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.
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….