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Chapter XXII. The Swampers.

ALONG a portion of the coast between Eucla and Eyre within the great Australian Bight, a small schooner was beating as if on the outlook for a cove or bay to enter and bring to anchor.

A dreary and inhospitable portion of the coast this is, with those wall-like cliffs standing out of the surf that ever lashed whitely against them from these stormy waters, for the Bight is, like the Bay of Biscay, a place of storm, and the waves are mighty as they come from those antarctic wastes without any impediment until they fling themselves against the granite walls.

On the deck of this small craft several of my characters are gathered who have been too long neglected; yet, as they have been engaged upon a monotonous and uneventful sea voyage with retarding head winds, my readers have not lost much in leaving them alone.

The unfortunate Psychometrist, Professor Mortikali or Jeremiah Judge, who unconsciously has been made an accomplice of housebreakers, torn from his comfortable and lucrative practice and forced to endure the combined misery of sea-sickness and dread of capture, makes one of the group along with Barney and his brother and sister criminals.

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They had intended to go to America when they started from Sydney with their loot, for the captain and his crew had as urgent reasons for leaving Australia as these passengers had—but deny it who will, we may have our reasons for cursing this home of the kangaroo and the cornstalk, yet there is something magnetic about it that seems to draw back again and again those who have once been there. England is delicious and restful with its green meads and sheltered lanes; Australia is arid, unpicturesque and monotonous in its scenery, yet to the convict-bred, or the restless adventurer, it is a magnet which he cannot long resist.

Perhaps it was some newspapers that the skipper had laid in to beguile the long voyage before them that did the trick. Perhaps because most of these criminals had never been out of the land of their birth, and America did not hold out a tempting or a fertile prospect, the competition in roguery being too keen in that great land, or the news of the gold-finding in Western Australia being too much for them to resist the fascination; but, whatever the cause, they yielded and sailed round the coast and approached the land instead of keeping out to sea.

Certainly Barney was the only man amongst them who knew that murder was amongst the things they were wanted for, and he kept the secret for the sake of his chief. He it was who had played upon their lust for gain and home-sickness, and persuaded them to seek the shores at this desert portion.

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They had gone round Tasmania, as they did not wish their motions to be telegraphed about at Bass' Straits, and a long and wearisome voyage it had been round South Cape, and after many an argument they had resolved to land in the Bight, and go from there to the goldfields.

The captain knew the coast line well, also a good landing-place where they would not be more than a couple of hundred miles from the latest discovered fields, possibly less than half that distance from new fields which had been discovered. His idea was to make a joint company affair of it, bring the schooner to anchor at an old abandoned whaling station that he knew, and leave a portion of the crew to look after her, while the rest pushed on and prospected a bit.

Several of them had done some prospecting; the captain and Barney had both worked on different diggings in their time, while the Professor, albeit the mystical arts were his strong points, yet had matriculated as a mining engineer both in America and New Zealand, and although, like most other people, he despised the calling that he had been brought up to, his knowledge of geology was much less a sham than his knowledge of astronomy.

“I reckon the Professor there could put us right if we struck a goldfield,” said the captain.

“Yes,” admitted the Professor; “if the gold is likely to be there I can guess at it most likely; but what is that to be compared to the glorious knowledge the speruts reveal an' what the stars

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show us? Speruts are no good at finding out gold mines nor buried treasures—they despises filthy lucre.”

“Never mind—you tell us what you know in your own line, and we'll believe what you want us arterwards about the speruts, when we has our mining rights made out and our ground pegged off.”

I have seen men who were first-class mechanics pretend they know nothing about their craft, yet be weakly boastful over something which they were only amateurs in. Poets and painters who deprecated their inherent and acquired gifts, who boasted about their talent as cooks. The Professor was really a man to be respected as a mining expert, yet that was the last occupation he would have thought to make money in. Real knowledge gave him modesty on the only subject he was really an adept at.

His companions, however, had tested him by adroit questions, and felt confident that if he was with them there might be some chance of success in their quest; therefore the Professor was a man to be taken care of.

They had provisions enough for all their wants for the next twelve months. In the galley also they had a good condensing machine, which although not very large, yet condensed enough for their purpose, therefore they made all their arrangements.

They would anchor in this secluded cove, and leave half the crew to look after the ship and work

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the machine during their absence, while they went up country prospecting as they went along.

If successful, they would send one of their number to the nearest warden and take out rights, also purchase camels, while the others camped on the ground, then they would establish a camp and bring up their water from both places — the nearest centre and the ship. They had money enough to pay for what they required, and at an outlying field like this they need not fear surveillance. A camel can travel a hundred miles a day, and there were plenty of them to work the show. Let them once introduce a new field to the market, and no one would ask where they came from. They would become respected citizens. The gold of the pawnbroker's jewellery they had already reduced to ingots, while the gems were untraceable, therefore they considered themselves perfectly safe.

It is astonishing how even an habitual criminal craves to be regarded as a respectable member of society, so long as he can become so without disgorging the proceeds of his nefarious undertakings. To be mine owners and floaters of mines, seemed to these criminals much as the Church of England looks to a Dissenter who has been indulging in a course of the early fathers. When the Dissenter joins the Church of England, he has taken the first decided step in abnegation of personal responsibility, and the future paces from Low to High, and afterwards to Rome, are simple.

When a thief feels a craving to become a respectable member of society, yet has a lingering

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fondness for his old habits in Australia, he tries to discover a gold mine, then he floats it and becomes a member of society without relinquishing his old habits. He advances on his course in time as he becomes hardened to his new career, and takes office as a director of companies, next a magistrate or warden, to be afterwards put up as a member of parliament, and finally he may become that bulwark of society, a deacon in the church. After that stage, he is like Alexander when he had conquered the world, for earth has no more to offer him. If he can only steal a good position in Heaven, then indeed he is a master of his profession.

It was a laudable instinct that animated these bank-breakers to return to their native soil and face the hardships and privations of an explorer's life. The possession of a good capital had given them daring and respectable impulses. A thief with a thousand pounds is not the reckless ne'er-do-well that a thief is with thirty pieces of silver. The thousand-pound man will make a stern effort to take care of and increase his store. He will, if he has the chance, become a careful speculator, particularly if placed as those men were on a rocky and uninhabited shore with no public houses near at hand.

About mid-day the captain descried the opening he was in search of, and then easily they sailed inside and brought to anchor in a small bay, with a good beach in front of them, and protecting head-lands all round.

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In olden times this place had been a whaling station. There were even some remains of huts and sheds on the shores, but they had long ago been deserted, while this portion of the land the natives did not visit.

The telegraph line ran along close to the coast here, but there were no stations nearer than Eucla. Here in this quiet and secluded bay the vessel might lie for months, without having a visitor, and only then if an accident occurred to the wires.

It was decided therefore that meantime the captain, the Professor, Barney, and three others would do the prospecting, leaving the mate with the women who had accompanied them, and the sailors to overhaul the schooner and repaint her, also keep the condensing machine constantly at work, so as to supply those up country with water as they might require it.

The company was to be a joint-stock affair, so that those left behind would have the same profits as those who might find the field. Barney for the present was chosen leader of the explorers, and the mate left in charge of the ship.

They spent the first day landing their provisions and arranging their swags, and at daybreak on the second day they started for the desert.

By sundown they had covered twenty miles of ground, mostly sandy land and mulgee scrub, but hardly a sign of grass.

However, they were successful in finding several waterholes where they camped, in which a little muddy water still remained. With this they contented

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themselves, reserving the condensed water which they had for a more urgent occasion.

Throughout Australia perhaps there is hardly a worse track of country to traverse, than this over which they had resolved to go. They were fully aware likewise of the risks they were running, for, as the explorers' journals is the only history that Australia has yet to relate, the roving population are nearly all pretty familiar with the experiences or mistakes of those who have opened up the land. Along these precipitous cliffs, Eyre, and later the present Premier of Western Australia, Sir John Forest, had travelled and endured much hardship.

Farther inland they had not much hope of meeting anything but salt marshes, sand and wild scrub, and perhaps the coveted article they were after—gold.

But they were all colonial born, with the exception of the Professor, and well accustomed to roughing it, therefore they never forgot for a moment even in the midst of their plenty, the possibility of being reduced to famine point. They were treacherous and murderous hounds, but the instinct of self-preservation was planted strongly in them, and although they could indulge in a debauch when the way seemed clear to future refreshments, they had fore-knowledge and prudence enough to resist anything like over-indulgence now.

One pannikin of boiled tea was the allowance served out to each man, even with those half-dried

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waterholes round them, with a piece of damper and a slice of cold pork as flavouring, and then they lay down and smoked themselves to sleep, the tobacco keeping the mosquitoes from them while they were conscious of the annoyance; afterwards they did not mind these marauders taking their feast.

They carried with them a couple of bottles of three-star brandy, but that was for medicinal purposes only. They were not such idiots as to take any of this thirst-provoker on a journey like this, where a man requires to husband all the moisture he has about him. They were not reckless, although they were remorseless scoundrels.

Ten miles is a good day's walk over the ground they were passing, but they pushed on and doubled this during most days, that is, when the ground was fairly level.

They were also fortunate in the line they took, for luck is everything in such cases. Many explorers have passed water-holes and soaks a little way right or left of them, to suffer untold thirstagonies with water so close at hand. Science and experience are of no great help, for in this land both water and gold are found in the most unlikely places with no premonitory signs to guide the traveller to them. He may be walking over sand ridges, wading knee deep in the loose soil and all at once drop across a clay soak, a quartz outcrop with a cavity filled with water, or a fertile patch of ground fringing a pool crowded with water fowl, or he may miss all these by less than a

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quarter of a mile, and leave his bones to bleach on the arid desert.

That loose sand is as fertile as the loams of other countries, and in places as engulfing as the quicksands by the Solway. When the wanderer goes forth to the wilderness of Australia, he ought to pray constantly to his guardian angel to protect and watch over his feet.

The six adventurers who now trusted to the captain's sextant, chronometer and pocket compass, must have had many friendly demons accompanying them, for although the season had been such a dry and hot one, their water-bags never ran dry. Mirages surrounded them from dawn till dusk, spreading like cool lakes on every side. At night these burnt lambently and ghost-like. They trod over salt marshes with the crusted saline like frosted snow, and the gypsum shining like glass, while underneath lay fathomless bogs of blue-black slime. They touched on places where the quicksands quivered under their tread like badly-made jelly, and endured heat-fumes that might have sucked the vitality from any but a colonial.

Mosquitoes, ants and sand flies bit them viciously, while countless myriads of flies and fleas covered them as they struggled on; what these desert plagues exist upon, who can say?—where animal life is wanting. Possibly they can live and die fasting, yet when they do get a chance they make the most of it.

On the sixteenth day, these explorers came to a series of ridges over which they struggled for about

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six hours to find themselves at the entrance of a deep gorge, leading between volcanic ranges.

Then the Professor said as he looked about him:

“If there is gold anywheres, boys, it should be hereabouts.”

“Then let us camp,” gasped the wanderers with one accord, for they were dog-tired with the heavy ground they had gone over, and at the words, swags were flung aside, and from the dried-up bushes that broke the desolation round them, they began to make their fire.

As yet they had seen no sign of natives or white men, although they knew that they could not be very far from the outskirts of that far-stretching civilization as represented under the elastic title of East Coolgardie, for they had kept in a direct line west-north-west from where the schooner lay; therefore as the smoke from their fire floated up into the afternoon atmosphere, they kept a vigilant watch for any answering signals.

They had finished their supper, and were sitting listening attentively to the Professor as he delivered a discourse on the causes of these abrupt and riven cliffs that surrounded them, when suddenly Barney started up with a loud cry and pointed down the gully.

There, plodding down wearily on horseback came the figure of a white man, with dark hair and dust-covered, tangled beard, attended by several black fellows.

He had been a considerable time out, judging by

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the tattered state of his costume, yet both rider and horse seemed well enough nourished.

“Coo-ee,” came the friendly call from the rider, to which they responded and then waited on his approach.

“I saw your smoke, boys, from my camp, so thought I'd look you up.”

“By the Lord, it's Jack Milton,” shouted Barney, springing forward to his old chief and gripping his hand.

“Barney—Professor—well, I am in luck—and so by Jingo, are you, for I have just struck a rich lode in this gully—give me a pipe and a billy of tea, for I've had nothing of the kind for the past month.”

Jack flung himself from his horse, and pointing to the natives with him, said:

“Be good to these, boys, for they have been right chums to me, during the past two months.”