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Mist swirled among the gum trees as a kookaburra laughed to welcome the dawn. The mare lay in the long grass at the edge of the clearing, struggling on her side. With a shudder her whole body strained and she sat up, turning her head around to look towards her tail. A glistening bag slid out, steam rising from the wet warm mass.
Scrambling to her feet, the mare turned and sniffed at the bundle on the ground. With vigorous licks she roused the newborn foal. A tiny head, matted with damp curls, rose from the dew. Large brown eyes blinked and stared at the summer morning, ears flicking as a fly tickled. After a few moments the tiny horse heaved itself to its feet and stood with forelegs wide apart, wobbling.
"Awesome! How quick was that?" Louise had never seen a foal born before. When Ben, her best friend, had phoned earlier to tell her that Shadow had started labour, she had pedalled so hard she made record time to Tumbleford Farm. She lived in Crowhurst, the nearby town, with her parents and brother.
After becoming friends with Ben when she first moved to the area, she frequently cycled to his farm to ride out in the mountains with him.
Ben stood from his crouch and rubbed his arms to get his blood re-circulating after sitting cramped since first light. "I'll see if she'll let us get closer."
The kookaburras launched into a raucous cackle as if to announce the arrival of the new life. Louise waited as Ben crept towards Shadow. She knew how important this foal was to him, being the first sired by Brandy, the brumby stallion they had caught together two years ago. Ben's father had wanted the stallion gelded. The quality of this foal would determine the brumby's future.
"It's a filly." Ben's whisper tremored with excitement. "She looks perfect. Look at those legs, straight and strong. And her rump. She'll be a powerhouse."
Louise snuck across the paddock as Ben waved her closer. "She's pink! What does that mean? Are you sure she's alright?"
Ben frowned before shrugging. "You're right, she is an odd colour. I've never seen a foal quite like her before."
"She's gorgeous. What will you call her?"
Shaking his head, Ben pursed his lips. "I haven't any names in mind. I didn't dare think what the foal would be like."
As if she knew she was being discussed, the newly born foal flicked her flaxen tail and tottered to her dam's flanks. As Shadow continued to wash her clean, the filly thrust her head beneath her mother, grabbed hold of a swollen teat, and slurped.
The distant hills changed colour from a hazy blue to beige to gold as the sun climbed higher. The morning breeze teased Louise's hair as she waited with Ben, watching the mother and foal. The little filly stamped her hooves as she drank, switching her tail. "How about Dawn? That's a lovely girl's name and will remind you of her being born."
Ben cocked his head to one side. "Or maybe Kookie, after the kookaburras laughing at her arrival."
"That makes her sound like a biscuit. She's far too pretty for that."
Louise and Ben continued to watch the horses as the day warmed. A pair of crimson rosellas flashed overhead, their red and blue feathers bright until they perched in a giant gum tree where they blended in against the bark.
Sated, the filly turned to study the two humans. Shadow lowered her head for a rub. A retired stockhorse, she was used to motherhood and didn't feel threatened by a person she knew well. Ben approached the mare and stroked her nose before turning back to Louise. "Come and say hello to my new herd member."
Louise joined Ben at Shadow's head, delighted that his dreams of building a stud from Brandy were coming to fruition. Ever since Mr Naylor hurt his back trying to save Crowhurst from the floods a year ago the family had been having financial troubles. Although Ben's brother John had quit agricultural college for a while to help, Louise knew that the real burden of working the farm had fallen on Ben. Still at school, Ben had also been nursing Brandy from a serious injury after being trapped in a fence. The accident had almost caused the horse to be destroyed.
Thinking of Ben's troubles, Louise realised she had nothing to worry about in her own life. Her own brumby, Honey, caught at the same time as Brandy, was coming along well. Louise had broken her in and kept her at Patti McGrath's horse training establishment. There was a time when her parents had said it cost too much to have a horse and wanted her to sell the mare, but Louise earned her horse's keep by working for Patti on weekends and in the school holidays. Patti also taught her how to train her horse. She couldn't believe it was a year ago that she had first demonstrated to Ben that she could ride Honey without a saddle or bridle. Since then, she had started to teach her to jump.
When on holiday in the outback during the winter for Ben's sixteenth birthday, Louise leapt a pony over solid posts and rails to distract a bull from goring Ben's cousin. The thrill of sailing over the fence had inspired Louise to ask Patti for jumping lessons.
Lost in thoughts of her own horse, Louise didn't notice the filly walk up until the gentle bump of a velvet nose. Louise slid her hand along the filly's spikey mane and scratched her withers. The filly cocked her head on one side and wriggled her lips with pleasure.
This new attention became too much for Shadow. Shoving Ben out of the way she nickered to her baby and walked away. Realising her mother was leaving, the filly jumped into the air and trotted after her, tufty tail held aloft and nose high.
"I reckon she thinks she's a princess. That would be a great name." Louise watched the horses with delight as Shadow tried to herd her baby while the filly pranced in circles around her.
Ben folded his arms. "I'm not giving a horse of mine a name like that. She can be Peach, like her colour."
Louise laughed. "How is a fruit better than a biscuit? But I suppose Peach is okay; after all, she is sweet. I'm sure she'll grow to be a champion stockhorse one day, too."
Louise and Ben had spent two weeks at his Uncle Graeme's horse stud in the outback. They had mustered desert brumbies and wild bulls, and competed in the local campdraft. Ben had been able to buy a chestnut brumby mare that was exceptional at stock work from Simon, Graeme's friend. Ginger was proving to be a very capable working horse. Ben also owned Lady, a fiery chestnut part-Arabian. Louise knew that Ben dreamt not only of building his own stud, but training horses for campdrafting. His only problem was the pressure his father's poor health placed on the family.
Turning from the contented horses, for once Ben didn't look concerned about what the future might hold. "Let's go and tell Mum. She'll have breakfast waiting for us."
* * *
A white station wagon pulled into the farmyard as Ben and Louise left the foaling paddock. Louise waved to the bearded head that poked out from the driver's window. "Hi, Oliver! Come and see Ben's new filly."
The old vet climbed out of the car and removed a large box from the rear. "I've brought that cattle drench for your dad, Ben. So Shadow's foaled, eh? I'd better check her out."
Returning to the paddock, Louise caught Shadow and slipped a headcollar on her so that Ben could help Oliver. "Does she look okay to you?"
"Have you found the afterbirth? If it's not complete, I may need to give her something to flush it out." Standing back from the mare and foal Oliver studied the pair.
Ben pointed to where Shadow had foaled. "It looked like it all came away cleanly. Louise and I were here. The filly stood within moments and has already suckled. What do you think of her colour? Do you think there's anything wrong with her?"
Oliver placed an arm over Ben's shoulder. "Far from it. Your dad can't help but love this little one. I know he's always had a soft spot for palominos."
Louise yipped with delight. "I didn't know palominos were born that colour. How gorgeous! Ben's named her Peach already."
After checking Shadow out, Oliver suggested they leave the horses to settle. "Let's see what that wonderful mum of yours might have to help us celebrate."
As predicted, delightful smells of home baking greeted them as they entered the house. Ben called out to his parents. "Shadow's had a filly! And Oliver's here with the drench."
Mrs Naylor tied on an apron as she entered the kitchen. "G'day Oliver. You're in time for breakfast. I've been holding off until these two came in with the news. Is Shadow alright?"
"Yes, yes, all fine. That filly is a beautiful palomino with great conformation. She'll be a beauty. Big, too, I wouldn't doubt, from the size of her knees."
Mr Naylor slumped in a chair next to the wood-burning stove that was alight whether winter or summer. "That brumby stallion did a good job, then?"
"Oh yes, he's proved himself as a sire all right." Oliver accepted a cup of steaming coffee and pulled a chair up to the table where Louise and Ben sat.
Louise saw the look of relief on Ben's face as the vet confirmed Brandy as a good stallion. She knew Ben had been extremely worried that his father would geld, or worse still, destroy the horse. With Oliver supporting him, she hoped Ben wouldn't need to argue about Brandy's future any more.
Oliver cleared his throat after a sip of scalding coffee. "Actually, it's a good thing you two youngsters caught your brumbies when you did. They might be the last anyone ever takes from the park."
Confused, Louise sat up from where she had been rocking back in her chair. "What do you mean? Are they going to ban mustering? Won't there be too many horses if that happens?"
Oliver stroked his grey beard a few times before he spoke. "Ban, no. I hear Smythe-Waters is trying to get a lease to graze cattle on the mountains again. He's been given permission to shoot brumbies from the air as they damage his fences and steal his feed."
"Shoot? They can't do that! That's worse than sending them off for pet food. What if they aren't killed straight away? That's cruel. Why should the cattle have the grass instead of horses?" Louise shook with anger at the idea of the brumbies being shot from planes or helicopters. When she had expressed concern in the holidays about culling the desert brumbies, Jacinta had explained to her the horror of the alternative, that they be shot from the air. She couldn't believe that Adam Cartwright, the local ranger, would allow something like that to happen here.
Ben looked pensive. "It's not the horses that destroy his fences. He burnt his own fence to release his cattle into the park. Then, remember, he trapped the grey stallion's herd when he repaired the fence. Someone cut the wires and let them go. It wasn't the horses that did the damage."
Mr Hardy slapped his hand on the wooden arm of his chair. "And he thinks you were the one that cut the fence, too. He's been trying to get me to pay for the damage. I know you say it wasn't you, but then who was it?"
Louise hadn't realised that Robert Smythe-Waters still thought she and Ben were responsible for releasing the wild horses. They had discovered the herd soon after it had broken free, as they had been riding past Willowlea, the Smythe-Waters property, after visiting the volunteers revegetating the area following devastating floods. Surely he wasn't still hassling the Naylors about that?
Ben growled and crossed his arms. "We've told you before it wasn't us. Louise and I thought it must have been one of the volunteers working on the levee bank. We're not the only people that want to see the brumbies running free."
Louise still reeled from the shock of hearing the brumbies could be shot. "When is the cull going to happen? Can't we do anything to stop it? What about any injured horses? We can't let them do this!"
Mr Naylor didn't seem concerned. "They'll need to wait for the right weather. My guess would be February when the waterholes shrink and the herds gather closer to the river. There's little wind then, too."
Ben brightened up. "Let's ride to the visitor centre and talk to Mr Cartwright. There must be some mistake."
Waving her wooden spoon sticky with baked beans, Mrs Naylor frowned at Ben. "Not today, you don't. You'll be late for school if you don't eat up. Just because you're leaving soon doesn't mean you can miss the final weeks. Go and see the ranger at the weekend, he'll be sure to be there then."
Realising how much time had passed Louise jumped up. "I'd better be going. I can't ride with you this weekend, Ben, as I have to work at Patti's. How about the first day of the Christmas holidays? I know it's a couple of weeks away, but I don't think we have a choice."
Softening her expression, Mrs Naylor nodded. "That's a good idea. In the meantime, I'll talk to people at the ranger's office and find out more if I can. Now don't worry and sit back down. I expect Oliver can fit your bike in the back of his car and drop you off on his way back to town. That'll give you time to finish your breakfast and see the foal again before you go."
Unable to taste the bacon and eggs that Mrs Naylor placed in front of her, Louise struggled to come to terms with the brumbies she had come to know over the last couple of years being shot. The magnificent grey stallion and his herd, the bachelors wandering in their twos and threes, and the red roan stallion that had started to build his own family with only three mares; she could see them all in her mind. She couldn't let them be destroyed. She and Ben had saved the brumbies before. Now they'd have to do it again.CHAPTER 2
Snip's hooves pounded the ground as Ben gave him his head. Dust and gravel flew behind them as they raced across the open plain, bounding over tussocks of dried grass. The wind tore tears from Ben's eyes contradicting his yips of glee as he turned to shout. "I'm going to beat you, slow coach!"
Clutching the stitch in her side Louise galloped up alongside Ben. Jake, the stockhorse she loved to ride, stretched his neck out as they drew level to Ben and Snip. "No, you're not!"
The pair of horses sweated and strained as they fought for the lead. A copse of trees blocked their path ahead. At the last minute Ben swerved around a large gum and leant back, allowing his black gelding to spin to a halt. "That was awesome! I haven't had a run like that for ages."
Louise panted as she stopped next to Ben. "I think that must be a tie. I would have beaten you if I hadn't had this stitch."
Ben swung his right leg over the front of the saddle and slid to the ground. "Yeh, you reckon. Snip wasn't even trying. I could have pulled away from you any time."
"In your dreams. Jake is much faster than Snip." Louise also dismounted and loosened the girth. The friends walked alongside their horses as they all recovered their breath.
Ben thrust one hand into the pocket of his jeans. "I didn't want to tell you earlier, but it looks like Snip and Jake will have to be sold."
"No! Why?" Louise halted and rubbed Jake's bristled neck where Ben had recently hogged his mane.
"Dad isn't getting any better. He's thinking of selling the farm so he can invest the money to give him a retirement income. We'll have to move into town." Flicking at a fly with the end of his reins, Ben hoped Louise didn't hear the catch in his voice. He couldn't bear to cry in front of her like he had last night after his parents had broken the news to him over dinner.
Louise grabbed Ben's arm. "That's terrible. There must be another way to work things out. You and John are doing all the work anyway."
"Yeh, but the farm can't pay all of us. It was different when we were at school, but now I've finished. We can't afford for me to go to college, and John has to leave too. We can't get jobs and run the farm. So that's it. The horses have to go." Ben started walking again, hiding from Louise on the other side of his horse. He'd known she'd react like this and couldn't cope with her sympathy.
"Not Brandy too? There must be some way you can keep him. After all your work and getting him better after his accident, and beautiful Peach being born." Louise ran to keep up with Jake trotting along beside her.
Ben refused to answer. The thought of selling his stallion had kept him awake all night. Who wanted a scarred, wild horse? Even with the obvious success of Shadow's foal, people would be put off by a brumby with a damaged leg.
The pair walked in silence until they came to a creek. The horses dropped their heads and guzzled at the cold stream. Ben crouched and splashed water over his face. The joy of the gallop had left him. Maybe he shouldn't have told Louise yet.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brumbies in the Mountains"
Copyright © 2018 Paula Boer.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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