|Chapter Title||A MIDNIGHT HALTÂ-A MYSTERIOUS PROCESSIONÂ- SUDDEN DISPERSION AND FLIGHTÂ-OPEN COUNTRY ONCE MORE, AND|
|Newspaper Title||The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939)|
|Trove Title||The Burning Mountain of the Interior: An Australian Tale of Adventure|
The Burning Mountain of the Interior;
AN AUSTRALIAN TALE OF ADVENTURE.
[WRITTEN FOR THE QUEENALANDER.] CHAPTER III. A MIDNIGHT HALT —A MYSTERIOUS PROCESSION — SUDDEN DISPERSION AND FLIGHT —OPEN COUNTRY ONCE MORE, AND ANOTHER MYSTERY AHEAD.
BY ERNEST FAVENC.
As well as could be made out in the gloom cast by the scrub they had reached a small break, and Morton, wheeling off, the horses followed, and the party dismounted, as the
leader judged, some two hundred yards irom the track. Morton gave his orders in low tones, for the atmosphere of awe and myßterv affected everybody. There was no grass, so the horses were just relieved of their packs and tied to trees; then the men lay down on their blankets without making a fire, and, save for the occa sional snort of a horse, the scrub was as silent as before. Not for long. It seemed to Brown that he had scarcely closed his eyes when the camp was aroused by a distant melancholy cry. Noone spoke; all were intently listening; the cry sounded again, louder, nearer; and in a chorus of many voices. ... " What bad luck 1" whispered Morton, to his friend; "a day or two sooner or later and we would have been right." ' • ?v> Nearer and nearer came the plaintive wading noise, and the gtoam of firestaoks was visible. It was' a most' uncomfortable sensation' that oar adventurers experienced, lymg motionless inthe gloomy sorab, listening to this uncanny procession passing. They were well armed, but the sights they had encountered had been so muoh out of the ordinary routine as to make even suoh old hands as Morton and Brown slightly nervous. Charley was naturaily greatly excited, whilst Billy was "larding tke earth" with Ihe perspiration of abject superstitious terror. The party of natives wete now opposite, but a short dktanoe away, and by the number Of firestieks there seemed to be a good many in company; every new and then (the wild wad or chant kept breaking out, and the shuffling noise of their bare feet was distinctly audible during the silent intervals. They had almost passed the hidden watchers when the procession was interrupted bya dis, eordant shout from the leaders; a babble ojf voices followed, the fiiestioks gathered together, and were then dashed on the ground and extin guished; then, came the noise of flying feet back along the track, dying away into silence. ••Saw our tracks!" said Brown with a dis gusted sigh, breaking the spell that beid them all quiet. ??< ? ? ??. "How could they see them ia the dark?? 1 asked Charley.. ? "They could both Jeel them, and smell them," returned Morton. "(The track is caked hard from the last thunderstorm, and all our horses walking one after another- would cut v up soft, and of course with their bans, feet they'd telL the difference directly. And the ?cent would be as plain as possible at this time in tke morning even to one of us. What's the time, Brown?" Brown struok a match, "Three. Jt will be breaking day scon after 5; let's wait till than." " Why ?" said Morton. "We nought as well get on while it's oool; there's the remains of the moon just rising." "Why? You think with me that,it was a funeral. Now, I should like to know what they did with the corpse; they never carried it away at that pace." •'Never thought of that," returned Morton. 41 Yes, we might pick up some information if we wait. We'll make a fire and have breakfast." The time soon passed in discussing the strange scene just witnessed and the possible result of their trip. Morton reminded Brown of the Freemasons that Stuart met in the interior, and Charley, who had not heard the former conversation, was enlightened as to the probable meaning of what had passed. , As soon as daylight was strong enough the investigation commenced. On the track where it had been hastily thrown lay the body of a tall old man fastened on to a rude litter made of saplings. The forehead was smeared with red pigment, and a triangle in white was inscribed on the dusky breast. ... ? Brown gave a low whistle. " That's a. thing I never saw blaoks draw before," he said to Morton. ._ "Nor I. He's a fine-looking old boy. What a long white beard he's got for a nigger!" The body was fastened to the litter with rude strips of ourrajong bark; and they were turning away after noting all the details, when Brown suggested that they might move him off the track. ' " You know," he explained, "we might come hustling along the track in the dark in as big a hurry as those fellows' did and tumble over the old gentleman." ... . The litter and its burden were shifted a few paces in the scrub, and full of expectation the party started on their interrupted way. The country soon became more open, and as it did so the track they had been following became leiss marked; it was still,, however, quite plain for any bushman to follow easily. At noon, to the great relief of the horses, they came, to a small pool of rain water and some fairly good grass. Here they turned cut! or a long spell. "Question is," said Brown, when the usual discussion commenced, " where did those nigs camp? No sign of them here. By the way, any gins'tracks among them, Billy,?" " No," replied the boy, " all together black fellow." „. " Must be more water ahead, and I hope so, for this won't stand in another, week, and we want some to come back on. Now I'm going aloft on the lookout," said Morton. Charley looked at him curiously as he slung the field glasß over his shoulder, and taking a tomahawk proceeded to an exceptionally tall bloodwood tree near the camp. At the foot he took off his boots, and.cutting niches into the trunk like a blackfellow was soon up amongst the top branches. Ensconcing himself firmly he took a comprehensive sweep around, and then directed hiß attention to the westward. "Below there I" he shouted, after a lengthened scrutiny,
•• ffi, hi, sir!" returned Charley. " Brown! Will your long lega bring you up he.re?" ?« Will it hold us both ?" demanded Brown.
•• Yes, safe as houses." In a short time Brown was up alongside his friend, and a very earnest discussion followed extremely tantalising to Charley below. After taking a compass bearing to some distant object they descended; and Charley, who was already barefooted, immediately attempted the ascent, slipping ignominiously down after getting up two or three steps, to Billy's huge delight. With the black boy's assistance he managed to reach the first branches, and from there gained the perch occupied by Morton on the top. What did he see when he got there ? The forest to the westward came to an abrupt end, and beyond stretched a wide gray plain, bounded by something that Charley could not make out, and had evidently puzzled Morton and Brown. It was not water, although it looked something liKe it; it was a broad sheet of pale blue, glistening in places under the sun's rays, and beyond, above a quivering haze, waa a dark object like a distant ridge. "What name, Billy?" said Charley to the black boy who had climbed up with him. "Water?" •'No water," said Billy decidedly. " Water here, olose up," he added, pointing to the edge of the forest. " What name then ?" repeated Charley. " Me think it mud, where water bingo bung," was the blackfellow's opinion; and with this they both descended. "Well, Charley, what do you make of it?" said Morton. , > ? " Billy thinks it's mud where the' water has dried up," returned Charley, as he had no opin ion of his own to give. "And Billy's right I believe, it's the bed of a dry salt lake, but we'll get on to the edge of the timber and camp." ?•?*•• On the margin of the plain they came to some fine, lagoons and good feed; but nothing could be seen of the mysterious object ahead, unless from the top of a tree. : About the lagoons they found abundant traces of the natives,and it was evidently amain camo ing place. Many of the trees were marked wjth triangles, which sign considerably nuzzled both th.eeldy travfUew./,,' ./' ",.... .' ';"... '?
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, The morning found them early on'the alert, and still following the faint track that led towards the dark ridge visibli beyond the bide expanse. Before sunrise thiß supposed dry lake had been visible from the camp, buf as the son rqse it disappeared, nor did they again sight it till nearly 8 o'clock. At 10 they were olom to it, and all doubt as to its character was srft at rest, They pulled up, not at'the edge of a dry lake, but of an upbroken sheet of limestone rook. Nothing was visible but this bluish-gray sea, over which a heated hate was hovering; the dark line beyond, resembling a ridge, had vanished; and the wind that blew in their faces across the surface of this strange plain was as not as though it came from a furnace. Morton turned and rode along the edge of the rock to where the track joined it, for they had left it for the last few yards. He whistled add the others came up. The1 track still continued right on across the rook, but it was now indi cated by other moans. jOn the surface of the limestone had been scratched or chipped with infinite care an imitation of human footsteps, or rather more than human footsteps, for the gigantic tracks were twice the size of a man's, and the stride indicated to correspond. Bide by side, about 6ft. apart, these two awful foot steps strode into the quivering mirage. " I've seen that mafic before on the West coast,1" said Brown, "Ton notice there are six toes to it. It's supposed to be the devil's footprint.' 1 . . A " "By Jove, what work it must have teen!" returned Morton. "Brit what #hall we, do nbw^" •?•'•' ... i.. "Go back to the lagoon for this afternoon," and hold a council of War; no good stopping here/ .'p.'".' • ? This was cordially agreed to, and a return to their1 last night's camping ground was at once made. . "We can't take'the horses across there;", was affirmed by Brown when the discussion commenced. ' " Certainly not, and I doubt if we can cross on foot in the daytime. We should be baked to death with the rook underneath and the sun overhead; We should get no shade to rest under." " It's quite agreed, we must follow this thing out?" said Brown. " Quite!" returned th* fuo. " Then the first thing to consider Is what to do with the horses and jfeoks* Will they be safehere?" , . " I think so," replied Morton. " I don't think there are any natives behind us; they are beyond that limestone somewhere ahead of us, so that nobody will come hero without our knowing it, for they only Use the one track seemingly1, and we shall be on that. We'll plant the traps «nd leaVe the horses hobbled ; they won 1* stir from here before we come back, the feed's too good. Let's dig a hole this evening* to plant the things in." : * • ' ? •'•?• "•• ? - '•?•=?? ' This plan, on further consideration,- was ap proved of J a light trick and shovel hrfd not been forgotten hi thepadk intended for water digging, and a grave, as Charley called it, was soon made and the impedimenta buried. They made their packs as light as possible, but with three days' rations, firearms, ammunition, and water bags, they felt heavy enough, and all hands devoutly hoped they would be off the rock: before daylight. With all the despatch they made they did not reach the edge of the rock before 12, but it mattered little, as the Burfaee was only then getting cool, and would have been unbearable any earlier. Billy was sent first with bare feet, he being trusted to follow the track by feeling when they strayed off it, as he would then cross the rough surface made by the Boqlptured tracks, the re mainder of the limestone being almost as smooth as marble.
It was a weird and weary tramp across this Yook by the light ot the atari, with.vague dark ness all around them. None of them felt in ' dined to speak, and.an awful silence reigned everywhere. A sickly moon rote just before daylight, and its faint beams east the long shadows of the travellers across the gleaming surface of the limestone. The thought in the minds of the three men was the same —what would daylight Bhow them ? Billy plodded along mechanically; most of the time he was half asleep. Daylight came at last, and the black line that they had Been from the tree top gradually came into view, appa rently not far ahead; and each felt grateful that he had not to encounter the force of the sun on the face of the naked rook.
When it was broad daylight the dark line resolved itself under the glasses into a row of basaltic boulders, with some bushes growing in their clefts and a bottle tree here and there on their summits. "We shall be there before it is hot," Baid Morton thankfully as he dosed the glasses; " let's push on." They did so, and before the sun had attained much power found themselves amongst the boulders. The track led straight into a gap, and on one side a huge block of stone, supported by two others, made a rude cave, under which the weary men gladly took shelter after their toilsome tramp. Evidently it was a halting place for the blacks, for the remains of fires were about, and a supply of firewood, which oame in very handy for the tired men to cook their breakfast with. A satisfactory meal and a smoke being finished, the situation was reviewed. Behind them lay the bare expanse of rock just crossed, and before them the un known. Now, too, they would have to keep a keen look out for lurking foes, for in amongst these boulders every step was fraught with danger, especially as the blacks knew o! their approach; and it was evident that they were trespassing on tabooed ground. The future movements of the party were now, as might be supposed, a matter of serious consideration, and Brown and Morton were in earnest discussion when a loud report like a dap of thunder sud denly startled the little company to their feet. A low rumbling followed that seemed to shake the very rooks. Hurrying outside nothing was seen that could possibly have caused the strange noise; the sky was cloudless, the air still and sultry. Suddenly Billy pointed to the westward. "Fire jump tip," he said. A puff of white smoke, or vapour, was rißing seem ingly only a short distancefiom them. Silently they watched it ascend and disperse. " Blacks here have artillery apparently," said Brown. " Salute in honour of bur arrival,"
Nothing more following, they returned to the cave, leaving Charley at the entrance on the look out.
"If these fellows know nothing about the effect of firearms," said Morton, "we may be able to establish a funk; they may have heard of them only from the other tribes." " I don't think they have much communica tion with the other tribes by the look of it, but, if they live amongst these rocks, what on earth do they exist on?—for there's no game here." " Well, all we can do is to keep a sharp look out and our powder dry What's up ?" " Here's the corpse I" cried Charley, falling back from the entrance in amazement. Billy gave an'awful yell; the others started to their feet as a tall native coolly walked into the cave, and squatted down on the ground. It certainly was enough to give them all a fright, for the visitor, in outward appearance, greatly resem bled the dead man left in the scrub. A second glance, however, showed points of difference which proved him to be a denizen of the earth; he was marked with the white triangle on the breast, and the red smear on the forehead, but was naked and unarmed, whilst his manner showed no traoe of fear. Recovering them* selves somewhat, Morton lugged Billy forward to see if he could converse with the new comer. This proceeding, however, did not suit their visitor, for he addressed a furious tirade at Mr. Button in some unknown tongue, winding up by violently spitting at him. Billy slunk back soared, and the native rising took BroWn by the arm and led him to the en trance ; pointing alternately forward and back wards he made signs for them to turn back, and not to go on. Brown returned by signs that they must goon. The. blackfellow shook his head vigorously, and then held up his hand motioning them to listen. Again the loud re port was heard, and a puff of vapour ascended as before. To the apparent surprise of the native, the whites showed no alarm, and Brown taking his carbine stepped back, and fired it into the air. The black gave a decided start, and trembled a little, but stood his ground; then his mind seemed to change, and, making a sign to Brown to stay, he strode off and disappeared behind the surrounding rocks. . "Is he coming back, do you think?" said Brown.
"I think so," replied Morton. ''He's a fin* fellow, with plenty of pluck." « Then we'll give him twenty tainutes' grace —but "here he comes, and all his sisters and his oousins and his aunts."
Sure enough their former visitor appeared, accompanied- by some- half-donen others, simi larly painted and all unarmed. He spoke a few words 4b»;themy «nti pointed towards Brown, upon whom they gazed curiously. : " Now, then, Brown," said Morton, " you're ?ihe star; evidently they want an exhibition." •• Brown, who had reloaded his carbine, fired ft in the air'again. The fresh arrivals Bhowed more alarm' than the first man had, Borne of them squatted hastily down and all started with fear.
"It appears to me, Brown, that they consider you ' brother belonging' to this noise ahead," remarked Morton.
"It looks like it, and we must keep up the pleasing fiction, for these fellows have ub on toast in amongst these rocks. I wonder how many more there are round about." 11 Let's see if we can go on now," said Mor ton. On Brown indicating their wish to proceed, the most ready acquiescence was displayed, and at a few words from the native who had first arrived the others showed by Bignß their inten lion to otrry (he atrangon' packs.
Before starting, however, names were inter changed, that being generally found the easiest steps towards intimacy. Brown, Morton, and Charley (or Barley) were soon pipked up, and the chief, as he appeared to be, introduced him self as Columberi, which, of course, was at once turned into Columbus by Brown, and the oldest blaokfellow amongst the others was named Yarlow. F. With Columbus appropriately in the lead, the march commenced, the tracks winding in and out of the rocks in a very intricate fashion. For nearly five miles they kept on, although in a straight line they would not probably have traversed more than two, and at last arrived at an open space surrounded by bottle trees, and from the number of humpies, built of mud and grass, apparently the headquarters of the tribe. Here they halted. About twenty more blacks were sitting about, who at first made a show of taking to their heels, but a call from Columbus brought them back. Selecting a shady tree, Brown indicated that their swags should be brought up, and this being done he remarked: " What do you say to a feed, and then getting Christopher here to show us the ropes ?" " Just as well," returned Brown; "we must take everything as a matter of course, and show no surprise." Billy made a fire, and the quarts were put on to boil, a proceeding whioh interested the spec tators greatly. Brown by signs then invited Columbus to sit down, and presented him with a piece of damper thickly coated with sugar, at the same time eating a piece himself to inspire confidence. The native started to eat in a slow and doubt ful manner, but after a bite or two finished it off with great gusto and indicated a wish for more. The quarts now bubbled up, and the blacks with one accord emitted, a united " ha!" and pointed to the westward; evidently the boiling water bore some resemblance to something in that direction. Columbus now desoribed a mark in the. duit like a half-circle, and pointed in the direction they had come. "He means the horse tracks they saw," said Morton after a pause. ( He nodded vigorously to the old man, who continued his pantomime by lying on his back as though dead. Morton nodded, again and patted the ground pointing backwards to indicate that the corpse was still there. Columbus then called the other blacks aside, and after a long talk about a dosen of. them drew off and disappeared amongst the sur rounding boulders. " We must follow up this burning mountain business," said Brown as he meditatively; ate his dinner; "now old Columbus has disposed of his private affairs perhaps he will take us there." " Call him back and let's make inquiries; see if he'll eat beef." . The chieftain approaching, Brown offered him a piece of salt bee.!. He examined it curiously, and then without any demur ate it in the most appreciative manner. He then pointed to Charley, and made signs as though outting with a knife whioh for a time were quite unin telligible. "Blessed if he doesn't mean to ask if you're good to eat," said Brown at last. He shook his head, and the native appeared both surprised and disappointed. On their in dicating their wish to proceed in the direction of the strange reports, he rose and led, the way. The whites only took their carbines, as they felt assured that as yet their coming was too novel for the blacks to interfere with their belong ings. , '.'..,,. They had but a short distance to go,. Bound ing a rugged wall of basalt they saw stretched before them a singular and striking scene. At their feet was a large circular shallow depres sion, about a mile in circumference, filled with pools of clear water divided one from.another by narrow ridges of rook. In the centre, of this depression was a hill of small elevation with a flat top; not a vestige of. green weed was to be seen about the water, nothing but bare rock. Without stopping, their guide ledine way along, one of the narrow strips.of basalt intersecting the water. •• Keep your feet," said Morton as they followed him, "for it strikes me that water's scalding hot." . . '?,.• Warned by this, the whites cajefi^y con tinued their course to the central hjll, Colum bus mounted it, and then pointed down. (They were on the edge of a crater.) At no great dis tance below was a mass of seejkhing boiling mm]. The crater, had lip-like fractures, in various parts, and to one of these their guide now direoted their attention, at the same time mo tioning to them to stand back from the edge.. The water in the pool at the, back pf the lip was. curiously ruffled; presently it assumed the appearance of boiling,, and rising suddenly poured over the edge of the cyater into the molten mud beneath. A deafening report fol lowed, and the rocks on whicty the party crouched trembled again.. Then came a rußh of steam, and all was still once more, By. a great effort the Btrangers had preserved their coolness, and looked on the display unmoved; tTien in response to Brown they,discharged the carbines simultaneously, an. act which nearly made Columbus topple into the crater. t , . , [TO BB CONXINUJEJDu] ; . ?,,-. /,;