You can't help bad luck
It's half past five in the morning and we're sitting motionless on our horses, hardly breathing, hidden among the trees on a cattle station in the Queensland outback.
About three hundred yards away the bush gives way to a big clearing, and through the trees in the growing light of a new day we can see the dark shapes of two or three hundred unsuspecting cattle grazing out in the open.
Technically you would classify these animals as domestic cattle, but to all intents and purposes they're absolutely stone wild. If they catch one strange sound or a glimpse of a man on a horse they're going to evaporate into the depths of the bush quicker than a herd of wildebeeste.
But if we can surprise them and stampede them away from the trees, we have a chance to muster most of the cattle in this paddock in one clean sweep. That's why we're here, and that's why we're tiptoeing our way into position now, desperately trying not to make any noise that might alert these hair-trigger escape artists.
As plans go this one was going pretty well, up to this point.
An hour and a half earlier it didn't seem quite so clever when Ben woke us up in the four o'clock darkness, rousing us out of our warm beds under the bough shelter in the pre-dawn chill. But in the growing drought this is a big mustering day for us here on Cockatoo Creek, so we shiver into cold clothes stiff with yesterday's dust and hurry up to the house.
Deborah and the two little girls are still asleep, so we speak in whispers in the house, but there isn't much that needs saying. Around a gas lamp hissing gently on the kitchen table we eat a silent breakfast. We make ourselves beef sandwiches for smoke-oh and wrap them in newspaper, and we fill our tea sacks. Then just before we leave the house, Ben, Jonathan and I choose one small bottle of home brewed lager each and place it carefully in the paraffin fridge. By the evening they'll be worth their weight in gold - the ice cold, fizzing holy grail at the end of a long day chasing cattle through the heat and dust.
By noon the temperature here in this part of Queensland could easily reach forty-five degrees. In the hour before dawn it's bitterly cold, so muffled in our coats, hats pulled down tight, clutching our sandwiches, we jackeroos climb into the back of the old Mazda pick-up and huddle down for the short drive along the landing strip to the main yards.
For this early start we'd kept four horses close to hand in the holding yard overnight, but in the Mazda's dim sidelights they behave as if we were a gang of marauding French butchers, prancing flag tailed round the yard snorting with suspicion, and catching them, saddling them and loading them onto the truck takes twenty minutes of bribery, cajolery, brute force and bad language.
The truck is an ancient, pale grey Dodge three tonner that was sky blue twenty years ago in its youth, and you can normally squeeze three men onto the bench seat in its narrow cab. Bulked up against the cold this morning, Ben and Buckle fill the cab. Jonathan and I squash ourselves into a corner of the home made metal cage that houses the horses on the boarded flatbed behind. It's about four miles to Johnny's Yard where we'll be unloading the horses this morning at the far end of the property, and as we bounce and sway down the uneven track, Jonathan and I stand in the back clinging to the metal rails of the cage, keeping a wary eye on the hooves of the nearest horse as it lurches and tap-dances to keep its footing.
As we approach Johnny's Yard Ben slows down to a crawl, and he eases the truck backwards to the loading ramp as though he was driving on eggs. If the back of the cage hits the lip of the ramp too hard the result is a booming, clanging, twanging, echoing crash that would set every cow and calf, bull and bullock running for cover from Cairns to Cunnamulla.
Normally the noise wouldn't matter. It certainly wouldn't disturb the neighbours. But Ben takes unusual care this morning because when I say the cattle in this paddock are wild, I really mean it. Most of the younger ones have never had any contact with humans before, and even though we're still a couple of miles from where we hope we're going to find them, if they hear even a faint murmur of a suspicious sound, they'll be off into the bush long before we ever get near them.
Back home in England a 'paddock' would be a very small field - typically something less than half an acre. In this vast country, the River Paddock we're mustering today is about ten thousand acres of scrub and woodland, with dense stands of rosewood and gidgee trees that offer perfect cover for shy cattle.
But in the south east corner of the paddock, closest to the homestead, there's one large area of cleared and seeded pasture where most of the cattle are likely to be grazing in the cool of the early morning. The plan is to surprise them out in the open and off their guard, gallop them along the fence line until they run out of steam, settle them down, and drove them slowly through the neighbouring Two Tree Paddock back to the big yards at the house.
So we open the cage door very gingerly and lead the horses carefully off the truck onto the packed earth of the loading ramp. We pile our coats in the cab, tighten our girths, check that our quartpot and saddlebag straps are done up properly, and then we mount up and set off into the trees.
Four sets of horses' hooves make a soft, syncopated thumping on the bone dry ground. There's an occasional chink of a bit and a creak of saddlery as we pick our way round impenetrable stands of turkey bush and wattle. But nobody speaks as we make our way deeper into the paddock, threading past ironbark and rosewood trees, the tension and the smell of eucalyptus growing as the sun and the heat rise together.
Then Ben suddenly stops. Without a word, he raises a hand and jabs a finger forward and to our left. Through the trees, we can see glimpses of open pasture. And cattle.
The watch on Ben's wrist is showing half past five.
We sit motionless for a few seconds, then Ben nods to us to split up. He and Jonathan move right; Buckle and I turn our horses left to block the way to the river.
Buckle sees the cow and calf walking into the trees ahead of us a second before I do, and we both freeze. She's about thirty metres away and if she doesn't spot us please God we can let her go quietly on her way. But the horses are too excited to stand still and the old cow stops dead in her stride. Her head comes up sharply and for a long moment she glares at us with all the outrage of a dowager duchess surprising a pair of burglars in her bedroom. Then she swivels away with her calf at her heels and goes crashing off noisily through the scrub.
Out in the open hundreds of other heads instantly jerk upwards in simultaneous alarm, and then all the cattle out in the clearing begin to run too. Buckle is kicking his horse into a gallop, slaloming desperately through the trees in an attempt to cut off a mob that we can hear now, thundering flat out for cover in precisely the direction we don't want them to go. As we surge forward through a blur of whipping branches I can hear Ben swearing at the top of his voice away to our right, and as we come bursting out into the open it's pretty obvious that as far as surprise is concerned we might as well have stayed in bed.
All along the treeline cattle are bolting into the protective maze of the bush, and over on the far side of the clearing a couple of hundred yards away a large gang of hooligan youngsters is bucketing the wrong way down the rough track next to the fence. As they disappear from view, one of the last kicks up its hind legs in what looks suspiciously like a bovine two-fingered salute.
Out in the clearing in the sunshine we gather at a safe distance behind Ben as he watches the last remnants of the mob disappear among the trees. Behind us the first butcher bird begins to sing the liquid, dissonant morning song of the outback. Buckle fishes out his tobacco bag from a breast pocket and rolls himself a durrey. He lights it with a battered Zippo, takes a deep drag that demolishes half the cigarette, and blows a plume of smoke into a clear blue sky. "Well boys," he says quietly, with the unruffled calm of someone who isn't paying three other men's wages, "you can't help bad luck".
For us this bad luck means a long day hunting cattle in ones and twos along the river. I don't mind this at all, because it means riding among the huge white ghost gums and the remains of the billabongs that are all that's left of the dwindling Slater River - my favourite landscape on the station.
For most of the cattle it means a few more days or weeks of freedom. But what they don't know is that the drought is taking a dusty grip on this part of Queensland, and from that there is no escape.
The grazing is disappearing fast and the water in the dams and burrapits and billabongs is shrinking day by day. Within a few more weeks the weaker cattle here are going to start to die, and if we don't do something about it, some of those same animals that got the better of us this morning will be among the casualties.
So Ben pushes his hat back on his head, turns his horse towards the fence and sets off after the long departed cattle.
"Right," he says. "We'll go and do it the hard way."