I shut the gate. My forearms drop over the steel pipe frame. It’s almost too hot to keep my sun-drenched skin against the galvanised metal, but taking the weight off my aching legs is more important. I breathe deep, keeping my mouth closed against the dust and the bloody flies. Bella slinks to the fence and tiredly drops her head onto her paws in the shade. We both survey the last mob of woolly sheep as they settle into the shade to cool off before shearing. They move about, gently jostling each other as they expand into the space. I scan across the rippling shades of grey, ensuring they all have room to stand comfortably; occasionally, Bella’s kelpie force will jam them in too tightly. A forceful sigh escapes my chest as I realise I don’t have to let any out. We’re on the home stretch. The searing metal against my firm arm muscles is unbearable now. I shift across to the wooden fence. Pivoting, I poke one heel into the gap between the planks and push my weight up onto the top rail. I hang my denim pockets over the railing and balance an elbow on my knees. I wave the flies out of the corner of my eyes and reach for my insulated water bottle, slipping it from the back pocket of my shorts. I sip slowly, letting the soothing liquid slide down my throat. Each mouthful fights a fraction of the burning heat off. I dip my head and trickle water across the nape of my neck. I pat my shirt to catch the precious water on my shoulders, creating an aircon effect as the thirty-eight-degree breeze sucks the water away. I breathe in; nothing ever compares to the smell of warm lanolin as it mixes with the hot dust outside the shearing shed. I tense as I hear a metallic clinking. Bella’s ears swivel forwards, her body coiling in response to the same noise. Both our heads turn back and forth, scanning. It’s just a sheep moving past the gate latch. My body relaxes. It takes longer for her to uncoil.
I’m toast, absolutely cooked after three weeks of sunburn, windburn, dust baths and countless kilometres of walking. I ignore my desire to stay right where I am, and I slide off the rail worn smooth by many a bum before mine. I crouch to her level and stroke the space between her ears. “That’ll do, Bells,” I reassure her. Her jaw drops open, and she takes her cue from my relaxed body. She returns to panting. I pour a stream of water steadily into one hand, and she thirstily laps at it. I keep it up until her eyes flick gratefully to mine. I move the stream over her back, painting a stripe with my hand as I go. We share it all, the workload, the water, the dust, and always the exhaustion.