previous
next

I

Dick Baines, the hawker, had been murdered; of that there was no manner of doubt. He had camped at the boundary-hut, an old, deserted sheep-station, and a traveller passing the next day found him lying alongside his dray with his head cut open. His own axe, with a blood-stained blade, lay beside the body. Evidently he could not have done it himself. On that point everyone agreed.

His horses were safe and his goods apparently untouched, and herein lay the mystery of the crime. He had only just


  ― 100 ―
started on his round with a full load, and what little money he had taken was found on his body. There seemed no motive for a white man to commit the deed, and if any of the blacks had done it, why had they not sacked the dray? It was an enigma worthy of a first-class detective-story. Meantime, during its elucidation, there was nothing to do but hold an inquest over what was once Baines, bury it, and let the law do the rest.

The deceased had been some time in the district, and was noted for his reserved manner. He always travelled and camped alone, and seldom drank. He was not extremely popular, and most people suspected that he had “a past.” One singular feature of the tragedy was that his dog, a smart little fox-terrier, had disappeared. The matter had almost run the orthodox nine days, when interest in it was suddenly revived by the arrest of a man in the small township of Boolah, a short distance from the scene of the murder, who was formally charged with the crime. He had Baines' dog with him.




  ― 101 ―

McFarlane, the man accused, was well known in the district and bore an excellent character. He had been working at Devine's on a fencing contract and had been paid off and left the morning before the hawker was killed. Had started for Seldon Downs, the road to which led past the boundary-hut. Thence he had gone round by two other stations to Boolah. He stated that he found the dog astray in the township, recognised it as the missing animal, called it by name, and the dog followed him. He was about to inform the police when he was arrested by the sergeant.

Scarcely had the surprise occasioned by this been well digested, before a more astonishing one turned up. Baines' dog was also found in a blacks' camp on Seldon Downs.

One of the men riding by the camp noticed a gin scuttling away with something in her arms that yelped and struggled. Rounding her up, he found she was vainly trying to conceal Baines' well-known and apparently ubiquitous dog. Further search revealed nothing more, and the gin made the


  ― 102 ―
astounding assertion that the dog had been given to her by a white woman. Beyond that no intelligible information could be elicited from her. The blacks were well watched and the dog taken down to Boolah, where McFarlane was to appear before the magistrates' court.

It now transpired that there were two dogs marked exactly the same, identical in size and appearance, and both answering to the name of “Rattler.” But the question was, which of the pair was Baines' dog? Never since the judgment of Solomon had law-court a more knotty problem. The animals on being introduced promptly fell on each other tooth and claw and were with difficulty separated. Bell and Devine, both J's. P., were sitting on the bench with the police-magistrate. They differed in opinion. Bell declared that the dog found with McFarlane was the dead hawker's; Devine was equally confident that the dog found on Seldon Downs was the one wanted. After much heated discussion Bell left the bench and desired to give evidence.




  ― 103 ―

He stated that the last time he saw Baines, the hawker showed him a trick he had been teaching his dog. It was an old and well-known performance. The dog sat up on his hind legs with a piece of meat or biscuit balanced on the tip of his nose; at the words “ready, present, fire!” he tossed it up, caught and swallowed it, and dropped on all fours again. Bell selected the dog he thought was the hawker's, and put him through the performance amidst the hushed attention of a crowded court-room. It was a complete success and he looked up with an air of triumph.

“Yes. That's the dog found on Seldon Downs,” said Devine from the bench.

“Nothing of the sort,” returned Bell hotly, forgetting his position as witness. “It's the dog found with McFarlane.”

Devine was indignantly replying, when the P.M. interfered and asked the sergeant which dog it was. The sergeant looked at the dogs, then at the two policemen, and they looked blankly back at the sergeant. Then the truth burst upon everybody with such


  ― 104 ―
suddenness that a roar of laughter convulsed the court.

The two dogs had got so irretrievably mixed up in the fight that now no one could tell one from the other.

When order was restored (Bell and Devine had nearly come to blows) the P.M. decided to remand the case for a week. Bail was allowed McFarlane, which Devine readily found. One of the dogs, the one which could perform the trick, was ordered to have a collar put on for distinction, and both were given in charge of the lock-up keeper. The enquiry had simply complicated matters. Baines' dog was identified, but nobody could say for certain at which place it had been found. Bell and Devine were, of course, equally positive, but that was mere party feeling. Most people believed in McFarlane's innocence, but Bell vowed that he would bring the murder home to him.

“Can you recall anything suspicious the night you passed Baines?” said Devine to McFarlane, as they went out after signing the bail bonds.




  ― 105 ―

“No, sir. He had hobbled his horses out and was lighting a fire. I got off, lit my pipe, and stopped yarning for about twenty minutes. Then I went on to Seldon Downs.”

“And from there?”

“I came to Boolah by Thirglemere and Bingledoon. I had been here about two hours when I recognised the dog, and directly after I had coaxed him to follow me I was arrested.”

“From the boundary-hut, going round by Seldon Downs, Thirglemere, and Bingledoon, you made it about eighty miles to here and took your time?”

“I stopped two days at Thirglemere and two at Bingledoon. I was a week coming here altogether.”

“But anyone could ride from the boundary-hut straight in to here in about thirty-five miles.”

“Yes, by the old track, but you have fenced that across now.”

“The wires could be easily strapped down, or cut, for that matter. Let's see, I don't


  ― 106 ―
suppose it's been used for years, and there has been no rain since Baines was killed. I'm going to run the old track.”

“Will they let me go with you?”

“I'll fix that,” said Devine—and the next morning the two departed for the old track to the boundary-hut.

During their absence, however, Bell was not idle. He returned to the station, and, after much ado, he had the old gin, from whom the dog had been taken, brought into Boolah. As they arrived Devine and McFarlane rode in, returning from their trip to the old hut.

On being shown the two dogs, the gin immediately claimed the one without the collar as being her property. This was satisfactory, to Bell, at any rate, but at this moment Devine came upon the scene. Disdaining to do more than civilly sneer at the test just gone through, he drew the sergeant on one side and held a short conference with him. The sergeant disappeared with the two dogs; the others waited, Bell scornfully impatient. Presently the two dogs reappeared.


  ― 107 ―
On being told to pick out her dog, the gin at once again selected the collarless one.

“That's the other one this time, is it not, Sergeant?” said Devine.

“Yes, sir, I shifted the collar just now.”

“It's not fair!” broke in Bell. “The poor devil's frightened out of her wits; she picked right the first time, but you've bothered her;” and he marched out of the yard in deep disgust.

When Devine and McFarlane left the township they did not trouble to look for tracks until they were well clear of all the stray animals. When about ten miles away the old bridle-path was quite plain. Both men rode on in silence, scanning the ground carefully; at times, with a low whistle, one would call the other's attention to something he saw. Just as they got within sight of the fence, they pulled up.

“It's plain enough, McFarlane,” said Devine; “a horse has been ridden along here about the time of the murder.”

McFarlane nodded. “We shall make sure at the fence,” he answered, and they


  ― 108 ―
rode on. It was a wire fence, and where it crossed the track the wires were taut and evidently untampered with. The two turned and rode along the fence in opposite directions. A shout from McFarlane brought Devine back to him. He had come to a panel that bore marks of rough usage, from the way the upper wires sagged. “The top wires have been strapped down and then brushed across,” said the fencer, pointing to the withered boughs lying about.

“And the horse did not fancy tackling it,” added Devine; “look how he has been hanging back.” Inside the fence the ground was much more bare and dusty, and the tracks of a horse's stamping hoofs deeply indented were plainly visible.

“Whew!” said McFarlane, getting through the fence, “look here!” Devine followed him. On a particularly dry and dusty bit of ground was the plain imprint of a boot. There should have been nothing strange in this to make the men stare so intently at it; it was only what they might have expected to find.




  ― 109 ―

Placing his hand on McFarlane's shoulder to steady himself, Devine put his foot down close to the track without actually touching the ground. The difference in size was at once apparent.

“Either a boy or a woman,” said McFarlane. “And the gin said a woman gave her the dog,” returned the other.

Carefully getting back so as not to deface the tracks the two men mounted and rode a short distance down the fence to where they knew was a small gate. Making for the old bridle-path again, they followed it on towards the hut, McFarlane drawing Devine's attention to the track of a small dog now plainly visible on that of the horse.

They stayed that night at the old sheep-station, but no further evidence rewarded their careful search, beyond the fact that some blacks had camped in the neighbourhood, apparently about the date of the murder. They returned to Boolah in time for Devine to be present at the dog-test, as already narrated. McFarlane met him as he was coming out.




  ― 110 ―

“It has just struck me to whom that second dog belongs,” he said.

“Whose is it?”

“Mrs. Brown's; you know, at Boomerang Creek.”

“By Jove, you're right,” said Devine. “It must have been stolen from there.”

Devine was doubtful whether to communicate the discovery of the suspicious track to the police or not. Against his better judgment he did so, thinking it his duty. They went out, accompanied by Bell, who volunteered his services, examined the track, and reported that it had been made some time since the hawker's death, and so had nothing to do with that occurrence. In this they were partly prompted by Bell, and partly by the fact that as they had searched for tracks, without success, at the time of the murder, it would never do for them to go back on themselves. Devine cursed himself for a fool, and that was all he could do. When McFarlane's case came on again he was, of course, discharged. The evidence was altogether too slight, and several people came


  ― 111 ―
forward and testified to having seen the dog in Boolah before McFarlane's arrival.

“I'll find out about that other dog,” said Devine to himself.

previous
next