NEXT morning the cavalcade in single file climbed the mountain sides, and reached the great plateau.
Descending from the plateau we struck the head of one of the largest of Australian rivers. A magnificent waterhole and abundance of grass were there, and the Inspector decided to camp for a couple of days to spell the horses. It was a weary, monotonous time. With little to converse about and nothing whatever to read, those two days dragged tediously by. A big scrub was there, however, and the rifles supplied us with turkeys and pigeons without number, and we fed in style equal to Paris House.
On the afternoon of the second day the prisoner expressed a wish to indulge in a swim. He said he wanted “a good wash badly.” We believed him. We knew he did. We had to sleep near him; and his wardrobe was not an extensive one. The shirt and trousers he was wearing were those he had worn during the eight weeks he was out. He had no others with him, and he never borrowed ours.
“Let him have a dip,” the Inspector said to the senior-constable, “but leave the leg-irons on one of his ankles.” Then, while Burke was undressing, he whispered in an undertone to Constable Taay to “slip round to the other side of the hole, in case he might try something on.”
Taay, taking up the rifle and pretending to be looking for game, sauntered round and took up a position on the other bank.
Burke, with the leg-irons jingling like hobble chains as he faced the water, plunged head first into the hole and dived. All eyes were immediately fixed on the surface to locate the spot where he would likely appear again. He didn’t appear. The circles he left behind on the face of the water grew larger and larger. The Inspector became concerned. “Look out for him!” he cried, standing up revolver in hand. “Get to the bottom end, some of you, quick!” The next moment all hands were gathered round that hole watching every motion of the water, and listening intently for the faintest sound. None came.
Ten, fifteen minutes went past; yet not a sign of the prisoner! The Inspector became frantic. He called loudly to him by name—called a dozen times.
Still no response.
“He has either come up close to the bank with his head behind them reeds there,” the senior said, “or the leg-irons have him caught in a bramble at the bottom of the hole, and he’s done for.”
“But surely there’d be bubbles come on the water if he was caught at the bottom,” the Inspector said despairingly; then tore at his hair and called for the prisoner again.
“By ——!” he cried desperately at last, “if he’s behind those reeds and won’t come out, I’ll riddle him with bullets!”
Burke was behind the reeds; but only his nose was above water, and as the Inspector raised the revolver to fire in his direction he disappeared like a turtle; and when the shooting was over rose noiselessly again to the surface.
An hour—two hours passed; still no trace of the prisoner.
“He’s stuck by the leg-iron, all right,” the senior repeated in hopeless tones; and the Inspector murmured, “There’ll be a hell of a row,” and ran wildly about the banks peering over the edges of them.
At last an idea suddenly struck him, and he cried, “Can any of you dive?”
“Charlie, he been a great diver.” Norman said proudly.
The Inspector turned hopefully to Charlie. Charlie demurred. The darkie had no wish to emulate the bad example of Burke.
“Not in dare,” he said stubbornly. “I been get stuck, too. By cripes!”
The next moment Constable Taay had stripped off, and, facing the spot where Burke disappeared, took a header. The rest of the force waited breathlessly.
“By cripes, boss,” Charlie said with enthusiasm, “if him been get stuck, too, I ridit in his saddle.”
The Inspector scowled at Charlie and fixed his eyes on the water again.
In a few seconds Constable Taay, spouting water with the noise of a whale, came to the surface.
“I felt the head of a tree or something,” he gasped, “but nothing else.”
“He’s under it all right,” the senior murmured again, “and out of it he’ll never come.”
After a few minutes’ rest Constable Taay dived a second time. As he disappeared again, Burke left his hiding place and swam under water towards him.
Taay in groping about embraced the form of the latter; and seizing him by the hair rose triumphantly with him. Burke came to the surface as limp and lifeless as a dead man.
“I’ve got him!” Taay cried. “He was under a log,” and swam to the bank with the corpse.
“Dead, by G—!” the Inspector muttered, as the body was dragged out and stretched on the grass.
“Wait a bit—wait a bit!” the senior cried excitedly.” Turn him over; put his head down hill and let the water run out of him, and rub him—rub him, every one of ye.”
All of us set to work, and rubbed and scrubbed and patted and spanked the body of Burke. Then we held him up by the heels, but no water ran out of him.
“By gobs!” the senior exclaimed, making a discovery, “I believe he’s breathing.”
Burke was breathing, but only slightly.
“Run to my valise.” the Inspector said, “and bring a flask of brandy that’s there.”
Norman ran and brought the brandy flask, and the neck of it was inserted in the drowned man’s mouth. He began to drink feebly.
“By heavens, he’s coming round” the Inspector cried, putting the neck of the flask into Burkes mouth again. Burke closed his teeth upon it and drank greedily.
He drank it all before relaxing his grip.
“By cripes!” Charlie moaned as the brandy disappeared, “I don’t think he been drowned very much, somehow.”
Burke groaned, and opening his eyes murmured, “Wheresh [hic] are we?”
“How do you feel?” the Inspector asked sympathetically.
Burke lifted his voice and in a cracked, drunken key began to sing; “We wonsh go home [hic] till mornin’; w’e won’sh go home [hic] till mornin’.”
A cheerful chuckle came from the force, and Charlie said:
“Brandy putit life into him. By cripes!”
Burke suddenly staggered to his feet, and yelling, “You were too d—— frightened to go in after me, anyway, you black scrubber!” and aimed several kicks with his bare foot at Charlie.
The Inspector stared, and said to Taay, “Was he under the log?”
Then, swinging his arms about like flails, Burke cried, “Come on! I’ll (hic) fight the wholsh dam lot yoush!”
They came on, and three heavy policemen fell on him, and bore him to the ground again. Then they handcuffed him and secured him in the tent, where he struggled and howled like a wild animal till long into the night.