― 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

  ― 92 ―
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?”