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Chapter V

THE return trip was a glorious affair in Bill's estimation. The sheep delivered and their responsibilities over, the party broke up; Tom Dixon to look up his seldom-visited family at the coast, and the others with substantial cheques in their pockets, bound for a holiday in the Big Smoke—provided they managed to survive the lure of the nearest pub. Only MacAndrew and little Mac, Dinny, and Bill rode northward.

Mac drove the wagonette with Bob on the box as gate-opener and the dogs riding comfortably on top with plenty of time and opportunity to lick their bruised feet and survey from a safe perch the track they had travelled in different fashion. Bill and Dinny rode behind the score of horses at a long, swinging pace, with an occasional canter to keep up with the trotting wagonette.

After months of crawling slowly behind a mob of sheep, Bill's cramped inclinations revived and gloried again in the comparatively swift progress where a mount walked freely along, drawn by the horses in front, and in one day they covered the distance that had taken them a week to traverse with the sheep. Every morning Bill crept out of his blankets before daylight and followed Dinny, bridle in hand, toward

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the distant tinkle of the horse-bells. They ranged from the tinny tinkle of his brown mare's, to the deep note of the Condamine on the bay harness-horse, and his initiation into the science of horsetailing commenced. He learned which horses were mates and always fed together, and it was not long before he could walk straight to his chestnut pony in the dark, his “damper trick” as Dinny called it, bearing good fruit. She would come to his whistle with a steady clink-clink-clink of the hobble-chain, then when he had unhobbled her mates, dim, ghostly forms in the dark, he would vault on to her bareback and drive his mob to where Dinny was wrestling with the stiff hobbles of the others.

All accounted for, a warning swing of the whip started the mob for the camp. In those rides in the half dark, his legs clamped round the pony's ribs, darting, twisting, ducking through timber, jumping logs with the pony reefing excitedly, Bill learned more about riding than in all his previous months in the saddle. On the first few mornings he slipped painfully from the pony, feeling as stiff as a clothes-peg, but gradually a new ease and poise translated itself into his seat in the saddle.

MacAndrew, under the total release of responsibility, was a new man, and his normal unimaginative self was even indulging in a bit of day-dreaming. In the little town near Camelot where he had paid off his men, he discovered that part of his father's old property was shortly to be opened for selection, so he put in an application at once. The others were equally as interested and as hopeful as Mac himself. His prospects afforded an everlasting topic of conversation, and within a few

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days they had built him a house—a modest one for a start—ring-barked his timber, subdivided the block into smaller paddocks, and even discussed the treatment to be observed toward drovers passing through.

Mac accepted it all cheerfully. “Droving's all right for a young fellow,” he would say. “He sees the country, learns what it can carry in all sorts of seasons, and learns more about handling stock than he ever would on a station. But when a man has a wife and a family he wants to see them more than once or twice a year.”

“Yes, but look at the money you make!” Dinny hinted.

“And don't we earn every brass penny of it! How much droving is there in a good season when plenty of grass and water make it easy? A dry time comes, people keep on hoping for rain till there isn't a skerrick of grass left on the routes, then there's a rush for agistment country and they all want their stock shifted at once! It's a great life!”

They pulled into the shade of lofty coolabahs fringing a billabong, and Bill attended to the horses while Mac got a fire going and put the billy on for the midday meal. Bill was improving daily in the handling of horses, and as a result of his keenness, practically all the horse-work had gravitated toward Dinny and himself.

Young Mac, scrutinizing an approaching dust-cloud, announced the arrival of the coach and cantered over to pass the time of the day with the driver. The tucker-box had hardly been opened when he came tearing back, his pony switching its tail and laying back its ears in protest at the treatment its ribs were getting from the

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boy's heels. He pulled up almost on top of them. “Telegram for you, dad!”

MacAndrew frowned. “We can't take on another job till the horses get a spell.” He opened the missive with toil-clumsy fingers, steeling himself against the unspoken possibility of bad news from home. Then his face cleared as he read, and he turned to Dinny with shy elation and a surprised “Well … what d'you know about that!”

“Someone left you a fortune, Mac?”

“No! But they want me to go back to New South for the Land Board.”

“The selection?”

MacAndrew nodded. “Looks like I have a chance after all.” He sat down and thought hard for a few minutes, then turned to Dinny. “I'll have to go straight back. Will you take the plant on to Longreach?”

“Suits me!”

“Good! I'll take a couple of the freshest horses and Bob can go back with you.”

The usual leisure of the dinner camp departed in an overhauling of gear and repacking, while Mac passed instructions to Dinny, and young Mac unsuccessfully tried to convince his parent that school could get along without him while he went back across the border, too.

As Mac's preparations neared completion, a stranger rode into the camp, nodded genially and accepted the offer of a meal. He was past middle-age, wiry and active, with a close-cropped greying beard, and he squatted on his heels, bushman fashion, and discussed the standard topics—the season, the prospects of rain, with an occasional question about their trip, while Dinny

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dragged the tucker-box back from the wagonette and Bill put the billy on for fresh tea.

“On your way to pick up another mob?” he queried.

Mac shook his head. “Horses'll need a spell first, and I've got to get back across the border.”

The old man ate in silence for a while. “I came down with a proposition to offer you. If you can't take it, will you let your men take it on?”

“The horses aren't fit!”

“I'll supply horses and plant. All I want is two or three good men. I just got a wire from my brother who is bringing in a mob of cattle we bought from the Cooper. He's had bad luck. One of his men left him, then his horse came down on him and broke his leg, so he's in the hospital now and the cattle have been let go.” He shot a keen glance at Dinny. “You're a cattleman, aren't you?”

Dinny nodded diffidently.

“If you can get a couple of men, you can have the job of bringing that mob back. You can leave your plant here on good feed till then. Does that suit you?”

Mac and Dinny exchanged hesitant glances. Bill looked forlornly at both of them and wondered what would happen to him if they accepted, while young Mac sat very still with a pleased smile dawning on his face. He might get the trip after all! The stranger rose and pulled out a blackened pipe. “I'll have a look round the waterhole and leave you to have a yarn.”

When he returned, sucking at the short old pipe jutting aggressively from his beard, one swift glance told him that his proposition had been accepted. “How about shifting up to the station and we'll talk things

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over there? Turnbull's my name—my place is less'n a mile on.” He addressed MacAndrew. “I can let you have a couple of fresh horses for your trip if you want them.”

Bill did not know that the old man's eyes were watching his every move as he passed quietly and deftly among the horses, bridling and harnessing. His own thoughts were in a disturbed state. Mac was going south, Dinny was going west—what would become of him? He suddenly realized that without Mac he would be, temporarily at least, without a job, but even more would he feel the absence of Dinny; the quick turn of events within the last hour was more than disquieting.

Mac shook out the reins and the wagonette moved off. As the others mounted, the old man ranged alongside Dinny. “What about the young fellow?”

Dinny nodded briefly. “He's all right!”

Turnbull eyed him significantly. “He'll be working for you, remember!”

“He'll do me!”

Bill, joining them at that moment, caught Dinny's words with a premonitory thrill. The old man's eyes switched from Dinny to him. “Do you want to go for the cattle?”

Bill tried hard not to show the commotion that his feelings and thoughts were in. He managed to stammer, “Yes … I would. Thanks very much!” Then he rode on with shining eyes.

Next day, Dinny, Bill, and old Turnbull set out for the west driving a packhorse and spares. They rode hard, following a faint track through dark scrub, across dry creeks, and over stony ridges, and Bill marvelled

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at the endurance of the old man. The hardest day left no apparent effect on him and Bill was hard put to it to disguise his own stiffness and saddle-soreness. Nearly a week after they left the station they topped a red ridge and looked over still another dark unbroken sea of dense sombre mulga. Turnbull pointed ahead with his whip. “We're nearly there! We turn off at the next creek.” Bill, bumping along on a fractious brown horse, sent up a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving.

They found the camp on a long narrow waterhole, and from the shelter of a bough shed, a wizened toothless old man and a stoutish young fellow rose at their approach. Turnbull nodded in greeting and introduced himself without further preliminaries. “My name's Turnbull! Were you with my brother when he got hurt?”

The young man brushed the dust off the seat of his trousers. “I'm the horsetailer. Didn't see it happen, but we took him into Toompine. How's he going?”

The wizened old fellow chimed in in a high-pitched voice. “I'm the cook. … Carr's my name. … Jimmy Carr. Toothless Jimmy they call me. I'll get you a feed in a minute.”

Sam the horsetailer ran their horses out into the scrub to join the rest of the mob and Bill glanced uneasily at the cook; his appearance did not suggest appetizing meals or even his distant acquaintance with soap and water—still, some of his first impressions had proved so unreliable that he was disposed to be charitable. The cook was fussing around with a greasy old hat on the back of his head, a frowsy dirty shirt, and trousers that hovered precariously from his narrow hips

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and hung in concertina folds above his boots. The horsetailer seemed pleasant enough. He had a sleek well-fed appearance, but there was a furtive look about his eyes that decided Bill to suspend judgment for a while.

They turned in soon after supper with the mosquitoes serenading them and, tired though he was, Bill lay in bed and looked pleasurably up at the stars with thoughts of the morrow.