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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 78

Chapter VII. — The Benevolent Detectives and the Ingenuous Sheep-Stealer

Chapter VII.

The Benevolent Detectives and the Ingenuous Sheep-Stealer.

Suspicious Chronology.

The presence of the Company's sheep on Meikle's land was properly treated before the Commission as of secondary importance, since they might easily have strayed there been put there without his knowledge by Lambert or some other person. Nevertheless this subsidiary issue is of the utmost value as a test of probability, and it will be convenient to examine it before proceeding further with the "crux of the case." It is the chronology of this part of Lambert's story that constitutes its most suspicious feature, and suspicion deepens into conviction when its light is brought to bear upon the meaning of that mysterious visit which Lambert is unable to explain. If he had really seen what he says he saw on the 18th October, half-a-dozen witnesses might have been brought from the Company's station that very night to find in the earless head of the decapitated sheep and in the paint-brand on the fleece, whether tampered with or not, irrebuttable confirmation of Lambert's story; and the police might have been in with a warrant soon after daylight next morning. Instead of that, no attempt whatever was made to seize the prisoner practically redhanded; on the contrary, he was given a clear fortnight within which to dispose of his booty and to cover up the traces of his crime. The exact date of Lambert's communication to Stuart, his superior officer on the Company's detective staff, page 27 cannot be fixed; but it was somewhere between a day or two after the alleged crime, and a day or two before the muster—(147/154-7)—i.e., anywhere from the 19th or 20th to the 24th or 25th October. Of this, however, Stuart is certain—that he got the information at the hut—(147/158)—in the course of his ordinary rounds, and that Lambert had not considered the matter of sufficient importance to justify a journey to the homestead in order to convey the news, though the sole object of his employment was to secure a conviction, and his £50 could be earned in no other way.

Good Enough for "Pinafore."

Even after Stuart professes to have received the information, his delay in acting upon it is as unaccountable on the assumption of its genuineness as Lambert's delay in passing it on .Here is the explanation which Stuart made m the box:—

"Why did you not go to the police at once?"—" There was a report of a horse having been stolen, and I had a feeling that I would give Meikle a chance. If he would send word that the sheep were in his paddock, or would turn them out, or say something about them, I would not have laid the information. I did not want to take the man short, because I was pretty certain he would say I had got some one to put in the sheep."—(C. 149/227.)

Truly "a virtuous and a Christian-like conclusion," but such-soft-heartedness, however becoming in the detective of comic opera, would represent anywhere else a combination of treachery and gushing incompetence not to be lightly credited. According to Troup, the Company had been losing sheep at the rate of over 1000 a year—(C. 131/31)*; Lambert had been retained with the express object of securing the thief; and Stuart, as an ex-policeman, was also employed for the same purpose. (P. 21 and 41.) Yet the chief detective's first thought when the necessary evidence was forthcoming against the man who had been suspected long before was not "to take the man short," but to give him a chance to return these sheep—and steal some more when nobody was looking! Before any more critical audience than the marines of H.M.S. "Pinafore" such a cock-and-bull story will never pass muster. Some page 28 explanation less flattering to the human heart and less insulting to the human intelligence must be sought than the drivelling benevolence for which Stuart now claims credit. Whether he is to be regarded as Lambert's accomplice or merely his dupe, the suggestion that the sheep alone would not constitute sufficient evidence doubtless supplies the key. Something more was needed than the ambiguous presence of the sheep to turn the scale between the conflicting oaths of informer and victim; and the long delay which on any other theory would have been utterly idiotic became rational and inevitable until that something was supplied. If the missing link was supplied on the night of the 1st November, it must be conceded that the Company's detective staff acted with praiseworthy promptitude in putting the police in on the following morning.

Dr. Findlay's Complete Sheep-stealer.

If the fourteen days' delay in taking proceedings implies, on the supposition that Lambert's story was true, something like insanity on the part of the Company's staff, a similar deficiency must on the same hypothesis be attributed to the criminal. His engaging simplicity would at any rate be just as well fitted for opera-bouffe as the loving-kindness of those who were employed to trap him. It is true that he did not return those sheep with a polite note on the following morning, as Stuart had fondly hoped; and there was a sufficient reason, in he had not stolen them and did not know they were there But if Meikle betrayed no sign of that change of heart for which the Company's chief detective was praying, he at I rate justified that gentleman's good opinion in a fashion almost equally remarkable. For fourteen days those sheep remained on his land, and though Lambert did not think it worth while to look at them during the interval—(C. 180/724)—not a single one had been removed or tampered with when the police called Though Meikle's need was, according to Lambert, so urgent that he killed one as fast as he could lay his hands on it though he knew that there was a witness to his crime, that he had been previously suspected, and that there was a reward out for his conviction, he treated the other twenty-seven sheep exactly as though he had not known of their presence. By way of rebutting the natural presumption from this singular circumstance, Dr. Findlay described the practice of the sheep stealing expert as follows:—

"I understand that it is the recognised method of the practical sheep-stealer to bring upon his land a number—not a large number—say, twenty or thirty sheep, leave them there, and take them in one's or two's as they are required, so that if the owner comes along and the missing sheep are found, the thief may say, 'There they are in broad, open daylight. There's no concealment about their being here. I would not have left them there if I had stolen them, and you can take them away when you like.' That in practice has been page 29 found to be the method followed by the expert sheep-stealer, and so far as prima facie appearances are concerned, this is just precisely what was done here."—(C. III.)

Precisely the same—only quite different.

That so able and experienced an advocate should be driven to such an argument is a convincing illustration of the weakness of his case. To apply the test which he proposes is to acquit Meikle, not to convict him. If Meikle had followed the method suggested, at the rate of two a day, not a single one would have been left for the police to find at the end of the fortnight. The removal by "ones or twos, as they are required Sired, is," says Dr. Findlay, "just precisely what was done here," though here fourteen days had passed and not a single sheep had disappeared but this ingenuous sheep-stealer, besides this fragrantly violating the canons of his craft as laid down the counsel for the Crown, had ventured on a remarkable addition to them out of the goodness of his heart. In order to rebut the strong presumption of innocence-which his first departure from the rules had created, in order to demonstrate that at the alien sheep on his land were the result not of accident or a trap, but of his own crime, he thoughtfully left two sheepskins bearing his neighbour's brand for anybody to see who looked through the open door of his smithy. And though he had, according to Lambert's original version, immediately destroyed the ear-mark and the fire-brand on the sheep that was killed, and according to the revised version which the same witness produced in Court for the first time nearly nineteen years afterwards, he had destroyed the paint-brand also, yet the paint-brand was not touched on either of the-skins which were left in the smithy for the information of the police. If Meikle really acted so, should he not rather have been acquitted as a lunatic than convicted as a thief?

* 1000 stolen out of a total of 2500 in the year ending 19th October, 1887! Mr. T. W. Perry, who was manager of the station for about two years immediately prior to Troup's appointment in February, 1887, says that there were no abnormal losses at all in his time—(C. 189 /47-49; 190/87-89, 96-97.) As his term covered four months of the year mentioned by Troup, it follows that the 1000 sheep were all stolen in eight months—i.e., at the rate of 1500 a year! Christie, who succeeded Troup, estimated the losses in his first year not accounted for by ordinary causes at "something under 100"—(C. 188/10). Thus there were somewhere about 100 more sheep stolen from Islay during Chris tie's, when Meikle was in gaol, than under Perry, when he was at large Troup's amazing rate of 1500 a year means either colossal ex-aggeration or else that some of the Company's servants were thieving wholesale and spreading suspicion against somebody else.