― 30 ―

Chapter III

THEY crawled past Aramac with the crusted mud still clinging to them in evidence of an episode they could never forget. None of them was really conscious of the closing events of that terrible day when utter exhaustion merged sleep with waking so subtly that the change was imperceptible. They worked till it was too dark to see, then stumbled, bent and dazed, toward the campfire, wiping the worst of the mud from hands and mouth, and mechanically swallowing the damper and cold mutton and tea thrust on them before they dropped, too weary to remove either clothing or mud, into their blankets barely unrolled.

The first pale hint of daylight found MacAndrew and Dinny back at the ill-fated waterhole salvaging as many more sheep as possible before the crows picked their helpless eyes out. Bill, haggard and stiff, joined young Mac in shepherding the mob out on some sparse grass, and they camped that night only a mile from the waterhole. The tail of the mob was a sorry sight. The mud, mingling with the short wool, dried and set like cement, and the unfortunate animals dragged themselves along like run-down robots.

With the little town behind them, the grass improved and the effect on the sheep and horses soon manifested

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itself. Just ahead of them lay the desert, and Bill, stifling his surprise at drought-stricken sheep being sent to a desert, painted pictures in his imagination of palm-trees and long, wind-rippled sandhills. Instead, the scattered timber drew closer together. Gradually they found themselves day after day passing through thick scrub with patches of rank grass and big green, spiky mounds of spinifex rising like giant pincushions from the blood-red soil. Ant-hills of all shapes and sizes rose hard and unimpressionable as concrete.

MacAndrew returned from his daily scouting of the track ahead and held a long conference with Dinny. Then he circled round and checked the lead while Dinny rode back to Bill on the tail of the mob. “Take it easy! We're going to spell them a while. Patch of poison in front.”

“Poison …?”

“Heart-leaf. I'll show you when we hit it. We'll have to jam the mob together and belt them through without giving them a chance to feed.” He rode on to warn young Mac.

That afternoon MacAndrew returned with reinforcements—Reg the horsetailer, and all the available dogs. The sheep were reasonably full and contented and they were shepherded along into a compact mob. Dinny pointed ahead with his whip. “As soon as the lead hits that stony ridge, drive like hell! You'll see the poison-bush growing there but don't stop to look at it. Now … into them!”

The bang of Dinny's whip was echoed by the horsetailer's, and Mac's old dog started to yap hoarsely at the laggards. The pace of the mob imperceptibly quickened

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and a chorus of shouts and yells bunched them together and kept their attention from feeding. They gained the ridge. There was an uncanny impression of loathsomeness about the place. Except for the prevailing spinifex, the vegetation was different from any they had seen. The bark of the trees was of a sickly buff colour and the branches dipped and sprawled grotesquely. Bill saw an old ewe reach out and nibble at the dark-veined, fleshy leaf of a low shrub, and the peculiar heart-shape of the leaf suddenly occurred to him. He charged his startled horse at the sheep and drove it into the mob. The uproar continued but the pace was telling on the totterers of the tail. Bill dismounted to set an exhausted ewe on her feet. She staggered a few steps and flopped again. MacAndrew shouted from the wing, “Never mind her. Keep the others going! We're nearly out of it.”

The yellow-barked trees grew fewer, and finally disappeared. A call went up from old Mac. “Right oh! Take it easy!” They were through. Two sheep died before they reached camp and in the morning three more lay stiff in the break.

“We got off light!” Dinny philosophically rolled a breakfast cigarette. “A mob came through last year and lost four hundred on that patch. Anyhow, one more day and we'll be rid of these cripples.”

The weather came up hot and sultry. That night something woke Bill with a start, and as he lay marshalling his wandering senses, another big raindrop pinged on his cheek. Thunder muttered ominously and suddenly the sky was lit by a livid flash. By its light he saw two men stooping over the break, and beyond

  ― 33 ―
them the sheep milled in ceaseless turmoil, baa-ing a welcome to the approaching storm. Bill pulled on his boots and joined Mac and Dinny at the break. “Anything wrong?” he inquired.

“We're only slacking off the rope before the rain shrinks it and pulls the pegs out of the ground. We're nearly finished. Better turn in. It's going to rain like hell.”

The air was heavy and still. Each vivid flash of lightning showed up the tracery of trees and limbs and leaves. The thunder drew closer, louder, and more menacing, but the stray raindrops still fell singly, smacking flat on leaf and bough and hitting the fire with a venomous hiss. Dinny walked across and stood over him, the end of his cigarette glowing red in the darkness. “Better roll up your swag and put it on the cart. You'll get washed out in five minutes where you are.”

Bill joined the others round the high piled fire, muzzy and sullen at losing his sleep. Old George and the horsetailer still slept under the protecting fly of the wagonette. Then the heavens opened in searing flame, crash upon deafening crash of thunder shook the ground, and the rain hit them in a solid sheet. Bill gasped. The rain came down with a force that hurt. It penetrated his clothes in a matter of seconds. Even his hat did not protect him. He could feel the rain seeping past the leather band, trickling down the back of his neck to join the cataract that ran down his spine and filled his boots to overflowing. The fire crouched, cowed under the onslaught, spitting and spluttering venomously at the drops that tried to reach its glowing heart.

  ― 34 ―

A horrible flow of language emanated from under the cart, and presently two shivering, cursing individuals joined the group at the fire, driven out by the water that was beginning to flow along the ground. Dawn came slow and leaden with every sign of the rain's continuing.

They plodded on all morning, cold, rain-sodden, and miserable as the sheep they were driving. These would stop at every opportunity and stand shivering—heads down, flanks drawn in, and backs humped like camels. Two horsemen in glistening oilskins rode out of the dripping timber and Dinny sighed with heartfelt relief. “If we don't get rid of these damned sheep soon, we'll have none left to deliver.”

Another hour brought them to a fence and a gateway staked to form a narrow opening. Mac, Dinny, and the strangers dismounted and posted themselves on the far side while Bill and young Mac kept the sheep up to the gate. They started to string through the opening in the thin line, and at quick intervals came the drover's shout of “Hundred,” while Dinny's tally rose steadily “… Eight … Nine” and at each hundred, his knife cut a notch in the stick he carried. The mob dwindled till only the old staggerers of the tail remained, pressing, jamming in the narrow opening. The last one stumbled through on groggy legs, and Bill watched it with a feeling of great relief as it joined the untended mob dispersing through the timber in the rain. Now they could relax, the strain was off, and they could sleep soundly at night without the ever-present tension that brings the drover wide awake in an instant.

There was a slight difference between Mac's final tally

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and the stranger's, but the weather was not conducive to argument and they wasted no time in striking a total. Then the elder stranger looked genially round the morose little group, the rain dripping from his heavy, reddish moustache. “Come on up to the house, all of yez, and have a feed and dry yersilves. It's no sort of a day to be sitting out in the scrub like a lot of wet emus!” They fell gratefully in behind him, the horses slithering and sinking in the sodden, narrow track that wound through the thick timber. At length a small clearing opened before them, and a chorus of barking from the buildings on the opposite side greeted them, indistinct through the misty, driving rain.

They pulled off their saddles and turned the un-hobbled horses out in O'Brien's paddock. Then as they gathered on the back veranda, with the water trickling from them and gathering in pools on the earthen floor, the door opened and O'Brien was with them again—a big, hearty, red-faced, red-haired man with a chest, deep and thick as a bull's—and a wicker-covered demijohn under his arm. “Come on, boys!” he called. “This'll keep the cold out!” He handed a pannikin to MacAndrew and the dark liquor gurgled out of the jar. “Nelson's blood! An' if you want more water than you've got already, the tank's running over.”

Dinny drank next and passed the pannikin to Bill. The boy hesitated, then shook his head silently. Dinny stared at him. “Don't be silly! It won't hurt you.”

Bill refused again. “I—I promised once——”

Dinny looked steadily at the wan, shivering figure and his tone was deliberate and caustic. “And did you promise not to touch castor oil? This is doctor's orders

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… and I'm the doctor!” He pushed the tin pannikin into Bill's unwilling hand. “Get it into you, quick!”

The boy clamped his chattering teeth on a blue lip, then with a sudden movement put the mug to his mouth and gulped the dark liquid. Next instant he was coughing, spluttering, and gasping, the tears starting into his eyes, while his chest burned as if he had swallowed liquid fire.

O'Brien beamed on him from the doorway. “Never be scared of good rum, lad. Make a friend of it! And the way to keep your friends is never to abuse them. Hallo, here's your plant. Get into some dry clothes if you have them. If you haven't I'll see what I've got, then we'll have a feed.”

Bill felt a strange elation pervading his body. His cheeks burned, his fingers, white and wrinkled with cold and rain, began to tingle comfortably to the tips, and a feeling of glorious warmth was stealing to his numb toes. He squared his shoulders and plunged into the rain after Mac to help unload the mud-spattered wagonette. He felt uplifted—a conqueror—what mattered rain or cold or discomfort to him now!

They gathered round a big solid table in the kitchen with an open fireplace on one side throwing out grateful warmth. O'Brien, brandishing a huge carving-knife, sat at the top of the table, with his wife, a faded middle-aged woman with a patient expression, on his right, and his daughter Eileen, a big buxom girl for her sixteen years on his left. Tim, the son, mingled with the drovers.

Bill found himself between Mrs O'Brien and Reg the horsetailer. He glanced down the table at the others

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shuffling awkwardly to their seats; there were not chairs enough to go round, so some had to sit on boxes. Old George sat hunched over a huge plate of corned beef and pumpkin, shovelling the hot food into his mouth and masticating loudly. He still wore his greasy old hat and Bill, casting back in his memory, could not recall having seen the cook without his hat by night or day. There was no attempt at conversation. Food was a vital, important thing, and appreciation of it could be shown far more effectively in silent concentration, and by the amount one ate, than by any conventional remarks.

Bill, looking up suddenly, found a pair of wide blue eyes fixed speculatively on him. His first view of Eileen had not impressed him. Her straight fair hair was drawn back to a tight bun, and her face was round, high cheek-boned, and expressionless as a boiled pudding. They looked at one another for a matter of seconds, then Bill essayed a polite smile. But the magnifying power of rum refused to acknowledge mere politeness and took a hand in the shaping of that smile with the result that Eileen dimpled with disconcerting suddenness and her beaming response was an all-embracing thing—a regular sunrise of a smile. Bill, somewhat embarrassed, returned to the safer contemplation of his plate.

One after another the diners leaned back with sighs of repletion, wiping their mouths with the backs of their hands. O'Brien produced a plug of tobacco and started to hack chips off it with a pocket-knife; pipes were filled, cigarettes rolled, then tongues began to loosen.

  ― 38 ―
The rain still drummed incessantly on the roof, and the overflow from the tank plashed steadily.

They were storm-bound for three days. The men camped in the cart-shed, eating their meals in the kitchen with the O'Briens, and as time began to hang on their hands, Mrs O'Brien found the odd jobs that had been put off and accumulating for years being done. Travel was impossible. Every little gully carried its torrent of muddy water to add to the rising creeks.

Eileen was making the most of a heaven-sent opportunity. Young men there were in their isolated district but few came past O'Brien's selection. She wasted no time on old George. MacAndrew was a nice man but old, and little Mac was too young to be of interest. Dinny was a bit too quiet. She might have persevered with him had he been alone, but there were the other two boys. Reg was all right for a bit of fun, but he was just a little too saucy—used to chasing about with these flash town girls—and he thought because a girl had lived all her life in the bush she knew nothing.

So Eileen fluffed up her straight fair hair and wished it wouldn't stick out in wisps at the neck. She put the old hessian apron away out of sight and wore the new one made out of a clean sugar-bag, and in the evenings she appeared in a light print frock. True, it was getting a bit short and a bit tight, but she liked it better than the black one.

Bill came as an entirely new type to her. He was so nice-looking—like those men in the picture magazines. His fair reddish hair was so smooth and fine and well combed, and he spoke so different from anyone she had ever met. And there was something at the back of his

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eyes when he smiled at you—something that sort of kidded you on. Her dad reckoned at first he was a sissy, but she knew he wasn't. So she smiled on Bill and Bill grinned back. He was enjoying the situation for various reasons. Eileen was big boned and heavy in figure and speech—a regular draught-horse of a girl. She spoke with a rough nasal twang that made him wince at times, while her technique had a simple natural directness and total lack of sophistication that could be distinctly embarrassing. But to balance all that, she was the only girl he had met on friendly terms for months, and after the hardships of the past few weeks, the little comforts and the feminine touch, bovine though it might be, were most acceptable.

Another reason was the victory he was scoring over Reg. The horsetailer had waged a determined but hopeless battle for Eileen's favour from the start, and to find himself turned down for the raw newchum he had jeered at for weeks was the final straw.

The gathering tension cleared for a time when MacAndrew returned from a difficult trip to a neighbouring homestead where there was a telephone, and announced that the rain had been general, the drought was practically broken, and, what was of more import to them, he had accepted an offer to take ten thousand sheep down to New South Wales—an eight-hundred-mile trip.

Dinny and Mac talked half-way into the night, discussing routes, the obtaining of fresh horses, and more men. A final two days were spent in getting gear ready, making greenhide hobbles, and removing the shoes from horses due for a spell. O'Brien yarded a mob of his

  ― 40 ―
horses, and Mac and Dinny went over to inspect them. They did not take long to pick what they wanted, but when it came to bargaining, O'Brien, true to his ancestry, was prepared to spend an enjoyable day on it—or a week if they wanted it. When Mac had bought half a dozen likely sorts O'Brien drafted off a fine upstanding brown gelding.

“How did you come to miss that one?” he queried slyly.

Dinny shook his head. “Don't want him, Mick.”

O'Brien exploded. “An' what's the matter with him? The best young horse I've got on the place!”

“Look out he doesn't run you up a tree one of these days!”

“And for why?” O'Brien's moustache quivered with indignation.

“He's blind in one eye, Mick.”

What-at! Git a bridle, Tim, an' I'll show him the liar he is!”

Mac moved closer to Dinny and spoke in an undertone. “His eyes look all right to me.”

Dinny nodded calmly. “They might be … but I don't like the way he holds his head.”

Tim pursued the brown horse round the yard a few times till he cornered it and slipped the bridle on. O'Brien peered at the frightened horse's eyes, first one then the other. “Not a spot on them,” he declared vehemently. “As good as me own.”

Dinny took the bridle and ran a soothing hand up the horse's neck. Then he flicked a finger at the near eye. The horse never flinched. He handed the bridle back to O'Brien and resumed his seat on the rails. “Have a

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good look at his near eye, Mick. There's no pupil in it!”

O'Brien peered closely, compared it with the other eye, then stood back and slowly rubbed the back of his neck. “I take back all I said, Dinny! An' me galloping him through the scrub an' over gullies these six months. Providence has been kind to me! Here, take him! You can have him or any one you fancy.”

Dinny shook his head. “Thanks, Mick, but I don't want him.”

“I saw your eye on that bay colt. Will you take him?”

“He'll be a trouble on the road, but he's worth it. Thanks, Mick. I'll call him after you—even if he isn't a chestnut!”

Dinny and Reg carried their saddles to the yard and the others lined the rails. Bill turned to find Eileen climbing up beside him, and Reg, watching from the ground, scowled and shortened his stirrup leathers a hole. Now he would show her who was the better—him or a ginger-headed Pommy.

Dinny saddled a thickset black horse, Bill on the rails watching every movement of horse and man. Yet so quick and effortless was the man in mounting that one moment he was fitting a toe into the near stirrup, the next he was in the saddle. The black whirled and bucked high, spinning and landing in the same small circle all the time. Dinny sat unmoved in the saddle till the black eased up, then at his gesture the gate was thrown open, and he raced the gelding out across the flat, throwing up clods of drying mud all round him, but

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the black's honour was satisfied and he cantered quietly back.

There was marked contrast between Dinny's quiet methods, and Reg's saddling of a chestnut with a showy blaze. After a lot of loud objurgation and fuss he gained the saddle. The chestnut stood tense and rigid for about three seconds, then shot high in the air and came down with a nasty twist. His first buck threw Reg forward, the next left him gazing down the chestnut's shoulder, another quick twist and he hit the ground. He scrambled furiously to his feet, cornered the chestnut and mounted again. The next minute held a really good show. Reg rode the horse from crupper to ears, but he rode him to a standstill, and the applause from the rails salved his wounded pride.

That last night as they sat in a wide circle in front of the open fireplace, O'Brien produced the demijohn. “If you're leaving in the morning it's the last one we'll have for a while.” Bill sitting in a corner with Eileen, fingered the pannikin uncertainly and sought Dinny's eyes. He made no immediate reply but took Bill's mug and poured a mere drop of rum into it and a generous dash of water. The cook and the horsetailer had no such scruples and made the most of the opportunity.

They rose at length and filed out to their sleeping quarters in the chill night air. Bill, the last to leave, was greeted by a snarl from the horsetailer. “Think you can put it over me, you young bastard!”

MacAndrew, pulling off his boots, looked up as a figure bounded past him. Out in the moonlight stood the horsetailer wearing a thin-lipped provocative sneer. Bill faced him, tense with passion, his eyes glittering

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and the sensitive nostrils flaring. “What did you call me?” he demanded between set teeth.

Reg stuck his face aggressively forward. “I called you a ba——.” He staggered back as a right and left landed full in his face. Mac started to his feet to separate them, but Bill was following up with a frenzy of wild blows to face and body. His opponent, too surprised to do more than vaguely guard the rain of punches, kept on retreating till his heel caught an obstacle and he feel in a heap. Bill drew back panting. The man on the ground pulled himself together with a vindictive glare, got suddenly to his feet and charged with a rush. He was Bill's superior in weight, reach, and years, but the youth was in the grip of a fierce concentrated hate that ignored punishment and incited him to persistent attack. His cheek was split and bleeding freely, while one of the horsetailer's eyes was closing rapidly. They drew apart for a few seconds, panting heavily and glaring at one another. Then they closed again in a medley of flying fists and came to the ground, indistinguishably locked together.

One figure scrambled to his feet in the moonlight, glanced at the motionless heap on the ground, then slouched away to the dim corner of the shed where old George sat huddled in his blankets peering stupidly with his one good eye. Mac trickled cold water on the face of the fallen combatant till he stirred, blinked, then with Dinny's help he took him to the water-tank and laved the bruised face.

“You shouldn't take any notice of a man that's got a few drinks in,” Mac advised.

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Bill gulped. “Drunk or not, I won't stand being called … what he called me.”

Dinny wrinkled his brows in puzzled thought. “But he only called you a bastard … anyone's likely to do that. Why,” he went on reminiscently, “if I had a quid for every time I've been called a bastard, I could retire and live in luxury! What's more, you know just where you are with that sort of bloke—that's more than you can say about some of them smooth, psalm-singing coots you meet in town!”

Bill mopped his face with a blood-stained towel and turned doggedly away. “I don't care! That's one thing they won't call me!”

Dinny meditatively eyed the retreating figure, then looked across at Mac. “I wonder …?” he began, and stopped.

Mac's broad shoulders shrugged faintly. “What if he is!” he hazarded to the vague but perfectly understood implication. “There's no need to get hot about a little thing like that!”

“It depends,” Dinny soliloquized softly. “You don't handle a touchy thoroughbred colt like he was a half-bred draught!”