‘P’raps you should have taken up that job offer,’ said Gamilaroi Jim as he, Sam, Will and Lainey rode out along the Adavale road. ‘We could do with a quid or two, an’ Scotty seems like he’d be a good boss.’
‘Nah,’ said Will. ‘The plan is to head north so let’s stick to it.’
Normally he might have said more, but instead he rode in silence, while Gamilaroi Jim ambled his mare along nearby, bare chested as usual, repeating every bird call. When a golden whistler whistled, so did Jim. When a raven issued his abrasive caw Jim answered it perfectly. He even captured the butcher bird’s pure song and the chatter of willy wagtails.
Yet nothing seemed to lift Will’s spirits, and he wasn’t prone to feeling low. Not even having half the New South Wales constabulary after him, for a crime he didn’t commit, had affected him as much as the mortal illness of one little pup.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ asked Lainey, her blonde hair in a ponytail extending from the back of her cabbage-tree hat. ‘Never seen you look like such a misery guts.’
‘Nothing wrong with me,’ said Will. ‘Looking forward to town – a good pub feed and pot or two of dark and I’ll be right as rain.’
‘I suppose we could stop an’ boil the billy soon,’ said Lainey.
‘Barely got enough tea left for a whiff each,’ said Will. ‘But I suppose we may as well use it up.’
‘Hey Will,’ called Jim from his position a hundred yards ahead of them. ‘Aren’t that Scotty’s wagon up ahead at that intersection?’
Will slowed his horse and stared, ‘I think you’re right. It is.’
He tried not to hurry at all, but even from a hundred yards distance he could see that Scotty had pulled his wagon off the track a way, horses still in the traces, and that he was working at a hole in the ground with his shovel, in a clearing beside a patch of bluebush.
As he came up, Will dismounted, and walked his horse in. Scotty’s face was red from exertion, and it was easy to see that he was upset.
‘What’s up?’ asked Will.
Scotty stopped digging and leaned on his shovel. ‘That poor little pup is getting’ worse. I have to put him out of his misery,’ he said, ‘and I figgered I’d dig the hole first – if this here ground weren’t hard as concrete I’d have finished by now and been on me way.’
Will turned to see Lainey over near the wagon, where the little dog was laying on a scrap of soiled blanket, trying to sit up to investigate the newcomers. Leading his horse over, Will tethered it to the same mulga tree as Lainey had done, then walked across and kneeled down beside the stricken animal.
Scotty joined them with his shovel still in his hands. ‘I don’t want to have to do this, but the damn pup hasn’t stopped whimpering since I left you this morn, and as you can see he’s been passing stools with blood in them. The only responsible thing is to end the poor fellow’s pain.’
Will stared dumbly. ‘You mean, put him down?’
Scotty sighed and wiped his sweat-streaked forehead with the back of his free hand, ‘Yes, I have to put the poor little fella to the sword, so to speak.’
Lainey looked stricken, and she turned away. ‘Oh that ain’t good,’ she said.
‘How will you do it?’ asked Will, barely glancing up as Jim and Sam also tethered their horses and came in on foot.
‘That’s just what I were figgerin’ out. I thought I’d dig a nice hole for ‘im first, then decide.’
Will felt for his pipe in his top pocket, packed it full of Dixson fine cut from his pouch and caught the packet of vestas that Jim threw to him. ‘Don’t do it, mate. Let God decide the little bloke’s fate.’
Scotty face burned a brighter shade of red, contrasting strongly with the white of his beard. ‘Now I don’t want to get shirty with you, after the good turn you done me yesterday, but that ain’t your decision to make. It’s mine. I’m responsible for him and I don’t believe in allowin’ an animal a lingering death when he can have a quick one.’
Pipe in his mouth, Will bent to the blanket, and lifted Little Blue in his arms, cradling him against his chest. There was no doubt that the pup was less active than he had been that morning, but yet, he snuffled at Will’s shirt, and tried to lick at his neck. ‘He wants to live, see?’
Scotty slammed the blade of his shovel down on the ground, glancing off a stone so it made a ringing sound. ‘Damn it. No!’ He pointed with his free hand at the track that came off the main road, winding out to the west. ‘That’s my turn-off home, but I’ve got another night’s camp before I get there. We run a rough homestead and I’ll be straight out with cattle – I got no way of nursing a sorely wounded dog. Best you can do mister, is ride on and leave me to what must be done.’
‘He’s right Will,’ said Lainey. ‘Just leave it.’
But Will was getting in a mood of his own, leaning down to tap out his pipe and crossing his arms in front of his chest. ‘It ain’t right, to kill the poor little beggar like that. It weren’t his fault that the horses bolted.’
Scotty’s face grew redder still, and his lips clamped together. ‘Don’t think I dunno who you are. Everyone’s talkin’ about the gang from New South Wales riding north – a white, a celestial and a Gamilaroi man with no shirt. There’s a troop of pinks waitin’ for you at Adavale from what I’ve heard, led by a New South Welshman called Sergeant Douglas – who has an extradition warrant for yez.’
‘Long Douglas,’ breathed Jim. ‘He’s follered us all this way?’
‘Sounds like it,’ said Will, then, to Scotty. ‘So you knew all this and didn’t tell us last night?’
‘I only figured out who you are as I moved on this morning – you were such decent types that it threw me off the scent – I wouldn’t pick yez for a murderous gang.’ He sighed heavily. ‘Now, for the love of Jove, take heed of my warning about what’s waiting for you in Adavale, get on your horses and ride away, an’ leave me to do what needs to be done.’
‘I’ll do that, but don’t kill Little Blue,’ said Will. ‘Take him home with you.’
Scotty turned and threw the shovel as far as he could, and it landed near the hole. ‘You want to save him, dash it all, then you take the pup, and see if you can perform some miracle on the poor bastard yourself.’
Will stared back at him. ‘I-I can’t take him. Not on horseback. Not on the run like this.’
‘Well there’s your choice,’ said Scotty. ‘Either you take him, or ride on and I’ll do what needs to be done.’ With those words, the station owner stalked back to his shovel, picked it up and resumed his digging. Sam, Jim, Lainey and Will stood in a circle around the dog.
Lainey’s eyes flashed. ‘Now you just think about this, brother of mine. You’d be takin’ on a dog that’s sick and in pain, with no wagon to carry ‘im. Even if he survives you ‘ave to be around to feed the damn thing every day, an’ not let it get ate by hawks or snakes ‘til it’s growed enough to look after itself. Then you have to think about what Scotty said about Long Douglas on our tail. We can’t ride fast and hard with a sick bloody dog with us … ‘ She looked down at Little Blue. ‘But I do wish that he could live.’
Jim blew a stream of smoke towards the sky, then turned to Will, ‘You can’t even look after yerself, bloke,’ he said, ‘let alone a pup – specially one as crook as this.’
‘I look after me horses well enough,’ said Will. ‘no animal ‘as ever suffered in my care.’ He turned to Sam, ‘What are your thoughts?’
‘Makes no difference,’ said Sam. ‘You not ever listen anyhow.’
Will lifted the pup and looked into its eyes, while the little paws scrabbled at thin air. ‘What about you, little fella, are you in so much pain that you’d want it all to end? Or do ya want to take your chances with a down and out rover like me?’
There was no sound but for Scotty’s shovel biting into the hard earth, and a distant raven, and they all waited for Will to speak again.
by Greg Barron
New chapter next Sunday.
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