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  ― 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?”

“Yes!”

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.

“Mac!”

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.

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