IT WAS about nine o’clock when we came to a tributary of the great river that glided calmly through the capital. The Inspector called a halt and suggested breakfasting. The trackers and the cadet relieved the packs and attended to the horses. Constable Edmonds, the boss cook and caterer in the force, saw to the fire and looked after the breakfast. Jackson and Taay attended to Burke, relieved him of his handcuffs and sat down beside him on the grass, and engaged him in friendly conversation about crime and criminals, and the security and insecurity of the various gaols in Australia. Inspector Black and I reclined in the shade on our elbows and nibbled blades of grass and thought a good deal.
The cadet went off to a neighbouring farm-house, and returned with a billy-can of milk. The Inspector sat up, and glanced carelessly across at the prisoner. An oath escaped him, which made me sit up and stare. He beckoned the cadet and muttered angrily, “Who the devil left that rifle there? Get it away at once,” The cadet looked about him, and seeing a rifle leaning against a tree within arm’s length of Burke, glided stealthily across and secured it quietly. Burke’s quick eyes noticed the movement.
“Are you afraid?” he said cheekily to the Inspector.
“Oh, no,” Black replied calmly, “but I fancy I see a bear on a tree down the creek.”
He took aim from where he sat, and fired. The bear, which was a hundred yards off, reeled out of the tree and thumped the ground hard.
“Knocked him, blowed if you didn’t!” Burke said; then in admiration added, “By gums! You can use a rifle all right!”
“I thought it just as well to let him know I could,” the Inspector said in an undertone to me, “in case he tries on some of his games with us, if he gets another chance.”
Constable Edmonds called “Breakfast,” and all of us except the Inspector rose and approached the spread that was prepared beneath a tree, a short distance off, and crouched round it. The Inspector remained awhile silently examining the rifle.
“Here’s one for you, Burke,” Edmonds said, tossing the prisoner a pannikin. “You’d better scratch your name on it—any one of them will do; I know you have a good few.”
The rest of us remembered Burke’s numerous aliases and smiled. Burke scowled and looked about for something to scratch “his mark” on the pint with. His eye rested on Constable Edmond’s belt and revolver lying on the grass at his elbow. He lifted the weapon, and, while the others were reaching for tea and digging into the bread and beef, toyed with it. Then he said, grinning, “Wonder could I write my name with this at a couple of hundred yards?”
The others looked up. Dismay suddenly filled their faces. The Force looked as if it had been struck by lightning. Crouched on my haunches just opposite Burke I sat heavily back and tried to conceal my head behind a large pannikin of tea. I spilt a lot of that tea into my lap and didn’t feel it burn me.
Burke toyed more with the weapon. Still the Force remained dumb. Some of it had lifted large wedges of bread and beef to its mouth, and there the provender was suspended. It was a terrible moment—for me.
But the suspense broke suddenly,
“Burke,” in a sharp, ringing voice, “put that revolver down or I’ll blow a hole through you!”
Burke glanced across quickly and saw himself covered by the Inspector’s rifle. With a cynical chuckle he put the revolver down and said, “You fellows are easily frightened.”
I believed him.
Four pairs of hands instantly went out and reached for that weapon. Then the Inspector with fire in his eye came forward and said:
“The next man who lets his revolver get out of his hands returns to head-quarters under suspension.” There was a silence; then Burke looked across at me and said:
“Chuck us across a slice of that beef, boss.”
I chucked him across a slice, and the breakfast proceeded again calmly.
Advancing to our horses when we were prepared to start again the Inspector said:
“I don’t know how the deuce you would have got on if I had had to fire at him. A bit of your ear just covered the sight of my rifle.”
My hand went voluntarily to the side of my head, but my ear was still there, and I was glad.