Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Five days in prison for murder

Illustrated by Charles Green


FIVE DAYS IN PRISON FOR MURDER.

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About seven years ago I was at work on Burnt Flat, Springfield. I didn’t live on the flat, for the fellows who congregated about there were such a rowdy lot that my mate and I preferred taking up our abode at the head of one of the small gullies in the neighbourhood. Only one other person lived near us, and that was an old fellow named Steele, who occupied a log-hut about a couple of hundred yards from our tent. He had been on the diggings ever since the first, and had never been known to work with a mate; in fact, from his lonely habits he was known far and wide as “the Hatter.” His sole companion was a large and powerful kangaroo dog, named Watchman, whose disposition very much resembled that of his master, for he never took notice either of man or beast except when they approached too near the hut, on which occasions he showed himself worthy of his name.

The Hatter had been at work for a long time at some surfacing on an adjacent hill. When he first began at it some few trials of the stuff were made by others, but as they never could manage to hit upon anything payable, he was soon left in undisturbed possession of his hill-side, out of which it was generally imagined that he contrived to extract a bare livelihood and no more. On one side of the flat there was a police-camp containing a sergeant and half-a-dozen troopers. They were all of them Irish, and the majority had been men of good position, who, coming out to Australia in search of fortune, and unwilling to woo her with pick and shovel, had adopted a less toilsome though likewise less lucrative method of maintaining themselves. They were not at all a bad lot of fellows, with the exception of one, Dick Brady, or wicked Dick Brady, as he was frequently and justly called. He was a tall, handsome, dissipated, sinister-looking man of undoubted pluck, and who would have possessed great bodily strength, had not hard-living and drink impaired his forces. He was, at the best of times, a most unpleasant companion; when sober, always narrating horrible, ribald tales, and sneering at everything good and holy; when drunk, a perfect devil incarnate, and savage as a tiger.

One Saturday evening I was down at the Caledonian store with my mate. We were having a nobbler and a chat with some old friends, when in came Brady. He had already been drinking, and I knew that there would soon be a row, so I rose up to go, for the very sight of the man was hateful to me. However, my mate had unfortunately taken a little more than was good for him, and obstinately refused to stir, and as I did not choose to leave him when in that state I had to sit down again. Brady did his best to quarrel with some one, but as he was pretty well known to us all, every one was careful not to give him a chance. However, as bad luck would have it, who should enter the store to make some purchases but the Hatter, accompanied by his dog.

“Hallo, Hatter!” shouted Brady, “what will you take for that animal of yours? I want a good kangarooer, and he seems one of the right sort.”

“Yes, Mr. Brady,” said Steele, “there isn’t a better hound in these colonies, but I don’t mean to part with him just yet, thank you.”

“Why, you half-starved miserable old skeleton, what good is he to you? Any cur will serve your turn. I wonder you can manage to keep a rat out of your scurvy earnings.”

“That’s my business, Mr. Brady; but I tell you once more that I don’t mean to sell him. Besides, if I did, he’s a queer customer, and would never make friends with any one but me.”

“Wouldn’t he, though,” said Brady,who was by this time three parts drunk; “why he’s as fond of me already as if he had known me from a pup. Here, Watchman, old boy!” But Watchman did not respond to the invitation, but kept his eyes fixed upon Brady with anything but a friendly look. “Oh, you won’t come, won’t you. I’ll soon make you, my lad,” cried Brady, staggering across the store.

Watchman uttered a low, savage growl, and as the drunken trooper stooped to lay hold of him by the collar, sprang straight at his throat. Over went Brady backwards, with the dog on the top of him. We all rushed to the rescue, and after a good deal of trouble managed to compel the infuriated animal to relax its hold. Brady’s stock had saved him from much damage, but the minute he regained his legs, he snatched the knife out of my mate’s belt and rushed at the dog again. Determined to put a stop to this, I thrust my foot out as he passed me, and over he went headlong. He was up again in a moment, and came at me like a madman. But I was sober and cool, and easily avoiding the blow he made at me with the knife, I caught him with the left hand full on the temple, and sent him bleeding and stunned against the counter.

“Now, Hatter,” said I, “you had better slope before you or the dog get into trouble.”

Steele took my hint, and, gathering up his purchases, departed, followed by Watchman.

Well, as Brady’s hurts were of no great consequence, and as my mate, having succeeded, by the aid of several additional nobblers, in fully convincing himself that I was very drunk indeed, and should be much better in bed, seemed more inclined to move, I soon took myself off also. When Brady came to himself he vowed vengeance against me, but I did not heed his threats much, for my hands could always keep my head. The next morning as I happened to be taking a stroll past Steele’s hut the door opened, and the owner came out and invited me to enter, which I did. I found the inside very clean and comfortable, and nicely fitted up. In front of the blazing logs lay the cause of the last night’s disturbance, who condescended to honour me with a friendly wag of the tail. But what attracted my attention the most was a shelf containing some fifty or sixty volumes of standard works.

“You are a lucky fellow,” said I, “to have the means of getting through the long winter evenings without the necessity of frequenting the grog-shop. I would give something for such a lot of books as that.”

“Ah,” said he, “for many a long year they have been the only companions and friends I have known, always excepting my faithful dog, here. I love them too much to trust them out of my hut, but whenever you feel inclined to read, you can come over here of an evening, and welcome. I shall always be glad to see you, and I fancy I can find you a drop of better stuff than you get at the Caledonian.”

Well, after that, as my mate was fond of going down to the township of an evening to amuse himself, I used to pay Steele a visit almost every night, and at last we got quite friendly, and he told me many a curious incident of his past life, for he had been for years a hunter in America before he took to the diggings in California. Amongst other articles suspended on the walls of his hut was a revolver with five notches cut on the butt, each of which, as he told me, represented an Indian shot down by it in hand-to-hand conflict. About his present circumstances, however, he was much less communicative; and though, from one thing or another, I was led to infer that he was doing rather better with his surfacing than was generally imagined, yet I had no suspicion that the stuff was more than what might be termed just payable.

One night, on coming home, I found my mate awaiting my return.

“You have been over to Steele’s, I suppose,” said he.

“Yes. I didn’t expect you so soon, or I would have returned before.”

“He is a rare cunning old fox, is your friend, Steele.”

“How so?”

“Why, here he has been keeping that hill-side to himself all these months,—everybody thinking it to be mere tucker-ground,—and hang me if he hasn’t been making his pile all the time.”

“Nonsense,” said I; “why, you know very well he was only left in quiet possession of it because no one else could make it pay.”

“That’s all very true, but then that was a long time ago, and he has dropped across something much better since then.”

“How do you know that?”

“Why, you know there’s a water-hole not far from where he is at work, with a lot of wattles on one side of it? Well, Joe Knivit happened to be down in that part this afternoon, and seeing old Steele coming along with a couple of buckets of washdirt, suspended at either end of that Chinaman’s pole he uses, the fancy struck him that he would just see, for once, what the old chap got out of it, so he managed to hide himself close handy. Well, instead of about a pennyweight, as Joe had expected, the old fellow washed out a good half-ounce at the least, so that he must have a regular lob of gold stowed away somewhere. Joe told me this in confidence, so that we might be on the ground to-morrow, early, and get a good claim.”

“Why,” said I, “we have just bottomed a fresh hole which pays very well, and, you know, we can’t hold another along with it.”

“Well, we can give it up, I suppose?”

“What! give up a hole that runs a quarter of an ounce to the tub, and nuggets! No, thank you. You may, if you like; but I shall stick by it like a leech.”

“Very well; then you must look out for another mate, for I shall go down and join Joe’s party.”

The next morning, consequently, we parted company. I paid him for his share of the tent, and he took himself off with his swag. I soon got some one else to work with me, but as my new mate lived with his brother, who kept a store on the flat, I was left all alone in the tent. Of course, there was a regular rush up to Steele’s hill; all the ground that was left was soon turned up, and a few first-rate patches found. There was no doubt that the Hatter must have done well, though the stories which got abroad about the vast amount of gold concealed in his tent, were simply ridiculous. About a fortnight after my mate left me, I was coming up the gully late one evening when I heard the sound of a horse’s feet. As the rider met me he pulled up, and inquired if he was right for the Hat.

“Quite right,” said I; “but you will find it awkward riding this dark night amongst the holes.”

“I know that voice,” said he; “surely it must be Fred Hartley.”

“The same, but who are you?”

“Why your old Golden Point mate, Dick Vesey, to be sure, and jolly glad I am to see you. Perhaps you can tell me where I can lodge to-night. It must be a quiet crib, though, for I am off up country to buy hides, and have a larger sum about me than I should like to lose.”

“Well, under those circumstances you had better turn round again, and come up to my tent. I have a spare bed I can offer you. And there’s water and feed for your horse close at hand.”

“The very thing of all others; I accept with pleasure.”

Of course we had lots to tell one another, so we sat over our grog till very late. It had been blowing all day, and now the wind had increased to a perfect hurricane, accompanied occasionally by driving showers of rain. The storm was so violent that we had to speak in loud tones to make ourselves understood. I was just concluding the story of my adventures since we parted company, when he raised his finger, and motioned me to be silent.

“What is the matter?” said I, after sitting quiet for some moments.

“Did you not hear a scream?”

“I heard nothing at all.”

“I am sure it was the cry of a human being, and seemed to come from the hill-side yonder.”

We went to the tent door and listened. No sound was to be heard but the roaring of the storm, and the splash of the heavy rain-drops.

“I must have been mistaken,” said he; “let us turn in.”

In the morning when I rose, which I did at daybreak, for Vesey was anxious to be off, I noticed that the door of Steele’s hut was open.

“The old chap is up early,” thought I. “I suppose he is out prospecting, now they have cleared out his hill.”

After breakfast, I showed my guest a short cut, by which he might avoid the township altogether, and then went off to my work. I had just come up from below, about smoking-time, when I saw a whole mob of fellows running in my direction, headed by Brady. As I was wondering what could be the matter, they came up to where I was sitting, and before I had time to ask any questions, I was seized by a dozen rough hands and pinioned.

“Come,” said I, “just drop this, I am not fond of jokes.”

“Oh! a joke you call it, do you?” said Brady; “I don’t think you will find it one, though. It looks about as like a hanging matter, as anything I have known for some time.”

“Hanging matter! What on earth do you mean?”

“How innocent he is, mates! One would think now, to hear him talk, that he had never been in Steele’s hut at all, last night.”

“No more I was.”

“Oh, of course not! and pray how did your axe come to be found there?”

“Why, I lent it to Steele last Sunday, as he had broken the handle of his own.”

“A very likely story, indeed; but it won’t go down with me; perhaps, however, you will find the Beak soft enough to believe it. But I can’t waste time talking, so just stir yourself a bit, for I must see you safe in Campbelford jail before night, and that’s a good step from here.”

“But,” I exclaimed, “will no one tell me with what I am charged?”

“Why,” said my old mate, who was amongst the crowd, “some fellows were passing by Steele’s hut this morning, and finding the door open, went in to take a look round, and there they found the owner on the floor dead, with his dog beside him, badly cut about, but still alive. The murder had been committed with an axe, and after a careful search yours was found, covered with blood, concealed in the bush close by. However, keep up your pluck. None of us who know you, believe you did it, though it is confoundedly awkward your sleeping all alone in that tent.”

“But I was not alone. Dick Vesey, whom some of you know, passed the night with me, and he can prove that I was never a yard from my tent all the night.”

“D—n your Dick Vesey,” said Brady, savagely, “what’s he to me? Come along at once, or I’ll make you.”

“Oh, but,” said several, “we know Vesey well, and if he supports Hartley’s story, that will make things look very different. Where is Dick?”

“Why, unfortunately he went off up country this morning early, and I can’t exactly say where he may be by this time, but he will be about some of the cattle-stations out west, for he is gone to buy hides.”

“Of course,” said Brady, derisively, “he must be somewhere; but I fancy he’ll not turn up time enough to save your neck, so come along.”

After a hurried talk with my mate and other friends, who promised to scour the bush on all sides in search of Vesey, I was taken down to Campbelford before Mr. Grantham, the magistrate, and lodged in the jail. It was an old, very strongly-built log-house, extremely dirty, and swarming with vermin of every kind. It had been unoccupied for some time, and every description of small plague that bites, fastened upon me, with appetites whetted by a long fast. I shall never forget the misery of the next five days. I was almost eaten up alive, and I really think that had my captivity lasted much longer, I should have been fairly tortured to death. After the first couple of days had passed without Vesey’s making his appearance, I began also to grow very uneasy. What if he had got lost in the bush; or, as he had a large sum of money about him, been stuck up and murdered. So much of my blood as my tormentors had left me, ran cold at the mere thought of such a thing. Then the suspicions that would naturally attach to me on account of my constant and well-known habit of frequenting Steele’s hut, which, it would of course be believed, must have given me an opportunity of discovering where his supposed large store of gold was concealed. When to this was added the finding of my axe, with which the murder had undoubtedly been committed, it must be evident to every one, and I was unable to conceal from myself that, innocent as I was, I must inevitably suffer the fate of the guilty, should Vesey not be forthcoming. On the sixth morning, when, worn out with anxiety and want of sleep, I had become but the shadow of my former self, the heavy door was thrown open, and in walked Grantham and Vesey. The sight was too much for me in the weak state I was in, and I fainted. When I came to myself, I was in the parlour of the little inn. Vesey’s appearance had put everything right. Steele had been seen alive about 10 p.m., and the doctor who had been called in when he was discovered at about nine in the morning, gave it as his opinion that he must have been dead about seven or eight hours, so that it was clear that I could not have been the guilty party. A good long sleep in a comfortable bed soon put me to rights again, and the next day Mr. Grantham’s man drove me over to Springfield. I got down at the Caledonian. After the first greetings were over, my mate said:

“I suppose Brady didn’t care about meeting you again, after the brutal manner he behaved to you, for he left the diggings yesterday.”

“And a good riddance, too,” said the store-keeper; “I never want to see his black muzzle any more.”

“What has become of the dog?” I inquired.

“Why the doctor bandaged up his wounds, and “he is getting all right again; but they have to take him up food to the hut, for he won’t leave it.”

After I had been up to my tent, to see that all was right, I walked over to the hut. I found the dog lying on his poor master’s bunk. He knew me at once, and after a great deal of coaxing I managed to get him to follow me. You may think that I at once shifted my abode, and as soon as we had worked out our hole, I took myself off to the Ovens. I had been there about nine or ten months, when, one Sunday morning early, I heard a row, and on stepping out I saw a crowd of fellows round a tent which had only been put up a night or two before. I walked up to have a look what was the matter, and then found that it was a dispute between a Cornishman and an Irishman, the former charging the latter with having sold him a salted hole on Bendigo, some little time before. Well, I thought I knew the Irishman’s voice, and when I came to look at him closely, sure enough it was Brady, though a long beard and a digger’s costume had made a great change in his appearance. “Oh ho! my friend,” thought I, “now I have got you, have I? We will soon settle our little difference.” Just at this moment up came Watchman, who had lagged behind to have a little quiet conversation with a neighbour’s dog, having much improved in his manners since he had been with me. We were on the skirt of the mob, but no sooner did he hear Brady’s voice than he dashed through the crowd, and in an instant pinned him by the throat. Of course there was no end of confusion and uproar, but with great difficulty we managed to get the dog off again. I had, however, to hold him back with all my force to keep him from renewing his attack. As soon as Brady was free he jumped up like a madman, rushed into the tent, and coming out again with a revolver in his hand, drew on the dog, perfectly regardless of whom he might hit. Luckily the first barrel missed fire, and before he could discharge the second a bystander caught him a blow over the arm with a pick-handle which made him drop his weapon. I stooped to pick it up to prevent his regaining it, but you may imagine what my surprise was when I perceived that it was the very revolver I had often noticed in Steele’s tent. The five notches in the stock left no doubt of it.

“Brady,” I cried, “where did you get this from?”

“My name is O’Connor,” said he; “and as to the pistol, what’s that to you?”

“I’ll soon tell you that. Look here, mates, this is Steele, the Hatter’s, revolver, which was taken out of his tent the night he was murdered. Dick Brady the trooper here, or O’Connor as he now calls himself, was on Springfield at the time, so I think it would be just as well to ask him a few questions.”

I suppose Brady began to think that things were growing awkward, for seizing a shovel he gave it one sweep, clearing a circle all around him, and then taking advantage of the confusion, started for the bush as hard as he could lay legs to the ground. He was a very fleet runner, and would probably have escaped had it not been for Watchman, who seized him before he had got many yards, and in spite of all his struggles held him till he was secured. As we were taking him down to the township we met a party of troopers.

“Who have you got there?” said they.

“Dick Brady.”

“The very man we were after. He’s wanted for a murder in town. It’s a clear case, for one of his pals has peached.”

We handed over our prisoner, glad enough to get rid of him. He was taken down to Melbourne, tried, and condemned. Before his execution he confessed to the murder of poor Steele, and to have been tempted thereto by the store of gold he was supposed to have by him, which, however, he had been unable to find. He had discovered my axe lying outside the door, with which he had committed the foul deed, and which, had it not been for my fortunate encounter with Vesey, would probably have served to bring me to the gallows.

An Old Chum.

Australia