Thursday, the twelfth day of October, 1922

AT DAYBREAK next morning the travellers felt a new sting in the spear shafts of the sun as soon as it peered over the horizon. At Iltjanmalitnjaka, where the fish ancestors from Ankurowunga had burst through a weir erected by their pursuer, there were no gorge walls to shield the camp; and the few mulgas that grew on the stony soil in the vicinity did not give the travellers much protection. The day promised to be a hot one, and a strong northerly wind which set in shortly after their departure soon raised the temperature to a searing, scorching level.

The horses that had drawn the two vehicles on the first day were being used again on the third. Harnessing them was no longer a strenuous task – after two days of travelling they had lost their overfed pride and turned into docile working horses, content to plod along in obedient tiredness. Their drivers no longer had to grip the reins in a tight clutch to restrain them: they could use the ends of the reins for flicking the broad haunches of the horses closest to them.

At about ten thirty in the morning the vehicles came again upon the Finke. The river bed had to be crossed here; for the Finke, having completed its wide southern loop below Urualbukara, was now describing a broad sweeping curve in a north-easterly direction. Freed of the restricting gorge walls which had hemmed it in during its thirty-five mile winding course through the Krichauff Ranges, the Finke bed had broadened out by several hundred yards. The central main channel of heavy white sand had still been kept free of all trees by the bigger floods that came from the upper reaches from time to time. This sandy channel was fringed by beautiful river gums, whose smooth white bark was mottled with reddish-brown patches. On both sides of this central train channel came wide borders of loamy flats which were inundated only by the highest floods, when the river, in local idiom, was “running a banker”. The flood flats were covered by flourishing massive box gums, whose rough and sturdy, brown-barked trunks branched out into crooked but smooth-skinned white limbs. Theo, who had never seen the small box gum creek which ran from the eastern mulga plain country into the Ellery some miles above Pmokoputa, enjoyed his first glance of these rough-barked trees with their luxuriant green foliage. He marvelled at the way in which nature had used the soil differences to put a sharp line of demarcation between the habitats of these two kinds of eucalypts: the river gums demanded clean white sand for their roots, and the box gums would grow only in clay soil.

Clouds of choking brown dust rose high into the hot air as the two vehicles wound their way through the box gum flats. A large stockyard stood near the river crossing; and a criss-cross network of donkey wagon trails showed that it had recently been repaired by the Henbury station men. As soon as the vehicles had slid down the northern bank into the heavy white sand of the central river channel, the air began to ring with the encouraging shouts of the drivers and the sharp, loud cracks of their whips. The pull across the channel was a heavy one ; and long before the southern bank had been reached, the lashes of the whips started falling sharply on the backs of the sweating, panting horses, in order to forestall any attempts at jibbing. After some minutes of noise, fury; and apprehension, both vehicles had safely negotiated the sand and mounted to the top of the southern river bank. The drivers pulled up their foamy-mouthed teams under some shady box gums for the sake of the passengers, and then unharnessed the horses from both the buggy and the van. The bits were taken out from the horses’ mouths, and the frothing, sweat-dripping animals were driven down to the nearby waterhole in the river bed. Its name was Pantjindama (“The feather-crests are lying about”). It had received its name from the mythical feather-crests cast down here by a large party of dingo ancestors who had travelled to the Finke from their southern home. At Pantjindama they had been tired out by their journey, and they had gone down to their last rest here. The horses stepped into the pool with their forefeet and took long draughts in rapid gulps from the waterhole; for they were having their first drink since leaving Irbmangkara. After walking away from the edge of the pool, most of them took sandbaths by rolling over several times in the clean white river sand to dry their sweating backs. They then got up again and shook the sand off vigorously. After that the drivers drove them back to the vehicles. Here fires had already been lit for boiling the tea billies; and the travellers enjoyed a quick meal at their dinner camp. For in Central Australia it was the hurried midday meal that was called “dinner”, while the much bigger evening meal was always referred to as “supper”. After the dinner break the horses were put back into their harness, and the vehicles continued on their way, trailing clouds of fine brown dust behind them as they wound and twisted their way forward through the dense forest of box gums.

For the rest of the day this pattern of progress prevailed. The wagon road kept roughly to the southern side of the river valley, but sometimes cut through the edges of some of the bends. It was very heavy going for the horses; for as the party drew nearer to Henbury they found that the donkey wagon wheels had chopped the clay soil of the box gum flats into loose powder. Thick brown clouds of this talc-like bull-dust enveloped the vehicles for most of the remainder of the day. The sweating horses, snorting loudly to clear their wet and dust-choked nostrils, tired more and more as the burning sun slowly sank lower in the yellow-grey western sky. The hot air reeked with the heavy smell of the bull-dust, and the perspiring faces of the travellers were quickly turned brown by it.

About half an hour before sundown the campsite for the night was reached – a gravel bank in the Finke bed, sheltered by ti-tree bushes and gums, a few hundred yards upstream from Tunga, the Henbury waterhole. A huge reddish-brown sandhill on the northern bank of the Finke hid the Henbury station buildings from view, but wisps of smoke rising up into the air clearly showed its exact location. Strehlow had decided to camp in the Finke bed in order to avoid the heavy pull up the high northern river bank to the station; for his drivers had advised him that the vehicles would in that case have to cross back again to the southern bank next morning in order to regain the road to the next station, Idracowra.

All of the horses looked very tired as they made their way to the waterhole after they had been hobbled out. Some of those that had been unharnessed stretched themselves out in complete exhaustion near the edge of the pool. The travellers, too, looked sunburnt and worn-out after the heat and the dust of the long and tiring afternoon. The hot north wind had dropped a little before sundown; but there was no sign that a cool wind might set in from the south-east.

The first stage of the long journey south from Hermannsburg had been successfully accomplished. But it had taken the vehicles three days to reach Henbury, though this station was situated only sixty miles from Hermannsburg. The arrival of the two vehicles had been noticed by many keen eyes in the Henbury aboriginal camp, and several men slipped down to the waterhole to meet the Hermannsburg drivers. Shouts and hand signals quickly conveyed the news to the folk in the camp that “ingkata Strehlow” had arrived.

Since all the Henbury folk had often been on visits to Hermannsburg, it was not long before a large group of men, women, and children came down to the travellers’ camp, both to greet Strehlow and to exchange gossip with the Hermannsburg drivers. During the evening meal the two white men who had been home at the station on that day also came down to the camp. They were Robert Buck – universally known as “Bob Buck” – and Alf Butler. Both of them had been frequent visitors to Hermannsburg. Alf Butler had a halfcaste daughter there, whose name was Elsie Butler. Elsie’s mother, Molly Ereakura, had left Alf soon after Elsie’s birth and married a halfcaste man at Hermannsburg by the name of Theodore Abbott – a son of that “Billy” Abbott who had, after helping with the burning of the bodies of the two Tempe Downs victims, accompanied Willshire back to Boggy Waterhole.

However, even after Molly’s marriage to Theodore, Alf Butler had always maintained an affectionate interest in his daughter Elsie. He had never omitted to bring her money and presents on his visits to Hermannsburg and had never failed to acknowledge her proudly as his daughter. Bob Buck had had a similar reason for his Hermannsburg visits. His halfcaste daughter Ettie had spent a couple of years at Hermannsburg in the home of Mr and Mrs Emil Munchenberg in order to receive private tuition from the latter. Both halfcaste girls had been childhood friends of Theo. During the years when Munchenberg was the Hermannsburg head stockman, Bob Buck had come up several times on lengthy visits, particularly during the Christmas holidays. He had always brought with him Ettie’s mother, Molly Tjalameinta, and a large party of Henbury folk. The latter had made their way up to the station, some on foot and some riding on the Henbury donkeys. These Henbury visits had always lasted about three weeks and all the Hermannsburg school children had enjoyed rides on the visitors’ donkeys. On one of these occasions Buck had presented a young donkey called “Possum” to Theo; and Possum had soon become Theo’s spoiled pet.

It had been a great wrench for Theo to part from him at the end of September, when Bob Buck and Ettie had arrived on horseback from Henbury to say goodbye to the Strehlow family, having heard about their original plan to travel south to Oodnadatta via Alice Springs. Theo had been persuaded to send Possum back to Henbury with Buck and Ettie since there were no other donkeys at Hermannsburg; for his father had always resolutely refused to permit the purchase of the most useful Central Australian animals – donkeys and camels – for station work at Hermannsburg, claiming that their feeding habits were too destructive for the local vegetation. After Possum’s departure, only the two motherless brumby foals remained, whom Theo had acquired several months earlier and reared with cows’ milk: these, to his great relief, he had been allowed to keep till the day of his own departure from Hermannsburg.

Bob Buck, who had been expecting the Strehlow family since his last visit to Hermannsburg, brought Ettie and Tjalameinta with him to the travellers’ camp. He had always done so whenever he visited the Strehlow home on his Christmas holidays; and though Strehlow had been somewhat puritanical in many of his views, he had always welcomed Ettie and Tjalameinta into his home whenever Buck had brought them. It was no concern of his that Buck and Tjalameinta were not legally married. What did matter to him was that Buck was faithful to Tjalameinta, and that he looked after her and their daughter Ettie like any other family man.

“Well, here’s Ettie come to see you, and your mother Molly too,” Buck said with a grin to Theo, who had come forward to greet him. “I’m going on to your old man, to see if I can be of any use to him.” At the sound of the familiar voice Mrs Strehlow emerged from the tent, and when she saw Buck and Butler standing outside, she warmly invited them in. As soon as they entered, both visitors were startled to see how ill and tired Strehlow looked, even in the dim light of a kerosene lantern, but they were determined not to show their deep alarm. Buck, always a great teller of humorous bush yarns, immediately began talking in his pleasant, warm bushman’s drawl with a convincing air of pretended cheerfulness, leaving his rather taciturn partner few opportunities to add or interpose short remarks of his own.

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Mr Strehlow,” Buck began after the initial greetings. “Now why did you camp here instead of coming up to the station? I know our damn blockhouses can’t compare with those big, comfortable stone houses of yours at The Mission; but at least you’d ‘ve been camping a lot closer to us. We’ve never had a chance of returning any of your Mission hospitality before, and now you’re spoiling it all by stopping down at the waterhole with the cattle.” He grinned cheerfully, and continued, “I’m sure we’d ‘ve been better company for you than the bloody cattle.” Strehlow gave his reasons. He explained how tired the horses had grown during the day, and asked Buck not to be offended. “Offended? Of course not,” grinned Buck. “I could never be offended with you, Mr Strehlow – you’ve been far too good to me and my mate here and my whole bloody Henbury tribe for donkeys’ years. Surely you must’ve realised how much you’ve meant to us here and to the whole population of this country, when I came to say goodbye to you at The Mission a coupla weeks ago. If you’d arrived here a bit earlier, I’d have got my donks to pull your buggy up to the old place for the night. Great animals for this country, donks! Horses are all right for mustering and saddle work. They’re no bloody good for pulling in sand – that’s why we use only donks for all our carting and yard-building work. And now, while we’re talking about horses and donks, tell me, how many horses have you got with you, and how have they been standing up to that Finke sand this afternoon?”

When Strehlow had given him this information, Buck said with sudden seriousness, “It’s not my business to interfere with your plans, Mr Strehlow. But I know what the track’s like between here and Idracowra. If you’ve been finding the going tough this afternoon, then you’ll be in a helluva mess if you try going over the Britannia Sandhills. And those last bloody miles along the Finke from Hell’s Gates to Idracowra are not a bit better. You’ve a buggy and a van, and you don’t seem to have more than one change of horses left for each. In fact, I may as well tell you that you haven’t even got one change left for either of them. I’ve had a good look at your horses as I came past the waterhole, and there’s at least half a dozen of them that look like being buggered-up altogether.

You might as well leave your knocked-up horses right here. That old van of yours has a helluva load on it, and those narrow iron tyres of hers are going to cut into the sand like knives into runny butter. You’ll find you’ll have to change your team after half a day’s pulling, and you’ll need all what’s left of your good horses just to hitch to the buggy.

There’s no water in the Britannia Sandhills, and there’s about twenty two miles of them. That’s right isn’t it, Alf?”

Butler nodded, “Every bit of it.” And then, noting the look of alarm on Strehlow’s face, Buck quickly added in soothing tones, “But, of course, there’s an easy way out of that mess. Only you mustn’t be so bloody stubborn this time in accepting a bit o’ help from your Henbury friends. Now here’s my plan. First, leave all your knocked-up horses at the station with us. They can be picked up when your buggy comes back. Next, hook some of our donks to the van. We’ve got plenty of ’em here, and we don’t need them at the moment. My advice is that you go ahead in the buggy tomorrow morning, and drive through to Idracowra: it’s fifty-five miles away, and it’ll take you all your time to do it in two days. The van can follow at its own pace. I can supply the donks to pull it, and the donkey harness. Eight donks should manage to get your van through any amount of sand, and I’ll send along another eight loose donks. Old Bob and Lornie can drive the team for you: they know how to handle ’em. Now what d’you say to my proposition?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Strehlow accepted with obvious relief and gratitude. “You are being very good to us, Mr Buck,” he said at last. “And I’d like to do something for you in return. But I don’t know what to offer – please tell me what I could do to show you how grateful I am for your kindness. ”

“As you know, Mr Strehlow,” replied Buck, “us tough bush people in these parts’ve always had an unwritten law of mateship; and that law says that every man must help everyone else in trouble, never mind whether the poor bugger’s been his pal or his enemy. That’s the only way us poor bastards up here’ve been able to survive at all in this tough country. We’ve no trains, no cars, no doctors, no nurses, and bloody little money. And no man would ever take any money for helping someone that needed his help: he’d only expect to be treated the same way when he needed it himself. Now you’re an old friend of the bush people, and you’ve always been good to Alf and me. There’s nothing either of us would accept from you, even if you were in a position to offer us anything.”

Strehlow did not reply immediately; for when Buck had told him that he had always been regarded as a friend of the bush people, the unexpected warmth of the personal tribute had threatened to bring the tears to his eyes. For had not the people of the bush always despised clerics, and expressed a particular loathing for missionaries? He was grateful that the dim light of the lantern did not reveal his face very clearly. While he was labouring to control his emotions, Buck, whose sharp eyes had taken in the situation at a glance, added in a low and friendly tone of voice, “But, of course, Mr Strehlow, if you insist on giving us something, then all I’d like to ask for would be something to remind us of you – a sort of keepsake, if you like. What are you going to do with that nice upholstered chair you’re sitting on? If you’re going to send it back with the buggy when you get down to Oodnadatta, then you might tell the boys to drop it in for us at Henbury. But, of course, if you intend taking it down south with you, then just forget about it: the Henbury donks are on loan to you for nothing. What d’you say Alf? Agreed?”

Butler’s face beamed with a kindly smile. “Of course, Bob – only wish we’d a car to offer. But nobody owns one in this country – too sandy for cars anyway. And, Mr Strehlow, I’ll always remember what Hermannsburg’s done for my daughter Elsie.”

Buck’s and Butler’s suggestion, seemingly made on the spur of the moment, took a heavy weight off Strehlow’s mind, and he agreed to it with thankful happiness. Mrs Strehlow now made some coffee for supper, and offered Buck and Butler, also Molly Tjalameinta and Ettie, some home-made biscuits with their cups. After supper the visitors left quietly, so as not to tire the sick man unnecessarily. Before shaking hands for the night, Buck said to Strehlow, “Just one more thing, Mr Strehlow. I’m sorry you had to leave Hermannsburg in such a hurry that none of us bush folk had a chance of doing anything much to help you. But I tell you this – you’ve done a grand job at The Mission. Every white man in the country will tell you that, if you ask him. As you know, none of us poor bastards has much in the way of money; but if we could’ve had just one month’s notice before you left, we’d have tried our bloody best to get the money together somehow to hire a car to take you south. Your flash church cobbers should never’ve asked you to go down in a buggy; but then all them nasty Southerners are alike under the skin – they don’t know what mateship is. They’re only interested in squeezing the last penny and the last ounce of sweat out of whoever works for them; and then they kick him out into the bloody gutter and spit on him, after he’s no more use to them. Well, I must get going. I’ve been talking too much; but we don’t often see any visitors at Henbury. The rich folk down south what’ve squeezed tens of thousands of pounds out of Henbury these last forty years’ve made sure we’d never have any visitors coming to see us up here: all we have at Henbury is a couple of bloody log-houses for camping in when we’re not out on the run.”

Buck and Butler now said goodnight to their visitors and departed with Tjalameinta and Ettie. “We’ll come down to see you off in the morning,” they called out as they briskly strode back to the station over the crunching gravel banks.

A sudden silence fell on the camp of the travellers, and they went to sleep with the bellowing of the cattle in their ears; for it was eleven o’clock at night before the station cattle ceased coming down to the Tunga waterhole. An hour later several hundred half-wild horses began to arrive for their night’s drink. But Theo was the only person still awake to hear them – everyone else near him was sleeping soundly.

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