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RED EARTH  By Ruth Morgan


A solitary Land Cruiser traversed the wide-open plains, a soaring plume of red earth in its wake. Ahead, a wooden trestle bridge crossed the Greater Anabranch River. Its banks lined with ancient red river gums; their grey green foliage contrasted the gritty red soil of the road. Unrelenting December heat gave the air a characteristic blue shimmer.

Even in midsummer the river flowed, a lifesaver for animals and humans alike. The thick gnarled bases of the trees were encircled by undergrowth and provided meager shade from the ferocious sun. Sandy banks, flat and bare, edged the water.

The battered vehicle drew nearer. From the bull bar hung canvas water bags. In the back, shovels, a roll of wire, toolbox, winch, and jerry cans of fuel.


In the clump of tangled lignum scrub something moved. Just enough to catch the eye then the shadows resumed their stillness, before being disturbed by another fleeting movement. Joe Rickard lay on his belly, wearing camouflage gear. The angular lines of his face were broken by dirt rubbed onto his skin. His immobility merged him into the scanty cover. He licked his lips, unwilling to stir and reach for the water bottle.


Greg McDonald’s strong hands rested lightly on the steering wheel. ...CONTINUE

His arms were covered by a long sleeved denim shirt open at the neck. A broad brimmed sweat stained hat was jammed onto his head. His eyes, shielded by sunglasses, constantly scanned the landscape. On the passenger seat a .303 Winchester rifle. Surrounding him, endless plains stretched towards the horizon. The road, graded, unsealed, was trimmed by uneven mounds of fine red sand constantly teased by the wind.

The Land Cruiser continued past clumps of blue gray saltbush. Sprawling fleshy pig face covered in purple flowers cascaded over small dunes.

Gradually the road approached the bridge.


Joe Rickard’s location enabled him to see the bridge and the approaching Land Cruiser. He had no need to see the driver’s face. He knew every gesture, every movement, almost as well as he knew his own. The way the driver lightly rested his hands on the wheel. And the way his shoulders were relaxed against the seat, the angle of his head.

This time the ending would be different. It would be Greg McDonald at the wrong end of a rifle. Rickard could not rely on him making a mistake. They each possessed an instinct warning them of peril. He’d seen McDonald pull out of a contract because his intuition had tipped him off.

As the Land Cruiser drew closer, Rickard adjusted his position and rested his finger on the trigger. He’d taught McDonald the skills of an assassin. Now the teacher hunted the student. McDonald was dangerous. It wasn’t personal, it was business. The way he saw it he had the advantage. His action was smooth, practised. The fleeting sound of metal on metal as a bullet was slipped into the chamber dispersed quickly in the hot air. He was ready. The river red gum above provided shade.


Slowly, Joe Rickard squeezed the trigger. A whip crack of sound echoed across the shallow river course, bouncing back and forth before spreading over the plains.


Instinctively McDonald slammed his foot on the brake, adrenalin flooding his body. The Land Cruiser slewed to one side, the windscreen and glass behind him shattering. The pothole had helped him dodge a bullet. His heart pounded in his chest.


In the thick clump of tangled lignum, Rickard swore, reloading. It should have been a bull’s eye.


In one fluid movement, McDonald was out of the Land Cruiser, making the most of the available cover, rifle at the ready. He knew where the shot had come from. McDonald scanned the other side of the river using the powerful telescopic sight. Though he could see no sign of movement, he knew who must be there. There was no anger now, no emotion. He would need to apply everything he’d learned if he wanted to survive this final encounter.


Joe Rickard was unmoving, the slow rise and fall of his chest showing life. He was not a bushman like McDonald, but he was a slightly better shot. It was hot, not a breath of wind stirred the dust. This was hard country, tough, unforgiving. He could feel the small lumps of clay digging into his chest. The shade of the tree was welcome. His usual hunting grounds were city streets paved with concrete and bitumen. Here he was out of his comfort zone. Nothing and no one moved. On the horizon, the heat haze shimmered. The intensity of the stillness was broken, shattered. The sound sharper than a rifle shot; as a crack rent the air, unexpected, brutal. From the old river red gum, a large branch fell to the ground.


The fleeting sound of a scream chilled McDonald’s blood, covering his body with goosebumps. In the unnatural silence that followed, a gentle breeze played over the river, forming creases and ripples on the smooth surface.

Greg McDonald took the bullet out of the chamber, put the safety on, and replaced the rifle in the gun case. He unhooked one of the water bags from the roo bar and drank deeply, splashing a little of the cool water over his face.

Joe Rickard had made a mistake. He’d sheltered beneath a river red gum. No bushman stood beneath one, its huge limbs were prone to falling without cause. Their nickname of widow maker was well earned.

McDonald brushed the shattered fragments of safety glass from the seat, and the dashboard before getting into the Land Cruiser and putting on his seatbelt.

The timber bridge rattled beneath him and glancing quickly to his left, he noted the size of the fallen trunk. He sketched a quick salute to his former mentor.

He’d be left alone now; the message sent was loud and clear. He grinned, white teeth in a dusty face. Changing gears, he directed his attention towards the road ahead, leaving the past behind.

THE CLOCK  By Dorothy Martin


Gloria Baker gazed admiringly at the new lounge suite. Upholstered in gold Italian leather, it blended beautifully with everything else in the room…except… that mantel clock. She’d never liked it—dark, ugly, squat thing. She couldn’t understand why Charlie hadn’t sold it long ago. He said it was a family heirloom but he was usually quite unsentimental about such things.

I’m going to get rid of it, she decided impulsively. When he gets back from his trip tomorrow, he won’t even notice it’s gone. Quickly she looked up the phone number for Newman’s Antiques.

Half an hour later, George Newman arrived at the house. ‘Hmm…quite a nice piece,’ he told her, ‘English, early twentieth century—mahogany with a rosewood inlay, French movement. Unfortunately, there are signs of some restoration work on the base which detracts from its value.’ With just the right note of regret in his voice, he added, ‘I’m afraid I can only offer you three hundred dollars.’

‘Fine,’ replied Gloria, not even attempting to haggle. ...CONTINUE

She just wanted to see the last of that damned clock.

George wrote her a cheque and carried his new acquisition out to his car, well satisfied with his bargain. As he drove off, he decided to put a thousand dollars on the clock—a very nice profit.

That afternoon, Mary Bassett, a sprightly seventy-five year old widow, walked purposefully into George Newman’s shop. She loved antiques—especially clocks—and often browsed among George’s wares, never able to afford the items she fancied. But today was different; she had just inherited a legacy of two thousand dollars from an aged aunt. Her heart leapt as she spotted the Edwardian mantel clock and she headed straight for it.

George Newman had recognised her as she entered the shop but knew she was a browser, not a buyer. Today, however, he noticed that she was paying considerable attention to his new clock, not even flinching when she read the price tag.

George smelled a sale. ‘Are you interested in the clock, Madam? It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ He pointed out all its features, omitting to mention the restoration work.

Mary wasn’t a haggler either, and paid the price without a quibble. George was elated as he asked for her details.

‘Mrs Mary Bassett,’ she answered, ‘19 Waratah Court.’

George promised to have the clock delivered early the following day.

At 9.45 the next morning, Tom Williams parked Newman’s delivery van outside 19 Waratah Street, carried the mantel clock up to the front door of the house and rang the bell. After a few moments, the door opened to reveal a rather nervous, frowzy-looking woman.

‘I’m delivering the clock you bought yesterday at Newman’s. You’re…Mary Bassett?’ he asked, after checking the delivery docket.

The woman hesitated as if she didn’t quite know who she was, then said, ‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Just sign here, thanks,’ said Tom, thinking that he’d never seen a more unlikely antiques collector. ‘I’ll just carry the clock inside for you.’ He placed it on a small gate-leg table in the hall then headed back out to the van. It takes all sorts, he thought to himself as he drove off.

The woman hurried out to the kitchen and fished her mobile phone out of her handbag. ‘It’s finally on, Stan,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Mrs Harding’s just gone out—some family emergency—decided she could actually trust me to be here on my own. Back the van into the carport when you come. Nobody’s home next door…

KEEP HER SAFE By Tina Rothbury


It is the middle of a hot humid day and I'm sitting at the bus stop. It is half an hour before the next bus. I watch a girl cross the road with a young baby. She sits, close to me. I always want to hold babies. I treasure the feeling of them against my body. I want to take them home. The young girl looks anxious, I ask her the age of the baby. 'She's a tweek today,' she whispers. She asks if I will hold her. I should say no. While I'm dithering she gently places the baby in my arms. Then she jumps up and tells me the baby's name is Rose. 'Chemist,' she says. I'm now holding this tiny baby girl in my arms and before I can say anything the mother runs.
I watch her disappear across the road and mingle. I want to know her name, I want to tell her my name is Ruth. The baby opens her eyes, stares at me, yawns and closes them again. The bus arrives....CONTINUE

Of course I can't catch it. Of course I can't. I know I cannot keep her. The bus leaves without me. It is another hour before the next bus. I'm sure the mother of this baby will be back. Of course she will. A man comes and sits on the other end of the seat.

The baby starts to make a sound. He looks over and asks if it is a boy or a girl. I tell him a young girl has left this baby in my arms and could he help? He thinks I'm mad, I know he does. Then he wants to know what he could do. I have to think quickly. I decide I will leave my shopping on the seat, asking the man, who tells me his name is John, if he will mind it. Another bus, not mine, arrives. John tells me he is sorry, but he must get home. Yes, he thinks I'm mad. I'll risk it and leave my shopping at the end of the bus seat, if someone takes it I can always shop later.
The chemist shop is cool. At the back, where the counter is there are chairs, I head that way and sit . The movement has woken the baby. She is howling. One of the girls, behind the counter, leans over and asks if I need help, I'm not sure where to start. I know I should tell the story, ring the police, hand the baby over. I am feeling so comfortable, so normal with this baby snuggled next to my heart.
I was a mother once. He was my baby boy and at three weeks a non
sleeper. I needed sleep. Peter my husband would sometimes take Jackson for a drive strapped into his special baby basket. He had pulled over to the side of the road when he realised Jackson had gone to sleep. A drunk driver had ploughed into the back of the car. It killed them both instantly. It took me years and years to get over it. Since then I had travelled the world working and volunteering, looking after children in need and giving them books. I had come home for a small break.

I'm ready to leave again soon. I cannot stay still. A baby in my arms, this is all I want, it feels so right. I ask the girl behind the counter what newborn formula she has. I pick the most expensive. They have prams for sale at the back of the shop and again I buy the best one, I can always sell it on eBay or give it to the young mother as a present. I buy nappies and ask the girl to show me how to strap the baby in the pram. I buy bottles and an outfit. I will walk up the hill and when I am in the comfort of my own house I will ring the police. That's the plan.
First I cross the road to the bus shelter and retrieve my shopping, thankfully it is all there. It is now about two in the afternoon, the baby is crying and restless. I know She will need a feed, I decide to catch a taxi up the hill.
My neighbour, who is out watering her garden, watches as I climb out of the taxi, she crosses the road. I put Rose, in the pram. I wheel her into the kitchen. I will leave her there until I understand how to clean the bottle and make the formula.
My neighbour Helen, is curious, and for just a second, I think of telling her the truth. Instead, what comes out of my mouth is. 'I'm looking after this little baby, called Rose, because her mother is very ill'. I can't ring the police while Helen is rocking the pram. I cannot keep this baby, I know that. Did the young girl, the mother of this one week old baby mean for me to keep her, did she? I fill a babies bottle with milk, put the teat on and hand the bottle to Helen, she probably knows more about how to hold and feed a baby than I do. I make us a cup of tea.


My name is Kathy, I'm sixteen and living with my mum. One hot, breathless,summer night, when mum thought I was sleeping, I snuck out by climbing through my bedroom window. I was meeting my best friend Wendy, we were going to a party. It was within walking distance of my house, I had to be back before dawn. It was not the first time i had climbed out the window. Yes, i met a boy, well I knew the boy, he was in my class at school. I had been on a date with him before with my mother's approval. To a party in which my mother drove me to
and picked me up from. There were parents controlling where we went, what we drank. This party was completely adult free. I wanted to tell everyone i had a boy friend.
His name was Mark. He met me at the door. I was not going to let anything happen, I was sensible, I knew the consequences. He poured me a wine. It relaxed me immediately. The music was playing, he took me in his arms, it was the first time. He said, 'let's go up to my room.' I trusted him, I loved the idea of him. I could see herself saying Mark is my boyfriend. We lay on his bed. He said everything would be okay, he promised it would be good. It felt so right, so safe, so nice, so wonderful. He said he loved me.' I knew I should say no.. The time, the world, the place, felt like music. After, we lay together, side by side.
When the sun shone through the curtains I dressed. He held my hand and walked me home. He said it, 'I love you kathy.' He helped me climb back into my bedroom window. I was in love.
After that night we had a few more dates, always controlled by my mother or his parents, who warned us to be careful, we secretly smiled at each other. Everything was going well until one morning I woke up feeling sick. I had to run to the bathroom. I thought i had a stomach bug. Only it happened every morning for a week and then I remembered i had missed my period. 'No,' i kept saying in my mind, 'no, no, no.' I had seen Mark, who had been avoiding me, talking to another girl.
When I tried to catch up with him at lunch time, I found him talking to the girl. I could not break in with my news, my fears. I wrote a note. I put it in his bag. It said, walk me home please, just you, not any of your friends. He waited by the gate for me. He was not alone. The girl, her name was Gail, said, 'do you mind if I walk with you, Mark and I are going out tonight.' I turned to him and said, 'what.'
He said Gail's father had given him a job. I said I just wanted him for one moment on his own, I only needed to say one thing.' Gail turned her back on us and I nearly spat it in his face. 'I 'm pregnant.' My mother is beginning to notice things, I have no money.' Mark looked shocked.
Each morning I avoided school. I had found on my wanderings, around my suburb, a house where the occupants did not pay rent. They called it a squat. I asked if I cleaned could I live with them. They said yes.. I found a job, only part time, as a shelf packer, at night, in the local supermarket. No, I had decided to not take my mother's advise and have an abortion. I wanted a perfect ending to my problem. I thought I could be a mother. I cleaned and scrubbed and avoided my mother. I followed Mark who was now working in a garage and completely ignoring me. Although one day when I came by the garage and he was the only one there, he took my hand and drew me right into a dark space at the back of the garage, he said he had watched my body change from a distance. He stroked the spot where his child was growing, he kissed my lips and promised he would get back with me. He held me so close and the baby kicked. And just as he slipped his hand onto my bare skin there was a toot of a horn. We both found
it hard to let go. He whispered he wanted to be the father of our unborn child. I was in love.
I tried to see him again, everything prevented it happening. A month later Honey, one of the women in the squat, who had promised to be at the birth, drove me to hospital. I was going to keep the baby. It had all been arranged. The birth was long, hard and very painful. I did not tell my mother because my mother wanted me to give the baby up for adoption. I named her Rose.
I took her back to the squat. I shared a closed in veranda space with Honey. Honey said she was looking forward to welcoming the baby. That first night home Rose cried all night, except when I was feeding her. She cried at night a lot. The housemates had a meeting and decided they would call my mum.
I panicked, 'no please, anything, do not call my mum.' I took my baby out for a walk. I saw a woman, sitting at the bus stop. I had noticed this woman before.
She had a very friendly face and always seemed to be kind to children. I sat next to her on the bus seat. The woman smelt of lavender or cinnamon. She peered kindly at Rose and asked me how old she was. I said her name was Rose and she is one week today. I wanted to ask her to hold her, just for a minute, just for such a short time, just for now. I knew she was up for the job. I dreamt this woman would love my baby, or ask me if I would like to live at her house. We would live together and she would find Mark and it would work out. I gently placed Rose in this woman's arms, I jumped up and ran across the road telling myself it would work. Yes, yes, it is the right thing to do.
As I crossed the road a bus pulled up. Had I told her my name? I had wrapped my name and the address of the place I lived in and placed it under Rose's singlet. The woman was still sitting there with my baby wrapped comfortably in her arms when the bus left. I wanted cross the road back to the bus shelter. A man sat next to the woman. I watched the woman talk to him. Then another bus drew up to the shelter again, I thought the woman would step onto the bus and walk to a seat, and see me watching her, I ran into the post office. After the bus left, I watched the woman cross the road and head towards the chemist. She could not see me. She came out of the chemist shop with a brilliant new pram,
my baby would be looked after well. I observed her getting into a taxi and all of a sudden I realised what I had done. My arms felt empty, I wanted to rock Rose to sleep one more time, hear her cry, change her nappy, how could I just give her to a woman I don' really know?
Helen asks if I have any nappies. I retrieve the clothes out of the shopping bag and we both begin to change Rose. As I pull the little singlet over her head a piece of folded writing paper flutters out. Helen unfolds it.

The note says: "I love this baby so much, I do not want to give
her to anyone but you, because you have such a kind face. I
live in the student house number six note street. I hope you
will come and find me or I will see you at the bus stop.
Love from Kathy Baker. Keep my baby girl safe please and i
will see you again."



When the phone rang for the fifth time in four minutes, Jason Delany glanced up from paperwork heaped on his desk and sucked irritation through his teeth.

Thirteen unsigned contracts, three overdue accounts from the crematorium and a pile of flyers from local suppliers needed his attention. Behind him, the air-conditioner grumbled in the office wall. Jason’s glance slid back to the overdue accounts. January 2003 figures showed trading at a loss and February was off to a bad start. He pushed sample wreath ribbons aside and reached for the phone. ’Serenity Funerals, Jason speaking. How can I help?’

‘It’s about my Arthur’s ashes. ...CONTINUE

I expected them on Monday but they’re not here. Bowls Club Happy Hour for Artie starts at 6:00. I paid good money for—’

Jason held the phone away from his ear. Betty Benson refused to wear her hearing aids and shouted to compensate. ‘Now Betty, everything’s under control. I delivered the urn for Artie’s wake this afternoon.’ He kept his voice low, soothing. ‘When you get to the Club, you’ll find it on the bar in a floral arrangement.’

While he pulled off his tie and reassured Betty that Artie’s pre-paid funeral plan covered all flowers, he glanced at the wall clock. Past 5:00 already. His mates from the footie club would be standing around in the front bar of the Billinudgel Hotel ordering first drinks. As he put the phone down with a sigh, the office door opened.

Jason looked up into mascaraed brown eyes and a fall of silky red hair. Perfect teeth smiled at him from a full mouth filmed with red lipstick. He groped for his dangling tie, conscious of his tousled hair, sweaty shirt and suit coat slung over the back of his chair. Before he could get to his feet, a slim hand edged with red gel nails thrust close to his face. ‘Sorry I’m late. Zara Baxter. I phoned last week.’

Jason blinked, scrambling for his wits. Last week? The hand felt cool in his.

‘Ah, yes, Miss Baxter.’ He angled his head towards the paperwork. ‘I’m afraid your father’s pre-paid contract is still unsigned. We could…’

Her smile widened: a dazzling array of red and white. ‘No, I’m not a customer. I came about the article.’ Before he could answer, she sat in the client’s chair opposite his desk, straightened her skimpy red skirt and crossed one long leg over the other. Jason swallowed.

Zara Baxter wore black boots in the middle of summer; not the stockmen’s boots that came in from rough country around Wilson’s Creek or the steel-caps favoured by tradies. These boots clung around her slim calves like black plastic wrap. Jason diverted his gaze towards the designer handbag she plonked onto his desk before she caught him staring.

‘I phoned on Tuesday last week. A man took my call…an older man.’

‘I see,’ Jason squirmed inwardly, seeing all too clearly. His father, Kevin, had shuffled through the office and answered the phone as if he were twenty years younger, the business owner, and not a bored retiree with a pacemaker. ‘How can I help with this article, Miss Baxter?’

She leaned closer, wafting him into a cloud of perfume. Not disinfectant or casket lacquer or pine air freshener but something foreign and expensive. Jason’s mood lifted.

‘I write freelance articles for Seniors magazines,’ she told him. ‘Seniors are interested in funerals. Not in a morbid way… older people are practical about such things and want to be well informed. Well, while I‘m staying with my married sister in Byron, I’ve been researching basic info about the funeral industry. I want to write a general piece for Over 50’s—a sort of top tips for a successful funeral.’

‘Right,’ said Jason, his urge to join his mates at the pub fading rapidly, ‘what do you need from me?’ She smiled and something deep in his chest melted. He began to smile back and then rearranged his face into its usual bland expression. Smiling was bad for business in the funeral industry.

That night while he watched his instant dinner rotating in the microwave, Jason thought about brown eyes and silky red hair and slender hands tapping at a laptop. Fantasies about Zara Baxter were a waste of time. His love life had tanked months ago when Kirsten stood him up after their second date. ‘What do you do? You didn’t tell me,’ she said after their drinks arrived.

Jason surveyed passing tourists eating ice cream, the darkening bulk of Cape Byron and pearly tints on the sea and sucked in his breath dreading this moment. ‘I run a funeral business.’

‘Awesome!’ A glazed look settled on her face. Jason sipped his beer as their conversation drifted into silence. Whatever mental list Kirsten had brought to this date, she was striking out every item. After he dutifully took her number and they parted, Jason promised himself from now on, he would stay clear of romance.

The microwave pinged and he carried his dinner to the table where a knife, fork and sauce bottle framed a placemat on an expanse of polished wood. His foot crunched on plastic in the carpet: his son’s toy truck forgotten in the rush for the drive to the Gold Coast Airport and reunion with Kellie-Anne in Melbourne. Jasper at three was too young to understand family split-ups and Layla, nearly five, grew more demanding every visit. ‘I want a swim,’ she shouted over and over in the car before she cried and went to sleep. He swept the plastic pieces up and binned them.

Kellie-Anne had begun nagging a few months before Jasper’s birth. ‘I hate this place! It’s full of old dairy farmers and hippies stoned off their faces. Why don’t we sell up? We can live on the Gold Coast in a townhouse with a water view. It’s so boring here.’ As years passed, it grew worse. ‘I hate this funeral business—coffins and dead people and phone calls at all hours.’

But when it came to the crunch, his sick father demanded a commercial price with a premium for goodwill and control over major decisions. The old man couldn’t let go. Besides, Serenity Funerals was a family business. Jason had helped his father at weekends since he was fourteen. Apart from a year of marine biology at college and a small business course, what else did he know?

On Monday afternoon after the last chapel ceremony, Zara Baxter sat in a tub chair facing his in the reception room next to his office. Pink roses filled a vase on a glass table between them and Enya, suitably muted, played on the sound system. Jason unbuttoned the waistcoat he wore in spite of stifling heat and opened a monogrammed folder. ‘This is our full range of caskets and coffins,’ he said turning a page. ‘We have three on display in the next room: Melody, Sonata and Concerto. That’s our most popular range. Top of the line is our Millenium in bronze or copper imported from the United States. Expensive.’

Zara moved the album closer and flicked through its pages. ‘You’ve got heaps of models here. Why not show more?’

Leaning forward, Jason paused. For the past half hour after they toured the premises, she had asked searching questions, raised issues, come back at him with queries that prompted him to re-think his business model. She seemed interested in what he did. And today she wore a sundress with yellow flowers and white ankle boots that showed off her long legs. Jason had never thought ankle boots sexy until now. He pulled his wandering thoughts together. ‘A warehouse-style display like Bunnings wouldn’t suit us at all. Our clients are nervous, upset. A large room filled with caskets would intimidate most of them so we use folders and brochures or send them photos as attachments. They need privacy to make decisions.’

She nodded and tapped at her laptop. Jason furtively watched the tattoo of bright fingernails and her delicious red pout of concentration. He folded his hands together, the scents of perfume and roses seeping through him. He hoped Zara Baxter would write articles for every Seniors magazine in the country. He hoped she would write a book and consult him about the details of every chapter.

When she placed the folder on the table and turned off her laptop, Jason’s daydream faded. ‘Thanks for your help, Mr Delany. I’ll run a draft past my boss and see what he thinks. I’ve written my sister’s number on the back of my card.’

The front door closed behind her and Jason stared at the scrawled phone number: large numerals, a stroke through the seven. Confident, optimistic—gone from his life. A sliver of misery worked its way under his ribs.

TURNING THE MOB By Judith Johnson


The mob converged into the shallow gully. The smell of water too much for the thirsty stock, their stampeding hooves tore at the sun tortured earth, a Hiroshima cloud of red dust spiralling into the charged crackling air.
The boss on the bank above her, bellowed, ‘Cut your lot off and turn them back,’ before he set his horse into a break-neck run through the spinifex to disappear over the rise.
She dug her heels into her stock horse’s side and shook the reins. The well learnt message received, her mount stretched his neck, instantly into a gallop. From being tail-end-charlie, keeping the cows with calves afoot in sight of the mob, he was now doing what he loved to do. Clods of dirt flying she guided him around the outside of her responsibility as the cows began to trot, the calves bleating with fright trying to keep up with their mothers, the inbred knowledge of sensing water spurring them on.
With the main mob well in front it created a slight break between them and she pushed her knee into her chestnut’s side telling him the direction he was to wheel. Instinctively her stock-horse thrust in front of the leading cows.

Back and forth she rode, her horse spinning within its length at each end of the run Little by little she turned her tail-enders away from becoming part of the main mob to be trampled in the frantic rush to the long watering troughs. A flurry of sandy earth grabbed her attention as another stockman hurled his mount down the side of the gully. Whirling his stock-whip it snaked out with an ear-splitting crack as he joined her.
Then the bellowing began, tongues lolling, froth spraying from their mouths as the cattle milled around, frustrated, wanting water, creating another swirling cauldron of dust. Two stragglers they had picked up on the way attempted to charge up the outside. Her assistant cracking his whip time and time again pushed them back.
She knew where the end of the gully emptied out on to a wide plain, the big mob would turn left to find the water they needed. Water pumped to the troughs by a windmill, from an underground source in the seasonal creek. The windmill’s elongated shape, nothing more than painted black lines barely visible through the clouding red earth — the whirr and soft thud of the piston — the sound of a saviour for the outback.
She only had to watch for the mob’s dust cloud to diminish in density to know she could now move her tail-enders on to where the other long water trough waited for them.
‘Time to move them on, Eddie,’ she shouted. The young stockman raised his curled whip with acknowledgement.
In unison they turned their horses from facing the smaller mob, knowing they would follow. The plain in sight they guided their mounts to the left and swung them around to bar the frantic crowd from joining the main mob, Eddie’s stock-whip cracking as encouragement for the dust covered cattle to turn right to find their share of water. Hooves pounded, sides heaving, jostling, they found their space and settled to drink their fill.
Eddie dismounted.
He came to her stirrup, his face splitting into a wide white grin. ‘I’ll take the little fellow for you.’
She pulled the red bandana down from covering her nose and mouth and tilted her stock hat back from resting on the top of her dark glasses. ‘He’s had a rough ride.’ Her hand smoothed over the dark red coat glinting with golden dust of the two day-old calf laying across her knees and pummel of her saddle.
Cradled in his arms Eddie walked with him towards the group of cattle. Crouching on the ground he steadied the calf’s wobbly legs and waited; his patience rewarded. He nodded his stained Akubra to where a cow turned from the water trough to start ambling towards them. ‘Reckon Mum’s on her way. There you go, matey.’ He stood up and slowly walked back to mount his horse.
With relief both watched the cow nuzzle her off-spring as she accepted him Which wasn’t always the case, when one so young had lost the mother’s scent to be replaced by human.
With another wide smile Eddie said, ‘I reckon the boss will be pleased with his new missus.’
She gave a quick laugh of embarrassment, not used to accepting compliments. ‘So you don’t think he’s likely to give me the sack?’
‘He’s no fool.’
He turned his horse and cantered towards the main mob, passing with a brief salute of his hand, a tall rider on a big bay. The boss....



… I look back. Ruby has her ear buds in, pretending not to see me. Not to see my naked body. Another of her mother’s flippant ideas. I thought I had brought her up differently. But I can sense her annoyance. Her lips are pouted.

As I reach the water’s edge, my feet sink into the wet sand and I lower myself into the crisp blue ocean. My heart gives a nervous skitter. I wish Ruby were with me.

Why isn’t she? Sixteen. For sure she had nothing better to do than text back and forth with her “girlfriends”. My goodness, I had only boys in my head with sixteen. Does she? Still wondering, I surrender to the delicious wet as a school of small, translucent fish gently caress my naked body. Diamonds sparkle over the ocean; a cool breeze brushes through my hair before I dive and submerge into the silent under-water-world. Here nothing can reach me. Here my breath stops and with it, my desperate thoughts of wanting to reach out to Ruby. The dark thump of my heartbeat travels through the dense water cocoon. Tiny air bubbles rise from between the small golden hair on my forearm. I had forgotten it. I had forgotten how amazing it is to soak in the heightened sensation of freedom. The simple act to be naked, to dare, to let go and leave for a moment all worries behind.


First very faintly but then loud and clear I hear the sweet, high pitch of a mother whale calling her newborn. Really? Maybe I…, even before I finish my thought I hear it again. My temples pound, my lungs hurt, screaming for air, but I don’t dare to leave this incredible concert hall. There, again. Like an arrow, I shoot through the water’s surface, gasping for air, paddling my arms to find my orientation. The dying flow of a wave washes over me. As I emerge from the white whirlpool, Ruby runs into the water.

'Mum, Mum,' her voice jumps out of her throat with excitement.

'Mum, do you see that?'

'No, what?' All I see is that she runs towards me, to me. Yes, to me!

'Look there, a whale.'

I follow her finger pointing towards the ocean. A huge waterspout gushes into the sky, and the salty spray hits our faces. Ten maybe twenty metres, it seems barely a fin-length away, the big black body covered with barnacles moves majestically through the water.

‘Oh, Ruby, do you see it. Behind the mother can you see it? It’s a calf.’ I whisper.

‘Wow, that’s awesome. Look, look, look it nudges up against the mother.’

A silent scream of joy and gratitude reverberates in my throat as Ruby squeezed my arm.

‘Oh Ruby, it’s so cute.'

‘Can we swim there?' she screeches, 'please Mum let’s go. Come on.' And off she goes.

My heart races like a pack of greyhound dogs. I follow Ruby through the water towards the whale’s footprint, where just a second ago its tail disappeared into the deep blue. The perfect smeared circle lingers on the water surface leaving a trace of the gracious giant. I scan the horizon to see where the whales went.

‘Muuuuum,’ Rubie's voice hits me like lightning, I turn around and see the whale’s black eye looking at us unfazed.

Time stops. All that matters is this. This quiet place of oneness.

Finally the mother whale and calf dive and move away.

'I love you, Mum.' Ruby kisses my cheek.