And still it rained. They stood under the dubious shelter of a wattle tree, man and horse almost motionless, only the occasional shrug of a shoulder or switch of a tail to betray the fact that this silhouette did breathe and was not some blackened stump that deceived the eye into thinking there was a rider on the skyline.
The man sighed, a long exhalation laced with resignation
“Looks like we are to be getting wetter lass, this rain is settling in.”
The horse turned her head to nose at his boot giving a soft whicker; he grinned and patted her neck.
“I agree, bloody rain, only a madman would be wanting to travel in this muck. Sorry old girl.”
She gave a soft huff as if to express her disgust, and he smiled a soft slow smile his hands stroking each side of her neck.
“Well no use waiting for summer, best we be heading onwards”
He pulled the collar of his serviceable woolen coat up just a little more, dark curls touched the edge of it, soft brown curls that did not tame easily, some would say like the man himself. His hat he pulled just a little tighter on his head and hunching his shoulders in anticipation of the driving rain he touched his heels to the mare’s sides and they moved forwards.
It was muddy and slippery, hard for the horse to find firm footings so he let her pick her way, his hands loose on the reins as she made her way through the last sparse patches of bush. Down the hill towards the valley. It was steep and in places she slid, her hind legs folding under her so that he leaned back in the saddle as she slithered downwards, patting her neck and talking soft nonsense to her when she struggled upright.
They were almost on the flat, the mare shaking her head and beginning to walk just a little faster when he noticed a white shape lying in the shadow of a rock on the hill above them. It was motionless and he reined in to peer through the driving rain. It was only when he stopped moving and there was no longer the sound of the bridle jangling or the rubbing of his legs against the saddle, the mud sucking at fetlocks and his own breathing blending with that of the of the mares that he heard the weak little bleat, the wind blowing the sound towards him and then gusting it away again
“Best we take look lass” he urged the mare up the hill again, chuckling just slightly at the reproachful look she gave him.
The ewe was dead; she was lying stiff legged against the rock sightless eyes staring at the grey sky. Huddled next to her was a scrap of a lamb, crying weakly now, cold wet and hunger taking its toll. He dismounted catching the lamb without much trouble, instinct making it stay close to its dead mother. It was cold desperately cold; he put a finger in its mouth, that was cold too.
“Poor little bugger” he muttered “you would have joined your Ma shortly”
The lamb needed warmth and food and soon, plans for the day were abandoned without hesitation, there was always tomorrow for those.
Cold fingers fumbled at the buttons of his coat and he winced as the chill wind cut through the shirt he wore under it. He cringed even more as the cold wet lamb settled against his skin, sucking in a breath as he buttoned the coat up tightly so that the baby’s head was resting just below his chin.
“Now don’t you be piddlin on me”
He stood and thought just a moment before mounting carefully, one hand cradling the motionless burden that rested against his belly. He turned the mare’s head downwards touching her side urging to make haste.
It was dark when he sloshed through the mud and the muck of the rough track that led to the wattle hut. There were candles in the windows and the door opened as he dismounted and a man peered out into the night.
“Joe Byrne, so whose horse would you be riding tonight?”
“This one is mine sir” Joe laughed coming forward into the thin stream of light that came from the half open door.
“So you will be wanting some supper then Joe?”
“That would be grand and I bought something for Maria, a poor wee mite though it is.”
He unbuttoned his coat to pull out the lamb, dry now from the warmth of his body but still motionless.
“Tis not dead Maria” he answered the demand that came from the doorway “just half starved.”
Eager hands took the small burden from him and milk was warmed, he crouched down next to the fire, dark head close beside Maria’s red curls, showing her how to trickle some milk into the cold mouth and to stroke its throat to make it swallow.
Joe is gone now; the young man who knelt at the fire with me shot dead, his poor body slung up on an old door. He was a nice boy was Joe. The lamb followed us around for many years after he died, it never got a name; we always just called her Joe’s lamb. Some winters we did not have much to eat but no one even suggested slaughtering that sheep, even when she got into Ma’s garden and ate all the vegetables. It would not have been right, Joe was a nice boy.