ON a good breakfast, and with tobacco clouds blowing from half a dozen pipes, we moved along at a brisk walking pace. The hard, made roads gradually gave way to soft grass and herbage under foot, and the bushland commenced to open out. Over the brow of a sand ridge the prisoner led the cavalcade; on past a deserted orchard, where a few ragged orange trees and the broken walls and sapling rafters of a humpy reared themselves like grim sentinels of the dead; past an old pumping station long since disused; then down on to the river and into a lane that led by the door of a dairyman’s home.
Constable Jackson, with the prisoner, reined up, and their horses breasted the fence until the last of the escort drew up.
“What is it, Jackson?” from the Inspector.
“Burke says this is the first place he called at, sir.”
“Very well; get off and we’ll see what he remembers about it.”
All of us, glad to ease our limbs, dismounted—all except the trackers. They were sent on ahead to wait at a certain spot till we came up.
I seated myself comfortably on the ground with my arm in the bridle reins, and took out my note book.
“What day, and what time of the day was it,” the Inspector asked of Burke, “when you reached here? And tell us whom you saw, and what the people are like who live here, and what conversation you had with them?” The prisoner leaned on the fence, and ran his fingers up under his slouch hat and thought hard for several moments.
“I got here,” he said, “on the tenth of November; that was a Saturday; and it was just about sundown when I reached these rails. There were some cows inside this little paddock—I don’t think they belonged to this cove here—and a red bull with one horn was with them. I noticed the bull particularly, because he had just been staked in the barbwire, and his near hind leg was nearly cut off. This cove who lives here is a bloomin’ old Irishman, and he has finger-nails as long as——”
He stopped short, after waiting a while for his next words, and glared at me with blood in his eye.
“Oh!” he rasped out. “Is this the caper? This is what you’re here for? You’re not a blamed trap at all, then?”
I said “I was sorry I wasn’t, and that I was merely there to take a note of everything that was said.”
“I know that fancy caper!” he stormed. “You’ve been sent here by the dirty Government to put the rope round my bloomin’ neck!”
“Perhaps,” I answered, “to keep the rope from going round your neck. Everything said in your favour will go down in my notes.”
“But how am I to tell,” he protested furiously, “what you put down?”
“I’ll read the notes over to you,” I suggested, “whenever you wish me to.”
“Yes,” he insisted sullenly, “and afterwards you can knock out anything that doesn’t suit the police. I know these little tricks.”
I endeavoured to assure him I had a conscience and that I would sooner forfeit my billet and go cracking stones than take a hand in anything that wasn’t strictly honourable. The Inspector reasoned with him; and finally in a sour, dogged sort of way he consented to proceed.
When he began to think again the whites of his eyes rolled suspiciously in the direction of my notebook, and I became conscious that a constable had placed himself between us. I felt shaky. The feeling somehow interfered with my pencil, and the notes I made were illegible. I was not happy.
“Well,” Burke said, leaning on the fence again, “this chap who lives here has got finger nails as long and as hard as a cockatoo’s beak, and he peels potatoes with them. His name is Ryan. He’s a bad-tempered old dog, and I gave him a hiding for calling me a loafer.”
The Inspector said, “That will do,” and led the way into Ryan’s residence.
Ryan was sitting in a poky back room, with a dish of potatoes in his lap, peeling them with his finger nails, with which he sliced them as you would with a knife. All of us stood and stared.
Ryan looked up in surprise.
“It’s the polis!” he stammered, recognising the khaki.
“Did you ever see this man before?” motioning Burke forward.
“I never. Oi don’t know him at all.”
“What! you never saw me before?” in surprised tones from Burke.
“How cud Oi? Oi have never been in gaol.”
“You old crawler!” savagely from Burke. “Do you remember me giving you a hiding out there in the yard for calling me a loafer?”
“An’—an’—if me gun had been at home,” the old man squealed, springing at him like a wild cat, “Oi—Oi wud have shot ye that same evenin’, ye dhirty gaol bird!”
“Then you remember him now?” the Inspector asked for final assurance.
“I doan’t!” howled the old man indignantly.
The Inspector turned away.
“You —— old dog! You would see a man hang right enough!” Burke hissed as he was bundled off by the constable. And Ryan sat down and went on peeling potatoes with his finger nails.
Overtaking the trackers, the cavalcade headed towards the river and travelled without incident for a couple of miles.
“Hello!” the Inspector remarked in tones of surprise; “he’s making for the ferry. Aha! This is interesting. If he crossed the river here that evening, he’s done. We’ve got him beat! He’ll fix himself up for the Pixley affair as sure as the Lord made little apples. He hasn’t the faintest idea, either, that he’s suspected of it.”
The “Pixley affair” was the murder of a boy who was riding on a pony along a lonely part of the road on the eastern side of the river the evening of the day that Burke was released from the city gaol, and the solution of which hopelessly baffled the police.
When about fifty yards from the ferry Constable Jackson reined up again and waited. A hopeful look was in the Inspector’s face as he came up.
“What happened here?” he asked of Burke.
“When I left Ryan’s I took the road we just came, and got to the ferry here a little after dark, and spoke to the ferryman.”
“Of course you crossed over, I suppose,” the Inspector said, assuming indift’erence.
“No; I had no money on me, and this miserable hog down here (meaning the ferryman)—I think it’s him—he wears a cabbagetree hat and a red beard—wouldn’t take me across, and I told him to go to hell. Then I turned back and went along the river bank and camped in some thick shrubs.”
“And you didn’t cross the river at all, then?” the Inspector repeated.
“No; I hadn’t the luck.”
The Inspector exchanged a meaning look with Jackson, and the escort advanced to the ferry.
“No,” the ferryman said, shaking his head, “I don’t remember refusing to take anyone across in my life. In fact, I’m sure I never.”
Then, after looking Burke all over at the Inspector’s request:
“No, I never had a conversation with that man; never saw him before that I remember.” Then, exhibiting a desire to be just: “Of course, I don’t say that I didn’t take him over. I might any time do that without recollecting his face again.”
“Don’t you remember,” Burke asked, “that I had no money, and we had a bit of a barney over it, and I told you to go to hell?”
The ferryman, a big, hard-looking man, smiled and said quietly: “It isn’t likely I’d forget that if it happened, because I would have thrown you into the river if it had.”
“You would have to be a lot better with your hands than you are at remembering things, old chap,” Burke said with flashing eyes. Then to the Inspector: “It’s no use wasting time here; this fellow doesn’t remember anything, or doesn’t want to.”
“Well, you’re a cheeky gentleman, anyway,” said the ferryman, “and those handcuffs, I think, just suit you.”
Burke scowled at him as we rode away.
A new interest now seemed to enter into the proceedings. Constable Jackson was allowed to get well ahead, and the Inspector rode close to the other constables, and asked them “what they thought of it.”
About a mile or so along the bank of the river Burke pointed to a clump of thick undergrowth no higher than a man’s head as the spot where he slept that night.
“Did you make a fire?” the Inspector asked, scrutinising the place.
“No, I did not bother making one. I had a bit of tucker with me, and when I finished it just crept in amongst those bushes and went to sleep.”
“A curious place for a bushman to select a camp, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, I dunno” (sullenly); “just as good as any other; and I didn’t want the whole country to see me, anyway.”
The Inspector smiled meaningly; then, directing the escort to a waterhole, decided to halt for lunch.