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  ― 115 ―

Chapter XII

THE big mob straddled the open downs like a huge hourglass with stockmen, black and white, hovering round the edges, punching the cattle back here or accelerating there. The leaders spread out through the dry, knee-high Mitchell-grass—reds and whites and roans trumpeting their displeasure at the humiliation imposed on them by the curtailment of their liberty. Back where the mob narrowed to a waist, a moving barrier of horsemen regulated the flow of cattle past the counters, and as the front mob grew and spread across the downs, the back mob contracted like the last dwindling grains of sand awaiting their turn in the upper glass.

They were through! The remaining handful swept past in a bunch to join their mates. A big bearded horseman glanced interrogatively at the rider opposite.

“Fifty-two?”

“Correct!” The bearded man turned to the stock-man checking the knots in a greenhide lace. “Ten … eleven … twelve!”

“Twelve hundred and fifty-two! That suit you, Bill?”

“Right, Harry!” Bill and Mac closed on the bearded head stockman while half a dozen aboriginal musterers


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chattered and laughed in high-pitched tones in the background at the prospect of a spell, now that the mob was mustered and delivered.

“Well, we'll get back.” The head stockman held out a hand. “So long … and good luck!”

The two camps drew apart, the station men and the blacks cantering off to the north while the drovers started the mob on its long walk south. Mac drew a long deep breath and there was an undercurrent of youthful excitement in the glance he threw at Bill. “Well, we're off!” He felt a new sense of importance under his stolid demeanour. This was the biggest mob of cattle Mac had ever handled and he looked with pride along the sea of sleek backs and horns. Twelve hundred and fifty-two bullocks—eight hundred miles. He worked out in his head what the droving cheque should be and his eyes gleamed at the thought of it—then sobered suddenly. He was a partner now—he had forgotten to halve it!

Strangely enough, Bill's thoughts worked along more practical lines; of the two, he was usually the more prone to flights of fancy and sudden ideas. They were bound to lose a fair number, Bill was thinking, the bullocks would get through all right but a lot of those heifers would crack up on a bad track. Yes, he would have to pick up a few more, but he would have to do it quietly. Mac had queer old-fashioned ideas about some things.

Next morning they moved off camp at piccaninny daylight after a restless night, the cattle feeding steadily over the downs with the dark green line of the river timber a mile to their right. Beyond that again, the


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desert scrub stretched its sombre olive foliage to the horizon.

Bill reined the bay horse alongside his partner. “Mac, I think we lost a few last night!”

“How?” A worried look spread over the stolid features.

“Easiest thing in the world to cut off a few, the way they walked about all night. If you and Tom will keep them moving …” Tom was the latest member of the camp, a middle-aged taciturn individual—“ … Dick and I will go out through the scrub and have a look round.”

Mac nodded hesitantly and rode on with a slightly puzzled expression. He trusted Bill—to a point—but some of his intuitions were built on rather airy foundations.

The sun was high overhead when the two men returned driving a mob of about fifty cattle which they merged in the main mob, then rode their sweating horses into the waterhole, stooping from the saddle to scoop up pints of water which they gulped thirstily. As Bill set his quart-pot on the fire, Mac looked up with wrinkled brows. “We didn't lose that many, Bill!”

“Oh well, it's best to be on the safe side.”

Mac opened his mouth to say something then changed his mind, but the vague, troublesome feeling remained.

They camped that night on a small plain bounded by dense gidgee scrub, and the cattle, still resentful at being handled, coerced, and torn from home, refused to approach the camp or to settle down. The flicker of the camp-fire was eventually masked with a screen of green boughs, and young Percy rode out to take the


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first watch, with Tim, the cook, to lend him a hand till the cattle settled down. Bill put his saddle on the spare night-horse and lingered by the fire for a final word with Mac before turning in.

A half-moon rode in the clear starry sky, its wan radiance swamped by the flickering, red glow of the fire. The cattle appeared to be steadying down. They sounded quieter, and over the night-air came the cook's monotonous chanting of a lugubrious bush ballad mingling with young Percy's rendering of a music-hall song as picked up from a gramophone. At the end of his song Percy's thin boyish voice was silent for a while then, cautiously at first, but gaining in strength, it rose again in the high-pitched rhythmic chant of a corroboree. Bill grinned at the boy's lapse to the aborigine strain in him as he sat on his blankets debating whether it would be wise to undress. The night was warm without a breath of wind, and he was taking the last watch with Tom. Oh, damn it, he would chance it! He placed his boots and stockwhip where he could lay a hand instinctively on them, rolled himself in a blanket, and was asleep in ten seconds.

Mac woke at the soft thudding of the approaching horse's hoofs and shook the sleep from his eyes. He drank a pint of hot coffee from the billy at the fire and mounted the night-horse, while the cook lit his charred old pipe with a glowing coal before rolling into his blankets. Dick West, yawning prodigiously, lounged over to the fire more from force of habit than need of warmth, then followed Mac on the spare night-horse.

Mac crooned his way out to the dim bulk of the mob. His musical repertoire was limited and, under his rendering,


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one tune sounded much like another. He could never remember the words, either, but bullocks are an uncritical audience and not at all fussy about little things like that. He rode round to intercept Percy who was beefing out “Clementine” from the back of the mob. The boy pulled up as they came abreast and his teeth flashed a smile in the moonlight.

“All right, Percy?”

“Yes, they're all right! Dick coming out?”

“You'll pass him on the way in.”

“ 'Night, Mac!”

The boy's song faded away toward the camp and shortly afterwards, the strains of “Mademoiselle from Armentières” in its full, uncensored A.I.F. version heralded the advent of Dick.

Mac yawned sleepily. Three hours and forty minutes to put in before he could crawl under the blankets again! The horse moved steadily round on its patrol and his formless monotone took its time from the muffled beats of the hoofs. If this were only a mob of sheep, he reflected sadly, they would be safe inside the break now and he would be sound asleep instead of riding round and round a lot of restless cattle. Still, there was more money in this. His jaw tightened determinedly; his own feelings and comfort would receive scant consideration where they interfered with the end he had in view.

He glanced idly over the mob. Most of them were lying down and those still on their feet stood like statues in the waning light of the moon. A heifer dodged through the mob with two or three steers trotting in pursuit, and Mac muttered wrathfully under his breath.


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On the opposite side of the mob a song broke off suddenly, and Dick's voice rose on an anxious note. “Whoa, bullicks! Whoa, there! Whoa-back, you wandering sods! Who-o-up!”

Mac's horse increased its pace a shade and the rider peered anxiously ahead. One side of the mob appeared to be on its feet and moving restlessly about. He joined Dick driving back a projecting wing that had started to stray away from the mob, and between them they settled them down again.

“Damned fine horse this!” said Dick. “Wouldn't mind owning him myself. Wonder what Bill paid for him?”

“Don't know, Dick. Whoa back there, bullock!

“Anyway, if they do rush, a man has a chance to wheel 'em before they hit the coast with a decent horse like this!”

Mac left him to steady the restless side and continued his patrol. When he came back, Dick was still addressing the mob with a steady stream of cheerful vituperation. “They're about as hard to settle as the mob we took down from Winardo last year. They rushed every night for damn near six weeks!”

“Did you lose many?”

“Too flamin' right, we did! Left a trail of broken horns all down the Georgina, an' the cook pulled out at Urandangie because the trees were getting scarce an' he wasn't going to get flattened out by no rushing bullicks, he wasn't! Used to pick an easy tree to climb, an' slep' under it every night. … Soon's the mob went he was up that tree like a goanna in his sleep. That was the trip the pommy bloke got killed.”




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“What happened to him?”

“Oh, he reckoned the mob wouldn't rush no more. They were all lying down and him taking it easy with his leg across the pommel of the saddle. Well, they went … an' so did the night-horse. … And they picked up what was left of the pommy in the morning.”

They separated again and Mac crooned his way thoughtfully round the mob. Save for an odd beast weaving restlessly about, the cattle lay peacefully asleep. The red half-moon hung low on the horizon and its waning light had almost surrended to the starlight. It must be near midnight; the biggest part of their watch still lay ahead of them, and he felt as tired as if he hadn't slept for a week.

The moon disappeared and for a time the earth was shrouded in dark mystery and filled with strange shapes that loomed up but failed to materialize. A change came over the mob—a restlessness that brought them slowly to their feet. They walked about, stalked calmly and silently off the camp with a train of eager followers till the two men were forced to canter back and forward nipping the sorties in the bud till at length the restlessness departed and the cattle sank to earth again with deep placid whoofs.

Peace reigned over the sleeping mob. Only Mac's monotonous drone, and “Paddy McGinty's Goat” from Dick insulted the stillness of the night.

Mac, glimmering through sleep-heavy eyelids over the quiet scene, clutched suddenly and wildly at the reins as the horse shot forward. A roaring thunder filled his ears. He was galloping madly through the night alongside


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a close-packed, hurtling stampede. The transition from perfect peace to pandemonium had been so sudden, so incredibly startling, that he was still unaware of everything but the menacing cataract of cattle thundering at his side, and his instinctive clinging to the saddle.

He jammed his hat down over his eyes, crouched down on the galloping horse, and yelled wildly against the thunder of hoofs and fierce clash of horns. He must wheel them, check the headlong rush. “Whoa, bullocks, who-oaa!

A sudden outbreak of crackling and crashing. Dark formless shapes flew at him out of the dark. They were in the scrub … gidgee … hard, unyielding as cast iron. He ducked low on the horse's neck with a hint of hysteria in his shouts.

Whoa—bullocks, whoa there!

The quick rhythm of the muscles under the saddle suddenly stopped, and the unseen earth yawned sickeningly below them—an awful sensation of falling … falling.… A cold sweat broke out on him. His heart was in his throat. Visions of going down under that pounding avalanche flashed before his agonized senses … trampled flat … unrecognizable. A muffled anguished bellow burst out and was suddenly stifled in the ominous thunder of hoofs.

Relief! They were galloping again, up a quick incline, through splintering timber, and the gully was left behind in the inky blackness. Was this the lead? He yelled fiercely at the leaders … again and again. They gave ground, swerving slowly, and the horse veered with them. A shout ahead! “Whoa there, you


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bastards! Whoa!” And the fierce bang-bang-bang of a stockwhip wielded with savage intent. Dick must be right in front of the mob—or was this a wing that had shot out behind him? They were steadying, ringing in the dark in a tight, choking maelstrom, churning up a dense cloud of dust that hung like a thick fog.

They stood off the milling mob, yelling at the top of their lungs, ready to dash out at the first offshoot of the tightly packed mass. From somewhere—he knew not where—came the fierce banging of a distant whip and Bill's wild yell. The mob must have split!

The ringing mob expanded, the pace eased, the thunder of hoofs died down, and suddenly the thick, dust-laden night was filled with the bellowing of fear-conscious cattle. The two men redoubled their efforts, imposing a physical, palpable antidote on the mental reaction of the stampede. They battled to hold the demoralized mob together, with whips rising and falling like flails and long-drawn shouts of “Whoa, bullocks, Whoaa! Whoa back there!” beating down the continuous bellowing.

A figure loomed out of the dust and yelled, “That you, Mac? How many have we got?”

Above the din he shouted back. “Don't know, Dick! How far are we off camp?”

“Couldn't say! Over a mile … maybe two. Christ, this horse can gallop!”

He plunged back to the fray, his loud, triumphant, laughing shout echoing above the turmoil. Even the excitement of the rush could not submerge his ruling passion. Progress was slow and difficult. The cattle stubbornly refused to be driven back toward the camp


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and little rushes kept swirling back, reclaiming in a few seconds the advance gained in minutes. Mac hailed the man on his left. “Dick!”

“Hallo!”

“It's no use killing the horses to flog them back. We'll try and hold them here till morning! Anyhow, Bill's out there with another mob and we can't get help till daylight!”

A dark wall of gidgee enclosed the clearing on every side. They rode wide of the mob, allowing them to expand and settle, but they positively refused to camp. All night long the cattle walked restlessly about, thrusting defiantly out in ones and twos, and sometimes a little mob would surge out with sullen determination and have to be flogged back.

Mac was dropping with sheer fatigue but the cattle allowed no respite, and ever-present at the back of his mind was the dread of what the morning might reveal. How many bullocks had gone down under the stampede when that gully yawned suddenly underfoot? He felt sick at the recollection of his own sensations in that ghastly second as they dropped through space. The tales he had heard of horses stumbling, riders thrown in front of the maddened horde! A man wouldn't have a chance in the world in that inferno. The sheer miracle of his survival prompted an admiration that amounted almost to reverence for the horse that carried him. He leaned silently forward and pressed a palm on the dank warm neck.

The dark hours dragged slowly on. Stars rose and stars set, constellations climbed the heavens and the Milky Way leaned its bow toward the horizon. All night


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long they rode ceaselessly round the cattle, Mac forcing a tuneless song with meaningless words from a dry parched throat and marvelling dully at the undaunted repertoire of his mate. Occasionally the faint echo of a shout reached them. Toward morning, the shouts and the crack of a whip drew nearer and they answered in return.

The cattle turned to stare suspiciously toward the disturbance. A bullock bellowed an inquiry—a long-drawn bellow answered it. Then as the eastern stars began to fade, a long string of cattle crashed through the timber to join them, and out of their dust rode an apparition on a black horse—Bill, clad only in boots and shirt, with one side of his face caked with dried blood. He nodded wearily at the two men. “Are you all right?”

Mac peered at him. “Hurt yourself, Bill?”

“No, I'm all right. Have we got them all?” He stood in the stirrups and surveyed the mob in the thin light. “Hard to say, yet. Can you two hang on for a bit? I'll send Tom down to relieve one of you as soon as Percy gets the horses.”

Mac struggled hard against the fatigue that dragged at him. “I'll stop for a while. Hadn't we better count them?”

“Percy and I will canter round the tracks first. Hooroo!

In spite of his weariness, the sight of Bill cantering back to the timber with his shirt flapping out behind, and his bare white legs, forced a tired grin to Mac's lips. The light climbed slowly in the eastern sky. He rode on to the mob, started them into action, then leaned forward on his horse's neck watching them feeding their way off camp.

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