There was once a very great aboriginal king who lived somewhere in the belt of basalt country where the waratah does not grow. The hard rocks of this country have once been subjected to terrific heat. In fact, they are born of fire, and this the people knew very well. For a long time the king had been a very good king, doing all he could for the people over whom he ruled. He had all the prowess that a chief should have. His spear he could hurl furthest and straightest. His nullah struck hardest, and his boomerang always sailed in its twirling rings and pretty curves out further into the air and returned to sit poised and still twirling above the players and himself before striking the ground at his feet. His killing boomerang never failed to bring down game.
But when he was growing old he developed the whim to roam the bush alone. He lost the desire to remain the chief. All he did for the tribe was search out the best bits of fallen stone so that his artisans might grind them into tomahawk blades, axe heads, or spear points.
One day a thick mist fell amongst the rugged hills and he lost his way. He had travelled over the saddle between two rounded peaks, and descended into a ravine on the other side. He went on and ascended other peaks and went down into other gullies until he grew tired and then he essayed to return to the camp. But he was not sure that he had negotiated as many ridges and tramped through so many gullies, for they were all so much alike that it was very difficult for anyone to know one from another. When he realised that he was lost-had failed to remember in what direction he had come-he simply sat down to wait until the mist was clear away. But rain set in and he grew very cold. Then night fell, and as everything was wet he could not make a fire. He quite remembered the steep of the fall of the ground on the side of the first peak, and though it was still dark he walked as much to make himself warm as to find the way. He crossed over high ground and went into other deep places, and at last he felt that he was going down a steep enough place to be where he had started to climb, and there he rested until the day broke. The mist was lightened and he could see that he was not at the place where he wished to be and where he was when the fog first shut out the scene. There the trees were the white-barked tea-tree and the underscrub was wire-grass and small rushes. But here were gums and wattles, and the undergrowth was Macrozamia and Chorizema and Wild Fuschia and Clematis and Sarsaparilla vine.
And it was much deeper. He knew all the plants that grew in his part of the country. He, of course, had his blackfellow names for them. The Acacia glaucescens, with its long yellow rolls of pollen he called "Karrawan," and the beautiful little Dillwynia ericifolia he called "Wannara"; the white-flowering Bloodwood he called "Mannen," and the pretty Wonga Vine he knew as "Telaaraweera," and so on.
What was he to do now? His hand had lost its cunning. His mind was not so alert. Unless he could find the tribe soon, he must die of cold and hunger. So he turned and endeavoured to go back. He climbed again the steep mountain-side and on top he was amongst many boulders, and the tussocked grasses and the burrawangs were such as he had never seen before.
He blundered on. In his anxiety he became uncertain of foot and often he faltered and almost fell. The rain came on again and the mist-the clouds that fell to earth-rested once more about him. He coo-eed, but no answering coo-ee came to him. Several days went by and it still rained and was still cold and misty, and it gave no promise of clearing. He had found roots in plenty but he lacked animal food, especially its fat, which was his most nourishing article of diet. He lived, though he grew weaker. At last he found a track. He knew it to be the well-beaten track of the brush wallaby, and he reckoned that if he waited patiently that night beside the path and hidden, he would intercept the animal, and meat and fat would be his. During the night the rain ceased, and a wind sprang up that shook the water from the leaves and blew away the clouds.
He hid beside the wallaby track and he had not long to wait.
Thud, thud, crash, crash, thud, thud-the wallaby was coming down from the ledges above to browse on the succulent grasses of the level and clear country.
The black man was patience itself. He grasped his nullah more firmly, and with one hand parting the leptospermums before him he decided just when to strike the blow.
It is strange that no white man can get a wild animal so. Wild things see him or smell him; besides, he cannot wait. The marsupial hopped unsuspectingly on, stopping every little while to nibble at some young shoots that overhung or infringed upon the track. Then, like lightning, the nullah sprang into being and it shot out straight to the wallaby's ear. He went down and his life went out with the trickle of blood that wandered slowly and brokenly down from the place where it had been struck. He had certainly made a feeble defence with his clawed feet, but before one reached his ear it wavered and quivered and fell.
Next day the man ate and was filled, and then he slept-a sounder sleep than he had had since he left his tribe. The wind that had been but a slight zephyr sprang into life. It grew stronger and stronger, and increased until it roared through the great gum-trees like a mighty torrent of water. The huge branches were tossed, and they swayed and crashed amongst one another and were twisted apart and fell. The small twigs snapped and were whirled about and strewed the ground like thick moss. The huge bark trunks leaned and strained and groaned and split and often cracked and thundered down. Giant masses of cloud swept overhead. A bird now and then essayed flight and was whirled and dashed to death. Wallabies and rats and dingoes grew afraid, and, leaping from the safety of their sheltered places, they sped off, bounding amongst the roaring trees and being twirled and blown and staggered in the awful gale.
The man slid down a crumbling bank into a bouldered creek. There was safety there unless the creek rose. If a tree fell it could not crush him; and trees did fall, but not one nor yet a broken limb caught him. They fell across the creek and rested on the boulders, and beneath it all he was not only safe, but warm.
Just as suddenly as the gale sprang up so it went, and as is usual it was followed by another great downpour of rain. He had to climb out of his shelter, and he found a hollowed stump which served, and with the remnant of the wallaby he felt that he could be comfortable until the storm ceased altogether. After two days the sun came out warm and the vapour steamed off the earth and sailed up through the tree-tops and into the sky from which it came. The blackfellow pushed on to a top, and shading his eyes with his hand, he peered away over the gum-trees, searching the lines of ridges as shown by the colouring of foliage, looking for smoke.
Ah! There was smoke! It was a long way off, but he would make towards it. He knew he would have to walk all day. Towards evening he ascended another hill-top and found no vantage point, so he climbed a tree, and from there he descried the smoke again. It was not in the same place, therefore the tribe must be moving, and moving fast. He decided to camp there for the night, and be fresh to push on in the morning. He realised his old age, for each evening, for many evenings, he looked for the smoke and always it seemed as far off as ever. Several times he came across the fires. Once he disturbed the dogs that stayed behind to gather up the remnants of the food. There were often some dry roots or partially eaten meat or bones that had pickings lying about, and upon that scanty fare he did well enough. He made signal fires but they were unanswered.
The country changed. The basalt rocks-the sharp, brittle, ringing stone disappeared, and the ridges were ridges of sandstone. Vegetation was different, too, and there, just in front of him, was a plant and flower the like of which he had never seen before. It did not grow in his basalt region. He plucked it and smelt it and parted its pistils and found it to be full of rich moisture.
"Meewah," he whispered, meaning "sweet"! "Waratah," he said, meaning most beautiful!
Yet he now grew afraid. What tribe was he following? This was, he knew, far from his country, and he, perhaps, was only rushing or travelling into great danger and distress. So, gathering a bunch of this wonderful flower, he turned about and intended to try in another direction to reach his own tribe.
But he was too late. A couple of men of the travelling people had returned for something, and they espied him and called to him to stop. He did not quite know their language, but he sensed their intentions. He dropped the waratahs and faced them. All they did was to pick up the flowers, and by pointing, order him off.
They did not harm him.
In a few more days he saw other smoke and then he found his own people. He had a great tale to tell. Away in the direction which he showed, a wonderful flower grew. Its bush was beautiful, its form was unique, its colour was gorgeous and it had a sweet juice that he had sipped. It was "meewah" and "waratah"-sweet and beautiful.
A few of the daring ones agreed to go in search of it. Selecting the best of their weapons, and, with the old chief to guide them, they sallied out. It proved to be only about six days' march to the place where the wonderful flowers were growing. The country was an upheaval and outheaval of sandstone. The rocks were plainly thrown there by static pressure, and they were not caused by fire, but by successive layers of sand washed by running water. And the soil was scanty and poor and full of gravel. It was rich, however, in just what this pretty flower needed, and the roots of the stunted gums kept the soil friable and gave the underground stem of the waratah its proper food.
The party plucked many plants. They destroyed, too, for they did not understand its habits. They broke the stem from the brittle root and carried it away.
Shortly afterwards they went again. By this time the owners of the grounds had found traces of the marauders and they lay in wait. They made a great outcry. There was a great hurling of spears and some death cries. The fight was soon over. Not one of the trespassers ever returned to his people.
Now amongst them there was a great sorcerer. He knew more of the mystic signs and the daubing of pipeclay and the sending up of smoke through a hollow trunk than any other of his folk. Often he had saved the tribe. When food was scarce he could find it. When rain was needed he made it with his magic and his smoke magic. And now he was killed. His non-return and the continued absence of the chief were rightly interpreted. The chief's son was made chief with all due ceremony. A corroboree was held under the new chief and every lad who was anywhere near the fighting age was initiated and tried out. At this corroboree the young chief worked himself up into a state of great frenzy and this communicated itself to all those present. He grew passionate with no attempt to check himself. In this way he increased in daring and when he felt himself fit and had engendered sufficient boasting on the part of the young men, he gave the order to go to war. Their medicine man and their chief were to be avenged, or brought back if alive, though none believed them to be alive.
They were only three days following in the wake of their missing people when they found all the evidence of their fate. They went on. The waratahs were in bloom and they marvelled at the glorious sight. But they were bent on retaliation, and they wasted no time. The scouts of the rearguard of the tribe here were not slow to learn of their coming. They sighted the formidable spears and the huge bark shields. They sighted, too, the determined attitude of this band of fighting men. They reported to their chief, and orders for the women and children to go down into a walled-in gully with but one avenue of approach were given, and the women went down-all but two young ones who trembled for the safety of their lovers, and who ran the risk of defying the old women so that they could watch the battle.
The little band yelled and rushed upon their enemies and the spears flew. Those from the tribe fell harmlessly. The little band reserved theirs until they were only a few yards from the foremost of the opposing men, and then together, as one man, they hurled theirs. Every one found the intended billet. The great mob wavered and then turned and fled.
Then came a wonderful and inexplicable thing. It was a great bright light, burning blue, and travelling at an enormous rate. It came down out of heaven and no one knew who had caused it, but all believed that it must have been some sorcerer greater than any ever known. The earth trembled because of the speed of the visitation. The air was filled with hissing sound. The glare dazzled, and in a fraction of time the thing had struck the earth. The ground heaved and was rent. Stones went up, masses of earth flew, a terrific explosion roared. The noise of the burst was deafening, and it reverberated around and amongst the hills and through the bush until all the world was just a great full noise. The fighting men fell flat, and there they remained until the young women who had stayed to watch the battle came to them, for they were the first to recover their senses. They were full of consternation seeing no men standing up, but all lying as if killed, and each ran to her lover. There was really nothing wrong with the men. They were only stricken with a terror they had never before experienced. They looked up expecting to find, no one knows what, and seeing the girls their spent courage in some measure returned.
But what of the others? There was no trace. The terrible thing had wiped them right out, and of them there remained not a vestige.
And just beyond them the waratahs stood serenely, for not one was hurt. They were, and still are, quite immune from the effects of such fire.
That is why the blacks brought the waratah stems to the early blacksmiths. They thought that the sparks from the anvil were the same fire as that that came from the sky that day.
During the ensuing night more heavenly fires darted hither and thither. The frightened people grew somewhat accustomed to them and they watched them. They believed that the fires fell because the waratahs were being taken by those who had no right to them, and always the coming of a meteor or the shooting of stars was held to be a sign that the bright red blooms were being stolen.
There is quite another story of shooting stars that is told in those parts of Australia where the waratah is unknown. There they are said to be souls returning, and often men may be seen searching for them. Some even say that they have seen them and they show something that they say they got from them.