no next

  ― 185 ―

Book III


  ― 187 ―

Chapter XX

IT was very peaceful on the dark veranda. The night-air was warm and heavy, and the only regular sound that impinged on the velvety silence was the shrill keening of the mosquitoes. At intervals the slow gruff voice of Mac speaking on the telephone floated out, muffled and indistinct. From the dam a sheep bleated with a throaty quaver, and one of Mac's dogs at the back of the house rattled his chain and whined plaintively as he scratched himself. Bill, in shirt-sleeves, lay back half-asleep in a long canvas chair, indistinct in the darkness save for the ghostly white blur of his shirt and the intermittent glow of his cigarette. It was very peaceful.

The voice at the telephone ceased. The wavering beam of a lamp preceded the sound of heavy footsteps, then the fly-proof door squeaked open and slammed shut again. Mac deposited the hurricane lamp on a small table and subsided heavily into a chair. He had grown thicker with the years. There was no surplus flesh on his short-necked square body, and his weather-beaten features had a set mature look that gave him the appearance of being years older than Bill.

Except for a thinning of Bill's fine reddish hair and portents of its receding from the temples, he had changed very little.

  ― 188 ―

Mac broke the five minutes' silence that followed his return. “That was Morrison.”

A sleepy grunt from the man opposite. “What's he want? Sell more sheep?”

“No! Wants to know if he can bring out a buyer.”

“What sort of buyer. … Sheep? … Horses? Tell'm I got no horses for sale.”

“No! This fellow wants to look at the property!”

Hey!” Bill sat bolt upright in his chair and stared at his partner. “What did you tell him?”

“Told him I would have a yarn with you about it and let him know.”

“Mm-mm. …” Bill sank slowly back into his chair and relapsed into a thoughtful silence. Mac watched him steadily for a while, then cleared his throat warningly. “Well, what do you think?”

The man opposite stirred slightly. “Don't know yet! It would matter more to you than to me. I spend most of my time on the road and only use the place to spell my horses and have a bit of a lay-off myself. You've done all the work. Managed the place, improved it, bought sheep and bred them, and all I've done is to supply a bit of cash or draw a cheque when I feel like celebrating.”

Mac parried the shifting of responsibility with a question. “Well, what do you think of our prospects? We've made a lot of money. Seasons have been only fair, but we've been lucky, and sheep and wool are booming to-day. But what about to-morrow, and the next day?”

“That's what I'm trying to work out. Personally, I reckon the price they're paying us for our wool is too

  ― 189 ―
high to last. A few years ago we were glad to get eight pence a pound for it, and now they're paying around forty pence. And look at the price of sheep!” He shifted aggrievedly in his chair. “When a man offers you as much for a stupid woolly wether as for a good sort of a steer, there's something wrong somewhere!”

A faint smile hovered in Mac's deepset eyes. “Then you think this is a good time to sell?”

Bill hesitated before the direct question. “We-ell, if we could find anyone mad enough to buy at present values, we would be damned fools to hang on. But make certain that the cash is right! We don't want to hand things over for a stack of mortgages. What do you think about the proposition?”

Mac considered in silence, his lips pressed tightly together, then he delivered his verdict. “I'm willing to sell!” After a few moments he went on. “I didn't come to Queensland to settle down. Mind you, I like the place but … well, I want to go south again … not for a holiday this time, but for good.”

The dim light veiled Bill's mischievous smile but not the bantering note in his voice. “Going down to plank your bank-book in front of the girl and say … ‘Now then … what about it?’ ” He chuckled softly. “And you've only seen her twice in the last six years! She must be a marvel to have waited all that time for you!”

Mac wriggled uneasily. “It isn't just that,” he answered doggedly. “It's the old man. He's pretty sick and I don't think he'll last long.”

“Sorry, Mac. I didn't know.”

  ― 190 ―

Mac's eyes looked unseeingly out into the night, and he voiced his drifting thoughts in slow, hesitant phrases. “Our place down there is a bit small. I'll sell, and buy a bigger place. It's good, sound country. They have their droughts, but not like we get them up here—for years at a stretch.” He shifted his gaze back to the man in the chair opposite and hesitated a moment, as though diffident of approaching the subject. “What about our partnership, Bill? Will we keep it going in New South Wales?”

Bill shook his head slowly. “I don't want to break the partnership, Mac, and if you need the cash you can have it, but I'm sticking to Queensland. I don't like New South. There's something about it, and about the people. You can tell the difference as soon as you cross the border. Remember that manager, the time we delivered that big mob of sheep down there—your old man and Dinny and ourselves?” Bill mimicked, “Are you the drovah?

“That was nearly twenty years ago. He's been gone a long time.”

“There's plenty more like him. Maybe it's because they're mostly sheepmen. No, it can't be that, for they're different from the sheepmen in Queensland. And look at the horses down there!” His head moved dejectedly from side to side. “You can tell a man by his horse. I suppose they'd reckon I'm a flash coot—that my horses are only fit to put in a show, and are no good for work. But there's something else, Mac. I don't know what it is about some of the people down there—not all of them, I'll admit. A sort of meanness—a snobbishness. They look down their noses at you

  ― 191 ―
as if you had no right to be alive. They count every blade of grass in their damned little paddocks and threaten to play hell if a man puts his horses in for a night.”

“You're talking about the cockies—the small man struggling to make a living on a thousand acres. He has got to stock the place up to the hilt, and if a traveller comes along and sticks thirty horses in his paddock, you can't blame him for feeling sore!”

“Well, maybe. But if it's a crime for a man to own thirty horses in New South Wales, I'm stopping in Queensland.”

“But are you going to keep on droving all your life? Why don't you buy a place here and settle down?”

“I know … and get a wife … and be respectable. Thanks, Mac,” he added dryly. “I nearly took your advice once. And anyhow, I'm starting off next week with a mob of bullocks for your New South blasted Wales—if the mob isn't sold before we get there.”

“What did happen to that girl? Did she turn you down?”

“No! She was just out for a good time … and she happened to be married already!”

“Mmm, was that it! So you went back to the easy stuff!”

“Well, you know where you are with them, anyhow, though it's a bit monotonous at times.”

“You're getting old, Bill!”

“I suppose I am! You're not getting any younger either. Yet look at the difference between us. It isn't years that make a man old, Mac. When I was young

  ― 192 ―
I could walk down the street and pick out dozens of girls I would have married on the spot. Now I can only see the hundreds of women that I would hate to marry at any price!”

“You're suffering from alcoholic remorse. It's time you were back on the road again!”

“I daresay a bit of work won't do me any harm. Any woman looks good after a few weeks of corned beef and damper, and scenery that's made up of grass and gibbers and gidgee, and a view that's limited to the south ends of a thousand bullocks!”

He produced his tobacco-tin and rolled a final cigarette. Mac looked speculatively across at him. “Never hear any more of the married woman … the red-haired one?”

Bill bending over a lighted match shook his head faintly.

“Pity!” Mac soliloquized. “She's the only one I ever heard you really enthusiastic over. Still. … It may be a good thing. You always were unlucky with chestnuts!”

Bill rose to his feet and stepped off the veranda. From the dim limit of visibility he turned his head. “You go to hell!” he remarked curtly, then the darkness swallowed him.

  ― 193 ―

Chapter XXI

A COOL breeze swept down the wide empty street, pushing a swirling cloud of dust and papers in front of it, and leaving little eddies in every lane and vacant allotment in its wake. Although it was early spring, the raw breath of winter still dominated the morning air. In an hour or so, the heat of the sun might bring the butcher's dog out to his favourite camping-ground in the middle of the footpath, and the housewives of the little country town with long coats shrouding their dishabille would hurry from the baker's to the butcher's and on to Williams's Cash Store at the bottom of the town or to the more pretentious establishment of Horton and Young at the other end.

At the moment, however, it would have been possible to have carried out machine-gun practice the length of the main street without endangering a single life, and even if the battered, hoodless tourer parked outside the garage had been riddled, the loss would not have mattered.

The man slumped on the bench in a sheltered corner of the pub veranda, gazed moodily across the street at the War Memorial—a German machine-gun mounted on a rough block of concrete set in a patch of rank, dusty grass. From his seat it was just possible to decipher

  ― 194 ―
from the signboard a little farther along, that the dilapidated, weather-board building with the crooked veranda was the headquarters of a buyer of wool and skins. The bank next door stood back from the street, but at this early hour its gauze-screened windows looked bleakly on the scene of inactivity, and even the office of the local builder who signified his further profession of undertaker by exhibiting an artificial wreath under a glass dome in his one fly-specked window, looked as though depression had forced the builder through lack of trade to inter himself underneath it.

Bill was just debating whether to enter the empty bar and have another drink when a telephone bell woke the funereal silence of the pub. In the doorway he almost collided with the publican. “Your call coming through, Mr Muir.”

He propped himself against the wall, opposite a coloured print of last year's Melbourne Cup winner, and hello-ed into the instrument till a distant voice murmured wearily, “Here y'are!” Then a clear voice. “Hallo. … Who's speaking? Oh, it's you, Bill. … How are you? No, it's Bessie here … Bessie MacAndrew. You got Bob's letter? Yes, he got home just before Dad died, and he's been terribly busy ever since. Isn't it awful, the fall in the wool market. I don't know what we'll do this year. And sheep aren't worth selling. What were you saying? Oh, about Bob …? He wants you to come down and look at the property he has in mind. Leave it to him? But he wants you specially! Where is he? Oh, I forgot to tell you, he's down with scarlet fever. What's that?

  ― 195 ―
Oh no, it would be no good coming here. I'm nursing him and we'll be isolated for nearly a month yet. But they want you to stay at Camelot. The homestead's only two miles from us. Oh … won't you? Wait a minute till I see Bob!”

Bill relaxed with an expression of utter chagrin. Bessie's tidings were in keeping with the bleak depression of the outside street. Mac's letter reached him just before the end of the trip, and after delivering the bullocks, he had ridden on alone. Mac wanted his financial help in buying Camelot, but for some obscure reason, he particularly wanted his presence.

The receiver crackled again and a deep, well-known voice came out of it. “That you, Bill? Mac here. I know I shouldn't, but Bessie said you weren't keen on coming. Look here, Bill, I want you to come! There's a lot of dirty work going on here. I was just getting on to it when the fever knocked me. I suspect the fellow who was overseer at Camelot. He's been robbing them right and left. We're all working short handed here—this 'flu epidemic. Come and help us out till I can take over again. … You will? … Good man! … No … hold on exchange!”

Through the troubled indecision hazing his mind, two names were emerging and clamouring for recognition. “Atherton. … Camelot. … Atherton. … Camelot.” Then he recalled the last time he had heard them—under the big river coolabahs at distant Boulia where he had met Mac and his nondescript plant. “Atherton …!” His eyes glinted darkly as the name woke a deep hidden memory. Yes, he decided, he would like

  ― 196 ―
to meet this Atherton, just to satisfy his curiosity on on one particular point.

Bob's voice took up the running again. “No, it wouldn't be safe for you to come here, Bill. Camp on the creek? … Not on your life! … They're expecting you at Camelot. The old man's a fine fellow, a real gentleman. Too easygoing, though. Won't believe wrong of anyone. That's been his downfall. He's pretty sick, but tries to carry on. Game as they make 'em! You're riding, are you? Well, take the Bridle Track. … Yes, the way we went back. After you cross Middle Creek … about fifteen miles … turn down the creek half a mile. Then follow the Bridle Track across the hills. It's rough, but it cuts off five miles. So long, Bill!”

It was mid-afternoon when Bill topped the last ridge and looked on Camelot. The narrow path meandered down the cleared slope to join a straight well-defined track at a white wooden gate. A mile away, on the banks of a small creek fringed with oaks and an occasional gum, stood the homestead, its red-painted roof nestling among the green foliage of orchard and garden with a dark barrier of tall pines beyond. Behind the garden stood the station buildings and yards, and a wind-mill turned industriously. From its elevated position on the last gradual slope of the foothills the homestead looked out across a wide tract of undulating country, judiciously ring-barked and cleared till it resembled rolling park land, extending toward the haze of the western plains.

He stopped to water his horses at the creek, then rode on to the homestead with the packhorse following behind,

  ― 197 ―
stopping to nibble at an occasional tuft of grass, then trotting along to make up the lost time. Bill turned off between the homestead and the outbuildings, skirting the tall, silver-grey saltbush hedge that surrounded the garden. Half a dozen dogs broke into a frenzy of barking, then a man's head emerged cautiously from a doorway and watched the horseman approach. His slow gaze shifted wonderingly from the rider to the clean-limbed, upstanding packhorse following of its own volition.

He accepted the horseman's “Good day” without altering his expression, merely keeping his eyes on the stranger in invitation of a further disclosure of his business.

“This Camelot?”

“It is!”

“Where'll I find the boss?”

A thumb indicated the homestead. “He might be on the veranda.”

Bill eyed the reluctant donor of information dispassionately, then rode back to the main gate and dismounted. A broad carriage-drive swept past the front of the house, and between the gate and the wide stone steps his eye noted the evidence of neglect here and there. Only the strip of garden bordering the veranda showed signs of recent care—the rest had been allowed to run wild.

As he hesitated on the edge of the veranda, a pleasant voice called, “Come in! Would you mind coming round here, please!”

Bill walked to the corner of the veranda, his spurs clinking musically at each step. The cultured voice

  ― 198 ―
hailed him again, “Are you Mr Muir? We've been expecting you.”

The visitor saw an elderly man with a clipped grey moustache, and his head quite bald except for a fringe of grey hair round the sides. He wore a dressing-gown and sat, propped up by pillows, a rug covering his knees, in a long chair. His skin had a strange yellowish pallor, and the hand he stretched toward the visitor was thin and shrunken. But the genial warmth of his welcoming smile emphasized the sincerity of his speech.

Bill released the thin hand. “I must apologize for butting-in on you, but Mac insisted, and I couldn't go on there.”

“We're very pleased to have you, and I hope you'll make yourself at home. I really must apologize for having no one here to meet you, but we are rather short-staffed at the moment and we find it impossible to get further help with this influenza epidemic raging.”

“I'll be all right, thanks!” Bill glanced toward the gate and hesitated.

The elder man read his gesture. “You would like to look after your horses? You'll find the gate to the horse-paddock just behind the yard. Did you see anything of Tom?”

“The old fellow?”

“Yes. He'll show you the paddock and the saddle-room.” He leaned sideways on one elbow and peered in the direction of the gate, then he dropped weakly back into the chair and looked up with a faint apologetic smile. “Excuse me, but I was trying to get a look at your horses. You see, I've heard all about them.

  ― 199 ―
Bob has told us so much about you and your horses that I can't look on you as a stranger.”

Bill's constraint ebbed before a wave of sympathy. His early stiffness thawed at the discovery of a common bond. “Would you like me to bring them inside after I pull the saddles off?”

The clear-cut features lighted eagerly. “Will you? I would appreciate it very much. I can't get about to see things for myself, nowadays, and I must confess to a weakness for horses!”

Bill nodded silently and turned away with a lump in his throat. As he led the two horses to the outbuildings, a thought suddenly froze his mind. “Suppose I was lying there, weak and helpless, in a little world bounded by a saltbush hedge … cut off from my own world … the company of men … a life of action … and horses! It would be hell!”

The invalid leaned forward against the arm of the chair, his avid eyes concentrated on the two horses striding smoothly at Bill's shoulder. One was a deep-girthed, broad-chested bay with wide forehead and clear intelligent eye, clean-boned and hard-muscled, a perfect model of speed and stamina. The other bay horse was richer in colour, with a running star on its forehead and white hind feet. There was breeding in every line—in the tired but still spirited carriage of the shapely head, in the full, undaunted eye and the rich satiny coat with the veins standing out through the dust and dried sweat of travel.

Bill dropped the reins and the horses stood calm and fearless in the broad drive in front of the veranda. The old man leaned forward in the chair to his full extent,

  ― 200 ―
his eyes burning with a strange happy light, his nostrils greedily inhaling the warm horse-smell that woke the nostalgia deep in his heart, his thin fingers itching with the desire to run their sensitive tips up the neck, across the sloping shoulder, then down the forearm and the flat cannon-bones to the clean round fetlocks.

“They're not looking their best.” Bill was mildly apologetic. “They're tired and leg weary after four months on the road with cattle. Coronet, the bay nearest you, is a picture when he's in condition.”

The old man lifted a protesting hand. “I'm seeing them at their best! Fat may cover a lot of faults on a horse. Hard work brings out the blemishes.” He sank wearily back into the pillows, his eyes still feasting on the animals, and he shook his head sadly. “I thought I was quite resigned to … things, but you make me long for my youth again.”

When Bill picked up the trailing reins and started off to the paddock, the old eyes followed the departing horses out of sight, delighting in the clean, easy action, and reflecting warmly on the confidence existing between the horses and the man. Gradually the exhaustion succeeding the unwonted expenditure of energy flowed over him. A happy contented smile lingered on the wasted features for a little while, then slowly faded as the insidious, stabbing pain deep down inside re-awoke and racked him once again.

  ― 201 ―

Chapter XXII

CORONET rose to his feet with a vigorous grunt of contentment, shook the dust off in a thick cloud, and followed his mate up the paddock with a long-drawn snore at the prospect of unhobbled freedom. Bill leaned on the gate watching them with a fellow-feeling—sharing their pleasure. It worried him more when seasons were bad to know that his horses were short-hobbled on poor feed than to go hungry himself. His perfect contentment demanded as a foundation the knowledge that his horses were comfortable. Then he could go ahead and enjoy life.

He had almost completed the disposal of his saddlery in the dim harness-room when a torrent of barking heralded the approach of someone. The uproar died away to an occasional yelp of pleasure, so he concluded that the latest arrival belonged to Camelot, and went on with the job of hanging the pack-bags out of reach of the rats.

A black kelpie pup bounced into the doorway and greeted the intruder with a falsetto woof of challenge and an expression that betokened doubt as to what to do next, coupled with instant preparedness to do it. Bill glanced down at it with an encouraging “Hallo, pup,” and it immediately switched on the broad disarming

  ― 202 ―
smile that belongs solely to puppyhood and wagged its tail and its entire spine with it, to show how pleased it was to meet him and to beg to be excused for its stupidity in not recognizing him at once.

A businesslike beat of hoofs approached the saddle-room and Bill slung his stockwhip over one shoulder and emerged into the glare of the sunlight, calmly ignoring the fawning puppy at his feet. His first glance took in the mount—a quick, general impression of the well-bred mare, then a keen glance at the legs, at the shoulder, and at the head. Then he glanced casually at the rider—a girl in riding-breeches, tan boots, and a fawn coat—and his casualness vanished in a flash. He stood rooted to the spot, staring incredulously at her.

“Hallo, Lancelot! So it really is you!”

Elaine!” His lips framed the word reluctantly, as though afraid to believe and find himself mistaken. He could only stand and stare at the laughing, animated face with the dark auburn hair curling softly from under her hat.

The girl dismounted and approached with outstretched hand. “I'm not a ghost! Aren't you going to shake hands?”

He gripped not only one but both her hands, and their firm warm contact loosened the spell on his tongue. “Elaine! What are you doing here?”

She smiled serenely back. “I live here!”

“But what is your name … your real name?” he demanded.

“Elaine! It really is! Elaine Atherton.”

Atherton!” he echoed. “Not Barlow? Aren't you Mrs Barlow?”

  ― 203 ―

She threw her head back and laughed a long rippling laugh. “No, of course not! What makes you think that?”

“That time you were in Longreach … at the hotel. … They told me you were Mrs Barlow.”

The girl continued to simmer with merriment. “Good heavens, no! I was travelling with Mrs Barlow and the room was booked in her name. That's probably how it happened.” She threw an accusing look at him. “You are the base deceiver! Lancelot … alias Bill Muir!”

Bill blinked. “How do you know? Who told you my name?”

“No one gave away your secret. But when Bob MacAndrew told us about his partner and his mania for horses, my innocent questions brought a close description of Lancelot. Quite simple, isn't it?”

But Bill did not join in her infectious merriment. He was suddenly and deadly serious, confronted by a disturbing conviction that must be settled one way or the other. “Then you … you must be the girl …”

The girl?” she queried mockingly. “Lancelot, that's a leading question!”

“The one that Mac …” Bill stammered and was tongue-tied, then plunged desperately on. “Didn't you and Mac go to school together … I mean …”

“We had the same governess when we were kids, if that's what you mean.”

“Then …” he began, and stopped hopelessly. An icy-cold stream was pouring in on his muddled thoughts, quenching the gathering conflagration inside him and putting out the fire in his eyes as the situation slowly dawned on him. He released the girl's hands and took

  ― 204 ―
the reins of the impatient mare. “I'll let your horse go,” he said quietly, and busied himself releasing buckles with hands that moved mechanically without need of help from his numbed brain.

Elaine watched him in a perturbed silence. The injured side of his face was toward her, the drooping lid and twisted corner of the mouth shielding his thoughts and feelings like a mask. The change in his manner had been so complete … so sudden. What was the reason for his insistent questions about her and Bob? Then the tension of her features slowly relaxed in a faint smile. So that was it!

She fell into step beside him as he led the unsaddled horse to the paddock and plied him with questions about his trip, about the cattle, then adroitly switched on to the subject of his horses. Gradually the brief replies lengthened and began to lose their flat, mechanical tone. How many horses had he brought to Camelot? Only two! Why hadn't he brought all his plant and given them a good spell?

He threw her a searching glance from the corner of an eye and there was more than a hint of sarcasm in his reply. “If I brought thirty horses down through this State they'd reckon it was a travelling circus. Anyhow,” he added casually, “it wouldn't be much of a spell. I'll be going back in a day or two!”

She leaned against the paddock-gate and looked levelly at him for a moment, then she asked seriously, “Did Bob give any reasons for asking you to come here?”

“Nothing definite! I don't see how I can help him. It's hard luck that he's laid up, but he could find dozens of better men than me … I'm not a sheepman.”

  ― 205 ―

“Wait a minute!” Her expression was serious. The last hint of flippancy had left her, and tiny crow's-feet gathered at the corners of her eyes. Somehow, Bill was beginning to realize that this girl was different from the Elaine of Longreach. The old gay spirit had bubbled up at their first meeting, but now he was finding a depth to her character, a maturity that enhanced rather than detracted from his original impression of the girl.

“Did Bob mention anything about Camelot? Our financial position, or anything connected with it?” Seeing him hesitate she went on. “I may as well tell you frankly that our position is … well, it's serious! It took me a long time to realize it. We always seemed to have plenty of money to spend, and even when we gave up our home in Sydney and settled here, I did not understand the real reason. Even after Mother died, it was a long time before Daddy took me into his confidence and gave me an inkling of things. Poor old Daddy! He's an idealist. … Always wanted to have the best sheep … the best horses … and all his life he has been so unbusinesslike that really we're lucky to be still here. He has been fleeced by his managers. He always seems to have bought sheep when prices were high, and sold them when they were low. For the last few years I have tried to steady things a bit but our bad luck still clings to us. Remember that big fire some years ago when a city wool-store was burned to the ground? We lost all our wool in that!

“The rise in wool prices helped a bit, but for years our sheep have been disappearing—we don't know how. Bob thought he had discovered a clue, and he worked

  ― 206 ―
day and night on his own place and helping me here. Then he got sick. Since then, more sheep have gone. When Bob found he would be shut up for six weeks he sent for you. And that's the position,” she concluded simply.

Bill considered a while in silence, then he asked, “Do you suspect anyone in particular?”

The girl shook her head slowly. “I really couldn't say. Old Mr MacAndrew blamed the overseer we had, but after Mr Williams left, the losses still went on.”

“Did he go to another job?”

“No. He bought a small place about fifty miles away. I thought he was quite all right. He was a good man with sheep and his dogs were wonderful.”

Bill nodded abstractedly. He would have to get Mac's version. As they walked slowly back to the homestead, Elaine asked quietly, “Have you seen Daddy?”

“Yes, when I arrived. He was anxious to see the horses.”

“Yes. He's awfully keen on good horses. We have one or two quite good ones here—in spite of the fact that we don't live in Queensland!”

He smiled at the sly dig as he held open the gate for her. She gestured despairingly at the neglected garden. “Isn't this wilderness a depressing sight! I'm afraid we'll have to let the horses in to keep it down. We used to keep a gardener once, but now …!” She shrugged eloquently, then her manner changed and the grey eyes sparkled mischievously under the long eyelashes. “I suppose I'll have to call you Bill, now! Or perhaps I'd better stick to Mr Muir!”

“Please yourself … Miss Atherton!”

  ― 207 ―

She advanced threateningly on him. “Lancelot, if you ever call me Miss Atherton in that tone of voice—or in any other—I'll slay you on the spot! I'm going to call you Bill to avoid complications … if I can remember not to call you Lancelot! By the by, did you ever tell Bob … or anyone … about our meeting in Longreach?”

“I told Bob what happened to the car that night, but mentioned no names. He drew his own conclusions, and I didn't trouble to argue with him. I knew he wouldn't believe me.”

“Bob is a bit Victorian in his ideas about women, although if I admitted to anyone at all that I spent the night at your camp … in your bed … it would be very hard to convince them that I'm not a fallen woman!” She chuckled softly. “Bob was quite upset at missing me. I didn't let him know I was arriving; in fact, we didn't expect to stop in Longreach … and I really tried to get him on the telephone from the hotel but couldn't raise him.”

“No wonder! He was in town at the time himself. I tried to get him to come to the dance, but he wouldn't. He stayed away from the races. Has no interest in horses and he never bets, although I did my best to get him to come in on the black filly that time we made the clean-up.” He stopped, then added thoughtfully. “I wonder if things would have turned out differently if he had met you then!”

“Why do you ask that?”

“I don't know.” He answered off-handedly, and they continued along the path in silence.

Alone in his room Bill leaned back in a chair and let

  ― 208 ―
his divided attention wander between an inspection of his new quarters and an attempt to sort out the tangle of his thoughts and feelings. It was a big, high-ceiled room, tastefully furnished, and opening on to a wide veranda that looked out toward the eastern hills. Bill decided to sleep on the veranda where he could see the stars when he woke at his usual hour for going on watch, and enjoy the luxury of turning over and going to sleep again till daylight.

The sound of a fast-moving car grew louder, and he stepped out on the veranda as the engine stopped. A stoutish, middle-aged man in a white dust-coat got out and walked straight toward the house like one who was well acquainted with it, and Bill returned to his room. Two incidents stood out in his mind above all others—two that he would not previously have thought could have affected him in the slightest. First, the shock of meeting Elaine again, and then the discovery that she was the girl for whom Mac worked, of whom he had dreamed since he was a boy. His first inclination had been to saddle up and ride back to Queensland where Percy was waiting with the horses. Only the recollection of Mac's urgent appeal for help had momentarily stayed him, then Elaine's frank statement had caused him to postpone the impulse, but he knew he could not stay on here under the same roof.

He would spend a few days riding round the property, starting out at daylight and returning at dark, and he could always plead weariness to evade the possibility of social contact in the evenings; then if he found that the job was beyond him, he could say so and go north again.

  ― 209 ―

There was a tap at the door, then Elaine's voice, “Can you spare a moment, Bill?”

He opened the door and followed her in silence, thinking how strangely subdued she was. She paused at the end of the hall and looked steadily at him. There was the faintest tremor in her quiet tones. “Bill, I want you to do something for me! I hate to ask you, but … the doctor will tell you!”

She ushered him into a large, dim room. “This is Mr Muir, Dr Anderson. I'll leave you for a few minutes, if you'll excuse me!”

The doctor and Bill took mutual stock of one another. Bill saw the tired, lined faced of a man of about fifty, the eyes bloodshot, with heavy pouches underneath, and the grey suit sagged on him as though it had been made for a bigger man.

The doctor's eyes travelled rapidly over the man before him. The clear deeply-tanned skin, the easy athletic poise, and the firm hand-grip told their own tale. The eyes were reserved but clear, and met him steadily, and his professional eye lingered on the injured side of Bill's face. “How did that happen?” he asked.

“Horse kicked me,” Bill replied laconically.

“Before the war?”

Bill nodded.

“Thought so!” The doctor desisted from his scrutiny and glanced keenly at him. “Ever use a hypodermic needle?”

“I've inoculated a few thousand cattle,” was the casual reply.

“Never used it on a human being?”

Bill shook his head, vaguely wondering why there

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should be any difference between sticking a needle into a human being or into a bullock. A man would be easier to handle … no need to yard him and run him into a crush.

The doctor produced a small plated box. “I'll show you how to do it.” He fitted the syringe together and bared his forearm for Bill to experiment on.

“That'll do! You'll manage it.” He handed over a thin brown tube. “That's the morphine—one tablet at a time.”

Bill looked up with a slightly bewildered expression. “I haven't quite got the idea yet. Who do you expect me to use this on?”

“Didn't Miss Atherton explain? Oh, I'm sorry! It's her father. … The pain's growing too severe, and he'll need this to get any rest. Miss Atherton will nurse him. I'm afraid he's too weak to leave his bed again, unless he's lifted bodily. But she can't stand the idea of giving him the needle. Lots of people are like that where their own family is concerned. Will you take it on?”

Bill frowned. “But I can't stay here for long! Who's going to do it then?”

“I'm trying my hardest to get a nurse … two nurses if possible. But so far, I've had no luck. This damned 'flu has filled all the hospitals, and there doesn't seem to be a nurse available in the eastern States, but I'm still trying.”

“When will you be out again, doctor?”

The grey head shook gloomily. “God only knows! I'm going night and day in there. Ring me up if

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there's anything you want to know. I've got to get back, so good-bye … and good luck!”

He passed through the doorway, leaving Bill staring at the shining instrument and the deadly little tube, seeing in them further links in the chain that bound him against his will, curtailed his freedom and the saving instinct to get out while the going was good.

  ― 212 ―

Chapter XXIII

THE first sleepy note of a magpie brought Bill out of bed before the dawn, and as he dressed in quiet haste, the rest of the magpie clan in the dark pine-trees joined in the morning hymn in one and twos, their limpid, clear, rounded notes tumbling over one another in a cascade of lavish melody. A kookaburra chuckled sardonically at sight of the man striding up the horse-paddock in the misty grey-blue light with a whip and a bridle slung over one shoulder. Bill was back at the yard with the half-dozen horses the paddock yielded by the time the sun had heaved himself over the hilly skyline, and his expression as he glanced over the station hacks was anything but flattering to them.

As he passed through the kitchen, the woman cook, fat and frowsy, answered his “Good morning” perfunctorily, with a faintly hostile look as though she resented the fact that anyone should usurp the cook's prerogative of being up first. In the hall he almost collided with Elaine wrapped in a kimono, her auburn hair in glorious disarray. She threw him a sleepy smile. “I'm not used to visitors who get up before the magpies. Go in and have a yarn with Daddy till I get dressed.”

The old man smiled wanly as Bill entered the room and perched cautiously on the edge of the bed.

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“Had a good night?”

“Quite good … till the effect of the morphine wore off. You were up very early. Didn't you sleep well?”

“Very well, thanks. I feel like the Digger who reckoned he'd hire a bugler to play reveille every morning just for the pleasure of telling him to go to hell, and going to sleep again. When you've been on the road watching cattle every night, you get into the habit of waking regularly when you're due to go on watch. It's great to know you don't have to roll out in the cold and ride round the mob for a couple of hours in the dark.”

The sunken eyes warmed as they watched him. “Did I hear you getting the horses in?”

“Habit again, I'm afraid. I hope I'm not doing someone out of a job!”

“Tom won't mind. He would only be starting out now, in any case. By the by, we'll have to get you something to ride. Your own horses must have a rest.”

Bill hesitated. He certainly wanted his pair to have a spell, but he could not foresee much pleasure in riding anything else in the yard. Elaine's brown mare was all right, but still, it belonged to her. Atherton seemed to divine his thoughts. “I have one or two quite good horses in another paddock, although some of them haven't been ridden for a long time. It's so hard nowadays to get men who will get on a horse unless they think he's perfectly quiet.”

“I know!” Bill studied the patient thoughtfully. He was beginning to realize the depth of suffering that the man had striven to conceal, and his admiration went out to the spirit behind the wasted frame. “You should have had another needle last night!” he told him. “Do

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you mind if I bring my bed along the veranda near your door?”

“You mustn't worry about me—and you're certainly not going to lose your sleep on my account.”

“I won't!” Bill assured him. “I'll come in and have a look at you when it's time to go on watch. I say …” He pondered a moment, groping for the words. “Just exactly what is the trouble? Don't tell me if you'd rather not!”

The face on the pillow wore a thin smile. He glanced cautiously toward the door of Elaine's room, then he whispered one word.

Bill's face grew grave. “But can't the doctors do anything?”

“Too late!” the low voice answered. “I went down to Sydney not very long ago, and consulted a specialist. He decided to operate immediately.” He paused with another significant glance at the door. “They did. … But it was too late … so I came home.”

“You mean …?”

The head on the pillow nodded quietly. “They gave me a month … perhaps two!”

Bill walked slowly to the veranda doorway and looked out through eyes that did not see the neglected garden or the winding line of the creek timber, but seemed to focus on something far beyond in the distant invisible land of the plains. Then he moved back to his seat near the foot of the bed and his steady eyes carried a message of assurance to the man lying there. “I want you to let me know whenever I can help you!”

The head nodded dumbly, and Bill went on to unfold an idea that had occurred to him. “Do you mind if I

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send for one of my men? I would like to have young Percy handy. He's a fine horseman … a half-caste, but miles ahead of a lot of white men.”

Atherton hesitated. “I would be very glad, but …”

“It's only to help me out. As soon as this 'flu passes there will be plenty of men looking for jobs, then we can move on.” He was more than pleased when Elaine entered the room, bright and cheerful, and created a welcome diversion to a conversation that was becoming rather involved.

The girl rode out with him after breakfast to muster the horses out of a two-thousand-acre paddock that ran up into the flat-topped hills. They had traversed more than half of it when Bill drew rein and pointed silently ahead. On the crest of a hill a horse stood silhouetted against the sky, head held fearlessly aloft, mane and tail floating out in the light breeze. It lingered for a space of seconds, the epitome of glorious, untrammelled freedom, beauty in every splendid line—then suddenly it was gone.

Bill jammed his hat down on his head as Coronet shot forward like a rocket with the girl galloping hard in the rear in a vain endeavour to catch up. Bill eased his horse on the bouldered slope, steering a diagonal course through the timber that would bring him out on the flank of the mob. The picture of the horse on the hilltop had fired him, stirred his blood to a fierce, joyful anticipation. It was evident that Coronet realized equally what was afoot, and the rider was forced to steady him all the way up the steep slope. The summit rose in an abrupt rocky wall, and in the momentary

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pause, Bill remembered the girl. He walked his horse stealthily along under the barrier, searching for a gap till Elaine burst through the trees, flushed with excitement, her eyes sparkling, and the brown mare blowing and already edging the saddle-cloth with a creamy lather.

He cautioned her to silence, and the horses scrambled up a narrow break in the rocks and gained the fringe of wind-blown timber of the summit. The flat top of the hill was covered with bushes and a few scattered trees. A quarter of a mile away an iron-grey head and shoulders appeared suddenly above the bushes in a tense listening attitude then, apparently satisfied, the horse went on feeding.

“We'll get as close to them as we can!” Bill told her in a low voice. “I'll get round them and turn them down to the flat. You keep them from breaking out behind me—send them along as hard as you can. We'll tie a knot in them down below!”

Bill rode slightly ahead, his horse questing eagerly with pricked ears and on its toes with the tension that flowed to it from the rider. Elaine impatiently urging her slower walking horse along in the rear, just caught a glimpse of a horse's head lifting suspiciously from the scrub, heard the shrill snort of warning as it disappeared, and the sudden clatter of many hoofs. She saw Bill on Coronet, lengths ahead, going through the timber like a streak, racing out to head the horses careering across the plateau with manes and tails streaming in the wind.

A stockwhip banged somewhere ahead. She dashed through the scattered timber to find herself on the sheer

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brink of the hill, and with a frantic effort swerved the mare on the crumbling edge and galloped along it till she hit a sharp declivity scored with the hoof-marks of the mob. Away down the rocky hillside she saw them streaming with a rider out on the flank. She did not pause to think of the danger. Her blood was up, and if Bill could gallop down there, she was going to follow. The mare needed no urging, and with teeth set and the wind whipping her hair straight back from her head and the tears from the corners of her eyes, she plunged headlong down the rough slope.

The hill was flattening out … the boulders were getting fewer … and the trees were bigger and statelier. The brown mare floundered as a rabbit burrow gave way under her, but the girl pulled her to her feet and they sped on.

The timber thinned and the mob lay ahead of her, hoofs drumming in the light screen of dust. She saw the bay horse race up and challenge the brown mare leading the mob. They swerved with the rider still holding the lead … yelling at them … his whip swinging. They stopped, bunched together, and just then Elaine arrived.

Coronet was streaming with sweat, and the gleam of battle was in his rider's eye. As she rode up, he shouted, “You go ahead! Ride on to the gate and steady the lead. Keep going till we hit the yard!”

Elaine cantered off, looking round to watch Bill starting the mob in her wake. They came on, the brown leader drawing level, challenging her position, till she drove it back. A faint track led from the gate across that paddock and the next, till the station buildings

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and the yard hove in sight and she sensed the mob checking distrustfully behind her. She reined her mare and looked round. Bill's whip swung menacingly, urging the suspicious horses. Then he looked up and yelled, “Go on! Don't stop!” And she moved ahead through the high gateway of the yard with the mob trampling and jostling at her heels.

Bill stood at the gate with an encouraging smile for her as she rode her dripping horse outside. Now that the excitement of the chase was over, reaction flooded over her in a wave of sheer exhaustion. She still felt elated at the memory of that wild ride down the hillside—a thing she would never have tackled in the maddest moment of a harum-scarum youth, and when she joined Bill looking over the circling horses in the yard, although her knees were weak and shaky, the feeling of triumph carried her on.

“What do you think of them?” she demanded.

“They're good! How many are broken in?” She pointed out six, including the iron-grey mare, then turned to find the man's eyes focused on the brown mare, the leader that had first shown herself so dramatically on the hilltop.

“How old is the brown mare?” he asked, his eyes following every movement of the animal.

“She must be five years.”

He turned a speculative eye. “Do you think your father would sell her?”

Elaine shook her head smilingly. “I don't think he would. She happens to belong to me!”

Bill shrugged his shoulders and turned away again toward the horses. The girl watched him with an enigmatic

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smile. “Do you think Percy would break her in for me?”

He shook his head without turning. “I don't think so!”

“Why not?”

His head came round slowly till he looked at her from under the drooping lid. “Because I want to handle her myself!”

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Chapter XXIV

BILL spent two days riding the boundary of Camelot, carefully examining every gateway and gully, every strainer and join in the wires without discovering a single clue to the avenue by which the stolen sheep had been removed. The entire property was enclosed by a rabbit-netting fence topped with a barbed wire, all in a good state of repair, and the situation had him frankly puzzled.

He did not disclose his real mission to Sam Haynes, the boundary-rider at Shanty Creek. Sam had charge of the hilly paddocks at the back of Camelot where most of the sheep had been lost. He was a garrulous individual, ready to discuss any subject under the sun, from the probable winner of the next Melbourne Cup to the spiciest extracts from Truth, but as he was not only willing but anxious to do all the talking, Bill let him babble on, and remained to all intents and purposes the new horse-breaker. However, Sam had to furnish Elaine with a strict tally of the sheep in each paddock under his care, and old Tom found himself busier than he had been for a long time looking after the sheep in the lower paddocks.

Camelot was only lightly stocked, and as a result of his inquiries regarding the sheep losses, the approximate

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dates when the losses had been discovered, and the paddocks that had chiefly suffered, Bill felt inclined to advise the removal of all the stock to the lower paddocks although the feed was shorter there.

However, in the end he decided to leave things as they were, and one afternoon he drove into the little town in the station car with Elaine at the wheel. There were a few cars and sulkies along the main street; in fact, compared to Bill's last sight of the town, it was seething with life. After making same saddlery purchases at the store, he walked down to the police station and spent a profitable half-hour with the mounted constable. Strolling thoughtfully back, he almost collided with a bulky figure that got abruptly out of a car and slammed the door behind him. It was the doctor, looking more tired and haggard than ever. His naturally brusque manner was accentuated by the strain of overwork till his questions sounded like demands and his terse sentences snapped out with an autocratic ring.

“How's Mr Atherton getting on? Hm-mm. … Oh well, let him have it oftener, but not less than two hours between each. And for God's sake don't ask when I'll be out! The hospital's full to overflowing … half the staff have got 'flu. … More than half the town is down with it. … I can't get a nurse anywhere for love nor money, and I've had a total of four hours' sleep in the last two days. Good-bye, and if any of your kids ever want to join the medical profession, strangle them quietly while they're young!”

A tall, slim figure detached itself from a veranda-post as Bill passed the pub, and followed him unobtrusively round the corner. “Hallo, Percy! Got your

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gear all ready? Well, listen. A grey car will back down this lane soon. Have everything ready to hop in behind as quietly as you can. I don't want anyone in this town to see you with us.”

Bill and Percy rode out from the homestead early next morning, and Elaine gained the veranda just in time to see the end of a buckjumping exhibition with Percy sitting easily on the pitching grey mare, laughing cheerfully at her efforts to get rid of him. They made for the eastern end of the run where the boundary fence spanned deep, rocky gullies and climbed the steep, broken slopes of hills—rough scrubby country with big grey kangaroos flitting like ghosts through the timber, and rabbits scuttling in all directions.

They seemed to ride to no apparent plan, following the fence closely for half a mile, then one of them would circle wide. Neither spoke much although Percy contributed the greater part of the conversation while his dark-brown eyes covered the terrain with the inherited skill of his mother's people, allied to the intelligence and reasoning powers of his white progenitor.

Bill's interest was beginning to flag under the apparent hopelessness of the quest when Percy halted the grey well out from the fence and sat very still, his eyes bent on the ground. They had descended the steep side of a hill; a little farther on a timbered creek crossed the boundary at right angles. Percy mechanically soothed the fidgeting grey, his eyes flickering from the few scattered trees to a minute inspection of the quartz pebbles that littered the ground. He swung to the ground, picked up something, then mounted again and rode close to the fence, scrutinizing the ground on the

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other side and studying the winding course of the creek.

Then he beckoned to Bill. The two rode back to the spot where he had first halted and Percy handed over the object he had picked up—a short length of cheap rope. He pointed to various trees. “There's been a rope break or a wing tied along here … same along that side … coming in narrow toward the fence. See the sheep tracks … stones turned up everywhere with the underside up!”

Bill could only discern an occasional tree with the roughness worn off the bark in an encircling ring, but the sheep tracks were plain enough. He followed them to where they ended abruptly, some distance out from the fence. No wonder he had missed them on his first inspection! But having got the sheep so far, how had they got them away? The fence was uncut … undisturbed in any way. Then the solution dawned on him and he swung on the smiling Percy who had already reconstructed the entire business in his mind.

“Well, I'll be damned! The tarpaulin trick!”

They clambered over the fence, and Percy walking ahead pointed to a line of pebbles pressed firmly into the ground, then to a short, sharp-edged mark. “Long wide planks, I think!” He stuck a twig into the ground, then some distance ahead put in another and measured the space between with his stockwhip. He measured a similar distance ahead from the second twig and pointed to another sharp line on the ground beside the embedded pebbles with a glint of triumph in his eye. “Big lorry, I think. Backed him against this side of fence!”

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“And built a ramp with tarpaulins and ropes from the tailboard to the yard on our side. Picked a dark night and shone lamps on the ramp! He picked a nice sheltered spot too, where his lights would never be seen. Then put planks under his tyres—that must have been a slow job. I wonder how far he took the sheep. Must have landed them before daylight!”

“Pity we haven't done any droving about this country,” Percy remarked regretfully. “We'd know all the brands and earmarks … and all the crooks!

“It might have been a butcher, but I don't know. … This fellow must have known the paddock … and the sheep. … He always took young ewes … and he must have had good, quiet dogs. I think Mac's about right!” he added significantly.

They followed the tracks round the base of the hill. In places the driver of the truck had slipped off the planks or had got careless, and the faint pattern of his tyres still showed on the dry ground. Then they joined a well-beaten track through the timber where the tyre marks were almost obliterated by the passage of cars and carts and sheep winding along the dusty grey depressions.

On their return to the homestead they rode on to MacAndrew's selection and interviewed the convalescent Mac over an intervening barrier of garden. Bessie appeared first and greeted Bill warmly. He had not seen her since the family left Longreach and was hardly prepared for the big buxom woman that chattered laughingly from her enforced isolation among the flowers. Mac listened keenly to their discoveries which promised

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to supply the proofs to his theories, then Bill propounded a plan.

When they left, Bill was leading the grey mare while Percy followed uncertainly on a bicycle. Next morning Percy and the bike disappeared from Camelot.

If Elaine had not been more than fully occupied with the tasks of housekeeping and the nursing of an invalid, Bill's attitude since his arrival might have affected her more. In the daytime he seldom appeared at the homestead, and in the evenings he seemed deliberately to avoid her company. The only consoling feature was the attachment that had grown between Bill and her father. Their mutual bond and chief topic of conversation was naturally horses, but in addition to that there was no mistaking the sincerity of the younger man's friendship, while the older man reciprocated by taking Bill into his confidence more than anyone Elaine could ever remember. In fact, there were times when she herself felt somewhat piqued at being excluded from some of the discussions.

Bill's friendship with Atherton had developed from his early appreciation of the man's uncomplaining stoicism, his ceaseless endeavours to show a brave face to his daughter and to the world. He had arrived filled with suspicion, even prepared to hate, but the courtly charm of the elder man, his invincible optimism regarding affairs and people—a quality that had almost ruined him financially—and his serene philosophy of life, made the younger man look forward with increasing pleasure to the evenings and their talks in the warm lamplight. Within a week of their meeting the two men had reached

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an intimacy that could not have been surpassed had they been father and son.

Away at the back of his mind lay another, a deeper motive for cultivating the confidence of the invalid—the pursuit of a quest that had once figured importantly in his life but that the passing years had almost relegated to the dim recesses with his boyhood memories. Sometimes when Atherton had dropped quietly into morphined oblivion, the young man would sit still and study the fine, wasted features, trying hard to picture him as he had been at his own age, and even younger. There was one subject that he intended to bring up for discussion. He looked forward to it with a grim interest and wondered what the verdict would be.

Elaine, watching them unobserved, would bite her lip at the contrariness of Bill. Why could he not behave toward her as unaffectedly as he did toward her father! There was always present that feeling of studied reserve in his manner—a hedge that shut her off much as Mac and Bessie were barred from the world by a strip of garden. She tried hard to stir him into a return of the old nonsensical gaiety of their Longreach days, but the most she got was a tolerant smile that turned the injured side of his face to a sardonic mask which baffled her beyond measure.

On one or two occasions she succeeded in penetrating his armour and getting a glimpse of the carefree Lancelot she had known. That day they mustered the horses stood out in her memory. Bill had appreciated her then. The admiration in his eyes when they got the horses to the yard was honest, unforced, and something she treasured. Although she was virtually the boss—they

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were on her property, mustering her horses—she had obeyed his curt, shouted orders without question and enjoyed doing it.

Then later, when Bill started to break in the brown mare she had slipped across to the yard unobserved and watched his quiet, patient methods gradually overcoming the rebellious mare. Imagining himself alone, he had relapsed into the easy, colourful language that is the natural inheritance of all who handle fractious horses and cattle, and some of the drawled remarks anent the mare's ancestry as he dodged a vicious strike of her hoof, made it hard for Elaine to keep from giggling aloud.

One morning Bill led the mare across to the homestead and paraded her before the veranda for the benefit of the invalid. The old man's eyes lit at the sight of her. He had not seen the animal for over a year and then it had only been a distant glimpse of a wild thing dashing for the safety of the hills. The mare glanced nervously from side to side at her strange surroundings, fidgeted around the man and once gave him an impatient push with her nose, but Atherton noticed that wherever the man moved she moved with him, close as his shadow. Although only a few days ago she had run wild and untouched, she never showed the slightest inclination to revolt. She had learned the first part of her lesson and learned it well.

“When are you going to ride her, Bill?” he queried.

“This evening, I think.”

The old man peered regretfully at the distant yard, then his glance came back to the mare, her virgin back smooth and unmarked, then finally it lingered, full of

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a vague longing, on the man. A slow smile gathered on Bill's features as he read the unspoken thought. “I'll carry you over to the yard if you like, provided Elaine doesn't mind. She may have to carry you back if the mare scores a win over me!”

Afternoon tea over, they made Atherton comfortable in his long chair just outside the horse-yard where he lay back with eyes glinting with anticipation under half-closed lids. The mare, already saddled, eyed the little group of spectators with nervous foreboding, champing incessantly at the unaccustomed feeling of the bit in her mouth, and ever and anon glancing back from the corner of an eye at the saddle on her back as though dreading its purport.

She eyed Bill distrustfully despite his soothing hands as he slipped the reins over her ears and took a shortened grip of the glossy mane. At the feel of the toe in the stirrup and the increasing pull on the saddle, the mare crouched slowly back on her haunches like a dog preparing to spring, and Elaine, peering through the rails, felt a return of the desire to make Bill hurry, to make him drop that irritating casualness, to warn him of the impending danger.

Then she got a shock. Her worried frown changed to startled wonder as Bill suddenly appeared seated in the saddle with both feet in the stirrup-irons. The lightning movement had apparently confounded the mare as well. She held herself tense, rigid, leaning back on sloping legs with every muscle standing out in bold relief under the velvet skin, then with one swift bound she whirled and plunged high in the air.

Elaine stepped quickly back from the rails, her hand

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at her throat as the mare hit the ground stiff-legged with a shock like a pile driver, and no sooner had she landed than she was up again, whirling as she went.

The invalid gripped the arms of the chair in his thin hands, dragging his wasted frame forward, his thin nostrils dilated with excitement, his glittering eyes concentrated on the battle and missing never a move. He held his breath as the mare changed her tactics and bucked savagely backwards, her head high, twisting viciously in mid-air, but the rider was with her all the way, sitting confidently in the saddle and holding the loose reins by the buckle in one hand, the other thrown clear as though balancing an imaginary stockwhip.

The mare bucked with a silent, savage intensity. No callow two-year-old this, but a fully matured animal with an inheritance of five years' freedom to maintain. There were three rapid swerving bucks, dipping till the stirrup-irons hit the ground, soaring high in the air till the wide-eyed girl clinging to the rails saw daylight show under the girths, but never between the man and the saddle. A thick, choking dust rose and hung in the windless air, powdering the unconscious spectators and veiling the battle with a yellow haze.

Suddenly the mare reared high in the air, striking stiffly with her forefeet as she stood almost upright. Elaine's heart stopped beating. She pressed a crumpled handkerchief to her lips to suppress the desire to scream as the mare poised on the very verge of balance for an unconscionable age, with the rider leaning forward on its neck grasping a handful of mane. Then it dropped forward like a bullet and before the forefeet reached the ground, the hind legs kicked high in the air.

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Again it reared, and this time the spectators were not left in doubt. It soared to the zenith of balance … passed it, and toppled backwards and sideways on the rider. The old man saw them disappear in a cloud of dust. Only the white faced girl sensed rather than saw the quick movement that freed the rider. The mare hit the ground with a thud that made her grunt and knocked the wind out of her, but the man landed clear with the reins still in his hand, and as the mare scrambled convulsively to her feet, the man was back in the saddle. She stood still, dripping with sweat, one side encrusted with dust. Then the tension ebbed from her corded muscles and she shook her head in reluctant admission of defeat.

That night Bill and the invalid talked horse undisturbed. Elaine passed noiselessly through the room just once, leaving them barely conscious of her presence. But alone in the sanctity of her darkened room she sat staring wide-eyed through the doorway into the warm black night, grappling with the problem that was becoming unbearable.

  ― 231 ―

Chapter XXV

BILL hung up the receiver and paused by the telephone in the darkening hall, doing some quick thinking. Then he crossed to his room, changed back into the working-clothes he had worn all day, and slipped quietly out to the horse-paddock. The sun had set behind a dark bank of clouds that was fast extending across the sky, and there was every indication of a storm before morning. Over in the pines the magpies were settling down for the night with a final burst of song to uphold their reputation for being last home and first out in the morning.

It was quite dark when Bill returned, and as he stepped on to the veranda, a figure rose from a deckchair. “Is that you, Bill?”

“Hallo, Elaine! Sorry I'm late. Do you mind if I come to dinner without changing?”

“Of course not!” She peered curiously at him in the khaki shirt and moleskins, indistinct in the darkness. “I thought I saw you changed for dinner a long time ago!”

“I was, as a matter of fact. …” He hesitated and glanced carefully along the dark veranda as though afraid of being overheard. “But I've got to go out again after dinner.”

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“Do you want the car?”

“No, I've got a couple of horses in the yard, and I don't know when I'll be back.”

“A couple of horses! Are you taking someone with you?” She stared at the indistinct blur of his features, then perplexity gave way to a surge of indignation. “Bill, what is all the mystery about? Why am I being kept in the dark?”

“I'm sorry, Elaine! We expect a raid to-night and I'm taking the policeman out to the back paddock. He's on his way from town by car now. I didn't want to worry you till the job was cleared up and finished.”

I see!” she blazed out, and the man started at the bitter tone. The weeks of overwork and worry had momentarily broken down the girl's resistance and all her repressed, scarcely acknowledged thoughts came crowding to the surface. “All you're interested in is putting someone in prison for stealing our sheep so that you'll be able to ride back to your wonderful Queensland and your marvellous horses! Well, you needn't let our affairs trouble you any more! I'm very sorry you've been detained here against your will. And as far as the sale of Camelot is concerned, you may consider it off. So you're are liberty to leave as soon as you like!”

She plunged hurriedly toward her room, leaving Bill staring thunder-struck after her. He walked slowly to his own room and sat heavily on the edge of the bed where he remained deep in gloomy thought till the hum of a distant car reminded him of the business on hand. It occurred to him that he had eaten nothing since mid-day, but his hunger had faded in the face of this latest

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complication. He opened a drawer and took out a heavy .45 Webley revolver, contemplated it grimly for a few seconds, then thrust it back and shut the drawer with a muttered curse. The policeman could use his if it were needed; all Bill wanted was to get his bare hands on someone and work off the fierce conflicting emotions that he felt he could repress no longer.

To hell with all women!

He strode across to the yards as the headlights of the approaching car turned the corner of the homestead and cut a white swathe in the night. As the mounted constable got out of the car, a grim-faced horseman leading a spare horse circled the path of the lights, urging the frightened horses toward him. Within a few minutes the rhythmic beat of the horses' hoofs died away in the darkness.

The rain started shortly after midnight—lightly at first in scattered drops that gradually increased to a steady downpour. Elaine peered anxiously into the opacity beyond the veranda for the hundredth time, and was on the point of turning back in desperation to the lighted room when a dog barked resentfully. She threw a quick glance at the clock on the dressing-table—only ten past three! She seemed to have been alone for ages. Then she hurried to the kitchen to put more wood on the fire before returning to her patient.

Bill stepped cautiously on to the veranda where a hurricane lamp stood lighted at the door of his room. His sodden shirt was plastered flat on his chest and stained with blood that still trickled from a gash on one cheek-bone. He stopped to remove his squelching boots, the spurs hidden under the accumulation of clinging

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mud, and emptied the water out of them. He stiffened alertly at the sound of hurrying footsteps, and next instant Elaine appeared, hastening toward him. He stared in amazement, tinged with fear and foreboding. Her features were drawn, and her eyes desperate as she grasped his mud-spattered arm.

“Come quick, Bill,” she implored. “Daddy's awfully ill.”

Bill followed with an access of remorse. In his haste he had forgotten to give the dose of morphine before he left. He threw a swift, contrite glance at the patient shifting restlessly in the grip of delirium, and hastened to the brown tube of pellets and the little plated case on the dressing-table. He motioned to Elaine, anxiously soothing the restless figure, and she set her lips tightly and held the thin, emaciated arm for him, her eyes avoiding the shining needle.

Slowly but steadily the drug took effect; the fevered lips ceased their meaningless babble and the wasted yellow features relaxed in sleep. The girl's face was lined with exhaustion. There were dark shadows under the heavy-lidded eyes, and her disordered hair looked dull and lifeless, without a hint of the soft golden sheen that usually radiated from it. Her head lifted with apparent effort, and her tired eyes opened wide as they took in the unkempt figure opposite. She rose unsteadily to her feet and faltered. “Bill. … Oh, Bill … you're hurt!”

She came round to him and cautiously touched the gashed cheek, at the same time realizing that he was soaked to the skin. Bill raised his hand to his cheek

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and stared stupidly at the blood on it. “It's all right,” he mumbled. “I'll put some iodine on it.”

Elaine mustered the remnants of her ebbing strength and faced him with a show of firmness. “I'm going to get some hot water to bathe it, then you'll get out of those wet clothes and get some sleep!”

“I'll bathe it. You are going to get some sleep right away!”

She dissented desperately. “I'm going to stay here and watch.”

“You'll do nothing of the kind! I'll stay. He may want the needle again.”

Her head drooped, and she swayed with fatigue and mental strain. She couldn't argue. The words would not come, but she made a last stubborn appeal. “Will you promise to call me in two hours?”

“I'll call you when you're needed,” he answered gruffly, turning aside before he succumbed to the desire to put his arms round the tired shoulders and comfort her.

She rested a hand on his arm with a wan, beseeching smile. “Bill … I didn't mean what I said to-night! I do need you. We couldn't do without you. I don't want you to go. Will you forgive me?”

He nodded desperately, holding himself rigid against the surging impulse, and a flood of incoherent words crowded to his tight-pressed lips. She paused in the doorway, clinging to the side for support, and smiled happily.

“Good night, Lancelot!”

He could only nod, grim-lipped.

When she had gone he stood motionless for a long

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time, then he drew a long, deep breath and a wild defiant gleam lit his eyes. What if she were Mac's girl! They were not engaged. She hardly ever mentioned his name. Anyhow, Mac had had plenty of time to win her if he had only gone about it properly. Why should he stand back and crush his own feelings in the dust! All's fair in love and war!

He became suddenly aware of the pools of moisture dripping from his clothes to the carpet, and with a final glance at the sleeping patient he moved softly to his room to change.

The first long, slanting beam of the morning sun crept through the window of the sick-room like a sword challenging the garish yellow lamplight that still lingered like a forsaken spirit of the night. Bill forced his reluctant eyelids open, afraid to move in the big arm-chair because of the multitude of aches that cramped his limbs. The rain had gone, and the sky was clear, the air clean and laden with the warm, heavy scents offered up by a grateful earth, while the magpies voiced their appreciation of the morning in glorious cascades of liquid notes against the hilarious crescendo of the kookaburras.

Bill glanced keenly at the patient and his face turned grave. He had had to repeat the morphine, but it was evident from the twitching nerves that it was losing its effect. There was something about the sick man, too, that he had never noticed before. Great, sunken hollows showed above the temples, the nostrils were pinched and thin, and the skin had a transparent, ethereal quality that brought Bill to his feet to peer more closely, fear in his eyes. Atherton lived … but in a world of

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pain. Bill sat down and gave way to a flood of dark, rebellious thoughts.

The patient was doomed. He knew it himself, and the doctors knew it, yet they must still allow him to linger on in increasing agony till the rapacious fingers of the gnawing monster within him reached a vital spot and ended the chapter. And this was civilization! Why, even a blackfellow was more humane! Man took upon himself the right to put ailing and diseased animals quickly out of their misery, and called it a humane act. Yet he persisted in keeping his doomed fellow humans alive to the bitter end, torturing not only the victim but all who loved him and who were forced to suffer every spasm of the drawn-out, hopeless struggle.

A surge of passionate revolt swept over Bill, and he rose to his feet imbued with a grim resolve to go to town and drag the doctor out by force if necessary.

He was seated alone at breakfast when Elaine came in. Her eyes were heavy with fatigue, both physical and mental, but she threw him an accusing smile. “Bill, why did you let me sleep so long?”

“I slept most of the time myself.”

“I don't believe you!” She became serious again. “How do you think he is this morning?”

“I don't know. I'm going in to see the doctor.”

“I'm glad! I rang and rang to try and get him last night, but I couldn't even raise the exchange. It was awful!”

“You poor kid!” He spoke softly. Elaine looked swiftly at him and the haunted look faded from her eyes and was replaced by a soft, diffused light. Then she dropped her eyes to her plate and spoke hurriedly.

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“I don't know what the road will be like after the rain. You'll probably need chains. Do you think you'll be all right?”

“I'll try not to hit any stumps this time!”

She laughed with a tinge of the old gaiety. “I'm sorry, Lancelot, I didn't mean that. But hadn't you better take someone. You have all those gates to open, and you may get stuck.”

“I'm taking Percy. He's over telling Mac about last night.”

She leaned across with a quickening of interest. “Oh, tell me what happened! I was so worried last night I quite forgot to ask.”

“We got him!”

“Who was it?”


She gasped incredulously. “Mr Williams … who was overseer here! But how … I mean how did you know he would come last night?”

“Well, to start at the beginning, Mac suspected him first, then when I could find no tracks to show where the sheep had been taken away, I got Percy down. He's the best tracker I ever met. As soon as we got out to the back of that rough paddock, he dropped on to things straightaway, and we could see that whoever did the job knew more than a little about sheep—and sheep-stealing!”

“But how did he steal them?” she interrupted impatiently.

“In a big lorry fitted with two decks like a sheep-truck. He drove in off the main road through Kelly's selection, and turned off it to your boundary fence, driving

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along the foot of the hills. It isn't far and he laid down wide planks to drive over and cover his tracks. The lorry was backed against the boundary fence with the tailboard resting on the fence posts, then he built a long, sloping ramp of planks from the tailboard to a horizontal bar lashed between two small trees, and more planks from there to the ground. He spread a big tarpaulin there and strung a rope fence found it from tree to tree like a drover's sheep-break, with wings running out at the back. After we had found how they went, we had to discover where they were taken to and how they were disposed of. Percy tracked the lorry out to the main road but lost it there. However, we knew from the size of the tyres that it was a big truck, and the police tried to trace it through the district registrations but with no luck. Anyhow, I decided to take a long shot, so Percy turned up at William's place pushing a bike. Williams was shearing at the time and Percy got a job, mustering and doing odd jobs round the shearing-shed.

“He used to ring me up fairly often, and one of his first discoveries was that William's sheep had the same earmark as Camelot's, but he used a different tar brand. Yours is a U. His brand is a square with a dot in it, and it is the easiest thing in the world to fake that. I thought we had him till I discovered some of the queer stock laws you have in this State. I found that Williams was fully entitled to that registered earmark. His property is in a different pastoral district, so Williams must have discovered the fact that it was the same earmark as Camelot's and bought the place while he was here. He's clever, all right!

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“Then one day Percy picked up the track of a big lorry—the same tracks that he had seen here—and he followed them to a sort of outstation at the back of William's place. A boundary-rider lived there, and Percy found that he used to work here in William's time. This chap told him Williams had bought the big lorry from a carrier who went broke, and he only used it occasionally on the place. It was not registered. Yesterday evening I had a ring from Percy to say that the lorry had arrived at the homestead and was being fitted with high sides. You'll remember it was a dark night with rain threatening, so if they could only get the job done in time, their tracks would be washed out and no one would be any the wiser.

“I got the local policeman on the phone and he came out straightaway. The sergeant and another policeman picked up Percy in their car, and he brought them along in the tracks of the lorry. When Jones and I got to the hill above the creek, the lorry was in position and one man was fixing up the ramp. We waited till another man arrived with a mob of sheep, the man walking in front and the dog bringing the sheep along behind him, covering his tracks.” Bill paused reflectively. “I wonder how it is that fellows who go in for sheep-stealing or cattle-duffing always have champion dogs or horses. They seem to have a special gift for training them—and they're nearly all fine fellows to meet!”

Elaine eyed him blandly. “You must have picked up a few cattle belonging to other people in your time, Bill!”

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His drooping eyelid flickered slightly. “I'm a drover,” he replied dryly.

“Hm-mm!” There was a twinkle in her eye. “Droving in Queensland appears to be rather a comprehensive business! But what happened when the sheep arrived?”

“They switched a spotlight on the ramp—sheep will always travel toward a light at night—and started to run them up into the lorry. We took advantage of the noise to creep down close, and I circled round to the other side. I was scared that dog would spot me, but he was too busy with the sheep. Then when I was ready we just bailed them up. There were only the two of them—Williams and his boundary-rider. Then the other car turned up and they took them away, and Percy and I rode home in the rain.”

She looked thoughtfully across the corner of the table at the man casually rolling a cigarette. “Bill …” she said slowly, “I'm not going to try and thank you formally for all you've done for us, because anything I could say wouldn't express half of what I feel.”

“It's quite all right,” he broke in diffidently. “I don't like putting a man behind the bars, but in this case, if I hadn't he might have tried to pinch my sheep—well, Mac's sheep!” He corrected himself hurriedly as though he resented the connexion of his name with sheep.

“Bill, I would like to do something for Percy. Can you suggest anything I could give him—anything he would like?”

He brushed aside the idea. “Percy enjoyed it as much as I did. If you offered to pay him, he'd be

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insulted. He'd most likely think you looked on him as a policeman!”

“But I mean it, Bill,” she protested firmly. “Not necessarily money, but a gift of some sort.”

He studied her a moment. “I'll tell you what he would like,” he ventured. “You know that good sort of a grey mare he rode …”

“If Percy will accept her, she's his!”

“He'll be the happiest man this side of Borroloola!”

She was rising from the table when a thought stayed her and she scrutinized the strip of plaster on the man's cheek with a puzzled air. “Bill,” she queried, “did those two men give in without a struggle, last night?”

He looked sharply at her. “Why, what makes you think …?”

“How did you get that cut on your face?”

He hesitated, then with a casual, apologetic look he replied, “Oh, Williams made a bit of a rush. … Tried to get away in the dark, and I tackled him. He got a bit wild, and …” he peered out of the window, his eyes darkening, “well, he called me … something I don't take from anyone, and had a crack at me, and I tore into him till the policeman hopped over and stopped it. Then we slung him into the car.”

“I'm sorry, Bill! Better let the doctor have a look at it.” She walked through to the sick-room, thinking deeply over the sudden transformation in the man's expression. It seemed ludicrous to imagine Bill's getting worked up merely because someone abused him in a heated moment. Still, there it was.

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Chapter XXVI

ON the way to town Bill had little opportunity for letting his thoughts dwell on his personal problems. The task of keeping the car on the soft slippery road called for the full concentration of his faculties, and he pulled up in front of the doctor's residence feeling absolutely frazzled. The doctor was out, but might be back at any moment, so Bill took the opportunity to walk down to the pub for a much-needed drink.

The handful of men in the bar were avidly discussing the news that had put the little town in the headlines, and when someone recognized Bill, a hush fell on the group and all eyes turned on him. He signed to Percy and they finished their drinks and returned to the street with a feeling that if he read local sympathies correctly, no jury in this town would ever convict Williams. Bill was not worrying about Williams—now that the matter had been cleared up, he would have been just as pleased if Williams had been set free—but the looks that had been cast on him in the bar riled him. They seemed to regard him as a police pimp.

The doctor's car was drawn up behind their mud-spattered vehicle, and he met them in the hall, looking more weary and haggard than ever. He seemed to have shrunk to such an extent that his clothes looked as though they had been made for someone twice his

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weight. His bloodshot eyes glared at the plaster on his visitor's cheek.

“Are you a patient or have you come to waste more of my time?” he demanded, pushing Bill into the surgery. “Let's have a look at it!” Without further warning he flicked the plaster off, and before Bill had recovered from his surprise, was poking at the cut with a pudgy finger. “I'll put a stitch in that. … See that you keep it clean! How's Mr Atherton?”

“Pretty bad! Can you come?”

The doctor interrupted gruffly. “I can't come to see him so don't waste your breath asking me! Even if he lived across the street instead of half a day's journey away, I couldn't help him. As it is, practically the entire town and district has 'flu … the hospital is jammed full with only two tired-out probationers left to run the place. And now the other doctor has gone down with it and I'm left to carry the lot. I would give my entire hopes of the hereafter for a decent night's sleep! Keep your head still, will you!”

“But can't you do anything, man! He's suffering hell, and the morphine doesn't seem to act any longer!”

The doctor opened a little drawer in a cabinet, picked out a thin brown tube and examined it carefully before handing it over. “Use these, then! They're twice as strong as the others. One of these …” he threw him a significant glance, “… would be enough to kill the average man!”

Bill looked dumbly at the tube in his hand, then he looked at the doctor with a steely glint in his eye. “If I ever get what Atherton's suffering from and haven't the strength to put a bullet into myself where it'll do

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most good, I hope I'll find a mate to do it for me! Then I suppose you will call it murder and want to hang him! Why haven't you doctors the guts to put a man out of misery instead of trying one thing after another to keep him alive when life is only a burden to him!”

“I suppose you think you're the first man to get that wonderfully original idea! Damn it, man, that subject has been discussed by every quack since Aesculapius!”

“And you're just as far from a solution now as he ever was! We pride ourselves on our civilization—and let men doomed to certain death linger on till the pain wrecks them physically, then wrecks their intellect, and robs fine, decent men of a respectable death. If we ordinary bushwhackers find a horse or a bullock hopelessly crippled, we cut its throat or put a bullet into it, and know it's only a fair thing. Can't you come out and see Atherton and do something … anything?”

The doctor eyed him grimly. “If you're quite finished you can get into your car and drive home—it will save me backing my car out from behind you. And listen! This is final!” He spoke with slow, incisive deliberation, letting each word sink in with its intended significance. “There's only one more thing I can do for Mr Atherton—that is to sign his death certificate! And I'll do that as soon as you give me the hour and date. I've got the rest of it all filled in ready—cause of death … all complete! There will be no post-mortem! Now, get out of my surgery … and good-bye!”

Bill drove silently back to Camelot. Percy talked light-heartedly for a while, but getting no response, he

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closed down and felt glad when he had to get out and open a gate. Bill hardly saw the road. Only a special dispensation of providence and the fact that it had dried a lot since he went in, kept him on it. His faculties were numbed … distant … controlled not by himself but by a grisly spectre that hovered above and around him, suggesting nameless things that froze his brain.

A cheerful Elaine in a bright-coloured frock awaited him on the veranda with good news of the patient, and during lunch, Bill's load of depression lightened appreciably. He told her briefly that it was impossible for the doctor to leave town on account of the 'flu epidemic, but that he had been given fresh instructions which, they hoped, would help the patient considerably. The girl listened with a preoccupied air and made no comment.

As they moved out to the veranda, Elaine mentioned casually, “Bob rang up this morning! His isolation period is nearly finished.”

Bill nipped the end off his cigarette preparatory to lighting it, and observed just as casually, “He must be breaking his neck to get back to work again. Good fellow, Mac!” Then he eyed her critically. “Why are you so keen on selling Camelot?”

She shrugged non-committally. “There's Daddy … and all our bad luck … and I suppose the responsibilities are getting me down. Isn't it quite natural that I should want to leave? You and Bob sold your place in Queensland!”

“That was different! We never had any intention of making a home of it. Mac only came to Queensland

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to make money and he sort of dragged me into it. That was bad enough, but I jibbed when he wanted me to pick a nice, fat comfortable wife and settle down. Settle down!” He gave a snort of disgust.

Elaine laughed softly. “Would it be quite impossible for you to settle down?” she asked.

He looked up quickly, then deliberately studied the end of his cigarette. “It depends! That's what I reckoned then, anyhow.” He raised his head slowly and surveyed her from under the drooping lid. “Do you remember that first night we met in Longreach?”

She smiled reminiscently. “Verily, Sir Lancelot!”

“Well, Mac had been worrying me that night.” His features wore the grim look that betokened a distasteful task that had to be faced. “It wasn't that I was a woman hater—not by a long chalk—but he didn't approve of my girl friends and we had a bit of an argument. Anyhow, I pulled out and told him I was going to get a few drinks into me, go over to the dance, and ask the first girl I met to marry me!”

“And was I the first?” she demanded with mock affront. “Oh, Lancelot … and you never asked me! Why didn't you?”

“Well … when I knocked the top off that car, it put it out of my mind for the moment. Then … when I got to know you better … the last thing I wanted to do was to insult you.”

“Lancelot! That isn't the way to insult us! We poor girls look on it as an honour! A very rare one, these hard times!” She rose with a laugh. “I must go and see how Daddy is.”

The man sat still, gazing dully out over the rank,

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grass-grown garden. He still had not accomplished the task he had set himself. Well, he would put it to the old man. It would be much easier.

But he had to admit it was Elaine's opinion that mattered, and much as he dreaded broaching the subject, he desperately wanted it settled. For he knew that until then, he would have no peace of mind. He was no longer in doubt—no longer afraid to acknowledge the fact that the future, his life, and his hopes of happiness, hinged on her reply. He wanted to laugh out loud at his futile imaginings—that he was no one woman's man … that he was a wanderer, a chronic lone-hander who could not settle down … did not want a home. He knew now that where Elaine was, there lay his happiness. Away from her, the world was a barren, empty place, an endless dry stage where one could only go on and on in a great weariness till the crows drew gradually nearer to mock, and tell that the end was near.

Damn it, why did his thoughts always end on a funereal note! He rose abruptly and walked round to the sick-room.

The invalid greeted him cheerfully and motioned him to a chair. His eyes were bright and alert, and everything about him suggested that he had obtained a new lease of life. Bill marvelled at the display of vitality after last night's collapse, and wondered if the doctor were really right—if there were absolutely no hope of recovery.

He managed to persuade Elaine to rest while the patient was so well. He himself intended to share the night nursing from now on, but he did not tell her so in the meantime. When she left the room, he drew his

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chair close to the bed where he could face the sick man, and commented on his changed appearance.

“I feel wonderful,” Atherton replied. “Tell me all about last night. I'm sorry you got hurt. Elaine told me all she knew, but I gathered there was quite a lot left unsaid.”

Bill repeated the story of the tracking and capture of Williams from the very beginning. When he had finished, the old man lay quiet for a time. “I'm sorry about Williams … I liked him, and found him a very capable man. But I must also thank you for all you have done for us. I cannot fail to realize how fortunate we are in having you here. In fact, my only regret is that we did not meet years before. Still, for your sake it was better to have your life shaped by men like MacAndrew and … what was his name … Dinny! I would like to have met that man! I'm afraid my influence would not have helped you.” He fixed his bright eyes intently on the younger man. “What made you leave your home in England and come out to Australia?”

Bill stared out through the window with narrowed eyes before he turned with apparent reluctance. “I have never mentioned this to anyone, but I would like to tell you. I was expelled from school for giving an awful hiding to another boy—I nearly killed him, in fact—for spreading a rumour that I was … a bastard. When I arrived home I found my mother very ill … heart trouble … and she died shortly afterwards. When I went through her papers with the lawyer, I found that what they had said was true. My mother had been deserted by … by my father, and she had brought me

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up in a district where she was unknown. After the funeral I booked a passage to Australia. I wanted to get clean away from everyone I knew … to start afresh.”

The head on the pillow nodded sympathetically. “And it still hurts to be reminded of the … birth-stain—even by accident!”

Bill nodded.

“Very foolish, Bill! What does it matter, anyhow, and who is to know how we are born unless we advertise the fact ourselves? You'll excuse my bluntness, but really, you have magnified a trifle far beyond its true significance, and the aspect you take is based entirely on snobbishness.”

“That's all very well!” Bill's tone was bitter. “But if you had suffered …”

“Wait a minute! Supposing I had … would I be entitled to speak?”

Bill stared at the enigmatic smile. “What do you mean?”

“Only that I too am … a bastard!”


The old man smiled on. “I came out to Australia under a similar set of circumstances, except that perhaps my case was even more involved than yours, but our feelings were the same. Hate toward the parent responsible for our misfortune, and a desire to escape the eyes of all our acquaintances goaded me. We were both guilty of snobbishness. We had acquired the habit partly through our super-sensitiveness, and our inability to rise mentally above our social environment. We praised or damned a man for circumstances over which he had no control. A man should be judged by what

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he makes of his life—the hand is dealt him but he must play it. He may be born in the slums and attain to wealth and honour, or he may be born to the purple and end in the gutter. These are the things that count! We made the mistake of accepting a false sense of superiority—we allowed ourselves to be placed on a pedestal, and when cold truth knocked that pedestal from under us, well … the higher the pedestal, the greater the crash! We were very foolish, Bill.”

Bill could only sit and stare and listen dazedly, letting the waves of the old man's philosophy lap soothingly among his thoughts. After a short pause, Atherton began to speak again in slow reminiscent tones. “Since you have given me your confidence, Bill, I'm going to tell you something I have never mentioned to anyone … not even to Elaine or to my wife. It goes a long way back … long before your time … but it has all come to me very clearly, as I lie here. …

“It happened just after my regiment returned from the East and we were experiencing the joys of civilization, and making the most of all that the old Scottish town where our headquarters were, could give us. I was young and I rather fancied myself … a uniform in those days was a uniform! None of your drab khaki, but red and blue and gold and tartan … enough to turn the head of any girl, no matter who was inside it. However, there was one girl who remained obdurate. A fellow in the local Yeomanry, a lawyer by profession, had been making the running till I arrived on the scene. I had great hopes of the Garrison Ball turning the tide in my favour. The Yeomanry would look well in their blue and gold, but a Scots Fusilier in full dress

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was irresistible. At least, we all thought so, and there was evidence in plenty to prove our contention. We had tartan trews, a scarlet doublet with blue facings and gold lace, wide crimson silk sash, and white buff sword-belt across the chest with a frosted gilt breast-plate—and a grand, silver, basket-hilted claymore by our side. The girl who was proof against being seen in that company was hard indeed. And McCansh, the Yeomanry man, was thinking that too.

“It was a great night! The scene in the ballroom was wonderful … magnificent! Gorgeous uniforms … beautiful women, beautifully dressed. … I like to think I'm broad-minded, Bill, but when I compare a modern ball-room packed with languid couples clinging closely to one another as they drift aimlessly about, to the spectacle of a ball of forty to fifty years ago … I must confess to a preference for the old days!

“Elaine looked charming that night. She was slim and fair, and the fashion of that day showed off her beautiful arms and shoulders. We were slipping out through an ante-room at the end of a dance when we were surrounded by a crowd of our own and some Yeomanry officers—McCansh was one of them, and they were all fairly merry. One of them addressed us, ‘We have here Captain Kirk, Mr Bell, Mr Sexton, Mr Parsons … all the essentials of a church and a wedding—except the bride and bridegroom. Will you oblige us?’ I looked at Elaine and she, entering into the spirit of it, smiled back, so we allowed them to lead us to one end of the room. Then they took some old pikes from the walls and Elaine and I advanced under an arch of steel to the other end where Captain Kirk waited. He

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conducted the mock ceremony and Elaine and I pledged one another. I placed my ring on her finger, then everyone insisted on kissing the bride. That rather annoyed me—especially as McCansh was among them. However, they brought in more punch and toasted us, then someone brought an old woman in from the street—a gipsy—to tell our fortunes.

“I was not at all keen. In fact I was longing to slip away with Elaine, but they insisted. Elaine held out her palm first and the gipsy looked at it and shook her head gravely. All she would say was, ‘Ye're a braw, braw lassie!’ Then she added a couple of lines from Burns:

Ye'll hae misfortunes great an' sma'
But aye a heart abune them a'.

Elaine was a little frightened, and I wanted to end the thing but Murray, one of our youngest subalterns, went next. The gipsy peered at his palm. ‘You will lead your regiment in battle, and see your son slain before you,’ she said.

“McCansh pushed forward but she hardly looked at him. ‘Ye'll live and prosper by the misfortunes o’ others,’ was all she would tell him. I saw that if I wanted to get away I would have to go through with it, so I went next. She mumbled a while before raising her voice. ‘It's the high pride I see, and low will it bring the wearer before he reaches peace. Ye'll go to a far country an’ ne'er come back… Aye, and ye'll die at the hand of your son … an' be glad of it!’

“I laughed at her. It seemed the most fantastic and improbable prediction anyone could imagine, but I felt

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Elaine shiver as she clung to my arm. Anyhow, we escaped from the crowd and soon forgot all about the gipsy and the rest of the world too!”

The reminiscent smile faded, the eyes closed, and the thin hands tightened their grip on the sheets as the pain began to reassert itself. He did not see the man crouched tensely forward in his chair as though he had seen a ghost, his hands gripping the sides till the knuckles showed white under the tightened skin.

The spasm passed, but the man lay for a long time with eyes closed, till the watcher imagined he must have fallen asleep. At length the lips moved, inaudibly at first, then an apologetic … “You must excuse me. Rather long-winded, wasn't I!” He lay musing for a little longer, then took up the tale again. “A few weeks after the ball the crash came. McCansh had ferreted out the evidence and the news reached me in a roundabout way. It was being noised about that I, the dashing young subaltern of a crack regiment, proud of my birth and social prestige … was a fake … an illegitimate son!

“I searched for McCansh till I met him in the High Street. He repeated the charge, sneeringly. I challenged him … and he refused. I was mad at the moment … raving mad … and I nearly killed him before they separated us. There was a tremendous row. … I went home and demanded the truth … and got it! I sent in my papers immediately, dropped the surname I felt I had no right to use, and took a passage on the first ship leaving England. It happened to be bound for Australia. I didn't care where it might take me.

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“I cut myself clean adrift from everything connected with the old world and the old life—family, friends … even Elaine! That is something I have never ceased to regret. I wonder what became of her!” He fell silent for a space. “I was so selfish, so thoroughly knocked out by the pricking of the bubble that was myself at that time that I had no thoughts, no room for pity for the suffering I was inflicting on others. When that came later, I was far away, and drink drowned my remorse.

“I had plenty of money of my own and would probably have stayed in Melbourne and drunk myself to death if a friend I had made on board ship had not taken charge of me. He induced me to stay with him in the country, and when I began to take an interest in life again, advised me to buy this property. Land was cheap then. It was after the smash, and the banks owned most of it. I renamed it Camelot. Sentiment, I suppose. I married … and when my daughter was born, I named her Elaine. Her mother could not understand. I told her it was a family name … and that seemed to satisfy her … Elaine the Fair … Elaine the Lovable …” The voice tailed off as another spasm of pain contorted the features.

The man in the chair relaxed slowly. As the tenseness ebbed, he leaned dazedly back. Then with a returning sense of responsibility he rose heavily and began to fit together the shining hypodermic syringe.

  ― 256 ―

Chapter XXVII

ELAINE appeared at dinner looking bright and refreshed, but her smile gradually faded before the other's nonresponsive mood, and gave way to a look of concern. “What is it, Bill?” Fear clouded her face. “Is it Dad?”

He shook his head. “No. … It's all right. … I'll turn in soon if you don't mind.”

Elaine was not satisfied. She looked at him intently, and her voice was subdued and vibrant. “What is it, Bill? Can I help you?”

He avoided her eyes and forced a twisted smile. “No … I'll have to work it out myself. Don't worry!”

“Bill! What did the doctor say? I mean … how long?” He looked up startled at the sudden change in the girl facing him across the table. There was a calmness in her attitude that astounded him, a sense of forearmed knowledge, a spirit prepared to meet the inevitable with staunch, unyielding courage.

“It's impossible to say. It all depends, Elaine!”

Her face clouded. She abandoned the pretence of eating and sat forward, her elbows on the table supporting her chin in her palms. Then after a while she spoke in low, tense tones as though the words were being wrung from her lips. “Bill … how long are they going to let him go on suffering?”

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The man stared fixedly at her, but she avoided his eyes, looking straight ahead, with a trembling, hysterical note invading her rising voice. “Can't they do anything? It isn't fair … this terrible suffering … and waiting.” Suddenly she faced him, her fingers tightened on his arm. “Billmust we let it go on like this! Can't something be done to help him? Billplease!

He turned pale under the wildly beseeching eyes that held him inexorably, demanding an answer. Then he slipped a hand over hers and held it in a fierce grip while his eyes answered her plea.

Bill retired to bed but, tired as he was, sleep came only in troubled snatches that failed to withstand for long the turmoil of his thoughts. He smoked cigarette after cigarette. Finally he rose, haggard eyed and nervy, and made his way quietly to the bath where he stood under the shower with the water pelting down on him. But even with the temporary relief that afforded, sleep was impossible.

Elaine's beseeching tear-dimmed eyes haunted him. The responsibility had centred more and more on him till he felt he could not escape. The doctor's bloodshot orbs saying plainly what his lips refused to utter—Atherton's sunken, weary eyes imploring him for release … and now … Elaine.

Yet first he must hear more from the sick man's lips. He must get an answer to his question. He was suddenly seized with dread that Atherton might die without regaining consciousness. At the thought he rose and dressed, casting aside all idea of sleep until he could set his mind at rest. Before leaving the room

  ― 258 ―
he drew his tarpaulin-covered swag from a corner, and searched carefully through the contents of a gaudy, aboriginal dilly-bag till he found what he wanted—a gold signet ring with an exquisitely-cut heraldic seal. He slipped it into a pocket and stepped noiselessly on to the veranda.

The night air was soft and warm, and the only sounds that intruded on the velvet stillness were the cautious chirping of some nocturnal insect and the plaintive, dreary call of a mopoke from the oaks on the creek. Then the querulous yapping bark of a fox, far down in the open country, tore a ragged rent in the silence. Down at the kennels a dog growled a sleepy reply, his chain rattling as he scratched himself. Then quiet descended again.

Elaine was seated in a big arm-chair beside the shaded table lamp. A book lay open on her knees, but her eyes looked far into space and the road they travelled was long and rough and beset with many troubles. The brave mask she showed to the world was laid aside. She was alone with her thoughts, facing the eventualities of a grim, cheerless future, and steeling herself for the impending sorrow.

From the shadows beyond the door Bill watched with tenderness the troubled eyes, the quivering mouth. He yearned to step quietly in, draw the lonely girl to him, and bury his face in the rich, red gold of her hair. But he was numb, powerless. He could not tell Elaine the things he wanted to, did not dare show her what he struggled to keep from his eyes. Her own eyes told him all he wanted to know—more than that—and the

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knowledge that should have made him feel a god, beat him to his knees like a remorseless flail.

So far he could not be certain, but Atherton's confession had so strengthened the early suspicions he had brought to Camelot that his lips must remain sealed until the matter could be settled beyond all doubt. It was just another grim trick of fate, and one beside which past reverses, momentous as they had seemed, faded into insignificance.

He admitted to himself that his primary reason in coming to Camelot was to obtain such a confession from Atherton as he had voluntarily made last night, and although there still remained some definite points to be cleared up, the result was almost a certainty. But instead of satisfaction at his success he was conscious only of a dark foreboding and a heartfelt wish that he had never disinterred the dark memory of the past or allowed it to shape the thoughts and confidences that had led to the confession.

Just when he had overcome what appeared to be the final obstacle that lay between Elaine and himself and had laid aside the lifelong bogey of his legitimacy, a greater insuperable barrier had raised itself between them, and so far, only he was aware of it. For a moment, he felt tempted to leave things as they were—to withhold his evidence from the unsuspecting Atherton. Elaine herself would never dream, never guess at the secret.

But he knew it was useless, impossible to leave things as they were. So far, what had happened was hard enough to credit; what remained to be done was even more so—it was fantastic. The task he had set himself early in life was almost accomplished. The end of the

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quest was in sight. It was too late to turn back now however much he might desire it. He must go on.

He waited with bowed head, composing himself, then shuffled softly on the boards till he attracted her attention. She looked up with a fleeting glance of fear, a look that persisted even when he moved quietly across to her chair.

“I'm going on watch!” he whispered. “Go and get some sleep!”

She shook her head vehemently. “I'm all right! You need it more than I do!”

“I've had plenty,” he lied.

“You haven't! You had none last night and now you've been smoking cigarettes all this night. I heard you lighting matches!” She rose and stretched her cramped limbs. “Wait here, Bill, and I'll make a cup of tea!”

When she left he approached the bed and peered cautiously at the patient. The skin had recovered that fine transparency that had appeared so disquieting before, and Bill turned away with a gloomy face.

Elaine was equally serious when he joined her in the lamp-lit dining-room, but each kept his fears to himself. He succeeded in convincing her that he intended to stay up for the rest of the night, and she reluctantly consented to go. As she turned to leave, her tired eyes gave him a warm smile. “You'll call me if … if I'm wanted!” Then at his reassuring nod. “Lancelot … you're a darling!”

She stood quite still, her eyes on him, and there was that in their frank, soft depths that made his head whirl, his heart pound suffocatingly. He wrenched his

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eyes away, waited till she turned, and the sound of her slow, wondering footsteps died away before he raised his tense, drawn face.

Atherton began to show signs of returning consciousness, but when his eyes did open slowly, they were clouded and expressionless, and it was some time before he recognized Bill. He signed for a drink and Bill supported the thin shoulders and held the glass to the pallid lips, then laid him gently back. He lay with eyes closed for a long time, then Bill turned to find them fixed beckoningly on him, and moved closer. The voice, at first a thin whisper, gained strength as it continued, and the young man listened avidly.

“Something … I want to tell you. It sounds almost … melodramatic. You remember the mock wedding ceremony … I told you about? Captain Kirk … met him in Sydney. … He was Colonel Kirk then. Recognized me … in spite of my different name. Kirk told me it was real. … He was qualified. … It was regular ceremony … under Scottish law. So Elaine and I … legally married!”

Bill collapsed into his chair. Above the wild whirl of thoughts in his frenzied brain, one fact was dawning with an intensity that threatened to swamp everything else … to give life a new aspect … if it were not too late. Then the other side presented itself with staggering force. If the first marriage were legal, what of the other? Was he to gain his birthright at the expense of Elaine! He bent quickly forward as the lips moved again.

Atherton looked up with the ghost of a smile. “I don't mind death … but dying is a painful business!”

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After a pause, he continued. “Remember the gipsy's prophesies? Some of them came true! Murray commanded his battalion in the war. His son … one of his own officers … was killed in action! Part of mine came true … pride and … the long journey. But I only had a daughter. … The gipsy was wrong … no son. I wish I had … to fulfil the prophesy!”

A spasm of pain crossed his features. Bill fumbled franticially in his pockets. Something still remained—something that had to be done.

When the sunken eyes opened again and remained clear, he leaned earnestly forward and held the ring before them with the heraldic seal in front, and asked in low, clear tones, “Do you recognize this?”

The invalid looked puzzled, then stared anxiously from the ring to the face of the man bending over him. “Where did you get it?”

“Was it yours?”

The burning eyes searched his frantically. “Is there a name inside?”

Bill nodded, turned the ring to the light and read … “Lancelot Atherton …”

That's enough! Never mind the rest! It's my ring … the one I gave to Elaine … when we were married. Where did you get it?

“From my mother!” Bill hesitated as he met the fevered eyes. All his life he had rehearsed this moment. The scathing words he would use. … The hot surging satisfaction of revenge he had lived a hundred times. But now that the moment had arrived he had no use for heroics. Here was a man—a simple, straightforward gentleman—ignorant of any wrong he may have committed,

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yet eagerly anxious to atone for the consequence. A parent he could honour and be glad to acknowledge. There was no bitterness but a ring of quiet pride in his voice. “Her name was Elaine Muir! And mine …” he paused significantly, “… is Lancelot Atherton Muir!”

His hand covered the thin wasted one of the old man in a firm possessive grip, and he smiled tenderly into the sunken eyes where hopeless bewilderment battled and alternated with flashes of incredulity and joy.

The thin lips moved as in prayer. “Elaine! Elaine!” Then a troubling thought awoke him from the slow enveloping haze and Bill bent low to catch the whisper. … “Elaine … my daughter. Tell her!”

Bill shook his head slowly. He had thought that out already, made his decision, and a queer sad smile twisted his features. “We won't tell her! I'll take care of her … like a brother!”

Neither of the men engrossed in the momentous turn of events was conscious of the tense figure of the girl framed dimly in the shadows of the doorway, taking in the scene with wide incredulous eyes. Not even when Bill's grim distinct words reached her ears, each one sounding the knell of all her hopes, each one a blow from which she flinched and would have fallen but for the frantic fingers gripping the door frame, until she stumbled blindly away to the sanctuary of her room. It was all clear now—but the clarity was that of a searing lightning flash that had wrecked the smiling valley of her happiness and left an aching tortured waste.

The old man lay silent, his eyes tightly closed. Then they opened and searched the other's face with an

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intent, beseeching look. The whisper was broken—almost inaudible. “The gipsy … my son! I'll be … glad of it!

And the younger man looked down, struggling to control his surging emotion, and nodded slowly and reassuringly before the tired eyes closed.

Then he turned to the thin brown tube and the shining plated box on the dressing-table for the last time.

  ― 265 ―

Chapter XXVIII

THEY walked together from the homestead along the straight wide track. Elaine, calm and subdued, wore a soft, grey silk frock, and her eyes looked beyond far horizons. On her left, Bob MacAndrew, four-square and solid, looked ahead at the green sweep of the paddocks to the hills, the tiny white dots of lambs among the grazing ewes, and along the wide, dusty road with its twin, parallel depressions patterned with car tracks.

On Elaine's right, with the long, supple thong of the stockwhip over the shoulder of his open-necked white shirt, Bill walked slim and straight, apparently watching two splendid bay horses, one carrying a pack-saddle with two swags, followed by Percy on a grey mare. Close at Bill's shoulder moved a beautiful brown mare whose eyes were also on the little cavalcade half-way up the narrow, winding track on the face of the hills.

At the white gate where the road crossed the creek and continued straight and broad on the other side to where a narrow winding track meandered off toward the rugged hills they halted, and turned toward one another.

Elaine broke the silence. “Are you sure you won't stay for another day, Bill? I'll take you on in the car to-morrow. We can easily catch up on Percy and the horses!”

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He shook his head with slow deliberation. “No, thanks. I'll keep going, Elaine!”

He stretched a brown hand toward the other man. “So long, Mac … good luck!”

“So long, Bill!” Then Mac turned and looked steadily out to the distant shimmer of the plains, and continued to gaze there.

“Good-bye, Lancelot!” The girl held out her hands to the horseman and he looked deep down into the dewy, grey eyes under the long lashes. And Elaine, looking past the twisted mask, saw nothing sardonic, nothing mocking under the drooping eyelid—only a great tenderness. And she slipped into his arms, gave her quivering lips to his, and closed her eyes tightly against the tide of tears she could not stay.

Two people stood silently at the white gate, watching the horseman ascending the final twist of the Bridle Track. He reached the summit, halted there a moment, the brown mare outlined against the sky, unconsciously paying farewell to the land of her freedom. The horseman looked back at the figures at the gate, raised an arm in farewell, and the summit was empty.

The girl and the man turned back toward the homestead, walking very slowly.

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