Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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On the Reds

by Paul Taylor


The constant, shushing rain formed a grey, shifting mist, doing little for desperate farmers except making everything annoyingly moist. For the small party of men guiding their mob of cattle up the side of Mount Gninraw all it did was make an already treacherous journey that much more risky.

"Trust the fucking rains to come now," muttered one of the rearmost riders.

"Rains?" his companion scoffed. "I've fucked whores wetter than this."

The first man's -- Grub's -- laugh echoed about the thick scrubby trees.

The mob of cattle was stretched over about three quarters of a mile, the two men in back, two either side spaced along the length of the straggling mob, and one man at the front. It was a lonely ride, sitting up there away from the other riders for the length of the day, but Reds always volunteered. He was welcome to it, by turns often taciturn or downright hostile, the other riders had never warmed to him. Despite this being their sixth run with this particular crew. Most, if not all of that was due to the fact that the man was a terrible drunk, not a bad drunk, just always drunk, his saddle-bags clicked and rattled like a brewer's delivery cart.

The riders sat loose in their saddles, feet slung forward, leaning back, almost reclining. The seven of them almost indistinguishable from each other in their moleskin raincoats and slouch hats. For stretches they rode in silence, the reins slack, letting the horses find their own way. The smell of wet leather and damp horse hung in the air, the only sound apart from the rain was the creak of leather and odd jingle of spurs or bridle. Until a terrified cry came from one of the men, a boy really - Peach - who rode on the upper slope from the track. His first call wasn't clear but there was no doubting the word of that second cry.

"Yowies!"

Grub and Bluey turned to each other, both seeing the fear on the face of the other even as they snapped to attention on their horses and released shot guns from holsters down the front of their saddles.

"Fuck," said Grub. "We're goners."

"Man up," said Bluey. "We've got these fuckers."

Although everyone knew stories of drovers who'd run afoul of Yowies on this run or that, no-one seemed to know personally a man who'd seen them. Some blokes thought it had never happened. But there were others who'd swear up and down that their best mate knew a bloke who'd had a mate who'd been killed in a run-in with a yowie. Still though, not a one of these men had ever seen one in the flesh before.

"Keep hold," one of the older men on the low side of the track. Smitty or Irish, Bluey couldn't tell. "Hold yer bloody spot or the bloody bullocks'll be halfway to the flamin ocean before we can stop 'em."

Easy for him to say that, thought Bluey, they were safer down there than poor old Peach and Halfpint sitting up there right in the Yowie's path. The cattle began to shift and moo as they sensed the creatures, and the men's horses twitched, shifting from foot to foot.

Above the sound of the hissing rain Bluey heard them, uttering their senseless, grunting calls to each other. The bloodlust upon them. Echoing each other both he and Grub chambered a round into their rifles. Shortage be damned, if they were going down they wouldn't have to worry about gunpowder shortages any more. The cattle milled, circling and jostling each other, soon they'd bolt. Bluey's heart rabbitted in his chest.

In the bush sloping down to the road dark shapes grew more defined, big, ape-like but uncomfortably human. Their yodeling, whooping cries proved too much for the cattle, one let out a terrified bray and bolted down the low side of the hill and before Smitty had time to scream "Hold 'em, boys!" the cattle were charging headlong down the slope. In short order the horses began to bolt too. Bluey and the others made no attempt to control them, they had no choice but to cling on and try to guide them so they didn't dash their riders into a low-hanging branch or a tree. Back up the steep slope on the track remained a single figure, sitting atop his black horse and watching. As they looked on they heard him first yell, a high, yodeling coo-ee, then charge headlong at the yowies.

####

At the sound of Peach's first cry Reds twisted in his saddle to look back at the mob, concerned they might be on the break. The horse moved partway with him, looking almost as unsteady on its feet as he looked in the saddle. Not the cattle, they were plodding along still. Up the topside of the track then, where Peach was. Yep, yowies, a pack of about six or so, their forms just becoming visible through the misting rain.

Fuck. Reds sighed. He pulled a near empty bottle of wine from his saddle bag and yanked the cork out with his teeth. He tipped the remainder of the wine awkwardly into one side of his mouth and swallowed. Christ what he'd give for a nice cold beer. He tossed the empty into the scrub and pulled a battered old slingshot from one of the pockets of his coat. He placed the cork in the rubber holder, pulled back, and let fly at one of the most nervous looking cows. The cork struck the cow right behind one tagged ear and the beast, already jumpy from the scent and noise of the yowies, let out a frightened moo and jumped off the side of the track. Never known for their calmness or great reasoning capacity, the rest of the mob of cattle followed and they were soon charging headlong down the hill.

As the rest of the riders charged off after the mob Reds turned his attention to the approaching yowies. Was it too much to ask, just to be able to run some cows across the mountain without a pack of yowies molesting them? Fuck, droving cattle was pretty much the only joy Reds had.

He swung his horse around and ambled into the path of the oncoming pack, lazily drawing the long, curved blade of his machete. His horse, unlike the other animals, was calm and reposed. As laid back as its rider, maybe it was two sheets to the wind also.

"You fuckers right then?" he cried. "You want some fresh meat, you shit cunts?" He goaded Schooner into a canter. "Come and get it then, dinner is fuckin' served!"

The fight was a drunken blur for Reds. His last clear memory was galloping into the middle of the yowie pack, seeing pulsing brain flesh after he took the top of one's skull clean off. All instinct and guts, the wound barely slowed the fucker down. Reds had leaned back across the other way and, maybe that might have been when he'd overbalanced and fallen into the middle of them. All he knew was at some stage, he'd ended up flat on his back in the mud with the stink of blood in his nose and slavering hairy men surrounding him.

For some men, civilized behavior is little more than a thin veneer, a bad disguise barely hiding the slavering beast beneath. Alcohol sometimes kept the demons at bay, but at other times... At other times it enraged them and gave them vent to the full extent of their ferocity. Of that brief period of lucid, singing survival, where Reds was little more than a whispering, ending blade and all ferocious, cornered animal only small snatches remained: a yowie fastening onto his arm, just below the shoulder, slamming his left fist repeatedly into the thing's face until it's craggy, sloping forehead cracked and brains splattered him, swearing in a low monotone the whole time; throwing himself on the back of one and screaming as the thing staggered around and he hacked at its companions with his machete; standing over a yowie, laughing and screaming at it as he waved the still twitching head of one its companions in its face.

Though not traditionally intelligent, yowies possessed a form of racial memory, passed on and down. Later, after that sole remaining yowie left mewling in the mud was discovered and devoured by his litter-mates, the terrifying memory of this whirling, screaming dervish that had descended upon them would long be remembered.

The rage passed eventually and the silence that descended upon the bush was eerie. Reds stood, gasping in the stink of blood and cabbage-y stench of yowie, amidst a sprawl of bodies in a pool of bloodied mud, his machete hanging loose in his hand. The only sign of the cattle and his fellow drovers was a trail of churned mud leading down the mountain-side. Reds turned slowly, calling his horse over with a sharp whistle. Schooner plodded obediently over and Reds drew himself painfully up into the saddle where he slouched for a moment, getting his breath back, before reaching for a fresh bottle of wine. He worked the cork from the neck of the bottle and drank long and gratefully from it.

Later, maybe, he'd search for his companions and whatever remained of the herd but for now he was content to quietly sit and let the red angel from the bottle soothe his soul.

THE END


© 2010 Paul Taylor

Bio: Paul Taylor is a son of Oz(tralia, that is) who has been away from writing for a long time (or away from finishing stories he starts, anyway). This particular tale is set a long way from home, but the characters are Aussies even if the wild animals are a lot nastier than dingoes.

E-mail: Paul Taylor

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