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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

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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?

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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

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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,

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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

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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.

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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,

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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.