A drama of the desert where man is a creature of the sun —a red monster, inexorable and mocking
A LITTLE before dawn they came from the shelter of the tent-fly and ate their morning meal by the camp-fire. Beyond the heat of this there was no warmth then. The dark before dawn was cold, and there had been a desert chill in the air all night, making an extreme of cold for blood thinned by the heat of day.
And the heat of the day inevitably came with the sun that rose over this tract of West Australia and that was never cool, and seldom kind. And since this sun came very close on the heels of the dawn, there was no great length of waiting before the nocturnal shadows departed and the red monster appeared above the rim of the earth, as vivid and inexorable and mocking as any sun lifting clear of a color-stained sea.
And for one at least came bitterness with the sunrise; facing toward it with eyes puckered against the glare, Slade cursed it feelingly. “Shine, you red devil,” he invited. “I reckon nothing’ll put you out, anyway. So shine, and be damned to you!”
Atlee felt the bite of it on his flesh, the heat of its rays so soon upon its rising; but the glare and the heat meant less to him. Possibly he had never known the mockery of it as had Slade the blonde; but he had known it, vaguely and transiently, in the past. It lay in its inevitable and glorified daily coming, its brightness as it crawled steadily into the sky—its repeated coming when you yearned and hoped for a day of shadows, for a day of surcease when you might ride through the lighted hours without the rays of it soaking into you, melting the strength and energy out of you—the very bones of you, burning you up. And there was mockery in the hope unrealized, in the disillusion of a morning when the clouds you saw by night were gone away, or remained but to leave a clear track for the sun in its glaring passage across the emblazoned heavens. Verily that was the mockery of the sun. And it may be that to some men, in some circumstances, hate of the sun amounts to an obsession.
“I’ve lost count of the days since there was a whole day it didn’t shine,” Slade went on. “I can’t even believe there was such a day. If there’s been clouds in the sky they haven’t been any bigger than a pockethandkerchief. Out there where I’ve been, back of Lake White, the sandplains got so hot it was like traveling over the top of a stove. A hundred and twenty in the shade—where there was any—and then some added. Even the camels got sore. And my eyes are still aching with the glare. Gosh, but I’d give my little finger for one day of clouded sky—one whole day with the clouds packing the blue, so the old sun couldn’t get a look through anywhere!”
ATLEE, standing now by the rolled tent-fly—for camp was being broken—eyed him through the smoke of his cigarette. He didn’t know the boy very well. Slade had drifted into his camp but three days ago and had traveled with him, sharing his tent-fly and his grub. It was camp hospitality, that was all. He hadn’t conceived any great liking for Slade; neither had he conceived any conscious dislike. There was just something that kept them from forming the quick friendship that often comes by the camp fires. But Atlee did not know what it was; did not attempt to analyze it; and possibly did not know it existed. He didn’t burrow under the surface of things; there were complexities enough on the surface; and there was work to be done—the packing of gear, the moving on, the toil of the day.
“Here’s Charlie coming with your camels,” he said, looking up. “Got your pack all ready? We’re a bit behind in breaking camp this morning.”
Slade straightened up from his pack as the camels came near, driven by a black in baggy dungaree trousers, and with trunk and shoulders shiny in the morning sunlight.
The black was one of the two who journeyed with Atlee; but there were also Aluna and Petrie, though these were half-castes, girl and boy. They were young. Petrie, the elder, was no more than eighteen; the girl was perhaps seventeen but did not look it. Atlee noticed Slade gazing at her.
She, too, had been packing—cooking utens’ls and blankets. She was bare-headed, bare-footed, barelegged, and bare-armed. But she wore a frock of blue cotton, very loose-fitting and open in a low V, exposing her dark skin and portion of her breasts. Her black hair was not as fuzzy as it might have been, but straight and coarse. She was slight and small. She turned her face to Slade, met his gaze, and turned quickly away. Atlee shrugged, and noticed Slade’s glance rove to Petrie.
The boy was rearranging a saddle-blanket on one of Atlee’s horses. His spurs were strapped on naked, dusty feet, and he wore no shirt; he was brown, lean, supple-muscled; a broad felt hat shaded his dark young face, and his brown eyes were unpuckered by sun-glare. Slade’s gaze roved back to the girl, lingered a moment, and then reverted to the camels.
They were four, tall and grotesque on their spidery legs, and sullenly disdainful with their arched necks, high-held heads. Charlie, the black, herded them on. When they came to a halt, Slade hooshed them down to their knees, commanding them separately and by name—Krishna, Agra, Polly, and Lena.
“They’re good camels,” he told Atlee, not for the first time. “There’s not a dud among ’em, and they’re pretty nimble. I like my cattle to travel. Lena—she’s been my riding camel a long while, and can lose the others, even though she’s a pretty old cow.”
Atlee was strapping the rolled tent-fly on one of the packhorses. Presently, the packing was finished, and
the camp was cleared. He swung astride his saddlehorse. “Well, come on—Ammon’s moved the stock ahead.”
They headed off through the hot sunshine, over the hot earth, with the dust raised by Atlee’s cattle like a fine fog in the air ahead of them. Slade was on one of Atlee’s horses, his camels following. Through the stillness, the breathless air, drifted the murmur of myriad hoofs, the occasional shout of Petrie or the blacks, and the slow padding of walking horses’ hoofs, or the swift tattoo of a horse suddenly spurred along the flank of the mob. And in that fog of fine dust, bright with the sun’s slanting rays, the riders were like figures rendered vague by a veil.
Of necessity the pace was slow, for the cattle were track-weary, lean and hungry, and the heat gave no quarter. Leisurely they ambled along, fanning out, browsing in the scrub, seeking shade and rest near noon. Even the horses lacked spirit
in the flood of sunshine, traveling with low-held heads and slack reins.
And this day was as the other days, and the days that came were as this day—lazy, sleepy, glaring, dusty.
They drifted by, as the cattle drifted over the face of the earth, and as the sparse, ragged white clouds drifted across the face of the sky—always dodging the glaring sun.
But if Slade suffered the glare and bite of the sun with bitterness of spirit, Atlee passed through the brilliant succession of days with contentment in his heart. There were five hundred cattle ahead of him. They were his cattle, and his hopes and ambitions were centred in them and interwoven with them. And ahead of him, by the Ashburton, lay a new lease of land, unexploited and rich in cattle feed and waterholes where they would grow fat and multiply, and where he would build his lonely home. But solitude had never troubled him, and he had his blacks. And also: were there not Aluna and Petrie?
They had traveled this track before with him in his search for new territory. They had been with him a long while—since they were children. They were still scarce more, dependent on him, looking to him to provide. Of a blood that set them halfway between the whites and the blacks, they felt, perhaps, a loneliness that he did not know and a bewilderment in the face of things that likewise was alien to him. They touched the fringe of the white man’s world, but did not understand it—its demands, uncertainties, and menaces. He stood between them and that world, as securely as a coral reef between an atoll and the open treacherous sea; and always it was to him that they turned in their doubts and troubles. Wherefore it came about that as the sun hovered near to setting upon another day of sullen heat, Petrie rode to his side from the rearmost division of cattle—for upon that day of added heat and dust the cattle had been separated into two herds, Atlee and the two blacks taking those in the lead—and spoke to him quietly from the depths of his uneasy heart.
“It is Slade,” he explained. “He rides with us, and the other cattle, and I do not like him. Aluna does not like him either. But—” he spoke with a shrug— “what can we do? He is with us all the time.”
Their eyes met—the boy’s brown and dark and troubled, and the gray understanding eyes of the man who was himself but a boy. Then Atlee shifted his gaze
to Aluna, riding up from the rear mob, the cooling and slanting rays of the setting sun upon her as she sat her tired pony; sunshine that bathed her, wrapped her around, and dyed her cheek and bare arms and bare legs.
Atlee turned again to Petrie. “To-morrow you and Aluna will take the leading cattle. I’ll have Charlie help you. Ammon and the white man’ll follow with me and the other cattle.”
The boy nodded, but still back of his eyes uneasiness lurked. “Aluna is beautiful,” he muttered, “and Slade doesn’t understand she is mine.”
“He will,” Atlee promised. “And now we’ll call a halt and make camp. It’s late enough. Let the cattle go ahead so they can bed out of sight of the camp fire. Ammon and Charlie will have first turn at riding guard on them, and to-night you can rest.”
As the cattle moved on, Atlee reined aside into the scrub to let the second batch go by. When
they had passed and the packhorses were relieved of their burdens and turned free in hobbles, a fire was built and the evening meal eaten in the gathering shadows of the short dusk, which failed to deepen to the blackness of full night because of the stars and the moon that presently rose, red as any sun in its rising, but more kindly in its lack of shimmering heat.
And in the light of this moon when it was risen a half hour, a party of blacks trailed in from the mulga, craving bread and tobacco, and made curious by the movement of cattle through the silent bush. Silent likewise were they; silent of tread, silent as a shadow, and having the appearance of shadows as they came on through the vague light, naked and limber and lean ; even their speech was soft, guttural; their slightly husky native dialect leaving their lips as though fain not to disturb the stillness of the slumbering wild.
The bread they asked for was given them, likewise the tobacco. But when they rose again to leave the camp fire, Slade rose to follow.
“They’re camping not so far off,” he stated. “I’m going over to look around. The two bucks I had out with me prospecting are with ’em, and maybe I won’t be back before you turn in.”
X_TE WENT to his pack before departing, and Atlee
-*■ surmized what went with him in a flask. He watched him till he was out of sight, and turned back to the flame dance of the fire. Again this night there was a desert chill, but less noticeable than it might have
been, and he could have done without a fire. It was more habit than anything else that made him sit by it, though even in a hot country, when the night is come, there is cheer and comfort in a camp-fire. He sat in shirt-sleeves, his knees drawn up, his hands clasped about them, smoking a series of cigarettes, dreaming his dream of cattle, of virgin grazing land, of shining waterholes, of treks to Meekatharra or to the coast with stock, and of riches and achievement. This was his world, and it was all things to him, for there was no woman in his life; but he knew that what this meant to him was what Aluna meant to the half-caste boy, Petrie.
“Those kids,” he told himself, “have been so long together, growing up with each other, just the two of ’em, half-castes, alone with nobody around except blacks and whites, I reckon they aren’t meant to be separated. Petrie would fret his heart out if he lost Aluna.”
He had turned his head and was watching them as they moved about another fire—Aluna baking damper for the morrow, her arms stained by dough; while Petrie, a cigarette aglow under the shadow of his felt hat, gave his time to repairing a set of pack harness and an old saddle. Yes, they were good youngsters, nice to have around. Well, in the morning they would be going on again, and before the day was through they would have made the Nala Creek Mission, and seen the padre there before heading on through the next stage of the journey.
He turned back to the fire and tossed on it another chunk of dry grass-tree that hissed and spat into flame and filled the nostrils with the pungent smell of burning resin.
When Slade reappeared, Atlee had not turned in. But it was late. Slade broke from the scrub and came on toward the fire that had now died down again. He sank down by it, and sought his tobacco and cigarette papers.
“I’ve been carrying that flask around with me a long time,” he vouchsafed. “The niggers got it darn near all. But they didn’t get it any too strong. I mixed it with plenty of water. I take mine neat.” He laughed and fumbled over the cigarette in the rolling, spilling the little tobacco he had garnered. “Hey, you better chuck me your pouch—the Binghis have got down on my tobacco, too.”
Atlee tossed him his pouch, and Slade rambled on with a’loose tongue.
“I found the couple of bucks I had along with me out prospecting. When they saw they had their mob back of ’em, they started on me for not squaring up properly with ’em. Reckoned I short-rationed ’em and held out on the blankets and ’bacca. Well, maybe the grub wasn’t the best, but I started with a short grubstake, and hadn’t made that strike then. But I never broke any promises on ’em. I kept my word same as a white man should.” His tone changed from resentment to complacence. “But I showed ’em I wasn’t one to be fooled with, and after a while they quieted down and we got friendly. Frankie—that’s one of ’em: the boys I had along with me—I got him so drunk he could hardly stand. It was so watered, though, it wouldn’t have knocked anybody but a nigger. Only it did him.”
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He chuckled. “He was as good as a comic opera, and the lubras laughed like hell.” As he rambled on, the dying fire flamed up again and dyed his blonde features; his hat was pushed back on his head; his throat was pale by contrast with his faded blue unbuttoned shirt. A likeable enough youngster save for something that came at times about his mouth and eyes and that crept into his speech.
“How big’s the camp?” Atlee asked idly at length.
“Oh, pretty big—about forty or more all told. I think they’re heading along for the river. I dunno. But they said they’d come by way of the Mission.”
Vague through the dark drifted the mutter of a horse’s hoofs and Atlee stirred. “Charlie’s riding in,” he said. He yawned. “It’s nearly midnight, and darn late for a feller who’s been in the saddle all day.”
“I’ll turn in as soon as I’ve had a smoke.” Slade glanced up at Atlee who had risen; he frowned slightly. “Anything wrong?” he asked after a space of silence. “Why, you’re not holding anything on me for boozing the niggers, are you?”
“I’m three years older than you are,” Atlee told him. “That’s not much, but I’ve sort of quieted down during that time . . . No—” he tossed his cigarette butt into the dying fire—“there’s something else. I meant to tell you before.” “Let’s have it now,” said Slade, but already there was the beginning of a sneer in his voice, and about his mouth.
“I may be wrong,” said Atlee, “but it seems to me Aluna’s struck you as being pretty good to look at. That’s all right. I reckon she is. But don’t look her way too often, son. She and Petrie have grown up together; they’re both good kids, and they’ve got things planned. They’re getting the padre along at the Mission to marry them to-morrow.” “There’s a big chance of that happening,” Slade averred, and the sneer was past its beginning—-“about as big a chance as there is of me flying to the moon. I’ve got my brand on Aluna. And you’re right—she’s good to look at, and I’m keeping on looking at her. Petrie’ll have to get married to somebody else.” “I don’t think it’ll turn out that way.” “Well, I do; and I’ll tell you why—why Petrie’s not getting married to her at the Mission, anyhow. It’s because the padre’s not at the Mission—I got it from the blacks. That’s one reason, at any rate. I’m the other—with the help of that skypilot nigger the padre’s left in charge. I reckon he can tie a knot, so long as it’s backed by a white. But, listen—I reckon I know something about that psalmsinging nigger better. Oh, don’t I, though! And when I raise my little finger, that nigger comes to heel. See? And that’s why he’s not marrying Petrie and Aluna—on my say so. If there’s any marrying to be done—well, what’s wrong with me for the bridegroom?”
Atlee didn’t offer any comment, remaining silent for a moment. “You may be bluffing,” he said at length, “and on the other hand you mightn’t be. Cometo think of it again, I believe you mean to play this card.”
“Oh, I mean to,” Slade told him. “There’s nothing stopping me.”
’DUT there was—in the morning. And Y* it happened too quickly for him to take effective means to prevent it happening. Most likely he couldn’t have taken effective means, anyway, since the odds were against him.
Within a few minutes in that dark before the break of day several things occurred—beginning with a rifle that covered him, proceeding with the activities of Atlee’s blacks, and of Petrie, and closing when he had his back to a tree and suftered the chafing strain of the rope that held him secure.
“Well, that’s that,” said Atlee. “You’re nicely trussed up now. I don’t like to see a man treated this way, but I mean you to stay here till we’ve reached the Mission. When the kids are fixed, I’ll send somebody to let you free, and I’ll leave your camels close by in hobbles.” Slade was impotent to do anything but sneer and curse. But presently he quieted down. He seemed to accept things calmly. He seemed to accept them with something more than calmness. But Atlee didn’t notice that the expression in his eyes changed. It was still too dark for one thing.
“Pull out, then,” said Slade. “The sooner you get to the Mission, the sooner I’ll be turned free. You’re swinging the big stick this time.”
But if his voice contained a trace of anger it was an anger that was feigned, and that was backed by a vaguely gloating complacence. But Atlee was unaware of this also. There was one other who was not, but he uttered nothing of his uneasiness at the moment.
He did not speak of it till the day had half gone by.
They had traveled the cattle a little more quickly that morning. In fact, of their own accord the cattle had traveled a little more quickly—one reason being that there was water near the Mission, and though the Mission was still some two or three hours journey away, the cattle seemed to know that it was there. But as usual there was the halt at mid-day, and it was then that Petrie spoke.
“His words were angry,” said Petrie, “but he smiled as if he knew of something that we did not know about. He has a very fast camel—the one Lena. What if he gets free and rides off the track to the Mission? It wouldn’t be good for Aluna and me if he got there first.”
Atlee turned his head. “Where did you get the idea he’s going to get free? We trussed him up pretty well.”
“But he smiled,” said Petrie. “It was because there was something that we have forgotten. It was that magnifying glass he has like the prospectors carry. I think it is in his pocket. And we have tied his hands at his sides. I think one hand is lose enough to get that glass and burn the rope.”
Atlee was thoughtful for a moment. “Well, we’ll have to chance it,” he said then. “It’s too far to go back now and see if he’s got that glass.”
“It is too late,” Petrie agreed. “But I think we will hurry to the Mission.”
“I’ll leave Ammon and Charlie to fetch the cattle along, and we’ll ride ahead,” said Atlee. “But I don’t reckon Slade’ll be there first, somehow.”
They skirted the cattle that were left in charge of the two blacks, and headed on, Aluna and Petrie riding at Atlee’s either knee. But the boy was still uneasy.
“He smiled,” he repeated, “as though he felt sure. What would make him smile so at such a time? I wish we had thought of that glass before. He might stop the black parson from marrying Aluna and me, and then she would be his instead of mine.”
But away behind them Slade was less sure now. His chances of an early arrival at the Mission had seemed good to him awhile ago. He had managed to free one hand sufficiently to remove the glass from his pocket. It had required much patience but it was accomplished. All that remained was to hold the glass so that the sunshine would play on it and burn through the rope. But his patience grew threadbare as the day wore on, for that which he had yearned for and had expressed his willingness to give his little finger to experience had come about, and that day—all that day while he remained trussed to the tree in miserable captivity against the arrival of the Mission blacks —the sun did not shine!