1890—River Murray, Victoria
There was no escaping this day, no matter what she did.
A vibrant sun dawned over Mallee country and the bedroom lit up. ‘For goodness’ sake, Ruth. Keep the curtains shut.’ Georgie buried her face under the threadbare bedsheet.
‘Now, come along, Miss Georgie. You love the early morning.’ Plump Ruth bustled about. She drew back the other heavy curtain one-handed before she thumped a breakfast plate of bread and jam on the dresser beside Georgie’s bed.
Eucalyptus scented the shimmering heat and it drifted to Georgie even under the bedclothes. ‘If you’re going to tell me one more time that Mr Dane is coming home today, so help me, I’ll—’
‘You know Mr Dane comes home today.’
‘I know it, Ruth. You’ve told me a dozen times.’ Georgie pushed the sheet away. ‘I can’t stand the man and yet I’ve never met him. All I ever hear is Mr Dane this, Mr Dane that. Mr Dane, so handsome. Mr Dane—’ She sat up, yawned and flexed her back, flinging her arms above her head. Her fingers splayed then she relaxed bonelessly onto the pillow with a long exhale. She’d heard it all before. ‘The poor man has no clue he’s coming home to this.’
‘Oh, he’s not a poor man, miss. He’s a rich young gentleman now. And I remember him well when we was in the schoolyard; I was only a year younger. He was fine to look at an’ all, even back in them days.’
Georgie pulled a face. ‘If he looks anything like his father, I certainly can’t imagine you’d call him fine to look at.’
Ruth cast her a quick glance and swiped a hand over her untidy mousey brown hair. ‘No, miss. He doesn’t look like Mr Tom—’
A screech outside the room interrupted her: Elspeth wanting her hairbrush.
‘Oh God. My cousin intends to wake the dead this morning.’ Georgie swung her legs to the floor.
‘Miss Georgina, blaspheming. And where’s your nightdress?’ Ruth fussed about the bed like some hen pecking at corn kernels. Her backside wobbled under her dress as she bent to rummage through a pile of linen under the wash-stand.
‘It’s too hot for a nightdress, Ruth.’
‘Hardly, and you shouldn’t sleep like it.’ Ruth found the discarded nightdress on the floor and held it out.
Georgie tugged the worn shift from her and wriggled into it. She padded barefoot to sit on the stool in front of a plain timber table with a small mirror on it. A fresh bowl of hot water and a hard scrap of soap waited for her. ‘And why are you here, anyway? God knows we can’t pay you.’ Georgie rubbed her face with bare hands. ‘Bloody depression coming, says Uncle Tom.’
‘You shouldn’t speak of that either, Miss Georgie. Mr Tom will pay—’
‘Don’t talk foolishly, Ruth. The whole district knows he’ll drink it away before any bloody depression gets here.’
‘The devil will come get you with talk like that, that’s a fact.’ Ruth huffed and puffed as she blew hair out of her eyes. ‘And what if Miss Jem was to hear you say that?’
‘The devil is welcome,’ Georgie said and Ruth crossed herself. ‘And my Aunt Jemimah won’t hear of it. All she cares about is her son coming home.’
‘He is your cousin, Miss Georgie, he’s family and—’
‘He’s not my family, Ruth. He’s my step-cousin.’ Georgie pulled her hair back from her face. ‘Now, would you please do my hair for me?’ Her thick dark hair was only ever plaited, and that was how she preferred it. ‘You do it so well.’
‘Miss, I’m not to dilly-dally here. With Mr Dane coming, Miss Jem and Miss Elspeth want their hair attended to, and yours being so simple you can do it yourself, they said that I—’
‘Bloody Mr Dane has been coming for nigh on the four years I’ve been here and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him yet. What makes today so bloody different?’
‘Oh, and gutter talk. The devil will come, missy, right here, to the good Queen’s colony of Victoria. You make no mistake.’ Ruth shook her forefinger and bustled out.
Georgie smiled into the mirror. The devil will come … To our River Murray landing, no less. What rubbish. I’m sure the devil has better work to do. Some said God had forgotten the Australian colonies years ago, the devil even earlier. She dragged the brush through her hair in long strokes, bringing back the gleam after its tousling on the pillow.
Bloody Mr Dane will get a shock when he arrives.
From the furtive whispers and heated arguments in the dead of night when no one thought she could hear, Georgie would wager bloody Mr Dane, the mighty son and heir, knew little of what had befallen Jacaranda since he’d been gone.
Even Georgie’s stepfather, her Papa Rupert in England, hadn’t believed her. She’d confided her suspicions by letter but he’d not answered them. To the contrary, he’d chided her for her lack of charity, implied her imagination was still quite rich and that she should try to be more tolerant of the family’s ways.
There’d been nothing but silence from England since, and that had been well over a year ago.
She was nearing twenty-two … so old and unmarried still. And with no prospects of a good life ahead of her if she remained with the MacHenrys, she reasoned it was her right to fend for herself. When Uncle Tom slurred and slurped his way into rum-addled unconsciousness, she’d ease a few coins from his pockets and secrete them away to a cache under a floorboard in her room. She hadn’t scraped together nearly enough to pursue her chance at life, though.
If only Uncle Tom had taken her up on her offer to handle the books for him. At least that would be something she could do. She was good at sums; she preferred them to needle work and cooking. But he remained adamant to the point of belligerence that she would not attempt such a thing, ‘being a woman and all’. Tom’s books were under lock and key. A key he never left around.
However, there was Conor Foley. Her Conor Foley.
She smiled as she thought of him. Only three weeks ago, his riverboat, the Lady Mitchell, had docked at the landing on the MacHenrys’ property to deliver the goods Jemimah had ordered from the city. Conor brought the much anticipated newspapers from Swan Hill that Georgie read line by line, hungry for the world outside.
His soft Irish brogue, the gleam in his eyes, the deep auburn hair, the broad shoulders. A man who towered over most men, weighty and solid. He was much older than the tiresome boys of the neighbouring homesteads, well past his thirties; he had been to war in South Africa.
Conor Foley offered her a new life with just a glance of mystery and intrigue.
Ruth burst back into the room. She grabbed the hairbrush in Georgie’s hand, apologising as she did so.
‘What are you doing?’ Georgie held fast to the brush.
‘Please, Miss Georgina. There’s such a commotion today. Miss Elspeth’s misplaced her brush. Please let me have the brush. What with Mr Dane returning … He’s been away far too long, wouldn’t you say?’ Ruth had her firm grip over Georgie’s hand on the brush.
Georgie wrenched the hairbrush free. ‘Since I have never met him,’ she said sternly, ‘his absence has hardly bothered me. But his homecoming is sorely testing my very good manners.’ She thrust the brush into Ruth’s hand, sending the woman back a pace or two.
Clutching the brush to her chest, Ruth disappeared as loudly as she had arrived, muttering something that sounded distinctly like ‘Good manners, my arse. You’ll get yours, my girl.’
Georgie sighed long and hard, then set about plaiting her hair.
Impatient with having to be modest, especially now she was alone, she hoisted the nightgown off. Once naked again, she washed in a hurry, and dried with the threadbare towel. The drought meant deep, long baths were rare, so a quick but thorough wash with a flannel and basin had to do.
She stood in front of her wardrobe, an open box built of river gum. It contained hand-me-downs from neighbouring ladies. Georgie hadn’t received new clothes for years, even though she had requested some in her last two letters to England. She’d grown out of the last set of clothes her stepfather had sent from England and they’d been altered long ago for the much smaller Elspeth.
Hands on hips, Georgie stared at the four dresses. A bleached day dress, one light blue dress, one dark blue and a faded pink one. None of them suited her today. No, today was a good day for a long ride along the banks of her beloved river. She needed to escape the madness of today.
She knelt by her bed, flipped up the thin, lumpy mattress and dragged out a pair of men’s trousers, an old shirt and a checked piece of cloth. She took the cloth, a piece of wide fabric torn from an old bed sheet destined for the horses for rubdowns, and wound it around her chest to flatten her breasts. The shirt went on over the top, the trousers pulled up over bare legs and arse, drawn around her waist by a slim leather rope she had borrowed from the tack room. She faced the little mirror again, coiled her long, black plait atop her head and stabbed some pins into it to hold it there.
Then she reached for her flat-heeled riding boots, the only thing she had left from England. They were the colour of burnt caramel, laced to mid-calf, the leather supple and soft after years of loving care. She pulled them on, tied each lace firmly, let the pants drape over them and stood tall.
She grabbed the thick slice of bread left by Ruth, shoved it into a small calico bag then picked up a hat lying under her bed. She sidled out the door to the veranda. A quick look to the left, then the right, and she marched across the dusty yard to the stables. Nobody would be bothering her this morning, all too busy awaiting his lordship’s arrival.
Joe, the stocky, barrel-chested contract stableman, and Watti, an Aboriginal man with a shock of wiry grey hair, were in the stall with the black stallion, MacNamara. Joe crooned as he swept the brush powerfully over the horse’s flank and back. The horse swung his head to stare at Georgie, but waited patiently as his groomsman prepared him for the day. Watti polished the big saddle as it hung over the rail.
Georgie leaned on the stable doorway. She watched Joe as he whispered in MacNamara’s ear, rubbed his nose and plied him with soft Irish compliments, the lilting murmur music to her ears. Joe ran his hands over a glossy flank, down to a fetlock and back, and the horse stood nodding his proud head. Joe would camp in the stalls on the days he spent at Jacaranda, for MacNamara was a prized possession, and Tom MacHenry dared not neglect him.
MacNamara stood sixteen hands. Georgie could just see over his withers. He was eight years old now, past the silly stage, and he had responded well to her training. She’d fed him and groomed him as a younger horse, cleaned and oiled his saddle, looked after his teeth and, when he got too big for her to look after his hooves, Joe had been called in to keep the horse in top condition. She loved the horse. Joe knew it, the horse knew it.
Joe was also the one who made sure Dane MacHenry himself would foot the bill for MacNamara’s upkeep, and for the other two horses: Douglas, a gentle roan, and Brandy, a chestnut. Left to Tom, the horses wouldn’t survive. Georgie knew that well enough.
She pushed off the doorway and walked into Joe’s line of sight, reaching up to scratch MacNamara’s forelock. ‘Morning, Joe. Morning, Watti.’
Watti mumbled something as he nodded, his dusty black face sombre, eyes averted.
Joe lifted his chin at her. ‘Morning, Miss Georgina. In your ridin’ clobber today, I see.’
‘I thought to take myself away from all the gormless softheads for a while.’
Joe snorted a laugh.
‘Is Mac ready?’ Her hands ran down the horse’s neck and slid across the muscled chest. How she loved that sleek, hard body and its power. Mac was a dream to ride, obedient to her lightest command. They would tear through the paddocks together, whatever the weather, and end up exhausted and exhilarated.
‘Mr Dane’s coming home and Mr Tom wants the horse ready for him. Sorry, miss. Not MacNamara today.’ Joe kept his gaze on the horse. ‘Mr Dane comes straight to the stables when he comes home. Wouldn’t be too good if Mac were gone with you.’
‘That would be your opinion, Joseph O’Grady.’
Joe inclined his head. ‘It would be that.’
Georgie inhaled with a low hiss. That blasted Dane MacHenry again. ‘Comes straight to the stables, does he? Since when, in the last four years?’
Joe studied her. ‘Believe me, Miss Georgie, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.’ He returned to his brush work. ‘Besides, miss, I doubt you’d want to see Mrs Jemimah out of sorts over it.’
Georgie shot a glance at Joe. ‘No, of course I wouldn’t. I know Aunt Jem is looking forward to his return.’ She tapped her foot. ‘Then it looks like I’ll have to take Brandy.’
Joe dipped his head and kicked the dirt with his boot. ‘Miss Elspeth wants to ride Brandy today.’ Georgie lovingly looked after Brandy, Elspeth’s mount, too.
Georgie’s eyes widened. ‘Elspeth? How extraordinary. That poor horse.’ She paused. ‘Do you think the donkey would be available, Joe, or is he also engaged to ride with the rest of his kin?’
‘If we had a donkey.’ Joe gave her a smile. ‘Douglas here is rarin’ for a good run, miss. He’s in good form and no one to ride him. Take Douglas. He’s a good boy.’ Joe tethered MacNamara and unlatched the next stall door. He stepped inside and ran his hand over the muzzle of the roan. ‘He’s a good boy,’ he repeated to the horse.
‘He is at that.’ She loved Douglas too, he just wasn’t MacNamara. But her mood lifted. ‘All right. I’ll saddle him up, but not with one of those stupid women’s things.’
Joe threw a blanket over Douglas’s back. He knew better than to assist further, so he watched Georgie heft the saddle onto Douglas. As she tightened the girth, she muttered.
He cupped a hand to his ear. ‘What’s that? Did I miss some of your colourful language?’
She stepped into the stirrup and threw herself astride the horse, then beamed at him. ‘I said, let the blasted devil come for his horse. But not a word of that to anyone, Joseph O’Grady.’
‘’Pon my Celtic soul, as usual, miss.’
She gee-upped Douglas into the yard, stooped gracefully to unlatch the gate and swung it open. Joe would latch it behind her.
Dane MacHenry gripped the seat of the rough cart, his knuckles white, as his father drove, bouncing over a track pocked with large holes. They rounded the corner and there was Jacaranda, sprawled a hundred yards ahead.
My family home … Good sweet Jesus, the place is a mess.
What had happened to the proud young Murray pines that flanked the road into the property? He’d planted them at the same time his father had added on to the house to give Elspeth her own room. Only a straggly few remained.
They bounced through the gate … or what had been the gate as Dane remembered it, now only broken timbers, left to rot where they’d fallen. The entrance archway had disappeared, no trace of it left. He eyed the sign: Jacaranda. It lay flat on the baked earth just inside the boundary fence, which may as well have been non-existent.
And the house. When he stared at the veranda, the sagging roof gave him a jolt, though the timbers and stones of the walls looked sturdy enough. As they drew closer he saw the window frames were crumbling, eaten away, and in some the glass—so very carefully tended by his mother—was missing: there were boards covering a window on the far left.
All this in just over four years?
‘Jesus, Pa. What the hell’s happened here?’
Tom shook his head, grim and frowning. ‘Much to talk about.’
Dane stared at him. It didn’t seem long ago that his father was a great bear of a man. He’d had a thatch of coarse, dark blond hair, shaggy eyebrows and a quick grin, even in times of trouble. His big hands were capable of anything, from cradling a newborn lamb to thwacking a log with his axe.
The man Dane sat beside now was a shadow of the man he remembered. The hair had receded, thinned, greyed. The lines on his face were more than just age; they were worry and perhaps ill-health. It was his father’s eyes that disturbed Dane the most: wild eyes, bloodshot and furtive, like that of a cornered cur.
The cart jumped and banged its way to the house. The neglect of the family property showed years of disregard, not just a few lax months.
Dane knew six years of severe drought had decimated the Mallee, Victoria’s northwestern district. But the rains had returned and rich grassy plains grew from ruddy red dust. Why was Jacaranda still so browned off and shrivelled?
This was neglect, pure and simple.
One more year had been his plan. One more year in Sydney. After that he’d return to work the farm, to take over. To put in place new ideas for cropping, perhaps citrus or grapes and irrigation. He’d learned much, and still had much to learn, but now his job looked like a completely different task.
Damn me, I should’ve have returned a year ago … ‘Pa, what the bloody hell has happened?’
Tom swung the cart to a halt, dropping a wheel into another deep pothole at the steps of the veranda. Both he and Dane swore loudly.
Inside, Tom was impatient for everything at once. ‘Yes, yes. But where did you get enough money to buy that place? Surely a hotel is not an easy thing to come by? Where did the money come from, son? Where?’
‘Money?’ Dane asked. He stopped short. His mother straightened in her chair. Elspeth, his sister, was oblivious to anything but what was on her plate.
His father nodded and pushed a forkful of fried egg and bread into his mouth.
‘I didn’t buy the place. I won it. At cards.’
Tom erupted into a coughing fit, his mouthful spilling over his shirt front. Elspeth looked at her father curiously between shovelfuls, and Jemimah jumped up to thump his back and help him mop up. The silence while Tom tried to control his choking was thick. Jemimah stood stony-faced behind him, thumping him again. Elspeth ate on.
‘You all right, Pa?’
‘Went down the wrong way.’ Tom slurped a dish of tea and swallowed audibly, clearing his throat. ‘You won it at cards,’ he wheezed.
‘It was a run-down brothel—sorry, Ma—and this fella challenged me while I sat at his table.’ Dane didn’t mention it was his good friend and business partner, Reuben Cawley. ‘We played cards for it and I won. Simple.’ He began to eat his breakfast.
‘Pa plays cards, too.’ Elspeth’s mouth was full. ‘He plays with Charlie Rossmoyne and that riverboat man, Conor Foley, who—’
‘That will do, Elspeth,’ Jemimah cut in. ‘Come with me. It’s time to leave your father and your brother to talk alone.’
‘I’m not finished.’ Elspeth forked the last scrapings from her plate into her mouth.
Jemimah glared at her daughter. ‘Where are your manners?’
Elspeth burst into tears. ‘I have manners. I have manners!’ She rushed out of the room, dragging the tablecloth in her hurry.
Jemimah drew her lips into a thin line, and left the room.
Dane stared after her. He remembered his mother as healthy and vital, but now she seemed bowed, and not quite her old self. Her dark blonde hair had bleached and looked brittle, and she was thinner than he recalled. But her eyes still held a spark of life. She’d fussed a little over him, kept holding his hands and hugging him quickly, smiling broadly. Then she’d release him and moments later return to hug him again but the broad smile was a shadow of its former self.
He turned to his father. ‘Things are not good.’
Tom rubbed a hand over his mouth. ‘Things have been neglected here of late.’
Dane frowned. ‘An understatement, I would say.’
‘It has been … difficult. Debts. Bad weather. Upkeep of a family. Elspeth is at an age—’
‘Clearly.’ Dane knew Elspeth would be about sixteen now, and old enough to be brought into society. But she would not have wrought this havoc of disrepair on the place. Elspeth still seemed a child, untidy in her dress and her hair, which looked as if she’d never gotten a brush near it, let alone pins and a cap. She was tall for her age, but ungainly. Her big doe eyes, hazel and haunting, reminded him of someone who knew life was going to be hard.
The silence grew. Dane continued to eat. He decided his father could do some more talking.
Tom pushed his plate away, stood and reached into a cupboard behind him. His hand emerged gripping a bottle and two glasses. He filled one, swallowed its contents in one gulp and poured two more.
Rum, and it was barely ten in the morning.
‘It’s the girl, Dane. This Georgina, your mother’s step-niece.’
‘What of her?’ Dane had read in Jemimah’s letters of the girl coming from England to live with the family, but he hardly thought much of it. He had dutifully sent five pounds more each quarter. The letters from his mother had stopped a year or so ago. Perhaps he should have wondered more about that.
As Dane hadn’t touched the proffered glass, Tom took it back and swallowed the rum. ‘Her father is to blame for why I’ve got no money, son.’
Dane stared. He sent money, regular payments each few months. Money he had expected was feeding the family, building capital in the place, waiting for him to return. ‘I send you—’
Tom waved him down. ‘Your mother’s brother, Rupert, is the girl’s stepfather. He’s accrued big debts, gambling and whoring, and I’ve been … sending your money back to England to cover his arse.’ His father rolled the rum tumbler as it stood empty on the table. ‘He’ll go to debtor’s prison unless I can pay off his debts. So, for your mother’s sake, I send drafts to him.’ Tom shook his head slowly. ‘It would be a shock to you, I know. Your mother wasn’t to tell you before now, wasn’t to worry you.’ He kept his eyes downcast. ‘It’s been going on for a while and as you can see, the place is deteriorating, too fast now. I need your help, son. I need more financial assistance.’ He reached across and poured himself another tot.
‘How much more?’
‘They want to foreclose. I’ll need—’
‘Foreclose?’ Dane exhaled loudly. ‘Why didn’t you get me to come earlier?’
‘I needed what you were sending.’ Tom hesitated. ‘You do have more money, don’t you, son?’
Dane shook his head to clear it. Jacaranda was in jeopardy because of his uncle’s transgressions in England while his daughter was supported here? At least in that regard the girl was safe with his family and not forced to beg in the streets—or worse—but was his family safe now? ‘How much?’
‘Five hundred pounds.’ Tom’s speech slurred.
‘Five—!’ Dane leapt to his feet, knocking the rum to the floor. ‘That’s a bloody fortune.’
Tom gurgled as he rushed to retrieve the bottle.
Dane kicked it out of reach. ‘Leave it, Pa. I send you twenty pounds a quarter. Why has that not been enough?’ He glanced about the house, aware his mother and his sister—and the help—would be nearby, and lowered his voice. ‘There is more to this story, and I will hear it. We’ll go out and ride. Now.’
Tom still would not meet his eye. Instead, he bent to pick up the nearly empty bottle.
Dane stalked out of the house.
He reached the stable long before Tom.
Joe greeted him warmly. ‘’Tis good to see you back again, Mr Dane. You’re a welcome sight, you are.’
Dane gripped the other man’s hand. ‘Good to see you’re still here, Joe.’
Joe shrugged. ‘We only come back an’ forth these days. Someone’s got to do the heavy work for me horses.’
Watti made his way over from Douglas’s stall. ‘Mista Dane.’ He took both Dane’s hands in a shake. ‘Good on yer, fella.’ He beamed at Dane, one tooth missing from the top row.
‘Good on yer, fella, Watti. Good to see you, too, old man.’
‘Look at MacNamara now, Mr Dane. Just look at him.’ Joe beckoned Dane to MacNamara’s stall.
‘Jus’ look at him, that one, that horse.’ Watti leaned over the stall rail.
‘Just look at him,’ Dane repeated. His gaze roamed over the big horse. ‘He looks very fine.’ MacNamara’s black coat glistened, his eyes were wide and clear, and the smell of his breath was clean. Inside the stall, Dane ran his hand down a foreleg. ‘He’s still a beauty, Joe. I’ve sorely missed him.’ He glanced around. ‘And the stables, man. They look better than the house. You’ve done it proud. All thanks to you two.’
‘Not entirely me and Watti, Mr Dane. We’re only here now for the heavy work, as I said. No, sir, not all us.’
‘I’ll lay a bet it isn’t old Tom yonder.’ Dane hitched a thumb towards his father as he stumbled in through the stable doors.
‘’Tis the young lady, Miss Georgina.’
‘Is that so?’
‘She’s in here mucking out, scrubbing the place, oiling the timbers. I bring her fresh hay and she spreads it, she feeds them. Never seen a lady work like that before.’ He turned to stroke the big horse’s neck. ‘And she’s rubbed all them horses down, talks to ’em all day an’ night.’ He shook his head. ‘She rides MacNamara like she was a part of him and they whip through them paddocks like the wind itself. He gets a good run from her, and well he needs it, too.’
‘A good thing for the horse.’
‘It is that.’
Dane turned to his swaying father. ‘Can you ride in that state?’ he asked.
‘Coursh I can.’
‘Joe, will you change that sidesaddle—’ Dane indicated Brandy, ‘—and saddle up for Pa?’
‘I can do it meshelf.’ Tom leaned on the stall door.
Joe handed MacNamara’s reins to Dane and then reached into Brandy’s stall. ‘Mr Tom, perhaps you would hand me up your saddle?’
Dane led MacNamara out of his stall. The big horse shied and as Dane swung up onto the broad back, the horse danced under the unaccustomed weight. Dane barely touched him with the stirrup and MacNamara was off.
‘Jesus,’ he yelled and managed to halt ten yards from the gates. ‘I’d forgotten how keen he is.’
Joe laughed behind him. ‘He’s lost none of his fire. It’s Miss Georgie keeps him at his finest.’
Dane grudgingly admired the girl if she could handle his powerful horse. He trotted back to Joe, waiting for his father to steady himself.
Joe gave the older man a leg-up into the saddle. Tom gripped Brandy’s mane as he thrust his feet into the stirrups. He pitched forward to remove his foot from a stirrup twisted by his carelessness then tried to replace it. It proved difficult.
Watti stepped up to grip Tom’s ankle and pushed it into the stirrup.
Dane leaned down to Joe. ‘He has been paying you, Joe?’
Joe nodded. ‘He has, Mr Dane. ’Tis in his best interests.’
Dane lifted his chin towards his father and spoke quietly. ‘How many people know of this?’
Joe glanced at Tom, who still concentrated on the stirrup though Watti had stepped back. He hesitated only moment. ‘About everyone in the district.’
Tom trotted past them. ‘Come on, then, lad. Don’t keep your old dad waiting on yer.’ He rode with one foot lolling out of its stirrup.
Watti threw his hands in the air.
Dane wheeled MacNamara and followed his father out.
About everyone in the district.
He didn’t have five hundred pounds, dammit. He’d have to sell his tavern for that sort of money, and it was too early yet. There’d have to be another way. Then he’d have to find funds on top of the debt to re-stock, buy seed …
He would forestall the bank, speak to his business partner.
They cantered out of the home paddock. ‘Tell me everything, Pa, right from the start.’
Tom bumped in the saddle, at odds with the horse. ‘I’ll tell you one thing: he’s ruined me, and your mother, and Elspeth,’ he wailed. ‘The damned game he plays, he’s too good … and I lost my head. All that money.’
Tom frowned then shook his head. ‘Yes. I mean your uncle.’
‘You don’t sound like you know who it is you’re talking about. Sober up so I can get sense out of you.’ Dane rode west to look over some of the property. It would give Tom time to clear his head.
Keeping the river on his right, Dane took them through a couple of paddocks. He leaned down from the saddle to unhook the gates and shut each behind them as Tom came through.
Tom swayed atop Brandy. ‘Wouldn’t bother wi’ that. There’s no stock.’
‘I can see. There’s no feed here for stock, either. Place is as dry as a chip.’ Every direction Dane turned a barren red landscape stretched before them. The dust of the land disheartened him. His heart thumped. This degradation, in just over four years. Why had Jemimah not written and informed him?
‘Do the windmills still run?’ Dane stared at a silhouette in the distance. He remembered the excitement years ago when his father first purchased one from the engineer, Mr Alston, in the Western Districts.
‘When I need them to. I haven’t let sheep out here for a year or more.’
It wouldn’t take much to fix this paddock. A few good men, some tools, weekly maintenance, unless otherwise required. Small stock levels to begin with … fence off a few paddocks to sow seed …
He swung MacNamara and looked east towards the river banks lined with trees. ‘Let’s head to the river.’
‘Good idea. I’m hot as hell.’ Tom wiped his forehead with his sleeve, which came away damp.
Sweat ran down Dane’s back as the sun rose higher. He headed for the shade of the mighty river red gums, and for the cooler air lifting off the water.
They stopped on the bank, overlooking a bend in the river, one of Dane’s favourite places as a boy. He gazed across the slow flow of muddy water then dismounted and walked to where the river lapped the dun-coloured bank. His past leapt back to him.
Tom said, ‘I’m right now, son, but for a big headache. If you don’t mind, I might piss then have a smoke.’ He slid off Brandy and stepped to the nearest bush.
Dane tethered the two horses then sat on his heels staring at the river. ‘I don’t have five hundred pounds, Pa,’ he called over his shoulder.
‘Can you get it?’
‘You’d better tell me all of it.’
Tom returned buttoning his pants, sweat gleaming on his face. He slid down the trunk of a sturdy gum and sat heavily, pulling a pouch from his pocket. He rolled a smoke. ‘It began just as soon as the girl arrived from England, not long after your last visit. Your uncle, Jem’s brother—you only met him when you were two or three—bit toffee but all right, I suppose. Er, back then.’ He scratched a match to light his smoke, took a draw and looked at Dane. He’d gone as white as a sheet. ‘Lad, can you get me a cup of water? Cup’s in Brandy’s bag.’
Dane opened the rawhide bag slung on Brandy’s saddle and pulled out a tin pannikin. He took it to the river, dipped it and returned to Tom.
Tom swallowed the water. ‘He married a widow in Melbourne. The girl is his dead wife’s daughter. When the wife died, he went back to England, took the girl with him. Schooled her there for ten years, thereabouts. His new wife came along and she didn’t want a young unmarried colonial around, especially a step-daughter. He begged Jemimah and me to take her and said he’d send money to … ’ He shrugged, and stared at the ground. ‘God alone knows how, at eighteen, the poor girl … ’ His voice drifted off again.
‘And she’s been living here ever since? You should have put her to work.’ Dane sat beside his father, picked up a pebble and hurled it into the water.
‘Your ma hoped we’d find a suitable husband, but no one around here’s good enough. Georgina was a bit above us all when she first arrived, but not so much now. Still, these days she has some damned notion about the vote for women. That’d scare any man off.’ Tom held up a hand to Dane’s querying glance. ‘Anyhow, your mother’s repaid a good deed, trying to help her brother, who’d helped her when no one else would.’ His lip curled; he hawked and spat. ‘But let that story be for now.’
‘It’s your mother’s to tell. Not important now.’
Dane shrugged that off. So, the girl was living here while the family struggled to pay her father’s bills. A breath of fresh air, his mother had written long ago, and certainly nothing since. Elspeth had written, at the very least I used to get her old dresses … And in Tom’s letters, only a fleeting mention.
‘Pa, something doesn’t sound right. I’ve sent you money. You said it went to England, for Rupert.’
Tom looked as if he were thinking. ‘Not all your money, now I recollect. Some to pay off loans here.’
Tom lifted a shoulder. ‘I borrowed from the lads. The neighbours.’
Dane stared at him. ‘Are they paid back? You’ve kept careful books?’
His father shrugged again. ‘No point now.’
‘No point—? We will pay them back once I see the books.’ Dane rubbed his face. Things were going from bad to worse. ‘If I went to our solicitors in Melbourne with papers, and with financial backing, would the bank still foreclose?’
Tom closed his eyes and leaned on a tree trunk. He flicked the rolled smoke away from him and crushed it with his boot. ‘I don’t know, Dane. Can you get anything?’
‘I can try. I can’t get five hundred pounds, perhaps one-fifty.’ He thought for a moment. ‘You need to be relieved of the girl’s care.’
His father looked up, blinked into the light then squeezed his eyes shut. ‘It has already been—’
‘She will have to go elsewhere. To work as a governess, perhaps, or some such thing.’
‘I will think on a solution.’
Tom’s eyes remained closed for a moment longer. ‘You do that.’ He didn’t look at Dane when he said, ‘Until then, not a word to your mother.’
The sound of an approaching rider interrupted them. A young, reed-slender youth on a big roan crashed through the light scrub and burst onto the banks of the river close to the tree under which Tom slumped.
‘Uncle Tom,’ the rider shouted, and the huge horse wheeled about, narrowly missing Dane as he leapt out of the way.
‘You bloody idiot,’ he yelled.
The rider jumped from the saddle, rushed to the older man sitting under the tree and squatted beside him, laying a hand on Tom’s shoulder. ‘What happened, are you all right?’
It was a girl.
In two bounds, Dane was by her side. He gripped her wrist and she stood, resisting. ‘You damned fool. You could have killed me.’
She faced him, her eyes flashing. ‘Don’t be a daft bugger. I wasn’t aiming for you.’
His heart banged against his ribs, his breath caught as if his windpipe had closed. In those few moments, her face etched onto his memory. The shape of her chestnut brown eyes, and the proud set of her full mouth. Freckles spattered her nose. His gaze flickered lower, but the loose shirt hid the curves he expected to see.
He tipped the hat from her head and she scowled at him. A heavy plait fell to her shoulders. It was as thick as rope, black and glossy with blue highlights that shimmered and weaved through it.
‘And keep your hands off me.’ She snatched her arm from his grip. Suspicion narrowed her eyes and her nose crinkled. She bent to Tom at the base of the tree. ‘Are you all right, Uncle Tom? What are you doing on the ground?’
He nodded. ‘I’m all right,’ he said and struggled to his feet, pushing himself up against the tree trunk. ‘Dane, this is your step-cousin, Georgina Calthorpe. Georgina, this is my son, Dane James MacHenry.’
The girl was clearly not about to be conciliatory. Dane finally dipped his head at her.
She maintained her glare a second or two longer, then held out her hand.
He gripped it. ‘You’re dressed as a stable lad.’
‘I am dressed for riding a horse,’ she spat.
His grip was harder than it needed to be and he held it until he saw a faint gleam of contempt in her eyes. He let her remove her hand. She stared stonily at him then turned her back.
He watched her every move as she marched to a patient Douglas, who was nipping tufts of dead grass, and bent to take up his reins. She touched a hand to her throat, scratching at dust, then wiped her face with the tail of her shirt. She mounted and turned the horse.
Astride. Dane stared anew. He hadn’t noticed because he’d assumed she was a youth.
Erect in the saddle, she walked the horse towards him. The riding quirt was in her hand and she slapped it gently on her leg, now almost under his nose.
He stepped back as she pushed the horse further towards him. The breath of air from the slap of the quirt fanned his cheek.
He grinned and grabbed her ankle.
Enraged, she flicked the quirt close to his face and whipped Douglas around so tightly he reared, too close to Dane. ‘I’m going home, Uncle Tom,’ she shouted. She wheeled again and fled, the horse as anxious to move as she, and then they were gone, leaving a trail of dust and leaves in their wake.
Dane wondered at her skill, for the quick sting of the riding quirt had barely touched his cheek.
Georgie galloped all the way home, threw herself off Douglas’s back and, under protest from Joe, furiously rubbed the horse down, muttering all the while to herself.
The devil will come.
Georgie finished with the horse, marched back to the house, yelled for Ruth to help fill a bath and strode into her room. There she collapsed, shivering at what she had done.
She’d nearly struck him with the riding quirt. Her rage had been reflexive—he should not have grabbed her ankle; the steely grip of his fingers had dug deep.
She took a couple of breaths and ran out to help Ruth as she lumbered in with the bath then followed her out to lug buckets of warm water, one after the other, until the bath had just enough to sit in. Ruth took her leave.
Georgie stripped down and climbed in, grateful they still had water close by. She scrubbed her face and neck, soaped her underarms and between her legs, and then sank into the warmth of the water, allowing it to soothe her nerves. She wished she drank rum … it seemed to help Uncle Tom sometimes.
She stood and stepped out of the water, dried herself off and shivered again. The shiver, she knew, was not from the cold. Still his face would not leave her memory, burned there as much by her anger as by his. She sat at the little armoire, wrapped in her house gown, and tried to finger comb her hair, her brush still not returned to her. Knots entangled what was usually a cooperative mass. She willed herself to undo every snarly little one, but she gave up in frustration.
Choosing her light blue dress, she slipped a chemise over her head and stepped into the dress without bothering with her corset. She pulled on an old pair of drawers and jiggled until she was comfortable. The unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach and between her legs remained, but she resolved to be calm.
Her stillness was short-lived. Elspeth burst into her room, a nervous Ruth behind her.
Georgie spun around, prepared for bad news. ‘What is it, Elspeth, what’s the matter?’
‘I saw you ride off sitting with your legs open on that horse,’ Elspeth shouted, as though she’d been shot in the foot.
Georgie, relieved, rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, that. Don’t be bloody tiresome. So what?’
Elspeth gasped. ‘I’m telling Ma.’ She flung herself out of the room as quickly as she’d come in with Ruth in tow once again, throwing her hands in the air.
Georgie knew then that trouble could not be avoided. The last time Aunt Jem had seen her riding astride, she had ordered Georgie to her room for three days. And if Elspeth told her of Georgie’s language, the confinement would surely be longer.
Then there was the altercation with Dane.
Her heart thudded again. She stamped her foot. ‘Oh, bloody, bloody, bloody,’ she said aloud, though not too loudly. She dared not say any of her favourite profanities just in case she could be heard.
Josephine, a servant from her stepfather’s house in England, was to thank for the language education. Georgie spent more time sneaking around downstairs with Josephine and learning from the stablemen—their talk as well as their horsemanship—than she did upstairs.
She hurled a thin bar of soap at the wall and flopped on her bed.
By late afternoon and with no shrill demand from Aunt Jem to present and explain herself, Georgie emerged cautiously from her room, via the veranda door, to take a short, dignified walk to the big gardens at the back of the house. There, by the remnants of the orange orchard, was a large swinging garden bench. She took a seat. An involuntary bubble of laughter found its way to her lips as she replayed the scene with Dane and the riding quirt again.
And then there would be dinner. Oh dear. It hadn’t occurred to her that she would have to face him at the dinner table. Well, she would have to cross that bridge when she came to it. She was determined to deny her action if he were so ungentlemanly as to bring it up, though she doubted he was a gentleman, the way he looked at her.
She sat there until nearly dusk, admitting to herself she was a little wary of returning to the house in case she accidentally met Dane without anyone else nearby. But she knew she’d have to go in soon.
Sliding off the swing, Georgie turned to face the house. The sight of a figure just ahead startled her and she cried aloud and stepped back.
‘There you are.’ Dane dipped from the waist only a little. ‘I believe we’re expecting you at dinner.’
‘Oh.’ He was so close. So close she could see the pores of his skin, the tufts of beard stubble where his razor had missed its mark. The hairs on her neck prickled, and a peculiar heat flushed her face. ‘I … I’ll be along in a moment.’ She stood her ground, hoping he wouldn’t approach any closer.
‘You’ll be along right now.’ He stood taller, then indicated she should walk back towards the house. ‘We don’t wait on you.’ It was softly spoken, the words barely audible, but his eyes glinted as a frown furrowed his brow.
Heat bloomed in her chest. ‘I did not mean—’
‘You are here only because my parents are sympathetic to your plight. Do not make a mistake and continue to take it for granted.’
‘Don’t mistake me for a servant,’ she bit back.
‘You should be no more than that.’
She chilled at the unspoken threat. ‘What utter nonsense.’ Georgie marched three paces towards the house before he caught up with her.
‘Let me escort you to your room, where you can freshen yourself.’
‘I have no need—’
Dane took her elbow and strode with her to the veranda, steering her towards her room. He dropped his hold and shouldered the door open, letting it crash against the inside wall. He glanced at the room in the low glow of dusk. ‘Hardly a palace for our resident princess.’ He scrutinised her as she stood shaking. ‘Is that fear or rage?’
‘You’re not balanced in the head,’ she snapped. ‘Why should it be fear? I’m not some timid ninny.’
He shrugged. ‘Rage, then.’ He stepped closer.
Her stomach dropped away but she willed herself to stare back at those blue and depthless eyes. So fierce. So fierce … but why?
She dropped her gaze and focused on his chest, the black hair wispy and curling out from the opening of his shirt.
‘There is much to discuss at dinner.’ His breath was cool on her face. ‘All thanks to your stepfather’s indulgences.’
‘What has happened—?’ Her voice caught. Fear clutched her throat. She stared into intense blue eyes and tears welled up at the mention of her stepfather. He was so far away.
‘Be at the table in ten minutes.’ He stepped towards the door. ‘And I haven’t forgotten the incident this afternoon.’
Georgina didn’t watch him go. She sagged against the wall, sucking in a breath the moment the door clicked shut behind him.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Daughter of the Murray by Darry Fraser!
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