Scotty McRae hurried to the rear of the wagon, and with Lainey looking over his shoulders he lifted a wooden tea chest down to the dusty track, opening a lid into which many holes had been bored, and looking deeply into the interior. ‘Oh Jesus, the poor little beggars,’ he said.
Lainey held a hand to her chest and made a soft sound in her throat that sounded like concern mingled with amazement.
Curious about this development, Will dismounted and handed his reins to Sam. Then, walking up to the chest, he too stared inside. He saw three furry bundles – pups of course, but of a breed he had not seen before. Their coats were blue, flecked with darker shades, and white too, beautifully patterned.
Unfortunately, the shock of the wagon lurching to its axle had not been kind to the pups. One of the three had blood around its nose, and had left a blotch of red against one wall of the chest. Another was crying pitifully, trying to walk unsuccessfully. The third seemed to be unharmed.
Scotty picked the one with the bloodied snout up by the scruff of its neck and lifted it close to his face. ‘You alright there big fella?’ Then to Will and his sister, ‘Just a nasty little knock, I’d say.’
‘I could get a cloth with some spirit on it to clean his nose up,’ suggested Lainey.
‘That’d be a big help,’ agreed Scotty, and he passed the pup across to her, careless of a new daub of blood on his sleeve.
The next pup began to yelp as soon as Scotty picked it up. Changing his grip he cradled the animal’s belly in his palm, and felt along its ribcage with the other forefinger. ‘Oh bugger – feels like he has some broken ribs. Darn it, he was such a nice little fellow too – I call this one Little Blue.’
Will felt a twinge of unhappiness at this, ‘Oh that’s a bloody shame, the poor little mite.’ He peered up close at the injured pup. ‘I’ve never seen a dog like these ones before.’
‘They’re a new breed,’ said the driver. ‘A mate of mine’s been experimentin’ with the husbandry. They’re calling them the blue cattle dog – originally a cross between a blue merle collie, dingo and some dalmatian. Some people call them Hall’s Heelers after the bloke who first bred them, or Queensland Blue Heelers but the official name is gonna be the Australian Cattle Dog.’
‘They really are blue,’ Will marvelled.
Scotty smoothed back the pup’s ears, which seemed to help calm the animal’s cries for a moment. ‘Yeah, and the breed is second to none – loyal, tough, smart, and better with cattle than most English breeds. I was taking these three back to me own farm. Sad it’s only gonna be two now.’
Will was shocked at this announcement. He inclined his head at the pup in Scotty’s hand. He had more striking markings than the other two: a white blaze on his forehead, black masks around both eyes and a daub of tan for eyebrows. ‘You’re not gonna put him down, are you? Won’t those ribs heal up?’
‘I doubt it, but I suppose I can try – we don’t want him to suffer though. I’m no animal doctor but if we bind him up it might help.’
‘I’ll get a clean shirt and make some strips,’ said Will helpfully, and it was one of his own shirts he sacrificed to the cause, using his sheath knife to cut and tear three long strips from the tail.
When he returned they wrapped the little dog’s middle up tight, then encouraged him to drink a little water from a saucepan lid on the ground. Will stood, watching the damaged little creature try to stand and lap the cool liquid, wondering why his heart ached so hard.
Within an hour the horses were watered and hobbled, grazing on the sparse grasses, bells clunking gently as they moved. Night had fallen by then, but the moon was already high, and Sam had a good fire that provided its own flickering glow.
The wagonette itself was not yet repaired, but they had lifted the left side, slipped the wheel back onto the axle then repacked the load. In the morning Jim, who was a dab hand at such things, would finish the repair.
Fat Sam had a good fire roaring, and Scotty McRae was making good his promise to cook. He had beef that was still fresh enough to eat once the pale outer skin had been trimmed away. Two of the three pups eagerly ate the trimmings, and made nuisances of themselves around the camp. The biggest was called Noah, always first to the food, and seemingly unconcerned by the small cut on his snout. The sister was Molly, almost as big, but not as enterprising.
Little Blue, with his broken ribs, had been confined to the tea chest, in the hope that he might not strain himself, and fits of his wheezy yelps mingled with the call of a nearby stone curlew.
When the meal was over Lainey had Molly in her lap, and even Sam was enjoying Noah’s antics around the camp. Will said to Scotty, ‘Can I get the poor little barsted out?’
Scotty looked at him strangely, then, ‘Why yes, a’course you can.’
Will opened the lid of the tea chest, picked up Little Blue, and carried him back to his spot beside the blaze. He was wearing the blue serge jacket he had once won in a card game with a naval officer. The little dog seemed to forget his injuries for long enough to be attracted to the brass buttons, worrying them with his teeth until Will gently moved him away.
‘Now, now,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be sewing any of them buttons back on again.’
‘Count yourself as lucky,’ said Scotty. ‘These blue dogs don’t take to strangers easy – even at that age. He’s taken a shine to you.’
Will held the dog on his lap while Scotty recited a poem he had penned, a song of the brown scrub and the red earth of places west – the lowing of cattle strung out along the track, dingos howling near lonely campfires. Gamilaroi Jim followed up with a yarn that seemed not be the least bit fantastical on that sullen red terrain, of spirits in the watercourses, and silent things that move across the outback skies on cold winter nights.
Fat Sam smoked his pipe with his usual dedication, and Scotty seemed interested in his Cantonese background, and why he had hooked up with such a carefree crew as this.
‘Will you go back to China one day, do you think?’ Scotty asked.
Fat Sam shook his head. ‘Never go back,’ he said.
Scotty cracked a grin, ‘What’d you do, kill someone?’
Sam looked away, ignoring the question, and there was no hint of a smile on his face.
Later, when the fire had burned low but was not yet out, Will woke in his swag, hearing the sound of whimpering from the tea box. It cut through his heart like a bowie knife.
He lay rigid in his swag for ten or more minutes, then muttered to himself something about ‘keepin’ the little fella warm.’ He got up, walked to the tea chest and lifted the pup with the little belt of bandages, and carried him to his swag.
At first the animal still whimpered and tried to burrow into his warmth. Will felt a cold nose on his cheek, then the sandpaper lick of a tongue. The little dog crept in under the blanket.
‘You’re a funny bugger, aren’t you, Little Blue,’ Will said under his breath. ‘Shame you had to go and get hurt.’
Worried that he might roll and hurt the dog, Will was determined to remain awake, listening to every harsh breath and whimper. There was no doubt that the pup was struggling with pain on each breath.
Through the long early hours, when the moon had sunk to leave a black sky spread with stars, he willed the little dog to survive.
The next morning, with the wheel repaired, and two calm and rested horses in the traces, Scotty packed the last of his things in the wagon and prepared to leave. The three pups went into their wooden chest, and Will held Little Blue for as long as he could, before placing him in with his brother and sister.
The little pup would not take a feed that morning and Scotty had sighed. ‘Little Blue might be injured inside his gut, the poor little beggar. Things don’t look too bright for him.’
Will was surprised at himself for feeling melancholy at seeing the pup go. ‘I hope he heals up alright,’ he said.
‘So do I.’
‘They’ll love being at your place, I’m sure,’ Will went on. ‘Learning to muster and such. Maybe we’ll drop in one day and see how they’re getting’ on.’
‘I’d like that,’ said Scotty. ‘In fact, can I offer you some work? We can always do with a few more men in the stock camps?’
Will thought for a moment. They were still less than a hundred miles from the border with New South Wales, where there was a price on his head, and a couple of days ride from the scene of a man’s death that they had watched with their own eyes, and did not particularly want to be questioned about.
‘Not just now,’ he said. ‘We’re hell bent on seeing some of the country up north, but maybe next season.’ Will couldn’t help but let his eyes drop to where the pup he had shared his swag with was looking up at him with eyes that seemed less bright than they had been the previous afternoon.
‘I don’t have a fortune in cash on me,’ Scotty said, ‘but will you take a couple a’ bob for the assistance you gave me yesterday?’
Will shook his head. ‘No chance, old mate, you cooked a top feed and the company of you an’ the blue dogs was worth every minute. Now get on the road and take those pups home. Hopefully all three will be soon chasin’ around like they’re meant to.’
They all shook hands, and swore to meet again. The wagon set off at a sedate pace, rattling on the stones. Will suddenly felt like it was going to be a long day, worried sick about what would happen to the little dog he had felt such a connection to.
by Greg Barron
New chapter next Sunday.
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