The motor gave a couple of unhealthy grunts when Rod switched off the ignition of the old Land Cruiser, reminding him he must buy oil soon.

Tonight’s campsite was much like those of the past week, though the landscape here was not so dry or sparse. A wide expanse of good grass beside the narrow ribbon of road, and a nearby creek would provide grazing and water for the horse.

Rod let down the back of the float and backed Betty out onto the soft grass. The fine animal threw up her head and shook her strong neck, then pawed the ground in front of her in anticipation. She was happy to be let out, and keen to move her large and muscular body.

“Easy girl,” Rod murmured.

Betty snorted and threw up her head again, pleased to be free of the confinement and those long hours in the float.

Rod led her down to a cleared spot beside the creek where drovers watered their stock. The Warmblood mare stood quite still at the edge of the water and moved her head one way then the other, her ears pricked and forward to catch any sounds, while her nostrils flared and twitched as she sampled the fresh new smells. In her whole life, she had never experienced danger when drinking, but her primeval instinct demanded she check thoroughly before drawing in the clear water now cooling her front hooves.

Leaving the creek, Rod walked and trotted the horse along the roadside for a kilometre before tethering her for the night. He would ride her for half an hour at sun-up before moving on. Betty again stood motionless, listening and smelling the air. Then she walked away from Rod, head down, looking for just that right spot in the sweet grass to begin the night’s grazing.

Rod connected the outside light, lit the small kero stove and put a saucepan of water on to boil. He peeled three potatoes and a carrot, then rummaged through the big wooden box which was his larder and found a piece of hard cheese hiding in a brown paper bag, and a tin of sardines he didn’t know he had. That’s a bonus, he thought, and reminded himself that tomorrow morning early would be the best time to catch a bunny or hare, or maybe a duck at the creek.

Rod had quit his job in Ceduna in South Australia a week before and headed off intending first to visit his old mum in Rupunyup, just north of the Grampians, then on to his older brother Angus’s farm, farther up at Wedderburn, where he hoped to be able to leave the horse while he sought out and negotiated with Warmblood breeders to find a suitable sire to join her with. The stud fee was going to be high and he needed to have enough money saved by the end of September. He figured he would go on to Melbourne and find work for a few months, most likely as a security guard with an armoured car company. He had experience and good references from previous stints in the city. Then he would go bush again.

Rod’s plans for Betty had been brought forward a year and without warning. Breaking up with Annie had been sudden, and just as he had done at the time of previous break-ups, he loaded the truck and moved on.

Rod was good-looking–if unusually gaunt,–and tall and lean. Born on a farm and the youngest of seven, he had learnt to break in horses by the time he was sixteen. At eighteen he had taken a teacher training course and become a young schoolmaster in a one-teacher bush school. But the ladies loved him and too often, against anyone’s better judgement except his own, he loved them back. That they often already had a partner meant that Rod’s life could become suddenly far too complicated and even uncomfortable.

But it was Rod’s rare qualities, his speed and style and bravado that combined and made him different from most men and it usually meant that he could rarely stay in one place for very long before finding himself either constrained or unwelcome. He learnt early in his working life how to live alone and, more often than not, on the move.

It wasn’t that Rod was a bad person–far from it. He had the proverbial heart of gold. He was just too good at inspiring people. His country boy agility and enthusiasm mesmerised people and swept everyone along in a world that, on their own, they could never sustain. Women queued to dance with him at country balls. Looking like a gentleman from a period movie in his tuxedo, bow tie and shiny pumps, he carried each one of them around the dance floor with a style so exhilarating that they most likely never experienced anything like it again; and they talked about it among themselves for months afterwards.

To Rod, life was as straight forward as taking a horse over a jump or a creek. “A horse doesn’t jump of its own accord,” he would say in a loud voice, laughing and with merriment in his eyes. “You lift a horse over a jump with your mind. If you didn’t, you’d both end up on the ground. If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t expect the horse to know.”

Tonight, Rod was feeling just a tad more tired than usual and more hungry. He thought how he’d love a bath and a shave, and maybe a large pizza with the lot and even to sleep in a proper bed with a mattress. He was still a couple of days away from Rupunyup. He had chosen to come the long way using back roads. It wasn’t that he was in trouble or anyone was looking for him, he simply wanted to be alone, and he liked to see the country away from the main highways. A young Australian Greek bloke had given him a well-worn map of South Australia and Western Victoria on which was marked the zigzag route taken by men who carried illegal undersized shark from fishermen in the Spencer Gulf to the fish and chip loving Melbournites. It went through a lot of country Rod had never seen.

Rod had just dropped the potatoes in to cook when Betty gave two short snorts. Rod straightened up and listened, and saw far-off headlights coming from the direction he would be taking next day. He knew he wasn’t far from the small town of Bunneringee so it was more likely he would see somebody go past here than in the bigger, more empty country he’d recently passed through. A farmer going home probably-or maybe a refrigerated van on it’s way to fetch illegal fish?’ he mused.

Five minutes later the vehicle slowed as it drew closer. The small light in his truck had been noticed, even though it was parked some distance from the road. Rod instantly ran through the short checklist of the things he always thought about when his space might be invaded: friend or foe, police or hoons, (no such thing as one hoon or even two; cowards always travel with at least two other cowards), everything legal…rifle locked in thief–proof metal trunk and with firing pin removed…truck registration paid up…tyres and muffler OK and so on.

The car passed slowly by and, as it did so, a beam of light bathed Rod and his campsite. It made a slow turn, and drove off the road and pulled up thirty metres behind the float.

Police; act a bit dumb,’ Rod told himself gently. He tuned his brain down to placid and not street wise; easier for everyone, he thought.

The spotlight went off and two doors opened and closed simultaneously, and the occupants came over to where Rod stood looking towards them.

“G’day,” he called out in an even and friendly voice.

“G’day,” came back a young and uncertain reply.

Two young constables came into the light, each one looked about. One walked around to the front of the Land Cruiser to check the rego sticker while the other shone his torch into the back of the open truck. Rod could see they were very young and something told him they might not be from the country, though he couldn’t be sure. Who knows these days, he thought, the cities are reaching right out to the bush. These two were probably drinking cappuccinos in Bunneringee twenty minutes ago.

The constable who looked and sounded the eldest turned to Rod and said, “Where are you from?”

Rod thought quickly. He didn’t want to get caught up in long explanations about himself. It was probably better to stick with the truth for the time being. More likely than not, they wouldn’t check him out once they saw he had nothing to hide. For the moment though, he might not tell them exactly where he was headed, just to protect his old mum from any “routine enquiries” if anything went wrong.

“I came from Penola today,” Rod replied, “but started out a week ago from Ceduna.” His tone was open and matter–of–fact.

The constables seemed unsure of what to do next. There didn’t appear to be anything suspicious with this man’s lonely campsite, ten kilometres out of town. They could ask him a lot of tricky questions, even search his truck for drugs, but his relaxed and genial manner didn’t draw them in that direction. Just as it looked as if they might quietly leave, a loud cough came out of the darkness. Both men turned instantly towards it and as one, shone their torches on Betty, now at the far end of her long rope, happily wrenching large mouthfuls of sweet grass from the ground.

The two men walked slowly forward towards the horse and Rod followed.

Rod felt a sudden tension. The young men exchanged glances then both looked at Rod. “Do you have a receipt or other proof of ownership for that horse?” the older one asked in a police academy official tone. Before Rod could answer, the younger of the two blurted out enthusiastically, “It’s the missing horse all right. The report said a grey gelding with dark points. I remember because Janice in the office said they were not common. She keeps horses so she’d know. Oh, and the dark points are the tail, and the long hair on the neck, the mane–just like this one.”

“Well?” said the other constable. “Can you prove ownership?”

Rod had listened carefully to what the younger man had said. He turned things over in his mind with bemused and growing interest then answered, “To be honest, I can’t right now. Mind you, I don’t think many people with horses could prove ownership very easily on such short notice as this.”

“You must have someone who could vouch for you being the owner,” replied the policeman.

It was then that Rod decided his sudden hunch to go down an as yet unmapped track had been worth the risk. He quietened himself inside before answering.

“No, I can’t easily find someone, especially at this time of night. But that doesn’t mean the horse isn’t mine, surely?” A tiny hint of challenge crept into his voice.

“We’ll have to follow this up,” said the constable. “I’ll have to ask you to pack up and follow us to the station.”

Rod thought quickly, then said, “Isn’t it a bit late constable? I could come in early tomorrow and we could sort it out then.”

“Can’t do that. Be too hard to explain to the sergeant if you didn’t show up. And if you can’t explain, then you’re in a bit of trouble anyway.”

Rod thought for a moment, then said, “I can’t see how I can prove ownership this late in the day, so I guess you will have to hold me or the horse or both until tomorrow. Am I right?”

“Both. Otherwise we might be left with a horse but no suspect,” replied the constable.

“Or a suspect and no horse if somebody came here and stole it during the night,” added the enthusiastic younger constable.

“Well, where will you put us both?” asked Rod innocently.

“You can sleep in the lockup, its very comfortable. And there’s a paddock behind the station where the ranger puts stray stock.”

Rod said “OK. But I’m not a horse thief. I know you blokes are only doing your job, so it’s OK with me. Give me a few minutes to put the horse in the float.”

Rod emptied out the water and the now soggy potatoes, and loaded his cooking gear into the truck. Then he got his own torch from the cabin, brought Betty back to the float and loaded her carefully, thinking as he did so that this old float might not be big enough if he had to move Betty when she was eight or more months pregnant.

The policemen had returned to their car to wait, putting on the spotlight so that Rod could see to make the float and back of the truck secure. When he was done, he waved and climbed in the cabin and started the motor.

The ride into Bunneringee didn’t take very long, and the police car led him round to the back of the station where there was a large car park and a gate leading into the police paddock.

The older constable told Rod to come in as soon as possible, and left the younger constable to watch over the proceedings. Rod opened the gate of the small paddock and walked in a few paces to see where Betty would be for the night. Streetlights on one side allowed him to check that the fences were high enough to let her run free and not be tethered. She would like that. The grass looked reasonable and there was no indication that other stock had been in there recently.

“Everything all right?” asked the young constable.

“Yes,” said Rod. “Just need to check the water trough,” he called over his shoulder as he walked to the concrete trough on the fence away from the road. He cupped his hand and scooped up water, lifting it to his nose to smell it, then he tasted it to check that it was fresh and drinkable.

After Betty had been put away, Rod collected his bag and followed the constable into the station through the back door.

The older constable, Constable Blake as Rod discovered a few minutes later, had just completed some paperwork. He turned as they came in, saying, “Rodney Drummond, I’ve made out my report up to this point. If you are willing to remain here overnight, we can finish the inquiry in the morning when the day shift arrives. If you feel you need to contact a solicitor or ask someone to contact a solicitor on your behalf, you are free to use the telephone. If you wish, I can supply you with the names and numbers of solicitors in the district. It’s up to you.”

Rod thought how nice these lads were. Good job I’m not a hardened criminal, he thought. To the constables he said, “If it’s all right with you, I’ve had a long day and I’d prefer to leave all that until the morning.”

“OK. Constable Anderson will show you to the lockup just down the passage. If you would give me the keys of the truck and your driver’s licence to hold overnight, you are free to move around the station except behind the counter here in this office. You will find a bathroom with all facilities–shower, bath, toilet–at the end of the passage, and the canteen is through the door before your cell door. Any questions?” asked Constable Blake.

Rod quietly thanked them both while he searched for his keys and licence. Then he said, “I’m very hungry. I was making dinner when you arrived. I haven’t eaten since early this morning and I don’t have much food on the truck. I’ve got a few dollars on me. Can I send out for something or is it too late?”

Constable Blake looked up at the wall clock above the counter, then at Rod. “Is a pizza OK? We have to give you a meal and that’s about the best we can offer, so what would you like on it?”

Rod blessed his luck and smiled inside. A little film showing him lifting a horse over a jump, played on his screen and he said, “Can I have a large pizza with the lot please?”

The policeman lifted the telephone, jabbed a button and said almost immediately, “Hi! Harry? Constable Blake. Yes I know we’ve already eaten, Harry. We’ve got a visitor. Yes Harry, just one. Yes Harry, we know you want us to lock up a whole bus load. Harry. Just send us a large pizza with the lot. OK? Oh, and hang on.” He put his hand on the mouthpiece and looked back up at Rod. “Would you like an apple turnover or banana fritters with that?”

“An apple turnover would be perfect,” Rod replied, smiling dreamily.

“And an apple turnover, Harry. Twenty minutes? OK. Thanks.”

“OK, Rodney Drummond. Food will be here in about twenty minutes. Why don’t you go and sort your bed out and make yourself comfortable. Help yourself to tea or coffee,” said Constable Blake, turning back to his paperwork.

“There’s also Milo,” added Constable Anderson cheerily.

Rod beamed at him as the young man turned to show him the way. I love these guys, he thought.

Waking up early had never been difficult for Rodney, but this morning was a little unusual. The hot bath, shampoo and shave; the pizza ‘with the lot’ followed by the apple turnover and washed down with a mug of Milo combined with a comfortable mattress and a soft pillow kept him from jumping up in his usual fashion.

When Rodney did open his eyes, his first thought was that he was still dreaming. An attractive woman in police uniform was standing in the cell doorway. She was writing on a clipboard and it was a moment or two before she noticed him looking at her.

Sergeant Elaine McKenna stared back at Rod and said in a low firm voice, “Perhaps you’d like to think about getting up soon. Your mare is a little concerned about you.” Then she left the room, leaving the door wide open to the passage.

Rod heard her walk back down towards the office, then loudly ask someone, “Are those two still here? Send them in would you. Yes, I know they’ve knocked off but I want to see them now, pronto.” A door banged somewhere down in the same direction.

Rod lay still for a few minutes, too comfortable to get up. Then he rose and dressed and put his things into his bag and put it beside the open doorway. He went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face, then peered through the small louvre window. Betty was standing at the gate. A young woman was rubbing her muzzle and patting her neck. Janice from the office, thought Rod.

Rod ambled down to the office counter. As he arrived, a door opened nearby and Constables Blake and Anderson came out. Both looked uncomfortable. Behind them, through the open door, he saw the Sergeant behind a desk, her face still as it was, not quite severe but definitely serious, tight lips and “don’t touch me” eyes. Still attractive, he thought.

“Good morning,” said Rod. He would have beamed his biggest smile, but circumstances told him this was not appropriate. Instead, he offered a sympathetic grin.

“Why didn’t you say the horse was a mare?” growled Constable Blake.

“Yeah. How were we to know it wasn’t a gelding?” asked Constable Anderson.

Rod felt sort of sorry for the two, but it was hard to stop himself laughing out loud.

“Well fellas, firstly, you didn’t ask me if the horse was a gelding, and secondly, if you had and I’d have said, ‘No it was a mare’, would you have believed me? And if neither of you could tell the difference anyway, how could I have proved to you that it wasn’t a gelding?”

The two looked at Rodney for a moment then turned and left. Rod leant on the counter and watched them leave, happy that he had played a part in their education.

Sergeant McKenna came out of her office and went behind the counter. She said nothing as she handed Rodney his keys and licence. Silently, she put a form detailing the return of his possessions on the counter in front of him and held a pen out to him for his signature.

Rod signed the form, put his keys in his pocket and slipped his licence into its place in his wallet. His movements were particular and measured, just as they were when he saddled a horse. Then he looked at the sergeant. He met her steady gaze and, for the first time since arriving at the station, he was himself. He allowed her to see into his eyes and who he really was. Not that it mattered particularly, but she had a presence, which he recognised. He could tell she was one of the people you come across occasionally; people who knew things. He never hid himself when in the presence of this sort of person; unless the person was bent, that is, or deception was essential for survival.

“Thank you,” said Rod, with a gentle smile.

“That’s OK,” she replied. Then she smiled, and for a moment he thought he saw who was really behind the mask, but Constable McKenna didn’t let him in and he liked her the more for that.

Rod collected his bag and left through the back door. Betty called out excitedly when he appeared, and the young woman standing near her looked up at him.

“What’s her name?”

“Betty,” said Rod leaning forward as the mare pushed her great head against his chest as if she were admonishing him for being late up.

“Will you breed with her soon?” asked the girl.

“Yes. I’m just starting to look for a good stallion. Hopefully, I’ll find one soon if she’s to be mated this season.”

Janice looked up at Rod, then she pulled a small card from the pocket of her parka and offered it to him.

“Sergeant McKenna said I could give you her card but only if you wanted it. She breeds Warmbloods. Has a stud with her brother a few miles out of town. She fell in love with your mare as soon as she saw her. Checked her out as soon as she arrived at work this morning. Said she should be put in foal this year. Do you want it?”

Rod blinked and rolled the movie back to the inscrutable sergeant. Then he thought about Betty and getting her in foal, and about the difficulty he might have finding the right stallion. And there was always the chance that he had left it too late and the stallion would be fully booked, and he’d be told to put her name down for next season.

Then in his mind’s eye, Rod saw a horse being taken over a jump, just as he always did when special or difficult things were working out the way he thought they should, but this time, the rider wasn’t him; it was a woman. A smile crossed his bony face and he let out a deep and relaxed sigh.

Rod looked down at the young woman still holding out the card towards him. “Yes Janice, I would like it. Thank you,” he said softly.

End

Taken from Australian Short Stories by Richard Lee. Available from Amazon.