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Tracks in the Bush by John Lang


A STOCKMAN in my employment was, not many years ago missing from a cattle-station, distant from Sydney about two hundred and thirty miles. The man had gone one afternoon in search of a horse that had strayed. Not having returned at night or the next morning, the natural conclusion was that he had been lost in the bash. I at once called in the aid of the blacks, and, attended by two European servants (stockmen), headed the expedition. The chief difficulty lay in getting on the man's track; and several hours were spent before this important object was accomplished. The savages exhibited some ingenuity even in this. They described large circles round the hut whence the man had taken his departure, and kept on extending them until they were satisfied they had the proper foot-prints. The track once found, half a dozen of the blacks went off like a pack of hounds. Now and then, in the dense forest through which we wandered in our search, there was a check, in consequence of the extreme dryness of the ground; or the wind had blown about the fallen leaves of the gigantic gum--trees, which abound in those regions; but, for the most part, the course was straight on end.

We had provided ourselves with flour, salt beef, tea, sugar, blankets, and other personal comforts. These were carried on a horse which a small black boy, of about fourteen years of age, rode in the rear.

On the first day we continued our search until the sun had gone down, and then pitched our camp and waited for daylight. With their tomahawks the blacks stripped off large sheets of bark from the gum-trees, and cut down a few saplings. With these we made a hut; at the opening of which we lighted a fire, partly for boiling the water for tea, and partly for the purpose of keeping off the mosquitoes. During the night we had a very heavy storm of lightning and thunder, accompanied by torrents of rain This, I fancied, would render the tracking even more difficult, as the rain was sufficiently heavy to wash out the footprints of a man, had any such footprints been previously perceptible. When the sun arose, however, the blacks, seemingly without difficulty, took up the track and followed it at the rate of two and a half miles an hour until noon, when we halted to take some rest and refreshments.

The foot of civilized man had never before trodden in that wild region: which was peopled only with the kangaroo, the emu, the opossum, and wild cat. The stillness was awful; and, ever and anon, the blacks would cooey (a hail peculiar to the savages of New Holland, which maybe heard several miles off), but--and we listened each time with intense anxiety--there was no response.

At about half-past three in the afternoon of the second day we came to a spot where the blacks expressed, by gestures, that the missing stockman had sat down; and in confirmation of their statement they pointed to a stone, which had evidently been lately removed from its original place. I inquired by gestures whether we were near the lost man; but the blacks shook their heads and held up two fingers, from which I gleaned that two days had elapsed since the man had been there. At five we came to another spot where the missing stockman had lain down, and here we found his short pipe broken. It would be difficult to describe the satisfaction with which I eyed this piece of man's handiwork. It refreshed my confidence in the natives' power of tracking, and made me the more eager to pursue the search with rapidity. By promises of large rewards, I quickened their movements, and we travelled at the rate of four miles an hour. We now came upon a soil covered with immense boulders. This, I fancied, would impede, if not destroy the track; but this was not the case. It is true we could not travel so fast over these large round stones; but the blacks never once halted, except when they came to a spot where they satisfied me the stockman himself had rested. None but those who have been in search of a fellow-creature under similar circumstances can conceive the anxiety which such a search creates. I could not help placing myself in the position of the unhappy man, who was roaming about as one blindfolded, and probably hoping on even in the face of despair. Again we came a forest of huge gum-trees.

At times the gestures of the blacks, while following the footprints of the stockman, indicated to me that he had been running. At other times, they imitated the languid movements of a weary and footsore traveller. They knew exactly the pace at which the poor fellow had wandered about in those untrodden wilds; and now and then, while following in his wake and imitating him, they would laugh merrily. They were not a little amused that I should be angry at and rebuke such a demonstration.

The sun went down, and our second day's search was ended. Again we pitched our camp and lighted fires. We had now travelled about thirty miles from the station, and the blacks, who had now got beyond the precincts of their district, became fearful of meeting with some strange tribe, who would destroy them and myself. Indeed, if I and my European companions had not been armed with a gun each, and a plentiful supply of ammunition, my sable guides would have refused to proceed any further.

All night long I lay awake, imagining, hoping, fearing, and praying for daylight; which at last dawned. Onward we went, through a magnificent country, beautifully wooded, and well watered by streams and covered with luxuriant pasture,--all waste land, in the strictest sense of the term. At about ten we came to a valley in which grew a number of wattle-trees. From these trees, a gum, resembling gum arabic in all its properties, exudes in the warm season. The blacks pointed to the branches, from which this gum had recently been stripped, and indicated that the man had eaten of a pink grub, as large as a silk-worm, which lives in the bark of the wattle--tree. Luckily, he had with him a clasp-knife, with which he had contrived to dig out these grubs, which the blacks assured me were a dainty, but I was not tempted to try them.

On again putting the question to the blacks whether we were near the man of whom we were in search, they shook their heads and held up two fingers. We now came to a clear shallow stream, in which the blacks informed me by gestures that the missing man had bathed; but he had not crossed the stream, as his track lay on the bank we had approached.

After travelling along this bank for about three miles, we came to a huge swamp into which the stream flowed, and ended. Here the footprints were plainly discernible even by myself and my European companions. I examined them carefully, and was pained to find that they confirmed the opinion of the blacks, namely, that they were not fresh. Presently we found the man's boots. These had become too heavy for him to walk in, and too inconvenient to carry, and he had cast them off. Not far from the boots was a red cotton handkerchief, which he had worn round his neck on leaving the station. This, too, he had found too hot to wear in that oppressive weather, and had therefore discarded it.

Following the track, we came to a forest of white gum-trees. The bark of these trees is the colour of cream, and the surface is as smooth as glass. On the rind of one of these trees the man had carved with his knife the following words--

Oh God, have mercy upon me!--T. B.

How fervent and sincere must have been this prayer in the heart, to admit of the hand carving it upon that tree!

Towards evening we came to a tract of country as barren as the desert between Cairo and Suez; but the soil was not sandy, and it was covered with stones of unequal size. Here the miraculous power of the black man's eye astounded us more than ever. The reader must bear in mind that the lost man was now walking barefooted and tenderfooted, and would naturally pick his way as lightly and as cautiously as possible. Nevertheless, the savage tracked his course with scarcely a halt.

Again the sun went down, and again we formed our little camp on the slope of a hill, at the foot of which lay a lagoon, literally covered with wild ducks and black swans. Some of these birds we shot for food, as it was now a matter of prudence, if not of necessity, to husband the flour and meat we had brought with us.

Another sunrise, and we pursued our journey. Towards noon we came to a belt of small mountains composed chiefly of black limestone. Here the blacks faltered; and, after a long and animated discussion amongst themselves--not one word of which I understood--they signified to me that they had lost the track, and could proceed no further. This I was not disposed to believe, and imperatively signalled them to go on. They refused. I then had recourse to promises, kind words, smiles, and encouraging gestures. They were still recusant. I then loaded my gun with ball, and requested the stockmen to do the like. I threatened the blacks that I would shoot them, if they did not take up the track and pursue it. This alarmed them; and, after another discussion amongst themselves, they obeyed me, but reluctantly and sullenly. One of the stockmen, with much foresight, suggested that we ought to make sure of two out of the six black fellows; for, if they had a chance, they would probably escape and leave us to perish in the wilds; and without their aid we could never retrace our steps to the station. I at once acted on this suggestion and bound two of the best of them together by the arms, and carried the end of the cord in my right hand.

At four in the afternoon we had crossed this belt of low mountains, and came upon a tract of country which resembled a well-kept park in England. We were all so greatly fatigued that we were compelled to halt for the night--great as was my longing to proceed--a longing not a little whetted by the fact that the blacks now held up only one finger, in order to express that the object of our search was only one day in advance of us.

At midnight the four blacks who were not bound, and who were in a rude hut a few yards distant, came to the opening of my tenement and bade me listen. I did listen, and heard a sound resembling the beating of the waves against the sea-shore. I explained to them, as well as I possibly could, that the noise was that of the wind coming through the leaves of the trees. This, however, they refused to believe, for there was scarcely a breath of air stirring.

"Can it be that we are near the sea-coast?" I asked myself; and the noise, which every moment became more distinctly audible, seemed to reply, "Yes."

The morning dawned, and to my intense disappointment, I discovered that the four unbound blacks had decamped. They had, no doubt, retraced their steps by the road they had come. The remaining two were now put upon the track, and not for a single moment did I relinquish my hold of the cord. To a certainty they would have escaped, had we not kept a tight hand upon them. Any attempt to reason with them would have been absurd. Fortunately, the boy who had charge of the horse had been faithful, and had remained.

As the day advanced, and we proceeded onward, the sound of the waves beating against the shore became more and more distinct, and the terror of the guides increased proportionately. We were, however, some miles from the ocean, and did not see it until four in the afternoon. The faces of the blacks, when they gazed on the great water, of which they had never formed even the most remote conception, presented a scene which would have been worthy of some great painter's observation.

It was a clear day, not a cloud to be seen in the firmament; but the wind was high, and the dark-blue billows were crested with a milk-white foam. It was from an eminence of some three hundred feet that we looked upon them. With their keen black eyes protruding from their sockets, their nostrils distended, their huge mouths wide open, their long matted hair in disorder, their bands held aloft, their bodies half crouching and half struggling to maintain an erect position; unable to move backward or forward; the perspiration streaming from every pore of their unclothed skin; speechless, motionless, amazed, and terrified, the two inland savages stood paralysed at what they saw. The boy, although astounded, was not afraid.

Precious as was time, I would not disturb their reverie. For ten minutes their eyes were riveted on the sea. By slow degrees their countenances exhibited that the original terror was receding from their hearts; and then they breathed hard, as men do after some violent exertion. They then looked at each other and at us; and, as though reconciled to the miraculous appearance of the deep, they again contemplated the billows with a smile which gradually grew into a loud and meaningless laugh.

On the rocky spot on which we were standing, one of the blacks pointed to his own knees, and placed his forefinger on two spots close to each other. Hence I concluded that the lost man had knelt down there in prayer. I invariably carried about with me, in the bush of Australia, a pocket--magnifying-glass for the purpose of lighting a pipe or a fire; and with this glass I carefully examined the spots indicated by the blacks. But I could see nothing--not the faintest outline of an imprint on that piece of hard stone. Either they tried to deceive us, or their powers of perception were indeed miraculous.

After a brief while we continued our search. The lost man had wandered along the perpendicular cliffs, keeping the ocean in sight. We followed his every step until the sun went down; then halted for the night and secured our guides, over whom, as usual, we alternately kept a very strict watch.

During the night we suffered severely from thirst, and when morning dawned we were compelled to leave the track for a while, and search for water. Providentially we were successful. A cavity in one of the rocks had been filled by the recent rain. Out of this basin our horse also drank his fill.

I may here mention a few peculiarities of the colonial stock-horse. Wherever a man can make his way, so can this quadruped. He becomes, in point of sure-footedness, like a mule, and in nimbleness like a goat, after a few years of servitude in cattle-tending. He will walk down a ravine as steep as the roof of a house, or up a hill that is almost perpendicular. Through the dense brushwood he will push his way with his head, just as the elephant does. He takes to the water like a Newfoundland dog, and swims a river as a matter of course. To fatigue he seems insensible, and can do with the smallest amount of provender. The way in which the old horse which accompanied me in the expedition I am describing got down and got up some of the places which lay in our track would have astounded every person who, like us, had not previously witnessed similar performances.

We pushed on at a speedy pace, and, to my great joy the blacks now represented that the (to me invisible) foot prints were very fresh, and the missing man not far ahead of us. Every place where he had halted, sat down, or lain down, or stayed to drink, was pointed out. Presently we came to an opening in the cliffs which led to the sea-shore, where we found a beautiful bay of immense length. Here I no longer required the aid of the savages in tracking; on the sand from which the waves had receded a few hours previously were plainly visible the imprints of naked feet. The blacks, who had no idea of salt water, laid themselves down on their stomachs for the purpose of taking a hearty draught. The first mouthful, however, satisfied them; and they wondered as much at the taste of the ocean as they lad wondered at the sight thereof.

After walking several miles, the rising of the tide and the bluff character of the coast induced us to avail ourselves of the first opening in the cliffs, and ascend to the high land. It was with indescribable pain I reflected that the approaching waves would obliterate the foot-prints then upon the sand, and that the thread which we had followed up to that moment would certainly be snapped. The faculty possessed by the blacks had defied the wind and the rain; the earth and the rocks had been unable to conceal from the sight of the savage the precise places where the foot of civilized man had trod; but the ocean, even in his repose, makes all men acknowledge his might! We wandered along the cliffs, cooeying from time to time, and listening for a response; but none came, even upon the acutely sensitive ears of the savages. A little before sunset, we came to another opening, leading down to a bay; and here the track of the lost man was again found. He had ascended and pursued his way along the cliffs. We followed until the light failed, and we were compelled to halt. Before doing so we cooeyed in concert, and discharged the fowling-pieces several times, but without effect.

It rained during the night; but ceased before the day had dawned, and we resumed our journey. After an hour's walk, we came upon another opening, and descended to the water's edge; which was skirted by a sandy beach, and extended as far as the eye could compass. Here, too, I could dispense with the aid of the blacks, and followed on the track as fast as possible. Indeed, I and my companions frequently ran. Presently, the lost man's footsteps diverged from the sandy shore, and took to the high land. We had proceeded more than a mile and a half, when the black boy, who was mounted on the horse, and following close at my heels, called, "Him! him!" and pointing to a figure, about seventy yards distant, stretched upon the grass beneath the shade of a wild fig-tree, and near a stream of fresh water.

I recognized at once the stockman; but the question was, Was he living or dead? Having commanded the party to remain where they stood, I approached the body upon tiptoe. The man was not dead, but in a profound slumber; from which I would not awake him. His countenance was pale and haggard, but his breathing was loud and natural. I beckoned the party to approach, and then placed my fore-finger on my lips, as a signal that they were to keep silence.

Within an hour the man awoke, and stared wildly around him. When he saw us, he was under the impression that he had been lost; but that, while searching for the horse, he had not felt weary, lain down, slept, and had dreamed all that had really happened to him. Thus, there was no sudden shock of unexpected good fortune; the effects of which upon him I at first dreaded.

According to the number of days that we had been travelling, and the pace at which we had travelled, I computed that we had walked about one hundred and thirty-five miles; but, according to a map which I consulted, we were not more than eighty miles distant, in a direct line, from the station. On our way back, it was most distressing to observe the emotions of the stockman when he came to or remembered the places where he had rested, eaten, drunk, or slept, during his hopeless wanderings through the wilds of the wildest country in the known world. The wattle-trees from which he had stripped the gum, the stream in which he had bathed, the swamp where he had discarded his boots, the tree on which he had carved his prayer,--the spot where he had broken his pipe,--that very spot upon which he first felt that he was lost in the bush--these and the poignant, sufferings he had undergone had so great an effect upon him, that by the time he returned to the station his intellect entirely deserted him. He, however, partly recovered; but sometimes better, sometimes worse--in a few months it became necessary to have him removed to the government lunatic asylum.


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