"Oh, but I couldn't," Tommy answered. "They were just right for bottling; the sun to-day would have made them a bit too soft. And it's better to get them done; to-morrow may be just as hot, or hotter."
"That's true enough," Jim said. "Feeling the heat much, little Miss Immigrant?"
"Oh, not enough to grumble at," she answered, smiling. "And the bathing-hole in the creek is a joy; it's almost worth a hot day to get a swim at the end of it. Bob has built me a bathing-box out of a tree, and it's a huge success; he's very pleased with himself as an architect."
"That's good business," approved Jim. "You two never grumble, no matter what comes along."
"Well, but nothing has come along but good luck," Tommy said. "What have we had to grumble at, I should like to know?"
"Oh, some people find cause for grousing, no matter how good their luck is," Jim answered. "I believe you and old Bob would decline to recognize bad luck even if it did come your way."
"It's not coming," Tommy said, laughing. "So don't talk about it—I don't believe it exists." She stood watching him for a moment as he tried to mount; his big young thoroughbred resented the idea of anyone on his back, and Jim had to hop beside him, with one foot in the stirrup, while he danced round in a circle, trying to get away. Jim seized an opportunity, and was in the saddle with a lithe swing; whereupon the horse tried to get his head down to buck, and, being checked in that ambition, progressed down the paddock in a succession of short, staccato bounds.
"I think I should have to recognize bad luck coming if I had to ride him instead of Jim," remarked Tommy quaintly. She turned and ran in to her neglected apricots.
New Year's day broke clear and hot, like all the week before it. Norah, arriving at the Creek about ten o'clock, looked a little anxiously at her friend.
"We're used to riding in the heat, Tommy, dear," she said. "But you're not—are you sure you feel up to it?"
"Why, I'm going to love it," Tommy said. She looked cool and workman-like in a linen habit and white pith helmet—Norah's Christmas present. "I hadn't these nice things to wear when Bob and I brought the sheep out from Cunjee three weeks ago; and it was just as hot, and so dusty. And that didn't kill me. I liked it, only I never got so dirty in my life."
"Well, we shall only have a hot ride one way," said Norah philosophically. "There's a concert in Cunjee, and the boys want to stay for it. The concert won't be much, but the ride home in the moonlight will be lovely. You and Bob can stay, of course?"
"Oh, yes. Bill must bring Sarah and the baby home in good time, so he will milk the cows," Tommy answered. "He wanted them to stay for the concert, but Sarah had an amazing attack of common sense, and said it was no place for a baby. I didn't think she considered any place unfit for a baby, and certainly Bill doesn't."
"Bush people don't," said Norah, laughing. "If they did, they would never go anywhere, because the babies must go too, no matter what happens. And the babies get accustomed to it, and don't cry nearly as much as pampered ones that are always in the nursery."
"Bush kiddies grow a stock of common sense quite early," said Wally's voice from the door. "It leaves them in later life, and they stay gossiping with immigrants in new riding-kit, leaving their unfortunate fathers grilling in the sun. Which he says—" But at this point Norah and Tommy brushed the orator from their path, and hastened out to the horses—finding all the men comfortably smoking under a huge pepper tree, and apparently in no hurry to start.
Bob bewailed his yellow paddocks as they rode down to the gate.
"They were so beautifully green a few weeks ago," he said. "Now look at them—why, they're like a crop. The sun has burnt every bit of moisture out of them."
"Don't let that worry you, my boy," David Linton said. "The stock are doing all right; as long as they have plenty of good water at this time of the year they won't ask you for green grass." He gave a low chuckle. "You wouldn't think this was bad feed if you had seen the country in the drought years—why, the paddocks were as bare as the palm of your hand. Now you've grass, as you say yourself, like a crop." He looked at it critically. "I could wish you hadn't as much; fires will be a bit of an anxiety later on."
"Grass fires?" queried Bob.
"Yes. There's not enough timber here to have a real bush fire. But this grass is dry enough now, and by February it will go like tinder if any fool swagman drops a match carelessly. However, you'll just have to keep your eyes open. Luckily, your creek can't burn—you'll always have so much safeguard, because your stock could take to it; and that row of willows along the bank would check any grass fire."
"My word, wouldn't a fire race across the Billabong plains this year!" said Wally.
"Yes, it would certainly travel," agreed Mr. Linton. "Well, we've ploughed fire-breaks, and burned round the house, and we can only hope for good luck. You'd better burn a break round your house soon, Bob."
"Bill was saying so only this morning," Bob answered. "I nearly chucked the races and stayed at home to do it—only I was afraid it might get away from me single-handed, and I couldn't very well keep Bill at home."
"Oh, time enough," the squatter said lightly. "You're not so dry as we are, and we only burned last week."
"We'll come over and help you to-morrow, if you like," Jim said. "Wally wants work; he's getting too fat. A little gentle exercise with a racing fire on a hot day would be the very thing for him. We'll come and burn off with you, and then have a bathing party in the creek, and then you and Tommy must come back to tea with us." Which was a sample of the way much of the work was done on the Creek Farm. It had never occurred to the two Rainhams that life in Australia was lonely.
The road to Cunjee was usually bare of much traffic, but on the one race day of the year an amazing number of vehicles were dotted along it, light buggies, farm wagonettes, spring carts and the universal two-wheeled jinker, all crammed with farmers and settlers and their families. Wives, a little red-faced and anxious, resplendent in their Sunday finery, kept a watchful eye on small boys and girls; the boys in thick suits, the girls with white frocks, their well-crimped hair bearing evidence of intense plaiting overnight. Hampers peeped from under the seats, and in most cases a baby completed the outfit. Now and then a motor whizzed by, leaving a long trail of dust-cloud in its wake, and earning hearty remarks from every slower wayfarer. There were riders everywhere, men and women—most of the latter with riding-skirts slipped on over light dresses that would do duty that night at the concert and the dance that was to follow. Sometimes a motor-cycle chugged along, always with a girl perched on the carrier at the back, clinging affectionately to her escort. As Cunjee drew nearer and the farms closer together the crowd on the road increased, and the dust mounted in a solid cloud.
The Billabong people drew to one side, as close as possible to the fence, cantering over the short, dusty grass. It was with a sigh of relief that Jim at last pointed out a paddock across which buggies and horsemen were making their way.
"There's the racecourse," he said.
"Racecourse!" Tommy ejaculated. "But it just looks like an ordinary paddock."
"That's all it is," said Jim, laughing. "You didn't expect a grand-stand and a lawn, did you? Cunjee is very proud of itself for having a turf club at all, and nobody minds anything as long as they get an occasional glimpse of the horses."
"But where do they run?"
"Oh, the track goes in and out among the trees. There's some talk of clearing it before the next meeting by means of a working bee. But they won't worry if it doesn't get done—every one will come and have a picnic just the same. You see, there are only two days in the year when a bush place can really let itself go—Show day and Race day. Show day is more serious and business-like, but Race day is a really light-hearted affair, and the horses don't matter to most of the people."
They turned into a gate where two men were busily collecting shillings and keeping a wary eye lest foot passengers should dodge in through the fence without paying. There were no buildings at all in the bush paddock in which they found themselves. It lay before them, flat, save for a rise towards the southern boundary, where already the crowd was thickening, and sparsely timbered. As they cantered across it they came to a rough track, marked out more or less effectively by pink calico flags nailed to the trees.
"That's the racing track," Wally said. "Let's ride round it, and we'll have a faint idea of what the horses are doing later on."
They turned along the track, where the grass had been worn by horses training for the races during the few weeks preceding the great day. The trees had been cleared from it, so that it was good going. In shape it was roughly circular, with an occasional dint or bulge where a big red gum had been too tough a proposition to clear, and the track had had to swing aside to avoid it—a practice which must, as Jim remarked, make interesting moments in riding a race, if the field were larger than usual and the pace at all hot. Presently they emerged from the timber and came into the straight run that marked the finish—running along the foot of the southern rise, so that, whatever happened in the mysterious moments in the earlier parts of a race, the end was within full view of the crowd. The winning-post was a sawed-off sapling, painted half-black and half-white; opposite to it was the judge's box, a huge log which made a natural grand-stand, capable of accommodating the racing committee as well. Behind, a rough wire fence enclosed a small space known as the saddling paddock. The crowd picked out its own accommodation—it was necessary to come early if you wanted a good place on the rise. Already it was dotted with picnic parties, preparing luncheon, and a procession of men and boys, bearing teapots and billies, came and went about a huge copper, steaming over a fire, where the racing club dispensed hot water free of charge, a generosity chiefly intended to prevent the casual lighting of fires by the picnickers. All over the paddock people were hastening through the business of the midday meal; the men anxious to get it over before the real excitement of the day began with the racing, the women equally keen to feed their hungry belongings and then settle down to a comfortable gossip with friends perhaps only seen once or twice in the twelve months. Children tore about wildly, got in the way of buggies and motors, climbed trees and clustered thickly round any horse suspected of taking part in the racing. More than one candidate for a race appeared on the course drawing a jinker; and, being released from the shafts, was being vigorously groomed by his shirt-sleeved owner.
"There's an awful lot to see!" ejaculated Tommy, gazing about her.
"That is if you've eyes," Jim said. "But most of it can be seen on foot, so I vote Wally and Bob and I take the horses and tie them up while there's still a decent patch of shade left for them to stand in—every tree in the paddock will have horses tied to it before long. Do you know where Evans was to leave the buggy, Dad?"
"Yes—it's under a tree over there," said his father, nodding towards a bushy clump of wattles. "I told him to pick out a good shady place for lunch. We'll go on and get ready, boys. I'll take the teapot for hot water."
"Not you!" said Jim. "We'll be back in a few minutes and can easily get it. Just help the girls with the things, Dad, and we'll get lunch over; I'm as hungry as a hawk."
"I'm not hungry," said Norah. "But I want, oh! gallons of tea."
Tea seemed the main requirement of everybody. It was almost too hot to eat, even in the deep shade of the wattles. The boys, taught by the war to feed wherever and whenever possible, did some justice to Brownie's hamper; but Mr. Linton soon drew aside and lit his pipe at a little distance, while Tommy and Norah nibbled tomato and lettuce sandwiches, kept fresh and cool by being packed in huge nasturtium leaves, and drank many cups of tea. Then they lay under the trees until a bell, ringing from the saddling paddock, hinted that the first race was at hand. There was a surge of people towards the rise.
"Come on," Jim said, jumping up. "Help me to stow these things in the buggy, Wally—we'll want most of them for afternoon tea later on. Then we might as well go and see the fun. You girls rested?"
They were, they declared; and presently they set off towards the rise. Already the horses were appearing on the track, most of the jockeys wearing silk jackets and caps, although a few were content with doffing coat and waistcoat, and riding in blue and pink shirts—occasionally, but not always, complete with collar and tie. The horses were a mixed lot; some bore traces of birth and breeding, but the majority were just grass-fed horses from the neighbouring farms and stations, groomed and polished in a way that only happened to them once a year. The well-bred performers were handicapped with heavy weights, while the others had been let off lightly, so that all had a chance.
"Billabong has a horse running to-day—did you know?" Jim inquired.
"No!" Tommy looked up, dimpling with interest. "But how exciting, Jim. Is it yours?"
"No." Jim shook his head. "I won't enter a horse if I can't ride him myself, and of course I'm too heavy. He belongs to the station, but he's always looked upon as Murty's, and black Billy's going to ride him. He's in the Hurdle Race."
"Do you think he has any chance?"
"Well, he can gallop and jump all right," Jim said. "But he hasn't had much training, and whether he'll jump in company is open to doubt. But I don't think he'll disgrace us. You've seen Murty riding him—a big chestnut with a white blaze."
"Oh, yes—he calls him Shannon, doesn't he?" said Tommy. "I saw him jump three fences on him last time we were out mustering with your people. He's a beauty, Jim."
"Yes, he's pretty good. Murty thinks he's better than Garryowen, but I don't," Jim observed.
"If the Archangel Gabriel turned into a horse you wouldn't think he was up to Garryowen!" said Wally.
"No, and he probably wouldn't be," said Jim, laughing. "If you begin life as an archangel, how would you settle down to being a horse after?"
"I suppose it needs practice," Wally admitted. "Look out—here they come!"
The horses were coming down the straight in their preliminary canter, and the crowd abandoned the business of picnicking and turned its attention to the first race. The riders, mostly local boys, looked desperately serious, and, as they pulled up after their canter, and turning, trotted slowly back past the rise, shouts of warning and encouragement and instruction came to them—from the owners of their mounts—which had the effect of making the boys look yet more unhappy. A bookmaker, the sole representative of his profession, yelled steadily from under a lightwood tree; those who were venturesome enough to do business with him were warned solemnly by more experienced men to keep a sharp look-out that he did not get away with their money before the end of the day.
"That happened in Cunjee some years ago," said Mr. Linton. "A bookmaker appeared from goodness knows where, and struck a very solid patch of bad luck. All the district seemed to know how to pick winners that day, and he lost solidly on every race. He plunged a bit on the fourth race, hoping to get his money back; but that was worse still, and when he saw the favourite winning, he knew he had no hope of settling up. So he quietly collected his horse, which he had tied up in a convenient place, in case it was wanted in a hurry, and made tracks before the race finished."
"What happened to him?" asked Bob.
Mr. Linton chuckled.
"Well, he added considerably to the excitement of the day. Some one saw him going, and passed the word round, and every man to whom he owed money—and they were many—ran for his horse and went after him. He had a good start, and no one knew what road he would take, so it was quite a cheery hunt. I think it was Dave Boone who tracked him at last, and he paused at a cross-roads, and coo-eed steadily until he had a number of followers. Then they set sail after the poor bookie, and caught him about seven or eight miles away. They found he had practically no money—not nearly enough to divide up; so they took what he had and presented it to the Cunjee Hospital, and finished up the day happily by tarring and feathering the bookie, and riding him on a fence rail round Cunjee that night!"
"What do your police do in a case like that?" Bob asked.
"Well, there's only one policeman in Cunjee, and, being a wise man, he went to the concert, and probably enjoyed himself very much," said Mr. Linton, laughing.
"And what happened to the bookie?"
"Just what you might expect—the boys got sorry for him, made a collection for him, bought him some cheap clothes—I believe they didn't err on the side of beauty!—and shipped him off to Melbourne by the first train in the morning. I don't think he'll try his artful dodges on this section of the bush again; and it has made all the boys very watchful about betting, so it wasn't a bad thing, on the whole. They think they know all about the ways of the world now. Look, Tommy—the horses are off! Watch through the trees, and you'll get a glimpse presently."
The gay jackets flashed into view in a gap in the timber, and then were lost again. Soon they came in sight once more and rounded the last curve into the straight, amid shouts from the crowd. They came up the straight, most of the jockeys flogging desperately, while everyone rushed to get as near the winning-post as possible. Hats were flung in the air and yells rose joyfully, as a Cunjee boy, riding a desperate finish, got his horse's nose in front in the last couple of lengths and won cleverly.
"She's excited!" said Wally, looking down at Tommy's flushed face.
"I should think so," said Tommy. "Why, it was dreadfully exciting. I'd love to have been riding myself." At which everyone laughed extremely, and a tall young stockman from a neighbouring station, overhearing, was so impressed that he hovered as near as possible to Tommy for the rest of the day.
The next event was the Hurdle Race, and interest for the Linton party centred in the candidate described on the race-card as Mr. M. O'Toole's Shannon. Nothing further could be done for Shannon—he was groomed until the last hair on his tail gleamed; but black Billy, resplendent in a bright green jacket and cap, the latter bearing an embroidered white shamrock, became the object of advice and warning from every man from Billabong, until anyone except Billy would probably have turned in wrath upon the multitude of his counsellors. Billy, however, had one refuge denied to most of his white brothers. He hardly ever spoke; and if some reply was absolutely forced upon him, he merely murmured "Plenty!" in a vague way, which, as Wally said, left you guessing as to his meaning.
"Yerra, lave off badgerin' the boy," said Murty at last, brushing aside Dave Boone and Mick Shanahan, and the other Billabong enthusiasts. "If he listens to the lot of ye anny longer he won't know whether he's ridin' a horse or an airyplane. There's only wan insthruction to be kapin' in your head, Billy—get to the front an' stay there. Ridin' a waitin' race is all very well on the flat, but whin it comes to jumpin', anything that's in front of ye is apt to turn a somersault an' bring ye down in a heap."
"Plenty!" agreed Billy; and lit a cigarette.
"Shannon don't like anny other horse in front of him at all," went on Murty. "He's that full of pride he never tuk kindly to bein' behind, not since he was bruk in. He'll gallop like a machine an' lep like a deer if he gets his head."
"I don't b'lieve you've much show, anyhow," Dave Boone said. "There's that horse from the hotel at Mulgoa—Blazer, they call him. He's done no end of racin', and won, too."
"Well, an' if he has, hasn't he the great weight itself to be carryin'?" demanded Murty.
"Why, he's top weight, of course; but you're carryin' ever so much over weight," responded Mr. Boone. "If you'd put up a boy instead of Billy, you could be pounds lighter."
"Ah, git away with your advisin'," replied Murty. "Billy knows the horse—an' where'd a shlip of a boy be if Shannon cleared out with him? I'd rather carry too much weight, an' know I'd put a man up as could hold the horse." His anxious eye fell on the girls. "Miss Norah and Miss Tommy!—come here an' wish him luck without offerin' me any advice, or I'll lose me life over the ould race! They have desthroyed me with all the things they're afther tellin' me to do."
"We won't tell you a thing, Murty—except that he's looking splendid," Norah said, stroking Shannon's nose, to which the horse responded by nuzzling round her pocket in search of an apple. "No, I can't give you one, old man—I wouldn't dare. But you shall have one after the race, whether you win or not, can't he, Murty?"
"He can so," said Murty. "Wance he's gone round that thrack he can live on the fat of the land—an' Billy, too. It's a dale aisier to get the condition off a horse than off Billy. No man on this earth 'ud make a black fellow see why he shouldn't have a good blow-out whenever it came his way. Only that Providence made him skinny by nature, he'd be fat as a porpoise this day. I've been watchin' over his meals like a mother with a delicate baby these three weeks back; but what hope 'ud I have with Christmas comin' in the way? He got away on me at Christmas dinner, an' what he didn't ate in the way of turkey an puddin' wouldn't be worth mentioning—an' him booked to ride to-day! 'Plenty' always did be his motter, an' he lives up to it. So he's pounds overweight, an' no help for it."
"Never mind, Murty," Jim said. "He knows the horse, and Shannon's able to stand a few pounds extra. He'll give us a good run."
"I believe ye, Masther Jim," said Murty, beaming. "He'll not disgrace us, an' if he don't win itself, then he'll not be far behind. There you are, Billy—that's the bell for weighin'. Hurry up now, and get over to the scales."
The black boy's lean figure, saddle and bridle on arm, threaded its way through the crowd round the weighing enclosure—a little space fenced off by barbed wire. Presently they saw him coming back grinning.
"That pfeller sayin' I plenty too much pounds," he said in an unusual burst of eloquence.
"Ah, don't be rubbin' it in—don't I know it?" quoth Murty, taking the saddle and slipping it deftly on Shannon's back. "I dunno, did he think he was givin' me a pleasant surprise with the information by way of a New Year's gift. Does he think we've never a scales on Billabong, did ye ask him? There now, he's ready. Get on him, Billy, an' shove out into the track for a canter. I'll get nothing but chat from every one as long as you're here. Take him for a look at some of the hurdles, the way he'll know all about them when he comes to jump." He stood with a frown on his good-humoured face as Shannon and his rider made off.
Norah laid a hand on his arm.
"There's not a horse on the course better turned out, Murty," she said. "No one can say the Billabong representative doesn't look fit."
Murty turned on her, beaming again.
"Well, indeed, he'll not be doin' the station any discredit, Miss Norah," he said happily, "an' if he don't win, well, we can't all be winnin', can we? Only we did win a race last year, whin none of ye were here to be watchin' us an' make it worth while. I'd like to score to-day, now that ye're all here to see—an' Miss Tommy too, that's never seen racin'." He smiled down at the English girl's pink face.
"I'm going to see you win to-day, Murty—I feel it in my bones," said Tommy promptly. "I've always loved Shannon, ever since I saw you jump those big fences with him when we put up the hare out mustering."
"Yerra, that one'd make a steeplechaser if he got the trainin'," declared Murty, all his troubles forgotten. "Come a little higher up, won't ye, Miss Norah; we can see every jump from the top of the rise, barrin' the wan that's in the timber."
They followed him up the little hill until he declared himself satisfied with his position; and he spent the time until the flag fell in pointing out to Tommy the exact places where the hurdles were erected—pausing only for a proud look when Shannon thundered past below them in his preliminary canter, the green jacket bright in the sun, and every muscle in the horse's gleaming body rippling as he moved. He was reefing and plunging in his gallop, trying to get his head; but Billy soon steadied him, and presently brought him up the straight again at a quiet trot. The other horses went out, one by one, until at length a field of eight faced the starter; and presently they were off, and over the first jump in a body. They came down the straight on the first time round, packed closely, a glittering mass of shining horses and bright colours. One dropped at the jump near the judge's box, and as the other horses raced away round the turn the riderless horse followed, while his jockey lay still for a moment, a little scarlet blur upon the turf. Eager helpers ran forward to pick him up, but he was on his feet before they could reach him, and came limping up the hill, a little bruised and infinitely disgusted.
"He's all right," Murty said. "Yerra, Mr. Jim, did ye see the ould horse jump! He wint ahead at his fences like a deer!"
The horses were in the timber; they peered anxiously at the bright patch of colour that showed from time to time, trying to see the familiar green jacket. Then, as the field came into view Murty uttered an irrepressible yell, for his horse shot ahead at the next jump and came into the straight in the lead. Murty gripped at the nearest object, which happened to be Norah's shoulder, and clenched it tightly, muttering, in his excitement, words in his native Irish. They thundered up the straight, Billy crouching on Shannon's neck, very still. Then behind him the Mulgoa horse drew out from the ruck and came in chase. Nearer and nearer he came, while the shouts from the crowd grew louder. Up, up, till his nose was at Shannon's quarter—at his girth—at his shoulder, and the winning-post was very near. Then suddenly Billy lifted his whip and brought it down once, and Shannon shot forward with a last wild bound. Murty's hat went up in the air—and Wally's with it.
"He's done it!" Murty babbled. "Yerra, what about Billabong now?" He suddenly found himself gripping Norah's shoulder wildly, and would have apologized but that Norah herself was dancing with delight, and looking for his hand to grasp. And the crowd was shouting "Shannon! Shannon! Billabong!"—since all of these Cunjee folk loved Billabong and were steadily jealous of Mulgoa. Jim and Wally were thumping Murty on the back. Bob and Mr. Linton stood beaming at him. Below them Billy came trotting back on his victorious steed, sitting with a grave face, as expressionless as if he had not just accomplished his heart's desire. But his dark, mysterious eyes scanned the crowd as he turned from weighing in, and only grew satisfied when he saw the Billabong party hurrying to greet him. They shook his hand, and smote him on the back, Dave Boone and Mick Shanahan prancing with joy. And Shannon, his glossy coat dark with sweat, nuzzled again at Norah's pocket for an apple—and this time got it.
This glorious event over, interest became focused on a trotting race, which brought out a queer assortment of competitors, ranging from King Lightfoot, a horse well known in Melbourne, to Poddy, an animal apparently more fitted to draw a hearse than to trot in a race—a lean, raw-boned horse of a sad countenance and a long nose, with a shaggy black coat which rather resembled that of a long-haired Irish goat. There were other candidates, all fancied by their owners, but the public support was only for King Lightfoot, who ran in elaborate leather and rubber harness, and was clearly regarded by his rider as of infinite condescension to be taking part in such a very mixed company.
It proved, however, not to be King Lightfoot's lucky day. The horses started at intervals, according to their performances or merit, Poddy being the first to move, the Melbourne horse the last. King Lightfoot, however, obstinately refused to trot, whereas Poddy revealed unexpected powers, flinging his long legs abroad in a whirlwind fashion, and pounding along doggedly, with his long nose outstretched as if hoping to get it past the winning-post as soon as possible. No other horse came near him; his initial lead was never lessened, and he plugged doggedly to victory, while the crowd roared with laughter, and out in the timber King Lightfoot's rider wrestled with his steed in vain. Later, his prejudice against trotting in the bush removed by stern measures, King Lightfoot flashed up the track like a meteor, with his furious rider determined to show something of what his steed could do. By that time Poddy was once more unsaddled, and was standing under a tree with his weary nose drooping earthwards, so that the crowd merely yelled with laughter anew, while the stewards unfeelingly requested the Melbourne man to get off the track.
"Oh, isn't it hot!" Norah fanned herself with a bunch of gum leaves, and cast an anxious look at Tommy.
It was breathlessly hot. Not a hint of air stirred among the trees or moved the long dry grass that covered the paddock—now showing many depressions, where tired people or horses had lain down to rest. The horses stood about, drooping their heads, and swishing their tails ceaselessly at the tormenting flies; men and women sought every available patch of shade, while dogs stretched themselves under the buggies, panting, with lolling tongues. Children alone ran about, as though nothing could mar their enjoyment; but babies fretted wearily in their mothers' arms. Overhead the sun blazed fiercely in a sky of brass. Now and then came a low growl of thunder, giving hope of a change at night; but it was very far distant, although a dull bank of cloud lay to the west. David Linton watched the cloud a little uneasily.
"I don't quite like the look of it," he muttered to himself. "I'll go and ask Murty what he thinks of it." But Murty had been swallowed up in a crowd anxious to congratulate him on Shannon's success, and his employer failed to find him at the moment. He came upon Sarah, however—sitting under a tree, with her baby wailing dismally.
"To hot for her, Sarah," David Linton said kindly.
"That's right, sir—it's too hot for anyone, let alone a little tiny kid," Sarah said wearily. "I'd get Bill to go home if I could, but I can't get on his tracks—and it's too hot to take baby out in the sun looking for him. If you come across him, sir, you might tell him I want him."
"All right," said the squatter. "But you wouldn't take that long drive home yet, Sarah—better wait until the sun goes down."
"Well, I'd go into Cunjee, to me sister-in-law's," said Sarah. "She'd let me take baby's things off an' sponge her—an' I'd give a dollar to do it. No more races with kids for me in weather like this!" She crooned to the fretting baby as Mr. Linton went off.
He found Tommy and Norah together under a tree near the track—hot, but interested.
"Where are the boys?"
"They're all holding ponies," Norah said. "I don't quite know why, but a very hot and worried man collected them to help start the race. What is it for, Dad, do you know?"
"Oh, I see!" David Linton laughed. "It's—a distance handicap—the ponies all start at the same moment, but from different points along the track."
"Yes, that must be it," Norah said. "Jim's away over near the timber with a little rat of a pony, and Bob is shepherding another fifty yards behind him, while Wally is quite near here with that big pony of the blacksmith's that has won ever so many races. She'll have a lot of ground to make up. But why must each one be shepherded, Dad?"
"Human nature," said David Linton, smiling. "These youngsters who are riding would sneak a yard or two if they weren't closely watched, and they would never start fair; the only way is to put each in charge of a responsible man with a good watch, and let him start them. What time is the race? Oh, four o'clock. Well, I never yet saw a pony race that started on time; neither the ponies nor the boys are easy to handle, and I see there are ten of them. Watch them; it's after four, and they must be nearly ready to start."
The ponies were strung out round the course, each with a "shepherd" standing to attention near its bridle, watch in hand. They could see Jim's great form standing sentinel over a tiny animal, whose diminutive rider was far too afraid of the huge Major to try to snatch even a yard of ground; nearer, Wally kept a wary eye on the experienced jockey on the blacksmith's racing mare, who was afraid of nothing, but nevertheless had a certain wholesome respect for the tall fellow who lounged easily against a tree near him, but never for an instant shifted his gaze. The shepherds were waiting for a signal from the official starter.
It came presently, a long shrill whistle, and simultaneously each guardian stepped back, and the released ponies went off like a flash—all save Bob's charge, who insisted on swinging round and bolting in the wrong direction, while his jockey sawed at his mouth in vain. Yawing across the track the rebel encountered the blacksmith's pony, who swerved violently in her swift course to avoid him, and lost so much ground that any chance she had in the race was hopelessly lost, whereat the blacksmith, who was standing on the hill, raved and tore his hair unavailingly. A smart little bay pony fought out the finish with Jim's tiny charge, and was beaten by a short head, just as Wally, walking quickly, came back to his party.
"That was a great race," said Norah. "Wally, you shouldn't walk so fast on such a day. It makes one warm only to look at you."
Wally answered with an absent air that was unlike his usual alertness. The girls, watching the ponies come in, noticed nothing, and presently he drew Mr. Linton aside.
"Did you notice that cloud, sir?" he asked, in a low voice. "I didn't until I was down on the track with the pony, looking in that direction. But it's twice the size it was when I went down."
"I've been looking at it, and I don't like it," said Mr. Linton. "It's smoke, I'm positive, and too near Billabong and the Creek to be comfortable. I think we'll make tracks for home, Wally. Have you seen Murty anywhere?"
As if in answer, Mr. O'Toole came running down the hill.
"I've been huntin' ye's everywhere," he panted. "There's a man just kem out from Cunjee lookin' for ye, sir—some one's tallyphoned in that there's a big grass fire comin' down on the Creek, an' 'twill be a miracle if it misses Billabong! I've told the men—they're off to get the horses."
Norah and Tommy had turned, with dismayed eyes.
"Will it be at our place, Murty?" Tommy asked.
"I dunno will it, Miss Tommy," the Irishman answered. "But as like as not 'twill miss it—or anyhow, we'll get there first, an' stop it doing much damage. Don't you worry your little head, now."
She looked up at him gratefully. Norah's hand was thrust through her arm.
"It may not be near the Creek at all, Tommy dear," she said.
"Oh, I hope it isn't—my poor old Bob!" Tommy said, under her breath. "Can we hurry, Norah?"
"They're bringing the horses," Norah answered. "We'll be off in a minute—see, dad has gone to meet Bob."
Wally had turned to Murty.
"Murty, do you mind if I ride Shannon and take him across country? I'm on Marshal to-day, you know, and he can't jump for nuts. But Shannon can take every fence between here and the Creek, and I can cut the distance in half if I go across. I'm about the lightest of us, I think."
"So ye are—an' the horse'll take ye like a bird," said Murty. "Don't shpare him, Mr. Wally, if ye think ye can do any good. He's over there under the big wattle."
"Right-o!" said Wally. "Tell Mr. Jim, will you, Murty?" He turned and ran down the hill with long strides.
HOW WALLY RODE A RACE
Already the cloud was growing in the western sky—so high that it threatened to obscure the sun that still blazed fiercely down. At first a dull brown, there was a curious light behind it; at the edges it trailed away into ragged wisps like floating mist. There was something mysteriously threatening in its dense heaviness.
There were other men running for their horses, as Wally raced towards Shannon. The news of a grass fire had spread quickly, and every man wanted to be on his own property, for the whole countryside was covered with long, dry grass, and no one could say where a fire might or might not end. Boone and Shanahan passed Wally, leading several horses—his own amongst them. They hailed him quickly.
"We've got Marshal, Mr. Wally."
"Give him to Murty," Wally answered as he ran. "I'm riding Shannon." He raced on.
"That means he's going across country," said Dave Boone. "For two pins I'd go too."
"Don't you—you'd never get your horse over them fences," Shanahan said. "An' it'll take Mr. Wally all his time to get across them wired paddocks of Maclennan's. Hope he don't break Shannon's laigs."
"Not he; Mr. Wally's no fool," said Boone. "Git up, y' ol' sardine!" He kicked the horse he was leading, and they trotted up to Norah and Tommy.
Shannon, standing with drooping head, showed little interest as Wally flung the saddle on his back. He had won his race handsomely, and it was a scorching day; possibly the big chestnut felt that no more should be required of him; in which case he was soon to be rudely awakened. Wally swung into the saddle with a quick movement, and turned him, not towards the gate, but in the opposite direction, which further puzzled Shannon. But he was a stock horse first and a hurdle racer as an afterthought; and a good stock horse knows his rider's mind, if that rider is a good man. He made one tentative movement towards his paddock mates, now moving away towards the gate; then, feeling the touch of Wally's hand on the bit, and the light pressure of his knee, he decided that some new game was on foot, and cantered easily away.
They crossed the racing track, going westward over the big paddock, away from the buggies and the crowd. A belt of timber checked their swift progress a moment; then they came out into clear ground in sight of the boundary fence, a stiff three-railer. Wally peered at it anxiously, unable, for an instant, to see if there were a wire on top; but it was clear, and he shook up his horse, putting him straight at the middle of a panel. Shannon pricked his ears and flew it daintily—this was work he loved, and hot though the day might be, he was ready for any amount of it. Also Wally was lighter than Murty, his usual rider; and although he loved Murty, and respected him greatly, this new man had a seat like a feather and a hand gentle as silk upon his tender mouth. Shannon broke into the gallop that he felt sure his rider wanted.
They were in a wide paddock, bare, save for a few clumps of timber, in the shade of which sheep were thickly clustered. It was good, sound going, with a few little rises; and, knowing that he would have to slacken speed presently, Wally let the chestnut have his head across the clear grass. They took the next fence and the next before he drew rein. He was in country he did not know—all big farms, with many stubble fields with newly erected stacks, and with good homesteads, where now and then a woman peered curiously from a verandah at him. There were no men in sight; every man in the neighbourhood was at the races on New Year's day.
He found himself in a paddock where rough ground, thickly strewn with fallen timber, sloped down abruptly to a creek. Checking Shannon, he rode more steadily down to the water, and trotted along the bank for a hundred yards, looking for a good place to ford—the banks shelved abruptly down, and the water was unusually deep. But the only promising fords were too thickly snagged to be tempting; and presently, with a shrug, Wally gave up the quest, and choosing a place where the fall of the bank was a shade less abrupt, he put the horse at it.
Shannon hesitated, drawing back. Water was the one thing to which he had not been schooled on Billabong, and this place was mysterious and deep. But Wally's hand was firm, and he spoke sharply—so that the chestnut repented of the error of his ways, and plunged obediently downwards. The bank gave under them, and they slithered down among its remnants and landed in the water with a profound splash, almost hidden for a moment by the spray that drenched Wally's thin silk coat and shirt. Shannon floundered violently, and nearly lost his footing—and then, deciding that this was an excellent entertainment on a hot day, he thrust his thirsty nose into the water. Wally checked him after one mouthful.
"I'm sorry, old chap," he said regretfully. "I'd like it as much as you. But I can't let you have a drink just now."
He pressed him on across the muddy stream, floundering over sunken logs, slipping into holes, dodging half-concealed snags; and so they came to a bank which scarcely seemed a possible place, so steep was it. But Wally looked at the smoke-cloud, and grew desperate, and for the first time touched Shannon with the spur; and the chestnut answered gamely, springing at the bank and climbing almost like a cat. Twice it broke under him; the third time he made some footing, and Wally suddenly flung himself from his back, scrambling up ahead of him, and hauling at the bridle. Shannon followed, floundering and snorting; desperately relieved to find himself on firm ground again. Wally swung into the saddle and they galloped forward.
The next two fences were log ones, and the chestnut took them almost in his stride. Then Wally's lips tightened, for he saw a homestead that he knew must be Maclennan's, the most prosperous farmer about; and Maclennan had strong views on the subject of inflammable fences in a country so liable to grass fires, and all his property was wire-fenced. The first fence stretched before him, taut and well-strung; he looked up and down its length in search of a gate, but there was none in sight.
"I could put my coat on the top wire for you to jump if it was a thick one, old chap," he told Shannon. "But a scrap of wet silk wouldn't be much good to you. We'll have to chance a post."
He drew rein, trotting up to the fence, where he let the horse put his nose over a post—and set his lips again when he saw that the top wire was barbed.
"Just you remember to pick up all your toes well, old man," he said.
He trotted back a little way, and, turning, came hard at the fence, putting Shannon directly at the post. This also was new to the chestnut; but once, when a foal, he had been badly pricked on barbed wire, and, ever since, one glance at its hideous spikes had been enough for him. Refusing was out of the question—Wally was leaning forward, keeping him absolutely straight, lifting him at the post with a little shout of encouragement. He flew over it as if it had been a hurdle. Wally patted his neck with a big sigh of relief.
"Eh, but I was scared for your legs, old man!" he said.
They galloped across a wide stubble field, while Wally's keen eyes searched the fence for a gate. He caught sight of one presently, a stiff, four-railed gate, considerably higher than the fence. High as it was, Wally preferred it to barbed wire; and by this time he had a queer feeling that no jump would prove too much for the big, honest chestnut, who was doing so gamely everything that he was asked. Nor did Shannon disappoint him; he rose at the gate cheerfully, and barely tipped it with one hind foot as he cleared it. Wally fancied there was something of apology in the little shake of his head as he galloped on.
"If I'd time to take you back over that you wouldn't lay a toe on it again, I believe. Never mind, there's sure to be another."
There was, and the chestnut flew it with never a touch. Maclennan's paddocks were wide and well cleared—such galloping ground as Wally dared not waste—and he took full advantage of them, leaving one after another behind swiftly, to the beat of Shannon's sweeping stride. Fence after fence the chestnut cleared, taking them cleanly, with his keen ears pricked; never faltering or flagging as he galloped. Wally sat him lightly, leaning forward to ease him, cheering him on with voice and touch. Before him the cloud grew dense and yet more dense; he could feel its hot breath now, although a bush-covered paddock ahead blocked the fire itself from his immediate view. He had to choose between picking his way through the trees or galloping round them; and chose the latter, since Shannon showed no sign of fatigue. He put the last wire fence behind him with a sigh of relief. A small farm with easy enough fences remained to be crossed, and then he swung round the timber at top speed. Once round it, he should come within view of the Rainhams' house.
He came into the open country, and pulled up with a shout of dismay. Before him was the long line of timber marking the creek, but between lay nothing but a rolling cloud of smoke, lit with flashes of flame. A hot gust of wind blew it aside for a moment, and through it he caught a glimpse of Creek Cottage, burning fiercely. Wally uttered a smothered groan, and thrust Shannon forward, over the last fence, and up a little lane that led near the Rainhams' back gate.
The paddock was nearly all on fire. It had started somewhere back in the bush country, and had swept across like a wall, burning everything before it. As Wally reached the gate, it was rolling away across the paddocks, a sheet of flame, licking up the dry grass; leaving behind it bare and blackened ground, with here and there a fence post, or a tree burning, and, in the midst of its track, Creek Cottage wrapped in flames.
The boy slipped from his saddle and flung Shannon's bridle over the gate-post. Then, as a thought struck him, he turned back and released him, buckling the reins into one stirrup.
"I don't dare to tie you up, old man," he said. "The beastly fire might swing round. Go home, if you like. I can't take you across that hot ground." He gave the chestnut's neck a hasty pat; then, putting one hand on the gate, he vaulted it cleanly and ran across the burnt ground.
The grass was yet smouldering; it broke away under his feet, crackling and falling into black powder. He ran desperately, not feeling the burning breath of the fire, in blind hope of being able to save something. The house itself, he knew, was doomed; no fire-brigade could have checked the flames which had laid hold of the flimsy weatherboard. The fire had divided round it, checked a little by Tommy's flower-garden, which was almost uninjured yet, and by Bob's rows of green vegetables which lay singed and ruined; then, unable to wait, it had swept on its way through the long dry grass, which carried it swiftly forward, leaving the burning cottage and the green garden in the midst of a blackened waste.
The front verandah, and one side, were yet untouched, nor had the front rooms caught. Wally raced through the garden and tried the front door. It was locked. He sprang to the nearest window and smashed it with quick blows from a hoe standing near; then, flinging up the sash, dived in. The room was full of smoke, the heat stifling. It was Tommy's room. He gathered up her little personal belongings from the dressing-table and flung them on the quilt, following them with armfuls of clothes hastily swept from shelves. A trunk, covered with a bright Navajo blanket, stood near the window. He thrust it through to the verandah, and scrambled out after it with the quilt and blankets bundled round the things he had saved. Dragging them across the lawn, he thrust them under some green bushes, and returned for the trunk.
"I don't believe you'll catch there," he said, choking. "Wonder if I can try another room?"
He had opened the door from Tommy's room into the hall, but the rush of flame and smoke were so appalling that he had to shut it again quickly, realizing that the draught only helped the fire. To break in by another window was the only way. He smashed his way in to the other front room, and hurriedly gathered up all he could. There was no time to save anything heavy. His quick mind guided him to the things he knew Bob and Tommy valued most—things that had been Aunt Margaret's in the past, that spoke of their old happy life in France. He spread an embroidered cloth on the floor and pitched his treasure trove into it—working feverishly, choking and gasping, until the flames began to crackle through the wall, and the ceiling above him split across. Then he plunged through the window, and staggered across the lawn with his burden—falling beside it at last, spent and breathless, his throat parched with smoke, and his eyes almost sightless. But he picked himself up presently and went back. All the rooms were blazing now. The side verandah had not yet caught, and on it he saw an old oaken chest that did double duty as a seat and as a wardrobe for Bob's spare clothes. The sight brought fresh energy back to Wally.
"By Jove, there's old Bob's box!" he uttered. "I'll have to get that."
He dragged it across the verandah and on to the path. It was cruelly heavy. He had to stop and rest again and again; but still he struggled on, a few yards at a time, until it, too, was in comparative safety. Then there was nothing else that he could do but sit on the grass and watch the gay little home that they had all loved as it fell into ruins. The flames made mercifully short work of it; they roared and crackled and spat wreathing fiery tongues round the chimneys and up and down the verandah posts; shooting out of the broken windows and turning the white-painted iron of the roof into a twisted and blackened mass. It fell in presently with a deafening roar, bringing one chimney with it; and soon all that Wally had to look at was a smouldering heap of coals, in the midst of which one chimney stood, tottering and solitary, with the kitchen stove a glowing mass of red-hot iron, and strangely contorted masses of metal that once were beds. The boy uttered a groan.
"And they were so proud of it," he said. "Poor souls—how are they going to stick it?"
He got up presently and made his way round to the back. All the sheds and buildings were burned; he turned with a shudder from where Bob's beloved Kelpie had died at his post chained in helplessness. The metal parts of the buggy, writhed into knots and tangles, lay in the ashes of the big shed; beyond, the pigsty smouldered.
"They've gone, too, I suppose," Wally said. "By George, where are all his stock? They can't all be burned, surely."
There was nothing visible in the bare, black paddocks. He cast a wild look round, and then made for the creek at a staggering run. The fire had died away for lack of material as it neared the banks, for great willows overhung them, a camping-ground for the stock all through the summer heat, and the ground was always beaten hard and bare. Wally uttered a shout of relief as he came to the trees. Below in the wide, shallow pools, all the stock had taken refuge—carthorses and cows, sheep and pigs, all huddled together, wild-eyed and panting, but safe. They stared up at Wally, dumbly bewildered.
"Poor brutes," said Wally. "Well, you chose a good spot, anyhow. I say, what a jolly good thing Bob let his pigs out. Poor old chap—he's not broke yet." He leaned against the gnarled trunk of a willow for a moment. "Well, I suppose I'd better get up to the gate and tell them—it won't do for Tommy to come on the ruins all of a sudden."
But he realized, as he made his slow way up from the creek, that he was too late. There was a little knot of horses beside the garden gate. His eye caught the light linen habit coats that Tommy and Norah wore. They were looking silently at the blackened heap of ashes, with the tottering chimney standing gaunt in its midst, Bob's face grey under its coating of smoky dust. Norah was holding Tommy's hand tightly. They did not hear Wally as he came slowly across the black powder that had been grass.
"I suppose the stock have gone, too," Bob said heavily.
"No, they haven't, old man," Wally said. "I believe every head is safe; they're in the creek."
They turned sharply, and cried out at the sight of him—blackened and ragged, his eyes red-rimmed in his grimy face, his hands, cut by the broken window glass, smeared with dried blood. His coat and shirt, burnt in a score of places, hung in singed fragments round him. There were great holes burnt in his panama hat, even in his riding breeches. Jim flung himself from his horse, and ran to him.
"Wal, old man! Are you hurt?"
"Not me," said Wally briefly. "Only a bit singed. I say, you two, you don't know how sorry I am. Tommy, I wish I could have got here in time."
"You seem to have got here in time to try, anyhow," said Tommy, and her lip trembled. "Are you sure you're not hurt, Wally?" She slipped from her saddle, and came to him. "Were you in the fire?"
"No, I'm truly all right," Wally assured her. He suddenly realized that he had not known how tired he was; something in his head began to whirl round, and a darkness came before his aching eyes. He felt Jim catch him; and then he was sitting on the ground, propped against the fence, and blinking up at them all, while indignantly assuring them that he had never been better.
"Did you meet the fire? It was away from here before I got here."
"It crossed the road in front of us," Mr. Linton said. "There were a good many men about by that time—we got it stopped before it reached Elston's." His pitying eyes went back to the brother and sister. Anxiety for Wally had drawn them from their own disaster for a moment; now they had moved away together, and stood looking at the ashes of their home, where so many hopes were ashes, too. David Linton went over to them, and put a hand on a shoulder of each.
"You're not to be down-hearted," he said firmly. "It's bad enough, and bitter enough—but it might be worse. The stock are safe, and the land is there—one good shower will turn the paddocks green again. Why, there's even most of your garden left, Tommy. And we'll build the house and sheds better than before."
"You're jolly good, Mr. Linton," Bob said, with dry lips. "But we owe you enough already."
"If you talk that sort of nonsense, I'll be really annoyed," David Linton said. "Why, hard luck comes to all of us—we got burned out ourselves once, didn't we, Norah?"
"Rather—and had to live in tents," said Norah. "No, you'll have to come back to us at Billabong until we build up the cottage again—oh, and, Tommy darling, I've been lonesome for you!" She put a hand on Bob's arm. "You won't worry, Bob? One bit of bad luck isn't going to beat you!"
"I suppose it won't," Bob said slowly. "There's the insurance money, anyhow. But it was the jolliest little home—and our very own. And I was so jolly proud of being independent."
"Well, you're that still," Jim said. "This is a country where everybody helps everybody else—because you and Tommy come to stay with us, and run your stock for a while on Billabong until your own grass grows, that isn't going to make you less independent. Wouldn't you do the same for us, if we were in the same box?"
"That goes without saying—and I'm as grateful as I can be," Bob said. "But the cases are different. I'm deep enough in your debt, as it is. I—" His lip quivered, and he turned away, staring at the ruins.
"I don't see any good arguing about it, at all events," said Norah, practically. "We're all hot and tired, and I vote we just get home and have tea. We'll all feel better after a tub, and then we can begin to make plans. Come on, Tommy dear, it's just lovely to think we're going to have you."
Bob stood with one hand on the scorched gate.
"I wish I could have got here in time to get out a few things," he muttered.
"Oh, I did that," said Wally, brightening. "I forgot, in the shock of finding all Noah's Ark turned out in the creek. Come along, Tommy, and see my little lot of salvage!"
He dragged himself up from the ground and seized Tommy's hand. They trooped across the lawn.
"I saved the cuckoo clock and that set of Swiss bears," said Wally. "And lots of oddments from goodness knows where—the sort of thing you can't buy in Cunjee. I expect I've hauled out all the things you wouldn't have saved, Tommy, but you'll just have to let me down lightly—I'd have made a shot for the beloved cake tins, only I hadn't time."
"Oh, Wally, you dear old idiot," said Tommy. "And that's how you nearly killed yourself." They came in sight of Wally's heap of loot, and she stopped in amazement.
"By Jupiter!" said Bob, "you saved my old box! You old brick. How did you manage it? Why, it weighs a ton!"
Tommy was on her knees by the bundles. "Look!" she said. "Look, Bobby! My silver things—and all Aunt Margaret's, and my little jewel box. And my clothes! How did you do it, Wally?" Suddenly her voice broke. She put her head down on the bundle in a passion of sobs.
"That's the best thing she could do," said David Linton gently. He turned to Norah. "Let her cry—and bring her along presently, and we'll take her home. Come along, boys, we'll get the horses and go and see Wally's Noah's Ark."
BUILDING UP AGAIN
It was three months later, and Billabong lay in the peace of an exquisite autumn evening. The orchard showed yellow and bronze against the green of the pine trees; here and there oak and elm leaves fluttered down lazily upon the lawn. The garden flamed with dahlias and asters, amidst which Hogg worked contentedly. And there was utter content upon the face of David Linton, as he stood on the broad stone steps of his home, and looked towards the setting sun. Beyond the garden gleamed the reed-fringed waters of the lagoon; further yet, the broad paddocks stretched away, dotted with feeding Shorthorns. It was the view, of all others, that he loved—his soul had longed for it during weary years of exile and war. Now, it seemed that he could never tire of looking at it.
Brownie came up from the garden, a basket on her arm laden with splendid mauve and pink asters. David Linton strolled across the gravel sweep to meet her.
"What, Brownie—taking Miss Norah's job, are you?"
"Well, it ain't 'ardly that, sir," Brownie answered. "Miss Norah she done the vases this morning, same as ushul, an' Miss Tommy elpin' her. Only she wouldn't pick these 'ere astors, 'cause they're 'Oggs best, an' she didn't like to 'urt 'im; you see she always remembers that onst they go into the 'ouse, 'Ogg, 'e don't see 'em no more. An' she do love 'em in the vases. So I just put the matter sensible like to 'Ogg, an', of course, 'e saw reason and give me 'alf; an' I'll 'ave 'em on the table to-night. Only they've filled every vase in the house already, I believe I'll be druv to puttin' 'em in Mason jars!"
"Miss Norah will love them, no matter what they're in," said Mr. Linton. "There's no sign of them yet, Brownie—it's nearly time they were home."
"Well, they meant to 'ave a long day's work fixin' the 'ouse," said Brownie comfortably. "Mrs. Archdale druv me over to see them, an' Sarah gave us all afternoon tea—she an' Bill are real toffs in their little new cottage there. Sarah ain't indulgin' in any regrets over that fire! And they were all busy as bees. Miss Tommy's room's fixed, an' her little sleep-out place off it, and so's Mr. Bob's, an' they were workin' at the drorin'-room; 'omelike it looked with all their nice old things in it again."
"I'm sure it will," David Linton agreed. "How do you like the new house, Brownie?"
"Why, it's lovely," said Brownie. "An' a fair treat to work, with all them new improvements—no corners to the rooms, an' no silly skirtin' boards that'll catch dust, an' the water laid on everywhere, an' the air gas, an' all them other patent fixings. An' so comferable; better than the old one, any way you look at it. Miss Tommy's the lucky young lady to be comin' in for such a place."
"Well, she deserves it, Brownie."
"She do," said Brownie heartily. "Ain't it lovely to see Miss Norah an' 'er so 'appy together? Our blessed lamb never 'ad a friend like that before, and she needed one—every girl do."
"Long may it last, that's all I say," agreed the squatter. "Norah needed her badly, although she didn't know it. And she and her brother are the best type of immigrants, aren't they?"
"They are that," said Brownie, "always cheery, an' workin' 'ard, an' takin' the ups and downs sensibly. Now, it was a real nasty knock to find their nice little 'ome burnt down on New Year's day, but after the first shock they never 'ung their lip at all—just bucked in to make good again."
She went on her way with her asters, and David Linton walked slowly across the lawn and stood looking over the gate, along the track where his children would come riding home. Somehow, he found it difficult not to think of them all as his children. Wally had made an attempt to go away and set up a place for himself, but the idea had been received with such amazed horror by the whole household that it had been temporarily shelved. After all, Wally had more money than was good for him, the result of having always been an orphan. He could establish himself in a place at any time if he wished. And meanwhile, he was never idle. David Linton had handed over most of the outside management of the big run to Jim and his mate. They worked together as happily as they had played together as boys. There was time for play now, as well; Mr. Linton saw to that. The years that they had left on Flanders fields were not to rob them of their boyhood.
There had also been time to help the Rainhams—and there again the district had taken a hand. It was not to be imagined that the people who had helped in the first working bee would sit calmly by when so stupendous a piece of bad luck as the New Year fire overtook the just established young immigrants; and so there had been several other bees, to replace Bob's burnt fencing, to clear away the ruins of the house and sheds, and, finally, to rebuild for him. There had been long discussions at Billabong over plans—the first Creek Cottage had taught them much of what was desirable in the way of a house; so that the second Creek Cottage, which rose from the ashes of the old one when kindly rains had drawn a green mantle over all the blackened farm, was a very decided improvement upon the old house, and contained so many modern ideas and "dodges" that the wives and sisters of all the working bees, who helped to build it, came miles to see it, and went home, in most cases, audibly wishing that they could have a fire. It was illuminating, too, to the working bees, to see how Bob and the Billabong men planned for the comfort of the women who were to run the house, and for its easy working; so that presently a wave of labour-saving devices swept through the Cunjee district in imitation, and wives who had always carried buckets of water found taps conveniently placed where they were needed, and sinks and draining racks built to ease the dreary round of dish-washing, and air-gas plants established to supersede the old kerosene lamps. After which the district was very much astonished that it had not done it before.
The cottage was finished now, and nearly ready for its occupants; Bill, Sarah and the baby had been installed for some time in a neat little two-roomed place with a side verandah, a short distance from the main building. Home-made furniture, even more ambitious than the first built, had been erected, and a fresh supply of household goods bought during an exciting week in Melbourne, where Mr. Linton had taken them all—all, that is, but Bob, who had steadfastly declined to go away and play when other people were helping him. So Bob had remained at his post, giving Tommy a free hand as to shopping; a freedom cautiously used by Tommy, but supplemented by the others with many gifts, both useful and idiotic. Tommy had an abiding affection for the idiotic efforts.
She had spent so much time in the saddle that she now rode like an old hand; the brown-faced girl who came up the paddock presently with the cheery band of workers was very different to the pink and white "little Miss Immigrant" of eight months before. She rode Jim's big favourite, Garryowen, who, although years had added wisdom to him, was always impatient when nearly home; he was reefing and pulling, as they swept up at a hand gallop, but Tommy held him easily, and pulled up near Mr. Linton, laughing. He looked at them with grave content.
"I began to think you meant me to have tea alone," he said. "Have they been doing any work, Bob, or couldn't you keep them in hand at all?"
"Oh, they've been working," Bob answered. "I told Sarah not to give them any afternoon tea if they didn't, and it acted like a charm."
"You to talk!" said Norah, with tilted nose. "They said they'd sample the new deck chairs, dad, and it took them about an hour to make sure if they liked them—they just smoked while Tommy and I toiled."
"Well, you'd only have been annoyed with us if we hadn't done the sampling properly, and had grumbled afterwards," said Wally. "I'm always trying to teach you to be thorough, Norah. Of course, they say they work all the time, sir—but when they disappear into Tommy's room there's an awful lot of talking."
"There would be something wrong with them if there weren't," said the squatter sagely. "And I have no doubt there yet remains much awaiting their expert supervision in Tommy's room." Whereat Tommy and Norah beamed at him, and commended him as a person of understanding, while Wally remarked feelingly to Bob that there was no chance of justice where those two females were concerned. At this point Jim observed that the conversation showed signs of degenerating into a brawl, and that, in any case, it was time the horses were let go. They trotted off to the stables, a light-hearted body.
Tommy slipped her arm into Bob's as they went upstairs to dress.
"Come into my room and talk for a moment."
He came in and sat down in a low chair by the window.
"Your quarters at the new place won't be as big as this, old girl."
"They'll be bigger, for it will all be ours," rejoined Tommy promptly. "Who wants a big room, anyway? I don't. Bobby, I'd be hard to please if I wanted more than I've got."
"You're always satisfied," he said. "There never was anything easier than pleasing you, old Tommy."
"Life's all so good, now," she said. "No hideous anxiety about you—no Lancaster Gate—no she-dragon. Only peace, and independence, and the work we like. Aren't you satisfied, Bob?"
"I'd like to be really independent," he said slowly. "Our amount of debt isn't heavy, of course, and it doesn't cause real anxiety, with Mr. Linton guaranteeing us to the bank—"
"And as we had to build again, it was worth while to improve the house and make it just what we wanted," Tommy added. "We'll pay the debt off, Bob. Mr. Linton assures me that with ordinary seasons we should easily do it."
"I know, and I'm not anxious," Bob said. "Only I'll be glad when it's done; debt, even such an easy debt as this, gives me the creeps. And I want to feel we stand on our own feet."
"And not on the Lintons'!" said Tommy, laughing. "I quite agree—though it's amazing to see how little they seem to mind our weight. Was there ever such luck as meeting them, Bob?"
"Never," he agreed. "We'd have been wage-earners still, or struggling little cocky farmers at the best, but for that letter of General Harran's—though, I think more was due to the way you butted into their taxi!"
"I believe it was," laughed Tommy. "It was the sort of thing to appeal to the Lintons—it wouldn't to everybody. But the letter was behind it, saying what a worthy young man you were!"
"Well, when you start calling me such a thing as 'worthy,' it's time I left and got dressed for tea," said her brother, rising slowly. "English mail ought to be in, by the way; I'm wondering what old Mr. M'Clinton will say when he hears we were burned out in our first season."
"He'll wish he'd sent us to the snows of Canada, where such things don't happen on New Year's day," Tommy said. "Still, he ought not to be anxious about us—Mr. Linton wrote and told him our position was quite sound."
"Oh, I don't think he'll worry greatly," said Bob. "I must hurry, old girl, or I'll be late—and I want a tub before tea."
The boys came down in flannels, ready for a game of tennis after tea; and Bob and Wally were just leaving the court after a stoutly-contested set, when black Billy brought the mail-bag across the lawn to Mr. Linton. The squatter unlocked it and sorted out the letters quickly.
"Nothing for you, Tommy; two for Norah; three for Bob, and bundles for Wally and Jim. Papers beyond counting, and parcels you girls can deal with." He gathered up a package of his own letters. "Chiefly stock and station documents—though, I see, there's a letter from your aunt, Norah; I expect she's anxious to know when I'm going to cease bringing you up like a boy, and send you to Melbourne to be a perfect lady."
"Tell her, never," said Norah lazily. "I don't see any spare time ahead—not enough to make me into a lady after Aunt Winifred's pattern. Cecil is much more lady-like than I am."
"He always was," Jim said. "Years ago we used to wonder that he didn't take to wool-work, and I expect he'll do it yet. Even serving in the war didn't keep Cecil from manicuring his nails—he gets a polish on them that beats anything I ever saw."
"Never mind—he's got a limp," said Norah, in whose eyes that legacy of the war covered a multitude of sins.
"Well, he has. But he even limps in a lady-like way," grinned Jim. "And he has no time for Wal and me. He told me that he was surprised that five years of France and England hadn't made us less Australian."
"It's a matter of regret to us all," said Norah placidly. "We hoped for great things when you came out—more attention to polite conversation, and a passion for top-hats, and—" At which point further eloquence was checked by a cushion placed gently, but firmly, by a brotherly hand on her face, and so she subsided, with a gurgle of laughter, into the cool depths of the buffalo grass where they were all lying.
"Oh, by Jove!" said Bob suddenly. He looked at them, and finally at Tommy, his eyes dancing.
"What's up, old man?" Jim asked. "Not your stepmother coming out?"
"England couldn't spare her," Bob said. "But the sky has fallen, for all that. Just listen to old M'Clinton.
"'. . . It was with deep regret that I learned from you and from Mr. Linton of the calamity which had befallen you on New Year's day. Such disasters seem common in Australia, like blizzards in Canada, and I presume every settler is liable to them. In your case your loss, being partly covered by insurance, will not, Mr. Linton assures me, be crushing, although it seems to me very severe. To have your initial endeavours, too, handicapped by so calamitous an occurrence would have excused despondency, but—'"
"Hasn't he a lovely style?" chuckled Wally, as the reader paused to turn over.
"'But Mr. Linton assures me that you and your sister are facing the situation with calmness and courage.' Did you know you were calmly courageous, Tommy?"
"I am not," said Tommy. "I am courageously calm. Go on, Bobby—my calmness will waver if you don't get to the point. Where does the sky fall?"
"Half a second. 'Further, I am immensely interested to learn from Mr. Linton, who appears to be the kindest of benefactors'—that's you, sir—'that the people of the district, who have already helped you so remarkably by a working bee, are so much in sympathy with you both that they intend again lending you their assistance over rebuilding your house. This shows me, even without Mr. Linton's letter, that you have earned their esteem and regard. Nevertheless, I estimate that you cannot fail to be at some monetary embarrassment, and this I am luckily able to ease for you. Certain rubber investments of your late aunt's have recently risen in value, after the long period of depression due to the war; and I deemed it prudent to sell them while their price in the market was high. The terms of your aunt's will enable me to reinvest this money, amounting to a little over nine hundred pounds, for you, or, at my discretion, to hand it over to you; and such is the confidence I repose in you, after Mr. Linton's letter, that I feel justified in remitting you the money, to use as you think best. I presume that will be in the reduction of your liabilities. I should like to think you had the benefit of Mr. Linton's advice in the matter.' Shall I, sir?"
"I never listened to such language," returned the squatter. "I should like it read three times a day, before meals. But if it's my advice you want, Bob, you can have it. Meanwhile, I'm very glad for you to have such a windfall, my boy."
Tommy and Norah had collapsed on each other's shoulders, speechless.
"Joy never kills, they say," said Wally, regarding them anxiously. "But it's been known to turn the brain, when the brain doesn't happen to be strong. Will we turn the hose on them, Jim?"
"Sit on him, Bob," came faintly from Norah.
"I will—with the weight of nine hundred pounds!" said Bob—and did so.
"Get off, you bloated capitalist," said Wally, struggling. He succeeded in dislodging him, with a mighty effort. "You're just purse-proud, that's what's the matter with you. What'll you do with it, Bobby—go racing? Or buy an aeroplane?"
"Get out of debt," said Bob, sitting up with rumpled hair and a face like a happy child's. "And there'll be a bit over to play with. What shall we put it into, Tommy? Want any pretty things?"
"Just merino sheep," said Tommy.