The wounds you can’t see are the hardest to heal…
Iraq war veteran Dan Mitchell once disobeyed an order — and it nearly destroyed him. Now a national park ranger at Coorah Creek, he’s faced with another order that he cannot obey.
Professional photographer Quinn finds beauty in unlikely places. Quinn’s work comforted Dan in his darkest days, and she can help him again. But she knows darkness too — and Dan soon realises that she needs his help just as much as he needs hers.
Carrie Bryant was a talented jockey before a shocking race fall broke her nerve. Horse breeder Justin Fraser is fighting to save his heritage, but would gladly lose it all to heal Carrie.
Four wounded souls fight for the life of a magnificent wild stallion. Could saving him save them all?
Dan Mitchell was sweating by the time he reached his vantage point, high on the side of the steep sandstone cliff. He lowered himself into the gap between two big rocks, where he had the clear view he needed. He laid his rucksack and rifle on the baked red earth and pulled out a bottle of water. He took a long swallow of the warm liquid, then settled himself comfortably to wait. He maintained the kind of immobility that only comes with rigorous training, very aware that even the slightest movement could jeopardise his mission. As he had done so many times before, in places half a world away, he tried to empty his thoughts of everything but the task he was facing.
The sun was sinking rapidly now, but the day was still hot. A small breeze wafted through the gorge, rippling the water on the billabong below him. In the distance, a kookaburra laughed. At the water’s edge, a small mob of grey kangaroos raised their faces to the east, ears flicking back and forth. Listening. Waiting. The sun dropped lower, sending a shaft of golden light through the gorge, setting the deep red cliffs on fire. The silence was broken by a low rumbling sound. With a raucous cry, a crow launched itself into the air. The kangaroos bounded away, their tails high to balance the thrust of their powerful hind legs. The noise grew, echoing through the cutting, shattering the peace.
The wild horses burst over the top of the rise. They swept down the gorge like a leaping, living wave. Black and brown coats rippled as muscles strained. Flashes of white glowed like molten silver in the dying light. As one, the brumbies raced towards the billabong, hard hooves hammering the dry ground until the very earth itself seemed to vibrate with the joy of their passing.
Dan watched them, his sharp blue eyes narrowed against the sun’s glare.
The lead mare tossed her head, scenting the sweet water. She slowed, bringing the rest of the herd to a halt. With much snorting and fighting for position, the first few mares waded into the billabong and began to drink. As they lifted their heads between mouthfuls, sunlight sparkled on drops of water falling like diamonds back into the quivering surface of the water.
There were about forty horses of all ages milling about. Some of the mares had foals clinging close to their sides. The youngsters looked well grown and healthy, but none ventured too far from their mothers. Yearlings hovered on the outskirts of the herd.
Dan was no expert, but to his eyes, the horses looked beautiful. Brumbies were supposed to be mean creatures, inbred and ugly. Badly conformed and useless. But not these. These creatures were beautiful. Dan remembered a story told to him by an Iraqi child during his last tour of duty. The child explained that Allah had created the horse from the South Wind, saying ‘You shall be Lord of all animals and you shall fly without wings’. As he looked at the brumbies, Dan could believe the legend.
This was not the first time he’d come to watch the horses, and he knew that one was still missing. Dan had still not seen the leader of the herd … the one responsible for the broad white blaze that ran crookedly down the faces of the foals and the yearlings. He searched the gorge, waiting. The stallion was always the last to enter.
Something moved in the deep shadows where the sun no longer reached. Dan tensed, waiting. At last the stallion stepped forward into the sunlight. His hide glowed like a blood red ruby in the golden light. A blaze of white ran down his face, and over one nostril, almost as if an artist had slipped while applying paint. His thick mane wafted in the wind as he stood watching his harem at the water’s edge. The big horse tossed his head, testing the wind. He was tall and well-muscled, with fine strong bones and an elegant head. He might run with brumbies, but somewhere in his not-too-distant past there was thoroughbred blood. He was as fine an example of his breed as Dan had ever seen. Strong. Intelligent and alert. Fabulously alive.
After surveying his domain for a few more seconds, the stallion turned towards the billabong. As he trotted past, the mares gave way to make a path for him. He waded into the water, but even as he drank, he remained alert for danger, constantly lifting his head to scent the wind.
The sun was sinking lower now, the shadows in the gorge lengthening. When darkness came, it would drop quickly, like a cloak to cover the animals in the bottom of the gorge. It was now or never. Dan felt sweat break out on his forehead. His palms were slick with it and he wiped them quickly on the leg of his blue jeans before lifting his rifle to his shoulder. He relaxed into a stance as familiar as it was hateful to him. He looked down the long grey barrel, smelling the oil he’d used to clean the weapon just a few hours ago. He closed his eyes for an instant, knowing that image of the blood bay stallion would haunt him. The horses didn’t belong here. They damaged the park and threatened its native inhabitants. They had to go. He understood that. And orders were orders. But this was wrong. There must be another way.
By the waterside, a young colt squealed – an excited, high-pitched sound that was almost human. Almost like the cry of a child. It was the cry of an innocent, from another time and place not so very different from this. When the same sun raised sweat on his brow, but his hands held another weapon. A time when very different brown eyes looked back at him through the sights of his rifle.
‘Take the shot. Damn you. Take it!’
‘But, sarge … the child …’
‘That’s an order, soldier. Take the shot!’
Dan’s finger tightened on the trigger. He opened his eyes, squinting to get a clearer sight in the gathering dusk. The stallion turned its head to stare up at the side of the gorge. It was almost as if he knew Dan was there. The horse’s huge dark eyes seemed to look right back at him. Right through him. See him as he really was …
‘You’re a coward, Mitchell. You make me wanna puke.’
The smell of spicy food cooking somewhere out of sight. Voices. The sound of an engine.
‘He’s gonna get away. Take the shot. Someone take the bloody shot!’
The loud crack of a rifle close by.
Screams. The smell of blood seeping into the hot desert sand …
Dan’s finger tightened on the trigger. He wouldn’t miss. He was too good for that. He was cursed with an instinctive knowledge of distance and speed and wind. He knew how to send that small but lethal round unerringly to its target. He also knew how small a movement of the rifle barrel could send the shot wide.
The sound of the gunshot cracked through the still air, followed by a ping as a bullet ricocheted off rock. The stallion flung up his head, rolling his eyes in alarm as he flung himself sideways. In an instant the mob was racing away, the thunder of the hooves louder than before. Nostrils flared as the smell of the cordite wafted down from the side of the gorge. The stallion was behind the mob, teeth flashing as he drove the mares to even greater speed.
In less than a minute, they were gone. The echoes rumbled around the red cliffs for a few seconds, and then they too faded as the dust raised by the swift hooves settled back to earth. The gorge was empty and still. The sun dropped the last few inches, and darkness fell.
Above the rocky outcrop, Dan’s rifle slipped slowly to the ground. His hands were shaking as he ran his fingers through his tousled red hair. As he had done so many times before, he closed his eyes against the suspicion of tears.
Although he no longer wore a uniform, he knew a lot about orders. Orders that should be obeyed. Orders that shouldn’t. Orders that would haunt a man for his entire life.
And now it was happening again.
Release date: 2023-08-01