Story in Dust
THE TRACKS were still fresh. Morauk, moving about slowly, his shadow long and narrow on the ground in the morning sun, examined them with interest.
“A white man,” he said, “with a white woman went this way They had a black boy with them and two pack horses. One of the ridden horses was very powerful and fleet, and I know its hoofmarks. It is the horse the white man Henderson owns.”
“Is it Red Devil?” asked little Oombie, his son. “It is Red Devil,” Morauk replied. “But the white man Henderson is foolish to bring the horse into this desert, for it is accustomed to soft living and race tracks.”
“What are race tracks?” little Oombie wanted to know.
Morauk could not really explain, for he had never seen one, being a myall, or uncivilized native. He had heard tame station boys speak of them, but an attempt to describe them in detail to little Oombie would merely disclose his ignorance, so he said nothing. He just went on looking at the hoofprints, while his family squatted around and waited.
The arid gibber plain spread as far as the eye could reach—a burnt-out waste of ironstone shingle and dust studded with clumps of grey-blue saltbush. There were hardly any trees, and those only stunted desert oaks and a thin wisp of a tree with crooked limbs called a mulga. It was a hot day, even for the Australian desert in summer, but Morauk and his family didn’t feel any discomfort from the burn of the sun on their hatless heads and their shoulders or of the sand under their feet. They were naked save that Morauk wore a breechclout of sorts, and they were inured to heat as they were to thirst and hunger.
Living in a desert is generally pretty lean living, though recently the tribe had been doing well, for there was enough water on the clay pans to attract game to this temporarily favored tract. That was how Morauk and his family happened to be alone, for the tribe had broken up into small bands, following the kangaroo spoor, and from the small bands family groups had wandered away.
“We will follow the horse trail,” Morauk decided finally. He had been crop-full for days, but another hunger was now upon him—he yearned for tobacco, a craving that was even stronger in him at times than his desire for the native narcotic pituri.
“It is well,” said his wife. She, too, had a yearning that only a white camp could appease; she had acquired a taste for flour as her husband had for tobacco.
Perhaps Henderson sang of the great red stallion because he couldn't think of his wife without tears
Stone Age though they were, and living in those great dry barrens between Oodnadatta and the west Australian riverheads, the back-country stores had nevertheless begun to influence them. Little Kuloo, Oombie’s sister next in age to himself, had begun to ask for dresses since she had seen tame, dressed lubras on the cattle and sheep stations.
Now Morauk led the family off in the white glare of the sun which made his sweating body gleam. He was a tall man with a short black beard; with a hole through the cartilage of his nose, into which he sometimes thrust a twist of grass; with tribal cicatrices across his chest and back and arms; with eyes deep in his head, where desert flies and sun glare could hardly reach them, and a broad nose and mouth. He was not well-formed, fcr he was too long for his breadth and his legs were too light, and his belly, distended since childhood by gorging after famine, was too protuberant, and his great splay-toed feet had half an inch of callus on them, so that he appeared to be walking on pads. Nor could anybody have said that his wife, Tagoomi, was prepossessing—a slight, thin woman with the big jaw and wide mouth and nose of her race, and the small, receding head. But her teeth were beautiful and she had a sleek, lithe grace to her body, so that she seemed hardi}7 to walk on the ground. The children all had this graceful movement, the limber, lovely bodies of young creatures of the wilderness.
Morauk carried nothing but his spears, boomerangs, and a womera, or spear thrower, and the children carried nothing, except that Oombie had a toy boomerang. Tagoomi carried a baby and a koolimon of water and a quarter of kangaroo meat, which the flies followed in swooping ecstasy. When Tagoomi shook them off the meat they settled on the baby. Ahead of her Morauk’s back was a mass of flies—the little black desert flies. It was too hot for blowflies and too dry for mosquitoes. Morauk didn’t bother much about the flies; his skin was thick and insensitive, and, besides, he was interested in the trail.
To Morauk the ground was a storybook. It was the only one he ever read, being a simple Stone Age savage, but he read it very well. And he was teaching little Oombie to read it, for without this education little Oombie would be an ignoramus among his people; and without knowledge of the life that moved upon the land, a tribal black might as well not exist. A white man shut away from newspapers and books and magazines would be in no greater darkness. So this trail, with tobacco and flour possibly at the end of it, was helping advance little Oombie’s education.
“See where the fleet horse was reined back,” Morauk said to Oombie. “Thus you know that it is ridden, though there are other signs besides; thus you know it is not tired, though it has travelled far in dust and sand.”
“But how do you know the riders are a white man and a white woman and a black boy?” asked little Oombie. “You have not yet seen their tracks.”
“Where the trail passed through bulwaddy brush there was a strand of a white woman’s golden hair on a twig. And there one rider went in front, parting the slim branches with his arm, as a white man will for a woman. Behind came somebody driving the pack horses, and that one was a tame black boy, because he had thrown away half-eaten meat that was dead too long even for him. A white man would not have eaten it at all, for their stomachs are easily upset.”
Little Oombie’s face shone with comprehension and pride in his father. Beyond doubt there was no other father such as his! He followed in the paternal shadow, examining the signs as Morauk indicated them. The boy’s brown eyes were keen and alert and restless, like the man’s, watching the folds of gibber plain and the horizon and the flight of birds, as well as the ground and the horse trail. And Morauk patiently answered all little Oombie’s questions, which were many and often irrelevant.
Then, at night camp—which happened to be where the white travellers ahead of them had camped— Morauk made a discovery of considerable importance.
“See,” he said to little Oombie, “those are not the foot tracks of the white man Henderson, who owns the horse Red Devil. They are tracks I do not know. Yet do I know the white woman’s tracks to be those of Henderson’s wife.”
Little Oombie was perplexed. “Why would the white man Henderson let another man ride his favorite horse away?”
“I do not know,” said Morauk. It did not greatly interest him, for he came of a race who have no word for ownership and who share all possessions except women. Little Oombie had asked a question aimlessly, and one that Morauk himself would not have asked, though he knew that white people had different ideas about the tilings they possessed, holding them for their own use almost exclusively. But the matter of the woman . . . Morauk was aware suddenly of his wife, who was beside herself.
“What? A white man has run away with the white man Henderson’s wife?” she asked excitedly.
“That is what I think,” said Morauk.
Her eyes flashed under the disorder of her lank, coarse black hair. “Aie, there will be a fight—over a woman!” She was thrilled.
“It sometimes happens,” said Morauk. “Though why a man should fight for a woman I do not understand.”
“You fought for me,” she told him instantly. “You speared my lover in the leg.”
“My blood was hotter then,” Morauk retorted. “Or perhaps I wanted to try out my new spear. Make a fire, for the sun is down.”
The thin, dry air rapidly lost the heat of the sun, and the ihre—the small fire of the desert tribesmen who are often far from timber — was cheerful. Tagoomi put the kangaroo meat over the coals till it spat and ran grease, and then they all ate with their fingers.
“Who made the kangaroos?” asked little Oombie.
“The gods,” said Morauk.
“Who made the gods?”
“You must not ask such questions,”^' said Morauk, though patiently. He seldom scolded his children; he never beat them. It was considered cruel among his people to beat a child,' no matter what it did. You could hit a woman on the head with a disciplinary yam stick, but women were not children.
“I like kangaroo meat,” said little Oombie, making noises with his mouth.
“You will like the flour when we get it from the white people,” said his mother.
“How do the white people get flour?” asked little Oombie.
“Your father will tell you.”
“I do not know,” said Morauk. “They have many things we have not got. They have tobacco, but I do not know where they get it from.”
“Will you make smoke come out of your mouth?” little Oombie asked.
“If I get the tobacco,” said Morauk. The thought that he mightn’t troubled him. A white man running away with another white man’s wife conceivably would not want strange blacks around the camp.
They slept under the sky, without any covering whatsoever, though they kept two little fires going and lay between them. Morauk, in point of fact, lay so close to one that he got burned, but so insensitive was he that he was badly burned before the pain woke him. He did nothing for the burn, and merely turned over on his other side, farther from the fire.
The sun was up before the family; Morauk’s tribe were not early risers, and they liked the sun to warm the ground before they left their little fires. Breakfast and the midday meal were often
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combined, a hunt preceding the meal, but there was still some kangaroo meat left, so they had breakfast before they broke camp.
“You will have to hunt today or catch up with the white people,” said Tagoomi. “Can we catch up, when they have horses?”
“The trail of white people, like any other trail, must end,” said Morauk.
“It might be where there are many whites and many houses and we are afraid to go,” his wife said.
“Then there will be no tobacco or flour, but it might not go so far as the many houses,” said Morauk.
“Why do the white men have big houses?” little Oombie wanted to know.
“Or.e day you must ask them,” said Morauk. But he knew it would be a long time before his son asked a white man, for the boy was tongue-tied when one was about. Morauk himself stammered and looked away when he spoke to white men, his words slow as though left weary by the long reach across the centuries from the Stone Age.
The sand was hot very soon after the sun rose. When it was about two hours up, Morauk, who had gone hunting, startled a kangaroo from a thicket and brought it down with a boomerang. He slung it over his shoulder and took it to his wife. She wasn’t going to carry it all and the baby as well, so with a cutting stone she cut a piece off it and left the rest. Morauk didn’t object, for the hunting was good.
Three red forms came out of the vacancy of the plain when they were a mile away, and sank white fangs into the kangaroo flesh. Black crows gathered, only to croak in disappointment and hover around in hope that the dingoes would leave something when they departed.
And the wild dogs did, for along the trail came movement that frightened them away—a white man mounted on a fast-stepping camel and leading another. He had no black boy with him. A man still young, lean and tough with hard living beyond the fringe of settlement, and handsome in a rough, unkempt way. The sun had tanned his skin the color of a saddle, and sunseams ran about his eyes and deeply down his cheeks. A rifle was across his knees, and he had a tense, sullen look on his face. You see such a face in the nevernever and among soldiers who have been angry and sleepless.
Morauk’s family stood in a group to watch the camels pass. The rider looked at them and said: “Hullo, little Oombie!”
Little Oombie hid behind his father. The white man’s tight grin faded as he looked down at horse tracks.
“You see that horse trail, Morauk— if it should get blown out, I might need your help. You be on this trail behind me if you’re needed, eh?”
“Sit down along’m tracks, me,” promised Morauk in English.
The white man tossed him an old pipe and a plug of tobacco.
“You good feller, Morauk. Some aren’t. Some are just plain low-down.”
The camels swayed on, with their long thin legs slanting and lifting like connecting rods and their shadows flitting swiftly across the sand. For they were not slow pack beasts but camels obviously picked for the riding saddle.
“Why does he ride camels when the white people who went first have horses?” little Oombie asked.
“Camels are better in the sand. The white man Henderson is patient and prepared to ride far.” Morauk looked at his wife, who was bright-eyed and tense.
“That is the white man who goes after the white woman and her lover!” she cried.
MORAUK did not reply. With a cutting stone he whittled tobacco for the pipe. The white man had given him no matches, so he used the fire drill, twirling the stick between the palms of his hands. For a time he sucked tobacco smoke as contentedly as a baby sucks milk. Then he gave his wife a draw, and even permitted little Oombie to take the stem between his small white teeth, and laughed when the boy spat the taste out with a grimace. Morauk made a headband then out of a piece of kangaroo hide and stuck the pipe and tobacco plug in it, and went on across the burning gibber on a trail made now by camel pads as well as horses’ hoofs.
Morauk continued to explain the trail to little Oombie; to read the story of the flight and the chase. “Here,” he said, “the white man and the white woman and the black boy camped again. Now they know somebody follows them. See, they do not camp so long—there is little ash where the fire was, and the horses have hardly had time to feed in the saltbush. The camps are shorter and shorter, and perhaps the woman is afraid.”
“I would be afraid,” said little Oombie, “of that white man with the gun.”
“It is not the woman who is afraid,” said his mother. “She will be pleased that a man thinks she is worth chasing. It is the man who has taken her who is afraid.”
“Will he stop and fight?” asked little Oombie.
“The white woman will leave him if he does not,” said his mother. “Who would have a lover who wouldn’t fight for her?”
“All the same,” said little Oombie,
“I think he is going to run away. Why did he steal that very fast horse, Red Devil?”
His father looked at him with interest. “Your mind works as smoothly as a loping dingo, little one. It is a keen thought. I, too, have wondered why the man who stole a woman also stole a horse. White men consider such a thing a great crime. That white man Henderson—I have heard him sing a little song. It is a song about horses and women.”
“Can you sing the part about the women?” asked Morauk’s wife.
“Only the part about the horses,” said Morauk. “It runs something like this,” he added, singing in English:
“You can take an Aussie’s money or his life;
But leave his horse alone.
“Yes, if you’re wise;
If you're very, very wise;
You’ll leave his horse alone—”
Morauk confessed he could remember no more. Tagoomi said it was not much of a song. And little Oombie was disappointed because his father could not remember what would be done to the man who stole a horse.
But signs at the next camp soon took little Oombie’s interest. Here were both the tracks of the pursued and the pursuer. Henderson had halted his camels and examined the camp.
“You see, he stood here and looked at the tracks of his wife,” said Morauk. “He stood and looked at her little footprints. He stood in the one place so long his boots sank in the dust—”
“And as he stood,” said Tagoomi, “he thought: ‘These are the little
footprints of my wife. Now another has her. But it will not be forever. I will fight him. I will kill him. I will take home with me my little wife . . Aie, that is what he was thinking, and he was angry.”
“He was angry,” agreed Morauk. “Here he walked in the dust and looked at the tracks of his horse, Red Devil. And he saw that Red Devil was lame . . . See, Oombie, the light hoofprint of a lame horse. And the white man Henderson trod the dust here like an angry bull. Then he walked to his camels, and his camels moved fast from the camp. You see the tracks of running camels, Oombie?”
“And the dust sprayed from their pads,” said the boy. “The tracks are plain.”
Morauk wondered if they would remain so. He sniffed a wind from the southwest. It was a cool wind, and there was a haze along the horizon, over which flowed small clouds, so wind-torn they were like the tufts of wool a dingo plucks from white men’s sheep. By dusk the wind was hard and cold, so that night Morauk sought shelter for his family in a fold of the plain where the red raw earth was hiddén by a meagre growth of bulwaddy and mulga. He did not need to build a shelter, for there were abandoned gunyahs here where some of his tribe had camped.
The huts, open on one side, were simply a sloping roof of small branches interlaced and covered with clay and earth from a clay pan. Morauk made a fire in one, and the family all crawled in and huddled together for warmth. The temperature had been over 100 deg. in the shade for weeks; now it was probably down to about 45. The sudden change was the trouble. At 45 deg. people in this country got pneumonia, and great strong cattle died. '
And the cold snap brought tragedy to Morauk’s family, for in the night the clay-packed sapling roof collapsed, and when they pulled themselves out little
Oombie’s three-year-old brother was missing. They heard the screams from under the fallen roof, and when they all pitched in and cleared the mess away, they found that the child had been pinned, stomach down, across the fire, which had burned in to his entrails. He died within an hour.
In the darkness Tagoomi wailed and cut her breasts, while little Oombie and the children huddled round their silent father. The gods evidently were angry this night of great wind, and little Oombie shivered in superstitious fear.
At dawn his mother wanted to go to their tribe, taking the body; but out of the wind and dust an hour later came dark wraiths, gathering sombrely and in silence, as though they had sensed death in the night. An old witch doctor took charge, and all through the day—a day of dust so thick they never saw the sun—the weight of death was upon them.
Then, on the next day, came Henderson, with his camels, backtrailing to find Morauk.
“Tracks are so blown out I had to guess my way back to you,” Henderson said. “Can’t follow that smeared horse trail any longer without you, Morauk.”
Morauk did not answer; he could not go now because of the dead child and the ceremony. The white man noticed the ochre make-up on the other blacks, and gathered the rest of the story from Tagoomi’s cut breasts.
“Too bad, Morauk,” he sympathized. “Reckon I’ll go on alone.”
“I will come in time,” said Morauk. He had not forgotten that Henderson was also one with grief in his heart. Had he not lost a fine horse and a wife?
“If I can’t find the trail again myself,” said Henderson, “I will wait at Autala Soak.”
And there on a blazing day—a day that made that cold night seem hardly credible—Morauk and his family found him. The white man had eaten his stores down, and each day he had travelled from the water hole, trying to cut the trail. But he had failed. And Morauk’s wife said:
“You see, if he had not loved his wife he would not be waiting so long for someone to show him the trail. He would have given up and gone home.”
AGAIN little Oombie was proud of . his father. In the wind-blown dust, amidst dust-covered, withered saltbush reaching to his waist, Morauk found the trail. Now he was leading out on foot, while the camels followed with his entire family mounted on the led one.
“Ride, because now we’ll be going fast,” Henderson had insisted. “Morauk can ride when he can see the trail from so high.”
But the trail was faint; Morauk most of the time had to walk. And little Oombie looked at his father walking, and said to his mother: “Without
my father the white man could see nothing. My father is a great tracker. See how swiftly he follows the trail.” But the white man was impatient now and kept urging Morauk forward. “Faster, Morauk! Faster!”
Morauk’s black figure sped through the sun glare, with the camels rolling in his wake. The white man’s face had a tight, still look again, and he never spoke except to urge Morauk on. “Red Devil’s still lame, you say. So we’ve got ’em. Hurry, Morauk!”
And then from the high camel little Oombie saw the movement of horses far ahead, mere specks on the red gibber. But they got bigger as the camels caught up, for the horses were not fast. Red Devil was still lame.
“Why don’t they go on with the
other horses and leave Red Devil?” little Oombie wanted to know.
“All the horses are weary of the sand,” his mother said. “Our white man who brought camels is the wise one.”
On the plain ahead the horses now had stopped. The three riders—the white man, the white woman, the black camp boy—dismounted, and the black boy picketed the horses, while the white man made a cooking fire. It was mealtime, and the white woman started to prepare the meal. Thus did they defy the man with the camels; they were making camp just as though he were not in sight. But as the camels filed in the white man held a rifle carelessly in front of him, and called out:
“Happens to be enough in this camp already. You sit down somewhere else.” He was a shorter man than Henderson but more heavily built. He was dressed in moleskins, khaki shirt and wide hat, and he was burned the same dark hue by the sun. But his heavyjowled face didn’t have the masklike stillness of Henderson’s; it worked with commingled anger, fear and guilt.
Henderson ignored him and rode straight toward his wife.
“Madge, there’s still a trail back, if you want it. It’s for you to say.”
“I’ve had my say, Bob.” Petite and pretty and blond, she stood by the fire, the smoke a little in her eyes, and weariness there too, but through it a glow of defiance. “I quit for good when I quit. My sort doesn’t go back.” “Too proud?” He jeered a little. “Not too proud to run with a horse thief. If you’d gone with half a man I could have stood it, but with—”
“That’s plenty!” said the man with the rifle.
Little Oombie, listening to the angry words of the white men, was afraid. But his mother watched with interest, looking from the woman to the men in excitement.
“They will fight,” she said. “Over the woman. Stand out of the way of the guns, Oombie. Go with the other children.”
Little Oombie was slightly resentful. He felt now that he was more than a child. Still, he went over to the other children, who were crouched in the shelter of the kneeling pack camel.
But little Oombie watched round the hump; and the boy held his breath, for Henderson, now dismounted, dropped his hand on the other white man’s rifle barrel to thrust it down. The weapon went off. Henderson twisted and rocked slightly on his feet. Even so, he drew his revolver and fired. Then the white woman ran between them.
“No more of it or I’m finished with both of you!” she cried. She remained between them, scolding in a high, nervous voice, and little Oombie thought he heard his mother say:
“Is it over? Why did the white
woman stop it? Now it is undecided which one will have her. She is a foolish woman.”
“One man is shot in the thigh; the other’s shirt is red, but does the blood come from his side or his arm?” asked Morauk. “See, the woman is helping him to the pack dump.”
Little Oombie saw the man sit down there, with the stain on his shirt spreading, while the woman got a knife and cut the shirt away. Then she stopped and looked at Henderson: “You too, Bob,” she said. “Let me see how bad you’re hurt.” She was white, but her voice was steady now that she was needed.
“I’m okay,” Henderson said. “Did I hurt him bad?”
“Not as bad as I thought, Bob. You’re sure you—?”
“Grazed my leg. Limp a bit, like Red Devil. I’ll be taking him back with me now.”
She stood waiting, looking at him, her face in shadow under her wide light felt hat, her dark-red blouse and her jodhpurs and riding boots powdered with the red dust of the desert. Little Oombie heard his mother cry:
“There she is—waiting for him to take her—his again for the taking . . . But look—he’s turning from her—!” And little Oombie saw Henderson turn away, as if he didn’t see her there, and go to the horse line and stroke Red Devil.
“Nearly lost you, Red! Damn louse of a horse thief ran you off!”
Little Oombie watched the white man walk toward him.
“Red Devil will need a light rider with that tender leg. You get on him, Oombie. You ride him home for me.” He never looked back at the white woman as the camels and Red Devil moved across the plain. But he hummed—once— a little song:
“ You can take an Aussie’s money or his life;
But leave his horse alone.
“Yes, if you’re wise;
If you’re very, very wise,
You’ll leave his horse alone!”
In the night camp Oombie thought of the song. He thought of it for long, watching the stars and listening to Red Devil cropping in the saltbush that studded the plain. Far the land rolled in the dark, and across it led the thin, dust-smeared thread of a trail between the woman who had gone and the house the man was returning to alone.
“Why,” little Oombie asked his father, “does the white man sing of his horse but not of his wife?”
“It may be,” replied Morauk, “because he can sing of the horse without tears, little one. For has he not got the horse back?”