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Chapter XIII

DAY after day and week after week, the mob, losing its bloom and its sleek curves, kept steadily on its way south and east. As they progressed, the grass became shorter and scarcer, until even the dry woody tufts of the Mitchell-grass disappeared and left the wide frontage a bare forlorn waste, scarred by dry desolate gullies dotted with acacia and spidery lignum bushes.

The cattle took on a tucked-up, hunted look; their hip-bones poked sharply out under their dull hides and the weaker beasts gravitated to the tail of the mob and stayed there, barely dragging themselves along. The horses showed signs of the hard times in their appearance and in increasing lassitude. Every day the cook made an extra damper, and when Percy brought the horses in at daylight Bill walked out to meet them; his mounts would press eagerly forward, crowding round him while he broke up the damper and fed it to them, and then they followed him back into the camp for more.

Dick and Tom watched the performance sceptically at first, then one day, Dick surreptitiously caught his racehorse and spent five minutes teaching him to chew a crust. Mac raised objections to what he regarded as waste of good tucker and an unnecessary piling up of

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expense. In reply, Bill bought an extra bag of flour at Boulia. “Wait till your horses knock up and you'll know all about waste!”

Mac faced Boulia with misgivings about the men, and he unburdened his fears to his partner.

“Well, I won't get shickered!” Bill replied. “We'll have to let the others in to get a few things from the store, and none of them are wowsers, thank God, but I don't think they'll get shot or leave us. The Cokernut might … he's so dry, his skin's cracking. … But we'll have to chance it. He's a good old bloke!”

Mac agreed cordially with the last statement. As a cook, Tim put up with the disadvantages and short-comings of a packhorse plant without a murmur, and the camp fared extremely well at his hands. The night before they reached Boulia he handed Bill a grimy piece of paper. “That's the stores we'll want. Don't fergit the desecrated cokernut and another bottle of bifurcated magnesia. Me guts ain't the best, yet!” Bill smothered a grin and bent over the almost illegible list.

Next day the plant pulled up in front of the store. Pack-bags were replenished, bags of flour and sugar strapped on top, and the cavalcade jingled on. As they passed the pub, the cook sat erect on his horse looking neither right nor left. Bill, riding behind, made no comment but mentally put down a bottle of rum to Tim's credit at the end of the trip.

They had seen the last of the Georgina with its deep, winding channels overhung with lofty coolabahs, and its dusty cattle-camps littered with the dried dung of tens of thousands of bullocks whose impending fate was almost as tragic as that of the river. The west is a hard

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remorseless land—a country of frustrated creeks that sometimes run to fill a waterhole or two before they peter miserably out in some dry rapacious swamp. It tempts the river from the distant Territory tableland with promises of tributaries—that often fail to reach the mother stream, beckons it on for hundreds of miles past a thirsty sterile land, endows it with deep blue waterholes where the baramundi lurks, then heartlessly turns it this way and that, diffuses its gathering force into numberless channels and finally confronts it with a barren waste—leaves it to end ingloriously in the dead heart of the continent. A tragic river that never reaches the sea.

Boulia met them with bad news of the track ahead, and as they pushed on, they found that the news had not been exaggerated. Long dry waterless stages across open plains were followed by day after day without the sight of a blade of grass. The cattle refused to camp at nights. They would move ceaselessly about, lowing in quiet, hopeless tones. Horses plodded along with tucked up flanks and staring ribs. Bill's horses alone showed any life or spirit; he had doubled their ration of damper and they were doing most of the work. Two of Mac's original horses finally knocked up and had to be abandoned. The others could barely keep up with the mob.

They hit Diamantina Gates and headed up the Mayne through stony spinifex hills and a welter of river channels tangled with stunted gidgee. Cold nights added to the general misery, and even the men went silently about their work, infected with the prevailing spirit of depression.

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Then the rain caught them. One night as they camped between an arc of rocky hills and the river channels, a terrific thunder-storm rolled up. Since the cattle had ceased rushing at nights, they had reverted to single watches. When Mac relieved Dick West, ominous rumblings and flashes lit the heavy sky, and the cattle moaned restlessly. Between the flashes the darkness was almost palpable, and Mac had to trust implicitly to the horse. The storm drew closer, and the thunder took on an ugly menacing note, rumbling heavily through the hills till the ground trembled. The lightning was ceaseless and terrifying. It lit the quartz hills in vivid flame, enveloped the cattle in blinding flashes and zigzagged across their horns.

As the pandemonium reached its fiendish climax, the storm broke and the rain descended in a solid sheet. Bill rode out to help quieten the frantic cattle. Their restlessness developed into a general surging movement—now this way, now that—and the rain transformed the ground into a quagmire. They broke with a roar. The two men threw themselves at the lead and headed them to find the cattle splitting and scattering in little mobs all round them.

Bill urged his tiring horse to where Mac vainly tried to block an advancing mob. “Let 'em go, Mac!” he yelled against the storm.

His partner stared, nonplussed, then ranged alongside him. “But we … we'll lose them!”

“We'll lose them in any case! Let them go in a mob!” He rode back and drove the shivering remnant in the wake of the mob disappearing into the channels. Water streamed from the hills and lay on the flat in

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sheets. They piled logs on the fire, and built an earthen wall round it to stop the rushing water from putting it out. Then they congregated round the blaze—four taciturn men and the cook, with the rain coursing down their spines and overflowing their sopping, muddy boots. Percy was the only one who slept that night. With the inherited wisdom of his mother's race he had spread his blankets on a high-piled mound of boughs and spinifex, and covered himself with a tarpaulin. He woke at daylight, surrounded by water but rested and refreshed, and diplomatically veiled his cheerful grin from the disconsolate group round the fire.

It rained for two days, and the men sat moodily in camp, marooned in a bog with neither sight nor sound of their cattle. On the third day they ventured out with difficulty. The channels were beginning to run and it was imperative that the cattle be recovered before the river came down and cut them off. They penetrated the tangled maze of the channels, circling outside the tracks, turning in every scattered lot of cattle as they went, and Mac mounted on a bay pack-mare, one of his original string, brought up the rear, picking up the concentrating herd.

The mare was dull and lifeless and could barely drag her feet out of the sucking mud. In a narrow, steep banked channel with six inches of water trickling down it, she finally balked and stubbornly refused to face the bank. The cattle were straying away to the flank and Mac, in desperation, dug the spurs in and drove her at it. She reared … her weak hind legs slipped from under her, and she fell back on her side with the rider pinned underneath the saddle.

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Mac was not hurt by the fall but the mare's feet were up the bank, and all her weight bore down on his imprisoned thigh. She struggled feebly and a new fear seized him that she might roll over and crush him. But the mare seemed too listless to do anything but lie supine. His leg was feeling numb, so was the arm that propped his shoulders out of the water, and the realization of another source of danger forced itself on him—the water was rising rapidly. At this rate, it would not be long before the mare would be forced to a final effort—which might end finally for him—or alternatively, the swelling stream must soon submerge him. Either way looked hopeless.

He shouted at the top of his voice but the narrow banks threw the sound back at him. He tried to drag his leg from under the mare but only succeeded in slipping deeper into the stream—with the mare still on him. The crashing of a heavy body through the gidgee gave him hope and he shouted again. A bullock burst through the screen, slithered into the channel and stopped, gazing stupidly at the prostrate man. Then with a frightened snort it plunged up the bank and out of sight.

He had to struggle hard to keep his shoulders above the yellow flood. He was too numb and powerless to make another attempt to release his leg. Queer, fantastic thoughts kept flitting through his head. Why was he lying here waiting for death when he might be working comfortably at home? A vision of a high-spirited, wilful girl against a background of supercilious youths and laughing girls suggested an answer, but he stubbornly refused to admit it. It was his own fault.

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He had wanted to make money … a lot of money in the shortest possible time. But what good would all the money in the world be to him in a few minutes when he could no longer keep his head above the rising water! The chilly stream laid an icy finger on his bare neck. He summoned all his strength and screamed.

The crack of a whip sounded close at hand. He yelled again, and after what seemed an age came a questing “Hallo there!”

Here!” he screamed. “Here! Quick!”

A horse slithered down the steep bank, the rider glanced sharply downstream, then he turned and stared unbelievingly a second. “Christ!” His horse bounded forward and the man flew from the saddle to land feet first in the water with a splash. “Dick!” he yelled. “Hi! Dick!”

At the answering shout Bill stooped and slipped an arm under Mac's shoulders. The mare was lifting her head to keep it clear of the water and the situation looked too difficult for one man to tackle on his own. Then a horseman appeared up the bank, gave one swift look, and shot off his horse.

Mac looked down from the bank where they had laid him, and where they were lighting a fire, to his mudslathered mare standing abjectly below. Then he turned his head slowly and painfully toward Bill. “I think I'll stick to sheep after this,” he said.

It was an irony of fate that they should suffer all the discomforts of the rain and reap none of its benefits. When they turned south from the Mayne they faced a stretch of bare scrubland and dry grass where no rain had fallen. Two long dry stages faced the

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weak, dispirited cattle—over a hundred miles with only one doubtful waterhole on it.

They got through. They faced other difficulties and survived, but on every camp they left a broken remnant that had once been a sleek, spirited steer or heifer; each day, another and yet another beast fell out and was left behind.

Then one morning Bill rode ahead across red sandhills where camels wandered morosely, and found a stock-camp on the bank of a broad lagoon where squadrons of black and white pelicans sailed and manoeuvred in their hundreds. He returned to the cattle with a return of the old alertness in his bearing. “They're coming to take delivery in the morning!”

And there was no possible doubt about the sincerity of the heartfelt chorus of “Thank God for that!”

They rested themselves and their weary horses by the Pelican Lagoon for a full week before they made for the nearest town. It consisted of half a dozen houses in various states of disrepair—and a pub. And there, with the exception of Mac and Percy, they got gloriously drunk.