When he was told that a bag of money had been stolen from the Secretary’s office and that the place had been set on fire to cover up the theft he produced a note-book and proceeded to make the inquiries laid down in the police manual.
“Have any of you seen any suspicious strangers about the town?” he said.
Considering that the town was practically full of suspicious strangers, this question seemed more worthy of Doctor Watson than of Sherlock Holmes. He would have got enough names to fill his book, if Handkerchief Jones, who claimed to be the flashest man west of the Barcoo River, had not stepped in and taken charge of the proceedings. Handkerchief Jones had earned his name because of his three guiding principles in life which were: (1) that he always wore a silk handkerchief round his neck, (2) that he always took his boots off to fight, and (3) that he never took his hat off to a lady. A horse-breaker by profession and a great singer, dancer, and playboy at the bush concerts, Handkerchief Jones felt that he had to live up to his reputation for flashness; and he knew that it would add lustre to his name if he could in some way score off this green-horn policeman.
“I seen a bloke,” he said, “like a red wallaroo—looks like his head had been raddled. He’s the dead ring of that feller that’s wanted for the murder of the half-caste down at Leila Springs. I seen him talkin’ to Dear Boy Dickson, and that ought to get any one three months, oughtn’t it? Wears a barber’s delight [silk shirt] and jemimas [elastic-sided boots], but the dressier they are the hotter they are. Look at Dear Boy Dickson. You couldn’t get a dressier bloke than him, and look how hot he is! I’d put the word on this red bloke if I was you, trooper. There he is now, down be the fence.”
Recalling the various rules laid down for the examination of suspected persons Fitzroy opened up on the red man with question one of the drill-book.
“What is your name?”
Few people are at their best when suddenly confronted by a policeman, but the red man only allowed a sort of Mona Lisa smile to pass across his face, then he drew himself smartly to attention and answered like an automaton.
“Carstairs, Fred Carstairs.”
“Where do you live?”
“I live one place and another, anywhere that suits me.”
“What is your occupation?”
“I’m a bushman, I can do any sort of bush work. I can shear, but I’m not looking for it.”
“There is some money supposed to be missing from the Secretary’s room. Do you know anything about it?”
“I do not.”
“Were you ever at Leila Springs?”
“Yes, I shore there one year.”
“Do you remember that a half-caste named Andy was murdered down there?”
“Yes, I was there at the time.”
“Do you know a man they call Dear Boy Dickson?”
“I have spoken to him.”
“H’m. Well, I’m afraid I will have to detain you for identification. You may be charged in connexion with the disappearance of a lot of money from the race-course.”
“But, supposing I’m prepared to deposit some money to show I’m not a crook?”
“How much would you deposit?”
“Would a hundred thousand pounds be any good?”
“Don’t be funny! You can tell all that to the magistrate. Come along.”
And Trooper Fitzroy had made his first arrest!
As there was no lock-up cell at the little bush police-station, the suspect was accommodated with a stretcher on the veranda. Here he slept very badly, as two hostile drunks were chained to the uprights in the fowl-house, where their roars of defiance kept the fowls and turkeys in a state of cackle and gobble that would have awakened the seven sleepers of Ephesus.
Next day the wires from Brisbane ran hot with excited messages. There was one from the General Manager of the Empire Pastoral Company protesting against the detention of one of their most valued clients on a ridiculous charge. There was one from the Inspector-General of Police to the local sergeant:
“Tell Fitzroy to apply for discharge, give him month’s leave while matter under consideration.”
Having passed this message on to the trooper, the sergeant then set to work to find out the whereabouts of Dear Boy Dickson, Spider Ryan and Monkey Brand; but beyond the fact that within the next few weeks each of them sported a new suit of clothes and a gold watch and chain, no clue was ever obtained as to the whereabouts of the missing racecourse money.
By this time the millionaire suspect had been turned loose and was packing his gear in his battered old Ford, meaning to pay a surprise visit to one or two of his stations. He had a long drive in front of him with a lot of gates to open, and it suddenly struck him that for all his money, he was a very lonely man. Besides, he wanted someone to open the gates.
He thought for a while of picking up one of the town boys as a travelling companion and sending the youngster back by the mail-coach when he had done with him. Then he thought what poor company a boy would be, and his mind went back to the trooper who had arrested him. He himself had been one of the under dogs of this world all his life, and here he had got this young trooper into trouble for want of a word or two. With a queer smile he turned his car and drove down to the police-station.
There he found Fitzroy who was giving his horse a last touch up with a brush.
“Come here, young feller,” he said. “I hear they’re goin’ to give you the sack. Do you want a job?”
“Yes, I’ll have to get a job of some sort, but I don’t suppose you’d give me one after the way I treated you.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I like a man with a bit of grit and you done me no harm. You see, all my life I’ve just been plugging along, no more important than one sheep in a mob. Now I’ve got money and I want to get something out of it.”
He paused here for a while and appeared to have some difficulty in explaining what he wanted. His manner was apologetic rather than patronizing and Fitzroy wondered what was coming next. He felt that he himself could make a first-class success of helping anybody to spend money; so he thought he had better mention the line of life in which he was most likely to shine.
“I’m a Londoner myself,” he said, “and I could show you how to spend money in London. I don’t know what a man would do with money out here.”
“That’s just it,” said the red man, “I been a battler all me life, poor as a crow, and now I got money I don’t know what to do with it. But I’m terrible fond of horses and I thought I’d buy some horses and go in for racin’. I bought that little mare I got here, just to give it a try, but I didn’t start her when you ran me in. I been in the shearing-shed and the kitchen all me life, and now I want to see somethin’ different. They say if a man has a few good horses he can get anywhere and know anybody. But I want a mate to come along and show me the track. Red Fred! That’s what they call me round the sheds! Just Red Fred, till I hardly know me own name. And I don’t like facing this new job by meself.”
Fitzroy was ready to jump at any job, but he wondered whether he would be expected to act as valet, or as turf adviser. The inferiority complex which afflicted the red man was quite foreign to Fitzroy and he drew the line at being a valet.
“What do you want me to do?” he said. “I never worked at anything, only being a trooper, and I didn’t make much of a job of that.”
By this time Red Fred seemed to have arranged his ideas. He had been studying Fitzroy and some kind of instinct told him that this young fellow was used to something better than being a trooper.
“I want you to be a kind of offsider to me,” he said. “I want you to answer me letters, and to tell me what to say to the Governor, and to keep me from making a big fool of meself. I’ll give you a thousand a year and your tucker. You can live with me and I mean to live pretty well, too. No more old ewe mutton or lumpy-jawed bullock like what I got in the shearing-sheds. I’m the biggest shareholder in the Daybreak Reef, and I can afford to buy good grub. So if you want to see life, now’s your chance. What about packing up your traps and coming along? We’ll race in Sydney, and then we’ll go to London later on and paint the place red. What about it?”
The ex-trooper laughed.
“Suits me all right!” he said. “But if you don’t mind my mentioning it, it takes a lot of paint to make much of a mark on London. I’ll go and say good-bye to the sergeant—he’s a decent old chap—and then the sooner I get out of this town the better.”