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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

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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?”

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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

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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.”

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“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

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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!”

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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

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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.

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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.