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Chapter VII

WITH the first hint of dawn, old Turnbull started the mob off camp, the leaders swaying down the creek on the second stage of their journey with long stiff steps, barely pausing in their stride to curl a long tongue round a mouthful of grass or break down a bough with their horns.

Dinny and Bill breakfasted hurriedly and caught fresh horses when Sam arrived with them. The new mounts were a wild lot and hard to catch. Just as Bill finished saddling a bay mare, she whipped the reins out of his hands and rooted all round the camp. The horsetailer caught her and handed the reins back with a sarcastic smile. “You're safe now!” Nevertheless, Bill took no risks. He tightened the near rein, got a good grip of the mane, and slipped quickly into the saddle in imitation of Dinny. The mare stood irresolute a moment, then walked resignedly off, the nervous rigidity of her muscles gradually relaxing as she went.

Dinny's big raking chestnut stood quite still for a few seconds, then his head and tail met underneath him in two high jarring bucks. Suddenly changing his tactics he dived for the timber, and Bill, racing in his wake as fast as he could dodge the low-hanging limbs, expected to see the rider swept off at any moment. He

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lost sight of him, and only a receding crashing marked the line of the chestnut's flight; then the crashing grew louder again and they reappeared, but in different roles, Dinny was boss of the situation now and the bolting chestnut was getting a bit of his own medicine. The doubled whip-thong swung under his dripping flanks; he tossed his head wildly and leaped for the scrub, but this time the man in the saddle was directing.

When they overtook the mob, Turnbull glanced at the heaving flanks of the chestnut, then at the rider. “Did he do much?”

Dinny shook his head casually. “Tore my shirt in the mulga. He'll be all right!”

Turnbull rode back for breakfast with a satisfied smile. This man would do him. At the end of a week he prepared to leave them. For the rest of the trip there would only be Dinny and Bill with the cattle, and the cook would have to stand a regular watch with the others.

To Bill it had been a week of hard but enjoyable work. He hated the thought of going back among sheep again—to revert to the slow monotonous pace and the deadly unresponsiveness of sheep-drovers' horses after this would be worse than going back to school after the holidays. You could do something with a bullock; he had intelligence and you had to use your wits and those of your horse to beat him. But a sheep! A cranky sheep could do as he liked with a horseman unless he had a good dog. Try and turn a sheep from its path and what did it do? Kept on going … got amongst your horse's legs, and almost brought it down …

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or lay and sulked till you turned your back on it in disgust. … Then it got up and kept on running.

Sheep-droving was an old man's job. The only good thing about it was that you got a full night's sleep. This business of watching cattle all night was a bit of a drawback but it did not outweigh the advantages, and with the curtailment of sleeping hours, Bill had learned how to get the utmost out of every minute between hitting the pillow and waking. Yes. … He had definitely decided that his future lay with the reds, whites, and roans—and good horses.

Turnbull turned chaffingly to him one dinner camp as they lay stretched out under a coolabah with hats over their faces to keep the flies off. “What are you going to do with all your money when you get back, Bill?”

There was a short silence, then a muffled voice, thoughtful but decided, came from under Bill's hat. “I'm going to buy a good saddle … and a good horse. A real good one!”

“And after that …?” prompted Turnbull.

“I'll look out for a better horse and buy him!”

“Umm … well, that's better than pushing your cheque across the bar.” Turnbull subsided again but Bill's eyes glimmered into the hot dark crown of his hat, and he saw himself riding down Eagle Street in a fine new saddle on a slashing clean-limbed hack; pictured the men looking critically after him and saying: “Good sort of a horse, that! Who owns him?”

“Oh, that's one of Bill Muir's. He's always on something good!”

And the girls …! At that point an adventurous

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fly got into his mouth and he sat up spluttering, to find the cattle stringing off the camp in a long line. As he cantered off, Turnbull glanced after him, then retired again beneath his hat murmuring, “Good kid, that!”

From Dinny's hat came the lazy drawled response, “He's not too bad!”

“A bit flash, but he'll get over that. I like a bit of flashness in a young fellow.”

On the morning of Turnbull's departure he started the bullocks off camp as usual. When the horses came in, Bill's mare was limping badly, a stake below the shoulder. They removed the mulga splinter and washed the wound, then Bill eyed the horse he had ridden the previous day with misgivings. Sam the horsetailer concealed a furtive smile and suggested a chestnut horse that had not been ridden since they joined the camp. “Who does he belong to?” Bill asked.

“Oh, he's mine, but you can have him for a couple of days—unless you're scared of him!”

“Why, what's wrong with him?”

The horsetailer smiled airily. “Nothing … nothing. He might do a couple of straightahead pigroots, but if you're scared take the old horse.”

Dinny, glancing up from doctoring the mare's shoulder, glimpsed Bill's clean-cut profile with the eyes narrowed, the nostrils flaring at the challenge, then he looked past him to the chestnut. “Catch him, Bill, and I'll take the rough edge off him!”

Bill's jaw set stubbornly. The horsetailer's derision was no longer concealed—Dinny's last remark had branded him openly as a newchum. He saddled the touchy chestnut in a dogged silence. It fidgeted in a

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narrow circle round him while he girthed it up, and showed definite hostility when he attempted to slip the crupper over its tail. Twice it lashed savagely at him but in the end he won, and stood back and looked it over.

Dinny was still tending to the puncture in the mare's leg when Bill slipped the reins over the chestnut's ears and tightened them up on the neck. His knees were shaky and he could feel the loud beating of his heart. He had never ridden a buck before, but he was going to start now and do his damnedest.

The chestnut stood rigid as he fitted a toe in the stirrup, his right hand crept to the pommel, his body lifted in the quick sliding action he had practised for months.

Dinny looked up sharply at the sudden snort and rush of hoofs. He saw Bill poised in mid air, half-way to the saddle but never destined to reach it. The chestnut swerved like lightning as Bill's weight left the ground, and the quick spinning buck tore his grip from saddle and mane and threw him outwards. As he fell, the chestnut lashed at him, missed by a fraction, and jumped forward. Dinny jumped at the same moment, his eyes grim, fierce-muttered oaths crowding to his lips as the chestnut plunged wildly for the scrub dragging Bill by the foot caught in the stirrup-iron.

The horse lashed wildly at the form bumping along at its side, and the horsetailer turned ghastly white at the sickening thud. Again a smashing blow, and Dinny raced past like a demon in pursuit just as the stirrup leather pulled clear and the chestnut galloped on, leaving

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a huddled inanimate form half-hidden in the rank grass.

Dinny was off his galloping horse before it checked. He turned the still form carefully over and drew his breath in sharply at the sight. One side of the face was cruelly battered and covered with blood and dirt. He laid the head gently back and rose to his feet with cold fury in his eyes.

The horsetailer following up with fear sagging his slack mouth and whitening his eyes, stopped and fled precipitately to obey the curt incisive order, “Get Turnbull! Quick!

The old cook came trotting up, and was halted in his tracks. “A couple of blankets … and hot water. And get a bloody move on!

Things happened quickly; the unloaded buckboard set out, Turnbull driving as fast and as carefully as the rough narrow track would let him, and mentally apologizing at every jar to the grim motionless figure swathed in towels and held in the narrow tray between firmly lashed swags and blankets. Somewhere on ahead Dinny was galloping to a homestead where there ought to be a telephone. The nearest doctor was forty miles away but they had to ensure that he was there and ready for the case … if Bill survived as far as that.

The station owner listened intently to Dinny's terse account, and acted quickly. While his wife telephoned the doctor, he had fresh horses harnessed to a light wagonette and arranged for a relay half-way to the little bush town. He sent two stockmen back to help with the cattle. Dinny found his saddle on a fresh horse, then they drove to the main road and awaited Turnbull.

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While they transferred Bill's apparently lifeless form to the more commodious wagonette, the woman got to work with hot water and bandages but it was evident that the damage was not merely superficial. She did what she could, then stood back beside her husband and watched the emergency ambulance disappear in a cloud of red dust.

It was nearly three days before Dinny rejoined the cattle. Fifty sleepless hours of hard riding with practically no time to spare for eating, had left their mark on his impassive features. He rode into camp as the horses were being unharnessed and at the sight of the grim, set purpose outcropping through the fatigue, the horsetailer decided to keep out of the way. Dinny turned briefly to the cook. “Get me something to eat, will you!”

The old man paused in his hustle to get the fire going to venture a question. “How's the young fellow?”

“He's alive … but only just. And if he does get right, you'll never know him by his face again!”

To the horsetailer he said curtly, “Catch that chestnut!”

There was a touch of pallor in the full round face and the whites of his eyes were more evident than usual, as after much unnecessary fuss and exertion, the horsetailer caught the chestnut horse and tied the bridle to a tree. All the while Dinny stood still, his cold critical eyes noting every careless movement, the chances he deliberately missed. As the horsetailer walked away, Dinny hailed him. There was a sharp peremptoriness in his tone like the crack of a whip.

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“You were given that chestnut to ride by Turnbull's brother?”

The horsetailer moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue without replying, and his shifty eyes avoided the grim stare.

The relentless voice continued: “You were too damned yellow to ride him yourself, and when Turnbull—an old man—got on him, he threw him and broke his leg. Yet you kidded a boy—a newchum—to ride him, and nearly got him killed!” The voice rose, the tones had a hard cutting edge. “Get on that horse now and ride him!

The horsetailer raised his head to reply then dropped it again without a word. He took a few irresolute steps toward the horse, then stopped and turned with a show of defiance. “Damned if I will! Ride him your bloody self!”

He backed away as Dinny stepped toward him, thrusting a slip of paper at him. “Here's your cheque! Roll your swag and get to hell out of this! And if you're still here by the time I've finished with that horse, I'll put my brand on you!”

Dinny led the chestnut clear of the camp and saddled him. There was a grim finality about his movements; an ominous silence as he patiently adjusted the crupper on the fidgeting, side-lashing horse, then he picked up his whip. The chestnut stood rigid showing the whites of its eyes, as the man prepared to mount. The next movement was so swift that neither the horse nor the open-mouthed cook witnessed the transition. He was firm in the saddle, and as the chestnut whirled and bucked, the spurs dug savagely in his shoulders. Round and round, bucking, plunging, whirling, and kicking,

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grunting and squealing with rage, and all through the vicious struggle, the man on its back spurred it mercilessly and continuously from shoulder to flank.

The chestnut paused with wide red nostrils and dripping flanks. The doubled thong of the whip rose and lapped under its belly and the horse shot off at a headlong gallop down the track. In five minutes they were back, the horse abject and lathered with foam. From the saddle, Dinny glanced over the camp, then looked at the cook.

Toothless Jimmy jerked a thumb toward a fast moving pillar of dust receding up the track. “ 'E's gone!”