Elsa Goody is a woman on a quest for buried treasure – and her own freedom. A thrilling historical romance adventure from a bestselling Australian author.
1896 Robe, South Australia
When Elsa Goody’s father and brother George die in quick succession she and her sister Rosie are in trouble. Pursued by an unpleasant suitor with dubious motivation, Elsa leaves for Victoria on the hunt for a fortune in gold coins that her brother has hidden. If Elsa can find it she will be able to save Rosie and herself from married slavery.
Their quest leads them on a cross-country journey to find the last man who saw her brother alive, Ezekiel Jones. But Elsa is not the only one looking for buried treasure. She and Rosie are beset by bushrangers and in the confusion Elsa is accused of being an accomplice. Luckily not everyone believes that Elsa is a criminal. When she finally catches up with Ezekiel, it’s clear that for him she can do no wrong.
But with everyone chasing her and bloody violence on the horizon, life is becoming increasingly complicated. Will she and Rosie ever manage to solve the mystery, find the gold and free themselves from a dark future?
‘Outstanding prose that flows and ripples through every page.’ Starts at 60
My brother is dead.
The bold, confident script swum before her eyes and Elsa Goody dropped the page onto her lap. She took in deep silent breaths until the taut pain eased in her chest. Finally lifting the letter again, its words weighty, she angled it towards the candle and read to her dying father. Her voice shook as if unused to speech.
‘To Mr Goody, Goody Farm near Robe, In the Colony of South Australia.
‘Dear Mr Goody, it is with regret I write to tell you that I have, today, buried your son, George. He has died this morning.’
These words from a stranger—this Mr Ezekiel Jones—carefully scribed, were impossible to absorb, to comprehend. How could her brother be dead? And—where? In Casterton. The place was fully three days’ ride from here, in another colony.
George. Her eyes closed a moment and the picture of him was clear. Wild, wavy hair, the colour of stringy-bark honey, framed a pale face under dark amber eyebrows—like their mother once had, like Elsa’s own. His small nose and luminous green eyes were also just like hers. How alike they’d been when they were young children, especially when he’d lopped off her long tresses—with the shears—which then resembled his own much shorter mess. She should’ve been more wary of her twelve-year-old brother when he’d come back from the shed, hands behind his back and a peculiar look on his face. His strike had been swift and wickedly gleeful, and suddenly there lay ten years’ growth, the tight bundle of thick curls lifeless on the ground. She’d belted after him, not able to run him down as he charged across the home paddock laughing himself silly. The little devil had nearly got away with it too, telling Pa that she’d done it herself.
Their other three siblings, two dead and only Rosie left, had not looked like their mother at all. Now that beloved George was dead, there was no one around to remind her of her mother, Kitty, who’d died long … Where was the locket with her moth-er’s likeness in it? Tucked safely inside Elsa’s cherished keepsake was a curl of her ma’s soft deep golden-brown hair. Oh, now’s not the time to wonder where it is.
She stared at the letter, her vision blurred, until she blinked and took a breath. It had been so kindly written by Mr Jones, and from so far away that she should give it her full attention. It had come from a farm outside Casterton, in the Western Districts of Victoria. Gracious me, George had got all the way there on his adven-ture. The date on the letter told her that he’d died almost two weeks ago. What was I doing around here on that day? Why didn’t I feel something strange or telling? She couldn’t remember. She’d have been doing her usual chores—trying to coax the vegetables to grow, or re-aligning that fallen fence-post, and digging it deeper into unforgiving earth. Maybe she’d been chopping wood. Noth-ing unusual.
Tears hadn’t come when she’d first read the letter. Collect-ing it from the post office in town earlier today, she’d opened it as she walked the couple of miles back to the house; the faraway postmark had been a mystery she couldn’t resist. After that, it had been a walk home from hell.
Still no tears, even now, after reading it to her father. Anyway, this was not the time for her tears. There was much to do about this, but for the life of her, she couldn’t think of what right now.
She folded the page in her lap and looked at her pa. Propped up in his bed with all of their meagre pillows stuffed in behind him, Curtis Goody remained silent. His drawn features were shut beneath his lank white hair, the dark blond of his youth com-pletely gone. Where had he vanished to, her father? So few years ago he was vital, strong and alive. Perhaps all the deaths, his wife, his sons, had left a gaping wound that finally sapped his life.
He stared across the dim room that was the sum of their house. ‘Read the line again where he talks of regret,’ he said, and shifted under the blanket draped around his bony shoulders. Perhaps he could feel the night-time chill beginning to settle in but she had nothing else to keep him warm.
Holding the candle closer and unfolding the letter, she cleared her throat. ‘… it is with regret I write to tell you that I have, today, buried your son, George.’
Nothing but the chirrup of birds calling before they took to their nests for the night filled the silence. The little flame flickered and, worried her gulping breath would blow it out, she dropped the letter again. Cupping the wick with her hand to guard it, the flame steadied on the tiny piece of wax. There were only a couple of candles remaining in the house, so she’d have to hurry to make some more—although with what, she didn’t know.
A murmur came from her father yet she heard the words, the deeply borne grief, as loudly as if they’d been shouted in her ears. ‘My son, my last son. My fault. I let him go wanderin’.’
Alarmed, she said, ‘I’m sure not, Pa.’
‘Oh yes, oh yes,’ he cried softly—his breath troubled by illness and bereavement. ‘Too easy on him.’
The letter remained on her knees as she carefully set the candle down on a sturdy little stool that served as a bedside table. When they still had their cow, it had been their milking stool. Now the cow was gone, there was no milk to churn for butter. No butter, no money. Their whole farming enterprise, sheep mainly and a few cows, had whittled down to that last old girl once her father became too ill to manage.
Strangely, she thought about that cow now, about when it had delivered its first calf. The baby bull was born dead. Its mother had stood over it for hours, cleaning it and trying to encourage it to life. Only when she finally plodded away, lowing mournfully, accept-ing her baby was dead, did Elsa find George and have him help take the small body away. George buried their dead animals; he said it respected them. She’d understood, or thought she had, but her siblings had thought it senseless. Their father had indulged him.
When the cow had been ready to calve the next time, Elsa was more prepared. Old Mr Conroy, a bullocky, had told her about lathering soap over a person’s hands and arms, which helped to ease them inside the birth canal to grab the calf. Despite the mas-sive contractions, and the calf slurping back in, Elsa had managed to pull the infant heifer into the world. She’d stayed with the baby, and watched as the cow hovered, waiting anxiously until the poddy could stand on wobbly little legs to take her first drink.
Elsa missed that cow. Missed the calf who’d been sold when it was old enough for market. How many times had she nursed both mother and baby—clearing feeding problems, massaging teats to milk, cleaning their makeshift stall, keeping watch for wild dogs, stitching cuts to the mother and calf when they’d stampeded over a rotting fence.
She’d done a lot of stitching, of her brothers’ wounds, too, as well as tending to animal births and helping to build fences, and clear the well, and keep the cartwheels oiled, and the leather goods pliable, and—
Oh, goodness. Stop. She couldn’t help wanting to escape the real-ity of George’s death. She so missed her brothers … how big and boisterous the family would become when they all got together. Rosie was never much fun, and she seldom even visited. She was always glum and snappy, so when the older boys had died, Elsa had clung to George until he’d left home. Now he was dead too. No more big family, no more siblings to laugh with, to wrestle, to belong …
A breeze crept in between the timbers of the walls, its crisp, sly tendrils mocking her. She’d have to mix some pug—clay and straw—find the gaps and fill them. Another chore. After her mother had died, her father never finished the stone house he and the boys were building, so the timber hut with its clay fillers was all they had. Kitty was missed, such a force in their lives. Cheery, Elsa remembered, and fun, and her lean arms would hug hard and make the breath whoosh out of you. And she loved Pa. Her hands would cup his face and she’d plant a kiss on his mouth—right in front of us. He loved it; he loved her. No wonder the life started to leave Pa when Ma went.
Elsa grasped her father’s hand, its large and nobbly-knuckled fingers cool and dry. She leaned in. ‘There’s more in the letter, Pa.’ She edged closer to the candle and held the paper near the flickering light.
Concentrating on the letter, she found the script looked as if done by a firm hand, assured of its task. Elsa imagined the hand had hesitated, but once decided, the words had flowed, and the page had been filled with elegant prose for their loss.
Glancing at the flourish of Ezekiel Jones’s signature, she won-dered about his name. Not often heard these days, biblical and—
‘Go on,’ her father rasped.
She collected herself and continued reading aloud. ‘He has died this morning. He lies by a great eucalypt on my land, a place of peace and comfort, and he faces the colony of his birth. He was brought to me for help after injuries inflicted by bushrangers in the district, but alas, his wounds were too great, and he succumbed to merciful death.’
Bushrangers, Elsa thought. Good Lord, in this day and age. She kept her head bowed, felt a distance as if all this was happening to someone else. The letter was a thoughtful missive to strangers—compassionate, sincere, and the writer must have known the family would suffer immeasurable loss upon reading it. It seemed to her that he was reaching out to say he shared their sorrow. The lump in her throat grew. His words warmed her, as if his gentle hand had settled on her shoulder, sharing some of the burden of hurt.
Curtis Goody took in a long noisy breath. ‘He was impetuous, that boy, and he thought nothing could stop him.’ He withdrew his hand from hers. ‘First our John by snakebite, then our Ned by fever. And now our George …’ He tapped her hand and she looked up. ‘We didn’t find the snake that killed our John, we couldn’t fight the fever that killed our Ned, but—’ He beat a fist weakly on his chest, his mouth a grimace. ‘If I were a well man and not dyin’ myself, I’d go after those bushrangers for killin’ our George.’ A lone tear rolled down his cheek.
Elsa took his veiny hand and laid it down. ‘Rest a bit, Pa.’
‘My sons. All gone. And I don’t have the fight left in me.’ Her pa would hate anyone to see that tear, but as she was only his daughter, it wouldn’t matter. Only his daughter, not one of his sons. She cut off that thought. Elsa reached over and with the edge of her pinny dabbed at his face to wipe the tear, ignoring that he’d alluded to his own impending death. On one of the few visits from the doctor the family could afford, they were told that his illness was most probably in the organ called the pancreas and not curable. Dr Wilson had left sleeping draughts, no doubt pow-erful tinctures against deep and burrowing pain. Elsa glanced at the little glass bottle by the bed. It wouldn’t be the right thing to administer another dose now, so close to the last one, even to help ease her father’s heartache—grief would only bide its time any-way, so it might as well be faced now. Besides, she knew she had to be careful with the doses. The doctor did say that at this stage in her father’s illness she could use too much. Her hand hovered over the bottle. She withdrew sharply.
Breathing deeply, she said, ‘I should write back to Mr Jones to thank him.’
‘Aye. Would be the right thing. Perhaps our George left some possessions.’
Elsa nodded, although thought that would have been odd of her brother, and Mr Jones hadn’t mentioned anything. George had only the clothes on his back. She said, ‘Tomorrow, I’ll go into the town and tell our Rosie.’
‘Your sister will be terrible afflicted by this news.’
‘She will,’ Elsa agreed. As I am terrible afflicted. But her sister would soon forget her grief with the promise of the farm com-ing to her and her husband now. Rosie was older and had mar-ried at sixteen, in the year Elsa was born. When the fortunes of the town were growing, Rosie and her husband had done well as bakers. Now Robe was in decline, and folk had left in droves, leaving only a small population trying to eke out a living in the South Australian coastal town. Once a thriving port but now in competition with stronger rivals, it was a shell of its former self—a beautiful shell, with many grand and stately, but empty, buildings. The port was one thing; the farms struggled too. Not that her father owned much land, but with the boys gone—the last of her brothers, that scallywag George, had refused to work the farm—Elsa’s future now looked bleak. She didn’t believe for one minute that she would feature in her sister’s plans.
Elsa could almost hear what her father was thinking. His eyes were closed, his jaw was set, and his breathing was now measured. He pulled the blanket a little tighter around himself.
‘You must bring Rosie home, here,’ he said, an urgency in his tone. ‘I must speak with her first. Frank is the only man in the family now, but I don’t want Frank to …’ His voice drifted off. He frowned, his eyes averted from Elsa’s.
Frank, Rosie’s husband. A puffed-up lardy ball if ever there was one, in body—Elsa was sure he ate much of their bakery’s profits—and in soul. She couldn’t understand her sister ever hav-ing taken to a man who strutted about the town hardly doing a thing, while his wife worked down to her bones, sweltering in front of the wood-fired ovens for the best part of every morning, after kneading and shaping loaves and buns in the hours prior. Rosie had lamented over the years that she hadn’t had any babies and wondered if she’d worked too hard for her body to bear chil-dren. It’d been a while since Elsa had heard her sister’s laments.
And that husband of hers is so lazy, it’s a wonder Rosie thought she could possibly become— Again, Elsa stopped those thoughts. Not her business why they hadn’t had children. Rosie was get-ting on in years now. She’d be over forty this year—she could easily have been Elsa’s mother although she didn’t look like their mother. She had their father’s features. A narrow face (that could turn too sharp once she put on that determined, bossy pose), a long nose and a strong chin. Her hair was a paler shade than Elsa’s, much subdued compared to Elsa’s rich and wild mane, and not likely to attract attention. Rosie’s brown eyes appeared, to others, to warm towards folk. Elsa had found that bemusing when she heard talk of it. Rosie—warm? But whatever her thoughts of her sister and brother-in-law, one was insistent and clear: Frank did not inspire her confidence.
She leaned towards her father to whisper, ‘I’ll bring her. But Frank doesn’t have to do anything for you, Pa. I can administer if you name me in a legal paper. You know the laws have changed.’
By the look on his face, if he could have harrumphed, he would have. Mr Curtis Goody had been unimpressed by laws regarding property changing in favour of married women, and allowing women to have the vote in South Australia. ‘Slip of a thing like you,’ he grumbled but not unkindly. ‘You’re the youngest, my farm girl. Better that you marry Pete Southie and not get Frank offside any longer.’
‘Pa, I’m not a slip of a thing. And you know why I would never marry Mr Southie. He’s an awful creature.’
‘Now, I’m sure he’s not as bad as you say,’ her father wheezed. ‘I’m sure the man didn’t mean to bump into you like that.’ His hand, with its thin and dry skin, rested on top of hers and patted absently.
Her father’s memory was still sharp. Pete Southie had been making a pest of himself when Elsa had refused to acknowledge him. One day not long ago, he’d stalked right into the house, pressed his suit for her, offered marriage and then he’d pressed himself on her. When she complained loudly and with a crack of her dustpan on his head, Southie had claimed that his enthusiastic attention was an accident.
Enthusiastic? Accident? Did the man think her a fool? She had in no uncertain terms told him what she’d thought of his enthusi-asm. While he’d controlled his zeal from then on, it was the leery grin he’d give her whenever she’d seen him since that set her teeth grinding. She should’ve crowned him more than once with the dustpan.
‘Besides, Elsa, he is a friend of Frank’s. It might benefit if you marry.’ Her father was nearly out of breath. ‘To keep this land, you girls have to …’ His voice drifted off again and in the silence that followed, she soon heard a soft snore.
Bah, Frank. Elsa knew she had no chance to change her father’s mind. Never did have, really. As long as there were men in the family, her father was convinced that she’d be looked after. She wasn’t about to be allowed to administer anything, much less something as important as The Property. Of course, with three older brothers, what were the chances she’d ever have been con-sidered anyway? She shrugged. There was no use fighting for it, not within her family anyway, what was left of it—her voice would still not be heard. Well, she’d always made it heard but would be ignored.
There was a light shining though, despite the grief. She would have a voice in the upcoming elections this year. Very soon, in April, women in South Australia would have a vote. The colony was the first place in the country where women were legally about to vote—including Aboriginal women. It will be wonderful. Such excitement. And that same day the country would have its first ref-erendum as well: should laws change to allow the introduction of religious education into state schools?
Oh, it would be a grand thing. Elsa was glad the polling booths would be in Robe township at the council offices, not the old and draughty Courthouse; previous polls had been conducted there and complaints were loud. The candle’s flame flickered as another, more erratic, breeze blew through. Be careful, Elsa. She cupped the flame to steady it.
The voting business was all very well—and of course she felt invested—but there was much else to consider right now. With her last brother gone, how could she possibly work the farm on her own? Oh, George.
Would things be better if she’d married and had lots of chil-dren and made her own big boisterous family? Apart from Pete Southie, only one other man had offered. She’d sent both roundly on their way. Oh, there was young Henry Benson who had her heart a-flutter at odd times like when he’d smile at her as she walked past his father’s forge, or when he’d stand too close if they were ever in the bakery at the same time, waiting for yesterday’s items that had been reduced. He was too young, only nineteen, and it always made her feel foolish, that reaction of hers to him. Was it time to review? After all, she was getting on now too. At twenty-four, she knew she risked being overlooked in the mar-riage stakes.
What if marriage was indeed the only way she could keep the land?
Disgusted with herself that the thought had even entered her mind—it’d be like selling her soul—she looked down at the let-ter again. The candlelight wavered and threatened to extinguish. The signature leapt up as if dancing under the sputtering flame. Ezekiel Jones. To have buried her brother, her dear George, in a place of peace and comfort, he must be such a kind and loving man.
Unexplained warmth settled in her.
Zeke Jones watched his eldest, Gifford, walk the horse down the track. It was maybe five miles from his sheep and wheat farm to the little school in Casterton. While at nine years of age, Giff was capable of the walk, his younger siblings, Gracie at eight, and Jonty at six, would struggle. So they were both atop the bare-back Milo, a gentle tan-coloured gelding. The horse would wait patiently at the school with the few other horses that would have delivered children who lived far away. Later in the afternoon he would plod home over the flat paddocks then take the rise over the low hill and down to Zeke’s gate, returning with his charges.
Three dogs, all black-and-tan male kelpies—Itch, Scratch and Zeke’s brother Jude’s dog, Bizzy—danced around their feet, bark-ing and yipping their excitement. Zeke allowed the dogs out of their pen to see the kids off for school. The only other times they roamed free were when they worked the sheep, or when Giff had to give them a run. His kids loved them, but Zeke was not giving the dogs a soft life. Casterton had been producing fine litters of this new breed, small in stature and big on personality. They were bred as working dogs, and their reputation was growing.
The kids would be home again at last light or so. It was now about seven in the morning, Zeke reckoned. There was much to do, and a few remaining sheep to sell off; the day would go fast. He’d long been hearing of the bonuses the government offered for butter and cheese factories in the colony, so that meant dairy cows were in demand. New infrastructure and the money to pay for it would be needed if he sold out of sheep altogether. Hoping he might’ve somehow missed tallying by a hundred pounds or so, he’d check his sums. He’d stocktake his milled timber again but he knew he only had enough to fence another small yard. When his older brother Jude came back, he’d discuss combining their holdings once more. Zeke could use his input, financial and physical … if only Jude were willing and able.
As he waited for the kids to get to the gate, he checked the sky. Light scudding clouds skimmed a high breeze. A darker billow above them hinted at rain. Season’s changing, the mornings are cooler. Time to get on with it.
The kids yelled goodbye, waved at him, and Milo plodded away with them. The three dogs turned for home and suddenly alert, they tore into a gallop back towards the house, charging past him. Following, his mind on his ledger, he stopped short. ‘Jesus, Nebo. Do you have to sneak up on a man?’ The dogs had crowded around his younger brother who lounged on the verandah post.
Nebo bent to rough-house the dogs. ‘You said to wait until after your brood had gone off to get their education for the day, so here I am.’ He pushed off the post, ignored the dogs barking. ‘A herd of roarin’ bulls could’ve crept up on you the way you were daydreamin’ into the sunshine after your kids.’
Zeke flicked a wrist. ‘Boys, away,’ he snapped, and in silence the dogs trotted off, ears sharp, tails wagging. He’d tie them up as soon as he got rid of his brother.
At forty-one, Nebo Jones was older by three years. Lean and rangy like Zeke, close enough in height, dark haired and dark eyed, they’d often been mistaken for one another—in their che-quered past, that had been a problem for Zeke. He was a little sturdier around the chest than Nebo but not by much. Nebo had more angular features, and when vexed he could be gaunt. Haunted was the word Zeke mostly used to describe his troubled brother. Today, he looked more relaxed.
‘Did you bring it?’ he asked Nebo and pushed past him into the house.
‘Could do with tea and a plate of eggs,’ Nebo said, following through the house and outside to the kitchen. Once inside, he slapped a packet wrapped in newspaper onto the table.
Zeke turned to stoke the oven. ‘We’ll eat quick. I have work to do.’ He shook the kettle, checking for enough water, and put it on the cooker. Glancing behind at the packet, he said, ‘Is that all it is?’
‘He was a lone boy, Ezie,’ Nebo said, a smirk lighting his face. He knew it irked Zeke to be called by his childhood nickname. ‘Didn’t have much on him but a locket with a snip of hair, a hand-kerchief and three spare buttons.’ He pointed at the parcel. ‘All there, as requested.’
‘Surprised it is all there, knowing you,’ Zeke said.
Nebo pulled a chair away from the table and sat, legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. Any closer to Zeke and he’d be in the way, which was probably his intention. ‘Nothing of value in it, nothin’ to interest me. The boys reckoned I shoulda chucked it away.’ The ‘boys’ were Nebo’s no-hoper mates who lived with their women in the bush. Small-time thieves, some said. ‘When you told me you’d written to his family, seemed only proper to bring it in.’
Zeke pulled a small basket from the mantel and took out eight eggs. He cracked them, dropped the contents into a bowl and tossed the shells into a bucket. Jonty’s hens had performed well. At least something was still working in the right direction on his place. ‘Proper? Good of you. A bushranger, out of time and place, brings in a dead boy’s only trinkets. Must have a heart after all.’
Nebo rubbed his face with one hand. Zeke could hear the rough scratch of it, thought of his own unshaven face. He never could come at the great beards some of his friends had grown; too many times had he seen their dinner stuck in their whiskers. Or worse, yesterday’s dinner.
Maybe Nebo should grow the beard since he called himself a bushranger—that way no one would mistake him, the clean-shaven brother, Zeke, for being a petty thief.
‘At least I’m not a reformed bushranger,’ Nebo said. ‘Nothin’ sorrier in my opinion.’
Zeke snorted but didn’t take the bait. He’d never been a thief, just known to stick up for his wayward brother. And that had got him into plenty of trouble because whenever it happened, it never happened softly.
Nebo frowned. ‘I don’t care to be shooting lads, you oughta know that. I told you it wasn’t me, or mine. I got a feelin’ that lazy slob Billy Watson mighta known something, but even when I gave him a roughin’ up, he still never said. I just sent him on his way.’
‘That no-hoper tub of useless thinks he’s Billy the Kid.’
‘You think he had something to do with this boy’s shooting?’ Nebo shrugged. ‘Damned if I know. But the poor kid was in a sorry state when I found him, and I just wanted to get him help. God knows, none of us want anyone dyin’ on Jude’s place again.’
Zeke glanced at him. Not like Nebo to show he cared much about anything except himself.
‘If it was Watson,’ Nebo said, ‘I didn’t want him comin’ back for another go but it’s got me stumped why he’d be on Jude’s, anyway. He knows there’s nothin’ there.’ He let out a long breath. ‘The boy’s dead, and I made sure he got a decent burial here.’
‘You could have buried him out in the scrub,’ Zeke said, then thought of the boy’s family. He wondered if his letter had got to them. George had said he had a father and two sisters. He grabbed a heavy iron pan and sat it on the stovetop. He spooned lard into it, watched it melt and sizzle, then poured in the eggs.
‘’Cept he wasn’t dead then, was he?’ Nebo said. ‘And I wasn’t gonna wait for him to die out there, either. I knew you’d honour the lad, Ezie, is why I brought him here.’ There was no smirk on his face, nor in his voice. Nebo had carried George onto Zeke’s verandah, yelling for help. He waited with George still in his arms (who was sobbing a sister’s name, Nebo told him later) while Zeke and his daughter Gracie hurriedly made a bed inside for the near-dead lad. ‘And you buried him close by Maisie and your other little fella so I knew that’s exactly what you did.’
Zeke let that go. He wasn’t about to get into that old conversation— argument—with his brother about anything to do with Maisie, Zeke’s dead wife. Any mention of their last child who’d survived birth by only days still tugged at his heart. He had to let that go, too.
He pushed the eggs around with a large wooden spoon. Reach-ing up to the mantel again he drew down a cloth-wrapped bundle and threw it on the table in front of his brother. ‘Here, cut some bread.’
‘You’re a real homebody, bakin’ bread and all. Bet you got those kids of yours doing all the chores, the laundry and such. If you get them runnin’ this place, you can come to work with me. Better pay.’ When Zeke gave him a look, Nebo said, ‘All right, if not that, Mrs Hartman next door would take them. She’s been on her own a while now, an’ getting’ on. She’s everyone’s granny.’
Mrs Hartman was only a few years older than they were, maybe their older brother Jude’s age. What would that make her—around forty-five or forty-six? Zeke didn’t bother responding.
Nebo tore off chunks of bread, still warm from the cooker this morning. ‘What’ll you do with that?’ he asked, pointing at the newspaper-wrapped packet.
‘Might wait a while, see if I hear anything from the family.’
‘You could just send it on to that same address, anyhow, couldn’t you? Pity I never got it to you before you mailed the letter.’
Zeke stopped stirring eggs and stared at his brother. ‘Yeah, pity you never got it to me when you landed a near-dead boy on my doorstep.’
‘I found it after, by accident, when I went back to Jude’s place, just to check. I swear.’
Jude’s place was all but abandoned. Judah Jones had lost Anne, his wife, and two daughters to diphtheria nearly five years ago and he’d been roaming around the colony since. He’d come back every so often; Zeke imagined that it was to see if he could bear to stay again, but he never did. Nebo and Zeke looked in on the place from time to time, and the last time Nebo had been there, he found the badly injured lad and had brought him here.
‘Check for what?’ Zeke asked.
‘For who’d done this to him, left him for dead. Might’ve been some clue. Maybe Billy-bloody-Watson left something behind—if it was him. The kid mighta thrown away other possessions, try-ing to hide them when he maybe seen someone comin’.’
There was a moment’s silence when Zeke stared at his brother, searching for answers. ‘Well, wouldn’t have been Jude who shot him.’
‘It wouldn’t have. Unless he’s really out of his head now.’
‘So, that locket must’ve meant something to the boy. You don’t carry a locket with a picture of a lady in it, and a lock of hair, unless it means something to you. As for mailing it, I trust a let-ter in the post. I don’t trust a packet of jewellery in the post.’ He continued with the eggs as they crackled and spat in the pan.
‘Jewellery.’ Nebo barked a laugh. ‘If it was valuable, you wouldn’t have it, I’d have sold it. It’s nothing more than cheap stuff, sentimental at best.’ He tapped his fingers on the table.
‘Aye. That’s right. You checked it over first,’ Zeke said, a curl on his lip. ‘Then old sentimental you gave it back to him. After he died.’
‘Bah. I’m glad not to be stuck with it. You forget I’m not a soft-heart like you.’
Zeke grunted. ‘Like I believe that,’ he said. ‘You bring me the boy, then his treasures instead of throwing them away, even though they’re worthless. If that’s not soft-heart, what is?’ He threw a pinch of salt into the pot and stirred. ‘Poor kid was just too far gone for me to save him.’
Nebo looked a little uncomfortable. ‘It was late when I found him.’ He sat up, cleared his throat. ‘Anyway, looks like Billy Wat-son has gone to the troopers.’
‘About the boy?’ Zeke scooped some eggs onto a plate and slid it across to his brother. He scraped the rest out for himself and then landed the empty pan with a clatter onto a bench—a thick piece of sawn timber. The hot pan seared it, and wisps of smoke arose. He sat down to eat.
‘That and other things.’ Nebo loaded bread with eggs and took a bite.
Zeke’s own chunk of laden bread hung in the air as he looked up. ‘You can get right back on that horse of yours—wherever you’ve left him—and get the hell off my place. The last time there was “that and other things” the troopers came and threatened me and the kids if I didn’t give you up.’
‘They were just tryin’ to rattle you. You didn’t tell ’em where I was.’
‘Trust me, only because I didn’t know.’
‘You wouldna done it.’ Nebo stood and took the boiling kettle off the stove. He poured water into a teapot, threw in a handful of tea leaves from a tin he found on the mantel. ‘But I’m surprised they haven’t got you watched again already.’
Zeke squinted at his brother. ‘You’d know. I bet you’ve been watching this place for days.’
‘True. No troopers around.’ Nebo set the teapot down on the table.
‘What’ve you done this time—“that and other things”?’
‘I had to do him over a bit.’ He held up his hands before Zeke could yell. ‘Not the kid you buried. Watson. He’s not so smart. Just gave him a roughin’ up like I said before, just a tickle, but I heard he ran straight to the troopers so we had to move camp to be careful. The police are gettin’ more interested—’
‘You’re outlawed then?’ Zeke frowned at him.
‘Nup, no warrants against me. And until I’m so named, no man can legally shoot to kill me. Not the police or any other bastard. I’m just a pest but I’m not outside the law.’
The Felons Apprehension Act 1878 made it possible for anyone to shoot and kill declared outlaws—no need to arrest them, no need for a trial. Zeke figured Nebo knew how close to the wire he could run.
‘But they can still shoot you.’
‘Not to kill me. I’m safe.’
‘Jesus, you’re a fool. Shot is shot. Dead is dead. They’ll name you an outlaw, anyway, in due course.’
Nebo waved him away. ‘I’m not that important. Been no real bushrangers since Ned Kelly, poor bastard. Too many settlers around; too many police now. I just steal a sheep here and there, just for a feed. Get a laugh out of taking the wind out of some blow-hard’s sails … But then, I’ll tell you this, one of my boys ook Scotty’s missus off his hands, and that caused a ruckus.’ He shrugged as if to say what could I do?
‘What? He kidnapped a woman?’
‘No, Ezie, he didn’t kidnap anyone. What in God’s name d’ye take us for, pirates? If I find any nasty arsehole takin’ a woman by force, I’ll put him away without a backwards glance.’
Their mother, and their father, God rest their souls, had instilled a respect in all their boys for any women in their lives. Zeke knew that Nebo had spoken the truth, but anything else was fair game. Still, he mocked his brother. ‘You—the big, bad bushranger.’
‘I steal sheep, I said, a cow maybe. But I don’t steal women. Who-ever heard of that this day an’ age?’ He shifted in his seat, looked a bit uncomfortable. ‘Any of mine goes there and I’ll kill ’em.’
‘You couldn’t kill anybody.’
Nebo shrugged. ‘You never know.’
‘I do know.’
‘Just let me tell the story, will yer? It wasn’t kidnap at all. It seems the young lady herself, Mrs Tillie Scott, took a shine to my boy Glen Barton—’
‘Barton? He did kill someone, though, didn’t he?’
‘Jesus, Ezie. Yeah, Barton. And it was self-defence, witnesses and all.’
‘Ah, and that’s why he hides out in the scrub, then.’
‘Fer crissakes, leave off. So, while Scotty himself was away hid-ing his end in someone else, Tillie asked Barton to come get her, and he did. So Scotty gets all funny on it, prob’ly more because Tillie took her horse Salty with her. You know the one? Bloody brilliant little gelding won at the races last year.’
Zeke was busy eating now and didn’t look up. He knew the horse.
‘That was the thing that made us move again. We’ll keep our heads down for a while. Troopers will forget all about the other stuff.’ Nebo went on, ‘We got quite the society happening in our bush camp, hidin’ in the scrub. All the boys each have a little woman.’
Zeke nodded. ‘Impressive. A real Robin Hood and his merry men. Haven’t come across a Maid Marion for yourself yet?’ When there was no quickfire response from Nebo, he could’ve kicked himself: he’d just done what he’d tried to avoid—opened a con-versation he was sick of having.
Nebo’s frown appeared, furrowing an already lined forehead. ‘You had the only Maid Marion for me.’
‘Don’t start.’ Zeke pushed his plate away. ‘You’re forgetting about poor Henrietta Porter. Henny was a real loyal one, and you barely gave her the time of day.’
‘She wasn’t Maisie. I saw Maisie before she latched eyes on you.’
Zeke slammed an open palm on the table. ‘Maisie wasn’t for you. Don’t goad me, Nebo. Henny hung around waiting for you to stop chasing my wife.’
‘Well, she didn’t wait too long,’ Nebo said, ignoring the vehe-mence in his brother.
‘I reckon six years was long enough. And by then Maisie was already dead and still you—’
‘Now, you stop,’ Nebo yelled and bounced a fist off the timber table as he shoved out of his chair. He paced to the door and back, pointing a finger. ‘You dunno anything about anything.’
‘I know plenty.’ Zeke had had enough. ‘Tell me what it is you want and then get the hell out. I got work to do. Not wasting any more of the day, going over ancient history. Again.’
Nebo rubbed his nose, scratched his chin: all signs that he was trying to hold onto his temper. ‘Don’t want anything. Just came for a visit, brought that packet. But now you’re asking, I do have something to tell you. It’ll mean you’re in it whether you like it or not. Cobb & Co’s coach is coming right by here next week, travelling from Mt Gambier to Casterton. Still gotta make good some details, like where and when to stop it, but it’s said there’s rich folk on board.’
‘I’m not bailing up Cobb & Co, or anything else. Besides, coaches are giving way to railways. Rich folk travel by rail.’
Nebo cocked his head, agreeing, but said, ‘Rail don’t go every-where yet. The spoils would help you out, too.’
‘I don’t need that kind of help.’
‘You used to enjoy yourself.’
‘Getting you out of trouble? I don’t think so.’ Zeke eyed his brother. ‘You’ll end up killed, doing a hold-up. Get a job like the rest of us.’
‘A job. You call this a job, what—this farm? There isn’t enough land to do anything with and you know it. How many sheep can you run?’
‘If your boys hadn’t been stealing them—’
‘My boys weren’t stealin’ from you. I’m sure of it, I’m tellin’ you.’ Zeke shook his head. ‘I don’t want anything to do with any hold-up. I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want to see you back here talking about it. You’re a risk to my kids.’
Nebo nodded, all too agreeable now. ‘Ah yes, your kids. How are they? How is the little tacker, Jonty? Always had a soft spot for him.’
Zeke should’ve known that was coming. His brother had been angling for something the whole time, as was his way. He felt the pressure build, deep in his gut. His blood had seemed to heat faster in days gone by, a rapid boiling that threatened to spill, sometimes had. And it was fierce when it did. He’d always been the fiery one of the three brothers, always the one whom people kept on the good side, whom they knew to steer clear of. By now, he’d learned to beat down the flare of blind rage.
Nebo lifted his chin, still goading. ‘He has the strong look of both his parents, boyo.’ He threw the contents of his tea out onto the dirt outside. ‘So we’ll never know, will we? Can never tell what some of the ladies get up to.’ He tossed the empty pannikin at his brother—the smirk on his face souring—ducked into the doorway and left.
Zeke let the cup clatter past him as Nebo disappeared from his sight. He heard the dogs barking and Nebo’s snarl at them to shut up.
Jonty was Maisie and Zeke’s child. But the boy had a strong resemblance to his uncle Nebo, more than Zeke’s other two chil-dren did. Nebo always made it sound as if Maisie had at some later stage hankered after him, that maybe she’d let him dabble there. From time to time when it suited, Nebo would needle Zeke about it. It mostly always worked, like today, but Zeke never let it take him over. With Maisie life had been rocky before the last babe, and worse after he’d died. Nebo never niggled Zeke about the dead child, and he was never aware of what caused their marital troubles. He just knew there was a chink in Zeke’s armour and that’s all he needed.
Even as Zeke heard Nebo’s horse galloping away, he stood, planted by the familiar rage, so white-hot he could see stars.
He knew Maisie and Nebo had never, ever gone there. He knew it in his heart, no matter what trouble there was between him and his wife. Nebo always pushed it, always tried to ignite an explosion in his younger brother, giving Zeke a pain in his gut. He bent to sweep up the cup and set it on the bench with a soft tap. Grabbing his hat, he stalked off to catch the dogs and tie them, then he’d go to the place where he had buried his infant son and not many months after buried his wife.
He knew he never would but some days he wondered if he could kill his brother.