[Frontispiece: THE OUTPOST OF DEATH Page 253]
Author of "The Golden Valley" &c.
BLACKIE & SON LIMITED
LONDON AND GLASGOW
[Transcriber's Note: "Jim Bushman" is a pseudonym of Conrad H. Sayce.]
Blackie's Imperial Library
Ann's Great Adventure. E. E. Cowper. The Golden Magnet. G. Manville Fenn. Every Inch a Briton. Meredith Fletcher. 'Twixt Earth and Sky. C. R. Kenyon. In the Musgrave Ranges. Jim Bushman. No Ordinary Girl. Bessie Marchant. Norah to the Rescue. Bessie Marchant. What Happened to Kitty. Theodora Wilson Wilson.
I. A TORNADO II. CAMELS III. A MESSAGE FROM THE UNKNOWN IV. WILD CATTLE V. RIDING TESTS VI. SMOKE SIGNALS VII. STEALTHY FOES VIII. FIRST SIGHT OF THE MUSGRAVES IX. DISASTER X. A SANDSTORM XI. THIRST XII. THE RESCUE XIII. SIDCOTINGA STATION XIV. A MAD BULL XV. A NIGHT ALARM XVI. MUSTERING XVII. THE BRANDED WARRAGUL XVIII. REVENGE XIX. CHIVALRY IN THE DESERT XX. THE BULL-ROARER XXI. HORSESHOE BEND XXII. FACING DEATH XXIII. A FRIEND AND A FOE XXIV. A PRISONER XXV. THE OUTPOST OF DEATH XXVI. ARRKROO, THE HATER XXVII. THE DANCE OF DEATH XXVIII. CONCLUSION
IN THE MUSGRAVE RANGES
Towards the end of a long hot day, a shabby mixed train stopped at one of the most wonderful townships in the world, Hergott Springs, the first of the great cattle-trucking depots of Central Australia. It was dark, but a hurricane lantern, swung under a veranda, showed that the men who were waiting for the train were not ordinary men. They were men of the desert. Most of them were tall, thin, weather-beaten Australians, in shirt sleeves and strong trousers worn smooth inside the leg with much riding. A few Afghans were there too, big, dignified, and silent, with white turbans above their black faces; while a little distance away was a crowd of aboriginal men and women, yabbering excitedly and laughing together because the fortnightly train had at last come in. The same crowd would watch it start out in the morning on the last stage of its long journey to Oodnadatta, the railway terminus and the metropolis of Central Australia.
There were very few passengers on the train, and all of them seemed known to everybody and were greeted with hearty handshakes and loud rough words of welcome back to the North. Two passengers, however, did not get out of the carriage for a time, being unwilling to face that crowd of absolute strangers. They were Saxon Stobart and Rodger Vaughan, boys of about fifteen, who were on their way to Oodnadatta. It was their first sight of the back country.
Presently a big man with only one eye climbed back into the carriage where they were sitting. "Here, don't you lads want a feed?" he asked. "You won't get it here, you know."
"We don't know where to go," said one of them. "We thought we'd wait a bit."
"Don't you do too much waiting in this part of the country," said the man kindly. "You just hop in and get your cut. See? You'll get left if you don't. Now, get hold of your things and come along. I'll fix you up."
The result of the stranger's kindness was that the two boys shared a room with him at the only hotel in the place, and had a hearty meal in a room full of men in shirt sleeves, who shouted to one another and laughed in the most friendly manner.
After tea the two friends went out into the sandy street to stretch their legs after the long day's railway ride, before going to bed. It was so dark that they couldn't see anything at first, and nearly ran into a knot of men who were standing and smoking. They recognized the voice of one of them as that of the man who had taken them over to the hotel. They knew him only as Peter, a name which his companions called him.
"I never saw it look so bad," he was saying. "Just look at the moon, too."
"How far away d'you reckon it is?" asked another man. "It's a long way yet, I reckon. You can't hear any thunder. I wonder if it's coming this way."
Vaughan nudged his companion. "What are they talking about, Sax?" he asked.
Stobart pointed north into the darkness. Overhead, and nearly to the horizon, the sky was a mass of stars, but just on the northern horizon was a patch where no stars were to be seen. As their eyes became accustomed to the night, they saw that this patch looked as if it was alive with flashing, coiling, darting red things. It was like a mass of snakes squirming in agony, and now and again a clear white jet of light came out of the darkness, as if one of them was spitting venom at the sky. In reality, the boys were looking at one of those terrible electric storms which tear across Central Australia after a severe drought, and the lurid colours were caused by lightning flashing inside a very thick cloud.
But no interest was strong enough to overcome the healthy weariness of the boys, and they went to bed soon afterwards and fell asleep almost at once.
Saxon Stobart was the son of a famous drover who took huge mobs of cattle across the centre of the continent, and who was noted for his pluck and endurance, and for his skill as a bushman, which enabled him to travel through parts of the country where very few white men have ever been. His son had many of the qualities of mind and body which had made his father such a fine man. He was tall and thin, but was as active as a cat and stronger than most boys of his size and age. His friend Vaughan was a different-looking boy altogether. He was short and thick-set. Although Vaughan was not fat, he was so solidly built that his nickname "Boof" suited him very well indeed. His father used to own Langdale Station, a big sheep run in the Western District, but a series of bad droughts had forced him to sell the place.
The two boys had been great friends at school, and when Drover Stobart wrote to his son: "Come on up to Oodnadatta for a bit of a holiday before settling down, and bring your mate along with you", they both accepted the invitation with enthusiasm.
* * * * *
The boys were suddenly roused from sound sleep about three o'clock next morning by someone in the room shouting at them; "Hi, there! Hi! Get up, it's coming. Get up quick."
The next instant the bedclothes were jerked back and a man was pulling them roughly to their feet. It was all so sudden and unexpected that each boy thought that he was dreaming; but as the man shook and punched them into activity, they became aware of a terrifying noise coming at them across the desert through the black darkness of the night. The air vibrated with a tremendous booming which affected their ears like the deep notes of a huge organ, and the loudest shout was only just heard.
"It's me. It's Peter," said a voice at their side.
"Come for your lives. The tornado's right on top of us."
He caught each boy firmly by the wrist and dragged them, dressed only in pyjamas just as they had tumbled out of bed, out of the room, down the corridor, and out at the back of the hotel. Everything was in confusion. They bumped into people and upset chairs and things in their mad rush. Now and again Peter's voice rose above the din, shouting, "The tank! The tank!" but nobody paid any attention, even if they heard the voice of a man above that other and more dreadful voice which was coming nearer and nearer and striking terror into the hearts even of the brave dwellers in the desert.
The shock of the night air did more than anything else fully to arouse the boys. It was like a dash of cold water, and though Peter still kept a tight grip of them, they ran along level with him of their own accord. Out into the yard they dashed, round one or two corners, over a fence at the back of an outhouse, and suddenly the man stopped dead and began pulling at something on the ground. It was a grating with a big iron handle. It stuck. The approaching tornado roared with anger while the man put out all his great strength. The booming sound rose to a shriek of triumph, as if the storm actually saw that these escaping human beings were delivered into its power. But Peter's muscles were like steel and leather. He strained till the veins stood out on his forehead like rope. At last the thing loosened and came up, and the bushman sprawled on his back. But he was on his feet again instantly. Speech would have been no good, so he gripped Vaughan by the collar of his pyjamas and swung him into the hole in the ground, and only waited long enough for the boy to find a foothold before he did the same with Stobart. Then he scrambled down himself. They were in a big cement rain-water tank built in the ground at the back of the hotel. There was no water in it.
Nobody spoke. Nobody could speak. The air was so packed full of sound that it seemed as if it could not possibly hold one sound more. It was like the booming of a thousand great guns at the same time; the shock, the recoil, and the rush of air across the entrance to the tank was as if artillery practice on an immense scale were going on. There was a screaming sound as if shells were hurtling through space. Now the pitch blackness of the night was a solid mass; then it was red and livid like a recent bruise; and then again, with a crackle like the discharge of a Maxim, vivid flashes of white fire split the air. Thunder rolled continuously and lightning played without stopping, in a way which is seen and heard only on a battle-field or during a tornado in the desert. It sounded as if the pent-up fury of a thousand years had suddenly been let loose upon that little collection of houses on the vast barren plain.
Down in the tank it was as dark as a tomb. The boys were close to one another, crouched against the wall, unable to move through sheer amazement. Peter stood up and looked out through the entrance, expecting every moment to hear the sound of houses being torn up from their foundations and flung down again many yards distant, mere heaps of splintered wood and twisted iron, with perhaps mangled human corpses in the wreckage. But such a sound did not come.
The tornado lasted about three minutes—that was all—and then it passed, and all those tremendous sounds became muffled in the distance as it retreated.
Gradually the stunned senses of the boys began to recover, and they heard Peter speaking. "It missed us," he was saying. "It came pretty close, though. I thought the hotel was gone for a cert." Then he struck a match and held it to his pipe. The little light flared up steadily and showed two boys in pyjamas, the smooth cement walls of the tank, and the bushman in his shirt and trousers, but without his boots. It showed also a cat which had died a long time ago, and which had been dried up by the great heat. The sight of the squashed cat was so funny, down in the tank, that the boys started to laugh. It was a relief to do so after the strain of the last few minutes.
"We'd better get out of this," said Peter, throwing the match at the cat and starting to climb up an iron ladder. "Were you lads much scared?"
It was so evident that they had been very much scared that their emphatic denial of it made them all laugh again. "I tell you, I was," confessed the bushman. "I reckoned the whole town was going to glory. It would have, too, if the wind had struck it. The thing must have turned off before it got here."
Such tornadoes as the one described occur in Central Australia just before the breaking up of long droughts. Sometimes they are mere harmless willy-willies, which have not enough power to blow a man off his horse, but now and again a bigger one comes along, which travels at thirty or forty miles an hour at the centre and sweeps everything before it. These tornadoes may not be more than a quarter of a mile across, and look from the distance like huge brown waterspouts coiling up into the air till they are lost in the clear blue of the sky. Sometimes the whirling column of sand leaves the ground for a time and goes on spinning away high over the heads of everything, but it usually comes down again and goes on tearing across the country. The Central Australian tornado must not be confused with the tropical typhoon or cyclone, which is sometimes three or four hundred miles across.
Peter was right about the tornado turning off before it reached Hergott Springs. It came across the country from the Musgrave Ranges in the north-west till it reached the Dingo Creek. Here it turned and followed the dry depression, wrecked the Dingo Creek railway bridge, leaving it a mass of twisted iron and hanging sleepers, and then tore on down the line, doing a great deal of damage and making straight for the helpless township.
There is a very deep and wide cutting about a mile north of Hergott Springs, and the fury of the wind that night completely filled it up with sand from bank to bank. This undoubtedly saved the town, for, after this exhibition of its power, the tornado turned slightly to the east, and missed the houses entirely. The fringe of it, however, touched the end of the station yard, where the great water-tank stood. The wind caught this tremendous weight, lifted it from the platform, and threw it fifty yards, while the steel pillars of the stand were twisted together as if they had been cotton. A tool-shed which used to stand near the tank was moved bodily, and no trace of it was ever found. No doubt it was buried deep in one of the many sandhills which these terrific winds leave behind them.
It was not till next morning that the boys saw that the tornado had completely upset their plans. During the few terrible minutes of the storm, and for an hour afterwards, till sleep finally claimed them again, excitement drove all thoughts of the future clean away. But when they awoke late next morning, and looked out at the sky, which was blue and without a cloud, and across the sandy street at the collection of iron station buildings and the train by which they had arrived and which still stood waiting, and saw, beyond and around everything, the tremendous stretches of yellow sand already blazing in the heat, the affairs of the night seemed only a dream.
The reality of things was suddenly brought home to them when Peter came into the room with a cheery, "Good morning! How're you getting on?"
Both boys were feeling fine and said so, and then their friend told them: "You'd better hurry on a bit. The train starts back for town in about an hour."
Sax was using the towel at the time, and when he heard what Peter said, he stopped rubbing his face and looked at him in surprise.
"Back to town!" he exclaimed. "But we don't want to go back to town. We're going on to Oodnadatta."
"Going on to Oodnadatta, are you?" asked Peter, with a smile. "And how are you going to get there?"
"Why, by train, of course," broke in Vaughan. Then suddenly the events of the night appeared to him in a new light. "That is—of course—if it's running," he stammered.
"It's not running," said Peter. "And you take it from me, it won't run for a month or two. The tornado smashed the Dingo Creek bridge and tore up the line this side of it, too. Besides, the Long Cutting's full of sand. It'll take them a couple of weeks to clean that out."
The boys were too much amazed to speak. They looked at one another in blank dismay. They were indeed in a fix. Drover Stobart waiting for them in Oodnadatta, and here they were in Hergott Springs, and no chance of getting out of it for a month or two. Whatever were they to do?
Their bushman friend did not leave them long in uncertainty. He was a simple-hearted kindly man, and he could see by the boys' faces what they were thinking about. So he interrupted their gloomy thoughts by suggesting:
"See here. I don't know who you lads are, and you don't know much about me. But I've got to get to Oodnadatta some way or another. There's a plant of horses and niggers waiting for me up there. I'll fix up something. Would you care to come along with me?"
The boys' faces instantly showed their eager pleasure, and the man did not need their words of thanks to assure him that he was doing them a good turn.
"Thanks awfully!" they exclaimed. "Thank you very much, Mr.——"
"My name's Peter," said the man. "And there's no 'Mister' about me. What shall I call you two?"
"This is Vaughan," said Stobart, pointing to his friend. "My name's Stobart."
"Stobart! Stobart!" said Peter in surprise. "Anything to do with Boss Stobart?"
Sax had never heard his father's nickname, so he answered in a puzzled tone, "Boss Stobart?"
"Yes, bless you. Boss Stobart. And a fine man too. The best drover that ever crossed a horse in this country. Don't I know it too? We punched cattle together for ten years, did the Boss and me."
Sax's face beamed with delight. "That's my father," he said proudly.
Peter's big hand shot out in greeting. "So you're Boss Stobart's son, are you? Well, well, you seem a fine lad, and you've sure got a fine father." He also shook hands with Vaughan, and added: "So we're to be mates, are we? You leave things to me. I'll let you know about it when I've fixed things up."
Peter was busy all morning and the boys had time to look around the township. It seemed very small to them in comparison with the vast plains which stretched away on all sides of it. They felt sure that if once they got away out of sight of the scattered houses, they would never be able to find them again, for Hergott Springs is only a very tiny spot on the face of the desert. They watched the train go back the way it had come the day before, and then walked up to the end of the station yard to see the wrecked water-tank. Flocks of goats wandered about the township, picking up and eating bits of rubbish, just like stray dogs. They found that this was why the mutton they had eaten for tea and breakfast was so tough; for, because sheep cannot thrive in that part of the country, goats are kept and killed for meat.
Camels interested them very much. These tall, awkward, smelly, grey beasts stalked along with such dignity that it was almost impossible to believe them capable of the hard work they do. Through following a string of camels, tied together from nose-line to tail, the boys came to a collection of buildings outside the town proper. This was Afghan Town, where the black-skinned camel-drivers lived. They watched some camels kneeling down in the sand and being loaded with bags of flour and sugar, chests of tea, and cases of jam and tinned meat. These bulky packages were roped to the saddle till it appeared as if the poor beast underneath would never be able to get up. But, one after the other, they stood up when the time came, and stalked away, swaying gently from side to side as they pad-padded silently across the soft sand.
Suddenly the boys were startled by a most terrifying sound a little distance away. It was a bubbling roar, such as a bullock would make if he tried to bellow when he was drowning. They looked in the direction it came: from, and saw a big bull camel, blowing its bladder out of its mouth and lashing with its tail. They went over and found the animal standing in a little paddock fenced with strong stakes. The boys had never seen such a tremendous camel before. Its body and fore legs were thick and heavy, but its hind legs were trim and shapely, and reminded them of the hind-quarters of a greyhound. Its neck was broad and flat, and looked very strong, while its head, with the bloodshot eyes and the horrid red bladder hanging from the mouth, was not nice to see. It stood there with its fore feet fastened together by a chain, its hind ones spread wide apart, twitching its tail about, and roaring with a rumbling gurgle, either in rage or challenge. It was a sight to strike terror into anybody's heart.
Presently two Afghans came up and began to talk in English. "Ah!" said one, a little man, dressed in the blouse and baggy pantaloons of his native country, his face looking very cruel. "Ah! That's old Abul, is it? I've not seen him for ten years. He used to try and play tricks with me, did Abul, but I taught him his lessons; didn't I, Abul? I taught him not to play with me." He laughed at the remembrance of the cruelties he had practised on that camel ten years ago.
"He's a good camel," replied the other man. "He belongs to me. He's a very good camel. He doesn't want to be beaten. He works well. I can do anything I like with him." He began to climb over the fence, but the first speaker stopped him.
"What are you going to do?" he asked excitedly. "You must not go in there. He is a bad camel, I tell you. Abul is not safe. I know him. I was his master ten years ago."
"I'm only going to take off his hobbles," said the other man.
"Well, do not go in like that. I used to throw a rope and tie him up before I went near him. He is a bad camel, I tell you. But I taught him his lessons." He laughed again, and Sax shuddered as he looked at the man's cruel face.
But the present owner was not afraid. He had been kind to Abul. He went up to the great grey beast and stood beside it, looking very small indeed. The camel could have killed the man without any difficulty whatever, but, instead of that, it bent its head and looked at him and allowed its master to rub it between the ears.
The Afghan outside the fence was very excited. He muttered to himself, and now and again shouted to his fellow-countryman: "Look out! Look out, I tell you! That is only his way. It is all his bluff. Oh, he is a very bad camel! Look out, I tell you!"
The man inside the paddock took no notice of these warnings, for they were quite unnecessary. He stooped down and unfastened the hobbles from the animal's fore feet, and stood up again with them in his hand, and walked towards the fence where his companion was standing. The camel stalked after him.
Then an absolutely unexpected thing happened. When Abul was about ten yards from the fence, he made a sudden rush and grabbed his former owner by the coat. It was all so quick that no one knew what had occurred till they saw the huge camel walking round his enclosure with the screaming man dangling from his mouth. The old camel was going to have his revenge. He remembered his tormentor of ten years ago, and was going to kill him.
Suddenly there came a sound of tearing cloth. The coat had torn. The man sprawled on the ground for a moment, and then scrambled to his feet. He made a dash for the fence, but the camel was too quick for him. The terrified Afghan started to run and, as there was no way of escape, he had to run round and round the paddock with the camel at his heels. For a moment or two there was silence. The spectators were too much amazed to speak, and the unfortunate man himself was using all his breath in his effort to evade his pursuer. Abul could easily have caught him, but it looked as if the animal wanted to play with the cruel man, for he kept just behind him, whereas, if he had stretched out his neck, he could have grabbed him at any time.
A crowd of Afghans and aboriginals were quickly drawn to the spot, but they were far too excited to think of doing anything to help. The man was doomed. The death would be a cruel one, but the man had deserved it. Sax, however, was a clear-headed boy, and though the whole affair was more terrifying to him than to the others, because he was not used to camels, a plan at once suggested itself to him.
The proper entrance to the paddock was a strong iron gate. Shouting out for Vaughan to follow him, Sax ran to the gate. The Afghan had now run three times round the little paddock, and as he came round the fourth time, nearly exhausted, the boy called out to him. Just as the running man drew level with the gate Sax swung it open. The man fell through it and lay gasping on the sand, but the camel shot past it before it saw that it had lost its prey. The boys slammed the gate shut again. Abul turned and glared at them. It was about to break down the fence, which it could easily have done, when other camel-men arrived on the scene, and drove it back with sticks and savage dogs.
When they arrived back at the hotel for dinner, they found that Peter was looking for them. "Where've you been all the morning?" he asked.
The boys told him about their wanderings around the town, and about the bull camel which had nearly killed the Afghan.
"That must be Sultan Khan," said Peter. "I heard last night that he had come back into the country. The police kicked him out ten years ago for being cruel to his camels. It's a pity the bull didn't get him."
Sax looked crestfallen. It was not nice to hear that the man whom he had just saved from a most terrible death would have been better left to die. But Peter reassured him at once.
"Of course I don't mean that really," he said. "You did fine. It's what any decent white man would have tried to do. But I suppose you're dead scared of camels now."
The man went on to explain that he had arranged to travel north with a string of camels which was leaving the township the same afternoon. They would go as far as Dingo Creek and wait there for the train which was being sent down from Oodnadatta. "That's the best arrangement I can make," said Peter. "If you'd care to come along, now's your chance. You won't have much to do with camels, anyway. But don't mind saying if you'd rather not."
Both boys protested that they weren't a bit scared of camels and that they were anxious to go right away; so, after dinner, they got their belongings together and followed Peter to the outskirts of the town. Here they found a line of fifty camels kneeling in the sand ready to start.
Most of them were heavily loaded with stores for Oodnadatta which had come up on the same train as the boys had travelled by. More than a score of men had helped to unload the trucks that morning, and to arrange the bags and cases and bales ready for being roped to the camel-saddles. The boys were very much amused by the antics of three or four calf-camels. They looked like big lambs on stilts, except that their necks were longer. They frisked about and did not seem at all afraid; but when Vaughan tried to stroke one of them, it bumped into him and knocked him over, which made everybody laugh.
The man in charge of the camels was not an Afghan; he was an Indian named Becker Singh, a big, handsome, intelligent man, and he wore the same rough sort of clothes and hat as any Australian in the back country. He showed Peter the two camels he had chosen for the boys, and, after testing them himself, the bushman showed his two friends how to arrange their blankets on the iron framework of the saddle in order to make a comfortable seat, how to mount, and the easiest way to sit.
"Don't you try to do anything," he told them. "Just get your feet into the stirrups and sit loosely."
This was good advice and saved the boys the usual discomfort which comes to those who ride a camel for the first time. They had no need to guide their camels, for all the animals were tied one behind the other. When everything was ready, Becker walked slowly down the long line, giving a final inspection to each of his charges, then whistled in a peculiar way.
All the camels stood up at once. To the boys, this was the most uncomfortable part of their experience, for a camel has four distinct movements in getting up or down, and, unless the rider is used to them, they are rather startling. But once their mounts were really up, the rest was plain sailing. They swayed gently forward and back with each stride of the camel and enjoyed the motion very much, and could see over the country from their high position much better than they could from horseback or on foot.
The three days' journey to the Dingo Creek Bridge was accomplished without any accident, though the new method of travel and the new country passed through were full of interest to the two boys. Each evening the long line of stately animals was coiled round in a big circle at the camping-place, and the camels were made to kneel down while their loads were unroped and their saddles taken off. Then the black boys who were helping Decker Singh hobbled the camels and drove them off to pick up what food they could find during the night. In the morning the same boys brought them in and made them kneel in the right places to be loaded again for the day.
To have their meals and to sleep near the packs was a novelty which the boys very much enjoyed. The blazing fire with the billies catching the flame, the meal of bread and meat, the hour or two afterwards when they lolled on the sand while Peter smoked and told yarns, and then the cool quiet night with the myriad stars above them; these things made the boys forget the little discomforts they were bound to encounter.
On the second day, towards the middle of the afternoon, a black dot appeared on the horizon, growing bigger and bigger as they approached it. The sun beat down on the bare plains and made the whole landscape quiver with heat, so that things in the distance looked blurred and it was impossible to tell what they were. In this instance the object proved to be a group of date-palms growing round a pool made by a bore-pipe. On all sides of this little oasis stretched the barren desert, and it was quite easy to believe that no man had been able to live in that part of the country before this bore had been put down.
Peter told them that the pipe went straight down into the earth for several thousand feet. Water was struck suddenly. One day, when the men were boring as usual, a noise came up the pipe like sea waves in a blow-hole of rock, a sort of gurgling roar accompanied by a rush of air. Then a column of water, as thick as a man's leg and as strong as a bar of iron, shot up straight into the air and turned over at the top like a gigantic umbrella. The water struck the bore staging with such tremendous force that it smashed a hole clean through a two-inch board as if a shell had crashed into it, and it wrenched the other boards from their supports and flung them for a hundred yards, just a useless mass of splintered wood. The man who was on the platform at the time heard the water coming and jumped for his life. He was not a moment too soon. If he had hesitated, he would have been blown to pieces. The flow is not so strong nowadays, but it still reaches the top of the pipe and flows over, and enables men and cattle to live in a country which used to be a waterless desert.
A quarter of a mile north of the date-palms was a sand-hill with what appeared like a few bushes on it. Sax was looking at this hill when he saw a coil of smoke rising up out of one of the bushes. He was so surprised that he called his friend's attention to it.
"I say, Boof," he exclaimed. "'D'you see that smoke over there? There must be a camp or something."
Peter heard the remark and laughed. "D'you know what that is?" he asked.
"Why, bushes, of course," replied Sax.
"And what d'you reckon it is?" asked Peter again, turning to Vaughan.
Young Vaughan looked intently at the sand-hill where the smoke was coming from. He heard a dog bark, and then thought he saw a little black human figure crawl out of one of the bushes, followed by another and bigger figure. It was all so far away that he wasn't sure that he had seen correctly, so he answered with hesitation; "It looks as if there were people in those bushes. They don't live there, do they, Peter?"
"They're not bushes," explained the man. "They're what we call 'wurlies'. They're sort of little huts the blacks live in. You'll see quite enough of them before you've been in this country long, I promise you."
The boys wanted to go over at once and see, so Peter good-naturedly went with them.
The wurlies were made from branches pulled from the ragged trees which grew around, and stuck in the sand with their tops brought together. This framework was covered with bits of old bag or blanket. The whole thing was the shape of a pudding-basin turned upside down, and was not more than three feet high in the middle or four feet wide at the bottom.
"Do they really live in there?" asked Sax.
"Sure thing," said Peter. "They crawl in through that hole and curl themselves up like dogs."
As he finished speaking, a shaggy head appeared at one of the holes. The hair was stuck together in greasy plaits and hung down to the man's shoulders. He looked up at the visitors, half in and half out of the wurley, and on his hands and knees just like an animal. His face and body were black and very dirty, and his head and chest were so thickly covered with hair that the only features which stood out from the matted tangle were a pair of very bright eyes and a flat, shining nose.
Peter said something which the lads did not understand, and the man came out and stood upright. He was quite naked and very thin. His legs seemed to be the same thickness all the way up, and his knees looked like big swollen knuckles. But his whole appearance gave the impression that he could move very quickly if he wanted to, with the graceful speed of a greyhound. The woman and child whom Vaughan had seen from the distance had run away like startled rabbits as the white men came up, and the camp of six or seven wurlies seemed deserted except for this one miserable specimen of humanity. Bits of clothing, tins, pieces of decaying food, and all sorts of dirt were strewn around the camp and gave out such an unpleasant smell that the boys turned away in disgust.
"What's the matter?" asked Peter.
"How horribly dirty he is," said Vaughan. "Aren't some of them clean?"
"Oh yes," replied Peter. "Most boys who work on stations are made to use soap. That's because they work with white men, or with decent chaps like Becker Singh. His boys aren't bad. But you leave them alone for a week, and they'll be just as bad as that old buck there. Don't you ever forget—" he added earnestly, "don't you ever forget that that's the real nigger you've just seen. And don't you have too much to do with them."
"There's not much fear of that," said Sax.
"Well, don't you forget it, that's all," repeated Peter. "Many a good lad has gone to the dogs through having too much to do with niggers."
They reached the Dingo Creek on the morning of the fourth day. The bridge was a complete wreck. It was almost impossible to believe that wind could have done so much damage. The whole thing had been lifted off the stanchions, twisted as easily as if it had been a ribbon of paper, and then thrown down into the soft sand of the creek bed. The steel stanchions leaned this way and that; one of them had been torn up from its concrete foundation, and another had been screwed about till it looked like a gigantic corkscrew. The bridge must have been caught by the very centre of the tornado.
The camels did not stop at the creek. They travelled on for a couple of miles to where a railway engine and a few trucks were waiting. These had been sent down from Oodnadatta with a break-down gang of men, and were returning next day. Peter decided to stay and help Becker with the camels as far as Oodnadatta, but, at his advice, the two boys went on by train, and so it came about that they completed their broken journey in the same way in which it had begun.
A Message from the Unknown
The sun had set several hours ago when the train finally pulled up at Oodnadatta station. A hurricane-lantern hung under a veranda, and showed a crowd of about twenty men, women, and children with eager faces, ready to welcome anyone who had completed the interrupted journey. But the two boys were the only passengers. They stood on the platform of the carriage and looked at the crowd. It was seven years since Sax had seen his father, but he felt sure he would recognize him instantly; and, besides, it was such a rare thing for two strange lads to come up on the Far North train, that if anyone had been there to meet them, he would have had no trouble in picking them out.
But no one came forward. In vain did the drover's son compare the picture of his father which he had in his mind, with one after the other of the men under the veranda. Men, tall, thin, and bearded there certainly were, and more than one had that stamp of the desert on his face, which never wears off.
"Can't you see him, Sax?" asked his companion anxiously.
"Not yet. He's somewhere at the back, most likely. We'll wait a tick and see."
So they waited, and in those minutes the lads felt more lonely than they had ever done in their lives before. The thought would insist on presenting itself:
"Suppose he doesn't come! What then?" The nearest person they really knew was five days away. In front of them was a little crowd of people who knew each other well, but who had never seen the boys before, and all around was the vast unsympathetic silence of the desert which came in and oppressed the boys even in the dark.
Presently a man in badly creased white trousers and very thin shirt, open all the way down, came past. He stopped and looked up at the boys. "Waiting for somebody?" he asked pleasantly.
"Yes, we are," said Sax, who was usually the spokesman of the pair when strangers were concerned. "Can you tell me, please, if Mr. Stobart is about?"
"Stobart? If it's Boss Stobart you're waiting for, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed."
"Why?" Both boys uttered the word of dismay at the same time.
"Well, you see," went on the man, "we expected him the day before yesterday. He's never late, so I wired up the road. I'm his agent, you know. They haven't heard of him south of Horseshoe Bend."
"What! Is he lost, then?" asked Sax in an incredulous voice. His hero, his father, lost? Impossible!
"Bless you, no. He's never lost. He must have taken a fresh track at the Bend, that's all. Feed and water and that sort of thing. By the way, who are you?"
"I'm his son," said Sax, simply and proudly, "and this is my friend. Father said he'd meet this train."
"His son, are you? Oh, well, you may depend upon it, he's not far away if he said he'd meet you. But he didn't come in to-day. I know that for a cert. You'd better come over to the hotel and let me fix you up for the night. My name's Archer—Joe Archer. I've got a store here and manage your father's business at this end."
The kind-hearted storekeeper handed the boys over to the care of the hotel-keeper's wife, who soon set a meal of boiled goat and potatoes before them. Their intense disappointment at not meeting Mr. Stobart had not lessened their appetites, and they assured one another that they would see him in a few days, probably on the very next morning.
After their tea they went straight to their room, a little box of a place with a window looking out over a yard where a horse was standing perfectly still and breathing heavily, fast asleep. The friends talked for a time and then blew out the candle.
Scarcely had they done so, when they heard a tapping on the window. They took no notice. It came again. Tap—tap—tap. It could not possibly have been an accident.
"What's that, Sax?" whispered Vaughan.
"Blest if I know," answered his companion from the other bed. "Shall I light the candle again?"
"Let's wait a bit and see," suggested Boof.
The taps came again, this time louder, and were followed by a cough.
Sax struck a match. His hand shook so much that he could hardly light the candle, but whether it was from fear or from excitement cannot be told. The light flared up, went down again, and then burned bright and steady.
Suddenly a man's head and shoulders appeared at the window. It was a nigger. For a moment both lads stared at the apparition with startled eyes. But the man did not do anything. He was just waiting till their surprise died down. His face was not at all as forbidding as the one they had seen at Coward Springs. He was wearing an old felt hat and a dirty shirt, and though he had hair all over his face, there was something about him which proclaimed him to be a young man.
After a few moments of absolute stillness and silence, they saw the hair on his face move, and a row of beautiful white teeth showed in a most engaging smile. Then came the words: "Which one Stobart?"
The lads had never heard an aboriginal speak before. The sound was guttural, but there was no mistaking the words: "Which one Stobart?"
Sax started forward and the black seemed to scrutinize his features intently. "You Stobart?" he asked.
"Yes. My name's Stobart," answered Sax. "What d'you want?"
The black fellow smiled again, groped in his shirt, and pulled out a dirty piece of folded paper. He held it in his hand and again looked at the lad as if to make quite sure he was not being deceived.
"Boss Stobart, him say, you walk longa Oodnadatta. You find um my son. You give 'im paper yabber. Him good fella, Boss Stobart, so I go. My name Yarloo."
The words came slowly, as if the man were repeating something he had said over and over in his mind. But the words were quite distinct.
He handed the "paper yabber" to Sax, and disappeared. The two friends came close together round the candle and looked at the paper which had come to them from the unknown by such a strange hand. For a few moments Sax was too excited to open it. What was the news it contained? Good or bad? It was not addressed, or, if it ever had been, the handling to which it had been subjected had worn any writing completely off the outside.
At last the lad opened it. It was a sheet torn from a common note-book ruled with lines and columns for figures, the sort of thing on which a rough man would keep his rough accounts. It contained writing in pencil by a hand which Sax at once recognized as his father's; but it was uneven as if it had been written in the dark. The words were:
"In difficulties. Musgrave Ranges. Tell Oodnadatta trooper, but no one else." (These last three words were underlined several times.) "He'll understand. Boy quite reliable. Don't worry. Get a job somewhere. "STOBART."
The friends read it to themselves, and then Sax read it out loud.
"'In difficulties'," said Vaughan. "What does that mean?"
"Blest if I know. With the cattle, I expect. I wonder where the Musgrave Ranges are."
"But why does he say 'tell the trooper and no one else'?" asked Vaughan again. "Yet he wouldn't say 'don't worry' if anything was up, would he?"
"Oh, nothing's really up," said Sax with conviction. "He means he's a bit late, that's all. P'raps the trooper's expecting him or something. Of course he wouldn't want anybody else to know. You see, he's got a name here," said the lad proudly. "They call him Boss Stobart. Even the nigger did that."
"But he'll be a long time, Sax. He won't be in for a week or so at any rate, or else he wouldn't tell us to get a job, would he?"
The boys discussed the news from every possible point of view, and finally arrived at the conclusion that the famous drover had been forced out of the route he had intended to travel by difficulties with feed and water, and that he might be very late arriving at his destination. That he would finally arrive, they never doubted for a moment. With this assurance, they once more blew out the light, and it was not long before they were both fast asleep.
If they could have known the terrible danger which Drover Stobart was in at that very time, it is certain that sleep would have been impossible to them. He was as near death, a hideous death, as any man can possibly be who lives to tell the tale.
The boys woke late on their first morning in the Far North. Sax's thoughts immediately turned to his father's letter. He groped under his pillow and pulled it out and read it again:
"In difficulties. Musgrave Ranges. Tell Oodnadatta trooper, but no one else. He'll understand. Boy quite reliable. Don't worry. Get a job somewhere.
It was a characteristic note, for the drover never wrote long letters, but the shakiness of the writing, and the mysterious way in which it had been delivered, gave Sax a feeling of great uneasiness. If, as Joe Archer the storekeeper had suggested, Stobart had been forced to take a westerly track from Horseshoe Bend in order to find water and feed for the cattle, he could easily have sent word to Oodnadatta by the ordinary camel mail which passed the Bend once a month.
Sax looked up and saw that his friend was awake. "What d'you reckon we ought to do, Boofy?" he asked, getting out of bed.
Vaughan took the letter and read it before replying. "It says 'Tell Oodnadatta trooper'," he remarked. "I reckon we ought to do that first, Sax, don't you?"
When breakfast was over, the boys asked the way to the trooper's house, and were told that Sergeant Scott had gone away after some blacks who had been spearing cattle. No one had any idea when he was likely to return. "You see—" said the man who was telling them about it, "you see, he may get the niggers easy and bring them in at once. Or they may clear out and make him chase them for days and days. He'll get them in the end, though, you bet. Old Scotty's not the one to be beaten by niggers."
The boys sat down outside the trooper's house on a little hill and looked over the desolate landscape. They seemed to be baulked at every turn.
Presently, away above the northern rim of the land appeared a little brown stain. It caught the eye because the horizon had no cloud on it or anything to break the clear line except that patch of brown.
Sax was idly watching it, wondering what in the world he could do to help his father, when the cloud seemed to get bigger and clearer. "Look, Boof," he said. "D'you see that thing over there? It looks like a cloud, but it's brown."
He pointed it out to his friend and they watched it together. It was certainly getting bigger. "Looks like dust," said Vaughan.
"But whatever could be kicking up all that dust?" asked Sax. "It's coming this way. Look, it's covering those trees over there now."
The cloud of dust got bigger and of a more distinct brown. Objects such as trees, which at one time stood out in front of it, were hidden one after another, till it spread out like heavy brown smoke from a damp fire. The air was very clear and still. All at once Sax gripped his friend's arm. He had heard a sound—a sound which was like his own native tongue to the drover's son—the crack of a stock-whip.
"I'm sure I heard a whip," he exclaimed excitedly. "I'm dead sure I did. Hark!"
Both boys sprang to their feet and listened intently. From out that advancing mass of brown dust sounds could be heard. At first they were just a confused murmur, a sort of deep grumbling very far away; but now and again came a sharper sound, half like the crack of a pistol and half like two flat boards being banged together.
"Yes. I'm sure of it. I'm sure of it. It's whips. I bet you it's whips. And that dust is kicked up by cattle. I know it is. Oh, Boofy, Boofy! P'raps it's my father."
"Let's go and meet him," suggested Vaughan, and the boy would have started out right away to meet the cattle if his friend had not prevented him. Sax had never seen a mob of bush cattle, at least not that he could remember, though his father had often carried him on the pommel of his saddle when he was a tiny baby. But he knew instinctively that it would be dangerous to face wild cattle on foot.
"Let's wait and see what happens," he said. "They won't be long."
The noise had now increased to the continuous rumbling bellow of a great mob of restless cattle. Already the shouts of men could be heard, and the cracks of whips came very sharp and clear. Dim forms could be seen for a moment now and again on the outskirts of the cloud of dust, as mounted men wheeled here and there and everywhere in their efforts to keep the cattle together. The animals had never seen a town before, and were frightened at the glitter of iron roofs in the sun.
Suddenly a figure on a horse shot out in front and cantered ahead. The boys became tense with excitement. Was it Mr. Stobart? At first they could not distinguish him except that he rode a grey horse and sat it with the perfect ease of a Central Australian. The animal did not want to leave its companions and started to "play up". But nothing it could do made any difference to the superb rider; he just sat as if he were part of the horse, as if he were indeed its brain, forcing it to obey his will. When he came past the little hill where the lads were standing he was about a hundred yards away from them, and they could see him clearly.
"Is it, Sax?" asked Vaughan excitedly. "Is it your pater?"
The drover's son shook his head. "No chance," he said sadly. "My father's taller than that man. But can't he just ride, Boof?"
The rider had by this time reached a set of troughs which spread out on the ground and were filled by a bore about half a mile behind the town. He dismounted, had a good look round to see that everything was right, and then started to ride back again. But instead of going straight back to the cattle, he rode up to the boys.
"Good-day," he said, reining in his horse. "Come out to see the cattle?"
"Yes," replied Sax. "And we were wondering whether Boss Stobart"—he said the name proudly—"whether Boss Stobart was with them."
The man shook his head. "No. Didn't he come in a week ago? He started ahead of me. These are T.D.3 cattle."
The lads showed their disappointment on their faces, but of course the drover did not understand the reason for it. "If it's fun you're after seeing, you'll get as much with my mob as you would with the Boss's," he said with a very slight Irish brogue. "They're sure as wild as bally mosquitoes. But look, you're a bit too close here. Get back a bit, and when they've had a drink, go over to the troughs. You'll likely see a bit of fun at the yards."
The lads did as he told them. They climbed on the roof of an old shed where they were well out of the way, and could get a good view of the cattle as they came in to water. They expected the whole mob to file past at once, but that was not what happened. As soon as the drover returned, the cattle were rounded up in a hollow between two sand-hills. For a time the dust increased to such an extent that nothing could be seen; but by the shouting and whip-cracking it was evident that the men were having trouble.
Then a little mob of about a hundred were cut out from the others and driven towards the water. A white man rode in front and two black boys rode behind. To Stobart and Vaughan it looked as if the men were taking far more care than was necessary, for they shepherded the cattle every inch of the way. The cattle smelt the water from the distance, and wanted to rush straight to it, but they were turned again and again, and allowed to advance only at a slow pace. They had been ten weeks on the road, and were so nervous at approaching the buildings of the little town, that the least thing would make them rush away in all directions. Once they started, nothing could stop them, and the result of all those weeks of constant care might go for nothing. So the stockmen took no chances.
The cattle watered quietly, and when they had had enough, they were taken a little distance away and left in charge of the two black boys. Then the white man returned and cut off another hundred, and watered them in the same way, till every one in the huge mob of wild cattle had had a drink without being disturbed.
Then came what the drover had called "a bit of fun". The cattle were slowly moved towards the great trucking-yards.
"Let's go over to the troughs as he said," suggested Vaughan. "It's lots nearer than this." So the two friends took up their position behind the big tank into which the water from the bore poured before it flowed into the troughs.
The Oodnadatta trucking-yards are made of iron rails set in concrete and are capable of holding more than a thousand head of stock. Once the cattle are in, nothing matters, for the yards are strong enough to hold elephants. But the job is to get them in.
Inch by inch the grumbling mass of irritable beasts was urged forward by the white drover and his boys. It was a ticklish job, and the whips were kept quiet at first, except to flick up one or another which tried to poke out of the mob. All went well till the leading cattle came to the wing of the yard. Those iron rails frightened them. They had only seen a yard once before in their lives, and the rails of that one were made of wood.
"Steady, boys! Steady!" called the drover. "Keep 'em quiet a bit."
For a minute or two the stockmen sat back on their horses and did not urge the cattle forward, but let them get used to their new surroundings. The animals went up to the rails and smelt them, bellowing with surprise.
"Now, slowly, boys! Slowly!"
Very gradually the horsemen moved forward. To a new chum this care seemed very unnecessary. The gate was straight ahead. Why not force the animals through, and get the job over? But a thousand cattle cannot be forced by five men, as the boys were soon to see.
The leading cattle were now right up to the gate, and the others were slowly crowding on behind, till they were jammed in the wings. If only one or two would go through the rest would follow easily. But the leading bullock struck a tin buried in the sand. Instantly the great beast's head was raised and he sent out a roaring bellow. Those behind him crowded on, but he would not pass that tin. It was lying on top of the sand now. He tried to back away from it, and in doing so struck his foot against it again.
Bellow followed bellow. He set his feet firmly in the sand and would not budge. Down went his head, and he tossed clouds of sand into the air.
"Let 'em have it. Let 'em have it," shouted the drover. "Force 'em up there. Force 'em up." He stood in his stirrups and plied his whip, cracking it back and front, and shouting at the top of his voice. The blacks did the same, till it seemed as if they would force the cattle into the yard by sheer energy.
But no. The leading bullock stood firm. Something had to give way. No single animal could withstand the pressure of all the others from behind. The bullock lifted his head high and shook his mighty horns, and, with a roar which drowned all sounds of shouting, he turned along the side of the wing and charged. Nothing could stop him. Others followed till the cattle were going round and round like water in a whirlpool. What cattlemen most fear had happened: a ring. Not a single beast went through the gate. They passed it, at first slowly, then faster and faster, till they were galloping round and round like clumsy circus horses.
The drover tried to break the ring. He cut off a few cattle at the back of the mob and forced them against the tide. He succeeded for a moment, and the black stockmen cut off others and brought them in. For a few seconds it was like two huge waves meeting. The cattle jammed in the centre, and some were actually lifted from their feet. Then the wave broke.
A charging mass of maddened cattle rushed away from the yards, screaming with terror, heads down and stiffened tails high in the air. Nothing could stand against them. It was death to attempt to check the terrible charge. The mounted men galloped for safety to the sides. One, however, was too slow. He had just gained the edge of the mob when a young steer dashed into his horse. Both were going so fast that they came down together. Fortunately the boy was thrown clear and was not hurt. The steer rolled over and over and then picked itself up and joined the rush. The riderless horse galloped towards the troughs.
During the exciting scenes at the yards, Sax and Vaughan had come out from the shelter of the tank, wholly absorbed in the wild life they were now witnessing for the first time. With the keen delight which every healthy-minded boy has in adventure, they followed every twist and turn, wishing with all their hearts that they were in the thick of it and not mere lookers-on.
When the cattle broke, the drover dashed out on their side of the mob and waved a warning to them. His mouth framed words, and though his voice was drowned in the tremendous hullabulloo, the boys knew he was shouting: "Back! Back! Back for your lives!"
So they raced for the tank and crouched behind it as the storm of cattle went sweeping past.
The riderless horse galloped up to the troughs and stooped its head to drink. The bridle-rein trailed on the ground. Sax looked around the tank and saw it very near his hand. He gave a quick glance at the saddle and saw that all the gear was right, and then quietly stretched out his arm and caught the rein. He gripped it firmly but did not pull. The noise of stampeding cattle was so great that the horse did not notice the movement near him till the boy slowly rose from the ground.
Then the horse lifted its head and gave a snort of alarm. But in a moment Sax had jerked the reins over its head, and in another moment was on its back. Before he was well seated, the frightened animal reared, squealing and pawing the air with its fore hoofs. But Sax was lean and very supple. He clung on, drove his feet home in the stirrups, and when the horse came down and started to buck and twist and arch and side-spring, he had a seat from which it would have taken a very good animal to shake him. It was all over in less than a minute, and then the horse saw its companions flying over the plains in a cloud of dust, gave a whinny, and started after them at top speed.
Vaughan was left with feelings which were almost equally divided between pride in his friend's achievement and envy that the adventure had not fallen to his lot.
Sax caught up with the drover and rode neck and neck with him on the wing of the cattle for some time before the man turned his head. When he did so, he was very surprised.
"Hallo, young 'un!" he shouted, almost breathless at the rate they were going. "Can you ride?"
"No," bawled Sax exultantly; "but I'm learning."
"Well, don't try and learn too much first go," came back the warning. "There's ticklish work ahead. You watch me." And they settled down again to give all their attention to the work in hand.
About five miles west of the town is a narrow but close belt of timber, mostly gnarled mulga and gidgee, with here and there a sprawling stunted creek gum. The cattle were making for this shelter. But already the tremendous pace was beginning to tell. The bellowing had ceased and the mob was stringing out, the stragglers no longer being able to gallop, but lumbering along at a clumsy trot.
To Sax's surprise, a black stockman, riding in the rear of the mob, kept these stragglers at the top of their pace. The drover gradually forged ahead on the wing and the boy with him, till they were level with the leaders. Then, little by little, they worked nearer and nearer to the galloping beasts, using their whips freely and trying by every possible means to turn the line away from the belt of timber. They succeeded. From west the cattle turned to south, getting more and more tired at every stride, then east, then north, and finally they were brought up by rounding on themselves and turning in and in till they were thoroughly exhausted and only too willing to pull up.
Sax's whole body was one big ache. It was his first ride on a bush horse, which he found very different from the thoroughbreds he had known. Every movement of the horse, now that the excitement was over, was agony to him, but he sat in the saddle without flinching. Not for the world would he have betrayed himself.
"What do we do now?" he asked the drover.
The man laughed. He admired the boy's pluck, and his keen eyes noticed the signs of discomfort which Sax could not possibly hide. "Do?" he asked. "Why? Haven't you done enough for a bit?"
"Oh, I'm all right," said Sax. "I like it."
"Wish I did," growled the other. "I'll just begin to like it when it's all over, and these beggars are in the yard."
The mounted men rode slowly to and fro around the cattle for an hour or two. Some of them got over their fright sufficiently to lie down, others stood about in groups and nosed one another and murmured quietly. About noon the drover whistled to his boys, and a move was made towards the yards. This time they were not rushed forward in a mob. A few of the quietest were cut off and driven in first. They went through the gates without any trouble. Then a few more, followed by others till the thousand cattle were safely behind the great gates.
"Now we'll have a drink of tea, and then we'll truck them," said the drover, dismounting from his horse and taking off the saddle. He turned to the black boys. "Take um your horses little yard belonga Mr. Archer," he said, pointing towards the town. "Give um plenty tucker, water. Come back quick-fella! Which way Yarloo sit down?"
At the name Yarloo, Sax looked up quickly. Surely that was the name given by the messenger who handed Boss Stobart's note to the boy in the middle of the night. The blacks laughed at the drover's question, and one of them pointed towards the troughs. "Him tummel aller same kangaroo," he said, with a grin, making movements with his body like a man being flung off a horse. "Him come down cropper, I think," and he rubbed the back of his head and made grimaces which caused the others to laugh heartily. A black-fellow is always highly amused at an accident.
Two figures were coming over from the troughs. Sax recognized one as Vaughan. The other was limping slightly. It was Yarloo, the boy who had been thrown from his horse. He had got a job with the drover the morning after the delivery of his midnight message to Saxon Stobart, and, because he was a stranger, his fellow stockmen took a great delight in limping about and imitating him.
"So that's how you got your ride," said the drover. "How did you catch the horse?"
Sax told him, and the drover remarked: "I'm glad you did. Nothing stirs things up so much as a saddled horse with nobody on him. You and your mate had better have a drink of tea with me. By the way, what do they call you?"
"That chap's name's Vaughan," answered Sax. "Mine's Stobart."
"What? Stobart? Same name as Boss Stobart?"
"Yes. He's my father."
For a moment the drover looked at the boy with keen eyes from which nothing could be hidden. They were light-grey eyes, set well apart, and absolutely fearless. He caught and held Sax's glance and seemed to be reading the boy's character. He evidently approved of what he saw, for he held out his hand, which Stobart took at once.
"So you're Boss Stobart's son," he said. "I'm sure glad to meet you. My name's Darby. Mick Darby. Me and your father were mates for close on ten years. You came up to meet him, did you?"
Sax told him a little about the school, and how he and Vaughan had come up to Oodnadatta expecting to meet the drover, and how disappointed they were. He did not mention the mysterious message; but when Mick Darby asked what the boys intended doing, Sax answered promptly that they were looking for a job, as Boss Stobart had sent a note advising them to do this.
"He's likely changed his plans," said Darby, "and can't come down for a bit. What sort of a job d'you want?"
By this time Vaughan had come up, and the three whites were sitting near an open pack-bag, eating damper and salt meat, and drinking tea from the drover's quart-pot. To his question as to what sort of job they wanted, there seemed but one reply. Sax's mouth was full at the time, so Vaughan answered:
"This sort, of course."
Mick smiled at the boy's enthusiasm, and asked: "Can you ride too?" The word "too" pleased Sax immensely, but it stirred his friend to answer, somewhat boastfully:
"I can ride as well as he can—can't I, Sax?"
"You're better than I am," said Sax generously. "He is indeed, Mr. Darby."
"Well, we'll see. I shan't be starting back till the day after to-morrow. What d'you say to a riding test?" he asked, laughing.
The boys were willing to agree to anything, especially as the station to which Mick was returning was out towards the Musgrave Ranges. "It's sure a rough place," said Mick, when he had agreed to take the boys. "It's out on the edge of cattle country, the Musgraves west of us, and niggers—bad niggers, too. You'll wish you'd never come." He looked at the eager faces of the two lads and his own suffused with thoughts of the days when he was their age. He remembered all the hard years between, the trips on which he had only just come through alive, the terrors of thirst, the slow torment of being out of tucker, the scraps with blacks, the dreary homeless monotony of the desert, and he said earnestly: "I'm not urging you to come, mind. I know what you're in for; you don't. But if you want to be men, now's your chance."
Vaughan's riding test next day was a severe one. "It's not that I want to make a fool of you," explained Mick, as they lead the horses out of Archer's yard. "But there's not a properly quiet horse in my plant. It's no good your getting your swag ready if you can't ride. What d'you feel like?"
Vaughan said he was feeling fine; but if the truth must be told, his pulses were beating unusually fast as he looked at the bush horses and realized that he was soon to be on top of one of them. The party consisted of the drover, the white boys, and one or two black stockmen, and when they came to a broad expanse of soft sand, Mick said they needn't go any farther.
Vaughan rode three horses. The first was a bay mare, of medium height, short in the back, and with a long rein. "You'll find her a bit tricky to mount," said Mick. The animal stood as quiet as a mouse while Vaughan caught her and put the saddle on, but as soon as he tossed the reins over her head, she backed away and started to prance round excitedly. The boy found it impossible to get his foot in the stirrup; as soon as he touched the metal, the mare jumped back. Mick Darby stood by and said nothing, but he interfered when Sax wanted to go and help his friend. "Let him do it on his own," he said. "He won't always have you with him."
Instead of quietening down, when the mare found she could bluff the lad she pranced about more than ever, and Vaughan saw that, unless he could surprise the animal for a moment, he would have no chance of mounting. So he kept the reins over her head and started to pat the lovely neck and shoulders. He slowly worked round till he was on the off side—a side from which, normally, no one ever mounts a horse—and let his hand run down the shoulder till it touched the stirrup. The mare stood quite still.
Still patting the animal, Vaughan shortened the rein, and quietly lifted his right foot. As soon as it was in the stirrup, he sprang, and before the surprised horse could recover from its astonishment, he was in the saddle, having mounted from the wrong side.
The blacks shouted their praise, but Vaughan listened only for the drover's voice. Mick laughed heartily. "Good boy! Good boy!" he said. "You bluffed her all right. Get off, and I'll show you how to do it on the near side."
The mare was quite quiet when once the rider was seated, and Vaughan had no difficulty in riding her round or in dismounting. Mick shortened the rein for mounting, and just as the mare began to turn away, as she had done with Vaughan, he took off his hat and put it under the cheek-strap of the bridle, thus blinding the horse on the near side. She stood quite still, and the drover got on and off several times without any difficulty. Then Vaughan tried it in the same way, and found he could do anything with the mare if only he blindfolded the near-side eye when he was mounting.
"She's a good little mare to ride, and as game as a pebble," said Mick, when the saddle had been taken off her. "I'll let you have her if you promise to treat her well."
The next horse was a big raking bay, high in the shoulder, too long and badly coupled in the back, and of a very awkward appearance. Vaughan saddled him up and mounted. The horse stood stock still. Vaughan then shook the reins and it moved on for a few paces, but as soon as the reins were slacked again, it stopped. The boy became impatient. Nothing is so annoying to ride as a lazy horse. So he shortened the rein. As soon as he did so, the big animal started to move forward, and it got faster and raster as its rider put pressure on the reins. It had an awkward habit of thrusting its long lean head straight out, so Vaughan pulled hard. But the harder the boy pulled the faster the horse moved. And it could move. Vaughan had never had such an uncomfortable few minutes in his life. Every part of the horse seemed to be moving by itself, and jerking him in all directions. He couldn't possibly sit in the saddle. He let the stirrups take all his weight and just hung on. The horse was bolting.
Vaughan did not lose his head. After trying to pull up the runaway by sheer force, he realized that he was only wasting his strength, and making it go faster. By the time he found this out, he was a mile away from the others, enveloped in a cloud of dust, and racing as hard as the horse could set foot to the ground. He slackened the reins a little. Instantly the pace slackened too. He took off more pressure still and the horse was soon cantering at a medium speed. Vaughan had found out the secret. He turned his horse's head towards home, and made it do just anything he wanted by simply increasing or decreasing the force with which he held the reins. The horse had a most delightful canter, like a big rocking-horse, and Vaughan rode up to his companions feeling very pleased with himself.
"What d'you think of it?" asked Mick.
"Fine!" replied the lad. "Fine! But he shook me up before I found it out."
"Found what out?" asked the drover.
Vaughan told him, and the man smiled approval. "Good!" he commented. "Remember, these horses up here are all different, and you've got to find them out. Perhaps you've been used to riding properly trained ones. We don't do any of that up here in the bush. Would you like to try another?"
Vaughan was sore and tired, but he answered eagerly that he was ready for a dozen more.
"I'll only give you one," said Mick, beckoning to one of the black boys. "Take him pretty carefully."
The black stockman caught and saddled a chestnut gelding. Compared with the thoroughbreds of Langdale Station, the horse was heavily built, but it had beautifully made shoulders and back. The rump was coupled to the saddle of the back without the slightest dip, and the curve rose over a pair of high shoulder-blades and up to a deep and shapely neck. The legs, however, were thick, and seemed to be out of proportion with the rest of the body.
Vaughan mounted, or rather he tried to mount. If he had known more about horses he would have noticed the nervous head and eyes, and would have taken precautions accordingly. But he just flung the reins over its head, put his foot in the stirrup, and—found himself sprawling in the sand. He did not let go of the reins. The drover noticed this, and knew, because of it, that the boy had the instincts of a horseman. Sax ran forward, but Mick stopped him. "He's all right," he said. "Let him alone."
Vaughan picked himself up and approached the horse, cautiously, but without fear. He put the reins quietly over its head, shortened the near side one and took a good handful of mane, and put his foot in the stirrup.
"Don't rush it! Don't rush it!" shouted Mick. "You're dealing with a nervous horse. Take your time. Don't be afraid. He's got no vice."
Vaughan gradually pressed his weight in the stirrup and rose slowly into the saddle. The horse stood quite still and trembled. The boy realized that something was going to happen and settled himself firmly. It was well he did so. Without any warning, the horse's back arched like a bent bow, and all four feet came off the ground. It was an extraordinary experience for Vaughan—everything sloping away from him. Then the back straightened suddenly and the hoofs struck the ground with such impact that, if the boy had not been very firmly in the stirrups, he would have been tossed in the air like a stone from a catapult.
After that, Vaughan had a few of the busiest moments of his life. Up in the air—in front and behind and all together—pitching this way and that; rooting, jumping, bucking, doing everything except rolling on the ground, the screaming horse tried to get rid of its rider.
Vaughan did not know what he was doing. Sheer pluck, and the supple strength of his young body, brought him through a test where more experienced riders would have failed. He did the right things without knowing why. He leaned forward over the neck of the rearing horse; he lay back when its heels were lashing the air; he balanced himself, as he had often done on a horizontal bar at school, when the arched back of the horse quivered under him high off the ground; and he stood in his stirrups to save his body from the shock of those four heavy feet striking the ground at once. He did all these things instinctively, though he had never been on a bucking horse before.
He was far too excited to be afraid. His determination saw him through, and at last the quivering horse and the breathless boy came to a standstill. Then, with a shrill whinny, the horse did its final worst. It braced its hind legs well apart and tossed its chest high in the air. Up and up rose the head and shoulders, while the fore feet pawed the air; up and up, till horse and rider hung for a moment in the balance—a horse on two legs, standing erect with a white boy clinging to its back. They swayed for a moment; for two; for three. Then over they came. With a violent jerk of its head, the horse fell over backwards.
A shout of consternation went up. Vaughan's position was one of greatest peril. But the boy's dancing blood had given his mind a lightning grip of the situation, and as the horse fell, he kicked his feet free from the stirrups, and flung himself clear. He was not a moment too soon. With a crash which shook the ground, the heavy horse came down, and would have mangled to a lifeless pulp anyone who had been under it. But Vaughan was safe. He lay for a minute, gasping, then stood up and faced the drover. The rein was still in his hand, though the force of the fall had torn the strong leather strap from the bridle.
Travelling across country in Central Australia is usually very monotonous. The same routine is gone through day after day, and there is not even the relief of meeting new faces, for one's companions are often the only human beings met with during the whole of a trip of many weeks.
For the first few days of journeying towards the Musgraves, young Stobart and Vaughan found everything new and intensely interesting. At piccaninny daylight—which is the bush term for the rising of the morning star—Mick Darby turned over on his swag and sat up, and called out "Daylight! Daylight!"
The drover was so punctual with this call that it seemed to the boys as if he must have been awake for hours, watching for the star to rise blood-red above the eastern horizon. But years of bush travel, of watching restless cattle, and of sleeping under the threat of danger from prowling blacks had made the man respond immediately to any noise or unusual sight. There was no period of stretching or yawning. Mick was asleep one instant, and fully awake the next and shouting "Daylight". The black boys were also light sleepers, trained out of their native laziness by association with alert whites. There was Yarloo, who had come in from the west with Boss Stobart's message and had joined the white man's plant at once; and Ranui, a tall fine man from North Queensland, who showed both in his build and name a trace of Malay blood; and Ted and Teedee, two boys who had been with Mick since they were "little fellas".
As soon as the morning call sounded, the black stockmen rolled out of their camp-sheets, picked up their bridles, and went off in the grey light on the tracks of the hobbled horses. Their skill in tracking was a constant source of wonder to the boys. The type of country didn't seem to matter at all; soft sand or hard stony tableland was all the same to them; they tracked the wandering horses with as much careless certainty as if they could actually see them, though on some nights they had strayed, in search of feed, several miles away from camp.
When the black boys had gone, Sax and Vaughan collected wood for the morning fire, raked last night's ashes together, and made a blaze. Then they filled the seven quart-pots with water and set them near the flame to boil for breakfast.
The drover was always busy in the early hours. There was probably a piece of horse-gear to mend, a broken or faulty girth, the stuffing of a saddle which had become lumpy, or a buckle which had torn away. When these were all in order, there was the everlasting "damper" to make. Vaughan volunteered to become assistant cook if Mick would give him lessons in the great bush art of damper-making.
"You'd better start on Johnny-cakes," said the drover. "The mixture's just the same, but if you make a mess you won't spoil a whole damper. You watch me to-day. You can try your hand to-morrow, if you like."
It was still an hour or so before sunrise when the white boys had their first lesson in bush cookery. Mick went over to one of the packs and pulled out a seventy-pound bag of flour about half full. He untied the mouth of the bag and took out a tin of baking-powder. Then he spread a folded sack on the sand, and piled on it about five double handfuls of flour, mixing a lidful of baking-powder with it. He gave this a good stir round, dry as it was, and then made a hollow in the middle and poured in water in which a little salt had been dissolved. The proper mixing of the dough only came by experience, Mick told them; as dry as possible and yet damp enough to stick together. The work was done quickly but thoroughly.
"If you wanted it for a damper," explained Mick, giving the dough a final roll, "you'd put the whole lot in together. But I'll show you Johnny-cakes first; they're easier and don't take so long."
He divided the dough into little pieces and rolled each out in his hands till it was the size and shape of an ordinary bun. He arranged these on the bag and pulled it near the fire. "I always let the things rise for a couple of minutes," he said. "Some chaps don't, but I always do."
Then he prepared the fire for cooking. Every fragment of blazing wood was put on one side, and a heap of soft glowing ashes left. With a curved stick, this pile was scooped about till it was like a very big saucer, all glowing hot and yet not actually burning. On this warm bed the Johnny-cakes were dropped, leaving a space between each so that they wouldn't run together. When all the white balls of dough were in place, Mick flicked some of the ashes from the edge of the hollow on to them, gradually increasing the amount till the cakes were covered right over and the whole affair was a mound of grey with no sign of the cooking cakes.
"How long before they're done?" asked Vaughan.
"Depends," answered Mick. "Depends on the size of them and the heat of the fire. I don't like the fire too hot. We'll have a look at these in about a quarter of an hour."
At the end of that time the top of the pile of ashes had begun to crack here and there with the upward pressure of the rising Johnny-cakes. Mick scooped one of them out from the edge. It was brown and hard on the outside, with a most appetizing smell, and a soft ring round it where the top had pulled away, just like the top on a loaf of bread. To the boy's surprise, the cakes were quite clean, and a few flicks with a wisp of leaves left them as free from sand or ashes as if they had been baked in an oven. Mick tapped the cake with his knuckles. "Another couple of minutes won't hurt," he said.
Presently the distant sound of a jangling stock-bell was heard, and a few minutes later the horses came into camp, lead by an old black mare who carried a bell, and driven by the four black boys riding bareback. Everything was bustle for a few minutes. The horses were again hobbled to prevent them from straying, and then the men all settled down to breakfast. Vaughan usually took charge of the tea. Directly a quart-pot came to the boil, he tipped in some sugar and a pinch of tea, and moved the pot away from the fire. Sax superintended the tucker—a slab of damper, or a Johnny-cake, and a chunk of salt meat for each man. These are the bush rations year in and year out: meat, damper, and tea. Breakfast was eaten quickly, and then the pack-bags were weighted evenly and fastened up, horses caught and saddled, a final look given round the camp to see that nothing was left behind, and the three white men set out in a certain direction with no track and with no guidance of any kind except that of the sun, followed at once by the plant of horses driven by the blacks.
All day they rode, silent for the most part, but occasionally Mick would answer a question as to a tree, a strange track, or a feature on the horizon. No other living thing was seen hour after hour, save a solitary eagle high in the air, a few lizards darting about the clumps of porcupine grass, and ants and flies. These latter pests are the curse of the back country. The weather was hot. That day and on several others one hundred and thirty degrees was reached, and even that temperature was exceeded now and then over sandhills and plains which quivered in the heat. But the boys would not have minded the heat if the flies had only left them alone. Long before dawn, before even the morning star had risen, flies buzzed around them, making life well-nigh unbearable.
A halt was made about noon for dinner, the packs and saddles taken off the horses for an hour, and then the journey was resumed, each man riding a fresh horse, for no one rides the same horse all day in Central Australia, if he can possibly help it.
Evening camp was usually made near a water-hole or native well, but sometimes the horses had to go as long as two days without a drink. They were unsaddled and hobbled out, and allowed to roam about all night and pick up scanty bits of food. It amazed the white boys to see what very little herbage of any kind there was for an animal to live on. No grass; just a dry uninviting bush here and there, growing up out of loose barren sand, with, at long intervals, a clump of twisted mulga trees. Yet the horses "did" well, and certainly the thousand T.D.3 bullocks which had come down from the territory looked none the worse for their trip over country just as barren as the boys were now camped on.
After tea was the time the two white boys enjoyed most, for Mick would light his pipe then, prop himself up against his swag, and, with a quart-pot of tea by his side, tell them yarns about the back country. Many of these narratives included Boss Stobart, for he and Mick had gone about together a great deal, and had established overland droving records which are still unbeaten. He told of drought and flood, of thirst and hunger, of cattle rushes and disease, of mining camps, of Afghans and their camels, of Chinamen and opium, of grog shanties, of troopers, of wild blacks and still wilder whites, until his listeners' minds flamed at the thought that they, even they, were in the country where such adventures had taken place—and perhaps some day would be met with by themselves. And at night, when they lay out on their swags under the cool sky, which looked so much farther away than it did in cities, and heard the high quavering hunting-call of the dingo, their thoughts would go, not towards the scenes where they had spent their boyhood, but onwards into the unknown.
One day, when the routine of "the road" had gone on for more than a fortnight, they were crossing a broad expanse of hard stony country, shut in on the north by dense mulga scrub, when Sax noticed a thin column of smoke rising from the trees a few miles away. He could hardly believe his eyes, and when he looked again it was no longer coming up from the trees, but was rising up and up and fading away against the flawless blue of the sky. He was about to call Vaughan's attention to it when his horse stumbled and nearly fell. Next time he looked to the north the smoke was again rising from the trees, and then again it was cut off, and floated away and was lost.
His curiosity was thoroughly roused. "Mick!" he shouted, for by this time the boys had dropped the "Mr." when speaking to their drover friend. "Mick! Is that smoke over there in the trees?"
"Sure it's smoke," he answered. "And so's that ahead there." He pointed across the plain, where the heat was dancing, to a little hill. It must have been eight miles away, and from it rose a thin coil of smoke. At first Sax thought it was merely the effect of the sun causing everything in the distance to quiver and take on fantastic shapes, but he trusted the bushman's eyes, and at last convinced himself that it was indeed smoke.
"Then somebody must be camped there," said Vaughan.
"Is it a station, Mick, or just chaps travelling like ourselves?" asked Sax.
"It's niggers, lad. They're signalling to one another."
The columns of smoke were at once invested with a new interest to the two boys. Natives were near them, unseen, sending messages to other natives at a distance. The simplicity of this bush telegraphy was fascinating.
"What are they saying, Mick, d'you know?" asked Vaughan eagerly.
"This lot," said the drover, "is telling that other lot over there that we're coming. So many white men, so many blacks, and so many horses. We're getting into nigger country now."
"Will we see them?" asked the boys.
"No chance in life," replied the drover. "These niggers are wild and scared to death of white men. They're different from the camp blacks who hang round stations. They'll likely be station blacks themselves some day, for the wild nigger's dying out. But just now, they keep away and live their own lives. We call them warraguls."
Next morning, when the horses came in, two were missing. "Which way them two horses sit down?" Mick asked one of the boys. "What for you no bring um in?"
"Him dead," was the answer.
"Dead!" exclaimed the drover. "How dead?"
"Him speared," explained Yarloo.
"Which way? You show um me." The drover saddled his horse and went away with Yarloo, while the two white boys gave the other stockmen their breakfast, wondering what had taken Mick off in such a hurry.
Mick Darby found the two dead horses. By their tracks they had evidently strayed away from the others, and by other tracks it was clear that blacks had crept upon them in the dim light of dawn and had speared them, for the bodies were still warm. Mick always carried a bottle of strychnine about with him, and at every camp he poisoned little bits of meat and left them behind to kill the dingoes which abound in cattle country. He looked at the two horses—fine, stanch animals, both of them—and his heart became hot with anger. He put his hand to his belt and fingered the poison pouch. It was a great temptation. If the blacks had speared the horses for food, here was a chance for revenge. If he poisoned the carcass and killed the blacks, would it not be a terrible warning to the others?
But it was only for a second that the ghastly thought attracted him. He was a true white man and would not stoop to any hidden revenge. It is a white man's way to face his enemy in the open and under the sun, not to kill him by putting strychnine in his food. So Mick turned away and rode back to camp, and did not tell the boys what danger they were in.
Next day smoke signals were all around them and very close. It gave the boys a feeling that keen black eyes were peering at them from every bit of cover, and that lithe forms were slinking noiselessly from tree to tree, never turning a stone or breaking a twig to disturb the silence of the desert.
That evening they unpacked and unsaddled the horses early, and tied them up till after tea. Then Mick rode away with them himself, hobbled them on an open patch of dry bush, and prepared to watch throughout the night. He knew the native method of attack: a little, then a little more. If two horses had been killed last night, three or four might be speared this night. To lose their horses would leave the party at the mercy, not only of the blacks, but also of a more terrible enemy still—thirst. So the brave bushman was going to take no risks.
The spot he had chosen was a little plain covered with dry buck-bush and surrounded on all sides with mulga scrub. There was plenty of feed to keep the horses quiet all night, but Mick was obliged to ride round them again and again and turn them back from the scrub. He was perfectly sure that wild natives were in ambush behind the trees, and that the first animal who wandered within range of a spear-cast would become a victim. The moon was half-full in a cloudless sky, and the drover had no difficulty in seeing, but, after an hour or two, he had the greatest difficulty in the world to keep awake. The night was warm and still and drowsy, and the day had been one of constant tension, and as the drover sat with cocked rifle and with the horse's bridle looped over his arm, he must have nodded once or twice through sheer weariness.
Suddenly he heard a stone move on another stone. He was fully awake and alert instantly. The horses were still in the middle of the plain, quietly feeding, but one or two of them were looking at an old tree stump in the curious meditative way which resting animals have of looking at things which are of no particular interest.
All at once Mick Darby sprang to his feet. He had never seen that tree stump before. For several hours he had looked at that little plain in the moonlight, and every bush was pictured on his memory. He was absolutely sure that old tree had not been there when he started to nod with weariness. Then, how had it come? Trees do not grow from the ground, become old, and die and lose most of their branches in less than an hour of a summer's night.
Mick put his cocked rifle to his shoulder, trained the sights on the tree stump, and walked slowly towards it. The thing was about a hundred and fifty yards away when he started. He had covered a third of the distance when the tree suddenly disappeared. Remarkable as it may appear, it is a fact. One moment he saw the thick twisted trunk of a mulga tree with a few broken branches, standing out on an otherwise treeless plain; the next it had gone completely. But, instead of the tree, three wriggling black forms glided between the bushes with the stealth of snakes, making for their lives towards the scrub. They were three warragul blacks, who had crept out into the plain and had used this wonderful but quite common method of concealment.