The Explorer

by J. Brooks

Josiah Sanchez fidgeted restlessly in an undersized chair in the hotel's crowded tea room. If the good Lord had intended him for surveillance work, he would have created him in the image of someone a little less conspicuous. Grimly, he sipped his cooling tea and feigned interest in the menu as he concentrated on the conversation going on at the table behind him.

"As you can see from these figures and from the samples before you, we believe this particular lode will be the most profitable investment opportunity yet." A scrawny, vaguely familiar man was winding up his pitch to the group of San Francisco speculators Josiah had been tailing all afternoon. The preacher risked turning his head far enough to study the man. He had been surprised to see someone other than the colonel approach the group. Perhaps their suspicions of the man were unfounded.

A heavy, skeptical silence from the investors greeted the speech. Finally, one man cleared his throat. "That's what you said about the last three sites, Bob. We haven't had a decent return in months. I'm afraid I'm going to have to see this mine myself."

There was a rumble of agreement around the table. "Don't get us wrong, Bob," another man spoke up, discreetly admiring a golden nugget. "We've been in on this with you from the beginning and we've turned a tidy profit. You can't imagine how hard it is to find federal survey teams willing to share the results of metallurgical reports before they go to the government. But business is business. If you continue to survey these barren wastelands, you're of no further use to us."

The sunburned little man shared a wide, insincere smile with the table. "I understand completely. We can visit the mine first thing tomorrow morning. I believe you'll be pleasantly surprised."

"Tomorrow it is," the first investor agreed, as the group pushed back from the table and moved toward the exits. Josiah slouched even lower as the scrawny fellow walked past his seat toward the hotel's side door. The preacher waited a beat, tossed a few coins on the table and moved to follow.

The door opened onto the alley and Josiah stepped outside just in time to catch a glimpse of ... Bob? ... disappearing around the corner. The little man headed straight for the stables, with Josiah trailing a discreet distance behind. While Bob entered the livery, Josiah skulked outside, trying to look casual.

"Psst! Josiah!" Nathan Jackson's voice whispered from on high. Josiah glanced up to see the healer grinning at him from the clinic stairs.

"Why you following Bob?"

Josiah's eyebrows shot up. "You know this Bob?"

"Yeah, he's one of the surveyors. Thought he rode out with Buck and JD earlier. Musta turned back."

"Appears Brother Bob had urgent business in town today. I just hear him telling the San Francisco crowd about the huge vein of gold he found on Seminole land."

Nathan sat down hard on the stairs. "Don't suppose that means the Seminole've struck it rich, does it?" His voice was tired, holding out no hope for a happy ending when white men took a liking to dark men's land.

"Heard him explain how easy it's going to be to re-draw the map boundaries and take the reservation land with the government's blessing."

Nathan jumped up and stalked down the stairs. "Where is he? Gonna wring his no-good, thieving neck. Gonna stake him out in the desert and let the lizards have their way with him..."

Josiah blinked. There's a new threat. He caught up to Jackson and hauled him back before he could storm into the livery and lay violent hands on the botanist. With a jerk of his head, he led the way to an open window.

They heard the colonel's voice first, sounding slightly hysterical.

"Tomorrow? Are you out of your mind?"

"How was I supposed to know you were going to fill the place with dead bodies?" Bob hissed. The lawmen outside exchanged unhappy looks. "You made the mess, you clean it up."

"My hand..." the colonel's tone verged on a whine. "I'm in no condition..."

Hands handed landed heavily on Josiah and Nathan's shoulders, sending them spinning around with muffled yelps of alarm. Larabee cocked an eyebrow at them.

"What do you think you're-" he began, only to be shushed and nudged closer to the window.

"...time to cut our losses and start an early retirement," Bob was saying. "You might want to give some thought to Mexico, Colonel. Unless you're curious to see what the penalty is in these parts for killing a lawman."

+ + + + + + +

Vin blinked. Or thought he did. The view was pretty much the same on either side of his eyelids. It was dark. And it was cold. And it hurt ... he frowned, trying to locate the source of the pain that filled the whole world. His head. That was it. His head hurt.

And there was a new source of discomfort. He took a deep breath, trying to figure out why the simple act of breathing was making him nervous. Slowly, his abused brain began to catalogue all the things wrong with the air. He took an experimental sniff. Something familiar about that air. Something unpleasantly musty and ... heavy. Cave air! Blindly, he crab-crawled backward, away from the weight of a mountain over his head and the press of rock walls too close, on too many sides.

He hit a wall with bruising force and curled up, panting in shallow, panicky gasps. After endless minutes, his rational mind made a feeble attempt to assert control. He opened his eyes and stared hard into the darkness. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a distant flicker of light -- warm and golden as sunshine.

With a gasp of relief that was almost a sob, Vin levered himself upright and staggered down the tunnel, wobbling between the narrow rock walls, moving toward the light.

It was lantern light, he realized suddenly. Not sunlight. Close enough. Right now, all he wanted was something to cut through the darkness pressing in around him.

He stepped into the golden circle of lamplight. And forgot all about the cave.

+ + + + + + +

"... killing a lawman."

Nathan and Josiah froze in dismay at the words. Larabee didn't.

In the space of three hearbeats, he was inside the livery, stalking toward the shocked surveyors. Ignoring Bob, he grabbed the colonel by the lapels and slammed him bodily against the wall.

"Tell me." His hand knotted in the the surveyor's shirt, twisting the fabric until the collar tightened like a garrote. "More." He twisted a bit harder, as the older man's face purpled. "About this lawman." He hauled him up until he was eye-to-eye with the Larabee glare, toes dangling off the floor. "You ... killed." He slammed him back against the livery wall with enough force to startle the horses.

"...not me," the surveyor gargled. His uninjured hand clawed weakly
at Larabee's arm.

Nathan moved in and grabbed the colonel's bloodied hand, yanking off the crude bandage. The palm was pierced by a tiny bullet hole. "He's been shot." His grip tightened involuntarily, squeezing a pained yelp out of the man. "Shot by a derringer."

"It wasn't me! I didn't kill them! They weren't dead when I left!" he babbled, folding down onto a hay bale as Larabee grudgingly loosened his hold on his neck. He rocked back and forth, cradling his hand. "Talk to Bob! He's the one who poisoned the other two and left them in the desert!"

The three lawmen whirled around. Bob was gone.

+ + + + + + +

That was it. No more whiskey for him, not ever. JD rolled onto his back with a pained groan and glared up at the cheery blue sky above. His head pounded like one of the Indians' skin drums, and felt like one too -- light and hollow and stretched thin to the breaking point. He groaned again, rubbing his stomach. It gurgled ominously, warning him to keep his groaning and rubbing to himself.

He closed his eyes and lay still, deferring to the angry belly, while he tried to decide if he had ever felt worse. His head spun. His stomach roiled. His limbs tingled and twitched strangely. And mouth felt like a herd of bison had set up housekeeping inside. He felt around carefully, confirming that all his body parts still seemed to be attached. This had to be the worst hangover ever. Worse than the time Buck convinced him to try that drink the Mexicans made out of cactus and worms.

He cracked open one eye, taking inventory of his surroundings. If he was in this state, it stood to reason that Buck was somewhere nearby -- and probably responsible for it.

He saw the burned-out campfire first. Then his horse, tethered to a stunted tree by the creek bed. And on the very edge of his vision, Buck's legs sprawled on the ground.

Memory returned in a flash. Lunch with Bob. A sad story about lost settlers. Pain. Dizziness. Buck's yell of alarm. And the slow, satisfied smile that spread across Bob's face as he watched JD tumble to the ground.

"BUCK!" JD rolled onto all fours and crawled to his friend's side. He reached out and shook Buck's sleeve, trying to wake him. He rolled Wilmington onto his back and stared, horrified, at the gray pallor of his face, beneath a fine dusting of brown powder.

+ + + + + + +

The colonel sailed through the air and landed with a satisfying crunch on the stone floor of the jail cell. Larabee slammed the cell shut and left without a backward glance, heading for the stables. He reached the livery just as Josiah was leading their horses out and Nathan was bounding down the clinic stairs with an armload of supplies.

Wordlessly, they stowed the last of the gear, swung into the saddle and paused, each man reading the same question in the others' eyes, but reluctant to voice it aloud.

"We got to split up," Nathan said finally, making a show of tugging on his gloves to avoid eye contact. "Who d'you want me to go after?"

Chris closed his eyes. Who was going to get medical attention first? That was the real question. The colonel's gasping confession ran through his mind. Ezra shot. Vin knocked senseless. Buck and JD poisoned and left for dead. How the hell was he supposed to choose?

"Buck and JD," he said softly. He cleared his throat and continued with more assurance. "You go after Buck and JD. Figure you'll have the best chance of treating whatever was done to them." He swung into the saddle. "We'll take care of the others."

Nathan nodded slowly, unable to argue with the logic. Larabee and Sanchez knew a hell of a lot more about gunshot wounds than poison. But he didn't like it. There wasn't one thing about this whole situation that he liked. "I already sent Yosemite ahead on the trail toward the surveyor camp with a buckboard," he said. "If it's safe to send JD and Buck home with him, I'll come after you."

Larabee nodded. And the three split into two, urging their horses west and south, trying to outrace the setting sun, a poisoner still on the lose and the time ticking away for their injured men.

+ + + + + + +

"Aww, Ezra," Vin breathed, sinking to his knees beside the still form on the cave floor. He reached out and rested a hand tentatively against the gambler's chest, reassured by the steady heartbeat he could feel beneath the red shirt.

Red shirt? Vin frowned, blinking hard as he tried to clear his vision. Ezra hadn't been wearing a red shirt this, hell. Vin's hands flew over the gambler's torso, fingers identifying the jagged holes in fabric that led to jagged holes in flesh all along his right flank and leg.

'What hit ya, Ez?' he wondered silently. Most of the injuries were so superficial he could feel the tiny pellets just under the skin, like buckshot. Others cut much deeper. One hole in his thigh was probably responsible for most of the blood that had pooled and dried to unpleasant tackiness around the gambler. Ezra must have roused at some point, Vin realized. Roused enough to work off his suspenders and wrap them with his vest into a makeshift pressure bandage around the leg.

Vin sat back for a moment and pressed the heels of his hands against his aching head, trying to decide what to do first: get supplies, get help, or get Standish out of the goddamn cave. One look at the gambler's chalky pale face, pinched in pain even in sleep, ruled out moving Ezra for now. And he sure as hell wasn't leaving him alone while he rode for help. That left one choice.

"You wait right here, Ez," he whispered. "Just gonna get a few things from the packs."

"Take your time ... Mr. Tanner," the gambler's unsteady voice ghosted up to him.

"Ez? You awake?"

Ezra made a noncommittal noise as his attention turned to other matters -- like remembering to breathe, and remembering not to scream.

Tanner murmured assurances, then bolted down the tunnel toward the supplies they'd left outside. Outside ... in the sunlight and the fresh air ... He squelched that line of thought mercilessly and ran.

+ + + + + + +

Twilight was bruising the sky by the time Nathan spotted the two horses, chestnut and gray, hobbled beside a small creek.

He threw himself out of the saddle in time to catch JD as he staggered toward him, babbling in relief.

"JD? JD, let me take a look at you," the healer lowered the kid carefully to the ground, taking in his flushed, feverish face and bloodshot eyes. "What'd he give you? You got any idea?"

"Beans," JD gulped, going pale at the mention of food. "Bob. He put something --something in the beans. Buck. Help Buck, Nate--" He doubled over suddenly, heaving into a nearby patch of scrub grass. Nathan patted him reassuringly on the back and moved to his other patient, frowning when he realized that Buck wasn't moving.

JD had propped Buck on his side to keep his airway clear, and covered him with a blanket. Nathan lifted the cook pot off the cold ashes of the fire, scowling at the small flakes of herbs he could just make out in the dried-out mess. He tasted a bit, spitting it out as soon as he identified the plant the botanist had used to drug the meal.

JD staggered back to his side, swaying queasily.

"How's--?" he began, then clapped a hand to his mouth and bolted back toward the shrubbery.

"Atta boy, JD. Just keep doin' what you're doin'," Nathan encouraged over the sound of dry heaves. He brushed a bit of strange brown residue on Wilmington's pale face, sniffing at the dust suspiciously.

"Huh?" JD squawked, scrubbing weakly at his mouth.

"Better out than in," Nathan shrugged. "You go right on and get it all outta your system. Just drink plenty of water while you're at it."

He wet his bandanna in the creek and set to work wiping Buck's face clean, worrying when the cold water didn't seem to revive the drugged man at all. "He been throwing up at all, JD?"

"N-no. He just lays there," JD crawled back to join them. Nathan studied the kid's pale, determined face and debated whether it was worth the effort to make him lay down before he fell down.

Probably not. "Okay, JD. You think you could get the fire going again? Got some things we're gonna need to brew up and pour down ol' Buck's throat."

+ + + + + + +

"I'm back Ez," Vin called out, dropping most of his supplies by the cave entrance and leaning against the wall for a long moment before moving toward the injured man.

Ezra rolled a bleary, baleful eye in his direction. "Mr. Tanner," he panted. "What did I tell you about traipsing ... across the scene ... of the investigation?"

Vin caught himself just before his foot would have landed in the tacky blood. He adjusted course and dropped beside Ezra, holding out a canteen. "Tanners don't traipse," he said, lifting Ezra's head gently so he could drink. "Ain't for sure what traipsing is, but it don't sound like me."

Ezra's eyes fluttered closed, but he doggedly kept up his end of the conversation. "I've been known to traipse on occasion. Or saunter. From time to time I ... perambulate."

Vin opened his saddlebags and fished around for something he could use for bandages. In his condition, he didn't have a prayer of digging the shotgun pellets out of Ezra. Best he could hope to do was to splash some of Ezra's fancy liquor around, wrap him up and pray Nathan got here soon.

"That just a fancy way of gettin' from one place to another?" he asked, hoping to distract Standish as he rooted through his pockets for the flask.

"Yes indeed. You should try traipsing some time." Ezra squinted up at the tracker, frowning at the quantity of blood matting the younger man's hair. Best to keep him talking. "How do Tanners ... move from ... place to place?"

"Mosey, mostly. Unless we're in a powerful hurry. Then we skedaddle." Vin fell silent, swallowing hard as the world began to spin unhealthily around him.

"Ah," Ezra sighed, making an uncoordinated grab for the canteen. It tipped over and rolled out of his limited reach. He moved the hand again, forgetting the water as something bright caught his eye. With a small, wry smile, he lifted his hand to study the ugly shrapnel scratch across the back of his wrist. Something embedded in the wound caught the light and glittered golden through the blood.

Shot through with gold. What a way to go.

His eyes roamed the cave lethargically as he catalogued his complaints. He hurt. He was dizzy. He was thirsty. He was stuck in a cave with a concussed claustrophobic. He'd been shot full of
holes by the world's worst soldier. Shot with a gun loaded with gold nuggets intended for the cave wall, no less.

When did the cave get so warm? He swiped restlessly at his flushed, sweaty face, trying to remember the last time he'd felt so utterly wretched. The time Buck convinced him to sample tequila was the only recent memory that came to mind.

And to top it all off, if by some miracle he managed to survive this ordeal, Misters Jackson and Sanchez were never, ever going to let him hear the end of it. He could hear them now, arguing over the proper moral to the story of the greedy man shot with a golden gun. Something Biblical perhaps -- as ye sow, so shall ye reap? Or maybe a lesson from the classics -- King Midas and his tragic golden touch?

"...Ez?..." Vin's small, plaintive call reined in his wandering thoughts. "I don't feel so good, Ez. Think I'm gonna ... lay down for a spell." The tracker was tilting sideways before the last word left his mouth, sliding into a graceless heap on the floor next to Ezra.

"... that's fine ... Mr. Tanner ... you take all the time you need," Ezra murmured, reaching over to shift the parts of Vin he could reach into a more comfortable position.

Ezra returned to his musing, barely noticing when his eyes closed. If silver bullets brought down werewolves, what might golden bullets defeat? The golden variety certainly didn't feel any better going in than ones cast from baser metals...

He sighed again. Were the others coming? Perhaps he could ask them when they arrived.

+ + + + + + +

That was how he found them, a few hours later. Side-by-side on the rough stone floor, dead to the world.

Tip-toeing considerately, the intruder skirted the unconscious men and rummaged around in the darkened cave corner. Grunting and swearing under his breath, he hauled a heavy strongbox back into the light. In a few staggering steps, he reached the tunnel entrance with the profits of almost a year spent betraying the public trust. With a satisfied grunt, Professor Robert Reynolds set the box aside and turned back to the lawmen.

He cocked his head at the downed men for a moment, considering. There was no real need to kill them. Then again, he couldn't think of a good reason not to, either. He stepped into the circle of dried blood and lifted the Remington out of Ezra's holster.

"Godspeed, gentlemen," he said, taking careful aim.

The cave erupted in gunfire.

+ + + + + + +

"Gawddamnit!" Larabee ducked as a bullet nearly creased his hat. "Vin! Ezra! Cease fire!"

There was a brief pause.

"Chris?" Vin's uncertain call echoed down the narrow tunnel.

"Yeah, Vin. Josiah's here too."

"Oh." There was another shot, and the sound of a bullet striking something meaty.

"Uh, I think you can stop shootin' Bob now, Vin. You got him."

"Oh. Okay."

With great care, Chris and Josiah edged back into the cave. Vin sat bolt upright on the floor, blinking at them in confusion. Ezra had collapsed across his legs, the emptied derringer still clutched in his hand.

What was left of Bob the botanist lay not far away, riddled with bullets from four different guns.

Larabee crouched down next to his battered men. "You in there, cowboy?" he peered into Vin's unequally dilated eyes and earned a cockeyed smile in response. The smile fell as Vin dropped his eyes to Ezra, who lay pale and still, fresh blood soaking into the tracker's clothes.

"Good Lord," Josiah breathed, gently lifting Ezra off Vin and shifting him to a spot near the wall, away from the bloodied floor and out of sight of Bob's remains. The preacher ran a hand through his hair. There were so many things that needed fixing on the gambler, he wasn't entirely sure where to start.

"Vin?" Chris shook the groggy tracker's shoulder gently. "Can you tell us what happened?"

"... Ezra ... Got salted," Tanner's head lolled forward as Larabee grabbed him under the arms and dragged him back against the wall beside Ezra.  Chris grasped the trackers' chin and turned his head gently so he could get a better look at the terrible gash in his scalp.

"We can see he was assaulted, brother," Josiah sighed, wincing as he pushed back the tattered shirt to expose the gambler's perforated torso.

Vin shook his head with great effort. "Colonel ... was salting the mine ... with a shotgun ..." The other lawmen followed Vin's gaze from the shotgun on the floor to the sparkling cave walls above them -- and back down to Ezra.

Larabee swore and leaned closer staring at a bright chunk of shrapnel that gleamed golden between two of the gambler's ribs. 

"Is that what I think it is?"

+ + + + + + +

Someone was shaking Buck Wilmington roughly awake. "Mmm... Marie, cherie ... jus' gimme one more minute, my little praline..." he mumbled, snuggling deeper into the blankets. The shaking continued, accompanied by the occasional whack of something hard and wooden against the side of his head. He frowned. That wasn't like Marie.

A sudden, violent shake sent Buck spinning out of the blankets to slam face-first into the side of the wagon.

"Oof!" he grunted, eyes flashing open in surprise. What the--? Wagon? Why was he in a wagon? And why was JD lying next to him, grinning like an idiot? And why was he so happy to see JD awake and grinning?

"Buck?" the kid pushed himself up on his elbows and smiled even wider. "You awake? Oh, gosh it's good to see you with your eyes open! How you feeling? Think you're gonna throw up again? Think you could drink some more of this tea Nathan left us? Do you remember anything about what happened?"

Buck blinked slowly, considering. "Nope," he decided. It was the right answer to at least half the kid's questions, he figured. JD laughed and passed him the canteen of tea anyway.

"Hey Yosemite! Buck's awake!" the kid called up to the big man driving the wagon. The livery owner turned and gave Buck a wave and a smile. JD returned the wave on Buck's behalf, then flopped back, yawning, onto the blankets that padded the wagon bed. "Nathan set out at first light," he said. "D'you remember Nathan being here? He was up all night pouring stuff into you, and you were up all night throwing it back up again. That's why your throat's so sore." Dunne nodded wisely, with an air of one who has been there and done that.

"You sure you don't remember what happened?" JD pressed. Buck shrugged, not sure of anything right now. JD shook his head. "Lucky you. I'm telling you, I'm never gonna look at a plate of beans the same way again..."

Beans. It all came back to him, in a rush of memories and gastric juices. With a muffled curse, Wilmington threw his head and shoulders over the side of the wagon.

+ + + + + + +

"Ez?" Vin Tanner called out, tilting his face into the sun, enjoying the play of fresh air across his face.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra replied from the shelter of the cave entrance, swathed comfortably in blankets and dosed to within an inch of stupor with one of Nathan's home-brewed painkillers. The other lawmen, relaxing nearby, rolled their eyes, unable to believe they'd let the two injured men talk them into this arrangement.

"Been thinkin' about that surveyor who died. Martin. Thinkin' how mad I was at them mapmakers while I was guiding 'em around. Buncha blowhards, callin' themselves explorers. Braggin' about how they was discovering new lands. Like you and me an' the Indians weren't all here first."

Ezra smiled. "That's the way of things, Mr. Tanner. If it's any consolation to you, these explorers will complete their survey and draw up their maps and those maps will lure settlers west -- and THEY'LL be called the pioneers. The mapmakers will be forgotten, and us with them."

"Yer a real ray of sunshine, Ez."

"Just making conversation with my fellow convalescent, Mr. Tanner."

"Anyhow, like I was sayin', this Martin feller. Reckon he might've been the real thing -- an explorer. Just out here to see what there was to see." Vin's eyes swept the horizon, taking in the vast dome of sky stretching down to fantastically striated rock formations and golden sand.

"You may very well be right," Ezra sighed. "I would imagine the colonel killed our young explorer when he refused to go along with the plan to alter the maps and fake the mineral reports -- to make a lie of this survey. A bullet was a poor reward for such a man."

Larabee bit down hard on his cheroot. This little chat had taken a turn for the morbid. Time for a change of subject. With an evil little smile, he reached over and snagged a small canvas bag out of Nathan's pocket.

"Speaking of rewards…" He upended the bag next to the southerner's head, releasing a small cascade of pellet-sized golden nuggets. "What the heck are we supposed to do with all the crap
Nathan dug out of Ezra?"

Ezra's eyes widened at the size of the shrapnel pile. No wonder he felt like a kitchen sieve. A slow smile spread across his pale face. The spoils of war. He reached out with his unbandaged hand to touch the tiny golden pyramid.

"What? Are you crazy, Chris? That ain't your gold!" Nathan yelped, intercepting the gambler's hand before he could twist the wrong way and tear the new needlework on his torso. Ezra turned his best smile on the healer, ready to begin negotiations.

"Surely ... Mr. Jackson ... You wouldn't begrudge a wounded man a souvenir?"

"You telling me you'd be fighting for the pellets if you'd been shot with ordinary buckshot?"

"If ordinary buckshot would keep me in single-malt scotch for half a year, yes indeed."

"Ain't your gold, Ezra."

"Oh yes it is. It was ... given to me by the colonel himself."

"He fired it into your slick hide with a double-barrel shotgun!"

"A gift I couldn't possibly refuse."

"What about me, then?"

"Errr, what about you?"

"Ain't I entitled to a share?" Nathan crossed his arms, fighting to hide a smile at the appalled look on Ezra's face. "I mean, I did spend a couple hours digging all that gold outta ya. It was kinda like prospecting."

"You'd hit an invalid up for a finder's fee? I am shocked and dismayed, Mr. Jackson!"

Josiah laughed. Vin dozed in the sunshine with his face to the wind. Ezra and Nathan bickered happily.

And Larabee hid his smile under his hat.

The End

Comments to:

There's no sense in going further--it's the edge of cultivation,"
So they said, and I believed it--broke my land and sowed my crop--
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated--so:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges--
"Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

So I went, worn out of patience; never told my nearest neighbours--
Stole away with pack and ponies--left 'em drinking in the town;
And the faith that moveth mountains didn't seem to help my labours
As I faced the sheer main-ranges, whipping up and leading down.

March by march I puzzled through 'em, turning flanks and dodging shoulders,
Hurried on in hope of water, headed back for lack of grass;
Till I camped above the tree-line-drifted snow and naked boulders--
Felt free air astir to windward--knew I'd stumbled on the Pass.

'Thought to name it for the finder: but that night the Norther found
me-Froze and killed the plains-bred ponies; so I called the camp despair
(It's the Railway Gap to-day, though). Then my Whisper waked to hound me: --
"Something lost behind the Ranges. Over yonder! Go you there!"

Then I knew, the while I doubted-knew His Hand was certain o'er me.
Still-it might be self-delusion--scores of better men had died--
I could reach the township living, but.... He knows what terror tore me...
But I didn't... but I didn't. I went down the other side.

Till the snow ran out in flowers, and the flowers turned to aloes,
And the aloes sprung to thickets and a brimming stream ran by;
But the thickets dwined to thorn-scrub, and the water drained to shallows,
And I dropped again on desert-blasted earth, and blasting sky....

I remember lighting fires; I remember sitting by 'em;
I remember seeing faces, hearing voices, through the smoke;
I remember they were fancy-for I threw a stone to try 'em.
"Something lost behind the Ranges" was the only word they spoke.

I remember going crazy. I remember that I knew it
When I heard myself hallooing to the funny folk I saw.
'Very full of dreams that desert, but my two legs took me through it...
And I used to watch 'em moving with the toes all black and raw.

But at last the country altered-White Man's country past
disputing-Rolling grass and open timber, with a hint of hills behind--
There I found me food and water, and I lay a week recruiting.
Got my strength and lost my nightmares. Then I entered on my find.

Thence I ran my first rough survey-chose my trees and blazed and
ringed 'em-Week by week I pried and sampled-week by week my findings grew.
Saul he went to look for donkeys, and by God he found a kingdom!
But by God, who sent His Whisper, I had struck the worth of two!

Up along the hostile mountains, where the hair-poised snowslide shivers--
Down and through the big fat marshes that the virgin ore-bed stains,
Till I heard the mile-wide mutterings of unimagined rivers,
And beyond the nameless timber saw illimitable plains!

'Plotted sites of future cities, traced the easy grades between 'em;
Watched unharnessed rapids wasting fifty thousand head an hour;
Counted leagues of water-frontage through the axe-ripe woods that
screen 'em-Saw the plant to feed a people-up and waiting for the power!

Well, I know who'll take the credit-all the clever chaps that followed--
Came, a dozen men together-never knew my desert-fears;
Tracked me by the camps I'd quitted, used the water-holes I hollowed.
They'll go back and do the talking. They'll be called the Pioneers!

They will find my sites of townships--not the cities that I set there.
They will rediscover rivers-not my rivers heard at night.
By my own old marks and bearings they will show me how to get there,
By the lonely cairns I builded they will guide my feet aright.

Have I named one single river? Have I claimed one single acre?
Have I kept one single nugget -- (barring samples)? No, not I!
Because my price was paid me ten times over by my Maker.
But you wouldn't understand it. You go up and occupy.

Ores you'll find there; wood and cattle; water-transit sure and steady
(That should keep the railway rates down), coal and iron at your doors.
God took care to hide that country till He judged His people ready,
Then He chose me for His Whisper, and I've found it, and it's yours!

Yes, your "Never-never country"-yes, your "edge of cultivation"
And "no sense in going further"-till I crossed the range to see.
God forgive me! No, I didn't. It's God's present to our nation.
Anybody might have found it, but-His Whisper came to Me!

The Explorer - Rudyard Kipling