Jenny, astride a beautiful roan gelding looked across the land she loved so much, stretched as far as the eye could see, the dust swirled outback plains that she called home. At first glance, the only hint of life, the ageless gum trees sparsely dotted along the horizon but to an outback born and bred girl like Jenny, the land was teeming with life.
Sighing, Jenny smiled with a twinkle in her eye that could have been tears but there was no time for tears. She sat daydreaming, her long brown hair wisped gently under a battered Akubra. Below, her blue cattle dog, Gully played between the horses legs. Not barking, just bounding in and out and around. Undaunted the horse stood calmly bearing its mistress.
Jenny’s trance was broken as the noise of cattle sifted through her daydream. Taking one last look at the horizon, she gathered up the reins and cantered around the edge of the cattle, Gully by her side. There were probably a hundred steer in all but this was not the extent of the herd. The Norman Station was large and all of it used. Thirty thousand this year and the men to handle the back breaking work. The small group of steers that were very ineffectively trying to stay clear of the dog were ‘Jenny’s Own’. She picked the new family as she called them every year.
It was day three of the gathering for the trip to lusher pastures a little closer to the main grounds of the station for the muster. Although her family, Jenny had no emotional attachment just familiarity, something that permeated through the rest of her life and relationships.
Giving quick, loud commands while she circled the herd, Jenny watched Gully do what he knew best. Barking here and there, all the time moving, watching, pushing the herd closer and closer together. A few tried to escape but Gully was fast, nipping at their heels. Before long, it was calm and all heads accounted for as Gully fell into stride with Jenny’s horse, it had almost looked like a game.
The cattle caught the smell of water and Jenny let them run, stumble towards it knowing that this night at least she would have no worries of losing any of them. Jenny shouted affectionately to her dog as she held the reins of a horse eager to join the cattle. “Come on Gully.”
The dog barked happily, charging past Jenny, around the Spinifex covered hills towards the billabong the cattle had already plundered.
Feeling the anxious horse beneath her Jenny dismounted, ungirthed the beast letting it gallop the rest of the way. Gully ever obedient but desperate to enjoy the pleasure of the warm water stood his ground watching the cattle and waited for his mistress to give the command. Jenny clicked her fingers and the dog rushed to the waters edge.
Jenny smiled, walking slowly towards the billabong, always a welcome sight. All senses seemed to tingle as the smell of water lifted on the evening breeze to settle in the soul. Standing with hands on hips Jenny looked over the land to the shadows playing along the outcrop called ‘Satan’s Jaw’.
Jenny had always lived in this hard heartland of Australia. She knew more about the hostile land than most city folk wished they knew about their own streets. These people did not interest her; they did not understand or appreciate the land or the people who spent their lives working it. Jenny had yet to find someone who loved the land as much as she did.
Having left her cattle to graze Jenny turned her horse towards home and smiled, this was the part of the trip she enjoyed. Pushing her horse on faster and faster Jenny galloped for home with Gully barking and keeping time with the horse. Hooves pounding into the hard sunburnt earth as exhilaration overtook them all. Sinking lower into her saddle with a white knuckled grip on the reins in preparation for the boundary fence, the world silenced for a split second, as the horse became airborne and all breathing stopped until its hooves once again could be heard under foot. They had cleared the fence with millimetres to spare. It was all Gully could do to keep up and the dog scrambled more than hurdled the fence pleased to be on the other side.
Once inside the boundary fence that segregated the house from the rest of the property Jenny dismounted, beating the dust and the dirt from her clothes with her hat and shaking it from her hair. She led the horse to the large pen next to the barn, taking great care with the gelding, bathing and brushing it down before allowing it to retire for the day.
Gully on the other hand had taken straight for the birdbath in the middle of the front yard, chasing the birds and drinking his fill. Unseen by Jenny but none the less heard the dog dashed around the side of the house as she reprimanded it.
Satisfied that her horse was comfortable, Jenny walked the patch of dirt between the barn and the house flashing a quick look at the patch of Eden in the middle. The birdbath surrounded by a small circle of lush green grass and miniature roses. It looked quite out of place but her grandmother had insisted upon it. Even the house looked dramatically out of place with fine Georgian lines, stately columns and French windows on the top floor. Inside were grand, handcrafted wood banisters and footsteps echoed on finely polished wooden floors, muffled at intervals by imported rugs. The house shone of pride and perfection but none of this seemed to matter to Jenny. She wandered down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house washing her face at the sink and looking out the window to a sight that always brought pain to her heart.
Off in the distance on the only hill around, blanketed by the dull evening sky, stood six crosses in a small graveyard. Every time Jenny looked through that window, she saw part of her life that tore at her very soul, never leaving her alone, always watching her, the ache of the loss catching in each breath she took.
Gully barked at the kitchen door bringing Jenny’s thoughts back to reality. She smiled at her four-legged companion as he greeted her with dinner dish in mouth. She laughed a little as she filled the dish for the not so patiently waiting dog. Only when the bowl was on the ground did Gully move to devour the well-earned meal and lap up the cool crisp water supplied by his mistress. The dog looked from his meal not to Jenny but to a shadow that appeared around the side of the house. Before he could bark to warn of an intruder Jenny had already sensed the presence. She stood straight, her body rigid. She did not turn around as she spoke, her voice hard, stern, sharp and very icy. “Yes Mister Weston what can I do for you?”
A man in his fifties stepped out of the shadows now clearly visible by the porch light. Tall and strong his hands and face weathered by years of hard work in the bushland they called home. The lines on his face showed the heartache and burden of such an existence. Though a strong man he seemed to cower when Jenny acknowledged him. His own voice soft, trembling, not that of a hard man. “Miss Jenny, being as it’s Friday the boys and I will be heading into town.”
Jenny, still with her back toward the man replied. “As you wish. Your pays are in the usual place.”
“I’ve already taken care of that.” Mr Weston paused slightly. “Miss Jenny one of the younger jackaroos would like to know if he could have his full pay this month.”
Jenny cut him off whirling around to face him, eyes intense and menacing, thunder rolled behind them. She lashed out with an abrupt tone. “Jeff, you of all people should know better than to ask such a question. You’ve been on this station longer than I have. They were my father’s rules and I think them fair. Each man has a third of his wages withheld until the end of the season or until he decides to leave. I don’t take kindly to the squandering of money on gambling and alcohol. Who was this man?”
Jenny had again succeeded in making Jeff Weston feel inadequate. He shuffled his feet uneasily, for thirty-two she had a lot of fire in her. “Young Eric Butler, his wife is having a baby and he wants to send something special.”
Jenny’s response was as he had expected, to the point and painful. “No! He should have thought about that nine months ago. He can pick up his termination pay if he wishes.”
“I’ll be letting young Eric know.” He hesitated and Jenny looked at him coldly. “Is there anything you want from town Miss Jenny?”
Her answer was polite but unemotional. “No thank you.”
Jeff found Jenny to be harder than her father had ever been but to this day she had never been unfair to the men.
Slowly Jeff walked towards the waiting men and a young man jumped from the back of the Ute, his emotions showed expectancy but when Jeff placed his rugged hands on his shoulders, they sank. Even Jeff’s sympathetic voice could not hide his disappointment. “Sorry mate, she wouldn’t budge.”
They both got back into the Ute. Although there were over a dozen men heading into town for the weekly repast, the silence was deafening. They had all known it would have taken a miracle for any other outcome.
Dismissing the incident Jenny walked back into the house and into the room that was her study, pulling Eric Butlers file out of the filing cabinet. The study was olde worlde, a large mahogany desk the main attraction. She flicked through the papers in the file and then replaced it in the cabinet. With Gully at her side, she climbed the stairs to the lavish bathroom and turned on the steaming bath water. Like everything in the house, although not opulent, no expense had been spared. Her Grandmother has insisted that if she was to be dragged to live in the middle of nowhere she was going to do it in style and she had.