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  ― 105 ―

Chapter XI

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

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

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

From the shade of a coolabah he watched their steady


  ― 106 ―
approach, heads raised and wary eyes searching the timber. Even at that range their apparent quality excited his admiration and a comparison with his own horses yielded reluctant admission to the truth of Bill's scathing remarks.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




  ― 112 ―

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

“Territory!”

“Cattle?”

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

“Good sort of a horse, that!”

“He's not bad!”

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

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

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

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

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


  ― 113 ―
“Bit of a mixed lot there! What do you want for the black horse?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  ― 114 ―
looked searchingly at Bill. Then he croaked, “Where's Dinny?”

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

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

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

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

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