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Book I

The Coming of Lancelot

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Chapter I

THEY rode into the westering sun along the dusty, rutted track that stretched toward the hazy line of the river timber. The last straggling shanty of the town fell behind, and with the clear road before it, the packhorse jingled freely ahead with the stiff new swag strapped across the bulging pack-bags. In its wake rode the drover, middle-aged and stocky, with the unimaginative, stolid features of the steady toiler for whom the gilded dreams and hopes of fortune do not exist. He sat squat on the thickset, black horse with the loose reins swinging at every stride, his worn clothes bleached by the sun and many washings to a faded neutral tint.

At his side jogged the boy, fresh-faced and slim, in his brand-new rig-out—khaki shirt and moleskins, supple elastic-side boots, and wide-brimmed felt hat—struggling hard to curb the exuberance that bubbled up in him. Yesterday life was a drab, depressing thing; just another day of fruitless waiting and hanging about the dusty, untidy, alien town with the hope of ever finding a job receding farther and farther. To-day, life held a glamour that needed no artificial stimulus. He had crossed the threshold, and despondency had vanished like mist before the sun—the past with its

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memories a discarded thing, locked away with the formal clothes of yesterday in the trunk at the hotel now well behind them.

The exhilaration of the moment was something to be enjoyed without pausing to analyse it. It was a vague, subtle compound of the complete novelty of everything—the stiff new clothes with the store smell still hanging on them, the comfortable feel of the big stock-saddle with the added hint of safety from the wide triangular knee-pads, the free swinging gait of the bay horse under him, and the quiet drover with long stockwhip hanging from his forearm riding at his side, talking to him not as a boy and a newchum but as an equal—and calling him Bill!

The name was still new enough to demand a pause before he fully realised it was his and responded to it. New scenery combined with new unaccustomed clothes, the feeling of self-consciousness that invests a boy's entering on his first job, the sense of superiority of a pedestrian elevated to the saddle—all these may herald the beginning of a new epoch in one's life, but none shuts a door so effectively on the past as the adoption of a new name.

It had been MacAndrew's suggestion. When his shrewd, casual questioning had satisfied him that although the boy was totally inexperienced, he had in him the makings of something that the few remaining beer hums in town could never attain to, he had held out his hand. “Right you are then,” he said, “we'll pull out as soon as you're ready. My name's Tom MacAndrew. What did you say yours was?”


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“What else?”

The boy had hesitated. The reticence born of school years where he had almost come to forget that he ever possessed other than a surname till he went home for holidays was still upon him, and his reply was suspicious … grudging. “Lancelot Atherton Muir.”

Then MacAndrew's expressionless nod and his kindly “Suppose we call you ‘Bill.’ It's easier to remember,” had given a feeling of relief to both of them. The boy had sudden disturbing memories of the one person in that other life who had called him “Lance,” and MacAndrew was thinking to himself as his eyes glimmered idly at the nearing timber, “Lancelot—and ginger hair! I reckon ‘Bill’ will save him a few hidings.”

Clear of the town they broke into a long easy canter. The boy's lack of saddle experience was evident, and although the drover was slightly troubled in his mind about it, his expression betrayed none of his feelings. When a glance showed the unaccustomed moleskins creeping up to Bill's knees in concertina-like folds, MacAndrew eased the pace and taught him to stand in the stirrups and let them slip back.

The distant smudge of the river timber grew plainer, till they could distinguish the stout trunks of the coolabahs and the soaring branches with the long pendent boughs; then the little cavalcade clattered across the wooden bridge. Upstream, between steep earthen banks the river was a dry, dusty bed; below the bridge lay a solitary pool of yellow water edged with slimy, black, trampled mud holding the partly engulfed carcasses of a cow and several sheep. Across the bridge where the tracks spread out fanwise, MacAndrew headed the packhorse

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northward up the faint track that threaded the fringe of the coolabahs.

The sun was dropping low in the western sky when the drover pointed ahead. “There's the mob. Camp's just ahead.” The boy's eyes searched the timber but failed to discover anything. Then a fine haze above the tree-tops caught his attention and as they drew nearer it thickened till through the dust a gleam of moving white grew and took shape. The timber thinned to a few scattered trees and twisted shrubs, and then before them opened up the sheep. From the bare river channels out across the plain the mob were spread, a grey-white mass, a quarter of a mile wide, drifting steadily along.

As they approached, a boy on a rough-coated pony followed by a black kelpie materialized from the shade of a tree and jogged across to meet them. Bill, eyeing him with curiosity, saw a boy of about ten years, short and thickset, yet looking older than his years by reason of his clothes. They were unmistakably cutdowns and still several sizes too big, giving him the appearance of a little old man.

“Everything all right, Bob?”

The boy nodded, his eyes covertly taking in the brand-newness of the newcomer as he replied, “Had to leave a couple of old ewes on the dinner camp. They were settled!”

“Well, I'll go on with the packhorse. This is Bill Muir—my son Bob!” The two young people looked at one another, Bob inclining his head in an awkward nod while Bill's stiff “How-do-you-do” was edged with

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a restraint that plainly signified “I'll meet you half-way but don't expect me to be effusive.”

MacAndrew watched the two youths sizing up one another, and chuckled silently, then as he prepared to follow the packhorse forging calmly through the sheep, he broke in on their invisible sparring. “Like to come on to the camp, Bill, or would you rather stop with the sheep? We'll be putting them in the break pretty soon.”

“I'll stay and help with the sheep if you like.”

“Right! Bob, take him over to Dinny.”

Bill turned the bay horse in the wake of the shaggy pony on whose ribs the diminutive rider's heels beat an ineffective tattoo. The black dog poked out in front and little groups of sheep standing heads together in huddled knots broke up at his approach and ambled after the main mob with the outstretched necks and stiff, jerky gait of near exhaustion. The dust lay thick on the narrow ridged backs and their flanks were concave hollows under the sharp caves of their loins. The earth seemed devoid of grass. Here and there a stubby blackened tuft remained to show where a clump of grass had been, but everywhere—across the plain and among the broken gullies converging on the channels—there was no hint that this had ever been other than a dusty, sterile waste.

Bill was experiencing a vague feeling of annoyance. The boy pushing on ahead, rounding up the stragglers with a sharp “Hoy!” or an encouraging whistle to the dog, appeared totally oblivious to his presence. As they reached the flank of the mob, he jerked the pony to an abrupt halt and Bill's horse ranged alongside, stopping

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from apparent force of habit without consulting the rider. Bill forgot his annoyance in his inspection of the horseman riding to meet them. He looked at the man, then at the horse; something in its carriage, in its action as it picked its way across the broken ground held his eye till it halted in front of him, stretching out a shapely nose to exchange greetings with the bay horse he rode.

“Dad's back, Dinny. This is Bill, the new bloke!”

Bill met the casual scrutiny and the quiet “Good day” with a reserved nod. The man was somewhere in the region of forty. His eyes were hidden under the hat brim and a straggling moustache and a week's stubble effectually disguised his features. He sat easily in the saddle and the long black plaited thong of a stockwhip hung looped from his forearm.

“Got a dog?”

“No … I'm afraid I haven't.”

The three sat in silence for a while, Bill fidgeting uneasily while the two, gazing out over the sheep, had every appearance of being naturally at ease. Gradually the sense of being slighted dissolved in the gathering consciousness that the man and the boy had not merely accepted him, but had outdone his own dislike of effusiveness by refusing to show any curiosity or ply him with questions. Their silence was a natural sense of quietness that accrues to men whose solitary mode of life offers more opportunity for thought than speech; a shunning of idle conversation for the mere sake of hearing themselves talk, and an avoidance of futile questions when the newcomer carried his history all about him in his brand-new clothes, his stiff seat in the

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saddle, the way he held his reins and wore his hat. Even in the way he glanced restlessly, unseeingly about, compared with the slow, keen gaze of the bushman who draws his information and his inferences from the sun, the sky, the trees, the tracks, and to whom a glance at the brand on a horse or a bullock, or the condition of a mob of sheep tells a story and obviates a multitude of preliminary questions.

Dinny straightened leisurely in the saddle and glanced at the sun, low on the horizon. “We'll put 'em in, Bob!”

The boy tugged the unwilling head of his pony round, belaboured the staring ribs with his heels and jogged off, his black dog, interpreting the situation, loping ahead with new energy. Bill glanced interrogatively at the elder man. He was still undecided how much of the taciturnity was natural or due to the occasion.

“Been on the road before?”

“You mean droving? No. This is my first trip.” He paused, then with a sudden burst of frankness, “As a matter of fact, I know nothing at all about this, but …if you will tell me what's to be done, I'll—I'll be very grateful.”

Dinny nodded with apparent satisfaction. “There's nothing much to learn. Not with sheep, anyhow! If it was cattle.…” The glance that swept the woolly mob held a trace of contempt that changed to a meditative wistfulness. Then he roused, and without appearing to move in the saddle, swung the bay horse toward the rear of the mob. “Just dodge the tail along. Don't hustle them or they'll lie down on you! Camp's straight ahead.”

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Against an arm of timber in front of the mob, the white rectangle of a tent-fly caught the low rays of the sun. Dinny left him to ride up the wing to turn the scattering leaders in, and Bill forced his horse at the laggards, getting a mild thrill at their short, jerky rushes from almost under the horse's feet. The mob closed together and assumed a solid tractable form with young Bob and his dog on the left wing, Dinny steering the leaders on to the camp from the right, while Bill rode back and forward across the tail, keeping the listless, weakened sheep up to their mates. The dust rose thick and choking. Bill shouted at the laggards till his voice grew husky and his throat was dry and dusty.

A fence materialized ahead, deflecting the leaders toward the gap in the break, and a chorus of baa-ing mingled with the dust-laden air. Bill, closing up with young Bob, gradually made out the semicircle of wooden stakes supporting a light rope fence running out from the wire fence and enclosing the mob. When the last weak and weary members had hobbled inside, MacAndrew appeared with a heavy maul; more pegs were driven into the ground across the gap and a further section of the rope fence closed the mob in for the night.

Bill led his horse toward the camp in Dinny's footsteps. In spite of his taciturnity, there was something about the man's quiet unhurried efficiency that prompted the boy's attachment. He felt instinctively that he would receive help and understanding and there would be no cheap derision at his mistakes.

They pulled off the heavy saddles and spread the

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sweat-sodden saddle-cloths over them against the drooping pole of the wagonette. “Here's your hobbles!” Something landed at Bill's feet with a heavy click and he looked up sharply at the owner of the harsh nasal tones—a long, slouching individual with thin features and a slit of a mouth. Bill picked up the hobbles—they looked like outsize handcuffs—and, following Dinny's example, fastened both straps round the one foreleg.

“Look out when you take the bridle off,” Dinny cautioned him. “That horse jumps away.” He slipped his own bridle over the bay horse's ears. It walked a few short paces, then went down on its knees with a grunt of enjoyment, flopped over and rolled luxuriantly in the dust. Bill undid the throat-lash and had just slipped his fingers under the bridle when with a quick twist the bay horse snatched his head out of the bridle; the bit caught in its teeth and the bridle was jerked out of the boy's hand while the bay's quarters swung menacingly round as it bounded forward. Bill jumped clear to find Dinny watching him closely. “I'll show you how to fix him next time,” he said. The thinfaced horsetailer mounted on the boss's horse, put the horses together and drove them into the dusk in a melodious clatter of bells and hobble-chains.

Swags were unrolled, and Bill, armed with soap and towel, joined young Mac and Dinny at their ablutions. As Bob stepped away from the battered tin basin, and groped for the towel stuck in his belt, Dinny stood back and beckoned Bill silently forward. The boy picked up the dish of dirty brown water with its scum of soapsuds when a hand descended on his arm. “Steady on, lad! This is a dry camp. We've all got to wash in

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that!” Dinny smiled grimly at the consternation on the boy's face and jerked a thumb toward the wagonette. “Them two drums is all we'll see till to-morrow dinner-time.”

Bill put down the basin and stared with unconcealed distaste at its thick, murky contents. Dinny quietly tipped a pint of fresh water from one of the drums and added it slowly to the dish. It looked as brown and discoloured as the original, and Bill, somewhat reassured, slowly immersed his fingers. He knew the dust lay thick on his face but he dreaded the touch of this pea-soupy fluid in which practically everyone in camp had already washed. At the moment he would have given anything for a bucket of clean, cold water. But the prospect had to be faced. He felt Dinny's keen, inscrutable eyes on him, and with a sudden flurry splashed the liquid on to his face, screwing up his eyes and holding his breath lest it reach beyond the superficial skin.

He stepped back and Dinny washed unhurriedly. “Saves soap when you come last,” he observed dryly. Young Mac reappeared and picked up the basin. Bill followed him wide-eyed. To what further purpose was this awful fluid to be used? The excited rattling of a chain in the dusk advertised a dog tied to a stake toward the break. The boy planted the dish in front of the black kelpie and the sound of its eager lap-lap-lap rose above the envious whimperings of the other dogs in the further darkness.

MacAndrew hailed from the fire, “Come and have your supper while it's hot, Bill. You'll find the tools

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on the tailboard and the tucker at the fire. Bring the pint off your saddle.”

As he ducked under the tent-fly stretched over the wagonette, the cook, an old man with a hairless, yellow face and one blind, stony-looking eye, grinned affably at him from the piled plate on his knees. The boy picked a tin plate, a wooden-handled knife, and a three-pronged fork off the tailboard where a slush lamp flickered fitfully. An appetizing odour of roast mutton rose from the camp-oven beside the fire; the tea in the blackened billy was thick and milky-looking, but Bill was too thirsty to let his mind dwell on further probabilities in that direction. MacAndrew sat perched on a small log, his plate on his knees; Bob and Dinny sat on the ground on the opposite side of the fire with their plates on the ground. They still wore their hats, and ate in a preoccupied silence, and Bill with his hair freshly combed felt snobbish and alien. The mutton was lean, dark, and stringy, but he had not realized till then how hungry he was, and he found himself enjoying the meal better than any he had eaten for weeks.

George, the cook, started to wash up, crooning tunelessly to himself; the others stretched out on the ground round the fire, leaning on their elbows. Dinny rolled a cigarette with surprising deftness. He was the only smoker until Reg, the horsetailer, entered the firelit circle with a bridle slung over his shoulder, but after silently lighting his cigarette with a glowing coal, he slouched across to join the cook. Bob, feeling at peace with the world, turned ruminatively toward Bill, but Bill's interest was on MacAndrew and Dinny conversing

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in low tones. Mac did most of the talking, Dinny being content to nod occasional agreement or put a brief, considered query.

“There isn't a man left in town,” Mac was saying. “Even the beer hums are out, though they won't stay long out of sight of a beer pump. Things are bad everywhere—and everybody wants to shift their stock now while they can get them away. Any bagman with a couple of horses and a pack-saddle calls himself a boss drover these days.”

“No chance of picking up a dog?” Dinny queried.

“A dog! It wouldn't be safe for any sort of a dog to show his nose in the street. If you took a sheep-dog within a mile of Longreach they'd shake him the minute you took your eyes off him. You've seen that dog of the station-master's—that long, flap-eared spaniel? He's been pinched three times—to work sheep, mind you—and they even took that yapping little Pomeranian of Mother Murphy's! Sheep-dogs …!” The drover shook his head sadly and rose, preparatory to turning in. Dinny, still smiling reminiscently, prepared to follow, and Bill turned to find himself alone at the fire with young Mac.

“Want a hand to fix your swag?” the boy ventured after a long silence.

“Thanks, but I think it's all right.”

“You'll sleep cold the way you've got it—your feet are higher'n your head, and you didn't clear the bindy-eyes and gibbers before you unrolled it.”

“The what?”

“Bindy-eyes … goat-heads—them sharp burrs—and stones.”

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“Oh … er, thanks very much.”

Bob sprang eagerly to his feet and led the way. Now that the ice was broken he waxed comparatively voluble. “There ain't no moon to-night or you'd be better in the shade. Don't ever sleep right against the butt of a tree,” he cautioned sagely. “You might get a snake or a porkypine or something in your blankets.” And so he left Bill to assimilate that cheerful bit of bedtime news.

For a long time Bill lay stretched out straight in his blankets on the hard, springless ground staring up at the stars. The immediate world was invested in a pleasant, friendly silence, and the deep indigo of the heavens held a suggestion of endless, unplumbable depth—distance piled upon distance stretching to the borders of infinity. The stars stood out with a clear, limpid brilliance—closer, brighter, and more intense than he had ever imagined possible, and the Milky Way was a broad, opalescent belt across the heavens with black depths gouged out of it. A cool night breeze whispered vagrantly along the ground just lifting the corner of a blanket and letting it fall again. The banked fire smouldered dully, and from beyond the wagon-fly where old George was snoring lustily, came the hesitant bleat of a sheep; a warm, acrid smell wafted to Bill's nostrils—the unforgettable smell of sheep that, once implanted in a man's consciousness, stays with him for life.

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Chapter II

EVERY bone in his body had a private, individual ache. The ground underneath had the hard, relentless feeling of concrete, and the cold penetrated his blankets to his very bones and made him shiver incessantly. Bill uncovered one weary eye and surveyed the world. It was still dark as pitch, but the fire threw cheerful pennons of flame at the gleaming stars, making old George look like a gigantic spider as he dragged a shovelful of dark red coals out and planked a camp-oven on them. A terrible weariness and longing for sleep possessed the boy, but his aching bones rebelled at the hardness of his couch and the cold air made him long for the warmth of the fire.

He must have dozed off in spite of the discomforts. A persistent, cracked voice pierced his hazy consciousness and he gave reluctant ear to old George's “Daaylight! Breakfast's ready!” Of daylight there was neither vestige nor sign. The stars still leaned down like diamonds from fathomless black velvet, but figures were stirring and a wonderful whiff of frying chops wafted across from the fire. The noise of water's gurgling into a tin dish galvanized him into sudden action and he hastily threw back the blankets. He intended to be early at the wash basin in future.

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In later years, when Bill looked back on his first droving trip, those three long weeks of alternately coaxing and forcing weak, exhausted sheep, sullen from protracted hunger, he would bite his lips with vexation at the recollection of the mistakes he made. Later still, there came another period when he could afford to smile tolerantly at his memories. But at the time, as they followed the dry, winding course of the river up to Aramac, then out through the desert scrub and spinifex to their destination, other material things bulked too largely in his mind to allow any time for introspection.

The first few days left him with an accumulation of aches that made him long for nightfall. His first surprise that everyone should turn in so soon after the evening meal did not last long. Thereafter, when he crawled stiffly off his horse and let him go in the growing dusk, his aching body and legs chafed raw by the saddle made bed seem the nearest equivalent to heaven, and it seemed that he had just rolled himself into his blankets and dropped into a deep, dreamless sleep when old George's high-pitched chant of “Daylight! Break-fast's ready” woke him again to the cold realization of another day.

He would rise stiffly and painfully, every aching muscle protesting in the chill half-light that faded the eastern stars. After a quick, perfunctory wash, he would roll and tightly strap the swag and leave it near the wagonette. Breakfast consisted of damper and lean chops, piping hot, and as they ate, the sharp, distant cracks of Reg's whip and a string of vindictive early morning oaths would rise above the drum of hoofs and the crackle of snapping branches. Then the horses

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would surge on to the camp in a wild jangle of bells and hobble-chains that sent the startled sheep rushing and huddling to the far corner of the break.

Bridle in hand, they would encircle the mob, single out and catch the horse they intended to ride that day. Bill's bay was a rogue that took the joint efforts of all hands to catch, and the boy whose previous experience had commenced with horses ready saddled for use, was a long time in acquiring the patient skill necessary to circumvent the cunning of bush horses. Dinny stood by, one morning, his own horse bridled, while Bill pursued the elusive bay back and forward through the churning mob until, winded and speechless with impotent rage, he swung his bridle and slashed at the disappearing rump. The horses split and scattered, pursued by Reg in a cloud of lurid comment on the chronic uselessness of newchums.

When the horses were brought back, Dinny took the bridle from Bill without a word, singled out the bay, walked straight up to his shoulder, slipped the bridle on and handed the horse over to the waiting youth. Bill sulked for the rest of the forenoon.

On the dinner camp, young Mac lit a fire and put his quart-pot on; Bill filled his quart from the water-bag on his horse's neck, and set it beside the fire on pebbles as he had seen the others do to let the flames draw underneath. When it boiled he skimmed the yellow froth off with a twig, emptied in the tea and sugar ready mixed and picked off the quart with his hat, then sat down in the thin shade of a whitewood and had his lunch. As soon as he had finished, he put his gear back on the saddle and rode round to Dinny's little fire

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on the opposite side of the sheep. Dinny gave him a casual glance then turned his eyes back to the restless mob. Bill dismounted and stood diffidently in front of him. “Dinny, I'm sorry about this morning; but honestly, I want to catch my own horse.”

The man on the ground nodded casually. “That's all right!”

“Will you tell me when I'm doing the wrong thing?”

“I'll show you how to go about it.”

“What was wrong this morning?”

“We-ll, pretty well everything. He's a hard horse to catch, that fellow. He's been spoilt.” Dinny emptied the rubbed tobacco from his palm into the cigarette paper. “You've got to remember that one man can't surround a horse in the middle of a plain, but if you use your head—and keep your temper—and don't let him think you're anxious to get that bridle on him, you'll be all right.” He licked the cigarette paper and nipped the loose ends off. “Horses ain't machines—they're none of them alike. Don't be scared of them and don't make them scared of you—and hold on to that temper of yours!”

That paved the way for further sessions. Sometimes a curt word of advice … “Keep your hands down. You're not driving a hansom cab!” Or at other times when they were alone, Dinny would drop his cloak of taciturnity and talk horse. He would tell of horses and horsemen he had known; their deeds and their methods; how so-and-so could teach a colt to lead on a strand of cotton, or some other famous horse-breaker whose colts had mouths like silk.

Except on two subjects—horses and cattle—Dinny's

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conversation was limited to monosyllables. One aspect of Bill's problems he faced with diffidence. The trend of a democratic lifetime had been directed toward minding his own business and refraining from interfering with others, so that when he noticed Bill passing his annoyance with the sheep on to his horse, his first impulse was to turn a blind eye to it.

But his interest in the youth prevailed and when Bill next rode toward him, Dinny dismounted and called him to him. The mystified Bill stood still while a flattened hardwood stick was thrust between his teeth. Then Dinny struck the projecting end of the stick a sharp blow with his hand. Bill's head jerked suddenly sideways, the stick dropped to the ground and he clutched his aching jaw while a myriad stars whirred round in his head. He wheeled on Dinny with an outraged glare. “What's wrong with you?”

Dinny swung calmly to the saddle. “Next time you jerk at a horse's mouth like you did awhile back, you'll know what it feels like!”

Bill blinked—and remembered.

His attitude toward the other members of the camp varied considerably and his first hastily conceived opinions had to be constantly amended. Reg, the horsetailer, who made capital of the newchum's mistakes and who took every opportunity to tease and provoke him, raised a smouldering hate in the youth; Bill's policy of snubbing and ignoring the man merely had the effect of goading him farther.

Old George, the cook, he tended to despise, and he persisted in treating young Mac with aloofness in spite of, or perhaps because of the boy's attempts at friendliness.

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The fact was that both were possessed of the self-consciousness of youth that copies the pattern of its elders and tries to ignore the speech and habits of its juniors. MacAndrew he regarded with respect. He was his boss, who had given him a chance, and he was determined that old Mac should not repent his bargain.

But it was the taciturn Dinny who received his homage and toward whom the wall of reserve he raised against the others was never in evidence. Dinny was always right. He never appeared to hurry but he was always on the spot to divert strange sheep suddenly appearing in front of the mob, or to sense when a few weary stragglers had been cut off and left behind. Another and more subtle influence accounted for his preference. MacAndrew's interest was centred in the sheep. Everything was subordinated to their interests; his personal comfort and that of the camp came second to the well-being of the flock. He had little interest in horses or even in his dogs, except in that they were necessary for the management of the sheep.

After a few days Bill decided that sheep were the stupidest creatures God ever made. Horses were different—you could do things with them, and Bill felt an added sense of superiority when mounted. And dogs were intelligent; in fact, he fully intended to get one at the earliest opportunity.

Subconsciously, he recognized Mac as the sheepman, Dinny as the horseman; and there lay the root of his worship of the quietly competent stockman, sitting and handling his horse not so much as though he were part of it but as though it were part of him, and inseparable

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from the long, supple stockwhip looped over the right forearm. Dinny was his model, and in these days when opinions were altered daily, a deep resolve was born that never altered but grew stronger with the passing days—Bill decided that whatever the cost, he would be a horseman.

The mob moved slowly and painfully northward, spreading freely across open downs where the Mitchell-grass tufts still flaunted a showing of dry flag, or working blindly through dense gidgee scrub where the red pebbled soil was bare of grass. Here, especially, Bill lamented the need of a dog. Little mobs of dejected and dispirited sheep would seize every opportunity to hang back and hide under the low, twisted boughs, uncaring and deaf to all the shouting in the world. While the others had their dogs to move the stragglers up, Bill had to get off his horse and dislodge them himself. By the end of the day his voice had shrunk to a dry, husky whisper, his horse was nearly exhausted, and between his impotent wrath at the stupidity of the sheep and his own fatigue, by sundown he was a mental and physical wreck.

One day as they were nearing Aramac a boundary-rider who had come down to see them through his paddocks, casually mentioned that he had a dog for sale. “He ain't much of a worker, mind you, but he'll drive sheep.” Bill jumped at the opportunity and when the station man joined them next morning, followed by a showy black and white and tan collie, he wasted no time in bargaining.

“You can have 'im for a quid if he'll follow you.”

Bill dragged at his money-belt, handed over a sovereign,

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and accepted the dog before the man changed his mind. He tied a length of light rope to its neck and led it round the mob, exulting as the sheep that had ignored his previous efforts rushed jerkily away before the strange dog. He led it proudly round the wing where Dinny leaned comfortably forward on his horse's neck. Dinny's black dog bowled up stiff-legged, tail and hair along the back bristling to a menacing growl.

“Isn't he a beauty, Dinny?”

Dinny glanced down his horse's neck at the two dogs, one circling threateningly, the other retreating nervously and getting all mixed up in the rope. “He's too good-looking!”

“But why …?” asked the crestfallen Bill.

“Four white legs. His feet won't last!”

The boy glanced at the short, broad head of Dinny's black dog, then back at the long, white muzzle of his purchase with the tan spots superimposed on the black over the soft, brown eyes and the clean, regular markings. The kelpie might be a better dog, but Bill could never like him as he already liked this fellow. He rode back round the mob with the dog in tow, sooling him on to the lagging sheep till old Mac came round from the other wing and cautioned him not to run them off their legs.

They halted the mob half-way through the morning. The sheep had had no water for two days and the waterhole ahead was hard of access—a dwindling pool between steep banks with a boggy death-trap at one end. Mac cut off a small mob and started them on their way, when a rapid drumming of hoofs stayed him. A glance at the approaching horseman decided that something

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serious had happened. He merged his sheep with the main mob and cantered back.

Reg pulled his heaving horse back on its haunches. “Come back quick, Mac!” he gasped. “There's been a smash. … Old George turned the wagonette over on himself. … I think he's dead!”

“How did it happen?” MacAndrew demanded fiercely.

“He must have got a bottle of rum off the coach. We started off camp and he began to lay on to the horses. He got them galloping and they hit a stump. … Over she goes on top of George, and the horses went bush with the pole. I pulled him out, but Gawd he looks crook!”

MacAndrew wheeled on his son. “You and Bill hold the mob till we get back!” He beckoned to Dinny and the three of them shot off in a cloud of dust. Bill stared after them with mixed feelings. He had never been keen on old George. His sallow, hairless face looked uncanny—unhealthy—but the thought of the old man who had been so lively that morning, lying still and dead, caught at his throat.

A shout recalled him to the fact that the sheep had strung out in the lead in the interim and that young Mac was having more than he could do to hold them. Bill cantered round, sending his dog at the stragglers and rushing them back. The leaders were a different proposition, however. Something had stirred them up. The furtive breeze may have wafted a hint of the water toward them and they pressed past young Mac, baa-ing excitedly, ignoring his shouts and the charges of his shaggy pony.

  ― 25 ―

Bill's dog looked like saving the situation but he was hampered by the rope still attaching him to his new owner. Mac jerked to a standstill beside him, his round boyish face hot and woebegone. “It's no use, Bill. We can't hold them. I'll cut off the leaders and take them in. We can only water a few at a time. You try and hold the others.”

They forced a lane through the mob, battering back one side till the others drew away. The two boys raced incessantly backward and forward, their horses dripping with sweat, and Bill's dog dragging on the rope, its tongue hanging out. Then young Mac swung his pony and raced after the leaders, bustling the tail and hustling them into a manageable mob. Bill redoubled his efforts but as fast as he pushed back one salient others crowded out behind him. Then the rope got round his horse's legs and he had to dismount and untie the dog. There was no time to straighten things out, so he freed the dog and mounted again to find himself in the middle of a sea of woolly backs surging relentlessly after the little mob in front.

Young Mac's mob had taken charge. Their trot had quickened to an eager, stiff-legged canter and the boy could only ride up and down one flank in the hope of deflecting them away from the boggy end of the waterhole. Bill was too busy with his own affairs at the moment to know what was happening elsewhere. He got out in front of his mob and called on the dog to follow. It regarded him for a moment, then calmly turned and trotted off to the distant waterhole. The boy stared in wide-eyed consternation at the flagrant desertion. He called again; the dog paid no attention

  ― 26 ―
but trotted steadily on. A wave of blinding rage surged over him; he wanted to overtake that dog—to get his hands on him and teach him obedience. He swung his horse round, the sheep still pouring out behind him, when a sudden diversion halted him. A brown horse swept round from the rear of the mob with the sheep falling back before the steady vicious tattoo of Dinny's stockwhip. He shot between Bill and the dog. “Let him go!” he snapped. “Canter round and punch in that wing!”

Young Mac came tearing back from the timber, his heels flaying the pony's ribs. “It's a rotten hole, Dinny,” he wailed. “They're all bogging at this end.”

Dinny glanced quickly round and shook his head despondently. “We can't hold them without dogs. Punch into them till Mac gets back!”

They returned to the fray with the barrage of Dinny's whip to hearten them. Bill, still burning with resentment at his dog's desertion, drove his horse savagely at the on-coming tide. The hollows of his horse's neck and flanks were black with sweat and a lather of foam plastered its ribs. Still the sheep kept surging forward, giving way in front of his rushes only to spread round behind him. Sweat poured down his face and tasted salt on his lips; the dust mingled with it and caked on his features, rimmed his eyes. He brandished his hat wildly at the unruly mob, shouted from his parched throat and charged again and again. It was useless. He might as well have tried to stop the advancing waves of the ocean. The sheep were all round him, baa-ing excitedly, pressing past with outstretched necks, cantering with a stiff, rocking-horse gait. He pulled up, his

  ― 27 ―
breath sobbing, eyes blazing at his impotence, while his lathered horse stood still with drooping head—and still the sheep strained past. There was no stopping them now. He was beaten. He saw them sweep past young Mac in a woolly tide. Even Dinny was submerged.

The boys converged on him, silent with exhaustion and defeat, and as they urged their tired horses toward the waterhole, old Mac came galloping past them. Sheep were piling down the steep banks like a cataract. They left their horses on the bank and fought their way through the surging, heaving sea of frantic baa-ing sheep to join MacAndrew, tragic-eyed and panting with exertion and already covered with grey, slimy mud.

The soupy water was full of sheep pushed in by those behind and still drinking avidly as they swam. A pall of dust drifted across the narrow banks, mercifully obscuring the happenings at the other end, and still the unending woolly cataract poured over the edge, slid down the steep bank, and piled itself madly on the seething animals below, shouldering and trampling them deeper and deeper into the mire while their incessant clamour filled the air.

MacAndrew and Dinny thrust forward to the boggy margin, seizing sheep and ruthlessly heaving them back to the firm earth. As they cleared a patch, grotesque, lop-eared heads and skinny necks slathered in slimy blue mud rose and heaved feebly from the soupy bog. The men grabbed and dragged, grabbed and heaved, and slung unceremoniously to the bank behind. Bill ranged himself beside them while young Mac dragged the rescued farther back. And still the mob swarmed down

  ― 28 ―
on them, charging blindly into the just-vacated bog holes on top of the men.

Bill's back ached like a toothache. He tried to stand upright but the pain from his outraged muscles stopped him. Only the difference in their build served to distinguish the men. All were plastered from head to foot, hands, face and clothes invisible under the coating of blue-grey mud. After a time the action of dragging and heaving became automatic. They worked with backs and heads bent, seeing no farther than the immediate vicinity lest the full magnitude of the task appal them.

Some of the rescued got shakily to their feet and staggered off. Some stood propped uncertainly still for a while. Others collapsed and lay prone, their mud-plastered necks outstretched along the ground. Many remained where their mates had trampled them into the mud, the men reserving their ebbing strength for those with chances of recovery.

At length Bill could bear it no longer. The sheep were thinning a little around them. He dragged his sodden boots out of the mud and crawled painfully back among the huddled forms that lined the margin. Young Mac had disappeared to round up the mob. He had no conception of the time of day till he noticed the shadows high up on the opposite bank. This was a day to be measured not in hours and minutes but by events, emotion, exhaustion, and aches. None of them had eaten since daylight, yet Bill felt no craving for food; all he wanted was rest—immediate and unlimited.

MacAndrew stumbled toward him with squelching feet. His features were hidden in mud and his voice

  ― 29 ―
was a croak. “Get your horse … tell them … camp out on the plain … handy.”

Bill dragged himself painfully up the bank on scrambling hands and toes and pulled himself up into the saddle. Vaguely he saw young Mac jogging round the sheep, a dog trotting at his heels. It looked like Bill's own dog but he was beyond resentment or jealousy or emotion of any kind.

About a mile back he met the horses and waited emotionless while Reg surveyed him with startled eyes, and more from recognition of the horse than of the mud-plastered rider, gave vent to a concerned “Gawd Almighty. … It's the Pommy!”

Bill mumbled his message and Reg nodded impatiently, a spate of questions on his tongue. “Awright. The turn-out's coming. George's just behind.”

George! What was his memory trying to tell him about George? Didn't something happen to him one day … a long time ago? George …? He turned dull, inquiring eyes on the horsetailer. “Isn't George dead?”

Reg spat in disgust. “Dead! No, the old cow was only drunk and knocked out. He kidded me all right! Took us all day to mend the pole and harness. Look at 'im coming along! Dead! Pity 'e wasn't—the old sod!”

  ― 30 ―

Chapter III

THEY crawled past Aramac with the crusted mud still clinging to them in evidence of an episode they could never forget. None of them was really conscious of the closing events of that terrible day when utter exhaustion merged sleep with waking so subtly that the change was imperceptible. They worked till it was too dark to see, then stumbled, bent and dazed, toward the campfire, wiping the worst of the mud from hands and mouth, and mechanically swallowing the damper and cold mutton and tea thrust on them before they dropped, too weary to remove either clothing or mud, into their blankets barely unrolled.

The first pale hint of daylight found MacAndrew and Dinny back at the ill-fated waterhole salvaging as many more sheep as possible before the crows picked their helpless eyes out. Bill, haggard and stiff, joined young Mac in shepherding the mob out on some sparse grass, and they camped that night only a mile from the waterhole. The tail of the mob was a sorry sight. The mud, mingling with the short wool, dried and set like cement, and the unfortunate animals dragged themselves along like run-down robots.

With the little town behind them, the grass improved and the effect on the sheep and horses soon manifested

  ― 31 ―
itself. Just ahead of them lay the desert, and Bill, stifling his surprise at drought-stricken sheep being sent to a desert, painted pictures in his imagination of palm-trees and long, wind-rippled sandhills. Instead, the scattered timber drew closer together. Gradually they found themselves day after day passing through thick scrub with patches of rank grass and big green, spiky mounds of spinifex rising like giant pincushions from the blood-red soil. Ant-hills of all shapes and sizes rose hard and unimpressionable as concrete.

MacAndrew returned from his daily scouting of the track ahead and held a long conference with Dinny. Then he circled round and checked the lead while Dinny rode back to Bill on the tail of the mob. “Take it easy! We're going to spell them a while. Patch of poison in front.”

“Poison …?”

“Heart-leaf. I'll show you when we hit it. We'll have to jam the mob together and belt them through without giving them a chance to feed.” He rode on to warn young Mac.

That afternoon MacAndrew returned with reinforcements—Reg the horsetailer, and all the available dogs. The sheep were reasonably full and contented and they were shepherded along into a compact mob. Dinny pointed ahead with his whip. “As soon as the lead hits that stony ridge, drive like hell! You'll see the poison-bush growing there but don't stop to look at it. Now … into them!”

The bang of Dinny's whip was echoed by the horsetailer's, and Mac's old dog started to yap hoarsely at the laggards. The pace of the mob imperceptibly quickened

  ― 32 ―
and a chorus of shouts and yells bunched them together and kept their attention from feeding. They gained the ridge. There was an uncanny impression of loathsomeness about the place. Except for the prevailing spinifex, the vegetation was different from any they had seen. The bark of the trees was of a sickly buff colour and the branches dipped and sprawled grotesquely. Bill saw an old ewe reach out and nibble at the dark-veined, fleshy leaf of a low shrub, and the peculiar heart-shape of the leaf suddenly occurred to him. He charged his startled horse at the sheep and drove it into the mob. The uproar continued but the pace was telling on the totterers of the tail. Bill dismounted to set an exhausted ewe on her feet. She staggered a few steps and flopped again. MacAndrew shouted from the wing, “Never mind her. Keep the others going! We're nearly out of it.”

The yellow-barked trees grew fewer, and finally disappeared. A call went up from old Mac. “Right oh! Take it easy!” They were through. Two sheep died before they reached camp and in the morning three more lay stiff in the break.

“We got off light!” Dinny philosophically rolled a breakfast cigarette. “A mob came through last year and lost four hundred on that patch. Anyhow, one more day and we'll be rid of these cripples.”

The weather came up hot and sultry. That night something woke Bill with a start, and as he lay marshalling his wandering senses, another big raindrop pinged on his cheek. Thunder muttered ominously and suddenly the sky was lit by a livid flash. By its light he saw two men stooping over the break, and beyond

  ― 33 ―
them the sheep milled in ceaseless turmoil, baa-ing a welcome to the approaching storm. Bill pulled on his boots and joined Mac and Dinny at the break. “Anything wrong?” he inquired.

“We're only slacking off the rope before the rain shrinks it and pulls the pegs out of the ground. We're nearly finished. Better turn in. It's going to rain like hell.”

The air was heavy and still. Each vivid flash of lightning showed up the tracery of trees and limbs and leaves. The thunder drew closer, louder, and more menacing, but the stray raindrops still fell singly, smacking flat on leaf and bough and hitting the fire with a venomous hiss. Dinny walked across and stood over him, the end of his cigarette glowing red in the darkness. “Better roll up your swag and put it on the cart. You'll get washed out in five minutes where you are.”

Bill joined the others round the high piled fire, muzzy and sullen at losing his sleep. Old George and the horsetailer still slept under the protecting fly of the wagonette. Then the heavens opened in searing flame, crash upon deafening crash of thunder shook the ground, and the rain hit them in a solid sheet. Bill gasped. The rain came down with a force that hurt. It penetrated his clothes in a matter of seconds. Even his hat did not protect him. He could feel the rain seeping past the leather band, trickling down the back of his neck to join the cataract that ran down his spine and filled his boots to overflowing. The fire crouched, cowed under the onslaught, spitting and spluttering venomously at the drops that tried to reach its glowing heart.

  ― 34 ―

A horrible flow of language emanated from under the cart, and presently two shivering, cursing individuals joined the group at the fire, driven out by the water that was beginning to flow along the ground. Dawn came slow and leaden with every sign of the rain's continuing.

They plodded on all morning, cold, rain-sodden, and miserable as the sheep they were driving. These would stop at every opportunity and stand shivering—heads down, flanks drawn in, and backs humped like camels. Two horsemen in glistening oilskins rode out of the dripping timber and Dinny sighed with heartfelt relief. “If we don't get rid of these damned sheep soon, we'll have none left to deliver.”

Another hour brought them to a fence and a gateway staked to form a narrow opening. Mac, Dinny, and the strangers dismounted and posted themselves on the far side while Bill and young Mac kept the sheep up to the gate. They started to string through the opening in the thin line, and at quick intervals came the drover's shout of “Hundred,” while Dinny's tally rose steadily “… Eight … Nine” and at each hundred, his knife cut a notch in the stick he carried. The mob dwindled till only the old staggerers of the tail remained, pressing, jamming in the narrow opening. The last one stumbled through on groggy legs, and Bill watched it with a feeling of great relief as it joined the untended mob dispersing through the timber in the rain. Now they could relax, the strain was off, and they could sleep soundly at night without the ever-present tension that brings the drover wide awake in an instant.

There was a slight difference between Mac's final tally

  ― 35 ―
and the stranger's, but the weather was not conducive to argument and they wasted no time in striking a total. Then the elder stranger looked genially round the morose little group, the rain dripping from his heavy, reddish moustache. “Come on up to the house, all of yez, and have a feed and dry yersilves. It's no sort of a day to be sitting out in the scrub like a lot of wet emus!” They fell gratefully in behind him, the horses slithering and sinking in the sodden, narrow track that wound through the thick timber. At length a small clearing opened before them, and a chorus of barking from the buildings on the opposite side greeted them, indistinct through the misty, driving rain.

They pulled off their saddles and turned the un-hobbled horses out in O'Brien's paddock. Then as they gathered on the back veranda, with the water trickling from them and gathering in pools on the earthen floor, the door opened and O'Brien was with them again—a big, hearty, red-faced, red-haired man with a chest, deep and thick as a bull's—and a wicker-covered demijohn under his arm. “Come on, boys!” he called. “This'll keep the cold out!” He handed a pannikin to MacAndrew and the dark liquor gurgled out of the jar. “Nelson's blood! An' if you want more water than you've got already, the tank's running over.”

Dinny drank next and passed the pannikin to Bill. The boy hesitated, then shook his head silently. Dinny stared at him. “Don't be silly! It won't hurt you.”

Bill refused again. “I—I promised once——”

Dinny looked steadily at the wan, shivering figure and his tone was deliberate and caustic. “And did you promise not to touch castor oil? This is doctor's orders

  ― 36 ―
… and I'm the doctor!” He pushed the tin pannikin into Bill's unwilling hand. “Get it into you, quick!”

The boy clamped his chattering teeth on a blue lip, then with a sudden movement put the mug to his mouth and gulped the dark liquid. Next instant he was coughing, spluttering, and gasping, the tears starting into his eyes, while his chest burned as if he had swallowed liquid fire.

O'Brien beamed on him from the doorway. “Never be scared of good rum, lad. Make a friend of it! And the way to keep your friends is never to abuse them. Hallo, here's your plant. Get into some dry clothes if you have them. If you haven't I'll see what I've got, then we'll have a feed.”

Bill felt a strange elation pervading his body. His cheeks burned, his fingers, white and wrinkled with cold and rain, began to tingle comfortably to the tips, and a feeling of glorious warmth was stealing to his numb toes. He squared his shoulders and plunged into the rain after Mac to help unload the mud-spattered wagonette. He felt uplifted—a conqueror—what mattered rain or cold or discomfort to him now!

They gathered round a big solid table in the kitchen with an open fireplace on one side throwing out grateful warmth. O'Brien, brandishing a huge carving-knife, sat at the top of the table, with his wife, a faded middle-aged woman with a patient expression, on his right, and his daughter Eileen, a big buxom girl for her sixteen years on his left. Tim, the son, mingled with the drovers.

Bill found himself between Mrs O'Brien and Reg the horsetailer. He glanced down the table at the others

  ― 37 ―
shuffling awkwardly to their seats; there were not chairs enough to go round, so some had to sit on boxes. Old George sat hunched over a huge plate of corned beef and pumpkin, shovelling the hot food into his mouth and masticating loudly. He still wore his greasy old hat and Bill, casting back in his memory, could not recall having seen the cook without his hat by night or day. There was no attempt at conversation. Food was a vital, important thing, and appreciation of it could be shown far more effectively in silent concentration, and by the amount one ate, than by any conventional remarks.

Bill, looking up suddenly, found a pair of wide blue eyes fixed speculatively on him. His first view of Eileen had not impressed him. Her straight fair hair was drawn back to a tight bun, and her face was round, high cheek-boned, and expressionless as a boiled pudding. They looked at one another for a matter of seconds, then Bill essayed a polite smile. But the magnifying power of rum refused to acknowledge mere politeness and took a hand in the shaping of that smile with the result that Eileen dimpled with disconcerting suddenness and her beaming response was an all-embracing thing—a regular sunrise of a smile. Bill, somewhat embarrassed, returned to the safer contemplation of his plate.

One after another the diners leaned back with sighs of repletion, wiping their mouths with the backs of their hands. O'Brien produced a plug of tobacco and started to hack chips off it with a pocket-knife; pipes were filled, cigarettes rolled, then tongues began to loosen.

  ― 38 ―
The rain still drummed incessantly on the roof, and the overflow from the tank plashed steadily.

They were storm-bound for three days. The men camped in the cart-shed, eating their meals in the kitchen with the O'Briens, and as time began to hang on their hands, Mrs O'Brien found the odd jobs that had been put off and accumulating for years being done. Travel was impossible. Every little gully carried its torrent of muddy water to add to the rising creeks.

Eileen was making the most of a heaven-sent opportunity. Young men there were in their isolated district but few came past O'Brien's selection. She wasted no time on old George. MacAndrew was a nice man but old, and little Mac was too young to be of interest. Dinny was a bit too quiet. She might have persevered with him had he been alone, but there were the other two boys. Reg was all right for a bit of fun, but he was just a little too saucy—used to chasing about with these flash town girls—and he thought because a girl had lived all her life in the bush she knew nothing.

So Eileen fluffed up her straight fair hair and wished it wouldn't stick out in wisps at the neck. She put the old hessian apron away out of sight and wore the new one made out of a clean sugar-bag, and in the evenings she appeared in a light print frock. True, it was getting a bit short and a bit tight, but she liked it better than the black one.

Bill came as an entirely new type to her. He was so nice-looking—like those men in the picture magazines. His fair reddish hair was so smooth and fine and well combed, and he spoke so different from anyone she had ever met. And there was something at the back of his

  ― 39 ―
eyes when he smiled at you—something that sort of kidded you on. Her dad reckoned at first he was a sissy, but she knew he wasn't. So she smiled on Bill and Bill grinned back. He was enjoying the situation for various reasons. Eileen was big boned and heavy in figure and speech—a regular draught-horse of a girl. She spoke with a rough nasal twang that made him wince at times, while her technique had a simple natural directness and total lack of sophistication that could be distinctly embarrassing. But to balance all that, she was the only girl he had met on friendly terms for months, and after the hardships of the past few weeks, the little comforts and the feminine touch, bovine though it might be, were most acceptable.

Another reason was the victory he was scoring over Reg. The horsetailer had waged a determined but hopeless battle for Eileen's favour from the start, and to find himself turned down for the raw newchum he had jeered at for weeks was the final straw.

The gathering tension cleared for a time when MacAndrew returned from a difficult trip to a neighbouring homestead where there was a telephone, and announced that the rain had been general, the drought was practically broken, and, what was of more import to them, he had accepted an offer to take ten thousand sheep down to New South Wales—an eight-hundred-mile trip.

Dinny and Mac talked half-way into the night, discussing routes, the obtaining of fresh horses, and more men. A final two days were spent in getting gear ready, making greenhide hobbles, and removing the shoes from horses due for a spell. O'Brien yarded a mob of his

  ― 40 ―
horses, and Mac and Dinny went over to inspect them. They did not take long to pick what they wanted, but when it came to bargaining, O'Brien, true to his ancestry, was prepared to spend an enjoyable day on it—or a week if they wanted it. When Mac had bought half a dozen likely sorts O'Brien drafted off a fine upstanding brown gelding.

“How did you come to miss that one?” he queried slyly.

Dinny shook his head. “Don't want him, Mick.”

O'Brien exploded. “An' what's the matter with him? The best young horse I've got on the place!”

“Look out he doesn't run you up a tree one of these days!”

“And for why?” O'Brien's moustache quivered with indignation.

“He's blind in one eye, Mick.”

What-at! Git a bridle, Tim, an' I'll show him the liar he is!”

Mac moved closer to Dinny and spoke in an undertone. “His eyes look all right to me.”

Dinny nodded calmly. “They might be … but I don't like the way he holds his head.”

Tim pursued the brown horse round the yard a few times till he cornered it and slipped the bridle on. O'Brien peered at the frightened horse's eyes, first one then the other. “Not a spot on them,” he declared vehemently. “As good as me own.”

Dinny took the bridle and ran a soothing hand up the horse's neck. Then he flicked a finger at the near eye. The horse never flinched. He handed the bridle back to O'Brien and resumed his seat on the rails. “Have a

  ― 41 ―
good look at his near eye, Mick. There's no pupil in it!”

O'Brien peered closely, compared it with the other eye, then stood back and slowly rubbed the back of his neck. “I take back all I said, Dinny! An' me galloping him through the scrub an' over gullies these six months. Providence has been kind to me! Here, take him! You can have him or any one you fancy.”

Dinny shook his head. “Thanks, Mick, but I don't want him.”

“I saw your eye on that bay colt. Will you take him?”

“He'll be a trouble on the road, but he's worth it. Thanks, Mick. I'll call him after you—even if he isn't a chestnut!”

Dinny and Reg carried their saddles to the yard and the others lined the rails. Bill turned to find Eileen climbing up beside him, and Reg, watching from the ground, scowled and shortened his stirrup leathers a hole. Now he would show her who was the better—him or a ginger-headed Pommy.

Dinny saddled a thickset black horse, Bill on the rails watching every movement of horse and man. Yet so quick and effortless was the man in mounting that one moment he was fitting a toe into the near stirrup, the next he was in the saddle. The black whirled and bucked high, spinning and landing in the same small circle all the time. Dinny sat unmoved in the saddle till the black eased up, then at his gesture the gate was thrown open, and he raced the gelding out across the flat, throwing up clods of drying mud all round him, but

  ― 42 ―
the black's honour was satisfied and he cantered quietly back.

There was marked contrast between Dinny's quiet methods, and Reg's saddling of a chestnut with a showy blaze. After a lot of loud objurgation and fuss he gained the saddle. The chestnut stood tense and rigid for about three seconds, then shot high in the air and came down with a nasty twist. His first buck threw Reg forward, the next left him gazing down the chestnut's shoulder, another quick twist and he hit the ground. He scrambled furiously to his feet, cornered the chestnut and mounted again. The next minute held a really good show. Reg rode the horse from crupper to ears, but he rode him to a standstill, and the applause from the rails salved his wounded pride.

That last night as they sat in a wide circle in front of the open fireplace, O'Brien produced the demijohn. “If you're leaving in the morning it's the last one we'll have for a while.” Bill sitting in a corner with Eileen, fingered the pannikin uncertainly and sought Dinny's eyes. He made no immediate reply but took Bill's mug and poured a mere drop of rum into it and a generous dash of water. The cook and the horsetailer had no such scruples and made the most of the opportunity.

They rose at length and filed out to their sleeping quarters in the chill night air. Bill, the last to leave, was greeted by a snarl from the horsetailer. “Think you can put it over me, you young bastard!”

MacAndrew, pulling off his boots, looked up as a figure bounded past him. Out in the moonlight stood the horsetailer wearing a thin-lipped provocative sneer. Bill faced him, tense with passion, his eyes glittering

  ― 43 ―
and the sensitive nostrils flaring. “What did you call me?” he demanded between set teeth.

Reg stuck his face aggressively forward. “I called you a ba——.” He staggered back as a right and left landed full in his face. Mac started to his feet to separate them, but Bill was following up with a frenzy of wild blows to face and body. His opponent, too surprised to do more than vaguely guard the rain of punches, kept on retreating till his heel caught an obstacle and he feel in a heap. Bill drew back panting. The man on the ground pulled himself together with a vindictive glare, got suddenly to his feet and charged with a rush. He was Bill's superior in weight, reach, and years, but the youth was in the grip of a fierce concentrated hate that ignored punishment and incited him to persistent attack. His cheek was split and bleeding freely, while one of the horsetailer's eyes was closing rapidly. They drew apart for a few seconds, panting heavily and glaring at one another. Then they closed again in a medley of flying fists and came to the ground, indistinguishably locked together.

One figure scrambled to his feet in the moonlight, glanced at the motionless heap on the ground, then slouched away to the dim corner of the shed where old George sat huddled in his blankets peering stupidly with his one good eye. Mac trickled cold water on the face of the fallen combatant till he stirred, blinked, then with Dinny's help he took him to the water-tank and laved the bruised face.

“You shouldn't take any notice of a man that's got a few drinks in,” Mac advised.

  ― 44 ―

Bill gulped. “Drunk or not, I won't stand being called … what he called me.”

Dinny wrinkled his brows in puzzled thought. “But he only called you a bastard … anyone's likely to do that. Why,” he went on reminiscently, “if I had a quid for every time I've been called a bastard, I could retire and live in luxury! What's more, you know just where you are with that sort of bloke—that's more than you can say about some of them smooth, psalm-singing coots you meet in town!”

Bill mopped his face with a blood-stained towel and turned doggedly away. “I don't care! That's one thing they won't call me!”

Dinny meditatively eyed the retreating figure, then looked across at Mac. “I wonder …?” he began, and stopped.

Mac's broad shoulders shrugged faintly. “What if he is!” he hazarded to the vague but perfectly understood implication. “There's no need to get hot about a little thing like that!”

“It depends,” Dinny soliloquized softly. “You don't handle a touchy thoroughbred colt like he was a half-bred draught!”

  ― 45 ―

Chapter IV

ON the top of the ridge Bill turned in the saddle and looked back. Half a mile away the second mob spread peacefully out among the graceful tracery of boree and the denser sombre gidya. Behind them again the last mob was pouring over a pine ridge like a great white cloud against the new green grass and the dark foliage of the timber.

Bill turned contentedly, and the brown mare picked her way delicately among the stones in the wake of their own sheep. Out on the wing Dinny lay stretched along his horse's neck watching the sheep drift past, nipping at the fresh green shoots, or reaching at a low-hanging bough to relieve the monotony. They were headed on the long southern track that would carry them half-way across one State and part of another, and test them with ever-changing conditions and country, and the endless monotony of day after long day in the saddle, rubbing shoulders with the same people and putting up with the vagaries of ten thousand sheep. Many of these would become familiar enough to be dubbed with distinctive—and probably unprintable—names before the long trip was over.

Although sheep and Chinese may appear indistinguishable in the mass, the outstanding personalities soon obtain recognition. MacAndrew would pass down from

  ― 46 ―
the first mob to the last under Tom Dixon, running his experienced eye over them, on the lookout for strangers or sick sheep, then he would range his horse alongside Tom. “Think they're all here, Tom?”

The old man would nod vigorously. “I think so, Mac! Have you seen anything of Melba?” Melba was a ewe with a persistent falsetto bleat.

“She's with Dinny's mob. He was looking for that big long-backed ewe that's always poking out on the wing.”

“She's right! I saw her a while back.”

They had left young Mac behind in Longreach. He had ridden out and camped a night with them as they passed through, helping his father to start the leading mob while the men were breakfasting in the pale dawn, then he solemnly shook hands with Dinny and Bill and turned his pony back to the dreary prospect of school, and the degradation of having to mix with kids of his own age. But he would join them later, he promised. When the school closed for the holidays he would overtake them by coach and be in at the end of the trip.

They had a new cook and horsetailer. The prospect of a big mob of horses to look after did not appeal to Reg, and he preferred to stay on his own beat where he knew all the girls. Apparently he felt that the moving life of an overlander allowed no time for the fruition of the tedious but somewhat necessary spadework of love-making. With one exception, the remaining new hands were young men in their twenties, and Bill found that although they still regarded him as a newchum, he was no longer raw but entitled to a certain amount of respect. Rain and mud had worn the newness off his

  ― 47 ―
clothes, and the fires of many dinner camps had blackened and dented the pristine splendour of his quart-pot, but his still faintly bruised features as a result of the scrap with Reg did more to raise his status than anything else.

Tom Dixon, a reliable old hand and ex-cattleman, made up the team, and in the evenings after supper Dinny and he would foregather, sitting on their heels, blackfellow fashion, with the firelight flickering on their reminiscent expressions and on the sharp eager features of young Bill drinking in every word.

To Bill this trip was invested in an entirely new atmosphere to the last. Although he did not fully realize it, the better season was chiefly responsible. The desert trip had been carried out over bare, drought-stricken country, with weak, impoverished sheep and horses. Things were different now. Water lay in every gully, there was green grass everywhere, and heavy dews at night. Bill's only regret was that the flies were still as troublesome as ever and their persistent probing attacks nearly drove him mad.

His two new horses were also to his liking—a brown mare of O'Brien's with the light mouth and flexibility of the stockhorse, and a taffy chestnut pony. The latter he regarded at first with disfavour; he was still young and inexperienced enough to feel the superiority of sitting on a big horse. But he began to appreciate the kindly nature of the hardy little pony and to take an interest in it. When he picked up his bridle in the morning as the horses were driven on to the camp, he got into the habit of carrying a piece of damper for the little chestnut. Before long he only had to whistle to

  ― 48 ―
bring her out of the mob and she would stand still to be bridled and then demand the damper.

Bill added a stockwhip to his equipment in Longreach, a long tapering thong of plaited kangaroo hide. But in spite of assiduous practice he was still uncertain each time he used it whether the result would be a perfect crack like a rifle-shot or a mix-up with his horse's tail, a flick like a red-hot wire on the ear, or perhaps an ignominious tangle of thong round his neck.

In addition to the showy collie that had started work so inauspiciously on the first trip and which still followed him in a lackadaisical sort of way, he had added a black pup of doubtful breeding to his ménage. On the morning of their leaving O'Brien's, Eileen had beckoned him to one side, and in a secluded corner had wept over his bruises which she insisted in regarding as the wounds of battle waged over herself. Bill, thoroughly embarrassed, found it impossible to enlighten her, but as they were leaving, Eileen reappeared with a well-grown black pup under her arm and presented it to Bill. She could not have hit on a more successful keepsake.

Dinny regarded the pup with misgivings. “There's a good bit of kelpie in him, I'll admit, but he's got the ears of a retriever and the instincts of a cattle-dog. You'll have to stop him nipping their heels, Bill, and tell him wool-classing is not for the likes of him.”

The pup was a cheerful soul and he tried the patience of his owner continuously. He was too young and full of the joy of being alive to trot sedately at any horse's heels. He liked to visit Dinny's old dog, even though he was old and took life seriously, and bowled him over

  ― 49 ―
when he got too demonstrative. Without the reminder of the pup Bill would probably have forgotten all about Eileen in a day. He had no particular interest in the girl, he told himself, and he was at an age when the last girl he met was the one that was uppermost in his thoughts. That nice-looking Longreach girl, for instance. He had met her at MacAndrew's, and they went to a concert one evening. He sat between her and Bessie MacAndrew, little Mac's elder sister, but it was the slim girl and he who had leaned toward one another in the darkness of the hall, and whose hot hand he had held until the interval. When the lights went down again her hand had snuggled back into his, and walking home through the unlighted streets his arm slipped round her slim waist. He needed no dog to remind him of her—so far.

Longreach and Barcaldine were far behind. They passed Blackall and ran the Barcoo up to Tambo. Horizons were widening for Bill; towns and creeks and stations whose names were the framework of bush conversation were beginning to mean something more than mere empty names. He could listen to Dinny and old Tom yarning of the past and the present and follow their landmarks with some success now. He even felt a proprietary interest when Tom would break out into his favourite poem, intoning in a jerky sing-song rhythm,

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few,
And men of religion are scanty.
On a road never crossed 'cept by folk that are lost,
One Michael Magee had a shanty.

And when they passed other mobs coming north, and a drover would ride across with a nod and a casual

  ― 50 ―
“G'day,” and a keen glance at the brand of the other's horse and the condition of their sheep, Bill could talk back to him in his own language on the all-important topics—the state of the grass and the waterholes along the route. Then with a nod of farewell and a cheerful “Hooray,” they would separate and canter after their mobs, each with some garnered information to pass on, and each still ignorant of the other's identity except that he was “O'Mara's horsetailer” or “with MacAndrew's mob.”

As they progressed across open downs or stony scrubby ridges, there was always something new. Gidgee would give way to mulga or to pine. Every day Dinny had to be called upon to identify some fresh species of flora or fauna. A tree was either useful like gidgee that produced the coals beloved of cooks, or leopardwood, whose foliage the sheep liked, or on the other hand there was whitewood which was no good to burn and whose leaves were poisonous to stock at some times of the year.

So Bill gradually absorbed the lore of the bush. There were the big red kangaroos of the downs, the wallaroos of the stony hills, goannas six feet long with snaky heads like prehistoric saurians, and short stumpy death-adders, mobs of emus flouncing curiously past, tall grey-blue native companions performing their weirdly grotesque dances out on the shimmering plains, wild turkeys that looked more like geese, swarming clouds of pretty little green budgerigars, a skyful of galahs showing dove-grey at one moment and rose-pink the next, and those gorgeously painted miniatures that twittered among the mimosa bushes.

Then they reached the prickly-pear country. At first

  ― 51 ―
came scattered green plants thrusting grotesquely at all sorts of angles, gradually becoming clumps, then the clumps closed up to form an impassable spiny barrier that reached high among the trees and narrowed the stock-route to a mere lane. Just before they reached the Border Gate the coach pulled up alongside them one day and a sturdy little figure clambered down. Within a few minutes young Mac had his pony saddled and was riding round the mob as though he had never been away. He brought all the latest gossip from Longreach and all the additional titbits he had picked up on the coach. To Bill he brought a special message from the Longreach girl, much to the surprise of the recipient. She had faded from his thoughts shortly after they crossed the Barcoo, but the message brought her to life again, and for the next few days she vied for supremacy in his day-dreams with the fair girl in the store at St George.

They put behind them the long netting fence that marks the Queensland border, and crossed the plains of New South Wales toward the blue foothills. The stock-route narrowed in places to a mere strip and gate succeeded gate at such short intervals that Dinny swore that “Noo South was nothing but a bloody sheep yard!”

Mac buoyed them with the assurance that their destination was at hand, and one day a tall arrogant-looking individual in riding-breeches and a tightly-buttoned coat rode on to the dinner camp on a well-groomed black horse and demanded the presence of MacAndrew the drover. Mac rose from his lunch in the shade of a box-tree and crossed toward the stranger who surveyed him from his horse.

  ― 52 ―

“Are you MacAndrew?” he queried sharply. “I'm Mr Grimshaw, manager of Camelot. Have you lost many sheep on the way?”

“No, we've had a good trip. Where will you take delivery?”

“I want you to have them at the Brigalow yards tomorrow. I'll send a man to show you the way.”

“I know the road!” Mac paused in thought for a moment. “But that means we'll have to travel sixteen miles to-morrow with a lot of gates—and these sheep have been on the road over four months.”

The manager frowned down his big beaky nose. “Are you trying to teach me my business? I expect you to be at the yards to-morrow!” He wheeled the black horse and cantered stiffly off.

Mac resumed his seat with a thoughtful expression.

A voice from the background mimicked “I'm … Mistah … Grimshaw … Haw! Are you … a drovah? Haw?” When the laughter died down, Dinny observed casually to MacAndrew. “Ever notice how a bloke that doesn't know his job is always suspicious that people can see through him!” Then after a pause. “It's time we got back to Queensland, Mac!”

Mac nodded gloomily. “It's pretty hard after nursing these sheep to land them here in good nick, to be told to gallop them off their legs at the finish. It's every bit of sixteen miles to the Brigalow yards, and unless they've rebuilt them the yards aren't big enough to hold this mob.”

Dinny eyed him carelessly. “You seem to know this place pretty well, Mac.”

The drover hesitated a moment. He glanced round

  ― 53 ―
and dropped his voice so that only Dinny and Bill heard him. “I ought to! My father owned all this country once and I was born and brought up here. The bank smash of the nineties settled us and killed him. A young fellow just out from England bought the bigger part of the station and called it ‘Camelot.’ And the girl I was going to marry decided she couldn't be a poor man's wife … and married him. Not this Grimshaw—he's only a manager—but the owner who lives in Sydney or Melbourne, fellow by the name of Atherton. I never met him … but I wish him luck!”

  ― 54 ―

Chapter V

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

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

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

  ― 55 ―
the distant tinkle of the horse-bells. They ranged from the tinny tinkle of his brown mare's, to the deep note of the Condamine on the bay harness-horse, and his initiation into the science of horsetailing commenced. He learned which horses were mates and always fed together, and it was not long before he could walk straight to his chestnut pony in the dark, his “damper trick” as Dinny called it, bearing good fruit. She would come to his whistle with a steady clink-clink-clink of the hobble-chain, then when he had unhobbled her mates, dim, ghostly forms in the dark, he would vault on to her bareback and drive his mob to where Dinny was wrestling with the stiff hobbles of the others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ― 57 ―
boy's heels. He pulled up almost on top of them. “Telegram for you, dad!”

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

“Someone left you a fortune, Mac?”

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

“The selection?”

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

“Suits me!”

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

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

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

  ― 58 ―
dragged the tucker-box back from the wagonette and Bill put the billy on for fresh tea.

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

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

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

“The horses aren't fit!”

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

Dinny nodded diffidently.

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

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

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

  ― 59 ―
over there? Turnbull's my name—my place is less'n a mile on.” He addressed MacAndrew. “I can let you have a couple of fresh horses for your trip if you want them.”

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

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

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

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

“He'll do me!”

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

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

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

  ― 60 ―
at the endurance of the old man. The hardest day left no apparent effect on him and Bill was hard put to it to disguise his own stiffness and saddle-soreness. Nearly a week after they left the station they topped a red ridge and looked over still another dark unbroken sea of dense sombre mulga. Turnbull pointed ahead with his whip. “We're nearly there! We turn off at the next creek.” Bill, bumping along on a fractious brown horse, sent up a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving.

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

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

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

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

  ― 61 ―
and hung in concertina folds above his boots. The horsetailer seemed pleasant enough. He had a sleek well-fed appearance, but there was a furtive look about his eyes that decided Bill to suspend judgment for a while.

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

  ― 62 ―

Chapter VI

THE projected early morning start did not materialize. The only horses Sam could find were the tired little mob the three men had ridden on the previous night, and eventually they had to saddle them up again for the day's mustering. The four men rode up the creek, mustering all the cattle on the western side in toward Turnbull. It was a totally new experience for Bill. He pushed ahead through the scrub on what he reckoned was his course, when the crack of a whip close on his right halted him. There was old Turnbull with a little mob of cattle and the tall green creek timber just beyond him. Bill turned sharply and edged out as quietly as possible without giving himself away.

Suddenly his horse pricked his ears. On the fringe of a little clearing stood a huge white bullock with big spreading horns. For a moment it stared undecidedly, then with an explosive wumph it plunged into the thick scrub where a heavy crashing advertised the presence of a hidden mob. The brown horse jumped instinctively in pursuit, and the rider had to clutch at the saddle to save himself from being left behind. There was only the crashing of timber ahead to guide them but it was enough, then Bill caught a glimpse of red and roan through the thinning timber. He jammed his hat down

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on his head, dug his heels in, and prayed he would not be scraped off on a tree. The horse shot forward, gave a convulsive leap over a fallen trunk, on again, slithered luckily through a rabbit warren, and out into the open.

A dozen bullocks were streaming across the clearing and the brown horse needed no urging. Bill swung his whip as he drew level with the mob. The white leader had almost reached the opposite wall of scrub but the brown horse, responding nobly, closed in on the galloping bullock, throwing his weight against the shoulder. The bullock propped sharply and swung back. The horse propped and swung with it; to Bill, it seemed as if it had simply ducked between his legs and he just managed to grip a handful of mane and hang on, till a lucky swerve brought him back into the saddle. He drew a deep breath of relief and mentally registered a growing respect for his mount with a prayer that no one had witnessed his near departure from him. Anyhow, he had beaten the bullock. His blood tingled with the exhilaration of the chase. This was the life! No more plodding behind sheep for him. He cracked his whip and headed the mob for the creek.

The sun was almost straight overhead when a mob came crashing toward him with Dinny on one wing and the horsetailer hoy-ing them on from behind. Bill fell in with them and they joined up with Turnbull on the creek; only about two hundred bullocks for the morning—less than half the mob.

After camping for dinner on a drying waterhole, Bill started the mob back down the creek toward the camp, while the other three combed the scrub on the farther side. At intervals the banging of a whip and crashing

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of heavy bodies through the scrub heralded the appearance of another mob. They would burst through the leafy screen and halt with surprise and suspicion, then on recognizing their mates they would merge and string off down the creek. Bill had his work cut out to keep his mob together. The leaders evinced a desire to make the pace a fast trot, and they had to be checked continually. Sometimes a bullock would branch out from the main mob and make for the scrub with a retinue of half a dozen others. A touch of the heels and the horse shot out in pursuit. The gentle pace for wheeling sheep was of no use here. Up on them, the whip rose and cracked—sometimes—and the disgruntled bullocks shot back into the mob.

The sun dropped low and finally disappeared over the western tree-tops—an angry red disk in a smoky haze. Darkness came quickly and the musterers rallied on the cattle and pushed them along. Then the camp-fire appeared like a red eye through the timber and the cattle snorted and rolled back on the mob.

Bill rode up the wing and joined Dinny. “What are we going to do with the cattle to-night?”

“Watch 'em.” In the darkness that hid their features, Dinny sensed the look of puzzled interrogation. “We'll hold 'em on that clearing in front of the camp. … Take it in turns to ride round 'em all night.”

He rode off to steady the lead and cut out the horses they had picked up on the way. Sam the horsetailer followed him to the camp and caught the night-horses while Bill and old Turnbull rode steadily round the cattle. After a few complaining bellows at the curtailment of their freedom, they reluctantly settled down for

  ― 65 ―
the night, standing about chewing the cud or letting themselves down to the ground with a deep, contented whoof.

Old Turnbull was singing an ancient song with an interminable number of verses in a cracked tuneless voice. They were on opposite sides of the cattle and Bill, who was keeping as quiet as possible, wondered why he should keep on disturbing the mob with his raucous old voice. A horseman rode out from the camp-fire, momentarily blocking its glare, and the cook's squeaky tones hailed them. “All right, boys, your supper's at the fire! Woh … bullicks … woh! It's only old Toothless Jimmy!”

As Bill waited on Turnbull, the cook broke into a quavering ditty and rode off round the mob. Turnbull glanced at his companion. “Well, it's been a good day.”

“Yes, I've enjoyed it!”

“Never done much cattle work, have you?”

Bill hesitated a moment, then he replied simply. “No! I haven't.”

“When you're on watch to-night, ride a bit wider of the mob, look out for any beast walking off the camp, and keep on whistling or singing or making a noise of some sort.”

“But doesn't that disturb them?”

“Not on your life! While they hear you, they know you're there!”

Bill did more than justice to the mysterious looking curry old Jimmy had concocted; he was hungry enough to eat anything without question.

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Dinny rolling a cigarette in the firelight glanced across at him. “Tired?”

“A bit.”

“You can take first watch and relieve the cook. We'll do two hours each. I'm going out to the mob now and I'll send the cook in, so come out when you're ready.”

He led the spare night-horse out of the shadows and slipped quickly into the saddle. The horse took a few steps, then, without warning, ducked his head and bucked all round the camp. Turnbull jumped to his feet, brandishing a slice of damper. “Nice sort of night-horse that!” he snorted, casting an anxious eye toward the cattle. “Damned good job the right man's on him!”

Bill finished his supper in silence. For some time now he had cherished a secret ambition to try himself out on a buckjumper—an easy, straightahead pigroot for a start, anyhow—but he was quite certain that if he had got on that horse to-night, the first buck would have given him a view of the tree-tops. Dinny must have had an idea that the horse was fresh, and the boy felt dumbly grateful.

Then old Jimmy rode in. Bill lengthened the stirrup leathers and rode out to the mob. Until his eyes recovered from the glare of the fire he could see practically nothing in the darkness. By the wan light of a low crescent moon, a certain fine distinction of light and shadow came slowly into being, then the dark mass of the camping mob loomed before him. On the far side someone was singing “Waltzing Matilda.” It was funny to imagine Dinny singing. Dinny, whose everyday speech was reduced to the irreducible minimum, the soul of brevity, mechanically beefing out a bush ballad

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in a tuneful but lugubrious voice! Bill wanted to laugh out loud, but compromised with a broad grin into the darkness.

The song shut off abruptly. “Got your whip?”

Bill raised his right arm with the long thong looped over it and Dinny went on, “Well, don't use it unless you've got to. If a beast pokes out, turn him back without stirring up the mob. I don't think they'll rush, but if they do, go like hell to the lead and pour the whip into them till you wheel them.” He handed over a heavy silver watch. “Call me at half-past eleven. You know where I'm sleeping? Well … hooroo!”

Bill was alone. He touched the horse with a heel and started his patrol with the mob on his right hand. Most of them were lying down, but a few stood with muzzles slightly raised, and the sound of their cud-chewing was broken by an occasional gusty belch. He racked his memory for something to sing. … What songs did he know? He never sang except in the bath … but in public … of course there was “God Save the King.” Still … better not. The bullocks might be patriotically inclined … His job was to keep them lying down. What was that thing from The Merry Widow? … Or was it The Quaker Girl? He started timidly on “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes,” gradually increasing in volume as his first self-consciousness wore off.

On his second round, the horse quickened pace and veered away from the mob. Bill checked his song and peered into the darkness ahead. There was something purposeful in the way the horse had taken charge, and memories of the camp-fire reminiscences of Dinny and Tom Dixon on the unerring instinct of night-horses decided

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him to trust to his mount. He leaned forward and the horse quickened its pace. A moving blur against the shadows ahead stopped, and Bill spotted it for a bullock. The night-horse swung on to it and headed it back to the camp. As it disappeared into the mob, Bill slipped a hand up the smooth neck of the horse and caressed it gratefully. Then he treated the camp to further excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan.

The night-air was warm and balmy. Bill had not worn a coat for weeks, and as he rode along with shirt-sleeves rolled up, the mosquitoes keened in a cloud around him and gave him a key-note for his song, but several octaves too high. The moon seemed to linger a while on the rim of the horizon before it was quickly pulled down, and for a space the world was strangely dark. Then the sheer brilliance of the stars asserted itself, and in their light the world became a place of mystic inky blackness shot with long pennons and pools of molten silver.

He found himself lapsing into silence between songs. The silences unconsciously lengthened till suddenly recovering with a start he realized that he had fallen asleep in the saddle. The horse was still padding softly round and Bill hastily broke into song again. His eyelids drooped like leaden weights. The realization of his weariness had come on him with a rush, and an acute longing for sleep possessed him. Surely his time was nearly up. He lugged the heavy watch out of his pocket and peered hard at it from all angles. The hands were barely distinguishable but … his heart bounded … could that be half-past eleven! He had only to ride in and call Dinny, then bed—glorious bed! He turned

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the horse toward the low red glow of the fire, simmering with the comforting thought of sleep, when something prompted him to look at the watch again. He peered at it in the firelight. Doubt placed a chill finger on his dreams. That hand didn't seem quite as close to the top of the watch as it should be. It was half-past ten. Another hour to go! Oh, hell!

He rode morosely back to the mob, battling against sleep, and his weary voice took up a refrain that required little concentration and lasted a long time. The bullocks were camping well. Who wouldn't be a bullock and sleep when you want to! One lay well out from the mob and Bill began to use him as a tally-point to count each time he circled the mob. He tried to force himself to think about things, but it was hard to think and sing at the same time.

What about girls? They were easy to contemplate! But now that he thought of it he had been too busy for the subject to occupy his waking thoughts for a long time. The days had been too full of action; by nightfall you had barely energy enough for a meal before you slipped into the blankets and deep dreamless sleep.

Funny things, girls! Not that he had had much to do with them. There was that little girl with the long fair hair, on the ship coming out from England. He had kept aloof from every one for the first week or two, then he found himself watching the girl, thinking covertly about her but never daring to meet her. Then came the night of the fancy-dress ball … a tropic moon overhead. He had turned away from the dancers and leaned on the rail watching the play of moonlight

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on the sea when he had felt a warm lithe presence at his side, and a pretty lisping voice, “Aren't you ever going to dance with me?” He had looked down at the pouting mouth and a fierce desire to kiss it hard and long had made his head reel. Then he had laughed shortly. “Sorry, I'm not much of a dancer. Shall we go up to the boat-deck?” Yes, that was a gorgeous night!

It seemed so far away, so long ago, yet it was only a year. Looking back, it was hard to reconcile the reticent, somewhat sullen youth of shipboard to his present self, riding round a mob of bullocks in a starlit clearing—dense black scrub stretching for endless miles around and civilization incredibly remote.

A long-drawn wailing howl holding the quintessence of mournfulness and despair stopped the beating of his heart, froze his blood, and set his hair standing on end. Again it rose and quivered balefully in the night-air as though a port-hole of hell had gaped open to spill a foretaste of demoniacal torture.

Bullocks were getting to their feet; a couple advanced to the edge of the mob, shook their horns, and sniffed significantly. Bill swallowed his fear and pushed the horse on but his song had a quivering note threading it. Dingoes were bad enough to listen to from the heart of a camp with a big fire blazing, but that one sounded too close and too horribly blood-curdling. He wanted to crack his whip, to assert himself, to do something energetic; if he could even see the author of the fiendish howl it would help, but the forbidding black scrub shrouded the mystery and heavens only knew what other skulking things besides! He shivered and

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peered at the watch. Surely … He refused to risk disappointment by trusting to surmise, and deliberately completed the tour of the mob, jogged steadily over to get the light of the camp-fire and peered again. Half-past eleven! Hallelujah!

He turned the horse towards where Dinny lay, when a movement in the shadows there halted him, then Dinny's low voice. “Heard you coming. I'll be out in a minute!” He rode back and made a final triumphant tour of the mob, beefing out at the top of his voice … “A policeman's life is not a happy one … ha-appy one!”

  ― 72 ―

Chapter VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And after that …?” prompted Turnbull.

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

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

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

And the girls …! At that point an adventurous

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, what's wrong with him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  ― 81 ―

Chapter VIII

BESSIE MACANDREW noticed the man at the gate as she passed through the bare echoing hall with an armful of things to be packed. There was something familiar about him but for the moment she could not quite place him so she paused, screened by the fly-proof door, and peered out at the figure outlined against the sunglare of the street. The man's hand hesitated on the latch of the white wooden gate; a wide-brimmed felt hat hid his face, then as she waited, the gate was pushed open and the man came slowly through.

As he turned his back to fasten the gate, she remembered … “Bill Muir!” Then as he faced her and walked on to the veranda, indecision and reluctance in each and every step, she backed away, her hand pressed to her lips. She had forgotten the accident.

He could not see her through the gauze screen and as he still hesitated, her eyes searched for a vestige of the features she had known. The left side of the face was much as it had been, but the broken nose ended and distorted the resemblance. The other side of the face did not belong to the Bill Muir of the past. The skin, though pale, was unscarred, but the chin was squarer, the corner of the mouth had a tight, cynical twist, and the eyelid had a permanent droop. She

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gasped faintly and backed into a darkened doorway. Poor Bill … He had been so good-looking!

There was a faint knock at the door but she dared not go. Another knock, then the sound of slow retreating footsteps and she forced herself out, almost colliding with Bob in the hall. “You go!” She pushed him forward and rushed to the kitchen.

Half-way back to the gate, the caller heard the scrape of the gauze door being pushed open and a friendly young voice called an interrogative “Good day?” As he turned, left side first, young Mac rushed to meet him. “Bill!” Then he stopped dead, and his voice was slow and hushed. “Cripes … Bill … it … it must have hurt!”

Bill held out his hand, a twisted smile on his face. “I didn't think you would recognize me. No one else has!”

“Come on in!” Young Mac dragged the door invitingly open but the visitor still hesitated. “Come on. We're just packing up. Dad got the selection and we're all going down to New South Wales.”

“I'm glad about that, Mac!” He entered slowly and removed his hat with apparent reluctance.

A woman appeared at the far end of the hall, wiping her hands on her apron. “Who is it, Bob?”

“It's Bill Muir, mum!”

The woman came forward with hands outstretched. “I'm glad to see you, Bill, even if the house is nearly bare. Bob, tell Bessie to make the tea.”

“I won't stay, Mrs MacAndrew. I only got back today and thought I would look in to see … to see if …”

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“I'm glad you did, and I wish Tom was here. What a terrible time you must have had! Dinny told us all about it. Have you heard from him lately?”

He nodded. “I'm on my way to join him now. He's got me a job on a cattle station out west—on the Georgina. He's there now.”

Bessie entered with the tea-cups on a tray and he greeted her with a smile. She held out her hand and smiled back. Somehow he looked different when he smiled. It wasn't the Bill Muir of the classic profile. It was someone else … someone she didn't know … but felt she wanted to know. And when he looked quietly at you like that and smiled … the drooping eyelid, the tucked in corner of the mouth, all combined to add a spice of mystery, a hint of sophistication that intrigued. …

She passed the plate of hastily-buttered biscuits and settled opposite him with an added softness in her glance.

When Bill left MacAndrew's he crossed the deep gutter and walked down the middle of the dusty road trying to sort out the conflicting thoughts that alternately pushed him forward and dragged him back. At the corner, his twisted smile with the puckish quality about it announced that a decision had been reached. He turned abruptly to the right, counting the houses as he went. If his memory still served him, the slim dark girl lived hereabouts. He examined the house with its long verandas behind the parkinsonias.

“I wonder what she'll say!”