Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

"The Tracts of Thirst and Furnace"

As years went on and Australia grew, great farms stretched out from the towns into the wilds. Many a farmer owned a sheep- or cattle-run as big as an English county, and the yellowing cornfields reached for miles waving and beautiful in the sunshine.

The soil of Australia is in many places so fertile and the climate so good that farming is easy. But the farmers have one great trouble. That is the want of a good water supply. In Australia there are no high mountains to catch the rain clouds. There are no big inland lakes or rivers, and a curious thing about the Australian rivers is that many of them instead of flowing to the sea flow inland. When a drought comes, some of these rivers disappear altogether, and sometimes a drought will last for months or even years.

The years 1839-1840 were years of terrible drought. The grass became browner and browner, and at last it was burnt up altogether and only the dry, sandy earth remained. The leaves withered on the trees and shrivelled up. There was no coolness anywhere. The wind was hot like the blast of a furnace, and, as it swept through the forests, the leaves hissed and crackled against each other instead of whispering gently with a cool, soft sound. No green thing was to be seen, the still air quivered with heat, and the silent birds fell dead from the branches.

The cattle, daily growing thinner and thinner, wandered farther and farther over the plains in search of food and water. As the water pools dried up, the weaker animals sank into the mud and sand left on the edge, and having no strength to struggle out again died there. And there they lay, their dead bodies poisoning the air until the plain was strewn with bleaching bones.

Corn, too, ceased to grow, and flour was sold at £100 a ton. Starvation and ruin stared many a farmer in the face. At first they tried to drive their cattle to Sydney to sell them to the butchers there. But as every one wanted to sell, there were not enough people to buy, and the cattle before they reached Sydney were often little more than skin and bone.

It was then that a Mr. O'Brien thought of a plan by which something might be saved. He had heard that in Russia, when farmers had too many cattle, they killed them for their fat, for though the butchers in a town could only buy a certain amount of meat, a market for tallow could always be found, for it could be sent to distant lands. So now factories and places for boiling down sheep and cattle were built both in Sydney and in the country, and to the farmers' great delight they found that they could make a little out of their starving cattle. Valuable cattle were killed merely for their skin and tallow, but it was better to make even a few pounds than nothing at all, and the poor beasts were put out of misery. The meat of course was wasted, but some of it was used as manure for the land. And sometimes a butcher would buy a hundred or two legs of mutton at 1d.  each, and make a good profit out of them by selling them to his customers for so much a pound. Thus many of the colonists were saved from utter ruin, and able to live until the rain came again.

When at last the rain did come in a few weeks, the earth was, as if by magic, covered with green once more. Then the cattle, which had wandered in helpless pain, dull-eyed, pitiful skeletons, again became sleek and lively. But in places the rain came with such sudden fury that the river-beds could not contain it, and great floods were the consequence. Then perhaps what a farmer had saved from the drought would be torn from him by the flood.

About ten years later another drought withered the land. Rivers and water-pools disappeared, the earth became a sun-baked desert of clay, where great cracks yawned, and where the cattle wandered "with the terror of thirst in their eyes." As the summer went on, the air grew hotter and hotter, the sky a brazen bowl. Then in February came a day which in Victoria is remembered as Black Thursday. From the north a hot wind blew with the breath of a furnace. The sky grew dark, and out in the Bass Straits weather-wise sailors furled their sails, and made ready to meet a fearful storm.

Hour by hour the wind gathered strength and speed, till by midday it tore shrieking through the bare, scorched trees, howling over the plains, where the bones of hundreds of cattle lay bleaching. Then to the howl and shriek of the wind was added the roar and crackle of fire. As if by magic the whole land was sheeted in flame. On it came like some hungry demon, fierce tongues of fire licking the earth, pillars of smoke climbing the sky. The raging wind tore the lifeless leaves from the trees, the arid grass from the plain, and in a whirl of sparks swept them on to kindle into fresh flame wherever they fell.

The fiery monster spared nothing. The great forest trees appeared for a few minutes pillared and arched in flame, then sank together in one huge bonfire. Farmhouses and gardens were swept away, and as the flames rolled on, man and beast fled before them vainly seeking shelter. Wherever water was to be found, there men fled. Standing in the water they waited, blinded and gasping in the smoke-laden air, till the column of fire had rolled past Above the roar of the flames rose the scream and bellow of terrified animals, the thud and patter of a thousand hoofs, as horse and bullock, sheep and kangaroo, all the beasts of field or forest, birds and serpents, and every living thing, fled before the fiery sword of destruction. Driven by a nameless terror, panting to escape from an awful death, they fled.

All day long and far into the night the storm of fire lasted, and when morning dawned, the land in its track lay a black ruin of desolation.

Many men, women, and children, had died in the flames. Many more lost all that they possessed, and, penniless and disheartened, had to begin life over again, had again to build their homesteads and fence their runs, and find money to buy new tools and a fresh stock of cattle. It was never known how much was lost in this great fire, but those who lived in the country at the time never forgot the havoc it made, or the terrible devastation it left behind. But at length rain came again. Then in a far shorter time than we should believe possible, the land that had been a charred and smoking desert was once more green pasture and corn land, dotted with pleasant homesteads, and Black Thursday was no more than a memory.

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