An hour before midnight, Scotty rode off to fetch Red Jack. By the time he returned with her, Larrikin’s mare was agitated and sweating, milk seeping from her teats. The red-haired woman washed her hands and examined her.
‘They’re sitting well, I reckon,’ she said, ‘and the contractions are strong. Let’s see if we can bring the poor things out alive. You blokes could make a bed of dry grass for when she wants to lay down, and someone please fetch another lantern or two.’
In a flurry of activity, the members of the Ragged Thirteen who weren’t out on the raid, cut dry grass from around the gully, and packed it down to make a bed. When it was done, Red Jack wrapped the strands of the mare’s tail with clean rags, to keep it out of the way. She was already opening up, and out came a steady trickle of fluid.
‘Right boys, her waters are breaking,’ said Red Jack. ‘Our girl means business. This a special thing, I hope you fellas know, for a horse or a woman doesn’t make any difference.’ Then, ‘Where’s that damned Larrikin, why would he have gone out when his mare was about to drop her foal?’ Jack Woods was about to answer, but she turned and glared at him. ‘Actually, given that half the camp is missing, I don’t want to know.’
Red Jack gentled the already tiring mare down, legs splayed out at first, though she constantly altered position in an attempt to ease the spasms. The whole crew, black and white, settled down to watch, helping where they could. There was nothing they wanted more than to see this end well. Out in the darkness, the other horses were vocal and agitated, as if they knew what was happening, talking to the mare with their whinnies and nickers.
‘Wouldna’t be grand if auld Tom an’ Larrikin were back for this moment eh,’ said Bob Anderson. ‘No doubt it’s been a long time comin’.’
The mare turned herself upright, still on the ground, with her legs folded under her. There was another rush of brown fluid, then a bubble of clear tissue appeared, followed by a foot. The mare was pushing in waves, with a heavy grunt each time. Yet as the minutes passed, and a second foot appeared, they seemed to come no further, pulsing in and out with each spasm of the mare’s great muscles.
‘I have to hurry things up,’ said Red Jack. ‘It’s taking too long.’
And while she kneeled behind the mare, delving inside, adding her own grunts of effort to those of the mare, there was the sound of rushing hooves. Into camp rode Tom, and five of the others, pack horses following. They pulled the horses up, with Blind Joe and a couple of the boys running to grasp bridles and steady them down.
Tom and Larrikin led the way in on foot. Seeing what was happening, they said nothing, made no fuss. Just gathered around to watch wordlessly. One or two of the others clapped them on the shoulders gently to mark their return.
Even the horses out there in the darkness fell silent as Red Jack used her hands to assist. The two feet were soon followed by two long legs, a snout, then an immense bag of tissue and fluid, squeezing out in a rush. Even as they watched, that shapeless thing in the lantern light became a living foal, struggling onto his sternum and wriggling his way free of the sack that had contained him, breathing air on his own account.
‘Chestnut,’ opined Bob Anderson.
‘Sorrel maybe,’ said Wonoka George. ‘But it’s hard to tell just yet.’
Red Jack was still at work, her hands again delving inside the mare, gently aiding, smoothing the way, and pulling a little where she could. The second bag was smaller than the first, erupting out from the mare, falling shapelessly on the straw. That second foal lay uncommonly still.
‘Of all the blessed luck,’ cried Red Jack ‘The little one ain’t breathing.’
Men who had not prayed in twenty years were fumbling for long-forgotten words, calling for the bright stars above to be their witness as they swore to be better men if only God would spare that helpless little creature.
Red Jack’s face was lined with worry as she broke the sack herself and manipulated the foal’s head to clear the fluid, stroking and shaking in an effort to clear its windpipe and nasal passages. Then, in a moment that no one there would ever forget, Red Jack closed the left nostril of that undersized bundle with her left thumb and forefinger, and gently breathed into the other.
Most of them had seen this done before, but not like this. With the healthier twin already trying to wriggle towards his dam, the sight of the red-haired woman blowing life into the tiny animal was almost mystical. Then … the magic happened. They all saw the little foal jerk her hind leg. Red Jack laid her down. It was obvious to all that the little foal was breathing now, kicking at the tissue that still constrained her lower limbs.
Red Jack turned, face shining in the lantern light. ‘It worked. My blessed soul it worked. The poor little mite is breathing.They are both alive … this one’s on the small side, but bloody perfect.’
The second foal was a patchwork of black, brown and white, a combination known as skewbald, her dark eyes taking in everything around her for the first time as she broke free of the last of the sack that had surrounded her for so many months.
Larrikin went up close on his hands and knees, like a man in a trance, tears spilling down his cheek. Some of the others might have wondered what this moment meant for a man who’d never known a mother or father.
The mare was resting, but turning weakly, summoning the energy to bring out the placenta, but trying to look at her twins at the same time.
‘Bless me if those two aren’t the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,’ said Tom. No one there could have disagreed.
Within a quarter hour the stronger of the two foals was trying to stand, falling comically over in his eagerness. The men laughed and tut-tutted and tried to think up names for them both. The smaller foal took almost an hour to find her feet, but once she was up she was even steadier than her twin. Long before dawn, both were able to find a teat, and the rum bottle was being passed from man to man.
Red Jack refused. ‘I don’t need it. I’ve had my fill of something better tonight.’
‘You sure have,’ said Larrikin. ‘I know these two foals are yours now. But I count myself a lucky man just to have seen what you done tonight, and I’ll go to my grave thankful for it.’
Now that the foals were out of danger Tom called the gang together. ‘Forget sleep. Roll your swags and get ready to leave. We’ve got every Cantonese for twenty miles around on our tails. They won’t follow us out here tonight, it’s too dark, but they’ll have a tracker on our trail by dawn.’
Continues next Sunday …
©2019 Greg Barron
Whistler's Bones by Greg Barron is available at all good book outlets, Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com Camp Leichhardt by Greg Barron is also available from Amazon and ozbookstore.com Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia's History is also available from Amazon, iBookstore and ozbookstore.com