Apologies to Lorna
We didn’t see Lorna arrive on the station.
She was delivered by the family she had been staying with for the past week while Ben and Jonathon and I were out at the north end of Two Tree Paddock, building a new fence that will one day form one side of the fifty metre wide droving lane that Ben is planning to create right through the middle of the property.
This mustering motorway will make it much easier to manage the cattle on Cockatoo Creek, but this is a long term project and it was not our main topic of conversation during the day. Until Ben told us to put a sock in it, Jonathon and I spent most of the time speculating about other mature issues such as what the visitor would look like and which one of us she would fancy the most.
Both of us spent a couple more seconds than usual in front of the tiny, plastic framed mirror that hangs on a nail tapped into one of the bough shelter posts, before we went up to the house that evening for supper.
Like Deborah, Lorna was from Edinburgh, brown eyed, friendly and talkative. She wouldn't have been first out on the catwalk in Milan, but she was bright, attractive and everyone was getting along very well until she mentioned how much she was looking forward to coming mustering with us the following day.
Maybe I have been out in the bush too long, but it had never occurred to me that she would want to come mustering. Horse riding, cattle chasing jilleroos are not uncommon in the outback, but in the main - and please don’t shoot the messenger for saying this - jilleroos are traditionally expected to stay at the homestead, help with the kids and get the dinner ready. In fact, on the two stations Lorna had stayed at before ours, the womenfolk had hardly waited for the screen door to bang behind her before they’d dumped their kids and the washing on her and skedaddled either into town to do some shopping or onto a horse and out into the bush.
Childminding and laundry were not the life changing experiences Lorna had come out to discover in Australia, so she was desperate to come mustering with us, and Deborah was adamant that we should take her.
I have to say in his favour that Ben had a much more enlightened view of women than the average Australian bloke in the outback, but even he was clearly not exactly jumping up and down with excitement at this idea, mainly because Lorna herself admitted that she was not a very experienced rider. Buckle was away working on another station at the time, and this meant that Ben would be going out trying to muster his increasingly drought stricken cattle while keeping an eye on two jackeroos and a novice jilleroo who had barely been out of a trot before.
The other problem this presented was that all bar one of the horses on Cockatoo Creek are completely unsuitable for a novice rider. Several of them don’t take kindly to having a saddle strapped to them at all. Deborah dismissed this excuse out of hand by pointing out that Jonathon had never ridden a horse before he had come to Cockatoo Creek a year earlier. He had learned on the one quiet horse still working on the station - an older horse called Bannockburn that Deborah herself had used for mustering in the carefree days before the little girls arrived.
Lorna could come mustering with us on Bannockburn, said Deborah, with just a hint of steel showing beneath her normal, soft Scottish accent.
Jonathon opened his mouth to protest when he heard this, then closed it again, looked down at his plate and went bright red under his tan, partly with embarrassment at the subtle reproof in Deborah’s voice, partly with outrage at the thought that he would have to give up his best horse to a girl, and partly because it meant he would have to ride his second string horse, Shorty, instead.
This turned out to be a double whammy for Jonathon the following morning, when Lorna came down to the yards with us in the Mazda to saddle up and ride out.
Shorty was a long way from being as good a cattle horse as Bannocks, but his main vices were sloth and stupidity rather than anything more dangerous. He was also a lot quieter than my mare, so as we were saddling up Ben told Jonathon that he and Shorty would have to play nursemaid to Lorna that day.
When we were tacked up, Ben led Bannockburn into the big collecting yard. “Let’s get you on board and see how we go from there,” he said to Lorna, who was looking excited and apprehensive in about equal proportions.
The way she scrambled into the saddle wouldn’t have won any prizes at riding school, but when she arranged herself in an upright position her face was flushed with delight, and she took hold of the reins in a purposeful way that perhaps gave Ben a little more confidence. After he had checked that her stirrup leathers were the right length and that she was ready, Ben led her along one side of the yard. After his initial surprise at the slightly unusual mounting technique, the old stockhorse appeared to be taking this experience in his stride as well. With Ben still keeping one hand on the nearest rein, they walked together all the way along the west side of the big yard.
When they turned right along the long, north side of the yard, Ben looked up at her and asked if she was OK to trot. “Yes please,” said Lorna brightly, “let her rip.” Or words to that effect.
Ben let go of the rein and stood back, and Lorna clicked her tongue loudly, but Bannockburn walked on. “Give him a bit of a kick,” suggested Ben.
I don’t know whether Bannocks was daydreaming and Lorna kicked him harder than he would normally expect, or whether the problem developed when Lorna gave a squeak of alarm a few seconds later, but whatever she did set the old boy alight, and after a few startled strides of trotting he broke into a canter.
They covered the remaining thirty metres or so of that side of the yard much faster than Lorna obviously liked, and when Bannockburn reached the corner with his reins flapping loosely I think we all expected him to stop. Instead he swung round the corner like a barrel racer, and Lorna grabbed the pommel with one hand to keep herself in the saddle, leaning back in panic and losing hold of one rein in the process.
Lorna's panic communicated itself loudly to Bannockburn and he accelerated smartly up the far side of the yard, looking more anxious with every stride. Two things then became evident. Clearly Lorna was putting survival above steering or stopping, and clearly Bannocks wasn’t going to stop of his own accord. The poor girl was badly frightened and even if she had tried I doubt whether she could have stopped him bolting back to the safety of the other horses.
As he skidded round the final corner in a shower of dust and started towards us down the home straight, Lorna gave a supressed shriek and let go of the other rein, clutching the pommel with both hands in her effort to avoid falling off.
At that point she lost any last hope of steering, never mind stopping, and the moment that this became apparent we realised Bannockburn was going to carry Lorna in a flat gallop right through the low, spreading branches of the big poinciana tree that shades the middle section of the yards.
If you visited every cattle and sheep station in Australia I think you would almost certainly find at least one poinciana tree down at the yards on every single one. In the furnace heat of yardwork the shade of a poinciana’s canopy of leaves is a lifesaver, and ours was a big old tree that had shaded many generations of hot and dusty stockmen on this very spot. In fact, the new yards that Ben had had built on Cockatoo Creek two or three years ago were positioned on the site of the old ones, specifically to take advantage of this tree.
As he realised what was about to happen, Ben grabbed his hat with both hands and let out a strangled yelp, “Jesus Christ! Mind the f****** tree!”
Afterwards he claimed that this was a warning to Lorna, rather than a cry of despair for the poinciana tree, and he did wave his hat at Bannockburn in an attempt to deflect or halt him. But it was far too late.
Lorna gave a loud wail as she saw what was coming, but she was too rigid with fear to take any evasive action, and with a splintering crash she disappeared among the long leaved fronds of our shade tree.
“Shit!” said a horrified Ben as the tree swept her off Bannockburn’s back. “SHIT!” he said again as two or three sizeable, broken branches fell to the ground close to where Lorna lay in the dust. “Oh shit,” he said one more time, no doubt wondering how he was going to explain this to Deborah.
The immediate concern was to find out how badly Lorna had been hurt. Ben knelt in the dust beside her and told her not to try and stand until she could tell if anything was broken. “Can you move your legs?” She could. Big relief. “Arms OK?” Yes, both working.
Between us Ben and I helped her cautiously to her feet. She was shaking, and although she made a heroic effort to smile, her lower lip was trembling too badly. She was covered in dust, her hair was full of dust and powdered cattle dung, she had two big scratches beginning to well blood on her face and a bra strap was visible through a big tear in her checked shirt. She was what my Granny would have called A Picture Of Woe.
I had thought that my first day mustering on Cockatoo Creek had been bad enough, but poor Lorna’s had been a red letter, true blue, fair dinkum disaster, and it wasn’t even ten in the morning yet.
Ben helped her to the Mazda and drove her back to the house, leaving Jonathon and I to inspect the damage to the tree. I can claim in all honesty that we felt extremely sorry for Lorna but to my eternal shame we also agreed that at least this meant we wouldn’t have to look after her for the rest of the day.
It never crossed our tiny, selfish minds that she would reappear, but half an hour later she was back at the yards with a new shirt and a sticking plaster over the worst of her facial grazes, ready to give it another go. Deborah and the little girls came down to the yards in the Falcon to give her moral support, and as we mounted up again Deborah came over to Jonathon and me and told us quietly but very firmly to take good care of Lorna for the rest of the day.
Jonathon and I should have been struck dumb with admiration for Lorna’s bravery. Instead, I am ashamed to say that we resented the fact that now we were going to have to nanny her after all. I am even more ashamed to admit that I spent the rest of the day chasing cattle and avoiding Jonathon as he shepherded Lorna and Bannocks sedately round the Breeder Paddock.
He said they never went much faster than a slow trot, but I saw very little of them and I wasn’t there to help on any of the five other occasions when Lorna fell off that day, although I did lead Bannockburn back to where she was sitting on the ground after the old horse suddenly arrived alongside my mare with his saddle empty late in the afternoon.
At the end of a bad day’s mustering we brought only a moderate mob of cattle back onto the airstrip and down to the yards. We were all covered in dust and sweat stains, as usual, but Lorna looked as though she had spent the day at the bottom of a rugby scrum, and although she claimed that she had had a wonderful time, her bottom lip was trembling again.
She disappeared into the house and Deborah’s care when we arrived back as dusk was falling, and I had a fairly strong suspicion that Jonathon and I had not heard the last of this.
I was right. We were sitting in the bough shelter, showered and subdued, waiting for the call to supper, when the screen door at the back of the house opened and instead of Ben calling us, Deborah emerged. She walked down the dusty path towards us, and my stomach sank.
At no time other than when she was calling the little girls did I ever hear Deborah raise her voice on Cockatoo Creek, but I vividly remember many of the things she said in the next ten minutes. She told us that we were selfish, immature and that we should be utterly ashamed of ourselves, which for my own part was certainly the case; she told us that we had ruined not only Lorna’s day but perhaps her whole experience of the outback; she told us that we had better apologise profusely to Lorna and make a massive effort to make amends this evening if we wanted any supper tonight or any other night in future for that matter.
I knew that I was much more guilty in this matter than Jonathon. I was older and should have known better, and I had abandoned him to look after Lorna on his own. The thought did briefly cross my mind that Deborah might not have been aware how inexperienced a rider Lorna was, but thankfully I had enough sense not to mention it.
We stood in silence and nodded agreement with every word. We nodded in agreement, and Jonathon went bright pink, when Deborah suggested quite rightly that if Lorna had been tall, slim and blonde with blue eyes and big boobs we would have spent the day falling all over ourselves to make sure she had a good time.
All Lorna had wanted, said Deborah, was just one day doing the things that we were lucky enough to do every day here on Cockatoo Creek. Just one day doing the things that Deborah herself had done before the girls were born.
Did we think that she - Deborah - preferred staying in the house all day, looking after the girls, worrying about where the next redback spider or brown snake was going to appear, and picking devil’s head thorns out of the little girls’ feet? Did we think she preferred being stuck in the house boiling silversides of beef for our sandwiches and making fruit cake for smoke-oh? Did we think she actually preferred to spend the days on her own, rationing her radio calls to distant friends, rather than out there mustering with Ben on the property they had started together, brewing up a quartpot under a ghost gum at lunchtime, listening to the kookaburras laughing down along the river?
By the time she turned back to the house the pair of us felt about five years old and three feet tall, standing hangdog under the bough shelter light, shuffling our feet in the dust.
We did apologise sincerely to Lorna and we did our best to show that we were sorry, but she didn’t come mustering again, and after two more days of keeping Deborah company at the homestead she moved on to Straight Creek, where she fulfilled her ambition to go mustering without fear or injury, and where Clive and all four ringers on the neighbouring Curramulga station pursued her unflaggingly for the next few weeks.
I feel terrible about my behaviour to this day, and I hope that if she ever reads this Lorna will accept my apologies again.
I hope that Deborah knows that her quiet words stuck deep.
I hope it made me a better bloke.