BILL THE BASTARD BY ROLAND PERRY
CHAPTER 24 “THE RUSE”
At two miles, five furlongs the front runners had bunched. Khartoum was still in the lead but by only two lengths, with Blackham second, Tut 2 third and Tut 1 fourth. Bill was a further three lengths behind, but Reed reckoned Bill had moved faster than any horse over the past mile. His tremendous strength was beginning to tell.
Half the spectators were bunched around the finishing tape three furlongs away. Their animated cheering could be heard floating over the thick evening air. Two furlongs from the finish, Blackham and Khartoum were neck and neck. Blackham’s jockey was using the whip for the first time. Bill had caught Tut 1 and Tut 2. Mullagh felt a thrill up his spine as he realized Bill was actually trying to pace and beat the others, something not evident in the race until this moment. Bill was being his unpredictable self. One furlong out, the desert evening air carried the roar as Bill burnt off Tut 1 and Tut 2. Mullagh was too nervous to urge him on overly hard for fear of a sudden turn-off, but he heard himself say close to Bill’s ear: ‘C’mon, Bill you Bastard! You can take that big black bugger!’
Khartoum had Blackham beaten 110 metres from the line. Bill moved up and took the game mare too. Khartoum was now only a length in front. Bill moved up close. They were neck and neck as the tape came into view. Bill swerved close and the move seemed to startle Khartoum, who may have had memories of Bill’s attack three years earlier. Fifty metres from the line, Bill’s head was down, his tail straight out. Mullagh now was just riding him without any control at all. Bill edged half a length in front at the tape.
The cheering was more for the excitement of the competitive finish than the joy of anyone backing a winner. Hundreds of spectators looked on in disbelief as Bill, Khartoum and the others thundered by and were directed towards the water trough. Mullagh tried to pull Bill up but he charged past the trough and straight up a high sand dune. He reached the crest and stopped, sweating and snorting. Mullagh could feel the horse’s mighty heart pounding. He expected Bill to attempt to throw him, but instead he stood pawing the sand and settling himself after such an effort. Mullagh waited for a minute. Bill walked along the crest, as if in triumph at his feat. Mullagh eased him down the slope. Close to the trough, Mullagh relaxed, but just as he did, Bill reared up, catching his jockey by surprise. Mullagh was thrown off. He landed awkwardly, twisting his ankle. It brought a roar of laughter from the onlookers near the trough. Mullagh hobbled about cursing and then limped up to Bill.
‘You just had to show me who was boss, didn’t you?’ Mullagh said as he led Bill to the water. A swarm of spectators congratulated Mullagh. He kept patting Bill as he drank.
‘It wasn’t me,’ he repeated to well-wishers, ‘it was Bill. He ran his own race. I was only there for the ride.’
The crowd admired his modesty, even though Mullagh protested that he meant what he said. Seconds later, he received a surprise when the bookie with whom he had placed the bet sidled up beside him. He shook hands with Mullagh, who felt a rolled-up envelope being pushed into his palm. It contained 250 pounds.
‘Put that in your pocket and don’t say nothin’ to no one, young man,’ the bookie said out of the corner of his mouth. Mullagh digested the emphatic triple negative and pocketed the money.
A hundred kilometres west on the coast at Sarona HQ, a cable operator confirmed the placings: 1, Bill the Bastard; 2, Khartoum; 3, Blackham; and 4, Tut 2.
‘I’ve won five hundred quid!’ Mulherin said to Legg as they wandered back to their camp in the groves. ‘That big, beautiful neddie!’
‘Jeez! That’s enough to buy a couple of good bush properties back home,’ Legg said.
‘I’m going to kiss Mullagh when I see him! How did he bloody well do it?’
‘Kiss the major too,’ Legg said. ‘He taught Mullagh how to handle Bill.’
‘And you can kiss Bill for me!’
They reached their tents as night fell and were greeted by a major.
‘Get some rest, you blokes,’ he said. ‘We are moving out after midnight.’