The Moving Finger (Mary Gaunt)/Lost
Helm, old man, we 've lost the track!
"Don't be a howling idiot, man. Lost! how could we be lost? Why, there's the track right ahead, and pretty fresh too."
But Anderson flung himself off his horse on to the dry crisp grass, and covered his face with his hands.
"I'll tell you," reiterated his mate, leaning forward in his saddle and shading his eyes, "I see hoof-marks quite plain. Why, they might have been made yesterday!"
"They were made yesterday," groaned the other, hopelessly. "Don't you see, my dear fellow, we made them ourselves."
Helm raised his head and swore a passionate oath, then sprang from his horse, stooped over the faint track, ran wildly along it for a few yards, turned back, and again cried out that the other was playing some ghastly joke off on him.
"It's too bad, Anderson, too bad. Get up, man, and don't be a fool. Come on, there 's very likely water on the other side of that ridge. You'll feel better after you've had a good drink."
"That's the ridge we passed last night, I tell you. Water—oh, yes, there's water there, but it's as salt as the sea."
"The salt-pan! No, by heaven, no, I won't believe that. That's miles behind us!"
"Nevertheless," said the other man, drearily, "it's the same old salt-pan. You 'll see it the moment we cross the ridge."
"Come on, then, come on. Don't sit groaning there: let's know the worst. I can't believe it, I won't believe it till I see for myself."
"The horses ought to have a spell if we're ever to get out of this," muttered Anderson; but he followed his companion's lead, mounted his tired horse, and rode slowly on after him towards the still distant ridge.
Out back beyond the Mulligan is No Man's Land. They had gone out to seek new country, crossed the Queensland border into South Australia, and now, old bushman as he was, Anderson had only the vaguest idea of their whereabouts. Ever since they started it had been the same trouble; the season had been exceptionally dry, and everywhere the waters were dried up. First one horse had died, then another, until at last they were reduced to only three; still they had pushed on, for the blacks told a tale of a magnificent waterhole where the water was permanent, and Anderson had a certain amount of faith in the unerring wisdom of the children of the soil where water was concerned. So he pushed on, hoping against hope, till the younger man, more fearful, perhaps more prudent, persuaded him to turn back. But it was too late. The weakest horse, the one they had used as a packhorse, gave in, and had to be left behind the first day of their return journey; and now, on the fourth, they had just made the terrible discovery they were going round on their own tracks. They had been so thankful—so hopeful—when they struck that track in the morning.
Anderson knew there was another party out better appointed than they were; these might be their tracks, and possibly they had water with them. They might even have come across water—and water—water—if only they had a little water. And so they had pushed on, eagerly, hopefully, till the terrible truth began to dawn on the older and more experienced bushman. The weather for the last two days had been dull and cloudy, they had not caught a glimpse of the sun, and hourly they had expected a thunderstorm, which would not only clear the air, but would supply them with the water they needed; but to-day the clouds had all cleared away, and the only effect of their presence had been that they had lost their bearings completely. Where and when they had lost them Anderson could not say even now, and he was loth at first to share his misgivings with his mate; but the sight of the ridge decided him. If they found, as he fully expected to, the salt-pan they had passed the night before on the other side, then most surely were they lost men—lost in a cruel thirsty land where no water was.
He pondered it over in his mind as he rode slowly after his companion. "There was no hope. There could possibly be no hope." Over and over again he said it to himself as a man who hardly realizes his own words—and then they topped the low ridge, and right at his feet lay the salt-pan glittering in the sun.
"Cruel—cruel—cruel!" Helm had flung himself face downwards on the hard ground now, and given way to a paroxysm of despair all the more bitter for his former hopefulness. Anderson looked down on him pityingly for a moment, as one who had no part in his trouble, then he looked away again. Save for the sunshine, it was exactly the same scene, the very same they had looked upon last night—there lay the glittering salt-pan, white as driven snow, above it the hard blue cloudless sky, and all around the dreary plain, broken only by the ridge on which they stood. And yet in different circumstances he might have admired the landscape, for it had a weird beauty all its own; miles and miles he could see in the clear bright atmosphere, far away to the other side of the wide lake, where a dark clump of trees or scrub was apparently raised in the sky high above the horizon. He knew it was only the effect of the mirage, another token, had he needed a token, that there was no moisture, no water, not the faintest chance of a drop of rain. And yet there had been some rain not so very long ago, for the mesembryanthemum growing in dark green patches close to the edge of the salt was all in flower, pink, and red, and brightest yellow, such gorgeous colouring; and by that strange association of ideas, for which who shall account, his thoughts flew back to the last Cup Day, and he saw again the Flemington racecourse, and heard in fancy the shouts of the people as the favourite passed the winning-post, On the ground in front of him were long lines of crows, perched in the stunted boxwood trees above his head, filling the air with their monotonous cawing. He laughed at the mockery of the thing. The other man raised his head.
"Old man, what is it? Is it possible that—"
What wild imaginings for the moment had passed through his brain he could not himself have told; but whatever his hopes might have been, they were gone the moment he looked in his mate's face.
"Man," he said, sharply, "are you mad?"
Anderson was sobered in a second.
"No," he said, bitterly, "but as far as I can see, it must come to that before we 've done."
"No, no, we won't give up hope yet. Is there no hope?"
Anderson sat down beside him, and pointed silently to the horses. If ever poor beasts were done, were at their last gasp, they were, as they stood there, their noses touching the ground. The bushman's slender equipment had been reduced to its scantiest proportions, and yet it seemed cruelty to force them to carry even those slender packs; even the canvas water-bags, dry as tinder now, hanging at their necks, were a heavy burden. Wiser than their masters they had crawled beneath the shade, scanty as it was, of the boxwood trees, and stood there patiently waiting—For what? For death and the pitiless crows patiently waiting overhead.
"Exactly," Helm answered his companion's unspoken thought, "but we can't sit and wait like that. Man, we must try to get out of this at any rate. We cant sit here and wait for the crows."
Anderson sighed heavily.
"What can we do?" he asked. "We must spell a bit. The horses are done. As it is I 'm afraid yours will have to be left and well have to go on foot. There must be water about somewhere, for look at the crows; but we can't find it, and we couldn't have searched more carefully."
"Why not shoot the old horse if he's no good? His blood might—"
"Nonsense, man. Aren't you bushman enough yet to know that drinking blood 's only the beginning of the end? Once we do that—"
"Well, after?" asked Helm.
But the other did not answer, for he, too, in his heart, was asking, "After?" And their lips were dry and parched, and their tongues swollen, and before them lay the salt-pan, with right in the centre a little gleam of dark blue water which mocked their misery. There was nothing for it but to lie down beneath the scanty shade and rest. They were too weary to push on, all their energy had departed, and Helm, lying on his back looking up at the patches of blue sky that peeped through the branches, said with a sigh,
"If we 're done for, I wish to heaven the end would come now. I can't stand the thought of—of—What's it like, old man? Is it very bad, do you think?"
"As bad as bad can be."
"And is there no hope?"
What could he say, this man who had lived in the bush all his life? What hope could he give, when practically his experience told him there was no hope—that if they would save themselves from needless pain they would turn their pistols against themselves and die there and at once. But the love of life is strong in us all, and the hope of life is as strong. How could they die, these strong men with life in every vein? No, no, surely it was impossible. An iguana scuttled across in front of them and Helm started up eagerly.
"There," he said, "there—and I never thought. Look at that beast. There must be water somewhere or how could he live."
"Yes, there's the bitterness of it. I know there's water about if only we could find it; but as we didn't find any when we had everything in our favour there's not much good in our wasting time looking now. After all I believe those beasts must live without, though they say they don't. No, old chap, our only hope lies in pushing on to the nearest water we know of."
"Then don't let us lie here wasting precious minutes. Every minute is of consequence; let's make a start. We must push on."
Push on! They had been pushing on ever since they left Yerlo station ten days ago, and this is what it had brought them to.
"It's no good wearing ourselves out in the heat of the day," said Anderson, "wait till evening and we'll do twice as much."
"South-east, I think. If we can only hold out we ought to fetch Gerring Gerring Water. As far as I know this must be Tamba salt lake, and if so—"
"Karinda's just to the north there."
"A hundred and twenty miles at the very least and not a drop of water the whole way. No, that's out of the question, old man; our only hope lies in reaching Gerring Gerring."
"And you don't see much probability of our doing that?"
"Well, we can try."
He felt a great pity, this older man, for the lad—he called him a lad for all his four-and-twenty years—doomed to die, nay, dying at this very moment, in the prime of his manhood. They could but try, he said over and over again, they could but try.
And then as they rested they fell to talking of other things—talked of their past lives and of their homes as neither, perhaps, had ever talked before.
"My old mother 'll miss me," said Charlie Helm with a sigh, "though Lord knows when she'll ever hear the truth of the matter."
"Umph, I don't know, but I guess if we do peg out, it'll be some considerable time before they can read the store account over us. Have you got any paper about you?"
"Not a scrap. We can leave a message on the salt though."
"It'll be blown away before to-morrow. Who do you want to write to? Your mother? That girl?"
Helm turned his face away. The man had no right to pry into his private concerns.
"Write to your mother, lad, write to your mother by all means. Mothers are made of different clay to other women; but don't you bother about the other. Women are all alike, take my word for it. It's out of sight out of mind with all of them. But write to your mother."
"Some one may pass this way," pondered the younger man, hardly heeding his words. "It's just worth trying," and he lay silent while Anderson talked on or rather thought aloud.
"It's of the boy I'm thinking," he said. "The poor helpless little one. He never throve since his mother died. She didn't go much on me, but the boy was everything to her though he was a cripple. Well—well—if I were only certain he was dead now it wouldn't be half so hard. He'd be better dead, I know, but I couldn't think it before; he was all I had, and the last time I saw him he put up his little hand—such a mite of a hand—and clutched his daddy's beard. He was all I had, how could I wish him dead? But now—now—my God!—if I were certain he was dead and it hadn't hurt much."
Helm sprang to his feet, and swore an oath.
"We're not going to die," he cried, "not as easily as all that. Come on, we have wasted enough precious time.
"Not till it's a little cooler. It's no good, I tell you, wearing ourselves out in the heat."
And Helm, seeing the advice was good, lay down again. Lay down and tried not to listen to the cawing of the crows, the only sound that broke the stillness—tried not to think of cool waters; not to think of a household down south; not to think of the girl who, notwithstanding his mate's cynical warning, filled all his thoughts. He dozed a little and dreamed, and wakened with a start and a strong feeling upon him that it had been something more than a dream, that some one had really called him, was calling him still. Was it his mother's voice, or that girl's, or was it Anderson's? Anderson was sleeping heavily, and strong man as he was, sobbing in his sleep. Helm stretched out a hand to awaken him and then paused. Why should he? What had he better to offer than these broken dreams?
He broke a branch from a tree, thereby scattering the crows and stepped down to the edge of the glittering white salt. It crunched beneath his feet like sand, and he went on till the hard crust began to give way beneath him and the thick mud oozed up. Then when he thought it was moist enough to resist the fierce hot wind, which was blowing from the north like a breath from an oven, he prepared to write his last message. And then came the difficulty.
What was he to say? What could he say? Not that he had so little, but so much. And it might never be read after all, or at best it would only be read by some station hand who, once they were dead, would give but a passing thought to their message, only a passing thought to their sufferings. They had found a skeleton, he remembered, the first year he had been on Yerlo, a skeleton that must have been lying there years, a poor wind-tossed, sunbaked thing from which all semblance of humanity had long since departed, and he, in his carelessness, had thought so little of it, had never realized the awful suffering that must have been before the strong man came to that.
And now—and now—he took his stick and wrote in large printed letters on the crisp salt—
"James Anderson and Charles Helm were lost on the 20th October. They have gone S.E. from the salt-pan. Will you kindly send word to Mrs. Helm, The Esplanade, St. Kilda, and to Miss Drysdale, Gipps Street, East Melbourne."
Then he wrote his name, "Charles Helm."
It seemed so feeble, so inadequate, not a hundreth part of what he felt did it express, and yet what could he say? Not even in his extremity could he write tender messages to his loved ones there. They would know, surely they would know, they would understand, that his thoughts had been full of them when he wrote that cold message. What more could he say? But would they ever know the love and longing that had filled his heart? Would his mother ever know that her boy had thought of her at the last? Would Mabel Drysdale understand how he had cared for her?—all he had meant to convey by the mere mention of her name? He stepped slowly back and wakened his companion.
"Mate," he said, "don't you think we'd better be travelling? It's a little cooler now, and it 's getting late."
Anderson struggled to his feet wearily and then went down to the salt-pan.
"So you 've been leaving a last message," he said; "I 'm afraid it's not much good. Who 's likely to pass this way?"
"It's only a chance, of course," said Helm, "but—well—I 'd like them, if possible, to know I 'd thought of them."
"And a woman, too," laughed Anderson cynically, "if we get out of this you 'll learn, I expect, just about how little value she sets on your care for her."
"You 've been unlucky," said the younger man gently; "there are women who—but there, I don't suppose we'll come through. Anyhow, it's time we started.
"Well—well, keep your faith and I'll keep mine. Perhaps here and there, there may be a woman worth caring about, but they 're few and far between."
"Don't you want to say anything?" asked Helm.
"Who? I? No. Who is there to care a straw whether I leave my carcase to the crows or not? There's only the boy, and he's too young to understand. But, I say, you might have mentioned the name of the station," and taking the stick from Helm's hand, he walked out on the salt and wrote;
"Please let them know at Yerlo," and signed his name, "James Anderson."
"There's my last will and testament," he said. "Come on now."
Helm went up to the horses.
"It's no go," he said. "My poor old beggar's done."
"I expected it, old chap. We'll have to foot it; mine's only a shade better than yours. Clearly we'll have to leave yours behind. Mine can carry the pack a little farther, but I really don't think he can carry me."
It was still very hot, but the shadows of the boxwood trees had grown longer, and there was just a promise of the coming night in the air. They must walk, for they had only the one horse now, and it did not seem likely he could hold out long. The other had lain down to die, and whether this one could crawl on under the slender pack was a question Anderson asked himself more than once. That he could carry either of them was out of the question. They put a blanket or two on his back, their pistols, and the empty waterbags, and then it seemed cruelty to force the poor beast to move, but necessity knows no law, and they started slowly on their hopeless journey round the salt-pan, Anderson leading the way, Helm following with the horse. So slowly they went, and their only hope lay in speed. Helm looked back a little sadly at the dying horse, which had made an effort to rise, as if in mute protest against being left.
"Poor old beggar," he said, "wouldn't it be kinder to put him out of his misery?"
"Oh, give him a chance for his life," said Anderson. "I 've known horses to recover in the most wonderful way. After he 's had a spell he may find water for himself; anyhow, we 'll give him the chance."
It was a blessed relief when the sun sank beneath the horizon; the night was still and hot, but the wind dropped at sundown, and the men found it easier to walk in the dark. The crows had followed them as long as it was day, but they, too, left as soon as the darkness fell. They were unaccustomed to walking, and it would have been hard work under the most favourable circumstances; as it was, it was cruel. They did not talk much, for what had they to say? An hour or two, and the moon rose, a full moon, red and fiery, and as she rose slowly to the zenith, silvering as she rose, the plain grew light as day. Every little stick and stone, every little grass blade, was clearly outlined, the low ridge which they were leaving behind, the ridge where they had found their worst fears realized, loomed large behind them, while the salt-pan to their left stretched away one great lake of glittering white, which it seemed to Helm they could never round.
"How long, Anderson," he asked, "before we can hope to reach the other side?"
"Not before morning, man. I don't see we can do it before morning."
Then they plodded on a little further, neither liking to be the first to give in, though their mouths were parched, and burning thirst was consuming them. But still they walked steadily on till more than half the night was gone; at last Helm flung himself down on the ground.
"I must rest," he said, "if I die for it;" and Anderson sat down quietly beside him.
Then sleep, merciful sleep, came to them in their weariness, and they slept till the first faint streaks of dawn began to appear in the eastern sky. It was a dreary, hopeless waking, the salt lake was behind them now, and all around was the plain, bare hard earth in some places, patches of grass in others, not a living thing visible, even the crows had gone, and, though the foul birds had filled Helm with a shrinking horror, their absence was still more terrible, for did it not show that they were plunging farther and farther into the desert, farther and farther from the water without which they could not live out another day. The sun rose higher and higher, till the full force of his rays seemed more than they could bear, and yet the nearest shade was miles away, a line of trees or scrub dim on the horizon.
Neither mentioned the significance of the absence of the crows, though both were thinking of it, but at last Helm said,
"The trees, let's go for the trees. This is past bearing."
But Anderson shook his head.
"They 're clean out of the way, man," he said sadly. "Try to hold out a little longer. The old horse is keeping up wonderfully. I never thought he 'd hold out so long."
"He's very nearly at his last gasp," said Helm, and they relapsed into silence again.
On, and on, and on, the thirst was so bad now they could hardly speak to one another, still they pushed on under the burning rays of the almost vertical sun, every step it seemed must be their last. Was it really only last night they discovered they were lost, only last night? Another mile, and another, and the heat grew unbearable, and Helm, without a word, turned to the left, and made for the trees. Anderson paused a moment, and then followed him, though to him it was giving up the struggle. If they turned out of the path which led to the only water they knew of, turned into this pathless wilderness, what possible chance was there for them, and yet how could they stand this terrible heat any longer?
"I tell you I shall go mad," moaned Helm. "I didn't think I was a coward, but I can't stand this. Old chap, don't let me go mad; shoot me if you see I 'm going mad."
"Mad," said the other bravely, "nonsense, man, you're all right. You'll feel better presently when you've had a spell."
The lines of trees resolved itself on closer inspection into close-growing gidya scrub, and long before they reached it the crows had again made their appearance. A little flock kept them company, waiting on in front, rushing up behind as if perchance they might be late, wheeling round on either side.
"There must be water there," said Helm eagerly, "look at the crows again."
"Don't build on it, old chap," said the other. "The scrub is too thick for us to find it."
But Helm was not to be dissuaded, and he wasted his energies in a frantic search for water. His mate looked more soberly, because more hopelessly, but the result was the same, and finally they lay down in the shade and slept again, slept soundly too, in spite of the crows, which were more confident, more impudent, than ever. Night fell, and with the darkness grew in Helm an intense desire to be on the way again.
"We 're wasting time," he kept saying hoarsely, for his tongue was so swollen he could hardly speak at all, "wasting time. Don't you see they 'll be expecting us in to supper at Gerring Gerring, and I shouldn't like the crows to get there first. They might frighten her, you know, she's only a girl and she hasn't seen so much of them as you and me. Those knowing old crows! they 're not here now. Don't you see that's why they want to get there first?"
"Be quiet, man. You 're dreaming."
"Dreaming, was I? Anderson, Anderson, mate, I 'm not going mad. For God's sake, don't let me go mad."
"No, no, old man, it's all right. We 're on the right track now. Here, I 'll take the horse and you give me your arm. There, now then, if we 've luck we may hit Gerring Gerring before morning."
They walked on in silence, but Helm kept stumbling, and but for his companion's supporting arm would have fallen more than once. The moon rose up, and as it grew light as day again he stopped short and looked solemnly in his companion's face. It was worn and haggard and weary, but not so wild, he felt instinctively, as his own.
"Anderson," he said, "I know I 'm done for. My head's all wrong. It 's cooler now, but what'll it be to-morrow? If—if—if I do anything mad before I die, don't tell her, I 'd like her to think well of me. Just say I died, don't say how it hurt."
"All right, mate," said the other, for he had no comfort to give.
And then they walked on again in silence till the moon declined before the coming day, the cruel day, which brought the heat and the following crows again. Dawn brought them to a patch of "dead finish," as the settlers call a dense and thorny scrub with pretty green leaves, through which it is well nigh impossible to force a way even under the most favourable circumstances; and which presented an utterly impassable barrier to men in their condition. They turned aside once more, and Anderson thought to himself that they must indeed have given up hope, to be stopped by an impassable barrier and yet to make no moan. It was surely the very depths of hopelessness when all ways were alike to them. He looked back on their tracks and dismay filled his heart; they were not firm and straight, but wavering and wandering like those of men in the last extremity. He had followed tracks like these before now, and they always led to the same thing. He wondered dully would any one ever follow those tracks. A little further on Helm let go his arm and ran on ahead.
"We'll never do any good at this rate," he gasped, "never—never;" and he pulled at the collar of his shirt till he tore it away. "We must have something to drink. We 'll die else, and I mean to have a fight for life. There's the old horse, he can't stagger a step further; what's the good of keeping him? Let's shoot him—and—and—There's enough blood in him to—to—"
"No, no, man, no. I tell you that's the beginning of the end—more than the beginning—the end in fact."
"I don't care. I can't stand this;" and before Anderson could stop him, Helm had drawn his pistol and shot the horse in the head.
The poor beast was at his last gasp, and for the last hour Anderson had been meditating the advisibility of leaving him behind, so it was no material loss; his only care now was to prevent his mate from drinking the blood, which, according to the faith of the bushmen, is worse than drinking salt water.
"Poor old beggar," he said, taking his pistols and cartridges from the saddle, where they had been wrapped among the blankets, "I suppose it was about the kindest thing we could do for him. Come on, mate, we must leave him to the crows now," and he caught Helm's arm and would have led him on.
But the other resisted and breaking free ran back, and before he could stop him, had drawn his knife across the horse's throat and taken a long draught of blood.
Does it sound ghastly? But such things are, and his lips were dry and parched, and his throat so swollen that he could only speak in hoarse whispers, and so great was the temptation that Anderson, looking away at the bare pitiless plain, with the mocking mirage in the distance, felt that he too might as well drink and die; only the thought of the cripple boy who would be alone in the world but for him, made him make one more desperate effort for self-control.
He took the younger man's arm and dragged him on, skirting slowly round the "dead finish" till at length, late in the afternoon, it gave place to boree. His own senses were clear enough, but Helm was muttering wildly, and he listened with unheeding ears to his babble of home and mother and sweetheart. They could not go far, and soon they forced their way in among the scrub, and though the burning thirst was worse than ever, the shade was grateful. The crows stopped too, and settled on the low trees, turning their evil blue-black heads on one side to get a better view of their prey.
"I can't keep my head," moaned Helm, "I can't. I have been mad all day. I know I have. It has stretched out into ages this long day and it's not over yet. When were we lost? Yesterday? The day before? It feels like years."
"Never mind," said Anderson, not unkindly, "it can't be much longer now. Try to sleep, old man."
"Sleep! with a thousand devils tearing at me!"
But they did sleep after all, a wearied, troubled sleep, a broken sleep full of frightful dreams, or still more cruel ones of cooling streams and rippling waters. Night came, and Anderson awoke from what seemed to him a doze of a moment to find his companion gone from his side. For a second the thought came to him that it was not worth while to look for him. He was mad—mad, and where was the use of troubling about him any further; and then his better feelings, and perhaps that longing for human companionship which we all must feel, made him rise up and look for him. Up and down, he was staggering up and down, a hundred feet one way and then back again on his own tracks.
"We must get on, old chap," he muttered when he saw Anderson, "we must get on. You rest if you like though; there isn't anybody waiting for you; but Mabel, she 's waiting for me and I must try and get back. She would be disappointed else. Grieve! of course she'll grieve if I'm lost. All the world isn't a cynic like you."
Anderson took his arm again.
"We'll go together," he said. "If you do care a straw about seeing her again, come on quietly with me."
He yielded for the moment, but it required one continuous effort on Anderson's part to keep him up to it. Plainly his reason was gone, and the other man, growing weaker and weaker, found by the time the sun was high in the heavens that the effort was more than he could make. It was the end, or so close that he could only hope and pray the end would come quickly. The young fellow had struggled on so bravely, so hopefully, and now it had come to this. They had left the scrub behind them and Anderson made his way to a tree, the only specimen of its kind in all the wide plain, and lay down beneath its branches—to rest? No, he felt in his heart it was to die. Helm he could not persuade to lie down. He kept staggering on hopelessly round and round the tree, struggling to keep in the shade, fancying, as many a lost man has done before him, that he was "pushing on."
It was the same old story. Anderson had heard it told hundreds of times over the camp fire, one man will lie down to die quietly, and the other will go raving mad. So Helm had gone mad, poor chap; and then he remembered his passionate prayer to him, not to let him go mad, to shoot him if he saw he was going mad, and he lay and looked up at the hard blue sky through the leaves, and at the watching crows, and knew that he was only waiting for death, knew that he was too utterly weary to aid in any way his mate. He listened to him muttering to himself for a little, watched him as he went monotonously round and round. It was not so hard after all—not near so hard for him as for Helm. If only the boy were dead, he thought wearily, if only the boy were dead he would be glad that this should end it, his life was never worth much, he had failed all through, he would be glad to be at rest—if only the boy were there before him; but the boy—the poor little helpless thing, he must make another effort for the boy's sake, and he struggled to his feet again. But the burning landscape was a blood-red blur before his eyes, and then, quite suddenly it seemed to him, sight and hearing left him. He was dying—was this death? How merciful death was—if only the boy—
Very wearily he opened his eyes. Could it be that some one was pouring water down his throat? Some one was bathing his face.
"He's coming to," said a voice in his ear. "By Jove, it was a narrow shave. The other poor chap's done for, isn't he, Ned?"
"Quite dead. He went mad evidently, clean off his head. Why, the poor chap had begun on his own grave."
When Anderson came to himself he found he had been picked up by the other exploring party.
"We picked up your tracks away by the 'dead finish' there," said the leader, "and I thought it must be pretty near up with you. You 've had the devil's own luck, mate. Why, you were within five miles of Gerring Gerring Water, and over by the 'dead finish' you passed within three miles of a very decent waterhole, quite good enough to have kept life within you. You shot the horse?"
"My mate did. He was mad, poor fellow."
"Poor beggar, he seems to have had a bad time, but it's all over now."
It was indeed all over now. They had wrapped him in a blanket and were digging a shallow grave. He had begun it himself, they said, and had been digging with his long knife, though whether it was for water, or whether it was really intended for a grave, no one could now say. His sufferings were ended.
They left him there in the desert, the young fellow who had fought so hard for his life and set so much store by it, and as soon as Anderson was a little recovered, set out for Yerlo again.
It was over a week before he reached the station, so far had he wandered out of the track, and as he rode up to the house a stable boy lounged up to him.
"What a while you 've been away, Boss," he said. "We 'd most given you up for lost. The mail's in and there's a pile of letters for Mr. Helm. None for you though."
"Is everything all right?" asked Anderson, feeling like a man who had come back from the grave.
"N-o-o, there's mighty bad news. I don't like to tell though."
"Out with it, man, don't keep me waiting."
The lad looked away and turned his pipe from side of his mouth to the other.
"It 's your youngster," he said. "He had convulsions last Sunday. Mrs. Brook—she said as nothing couldn't have saved him. 'It was a blessed release,' she said."
Anderson flung the reins to the lad and walked quietly into the house. It was a mistake, he clearly saw, coming back from the grave. He wished he had died within five miles of Gerring Gerring Water.