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Chapter XXIV

BILL spent two days riding the boundary of Camelot, carefully examining every gateway and gully, every strainer and join in the wires without discovering a single clue to the avenue by which the stolen sheep had been removed. The entire property was enclosed by a rabbit-netting fence topped with a barbed wire, all in a good state of repair, and the situation had him frankly puzzled.

He did not disclose his real mission to Sam Haynes, the boundary-rider at Shanty Creek. Sam had charge of the hilly paddocks at the back of Camelot where most of the sheep had been lost. He was a garrulous individual, ready to discuss any subject under the sun, from the probable winner of the next Melbourne Cup to the spiciest extracts from Truth, but as he was not only willing but anxious to do all the talking, Bill let him babble on, and remained to all intents and purposes the new horse-breaker. However, Sam had to furnish Elaine with a strict tally of the sheep in each paddock under his care, and old Tom found himself busier than he had been for a long time looking after the sheep in the lower paddocks.

Camelot was only lightly stocked, and as a result of his inquiries regarding the sheep losses, the approximate

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dates when the losses had been discovered, and the paddocks that had chiefly suffered, Bill felt inclined to advise the removal of all the stock to the lower paddocks although the feed was shorter there.

However, in the end he decided to leave things as they were, and one afternoon he drove into the little town in the station car with Elaine at the wheel. There were a few cars and sulkies along the main street; in fact, compared to Bill's last sight of the town, it was seething with life. After making same saddlery purchases at the store, he walked down to the police station and spent a profitable half-hour with the mounted constable. Strolling thoughtfully back, he almost collided with a bulky figure that got abruptly out of a car and slammed the door behind him. It was the doctor, looking more tired and haggard than ever. His naturally brusque manner was accentuated by the strain of overwork till his questions sounded like demands and his terse sentences snapped out with an autocratic ring.

“How's Mr Atherton getting on? Hm-mm. … Oh well, let him have it oftener, but not less than two hours between each. And for God's sake don't ask when I'll be out! The hospital's full to overflowing … half the staff have got 'flu. … More than half the town is down with it. … I can't get a nurse anywhere for love nor money, and I've had a total of four hours' sleep in the last two days. Good-bye, and if any of your kids ever want to join the medical profession, strangle them quietly while they're young!”

A tall, slim figure detached itself from a veranda-post as Bill passed the pub, and followed him unobtrusively round the corner. “Hallo, Percy! Got your

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gear all ready? Well, listen. A grey car will back down this lane soon. Have everything ready to hop in behind as quietly as you can. I don't want anyone in this town to see you with us.”

Bill and Percy rode out from the homestead early next morning, and Elaine gained the veranda just in time to see the end of a buckjumping exhibition with Percy sitting easily on the pitching grey mare, laughing cheerfully at her efforts to get rid of him. They made for the eastern end of the run where the boundary fence spanned deep, rocky gullies and climbed the steep, broken slopes of hills—rough scrubby country with big grey kangaroos flitting like ghosts through the timber, and rabbits scuttling in all directions.

They seemed to ride to no apparent plan, following the fence closely for half a mile, then one of them would circle wide. Neither spoke much although Percy contributed the greater part of the conversation while his dark-brown eyes covered the terrain with the inherited skill of his mother's people, allied to the intelligence and reasoning powers of his white progenitor.

Bill's interest was beginning to flag under the apparent hopelessness of the quest when Percy halted the grey well out from the fence and sat very still, his eyes bent on the ground. They had descended the steep side of a hill; a little farther on a timbered creek crossed the boundary at right angles. Percy mechanically soothed the fidgeting grey, his eyes flickering from the few scattered trees to a minute inspection of the quartz pebbles that littered the ground. He swung to the ground, picked up something, then mounted again and rode close to the fence, scrutinizing the ground on the

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other side and studying the winding course of the creek.

Then he beckoned to Bill. The two rode back to the spot where he had first halted and Percy handed over the object he had picked up—a short length of cheap rope. He pointed to various trees. “There's been a rope break or a wing tied along here … same along that side … coming in narrow toward the fence. See the sheep tracks … stones turned up everywhere with the underside up!”

Bill could only discern an occasional tree with the roughness worn off the bark in an encircling ring, but the sheep tracks were plain enough. He followed them to where they ended abruptly, some distance out from the fence. No wonder he had missed them on his first inspection! But having got the sheep so far, how had they got them away? The fence was uncut … undisturbed in any way. Then the solution dawned on him and he swung on the smiling Percy who had already reconstructed the entire business in his mind.

“Well, I'll be damned! The tarpaulin trick!”

They clambered over the fence, and Percy walking ahead pointed to a line of pebbles pressed firmly into the ground, then to a short, sharp-edged mark. “Long wide planks, I think!” He stuck a twig into the ground, then some distance ahead put in another and measured the space between with his stockwhip. He measured a similar distance ahead from the second twig and pointed to another sharp line on the ground beside the embedded pebbles with a glint of triumph in his eye. “Big lorry, I think. Backed him against this side of fence!”

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“And built a ramp with tarpaulins and ropes from the tailboard to the yard on our side. Picked a dark night and shone lamps on the ramp! He picked a nice sheltered spot too, where his lights would never be seen. Then put planks under his tyres—that must have been a slow job. I wonder how far he took the sheep. Must have landed them before daylight!”

“Pity we haven't done any droving about this country,” Percy remarked regretfully. “We'd know all the brands and earmarks … and all the crooks!

“It might have been a butcher, but I don't know. … This fellow must have known the paddock … and the sheep. … He always took young ewes … and he must have had good, quiet dogs. I think Mac's about right!” he added significantly.

They followed the tracks round the base of the hill. In places the driver of the truck had slipped off the planks or had got careless, and the faint pattern of his tyres still showed on the dry ground. Then they joined a well-beaten track through the timber where the tyre marks were almost obliterated by the passage of cars and carts and sheep winding along the dusty grey depressions.

On their return to the homestead they rode on to MacAndrew's selection and interviewed the convalescent Mac over an intervening barrier of garden. Bessie appeared first and greeted Bill warmly. He had not seen her since the family left Longreach and was hardly prepared for the big buxom woman that chattered laughingly from her enforced isolation among the flowers. Mac listened keenly to their discoveries which promised

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to supply the proofs to his theories, then Bill propounded a plan.

When they left, Bill was leading the grey mare while Percy followed uncertainly on a bicycle. Next morning Percy and the bike disappeared from Camelot.

If Elaine had not been more than fully occupied with the tasks of housekeeping and the nursing of an invalid, Bill's attitude since his arrival might have affected her more. In the daytime he seldom appeared at the homestead, and in the evenings he seemed deliberately to avoid her company. The only consoling feature was the attachment that had grown between Bill and her father. Their mutual bond and chief topic of conversation was naturally horses, but in addition to that there was no mistaking the sincerity of the younger man's friendship, while the older man reciprocated by taking Bill into his confidence more than anyone Elaine could ever remember. In fact, there were times when she herself felt somewhat piqued at being excluded from some of the discussions.

Bill's friendship with Atherton had developed from his early appreciation of the man's uncomplaining stoicism, his ceaseless endeavours to show a brave face to his daughter and to the world. He had arrived filled with suspicion, even prepared to hate, but the courtly charm of the elder man, his invincible optimism regarding affairs and people—a quality that had almost ruined him financially—and his serene philosophy of life, made the younger man look forward with increasing pleasure to the evenings and their talks in the warm lamplight. Within a week of their meeting the two men had reached

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an intimacy that could not have been surpassed had they been father and son.

Away at the back of his mind lay another, a deeper motive for cultivating the confidence of the invalid—the pursuit of a quest that had once figured importantly in his life but that the passing years had almost relegated to the dim recesses with his boyhood memories. Sometimes when Atherton had dropped quietly into morphined oblivion, the young man would sit still and study the fine, wasted features, trying hard to picture him as he had been at his own age, and even younger. There was one subject that he intended to bring up for discussion. He looked forward to it with a grim interest and wondered what the verdict would be.

Elaine, watching them unobserved, would bite her lip at the contrariness of Bill. Why could he not behave toward her as unaffectedly as he did toward her father! There was always present that feeling of studied reserve in his manner—a hedge that shut her off much as Mac and Bessie were barred from the world by a strip of garden. She tried hard to stir him into a return of the old nonsensical gaiety of their Longreach days, but the most she got was a tolerant smile that turned the injured side of his face to a sardonic mask which baffled her beyond measure.

On one or two occasions she succeeded in penetrating his armour and getting a glimpse of the carefree Lancelot she had known. That day they mustered the horses stood out in her memory. Bill had appreciated her then. The admiration in his eyes when they got the horses to the yard was honest, unforced, and something she treasured. Although she was virtually the boss—they

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were on her property, mustering her horses—she had obeyed his curt, shouted orders without question and enjoyed doing it.

Then later, when Bill started to break in the brown mare she had slipped across to the yard unobserved and watched his quiet, patient methods gradually overcoming the rebellious mare. Imagining himself alone, he had relapsed into the easy, colourful language that is the natural inheritance of all who handle fractious horses and cattle, and some of the drawled remarks anent the mare's ancestry as he dodged a vicious strike of her hoof, made it hard for Elaine to keep from giggling aloud.

One morning Bill led the mare across to the homestead and paraded her before the veranda for the benefit of the invalid. The old man's eyes lit at the sight of her. He had not seen the animal for over a year and then it had only been a distant glimpse of a wild thing dashing for the safety of the hills. The mare glanced nervously from side to side at her strange surroundings, fidgeted around the man and once gave him an impatient push with her nose, but Atherton noticed that wherever the man moved she moved with him, close as his shadow. Although only a few days ago she had run wild and untouched, she never showed the slightest inclination to revolt. She had learned the first part of her lesson and learned it well.

“When are you going to ride her, Bill?” he queried.

“This evening, I think.”

The old man peered regretfully at the distant yard, then his glance came back to the mare, her virgin back smooth and unmarked, then finally it lingered, full of

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a vague longing, on the man. A slow smile gathered on Bill's features as he read the unspoken thought. “I'll carry you over to the yard if you like, provided Elaine doesn't mind. She may have to carry you back if the mare scores a win over me!”

Afternoon tea over, they made Atherton comfortable in his long chair just outside the horse-yard where he lay back with eyes glinting with anticipation under half-closed lids. The mare, already saddled, eyed the little group of spectators with nervous foreboding, champing incessantly at the unaccustomed feeling of the bit in her mouth, and ever and anon glancing back from the corner of an eye at the saddle on her back as though dreading its purport.

She eyed Bill distrustfully despite his soothing hands as he slipped the reins over her ears and took a shortened grip of the glossy mane. At the feel of the toe in the stirrup and the increasing pull on the saddle, the mare crouched slowly back on her haunches like a dog preparing to spring, and Elaine, peering through the rails, felt a return of the desire to make Bill hurry, to make him drop that irritating casualness, to warn him of the impending danger.

Then she got a shock. Her worried frown changed to startled wonder as Bill suddenly appeared seated in the saddle with both feet in the stirrup-irons. The lightning movement had apparently confounded the mare as well. She held herself tense, rigid, leaning back on sloping legs with every muscle standing out in bold relief under the velvet skin, then with one swift bound she whirled and plunged high in the air.

Elaine stepped quickly back from the rails, her hand

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at her throat as the mare hit the ground stiff-legged with a shock like a pile driver, and no sooner had she landed than she was up again, whirling as she went.

The invalid gripped the arms of the chair in his thin hands, dragging his wasted frame forward, his thin nostrils dilated with excitement, his glittering eyes concentrated on the battle and missing never a move. He held his breath as the mare changed her tactics and bucked savagely backwards, her head high, twisting viciously in mid-air, but the rider was with her all the way, sitting confidently in the saddle and holding the loose reins by the buckle in one hand, the other thrown clear as though balancing an imaginary stockwhip.

The mare bucked with a silent, savage intensity. No callow two-year-old this, but a fully matured animal with an inheritance of five years' freedom to maintain. There were three rapid swerving bucks, dipping till the stirrup-irons hit the ground, soaring high in the air till the wide-eyed girl clinging to the rails saw daylight show under the girths, but never between the man and the saddle. A thick, choking dust rose and hung in the windless air, powdering the unconscious spectators and veiling the battle with a yellow haze.

Suddenly the mare reared high in the air, striking stiffly with her forefeet as she stood almost upright. Elaine's heart stopped beating. She pressed a crumpled handkerchief to her lips to suppress the desire to scream as the mare poised on the very verge of balance for an unconscionable age, with the rider leaning forward on its neck grasping a handful of mane. Then it dropped forward like a bullet and before the forefeet reached the ground, the hind legs kicked high in the air.

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Again it reared, and this time the spectators were not left in doubt. It soared to the zenith of balance … passed it, and toppled backwards and sideways on the rider. The old man saw them disappear in a cloud of dust. Only the white faced girl sensed rather than saw the quick movement that freed the rider. The mare hit the ground with a thud that made her grunt and knocked the wind out of her, but the man landed clear with the reins still in his hand, and as the mare scrambled convulsively to her feet, the man was back in the saddle. She stood still, dripping with sweat, one side encrusted with dust. Then the tension ebbed from her corded muscles and she shook her head in reluctant admission of defeat.

That night Bill and the invalid talked horse undisturbed. Elaine passed noiselessly through the room just once, leaving them barely conscious of her presence. But alone in the sanctity of her darkened room she sat staring wide-eyed through the doorway into the warm black night, grappling with the problem that was becoming unbearable.