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  ― 120 ―

In a Thirsty Land.

AWAY up in Queensland we were, a fellow named Braddock and I. Hot up there? Well, I should say it was rather! I hope I shall never be in a hotter climate than the Rockhampton district about December and January, especially if the season has been dry. At the time of which I am speaking the season had been dry, and so had the one before it. The rivers and creeks were mostly long beds of baked mud cut up by the hoofs of the cattle that, with lolling tongues, had been searching—and in vain, poor beasts, as the carcases that rotted here and there in the sun testified—for water.

To an insignificant, “one horse” little township, situated in the heart of this parched country, Braddock and I had wandered on different errands. I think you will be interested to hear them both, and then you shall learn of our terrible troubles when fate had thrown us together.

Braddock was a young lawyer, who had gone


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out to Queensland to practise in his profession, which, like many other callings, is overstocked at home. Unfortunately he found that the colonies were, in proportion to their requirements, as well provided with lawyers as England. He failed to find an opening in Brisbane, and he could hear of none in the country. He had also made the common mistake of going to a new country without capital.

At last, when he was in sore straits, a colonial friend used his influence to get him an appointment. A school required starting at G——, the out-of-the-way township I have mentioned. Braddock's soul revolted against such employment. He would rather have groomed horses than taught children grammar and arithmetic. But he had no choice. He was supplied with sufficient funds to convey him to G——, and started off. By steamer he went to Rockhampton, where he bought a horse.

It takes a mighty clever man to buy a horse without being swindled, especially if his knowledge of horseflesh is limited, as Braddock's was. The particular quadruped he secured turned out, upon further aquaintance, to be a “moke” of the most inferior description, with a determined disinclination to proceed at a faster pace than a walk, and with a huge and contemptible capacity for taking punishment. One hundred and twenty long weary miles, under a sweltering sun, and through a country he knew nothing of, had


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Braddock to cover on that miserable horse, and as, at the end of his journey, he was doomed to a respectable but monotonous engagement which he detested, it is no wonder that, as he afterwards confessed to me, he was several times on the way tempted to blow away his brains and his troubles together with the little revolver he carried. He did not doubt his ability to reach G——, but he was seriously apprehensive that he would be unable to persuade or coerce the horse into either carrying or accompanying him the whole distance, in which case the money expended in his purchase would have to be reckoned a dead loss.

Eventually, however, G—— was reached by biped and quadruped after much hardship, and very much serious misunderstanding between them during the eight days which they had spent on the road together.

For my part, I went to G—— in search of clients for a newly started life assurance society. The promoters in Brisbane, in inducing me to scour the Rockhampton district in the society's interest, told me that, at a commission of £10 on every £1,000 I assured, I should soon make quite a small fortune. Their statement was fully justified; I did make “quite a small fortune,” so small, in fact, that I was unable to discover it. There was no salary attached to the appointment, the commission was considered sufficient; and I was expected to provide my own conveyance. The society was, however, kind


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enough to supply me with a doctor to examine the persons whom I persuaded to insure their lives.

I have met numbers of unpleasant men in my wanderings, but for all-round, thorough-faced nastiness, meanness, greed, and general despicableness, Doctor Gregory McQuade, in my estimation, takes the prize. The sort of man, you know, who eats and drinks on the sly, and hits you below the belt and then runs. A man, in brief, capable of robbing a hospital of its voluntary subscription box, or a blind man of his dog. It was in such bad company that my tour through the Rockhampton district, in a vain search for business, at last led me to G——, where I met Braddock, who had arrived a week before me.

I had then had quite enough of canvassing for life assurance. I had spent all my money, £35 of it for a buggy and horse, hadn't a cent left for expenses, and was utterly disgusted with the companionship of McQuade. I stayed three weeks in G——, during which I wrote three times to my employers for pecuniary assistance to carry on the enterprise. My letters remained unanswered. I learned afterwards that the society had too many serious monetary embarrassments of its own to pay attention to mine.

“How do you like canvassing for life assurances?” Braddock asked me, in the course of our first conversation.

“I hate it, and am a dead failure at it,” I


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replied. “And how do you like starting a school in the bush?”

“My answer is exactly the same as yours, Mr. Nomad, only that my failure must be worse. For some days I have been expecting indignant parents to kick me out of the township. I simply haven't the power of teaching even the alphabet. To avoid the ignominy of a public expulsion, I don't mind telling you in confidence that I am going to make tracks. To-morrow or the next day I start on foot for Rockhampton.”

I seized his hand.

“I'll go with you, old man,” I cried. “I made up my mind to the same course to-day, for I'm in as bad a fix as yourself. I know a man who will give me £12 for my turn-out, which will only just be sufficient to clear me in the town. We will start the day after to-morrow.”

How delighted I was at the thought of the fix the precious doctor would be left in, for I had resolved not to say a word of my intention to him!

On the strict Q T I sold my buggy and mare, and with the proceeds paid my hotel bill and other debts in the town. Sufficient remained to purchase flour, tea, tobacco, and other necessaries of a “swagman.” These I “planted” outside the town, Braddock pursuing a similar discreet course, and there we arranged to meet on the following evening before sundown.

“I am going to stroll along the Rockhampton


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Road,” I remarked to McQuade, with a vast inward satisfaction, just before I started.

“I'd try and get some insurances, if I were you,” he snarled, in reply.

“Ah, good idea,” said I. “You wait here until I bring some. In the meantime, make yourself happy, if you can. Tea at six, isn't it? so long.”

Being pretty fresh and full of spirits, Braddock and I covered about twelve miles of the way before midnight. It was much pleasanter walking at that part of the twenty-four hours than in the burning sun, and we resolved, as much as possible on the journey, to walk at night and rest during the day. During the first week we got on fairly well.

At two stations we passed we were able to secure fresh supplies, and, considering the severity of the reigning drought, we were lucky in being able to keep our canvas water-bottles well filled.

But one morning—shall I ever forget it?—we made an alarming discovery. We had lost the track. During the night, which had been unusually dark, we had wandered from it. We found ourselves on the borders of what appeared an endless plain, for the hazy mirage obscured the horizon from our view. Concealing our uneasiness from each other we immediately started to search for the track.

Backwards and forwards we wandered for many hours, always returning to the margin or


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that bare and arid plain. Our search was in vain, although we kept it up until sunset. Then we anxiously discussed the situation.

We had nothing to guide us but the sun, which had told us that to pursue our course, which we knew lay due east, we must strike across the plain—the hard, dusty, grassless plain, that stretched we knew not whither; that grew no tree to shelter us from the cruel sun, and that bosomed no stream in which to replenish our water-bottles. And our supply was nearly exhausted. No, we feared and distrusted the plain. There could be no friendly habitation there. On the border there were trees, and so there must be some moisture; and, perhaps, not far away, a river or creek, or possibly a track or a fence, that would lead to some homestead or settler's hut. And so we determined to skirt the edge of the plain and push on as fast as possible.

By noon the next day we had not a drain of water left. The fierce heat had even absorbed the dampness from the canvas. Still we pushed on, talking little; but both of us, I believe, thinking of home, and wandering in the past. When night fell we stopped, fearful lest during the darkness we might pass something that would lead to water or habitation. We ate a little “damper,” and chewed tobacco instead of smoking; and then we lay down to rest—but not to sleep.

“Good-night, Braddock,” I said; “don't be down. What's that Swinburne says?—




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“ ‘Sorrow may reign for a night,
But day shall bring back delight.' ”

“Please Heaven it will, old man,” said he; and then we were both silent, pretending to sleep.

We rose with the daylight, and pursued our weary march. Hour after hour passed without there appearing any signs of relief. No fence, no track of wheels, no hill in the distance to suggest a stream at its foot; only a glaring sun, a blue burnished sky, a burnt-up plain, and trees without life. About two o'clock Braddock began to fail, and we had to stop frequently to rest. The thirst was on us both cruelly; but it affected him most. He sank on the ground at last, and looked up at me with a sickening, despairing smile.

“It's no good, old man,” he gasped; “I'm cooked. My limbs won't hold me. I was never made for this. Go on, leave me.” Then he sank into a sort of half-apathetic, half-fainting condition, his parched mouth open, and his breath coming pantingly. I was just about to sit down at his side when, looking up, I saw two horsemen, who appeared to be emerging from the plain some distance in front of us. They were not coming in our direction, but were crossing our route, and soon they would be lost in the trees. I seized Braddock by the arm.

“Look!” I cried; “we are saved. There are two fellows riding ahead. Come on!”

I helped him to his feet, and he turned his misty eyes in the direction indicated.




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“Only a mirage,” he muttered; but he started to run with me. After a few steps, however, he staggered and sank on the ground.

Then the agony of thirst, and the hope of saving my friend and myself, lent me wings, and I flew over the hard, dusty ground after the horsemen.

Nearer and nearer they approached the trees—too far off to hear my frenzied shouts—and faster and faster I ran, fearing at every moment that I should lose my strength as poor Braddock had. I was within two hundred yards of them, and they were almost under the shadow of the bush, and still they heard and saw me not. Then I felt the sickening faintness seize me, and the blindness rush to my eyes. I stumbled—recovered myself—staggered on a few paces more—stumbled again, and with a wild, despairing scream fell faceward in the dust.

That last, hopeless cry saved me—and saved Braddock too. In a few minutes I was raised gently and tenderly by strong, rough hands, water was held to my thirsty lips, and—but you can imagine. If you can't, go and ask Braddock. He hasn't forgotten any of it, I'll be bound. You will find him in the daytime with his parchments and his boxes at Gray's Inn, or in the evening with his wife and two pretty children at his villa at Fulham.

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