A Changing Land(2)

‘Really, everything will be fine,’ Anthony repeated.

Once is a comfort, Sarah thought, pressing the warm, wiggling pup against her cheek, twice is not.

As they drove away a lone fox moved stealthily through the ageing monuments. The animal padded carefully through tufts of grass, pausing to sniff the air. Finally he located the freshly turned soil of Angus Gordon’s grave and curled up beside the mounded earth.

Tucked up in her bed, with Anthony’s rhythmic breath marking out the long hours of the night, Sarah tried unsuccessfully to sleep. Her heart seemed to have taken on a life of its own and it fluttered erratically. At times during the night she found herself clutching at her chest, her breath catching in her throat, her eyes tearing in fright. She knew grief and uncertainty were causing the symptoms she experienced, yet common sense didn’t ease her distress.

As the night dragged and the moon spread its glow through the open doors leading out onto the gauze verandah, Sarah watched dancing shapes flickering about her. Outlines of branches and leaves jostled for attention like paper puppets against the cream bedroom wall as she drifted through snippets of conversation shared with her grandfather. This moment was akin to the passing of her brother, for it heralded both unwanted change and an unknown future. Who would guide them now the wily Angus Gordon was no longer with them?

Near dawn Sarah felt a numbness begin to seep through her. With a sigh she rolled on her side, only just conscious of Anthony rising to meet the working day. As the morning sun penetrated the calming dark of the room, she pulled the bedclothes over her head and closed puffy eyes against all thoughts of her changed life. The house was quiet, too quiet. A scatter of leaves on the corrugated iron roof competed with morning birdsong. Sarah huddled further down beneath the covers, tears building. She sensed movement on the verandah and tried to calm herself with her grandfather’s words: It’s only the old house stretching itself, girl, he would say. Now more than ever, Sarah doubted his words. She was one of the custodians of Wangallon now and the spirits from the past were well aware of a newly delineated present.

Forty emus raced across the road, their long legs stretching out from beneath thickly feathered bodies as their small erect heads fastened on the fence line some five hundred metres away. Sarah couldn’t resist going up a gear on the quad bike. She pressed her right thumb down firmly on the accelerator lever and leant into the rushing wind. Bullet, her part-kelpie, part-blue cattle dog, pushed up tight against her back, squirrelling sideways until his head was tucked under her armpit. She swerved off the dirt road in pursuit of the emus, the bike tipping precariously to one side before righting itself. A jolt went through her spine as the quad tyres hit rough ground. Then the bike was airborne.

Bullet lost his balance on landing. He gave a warning yelp as Sarah grabbed at his thick leather collar, managing to drag him up onto her lap. Despite the urge to go faster, she slowed the bike down, the brown blur of feathers dodging trees and scrub to outrun her. Sarah loved emus, but not the damage they did to fences or the crops they trampled. Chasing them off Wangallon, albeit onto a neighbouring property, seemed a better alternative to breaking their eggs in the nest to cull numbers. She poked along slowly on the quad until she reached the fence. A number of emus had managed to push their prehistoric bodies through the wires, while the rest ran up and down the boundary trying to find a way out. Bullet whimpered. Sarah reached the fence as the last of the mob disappeared into the scrub, scattering merino sheep in their wake.

‘Sorry.’ Sarah apologised as the dog jumped from the bike, turning to stare at her. Bullet never had gone much on losing his footing and it was clear Sarah would not be forgiven quickly. He walked over to the nearest tree and lay down in protest.

Two bottom wires on the fence were broken and the telltale signs of snagged wool and emu feathers on the third wire suggested this wasn’t a recent break. Sarah walked along the fence-side, stepping over fallen branches, clumps of galvanized burr and a massive ants’ nest of mounded earth a good three feet in height. Eventually she located the two lengths of wire that had sprung back on breaking. Taking the bottom wire she tugged at it and threaded it through the holes on the iron fence posts until she was back near the original break. She did the same with the second wire and then walked back to the quad bike where an old plastic milk crate was secured with rope. Inside sat a pair of pliers and the fence strainers. Grabbing the tools, Sarah cut a couple of feet off the bottom wire, then interlaced it with the freshly cut piece until it looked like a rough figure eight. She pulled on it, feeling the strain in her back, until it tightened into a secure join, then she attached the strainers and pulled back and forwards on the lever. The action tightened the wire gradually. Once taut, Sarah used the pliers to join the ends. More wire was needed to repair the bottom run but at least it would baulk any more sheep from escaping.

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