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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.