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III

A wide stretch of grey plain, bounded by a shimmering haze, a haze that grotesquely magnifies what few objects are visible, turning a stone into a rock, a bush into a tree. A shallow depression, bordered by dry polygonum bushes, with here and there a crooked, distorted coolibah tree, threads this plain. At one point in this apology for a creek,


  ― 195 ―
there is a pool of milky looking water. From the edge of this pool a short growth of green grass extends for a little distance up the bank, and on this patch of sward, the only green thing visible, some horses are feeding. Under a scanty shade of boughs, erected near one of the largest coolibah trees, Mitford and McIntyre are sitting; blackened by sun and wind, thin with semi-starvation, and cursed with “the infinite torment of flies.” The blackboy is curled up under the trunk of the tree. He lets the flies cluster around his eyes, infest his mouth and nostrils, and makes no effort, like the white men, to drive them away. The others are less patient, and a hasty exclamation continually escapes them. “When shall we get out of this purgatory?” says Mitford.

They were in a trap. They had penetrated far into the unknown country west of the Queensland border. From one scanty water-hole to another they had made their way to their present position, and now they could neither advance nor retreat. Before


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them there was an illimitable expanse of dry country; behind them the water-holes had dried up, and their return was cut off. Sturt, at the Depôt Camp, was in the same fix, and scores of men since have been caught in a similar way. A hundred and twenty miles of dry, cracked, gaping plains lay between them and a large permanent lagoon they had found on their outward journey. No horse could travel that distance without water under the vertical summer sun. No horse could traverse half the distance over the soft, spongy soil full of holes and deep cracks and live. Their only hope was a kindly thunderstorm, for the water-hole where they were camped was fast shrinking, and when that was gone it meant death.

Day after day they watched the clouds gather, dark and threatening, only to break in wind and dust, and a few fierce flashes of lightning.

At last, an ominous cloud gathered in the east. As night drew on, the heavens darkened and the setting sun was reflected


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from the opposite hemisphere in a quickly-fading flush of angry scarlet. A black night closed in. The air was heavy, oppressive and sultry; the two men and the boy stood silently watching. Their fate was hidden in that sullen bank of vapour. Quick, bright flashes of lightning soon commenced to blaze, followed, after a long interval, by a low, distant mutter of thunder. Presently even this ceased, and, with a sigh of bitter disappointment, the men stretched themselves on their blankets and sought forgetfulness in sleep.

“How far off was that storm?” said Mitford, breaking the silence.

“Any distance over seventy miles,” returned Duncan. “Did you not notice the long interval between the flash and the thunder?”

Mitford replied wearily, and both men soon slept.

In an hour or two McIntyre awoke, and instantly noticed a change in the atmosphere. The wind was blowing faintly from the direction of the late storm, and with it came


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the unmistakeable smell of wet earth. Rain had fallen to the eastward at last. The wind had brought the message, but from how far had it come?

Duncan aroused Mitford, and together they stood and sniffed the cool, damp air.

“We must get out of here somehow,” said McIntyre at last. “Now, listen. I am going to take Challenger and a pack-horse with water, and ride in the direction that wind comes from; I have the bearing, a little south of east. I will let the packhorse go in about twenty miles, after I have given Challenger a drink from the bags; the pack-horse will come back here. I shall go on until I find where that storm fell. If I don't come back you will know it is too far, and that I am done for; then you must shift for yourself. If I find water I shall come back.”

“But, Duncan, what nonsense! Why can't we all go and chance it?”

“Because I might get a little puddle of water that would serve me and the horse and


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would not be enough for all of us. Man, don't you understand! I owe you a debt and must pay you in my own way. For God's sake, don't thwart me.”

Mitford could say no more. McIntyre roused up Billy, and they strode into the darkness after the horses, which were soon caught, and, under the now starlit sky, the two men said good-bye.

About three hours after daylight, McIntyre pulled up, watered Challenger by means of a tin dish he had on the pack, then released the pack-horse to find its own way back to camp, and proceeded on his lonely way. Hour after hour of monotonous progress over the dead, dry plain, the only break an occasional shallow depression bordered with brown polygonum. Hour after hour through the great stillness of the night, save for a short occasional rest for his gallant horse.

Daylight again, and the outlook unchanged—no sign of rainfall visible. As the sun got hotter Challenger began to show signs of distress, so Duncan started to walk, and


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together man and horse stumbled over the treacherous plain. He had a small canvas bag of water on his saddle, but only a scanty remnant of the former contents was now left. Death was walking beside them, step for step.

At last Challenger began to give in, his flanks were pinched and the hollows over his eyes deep sunken; he rubbed his nose against Duncan's arm, whinnied, and looked pleadingly at him. These are the things to break a man's heart in the wilderness. Still there was nothing in sight but the heat-haze and the tall columns of dust raised by the wandering whirlwinds that crossed their track. A false step and the horse went down. McIntyre tried to get him up, but Challenger was too far gone—he must proceed alone. Wetting his lips with a few drops of the water fast evaporating from the bag, he went forward on the course he had been keeping.

Suddenly, right in front of him, rose a small flock of birds. They wheeled and chattered and settled down again! It could


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only mean water, for since leaving camp he had seen no living thing, and now he recognised the birds as spur-winged plover.

With perspiration nearly blinding him, he staggered on, and then he must have crossed the crest of an almost imperceptible rise, for before him the plain was covered with sheets of shallow water. He had reached the extreme edge of the thunderstorm.

When Duncan lifted his face from the tepid pool after slaking his thirst, his first thought was of the dying horse on the plain. He filled his felt hat and the bag, and dragged himself back to his dumb companion. Challenger lifted his head when he saw him, and whinnied piteously. Four times more he made the journey backwards and forwards, and then the plucky horse managed to get on its legs and follow him down to the water. There was a solitary coolibah tree not far off, and in the miserable shade that it afforded Duncan sat down and tried to eat some of the dried


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horse-flesh he had brought with him. He was conscious of a fearful headache, for he had been bareheaded when carrying the water to Challenger. He must get back as soon as possible, for the water on the plain was but a few inches deep and fast disappearing. Still he must spell his horse, for after such an ordeal the colt would not carry him half way without rest. At last he felt too stupid to think, and sank into a sleep that lasted until sundown. His head was still throbbing painfully when he awoke, and he arose and bathed it in one of the pools, but the water was warm and afforded him no relief. Challenger seemed greatly recovered, and was feeding on the dry Mitchell grass.

One thought haunted Duncan during the ensuing night of pain—the scorching ride back over the drought-smitten country. Suddenly a whisper seemed to come from the darkness, “Why go back?” To the eastward the country was well watered, and a few easy stages would take him to the Queensland border and safety. Mitford


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would wait, and at last give him up, start back on some other course, and probably perish. It was one or other of them. The colt would not carry him more than half way back to camp; then he must walk, and the sun would soon make an end of him. All through the dark hours of semidelirium the voices from the surrounding solitude kept up the refrain, “Why go back?”

On the fifth day after McIntyre's departure Mitford started on Duncan's tracks with a pack-horse laden with water, hoping to encounter him. The pool was falling rapidly and in a few days would be dry. Fifteen miles from camp he thought he saw a figure moving towards him. It could only be McIntyre, for in that solitude there was no living soul but themselves. He hastily dismounted and, water-bag in hand, hurried to meet him. Duncan did not know him; he was blindly, instinctively following his tracks back to the camp, and it was not until Mitford had poured the water over his head and breast and down his baked throat


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that his bloodshot eyes lost some of their wildness. His friend had dragged him out of the sun into the only shade there was on that bare plain—beneath the belly of the pack-horse. Here he lay a while with his eyes half closed. At last he began to speak coherently.

“I've got back, old man. Follow my tracks out and you will get to the water, but be quick, for it's drying up fast. Poor old Challenger! I shot him—it was all I could do for him; he never gave in until he was dying.” His head fell back on his friend's knee, and he was silent for a time. “I must go on,” he muttered presently. “Blast that sun! it has done for me; but I will get back”—and he struggled to rise. Mitford kept him down, and he sank into unconsciousness once more.

An hour passed during which Mitford kept pouring water over the burning head; then Duncan opened his eyes and his friend saw that his senses had returned. “Mitford, old man, I tell you that you must go back to camp and start at once, or it will be


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late, too late. The water is so shallow it will dry up in a day or two. Poor old Challenger, you'll see his body as you go; but start now and you'll get home safe. That other fellow is going another road. Goodbye.”

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