Read CHAPTER XIII - STATION DOINGS of Mates at Billabong, free online book, by Mary Grant Bruce, on ReadCentral.com.

I see as I stand at the slip-rails, dreaming,
Merry riders that mount and meet;
Sun on the saddles, gleaming, gleaming,
Red dust wrapping the horses’ feet.
W. H. Ogilvie

They had turned the corner of the house leading to the verandah off which Mr. Linton’s office opened, and where that gentleman was presumably to be found, wrestling with the intricacies of his income-tax schedule the squatter’s yearly bugbear. Along this verandah came, slowly, Cecil, beautiful to behold in a loose brown suit, with buff coloured shirt and flowing orange tie. Wally cast a swift glance at his ankles, and chuckled.

“He’s got new socks on!” he said, in a sepulchral whisper.

“Shut up, you duffer he’ll hear you!” Jim said. He raised his voice. “Looking for us, Cecil?”

“Yes,” Cecil drawled. “Uncle David asked me to find you. Fed the ah poultry, Norah?”

“Yes, thank you,” said that damsel.

“Awfully uninteresting things, fowls,” said Cecil, turning and walking back with them. “Noisy and dirty I can’t imagine you bothering your head over them.”

“They’re not dirty when they’re kept properly,” Norah said, a little warmly. “And I don’t think any animal’s uninteresting if you look after it yourself. Of course, if you do nothing more than eat them ”

“I assure you that’s all I care to do!” said Cecil. At this point, they arrived at the door of the office, which was perhaps as well, and found Mr. Linton half submerged in a sea of stock returns, books, and bill-files.

“Oh, here you are,” he said, smoothing the furrows out of his brow to smile at Norah. “I had an idea I sent you for the others some time ago, Jim.”

Jim looked somewhat sheepish.

“Yes.” He admitted, laughing. “Fact is, I I got into a kerosene tin!” He glanced at his left leg expressively.

“I see,” said his father, with a smile. “Well, I don’t know that it matters only a note has just come out from Anderson, and his chauffeur is waiting for an answer. It seems Cunjee is playing Mulgoa in a great cricket match on Thursday, and they’re short of men. They want to know if they can recruit from Billabong.”

“Good business!” said Jim, joyfully, while Wally hurrahed below his breath. “But will they let us play, Dad Wal. and me?”

“Oh, they’ve fixed that up with the Mulgoa fellows,” said his father. “It’s all right. They’re kind enough to ask me to play, but it’s out of the question even if I weren’t approaching senile decay” he smiled “I wouldn’t be able to go. Mr. Darrell has a buyer coming to look at his young stock on Friday, and he writes me that if I want any of them he knows I did want some I can have the first pick if I am over at Killybeg on Thursday. So that means I’ll be away from Wednesday morning and I think this match will be as efficacious as anything else in keeping you out of mischief during my absence!”

“I’m glad we’ll have something!” Jim said, his grin belying his meek voice. “Well, we’ll have to see who can play.”

“You two boys, of course,” said his father. “And Cecil do you play?”

“Not for worlds, thank you,” said Cecil, hastily. “It’s not in my line.”

“Oh,” said his uncle. “Then you can be Norah’s escort if she wants to go, that is!”

“Want to go! Well, Daddy!” said Norah in expostulation whereat everybody laughed.

“Murty can slog, I believe, and of course, Boone is a cricketer,” the squatter said. “They only want four, so if those two fellows are willing of which I’m not very doubtful! that will be just right. You might go out and see if they’re anywhere about, Jim.”

Jim and Wally dashed off, to return presently with the tidings that Murty would play “wid all the pleasure in loife.” Boone was away at work, but his acquiescence could be taken for granted.

“Then I’ll send a line to the doctor,” Mr. Linton said. “He and Mrs. Anderson want you all to go there for lunch on the day of the match a very good arrangement, seeing that you’ll have Norah with you. You’d better get away from here quite early; it’s pretty certain to be hot, and the day will be a fairly long one, in any case. It will be far better to get the ride over before the sun is very formidable. And if you’ll take my advice, boys, you’ll make those fellows have some practice before Thursday. You two should be in good form, but they scarcely ever touch a bat.”

Jim and Wally approved of his advice, and each evening before the day of the match saw the Billabong contingent of the Cunjee eleven hard at work on a level stretch of ground close to the homestead; while Norah was generally to be found making herself useful in the outfield. Her sex did not hinder the daughter of the house from being able to return balls with force and directness, and when, as a reward for her aid, she was given a few minutes with the bat, to carefully regulated bowling from Wally, Norah’s cup of joy was full. She was even heard to say that school might be bearable if they let you play cricket most of the time! which was a great admission for Norah, who had kept her word rigidly about not mentioning the dreaded prospect before her. That she thought of it continually, Jim knew well and he and his chum were wont, by all means in their power, to paint school life for girls in attractive colours without appearing to be directly “preaching” to Norah; which kindly thought she saw through very well, and was silently grateful, though it was doubtful if her sentence lost any of its terrors.

It was always more or less before her. Her own circle had been too limited to give Norah much experience of the outer world, and she shrank instinctively from anything that lay beyond Billabong and its surroundings. No one, meeting her in her home, would have dreamed that she might be shy; but the truth was that a very passion of shyness came over her when she thought of confronting a number of girls, all up to date and smart, and at ease in their environment, and all, if Cecil were to be believed, ready to look down upon the recruit from the Bush.

For Cecil lost no opportunity to point out to Norah her drawbacks, and to hint at her inferiority to ordinary girls of her own age; “properly trained girls” was his phrase. When he talked to her which was prudently when no one else was about Norah felt a complete rustic, and was well assured that the girls at Melbourne would very soon put her in her place, even if they did not openly resent the presence among them of a girl reared in the country, and in so unusual a fashion. She even wondered miserably sometimes if Dad and Jim were rather ashamed of her, and did not like to say so; it was quite possible, since the city boy evidently held her in such low esteem. But then would come a summons from her father, or Jim would appear and bear her off imperiously on some expedition with him, and she would forget her fears until the next time Cecil persevered in his plan of educating her to a knowledge of her own deficiencies. It is not hard for a boy, on the verge of manhood, to instil ideas into an unsuspecting child; and Cecil’s tuition gave poor Norah many a dark hour of which her father and the other boys never dreamed. It would have gone hard with Cecil had they done so.

Between cricket-practice, occasional rides and exploring expeditions, boating on the lagoon, and fishing in the river, to say nothing of much cheerful intercourse, the days passed quickly at least to most of the inhabitants of the homestead, and when Wednesday came Norah rode across the run with her father to see him on his way to Killybeg. The Darrells’ station was some thirty-five miles away by the usual roads; but a short cut over the ranges reduced the journey by fifteen miles, although it was a rough trip, and an impossible one for vehicles. Mounted on Monarch, however, Mr. Linton thought nothing of it; and Norah laughed at his self-accusation of old age as she rode beside him, the lean, erect figure in the saddle giving easily to the black horse’s irresponsible bounds for Monarch had been “spelled” for the trip, and was full of spirits and suppressed energy.

“Take care of him, Daddy, won’t you?” she said, a little anxiously, as Monarch executed a more than ordinarily uproarious caper. “He’s awfully fresh.”

“He’ll steady down presently,” said her father, smiling at the upturned face. “There’s some steep country ahead of him.”

“Yes, but he’s such a mad-headed animal and those paths on the sides of the gullies are very steep.”

“You sound like the nervous young woman in ‘Excelsior,’” David Linton said, with a laugh. “Cheer up, my girl there’s no need to worry about Monarch and me. He’s only playful; hasn’t an atom of vice, and I know him very well by now. I never put my leg over a better horse.”

“Oh, of course,” said Norah, cheered, but not altogether convinced. “Every one knows he’s a beauty but just look out that he doesn’t try to be too playful on the sidings, Daddy. It would be so easy to slip down.”

“Not for anything with four good legs and a fair allowance of sense,” said her father. “Do you think you could make Bobs slip down?”

Norah laughed.

“Oh, Bobs is like a mountain goat when it comes to sure-footedness,” she said. “You’ve said yourself, Daddy that it would hardly be possible to throw him down! But then, Bobs is Bobs, and he’s seven years old, and ever so sensible not like that big four-year-old baby. So promise me you’ll be careful, Daddy.”

“I will, little daughter.” They were at the boundary fence now, and it was time for Norah to turn back. “Hurry home I don’t quite like you being so far afield by yourself.”

“Oh, Bobs will look after me.” Norah hugged her father so far as Monarch would permit Mr. Linton had got off to wrestle with a stiff padlock on the seldom-used gate, and the black horse was pulling away, impatient of the delay.

“I expect he will,” said the father. “That pony is almost as great a comfort to me as he is to you, I believe! Make haste home, all the same.” He stood still a moment to watch the little white-coated figure and the handsome pony swinging across the plain at Bobs’ long canter; his face tender as few people ever saw it. Then he mounted the eager Monarch, and rode off into the rough country that led to the ranges.

It was comparatively early, but already very hot. Norah was not sorry when she left the long stretch they called the “Far Plain” behind her, and came into the welcome shade of a belt of timber. She walked Bobs through it slowly. Then came the clear stretch to the homestead, and they cantered steadily across it.

Near the stockyard a cloud of dust hovered, through which might be seen dimly the forms of Jim, Wally and O’Toole all engaged in the engrossing pursuit of inducing three poddy calves to enter the yard. They had but one dog, which, being young and “whip shy,” had vanished into the distant landscape at the sound of Murty’s stockwhip, leaving them but their own energies to persuade the calves; and when a poddy calf becomes obstinate there are few animals less easy to persuade. Each was possessed of a very respectable turn of speed and a rooted determination to remain in the paddock. When, as frequently happened, they made separate rushes away in the direction of freedom it was all but impossible for those on foot to head them off and keep them in the corner by the yards. They raced hither and thither like mad things, cutting wild capers as they fled; backed and twisted and dodged, and occasionally bellowed as they bolted, much as a naughty child might bellow. To an onlooker there was something distinctly funny in the spectacle.

Murty and the boys, however, might be excused for failing to see the finer points of the joke. They were hot beyond expression; they were also extremely dirty, and were verging on becoming extremely cross. To and fro they darted wildly, striving to head off the cheerful culprits: lifted up their voices in fruitless shouting, and wasted much necessary breath in uttering wild threats of what might be expected to happen when if ever they succeeded in yarding the enemy. Not one had a hat; they had long ago been used as missiles in checking a rush, and now lay in the dust, trampled under the racing feet of the poddies. Moreover, it was distressingly evident that they were becoming tired, whilst the calves remained fresh and in most excellent spirits. The chances, as Norah arrived, were distinctly in favour of the calves.

From a comfortable seat on a rail Cecil watch the battle, for once ceasing to look bored. In his opinion it was funnier than a circus. Once or twice he shouted words of encouragement to the combatants, and frequently he laughed outright. As an entertainment this quite outshone anything that had been offered him on Billabong and Cecil was not the man to withhold applause where he thought it due. Finally his attitude attracted the notice of the perspiring Mr. O’Toole.

“Yerra, come down out o’ that an’ len’ a hand!” he shouted, panting. “It is laughin’ ye’d be, wid these loonattic images gittin’ away on us !” Further eloquence on Murty’s part was checked by a determined rush on the part of a red and white calf, which would certainly have ended in freedom but for a well-aimed clod, which, hurled by the Irishman, took the poddy squarely between the eyes and induced him to pull up and meditate. Unfortunately Murty tripped in the act of delivery, and went headlong, picking himself up just in time to stop a second rush by the calf, which, on seeing his enemy on the ground, promptly ceased to meditate. Cecil rocked with laughter.

“Oh, get off that fence and try and block these brutes, Cecil!” sang out Jim, angrily. “Another hand would make all the difference, if you’d exert yourself!”

Cecil’s laughter came to a sudden stop. He looked indignantly at his grey suit, and with pain at his patent leather shoes; then, apparently coming to the conclusion that there was no help for it, descended gingerly, and came into the line of defenders. A sturdy little Shorthorn singled him out for attention, and charged in his direction.

“Block him! Block him, I say!”

Jim’s voice rang out. Cecil uttered a feeble yelp as the calf came racing past, waved his arms, and executed a few mild steps towards him attentions which but served to accelerate the Shorthorn’s flight. He went by the city lad like a meteor, rendering useless a wild run by Wally, who was just too late to head him. Murty O’Toole uttered a shout of wrath.

“Howly Ann! He’s lost him! The blitherin’ yerra, glory be, there’s Miss Norah!”

The change from indignation to relief was comical. Norah and Bobs came like a bolt from the blue upon the vision of the astonished Shorthorn, which made one last gallant effort for freedom, dodging and twisting, while gallant effort for freedom, dodging and twisting, while Bobs made every movement, propping and swinging to cut him off in a manner that would have disturbed any rider not used to the intricate ways of a stock horse. Finally the calf gave it up abruptly, and raced back towards the yard, the pony at his heels. He bolted in at the open gate, promptly followed by his companions, and Murty cut off their exit with a grunt of relief.

“Wisha, it’s hot!” he said, mopping his brow. “Sure, Miss Norah, y’ kem in the nick av time ’twas run clane off our legs, we was.”

“They can run, can’t they?” said Norah, who was laughing. “Did you hurt yourself, Murty?”

“Only me timper,” said the Irishman, grinning. “But ’twas enough to make a man angry to see that little omadhaun dancin’ an’ flapping his arrums f’r all the world loike a monkey on a stick an’ pardon to ye, Miss Norah, but I do be forgettin’ he’s y’r cousin.”

“Oh, he’s not used to stock; you mustn’t be hard on him, Murty,” Norah laughed. “Are you very hot, you poor boys?” as Wally and Jim came up, panting. Cecil had withdrawn towards the house, in offended dignity.

“Hot!” said Wally, casting himself on the ground

“’Far better in the sod to lie,
With pasturing pig above,
Than broil beneath a copper sky,
In sight of all I love!’

That’s me!”

“Don’t know how you’ve energy to spout Dr. Watts at that rate,” said Jim, following his example.

“I don’t think it is Dr. Watts; I fancy it’s Kendall,” said Wally, uncertainly. “Not that it matters, anyhow; I’m not likely to meet either of them! Did you ever see anything like the way those little beggars ran?”

“Hope I never will again with the thermometer at this height,” Jim answered. “Norah, no words can say how glad I was to see you return, my dear!”

“I can imagine how much of your gladness concerned me, and how much was due to that Shorthorn calf!” said Norah, laughing.

“Well, he’d have been fleeing yet into the offing if it hadn’t been for you,” said Wally. “Will any one take my hand and lead me for a drink?”

“We’ll go up to the house it’s cool there,” Jim said. “I want a lemon squash three feet long. There’ll be one for you, Murty, if you come up.”

“I will that same,” said Mr. O’Toole, promptly. “There’s no vegetable loike the limon on a day loike this!” So they let Bobs go, and all trooped inside, where Cecil was found, well brushed, and wearing a martyred expression which, however, was not proof against refreshments. He even went so far as to express mild regret for his slowness to render assistance, remarking that it was against his doctor’s advice for him to run; which remarks were received with fitting demeanour by his hearers, though, as Wally remarked later, it was difficult to see how any one who knew Cecil at all could ever have contemplated the possibility of his running!

“Well, I must go back and help Murty brand those youngsters,” Jim said, at length, bringing his long form in stages off the sofa. “Coming, Wal.? And, Norah, just you take things quietly. It’s uncommon hot, and you’ll have a long day to-morrow.”

Norah assented with surprising meekness, and the day passed calmly, enlivened by an enthusiastic cricket practice in the evening; after which she was called into requisition at the piano, and played to an audience stretched on basket chairs and lounges on the verandah outside. Finally the performer protested, coming out through one of the long windows for a breath of cooler air.

“Well, then, it’s bed,” said Jim, yawning prodigiously. “Norah, the men are going to drive in, with our playing togs, to-morrow; would you rather go in the buggy?”

“I’d rather drive, thanks, Jim.”

“Thought so. Then hurry off to bed, for we’re going to make an early start.” Jim paused, looking up at the star-filled sky. “And I give you all warning, it’s going to be a caution for heat!”