For Life and Other Stories

Chapter III.

A Dash for Liberty

Steele Rudd

IT WAS an imposing-looking cavalcade. Constable Jackson in cabbage-tree hat, shirt sleeves, riding tweeds, a revolver clinging to his belt, went first, leading the prisoner’s horse by a well-polished dog chain. Behind him Constables Edmunds and Taay with more revolvers. Then Inspector Black and the writer. Behind us a junior constable on probation with another revolver, the possession of which distressed and hampered him visibly; and bringing up the rear the two trackers leading the packs and filling the morning air with the sound of jingling hobble chains and pint pots. And the milkmen coming along, making townward with their supplies, drew off the road and glowered as we trooped past, then sat staring after us till we were out of sight.

“It’ll be all over town in a couple of hours that we’ve left,” Black murmured, casting a sullen, unfriendly eye on the milk vendors. “Damn them!” and he hit his boot with his riding whip. I was unable to see that it could make any difference to the long arm of the Law, anyway, but suggested that we raid their carts and drink the milk, and deprive them of an excuse to go to town.

“Talk sense,” he answered shortly. I was trying to think of some, when one milkman, more curious than the others, shouted out in an anxious tone, “Is that the cove who did the murder you’ve got there?”

“You blasted cow!” Burke yelled back furiously. “I’d like to murder you!”

“No doubt but you would,” the other answered. “It ‘s your business.” Then he whipped up his horse and drove on.

“Now there you are,” Burke explained, turning his head and shaking it frantically at the Inspector. “What rotten chance has a chap got of clearing himself when every darned cove in the country already reckons he’s guilty?”

The Inspector made no reply.

“I think every chap ought to get a fair show,” Burke added sullenly.

Then, after riding along for about five minutes: “Now, if I get tried for this murder that darned cove might be put on my jury.”

Still there was no reply. The hoof-beats of the escort rattled on the hard road, and the chains on the legs of the prisoner jingled an eerie refrain.

Constable Taay’s horse, a raw, handsome colt not long broken, stumbled badly, and the long, supple Australian in khaki, who had served a long apprenticeship horse-breaking in the West before joining the force, drove the spurs into the animal’s ribs to rebuke him. The colt began to buck. And how he did buck!

“Stick to him, Taay!” his brother constables called, pulling out of the way to make room for the performance. Taay began with the whip, and next moment the colt bucked in between Constable Jackson and his prisoner and separated them. Burke glanced quickly round; then, driving his heels into the chestnut’s ribs, yelled, “Come on!” and off he went full gallop. Then there was excitement! Dick Turpin’s ride to York was a fool to what followed.

“Look out for him, Jackson!” the Inspector shouted, realising the position a moment too late, and, putting whip and spurs to his own horse, raced furiously in pursuit. Whip and spurs were applied to every horse there, and Taay and his bucking colt were left standing. Even the trackers in their excitement walloped the packs along, at the risk of strewing the road with blankets and provender. Constable Jackson, drawing up on the near side of the fugitive, let fly a revolver shot, which fortunately missed. “Don’t shoot, Adam! Damn it, don’t shoot! Get hold of his reins!” came wildly from the Inspector, who was racing on the off and overtaking Burke every stride. Burke, with a fiendish grin on his face, threw a glance back over his shoulder at his pursuers, then used his heels harder than ever. But the chestnut was all out and outpaced, and the Inspector and Jackson, closing in on either side, leaned out of their saddles and grabbed his reins.

“You danmed scoundrel!” Black gasped when they came to a standstill, the steam flying from the nostrils of the horses. “Think yourself lucky you didn’t get your brains blown out.”

Burke seemed to regard it all as a good joke, and grinning amusedly at the excited constables around him, remarked: “Well, some of you did have a shot, but you couldn’t hit a haystack. It didn’t go within a mile of me.”

“Within a mile of you!” Jackson snapped, inserting his finger into a newly-made hole in the side of Burke’s shirt. “You didn’t want it to go any nearer than that, did you?” Burke glanced quickly at the bullet hole in the garment and went a little pale.

“You meant it all right,” he mumbled, looking Jackson in the face.

“Meant it!” from the Inspector. “I rather think he did, and meant a second one, too, if I hadn’t stopped him.”

“And I would have brought you out of that saddle,” Jackson snarled, “much quicker than the old chestnut did.”

Burke said nothing, but regarded Jackson steadily till the black boys came up, when the Inspector gave the order and the procession shifted ground again.

“Heavens!” said the Inspector, leaning forward and stroking his horse’s neck. “We had to ride like the devil for a while to get near the old chestnut.! If it had been in rough country anything might have happened. But nothing must be said about this.”

I nodded.

Behind me the two simple-minded trackers were discussing the incident.

Garrione said, “By crites, that cobe Burkes he been go it that time.”

“Nudding like how he been go when I catch him over der border, long fellow time ago,” Norman answered, seriously.

“Yaas?” in surprised tones from Garrione. “You been ’rest him one time?”

“Oh, yaas,” Norman answered proudly. “I been arrest him two times twice.”

“Yaas? How—what he been do dem times?”

“Oh, shootit a cobe in a arm and plant in it big scrub, and trabel in a dark night. I catch him sittin’ alonga log New Sout Wales.”

The Inspector, catching the words, turned in the saddle and said:

“What’s that, Norman? You been arrest Burke? You mean it Sergeant Walker, don’t you?”

“I been trackit him, though,” Norman claimed, “trackit him all three day.”

“Oh yes, but you didn’t arrest him. You remember you been two three hundred yards away when the sergeant shoot Burke in the leg?”

Norman remembered.

“Oh! that been right,” he answered, showing his teeth; “but I been watch it all.”

We smiled, and for some moments there was a silence. Then Garrione, who had been turning the matter over in his mind, said in low, disappointed sort of tones to his brother tracker:

“I tink it you been blow it a damn good lot, Norman.”

We smiled.

“All right,” the other answered indignantly, “you tink it dat!” and he flicked the pack-horse and shook an extra rattle out of the pint pots and hobble chains. Then added, “When we stoppit fo’ breakfast you askit Burke. He tell it you all about me.”

For Life and Other Stories - Contents    |     Chapter IV. - An Anxious Moment

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