In which Sergeant Paxton of the Durham Constabulary loses a prisoner, and later finds him again.
The man groaned as he rolled over in the mud at the side of the lonely road on the North York Moors. He tried to open his eyes but as he did so, a blinding flash swept across his eyes, and he cried out in pain. It was several moments before he tried to open them again. This time he raised his eyelids gingerly just a crack, allowing the light to filter in slowly.
Gradually his vision cleared and the pain in his head subsided to a dull throb. He was able to sit up and look around him. He saw the wreckage of a small carriage lying shattered in the ditch, and next to it a prone body. He crawled across to the fallen man and felt for a pulse. There was none. The odd contorted position of the body suggested a broken neck. At any event his companion was dead.
He sat there dazed, trying to remember how the accident had occurred, but his memory was blank. With an increasing sense of unease he realized that he could not remember where he had been going and what he was doing in this deserted place. Presumably he had been a passenger in the wrecked vehicle, but the reason for his journey he could not recall. With a surge of panic he further realized that he could not remember his own name or his occupation or anything about himself!
Struggling to retain his composure, he looked down at his clothes searching for a pocket that might contain an object or a document that might aid his memory. To his horror he saw that he was wearing a coarse, striped uniform, consisting of pants and a tunic with a pair of worn shoes on his feet. What could this mean?
He struggled to his feet, and staggered off across the moors.
“Have we heard anything from Sergeant Paxton?” inquired the Chief Constable.
“He sent us a telegram, sir,” replied Constable Wilkins. “It said that he had received the murder suspect, Morton, into his custody from the local constabulary in Newton-on-Rawcliffe, where the fugitive was captured, and that he had hired a carriage to take him and the prisoner across the moors to Scarborough where he was planning to catch a train.”
Perhaps I should have sent two men to pick up Morton, thought the Chief Constable. After all he is a dangerous man! But then Paxton is an experienced and capable officer. He’ll bring him back.
“Keep me informed, constable,” he barked, “and let me know just as soon as Paxton arrives back in Durham.”
“Yes, sir,” said Wilkins obediently.
The man in the striped suit was stumbling through the heather and bracken. A light drizzle had begun to fall. The sensation of soft rain against his face was soothing, but his mind was clouded and dull.
Questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What happened to me?’ and ‘Where am I to go?’ were seared across his brain, but no answers were forthcoming.
His unsteady gait carried him on a meandering path across the moor. There was no sign of any human habitation anywhere in sight. Indeed the only signs of life were a couple of sheep grazing nearby. They paused in their cropping of the short grass, and raised their heads to eye him suspiciously as he passed, their jaws moving rhythmically as they chewed.
He staggered on through the driving rain. All of a sudden the ground gave way beneath his feet, and he tumbled down a steep slope, his body turning over and over. Unable to halt his plunge, he continued rolling until the ground flattened out again. When he finally came to a halt, his head spinning with dizziness, he lay on his back for a while until the sky stopped wheeling above his head. Hearing the sound of rushing water in his ear, he turned his head to see a stream flowing by only inches from his face. He rolled over again until he could splash his face with cold water, and then he hauled himself to his feet.
Across the stream was a low hut constructed of branches and thatched with grass, probably built as a shelter for the shepherds. He suddenly felt a wave of weariness sweep through his body, so he splashed rapidly through the stream and approached the hut cautiously. It took him only a few moments to ascertain that the shelter was empty before he crawled inside and sank gratefully onto a pile of straw in the corner. Within seconds he had sunk into a deep sleep.
A deep-throated growl awoke him, and in the gathering gloom he could pick out a pair of fierce eyes and a row of sharp teeth a few feet away.
“Quiet, boy,” said a voice from the gloom. “Keep still, mister. Dinna thee move and he’ll not hurt thee.”
The man lay still as the newcomer raised a lantern and shone it into the hut.
“My name is Tom Huddlestone, a shepherd by profession,” said the newcomer cautiously, “and who might you be?’
The man in the hut shrugged, and replied with an effort:
“It may sound fanciful, but I’ve no idea who I am. I was in an accident up on the highway. A coach overturned. The driver was killed. I must have hit my head, for I can’t remember anything. My name, my occupation, and my purpose in being here, I can remember nothing about them.”
“You’re in a pretty pickle, and no mistake!” exclaimed Huddlestone. “But this much I can tell thee. Tha were a prisoner on his way to jail.”
“How do you know?” asked the man in a puzzled voice.
“Why, look at thy clobber, lad,” said the shepherd. “Your suit of clothes! Tha’s wearin’ a prisoner’s suit!”
A puzzled expression crossed the other man’s face as he stared down at his rough striped garments.
“No! It can’t be!” he declared hoarsely. “I know I can’t remember, but I’m certain I’m no criminal!”
“Listen,” continued the shepherd, “I’ve nowt agin thee, but I think you’d best come quietly with me, and I’ll help thee to the police station down in the valley. That head o’ yourn needs attention, and at least tha’ll be indoors. Tha’ll catch thy death out here on’t moors after dark. Better to be in t’ warm prison than die out here o’ the cold.”
The man in the shelter thought for a moment, and the he nodded with resignation and crawled out of the hut. The shepherd took him by the arm.
“Here, lean on my shoulder, lad,” he said kindly. “I’ll tek thee down.”
The two men set off slowly down the hill with the suspicious sheepdog trailing in their wake.
Meanwhile on another stretch of moorland another man, dressed in a crumpled blue serge uniform was plodding through the mud. Every so often he would pause to squint behind him through the curtain of falling rain as if he expected some kind of pursuit. Suddenly he spotted a glimmer of light up ahead, and wearily he turned his footsteps in that direction.
After about twenty minutes he saw a drystone wall looming out of the mist and beyond it the dark shape of a building. Staggering up to the wall, he hauled himself over with some difficulty, dislodging a stone which tumbled to the earth with a thump. He froze to listen, but there were no signs that anyone had heard him.
He advanced towards the building and peered through the door into the interior, but he could make out nothing. He searched his pockets for a match, and having at last found one, he struck it on the lintel of the door and held it out to illuminate the gloom. In the short time before the match burned down to his fingers he was able to determine that the building was a barn ad that there was a pile of hay in the corner. Reaching out his hands in front of him, he groped across the barn, and collapsed into the hay. He fell asleep in moments.
When he awoke, bright sunlight was pouring through the barn door. Almost immediately he felt sharp pangs of hunger as he realized that he had not eaten since yesterday’s breakfast. Rolling over and clambering to his feet, he stuck his head cautiously round the door. Across the yard was a thatched stone farmhouse. There were no indications that the inhabitants were stirring. Turning his head he saw a low wooden shed. A hen was just emerging through a small opening at its base. A nice fresh egg for breakfast, he thought to himself, just what the doctor ordered!
He crossed the yard and glanced through the chicken wire stretched across the top of the henhouse door. Several hens sat in the straw, peering back at him with their beady eyes. Very carefully he opened the door.
There was a scuffling and a clucking as he nudged the hens aside and gathered two brown eggs still warm from the straw. Turning swiftly, he found himself facing the twin barrels of a shotgun in the arms of a burly man with greying hair, obviously the farmer!
“Thought I ‘eard something,” growled the farmer. “So tha’s after our eggs, art thou? Why I’ve a good mind to blast you full o’ holes, you ruffian!”
The egg-thief paled visibly at this prospect, and stammered out a hasty reply:
“I…I meant no harm. I was just starving with hunger!”
“And tha never thought to knock on’t door,” said the farmer suspiciously. “We’re kindly Yorkshire folk! We’d ha’ gi’en thee some breakfast! Who art thee? Some kind of rascal, I’ll be bound. Honest men don’t go thievin’ from the henhouse!”
The other man was glancing warily from right to left as if seeking some means of escape. Then he seemed to come to a decision.
“I’m a police officer,” he said. “Sergeant Paxton of the Durham Constabulary.”
The farmer stared at him incredulously.
“Stealing eggs from my henhouse, and you say you’re a policeman! How am I to believe such rot?” he exclaimed.
“If you’ll allow me to reach in my pocket, I’ll find my badge, and show it thee,” said the policeman.
“Against my better judgement!” replied the farmer. “But I’ll warn thee. Be most careful for I’ll not need much prompting to turn you into a colander if you make the slightest wrong move!”
Gingerly the policeman reached into the pocket of his still damp blue serge uniform and pulled out his badge and warrant card. He held it out to the farmer who gave it a peremptory glance before returning it.
“I can barely read,” he grunted. “Never had much time for schooling. Looks genuine enough, but I’m going to escort thee down to the village, and let the local constable take a look.”
He brandished the barrels of his shotgun in the direction of the farmhouse.
“Now you just step lightly over there to the farmhouse, and sit down on the step,” he continued.
The policeman obliged, walking slowly and carefully, and perching on the edge of the stone steps leading up to the cottage door. The farmer followed keeping his shotgun well out of reach of his captive. When the farmer arrived at the threshold, he raised the door-latch with one hand, keeping a wary eye on his companion.
“Nelly,” he called, “bring a slice of bread and cheese and a cup of milk for our guest!”
Moments later the farmer’s wife emerged, carrying a platter of food and a tin cup which she set down next to the man on the step. She gave him a scared glance before scuttling back into the house again.
“Get that down thee, ‘Sergeant’!” said the farmer with a sarcastic emphasis on the last word. “And then we’ll be off down to the constable’s house.”
The policeman devoured the bread and cheese hungrily and swallowed the milk. As soon as he was finished, the farmer gestured with his shotgun in the direction of the carriage track which led past the farm.
“You lead on, ‘Sarge’,” he remarked drily. “’Tis only a mile or so. But remember, no foolish tricks! My itchy finger’s on these triggers, and you’d not want them to slip!”
With a slight shrug of his shoulders the police officer set off down the track.”
“I’m obliged to thee,” said Constable Jock Sinclair to farmer John Ripley. “There’s been a bad crash up on the moors. One man is dead, and we’ve two in custody, one that’s lost his memory but appears to be some type of convict, and the other who claims to be a police sergeant. I’m no sure what tae make of it!”
The Scottish police officer scratched his head with a puzzled frown.
“I’ve sent a message to the station at Newton-on Rawcliffe to see if they know anything aboot it. Jimmy Heatherstone took the message. He was going up there with a cart full o’ turnips to sell. He’ll no be back till the neet. Maybe then we’ll know some more. I’ve a favor to ask thee, Mr. Ripley. I’m short-handed here as ye know, so I’d be most grateful if you could see your way to sittin’ in here wi’ your shotgun while I talk to these fellows. Two heeds are better than one in these situations I find.”
“I’m no copper,” replied Ripley, “but I’ll confess I’m curious to get to the bottom o’ this business, so I’ll stay a while. I guess Nelly can handle the farm for an hour or two.”
Constable Sinclair left the room, and returned escorting the police officer. He held his prisoner firmly by the arm, although the other showed no inclination to resist. Sinclair sat the man in a chair by the window and proceeded to question him. The farmer looked on, his shotgun cradled in his arms.
“So you say you’re Sergeant Paxton of the Durham Constabulary,” began Sinclair, “and your credentials seem in order, but I’d like you to tell me what you’re doing here in Yorkshire.”
“That’s easily explained,” replied the man opposite calmly. “I was sent down to pick up a suspect who’s wanted for murder in Durham. His name is Willie Morton, and I’ve reason to believe he’s the man you’re holding in the cell next to mine. The carriage I hired to take us across the moors lost a wheel on a sharp bend. The driver lost control, and we turned over. I lost consciousness, and when I awoke, I found the driver dead with a broken neck and Morton gone. So I set off in pursuit. I couldn’t find him, so I took shelter in this man’s barn for the night.”
“And why were you lifting his eggs?” pressed Sinclair. “Why did you no knock on the good man’s door?”
“It didn’t look like anyone was awake,” explained the other. “I didn’t want to disturb them. I’d have left some money on the steps for the eggs. I was just so hungry.”
Sinclair peered at the man’s face as if trying to discern the truth of his reply. The frank open expression on the other’s face prompted him to accept the explanation at face value for the moment.
“Ripley,” he said, “if you’d keep an eye on this fellow for a wee moment, I’ll be fetching the other up from the cells.”
He returned in a short time leading the man in the striped garments. He had taken the precaution of fitting his captive with handcuffs. The prisoner slumped into a chair next to the police officer. His face was worn and weary, his eyes wore a haunted look, and there was stubble growing on his cheeks and chin.
“So is this Morton?” asked Sinclair.
The man in the police uniform nodded.
“Aye, that’s him,” he said decisively.
At this, the other prisoner started up in his chair. The silence was broken by the threatening click of Ripley cocking the shotgun.
“Easy!” exclaimed Sinclair, stretching out a warning hand. “Let’s no do anything we may regret.”
Ripley cautiously un-cocked the shotgun.
“Now, you, what have you to say for yourself?” he said sharply, addressing the man in the striped suit.
“Yesterday after the accident I was in a daze,” began the prisoner. “I could remember nothing. But after some sleep in your most comfortable cell, my memory has been returning. Things have been flooding back. Now I believe that the fellow in the police uniform sitting next to me is my prisoner Joseph Morton, and I am Sergeant Arthur Paxton of the Durham Constabulary!”
His neighbor in the blue uniform sat bolt upright in his chair.
“You cannot believe this!” he protested. “It’s a cunning ploy to hoodwink you and escape from custody. He’s a desperate man. He’ll do anything to gain his freedom!”
“What do you say to that?’ asked Sinclair sternly of the man in the striped suit. “The other fellow has the badge and warrant card identifying him as Sergeant Paxton. You have nothing, and you are dressed in the clothes of a convict. You cannot surely expect us to believe this preposterous story!”
“Nevertheless it is the truth,” replied the other. “Obviously while I lay unconscious, he switched clothes with me, taking my uniform and credentials, and dressing me in his prison garb. A simple ruse.”
“Can you prove this?” expostulated Sinclair.
The man in the striped suit spread his arms wide in a gesture of resignation.
“I regret that I cannot offer you indisputable proof. You have only my word.”
“Aye, the word of a miscreant and a murderer!” exclaimed the man in the blue uniform angrily. “Surely it must be obvious that this is a trick! I have the credentials. I am Sergeant Paxton!”
Sinclair sat in his chair nonplussed, as he wracked his brains for a way to solve the dilemma of identity.
“Let me proceed on my way with my prisoner,” said the man in the blue serge uniform. “And you’ll have no further trouble, I assure you.”
“Aye,” said the man in the striped suit. “As soon as he gets out of sight he’ll slit my throat and leave me in a ditch while he makes his…” All of a sudden he paused in mid-sentence, and smote his brow. “Of course,” he said. “Why didn’t I think of it before?”
He turned to Sinclair and said in an urgent tone:
“Constable, did you not receive a circular from the Durham Constabulary with a description of the fugitive Morton?”
“Aye, I believe so!” replied Sinclair, crossing to his desk. “It’s somewhere here. Aye, here it is!”
The constable waved a paper in his hand.
“Look at the description!” said the man in the striped suit. “Is there mention of a tattoo?”
“Aye, there is!” exclaimed Sinclair, rising excitement detectable in his voice. “It says a tattoo of an anchor is clearly visible on his right fore-arm!”
“Take off my handcuffs for a moment,” said the man in the striped suit. “You can shoot me down if I try to escape!”
“Behold!” said the man in the striped suit, drawing up his right sleeve and displaying his fore-arm to the startled gazes of Sinclair and Ripley. To make it quite clear there was no mistake he proceeded to show his left fore-arm as well.
Both arms were clearly devoid of any such tattoo.
There was an audible gasp of surprise from Sinclair. His gaze was turned to the man in the blue serge uniform.
“Your turn!” he declared.
Suddenly the uniformed man threw himself from his chair in the direction of Ripley in an effort to lay hands on the shotgun. The man in the striped suit shot out his leg and adroitly tripped his rival, sending him sprawling at the feet of Constable Sinclair. The Constable seized the fallen man’s left wrist and snapped on one half of a pair of handcuffs. The other half he proceeded to secure to the man’s left ankle, leaving his prisoner shackled and crouched helpless on the floor.
Sinclair drew up the man’s sleeve to reveal the right arm. There clear and sharp was an artistically tattooed anchor in all its glory.
“You’re under arrest, Mr. Morton,” said Sinclair triumphantly. “You’ll no be going anywhere for a while, and you’ll no more be masquerading as one of Her Majesty’s officers o’ the law.”
Sergeant Arthur Paxton was feeling quite himself again after the nightmare of the last twenty-four hours. His head still ached, but he was washed and shaved, and once more clothed in a dry blue uniform, his helmet, a little damaged but still intact having been recovered from the wreckage of the carriage. Morton was downstairs locked securely in a cell.
“Excellent work, Constable Sinclair,” said Paxton. “I can’t thank you enough. I’ll be mentioning you in my official report.”
“’Twas nothing,” replied Sinclair modestly. “Just doing mah job! All the credit should go to Mr. Ripley here for no accepting that rogue’s story and for bringin’ him doon for questioning. If he hadna detained him, the rascal would likely have got clean awa’.”
“Glad to be of assistance,” acknowledged Ripley modestly. “I just couldn’t quite believe a policeman would steal eggs from a henhouse. It’s not the action of an honest man.”
“Nevertheless, Mr. Ripley,” said Paxton. “You detained a dangerous man at some risk to your own person, and enabled us to find the truth and place him in custody again. I’ll be mentioning you too in my report. At the very least expect a commendation from my chief constable! With your cooperation, Constable Sinclair, we’ll hold Morton in your cells until a couple of my colleagues from Durham arrive to assist me in escorting him to the safety of Durham City Jail. He has an appointment with a judge and jury, who will pronounce a verdict upon him and see justice carried out on him for his crime. Now, constable, have you the means to brew us all a hot cup of tea after all this excitement.”
“Aye, I surely do!” replied Sinclair with a gleam in his eye, “and I do believe I can find a wee dram of good Scottish whisky to put the glow of good cheer in us.”
“Champion!” said Sergeant Arthur Paxton. “Champion!”