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Chapter VI

THE projected early morning start did not materialize. The only horses Sam could find were the tired little mob the three men had ridden on the previous night, and eventually they had to saddle them up again for the day's mustering. The four men rode up the creek, mustering all the cattle on the western side in toward Turnbull. It was a totally new experience for Bill. He pushed ahead through the scrub on what he reckoned was his course, when the crack of a whip close on his right halted him. There was old Turnbull with a little mob of cattle and the tall green creek timber just beyond him. Bill turned sharply and edged out as quietly as possible without giving himself away.

Suddenly his horse pricked his ears. On the fringe of a little clearing stood a huge white bullock with big spreading horns. For a moment it stared undecidedly, then with an explosive wumph it plunged into the thick scrub where a heavy crashing advertised the presence of a hidden mob. The brown horse jumped instinctively in pursuit, and the rider had to clutch at the saddle to save himself from being left behind. There was only the crashing of timber ahead to guide them but it was enough, then Bill caught a glimpse of red and roan through the thinning timber. He jammed his hat down

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on his head, dug his heels in, and prayed he would not be scraped off on a tree. The horse shot forward, gave a convulsive leap over a fallen trunk, on again, slithered luckily through a rabbit warren, and out into the open.

A dozen bullocks were streaming across the clearing and the brown horse needed no urging. Bill swung his whip as he drew level with the mob. The white leader had almost reached the opposite wall of scrub but the brown horse, responding nobly, closed in on the galloping bullock, throwing his weight against the shoulder. The bullock propped sharply and swung back. The horse propped and swung with it; to Bill, it seemed as if it had simply ducked between his legs and he just managed to grip a handful of mane and hang on, till a lucky swerve brought him back into the saddle. He drew a deep breath of relief and mentally registered a growing respect for his mount with a prayer that no one had witnessed his near departure from him. Anyhow, he had beaten the bullock. His blood tingled with the exhilaration of the chase. This was the life! No more plodding behind sheep for him. He cracked his whip and headed the mob for the creek.

The sun was almost straight overhead when a mob came crashing toward him with Dinny on one wing and the horsetailer hoy-ing them on from behind. Bill fell in with them and they joined up with Turnbull on the creek; only about two hundred bullocks for the morning—less than half the mob.

After camping for dinner on a drying waterhole, Bill started the mob back down the creek toward the camp, while the other three combed the scrub on the farther side. At intervals the banging of a whip and crashing

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of heavy bodies through the scrub heralded the appearance of another mob. They would burst through the leafy screen and halt with surprise and suspicion, then on recognizing their mates they would merge and string off down the creek. Bill had his work cut out to keep his mob together. The leaders evinced a desire to make the pace a fast trot, and they had to be checked continually. Sometimes a bullock would branch out from the main mob and make for the scrub with a retinue of half a dozen others. A touch of the heels and the horse shot out in pursuit. The gentle pace for wheeling sheep was of no use here. Up on them, the whip rose and cracked—sometimes—and the disgruntled bullocks shot back into the mob.

The sun dropped low and finally disappeared over the western tree-tops—an angry red disk in a smoky haze. Darkness came quickly and the musterers rallied on the cattle and pushed them along. Then the camp-fire appeared like a red eye through the timber and the cattle snorted and rolled back on the mob.

Bill rode up the wing and joined Dinny. “What are we going to do with the cattle to-night?”

“Watch 'em.” In the darkness that hid their features, Dinny sensed the look of puzzled interrogation. “We'll hold 'em on that clearing in front of the camp. … Take it in turns to ride round 'em all night.”

He rode off to steady the lead and cut out the horses they had picked up on the way. Sam the horsetailer followed him to the camp and caught the night-horses while Bill and old Turnbull rode steadily round the cattle. After a few complaining bellows at the curtailment of their freedom, they reluctantly settled down for

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the night, standing about chewing the cud or letting themselves down to the ground with a deep, contented whoof.

Old Turnbull was singing an ancient song with an interminable number of verses in a cracked tuneless voice. They were on opposite sides of the cattle and Bill, who was keeping as quiet as possible, wondered why he should keep on disturbing the mob with his raucous old voice. A horseman rode out from the camp-fire, momentarily blocking its glare, and the cook's squeaky tones hailed them. “All right, boys, your supper's at the fire! Woh … bullicks … woh! It's only old Toothless Jimmy!”

As Bill waited on Turnbull, the cook broke into a quavering ditty and rode off round the mob. Turnbull glanced at his companion. “Well, it's been a good day.”

“Yes, I've enjoyed it!”

“Never done much cattle work, have you?”

Bill hesitated a moment, then he replied simply. “No! I haven't.”

“When you're on watch to-night, ride a bit wider of the mob, look out for any beast walking off the camp, and keep on whistling or singing or making a noise of some sort.”

“But doesn't that disturb them?”

“Not on your life! While they hear you, they know you're there!”

Bill did more than justice to the mysterious looking curry old Jimmy had concocted; he was hungry enough to eat anything without question.

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Dinny rolling a cigarette in the firelight glanced across at him. “Tired?”

“A bit.”

“You can take first watch and relieve the cook. We'll do two hours each. I'm going out to the mob now and I'll send the cook in, so come out when you're ready.”

He led the spare night-horse out of the shadows and slipped quickly into the saddle. The horse took a few steps, then, without warning, ducked his head and bucked all round the camp. Turnbull jumped to his feet, brandishing a slice of damper. “Nice sort of night-horse that!” he snorted, casting an anxious eye toward the cattle. “Damned good job the right man's on him!”

Bill finished his supper in silence. For some time now he had cherished a secret ambition to try himself out on a buckjumper—an easy, straightahead pigroot for a start, anyhow—but he was quite certain that if he had got on that horse to-night, the first buck would have given him a view of the tree-tops. Dinny must have had an idea that the horse was fresh, and the boy felt dumbly grateful.

Then old Jimmy rode in. Bill lengthened the stirrup leathers and rode out to the mob. Until his eyes recovered from the glare of the fire he could see practically nothing in the darkness. By the wan light of a low crescent moon, a certain fine distinction of light and shadow came slowly into being, then the dark mass of the camping mob loomed before him. On the far side someone was singing “Waltzing Matilda.” It was funny to imagine Dinny singing. Dinny, whose everyday speech was reduced to the irreducible minimum, the soul of brevity, mechanically beefing out a bush ballad

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in a tuneful but lugubrious voice! Bill wanted to laugh out loud, but compromised with a broad grin into the darkness.

The song shut off abruptly. “Got your whip?”

Bill raised his right arm with the long thong looped over it and Dinny went on, “Well, don't use it unless you've got to. If a beast pokes out, turn him back without stirring up the mob. I don't think they'll rush, but if they do, go like hell to the lead and pour the whip into them till you wheel them.” He handed over a heavy silver watch. “Call me at half-past eleven. You know where I'm sleeping? Well … hooroo!”

Bill was alone. He touched the horse with a heel and started his patrol with the mob on his right hand. Most of them were lying down, but a few stood with muzzles slightly raised, and the sound of their cud-chewing was broken by an occasional gusty belch. He racked his memory for something to sing. … What songs did he know? He never sang except in the bath … but in public … of course there was “God Save the King.” Still … better not. The bullocks might be patriotically inclined … His job was to keep them lying down. What was that thing from The Merry Widow? … Or was it The Quaker Girl? He started timidly on “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes,” gradually increasing in volume as his first self-consciousness wore off.

On his second round, the horse quickened pace and veered away from the mob. Bill checked his song and peered into the darkness ahead. There was something purposeful in the way the horse had taken charge, and memories of the camp-fire reminiscences of Dinny and Tom Dixon on the unerring instinct of night-horses decided

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him to trust to his mount. He leaned forward and the horse quickened its pace. A moving blur against the shadows ahead stopped, and Bill spotted it for a bullock. The night-horse swung on to it and headed it back to the camp. As it disappeared into the mob, Bill slipped a hand up the smooth neck of the horse and caressed it gratefully. Then he treated the camp to further excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan.

The night-air was warm and balmy. Bill had not worn a coat for weeks, and as he rode along with shirt-sleeves rolled up, the mosquitoes keened in a cloud around him and gave him a key-note for his song, but several octaves too high. The moon seemed to linger a while on the rim of the horizon before it was quickly pulled down, and for a space the world was strangely dark. Then the sheer brilliance of the stars asserted itself, and in their light the world became a place of mystic inky blackness shot with long pennons and pools of molten silver.

He found himself lapsing into silence between songs. The silences unconsciously lengthened till suddenly recovering with a start he realized that he had fallen asleep in the saddle. The horse was still padding softly round and Bill hastily broke into song again. His eyelids drooped like leaden weights. The realization of his weariness had come on him with a rush, and an acute longing for sleep possessed him. Surely his time was nearly up. He lugged the heavy watch out of his pocket and peered hard at it from all angles. The hands were barely distinguishable but … his heart bounded … could that be half-past eleven! He had only to ride in and call Dinny, then bed—glorious bed! He turned

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the horse toward the low red glow of the fire, simmering with the comforting thought of sleep, when something prompted him to look at the watch again. He peered at it in the firelight. Doubt placed a chill finger on his dreams. That hand didn't seem quite as close to the top of the watch as it should be. It was half-past ten. Another hour to go! Oh, hell!

He rode morosely back to the mob, battling against sleep, and his weary voice took up a refrain that required little concentration and lasted a long time. The bullocks were camping well. Who wouldn't be a bullock and sleep when you want to! One lay well out from the mob and Bill began to use him as a tally-point to count each time he circled the mob. He tried to force himself to think about things, but it was hard to think and sing at the same time.

What about girls? They were easy to contemplate! But now that he thought of it he had been too busy for the subject to occupy his waking thoughts for a long time. The days had been too full of action; by nightfall you had barely energy enough for a meal before you slipped into the blankets and deep dreamless sleep.

Funny things, girls! Not that he had had much to do with them. There was that little girl with the long fair hair, on the ship coming out from England. He had kept aloof from every one for the first week or two, then he found himself watching the girl, thinking covertly about her but never daring to meet her. Then came the night of the fancy-dress ball … a tropic moon overhead. He had turned away from the dancers and leaned on the rail watching the play of moonlight

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on the sea when he had felt a warm lithe presence at his side, and a pretty lisping voice, “Aren't you ever going to dance with me?” He had looked down at the pouting mouth and a fierce desire to kiss it hard and long had made his head reel. Then he had laughed shortly. “Sorry, I'm not much of a dancer. Shall we go up to the boat-deck?” Yes, that was a gorgeous night!

It seemed so far away, so long ago, yet it was only a year. Looking back, it was hard to reconcile the reticent, somewhat sullen youth of shipboard to his present self, riding round a mob of bullocks in a starlit clearing—dense black scrub stretching for endless miles around and civilization incredibly remote.

A long-drawn wailing howl holding the quintessence of mournfulness and despair stopped the beating of his heart, froze his blood, and set his hair standing on end. Again it rose and quivered balefully in the night-air as though a port-hole of hell had gaped open to spill a foretaste of demoniacal torture.

Bullocks were getting to their feet; a couple advanced to the edge of the mob, shook their horns, and sniffed significantly. Bill swallowed his fear and pushed the horse on but his song had a quivering note threading it. Dingoes were bad enough to listen to from the heart of a camp with a big fire blazing, but that one sounded too close and too horribly blood-curdling. He wanted to crack his whip, to assert himself, to do something energetic; if he could even see the author of the fiendish howl it would help, but the forbidding black scrub shrouded the mystery and heavens only knew what other skulking things besides! He shivered and

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peered at the watch. Surely … He refused to risk disappointment by trusting to surmise, and deliberately completed the tour of the mob, jogged steadily over to get the light of the camp-fire and peered again. Half-past eleven! Hallelujah!

He turned the horse towards where Dinny lay, when a movement in the shadows there halted him, then Dinny's low voice. “Heard you coming. I'll be out in a minute!” He rode back and made a final triumphant tour of the mob, beefing out at the top of his voice … “A policeman's life is not a happy one … ha-appy one!”