― 45 ―

Chapter IV

ON the top of the ridge Bill turned in the saddle and looked back. Half a mile away the second mob spread peacefully out among the graceful tracery of boree and the denser sombre gidya. Behind them again the last mob was pouring over a pine ridge like a great white cloud against the new green grass and the dark foliage of the timber.

Bill turned contentedly, and the brown mare picked her way delicately among the stones in the wake of their own sheep. Out on the wing Dinny lay stretched along his horse's neck watching the sheep drift past, nipping at the fresh green shoots, or reaching at a low-hanging bough to relieve the monotony. They were headed on the long southern track that would carry them half-way across one State and part of another, and test them with ever-changing conditions and country, and the endless monotony of day after long day in the saddle, rubbing shoulders with the same people and putting up with the vagaries of ten thousand sheep. Many of these would become familiar enough to be dubbed with distinctive—and probably unprintable—names before the long trip was over.

Although sheep and Chinese may appear indistinguishable in the mass, the outstanding personalities soon obtain recognition. MacAndrew would pass down from

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the first mob to the last under Tom Dixon, running his experienced eye over them, on the lookout for strangers or sick sheep, then he would range his horse alongside Tom. “Think they're all here, Tom?”

The old man would nod vigorously. “I think so, Mac! Have you seen anything of Melba?” Melba was a ewe with a persistent falsetto bleat.

“She's with Dinny's mob. He was looking for that big long-backed ewe that's always poking out on the wing.”

“She's right! I saw her a while back.”

They had left young Mac behind in Longreach. He had ridden out and camped a night with them as they passed through, helping his father to start the leading mob while the men were breakfasting in the pale dawn, then he solemnly shook hands with Dinny and Bill and turned his pony back to the dreary prospect of school, and the degradation of having to mix with kids of his own age. But he would join them later, he promised. When the school closed for the holidays he would overtake them by coach and be in at the end of the trip.

They had a new cook and horsetailer. The prospect of a big mob of horses to look after did not appeal to Reg, and he preferred to stay on his own beat where he knew all the girls. Apparently he felt that the moving life of an overlander allowed no time for the fruition of the tedious but somewhat necessary spadework of love-making. With one exception, the remaining new hands were young men in their twenties, and Bill found that although they still regarded him as a newchum, he was no longer raw but entitled to a certain amount of respect. Rain and mud had worn the newness off his

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clothes, and the fires of many dinner camps had blackened and dented the pristine splendour of his quart-pot, but his still faintly bruised features as a result of the scrap with Reg did more to raise his status than anything else.

Tom Dixon, a reliable old hand and ex-cattleman, made up the team, and in the evenings after supper Dinny and he would foregather, sitting on their heels, blackfellow fashion, with the firelight flickering on their reminiscent expressions and on the sharp eager features of young Bill drinking in every word.

To Bill this trip was invested in an entirely new atmosphere to the last. Although he did not fully realize it, the better season was chiefly responsible. The desert trip had been carried out over bare, drought-stricken country, with weak, impoverished sheep and horses. Things were different now. Water lay in every gully, there was green grass everywhere, and heavy dews at night. Bill's only regret was that the flies were still as troublesome as ever and their persistent probing attacks nearly drove him mad.

His two new horses were also to his liking—a brown mare of O'Brien's with the light mouth and flexibility of the stockhorse, and a taffy chestnut pony. The latter he regarded at first with disfavour; he was still young and inexperienced enough to feel the superiority of sitting on a big horse. But he began to appreciate the kindly nature of the hardy little pony and to take an interest in it. When he picked up his bridle in the morning as the horses were driven on to the camp, he got into the habit of carrying a piece of damper for the little chestnut. Before long he only had to whistle to

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bring her out of the mob and she would stand still to be bridled and then demand the damper.

Bill added a stockwhip to his equipment in Longreach, a long tapering thong of plaited kangaroo hide. But in spite of assiduous practice he was still uncertain each time he used it whether the result would be a perfect crack like a rifle-shot or a mix-up with his horse's tail, a flick like a red-hot wire on the ear, or perhaps an ignominious tangle of thong round his neck.

In addition to the showy collie that had started work so inauspiciously on the first trip and which still followed him in a lackadaisical sort of way, he had added a black pup of doubtful breeding to his ménage. On the morning of their leaving O'Brien's, Eileen had beckoned him to one side, and in a secluded corner had wept over his bruises which she insisted in regarding as the wounds of battle waged over herself. Bill, thoroughly embarrassed, found it impossible to enlighten her, but as they were leaving, Eileen reappeared with a well-grown black pup under her arm and presented it to Bill. She could not have hit on a more successful keepsake.

Dinny regarded the pup with misgivings. “There's a good bit of kelpie in him, I'll admit, but he's got the ears of a retriever and the instincts of a cattle-dog. You'll have to stop him nipping their heels, Bill, and tell him wool-classing is not for the likes of him.”

The pup was a cheerful soul and he tried the patience of his owner continuously. He was too young and full of the joy of being alive to trot sedately at any horse's heels. He liked to visit Dinny's old dog, even though he was old and took life seriously, and bowled him over

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when he got too demonstrative. Without the reminder of the pup Bill would probably have forgotten all about Eileen in a day. He had no particular interest in the girl, he told himself, and he was at an age when the last girl he met was the one that was uppermost in his thoughts. That nice-looking Longreach girl, for instance. He had met her at MacAndrew's, and they went to a concert one evening. He sat between her and Bessie MacAndrew, little Mac's elder sister, but it was the slim girl and he who had leaned toward one another in the darkness of the hall, and whose hot hand he had held until the interval. When the lights went down again her hand had snuggled back into his, and walking home through the unlighted streets his arm slipped round her slim waist. He needed no dog to remind him of her—so far.

Longreach and Barcaldine were far behind. They passed Blackall and ran the Barcoo up to Tambo. Horizons were widening for Bill; towns and creeks and stations whose names were the framework of bush conversation were beginning to mean something more than mere empty names. He could listen to Dinny and old Tom yarning of the past and the present and follow their landmarks with some success now. He even felt a proprietary interest when Tom would break out into his favourite poem, intoning in a jerky sing-song rhythm,

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few,
And men of religion are scanty.
On a road never crossed 'cept by folk that are lost,
One Michael Magee had a shanty.

And when they passed other mobs coming north, and a drover would ride across with a nod and a casual

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“G'day,” and a keen glance at the brand of the other's horse and the condition of their sheep, Bill could talk back to him in his own language on the all-important topics—the state of the grass and the waterholes along the route. Then with a nod of farewell and a cheerful “Hooray,” they would separate and canter after their mobs, each with some garnered information to pass on, and each still ignorant of the other's identity except that he was “O'Mara's horsetailer” or “with MacAndrew's mob.”

As they progressed across open downs or stony scrubby ridges, there was always something new. Gidgee would give way to mulga or to pine. Every day Dinny had to be called upon to identify some fresh species of flora or fauna. A tree was either useful like gidgee that produced the coals beloved of cooks, or leopardwood, whose foliage the sheep liked, or on the other hand there was whitewood which was no good to burn and whose leaves were poisonous to stock at some times of the year.

So Bill gradually absorbed the lore of the bush. There were the big red kangaroos of the downs, the wallaroos of the stony hills, goannas six feet long with snaky heads like prehistoric saurians, and short stumpy death-adders, mobs of emus flouncing curiously past, tall grey-blue native companions performing their weirdly grotesque dances out on the shimmering plains, wild turkeys that looked more like geese, swarming clouds of pretty little green budgerigars, a skyful of galahs showing dove-grey at one moment and rose-pink the next, and those gorgeously painted miniatures that twittered among the mimosa bushes.

Then they reached the prickly-pear country. At first

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came scattered green plants thrusting grotesquely at all sorts of angles, gradually becoming clumps, then the clumps closed up to form an impassable spiny barrier that reached high among the trees and narrowed the stock-route to a mere lane. Just before they reached the Border Gate the coach pulled up alongside them one day and a sturdy little figure clambered down. Within a few minutes young Mac had his pony saddled and was riding round the mob as though he had never been away. He brought all the latest gossip from Longreach and all the additional titbits he had picked up on the coach. To Bill he brought a special message from the Longreach girl, much to the surprise of the recipient. She had faded from his thoughts shortly after they crossed the Barcoo, but the message brought her to life again, and for the next few days she vied for supremacy in his day-dreams with the fair girl in the store at St George.

They put behind them the long netting fence that marks the Queensland border, and crossed the plains of New South Wales toward the blue foothills. The stock-route narrowed in places to a mere strip and gate succeeded gate at such short intervals that Dinny swore that “Noo South was nothing but a bloody sheep yard!”

Mac buoyed them with the assurance that their destination was at hand, and one day a tall arrogant-looking individual in riding-breeches and a tightly-buttoned coat rode on to the dinner camp on a well-groomed black horse and demanded the presence of MacAndrew the drover. Mac rose from his lunch in the shade of a box-tree and crossed toward the stranger who surveyed him from his horse.

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“Are you MacAndrew?” he queried sharply. “I'm Mr Grimshaw, manager of Camelot. Have you lost many sheep on the way?”

“No, we've had a good trip. Where will you take delivery?”

“I want you to have them at the Brigalow yards tomorrow. I'll send a man to show you the way.”

“I know the road!” Mac paused in thought for a moment. “But that means we'll have to travel sixteen miles to-morrow with a lot of gates—and these sheep have been on the road over four months.”

The manager frowned down his big beaky nose. “Are you trying to teach me my business? I expect you to be at the yards to-morrow!” He wheeled the black horse and cantered stiffly off.

Mac resumed his seat with a thoughtful expression.

A voice from the background mimicked “I'm … Mistah … Grimshaw … Haw! Are you … a drovah? Haw?” When the laughter died down, Dinny observed casually to MacAndrew. “Ever notice how a bloke that doesn't know his job is always suspicious that people can see through him!” Then after a pause. “It's time we got back to Queensland, Mac!”

Mac nodded gloomily. “It's pretty hard after nursing these sheep to land them here in good nick, to be told to gallop them off their legs at the finish. It's every bit of sixteen miles to the Brigalow yards, and unless they've rebuilt them the yards aren't big enough to hold this mob.”

Dinny eyed him carelessly. “You seem to know this place pretty well, Mac.”

The drover hesitated a moment. He glanced round

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and dropped his voice so that only Dinny and Bill heard him. “I ought to! My father owned all this country once and I was born and brought up here. The bank smash of the nineties settled us and killed him. A young fellow just out from England bought the bigger part of the station and called it ‘Camelot.’ And the girl I was going to marry decided she couldn't be a poor man's wife … and married him. Not this Grimshaw—he's only a manager—but the owner who lives in Sydney or Melbourne, fellow by the name of Atherton. I never met him … but I wish him luck!”