Dick Donovan.

Out there : a romance of Australia online

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supper for men who had been living on scant supplies
of food for weeks. Here Nature seemed to have
provided a wealth of everything water, game, grass,
wood. It was an oasis in a desert land.

The following morning, as the sun was rising,
flinging out an affluence of light and warmth, Gordon
took Preston on one side, saying that he had a
suggestion to make. He looked pale and haggard.
His usually bright eyes were dim and bloodshot.

" You suggested some days ago," he began, " that
I was afraid, a coward "

" No, I didn't go quite to that length."

" Don't interrupt. Listen to what I've got to say.
I am going to put your courage to the test now. We
are apparently within measurable distance of our goal,
but whether success -or failure is to be our lot it is
impossible to say. Your oversight in not bringing
Blewitt's map and written particulars has reduced us
to the position of men groping in the dark."

Harold made a gesture as if about to speak, but
checked himself.

" With nothing to guide us, we've got to use such
intelligence and instincts as we possess to locate the
gold," continued Gordon. " We are prospectors with-
out any experience, and I am not at all sanguine that
we shall reap any reward for all that we have endured.
Now what I suggest is this : we leave our men here
where they can exist in comfort for a time and recoup
for the homeward journey, while you and I, with two
horses, push out into the mountains. At any rate
something has got to be accomplished before we turn
back. I am not going back without fulfilling my
purpose."

Gordon's appearance was that of a man who was
suffering, who was ill. The other members of the
party had preserved their health fairly well. Little
touches of fever had been cured with quinine, and
nothing had occurred to cause the least alarm. Harold
himself had remained remarkably fit. Gordon was the
only one of the party who seemed to be on the verge
of breakdown, and somewhat alarmed by his pallor
and seeming weakness, Harold said :



THE RIVALS 163

" No, I don't agree with your proposal. It seems
to me "

Gordon did not give him time to finish the sentence,
but bursting into a mocking laugh, he exclaimed in
a bitter, taunting manner :

" Ah, you are the coward; you are afraid."

Harold was stung by the taunt. His opposition to
the proposal had been prompted by a kindly consider-
ation for his friend, and this reflection on his courage
wounded him. He had endured Gordon's reproaches
and ill humour to the limit of his patience, and he
now realised that the moment had arrived for him to
assert himself. He could no longer remain passive
under these repeated insults. It seemed to him only
too evident that if absolute failure was to be the end
of the expedition, and that was the prospect staring
them in the face, Gordon would put all the blame
upon him, and reconciliation would be difficult; indeed
it would probably lead to lasting enmity on Gordon's
part, for he was of an unforgiving nature when his
pride had been wounded. He had often given evidence
of that in the past.

Without displaj'ing any trace of temper or ill
feeling, but with a determined air he said :

" Your charge of cowardice, Oliver, is unjust. I
was thinking of you

" Your s\-mpatW is offensive. I don't want it."

" That settles it. You need not say anything more.
We'll go, even if death awaits 1 us."

" Even if death awaits us," repeated Gordon with
a strange look in his eyes.



CHAPTER XVIII

TENSE MOMENTS

" In a deep ravine walled by rugged heights,
Through the toiling day> and the restless nights
I felt, 'neath the spell of that gloomy place,
That a change had come o'er my comrade's face."

IN the course of the day Harold informed the men of
the proposal. Pete Radley raised some objection,
saying that he did not consider it right two men
should take the risks of going into the mountains by
themselves. Gordon remained silent. Harold over-
ruled the objection, and determined that the men
should remain where they were for six weeks, taking
every precaution to guard against possible attacks
from wander-ing natives. If at the end of the six
weeks he and Gordon had not returned, a cache was
to be made of some of the provisions, the place where
they were concealed being indicated by a stone
column ; the camp was then to be broken up, and the
men were to return home as rapidly as possible.

The following morning, as soon as day had broken
and breakfast had been partaken of, Preston and
Gordon bade good-bye to their comrades, and leading
two horses, endeavoured to find a route through the
tangle of foothills. Their outfit was as ample as the
resources of the remaining supplies allowed. They
were well furnished with arms and ammunition, mining
tools, and a small bag of oatmeal, a bag of flour, some
tinned foods, and about twenty pounds of bacon.

As they proceeded farther towards the mountains
the difficulties of finding a route increased : huge rocks
and inaccessible ridges barred their progress. There
was a marked coldness between the two men, though
Gordon was responsible for it. He had become sullen,
164



TENSE MOMENTS 165

gloomy, taciturn, and once again he reproached his
companion for having forgotten the map, and with
cowardice, when in view of the difficulties they had
to encounter, Harold hinted at the wisdom of return-
ing. From that moment Harold mentally resolved
that no suggestion of going back should pass his lips
whatever happened. His bushcraft, which was much
superior to Gordon's, stood them in good stead now,
and he displayed a skill and instinct in picking out a
route which at last brought them to a spot from which
the}- obtained a view of the Ranges, and forbidding
enough they looked. Dark ravines, knife-like ridges,
rocky spurs clothed with patches of forest, and
repelling precipices were the chief features of a scene
of primitive savagery and utter desolation. Outlined
against the blue of the sky, they presented a mass of
splintered and shattered aiguilles and tortured
pinnacles. Under the ever-shifting lights that played
over them, their appearance constantly changed,
sometimes they were bright with splashes of colour,
at others it seemed as if they were wrapped in a
funeral pall.

Harold remembered that in his description of the
gull}- where he had discovered the gold, Blewitt said
it was almost due south from a landslip that shot out
at right angles from the base of the highest peak.
This landslip when viewed from certain points had
the appearance of a gigantic squatting camel, a rising
projection at the extreme point of the ridge forming
the head and neck. About ten miles in a southerly
line from that natural phenomenon the gold gully ran
back into the heart of the mountain, from which a
cascade fell and formed a stream through the gully,
the bed of the stream yielding quantities of scale
gold.

The explorers searched the Range for this camel-
like resemblance, but failed to locate it. On the
upward slopes the forests were so thick that they had
to cut a path, and often found themselves beset by
the cruel " lawyer vine " (appropriately named) with
its hook-spike leaves, and the " stinging tree " with
its poison leaves that blistered the flesh if they came
in contact with the hands or face. More agreeable



166 " OUT THERE "

than these were the sassafras trees, masses of fragrant
underwood, and a vast variety of flowering shrubs.
It was a wonderful panorama when viewed as a
whole, with an ever-changing aspect owing to the
differing altitudes of the sun, the shifting clouds, the
density or transparency of the atmosphere.

The two desperate men who were fighting every inch
of their way to the base of these grim mountains had
no eye for the beauty, grandeur, and sublimity of the
scene. Gordon only spoke when he was compelled to,
and neither of them suggested retreat. They both
seemed determined to conquer or perish. After many
days of heart-breaking and exhausting work they came
one afternoon, after climbing for hours, dragging
their unwilling horses after them, to the entrance into
a deep gully through which a stream flowed, fed, as
could be seen, by a foaming cascade which came over
a precipice by which the gully was closed at its
farthest end. The gully was hemmed, in by precipi-
tous walls rising abruptly, and densely clothed with
ecrub and trees. " Is this Blewitt's gully? " each
man mentally asked himself.

On one side and easily reached by a long slope was
an immense flat plateau of rock overhanging the
stream. They gained this with a sense of relief, and
resolved to camp there and try their luck. Harold
felt ill and miserable, and his face had become
ghastly pale, but he did not complain. From the
plateau extending into the mountain buttress was a
cavern, the entrance partly curtained by lianas, wild
convolvulus, and fern fronds of enormous size. This
cave suggested comfortable shelter, and Harold
entered to explore, but quickly beat a retreat as he
found the place was the home of an immense number
of black snakes, a deadly species which are fond of
moist places. In order to dislodge these unpleasant
neighbours a quantity of brushwood and sticks were
set on fire, and burning brands were flung into the
cavern, while Gordon and Harold stood with spades
in their hands, and as the reptiles scurried out they
battered them with the spades and flung their bodies
into the ravine. Finally, to thoroughly exterminate
the snakes, they lighted a huge fire of a peculiar



TENSE MOMENTS 167

brushwood, including savine, in the cavern itself.
This wood when burning gave ofi pungent and acrid
fumes which filled every recess of the cavern. Not
until the next morning when the fire had burnt itself
out did the men venture to explore the cave. It was
high, but of no great depth. With branches of tree
they swept it clean, and then gathered fern leaves and
scrub on which to sleep. The horses were hobbled
and turned adrift in a well-grassed cuplike depres-
sion at the foot of the ravine, and preparations were
made for a stay of some days. Harold felt weak
and languid. His skin was hot, his face flushed, his
eyes bloodshot, his lips cracked, and he suffered from,
insatiable thirst.

He knew now that he had been seized with fever that
would certainly prostrate him for a time, even if it did
not kill him, but he resolved to fight against it with
all his strength and will-power. He made no com-
plaint, and though Gordon saw that his companion
was ill, he displayed no sympathy. They had
brought a few simple medicines with them, including
quinine, as well as a supply of brandy; Harold
proceeded to doctor himself as best he could, and all
that day rested whilst Gordon went out with hi*
gun, returning towards the evening with some birds
and a couple of rock wallabies, which furnished an
ample supper.

The following day the sick man felt slightly better,
and after breakfast he carried some tools down to the
bottom of the ravine, and selecting a likely spot,
began to pan the dirt from the stream, seeking for
gold, whilst Gordon undertook to prospect for quartz.
Harold was rewarded by some specks of gold in his
tin dish, and thinking he might obtain better results
lower down the stream where fallen rocks formed a
natural dam, he shifted his position; stooping on the
bank of the stream he began to fill his dish with sand^
when suddenly he was startled by the report of a gun,
heard the whish of a bullet close to his ear, and saw
it strike and embed itself in the trunk of a hardwood
tree, growing on the other side of the ravine. He
dropped his dish, sprang to his feet, swung round,
and beheld Gordon holding in his right hand the



168 " OUT THERE "

double-barrelled pistol he had shown to his friend in
Gordonstown; a little film of blue smoke was still
issuing from the muzzle of the weapon.

"My God! " exclaimed Gordon, "what a clumsy
fool I am. I fired at a rock wallaby and nearly hit
you." His face was deadly pale, there was a look of
fierce intentness in his eyes.

For some moments Harold stood motionless. The
agony of his mind was torturing. Was it possible,
he thought, that his friend intended to murder him ?
He had a revolver in a leather case attached to the
belt around his waist. He unbuttoned the flap of the
case, laid his hand on the butt of the revolver,
approached Gordon, and looking him full in the eyes,
he said with a deadly menace in his tone :

" Oliver, you lie. There was no rock wallaby
there."

" 1 give you the lie back," retorted Gordon
passionately.

"It is unusual to fire at a rock wallaby with a
bullet."

" That's true," snapped Gordon, " but I saw the
animal on a rock on the other side of the gully,
and impulsively fired. I am sorry. I admit my
clumsiness. I am ashamed of my markmanship."

Harold was sick with doubt. Gordon's manner
puzzled him. His unflinching gaze and immobile face
told him nothing. The two men stood facing each
other for some moments. They were alone in the
solitude, far removed from civilisation. It was man
to man. If it meant a quarrel and fight to the death,
there was only the eye of God to witness. The
savagery of Nature was around them, one thing
preyed upon another, but for the first time since these
solemn and eternal mountains took shape and form
civilised men desecrated them with a display of the
envy and jealousy inherent in every human heart.

Instinctively Harold still kept his hand on the butt
of his revolver. Suddenly he withdrew his hand,
folded his arms on his breast, and in a strangely calm
voice said, as he fixed a piercing gaze on the other
man's face :

" Oliver, I am neither a coward nor a fool, although



TENSE MOMENTS 169

you have accused me of being both. If you are
desirous of killing me you shall have a chance of
doing so, but you shall pit your life against mine.
We are alone in these fastnesses. If you have a
grievance against me, and we cannot settle it amicably,
get your revolver and face me like a man. It shall
be a duel to the death."

Gordon wilted. His face was ashen grey, his lips
dry and parched; his voice was rasping and husky
when he spoke. Throwing the pistol with which he
had fired, at Harold's feet, he said : " You insinuated
that I tried to murder you in cold blood. If you
really believe that was my intention, you have a very
real grievance. I am now unarmed. Pick up that
pistol. One barrel is still loaded. Send the bullet from
that barrel through my brain and consumnate your
hatred."

" Hatred ! " gasped Harold.

" Yes."

" I don't hate you, Oliver."

" If you believe that I tried to kill you, you cannot
love me."

" My God, Oliver," exclaimed Harold, pressing his
hand to his burning forehead, " what am I to think ? "

" What you will."

Harold covered his face with his hands and sobbed.
Gordon stood immovable, though the muscles under
his eyes twitched, and there was a strange light in
his eyes. Harold's whole being was stirred to its
profoundest depths by a flood of emotion that shook
him as with an ague. It was so hard for him to
think evil of the man for whom he had entertained
such a devoted friendship. To doubt was torture.
He felt as if he would rather die than do him a
wrong. It was horrible to believe that he had fired
that shot with murderous intention, and yet ?

Harold Preston's fine nature was stabbed and torn
with these conflicting thoughts, for while he doubted
one moment, the next he felt that he was doing his
companion a damnable wrong. At last with an
irresistible impulse he flung out his hand, his voice
pulsed with emotion.

" Give me your hand," he said. " I will, I, must



1 70 " OUT THERE "

believe you. You surely would not murder me in
cold blood."

Gordon took the hand ; his own was cold and
nerveless; there was a grim expression on his face.
He was about to speak, but the words that trembled
on his dried lips remained unuttered, for Harold
reeled, fell against him, nearly knocking him off his
feet, and sank inertly to the ground.



CHAPTER XIX



" And the gorges hid from the light of God
Where the foot of a white man had never trod."

IN a gorge of savage grandeur within a few miles of
the ravine where that dramatic scene had taken place,
a lonely man \vas at work hewing the rock with a
pick. There was 110 vivid verdure, no softness of
light and shade, no splendour of tropical vegetation.
Cliffs with rugose faces rose up perpendicularly to
great heights, keeping the gorge in a perpetual state
of gloom. It seemed as if some strange freak of
Nature had wrinkled these gigantic cliffs until they
resembled the lines on a human forehead. This great
gap in the heart of the mountains had been scooped
out by titanic agency at some far-off period, and the
sun had been forbidden ever to shine there. It was
closed by a piled-up mass of rocks that were shattered
and riven in a most extraordinary manner. Their
summits, brought into relief against the sky,
presented a pectinated appearance, as if a giant hand
had cut out gaps, leaving a huge row of teeth.
Through some of these gaps water flowed, and was
blown by the wind into filmy spray until from base
to summit the rocks glistened. The drippings from
these streams formed a deep, dark, mysterious-looking
pool at the base of the cliffs, and its overflow tore
down the gorge with hoarse murmurings, flung itself
over a wall of rock, and was lost in a sandy belt a
hundred feet below.

The whole place was repellent with an almost
171



172 " OUT THERE "

infernal grimness. It seemed like a haunt of witches
or evil spirits, as perhaps it was. Anyway, it was
not difficult to imagine it one of Nature's hiding-
places where she had buried secrets. The lonely man
evidently thought this, for he worked feverishly with
his pickaxe, as if determined to lay bare the secrets
to the light of day. Probably he was the first man
who had ever set foot in that awful gorge since the
mountains were called into being. As slabs of rock
yielded to the blows of his pick and fell with a crash,
he examined them with blazing, hungering eyes, but
nothing rewarded his search. Suddenly, as if with an
outburst of impetuous anger, he snatched up his tools
and strode fiercely higher up the gorge. He critically
inspected the rocks, and presently began to drive a
hole by means of a small pointed crowbar and a heavy
hammer, which he took from a canvas bag he had
carried with him. Occasionally he poured water from
a tin billy into the hole, and worked with such
feverish energy that the perspiration dripped from his
face in heavy beads. There was a certain fierce,
defiant audacity in the act of that lonely human atom
tapping a tiny hole in those stupendous rocks with a
view to compelling Nature to disclose if she had stored
there the yellow dross, for the possession of which
men will cheat, lie, and kill, and women will sell
their bodies- and souls.

At last, when he had sunk the hole deep enough, he
wiped it out, filled it with gunpowder, put the end
of about six yards of fuse into it, tamped the mouth
of the hole with dead rushes and mud, then stretching
out the fuse cord to its full length, he struck a match
and applied it to the free end of the fuse, and ran
back for some distance.

There was a pause, it seemed to the waiting man
like an age. His heart beat fast, he mopped the
perspiration from his brow. Suddenly a flame of fire
flashed up ; a dense, white pillar of smoke rolled away,
and the gorge resounded with a massive thud that
swelled like a thunderous peal of a monster organ,
broke up into a multiplicity of roars, with distinct
diminuendo and crescendo notes. These in turn died
down to a sudden moan, then suddenly swelled again



WRESTLING WITH DEATH 173

to a vast volume of reverberating sound that was flung
back from rock face to rock face, from crag to crag,
pinnacle to pinnacle. It was as if Titans who had
been sleeping for aeons had awakened and were shaking
the solid walls with howls of rage, which gradually
diminished, and finally died away like the growlings
of far-off thunder. At the first outburst several large
hawks, who had made their homes among the crags
and peaks, sprang into the blue ether with shrill cries,
as if they were uttering maledictions on the disturbers
of their peace. Never before had the sleeping echoes
of that dread gorge been suddenly awakened to life in
such a manner. So startling were these echoes that
the man stood for some minutes as if the awful sounds
sounds suggestive of a world being riven to ruins
had deprived him of all power to move.

At last he stirred, made his way to the shattered
rock, and examined the debris with eager eyes, going
down on to his knees and turning pieces of stone over
with his hands. But his search was fruitless. The
rock was silica, but showed no trace of gold. The man.
rose with an imprecation on his lips : he was bitterly
disappointed. He gathered his tools together with a
fierce anger, thrust them into the bag, swung the bag
over his shoulder, and reflecting the gloom of the
place in his haggard face, he made his way out of that
awful gorge with a weary, uncertain gait.

Within the cavern on the plateau, on a bed of leaves
and ferns on which a blanket was spread, Harold
Preston tossed and rolled in the throes of a deadly
fever. His face burned with a hectic flush, his eyes
were glassy, his hair was wet with moisture. He was
wrestling with death, lonely and desolate. Then there
came to him Oliver Gordon, the man. who had been
working in the sunless gorge. He flung his canvas
bag of tools down with a muttered curse. His hair
was unkempt, his face pallid and pinched, his clothes
ragged and muddy. He seated himself on an upturned
empty box in the entrance of the cavern, rested his
elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. Harold
turned his sunken eyes to him, and said, feebly :

"Well, have you found anything? "



174 " OUT THERE "

" Not a damned speck."

There was a long silence. Gordon still sat and
nursed his wrath.

The sun was setting, flinging back from the West
a flood of pale, chrome-coloured light that filled the
ravine and illuminated the cavern, bringing into
startling relief the fever-stricken man tossing on his
couch of leaves, his eyes like glowing coals, and his
companion sunk in the depths of despondency.

Presently Preston stirred and tossed out his hand
with a gesture of despair.

" My God this is awful," he groaned.

" Awful! " echoed Gordon with a hollow laugh, the
laugh of a man whose heart is full of bitterness. " It's
tragedy."

" Yes, tragic in its horror and misery; but we must
endure and suffer in patience."

"Endure and suffer in patience! " Gordon raised
his head up with a movement of passion ; the expres-
sion in his eyes denoted the exasperation that stirred
his pulses. " Why should I endure and suffer? " He
laid a strong emphasis on the personal pronoun.

"It is a man's duty to endure and suffer with
patience when disaster overtakes him," said Harold.
" We came into this business with open eyes; we took
our fate in our hands when we dared the wilderness."

'* I didn't," snapped Oliver fiercely. " I think I
was mad, blind. You lured me into it."

"Why put all the blame on me?" Harold asked
pathetically.

" Why ! W T ho else is to blame ? Had you not been
idiot enough to leave that chart behind things might
not have been as bad as they are."

"Have you no sympathy for me? " asked Harold
in a feeble, broken voice. His weakness was
extreme.

" Why should I have sympathy? "

" Then your friendship has been make-believe? "
said the invalid, fixing his burning eyes on the other
man's tortured face.

Gordon sprang up, kicked the box away savagely,
and stood over the prostrate man menacingly.

" We won't quarrel now," he said hoarsely. " I



WRESTLING WITH DEATH 175

ain going to have another try to locate the gold. If I
fail, well "

He broke off. abruptly, snatched up a tin can, went
down to the stream, filled it with water, and returning,
placed it on the hot ashes of the fire. He then cut
some pemmican into small pieces, and putting them
into the water, made a soup which he divided between
himself and his companion. This soup, together with
some hard biscuits, constituted the supper. The sick
man drank the soup eagerly, but could not eat the
biscuits.

"Will you have a pipe?" Gordon asked with a
surly gruff ness.

" No. I am off my smoke."

" I should say you are off everything."

Harold looked at the other reproachfully. The
harsh, unsympathetic manner of Gordon stabbed him
like a knife, but he remained silent. His wretchedness


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Online LibraryDick DonovanOut there : a romance of Australia → online text (page 13 of 22)