I wrote this piece in the Winter of 2005...
I’m down at the sheds, feeding the hens. It’s a cold morning, the lowest parts of the valley white with six a.m. frost; and I see that already my neighbour Peter is working his cattle, on foot - and barefoot at that - with only his kelpie for assistance. The hens fed, I stroll into the bottom paddock to watch, and soon feel sorry for him as one cow after another breaks free and lumbers out of range, cattle leaking through the inexperience of the young dog and slipping through the gaps. As my mare is lying down – an easy target - with sudden resolve I slip a head-collar over her ears and slide onto her back; and she gets up with a sudden lurch. We trot amiably over to Peter and help shepherd his cattle into the stockyards. He’s hopping from one foot to the other to warm his toes. “Thanks. They kept getting away from me.”
“No worries, Pete. Happy to help, I was up anyway.”
“Hey, Mieke, seeing as you’re on your good mare …”
“Um. Yes. With no saddle, bridle and no helmet though ….” I know where he’s heading. He pauses and looks up at me beadily.
“My good bull. The new Brangus. He’s crossed the river and joined Rosie’s mob…”
I sigh. I know what he’s asking. I hadn’t seen the bull for a while and had been wondering where he’d gotten to. But the river is treacherous and hard to cross. I am mindful of my mare’s legs, easily caught and cut on unseen underwater branches and forgotten bits of fence as the current rips coldly. And I know that the bull, after his joyful frolics with his new harem, may not want to come back. And it’s hell, trying to get cattle to cross water.
“He’s my good bull. I’ll take your girls on the tractor, they can help; they’ll enjoy the ride. Together we’ve got a chance”. He knows me well enough to know I won’t leave the girls alone on the farm while I go mustering. “It’s not that I mind him donating a few calves to old Rosie, it’s just that he ain’t here, he ain’t here doing his job with his own…”
His concern for my girls sways me and I relent. The bull means a lot to him.
“Alright. Let me get the girls dressed warmly, and I’ll saddle the mare and I’ll see you in twenty minutes”.
At the river, the mare balks. She’s been hurt, there, before: the blood at the time flowed red down her leg; but at the time I was heedless and did not notice. I still feel bad about that. I cajole her, bully her into the swift dark current, and against her will she launches herself into the winter waters. A brief period of surging current, and at the other side we are hindered by deep swamp and bog. The mare flounders, up to her belly in peaty bog, and after an eternity of wild snorting plunges, with a mammoth effort she heaves herself up the embankment onto dry ground. I find I am trembling. A huge long snort and the mare shakes herself from nose to tail, and then tosses her head as if to say “I’m here”.
In time, Peter and Tess arrive on foot; having left the tractor, not wishing to bog it, on the river flats further downstream and on the other side of the river with Yarrow for safekeeping.
We commence the muster. As usual, as I am swift on the stockhorse, I am given the role of outrigger, or ‘dogger’, ranging far around the mob to bring them together – circling the mob in a flat gallop I gather them, weaving an unseen net of whistles and calls of ‘move on lass’ and ‘hey up there’, a net of bluster and push. Never handled, never tamed, Rosie’s mob are wild and mad, scrawny, unruly; so unlike the doe-eyed Murray Greys of our river flats. Most of Rosie’s mob have horns.
And so we come closer to the river. The big bull is there in the middle of the wheeling mob: his unlikely, well bred form stark in contrast to the rough bush cattle. They don’t want to get near the river, never mind cross it. Peter has placed himself at the right side of the crossing and Tess at the left. My job is to push the cattle though.
They don’t want to go. At one stage despite my mare’s chest hard against a recalcitrant cow, it breaks free, whirls and with lowered head charges straight towards Tess. Time slows as Tess stands, a horrified expression on her face as the cow thunders towards her yet it all seems slow motion. I dig my heels in the mare’s sides – an unmistakable signal to the sensitive mare who bounds forward with her ears flat and we place her body and mine between the charging cow and my child. At the last moment the cow brakes hard, swerves and heads for freedom.
“Let the old bitch go!” Peter yells.
Tess looks at me. She is still standing where she was, rooted to the spot. “Christ, Mum. That cow went for me”. I lean down from the saddle and hug her to me. She is shaking, and so am I.
“She did indeed, love. I saw. And you stood your ground. Well done. That was very brave.”
“You got inbetween. That cow could have hurt you really badly”.
“Yes, but I couldn’t let her get you now, could I?” She hugs me, briefly, passionately, her young arms hard and tight around my middle.
By now the cattle are crossing the river in wild plunges, churning the water to mud. The idea is to bring them all to the yards, and then separate the bull and let Rosie’s mob go to find their own way back to the hills. The next part should be easy, now that the bull and the majority of the mob are across the river. Soon we reach the disused railway embankment and I think with relief that it will form a natural barrier along which I can herd them.
But no; one cow starts and the rest follow and they surge up the steep slope, a river of brindle and brown, black and white and grey; with the sleek black bull in there with them. They reach the top and disappear over the edge on the other side; their tails giving disdainful flicks as they leap down the embankment.
Peter swears and thumps the tractor. “Christ almighty, I can’t follow them there on the tractor; the other side of that is a sheer drop and the rest is bog and there’s the trees. See if you can bring them back Mieke; meet you at the stockyards end of the railway.” I wheel the mare towards the embankment and in a few leaps we’re at the top where we teeter for a moment, and then she leaps into space and we land with a jar on the steep downwards slope and slide down, the mare on her hocks and me with my heart in my mouth but my trust in the surefootedness of the mare.
Once down we hunt the mob together again as they scatter in the trees and mud. Time and time again one cow after another breaks out, and I race to head her off, and turn her back, leaning at forty-five degrees as the horse and cow wrestle shoulder to shoulder until the cow wheels and slows and heads back to the safety of the mob. All this time, the bull stands separate, aloof, watching, noncommittal. One particular cow seems to be the leader, and she’s intent on heading back to the river. But where the hell is everyone else? Why am I doing this alone? I can’t do this on my own; it’s madness. My mare is dripping sweat, my shins are a mass of bruises from clouts with various cattle, the ground underneath is treacherous, the small wood disorienting; trees and branches snatching at my hair and my arms.
The lead cow breaks away again and we head her off; shoulder to shoulder; until my thigh is hard against the cow’s shoulder as the mare turns on her hocks and pushes the cow back. The cow balks, shoves; her horn catching me on my inner thigh, nearly upending me out of the saddle. I swear under my breath but don’t give up; give the mare her head, she knows the game, knows what she’s doing. We push the cow back to the mob.
All of a sudden the mob gives up. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden they have had enough. Or maybe they see that I have had enough. I don’t know. Meekly they turn; they join the bull; and they amble towards the low part of the railway and over the embankment, down to the stockyards. The bull knows where he is, now, can see where he’s going. He walks calmly into the yards and Tess slams the gate shut with a cry of relief. I rein in my exhausted mare; run my hand along her neck; let my hand run briefly over the bruises on my thighs. They’ll take a while to heal, but the bull is back.
The wild mob head back for the hills but the bull doesn’t even watch. He’s looking at his own herd possessively, rumbling greetings in this throat.