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Back To Billabong by Mary Grant Bruce

Part 5 out of 5

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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

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.



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

"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

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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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

"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.

"Bob--just look!"

"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."



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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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,

"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

"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.


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