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ALBERT DORRINGTON

TESS

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As published in The Sydney Mail, 1 December 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-04-08
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TESS belonged to the circus. She was the cleverest collie that had ever entered a ring. But since the birth of her two pups she had become a lady of leisure. The circus was on the track again, was wending its weary length from Coolabah to the railway trucks at Gundygong.

To-day, followed by two fat furry balls on wobbly legs, she had been allowed to wander from her caravan and the man whose job it was to look after her. And being what she was Tess had gone far into the bush. It was the pups' first real outing. She scouted for them, stalked rabbits, staged imaginary battles. Through her veins raced a madness caught from the strange warmth of the September air.

A line of dust rose in the distance. Tess paused in her digging at a wombat-hole to give a yap of recognition at the driver of the last waggon, struggling through sand and spinifex a mile behind the others. The two pups, sitting on the rim of the wombat-hole, their bright eyes shining with curiosity and delight, brought her back to more important matters than yelping after the sleepy-headed driver of a caravan. Tess's worn claws fairly flew into the sandy soil. The last caravan was forgotten.

Out of a clump of tea-trees a hundred yards away a lean brown body skulked and peered. Tess stiffened. The ruff of hair about her throat bristled. Alone, she would have gone on digging without a second thought for the dingo. But she was not alone. That hidden thing out there in the tea-trees made war on the young, the crippled, and the dead. He could slink through the matted undergrowth, belly to the ground, without sound or movement of twig, could leap like a streak of livid lightning upon his helpless prey.

Tess growled a low command to the pups and turned. The circus had camped two miles away. She must make it at all costs. The pups toddled bravely along, their little red tongues hanging. The slow procession moved over the scarred ridges and claypans, through gullies and dried water courses. The pups began to lag. Occasionally a throaty growl rumbled from Tess as she caught glimpses over her shoulder of the brown, stiff-eared thing skulking fifty yards behind.

The tedious march dragged through a quarter of a mile of dust. They came upon the tracks of the circus wagons. The camp was not yet in sight. Tess stopped. Her glance swept the dreary sand hills with quick comprehension. The bushy tail drooped a fraction of an inch; for just a second her brown eyes faltered. The two balls of fur waddled up whimpering softly. She lowered her muzzle to lick the tiny noses.

Once more they plodded on, mother and pups, on the wide tracks of circus caravan and dray. The slinking brown thing in their rear stopped once to emit a fluting cry that seemed to go back to the ranges in the west.

Skirting a gully and still clinging to the caravan tracks, Tess tried to quicken the pace. The cry of the dingo had filled her with alarm. One red dingo was enough when one had babies to mind. The thought of more took the strength out of her weakening body.

Crossing a sandhill lined with saltbush, the pups suddenly stopped. Their weary little legs had collapsed. Tess squatted on her haunches. She looked at them with troubled eyes. The first, her son, bore the marks of the pure collie colour of tan and black; shapely ears, erect and slightly pricked; slim, clean muzzle; deep, narrow chest, powerful hind-quarters—a lad to be proud of. But the other one, her daughter, was not so shapely; low-hung, folded ears, heavy dewlap, and flabby-skinned face. One of the two must go with her.

Again her glance went back to the red slinking shape hiding behind the merest stick of timber, watching its chance like a thief in ambush. When Tess moved the dingo came on. Always its ears could be seen above the sun-blasted undergrowth.

Tess stood over the two pups. She must save one of them—the ugly daughter or the finely marked, deep-chested son. One must go, one must stay behind. The choice puzzled her more than any of the tricks she had ever been asked to perform in the circus. She had often picked out a certain horse from a mob of fifty when asked. She had yarded sheep in a way that made her name famous throughout a continent. What was she going to do now, with her body tired and the camp away over the skyline? It was getting dark, too. From the ranges came the low fluting sound of the dingo pack. They were coming: The brown fellow in the shadow of the gidyea answered blithely. The scent was warm.

Tess rose from the warm earth, opened her long jaws, and closed them firmly about the neck of her son. The lips spread outward, half covering the head as if she were about to swallow him. Carefully she tested the hold of her worn teeth, swung the little fellow clear, and stalked away without a second glance at the second pup.

An hour's forced march. She and her son would be in safety. A hundred yards she went before she heard the faint, terrified wail of her second baby. She wheeled and charged, a savage rush that carried her straight at the throat of the slinking brown dingo. The dingo swerved, shook himself free, and vanished. Ruffled, bristling, foam flecking her jaws, Tess picked up her ugly daughter and marched defiantly to where she had deposited the first pup. Again she sat down to look from one to the other, her babies, both equally precious. She must save both—carry them one at a time. Resolutely she set to work in the thickening dark. Short runs with her little son, and then back in a flash to the whimpering, comfortless ugly daughter spraddling among the tufts. Sometimes she made thirty feet before the warning rush of the dingo sent her back in a whirling fury in time to snatch up one of her babies.

Tess's double trips to and fro grew laboured. Her tongue lolled from a hot mouth, the skin about her eyes was crimped in set wrinkles. Crossing an outcrop of stone she stumbled on a jagged spur. To save the pup she twisted her body and took the weight of the fall on her left shoulder. When she rose to go on the leg moved stiffly. And always, fifty yards behind, the tireless dingo followed warily, howling softly at times to the oncoming pack.

It was now pitch dark. Tess lifted questioning ears in the direction of the distant circus camp. The two pups, limp on the ground, were strangely silent. A soft wind went sighing through the coolabahs. Something in the dry, cracked earth seemed to suck the life from Tess's wet body. Eyes filmed and shrunken, she turned slowly on her side. The odds had been too heavy. This was the end of the race. On the lee side of a stunted bush she curled, the pups snuggling close with weak murmurs.

Fifty yards away the brown thing reared its length, lifted its nose to heaven, and emitted a series of quick yelps. The quarry was run to earth.

The ugly pup awoke shivering. The breast against which she nosed, the breast that had been warm, held a clammy chill. Her brother was whimpering dolefully. Her little eyes tried to pierce the darkness where there was movement—a brown shape dodging here and there, but always in their direction. The ugly pup yawned over her sleepy-eyed brother, rooted again at the cold nipple of the out-sprawled Tess, but was not comforted.

There was a sudden stir where the dingo sat watching, its ears stiffened in the direction of the pups. A plug-shaped object came shuffling over the reef. A forty-pound bulldog was silhouetted against the rising moon.


THE bulldog belonged to the circus, travelled with it from town to town, but unlike Tess had never been billed as a star performer. He was a roustabout and a hanger-on. Men had tried hard to fit him into some kind of a job, only to discover that he was never there when the whistle blew. They called him Bill and forgot him for days on end.

Since dusk Bill had become conscious of a certain beef bone the circus cook had discarded, hurled into the scrub in the most wanton manner. Nobody in the circus objected to Bill going out after dark. It was too busy feeding itself and its dependents, horses, mules, camels, and clowns, to worry about his exits and entrances. Bill tipped the beam at forty pounds the morning he stripped for his memorable fight with Andy Finneran's classic ring-sider Hindenburg II, an undefeated champion in the bull- terrier world.

The fight took place in the dawn light, on a strip of beach, at Botany Bay. Local fight fans admitted reluctantly that Bill let the gas out of Hindy in the third session, sent him home in a delivery van, wrapped in towels and sponges.

Following a circus and dusting round in the bush had given Bill the waistline of a professional cruiserweight. Anything from an Irish boar-hound to a Barcelona bull might have had a second look at Bill. Considered as a fighting unit there was nothing amiss in Bill's armament.

Bill was thinking in terms of beef-bones when he mounted a hummock of sand the caravans had skirted hours ago. The soprano yells of a dingo pack blew across the flat. Bill hated musical wild dogs. He had only seen their tails at odd intervals when they scouted for lambs on the edge of a run. Shuffling over the sandy rise, he came suddenly upon a blurred heap lying beside a stunted she-oak. Bill nosed in.

Instantly a warm, furry ball rolled under his feet, then another. Tess's pups! He remembered them, had ridden in their caravan only the night before. Ouf!

He stood over Tess and found her stiff and cold. The pups were not cold. They rolled against him, bit his legs softly, while he pondered darkly on the ways of collie mothers who led their offspring into the wilderness before they died. It wasn't a bit clever of Tess!

The low, sobbing howls ran nearer until they joined their low- lying brother among the dunes. A red moon swam across the ranges, and stood like the face of a clock on the peak of a cathedral. The tremulous howls gathered about the sand-hummock, a cluster of stiff brown tails versed in the art of rounding up ewes and lambs, and gorging where they killed.


BILL looked down at the pack. The smell of their hides blew over him. In the red moonlight they seemed to dance like blackfellows in a corroboree. Their spindly shadows leaped in and out in devil-devil style, approaching by inches the she-oak where Tess had made her last run. Bill stared down at their tails and ears, then cast a furtive glance over his shoulder to where the smoke of camp-fires lifted, a mile away! The pups were under his feet, whimpering softly; the old terror was upon them again, the throaty sounds from the dingo pack belonged to the wolf and the jackal. They were on the rise now, a ruffianly gang with stretching necks and gaunt bodies. Pure warrigals from the vast solitudes of the Never-Never, scourges of the great cattle-runs and stock-routes.

There was a legend among the squatters of the north-west of a dingo pack led by a black dog the size of a mastiff. Stockmen had failed to reach him with poison bait or rifles. The crack shots from the outlying stations had tried to get within a mile of Black Barney, as they called him. A price was on his head. There were fame and friendship in the district for the man or dog who could bring in the scalp of the big, devil-dancing dingo.

Bill's feet were planted like a rock above the two pups; a cruiser-weight facing a murderous rabble, sheep-killers, maimers of cattle and defenceless mothers. The black leader sized up Bill and the two pups. Hitherto no animal on the Australian plains had offered resistance to attack. The flocks of bleating ewes and lambs were easy meat; the kangaroo, when caught, simply flopped its paws and fell and died like a calf in a cow pen. Nobody thought of fighting. Bill had a feeling that this black and yellow pack had run Tess to death. The two pups began to cry. They knew something.

'Yeow! Get out!' chorused the black and yellow pack, edging closer in. 'We saw 'em first. Be off while there's a chance. We'll let you go.'

The offer was made strictly to Bill, who had some how sneaked into their night's foray. Why didn't he go while there was time? Hunger presided like a live god over saltbush and plain. Dingo meat was scarce. The poison baits up Coolabah were as thick as the prickly pears. The sheep runs had been made unsafe with men and guns. Here was a safe and easy kill.

Black Barney sprang in with the ease of a flat-racer. Bill watched him come straight for the daughter of Tess. If Bill had moved an inch to the right, the long snout of the black dingo would have lifted her from the ground and whisked her off. Bill moved to the left and received the impact of Barney's shoulder. It was as if an overweighted puffball had been fired at a battleship.

In the past Bill had always practised a knee-cap grip which generally put an opponent out of the running in the first ten seconds. Barney had never been conscious of his knee-cap until Bill's jaws slammed over it, rolled him in the dust, and snapped it like a twig.

The easy, sheep-killing life had been bad for Barney. His yell of agony was heard by a camp of timber-getters on the far side of Coolabah. Even as he reduced him to a hank of hair and bone, Bill's slight effort's carried him only a few inches from the two blubbering pups. Tearing himself from the soft throat of the supine Barney, he was amongst the devil-dancing legs of the pack with the speed of a tiger dispersing impudent jackals.

The pack melted and Bill sat with the pups, feeling that his mouth would have been better for the squeeze of a sponge. The moon grew white as a tortured face. Across the long, shadow- clothed ridge sat the spindly dingo pack, watching, waiting, howling at Bill.

A council of spindly legs was formed to discuss the unreasonableness of Bill. They roamed the distant scrub, made crude feint attacks to draw him from their quarry. Bill sat tight, dreaming of a beef-bone the circus cook had wasted. The black dingo stirred convulsively for a moment, rolled away, and lay still. A singer from the hills had gone his way. Silence brooded over the sand hills.

There was a sharp nip in the dawn wind. The two pups cuddled closer to Bill as he woke from his dreams of vanished beef-bones to discover a circle of spindly shapes and pointed ears trotting near. The pack appeared anxious to discuss the situation with him. By their friendly bearing it was understood that there was to be no more fighting.

Bill appeared overcome by their peaceful intentions. His stump of tail patted the earth encouragingly as two of their number approached within ten feet of the recent disturbance. One of the two ambassadors of peace made it known that if Bill would step aside with him further needless slaughter might be dispensed with. The second dingo was anxious only to assist in the discussion, and to assure himself that the two dear little pups were not in need of a guide and philosopher. This second dingo was the most polished member of the pack. His manners fitted him for the guardianship of orphans, stray lambs, or small defenceless creatures in search of a home.

He advanced very close to Bill in order to assure himself that the two babies of the late Tess had passed a good night. His long, smooth snout almost touched the blubbering son of Tess. Bill seemed to kick himself from the ground to the soft white hair under the throat of the solicitous dingo.

Bulldog and dingo whirled together in the dawn light with the sound of two stripping machines in a gale. It has been said that two curs united in thought and deed can manhandle a champion of champions. The two sheep-killers of Coolabah missed their moment, the one skulking back to the pack in haste, leaving its companion to whatever honours it could extract from the conflict.

Dingo-fighting, as Bill soon learned, began in a whirlwind and ended in a summer breeze. And as there was no purse attached to the fighting he flung loose from his pulped and well-gouged adversary to sit beside the pups and consider the situation. He licked both their ears to prevent them brooding overmuch about breakfast or the follies of a mother with a flair for leaving camp when she ought to have stuck to her milk and biscuits. That things were going to happen Bill was certain. A dingo is a dingo, and has never been known to run far from a three-course breakfast.

There was a feeling of stir and bustle in the dim distance. The circus camp was moving on. A feeling of utter desolation seized Bill. He wanted to go, too, to be with the men and horses and hear the voice of Sam, the cook. He sprang up and half ran down the long sandy drift to the clump of spinifex at the bottom. He paused to look back at the two flop-eared babies beside the dead Tess. The ugly daughter was making desperate efforts to follow. Never did a puppy realise how hard things were going to be without Bill. Why couldn't he give them a lift as mother had done? A big strong dog like Bill! She fell over in the sand complaining bitterly. The son watched from the ravaged dust heap above, whimpering a little, but not disposed, to leave the sprawled-out collie mother with the sunken eyes.

Bill walked back glumly, licking his dry jowl, while the sun mounted higher and higher, a huge red cinder, full of heat and thirst for them. Clouds of carrion crows quorked and hovered above the drifts. Bill dug his body into the sand, the pups crowding close. It was going to be a hot day, devoid of water barrels and beef-bones. And to make matters worse, nothing was going to happen.


A SLEEK brown dingo came down the range side, picking her way through the drifts with the air of a queen in distress. Her eyes were soft and full of pity for Bill and the pups. She walked daintily where others had loped and galloped. Not another dingo was in sight as she fretted nearer.

Bill met her approach in baleful silence. He did not spring out, as he had done to greet the others. His short hair did not brindle, his jaws bind in dynamite rage for once. He could be calm when the occasion warranted. He sat still, blinking his small eyes as she paused to lick the soft ruff of her throat, to shake her head as though she only needed a collar and bells to make her queen of the wilds. Bill sat up and growled hoarsely.

The new ambassadress pricked her ears in surprise and emitted a soft musical note in response. Thrusting his head over the two cowering pups, he watched her with a policeman's eye. Nearer she came, pausing every ten yards to adjust her ruff, to smooth the velvet brown of her delicately moulded throat with a lick of her small red tongue.

Bill was impressed, remained still as a stone dog as she stood over him, her lean sides quivering as she began slowly to lick away the blood drops from his big shoulders and flanks. Then he affected a sudden rage, sprang up, his stub of a tail moving like a lash. The elegant one ran in circles, kicked sand over him, invited him to race her across the flat below.

Bill suddenly remembered the pups and trotted back slowly to their side. She did not follow. With ears thrown forward to the ranges she made off slowly. Bill watched her go. She knew where water trickled down through the rocks into fern covered gullies. She could lead him to quiet, cool places and something to eat. He stood up again. He could almost sniff the water in the hollow where she was going. There would be no harm in going a little way with her, just to stretch his legs.

The dingo pack watched them from the boulder-hipped summit of the range, watched the bulldog leave the two pups to amble beside the sleek-haired queen, in the opposite direction. They streamed in a body down the range side, silent as snakes, hungry and swift. It was the loud crack of a stockwhip halted them; a second pistol-like echo sent them back to the cover of the hills.


TWO horsemen rode up to where the pups dozed in the fierce sun-glare. They reined in at sight of the collie mother, out- sprawled beside them.

'Poor old Tess! Look over there! Three dead dingoes, by the holy! And that big black one! Who did the killing? Not old Tess. The big black fellow would have skinned her alive!'

The dingo queen had vanished with the others, but not before both men had seen her. They also saw a heavy-jawed bulldog waddling back in their direction, a hurt expression in his small eyes. Both riders grinned as they stooped to pat his ribs in grim understanding of what had happened. They had come out to look for the missing Tess, not for Bill.

'The little brown girl nearly got you that time, Bill! Nearly got you away from your two little pals. Wake up, you poor old mutt, or you'll get left behind!'

The two circus hands rode back to the camp, the pups held in front of their saddles. Bill made heavy going in their dusty wake. It was a hot day with few bouquets about for tired bulldogs.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.