previous
next



  ― 84 ―
view facsimile

CHAPTER VI.

WHO IS THE MURDERER AND THE VICTIM?—A SETTLER'S FARE—AN EXCUSE FOR A GLASS OF GROG—KANGAROOS IN MINIATURE—THE CHASE.

"THE blood looks bad," said the magistrate, after a pause, "but that might happen a thousand ways. It's the trampling of the earth round about that looks most suspicious. See! here has been a tuft of rushes pulled up in the struggle. These rushes are thick and strong—too strong for a child to pull up, I think, even in a death-struggle. No, this was not done by a child's hand! Let us make a closer examination."

Pursuing our investigation, we found the mark of the heel of a man's shoe, which had been digged violently into the ground, apparently in a struggle to rise, and beyond the circle where our own footsteps had trodden down the snow, and


  ― 85 ―
view facsimile

which for a moment had prevented our observing the space beyond it, we traced the appearance of some heavy body having been dragged for some distance to a spot where there was a deep hole, at the foot of some straggling rocks. By throwing in pebbles, we ascertained that the hole was of considerable depth. In looking about, the intelligent constable observed the mark of a stone of a large size having been removed, the earth in which it had been embedded exhibiting a surface which, from its freshness, it was plain had been but recently exposed to the air; and at short distances two more indications of the same sort were discovered.

“That pool holds the dead body of somebody, I'll be sworn," said Sanders, "but that's a secret that lies at the bottom, and I don't see the way to get at it just now; but time will show, for there never was a murder ever so secret that was not found out at last.”

After a diligent search, we could find no other marks of blood than those which had first attracted the attention of the constables; but it was clear that a desperate struggle had taken place on the spot, but who was the victim, or


  ― 86 ―
view facsimile

whether there was more than one, was involved in mystery.

By this time, having recovered from the effects of my previous night's suffering, I began to warm to the work; and being moved at the sight of the blood, and the thought of the peril that the poor girl was in, if she was still alive, I was eager to continue the pursuit. I proposed, therefore, that we should not lose time in discussing the probabilities of what had taken place, but mark the exact spot, so as to be able to find it again without difficulty, and move forward without delay to the rescue of the child, whose precarious fate had inspired me with an interest which I was surprised at myself;—but I thought of my own children, and could not but feel strongly for an orphan who had been cast on my care under circumstances so remarkable, and against whose life or welfare it was evident there was some nefarious design.

We sent back our Sorell-Town purveyor liberally recompensed, and started off on the track, now become very faint, at a rapid pace, Sanders taking the lead. It was now drawing towards the evening, and the sun was sinking fast, affording


  ― 87 ―
view facsimile

to us the not very agreeable prospect of passing the night in the bush under a winter's sky, with the likelihood of a heavy fall of snow for feather beds. We were glad, therefore, when we found that our course led us in the direction of the Coal-River, where we knew there were many settlers, some of them indeed verging towards the position of wealthy agriculturists. We skirted a succession of small farms, looking very cold and desolate at the decline of the day in the winter season, till we came to where a log fence had been broken down; we followed on, and presently came into view of the red-brick house of some thriving settler in a hollow beneath the hill. The marks of the footsteps in the snow became more and more indistinct, but after passing the centre of the enclosure, we observed the prints of the shoes of a horse.

“This looks like business,” said Sanders. “You see, Sir, these chaps are determined to go through with their work. They have taken some poor devil of a settler's horse, and depend upon it, Sir, they have made up their minds for a run.”

“I have no doubt,” said the magistrate, “that their object is to get away from the island;


  ― 88 ―
view facsimile

and having been stopped at Hobart-Town, I shouldn't wonder if they were to make an attempt at Launceston.”

“That would be leading us a pretty dance,” said I. “It's a chase of a hundred and twenty miles at least; but we must hope to come up with them before then. If they keep their horse, they will leave a good track behind them; we must take care not to lose it. It would be well,” I added, “to measure the size and shape of the horse's shoes while we have light enough.”

Sanders took the hint, and found that the horse had a broad shoe on the left fore-foot and a narrow-shaped one on the other. He took down the exact size of each shoe, and noted them with a pencil in a pocket-book.

Some flakes of snow now began to fall, and the dusk came on, warning us that if we thought of seeking a shelter for the night, it was time to look about us; but we kept on our way as long as we could distinguish the track, but the snow falling faster and faster, and darkness coming on besides, we made a halt and deliberated on what was best to be done.

“With submission to you, Sir,” said Sanders


  ― 89 ―
view facsimile

to the magistrate, “it's of no use to follow a track at night; there's more lost than gained by it; for the fatigue makes one the less able to do the work next day. You see, we have 'em safe if this snow continues, which looks likely, for they cannot rub out their marks, and they must go between the river and the tier of hills; so that, by crossing the line between, we shall come on their track again. If I might venture to advise, Sir, you will be all the better tomorrow for a night's rest, and if we could borrow a couple of horses hereabouts, it would be all the better, and we could make more speed in the morning.”

We thought the experienced constable's advice good, and under his guidance we turned aside to the left, and after half an hour's march we came to the door of a settler's hut, where we asked permission to pass the night. It proved to be the dwelling of a man for whom the magistrate had procured a ticket-of-leave about two years before, for good conduct, and who had since rented a farm of three hundred acres, of which there were about fifteen under tillage, with the working-bullocks and farming conveniences


  ― 90 ―
view facsimile

usually let with the land on such occasions. This was a lucky hit. Our first business was to make inquiries after the parties we were in pursuit of, but our new acquaintances could give us no information.

We were made welcome with all the means which the humble dwelling afforded, and the united efforts of the farmer and his wife were cheerfully rendered to furnish out our entertainment. Fresh logs were thrown on the fire, and some very lean mutton-chops, cut from a lantern-looking sheep, which was suspended from the branch of a tree outside, were immediately put into the frying-pan by the man, while the woman busied herself with the tea-things; mutton-chops for eating, and tea for beverage, being the usual repast on almost all occasions in the houses of the poorer class of settlers.

While these preparations were being made inside, we looked to our horses out of doors. There was but poor accommodation for them, but a sort of shed protected them from the snow, and they were obliged to put up with a bran mash for supper, and a tolerable feed of barley. Hay and oats were for the most part unattainable


  ― 91 ―
view facsimile

luxuries in Van Diemen's Land at that time, and not often to be obtained now; barley and wheat, or barley in the straw, being their customary food, with the grass of the country as it grows in its natural state. We were quickly summoned by our host to the repast prepared for us.

“Rather poor mutton for you, Sir," said the man; "we have but a poor-run here for sheep, and it's not easy to get them through the winter with any thing on their bones, but you shall have our best.”

“Why, you're getting on, Richard,” said the magistrate, “if you have got a flock of sheep. How many have you?”

“There's near three hundred of 'em; but they are not my own; I wish they were. I have 'em on the thirds; they were part of the farming stock, and thanks to you, Sir, the owner has trusted me with them, with the rest of the farming things.”

“Can you manage a cow?”

“Not yet, Sir; we have four working-bullocks, pretty good ones; but we can't manage a cow yet. This is no place for stock. If we could contrive half a dozen cows, we could make our


  ― 92 ―
view facsimile

money of them, for wife's a good dairy-woman and we are within reach of Camp, where we could get half-a-crown a pound in money for every pound we could make. But won't you eat, Sir? the things are clean, though they're homely. Will you drink tea with your meat?”

“Have you nothing but tea, Dick, for the gentlemen,” said Sanders, making a wry face, which was reflected by Scroggs, “in these parts? There used to be better stuff to be had not long ago.”

Dick pointed with his hand to the magistrate, and shook his head.

I understood the meaning of these masonic signs very well; so, as I wished to pleasure the constables, whom it was important for us to keep in good humour, without compromising my friend's official dignity, I displayed two five-dollar notes to Sanders, who thereupon gave a significant nod, and disappeared with Scroggs.

“Good water, hereabouts?” said the magistrate.

“There's not much water for stock till you get to the river, but there's a spring handy by, that serves for our own use.”


  ― 93 ―
view facsimile

“It doesn't taste well out of a pannikin. Bah! it's like a mineral spring. You haven't got a glass tumbler, Richard?”

“We had one, Sir, but it's broke, and we can't be very nice at first; but there's a teacup if you like it better. It's done enough, now,” said he to his wife, who had been frying a cake in the pan, and her own face at the same time, while we were discussing our dish of mutton-chops and damper. “There's a real settler's cake for you, gentlemen, made nice and light, like a pancake, only it wants eggs and milk.”

“A glass of grog, now, would be no bad thing,” said my friend; “but I suppose that's not easy to be got here. How far are we from any public-house? Rum is better than nothing, at a pinch, though it's sad stuff generally—new and rank—the common rum from Bengal, one of the most unwholesome of all spirits; but, as a medicine, now and then —— ”

The worthy magistrate's dissertation on the qualities of Bengal rum was cut short by Sanders, who appeared with a bottle of that popular liquor, the same having been only half-watered, in deference to the distinguished company,


  ― 94 ―
view facsimile

for whose especial refection Sanders had enjoined the sly-shop, it was on this occasion particularly dedicated.

“Where does this come from?” asked the magistrate, in a little absence of mind, and pouring into a pannikin a decent portion of the liquid.

“Out of the bottle,” said I.

“I take it as a medicine,” rejoined my friend, taking the hint at the same time—“only as a medicine (Sanders and Scroggs shook their heads doubtfully); for, after all, it only spoils the water—but this water is brackish.”

With this my excellent friend imbibed, with considerable relish, as it seemed to me, a tolerable dose of the medicine, and knocking the table with the edge of the tin pannikin, which made a ring-ing sound, as if complaining of being empty, he laid his hand promiscuous-like on the neck of the bottle, and tilting it over, directed its muzzle in a sort of fit of abstraction, towards the capacious mouth of the pannikin.

“Any sugar, Richard?”

“Only brown, Sir; we never have anything but brown; white is too expensive for new settlers.”


  ― 95 ―
view facsimile

“True, Richard, true;—this is brown sugar, but it tempers the spirit. I think I'll try it this time with hot water. Bale out a little from the tripod with the other pannikin. In cold weather, it's well to keep up the vital heat, Dick.”

My friend sipped his boiling grog with a philosophic cheerfulness, and a readiness in accommodating himself to circumstances extremely gratifying to an intelligent mind, and when he had got half through his second pannikin, he condescended, with much complacency, to observe, that “after all, it was a tipple not to be despised, if taken now and then, and in moderation!”

Sanders and Scroggs, however, did not view the alarming deficit, which was increasing, in the solitary bottle with the same composure, their minds, I presume, not being so philosophically constituted; and it was with the most lively apprehensions, therefore, that they saw the magistrate raise his hand for the third time in a threatening way to the neck of the bottle, which stood handy to his reach. The intellects of the latter functionary being sharpened by the pressing nature of the danger, he forgot, in his agony,


  ― 96 ―
view facsimile

the deep respect due to the official dignity of his worship, and being unable to repress his feelings, he vociferated a tremendous “Oh!”

“What's the matter?” said the magistrate; “have you done your supper? You had better have a glass of grog. Here, Sanders, take the bottle. And now for a turn in. Richard, how can you manage for us?”

“If it wasn't for my wife, Sir, you should have our little room, but we'll make you up a shake-down in this corner by the fire, and you'll lie soft enough on the wool.”

“Wool! No Boomahs! I hope—Eh! Dick?” beginning to scratch himself instinctively at the sight of the wool.

“Pretty well for that, Sir, but they will come wherever there's a house. It's the dogs, I suppose, that harbour them; but they don't meddle with us much; or else we are used to them.”

“Used to them! Bless ye!” said Sanders, “all the settlers' houses in this district are full of 'em; they're 'digenous to the place. You may see 'em in summer-time going down to the Coal-River to water quite regular, and hopping back again like Christians. Lively little creturs they are,


  ― 97 ―
view facsimile

and love company. They're a sort of kangaroo in miniature; and I dare say if you took the trouble to examine 'em, you would find 'em with tails and false bellies, all complete. There's one! and there's another! he's a regular boomah! Ah! my fine fellow! I can see you are grinning at me, and expecting an elegant supper on my unfortunate person, but (here we heard a peculiar sort of crack) I'll disappoint you, you black-guard! And you, too (another crack), and—confound them! here's a regular colony! Well, bite away, my hearties, it's of no use trying to get rid of you, I see! What must be, must! I'm a doomed victim!”

The night passed away in similar complaints from the whole party, each individual waging unsuccessful war against hosts of assailants, and seasoning his maledictions, according to his quality, with such oaths and curses as came most readily to hand. As soon as the first gleam of the morning light appeared, we were on our legs, and after the usual preliminaries of fried mutton-chops and hot tea, without milk, and damper without butter, we prepared for our march.

“Well, Richard,” said the magistrate, “much


  ― 98 ―
view facsimile

obliged to you for your night's lodging. But we must not eat you out of house and home. You will just give this to your wife (proffering a four-dollar bank-note) to make the pot boil.”

“Not I, Sir,” said our host; “you don't think I'd take money from you, Sir, after all your goodness to me. You are welcome to all I can offer you; but you don't think, Sir, I would be paid for seeing my”—friends he was about to say, but he checked himself—“for being hospitable.”

“Very well, Dick, just as you like.”

But as I did not like to consume the man's provisions without recompensing him for it, I pressed a two-dollar note on the lady of the mansion, and as my friend told me that he had contrived to convey the rejected four-dollar note to the same quarter, we had the satisfaction of feeling that our visit would not put the family to any inconvenience.

There had been a heavy fall of snow during the night, and it lay some inches thick on the ground. The clouds threatened more; and we resumed our pursuit with no very agreeable anticipations.


  ― 99 ―
view facsimile

“Now, Sanders,” said the magistrate, “let me see what you are worth in a difficulty. Which is our way? and how are we to find the track of the runaways? for this snow wi|l have covered up all traces of their footsteps—the horses' and all.”

“Never fear,” said the constable, “the same snow that has hid one track will show another. If a snow-track is bad for following, it's worse for hiding: they can't get away from us; and if I don't find 'em, as sure as ever Scroggs would nose a bottle of rum in a plant, I'll forfeit my ticket of leave.”

With this professional encouragement, we set ourselves diligently to work to discover the lost track.

previous
next