A Changing Land(3)

Whistling to Bullet to rejoin her, Sarah followed the fence for some distance on the quad before cutting across the paddock. Little winter herbage could be seen between the tufts of grass. The rain long hoped for in March and April had not arrived and May was also proving to be a dry month. It was disappointing considering the rain which had fallen in early February. Within ten days of receiving nearly six inches, there was a great body of feed and then four weeks later, with a late heatwave of 42 degree days, the heavy grass cover sucked the land dry and the feed that would have easily carried their stock through a cold winter began to die off. The pattern of the next few months was trailing out before her like a dusty road. In one month they may have to begin supplementing the cattle with feed; in two they may have to be feeding the sheep corn. By mid-July they would begin the search for agistment or perhaps place a couple of mobs of cattle on the stock route.

Mice, lizards, bush quail and insects all disturbed into movement by her bike created a sporadic pattern of scampering life amid the tufts of grass. A flat expanse of open country lay ahead, punctuated occasionally by the encompassing arms of the wilga and box trees that dominated the landscape here. Ahead, the edge of a ridge was just visible; a hazy blur of distance and heat shimmering like an island. Soon the rich black soil began to be replaced by a sandier composition, the number of trees increasing, as did the birdsong.

The midmorning sunlight streamed into the woody stand of plants, highlighting saplings growing haphazardly along its edges. They were like wayward children, some scraggly and awkward in appearance, others plump and fresh with youth. Sarah drove the quad slowly, picking her way through the ridge, passing wild-flowers and white flowering cacti. The trees thickening as she advanced deeper. The air grew cooler, birds fluttered and called out; the cloying scent of a fox wafted on the breeze. The path grew sandy and the quad’s tyre tracks became indistinct as the edges collapsed in the dirt. Above, the dense canopy obliterated any speck of the blue sky.

Sarah halted in the small clearing. The tang of plant life untouched by the sun’s rays filled the pine-tree-bordered enclosure. She breathed deeply, revelling in the musky solitude. Through the trees on her right were the remains of the old sawpit. The pale green paint of a steam engine from the 1920s could just be seen. It was here that her grandfather Angus had cut the long lengths of pine used to build the two station-hand cottages on Wangallon’s western boundary. The sawpit, long since abandoned, also marked the original entrance to Wangallon Station. Long before gazetted roads and motor vehicles decided the paths that man could take, horses, drays and carriages bumped through this winding section of the property, straight through the ridge towards Wangallon Town.

Sarah continued onwards. Soon the tall pines began to thin out, the air lost its cool caress and within minutes a glimpse of sky gradually widened to a view of open country. She weaved away from the ridge through a tangle of closely growing black wattle trees and belahs, the thin branches whipping against her face.

She was in the start of the swamp country where a large paddock was cut by the twisting Wangallon River in one corner. The area was defined by scattered trees and bone-jarringly uneven ground. A ridge ran through the paddock and it was here that sandalwood stumps spiked upwards from the ground. Sarah stopped the bike and alighted.

Years had passed since she’d last been in this area alone. It was almost impossible to believe that her beloved brother had died here in her arms over seven years ago. Kneeling, Sarah touched the ground, her fingers kneading the soft soil.

In snatches the accident came back to her. His ankle trapped in the stirrup, his hands frantically clawing at the rushing ground, and then the sickening crunch as he struck the fallen log and the spear-like sandalwood stump pierced his stomach. Sarah swiped at the tears on her cheeks, her breathing laboured. Closing her eyes she heard the shallow rasp of his breath, like the rush of wind through wavering grasses.

Anthony caught up with her a kilometre from Wangallon Homestead. Sarah could tell by the lack of shadow on the ground that she was late. His welcome figure drew closer, just as it had when he had come searching for her and Cameron all those years ago. At the sight of him the tightness across her chest eased. As the white Landcruiser pulled up alongside her quad Sarah leant towards him for a kiss. Her forefinger traced the inverted crescent-shaped scar on his cheek, the end of which tapered into the tail of a question mark. Sometimes the eight years since his arrival at Wangallon only seemed a heartbeat ago.

‘You’re late,’ Anthony admonished.

Nicole Alexander's Books