Authors: Karen Wood
Tags: #JUV001000, #JUV000000
Grace screwed up her nose. ‘Why do boys always like touching each other so much?’
Jess helped carry the plates of food out to the verandah. There were eggs, bacon and sausages, fresh fruit and some homemade fig and almond bread. Jess planned on attacking the bread first. It smelled heavenly. She eyed some butter that also looked homemade.
I should bring Annie some of our organic corn next
Sunday to make some fritters. And some goat’s milk. And
some tomatoes. Nah, she probably has heaps of her own
tomatoes. Bet she doesn’t grow asparagus. I’ll bring her
some of that . . .
Before long everyone was sitting at the table, fuelling themselves for the day ahead.
As Jess ate, she turned to Rosie. ‘You should have seen Walkabout this morning.’ The others joined in and soon they were all talking about foals and horses and planning the day ahead.
Once the dishes were done, they headed back down to the stables and began saddling up.
‘Could you do me a favour, Jess?’ Harry asked, as he limped alongside her. ‘I’ve gotta try to teach that Katrina girl to campdraft.’ He sounded noticeably lukewarm about the idea. ‘Totally wrong horse for drafting. It spooks the cattle. Something weird about it, can’t put my finger on it.’ He frowned and shook his head. ‘She should keep that horse in the showring where it belongs.’
‘How can I help?’ asked Jess.
‘My son’s coming over in a minute to put some new shoes on Biyanga,’ Harry continued. ‘Could you hold the horse for Lawson while I give Katrina a riding lesson?’
That gun-toting freak was Harry’s son?
For the second time that morning, Jess was speechless.
Lawson Blake pulled a beaten felt hat down over his eyes as he stepped out of a shiny new truck. He walked to the back of the tray and acknowledged his father with a nod as he buckled leather chaps around his waist.
Jess stood by, holding Biyanga. She had never seen Lawson close up. He was surprisingly young. She reckoned he must be in his late twenties, which left her wondering just how old Harry was. Lawson was tall and fit-looking, but had the same unfortunate lumpy nose as his father.
Harry nodded to his son. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Busy as a cat burying its business,’ Lawson answered, letting it be known he wasn’t there for small talk. Without even noticing Jess, he turned to a large toolbox and began rummaging for the right tools. And then, with a pair of pincers and a rasp in one hand, he pointed to a concrete slab beside the stables and commanded, ‘Stand him over there.’
Charming as ever
Jess did as she was told.
Without ceremony, Lawson got to work on the stallion’s feet, snipping off the clenches on the outer hoof and pulling the old steel shoes away. He fired up a gas furnace on the back of the truck and tossed a blank shoe into it. When it was glowing red hot he banged it into shape. Jess watched as he pressed the hot shoe to Biyanga’s foot, smoke billowing from the hoof’s horny outer rim. It left a black mark, indicating where it sat perfectly flush with the hoof.
Lawson nailed the shoes on, giving six perfectly timed taps of the hammer for each nail.
He flipped the hammer in his hand and used the claws to twist off the protruding points, then stretched the horse’s leg forward and, resting it on his knee, bent the clenches over. All this he did in one fluid motion, moving from one step to the next in a series of effortless transitions.
The job was completed in silence. Lawson stopped only briefly with a curt ‘Should never pat another man’s dog, mate,’ when Jess gave his wriggly blue pup a scratch. He grabbed the pup by the scruff of the neck and tossed it back onto the truck.
As Lawson let the fourth neatly shod hoof fall back to the ground, he looked at Grunter, whose head was in a nearby feedbin. ‘That pig oughta be slaughtered by now,’ he said, as he unbuckled his chaps and threw his tools into a bucket. He strode towards Grunter, who snuffled about, oblivious to the danger coming towards him.
Lawson made a grab for his hind leg and the pig let out an indignant squeal. As quickly and as fluidly as he had shod the horse, Lawson straddled the animal and hogtied it. Jess watched in horror as he brought a knife out from his back pocket and flicked it open.
‘No, wait!’ she screamed, dropping Biyanga’s lead rope. ‘I don’t think . . . I mean . . . Harry!’ she yelled, in a panic.
Lawson laughed. ‘What’s the matter, never seen a pig’s throat cut before?’
‘I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,’ Jess stammered. ‘He . . . it . . . that’s
Lawson roared with laughter. He looked down at the struggling pig and gave it a shove on the shoulder with his foot. ‘G’day, Grunter!’
From behind her, Harry spoke. ‘Crikey, Lawson, leave the poor kid alone!’ He glared at his son. ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’
Lawson wiped his hands on his jeans and took a step back. ‘Yeah, whatever,’ he sniffed, closing the knife and placing it back in his pocket. ‘Want me to do this pig for you or what? I’ve got some beef hanging in the coolroom at home. I can hang this one at the same time, if you want.’
‘Nah, I’m not gonna eat this one. He’s Biyanga’s stablemate now. He’s good to have along at the drafts. Keeps the stallion settled.’
Lawson dropped his shoulders and rolled his eyes in disbelief. ‘You’re joking, aren’t ya?’ he shook his head. ‘It’s because Ryan gave it to you, isn’t it? Now you think you can’t slaughter it.’
‘Give it a rest, Lawson. He’s your brother.’
‘He is not my brother. Just because you wanted to adopt him doesn’t mean I ever had to.’
‘Let the pig go, Lawson.’ Harry turned and walked away.
Lawson watched him walk back to the stables and then turned to Jess. ‘Go get the gate for me, kid,’ he said in a gruff voice. Only then did he seem to register who she was. He faltered very briefly, then bent down and cut the rope from around the pig’s legs. He gave it a swift kick. Grunter scrambled to his feet and scampered away, squealing noisily.
As Lawson drove through the gate, he stuck his head out the window. ‘Tell the old man I’ll come over during the week and have a look at those foals.’ And without so much as a goodbye, he spun his wheels in the gravel and took off out of the driveway.
THE NEXT MORNING,
Biyanga paced back and forth in his stable, fretting for his pig. Grunter seemed to have gone into hiding after the hogtying incident.
Jess emptied a bucket of feed into his bin. ‘Lose your buddy, mate?’
The stallion’s body shuddered as he gave another long, sad whinny, and he snuffled his nose into Jess’s tummy. Jess scratched his cheeks. ‘I know just how you feel, fella,’ she said.
‘He gets so het up without Grunter around,’ said Harry from behind her.
She spun around. ‘Do you think he’ll come back?’
Harry opened the stable door and came in to console his horse. ‘Yeah, I know he’s around somewhere, because half of Annie’s garden is missing,’ he said. ‘I just hope that I find him before she does, or he’ll end up as a Sunday roast.’
‘You wouldn’t let that happen, would you, Harry?’
Harry shrugged. ‘Not my call, kiddo. It’s Annie’s pig.’ He ran a hand over Biyanga’s shoulder. ‘And she does love a bite of fresh pork – roasts it in the Kanga Cooker, all dripping with juice and crackling; pretty tasty.’ He gave Biyanga a scratch around the ears and chuckled. ‘They gotta catch him first, though, don’t they, boy?’
‘Is Ryan your son?’ Jess asked, remembering the conversation between Harry and Lawson, but not sure if a kid was supposed to ask an adult that sort of stuff.
Harry didn’t seem to mind. ‘Ryan is Annie’s boy. He grew up with Lawson. But there’s been a rift between them for a while.’ A look of disappointment crossed his face. ‘And now Lawson’s got his nose out of joint because I let Ryan ride Biyanga in a few campdrafts.’
‘I wouldn’t let someone on my horse either if they were mean like Lawson,’ said Jess without thinking. Then she looked up at Harry in alarm. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.’
‘Didn’t know you had a horse, Jess,’ said Harry, ignoring her comment.
Jess picked up the empty feed bucket and turned away from Harry. ‘So Ryan’s not Lawson’s brother at all, they’re just stepbrothers?’ she asked, trying to steer the conversation back to Lawson. Anything would be better than talking about her own tragic horselessness.
‘You got a horse, have you?’ Harry repeated.
‘My horse . . .’ Jess took a deep breath, ‘ . . . is dead.’ She made her way to the stable door and let herself out, thinking that would surely end the conversation.
But Harry followed her out into the stable aisle. ‘How’d it die?’ he asked, as he coiled Biyanga’s halter and rope and hung them on a hook on the wall.
‘She got stuck in a cattle grid,’ said Jess, tossing her grooming tools into their bag. She saw the realisation wash over his face and instantly knew that he had heard about it. Everyone heard about everything in this town, especially in horsey circles.
‘Oh geez, John Duggin told me about that,’ said Harry, his voice softening. ‘He said it was awful. You poor bloody kid.’ Harry grabbed a bucket, turned it over and sat down on it, then reached out for a second bucket, flipped it over and motioned for Jess to join him. He fumbled in his pocket, found a small container of toothpicks and rattled them about, coaxing one out while he waited for her to be seated.
Jess dropped her bag, wandered over and made herself comfortable on the bucket. Maybe he knew what had happened and he was going to tell her about it.
‘I had a horse called Bunyip for thirty-two years.’ Harry leaned forward on the bucket and began excavating a tooth. ‘He was my first horse, and by geez he was a good one. Honest as the day he was born. I used to put all the local kids on him. But I had to go down the Snowies for six months to do some contract mustering and I knew he wouldn’t be around when I got back.’
He paused and flicked the toothpick across the aisle. His watery old eyes looked into the distance. ‘I didn’t want him to suffer, so I got up real early one morning and gave him a good shampooing. I oiled his tail and brushed his mane, then I polished his best show bridle and put it on him.’ Harry smiled with pride. ‘He always lived like a gentleman and I wanted him to die like a gentleman.’
He paused, ran his tongue over his teeth and reached into his jacket again. ‘Took him down the paddock and shot him, I did. Hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. He’s buried under that big mulberry tree down the paddock. He used to like eating the berries off it.’
‘I buried Diamond next to our coachwood tree. She used to stand under it for hours and rub her neck on it,’ said Jess quietly.
The two of them sat in the stable aisle, Harry chewing on a new toothpick, Jess twiddling her hair and looking at the old toothpick that had speared itself into a poo a few metres away. After a while she asked him about something that had been bothering her. ‘Do you believe in reincarnation, Harry?’
Harry looked mildly surprised. ‘That’s a funny question,’ he said. ‘Dunno, I never really thought about it.’ He drew a neat circle in a patch of dust with his toe as he pondered the question. ‘But I always thought the Aboriginal culture of belonging to your country made a lot of sense.’
‘How do you mean?’ asked Jess.
‘Everything in nature is connected. All the animals and birds and lizards and plants, even the wind and the rain. We’re all related and we all need each other. It’s true of time as well – the past, the present and the future.’ He shrugged. ‘You just gotta stop and listen and feel; then you know it’s true. Sometimes when I’m out bush, mustering, sitting on a horse, I really feel it: the trees and rocks and dust all whispering to me, all soaking into me. Makes me feel alive.’
Jess thought about how she felt when she was alone with the horses in the paddocks: the sounds of the wind and the birds; the movement of the grass and the sun on her skin. What Harry was saying made a lot of sense, but it didn’t answer her question.
‘So, what happens when something dies?’ she asked. ‘Do you reckon it gets reincarnated?’
‘Some mobs think so, others don’t.’ Harry crinkled his forehead. ‘The fellas I talked to told me that in the creation time, great ancestral spirits walked the earth and rose up to create all the different parts of the natural world, such as rocks and snakes and lizards. They told me that when a woman conceives a baby, a spirit from one of these natural things enters the woman. There are special places, sacred sites, where these spirits come from. And the spirit that enters you, like possum or turtle or whatever, becomes your totem.’
Jess had heard some of the girls at school talking about totems. ‘A totem is like a spirit guide, isn’t it?’
‘No, no,’ said Harry. ‘It’s not like that at all. Your totem gives you duties to carry, obligations to your mob and country. It creates a special kinship with other people of the same totem.’
‘So, what happens when you die?’
‘The way I understand it, your soul splits into three parts. Your ancestral-soul goes to sky camp, your ego-soul dies and your totem-soul is returned to the spirits of nature.’