A short story by Raylene Brown set in the Snowy Mountains. It was first published in story.book: a collection of fiction (long and short), Unbound Press & Spilling Ink Review’s Prize -Winning Fiction 2011.
Around lunch time they reached a large open cave, high above the river. The sun was hot in the clear mountain air. Clem threw his hat on the ground and set about making a fire, while Lester hobbled the horses. Behind the buzz of the flies was a crisp, clear silence.
They sat and ate in the shade at the mouth of the cave, its cool breath on their backs. Into the silence a whip-bird called twice. Clem looked up and sighed.
“A man ought not’ve sat down,” he said, chucking his tea leaves to one side. “Won’t wanta get up again.”
“No rush,” said Lester. “Seeing as we don’t know where we are, or where the bloody cattle are either. Have a sleep if you want.”
Clem yawned. “Good idea, mate,” he said. “I’ll have a feed and a sleep like a blackfella. They’ve got the idea.”
He moved back into the cave a bit — away from the fire — and lay down flat on his back. In sixty seconds he was snoring.
Lester stood up and stepped out of the cave, shading his eyes with his hand. Talking softly to the horses, he surveyed the valley, trying to realise his bearings. There was too much scrub to gain a view of anything much, so he put his hat back on and walked a little way, retracing the path they’d come along. From here he could see the young, shallow river, burbling as it made its way over and around smooth rocks. Les reckoned that, if all else failed, they could follow it — although that would be hard on the horses, and wouldn’t help them find the cattle. He and Clem had tracked the cattle up here, and there was no guarantee the animals would go back to the river. It was possible they had found water elsewhere.
Considering this, Lester returned to the cave and called to the horses to come further into the shade, then left them standing there at the entrance. He went back past the sleeping Clem and into the dim recesses, where he stood awhile, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the diminished light. It struck him just how much cooler it was in here. The cave narrowed to a passage, still wide enough for three men to walk upright. He reckoned there’d be no harm following it as long as he could see well enough.
The passage turned a corner, and there was slightly more light. Lester could see perfectly well and in half a dozen more steps he found out why. He had found his way into a huge cavern with a hole in the roof. Only a small hole, but enough to let in the most beautiful light. The angle of the sun prevented the direct light from hitting the inside of the cave, so it was filtered, deflected and reflected light that filled the cavern. At his feet clear water ran silently over the smooth, pale rock floor, and on an island in the centre, growing up toward the light, were large ferns with arching fronds. Lester took one more step and his eyes confirmed what his nose already knew — a cowpat. Looking across the vast dimness, he could just discern the animals standing against the far wall. If it was a wall.
Les silently blessed his cattleman’s instincts. The cattle had found water elsewhere as he had suspected. Anyway, for now they weren’t going anywhere. He would have a look around the cavern before moving them out. It was a strange new world. To his left, there was a grotto, with stalactites like curtains and stalagmites like figurines. Les stared at it. The stage was set for a play. As he watched the curtain began to rise, and it seemed the figures began to move in the uneven light. Blinking, he looked again incredulously, but all was still. Though now there appeared to be a spotlight centre stage. After a short while he shook his head, and forced himself to look elsewhere.
“A man could let his imagination run away with him in here,” he muttered, slightly bewildered, blinking again in the shifting light.
The uncertain light was coming from the natural skylight above him. Les was not directly under it, so he moved towards the centre of the hollow, trying to glimpse the sky. He searched for a path across the water to the fern-island directly beneath the hole, wetting his boots in the process. On reaching the island, the man scrambled — as is man’s wont — to the highest point, holding on to thick fronds. Then he looked up.
He could glimpse blue sky, but straddling the hole was an enormous old manna gum, its roots criss-crossing open space and hanging on tightly to the remaining rocks and earth. As he stood there, gazing up, something came loose and fell towards him. Instinctively, he ducked his head down, and doubled up his body. There was a very soft thud in front of him, and he opened his eyes to find it was a cluster of small gumnuts, now lying in the moss at his feet.
He looked around to see if there were any other gumnuts. Perhaps this was a common occurrence and not as strange and unique as it seemed. None were evident. Lester’s instinct was to take it as a sign, though he didn’t understand why. Moreover, such feelings meant nothing when the facts were clear: he was overtired, and his imagination was getting out of hand. He’d found the cattle — it was time to go.
Something about that manna gum stuck in Les’s mind though, as he went back through the tunnel to wake Clem. He thought he would like to climb up to that tree and have a good look at it from on top of the cave. It couldn’t be too far.
Emerging into the clear sunlight was like waking from a dream. As he scrambled around the other side of the cave’s entrance, it struck him — surely the soil was too shallow to support that big tree. Les stopped, looked down at his hand and saw that he was carrying the cluster of gumnuts. He stared at it, trying to remember picking it up. In the pause that followed, Lester scratched his head, and shook himself, then turned and threw the gumnuts as far as he could into the valley. Watching them fall, he saw how the river valley flattened out in this direction. He also saw that there was pasture — not the ubiquitous scrub — and plenty of room down there, on the river flats for the cattle.
Lester stood looking at the hidden valley a moment longer. Then he went to wake Clem. They had to get the cattle out of the cave, down the valley and onto those flats, he reckoned.
“This is a queer sort of place,” said Clem, when he stepped into the cavern behind Lester. He stood a moment more, looking across at the cattle. They appeared unmoved from Les’s earlier visit.
“My bloody oath,” said Lester loudly, trying to break the trance. “Very odd.” His voice sounded unnaturally loud.
Clem stood shaking his head, staring at the little limestone grotto, before making his way to the fern and moss covered island. There, he looked up and a bunch of gumnuts fell down at his feet. Les, watching on, shivered involuntarily, saw Clem reach down and pick them up. Les instinctively knew Clem hadn’t noticed what he’d done.
“Well, I’ll be buggered.” Clem was still looking up, talking softly to himself.
“Yeah, me too, ” said Les. He looked across at the cattle. He could see the whites of their eyes. “Let’s get these cattle, mate, and push on out of here.”
Clem nodded. “Yeah, mate. Then I’d like to take a closer look at that tree.”
“I know,” said Les.
They drove the cattle out of the cave. Each beast was docile, hardly made a sound.
Clem started to speak at one point. “What d’you reckon…” He couldn’t find the words to finish the question. The two men looked at each other, shook their heads. The air was full of unspoken questions.
When they got to the horses, Clem noticed he was holding something in his hand.
“I just want to look at this tree, mate. It can’t be far,” he said.
But Lester and the cattle were unstoppable. They were heading for the hidden valley as though a line was reeling them in.
Clem, noting their direction, holding on to the gumnuts, headed his horse in the opposite direction, and so — while Lester found the river flats and prime grazing land — it was Clement who found the hidden spring and the alluvial gold.