― 85 ―

Book II

Lancelot and Elaine

  ― 87 ―

Chapter IX

YOUNG Mac gave a last look round the camp, banked the fire and climbed heavily into the saddle with a silent prayer to the providence that had deserted him of late, that the tucker would not be raided by blacks, dingoes, or straying camels before he got back. He had left Boulia only that morning with a couple of men—a cook and a horsetailer—attracted by his promise of a long droving trip. Both men were staging a recovery from the liquidation of their last cheques and both were inclined to be somewhat morbid—especially the cook. By dint of much patient persuasion he had got them at last to the camp down the river and was beginning to congratulate himself that part of his worries were over when the cook, who had not dismounted, looked down at him with bleary bloodshot eyes and poked an accusing finger at the heap of pack-saddles.

“This your camp?” he demanded thickly.

Mac nodded assent.

“Bring a man out to this, would yer!” he snarled. “Expect me to cook in a packhorse camp! Not on yer life! C'mon Stan!”

So Mac was faced with a second visit to Boulia in one day and the prospect was not pleasing. The red dust rose under his horse's feet in a thick choking cloud

  ― 88 ―
and hung in the motionless hot air, collecting in a deep layer on the clean white shirt he had put on that morning. Nice way to spend a twenty-second birthday, he reflected glumly, and went on to wonder where he was going to pick up any other men. There was already more work offering in the district than men to fill it, and the few left in Boulia showed their consciousness of the situation in a lofty independence. Anyhow, he thought bitterly, those two that turned him down that morning would have spread the news about his meagre equipment and settled his hopes of getting anyone here. Yet he simply must get help—even if he had to pick up a Chinaman.

He tied his horse to the rail in front of the store and entered its dim warmth redolent with the heterogeneous smells of a bush emporium. The store-keeper raised his eyebrows. “Back again?”

Mac assented gloomily. “Those two fellows cleared out. Any idea where I could pick up another man or two?”

The store-keeper shook his head with the emphasis that the occasion demanded. “There's no one else in town I know of. See the sergeant—he might know—or you could look in at the pub. Some station men rode in an hour ago.”

Mac paused outside the pub and listened uninterestedly to a number of voices raised in argument within. Then came the sounds of a scuffle, the thud of a blow and a woman's stifled scream followed by a momentary silence. He stuck his head cautiously inside the door. The knot of men clustering at one end of the bar parted, and a khaki-clad stockman dragged out a sagging figure

  ― 89 ―
by the shoulders, the fallen one's spurred heels dragging limply across the floor. A thin, hard-faced woman darted from behind the bar, and Mac, entering, gave the pair a hand to lay the casualty on a bench against the wall.

Mac stared at the man's features in the dim light with a vague feeling that they had met before. He turned to the man at his side. “What was the row about?”

“Oh, nothing! Bill comes in straight off the grass and gets a few drinks across his chest. Then he picks on Big Harry and gets knocked stiff.”

“But what was the argument?”

“Damned stupid one. Bill here gets mad just because Harry calls him a bastard. Nothing in that to get wild about! Who the hell ain't?”

Mac's memory flashed back to the fight at O'Brien's on that cold starry night; he peered closely at the features of the man on the bench. The head was bare and the fine fair hair with the reddish tinge through it was getting thin above the forehead; both closed eyelids looked alike but the irregular line of the nose clinched the matter—it was Bill all right.

The woman returned with a jug of water and stared suspiciously at Mac. “What do you want?”

“He's a mate of mine.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You've never been in with him before. Who are you anyhow?”

Mac ignored her question. Through the doorway a glimpse of a light cart coming up the street decided his plan of action almost as soon as the idea was born. He dashed out and hailed the driver. “How far are you going?”

  ― 90 ―

The thin-lipped youth eyed him coldly. “Down t' the Chow's garden.”

“How about giving my mate a lift? He's shickered and I want to get him back to camp before he sobers up.”

The youth gazed stonily up the street for a few seconds then he grudgingly assented and backed his cart to the pub doorway.

The barmaid looked up with cold hostility in her eyes. “What do you think you're going to do?”

“I'm taking him out to the camp.”

“Like hell you are! Bill's stopping with me.” She glared defiantly at Mac, ignoring the growing clamour for drinks from the bar.

“I only want to get him right again. He'll be back as soon as he's sobered up and had a feed.”

The noisy demands and rapping of glasses on the counter increased and the withering, crudely-painted woman hesitated, then capitulated with a bitter threat, “If he don't, you'd better not show your face in here again.”

Mac got his arms under the still insensible man, staggered to the cart with his burden, and with the boy's help got him aboard. The driver whipped up his horse and rattled off toward the crossing. Mac turning to get his horse felt a tug at his arm; the barmaid poked a flask of whisky into his hands and nodded with grim significance. The other stockman staggered out after him. “Hey! Where you goin' with Bill?”

“It's all right! I'm only taking him out to sober up,” Mac assured him, then as a thought occurred to him he queried, “Where's his horse?”

  ― 91 ―

Round the back. Good sort o' bay with star and white hind foot, branded L8M near shoulder.”

Mac waved his thanks and hurried to the pub yard wondering how it was that some men could get too drunk to remember their own names and still be able to give a minute description of a horse. He had no difficulty in picking it out of the little mob in the yard. A beautifully proportioned bay with a full clear eye sidled away to the extent of the reins at his approach. He led it quickly to the store, mounted his own horse and cantered after the cart with the bay running easily beside him.

Mac glanced anxiously at the man still sprawled in the bottom of the cart, then threw an inquiring look at the driver. “He's all right!” was the casual reply. “He's snorin'.”

If he only remained in his present comatose condition till they reached camp, all would be well. But presently, a dust-grimed face peered over the jolting edge of the cart. The driver looked down unconcernedly at the reviving man. “Aw, git down! You're nearly there.”

“Where are we going?”

“To your camp.”

“You be damned! This isn't the way to my camp. Pull up and let me out!”

Mac rode in close to the cart. “Hang on, Bill. We're nearly there!”

“Who are you … an' what are you doing with my horse? Here … !” He pursed his dry lips to whistle but the attempt was a failure and he sat down

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again in the jolting cart and held his aching head between his palms.

The cart pulled up beside the stacked pack-saddles. Mac quickly unrolled his swag, helped the unsteady man to the ground, and left him sitting with a dazed expression while he scrambled down the steep bank to the waterhole with a billy in his hand. Bill blinked stupidly at the tin dish, then mechanically laved his dusty face and head. As Mac silently handed him a towel, he peered owlishly up at him. “Who was it hit me?”

“A big lump of a chap … I forget his name.”

The man on the ground tried to scramble to his feet. Mac took his arm and assisted him to the blankets spread out in the shade. “Let me go! I'm going back to clean him up. He can't call me a bastard!”

Mac pressed him down and lied soothingly. “You're too late. He left town before you did. Anyhow, a name can't hurt you.”

Can't it!” He struggled vainly to rise again, glaring savagely at Mac. “All right for you to talk! You have a father. … So have I … but he doesn't know me! But I'll find him yet … and then …” He sank weakly back on the blankets, one hand covering his eyes. Mac watching intently, thought he was asleep and was about to leave when the eyes opened and a thick voice muttered, “Give my horse a drink!”

Bill woke with an ache in his jaw and a bigger ache in his head, and a mouth like the inside of a sun-perished boot. He frowned at the unfamiliar blankets and the cheese-cloth mosquito-net rigged over him, while the tinkle of unknown horse-bells came closer and closer. He rose unsteadily, pulled on his boots and took a good

  ― 93 ―
look at the camp—the old stock-saddles, the little old-fashioned pack-saddles, and the tent-fly on the ground near him that had been someone's bed the night before. A feeling of compunction assailed him, but the uneasiness of waking in a strange place with so many missing links in the chain of memory to be forged took precedence at the moment. But his thirst took precedence even over that, and he took it to the waterhole.

The big rough-barked coolabahs, powdered with the ubiquitous red dust, that hung over the steep banks, satisfied him that he was still on the Burke. Yesterday he had ridden into Boulia and had a few drinks with … who was that fellow … fencing contractor … Big Harry. That was it! And there were some of Harry's mates and one or two stockmen from Warenda. Then Maisie and he had a yarn at the end of the bar. … He arranged to see her …! He stopped and stared at the sun just above the horizon; at the river-bank and the set of the tangle of jetsam in the projecting tree-roots. So the river ran that way—when it did run—and according to that the sun was in the east—rising! He had missed that date with Maisie!

He filled a quart-pot from the water-bag that hung from a limb and gulped it greedily. The moderately cool muddy water tasted heavenly. Then the horses trotted in and past him down to the waterhole, his own bay leading the nondescript mob like a guardsman followed by an underfed lot of street loafers. His slightly contemptuous glance took them all in, then he turned moodily away. “Looks like a second-rate drover's plant.”

He looked up again as the following horseman rode over to the camp. His glance took in the approaching

  ― 94 ―
horse first, from coronet to withers, head, girth, and quarters, without apparent enthusiasm, then he looked at the rider. He was short, thickset, dark-complexioned, and probably in his early twenties, but the dour cast of his stolid features made him appear older. There was something vaguely familiar about him, about the smiling nod, the quiet, “Hello, Bill,” yet he could not quite remember.

“Whoa, boy!” The rider dragged his horse to a standstill and slipped to the ground. Enlightenment came to the other in a flash. “It's young Mac! How are you, boy?” He clasped the outstretched hand in a firm grip. “I didn't know you till you pulled that horse up! Then I remembered Dinny called you a ham-handed young shepherd that would never make a horseman as long as your heels pointed to the ground.”

Mac ignored the left-handed compliment and smiled back. “Feeling better, Bill?”

“If I am I must have been pretty onkus before! How did I get here … and when?”

“Wait till I get the billy on. Will you keep an eye on the horses.”

Bill turned a humourless eye on the mob scrambling up the bank. “Horses did you say? There's one horse among them and he's got my brand on him. Where in God's name did you pick up this collection of misfits?”

Mac, tending to the fire, winced inwardly but his stolid features never changed. “They're good enough for droving, Bill. I can't afford to pay fancy prices for flash hacks—these horses have to work for their living.”

  ― 95 ―

“Yes … and any poor unfortunate devil that has to ride them will have to work for his! Mac, your old man had some poor horses in his plant but he always had some good ones too.” He searched around till he found his saddle and bridle. “Got a bit of old damper?”

“Look in that near pack-bag. Still teaching them tricks?”

“I gave up the exertion of chasing horses across the flat years ago. I'm lazy by nature and not ashamed to admit it. In fact, it's lazy blokes like me who supply the world with labour-saving devices!” He whistled, and the head of the bay horse appeared above the bank. Bill held up the bridle, spread open by his outstretched fingers, and whistled again. The bay horse whinnied softly, walked straight up to the bridle and slipped his head into it, then stuck his nose into the man's hand, nuzzling him gently till he found the damper. Bill let the reins drop to the ground and the horse stood quietly chewing at the tough-crusted mouthful while his boss turned the other horses back to the camp.

He approached a rough-coated brown horse to hobble him; it shied off and trotted away with its head and tail in the air. He cornered it eventually, hobbled it, and several others, then turned to the man at the fire. “How much time and sweat do you waste every day trying to catch these hairy-legged, bumble-footed brumbies of yours? I'll bet a quid you could make a damper in half the time and save yourself a ton of trouble.”

Mac straightened his back as he stepped away from the fire and replied with a sober smile, “How about a bit of breakfast?”

  ― 96 ―

Chapter X

BILL tipped up the dented black billy for his third pint of tea, pouring it carefully off the tea-leaves that swirled from the bottom of the can. He propped himself against a pack-saddle, fished for cigarette papers and tobacco-tin, and threw an interrogative glance across at Mac. “Smoke?”

Mac shook his head.

“Don't you drink either?”

Again the dark head shook negatively.

“Nor go with the girls?” A long shaft of sunlight pierced the branches and glinted on the hatless head.

Mac's broad shoulders shrugged non-committally and Bill's drooping eyelid augmented his mocking smile. “You're too good to be true, Mac! When you get back to Longreach, look inside the bar at the Commercial and you'll find a notice: ‘The man that neither smokes nor drinks has other vices!’ But, honestly, what have you been doing for the last ten years?”

“Nothing much. … Working mostly.” Mac seemed anxious to change the subject. “Where's Dinny?”

Bill's face clouded and his eyes seemed to be looking at some distant object out across the river channels—or even a bit beyond. “Dinny's dead. A sniper got him on Gallipoli.” He paused for nearly a minute then

  ― 97 ―
spoke in slow reminiscent tones. “He was the finest fellow I ever met! Remember the time your old man picked me up in Longreach … green as grass, and as useless as they make them? It was Dinny who put me on the right track and kept me on it, never laughing at the damn silly things I said and did. That time I got my face smashed he turned down a good job and came back as soon as he delivered the cattle and stayed there with me in that awful one-eyed town. I wouldn't have been game enough to go back among people that had known me if it hadn't been for him. I expected them to laugh at me … to pity me … but he made me face it, made me promise to visit everyone I knew in Longreach. Remember how I came back just as you were packing up?

“He got me a job up here with him and we worked on cattle stations up and down the river from here to the Territory, went droving, breaking in, and when the war started we joined up together. Well … Dinny's still on Gallipoli. I went through with the Light Horse, and after it was over, came back to the old beat.”

“But what are you doing, Bill? Got a place of your own?”

Me!” He leaned back his head and laughed sardonically. “I'm a plain blanky stockman, Mac! I can't settle down in any one place for long, so when I knock up a cheque, I buy a good colt if I can find what I want, and sometimes I'll blow in and have a few drinks—as you noticed!” His eyes focused on the man opposite, wandered off to glance over the camp-gear, then back again. “Is your father still alive?”

  ― 98 ―

“Yes … he's all right! Still running things down below.”

“What made you leave a good home for this damned droving game, Mac?”

The younger man fidgeted, his eyes on the toes of his boots. “Oh, I don't know …” he began slowly, then added with deliberate candour. “I wanted to get away … to make more money … for myself!”

He looked defiantly into the other man's lop-sided smile.

“What is she like, Mac? Is she worth it?”

Mac dropped his eyes again, then in slow, disjointed fashion, the story came away. “When we started at Thalia—that's what we called the selection—there was a terrible lot of work to be done. But Dad wanted me to go to school although there wasn't a school within miles of us. Just before this, the owner of Camelot came back to live there with his wife and daughter—she was about my age and she had a governess.

“Dad and Mr Atherton got on well together. He's an Englishman. … Used to be in the Army and doesn't know much about running a station, but I like him.”

Atherton, did you say?”

Mac looked across with mild surprise at the man opposite. “Yes. D'you know him?”

“No. Don't think so.” Bill appeared to be groping among the distant recesses of his memory and his voice held a steely undertone. “ … But I'd like to run across him, some day!”

Mac resumed his yarn. “Although Dad and him got on well, Dad never seemed to hit it with Mrs Atherton.”

  ― 99 ―

A sudden flash of memory brought a smile to hover on Bill's lips. That yarn old Mac had confided to Dinny when they landed the sheep at Camelot—how the girl had turned down Mac when his father lost his property, and married the moneyed Englishman. And now, circumstances had made them neighbours!

“Anyhow, the governess reckoned it would be better for the girl to learn in company than alone, so I used to ride over every day and another girl came from a neighbour's place. I didn't like it much, and her mother didn't like me much either, but the girl was a good sport and we were cobbers.

“Then she was sent to school in Sydney. I went back to give Dad a hand on the place but he was still keen on me going on with school. Then when he proposed sending me to Sydney for a year, I didn't object as much as I did before. So in the end I went. I used to see her now and again down there—at sports meetings, at the boat races, and sometimes at week-ends. When my year was up I came home but she stayed on at school. She used to bring a crowd up for the holidays …”

He hesitated and the man opposite drawled, with a lazy smile in his half-closed eyes: “And what happened? Did you switch on to another girl, or did she go cold on you?”

“We were just as good pals as ever, but she seemed different. She did the maddest things … and that flash crowd she was with … I sort of dropped out. When the war started I was too young to go. Dad was too old, but one day he came back from town and told us he had enlisted and I would have to run the place

  ― 100 ―
till he got back.” Mac relapsed into a troubled silence with the thoughts of those years. “She used to spend most of her time in Sydney, but when she came up to the station, although she knew perfectly well I couldn't get away to the war, even at the end when I was old enough to enlist, she used to say things … talk about the soldiers she wrote to. … It made me feel mad.

“After dad came back, I went down to Sydney for a holiday and met her there. She was chasing round with a chap in officer's uniform. She had changed a lot. She had a wild, reckless way with her. That fast crowd she went with were to blame. Anyhow I cut in whenever I got the chance, and took her to theatres and so on. She was just as nice as ever when we were on our own—and one day I asked her to marry me.” The set look and clouded eyes made him look ten years older. “She listened for a while, then she started to laugh. ‘Why, Bob,’ she said, ‘you're only a boy, and I want to have a lot of fun before I think of getting married.’

“Next time I went to the house, only her mother was at home. She's one of these women that can smile with everything except their eyes. I forget her exact words but what they amounted to was that I was only the son of a struggling cocky. Her daughter lived in a different world and she wouldn't think of allowing her to marry a poor man.

“Just as I was leaving the house a lot of that chattering, laughing crowd arrived. I went straight through them but the girl ran after me. ‘What's the matter, Bob?’ she asked. ‘Don't be silly about the other day—you know I didn't mean it!’ I just said good-bye. At

  ― 101 ―
the corner I looked back. … She was still standing there alone, but I kept on going.”

“Good little man! Treat 'em rough!” A mischievous light gleamed in the veiled eyes opposite.

“Going back on the train I made up my mind to leave. I wanted to make money … to make it quick … and I knew I couldn't do it at home. Dad wasn't keen on me going, but I couldn't stay. I came back to Longreach, picked up a few horses, and started droving. They remembered Dad. He always had a good name. But there isn't much money in the short trips, so I wrote to the Territory for a mob of cattle … and got it.”

The raillery that had been mounting in Bill at the forlorn recital, faded suddenly. He sat up and peered at the man opposite with astonishment and disbelief written all over his face. “Mac! Did you say you were on your way to the Territory to lift a mob of cattle?”


Cattle! With this one-eyed, misbegotten collection of freaks!” Bill collapsed weakly against the pack-saddle at his back. “You—poor—cow! Go home while you have a chance. … Marry a barmaid. … Join the police force. … Anything for a quiet life, but for the love of Mike don't insult a Territory bullock by showing it these horses!”

Mac eyed him doggedly “They're all right! They're not flash, but I've had them on the road with cattle.”

“Yes!” derisively. “A dozen bulls … or a mob of milkers! Look here, Mac! Go back and stick to sheep; but I'll warn you now that no station manager would

  ― 102 ―
hand over a mob of cattle to a plant like yours. How many cattle are you getting?”

“Twelve hundred.”

“Even if your horses were good, you haven't half enough!”

“I'm going to get more up there.”

“Well, you're optimistic anyhow. But I'll tell you now that the only horses they'll sell at the price you want to pay are old crocks, useless things, or outlaws. And where are your men?”

Mac writhed under the merciless rain of questions that found every chink in his armour. “A couple left on the way up. I got two more in Boulia yesterday … and they left too.”

Bill shook his head sorrowfully. “Mac, the Babes in the Wood have nothing on you! Most of the Territory mobs are on their way down. You'll be the last to leave. It has been a bad year on the river and what grass there is will be pretty well cleaned up before your mob reaches it.”

“Well, tell me where I can get men!”

“It wouldn't be a damned bit of good. You've got to learn first how to keep a man when you get him. You'll want decent stock-horses in the first place, a good cook, and the best tucker you can get.”

Mac shook his head sullenly. “I can't afford it! I want to make some money out of the trip.”

“How much money will you make if you find yourself left on your own to be cook, horsetailer, and everything else about the place to twelve hundred rushing bullocks? You're mad, man! Go back to Longreach and stick to sheep.”

  ― 103 ―

Again the head shook stubbornly. “I'm going on with it!”

Bill stared moodily at the ground in front of him for a long time. Then he rose slowly to his feet and, still preoccupied, carefully saddled the big bay horse.

Mac emptied the billy, moving heavily around in an aimless sort of way.


He turned to face Bill standing serious and thoughtful by the bay's shoulder.

“Your old man gave me a start when I knew less about sheep than you do about cattle, and it's for his sake that I'm saying this. … Do you want me to help you out with this job?”

Mac looked long and earnestly at him. “Do you mean it?”

“I'll come in with my own horses and gear on condition that you let me buy you some decent stock-horses. I'll try and get you men and a cook between here and Camooweal, on condition that you supply the best tucker available for him to cook. I'm not trying to rob you—only to knock some common sense into that thick head of yours!”

Mac swallowed hard and nodded.

Bill swung smoothly to the saddle and turned for a final word. “Get your plant together and get out of this to a decent camp. There's a waterhole on a little creek five miles out there with good grass on it. Stop there for a day or two, or until I turn up. I'm going to see what I can do—not for your sake, but partly for your old man's sake and mostly for the sake of a better man

  ― 104 ―
than you and I and all of us could ever hope to be … and be damned to you!”

Mac watched the receding dust-cloud till it finally disappeared in the big river timber, then he started to pack up with a new briskness. A flock of little green parrots dived into a tree overhead with dramatic suddenness, twittering and scolding. Across the waterhole, a minah answered cheekily back, and made some pertinent remarks on the morals of parrots in general. Mac looked up at the birds with a good-humoured smile. He had not been in a mood to notice them lately.

  ― 105 ―

Chapter XI

THE circle of coolabahs leaning toward one another across the little waterhole stood isolated—a dark green island set in a wide sea of thick, sunbleached Mitchell-grass. Away to the west the river timber hovered faintly in the mirage that farther north lifted a low belt of scattered trees and held it suspended between land and sky—a fairy island over a shimmering lake.

Mac shielded his eyes against the glare of the bleached grass and peered again to the north. The moving dot had disappeared in the mirage but he kept his eyes fixed on the spot till it showed again—a faint, almost indiscernible movement at the base of the dancing haze. It might be cattle coming in to water, but again, it might be Bill; he ought to be turning up soon. The second day was drawing on and Mac was getting restless and tired of sitting alone in the middle of an empty plain.

When next he looked there was no longer any doubt. The little mob travelled too fast and did not file along like cattle coming to water; they were horses all right—somewhere about a dozen—and the white shirts of two men riding behind glinted in the sunlight. Mac kicked the charred butts together on the fire and put the billy on to boil.

From the shade of a coolabah he watched their steady

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approach, heads raised and wary eyes searching the timber. Even at that range their apparent quality excited his admiration and a comparison with his own horses yielded reluctant admission to the truth of Bill's scathing remarks.

In the lead a beautiful jet-black horse with a small star on his forehead moved with an effortless rhythmic gait, his head high, mane and tail flowing out. Close behind came the bay horse Bill had ridden on their last meeting, then a beautifully-built brown mare with a richly dappled coat. They were on to him too quickly for him to notice more than the outstanding quality of perhaps half the mob, the sleek, shining coats, clean limbs, and signs of breeding—and the total absence of chestnuts among them. Mac commented on it, later on. Bill shrugged slightly and looked ahead with a twisted enigmatic smile on his lips. “I've had a set on chestnuts ever since one mucked up my dial. I don't mind riding them, but I never buy them.”

Mac headed the packhorses while the mob splashed into the waterhole and buried their noses in the yellow water. Bill dismounted, deftly removed his saddle and bridle, and as his horse trotted down to the water he took a packhorse from Mac. “Well, did you think I wasn't coming?” Without waiting for an answer he beckoned to his companion. “This is Percy, your new horsetailer—and his last boss is looking for me with a gun for taking Percy away from him.”

Mac nodded a greeting to the new arrival and studied him covertly. A slight, wiry youth with dark regular features and a ready smile that disclosed even rows of flashing white teeth. He sat the big brown horse as

  ― 107 ―
though he had been born in the saddle, and wore broad, short-necked spurs hung low on his heels—cattleman fashion—a clean white shirt and white moleskins, and a red silk handkerchief knotted loosely round his neck added a vivid touch of colour to his appearance. The reins hung loosely from his slender, sensitive brown hands. Something about the hands held Mac's eye. He glanced from them to the vivid red handkerchief and back again to the hands as he unbuckled the surcingle and side-straps, pulled a swag to the ground and unhooked the pack-bags. “You can bring my horses in for a drink now, Percy, and put them all out together.”

“Right oh!” The boy smiled with a flash of teeth and swung his horse into an easy canter. Mac peered after him over a pack-saddle. “Looks a good sort of a kid!”

Bill grunted and swung his pack-saddle off to the ground. “We're damned lucky to get him! He's a champion little horseman, a wonderful tracker, and you couldn't shift that smile off his face with a cold chisel!”

“A tracker …?” Mac's thoughts went back to the slender brown fingers and small wrists. “I say, Bill, is he …?”

Bill nodded confirmation. “Half-caste. … But a good one!” He waited while Mac threw a handful of tea on the billy and stood it by the side of the fire. “He can ride two of my horses—that's what I think of him—and I'll keep three for myself. We'll use Night, the black horse, and Rodney, the big bay with the black points, as night-horses, and I'll warn you now not to fall asleep on them. If the cattle rush, they'll be off

  ― 108 ―
the mark with them, so look out or you'll be left behind. I bought the other half-dozen for you and you'll find them all right.” He pointed to the little mob moving out in search of grass apart from his own horses. “They have all been on the road with cattle, in fact, I bought them from an old drover I know, so you needn't worry about them.”

Mac ran his eye over the new purchases. Like his father, horses to him were only a means to an end, and he had little interest in them otherwise, but there was a workmanlike look about the six that appealed to him, and although they did not compare with Bill's aristocrats, they were distinctly better than his own. He rejoined Bill picking horse-shoes and tools out of a pack-bag. “No news of a cook, I suppose?”

“No. We'll have to do our own cooking for a while. I've wired to the chap that keeps the pub at Camooweal to try and get a man. We'd better shoe a few of the new lot and get an early start in the morning.”

In the days that followed, as they pushed steadily up the river, the two men gradually bridged the intervening gap of the years since their last meeting and the old friendship was renewed on a stronger foundation. It took Bill some time to overcome the idea that Mac was no longer a kid in hand-me-downs. He was old beyond his years in some ways, the inherent and acquired qualities of stolid perseverance fitting naturally on his short, thickset frame, but on some subjects his reserve and lack of sophistication were those of a boy. He was quiet as ever, seldom venturing an opinion till he had thrashed out the pros and cons in his mind, and his slow speech

  ― 109 ―
had a maturity that contrasted with Bill's light drawling tones.

Bill had changed not only in features but in almost every way. Mac, riding a little way behind and listening to him yarning with Percy, found it difficult to connect this casual, easygoing horseman with the raw, goodlooking newchum of ten years ago. He wondered often to what extent the accident to Bill's face had affected his character. With the loss of the fine, sensitive features, a certain something had passed from his make-up. He had acquired a sophistication heightened by the drooping eyelid, the broken nose, and twisted smile that was more than superficial. His clear English diction had taken on an Australian inflexion, and the old alertness of bearing, although it still flashed out at times, was camouflaged under an easy, unhurried manner that was plainly modelled on Dinny. The reticence and reserve of his youth had been overcome; he would pull up and yabber and laugh with a blackfellow, have a yarn with a passing teamster, a drover or a bagman, and be unquestionably accepted as one of themselves.

But it was as a horseman that he excelled. From a station they passed through they bought a couple of horses, and all hands lined the stockyard rails when Bill rode them. The prices asked seemed ridiculously cheap to Mac but he felt dubious about his bargains when he watched them trying to turn Catherine-wheels with Bill in the saddle. But all other feelings rapidly gave way to sheer admiration. From the moment Bill entered the yard, his quiet confident handling of the horse, the clean swift movement that placed him in the saddle, and his effortless poise as the horse bucked,

  ― 110 ―
whirled and tried all the tricks in his repertoire to dislodge the impassive figure on his back, stamped him as a finished horseman. He reminded the watcher of Dinny, and Mac knew that the master would be more than satisfied with his pupil.

Percy, the cheerful little horsetailer, worshipped Bill, and Mac early sensed the reason why the boy had left a comfortable station job to follow him, and also that wherever Bill went Percy would follow regardless of any consideration. That, and the growing realization of the indispensibility of Bill were affording Mac food for serious thought. Bill owned the pick of the horses and saddlery; he was a good cattleman and knew the river—that long winding track that stages the annual pilgrimages of the big mobs from the Territory. Each day brought to Mac further proof of the hole he would have been in without Bill—of the hopeless proposition that would have faced him but for their chance meeting. The summer rains had been light, the river frontage was almost bare of grass, and the permanent waterholes few and far between.

Mac cantered ahead with Bill one morning, leaving Percy to follow with the horses. The air was fresh and cool, and laden with that indefinable, elusive tang—a whiff of gum-leaves, the dry scent of spinifex, the heavy odour of cattle and of old cattle-camps, all fused in dry baking sunlight and served with the cool dewy breath of dawn. The world held a spaciousness untrammelled by fences or hills. In to the left, the tall river coolabahs thrust gaunt grey limbs skywards and snow-white clouds of screeching corellas wheeled and eddied over and among them. The vast brown floor stretched dusty and

  ― 111 ―
bare on either side and away ahead to the clear, morning mirage of trees in the northern sky. Far out to the east the long lines of bush-cattle were coming in to water. Columns of dust marked their distant progress, and in the crystal clarity of the morning air, the colours of the cattle stood out as distinctly as though they were seen through a powerful telescope.

When they dropped from a canter to a long swinging walk, Mac rode in silence for a time, then he cleared his throat somewhat nervously. “I've just been thinking, Bill …”

The man at his side glanced from under the drooping eyelid. “Is that what's given you the headache for the last day or two? Well, out with it!”

Mac turned in the saddle to face him squarely. “It's just this. You're supplying half of the plant and most of the experience, so how about you and I working the trip in partnership?”

Bill's eyebrows went up. “What's wrong with the way we're working now?”

“A partnership would be only a fair thing and I would rather have it.”

“But what about the get-rich-quick scheme and the girl waiting down below?”

Mac's jaw set doggedly. “I mean it Bill!”

They rode in silence for a while then Bill nodded casually. “Right oh, Mac! I'll give it a fly! But remember. No one else touches my special horses, and I'll never insult them by droving sheep. Hallo!” He broke off, gazing ahead. “Looks like a traveller coming this way.…. Packhorse and a spare. Wonder does he want a job?”

  ― 112 ―

As they drew closer, Bill's eyes focused on the horses. “I'll bet he's a racehorse crank! That bay horse is a galloper and the one he's riding isn't too slow either.” Mac was more interested in the horseman, a slight, wiry figure in the mid-twenties with sharp features and quick brown eyes. He pulled up with the usual greeting. “G'day! Going far?”



Bill nodded assent, watching the keen eyes of the stranger appraising his horse.

“Good sort of a horse, that!”

“He's not bad!”

“I'll race you for a fiver! Five furlongs or half a mile.”

Bill shook his head with a smile. “He's got a lot of work ahead of him. How's the grass and water up the track?”

“Not much good! Tell you what, I'll race you to that bloodwood for a quid!”

Bill laughed quietly. “Wait till we deliver this mob, and I'll race you to Sydney for your cheque, if you like. Going far?”

“Don't know yet! I've been working up here since I got back from the war, but lately I've been getting sort of cranky—finding meself worrying whether a waterhole will last out, getting wild when I see another fellow riding my hacks. … Little things like that. So it looked to me like I was getting married to the job and time I moved on. I got me cheque and pulled out this morning.” He broke off as the plant drew level to run a quick eye over the horses and their brands.

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“Bit of a mixed lot there! What do you want for the black horse?”

“Ever hear of a drover selling his best night-horse before a trip?”

“You win, mate! Oh well, I'll push on.”

“We're looking for a cook—d'you know of anyone?”

The traveller considered for a moment. “The Desolated Cokernut went up to Camooweal a couple of weeks back to jump his roll across the bar.”

Bill pricked up his ears. “Think he's cleaned out by now?”

“Heard he was back at Urandangie! Damned good cook!”

“I know he is! Does he still get his words mixed up?” Bill picked up his reins and smiled inwardly at Mac fidgeting alongside at his apparent omission. He nodded casually to the traveller when an afterthought seemed to occur to him. “We're a man short. How about coming along?”

The traveller looked long and intently to the south. Then he contemplated his two horses. He switched to a survey of Bill's bay horse, glanced at Mac's, and quickly glanced away. Then he raised his stockwhip arm, wheeled his horses back on the track and fell in with Bill and Mac. “I'll come back and see how the Cokernut's doing! Dick West, they call me.”

The city of Urandangie came to life on their arrival next day. A mob of goats scurried behind the two cottages which comprised the metropolis, and an old dog barked wheezily. A disconsolate figure seated in the shade of a pepper-tree surveyed them from red-rimmed eyes. He nodded briefly to West, glanced at Mac, and

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looked searchingly at Bill. Then he croaked, “Where's Dinny?”

“Dead! Killed at the war. Are you coming with us, Tim?” He paused to let the words sink in, then added, “It's a packhorse plant, and a fifteen-week job.”

The blotched face twitched slightly and the man rose unsteadily to his feet. “I'll get me swag.” His trembling hand fumbled futilely at a pocket. “Will you get me a bottle of bifurcated magnesia, Bill? It's me indigestion!”

The augmented camp rode northward. On their left hand ran the netting fence that crossed half a continent in one straight span; a man could vault from Queensland to the Northern Territory with ease, reversing and repeating the process till the geographical novelty of it wore off.

The end of a journey was in sight, the beginning of another loomed closer.

  ― 115 ―

Chapter XII

THE big mob straddled the open downs like a huge hourglass with stockmen, black and white, hovering round the edges, punching the cattle back here or accelerating there. The leaders spread out through the dry, knee-high Mitchell-grass—reds and whites and roans trumpeting their displeasure at the humiliation imposed on them by the curtailment of their liberty. Back where the mob narrowed to a waist, a moving barrier of horsemen regulated the flow of cattle past the counters, and as the front mob grew and spread across the downs, the back mob contracted like the last dwindling grains of sand awaiting their turn in the upper glass.

They were through! The remaining handful swept past in a bunch to join their mates. A big bearded horseman glanced interrogatively at the rider opposite.


“Correct!” The bearded man turned to the stock-man checking the knots in a greenhide lace. “Ten … eleven … twelve!”

“Twelve hundred and fifty-two! That suit you, Bill?”

“Right, Harry!” Bill and Mac closed on the bearded head stockman while half a dozen aboriginal musterers

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chattered and laughed in high-pitched tones in the background at the prospect of a spell, now that the mob was mustered and delivered.

“Well, we'll get back.” The head stockman held out a hand. “So long … and good luck!”

The two camps drew apart, the station men and the blacks cantering off to the north while the drovers started the mob on its long walk south. Mac drew a long deep breath and there was an undercurrent of youthful excitement in the glance he threw at Bill. “Well, we're off!” He felt a new sense of importance under his stolid demeanour. This was the biggest mob of cattle Mac had ever handled and he looked with pride along the sea of sleek backs and horns. Twelve hundred and fifty-two bullocks—eight hundred miles. He worked out in his head what the droving cheque should be and his eyes gleamed at the thought of it—then sobered suddenly. He was a partner now—he had forgotten to halve it!

Strangely enough, Bill's thoughts worked along more practical lines; of the two, he was usually the more prone to flights of fancy and sudden ideas. They were bound to lose a fair number, Bill was thinking, the bullocks would get through all right but a lot of those heifers would crack up on a bad track. Yes, he would have to pick up a few more, but he would have to do it quietly. Mac had queer old-fashioned ideas about some things.

Next morning they moved off camp at piccaninny daylight after a restless night, the cattle feeding steadily over the downs with the dark green line of the river timber a mile to their right. Beyond that again, the

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desert scrub stretched its sombre olive foliage to the horizon.

Bill reined the bay horse alongside his partner. “Mac, I think we lost a few last night!”

“How?” A worried look spread over the stolid features.

“Easiest thing in the world to cut off a few, the way they walked about all night. If you and Tom will keep them moving …” Tom was the latest member of the camp, a middle-aged taciturn individual—“ … Dick and I will go out through the scrub and have a look round.”

Mac nodded hesitantly and rode on with a slightly puzzled expression. He trusted Bill—to a point—but some of his intuitions were built on rather airy foundations.

The sun was high overhead when the two men returned driving a mob of about fifty cattle which they merged in the main mob, then rode their sweating horses into the waterhole, stooping from the saddle to scoop up pints of water which they gulped thirstily. As Bill set his quart-pot on the fire, Mac looked up with wrinkled brows. “We didn't lose that many, Bill!”

“Oh well, it's best to be on the safe side.”

Mac opened his mouth to say something then changed his mind, but the vague, troublesome feeling remained.

They camped that night on a small plain bounded by dense gidgee scrub, and the cattle, still resentful at being handled, coerced, and torn from home, refused to approach the camp or to settle down. The flicker of the camp-fire was eventually masked with a screen of green boughs, and young Percy rode out to take the

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first watch, with Tim, the cook, to lend him a hand till the cattle settled down. Bill put his saddle on the spare night-horse and lingered by the fire for a final word with Mac before turning in.

A half-moon rode in the clear starry sky, its wan radiance swamped by the flickering, red glow of the fire. The cattle appeared to be steadying down. They sounded quieter, and over the night-air came the cook's monotonous chanting of a lugubrious bush ballad mingling with young Percy's rendering of a music-hall song as picked up from a gramophone. At the end of his song Percy's thin boyish voice was silent for a while then, cautiously at first, but gaining in strength, it rose again in the high-pitched rhythmic chant of a corroboree. Bill grinned at the boy's lapse to the aborigine strain in him as he sat on his blankets debating whether it would be wise to undress. The night was warm without a breath of wind, and he was taking the last watch with Tom. Oh, damn it, he would chance it! He placed his boots and stockwhip where he could lay a hand instinctively on them, rolled himself in a blanket, and was asleep in ten seconds.

Mac woke at the soft thudding of the approaching horse's hoofs and shook the sleep from his eyes. He drank a pint of hot coffee from the billy at the fire and mounted the night-horse, while the cook lit his charred old pipe with a glowing coal before rolling into his blankets. Dick West, yawning prodigiously, lounged over to the fire more from force of habit than need of warmth, then followed Mac on the spare night-horse.

Mac crooned his way out to the dim bulk of the mob. His musical repertoire was limited and, under his rendering,

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one tune sounded much like another. He could never remember the words, either, but bullocks are an uncritical audience and not at all fussy about little things like that. He rode round to intercept Percy who was beefing out “Clementine” from the back of the mob. The boy pulled up as they came abreast and his teeth flashed a smile in the moonlight.

“All right, Percy?”

“Yes, they're all right! Dick coming out?”

“You'll pass him on the way in.”

“ 'Night, Mac!”

The boy's song faded away toward the camp and shortly afterwards, the strains of “Mademoiselle from Armentières” in its full, uncensored A.I.F. version heralded the advent of Dick.

Mac yawned sleepily. Three hours and forty minutes to put in before he could crawl under the blankets again! The horse moved steadily round on its patrol and his formless monotone took its time from the muffled beats of the hoofs. If this were only a mob of sheep, he reflected sadly, they would be safe inside the break now and he would be sound asleep instead of riding round and round a lot of restless cattle. Still, there was more money in this. His jaw tightened determinedly; his own feelings and comfort would receive scant consideration where they interfered with the end he had in view.

He glanced idly over the mob. Most of them were lying down and those still on their feet stood like statues in the waning light of the moon. A heifer dodged through the mob with two or three steers trotting in pursuit, and Mac muttered wrathfully under his breath.

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On the opposite side of the mob a song broke off suddenly, and Dick's voice rose on an anxious note. “Whoa, bullicks! Whoa, there! Whoa-back, you wandering sods! Who-o-up!”

Mac's horse increased its pace a shade and the rider peered anxiously ahead. One side of the mob appeared to be on its feet and moving restlessly about. He joined Dick driving back a projecting wing that had started to stray away from the mob, and between them they settled them down again.

“Damned fine horse this!” said Dick. “Wouldn't mind owning him myself. Wonder what Bill paid for him?”

“Don't know, Dick. Whoa back there, bullock!

“Anyway, if they do rush, a man has a chance to wheel 'em before they hit the coast with a decent horse like this!”

Mac left him to steady the restless side and continued his patrol. When he came back, Dick was still addressing the mob with a steady stream of cheerful vituperation. “They're about as hard to settle as the mob we took down from Winardo last year. They rushed every night for damn near six weeks!”

“Did you lose many?”

“Too flamin' right, we did! Left a trail of broken horns all down the Georgina, an' the cook pulled out at Urandangie because the trees were getting scarce an' he wasn't going to get flattened out by no rushing bullicks, he wasn't! Used to pick an easy tree to climb, an' slep' under it every night. … Soon's the mob went he was up that tree like a goanna in his sleep. That was the trip the pommy bloke got killed.”

  ― 121 ―

“What happened to him?”

“Oh, he reckoned the mob wouldn't rush no more. They were all lying down and him taking it easy with his leg across the pommel of the saddle. Well, they went … an' so did the night-horse. … And they picked up what was left of the pommy in the morning.”

They separated again and Mac crooned his way thoughtfully round the mob. Save for an odd beast weaving restlessly about, the cattle lay peacefully asleep. The red half-moon hung low on the horizon and its waning light had almost surrended to the starlight. It must be near midnight; the biggest part of their watch still lay ahead of them, and he felt as tired as if he hadn't slept for a week.

The moon disappeared and for a time the earth was shrouded in dark mystery and filled with strange shapes that loomed up but failed to materialize. A change came over the mob—a restlessness that brought them slowly to their feet. They walked about, stalked calmly and silently off the camp with a train of eager followers till the two men were forced to canter back and forward nipping the sorties in the bud till at length the restlessness departed and the cattle sank to earth again with deep placid whoofs.

Peace reigned over the sleeping mob. Only Mac's monotonous drone, and “Paddy McGinty's Goat” from Dick insulted the stillness of the night.

Mac, glimmering through sleep-heavy eyelids over the quiet scene, clutched suddenly and wildly at the reins as the horse shot forward. A roaring thunder filled his ears. He was galloping madly through the night alongside

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a close-packed, hurtling stampede. The transition from perfect peace to pandemonium had been so sudden, so incredibly startling, that he was still unaware of everything but the menacing cataract of cattle thundering at his side, and his instinctive clinging to the saddle.

He jammed his hat down over his eyes, crouched down on the galloping horse, and yelled wildly against the thunder of hoofs and fierce clash of horns. He must wheel them, check the headlong rush. “Whoa, bullocks, who-oaa!

A sudden outbreak of crackling and crashing. Dark formless shapes flew at him out of the dark. They were in the scrub … gidgee … hard, unyielding as cast iron. He ducked low on the horse's neck with a hint of hysteria in his shouts.

Whoa—bullocks, whoa there!

The quick rhythm of the muscles under the saddle suddenly stopped, and the unseen earth yawned sickeningly below them—an awful sensation of falling … falling.… A cold sweat broke out on him. His heart was in his throat. Visions of going down under that pounding avalanche flashed before his agonized senses … trampled flat … unrecognizable. A muffled anguished bellow burst out and was suddenly stifled in the ominous thunder of hoofs.

Relief! They were galloping again, up a quick incline, through splintering timber, and the gully was left behind in the inky blackness. Was this the lead? He yelled fiercely at the leaders … again and again. They gave ground, swerving slowly, and the horse veered with them. A shout ahead! “Whoa there, you

  ― 123 ―
bastards! Whoa!” And the fierce bang-bang-bang of a stockwhip wielded with savage intent. Dick must be right in front of the mob—or was this a wing that had shot out behind him? They were steadying, ringing in the dark in a tight, choking maelstrom, churning up a dense cloud of dust that hung like a thick fog.

They stood off the milling mob, yelling at the top of their lungs, ready to dash out at the first offshoot of the tightly packed mass. From somewhere—he knew not where—came the fierce banging of a distant whip and Bill's wild yell. The mob must have split!

The ringing mob expanded, the pace eased, the thunder of hoofs died down, and suddenly the thick, dust-laden night was filled with the bellowing of fear-conscious cattle. The two men redoubled their efforts, imposing a physical, palpable antidote on the mental reaction of the stampede. They battled to hold the demoralized mob together, with whips rising and falling like flails and long-drawn shouts of “Whoa, bullocks, Whoaa! Whoa back there!” beating down the continuous bellowing.

A figure loomed out of the dust and yelled, “That you, Mac? How many have we got?”

Above the din he shouted back. “Don't know, Dick! How far are we off camp?”

“Couldn't say! Over a mile … maybe two. Christ, this horse can gallop!”

He plunged back to the fray, his loud, triumphant, laughing shout echoing above the turmoil. Even the excitement of the rush could not submerge his ruling passion. Progress was slow and difficult. The cattle stubbornly refused to be driven back toward the camp

  ― 124 ―
and little rushes kept swirling back, reclaiming in a few seconds the advance gained in minutes. Mac hailed the man on his left. “Dick!”


“It's no use killing the horses to flog them back. We'll try and hold them here till morning! Anyhow, Bill's out there with another mob and we can't get help till daylight!”

A dark wall of gidgee enclosed the clearing on every side. They rode wide of the mob, allowing them to expand and settle, but they positively refused to camp. All night long the cattle walked restlessly about, thrusting defiantly out in ones and twos, and sometimes a little mob would surge out with sullen determination and have to be flogged back.

Mac was dropping with sheer fatigue but the cattle allowed no respite, and ever-present at the back of his mind was the dread of what the morning might reveal. How many bullocks had gone down under the stampede when that gully yawned suddenly underfoot? He felt sick at the recollection of his own sensations in that ghastly second as they dropped through space. The tales he had heard of horses stumbling, riders thrown in front of the maddened horde! A man wouldn't have a chance in the world in that inferno. The sheer miracle of his survival prompted an admiration that amounted almost to reverence for the horse that carried him. He leaned silently forward and pressed a palm on the dank warm neck.

The dark hours dragged slowly on. Stars rose and stars set, constellations climbed the heavens and the Milky Way leaned its bow toward the horizon. All night

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long they rode ceaselessly round the cattle, Mac forcing a tuneless song with meaningless words from a dry parched throat and marvelling dully at the undaunted repertoire of his mate. Occasionally the faint echo of a shout reached them. Toward morning, the shouts and the crack of a whip drew nearer and they answered in return.

The cattle turned to stare suspiciously toward the disturbance. A bullock bellowed an inquiry—a long-drawn bellow answered it. Then as the eastern stars began to fade, a long string of cattle crashed through the timber to join them, and out of their dust rode an apparition on a black horse—Bill, clad only in boots and shirt, with one side of his face caked with dried blood. He nodded wearily at the two men. “Are you all right?”

Mac peered at him. “Hurt yourself, Bill?”

“No, I'm all right. Have we got them all?” He stood in the stirrups and surveyed the mob in the thin light. “Hard to say, yet. Can you two hang on for a bit? I'll send Tom down to relieve one of you as soon as Percy gets the horses.”

Mac struggled hard against the fatigue that dragged at him. “I'll stop for a while. Hadn't we better count them?”

“Percy and I will canter round the tracks first. Hooroo!

In spite of his weariness, the sight of Bill cantering back to the timber with his shirt flapping out behind, and his bare white legs, forced a tired grin to Mac's lips. The light climbed slowly in the eastern sky. He rode on to the mob, started them into action, then leaned forward on his horse's neck watching them feeding their way off camp.

  ― 126 ―

Chapter XIII

DAY after day and week after week, the mob, losing its bloom and its sleek curves, kept steadily on its way south and east. As they progressed, the grass became shorter and scarcer, until even the dry woody tufts of the Mitchell-grass disappeared and left the wide frontage a bare forlorn waste, scarred by dry desolate gullies dotted with acacia and spidery lignum bushes.

The cattle took on a tucked-up, hunted look; their hip-bones poked sharply out under their dull hides and the weaker beasts gravitated to the tail of the mob and stayed there, barely dragging themselves along. The horses showed signs of the hard times in their appearance and in increasing lassitude. Every day the cook made an extra damper, and when Percy brought the horses in at daylight Bill walked out to meet them; his mounts would press eagerly forward, crowding round him while he broke up the damper and fed it to them, and then they followed him back into the camp for more.

Dick and Tom watched the performance sceptically at first, then one day, Dick surreptitiously caught his racehorse and spent five minutes teaching him to chew a crust. Mac raised objections to what he regarded as waste of good tucker and an unnecessary piling up of

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expense. In reply, Bill bought an extra bag of flour at Boulia. “Wait till your horses knock up and you'll know all about waste!”

Mac faced Boulia with misgivings about the men, and he unburdened his fears to his partner.

“Well, I won't get shickered!” Bill replied. “We'll have to let the others in to get a few things from the store, and none of them are wowsers, thank God, but I don't think they'll get shot or leave us. The Cokernut might … he's so dry, his skin's cracking. … But we'll have to chance it. He's a good old bloke!”

Mac agreed cordially with the last statement. As a cook, Tim put up with the disadvantages and short-comings of a packhorse plant without a murmur, and the camp fared extremely well at his hands. The night before they reached Boulia he handed Bill a grimy piece of paper. “That's the stores we'll want. Don't fergit the desecrated cokernut and another bottle of bifurcated magnesia. Me guts ain't the best, yet!” Bill smothered a grin and bent over the almost illegible list.

Next day the plant pulled up in front of the store. Pack-bags were replenished, bags of flour and sugar strapped on top, and the cavalcade jingled on. As they passed the pub, the cook sat erect on his horse looking neither right nor left. Bill, riding behind, made no comment but mentally put down a bottle of rum to Tim's credit at the end of the trip.

They had seen the last of the Georgina with its deep, winding channels overhung with lofty coolabahs, and its dusty cattle-camps littered with the dried dung of tens of thousands of bullocks whose impending fate was almost as tragic as that of the river. The west is a hard

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remorseless land—a country of frustrated creeks that sometimes run to fill a waterhole or two before they peter miserably out in some dry rapacious swamp. It tempts the river from the distant Territory tableland with promises of tributaries—that often fail to reach the mother stream, beckons it on for hundreds of miles past a thirsty sterile land, endows it with deep blue waterholes where the baramundi lurks, then heartlessly turns it this way and that, diffuses its gathering force into numberless channels and finally confronts it with a barren waste—leaves it to end ingloriously in the dead heart of the continent. A tragic river that never reaches the sea.

Boulia met them with bad news of the track ahead, and as they pushed on, they found that the news had not been exaggerated. Long dry waterless stages across open plains were followed by day after day without the sight of a blade of grass. The cattle refused to camp at nights. They would move ceaselessly about, lowing in quiet, hopeless tones. Horses plodded along with tucked up flanks and staring ribs. Bill's horses alone showed any life or spirit; he had doubled their ration of damper and they were doing most of the work. Two of Mac's original horses finally knocked up and had to be abandoned. The others could barely keep up with the mob.

They hit Diamantina Gates and headed up the Mayne through stony spinifex hills and a welter of river channels tangled with stunted gidgee. Cold nights added to the general misery, and even the men went silently about their work, infected with the prevailing spirit of depression.

  ― 129 ―

Then the rain caught them. One night as they camped between an arc of rocky hills and the river channels, a terrific thunder-storm rolled up. Since the cattle had ceased rushing at nights, they had reverted to single watches. When Mac relieved Dick West, ominous rumblings and flashes lit the heavy sky, and the cattle moaned restlessly. Between the flashes the darkness was almost palpable, and Mac had to trust implicitly to the horse. The storm drew closer, and the thunder took on an ugly menacing note, rumbling heavily through the hills till the ground trembled. The lightning was ceaseless and terrifying. It lit the quartz hills in vivid flame, enveloped the cattle in blinding flashes and zigzagged across their horns.

As the pandemonium reached its fiendish climax, the storm broke and the rain descended in a solid sheet. Bill rode out to help quieten the frantic cattle. Their restlessness developed into a general surging movement—now this way, now that—and the rain transformed the ground into a quagmire. They broke with a roar. The two men threw themselves at the lead and headed them to find the cattle splitting and scattering in little mobs all round them.

Bill urged his tiring horse to where Mac vainly tried to block an advancing mob. “Let 'em go, Mac!” he yelled against the storm.

His partner stared, nonplussed, then ranged alongside him. “But we … we'll lose them!”

“We'll lose them in any case! Let them go in a mob!” He rode back and drove the shivering remnant in the wake of the mob disappearing into the channels. Water streamed from the hills and lay on the flat in

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sheets. They piled logs on the fire, and built an earthen wall round it to stop the rushing water from putting it out. Then they congregated round the blaze—four taciturn men and the cook, with the rain coursing down their spines and overflowing their sopping, muddy boots. Percy was the only one who slept that night. With the inherited wisdom of his mother's race he had spread his blankets on a high-piled mound of boughs and spinifex, and covered himself with a tarpaulin. He woke at daylight, surrounded by water but rested and refreshed, and diplomatically veiled his cheerful grin from the disconsolate group round the fire.

It rained for two days, and the men sat moodily in camp, marooned in a bog with neither sight nor sound of their cattle. On the third day they ventured out with difficulty. The channels were beginning to run and it was imperative that the cattle be recovered before the river came down and cut them off. They penetrated the tangled maze of the channels, circling outside the tracks, turning in every scattered lot of cattle as they went, and Mac mounted on a bay pack-mare, one of his original string, brought up the rear, picking up the concentrating herd.

The mare was dull and lifeless and could barely drag her feet out of the sucking mud. In a narrow, steep banked channel with six inches of water trickling down it, she finally balked and stubbornly refused to face the bank. The cattle were straying away to the flank and Mac, in desperation, dug the spurs in and drove her at it. She reared … her weak hind legs slipped from under her, and she fell back on her side with the rider pinned underneath the saddle.

  ― 131 ―

Mac was not hurt by the fall but the mare's feet were up the bank, and all her weight bore down on his imprisoned thigh. She struggled feebly and a new fear seized him that she might roll over and crush him. But the mare seemed too listless to do anything but lie supine. His leg was feeling numb, so was the arm that propped his shoulders out of the water, and the realization of another source of danger forced itself on him—the water was rising rapidly. At this rate, it would not be long before the mare would be forced to a final effort—which might end finally for him—or alternatively, the swelling stream must soon submerge him. Either way looked hopeless.

He shouted at the top of his voice but the narrow banks threw the sound back at him. He tried to drag his leg from under the mare but only succeeded in slipping deeper into the stream—with the mare still on him. The crashing of a heavy body through the gidgee gave him hope and he shouted again. A bullock burst through the screen, slithered into the channel and stopped, gazing stupidly at the prostrate man. Then with a frightened snort it plunged up the bank and out of sight.

He had to struggle hard to keep his shoulders above the yellow flood. He was too numb and powerless to make another attempt to release his leg. Queer, fantastic thoughts kept flitting through his head. Why was he lying here waiting for death when he might be working comfortably at home? A vision of a high-spirited, wilful girl against a background of supercilious youths and laughing girls suggested an answer, but he stubbornly refused to admit it. It was his own fault.

  ― 132 ―
He had wanted to make money … a lot of money in the shortest possible time. But what good would all the money in the world be to him in a few minutes when he could no longer keep his head above the rising water! The chilly stream laid an icy finger on his bare neck. He summoned all his strength and screamed.

The crack of a whip sounded close at hand. He yelled again, and after what seemed an age came a questing “Hallo there!”

Here!” he screamed. “Here! Quick!”

A horse slithered down the steep bank, the rider glanced sharply downstream, then he turned and stared unbelievingly a second. “Christ!” His horse bounded forward and the man flew from the saddle to land feet first in the water with a splash. “Dick!” he yelled. “Hi! Dick!”

At the answering shout Bill stooped and slipped an arm under Mac's shoulders. The mare was lifting her head to keep it clear of the water and the situation looked too difficult for one man to tackle on his own. Then a horseman appeared up the bank, gave one swift look, and shot off his horse.

Mac looked down from the bank where they had laid him, and where they were lighting a fire, to his mudslathered mare standing abjectly below. Then he turned his head slowly and painfully toward Bill. “I think I'll stick to sheep after this,” he said.

It was an irony of fate that they should suffer all the discomforts of the rain and reap none of its benefits. When they turned south from the Mayne they faced a stretch of bare scrubland and dry grass where no rain had fallen. Two long dry stages faced the

  ― 133 ―
weak, dispirited cattle—over a hundred miles with only one doubtful waterhole on it.

They got through. They faced other difficulties and survived, but on every camp they left a broken remnant that had once been a sleek, spirited steer or heifer; each day, another and yet another beast fell out and was left behind.

Then one morning Bill rode ahead across red sandhills where camels wandered morosely, and found a stock-camp on the bank of a broad lagoon where squadrons of black and white pelicans sailed and manoeuvred in their hundreds. He returned to the cattle with a return of the old alertness in his bearing. “They're coming to take delivery in the morning!”

And there was no possible doubt about the sincerity of the heartfelt chorus of “Thank God for that!”

They rested themselves and their weary horses by the Pelican Lagoon for a full week before they made for the nearest town. It consisted of half a dozen houses in various states of disrepair—and a pub. And there, with the exception of Mac and Percy, they got gloriously drunk.

  ― 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

  ― 135 ―
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?”

  ― 136 ―


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

  ― 137 ―
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?”

  ― 138 ―

“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

  ― 139 ―
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.

  ― 140 ―
“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

  ― 141 ―
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!”

  ― 142 ―

Chapter XV

BILL turned in the doorway to wave a cheerful farewell to someone in the bar, then he barged up the broad staircase. The hotel was full to overflowing; the wide upstairs veranda revealed a vista of close-packed rows of beds like an overcrowded hospital ward. A few strangers leaned over the veranda rail, apparently immersed in a study of the scattered lights of the town, but the man Bill wanted was not among them and he swung on his heel and started to investigate the doors opening on the long, dimly-lighted passage. What was the number of his room? It should be somewhere hereabouts but he could not be quite sure. He was even less positive by the time he reached the end of the corridor, but he brightened as a possible solution struck him. He faced down the long rows of uncommunicative doorways and bawled: “Hi! Mac!”

Half a dozen doors swung open and as many heads stuck out. Bill rubbed the back of his neck ruminatively and murmured, “Cripes! Is this Longreach or Edinburgh?”

Then a familiar voice hailed him resignedly. “Here you are, Bill!”

Mac looked sharply at him as he plumped on the bed opposite. Bill had had a few drinks—just enough

  ― 143 ―
to make him talkative—but that was not the underlying cause of his elation. He ventured a leading question. “Well … how did you get on with the Ford?”

Bill roused himself and leaned forward with enthusiasm sparkling in his eyes. “Get on? I got on and stopped on! Rode her to a standstill!”

Mac eyed him dubiously. “How many gates did you hit?”

“Oh, one or two.… Didn't hurt Lizzie, though! I clean forgot all about brakes. Sat back and took a grip of her that'd steady a draught-horse … and the damn thing kept on going. Good thing the bloke from the garage was with me!” He chuckled reminiscently. “I gave 'em the ride of their lives coming back!”

“Who else was with you?”

“Oh, I took Marie—the fair-haired filly from down the street. The one you don't like.”

“Didn't she know you couldn't drive?”

“She never asked. Only too glad to come for a ride. Cripes … and I clean forgot to take that whisky out to Tim!” He sat back and laughed uproariously. “You should have heard Marie perform when that gate rushed up and hit us! Wanted to get out and walk back… And the garage bloke looked like he wanted to walk back with her. Anyhow, I gave Lizzie a preliminary canter after the last gate, then I let her out! One thing I've got against motor cars—they can't take a gutter like a horse. And what do you think! I offered to drive Marie to the dance to-night and she turned me down!”

“The Ford's done you one good turn, then.” Mac leaned back against the wall with his hands clasped

  ― 144 ―
behind his head. “Bill, why do you run around with those awful women? There's plenty of decent girls about.”

“Huh! Want to see me roped and branded, do you! What would I do with a wife?”

“We've got a house … a decent property. We're making good money … and you're chucking your cash away on a lot of cheap women!”

“Cheap be damned! They cost a damned sight more than your decent ones. Anyhow, can you see me married and leg-roped to a house and furniture and God knows what, and one day some fellow rings up and says, ‘Bill, I want you to take a thousand bullocks down to New South.’ Then I'd have to do like the other married drovers—go and leave the wife on her own for six months, or say ‘No, thanks, old man, you'll have to get someone else.’ And every day for the next six months I would be thinking, ‘They ought to be on the Barcoo by this’ or ‘They'll be camping at Northampton, to-night.’ And I'd go and ring up Blackall and ask what the road's like on to Tambo … what the grass is like … how the water's holding. I would be doing every stage of that damned trip and cursing the bad luck that kept me off it.”

“Anyhow …” he leaned forward with a touch of heat. “What would any decent girl want with me? She would want to know all sorts of questions about my people.… Could I tell her I never knew my father … that I'm a bull without a pedigree.… A damned scrubber!”

Mac rose to pacify him. Bill's secret never came to the surface until he had had a few drinks, but Mac

  ― 145 ―
always found him easier to handle then, than when he was cold sober. He threw open the veranda doors and a wave of dance music floated across from the hall. “Don't be stupid, Bill! We're not cattle, and there are millions of people in the world in the same boat as yourself. Anyhow, who can tell by looking at a man whether his parents were married or not? Go and have a dance and forget about yourself.”

Bill rose and stared moodily across to the lighted windows of the hall where crowded couples were weaving around to the strains of a foxtrot like a mob of milling cattle. “Are you coming across?”

“Not me. I can't dance.”

“Come on! Come and put your arm round a flesh and blood woman instead of dreaming about your girl on a pedestal down south.”

Mac shook his head and sat down on his bed again. “I think I'll turn in. Don't make too much row when you come home—if you do come home.”

Bill turned in the doorway with a short, bitter laugh. “Don't worry … I'm going to get half-shot before I go across there, and the first girl I meet, I'll ask her to marry me—just to oblige you!” He reflected a moment. “Maybe I'd better get three-parts shot. And if she ever holds it up against me, I'll tell her it was your idea!”

He walked aggressively downstairs to the bar. “The usual, Tom, and don't let me drink with the flies.” He peered suspiciously at a quaintly garbed group of masked men on the opposite side of the bar. “What's this … the Kelly Gang … or am I just drunk?”

The barman laughed. “No, they're from the ball.

  ― 146 ―
It's fancy-dress … and you've got to wear a mask till midnight. Aren't you going?”

“Too right … when I've had a few more drinks. What about a mask … and where can I get a fancy costume?”

“Aw, go as you are.” The barman leaned forward and surveyed Bill from the heavy, low-slung spurs, fine gabardine trousers, and silk shirt, to the truculent expression on his face. “Anyhow, it's too damned hot to wear a fur coat like a polar bear or a suit of armour.…”

“Whoa! That'll do me!” Bill thumped the bar and clung to a fleeting inspiration. “Fill 'em up again and get me a mask, then I'm off.”

Armour. That was the idea that crystallized his feelings. He was just in the mood to challenge someone … anyone. The cantankerous spirit roused by the old argument rankled raw in him and craved an outlet in battle … the fiercer the better. He stumbled down the dim passage leading to the back of the hotel, turning the idea enthusiastically over in his head. A sheet of galvanized iron would soon provide armour … a bit hot and heavy, though. The scheme offered all sorts of satisfying possibilities. He would get a horse, ride up the steps into the hall, and challenge the world. Great idea!

In the darkness of the back veranda he failed to notice an obstacle till he fell over it with a resounding clatter. He picked himself up with a savage desire to kick something hard—and found the thing he had fallen over—a shiny new garbage-tin.

He did not assault it immediately. Instead, he picked

  ― 147 ―
up the wide, round lid, studied it thoughtfully, then with a chuckle of mischievous joy, let himself into the big, deserted kitchen. He levered at the handle till he could slip a forearm through it, then his roving eyes quested along the shelves till a big new aluminium saucepan caught his attention. He took it down and examined it critically. Instead of a long handle it had two lugs which, he reflected, was all to the good. He fitted it on his head, over his hat. Fine! The costume was progressing.

What was the next item … arms! He selected a broad-bladed meat-chopper from the cook's array, and balanced it appreciatively in his hand, then laid it down again with a sigh. He was sober enough to realize that if he hit anyone with that they might fail to see the joke.

As he crossed the yard a sagging clothes-line dislodged his helmet. He grabbed the clothes-prop—a long, slender sapling—to jerk the line to safety, when inspiration stayed his hand. With a joyous chuckle he dragged the clothes-prop clear and shook it aloft. His lance! A sword next. Where could he get a sword! He walked out of the yard into a dark narrow lane. The big, heavy head of the hotel draught-horse drooped sleepily over the opposite gate. The sword was temporarily forgotten. It was only the work of a minute to slip the dilapidated winkers on, to couple a short length of light rope to the bit for reins. He vaulted light-heartedly on to the broad back, rearranged his garbage-tin shield, fitted the saucepan helmet well down on his head, adjusted the black mask over his eyes, picked up the lance, and jabbed the bewildered draught-horse with the spurs.

  ― 148 ―
It gave one indignant snort and lumbered sideways into the lane.

The wide, dusty street was bathed in moonlight. The unwilling charger sidled and snorted and reefed past the dark cluster of cars parked in front of the hotel, and found himself swung round the corner, headed for the long line of cars and the garish splash of light that marked the hall. Doors and windows were wide open, and the orchestra's quick, inciting rhythm stirred the blood of the rider.

Damn it, this entrance was too tame … too undramatic. Come on, Hairy Heels! He dug the spurs in, and as the heavy horse bucked forward and broke into a clumsy canter, he brandished his lance and loosed a wild “Yuck-ai-i!” that drew the attention of the lounging crowd on the broad veranda above the steps. Another wild yell and the spurs tickled the draught's ribs and goaded him faster. Suddenly a touring car drew out to the middle of the road in front of him, and stopped—almost blocking the course. There were two people in the front seat, apparently in a close embrace. A wild impulse shot through him. He would teach them to make love in the middle of the main street and cramp his entrance. He couched the lance, aimed at the centre of the wind-screen, and as the horse bounded again at a jab of the spurs, the rider let out a wild, long-drawn yell.

He had a momentary vision of the pair in the front seat separating suddenly, staring fear-stricken, then diving precipitately below the dash, and his loud, reckless laugh changed to a wild whoop. He was on them. He jerked up the point of the lance but too late. It

  ― 149 ―
missed the glass but hit the front of the hood. Something gave. The hood shot back and upward as the end of the sapling splintered and broke, and the jar nearly dislocated his shoulder. The shock of the collision drove the rider back on the horse's loins. As he swept past the car he caught a glimpse of a figure in white running toward the hall.

Hell! He must have scared the life out of that girl. With sudden contrition Bill pitched the splintered lance away, swung the astonished draught round the back of the car, and dragged him to an abrupt halt at the steps. The girl arriving at the same moment stopped and shrank back from what appeared to be a colossal horse with a rider in shining helmet and shield charging down on her.

The horseman vaulted to the ground in front of her and as he landed, the saucepan helmet tipped over his eyes, completely destroying the effect. “Damn!” Bill pushed it fiercely back. “I say, I'm sorry about that! I didn't mean to hit the car … bad judgment … but I apologize. …”

A half-smothered giggle interrupted him. His apologetic glance rose in mute inquiry to meet the girl's laughing eyes, tantalizingly veiled by the black domino.

“It's quite all right!” Her laugh was under control but her amused smile remained. “As a matter of fact, you did me a good turn butting in at that moment. I didn't mind sitting out in the car but going for a drive is a different matter.”

“Good!” Bill drew a long breath and his spirits rose again. A shaft of light from the doorway drew a glint of gold from the auburn hair that curled out from

  ― 150 ―
under a fillet. He had been too absorbed in the clear, warm intonation of her speech, the coming and going of the roguish dimple, and the delicate allure of her lips to register more than a fleeting impression of the girl.

She glanced at the ungainly horse puffing at his elbow and back at Bill. “What are you going to do with Rosinante?”


“Aren't you Don Quixote?” She surveyed him from head to foot, her smile dimpling mischievously. “No. … Something earlier, I think. The Round Table! That's got it. Why, we're of the same period.”

He stepped back a pace and looked at the girl. The moonlight shed a soft radiance on the long, white frock with the sleeves ending in fantastic points far below the hands. She wore it with an air that defied the whimsical changes of fashion. She might have stepped out of any period of history, and the impression remained that she could have stepped back into any period and fitted in—and still remained herself. Her hidden eyes mocked him as she poised like a bird arrested in flight and ready to dart off again at the instant. There was a wild grace about her in the lift of her head, the tilt of her chin.

He stepped closer and shook his head. “I'll give it up. Who are you?”

She dropped a low curtsy. “I am Elaine!”

The man's head went back and something tingled through his memory. “Elaine!” he murmured. “Elaine the Fair … Elaine the Lovable … Elaine the Lily Maid of Astolat.”

  ― 151 ―

“Splendid! You're the first man to recognize me to-night. And you, Sir Knight. … Who are you?”

With a strange tingling in his blood, Bill bowed before her. “My name is Lancelot!”

“Sir Lancelot. … Well met! Now I must go. Farewell!” And she moved up the broad stairs with a parting smile.


She paused, looking inquiringly down at the incongruous figure on the bottom step.

“May I have the next dance?”

She hesitated. “I have a vague remembrance of booking some dances ahead but I'm not certain which. If you care to risk it. …”

Bill would have risked anything for that smile. He ripped the winkers off the horse with a joyous parting oration. “Go home, Asparagus! And when they put you in the garbage-cart to-morrow, tell them that to-night you were up to the hocks in history!”

He bounded up the steps and joined the girl in white. Masked pierrots, cowboys, swagmen, and geisha turned to scrutinize the pair as they passed. Bill unlimbered his shield and helmet. “If my memory is right, your job is to look after my shield. Didn't you sit up in a tower with it or something?”

“Not quite!” She smiled disconcertingly. “There were two Elaines! If I were you I'd put it in the cloak-room.”

  ― 152 ―

Chapter XVI

THE orchestra lowered their instruments and mopped their brows, the pianist flung a handful of minor chords at the lingering couples, and deserted the platform. Bill drew his partner into the main exodus toward the door. It was the end of their second dance and they found themselves jammed in a motley, hilarious crowd of bushrangers, sailors, pierrettes, and cowboys whose costumes were beginning to drift toward a common note as a result of the warm night. On the whole, the women were better off. The feminine idea of fancy-costume expressed itself in two distinct ways. One was a tendency to wear as little as possible or something diaphanous at the most, while the balance favoured male attire. It was rather curious, this hankering to parade in riding-breeches, jodhpurs, white flannels or shorts, while there was no compensating desire among the men to wear skirts.

Elaine threw her escort a questioning glance. “Where to?”

“Let's go outside for a bit of fresh air.”

The girl hesitated. “Look here, I haven't been with my party for ages.”

“Don't go yet,” he pleaded. “We haven't had a chance to discuss all the things that have happened since we met … how many centuries ago?”

  ― 153 ―

She laughed softly. “All right, Lancelot. But I'll have to make my peace with the party. Go ahead and I'll meet you in a couple of minutes.”

“On the spot marked X?”


Bill lit a cigarette and waited impatiently on the lowest step. Every car in sight housed red points of light from cigarettes and low voices that sometimes broke into quick laughter. There was no sign of the car he had tilted at. The memory of that moment when the hood flew up in the air over the heads of the occupants drew a chuckle from him and he wondered lightly who owned the car and what had happened to him. What a lucky coincidence it had been to give him the opportunity to meet Elaine. She danced like a fairy—light as thistledown, yet warm and vibrant in his arms. He inhaled a long, deep breath and smiled up at the inky velvet spaces between the stars. The situation was perfect—the prospects alluring.

But who could she be! He had met or knew by sight most of the girls in the district, and although the town was crowded for the race-meeting with people from a radius of a hundred miles, he was sure that this girl was a newcomer or a complete stranger.

She came tripping down the steps toward him. “Well, Lancelot. … What now?”

“A comfortable seat—if we can find an empty car.”

“Lead on! I hope you have no ideas of driving off with me like my last partner. The supply of rescuing knights must be running low.”

As they drew blank at car after car, Bill turned to her with a rueful expression. “If we don't find an

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empty car soon we may have to fall back on Lizzie—even if I've got to turn someone out. I hope you don't mind the long walk.”

“Carry on! I like this pavement. These holes and gullies in it are delightful, but my slippers ought to last as far as the corner.”

“It's just across the road.” They had been unsuccessful at every car, and the glowing ends of cigarettes showed even among the cars parked in the shadow of the hotel. Bill halted in front of a battered old Ford. “Here she is! Lizzie, this is Elaine! Elaine the Fair … Elaine the Lovable … Ow!”

“Shut up, you idiot! Are you trying to introduce me to the whole town!”

Bill rubbed the arm she had pinched then jerked open the door and dusted the seat with a handkerchief. “Will you come into my parlour …”

“If this dress gets covered with oil and grease, I'll send you the bill!”

“Right! Wait till I collect after the races, to-morrow. Cigarette?”


Bill studied her features closely in the light of the match but the black domino still masked her with maddening efficiency. Their fingers touched as she bent over the match, lighting up with practised skill. Then in turn she eyed the man as the glow of the match from his cupped hands illumined his features. The damaged side of Bill's face was toward her and she puzzled at the totally new impression she got from the crooked profile and the almost sneering twist of the lips.

He turned and studied her, leaning back in the

  ― 155 ―
shadows. “Elaine, who are you? What is your real name?”

He could sense her smile in the darkness. “What's wrong with Elaine? Don't you like it?”

“I do,” he replied simply. “For several reasons.”

“Now don't tell me your name isn't really Lancelot!”

“I won't, because I have as much right to Lancelot as you have to Elaine. But look here, this mask's the hottest thing I know. Let's take them off!”

She laughed tantalizingly. “Awfully curious, aren't you. It isn't midnight yet.”

“I mean it!”

“Well, on one condition—that we remain Lancelot and Elaine to one another … now and always. It will be ever so much more interesting to be just ourselves … without labels to identify us with the rest of the world. We will exist solely on our merits—or lack of them. We will not be judged by the friends we keep. No one will know whether our parents are rich or poor … or who they are … or whether we have any. Lancelot and Elaine … is it a bargain?”

Bill's hand stretched eagerly toward her. “It is!” He gripped the soft, warm hand and held it firmly, his blood tingling, then leaned toward her, fumbling at his mask with the other hand. “Ready?”

“Let's be dramatic about it. One … two … three. … Off!”

He peered eagerly into the dim corner where she leaned. Her domino was off. It lay like a black stain against her white frock but her face remained hidden in the shadows.

“Elaine!” His hands reached out, drawing her

  ― 156 ―
gently toward him. She came, scarcely resisting, her head tilted slightly away, and still baffling him. One hand slipped round a white clad shoulder, and his fingers touched the soft velvet of her chin, and turned the face toward him with the enigmatic smile faintly curving the lips. Then his head lowered, his arms tightened, and his lips met the soft allure of hers, and he pressed them hungrily and held them. …

The girl struggled free and her resolute hands pushed him firmly away. Bill, his blood aflame, stared restlessly at her calmly patting her disordered hair.

“Lancelot, I would like a drink. Can I trust you to get me one?”

He broke the ensuing silence with a short laugh. “I wanted one badly myself a while ago. Now … I'd rather bust my reputation and turn it down. However … what will you have? Whisky or ginger ale?”

“Both, please,” she announced with cool promptitude. “And remember … I'm trusting you.”

He returned in a few minutes with two amber-filled glasses and a bottle tucked under one arm. “Take your choice,” he invited, “and if you don't trust me, I'll drink both.”

“No, you won't!” She took a glass and held it toward him with a gay smile. “Here's to us!”

He clinked his glass against hers. “Lancelot and Elaine!” he toasted, and searched her elusive eyes over the top of it, but the dim shadows were on her side and baffled him completely.

“What are you going to do with the bottle?”

“Well, to tell the truth, I promised to take it to my cook this afternoon to keep him from coming to town

  ― 157 ―
and getting drunk. He is camped down the river with the plant, and when I forgot to take it this afternoon, I told him I would be back with it later. So he'll get it after the ball is over—if he's lucky.”

“The poor chap! It would serve you right if he came to town and got drunk.”

Bill frowned. “I hope he doesn't … not till after the races, anyhow.” He glanced at the girl. “Will you be at the meeting to-morrow?”

“That's chiefly why we are in Longreach.”

“Like to make some money?”

She leaned eagerly forward. “Lancelot, if you can put me on to a sure thing, I'm your friend for life! Is the delivery of this bottle of whisky connected with it?”

“Quite a lot.”

“Then off you go!” She pushed the door open but Bill's hand stretched out and closed it again.

“I wouldn't miss to-night for all the cooks and race meetings in the world!”

She studied him in silence as though she were debating some knotty problem, then she asked slowly. “Will it take long to get to this camp and back again?”

“No, Lizzie will get there and back in no time.”

She eyed him steadily. “Lancelot, you know I object to going for lonely car rides with strange men. …”

“Do you mean … you'll come?”

“If you'll promise to bring me safely back as soon as possible.”

“It's a bargain! Come on, Lizzie!”

He swung the starting-handle violently, and Lizzie responded with a roar that shattered the romantic effect of moonlight and soft music for every couple in the

  ― 158 ―
neighbourhood. Bill scrambled in behind the wheel and fumbled with the controls till he discovered the throttle, then he revved up the engine, let in the clutch, and Lizzie shot forward with a spasmodic bound.

Elaine gasped, clutched at the side for support as they progressed in a series of leaps and bounds, swung sharply round a corner, then gathered speed down the empty main street.

Bill grinned cheerfully. “Bit of the kangaroo about her for a start. She'll be all right!”

“I hope so!” Elaine threw a quick glance to right and left. They were passing the last scattered houses of the town. The squalid row of Japtown showed a furtive light and disappeared, then the Ford bounced high in the air. The girl braced her feet on the floor and took a firm grip with both hands. “Was that a culvert we went over?”

“We didn't go over. Only one wheel missed it!” the driver replied airily. “We'll soon be out of these ruts.”

As they bowled along a smoother track, Elaine ventured a question. “What sort of camp is it we are going to?”


“Oh … are you a drover?”

A gate loomed in the headlights and the car pulled up with a jerk. “You don't belong to Queensland!”

“How do you know?” she parried.

“You have the down-south attitude to drovers. I have seen your New South drovers. Met an old chap plugging along a road in a sulky behind a couple of hundred sheep. He had half a dozen dogs and he was

  ― 159 ―
his own cook, horsetailer, boss, and men combined—didn't even have a spare horse, and the one in the sulky looked ready to lie down and die at the next gate.”

He darted a quick appraising glance at her. “Do you like horses?”

Her reply came quick and sincere. “I love them!”

“I'm sorry it isn't daylight or I would show you some of mine. How about coming down to-morrow?”

“I'll see … I'd like to, but we are only passing through and may go on at any moment. By the by, do we go through this gate or are we waiting till you say ‘Open, Sesame!”’

“Sorry!” he laughed, as he scrambled out and threw the gate open. Lizzie bounded through, grazing one post.

At the third gate the girl turned with a worried look. “How much farther on is the camp? The ball must be nearly over.”

“Not on your life! It goes on till daylight. But we're nearly there.” They continued along the rutted track for half a mile, then Lizzie's nose swung off through the long grass at undiminished speed. “Better hang on. It's a little bit bumpy here!”

“Bumpy … is right!” Elaine was hanging desperately on through a series of jolts and lurches and jars. “Hadn't you … better go slower … through this!”

“No, we'll be right. Camp's just ah. …” Bang! Crash!

Bill felt himself jerked hard over the steering-wheel as the Ford jarred to an abrupt stop. He gasped to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him, then looked quickly round. The girl lay forward in a

  ― 160 ―
crumpled white heap on the floor. He called her by name, stretched a hand toward her with fear in his heart.

She lay quite still. He jumped out, lifted the limp figure gently out of the cramped space and looked quickly, anxiously around. They were in a patch of stiff, rank grass, but the camp could not be far away. He took a bearing and started off through the scattered timber with the unconscious girl in his arms.

Just as a glimpse of the white tent-fly through the trees came to hearten him, the girl stirred slightly with a low moan. He strode on, calling breathlessly as the dull glow of the camp-fire showed up. “Tim! … Percy!”

There was no reply. He staggered to the tent-fly. The wagonette and harness were gone—so were Tim and Percy. The camp was deserted. He lowered the recovering girl gently. Her cheeks were pallid and her breath came in short, jerky gasps. Bill dragged his swag out and laid the girl on the blankets, making a pillow for her head, then hurried to find a water-bag.

When he returned, Elaine's eyes were open. He dropped on his knees beside her and held a pannikin of water to her lips. She sipped it slowly, never taking her searching eyes from his face, then she lay back on the pillow and signed to him to leave her. Bill withdrew reluctantly. He heaped wood on the fire and had a good look round. There were the tracks where the wagonette had been pulled out and the horses harnessed. The stores and swags were all stacked under the tent-fly.

Bill bethought himself of the whisky and hurried back to the Ford. First he kicked the tall grass away

  ― 161 ―
and examined the obstacle they had hit. It was a solid little gidgee stump concealed in the grass, and the force of the impact had bent the axle till the front tyres almost touched. His heart sank, not at the thought of the damage but at the realization that they were marooned, without car, without wagonette or conveyance of any kind. The smell of whisky pervaded the atmosphere and foretold the fate of the bottle before he looked inside the car. The bottle was in fragments but a little remained in the broken bottom part and he carried it carefully back to camp.

Elaine was sitting dazedly on the blankets. She regarded him with a vacant, puzzled expression. “What happened?”

“I'm sorry,” he answered contritely. “Lizzie's sitting back there with her arms wrapped round a gidgee stump.”

Her eyes were troubled. “Does that mean …?”

“It means that I'll have to find the horses and ride back to town for a car to take you in. The cook and horsetailer have cleared out with the wagonette, so that's the only way.”

She sat still, staring ahead with the leaping flames of the fire lighting the troubled features. “Don't go, Lancelot! … Don't leave me alone.”

He knelt beside her with worried eyes. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head slowly. “Just a bump on the head, and all the wind knocked out of me. I'll be all right. … Just feel weak and sick now. … Let me rest a while, but don't leave me.”

“But your people. … They'll be worrying!”

  ― 162 ―

“I don't think so. … I'm travelling with friends. All the hotels were full, so we had to split up. I took a room at the Imperial, then some other people offered to put me up, so each will think I'm with the other.”

He studied her with a serious, worried expression, then he rose and rummaged about till he found some aspirin and he spilled some white tablets into her palm. Her expressionless eyes watched him as he gently removed her shoes and spread a blanket over her knees. She lowered herself slowly back to the pillow and he drew the blanket up to her shoulders, took the soft, passive hand that lay on the pillow, and held it tight in his warm palm while his contrite eyes looked down at the tired features. Then he softly released her hand, and with a husky “Good night, Kid,” rose to his feet and turned away.

The last thing in Elaine's consciousness before sleep claimed her was a picture of the man sitting motionless in front of the fire, gazing into its depths with the red glow on his twisted, Machiavellian features. They were quite alone, yet somehow no thought of fear occurred to her.

  ― 163 ―

Chapter XVII

ELAINE woke to a musical jangling of bells, mellowed by distance, and lay still and wide-eyed with apprehension at the strangeness of her surroundings. It was quite dark. Beyond the wide inverted V of the tent opening, the stars twinkled with a clear, hard brilliance above the low, red flicker of the fire. Then remembrance came to her. … The smash … then an indelible picture of a man sitting staring motionless into a fire whose fitful flames lit a shadowy background of traceried branches.

How long had she slept? She stared into the dim vault of the tent above her in a sudden access of panic, then stilled it as the horses closed on the camp in a trampling, jangling mob of huge, shadowy forms circling the outer radius of the firelight with suspicious snorts before trooping on. And close behind them came a shadowy horseman cautiously urging a spirited horse between the fire and the tent to peer at her as she lay feigning sleep before he moved the horse on—almost on tiptoe, it seemed—in the wake of the others.

She sat up, stiff and aching in every bone, and throwing back the blanket, frowned down at her creased and crumpled frock. The effect was even worse when she rose to her feet. She found her shoes set on top of

  ― 164 ―
a neat pile of clothing in front of a hurricane-lamp, its low turned flame shielded by a box. She examined them with hesitant curiosity—a new, white silk shirt and a pair of white moleskin trousers with a soft satiny surface and the shop-ticket still attached. Were they intended for her? She measured the trousers against her—a shade long in the leg perhaps—then she listened intently. A single horse-bell tinkled and with it a sound of splashing water from the distant water-hole. Without further hesitation she slipped out of the white frock and let it flutter to the ground.

When the horses were rounded up again beyond the fire, she was sitting quietly and unobtrusively on the blankets, brushing her hair as best she could with the short-bristled, military hairbrush, and reflecting appreciatively on the thoughtfulness of her host.

The horse and rider appeared so quietly from the shadows that her quick start almost betrayed her presence, but the man never even glanced her way. He slipped noiselessly to the ground, the horse standing where he dropped the reins, then he reappeared beyond the fire holding up another bridle. At his low whistle, a horse detached itself from the others, came to him with long raking strides and allowed the bridle to slip over its shapely ears. Then it nuzzled at the man, took something from his hand and chewed contentedly. Other horses lounged up, pressing round the man with soft, questing, intimate noises. He looped the reins of the two bridled mounts to a bough, and walked out of the circle of light with half a dozen horses at his heels.

The girl wrinkled her brows thoughtfully with a feeling of impending adjustment to some of her ideas. This

  ― 165 ―
was something totally new to her in the handling of horses.

When the man returned, the first thing he noticed was a slim, boyish figure in white shirt and moleskins standing at the fire. She greeted him with a friendly smile. “Hallo, Lancelot! Any idea of the time?”

“It will be daylight in half an hour or so—but how do you feel?” His tone was anxious and he scrutinized her with keen, serious eyes.

“Quite all right, thanks! But do you mean that I've slept practically all night?”

“Most of it, anyhow. Do the clothes fit?”

“Fairly well—but a belt would be useful. Are they yours?”

He shook his head. “They belong to young Percy—the horsetailer. Good job he didn't take the parcel with him. I'll boil the billy, then if you feel up to it we'll make for town. Have you done much riding?”

She smiled demurely at his worried tone. “Just a bit. I'll try not to fall off.”

He shifted uneasily on his feet. “I've given you the quietest horse I've got, but he's fairly lively—no vice about him—but he's a stock-horse and not exactly a ladies' hack.”

“It's all right, Lancelot. I've lived most of my life in the country—believe it or not—and I won't disgrace you.”

They emerged from the scattered timber and hit the rutted track to town, riding side by side in the cool, crisp air. It was the last hour of night when all the faint, elusive bush perfumes steal out to haunt the air

  ― 166 ―
with their lingering fragrance before the scorching rays of the sun dessicate the atmosphere again. The world was a dim, mysterious place for flitting shadows and things that materialized threateningly out of the darkness and passed harmlessly by. The night sky was an all-enveloping mantle of deep fathomless indigo out of which the molten stars leaned low and intimate. Vision was limited even after the effects of the firelight had worn off; objects were sensed rather than seen, and the only thing to do was to surrender all trust to the more acute senses of the horses.

The man leaned from the saddle to open a gate. “This is another thing you can't do from a car!”

“True! And horses are not so liable to run into stumps.”

“Depends on the driver,” he flashed back with a grin. Their spirits were rising again and although Elaine shivered occasionally as the chill that precedes the dawning struck through the thin silk shirt her blood pulsed strongly with the elation of the moment. She longed for daylight to verify her impressions of the horse she rode. There was no need to urge it along. It strode forward with a long, raking stride, and when they broke into a canter as the false dawn paled the eastern stars, the easy, effortless swing with its hint of unlimited power and flexibility, responding to the merest touch of the reins or sway of the body, roused a glad, happy feeling within her. It gave her a flattering sense of superiority—of being monarch of all she surveyed—which at the moment was limited to a faint glimpse of the track beyond the horse's ears.

  ― 167 ―

The light spread higher in the east, putting the stars out one by one. In the grey light, objects took shape and form—trees and low, scraggy bushes bordering the track, a little mob of sheep huddled together at their approach like pale woolly ghosts and then poured away toward the dim smudge of the creek timber. Then the hidden sun launched a bright javelin across the heavens and followed it with a radiating shower of golden arrows. Cautiously his yellow rim lipped the horizon where it seemed to linger a moment to contemplate the territory abandoned by the fleeing rear-guard of night—and suddenly it was day.

“Have we far to go, Lancelot?”

“Not far, but we'll hit the pace up a bit.”

The track straggled ahead like a white haphazard ribbon, and they cantered along at a faster pace.

“I like your horses, Lancelot!”

He smiled his thanks at the greatest compliment she could have paid him and took advantage of the first daylight view of her to steal a glance at her eyes. Were they brown … or grey? More like grey, but the dark, curling lashes shielded them too well for certainty.

“Lancelot, is this horse faster than yours?”

“Do you want to fall off and break your neck?”

She swung indignantly on him. “Do you think I can't ride!”

“I know you can, but you don't know that horse. You'd only have to move a fraction in the saddle at a gallop and he'd duck from under you and leave you sitting on the track.”

“Re-ally, how interesting!” In the heat of the argument

  ― 168 ―
the pace had unconsciously increased to a fast canter. The faintly-smiling, sardonic features roused the girl to sudden rebellion. She pulled a face at him, an imp of perversity lurking in her defiant eyes. “Well, try and catch me!”

She leaned forward and the horse shot ahead like a suddenly released spring. The girl gasped and clung tightly with her knees. She shortened the reins and leaned out on the horse's neck with strands of the mane whipping her face. She was ablaze with exultation at the glorious sensation of pace, the smooth, effortless running of the horse beneath her and the white track slipping under the drumming hoofs like a rapidly-drawn carpet.

Suddenly she became aware of an outstretched head and a shiny ring bit creeping up level with her saddle. She threw a defiant side glance at the man sitting slightly forward on the bay horse, his hands low on its neck and a grim smile on the tight line of his lips. The girl crouched down, urging the horse on with her hands, her knees, her whole spirit calling for more speed. The wind whipped the tears from the corners of her eyes; she felt as though a continuous line of tear-drops were streaming back in her wake.

Bill's glance was tinged with admiration. She was riding the big horse all out, leaning forward on him like the graceful figure-head of a ship, with her short auburn hair whipping out behind her head. He looked ahead, then sitting down on the mount, tightened his knees and in a single bound the horses were racing neck and neck. Elaine's features were set with grim

  ― 169 ―
determination, her teeth gleaming between the tight-drawn lips. From the corner of an eye she glimpsed the man's mocking smile, then the bay horse drew steadily away from her in spite of her efforts. A length ahead … two lengths … and she had to lower her head under the biting rain of grit and pebbles from its heels. A shout from the man in front and he reined back with one hand upraised. “Gully ahead!”

She saw the thin straggle of trees rushing toward her and sat up straight in the saddle, easing the excited, reefing mare, but looked straight ahead till they crossed the dry creek-bed, and the untidy hovels of Japtown threw long shadows across the road. Then she turned with a pose of meekness that contrasted strangely with her dancing eyes, and held a hand toward the man. “I'm sorry, Lancelot. But, oh, it was gorgeous!”

He ranged alongside and gripped her hand tightly, masking his feelings behind a twisted smile but failing to quench the gleam in his eyes. Then, reluctantly, he released her hand and they rode on without a word.

The wide streets were empty. A few early risers were stirring on verandas or sweeping out doorways. They drew rein in front of the hotel and Elaine slipped to the ground. “Cheerio, Lancelot … and thanks!”

He looked down with a quiet, anxious expression. “You'll be at the races this afternoon?”

“Yes. Oh, what about that certainty?”

“I can't tell you till just before the race. I'll look out for you in front of the tote at the end of every race. Right?”

She nodded brightly, then with a final wave of her hand, disappeared through the doorway.

  ― 170 ―

Mac rubbed his eyes sleepily, and took stock of Bill disrobing against a background of long sunrays slanting across the veranda. “What was the dance like?” he inquired lazily.

“Not bad!”

“Have a good night?”

“Oh … fair.”

Mac stared at his partner. This preoccupied air was totally new within Mac's experience of him. “What was the girl like?”

Bill dropped on the edge of his bed and fixed gleaming, almost fanatical eyes on the man in pyjamas. “Mac, she's the finest thing I ever struck! She's great! A thoroughbred! She makes the rest of them look like boundary-riders' hacks. And she can ride! Man, you should have seen her sitting down on Comet, going like the hammers of hell!”

Mac dug his elbow into the pillow and stared in amazement. “I say, where did you spend the night?”

Bill halted his enthusiastic paean. “Oh, down at the camp. We took the Cokernut's whisky down, and just as we got there, Lizzie hung her front axle round a stump. Tim and Percy had cleared out—not a soul in camp—so we rode back this morning.”

Mac's face was devoid of expression but his tone was deliberate. “Then I suppose she accepted your offer?”

“What offer?” Bill stared nonplussed.

“You left here last night threatening to ask the first girl you met to marry you—and to tell her all your sticky past.”

  ― 171 ―

Bill looked blank. “Hell! I forgot! But I'll ask her next time I see her.”

“And tell her all about yourself?” Mac's voice had a sarcastic edge.

Bill hesitated and his eyes were troubled. “I suppose so,” he replied slowly. Then he picked up a towel and made for the shower, in pensive mood.

  ― 172 ―

Chapter XVIII

THE sun beat brazenly down on the crowd besieging the tote and the bookmakers, and swarming like ants round the stand. The continuous hum of a thousand voices rose and fell, but was never silent, and through it obtruded the hoarse barking of the layers of odds.

The horses had gone to the post for the second race, caps and colours mingling gaily down the course, when Elaine arrived. She was with a party—a fashionably-dressed woman with a decided, purposeful manner, a thin brunette with a roving, sophisticated eye, and two men—both young. One was patently a city youth, slim and elegant, with an incipient moustache spaced between a long nose and a receding chin; the other was heavily built and sun-tanned, with the forceful characteristics of the elder woman that suggested blood relationship.

Elaine, looking fresh and cool in white silk with a touch of jade at the waist and neck and a shady green hat, chatted with them for what appeared an interminable time to the impatient Bill. As they moved into the stand the starting bell rang, and in the confusion and rush for vantage points, the party separated. The tote was deserted except for one lone figure with a keen, appreciative smile for the girl in white moving in his direction.

  ― 173 ―

“Hallo, Lancelot! How many races have I missed?”

“This is only the second. I lost on the first and this looks like …” He broke off to peer at the horses battling out the finish to a roar of mingled encouragement and despair. “Fourth again! I hope our luck changes from now on.”

“So do I. I'm relying on you to restore the family fortunes. Which race do we concentrate on?”

“The fourth, but you can have a mild bet on the next if you like.” He pencilled a mark in her race-book.

“Mr R. West's Georgina B. What do you know about Georgina? Is she to be trusted?”

“No more than any other female, but her owner is fairly reliable. We'll go down to the rails and see what he thinks of his chances.”

They found a place near the saddling-paddock gate and Elaine's attention oscillated from her race-book to the parading horses and their numbered saddle-cloths till she identified Georgina B. She glanced critically over the brown mare fidgeting and champing at the bit, then moved close to the man leaning his elbows on the fence. “Honestly, Lancelot, I'm not impressed with your choice. In fact, I would like to bet she couldn't have caught me this morning!”

Her companion's drooping eyelids quivered. “You would lose that bet!”

“How do you know?”

“Well, she's been tried out against both of them.”

“Oh.” Elaine subsided into silence. The horses started to file on to the course. She watched the brown mare sidling toward the gate with the sun glinting on her arched neck, then her eyes focused on the rider. He

  ― 174 ―
sat easily on the reefing, anxious mare, his sharp eyes idly scanning the crowd along the rails. As he came close to them, his roving glance rested a moment on the man at her side and she would have sworn to a flicker in the dark eyes—nothing more. Then he looked at Elaine and sat up quickly in the saddle. He seemed to battle for a second with a desire to exchange a further glance with her escort but discretion carried him on to the course, apparently inspecting the tips of the brown mare's ears.

They moved back to the betting-ring and she waited amusedly while Lancelot selected a stout, red-faced bookmaker with a raucous voice. “What price Georgina B?”

“Evens to you!”

He looked his disgust at the man on the box. “If I ever hear you offering decent odds on any race, I'll have a decent bet.”

The red-faced one laughed hoarsely. “How much d'you want?”

“Fiver this time … Georgina B.”

The bookmaker scribbled something unintelligible on a ticket and as he thrust it at Bill, his other hand went up to the side of his mouth, megaphone fashion, and the odds blared out over their heads. Elaine bought a tote ticket on number 5, then they moved to a spot where they could see the finish. They tacitly avoided the stand.

Elaine peered forward as the field got off to a good start. It was impossible to distinguish any particular horse as they raced with what seemed to her maddening slowness round the back of the track. They were coming

  ― 175 ―
round toward the turn, a chestnut in front, the rest of the field bunched behind. At the turn, the chestnut swung out from the rails and a dark head showed behind him, creeping steadily up till they were abreast. A bay raced up on the outside challenging the pair of them, then almost on the post it seemed to the excited girl, the brown nose just poked out in front and she clutched joyfully at the arm of the man near. “We've won! We've won!”

Bill grinned happily. “Dick nearly left it too late. Are you going to collect now?”

“I really ought to join my party.”

“Wait till after the next race!”

“Is that our race?”

He nodded with a hint of mystery under the drooping eyelid.

“Are you going to put on a lot?”

“All I can beg, borrow, or get credit for!”

Her eyes opened wide. “Do you think I might risk five pounds?”

“Wait till you've seen the horse! You'll probably refuse to back it at all, but I think your fiver will be safe. At the worst, it will only go with mine to buy diamond rings for the poor starving bookmakers' wives.”

As the minutes passed in inaction, Elaine worked herself into a fever of impatience and she fretted visibly at her companion's apparent lethargy. Not even when the horses had left the saddling-paddock and were filing past the stand for the preliminary canter did he indicate the horse he intended to back. Instead, he invited her to pick any three she fancied. Elaine watched them

  ― 176 ―
carefully and nominated a big chestnut, a bay horse and a brown mare—a slim, satin-skinned animal.

“Which one is ours?” she demanded.

He grinned tantalizingly. “Neither! Which horse do you think will run last?”

Elaine bit her lip with annoyance. Time was fleeing; the horses were on their way to the post, and they still had to get their bets on. She pointed to the last rider moving sedately in the wake of the field. “That one … the little black horse with the hairy legs.” She glanced quickly at her book. “Here it is … Number 3 … Mr T. Brannigan's black filly, ‘Desolated Cokernut.’ What an awful name!”

“Come on and we'll see what odds they're offering.” He led the way to the ring, grinning cheerfully while Elaine stared at him in perplexity. She certainly did not feel inclined to risk five perfectly good notes on that rough-looking thing.

The bookmaker broke off his hoarse chant as they halted before him, and Bill queried calmly. “Any decent odds on this race? I'll give you a chance to get this fiver back.”

“Take yer pick! 2 to 1 bar one. … Evens Tripedes. … 'Ere y'are… Desperated Cokernut 5 to 1.”

“Is that the best you can do? Thirty pounds to five?”

Elaine was almost frantic. Her ears strained for the sound of the starting bell; all around her, the inferno of shouted odds rose to a crescendo, and here was Lancelot calmly arguing.

The bookmaker shook his head. “25 to 5 the Cokernut.”

  ― 177 ―

“You've got a tenner of mine. Can you take that?”

“Double it if you like!”

“Right! 100 to 20 … and a fiver for the lady! Cash!”

He handed over the notes and received the tickets. A momentary lull had fallen on the ring till a voice took up the chant on a new theme. “2 to 1 bar one … Dissipated Cokernut 2 to 1.”

In the silence that followed the announcement, came the sharp dong of the starting bell, and a chorus of anguished howls went up. Above the turmoil sounded one hoarse, desperate voice. “Even money Methylated Cokernut!”

Elaine dragged impatiently at her partner's arm “Quick! They're off!” The field was bunched together on the far side of the course, and they strained their eyes to pick the black filly and her pink-sleeved rider.

“Why on earth were you so long in betting?” Elaine demanded indignantly, her eyes on the field.

The man at her side chuckled hugely. “Even if we don't win the race we've tricked the books!”

“What do you mean? Oh, look at that chestnut coming up! Oh, go back! Where's our horse?”

“I had to place the money with all the books at the same time to get the odds.”

“What do you mean? Did you bet more than twenty pounds?”

“I had people backing the filly with every bookmaker who would take it. Didn't you hear the odds jump from 5 to 1 to evens?”

Elaine gasped. The fate of her five pounds faded to

  ― 178 ―
insignificance. “O-oh look at that chestnut! He's getting far too far in front!” Although she was shivering with excitement another question clamoured for an answer. “But why couldn't you all have done your betting earlier?”

The man was leaning forward, an eager glint in his eyes, his lips drawn tight across the set teeth, and he answered her almost unconsciously without removing his eyes from the field. “We had to get the jockeys out of the way first … in case of dirty work. They don't know yet that the filly is equal favourite. Look at her coming up! Go on, you little beauty!” He started suddenly and ripped off his hat. “Hell! Get back there! Get out, you mongrel!” The crowd had risen in a body, yelling fierce oaths and brandishing impotent fists at a dog that had darted out at the horses. The rails were in pandemonium. The dog hurtled on like an arrow straight at the horse in the lead … the black filly! Someone whistled shrilly. Every man on the course put his fingers to his teeth and the air quivered with the concerted blast. A roar of relief went up. “He's gone!” The dog had missed its mark, faltered a second at the thunder of hoofs, then cringing, went down among them.

The black filly was out in front, coming up the straight with a length to spare, and the crowd grew strangely silent. The chestnut made another run, crept up on the quarter of the filly and the crowd shrieked again. The whips were out, falling in desperate staccato strokes, but the filly maintained her lead, drew gradually away, and flashed past the post a length ahead of the field.

  ― 179 ―

For the last few yards Elaine felt that her heart had left her. It was out there with the black filly … urging it … goading it on. She was quite unconscious of the man at her side twisting a perfectly new hat between his hands into a shapeless thing. When the race was won they turned, laughing hysterically, and hugged one another till suddenly conscious of the stares of the people around. Then they dived hurriedly through the crowd, still hand in hand, and laughing joyously.

They pulled up in a quiet corner to repair the external damage wrought in the excitement. Elaine felt weak with the reaction and clung to Bill's sleeve. At last she faced him with a tinge of regret in her eyes. “Lancelot, it has been a perfectly gorgeous day, but I'll have to go back to my party or they'll report me to the police as lost. By the by, when will I return Percy's clothes? No. No. Stop,” she interrupted him. “No names … no addresses. Remember our bargain! Anyhow, who is Percy?”

“He was on the black filly!”

“Heavens!” She stared at the smiling enigmatic features with a question burning its way to her lips. “And T. Brannigan? … Was it his whisky we carried last night?”

“He's my cook … alias the Desolated Cokernut!”

“One more question, Lancelot. Who is the real owner of the black filly?”

He looked at her with a modest grin. “A fellow about my size!”

She contemplated him seriously for a little while, then said slowly, “I'm afraid I'll have to revise my opinion

  ― 180 ―
of drovers!” She held out her hand. “Well, good-bye, Lancelot!”

He took the hand and stared at her with a puzzled frown. “You're not going yet …?”

She nodded. “We're going on to-morrow.”

“What are you doing to-night?”

“Someone's giving us a party. I forget their name.”

“Must you go?”

She nodded firmly but her eyes were kind. “I'll leave Percy's things at the hotel office addressed to … let me see … to ‘Mr Lance.’ ”

He acquiesced abstractedly. All the exhilaration and intoxication of the day seemed to have suddenly ebbed, leaving him painfully sober. “When are you leaving, Elaine?”

“Sometime to-morrow.”

“If I bring the horses round, will you come for a ride before breakfast?”

She hesitated, her eyes gleaming as she considered the invitation, then she turned quickly. “Right oh, Lancelot! But not too early. Say about nine! Cheerio!” She raised a slim gloved hand in farewell, then disappeared in the crowd.

  ― 181 ―

Chapter XIX

BILL rose early after a night of roseate dreams through which danced a slim, laughing damsel with auburn hair nestling close round her head, and grey eyes that smiled tantalizingly from under long dark eyelashes. It was a beautiful morning, and he hummed light-heartedly as he groomed the two horses and saddled them with extra care.

He rode round to Elaine's hotel at about quarter to nine, lit a cigarette, and tried to curb his impatience. After the third cigarette he led the horses across to the opposite side of the street in full view of the upper veranda, and waited there. At half-past nine he mounted and rode to the corner and back several times with a growing consciousness of the number of curious glances directed at him.

At ten o'clock he could wait no longer. He thrust his way into the bar and beckoned the barman to one side. “Mick, do you know if there's a visitor upstairs … girl of about twenty-five … short, dark red hair …” He hesitated there; no use telling him the colour of her eyes or describing the delicious, sensitive curl of her short upper lip.

The barman scratched his head. “There's about

  ― 182 ―
twinty red-haired wimmen stoppin' here, but wait an' I'll ask at the office.”

Bill read from his expression as he returned that he had drawn a blank. He was at a loss to know what to do. He couldn't tramp through the hotel calling “Elaine,” or investigating every room. What could have kept her!

Another thought presented itself. He turned cold at the idea but it had to be faced. He presented himself at the office. “Is there a parcel here for Mr Lance?”

The girl dived an arm under the table and pushed a paper parcel at him. “From Mrs Barlow … that right?”

“Mrs Barlow …?” he echoed faintly. “What does she look like?”

“I only saw her when she paid her bill this morning. Young woman … short auburn hair … nice teeth … dressed in a. …”

“Thanks … that would be right.” He turned the parcel over and found an envelope pinned to it. He ripped it open and scanned the few lines penned in a large bold hand.


We are leaving early in the morning so I'll probably miss you. It has been a gorgeous time.



He stuffed the letter clumsily into his pocket, looked dully about at the people hurrying to and fro, preparatory to returning to their homes, and at the loungers in the doorway. There was a dull ache inside him. “Mrs

  ― 183 ―
Barlow …!” So that was why she insisted on remaining Elaine!

His lips tightened savagely. Well, he wasn't going to make a fool of himself because a girl had had a bit of fun at his expense. Not on your life! There were lots of other girls in the world that he could soon square the account with. No more of this sentimental stuff for him.

He strode roughly through the loungers, slipped into the saddle, and went up the street at a brisk canter. He would start out immediately and pick up that mob of cattle. A bit of work would do him good.

To hell with all women, anyhow!