Tuesday, the seventeenth day of October, 1922

Next morning Strehlow woke up from another drugged night to face another long and enervating day of physical pain and further wearisome and tiring hours of mute self-questioning and spiritual struggle. That struggle was all the harder for him because he could not share more than a small part of it with his unsuspecting wife, whose eyes seemed to have been mercifully blinded so that she could not see that the man sitting in the chair next to her, whose pains from time to time caused him to groan audibly, was slowly approaching the end of his sufferings.

Strehlow knew now, not only that that simple-sounding petition “Thy will be done” was the hardest prayer ever enjoined on mortal men, but also that there were situations in which few, if any, men or women could repeat these words without at least some measure of hypocrisy. Try as he might, he could not rid his mind of some last-minute reservations.

Had anyone ever been able, by his own strength of will, to utter those words with complete sincerity during the hardest tests imposed on him from above? And was God unaware that there existed situations which the tortured hearts of His sincerest servants could not face with complete, unquestioning submission to His will?

Suddenly he recalled Christ’s own passionate prayers during his last night in the garden of Gethsemane. He had so often reviewed the story of Christ’s passion in the season of Lent, when the Aranda congregation at Hermannsburg, according to a long-standing station tradition, attended a short service every Wednesday morning before starting their work for the day. But never had that one brief span of twenty four hours into which Christ’s sufferings had been compressed before his death on the cross become so meaningful for him as during the weeks of his own cruel illness. Only now had he come to realize fully that even Christ, who had so often proclaimed that he and the Father were one and that he had come into the world to fulfil the will of the Father, had, when the hour of that fulfilment came upon him, faced an all-exhausting battle in his own heart before he had been able to submit his will to that of his Father. As a result of his own illness the sick man had attained to a new and clear vision of that titanic struggle in all its passionate intensity. There had been no purposeful calm courage in Christ’s own mind when he had led his eleven loyal disciples into the secluded garden of Gethsemane. Upon entering it, he had left eight of them behind to wait for his return. He had gone on a little further with his three leading disciples and left them at another place, after telling them, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; tarry ye here, and watch with me.” After that he had gone a short distance further for his final struggle, which only his Father might witness. He had fallen on his face to commune with God about the hours of suffering, anguish, public disgrace, and death that lay before him.

Not only once but three times had Christ himself, who had taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples, prayed earnestly that the cup of bitter suffering and death which was now being put before his lips by his Father should, if possible, pass from him; and three times he had forced himself to add that, if the Father had decided that he must drink from this cup, then he, the Son, would accept the Father’s wish: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt. . . . If this cup may not pass from me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.”

Even Christ had found the struggle so exhausting that in the end his whole body had been covered in sweat, and the sweat that poured from his body had come to resemble great drops of blood. The gospel writers had not recorded how long Christ’s agony had lasted in the garden of Gethsemane; but it was only after he had prayed three times, and after he had received comfort and strength from above, that he had at last been able to rise to his feet and go forward with firm steps to meet the implacable anger of the enraged Church leaders, the insults and the mockery of an Oriental king, the shouts of an incensed, priest-incited multitude clamouring for his death, the violent scourge strokes that quickly turned his back into a quivering expanse of raw flesh, and the hard hammer blows that drove great nails through his hands and his feet. Nailed to his cross, his head lacerated by a crown of thorns, he had then gazed as calmly on the milling, mocking crowd below as he had earlier suffered the brutalities of his jeering tormentors without any screams of pain.

And so Christ, too, the sick man reflected, had been compelled by God to pass through the full measure of anguish to which ordinary humanity could be subjected; and he had hence experienced for himself the dark depths of that struggle through which thousands of ordinary men and women had had to pass before they could utter in perfect sincerity that simple-sounding, yet humanly almost impossible, prayer: “Thy will be done.”

With that realization, peace came upon him. He would strive to become more like Christ: he would pray for the strength to submit his own will to the will of that God Whose ways were so completely inscrutable, but Whose love for mankind offered the only hope on which men and women could base their faith. And his lips moved as he repeated in a whisper to himself, “Kyrie eleison – Christe eleison – Kyrie eleison – Thy will be done.”

Except for one or two brief snatches of sleep, Strehlow spent most of the day pondering over his personal relationship towards God. The camel-mail team, returning from Hermannsburg, halted for about an hour in the lengthening shadows of the tall river gums at the station while Jack Fountain sipped a leisurely cup of tea with Allan Breaden and Heinrich. Then Fountain resumed his journey, and soon the camels had vanished once more into the southern box gum flat on their road to Horseshoe Bend. Slowly the hot sting of the sun lessened, and the scorched and weary land became covered with an intricate lacework of shadows.

At six o’clock there was a sudden commotion in the camp.

A cloud of dust could be discerned rapidly approaching the station along the Horseshoe Bend road. Within minutes the shapes of horses and of four riders could be seen emerging from this cloud of dust; and by the time this horse party had reached the bank opposite the station, keen-sighted watchers had already identified the riders – they were Mrs Gus Elliot of Horseshoe Bend Station, accompanied by one of her dark stockmen and the two messengers sent out by Allan Breaden on the previous morning. The whole population of Idracowra rushed forward as the riders dismounted, and the all became filled with their shouts and greetings. Mrs Elliot dismounted with the athletic grace of an experienced horsewoman. She shook hands briefly with Allan Breaden and Heinrich, and then asked to be taken without delay to the log cabin where the sick man was anxiously awaiting her news. The shouts of the population had already informed him who she was.

One look at Strehlow told the young woman that he was close to death; but she concealed her apprehension about his condition perfectly, and smiled pleasantly at him and at his tired wife as she went straight to the point of her errand.

“Mr Strehlow,” she said in a rich, low-pitched voice, “I’ve come with a message for you from the Reverend Stolz. The car he and Mr Wurst were coming up in from Oodnadatta, broke down in the Stevenson crossing north of the Alberga on Sunday morning. The Alberga had pretty well knocked the car out, and the Stevenson finished it off. Mr Stolz was lucky enough to catch the camel-mail from The Oodna soon after the car broke down, and he spoke to Gus, my husband, over the phone as soon as he got to Blood’s Creek this morning at half past nine. When Gus told him he’d got a message from Allan last night about your wanting to wait at Idracowra, Mr Stolz grew quite alarmed. He wants you to come down to The Bend immediately, so’s you’ll be on the Overland Telegraph Line. He said there’s a doctor in Oodnadatta at present, and you could get medical advice from him or from the Hostel by phone once you got to The Bend. But that’s not all,” she added quickly, when she noted the look of pain and deep disappointment that had come over the tired face of the sick man; “Mr Stolz said he was arranging for a local car in Oodnadatta to come up as far as The Charlotte, to take up the doctor himself, and Gus will bring on the doctor from there to The Bend by buggy. There shouldn’t be any trouble as far as The Charlotte – most of the country up to there is, as you know, hard gibber country.”

Here Mrs Elliot paused for a few moments to allow her more comforting second message to cheer up her listeners.

Strehlow replied in a slightly choked voice, “Do you think the local driver will do any better at the Alberga crossing than Mr Wurst? And what about all the rest of the creeks after the Alberga? What about the Stevenson? What about Hamilton Bore?”

The young woman smiled and went on in her comforting voice, “Mr Strehlow, the local drivers know how to handle all the creeks north of The Oodna. They’ve had to cross them plenty of times when going over their station runs. They aren’t newchums like the drivers from down south. And they know the right places for crossing the creeks. Even Mr Wurst might’ve got over those two crossings without doing in his clutch if he’d had a better pilot than that chap Jack Fox he picked up in The Oodna. Jack’s all right when he’s sober; but I bet he was drunk when he left The Oodna pub.”

Strehlow sighed, and sadly nodded his head in agreement.

He recalled the trouble he had had on one occasion years ago when he was trying to set out in the van from Oodnadatta to Hermannsburg. His white driver had been Dave Hart, the man who had done most of the building jobs for him at Hermannsburg. Dave had been a tireless and honest worker on the mission station. But once he reached an hotel, nobody could tear him away from the bar. Strehlow had finally, after a delay of twenty four hours, gone into the bar, dragged Dave out, put him on the van, and then driven the horses himself for the first couple of hours till Dave had sobered up sufficiently to take over the reins. Wurst could easily have had a similarly thirsty bushman to contend with.

“And now, Mr Strehlow,” concluded Mrs Elliot, “here’s our last suggestion. As soon as Gus heard that your horses were all knocked-up, he said to me, ‘Ruby, take our buggy horses and one of our boys to Idracowra and bring Mr Strehlow down. And take Allan’s boys back as well.’ And so we got the boys to round up six buggy horses and some saddle horses early this morning – all the ones close to the station, you know – and after that, the three boys and I got going. We left a bit before eleven o’clock this morning, and it’s taken us seven hours to get here. And now please listen to me. You must come with us, so please don’t say no. Gus and I both know you can’t stand the heat any longer. So I’ll just have a quick cup of tea and a snack while the boys harness our horses to your buggy. We could leave here in half an hour or so, and travel right through the night. It may take us thirteen or fourteen hours to get back to The Bend; for we’ll have to go pretty slowly over those gutters in the table mountains. There’ll be no moonlight tonight – it’s almost new moon, you know. But we’ll be close to The Bend by the time the sun’s up, and you’ll be sitting under a roof next to a phone before the day turns into another scorcher.”

Strehlow hesitated for a moment. “But how will you get on, Mrs Elliot?” he faltered. “You’ve been in the saddle for seven hours already. You must be tired out. You need a good night’s sleep first.”

“Never mind me,” replied Mrs Elliot firmly. “I’m only a girl you might say, and the bush made me tough years ago – I can see the distance out as well as any of the stockboys. No, we must go back tonight. One of the boys and I will carry storm lanterns and ride ahead of the buggy. All your driver has to do is follow the lights.”

And then she added the final warning, “It’ll be a bumpy ride through the table mountain country. Those gutters are pretty rough, and storm lanterns don’t throw much light. But at least it’ll be cool, and we can stop on the track and give you a spell whenever you want one. So please come back with us, won’t you?”

Strehlow had watched Mrs Eliott with growing admiration. Here was a woman who was not only young and pretty, but strong, athletic, vital, and courageous. Her smile was warm and sincere, and her face still possessed the unspoilt charm of mature girlhood. Slim, tanned, and willowy, she looked almost ten years younger than her real age of thirty years. If she was prepared to stay in the saddle all night, then he too would, in God’s name, nerve himself up for that last terrifying stage to Horseshoe Bend. There he would find proper hotel accommodation and be linked by telephone with Oodnadatta so that he could obtain medical advice at once. And the further promise of a car and a doctor to come up to him had suddenly renewed his downcast spirit.

“Mrs Elliot,” he said, and his voice sounded unsteady as tears began to dim his red and tired eyes, “you have been wonderful, riding seven hours in this heat today. Yes, I’ll come back with you, if you think that you can ride all night as well. And I don’t know how I can thank you and Mr Eliott enough for what you have done for me.”

“It’s nothing,” replied Mrs Elliot cheerfully. “And now, please excuse me. I must rush out and organise everything. As soon as everything is ready, we must go. It will be a long, slow trail back, and the sun is going to be up nice and early tomorrow morning.”

The station suddenly burst into hectic activity. The mission horses were brought up from the well so that they could be driven behind the buggy as replacements for the Horseshoe Bend team should the need arise. Swags were quickly rolled. Strehlow had a rushed meal with his wife in the log cabin, while Mrs Elliot hurried through hers in the station kitchen. The lanterns were filled with kerosene, and an extra can was taken for replenishment. Experienced hands lifted the sick man’s chair back on the buggy and wired it down securely. Then Strehlow was half assisted, half lifted to his seat, and Heinrich, Mrs Strehlow, and the Hermannsburg driver climbed up on the buggy. Four of the Horseshoe Bend horses were quickly harnessed to the vehicle, and then the travellers left, to the accompaniment of long-drawn-out farewell calls from the Idracowra population. The sun had already gone down, and soon the retreating cloud of dust was lost in the fast-thickening gloom of the approaching night.

Then all colour went out from the western sky, and darkness fell over the sun-wearied land.

Theo and his dark companions retired to rest soon afterwards. They would have to leave Idracowra early next morning if they wanted to do the thirty-five-mile stretch from Idracowra to Horseshoe Bend in one day.

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