When Coiloo had gone, Stobart frequently went out alone. He was such a successful hunter, and was so willing to add the result of his prowess to the general food-supply of the camp, that nobody objected to his solitary expeditions. But Stobart had a more important reason for his wanderings than bringing home dead game. He was looking forward to the day when everything would be ready for a successful escape from the Musgrave Ranges, and he was determined to take away with him something more than his bare life: he meant to take the secret of the Musgrave gold.
At first, when he started to go out alone, he always returned at night, but gradually he accustomed the camp to his absence for longer periods, till he was able at last to carry out his investigations unhindered. He found many traces of gold, but as he had no tools, and did not want to arouse any suspicions as to the real object of his journeys, he was not able to tell whether the traces lead to any larger deposits. There were little gullies which ran water in times of storm, where specks of the glittering metal could easily be seen in the sand; and quartz boulders stained with what looked like rust, here and there on a scrub-covered hill-side; and little cracks in the sheer face of a cliff where veins of dirty red ran about like the marks in marble. The Ranges were evidently a very rich "prospect", and it was no wonder that white men had braved the desert and the men who lived there, for the lure of gold is the strongest of all, and men die willingly in answering its call.
The Outpost of Death
One day Stobart set out in a new direction. His only articles of dress were a pair of trousers, so ragged and torn that they did not reach below his knees, and an old felt hat. His shirt had been torn up into strips to bandage his bleeding feet before they had become accustomed to walking without boots. He carried two spears, a woomera, and a boomerang, while an appliance for making fire hung at his belt.
He walked till it was nearly dark that day, then made a fire near a rock-hole, cooked and ate a lizard, and went to sleep. When he awoke the sun had not yet risen. The surrounding mountains were clearly outlined against the pale early morning sky, and when the white man had stooped to drink and had made up the fire, he sat down and looked idly around him, waiting for it to be light enough for him to hunt for his breakfast.
It was a strange position for a white man to be in, and if Stobart had not had a stout heart he would have given way to despair, and either "gone bush" entirely, as some white men have done, and become a full member of the warragul tribe, or he would have committed suicide. But Boss Stobart did not give up hope. The unaccustomed food was beginning to tell upon his superb health and strength, and as he sat by the little flame which seemed to get fainter and fainter as daylight increased, he knew that he could not afford to put off his bid for freedom much longer.
All at once his listless gaze was arrested. He leaned forward eagerly and stared at one of the rocky peaks. From where he was sitting, its outline against the light eastern sky looked exactly like the nose of a man lying down. It was so perfectly clear that Stobart laughed. But he was not laughing at its striking resemblance to a man's nose; certain words of the old Irishman who had been murdered by the blacks came to him. Pat Dorrity had talked in his sleep a great deal the first night after the drover had saved him from perishing. The man was feverish, and the sentences had been jumbled up and meaningless at the time, but Stobart's memory now recalled certain words which he had scarcely noticed at the time.
"Man's nose. Man's nose," the old fellow had muttered. "Man's nose seen looking east. Waterhole on other side. Look out! Look out!" Then he had become very excited, and such words as blacks and spears and gold and skulls had been mixed up in hopeless confusion.
The peak which Stobart was now looking at was certainly exactly like a man's nose, and he was also looking east. One direction was as good as another to him that morning, and, as his curiosity was aroused, he forgot about his breakfast and began to climb the hill-side towards the rocky top. Before he was half-way up the sun shone over the rim of the mountains, and he was very hot and thirsty when he finally reached the mass of rock on the summit. He looked down on the other side for the expected water-hole, but the valley was covered with dense scrub, and he saw nothing to give him hope of a drink. However, the ranges were so well watered that he started at once to go down the hill, hoping to find a spring or rock-hole somewhere in the valley.
He was disappointed for some time. The trees thinned as he reached the bottom of the hill and gave place to a broad stretch of sand. This surface showed no sign of water whatever, which was strange, for there had been several storms in the hills since Stobart had been taken prisoner, and the steep rocky slopes of the valley would certainly run off most of the rain which fell upon them. The drover had come across instances of the same thing in the Macdonnel Ranges, away to the north, and he knew that the rain soaked in at the extreme edges of the valley and ran away in a stream many feet below the surface, and never disturbed the sand on top. There is usually a water-hole at the head of such a valley as this, and Stobart was on his way up to look for it, when he received such a shock that he dropped his weapons and stood staring at the sand, his mouth and eyes wide open with amazement. He did not believe his sight. He rubbed his hand over his eyes and looked away, but when his gaze came back again, there was the same sign in the sand.
The tracks of a shod horse!
It was impossible to tell how old the marks were. There were only three or four of them, and they ran up a little strip of clay which the wind had blown clear of sand. They had evidently been made when the clay was soft during rain, and the imprints had been baked hard by the sun and would remain clear for a very long time.
Stobart gazed with utter astonishment at those few prints of a shod horse. They meant one thing, one thing supremely, a white man—a gold prospector most likely, one of the dauntless pioneers who had crossed the desert and had not returned.
The tracks led up the valley. Stobart picked up his weapons and hurried on. Soon he came to a natural embankment of sand which stretched across from one rocky slope to another. He climbed it. The other side was clear of timber. A glint of water caught his eye. The sun had just penetrated the cool shade of that silent place and was striking keen light from a water-hole at the foot of a boulder-strewn knoll right in the middle of the valley.
The white man's thirst was now so great that he was about to start running down to the water which lay so invitingly some twenty yards away, when something white caught his eye.
It looked like the Southern Cross worked out in perfectly white stones on the surface of the sand near the water-hole. Stobart did not run. An uncanny feeling came over him. Those hoof-marks, and now this design—surely the thing must be the work of man.
Suddenly he stumbled. His bare feet caught in something and he tripped. He looked down at his toe. It was cut and bleeding slightly. He went back to find the thing which had tripped him.
It was the blade of a shovel!
One edge was sticking up. With shaking hands Stobart pulled it out of the sand. It came away easily, for the handle was burnt. He groped about near it and uncovered, one after another, a gold-washing dish, a pick-head, a couple of wedges, and a hammer. The sand had drifted over them and made a mound. Then he laid bare a truly gruesome sight—charred embers of wood and half-burnt human bones.
Stobart did not disturb the sand any more. He knew now why the gold prospectors, who had penetrated into the Musgrave fastnesses in search of the wealth which was reputed to be there, had never returned. Would he ever return, he wondered. The place was haunted by the spirits of the murdered dead, and was guarded by black devils in human form. Even now one of them might be watching him, waiting an opportunity of adding his bones to the collection which the sand had covered up.
He rose to his feet. He was thirsty, and the sight he had just seen made him want to soak his whole body in the cool clean water of the pool. He laughed harshly. What were all these fancies which were coming into his head? He would not give way to them. This life in a blacks' camp was upsetting his nerves. What were a few dead men after all? He had seen plenty of them. He was alive and would soon escape from this outpost of death. He laughed again. The rocky walls sent back an echo of his laugh. It sounded like an evil spirit mocking him. He walked a few paces, till he was near those white things which had been laid out so carefully in the design of the Southern Cross. He looked at them. He looked again, astonished beyond measure. Yes! No! Yes, they were!
They were human skulls—white men's skulls!
Stobart staggered away. He lay down on the edge of the water. He needed its cool touch to save him from madness. He drank deep, deep satisfying draughts. He bathed his head and face and plunged his arms in it, splashing the life-giving drops over his naked chest. The sense of horror gradually began to leave him, and he realized that he had reached the object of his search. He had found the Musgrave gold-mine. From where he lay he looked up at the boulder-strewn knoll behind the water-hole. Even at the distance of several yards he could see that every boulder was more richly studded with the precious metal than any he had ever seen. It did not surprise him. The events of the last hour had robbed him of the power to be surprised. He just looked up at all that wealth and knew it was his—his, if only he could take it away.
He turned his head and looked at the skulls. Each bleached remains of what had once been the head of a courageous man was looking at him out of empty eye-sockets. The jaws had been propped open and seemed to be laughing with ghastly dead mirth into the face of the living man. Stobart's imagination began to play tricks with him, for when he turned his eyes away, the glances of the skulls seemed to turn also.
He plunged his head once more into water and leaned over till his chest and arms were covered. His hands groped about in the cool sand, and when he pulled them out again they were full of wet sand. The sun's rays caught it and struck a thousand flashes from the grains. They looked unusually yellow and bright. Stobart turned the sand over and let it run between his fingers. It was like grains of sunlight. He thought that his overwrought nerves were deceiving him, and picked up another handful. It behaved exactly in the same way. It glinted and flashed yellow in a way that no sand could ever do. All at once it dawned upon him. This was no trick of sunlight on wet sand. This was no make-believe of tired nerves.
The sand of that water-hole was gold!
The white man stood up. He had no tools with which to work at the boulders for specimens to take away with him when he escaped. But here was gold, some of which could easily be hidden on his person to prove, to anybody who might doubt his story, that he alone of all men had solved the mystery of the Musgraves and had returned again to the haunts of men of his own colour. He stooped to gather another handful, and as he did so something whirled through the air and fell in the water in front of him. He jumped back quickly. The water was clear, for the grains of golden sand had settled and left no mud.
It was an old horseshoe! Surely the place was bewitched. He looked round, wondering what next would happen. Suddenly another horseshoe came from a clump of low bushes nearly a hundred yards up the gully. Stobart saw it coming and dodged it. It fell at his feet and he picked it up. He was a good tracker and knew it at once. That shoe had made one of the tracks which he had seen in the clay. There was no doubt about it.
The sense of a supernatural foe, which was making a coward of the brave white man, left him all at once. Evil spirits do not play with old rusty metal. A human arm must have thrown that horseshoe. He had seen the second one leave the bushes where the man was in ambush. Now was the time for action. Grasping a boomerang he ran at full speed up the valley. He reached the bushes. Nobody was there. But, leading to and from the hiding-place, were the recent tracks of a man's bare feet. Stobart recognized them at once. The warragul doctor had thrown those horseshoes.
Arrkroo, the Hater
The native doctor fled, like the evil black spirit that he was, up the valley. Although an old man, he was still in the prime of his strength, and he knew the path to and from the Pool of Skulls so well, that he had the advantage over Stobart, who had never been there before. For the first few yards the marks of his naked feet were clearly seen, and the white man ran swiftly, but the tracks soon became confused in a mass of loose stones which had fallen from the cliffs, and were finally lost altogether on the rocky sides of the valley, till Stobart could not possibly tell which way his enemy had gone. He had heard no sound and seen no sign of the running man, yet he knew that he was close upon him when he was forced to give up the chase, and, as if to confirm this opinion, when Stobart finally stood still and looked at the great boulders above him, hoping to see a black human form flit from one to another, a stone came out of the silence, hurled with deadly force and aim. Years of danger with wild cattle had made the drover's actions as quick as lightning. The stone was totally unexpected, but he jerked his head aside just in time. Instead of striking him in the face, it caught the brim of his hat and sent the old felt spinning from his head. He jumped back, picked it up, and crouched behind a rock.
Absolute silence reigned. The sun was very near its zenith, but in that deep valley the air was still cool. Across the clear flawless blue sky sailed an eagle on wide-spread motionless wings, wheeling round and round in slow circles, wondering when another human victim would be provided for him down there beside the water-hole.
After a time Stobart went back to the place of horror, with its charred bones, its terrible design in skulls, and its golden-sanded pool. He knew what fear natives have of dead bodies, and that there was only one man in all the Musgrave tribes who would dare to play such a gruesome trick with the remains of his enemies, and that man was the native doctor—Arrkroo, the Hater. Even he, powerful and feared though he was, dared not actually kill Stobart. The other natives would track their white hero and would soon know everything that had happened, and Arrkroo was afraid of what they might do to him. The Hater did not mind so long as Stobart merely hunted and behaved like a native, but when he started to wander around alone and search for signs of the glittering yellow metal, Arrkroo became alarmed, and, though the white man did not know it, his enemy had followed and watched him closely for weeks.
Arrkroo understood that if once the secret of the ranges was known beyond the desert, many white men would come with weapons which make a noise like thunder in the hills and which kill a long way off. They would drive out the natives who owned the mountain fastnesses, for, thought the doctor, what does a white man care so long as he can put that heavy yellow sand in little bags and take it away?
So, for the safety of his people, as well as because he was jealous of Stobart's power, the Hater was determined that the white man should die.
Stobart stood by the pool and looked at the golden sand. He was more than ever determined to escape, and now he wanted to take away with him just enough of that precious metal to prove to others that his story was true. He wanted so many men to believe him that there would be such a rush to the Musgraves that they would escape, by sheer force of numbers, from the terrible fate of the lonely prospectors.
But how could he take that golden sand away? His only garment was a tattered pair of trousers with the pockets torn out, and a belt at which hung his fire-sticks, and where he still kept his old black pipe, though it had been cold and empty for many weeks. He could not possibly tear his trousers to make a bag, for there was not a single piece of good cloth left; his hat was no good for the purpose. But his pipe—ah! that was the thing!
He scraped his pipe clean and then jammed the bowl full of fine gold. To make sure that the gold was pure, he panned it off in the old rusty dish which he had unearthed near the half-burnt bones. When he had filled the pipe nearly to the top, he daubed it over with stiff clay so that none of the sand could fall out. Then he picked up his weapons and started back for the camp.
A surprise was waiting for him. The marauding band, which had gone out against Mick Darby's party, had returned. They were in high spirits and reported that they had killed all the horses of the plant, and that a white man and two white boys had been left to perish. Stobart did not hear the whole story at once, for, as soon as he walked into camp, the excitement died down, and nobody cared to tell this white man that three other white men had just met the most lingering of all deaths in the desert scrub. But blacks are like children and cannot keep a secret, and Stobart soon knew all that he wanted to know.
The light of his life went out. The drover was devoted to his son. He was one of those splendid men who do things as well as they possibly can in order to satisfy their own stanch sense of honour; but there can be no doubt that one of the main springs of Boss Stobart's life was the thought that he would one day share it with his son. And now Sax was dead! Just when he had found the object of his search, just when the time of his escape had almost come and he was only waiting for the return of the faithful Yarloo, just when hope was highest, these fiends had killed his son.
He looked round at their savage black faces. He caught sight of Arrkroo, the man who hated him. He saw the naked women and children, he noticed the dogs and the filth on all sides, and his hand tightened on the huge boomerang which he held. Why shouldn't he rush in amongst these men and deal out death, right, left, in front, behind. His anger was rising to madness. He felt that he could overcome the whole tribe of them. And if he failed, what matter? At least he would have had his revenge.
He dropped his spears and got ready. A fire was burning in front of him. With a few lighted sticks he could set the camp ablaze. He imagined the wurlies roaring up to heaven, while he, a captive white man, mad with rage, ran shouting through the crowd, dealing out death with every blow of his boomerang.
Not one of the natives suspected what he was going to do. He had already chosen a suitable blazing stick, and was stooping to pick it out of the fire, when he heard Coiloo's name mentioned. He waited for a moment and listened. The men were saying that Coiloo had not come back. Nobody seemed to know what had become of him, and it struck Stobart as strange that Yarloo was not referred to as being one of the party, till he remembered that the boy would be riding a horse and would therefore leave no tracks which his fellow-tribesmen could recognize.
This moment of thought saved the drover from an act of madness which would certainly have ended in his death. Stobart trusted Yarloo implicitly, and also felt sure that Coiloo was doing his best to carry out the white man's wishes. Therefore he knew that it would be foolish to vent his rage at this particular time, and perhaps spoil what the two faithful natives were doing for him. So he picked up his weapons again, took his share of the horse-flesh, and went up to his cave.
He was very down-hearted. He was a man of action, and here he was, impelled to wait while others did things for him which he knew nothing about. He was very tired, but could not sleep because of his restless thoughts, so he went outside his cave after cooking and eating his dinner, and started to walk about in the cool evening air. He walked as silently as a native, and presently heard the sound of a voice chanting quietly and earnestly in the native tongue. He crept nearer. A man was crouching down on all four like an animal, swaying his body and muttering. Stobart was standing up and could not see who it was, so he stooped down till the man's body and head were silhouetted against the sky. It was Arrkroo, the Hater.
Inch by inch Stobart worked his way nearer, till he heard the words and saw what the native doctor was doing. There was a small pointed bone, called an irna, about eight inches long, sticking upright in the sand. At one end was a knob of hardened gum from spinifex grass, and a long string made of the hair of a lubra was attached to it. The man was stooping over the irna and muttering:
"Okinchincha quin appani ilchi ilchi-a." (May your head and throat be split open.)
He said this three times, moved the irna to a new place, and then began a new curse:
"Purtulinga apina-a intaapa inkirilia quin appani intarpakala-a." (May your backbone be split open and your ribs torn asunder.)
This went on for some time and then Arrkroo got up and walked away, leaving the irna in the ground. Next night he would return for it, and whoever the man pointed that bone at would most certainly die. Natives do not think that any man dies from a natural cause; it is always a case of magic, and if a big strong healthy black-fellow happens to be "boned" by his enemy in the proper way, he gets weaker and weaker, either with or without some special disease, till at last he dies. He always dies.
Arrkroo was afraid to kill Stobart openly, therefore he had prepared powerful magic and was going to "bone" him. Stobart guessed this, and took the chance of showing his power over the native doctor. He caught hold of the irna by the string, pulled it out of the sand, and walked back to the camp with it.
The men were all feasting round the fire. Arrkroo was amongst them, eating sparingly, as is the habit with the native doctors, and no doubt thinking what he was going to do to-morrow when he boned the hated white man. Everybody looked up when Stobart came into the firelight. One or two of the men saw the irna and called out, and at once the whole tribe was on its feet in alarm. Arrkroo saw it also and shook with fear. The white man was indeed a devil, for how else could he have found a little bone stuck in the sand on a dark night? In an instant the fire was deserted. The frightened natives crouched behind wurlies and breakwinds, dreading least the white man should point that deadly bone at them. But Stobart swung it by its hair string till it was over the hottest part of the fire and then let it drop. The string frizzled instantly, the knob of spinifex melted and flared up, and the bone was soon reduced to white powder.
The Dance of Death
Arrkroo, the Hater, had failed again. Stobart had openly triumphed over him by burning his deadly irna. The native feared this white man, but hated him more than he feared him, and was more than ever resolved to bring about his death.
Several days later, an old man of the tribe, named Wuntoo, became ill. Blacks have a great respect for age, and the sickness of Wuntoo caused great sorrow. A solemn gathering of all the men was called. Arrkroo was there and so was Stobart, for the white captive did not want to arouse suspicion or unfriendly feelings by staying away. The sickness of Wuntoo was, of course, attributed to magic; some enemy of the old man had boned him. It was, therefore, the duty of the gathering to find out and to punish the man who had done this, whether he was a member of their own tribe or whether he lived several hundred miles away.
Arrkroo was the only man present who really knew what ailed Wuntoo, for he himself had put poison in the old man's food—the juice of a narrow-leafed vine which grew only in the Valley of the Skulls. He had used this same poison to kill every prospector who had found the golden-sanded pool. After a lot of talk, which got more and more excited and incoherent as the meeting went on, Stobart volunteered to go and see the sick man. He knew that the natives would only sing over the invalid, or give him sand to eat, or practise a repulsive and harmful magic upon him, and he thought that perhaps some simple treatment might make him right again. Stobart had gained influence over the minds of the tribesmen, and was allowed to go. This was just what Arrkroo had hoped for.
Next day Wuntoo was worse, due to another dose of the poison which the crafty Arrkroo had administered. A second meeting was called. The old man was dying. Arrkroo arrived with freshly painted body and new feathers in his hair, and addressed the men with all the powers at his command. He felt that, if he failed to defeat the white man this time, his authority in the tribe would be gone for ever. He danced before his listeners, lifting his striped legs high, and swaying his body this way and that till the designs in white and red hypnotized the natives and held them spell-bound.
Even Stobart felt the evil power of the man. When he had got their minds under his control, he chanted to them of the great days of the Alcheringa when they were a powerful fair-skinned race of giants, and had everything that their hearts could desire. He went on to tell of one misfortune after another which had befallen them: their bodies had grown small, their skins black, and droughts had changed the earth from a garden into a desert. The warraguls listened, swaying their bodies as Arrkroo swayed his, and breaking out at times in wild shouts of agreement. Arrkroo was an orator in his primitive way, and he now had his audience completely at his command. He could do what he liked with it.
He began to talk of white men: of the way in which they had invaded the country and driven the natives back and back till now a mere handful of them survived in such places as the Musgrave Ranges. But the hated white men were never satisfied. They wanted the Musgraves too. They wanted the gold which was there. Everybody present knew the fate of the white prospectors, and that if once the secret was known, such a rush would set in that the warraguls would be driven out of this, their last great stronghold.
Arrkroo turned towards Stobart. Every man in the gathering looked at him also. "See," shouted the Hater in the native tongue. "See. White man. He find gold. His tracks all around Pool of Skulls. He want run away. He come back soon. Nintha (one), thama (two), urapitcha (three), therankathera (four)—many, many more. Kill black-fellow. Kill black-fellow. Kill black-fellow."
He stopped speaking and stretched out his painted arm towards the drover. The warraguls leapt to their feet, their eyes blazing, and their bodies ready to spring upon the white man. Stobart got up from the ground very slowly and faced his enemies, staring steadily at them. His hour had come. He would face death without flinching.
The blacks paused. Arrkroo feared that even now the white man would escape by the tremendous power of his dauntless eye. So he started to speak again, very excitedly.
"He bone Wuntoo. He burn bone, make death sure. You all see him burn bone. He go in last night, make him worse. You see him go in last night. Wuntoo die. You all die. You all die. You all die."
He had succeeded. A roar of fear and hatred went up from the assembly. Every man goaded his neighbour to be the first to spring upon the defenceless captive. Arrkroo's heart was glad. He started to dance again, but this time it was the Dance of Death. Stobart knew that he was a doomed man, but not a muscle of his face altered. The crowd of frenzied warraguls, eager to pull him limb from limb, leaned forward, but he still held them with his fearless eye. How long would it last?
Arrkroo danced nearer and nearer. When one of those whirling arms of his touched the victim, the spell would be broken, and Boss Stobart, the bravest drover of Central Australia, would go down before the onslaught of a hundred yelling fiends.
Arrkroo's spinning and swaying body came nearer and nearer. There was tense stillness. Men held their breath. Stobart faced the future as he had always faced every difficulty—with clear open-eyed courage. Arrkroo's hand passed his face so closely that he felt the wind of it. The next time it would touch him.
Stobart did not move, but every muscle of his powerful body gathered itself for the supremest effort of his life. The head of the Hater swayed towards him, back, and then forward again. Then Stobart acted! Like a flash his fist shot out. His body was like a spring suddenly released. The weight of every ounce of him, the force of every nerve and sinew, and all the gathered knowledge of years went into that terrific blow. It caught Arrkroo on the point of the chin. There was a sickening click. The man's head went back like the lid of a box. He fell to the ground, quivered for a moment, and then lay still.
It all happened in the time taken to blink twice.
The crowd surged back. A gasp of astonishment went up. In a couple of seconds Stobart was alone with his fallen enemy. The man was gasping. If Stobart had not been weakened by the life and food of the blacks' camp, that blow would have killed Arrkroo, although the neck of a native is as strong as the neck of a bull. The drover stood looking down at the grotesquely painted figure huddled up on the ground at his feet. It began to twitch. The eyes rolled round and then fixed their gaze on Stobart. Strength returned quickly to the native and he staggered to his feet. For a moment he faced the white man, swaying unsteadily, then he turned and went away to his wurley, leaving the drover victor on the field where he had so nearly met his death.
That night Yarloo returned to camp. The sky was so thickly covered with stars that it looked as if powdered silver had been dusted over a tremendous and very dark blue dome. Stobart was fast asleep at the entrance to his cave when Yarloo crept up noiselessly and touched him. He was awake and alert in a moment. The boy's head showed up dark against the stars and the white man recognized him at once.
"Me come back, Misser Stobart," whispered Yarloo.
"Good boy," replied the drover. "Good boy. Does the camp know you're here?"
"Neh. Me come longa you first time. They all about sleep."
Then Yarloo told all that he had done since he went away. Stobart was overjoyed to hear that his son was safe, and hope, which had burnt down very low recently, once more flamed up brightly in his heart. Yarloo had hurried out from Sidcotinga Station, and was too exhausted to undertake the return trip immediately or they would have escaped that very night. They decided to wait for a day or two.
In this they made a great mistake. If Stobart had disappeared that night, while every native in the camp was overawed by his victory over the powerful Arrkroo, he would probably have got clean away, but as it was, he found himself more of a prisoner than ever next morning. Yarloo's return aroused suspicion. Every native in the tribe was afraid of the white man and nobody dared to kill him. Yet they were all perfectly convinced that he was the cause of Wuntoo's illness. If Wuntoo died without the others taking full vengeance on the one who had bewitched him, the old man's spirit would haunt the camp and bring terrible disaster upon it. Therefore, if Wuntoo died, Stobart must die too. So the white man was kept a close prisoner, and was even obliged to keep inside his cave. No one had sufficient courage to harm him, though all their former admiration for him was turned to fear and hatred; but, by sheer force of numbers, they made it impossible for him to escape.
One night Wuntoo was evidently dying. All the men of the tribe who were not actually guarding the prisoner were sitting in a circle with the women, making noisy lamentation. They beat their naked thighs with their open palms, and mournful chants rose from low weird mutterings to high shrill screams as they tried to frighten the evil spirits out of the dying man. A big fire was blazing and sending sparks and smoke high into the darkness, and lightening up the excited faces of the men and women all around.
Suddenly in the middle of the wildest demonstration of grief Coiloo appeared—Coiloo, whom Stobart had saved from death, and whom Mick had treated with such cruelty. He was in a shocking state. The brand-marks had started to fester, and there were burns all over his body. He had come at a critical time. The wailing warraguls looked at his wounds and their excitement got more and more intense. They vowed terrible vengeance against the white man who had done this; against all white men; against Stobart who was at their mercy. If Coiloo himself had not prevented them they would have rushed off immediately to the cave and carried out their designs while the heat of the moment gave them courage. He craftily pointed out that it was far better to kill the white man to appease the spirit of the dead Wuntoo than to kill him before the old man died. The savages listened, hesitated, and then agreed, and returned to the interrupted ceremony of mourning. And all this time the emaciated figure of Wuntoo lay out flat on the sand, lit weirdly by the leaping flames, his chest rising and falling with great effort, and his eyes rolling round with pain.
In the middle of all this excitement Yarloo escaped. He realized that he could do no good for his master by staying in the blacks' camp; so when he gathered from the excited shouts that three white men and some horses were camped out on the plains not far away, he slipped out in the darkness and made the fastest journey of his life. He arrived at Mick's camp in the early morning of the next day, just as the working horses were being driven in. He told his tale. Mick and the boys listened attentively. The drover had trusted Yarloo from the very first day he had engaged him, and he had never had cause to regret it. So, after making sure of all the necessary facts of the case, he responded to the boy's appeal for help immediately and fully.
He cut two thick slabs of damper, put a chunk of meat between them, and handed it to Yarloo. "Here, get that inside you, me son," he said heartily. "Eat all you want. There's lots more where that came from." The whites had already had their breakfast, and Mick at once set about packing the gear, muttering: "If I don't let daylight through half a dozen of those devils, I'll call meself a Chow, I will, straight. Now, you boys, look alive," he shouted to the blacks who were crowding round Yarloo. "You can yabber all you want when we've rounded up that tribe of black cleanskins."
The native stockmen laughed. Everybody was eager for the task. The boys were all from a sand-hill tribe who bitterly hated the wild warraguls from the mountains, and they were overjoyed at the thought of fighting on the same side as white men. Sax and Vaughan were more serious but none the less eager, especially Sax, who would have willingly gone out alone against the whole tribe, if only it would have been a help to his father.
They did not take the whole plant with them. Each man of the advance party had two good saddle-horses; there was one all ready saddled and bridled for Boss Stobart; and a swift pack-horse, lightly loaded, carried all the tucker and water they would need. There were Mick and the two white boys, Yarloo, Poona, Calcoo, and Jack Johnson, all mounted on the best horses in the plant. They had only two firearms for all the party: Mick's rifle which he carried, and his revolver, which he gave to Vaughan. Their chief weapon was "bluff", for a party of seven could do nothing against nearly a hundred armed natives, except surprise them long enough to let their prisoner escape.
They rode hard till about two o'clock, stopped and took a hunk of damper and meat each and a drink of water, and then put their saddles on fresh horses and pushed on. The sun was still an hour high when they came to a thick clump of timber at the entrance to a gully running, up into the mountains. Yarloo, who was the real leader of the party, advised that the horses be left here. The camp was not far off, and the approach to it was quite free from any cover for a mounted man. So they hitched their horses to separate trees in such a way that they could be unfastened in the shortest possible time.
They walked stealthily through the timber to the side of the valley, where they began to crawl from boulder to boulder. It was slow work. They dared not wait till dark. Each moment might decide the fate of the man they had come to rescue. For half a mile they approached the camp in this way, noiselessly, and completely hidden by the rocks. They saw no sign of natives.
All at once a thin, high, quavering sound rose just ahead of them. Others joined it like a pack of dingoes howling in the night. Then the note trembled and came down, getting louder as it descended the scale till it was a deep muttering of great anguish. It started again and again. Every native of the little party shivered. It was a death-wail.
Yarloo turned to Mick, and said hoarsely: "Old man bin die. We hurry, I think."
The rescuers sprang to their feet and ran, stooping low and keeping out of sight. They need not have taken these precautions. Every warragul of the tribe was engaged at the camp, where death-wails rose and fell.
Suddenly a Musgrave native confronted the rescue party. He lifted his left hand and signed to them to stop. There were only two fingers and a thumb on that hand. It was Coiloo. He was armed with spears and boomerangs and a shield. Mick raised his rifle, but Yarloo leaped in front of it. A shot at this time would warn the camp and spoil any chance of success. It was more important to rescue Stobart than to settle a private quarrel.
Coiloo cast a look of deadly hatred towards Mick. He longed to hurl one of these slender spears of his at his enemy, and bury the poisonous head deep in the white man's heart. But he too had a more important task to perform just then. He grabbed Sax by the wrist and sprang up the valley with incredible swiftness. The startled white boy was carried along and quickly outdistanced the others. Coiloo gave no explanation of his strange behaviour. He must reach the blacks' camp as soon as possible. The wailing became louder and louder, and presently Sax heard a sound which gave such fleetness to his limbs that his wiry companion could hardly keep up with him. It was a booming voice which rose above the turmoil of native cries like a strong swimmer battling with the waves.
It was a white man's voice.
Sax recognized it as his father's.
Suddenly the camp burst into view. The lad would have dashed across the open space at once, but Coiloo pulled him behind a rock. A terrible tragedy was about to be enacted in front of that cluster of sordid wurlies. The dead body of Wuntoo lay out naked on the sand. At the head of it stood Stobart, bound hand and foot, and clad in nothing but his tattered trousers. He was about to die. He knew it well, but held his head proudly and looked round at the yelling fiends with great scorn. From time to time his strong voice boomed defiance at his enemies. All around, dancing in almost delirious excitement, were the warragul men, while an outer ring was formed by the women, who kept time with their hands to the chanting which was gradually working their men up to a state of frenzy. Chief figure of all was Arrkroo, once more restored to authority, and about to have his revenge upon his rival. He strode up and down in front of the victim, armed with a huge carved and painted club.
Sax struggled in Coiloo's detaining grasp. He was but a lad, and the odds were a hundred savages against one white boy, but he wanted to leap across the intervening space and stand beside his father. Coiloo's hand was at Sax's neck. He unfastened the string of the luringa and stood up, still hidden from sight. Slowly he whirled the thin slab of wood round his head, hitting it on the ground once or twice to make it spin. The thing gave out a droning sound. The crowd of yelling fiends around the corpse became suddenly quiet. The droning increased to a loud humming. Every eye was turned.
Coiloo handed the luringa to Sax and disappeared. The boy had seen the effect of the peculiar note which the whirling luringa made. He stepped out into the open, swinging the strangely carved fillet of wood round and round his head. The sound grew louder and louder. It seemed impossible that such a small thing should make so far-carrying a sound. The dancing men stood petrified. The women leaped to their feet and became motionless. Arrkroo stopped with up-lifted club. Stobart stood amazed. Sax walked forward slowly.
The tension increased. He was twenty yards from them—fifteen—ten. A movement of horror ran through the crowd. Before he had gone two paces more a shout went up in a hundred terror-stricken voices:
"The voice of Tumana! It is the voice of Tumana!"
Sax kept on. Suddenly the tension broke. Like dead leaves before a gale, the natives scattered and fled. Stobart, Sax, Arrkroo, and the corpse of Wuntoo were left alone.
Arrkroo feared the bull-roarer, which spoke with the dreaded voice of Tumana, as much as anyone. Yet he stood his ground with uplifted club. The helpless white man was within easy reach. Arrkroo would not miss his vengeance this third time. He would strike his enemy dead even though it was his last act, for no one can do such a thing when Tumana is speaking without terrible consequences. The sound of the bull-roarer went on. Arrkroo swayed back to gain force for a smashing blow. Then he uttered a wild shout of triumph and jerked his black painted body forward. The club swung——
A shot rang out. The club dropped from the murdering warragul's nerveless hand. It missed Stobart's head by a fraction of an inch. Sax picked it up and rushed forward. But death had already come. Arrkroo's tall figure tottered for a moment, then crumpled up and fell to the ground. Mick immediately dashed across the open space, followed by Yarloo and the three other boys. Coiloo was nowhere to be seen.
Two slashes of a sharp knife cut the hair rope which bound the captive white man and he was free. There was no time for thanks or congratulations. Sax had stopped swinging the luringa; the voice of Tumana had ceased. Already the natives were reassembling, and it was only a matter of moments before they would swarm down on the rescue party, outnumbering it by fifteen to one. A flight of spears fell from the rocks above, doing no harm, but warning the white men of their terrible danger.
They dashed down the valley towards the clump of timber where the saddle-horses had been tied. At one place the track narrowed as it passed between two great masses of rock. Mick was in the rear with the rifle. As he passed this spot, a spear came out from behind one of the boulders. He was not expecting an ambush, and the spear struck his shoulder, entering the top of the lungs and breaking off. He dropped the rifle. As it left his hand he must have pulled the trigger, for there was a report. Sax was running just in front of Mick. He heard the report, looked round, and saw the stockman stagger. He dashed back. His act saved Mick's life, for, as the white boy stooped to pick up the rifle, he saw Coiloo standing behind the rock with another spear ready to throw. Sax jumped in front of his friend and the native paused. Mick was badly wounded, but when he too saw the ambushed nigger, he pulled himself together and dashed ahead after his companions. Sax was now carrying the rifle and he kept in the rear of the party, and prevented Coiloo from throwing that second spear.
Fierce shouting at the camp urged them to their greatest efforts. The Musgrave blacks had got over their scare. They found Arrkroo's dead body lying beside the corpse of Wuntoo. They thirsted for revenge and started in pursuit, not a hundred yards behind the escaping white men.
Stobart and his friends reached the clump of timber. Sax looked back. The pursuit had been checked for a few moments. Coiloo was standing in the narrow gap, holding it against a hundred of his fellow tribesmen. Spears whizzed around him on all sides, but for a time he dexterously escaped death. At last one struck him and he fell, but not before his purpose was accomplished. He had attempted to revenge himself on Mick, and, failing this, he held up the chase long enough to give Stobart, the man who had saved his life, a good chance of escaping.
His gallant death was not in vain. Before the Musgrave blacks reached the trees the rescue party was galloping across the plains. Mick's wound was troublesome for several days, but the man's perfect health stood him in good stead. One night in camp he was bewailing the fact that they had not been able to make a stand against the blacks, but had been forced to beat an ignominious retreat. "I'd like to go back and have a real good scrap," he said.
Boss Stobart looked at him with a peculiar smile for a moment or two, and then took an old black pipe from his belt. It was smeared with clay. Mick and the two white boys looked on with great curiosity. The drover made a little hole in the clay and poured out a few grains of golden sand into his palm.
"Look at this," he said, holding out his hand to Mick. "If you'd care to go back to the Musgrave Ranges with me for some more of this stuff, I can promise you as many scraps with the niggers as you want."
The gold was handed round. "I'm with you," said Mick. "I'm with you, Boss Stobart, whether its gold or niggers you're after."
"And so am I if you'll let me," said Vaughan. "I want to buy back my father's sheep station."
Sax said nothing. He was content to be with his father, and knew that he was sure to be included in any expedition which his father undertook; but no thought of the future could rob him of the supreme joy of knowing that he had been instrumental in saving his father from death in the Musgrave Ranges.
 Australian blacks believe that the sound made by the luringa, or bull-roarer, is the voice of a strong spirit named Tumana.
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JULES VERNE— A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
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