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By Therese Creed
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Therese Creed
All rights reserved.
The mob was strung out but moving in the right direction. From his position on the wing, Sam Day squinted ahead through the heat haze and buffalo flies at a group of calves. They hadn't 'mothered up' and their erratic, bat-eared movements stood out as they worked their way to the front. If they managed to bust out of the mob, they'd head for the thick band of gidgee suckers at the eastern end of the paddock and be nearly impossible to find. It wouldn't be the first time. Relaxing back into his saddle, he stopped worrying. Alice was onto it, and so were the dogs.
'Steady now,' he muttered under his breath, watching the overzealous kelpie, Lydia, make a beeline for the small group of delinquent calves. Alice's 'Stop!' came at the perfect moment to drop Lydia in a key position. This left the more sensible collie, Kitty, in charge of doing the blocking. Her small black and white form circled out wide, applying just enough pressure to make the calves tuck back into the mass of bellowing red bodies and think about finding their mothers. Meanwhile, Lizzy worked up and down the wing behind Alice, more insecure than the other dogs but fastidiously neat.
Sam's wife, Olive, had thought it ridiculous when their granddaughter had named her dogs after the Bennet sisters from Pride and Prejudice. Redstone Station in sandy Central West Queensland certainly was a far cry from the green manicured world of stately English manors, and there were even fewer parallels between the dusty-haired, wiry little canines and the buxom, bonneted and beribboned Bennet sisters. But Pride and Prejudice was Alice's favourite book, and she'd insisted on continuing the tradition by naming her horse Bingley. However, even Alice had started to wonder if it had been wise, when the first Lizzy ate a 1080 dingo bait, Mary died from snakebite and Jane turned out to be a useless 'Gold Coaster', with a flag-like flying tail and ridiculous lolling grin. During the last extended dry, Sam had put his foot down. 'We have enough useful animals that are hungry without having to feed such a waste of space.' So Jane, too, followed where Lizzy I and Mary had gone before her, though Sam's heart smote him when he replaced his rifle and returned to the house to hear the sobs coming from behind Alice's closed door.
Now, Sam looked again towards where Alice was perched on her nuggety chestnut horse. Yes, she was really home. Alice had changed quite a bit in the two years she'd been away at agricultural college in Longreach. Except for a few day at Christmas, she hadn't come home during that period, her holidays fully booked up with stock work at some of the properties close to the college.
In the time she'd been away, her petite, girlish form had taken on the confidence of a woman. Her dark eyes had a frank directness that hadn't been there before, and this had startled Sam on seeing her again. Her dark brown hair was longer than he'd ever seen it and was confined in a plait down her back. Her cheekbones and narrow jaw line were more defined, having lost any childish roundness, and her shoulders had a new squareness, the result of many hours of physical labour. She was truly beautiful now.
Bingley, happy to have his mistress back, walked eagerly, a spring in his step. His ears were pointed forwards, towards the cattle, except for an occasional flicker back in response to an invisible signal from Alice.
Stretch, the tall, impossibly thin old ringer, and one of the three regular mustering contractors Sam employed, growled as a cloud of dust erupted beside him and his skittish young horse shied. Two monstrous bulls, former friends, were now locked in combat, head to head, competing for the testosterone title. The ripple they caused reached the calves at the front, and the impulsion shot them forwards again, and out to the side of the mob. At the same time, Stretch cracked his whip to break up the fight, setting his horse off on another crablike scuttle. The calves made their break and a chase ensued, with two more ringers, Mushgang and Dan, in pursuit. The group of calves split like water and headed for the gidgee.
But Alice had anticipated this chain of events and already sent her dogs. The three Bennet sisters were victorious, managing to get between the calves and their intended refuge. Thwarted, the bleating youngsters whirled back into their own little mob. The two experienced ringers had the sense to call off the chase and allow the calves the freedom to choose between their bellowing mothers and the waiting wolves in the grass.
At last they were all safely through the sagging wooden double gates into the adjoining paddock. Out of familiar territory, the mob gave no further trouble and filed like lambs into the open side enclosure or 'cooler' of the solid old ironbark yards.
* * *
Seated at the dinner table that night, in the wide, old-fashioned timber-panelled kitchen, Alice watched her grandfather chew slowly, relishing his last bite. Then, just as she knew he would, he chased a tiny droplet of gravy round the rim of the plate with his finger. His hand was halted on its way to his mouth by a stern look from her grandmother, and he wiped it instead on the pale green cotton serviette. Alice smiled to herself. Nothing had changed.
'I'm glad to have you home, Alice.' Sam smiled. 'Everything will work smoothly again now.'
Alice basked in her grandfather's lavish appreciation. She hadn't realised until now just how much she'd missed him. Encouraging words of any kind had been fairly rare during her time at ag college. She'd come to recognise how different her grandfather was from other station managers. He never made her feel inadequate. The fact that she was female didn't concern him, or affect his faith in her capability. As a result, she'd never doubted herself, or questioned her suitability for any job.
The regular contractors who came to Redstone were all around her grandfather's own vintage; over the years they had grown out of their egos. They were all a little rickety and she easily pulled her weight alongside them. She'd never detected anything disrespectful or patronising in their attitude towards her. In many ways Alice had been very sheltered. Life could be so different for girls and women on the land with opportunities and respect for their ability not always there. This realisation had been one of the biggest shocks for her at college and on the various stations she'd worked.
Alice looked down at the remains of her meal on the familiar old china dinner plate. Everything around her seemed to be welcoming her home. After the musters, the branding had gone well today. Stretch had ceremoniously handed over to her the role of castrator, presenting her with his old pocket knife. The wooden handle was polished smooth with use, and felt warm as he pressed it into her hand. 'I sharpened it for you', was all he'd said.
Alice had examined the solid little weapon, its shining blade lethally sharp and true, then looked up to argue, but Stretch had silenced her with a wave of his rough old hand.
'I won't be needing it no more. I only do work for your pa these days and I guess I'll be out to pasture before long, now that me back's shot.'
Alice, aware of what this concession had cost him, hadn't been able to find the words to thank him.
The slight change to their usual routine had slowed things a little at first while they settled into their new positions. Stretch had taken Alice's old spot on the calf race, bringing the calves up one at a time. Mushgang, the youngest and strongest of the men, still handsome with his green eyes keen and bright in his bronze tanned face, kept his usual job of catching each calf as it emerged through the narrow little door at the end of the race. He invariably managed to choose the right millisecond for closing the cradle; this meant that the calf was held firmly between the steel jaws before it could hurt itself by struggling. Then the steel cradle was swung on a hinge onto its side, buffered from its fall to the ground by an old tyre.
Next came a blur of activity – a needle in the skin fold at the neck, brand on the rump, dehorning, earmarking and castration. For Alice it was like taking part in a well-known dance: each of the workers had their own part to play, weaving in and out with their chosen instrument – pocket knife, needle, ear pliers, hot brand, dehorner. The calf was the central figure around whom they revolved. No one ever collided and no one rushed, yet it was all over for the stunned calf in less than a minute.
Making the incision with the knife, Alice was clinical and confident. She could feel her grandfather watching proudly after he'd placed the smoking brands back in the furnace. She squeezed gently, so that a testicle emerged from the opening. With one quick flick of the knife she'd cut the sinew to which it was attached. She repeated the process for the other one and threw the balls into the tin bucket that was being eyed with anticipation from afar by the waiting Bennet ladies. Then the branding cradle was opened, the calf helped to his feet with a pull of the tail, and he was darting out the gate to the next yard.
Alice appreciated the easy cooperation of the workers in the yard as she never had before. Some of her recent experiences of yard work on other stations had been far from harmonious. In this setting, family tensions that were often just under the surface tended to erupt, triggered by the heat of the roaring furnace, yapping of dogs and bellowing of calves. When conditions were ripe, shouted arguments and criticism could become a usual part of the process.
The calves, reunited with their mothers, had rested until late afternoon in the shade of the immense old kurrajong trees growing beside the yards. Taking them back to their paddock was always Alice's favourite time. This was when the other men 'called it a day' and only she and her grandfather were left to accompany the mob back to their patch. The cattle, more than happy to return to the familiarity of their paddock, would walk on ahead, and Alice rode alongside her grandfather, the sting gone out of the sun and its rays turning the floating dust to gold. The dogs, with only half an eye on the cattle, were free to take a meandering course, inspecting all the smells and sounds among the trees, grass and rotting timber.
This evening there had been a slight breeze as they rode. They had passed through a camp of young box trees and the shiny round leaves had made the coarse, unearthly whisper that Alice loved. It always seemed to make time stand still. She'd felt again the ancient power of the land and the tingle of goose bumps on her skin. Now, at the dinner table, feeling satisfied and sleepy, Alice remembered.
She studied her grandfather's face thoughtfully. Sam had always been tough in his expectations, but fair and encouraging. He'd expected her to be able to perform any task that he undertook himself. Mistakes were never a disaster, just something to learn from. Never in a rush but always plugging away, her grandfather had taught her that with animals and physical labour, patience saves time in the end, and slow is often fast. Perhaps it was his age, but he was always reminding Alice not to 'bust a gut'.
Still, there was an unrelenting streak in her grandfather's gentle nature, and in his book laziness was the most deadly sin of the seven. Greeting him with a hug upon her return to Redstone three days earlier, Alice had realised with a jolt that he was an old man. And this afternoon she had noticed him struggling with fatigue. For the first time it had seemed that he wanted someone else to take charge. And there was a new concern in the way her grandmother looked at him, a kind of anxious tenderness.
Alice could feel her grandmother's gaze on them both now. There was a tightness to Olive's lips, and she burst their bubble, saying, 'Can Alice solve our problems with the bank, dear?' Alice suddenly wondered if the unspoken connection between the two of them had always irritated her grandmother. Did that closeness make Olive feel superfluous? Sam's face fell into the familiar old creases of worry and Olive's remorse was evident. She turned to Alice and spoke more kindly, 'Still, it will certainly be brighter around here now you're home, Alice. And ...' she paused with great ceremony, 'I mean to start showing you the books later this week.'
As with the handing over of Stretch's knife, Alice understood the full honour of this concession. The books were sacred, and until now they had been her grandmother's special domain. Alice recalled the common affliction she'd seen among her peers at college, their hurt and frustration at their parents' domination. The older generation's refusal to allow their children any responsible or active role in managing their operations. Ag college had added insult to injury: there they had learned daily about new methods and skills they wouldn't be allowed to employ any time soon on their home properties. On so many stations it was a case of 'the old bull versus the young'. Perhaps this was why so many of her classmates had felt the need to blast their brains to oblivion with alcohol at any opportunity.
By contrast, Alice had been given so much freedom already. Now she was being welcomed home in a way characteristic of each of her grandparents. She hoped she was worthy of their trust. Yes, she recognised the gravity of her grandmother's offer to show her the books. She smiled at her.
'Thank you, Ma.'CHAPTER 2
'Fencing with two is five times faster than fencing alone.' Sam made this observation as he put his hands on his hips and arched his back to stretch it. Alice knew it was true. A lone fencer had to walk kilometres back and forth between the vehicle, the tractor, and from one end of the fence to the other. Having two meant they could work at opposite ends. Also, one could drive the machine while the other worked the shovel or manoeuvred the post into place.
Alice and her grandfather took turns at operating the post hole digger and cleaning out the holes with a shovel, neither of them outstandingly strong. They did the same with 'boring' the holes in the wooden posts with the electric drill, the roar of the generator ringing out across the paddock. The breeze cooled the sweat running down their faces as they worked. Alice paused to look at her grandfather and felt a sudden rush of affection for him. He'd always been a small-framed, wiry man, and even in his old age he was agile. His thick, coarsely curled hair had been sandy-coloured, and as he aged it had simply faded a few shades to a dusty steel. He was always impeccably clean-shaven. His eyes were a pale amber-brown, similar to that of a grey kangaroo's; his long curling eyelashes and thick eyebrows added to this impression, and were a great source of annoyance to Olive, who had hardly any of either.
Alice strained the last length of wire for the day. She and Sam stood and surveyed with satisfaction the neat new fence stretching away down the paddock.
'I've been thinking, Pa, that we could split some of these bigger paddocks into four. Then we could rotate the stock and spell the grass. It would also force the cows to graze the scrubby bits that are going to waste at the moment.' Alice looked tentatively at her grandfather. He was still regarding the new fence, now with a slight frown. She went on cautiously, 'There'd be less unused grass to go rank and we might not need to burn so much. We could plant some legumes then, and they'd have a chance to get established.' She eagerly searched his face.
He suddenly looked tired. 'You're a glutton for punishment. You enjoy fencing then, do you, Alice?'
Alice said no more.
Driving home past Eagle Tor dam, she spotted a solitary red form standing near the water. When they got closer they saw it was a forlorn calf, not much more than a scrap of red hide stretched over a skeleton.
Sam sighed. 'Another bloody poddy.'
Olive was feeding three poddy calves already. As much as she complained, they knew she liked this job; otherwise, with the cost of the calf milk, they were hardly worth saving. This one was so weak that Alice was able to run him down on foot. They tied his feet and hoisted him into the ute.
'Did all the grown-up poddies from last year go to the meatworks?' Alice asked.
Excerpted from Redstone Station by Therese Creed. Copyright © 2013 Therese Creed. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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