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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?”


  ― 5 ―

“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.