After our dawn ambush failed in the River Paddock we’ve been back twice to try again, and the first attempt was such a complete disaster that Ben failed to see the funny side of it for the best part of two days, which is rare.
Usually when we make a major cock-up there’s an instant explosion, and for the next half hour or so Jonathon and I try not to catch his eye. By the end of the day Ben can almost always see the funny side of it, but this one really caught him on the un-funny bone.
With Buckle away mustering on another station there were just three of us this time, and we trucked our horses down to Johnny’s Yards at a slightly more civilised hour in the morning. It was early, but the sun had risen, and the butcher birds were singing as we backed up carefully to the loading ramp.
This was about a week after the failed ambush, and nobody had been back to the yards since then.
Johnny’s Yards were built by Johnny Georgeson at about the same time as he rebuilt the big house yards back at the homestead. They’re much smaller and simpler, but like the big yards they’re made of ironbark posts and rosewood rails, built to withstand a lot of buffeting, and they have the same six foot high metal gates across each opening.
Their main purpose is to allow Ben to load or unload small numbers of cattle or horses down at the far end of the station, so they consist simply of a packed earth loading ramp, which leads down through a narrow chute into a small, round drafting yard. There are three gates out of the drafting yard, one blocking the chute, the second at ninety degrees to the chute opening straight out into the paddock, and the third right opposite the chute opening into a small holding yard. The holding yard is fenced with wire, and has a wide, Australian wire gate leading out into a big ‘V’ of open ended fencing, which serves as a kind of funnel to channel cattle into the holding yard when you muster them in from the paddock.
This wire gate is always left wide open when we’re not using these yards, but the three metal gates in the drafting yard are normally shut, so when we’re unloading horses we just open the truck cage gate and let them make their own way down the ramp, along the chute and into the drafting yard.
The gates from the drafting yard open outwards, but they all looked properly closed on the morning in question. So we chivvied the horses off the truck, one by one, and let them trot down into the drafting yard as they usually do. And then one of them took a nip at another, or made a face, there was a little flurry of barging and jostling, Ben’s mare bumped the gate that leads out to the paddock, and the gate swung open.
For a split second the three horses stood and looked in amazement at the open gateway, and they looked at the track beyond it that leads back to the homestead about four miles away, and then they cleared off home.
We stood with our mouths hanging open, watching them galloping away up the track until they disappeared among the trees, and then Jonathon and I looked at Ben. He was standing with his hands on his hips, glaring up the track, white with rage. Without a word, he turned on his heel and climbed into the truck’s driving seat and started the engine. Jonathon and I hastily climbed into the other side of the cab, and still without a word Ben smashed the gearlever into first and we set off after the horses.
Not a single word was uttered all the way back to the homestead, and when we got back to the house yards Ben drove straight past the three horses, who were now standing by the trough in the holding yards. They all seemed to have their saddles and bridles intact, but Ben drove on up the airstrip to the shed. He stopped in the open between the shed and the house, jumped down, and strode off in silence to the house, leaving the truck door wide open.
Jonathon and I looked at each other but neither of us dared speak. It was only ten o’clock in the morning and we didn’t have a clue what Ben would want us to do, so we sloped off to the bough shelter and sat uncertainly in the shade.
A few long minutes passed and then Deborah came out of the house with the little girls and walked down to the bough shelter. “Ben’s got a bit of a headache, boys,” she said with a slightly embarrassed smile. “He asked if you would go down to the yards and sort the horses out, and then go and check the Two Trees dam.”
We asked if he had said anything about the morning and Deborah stifled a giggle. “A little bit. Don’t worry, he’ll get over it.”
Jonathon and I drove down to the yards in the Mazda, pushed the horses into the drafting yard and unsaddled them.
As it happened, they were our three best horses, which meant that they were the best working horses, and also the easiest to handle. My mare let me unsaddle her without any trouble. But I felt sure that the gleam of amused contempt in her large brown eye meant I’d slipped yet another notch lower in her already rock bottom opinion of this stupid pom that she’s been saddled with.