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Edward John Eyre - Vol 2 - Ch 2

Reflections Upon Situation — Watch for the Arrival of the Native Boys — Their Probable Fate — Proceed on The Journey — Facility of Obtaining Water — Kill a Horse for Food — Silver-Bark Tea-Tree — Intense Cold — First Hills Seen — Good Grass — Appetite of a Native — Injurious Effects of Unwholesome Diet — Change in the Character of the Country — Granite Forms the Low Water Level — Tree Washed on Shore — Indisposition.

May 3 Continued

Having at last got fairly beyond all the cliffs bounding the Great Bight, I fully trusted that we had now overcome the greatest difficulties of the undertaking, and confidently hoped that there would be no more of those fearful long journeys through the desert without water, but that the character of the country would be changed, and so far improved as to enable us to procure it, once at least every thirty or forty miles, if not more frequently.

Relieved from the pressure of immediate toil, and from the anxiety and suspense I had been in on the subject of water, my mind wandered to the gap created in my little party since we had last been at water; more than ever, almost, did I feel the loss of my overseer, now that the last and most difficult of our forced marches had been successfully accomplished, and that there was every hope of our progress for the future, being both less difficult and more expeditious. How delighted he would have been had he been with us to participate in the successful termination of a stage, which he had ever dreaded more than any other during the whole of our journey, and with what confidence and cheerfulness he would have gone on for the future. Out of five two only were now present; our little band had been severed never to be reunited; and I could not but blame myself for yielding to the overseer’s solicitation to halt on the evening of the 29th April, instead of travelling on all night as I had originally intended: had I adhered to my own judgment all might yet have been well. Vain and bootless, however, now were all regrets for the irrecoverable past; but the present was so fraught with circumstances calculated to recal and to make me feel more bitterly the loss I had sustained, that painful as the subject was, the mind could not help reverting to and dwelling upon it.

Having given each of the horses a bucket of water, Wylie watched them whilst I cooked our dinner and made some tea, after getting which we again gave the horses another bucket of water a-piece, hobbled them out for the night, and then lay down ourselves, feeling perfectly secure from being overtaken by the native boys. We were obliged to place ourselves close to the hole of water to keep the horses from getting into it, as they were thirsty and restless, and kept walking round the well nearly the whole night, and feeding very little. We ourselves, too, although dreadfully tired and weak, were so cold and restless, that we slept but little. I had also a large swelling on two of the joints of the second finger of the right hand, which gave me very great pain.

May 4

May 4. — After an early breakfast we gave the horses as much water as they chose to drink, and removing their hobbles gave them full liberty to range where they liked. I then left Wylie to continue his slumbers, and taking my rifle, walked about three miles among the sand-drifts to search for grass, but could find none, except the coarse vegetation that grew amongst the sand-drifts. I found two other places where the natives got water by digging, and have no doubt that it may be procured almost anywhere in these drifts, which extend for some miles, along the coast. Some black cockatoos made their appearance near the sand-hills, indicating, in connection with the change I had noticed in the vegetation, that we were now about entering a different and less difficult country than any we had yet traversed. These birds I knew never inhabited that description of country we had been so long travelling through. We had not seen one before, during our whole journey, and poor Wylie was quite delighted at the idea of our vicinity to a better region.

During the day a strict look out was kept for the other two natives, and at night, after watering the horses and concealing the saddles, we took our provisions and arms up among the sand-hills, and slept there at some distance from the water: that if they travelled onwards by moon-light, they might not come upon us unawares whilst sleeping. If they had continued their route to the westward, they would, I knew, both have a severe task to reach the water, and be unable to go to it without our knowledge; the youngest boy I did not think would prove equal to so arduous a task, but the elder one I thought might, if his courage and perseverance did not fail him in travelling so far, without any indications to lead him to hope for final success, save the fact of our having gone on before. Upon the whole, however, I thought it more than probable that on finding they could not get Wylie to join them, and that they could not keep pace with us, they would turn back, and endeavour to put in practice their original intention of trying to reach Fowler’s Bay. Still it was necessary to be cautious and vigilant. A few days at most would decide whether they were advancing this way or not, and until satisfied upon this point, I determined to take every precaution in my power to guard against a surprise. My hand was dreadfully painful at night, and quite deprived me of all rest.

May 5

May 5. — Up before day-break, and moved down to the water to breakfast, then examined carefully round the wells, and between the sand-drifts and the sea, to see if any foot-prints had been made during the night, but none had. There were many pigeons about, and as I had still some ammunition left, I felt the loss of my gun severely. During the morning a very large eagle came and settled near us, and I sent Wylie with the rifle to try to shoot it; he crept within a very few yards of it, and being a good shot, I felt sure of a hearty meal, but unfortunately the rifle missed fire, having got damp during the heavy fall of dew a few evenings before. We lost our dinner, but I received a useful lesson on the necessity of taking better care of the only gun I had left, and being always certain that it was in a fit and serviceable state; I immediately set to work, cleaned and oiled it, and in the afternoon made some oil-skin covers for the lock and muzzle to keep the damp from it at nights. For the last day or two I had been far from well, whilst my inflamed hand, which was daily getting worse, caused me most excruciating pain, and quite destroyed my rest at nights. In the evening we again retired among the sand-hills to sleep.

May 6

May 6. — After breakfast we carefully examined the sand-drifts and the sea-shore, to see if the two boys had passed, but there were no traces of them to be found, and I now felt that we were secure from all further interruption from them. Three days we had been in camp at the water, making altogether a period of six since we last saw them. Had they continued their course to the westward, they must have arrived long before this, and I now felt satisfied that they had turned back to Fowler’s Bay for the sake of the provisions buried there, or else they had fallen in with the natives, whose traces we had so repeatedly seen, and either joined them, or been killed by them.

It was now apparent to me beyond all doubt, that in following us on the 30th of April, so far out of the direction they ought to have taken if they intended to go to the eastward, their only object had been to get Wylie to accompany them. As he was the eldest of the three, and a strong full grown man, they would have found him a protection to them from his superior age, strength and skill. As it was they had but little chance of making their way safely either to the east or west. At the time I last saw them they were sixty-three miles from the nearest water in the former direction, and eighty-seven miles from that in the latter. They were tired and exhausted from previous walking, and in this state would have to carry the guns, the provisions, and other things they had taken. This would necessarily retard their progress, and lengthen out the period which must elapse before they could obtain water in any direction. On the night of the 29th April they must have had one gallon of water with them, but when we saw them on the 30th, I have no doubt, that with their usual improvidence, they had consumed the whole, and would thus have to undergo the fatigue of carrying heavy weights, as well as walking for a protracted period, without any thing to relieve their thirst. Their difficulties and distress would gradually but certainly increase upon them, and they would then, in all likelihood, throw away their guns or their provisions, and be left in the desert unarmed, without food or water, and without skill or energy to direct them successfully to search for either. A dreadful and lingering death would in all probability terminate the scene, aggravated in all its horrors by the consciousness that they had brought it entirely upon themselves. Painfully as I had felt the loss of my unfortunate overseer, and shocked as I was at the ruthless deed having been committed by these two boys, yet I could not help feeling for their sad condition, the miseries and sufferings they would have to encounter, and the probable fate that awaited them.

The youngest of the two had been with me for four years, the eldest for two years and a half, and both had accompanied me in all my travels during these respective periods. Now that the first and strong impressions naturally resulting from a shock so sudden and violent as that produced by the occurrences of the 29th April, had yielded, in some measure, to calmer reflections, I was able maturely to weigh the whole of what had taken place, and to indulge in some considerations in extenuation of their offence. The two boys knew themselves to be as far from King George’s Sound, as they had already travelled from Fowler’s Bay. They were hungry, thirsty, and tired, and without the prospect of satisfying fully their appetites, or obtaining rest for a long period of time, they probably thought, that bad and inhospitable as had been the country we had already traversed, we were daily advancing into one still more so, and that we never could succeed in forcing a passage through it; and they might have been strengthened in this belief by the unlucky and incautiously-expressed opinions of the overseer. It was natural enough, under such circumstances, that they should wish to leave the party. Having come to that determination, and knowing from previous experience, that they could not subsist upon what they could procure for themselves in the bush, they had resolved to take with them a portion of the provisions we had remaining, and which they might look upon, perhaps, as their share by right. Nor would Europeans, perhaps, have acted better. In desperate circumstances men are ever apt to become discontented and impatient of restraint, each throwing off the discipline and control he had been subject to before, and each conceiving himself to have a right to act independently when the question becomes one of life and death.

Having decided upon leaving the party, and stealing a portion of the provisions, their object would be to accomplish this as effectually and as safely as they could; and in doing this, they might, without having had the slightest intention originally, of injuring either myself or the overseer, have taken such precautions, and made such previous arrangements as led to the fatal tragedy which occurred. All three of the natives were well aware, that as long as they were willing to accompany us, they would share with us whatever we had left; or that, if resolutely bent upon leaving us, no restriction, save that of friendly advice, would be imposed to prevent their doing so; but at the same time they were aware that we would not have consented to divide our little stock of food for the purpose of enabling any one portion of the party to separate from the other, but rather that we would forcibly resist any attempts to effect such a division, either openly or by stealth. They knew that they never could succeed in their plans openly, and that to do so by stealth effectually and safely, it would first be necessary to secure all the fire-arms, that they might incur no risk from our being alarmed before their purpose was completed. No opportunity had occurred to bring their intentions into operation until the evening in question, when the scrubby nature of the country, the wildness of the night, the overseer’s sound sleeping, and my own protracted absence, at a distance with the horses, had all conspired to favour them. I have no doubt, that they first extinguished the fires, and then possessing themselves of the fire-arms, proceeded to plunder the baggage and select such things as they required. In doing this they must have come across the ammunition, and loaded the guns preparatory to their departure, but this might have been without any premeditated intention of making use of them in the way they did. At this unhappy juncture it would seem that the overseer must have awoke, and advanced towards them to see what was the matter, or to put a stop to their proceedings, when they fired on him, to save themselves from being caught in their act of plunder. That either of the two should have contemplated the committal of a wilful, barbarous, cold-blooded murder, I cannot bring myself to believe — no object was to be attained by it; and the fact of the overseer having been pierced through the breast, and many yards in advance of where he had been sleeping, in a direction towards the sleeping-place of the natives, clearly indicated that it was not until he had arisen from his sleep, and had been closely pressing upon them, that they had fired the fatal shot. Such appeared to me to be the most plausible and rational explanation of this melancholy affair — I would willingly believe it to be the true one.

Wylie and I moved on in the evening, with the horses for two miles, and again pitched our camp among the sand-drifts, at a place where the natives were in the habit of digging wells for water, and where we procured it at a very moderate depth below the surface. Pigeons were here in great numbers, and Wylie tried several times with the rifle to shoot them, but only killed one, the grooved barrel not being adapted for throwing shot with effect.

At midnight we arose and moved onwards, following along the beach. I intended to have made a long stage, as I no longer had any fears about not finding water; but at nine miles one of the horses knocked up, and could proceed no farther, I was compelled, therefore, to turn in among the sand-drifts, and halt at five in the morning of the 7th. We were again fortunate in procuring water by digging only two feet under the sand-hills, which were here very high, and were a continuation of those in which we had first found water on the 3rd. In the afternoon, I again tried to advance upon our journey, but after proceeding only four miles, the jaded horse was again unable to move further, and there was no alternative but to halt and search for water. This was found among the sand-hills, but we could procure nothing but the coarse grass growing upon the drifts for the animals to eat.

May 8

May 8. — About two hours before daylight, rain began to fall, and continued steadily though lightly for three hours, so that enough had fallen to deposit water in the ledges or holes of the rocks. The day was wild and stormy, and we did not start until late. Even then we could only get the tired horse along for three miles, and were again compelled to halt. Water was still procured, by digging under the sand-hills, but we had to sink much deeper than we had lately found occasion to do. It was now plain, that the tired horse would never be able to keep pace with the others, and that we must either abandon him, or proceed at a rate too slow for the present state of our commissariat. Taking all things into consideration, it appeared to me that it would be better to kill him at once for food, and then remain here in camp for a time, living upon the flesh, whilst the other horses were recruiting, after which I hoped we might again be able to advance more expeditiously. Upon making this proposal to Wylie, he was quite delighted at the idea, and told me emphatically that he would sit up and eat the whole night. Our decision arrived at, the sentence was soon executed. The poor animal was shot, and Wylie and myself were soon busily employed in skinning him. Leaving me to continue this operation, Wylie made a fire close to the carcase, and as soon as he could get at a piece of the flesh he commenced roasting some, and continued alternately, eating, working and cooking. After cutting off about 100 pounds of the best of the meat, and hanging it in strips upon the trees until our departure, I handed over to Wylie the residue of the carcase, feet, entrails, flesh, skeleton, and all, to cook and consume as he pleased, whilst we were in the neighbourhood. Before dark he had made an oven, and roasted about twenty pounds, to feast upon during the night. The evening set in stormy, and threatened heavy rain, but a few drops only fell. The wind then rose very high, and raged fiercely from the south-west. At midnight it lulled, and the night became intensely cold and frosty, and both Wylie and myself suffered severely, we could only get small sticks for our fire, which burned out in a few minutes, and required so frequently renewing, that we were obliged to give it up in despair, and bear the cold in the best way we could. Wylie, during the night, made a sad and dismal groaning, and complained of being very ill, from pain in his throat, the effect he said of having to work too hard. I did not find that his indisposition interfered very greatly with his appetite, for nearly every time I awoke during the night, I found him up and gnawing away at his meat, he was literally fulfilling the promise he had made me in the evening, “By and bye, you see, Massa, me ‘pta’ (eat) all night.”