Journey to Horseshoe Bend
by TGH Strehlow
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Previous: October 20th

Saturday, the twenty-first day of October, 1922.

Light clouds had begun spreading over the sky during the hot and stifling night that followed. They had served to shut in and to conserve the heat of the preceding day like layers of insulating material thrown over a pre-heated surface. For the second night in succession no one at Horseshoe Bend had slept much. The choking air had allowed no one to relax completely; and through the stillness of the dark hours there had sounded from time to time the subdued wailings of the dark women in the camp, carrying out their age-old traditional lamentations for a loved kinsman whom death had suddenly torn out of their midst. Each burst of wailing began on a high-pitched note and descended by degrees, in a series of musical sobs, to the lowest note of the tonal pattern used for these lamentations. All the lost hopes of mortal mankind and all the desolation of the great wastes of the Centre seemed to find their expression in these infinitely sad protestations of grief for the departed. According to the time-honoured Southern Aranda explanation, the Central Australian folk had wailed for their dead in this manner ever since that fatal dark dawn when the two Ntjikantja brothers had first pronounced their grim curse upon the stricken Tangka host at Uralterinja.

Long before sunrise the burial preparations began. White-bearded Jack Fountain, with the assistance of one of the three-quarter white Elliot sons, went to the station store and set to work constructing a coffin. Almost immediately afterwards echoing noises made by picks and crowbars which rang back from the low, barren hillside north of the station proclaimed that a mixed group of grave-diggers, too, had decided to get a start on their back-breaking task of making an excavation in the rocky ground alongside the grave of Sargeant senior.

Jack Fountain's task was by far the lighter of the two. He and his assistant had soon found four long dry gum saplings which had originally been chopped down for roofing purposes. These were cut into suitable lengths. Then some old whisky cases were ripped up, and their boards nailed to these gum saplings to form a stout bush coffin. No other timber was available at Horseshoe Bend. But when the coffin had been completed, its weight was found to be excessive. Stolz was called and informed that it would be advisable in view of the overweight of the dead man's body to take both the coffin and the body to the grave separately. Stolz's permission having been obtained, Fountain and his assistant accompanied Stolz back to the hotel in order to take Strehlow's body off his bed and lower it on to an iron stretcher for easier carrying. With two additional helpers, who had been summoned from the hotel staff, the party entered the room where Strehlow had died. Mrs Elliot was also asked to come to the bed. The sheet was lifted carefully off the face of the dead man but was pushed back again quickly. When the body, completely swathed in the top and bottom sheets that had formed its final bedclothes, was lifted up by four strong men, the lower linen sheet was ripped by the weight: the sheet was an old one, and it had already become saturated by its contact with the body. More sheeting had to be placed underneath before the body could be lowered on top of the stretcher.

The sound of the shuffling feet of the struggling men brought in Mrs Strehlow from the adjoining room. "Please let me have a last look at my Carl before you put him in his coffin," she pleaded and advanced toward Jack Fountain.

Quickly Mrs Elliot put her arm around her and restrained her. "Please, Mrs Strehlow, you mustn't look at him again," she explained. "You see, it's been a hot night . . . And your husband's condition has made things worse. Just try to remember his face as you saw it last night." The older woman did not reply at first, but stared almost vacantly at the covered body on the stretcher, feeling completely stunned. Then she turned to leave the room. "I understand," she whispered to Mrs Elliot, "thank you." As soon as she had left, the stretcher was moved out and set down on the verandah.

The grave-diggers meanwhile toiled and sweated in temperatures that soon left the century mark far behind. Though the rocks at the foot of the ridge were of the softer types, they still offered stubborn resistance to the cutting edges of picks and crowbars. Only the use of the heaviest crowbars enabled the toilers to maintain a reasonable rate of progress. Nor could any explosives be used because of the proximity of the new excavation to Sargeant's grave. In the end most of the able-bodied male population of Horseshoe Bend, both white and dark, came out and took turns at excavating the hole while the sun rose higher and higher in the sky. The light clouds were beginning to thicken; but though their shade was greatly appreciated, the increase in the humidity of the air made the toil of the diggers just as unpleasant as it would have been had the day been hot and cloudless.

At length, at half past ten in the morning, several of the men returned to the hotel to announce that the grave was ready; and four of them volunteered to take the heavy coffin over first. Since the ground on which the hotel stood was separated by a rough watercourse from the bare hillside where the grave had been dug, the coffin-bearers lurched and stumbled along in almost drunken fashion before they reached the hole. After the coffin had been set down, virtually all of the grave-diggers were summoned to the hotel verandah. It took six sweating men at a time to carry the heavy iron stretcher with the overweight body to the grave.

Most of the bearers had to be relieved by others before they had reached their destination. The hard, uneven ground, with its sharp slopes down into the watercourse and again up from it, and the loose pebbles on the far side, made the task of the stretcher-bearers a particularly difficult one. But eventually they reached the grave-side without any mishap; and the body was safely taken from the stretcher and lowered into the coffin. And now an unpleasant discovery was made by the funeral party. The oversized coffin, when placed over the grave on two saplings, proved to be an excessively tight fit for the narrow hole dug out for it. It became clear that the rough lid, if nailed down on the coffin, would not go past the edges of the grave. Widening the hole would have entailed at least a further hard hour's toil for the exhausted grave-diggers, whose torn and blistered hands were beginning to bleed in many places. After a short consultation between Stolz and the weary men it was agreed that the lid should be left off, so that the coffin could be successfully forced and squeezed down as far as possible into the narrow grave. An empty candle-case was finally jammed down to give secure protection to the face of the dead man. After that the useless lid was thrust into the grave as far as it would go.

Finally the coffin and the lid were hidden under a thick layer of green gum tips thrown over them.

The funeral procession now left the hotel. It included all the white folk staying at the hotel, all the dark and coloured men on the station, and many of the dark women and children from the camp. Mrs Strehlow and her son were escorted by Heinrich, Mrs Elliot, Jack Fountain, Harry Tilmouth, Snowy Pearce, and a couple of other white men. In addition there stood at the grave-side Jakobus, Titus, and Hesekiel, with about a dozen dark and part-coloured Horseshoe Bend men. Victoria and Lill, the two half-caste kitchen women, stood in the front rank of the female mourners.

The order of the funeral service had necessarily to be modified to suit the unusual situation and the unconventional congregation. The greater part of the service was conducted in English. The two psalms read as lessons seemed singularly appropriate to the tragic events of the previous day. The first was the twenty-third psalm with its note of deep trust: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want...

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me." The concluding verses of the other psalm (the hundred-and-twenty-sixth psalm) struck a confident note for the future: "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." For the benefit of the widow, however, the benediction of the body was pronounced in German, and the first part of the service was concluded by the singing, in German, of two verses of the hymn O Gott, Du frommer Gott, with its final prayer:

Let me depart this life confiding in my Saviour;
Do Thou my soul receive,
That it may live for ever;
And let my body have
A quiet resting-place
Beside a Christian's grave;
And let it sleep in peace!

And on that solemn day
When all the dead are waking,
Stretch o'er my grave Thy hand,
Thyself my slumbers breaking;
Then let me hear Thy voice,
Change Thou this earthly frame,
And bid me to rejoice
With those who love Thy name!

After some biographical details relating to Strehlow had been read out, Stolz gave a short address in which he stressed the single-mindedness and devotion to duty of the deceased - how he had left his homeland, given himself wholly to his task, and remained faithfully at his post till death had relieved him. He had been able to do these things only because of the rock-like strength of his faith. A few words were added for the benefit of the dark people present: the man they had come to bury was someone who had devoted his life to teaching them that God and His heaven existed not only for the white people but also for the dark folk.

The congregation, during both the English and the German parts of the service, stood around the grave in attitudes of deep reverence for the deceased and warm sympathy for those who had survived him. Mrs Strehlow stood her ordeal with calm courage and dignity, trembling only when the hard lumps of earth and stone fell with a clatter on to the green gum branches shading the coffin, while Stolz pronounced the familiar words: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes dust to dust...'

Only twice was the full congregation called upon to join personally in the service - during the praying of the Lord's Prayer and during the singing of the grave-side hymn. The selection of the latter for a congregation that knew and cared little about church worship or hymn-singing had given Stolz a great deal of headache. After discussion with Mrs Elliot he eventually decided on "Rock of Ages": this was felt to be the most likely hymn whose tune might be known to most of those present. In the absence of hymn-books it was given out to the singers line by line:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

When the service had ended and most of those present had dispersed, the grave was filled in. Then Heinrich set up a wooden cross at the head end of the new earth-mound and placed on it the initials "C.S." neatly, in smooth water-worn stones.

It was the hour of high noon.

After returning to the station buildings, the men and women who had stood at the grave-side still sensed the presence of the man they had just buried. The Horseshoe Bend telephone was kept busy sending out death announcements by telegram to friends and acquaintances far and near, and receiving condolence messages in return. Stolz, who had decided to wait at the hotel till Gus Elliot's return from Charlotte Waters, wrote up his notes on his trip north from Oodnadatta and the final events at Horseshoe Bend; for he wanted this first account to catch the return camel-mail from Horseshoe Bend to Oodnadatta. Mrs Elliot sat for some hours with Mrs Strehlow while the latter was waiting for the arrival of Constable Macky, the police trooper stationed at Alice Well police station, twenty six miles north-west of Horseshoe Bend. It was Macky who had the duty of preparing the police report on Strehlow's death. In normal circumstances this report would have been made by Macky and submitted to his superior officer, Sergeant Stott at Alice Springs, before the funeral; but because of the hot weather Sergeant Stott, as soon as he had received the telephone message about the death on Friday night, had personally given permission over the telephone for the body to be buried before Macky's arrival. Since Macky was unable to leave Alice Well before eleven o'clock on Saturday morning, he did not reach Horseshoe Bend till four o'clock that afternoon.

The dark folk in the camp sat and talked in low and depressed tones, carefully avoiding the name of the dead man.

All of them were full of sadness about his death. Not only the three visitors from Hermannsburg, but the Horseshoe Bend folk, too, were wondering what would happen to the Aranda people now that their one fearless white champion had died. Hermannsburg had become a symbol not only for aboriginal welfare but for aboriginal rights and aboriginal dignity under Strehlow's firm management. Would, or rather could, there ever be a successor to equal him?

Even the tough and hardened white bushmen at Horseshoe Bend had been deeply shocked by Strehlow's sudden death. During his twenty eight years at Hermannsburg he had become an institution, almost a legend, among the small white population of Central Australia. That this vigorous, fearless man should have been struck down before their very eyes in the full strength of his tough manhood before he had turned fifty-one, had come as a shattering blow to all of them.

It was a grim reminder to everyone of the power of death over all men, wherever they might be, irrespective of strength, age, or importance.

In a land where every white person knew every other white person by name and reputation, a white person's death was always a catastrophe that deeply shook the whole white community. The attitude of the survivors to this catastrophe was determined by the traditions of the bush community: there had to be a Christian burial for the deceased, followed by a hard drinking bout on the part of the survivors so that the latter could get the taste of death out of their systems.

The attitudes and the conduct of the bush community on the occasion of a death hence bore a certain resemblance to the attitudes and conduct that were thought to befit the occasion of a birth. Both were occasions on which the services of the Church were seriously solicited, and both closed with drinking bouts.

The religion of the normal bushman of those times could have been summed up in a few brief injunctions. Every white child had to be baptized by a minister of religion at an early stage of its life: "We bush folk are, after all, Christian men and women, and not just heathens, like them niggers." Hence every priest, padre, or missionary, whose travels might have taken him through the Centre, was requested to baptize any of the children that had not yet received the first ministrations of the Church. No heed was paid to denomination, except for the broad distinction that had to be made between Catholics and non-Catholics. Thus a number of non-Lutheran white children born in the Centre had been taken to Hermannsburg for christening because of the infrequency of visits by clergymen belonging to other denominations.

There was similar feeling about the necessity for a Christian funeral - it was unthinkable that a white person should be buried unless someone either read or said a prayer over his grave. Police stations generally possessed Bibles and prayer-books. So did some of the most unlikely, hard-swearing bush characters: it was felt by many to be a wise plan to take out some kind of insurance policy against the accident of a sudden death.

In between these two major occasions both the Church and religion were avoided almost like the plague: in their "southern" city manifestations it was felt that neither the Church nor religion had anything of value to offer to the tough bush folk of the Centre, where men had their own moral code and their own traditional notions of right and wrong. And in one respect, at least, the bush folk regarded their code of conduct to be far superior to that of the "Southerners" - they were not hypocrites who went to church on Sundays and indulged in all manner of rottenness and swindling practices for the rest of the week. If God existed, then the average bushman felt that he would be able to face up to his final examination before the Almighty just as well as the pious wowsers, hypocrites, sneaks, tell-tales, and swindlers who had gone to church regularly every Sunday. And if "the Old Bloke in the Sky" should decide to boot them out after all, then they were prepared to take His punishment with the same unflinching stoicism with which they had faced up to hardship and death, sicknesses and accidents, droughts and bad markets, during the whole of their lives.

In accordance with the customs of the country, the bar of the Horseshoe Bend Hotel was thrown open at about four o'clock in the afternoon after the burial so that the white mourners could drink to the health of the departed. Their torn and blistered hands and sore backs bore eloquent witness to their hard toil in the muggy heat of the morning. All of them felt that they had richly earned their liquid reward. Harry Tilmouth, generally known as "the Bony Bream", had been detailed to serve behind the bar in the absence of the licensee. As indicated by his nickname, Harry was a somewhat undersized man who was completely devoid of any surplus flesh on his rather slender bones. His shaggy, greying hair and straggling moustaches rarely had a comb run through them, and he shaved no more frequently than once a week. Bigger men enjoyed teasing him and making good-natured jokes about his skinny appearance and lack of inches. But Harry was as tough a stockman as the best of them: he was hard and wiry, and could outstay and outlast most of his detractors in point of sheer doggedness and endurance.

Because of his late arrival at Horseshoe Bend, Constable Macky had spent only a few minutes with Mrs Strehlow. He had expressed his condolences to her and had then left her, after arranging to take down on the following morning all the details required for a Coroner's report. He quickly made his way to the bar, where he pushed his way forward through a row of toil-worn grave-diggers. "Shift your carcasses, men," he said in a loud and commanding tone of voice, "and make room for the Law! "Noticing a few black looks coming upon the faces of the tired men, he added in a more conciliatory tone, "Let's have a round of whisky, boys, - let's drink to the memory of Mr Strehlow!"

"No, the first round's going to be on the house," retorted Harry, with a dead-pan expression on his face, "by orders of the missus."

"That'll do me," said Macky. "I'll pay for the next one."

The first round was poured out, and swallowed down with audible noises of relief and gurgling approval; and so was the second.

"That's the first time any of you blokes have ever drunk to the memory of a bible-puncher, I'll bet," commented Macky tersely.

"You're right," replied Jack Fountain, "never happened here before; and I've lived in this country longer than most."

"Agreed," added Snowy Pearce, the head stockman of New Crown Point Station, "and I've seen enough floods going down the Finke to start calling myself one o' the old hands in the country."

"Anyway, this one was different from most of them," mused Macky, holding up and examining carefully the last half-inch of whisky in his glass. "As a rule I must say I hate all pious, snivelling bastards. Most of them make no end of bloody trouble wherever they go. They come up from down south and make the most of our hospitality, and then they go back and fill the papers with all sorts of rubbish about us - talk about our 'farmyard morals', accuse us of prostituting the kwiais, tell lies about the gambling, swearing rotters of the Centre that are exploiting the poor bloody niggers, and so on. I tell you, the first time I had to go on patrol to The Mission, I was expecting to find the same kind of rotten, grog-sniffing hypocrite there - you know, one of them low bastards what shakes hands with you only to get close enough so's he can smell if you've just taken a nip from the old brandy bottle. And I tell you, I was all set to let him have a piece of my mind if he started on any of his bloody religious pap-talk with me. But somehow the old boy was different. The station was well-run, the niggers well-behaved, and as for the hospitality - boy, you should've seen it! I came away from The Mission thinking, well, perhaps there's good and bad among them bloody parsons too, same as the rest of us. "Yes, he was a good bloke," agreed Harry. "And absolutely dinkum too. Every time I went up to The Mission on the mail run, things were the same - never any different. Everybody worked hard - it was one of the best-run settlements anywhere in this country. And you could always get a bunk and a good feed there. There was always somebody about who'd offer it to you."

"Well, let's have another drink," interrupted Hughes, a thirsty prospector from Arltunga who was on his way south to Port Augusta. "Must be just about my turn for a shout now."

"Good on you, mate," called out Jack Fountain. "We've got to keep our whistles wet in this damn rotten hot weather."

A third round was poured out, and the glasses were drained with audible smacks of appreciation. Fountain pushed the tip of his white beard into his mouth and sucked from it some drops of whisky he had spilled when drinking.

"When you blokes're ready for it, there'll be a second round on the house," promised Harry. "That's the stuff, Harry, old boy, keep her going!" called out Macky. "Perhaps it's a good idea having a bloody funeral every so bloody often - the Horseshoe Bend bar isn't as liberal as this as a rule. "

"You should've seen it when old Ted Sargeant was buried,'' commented Jack Fountain drily. "The old pub sure turned it on then. Nothing like it ever been seen in this country before or after. "

"Why, what happened?" queried Hughes. "Tell us all about it."

"You must be one of the few blokes around these parts what hasn't heard the story," replied Jack Fountain. "It's so bloody old by now that it's got white whiskers on it. But I'm no good at spinning yarns: ask Old Bony behind the counter - he was here that time just like the rest of us."

Harry Tilmouth at first tried to refuse telling the story, but was finally forced into relating the events of Sargeant's death.

"Well, it was like this," he began. "Ten years ago now, back in March nineteen-twelve - I just seen the date on the gravestone this morning - old Sargeant suddenly went down with the DTs. He and Gus Elliot owned this pub then, and Sargeant was the senior partner. Old Sargeant'd had the DTs a coupla times before. But this time he passed out altogether..."

"He 'lapsed into a coma', as an official police report would say," commented Macky drily.

"That's right, he passed out altogether," repeated Harry.

"And nobody had any idea what to do about him. No doctor, no medicines, no ice, no nothing, and the poor old bugger out to it like a bloody old bull knocked over in the killing pen. Couldn't use brandy to bring the poor bastard round - already had too much brandy in 'im. And his face was as red as tomato-bloody-sauce.

"Next morning after breakfast, the mob goes up, worried - like, to take a proper squint at him. All of a sudden one of them blokes standing round the old boy yells out, 'What about getting the old boy off the bed and sitting him up in a bath o' brandy?' Well now, that's something all of us could do..."

"But what'd be the good of a bath o' brandy?" queried Hughes. "What the hell could that do for a bloke with the DTs? Never heard of anything so bloody mad before!"

"There's nothing mad about a bath o' brandy," countered Jack Fountain haughtily. "In my young days mothers used to stick their babies into a bath o' brandy to stop 'em having convulsions."

Hughes laughed. "Sounds like a shocking damn waste of bloody good grog to me," he remarked. "Never mind, don't let's have an argument about it - another round of grog, Harry, and let's change over to brandy."

Harry poured out the ordered round of brandy and said with some asperity, "A bath o' brandy's nothing to laugh about - it's an old and tried bush remedy, only you young blokes don't know nothing about it. Shows what a bunch of bloody newchums you are! " Then he continued, in a calmer tone of voice, "Well, to get back to the story - we got hold of a small washing tub, stripped the old boy right down to his birthday suit and sat him in the tub. A couple of us hung on to him so's he wouldn't fall over. After that old Gus, his partner, brings in a case of brandy. He opens bottle after bottle and empties the whole bloody lot over him. The rest of the mob stands round and watches . . ."

"I bet they all stood slobbering at the corners of the mouth like a mob of thirsty dingoes, while they were watching the brandy running down over the old boy," laughed Macky. "The most wonderful bloody sight I ever set eyes on in my life," continued Harry, disregarding Macky's jeering remark.

"We all felt sorry for the poor old bugger just sitting there not knowing he's sitting in a bath o' brandy with good grog running all over him. We knew he was in a desperate way - it was a toss-up whether even brandy'd save him now. "Then all of a sudden he just collapses in the tub, and we knew that was the end of poor old Ted. "

"What a time to kick the bloody bucket!" exclaimed Hughes, in mock indignation. "Couldn't he have come round long enough to lap up all that good grog first?"

Harry ignored the question, and went on in the same even, almost expressionless, tone of voice, "All we could do was pull the poor old bugger out and stretch him out on a bed. And some of the men was crying: seemed too terrible for bloody words. Others kept saying, 'What a glorious death - dying in a bath o' brandy!' Only the poor old bugger didn't know a flamin' thing about it! After that old Gus got to work on the phone. We knew Mr Strehlow was somewhere on the road close to The Old Crown. Gus rang at eight in the morning, but he'd already left. When Gus heard the mission horses were all pretty well knocked-up, he sent down a team of fresh horses to meet the mission buggy. Told the boy to ride like hell and bring Mr Strehlow up that afternoon for the funeral. When he came, the whole bang lot of us went down to the grave, as is fit and proper. After that we all came back to the bar to drink to poor old Ted's memory. Needed it too: we'd had to listen to a good old hellfire sermon at the grave . . ."

"To hell with hellfire sermons!" exclaimed Snowy Pearce and thrust his empty glass before Tilmouth. "Here - fill 'er up quick! Got to put out that hellfire before the thought of it dries out the old tongue! This bloody place is hot enough today without Old Nick doing any stoking. And while you're about it, may as well fill up the rest of the glasses too! "

Tilmouth complied, and then continued, "Well, as I was saying, we all came back to the bar after the funeral. And when we're all standing up, tongues hanging out from thirst and that hellfire sermon, old Gus calls out, 'Well mates, as it's my poor old partner what's died, all drinks this afternoon'll be on the house while the brandy lasts'.

"Boy, did we have a time that afternoon! Brandy galore, as much as any man could swallow! By the time the brandy cut out there wasn't a man left what could stand up straight, and most of the bastards were stretched out on the floor around the bar, dead to the bloody world. Only old Gus kept his head - stuck to a few whiskies and let us have as much brandy as we could pour down our throats.

"Next day some bloody bugger spoiled it all. Went up to old Gus and wanted to know where all that grog had come from. Reckoned Gus must've bottled up the brandy from the bathtub and served it out to the mob . . ."

"Stone the bloody crows! That means that you bloody shickered lot of silly old topers must've been closer to your 'dear departed friend' than any of you bastards guessed when you were drinking to him, " yelled Macky, bursting into loud guffaws of laughter. "Anyway, it served you right for being nothing but a mob of common, greedy drunks!"

"Well, nobody could prove anything for sure against old Gus, of course," Harry concluded his recital. "He certainly poured all that grog out of bottles that afternoon. Only they all came out of a box standing on the floor behind the bar so nobody could tell if the bloody corks'd been pulled before or not. Well, Gus naturally denied everything, and nobody minded much about it next day. Too late anyway, and the grog had tasted all right - no doubt about that."

"They tell me that after Nelson died at the battle of Trafalgar, his body was taken to England in a cask of rum to preserve it for his funeral," commented Macky. "And when the body was pulled out, the cask was only half full of rum - some of the sailors keeping guard must've got thirsty in the night. At least old Sargeant had been pulled out of the tub as soon as ever he was dead - that brandy hadn't been swishing round his corpse for days."

"And the grog we're drinking today has come out of bottles never opened before," added Hughes. "Since old Bony over there started telling his snake yarn, I've been watching all that grog carefully that's on the shelves behind the counter; and all the tops of the bottles are good and sound."

"Well, one more round of whisky on the house," concluded Harry. "And then we'll close the bar, or you blokes might start getting too noisy. Remember there's a woman just across the passage, and she's been crying her heart out in her room ever since the old man died. Let's give her a fair go and get out of the bar and back on the verandah."

The glasses were quickly emptied and put back on the bar counter, and then the men filed out quietly into the still, sultry air of the waning day. The clouds had thickened considerably during the afternoon, giving promise of yet a third oppressive near-sleepless night.

Next: October 22nd