― 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.