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The Night is for Hunting (extract)

The Tomorrow Series
by John Marsden

It was hot and dusty. The sun sat up there all day without moving. It saw everything and it forgave nothing. Sometimes it seemed like you were alone in the world, you and the sun, and at those times you could understand why people in the old days feared and worshipped it.

I hated the sun. For months on end it had no mercy. It burned everything. Everything that wasn’t covered or hidden or fed with water, it burned.

It was mid-December and we were forty millilitres down on the monthly average. The dams looked like muddy pools, and the stock hung around in the drying mud, more interested in staying cool than in eating.

Three of us were working in the yards: Dad, Quentin, and me. Quentin had been late, as usual, and that got Dad snarling.

‘Don’t know why I bother with him,’ he said to me as we waited. ‘If that new woman’s any good she’ll have half his business in three months.’

The heifers milled around noisily. They didn’t know what was going on but they didn’t like it. We’d penned a hundred and fifty in the yard and run about thirty of them into the holding pen, ready to put them through the race, but of course to do that we separated lots of mothers from calves. So they bellowed and moaned, as they shifted backwards and forwards. Most of the time you were so used to it you didn’t even notice, but sometimes it got on your nerves and you felt like bopping the poor things on the forehead with the back of an axe.

Not really. They couldn’t help it. They were just being good mothers. Good mothers and loyal kids.

We saw Quentin’s little cloud of dust as he came across Cooper’s, one of our flatter paddocks. Cooper’s is about twenty-five hectares. It’s named after a soldier-settler who took up a block near our place after the First World War and lasted seventeen years, longer than most. When the bank got his place Mr Cooper came and worked for my grandfather. He died of liver failure. His block ended up as part of our place eventually: Dad bought it before I was born, and it’s now our eastern boundary, only we turned his seven paddocks into three, that we called Burnt Hut, Nellie’s and Cooper’s.

Quentin arrived, as usual without bothering to apologise. He wanted to lean against the crush and yarn before he started work but Dad wasn’t having any of that: Quentin charges by the hour. So it was on with the overalls and straight into it. Quentin’s arm, wearing its long glove, disappeared inside the first heifer and a moment later he was nodding and coming back to the pen so we could put the next one into the crush.

My job was pretty easy. The three of us helped fill the smallest yard, then all I had to do was swing down the big steel bar when the heifer was in the crush, and open the gate when she was allowed into the next yard. Occasionally a calf got in there too, which didn’t matter if it was in front but did if it was behind, because then Quentin couldn’t get at the heifer. That was about the only real problem.

There was plenty of time to think. I spent most of it watching Quentin. It always seemed so unhygienic wearing the same glove all morning. Wouldn’t you think he’d pass on infections from one cow to the next? I asked him once and he said it almost never happened. And how come the heifers didn’t mind his arm going right up them? With some cattle, the quiet ones, you could fill the race and Quentin would just walk along and do them in there, one after the other.

Homer would say they enjoyed it. But that’s just Homer.

I touched the end of the steel pipe that formed the nearest crossbar to me. It was a bit rough, and there was a bolt sticking out near my head. Dad was always saying we needed to take the rough edges off the stockyards. They bruised the cattle, and you couldn’t afford that. Marbled flesh was all the go, because of the Japanese market. Everything had to be perfect. It put a strain on farmers. The ones who knocked their animals around didn’t survive any more. Even Mr George had given up using a cricket stump to move them through the stockyards. What we really needed was a circular yard, because you get a better stock flow then. Homer’s place had a circular yard.

My time of thinking-music was interrupted.

‘This one’s empty’ Quentin said.

Empty. Such an ugly word. You could tell that most farmers—and most vets—were men. A woman would never have come up with a word like that. I let the first two beasts out and slammed the gate shut on the nose of the empty cow. Quentin grabbed his clippers, closed her in from the rear, banged her tail and put the tag on. I climbed over the rails and swung the bar up on the other side, so she could come out into her own little yard, with her new short tail.

‘Welcome to Failure City,’ I said to her. ‘You’re not pregnant. You’ve failed as a woman.’

‘Ellie, are you going to get her out or are you going to have a bloody conversation with her?’ Dad shouted.

I went red. I hoped he hadn’t heard me. I waved my hat in her face and out she went. It was true though, what I’d said. They only got one chance and if they missed, they were finished. You couldn’t have them eating all the feed in the paddocks if they weren’t breeding. They had little value to anyone once they got that tail-tag. It was off to the abattoirs. Didn’t matter if they had nice personalities or a good sense of humour or were good to tell problems to, or were really intelligent. If they got pregnant they had value. If they didn’t, they hadn’t.

At school, in Year 8, there was this young teacher from the city, I can’t remember his name, but one day I overheard him saying something about the girls off the properties being rough as guts. But God, why wouldn’t we be? As long as I could remember I’d been watching vets shoving their arms up heifers’ bums, feeling their wombs to see if they were empty. I bet that teacher never had to pull grass-seeds out of the eyes of four hundred ewes: all that white mucusy stuff and the slightly off smell which gradually makes you want to throw up. I bet he never had to pull a dead calf out of a heifer in labour; a calf that had died a week earlier and decomposed inside the mother. And I noticed he didn’t say anything about the boys being rough. Next to some of the boys, we were Qantas stewardesses.

The next empty heifer might have been reading my mind because she was a bit mad. When she wouldn’t move I gave her a tap with some poly-pipe. I didn’t like using poly-pipe even, but you have to have something and I don’t think poly-pipe bruises. When she still didn’t move I bopped her hard. She dug her front hoofs in and lowered her head and stared furiously at me. In the end I had to get an electric prod from Quentin’s Toyota, and even then she was stubborn. When I got her into the rejects’ yard she stormed up and down for ten minutes, like a yabbie in a billycan.

It wasn’t that good a morning actually, not because of the heat but because there were too many empty heifers. Fifteen I think, out of a hundred and fifty. When we’d finished and let the others back in their paddock Dad and Quentin had a chat about it, leaning against our Land Rover.

‘Probably this dry weather,’ Quentin said. ‘They’ve lost a bit of condition.’

I never liked asking questions that made me look ignorant but I’d learned ages ago that if I listened I could usually pick up the answers. So somewhere along the line I’d learned that heifers won’t come into season when they get down in weight. If the feed’s poor they don’t cycle: they have to be a certain weight before they rejoin. I guess it’s Nature’s way of stopping them having calves they can’t support.

‘Hmmm,’ Dad said. ‘Maybe I should have given them more time with the bull. They had six weeks. Probably could have done with a couple more.’

‘What about another month?’ I suggested.

In the end the heifers got a reprieve. Fifteen was too many to write off that easily, so they went back with the bull for another go. If they still didn’t get pregnant at least they could have a good time trying.

Today we party, tomorrow we die.

The very next day the rain came, good soaking rain that filled the dams and greened the country, even if it was too late to give us much feed. But I never found out if the heifers got in calf or not, because less than a month after that the soldiers invaded and normal life ended forever. There was no time then for carefully culling poor performers as part of a long-term programme to improve the fertility of the breed. No time for long-term programmes of any kind. From the day the bombers roared over head, and the tanks and convoys rolled down our highways, there was time for one thing only, and that was survival. All our energy went on that.