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by Edwin James Welch

Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
ML:MSS 314/225 filed at A1928 (ML CY1115) n.d, c. 190-?, Angus & Robertson Collection.
State Library of New South Wales

Chapter XII

Carrier pigeons
Rewards to the Blacks

On the 20th September there was quite a flutter of excitement in the camp of the Search Party, as on that day the carrier pigeons brought from Melbourne were flown with the news of the discovery. Success was scarcely anticipated owing to the fact that all four of them had rubbed their tail feathers down to stumps against the wicker-work of the cage in which they had travelled for such a long distance, on the back of a lurching camel. Howitt, who was, among his many other gifts a skilful taxidermist, thought to get over the difficulty, by splicing new feathers from the tails of the crested pigeons on to the old stumps with waxed silk. It was cleverly done but the effect was somewhat ludicrous. However, the new tails enabled them to steer, and they rose almost vertically, hovered for a few minutes over the camp, then started due south across the creek. But the whistling kites were on their track and three were struck down within sight of the camp. The fourth managed to escape and returned to the camp where he was left perched on a tree when the party moved away, as nobody had the heart to shoot him, though his fate was inevitable. The birds were from a well-known fancier and had already performed with credit. They were generously presented to the Committee by the owner, and accepted as the most practical of the many donations and suggestions offered by the public when the desire to help was at fever heat.

One of the latter deserves notice on account of its utter absurdity. This was a proposal to erect a steam pump at Menindie through which Darling water could be supplied to the party as it travelled, uncoiling the hose as it went! The cost of this and the weight and length of hose required were apparently looked at in the light of mere details of no moment.

Some days then passed during which King was improving rapidly, but still weak and prone to burst into tears on any reference being made to his dead companions. On the 24th September, all the blacks belonging to the camp which had befriended him were collected, and presented with tomahawks, knives, beads, mirrors, lengths of colored ribbon and similar trifles, brought with a view to such an emergency, and they showed their delight like a pack of children. One old lady was particularly noticeable on account of her attachment to King. By name "Carrawi", she was a person of some importance, and: the one to whose arm he had applied the caustic. She was the mother of two stalwart sons, and insisted upon it that he was a third who had been some time dead and "jumped up white fellah". These and many other particulars were supplied by King, who, during the three months he lived amongst them, had learnt much of their language.

In addition to the presents they were also given a 50lb bag of flour, and a small bag of sugar. The flour they treated disdainfully as being only "white fellow nardoo", but the sugar they fell upon ravenously when once they got the taste, and though some pounds of it were spilt in the struggle made by each to secure a share, none was wasted. Mixed with sand, it was scooped up in handsful and devoured with equal relish.

On the 25th September, King being pronounced by the Doctor fit to travel slowly, camp was broken up and the return to Menindie commenced, amidst the general lamentations of the tribe, punctuated by the piercing howls of Carrawi when she saw her lost son moving away perched on the back of a camel. She was also bleeding freely from wounds in the breast made by herself with the razor-like edge of a mussel shell.

The progress made on this journey from day to day depended largely on King's ability to stand the jolting of the camel, and often necessitated a day's rest. Reached the Depot on the 28th and exhumed the plant of field books and papers made by the men who were now past human aid, but these documents revealed little more than was already known. Met with several camps of blacks, and many stragglers engaged in hunting. All were excessively friendly having doubtless heard, through messengers from the other camps, about the presents distributed on the creek. This friendship was expressed in the highest form by offers of a pituri ball, an uninviting lump of what appeared to be chewed grass (See Appendix B), generally taken from behind the ear; sometimes from the ear itself, and handed with gestures that plainly conveyed to the recipient his freedom to share the delicate morsel with them, after the same fashion in which they used it themselves, and when it was handed back to them with a display of gratitude, it was invariably restored to its original place for future service. Obliged to replace King's camel with a quiet horse, as he complained of being terribly shaken, and after this he was able to travel longer distances. He had no objection to the pituri, having learned to use it sparingly during his stay with the blacks, but none of the others could be induced, to touch it, although King assured them of its value as an opiate; or as an intoxicant if partaken of too freely.

A day's stage after leaving the now deserted Bulloo camp [Brahe] and Weston Phillips were started on ahead to Menindie, the former to push on to Melbourne with despatches, the latter to remain there until the party arrived; and with the despatches was also sent a box containing forty-eight photographic negatives, which would have been of incalculable value, had they not been destroyed by the unpardonable curiosity of a foolish old man. To explain this it is necessary to go back to the formation of the party.

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