― 46 ―

Chapter V

In Which is Related Our Farther Progress Westward, and Our Flight from the Mountain of Fire.

Two days after we struck the southern end of the salt lakes spoken of in the Directions, our party being in excellent health and spirits, for as yet we had met no serious opposition, though the road at times had been extremely rough. A few miles farther on we crossed the bed of a dry lake, the salt of which, in the glaring sun, shone like burnished silver, and we had great difficulty in preventing our horses from eating it. The next day we came up with another large lake (Gairdner), which we were forced to skirt to the north.

So far, then, Morton's tale was true, and Dick, who, with the exception of his discoloured eye and swollen cheek, had quite recovered from the effects of his late encounter, was exceedingly joyous thereat. He jokingly made light of our journey, built wonderful palaces with imaginary riches, and vowed that our explorations would be the wonder of generations to come. I doubt he meant half the things he said, but was always under the impression that he had so little faith in the whole of Morton's story, that he was trying to force himself into a belief of it; yet be that as it may, he was merry enough in all conscience, and infused a life into the little party which the great solitude was apt to banish. Had the country presented a more charitable appearance we should have been more content, but as yet no accident had befallen us, and our leader was not of that temperament which delights in creating difficulties.

We pushed on rapidly in the direction of the range of mountains, from the summit of which we were to see the “big hill to the south.” and truly, as night was drawing

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near, we sighted the range lying low down on the blue horizon, and at eight o'clock that same evening drew rein at its base. It being too late to ascend it that day, we determined to wait patiently for the morning. And long into the night Dick and I sat smoking and talking, and wondering if we really should see the “big hill” looming in the south.

On the following morning Hardwicke, Jimmy and I, leaving my man Murphy behind to prepare breakfast, began the ascent to the south, for there we saw the highest peak, and from there we reckoned the “big hill,” which of course could be no other than Mount Finke, would be most easily discerned. The hillside was composed of rough, uneven rocks, set in a loose gravelly soil, which crumbled away beneath our feet. Here and there were patches of shrub and yellow grass, as dry as the dust they seemed to live on; all else was as completely withered as the face of an old man.

We reached the peak in due course of time, but the sun not having yet arisen we could discover no semblance of the hill to the south. Like a thin gauze veil lay the morning shadows over the limitless stretch of country. North, south, east, west, always the same unvarying sweep of land; always the same vast, rugged ocean of rock and sand, which, like its liquid brother, seemed leading away into the mystic shadows of eternity. I often wonder if the desert through which the Israelites marched was half so weird and solemn, half so beautiful in its magnificent desolation. For there is a weird and terrific beauty in these vast stretches of loneliness; they seem to bring you nearer to Him, and the fate of all earthly things.

We sat upon a long, bare rock, and eagerly awaited the first glimpse of the sun above the horizon. The air, laden with the scent of forests far away, was beautifully mild and delicious to inhale. I took off my hat and let the cool, soft breeze blow through my hair.

“What a delightful morning!” said I to Hardwicke, a remark not exceedingly wise in itself, or unconventional,

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but still a remark forced from me, as it were, by the beauty of nature—a trite offering at her ethereal shrine.

“I was thinking the same,” said he. “I don't know what your English mornings are like, Archie; but is not this beautiful? Was there ever a purer or more delicious air, I wonder?” And, as if to more thoroughly enjoy it, he opened his mouth and drew in a long breath, while he loosened the collar of his shirt and laid his hat beside him. “They say this is not a poetic country,” he went on, “and yet I doubt much if the old Greeks ever breathed a more inspiring or invigorating air. Not that I know what Greek air, is like, but they were fine old fellows in those days, full of fire and go, for which I should think the climate was partly answerable. But look, look!” cried he suddenly, breaking off and pointing to the east. “Did you ever see such a sight as that before?”

Away in the east the pale blue sky was slowly changing to a delicate pink, as sweet and warm as the colour on a young girl's cheek. Then it turned to a deeper red, and one-half of heaven's vault shone with a beautiful roseate hue, lighting the dull, dead rocks around us into glowing life. Like a blood-red sea the desert lay before us, weirdly, horribly solemn; a sea over which the ghosts of ships and the ghosts of men might revel for eternity. A stagnant world of dull, red fire it seemed, save where here and there the great red light from the sky caught the trembling sheets of dew, and converted them into gems of living glory—beautiful jewels that added a supernatural loveliness to the desolate bosom of their mistress. Then the heavens grew from red to yellow, and the whole eastern world shook its mighty curtains of glistening gold aside, and from the depths of the unknown the sun rushed forth—and it was day.

For several minutes we sat watching its golden flight to the north, sat in a state of delighted wonderment, when Hardwicke arose with the very commonplace remark that it was “going to be a hot day.” The dream of a moment was gone, and the old time-worn, though never-wearied

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reality, was back once more. The power of the sun had already banished the haze, and on looking to the south we saw, looming up through a cloak of misty blue, the ponderous form of the “big hill.”

“There it is, Archie,” shouted Hardwicke. “Hurrah for the Golden Lake!”

Ay, there it was plain enough, with its long, round peak lifting itself above its massive body—as rears the spire of a church above the church itself. Every moment it loomed up clearer, till I thought I saw the indentations on its sides. Hardwicke turned to me.

“Old Morton must have climbed this hill,” he said. “Poor devil! what an unhappy look-out was his. The spirit that man possessed would have made a hero of a more fortunate individual. But instead of gaining the approbation of the world, he was forced to hide his heroism from the light of day. Poor devil!”

We then, fully satisfied with our morning's work, began our return to the camp, Jimmy advancing some steps before us. We had descended the peak, and were passing along a short valley formed by two smaller hills, when the aborigine of a sudden came to a standstill, and motioned with his uplifted hand for us to remain quiet. His gaze was riveted upon a hole in the ground, to which he approached with the stealth and softness of a cat.

“Watch him,” whispered Dick to me.

I saw the black's body bend slowly, slowly, as with out-stretched hand and face all aglow with eagerness, he stooped lower and lower over the slight excavation in the earth, into which a moment later he dived his hand with indescribable swiftness, and as quickly withdrew it, holding a long, dark object. This he whirled round his head as one would the lash of a whip. Crack! He had thrown it from him, and on advancing we beheld, writhing in all the agonies of death, a long, black snake. He had broken its back.

“Dangerous work, Jimmy,” said Dick.

“Plenty use this sort of thing,” replied the aborigine,

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laughing and showing the full extent of his by no means dainty mouth. “Not much danger to black fellow. White man no good. This fellow plenty poison. Make 'um bite—plenty glory,” and he turned his eyes to heaven, meaning that a bite from the object he had just despatched meant a sure and rapid journey into the land of spirits.

He then whipped out his clasp-knife, and, after severing the head from the body, took the latter part of the snake up and dropped it carelessly in his pocket.

“What's he going to do with that beast?” I asked.

“What are you going to do with it, Jimmy?” inquired Hardwicke, with a knowing smile.

The black smiled similarly, I thought, and answered, “Him make plenty good breakfast,” and he positively smacked his lips in anticipation of such dainty fare.

“Do they eat these things, Dick?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “and very fair eating they are. I have heard of old bushmen absolutely longing for them as a delicacy after being surfeited with kangaroo. It was a very common thing for the old explorers, when hard up for food, to eat snakes. Warburton found them excellent eating, but as I am not very partial to them myself, I hope we shall not come down to need a closer acquaintance.”

“Indeed, I hope not,” I answered, and felt a loathing rise within me at the bare idea.

We arrived at our camp without encountering anything more remarkable than a few green and golden lizards which had come out to warm their scales in the sun. Murphy was anxiously awaiting our arrival, and as breakfast was ready, we fell-to and made a hearty meal. Jimmy, true to his word, after broiling the snake on the glowing embers of our camp fire, despatched it with great relish. And here, lest this should seem strange, I may remark that there is nothing animal an Australian black will not eat. Jimmy certainly had come under civilising influences, but the old saw says something about things being bred in the bone,

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and I doubt not that Jimmy possessed some of the hereditary traits of his illustrious ancestors.

We struck our camp and proceeded on our journey round the northern base of the range, the southern being too far and the hills too worn and rough for our horses. Soon we entered upon what seemed to me a stony desert. The earth was dry and crumbling, and covered with huge loose boulders, round and over which our horses stumbled in a most shocking manner. No rain seemed to have fallen here for years; the ground was like a huge sponge which it would have taken the sea to fill. Our horses continually sank into it past their knees, so that our progress was both laborious and terrible. The sweat ran off them in cataracts, and they panted so frightfully that after a little over an hour's journey we were forced to dismount and give them a rest. We then tried to walk, but found the labour, after a little experience, so great that we had to confess ourselves beaten. We therefore remounted our half-dead steeds and forced them slowly over the dreadful ground. The sun all this time had beaten down with unprecedented vigour, scorching us like the flame of a furnace. Above in the hazy, smoky blue it sped its course, seeming to grow with every step we took more fierce, more fiery. I could not help contrasting it now with the delicate warmth of its rise. Dick's prognostication was correct. It was a hot day.

Presently we emerged upon a somewhat firmer footing and I heaved a sigh of relief, for long dense patches of scrub appeared before us, and I thought we had come to the end of things objectionable for a while. But I was doomed to disappointment.

“This is getting from bad to worse,” shouted Hardwicke.

“This is a plain of spinifex, the curse of all who travel in the interior. Keep your horse clear of it as well as you can.”

This spinifex of which he spoke is a sort of long, tussocky grass, as sharp as a knife and very dangerous to horses, cutting their legs literally to pieces. I had much

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difficulty in avoiding it, and was not always successful. My horse, as a consequence, was punished very severely. This was bad, for in so hot a region any little cut is aggravated a thousandfold.

A dreary journey was this over the desolate wilderness. No blade of green grass was there, no sign of water, nothing but the dull, melancholy waste before and behind, to the right and to the left. As the sun mounted higher in the steely air above it seemed to glow and glare with an intenser heat, till I felt my brain bursting and my skin scorching as with fire. My tongue was swollen and dry, and I lifted my water-bottle to my lips. Pah! it was warm, almost boiling. How I longed then for a cool breeze, just one cool touch of our wintry weather, the weather I used to abuse and detest so much at home. And I tried to dream of the cold and snow and bitter east winds as one would wish to dream of paradise. After all, how weak is man, and how dreadful is pain! You pinch us and we cry; you tickle us and we laugh. Children of the senses are we, after all. We eat, sleep, laugh, cry, love, hate, till the Great Prompter rings down the curtain, and the play of life is over.

We continued our march across the dreadful wilderness—on, on, horses and riders equally prostrate; yet on, on, ever on. No complaints came from the lips of our small band. Complaint was useless—then why complain? And yet it is no easy task to refrain from so doing when you have good grounds to go upon. My man Murphy bore fatigue badly. He gasped and panted and stared with listless, vacant eyes into space. The veins stood out like cords on his forehead, and I was afraid that he would fall from his horse. A few kangaroo rats, startled at our approach, would bound from the thick cover, and scud away with their peculiar hopping motion; but so utterly prostrated did we all feel that not one of us had energy enough to unsling a gun and shoot. At length the spinifex grew less, and guessing that we were well out of it now, we dismounted from our horses and gave the poor beasts a good drink and half-an-hour's rest. At

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the end of that time we remounted once more and pursued our way with comparative ease. The country upon which we now entered was firm and well grassed and fairly well wooded, though all the trees were stunted in growth, and the numerous shrubs that grew around appeared more dead than alive. Had this been a country of even moderate rains I could have conceived no more fertile spot on earth, but as it was, the grass was tall and rank and as dry as the earth from the surrounding desert.

We caused a halt to be made about four o'clock, wiped our horses down with the dry grass, and gave them the regulation quantity of water, which they greedily drank, turning upon us beseeching eyes for more. Food their was none, and the dry grass was such as even they, in their half-famished condition, could not swallow. It turned to dust at the touch as does the Dead Sea-fruit upon the lips. Poor beasts! the last two days' journey had told dreadfully upon them. They showed such extreme signs of distress that I began to have horrible fears of their suddenly caving in, which calamity would necessitate an abrupt termination to the expedition.

Murphy lit a fire, and soon our tea was ready, and like the sweetest nectar it seemed after the lukewarm water we had sipped for so many hours. Tea has been found the most useful beverage for the Australian bush. Spirits would kill one, and the impure water, which bushmen too frequently have to drink, is apt to bring on various diseases.

Hardwicke proposed a start as soon as the horses had sufficiently rested, for there was no water thereabouts, and we could not feel absolutely safe until we had found some. Therefore, when we thought them able to continue the journey till camp-time, we remounted once more and started off with the best possible despatch we could command. We all four filled our pipes and crept silently along, like so many spectres, through the tall, yellow grass, which shone in the dazzling sunshine like a great sea of gold. Beautiful, unending it seemed, and yet how terrible! How one's soul could have gone out to such magnificence

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had there been no terrors for self. But this golden, gleaming world of grass was as a grave to us, containing neither joy nor hope. Better the barren desert a thousand times, for here life seemed a mockery, a gilded skeleton, a golden shroud enveloping the grinning jaws of death.

It was a long, trying journey; but towards sundown a breeze sprang up from the S.E., which made the atmosphere agreeably cool, though, like a vast furnace, the sinking sun still streamed upon our faces. At last it went down, fierce and red, as if angry at being forced to set, and we, following our custom, pitched our camp for the night in the middle of the great plain of grass. When we came to water our horses we were made acquainted with the unwelcome fact that we had much less of that precious fluid—owing greatly, no doubt, to evaporation—than we imagined. Hardwicke looked serious, and sometime after sent Jimmy off to see if he could discover more.

The sun no sooner disappeared than darkness began to settle over the great melancholy plain. We were now in the winter months (it being the 5th of May by my pocket-book), and as there is little or no twilight in Australia in summer, there is consequently less in winter. Winter! what a mockery of words it seemed. What an appalling misnomer to the sense that associates winter with ice and snow, frost, sleet, and bitter winds—winds that, guard against them as you will, somehow steal in between the warm clothes and the body enclosing the latter in a shroud of ice. Here, on the contrary, the sun seemed to burn with the force of twenty suns, the air was charged with oppression, and the dust whirled in great clouds about us. Truly a mad world, my masters.

As the night flew on the wind increased in vehemence. Above, the stars came out in millions and lit the face of the far-off blue with a magnificence surpassing aught that I had ever conceived. How they beamed! how cool, beautiful, and smiling they looked away up there; and, stretched out on my rug with my head resting against my saddle, I gazed into the blue, strange, far-off space, and wondered

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what it all meant, and if all those stars were worlds, and the one great God ruled over all. Strange, wonderful world, shall your sons ever know you?

How long I remained thus I scarcely know, but I was just dosing off into a tired sleep when I was suddenly awakened by a distant “coo-ee”—the cry of the Australian blacks. Hardwicke also heard it and coo-eed back, and the next moment Jimmy bounded into the camp, breathless and excited.

“Quick, Mass'r Dick! Quick, Mass'r Archie!” he shouted. “The bush is on fire!

“Great God, no!” cried Hardwicke.

“Fact, Mass'r Dick—no dam jabber—Look!” and the black fellow seized Hardwicke by the arm and pointed towards the south-east, where a soft rosy light illuminated the horizon as though the sun were rising.

“What time is it, Archie?”


“Then, my God, the grass is burning, and the wind is blowing the fire straight down upon us! We must run for it. Jimmy, the horses! Murphy, pack up; and, as you value your soul, be quick!” And we three worked as men never worked before.

The wind rose higher and higher, and moaned above our heads like some drear harbinger of the doom to come. Under the clear, bright stars we worked, under the beautiful blue vault of heaven which smiled as sweetly upon us as though no seething hell came rushing over the great yellow waste so eager to devour.

We had packed up before Jimmy returned, and so Murphy and I went to help him with the horses, the tinkle of whose bells we could distinctly hear afar off. They had wandered to some distance, but we quickly caught them, and, unfastening their hobbles, drove them with all possible speed to the camp. Then, with the quickness of despairing men—and what alacrity will despair not give?—we saddled and mounted them, and were away. I cast one hurried look behind ere starting, and found that

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in the few minutes we had taken to get ready, the soft rosy light so faintly seen at first was now a huge and ugly glare, covering the whole of the eastern sky.

We urged our jaded horses on with whip and voice. Poor things! they struggled bravely, but could emerge into nothing better than a canter. The last two days had done their work. Around us grew the grass and shrubs in such profusion as to partly bar the way of escape. We slipped and stumbled along in a truly appalling manner, and what added an intenser anguish to our already troubled faculties was the knowledge that the dense growth grew no less, and our ignorance of what distance the desert or sandy plain might be from us. To reach it was our only hope, and though that hope was reduced to the vaguest shadow, yet we pressed on and on as is the manner of man in the face of the direst calamities.

“My God, look at it!” shouted Hardwicke, who rode beside me, and I turned and saw what appeared to be the whole world burning. Like a gigantic range of mountains it swept the whole horizon to the S.E., completely barring out the world beyond. The pale, blue sky had turned to a ruddy tinge, through which the stars shone like great balls of fire. The moon had grown blood-red and the earth partook of its redness, and all the world glared melancholy in the lurid night. No sign was there of the desert, no sign of the growth diminishing, and as I felt my horse panting and stumbling beneath me, the hope that had thus far borne me along began to abandon me. I saw no escape. Like rats in a trap we were caught and would as miserably perish. Every moment the fierce mountain of flame drew nearer and nearer, and we were enveloped in the very substance that gave it life.

On, on, on! and still no sight of the wished-for desert. The horses were reeking with sweat; the foam flew in large flakes from their mouths, and I saw that a little more of the same pace would irrevocably knock them up. Hardwicke was evidently of my opinion, for he made a sign to stop, and we all drew rein.

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“Water them,” he cried, “or they'll drop.”

In a moment one of our big cans was unslung, and each horse was allowed to taste the precious fluid, whilst its rider wiped it down with handfuls of dried grass.

This spell had not cost us more than a minute or two of our time, yet even in so short a space the fire had drawn so terribly near that we could now smell it, while ever and anon thin clouds of smoke passed flying over our heads. But though short the time had been our horses had regained to a considerable extent their wind, and, as if sniffing danger from afar, they bounded onward. On, on, as if fear gave them strength; on, on, from the great fiery death that reared its awful form behind.

We were now rushing along at a splendid rate, and something like a glow of exhilaration flew through my veins at the mad speed and our immediately brightened prospects; but of a sudden Hardwicke's horse stumbled and fell, and I saw him shot with dreadful velocity from his saddle. I drew my horse up in a moment, and led it back to where my unfortunate cousin lay, doubly unfortunate, indeed, to have such an accident befall him at such a time. As we were riding behind our two servants they did not perceive the mishap, and, consequently, kept on their way driving the pack-horses before them.

Dick, I was glad to see, was none the worse for his sudden tumble. He was on his feet examining the condition of his horse almost as soon as I had reached him.

“You are not hurt, old fellow?”

“Not the least; but I'm afraid my horse is. He put his foot into a hole, and I think he's broken his leg,” which thought, a close but rapid examination proved to be correct.

“I can't let the poor beast burn,” said he. “He did his best, but luck was against us,” and, drawing his revolver from his belt, he went up to the agonised animal and fired a bullet in its ear. One convulsive kick, followed by a gasping cry, and the poor thing was dead.

“Now, what will you do?”

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“Run,” he answered. “I used to be considered a smart fellow on my feet. I must try and overtake the others and mount a packhorse.”

He then handed me his rifle and water-bottle.

“If this is the last of it,” he said, seizing my hand and shaking it most warmly, “good-bye, old fellow, and may God bless you!” and before I could make answer of any kind to this brave man, he had bounded from my side and was lost in the darkness.

I immediately remounted my horse, and urged him on at the top of his speed in the direction Dick had taken, hoping that I might come up with him, so that we could take turn and turn about. But I was not thus favoured by fortune. I beheld no vestige of him. He had vanished into the night with the speed of the wind.

On, on we flew, if flying might be called the speed at which my crippled horse moved. The sky above my head was now clouded with smoke, and every moment the heat grew more intense, while the glare of the mountain of flame lit the great, wide stretch of land with a weird and ghastly radiance. I dared not look behind lest gazing I should see the horror of my position and yield up my life without further struggle. Birds, driven onward by the smoke and approaching flame, filled the air with a tumultuous rush of wings and multitudinous strange cries. Where they came from Heaven alone knows, for we had seen none of them during the day. Kangaroos hopped past me with immense bounds, things that in the now dull light appeared like strange, huge spectres. Now was I racing neck and neck with an emu till with his mighty strides he left me far behind; and now with the kangaroo I tried to hold my own. But what availed it? Everything passed me with consummate ease. I was like one in a nightmare watching others flee from the danger that held me as in chains. Doomed, doomed! The word kept ringing in my ear, till my brain surged wildly and I gasped and panted for breath. Yet on I pushed my tottering horse; on, on, for every moment now the glare grew stronger and

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stronger and the heat from the great furnace more fierce and fierce.

At last I thought the grass grew less, though now I could scarcely see, the smoke from the great fire having advanced with rapid strides, blotting out the moon and stars and rendering the surrounding country black and indescribable. More hot and burning grew the atmosphere till I felt as one would feel who stood in the very jaws of a volcano. My horse, as terrified as myself, bounded screaming through the thick air. Its cries were horrible as the heat grew more intense, and with that energy which despair alone can give, it fairly flew along. On, on it rushed through the thick, black smoke which now surrounded us, blinding our eyes and choking our lungs. I urged with voice, I even lashed it on, for he rides brutally who rides for his life. The brave beast answered nobly to my repeated calls, and bounded on, still on, till, like a drunken man, it gave one long lurch forward and fell heavily.

I was thrown with great violence to the earth, but happily received no injury beyond a severe shaking, for the ground whereon I lay was soft and yielding to the touch and I knew that it was sand, and like a quick gleam of hope the thought shot through me—was it the desert? If so, far more welcome to me that dreary waste than the most lovely groves of the famed gardens of the Hesperides. I had noted previously that the grass had grown less, but how far I had journeyed on to the barren plain was now the thought that racked me. What distance had I put between me and the grass? and would that distance be sufficient for me to escape the great wall of fire? These were some of the thoughts which rushed with the speed of the thunderbolt through my brain, and like that engine of destruction left nothing but desolation behind. My horse lay gasping beside me and I knew that it was dying. It had done nobly, poor beast, but there are limits to endurance.

In the meantime the great mountain of flame drew closer and closer. Like a lurid world I saw it piercing the vast

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banks of smoke-clouds which rose before it. Like the great dark wings of a hideous death they unfolded themselves over the air, casting the deadly shadow of the grave over the wide world. My eyeballs were bursting beneath the unnatural strain, and the ashes of the burnt grass, borne on the wings of the black clouds, entered my mouth and nostrils in such quantities as to almost choke me. I thought of flight, and then the insignificance of my efforts matched with those of the giant flames, forbade the attempt. What was I in the face of the inevitable?

And now I knew my end was come, and with the near approach of death my nerves grew more composed. It is a strange experience to stand upon the brink of the grave with all your faculties in full play; it is a sad one, too, when the life is young, and earth possesses so many pleasures. And yet when all hope is gone, and no loop-hole of escape is left, it is marvellous with what fortitude a man can look into the face of the great avenger.

I saw the denser smoke-clouds pass, and then there rushed towards me the great flaming mountain—the gigantic monster that had pursued us so many awful miles. Like some huge demon from out the world of cursed spirits it leapt and bounded on, on, till it seemed to dance up to the stars and set the sky on fire. On with the roar of thunder it came, lighting up the surrounding desolation with a wild and awful splendour, and illuminating the long stretching barren plains with all the glory and fierceness of a thousand suns. I felt the flesh scorching on my hands and face; my clothes burned as though they had been made of heated iron; my eyes throbbed with intense agony, and my brain surged so fiercely that I felt I was going mad. My throat was dry and parched, and my tongue swollen. Then, then I felt the agony of such a death, and I tried to cry aloud, but speech failed me. With one long look into the fiery mountain that now seemed to rear its dreadful crest above me, I commended my soul to Him, and then sank senseless upon the sand behind the protecting body of my dead horse.