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  ― 89 ―

Thirst!

I returned to my camp feeling ruffled. I couldn't help the tap getting stuck and wasting a little of the tank water. Luckily I respect old men, otherwise I should have answered his shove and stream of invectives with a blow. Perhaps surprise, too, that such a trifle should so much upset the old chap, who was shaking from head to foot as with fright, had held me in bounds. Anyway, as I glanced back at his cabin I determined not to again trouble him. This incident, together with several refusals of tucker that day, convinced me I had struck a bad patch for swagmen. Whilst boiling the billy I couldn't help contrasting the old man's courteous speech to my request for a billy of water with his subsequent insulting behaviour. He was certainly a man of better education than his appearance would lead one to expect. However, I dismissed him from my mind, and settled down to make the most of the scanty remnants of my last meal.

I had just lighted my pipe when the old man tramped up to the fire, picked up a pannikin, half filled it from a bottle of rum, and handed it over to me, gazing at him in astonishment, with—




  ― 90 ―

“Ever been in West Australia? No, thought so.” After tossing off a tot of the spirit and a backhand wipe at his mouth: “Was dry-blowing and prospecting over there in the seventies. Climate like hell; in parts rain under ten inches; copper on the Murchison, gold on the Yule. Desert and unexplored country everywhere. Salt lakes and pans. Run your eyes over the map and call out the names, and I'll picture the places life-like. There were three of us, Stuckey, German Charley, and myself. Know anything about mining? No? No good detailing, then. Ever been bushed? Ah, three days. Had water and tucker, I reckon. No. Only a bit of a change for you. Does a new chum good. We were lost in the desert. My God!” The old man helped himself to more rum.

“Little tucker and no water, and we tramped on, nerves too unstrung to rest, till we dropped now and again, and held up a coat to shade the head. From sky-line to sky-line a flat wilderness of bleached sand like the bed of a dried-up sea, with a dazzle-dance of heat as from the quivering mouth of an oven. We sweated our juices, and then our hands and faces shredded. We spoke in whispers, for our voices frightened us in that dungeon-hush. The rustle of our footsteps seemed to come from another world. Our shirts and pants, sapless as withered leaves, stiff as buckram, seemed heated to the edge of catching fire. The


  ― 91 ―
smiting glare shut down our eyelids till brain fireworks burst them open. Thus for hours, till we sank bewildered in the blood-red reflection of the sunken sun's raked-out fires. Darkness swept in with stars, but no dew. Not a current of air. Did I sleep? At first, yes—if incoherent nightmares woven out of every awful story connected with fire one reads in a lifetime, be sleep. Awaking through my own outcry from terror, I was thrust back into it by another horror. Ever seen the moon through a telescope? Conceive that sepulchre flattened out and sheeted in darkness rayed through by wandering fires on the borders of the phantasmal. Thus for hours, till the beak of the moon sharpened itself and faded; then a strange shiver—sudden passages of feverish light through the east as though a furnace door had been swung back, and then abruptly, like a red-hot ball shot from a cannon, the sun!”

“German Charley was the first to break up. A big flaxen-haired man, with saucer-like blue eyes and a hand that could cover a dinner-plate. It's lean, whipcordy men like me that can stretch without snapping. Poor devil! his big, clumsy feet ploughed through the sand like an elephant's. ‘Mein Gretchen,’ he said huskily, as I stumbled over him sprawling on his face. His tongue squeezed out and was jammed, and I touched it—it was like emery paper. Stuckey stared dazedly at me as I heaved him to his feet. I wanted


  ― 92 ―
to cheer him, but my mouth seemed full of soot. His hand crackled like old parchment in mine. His eyes turned on me, and I noticed an electric halo over the pupils. ‘Watter!’ The word came from his chest, I thought. Tottering in his tracks like an eighteen-month child, he stumbled on, screwed to his feet by my convulsive hand-grip. These giants that lift like a steam crane are mostly mullock at bottom. He was not with us the next dawn. Towards noon something kicking up the sand ahead brought the heart into my mouth. He had stripped off everything but his tattered shirt, and was stretched, striking out like a swimmer, every now and again flinging the sand about as though it were water. His hair was actually sticking up like a brush. He didn't know us, didn't know anything but his mad vision. Stuckey stared at him and then at me, and sank on his haunches, muttering, ‘I heard the splash.’ Night came, and we never moved nor uttered a sound, crouching beside him. What could we do? I swooned into a dream more realistic than fact. I heard the roaring plunge of the Pacific and the hissing backwash of cataracts down cliffs. Then I floated in a dark lake deliciously cool. Suddenly awaking, I staggered to my feet, and fell over Charley's dead body.”

The old man arose and strode up to me, and craning his bald head till the gaunt neck strung tight through


  ― 93 ―
its lean sinews appeared like a vulture's, fixed his cavernous eyes burningly on mine, his long face a mesh of creases slowly drawn out as he said in a tense voice.

“Thirst, man! The sight of a fresh-running creek gives me hell. Waste, God! what waste. You thought me a pig. Couldn't help it. That rattle of wasting water brought it all back. I've had periodical breakdowns for years—water! water! I wasn't married in those days. Stuckey was—he babbled of his ‘little woman.’ I lived two lives, slipped from one to the other without shock. Was now lecturing at the 'varsity, now rambling through Aberdeen. A slip in the sand, and instantly across my vision ran the white dazzle, the fusing sky lines, and Stuckey's face thrust out at me, all eyes. Each strove to lag behind the other. Each knew but never betrayed what the other maddened for. Not a sign but each knew, and sidled for the chance. Yet neither dared snap the tension. Night saw us pretending sleep. If I dozed, the kick of his foot brought me like a thunderclap to the immediate horror. A swallowing thought hypnotised everything into one tiny circle—his throat. It fascinated me. Its skin was so shrunken the sinews strained and sprang back like wires when his head jerked towards me, and his eyes—God! time after time the thought lifted me to him and was baulked by those terrible eyes turned slowly on me. Through delirium, no doubt, but they appeared to swell,


  ― 94 ―
jetting red streamers, and then contracting, sink into pits of blood. Once I had a lightning vision of myself. Man! I was a wild beast. And yet I felt no repulsion. Water—there were oceans of it, clear as crystal, in which I gambolled, sucking it at every pore, and clamoured for more, and it pelted from everywhere. Then I laughed, for my thirst was a jest, and—with a sound like the ripping of a sheet I was staring at Stuckey jerking his head at me. What next happened only God knows. I must have crawled on hands and knees, for they were bone bare when the water carrier picked me up a furlong off his track. He was too late for Stuckey, a mile away, huddled in sand, his claws hooked across his eyes. Thirst! thirst! Oh! those deserts. And yet we let the glorious, precious rain waste away. Man, it's awful.”

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