― 16 ―

Chapter II

EVERY bone in his body had a private, individual ache. The ground underneath had the hard, relentless feeling of concrete, and the cold penetrated his blankets to his very bones and made him shiver incessantly. Bill uncovered one weary eye and surveyed the world. It was still dark as pitch, but the fire threw cheerful pennons of flame at the gleaming stars, making old George look like a gigantic spider as he dragged a shovelful of dark red coals out and planked a camp-oven on them. A terrible weariness and longing for sleep possessed the boy, but his aching bones rebelled at the hardness of his couch and the cold air made him long for the warmth of the fire.

He must have dozed off in spite of the discomforts. A persistent, cracked voice pierced his hazy consciousness and he gave reluctant ear to old George's “Daaylight! Breakfast's ready!” Of daylight there was neither vestige nor sign. The stars still leaned down like diamonds from fathomless black velvet, but figures were stirring and a wonderful whiff of frying chops wafted across from the fire. The noise of water's gurgling into a tin dish galvanized him into sudden action and he hastily threw back the blankets. He intended to be early at the wash basin in future.

  ― 17 ―

In later years, when Bill looked back on his first droving trip, those three long weeks of alternately coaxing and forcing weak, exhausted sheep, sullen from protracted hunger, he would bite his lips with vexation at the recollection of the mistakes he made. Later still, there came another period when he could afford to smile tolerantly at his memories. But at the time, as they followed the dry, winding course of the river up to Aramac, then out through the desert scrub and spinifex to their destination, other material things bulked too largely in his mind to allow any time for introspection.

The first few days left him with an accumulation of aches that made him long for nightfall. His first surprise that everyone should turn in so soon after the evening meal did not last long. Thereafter, when he crawled stiffly off his horse and let him go in the growing dusk, his aching body and legs chafed raw by the saddle made bed seem the nearest equivalent to heaven, and it seemed that he had just rolled himself into his blankets and dropped into a deep, dreamless sleep when old George's high-pitched chant of “Daylight! Break-fast's ready” woke him again to the cold realization of another day.

He would rise stiffly and painfully, every aching muscle protesting in the chill half-light that faded the eastern stars. After a quick, perfunctory wash, he would roll and tightly strap the swag and leave it near the wagonette. Breakfast consisted of damper and lean chops, piping hot, and as they ate, the sharp, distant cracks of Reg's whip and a string of vindictive early morning oaths would rise above the drum of hoofs and the crackle of snapping branches. Then the horses

  ― 18 ―
would surge on to the camp in a wild jangle of bells and hobble-chains that sent the startled sheep rushing and huddling to the far corner of the break.

Bridle in hand, they would encircle the mob, single out and catch the horse they intended to ride that day. Bill's bay was a rogue that took the joint efforts of all hands to catch, and the boy whose previous experience had commenced with horses ready saddled for use, was a long time in acquiring the patient skill necessary to circumvent the cunning of bush horses. Dinny stood by, one morning, his own horse bridled, while Bill pursued the elusive bay back and forward through the churning mob until, winded and speechless with impotent rage, he swung his bridle and slashed at the disappearing rump. The horses split and scattered, pursued by Reg in a cloud of lurid comment on the chronic uselessness of newchums.

When the horses were brought back, Dinny took the bridle from Bill without a word, singled out the bay, walked straight up to his shoulder, slipped the bridle on and handed the horse over to the waiting youth. Bill sulked for the rest of the forenoon.

On the dinner camp, young Mac lit a fire and put his quart-pot on; Bill filled his quart from the water-bag on his horse's neck, and set it beside the fire on pebbles as he had seen the others do to let the flames draw underneath. When it boiled he skimmed the yellow froth off with a twig, emptied in the tea and sugar ready mixed and picked off the quart with his hat, then sat down in the thin shade of a whitewood and had his lunch. As soon as he had finished, he put his gear back on the saddle and rode round to Dinny's little fire

  ― 19 ―
on the opposite side of the sheep. Dinny gave him a casual glance then turned his eyes back to the restless mob. Bill dismounted and stood diffidently in front of him. “Dinny, I'm sorry about this morning; but honestly, I want to catch my own horse.”

The man on the ground nodded casually. “That's all right!”

“Will you tell me when I'm doing the wrong thing?”

“I'll show you how to go about it.”

“What was wrong this morning?”

“We-ll, pretty well everything. He's a hard horse to catch, that fellow. He's been spoilt.” Dinny emptied the rubbed tobacco from his palm into the cigarette paper. “You've got to remember that one man can't surround a horse in the middle of a plain, but if you use your head—and keep your temper—and don't let him think you're anxious to get that bridle on him, you'll be all right.” He licked the cigarette paper and nipped the loose ends off. “Horses ain't machines—they're none of them alike. Don't be scared of them and don't make them scared of you—and hold on to that temper of yours!”

That paved the way for further sessions. Sometimes a curt word of advice … “Keep your hands down. You're not driving a hansom cab!” Or at other times when they were alone, Dinny would drop his cloak of taciturnity and talk horse. He would tell of horses and horsemen he had known; their deeds and their methods; how so-and-so could teach a colt to lead on a strand of cotton, or some other famous horse-breaker whose colts had mouths like silk.

Except on two subjects—horses and cattle—Dinny's

  ― 20 ―
conversation was limited to monosyllables. One aspect of Bill's problems he faced with diffidence. The trend of a democratic lifetime had been directed toward minding his own business and refraining from interfering with others, so that when he noticed Bill passing his annoyance with the sheep on to his horse, his first impulse was to turn a blind eye to it.

But his interest in the youth prevailed and when Bill next rode toward him, Dinny dismounted and called him to him. The mystified Bill stood still while a flattened hardwood stick was thrust between his teeth. Then Dinny struck the projecting end of the stick a sharp blow with his hand. Bill's head jerked suddenly sideways, the stick dropped to the ground and he clutched his aching jaw while a myriad stars whirred round in his head. He wheeled on Dinny with an outraged glare. “What's wrong with you?”

Dinny swung calmly to the saddle. “Next time you jerk at a horse's mouth like you did awhile back, you'll know what it feels like!”

Bill blinked—and remembered.

His attitude toward the other members of the camp varied considerably and his first hastily conceived opinions had to be constantly amended. Reg, the horsetailer, who made capital of the newchum's mistakes and who took every opportunity to tease and provoke him, raised a smouldering hate in the youth; Bill's policy of snubbing and ignoring the man merely had the effect of goading him farther.

Old George, the cook, he tended to despise, and he persisted in treating young Mac with aloofness in spite of, or perhaps because of the boy's attempts at friendliness.

  ― 21 ―
The fact was that both were possessed of the self-consciousness of youth that copies the pattern of its elders and tries to ignore the speech and habits of its juniors. MacAndrew he regarded with respect. He was his boss, who had given him a chance, and he was determined that old Mac should not repent his bargain.

But it was the taciturn Dinny who received his homage and toward whom the wall of reserve he raised against the others was never in evidence. Dinny was always right. He never appeared to hurry but he was always on the spot to divert strange sheep suddenly appearing in front of the mob, or to sense when a few weary stragglers had been cut off and left behind. Another and more subtle influence accounted for his preference. MacAndrew's interest was centred in the sheep. Everything was subordinated to their interests; his personal comfort and that of the camp came second to the well-being of the flock. He had little interest in horses or even in his dogs, except in that they were necessary for the management of the sheep.

After a few days Bill decided that sheep were the stupidest creatures God ever made. Horses were different—you could do things with them, and Bill felt an added sense of superiority when mounted. And dogs were intelligent; in fact, he fully intended to get one at the earliest opportunity.

Subconsciously, he recognized Mac as the sheepman, Dinny as the horseman; and there lay the root of his worship of the quietly competent stockman, sitting and handling his horse not so much as though he were part of it but as though it were part of him, and inseparable

  ― 22 ―
from the long, supple stockwhip looped over the right forearm. Dinny was his model, and in these days when opinions were altered daily, a deep resolve was born that never altered but grew stronger with the passing days—Bill decided that whatever the cost, he would be a horseman.

The mob moved slowly and painfully northward, spreading freely across open downs where the Mitchell-grass tufts still flaunted a showing of dry flag, or working blindly through dense gidgee scrub where the red pebbled soil was bare of grass. Here, especially, Bill lamented the need of a dog. Little mobs of dejected and dispirited sheep would seize every opportunity to hang back and hide under the low, twisted boughs, uncaring and deaf to all the shouting in the world. While the others had their dogs to move the stragglers up, Bill had to get off his horse and dislodge them himself. By the end of the day his voice had shrunk to a dry, husky whisper, his horse was nearly exhausted, and between his impotent wrath at the stupidity of the sheep and his own fatigue, by sundown he was a mental and physical wreck.

One day as they were nearing Aramac a boundary-rider who had come down to see them through his paddocks, casually mentioned that he had a dog for sale. “He ain't much of a worker, mind you, but he'll drive sheep.” Bill jumped at the opportunity and when the station man joined them next morning, followed by a showy black and white and tan collie, he wasted no time in bargaining.

“You can have 'im for a quid if he'll follow you.”

Bill dragged at his money-belt, handed over a sovereign,

  ― 23 ―
and accepted the dog before the man changed his mind. He tied a length of light rope to its neck and led it round the mob, exulting as the sheep that had ignored his previous efforts rushed jerkily away before the strange dog. He led it proudly round the wing where Dinny leaned comfortably forward on his horse's neck. Dinny's black dog bowled up stiff-legged, tail and hair along the back bristling to a menacing growl.

“Isn't he a beauty, Dinny?”

Dinny glanced down his horse's neck at the two dogs, one circling threateningly, the other retreating nervously and getting all mixed up in the rope. “He's too good-looking!”

“But why …?” asked the crestfallen Bill.

“Four white legs. His feet won't last!”

The boy glanced at the short, broad head of Dinny's black dog, then back at the long, white muzzle of his purchase with the tan spots superimposed on the black over the soft, brown eyes and the clean, regular markings. The kelpie might be a better dog, but Bill could never like him as he already liked this fellow. He rode back round the mob with the dog in tow, sooling him on to the lagging sheep till old Mac came round from the other wing and cautioned him not to run them off their legs.

They halted the mob half-way through the morning. The sheep had had no water for two days and the waterhole ahead was hard of access—a dwindling pool between steep banks with a boggy death-trap at one end. Mac cut off a small mob and started them on their way, when a rapid drumming of hoofs stayed him. A glance at the approaching horseman decided that something

  ― 24 ―
serious had happened. He merged his sheep with the main mob and cantered back.

Reg pulled his heaving horse back on its haunches. “Come back quick, Mac!” he gasped. “There's been a smash. … Old George turned the wagonette over on himself. … I think he's dead!”

“How did it happen?” MacAndrew demanded fiercely.

“He must have got a bottle of rum off the coach. We started off camp and he began to lay on to the horses. He got them galloping and they hit a stump. … Over she goes on top of George, and the horses went bush with the pole. I pulled him out, but Gawd he looks crook!”

MacAndrew wheeled on his son. “You and Bill hold the mob till we get back!” He beckoned to Dinny and the three of them shot off in a cloud of dust. Bill stared after them with mixed feelings. He had never been keen on old George. His sallow, hairless face looked uncanny—unhealthy—but the thought of the old man who had been so lively that morning, lying still and dead, caught at his throat.

A shout recalled him to the fact that the sheep had strung out in the lead in the interim and that young Mac was having more than he could do to hold them. Bill cantered round, sending his dog at the stragglers and rushing them back. The leaders were a different proposition, however. Something had stirred them up. The furtive breeze may have wafted a hint of the water toward them and they pressed past young Mac, baa-ing excitedly, ignoring his shouts and the charges of his shaggy pony.

  ― 25 ―

Bill's dog looked like saving the situation but he was hampered by the rope still attaching him to his new owner. Mac jerked to a standstill beside him, his round boyish face hot and woebegone. “It's no use, Bill. We can't hold them. I'll cut off the leaders and take them in. We can only water a few at a time. You try and hold the others.”

They forced a lane through the mob, battering back one side till the others drew away. The two boys raced incessantly backward and forward, their horses dripping with sweat, and Bill's dog dragging on the rope, its tongue hanging out. Then young Mac swung his pony and raced after the leaders, bustling the tail and hustling them into a manageable mob. Bill redoubled his efforts but as fast as he pushed back one salient others crowded out behind him. Then the rope got round his horse's legs and he had to dismount and untie the dog. There was no time to straighten things out, so he freed the dog and mounted again to find himself in the middle of a sea of woolly backs surging relentlessly after the little mob in front.

Young Mac's mob had taken charge. Their trot had quickened to an eager, stiff-legged canter and the boy could only ride up and down one flank in the hope of deflecting them away from the boggy end of the waterhole. Bill was too busy with his own affairs at the moment to know what was happening elsewhere. He got out in front of his mob and called on the dog to follow. It regarded him for a moment, then calmly turned and trotted off to the distant waterhole. The boy stared in wide-eyed consternation at the flagrant desertion. He called again; the dog paid no attention

  ― 26 ―
but trotted steadily on. A wave of blinding rage surged over him; he wanted to overtake that dog—to get his hands on him and teach him obedience. He swung his horse round, the sheep still pouring out behind him, when a sudden diversion halted him. A brown horse swept round from the rear of the mob with the sheep falling back before the steady vicious tattoo of Dinny's stockwhip. He shot between Bill and the dog. “Let him go!” he snapped. “Canter round and punch in that wing!”

Young Mac came tearing back from the timber, his heels flaying the pony's ribs. “It's a rotten hole, Dinny,” he wailed. “They're all bogging at this end.”

Dinny glanced quickly round and shook his head despondently. “We can't hold them without dogs. Punch into them till Mac gets back!”

They returned to the fray with the barrage of Dinny's whip to hearten them. Bill, still burning with resentment at his dog's desertion, drove his horse savagely at the on-coming tide. The hollows of his horse's neck and flanks were black with sweat and a lather of foam plastered its ribs. Still the sheep kept surging forward, giving way in front of his rushes only to spread round behind him. Sweat poured down his face and tasted salt on his lips; the dust mingled with it and caked on his features, rimmed his eyes. He brandished his hat wildly at the unruly mob, shouted from his parched throat and charged again and again. It was useless. He might as well have tried to stop the advancing waves of the ocean. The sheep were all round him, baa-ing excitedly, pressing past with outstretched necks, cantering with a stiff, rocking-horse gait. He pulled up, his

  ― 27 ―
breath sobbing, eyes blazing at his impotence, while his lathered horse stood still with drooping head—and still the sheep strained past. There was no stopping them now. He was beaten. He saw them sweep past young Mac in a woolly tide. Even Dinny was submerged.

The boys converged on him, silent with exhaustion and defeat, and as they urged their tired horses toward the waterhole, old Mac came galloping past them. Sheep were piling down the steep banks like a cataract. They left their horses on the bank and fought their way through the surging, heaving sea of frantic baa-ing sheep to join MacAndrew, tragic-eyed and panting with exertion and already covered with grey, slimy mud.

The soupy water was full of sheep pushed in by those behind and still drinking avidly as they swam. A pall of dust drifted across the narrow banks, mercifully obscuring the happenings at the other end, and still the unending woolly cataract poured over the edge, slid down the steep bank, and piled itself madly on the seething animals below, shouldering and trampling them deeper and deeper into the mire while their incessant clamour filled the air.

MacAndrew and Dinny thrust forward to the boggy margin, seizing sheep and ruthlessly heaving them back to the firm earth. As they cleared a patch, grotesque, lop-eared heads and skinny necks slathered in slimy blue mud rose and heaved feebly from the soupy bog. The men grabbed and dragged, grabbed and heaved, and slung unceremoniously to the bank behind. Bill ranged himself beside them while young Mac dragged the rescued farther back. And still the mob swarmed down

  ― 28 ―
on them, charging blindly into the just-vacated bog holes on top of the men.

Bill's back ached like a toothache. He tried to stand upright but the pain from his outraged muscles stopped him. Only the difference in their build served to distinguish the men. All were plastered from head to foot, hands, face and clothes invisible under the coating of blue-grey mud. After a time the action of dragging and heaving became automatic. They worked with backs and heads bent, seeing no farther than the immediate vicinity lest the full magnitude of the task appal them.

Some of the rescued got shakily to their feet and staggered off. Some stood propped uncertainly still for a while. Others collapsed and lay prone, their mud-plastered necks outstretched along the ground. Many remained where their mates had trampled them into the mud, the men reserving their ebbing strength for those with chances of recovery.

At length Bill could bear it no longer. The sheep were thinning a little around them. He dragged his sodden boots out of the mud and crawled painfully back among the huddled forms that lined the margin. Young Mac had disappeared to round up the mob. He had no conception of the time of day till he noticed the shadows high up on the opposite bank. This was a day to be measured not in hours and minutes but by events, emotion, exhaustion, and aches. None of them had eaten since daylight, yet Bill felt no craving for food; all he wanted was rest—immediate and unlimited.

MacAndrew stumbled toward him with squelching feet. His features were hidden in mud and his voice

  ― 29 ―
was a croak. “Get your horse … tell them … camp out on the plain … handy.”

Bill dragged himself painfully up the bank on scrambling hands and toes and pulled himself up into the saddle. Vaguely he saw young Mac jogging round the sheep, a dog trotting at his heels. It looked like Bill's own dog but he was beyond resentment or jealousy or emotion of any kind.

About a mile back he met the horses and waited emotionless while Reg surveyed him with startled eyes, and more from recognition of the horse than of the mud-plastered rider, gave vent to a concerned “Gawd Almighty. … It's the Pommy!”

Bill mumbled his message and Reg nodded impatiently, a spate of questions on his tongue. “Awright. The turn-out's coming. George's just behind.”

George! What was his memory trying to tell him about George? Didn't something happen to him one day … a long time ago? George …? He turned dull, inquiring eyes on the horsetailer. “Isn't George dead?”

Reg spat in disgust. “Dead! No, the old cow was only drunk and knocked out. He kidded me all right! Took us all day to mend the pole and harness. Look at 'im coming along! Dead! Pity 'e wasn't—the old sod!”