Copyright © Margareta Osborn 2014. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Copyright © Margareta Osborn 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Chapter 1

Parnassus shone like burnished copper. In the slight breeze on this glorious mountain day, his long mane and tail flicked like wisps of thick cotton. At the judge’s crack of the stock-whip, Jodie Ashton urged her gelding forwards. Parnie picked up his hooves with confidence and jig-jogged through the gate into the camp. The small yard contained seven Hereford cattle all milling in the back corner. Jodie looked shrewdly across the mob. She was searching for a beast with a kind eye that moved away from her nicely, not like the last one she’d picked in the ladies’ event. Head up, square-on to both her and her horse, that steer had eyeballed her with arrogance. Anyone would think she was a raw beginner, choosing him, rather than someone coming back to campdrafting after a few years’ break. She’d spent the last hour asking herself what she’d been thinking!
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Copyright © Margareta Osborn 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Margareta Osborn

Alex: that’s what she’d been thinking. Alex and the argument over getting her a new horse. A horse she didn’t need, didn’t want and certainly didn’t require him to buy for her. A voice came over the loudspeaker: ‘And next up is number twenty-four, Jodie Ashton on Parnassus.’ Focus, woman! Jodie pulled her mind away from Alex and walked Parnie through the cattle, taking particular note of the ‘freshies’, the new stock brought into the yard after the last competitor. Eyeing them over, mentally sizing each up and then discounting one after the other. She could hear her father’s voice in her head, reminding her to sit strong in the saddle, to tilt her pelvis, push her feet forwards – ‘Get her boots on the dashboard’ as Robert Ashton used to say with a smile. Oh God, her dad. She didn’t need to be remembering him any more than she needed to be thinking about Alex just now. A voice came from her right. ‘Ready,’ said the judge. From the loudspeaker: ‘And for those of you who don’t know what this event is, it’s a maiden draft. That does not refer to the sexual experience of the rider – although with a body like that I’d have Jodie in my bed any day!’ Raucous laughter erupted from the grandstand. The announcer, Richard Muldeen, was a womaniser of the first degree. ‘A maiden draft means the horse is just starting out and hasn’t won a draft yet.’ Like Parnie, thought Jodie, as her eyes locked onto a beast. She moved Parnie forwards, aiming to cut the steer from the rest of the mob. The horse signed onto the steer, cutting and weaving, trying to force the beast away from its mates, until there were only two steers left in front of them. Muscles and sinew moved like quicksilver, powerful hindleg muscles hunching as Parnie blocked the cattle from heading back where they’d come
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Copyright © Margareta Osborn 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Mountain Ash

from. Together rider and horse pushed the remaining beasts towards the double gates at the far end of the yard. Two men wearing broad Akubra hats waited, hands on the rails, ready to jump into action and swing the gates wide open at Jodie’s call. She just had to get her chosen steer away from his mate. Above her head, Jodie was vaguely aware of a loudspeaker blasting her earlier disaster to all. ‘In the ladies’ event, Jodie was cracked off. For the uninitiated this means she lost her beast back to the mob for a third time and had to leave the camp. Let’s see if she and Parnassus can hold on to this one . . .’ The cattle made a break for the right-hand rail but Parnie was onto them, facing up to the steers. His ears were working, flicking back and forth. He was so signed on to the beast, she could tell he was in his element and loving every minute of the challenge as much as she was. There! Her selected steer was by himself, the other behind them. Finally. Steer, horse and rider turned to the right. Another swing to the left, all in concert. ‘Gate! ’ yelled Jodie as the beast moved for another turn. The two steel barriers were yanked open by their keepers. The animal could sense freedom ahead. And then Jodie, Parnassus and the beast were out of the camp and galloping into the arena. She had forty seconds to get the animal around the course. Covering the steer on the inside, horse and rider headed him towards the first peg. Ears still flicking, Parnie put on a burst of speed, guiding the beast around the peg. The steer was moving okay with his tail up over his back, all promising signs he was going to run well. Jodie allowed a little frisson of pleasure to thread through her body. She’d made the right choice.
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Copyright © Margareta Osborn 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Margareta Osborn

From a nearby fence-top she could hear a piping voice yelling, ‘Go, Mummy! ’ Milly. Her daughter. There would be no one prouder. Jodie sat down in the saddle to hold her stride for a smooth cross-over. Around the second peg they went, the steer guided by Jodie and her horse. This was all going so sweet. She’d show Alex what she and Parnie were made of, my oath she would. Beneath her she could feel Parnassus sensing the end of the course. He started to run harder, more fierce in his intent. She moved to check him, make him shorten his stride, but the horse didn’t respond. Parnassus was over the top of the animal before Jodie’s brain could assimilate what was happening. Fuck! She was going to hock the beast. Jodie’s body automatically braced for what she knew was to come. Parnie’s head was over the hindquarters of the steer, his front hooves clipping the back feet of the Hereford. The steer tumbled to the ground. The horse and his rider followed, plummeting in a flurry of limbs, hooves and solid unforgiving kilos of flesh. It only took a second for Parnassus’s warm body to disappear from beneath Jodie and she tumbled over his head. And then Jodie was falling . . . falling . . . down into the black.

Images came like photos from a camera. Open sky. Dirt. A teeth-crunching, bone-jarring thump. No feeling. Black images with fuzzy grey-white edges. Forcing her eyes open. Someone screaming. Searching for the voice. She knew it.
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Copyright © Margareta Osborn 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Mountain Ash

Screaming still. Milly. It was her daughter . . . Struggling to move. Being forced back. A male voice. ‘You’ve gotta keep still. They’re coming . . . they’re coming . . . they’re coming.’ It was like a whispered litany in her head. Who was coming? Opening her eyes again. Sniffing the air. The scent of Milly’s shampoo, that distinctive smell of strawberries. A mop of hair lying on her chest. Oh God, it all hurt. Pain buzzed through her nerve endings like she was holding on to an electric fence. But that was nothing compared to hearing Milly’s screams. ‘Mummy! Mummy! Mummy! ’ Oh God. Alex. Dear Alex. Holding Milly’s hand. No, wait. Alex was trying to pull Milly away. Haul her back. Jodie wanted to scream at him, ‘Let her go!’ But again that male voice: ‘No, Jodie. Keep still till the ambos get to you.’ She stared up into the kind eyes of an upside-down stockman. His hands were gently cradling each side of her head, stopping her from moving her neck. She could see chest hairs poking through his once yellow shirt. She wondered if he knew they were smothered in claggy grey dirt. What had she been thinking? Something about a little girl . . . Milly . . . Navy blue. Flashes of red. The kind eyes of the stockman were gone, replaced by efficient hands. A collar around her neck. A board under her back. Sticky tape around her head. Milly’s smell again. She could hear the wracking sobs of her daughter – the most precious thing she had in the world. The sound of Alex giving orders. A sharp prick to her skin. Softness, fuzziness. Then nothing. Nothing at all.
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