The motor gave a couple of protesting grunts when Rod switched off the old Landcruiser’s ignition, reminding him he must buy oil soon. Tonight’s campsite was much like those of the past week, though the landscape here was not so dry or sparse. A wide expanse of good grass beside the narrow ribbon of road and a nearby creek would provide grazing and water for the horse.
He let down the back of the float and backed Betty out onto the soft grass. The animal threw up her head and shook her strong neck, then pawed the ground in front of her in anticipation. She was happy to be let out and keen to move her large and muscular body.
“Easy girl,” Rod murmured.
Betty snorted and threw up her head again, pleased to be free of the confinement and those long hours in the float as Rod led her down to a cleared spot beside the creek where drovers watered their stock. The Warmblood mare stood quite still at the edge of the water and moved her head one way then the other, her ears pricked and forward to catch any sounds, while her nostrils flared and twitched as she sampled the fresh new smells. In her whole life she had never experienced danger when drinking, but her primeval instinct demanded she check thoroughly before drawing in the clear water now cooling her front hoofs.
Leaving the creek, Rod walked and trotted the horse along the roadside for a kilometre before tethering her for the night. He would ride her for half an hour at sun up before moving on. Betty again stood motionless, listening and smelling the air. Then she walked away from Rod, head down, looking for just that right spot in the sweet grass to begin the night’s grazing.
Rod connected the outside light, then lit the small kero stove and put a saucepan of water on to boil. He peeled three potatoes and a carrot, rummaged through the big wooden box which was his larder, and found a piece of hard cheese hiding in a brown paper bag and a tin of forgotten sardines.
“That’s a bonus”, he thought, and reminded himself that tomorrow morning early would be the best time to catch a rabbit or hare, or maybe a duck at the creek.
Rod had quit his job in Ceduna in South Australia a week before and headed off; intending first to visit his old mum in Rupunyup, just north of the Grampians, then on to his older brother Angus’s farm, farther up at Wedderburn. There he hoped to be able to leave the horse while he sought out and negotiated with Warmblood breeders to find a suitable sire to join her with. Even now, in 1982, the breed was still not common and the stud fee was going to be expensive. He needed to have enough money saved by the end of September. He figured he would go on to Melbourne and find work for a few months, most likely as a security guard with an armoured car company. He had experience and good references from previous stints in the city. Then he would go bush again.
Rod’s plans for Betty had been brought forward a year and without warning. Breaking up with Annie had been sudden and, just as he had at the time of previous break-ups, he’d loaded the truck and moved on.
Rod was good looking — if unusually gaunt, and tall and lean. Born on a farm and the youngest of seven, he had learnt to break in horses by the time he was sixteen. At eighteen he took a teacher training course and became a young schoolmaster in a one-teacher bush school. But the ladies loved him and, too often, he loved them back. That they often had a partner meant that Rod’s life could become suddenly far too complicated and even uncomfortable.
But it was his rare qualities, his speed and style and bravado that combined and made him different to most men. It usually meant that he could rarely stay in one place for very long before finding himself either constrained or unwelcome. He learnt early in his working life how to live alone and be on the move.
It wasn’t that Rod was a bad person — far from it — he had the proverbial heart of gold. He was just too good at inspiring people.
His country-boy agility and enthusiasm mesmerised people and swept everyone along in a world that, on their own, they could never sustain. Women queued to dance with him at country balls. Looking like a gentleman from a period movie in his tuxedo, bow tie and shiny pumps, he carried each one of them around the dance floor with such style as to be something so exhilarating that they most likely never experienced anything like it again; and they talked about it amongst themselves for months afterwards.
To Rod, life was as straight forward as taking a horse over a jump or creek. “A horse doesn’t jump of its own accord,” he would say in a loud voice, and laughing and with merriment in his eyes. “You lift a horse over a jump with your mind. If you didn’t, you’d both end up on the ground. If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t expect the horse to know.”
Tonight, Rod was feeling just a tad more tired than usual, and he was hungry. He thought how he’d love a bath and a shave, and maybe a large pizza with the lot and even to sleep in a proper bed with a mattress. He was still a couple of days away from Rupunyup. He had chosen to come the long way using back roads. It wasn’t that he was in trouble or that anyone was looking for him — he simply wanted to be alone; and he liked to see the country away from the main highways. A young Australian Greek bloke had given him a well worn-map of South Australia and Western Victoria on which was marked the zigzag route taken by men who carried illegal undersize shark from fishermen in the Spencer Gulf to the Flake-loving Melbournites. It went through quite a bit of country Rod hadn’t seen and so this was the route he was following.
Rod had just dropped the potatoes in to cook when Betty gave two short snorts. Rod straightened up and listened, and saw far off headlights coming from the direction in which he would be heading. He knew he wasn’t far from the small town of Bunneringee, so it was more likely he would see somebody go past here than in the bigger more empty country he’d recently passed through. “A farmer going home probably — or maybe a refrigerated van on its way to fetch Flake?” he mused. Continue reading
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