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By Louis Becke
As darkness fell I built up a larger fire and spread my blanket beside it to sleep under the open sky instead of in the deserted house, for the night was soft, warm, and windless. Overhead was a firmament of cloudless blue, with here and there a shining star beginning to show; but away to the south—west a dark line of cloud was rising and spreading, and I felt cheered at the sight, for it was a sign of rain. As I watched it steadily increasing the first voices of the night began to call–a ’possum squealed from the branches of a blue gum in the creek, and was answered by another somewhere near; and then the long, long mournful wail of a curlew cried out from the sunbaked plain beyond. Oh, the unutterable sense of loneliness that at times the long—drawn, penetrating cry of the curlew, resounding through the silence of the night amid the solitude of vast Australian plains, causes the solitary bushman or traveller to feel! I well remember on one occasion camping on the banks of the Lower Burdekin River, and having my broken slumbers–for I was ill with fever–disturbed by a brace of curlews, which were uttering their depressing cries within a few hundred yards of me, and how I at last became so wrought up and almost frenzied by the persistency of their doleful notes, that I followed them up with a Winchester rifle, mile after mile, wasting my cartridges and exhausting mind and body in the vain attempt to shoot them in the dark. There is to my knowledge nothing so mournful as the call of the curlew, unless it be the moaning cry of a penguin out upon the ocean, when a sea—fog encompasses the ship that lies becalmed. There is something so intensely human about it–as if some lost soul were wailing for mercy and forgiveness.
But on this night the cry of the curlew was pleasing to my ear, for as I lay and watched the rising bank of cloud, I heard others calling from the opposite bank of the creek, and then a parrot screamed shrilly–and I knew that rain was certain. I jumped up, carried my blanket, saddle, and gun into the house, and then went out to collect firewood. My horse, as he heard my footsteps, bounded up, hobbled as he was, from the bed of the creek, and neighed to me in the darkness. He too smelt the coming rain, and was speaking to me out of his gladness of heart. I called back to him, and then set to work and soon collected a number of dry logs, which I carried in to the hut and threw down on the hard earthen floor made of pulverised ant heaps, just as the welcome thunder muttered away off in the distance.
I brought a burning brand from the fire, threw it inside, and then called to my horse. Taking off his hobbles, I slipped the bridle over his head, and brought him in under shelter of the verandah, where he stood quietly, with a full stomach and contented mind, watching the coming storm.
Half an hour later the iron roof of the house was singing a sweet, delightful tune to the heavy down—pouring rain, which, till long past midnight, fell in generous volume, the dry, thirsty soil drinking it in with gladness as it closed up the gaping fissures, and gave hope and vigour and promise of life to the parched and perishing vegetation of the wide plains around.
With supreme satisfaction I sat at the open door, and smoked and watched, with my fire blazing merrily away; then, before it was too late, I stripped off, and went out and let the rain wash off the dust and dirt of a day’s journey under a fierce, baking sun. How cool, delightful, and invigorating it felt!
I dried myself with a spare shirt, and then lay down on my blanket beside the fire to listen contentedly to the clamour of the rain upon the roof. About two in the morning the downpour ceased, the sky cleared, and a fair half—moon of silvery brightness shone out above the tops of the white gum forest. Fifty yards or so away, in front of the door, a shallow pool had formed in a depression of the hard, sun—baked soil, and as the soft light of the moon fell upon it there came a whirr of wings as a flock of night—roving, spur—winged plover lit upon its margin. I could have shot half a dozen of them from where I sat, but felt that I could not lift gun to shoulder and slaughter when there was no need, and their shrill cries, as they ran to and fro, afforded me an infinite pleasure.
I took off my horse’s bridle, put his hobbles on again, rubbed my cheek against his warm, moist nose, and left him. An hour before daylight he stepped quietly inside and stood near the fire–the mosquitoes were annoying him, and he had come in to get the benefit of what little smoke was arising from the burning logs.
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