Thursday, the nineteenth day of October, 1922

The horseshoe bend area had been remarkable for its cruel heatwaves for as long as human memory went back, and long before that time; for the main totemic sites in this region were all associated in some way with fire or with the scorching heat of the summer sun.

The station had been built on a site known as Par’Itirka (“Incestuous Gum Tree”), so called from a large old gum growing on the bank of the Finke River near the station stockyard. This ancient tree with its swollen trunk figured in a mythical episode describing Par’Itirka as the home of devastating summer heat from the very beginning of time.

The major mythological sites closest to Horseshoe Bend were all situated along the high rocky cliffs which marked the left bank of the Finke from a point located about a mile upstream from the station down to the rockholes of Gula situated about three miles downstream. The furthest rocky bank upstream was the high cliff of Pot’Intjinja, the “White-haired Mountain”, which was known also as Inggodna, the “Spark of Fire”. At Ndaterkaterka and Gula began a number of totemic sites associated with parties of ancestral carpet snakes. The main ceremonial centre among all these sites was Pot’Arugutja, the “Stone Women. The local myth of Pot’Arugutja related that at the beginning of time there had been a camp of ancestresses here belonging to the ntjira grass-seed totem. These ntjira women had been under the guidance of two female chiefs who were sisters and who bore the names of Lakuta and Ulirtjata. The two sisters had a nephew who, like them and the ntjira women, was remarkable for his very light, copper-coloured skin. Ntjira grass is a sandhill grass with reddish seeds; and these ancestral ntjira folk had kept the copper-coloured skins commonly found among the more light-skinned, new-born Aranda babies. The two sisters of Pot’Arugutja sent their nephew with escorts up to the Northern Aranda centre of Rubuntja, a lofty outrigger mountain rising high above the plains situated north of Ljaba, the great honey-ant home of the western MacDonnells. Rubuntja belonged to the fire totem; and a spark of fire from Rubuntja had landed at Inggodna some time earlier. The ntjira boy was to be initiated into manhood at Rubuntja and then returned to his relatives at Pot’Arugutja.

But the fire totemic ancestors of Rubuntja, whose bodies were all coal-black, like the burnt stumps of the trees which their bushfires had incinerated around their mountain, became fascinated with the red-coloured boy and decided to keep him after his initiation. When the time came for his return, they substituted one of their own new initiates for their visitor, and sent this black-skinned novice, escorted by a large party of Rubuntja men, back to Pot’Arugutja. The ntjira sisters went out eagerly to meet the Rubuntja party and came upon them at Pot’Iluntja, a flat in the sandhills, several miles north of Inggodna. But one glance at the dark-skinned substitute novice was enough to reveal to the sisters the treacherous trick that had been played on them. Angrily they poured on the ground the stone-ground meal of ntjira grass seeds they had brought in their wooden vessels as a gift for the Rubuntja visitors. They refilled their empty vessels with draughts of magic poison and offered this to the thirsty men. The men drank deeply of the poison, and followed their hostesses back to Pot’Arugutja. But it was not long before the Rubuntja men began to feel sick. Some of them vomited and died before reaching Inggodna, others succumbed after they had reached the main ntjira camp at Pot’Arugutja. As soon as the last of the treacherous northern men had died in the windbreak of the Pot’Arugutja women, the ntjira sisters gathered up their wooden vessels, refilled them with grass seeds, and strode eastwards to Jitutna, a place located in the high dune country east of Horseshoe Bend. They bore themselves triumphantly; and the brilliant red-and-black cockatoo feathers which rose high from their heads symbolized the flowering tufts of ntjira grass that sprouted up everywhere they went.

Wherever the Rubuntja men had vomited, heaps of black pebbles came into being. These were believed to contain the fiery essence of the Rubuntja visitors. The Horseshoe Bend men used to visit them during the freezing spells of mid-winter in order to perform rites designed to draw down greater warmth from the winter sun above so that the hunters could go out after game in excessively cold weather. A small fire of dry saltbush twigs would be lit over these heaps, and the black pebbles would be stirred up in the hot ashes. During this procedure the following special fire verses used to be chanted:

Let the afternoon sun shower down its sparks!
Let the afternoon sun send down its fire!
From the crown of the sun’s head let the sparks fly out!
From the crown of the sun’s head let them spread out fan-wise!
From the hollow of the shield let the white heat glow down!
From the hollow of the shield let the fire shower down.

During summer, on the other hand, these pebble heaps were carefully avoided and the charm verses belonging to them were never uttered, lest their inherent magic power should cause the sun to scorch to death both men and animals; for the very presence of these black pebble heaps at Inggodna was believed to be one of the reasons for the long and fierce heat-waves that afflicted the Horseshoe Bend area each summer.

Inggodna was, however, only one of the totemic sites associated with fire and hence with the heat of the summer sun. Two other sites further downstream were believed to be even more potent. The first was Uralirbuka, whose name meant “Where the fire went underground”. Here was a huge cave where the bushfires that had burned their way at the beginning of time from distant western Paranerka towards the Finke Valley were believed to have gone underground.

The trail left behind by these bushfires between Paranerka and Uralirbuka was marked by a long, low line of black hills.

But the most potent of all these primal fire sites was Mbalka, a pyramid-shaped mountain about sixteen miles south of Horseshoe Bend. Mbalka had been the home of a malicious crow ancestor who had flitted about over this unfortunate land and lit devastating bushfires whenever he flew down from the sky. The fiercest fires had raged around Mbalka itself, striking terror into all other totemic ancestors for many miles around lest the whole countryside should in the end be utterly consumed by roaring tornadoes of leaping, billowing flames. Huge resin-charged spinifex tussocks exploded noisily as the shrieking flood of fire cascaded over the sandhills, and the beautiful green pmekua bushes on their crests quickly turned into scorched brown shrubs and began sprouting little flames from their drooping branch tips.

Thick stands of cane grass started to smoke as soon as the sudden blast of heat swept over them. All the mulgas, bloodwoods, and mallee trees turned into swaying pillars of fire, and their limbs became crackling torches of flames. So fierce was the blaze that even the finest grass roots were scorched black in the hot soil, while the roots of the larger trees smouldered and turned into grey ashes many feet below the surface of the ground. Long twisting tongues of flame broke off from the main billows of the conflagration, shooting skyward like red-and-yellow evil spirits. The roar of this devastating, storm-fanned blaze sometimes resembled the mad howl of a tornado and sometimes the rushing noise of a great flood of water that had risen high above the restraining level of its river banks. Helpless marsupials, lizards, and snakes died in their thousands, unable to escape from this vast lake of fire, whose lapping tongues often shot out suddenly for hundreds of yards into thickly grassed or well-timbered plots of country, and then curled and twisted around till their tips of flame met, encircling and trapping further helpless populations of singed and trembling animals. In the sky above large flocks of screaming parrots and cockatoos could be seen fleeing from the fury of the blaze below. Though most of these ancestral birds were able to effect their escape, the black, red, and grey feathers in the plumage of their later bird descendants were believed to reveal how close they had come to finding death in the merciless blast furnace below.

For in the Aranda-speaking area the pink and red feathers of these parrots and cockatoos were taken to symbolize the colour of the leaping flames, the black feathers the dead bodies of charred birds, and the grey feathers the ashes of birds totally consumed by the blaze.

This destructive, howling bushfire lasted for many days.

Each night the cloudbank of black smoke hanging low over Mbalka glowed dark red on its underside from the vastness of the reflected conflagration below. At last, when the unbridled insolence of the crow ancestor had reached its peak of destructiveness, two rain ancestors from distant Erea, a long lagoon situated close to the final floodouts of the Finke River, approached Mbalka with stealthy steps. As they drew nearer, the ground grew dark under the huge shadows of their accompanying retinue of rainclouds; and one night they surprised the crow ancestor himself, clad in his black coat of fire-charred feathers, while he was gloating in high arrogance at Mbalka over the bushfires that were raging and roaring about him on all sides. Heavy rain began to gush and pour in torrents from the clouds accompanying the two Erea ancestors. Soon the vast lakes of fire were turned into seas of water, and clouds of steam hissed up from the sizzling tree skeletons and charred stumps. The crow ancestor himself was drowned by the overwhelming fury of this rainstorm; for the sheer weight of the water poured down from above was too heavy to permit him to unfold his wings in flight.

But though the rain ancestors of Erea had quenched the primal fires of Mbalka, this mountain was still believed to shelter eternal heat and flames under its vast and heavy mass.

Any frivolous performance of its secret fire rites by “the human beings of later days” was believed to have the power to recall into existence and to fan into sudden fury disastrous bushfires throughout the land; and these bushfires would in turn magically induce the summer sun to increase its heat to such a dangerously high level that men and animals everywhere would be scorched to death. Hence the fire rites of Mbalka were carefully kept a close secret by the old leaders of the local fire totemic clan; and they were performed only on the rarest occasions, particularly during long and unusually frosty winters.

The very existence of Mbalka and Uralirbuka, of Inggodna and Par’Itirka, was believed to keep up a constant threat of heat and fire over the Horseshoe Bend country.

Since this local group area also included the Land of Death around Undunja and Uralterinja, the Horseshoe Bend clansmen enjoyed a most unfortunate notoriety in the Aranda-speaking country: all of their major totems were of a kind that increased the afflictions of mankind; and any reports of the performances of the Horseshoe Bend sacred ceremonies were greeted with noticeable lack of enthusiasm by all Aranda groups who were living adjacent to this area.

Horseshoe Bend was fully living up to its mythical reputation as a heat-creating totemic centre on that oppressive Thursday morning which awakened the two parties of tired travellers that had arrived from Idracowra on the previous day: the temperature had not gone much below the nineties during the night, and the mercury in the thermometers had quickly climbed back to the century mark by ten o’clock in the morning. At this hour hot north-westerly gusts were whirling and whipping up the sand from the dunes and the river flat on the far side of the Finke into shrieking waves of yellowish-brown dust which kept dashing against the barren, rocky expanse on which the station stood and hurling themselves in fury against the groaning metal sides and roof of the hotel building. The latter was a wood and iron structure the roof and the outside walls had been constructed from sheets of corrugated iron, and the inside walls and the ceilings from ornamental figured tin. On a hot day the heat inside the hotel was virtually unbearable, and the only relatively cool spots for its guests were to be found under the shade of the verandahs which protected all four sides of the hotel. Strehlow, who was too ill to be moved except for the most necessary purposes, was forced to sit in his chair and to endure the near bake-oven temperatures of his tin-lined room even during the hottest hours of the day. At the same time, he was rather more comfortably off than he would have been had he stayed in the log-house at Idracowra. For the Horseshoe Bend Hotel was Gus Elliot’s pride and joy, and its furnishings gave expression to his desire to provide a home fit for occupation by his city-born wife who had come here as a bride from Melbourne. City dwellers might have regarded the temperatures inside the hotel rooms during hot summer spells as excessively high, but this opinion was not generally shared by the Central Australian guests. The men and women who lived in this country were used to toiling long hours out the open under a broiling sun in summer, and to sleeping and eating in rudely-constructed bush shacks that lacked virtually all the amenities of civilized living. By contrast, the Horseshoe Bend hotel had been put up by professional labour, and all its materials had been brought up from the south at heavy expense. At the time of its construction it had been considered to be perhaps the most modern hotel building in Central Australia. Hence though it contained only half a dozen bedrooms, these were all distinguished from each other not by numbers but by names, such as “the Sullivan room”, and so on.

On that Thursday morning it seemed as though the mythical ancestresses of Pot’Arugutja had, after destroying the northern visitors from Rubuntja, left all their baleful influences behind when they left for Jitutna, so as to ensure a harmful and deadly reception for the sick man who had come to their deserted windbreak from the precincts of the north-western MacDonnells. The hot, dust-drowned landscape could not have looked grimmer and more hostile than it did on that unfriendly morning.

Strehlow was much lower in point of physical strength and mental alertness than he had been only the day before. Mercifully perhaps, his overwrought mind began to wander every now and then; and in his moments of delirium he did not seem to be conscious of those excruciating pains that had begun to rack his body most of the time. But these fits never lasted very long, and then his low moans would show how much pain the very act of taking breath was causing him. The lower portion of his body, from his chest downward, had become swollen to such an extent that he could no longer put on any clothes; and his lower limbs hence had to be covered with a sheet during the day and with a threadbare blanket at night. From the chest upward his body had wasted away till all his ribs and most of his bones were visible in clear outline. His once powerful hands had become so thin and emaciated that his wedding ring had fallen off his left hand a couple of hours after his arrival at Horseshoe Bend.

While Strehlow sat helplessly in his room, the men and women around him were sparing no efforts in their battle to save his life. The owner of Horseshoe Bend Station and the proprietor of its hotel, Gus Elliot, had made many long telephone calls on the previous day. The doctor from Marree who was staying at the Oodnadatta Hostel had been contacted several times, even though his medical advice remained of necessity singularly ineffective. There were no medicines at Horseshoe Bend that could be recommended for the patient’s treatment; and the only possible remaining measure of relief-surgically tapping the sick man’s swollen body – had to be deferred till the doctor himself could reach the sick man. The telephone news about the possibility of car transport, however, had been most reassuring. The doctor had been only too willing to undertake the trip to Charlotte Waters in the event that a suitable local car and an experienced bush driver should be found. Acting on further special pleas made by Pastor Stolz by telephone from Charlotte Waters on Wednesday midday, two hours after Strehlow’s arrival at Horseshoe Bend, Joe Breaden had at last consented to take the doctor to Charlotte Waters. The twenty-four-hour delay in Breaden’s final answer had been caused by the necessity for making arrangements that would ensure adequate petrol supplies for the car: there were no commercial refuelling points located north of Oodnadatta. The doctor, too, had been compelled to make arrangements for an anticipated lengthy absence from his usual place of duty. He was the medical officer responsible for attending to the health problems of the railway employees, and was normally stationed at Marree. He visited Oodnadatta only once a fortnight, on the weekend when the fortnightly passenger train reached this northern rail terminus. However, the comforting fact remained that Stolz’s final telephone call from Charlotte Waters had definitely clinched the matter of car transport; and Joe Breaden and the doctor now hoped to leave Oodnadatta on Thursday or Friday. Their car was expected to reach Charlotte Waters some time on Friday or Saturday; and the doctor had agreed to continue his journey from the telegraph station to Horseshoe Bend in Gus Elliot’s buggy.

Augustus Henry Elliot, who was universally known as Gus Elliot, was a strongly built, well-set-up man, who despite his greying moustache and growing portliness still moved around with very brisk, firm steps. He had been one of the early Finke River pioneers; and, like most other elderly white men in Central Australia, he was very sensitive about his real age. No one, not even his closest friends, knew for certain the year in which he had been born though many people made shrewd guesses at it.

His parents had been among the first settlers who had moved into the Flinders Ranges in the 1850s. His father, Albin Walter Elliot, had been a station contractor, married to Maria Elizabeth Hughes. The normal work done by station contractors at that time consisted of fencing and well-sinking; and hence Gus Elliot’s father had been involved in the uncertain fortunes of the early pioneers as they pressed forward into the Flinders Ranges “to open up new country” for pastoral purposes. The local aboriginal population had not been “co-operative” towards the white new-comers who were pushing them off their tribal lands; and there had been numerous “incidents”. When referring to those early times, Gus’s sympathies were, naturally enough, on the side of the pioneer settlers. “Well, what else could you expect?” he would exclaim to the hotel guests. “The pioneers came to open up new country. They brought their stock and they had to have labour – not easy to get in those days, I can tell you! Not one of the old niggers’d work for them, only some of the kids came along – boys of fourteen and fifteen or less. The pioneers would teach them to handle sheep, then one day the old folk’d come and tell them to run away. Now what could the pioneers do? They’d got their holdings from the Lands Office in Adelaide, and were paying rent on them, and anyway the niggers had never done anything with the land before the white man came into this country. The police wouldn’t help them in any way – in fact, lots of the settlers were too far out to call the police when trouble started. So when the boys ran away, all the settlers could do was to ride after them, bring them back, and give them a good hiding with a stockwhip to teach them they couldn’t just walk out on their jobs and let the sheep get killed by dingoes or let them die without water. After that the old niggers’d start making trouble. They didn’t often attack the homesteads – they usually started killing sheep or cattle, and there was no way of catching them. If the police came, they were weeks late getting there; and mostly they took no action unless you could tell them what niggers’d done it. As if any of the settlers would’ve known! In any case, there weren’t enough police in the whole of the bloody State to protect the poor battling cows in the outback from the thieving niggers in those days! All the pioneers could do was to get together when things got too tough. Then they’d go out in parties and raid the niggers’ camps and knock the thieving bastards over with bullets. Never got very many, of course: bush niggers’re pretty cunning, and their camps were hard to find, and they’d all run like rabbits if they saw a party of settlers coming up on horseback. But after some years everything quietened down. The niggers had enough sense to realize that they just couldn’t walk around the country killing sheep and cattle, and they got to respecting the white man’s property. They settled down pretty well after that, and some of ’em worked jolly hard for the pioneers. It was only during the first few years that things were really tough down in the Flinders.”

Gus Elliot, who had been born at Quorn, remembered how excellent this district had been in his boyhood days for grazing sheep and cattle. It had been first-class saltbush country, and he regretted that so much of it had in later years been foolishly ploughed up for wheat farming – an industry that had never been safe in that area because of the low and erratic rainfall. “A lot o’ good sheep country was ruined by ploughing, and the wheat cockies never got a proper living out of it,” he claimed. “Those government blokes in Adelaide should’ve had more sense than trying to get people to grow wheat at Quorn, Hawker, and other bloody dry places like that.”

Upon reaching manhood Gus had become caught up in the general excitement that spread like wildfire among the younger South Australian station hands and men on the land. Many of the more adventurous spirits saddled up their horses and went out into the relatively unknown regions of the Centre which had become publicized through the journals of the first inland explorers to cross the Northern Territory border, notably John McDouall Stuart and Ernest Giles.

The latter had traversed the greater part of the Finke River Valley in 1872; and the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line furnished a safe overland route through the interior of the country from the same year onward. Men rode far and wide on horses, seeking land and adventure. Only a minority of those who went out stayed long enough, or lived sufficiently interesting lives, to earn spaces for their names in the history of Central Australia. The Henbury plaque, for instance, omitted at least as many names as it mentioned.

Thus the name of George Elliot, who acted as station cook at Henbury in the time of the Parke brothers, was not remembered on this brass plate; but since he was Leisha’s white father, his numerous part-aboriginal descendants played a most important role among the stockmen and station workers from whose labours came the profits made from Henbury and Idracowra stations by their various owners.

Not all of the men who rushed forward into the vast spaces of the inland waited for the new areas to be surveyed, or even to be leased to them. In Central Australia, as elsewhere, the advancing tongues of the forward-sweeping flood of the more restless pioneers ranged far ahead of the often rather sluggish forces of cautious and slothful officialdom. In fact, one of the great attractions of the outback for its early white settlers was that here was a country where men whose lack of money and education made their chances of success rather slim elsewhere received their opportunity to become owners and masters of the land their eyes had first surveyed.

A second category of pioneers consisted of men who had come up against the forces of law and order in the longer established regions of settlement, and who hoped to get a second chance of life in the outback. Nor should the dark feminine attractions of Central Australia for many of the first white pioneers – almost all of whom were males – be minimized. As Mounted Constable Willshire was to express it later on in one of his books: “Men would not remain so many years in a country like this if there were no women, and perhaps the Almighty meant them for use as He has placed them wherever the pioneers go. Surely if the “Contagious Diseases Act” is legalised in British possessions, then what I am speaking about is only natural, especially for men who are isolated away in the bush at out-stations where women of all ages and sizes are running at large.”

But these more or less realistic, and materialistic, reasons would not by themselves have provided such a powerful impelling force for young Australian men in the latter half of the nineteenth century if the inland itself had not added its own mysterious call to their receptive ears. Youth is, after all, both the period of idealism and the time when love of adventure for its own sake grips the imagination; and many young country lads responded to the appeal of the inland with an impetuous enthusiasm that city dwellers who have been cooped up all their lives within the dull confines of large house-covered areas find almost impossible to grasp. Yet to those who have experienced it in their own youth, the call of the bush is something that they can never forget, even in their declining years. For the bush is a free land that no man has ever succeeded in taming finally, let alone in conquering. In its ageless immensity, small spirits felt ennobled and timid spirits emboldened, while strong spirits became tinged with heroism.

When he first arrived in the Centre – in 1880, according to the Henbury plaque -, Gus Elliot had been one of the pioneers at the original Glen Helen Station settlement known as Mangama, which was located on the Ormiston River near the junction point where it merged with the Davenport River to form the Finke. He could have been about twenty three years of age at that time. From Mangama he had taken a number of long rides into the still unexplored country west of Glen Helen. He had even reached the spring on the northern side of the Mt Liebig complex, though this mountain was located close to the western termination of the MacDonnell Ranges, some two hundred miles west of Alice Springs. He had found the waters of this spring flowing down a gully for several hundred yards into potentially good cattle country. All of Elliot’s long rides had been undertaken during the early days of the Hermannsburg settlement, about a decade before Strehlow’s arrival in 1894. But during the 1880s the Western MacDonnell Ranges and the Mt Liebig country had been far too densely populated by aboriginal tribesmen for the peace of mind of the early white stock-owners, who had to be prepared to suffer heavy stock losses if they set up stations in what were at that time still undisputed Western Aranda and Kukatja tribal areas. After staying for several years at Mangama, Gus Elliot had moved into the safer cattle country located downstream from Hermannsburg. He left behind him a half-caste son, whose mother Utnea came from the Mangama area. This half-caste son, who was called Gus Elliot after his father according to normal Central Australian custom, was brought up at Hermannsburg, and later christened Michael. Some time after leaving Glen Helen, Gus Elliot had become the junior partner of Edwin Hooper Sargeant (commonly known as Ted Sargeant), the new owner of Horseshoe Bend Station; and the two men had jointly established an hotel here and become its joint proprietors. Horseshoe Bend Station had originally been sited on the left bank of the Finke near Inggodna. This “old station” had been built by “Dickie” Warburton – the man who had eventually sold out to Sargeant. It was only after Sargeant had taken in Elliot as his partner that the station was moved about a mile down to its present site of Par’Itirka. The new site was above the level of the highest Finke floods, and a shallow well near the new stockyard yielded water rather less brackish than that available at the original homestead. Because of its shallowness, this well could be worked by a rotary pump, with the donkeys moving in circles as they turned the main horizontal pumping lever.

Elliot’s affairs had prospered greatly after his move from Mangama to Horseshoe Bend. In 1912 the death of E. H. Sargeant had made him the senior member of the new partnership of Elliot and (“young Harry”) Sargeant (the two names being transposed in this way to indicate the change in seniority): “Young Harry” Sargeant was the son of “Old Ted” Sargeant. And finally, on 30th August, 1913, he had married, in the South Melbourne Baptist Church, a Victorian girl, Ruby Elizabeth Martin, who had been born as a labourer’s daughter in Geelong. At the time of her marriage Ruby had been twenty years of age. Just before their engagement Elliot had told his future bride that his age was twice her own, and on the day of the wedding he had amended this figure and set it down on his marriage certificate as forty eight years. But the old hands in the Finke stations area claimed that Elliot must have been at least fifty six years of age on this occasion. The Elliots had had one child – a daughter called Sheila. Sheila, who was now eight years old, was not present at Horseshoe Bend when the Strehlow family arrived. She had already been sent down to Melbourne for her schooling.

Though Elliot was by now undoubtedly in his middle sixties, he still lived a surprisingly active life. His marriage to a young woman seemed to have rejuvenated him, and given him the freshness and the vigour of a young man.

Hence no one could see anything strange in his offering to race down eighty miles in a buggy to Charlotte Waters in less than a day and a half, pick up the doctor on his arrival, and then turn around without a break in order to speed back in the same space of time or even less. Perhaps, too, his young wife’s heroic achievement of riding seventy miles in twenty four hours over rough country without taking a rest had given him additional inspiration to attempt a similar or even greater endurance feat.

Elliot was the perfect host to the Hermannsburg travellers that morning. Normally breakfast was eaten as a rushed meal at Horseshoe Bend; for, like all other cattlemen during the summer months, Elliot attempted to get most of the station work done in the morning hours before the day grew intolerably hot. But with a true bushman’s courtesy he realized that Mrs Strehlow needed to be taken out of herself and given a break from her own anxieties at least during mealtimes; and he was only too willing to indulge in his reminiscences about the by-gone pioneering days in order to divert her thoughts temporarily into new channels.

Mrs Strehlow had last enjoyed Elliot’s hospitality ten years earlier, on the occasion when Ted Sargeant had suddenly died at the hotel. She and her husband, when returning from long leave, had been struggling to get back to Hermannsburg on the dry and desolate road leading north from Oodnadatta. Progress had been painfully slow because of the exhausted condition of the mission horses. She and Theo had walked many miles, both in front of and behind the van, during its snail-like progress over the gibber plains: one night they had even walked in front of the exhausted van horses for two hours, carrying a storm-lantern in order to guide the driver along the telegraph line to Blood’s Creek.

Strehlow had held the reins, while the dark coachman had walked beside the team to urge it along with incessant whipcracks. Walking had been a more comfortable mode of progress than sitting on the springless van, whose bumps over the pebble-strewn gibber flats had threatened to dislocate all the vertebrae in the backbones of the travellers. Even Jakobus, who was bringing up the loose horses, had been forced to drive them on foot at one stage since the saddle horses were too knocked up to bear a rider. On the forenoon of the day on which they had left Old Crown Point they had been met in the stony, undulating country near Cunningham’s Gap by a mounted dark stockman who was driving four fresh buggy horses towards them. He had handed over a letter from Elliot, advising them that his partner, Ted Sargeant, had died early that very morning, and requesting Strehlow to accept the loan of these horses so that Sargeant could be given a Christian funeral on the same afternoon.

With the aid of these four fresh horses a quick dash had been made over the remainder of the distance. The horses had galloped over a good part of these final twenty two miles.

Horseshoe Bend had been reached by a quarter to four in the afternoon; and Strehlow had conducted Sargeant’s funeral immediately afterwards, for the hot March weather would not have permitted the mourners to delay the burial of the body any longer.

Mrs Strehlow, who had been greatly surprised on the previous afternoon by the relatively small number of dark folk she had seen at the station, was curious to know the reasons for this decline. “I think I saw many more people here last time,” she remarked to Elliot at the breakfast table; “there don’t seem to be many left now.” “You’re right there,” Elliot replied. “That Spanish influenza did it, three years ago. The blacks here died like flies, and it was the same everywhere, all the way down to Oodnadatta.”

“Yes, we heard about the Oodnadatta epidemic from the Kramers two years ago,” replied Mrs Strehlow. “Mr Kramer helped the police to bury the dead. So many died that the rest all fled out bush and did not stop even to bury their relatives. It must have been a terrible time.”

“It certainly was,” interrupted Mrs Elliot. “Hundreds of them died within a few weeks at Oodnadatta. It was the same at all stations between there and here; and nobody’ll ever know how many died out bush after they’d rushed away from the stations. I’ll tell you how bad things were at that time. Gus sent out old Gallagher Tom, one of our best stockboys, with five other boys to take some cattle down to The Charlotte. There was nothing wrong with any of them when they left. And then, ten days later, old Tom came riding back on his own, with a couple o’ packhorses. He was in tears when he walked up to Gus. He and the others had all caught the ‘flu from some of the New Crown boys. The other five boys had died on the track, and only old Tom had managed to come back alive. Of course, they’d lost the cattle and the rest of the plant, and Tom was frightened that Gus’d be wild with him. But, of course, we only felt sorry for the poor old thing, and for the other boys, too – a couple of them had been our very best stockboys. Old Tom was ill for another month or so before he could come back to work. But we got our horses and most of our cattle back at the next New Crown muster.”

“Yes, old Tom Pearce down at The New Crown is a jolly good bloke,” added Elliot. “Absolutely honest – never played a dirty trick on anyone all his life. He was one o’ the characters in Mrs Gunn’s We of the Never Never, you know. He’s called ‘Mine Host’ in that book.”

“And is that why there are so few people here in the camp now?” Mrs Strehlow asked, with a note of obvious concern in her voice.

“Yes and no,” replied Elliot, and put his cutlery down against the side of his plate. “You see, the blacks’re dying out pretty fast everywhere in these parts. When I first came up here as a young chap, the whole country was just thick with blacks. They were everywhere, and it was pretty hard for a cattleman to keep his stock safe from their spears. Just let me give you an idea of what things were like then. You could see big, laughing camps of niggers – beg pardon, blacks – in mobs of eighty or a hundred, at every big waterhole along the Finke River; and they were just as thick along the Palmer, the Lilla, the Goyder, and even down at that godforsaken dump, The Charlotte. Well, they never seemed to have many kids, at least not after us whites came into this country; and few of the kids they had ever lived long. By the time the ‘flu hit them, there were no blacks living along the Finke in camps of their own any more. What was left of them had moved to the stations. The ‘flu just speeded up things like. Some folk down south’re starting to complain that the early settlers must’ve shot them in their hundreds; but I tell you most of them just went off naturally – no resistance, just had no will to live, it seems. Anyway, the blacks’ve always been treated very well on this station, and on most other stations on the Finke as well.”

They’re not dying out at Hermannsburg,” put in Mrs Stre”hlow softly, “and there are plenty of children up there.”

“That’s what everybody tells us,” confirmed Mrs Elliot.

“You and your husband must take most of the credit for that, though I don’t know how you’ve done it.”

A happy smile stole for a moment over Mrs Strehlow’s worn and tired face. “Thank you, Mrs Elliot,” she said warmly, “it’s so good of you to say so. My husband and I have just tried to do our duty, and perhaps God has blessed our work.”

Elliot, who had the normal bushman’s aversion to hearing the name of the Almighty mentioned except in certain blasphemous stock phrases, looked a little uncomfortable at this last remark. He twirled the ends of his light-grey moustache a couple of times with his fingers, and then announced that it was time for him to leave the table and attend to some station matters. And so the breakfast party broke up – Elliot went out and summoned his stockboys, Mrs Elliot retired into her kitchen, Mrs Strehlow returned to the sickroom, Heinrich moved out under the verandah and started chatting to two other hotel guests, and Theo was glad to be able to escape to his friends in the aboriginal camp.

Elliot left Horseshoe Bend in the early afternoon. His horses were fresh and well-fed, and he anticipated reaching Charlotte Waters about noon next day. The ground to be covered consisted mainly of bare plains and undulating stony country. There was only one long and difficult sandy stretch on this road – the three notorious Finke crossings at Old Crown Point, twenty six miles south of Horseshoe Bend; but these crossings were not expected to worry unduly a spirited team of fresh horses pulling a light and unloaded buggy, with Elliot and a dark stockman as the only passengers.

Elliot’s departure was attended by the usual clamour of dozens of campdogs which barked furiously and rushed madly after the buggy as it rapidly climbed up into the steep and fairly narrow cutting carved from the cliffs east of the station; but the trotting horses outdistanced them at a fast pace, and the buggy soon reached the top of the rock wall flanking the Finke Valley on the eastern side. It then swung over the red ridge of a dune crest beyond the cliff tops, and was completely lost to view. About half a mile from the station the buggy passed a lonely grave. It was that of a prospector who had tried to walk the twenty six miles from Old Crown Point to Horseshoe Bend at the turn of the century during the time of the Arltunga gold rush. He had attempted to cover this distance on a hot summer day; but he had already drained his waterbag dry after walking little more than the first twelve miles. A few hours later he became delirious from thirst, and his pace had lessened with every mile walked in the scorching heat. His strength had finally given out when he had almost reached the one remaining sand-dune which lay between him and safety. Had he walked the last few chains to its crest, he would have caught sight of the green Finke Valley stretching out below him; for these sand-dunes reached forward from the high-level country situated east of the valley, and completely covered the tops of the high cliff wall that protected the river bed below from the menace of their ever-encroaching sand waves.

By the time of Elliot’s departure Strehlow had passed through many hours of pain, delirium, and exhausting mental struggle. There was no longer even a faint flicker of hope left in his mind: to pray “Thy will be done” now meant asking God for strength to die with the fortitude of a servant who had been loyal unto death. Thoughts of what would happen to his wife and son, whom he was leaving behind him completely unprovided for in a country that he had never regarded as his homeland, began to oppress him more and more; and his inability to give any directions for the future to the unsuspecting woman who was so soon to become a helpless widow preyed ever increasingly on his mind. Yet he knew that his lips had to remain sealed in her presence. To endure her grief and her despair in addition to those torments of body and soul through which he was now passing would have been more than he could endure. The man who had been regarded in every way as a rock was beginning to crumble under the incessant hammer-blows of excruciating pain, his resistance undermined by his own doubts and fears.

Late in the afternoon Strehlow could bear the cruel struggle no longer: he would have to shed his pride in the strength of his own self-sufficiency and confide his last requests to a sympathetic person who could be trusted both to keep them secret while he lived and to carry them out after his death. Hesitantly he turned towards his wife, trying to screw up his courage to ask her to leave the room. Mrs Strehlow was quite unaware of the struggle that was going on in her husband’s mind. She had been sitting patiently opposite to him, attempting to cheer his spirits by informing him of the moves that were being made to bring a doctor to his side. “Darling,” she said, with a ring of relief and hope in her voice, “just think of it – the doctor should be here by Saturday afternoon. Everything will be all right after that. He will be able to give you relief immediately. And when you are stronger again, we will be able to go on, and this time in a car. Mr Wurst is merely waiting in Oodnadatta for new car parts, and then he will make the second attempt to come here to Horseshoe Bend.”

“Frieda,” the sick man suddenly interrupted her, “please ask Mrs Elliot to come. I want to talk to her – and, please understand me, I want to talk to her alone.”

Mrs Strehlow looked at him in staggered surprise. She had never before been asked to leave her husband’s room unless he had wanted to talk to someone in a purely official or clerical capacity. But surely he could have no clerical reasons at this moment for seeing Mrs Elliot? However, she rose and left without asking any questions, only too willing to humour her husband and always ready to believe that his actions were invariably prompted by the best of reasons, even if he would not give them to her. “Mrs Elliot,” she said, when she came into the hotel kitchen, “my husband wants to speak to you. And he wants to speak to you alone. I will wait here. Please go – he is almost too weak to talk this afternoon.”

Mrs Elliot hesitated for a moment; for the thought of being alone with a dying man terrified her. Then she noted the pleading look in Mrs Strehlow’s face and assented. She hurried into the sickroom. One glance at the sufferer’s tortured and twitching face, red and purple from the neverending struggle of breathing, told her that the man before her would not have many more days, or even hours, to live.

“Mr Strehlow, I believe you asked for me to come,” she said in a low voice, trying hard to conceal her shock at the obviously serious deterioration of his condition. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

“Please do sit down,” Strehlow replied. “Yes, Mrs Elliot, I want to ask you to help me, please. There are several things I want to talk to you about. ”

Mrs Elliot pulled up a chair and sat down close to him so that he did not have to raise his voice much above a whisper. His breath was coming in half-choked gasps, and she wished to save him any unnecessary physical strain.

“I must be brief,” Strehlow explained. “My strength has almost gone.” She nodded sympathetically.

He paused for a moment, summoning up his courage to give his final confidences to a young woman who had been a virtual stranger to him before she had come to take him away from Idracowra. Always self-reliant in the extreme, he had never fully put his trust in any man, still less in a woman, but always only in God. Mrs Elliot, however, had been different. Though she still looked only a charming young girl, she had proved herself to be a spirited woman whose strength of purpose and physical stamina were beautifully matched by her deep compassion for him and by her kindness to everyone who needed her help. Strehlow felt that, of all the people present at Horseshoe Bend, she was the only person who could now be told the full truth about his condition and given the last directions for assisting his loved ones after his death.

“Mrs Elliot,” he began hesitatingly, “I am dying. I have not many more hours to live.”

“Don’t say that,” she urged, trying to comfort him though she knew only too well that he was speaking the truth. “You are much stronger than you think. Gus’ll bring the doctor back by Saturday afternoon, and after that everything will be all right with you.”

“No, Mrs Elliot,” he continued, “I know that I am dying. And I think you know too. And so does your husband. But my wife does not. And she must not be told. I want her to have peace while I am still alive. I am afraid that she will break down completely when I’m gone. It will be hard on her. She has always relied on me in everything. She will not know what to do once she is a widow.”

Although he had spoken in short sentences to save any undue exertions in breathing, he now had to pause for some moments to regain his strength. The young woman waited in silence. She knew that there are moments when being listened to in unspoken sympathy brings more comfort to a sufferer than all the words of comfort that may be stored in the listener’s vocabulary. For when death approaches, not even a lifelong partner or the closest and dearest friend may accompany the dying person on his last grim and lonely journey.

Strehlow continued slowly, “Please, Mrs Elliot, comfort my wife when I’m gone. Only a woman can understand a woman’s grief. I am glad that I will die at a place where there is a woman to comfort my wife. And please help her and my son to get down safely from here to Oodnadatta. All our horses are knocked-up. Many of them have already been left behind. And my wife will need supplies for the road – I can no longer attend to anything.”

“Don’t worry about anything, Mr Strehlow,” replied Mrs Elliot, glad for this opportunity of saying some words of cheer at last. “Gus and I will look after everything, if anything happens. We’ll let you have fresh horses from The Bend for a start, and there’ll be the car to take your family down from The Charlotte. Gus’ll look after the supplies from the store. So, please, don’t worry about what might happen to your family. Gus and myself, and all the other station people between here and Oodnadatta, will look after them. Everybody’ll treat them like their own folk. And, in any case, I’m sure the doctor will still be able to pull you through when he comes.”

Strehlow shook his head wearily and continued hesitatingly, “And here’s my last request. Mrs Elliot, you and your husband and all the station people along the Finke have been so very good to us. But I am not leaving much money behind, and I can’t do much to repay your many acts of kindness.”

“Nobody would think of accepting anything from you, Mr Strehlow,” swiftly interposed Mrs Elliot, in a tone of light indignation. “It’s one of the laws of the bush that everybody has to help the man who’s down and out. All of us would be offended if you’d offer us any money for doing what is only right and proper. That’s the sort o’ thing people down south might do, but nobody up here’d ever dream of accepting payment for helping somebody that needed it.”

“I know,” replied Strehlow; “and that is why I am asking you to help me now. The bush people won’t accept any money from me. But they’ll never refuse a bottle of brandy or whisky. Would you please ask your husband when he returns to send a couple of bottles of brandy or whisky up to Bob Buck and Allan Breaden, and to let the men in your hotel have a few rounds of drinks in your bar on my account? And I also want your husband to put aside a couple of bottles for himself at my expense. After all, that’s the custom of this country. I saw it for myself when I buried old Mr Sargeant here ten years ago. And please send this chair back to Henbury – I promised Bob Buck he could have it when I no longer needed it. I want the bush people to know how much I have appreciated all they have done for us. Please give all of them my thanks. And may God bless you and your husband and all the bush people for what you and they have done for me. And I pray He will reward you richly by giving you all the happiness that you want in your life.”

At the last remark the young woman suddenly started as though someone had touched a hidden sore with a sharp point. But she composed herself again in a few moments and looked at him with deep compassion. She quietly brushed some tears from her eyes and forced herself to smile at him.

“I promise you that I’ll do everything you’ve asked me to do,” she said in a firm voice, suppressing an almost overwhelming urge to sob. “Gus’ll help me. He always has in the past. And one thing more: Gus and I, like the rest of us bush folk, are only too proud to have this chance of showing you and your wife how much we all admire and respect both of you.”

Strehlow wearily laid his chin back on his cupped hands, and his elbows once more dug deeply into his swollen knees. “May God bless you all,” he whispered as he shut his tired eyes. Seeing that he was too exhausted to continue talking, Mrs Elliott excused herself and softly went out of the room. Her place was taken once more by Mrs Strehlow. But though the latter wondered what had passed between her husband and Mrs Elliot, she did not ask him any questions.

It was sufficient for her to know that her husband, though still in extreme physical distress, was clearly looking much more composed after this confidential talk than he had done earlier that afternoon.

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