Page:History of West Australia.djvu/160

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124
WEST AUSTRALIA.


determination to conquer, kept up heart. The circumstances surrounding the six days' journey will be comprehended from an extract from Eyre's diary of 11th March:—"At night the whole party were once more together, after having passed over 135 miles of desert country without a drop of water in its whole extent. In accomplishing this distance the sheep had been six and the horses five days without water, and both had been wholly without food for the greater part of that time. The little grass we found was so dry and withered that the dry and thirsty animals could not eat it after the second day."

The native well was left with forebodings from Baxter and the blacks. No improvement took place in the nature of the country, and an enduring silence reigned round the struggling band. For seven days they laboured on, and 160 miles were crossed. On 29th March the last drop of water they had carried with them was consumed, but next morning they obtained a little by digging in the sand drift. The country round the Great Australian Bight consisted of a fossil formation, and was generally destitute of timber or vegetation. In places, however, an almost impenetrable sickly scrub challenged their right of progress; no surface water, no creeks, no watercourses.

They remained by the hole in the sand drift until the 27th April. Then they went forwards to horror and tragedy. Two days' march was accomplished, and on the night of the 29th April they camped in one of the most desolate spots ever created or imagined. A hopeless stunted scrub grew round them through the interstices of adamantine rock. The night was cold, and a strong wind drearily moaned over the plain, constituting melancholy the king of the desert way. It was Eyre's turn to watch the horses during the night to prevent their straying. Some little distance from where he was standing lay Baxter, with the natives around.

Suddenly the silence was disturbed by the report of a gun, which Eyre construed to be a signal from Baxter to indicate the whereabouts of the camp. He therefore remained where he was, but presently the native Wylie rushed up to him crying—"Oh, massa, come here!" Beyond that, Wylie could say no more, for he was seized with uncontrollable terror.

Eyre rushed to the camp, and was appaled to find his old companion Baxter mortally wounded and in his death agony. The two black boys watched in the night bent on murder. When the opportunity came they seized a gun and ruthlessly shot the unsuspecting traveller dead and decamped with nearly all the provisions. The horrible position of Eyre is best described in his own words, which bring the scene almost into real life:—"At the dead of night, in the wildest and most inhospitable waste of Australia, with the fierce wind raging in unison with the scene of violence before me, I was left with a single native whose fidelity I could not rely upon, and who, for aught I knew, might be in league with the other two, who perhaps were even lurking round to take my life as they had done that of the overseer. Three days had passed away since we had left the last water, and it was doubtful when we would find more. Six hundred miles of country had to be traversed before I could hope to obtain the slightest aid, whilst I knew that not a single drop of water or an ounce of flour had been left by these murderers from a stock that had previously been so small."

On examining the camp Eyre found that the two natives had carried off both double-barrelled guns, all the baked bread and other stores, and a keg of water. All that remained was a rifle with a ball jammed in the barrel, four gallons of water, forty pounds of flour, and a little tea and sugar.

There was no possibility of Eyre burying the body of his dead companion. For miles around the country presented one unbroken surface of sheet rock, which no labour of his could penetrate. At any moment the natives might creep upon him and take his life, and the watch there through the, unutterable solitude of the pitiless night, might well put years of life upon his head. He afterwards wrote:—"Though years have now passed away since the enactment of this tragedy, the dreadful horrors of that time and scene are recalled before me with frightful vividness, and make me shudder even now when I think of them .... Death will alone blot out the impressions produced." Ernest Favenc, in his work on Australian exploration, says:—" The picture of the lonely man, separated from his fellow-creatures by countless miles of weary untrodden waste, in his plundered camp beside his murdered companion, is one that for peculiar horror can never be surpassed."

When daylight came Eyre gathered his horses together, placed his reduced provisions upon them, and left the body of Baxter in the midst of the wilderness. Wylie remained faithful, but fear had still the mastery of him. The shocked white man and his dark friend had not moved far away before they observed the two murderers following at a distance. This order was maintained for some little time until the natives were lost sight of. There they drop out of history, and without doubt they perished miserably in the desert.

For seven painful days the two weary travellers passed over a waterless stretch, mostly by a long line of cliffs which frowned over the Southern Ocean. At the end of the cliffs water was discovered in a native well near the sand dunes, and the poor thirst-tortured horses were given the first drink for seven days. Some of the horses had died, and it was astonishing that any survived the terrible privations. From the cliffs Eyre moved on in easy stages, getting water at the foot of the different sand hills he encountered. On 8th May a horse was killed, and a supply of meat was dried and carried away. From this out the country improved, water was more plentiful, and the wretched horses that were left began to regain some strength.

But all this while the flour for the men had slowly diminished, though they had eaten in carefully-measured quantities. At length, on 2nd June, when they were quite exhausted, they sighted a ship at anchor in a little southern haven known as Thistle Cove. It was a gladsome sight to the traveller so near to death, and he at once felt assured that he would accomplish his great journey in safety. The ship was a whaler—the Mississippi—under Gaptain Rossiter, who attended to all the wants of the emaciated men with hospitable care. For ten days Eyre remained on the ship, and then with new clothes and sufficient provisions, which the generosity of Captain Rossiter had given him, he set out for King George's Sound with refreshed horses and more hopeful spirits. Albany was reached on 8th July, and though at the cost of incredible suffering, the journey was productive of good in advancing the exploration of Australia one further step.

The vast proportion of the country passed over was quite useless for settlement, and gave little hope of a stock route ever being established. Those oppressive desert stretches held in them no pleasant prospect, and beyond a few narrow strips of grassy plots here and there, the land resources of the colonies interested