There’s good luck, and there’s bad luck. There are happy moments, and there are gloomy moments. There are fun jobs, and there are unenviable jobs. And some days, every one of these wraps into one big adventure.
Robin tasked Ivana; Stixy, the head jackaroo at Warrawagine; and me with mending the fence running through the river crossing. Every year during the three-month wet season, muddied water rushes down these rivers and wipes out the barbed-wire fences. Every year, they’re put back up, and every year, the rushing water, packed with a hefty dose of woodland debris, bowls through the fence again.
Fencing sucks. Let’s agree on that. Mending or laying it down fresh—it doesn’t matter; it sucks. You ride along the boundary in a dusty old truck, one arm hanging out the window and the wind playing with your hair as your gaze skims the fence. A hundred meters, three hundred meters, five hundred meters! And then you spot that snapped line. You curse the world. You get out, you find each end, and you ply loops. You prick your hand on a barb and curse yourself for not wearing gloves. You pull your gloves on and snap off a length of wire from the back of your pickup truck. You maneuver around a pile of dried cow dung and into the thorny spinifex grass. Its barbs prick through your pants and into your legs. Curse the spinifex. You fumble to drag each end of the barbed wire back together. The sun ignites the back of your neck and your exposed arms. You grab the strainer, attach it to each end, and pull the snapped line as tight as possible with your pliers. Dust and sweat marble your neck; two flies have been buzzing around your face since daybreak. You loop your new wire into one end, cinch it tight. You scratch your arm on a barb, curse the wire for being a little bitch. Tighten the strainer with quivering muscles. This is the eighth patch you’ve mended, and it isn’t even noon. You step into a double shot of wet cow dung. You tie off the second loop, slowly undo the strainer so nothing snaps, wipe away the sweat, and take a swig of water. Sometimes you get lucky and only have to straighten a post and sledge it into the ground or drag tree branches off a fallen bit of fence, but you spend most of your time fumbling and straining and pulling and pricking. And then, as my father did during his days as a cowboy out in Wyoming, you’re standing on an anthill, and you don’t realize it until the bastards have climbed knee-high and started nipping your skin.
But then you take pause. The flies momentarily find other prey; a breeze floats through and cools the sweat on your face, your arms, your neck; grasshoppers buzz; leaves rustle; the breeze stops; everything is still; you drink in that steaming sun with your eyes pressed closed. It is a fantastically hot day in Western Australia. A beautifully hot day. You resign to the heat and sweat and dust and sunburn, and take a moment to admire the Jabirus, the parakeets, the hawks, an eagle with an eight-foot wingspan, the kangaroos, the donkeys, the emus, the little lizards poking their heads up to watch your activities, the endless termite mounds. The vast emptiness. “Over there?” I asked Ivana three times a week during our time in Australia. “Do you see any people or houses over there?” The void is full of life. Ivana and I were fencing that Tuesday, six days before the start of the mustering season, and I realized that as much as fencing sucks, doing it in the outback of Australia has its perks.
We needed more spools of barbed wire, so Stixy elected Ivana to take the ninety-minute round-trip to the homestead to pick it up.
“Three rolls oughta be aw-rot,” he said. Stixy is a true outback Australian, complete with crusty boots and a dusty ten-gallon hat. Tall and gangly, he walks and talks with purpose. His work shirts are often missing the two breast pockets since he has to rip them off when he forgets to bring toilet paper from the homestead. When we met him, he’d worked four mustering seasons at Warrawagine, and you can count on him being out there in the future if you ever decide to stop by. “And grab an extra strainah, if you don’t mind,” he added.
He and I drove star pickets into the ground. I envied Ivana’s air-conditioned reprieve from the heat but was proud that Stixy was confident she could navigate her way through twenty kilometers of the outback’s rutted roads and actually come back to our end with the necessary supplies. Ivana is beautiful and brilliant and witty and compassionate, but she’s not tough. She often overnurses minor injuries—a knee bumped getting into the car, a pounding hangover—and she veiled herself in the beige curtain covering the corner window when Jimmy brought in a baby python—a foot long—that was neither venomous nor threatened to bite. She is dependable, no doubt, but driving through emptiness to load up a few rolls of barbed wire isn’t easy.
So Stixy and I walked along the dry, rocky riverbed, carrying hefty sledgehammers and slamming metal star pickets into the ground. Stixy was always pretty patient with me. He said, “You can always try it like this if you’d like,” rather than, “My God, you sure are the stupidest cocksucker I ever met.”
An hour passed.
I glanced at the horizon. Ivana was due back from the homestead.
Two hours. My gaze kept wandering back in the direction she should have been coming from, squinting in an attempt to see a white pickup truck where there was none.
Two and a half.
Following a lengthy search for cell reception, phone raised to the sky, Stixy called Robin back at the office.
“Have you seen Ivana? I told her to come see you at the office when she got to the homestead. We need supplies.”
Robin hadn’t seen her, but he responded that he was going for a ride, so he would look for her. Stixy disconnected as I chewed my lip and a mouthful of concerns.
Another hour passed. Out of star pickets, we crossed the river and radioed the homestead. No word. The horizon sat empty as it had for hours. This is not good. If something had gone wrong, if she’d run out of fuel or popped a tire, why hadn’t she used the two-way radio to call for help?
A message rang through on Stixy’s phone: Call the homestead immediately. He stalked back and forth until he found reception. On speakerphone, I heard the conversation:
“Ivana’s okay. She rolled the truck a few times on the S-bend, wasn’t wearing her seat belt. She’s got a few scratches on her lower back and a bruised elbow. But she’s okay.”
I asked to speak with her. A two-hour roadside wait had dried her tears, but she greatly exaggerated the events of her morning. “What’s that?” I asked. “Three rolls? Maybe four…? And a gash on your lower back? How’s your elbow…? You think you tore something?” After looking at the crash site, three or four rolls was quickly reduced to one, no more than two, and later analysis of Ivana’s injuries downgraded gashes to scratches and mere bruises.
Eighty percent of the way home, she’d taken the S-bend—now landmarked as “Ivana’s S-bend”—too fast. She swerved a trifle this way to avoid a group of startled, scuttling birds. The back of the truck fishtailed, and—perhaps confused by driving on the other side of the vehicle—she overcorrected. She swerved again. And then again, this time losing control. Her side tires dug into the shrubby clay as the top kept going. The opposite side of the truck lifted off the ground and tumbled over the upper half. Homegirl wide-eyed the grass, upside down, about an inch and a half away, in sheer horror. Her head hit the roof. The driver’s side window and the windshield shattered. Everything from the back of the truck—wrenches and wires and sledgehammers and pliers and chains and star pickets and droppers and water jugs and lunch boxes and toilet paper and cans of Pepsi Max—scattered, sprayed this way and that in a series of clattering thumps. The vehicle made a full rotation and bounced to an upright stop.
I know three other people who have been in single car accidents, all the result of intoxication. One died instantly. The second won’t ever stand up on his own again. The third walked away from the scene. (Actually, he ran away and hid out at a friend’s house until he sobered up.) Ivana was lucky. Toyota makes a quality Land Cruiser, and that’s the only reason she was able to walk away from the accident. It’s the same Toyota pickup truck that they use to drive on those pothole-riddled roads in Nicaragua. You can’t find it in the States. Robin has run the gamut of vehicles from around the world and won’t purchase any other work vehicle than these Toyota Land Cruiser pickup trucks. They last longer than any other make or model, despite the bumps and bruises they accumulate every day, and they’re easy to maintain. If Ivana had been in any other vehicle, everyone predicted broken arms, legs, or both—or worse.
Robin arrived on the scene with his daughter-in-law Lynda, and Ivana let go, tears leaking down her cheeks as she rested her head on Lynda’s shoulder. She was broken, emotionally more than anything, and she was sorry for all the damage.
“You’re alive,” Robin said.
“It’s not about the car,” Lynda offered. “It’s about you. We’ve got insurance. A car can be replaced. A sweet girl like you cannot.”
Excessively sugary, maybe, but that’s how it was. Is. When life’s little bumps get in the way, it’s nice to have people around to help you dust off.
That night Ivana didn’t want to leave our room to show her face at the cookhouse for dinner. I sat with her a while on the bed. With some coaxing, I managed to lead her across the lawn to go eat.
Ivana stepped inside, head tucked down and face bright red. I led her to the table and grabbed a plate for her meal. Most were already eating, clinking their knives and forks against their plates. The few words spoken dealt with business—what we’d accomplished that day, what we hoped to finish by tomorrow. For the first five minutes, nobody so much as mentioned the accident.
Then, breaking a silence, Stixy said, “So, blondie. You know we’re still waiting for those supplies.”
Ivana sat to my left. She smiled nervously and flushed. Bandages covered her left arm. And for the first time, I saw a little cut on her chin—red with the skin raised around it. She smiled awkwardly and cleared her throat: “At least I had the courtesy to land it upright on its wheels.”
I laughed, too, but I was blinking back tears. Something about that little cut made the event much more real for me. Ivana exaggerates pain, but this could have been a disaster. She could have broken something. She could be in a wheelchair. She could have been killed. Wow, right? She had only a few bandages, a bruise here and there, but she could have been killed. I slipped my arm around her and rubbed gentle circles into her neck. Now I was the one staring at my plate, hoping none of those real men noticed me blinking.
“Well, that was mighty nice of you, Eve,” Davo said with a smile. He always called her Eve. “Quite considerate, I say.”
“Listen to you, Davo,” said Lynda. “Don’t pick on her just because you can’t get the loader started.”
The conversation drifted off to talk of how, despite Davo’s skill at fixing anything mechanical, he just couldn’t figure out the problem with the loader. And everything was just fine.