Considine and his wife stayed a while in the district before starting for England, and were on the best of terms with the folk at the homestead, Peggy’s daring attempt to seize the estate having been forgiven for her husband’s sake.
Mary seemed to take a delicious pleasure in making Hugh come to her for orders and consultations. She signed without question anything that Charlie put before her, but Hugh was constantly called in to explain all sorts of things. The position was difficult in the extreme, although Peggy tried to give Hugh good advice.
“Sure, the girl’s fond of you, Mr Hugh!” she said, “Why don’t you ask her to marry you? See what a good thing it’d be? She’s only waitin’ to be asked.”
“I’ll manage my own affairs, thank you,” said Hugh. “It isn’t likely I’m going to ask her now, when I haven’t got a penny.” He was as miserable as a man could well be, and was on the point of leaving the station and going back to the buffalo camp in search of solitude, when an unexpected incident suddenly brought matters to a climax. A year had slipped by since William Grant’s death, and the glorious spring came round again; the river was bank-high with the melting of the mountain-snows, the English fruit-trees were all blossoming, and the willows a-bud. One day the mailman left a large handbill, announcing the spring race-meeting at Kiley’s, a festival sacred, as a rule, to the Doyles and the Donohoes, at which no outsider had any earthly chance of winning a race.
In William Grant’s time the handbill would have soon reached the fire-place; he did not countenance running station horses at the local meetings. Under the new owner things were different. Charlie Gordon was spoiling for a chance to run Revoke, a backblock purchase, against the locals, and suggested it in an off-hand sort of way while reading the circular. Hugh opposed the notion altogether. His opposition apparently made Miss Grant determined to go on with the scheme, and she gave Charlie carte blanche in the matter.
When the race-day arrived, there was quite a merry party at the homestead. Carew was making himself very attentive to Ellen Harriott, Mary was flirting very openly with Charlie Gordon, to Hugh’s intense misery; and it was whispered about the station that the younger brother would be deposed in favour of the elder.
Hugh did not want to go to the races, but Mary asked him so directly that he had no option.
It was a typical Australian spring day. The sky was blue, the air was fresh, the breeze made great, long, rippling waves in the grass, and every soul in the place—Mary in particular—seemed determined to enjoy it to the utmost.
Revoke, the station champion, came in first in his race, and was promptly disqualified for short weight, but Mary didn’t care.
“What is the use of worrying over it?” she said. “It doesn’t really matter.”
“I have been done,” said the bushman. “Red Mick lent me the lead-cloth, and helped me saddle up, and I believe he took some lead out while we were saddling. It never dropped out. That I’m sure of.”
“Oh, never mind, Mr Gordon! Forget it! There’s your brother, Hugh, thinks we ought not to have come, and now you are turning sulky. Why do all you Australian people amuse yourselves so sadly?”
“I don’t know what you mean by sadly,” said Charlie, huffed. “I think you ladies had better go home soon. Things are likely to be a bit lively later on. They have got a door off its hinges and laid on the ground, and a fiddler playing jigs, and the men and women are dancing each other down; it won’t be long till there’ll be a fight, and somebody will get stretched out.”
Sure enough, they could see an excited crowd of people gathered round a fiddler, who was playing away for dear life, and the yells and whoops told them that partisanship was running high. All the young “bloods” of the ranges were there in their very best finery—cabbage-tree hat (well-tilted back, and secured by a string under the nose), gaudy cotton shirt, and tweed trousers of loud pattern, secured round the waist by flaring red or green sashes. In this garb such as fancied themselves as dancers were taking their turns on the door. They began by ambling with a sort of strutting walk once or twice round the circumscribed platform; then, with head well back and eyes closed, dashed into the steps of the dance, each introducing varied steps and innovations of his own, which, if intricate and neatly executed, were greeted with great applause. So it happened that after Jerry the Swell, the recognised champion of the Doyles, had gone off with an extremely self-satisfied air, some adherents of young Red Mick, the opposition champion, took occasion to criticise Jerry’s performance. “Darnce!” they said. “Jerry the Swell, darnce! Why, we’ve got an old poley cow would darnce him blind! Haven’t we, Mick?”
“Yairs,” said young Mick, with withering emphasis. “Darnce! He can’t darnce. I’ll run, darnce, jump, or fight any man in the district for two quid.”
Before the challenge could be accepted there was an unexpected interruption. Hugh had put the big trotting mare in the light trap for Miss Harriott and Mary to drive home. “Gentle Annie” was used to racing, and Hugh warned the girls to be careful in starting her, as she would probably be excited by the crowd, and then turned back to pack up the racing gear and start the four-in-hand with the children. As they were putting the racing saddle, bridles, and other gear into the vehicle, Charlie, who had been fuming ever since his defeat, caught sight of the missing lead-bag. He picked it up without a word, and with a fierce gleam in his eye, started over to the group of dancers, followed hurriedly by Carew. Just as young Mick was repeating his challenge to run, jump, dance, or fight anybody in the district, Gordon threw the lead-bag, weighing about six pounds, full in Red Mick’s face.
“There’s your lead, you thief!” he said. “Dance on that!”
Red Mick staggered back a pace or two, picked up an empty bottle from the ground, and made a dash at Gordon. The latter let out a vicious drive with his left that caught Mick under the ear and sent him down like a bullock. In a second the whole crowd surged together in one confused mêlée, everybody hitting at everybody amid a Babel of shouts and curses. The combat swayed out on to the racecourse, where half a dozen men fell over the ropes and pulled as many more down with them, and those that were down fought on the ground, while the others walked on them and fought over their heads. Carew, who was quite in his element, hit every head he saw, and knocked his knuckles to pieces on Black Andy Kelly’s teeth. The fight he put up, and the terrific force of his hitting, are traditions among the mountain men to this day. Charlie Gordon was simply mad with the lust of fighting, and was locked in a death-grip with Red Mick; they swayed and struggled on the ground, while the crowd punched at them indiscriminately. In the middle of all this business, the two ladies and Alick, the eldest of the children, had started Gentle Annie for home, straight down the centre of the course. The big mare, hearing the yelling, and recognising that she was once more on a racetrack, suddenly caught hold of the bit, and came sweeping up the straight full-stretch, her great legs flying to and fro like pistons. Alick, who was sitting bodkin between the ladies, simply remarked, “Let her head go!” as she went thundering into the crowd, hurling Doyles and Donohoes into the air, trampling Kellys under foot—and so out the other side, and away at a 2.30 gait for at least half a mile before the terrified girls could pull her up, and come back to see what damage had been done.
That ended the fight. The course was covered with wounded and disabled men. Some had been struck by the mare’s hoofs; others had been run over by the wheels; and a great demand for whisky set in, under cover of which Gordon and Carew retired to the four-in-hand.
No one was seriously hurt, except “Omadhaun” Doyle, who had been struck on the head by the big mare’s hoof. He lay very still, breathing stertorously, and Jerry the Swell took the trouble to come over to the four-in-hand,and inform them that he thought “Omadhaun” had got percussion of the brain, and that things looked very “omnibus” for him. However, as soon as he could swallow whisky he was pronounced out of danger, and the Kuryong party was allowed to depart in peace for home, glad enough to get away. But the two girls were afraid to drive the big mare, as she was thoroughly roused after her dash in among the Doyles and Donohoes, and was inclined to show a lot of temper. A hurried consultation was held, with the result that Ellen Harriott and Alick were received into the four-in-hand, while Hugh was entrusted with the task of driving his employer home in the sulky.
Now, a sulky is a vehicle built to accommodate two people only, and those two people have to sit fairly close together. For a few miles they spun along in silence, Hugh being well occupied with steadying the mare. From time to time he looked out of the corner of his eye at his companion; she looked steadily, almost stolidly, in front of her. Then she began to tap on the floor of the sulky with her foot. At last she turned on him.
“Well, we didn’t win,” she said. “I suppose you are glad.”
“Why should I be glad, Miss Grant?”
“Oh! you said we oughn’t to go and race among those people. And you were right. It served them just right that the mare ran over them. I hope that none of them are going to die.”
“They wouldn’t be much missed,” said Hugh wearily. “They have started stealing the sheep again.”
“Can’t you catch them?” she said, with pretended asperity. “If you went out and hid in a fallen tree, don’t you think you could catch them?”
Hugh looked at her to see if she were in earnest, but she looked straight in front again and said nothing, still keeping up the slight tapping of her foot. He flushed a little, and spoke very quietly.
“I think I’ll have to resign from your employment, Miss Grant. I don’t care about stopping any longer; and I will go out back and take up one of those twenty-thousand-acre leases in Queensland. You might put Poss or Binjie on in my place. They would be glad of a billet, and they might catch Red Mick for you.”
“Do you really want to go?” she said, looking straight at him for the first time. “Why do you want to go?”
“Why?” he burst out. “Because I can’t bear being with you and near you all day long, when I care for you, and you don’t care for me. I can’t eat, or sleep, or rest here now, and it’s time I was away. You might give me a good character as a station-manager,” he went on grimly, “even though I can’t catch Red Mick for you. I’ll get you to make out my cheque, and then I’ll be off up north.”
She was looking down now. The sun had gone, and the stars were peeping out, and in the dusk he could catch no glimpse of her face. There was silence for a few moments, then he went on talking, half to himself. “it’s best for me, anyhow. It’s time I made a start for myself. I couldn’t stay on here as manager all my life.”
Then she spoke, very low and quietly.
“You wouldn’t care to stay on—for anything else, then?”
“How do you mean for anything else, Miss Grant? You don’t want me for anything except as manager, do you?”
“Well,” she said, “you haven’t asked me yet whether I do or not!”