Thawing snow threatens Crowhurst with flooding and the wild horses are missing from the mountains. As the community struggles to protect their homes, disaster strikes for the Naylors. Ben and Louise are separated, and are each trying to take care of their own brumby's troubles. The disappearance of the herds remains a mystery until the friends make a worrying discovery.
About the Author
Paula Boer has been a horse-lover since she learned how to ride at age nine. She has competed in many equestrian disciplines and successfully mustered and broken in brumbies. She is a regular contributor to horse magazines and anthologies of animal stories. She lives in Wales.
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The roar of water surging over the cascades made conversation impossible. Millions of droplets sprayed in the air, creating rainbows wherever Louise looked. She stared in wonder at the spectacle — last time she had been here the rocks lay dormant under snow and ice; now they had come alive. Ever changing shapes reminded her of the frothy waves she thought of as white horses.
Ben signalled for her to come away from the river.
With reluctance, Louise turned Honey, her buckskin mare, away from the mesmerising torrent. Walking across to where Ben sat on Snip, his black Thoroughbred-cross stockhorse, she lightly brushed mist out of Honey's mane. "That's awesome! No-one'll be able to cross there for weeks."
The cascades usually made a natural rock bridge that hikers in the park used to scramble over the Dalrymple River. Further downstream the fire trail crossed a ford where vehicles could cross.
Ben reined-in Snip who fidgeted on the spot. "I've never seen the river this high. The snow melt is really adding to all that spring rain we've had."
Ben had lived all his life on a nearby property, Tumbleford Farm. He spent every leisure day riding in the park, especially since he had met Louise a year ago.
Louise had moved to Crowhurst from the city. Soon after she and Ben started riding together, they had mustered brumbies to save them from being shot for dog meat. Ben had caught himself a magnificent liver chestnut colt, Brandy. Louise had captured and broken in Honey.
The young mare ducked her head and tried to graze. Louise pulled her head up. "No you don't, you're working. No eating until I take your bridle off."
Summer came late in the high country. With the hard winter and wet spring, the meadow flowers had only just started to emerge. Dots of purple, yellow and white carpeted the plains. Moss-covered boulders jutted out from amongst the tiny blooms like giants' marbles. Louise liked to pretend the granite outcrops were ancient animals, grazing their way slowly across the hillsides; this one a hairy-nosed wombat, that one a spiny anteater. She always saw animals in cloud formations too. As she gazed up, she imagined herds of horses with their manes and tails blowing in the wind.
The image reminded her of the first time she had seen brumbies galloping in high spirits across the grasslands. "We haven't seen many horses up here recently."
Ben walked Snip alongside Honey on a loose rein. "No. I've only seen a few bachelors off in the distance and a small herd that I didn't recognise. I wonder where the main mob with the grey stallion are?"
"There hasn't been a muster up here, surely? We'd have heard about it." Louise frowned as she thought more about the lack of horse sign.
"I doubt the ranger would have organised one. He wouldn't want the park turned into a quagmire." Ben waved his arm to indicate the boggy patches that would normally be dry grasses at this time of year.
Louise grabbed her reins as Honey made another snatch for a mouthful of flowers. "But the muster isn't usually until February. It could be dry by then."
"Maybe. But it's very mild for December. That means the snow will be melting, maybe even on the top of Mt. Evans. The long range forecast is for rain right through summer, too. Come on, let's trot." Ben shortened his reins and sat easily in the saddle as Snip surged ahead. The black gelding pricked up his ears at the change of pace and powered ahead of Honey.
The brumby mare fretted at being left behind, dancing sideways and tossing her head. "Steady, girl. You'll catch up quicker if you go straight rather than playing around."
The further behind Snip left them, the more agitated Honey became. "Ben! Can you slow down? I'm having trouble."
Ben looked back over his shoulder as he pulled Snip up and waited for Louise. "Sorry, I thought you were right behind me."
Louise grimaced as she struggled to turn Honey straight. "I don't know what's wrong with her. She isn't listening to me today."
Ben and Louise had broken in their brumbies six months ago, but since then the bad weather had prevented them riding out much. This was the first time Louise had ridden Honey further than the derelict homestead where the previous summer they had built yards to muster brumbies.
"Do you still want to go all the way to Kingfisher Lake for lunch?" Ben sat to Snip's slow trot as if he was glued to the saddle.
Honey had settled now that she had caught up with Snip. "We may as well. Wouldn't it be good if we saw Harry? We haven't seen him for months."
Old Harry, as the locals knew him, lived rough in the park. Although adults treated him with suspicion, Ben and Louise had made friends with the hermit who had helped them catch Brandy and Honey. He had taught them a lot about horses and helped any wild animals he found in difficulty. Louise still wanted to meet his tame wombat, Lucky, that he had rescued from a metal trap.
"We could leave him a message at the signpost tree on our way past. If he's somewhere near, he'll know where we are." Ben had first thought of the dead tree as a way to pass messages to Harry when Mrs Smythe-Waters, a local landholder, had asked him to deliver cakes and biscuits to the old man as a thank you for helping rescue two hikers trapped in the old mines during the winter.
By marking out Harry's name in sticks in the snow, Ben and Louise had pointed to the saddlebags hung on a lower branch. Since then, they had agreed with Harry that they would always check under a rock at the base of the tree for any note. The tree marked the way to the secret ravine where Harry had showed them how to catch the brumbies, which wasn't far from where he lived. Despite Ben having been to Harry's home when feral pigs injured his leg, he had never been able to find the shack again; familiar tracks always seemed to be blocked by logs or rocks.
* * *
Louise leant back on her hands where she sat at the edge of the lake and splashed her toes in the water. "This is freezing! I'd thought of going for a swim, but no way."
The horses grazed nearby, hobbled and unsaddled. Louise had been worried about letting her brumby loose but Ben argued that the mare wouldn't leave Snip. Their noses almost touched as they sought the same sweet fodder.
Ben chewed on a blade of grass as he lay on his back and stared at the sky. "I've really missed being up here. It seems like it's been either snowing or raining for years."
"I know what you mean. I didn't think I'd ever feel trapped living in the country, but even Crowhurst seems big to me these days. I love being away from everything man-made, just us and the horses."
Louise watched a willy-wagtail as it flitted from branch to branch in a nearby tree. The next moment it sat on Snip's rump, catching insects hovering over the horse's back. "Snip doesn't seem to mind his new rider at all."
Ben sat up and swigged from his water bottle. "Harry must have seen our sign. Here he comes."
The horses noticed the approach of the mule at the same time, lifting their heads but continuing to chew mouthfuls of meadow flowers. Honey whickered a welcome.
The ancient hermit rambled alongside Jenny, rolling in his rocking gate on bent legs. "I wondered if you'd be out on a fine Saturday like today."
"Isn't it gorgeous? And look! I've got Honey." Louise leaped up and gave the old man a hug. The two horses wandered over to snuffle noses with Jenny.
Ben shook hands with Harry. "We've plenty of lunch. How about chocolate brownies? I think there's a pear left, too."
"That would be good. The native raspberries are late this year. Everything is late this year." Harry left Jenny to wander on her own and sat down with Louise and Ben at the edge of the lake.
"Have you seen many brumbies since the winter? There doesn't seem to be much sign of them around. I hope they didn't all starve or freeze to death in that awful weather." Louise suspected Harry knew the whereabouts of all the herds. He seemed to have a natural rapport with wild creatures.
Harry stroked his long beard with gnarled fingers. "I've seen a few of the smaller herds that are normally way down south, but I haven't seen that main herd with the grey stallion. You're right, it's odd."
Ben flapped flies away from his face with a twist of long grass. "There's plenty of feed now, so maybe they've gone higher into the hills."
"That's what I thought, too, at one stage. But I haven't seen any sign of them anywhere."
* * *
The evening still had plenty of light left when Louise cycled home. She and Ben had spent nearly all day out in the park. By the time they arrived back at Tumbleford Farm, Honey had become tired and tried to jog all the way. Louise's back ached and her arms felt twice as long as normal from trying to hold on to her young mare.
She wondered if her riding skills were up to training a green horse. She hadn't wanted to say anything to Ben. He hadn't said anything when Honey played up which made her think that he also thought she couldn't cope. In the past, he had been happy to give her tips when she had been riding Jake or Lady. Ned was never a problem, and she felt confident on him, but riding Honey was a new experience.
Resting her bike on its stand in the garage, she removed her helmet and unslung her backpack from her shoulders. It had been a great day really, being out in the bush on her own horse. Her own horse! She hadn't dreamed she'd ever be able to say that. But what could she do to make sure Honey was schooled properly?
* * *
Mr and Mrs Hardy greeted her from in front of the television. "Did you have a nice ride, darling?"
"It was great, Mum, thanks. Honey was wonderful." Louise's parents weren't horse people; she saw no point in trying to explain her difficulties.
Mr Hardy poured the last of his beer into a glass. "Are you going out again tomorrow?"
Louise plopped down into the large armchair in the corner of the living room and curled her feet under her. "Mr Naylor wants us to ride around the farm and check the stock. There's flooding everywhere. You should see the cascades, Dad. I've never seen so much water."
Mr Naylor looked grim and nodded. "We've been discussing it at work. They've already opened the spillway from Lake Finnegan. There's talk that Jackstown might get flooded."
"Really? Surely it's safe that far from the river?" Louise undid her pony tail and shook out her hair.
Her father shook his head. "In a normal year, yes. But if the snow melt continues, on top of all the rain we've had, the river will break its banks. Did you see the ford today? You can't even get a four-wheel-drive across there at the moment."
"We didn't go that way, we came back by the old road. It's open for summer so we thought that would be easier on the horses than coming back across the ridges. I'd better go and clean up." Louise left the living room to have a shower.
She thought back over the day. Apart from Honey being difficult, it had been a wonderful ride. The mountains looked fantastic in summer, birds singing everywhere, the smell of lush grass under the horses' feet. But where could the brumbies be?CHAPTER 2
Brandy's coat gleamed as Ben brushed him down. The stallion stood relaxed, enjoying the attention. Since breaking him in during winter, Ben had put many hours of work into his horse and was proud of how the brumby had come on. "You're a good man, aren't you? Not long now and Dad will let you serve Shadow. Then we'll prove to everyone you should be kept entire."
Ben's father wanted to geld Brandy, but Ben had his heart set on building up his own herd of horses using the liver chestnut as his stud stallion. Mr Naylor had finally been persuaded by Ben's Uncle Graeme to try the brumby on the old stockhorse mare to see what type of foal he threw. If the offspring was small and weedy, had bad conformation or a nasty temper, then Brandy would be gelded.
Brandy only stood 15.3 hands high but at four years old he already had a solid chest, magnificent crest and rounded rump. His straight legs were strong and unblemished. Ben could only fault him in one way, and that was the horse had a tendency to rear and buck when he became excited. That didn't matter to Ben; he could easily ride him, but he didn't want those traits being passed on to any progeny.
Ben heard the tack room open as Louise arrived. "I'm in here."
Louise popped her head over the stable door. "Brandy looks fantastic. Who am I riding today?"
Without breaking the rhythm of his brushing, Ben greeted Louise. "I've caught Jake for you. We'd better hurry though, 'cause it looks like it's going to rain again later."
"I guess Honey needs a day off after her long ride yesterday. Have I got time to check her before we go out?"
"Of course, but she looked fine to me when Snifter rounded them up earlier." Snifter was Ben's blue heeler who, despite only having three legs, brought the horses in every morning.
Ben didn't want to tell Louise the real reason he had suggested Jake; that Louise wasn't capable of managing her mare with a stallion. The buckskin played up enough when she was ridden with geldings, and Lady, the only other riding mare, hated her. Although Ben knew it was his responsibility to control his stallion when he rode him, he didn't need Honey providing an incentive for Brandy's bucking and rearing.
By the time Louise had Jake tacked up, Ben had settled Brandy by working him in the round yard. The horse responded well to his aids, transitioning up and down through trot and canter, bending and changing directions, all by Ben's weight.
Louise mounted up outside the arena. "Where are we going first?"
Ben opened the yard gate without needing to dismount. "Let's check the heifers. They're the furthest away, then we can make our way back. If we've still got time, we can go for a gallop in the park."
"Cool! Let's go." Louise collected her reins and headed Jake across to the laneway that ran between the paddocks.
The horses waded through deep mud as they circuited the boundary fence, sploshing everywhere they went. The cattle stood in knee deep water, not able to graze. Ben shook his head. "We'll have to move these stock somewhere higher. I've never seen the creek flood so badly."
They moved on to the sheep paddock. The ewes' wool hung in soggy tatters, mud-drenched and heavy. Even as Jake weaved amongst the flock, they didn't bother to move out of the way. "Poor things. They look so miserable."
One older sheep lay on her side in a bog hole. She had ceased struggling to free herself.
Ben jumped off and threw Brandy's reins over his head. Trying to lift the ewe clear of the mud, he grunted with effort. "It's no good. We'll have to rope her out. Here, let me tie this around Jake's neck."
Unclipping the rope from Brandy's headcollar, Ben looped it around the stockhorse's neck so it wouldn't pull tight and wrapped the other end around the stricken sheep. "Ride away at a walk. Jake knows what to do."
Louise turned the big gelding who immediately took up the slack on the rope and heaved. With Ben pushing from behind, the ewe escaped the clinging mud and tottered a few paces before falling. Jake pulled again, stopping when the rope slackened.
"That'll have to do. At least she won't drown. She'll need to get her strength back before she joins the others." Ben wiped his muddy hands on his jeans and remounted Brandy.
Louise stroked Jake's neck. "What a good boy. I hope I can teach Honey to be as clever as you."
Ben circled Brandy around the sheep making sure that the whole flock was there. "There's none missing, but they'll never be able to lamb in these conditions. We'd better get back and tell Dad."
* * *
After explaining the conditions they had found to Mr Naylor, Ben and Louise rode out into the park. The horses eagerly trotted along the trails that led to the grasslands, both wanting to be in front. Ben looked behind to see how Louise was coping. "We'll be able to ride side by side soon. Let's go and look at the ford."
Louise agreed. "Jake's tugging my arms out. The sooner we can give them a run the better."
When they reached the open country, Ben let Brandy canter. The powerful horse surged underneath him, feeling as if he could go twice as fast. Not wanting to get out of control, Ben kept the pace steady. Even so, they soon reached the road to the park's Information Centre.
Slowing to a trot, Ben wiped sweat from his face. "How's Jake going?"
Louise rode up alongside Brandy. "He's settled more now. Brandy looked good."
"Yeh, but I'd love to know how fast he can really go."
The friends chatted as they trotted alongside each other until they came to the locked gate on the fire trail. Slowing to a walk, Ben navigated through the trees to get around the obstacle. "You can hear the river from here."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brumbies in the Mist"
Copyright © 2018 Paula Boer.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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