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Title: Traces of Crime
Author: Mary Fortune
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
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Edition: 1
Language: English
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Date first posted: July 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2007

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Traces of Crime
Mary Fortune



There are many who recollect full well the rush at Chinaman's Flat.
It was in the height of its prosperity that an assault was committed
upon a female of a character so diabolical in itself, as to have
aroused the utmost anxiety in the public as well as in the police, to
punish the perpetrator thereof.

The case was placed in my hands, and as it presented difficulties so
great as to appear to an ordinary observer almost insurmountable, the
overcoming of which was likely to gain approbation in the proper
quarter, I gladly accepted the task.

I had little to go upon at first. One dark night, in a tent in the
very centre of a crowded thoroughfare, a female had been preparing to
retire to rest, her husband being in the habit of remaining at the
public-house until a late hour, when a man with a crape mask--who must
have gained an earlier entrance--seized her, and in the prosecution of
a criminal offence, had injured and abused the unfortunate woman so
much that her life was despaired of. Although there was a light
burning at the time, the woman was barely able to describe his general
appearance; he appeared to her like a German, had no whiskers, fair
hair, was low in stature, and stoutly built.

With one important exception, that was all the information she was
able to give me on the subject. The exception, however, was a good
deal to a detective, and I hoped might prove an invaluable aid to me.
During the struggle she had torn the arm of the flannel shirt he wore,
and was under a decided impression that upon the upper part of the
criminal's arm there was a small anchor and heart tattooed.

Now, I was well aware that in this colony to find a man with a
tattooed arm was an everyday affair, especially on the diggings,
where, I dare say, there is scarcely a person with who has not come in
contact more than once or twice with half a dozen men tattooed in the
style I speak of--the anchor or heart, or both, being a favourite
figure with those "gentlemen" who are in favour of branding. However,
the clue was worth something, and even without its aid, not more than
a couple of weeks had elapsed when, with the assistance of the local
police, I had traced a man bearing in appearance a general resemblance
to the man who had committed the offence, to a digging about seven
miles from Chinaman's Flat.

It is unnecessary that I should relate every particular as to how my
suspicions were directed to this man, who did not live on Chinaman's
Flat, and to all appearances, had not left the diggings where he was
camped since he first commenced working there. I say "to all
appearances," for it was with a certain knowledge that he had been
absent from his tent on the night of the outrage that I one evening
trudged down the flat where his tent was pitched, with my swag on my
back, and sat down on a log not far from where he had kindled a fire
for culinary or other purposes.

These diggings I will call McAdam's. It was a large and flourishing
goldfield, and on the flat where my man was camped there were several
other tents grouped, so that it was nothing singular that I should
look about for a couple of bushes, between which I might swing my
little bit of canvas for the night.

After I had fastened up the rope, and thrown my tent over it in
regular digger fashion, I broke down some bushes to form my bed, and
having spread thereon my blankets, went up to my man--whom I shall in
future call "Bill"--to request permission to boil my billy on his
fire.

It was willingly granted, and so I lighted my pipe and sat down to
await the boiling of the water, determined if I could so manage it to
get this suspected man to accept me as a mate before I lay down that
night.

Bill was also engaged in smoking, and had not, of course, the
slightest suspicion that in the rough, ordinary looking digger before
him he was contemplating the "make-up" of a Victorian detective, who
had already made himself slightly talked of among his comrades by one
or two clever captures.

"Where did you come from, mate?" inquired Bill, as he puffed away
leisurely at a cutty.

"From Burnt Creek," I replied, "and a long enough road it is in such
d--- hot weather as this."

"Nothing doing at Burnt Creek?"

"Not a thing--the place is cooked."

"Are you in for a try here, then?" he asked, rather eagerly I
thought.

"Well, I think so; is there any chance do you think?"

"Have you got a miner's right?" was his sudden question.

"I have," said I taking it out of my pocket, and handing the bit of
parchment for his inspection.

"Are you a hatter?" inquired Bill, as he returned the document.

"I am," was my reply.

"Well, if you have no objections then, I don't mind going mates with
you--I've got a pretty fair prospect, and the ground's going to run
rather deep for one man, I think."

"All right."

So here was the very thing I wanted, settled without the slightest
trouble.

My object in wishing to go mates with this fellow will, I dare say,
readily be perceived. I did not wish to risk my character for
'cuteness by arresting my gentleman, without being sure that he was
branded in the way described by the woman, and besides, in the close
supervision which I should be able to keep over him while working
together daily, heaven knows what might transpire as additional
evidence against him, at least so I reasoned with myself; and it was
with a partially relieved mind that I made my frugal supper, and made
believe to "turn in," fatigued, as I might be supposed to be, after my
long tramp.

But I didn't turn in, not I. I had other objects in view, if one may
be said to have an object in view on one of the darkest nights of a
moonless week--for dark enough the night in question became, even
before I had finished my supper, and made my apparent preparations for
bed.

We were not camped far enough from the business part of the rush to
be very quiet, there was plenty of noise--the nightly noise of a rich
gold-field--came down our way, and even in some of the tents close to
us, card-playing, and drinking, and singing, and laughing, were going
on; so it was quite easy for me to steal unnoticed to the back of
Bill's little tent, and, by the assistance of a small slit made in the
calico by my knife, have a look at what my worthy was doing inside,
for I was anxious to become acquainted with his habits, and, of
course, determined to watch him as closely as ever I could.

Well, the first specimen I had of his customs was certainly a
singular one, and was, it may be well believed, an exception to his
general line of conduct. Diggers, or any other class of men, do not
generally spend their evenings in cutting their shoes up into small
morsels, and that was exactly what Bill was busily engaged in doing
when I clapped my eye to the hole. He had already disposed of a good
portion of the article when I commenced to watch him: the entire
"upper" of a very muddy blucher boot lying upon his rough table in a
small heap, and in the smallest pieces that one would suppose any
person could have patience to cut up a dry, hard, old leather boot.

It was rather a puzzler to me this, and that Bill was doing such a
thing simply to amuse himself was out of the question; indeed, without
observing that he had the door of his tent closely fastened upon a
warm evening, and that he started at the slightest sound, the
instincts of an old detective would alone have convinced me that Bill
had some great cause indeed to make away with those old boots; so I
continued watching.

He had hacked away at the sole with an old but sharp butcher's knife,
but it almost defied his attempts to separate it into pieces, and at
length he gave it up in despair, and gathering up the small portions
on the table, he swept them with the mutilated sole into his hat, and
opening his tent door, went out.

I guessed very truly that he would make for the fire, and as it
happened to be at the other side of a log from where I was hiding, I
had a good opportunity of continuing my espial. He raked together the
few embers that remained near the log, and flinging the pieces of
leather thereon, retired once more into his tent, calculating, no
doubt, that the hot ashes would soon scorch and twist them up, so as
to defy recognition, while the fire he would build upon them in the
morning would settle the matter most satisfactorily.

All this would have happened just so, no doubt, if I had not
succeeded in scraping nearly every bit from the place where Bill had
thrown them, so silently and quickly, that I was in the shelter of my
slung tent with my prize and a burn or two on my fingers before he
himself had had time to divest himself of his garments and blow out
the light.

He did so very soon, however, and it was long before I could get
asleep. I thought it over and over in all ways, and looked upon it in
all lights that I could think of, and yet, always connecting this
demolished boot with the case in the investigation of which I was
engaged, I could not make it out at all.

Had we overlooked, with all our fancied acuteness, some clue which
Bill feared we had possession of, to which this piecemeal boot was the
key? And if so why had he remained so long without destroying it?

It was, as I said before, a regular puzzler to me, and my brain was
positively weary when I at length dropped off to sleep.

Well, I worked for a week with Bill, and I can tell you it was work I
didn't at all take to. The unaccustomed use of the pick and shovel
played the very mischief with my hands; but, for fear of arousing the
suspicions of my mate, I durst not complain, having only to endure in
silence, or as our Scotch friends would put it, "Grin and bide it."
And the worst of it was, that I was gaining nothing--nothing
whatever--by my unusual industry.

I had hoped that accidentally I should have got a sight of the anchor
and heart, but I was day after day disappointed, for my mate was not
very regular in his ablutions, and I had reckoned without my host in
expecting that the very ordinary habit of a digger, namely, that of
having a "regular wash" at least every Sunday, would be a good and
certain one for exposing the brand.

But no, Bill allowed the Sunday to come and go, without once removing
what I could observe was the flannel shirt, in which he had worked all
the week; and then I began to swear at my own obtuseness--"the fellow
must be aware that his shirt was torn by the woman, of course he
suspects that she may have seen the tattooing, and will take blessed
good care not to expose it, mate or no mate," thought I; and then I
called myself a donkey, and during the few following days, when I was
trusting to the chapter of accidents, I was also deliberating on the
"to be or not to be" of the question of arresting him at once, and
chancing it. Saturday afternoon came again, and then the early knock-
off time, and that sort of quarter holiday among the miners, namely,
four o'clock, was hailed by me with the greatest relief, and it was
with the full determination of never again setting foot in the cursed
claim that I shouldered my pick and shovel and proceeded tentwards.

On my way I met a policeman, and received from him a concerted signal
that I was wanted at the camp, and so telling Bill that I was going to
see an old mate about some money that he owed me, I started at once.

"We've got something else in your line, mate," said my old chum, Joe
Bennet, as I entered the camp, "and one which, I think, will be a
regular poser for you. The body of a man has been found in Pipeclay
Gully, and we can scarcely be justified by appearances in giving even
a surmise as to how he came by his death."

"How do you mean?" I inquired. "Has he been dead so long?"

"About a fortnight, I dare say, but we have done absolutely nothing
as yet. Knowing you were on the ground we have not even touched the
body: will you come up at once?"

"Of course I will!" And after substituting the uniform of the force
for the digger's costume, in which I was apparelled, in case of an
encounter with my "mate," we went straight to "Pipeclay."

The body had been left in charge of one of the police, and was still
lying, undisturbed in the position in which it had been discovered;
not a soul was about, in fact, the gully had been rushed and
abandoned, and bore not the slightest trace of man's handiwork, saving
and except the miner's holes and their surrounding little eminences of
pipeclay, from which the gully was named. And it was a veritable
"gully," running between two low ranges of hills, which hills were
covered with an undergrowth of wattle and cherry trees, and scattered
over with rocks and indications of quartz, which have, I dare say,
been fully tried by this time.

Well, on the slope of one of the hills, where it amalgamated as it
were with the level of the gully, and where the sinking had evidently
been shallow, lay the body of the dead man. He was dressed in ordinary
miner's fashion, and saving for the fact of a gun being by his side,
one might have supposed that he had only given up his digging to lie
down and die beside the hole near which he lay.

The hole, however, was full of water--quite full; indeed the water
was sopping out on the ground around it, and that the hole was an old
one was evident, by the crumbling edges around it, and the fragments
of old branches that lay rotting in the water.

Close to this hole lay the body, the attitude strongly indicative of
the last exertion during life having been that of crawling out of the
water hole, in which indeed still remained part of the unfortunate
man's leg. There was no hat on his head, and in spite of the
considerable decay of the body, even an ordinary observer could not
fail to notice a large fracture in the side of the head.

I examined the gun; it was a double-barrelled fowling piece, and one
barrel had been discharged, while very apparent on the stock of the
gun were blood marks, that even the late heavy rain had failed to
erase. In the pockets of the dead man was nothing, save what any
digger might carry--pipe and tobacco, a cheap knife, and a shilling or
two, this was all; and so leaving the body to be removed by the
police, I thoughtfully retraced my way to the camp.

Singularly enough, during my absence, a woman had been there, giving
information about her husband, on account of whose absence she was
becoming alarmed; and as the caution of the policeman on duty at the
camp had prevented his giving her any idea of the fact of the dead
body having been discovered that very day, I immediately went to the
address which the woman had left, in order to discover, if possible,
not only if it was the missing man, but also to gain any information
that might be likely to put me upon the scent of the murderer, for
that the man had been murdered I had not the slightest doubt.

Well, I succeeded in finding the woman, a young and decidedly good-
looking Englishwoman of the lower class, and gained from her the
following information:--

About a fortnight before, her husband, who had been indisposed, and
in consequence not working for a day or two, had taken his gun one
morning in order to amuse himself for an hour or two, as well as to
have a look at the ranges near Pipeclay Gully, and do a little
prospecting at the same time. He had not returned, but as he had
suggested a possibility of visiting his brother who was digging about
four miles off, she had not felt alarmed until upon communicating with
the said brother she had become aware that her husband had never been
there. From the description, I knew at once that the remains of the
poor fellow lying in Pipeclay Gully were certainly those of the
missing man, and with what care and delicacy I might possess I broke
the tidings to the shocked wife, and after allowing her grief to have
vent in a passion of tears, I tried to gain some clue to the likely
perpetrator of the murder.

"Had she any suspicions?" I asked; "was there any feud between her
husband and any individual she could name?"

At first she replied "no," and then a sudden recollection appeared to
strike her, and she said that some weeks ago a man had, during the
absence of her husband, made advances to her, under the feigned
supposition that she was an unmarried woman. In spite of her decidedly
repellent manner, he had continued his attentions, until she, afraid
of his impetuosity, had been obliged to call the attention of her
husband to the matter, and he, of course feeling indignant, had
threatened to shoot the intruder if he ever ventured near the place
again.

The woman described this man to me, and it was with a violent whirl
of emotional excitement, as one feels who is on the eve of a great
discovery, that I hastened to the camp, which was close by.

It was barely half-past five o'clock, and in a few minutes I was on
my way, with two or three other associates, to the scene of what I had
no doubt had been a horrible murder. What my object was there was soon
apparent. I had before tried the depth of the muddy water, and found
it was scarcely four feet, and now we hastened to make use of the
remaining light of a long summer's day in draining carefully the said
hole.

I was repaid for the trouble, for in the muddy and deep sediment at
the bottom we discovered a deeply imbedded blucher boot; and I dare
say you will readily guess how my heart leaped up at the sight.

To old diggers, the task which followed was not a very great one; we
had provided ourselves with a "tub," etc., and "washed" every bit of
the mud at the bottom of the hole. The only "find" we had, however,
was a peculiar bit of wood, which, instead of rewarding us for our
exertions by lying like gold at the bottom of the dish in which we
"turned off," insisted upon floating on the top of the very first tub,
when it became loosened from its surrounding of clay.

It was a queer piece of wood, and eventually quite repaid us for any
trouble we might have had in its capture. A segment of a circle it
was, or rather a portion of a segment of a circle, being neither more
nor less than a piece broken out of one of those old fashioned black
wooden buttons, that are still to be seen on the monkey-jacket of many
an Australian digger, as well as elsewhere.

Well, I fancied that I knew the identical button from whence had been
broken this bit of wood, and that I could go and straightaway fit it
into its place without the slightest trouble in the world--singular,
was it not?--and as I carefully placed the piece in my pocket, I could
not help thinking to myself, "Well, this does indeed and most truly
look like the working of Providence."

There are many occasions when an apparent chance has effected the
unravelling of a mystery, which but for the turning over of that
particular page of fatality, might have remained a mystery to the day
of judgment, in spite of the most strenuous and most able exertions.
Mere human acumen would never have discovered the key to the secret's
hieroglyphic, nor placed side by side the hidden links of a chain long
enough and strong enough to tear the murderer from his fancied
security, and hang him as high as Haman. Such would almost appear to
have been the case in the instance to which I am alluding, only that
in place of ascribing the elucidation and the unravelling to that
mythical power chance, the impulse of some "inner man" writes the word
Providence.

I did not feel exactly like moralizing, however, when, after resuming
my digger's "make up," I walked towards the tent of the man I have
called Bill. No; I felt more and deeper than any mere moralist could
understand. The belief that a higher power had especially called out,
and chosen, one of his own creatures to be the instrument of his
retributive power, has, in our world's history, been the means of
mighty evil, and I hope that not for an instant did such an idea take
possession of me. I was not conscious of feeling that I had been
chosen as a scourge and an instrument of earthly punishment; but I did
feel that I was likely to be the means of cutting short the thread of
a most unready fellow-mortal's life, and a solemn responsibility it is
to bring home to one's self I can assure you.

The last flush of sunlight was fading low in the west when I reached
our camping ground, and found Bill seated outside on a log, indulging
in his usual pipe in the greying twilight.

I had, of course, determined upon arresting him at once, and had sent
two policemen round to the back of our tents, in case of an attempted
escape upon his part; and now, quite prepared, I sat down beside him;
and, after feeling that the handcuffs were in their usual place in my
belt, I lit my pipe and commenced to smoke also. My heart verily went
pit-a-pat as I did so, for, long as I had been engaged in this sort of
thing, I had not yet become callous either to the feelings of wretched
criminal or the excitement attendant more or less upon every capture
of the sort.

We smoked in silence for some minutes, and I was listening intently
to hear the slightest intimation of the vicinity of my mates; at
length Bill broke the silence. "Did you get your money?" he inquired.

"No," I replied, "but I think I will get it soon."

Silence again, and then withdrawing the pipe from my mouth and
quietly knocking the ashes out of it on the log, I turned towards my
mate and said.

"Bill, what made you murder that man in Pipeclay Gully?"

He did not reply, but I could see his face pale and whiten in the
grey dim twilight, and at last stand out distinctly in the darkening
like that of the dead man we found lying in the lonely gully.

It was so entirely unexpected that he was completely stunned: not the
slightest idea had he that the body had ever been found, and it was on
quite nerveless wrists that I locked the handcuffs, as my mates came
up and took him in charge.

Rallying a little, he asked huskily, "Who said I did it?"

"No person," I replied, "but I know you did it."

Again he was silent, and did not contradict me, and so he was taken
to the lock-up.

I was right about the broken button, and had often noticed it on an
old jacket of Bill's. The piece fitted to a nicety; and the cut-up
blucher! Verily, there was some powerful influence at work in the
discovery of this murder, and again I repeat that no mere human wisdom
could have accomplished it.

Bill, it would appear, thought so too, for expressing himself so to
me, he made a full confession, not only of the murder, but also of the
other offence, for the bringing home to him of which I had been so
anxious.

When he found that the body of the unfortunate man had been
discovered upon the surface, in the broad light of day, after he had
left him dead in the bottom of the hole, he became superstitiously
convinced that God himself had permitted the dead to leave his hiding
place for the purpose of bringing the murderer to justice.

It is no unusual thing to find criminals of his class deeply
impregnated with superstition, and Bill insisted to the last that the
murdered man was quite dead when he had placed him in the hole, and
where, in his anxiety to prevent the body from appearing above the
surface, he had lost his boot in the mud, and was too fearful of
discovery to remain to try and get it out.

Bill was convicted, sentenced to death, and hung; many other crimes
of a similar nature to that which he had committed on Chinaman's Flat
having been brought home to him by his own confession.



THE END




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