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The rumbling grew louder. A startled magpie flashed in front of Louise's face. The sun dappled warm and cool onto her bare arms as the branches shook. Her Appaloosa pricked up his ears. His coat shivered beneath a sheen of sweat, his black mane lay tangled and damp.
Louise dropped her weight in the saddle to ask him to slow and placed her hand on his warm neck. She peered along the track in front of her at the cleared grasslands visible through the edge of the forest.
The thundering became recognisable as hoof beats. Horses going fast. Many horses. And not the local trail riding group. Louise knew they wouldn't come up here on New Year's Eve.
Ben held the reins of his part-Arabian chestnut mare in one hand as he pointed with the other. "Brumbies! Cool! Let's get closer."
The friends urged their horses forward, keeping them in check as the wild herd stampeded past. The working horses danced in a jog towards the clearing as the front runners of the brumby mob reached the end of the track. Louise could see the pink lining of a small, stocky mare's nostrils as she raced past.
Spray flew as the mare tossed her head with a snort. Her flaxen mane and tail billowed. Dust plumes drifted behind her as she pounded over the dry ground. Close behind, a mob of twenty or so wild horses galloped, coats gleaming from exertion. Mares with foals at foot and long-limbed youngsters ran in the middle of the throng with older dry mares at the back. Greys, bays, chestnuts — the colours flashed by in rippling horseflesh, sides heaving with every breath.
Several hundred metres behind, a grey stallion snaked his head at a few stragglers. His strength was apparent in his glistening muscles and heavy arched crest as he drove them forward.
Louise stood in her stirrups to gaze after the departing horses, studying each one as if to imprint the picture forever on her mind. "Look at that buckskin! She's gorgeous!"
As if the young mare had heard, she flicked up her heels and spurted forward with a sudden burst of speed.
Ben drew to a halt beside Louise and tried to settle his mount whose tail curled up over her back in true Arabian style. "Aren't they awesome?"
Ben and Louise sat still and held their reins tight as their horses tried to follow the departing brumbies. The thundering of hooves faded away as the herd disappeared down the hillside.
Louise felt her senses heightened — colours seemed brighter, every sound distinct. Birdsong trilled around the riders, every noise sharper for the absence of the horses. Her mount's sweat tingled her nostrils.
"Do you think something is chasing them?"
Ben had lived all his life on a farm at the base of the mountains. He shrugged. "Probably not. When it's windy they love a good run. I expect it's just high spirits, or maybe the lead mare caught the scent of us."
Ned, Louise's gelding, pranced sideways and tossed his head. Louise felt the same surge of energy, not sure that she really wanted to stand quietly either. Desire to gallop across the open plains tingled through her body.
"Let's follow them!"
"Nah, that wouldn't be safe. We don't want a run in with that stallion, especially as I'm on Lady." Ben relaxed his reins and squeezed his mare on. "There's a creek pretty close. Let's take the horses for a drink."
He turned along the edge of the forest, keeping away from the wide open spaces of the grasslands where the brumbies had recently passed.
Louise understood. These were Ben's horses, and this was only her second ride out with her newfound school friend. They both attended Crowhurst High, but the new term didn't start for another four weeks. Heaven!
"Thanks heaps for sharing your horses with me. I wish I had one of my own, but Dad says it's too early. He wants us to settle in for a few months."
Ben shrugged. "That's okay. None of my friends like to come up here. I can't exercise all the horses on my own, and we need them fit for mustering."
He urged his mare into a trot and called over his shoulder. "Come on, let's get the bounce out of these guys."
He sat deep and let his horse roll into a canter.
To be riding out in the bush fulfilled a lifelong dream for Louise. She felt comfortable in the deep stock saddle, even though she had only ever ridden in a general purpose saddle at the riding school. Having grown up in a city, her riding had been confined to lessons in an arena and the occasional gymkhana. Without a horse of her own she hadn't been able to attend Pony Club or ride the trails in the pine plantations. She took a deep breath of the mountain air and followed Ben, settling in to her horse's rhythm.
She hoped they'd see more brumbies.
* * *
Louise flopped to the ground and opened her saddlebags. With the horses watered and tethered to a nearby tree in the shade, she welcomed the chance of a drink. Her mother had insisted on packing two rounds of tuna sandwiches, plus cake and muesli bars, fruit and an energy drink.
"Do you want some? I've got enough for my whole family."
Ben shook his head. "Nah, I'm good with water and corned beef."
He lay on the creek bank with his hands folded underneath his head. The water burbled over the rocks.
"We'll rest for a few minutes then head out. There's still a long way to go."
Louise's cake crumbled into a million pieces. She laughed. "What a mess. It didn't survive that last chase."
She strolled over to the Appaloosa who gobbled up the crumbs. "There you go, boy. Wild horses might have freedom but they don't get cake."
"Some of those wild horses may not have freedom for much longer." Ben rolled onto one elbow and stuck a blade of grass between his lips, making whistling noises like a bird.
"What do you mean? The horses are safe here in the park aren't they?"
The sun felt hot on Louise's back as she knelt by the creek and washed her hands in the freezing water. A bronze dragon-fly hovered in front of her nose then darted away. She shook her hands dry before dropping to sit cross-legged next to Ben.
Ben mumbled through his sandwich. "Every year the rangers round up as many as they can. The park can only sustain a few hundred and the horse numbers are blowing way out."
"What do they do with the ones they catch?"
Louise ran her fingers through her blonde fringe where her helmet had made it stick to her forehead. She tried to imagine the wild horses being tamed and ridden. She doubted she would be able to stay on a horse that bucked and pig-rooted like the ones they had seen. It didn't seem right to confine them.
"They go to the sales. Most of them will end up at the doggers." At Louise's puzzled look, Ben shrugged. "You know, for pet food."
"Pet food?" Louise sat up in alarm. "You mean they'll be killed?"
The thought of the beautiful horses being turned into dog meat sent shivers of revulsion through her body. "Can't they be broken in and sold? Or used for breeding? They look really strong and must be tough if they can survive up here in the mountains."
It occurred to her that maybe being confined wasn't so bad if it meant the horses stayed alive.
A snort erupted from Ben. "Who's going to do that? Nah, if someone wants they can buy them at the sales, but noone usually bothers. They're so fat when they come off the mountain at the end of summer they go for good slaughter prices. That's why they're mustered then, not after a hard winter when they're in poor condition."
"No way! Can't we stop them?" Louise couldn't believe what she heard. "The RSPCA, or Pony Club, or the greenies or someone must care."
Ben climbed to his feet. "Don't worry about it. It happens every year. They only get a few herds, there's plenty more. But it's important to keep the numbers down to protect the environment."
He tightened the girth of his saddle and vaulted onto his mare. "Come on, we'd better head off."
The day no longer seemed so bright to Louise. She checked her tack before mounting her gelding. Following Ben, they splashed across the creek and entered the eucalypt forest. A narrow kangaroo track wound between gnarled and twisted snow gums, their bark peeling off to reveal splotches of pastel pink and cream. The horses' hooves made barely a sound in the deep leaf litter, just a rustle of leaves and the occasional snapping of twigs.
Louise couldn't stay unhappy for long. Being out on a horse in the mountains made her heart swell with joy. An echidna waddled by, snuffling for ants. A kookaburra declared his territory with a cackle that built to a raucous laugh, only quietening after the horses passed by. Breaking out of the trees, Louise marvelled at the alpine flowers carpeting the undulating hillside. Purple, white and yellow stretched to the horizon. A lone wedge-tailed eagle soared in lazy circles overhead.
Ben held up his hand and signalled for silence.
Louise froze. She didn't know what Ben had seen. Then a movement caught her eye. Far away to the left in a sheltered hollow, two horses grazed. The black coat of the lead one shone like ebony. A larger liver chestnut with a thick mane and tail kept a few paces behind.
Ben turned slowly to Louise and indicated for her to be quiet with a finger to his lips.
He kept his voice to a whisper. "Bachelors. They don't belong to any mob. The mares push them out when they reach breeding age. I bet they'd like Lady to start their own herd."
He applied his legs and a tiny bit of rein, causing the responsive mare to perform a perfect turn on her hindquarters. With a last backward look, Louise also turned her gelding and headed back into the trees, though not with the same elegance. The thought of the young stallions occupied her mind.
"Can they be dangerous?"
She couldn't see how two young horses could harm them when they were mounted on well behaved domesticated horses.
"No point risking it. It doesn't matter, there's another way. It's only a bit longer."
Ben squeezed Lady into a trot along the trail they had travelled before turning into the scrub. The delicate mare flashed her white socks as she lifted her feet high to navigate over dead branches and rocks.
Louise couldn't tell where the track ran amongst the trees. Everywhere seemed like a jumble of fallen timber.
"Do you know where we're going?"
"Of course! Just let Ned follow. You'll be right." The riders pushed their way through thorny scrub.
Ben emerged onto a dirt road. "This is the Broken Cart fire trail. Come on, let's race!"
He took off before Louise had even gathered her reins. Ned followed Lady without any instructions from her. Louise leant forward and rammed her feet deep in the stirrups. The fire trail rose and fell, winding around trees. Adrenaline surged through Louise's body as her horse picked up speed. She heard Ben shout from up ahead though she couldn't make out what he said.
The next instant she saw a large tree across the track. Without time to think, she grabbed her horse's mane as he leapt over the fallen trunk. No sooner had she sat up she had to duck down low against his neck to squeeze under a branch at head height.
"Slow down! I'm not used to this!"
Louise didn't know if Ben heard her or not as he raced ahead. She hung tight with her knees and shortened her reins. The exhilaration of hooning along the track made up for her fear.
She caught up with Ben where he had stopped. Having pulled Ned up with ease, she sagged with relief she hadn't fallen off, at the same time wanting to race again.
He grinned at her. "How cool was that? We'd better walk for a bit."
Louise nodded, unable to speak, her heart pounding in her chest. She had never ridden that fast. She patted Ned on the neck with shaking hands and loosened the reins to the buckle. The gelding stretched his head to the ground and blew his nose, giving a violent shake through his whole body. His bit chinked and rattled. Louise felt as if her bones did the same. "Hey! Stop that."
By the time the riders reached the edge of Tumbleford Farm, Ben's home, the afternoon sun hung low in the sky. Louise's legs felt like jelly.
"What a great day! But I can't get that beautiful buckskin out of my mind. She looked so healthy and full of life."
Louise recalled how the young mare's coat gleamed bronze in the sun, her thick black forelock wrapping behind her ears as she galloped, her black legs a blur of agility.
"How could anyone kill such a magnificent animal? Are you sure we can't do anything to save her?"CHAPTER 2
Ben clicked the gate shut behind him and lugged a sack of beef over to the working dogs. They leapt to the ends of their chains with yelps and barks. The black and tan kelpies bounced as if on springs, tongues lolling and tails wagging.
"Calm down you lot. It's coming."
At fourteen, Ben stood almost as tall as his father and did the work of a grown man with ease. When mustering time came, he spent every spare hour working the dogs from his horse, rounding up the herds, cutting out calves for branding or old cows for culling. He loved working with the animals. Now that his elder brother had moved away from home, his father treated him as an equal. Almost.
"Get down, Sally. And shut up that racket."
Ben threw a bone to each dog then checked them all by running his hands over their bodies. He gave each one a scratch behind their ears.
"That's the way, Rocket, tuck in." Ben gave an extra pat to the old dog at the end of the row. Although a working kelpie, Ben felt that Rocket was more like family.
With his chores done, Ben unclipped his blue heeler, Snifter, from his kennel. "Come on, you can eat later. Let's go for a quick dip."
The long summer evening still had plenty of warmth and midges hovered silently in the air. Shadows from the silver gums stretched up through the paddock like fingers making a trail to the water. Ben and his dog raced each other through the fence and down to the dam. Snifter didn't seem hindered by only having three legs. The dry grass crunched underfoot as the cattle dog circled his owner in excited bounds.
Ben stripped to his shorts and plunged in. He gasped from the shock of cold water as he rubbed his sticky skin with relief. Snifter leapt in after him and they wrestled with a stick. Ben managed to win the twisted branch then threw it to the far side of the dam. He trod water while Snifter fetched it back and they played tug-of-war again.
After a few minutes, Ben left his dog to play on his own and swam back to the bank. He flopped onto the baked earth and swept his fingers through his wet hair. Lying back, he let out a long breath and gazed up at the feathery clouds drifting far above. Their shapes reminded him of the galloping brumbies he and Louise had seen earlier in the day. He thought about how upset she had been when he told her about the muster and the captured horses being turned into dog food.
It had never occurred to Ben that some people might not approve. He didn't consider the horses much different from the cattle his family raised. Although he enjoyed riding, horses provided transport. Motorbikes couldn't access the same difficult terrain. Ben had ridden since he could walk. Although he had been very attached to his first pony, a skewbald with a nasty habit of biting, he didn't have the same relationship with horses as he had with his dog.
When Snifter had his front leg crushed under the tractor, Ben nursed him rather than let him be shot. In a few months, the cattle dog could run again. Despite never being able to work cattle all day, he had become Ben's best mate.
Ben thought further about the brumbies. The liver chestnut colt, already well muscled for his age, had really caught his eye. Ben guessed he was three years old. The young horse carried himself with dignity, as if he knew he would be king of the mountains one day. Ben started to agree with Louise; it would be a pity to see such a fine animal made into dog food.
The buckskin mare that Louise liked had a fine head with a soft eye. He could imagine her in a show ring, and it didn't appear that she had a foal at foot yet, so she was probably only two years old. The two brumbies would make a good pair to breed.
Ben jumped up and whistled Snifter. "Come on, grub time. For us both."
The dog swam to the edge of the dam and ran alongside his master, stopping only for a good shake, wobbling on his one front leg.
"Get off! Now I'm soaked again."
Boy and dog ran back to the farmhouse. After tying up Snifter, Ben kicked off his boots and went inside.
"What's for dinner?"
Mrs Naylor turned to her son, a large pie dish in her hands. "You're only just in time. Sit down and you'll find out."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brumbies"
Copyright © 2018 Paula Boer.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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