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Chapter XVII

ELAINE woke to a musical jangling of bells, mellowed by distance, and lay still and wide-eyed with apprehension at the strangeness of her surroundings. It was quite dark. Beyond the wide inverted V of the tent opening, the stars twinkled with a clear, hard brilliance above the low, red flicker of the fire. Then remembrance came to her. … The smash … then an indelible picture of a man sitting staring motionless into a fire whose fitful flames lit a shadowy background of traceried branches.

How long had she slept? She stared into the dim vault of the tent above her in a sudden access of panic, then stilled it as the horses closed on the camp in a trampling, jangling mob of huge, shadowy forms circling the outer radius of the firelight with suspicious snorts before trooping on. And close behind them came a shadowy horseman cautiously urging a spirited horse between the fire and the tent to peer at her as she lay feigning sleep before he moved the horse on—almost on tiptoe, it seemed—in the wake of the others.

She sat up, stiff and aching in every bone, and throwing back the blanket, frowned down at her creased and crumpled frock. The effect was even worse when she rose to her feet. She found her shoes set on top of

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a neat pile of clothing in front of a hurricane-lamp, its low turned flame shielded by a box. She examined them with hesitant curiosity—a new, white silk shirt and a pair of white moleskin trousers with a soft satiny surface and the shop-ticket still attached. Were they intended for her? She measured the trousers against her—a shade long in the leg perhaps—then she listened intently. A single horse-bell tinkled and with it a sound of splashing water from the distant water-hole. Without further hesitation she slipped out of the white frock and let it flutter to the ground.

When the horses were rounded up again beyond the fire, she was sitting quietly and unobtrusively on the blankets, brushing her hair as best she could with the short-bristled, military hairbrush, and reflecting appreciatively on the thoughtfulness of her host.

The horse and rider appeared so quietly from the shadows that her quick start almost betrayed her presence, but the man never even glanced her way. He slipped noiselessly to the ground, the horse standing where he dropped the reins, then he reappeared beyond the fire holding up another bridle. At his low whistle, a horse detached itself from the others, came to him with long raking strides and allowed the bridle to slip over its shapely ears. Then it nuzzled at the man, took something from his hand and chewed contentedly. Other horses lounged up, pressing round the man with soft, questing, intimate noises. He looped the reins of the two bridled mounts to a bough, and walked out of the circle of light with half a dozen horses at his heels.

The girl wrinkled her brows thoughtfully with a feeling of impending adjustment to some of her ideas. This

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was something totally new to her in the handling of horses.

When the man returned, the first thing he noticed was a slim, boyish figure in white shirt and moleskins standing at the fire. She greeted him with a friendly smile. “Hallo, Lancelot! Any idea of the time?”

“It will be daylight in half an hour or so—but how do you feel?” His tone was anxious and he scrutinized her with keen, serious eyes.

“Quite all right, thanks! But do you mean that I've slept practically all night?”

“Most of it, anyhow. Do the clothes fit?”

“Fairly well—but a belt would be useful. Are they yours?”

He shook his head. “They belong to young Percy—the horsetailer. Good job he didn't take the parcel with him. I'll boil the billy, then if you feel up to it we'll make for town. Have you done much riding?”

She smiled demurely at his worried tone. “Just a bit. I'll try not to fall off.”

He shifted uneasily on his feet. “I've given you the quietest horse I've got, but he's fairly lively—no vice about him—but he's a stock-horse and not exactly a ladies' hack.”

“It's all right, Lancelot. I've lived most of my life in the country—believe it or not—and I won't disgrace you.”

They emerged from the scattered timber and hit the rutted track to town, riding side by side in the cool, crisp air. It was the last hour of night when all the faint, elusive bush perfumes steal out to haunt the air

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with their lingering fragrance before the scorching rays of the sun dessicate the atmosphere again. The world was a dim, mysterious place for flitting shadows and things that materialized threateningly out of the darkness and passed harmlessly by. The night sky was an all-enveloping mantle of deep fathomless indigo out of which the molten stars leaned low and intimate. Vision was limited even after the effects of the firelight had worn off; objects were sensed rather than seen, and the only thing to do was to surrender all trust to the more acute senses of the horses.

The man leaned from the saddle to open a gate. “This is another thing you can't do from a car!”

“True! And horses are not so liable to run into stumps.”

“Depends on the driver,” he flashed back with a grin. Their spirits were rising again and although Elaine shivered occasionally as the chill that precedes the dawning struck through the thin silk shirt her blood pulsed strongly with the elation of the moment. She longed for daylight to verify her impressions of the horse she rode. There was no need to urge it along. It strode forward with a long, raking stride, and when they broke into a canter as the false dawn paled the eastern stars, the easy, effortless swing with its hint of unlimited power and flexibility, responding to the merest touch of the reins or sway of the body, roused a glad, happy feeling within her. It gave her a flattering sense of superiority—of being monarch of all she surveyed—which at the moment was limited to a faint glimpse of the track beyond the horse's ears.

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The light spread higher in the east, putting the stars out one by one. In the grey light, objects took shape and form—trees and low, scraggy bushes bordering the track, a little mob of sheep huddled together at their approach like pale woolly ghosts and then poured away toward the dim smudge of the creek timber. Then the hidden sun launched a bright javelin across the heavens and followed it with a radiating shower of golden arrows. Cautiously his yellow rim lipped the horizon where it seemed to linger a moment to contemplate the territory abandoned by the fleeing rear-guard of night—and suddenly it was day.

“Have we far to go, Lancelot?”

“Not far, but we'll hit the pace up a bit.”

The track straggled ahead like a white haphazard ribbon, and they cantered along at a faster pace.

“I like your horses, Lancelot!”

He smiled his thanks at the greatest compliment she could have paid him and took advantage of the first daylight view of her to steal a glance at her eyes. Were they brown … or grey? More like grey, but the dark, curling lashes shielded them too well for certainty.

“Lancelot, is this horse faster than yours?”

“Do you want to fall off and break your neck?”

She swung indignantly on him. “Do you think I can't ride!”

“I know you can, but you don't know that horse. You'd only have to move a fraction in the saddle at a gallop and he'd duck from under you and leave you sitting on the track.”

“Re-ally, how interesting!” In the heat of the argument

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the pace had unconsciously increased to a fast canter. The faintly-smiling, sardonic features roused the girl to sudden rebellion. She pulled a face at him, an imp of perversity lurking in her defiant eyes. “Well, try and catch me!”

She leaned forward and the horse shot ahead like a suddenly released spring. The girl gasped and clung tightly with her knees. She shortened the reins and leaned out on the horse's neck with strands of the mane whipping her face. She was ablaze with exultation at the glorious sensation of pace, the smooth, effortless running of the horse beneath her and the white track slipping under the drumming hoofs like a rapidly-drawn carpet.

Suddenly she became aware of an outstretched head and a shiny ring bit creeping up level with her saddle. She threw a defiant side glance at the man sitting slightly forward on the bay horse, his hands low on its neck and a grim smile on the tight line of his lips. The girl crouched down, urging the horse on with her hands, her knees, her whole spirit calling for more speed. The wind whipped the tears from the corners of her eyes; she felt as though a continuous line of tear-drops were streaming back in her wake.

Bill's glance was tinged with admiration. She was riding the big horse all out, leaning forward on him like the graceful figure-head of a ship, with her short auburn hair whipping out behind her head. He looked ahead, then sitting down on the mount, tightened his knees and in a single bound the horses were racing neck and neck. Elaine's features were set with grim

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determination, her teeth gleaming between the tight-drawn lips. From the corner of an eye she glimpsed the man's mocking smile, then the bay horse drew steadily away from her in spite of her efforts. A length ahead … two lengths … and she had to lower her head under the biting rain of grit and pebbles from its heels. A shout from the man in front and he reined back with one hand upraised. “Gully ahead!”

She saw the thin straggle of trees rushing toward her and sat up straight in the saddle, easing the excited, reefing mare, but looked straight ahead till they crossed the dry creek-bed, and the untidy hovels of Japtown threw long shadows across the road. Then she turned with a pose of meekness that contrasted strangely with her dancing eyes, and held a hand toward the man. “I'm sorry, Lancelot. But, oh, it was gorgeous!”

He ranged alongside and gripped her hand tightly, masking his feelings behind a twisted smile but failing to quench the gleam in his eyes. Then, reluctantly, he released her hand and they rode on without a word.

The wide streets were empty. A few early risers were stirring on verandas or sweeping out doorways. They drew rein in front of the hotel and Elaine slipped to the ground. “Cheerio, Lancelot … and thanks!”

He looked down with a quiet, anxious expression. “You'll be at the races this afternoon?”

“Yes. Oh, what about that certainty?”

“I can't tell you till just before the race. I'll look out for you in front of the tote at the end of every race. Right?”

She nodded brightly, then with a final wave of her hand, disappeared through the doorway.

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Mac rubbed his eyes sleepily, and took stock of Bill disrobing against a background of long sunrays slanting across the veranda. “What was the dance like?” he inquired lazily.

“Not bad!”

“Have a good night?”

“Oh … fair.”

Mac stared at his partner. This preoccupied air was totally new within Mac's experience of him. “What was the girl like?”

Bill dropped on the edge of his bed and fixed gleaming, almost fanatical eyes on the man in pyjamas. “Mac, she's the finest thing I ever struck! She's great! A thoroughbred! She makes the rest of them look like boundary-riders' hacks. And she can ride! Man, you should have seen her sitting down on Comet, going like the hammers of hell!”

Mac dug his elbow into the pillow and stared in amazement. “I say, where did you spend the night?”

Bill halted his enthusiastic paean. “Oh, down at the camp. We took the Cokernut's whisky down, and just as we got there, Lizzie hung her front axle round a stump. Tim and Percy had cleared out—not a soul in camp—so we rode back this morning.”

Mac's face was devoid of expression but his tone was deliberate. “Then I suppose she accepted your offer?”

“What offer?” Bill stared nonplussed.

“You left here last night threatening to ask the first girl you met to marry you—and to tell her all your sticky past.”

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Bill looked blank. “Hell! I forgot! But I'll ask her next time I see her.”

“And tell her all about yourself?” Mac's voice had a sarcastic edge.

Bill hesitated and his eyes were troubled. “I suppose so,” he replied slowly. Then he picked up a towel and made for the shower, in pensive mood.