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Chapter VI

In Which is Related Our Still Farther Progress Westward, with an Account of the Misfortunes That Befell Us on Our Way.

WHEN consciousness returned I found myself stretched upon the broad of my back, gazing languidly at the moon and stars. It was some time before I could bring myself to fully comprehend my unparalleled situation; but by degrees the past returned to me. I saw again our sudden departure from the camp, the wild flight from the great mountain of flame, Dick's rapid good-bye, the fall of my horse, and my own expected doom. Each scene flashed rapidly before my half-dazed brain. Mechanically I arose, feeling as though I had been thoroughly beaten. My face and hands stung as though they had been scorched, while the hair upon my head and face had positively curled with the heat. I felt but the wreck of my former self. Still was I alive, and the thought of Heaven's mercy filled my heart with thankfulness.

Yet, what availed my life cut off from friends, assistance? What availed this seemingly gracious boon of fate? Had my companions fallen victims to the fire? And was I saved from one terrible fate merely to suffer a worse, a still more cruel—to die by slow degrees of hunger and thirst, that most hideous of all deaths? At the thought my brain grew mad, and I arose to my feet and shouted wildly to my companions; but only the echo of my own voice stole ghost-like back as an answer. I was alone, alone in the dreadful desert with nothing but the recollection of the past to cheer; nothing but the memory of happy days to torment.

By degrees I resigned myself to my desolate position,

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and tried to look on death as a thing not of woe, but joy, since woe fled at its approach. And I gazed dreamily into the stars, and a thousand strange thoughts throbbed through my brain, and feeling I no longer feared the coming of the King of Terrors, I fell asleep.

When I awoke, the sun was beginning to mount the eastern world. His first beams had awakened me, and on what a ghastly scene of desolation they fell. Around, the black, barren desert lay as gloomy and forbidding as the plains of the infernal regions. The face of the sand was covered with the ashes of the great fire, adding a more shocking barrenness to the melancholy waste. No blade of grass, no single shrub was visible; and though for the moment I deplored the dreary outlook, I saw as quickly again that the wretched state of the country was the cause of my deliverance. Had there been even the scantiest herbage, I should have been burnt to a cinder.

With the advent of day I seemed to regain more cheerfulness, though my prospects were not one whit the better; but night magnifies danger, whereas day seems to dispel it. What had become of Hardwicke, Jimmy, and Murphy, poor fellows? Poor, and yet I envied them that poverty which allowed them to die in each other's company. I was not afraid of death—though I meant to fight for the life providence had so marvellously protected—but I hated the lonesomeness of my fate. And for the first time I knew what a hero Morton had been.

I now began to feel the pangs of hunger, but had nothing wherewith to allay them, and I sought the earth and sky in vain till my eyes rested on the poor old horse. Though not the most delicate of luxuries, horseflesh is a boon to a starving man, and I at once set to work abstracting a steak, which I knew not how I should cook, there being no signs of wood or any inflammable material about. Happily, I was not forced to the extremity of eating sun-dried horse-flesh, for while leaning over the animal, intent upon my work, I heard a sound, I think the loveliest sound that ever fell upon my ears. Like the sweet ripple of water to the

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dying desert traveller it seemed; it seemed as a voice from heaven calling back some spirit from the damned. And yet it was merely the wild, strange coo-ee falling from the parched-up lips of King Jimmy.

Ay, there he came bounding towards me with arms flying, face aglow with excitement, and shouting at the top of his voice. A moment after we were shaking each other's hand as though we had no intention of leaving off till we had dislocated, at least, a couple of shoulders.

“The Lord be praised, Mass'r Archie,” he cried, “the Lord be praised.”

“And—Mr. Dick?” I felt my heart beat violently as I spoke.

“Safe, Mass'r Archie, quite safe—and paddy-man too.” (His name for Irishman.) “Dam near thing though. Mass'r Dick came flying along more quick than emu—soon catch us—cut Milky's pack adrift—mount him—fly away! Fire come dam close, but no harm.”

“And Mr. Dick—where is he now?”

“He go look for you—paddy-man look too. Mass'r Dick no sleep last night. Think all the time 'bout you.”

Poor Dick—God bless him!

After Jimmy had given me a little food—which his master made him take before setting out—and a good drink of water, we started off in the direction of the camp, which lay a little to the north of my position, and shortly afterwards I had the great pleasure of seeing Hardwicke's figure in the distance. He was just returning from an unsuccessful search for me, and his astonishment on beholding me walking alongside of Jimmy may well be imagined. I shall never forget the way he seized and shook my hand, or the devout manner in which he thanked God for my deliverance, as though he had passed through no dangers of his own. There were tears in his eyes as he looked in mine, and I saw such a depth of love and gladness in his gaze, that I fervently blessed the Almighty for granting me the affection of this brave soul.

God bless thee, Dick—God bless thee!

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“I thought you were done for, Archie.”

“Touch-and-go, old fellow.”

“Ay. What a marvellous escape! It's played the deuce with our horses though. Yours is dead, I presume? Two gone and the others dreadfully knocked up. If we don't find feed and water for them soon, we shall be in a pretty dilemma.”

Jimmy was then sent in the direction Murphy had taken, to acquaint him with the news of my discovery; and while he was gone Dick took the opportunity of telling me, in a few simple sentences, how he had escaped.

After leaving me, he, to use his own words, put on full speed for about a mile, at the end of which he distinctly heard the harness bells of the horses, and, redoubling his exertions, quickly came up with the flying party. To disencumber one of the horses of its pack, was the work of a moment—the next he was on its back and away. Thus they flew till their weary animals could go no farther; and, like myself, they out of sheer necessity were forced to stand and watch the great mountain of fire sweep down upon them. And they were saved in precisely the same manner as I, though being two or three miles farther in the desert, they did not suffer from the anger of the flames.

On looking at the pack-horse Dick had ridden, I found it was the very one that carried, amid some of our provisions, all my scientific instruments, for I knew how to take the altitude of the sun, and could find our position by the stars; and I had meant, if the Golden Lake did not turn out a myth, to mark its proper position on the chart for the future benefit of mankind—or myself. Now, supposing such a place did really exist, we should have no more guide to it than our own experience and our present directions, which were as vague as they could well be, and which, I often thought, none but fools would follow.

I mentioned this to Hardwicke, thinking he had done it by accident, but he had not. Scientific instruments, he said, would not direct us to the Golden Lake. If we reached it, it would be by luck alone. As for our return,

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he was not afraid of that. The instruments would prove of undoubted value then, but in the meantime our stores were the things we had to consider first and foremost, and so he had sacrificed science to the stomach. Luckily I had my pocket compass upon me, and by this we steered the rest of the journey.

Shortly after he had finished his tale, Jimmy returned with my man Murphy. The poor fellow was so overjoyed at seeing me safe again, that he fell at my feet, kissed my hands, and called on all his pet saints to shower their blessings on my darling head. I was much affected at this show of devotion, and with a few cheering words begged him to arise.

“Ah, sor,” he said, “to think that I should nearly have been the death of you. It goes straight to my heart like a dagger; and if it wasn't that I may be of use to you yet, sor, I'd blow my brains out wid my own gun.”

“Why, Murphy, what are you talking about?” I inquired. “I fail to see that you were in any way to blame for the narrow escape we have all had.”

“But I was, sor,” he replied, coming closer to me and dropping his voice to a whisper so that the others might not hear him. “Don't tell them—I wouldn't have them think me such a fool—especially that black, but I was the cause, the only cause. I must tell you, sor, because if I didn't, I should never be able to slape again; but, God forgive me, I forgot to put the fire out. You remember, sor, you remember the wind rose soon after we left the camp. It must have blown some of the sparks among the dried grass; d'ye see, sor, d'ye see?”

“Yes, yes,” I answered. Truth to tell, I was very angry at such gross carelessness on his part, carelessness which might have resulted so fatally, and I think he saw it on my face, for he cried, “Ah, sor, don't be angry wid a poor boy who'd lay down his life for you; who'd give the last drop of his blood to save you one moment's pain. Forgive me, sor, forgive me!”

I made a slight pretence of thinking seriously of the

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matter, and then with seeming reluctance forgave him, though not before I had cautioned him about his behaviour in the future.

“If I ever do the like agin, sor,” he said, with a face as grave and serious as the proverbial judge's, “may I be burnt to a cinder on the very spot, and may the divil himself minister to my soul for all etarnity—and well would I desarve it for a blackguardly fool.”

With this demonstrative outburst our conversation ceased, and we went and partook of the food which Hardwicke and Jimmy had laid out. And here I may say that Jimmy never knew what really caused the fire—I don't think he ever gave it a second thought—while Hardwicke, who had puzzled himself considerably over it, put it down to one of those accidents which will happen where fires are made and people smoke.

After breakfast we set out once more, steering the same north-westerly course. Our supply of water was now so low that, with care, we reckoned we had not more than enough to last us for the next two days, but in that time we hoped to strike the great salt lake of which Morton had spoken, and on the north side of which he found water. In the meantime there was every chance of our discovering a native well (holes dug in the sand by the blacks). Many of these had been found in the barren parts of the south and east, and we prayed that fortune would likewise favour us in these arid regions.

The first day passed with little of note. There was the same scorching sun above; the same hazy glare before the eyes, and the same long, desolate stretch of sand around. No sign of vegetation, no sign of water. Even the dreaded spinnifex seemed unable to exist here, and it, as far as I could see, lived on nothing but stones and dust.

That evening we struck a bit of scrubby country, which we thought gave promise of better things ahead; but in which, I am sorry to say, we were going to be disappointed.

During the afternoon the wind changed to the north, which made the temperature extremely hot and disagreeable;

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and to add to our discomfiture, our camp became infested that very night, with millions of ants. I awoke as from an unpleasant dream, and found myself fairly swarming with the little brutes. Hands, neck, hair, and all my body was literally covered with the pests, and I felt myself in various places to see if any of me was missing. I arose and leant over Hardwicke and my man Murphy, and found them in much the same state. Jimmy was sleeping peacefully with his mouth wide open, round which many ants strolled gazing into the great cavity. But instinct must have warned them not to tempt its depth, for though within all looked no doubt enticing, that inner sagacity cried, “beware of the trap.”

I awoke the sleepers, and much annoyance the little animals caused us before we could get rid of them, which we succeeded only in doing after stripping; Dick remarking, by the way, that we were in for a picnic, as the little brutes were nothing less than a species of the bull-dog ant, and that unless he was mightily mistaken, they were poisonous. Then he begged that we would feel if we had not several small bumps on several portions of our bodies, and when we made answer that such was the case, he sagely remarked—

“I thought so.”

Our packs were also covered with multitudes of the atrocious little creatures; but, thanks to the stout canvas casings and the manner in which Murphy had tied them up, the little pests had not been able to penetrate into our eatables.

“By Jove!” cried Dick, “what a blessing they did not get at the stores. What a mess they would have made of them.” And all who know the ravages ants can make with food will heartily concur with him.

We extracted a pot of ointment from our medicine chest and well rubbed our bodies with it, thereby hoping to alleviate the consequences incident to such a disagreeable adventure.

Dick, who in the meantime had been hunting round to

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discover the cause of our annoyance, here returned with the news that we had pitched our camp about thirty yards from a huge ant-hill, and that the indefatigable pests, smelling our food, had attacked us in true military fashion.

We then proposed a shift of quarters as it still wanted about four hours to daybreak. We did not care to travel before the sun was up, for fear that we should pass a native well in the dark, which in our present predicament would have been almost suicidal. Therefore, we got together our things and moved off to a considerable distance, where, though it was insufferably hot, we managed to pass the few hours before daylight free from the assaults of our puny though dreaded assailants.

I, however, slept but little during the remainder of the night, and on one occasion when I had awakened from an unquiet doze, I thought I heard a suppressed chuckle, and on sitting up I beheld King Jimmy a short distance off dancing and behaving generally in a very undignified and unkingly manner.

On seeing me awake he shouted, “Come here, Mass'r Archie, come here and look. Dam funny. See same on Murrumbidgee side once. Horse drop down sick—ants come to gobble him—horse get wild, get up and run half a mile—ants follow—gobble him after all.”

Much more he jabbered in the same strain, to which I paid no attention, for my eyes were riveted upon the spot at which he pointed. There, coming along at what might be called a rattling pace, if they speak in ant-land, was a whole colony of the ferocious creatures, and what was more, they were following our tracks.

“Why, these are the same ants?” I queried.

“No doubt o' that,” answered Jimmy. “White man, plenty sweet,” and he laughed immoderately.

I looked at the little beasts toiling manfully over the rough sand with wonder and loathing, wonder at their marvellous instinct and loathing at the thought of being at their mercy.

Jimmy, who had been studying them intently, took a

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piece of damper from his pocket and threw it in their midst. In a moment there was a most extraordinary scene, a truly Homeric battle. They rushed for the bit of bread with all the savage fury of an army of starving tigers at the body of a dead buffalo. They bit, tore, and lashed each other with all their pigmy powers, creating a terrific tumult in their swarming ranks. How the desert would ring, thought I, if they had the power of utterance of any kind; and though I had never seen a battle between the armies of two great countries, I could well imagine its dreadful confusion.

Jimmy, who still intently surveyed the proceedings, here sagely remarked—

“Dam hungry.”

“I should think so,” I replied.

“I wonder,” said he, with a puzzled look on his face, as though trying to master some intellectual conundrum, “I wonder if the Lord made this country?”

I was rather taken aback at this sudden and unexpected query, for I had no idea Jimmy thought of anything but his stomach (Hardwicke told me afterwards that some travelling revivalists had once visited his station, and that Jimmy was for a time an excellent convert), and so unknowing his theological opinions I answered—

“Undoubtedly God made this country, Jimmy.”

“Preacher fellow plenty jabber jabber about God make everything, but I no believe he make this country,” he answered.

“Ah, but he did,” I replied.

“Then Mass'r Archie, what make him so mighty wild that he go make dam country like this? No grass, water, gum-tree, nothing. Suppose I take the trouble to make 'um country, I no do this sort of thing. Can't see the use of a place like this, Mass'r Archie; can't, for the life of me.” And, as if thoroughly disgusted with the order of creation, he turned on his heel and marched back to the camp, I following in his footsteps a few minutes later.

After awaking the others, and acquainting them with the situation, we moved our goods and chattels a little farther

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on, which gave us plenty of time to eat our breakfast without fearing more annoyance from our Lilliputian enemies.

After our meal, the word to march was given; and so that we might rest our horses, which now began to look poor things of skin and bone, we walked, leading them, for a considerable time. But as the sun grew hotter, our ant-bites began to sting so dreadfully that we were forced to mount our dilapidated Rozinantes, and urge them over the burning plain.

The heat of the sun was fearful as the day flew on, and the wind, which as I said before had gone to the north, burnt like what the poet must have imagined a “blast from hell” to be. Dry and hot, it carried the burning sand along with it, creating a shower of fire, which, flung with the impetuosity of a hurricane upon us, was an experience of the most distressing description. Our faces, which as you may be sure, had already become hardened with exposure, literally cracked in the burning wind. The ant-bites grew more acute, and the dust thicker, so that between being suffocated with sand, and driven to desperation by the tingling sensation of the bites on various portions of our anatomy, I was beside myself with anger, and thought that the being who sits up aloft keeping watch over poor Jack might give that worthy a rest and me a turn.

The dust at last grew so thick as to partially blind us; and therefore finding progress almost impossible, we were forced to rest awhile and let the storm blow over. And what a storm it was! Away to the N. and N.W. the whole of the horizon was shrouded in a yellow, dusty fog, which every moment drew nearer and nearer with terrific speed. We quickly got the horses down upon the sand, and then, with them as a shield, sat and awaited the attack of the dust-fiend.

Along it came with a roar and shriek, as though it bore on its dusky wings millions of infernal spirits who took delight in the mad fury they created. Like a thick shroud it passed over the sun and hid it, and in a moment the darkness of night fell upon the howling waste.

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Thud! It struck the sides of our poor animals with such violence that they shrieked aloud with terror, and in a moment we were enveloped in a whirlwind of burning sand, which hurled itself with such outrageous fury upon us as to tear the skin from our faces. The wind was like the breath of a furnace, and the sand the red-hot ashes of a volcano. How it stung! I scarcely dared to open my mouth to breathe, for whenever I did so, the sand forced itself in such quantities down my throat as to go close upon choking me. Had the storm lasted long, I am sure it would have destroyed both horses and men; for when the worst of the desert hurricane had passed over, and the sun enabled us to view each other, four more pitiable-looking adventurers I feel sure were never seen. The sand had indeed played sad havoc with us, changing our natural colour to a dull sandstone—face, clothes, and hair, all alike, so that the colour of Jimmy's face was scarcely distinguishable from that of my own. It was a dismal look-out, and I thought if ever there was a fool in the world, it was I, Archibald Martesque.

But like all woes that do not kill, the storm passed away, and the sun shone out more fierce than ever, as though intent upon making up for the time he had been forced to hide himself. The wind still blew small clouds of dust from the north, but they were a comparative luxury when put beside the fury that had just howled over us. It is almost needless to say that our ant-bites became more irritated through being brought in contact with the burning sand, and a shockingly bad time of it we had until we disencumbered ourselves of our clothing, shook the sand from it, and once more applied the ointment to our bodies. Our horses were also in a dreadful state; their lungs were so full of the fiery dust that when we began again to march, they wheezed and carried on as dreadfully as if they had been suddenly afflicted with acute asthma. We therefore had to give them an extra drink, which, though appreciated by them, was not exactly the thing for us, water being so appallingly scarce that we began to look upon every drop

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of it with much the same eyes as a woman regards a diamond necklace not her own.

For the next two days we struggled on without mishap, and on the evening of the second—the day on which we reckoned to strike the lake, if lake there was—we drank our last drop of water. It was certain now that if we did not soon discover more of that precious liquid, our adventures would be brought to a speedy and horrible termination. We sank several holes in the sand, in what we thought were likely spots, but our efforts were always crowned with failure. Not a drop of water had one of them given forth. It seemed as though the plain was as dry beneath as above the surface.

We managed to pass a few hours of semi-slumber that night, but as soon as there was light enough for us to see, we were up and away. Our lives were now at stake, and we redoubled our assiduity and exertions in our search for the life-giving liquid. We spread out over the plain, Hardwicke and Jimmy taking the extreme wings, Murphy and I the centre. Thus we covered fully half a mile of the ground, and hoped by so doing that should any water lay in our path it would not escape us. But we might have spared ourselves the trouble, for not a drop was seen all that day.

About noon we closed up and tried to eat some food, but with the exception of Jimmy, none of us could swallow a morsel. My throat refused to allow it to pass, seeming as thoroughly blocked up as though a network of tissues had been twisted across the cavity.

Hardwicke looked long at me, but spoke not. Yet I could see within his eyes that he was marvellously affected at our situation, and I knew he imagined himself the cause of all our miseries, so I went to him and took him by the hand and said, “Let us on, Dick. If there is water ahead we will find it; if not—we can die game.”

“And you don't blame me, old fellow?” he said.

“Blame you, Dick; why should I?”

“I don't care a rap for myself,” he answered, “because

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I'm the cause of it all. But to think that through me, you——”

“My dear old fellow,” I cut him short, “I was well aware of the dangers that beset this undertaking before I undertook it, so please say no more about it. Let us on, my friend, on. Courage, we'll find the water yet.”

“God bless you! old man,” he said, as he wrung my hand again and again. He then turned from me, and shortly after we were once more pursuing our way, amid a deathly silence, across the great burning plain.

The night came on and found us in the same dilemma. The wind still blew from the burnt-up north lands, and while it continued in that quarter there was small hope of rain. Rain! what would we not have given for one good shower, only one. Not a drop had fallen since the day we left Port Augusta, and yet we were in what was called the rainy season. Rainy season, forsooth! It seemed as though for centuries no shower had fallen in these barren regions. No sign was there of man, of beast, or of bird. All life seemed banished from the face of this terrible land. The gloomy shadow of death hung over the wilderness daring life to plunge within its depths, and gloating over the trackless wastes of misery it had created. A horrid, desolate country, fit home for the scorching wind and the fiery dust-storm.

That night I saw the moon rise in a cloudless sky, beautiful and clear as a great globe of polished silver. I watched it rise higher and higher in the blue, and I wondered where we all should be when next it rose.

Next morning, as soon as there was light enough for us to see, we again began our journey, well-knowing that should we now fail to discover water, the morrow's sun would show the day the distorted features of four corpses. Scarcely a word was spoken; but there was a look on the face of each that told its own tale. No murmur arose; each was brave and calm, and prepared to meet the worst. I was proud of the heroism of our little band, and was glad

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to see how brave a brave man can be in the face of a dreadful calamity.

It must have been three or four hours after starting, and just when the sun was beginning to give us an extra taste of his quality, that we called a halt in a small, sandy gully, and extracting the spade from one of the packs, began to dig for water, for this gully had every indication of once being the bed of a stream. Hope stimulated our energies, and though we were nearly dead with thirst, we succeeded, after about half an hour's hard work, at which we took turn and turn about, in sinking our well some five or six feet. Still no sign was there of the moisture for which we panted.

“No go, Archie,” said Dick, as he threw the spade out of the hole; “we must try further on.”

His voice was dry and husky, for he, like the rest of us, could only speak in a hoarse whisper.

“Hard luck, old boy,” he continued, as he clambered out of the hole, and sat on the edge of it. “Things seem going all against us. Ever since that cursed fire, we have had nothing but misfortune.”

“Still, Dick, we've pulled through, you know, and we've sworn to go on.”

“Yes, till we drop.” And he prepared to spring to his feet to hurry away, when of a sudden he stopped, and seized me violently by the arm. “Look!”

I followed his gaze, and saw distinctly in the bottom of the hole we had dug the sparkle of water. What new life, what joy flew through me at that moment. Salvation had come at last!

“Water, water!” I shouted as loudly as my swollen throat would permit; and in a moment Jimmy and Murphy were by my side laughing with very joy. Water was found at last.

What ecstasies we might not have been guilty of, I cannot say, had not Hardwicke—who had been kneeling in the well—here arisen with a look of unutterable dismay upon his face, while he scarcely more than whispered in his husky, deathly voice, “My God, it's salt!

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A sickening dread came over me. I tried to speak, to ask him a question; but my tongue refused me utterance. I was dazed, struck down as if by a terrific blow. I felt the life—that but a moment before had coursed so swiftly through my veins bringing hope on hope—pass quickly out of me, and I became conscious of a sudden, icy chill against my heart.

I leapt into the well. A wild, soul-sickening hope swept over me. He might be mistaken! Alas! no, it was too true. The water was as bitter as gall.

Only he who has suffered likewise can imagine my feelings. My pen fails utterly to convey one single fraction of the agony I endured; to picture the dull despair which, like a gloomy mountain, settled upon me, crushing out hope and faith.

I was awakened from the dull, lethargic reverie into which I had fallen by Hardwicke, who shook me violently, saying—

“We must start, Archie, before our remaining strength is gone. I think we may yet hope; only, for God's sake, pull yourself together. I believe we are near the lake of which old Morton spoke. That water is salt—what more likely than it came from the lake?”

With an effort I threw off the dulness that seemed to stupefy me, and we once more struck out across the burning sand. How I got over the weary miles of desert I hardly know. I was conscious of a blazing sun above, a giddy motion before my eyes, and a dull, tired feeling in my body. I felt no pain, I was only tired, and I staggered several times as though about to fall. Then I felt Hardwicke pass his arm through mine, and I remember him speaking words of comfort; and I can still see, as through a mist, his bent, determined brow beside me, and his clear, brave eyes searching the wide horizon. And then I felt my strength ebb slowly away, and the strong arm tighten on mine, and in the one brief second of consciousness that was left me, I thought I heard some one cry: “Water! water!”