BEFORE Burke was placed on the horse the Inspector asked him if anything important happened at the Danish woman’s house.
“No,” he answered. “I merely asked her for some tucker, which she gave me, and then I went on.”
The Danish woman was just out of bed when the escort surrounded her door.
“I don’t know noddings,” she answered stiffly, in reply to the Inspector. “I don’t get mixed up in no von’s peesness. You mosht find oud dem dings for youselluf.”
“Did you ever see this man before?” the Inspector asked in a firm voice, pointing to the prisoner, “You had better say so if you did.”
“I saw noddings” (dropping her head sulkily).
The question was repeated.
“Ask himselluf,” the woman replied stubbornly. “He can tole you so well as me.”
“I know all about that, but I want you to tell me. Did you see him before?”
“Don’t you remember a man calling here about dinner-time, missus,” Burke chipped in quietly, “and you gave him some dinner: a piece of bread and some stewed rat, I think it was?”
“Veil, I do noddings wrong by dat, and it is not a shame to givf rat ven I am only a poor voman, do you tink?”
“I don’t mean that” ( from the Inspector ), “I’d eat rat myself if I could not get anything else. But you saw this man before—that’s all I want to know?”
“Veil, I did see him, if you vill make me say so; and he asked me vare vas my husban’, and I say he vas inside, ven he vas dead ten, twelf j’ear. But I vas vrightent, for dat man, he haf a bad face.”
Burke smiled. So did we.
“Well, why did you not tell us that before?” the Inspector replied shortly, and we rode on.
We rode on till noon, when the iron-roofed houses of two humble homesteads, standing about two hundred yards from each other, came into view.
“I called at this near house,” Burke began before we approached the place, “about five o’clock the second day I was out. I couldn’t see anyone about for a while, but the front door, which you’ll find is made of split timber, was slightly opened, and I saw a woman having a bath in a tub. I sang out, ‘Is there anyone at home?’ and when she saw me standing outside she rushed out holding her dress round her, and ran over to this house here” (pointing to the other habitation).
The force smiled, and moved toward the place. A tall, old-maidish-looking woman appeared in the door-way, and over her shoulders two young girls peered at us. The woman coloured up and shook her head when questioned by the Inspector, and was sure she had never seen Burke before. In fact, no man of any description had called at her place about the date mentioned. She was positive of that. She would have remembered if there had, because hers being such an out-of-the-way place she had very few callers of any kind.
The Inspector remained silent for a few moments. The situation was a delicate one, and he was considering how to frame his next question, when his eyes wandered unconsciously to Burke’s. Burke immediately jumped into the breach.
“Don’t you recollect a man coming to the door one evening when you were having a bath,” he said, “and when he called out you got a fright and ran over to that house there?”
The old maid scowled and went scarlet.
“Oh, yes, aunt,” one of the girls said. “That was when you ran over to mother’s, and that is the man” (looking at Burke) “who opened our window the same night.”
The old maid silenced the girl with her elbow, but made no remark.
“What did you say?” the Inspector said coaxingly to the girl. “That this man opened your window the same night?”
“She’s talking through her neck,” Burke growled, shifting restlessly in the saddle. And the girl received another dig in the ribs from her aunt.
The Inspector dismounted, and exerted all his powers of persuasion, and applied all the intimidating tactics he could invent, but his efforts to extract any further information were futile.
“Did you put down what the girl said about her aunt running over to the other place?” Burke said to me as we rode along again,
“Yes; and about the window, too,” I answered maliciously.
With unerring direction the prisoner conducted the escort to a secluded spot at the bottom of a deep gully where he had camped the same night, and pointed to the ashes of the fire he had kindled.
“If he keeps this up,” the Inspector murmured to me as he turned from the place, “he’s a wonder.”
And a wonder Burke was. Day after day he ran his own tracks through the broad, silent bush; over mountains and through scrub; avoiding stock routes and roads; veering off townships that contained police stations; mistaking no spot that he camped at; passing no place where he had called; forgetting no face he had seen; recalling and verifying every word he had spoken to strangers and every word they had spoken to him; describing their build; detailing their peculiarities in manner, gait, and speech; giving their nationalities, and frequently their relationship one to the other. And all this he gathered during his hurried peregrinations of eight weeks! His bush instincts, his memory and his observation, might well have been the envy of any Australian story-writer.
A fortnight went by—a fortnight of slow, sleepy rides often extending long into the night, often through rain and slush, and in the face of storm and hail—and the escort found itself dragging along about thirty miles to the eastward of the scene of the Trackson murder. The prisoner was trespassing on dangerous ground. Was he going to run his tracks into Trackson and seal his fate, or would he shy off and steer a different course were questions that silently engaged every mind. We were not left long in suspense, however. He turned his back completely on the fated township, and led the cavalcade to the foot of the great mountain range.
“I don’t believe the cunning dog came this way,” the Inspector murmured disappointedly, casting his eye on the form of Burke jogging leisurely along beside the senior-constable, “I’m darned if I do!”
A depression seemed to set in all round, and weighed heavily upon the police; and miles and miles of the way were covered without a word being exchanged between any of them.
Striking a bridle track that wound up the steep sides of the range and led through a historical gap to the broad expanse of tableland beyond, Burke halted and pointed to a bark humpy hidden away in a deep gorge.
“An old man and his three sons live here,” he said, “and when I called about four o’clock on the second day of December, the two big boys were wrestling on the grass, in front of the hut, and the old man was cutting the other one’s hair with a pair of shears. I sat down for a while and watched the boys wrestling. They weren’t much good at it, and I offered to show them some points. One of them had a ‘go’ at me, and I threw him over my head. The old man, thinking there was a row on, rushed out and woodened me behind the ear with a lump of stick while my back was turned. It knocked me silly for a while, but when the boys explained that it was all in fun the old man apologised and made me stay the night with them.”
We found the old man and the three boys sitting down to their evening meal together, and on hearing the tramp of our horses they came to the door.
“Ai,” the parent said, on being interrogated, “that’s quaht correct; and from what Ah’ve heerd o’ him since Ah’m dev’lish sorry Ah didn’t give him a hardey yun in the year.”
“Then he did stay with you that night?” the Inspector said with a smile.
“That he did, and from all Ah hear abaht him it waint no angel we were ’arbouring unawares,” the old man replied.
“Well, I’m pretty sure,” Burke put in, “that you don’t follow the occupation of an angel yourself, or you wouldn’t be hiding yourself away in these ranges.”
“Well, Ah’m certain, m’ shaver, from the looks o’ you, that y’ never followed e’er a occupation at all—not on yer own choosin’. I baint have any doubts tho’ but what you could crahk stones or pick oakum wi’ any yun i’ the land.”
Burke winced, but before he could make a reply he was hustled away.
We went into camp along with two drovers, and shared with them the comforts and discomforts of a deserted hut. The drovers were in charge of a mob of cattle, and it was their third day on the road. They were short-handed, and had taken watch the whole of the first two nights.
A large fire burned, and illuminated the trees around. Two emus approached cautiously, then turned and fled into the gloom.
Tea was over; the camp still and quiet. Showers of sparks wreathed up through the tracery of branches —up, up, and out into the silent void.
The Inspector was kindly disposed.
“You know how to watch cattle?” he said to Charlie.
“Well, get a horse and watch the mob for Mr. Jones till middle of night; then you turn in.”
Charlie rose reluctantly to secure a horse.
The drover was grateful, but wanted assurance that the darkie wouldn’t go to sleep on watch and lose the cattle.
“Now, don’t you go to sleep,” the Inspector said. “If you do, the devil devil catch you sure as your name is Charlie.”
“Oh, me not been go to sleep,” Charlie answered, “not while him been about.” And mounting the horse, he rode quietly round the resting mob.
“He’ll watch them all right,” the Inspector assured the drovers; “he’ll be too frightened to go to sleep.” And the “camp” turned in for the night.
For a couple of hours Charlie rode round the mob. It was tedious work, and more than once he found himself and horse nodding to sleep. Finally they both went to sleep; and dreamed. Suddenly a startled emu came streaking through the timber, as emus waill at night, and collided heavily with the slumbering horse. The old horse bounded out of its dream without giving Charlie any warning. Charlie left the saddle and fell on his head. He yelled and jumped up hurriedly. He didn’t wait to find out things. He ran. He came to earth again in a stump hole, and yelled some more. He ran faster and fell over a fence. Then the door of the hut burst open, and he fell inside on top of the slumbering Inspector. The Inspector bounded up and reached for his revolver.
“What the devil’s the matter?” he said.
“By cripes, him been come, boss!” Charlie gasped, glaring at the door.
“My God! they’re off! “ And the drovers bounded from their blankets.
Then a thousand devils seemed to be thundering and crashing through timber. The hoof beats of galloping horses rang on the night, and cries of “Werp! Werp! Woa, there! Woa!” grew fainter and fainter till they died away.