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Title: The Dark Highway Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1202291h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2012 Date most recently updated: June 2012 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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For motor traffic, between Melbourne and Adelaide, the route for many miles lies along the fringe of the great Ninety-Mile Desert, between the desert and the waters of the Coorong.
The Coorong is a long, sinuous lake running for sixty miles parallel with the coast and separated from the sea only by a narrow chain of sand hummocks.
To the traveller, this part of the Adelaide-Melbourne route has always been the one most dreaded—because of its drifting sands, its loneliness, and the absence of all help should help be required.
The sun had set a good four hours, but night hung heavy, like a smouldering furnace, over the sandhills of the Coorong.
One hundred and twenty degrees in the shade had been registered during the day, and even now, with the hour well on towards midnight, the temperature had fallen to only just below the century.
Not a breath of air stirred anywhere, and the dead black waters of the Coorong seemed hardly stiller than were the just faintly lapping waves of the hot sea itself.
A ghostly silence brooded over everything. Sea, land, and air lay wrapt in torpor, and only the myriad stars of an Australian summer night peeped through and twinkled with any signs of life.
But still, late as the hour was and desolate as was at most times the long Coorong track, to-night it was not altogether deserted by humankind.
Almost at its wildest part, and about thirty-five miles from the township of Meningie, was drawn up a small, black touring car.
The car lay just off the track itself, and round a bend where the curve was sharp, between two huge sand hummocks.
There was no one visible in the car.
Close near, however, and upon a high sandhill were two men, and, although motionless and outstretched at full length upon the sand, they were evidently not asleep, for their attitudes were not those of rest or repose.
They were watching.
One of them, a tall, big man, was clutching a pair of large binoculars, and, his arms supported upon his elbows, he never for one moment took his eye off the windings of the Coorong track. He looked always, however, in the direction of Melbourne.
He breathed hard, and every now and then his hands trembled.
His companion, a man of small physique and with a pair of ferrety little eyes set deeply in his head, was obviously, too, ill at ease, for he kept swallowing as if he had a lump in his throat, and from time to time he sighed heavily.
For a full hour the two men had exchanged no word, and, although so close together, so uncommunicative were they, it might almost have been assumed that each was actually unaware of the other's presence.
Suddenly, however, the man with the binoculars jerked up his head and spoke.
"Here he is!' he exclaimed, with a catch in his voice. 'There's a car coming over the swamp."
The little man shivered violently, and his teeth began to chatter like castanets.
The big man turned on him with a snarl.
"Pull yourself together," he exclaimed savagely. "What are you afraid of, you fool? There's no danger if you do as you're told." He gritted his teeth menacingly. "But, by God, I tell you, it'll be the end of you if you mess it up. You'll pay for it first if anything goes wrong, and you just take that in."
"All right, all right," replied the little man testily. "I'm not afraid, but this long waiting's got on my nerves. It's three hours nearly since we came up here, and it's enough to make anyone feel bad. But I won't mess it up. I know what to do. I'll go and get the lamp now."
"No, you just wait," growled the other. "It'll be a long while before he gets here yet, and we must be sure it's him in the car."
He turned back to his binoculars, and again there was silence between the two men, only this time the smaller one remained standing up.
Far away, a faint spot of light had appeared, very faint at first, and visible only through the binoculars. It moved like a glow-worm, trailing languidly along by the edge of the lake.
"He can't come fast," muttered the big man. "The going's bad, and he'll be in low gear all the way."
Gradually, however, the light waxed stronger, and in a few minutes the two men from their high vantage point could plainly trace each foot of its journey as a big motor car made its laborious way along the winding track in and out among the sandhills.
"It's an eight-cylinder Jehu, right enough," whispered the big man in tense, hoarse tones, "and it's a hundred to one it'll be him. But we'll have to be quick now. You know where to wave the lamp."
He snapped his glasses together with a click, and, rising quickly to his feet, without further comment followed his companion in a slouching run down the high hummock side towards the waiting motor car.
Eli Barton, the wealthy cattle king, and the owner of vast properties in the Commonwealth, was motoring from Melbourne to Adelaide to see his great horse, Abimeleck, run in the Christmas Cup.
Strong and active in spite of his age, and strenuous alike both in his work and in his pleasure, he had left Melbourne in the very early hours of the previous morning. The five hundred and eighty odd miles that separate the two cities he expected to cover, as he had often done before, in two days. As usual, he was bringing no chauffeur with him, but was driving the car himself. The long journey was nothing to him, and it was well known to be his constant habit to negotiate it quite alone. He liked to go alone, he always told his friends, for so full was every hour of his busy life that it was only when motoring, he averred, that he could be entirely free from business worries and quit of the eternal weighing up of the value of other people's ideas.
So, whenever occasion offered, he took the Melbourne—Adelaide journey alone, and drove his mighty eight-cylinder Jehu with all the speed that the roughness and the danger of the track allowed.
But on this particular journey it so happened that he was not unaccompanied. A very old friend had arrived unexpectedly from the United States, and, breaking his usual procedure, Eli Barton had brought him as a companion.
The two occupants of the car were both drowsy, apparently from the heat, but maybe, also, it was the good dinner they had just eaten that made them disinclined to talk. At any rate, it was a long ten miles before either of them spoke, and then it was Eli Barton who first broke the silence.
"Eighty-two miles to go, yet, my boy," he remarked, "before we get to Meningie and, with not a house to pass, it's a million to one we don't meet a soul."
"But isn't the heat awful?" went on Eli. "I'd give almost anything now for a good downpour of rain."
"Good gracious! Not to-night, I hope. We don't want it here."
Eli Barton laughed. "Don't get nervous, Sam," he replied. "We're not likely to get it, but it was of Abimeleck I was thinking, not of ourselves." His voice dropped into anxious tones. "I don't know even now if I shall run him on Saturday. The going will be like iron, I am afraid, and, as I've told you, I'm a bit worried about his legs. He's done a lot of racing this year, and I'm not going to risk anything now, even for the Adelaide Christmas Cup. He's far too valuable to me for that, and if there's the slightest suspicion of anything wrong, I tell you, I shall scratch him to-morrow, directly I arrive."
"There'll be an awful howl, Eli, won't there, if you do?"
Eli Barton set his face in that determined frown which all his life his enemies had known so well.
"I can't help it if there is," he replied decisively. "I shall be a greater sufferer than anybody if he doesn't run. I had another thousand on him last week, and the public have made him so hot that I only got two's. Two's mind you, and he's got ten stone four to shoulder over a mile and three-quarters, and with some clinking good horses in the race, too." He smiled proudly. "But I shan't scratch him if I can possibly help it, for I want to show the Adelaide folks what a really good horse can do. He's the best horse I've ever owned and, with all his weight, I believe he'll romp home."
A silence fell again upon the occupants of the car and, as old Barton had prophesied, he had soon to drop on to low gear.
Eli looked round and then smiled to himself.
"Dear old Sam, like me, he's getting old," he muttered. "I suppose now he'll sleep right on to Meningie."
But he was mistaken.
The big Jehu was ploughing its way through a particularly deep drift of sand, when suddenly, to his great astonishment, he saw a light being waved ahead, and a few seconds later the headlights of the car brought into view a smallish-looking man standing in the middle of the track and gesticulating wildly. The track sloped up sharply behind where the man stood, curving abruptly between huge sandhills on either side.
Eli Barton brought the car gently to a standstill. They were in the middle of a sort of sand ravine and the headlights, because of the bend, illuminated the track only for about thirty yards.
"Don't come on," shouted the man with the lantern. "The track's blocked and you can't get through. There's been an accident."
"Good Lord! what a place," ejaculated Eli. "Anybody hurt?"
"Yes, one of them's killed," replied the man, and he shielded his eyes with his hand. "Oh! Oh!" he muttered instantly to himself, "he's got someone with him. There'll be two of them now."
Eli Barton sprang out of the car, and was followed promptly by his now thoroughly awakened companion.
"Thirty-five miles from Meningie, Sam," said Eli, "and no help for them until they get there. How did it happen?" he called to the man. "Was there a collision?"
But the man with the lantern made no reply. He stood hesitating, as if uncertain what to do. He made no attempt to move back to the scene of the accident.
Eli repeated his question.
"Was it a collision?" he asked sharply. "Here, you fellow, have you lost your tongue?"
The man seemed to bring himself together with an effort. "Yes, there was a collision," he replied, and at once he made to shamble back along the track.
But the two travellers were close upon his heels when the bend was reached.
Then suddenly Eli Barton flashed an electric torch. "Hullo! Hullo!" he exclaimed suspiciously. "The track's not blocked and there's only one car. Where was the collision?"
But the man with the lantern only muttered something indistinctly, and Eli, losing patience, caught him roughly by the arm.
"What's your game?" he asked sharply. "Turn round and let's look at your face," and he flashed the torch full upon him.
Instantly the man ducked his head, and at the same time, jerking away his arm, he started to run.
"Look out, Sam," shouted Eli. "Catch the beggar, quick, there's something fishy here. Shoot if he doesn't stop. Shoot, I tell you, quick."
They were the last words Eli Barton ever spoke. There was a sudden flash of fire from behind the small car in the shadows—the loud crack of a revolver fired at close range, and the great cattle king dropped lifeless upon the sands of the Coorong with a bullet in his brain.
With a cry of rage Sam Gover sprang forward and the man with the lantern went down under a fierce blow upon the head.
The lantern was extinguished in his fall.
Instantly Sam Gover darted to seize him, but the man was too quick, and, springing to his feet, he dashed off towards the small car.
Then the big revolver cracked again, but this time obviously without effect, for it was answered at once by the snapper and much sharper bark of a little automatic pistol.
Old Sam Gover had not passed half his life out West for nothing, and he could size up a situation as quickly as any man.
Three times the little automatic barked and there was a shrill squeal of pain from the man who had waved the lantern. Unhappily for him, he had not been quite quick enough in getting into cover, and with the bone of an arm shattered he subsided, a faint and huddled heap, upon the sands.
Then followed long moments of dreadful silence, the hard, tense silence of men waiting—with the angel of death hovering near.
All in an instant, as it were, a spirit of dark evil had descended on the place, and into the peace and stillness of the night had avalanched a hell of furious strife.
The smoke from the revolver clung like a funeral pall upon the track, and the acrid reek of powder, like incense in some horrible temple of pain, hung sickeningly upon the air.
Sam Gover had flung himself flat upon the sands, and, although his heart beat like a piston, his mind was deadly cold and clear.
He was making no mistake about the peril he was in. That they had fallen into a carefully prepared ambush he was sure, but what exactly was the strength of it he did not attempt to guess.
Eli Barton was most probably already dead, and he himself was in the worst predicament possible. Within a few yards of an assassin with a revolver, he was lying right out in the open air with no cover at all. The slightest sound and it would betray where he was.
He began to wriggle stealthily back along the sand.
* * *
Suddenly, however, there was a sharp click, and he was blinded in a ghostly glare. The man with the revolver had switched on the spot-light of his car.
Realising instantly the peril that now faced him. Sam Gover sprang to his feet and fired rapidly at the light, but for the third time the revolver spoke, and immediately the automatic dropped from his grasp. He tottered and half fell, but without mercy the revolver was fired again, and the old man, with no attempt now to recover himself, dropped bloody and unconscious upon the sands.
A moment later, and the man with the revolver stepped out from behind the light, walking warily, and ready upon the instant to fire again.
But that it was unnecessary was at once apparent, for Sam Gover lay quite motionless and his eyes were closed.
With his teeth chattering, the man turned quickly to the body of Eli Barton, and he shuddered when he saw the bullet-hole in the very centre of the forehead. He bent down, however, and tore violently at the dead man's coat, abstracting a thick wallet from the breast pocket. His eyes glistened as he noted the contents.
Then, all at once, it seemed as if for the first time he had become afraid, and sweat burst out upon his forehead in big drops. He looked round wildly in every direction, and then, almost as if someone was actually pursuing him, ran to the top of the big sandhill near, and breathlessly regarded the outlook from every side.
But there was nothing to occasion any alarm. He could see nothing but the lights of Eli Barton's car behind the hummocks, the dim blackness everywhere upon the sands, and the bright stars peeping overhead.
He ran back to his own car.
"Look here," he exclaimed breathlessly to the small man who was lying on the sands and moaning faintly, "both of them are dead, and we shall be hanged for it if we don't look out."
"I shall say I didn't do it," wailed the other; "my arm's broken, and I'm bleeding to death."
"We shall be hanged, I tell you," went on the big man excitedly, and, jerking his head in the direction of the bodies lying out in the glare of the light. "We must get rid of them, quick, and their car, too. We haven't a second to spare. Someone may come by any moment. Do you hear?"
But the small man only shook his head. "I'm done with," he groaned. "I'm fainting with pain."
The voice of the big man hardened into rage. "Pull yourself together, you whining fool," he exclaimed furiously. "It's all your fault that you were hit at all. You oughtn't to have stopped them when you saw there were two in the car, and then you muddled everything by starting to run. You're not much hurt, anyhow—it's only a scratch."
He snapped viciously at the spot light, and turned it round so that its rays fell full upon the wounded man. Then his jaw dropped in dismay. The face of his companion was ghastly white, his right arm lay at a dreadful angle, and he was drenched in blood.
The big man cursed deeply. "Now, what are we to do, with you like this?" he asked desperately. "We must get their car off the track at once. It must be hidden 20 miles in the bush before we shall be safe." His breath came in trembling gasps. "The black trackers will be put on, if anything's found here." His voice broke to a sob. "The black trackers, do you understand? And there'll be the bloodhounds, too."
But the small man only shook his head again. "I can't do anything," he moaned. "I shall faint if I move. I believe I'm going to die."
For a long minute the big man stood speechless in his fears, but then, suddenly resolved upon some course of action, he ran at full speed to the big Jehu car.
It was barely 50 yards away, but he was panting hard when he reached it.
He jumped in, and, starting the engine, drove fiercely through the heavy sand. Arriving where the bodies lay he pulled up, and, springing out bundled them both into the back of the car. Then, without an instant's further delay, he drove on again, and as furiously as the big Jehu could plough its way, proceeded along the track in the direction of Meningie.
But he did not drive that way very far.
A couple of hundred yards, at most, and he turned off sharply at right angles to the track. The ground was very heavy, but by putting the car on to its lowest gear he managed to make headway, although at times the wheels were buried almost to their axles in the sand.
Soon he was well away from the Coorong track and deep among the sandhills. His surroundings were now as desolate and lonely as the mind of any human being could conceive, but for all that he kept on looking round as if he were expecting any moment to encounter someone.
All at once he saw that he was passing close to a small gully, and after a moment's indecision he stopped the car abruptly and lugging out the body of Sam Gover dragged it to the gully-side, and rolled it in. He was about to do the same to Eli Barton, when, on the still night air, there came up the distant barking of a fox.
He knew at once that it was only a fox, but the suddenness of the sound startled him, and, with an oath of terror, he dashed round the car and switched off both the engine and the lights.
Then, holding his breath, he stood motionless. His face had taken on a dreadful hunted look and his eyes were strained and bulged with fear. He listened.
But there was now no sound to be heard anywhere. The stillness of a dead world and the silence of the grave encompassed him.
Pulling himself together with an effort, and with no care any longer for the car and its ghostly burden, he dashed off at a feverish run, back along the way he had just come.
And all the time he was thinking hard.
He had killed two men and he was faced starkly with the consequences of his crime. He was in danger, great danger, for he could not now, he saw, effectively cover up all traces of the murders, hampered as he was with a wounded man.
If only he could have driven the car away to where he had intended, he would have felt quite safe, he told himself, for exactly what had happened to Eli Barton might then never have become known.
Out in the loneliness of the great Ninety-Mile Desert there were places that he knew of where no one ever came, and, given there to the winds and the sands, the car with its contents would soon have become impenetrably hidden from all human eyes. It could never have been proved then with any certainty that, whatever had occurred to the two men, their fate had overtaken them upon the track of the Coorong.
No one would have ever been sure that the two travellers had not successfully negotiated the whole length of the Coorong, and vanished in some other part of the State of South Australia.
But now everything was different.
He had been able to take the car only a short distance away, because every yard he had driven it into the desert he had had to retrace himself on foot, for with his companion helpless there was no one to follow behind with the second car. And so the big Jehu was lying close at hand as damning evidence within a half-mile of the track itself.
Then what would happen when, within a few hours, the hue and cry was raised for the missing man? Eli Barton was an important person in the Commonwealth, and, once the sinister nature of his disappearance was suspected, the police of South Australia would be turned hot-foot upon the trail.
The Coorong would, of course, become at once the starting point for all investigations, for the last thing definitely known of the travellers would be that they had taken the track from Kingston. So search parties would be rushed down, and the vicinity of the Coorong track would be combed from end to end.
At latest the car would be found in a few days, and then it would be known definitely how Eli Barton and his friend had met their deaths. Then would follow inquiries and investigations in every direction, and how—how would he be able to account for the condition of the wounded man?
The very nature of the wound itself would be suspicious. And once any questioning began, how could he be certain either that his companion would not show the white feather and give everything away? In any case a satisfactory explanation would be difficult to find.
He cursed deeply again at his predicament. Then suddenly a cruel and dreadful expression crossed his face, and the sweat that dropped from his forehead was not now the sweat only of his laboured pace.
Abruptly his running was slowed down and, approaching the small car, he dropped all at once to a slow and stealthy walk. Then—it might almost have been said that he was creeping forward on his toes. He seemed, too, to be holding in his breath, and his right hand had slipped back to the pocket on his hip.
Without a sound he crept up to where the wounded man lay and then—suddenly there came a loud report. The man with the ferrety eyes was in suffering no more. His brains had been blown away.
So that night there were three men sleeping by the dark track of the Coorong.
One was tucked huddled in a shallow grave beneath the sands; a second there was who stiffened and grew cold in the tonneau of the big Jehu car, while, close by, a third lay ghastly and uncovered to the sky.
Towards this last, as dawn was breaking, a fox came slouching up.
Perhaps the animal was only inquisitive or perhaps—he sniffed the smell of blood.
He crept up close and—he turned suddenly and scampered off. Something had frightened him.
* * *
IT was the Christmas Cup day at Adelaide, and long before the time when the first race was due to be run an enormous crowd was gathering on the racecourse at Cheltenham.
A good programme of events had been arranged, but on all sides the great attraction was the Cup race itself. In addition to a gold cup, it was for the fine stake of £3000, and there were some first-rate performers down to run. Indeed, the very cream of South Australian thoroughbreds would line up before the starter, and so well had the handicapper done his work that no one particular horse among the home State entries stood out prominently in the public favour. But, at the same time, few could have said that it promised to be a good betting race.
Everything was overshadowed by the presence of an Inter-State horse from across the border.
Eli Barton, the wealthy stockowner from Victoria, had sent his great horse, Abimeleck, to throw down the gauntlet to the equine aristocracy of South Australia, and the general opinion was that they would all go down before him in the lists.
It was true the handicapper had by no means forgotten the distinguished visitor, and had given him the steadier of ten stone four, or sixteen pounds more than had been allotted to the next horse below him, but then Abimeleck, as everyone knew, was in a class quite by himself.
A son of Judah out of Sweetness, he was a magnificent specimen of a four year-old, and had well earned every ounce of the big weight that had been allotted to him.
A great horse, he had not been beaten since his two-year-old days, and in his last eight races he had never been really extended. Carrying top weight always, he had won, it seemed, with effortless ease.
So, directly the acceptances had been published, he had been seized upon by the public as a good thing and 'fours' had been the greatest odds at any time offered against him.
Even 'fours' would certainly not have been obtainable had there not been for some time suspicions of trouble in one of his legs. It was true the suspicion was only a very slight one, but his owner, unwilling to run risks, had twice at the last moment, on that account, withdrawn him from an engagement.
It was this uncertainty, this slight element of doubt, that had enabled the horse's admirers to obtain the extended odds, and up to the very morning of the race they had been all on the best terms with themselves.
Everything had seemed propitious for the champion's success, A week previously he had arrived safely in Adelaide, and his subsequent performance on the track had been all that his admirers could have desired.
He had gone splendidly at exercise, he had taken his food well, and his trainer, who had accompanied him, had been observed as wearing always a most confident and happy smile.
So things had been right up to this the very morning of the race, and then, all suddenly, the presentiment of some impending misfortune had come to his backers, and as the crowds gathered upon the racecourse side this uneasy feeling was soon everywhere apparent.
* * *
What exactly was happening no one knew, and on the face of it, the apprehension seemed absurd.
The horse had actually arrived upon the racecourse and, the centre of a big admiring crowd, he was now duly standing in his allotted stall in the paddock. (His admirers noticed with a pang, however, that the number of the stall was thirteen.) The jockey, too, who was to ride him was actually on the spot—Pat O'Connor, the famous Sydney crack. Lots of people had seen him drive up to the racecourse in a car. So everything was satisfactory there.
Still, however, the public were uneasy, and long before the time when the first race was due to be run rumours began to crystallise and take on ugly forms.
An anxious consultation was being held between Tom Sellick, the trainer of Abimeleck, young Stanley Barton, the nephew of Eli Barton, and the secretary of the Port Adelaide Racing Club.
It was being held in the secretary's room, and it was evident that those taking part were moved by some strong emotion. The trainer's face was grave, that of the young nephew of Eli Barton was frowning, and that of the secretary was flushed and angry.
"No," Tom Sellick was saying, doggedly, "I can't bring him out, sir. If I did, it would be directly contrary to the orders that I have received."
"But the animal's perfectly fit and well to run, isn't he," insisted the Secretary.
"As far as my opinion goes, yes," replied the trainer, slowly. He shook his head determinedly. "But that's nothing to do with his running. I tell you I'm not the owner. I'm only the trainer. I've just got to obey orders. Mr. Barton employs me, and his last words to me were: 'Mind, I shan't decide about his running until I go over him myself.'"
"But look at the crowds here," pleaded the secretary, "and think of the way he's been backed. It'll be a dreadful take-down for the public if he doesn't run."
Tom Sellick looked straight before him. "It's not my horse, sir," he said firmly, "and, I tell you again, I've nothing to do with his running. Nothing at all."
The secretary turned impatiently to young Stanley Barton. "I suppose you have no authority, Mr. Barton? You can't help us in any way?"
The young man shook his head grimly. He was a good-looking young fellow, between four and five and twenty and, although the general expression of his face was frank and boyish, there were lines of determination about his mouth and chin that would have made an observant stranger chary of antagonising the forces that he saw there.
"Mr. Sellick is quite right," he said slowly, "and if I were in his place, although I grant you it's unpleasant, I should take the same stand. He can't up-saddle till my uncle tells him to."
"But where on earth is your uncle?" queried the secretary irritably, "and why is it he isn't here?"
The young man eyed his interrogator very gravely.
"If we could tell you that, Mr. Secretary, we should be much easier in our minds than we, at present, are." He shrugged his shoulders and went on slowly. "Neither Mr. Sellick here nor I can think of the slightest reason for my uncle not being here now. He left Melbourne for Adelaide in his car early on Wednesday morning. That I know for certain, for I myself saw him start. He can't have been taken ill for he had a friend with him, who would certainly have let us know. His car can't have broken down either, for I followed after him twenty-four hours later, exactly along the same way he must have come. I heard of him all the way as far as Kingston, and then no one mentions his having passed." He shook his head very solemnly. "I tell you, I don't like it, for it's not my uncle's way to let people down."
A couple of minutes later young Barton and the trainer, leaving the secretary's room, almost ran into a tall, middle-aged man, and a pretty dark eyed girl, who were standing just outside.
The trainer started to apologise, and then suddenly his worried, anxious face broke into a smile.
"Hullo, Jim," he said to the tall man, "nearly knocked you over that time, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did, Tom," replied the latter smiling, too. "But I'll forgive you if you never do worse to me than that."
"Who was he?" whispered Stanley, when a moment later they had passed on.
"He's called Dice," replied the trainer. "He's got a station down the south-east. I used to know him, however, years ago in Victoria. He was in the Light Horse with my brother during the Boer War. He is a very decent chap, but always a very unlucky one. He's got a horse running in the Cup to-day. Black Wolf, but it's not got the ghost of a chance."
"Who's the girl?" asked Stanley, carelessly.
"I don't know," replied the trainer, the worried look beginning to cloud over his face again. "His wife perhaps. She doesn't look like his daughter. He was a widower, I remember, a couple of years ago."
A few minutes later and up went the number for the Cup. All doubts about the favourite were at once dispelled, for it was now seen for certain that he was not going to run. His number was absent from the frame.
A flutter of dismay ran through the crowd, a long murmur of disappointment, and then a perfect babel of inquiry buzzed round. It was undoubtedly a great set-back for the public, but it spoke well for the reputation of Eli Barton that there was no suggestion anywhere of shady reasons for the sudden withdrawal of the horse.
The Victorian owner was far too well known for that, and it was realised everywhere there must be some very good reason why Abimeleck was not to run, and the only query was—what was it?
But no definite answer was forthcoming, and, reconciling themselves to the inevitable, most people had soon given up conjecturing, and for the moment were philosophically settling down to make the best of things as they were.
And after all, there was no doubt that the absence of Abimeleck made the race for the Christmas Cup, in some ways, a much more interesting one.
Quite a fair number of the runners now undoubtedly had chances, and no less than five of them were at once made almost co-equal favourites in the totalisator.
The money began to pour into the machine.
With the betting settling down Gay Hussar began to advance strongly in public favour—no doubt, however, because Wilkie, the Adelaide crack, was riding him—and by the time £3000 had been invested he was leading by near £100. Next to him came Wattle Day, and then much farther away followed Rattlesnake, The Bloater, and Lord Burke, all in a bunch. Quite low down and almost neglected were Pretty Boy and Black Wolf. For quite a long time the investments on the last-named totalled under £20.
THE weighing out was accomplished quickly, and the candidates were soon parading before the stands. There were eighteen runners, and not a few of them were as magnificent specimens of the thoroughbred as one could wish to see.
Gay Hussar was now top weight, and, carrying nine stone two, he led the procession. He was a fine, upstanding roan, and he looked trained to the hour.
"There goes the winner," said a man on the rails as he passed by. "He'll put paid to everything in the last hundred yards."
"Not he," said another man disdainfully. "He'll never last with nine stone two in a fast run race, and old Rattlesnake'll make the pace a cracker. You see if he doesn't with Muggins up."
"Blow Muggins," returned the first man. "He's a bad finisher. There's always too much jumping about when he starts using his whip. He unbalances his mounts every time."
"Wattle Day'll win," remarked a woman. "It's a good thing to-day, and they're trying. The milkman told my cook so, this morning."
There was a guffaw from those standing round, and the woman got very red.
"Hullo," called out someone a moment later, "look at that one. His jockey's got a handful there."
A big and unprepossessing black horse was just passing, and he was evidently not appreciating the proximity of the crowd. He edged along sideways, and kept showing the whites of his rather evil-looking eyes. His jockey had got him hard held.
"That's Black Wolf," replied a horsey man, "trained by James Dice, over near the Coorong."
"Well, he doesn't stand an earthly," remarked his friend, "and yet I see they've got the cheek to declare six pounds over-weight."
"So they have," said the horsey individual, glancing thoughtfully upon his card. "Six thirteen, instead of six seven. Now what does that mean, I wonder?" He looked up again and craned his neck to get another view of the horse. "Well, I don't agree with you, old man," he went on the next moment, "that he's got no chance. From all his looks, he seems to me to have a darned good chance. He's ugly for sure, and I don't like his forelegs, but look at his long, deep quarters and the way he's muscled up. He's workmanlike, and a stayer, and by cripes I'll have a dollar on him, anyhow. Hell pay fifties if he'll pay a penny," and off the speaker hurried towards the tote.
But the horsey-looking man was not by any means the only one who was discussing the possibilities of Black Wolf.
* * *
Two men on the trainers' stand, amongst others, were speaking about them at that very moment.
"Anything in it, do you think, Fred?" asked one of them, cocking his eye very shrewdly. "I asked Dice just now and he said he'd got a tenner on him."
The other pursed his lips sceptically. "And that's about all he could have, Bob," he replied. "I heard last month he was dead broke and on the rocks. No, I don't think his brute is any good at all in this company, although I admit I was a bit taken with the look of him just now in the paddock."
"But I've heard rumours, I tell you, Fred," persisted the other. "Months ago, I heard a tale that old man Dice had got a rough 'un on his station quite out of the ordinary. He was keeping it very dark, they said, but one day he was going to rip everything up. Ugly as the devil his horse was, but could go like the wind."
His friend shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Well," he remarked, "he would have hardly chosen to-day to bring off his big trick, now would he? With Abimeleck running, he would have known his chance was hopeless, and we all thought Abimeleck a fairly certain runner, until up to a couple of hours ago. But come on, we'll go and look at the tote."
The starting bell had just rung and the horses were preparing to line up. The two men reached the totalisator building, in front of which the usual crowd was thronging to watch the last moments of the betting.
With the withdrawal of the great Abimeleck, it was undoubtedly turning out to be a good race for speculation, and the figures on the indicator were mounting briskly at every moment.
Already over £8000 had been invested in the machine, and Gay Hussar was now easily the first public choice. He carried over £1500. Next to him were Wattle Day with £1235 and Lord Burke with just over a thousand. Rattlesnake had nearly £350 to his credit, and there was a big drop then to The Wowser, with one hundred and five.
Right down at the bottom, £35/10/ had been entrusted to Black Wolf, and £15 only to Pretty Boy.
"Look, Bob," laughed the man whom his companion had called Fred. "If Black Wolf wins, James Dice will have the scoop of his life. It'll pay not far off two hundred, I should say."
But the other was intently watching the crowd, and for the moment it seemed he did not hear what his friend was saying.
Then he turned round suddenly. "I say," he said quickly. "I'm going to have a fiver on Black Wolf, anyhow. No, I don't care what you say," as the other laughed, "I'm going to have it on. Look here," and he dropped his voice to an impressive whisper. "I've just been watching Dice. There he is. Quick—standing by that girl in the grey hat. Look at his face now, and look at his sneering smile. I tell you, Fred, he's exactly like a man who's keeping in some tremendous secret, and if he's only got a tenner on as he says, I'll swear all the same he believes he's going to win. I'm going to row in with him anyhow, on the chance. So there now."
"Don't be a fool, Bob," said his companion contemptuously. "Here, give me the fiver. I'll take on the bet."
"No, you don't, and I'm not a fool either. There's not a better judge of a horse in all Australia than James Dice, and now you just wait for me here while I go and put my fiver on."
They were not far from the £5 window, and, his money invested, the man was back again in less than a minute. His friend was still standing where he had been left, and greeted his return with an amused smile.
"I saw your fiver go up right enough," he remarked, "and it makes £40/10/ now on the brute, but—hullo—hullo, what the devil's happening now?"
He pointed in astonishment to the totalisator index, and, looking up, the other gasped in astonishment, too. The figures above Black Wolf had suddenly become animated into a giddy whirl. Up, up they went, one, two, five, ten, twenty, forty, fifty.
"Great Scot!" ejaculated the one who had taken the ticket. "Someone's just put fifty on. Now, where's old Dice?"
But the question was never answered There was the clang of a bell, a mighty shout—"They're off!" and everyone rushed to get some point of vantage for the viewing of the race.
* * *
The start had been an excellent one, and, whatever should eventuate, there could certainly be no grumbling on that score.
All had got away together, and for the first few yards it almost seemed that they were running in a straight line. Then Rattlesnake shot out his bony head in front, and, as the clever ones had predicted, at once proceeded to make the pace a cracker. Two furlongs from the start, and he was out a good three lengths by himself, with the field already becoming an extended one. Gay Hussar was running second, and his backers noticed with satisfaction that he had secured a good position on the rails. Close behind the favourite came a little group of four, with Lord Burke the most prominent of these.
"Rattlesnake's going too fast," remarked a thin, flashily-dressed woman in the front row of the grandstand. "I never did like Muggins—he's got such ugly teeth."
"Hush, Mother," reprovingly whispered a young girl who looked like her daughter. "Do be careful what you say."
"Well," insisted the thin woman obstinately. "He is riding Rattlesnake very badly, and I wish to goodness your father had never told us to back him. I'd have much rather had the half crown on Wattle Day."
Rattlesnake was still going like the wind, and with half of the journey covered he was still in front. Wattle Day, however, was not far behind him now, and, in the bunch of horses that followed Gay Hussar was the most prominent, still running on the rails. Several of the others, however, were also close up, with the big Black Wolf lurching furtively along on the outside. The latter's action was certainly not pretty, for he ran too low on the ground to please most people, but his method of progression was at any rate effective, and he reached out well with every stride.
"Rattlesnake's tiring," said a man on the flat, peering through an antiquated pair of glasses. "His jockey's moving on him with his hands."
"I like Gay Hussar as well as anything," said another. "So far, at any rate. Wilkie's had an arm-chair ride."
All this while young Stanley Barton had been standing at the back of the grandstand, but mechanically only was he taking in the incidents of the race. He was much too worried about his uncle to be really concerned as to what was happening on the course and, in a bored, indifferent sort of way, he was idly taking stock of the people near him. Suddenly his eyes fell upon the girl whom he had seen with the owner of Black Wolf. She was only a few yards from him, and instantly he was interested. For some reason, she vibrated some strange chord in him. She was certainly very pretty. Looking about one or two and twenty, she was of medium height, with a well rounded and beautifully proportioned figure. She had fine, clear-cut features and a wealth of rich, dark brown hair. Her eyes, he thought, were lovelier than any he had ever seen.
He meditatively regarded the man who stood with her, the man who owned Black Wolf, and the latter struck him at once as of an unusual personality. He was tall and fine looking, with a strong, self-reliant pose. The face was handsome, but marred a little by a certain hardness and contemptuous arrogance of expression. He looked like a man who would always have a good opinion of himself, and be always quite confident that his ideas were the only ones to be considered.
Young Barton wondered rather jealously what was the nature of the man's relation to the girl, and his query was, in part, answered almost at once.
The girl put up a shapely little hand to adjust her hat. The hand was her left one and it was ungloved. She wore neither wedding nor engagement ring.
The young man smiled to himself, but in whatever channel his thoughts might then have wandered they were turned back suddenly to the happenings on the course.
A great storm of shouting had arisen, for the race was now approaching its critical stage. The horses were well into the straight for home, and to the great joy of his supporters it was seen that the favourite was leading, well in front.
For the moment it seemed actually that he was coming home alone, but by the one furlong post he began to falter, and in a few yards three horses flashed up level with him, almost simultaneously together. They were Wattle Day, Lord Burke, and the early pace-maker, Rattlesnake—the last, to the great surprise of many, now coming great guns again.
"Wattle Day wins," roared the crowd. "No, its Rattlesnake. Good old Rattlesnake; come on now."
But then, as so often upon the racecourse side, the unexpected happened.
Something big and gaunt was seen to loom up on the outside—a horse that came suddenly from nowhere and that no one had considered before. A low-running, black animal that was going twice as fast as anything and galloping like the wind.
"Why it's Black Wolf!" roared a man in amazement, "and he'll win as he likes."
And there was no doubt about it. Black Wolf was running like a racehorse incarnate.
He passed Gay Hussar and Wattle Day almost as if they were standing still; he shook off Lord Burke in a couple of strides, and, when the gallant Rattlesnake, for just one fraction of a second, seemed to hold him, his jockey lifted his whip once, and the tiring son of Venom was left instantly behind.
The farther Black Wolf ran the farther he was in front, and he passed the judge's box, hard held, three lengths to the good. The amazed crowd just gasped in their surprise.
"By jove," swore one disgusted owner under his breath, "but what a certainty to bet on if we had only known."
In their astonishment the crowd seemed at first quite unable to take it in, and then with envious faces they thronged round the totalisator, curious to see what dividends the horses would pay.
Very quickly the totalisator figures came up: Black Wolf £63/17/, Rattlesnake £5 (for each pound invested). £8740 had altogether been invested on the race. £90/10/ had gone on Black Wolf, and £382/10/ on Rattlesnake.
The owner of Black Wolf came down off the grandstand looking unruffled and unconcerned. He smiled when he was congratulated, and when asked if he had expected Black Wolf to win he replied inscrutably: "Well, I thought he was pretty good."
But the girl with him, it was easy to see, was greatly excited. She was flushed and animated, and coming suddenly face to face with her, young Barton thought again, with a strangely quickening pulse, how delightfully pretty she was.
He was with Sellick, the trainer, and the latter stopped at once to congratulate James Dice.
"I hope you had a good win, Jim. Your gelding ran a splendid race."
The owner of Black Wolf smiled pleasantly.
"Not so bad, old man, thank you," he replied, "but it was perhaps a good thing for me Abimeleck wasn't there."
"You can bet your life on that," said Tom Sellick, looking very serious, "for, however good your animal is, I don't think the forty odd pounds Abimeleck had to give him would have brought the two together, and young Mr. Barton here will, I am sure, agree with me."
"Introduce me, Sellick," broke in Stanley, smiling. "I have not met this fortunate gentleman yet."
"This is Mr. Stanley Barton, Jim," began the trainer, "Mr. Eli's nephew. He——"
But old Sellick stopped, for he saw that James Dice was not listening. The owner of Black Wolf had turned right round and he was staring hard into the crowd. He had suddenly become pale, and it looked almost as if he were trying to master some great emotion.
"Uncle, uncle!" exclaimed the girl at his side in a reproving tone, "don't you hear? This gentleman is speaking to you," and she pulled him by the arm.
The big man turned round instantly.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," he apologised in confusion, "I'm so very sorry, but I recognised a man just then whom I had believed was dead. It gave me quite a shock." He passed his hand shakily across his forehead. "But you were saying—you were saying——"
"I was introducing you to Mr. Stanley Barton," replied the trainer, smiling, "Mr. Eli Barton's nephew."
James Dice shot a quick glance at young Barton, and then lifted his hat politely. "Very pleased, I am sure." He went on speaking rapidly. "And this is my niece, Miss Bevan. Margaret, this is Mr. Sellick." He smiled quite easily now—"I knew him years ago in Victoria, before I came over here."
The girl shook hands with Mr. Sellick and young Stanley, and the four stood chatting for some minutes.
* * *
Young Stanley had his eyes the whole time upon the girl, and a slight flush seemed to deepen the radiancy of her face when at length they said good-bye.
"Very decent fellow, that Dice," remarked the trainer, directly they were out of earshot, "and I'm glad his horse won. But I don't suppose he's got much out of it, except the stake. The dividend was too large for any one to have helped himself liberally. He couldn't have had much hope of his horse anyhow, and I expect Black Wolf's win was just one of those flukes that come to racing men, sometimes. They've had a cast-iron certainty in their hands, and yet they've not known it, until too late."
Trainer Sellick was quite convinced that he had sized up the situation pretty accurately, and undoubtedly for the first few minutes after the race the public generally held much the same opinion.
The outsider's win was quite unexpected, they told one another, and the owner-trainer had had only a few pounds on. He had missed the chance of a life-time and would be kicking himself about it until the very day that he died. It had been a 'skinner' too, for the city bookmakers; none of them, probably, had ever had Black Wolf's name in his books.
And then—somehow these ideas began all at once to undergo a subtle change, and very quickly quite different notions took possession of the knowing ones upon the course.
No, it had not been an unexpected win, they now said. The owner had gone solidly for his animal, and nearly all the money paid out from the totalisator had been on his investment alone. He had been seen himself drawing nearly £5000 in notes from the paying-out window.
Rumours swept round like eddies in a stream, and then surmises began to crystallise out into solid facts.
Black Wolf had been heavily backed away from the course, and the city bookmakers had been hard hit. In fact, they had been most methodically tapped all round. Pete Maloney, the biggest bookmaker in the State, admitted it frankly and without any ill-feeling. He said so openly on the grandstand. It was true, he explained, that not large sums had been invested on Black Wolf but, at the odds offered against the horse on the previous day quite a small bet would soon have taken all the stuffing out of any turf accountant's book. He himself had given James Dice a thousand to ten, and taken the bet twice, while his friend, Walter Hind, had been let in for exactly the same amount.
The owner of Black Wolf, moreover, had shown himself a great strategist in placing his commissions. The previous afternoon, it appeared, he had approached bookmaker after bookmaker, and had secured bets with them all. None of his wagers was for a large amount, such was the cleverness of his plan, but he had been laid the odds to tens and fives and in some cases even to only threes and twos. Nearly always he had been accommodated at a hundred to one, and he had betted fearlessly, making no place bets but going always for an outright win.
The racing crowd generally, with their first disappointment over, were intensely interested in the big coup that had seemingly been brought off and, although all losers themselves, they were not chary of expressing their admiration for the pluck that the owner of Black Wolf had shown.
"A mad thing to do, though," remarked a prominent racing man scornfully, "but a devilish plucky one all the same. Just fancy going like that for an outright win, with Abimeleck in the acceptances! Dice must have been off his chump at the time."
* * *
But long before the afternoon had waned people were not quite so sure that James Dice had indulged in so reckless a gamble as had at first been assumed. A remarkable story began to get about.
A man in the half-crown Derby enclosure, so it was said, had had five pounds on Black Wolf. Quite a number of people had watched him draw the dividend afterwards, and they had crowded curiously round to find out what had made him back the horse. But, at first, the man would offer no explanation and, beyond the cock-sure assertion, many times repeated, that he had known all the while that he was 'on a cert.' no one could get anything out of him. A few long beers judiciously administered, however, had soon loosened his tongue, and an interesting tale he had then proceeded to tell. According to him, Black Wolf had been anything but the despised and untried animal that people had imagined. Instead, he had been put through as good a test as anyone could wish, and he had been asked a very searching question before being even entered for the Christmas Cup. He had beaten a no less useful performer than the well known Basil's Pride, in a stripped gallop over a mile and a half, with a stone the worse of the weights, and everyone would remember that Basil had won the Kidman Cup at the Port, not two months ago. Oh yes, the man averred, he knew what he was talking about, and was quite as well aware as anyone that Basil had been sold for fifteen hundred guineas to Mr. French, of Melbourne. He knew that, but he knew also what other people did not know, and that was that French was a relation of James Dice and had lent him Basil for a week. The horse when he had been sold had not been taken straight to Melbourne, as people thought, but the journey had been broken somewhere, he would not say where, and the trial he referred to had then taken place. It had all been kept very secret, and Basil's Pride had been altered in appearance, so that none of Dice's station hands should recognise him. He had been hog-maned for one thing, and the white marks on his forehead coloured out for another. Oh, yes, it had all been beautifully arranged, and they deserved every dollar they had won.
Such was the man's story, and much further interesting information would doubtless have been elicited but for the potency of more long beers. The narrator had then became pugnacious, and, mainly, no doubt, to prevent his being robbed of his winnings, a kind-hearted sergeant of police had shut him up in the police room for the remainder of the afternoon.
The public were, of course, greatly interested, and a representative of the Press endeavoured to get in touch with James Dice and find out how much of the story was true. But the owner of Black Wolf was nowhere to be encountered. He had left the racecourse, so it was said, an hour before.
The following morning, with still no news forthcoming of his uncle, or Sam Gover, Stanley Barton interviewed the Chief Commissioner of the South Australian Police, and, laying everything before him, asked that the authorities should at once take some steps to find out where the missing men were.
He insisted that, nothing having now been heard of them for nearly three days, there appeared, under the peculiar circumstances, to be a most sinister significance about their silence.
He told the Commissioner how they had set out from Melbourne en route for Adelaide on the previous Wednesday morning; how they had arrived at Kingston on Thursday evening; how they had left there again that night with the expressed intention of getting as far as Meningie; how they had never been heard of at the latter place, and how they had vanished as utterly as if the earth had swallowed them up.
He emphasised the importance of his uncle's journey from Melbourne, in view of the Christmas Cup in Adelaide on the Friday, and how greatly his interest had, in all probability, suffered by the withdrawal of his horse, Abimeleck, from the race. He impressed upon the Commissioner that Eli Barton was a most methodical man in all his actions, and he insisted that his uncle's absence at the present juncture was in every respect foreign to the latter's general mode of life.
The Commissioner had been at first inclined to treat the matter very lightly, but the convincing way in which the young man marshalled his facts soon moved the official to thoughtfulness, and in the end, from the expression on his face, he seemed to regard the matter in much the same light as his visitor.
There was silence for a moment when young Barton had finished, and then the Chief Commissioner pulled a writing block before him.
"You did quite right in coming to me, Mr. Barton," he said gravely, "for the matter does not look healthy, I agree. But let's get everything shipshape and see exactly how we stand." He took up his pen. "Now you have already made every inquiry, you say, as far as possible, to find out if they have stopped anywhere on their way—I mean, of course, since leaving Kingston?"
"I have almost lived on the telephone during the last twenty-four hours," replied young Barton, "and have inquired in every conceivable direction on the chance of anybody knowing anything about them. But I can learn nothing—nothing at all. Nothing has been seen or heard of them."
"Well, let us begin right at the beginning," said the Commissioner. "Now, you yourself saw them start off from Melbourne last Wednesday morning, and you know definitely, you tell me, that they got as far as Kingston on Thursday evening?"
"Yes," replied Stanley. "I saw them start off myself, and, as I tell you, I followed with a friend exactly twenty four hours after getting to Kingston in time for lunch on Friday. We had our meal at the Hotel of the Broken Bough, and we learnt then that they had dined there the previous evening. We were expecting they would have called there in passing, for Helling, the proprietor of the Broken Bough, is an old crony of ours, and in consequence none of us ever goes through Kingston without pulling up to have a word with him. He is a useful man to motorists, for he always knows the conditions prevailing along the Coorong track."
"What time exactly did they leave the hotel, then, after dinner on Thursday?" asked the Commissioner.
"Helling said it was just before ten," replied young Barton.
"Well," went on the Commissioner, making a note, "they left for the Coorong a little before ten on Thursday night, and that is the last thing you have heard of them, the very last?"
"Yes, that's the dreadful part of it." Young Barton spoke very slowly. "They are known positively to have entered the Coorong track, but no one ever saw them leave it. They left Kingston but they never reached Meningie, and yet Meningie is the only outlet from the track this end, the only way they could have come."
The Commissioner frowned. "But why are you so positive they never reached Meningie?" he asked.
"Because," replied young Barton emphatically, "no one saw or heard them. Their only way from the Coorong track lay right through the township, and even in the dead of night no car could have slipped by there without being noticed or heard by someone. Nearly everyone was sleeping outside, and the hotel people there have made exhaustive inquiries. Menzies himself, the hotel proprietor, was sleeping out on his front veranda and, being a very light sleeper, he is certain that he, for one, would have heard them."
The Commissioner rose from his chair and attentively regarded a large map of South Australia that was hanging on the wall.
"Hum!" he observed after a long pause. "Ninety-two miles from Kingston to Meningie and, with the route to Keith impassable, no turning off the main track the whole time. Therefore the track along the lake from Kingston leads only to Meningie, and, once upon it, a car can only go forward or go back." He turned round to the young man.
"And I suppose there is no possibility of your uncle for some reason having suddenly altered his mind and returned back towards Melbourne?"
"None whatever," was the reply, "and if he'd wanted to he couldn't have done it without its being known. The Broken Bough at Kingston is right on the Coorong track, almost the last house, in fact, and an eight-cylinder Jehu doesn't creep through a township like a ghost. No, the car could no more have passed back unnoticed through Kingston than it could have gone forward unnoticed through Meningie.
"Their intention was, you say, to have slept at Meningie?"
"Yes, Helling telephoned on for them to the hotel there, saying they would probably arrive about two in the morning, and their beds had been got ready for them."
"Didn't you find out then that they hadn't slept there, when you yourself passed through Meningie, the next day?"
Young Barton shook his head. "Unfortunately," he relied, "we didn't pull up. We came straight on to the city from Kingston without a stop."
The Chief Commissioner took a different line.
"Does your uncle generally carry much money on him?"
"Well, always a fair amount when he goes racing. He supports his own horses freely, and he likes betting through the totalisator."
"I suppose it was well known in sporting circles, your uncle being such a public character, that he was coming to Adelaide last week?"
"Most certainly it was. It was mentioned in the Press and, besides, all racing people know how he hardly ever races a horse anywhere without himself being present to see it run. Last week, especially, he was interested to see what his cup horse, Abimeleck, would do."
"He often comes to Adelaide, doesn't he?" asked the Commissioner.
"Yes, three or four times a year, at least."
"And it's well known he always comes in his car?"
"Yes, he never comes by train, except in very bad weather, when the Coorong track was quite impassable."
* * *
There was a long pause then, and the Commissioner went carefully through his notes. Presently, however, he looked up and intently took in the handsome face of the young fellow opposite to him.
"Now look here, Mr. Barton," he said quietly. "As I take it, the matter in a nutshell stands like this. Your uncle, a well-known, well-to-do man, and probably carrying a good sum of money with him, sets out on a six hundred mile motor journey and is now, say, forty-eight hours late for an important engagement here in the city. This in itself would not be in any way significant, excepting for the peculiar circumstances surrounding and ensuing upon his non-arrival. To take the latter first, he is probably financially a great loser by his unpunctuality. His horse was a non-runner for the Cup, and apart from the value of the stake, if he had won, at any rate he has now to pay up for all the antepost wagers that he may have made.
"These facts stand out plainly, and so we can assume, therefore, as you say, that he would not lightly have broken his engagement. Now touching one other set of circumstances: Two-thirds of the six hundred mile journey are known to have been accomplished safely. Then comes the mysterious part of the affair. Your uncle enters upon the great Coorong track—a blind alley except where Meningie is concerned. He enters it at night. A long, lonely track, practically uninhabited throughout its whole length. Not a hamlet or a township along the whole eighty-odd miles and only a couple of sheep stations with their boundaries any where near. I say, he enters on this road and there—the story ends." The Commissioner bent forward over his desk and his voice became very grave.
"Now, we may well ask what has happened to your uncle and his friend. As you say, they can't have mistaken the way, for there was only one track for them to follow. They can't have broken down, for apart from your own journey on Friday, quite a score of cars must have come along the Coorong during the daytime in the last twenty-four hours." He shrugged his shoulders. "So, if they didn't ever pass Meningie—then, what has happened to them?"
There was again a silence and then the Commissioner spoke very slowly. "Well, Mr. Barton," he said, "of course, we'll help you all we can, and the matter shall be at once taken up officially, as you wish." He smiled pleasantly. "Still, still, I'm not quite convinced yet, I may tell you, that the car didn't pass through Meningie. It's public knowledge, of course, that Mr. Eli Barton is a man of masterful character and if he thought it good to alter his plans in any way, then"—the Commissioner shrugged his shoulders—"from all I have heard of him, he would do it and be answerable for the consequences only to himself. However," and the Commissioner took up his pen again, "now give me, please, most accurate descriptions of the car and the missing men. As I say, I'll set everything going. In two hours every police station in South Australia will have been notified and inquiries will be pushed in every direction." He smiled again. "At any rate I'm sanguine we'll have located the Jehu before evening, that is of course if it's anywhere in South Australia and has not been purposely hidden away. But keep in touch with me please from time to time during the day so that I can give you the news speedily if it comes along."
But no news came along, and the big Jehu was not located anywhere, as the Commissioner had so hopefully expected. So the following morning, just before noon, found Stanley Barton again closeted with the head of the South Australian Police.
"It's no good denying it," the latter said ominously; "we're up against something that requires explaining badly. The inhabited parts of the whole State were combed thoroughly yesterday." He shook his head. "But as I say, nothing about your uncle was brought to light. One thing, however, we did learn. What you told me yesterday about their having entered the Coorong track from Kingston on Thursday night was confirmed. A rabbit trapper camping four miles out from the township saw them passing along the track soon after ten that night. At any rate, a big car with two men in it passed him. He was asleep about a hundred yards away from the track, but the noise awoke him, and he is quite sure about there being two men in the car. Also, another item of importance: One of the night nurses of the Meningie Hospital was on duty on the front veranda all night, and she is positive no car went by between midnight and eight o'clock. So much for that, but now I want to ask you"—the Commissioner looked keenly at young Barton—"who is this Mr. Gover who was with your uncle?"
In spite of his anxiety Stanley smiled. "He is a very old friend of my uncle, and they have known each other for over forty years. He is about sixty-five years of age. As sane and level-headed a man as you would meet anywhere, and, besides that, a very rich man, too." Stanley spoke dryly. "So no suspicion on that account, anyhow."
The Commissioner smiled in his turn. "Well, we have to know everything," he remarked, "for our calling makes us naturally suspicious of everyone." He became grave and decisive. "Now, we must have the Coorong searched straight away, or as much of the Coorong, I mean, as lays just off the track." He pointed to the map of South Australia on the wall. "An army of soldiers could hardly search all those miles of bush and desert. But, still, an army of soldiers will not be needed, or, as I look at it, if your uncle and his friend have come to any harm on the Coorong, the Jehu car cannot be very far away. If it was diverted from the track it would soon get held up somewhere by the gullies in the sand." He leant over and touched a bell. "Now I'll introduce you to Harker. He's one of the best detectives in this State, and, luckily for us, knows the Coorong well. He was born in the south-east. I'll send five other picked men with you, and a black tracker, and they'll be ready in two hours. You'd better stop at Meningie to-night and start in the Coorong directly morning breaks. You've a big business before you, tackling those ninety-two miles, and——"—he shook his head doubtfully—"I'm not certain you'll find anything, if, indeed, there's anything to be found."
For the ensuing two days the search party worked energetically, but with no success, along the Coorong track. Bad fortune met them at the very onset of their quest. A strong southerly wind sprang up in the early hours of the first morning, and, almost before light had come, sand was masking over everything on the track. Wherever sand could gather, every mark of every foot-fall and every wheel track was obliterated.
"There goes our greatest chance of marking any deviation from the track," said Harker, the detective ruefully. "If they have wandered from the track, we did at any rate stand some chance of finding from where they started, before this blarmed wind came to cover everything up."
Harker, the man whom the Chief Commissioner had spoken of as knowing the Coorong, was in charge of the expedition, and it annoyed young Barton that the detective from the very first expressed himself as being in no way sanguine as to the success of their search. Indeed, he seemed quite sceptical about the whole business.
"You see, Mr. Barton," he said, "although I certainly agree, after our inquiries on the spot last night in Meningie, that your uncle and his friend probably never reached the township, still I cannot bring myself to believe that they are now anywhere about the Coorong at all." He shook his head emphatically. "No, I've been over the Coorong scores and scores of times and, knowing it as I do, I can't possibly imagine how anyone could have lost his way here. With the track running close along the lake, you have only to keep alongside the water and you're bound to go right."
"I know all that, as well as you do," replied young Barton sharply, "but I know also that my uncle was seen definitely to enter the Coorong and there is no evidence that he ever left it. Between here and Kingston something happened to them, and I believe they are about the track still. Everything points to it."
"Well," remarked the detective argumentatively, "they can't have run into the lake, that's certain. There are no high, over-hanging banks anywhere, and the water is shallow wherever they could possibly have gone over, all the way along the sides. A car plunging in would be stopped dead by the mud long before it could get into water deep enough to be covered up from sight."
"I realise that," said Stanley. "It isn't on the lake side of the road that we must look for them. It's on the other side away from the water that they'll be."
The detective shrugged his shoulders. "And what chance do you think we stand there?" he asked dubiously. "How shall we know where their car first turned off the track into the sandhills or the Ninety-Mile Desert? We must have a starting point, remember, and think what a desolate place this is. Miles and miles of sandhills and behind them more sand, and then miles and miles of uninhabited bush. How are we to search a thousandth part of the place?—and yet, until every part is gone through, the search will be incomplete and we may anywhere be missing the car." He dropped his voice sympathetically. "I don't want for a moment to discourage you, sir, but I'm afraid you're building too much on the certainty of finding them if they are here, and I'm only pointing out the difficulties that face us."
But if the detective had only known it, there was nothing of certainty in young Barton's mind. He was in a state of great depression about everything now, although he was obsessed every moment, as he had been from the very first, that among the dark sandhills of the Coorong lay the secret of his uncle's fate.
For the first day, travelling very slowly, the search party made their way along the whole length of the Coorong, reaching Kingston only just as night had fallen. It had been a very tiring day for all. In accordance with a settled plan they had stopped continuously and had searched diligently for any sign of a car having left the track.
But no success had in any way rewarded their efforts, and the farther they proceeded the more apparent became the uncertainty of their quest.
As Harker had said, they had no definite starting point. If, for some unexplainable reason, the big Jehu had been deliberately driven off away from the track—then, until they were able to determine the exact point from where the car had started upon its clandestine journey, it was sheer madness to leave the track anywhere haphazard, on the million to one chance that the missing trail could be picked up in a blindfold and happy-go-lucky sort of way.
Young Barton had come to realise this fully before they had gone many miles upon their journey, and, by the time they reached Kingston, he frankly admitted to the detective that he was almost as pessimistic as the former himself as to the ultimate result of the search.
"But still," he went on doggedly, "they must be here. You heard what we were told at Meningie this morning—that night or day no car could pass through the township without its being seen, and you heard them say over and over again that no car came through after midnight on Thursday. Now you'll hear what the people tell us at Kingston and then make of the two stories what you can."
With the arrival of the party at the hotel of the Broken Bough, the proprietor was put through a most searching cross-examination by the detectives, but he was positive to the point of anger that Eli Barton had gone on the Meningie road, and he laughed to scorn any idea that the car could by any possibility have doubled back and returned towards Melbourne in the night.
"Impossible," he said roughly. "Why, everyone sleeps outside on these hot nights, and I and all the family are out on the front verandah here, right over the road. Not even a dog could go by without some of us hearing him, let alone a big Jehu car," and he snorted in disgust.
"Tell me, Mr. Helling," asked Harker presently, when for a moment he had got the proprietor alone. "What do you make of this business? I tell you honestly I didn't think much of it yesterday when we left the city, but after what I've heard, first at Meningie and now here from you. I admit I'm beginning to feel a bit puzzled. What could have happened to them, do you think?"
The landlord regarded his questioner with troubled eyes. He looked round to make sure that they were alone, and then put his mouth close near to the detective's ear.
"I don't like it at all," he whispered, "but I haven't told young Barton so. I believe some evil's happened to them. I had a long talk with the Meningie people over the 'phone to-day. Menzies, the landlord there, is a friend of mine and a very shrewd fellow. He'll stake his life the car never reached Meningie, and upon my soul I believe him. He was out on his front verandah, just like I was all night long, and he swears the car couldn't possibly have gone by."
"Then what the devil has happened?" asked the detective with a frown—"if they're still on the Coorong, where are they?"
The landlord shook his head. "I believe they're dead," he said seriously. "I can think of nothing else."
"And why?" said the detective brusquely. "Who'd want to kill them?"
When Detective Harker brusquely asked the landlord of the hotel at Broken Bough who would want to kill Barton and Gover, the landlord shrugged his shoulders.
"Eli Barton was a rich man," he said stubbornly, "and his habits were well known. Anyone would guess he'd be carrying a bit of money with him, and he'd be worth holding up, any night."
"But who was going to know, man," asked the detective sharply, "that they would be taking the Coorong track, at night. You yourself told us just now that they said they only made up their minds at midday on Thursday."
"Yes," replied the landlord nodding his head, "I've thought of that point right enough." He looked at the detective rather contemptuously. "But who would know? Why lots of people might have known, of course. The telephone people had been informed, and anyone in the bar here may have heard me talking on the 'phone. Anyone, too, may have caught the message at the other end at Meningie." He shook his head in scorn. "There are always plenty of ears about when the telephone's being used, and someone may have accidentally picked up the information and then got ready to act on it at once." He shrugged his shoulders. "Yes, they've both probably been murdered, and the Jehu's been driven off and hidden somewhere in the sandhills or among the scrub. I hope to blazes I'm not right, but I know I've never felt easy at any time when I've seen old Barton going that way alone."
The two men continued to discuss the matter, and in the end the landlord's misgiving undoubtedly in part communicated themselves to the detective, for when the party left the township the next morning upon their return journey he was most sympathetic in his attitude towards young Barton.
* * *
The return search was conducted upon much the same lines as upon the previous day, except that upon several occasions the party explored much deeper among the sandhills.
But, as before, they met with no success at all, and darkness found them, dispirited and disheartened, returning to Adelaide.
Hoping against hope, Stanley looked for news upon their arrival in the city, but beyond the information that the mystery of his uncle's disappearance was now public property, there was, unhappily, nothing to record.
The next day the matter was the sole topic of conversation everywhere, and the newspapers made every effort to ensure that their readers were duly informed as to everything that was taking place.
There was no need, however, for secrecy, and, realising the help that the Press might possibly give him, young Stanley made a candid avowal of all the anxiety he was in.
In an interview with a representative of the Times of Adelaide he explained exactly what had happened, and emphatically gave it as his opinion that it seemed now only possible to explain his uncle's disappearance by foul play.
The public were generally of the same opinion, too, and as day upon day went by without any news coming to hand, uncomplimentary references were made everywhere as to the capacity of the South Australian police.
Two men certainly, the public commented, might easily be murdered, and their bodies hidden away. Dreadful as the idea was, yet that could be readily understood in the knowledge of the sparsely inhabited condition of many parts of South Australia, but for a motor car to get hidden, and a huge, uncommon car like a Jehu at that—well, at any rate some explanation was required there. A car had more or less all the time to keep to roads and tracks, and surely something ought to have been discovered when it was known fairly accurately where it had been last seen.
The Commissioner of the Police swore under his breath, and wondered angrily how many of his critics had been near the Coorong.
A Government aeroplane from Seaton Park was brought into requisition, and for two days, at some little risk to the aviator, it cruised low down, backwards and forwards, over the Ninety-Mile Desert, but nothing eventuated, and no sign of the missing car was seen.
So was everything in complete darkness until the Saturday morning, and then suddenly light came.
It came in a horrible and ghastly manner, and a shudder rippled through the great Commonwealth of Australia.
The big Jehu car was found, with the dead body of Eli Barton in it, and it was known that the old man had been murdered.
The discovery was made in this way:
Two young clerks from the Bank of Adelaide were holidaying in the Coorong, and in a small boat had set out to sail down the whole length of the lake. Taking things easily and amusing themselves by fishing as they went along, they had pulled up the boat each evening and camped out upon the sands.
The third day out from Goolwa, towards noon, they found themselves about mid-way across the lake. And the wind suddenly dropping altogether, rather than take to the oars in the oppressive heat, they decided to land and explore among the sandhills on the chance of getting a rabbit or two for the evening meal.
Accordingly, they pulled their boat well up and, taking their rifles with them, set out upon a voyage of discovery.
Their progress was slow, for they soon tired in the heavy going. One minute they would be in a deep gully and the next they would be toiling laboriously up the slope of a miniature mountain, with their feet always ankle deep in the yielding sand.
Presently they sat down to rest on the summit of one of the hummocks.
Suddenly, however, one of them rose interestedly to his feet. "Now, what's that over there?" he asked quickly—"something bright that keeps on catching the sun. On the other side of that gully, over to the left."
His companion looked in the direction indicated and then he, too, stood up at once.
"Funny!" he ejaculated, "but it looks like the radiator of a motor car." There was a moment's silence and then he burst out. "And, by Jove, I believe it is." His voice rose to a delighted shout. "Come on, quick. Here's something interesting at last."
All thoughts of their fatigue forgotten, they raced down the hummock side and very quickly were within a few yards of the object that had caught their eyes.
Then one of them clutched the other by the arm. "It's a car that's been drifted over by the sand," he said hoarsely, his voice trembling, "and there's somebody dead there, too."
They both halted, and, with frightened faces, stared into each other's eyes.
A dreadful taint was borne towards them on the air.
"Eli Barton!" came an awed whisper. "The two missing men."
A moment's hesitation and they fearfully approached nearer. There was no doubt about it. A big car lay in front of them, but three parts of it were buried in the sand. Against the back and all one side the sand was piled higher than the hood. The wheels and running boards were all covered over, and even on the exposed side of the car only the very tops of the mudguards were discernable.
Holding their breath, they peeped into the car, and then both, as with one movement, darted back.
A man's leg was protruding from the sand that nearly filled the tonneau.
The faces of the two boys went chalk-white in horror and, under the burning sun, they shivered. For the first time in their lives they were in the presence of Death, and the dread majesty of it struck at them like a blow.
"But why did they bring the car here?" whispered one. "And how did they come to die? They must have gone mad or else"—his voice trailed away almost to nothing—"or else, they were murdered."
For a minute neither of them spoke, and then the elder gathered his wits together.
"Well, it's no good our touching anything," he said huskily. "We must go and get help. We must get back to the boat."
Climbing breathlessly upon a high sandhill to get their bearings, they debated in jerky sentences what they must do. That they must get in touch with the police at once was the one idea in their minds, but the difficulty was—how were they going to do it?
It was nearly forty long miles along the track to Meningie, and to return to Goolwa along the lake, as they had come, would take the best part of two days.
Then another idea seized them. They would wait where they were until some motorist came along. The Melbourne—Adelaide track, they knew, ran by the edge of the lake, and no car could pass by except within a few yards of where their boat was drawn up. There was some risk, of course, in waiting for anyone coming, but they reckoned that at that season of the year someone would be sure to pass by long before the time when they could reach Meningie on their own.
So, confident that they were doing the right thing, they put up their tent, and proceeded to wait with what patience they could for help.
But it was a weary and trying afternoon that followed.
The heat got worse and worse, and, after a scrappy and unrelished meal, discarding everything but their hats, they reclined in more or less discomfort in the hot and shallow water at the edge of the lake. Towards five o'clock, and just when they were beginning to despair of anyone coming along that evening, to their almost frenzied delight they heard the unmistakable chug-chug of a motor bicycle coming from the direction of Kingston.
Hastily throwing on a few garments, with palpitating hearts they placed themselves in the middle of the track so that by no chance could they possibly be unseen.
* * *
A motor bicycle appeared round the bend and with one accord they waved frantically for it to stop.
A moment's hesitation and the rider pulled up. He kept his distance however. He was a tall, spare man, and he was heavily goggled.
"Well, what do you want?" he asked sharply. "What's up?"
"There's a motor car with a dead body in it," called out one of the clerks, "just over in the sandhills here, and we think it's Mr. Eli Barton. It's a Jehu car."
The man took off his goggles. He showed a keen alert face and he frowned.
"What is it, you say," he asked, "a dead body? Where?"
The clerks told him and related shortly how they had chanced upon the car. "But who are you?" asked the man brusquely.
"We are officers of the Bank of Adelaide," replied one of the clerks, "and we are on holiday here. That is our boat there and we came along the lake from Goolwa."
The stranger kicked the stand under his motor bicycle and proceeded methodically to take off his gloves. He smiled pleasantly.
"Well, your luck's in for once, young men," he said, "for I happen myself to be a doctor. Dr. Stark, of Meningie, at your service. Lead the way and we'll soon see what your find is. About half a mile, you say?"
Walking quickly this time, in a few minutes they reached the derelict car, and with none of the qualms that the young men had exhibited, the doctor proceeded at once to make an investigation.
"Hum," he remarked, "quite right—a Jehu car and our friend inside has been dead a good many days, I should say. Now, let's see a little more of him. No, you needn't help. Keep away; I'm used to such things."
Quickly, but with great care, he scooped away the sand from inside the tonneau and in a few seconds there came into view first the trunk and then the head and face of the dead man.
"Whew!" whistled the doctor, "not pretty to look at certainly, and—ah! a wound. A bullet wound or I'm much mistaken. A hole in the middle of the forehead." He spoke very gravely. "This man was murdered, my lads, and by all tokens, as you guessed, he's the missing Eli Barton." His eyes searched quickly round. "But there were two of them lost, and where's the other body." He shook his head. "But no; it's no good our getting busy. We'll leave everything now to the police." He took out his watch. "Nearly half-past five. Well, ten minutes back to my motor bicycle and then, say an hour and three-quarters to get to Meningie. By 7.30 the police will have been notified in Adelaide, and by midnight——" he shrugged his shoulders. "No, you mustn't expect them at all to-night. The darkness would be no good to them, and so you'll have to keep your vigil by yourselves until the morning. Go back to your tent, boys, and don't think too much about this poor chap here. To-morrow you'll be famous."
It was a troubled night then for the two young officers of the Bank of Adelaide, and, when the scanty moon came up, to the fervid imagination of youth the silvered sands of the Coorong were peopled everywhere with ghosts of the murdered dead.
Hour after hour the boys sat huddled and dry-eyed in their tent, and it was not until dawn was almost breaking that they sank into a fitful sleep. Then, hardly had they closed their eyes, it seemed, when they were awakened by the roar of a big motor car, and two minutes later big, burly police officers were questioning them before their tent.
Three cars in all arrived, the last one being driven by a white-faced young man, whom they learned later was the nephew of Eli Barton.
Then followed a hurried procession through the sandhills, a silent grouping round the derelict car, and a few words whispered as some of them looked inside.
Then a cry of fury came, a cry of dreadful anger that ended in a sob.
Stanley Barton had identified his uncle, and the murder of the old man was established without doubt.
* * *
Two days later and all that was known as to the murder of Eli Barton was made public, and in the subsequent twenty-four hours the Commonwealth generally was treated to a perfect orgy of sensationalism.
Not only was everything told of the finding of the car and the body, but the authorities made no secret either of their opinion as to what had become of the other missing man.
The latter had been murdered, too, they were quite sure, but they were frankly puzzled, they admitted, at not finding any trace of the body. They never gave a moment's credence, however, to the idea that sprang at once to many minds that it was Sam Gover who had murdered his friend and was now in consequence hiding himself away.
Apart from the great improbability of Sam Gover having suddenly gone out of his mind and shot his friend—and that would be the only explanation for his taking on the role of murderer—there were other things that stood out sharply to negative entirely the entertainment of any such idea.
To begin with, Sam Gover was an old man and built rather on a small scale, whereas Eli Barton was big and heavy, and weighed over fifteen stone. It was quite impossible, therefore, the police considered, for any but a very strong man to have lifted the body of Eli Barton and deposited it in the position in which it was found upon the floor of the car. It had been thrown into the tonneau head downward, and with such violence that one of the fittings of the foot-rest had deeply indented the top of the skull. Also, there was one very significant thing to be noticed upon the back cushion of the car. There was evidence of much more blood there than could be accounted for by the presence of the body of Eli Barton on the floor of the tonneau.
The medical evidence was that Eli Barton had been killed by a revolver bullet of large calibre, that he had died instantly, and that from the very manner of his death there would have been very little haemorrhage from the wound. The heart would have ceased functioning instantly, and there would have been no great gush of blood from the ruptured vessels of the brain.
But upon the back cushions had been found quite a quantity of blood, proving that a wounded and not a dead man had been lying there. Also there were blood-stains across the top of the door-side, as if a bleeding body had been dragged over it.
So the idea of Sam Gover having any complicity in the murder of his friend had never been entertained, and strenuous efforts had been made to discover a second body in the vicinity if the derelict car.
A whole army of detectives had been rushed down to the Coorong and, working with the energy of a pack of hounds, they had dug and probed in every likely-looking place within several hundred yards of the car.
But nothing had eventuated, and in due time they had been all withdrawn back to the city and the Coorong left as lonely and as silent as before.
The tragedy, however, still continued to occasion tremendous sensation, the uppermost feeling being everywhere one of intense indignation that such a ghastly crime should have been committed and the perpetrator allowed to get clear away.
On the fourth day, following upon the discovery of the body of Eli Barton, the special Commissioner of the Times of Adelaide, returning from a tour of investigation in the Coorong, gave it reluctantly as his opinion that, in all human probability, the perpetrators of the murder would now never be discovered. They had had too long a time of immunity, he considered, and everything had been in their favour to enable them to cover up their traces and escape.
He doubted also that the body of Eli Barton's companion would ever be found either.
He pointed out the vastness of the wilderness of the Coorong, and he dwelt forcibly on the silence and loneliness of these great waste spaces that might hide, untroubled, a thousand guilty secrets and, like the shark-infested seas of Australasia, never give up their dead.
* * *
The article in the Times of Adelaide made a great impression, but within twenty-four hours of its appearance one part, at least, of the Commissioner's prophecy was proved to be untrue.
Sam Gover was produced alive and very much in the flesh.
The first intimation, strangely enough, came from Mr. James Dice, the owner of Black Wolf. He 'phoned up to the Adelaide police, from his sheep station, Mundulla, about fifteen miles distant from Meningie.
Six days before, one of his boundary riders, he told them, had come across a man wandering in the bush. The man was in the last stages of exhaustion and, almost delirious, could give no account of himself. He was on the verge of starvation, and was suffering also from injuries to his side and right arm.
The boundary rider had carried the man to his hut, and so serious had been the latter's condition that for a while he had been afraid to leave him and make for the station to obtain help.
Ultimately, however, the man had been brought in a waggon to the station, and with due care and attention he had revived and been enabled to tell his story.
To everyone's amazement he had then made himself known as Sam Gover, the companion of the ill-starred Eli Barton, and ample proof was immediately to hand that he was speaking the truth.
Again there was a lightning exodus of the heads of the police to Meningie, and then, there being as before no occasion for secrecy, Gover's story was very quickly made known. And an extraordinary and almost incredible one at first it was.
Eli Barton had been held up and murdered in a style and manner in every way reminiscent of the wild days of the early sixties.
Sam Gover had seen him shot down before his very eyes, and he himself had been wounded twice, experiencing, the latter time, an almost miraculous escape from death.
Without the slightest doubt whatever, the two travellers had fallen into a carefully prepared and arranged ambush.
They had left Kingston, Sam Gover said, on the Thursday evening, and for a while everything had gone well. The night had been terribly hot, and not a breath of air had been stirring anywhere. Just as they were passing the twelfth milestone he remembered he was almost on the point of dropping to sleep, and after that nothing more seemed to happen until he had been suddenly awakened by the abrupt stopping of the car.
Eli Barton had pulled up because there had suddenly appeared on the road in front of them a man waving a light.
Approaching the car, the man had called out that there had been an accident just round the near hummock of sand, and he had warned them not to bring their own car any farther because the track was blocked.
At once Eli Barton and he had got out of the car and, following the man with the light, they had hurried towards the spot where the supposed accident had taken place.
There, to their surprise, they had seen no sign of any accident at all. The place was not blocked, and there was only one car, standing back off the track and away in the shadows.
They had at once become suspicious that something was wrong, and Eli Barton had tried to seize hold of the man who had waved the light. But the man had dropped his lantern and dashed away, and a second later Eli Barton himself had been shot down by some one who was firing from behind the stationary car.
Realising instantly the murderous nature of the attack that was being launched against them, Sam Gover had drawn his automatic and had succeeded, he was sure, in at least wounding one of their assailants.
Then he had thrown himself prone upon the sand to make as small a mark as possible for the man with the revolver behind the car, but the latter had suddenly switched on the car lights, and, exposed in the glare, Sam Gover had speedily been hit twice.
The first time a bullet had passed through the fleshy part of his right arm, and the second time he had been struck in the side. The second bullet, however, had almost missed him, but it had ploughed a furrow about four inches in length in his thigh and had occasioned considerable loss of blood.
All he remembered then was falling on his back, with everything fading away.
Sam Gover told the police that he had no idea how long it was before he became conscious again, but he dimly remembered being carried somewhere in a car and then being flung out violently on to the sand.
When he seemed to wake up fully again the sun was high in the sky and, everything coming back to him, he had tried to find his way on to the road. But he was hopelessly lost, and, all efforts to find it proving futile for three days and nights he had wandered despairingly in the bush with death facing him nearer and nearer every hour.
Then, just when he was finally giving up all hope, he had been found by the boundary-rider of Mr. Dice and in great suffering from his thirst and his wounds, had lost consciousness again.
Such was his story, and there was no doubt, from the subsequent medical examination, that, as with the murdered Eli Barton, his injuries had been occasioned by a revolver bullet of large size.
Questioned as to what the men who had attacked him were like, although he had a lively recollection of everything that had taken place as long as he was conscious, unhappily he could throw very little light indeed upon the personalities of their assailants.
About the man who had been firing with the revolver he could say absolutely nothing at all, for he had never once caught a glimpse of him. About the other man, however, the man with the lantern who had acted as the decoy, he could certainly give a little more information. He described him as being thin and rather small and spare; also the man had seemed hesitating in his manner and slow of speech. Of the facial appearance, however, he could say nothing.
The revelations of Sam Gover created something almost like consternation in not a few parts of South Australia. There was on all sides an uneasy feeling that the ambush and the murder were the work of a criminal gang, and people in lonely and outlying parts of the State began to ask themselves how soon it would be before their turn to be attacked became due.
They asked one another, too, what the police were doing to discover the murderers, and they gave it as their opinion that the matter was too complicated and too involved for the Adelaide authorities alone. The Commonwealth, generally, should be consulted, they insisted, and help obtained from the Melbourne and Sydney police.
* * *
And then the obsession began suddenly to get about everywhere that one man in particular should be called in, namely Larose, the great detective of New South Wales.
Larose, it was declared, was the man to solve the mystery. Larose had never been beaten yet. He was a master of every trick of the underworld, and a very prince among the trackers of crime.
But, unhappily, it appeared, the services of Larose were not available, for barely a month previously, following upon a disagreement with a high official, he had severed all connection with the police.
The public were greatly disappointed, for, with his many successes behind him, Gilbert Larose was in their eyes almost a hero of romance.
A man still under thirty, he was by far the greatest detective that the Commonwealth had ever known, and his personality was undeniably a most unusual and interesting one. Considered generally to be almost a genius in his particular calling, upon first sight, however, in appearance he seemed quite conventional, and, indeed, almost commonplace. He was just a simple, merry-hearted fellow to look at, with a happy boyish face, and with eyes bright like a bird's. He might easily have been mistaken anywhere for an ordinary every-day clerk, working in some office, or a young fellow serving, perhaps, behind the counter of some shop, and it needed a keen judge of character to discern the great forces that lay behind the very ordinary, though pleasing, exterior.
It was no exaggeration to say that his intellect was one of the most subtle kind, and in addition he was well educated, of wide knowledge, and of a most profound imagination. In his ideas he was a poet, an artist, and a dreamer—in fact, he was almost the last man one would have associated in any way with crime, yet crime in all its phases was the study and obsession of his life.
He studied criminals as another would study venomous reptiles. They were his hobby as well as his profession. He collected them, so to speak, and when he had got them cased, and had withdrawn their poison fangs, it became almost a grief to him that the law should snatch them away.
Tireless in his pursuit of them, he had almost an affection for those who had occasioned him the most trouble, and he was never spiteful or bitter when the throw of the cards went against him.
Neglectful of nothing that would help him in the pursuit of his profession, he was a mighty master in the art of disguise, and, given a case to follow up, while never for one second leaving the trail, he would seem nevertheless sometimes to fade completely away from it, as if, in fact, he had turned the whole thing up.
For weeks or months, perhaps, he would be unheard of and unseen, and then he would appear suddenly, and some astonished malefactor would find himself laid by the heels, through the disclosures, perhaps, of his bosom friend, or of the very man he had trusted most.
It was said that his disguises were impenetrable, and that once he had actually served unrecognised part of a term of imprisonment, rather than disclose his identity to the authorities, at a particularly critical moment.
A man of originality, he held very unorthodox views as to crime generally, and views that were not always approved by those in high places.
Crime, he insisted, was the natural instinct of all mankind, and everyone, he averred, was criminally inclined.
It was just natural for man to take what he wanted, and it was fear or custom only that kept everyone within the law.
All criminals he divided into two classes—those who broke the law because they were weak, and those who broke it because they were strong, and he argued that once he was brought in contact with a suspect it was always possible to surmise as to his probable guilt or innocence very quickly.
"Pooh!" he would say, "that man is no thief. He hasn't got the right atmosphere about him to steal. He is too conventional," and he would forthwith dismiss him from his inquiries, as if he did not exist.
"Now that fellow," he would say another time, "is worth watching. He is a capable, resourceful man, and chin and forehead both show that he possesses courage and brains enough to pit himself successfully against the law."
He was held in great respect by the criminal classes, and several times attempts had been made to bring him to a violent end. He had had many hair's-breadth escapes from death, but he was a dead shot with an automatic, and hitherto had been always found with the trump card.
Such then was the man whom the public were now deciding was the only one in the Commonwealth capable of handling the Eli Barton case, and it was not the public only who were anxious for him to be called in.
Sam Gover and young Stanley Barton were both just as insistent, too, that he should be the man of the hour.
Sam Gover was still an honoured if, at the same time, a rather reluctant guest at the station of James Dice. Young Stanley Barton was also a guest there, but it must be admitted at once that there was no reluctance at all about his stay. He was more than ordinarily interested in Dice's niece, pretty Margaret Bevan, and as far as he was concerned there was no anxiety that their visit should come to an end.
For a fortnight Sam Gover was much too ill to be moved, and James Dice was kindness itself in his consideration for the invalid. A great friendship had sprung up between the two. James Dice was all pity and compassion for the terrible ordeal the other had been through, and Sam Gover, apart from the natural gratitude that he felt for the care that was being given him, had come to admire greatly the fine and self-reliant character of the owner of Black Wolf.
"I'm glad, man," he said to him one day, "that some decent chap at any rate got something good out of all the ghastly business."
James Dice smiled his easy, pleasant smile. "Well, it was luck for me there at any rate, my friend, wasn't it? As Tom Sellick said, I shouldn't have stood much chance with the great Abimeleck in the way, should I?"
Sam Gover was much longer than he should have been in getting well, but, as Dr. Stark told him bluntly, he retarded his convalescence not a little by grieving so continually over the failure of the police to uncover any traces of the man who had killed his friend.
"I can't help it, doctor," the old man replied. "I can't get out of my mind the way poor old Eli died." He ground his teeth savagely together. "The very moment I'm off this bed I'll hustle things up. I'll spend every penny I've got to find the devil who killed him. What are the police doing? I tell you they should call in Larose. He is the only man with the brains to discover the murderers."
And young Stanley Barton, with all his interest in pretty Margaret, was just of the same opinion.
* * *
At length Sam Gover was well enough to be brought to Adelaide, and his arrival there reanimated again all the interest in the dead Eli Barton.
The public were exasperated more than ever that nothing had yet been discovered, and one began to hear everywhere again the question—"Where is Larose?"
The man in the street asked it; the people in the hotels asked it; they asked about it in private homes. The City magnates discussed it frowningly over their coffee in the luncheon hour; in the shops and warehouses it seemed almost for the moment the sole topic of conversation, and the very police themselves whispered about it when their superiors were not near.
The Press in no uncertain tones voiced the matter, too, but it was given to the Times of Adelaide first to take the matter up openly in the way the public wished.
Three days after Sam Gover's arrival in the City, it surprised its readers with the announcement, in big type upon the front page, that on its own initiative it was sending for Larose and that, in the public interest, it was prepared to pay any fee that the great detective might demand for his services.
A delightful chorus of approval went up everywhere, and the answer to the telegram that the Times had dispatched to Sydney was awaited with intense eagerness by the good citizens of the beautiful city of the plains.
But the Times of Adelaide was mistaken in imagining that it had been the first in the field.
Sam Gover and Stanley Barton themselves had already sent for Larose, offering to pay all his expenses, and the handsome consideration of a thousand guineas in addition, if he were successful in discovering the murderers. They had sent off their letter two days before the announcement by the Times of Adelaide, and the very morning when that journal made its intention known they were hoping to receive a reply at any minute.
But no reply came to them on that day or the next. Nor was the Times of Adelaide able to announce to its readers that the services of the great detective had been obtained on their behalf.
A chilling and disappointing silence reigned in both quarters.
But the matter was certainly not going to be allowed to rest there, and on the third day urgent telegrams were dispatched again to Larose.
Again, however, no replies were forthcoming, and those behind the scenes began to believe that the correct address of Larose could not have been obtained and that in all likelihood he must have left the Commonwealth.
But on the fourth morning the silence was broken suddenly, and it was apparent at once that all the communications had reached Larose.
To the Times of Adelaide he wired: "Offer declined with thanks. Refuse definitely to have anything to do with case. Have retired.—Larose."
His telegram to Sam Gover and Stanley Barton was much the same, only couched perhaps in a little less peremptory tone:
"Greatly regret unable to help. Am declining all private investigations.—Larose."
Almost a groan of dismay went up in Adelaide when the contents of the telegram became known, and the detective attracted not a little censure, and in some places actual abuse.
Sam Gover and young Barton were bitterly disappointed. They had built so much upon obtaining the help of Larose, and his abrupt refusal struck at them both, and at the elder man especially, as a cruel and unexpected blow.
They seemed now to be facing a blank wall, and what their next step was going to be neither of them could in any way determine.
On the evening of the day when the news of Larose's definite refusal had been published in the Times and adversely commented upon all over the city, they were sitting despondently in a private room upon the first floor of the Australasian Hotel.
They were not speaking, and the elder man was considering for perhaps the hundredth time the telegram received that morning from the detective.
"Damn him!" he muttered bitterly. "Instinct tells me he would have found out everything, if he had only come."
There was a sudden knock upon the door, and in response to Sam Gover's "Come in!" one of the hall porters entered the room.
"A man to see you, sir," he announced. "He says he's come from the garage about your car."
"Oh, tell him I'm busy," replied Sam Gover irritably. "Ask him to come another time."
"Very well, sir," replied the porter, at once retiring from the room.
He was back again, however, almost immediately.
"He tells me it's very important he should see you, sir," he said apologetically. "It's something about the repairs to the car, and they can do nothing until you've been spoken to. He's brought a note."
Sam Gover frowned angrily.
"What the devil's up now?" he asked. "There's nothing wrong with our car. It must be some mistake. It's not us he wants."
"He gives your name, sir, and Mr. Stanley Barton's, too. He says it's very urgent, if you want the car tomorrow."
Sam Gover looked at young Barton, but the latter shook his head.
"I know nothing about it," he remarked, "but perhaps we had better see him and find out what he means."
The porter went out again, and a minute later the insistent caller was admitted into the room. He was a rather oily-looking individual, with a black smutted face, and a mop of dark, greasy hair.
He stood respectfully twiddling a very dirty cap in a pair of even dirtier hands.
"Well," asked Sam Gover, sharply. "What is it you want? What's this about our car?"
But the man seemed to be in no hurry at all. He slowly produced a crumpled-looking envelope from his pocket and handed it solemnly across the table.
"Read that, sir," he said gruffly. "It tells you all about it."
The porter, seeing he was not needed, retired quietly, closing the door behind him.
The man with the letter looked round, as if to see that the door were shut.
Still frowning, Sam Gover opened the envelope. In it there was a small, twice-folded piece of paper. He unfolded it hesitatingly as if for some unexplainable kind of reason he were expecting a hoax. There were just a few words on the paper, lightly scrawled in pencil.
"It is vital," he read, "that no one should know I am here."
Twice Sam Gover went through the message, and then without a word, but with a gesture of resigned annoyance, pushed the paper across the table to young Stanley, who was sitting at the other end. He knew his nerves were not in good order, and he would not trust himself to speak.
Evincing but very little interest, Stanley Barton picked up the paper and let his eyes fall casually upon the words that were written there. "It is vital that no one should know I am here."
For a moment it appeared that, like Sam Gover, he failed to make any meaning out of the words, and then a startled and almost incredulous expression crossed his face. His mouth hardened and his eyes grew set and stern. He rose abruptly from his chair and faced their visitor.
"Who are you?" he asked sharply. "Remember we are not children here."
The man from the motor garage smiled a pleasant easy smile. He passed one hand carelessly up to his face, and then with a quick movement he jerked off a greasy wig and deposited it upon the table. He straightened himself up. His eyes took on a different expression, and his features seemed to alter and lengthen out. He spoke and his voice was quiet and gentle.
"I'm Larose," he answered simply. "Gilbert Larose."
For a moment there was a hushed and breathless silence in the room, and then, before either Sam Gover or Young Barton could recover from their astonishment, Larose picked up his wig again and carefully readjusted it upon his head.
"We can't afford to take any chances," he said quietly, "and I don't want to be recognised if any one should come in. Now, Mr. Gover," he went on briskly, "will you be well enough to take another motor journey, say, about the middle of next week? I shall want Mr. Barton here to drive the car."
But Sam Gover did not answer for a moment. He was looking fixedly at the detective, and he had all the appearance of a man who had had to pull himself suddenly together. He was frowning angrily and there was more than a trace of resentment in his eyes.
"You say you are Larose," he asked very slowly, at length. He leant back and continued dryly, "How do we know it, pray?"
"Good," replied the detective admiringly. "We shall get on capitally together, you and I. A most proper question to ask." He paused for a moment. "How are you to know I am Larose?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I certainly carry no cards on me, and every stitch of clothing I have on is marked J. Bunting." His face broke into a smile. "I think I may be able to convince you, however. Listen. Your names are Samuel—Andrew Gover. You are sixty-three years of age, and you were born in Glasgow. You came out to Australia when you were fifteen years of age. Just before you were thirty you went to the United States. You are an engineer by profession, but your interests now are wholly commercial. Your home is in New York City. You are chairman of the Bonzo Oil Company, managing director of Hespers Ltd., and on the board of the South West Grain Trust. You are over here on holiday, and you arrived in Sydney on December the 3rd. You came over on the Nerbudda, and your cabin number was 26. You gave £10 to the chief steward on leaving the boat, £5 to your table steward, and £5 to the bath steward. Your chief associates on the voyage over were Colonel Mackinnon, of Brisbane, Mr. Harold Notley, of Broken Hill, and a Mrs. Selwyn Fleming. The day after your arrival in Sydney you took the lady to the Grand Theatre to see Passing Pain; the next day you sent her a basket of flowers from Villier's, the florist, and the day following——"
"All right, all right," broke in Sam Gover, looking rather uncomfortable. "I believe you are Larose all right, but why the deuce you've taken all this trouble about me I don't pretend to understand." A rather sly expression crossed the old man's face. "I suppose you know all, too, about Mr. Barton here, and everything he's done since he was a boy."
"At 9.25 this morning," replied the detective monotonously, and as if he were repeating a lesson, "Mr. Stanley Barton left this hotel. He proceeded at once to Harrups' confectionery store and purchased there a large box of——"
"Thank you, thank you," interrupted young Barton hurriedly, and looking, in his turn, a trifle red, "but I don't need any more of that. I know you're Gilbert Larose. I recognise you from the photos I've seen in the newspapers. So you needn't trouble any more on that score." He went on quickly, "Was it at your instigation then that those telegrams were sent saying you couldn't come?"
"Yes, I arranged for them," he replied coolly. "There are particular reasons why I wish that no one should know I am on the case, and I am looking, too, to you gentlemen to keep faith with me there." He dropped his voice to a whisper, and it became very stern. "Not a soul must know—not even your greatest friends." He looked intently at young Barton. "Mind, no man, nor woman neither."
"All right," said Stanley coldly, "we quite understand. Now go ahead."
Larose appeared satisfied. He took out a battered gun-metal watch. "I allowed myself ten minutes here," he remarked, "and eight of them are already gone. Any longer might perhaps look suspicious."
He turned to Sam Gover, "Well, sir," he went on, "are you well enough to motor again, say one day next week?"
"Quite well enough," replied the old man sturdily. "It's only doing nothing that makes me feel bad now."
"All right then," said the detective. "Now please listen carefully to what I'm going to say. You'll have to help me a lot in this business, but I don't want to ask you any questions now. I know everything that's been made public so far. I've been interested in the case from the beginning. Another time, I want to hear all your story from your own lips, and I want you also to take me over the place where everything occurred." He paused for a moment as if to think, and then went on rapidly. "Now this is what I want you to do. Remain here at this hotel until I send for you. Never go far away. Be ready to leave at any time at a moment's notice. I shall want you to meet me somewhere, but I don't exactly know where yet. At any rate it will be a good many miles from Adelaide, and you must come there in a hired car. I don't want your own to be recognised. No one must know where you are going, and up to the last minute your going away must not be disclosed." His voice dropped into a stern, hard whisper, "You understand, no one must know—no one——"
There was a knock upon the door, and the porter appeared again.
"Mr. Dice and a lady to see you, sir," he said addressing Sam Gover. "Shall I show them in?"
The old man received a lightning glance from Larose, and the latter at once nodded his head.
"All right, sir," came gruffly from the motor mechanic, as if he had just received some orders. "It shall be done exactly as you say," and he made as if he were about to leave the room.
But the porter had gone off to show up the visitors, and it was Larose in his own person who turned to issue his final orders.
"Now mind," he hissed sharply, and almost as if he was addressing his subordinates, "not a word, not a whisper to anyone that you have seen me or are going to meet me. If it gets out, I tell you quite half my chances are taken away. Remember—quite half."
Footsteps were heard in the corridor, and instantly the imperious detective was merged back into the obsequious workman.
The door opened, and it was Margaret Bevan who entered first. She blushed prettily when she saw young Barton. Mr. James Dice came in looking spruce and trim. He was advancing to Sam Gover, when the motor mechanic caught his eye. The owner of Black Wolf glanced casually at him for just one second, and then perhaps for a fraction of another second looked back again.
"H'm," muttered the detective, as he edged out of the room and closed the door behind him, "so that's Mr. James Dice is it? So far the only person that we know of who made anything out of this business." He shook his head thoughtfully as he went down the stairs. "No—it's too easy to be true. Still—still, why did he look at me twice?" The expression on the detective's face was a thoughtful one, but a couple of minutes later he was walking up the street as if, for him at any rate, there was not a care nor a mystery in all the world.
On the Monday week following upon their brief interview with Larose, in the very early morning, Sam Gover and young Barton left the Australasian Hotel. Acting under the instructions they had received, they had informed no one of their intended departure, and up to within a few minutes of their going no one in the hotel was aware of it.
Carrying only a hand valise each, they made their way to a distant garage, and a few minutes later were driving away in a hired car from the city. Their destination was to be the town of Goolwa, about 60 miles away.
Sam Gover was excited and hopeful but young Barton was pensive and rather sad. The old man was quite certain now that everything would go well. He had unbounded faith in Larose, and the masterful way in which the detective had taken possession of everything and issued his orders was balm and comfort to the big business man, who all his life long had commanded others and understood the satisfying content, whatever might eventuate, of serving under a decisive master mind.
But Stanley was thinking of the pretty Margaret. She and her uncle were still in Adelaide, and he had promised himself a continuance of some delightful adventures with the girl before she returned home. Now, he had had to tear himself suddenly away and, worse still, he had not been able even to tell her that he was going. What would she be thinking of him, he wondered, and why on earth hadn't he been able to give her an inkling of what was happening?
But Sam Gover had been adamant in that respect, although he himself had had to exercise a lot of self-restraint in not mentioning anything at all to his new friend, James Dice.
He had, however, given his word to Larose and with that, for him, the matter ended, though he held privately to the opinion that, knowing the whole Coorong district as he did, James Dice should have been the very man of all others to be called in and consulted as to the best method of their quest.
They made for Goolwa in a very round-about way, and, as instructed, did not arrive at the Bush hotel until a few minutes before six o'clock in the evening.
Putting up their car in the garage, they proceeded into the office to engage rooms. They found then, however, to their great dismay, it being in the height of the summer season, the hotel was full, and no rooms were for the moment available. Sam Gover was almost apoplectic in his disappointment, and strenuously insisted that accommodation must be found for them somewhere. The young woman in the office, however, reiterated that it was quite impossible, but the head waiter, happening to pass at that moment, quickly took in the situation and a short whispered colloquy took place between the two. The engagement book of the hotel was produced and gone through.
Then to the great relief of the travellers, and not a little to their surprise, too, the girl suddenly became all smiles, and thought she could just manage it. The waiter bowed deferentially, a smart chambermaid was at once summoned, and very quickly Sam Gover and young Barton were being shown into a large and well-appointed room upon the ground floor.
"Good man, that waiter," enunciated old Gover, when they were alone. "He's got the sense to see we're people worth looking after, and he shall have a good tip for it when we go. I always like to deal with folks who use their brains. It was certainly lucky for us though that he came upon the scene just when he did."
A few minutes later at dinner, too, their good luck seemed certainly to be continuing. Although the dining saloon was packed, they were provided with two of the best seats, just under an electric fan, and at the cool end of the room. Their friend, the head-waiter, also kept a solicitous eye upon them the whole time, and saw to it that the small army of menials under him provided them quickly with everything they wanted.
He was so attentive that Sam Gover soon became quite enthusiastic about him, but really it was no more than the man deserved, for there was no doubt about his being a most efficient head-waiter. Even the most unobservant visitor to the hotel could not have failed to be impressed with the way he carried out his duties. He was here, there and everywhere at the same time, and his attention was seemingly focussed on each individual person, in their own particular turns. He had an eye for everything. Was there a fork missing, and he noticed it. Was the cruet not handy—and he was there to put it in his place. Had anyone not been asked if they would be taking wine, and he seemed to know it. Altogether, he was like a great strategist making sure that no single item of the dinner campaign should miscarry or go wrong.
There were between fifty and sixty other diners, and, with the edge off his appetite, Sam Gover began to take stock of them.
"I don't see anyone here like Larose," he whispered presently, "but from what he wrote I hardly think he'll be here for a day or two, and then I expect he'll turn up in some new disguise."
"Most probably he will," sniffed Stanley Barton, who was thinking of Margaret Bevan, and objected to his thoughts being interrupted. "Our good friend, Larose, has certainly always had the reputation of being gifted with strong histrionic talent, and no doubt, in due course, he will spring upon us another surprise. Perhaps even now he is watching us somewhere from another table." A dry smile crossed the young man's face. "Perhaps he's that big, fat woman opposite us," he whispered. "I notice she keeps on looking at you."
"Don't be ridiculous, Stanley," frowned old Gover, "you're only annoyed because—because——" he hesitated, and then smiled in his turn—"because I've dragged you away from the City. Bless your heart, my boy, I was your age once."
Stanley laughed good-naturedly. "Yes, and by Jove from what Larose told us you're by no means old yet. What about that affair of yours on the boat? What about those——"
"Coffee, sir?" broke in a voice at his elbow, and he turned to find the headwaiter standing deferentially behind.
Sam Gover frowned a warning glance, and the two friends subsided into silence. When they spoke again it was about the weather.
* * *
For nearly a week the two remained at the Bush Hotel and, although they were most impatient for the coming of Larose, time, nevertheless, did not hang heavy on their hands.
Situated as Goolwa is, near the mouth of the great Murray River and handy to the entrance of the Coorong, there is always plenty of life and interest there in the summer time. The township becomes the Mecca of the boating and the yachting world, and a good number of motor-boat folk are always to be found there.
At the suggestion of the head-waiter, who took a most respectful interest in the two friends, Sam Gover had requisitioned a small motor-boat himself, and daily excursions were made up the Murray and along the great lake of the Coorong.
The holidays and rest were obviously doing the old man a lot of good, and young Stanley, too, would have been almost happy except for thinking of the absent Margaret.
Still, neither of them could forget the purpose that had brought them to Goolwa and, as day after day went by and neither sign nor sound came to them of Larose, they began at last to chafe at the delay and wonder what could have happened.
"I don't understand it," said old Gover mournfully on the morning of the sixth day as they were going in to breakfast, "and I hope to goodness no illness has come upon the man. The worst of it is we are cut off from everything and can't communicate with him. Larose seems to have made a mistake there."
They sat down to their table, and, as was his custom, the head-waiter at once glided up to take their orders.
"Fish, sir?" he asked Sam Gover. "The Murray cod is excellent this morning."
Old Gover nodded his head. "You're quite a prince of waiters, Fenton," he remarked, smilingly, "and I shall be really sorry when you're not near to tell me what to have. Indeed I'm half inclined to steal you away from the hotel, when we leave."
The man smiled back as if pleased with the compliment, but there was not the slightest trace of familiarity about his appreciation, and he moved quickly away to continue unconcernedly his other duties.
The two friends dawdled over their breakfast, and most of the other guests had already disappeared from the room when they, in turn, rose from the table.
Immediately then the head-waiter again glided up and, with a low bow, presented a paper on a salver to Sam Gover.
"What's this?" asked the old man in some surprise.
"Your bill, sir," replied the waiter quietly. "You'll be leaving this afternoon after lunch."
"Leaving!" ejaculated Sam Gover. "What the devil——"
But the words died suddenly upon his lips, and he drew in a deep breath. The waiter was looking at him fixedly and intently, and there was no appearance now of servility on his face.
"Take up your bill," he said, very sternly. "You'll find a note underneath it. I'm Larose, Gilbert Larose."
Sam Gover gasped in amazement, and young Barton set his face hard to conceal his surprise. With hands that shook, the old man picked up the bill and the folded paper underneath. Then, upon a sign from Larose, he put both into his pocket.
The detective moved off, and it was the obsequious waiter again who was attending to the wants of a young couple at an adjoining table.
Two minutes later and, secure in their rooms, Sam Gover and young Barton breathlessly opened the letter.
"I am sorry you have been kept in the dark," they read, "but it was best for the end we have in view. I will explain later. I have a billet here for a month, but I have got a day off from this afternoon. I want to go up the Coorong with you tonight. The conditions will be just right. Take the motor boat and get in some provisions. Leave the landing-stage exactly at three o'clock, and pick me up about a mile down. If anybody asks where you are going, say up towards Murray Bridge. You can return to the City to-morrow afternoon."
"Well I'm darned!" explained Sam Gover enthusiastically. "Nothing will surprise me now. Not even if Larose turns out to be one of the beggars who held us up."
* * *
"Yes," said Larose that afternoon when their little motor boat was rapidly 'chug-chugging; along the Coorong, "I saw they were advertising for a head waiter at the Bush Hotel, and I applied for the post and got it. I was afraid at first there might have been a little difficulty about a reference upon such short notice, but"—and here he coughed modestly behind his hand—"a little visit to the writing room in the Australasian Hotel and the difficulty was soon got over. Most people," he went on meditatively, "are surprisingly unsuspicious until their suspicions are in the first instance aroused, and that is what, unfortunately, makes roguery profitable and so easy. How did I know about waiting?" He laughed as if in great amusement, to himself. "Why, bless you, I've been affiliated for years to the Sydney Waiters' Union, and I can tell you I've found it very useful sometimes. People often talk most openly before waiters, even the most reserved people, too, and in my work I've picked up many a good piece of information when handing round the dishes and the plates. This week, for instance, I've learnt several things that may be useful and help us on. One thing in particular was interesting." He looked curiously from one to the other of his companions. "Did you know the local folks at Meningie and Kingston have established a sort of patrol over the Coorong? At least, whenever a car passes through either township to take the track, its number is secretly noted and news telephoned on at once to the other end. Your friend, Mr. Dice, is the head of the movement, I understand, and they all take it in turn to keep watch. That's why we've had to come by boat to-night."
"No," replied Sam Gover, speaking for them both. "We knew nothing about it, but still I don't see why that should have prevented us going by car. Mr. Dice might have been a great help to us there."
The detective looked thoughtfully into the water. "Well, it's always been a life rule of mine," he remarked, "to have as few hunting in a pack as possible. The most unlikely people are often the very ones to give you away."
It was not far off seven o'clock when they began to draw near to their destination. For several miles the Coorong track had been winding at the edge of the lake, and they had been able to note the figures upon the mile posts. Thirty-two miles from Meningie, thirty-three, and then thirty-four. Conversation dragged, and then finally dropped altogether. They were all, however, silent for different reasons.
Young Barton was thinking of the uncle he had loved, and then later of the foul and dreadful thing that had lain huddled in the tonneau of the car; Sam Gover was un-nerved and shaking with the memory of the agonies that so recently had been his upon those burning sands, and Larose—well, Larose was just holding himself in. To all outward appearances by far the calmest of the three, in reality he was hot and eager as a bloodhound, straining to be unleashed upon the trail.
It was he who broke the silence first "Well, here we are," he said softly. "The thirty-fifth mile post at last. Now, Mr. Barton, if you'd just turn the boat in, please."
Stanley switched off the engine and with a turn of the tiller the boat glided to the shore. The detective stepped out, and made fast with the anchor into the sand.
"Now, I think we'll have our meal first," he said in brisk and businesslike tones. "There's an hour yet to darkness, and I don't want to do anything before then. You see, Mr. Gover," he went on, "I have not really asked you anything as yet about the death of your friend, and I have purposely refrained from doing so because I want to obtain your answers with all the surroundings of the murder exactly before your eyes. I mean, I want to question you under the best conditions possible to stimulate your memory. Tonight I want the darkness, the smell of the hot sand, and the limited area of visibility as will be given by our lights. To-morrow at dawn I want you in that gully where you returned to consciousness again, and I want you to recall then the first thoughts that came to you when you rose up from the sands." The detective's voice was grave and earnest. "Remember, we are up against cunning and resourceful minds, or perhaps one cunning and resourceful mind, and it is only on the assumption that they or he made a mistake somewhere that we have any chance at all." He shrugged his shoulders. "At present I have no idea where to begin my search, but any moment when we are going over the actual scene of the happenings you may tell me something that will provide me with the initial clue. But now for something to eat first."
Darkness had well fallen when the three men were pacing the sand ravine where the big Jehu had been held up. Larose was carrying a powerful acetylene lamp, and Stanley Barton an oil hurricane lantern.
"Now, Mr. Gover," said the detective, briskly, "this is about where Mr. Barton pulled up his car. You will remember, you said he remarked to you at that moment that you were thirty five miles from Meningie, and this is the only place, nearby, where the track runs between two high sandhills as you described."
"Yes," replied Sam Gover huskily. "It was here we pulled up and the hurricane lantern was waved over by the bend there. It's quite clear to me. I remember it distinctly."
"Well," went on the detective. "Mr. Stanley and I will remain here, but I want you to walk on now with the hurricane lantern and do exactly as the man who stopped you did. Do exactly as he did, mind. This acetylene lamp here will act for the Jehu car. Wave the lantern as you think the man did, then come forward and call out your message and then turn back, all exactly as he did."
With a nervous smile Sam Gover walked off until he had proceeded for about a hundred paces, and then he turned and jerkily swung the hurricane lantern to and fro, calling out at the same time. Then he walked forward until he almost reached the light, and then stood stock-still shading his eyes with his hand.
"Well, say something," said Larose sharply. "The man didn't stand there as if he were struck dumb, did he?"
"But he hesitated," replied Sam Gover, "he seemed uncertain about something." The old man spoke testily. "You told me to do exactly as he did."
"Oh! Oh!" exclaimed Larose most interested. "He hesitated, did he? He was uncertain, eh? Well, go on, go on. When you turn back we'll follow, without the light."
* * *
At once Sam Gover turned round, and at a much quicker pace than when he had approached them made for the bend where the track came out from between the two sandhills.
"Keep close to me," he called out. "We were right on the beggar's heels here." He swallowed a lump in his throat. "Now, this is where Eli flashed his torch."
There was a click and a ray of light stabbed the darkness. Larose had come prepared for everything.
"That's where their car was," exclaimed Sam Gover excitedly. "It stood in front of that bush. That's where Eli fell when they shot him and this is just about where I lay on the sands." He ground his teeth savagely together. "Oh! the devils! if only I'd got the one behind the car."
"But you hit the other?" queried the detective. "You are sure of that?"
"Perfectly," replied Sam Gover. "I heard him yell."
"But you didn't see him fall?" asked Larose.
"No, it was too dark for that. You see, the lantern had gone out and there was then no light at all. But I hit—I hit him, for he shrieked out, 'Oh my arm.' It was with my second shot, too, I am sure. The first shot I had fired at random, and in the second shot I think I must have been guided by what I saw in the flash of the first. I remember getting a lightning glimpse of a figure running towards the car."
"And he called out instantly as if hurt?" asked Larose.
"Yes, he shrieked several times."
"You didn't mortally wound him? You think it was only his arm?"
Sam Gover shook his head.
When Sam Gover, relating to Larose on the spot, the details of the shooting that ended in Eli Barton being murdered and one assailant wounded, was asked did he kill the bandit, Gover shook his head.
"No, I am sure I didn't kill him," he said. "Too much squeal about him for anyone vitally hurt. I don't believe even that I hit him anywhere except in one of his limbs." The old man paused for a moment and then went on thoughtfully. "It's like this. Whenever I have thought things over since it always seems to me that I must have hit a bone somewhere, because the man was instantly in pain. He cried out just as a man often does when he's hit that way."
"Oh," said Larose, as if surprised, "then you've been in some fighting before this?"
The old man laughed slily. "Certainly, sir. You're not by any means the only man who's had adventure in his life. As a matter of fact, I've seen quite a lot of fighting in my time, and amongst other scraps I was in the Boer War. I've often had men hit beside me, and the other night when this chap squealed out I remember thinking subconsciously to myself: 'Well, I've broken a bone of him, anyhow.' Broken a bone, mind you, no vital hit. That's how it struck me at the time, thinking automatically as it were."
"Very interesting, Mr. Gover," commented Larose, "and very well explained, too. But the police tried hard to follow up upon your idea and looked everywhere for a wounded man. They made inquiries of every doctor and every chemist in the State. Nothing however came of it, as you know, and they were completely at a dead end. Now, just one more thing. Point out to me exactly where their car stood and I want you to be very particular here."
"It was exactly over there," said Sam Gover, indicating the position with his hand. "I remember that bank behind it, and on the top that bush."
"And it was the spot-light he turned on you? Not the head-lights of the car?"
"Yes, it was the spot-light," replied the old man emphatically, "and he deliberately turned it round until it fell on me."
"How far did he have to turn it then?" asked the detective sharply.
"A good half-turn, I should say, but it was done very quickly, and I was immediately blinded in the light."
"Which way did he turn it?" said Larose quickly. "Do you happen to remember?"
"This way," replied Sam Gover waving his arm, "from left to right."
The detective was silent for a moment and then he switched off his torch. "A last question, Mr. Gover," he said, "and then we'll go back to the boat. In your opinion, and speaking as a man who knows something of firearms, what was the nature of the weapon the man used?"
"A revolver, firing a bullet of large calibre," said Sam Gover promptly, "old fashioned and probably pinfire. It was using black powder, for when the spot-light was switched on the light came through a haze of murky smoke. There was a smell of gunpowder, too. Yes, it was old fashioned certainly, and banged like the cavalry revolvers we used in the Boer War."
"Well, thank you, Mr. Gover," said the detective, "and now we'll go back and get some sleep. We must be up at sunrise to-morrow and you'll talk to us next in the gully where you were probably thrown out." He smiled approvingly on the old man. "Really, you're a most satisfactory person to deal with, and you've helped me quite a lot just now."
The following morning, and before five o'clock, Sam Gover was standing in the little gully from where, so short a time ago, he had commenced his dreadful wanderings across the Ninety-Mile Desert.
* * *
Stanley Barton had led them to the spot where the Jehu car had been found and the gully was within a few yards, at the side.
"Whew," whistled Sam Gover disgustedly, "and I was so near the car the whole time. This is the spot right enough, for I remember climbing up over the bank there. If only I had climbed up this other side. You see," he went on, "I was so dazed and so confused when I came to that I couldn't think at all, or I might have judged pretty well where the track was by the position of the sun. As it was, I went off in exactly the wrong direction, and all my troubles began." His voice became hard and bitter. "Do you realise, Mr. Larose, the hell that I went through then? Three days and nights of pain and awful thirst. If it had not been for the little whisky and water that I had in my flask I should have died sure enough before I was found."
"Well," replied the detective, "you were at any rate lucky there, but come, Mr. Gover, are you sure you remember nothing, absolutely nothing, of anything that happened between the time you were shot down on the track and the time you became conscious again next day when, as you say, the sun was up?'"
"I've told you," said Sam Gover slowly, "that I was conscious of being carried somewhere in a car. I felt the jolts distinctly, and then after I had been thrown out, and was lying on the sand, I remember I groaned."
"Lucky the wretch who threw you out didn't hear you then, or he'd have finished you off at once."
"Oh, I don't think I groaned then, but I remember coming partly to some time and groaning because of my other arm. It must have got twisted under me when I was thrown out, and the cramp had made it more painful for the time being even than the wounded one."
"Is that all you remember, everything?"
"Yes, I can think of nothing more."
"But, Mr. Gover," persisted the detective, "if you were conscious enough to remember that you groaned, surely you must remember other things. What did you think had happened to you, for instance? You must have been wondering where you were."
"Oh, yes," replied the old man promptly, "I remember I thought for a moment that I was back in the Boer War. I knew well enough I was wounded, and—I heard firing, too."
"You heard firing," jerked out the detective sharply, "when you were lying in the gully there? What do you mean?"
"Well," said Sam Gover very slowly. "At least I think now that I did." He looked in a puzzled way at his interrogator. "Yes, I seem to remember that I did somehow. By Jove," he went on, more positively, after a moment, "yes, I'm sure I did, and it was that big revolver, too, that was cracking again. It all comes back to me now. It roused me up, and I wondered where the stretcher bearers were."
He suddenly stopped speaking, and with his lips parted, stood staring into the shadows of the little gully where he had once lain. His face was white and drawn, and he had the appearance of a man in mental pain. The memories of that black night had been stirred in him, and he was recalling to his mind the long hours of agony he had endured upon the sands.
The detective eyed him anxiously and for the moment was obviously afraid to break into the reverie. When he did at length speak, it was slowly and very softly, as if he were addressing someone who was walking in his sleep.
"How many times did you hear this firing?" he asked.
"Oh! only once," replied Sam Gover, with a long drawn sigh.
"And how soon was it after you were thrown in the gully, do you think?" continued the detective, his voice still almost in a whisper.
"I don't know, but I don't think it could have been very long, for it was the bang that woke me up, and I remember at once starting to spit the sand out of my mouth, before I lost consciousness again. I expect I must have fallen face downwards when I was pulled out of the car."
Larose asked one more question only.
"Did the bang sound quite close or very far away?"
"Neither," replied Sam Gover. He hesitated for a moment. "It might easily have come from the very place where we had been held up."
An hour later, and proceeding quickly back along the lake, Larose appeared to take his companions fully into his confidence. At least, that was, at any rate, the impression that he gave them, as no doubt he intended to.
"Now let us see exactly where we are," he commenced briskly. "I don't think our little expedition has by any means been wasted, and time may show that we have really found the beginning of the trail. Only one thing I must impress upon you, on your honours. Not a whisper of where we have been must get about. Neither of you must tell a soul that you have ever seen me." His tones became most grave and serious. "When you say good-bye to me at Goolwa to-night, forget that you have seen me. I shall drop out of your lives for a little while and Larose must mean nothing more to you than just the name of the man of whom you have heard. You have never met me. I never called upon you. I wired refusing your offer and there the matter ended. See?" His voice became almost menacing in its insistence. "Remember, it is vital. It is vital that no one should know I am at work. I have hopes, I have great hopes, of laying hands upon the actual murderer, but I shall only get him if he thinks that the pursuit has all died down. I must catch him off his guard." The detective shrugged his shoulders and his face broke into a smile. "When you get back to the city, just say you have been to Goolwa for a rest. Now I can depend on you both, can I not?"
"All right," said Sam Gover rather testily, and young Barton nodded as if the matter needed no discussion.
"Well," resumed the detective as if quite satisfied, "and how does the position stand, I say? What is the extent of our exact knowledge and what more may we reasonably surmise?" He paused for a moment and then went on in brisk and businesslike tones. "Listen, two men made up their minds to waylay and murder your uncle. There were almost certainly not more than two men involved. Quite apart from what Mr. Gover has told us, I gained the impression right from the very beginning that it was only a two man affair. Moreover, one thing stands out to me quite clearly. Whoever they were, they were not habitual criminals, at any rate in the assassination line." The detective sniffed contemptuously. "They were amateurs and bunglers all along, and at the critical moment, too, the master mind of the two lost his head, as witness the fact, for instance, that Mr. Gover is alive here to-day."
Larose paused again. "The murder was not a haphazard one," he continued. "They were not out to murder any chance traveller on the Coorong that came along. It was Mr. Eli Barton sure enough that they were after, and it was him only they were expecting to come. Surely it would be incredible to conceive that any assassins would be waiting at midnight, in the very loneliest part of the Coorong, on the off-chance that some stray car might come along?" He shrugged his shoulders. "For one thing they would not be able to know beforehand if what they were ambushing were worth the very serious risk of the capital charge, and moreover they would be quite ignorant when a car did arrive as to what exactly they were taking on. It might have turned out to be only a lorry with a load of empty petrol tins, or again it might have been a car with five or six passengers in it. What good to them, pray, would either of these have been? No, they knew what to expect—they knew the car they were waylaying would be Mr. Eli Barton's. They were sure of that."
Detective Larose, having heard all Sam Gover could remember of the night he and Eli Barton were held up and shot near the Coorong Lake, and having deduced that the banditry had been carefully planned, turned again to Gover. "Then how did they come to expect that Mr. Eli would be passing at midnight through the Coorong? Was it his habit to do so?" He shook his head. "No, we know he had never done so before. Plenty of daylight passings, but never by night, never once. Well, how did they know?"
"We didn't know it ourselves until about midday, as I've told you," broke in Sam Gover, "and it was I who suggested it first. Then we telephoned to the Broken Bough and asked them to pass the message through to Meningie."
"Exactly," said the detective, "and therefore the idea of holding up Mr. Barton could never have come into the murderers' heads until the afternoon of that very day. They might of course have guessed that he would be travelling to Adelaide through the Coorong, because his horse was running in the Christmas Cup, but they would never have dared to molest him in broad daylight. It would have been too dangerous with the almost certain passing of other cars in both directions. They might have shot him, of course, but their presence on the Coorong track, either before or after the shooting, would certainly have been noticed by some one, and, as I say, the risk of everything would have been too great. So we may take it for granted that the information the murderers acted upon so promptly was picked up by them by chance. And we may reasonably assume, also, that they didn't acquire it themselves at first hand. I mean they were not actually present themselves when the message came through to the Kingston or Meningie Hotels. They probably heard some one else say: 'Oh, Eli Barton is coming through the Coorong to-night. I heard them talking over the telephone about it.' What makes me think this is they obviously didn't seem to know Mr. Barton was to have a companion with him as they would have done if they had themselves heard the conversation over the phone." Larose spoke very emphatically. "It is too much to believe they would have dared to attack two men, and I am sure they thought Mr. Barton was coming alone. One thing specially inclines me to this view. Note the marked hesitation of the man with the lantern when Mr. Gover as well as Mr. Barton stepped out of the car. He was glib enough when he was calling upon the car to stop, but when he saw two passengers alight instead of one he was tongue tied at once and did not know what to say or do. Now, the man with the lantern was undoubtedly the subordinate criminal to my mind, acting under instructions, and the orders he had received only pertained to the decoying of one victim, not of two. So he lost his head straight away and started to run, thus arousing at once the suspicion of Mr. Eli and immediately bringing down upon your friend the fatal shot."
Larose stopped speaking, and turning from his companions, allowed his eyes to wander for a moment upon the sandhills across the lake. Very soon, however, he took up his argument again.
"Well, who now," he asked solemnly, "were these men who that night set out deliberately upon this quest of murder? Were they just chance travellers like yourselves, passing through the Coorong, or were they local men who lived about here." He looked questioningly at Sam Gover. "What about that lantern they used—does nothing strike you there?"
The old man shook his head. "It was a hurricane lantern, like the one we used last night," he said slowly. "I am sure of that, for I can see the shadows now that it cast upon the track as the man went on in front of us."
"Well," the detective sharply, "and is a hurricane lantern, pray, included in the ordinary equipment of the usual touring car? No, no," he went on, at once answering the question for himself, "and that is why I so insist that nothing of our journey here should get known. The assassins we are looking for are local men. They live somewhere near here, and that hurricane lantern they used is no doubt still seeing service on some near station or outlying farm." He looked at Sam Gover again. "And is nothing significant to you either, from the way in which they had parked their car? Can you gather nothing from the way the spot-light had to be turned round so that it should focus upon you as you lay upon the sand? From left to right you said. Well, that meant surely that the car itself was facing towards Meningie, for you had approached from the direction of Kingston, and only in that case would the spot-light need to be swung back, from left to right, to pick you out."
"But it was," said Sam Gover. "It was all done in a second, of course but I remember distinctly it was turned back."
"And so with their car facing towards Meningie," continued the detective "That was, of course, the direction in which they intended to go, directly after they had finished with Mr. Barton, for it stands to all reason and common sense that they would have made all preparations for a quick getaway directly the matter was finished. Their car would have been all ready in position for them to bolt away at once."
"But no car passed through Meningie that night," broke in Stanley Barton. "We are sure of that."
"Pooh! pooh!" answered Larose, "and who said one did?" He frowned at the young man. "Is it not feasible that, having removed all traces of any crime from the track, the murderers could have driven almost as far as Meningie during the night but not have actually entered the township until the sun was well up? Knowing every foot of the Coorong as they most probably did, they could easily have hidden just off the track somewhere and waited until they could pass through Meningie without their presence exciting any comment, or perhaps even being remembered afterwards." The detective shook his head emphatically. "You see, Mr. Barton, everything points to the probability that the men who murdered your uncle knew the Coorong well, and worked, too, from this end of the track. The place they chose for the ambush was the one ideal on the Meningie side. There was that convenient bend in the track between those big hummocks, and from one of the hummocks they could watch him coming for over seven miles," Larose laughed slily. "Oh! yes, I myself know some parts of this Coorong of yours pretty well now, I spent three days and three nights here three weeks ago."
"Before you wired to us?" frowned Sam Gover. "Then you had already taken up the case?"
"Well, not, exactly," smiled Larose, "but it happened I was holidaying in Adelaide; and the case interested me and gave me something to do." The smile died quickly from his face. "But I tell you once again, it is vital no one should know I have been here. Everything depends upon it. You understand?"
Sam Gover and young Barton nodded. "Then do you think," asked the former, "that you'll have any success in the end? Have you any idea at all as to what kind of men they were who held us up?"
"Mr. Gover," said Larose very solemnly, "the death of your friend was accomplished by two very ordinary and commonplace men and novices, too, in the shedding of blood. They were not habitual criminals in any way in that respect, and they just took to murder in this instance upon the particular urge of some fixed motive that to me, at all events, is not yet clear." He regarded the old man with very thoughtful eyes. "Was it for robbery alone, do you think, that they planned this crime, and did they really expect to find upon Mr. Barton money enough to compensate them for the risk of being hanged?" He shook his head. "No, I am puzzled there, I am puzzled. Remember, they were not down-and-outs. They were not men without resources of any kind, as witness they were in the position of being able to requisition a motor car. As I say, I am puzzled, very puzzled."
He stopped speaking, and it seemed as if his thoughts had gone voyaging again, upon their own, but in a moment he turned and resumed in business-like tones.
"Well, we'll leave that for the present and try now to think what the assassins originally intended to do when they had shot down and robbed Mr. Barton. They would not have just driven off, would they? They would not have left the body and the car for the first passer-by to find, do you think?" Larose clenched his hands emphatically. "No, a thousand times no. All their safety lay in hiding what had happened, quite as much as in hiding that they were the perpetrators of the crime. They wouldn't want the crime to be discovered at all, or if it had to be discovered, they would want that discovery to be so retarded and so belated that people would have forgotten altogether by that time all the doings of their neighbours about the date when the crime was committed. Jones wouldn't remember then that Smith had been away ostensibly on a fishing expedition that night, and Black would have no recollection that he had passed White in his car just before dawn was up, on that fateful day. And so on and so on. So what had these miscreants intended to do? Why, very much what they did do, but in a much more efficient and thorough manner. They would have driven the Jehu not a bare miserable half-mile or so into the bush, but 20 or perhaps 30 miles there, and the probability is then that the body of Eli Barton would have remained undiscovered for ever."
Larose stretched out his arm and pointed towards the Ninety-Mile Desert. "Yes," he went on, "a dozen miles off that track and there are places, perhaps, where no man has ever been. An army could be hidden there, let alone a car and one dead man."
Detective Larose continued his reconstruction of the crime. He turned to Sam Gover. "Try to visualise now what exactly did take place after you and Eli Barton were struck down," he said.
"We take it for granted, as we have no reason to believe otherwise, that the hold-up was carried out by only two men. Well, you had wounded one and he was probably too sick forthwith to be interested in what was going on. But the other man would be very much interested. He had to be, for he had just committed, as he thought, two murders, and hanging is not for anyone a pleasant thing. So he proceeded to dispose of the bodies, and the assumption is that he dealt with Mr. Eli Barton's first. It looks like it anyhow, for undoubtedly his body, from the position it was found in the car, was the one thrown in first. It lay huddled down upon the floor, whereas you, from the blood marks, were pitched in afterwards and reclined, at any rate partly, upon the back seat. And here one thing stands out as most significant to me. The man searches Mr. Barton, but he does not search you. He tears out Mr. Eli's wallet from the inside vest pocket and tears it out so violently that he pulls off the safety-button and slits the pocket itself as well. He was in such a desperate hurry that he hadn't time to unbutton the pocket but, as I say, he just tore the wallet out. But you—he never searched you, and missed, as you informed the the police, over £300 in good Australian bank notes. He never apparently examined you in any way, or he would have seen at once you were not dead. Now, what does all that mean?" Larose leant over and tapped Sam Gover upon the arm. "Panic, my friend, panic. The man was suddenly in desperate fear, and he had lost his head. He was no longer the man of steady aim who could hit Mr. Eli in the centre of the forehead with his first shot, the man who had coolly switched on the spotlight when he was himself under fire, the man who had been able to think and act collectedly when the bullets from your automatic were pinging round his car. No, he was quite a different man now and his actions show he had completely lost his nerve."
Larose puckered his eye-brows.
"Now, I ask you why had he got so flurried? If, as I have surmised he had found he had two bodies to get rid of instead of one, that is not sufficient, in any way, to account for it. All cars going through the Coorong carry as we know, a spade and—goodness gracious—there is sand enough here for many times a million graves. Then what was the trouble, and why was he so suddenly put out?"
The detective looked from one to the other of his companions, but neither of them spoke. "Well, I'll tell you what I think," he went on slowly. "The man was in some sort of panic about the cars. You see, the farther away that the big Jehu was removed from the actual place of the hold-up, if it were found, the most difficult would be the picking up of any actual clues, and if it were never found at all the position of the malefactors would have been absolutely secure. Mr. Barton would then have simply vanished, and it would never have been proved that his disappearance had occurred upon the Coorong. Notwithstanding all we have heard to the contrary, it would never have been certain that he had not doubled back through Kingston during the night or slipped through Meningie in the hours just before the dawn. No, I am sure that the wretches counted upon getting the car hidden so far away in the desert or the bush somewhere that it would never have been found. Now, if that be so, then what had upset their plans?"
Larose looked solemnly at Sam Gover. "It was you who had upset them, Mr. Gover. You had wounded the man with the lantern and there were now two cars with only one man able to drive them."
The detective smiled. "Then, just think in what a quandary the man with the revolver was. He had to act with the greatest despatch possible, for every second he delayed only added to his danger. But—if he bolted straight away and left the Jehu and the bodies where they were, the hue and cry would be raised next day and with the interest and curiosity that would be everywhere aroused how could he satisfactorily account for the bullet wound of his companion? Explanations would have to be forthcoming, and he no doubt realised it was more than possible, with any suspicion falling on them, that certain other and more damning facts might come out and point to them directly as the murderers. So, he couldn't leave the car on the track to be found where it was, and it had to be driven away somewhere. But the devil of it was, he couldn't drive it far, for he had, of course, to return to the other car on foot. So he just drove it, as we know, to the spot where we went last night, less than a mile off the track, and left it as it was afterwards found. And it's quite clear to me that all the time the man was working in a perfect frenzy of fear. You, Mr. Gover, were just picked up anyhow; you were unsearched, and you were just flung in and pulled out with no caution at all. Something, too, must have suddenly accentuated his fears the moment after he had pitched you down that gully, for why was not the body of Mr. Barton flung out too? No, everything was done in a frenzied hurry as if his only thought uppermost was to get away. It was panic, I tell you, panic, and there—there for the moment our surmises must almost end."
Larose stopped speaking and, folding his arms, leant back against the side of the boat. It seemed as if he had suddenly become tired, for he sighed heavily and half closed his eyes.
"Well," said Stanley Barton breaking into the silence, "and do you think we shall ever know who the wretches were?"
"Certainly, I do," replied Larose emphatically, and at once reopening his eyes. "It requires time and patience; that is all."
"But that wounded man," said Sam Gover, "I am always wondering how he was hidden away. If only we could have discovered him."
"Don't worry," replied the detective grimly, "I shall find him. Soon I shall come back here to look. He is not far away." He spoke very solemnly. "He lies buried somewhere under these sands." Sam Gover and young Barton stared incredulously. "Yes," went on Larose, "his companion killed him because of his wound, and that was his death-shot that you heard when you thought you were back in the Boer War. Yes, he lies buried here."
That evening Sam Gover and young Barton left Goolwa upon their return journey to the city, and Fenton, the popular and efficient head-waiter, resumed for a time his duties at the Bush Hotel.
* * *
One morning, just a week after the visit of Sam Gover and Stanley Barton to the Coorong, a man with all the obvious appearance of a holiday-maker could have been observed leaving the railway station at Goolwa, immediately following the arrival of the midday-train. He had brought quite a fair amount of luggage with him in addition to his large rucksack, and a porter was trundling a portmanteau on a barrow. A gun-case and a fishing-rod were also much in evidence.
The holiday-maker had not come quite alone, for he had brought a dog with him; an ugly-looking customer, half terrier and half spaniel, and a critical observer would have surmised at once that the animal was quite a recent purchase. He was undeniably restive, and he and his possessor seemed by no means, as yet, on good terms with one another. He was held in by a stout chain, attached to a strong collar, and that both were necessary was evidenced more than once, even before they had gone 50 yards from the railway station by the determined efforts he made to break away.
But the man was always good tempered about it, and by alternate coaxing and pulling he managed to get the brute along.
The party duly arriving at the Bush Hotel, the dog and the luggage were deposited for the moment in a place of safety, and, the porter being paid and dismissed, the man himself proceeded into the hotel to partake of luncheon.
He thoroughly enjoyed the meal, notwithstanding the bad service and the long waits between the courses.
"I am extremely sorry, sir," was the whispered apology of the hotel proprietor, when, not until the third course had been served, could the holiday maker obtain anything to drink, "but we're all at sixes and sevens just now. I lost my head-waiter suddenly only a couple of days ago. Taken ill, and had to go to Adelaide at once. Such a good man, and everything's been disorganised since he went."
The holiday-maker smiled good-naturedly.
"Bad luck, I'm sure," he commented sympathetically, "but you'll soon be getting another one, anyhow."
The proprietor shook his head. "Not like the last one, sir, never. He was a wonderful man. He wasn't here long but I never met anyone like him. He knew what everyone wanted, and everyone's business, too, before they had been in the hotel half an hour. He was a marvel."
The holiday-maker leant back and appreciatively sipped his wine. Then crossed, however, over his face what might easily have been taken for an amused and gratified smile.
Finishing his lunch, he lighted a cigarette and strolled leisurely round to the kitchen door. He seemed, as it were by instinct, to have a knowledge of where all the offices of the hotel were. He begged some bones for his dog from the head-cook, and opining, again apparently by instinct, that the latter gentleman was a racing enthusiast, gave him a couple of tips for the races the next afternoon, and then smiled him into making a neat little parcel of the food that had been sorted out.
Then he walked down to the Quay and after a lot of bargaining, in which he certainly did not come off second best, hired a nice roomy sailing boat for a week.
Then behold him, a couple of hours later sailing slowly away from Goolwa his luggage bestowed methodically about the boat, the ugly looking dog squatting disgustedly upon an old sack that had been allotted to him in the bow, and he himself lying contentedly back in the stern with a cigarette between his lips.
For a long while then there was silence. The dog shuffled uneasily on his sack, and pricked his ears anxiously at the gurgling of the water on the boat's sides. He contemptuously ignored however, the man opposite him, and also a juicy-looking bone that lay in close proximity to the sack. Indeed, so studied was his attitude of indifference to everything pertaining to food or master that, had he been a human being, it might have been said that he was in the sulks.
Presently the man laughed. He leant forward and snapped his fingers in the dog's face.
"Make it up, Swipes," he coaxed persuasively. "It's no good, old man, I've bought you for two pound twelve and six, and until I've done with you I'll be the only pal you're going to have." Then he seemed to eye the animal rather dubiously. "But you certainly don't look up to much old chap," he remarked, "although your late master is not a born liar you are indisputedly the most intelligent mongrel at present in South Australia, and a regular pocket bloodhound when you're put upon the trail." He pushed the bone nearer to the dog. "Well don't, if you don't want to. The flies can have a tuck in first. You'll be glad of it to-morrow, anyhow, or I'm a poor prophet and my name's not Gilbert Larose."
Two evenings later a happy and now quite sociable couple were encamped among the sandhills on the Coorong. A meal was in the course of preparation and the detective was roasting a nice fat rabbit upon a cleverly contrived spit, before a roaring fire. A delicious aroma filled the air and the impatient cook kept smacking his lips expectantly and prodding the rabbit with a fork to see if it were done.
The dog was equally interested and never for a moment took his eyes off the spit. His ears were cocked intelligently and he watched all the proceedings with such an air of wisdom and understanding that Larose, observing him, congratulated himself and felt amply justified in his expenditure of two pounds twelve and six.
"You really now look worth the money, Swipes," he commented admiringly. "Well, we'll both have a rattling good dinner and then, directly it gets dark, we'll get to business." His face grew hard and stern. "Someone, perhaps, is going to swing from tonight's work."
* * *
They were camped only about two hundred yards from the place where Eli Barton had met his death, and Larose had already spent the greater part of the afternoon making himself acquainted with the ground.
Time after time he had set off from exactly where the two travellers had been struck down. He had wandered round the sandhills, he had inspected all the little gullies, and he had noted all the undulations and the drifted banks of sand. He had climbed up all the hummocks within a radius of several hundreds of yards, and had walked methodically down every ditch that could be found. But always he had returned to the place he had started from, and always for a long time upon his return had stood thoughtfully gazing back upon the way he had just come.
His movements to any observer would have seemed very mysterious, and a casual passer-by would at once have wondered what on earth was happening. If anyone had been told the detective was looking for a body, they would certainly then have thought he was going about it in a very queer and unsatisfactory manner. He made absolutely no attempt to probe the ground anywhere and, although he had a dog with him the whole time, he never once spoke to him or encouraged him to sniff about.
Then, just before he returned to the camp to prepare the evening meal, his proceedings would have seemed even more mysterious and inscrutable than ever.
He cut down about a dozen tall reeds and to the ends of each of them he tied a small piece of white rag. The whole bundle he then hid by the bank of the lake, covering them lightly over with a little sand.
The last proceeding over, he seemed then suddenly to become all at once a different man. He threw off his preoccupation; he started humming a lively tune; he whistled to the dog, and then finally doffing his clothes, raced down the sands and had a long refreshing bathe in the lake.
It was just after eight that night and Larose, the great Sydney detective, was standing exactly on the spot where, nearly six weeks before, had been parked the small black car from behind which someone had fired the fatal bullet that had struck down Eli Barton.
Dusk was falling rapidly, but Larose was waiting for the exact moment when it would be quite dark. To the top of a stout pole, about five feet in height and thrust deep into the sand behind him was lashed an acetylene lamp, but the lamp was as yet unlit. At his feet lay the bundle of reeds that he had cut that afternoon, and also a large ruck-sack, stuffed out roughly to the shape of a man.
If he had been quiet and restrained earlier in the day, there was certainly nothing like that about him now. He was trembling violently, and his heart was pumping as if he had been running hard. Indeed, it was plain that he was in a state of great expectancy and excitement. But he had good reason anyhow, he would have told anybody, for this condition.
A profoundly critical moment had arrived, and he was about to put to the test all the elaborate theories that he had been working out. He was staking everything upon what would eventuate from the happenings of the next half hour, for, if his reasoning were correct, he would have located by then a body hidden somewhere in the sands.
He was quite confident about it, however, for no matter how hot and eager he was now, had not everything, he continually reminded himself, been reasoned and thought out when his mind was calm and icy cold.
He believed with certainty that a hidden body was quite near, and he argued to himself that he would find it, because he was about to surround himself with exactly the same set of circumstances that had surrounded the murderer when he had shot his victims down.
He was acting on the idea that all men, with certain allowances for temperament, would act in exactly the same way under the influences of panic or fear, and he was believing he would be able to track every step of the murderer by the very footprints he would make himself.
Detective Larose looked round into the blackness. Darkness had at last fallen with all the suddenness of an Australian night. He lit the acetylene lamp and a long beam of light shot out across the sands.
The supreme moment had arrived.
"Now let me think," he muttered hoarsely; "let me put myself exactly in his place. I am in deadly fear. I have just run nearly a mile over heavy sands. I have killed a man and I must hide his body and get away quick. I must bury him, of course. I must drag him away somewhere. No, I must not drag him, I must leave no trail. I must carry him, but I must be careful for he is dripping with blood. I shall have to hold him at arm's length. I cannot carry him far, for I am in a desperate hurry, and I have also to burden myself with a spade. Now in which direction shall I go? Away from the track, of course, and out of sight of it, too. I know how the sand is blown about when the winds come, and therefore I must bury him where the winds are least likely to expose the grave. I must be quick for I have very little time. Now, here goes."
Hurriedly he picked up the rucksack and one of the reeds that he had ornamented only a few hours previously with the pieces of white rag. He held his burden at arm's length, and, stumbling heavily, made his way as if in desperation across the sands. Fifty yards, a hundred, and he had rounded the base of a big hummock that loomed black and sinister against the sky. He was out of sight of the track now, and there was desolation everywhere. He looked round sharply from side to side as he ran. Ah! here was a likely spot, just where the sand began to rise again. It lay in the dip between two hills. It would be in shelter, no matter from which way the winds would blow, and it was sown over here and there with tufts of coarse sea-grass that would keep the sand from drifting far.
Without a second's, pause he dropped the ruck-sack and quickly drove in one of the reeds he carried to mark the spot.
Then, with the sack again in his arms, he returned at a run to the place from where he had first started. He picked up another reed, and, with his breath now coming jerkily from his exertions recited part of the same formula that he had used just before. "I am in deadly fear. I have run nearly a mile over heavy sands. I have killed a man and I must hide his body and get away quick."
Then off he ran as he had just done before, but this time in quite a different direction. In about three minutes he was back again. He gave himself a moment's rest, picked up another reed, and then again the blackness of the night swallowed him up. Five times he repeated his manoeuvre and then, with every pore of his body dripping with perspiration, threw himself down exhausted upon the sands to rest.
"Now have I gone everywhere likely?" he panted. "I have marked six places and I can think of nowhere else where he can possibly have gone. Let me reason again calmly."
"Here, where I am now lying, is the centre of the circle, and in whatsoever direction the body is hidden it cannot be farther away than, say, a hundred and fifty yards. I am sure of it, for he dared not have waited here too long." He was silent for a minute.
"No, no," he muttered, slowly shaking his head. "I cannot be making a mistake. I cannot be going wrong. It is incredible he can have driven the body away with him in his own car, for then his cushions would have been drenched with blood."
He stood up and stared round into the night. One by one he ticked off the directions in which he had gone, and gradually the hard tension of his features relaxed.
"Well," he remarked at last with a sigh, "that's all for the present, I think, and directly it gets light it'll be Master Swipes who'll have to do his bit. If there's any virtue in that two-twelve-six, it'll have to show up then."
Throwing the ruck-sack over his shoulder and picking up the remainder of the reeds, he gave one last look round and was about to move away. Then a thought seemed suddenly to strike him, and an amused smile crossed upon his face.
"Ah," he remarked with a laugh. "But now I was leaving out the most unlikely of the likely spots. The Centre of the circle itself. Of course, of course," and he drove a reed, the seventh one, deep into the sand just where he stood.
He returned leisurely to where he had made his camp, and was welcomed boisterously and with all evidences of delight by the mongrel, Swipes. The dog had been left behind to mount guard over his master's belongings, but his duties and responsibilities had evidently been of an enforced nature, for he had been attached securely by his chain to the tent pole.
"All right, old man," smiled the detective genially. "So I'm better than no one now, am I, and that little affair of the two pounds twelve and six is all passed over, is it? Well, well, to-morrow we'll see what sort of dog you really are, and if the money was just thrown away or, after all, well spent."
The following morning it was barely light when the detective left his camp. He carried a spade with him and this time he was accompanied by his mongrel companion. Neither had had anything to eat and the dog was sniffing anxiously about, as if he, at all events, could have done with a good meal.
Approaching the nearest of the seven places which on the previous evening he had marked with his reeds, without even a moment's delay the detective commenced to dig. Although the hour was still so early, the sand was hot, but it was loose and easy, and with wide sweeping movements he worked strenuously to clear it away.
"Find it, Swipes. Good dog, find it now."
The animal was interested at once, and scratched and sniffed as vigorously as the most exacting master could have desired. He whined in great excitement ran backwards and forwards, and in a few minutes was panting hard from the energy of his exertions.
"Steady, old man," reproved Larose. "We may have a long way to go yet, and I don't want you tired out at the beginning. Go easy now."
* * *
For a good half hour the spade was plied vigorously round the spot, and a wide circle of tumbled sand at length spoke eloquently of Larose's work.
Then the detective paused and looked round, frowningily at the havoc he had made.
"He can't have dug very deep," he muttered. "A couple of feet, at most, is all I give him, and even allowing for the drifting, Swipes would have smelt anything if it had been here."
He shook his head disappointedly and sighed.
"No, no, we've drawn blank so far, that's certain, but it would have been too lucky to find things first go, so now for spot number two."
He moved off about fifty yards, and the same process was gone through in the vicinity of another reed.
But nothing eventuated there, either, and disappointment awaited them also at reeds three and four.
By this time the sun was high up in the sky and the heat had become very trying. Larose was drenched in perspiration, and the dog was suffering too. He lay panting by his master, and his lolling tongue and heaving sides told of the distress and discomfort he was in.
"Come, come old chap," said the detective rather sadly. "I think we'll both have a rest, and I guess a bit of a swim wouldn't be a bad thing for you."
Shouldering his spade he moved off in the direction of the lake, coming out upon the track just where the travellers had been held up upon that eventful night.
The dog, with no ceremony, plunged at once into the water, and his master, forgetting for the moment his disappointment, sat down upon the bank and enviously regarded the animal's relief.
Very soon, however, his thoughts were dragged back to the search he had been making in the sand, and from the expression of his face there could have been no doubt but that he was crestfallen and uneasy at his lack of success.
He had been so certain that his grasp of the whole matter was secure, and that his reasoning had been almost infallibly mathematical and exact, that even at the half stage of the proceedings his failure puzzled him and in spite of the hope and optimism of his nature, made him apprehensive and uneasy.
He was sure he could not be wrong and yet, and yet—his eyes roved round and fell suddenly upon the last reed he had planted the previous evening.
"Ah," he ejaculated thoughtfully, "the seventh reed—the centre of the circle itself."
For a moment he looked at it listlessly and then, with a startled exclamation of surprise, he rose abruptly to his feet. He stood like a statue carved in stone, with his mouth wide open and his eyes fixed. His hat was tilted back upon his head and the scorching sun beat down unheeded on his face.
Suddenly he drew in a deep breath. He snapped his fingers derisively.
"Gilbert, Gilbert," he exclaimed, "you're a fool. You're nothing but a baby yet. The light! you never thought of that. Oh, what an ass you've been!"
He shakily resumed his seat. "Now, let me think," he muttered. "Yes, I quite forgot about the light and above all things I ought to have remembered that. There was no moon. It was only a starlit night, and in the darkness he could not have seen to bury the body. He had to have light, for even in the frenzy of his haste he would know he would have to do the burial with some care.
"Well, now, what lights had he? The hurricane lantern we know had been overturned and probably all the oil in it was spilled. Besides, too, in any case, he would probably have been too flurried to relight it. No, I can rule that out. Then there was Eli Barton's electric torch. Sam Gover said it was only a little pocket one, and we don't know what happened to it when Eli fell. Certainly it went out, for we know the place was in darkness again until the spot-light was switched on. It is probable then that he stopped to find it, and is it probable again, if he did, that it would have answered his purpose? No again, both times here. His haste was his obsession then, and Sam Gover tells us there was light only from the torch when the finger was pressing on the catch. So it would have been no good in any case, and therefore the only lights that could have been of service to him were the lights of his own car." The detective paused for a moment, and, with the forefinger of his right hand outstretched, solemnly elaborated his points. "Now let me be quite clear," he went on. "I must make no mistake this time. He wanted light to bury his third man that he had shot, and what surely would be more natural than that he should use the lights of his own car? He was in a desperate hurry, as we know, and the lights were all handy there. Well supposing that were so, would he move the car anywhere to a more secluded spot. No, I don't think so. It would mean taking up more time, and apart from that it would mean also handling a body fouled with dripping blood. Well, if he used his car lights, then it is obvious he would bury the body within a few yards of where the car stood."
Larose closed his eyes and thought.
"Yes, just near where the car stood," he muttered. "Just near where the car stood."
He sprang up and became all animation again. Every sign of his fatigue had passed and the anxiety that had before possessed him had given way, once more, to confidence and trust.
He whistled to the dog and ran quickly to where, on the previous night, he had planted the seventh reed.
He was close to a bank of sand about three feet high.
"Yes, this must be the spot," he muttered. "Somewhere about here," and he commenced to dig feverishly.
"Fetch him, Swipes. Good dog! Fetch him now," he cried.
Refreshed and invigorated by his bathe, the dog was eager, too, and he nosed into the sand with all the expectation of being close upon his prey.
Larose dug feverishly in a circle round the reed, but, as before, he contented himself with shovelling away the sand for about two feet in depth. The dog followed every movement of the spade as if his very life depended upon what was going to happen next. He sniffed and scratched excitedly wherever his master dug, whining plaintively all the while.
Suddenly, however, the animal paused, and for a moment all the haste and fury seemed to have passed completely out of him.
He stood stock still, with his head outstretched, and with one front paw uplifted. Only his nostrils quivered, and they were widely dilated. He looked fixedly into a hole Larose had just made.
Then with a low growl he sprang forward, and commenced to scratch furiously into the sand. A moment later, and he was yelping in a perfect frenzy of excitement. A whole cascade of sand was thrown out, and then, as if jerked up by the releasing of a spring, there came into view—a dried and blackened human hand.
Larose stood staring as if petrified, and then, as the dog tugged out first an arm and then a shoulder, he sprang into the hole and seizing the animal by his collar dragged him roughly away.
But it was not without a struggle that Swipes would relinquish his find, and the detective's boot had several times to be brought into requisition before the dog could be made to understand that, at any rate for the time, his services would be no longer required.
Then, the animal disposed of, Larose, holding his breath in his excitement, knelt down and very carefully proceeded to expose the rest of a body.
As he had surmised, it had been interred only about two feet below the surface of the sands. It was fully clothed, and at first glance was obviously that of an adult man. There were no signs of putrefaction, however, although all the same it was by no means a pleasant thing to handle.
The detective realised instantly what had happened. No rain had fallen on the Coorong for more than five months, and with no moisture reaching it the body had become mummified by the intense heat upon the sands. It was dry and shrivelled, and the flesh was almost black in colour. The clothes hung on to it as if they were many sizes too big.
Very gently Larose lifted it out, and laid it on the sands, and then, for quite a long while he knelt over it and regarded it without making a sound.
The dog had slunk away and was taking a bathe again.
"Hum," muttered Larose presently, with a grim smile. "Not the slightest doubt about it, it's the man we want—and there's not the slightest doubt, either, as to how he met his death." He gently lifted up the dreadful-looking head. "Large bullet hole in occipital region: that's what killed him, of course. Bullet came out again, too, through parietal bone. Brain blown away by revolver fired from close behind." He lifted one of the arms. "Left elbow shattered—old Sam Gover's doing here. Coat and shirt well soaked with blood all down left side, showing clearly elbow-wound bled for long time before second shot was fired. Quite probably half an hour. Now for the gentleman's pockets. I may perhaps find something there!"
But to Larose's disappointment, the pockets yielded almost nothing. A half empty packet of cigarettes, a box of matches, an old pocket knife, seven shillings in silver, and that was all.
"Nothing doing," grumbled the detective, and then he grinned amusedly to himself, "but still one could hardly expect he would be carrying his visiting cards upon an expedition like that." He looked disgustedly at the mummy. "And now, I suppose, I shall have to strip him, but I think—I think I'll have a picture first." He took out his watch. "But I must be quick," he added. "Anyone may be coming along now."
He whistled up the dog, and together they ran hurriedly to the tent. Swipes was evidently of opinion that there was more sport in view, but was speedily disillusioned, and it was a very disgusted animal that was made fast to the tent pole. Then Larose fished out quite a fair sized camera from his portmanteau, and unstrapping it as he ran, was soon back again by the body.
* * *
Without wasting a moment, he quickly and methodically adjusted his horrible find to the position he required.
He stretched out the shrivelled limbs, and to the dreadful looking head he gave a pillow of sand. He was most particular to get everything exactly as he wanted it, and then once satisfied, without an instant's delay, he rapidly obtained three impressions.
Next he took off his coat, and baring his arms to the elbows, proceeded, not, however, without a certain expression of repugnance, to go carefully over the body.
He stripped off all the clothing and laid the articles carefully to one side. The body looked more hideous than ever when naked, but Larose appeared now to have forgotten his feelings of disgust. He was far too interested in his examination.
"Small, spare man," he muttered thoughtfully, "undersized as Sam Gover told us. Oval, narrow face, eyes set rather close together. Nothing peculiar about the mouth, but front teeth very prominent. Nose irregular, and appears to have been broken. Clean shaven, hair brown, rather scanty at the temples. Probably man about 35 to 40. Now, let me look at his hands. Hum—rather interesting here. Small, almost refined. No particular manual work. Skin of right forefinger thickened at one side. Accustomed, evidently, to ride a good deal. Ah! Let me look at his boots. Been driving a car, too. Yes, but did a lot of riding and rode with a very short stirrup, I should say. Now, what does that mean?" He shook his head and returned again to the body. He passed his hands inquisitively round the blackened shoulders and the neck. "Ah!" he muttered after a moment, "both collar bones been broken sometime or other." He paused and went on significantly. "At least once." He examined the limbs. "Bone of right arm thickened in two places, as well. Good Lord, he's had a leg broken some time too." A startled note of triumph swelled into his voice. "Of course, of course," he exclaimed joyfully. "He's been a jockey. Just the very build, no doubt about it, none at all. I ought to have seen it at once. That's why he rode with a short stirrup, of course."
He stood up and smiled as happily as a boy. "This will make it much easier, Gilbert," he remarked. "You ought to have very little difficulty now. You're really quite a clever fellow. But we must have a couple more photographs quick, and then——"
He paused in his congratulations and looked thoughtfully round. His face dropped into cold hard lines again, his eyes narrowed, and it was evident that he was thinking hard. "No, no," he murmured presently, "I can do as I think best now. I'm not a policeman any more. I'm just on my own, the freelance, Gilbert Larose."
He looked back on the body and his voice became very stern. "There lies the one who can tell me everything," he said, "and in good time I will make him speak, but for the present I shall have to bury him again. Yes, it's best," he went on. "Publicity would only warn the murderer, and might ruin everything just now."
He picked up the spade and, slightly deepening the hole, in a few minutes had returned the mummy to its grave. Then he smoothed over the sand about the place and, satisfied that no trace of his work remained, picked up the clothing he had stripped from the body, and, rolling it into a small bundle, returned quickly to the tent.
Half an hour later, and with all despatch, he was sailing back towards Goolwa.
* * *
It was on the Monday that Larose had made the discovery of the mummy under the sands.
On the following Thursday a pebble was thrown violently into the pool of what constituted the daily and usually monotonous life of Police Constable Abel Black, of the small township of Meningie, South Australia.
A most zealous, capable officer of the law was Policeman Black, and always on the alert for misdemeanours of every kind, but so quiet and law-abiding was the district under his charge that nothing ever seemed to happen that could give scope and activity to the undoubted qualities that he possessed.
He was a very disappointed man.
In vain he studied the records of crime in South Australia; in vain he kept himself well posted and up to date in all the criminal happenings of the other States, in vain he looked for evil-doers close at hand. Nothing, unhappily, seemed ever to eventuate and his memoranda and reports to headquarters were perforce colourless and tame in the extreme.
It was true the trouble over Eli Barton had stirred things up a little, but there, too, his evil star had been in the ascendant, and absolutely nothing of the case had passed directly through his hands. Owing to its importance it had all been conducted entirely from the headquarters of the police in Adelaide, and he had been left completely out in the cold.
He was bicycling slowly along about a mile out of the township, when suddenly a man stepped out from behind a tree at the side of the road, and peremptorily called upon him to halt.
Police Constable Abel Black pulled up at once and then, without a word stood quietly by his machine and critically regarded the individual who had accosted him. His impressions were not prejudiced in the latter's favour.
In spite of the confident way in which the man had addressed him there was nothing imposing or important about his appearance. He wore dirty black overalls and looked, if anything, like a motor mechanic. A straw hat, which, to say the least of it, was old, served him for head covering, and his boots, the policeman noticed, were well worn and had undoubtedly seen good service on the tramp.
"I want to speak to you, please," reiterated the man, and then he, in his turn, stared hard at the policeman, as if he were examining him critically.
"Well," replied the policeman brusquely, at last, "what is it you want?" He did not somehow like the way the man was addressing him, for in spite of his general shabby appearance there seemed a note of easy familiarity, and almost authority, in his tones.
"You can help me," went on the man smilingly. "You can give me some information, if you will, please." He looked up and down the road and then, quickly doffing his hat, he took off a small black wig. He pulled himself erect, the smile dropped away from his eyes, and stern hard lines formed about the corners of his mouth.
"I'm Larose," he said tersely, "Gilbert Larose."
The policeman opened his eyes very wide. He stared very hard and took in a deep breath.
The man readjusted his wig, replaced the old straw hat, and again smiled in a pleasant, easy way.
"You are Police Constable Abel Black," he continued. "You have been in this neighbourhood for about three years, and therefore you should be able to give me all the information I want. I have made inquiries about you, and you are a man to be trusted. I should not have dared to make myself known to you if you were not so."
The policeman continued to stare very hard, but he made no attempt to speak. He just stared and stared as if he would read the fellow through. There was quite a minute's silence.
"Good," remarked Larose. "I see you're the man I want. Thought before speech—that's the ticket every time."
The policeman looked coldly at him, but he spoke at last.
"What sentence did Barton get," he said very slowly, "for shooting Sergeant McHains?"
"Ten years," replied Larose promptly, "and he'd have been a lifer if we could have proved that it was his automatic that fired the particular shot."
"Who defended Strangways in the Spinnet Vale murder case?"
"Pudson, K.C. Blackler was his junior."
"Show me your arm."
With a grin that was a delighted one, Larose bared his left arm. "Excellent," he exclaimed brightly, "you should rise high in the force, I see. It's a positive treat to meet anyone like you." He thrust his arm under the policeman's eyes. "Yes, that's where Rider hit me. The bullet passed through the flesh only and missed the radial artery by a tenth part of an inch. You remember he fired twice, and his second shot just grazed my shoulder. Like to see that place, too?"
"No, no," replied the policeman, hastily, and now very red in the face, "I am quite satisfied, sir, and I apologise for questioning you, but you see——" He drew himself up to attention and saluted.
"Of course, I see," exclaimed Larose with enthusiasm, "and I have the greatest admiration for your caution. I tell you, man, you're not the ordinary policeman by a long chalk, and if ever chance comes to you you'll go up on a wave. I'm sure of it. I, Larose, say it, and you know I've had hundreds of you chaps under me, in my time."
Policeman Black flushed deeper than ever in his delight, and he eyed the great detective with all the devotion of a disciple for his master.
"Now, Black," went on Larose confidingly, "I've left the Force as you know, lad, and I'm here working on my own. It isn't very much of you I want, just now, but it may lead to big things, and I won't forget you, you may be sure, if it does." He paused for a moment as if exactly to weigh his words. "What I want to know now is this: Has anyone gone away from here lately, from about this district I mean, say six or seven weeks ago—a medium sized, rather spare man, about forty I should think, wears an old grey coat, blue shirt, cord riding breeches and pig-skin leggings? Rides with a very short stirrup, has been a jockey once, and can drive a motor car."
"Yes, Sid Ferris," said the policeman promptly, and without a moment's hesitation, "stable man and lad to Mr. Dice. Mr. Dice lives at Mundulla and is the Chief Magistrate here."
"Ah," ejaculated the detective deeply, but as if he were not at all surprised.
"They trained Black Wolf," went on the policeman, "for the Christmas Cup. They skinned half the bookies in the State and won a fortune over it, so everyone says."
"When did this Ferris leave here then?" asked the detective meditatively, with a faraway look in his eyes.
Black thought for a moment. "Can't say for certain, but I know he's not been back at all since the Cup was run, and that was on Boxing Day." He sniffed rather grimly. "There are lots of people here who've been wanting a word with him over that Cup affair. Mr. Dice and he knew they had a fair snip for the race in Black Wolf, and yet Ferris swore all along the horse was no good. He put off everyone here from backing it." The policeman warmed up in his indignation. "Why, only two days before the race, he told everyone in the hotel here he couldn't understand why his master was running the horse. He said it has no chance at all if it ran."
"Oh," said Larose quickly, and with an intent gleam in his eyes. "So he was in the hotel two days before the race, was he?"
"Yes," replied, the policeman gloomily, "he was there just before the dinner time. I happen particularly to remember it because I was calling there myself about an application the proprietor was making for extension of his licence. There was going to be a dance there on Boxing Day and he wanted a late wine permit. Ferris was in the bar at the time, and as I say, warned everyone not to have a penny on Black Wolf. The liar! I should have had a bit on myself, but for him."
"And when do you say this Ferris left the neighbourhood?"
The policeman shook his head. "I don't know that at all, but I'm sure he's not been back since the Cup, or I should have heard of it. As I say lots of folk were anxious to have a word with him."
"Did he go to the Cup meeting himself, do you think?"
Black laughed sarcastically. "Sure he did. Why, everyone knows they won a fortune over it, and Ferris had had all the riding of the horse in his gallops. He wouldn't have missed the race for worlds."
Larose was silent a long time.
"What sort of a reputation has this Mr. Dice got?" he asked presently.
The policeman spoke deliberately. "Well respected and liked, too, before this Black Wolf affair. He's the chief magistrate here, as I say. He's proud and very reserved, and keeps himself very much to himself. We never see him much about here, except on session days, but his niece often comes to the township."
"What's she like?" asked Larose.
"Very nice and very pretty," replied the policeman. "A real little lady if ever I saw one."
"Is Mr. Dice well-to-do, do you think?"
"Plenty of money now since the race, but on the rocks before that, if there's truth in all the rumours that were about. It is believed generally that he was in Queer Street until his win on Black Wolf pulled him through."
"Was the Black Wolf business kept purposely dark, do you think?"
The policeman sniffed contemptuously. "Not a doubt about it," he replied. "The horse was a cast-iron certainty. He was just kept bottled up for months. We know now he had been tried secretly to beat Basil's Pride, and they just timed the training to the very hour. Bah," he exclaimed bitterly, "they knew what they were about, and they arranged it to get a hundred to one."
"How long has Ferris been with Mr. Dice, do you know?"
"No, I don't know that. Donkey years, I believe. I understand they knew one another long before Dice came here."
"Has Dice been on sheep all his life?"
"The greater part, I think, but he went soldiering once. He was wounded in South Africa, they say—in the Boer War."
"He's a big man, isn't he?"
"Yes, as big and strong as a bull."
Again a deep and expressive "Ah," from Larose, and then again a long silence.
"What motor car has he got?"
"He has a Punic now, but he had only a Kent before."
"Did Ferris drive the car often?"
"No, only every now and then. When he came into the township he generally hacked it on Mr. Dice's grey mare."
"How did he dress?"
"Always the same as you described. Old slouch hat, old grey jacket, blue shirt, and breeches and leggings. Always untidy and looked as if he had never had a wash. He used to ride all hunched up and with a short stirrup, too, as you say."
"Well," said Larose meditatively after a pause. "I think that's all just now, and thank you very much." He looked significantly at Abel Black. "I needn't, of course, ask you not to let a soul know I have spoken to you or have been anywhere about here." The policeman nodded his head. "Oh, one thing more, please. I suppose you don't happen to know if there is any job going about anywhere that I could take as an excuse for hanging about the township. That chap Ferris might come back any day you see, and I want to get a look at him to make certain he's the man I want."
The policeman grinned. "They want a waiter at the hotel," he replied, "if that's at all in your line, and I believe a cook as well."
Larose smiled back as if in amusement, too. "Oh, I make a very excellent waiter, my friend," he laughed, "and at a pinch I'm a bit of a cook, too. But both those jobs would tie me down too much and keep me too much indoors. I want something more outdoors so that I can keep an eye on people as they pass through the township."
"Well," said the policeman promptly, "they want an odd man at the garage, I know. Travers is very hard pushed just now, and he's advertised several times for a man, and can't get one, but it's someone who understands cars they want," and he looked doubtfully at Larose.
"The very thing," replied the detective gaily. "I'm a first-class mechanic in the motor line."
"I'm going straight off to apply for that garage job," Larose told Constable Black, "and if I get it please don't come near me at all when I'm there. I'll have another yarn, maybe, in a day or two. In any case, I'll see you before I leave the place, and you shall know how I've got on."
A few days later and Travers, the proprietor of the Meningie Motor Works was almost hourly congratulating himself upon the very excellent mechanic he had recently acquired. An intelligent, hardworking, and pleasant man, his new employee seemed to give satisfaction everywhere. He was quick, capable, and obliging, and thoroughly understood his work. It is true he had all along given out that Punic cars were his speciality, but his acquaintance with all cars in general was surprising, and he was seldom long at fault in locating any trouble or dealing with any difficult and intricate repair.
He seemed, too, to have the gift of pleasing everyone, and quickly made friends everywhere. Bert Tullock, the chauffeur of Mr. James Dice, was one of the very first to come under his spell.
In the ordinary way Tullock was a surly, uncommunicative sort of man, with never a good word for anyone. He had no friends, for no one seemed to be able to get on with him.
But Beeton, for such was the new mechanic's name, was most cordial to him upon the very first occasion that he came into the township and, a small job to Mr. Dice's car having being got over a friendly suggestion had been put forward for a quiet adjournment for a drink.
And it was not one only that was stood the chauffeur. There was no meanness anywhere about Beeton, and Tullock went off thinking what a fine fellow he had struck.
After that Tullock always made an excuse to call in at the garage when ever he came into Meningie, which he did almost every day, and his friend, however busy as he was, somehow always found time for a few minutes' chat. Soon Tullock was confiding all his troubles to him, and no one could have been kinder or more sympathetic than Beeton was.
Tullock, it appeared, had come from Brisbane, and he badly wanted to get back there because of a girl. But he had not the money for the expensive journey, and the devil of it was, he wailed, he could never get enough out of his wages to save.
Then an idea came suddenly one day to Beeton, and with no beating about the bush he at once advanced it to the chauffeur. He would lend Tullock the money, he said; he had got £20 saved up, but it was upon certain conditions, of course.
First he must swear to pay him back and second he must put him, Beeton, in the way of getting his, Tullock's job.
Tullock opened his eyes wide at his friend's generosity, and inwardly he marvelled at the simplicity of the chap, but agreeing on the spot to both conditions he screwed up his face violently and swore fearful oaths upon the matter of paying back.
It was soon all arranged. At Beeton's instigation Tullock was to clear out suddenly without notice, but before doing so he was to tamper with the magneto of Mr. Dice's car and do certain other little disarrangements that Beeton carefully pointed out.
So, it came to pass that Mr. Dice awoke one morning minus a chauffeur, and, when he went to get his car out—behold, the wretched thing would not go.
In great annoyance he rang up the Meningie garage with the request that someone should be sent out at once, and it was the mechanic Beeton, of course, because of his special knowledge of Punic cars, who was immediately despatched.
The man was most respectful in his demeanour, and it was evident he was not a little over-awed by the importance of being brought in personal contact with the Chief Magistrate of the district, but he at once set about going over the car in a methodical and workmanlike way.
"I'm afraid it's been tampered with," remarked Mr. Dice quietly. "It was quite all right when I came in yesterday, and, if anyone has misused it, it's that man, Tullock, who, for some reason has taken himself away." His voice hardened perceptibly as he spoke.
For the moment the mechanic made no reply. He appeared to be entirely engrossed with the car and, his professional instincts aroused, he seemed to have no thought now for anything else.
Mr. Dice watched him critically. "Quite a good man," was his mental comment. "He knows his work and he'll soon find out what's wrong."
There certainly may have been no doubt that the mechanic knew his work, but, in those particular seconds, it happened that he was not actually thinking about the car at all. It was the personality of James Dice that was alone occupying all his thoughts.
Larose was saturating himself in the atmosphere of 'a suspect,' and, with every sense upon the alert, was endeavouring to grip something of the psychology of the man who was standing by his side.
"Hum," he muttered to himself. "Yes, decidedly a possibility. A man of strong character, no doubt; strong and very determined. Bold, too, and proud. A secretive man, and, as Black said, very reserved. Perhaps quite kind generally, but a hard man probably when crossed. Undoubtedly capable and enterprising, but rather hasty, I should say, in his decisions."
"You won't be long, do you think?" here broke in Mr. Dice with a frown. "I am going to Stratalbyn to-day."
"Ah," thought on Larose, "fidgety is he, and apt to get flurried. Now that's his weakness, I suspect—not a well balanced mind."
The mechanic looked up. "Nothing much wrong, I think, sir. There's a short circuit somewhere, but I'll soon have it right. Still, it's a good thing I came up anyhow. The radiator wants tightening a lot; the nuts are quite loose at the bottom there."
Mr. Dice's face lost its frown. "Good," he said, "and the quicker you are the better, for I'm very late as it is."
In a quarter of an hour at most, the mechanic had got everything right and, looking very pleased with himself, he drove the car out of the garage and round to the front door. He assured Mr. Dice that there would now be no more trouble.
"You've been very quick," remarked the magistrate pleasantly.
The mechanic smiled with pride. "Well, I know every bolt and nut of this model, sir, and I can tell in a second where anything is wrong. I've had to do with Punics now for years."
Mr. Dice regarded the man thoughtfully. "I suppose," he said, "I suppose you are not keen on a chauffeur's job, are you?"
"But I am, sir," replied the mechanic eagerly. "It's just what I do want. I've only been with Mr. Travers a little while, and he knows that I'm only there temporarily. I've got a weak chest and the doctors tell me I must be as much as possible in the open air."
Mr. Dice looked pleased. "Well, I shall be in Meningie to-morrow," he said at once, "and I'll call round then and see Mr. Travers. You may be just the very man I want."
Two days later, and Gilbert Larose had taken up his duties as handy-man and chauffeur to James Dice, Esq., Senior Magistrate of the District of Meningie.
* * *
James Dice was by no means a repulsive type of man. On the contrary, he had quite a pleasant face, and, as his physiognomy denoted, in disposition he was neither cruel or unkind. He was undeniably good looking. He held his head up high, and there was a quiet dignity about him that suggested strength and purpose and a temper well under control. In manner, he was proud and reserved.
As chairman of the bench of magistrates, he occupied an important position in the district, and if he did not trouble to form any friendships he was still well respected by all who were brought in contact with him. He was considered a stern and just man, but one who was taciturn and unsociable by nature and who preferred to be left alone.
But there was a side to his character that the public never saw, nor even suspected that he possessed.
Temperamentally he was not a normal man.
Twenty and odd years before, he had received a bad head injury in the Boer war and he had never afterwards been the same man. He suffered from violent headaches, and in times of excitement or great mental stress he would become almost unbalanced in his mind. Then he would altogether lose the right perspective of things, and would consider everything that he did himself as perfectly necessary and right.
And he had been very much in this condition just prior to the running of the Adelaide Christmas Cup.
He had been in desperate straits financially, and almost at the very end of his tether. He had been gambling heavily on the Stock Exchange, and everything he had touched had gone wrong. His station was mortgaged up to the very hilt, and he was in dire need of ready money.
Ruin had been staring him in the face, and the breaking up of his home had been imminent, and a matter seemingly only of weeks.
In all his troubles there had been only one bright spot—his gelding, Black Wolf.
Here it seemed he had been served by an almost miraculous chance for, with a life's experience of horses, he was sure he had never possessed such a good one before, and he believed that it was quite possible all his losses might yet be retrieved by one great gamble upon the turf.
Secretly he had tried out the gelding to be a marvel of stamina and speed. He had bought him as a foal running with his mother, and he had got him almost for a mere song. Unbroken until nearly three years old, it had only been intended then that the gelding should be used as a hack. The horse was quite commonplace to look at, and it was some time before Dice had become aware of what a treasure he possessed. Indeed, it was almost by accident that it was discovered how very much out of the ordinary the animal was. His master's suspicions being once aroused, however, it was soon realised that Black Wolf could go like the wind and, pitted against other horses on the station he had simply smothered them with the greatest of ease. Recourse being then made to the clock, it was found he could negotiate long gallops in almost record time.
Hardly still believing that it could be his good fortune to possess such a potential champion, Dice had secretly borrowed Basil's Pride, a notable performer in both States, from a cousin of his in Melbourne, quickly to find that his most rosy expectations were confirmed.
Black Wolf, at even weights, could leave the Pride almost as if the latter were standing still.
Appalled then by the magnitude of the possibilities that might lie before him, with such a horse as Black Wolf, Dice had not breathed a word to any outsiders, and indeed only one of his station hands, Sid Ferris, had been a complete sharer of the secret with him.
With little time to spare, the gelding had been entered for the forthcoming Adelaide Christmas Cup, and, getting in at the featherweight of six stone seven, his success had seemed absolutely assured.
Of only one of the other horses entered had they any fear. Abimeleck, the inter-State horse, alone, they thought, could by any possibility upset their calculations. But Abimeleck, they were certain, would never run. Dice had received secret information about him from his cousin in Melbourne, and he had been advised that the crack's legs had given out.
So they had not worried about Abimeleck, and had slept their sleeps in peace, dreaming happily of the great fortune that was so surely coming to them both.
Then, like a bomb, had come the news that Abimeleck had been put on rail for Adelaide, and was an almost certain runner for the Cup.
Dice thought and dreamt of Abimeleck and Eli Barton day and night long, and the brooding over his seemingly lost fortune became an absolute obsession with him. He grew positively ill.
Then, two days before the race, Sid Ferris had gone into Meningie, and at the hotel there had heard someone saying that Eli Barton was coming through the Coorong that night. He had rushed back to his master with some wild idea in his mind about kidnapping the old man and preventing him from getting to Adelaide. It was notorious what a martinet old Barton was about his horses, and that under no circumstances would Abimeleck be allowed to start until he had been inspected by the owner himself just prior to the running of the race.
James Dice had at first received with great contempt the very idea that they could successfully kidnap Eli Barton and not afterwards be found out, and then, suddenly, the dreadful thought had flashed through him that it might be quite possible to get rid of the old man altogether.
* * *
For a moment he had put away the idea as bordering on madness, but the deep straits that he was in had forced it back again and again, into his mind, and at last, in less even than an hour from its first conception, he was feverishly making preparations for its execution.
What then happened we already know. He had shot both Eli Barton and Sam Gover, and then, in dreadful panic to cover up his tracks, he had shot Ferris, too. At the time he had been almost mad with terror, but the drive home had calmed and steadied him, and reaching his station just before the dawn his old confidence began to take hold of him again.
He had brought death to three men but he would never be found out, he told himself, for he had left no traces behind. He had only to sit tight and the whole night's doings would be only like the memory of some dreadful dream. Hopeful, therefore, in his expected certain immunity, he very quickly pulled himself together and when, only two days later, Black Wolf so gallantly headed the Christmas Cup field there was practically no more delighted man in all Australia.
All his money troubles were over at last. Life was all rosy again, and so secure did he feel himself that not even the subsequent discovery of Eli Barton's body, and the astonishing resurrection, too, of Sam Gover, caused him much uneasiness or alarm.
There was, however, one little fly in his ointment; just one little misgiving when he allowed himself to dwell on the happenings of that dreadful night. One little possibility that somehow or other he might one day be found out.
He had a morbid fear of the possible activities of the Sydney detective, Gilbert Larose. Of course the idea was all foolishness, he told himself repeatedly, but somehow or other he could never completely shake it off. It was impressed by peculiar circumstances deep into his subconscious mind.
Some years before two men sitting near him had been conversing about a murder that had just then occurred in a back street in one of the slums of Sydney, and one of them had remarked that the perpetrator of the crime would certainly never be found out, for he had not left behind him even the very ghost of a clue. But the other man had shaken his head emphatically and warned the first speaker not to be too sure, for Larose, he said, had been put upon the case. Larose, he went on to insist, would be certain in time to discover everything, for Larose had got powers and senses that no one else possessed. Larose could reason backwards much easier than other people could reason forward, and, as for clues, well—Larose would see things that had been invisible to every one else, and he could mark even the shadow that a murderer had left upon the wall.
So, when later he had learnt of the strenuous efforts that both Sam Gover and the Times of Adelaide were making to get hold of Larose, he had not been without decided qualms of uneasiness, but he had been comforted and reassured again when he had heard of their lack of success, and with the quiet passing of the weeks he had begun calmly to believe that the whole inquiry had died down.
He had smiled grimly to himself that he should so strangely have got to know Sam Gover and young Barton, and for the elder man he had soon acquired quite a liking. As for Stanley Barton, it amused him considerably when he noticed the young man's admiration for pretty Margaret, and in his own mind he thought it would not be at all a bad thing if the affair became serious.
But of Larose, what of Larose? What were the detective's hopes and intentions when he had so manoeuvred that he had been taken into the employ of James Dice? We may say at once that he was supremely confident of nothing. He certainly believed that Dice had been concerned in the murder. He was almost sure of it. Indeed, everything was pointing that way. But still, for too long Larose had been associated with crime to allow his mind to jump hastily to any unestablished conclusion. There was nothing absolutely definite, as yet, to link up Dice with the murder. There was no actual proof that after all he had been the other man by the car. Sid Ferris might have had an entirely different accomplice and been acting quite independently of his master. Larose had no evidence as yet, he knew, that would incriminate James Dice, in a Court of Law, and so like a wise old dog he was prepared to nose on farther along the trail.
* * *
He was sure that a man who was not an habitual criminal and yet who had suddenly committed two murders could not possibly pass on through his life quite unaltered. To the experienced eye he would at times be certain to exhibit the undoubted signs that are inseparable from a watchful attitude.
Also Larose thought that if James Dice were really the man he wanted, he might pick up some definite clue in James Dice's house itself. For one thing, he badly wanted the revolver that the murderer had used, and he believed that there was no reason why it should have been made away with. It would be a big, old-fashioned one, he knew, of large calibre. Just such a one as might have been used twenty years back in the Boer War, in South Africa, where James Dice had been. Then there was the hurricane lantern he would expect to find. Not that he could make very much of that, for hurricane lanterns, he knew, were plentiful on stations and farms, but still it would help him and encourage him to go on. Also, he wanted to learn what the station hands thought of Sid Ferris, and what their explanation was for the man's sudden going away. It was possible, too, he thought, that he might diplomatically ferret out something which would throw light upon Dice's movements on the night of the murder. The night would probably be remembered, because of its being so near to the actual day of the Christmas Cup race.
So Gilbert Larose entered upon his services at Mundulla Station with both the hope and the expectation of finding something that might lead him nearer to the end, and, with all the thoroughness of his nature, he proceeded at once to carry out all his duties so pleasantly and so efficiently that he became a general favourite almost within a few hours.
He kept his eyes and his ears open every time, and he absorbed information like a sponge.
But with the master, James Dice—with the man he had come to shadow, it could not truthfully be said that at first he made much progress. He had just been bidden good morning, been given his orders, been asked to do this and do that, and nothing more.
From the very beginning, the detective was puzzled. There was certainly no sign of any uneasy watchfulness about James Dice. No appearance that he had any worry on his mind. He was just a quiet, thoughtful, and reserved man, and that was all.
When Larose had been on Dice's station a full week he had reluctantly to admit that so far, but for two things, he had drawn absolutely blank, and of the value of those two things even he could not be very sure.
Firstly, he had found the hurricane lamp, or, to be exact, he had found two hurricane lamps. But there was no mystery or secret about them at all. They were both openly in use every night. The kitchen had one and the stable had another. The latter he had examined most carefully, but there were no signs of accident or ill-usage about it, and both lamps were the very spit of one another.
"Not much to go on here," he remarked thoughtfully to himself, "but still—still, finding them at all is certainly better than their not being here."
The second discovery, however seemed much more important, and made him think a lot. James Dice had bought a book on Medical Jurisprudence. It had come by post from Adelaide. Larose had brought it up himself with the letters from Meningie, and he had taken the liberty to stop en route and unwrap it to see what kind of book it was.
Now what on earth could Dice be wanting a book on Medical Jurisprudence for, he asked himself, and in the intervals of reading it why was he always so particular to put it in his pocket and not leave it about? One morning when Dice was having his bath Larose slipped like a shadow into his bedroom and saw the book by the bedside. He balanced it for a moment on the palm of his open hand, and then with a quick jerk allowed the book to open itself. It opened right in the middle of a chapter on 'gun-shot wounds.' Holding his breath, he shut it up and tried it again. It opened on exactly the same page. With a low whistle, but tempting fortune no farther, he replaced the book and stole noiselessly from the room.
Now here was certainly something very odd, he told himself, when a few seconds later he had gained the sanctuary of the garage, and was apparently intent only on the car. Why should Dice be interested in gun-shot wounds, or why, indeed, in Medical Jurisprudence at all? He went back in his mind over the temperament and character that he believed the murderer of Eli Barton and Sid Ferris could undoubtedly possess. Bold, strong, and forceful to a point, and then—then with a streak of weakness in him that would give him in a lightning flash completely over to panic and to fear.
Did James Dice answer accurately to this supposed temperament? He shrugged his shoulders. He must wait and see.
On the eighth day after Larose's arrival at the station he drove Miss Bevan and her uncle into Meningie. The girl had some shopping to do, and Mr. Dice some business of his own too, in the township. It was a bright pleasant morning, with a cool breeze tempering the air. Margaret was in the happy mood so usual to her, and chatted gaily to her uncle as they drove along. The latter seemed in wonderfully good spirits, too, and several times Larose heard him laugh at something the girl was saying. The detective frowned as he listened to them. Surely things for him, at any rate, were not fitting in at all too well.
They pulled up at the Post Office and the uncle and niece went in. A minute or so later, just as they were coming out, they almost ran into a tall, professional-looking man.
"Hullo, Doctor!" exclaimed James Dice genially, "and how's the world serving you?"
"Excellently," smiled back the local medical man, taking off his hat admiringly to Miss Bevan, "at least from my point of view. There's quite a little sickness about just now."
They chatted lightly for a few moments, and then the doctor made ready to go.
"Oh, by the by," he remarked, as if in an afterthought, "poor Black's very seriously ill."
"Policeman Black," asked Miss Bevan interested, at once, "why what's the matter with him?"
"He's got double pneumonia," replied Doctor Stark gravely, "and if I'd seen you yesterday I should have said he was going to die. This morning, however, he's a shade better, and it's possible now he may pull through."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," exclaimed the girl. "He's always so very polite to us, and everyone likes him, too."
"Yes, he's quite a decent sort, isn't he? But as I say the poor chap's very bad now. He's been delirious for two days." The doctor turned to James Dice. "Extraordinary thing, delirium, Mr. Dice," he went on. "When these poor old brains of ours go wrong we get some really wonderful fancies into our minds. We live in new worlds all so very different from those of our real own. For example, there's this poor old Black here. He's just, as you know, a very commonplace policeman, and when he's well his life's probably as drab and colourless as anyone's could be. He has quite a boring time then, I expect, but now—now that he's ill he's an individual of a very different degree. Wonderful things are happening to him all day long, and he's mixing with the very top-notchers of his profession. He keeps on thinking that he's holding a conversation with that Sydney detective, Gilbert Larose. 'Very proud to meet you, Mr. Larose,' he's been saying. 'Very pleased, indeed, to help you in any way. Yes, I'll tell you about every person in the neighbourhood that you want to know. We'll find out everything, we will, for we are men who think, you and I.' Very pathetic isn't it? for, as I say, in reality old Black's one of those cold, stodgy men who are just town-stuck policemen, from top to toe. He'll never be anything better, or anything worse."
"Poor man," exclaimed Miss Margaret. "I am so sorry, but does he know how ill he is, Doctor Stark?"
"Not at all, young lady," smiled back the doctor. "I tell you he's quite happy at present, and in the seventh heaven because he imagines he's working with Larose."
And all this while, Beeton, the chauffeur, was standing close beside them with the cold and deferential pose of a well-trained gentleman's servant. He had no interest, of course, in the conversation of his betters—no, not he. He was just an automaton at so much wage per week, and what his employers said or thought was only of as much moment to him as what was then happening in Jerusalem or far off Timbuctoo. So he did not, of course, see the strong face of his master blanch and harden, he did not notice the quick movement of the eyebrows, he did not hear the sharp intake of breath, and the embarrassed cough, as of a man who had been abruptly startled into confusion. No, he noticed none of these things for was he not just an ordinary and commonplace chauffeur, with his mind obsessed only with thoughts of bolts and nuts.
Dr. Stark lifted his hat and smilingly bade them good-bye; Miss Bevan went about her shopping, and Mr. Dice, after a moment's hesitation, walked slowly into the Meningie Hotel.
* * *
Beeton garaged the car, and then, being free for half an hour, himself turned into the hotel bar to get something to drink.
"Morning. Beeton," said the landlord, "and how are you getting on in your new place?"
"Very nicely, thank you, sir," replied the chauffeur. "I'm getting on fine."
The landlord jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "What's the matter with the governor?" he whispered. "He's had a couple of brandies just now, and that's not like him."
"Oh," replied Beeton indifferently. "He's quite all right that I know."
There were certainly two very disturbed men going home that morning in the car, but certainly neither of them showed it. James Dice had pulled himself together very quickly, and there was outwardly no trace of the dismay that had surged into his heart. It had jarred him terribly, for the moment, when Dr. Stark had told them of the policeman and Larose, for he divined instantly what had happened. The policeman was betraying in his delirium that Larose was in the neighbourhood, and that he and the great Sydney detective had met.
Now the master of Mundulla station was anything but a stupid man, and there were no doubts whatever in his mind as to why the detective had come. He was there after the destroyer of Eli Barton, and he was believing that in the vicinity of Meningie the murderer would be found. But how was it, James Dice considered anxiously, that they had managed to get hold of the detective after all, and on whose behalf was he now taking up the case?
Was it through the Times of Adelaide, or through old Gover that the man had come down? In any case, surely he ought to have heard of it, for, of course, Sam Gover must know. Sam Gover was his friend—he smiled in grim amusement here—and it was a shabby thing that he had been kept in the dark.
Then he fell to weighing up what possible danger could threaten him, even if Larose were in Meningie on the case. Surely there was nothing that could possibly be discovered now to connect him with the murder. Then why on earth should he be afraid?
Well before the return journey was accomplished, the master of Mundulla had lulled himself into a state of confidence again and by the time they finally reached home and Beeton was deferentially holding open the car door, there was no trace at all of any unusual emotion upon his normally placid face.
But if James Dice had been successful in masking the disturbed conditions of his mind, so also had Larose been successful in concealing his. His face was equally as calm and impressive as his master's, although in his mind, too, gaunt fears had taken shape.
For the moment, when he heard the doctor speaking, he had been absolutely appalled that Dice should have been so unluckily put on his guard. It was the worst thing that could have happened, he swore to himself, for he would be dealing now with a man wary and suspicious at every turn. All his investigations would be hampered, and he would get no chance whatever of making the quiet searches over the house that he had intended. His trump card all along had been that if Dice were really the guilty party he would be so lulled into security by the passing of the weeks that he would be less likely to conceal evidence that might become vital and conclusive to connect him with the crime. Yes, the whole business was a terrible setback to all his chances of success, and he was certainly working under an unlucky star. And then it came to him, on the other side of the account, that it might not be such an unfortunate thing after all. At any rate, he knew now that he was not wasting his time, and that he was absolutely on the right track.
James Dice was the guilty party sure enough, and it would be only the question of bringing things home to him now. He, Larose, need no longer have any misgivings. He could go straight forward in absolute confidence now. He must concentrate, he must reason, he must force himself to uncover the traces that, surely, could not possibly be all hid.
Then, too, there was another thing, and he felt quite elated here. He had proved definitely that his estimation of the murderer's character was quite correct. All along he had believed, in spite of the apparently bold and fearless manner in which the crime had been carried out, that the perpetrator of it had a white streak somewhere.
That evening Mr. Dice was giving a small dinner party to some men friends of his, and Beeton, the chauffeur, was called upon to help carry the dishes to the dining-room door. From time to time he heard a lot of the conversation that was going on, and once, to his amusement, they were talking about the great Sydney detective, Larose.
"But I tell you, man," he heard a protesting voice say, "Larose never gives up a case until he's absolutely pulled off from it, like a terrier from a rat. He'll hang on to it for months and months, and nothing discourages him or puts him off. Every case he's put on to becomes an absolute mania with him, and he's then really a sort of madman himself. I've met him several times in Court, and know exactly what he's like."
* * *
The chauffeur, Beeton, swore gently under his breath. "I really must be a devil of a fellow," he muttered, "but I wonder now who is this fine gentleman here."
After dinner Mr. Dice sent for his chauffeur to explain to them some point about the gearing of the Punic car, and Beeton answered so intelligently that the guests afterwards congratulated their host upon the acquisition he had got.
Trundle, a well-known barrister from New South Wales, was most emphatic in his praise. "But what's his name, Dice?" he asked suddenly, as if in an afterthought.
"Beeton," replied his host. "Christian name, Thomas, I believe, but why do you want to know?"
"Well," said the barrister slowly, "when he was speaking to you just now I had a peculiar feeling somehow that I had met him somewhere before. Beeton, Beeton," he muttered and then he shook his head. "No, his name's not in any way familiar. It must have been his voice that reminded me of someone else, but I can't remember who the deuce it was now."
Now no one could possibly have made a greater mistake than did James Dice when he imagined so fondly that, as far as the detective Larose was concerned, his feelings henceforth would be at worst only those of contemptuous and indifferent annoyance.
Directly he was alone by himself again, he began to worry, and the very next day following upon his visit to Meningie with his niece, he realised, to his disgust, that he was thinking of the detective to the exclusion of everybody and everything else.
In spite of the seeming impossibility of any discoveries being made by Larose, even if he were in the neighbourhood and hot upon his trail, it came most unpleasantly home to the master of Mundulla that all his one-time certainty of security nevertheless was lost, and that his peace of mind hung now only by a very frail and insecure thread.
He wondered suddenly also whether he were not already being shadowed, and the very horror of this last idea was quite unnerving. It gripped him like a palsy, as, with his waking moment, he first thought of it.
He instantly got out of bed, and, snatching out his race glasses from a drawer, went out on to the veranda just as he was, and took a good sweeping view round. He was really not expecting to see anything unusual, and there was certainly nothing in sight that should have disturbed him, but still he noticed not without considerable uneasiness, from how many different places a hidden man could be keeping watch over the house.
Turning round, he saw that Beeton, the chauffeur, was looking at him. The man was busy cleaning the car just by the open garage door, but directly he noticed his master observing him he touched his cap respectfully before going on with his work.
"Ah," thought James Dice suddenly, "now if anything ever happens, that man might be of great use to me." He strolled over to the garage.
"Good morning, Beeton," he said pleasantly. "Mind now and always look carefully over the tyres for thorns. There are always plenty about here."
"I always do, sir," replied the chauffeur. "I found two in them yesterday."
"That's right," replied his master, "They gave a lot of bother this time last year. By-the-bye," he went on casually, after a moment's pause, "did you notice a strange man up on the road a little while ago. I thought I saw someone there by the far fence, but he doesn't appear to have come up to the house."
"No, sir," replied Beeton, slowly, shaking his head. "There's been no one on the road since I've been here, and that must have been more than an hour now."
"Oh, well," commented James Dice lightly, "I must have been mistaken, then, but I certainly thought I saw someone there. You see, Beeton," he went on, dropping his voice, "as a magistrate here I have necessarily to administer the law." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled dryly. "And that doesn't always tend to make one popular, now does it?"
Beeton grinned back intelligently, as if he quite understood.
"So," his master went on, "it is always possible that there may be people about willing to do me a bad turn." He shaded his eyes with his hand for a few moments and stared intently down the track that led from the station towards the main road. "If you should ever see any strange man," he continued slowly, "lurking about as if he didn't want to be seen, just let me know at once, will you? Tell me immediately wherever I am, you understand?"
"All right, sir," said Beeton, as if very much impressed. "I'll keep my eyes open and tell you at once. I'll keep a look out all day."
"Do you know anything about firearms?" asked his master presently.
"I'm pretty quick with a shot-gun, sir," replied the chauffeur, "but I've not had much experience with a rifle."
"Not got a pistol, eh?"
Beeton smiled as if he were rather amused, and shook his head.
"A spanner's more in my line, sir, I think, but still"—and his open honest face beamed with enthusiasm—"I could soon get accustomed to a pistol I think, if I had one."
The chauffeur's heart beat very quickly. Was fate dealing him the ace of trumps so soon?
"I—I used to have a pistol somewhere," said his master, hesitatingly, "but it's got mislaid somehow, and I can't remember where it is." He thought for a moment. "Anyhow," he jerked out quickly, "I'll buy a couple of automatics to-morrow. We might want them sometime, and they'll be always handy to have about the place."
The chauffeur's hopes sank instantly to zero.
"Not yet, my child," he murmured sadly, as his master moved away. "Not yet, not yet."
A couple of days later and it was plain to everyone that the master of Mundulla Station was not in a happy state of mind.
He was fidgety and restless, and his one-time calm and placid face was clouded always now with a worried frown.
He was irritable and bad-tempered, too, and the slightest thing upset him. Quite trivial matters seemed to annoy him, and he was moody and very short of speech.
No one knew better than himself the change that had come over him, and the very knowledge of it annoyed and worried him to a degree. He was anything but a coward, and up to a certain point his nature was as strong and self-reliant as could be.
Yet there was a peculiarity about his courage, for it was of the cold and calculating type.
He was a man who in the actual presence of a danger he had anticipated would be bold and unflinching to the bitter end. He would have no fear of his enemies, and if defeat came in him he would accept things calmly and without repining. He would stand then in the eyes of the world as a strong and absolutely fearless type of man, but, in order to exhibit these qualities, he must never be rushed into anything. He must never be startled into situations with no time given him to make up his mind, and, again, to be at his best, he must be seeing definitely from what direction the danger was about to come. He could not stand uncertainty and suspense, and that was the trouble that was eating his heart out now.
If he were only sure that Larose was on his track, if he had only some idea as to how much the latter guessed or thought he knew, if he had only some inkling as to how Larose was going to appear, then, in a way, he would have worried very little, and just prepare himself to meet the whole thing as if he did not fear or care at all.
But he was in the dark everywhere, he was suspicious of everything, and the poison of suspense began to sink into the marrow of his bones.
Within a week, then, it followed that he began to alter all his usual habits, and, instead of riding energetically about the station, as had been his wont, he gave out that he was not feeling well, and passed most of the time sitting out upon the verandah.
He read nearly all day long, or at any rate made a pretence of reading, for the chauffeur noticed that more often than not his eyes were gazing out towards the road rather than being turned upon the book.
Strangely enough, it was to the chauffeur himself, the latest comer to the station, that he was the most communicative, and quite often he crossed the yard to the garage, and had a chat with the man.
At times, then, he seemed for the moment to shake off the cold reserve of his nature and unloosen his restraint.
"Know Sydney, Beeton?" he asked suddenly, one morning.
"Yes, sir," replied the chauffeur. "I've passed most of my life there."
"Beautiful city," went on James Dice, "but too rough and noisy for me. Give me the quietness of country like this, every time."
"Yes, sir," agreed the chauffeur, "not much peace in Sydney, night or day."
"What did you do there?" asked his master. "You were in the motor line?"
"Yes, I drove for a doctor, sir," replied Beeton.
"Oh," remarked James Dice, "then you know the city well?"
"Almost every street and road in it, sir, as well as I know this yard now."
There was silence for a minute, and then Dice spoke again. "I suppose," he said, as if quite casually, "I suppose there really are some very rough districts in Sydney. There are a lot of bad characters about, I mean?"
"Oh yes, sir, Sydney has always some of the wickedest people in the world in it, they say."
"Are the police pretty good there?"
The chauffeur nodded his head emphatically. "They have to be, sir. There's always such a lot for them to do."
"What about their detectives?"
"Oh, the detectives! Well, sir, some of them are very good. One or two of them are supposed to be the best any country's ever known."
James Dice got up from the box where he had been sitting, and slowly stretched his arms. It seemed as if he were beginning to get bored.
"Ever heard," he asked, stifling a yawn, "ever happen to hear of a chap they've got there called—called Larose?"
Beeton drew himself up straight with a jerk, and his face beamed over with pride and enthusiasm.
"Oh yes, sir," he exclaimed. "Everyone who's lived in Sydney has heard of Larose. He's a long way the best detective they've got. We were always hearing about him. He's said to be really wonderful."
James Dice seemed to be stifling another yawn. He was obviously getting bored now, and it was quite a sneering face that he turned upon his chauffeur.
"What's wonderful about him?" he asked contemptuously. "Is he so different, then, from other men?"
Beeton hesitated. "Well, sir, it's like this," he replied. "People believe he can bring back to himself whatever's happened in any place. He can stand, say, where a man's been murdered and he'll just close his eyes and be able to see the very face of the person who killed him."
"Bosh," said Dice angrily.
"I know, sir, it does seem absurd," went on the chauffeur in an ashamed sort of way, "but then he's done it, time after time. Why, when they found the policeman's body in that cellar in Jury Street last year no one could make head or tail of it until Larose was called in. Then within an hour or two he'd found it all out, and they got hold of the man straight away—although no one ever came to know exactly how Larose had done it."
James Dice mopped his face vigorously with his handkerchief. He looked white and sickly with the heat.
"What's Larose like?" he asked rather huskily. "Have you ever seen him?"
"No, sir, and there's something very funny about that, too. Lots of photographs of him have been published, but he looks a different person every time. They say he can change his face just as he wants to by screwing up his eyes and stretching the muscles of his cheeks."
"You're a fool, Beeton," commented his master with a sneer again. "I didn't think you could be such an ass." He took out his watch. "Bring the car round in ten minutes," he went on brusquely. "I shall be going into Meningie this morning."
He walked leisurely across the yard back into the house, humming casually to himself as he went along and no one, from his outward appearance would have guessed for a moment the agitation that was in his mind. With shaking hands he mixed himself a stiff brandy and soda, and again he had to have recourse to his handkerchief to clear his face of sweat.
"Damn," he swore savagely. "What makes me think of it at all? There's not one chance in a million of anything coming out, but if I go on like this I shall become really mad. I must pull myself together and be a man. If I face things boldly there is absolutely nothing to worry about."
But it was a different tale again when he was in bed that night and a very different tale, too, the next morning when he rose, tired and unrefreshed, from snatches only of broken sleep. All his fears and gloomy forebodings were back, and in spite of all his reasoning he could not shake them off. Over and over again he told himself he was a fool, that his position was impregnable, and that he had only to sit tight and, Larose or no Larose, all would be well.
But, do all he would, he could not convince himself, and, as day followed upon day, although outwardly he had managed to school himself to more self-control, inwardly there was the continual piling up in his mind of the cumulative effect of worry and strain.
The thought of Larose had by then become absolutely to obsess him, and in some guise or other he was expecting the detective at every hour of the day.
He scrutinised every tradesman or caller that came up the road, and, although they were quite unaware of it, each one of them before they finally reached the house had been under his binoculars for many hundreds of yards.
He thought, too, that Larose might be hiding in almost every place. Larose was in the gullies, he was in the ditches, he had scooped himself a hole in the sand hummock tops. Larose was walking round the house at night, he was skulking in the wood shed, he was peering through the fly-proof windows directly it got dark—in fact, he was ubiquitous; he was everywhere all at once.
It could not be denied, however, that James Dice had got some very good reasons for believing that he was being shadowed. One morning he had found distinct marks of a tool upon the frame of his bedroom window outside, and Beeton, the chauffeur, being whisperingly called into consultation, had at once given it as his opinion that they were the marks of a chisel. Some one, he said, must have been trying to force the window during the night.
Dice went almost green with apprehension, and his horror was redoubled when the chauffeur reluctantly admitted that twice lately he had thought he had heard someone prowling about the place in the dark.
"Then why the hell didn't you tell me at once?" snarled his master desperately, between his teeth. "I told you to keep a look out."
"But I wasn't sure, sir," pleaded the chauffeur, "and perhaps now I was mistaken, because the dog never barked."
"Ah! the dog!" ejaculated Dice. "I thought yesterday he looked dull and sleepy. Perhaps he's been doped. Keep him on his chain in future, and then we shall know where we are. And don't let anyone give him any food but yourself."
"I ought to have got those pistols I spoke about the other day," he went on. "I'll phone up for them to Adelaide straight away. In the meantime you shall have one of the shot guns, and just keep a couple of cartridges always handy by your bed. I'll keep half a dozen by mine, and by James," he ground his teeth viciously together, "by James, I'll give anyone hell if I catch them prowling round." He looked determinedly at Beeton. "Fire instantly, man, when you see anyone, and you can't miss with a shot gun, you know. I'm a magistrate, remember, and I'll take all the blame."
"What ho!" whistled Larose thoughtfully, when a few minutes later he was back again by himself in the motor shed. "Things are certainly moving on now. Still, I don't quite like the idea of these shot-guns, and I'll have to attend to those cartridges of his before to-night. I don't want to be going to my own funeral just yet, and in the mood he's now in he isn't safe. Now, if only he'd produce that pistol he's got. I'm sure it's hidden somewhere, and it would make all the evidence click. Still—still, I really think we're getting on. Yes, we're getting on."
So the confined and intense drama on Mundulla station proceeded for a few more days, and then the curtain was rung down suddenly in a manner totally different from that expected by both principal actors, and in a way certainly most disconcerting to one.
James Dice became suddenly of the opinion that his chauffeur was—Larose!
It happened like this. Everything had seemed to be going well for Larose, and day by day he had been getting more and more into his victim's confidence. Besides being the chauffeur, he had now become the valet of his master as well. He had pressed his clothes for him, he had sharpened his razors, and he had looked after his boots. He had been the first one to call him in the morning, and the last one to see that he had got all he wanted at night.
James Dice had opened his mind and confided in him, and he had told him plainly that he believed that there was someone hiding about the station who was wishing to do him harm. As Beeton, the chauffeur, Larose had been all sympathy and offers of help, and, with the opportunities of his new position, he had made not a few little discoveries most interesting to himself.
He had found, for one thing, a coat at the back of the wardrobe with dark stains on it all down the front, that might well have been those of blood, and, most significant, too, was a letter in the inside pocket of the coat with a postmark on the envelope of the very date upon which Eli Barton had met his death. Undoubtedly it suggested that James Dice had been wearing the coat on the exact day of the murder.
Then, too, Larose had had several peeps among James Dice's private papers when the latter was having his bath, and he had looked through his bank pass-book as well. He saw there had been actually less than £20 to his credit in the bank on the day before Black Wolf had won the Christmas Cup; also, from some letters he had hastily run over, it was plain James Dice had been hard pressed for money at that time, with several summonses actually on the point of being issued. The week after the race, however, no less than £13,700 had been paid into the bank, and taking everything altogether the cumulative evidence to the detective seemed very black.
So things had been one morning when they had all started off in the car for a picnic jaunt on the banks of the River Murray, near to the township of Wellington. Margaret Bevan had got two girl friends staying with her and, worried and anxious about her uncle, she had persuaded him that a day's outing would do him good. So off they had all driven with a well-packed hamper strapped on to the side of the car.
James Dice had occupied the front seat next to his chauffeur, and the two, in low tones, had discussed the possible advent of the mysterious visitor that at least one of them was expecting imminently.
"We'll see him soon enough," said Dice with absolute confidence, "and between us both he ought to get a warm reception."
"I'll pepper him right enough, sir," replied Beeton with enthusiasm, "and afterwards it'll be easy to explain that I thought it was a rabbit." He grinned with great amusement. "When we've both done with him, sir, I don't suppose he'll be feeling healthy enough to raise many awkward questions."
His master smiled back, and for the thousandth time thought what a gem of a servant he had got.
Lunch was taken on a high knoll just overlooking the river.
But the master of Mundulla station did not enjoy his meal at all. His uneasiness was with him as much as ever, and he was looking round all the time and wondering if they had been followed.
There was a man fishing from a boat about a quarter of a mile away, and it took many long stares through the binoculars before he was quite satisfied that they were not being watched from that quarter.
He was, however, satisfied there, at length, but do all he would he could not shake off the obsession that some time, sure as death, Larose was going to spring up before him, in some strange and totally unexpected guise. Perhaps, he thought, he would appear like someone he knew very well, like one of his brother magistrates for instance, maybe even like the policeman, Abel Black. Perhaps—but here he cursed himself for his folly and, more to divert his thoughts than from any prospect of enjoyment, he opened his case and took out a cigarette.
He took a few deep puffs, and then, looking wearily round, his eyes fell languidly upon his chauffeur, only a few yards away.
Beeton, at any rate, he saw, was enjoying his meal with gusto. He was seated by himself, a little apart from the others, just by the foot of a tree, and he had all the appearance of a man who was taking life well. He was eating slowly and with appreciation, and he took his wine slowly, too, as if it were a nectar to be sipped caressingly, and not a beverage to be savagely gulped down.
His master, idly watching him, thought suddenly what nice table manners the man had, and how like a gentleman he took his food. He broke his bread with both hands, he took small mouthfuls, and he emptied his mouth every time before he drank. Why he might really pass as a gentleman anywhere! He might be anybody but a common chauffeur. He might—Ah!... A thought shrieked into James Dice's mind, an idea positively leaped at him, and then a shock of sheer amazement seemed absolutely to freeze the very marrow in his spine. He leant back sick and giddy, and he felt his very heart stand still. His eyes grew dazed, and the happy voices near him sounded faint and far away.
Beeton—the chauffeur! No, he was Larose, he was Larose! The name was caught up into his brain, and whirled round and round like the eddies of some fierce, imprisoned wind.
Larose! Larose! Yes, it was Beeton who was Larose!
James Dice went cold as death. Every sense in him seemed to become numb, and then a sort of faintness seized him, and his mind refused to think of anything at all. He was like a man stricken with paralysis, and he just lay quiet and held his breath.
Then gradually, very gradually, a realisation of everything came back. He knew again what was happening, and, with an effort, he turned his face sideways so that his agitation should not be seen. Presently he found that he could begin to think clearly again, and his thoughts became instantly most bitter ones. Oh, what a fool he'd been, and what a dupe in Larose's hands! He had just walked into the trap the latter had set for him, with his eyes wide open, and a child even could not have been more easily taken in. Of course Beeton was Larose; there was not the slightest doubt of it when he thought of everything now.
Beeton's recent appearance in the neighbourhood, the mysterious flitting away of the old chauffeur, and the artful way in which Beeton had so manoeuvred as to get himself taken on in the missing man's place. The complete way in which his new servant had discharged all his duties, his ingratiating manner, and the superior intelligence he had always shown! The very appearance of the man, now he came to think of it critically—all, all pointed to something very, very different from an ordinary and common chauffeur. He bore the stamp of refinement and education, and was obviously much too good and capable a man to be working for so small a wage, in a situation like that at Mundulla. If motoring were really his line he would be earning a good salary in the city.
* * *
Then James Dice's thoughts ran on. But if Beeton were Larose, why had he come to Mundulla at all? Why had he, the chief magistrate, been singled out for suspicion?
Bah! It was gossip, of course. Gossip. Just because Black Wolf had won the Christmas Cup. Larose had merely followed up the easiest lines of suspicion, and had come down to Mundulla on the chance that, if James Dice were really the murderer, then he, Larose, would be dealing only with some raw country bumpkin, with hayseeds in his hair.
James Dice sneered contemptuously. Larose was no miracle worker. The fellow was a fool after all, and he must be realising now that he had been very much mistaken. He had been at Mundulla nearly a month and he had found out nothing, absolutely nothing. All he had done had been to put in four weeks of hard work as a common servant, and make a few chisel marks outside his master's bedroom window.
James Dice ground his teeth together viciously here and grew hot with shame. Yes, the fool had frightened him—there was no doubt about that. Damn him, and his lies about the wonderful Larose. He'd give him Larose. The boot was on the other foot now, and it was hell and torment for Larose instead. He'd toy with him, he'd lead him on—an evil smile curved round James Dice's lips, and he nodded significantly to himself.
The master of Mundulla pulled himself up straight. He was quite himself again. He picked up his binoculars and shut them in their case with a snap.
LAROSE heard the snap. He was just in the act of putting a piece of cheese into his mouth.
"Hullo! Hullo!" he thought. "What's happening now? Something decisive. His royal highness has made up his mind about something. Now what on earth can that be?"
James Dice turned to his niece. "Do you know, Margaret," he said smiling. "I think I'll have a piece of ham after all. I feel quite hungry again now."
"Hullo! Hullo!" thought Larose again. "What does it mean? Something's happened for sure. Eating ham now, is he? I must look out. I must take care."
All that afternoon and during the long drive home James Dice seemed to Larose, who missed nothing, to have become quite a different man. He appeared to have thrown off all the depression of the morning and to be entirely free of worry. He laughed and joked quite a lot with the girls, and was as pleasant and confidential as ever to his chauffeur; indeed, towards the latter it seemed almost as if he were unusually anxious to be nice.
"You really do drive splendidly, Beeton," he remarked once, "and you never seem to get tired." Then he added interestedly: "Did you have many long journeys to make when you drove for that doctor you told me about, in Sydney?"
"Yes, sir," replied Larose, who sensed somehow that more lay behind the simple question than, at any rate, seemed outwardly to be the case. "He was often called into the country, and then we had long distances to go."
"Well," smiled James Dice, "it made you an excellent driver, and you could hold a situation anywhere."
When they reached home and Dice was enjoying a cool shower bath, preparatory to the evening meal, he congratulated himself that he had acted very well, and that no inkling of any suspicion could possibly have entered his chauffeur's mind.
But he would not have been quite so certain about it if he could have seen into his chauffeur's mind when he, too, was partaking of his evening meal.
The latter was in his little room, by himself, just off the garage, and he was very thoughtful. He knew something had happened, and he was puzzling as to what it was.
It was well on towards midnight before Larose gave up trying to puzzle the problem out, and it was a very uneasy detective who finally undressed and got into bed.
He had missed something somewhere, he told himself, and he grunted disgustedly at the thought that, in consequence, he would now be forced straightaway to alter his whole plan of campaign.
Incidentally, he had meant to go out that very night in order to make some mysterious foot-prints in the flower bed under James Dice's bedroom window, for the due attention of that gentleman directly he awoke.
But now he judged it better to remain in bed, and had he only known he would have rejoiced at the wisdom of his caution.
James Dice was waiting up for him until past two in the morning. He was hoping for more chisel marks upon the window-frame, and he was nursing a loaded shot-gun across his knees.
* * *
The next day was one of some unpleasant surprises for Larose, and, as far as he and the master of Mundulla were concerned, he soon found that the tables were now completely turned.
It was he himself who was now being watched. He half thought it the very first thing in the morning after he had thrown open the garage doors and started to attend to the car. The idea was strengthened after breakfast, and by mid-day he was as sure of it as of anything he had ever been in all his life.
His master never seemed to take his eyes far from him the whole time. Not that James Dice ever appeared to be actually watching him openly. The master of Mundulla sat as usual on the verandah, with his book, and with the binoculars close handy upon his knee. He read a page or two and then he lazily picked up his glasses and made the usual sweep round. He focussed them, as he had always done, first on one place and then on another, but Larose soon noticed, and with a growing uneasiness, too, that they always ended up by being focussed straight on him.
Then again, when James Dice did appear for a moment to be absorbed in his book, if Larose made even the very slightest change in his position when working on the car, if he moved only from one side to the other, he saw that his master looked up at once, and kept a ready eye on the scene below.
"Hum!" muttered Larose, "this wants some more thinking out. I don't like the look of things at all."
By the time evening came, however, it was quite clear to Larose that his employer had indeed outflanked him, and that the snug security of his chauffeur-pose had passed.
How it had exactly come about he had not the faintest idea, but there was no glossing over the fact that the man had somehow stumbled upon the truth.
Everything in his manner pointed to it, and his whole line of conduct was now exactly what the detective would have expected, in a person of his temper and disposition, under such circumstances.
All his one-time restlessness had disappeared, and all his quiet confidence had returned, as if in the actual presence of the danger he had once so feared he had become cool and collected, and had in every way recovered his nerve.
Larose sighed deeply to himself when he thought of it, but he understood what it was. James Dice had dreaded him terribly in the spirit but, brought face-to-face with him in the flesh, his fear had been completely lifted.
For a long while the detective debated with himself what he had best now do. At first he was almost inclined to pack up his traps and take his departure without delay, but then, he reasoned to himself, his continued presence at Mundulla station was not, even now, without a certain element of strength.
James Dice might know who he was, but he was certainly not aware that he, Larose, was in the possession of the knowledge that had come his way. He would not have so openly shown such interest in him, his chauffeur, if that were so, and he would not so obviously have tried to draw him out and trip him up with questions, as had been the case, at intervals, the whole day long.
Then, too, there was another point to consider. James Dice might be absolutely confident to-day that in the chauffeur, Beeton, he had unmasked the detective Larose, but it was quite possible that by to-morrow his complete confidence might have somewhat abated. After all, he could have no proof positive that Beeton was Larose, and there was always the chance that, with no strengthening of the conviction, the pendulum might soon swing back the other way, and once again the murderer's mind be in that condition of flux and uncertainty which, in some unguarded moment, might give the whole game away.
So Larose took heart again, and, remembering how often his adventurous career victory had come to him from the very ashes of defeat, he smiled confidently to himself, and prepared to carry on his investigations to the end.
* * *
For two days James Dice was supremely happy in the absolute conviction that he was playing with Larose, and then all suddenly his mood underwent yet another change.
The ghost of grey fear crept subtly into his heart and he found himself in the grip of worry once again.
If Beeton were actually the detective Larose—and he was quite sure of it—why on earth then, he asked himself, was the man so content to remain on now at the station, as if he were still expecting to find something out?
It would be childish, of course, even in the face of his present blunderings, to under-estimate the fellow's ability. His reputation in the Commonwealth was so wide and so broad-based that there must be something in him to have deserved it. He could not be such a simple-minded fool as to keep on dangling about Mundulla Station unless he had some hope definitely in view. Then what on earth was it?
James Dice swore savagely to himself and then decided that it was time for him to act. He was getting tired of this hide-and-seek business, he told himself, and besides, in some way or other, Larose might prove dangerous after all. The fellow must be cleared out, he must be taught a lesson, he must be injured in some way—at any rate he must be dealt with promptly before any suspicions that his ruse had failed came into his mind.
Larose sensed very quickly that something had happened. He noted that his employer had suddenly stopped coming over to the garage for a chat, and that now he was hardly spoken to at all. Upon several occasions, too, he found he was being regarded with a very ugly frown.
"Hullo," he asked himself grimly, "but what's his lordship up to now?"
And it was not very long before he began to find out. On the fourth afternoon following upon the day of the picnic, James Dice suddenly announced that he should be wanting the car to go into Meningie at three o'clock sharp. Then at the last moment, and just as Larose was about to bring the car round, his master sent him across the paddocks with a message to one of the station hands, who was working on some fencing about a mile away.
Larose thought it strange at the time that he should have been detailed as a messenger, and he regarded as peculiar also the manner in which his employer bustled him so quickly off. He gave his instructions without looking at the detective, and the latter was sure that he deliberately avoided his eye.
Larose was gone about half an hour, and then, upon his return, his employer was all hurry and impatience to get away in the car.
Larose turned quickly into the garage and something there struck him as remarkable at once. Schafer, the dog, was stretched half asleep upon some old sacks in the corner.
Now the dog, Larose knew, was a very companionable sort of animal, and never remained anywhere alone by himself if he could possibly help it. He never, for instance, by any chance entered the garage unless some one was there at the time.
"Hullo," thought the detective, directly he saw the dog, "some one's been here and stopping in here, too, or Schafer wouldn't be lying down, the governor for sure; now what's he been up to, I wonder?"
He looked quickly and searchingly round, but there appeared to be nothing unusual about the garage and nothing was apparently out of place.
Very puzzled, he jumped on to the car and proceeded to operate the self-starter. But nothing happened. The self-starter was as dead as a door nail. He tried again, but with the same result.
Then the shadow of his master loomed up and James Dice stood suddenly before the garage door.
"Be quick," he exclaimed sharply. "I'm in a hurry, please!"
"The self-starter won't work, sir," explained Larose. "I can't get it to go."
"Then start it with the handle," replied James, Dice irritably. "I don't want to be kept here, all day."
Without a word, the detective got down and prepared to swing the handle. There was nothing unusual in the command, and he had often swung it before. The Punic was a big, high powered car, but it always started easily and, with the magneto as he knew it was, the swinging was quite safe.
In quite a matter-of-fact way, then he pressed in the handle, and was just preparing to swing carelessly when suddenly his deep subconscious self flashed him a lightning signal of alarm. "Something unusual going on," it warned him. "Your master's watching you very queerly. Look out, danger ahead." Larose was on the qui vive at once, and, as with him no precaution was ever too trivial to be neglected, he very warily proceeded now to swing the handle with the maximum amount of care, when—crack!—and with a vicious and violent back-fire it was jerked out of his hand.
"Ah!" ejaculated Larose, "so he's starting his tricks is he? The brute's altered the timing. He wanted me to break my arm," and, without a word to his master, he lifted up the bonnet of the car.
Ten minutes later a secretly amused Larose and an openly sullen and morose James Dice were speeding along the road towards Meningie. Their minds were both full of thought, but they neither of them said a word.
The next morning the chauffeur had just fetched his breakfast from the kitchen.... It was a plate of curry and, as usual, he was going to partake of it by himself in his own little room, off the garage. He had just sat down, when his master called to him to fetch a cucumber from the garden. He was not gone two minutes, but upon resuming his seat before his yet untasted breakfast it came to him suddenly that he could sense the smell of cigars. Not the smell of a cigar that was being smoked, but just the faint tinge of heavily cigar-impregnated clothes, the aroma that hangs about a coat whose owner has smoked boxes and boxes of cigars while wearing it.
"Whew," whistled Larose after a good sniff round into the air, "my friend the enemy again. More tricks now, I suppose."
He looked very searchingly upon his breakfast, spread upon the tray. The bread was certainly all right, likewise the butter, the jam also had not been disturbed. The tea in the teapot was doubtful, and the curry—ah, the curry looked as if it had been stirred!
Larose pursed up his lips and stared hard at the contents of the plate before him.
"It seems fanciful," he mused, "but it is quite on the cards after all. As friend James most truthfully remarked the other day, any kind of accident here would be easily explained away. He is a magistrate, and above reproach. No, I won't risk it."
He made quite a satisfactory breakfast upon the bread and butter and some cheese that he fetched from his cupboard. Then, awaiting a favourable opportunity, he carried out his plate of curry and presented it to two ducks who were foraging in the grass at the back of the garage.
They were both very greedy, and quickly gobbled it up. He then proceeded about his usual morning's work of attending to the car. He whistled cheerfully to himself as if he had not a care in all the world. Presently, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that his master was watching him.
All that day James Dice never came near the garage, and the services of Beeton were never once required.
He had found two dead ducks that evening by the creek. Their feathers were all mired and ruffled, and there was all evidence from where they lay that they had flapped their wings many times in the agonies of some dreadful form of death.
"Weed-killer most likely," had sighed Larose. "The usual kind of handy family poison. Most reliable, too, if you only use enough. But I must be careful now, very careful. Do you know, Gilbert, I really think you are beginning to get afraid."
The next day things were very much the same. James Dice quite ignored his chauffeur, and did not call for his services even once. He had apparently given up watching, too, and Larose saw nothing of him, either on the veranda or in the yard.
It was terribly hot all day, and towards evening Margaret Bevan came out and suggested to Larose that he should take the dog down to the creek, about half a mile distant, and give the animal a bathe.
The detective was delighted with the opportunity of getting away from the house for an hour or so, and gladly compiled. So he whistled to Schafer, and the two made their ways leisurely across the paddocks.
The dog enjoyed his bathe immensely, even though there was not much water in the creek and what there was of it at that was hot and very muddy.
* * *
Larose sat smoking on the high bank and enviously regarded the animal swimming round.
"After all, old chap," he sighed, "I really believe that you are happier than I. You're not supposed to have a soul, but you don't get any worry, and there's no one thirsting for your blood."
His thoughts reverted again to James Dice, and he wondered what his master was up to at the moment.
"I must be careful. I must be very careful," he mused. "Our friend has clearly got to the homicidal stage and anything may happen if I don't look out. But what do I get at all by remaining on here now? I'm half inclined to think I shall have to take my leave and yet, somehow, I don't like to say 'good-bye.'" He smiled in amusement to himself. "Nice comfortable place this, Gilbert, my boy. You'd be quite sorry to leave it, wouldn't you? Highly moral master, justice of the peace—wages very fair—meals, especially the curries, very good—hours——"
His meditations were interrupted suddenly by a loud explosion just behind him. At the same instant his hat was lifted roughly from his head and whirled up into the air, to several yards away. Then, before he could take in what was happening or had even time to move a limb, there was a second report, equally loud, and this time he felt a sharp blow upon his left shoulder.
He sprang like lightning to his feet and, turning round, saw James Dice standing not 10 yards away. He was holding a still smoking gun in his hands, and there was a look of absolute amazement upon his white and startled face.
There was the sound of voices from a little way down the creek, and two men came running quickly up. They had heard the firing and had come to see what had been shot.
Larose saw they were two of the station hands, and, realising now that he was quite safe, he made no attempt to disarm James Dice. The latter was trembling violently, and his face was dripping with sweat.
In an instant the detective had made up his mind. He saw that nothing was to be gained by accusing James Dice, and that the best plan would be to pretend he thought the shooting was an accident.
But James Dice could hardly speak; he still eyed Larose as if something altogether incredible and impossible had happened.
"I thought, I thought," he muttered hoarsely, "that it was a rabbit up there. Your hat looked just like one against the sky. It was a miracle you weren't hit."
But the detective knew it was no miracle at all. He had escaped injury simply because James Dice had been using cartridges that had been tampered with by Larose.
Late that night Larose made up his mind finally that it was time for him to leave Mundulla station.
"It's no good remaining on," he told himself, "for one thing, because it's too dangerous now. Dice would do anything in his present mood, and that shooting this evening was as cool a piece of impudence as I've ever known. The beast just openly followed me down and didn't even take the trouble to make sure there was no one else about." He scowled angrily to himself. "But my gentleman's not done with me yet. I've still one or two good cards to play if only I manage to get out of this place all right."
The next morning the cook called across to the garage for Beeton to come and fetch his breakfast but she got no response, and, after a moment's waiting, she ran over and rapped upon the garage door.
But there was silence still, and when she looked both into the garage and the chauffeur's room, adjoining, she found them both empty and no sign of the man anywhere.
Meeting Miss Bevan as she was returning to the kitchen, she asked her if Beeton had gone out upon some errand, for, she said, she had not seen him at all as yet that morning. Miss Bevan said she didn't know, and a moment later, running up against her uncle as he was coming out of the bathroom, she passed on the inquiry.
"Sent Beeton anywhere?" asked her uncle suspiciously.
"No, certainly not. Isn't he anywhere about?" and then, hearing what the cook had said, he walked at once over to the garage and threw open both the doors.
"Ha," he muttered in tones of mingled satisfaction and annoyance, "and has the bird really flown?"
Entering the garage an envelope conspicuously placed upon the bonnet of the car immediately caught his eye.
It was addressed "James Dice, Esq.," and he tore it open quickly.
"Respected Sir," he read. "Will you please forgive me going away for a few days. I don't feel very well, and the accident yesterday has got on my nerves. I have left my things and I will come back directly I am better. I hope I shall not have to stay away long. Please excuse the inconvenience I am causing,
"From your obedient servant,
"P.S.—Everything in the car is all right and the tank is full."
"Ah!" sneered the master of Mundulla, "so I've frightened you, my dear Larose, have I, but you'll return, will you?" James Dice curled his lips in great contempt. "Not on my life, I'll swear to that. You have been taught a lesson here, at any rate, you damned fool," and, crushing the letter in his hand, he returned into the house.
After lunch James Dice came into the garage again and himself fetched out the car. His niece mounted up beside him, and a couple of minutes later anyone upon the station, who had happened to be interested, would have marked the sounds of the engine getting fainter and fainter, as the big Punic proceeded briskly on its way.
And certainly one person, at all events, was most interested.
The moment all sounds of the car had definitely passed away there was a distinct movement from the direction of a bundle of old sails suspended from some planks that rested among the rafters of the garage. One end of the sails seemed gradually to unwind and then, very cautiously, the head of a man was thrust out. Anyone on the station would have sworn at once that it was the head of the chauffeur, Beeton. And they would have been quite right, too, for a moment later the chauffeur of Mr. Dice appeared bodily from the sails, and, with a circumspect glance all round, to make sure that there was nobody at hand, dropped softly upon the ground.
"Good," muttered Larose, luxuriously stretching his cramped limbs, "and now to see that Martha is not about."
He tiptoed quietly to the garage door, and for a long while stood watching to find out if the coast were clear. Then, suddenly, he heard the cook singing in the kitchen, and, knowing then definitely where she was, he darted like an arrow across the yard, and in a few seconds was safely ensconced in the master of Mundulla's own particular room.
* * *
He lost no time in preliminaries, and producing a small wedge from his pocket thrust it under the door, and at once proceeded to make a thorough search of the room.
He had been in it alone many times before, but never for more than a few minutes at a time, and the searches he had been able to make had been only lightning-like and casual in their nature. Now he reckoned that if he made no noise he would have at least a couple of hours.
He turned his attention first to the big Cutler desk, and found it, as he had expected, locked, but some cunningly shaped pieces of stout wire soon got over that difficulty, and in less than five minutes he was methodically going through the contents of drawer after drawer.
At first it was only for a bulky object that he was looking. He wanted the big revolver that Eli Barton had been shot with, and he had reckoned confidently that it would be there. But complete disappointment, at any rate in that respect, awaited him, and there was no sign of any weapon at all. He made no pause, however, in his work, and proceeded most carefully to examine the other contents of the drawers. Everything they contained, he reasoned, had been kept for a purpose, and it was with the purpose of James Dice's mind that he had to deal.
Nothing was too small for him to examine, and paper after paper was subjected to quick scrutiny. James Dice was business-like and methodical in his way, and everything in the desk was arranged neatly. But Larose found nothing bearing on the tragedy of Eli Barton until he came to a drawer devoted entirely to matters connected with racing. Here there were racing programmes, calendars, and newspaper cuttings almost without end, and finally he fished out a small bundle of letters of comparatively recent date. One from Melbourne immediately caught his eye. It was from "Your affectionate, cousin, Thomas French," and was dated the previous December 5.
"My dear Jim," it commenced, "I don't want to dishearten you, but just you make up your mind straightaway that—however good your nag may be—he doesn't stand an earthly if old Eli decides to run his. Abimeleck could give the Pride a couple of stone and then beat him easily by twenty lengths. So just you put that in your pipe, old man, and smoke it for all it is worth," and then followed three closely-written pages of reasons for the writer's so emphatic opinion.
"I'll take this," muttered Larose, nodding his head. "Yes and it was this chatty, innocent letter that was probably responsible, later, for Eli Barton's death. Black Wolf was to have an easy run at any price—but, as I live, here is a photograph of the animal himself!" He picked up a photograph about three inches square, and, from its mounting, evidently the work of an amateur. It was an excellent photograph, nevertheless, and depicted a big, awkward-looking horse, just stripped for a gallop, with his rider ready astride him.
"Fine big eyes," mused Larose, "sprightly cocked ears, head—Hullo, hullo"—he drew in his breath with a low whistle—"why, why, as I live again, it's that poor wretch, Ferris, who's got the mount."
Stealthily he tiptoed to the window and held up the photo to the light.
"Yes, yes," he murmured, "it's Master Ferris right enough. The low, brutal forehead, the eyes close together, the weak, self-indulgent chin. Yes, it's the mummy of the sands." He put the photo in his pocket. "A nice picture for my gallery of crime—Black Wolf and his trainer. Beast of Prey. I'll keep this."
He turned back to the desk, but nothing of much interest further rewarded his search until he suddenly lighted upon a badly-scrawled and ill-written letter. His eyes gleamed when he saw it was signed 'Sid Ferris,' but to his disappointment there was nothing particular in it. It was written from Adelaide about six months previously, and was just a short business note about some parts for a pump that Dice had evidently been ordering.
"Hum. I'll keep that too, I think," remarked the detective. "It may come in useful, perhaps." An amused smile crossed upon his face. "Really, an idea is growing in my mind. Maybe, I'll surprise you yet, Mr. James Dice."
He went rapidly through the remaining papers, and then, just, as he was about to close the desk, a book marked 'Wages' caught his eye. He turned over the pages until he came to some entries under 'Ferris.'
"Two ten a week," he remarked to himself. "So that was what the man got, was it? Paid every fortnight was it, too, and the last payment on December 12th. Hum—so Master Ferris was owed ten days' when he died, was he? Yes, and, I see, fifteen shillings for some expenses as well. Now that gives me another idea. I'll just tear out that page, I think." He shook his head. "No, I won't. It's not necessary, and Dice might notice it, perhaps."
He closed and re-locked the desk, and then turned his attention to the wardrobe. There something worse almost than disappointment awaited him. The jacket with the dark stains upon it had been taken away. Three times he went over each garment before he was sure and then he scowled disgustedly.
"That looks bad," he muttered, "very bad for me. The wretch has taken, precautions, just as I feared. He's got rid of it somehow, for certain. Most likely he burnt it when they lit the copper the other day. I thought then the wood smelt very rank." A worried frown came over his face. "Gilbert, Gilbert," he went on, "I believe you're losing grip!" He sighed deeply. "But I should so like to nail the wretch. There's not a shadow of doubt but that James Dice is a double murderer. But he's artful—he's devilish artful now."
A few minutes later he was back again in the garage, and then, long, long before the reverberant hum of its engine announced the return of the big Punic car, he was only a faint black speck among the sandhills far away from the station of Mundulla.
Dice had never wavered for one moment from the idea that his late chauffeur was the detective, and he was confident now that for all practical purposes he had done with the man.
Now his chief interest in Larose was just the speculation as to what exactly would be the report that the discomfited detective would be now making to his disappointed employers.
Indeed, he had thought a lot about the latter aspect of the case, and, finally, had arrived at the conclusion that at any rate neither Sam Gover nor young Barton knew anything about the matter.
"It's the Times of Adelaide," the master of Mundulla sneered. "It's that beastly rag that sent the fellow here." He wreathed his face into a mocking smile. "Well, it's to be hoped they paid him handsomely, for he certainly got some nasty shocks here, and they couldn't have been too good for his nerves."
Once more James Dice settled down into quite an easy frame of mind, with the comfortable satisfaction that he had proved more than a match even for the great Sydney detective, Gilbert Larose.
The first intimation of any trouble came one morning from one of the boundary riders on the station.
"So I see you've got Sid Ferris back, Mr. Dice," remarked the man, "but he's certainly given himself a good holiday this time."
"Sid Ferris," queried James Dice, as if not quite taking it in, "why, what do you mean?"
"Well, he's back here, isn't he?"
The master of Mundulla appeared to be amused.
"It's the first I've heard of it," he replied with a smile, "and if it were so I should probably get to know of it at least as soon as anybody else."
The man looked rather puzzled. "Well, I saw him last night, and of course I thought he had returned here to work."
"Where did you see him?" asked Dice, but without much interest in his voice.
"Down by the creek," replied the man. "He was riding old Stumpy."
James Dice looked at him sarcastically.
"Stumpy," he remarked quietly, "never left the paddock all day yesterday, and he was round by the house gate most of the evening. Miss Margaret was feeding him with carrots after tea."
"Well," said the boundary rider. "I couldn't swear to the horse, because I wasn't near enough, but it being a grey one I naturally thought it was Stumpy."
"Could you swear to the man, then?" asked James Dice very dryly. The man seemed surprised at the question being asked.
"Oh yes—it was Ferris, without the slightest doubt. Schafer was with me and he recognised him at once, too. He swam across the creek and jumped up to him, barking all the time. He was very excited, and followed after him as he rode away."
"Where did the man go then?" asked Dice, with a frown.
"Out away over the sandhills. I shouted to him, but he didn't look up. I thought that was funny, I admit."
Dice shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I know nothing about it," he said. "He's certainly come nowhere near the house," and he walked away as if he had no more interest in the matter at all.
During all the rest of that day, however, in spite of his certain knowledge that the man the boundary rider had seen could not possibly have been Sid Ferris, Dice felt uneasy and uncomfortable. He was restless, and kept harking back to what the man had said.
Ever since it had come to him suddenly that afternoon upon the bank of the river that his chauffeur, Beeton, was the detective, Larose, his mind had been, so to speak, in an analytical phase, and about every question that came now before him he had automatically got into the habit of weighing up all the pros and cons, as if he himself were a detective following up upon some trail.
Why had Schafer, the dog, jumped up and been so friendly with the strange man? What did it mean?
There was nothing in it, of course, he told himself, but still it was certainly peculiar. Schafer, of all dogs he had known, was not a friendly dog, and all the time he had been on the station the animal had always consistently hated strangers, and had never got on friendly terms quickly with anyone, except—except—and the master of Mundulla remembered it suddenly with a sort of pang—that damned brute, Larose.
Larose!—Larose! Was the wretch going to worry him again? he asked himself, and then he dismissed the idea at once as preposterous.
What had Ferris to do with Larose? Larose had probably never heard of the man, and there could be no possible link between the two.
James Dice cursed himself for an idiot. Sid Ferris was dead. With his own eyes he had seen the top of the head blown away, and the very bones even would be picked white and clean by now. He would not give the idea another thought.
The next day one of the station hands said he had seen Sid Ferris. He told the cook so, and she repeated it to Margaret Bevan, who in turn passed the news on to her uncle at breakfast.
The man had passed Ferris, he said, the previous evening on the Meningie road. Ferris was riding a grey horse, and he was looking very ill. His head was bandaged, his face was ghastly white, and he had got one arm in a sling. He had taken no notice when he had been spoken to, but had just ridden straight on, without even turning his head.
James Dice went grey with horror when his niece came out with it at the meal, but fortunately she was too occupied with pouring out the tea to notice her uncle's face.
He pretended, however, to be not much interested, and suggested the man must have been drinking. Of course, Ferris would have come at once up to the station if he had been anywhere near.
He certainly got through the breakfast very well, but again by himself, in his own room, his mouth became dry with fear. "What the hell is happening now?" he asked himself. "It couldn't—it couldn't be Ferris, but—good God—the bandaged head and the broken arm!"
He sat down in his armchair and tried to think things calmly over. Was there the chance—was there the remotest chance that Sid Ferris was not dead after all? If the man were alive it would be a terrible thing for him, for he would be completely in his power.
But it was impossible, he told himself, absolutely impossible. He went back in his mind over all that had happened that night on the Coorong. He had seen Sid Ferris with his left arm hanging free, then he had seen him with the top of his skull blown away, and then he had buried him a good two feet under the sand. He couldn't possibly have lived, even if the wounds had not been mortal. He would have suffocated in a few seconds.
James Dice drew in a deep breath of relief. No, it was ridiculous, but then—who was this man now riding about? He was interrupted by his niece coming in to remind him that he was taking her into the township that morning, and a few minutes later he had, in part, thrown off his worry, in listening to her bright conversation as she sat next to him in the car. But his thoughts were thrown back into their unpleasant groove again directly they arrived in Meningie.
* * *
Almost immediately a friend he met mentioned Sid Ferris, and remarked casually that the ex-jockey was looking "damned bad."
James Dice choked back some sort of lump in his throat, and asked his friend where he had seen Ferris.
"Last night," was the reply, "he passed me at the end of the township, on the grey. He looked like a ghost, I thought, all done up like that. What's the beggar been up to? Has he had a fall, or been in a fight?"
But the master of Mundulla only remarked that Ferris was always a drunken beast, and then turned the conversation to another channel. He did not feel equal to going into explanations, and, besides, he knew he had no explanations to give.
He returned to the station in great despondency, and as an excuse explained to his niece that he was not feeling very well. That night he slept very badly, and long before morning came he had to admit to himself that all his worries and anxiety had returned.
As before, he was fighting against the unknown, and the uncertainty as to whether he was in any danger or not took all the courage out of him, and made him as limp as a rag.
On the morning but one following upon his visit to Meningie with his niece he had another shock.
Just before eight o'clock he heard the telephone ring, and a minute later the cook knocked at the bedroom door with a message for him.
"It was Ferris, sir," she explained when her master had bidden her to come in. "He'll be coming back in a day or two, he says, but he's been very ill. In the meantime he asked me to remind you that there's ten days' wages owing to him, and fifteen shillings for expenses as well, and would you please send them to him at the Post Office at Meningie. He said something else, sir, but his voice was very low and weak, and I couldn't make out what it was."
Dice made some sort of grunt that gave the cook to understand he had received the message properly, and she at once retired from the room.
For some minutes then there was no sound at all from the occupant of the bed, and it might almost have been supposed that he had dropped again to sleep. But the supposition would have been very far from a right one, for James Dice was choking with terror, and a muck sweat was drenching him from head to foot.
So Ferris was alive after all—the impossible had happened, and somehow, like Sam Gover, he had risen from the dead!
There was no getting away from it now, for who but Ferris himself would possibly have known there were ten days' wages owing to him and fifteen shillings for expenses besides?
Then, what would happen next? He shook with the terror as it came to him suddenly that there must be some one else in the secret now, besides Ferris himself. Ferris must have been found and nursed somewhere, for with his dreadful wounds he could not have revived by himself. Where had he been, too, all this time, and how had he been hidden, when the police were searching high and low for a wounded man?
Then, what was Ferris thinking himself? What was his attitude of mind now? Could it possibly be that he had lost his memory, and had no recollections of the happenings of that night? Had he no idea as to who had shot him and subsequently buried him beneath the sand? Had he no thought of vengeance? No, apparently he could not have, for his message was that he was coming back. But why, then, had he not returned before? If he had no ill-will against his master why had he stayed away, and why had he been haunting the station without coming near the house?
All that day James Dice sat on the veranda, brooding and wondering what was going to happen next, and by nightfall he had worked himself into a perfect torture of dreadful anticipation. It was as if some deadly poison had entered into his mind. His nerves were strung up to their highest pitch, and he started at every sound about the house. The clicking of a door even, or the rattling of a plate, brought great drops of perspiration to his face.
He gave no thought at all to Larose now. The detective had passed right out of his life again, and it was the bloody face of Sid Ferris that was rising always before his eyes.
The next day, however, he had to pull himself together somehow, for, as senior magistrate of the district, it was his duty to preside over the sitting of the Court.
He told himself it was imperative that he should be there, for the more he kept himself in the public eye, he had sense enough to see, the stronger and more unassailable would be his position if any suspicion should be raised about him later.
If it ever became a question of his word against Ferris's, it would be well, he argued, that his should be supported by all the weight of his important and responsible public position in the district.
So he went into Meningie outwardly is if nothing had happened, cold, proud and reserved, and as if he were the incarnation of rectitude itself.
He presided with dignity over the sitting, and then, as usual, adjourned to the hotel with his brother magistrates and some friends for conversation and light refreshments, until the time came for them to separate upon their several ways.
One part of the balcony upon the first floor was always kept reserved for them upon these occasions, and, reclining on comfortable chairs, and with long, cool drinks beside them, they could, for the time, forget the arduous duties of the day.
For the moment James Dice had thrown off his depression and, enlivened by the cheerful conversation of his companions, was inclined to take quite a hopeful view of things again.
But his peace of mind, even there, was destined to be of short duration, for suddenly one of his friends called out interestedly:
"Here you are, Dice, here's that old, bad egg of yours again," and the speaker leant over the balcony and looked down the street.
At first Dice had no idea what his friend meant but, turning his eyes round in the direction in which everyone was now gazing, they fell upon a horseman, about a hundred yards away. The man was riding a grey horse, and he was coming slowly up the street towards them.
It was Sid Ferris!
Dice's heart thumped like a piston, and his legs shook under him. His mind was gripped in dreadful fear, and with hard, set lips he stared at the advancing horseman as if he were regarding an apparition from the dead. He wetted his dry lips with his tongue, and he clenched his hands so tightly that the nails dug into the flesh.
There was no doubt about it. It was the ex-jockey that he thought he had killed, and he was dressed in exactly the same clothes that he had worn that night upon the Coorong.
A dirty red neck-cloth, a shabby old grey coat, tattered riding breeches, of a faded brown, and wrinkled pigskin leggings. He was wearing a battered old felt hat, low down upon his forehead, and not much of the upper part of his face could be seen, but here was no mistaking that stubbly little moustache and the narrow peaked chin. He looked weak and ill, and his skin was of a peculiar deathly white. He carried his left arm in a sling, and there was a broad bandage over the back of his head. He rode all hunched up with his feet high in the stirrups. He was on the other side of the road, away from the hotel.
"Nice looking chap, that lad of yours," banteringly remarked the man who had spoken before. "A most respectable looking individual for our Senior Justice to be employing. Upon my soul, Dice," he went on, "you ought to give the beggar six months. He'd do with a wash as well."
But Dice took no notice of the remarks. His eyes were glued upon the approaching figure, and every faculty he possessed was concentrated to take in the meaning of it all.
The horse came slowly on, in a slow ambling trot. The rider was gazing straight out before him, and he rode like a man in a dream. He drew level with the hotel veranda.
"By Jove, but how ill he looks," commented the facetious man. "Too much Scotch wine, I expect. No prohibitionist there!"
But no one followed up his remarks. They were only mildly interested, and, if the Senior Justice himself were disinclined to make any comments about his servant, then politeness forbade any further curiosity at all.
* * *
Slowly the horse and its rider passed before the hotel, but, when about 10 yards beyond, a big lorry was suddenly backed out of a side street, and the horseman was obliged in consequence to pull his mount up sharply.
The horse swerved a little under the bit, and, turning half sideways, brought the back of his rider in a clear straight line with the veranda of the hotel.
Dice was still staring with the intensity of one held spellbound. The bunched up figure on the horse, he knew, meant ruin and perhaps death for him, and his mind, alert and quickened by the menace, took in feverishly the minutest details of the man.
How often had he not seen that shabby hat and coat before! How often had his eyes been offended with the dirty neck-cloth that the fellow wore! How many times—but suddenly another memory flashed up strangely to his mind. What freak of recollection was it that touched him now?
Where had he seen that neck before, that neck and those well-shaped ears? The recollection of them seemed later and much more recent than that of the other points about the man. No, they didn't remind him of Sid Ferris at all; they struck quite a different chord in his memory, and he was sure he had seen them many times before.
They seemed—ah! he knew what they reminded him of now. They were just like those of Beeton, the chauffeur. He had not sat behind Beeton for hundreds of miles for nothing, and so many times he had noticed those ears.
Yes, they were Beeton's, not Ferris's. He was sure of it. They were not Ferris's at all.
Beeton? He half rose from his chair, and, quick as lightning, another thought flashed through him, too.
Larose! Of course it was Larose again!
He bent forward over the balcony, but the horseman had disappeared. A motor was passing, and for the moment everything was obscured in a cloud of dust.
With an oath he sprang to his feet, resolved to run down into the street, but a second's reflection, and he subsided again into his seat.
He shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. What did it matter if he knew for certain that the rider was Larose? He would be only making a fool of himself if he ran after the man, and he was not exactly sure what he could do if he did catch him up. No, he must be careful. There was something in this he did not understand. Why was Larose now masquerading, as he believed, as the dead Sid Ferris? What did Larose know of Sid Ferris, and who had helped him to disguise himself as the dead man? There must be more than one in the plot now.
The sweat of fear again spread over Dice's forehead, and all the exultant triumph of a few seconds back died down in the horrible torment of uncertainty.
Many, many times, during the next twenty-four hours Dice wished that, anger or no danger, he had kept his first resolve and run after the man on the grey horse.
He felt now that the uncertainty of everything was killing him. Again he expected danger at every turn, and the torment of it was that he had no idea from what direction it would come.
He was sure of nothing now, and his mind felt drugged. He was absolutely bewildered.
He was not certain any longer, even, that the horseman, after all, was not Sid Ferris.
The confident conviction he had first formed that the neck and ears belonged to Larose had gradually grown weak and thin, and he had cursed himself over and over again that he had not followed the horseman and made sure. Then, at any rate, he would have known where he was.
Finally, he told himself that things could not go on any longer as they were, and that he must get some peace of mind at any price. It would be very simple to clear up everything if he had only got the nerve.
He remembered to a foot where he had buried Sid Ferris, and nothing would be easier for him, he was sure, than just to scrape away a little of the sand and see if the body were still there.
Yes, he would do it straightaway.
That night he announced his intention of going fishing the next day, and he asked his niece to arrange for some sandwiches to be got ready for him early next morning. He patted the girl affectionately on the cheek. No, he preferred to go alone, for once. He would be glad of the solitude, for he had a lot of business matters to think over.
It had often been insisted by the admirer's of Larose that the great detective was never seen to better advantage than when his fortunes were apparently at their lowest ebb.
Confronted with a failure that it seemed absolutely impossible to avoid, and seemingly overwhelmed by difficulties from which there was no escape, he would complacently turn off from his original course, only to reappear in a few days or weeks with victory well in sight.
His powers of recovery were wonderful. He was never long discouraged, for it was always his belief that success in everything came rather to the patient rather than to the strong.
And so it was now in the case of James Dice. Larose had been deeply chagrined at having to leave Mundulla without achieving his end, and it had been not a small blow to his pride that its master had succeeded in unmasking him.
He had been so certain of success at one time and so sure that he was actually on the very point of linking up James Dice with the destroyer of Eli Barton.. ..
And then, just when everything had seemingly been going on so well, had come the man's sudden and unaccountable change of manner, his ill-disguised contempt for the chauffeur, Beeton; his vicious desire to do his servant harm, and, finally, the open and murderous attack that evening upon the bank of the creek.
Yes, it had certainly been very unfortunate, and Larose had sighed deeply when trudging wearily back in the darkness that night to Meningie, but, still—still, he had thought, all was not lost yet. He would just have to work in other ways. That was all.
And James Dice had soon come to experience what those other ways were. Larose had sought out Abel Black again, and, to his delight, had found that the policeman was not only willing but well enough and free to help him.
Black was now convalescing from his illness, and had been given a month's leave by the authorities to recover his health completely.
Larose had confided in him, or at any rate, had confided in him as much as he had thought fit, and between them both they had brought the dead Ferris back to life.
Larose had a different object in view. If he had failed in linking up James Dice with Eli Barton, well, he would try now to link him up with Sid Ferris, for, he rightly argued that if he could establish his guilt as the murderer of Sid Ferris, then by circumstantial evidence it could certainly be brought home that he was the murderer of Eli Barton, also.
* * *
So Sid Ferris was to be the bait now, and it was Larose's object to make Dice betray the fact that he knew the ex-jockey had been murdered, and knew also where the body lay.
Dice must be lured back somehow to the grave he had dug by the thirty-fifth mile post on the Coorong, and there must be witnesses to prove that he had returned there.
And the witnesses Larose was choosing were Abel Black and the camera.
The next morning if any stranger had been leaning against the thirty-fifth mile post, he would have been quite certain that he was all alone in that vast wildernesses of sand, and that for the moment, at all events, he was free from the inquisitive peering of human eyes. There was not a sign of habitation, not a sign of any human being, anywhere—only the sea and the sand and the sky.
Behind a sand hummock, less than a hundred yards away, there was parked a small light car, and close behind it was erected quite a comfortable-looking little bell tent. More than that, not even 50 yards distant from where he would have stood, a small pit had been dug, and in it were two men.
It was the trap of Larose.
The mouth of the pit had been carefully screened over with a length of canvas of exactly the same colour as the surrounding sand, and hidden among some high tufts of coarse grass was the top of a good sized camera, the lens of which had been most carefully focussed upon one particular spot.
* * *
Larose, the detective, was setting his trap with all the scrupulous attention to detail that he had learnt from long years of association with the tracking of crime.
"Now, Black," he said impressively, "if we have measured things up correctly, within forty-eight hours at most some one will come and start digging by that bank over there, and we've got to get his picture directly he begins turning the sand. We shall have plenty of warning of his coming, for unless a strong wind blows up we shall hear his car at least a couple of miles away. He'll come in the day-time, too, for there will be no moon up to-night, and apart from that he'd know his car would be more likely to attract notice, both leaving and returning home, if he travelled by night. So he'll come by day, I say, and I expect early, too, to avoid any meeting with other cars. But we must leave nothing to chance, and every moment, day and night, one or other of us must be on the watch. If he doesn't put in an appearance today, then to make certain we'll have to take it in turns to watch for him to-night."
The policeman assented joyfully, for surely in all Australia there was no happier man now than Abel Black. Was he not working in harness, he kept on reminding himself, with the great Larose? Was he not going to make history, and would he not remember these days for all the remainder of his life? He was indeed a fortunate man.
It was true he did not quite understand what was going on, and that he had no idea at all who exactly was the person the detective was expecting to come and dig, but then those, he told himself, were quite minor considerations when he remembered that he was acting as the colleague of Larose.
All that day, save for a few minutes when they each, in turn, made for the tent to snatch a little food, they sat watching on the sandhill. But there was no sign of the Punic at all. Three other cars passed, at long intervals. They were all going towards Adelaide, and Larose began wondering uneasily if by any chance their appearance had frightened James Dice away, and that the latter had thought better of his project and turned back.
But then Larose remembered how correct hitherto had been his estimate of James Dice, and he consoled himself with the thought that he had every reason to expect the man to come.
By seven in the evening it was almost dark and, according to the arrangements they had made, Black turned in to the tent to get some sleep. He was to be free for six hours, and he wanted rest badly. In the excitement of the previous night they had neither of them really had any sleep, and the policeman was now beginning to feel quite done up. He was still weak after his illness.
So, directly he lay down, he dropped into heavy sleep, and when Larose called him at one o'clock in the morning the poor fellow wished devoutly that he could have had six hour's more.
But if the policeman had been able to sleep every moment of his time, it was very different with Larose, who could not sleep at all. He had a splitting headache and his limbs were aching—so much so that he believed he had caught a chill. He tossed and turned and turned and tossed, and when dawn at last came was quite relieved for an excuse to get up.
* * *
He made himself a cup of strong coffee and then, feeling a little better, joined Black at the top of the sandhill.
"Now, my boy," he said with a great air of vivacity, "the critical time is coming. Between now and say ten o'clock our bird will walk into the net. You see if he doesn't."
The policeman rubbed his hands together with a feeling of joy in his heart. Like Larose, he was feeling dead tired, but expectation of the triumph to come made him for the moment forget everything, except, yet once more, that he was the colleague of this great man.
"You see," went on Larose impressively, "the camera will catch him in the very act and, for the time being, he need have no idea at all that he has been seen. The picture will be the last link in the chain of evidence that we have forged."
Black simply thrilled with ecstasy at the sound of the word "we."
"Of course," went on Larose, "we could shoot him down at once instead of taking his photograph, but we should hardly be justified in that. Instead, we will just quietly arrest him in a day or two's time, and it will be you who will execute the warrant."
Black rubbed his hands together again in his joy, and nodded his head, too overcome to speak.
The sun rose hot and coppery, with all prospects of another scorching day, but towards eight o'clock the sky clouded over quickly and a soft breeze began sighing up from the sea.
"Cool change coming," muttered Larose, "and by to-night the sand will be whirling all over the place, I bet."
The detective was beginning to get really anxious. He had believed so confidently that James Dice would fall into the trap, and in his own mind he had calculated almost to the very hour when the man was most likely to appear.
That very morning it would be, he had told himself, and at about nine o'clock.
He reckoned Dice would leave Mundulla Station very early, and that about three hours' driving, at most, would bring him to the spot.
But nine o'clock came, and nothing happened. Ten o'clock—eleven, and then twelve.
Larose was quite sick with disappointment then, and faint almost for want of sleep.
"This will never do," he told himself. "I am failing at the very critical moment of the whole business. At all events I must get some rest." He turned to Abel Black. "Look here, old man," he said wearily, "I'm feeling a bit crook and think I'd better go and lie down a little while. I shan't go to sleep and I shall hear any motor just as quickly as you, but still, if you hear anything coming, give me a shout at once," and with steps that were stumbling and unsteady he turned off towards the tent.
With every muscle in him aching, he stretched himself upon the ground sheet and, with his head upon the rug that he had folded for a pillow, shut his eyes and devoutly hoped for some relief.
But he soon got more than that. Sleep, that had denied herself to him when, in the night, he had courted her so ardently, now flung herself brazenly upon him and would accept no repulse. In two minutes he was drowsy and in five he was fast asleep. Everything was forgotten—Eli Barton and James Dice, Sid Ferris and Policeman Black, the crime and all its consequences, the slayer and the slain. All, all were drugged to sweet oblivion in the opiate of gentle sleep.
Half an hour later Abel Black peeped into the tent and smiled affectionately when he saw the detective sleeping.
"Wonderful man," he muttered, "and just like a little child. He unravels everything as if he were just playing with a box of bricks. But, thank the Lord, he's getting some sleep now."
The policeman returned to his watch upon the sandhill, and, stretching at full length, pillowed his own head luxuriously upon his arm.
"Ah, it's bonzer to lie down," he murmured, "and there's nothing nicer in all the world than a good old sleep. I'll have one presently, too, when my turn comes." His thoughts ran on. "But I do wish this damned motor car would turn up. Larose can't be wrong." He yawned wearily—a great big yawn, and then shut his eyes for a moment to feel how it would be if he himself were free to sleep. He opened them reluctantly in a moment, and looked lazily round. Nothing in sight, of course. He slowly shut them again, and, half a minute later—he too was fast asleep.
* * *
Poor Larose, poor Policeman Black! They were both so tired, and they could fight Nature no more. Exhaustion had made them weak; and their slumbers were deep and holding.
So it happened that neither of them, about an hour later, heard the faint hum of a distant motor car, neither of them saw it ploughing its way laboriously through a stretch of heavy sand about a quarter of a mile away, neither noticed the sudden stopping of the engine, less even, than a couple of hundred yards away, and neither of them saw a man running breathlessly in their direction, with a spade upon his shoulder and with his eyes and mouth agape with fear.
No—they saw none of those things, for their sleep encompassed them and their world was, for the time, a world only of heavy and never to be remembered dreams.
It was nearly six o'clock in the evening before Larose awoke. The wind had freshened to a stiffish breeze, and it was the flapping of the tent door that first aroused him. He blinked his eyes dreamily and then, suddenly realising where he was, jumped instantly to his feet, and in a second was out of the tent. He stared in horrified surprise. The sun was quite low in the sky, and the sandhills were casting long shadows over the Coorong.
He looked at his watch; in five minutes it would be six o'clock. He gasped in disappointment. So nothing had happened and the day was gone. Abel Black had allowed him to sleep for six hours.
He felt weak and tottery, but some dreadful apprehension suddenly seized him and lent him strength. He ran round the sandhill to where he had left his companion. Abel Black was fast asleep.
For a second the detective stood gazing stonily upon the policeman, too chagrined and too angry even to speak. Then his eyes roamed round and they fell suddenly upon the spot where the mummified body of Sid Ferris had lain just beneath the sand. The sand was all disturbed.
For a moment he stood gaping with his mouth wide open, and then with a low cry of despair he rushed furiously over towards the bank.
Yes, some man had been there. There were footprints all over the place. He had been digging with a spade—he had—Oh Heavens! there was a great hole in the sand. The body had been taken away!
In the barest fraction of a second he saw it all and then in another fraction, automatically as it were, his agony of mind was giving place to the life-long instinct of the detective on the trail.
His eyes flashed round to see from what direction the footsteps had come, and instantly they showed him much more than that.
Some one had been dragging a burden over the sands, and there was a strange peculiarity about the marks it had left in its track.
"He was dragging it by one heel," hoarsely exclaimed the detective, "and those are the impressions of the head and the broken arm."
His eyes followed up the markings in the sand, and then, forgetful of his weakness and fatigue, he ran feverishly to see where they would end.
He had not very far to go. A hundred yards—another fifty and then just before him on the track was a stretch of drifted sand. The stretch was about twenty yards broad, and then, on the farther side, the track was firmer and there was only just a little sand.
The detective gave almost a cry of pain. The impression of the dragged body ended there, and it ended just where there were signs that a big motor car had been turned round. With his heart beating like a piston, he bent down over the impression of the wheels. The south wind was slowly filling them with sand, but they were not quite obliterated yet.
"The tyres of the Punic," he groaned. "I knew it, I knew it."
It was easy to see what had happened.
The driver of the car, seeing the deep drift of sand across the track and knowing he was so near the place that he was wanting to reach, had not taken the risk to drop on lowest gear and plough through it. Instead, he had just turned the car round, and completed his journey on foot.
For a long minute Larose stood weighing up everything in his mind. It would be hopeless to try and follow up the car. It might have come and gone hours and hours ago; the very effects of the wind on the sand showed that a pretty considerable time must have passed since it left. James Dice had been the man, of course, and the reason for his snatching the body was quite plain. He would have seen at once that it had been meddled with and the clothes stripped off and taken away, and he had judged that safety lay best in hiding the body again, so that whatever happened it could not be produced in evidence against him.
And where had he re-buried it?
Tears almost came into Larose's eyes when he thought of the thirty-five miles of lonely road with sand everywhere on either side; with the thousand upon thousand of little gullies which might safely hide almost a million bodies, let alone a single one.
The wind, too, was dead against him now. Blowing up as it was, it would obliterate in less even than half an hour all footsteps of any person turning off the track.
No—it was no good; all further search was hopeless now.
He had failed—and failed just at the last moment, because, instead of relying upon himself, he had relied upon Policeman Black. Ah!—Policeman Black! He would choke the fellow. He would just tell him what a clod he was. The wretch should suffer for it now and all his life. His mind should rankle with the thought of how he had betrayed his trust. He, Larose, knew how to punish him. He knew how to make him wince. He had not been blind to the fellow's hero worship. He had seen all along that the fool was in the seventh heaven because they had been working side by side. Well, he would loose a scathing tongue upon him now, and would gall his feelings to the very quick.
Full of this idea of punishment, Larose strode quickly back. The policeman was just where he had been left, still asleep. Larose bent down to shake him roughly by the collar, but then something, strangely, made him stay his hand.
The man was smiling in his sleep. He was smiling like a little child. His chest rose and fell ever so softly, and there was about his whole pose the abandon of perfect peace and rest.
Larose sneered to himself. "He's quite happy anyhow; he's dreaming that he's a great detective perhaps—he thinks"—but the sneer died suddenly from the detective's face, and a great pity surged there in its stead. "Poor chap," he muttered huskily, "how pale and thin he looks. No, no, I can't blame him. It's all my fault for not remembering he'd been ill. I expected too much. I made no allowance for the state of weakness he's still in. I'm the duffer every time," and the detective crept quietly away.
Half an hour later and a loud honking from the little car brought Policeman Black abruptly to his feet. He looked guiltily round and, to his amazement, found it was beginning to get dark.
"By gosh," he stuttered, "I must have been asleep—and all the afternoon, too! My God!"
He rubbed his knuckles vigorously into his eyes and, pulling his cap hard down upon his head, strode round the back of the sandhill to the tent.
There was a bright fire burning and Larose was just sugaring a large billy of freshly steaming tea.
"Come on, old man," called out the detective heartily. "I thought you'd hear the bell, and you must be just about ready for a good tea now. We've had nothing much all day."
The policeman looked with great relief at his companion. So it was all right, and Larose didn't know. He took a hunk of bread and cheese and with great relish began to eat.
"Bad luck," went on Larose cheerfully. "I'm afraid the beggar won't come now." He smiled whimsically. "I expect his car must have broken down."
A few days after the return of Larose and Policeman Black from the Coorong, a dapper and well-dressed man inquired at the bureau of the Australasian Hotel, in Adelaide, for Mr. Gover. He was informed that that gentleman had left the city, and for the present was staying along with his friend, Mr. Stanley Barton, at Mundulla, near Meningie, on the station of a Mr. James Dice.
The stranger thanked the clerk for his information, and at once left the hotel.
The following day just before noon, the telephone rang at Mundulla, and someone with a deep, rich voice inquired if he could speak for a moment to Mr. Samuel Gover.
Mr. Gover happened to be close by, and almost at once was handling the receiver.
"Is that you, Mr. Gover?" came the rich, deep voice.
"Yes," was the reply, "Mr. Gover speaking."
"Don't make any remark, then," came a sharp reply, in quite a different voice. "Don't say a word, please, don't speak until I tell you. I'm Larose, Gilbert Larose."
There was a tense silence for a moment, and then Larose went on: "Now answer me in monosyllables, please. Just a plain yes or no. Are you quite alone in the hall?"
"Yes," was the reply.
"Is there anyone about? Speak more quietly, please."
"Is Mr. Dice in the house?"
"Has he gone out then?"
"I mean, has he gone quite away from the place?"
"He's out on the station?"
"All right then, you can be more explicit. When is he expected back?—but continue to speak quietly, please."
"Not until this evening, just before dinner, I think."
"Is Mr. Stanley in the house with you?"
"No, he's gone out for a walk with Miss Bevan. I was here alone, writing letters, when the telephone rang."
"Good. Then I want to see you at once."
"Where are you ringing from?"
"From Meningie. But now listen. I can be out in a little over an hour. I won't come up to the house, for a reason that I'll explain later. Meet me at the turning on the Meningie road, at two o'clock. You'll have just about a mile to walk, that's all, and I'll be waiting for you in a biscuit-coloured car. Don't mention a thing to any one. Not even to Mr. Stanley. You understand. Make the excuse you are going to have a pot at the rabbits."
"All right, but you're very mysterious, my friend."
"I shan't be so long," and the telephone bell rang off.
Some minutes before two Sam Gover, with a small rifle over his shoulder, turned off from the station track into the Meningie Road, and, almost before he had had time to look round, was met by a biscuit-coloured car.
"Jump-in," said its driver quickly. "It's not wise to talk here."
* * *
For about three miles the car proceeded on its journey, and then, skirting round the base of a high sandhill, Larose, who was the driver, slowed down.
"We'll pull in here, just off the track," he announced. "Then if any one goes by they'll either miss us altogether or else think we are here after duck. Now, let's get out and have a quiet talk."
They walked about fifty yards away from the car and sat down upon a bank of sand. Sam Gover took out his case and began puffing nervously at a cigarette. Somehow, he sensed an unpleasant surprise approaching.
The detective looked at him very solemnly, and came at once straight to the point.
"James Dice killed your friend," he said quietly. "He was the murderer, without a doubt."
"Ah," from the old man. He sat up, stiff as a rock, and glared incredulously at Larose. His face got very pale, and dark shadows came under his eyes.
"Yes," went on Larose, "James Dice was the murderer, but unhappily we have not got the legal proof."
The old man found his tongue.
"You're a fool," he burst out impulsively. "The thing's impossible."
"It's a fact though," said Larose quietly. "James Dice killed Eli Barton, and the small man who decoyed you, too. He was called Sid Ferris, and was in Dice's employ."
Sam Gover leant back and drew in a deep breath.
"Man, man, it's not true," he exclaimed. "It's too horrible. I don't believe it. Prove it to me." His voice became angry and resentful. "But you say you've got no proof. What do you mean?"
"No legal proof," corrected the detective. "Unhappily, I haven't evidence enough to make him hang, but I'll convince you that I'm right in ten minutes. Now listen."
"And I'll want some convincing, I tell you," said the old man fiercely. "I'll want convincing proof."
Larose took a large envelope out of his breast pocket, but, without opening it, laid it across his knees.
"Now, Mr. Gover," he said, in brisk and business-like tones, "I'll put all the cards upon the table and tell you frankly where I succeeded and where I failed."
Larose leant forward and his voice became low and stern. "I found the body of the small man who had swung the hurricane lantern that night when you were held up. It lay buried close near where you showed me the little car had been."
"Good God!" gasped Sam Gover. "But I didn't kill him. I'm sure of that."
"No, you didn't kill him, you only shattered his elbow with your shot. Dice killed him because he couldn't be hampered with a wounded man. He realised the wound would require more explaining than he could give, and with any inquiries being made, things might get dangerous for him. So he just blew out the man's brains with the same revolver that he used upon your friend. But now, please, look at these photographs here. The first one is of the body I dug up."
With shaking hands Sam Gover took the photo that the detective held out, and at once his face went white to the lips.
But the picture was terrible enough to nauseate anyone. It showed a shrivelled, naked body outstretched upon some sand. A body ape-like and unhuman. Its skin was black and wrinkled, and its face had dreadful sockets where the eyes had been. Its mouth was bared and snarling over big protruding teeth, and its forehead was all fouled with stains of mottled jet black blood. Its limbs hung stiff, like sticks of wood.
"But, how did you find it?" whispered Sam Gover through his dry white lips.
"I took a dog with me," replied Larose, "and went back to the place where I had been with you and Mr. Stanley that night. I was quite certain that a body was hidden near." The detective shrugged his shoulders. "We soon found it. It had become mummified by the absence of moisture, and the intense heat under the sands."
"But how do you know," asked old Gover shakily, "that this body is that of the man who waved the lamp that night? That this was the man I shot?"
The detective passed over another photograph. "Well, look at this—it's an enlargement of the left arm. You can see the wound plainly, just on the elbow. That's where you hit him. See the sharp, clear wound that your little automatic made, and now look at this third photo—one this time of the head and face, enlarged. See the hole here which the bullet that killed him made. Notice how large the hole is, and how it bulged the plate of bone as it came out again. A big revolver was used there, and fired almost at point blank range."
"A .455 most likely," muttered old Gover. "The old cavalry type, last used in the Boer War."
"Exactly," said Larose dryly, "and you remember that James Dice was out there too. Now, look at this next photo, and you must examine it very carefully, please. It's of the body, just as I found it and before I stripped off the clothes. See the grey jacket and the old baggy riding breeches and look at the shape of those leggings. Notice how the bottoms curl up over the boots. They look to me at least a dozen years old. Now for quite a different photograph, photograph number five."
This time the photograph the detective held out was roughly mounted on cardboard, and showed a man astride a rather ugly-looking, black horse. But the animal had a beautiful head, and right in the middle of his forehead was a big, irregular-looking, white star. The rider was looking straight into the camera.
"Now," said Larose briskly, "we'll just compare two of these photographs, side by side. The one of the enlarged head and face of the mummy and the other of the face of the man on the horse. Look at them together, and tell me what you see."
For a minute there was silence and the old man intently regarded the photographs upon his knee.
"I know what you mean," he said very slowly, after a while—"they're both of the same man. They're both wearing the same clothes."
"Not a doubt about it," said Larose. "There can be no mistake there. Look at the peculiarly-shaped oval face, look at the low forehead and above everything notice the narrow space between the eyes. It doesn't want two glances to see that they are the same man. Now for my last picture, and it's a Press photo this time." His voice became very grave and solemn. "It's a picture from The Times of Adelaide of Black Wolf, the winner of the Adelaide Christmas Cup."
Sam Gover took the paper with hands that trembled. He knew what was coming, for he had already recognised the horse in the mounted photograph as Black Wolf. To a man with a keen eye for horses there could be no mistaking the fine black head and the irregular-shaped white star upon the forehead.
"Now read what it goes on to say underneath," said Larose briskly. "'Black Wolf,' etc., etc., 'was trained privately by his fortunate owner, Mr. James Dice, at Mundulla, but it must not be forgotten that he has all along had the valuable assistance of the one time crack jockey, Sid Ferris, of New South Wales. To the present generation the name of Sid Ferris will recall no memories, but five and twenty years ago there was no finer nor more promising lightweight than the pilot of Hornet's Beauty in the Caulfield Cup.'"
"Now, Mr. Gover," said Detective Larose quietly, "have I fully established in your mind the connection between the man you shot and the man who helped James Dice in the training of Black Wolf?"
"Go on," said Sam Gover gruffly, without replying to the question. "Let's hear the rest."
The detective carefully replaced all the photographs in the envelope and then proceeded to light a cigarette.
"Well," he said, after a short pause, "at the time I dug up that body I hadn't the remotest idea whose it was. I only knew, from what I had learnt from you, that it must be one of the men who had held you up, and I was sanguine that we should get to his companion through it. After I had taken the photographs you have just seen I reburied the body in the same place. I had no mind to take anybody into my confidence just then, least of all the police. I wanted no publicity. I have no official position now, as you know, and my inquiry was quite a private one, on your behalf. I work in my own way, and it was my trump card that the double murderer should have no inkling that the body of his second victim had been found. So, I just covered up all my traces and came away. Then I started at once to find out who the dead man was, and believing, as I have told you, that the hold-up had been a hurriedly arranged local affair, I of course tried Meningie first of all. I had something very definite to go upon, however, from the general appearance of the body for I was sure the dead man had been a jockey at some time or other. He had had bones broken all over him, and in some places they had been broken several times. Also, I saw from the markings on the soles of his boots that he was accustomed to ride with high stirrups, as jockeys always do. Well, as I say, I began prospecting at Meningie, and I struck oil at once. I disclosed my identity to the township policeman, and I asked him if he knew of the absence of anybody from the neighbourhood since about last Christmas. I added that the man I wanted to find out about had been a jockey once. The police was able to tell me instantly." Larose looked intently at Sam Gover, and almost whispered his next words, "Mr. Dice's station-hand, Sid Ferris, had not been seen in the township since December 22."
"How did he remember the date?" asked the old man sharply, but with his eyes averted from the detective's face.
"Because he had to go to the hotel that morning, on the 22nd, to interview the proprietor about his licence. He remembered that the man Ferris was in the bar, because he heard him telling people not to back Black Wolf. The incident was all the more impressed upon his mind because when the horse afterwards won, a lot of people were on the lookout for Ferris, to give him a bit of their minds. The time, too," added Larose significantly, "was just before one o'clock, which would about coincide, wouldn't it, with the message from you and Eli Barton that was passed on from the hotel at Kingston?"
"Go on," said Sam Gover still gruffly. "Go on—you're a long way from the end yet."
"Well," continued Larose, "the information that the policeman gave me, of course, at once made me think hard about Ferris's master, James Dice. In common with everybody else, I had heard Dice had been a big winner over Black Wolf, but that in itself had had no particular significance for me as regards the murder of Mr. Barton, and I had hardly given the connection a second thought. After all, it is still only supposition that Abimeleck would have won had he been in the race, and it would certainly have been ridiculously far-fetched to have suspected the owner of Black Wolf simply because he had benefited by the absence of Mr. Barton's horse that day.
"So, as I say, the fact that Dice had brought off a big coup with Black Wolf had not suggested to my mind any complicity in the murder of Mr. Barton. It was in no way significant by itself, but"—Larose paused for a moment here and his voice was deadly now—"it became very significant when I learnt that one of the two men who had held you up that night on the Coorong was a man in Mr. Dice's employ. It had an ugly look—a very ugly look, I tell you."
* * *
Sam Gover made no remark; indeed, it might almost have been said he was not listening. He was looking straight out before him, over the sands, and there was no particular expression on his face. The detective went on. "Well, I made it my business at once to get in touch with James Dice. No matter how I managed it, but Dice's chauffeur left in a hurry, and I got taken on in his place."
"What, at the station?" asked Sam Gover turning round sharply and in an incredulous tone of voice.
"Yes, at Mundulla. I was five weeks there. I was Beeton, the chauffeur."
"Good God!—and he never found you out?"
The detective looked embarrassed. He blushed uncomfortably.
"I am sorry, Mr. Gover, but he did find me out. I don't know how it happened. I haven't the remotest idea. But, from being most confidential and friendly, he suddenly became exactly the reverse, and I tell you I had a very unpleasant time." Larose stamped his foot angrily. "Bah! I made a mistake somewhere. I gave myself away. I did something foolish, and it will worry me all the rest of my life." He smiled whimsically at the old man. "I am vain, Mr. Gover, you know, very vain in some ways, and it annoys me most of all that I cannot find out yet the false step that I must have made. It puzzles me a lot. But, to return to what I was telling you—I got taken on as I say, as his chauffeur, and I found my master very much the type of man you would judge him to be from his face. He was cold and reserved, very reserved at first, but quite a good master to work for and not a man anyone would think capable of a crime.
"He was well liked by his men, very fond himself of his niece, and the whole atmosphere of the station was just ordinary and commonplace. No mysteries at all, and nobody seemed to have anything to hide. There appeared to be no curiosity, either, about Ferris. He had taken himself off, I was told, two days before the races at Adelaide, and it was generally supposed that he had had such a good win over Black Wolf that he was giving himself a holiday in some other State. No one thought anything about it, for it was accepted as a matter of course that he was just that sort of irresponsible and unreliable kind of man.
"Well, for more than a week I only saw this one side of James Dice's character—the strong, quiet, reserved man, and then suddenly the other side was revealed to me. The Meningie policeman, Abel Black, to whom I had made myself known, fell very ill with pneumonia and, becoming delirious, he gave the game away about me. He talked of my being in the township and of our having met. The doctor who was attending him mentioned about it casually to the Dice party when I was with them in the car. James Dice was dreadfully upset, and I saw him go white as a ghost. From that moment he was a changed man. He believed that I was hot upon his trail. He began to brood and worry, and in a few days I was the obsession of his mind. I, Larose the detective I mean—not I, Beeton, the chauffeur. He altered all his habits, and all day long was sweeping the station round with his binoculars to see me come. He took me, the chauffeur, a lot into his confidence, and warned me repeatedly to be on the look-out for a prowling man. I was to shoot on sight and, in his capacity of Chief Magistrate, he was going to make it all right with the authorities. It was to pass as an accident, he said." Larose shook his head thoughtfully. "Yes, I tell you, he was very much afraid then. He was in deadly fear. I saw the naked savage in the man, and the wretch who would stop at nothing when the blinding panic gripped his brain. He was exactly in that condition of mind that he must have been that night when he dumped you down in the gully thinking you were dead. He was like a bullock driven mad by fear. Well, everything was going on swimmingly for me, and I was expecting every day to pick up the final evidence I was just waiting for, when—something happened. Somehow, as I have told you—he found me out. His whole manner suddenly altered, and he absolutely lost all fear. He became quietly and contemptuously confident again. He was exactly like a man who had shaken a millstone from his neck.
"He stopped having anything to do with me, and I caught him glaring at me whenever he thought I wasn't looking. Then he got vicious and tried to injure me. He put poison in my food and, finally, he brazenly fired point blank at me with a shot gun. It was one evening by the creek and I wasn't ten yards away."
"He shot at you?" ejaculated Sam Gover. "He shot at you?"
"Yes, with both barrels, and the wads of both cartridges hit me, one, too, on the shoulder. It would have been the end of everything if the cartridges had had any shot in them, but I had seen to it that they were harmless some days before. There was only sand and paper behind the wads." The detective sighed deeply. "Well, after that, I had to leave. It wasn't so much that I was afraid, but I realised I could do no good by waiting on. So I cleared out next day, but not quite so soon as Mr. James Dice thought I did."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Sam Gover sharply.
"He thought I left in the morning," said Larose dryly, "but I didn't really go until the afternoon. I was hiding up in the rafters of the garage under an old sail. I waited for him to go out in the car, and then made a last search in his room. But I didn't get much out of it, and not the main thing I was looking for—the revolver that he used that night on you and Mr. Barton. I am convinced he's still got it, however, hidden away somewhere."
"Yes, yes," said the old man testily, "but what absolutely have you got to identify him with the man who fired at us that night?"
"Nothing absolute," replied the detective firmly. "I told you I had no proof that would satisfy a court of law, but there were scores of little things that, taken altogether, pointed to him conclusively as the murderer. Listen, for I've not finished yet by a long way."
"During the time I was with Dice, I was able to make two searches in his room," Larose told Sam Gover. "One a very quick and hurried one, but the other a very thorough one. The first time I examined his clothes, and, tucked away right at the back of the wardrobe, I found a coat with dark stains all down the front and on the inside of both sleeves. They looked to me like those of old blood." Larose shrugged his shoulders. "Of course they may have not been blood—they may have been paint or anything, but"—he looked peculiarly at Sam Gover—"their significance to me became very deadly when I found an empty envelope in the coat addressed to James Dice and dated December 22nd." He paused for a moment, and then asked quietly: "You remember that date, don't you, Mr. Gover? Well, doesn't that look as if he had worn the coat on the very night the tragedy occurred?" His voice became hard and emphatic. "But that isn't all. I saw that coat the first time I searched the room. Dice had no suspicions of me then, and I was searching hurriedly when he was having his bath." He lowered his voice again and rapped out his words slowly and one by one. "The second time I searched his room the coat was not there. He had got rid of it as damaging evidence because he had found out who I was."
"But good God! man," broke in Sam Gover, "why didn't you take the coat when you had the chance. You could have proved everything then."
Larose shook his head. "No, no, sir. It was proof to me because I myself found the envelope there, and it will be proof to you because you believe me. But it would be no proof to a jury because I might have found it somewhere else and put it there to strengthen my case." He took a letter out of his pocket. "Now look at this, Mr. Gover. I got this from Dice's desk, and it helps materially to show where the motive comes in. It's from Dice's cousin, Mr. Thomas French, and I can tell you Mr. French is recognised everywhere as one of the shrewdest judges of a horse in the whole Commonwealth. He is one of the shining lights of the racing world, and perhaps the most prominent member of the Victorian Jockey Club. Listen to what he says—it is dated December 5th last.
"My dear Jim, I don't want to dishearten you, but just you make up your mind straight away that—however good your nag may be—he doesn't stand an earthly if old Eli decides to run his. Abimeleck could give the Pride a couple of stone and then beat him easily by twenty lengths. So just you put that in your pipe, old man, and smoke it for all it is worth."
Larose stopped reading abruptly. "Now, Mr. Gover," he said, "what do you think of that?"
"Horrible, horrible," ejaculated Sam Gover brokenly. "My dear old friend!—to think he should have been murdered just so that some wretched horse might win some paltry race." He clenched his hands together violently. "But the brute shall suffer, the brute shall hang."
"Listen to the end, Mr. Gover," said the detective. "I've the strangest part yet to tell. But first, what do you think was James Dice's financial position a fortnight after he had received that letter from his cousin French?" Again he paused for a moment, as if to emphasise the words he was about to say—then he spoke very slowly and very solemnly as once before. "He had less than £20 to his credit in the bank—less than £20, Mr. Gover, and yet the week after Black Wolf had won the Christmas Cup he had £13,000 odd lying there. Now what do you think of that? What do you think of that?" The detective leant forward to drive his argument in. "Believing what an extraordinary horse he had in Black Wolf, can't you see what was in the fellow's mind, and how, to him, it was life or death if Abimeleck were absent—or were allowed to run in the Christmas Cup?"
"Mr. Gover," he went on, "directly I left the station I set a trap for the man—I set a trap for the murderer of Eli Barton." His voice deepened in its intensity. "A trap that only the murderer himself could be ensnared in. A trap the place of which could only possibly be known to two men—to me, who set it, and to the murderer of Eli Barton, for whom it was intended to be sprung."
* * *
The detective ceased speaking abruptly, and for the moment, of the two there, he was now the more emotional.
"I set the trap," he went on after a moment, very slowly, "and I baited it with the dead body of the jockey, Ferris. James Dice walked into it, in broad daylight, as I thought he would, and—he walked out of it, dragging the body with him, because we who should have been watching for him—were asleep—just asleep."
"Damn," said Sam Gover explosively: "Then you bungled when at last you had him in your hands."
Larose smiled very sadly. "Yes," he said quietly, "I bungled—I was wanting at the critical moment. The murderer came, but, I tell you, I was asleep."
"You see, I had not been all those weeks in Dice's company for nothing, and I knew unerringly where the man's weakness lay. He could not stand worry and uncertainty. They crumpled him up. I had seen them sap all his strength of character and make him like a baby in anyone's hands. So I thought I would prey on his mind with Sid Ferris. By disguising myself I would resurrect the ex-jockey before his eyes and so worry and bewilder him that he would be wondering if the man he had buried were actually come to life again. He would be always remembering, I knew, how you had returned from the dead, and in a very little time I was sure he would be thinking the same of the other man. At any rate, I thought I could work him up to the pitch of going back to where he had buried the body to make sure it was still there. I would lure him again to the scene of his crime. And then I would catch him, I thought. I would be ready with witnesses by the thirty-fifth mile post. I would be waiting for him with a hidden camera. I would snap him directly he started digging at the grave. We would catch him red-handed and, as far as the murder of Ferris was concerned, the chain of evidence would be complete. Then I would lay everything before the authorities, and the arrest would follow as a matter of hours."
Larose stopped for a minute and lit another cigarette. His voice had lost all his sadness and he was like a man telling a good tale.
"Well," he went on presently, "at first everything went well. I got Abel Black, the policeman, of Meningie, who was convalescent from his illness, to help me. I told him something of my plans but never mentioned that the man I wanted was the Senior Magistrate, James Dice. With the help of the policeman I got myself up to a very fair resemblance of the dead Sid Ferris." The detective shuddered whimsically. "I even wore his clothes. He was a smaller man than I, but, as I was only seen when on horseback, I managed by hunching myself up to get along without too much discomfort. At first I only perambulated round Mundulla, taking care that some of the station hands should see me. I never let them get too near me, however, and they only saw me in the distance. I knew it would get to Dice's ears, and it would set him worrying at once. Then one day I telephoned up as Sid Ferris and asked for some wages due to me. I asked that the money should be sent to the post office at Meningie. Finally, I rode openly through the township, and right past the Meningie hotel when I knew Dice would be on the veranda there. Then, thinking I had done enough, and that he would certainly be strung up now to fever pitch, I hurried with the policeman Black, to the thirty-fifth mile post on the Coorong, and together we secreted ourselves there and waited for the wretch's coming. For a day and a half we kept watch, and then I was taken ill." Larose spoke very hurriedly here as if anxious to get this part of his story told. "The weather had suddenly turned cold and I had got some sort of chill. I had had no sleep for two days. I lay down for a few minutes' rest and—I fell asleep and slept for over six hours. I slept like a dead man." The detective was silent for a moment; he sighed deeply, and his face was the very picture of sadness and bitter thought. "When I woke up," he went on chokingly, "when I woke up, I found Abel Black had been sleeping too. I rushed over to the grave; the sand was all disturbed, the body had been dug up and taken away." Larose could hardly speak now in his emotion, but with an effort he steadied his voice and went on.
"I could see plainly where it had been dragged along over the sand. A couple of hundred yards or so away there were the wheel marks of a big car. The wind had risen and they were being fast filled in by the blowing sand, but I could recognise them as the tyres of Dice's car, for there were patches in them that I had vulcanised myself. It was plain to me what had happened. Dice had come, as I had thought he would to see if the body were still there, and, finding it stripped of its clothes (I had taken them all away), he had instantly suspected something, and to make himself secure had driven away with the body to hide it somewhere else."
Larose laughed bitterly. "And that Mr. Gover, almost ends my tale. The next day I was back in Meningie and, finding that Dice was in the township, as Beeton the chauffeur I rang up the cook on the station and incidentally asked her where her master had been the previous day. She told me he had been away by himself all day fishing, but he had come back with no fish, although his boots and leggings were mudded up to right above the knees. I guessed where he had been. In one of the thousand and one creeks off the Murray he had got rid of the body and buried it so that it will never be found again." Larose shrugged his shoulders and his voice took on a brisk and business-like tone. "That finishes my report, Mr. Gover," he said. "Dice is, without doubt, the murderer of Mr. Barton, but, as I say, there is no evidence to convict him in a court of law. He must go free."
"I don't know so much about that," said Sam Gover very quietly, after a long pause. He drew in a deep breath. "At any rate you've convinced me that our friend, Mr. James Dice, is the guilty party, and I shall make it my duty, I shall make it my duty, I say"—he spoke very slowly, and there was a slight tremor in his voice—"to see that he meets with his just reward."
"But you can do nothing, sir," said Larose, shaking his head sadly. "All the evidence that I had has slipped through by fingers, and at best there could be only suspicion now. What can you do?"
"I shall kill him," said the old man emphatically. "I shall kill him myself."
A frown crossed over the detective's face. "No, Mr. Gover, we must have none of that. You would hang or at best get imprisonment for life."
"But I shall kill him," repeated Sam Gover, like a man talking to himself in a dream. "I shall kill him directly I see him." He turned savagely on Larose. "What do you think, man? Is that brute to go free when we know how he served my poor friend?" His voice became choked with tears. "Poor Eli, poor old Eli—he never did a soul in this world any harm. He was as kind and good a man as ever lived. He was so full of life and so happy even growing old. He had still so much to live for. Ah!" The old man spat viciously on the ground. "I'll kill his murderer if I have to throttle him with my bare hands."
Larose swore softly under his breath. He had made yet another mistake, he told himself. He had been so full of proving his case against James Dice that he had not calculated at all what the effect would be on Eli Barton's old friend. He had totally forgotten that. He ought not to have disclosed anything until he had got Sam Gover away from the station. Then there would have been time for the old man to cool down, and he could have been brought to reason before he had had time to do anything rash. Now—now, things might very easily get into a dreadful mess, and a lot of tact would be required to keep Sam Gover in hand.
Suddenly, a sharp metallic noise struck upon their ears. It sounded like a horse champing his bit, and it came from close near, behind a small hummock of sand.
They both turned curiously to see what it was, and a moment later a horseman appeared over the rise. He was a big, tall man, and he was leisurely walking his mount.
He had a gun slung by a broad strap over his shoulders, and he was followed closely by a big dog.
"My God," gasped Sam Gover, "it's James Dice!"
"Hullo! Sam," he called out genially, "and what the dickens are you doing here? Who's your friend?"
"Is your rifle loaded?" Larose whispered hoarsely to Sam Gover.
"No," groaned the old man, "and the cartridges even are not undone."
"Then drop it," snapped Larose, "and whatever happens don't let him suspect anything or he'll shoot without a second's warning. I know him—he'll go mad. Let him get close up. That's our only chance, so that he can't use his gun. Now, pull yourself together quick or there'll be more murder done. Act, man," he hissed, "and don't glare at him like that."
"Damn," swore Larose under his breath, "the old fool's going to ruin everything. I'll——" but the detective stopped suddenly, and, composing his face to calm, stretched down his hands, and began playing idly with the sand.
Dice sauntered up quite slowly and then, stopping a little way away, proceeded to light his pipe.
For the moment Dice was too busy with his pipe to notice the silence, but, with the pipe alight, he looked up at the old man, and a rather puzzled expression came at once into his face.
"What's up, Sam?" he remarked. "You look as if you'd got the blues; but who's your friend, here?" and he glanced for the first time since dismounting at Larose.
It was quite a casual glance, but he at once frowned slightly, as if some disagreeable memory had been stirred up in his mind. He could not, however, see the detective very plainly, for the latter had got his hat jammed down over his eyes, and his face, too, was half-averted. He was still playing with the sand.
Dice looked back again to Sam Gover, and immediately then took his pipe out of his mouth. There could be no failing, now, to notice the expression on the old man's face.
"You vile beast," he shouted. "You murderer, James Dice—you—you——"
There was a moment, then, of dreadful silence, with James Dice standing stiff and motionless, as if all suddenly he had turned to stone. His jaw had dropped to an expression of horrible surprise, his face was ashen grey, and he stared incredulously at Sam Gover for all the world as if the old man were an apparition from the dead.
For perhaps five seconds nothing happened, and then Larose rose stealthily to his feet. His action would probably have passed quite unnoticed but for the interest his movement at once aroused in Dice's dog.
His manifest interest in Sam Gover's companion drew the attention of James Dice, and in a subconscious sort of way the latter, too, turned his eyes upon Larose. At first there was no obvious inquiry in his gaze, but then something seemed to quicken in him, and a tense expression crossed his face.
Suddenly Dice gave a gasp of amazement, his eyes widened to their fullest extent, and in a flash he had whipped the gun off his shoulder and was pointing it straight at Larose.
"Hands up," he shouted hoarsely, "hands up, Larose. Hands up or I fire," and his voice vibrated to a lightning note of furious and triumphant hate.
There was no mistaking the savagery of the command, and Larose, who in his life had heard the twang of every string upon the harp of human passion, realised upon the instant that he was very near to death.
So he lifted up his hands without a second's hesitation, and with them high above his head stood motionless before James Dice. His face had taken on a deathly pallor, but it was yet still calm and stony.
Dice stepped back a pace and, swinging round his gun, had now both the detective and Sam Gover covered.
"Two barrels, gentlemen," he sneered mockingly, "and this time neither of the cartridges has been tampered with." His voice became again savage in his fury. "You won't get off now, like you did last time, you damned policeman swine, with your sand and bits of paper. Oh, you fool!—Just to think I shouldn't spot you." He laughed contemptuously. "I recognised your neck and ears the moment I caught sight of you. Beeton, the chauffeur! The fool who tried to masquerade as Sid Ferris. The wonderful Gilbert Larose! Oh, you ass."
"But you don't deny then that you killed Eli Barton," called out Sam Gover in a voice that shook with rage. "You can't deny it, for we know everything about you."
"Oh," sneered James Dice, "the great Gilbert Larose again, of course?"
"You murdered your man, Ferris, too," went on the old man. "That was the second murder that you did that night."
Dice gave a violent start, and the gun he was pointing wobbled unsteadily, from side to side. His face grew grey again, and an expression of terror came into his eyes. He looked searchingly at Larose.
"Everything has come out," continued Sam Gover recklessly, "through you murdering Ferris. We've found out everything through that."
Dice glared in deadly hatred at Larose. "You little beast," he hissed. "So you've been sneaking round me again, have you?" His voice hardened in its savagery.
"Now, Mr. Larose, now Gilbert Larose, get ready; say your prayers. I'm going to count sixty and then——"
He closed his words with a snap, and for a moment there was silence—then, "One—two—three," he began.. ..
* * *
Larose was standing motionless with his hands still high above his head. His eyes had narrowed to two little slits, and his forehead was picked out in beads of sweat.
He believed he was close to death, but promised as he was only a few seconds more to live, the expression on his face was still not one of fear, nor indeed, despair. Instead, he looked watchful and alert, as if he had not yet even lost hold of the game.
"Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven," went on James Dice, "thirty-eight, thirty-nine," and then—something happened.
A seagull alighted on the sands less than ten yards distant from where they stood.
Perhaps it was that the gull was curious because they were all so still, or perhaps the bird was hungry and believed there might be scraps of food about.
At any rate, it swooped down boldly to the ground.
Larose saw it just out of the tail of his eyes, but Schafer, the dog, instantly had both eyes fully turned upon it.
The animal rose promptly to his feet and growled.
The seagull was not frightened for, with its bird-instinct, it knew that distance made it safe, but the effect of the growl on James Dice was very different. He had not seen the bird at all, for it had alighted on the sand behind him, and, not knowing therefore what had disturbed the dog, he was seized instantly with alarm. He knew the dog would not growl for nothing, and he began at once to conjecture wildly what it was.
Still keeping his eyes upon the detective, and the gun pointed directly towards the latter's breast, he edged back sideways for a couple of yards, and then, for one fleeting second, half-turned his head. It was only for the very briefest moment that he looked away, but it was sufficient for Larose.
The detective's arms shot forward in a lightning stroke, his fingers opened and spread out, and two handfuls of sand struck James Dice straight in the face.
There was a fierce oath, a splutter of rage, and, releasing one hand from his gun, Dice strove wildly to clear his eyes.
But the sand had hit him squarely, and for the moment he was blinded. He heard the gasp of a sharp intake of breath; a snarl, as from some savage animal, and he was seized violently by the throat. His legs were knocked viciously from under him, and as he fell backwards someone pulled hard to wrench away his gun. But he was strong and muscular, and, his surprise over, he not only retained the gun but with his free arm gripped his adversary as he fell and brought him stumbling to the ground.
A breathless struggle followed, lasting perhaps for five seconds, and then—a deafening report burst up upon the air.
There was a yelp from the dog, a long-drawn sigh from the master of Mundulla, as if he were very tired, and then—a death-like silence fell upon the place.
The seagull had flown away.....
"It was an accident," wailed old Gover, almost in tears, when a minute or two later he and the detective were capable of coherent conversation again. "It was an act of God, Larose."
"Yes, an act of God," sighed the detective wearily. "Still, it was well my finger found the trigger when it did."
He got up shakily from the sand, and stood over the prostrate figure of what had at one time been the proud master of Mundulla. The latter had died instantaneously, for the greater part of his face had been blown away.
"Bah!" muttered the detective bitterly, "his death was much too merciful. He ought to have been hanged." He turned to Sam Gover. "Look here," he said sharply, "it's we who are in the soup now." He pointed to the body. "What are we going to do about that?"
"Oh! I suppose everything will have to come out now," replied the old man weakly. "At any rate, I can be witness as to how he died."
Larose spoke roughly. "Aren't young Barton and the girl sweethearts?" he asked.
Sam Gover sat up with a jerk. "My God!" he exclaimed brokenly, "I never thought of that, and she's a real good girl, too."
"Pull yourself together," said Larose sharply, "and everything will be all right yet. The man's death shall be made appear as the result of an accident. It shall look as if his gun had gone off and killed him as he was unfastening the gate. Take off your coat, now, and roll up your sleeves." He took out his watch. "Quick, we must be quick. We have no time to lose. The mailman passes here every day, just after four, and it's half-past three already. He shall be the one to discover the body, and we needn't be mixed up in it at all. Steady now, and be sure and don't get any blood on your clothes."
Things happened very much as Larose had arranged, and the unfortunate accident to the master of Mundulla aroused great interest in the district, and was the occasion of much sympathy for all the friends and relatives concerned. It was a dreadful shock, people said, particularly to Mr. Samuel Gover, who was on a visit to the station, and for over a week the old man was obliged to keep to his bed. Fortunately, however, for the household at Mundulla, the chauffeur, Beeton, had returned to his duties, and in the versatility of his accomplishments he had at once taken over the role of nurse and attendant to the sick man.
Three months later all interest in the affair had died down, and the pretty Margaret Bevan was married very quietly, in Adelaide to young Stanley Barton.
* * *
Winter had passed and spring had come again. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the race for the great Viceroy Cup was being run at Flemington.
The mighty horse, Abimeleck, was the popular favourite, and it was generally conceded that none of the 23 other runners held an outstanding chance. The distance was two miles, and Abimeleck was carrying 9.12.
Amongst the others running was an ex-Adelaide horse—one Black Wolf. He had recently been bought out of South Australia by a Victorian sportsman. He had been allotted 7.7.
The start was an excellent one, and the field got off together in almost a straight line.
At the six furlong post the far-striding Abimeleck took command. Five furlongs from home and he was leading by three lengths. Suddenly a black horse was seen to dart out from the ruck behind.
Black Wolf was actually passing the favourite!
At the three-furlong post he was a length ahead; a furlong farther and he was two lengths to the good, with Abimeleck now being hard ridden under the whip. A hundred yards from home and the advantage was still greater, and finally the Adelaidian ran past the judge's box the easiest of winners by about five lengths.
"Oh! Fate, Fate," muttered a man among the crowd, "and why did you so uselessly throw away three lives?"
"You mocked at James Dice and maddened him that he played foul, when all along you knew that it was he who held the trump card. Oh, if he had only known it, too!"
He moved off among the crowd.
It was Gilbert Larose.
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