By: Robert Engwerda




A month before her banishment to The Ranges Stella Winterson stood feeding their horses distractedly in the stables when foreman John Blake happened to saunter by.

He pointed at her mother’s horse, ‘Don’t worry about overdoing it, miss. She’s been looking a bit on the skinny side lately.’

‘That’s how it looks to me too,’ she answered as they fell to discussing the lack of rain and the poor quality of the feed, Horsehead Creek’s parched state and the patches of Scotch Thistle beginning to spring up about the place.

Blake was about forty, she reckoned, a stout, cheerful man whose natural dignity touched everything he did. Kind-hearted and ever considerate, the bachelor was admired by all for the particular affinity he had with animals. He helped deliver horses of their foals and fussed over the sheep at lambing time, being known to wander paddocks in the middle of the night with a rifle over his shoulder to ward off wild dogs and foxes. Their own dogs followed him around the property like he was their father.

‘Hard times all round and at this time of year when we should’ve had all our rain,’ he said, pinching his eyes hopefully at the sky. ‘What’ll you be doing with yourself from now on?’

‘I’m not sure,’ she said. ‘Maybe something in town.’

‘I think Mr Winterson will be laying off another man soon. Not that there’s many of us left. But with not much of a harvest to come this summer, if any at all, what reason will there be to keep everyone on?’

‘Probably none,’ she conceded.

‘That’s the one thing the war might be good for, offering employment. The only thing.’

‘You’ll stay on here though, I’m sure.’

‘I’m not worried about my position, miss,’ he said. ‘A property this size, Mr Winterson could never manage it on his own. At the very least he’d need two men.’

‘Then there’s no reason to worry.’

‘It’s hard times no question. Everyone’s tightening the belt and the storekeepers in town are getting stingy about who they let buy on a handshake. I’ve never seen so many terrible-looking horses in town neither. It’s always the poor old animals that get looked after last.’

 ‘I suppose we can only do what’s best for them, can’t we? And you certainly do that here,’ she said.

She thought that if it came to it, he’d choose a four-legged friend over a two-legged one any time.

‘I’ve always done my best,’ he said.

‘There’s no question about that,’ she answered.

But the conversation had Blake thinking. ‘It’s not just the animals,’ he went on. ‘This drought, no rain last year, no rain this, everything drying out like it is, it shrinks people just like it does the livestock. Not just how they look, but what’s inside them. They’re getting suspicious and mean. Have you seen how every gate gets shut now, every door locked? There’s fear, that’s what it is. That people who are on their last legs will go chasing after those whose pantries are full.’

‘But no one’s actually starving yet.’

‘Not in body,’ he said. ‘But in mind. There’s a time coming if it doesn’t rain soon. Some stores in town will shut their doors. Then their workers will be let go. Then there’s no money coming in and what do you do? Most will go away and look for work elsewhere. Or they’ll put on the uniform. The ones that stay will make enemies of friends. Bitterness will grow. That thing inside them will make them do things they never would otherwise.’

‘What things?’

Blake might have been gazing far off into the distance, such was the look in his eye. ‘We had a boy wander into the property the other day. I don’t know who he was. I suppose he was looking for work like others. For a minute I thought he might be a hawker but he had nothing with him. He came in through the gate on an old pony. An awful-looking animal with a sagging belly. But the boy had a hungry look about him too. I was a little ways down the track so I didn’t hear everything that was said, or what he wanted. Only what they said afterward.’

‘What who said?’ she asked, suddenly alert.

‘Your father was there,’ Blake said. ‘And Billings, the oaf. All six feet plus of him and fifteen stone. No offence miss, but Mr Winterson thinks that when the hordes jump the fence it’s going to be Billings that protects him. But one man won’t protect you against that madness when it comes, whoever he is.’

‘The boy, who was he?’ she pressed.

‘I didn’t know him. I tell you miss, I felt sorry for him. I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm. I could tell he had come for a reason, that look he had. He was arguing with Mr Winterson and Billings on the track.’