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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!”