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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XXV

Chapter XXV.

“Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow.”

It might have been about a fortnight after my return from the back country, when, a little after midnight, I was suddenly startled out of my sleep by a loud knocking at my bedroom door (in those days no one thought of barring their outer doors on the Darling), and on asking who was there, I was startled to hear a voice I at once recognised as Charles Knight's calling out. “Get up, please, Mr. Farquharson, the blacks have murdered Bill Lampiere, and I have had a close shave for my life.”

At these awful tidings, I was on the floor with a bound, and striking a match, I sprang out with my trousers in my hand to the sitting-room, where Knight then was, asking hurriedly, “Bless my soul, Knight, what's this that you say? the blacks have murdered poor Lampiere! what has gone wrong with them? how did it happen? But dear me, my poor fellow, what a dreadful plight you are in yourself! have you travelled in barefooted all the way from the back country? how your feet are bleeding!” Knight appeared indeed in a most pitiable plight: his face was very pale and his lips bloodless, and his eyes had still a scared look in them as if from recent excitement. Yet in singular contrast to all this, his jaunty white cook's cap was still on his head. He was dressed in his trousers and flannel shirt, both torn, especially the trousers, page 174 almost to tatters, while his feet were bare and covered with blood as if they had come in contact with many a prickly shrub and ground thorn, in a desperate cross country flight. Yes! a cross country flight of forty miles, which, in that condition (such is the latent energy that despair can call into action), he had traversed since about four o'clock on the preceding after noon.

“Yes, sir,” replied Knight to my question, “I have come in this way all the way from the back country.” He then proceeded to give a detailed account of the disaster, which he did, however, in the same even measured tone, that no excitement seemed sufficient to alter; nay, even now his narrative was given as gravely as if his present trouble were not of any more importance than his ordinary cooking dilemmas, one of which he had once related to me in precisely the same tone of voice.

“It was just after sunrise,” he said, “and Bill had just let his flock out of the yard, and in fact he was still standing at the gate, when a mob of about twenty blacks came up. I had just gone out to cut a sheep down from the gallows, with this knife that I have inside my belt” (pointing to a naked butcher's knife there), “and that I stuck to when the thing I am going to tell you of, happened. Well, of course you know that the sheep gallows is on this side of the hut, and that the sheep yard is on the other side of the hut from here. I at first didn't notice the blacks coming, on account of the dust that the flock had raised on going out of the yard, but the wind happening to blow the dust on one side, I noticed them when they were within a few yards of Bill, for the dog started barking then. Well, I just saw that they were all naked and had spears and nulla-nullas; but I hardly had time to think about what they might be after, when I heard a shout, and then I saw them all make a rush at poor Bill, and I could see one man strike him over the head with a club, whilst Bill seemed to cover his head with his arm. I heard the blow and saw him fall, and all the blacks round about him, and striking at him, when I turned and darted for dear life into the scrub that comes close up to where the sheep gallows is.

“Although the scrub is pretty thick there, yet I came up to a big box tree growing in the middle of it, with long, low-set boughs, spreading out from every side.

“Now, I knew very well that the blacks would follow my tracks in that soft sand as well as I could follow the tracks of a bullock, aye and better too for that matter. But as soon as I saw that tree, I says, ‘Self, old man, you may be able to throw these black sods out yet if you are slippy’—at least I page 175 hadn't exactly time to say all that, but such thoughts flashed through my mind—so I just caught hold of one of the branches next me, and swung myself up into the tree, and when there, the first thing I does is to take my knife and rip open the laces of my bluchers, and off with them, and then ramming my socks inside of them, I took and flung them as far away into the scrub as I could. Then running out as far as I could on a branch that was leaning that way, I drops gently from it, on to a log, that by good luck happened to be lying there, and running along that log as far as it went, I strikes out again through the scrub. Now, I knew that the blacks would keep hunting for my boot tracks about that tree, and if even they did see my bare feet marks, at first they might think it might only be one of their own tracks.

“I was always reckoned a pretty smart runner as a boy, and now with my bare feet (for I was too excited to think about their getting hurt). I went through that scrub, and across the plain in the other side, just like a kangaroo. Now this plain, sir, is about a mile and a half across, and I was hoping I should get into the timber on the other side, before the blacks would be able to see me on the plain, but just as I was about entering the scrub on the edge of that timber, I heard a great yelling behind me, and looking round I saw that all the black devils had sighted me from the other side, and were now coming across the plain after me like so many warragul dingoes. Well, I just ran on into the timber, to the edge of the water-hole, and then stopped, for I began to think that the game was all up with me. So I says to myself, ‘Self, old man, it's all up a tree with you now. It isn't no use your running into the water, they will just see where you go into it, and follow your tracks out of it again; it's no use, Self, you will have to die here, and as well die like a man, won't you, Self?’ ‘Of course, Self, I knowed you would; and you'll leave your marks behind on their ugly hides with this knife, won't you, Self?’ ‘Of course you will. You'll die game, Self, won't you?’

” ‘But stop, Self, look round, old man, and make sure that there is not a way out of this trap after all. Never say die if there's a chance to live, Self, you know !’ Well, with that I just cast a swift glance, first round me on my own side of the creek and then across the water-hole, when I at once saw within about half a dozen yards of the bank a big tree growing in such a slanting way, that with my bare feet I could have easily climbed up its trunk. Its boughs hung a long way over a lot of scrub that was growing thick all round that side of the water-hole. ‘Bravo, Self,’ I said. ‘You see your way out of the trap now, of course you do ! These cannibals should have got page 176 up earlier if they had intended to cook your goose to-day, Self !’ and I dashed into the water-hole, and swam across to the other side with my knife in my mouth. Then I walked straight up to this tree, and makes a gash in the bark as if I had been making my knife help to draw me up; but instead of trying to do that, I goes carefully back on my own track until I got into the water again, and again putting my knife between my teeth, I struck out as fast as I could to get round a bend towards the other end of the lagoon, before the blacks could get up and see me. Well as soon as I turned round this bend, I saw at the end of the water-hole, where a lot of scrub came down to the edge of it, a big log lying half in and half out of the water; so I strikes for this log to get out on the top of it into the scrub, so that I should leave no tracks to show where I had left the water. Well, as soon as I got my hands on to this log, I found it was only a half shell of a tree, which, on lifting up, I saw had space enough in its hollow to cover me over nicely, while I was lying along in the water, yet with my head on the ground at the edge of it. I thought this would be the best hiding place I could get, for they would never dream of lifting it up; and getting under it from the water, there would be no tracks that they could see on the bank that would betray my hiding place to them; whilst even if I got into the scrub, as I first had planned, even if they did not see tracks at the time, yet by making a circuit at a little distance from the water, as they would be sure to do, they would be bound to drop on my steps at last; and so run me down to death, as the hounds do a fox. So I just laid down in the track of the log, in the water, with my face resting against the bank and letting the log shell carefully drop into its place again, I could scarcely see anything, for the shell had lain there so long that there was a lot of grass and rubbish that had choked the space up in front of it. This, of course, I was only thankful for, as it would prevent the blacks from getting a sight of me if they passed by the end of the log, and so keep them from fancying that I might possibly be stowed away below there. Well, by and bye, sir, and not long after, neither, I could hear them yelling and jabbering at the farther end of the water-hole, and splashing through it. They seemed to stop there for a long time, as if they were hunting for my lost track. I knew at the time, that as the whole crowd would dash on after my tracks to that tree, they would just make them in such a mess with their own, that they would not have a chance of noticing my back tracks between them, as they might have done otherwise, for they have eyes like hawks. By and bye I could hear them hunting about and coming my way, as if they were looking for tracks leading from the water-hole among the page 177 scrub; whilst two or three came coasting round the water's edge, and walked across the very log under which I was lying. However, as the log lay solid, they never had a suspicion of my being under it. After, I should think, about three hours hunting about for me, I at last heard the sound of their voices dying away as if they were going towards the hut again. But I lay for a long while where I was after that, for fear of some of them having stopped behind to watch for my re-appearance. Then slipping out from under my friendly log, I crawled away into the scrub, for there was not much fear of their noticing my tracks now even if they did come back to look, among so many of their own. Then walking quietly and listening for any signs of the presence of my enemies on the watch for me, and keeping always where the scrub was thickest, I at last made a straight run for the river, where I knew the station lay. For a long part of the way I have come at a run, and by good luck I found some water in the salt-pans as I came along; but for the last few miles my feet have felt so dreadfully tender, and I began to feel so weak, that I could almost have lain down. I suppose the reason of this was that the sense of danger from the blacks had now left me; so that, with the absence of this fear, there came a consciousness of pain, that I never noticed while thinking that my life might be in jeopardy at any moment, for the first twenty miles or so. I was determined to continue as long as I was able to keep moving, so as to tell you what had happened, that you might get out at once and be in time to save the other men's lives who are there, that is if it is not too late now. God grant that it is not ! Now, sir, I can hold out no more.” And with these words the brave little fellow, whose sense of duty, on behalf of the men exposed to the peril he had just escaped from, had still nerved him to persevere in his efforts to reach the station, even after the spur of immediate danger to his own life had ceased to urge him; here sunk in almost a fainting condition into one of the chairs.

Although always abstemious as regards alcoholic drinks, I was not then, as I have since become, a total abstainer, and a plentiful supply of spirits was always kept in a keg in the store, for the station requirements. In the present emergency, even the staunchest blue ribbonite would admit this to have been a fortunate occurrence. Of the contents of this keg I usually had a bottle in the cupboard, to which, on seeing Charlie's sudden weakness, I went hastily and bringing it from its recess and filling a glass to the brim applied it to Charlie's lips, and he after one or two sips of the stimulant, that past habits of rather free indulgence had made only too grateful to his taste, took the glass from my hand, and drained off the remainder at page 178 a single draught. I next helped him off with his tattered trousers and, placing a basin on the floor, and filling it with water, began to wash the poor fellow's lacerated feet. The smart of their numerous wounds caused him to flinch a little, but after rubbing them gently, I took them out of the water and rolling them up in my towel left them, whilst I went again to the cupboard, and took out some cold provisions, in the shape of roast mutton and the remains of an apple tart, and bade him at once partake of them and afterwards roll himself into my bed. I then replaced the bottle in the cupboard, and turned the key, telling Charlie that I did so lest he might be induced to help himself too freely to its contents, which, in his present weak and excited state, I thought might do him harm instead of good, and he thankfully acknowledged my care for him.

These hasty offices discharged, I at once went out and roused up old John, and telling him what had occurred, bade him at once get breakfast ready for Lilly and me, and as soon as his tea was prepared, to carry in some for Charlie, and also to keep his eye on the latter during the remainder of the night, lest he might be suffering from any feverish symptoms consequent on his late excitement and terror.

From the kitchen I passed rapidly down to the river's bank, and getting into the canoe, as rapidly paddled myself across, and springing out and hastily mooring it, ran up the bank and on to Lilly's hut, whom my loud shout as I entered instantly roused up in astonishment, that at once gave place to an expression of horror when he heard the cause of my presence there at that hour of the night. But as there was no time now for useless sorrow in face of the instant action that was required of us, Lilly's horrified look quickly gave way to one of determined energy and grim purpose, for, for this young man, Lilly's first feelings of regard had now begun to deepen into those of positive affection. But beyond the utterance of a few fierce and excited expressions, he made but little comment on the matter, although it was apparent that the tidings, over and above their natural horror, went to his heart with the poignancy of a personal bereavement. But our only thoughts now were as to what was the best and quickest thing we could do under the circumstances. Selim, without whom I could never imagine myself properly equipped for any emergency, was, unfortunately for me, out on furlough, running at large in the bush with the “mob,” as all the horses when together are termed on a station, and in his place in the paddock was a horse I had been lately using. This horse, though of good enough average mettle, was a little flighty, and occasionally required the control of a firm hand when suddenly confronted page 179 by anything unusual, for he was easily alarmed and then inclined to be restive. Lilly and I, however, at once determined to ride out to the back country, leaving word for Cabbage-tree Jack and the black fellow Snowball to come after us as soon as it was light enough for them to secure a horse apiece, and that each was to bring a gun and ammunition with him. We, on our parts, armed ourselves with a revolver apiece, besides taking a double-barrelled gun with plenty of ammunition with us for the use of the men to whose assistance we were going. Then, leaving Lilly to secure his mare, that was always kept in a paddock close to his hut, I recrossed the river and went in the paddock for my horse, that, after a little manoeuvring, I managed to lay hold of, and led up to the house just as Lilly rode up on Coleena.

Partaking hastily of the breakfast now ready for us, we mounted, and pricking on at a rapid rate, were on our way to the back country within half-an-hour from the time that I had first been roused by Charlie Knight, who, when we left, was in that profound slumber that only utter exhaustion can produce.

We were very silent during our long but rapid journey to the back country, which was not so rapid, however, as to leave us with blown horses on our arrival. We carefully guarded against that result, and throughout our long journey, the major part of which was performed in the darkness of night, made still more profound by the many belts of timber and patches of dense scrub that traversed our path, whilst going at a hard gallop, or swinging canter, in places where the country along our route was open and level, in other places where it was uneven, and we thought it necessary, we carefully breathed our horses with long walks.

It might have been about eight o'clock on the ensuing morning, when we reached about the centre part of the back country run, that was as yet undistinguished by name—a few miles still intervening between us and the scene of the previous day's tragedy. Here, at a point where the dray track divided into two, one proceeding on to Lampiere's hut, and the other to that where Burrel was staying, Lilly suddenly pulled up and remarked: “What about this man? they may have knocked him on the head too when they had their hand in”. Singularly enough the thought of Burrel's danger had never up to that moment crossed my mind, as in his solitary situation it might well have done, but now, upon Lilly's remark there flashed through my mind the dreadful probability of such a fate having overtaken Burrel also in his lonely and defenceless position, without any firearms to defend himself with. Unhappily, in the absence of any idea of danger threatening us page 180 from the blacks, I had taken home one of the double-barrelled guns, on the conclusion of the lambing season, leaving the other with Crawford and Macalister at their own request, for the sake of shooting game. I therefore, at Lilly's word, cried in despair, “Dear Lord, yes ! they may have done so indeed”.

After a few moments of hurried consultation on this new aspect of affairs that the thought of Burrel's danger brought to our view, we resolved that Lilly should continue straight on to Lampiere's hut as he had originally intended—to learn the certainty of Lampiere's fate, and then to either wait there or to push on to where Crawford and Macalister were now encamped (at the place where the dam was being constructed, and to which they had removed a few days previously) according as circumstances might direct, whilst I meanwhile would ride on to see what tidings I could find of Burrel's fate. With these resolutions we went along our several paths, and soon were lost to one another's view.

I had left Lilly about a quarter of an hour, and was hurriedly posting across a scrubby sand hill, when on my entrance into a clear space in the middle of it, I was suddenly confronted by the spectacle of about twenty black fellows springing to their feet, all entirely nude, but armed as if for a foray, whilst with scowling looks they all appeared to resent my sudden intrusion upon them. At the sight of them suddenly bounding to their feet, my nervous horse snorted and half reared up.

Had there been really less danger than there evidently was, I believe I should have been startled enough at this unlooked for encounter myself; but I believe I am speaking within reason, when I assert that though on occasions of slight danger, nervous fears are as incidental to bold, as to timid spirits, yet with those whose nerves are really sufficient for the strain of the severest peril, the consciousness of the necessity for immediate action enables them to at once recover from the thrill of fear that the first sight of danger naturally engenders; the greatness of their danger leaves them no time for the indulgence of fear. Thus was it with me.

The imminence of my danger from an immediate attack was so plainly evident from their scowling looks and menacing gestures, that, with a powerful effort, I at once controlled my nerves, and with my bridle hand firmly restraining my agitated horse, and holding my revolver in readiness with the other, I sternly demanded of the foremost of the black fellows— a burly, but brutal looking savage—in the strange idiom, by which these people are familiarised with the English language: “What name you want?” In his reply he showed that he was at least conversant with some of the lowest forms of our language, as page 181 uttering, “Go to —— you white ——,” he hurled his nulla-nulla straight at my head. Only by a swift inclination of my body to one side did I save my skull from being crushed by this weapon in its unerring aim; but while in the very act of this inclination, my horse, already shaky with fear, was altogether upset by the whirring sound over his head and bounding suddenly to one side he plunged so violently that I, already off my balance, was thrown clean out of my saddle to the ground; with the tenacity of despair, I clung to my horse's bridle, and was at once on my feet, and, as the savage, now triumphant at my fall, that he doubtless fancied had left me completely at his mercy, rushed towards me with the intention of impaling me with his hideously jagged spear, I levelled the revolver that I had fortunately still retained in my hand, and shot him through the centre of his breast. He fell on his face and expired without a groan. At the sight of their companion's sudden fate, all his cowardly companions instantly turned tail and darting into the scrub, vanished out of sight.

Giving a glance at the prostrate black fellow, and seeing that he did not move, I drew my horse towards me, although still palpitating violently (the horse, not me—I was now as cool as a cucumber), and throwing the rein over his head, I again mounted, and rode rapidly forward on my way, now doubly vigilant from my late encounter.

This vigilance of mine was soon rewarded.

At the edge of a belt of scrub a little to the left of me, I suddenly observed, as I cantered along, the figure of a black fellow squatting on his hams. Instantly pulling up my horse I regarded this new object fixedly for a moment, then, struck with the fact that, although he was eyeing me, yet he made no motion or demonstration of alarm, I rode up to where he was, my revolver held ready with my finger at the trigger in preparation for the first motion of treachery from either him or any concealed companions in the background.

On riding close up and regarding him attentively, what was my surprise to observe that he was severely wounded, mutilated, in fact. The imperfect covering of earth with which he had been attempting to staunch the flow of blood from a hideous gash in the thigh, did not prevent me from seeing that the flesh had been literally torn away from the bone. Recovery from such a wound was plainly impossible; even with the most skilful surgical treatment, mortification could hardly for long be kept at bay where there was displacement of so much living flesh; how much less so by this miserable savage, absolutely destitute of liniment or bandages for the binding up of such a wound save such virgin properties as might be found in a salve page 182 of mother earth. In reply to my fixed look of inquiry he said nothing, though sullenly meeting my gaze.

He had the appearance of having been a burly savage, with looks malignant and brutal enough to have made him pass as the brother of him whom I had just shot.

“What you name?” I demanded of him briefly. Let the reader judge how my heart thrilled at the reply—I say, judge it —in the light of the tale so dramatically told some weeks before by Tom Crawford, of the cold-blooded murder on the Warego.

“Billy the Bull.”

“Billy the Bull, ha ! you rascal ! What for you kill white fellow? Who shoot 'em you there?” I sternly asked, pointing at the same time to his mutilated thigh.

“White fellow.”

“You kill em 'nother one white fellow over there?” I asked, pointing over in the direction of Lampiere's hut. He made no reply, but merely regarded me with that dour, sullen look, that such savages assume, when conscious that their deeds have cut them off from all hope of mercy.

For a moment I grasped my revolver with the idea of at once despatching him: but for the certainty of the impossibility of his recovery from his wound I most assuredly would have done so; but to me there was something so peculiarly horrifying in deliberately taking human life, save under the most dire necessity of self-preservation, as in my recent encounter. To the reflective mind, this must naturally be always the case, as he remembers that from the eyes of the most brutal savage there still gazes at him the soul of a fellow man. But with this man's complicity in the cold-blooded murder of two unoffending men some months before, and his hand also probably reeking with Lampiere's blood (what other blood I knew not, for his mutilated thigh gave evidence of a scuffle with the bushmen or Burrell, the results of which I had yet to learn), what I would have otherwise shrunk from doing, I would now (but for the above cause) most assuredly have done. With a clear conscience, too, would I have done it, and calmly braved the responsibility of taking the law in my own hand, in obedience to the Mosaic law that “whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed”.

Therefore leaving the wounded wretch to his fate, a fate which I could not have ameliorated even had I had the wish to do so, I turned my horse from him and rapidly made my way to Burrel's hut.

On entering, I saw at once, by the extinguished embers, that Burrel had not been there on the previous night. The shepherd hutter, as one who manages without a hutkeeper is page 183 termed, in the morning, ere leaving his hut, to which he is not supposed to return until the evening, carefully covers up his embers with ashes, and they are by this means kept in until his return at night.

This discovery greatly increased my uneasiness about his safety, and with the almost despairing hope that being warned by symptoms of danger from the blacks, Burrel had driven his flock for greater security on to Crawford and Macalister's camp, I urged my now jaded horse thither.

On my approach to this camp, to my great joy I found that what I had regarded as an almost forlorn hope, though the only one that remained of Burrel's safety, proved to be in reality true. Of this I was assured by both eyes and ears on coming in sight of the bushmen's tent, by seeing and hearing Burrel's sheep bleating in the newly-made yard. On approaching nearer, I observed all the men standing close together. At the same moment I noticed Lilly suddenly dismount from his horse, and step towards Crawford. By their gestures they appeared to be in violent altercation with each other.

But before explaining the cause of this altercation, I will first state all that had transpired here on the previous night, when the blacks had made a most determined attack upon Crawford and his companions, by whom however they had been repulsed with some loss.

Evidently, on desisting from their baffled pursuit of Charlie Knight, the blacks had returned to Lampiere's hut; for Lilly, who had stayed there for some time looking about for his body, that however he failed to find, stated that the hut had been looted of its contents and had then been set fire to. Also, from the tokens of freshly picked bones it had been evident that they had been feeding on the carcase of the sheep that Knight mentioned he had gone to cut down when he had noticed them as they made their attack upon Lampiere. Thence the blacks, with the evident purpose of attacking and exterminating the whites piecemeal, proceeded over to where Burrel lived, with whom in his solitary and defenceless condition they evidently doubted not that they should easily accomplish their fiendish purpose.

Now, it had happened in a most providential manner that Burrel, being rather fond of a gun, and observing the number and tameness of the paradise ducks that were on a part of the run where he fed his sheep, had just the day before driven his flock over to the bushmen's encampment, and asked the loan of their gun, promising to return it in a day or two. He then, with this gun in his hands, was rather surprised when late in the afternoon he observed making straight towards him a number of naked black fellows, who, on being confronted with page 184 the unlooked-for spectacle of a gun in the hands of the man they had probably imagined to be unarmed, suddenly came to a halt.

Now, Burrel was a shrewd man, and the unusual sight of so many blacks, all armed and naked, to his mind boded no good, so he at once got his gun in readiness for any suspicious indications that the blacks might give of their intentions towards him. Their sudden halt too at the view of his weapon made him still more suspicious of the honesty of their intentions, so he at once brought his piece to the carry. For a short time the blacks appeared as if considering how to get at him. Then after a short pause one of them advanced from the rest towards him, and with what English he was master of endeavoured to lull Burrel's suspicions by the most friendly professions, as, “Budery (good) white fellow, budery black fellow,” all the while advancing towards Burrel with a smiling countenance, until the latter at last beginning to imagine that his suspicions might after all have been groundless, suffered himself to be so far thrown off his guard as to let the butt of his gun drop upon the ground. On this the treacherous black fellow, who by this time was close upon him, suddenly bounded forward, and seizing hold of the gun attempted to wrest it out of Burrel's hand.

But Burrel, though only lightly built, was wiry. Holding on with his right hand to the breech of the gun, with his left he directed the point of the muzzle against his antagonist's body, at the same time pulling the trigger, when the black fellow, shot through the abdomen, instantly dropped on the ground. Recovering his weapon, Burrel at once presented it, with the remaining loaded barrel, to the other blacks, who, during this scuffle, that had not lasted over a second, had been rushing towards him, but who, on witnessing their companion's sudden fall, and the white man's terrible weapon again pointed in their direction, turned instantly and fled with great speed towards the thicket from which they had lately emerged.