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 THE SUMMER had been an unusually dry one. Not a drop of rain had fallen for months. The two young men stopped when they had struggled to the top of a small hill, and looked anxiously round them.

“I’m sure we were here yesterday,” Harold Mead remarked uneasily. “I recognize those strange rocks sticking out over there. We must be wandering round in circles.”

Tom Pearce nodded dejectedly. Instead of spending the months following their final medical examinations by the sea, the two young university men had decided to go exploring in the Bush. They had gone by train as far as it would take them, and then, armed with map and compass, had set off to walk from Naroomba, the terminus, to Begaratta, another railway town, a hundred and fifty miles distant. At first, it had been a welcome relief after their exacting studies, to be alone in the Bush, far away from civilization, just trudging along; boiling their billies every night, and sleeping with the stars twinkling in the clear skies above them. But, as they went on and on, their scanty knowledge of bushcraft had not been sufficient to keep them in the right direction. There were no tracks to guide them, only an endless vista of rolling plains, shimmering in the blistering heat. Water, too, was scarce. The ground under their feet was parched and cracked by the long drought. For the last two days they had been reduced to chewing gum leaves to relieve the thirst that tortured them.

If they had been walking in the right direction, they should have been at Begaratta by now, but something must have gone wrong with their compass, for, from where they stood, they could see nothing but the broad expanse of gently undulating plains, stretching away to the horizon in every direction. It seemed so easy, too, to get from one stretch of raised ground to another—that was, until they came to attempt it. Then they discovered that the distances were far greater than they appeared to be. The ground was covered with scattered boulders that added to their difficulties. To make matters worse, the supply of food they had brought with them in their knapsacks now had been reduced to nothing but a few biscuits and some chocolate. During the first few days of their journey, they had come upon settlers’ huts from time to time, and had been made welcome in accordance with the rules of hospitality that are the unwritten laws of the Australian Bush. But it was more than a week now since they had come upon an isolated settler.

“I wish I’d never agreed to come,” Tom Pearce grumbled. “If I hadn’t, I’d have been in the surf at this very moment.”

Mention of bathing in the cool waters of the Pacific, and shooting the curling breakers, made them both think longingly of home, and caused them to feel even hotter, and more thirsty.

“We were crazy to come,” Tom continued irritably. “We should have listened to what the others told us. I’ll never come into the Bush without a guide like this again.”

“Well, it’s not much use complaining now,” Harold replied philosophically. He was made of tougher stuff than his friend. “Anyway, it has been rather fun. And you’ll admit it later on, too. The thing we’ve got to do is to think of some plan to find our way to a settlement. There’s no doubt we’re lost. Maybe, if we had a look at our map, we might be able to work out something.”

“Gosh! What I’d like is a nice long glass of beer, with the ice tinkling in it!” Tom observed fervently.

“Shut up!” retorted his more practical friend, as he sat down on a rock, and, opening his knapsack, dragged out a map.

But maps may be very useful when one knows exactly where he is, and, although the two young men studied theirs intently for a long time, they at last had to confess that they were no wiser. The printed names on the sheet of paper merely mocked them.

“That’s where we ought to be!” Harold exclaimed, pointing with his finger. “But there’s a river, and we’ve not been near a river since last week.”

He knew that, in Australia, many rivers exist only when there has been rain. After heavy rains, they may be perhaps several miles across in places. But the hot sun quickly dries up the water, and, after a few months’ drought, where there has been raging torrents only a short while ago, there remains nothing but a series of muddy waterholes, or very often not even those. During the dry months in Australia, many rivers exist merely as lines drawn on a map. Anyone passing over the same ground after the rains have begun would scarcely be able to recognize it.

“I’m going to sleep for a while,” Tom murmured drowsily. “I couldn’t walk another step.”

Harold glanced anxiously at his friend. He had read of men being lost, and how, months later, search parties had found nothing but their whitened skeletons. Bred in the town, he had sometimes vaguely wondered how it was possible to get lost in the Bush. He had thought that, if you just walked on and on you must be sure to get somewhere in the end. But now, he knew differently—instead of getting anywhere, you just went round in a circle, and, after a day or two, came back to where you started from! Harold’s thoughts were far from pleasant, and he glanced uneasily at his friend. But Tom, who was younger and less hardy than himself, was sleeping peacefully, although his drawn face showed that the privations of the last few days were beginning to tell on him. The sight of his companion made Harold feel a little guilty at having persuaded him to embark on this hazardous adventure, which now seemed as if it was going to end in tragedy, and desperately he began to rack his brain to discover some way out of the predicament they were in.

He again studied the map, but it told him nothing. Impatiently, he folded it up, and put it back into his knapsack. Then he stood up, and scanned the horizon, hoping to see some signs of human habitation. Suddenly he gave a cry of hope. He shaded his eyes with his hand so that he might see better. No, his eyes were not deceiving him! Not far away a thin wisp of smoke was curling up to the sky! As he gazed at it, hope beating wildly in his breast, he heard a shot. The next moment he had gripped Tom by the shoulder and was shaking him roughly.

“Wake up!” he exclaimed. “We’re saved! There’s a camp fire not far away. It must be, because I heard a shot, too!”

It was some time before he was able to rouse his friend sufficiently for him to understand what he was trying to tell him. But, at last, Tom struggled to his feet wearily, and, rubbing his eyes, looked in the direction indicated by Harold’s outstretched hand.

“I’m thirsty,” he muttered hoarsely.

“Where that smoke is there must be water,” Harold suggested, eager to stir the other out of his lethargy. “It can’t be more than a couple of miles away.”

“I couldn’t walk that far,” was the hopeless reply. “You go on. I’ll stay here. Then you can come back for me later on.”

Harold knew that if he once left his companion it would be difficult to locate him again. Everything in the Bush looked the same. Any one of the low hills around them might easily be mistaken for the one on which they were now resting.

“Don’t be silly, Tom!” he retorted angrily. “Of course you can walk it! And if you can’t, I’ll have to carry you, that’s all. I’m not going to leave you here!”

At last Harold’s determination won the day, and, after a final glance to make sure of the direction in which the smoke lay, they began to make their way slowly towards it. Several times as they descended into hollows, they lost sight of the smoke, and when they came on to higher ground once again, they looked anxiously around to see if it was still there.

Although their objective had appeared to be so near to them, as they went on they thought they would never get to it. Sometimes it even seemed to recede away from them. More than once Tom sank to the ground exhausted, and, had he been alone, he would have remained there to perish. But, each time, Harold dragged him to his feet, and, although he himself was utterly weary, he urged him on with words of encouragement. Tom protested, but in vain. The other seized him by the arm, and led him over the next rising ground, and the next. However, Harold was just beginning to feel that he, too, could not go much further when, as they emerged from a stretch of uneven country, they came on a small clearing—in the centre of which was a hut, from which the smoke was proceeding.

As they looked, their spirits sank. The smoke did not come from a camp fire, as they had thought. It was a wooden hut that was burning, and, by now, it was only a mass of smouldering timber. There was no sign of any living creature. In his disappointment Harold relaxed his grip on Tom, and with a faint groan, his companion dropped limply to the ground. But, when the first feeling of despair had passed, Harold realized there still was hope. A fire meant that someone must have been in the neighbourhood not a very long time ago! And also, there was yet a chance that water would not be far distant—and this was their most urgent need!

Leaving his friend where he was, Harold staggered forward and approached the smoking ruins of the hut. Then he slowly made his way round to the side, opposite to the direction from which they had come. As he turned a corner he stopped abruptly, and with a cry of astonishment stared at the still form of a man, lying face to the ground not more than two yards from where he was standing. For a moment the sight made Harold forget his own tired limbs. After a second’s pause, he rushed forward, and bent down over the body. At once he saw that the man was dead. But he could not have lain there long. Then, as he slowly turned the body on to its back, he remembered the shot he had heard. In the centre of the dead man’s forehead was a jagged wound where the bullet had entered. Although he was not unfamiliar with death in many forms, Harold was stricken with horror, and continued to gaze at the corpse. He saw the face of a man some years past middle age. He was roughly dressed, and was apparently the owner of the hut. The fact that there was no weapon near his body showed that he had been the victim of some murderous attack. This thought caused a cold feeling of dread to clutch at Harold’s heart, and he glanced searchingly round.

Some distance away there was a small grove of green trees. Their freshness told him that they must conceal a spring. He rose from where he had been kneeling beside the murdered man. His throat was parched, but his first thought was for his friend. The refreshing water would give them a new lease of life!

He had scarcely reached the spot where he had left Tom when he heard the sound of horses’ hoofs approaching. It flashed across his mind that whoever had been the murderer must, for some reason, be returning. Tom was quite incapable of helping himself, so Harold gripped him by the shoulders, and, half carrying, half dragging him, managed to get him behind a large boulder, just as two horsemen came into sight. The state of their horses showed that they had been riding hard. Peering around the boulder, Harold watched them approach. He had never seen such desperate-looking characters, and he noticed that they both carried heavy revolvers.

The men dismounted near the hut, and held a whispered consultation. Then, to Harold’s dismay, they both turned towards his hiding-place. The next moment the hand of the burlier of the two streaked to his hip. Almost before he heard the sound of the shot, a bullet ricochetted against the boulder and whistled past Harold’s ear.

“Come out of there, you rat!” he heard him shout menacingly. “Or I’ll shoot you so full of holes that you’ll look like a worn-out sieve!”


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