Dead as Mutton
Some acres of uncultivated land abutting the farmer's property took the road in a horseshoe loop; by following the dividing fence Peter could cut his journey home by half a mile. He had taken the shorter path on his way out in the chilly early morning, only to be met by shotgun carrying farmer Mutton, and the threat of "a charge up your arse if I catch you on my property again."
Peter did not take the farmer's threat seriously, but he hesitated by the fence, weighing the advantages of the shorter walk against the consequences of a second confrontation. He could see the hill above the orchard, cows congregating about a corrugated iron shed; with luck farmer Mutton would be intent on milking them.
Peter had already walked two miles along the dusty road, he was hot and tired and thirsty. Peach trees laden with ripe fruit scented the air and tempted his palate. He squeezed between barbed wire strand and netting to the orchard's headland. Hurrying over the furrowed ground he plucked an outsize fruit from a tree. The warm sweet juice spurted as his teeth tore chunks of yellow and red flesh.
His path led first uphill, the orchard on his right and pasture on his left, then downhill, the pasture giving way to thickly timbered paddocks, and the fading light to darkening shadows. An occasional shot shattered the evening quiet, as man and boy, not tied to the milking routine sought a rabbit for dinner. Peter, now on his third peach, increased his hurried stride to a jogging downhill run. It was this loping run that gave impetus to his shock propelled leap over the body, log like, across the track. Afterwards he was unable to explain to Constable Noble how he knew it was Mr. Mutton, or how he knew he was dead. He had not looked again, but as the hair stiffened on his neck, run like an animal for the cover and comfort of home.
Within minutes of hearing Peter's story his father was backing the horse between the phaeton shafts, and after the mother enforced hot drink, they began the mile journey to the telephone.
In the post office, Miss Finney's opening after time grumbles gave way to interested excited enquiries, as the postmistress' finely attuned ears gathered gossip worthy information.
Constable Noble promised the T-model Ford would leave on the seven mile trip from Olivebank immediately after collecting the doctor from his home and the sergeant from the pub. Mr. Paton was told to return with Peter to the scene at once, without unduly disturbing the body make sure the farmer was dead, and mount guard over him until police and doctor arrived.
"Don't go away", the constable said, "dogs or even a fox could get at him."
Peter stayed with the horse, his father treading carefully, needed only the light from one match to illuminate the shattered head, and to show that death had been swift. He called Peter to chain the phaeton wheel before meeting him as far from the body as their sentinel duty allowed. They stood close, the fifteen year old drawing strength from his father, and when, after an interval of respect for the dead, the father lit his pipe, the son told of morning encounter and evening discovery.
"Did you see a gun? The police are sure to ask. Try to remember."
Peter remembered only the glimpsed body; the gun might be under it, or in the shadow of the tall trees. His father may have missed it in the brief flare of the match. It was an accident they agreed, the gun could not be far away.
It was half past nine when the Ford's flickering lights frightened the horse in the shafts. Sergeant Heard, Constable Noble, Dr. Fennessy and Mr. Woodenough, a local draper and Justice of the Peace, climbed out. Mr Woodenough spoke of his duty as a J.P., but not of his sideline of undertakers scout. Careful torchlight inspection followed. A shotgun blast had almost certainly caused death; there was no sign of the weapon. The sergeant made his decisions and issued his orders.
He would drive to the post office to inform Russell Street C.I.B. Father and son would accompany him. Constable Noble and Dr. Fennessy would inform and comfort the widow and daughter, and the draper would maintain a vigil by the body.
Although long after her usual bedtime Miss Finney was wide awake and eager for further news. She opened her tiny post office with unusual alacrity, and her tiny mind with usual inquisitiveness. Thirty years of vicarious living on switchboard overheard conversations, memorised telegram messages, and guessed by address contents of letters, now peaked, as readily repeatable questions and answers passed between Sergeant Heard and Russell Street detectives. Accustomed for many years to instruct and command, the sergeant was now instructed and commanded. Nothing was to be disturbed before the early morning arrival of detectives. Noble was to keep watch by the corpse, Heard was to accompany father and son to their home and to be responsible for their morning attendance for questioning. Fennessy and Woodenough were to be asked to stay with Mrs. Mutton and 14 year old Jean.
Morning brought three tall, dark suited, grey hatted, questioning men, in a black Stutz. The inspection of the body and photographing of it from many angles before its removal by the Woodenough rewarding undertaker, was preceded and followed by questions.
Organised activity started with a search for the now certainly missing gun, and questions, the enlisting of a larger search party and questions, the retracing of Peter's homeward journey, and questions, the reconstruction of the morning confrontation and questions. The widow and daughter were consoled and questioned. Shot guns were inspected and owners questioned. Neighbours were inspected and questioned. Peter was questioned about his answers to questions. Questions always questions, choking sandwich and tea swallowings and halting pipe match applying. Questions on roadways, in cars, on verandahs, in sitting rooms and kitchens, and in the furrowed peach filled orchard.
It was late afternoon before the big car, now carrying six men, left, leaving behind the Ford, and Constable Noble primed for further prolonged probing at Paton's.
After an early evening meal he walked across the paddocks. My dog and he helloed at the slip rails, and I opened the door and a bottle.
Noble was no stranger to my home brew. We usually met about twice a month at Paton's house, where we listened to the gramophone and talked. Mrs. Paton baked our supper, I brought the beer, and we talked far into the night. Our neighbours were in bed at eight o'clock, the timetable of their lives dictated by the needs of their cows. Paton was a saddler, his land provided some food, but his income came from mending harness and making leggings and gags and belts. My war pension and garden and needs were small. We were not quite accepted by the local teat pullers.
It had been a long hot tiring day for Constable Noble and he was on his third before he said more than, "thanks, I will." Then he told me, "he was shot early yesterday morning, at a range of inches, with a twelve bore gun. Half his head was blown off. We think he was probably killed with his own gun, soon after threatening young Peter. It's possible but unlikely that he accidentally shot him himself. Peter could have made a grab at the gun and if it was cocked, and most of them round here seem to carry them cocked, the gun could have gone off. Peter could have panicked, carried the gun off and buried it somewhere, and made up his story of finding the body on his way home. He's stuck to his story and I can't see a kid his age answering all the questions he's been asked and not giving himself away. The D's don't really think he did it, but until someone admits seeing Mutton after Peter saw him I have to keep an eye on him."
"How are Mrs. Mutton and the kid taking it? Where did they think he was all day?"
"Well they seem sort of stunned. No crying, just sitting there staring at nothing and saying little. Mrs. said they wondered where he had got to, but once or twice before he had disappeared for the day without much explanation; they said they didn't really worry till after dark. We couldn't push her too hard; Fennessy said she was in a state of shock and to lay off. The kid hardly said a word. The Russell Street blokes think he was probably on with some other woman, and that's where he went missing now and again, but I've never heard anything, have you?"
"No, word generally gets round, there's not much goes on around here they're not on to. About the gun, do you think someone finding Mutton dead might have seized the opportunity and helped himself to it?"
"Possible, but unlikely. It was a Greener, and although there are a lot of guns about, they are mostly cheaper makes. Who's going to risk a murder charge to pinch a gun that may be identifiable?"
"No one I suppose, but you have been checking guns around here?"
"Yes, the D's want it done, but it's a waste of time. You can't identify gun barrels from shot like you can rifles from bullets."
"Well, what now?"
"The Russell Street bods are doing the thinking. All I have to do is keep an eye on young Peter and ask questions. Open another bottle and I'll ask you a few."
"Yes, you were no friend of Mutton's. You had a row with him over a cheque last Christmas I'm told, and another one about a rabbit, only the other day. This is better than the last lot, better head. Well, what about that dud cheque?"
"It wasn't a dud, I put the wrong date on it and the bank sent it back. I altered and initialled it and he got paid alright. He didn't want to take a cheque when I gave it to him, that is why he made such a fuss when it bounced."
"And the rabbit?"
"I was in the hollow by the creek when he fired across the road at a bunny. He couldn't see me and the host whistled past my head. I told him I'd put a charge into him the next time he shot across the road."
"You weren't shooting in the hollow yesterday morning?"
"No, I was starting a new brew, there it is bubbling away now in the crock. Take a good look, it's the last you'll see of it."
"Just for that I'll have another. How do you think I'm going to explain to the D's why I didn't question you the same as everyone else?"
"Well I never liked him, and it's no good pretending now he's dead. You have talked to a lot of people, there must be others?"
"He was a good bloke. I've been told so a hundred times. Bit of a tough nut to crack, but a heart of gold. They're always good blokes when their dead, and everyone will be at the funeral. Well that's enough for tonight. Tomorrow I have a full day sitting on the post office verandah, taking statements from all and sundry. They'll love it, and it will keep Miss Finney on the boil all day. Now remember, don't leave the district without notifying me where you hide the key to your cellar. Goodnight."
During the following fortnight Constable Noble filled reams of paper. Everyone for miles around had heard shots at all times of the day and night; it would have been remarkable if they hadn't. The search for the missing gun was thorough. After morning milking there were many idle hours to fill, and boisterous groups indulging their curiosity of their neighbours, searched their sheds and scrub. At first their shouts and roars of laughter signalled a good time was being had by all, but after two fruitless weeks disappointment at failure to flush a quarry changed the mood. A hunt without a killing was no hunt at all.
On a trip to Olivebank I gave the publican's brew a chance to compete for my palate, and whilst double checking, overheard a group from Warren Yallock.
"He done it alright," proclaimed a loud voice, and to a chorus of agreement, "I'd get the truth out of him if I had to bash it out." Bashing it out of him met with general, loudly expressed, approval, and when I saw Sergeant Heard on the far side of the island bar, I took my third, and my fears to him.
"Just talk", he assured me, "they will have their little bit of fun. They're all good blokes at heart. I've known them and their families for years and they have never given any trouble. Anyway a bit of a fright mightn't be a bad thing for young Paton at that, he might know more than he lets on."
I was not reassured. A lynching party seemed unlikely, but I did know that for entertainment these youths went out at night with spotlights, to dazzle the rabbits they clubbed to death. In a mob and primed with beer!
"Constable Noble still working on it?" I asked.
"Yes and no. He does a bit when he can. There's a pile of work at the station without that. He's out at Bolton's now with a bluey." The sergeant's unbridled tongue spared no feelings.
I knew where Bolton lived. His unrewarding holding was at the end of a three mile earth road that left the highway two miles out. I had seen the police car in the backyard of the pub, and knew Noble would be on horseback. I bought a cold bottle and had the publican wrap it well, and was lucky to get a lift in a carrier's truck to the turnoff. There was shade and a flat topped post, and with a penny and the butt of my hand I got the cap off, as Noble's chestnut mare cantered into view.
Noble was obviously uneasy when I told him what I had overheard.
"It's not only the young ones," he said, "I know from what a number of their parents said to me, that they believe Peter shot Mutton. When they get an idea into their heads gelignite wouldn't shift it. How about you seeing Paton and suggesting he sends Peter away for a while, till the feeling dies down a bit. I believe he's got an uncle in the city. If I pass his address on to Russell Street they are not likely to object. Tell him to get a move on."
"You don't really think they would injure him?"
"Not if they stopped to think, but mobs don't usually stop to do much thinking."
Noble rode off and I waited for another lift. I got one in the wrong direction, back to the pub, and only much later, another, the way I should have gone.
I woke late to the sound of driving rain on my iron roof. It took a minute or two for me to realise that the heavy thuds I heard came from the horseshoe knocker being pounded on my door. Paton came in when I called.
"No," I said, "what time is it?"
Our eyes met in the curtained gloom and shied away.
"We don't know what time he went out, or where he went to. His bed is made up. His mother is really worried."
I didn't need a strong light to see his father was too.
"Relax", I said, "he probably went to a mate's place and stayed the night when it rained."
"The rain started an hour ago. No, he's cleared off somewhere. We were hoping he had come to you. When he was at the post office yesterday some louts going past shouted 'murderer' at him. I hope he's alright."
"Of course he's alright, you know what kids are. Probably thought up some brilliant scheme but forgot to tell his parents about it. He could be back home now. I hope you haven't spread it around that he may have done a bunk."
"I may have. I met Thatcher on my way here and asked him if he had seen Peter. He was on his way to the post office, so by now it will be all over the district. You've got a loose sheet of iron on your roof; better put a nail in before you lose it. Come on up when you are ready and have a bite with us."
When he had gone I slipped on an old army coat and had a look at the loose sheet. The wind must have blown hard during the night, unless I did something the sheet would be off and I would be flooded out. I splashed water in my eyes, drank two cups of sweet black tea, and ate some dry toast. I was tempted, but resisted a hair of the dog. I put six bottles in a kerosene tin bucket ready to take to Paton's.
The rain eased and I got a bag of nails and a hammer, tossed them up on the low pitched roof, and climbed up by way of the tank stand. I was grunting and gasping a bit when I got there. When I saw the way the corner of the sheet was bent back I went down for a torch, and had to pant and puff my way back. Whilst I had been sleeping the morning away the Warren Yallock and Lakebank cricket teams had agreed that a rain swept pitch made play impossible. The decision to abandon the match was made in the Olivebank pub, and the subject of Peter Paton's disappearance came up as the beer went down.
"He can't have gone far," said Wally Waite, "let's go after the bugger."
From the rooftop I saw them as they fanned out to search my property.
"Sit tight", I called into the roof, and started driving in nails. I stayed on the roof when I saw they were armed with thick waddy like sticks. They missed little as they thrashed and bashed their way through scrub and garden to my sheds. Anyone hiding in the path of their flailing weapons would have suffered serious injury. I yelled at them to get off my property, but they ignored me as they beat a cyclone like path of destruction to my door.
Wally Waite called "no!" when they hesitated, and the inside of my small home escaped their vandalism.
I stayed out of reach. Not till the last straggler disappeared from view did I loosen the sheet again and call reassurance through the gap.
"Stay right there," I told him, "I'll bring you some blankets and tucker, but first I must let your mum and dad know you are alright."
The Paton's loaded me up with comforts and titbits for Peter, reluctantly agreeing to wait for darkness before following me.
I hurried back. There is no manhole in my ceiling so I had to climb to the roof again and lower in food and drink and torch and blankets. Fortunately the rain held off, but when Peter's parents arrived in the darkness, it was pouring down again.
I bored three small holes in my ceiling, and by standing on my table, mother and father were able to talk to their son. It was a strange scene in the light of the oil lamp, but warm and comforting, and after a glass or two of my brew the oddness of it and the release from immediate tension, even allowed laughter. It was late when they left, but early on Sunday morning Paton saddled his horse and rode to Olivebank in search of Constable Noble.
Sergeant Heard hated parting with his official conveyance, and Noble had to promise many favours, before, late on Sunday afternoon, separating him from his Ford.
It was dark and pouring rain again when we started for the city, and daylight and still raining when we returned. I went to keep Noble company on the return journey, and to have a look at Peter's relatives. They seemed pleasant people. Peter got a job and stayed with them.
After a few months the Paton's sold up and moved to the city. They invited me often enough and I kept promising to go down, but I failed to make the necessary effort and never saw them again.
Mrs. Mutton and Jean had already left the district, and as no one knows where they went they couldn't have left a forwarding address at the post office.
When I heard Constable Noble had been made a Senior, and transferred to some remote place in the Mallee, I wondered where I would find someone to share my home brew. Noble rode his chestnut up to my door for a goodbye glass, and we yarned a bit.
"You never got anyone for the Mutton murder", I reminded him, "you never even found the gun."
"I think one of the searchers found the gun, but left it hidden till it was safe to remove and use it. It is probably in some farmer's ceiling."
"And who killed him?"
"One of two people."
"The wife and the daughter?"
"They alibied one another. I had the feeling Mutton had given them both a rough time. They had a long day to get word perfect in the answers. The gun was never found, and there was no known motive. Not much to hang a case, or a woman on."