WHEN the meal was over we were lounging in the shade of the trees, smoking and watching the horses with their bridles on cropping the grass round about.
Burke lay on the broad of his back, staring silently into the green foliage that waved above his head, thinking of days and dates, raking his memory to recall the tracks he had trodden—the faces he had met, the things he had seen and said and heard said during those unlucky weeks he had been a free man. Failure to account for one single link in the chain of evidence that was to establish his alibi he knew was to miss the life line. Sympathy he had none; assistance he could not command or expect; conscience told him he was a criminal; experience warned him that the police regarded him as a useless and dangerous member of society, and that if he were even innocently hanged for the crime they were anxious to sheet home to him to save themselves, they would plead that his life was no loss anyway. In short, he saw plainly that it was to be a fight with himself on the one side and the whole police force on the other, and the trophy—his own miserable, misspent life!
With a calm, determined expression on his face he turned over on his elbow and looked around.
Locating me, he crawled across and asked to have the notes I had taken at the ferry read over to him.
“H’m!” he muttered, nipping the end of a blade of grass, “that cove should have remembered me.”
Then he reflected again.
Criminal and all that I knew the man to be, I couldn’t withhold all compassion from him, and, with an effort, made up my mind to take a risk.
“It’s well for you, Burke,” I said, “that you didn’t cross the ferry that evening.”
He opened his eyes and stared tragically.
“There was a boy murdered on the other side about the time you would have crossed,” I added.
“Gord blast and burn them!” he exclaimed, bounding to his feet and glaring round on the Law. They instantly came to the perpendicular with their hands on their revolvers. “And you’re trying to saddle me with that blanky crime as well! You——!——!——!”
The very leaves on the giim trees, overhead, trembled at his outburst of profanity.
The Inspector warned him to be careful.
“Curs! Cadgers!” Burke muttered bitterly, and threw himself on the grass again, and writhed like a wild animal.
I felt guilty of having disturbed the harmony of the expedition, and remained silent.
“Doing all they can to hang me!” he muttered again, tearing fistfuls of grass out of the earth and throwing them violently from him. Some of it scattered over the tea bucket and landed in the tea.
“Damn it!” in reproval from Constable Edmonds. “Don’t do that! We’ll want another drink of tea before we start.”
Burke tore out more grass, but this time didn’t cast it from him; he crunched it viciously in his fists instead.
Then he stretched himself out on his back again and reflected as before.
“You thought you had me beat at the ferry,” Burke with a savage chuckle said to the Inspector, as we moved along again, “but you hadn’t. I’ve thought of something now which I’d forgotten then. Come back to the bushes where I camped, and we should find a pickle bottle that I left there. I got it full of jam from a woman whose house we passed a little way back, and whom I told that the ferryman would not take me across. Now that I know what you are after I’m damned glad he didn’t.”
Returning to the clump of shrubs, one of the constables dismounted and. searching the spot, found the pickle bottle. It was labelled in a woman’s handwriting,” Melon and lemon.”
“That’s it,” Burke said. “Now bring it down and see if the woman remembers it.”
The woman did remember it. She also remembered giving it to Burke, and supported his statement in respect to the ferryman.
“There you are, me shavers,” Burke, with a malignant smile, said to the force. Then to the woman, as they hurried him away:
“They would like to make out that I crossed the ferry that evening, missus, so as to fix me with the murder of that boy.”
“Hold your tongue and be civil!” the burly senior-constable growled, “or I’ll give you a lick on the jaw.”
Burke held his tongue, and the cavalcade once more proceeded along the banks of the river. For miles we travelled over barren, unproductive patches of clay country, at intervals hugging picturesque pockets on the river: through gaps in the broken fences of the abandoned sugar fields we rode, and not a sound all the while except the jangling of bridle bits, the ring of stirrup irons, and the incessant rattle of the packs. Crossing the river where the broad expanse of water divided itself into several limpid streams, trickling calmly over shallow, sandy beds, the rude habitation of a timber-getter rose before us.
“I came to this place,” Burke said, “about dinner-time on my second day out, and seeing no one about called out, ‘Is anyone at home?’ A man answered me from inside. He didn’t show himself. I told him I wanted a bit of tucker. He said ‘Go to the devil and buy tucker the same as I have to!’
“I went further on to a place about a mile from here, and got a feed from a Danish woman.”
The timber-getter, a big, hairy, sunburnt man, had just drawn his team up alongside a fence to unyoke; and, as the escort approached, dropped his long whip and stared in surprise.
“Do you know this man?” the Inspector asked, indicating Burke with his hunting-crop. The bullock-puncher walked all round the prisoner as he sat on the horse and looked hard and long at him.
“I have not had that pleasure.”
To the next question he answered: “That ‘s right; I did tell a cove one day to go to the devil and buy some tucker, but I did not see the chap. If I was to hear this man speak, though, I could tell you if he is the same, because the cove that spoke to me had a voice that no one in this world would ever forget.”
The Inspector asked Burke to say something. Burke lifted his voice and said: “Can you let us have a bit of tucker in there?”
“That ‘s the cove!” the bullock-puncher exclaimed, with an amused look on his face. “I’ll stake my blanky life on it.”
The Inspector was satisfied, and, directing the party to an adjacent box-tree ridge as a suitable spot to pitch camp for the night, followed in the rear with a thoughtful look on his face.
“I’m afraid that gets the dog out of the Pixley affair,” he said sorrowfully to me, after covering a hundred yards or so.
“I’m afraid he was never in it,” I answered heroically.
“Perhaps,” he muttered. “But if he doesn’t get nailed for the Trackson murder before we’re done with him, then my name isn’t James Moreum Black.”
“If he’s guilty,” I replied, “I hope he swings for it—and promptly.”
“It’s darned little odds whether he is or not; for he’s bad enough for anything,” he answered.