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  • The Bullock Run
  • Roger Mcdonald (bio)

Alan Corker spent the whole wet afternoon with Ted Merrington walking cows and calves down narrow gullies to a set of yards and drafting them out. It was miserable weather but satisfying work for men.

The two had opposite styles. Corker was a quiet prodder, whereas Merrington swore and whacked the animals' rumps with a length of plastic pipe to get them moving. If a beast proved stubborn, red-eyed and craning its neck across a bony shoulder, Merrington took it personally while Corker whistled and waited.

Rain slanted from the south and ran over their hat brims and down their noses to their chins. Corker was a tall, lean, light-complexioned man with a narrow, intelligent face and a flattened nose from boxing. In his youth he had won the regional light-heavyweight belt, and few ever forgot.

Merrington was short, gloweringly handsome and gave his opinions freely. He was a relative newcomer to the district, and Corker was getting to know him. When a cow lurched heavily through the wrong gate, banging it sideways and splintering a panel, Merrington squatted in a puddle and belted mud with his polypipe, swearing in a rhythm of frustration and sending splats of wet manure all over himself.

Alan Corker had never quite seen that kind of thing before.

When they got the cows away, Merrington switched in the middle of a rant and turned to Corker, raising a wild eyebrow. "Shall we take horses next time? Do you ride?"

No answer needed to that. Alan Corker had been raised in dealing stock, scouring the gullies of the Great Dividing Range from early youth with a hard-headed father on an irascible fat-bellied pony kept for the muster. There didn't seem much point in taking horses when a walk along a ridge top with a cattle dog was effective. But if Merrington wanted some galloping fun, he'd oblige.

Why Merrington had this effect on him Corker couldn't say. The man was past fifty but like a spoiled child. It was the charm of the cheeky kid making demands, Corker supposed. You might want to kick them, but they made you grin, made you feel you could get them what nobody else could. [End Page 68]

Merrington looked for trouble on the simplest pretext.

"You don't always have to please me, Alan."

"I like to try."

"I don't have to please you, though." Merrington threw a piratical grin. "Use your agent as a floor mop as the old saying goes."

Corker enjoyed the banter, the game of words. Merrington brought matters chin-to-chin and then swerved away with opposite meanings. So many of Corker's clients were hard-dealing men with no imagination to be otherwise. Colonel Robertson-Duff, who'd sold Merrington his land, was a good example. Yet Merrington's fancy, it appeared, was to be in the Robertson-Duff class. Tussock barons, Corker's father used to call them.

Six months before, on auction day, Corker wielded the hammer, and Merrington had won the homestead block excised from the larger spread. It barely offered a basic living, but Merrington bragged an impressive costs-to-income potential through his adroitness in beating the arse off Robertson-Duff.

Except Merrington was a mere trier, really—Corker's rare experience of an owner who wasn't an authentic hard case but wanted to be seen as one. The money Merrington had paid for plant and equipment after the auction was above what anyone else in the district wanted to give. It reversed the usual trend of gentlemanly conduct when he wrote a cheque without much haggling. Obviously the money came from off-farm, and it was Corker's precaution, Dun-and-Bradstreet-wise, to bite the silver back to the source.

Merrington looked the part, though, wearing a pair of stiff leather leggings found in a shed. Draped around his shoulders was an oilskin cape left hanging on a peg since the 1940s. He brought to mind a squatter from the Joliffe cartoons in Pix: a comical geezer with galahs in his corn and a Bugatti in the woolshed...