For Life and Other Stories

Chapter X.

A Forlorn Hope

Steele Rudd

AT DAYBREAK the escort, with feelings of thankfulness, left camp, and for several miles ran the river down in a southerly direction. Steering a westerly course, we travelled inland, and, crossing the border again, were once more moving along the heights of the plateau.

Our faces were now turned in the direction of the scene of the murder, and fresh hopes filled the hearts of the police. A tramp of four days and a drop over the ranges by a well-known mountain pass would land a footman in Trackson. The Inspector mentally calculated distances, and with feelings mingled with joy and anxiety reckoned up the dates supplied by the prisoner. The prisoner himself seemed the least concerned of the party.

Two more days passed. Then the rolling plains, fringed with ridge and timber-land, dotted here and there with farm-houses and miscellaneous habitations, spread themselves out before us.

“Rather a good class of people live here,” Burke said as we came to a gate leading to a comfortable-looking homestead; “and when I struck it about sundown on the ninth of December all the men were at the killing-yard killing a bullock. There were two very good-looking girls sitting sewing on the verandah. One of them had very dark hair, and the other was fair. The fair one’s name was Stella. I asked them over the fence for something to eat. They gave me a loaf of bread, a bit o’ tea, about half a pound of butter, and a big slice of cheese.”

The escort then advanced to the house, and found the two pretty girls still sitting on the verandah. With looks of surprise and confusion they tripped down the steps and came to the garden fence. When questioned by the Inspector they looked hard at each other, and thought hard. The dark one shook her head dubiously, but the fair one suddenly remembered that a traveller had called about the date mentioned, and that she and her sister had given him something to eat. She remembered it because they happened to have more bread in the house that day than they knew what to do with, and were glad to give it to someone rather than waste it.

“Don’t you recollect,” she added, turning to her sister, “that pa was in a great scot, and said we were only encouraging ‘sundowners’ to make the house a place of call?”

Then the other remembered also.

“Is your name Stella?” the Inspector asked, addressing the fair one.

She stared in surprise, then laughed and said: “It is; but I’m sure I don’t know how you know.”

“Would you know the man again if you saw him?” the Inspector further interrogated

The fair girl seemed doubtful but her sister was sure she would.

“Do you see him here, then?” was the next question.

The dark girl ran her eye over the line of dusty faces fronting her across the fence. She ran her eye over us several times.

At last she made up her mind.

“That’s the man,” she said, pointing to me.

A broad official grin stole over the features of the police, and the two trackers broke into a variety of giggles, and made jokes in their own language at my expense.

“Are you quite sure? “ I asked, straightening myself up, and endeavouring to look attractive and innocent. It was a difficult proposition.

She hesitated a moment.

“N-n-no, “ she said, “not when you speak.” And then she smiled and showed an enviable set of teeth and how nice she was. I longed to pull the palings down and hug her.

“Would you think I was the man?” Burke broke out in his harsh, grating voice.

“Oh! that’s the man!” both girls exclaimed. “And you were carrying a small calico swag, and wearing the same hat you have on now,” one of them added. Then turning apologetically to me, the brunette said with a smile, “But you’re awfully alike, you know.”

The desire to pull the palings out and hug her melted suddenly from me. She didn’t strike me as being a nice girl.

.     .     .     .     .

Like explorers of the past, the escort slowly crossed the plains. The homes of a dozen selectors were visited; the rich pastoral lands of various stations, where the great sheep-walks mocked the small and struggling landholders, were traversed; another of the prisoner’s camping-places identified; another night under the trees by the bank of a creek; and then the day of all days—the day that would either set the prisoner free or see him hanged by the neck in the city gaol—was entered upon.

Burke had now accounted for his every movement, and proved his whereabouts right up to the morning of the tragedy; and not more than thirty miles of country lay between the escort and Traekson. Could the prisoner have made a quick day’s march, taking a direct course through the mountain ranges, and reached Trackson in time to intercept the Maguires when returning from the ball they had never attended? The police scarcely dare ask themselves that question; but silently and with a look of anxious expectation they moved from camp, watching their prisoner closely as they rode along. When some three miles had been covered, Burke directed the way to a clump of grasstrees.

“I reached those trees about ten o’clock, and camped under them till one or two, then went on to a township about four miles from here.”

“You camped under them till one!” the Inspector murmured incredulously. And: “I don’t believe it!” in an undertone from one of the constables,

“All right!” the Inspector sighed, touching his horse with the riding whip. “We’ll soon see all about it, I suppose.”

Those grass-trees were a wet blanket on the hopes and prospects of the police.

Presently the township came into view. So did a crowd of excited-looking people—a galaxy of men, women, and youths, some mounted on horseback, some driving in sulkies and traps. News of the escort’s advance was brought in the evening before, and the inhabitants, anxious to see the notorious suspect, turned out to meet us. They lined up on both sides of the black-soil lane, and, like a guard of honour, awaited us. As we drew near we felt like conquering heroes. The prisoner felt like a wild animal being exhibited. He disliked admiration. He was displeased. He began to show his displeasure. At range of a hundred yards he opened a slow preliminary fire of profanity on them. We smiled. We knew what was coming, and what a shock the crowd would get. At seventy yards Burke’s voice rose to a shout, and he became violently profane. Several females left the ranks and drove away. At fifty yards the prisoner went off like a cannon, and belched forth such a volume of blasphemy that the two lines broke into disorder and fled down the road to the township. But a square shouldered man with a slouch hat shading his eyes, a pointed, faded beard of no particular variety or consequence, sleeves rolled up, grease on his shirt, and blood splashes on his trouser legs, remained sitting calmly on a yellow, shoulder-marked mare with a thick, heavy tail and a strawberry neck. He was the butcher. Burke gasped for breath, then attacked him. He called him a variety of blood and birth stains; threw doubts on his pedigree and his nationality; questioned his sex, and threatened when he was free to return and murder him in his sleep. Then, in spite of the senior-constable, he spurred the chestnut round in a half-circle and tried to ride the butcher down.

“You’re a queer card,” the vendor of tuberculosis said, and, putting spurs to the yellow mare with the strawberry neck, raced in pursuit of the main body.

“The —— dog!” Burke murmured. “I’ll look him up when I come out!”

Before entering the township the escort left the main road and turned down a lane leading to a primitive dairy farm.

“The man who lives here,” Burke said, “is an Irishman, and his name’s Malone. He has only owned the farm about two years, and he bought it from a chap called Regan. I got some bread and tea from him about six o’clock in the evening and made a fire and camped just in front of the house. That was the night you fellows reckon I was in Trackson murdering the Maguires.”

The Inspector bit his lip and rode on in silence.

Malone was at dinner, and, with excitement in his eye, and twirling a fork in his fingers with a lump of fresh meat impaled on the prongs of it, came out to meet us.

“I do thin remimber him,” he snapped with emphasis; “remimber him damn well. And what’s more, ye’re barkin’ up the wrong tree—ye haven’t the right mahn.”

“I don’t want your opinion on that.” the Inspector snarled. “Is he the man who called here on the evening of the twenty-sixth December, and can you swear to him? That’s all I want to know from you.”

“Of courrse Oi can swear to him; and Oi cud swear at him. And Oi cud swear he was just across the road under that tree the very next morning. And Oi cud swear if it wasn’t him it was someone else who got awaay with me Christmas ham from out me kitchen that same night.”

“And you’re certain it was the twenty-sixth December?” the Inspector asked as a last hope.

“Just as certain as I am that ye are all wastin’ ye’re toime draggin’ him round the country, and lettin’ them who did the murther get awaay.”

“I only want you to answer my question,” came angrily from the Inspector,

“I huv answered ye ‘re question,” Malone replied, still twirling the steak about. “Oi huv more than answered it. And sure there’s the Dalys and the O’Briens, and ahl thim, who cud answer it too; fer ahl ov thim recognised him as the mahn who wer’ here whin they see his picter in the paipers.”

“Is your name Malone?”

“It is—Martin Thomas Patrick Malone! And I’m not ashamed of it, neither.”

“Did you buy this place from a man called Regan?”

“I did—from Terence Regan, senior.”

The Inspector mounted his horse again.

“I’m obliged to you,” Burke said to Malone, as we turned away.

“Thin yez needn’t be,” answered Malone; “fer I’d give yez ten year if Oi were a judge.”

.     .     .     .     .

The same evening the police lay in camp resting and reflecting on the dismal results of their investigations, and their hopeless chances of reward. A messenger arrived on horseback, and handed the Inspector a note from the stationmaster of the township. The Inspector read it and brightened up.

“The stationmaster’s office was broken into here last night,” he said, looking at his subordinates, “and the iron safe, with a lot of cash in it, taken into a gully and burst open.”

The rest of the Force cheered up. They thought they saw a silver lining to the official cloud. Their minds travelled again to the Trackson tragedy, and a fresh clue loomed large in their imaginations.

The Inspector ordered his horse to be saddled at once; then, accompanied by Charlie, the tracker, and Constable Taay, rode speedily to the railway station.

The exact spot in the gully where the safe had been taken was pointed out by the officials. The Inspector noted the place carefully. Then the work of the tracker commenced. The darkie had no difficulty in picking up the tracks of the robber. They were as clear as day to him.

“I follow dem galloping,” he said boastfully.

“Never mind,” the Inspector answered. “We’ll run them on foot.”

The tracks led off through the grass that covered a long, sloping ridge in a station paddock. For about a hundred yards Charlie bustled eagerly along, keeping a straight line. Suddenly he stopped.

“He been crouch down here a little while,” he said, “all alonga himself, and look round to see if anyone follow.”

On again he went.

“Now he been run; and run it all a time with one cove leg. Him have it tshort foot.”

And the black trotted along, all the while working round the grass paddock in a half-circle,

“He been sit it on his knee alonga here,” and Charlie paused again. “Then him been turn round, and run it this way.”

Charlie followed “that way,” and the tracks led him right to the front door of the local Justice of the Peace. The Inspector stared in at the doorway, and commenced to think hard. While he was thinking, and the tracker “jabbering,” the J.P., with his boots off, came to the verandah and stared also.

The Inspector explained.

“Oh, yes,” the Justice said with a grin. “I was down having a look at that safe this morning, with the stationmaster, and afterwards went round the paddock to see if I could shoot a hare.”

“Well, I’m d——d!” the Inspector murmured.

“That pfellow I been trackit alonga here have it tshort foot,” Charlie said.

“So have I,” the J.P. answered cheerfully. “ I’ve no toes on that foot—they were shot off,” and he elevated the wounded member for inspection.

Charlie was silenced.

At the Justice’s invitation the Inspector stepped inside and took a whisky, then returned to the camp.

.     .     .     .     .

The commission was over. The farce had finished. There was nothing more to do, and on the following evening, weary and worn out, we arrived at Trackson, where the Chief Inspector, sitting like a huge chrysalis amidst piles of documentary evidence, and waste paper, awaited our verdict.

“No possible!” Inspector Black said gloomily, throwing himself into a chair. “He wasn’t within thirty miles of this place that night, and could have had no more hand in it than I had, as you’ll see by the evidence.”

“I don’t care a d—— what the evidence is!” the Chief replied. “I still stick to my conclusion—that Burke was the man.”

.     .     .     .     .

A few weeks after, Burke was released. He came to my office in the city and said he was grateful to me for having made a truthful report.

“What is your private opinion about the murder, anyway, Burke?” I asked as he rose to go.

“I have no opinion about it,” he said; “no more than the police have.”

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