― 134 ―

Chapter XIV

THE atmosphere inside the court-house was reminiscent of the cookery-book instructions to “bake in a moderate oven.” The crowd that packed the benches had long since discarded coats and collars—such as wore them—and a general feeling of sympathy went out to the president and officials of the Land Court up on the platform, whose professional decorum still outweighed considerations of personal comfort.

Half the population of Longreach seemed to be present. Those who could not get inside, clustered round doors and windows or, while the uninteresting process of checking the applicants in the land ballot was in progress, drifted across to the pub to discuss their chances over a beer.

The last tray of numbered marbles poured into the ballot box. A stout, elderly man was beckoned forward and the clerk handed him a wand with wire prongs at one end, after exhibiting it to the crowd with the flourishes and gestures of a conjurer inviting the audience to see for themselves that there is nothing up his sleeve except a rabbit, a few billiard-balls, and the ace of diamonds. The hum of conversation dwindled … died to an oppressive silence, tense with expectancy. A panel in the ballot-box was slipped open and the fat

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man inserted the business end of the wand. He withdrew it slowly and the audience craned forward in their seats, stared hard, then sat back with gasps of disgust. The prongs were empty.

A hoarse adjuring whisper floated from the platform. “Harder, man!” And the fat man with the injured expression of the conjurer who has failed to produce the rabbit from the top-hat, set his heavy jaw and jabbed the stick fiercely into the box. It emerged with a wooden marble in the prongs and the conjurer, smiling smugly, handed the fateful wand to the president who peered hard at the number through his spectacles.

He stood up in the midst of an expectant hush, cleared his throat, and declared in momentous tones that portion 2, parish of Towoonan, 16,756 acres, had been drawn by number eighty-seven. There was a sudden scuffling and rustling of papers to identify the number and the crowd pressed closer, stemming a flood of excited comment with apparent effort. A shirt-sleeved land agent in the front row sat up with added importance and a satisfied smile, and the clerk passed a document to the president.

Heads craned through windows and doorways. The president cleared his throat again. “Number eighty-seven. The successful applicants are MacAndrew and Muir, Longreach!”

The spate of comment broke out in an excited torrent and everyone made for the doorway at once. A big red-faced man panted in from the street. “Who won? Who won?”

“MacAndrew and Muir!”

“Who? The drovers?”

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He clutched the sleeve of a tall, thin man. “Tom! D'you know where they are? I want to get hold of them quick!”

The thin man reflected. “Mac ought to be up about Muttaburra with a mob of sheep, and Bill's due to deliver his cattle out the other side of Corona, day after to-morrow. What d'you want 'em for?”

“Agistment! I'll give 'em sixty pounds a month!”

The agent led him quickly down the street. This was business.

The news penetrated to a café down town, and the blonde behind the counter withdrew unobtrusively through the green curtains. A calculating look crept into her pale blue eyes, then she smiled enigmatically at her reflection in the mirror and proceeded to smack at her heavy features with an overloaded powder-puff. “So Bill had a selection now! Good! That should bring him back to town soon. She must keep her evenings free for the next week. And she would have to get in ahead of that skinny barmaid at the Commercial. Blast her!”

At that moment a slim brunette with just a little too much colour on her cheeks and a glint of suppressed excitement in her sophisticated eyes had deserted the bar for the phone in the hotel office. She bit her lip with vexation and the pointed toe of her shoe tapped impatiently on the floor till a gruff voice barked in the receiver at her ear. “Not there yet, is he? Oh, that's bad! Will you try and get hold of him. It's very important … and tell him to ring the Commercial and ask for me … for me, Mr Smith.… It's Florrie

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speaking.… Aw, nothing of the kind! … You're a nawful man! 'Bye, Mr Smith!”

Mac, heading up the Landsborough with five thousand wethers, idly watched the pillar of dust curling up behind the approaching car, then as it swung off the road and bumped through the grass toward the mob, he rode to meet it. The driver, a lean, bronzed man in shirt-sleeves, hailed him above the rattle of the car. “Good day, Mac! A lot of telegrams for you!”

The furrows gathered on Mac's brow and he set his lips, prepared for bad news. Instead, the driver thrust a brown hand at him. “Congratulations!”

Mac accepted the firm grip with a puzzled expression. What had he done to be congratulated? He never bought lottery tickets—refused even to invest in a raffle, and had all his life shut his ears to the spruiker's argument, “If you don't speculate, you won't accumulate!” He accepted the half-dozen telegrams with the nearest thing to a poker-face he could muster.

He ripped them open, and as he read, his mystification increased and refused to remain hidden. He examined the addresses again. MacAndrew.… That was his name … and the address was near enough.

The driver laughed up at him. “Well … are you going to shout?”

“But what's it all about? These wires are from agents and people with offers for agistment. What's that got to do with me?”

The bronzed man leaned back in the seat and laughed heartily. “Haven't you heard you drew a block yesterday?”

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“Drew a block! Me? But …” he stared perplexedly at the other. “I never applied for one!”

Wh-at!” The man stared back in complete amazement. “You must have! I got it over the phone last night. MacAndrew and Muir!”

A light broke suddenly on Mac. Was this another of Bill's mad schemes! He had never even hinted at applying for a selection, but if he had … if they had actually drawn one! A rosy light flooded his incoherent thoughts. Here were people offering him money … big money! His heart leapt at the prospect and he turned to the man in the car. “Will you send a wire to my partner. I want to get him on the phone.”

It was late in the evening before the call came through. Over a couple of hundred miles of wire a faint distant voice buzzed at his ear. “Hallo! Who's that? That you, Mac? … Heard the news? Not bad, is it? We drew the homestead block … sixteen thousand acres. Well grassed and lashings of water! Have you had any offers for agistment? What's your best? … Eh … what's that? Eighty pounds a month? How many months? I've got a better one! MacCulloch rang me up … he offered eighty pounds a month for six months and he'll complete the fencing for us. That suit you? Right! I'll fix it! What? What d'you say? … Oh … didn't I tell you? … I put in an application for the block last month. Mine? … Not on your life! … We're partners, lad … for better or worse!”

It was not until many months later that Bill entered his new property. As the weary horses topped a rise, he halted his mare with an imperceptible gesture and looked across a fold in the downs at the old rambling

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homestead with the big square dam on the eastern side and the two gently sloping hills rising from the belt of timber behind. Dick West reined his horse alongside, and presently the pair were joined by Percy, grown to slim manhood. Then with a long-drawn “Whoa!” the wagonette drew up and from the box the Desolated Cokernut blinked critically at the prospect.

“She looks all right!” Bill's casual remark was delivered with the nonchalant air of a millionaire tossing a thousand-dollar bet on a roulette number.

Dick nodded appreciatively. “I like the look of that flat th' other side of the dam.”

“What do you like about it?”

“I reckon there's room for a mile track there …”

Bill eyed him severely. “Do you ever think of anything but racing the guts out of horses?”

“ 'Course I do! I like a drink once in a while, an' if there's any good sorts about …”

Bill interrupted him and turned to the horsetailer. “What about you, Percy?”

“Looks like a good horse-paddock.… Not much grass in it, though!”

“No, I suppose Mac's been running his blasted sheep in it!”

“And there's a good round yard …”

Bill nodded and looked challengingly at the man on the box. “What have you got to say about it, Tim?”

“Wait till I've had a look at the kitchen,” returned that individual.

“Oh! Going to settle down, are you?”

“I've had enough of wearing the seat of me pants on this 'ere box for a while. Anyhow,” he added sententiously.

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“I could do with a bit of sedimentary life for a change!”

“Hm-mm!” Bill surveyed the three in turn. “Dick's going to build a race-track. Percy's going to start breaking-in. Tim's going to order a case of decimated coconut and poison the lot of us. Where do I come in? And what I want to know is … who's boss of this flaming outfit … and whose selection is it, anyhow?”

Dick stuck his chin forward. “Look! We've put up with you for darn near three year now—God only knows how—for I only worked for one other man for more'n a year at a stretch, and that was when they got me in the army and I couldn't get meself the sack!”

Bill swept the three of them with a happy grin and started his mare down the track. “Come on then, you damned loafers! But don't forget we've a mob of bullocks to lift after the races.” He turned thoughtfully toward Dick West. “Do you reckon that black filly will gallop?”

“I wish I was as sure of winning Tatt's!”

“Dick …” His tone was serious and his eyes fixed contemplatively on the horses ahead. “I would like to get some of my cash back from these bookies in there! The best odds I ever got from them was 3 to 1 against the outsider in a goat race.” He switched a keen glance on the man at his side and there was a businesslike ring about his words. “Do you think we can train her … get her in condition in time for the meeting? We'll leave that rough coat on her, and ride her in an old greenhide bridle. We'll nominate her in the Cokernut's name and go for a skinner. Is it a go?”

“Too flamin' right it is!” Dick banged his fist

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emphatically on the pommel, and his horse jumped sideways and threw an aggrieved glance back at him from the corner of an eye.

Bill swung his whip and three cracks echoed like pistol shots and sent the loose horses trotting on. “That's for Mac to put the billy on.” He turned to Percy with mock severity. “You've got to ride that black filly in Longreach. And in the meantime, don't forget to say ‘sir’ when you're talking to the owner of this station! Now canter up and open that blasted gate.”

Percy grinned widely as he slipped away. “Right oh, Bill!”

And Bill watched him with a paternal grin. “He'll be running wild, chopping down bees' nests and hunting witchetty grubs for the next fortnight like any blasted walkabout nigger—and if we don't look out he'll be too fat to ride that filly!”