Chapter 20281694

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Chapter NumberV.
Chapter Title
Chapter Url
Full Date1890-03-29
Page Number593
Word Count5328
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleThe Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939)
Trove TitleThe Burning Mountain of the Interior: An Australian Tale of Adventure
article text

The Storyteller.

The Burning Mountain of the Interior; AN AUSTRALIAN TALE OF ADVENTURE.




PROPOSITION. By the language of signs they were given to understand that the rooks through whioh they had found their way extended in every direc tion. Another low elevation a short distance away resembling a limestone oliff was noticed, but about tbisthsir guide* who had nowreoovered his composure, could, or apparently would, not afford them any information. After a more lengthened examination of the strange sur roundings they returned to their camp in the open space, which they found deserted by the natives. Columbus, however, showed no signs of leaving them, and the whites, with due regard to strategic purposes, pitched their tent and made themselves as comfortable as circum stances allowed. " Ths thing that pussies me," said Brown, after all arrangements had been completed, " is—What do these natives live on f Colum bus, whom we have feasted on strange dainties, shows no desire of leaving us; but the others are all away, evidently in search of grab. There are no gins visible; perhaps they are away hunting, but I doubt it, for within a hun dred miles of here there isn't a feed for a bandi coot." "1 don't understand it either/' -returned Morton, " but we'll stop and see it oat any way. Charley, our friend Columbus has taken quite a fancy to you; he oan't take his eyes off yon." Charley looked very uncomfortable at the chaff, and muttered something about a "nigger's oheek;" but it was quite evident that the native had transferred all bis admira tion from Brown to Charley. Whilst still talking and discussing the situa tion a sound like a distant uproar of voioes be came apparent, and Columbus commenced to evince signs of uneasiness. The sound came from the direction of the limestone cliffs, and grew louder and more distinct ss they listened. All the party naturally rose to their feet, although the native made energetic signs to them to keep quiet. After a snort time the shouting became stationary, and it was evidently not intended as sn attack upon them, or suoh loud warning would not have been given. "Shall we go and see what's up?" said Morton. "We'll fix the direction, any way," returned Brown, and they proceeded to clamber up one of the high boulders by which they were sur rounded, although Columbus evidently pro tested against the proceeding. From the top of the boulder they oould make Out the summit of the limestone cliffs, and ascertained that the uproar certainly came from there, and moreover that the shrill cries of gins mingled with the many voioes. It was well on towards sundown, and after a short conference Brown and Morton determined to defer further explorations until the next day, so they returned to their oamp, Columbus, who seemed much relieved by the proceeding, now made signs for Charley to accompany him in the direction they had been just looking. At the same time he made it plainly apparent that Charley was to oome alone. " I'll go, Frank," he said to Morton. " Let me go and have all the honour and glory." Morton and Brown both replied in the nega tive, and Brown intimated to Columbus that to-morrow Charley should go, but now it was nearly night and he wanted a sleep. This seemed to satisfy tbe blaokfellow, who now evi dently wanted to get away himself, and pre sently, as soon as he thought the attention of the party was notdireoted towards him, he dis appeared as mysteriously as he had arrived, " I have not got to the bottom of this little affair yet," said Morton; " but I think we shall to-night. What do yoa say to paying a visit to these cliffs as soon es it is pitch dark; I have the bearing ?" " The very thing I was going to suggest, my dear Flinders. Charley, it Btrikes me that our new friend wants to make long pig of you." "What's that?" asked Charley. "Well, a favourite dish amongst some natives who have an aoquired taste for human flesh." "Do you think he's a oannibal ?" said the boy, rather aghast. " I should be sorry to slander a stranger, but he certainly looks something bke it." As soon as it was quite dark the party set out on their way to the oliff s, whioh they judged to be about a mile distant; it was a d-ffloult

matter shaping a course by the stars amongst the gloom oast by the surrounding boulders, but an occasional murmur of sound helped them on, and after scrambling and twisting about they found themselves near the low cliffs. Here Billy was told to strip and reconnoitre, and his blaok figure was lost amongst the rocks almost before he seemed to have made a step. He was absent nearly half an hour; then a Bubdued whistle announced his return, and in a low voice he communicated to Morton the result of his investigations. About 400 or 600 yards from where they were waiting there was a eave in the cliff, and the blacks it appears were in there. Billy had gone close to the entrance, but oould see only a light in the distance, for, according to him, "hole been go long way." Under Billy's guidance they soon reached the cave entrance, and found it to be a kind of tunnel evidently leading to a large cave, for a red glare of firelight earns round an angle, and the sound of many chattering voices was audible. "Shall we go on?" said Morton in a ; whisper. "No, wait a minute," replied Brown; "it strikes me there'q another entrance to this place; they must have a lot of fire going, but yet the plaee is not full of smoke. I can smell i the fire, but that's all. I think there must be an opening in the top, let's send Billy up to see." The face of the cliff was easily climbed, being mostly detached rooks that had fallen down, and very soon Billy came back and reported that " fire come up alonga top." One after the other the adventurers ascended and found themselves on a rocky plateau foil of fissures and holes, through some of whioh a bright light was streaming. Approaching this portion carefully on their hands and knees, they soon found a fissure through which they could gaze with safety on one of the strangest scenes ever witnessed in Anstralia. The cavern below them was seemingly of some sise, and was well lighted by a number of fires, the smoke from whioh somewhat annoyed the unseen spectators. A far larger number of blacks were assembled than had been risible before, and many of them were armed and painted, being also marked with the red smear and white triangle. One large group was com posed of some twenty, or thirty young men and women; they were huddled together, apparently much frightened, and had no marks whatever upon then* bodies. Columbus was soon -recognised squatting at one of the fires with some of the other old men, and, like all but the group of boys and girls, busily engaged in eating. Morton felt his arm clutched suddenly and tightly, and Brown hoarsely whispered in his ear, " It is meat they are eating; but what meat ?" Morton was struck with horror as he listened, and the truth flashed across bis mind. It was a feast of cannibals they were overlooking. The armed natives had just returned from a foray, and the trembling group in the corner were prisoners destined to death. An awful feeling of horror came over the whole party as they realised their situation and possible fate. In a wilderness of savage rocks, surrounded by an expanse of desert, almost in the hands of some fifty or sixty fierce canni bals—no wonder the first thought of each was to slip quietly back ths way he had eome under cover of the night, and leave the natives to their former obsourity. Their natural courage soon -returned. At present they were masters ot the situation; with their breech-loaders they could have shot down half the natives, helpless in the cavern below, if so inclined. Bnt, with all their horror of the scene, affairs did not seem to justify armed intervention just then. Contenting themselves with being spectators only, they watched the doings in the cave, at times having to stifle a cough brought on by a fuff of smoke from tbe burning wood fires, or a time the repast below went on with the usual accompaniments of a blacks' camp, but as it came to an end it was evident that some extraordinary occurrence was going to take place. Gradually th? old men mustered together around Columbus, and the other blacks proceeded to combine all the fires into one large one near the wall of the cavern. The added blase gave to view a huge figure painted on the rock; it wss the semblance of a human form, but the head, instead of being represented round, was grotesquely shaped like a triangle. At the foot of the painting was a rook, and, while the rank and file of the natives grouped themselves in a circle around the fire. Columbus and some others retired into the darkness out of sight of $he watchers. The ohant of a corroboree now eommenced, and the blacks slowly eiroled round the flire for a short time, suddenly ceasing and breaking into a half ring, with the open part towards the grim figure painted on the wall. Then Columbus and the others appeared, supporting between them a striking ana venerable figure— an old old man, with snow-whits hair and beard, bent so double that, as he hobbled along sup- Srting himself on two short sticks, he appeared e some strange animal walking on four legs. This decrepit being was ctrefqlly helped and guided to the stone beneath the figure, and seated thereon; then the others squatted on the ground, the blaoks in the half ring remain ing quietly standing. The old man seated on the block was now full in view of the whites above, and the bril liant rays of the fire fell directly on him. Brown and Morton turned to each other with the same smothered exclamation on their lips," By Jove, it's a white man!" Almost as dark as the savages around, painted like them with a hideous red smear on the forehead arid a white triangle on the breast, the experienced whites felt sure that before them they saw one of their own race. Apparently the venerable being was either bund or nearly so ; and he kept turning his face restlessly from side to aide. From the half olrole of blaoks then arose a shout or ohant that sounded like the repetition of "Murl Fee! MurlFee!" " Hulloo l we're amongst oonntrymen," whispered Brown; "that sounds awfully like Murphy."

A terrible noise was now commenced like a hundred mad gongs let loose. Four blacks came forward beating furiously with clubs on what appeared to be sheets of metal. At tbe Bound the old man on the rock smiled and leant forward, and, stretching forth his trembling hands, appeared to say something. At this Columbus arose, and, followed by the gong-beaters, went over to the throng of trembling captives. After a short inspection he selected a young gin and pulled her along by the hand towards the old man, followed still by the gong-beaters. The poor wretch seemed stupified with fear,, and when in front of the stone she sank down, trembling visibly. Co lumbus drew baok, and the gong-beaters, danc ing madly round, made a still more deafening din. Suddenly one of them, instead of striking his gong, dealt the unfortunate creature a ter rible blow on the head, the others followed his example, and in an instant the wretched gin lay dead on the ground. The effect of this scene on the whites above was maddening. Charley had his gun to his shoulder, but Morton stopped him in time. The gin was killed before interference was possible. "Come away," said Brown, "let's have a confab. I'm sick of watching those brutes." They scrambled away a short distance, and after a pause Brown spoke. " We've got our work out out, ,there's no doubt about that. We must find out all about that white man if possible, and we must let those poor devils go and give these cannibals a lesson." "In justice to our friend Columbus," said Morton, " let me remark that' these "annibelff' are only following up what they have been taught; they have no horror of the thing like we have. At the same time, the man who lifts his hand—or nulla nulla-ragiunst a : woman is unworthy the name of a British sailor, Ac., Ao." " Are you convinced that is a white man?" said Charley. "Yes," replied Brown, "but who he is is another question. He appears to be blind, deaf, and imbecile. I suppose we must fall baok upon Leichhardt." "He's been a big man when younger and erect," said Morton; " far bigger than Leioh hardt was. However, we'll suppose it to be one of his party—he looks old enough." Brown gave vent to a low whistle. "By jingo, supposing that was * Murphy' .they were shouting. I believe there wm a man, of. that name in the lost party." |* We shall And out I hope soon. Meantime, what next?" "I know," said Charley; " let's go back to camp. You promised Columbus I should go with him to-morrow. Well, I'll go and' find out all about it" Morton put his hand on Charley's. " It's a real pluoky bid, my boy, after what we've just seen; but do you think I oould let yoa go ? Whyyou'd be eooked and eaten in no time." " Hold on I" said Brown; " I'm full oi ideas just now; Ift me think this one out; there's something in what Charley seysj' " Now. oracle, as soon as you're ready," re turned Brown. "Well, I may be right or wrong, but my notion is that Columbus does not want to eat Qharley. , Why, they've got enough rations for a month. I think that they keep this old man as a spit of Fetich, and that Columbus and a few of the knowing old fellows see that he must soon die. Now they want Charley to take his place." Brown paused triumphantly. " I verily believe you've hit it," said Morton. "You ought always to live here, considering the amount of intellect you are developing." At this moment a renewed din once more ded up from the cave, and the party crawled cto find out the cause. The gong-beaters, Columbus, and his privy councillors were parading the captives, and the spectators shuddered as they looked down upon hideous remains of the late feast scattered about the sandy floor of the cavern. This time a fine looking young man was selected and marched up to the venerable figure on the stone. The gong-beaters fell baok, and Columbus and his companions proceeded to smear the youth's forehead with red pigment, and marked the oabalistie white triangle on his breast. He was then led away to a dark corner out of sight of the wstchers. Brown muttered a deep oath. " That's what has been puzzling me," he growled to Moreton', "how they kept their numbers up; of course they recruit from the best lopking prisoners." " See! they are going to select another," whispered his friend; " bet you twp figs of tobacco they choose that tall fellow with his hair tied in a knqf." " Done 1 I'll tjack the nuggety fellow along side him." Brown lost, the tall fellow being marched out to receive the marks of the cannibalistic brotherhood. Columbus and the others now assisted the old man to hobble away, and the blaoks squatted down by the fire and relit fresh ones about the ground. "Get back to camp," said Morton; "the fun is over for to-night." Scrambling down the cliff, and using every precaution, the party soon regained their camp, whioh they found as deserted as they left ft.

Ghapt-b VI, Tired out with their exertions and the con tinued night work the party slept soundly, and awoke at dawn to find the camp as calm and silent as if no such tragedies as they had witnessed were ever enacted in the neighbour hood. " Terribly sultry, is it not?" said Morton; " I suppose it is these rocks retain the heat so." '• It seems in the air. I<ook wh*t a, haze there is, I don't think I ever felt it so hot at this time of day. What do you say to a walk to the crater after breakfast ?" Charley called out just then that the meal was ready, and during its progress the plan of action for the day was disoussed and agreed upon. On arriving at the orater they found it in a great state of activity, most of she pools were

in violent commotion, and constantly overflow* ing into the crater, causing a succession of re ports. Beturning to the camp they found that Co lumbus and two or three of the old men had arrived, all looking as mild and gentle as if they habitually lived upon milk and water. "Look at the old scoundrel," said Morton; " his mouth is watering to see us roasting on the coals." " I think he only wants to get rid of us and to induce us to leave Charley behind. Now let's try him," returned Brown. Preparations were then apparently made for departure, Charley intimating to Columbus that he intended to go with him. The native ap- S eared hugely delighted, and when the time for eparture arrived neither he nor the others could restrain their expressions of joy. With their swags on their shoulders Morton, Brown, and Billy strode off along the traok by whioh they had come, ostentatiously waving their hands to Charley. No sooner, however, were they hidden from the camp than Morton and Billy slipped aside amongst the rooks, whilst Brown plodded steadily on, making as muoh noise as possible. For nearly a quarter of a mile he kept his course and then stepped on one side and stood quietly behind a boulder. After five minutes' waiting the sound of footsteps was heard, and a native came along, evidently following the traok to make sure that the white men left the place, for he was unarmed and alone. He was olose to Brown before he saw him, and then with a frightened cry sprang away, but he was too late. Brown had hold of him, and exerting sU his uncommon strength threw him heavily down amongst the rooks, where he lay stunned and quiet. Brown waited patiently for some time, but nothing oould be heard; one native only had evidently been sent to watoh them away. Leav ing his swag in a seoure hiding-place, Brown then cautiously directed his course towards the limestone oliff, using every precaution to escape being seen. He arrived in sight of the mouth of the oave after a toilsome journey, and after cautiously reconnoitring gave a low whistle. There was no answer, but voices oould be heard approaching, and peering carefully out Brown saw Columbus, Charley, and three other old men emerge from the rooks and enter the oave. At the same moment a low whistle sounded near him, to whioh he instantly replied, and in a few minutes Morton and Billy came creeping silently along and joined him. "It's splendid," said Morton. "Columbus took Charley on one sids amongst the rooks, thsn he gave a signal and all the blaoks came along the traok and squatted down in the open space where we were camped. Columbus and three old men then went away with Charley, whom they carefully kept hidden, and I tbink those are all we have to deal with; so oome along for I oan't bear to let that boy stop alone with them long, although I think he's safe enough." " We'll just rush the four of them, and then ; take our time examining the place and the white man—is that it?" said Brown; "but . how we're to get away afterwards I oan't make out." "We must trust to ehanee and our rifles; I think we oan manage, but come quick." Noiselessly they stole along the narrow en . trance that led into the inner oave and eau | tiously peered in to be eure of their ground I before -taking their attack; the prisoners were there and the three old men, but Columbus and Charley were absent. •<Quick!" whispered Brown, and sprang forward on to one, while Morton felled the other with a nulla nulla he had picked np. The third made a bolt for the entrance, uttering a shrill yell as he did so, but Billy, whether through sudden fright or not, fired his oarhine at him and the blaok dropped dead. Startled by the yell and report, Columbus came rushing from a dark earner of the cave; his eyes were flashing, and all ths oannibal in his nature seemed aroused. " Hit this fellow on the head 1" roared Brown, •releasing his struggling prisoner and g-rappling with ths new foe. Morton dealt the native a stunning blow with the waddy, and then turned to assist his com rade. Strong as Brown was, it would have been hard work for him to subdue the mfuriated Columbus without assistance. Between them they got him down and bound him with what straps they could master. " Now for Charley I" cried Morton, turning in the direction of the dark corner. " Qot-e --thing must have happened to hu_(.'! "I'm all right, old man; oome with me, And Charley showed himself t\i the entrance of another and inner oave. tfin) stopping to tell Billy $o wai{ and watch the prisoners, and shoot them if they attempted to escape, the two friends followed their young companion, leaving a strange Scene behind them—Billy Button on guard at the entrance of the passage, the prostrate savages on the ground, and the oaptives for the oannibal feast, who had pre served a frightened apathy throughout, still huddled together. In s smaller oave than the one they had just quitted, lighted like it through fissures from above, the three whites found the old mm seated on the sandy floor, gating with his half sightless eyes st the unaoeustoned figures, for thqs much could he apparently discern. In a hasty whisper Charley confided to them that he had been speaking to him, and thought he could make him hear. " Try again," said Morton eagerly. Charley stooped down and shouted in the old man's ear, " Englishman! White man 1" A faint gleam of intelligence seemed to illuminate the poor creature's face, and he pointed eagerly forward with trembling hands. The friends followed the direction of his hands and saw a heap of objects piled in a dusky qorner of the cavern, and Brown strode forward to examine them, The attention of the other two was confined to tbe ancient white man, who seemed strangely moved.' He tried to rise and speak, but oould only struggle ineffectually. It was awful to watch his convulsed features and think what seoretß he carried hidden in his breast that time had forbidden him to reveal. At laßt with panting effort he half rose np, and with a quavering hoarse voice cried

distinctly," Yes t Englishman I White man /" and with a gasp fell baok dead. Awe-struck and startled, the two men looked at the body, when suddenly a series of yells from the outer cave and the report of a rifle aroused them all. Bushing out, the cause was instantly explained. Billy'B attention was occupied with the lady captives; Columbus had freed himself from the straps, and the first Billy knew about it was a blow from a waddy and a figure flying up the passage, at whom he had hastily and vainly fired, as was evident by the frantic shouts of Columbus outside. " Get your cartridges ready; we must fight for it 1" cried Brown. Almost as he spoke there was a rush of flying feet and furious yells at the entrance. " Fire like blazes!" added Morton, setting an example that was followed by tho others until the white smoke nearly filled the oave. Madly and fanatically the natives had dashed up the narrow passage, but with four breech-loaders playing on them the attempt was useless; they fell baok, and for a moment there was Bilence. " Top! top 1 Look out I" suddenly screamed Billy, and none too soon; clambering up the cliff the blacks were on the roof, and forcing their way down in half a dozen places, so that the whites had scant time to escape into the open air over the bodies of those they had shot down. Outside, to their astonishment, they found themselves unopposed, the cannibals having all made for the top to gain the cave. "What's up, Brown? You look like a ghost!" suddenly cried Morton; "are you hit?" " No, I think not, but I feel drunk, and you look sick; for God's sake, oome to the rooks." An awful feeling of nausea and giddiness suddenly and strangely attacked them all. Staggering to the rooks in front of the oave they threw themselves down in what shade they could find, quite regardless of their enemies. The air was like the blast of a furnace, the reports from the crater deafening, and the earth seemed rocking underneath them. From the month of the cavern cams' a melancholy wail, the death chant over the dead white man. By a great effort Morton rallied, for it sud denly flashed across him what was going to hsppen. " Come 1" he shouted, making to where an overhanging boulder afforded some' slight shelter. With difficulty the others followed. As they crouched down completely unmanned they felt the earth rock under them, then came a terrific report that seemed to rend the rooks asunder, and the air was filled with blinding steam and mud. Utter silence reigned for nearly ten minutes, then Brown gave a deep sigh and raised his head. " All aboard ?" he cried. " Anybody hurt ?" One by one they answered and stood up and looked around. " That's an experience one does not get every day," remarked Morton. "Those fellows in the oave were best off." "Were they?" cried Brown excitedly. " Great God I look there." He pointed to the cliff, and they all saw what had happened. The month of the cavern had disappeared, and the shape of the oliff was altered. The shook of earthquake they had just experienced had brought down the roof of the cavern, and all.their late enemies lev buried beneath. The death wail they had lately heard had been the death wail of the whole tribe ; the cannibals and their victims had shared the same fate. "And the secret of that'white man lies buried there too/' said Morton after an awe struck pause. "Not quite," replied Brown; "I brought something away with me that I found in that heap," and from the bosom of bis shirt he drew an old leather pocket-book. A hasty inspection showed that it contained many pages of faded writing, but the time did not suit for elose examination. They all felt that it would be a relief to get away from the place and proceeded to make for their late camp. " Poor old Christopher," said Morton ss they trudged along; " I feel sorry for him, he was a fine plucky fellow; do you remember how coolly he came to meet us ?" "Yes, and after all we had no business, according to their idea, to interfere in their little private ceremonies. They offered us no harm." "We're luoky to get off as we did. We wouldn't have had the ghost of a show amongst these boulders. What do you say to having a look at the orator? it seems quiet enough ow." A wondrous change they found had taken place; the crater had disappeared. It bad sub sided, and an unbroken sheet of water flowed over the site. The mud on the boulders and tbe turbid condition of the water were the only signs of the late convulsion of Nature. " And so," said Brown, " the burning moun tain, such as it was, has gone for good, and we are the only men who saw it, or ever will see it." " That's so," commenced Morton, when he was interrupted by a footstep from behind. They aU turned. Scarred, bleeding, and burnt, a most miserable object, there stood Columbus, the only Bur vivor of his tribe. He looked abjectly and im ploringly at tho whites—apparently it was to their power he attributed the disaster that had happened—and came forward with a crushed and broken air, gazing wofully at the Bpace where once the crater had stood. Brown beckoned to him and he came readily towards to them, and followed silently to the camping ground. Hero, after recovering their swags, they made a meal, the late cannibal chief eating and drinking gratefully what was given to him. With excited curiosity they set themselves to work to decipher the contents of the old pocket book, a task that occupied all their wits until dark. " And now what's to be done ?" said Morton when they had fairly well made out the matter it contained. "It appears to me that our work is not half finished, provided it's all true what is written there." Brown nodded. " I think there's little doubt

What do you say to a rest, and then making back to our horses, starting from here about 12?"' " Agreed on; but how about Columbus ?" "Well I think the poor beggar means to stick to us if we let him, and if we can teach him to ride and speak'a little, it strikes me he'll be thundering useful. Wonder how he es caped?" " Poor Charley's asleep already, and I shan't need much rocking. Good night; whoever wakes first call the rest;" and Morton put his head down and was almost instantly asleep. Night, dark and silent, closed in, and the tired survivors forgot even in their dreams the tragedy they had that day witnessed. It was with no small pleasure that they found themselves baok at the lagoon where they had left their horses. Everything was safe, and their steeds looked first rate after their spell; evidently they had been enjoying better times than their riders. With some trouble they got from Columbus the story of his esoape; he had rushed out after the whites, but when just outside had been struck down by a falling rook, and knew no more, excepting that all the others were crushed under the rooks. Everything being ready for a fresh start on their errand to follow up the discoveries re corded in the pocket-book, the explorers bade farewell to the friendly lagoon and started in high spirits, Brown remarking, " We found the burning mountain and lost it again; let us hope we'll have better luck with our next find."

[Here ends •*> The Burning Mountain." The sequel te it—" The Mystery of the Pooket-book and What it Tjed To"—will be commenced next week.]