Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2
Blue Is for Law
John Hendrickson (Ph.D., Florida State U) is Professor Emeritus of English and Spanish at Snow College. His most recent publications have appeared in Weber Studies, Automobile Magazine, and Snow Faculty Studies.
In those days, back before inside plumbing, television, and many of the other amenities of civilization had found their way into the Australian bush, you'd scarcely ever hear of a man in a town like Weenyah taking anything to a court of law. It wasn't so much a matter of disrespect as it was suspicion of something foreign and, well, unnecessary. The rule was that you took care of your own affairs. And the fellow was a fool who thought he was above that unwritten code. As witness the case of Paddy Byrnes, the bookmaker.
Paddy was much the loser for coming the legal game on Kevin Downs over nothing but a few quid Kevin had wagered on the cuff and was, to tell the truth, a bit slow about paying up. Of course, everyone else knew well enough Kevin eventually would have made good his losses as soon as he'd saved something beyond what he needed for tobacco and beer. But as Kevin used to say later, you couldn't expect a city bloke like Paddy to know better. He wanted things done Sydney style, which didn't set too well in itself. But when he began skiting about bringing a suit against Kevin, he was a finished bookmaker. There wasn't a punter in the district who didn't phone his bets to Coonamble (long-distance call though it was) until Paddy was forced to close shop, and Joe Stoner from Tooraweena came in and took his place. It was a matter of principle, you see.
Also, you hardly ever heard of anyone's being really friendly with the district constable in a place like Weenyah. The one thing that subdued a rowdy crowd in the hotel bar was the sight of the constable's blue uniform. Not that anyone was afraid, mind you. It was just that natural, ingrained distrust of the law, even if the man wearing the uniform happened to be a nice enough chap otherwise. When the blue uniform appeared in the doorway, the first man to notice would jab his neighbor in the ribs, the sign would go around, and the laughing and talking would die down. Perhaps you'd see a nod of greeting here and there, and someone might even give him a word or two, but there was not much said until he went away.
Of course if he did his job quietly, looked the other way when a man couldn't walk too straight but was harming no one, the constable fit into the district well enough, like the parson and the priest. People would give him a hello and even pass the time of day with him if there was nothing better to do. But if he was the kind who liked his authority, it was a different matter altogether. As long as he was in the district, he'd stand out in his blue uniform like a goose that had forgotten to migrate. He was never absorbed. And you'd hear people who never had opinions about anything at all saying the fellow ought to be shipped off.
So you can well imagine that it was a matter of great concern when it got rumored about Weenyah that old Sergeant McComstie was up for retirement. After all, who could tell what kind of a surly scut might take his place? To be sure, Sergeant McComstie was strict enough in his own way. In periodic flurries of righteousness he had been known to make sure that only travelers drank after hours at the hotel, that is, when his conscience got the upper hand of him for his laxity toward that peculiar after-hours' drinking law, which the majority always voted for and then did their utmost to break. To the sergeant's credit, though, it had to be said that his conscience bothered him in this respect only when he was uncertain whether the occasional stranger putting up at the Weenyah Hotel was an inspector sent up to the country for the sole purpose of spying on him. And this didn't happen very often, because the sergeant, having little else to do, made a point of being on the platform twice a week at train time to seize up new arrivals, of which there were very few.
Nevertheless, it was an indisputable fact that Sergeant McComstie had more than once arrested Kevin Downs when he'd staying in the hotel bar too long and imbibed too much. But even Kevin hadn't minded that, seeing it hadn't happened too frequently.
"Ah, well," he'd say, laughing good naturedly, "I suppose the sergeant has to show now and then he's earning his keep. And the sleep did me little enough harm."
So all things considered, everyone agreed that Sergeant McComstie was a "fair enough bloke as coppers go." And quite naturally they were apprehensive when they thought he might be leaving, Kevin more so than anyone. The trouble was, you see, he lacked any kind of permanent status. But it wasn't that people didn't like him, not by any means. A well set up young fellow he was and so full of the devil and good fun you couldn't help taking to him. There was hardly a person in the district who wouldn't engage him in talk just to hear the laughing and joking they were always the better for. Even the dour old Presbyterian, Mr. Allison, who owned the biggest station in the shire, used to come away from Kevin with a smile on his face.
"A good lad," he would invariably say. "And he has a long head, never doubt me. But mind you, now, he lacks ambition."
And that was true to a certain extent, though Kevin wasn't of two minds about wanting to marry Sheila Behan. But then why should he have been? She was the prettiest girl in district, graziers' daughters and all into the bargain. And there was no doubt that she cared a great deal for him. You could tell that from the way she looked at him when they walked out. Or even more so when Kevin was in his cups. You'd see the sad, despairing look in her eyes that meant he was too much like her father, who was another such fellow with no status. A happy-go-lucky chap, who lived from hand to mouth, making life miserable for his family without meaning to. No doubt Sheila was thinking that would be Kevin's way too, as much as she cared for him.
Like her father, Kevin had never held a steady job. Oh, he was a good enough worker when he put his mind to it, but he couldn't stand regular work. You'd see him carting wheat in season, and he'd shear sheep anywhere within easy distance, but he'd never go off with a regular shearing crew. And he trapped rabbits when he felt in the mood, or if he needed a few quid. If he didn't, he'd just as soon spend his time in the hotel bar, which is why Sergeant McComstie would take him in charge where another man, a cove with a regular job, could weave all over the street singing a nice tune very badly and yet never see the inside of the sergeant's two-by-four lockup behind the telephone exchange.
But since Kevin wasn't picked up too often, he accepted this as proper. And it was only natural, too, seeing that he was, in a manner of speaking, on better terms with the sergeant than most, that Kevin should be the one to ask whether he really was going to retire.
"Is it true, sergeant, what they're saying about you leaving us?" he inquired one evening when McComstie came into the hotel bar for his schooner of beer.
"My bloody oath!" the sergeant exclaimed. "And not a bit too soon, either. Thirty years in these dusty, out-of-the-way bush towns is enough for any man. I'm for Bondi and a bit of fishing and the easy life."
"Ah, well, we'll miss you, Sergeant," Kevin said, pulling a long face. "You've been very decent."
There were a few hear, hears, not very loud but loud enough for a constable. And some of the older men, who knew more about life and the ways of sergeants, nodded "Your health, Sergeant" as they finished their beer.
"I've tried to do me duty. Not always pleasant," the sergeant sighted. "But when a man wears the uniform, he's got to expect that."
"It's a great responsibility," Kevin agreed. "And it takes the right man."
"My word," added an, the hotel keeper, no doubt thinking what a bad constable could do to a business like his.
"Indeed, it does take the right man," said Sergeant McComstie, nodding sagely. "I've seen them come and go in my time."
"Speaking of that, Sergeant," Kevin continued, getting to the question everyone had been waiting for, "do you know by any chance the cove who's replacing you?"
"No, only by report," the sergeant answered. "A young chap from down about Sydney I've been told."
Of course it was too bad that the sergeant didn't know anymore about the new fellow. Nevertheless, they drank to him again, and when he'd gone they drank still another toast and then several more and said what a decent sort he was, that is, for a man wearing a uniform.
"Never all that bad for business like some you hear about," Ian said.
"No bloody fear," said one of the men who had a steady job. "And he let's a bloke alone. The sergeant don't mind a bit of a song, he don't."
"Too true. We'll miss him no odds what the new bloke's like," Kevin said, speaking for them all.
Still no one, including Kevin himself, knew just how well he had spoken until constable Keogh arrived. Not only was he a plain constable who wanted very badly to become a sergeant, but he was cold and hard to boot. And you could see right off that he had great respect for the law, or himself, which came to the same thing. The day of his arrival he hunted everyone out of the hotel bar at six o'clock right on the dot. And by the end of the week he already had designs on Sheila. And shortly thereafter he threw Kevin into the lockup for drinking after hours, but also because by then he'd seen Kevin out walking with Sheila. Not only that, once he realized Kevin's status, or lack of it, he began locking him up on every pretext, thinking he'd have a better chance with Sheila if he could show Kevin up. And when Kevin was in the lockup, Keogh would walk her home, which perhaps for her own reasons Sheila didn't mind. All in all, Weenyah was a much chastened town, what with no drinking after six and Kevin so down he never laughed and skylarked anymore. The way that fellow Keogh hounded him there wasn't a person who wouldn't tell you it was a bloody shame.
And Ian was the first to agree. Shaking his head sadly, he would add, "Also, the bastard's hell on business."
The townsmen seconded that, and one of them was always bound to say, "Ah, if only we had Sergeant McComstie back." Because it was, after all, a burden to have to do all their drinking before six o'clock.
As for Kevin, if it hadn't been for Sheila, he would have left the district altogether, not that he couldn't have gotten status if he'd wanted it. No less a person than Mr. Allison himself had offered him steady work any number of times. But the habits of a lifetime, even one as comparatively short as Kevin's, aren't easily broken. And then, too, what man doesn't have his pride?
"I tell you, Sheila," Kevin was heard to say more than once, "it fair drives me off my chump to see that great lout chasing after you. If it wasn't for that uniform, I'd bash his bloody thick head in!"
"Oh, no, Kevin, you can't do that! " she'd exclaim, truly frightened of what he might do but not so frightened that she couldn't think straight. "What you want is that job Mr. Allison's been offering you. The constable would have to leave off then, you can be sure of that."
"No. I won't be forced," Kevin would answer, although there was no question of his wanting to marry Sheila. It was a matter of principle as everyone agreed.
So it wasn't long before one and all, including Mr. Allison who was not only a Presbyterian but a beer drinker as well, was saying something ought to be done about "that damned scut, Keogh. " But what? For good or bad, he was the law, which you had to respect, though Constable Keogh did that well enough for them all.
If only he let down once in a way, it wouldn't have been so bad. But the only time you could get any relief from a fellow like that was when he went off to hunt kangaroo. And Lord knows that happened infrequently enough. When it did, you'd see him come out of his office all decked out in a canvas shooting jacket, twill riding breeches, knee boots, and a digger hat - just as though shooting a harmless 'roo was a thing you had to dress for.
The townspeople would shake their heads in disbelief, and someone would likely say, "Would you take a dekko at that bloody get-up?"
He'd get on his motorbike, putt down the rutted main street, cross the bridge, dip down into the gully, and all that would be left of him then was a little cloud of dust moving west toward the hills. And at last you could draw an easy breath because it was well known that he'd be away until after dark, and you could drink your evening beer in peace. Still and all, though, you'd do well to keep an ear cocked after six o'clock just in case the fellow decided to come back early. If he did, the chances were you'd hear him when he reached the bridge, which meant there'd be time to duck out in case he stopped for a quick look. But if he went to his office first, there'd be time for another beer, or maybe two, if you were a really practiced hand at what city blokes called the "five-o'clock swill" - the brief hour between quitting time at five and the closing of the pubs at six.
But as Kevin knew, the trouble with a thing like that is if you try it on once or twice and nothing happens, you're likely to get careless. And Constable Keogh was not only mean, but to give the devil his due, he had a pretty good head on his shoulders. Not so good as Kevin's but good enough. So Kevin knew that even if Keogh weren't setting a trap, sooner or later some low trick would occur to him, which is why Kevin placed a guard at the bridge when Keogh went off on his hunting expeditions.
It wasn't one of the men, to be sure. But for a couple of bob it's surprising how long a sharp lad, not old enough to drink beery anyway, will sit at the head of a gully waiting for a man to park his motorbike. So no matter how swelled up with pride Constable Keogh must have been when he left his motorbike in the gully, he must have felt a bloody awful fool when he stepped into the bar and found it as empty as a discarded pot. In fact, nothing short of a double brandy would help swallow what he'd got in his craw. But just as he set the glass back down on the bar, Kevin and the other men who had been waiting out back walked in and ordered up.
Keogh was dumbfounded at first, his face going all red, unable to speak a word, until finally he shouted, "Here, now! What the hell do you think you're doing!"
But no one paid him the least bit of attention, and so he shouted again, more or less repeating himself, "What the hell do you lot think you're up to!"
Kevin turned and gave him a scornful look. "Now, who the hell is he, and what do you suppose he's yammering about?" he asked of no one in particular, which, as you can imagine, did nothing only infuriate Keogh even more.
"Ahg, clear out of this," Keogh choked out, "or I'll have you up on charge, the bloody lot of you!"
At that Kevin laughed. "Just hear him go on," he said. "You'd bloody well think he was a chief inspector at the very least."
Well, that was too much for Constable Keogh. He charged up to grab Kevin, but Kevin neatly side stepped, and Keogh all off balance, pitched forward and slid across the floor on his face. When he jumped up and turned around, there was Kevin facing him in a boxer's stance. Keogh was absolutely furious. He lunged forward, jabbing and swinging like a crazy man. And Kevin, who of course had to protect himself from the mad hunter, feinted, bobbed, counter punched, and then stepped in and caught him with a tremendous blow flush on the point of his jaw. And Keogh went down like pole-axed steer.
"God's truth!" exclaimed Ian, who was the first to find his voice. "You'll have to make yourself scarce now, lad, and no doubt about it."
"I'm afraid that's true, Kevin. You're for it, no question, if this fellow ever stirs again," agreed Mr. Allison, looking doubtfully at the constable stretched at his feet.
"My bloody oath," someone else added. "And that's saying nothing at all of the way you talked to him. He'll have you, hide and all."
Kevin listened calmly as he finished his beer and then said, "He can do as he bloody well likes. I won't be forces."
"Ah, don't be foolish, lad," Ian begged. "It'll be the court in Coonamble this time and a sentence too. You can count on it."
But Kevin would not be moved, no matter what anyone said or how convincing the argument. When Constable Keogh finally came around, he threw Kevin into jail and wrote him up for every violation possible, which meant he'd be taking Kevin to court within a week or two at the latest.
In the meantime there was much sympathetic talk in Weenyah not only about Kevin but with him also. So when Keogh took him to Coonamble some days later, there were several touring car loads of Kevin's friends following along, among them Ian, who couldn't have sold a drop of beer that day anyway.
It was a solemn moment when Kevin stood up in the dock to hear the magistrate read the lengthy charge against him. And it was even more solemn when the magistrate intoned, "Prisoner before the bar. How plead you, guilty or not guilty?"
"Not guilty, sir," Kevin answered without a moments hesitation.
"Come, come, now" the magistrate said, forgetting the formality of the court as he suspiciously eyed Keogh's still bruised chin. "Do you mean to tell the court you didn't strike this officer?"
Kevin glanced briefly at Constable Keogh, standing stern and straight in his natty blue uniform. "Yes, sir, I do," he said. "The bloke I hit was dressed in civil clothes, and a loud-mouthed skite he was, too, if you'll pardon my saying so."
The roar of laughter rose to deafening heights and lasted for some time. And when order was at last restored, much the same story was told by Ian and the others who were summoned as witnesses, including Mr. Allison who said, "The fellow Kevin hit was wearing no uniform. But, more importantly, he was drinking after hours, a thing, I believe, no constable would do."
Poor Keogh was speechless, not that anything he might have said could have save him. When a strict Presbyterian, who was also the biggest land holder in the shire, said the man had been drinking after hours, the magistrate had to conclude that there must have been a mistake. And so the case was dismissed, and Constable Keogh was in due course shipped off, no doubt greatly saddened when he thought of Sheila and even more so when he thought of his chances of becoming a sergeant. But as Kevin always said later, "You couldn't expect a city bloke like Keogh to know any better."
By then Kevin had taken the job Mr. Allison had been kind enough to offer him again. He wasn't being forced, you see, besides which Sheila was all still the prettiest girl in the district. And who could tell what kind of a surly scut could take Constable Keogh's place?