This story is by Elizabeth Collins and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Australian outback. 1950s
“Mum!” Tim yelled out staggering through the screen door, coughing from the dust.
Doris grabbed the puffer from Tim’s bedroom and ran to him. He seized it, inhaling deeply.
“How far did you ride out today, Tim?”
“Dad took me and the blokes to the far waterhole.”
“Christ, it’s three hours away.”
“I wanted to go, mum,” said Tim. “Dad says . . .” but seeing his mother’s mouth tighten, he stopped.
It was barely ten minutes before Jack, Tim’s father, came in. He looked at Doris who glared at him.
“Tim could hardly breathe, Jack. You can’t take him that far.”
“May have to take him further,” Jack mumbled. He was a big man, rough and brawny but found it hard to look his wife in the eye.
Doris waited uneasily and Tim felt apprehensive.
“The waterhole has two maybe three days left. If it doesn’t rain in the next two days we’ll have to muster the cattle and head east. There’s no pasture, there’ll be no water. This bloody drought! It’s endless.”
“I know, Jack. I’ll start getting provisions ready. How many of the men will you take?”
Tim looked at his father.
“All of them except Dave. Can’t leave the place without a man. There’s swaggies, blacks and god only knows who else out there, Doris, I have to take the boy.”
Doris paled. Tim held his breath.
“You can’t, Jack. He won’t survive the trip. You’ll kill him.”
“Doris, he’s our only child. He’s nearly 13 and in a few years he’ll be a man. I can’t do it ‘til I’m so old I die in the saddle. For heaven’s sake woman, be reasonable,” he cried, exasperated. He was getting too old to run the property by himself and there was no money for a manager –just his weakling of a son with his unending coughing and wheezing.
Tim went to bed feeling trapped by his weakness.
Next morning he heard his father call.
“Come out here, boy. Look at the sky. What do you see?”
He searched the vast blue sky, squinting against the early morning sun.
“You’re bloody right. Not a rain cloud in sight. If it’s like this tomorrow and the day after, we set out east. We’ll take the whole herd and all the men except Dave.”
The never-ending drought refused to break so two days later six of them set out; Jack and Tim; the two station hands, Rick and Jed and two blacks, Ben and Sam.
When Tim saddled up to go out with the men, he felt like a proper drover. His heart beat so hard it hurt.
The first day had been hard going, rounding up the mob. At the end of the day, Rick and Ben had taken the first watch while the others set up camp, got the fire going and boiled the billy. Each man took out his rations then they all sat around, smoking and swapping yarns of earlier droving.
Later, the men rolled out their swags and Tim slid into his, exhausted. He was sore from all day in the saddle and dead tired. He hardly felt the cold slither that crept in beside him, working its way to the bottom of the swag. It was still dark when he heard Ben’s voice.
“Tim wake up, slowly now but lie still. There’s a snake in your swag. I’m going to stamp round the bottom of your swag and make a bit of a noise. I want the snake to move up to the top.”
Snake! Tm could hardly breathe and quietly took short gasps of air. He heard Ben stamping then he felt it – a slow uncoiling as something sinewy and warm started to work its way up along his leg until it reached his waist. How am I going to survive this? he thought to himself. He heard a muffled hiss. The snake was getting angry but it kept moving, more quickly this time slithering to the top. Suddenly he heard the thud of an axe close to his head and felt the splatter of blood on his face as Ben yanked out the rest of the headless snake.
Tim lay there, barely conscious.
His father had woken, saw what was going on and when Ben killed the snake, he ran over to his boy. “It’s okay, Tim. It’s over,” his dad reassured him.
Tim tried to open his eyes. They were wet and sticky. “I can’t breathe, dad,” he gasped.
His father ran for the puffer in Tim’s saddlebag.
“Take your time, Tim,” said his dad. “It’s early. An hour or so before we get this mob back on the track.”
They kept droving for the next ten days with no sign of rain, crossing creek beds with just enough water to keep the cattle from dying of thirst. There seemed to be no end to the drought.
Tim gazed at the mob. They were weary looking, hoof sore and thin. His dad had told him they were heading to the stock routes where they could slow down and let the mob graze alongside the route.
They were another week closer to the stock routes when Sam noticed the wild dogs.
“Hey, Ben, tell the boss. There’s a large pack back there and getting closer.”
Ben galloped to the front of the mob. “Hey, boss, look!”
“Bloody hell, as if we haven’t got enough problems. Go to the back, warn Tim and Jed. The pack’ll try to get some of the stragglers. I don’t want them spooking the mob.”
It was a big pack, about fifteen, and all of them large and hungry looking. Jed wrapped the reins around the pommel, got out his rifle and yelled to Tim.
“Get behind the stragglers, push ‘em up with the mob.”
Tim wheeled his horse round to get behind the half dozen calves that were lagging. He yelled, cracked his whip overhead, made all the noise he could to get them moving but they were too exhausted to go faster. I’m trying my hardest, what else can I do? he thought.
“Watch out, Tim!” called Ben.
Tim looked to his left and saw the leader of the pack charging towards him.
“He’s going for your horse, trying to spook him, then the rest’ll take the calves. Hang on!”
Tim gripped the reins hard and turned to face the wild dog. Froth streamed from its mouth, teeth were bared ready to rip into the horse’s legs. Suddenly his horse, Bessy, screamed, reared, threw him to the ground and bolted. The dog had already leaped when Tim heard the crack of a rifle and the dog fell heavily to the ground. Jed turned and aimed at the next dog bringing it down with one shot. The pack was hungry and kept on charging. Ben brought his horse beside Tim, put down his hand to grab the boy’s and hauled him up behind.
“Let the calves go, Ben,” yelled Jed. “It’s the only thing’ll stop them.”
Ben, Tim and Jed raced to the back of the now panicking mob and urged them forwards. The sounds of squealing calves as their flesh was viciously ripped could be heard behind them as the dogs leaped on the helpless animals, tearing them to pieces.
“Keep the mob moving,” yelled Jed as he spurred his horse to a gallop, coming alongside the herd to stop them breaking out to the side. He saw Jack galloping back towards him.
“The front of the mob is starting to stampede. There’s a canyon a few miles away. We’ll turn the mob to the north and box them in, slow them down. The dogs have what they want. They won’t trouble us anymore.”
“Ben,” said Tim. “What will happen to Bessy?”
“Don’t worry, no dog’ll get her. She’ll run off then come round them and back to us.”
It was some time later, when the mob was under control that Tim saw Bessy trotting towards them. He was off Ben’s horse in a flash and ran to greet her then let her nuzzle his neck as he rubbed her.
. . . . . . . . . .
It was four months after they first set out that the drovers returned to the property. Tim felt himself taller in the saddle and knew that he was filling out. His thoughts drifted to how he was when he left, a bit scrawny, imprisoned by his body that fell apart with too much dust. Now he was stronger: his lungs were hardy and he could breathe all the dust the land threw at him and keep going. A sudden crack of thunder made him look up.
“Dad, look in the distance. There’s dark clouds.”
Jack raised his head. “Thank God, it’s nearly over. This bloody drought’s been tough. There’s a limit to what a man can stand.”
No, thought Tim, freed from his prison. There are no limits.