy as an unbroken colt.
“Are you right?” Jackson gasped, struggling with the horse to prevent him rearing, in the same breath calling the animal names for not taking things quietly.
“Right,” Burke answered as he landed in the saddle. Then, in spite of Jackson, down went the chestnut ‘s head, and, with a snort, it put in one—two—three bucks, all in the same place. Jackson hung on like grim death to the reins. Powerless to balance himself without the use of his hands, the prisoner rose about three feet out of the saddle.
“Hold him, Jackson! Hold him!” the Inspector cried apprehensively, and the other constables scrambled from their horses to try and save the situation. But the chestnut got in some more good work, and the next moment Burke left the saddle, and, flying through the air, fell into the arms of two policemen, who fell on the top of each other under the weight of him.
“Are you hurt?” the Inspector asked when Burke rose spitting out dirt and cursing.
“Hurt be damned!” was the answer.
Then turning to me the Inspector explained, alluding to the horse:
“I picked that old dog as the quietest and slowest we could put him on.”
“Yes,” Burke gasped savagely. “I know all about the brute being quiet! And do you think I don’t tumble to your capers? Here”—struggling violently with the handcuffs—“take these blamed things off and give me a fair show and I’ll ride the beggar barebacked.”
The Inspector wasn’t to be caught napping so easily, however, but jumping across the chestnut himself he dug his heels into him, and laying the whip on his ribs put him through a lively ten minutes. Then, throwing the reins to the constable again as he dismounted, he said:
“Put him on again, Jackson; he’s all right now,” and once more Burke climbed on to the chestnut, but this time was allowed to remain in the saddle. Then, when his legs were manacled by passing a chain under the horse’s belly, the escort started in double file on its three-hundred-mile journey.