Widow Marcella Ross won’t let anything – or anyone – stop her from discovering the truth behind a deadly family mystery …
Mystery and romance collide in this compulsive historical adventure from a bestselling Australian author.
1898, South Australia
At the gateway to the Flinders Ranges lies Kanyaka Station, once a thriving sheep and cattle property, now abandoned and in ruins. But a discovery in her late mother’s papers draws recently widowed Marcella Ross out to its remote landscape in search of clues to the disappearance of her Uncle Luca, an Italian immigrant whose fate seems to have been bound up in that of his mysterious partner – also long-since vanished. When Marcella is accosted by a daunting stranger, she discovers he too is entangled in the secrets of the past. Tragedy and obsession threaten Marcella’s fragile independence, so how far will she have to go to unlock the secrets of Kanyaka – or solve the puzzle of her own future?
After learning that they are unlikely to have children, Frances and Joe MacDonald have taken the unusual step of buying a caravan and travelling together through the outback. They stop at Kanyaka Station, where Fran becomes mesmerised by the past. Family lore holds that an ancestor met an untimely end amid the desolate ruins. But what truly happened, and to whom, at the isolated station? As fate alters the course of her life, Fran’s footsteps echo another woman’s from so long ago …
As the mystery unravels, will these two women have the chance to take control of their own destinies?
1898, Kanyaka Station near Quorn, South Australia
Luca Fillipo had been murdered.
His death had occurred nearly forty years ago, and he hadn’t died gently. No.
A ragged slip of fragile paper was all Marcella had found of how Luca had died, but not where exactly, or by whose hand. So she’d begun the search for answers at the place where he’d started his new life in this unforgiving colony.
Marcella shifted her gaze. The headstones leaned back, forward or had fallen over as if beaten by the elements and were too tired to stand straight any longer. Beyond, a few straggly gums and forlorn scrub dotted the parched area, the dappled shade scarce. Dawn had hovered, then finally given way, and the air was warm, dry and ready to bake the landscape once more. Flies swooped and fluttered; only her kerchief saved her mouth and nose from their inevitable, incessant invasion.
Her great-uncle had come from a lush and fertile country far away, long ago, to this place of sparse vegetation and dense heat. He’d worked on these quiet arid lands—a young man then, had lived here, toiled here with the cattle. Perhaps he’d even droved over the dusty, ancient soil under her feet.
Did you lose your life here at Kanyaka, Uncle Luca?
He might have, but she couldn’t see he’d been buried here. There was no evidence of his final resting place among the hap-hazard headstones; she’d carefully peered at every one of them earlier. Maybe his plot was unmarked. A rush of emotion filled her and her heart lurched. Was she the only one who cared now? Her brother Adam couldn’t give a damn. He’d tried to thwart her venturing alone to follow the clue. Then, for some reason, he’d suddenly decided he and his wife Hilda should accompany Marcella from their home in Port Pirie after all. It had been mysterious, but Marcella hadn’t dwelled on the reason once she’d got her way.
Adjusting her hat, she sighed, and cast a last look over the small expanse of graves in the Kanyaka cemetery. Where are you buried, Luca, if not here?
Inhaling dismay, she rested her hand on the point of a large headstone and, again, read the words inscribed. Thomas Holyoake had died aged thirty-one, in 1872. Why did his stone, in particular, draw her? There were other headstones with more poi-gnant epitaphs. Perhaps it was because Mr Holyoake had died the same age as Luca had. Almost the same age as she was now.
Brushing that thought aside, she gently swept dust from the inscription on Mr Holyoake’s stone. What had he died of? At least there was a place for someone to mourn him.
She lingered only a moment more then made her way back to her horse, Demeter. The mare waited patiently under the sprawling reach of a thick-trunked gum, its shade more generous than others.
Marcella had to hurry along; the cemetery wasn’t where she needed to be. While the air was still a reasonable temperature, she mounted and walked her horse back over the empty creek bed, along its bank that skirted the main station’s ruins, and past the once imposing shearing shed. There was perhaps less than a mile to go.
One quick glance behind towards her brother’s camp ensured she hadn’t roused his ire again … yet. Smiling under the kerchief, she headed for the waterhole, and the remnants of the first white people’s settlement there.
Marcella stood at the much older ruin, a haphazard stack of lime-stones all that remained of an outer wall. In some places there was only a low tumble of rocks. Her hand glided over some pieces. Whose hand, so many years ago, had touched them before her? Had built the hut? Someone—perhaps Luca—would have done so for the original lease holder of the area: young Hugh Proby, third son of an earl, an Englishman of royal peerage.
In places, her boots sank into the hot loose earth, or her feet twisted on stones and pebbles on the uneven ground. Heat snatched her breath through the kerchief. Motionless now, she listened, heard the whispers on the shimmering air. She imagined they belonged to the old people who’d been here years before the white man.
She dropped the reins, bent and laid her hand on another of the stones that made up a derelict wall. Had you touched this stone, Luca? She tried to picture him at the task. There’d been no daguerreotype or photograph or even a drawing found of Luke Phillips, as he had come to be known. Perhaps he’d been not so tall, lean not stocky, dark-eyed and sporting a thick mop of coal-black hair. His English would have been thick with a Sicilian accent, and his speech guttural.
Her father had known some of his story, and years earlier had related it to her. The son of poor Italian fisherfolk, Luke had been the adventurer in the family and had sailed as a young man from his homeland to this vast, unfriendly continent in the Southern Hemisphere. He’d come to Kanyaka in the colony of South Australia, by fate or reasons not known. At the time, the young Englishman’s new lease was a wild and untamed place. Not long afterwards, Luke disappeared onto the goldfields in Victoria, as so many did, only to resurface over a decade later back in Kanyaka, where his story was left dangling.
Marcella’s hand trailed over the rough and weathered friable wall. Perhaps you stood here, admiring your handiwork.
She straightened. Across the creek bed was a massive flaxen-coloured stone, a sentinel that must have been twenty feet high, or more: Death Rock, overlooking the Kanyaka waterhole. Seemed a strange moniker for a life-giving permanent spring.
Tilting her face away from the unrelenting sun, she tugged the kerchief higher. Whispering in Italian, her voice drifted. ‘Once upon a time there was a legend.’ Hot air funnelled into her lungs. ‘Where are you, Uncle Luca?’ No one could hear her, she was miles from anyone, other than Adam and Hilda, and they weren’t close by. She’d asked the question anyway—secrets might be coached out of the stoic rocks and the impassive, endless dirt. Surely the language they’d have shared would beckon his spirit and confide his fate.
Her murmur evaporated. No answer.
Tiny flies clamoured and, absently, she swished a hand. There was little she could do to protect her eyes; her spectacles were no good out here, they distorted anything further away than a book on her lap or a page on her writing desk at home. Retrieving the reins, she squinted. She’d found what she believed was the original site where her uncle had lived and worked in the early 1850s. If she concentrated, she could envisage the hut. Just a box built of timber to begin with. Strewn about were dried and brittle cut planks that would have been uprights, their substance stripped by the elements.
Nothing more to see here.
She turned back along the track. ‘Come on, Demmy. We better go before we’re missed.’
She didn’t mount but traipsed alongside her horse towards the old shearing shed she’d passed earlier. No sense hurrying and getting all hot and bothered. The sun, well above the horizon, already hinted at an uncomfortably warm day. The creek meandered on her left, rocky, devoid of water, host to innumerable gums of all ages, sizes and health. It was a pleasant twenty minutes despite the throbbing temperature and the flies.
With any luck, Adam and Hilda wouldn’t be awake to know she’d gone a-wandering. On a jaunt, her brother would call it, the edge of his derision blunt.
The shearing shed, a once mighty testament to hopes and dreams, came into view—silent, idle, empty. The living quarters were to the left, the men’s stories lost to the wind. Marcella placed her hand on the shearing-shed wall and its deftly placed rocks of limestone—some russet, others a pale indigo. The twenty-four stands, twelve on each side of the building and all that was left of the shearers’ stations, stood proud, the gaping pit beneath. The building was roofless, any corrugated iron long gone. No man or beast had toiled here for at least ten years.
Trudging past the shed and up a short slope, some minutes beyond was the main village, also in ruins, and sprawled silently before her. Over the last couple of days, early in the mornings, she’d had time to visit and re-visit. Something would draw her back for one more look, then another and another.
The first abandoned building, a sturdy construct, was perhaps the stables. Just beyond, the outhouse of course, a separate tiny room. The next, a fine dwelling. Small compared to the main house a few yards away but fine all the same. A house—a home, it was clear—built for a man and his wife. Gracing the eastern face was a beautifully laid red-limestone veranda floor—who else for but a woman who’d come to live with her man in this god-forsaken country. Marcella stopped there and gazed at the dark golden hills. The bright orb of the rising sun almost blinded her but oh, what a view first thing in the morning.
Marcella’s hand went instinctively to her belly. The view couldn’t negate the shocking other-worldly experience she’d had here the day before. Ignoring the sudden patter under her ribs, she took a deep, calming inhale and turned to study the layout of the house.
There were four good-sized rooms and, within, two fireplaces. A cosy home in winter, a shelter from the searing heat in summer. Leading Demmy around to the western side of the house she stopped at a doorway and studied the weathered step near her feet, its timber worn over time. This was where the strange sensation of the day before had assaulted her. She concentrated, swallowed away the memory. It had more than rattled her.
Whose booted feet had crossed this step? From the mid 1850s, only a couple of years after its first leasehold, these dwellings had begun to be erected at Kanyaka Station and had housed seventy families over its lifetime. Seventy.
Marcella turned again and, without a whisper, her lips moved against the kerchief. So many stories. There’d have been triumph and heartache here in the houses, satisfaction in the workshops and the mighty shearing shed. Then by 1888, not long ago, all had been abandoned to wither and crumble in the merciless climate.
Silence. The hot air beat a rhythm with her pulse, and her ears filled with throbbing noise. She cocked her head, listening for gossip of years gone by. Nothing.
Of course not.
Uncle Luca had been her paternal grandfather’s brother. It was only when her mother had died (Marcella’s father gone years ear-lier) that among her bits and pieces, her few treasures, Marcella had discovered a mystery lived on in the tragic demise of Luke Phillips.
Could she ever really know what happened to him? Impossible. So, why did she persist in trying to find Luke? Why was it so important? She’d asked herself those questions over and over. So had her brother Adam and, with alarming regularity, so had Hilda.
Until they’d changed their tune.
Coming back into their view, Marcella waved madly at the pair of them. They waved desperately in return, standing along-side the horse and cart under a line of trees in the creek. Hand in hand as always, eyes shaded, they beckoned her frantically.
Ignoring that with another wave, Marcella ducked around behind the wall, leading Dem, and hid from their view. As she headed for the main house—what had been a large sixteen-room dwelling—she heard Adam’s shout, ‘Wait, Marchy. No.’
Oh, he didn’t like her jaunting, did he? Too bad. Good thing she hadn’t told him of her unsettling experience yesterday; he’d go mad, put it down to one of her ‘fanciful dreams’ and accuse her of playing with ‘those cards’ too often. Stuff and bother, Adam.
Reasonably sure he and Hilda would stay put—it was too hot out in full sun—she shook off the remaining feeling from the weird occurrence and kept going, out of their sight.
Marcella shooed the flies from her mare’s eyes. ‘It’s all right, Dem.’ They rounded the back of the dwelling into what had been a walled garden and stopped. ‘Oh lordy.’ Another step and her foot would have landed in a great pile of horse dung. The drop-pings were not all that old. Not Demmy’s, not the carthorse’s, the animals hadn’t been here. She looked up, alarmed. Who else was out here? She spun, scanning the scrub.
There. A rider was charging towards her, a cloud of dust spitting up behind his horse’s hooves as it shot over low scrub. Was that all Adam had bellowed at her about—a stranger bearing down? Oh, for goodness’ sake.
And just look: the bandana at his face, his hat flying behind his head, he was hurtling on his big black horse towards her. Reminded her of the Knight—
Her mare snorted again, more agitated.
All right, Demmy, it might not be funny.
His voice rang out over the thunder of his horse’s hooves.
‘What the bloody hell are you doing out here on your own?’ he yelled. Dirt and stones flew in his wake.
Wary, Marcella rubbed a gloved hand down Demmy’s muzzle and murmured to her. The mare’s head bobbed, and Marcella wasn’t sure who was soothing who. For a moment, only a moment, her heartbeat skipped. She wouldn’t take fright. No, she would not. She adjusted her kerchief once more, tamped down her hat, and loosened her shoulders.
The big horse danced to a halt, pulling up in a billow of dirt and flies. The rider swung a leg over the saddle and threw the reins onto his horse’s neck. Slipping to the ground, he grabbed his rifle and strode towards her, clamping on his hat.
Her resolve wavered … So, she straightened. ‘What the bloody hell are you doing out here on your own?
Stopped him in his tracks. Oh, so satisfying. A lady never used such words. Huh to that. Still, she backed up, and her hand reached for the butt of the rifle strapped to Demmy’s saddle. The one decent thing her late husband had done was teach her to shoot.
‘You shouldn’t be on your own in this country,’ the man stormed, waving an arm. Flies rose from his back in a furious blur as he strode closer. Hat stained, hair dark and sweaty underneath, kerchief filthy, eyes blazing brown. His waistcoat was unbuttoned, and his shirt opened enough to reveal a sunburned vee that pointed to a dense chest. His trousers were wide-legged but snug on his hips. His boots were sturdy, scuffed.
‘Is that so?’ Marcella fired in return, taking yet another step back as he advanced again. ‘And there’s … no need to yell,’ she said, by now pressed against Dem’s rear flank, her hand shaking as she slid the rifle from its holster.
He spotted her gun, and stopped, mere feet away, the dust and flies settling. ‘That was in case you were hard of hearing, madam.’ He snatched off his hat and batted it against his thigh before shoving it on again, upsetting more dust and flies. ‘Or thick-headed.’
Lout. Mightily irritated, she clenched her teeth. ‘What I am is none of your business.’
Her nose crinkled. Odour. Sweat, old and dried, as well as tangy fresh; he must have been out here for a while. Not that she should talk about smells; water on the journey had been used sparingly for the two days it had taken to get here from Quorn. Certainly no water had been available for washing oneself. Adam had insisted on hiring a horse and cart in Quorn and driving here rather than being sensible and staying on the train all the way to Hawker.
‘Marchy,’ Adam yelled, his voice jumping in a panic as he barrelled the cart towards them.
‘I’m all right,’ Marcella called, waving an arm dismissively, then shoved the rifle back into its holster. Annoyed at herself, she bristled. Then desperate for a breath of air, she tugged her kerchief away, swished at the flies before sucking in a long draught and returning it.
‘There’s more of you?’ the stranger barked and spun around.
‘Yes,’ Marcella sniped, sweetly. ‘My reinforcements to protect me from attack.’
He swung back, his full attention on her. ‘Hah.’ Eyes crinkling, he said, ‘I can assure you, you were not under attack from me.’
‘You galloped in like you were leading a cavalry charge.’
He could almost have brandished a weapon (whatever that thing was they used in cavalry charges). The Knight of Swords sprang to mind again, brash and opinionated, leaping from the pack of ‘those cards’ she sometimes used.
He pushed back his hat, eyebrows arched. ‘Cantered, I’d have called it, over this country.’
‘You could have terrorised someone.’
‘Ah. But not you, I take it?’
‘Oh, please,’ she scoffed, choosing to forget that fleeting squeamish moment pressed against Demmy not long back.
Under his scrutiny, a prickle of discomfort surprised her. Casually—completely nonchalant—Marcella brushed off her clothes, her gaze on him. His inspection, which swept down her overdress to her boots, drifted back to her face. He glanced at her rifle. Then his eyes, all she could see of his face, narrowed, glinted. A sudden tingle swept through her, and she blushed to the roots of her hair.
That never happens. So annoying.
The horse and cart careened around the side of the building. ‘Marchy, for God’s sake,’ Adam roared, bouncing in the driver’s seat. His poor wife Hilda held both her hat and the cart rail as she bounced alongside him, hanging on for dear life. ‘We talked about this after you disappeared yesterday.’
Marcella had left the camp at dawn the day before to explore the ruins by herself. Adam had shouted, not happy with her then either.
‘I’ve told you, you’re not to go off on a jaunt,’ he cried at his sister, hauling the cart to a stop. He yanked on the brake and alighted, swiping furiously at the millions of swooping flies. He muttered low between his teeth, cursing the ‘bloody little bastards’.
The cart was at a standstill, but Hilda was rocking in her seat. She gingerly put a hand under her backside and gave a groan.
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, Adam, hardly a jaunt,’ Marcella said. ‘I was barely two minutes away.’ She waved towards the line of trees where Adam and Hilda had been parked. ‘And don’t call me Marchy,’ she added.
‘March,’ Hilda began, placating, ‘we were just worried when you disappeared again.’
‘Yes, Marcella, we were just worried,’ Adam said with a glance at his wife, reaching back to give her hand a reassuring squeeze before glaring at his sister. ‘You … don’t know whose property this is.’ He sounded quite lame, more than usual, as he nodded at the stranger.
‘So you’re known for your trespasses, madam?’ the horseman asked her, a lilt in his voice. ‘For your jaunts.’
Amused, is he? The prickle of discomfort flared into anger. ‘And who might you be?’ she queried. If he was the owner here he should have better manners, been far more … congenial.
He pulled down the kerchief, smiled quickly before the flies darted in. ‘I am Proby Cutler.’ He waved away the cloud of busy little black dots and turned to Adam. ‘You, sir, must be Mr Adam Phillips, with your good wife, Mrs Phillips.’ He nodded to Hilda who’d briefly removed her kerchief to smile at him.
Adam thrust out a hand. ‘I am indeed Adam Phillips. We’re pleased to finally make your acquaintance, Mr Cutler.’ He pulled away his kerchief only for a moment before sputtering and replacing it with a tug.
Marcella blinked. Finally?
‘Likewise,’ Mr Cutler said, shaking Adam’s proffered hand. ‘You made good time. I’m glad we were able to coordinate.’
What? Marcella stared at her brother.
Adam turned to Marcella. ‘And you’ve encountered my sister. This is—’
‘Mrs Paul Ross,’ Marcella interrupted sharply. She did not want this grubby individual, this Mr Cutler, to know she was a widow. If it came to pass, she would tell the clod herself, but for the life of her she couldn’t see that happening. Bad enough her brother usu-ally let all and sundry know she was a single woman.
Adam glowered only a moment and said nothing. He’d long believed it was his job to try to ensnare her next husband. He could glower all he liked. She wasn’t having a bar of his interfering. She’d told him in no uncertain terms that she’d never go into a marriage again, forced or otherwise.
‘Not forced,’ he’d countered at the time. ‘Arranged, as our families have done for centuries.’
‘Little difference,’ she’d said with a snort of derision. ‘Never again, so keep your nose out of my business.’
Ever since she’d become a widow, Marcella had resisted, had fought against even the slightest inference that she was subordinate to her brother, or anyone else; had indeed rejected anything designed to submit her to tradition. At thirty-two she was too old for those shenanigans.
‘It’s best for you to be a wife and a mother,’ Adam had insisted. ‘Not all this being highly educated business.’
Marcella could read and write and do simple arithmetic; hardly highly educated.
‘God only knows why Papà ever let you learn,’ he’d gone on, tut-tutting. ‘And, for Christ’s sake, Paul even allowed you to keep that horse and ride the damn thing. I won’t be so indulgent, certainly not any longer.’
Oh, pfft. He had another think coming if he thought he’d be able to wrestle Demmy from her.
Their parents, probably spinning in their graves, had not sent a penny of their hard-earned money to family back home, which set them apart from their countrymen in the colony. Instead, they had done well enough to afford a minimum education for their children in this new country. They themselves could barely read and write in Italian, let alone English.
Marcella had rolled her eyes at her brother. ‘Give up the medieval nonsense, Adam,’ she’d retorted.
Lately, Adam’s suggestions for potential husbands for her had been coming thick and fast, mostly awful, and now, horrors, he seemed inordinately pleased to see this Mr Cutler.
The man dipped his head to her before replacing his hat, a polite smile on lips greased to protect them from the sun. ‘Mrs Ross, I am happy to meet you.’
Marcella acknowledged him with a nod. Then said, ‘Mr Cutler, please put away the rifle. I don’t think I need to be shot.’
Hilda took an audible breath—it could have been a stifled laugh—then waved frantically at the flies. Adam glared at Marcella.
‘Quite right,’ Mr Cutler said, and whistled softly.
His horse, a majestic creature, densely muscled, well cared for (despite being covered in dust and grime), loped steadily towards him, relaxed, head down. He stopped beside Mr Cutler, who slid the rifle back into its leather holder.
‘Done. That’ll certainly prevent my shooting at you indiscriminately,’ he said and added, ‘although I did have it for my own protection.’ He nodded at her rifle as he tugged his bandana back over his mouth.
Mr Cutler must be some land baron out here. He was smiling under that blasted kerchief, she knew it.
Adjusting it a little higher over his nose, he said, ‘I apologise for my blundering in on you.’
‘Your property, your prerogative,’ Marcella said.
‘Not my land, Mrs Ross. I just wasn’t expecting a lone woman to be in this vicinity. It was a worry.’
She glared at her brother who was studying his boots. Back to Mr Cutler. ‘And worried, you decided to frighten the living day-lights out of her, did you?’
‘I assumed sneaking up on her would be far worse,’ he shot back.
Silence ensued until Marcella finally said, ‘Well, as you can see, I’m not on my own.’
‘Indeed.’ Mr Cutler turned to Adam. ‘Mr Phillips, if you have your documents, we can soon be done. I’m interested to see what land coordinates you have. Let’s get to some shade.’
‘Right you are,’ Adam said, all agreeable, and certainly not making eye contact with Marcella.
‘What land coordinates, Adam?’ Marcella whispered furiously. Adam ignored her, hopped back on board the cart beside his wife then clicked the reins and headed for the tree line they’d left earlier. Hilda glanced over her shoulder at Marcella and gave a little shrug.
Marcella stood there, watching. What on earth is Adam—
‘Mrs Ross, do you need help to mount?’ Mr Cutler was standing by his horse.
She looked up. ‘Certainly not.’ Then surprising herself, said, ‘Thank you.’ She spun to Demmy, thrust a foot into the stirrup and swung up. Once in the saddle, she fiddled with her overskirt. Her wide-legged pants were comfortably over her shins and the tops of her boots.
Mr Cutler stared at her.
Oh, damnation, he’s a dinosaur.
‘Do you need help to mount, Mr Cutler? Should I call for someone?’ Your knave or squire or whatever it is.
She left him standing there, stupefied she hoped, and nudged her horse into a slow can-ter to follow Adam and Hilda.
Catching up to the cart as it trundled towards the trees, Marcella leaned from her saddle. ‘Adam, I take it that the documents that man just mentioned are something to do with what I found, so why would you be coordinating with him?’
Adam turned to see how far behind them Mr Cutler was before he answered her. ‘It has to do with him.’
‘How?’ Marcella sputtered. ‘And how did he even know about them unless you made enquiries?’
‘That’s exactly what I did.’ He flicked the reins for more speed, his dark eyes, so like hers, staring straight ahead.
‘When? Why?’ Exasperated, she looked to her sister-in-law. ‘Hilda, did you know about this?’
‘Of course she knows,’ Adam snapped before Hilda could say anything. ‘Don’t make it a matter for the empire. If it’s to do with land, I am the head of this house and—’
‘—I say what’s important and what’s not.’ Adam stared ahead, his kerchief puffing.
‘Don’t you dare spout that rubbish at me, Adam Phillips.’ Marcella straightened in her seat, Demmy on a trot keeping up with the cart. ‘The only reason you and Hilda are here is because you bluntly refused to be left behind while I went on a quest for information.’
‘I refused to allow you to come here into the wilderness alone,’ Adam fired back.
‘Oh no you don’t. You don’t “allow” me anything. I know you, you wouldn’t have cared less if there hadn’t been the possibility of a windfall. I should never have said anything to you.’
Adam’s chin tucked into his neck. ‘Marchy, a woman should not travel in this type of country alone.’ He held up a finger as she was about to retort. ‘Uh, uh,’ he warned. ‘The place is full of rampant men drifting around the country scrounging for food, or seeking work in the mines, and looking for God only knows what else.’ He threw her a dark look. ‘And you, hardly five foot four, not exactly a fortress against attack.’
‘Rampant men should rein themselves in.’
‘And you know that’s not going to happen.’
She scoffed. ‘Neither here nor there now, is it? I found only a remnant scrap, part of an ancient letter about our uncle that survived. You’ve made it a flight of fancy and run the risk of us looking like fools. I’m not hoping for some pie-in-the-sky land. I am only here to see where our poor great-uncle lost his life.’
‘Oh ho, and that’s not a flight of fancy,’ Adam said, loud and acerbic. He grunted. ‘Luke Phillips was a nobody, and he never knew us. He disappeared without a trace before we were even born. No word to his family, no nothing. He doesn’t deserve looking for. Luke’s situation was a long time ago.’
‘Situation,’ she repeated disdainfully.
He ducked away from that. ‘Why do you obsess about him?’
‘I’m doing no such thing. What happened to him is a mystery I’d like to solve. You’re here because you think you stand to profit if Luke owned land, so don’t tell me I’m obsessing.’
‘Forget about him,’ he stormed. ‘You’ll stir up more trouble than he’s worth. You’re just avoiding your inevitable.’
Marcella wouldn’t be distracted. ‘Things get reclaimed, or the land squatted, Adam, so you haven’t got a chance.’ She sailed on. ‘Taxes and duties couldn’t have been paid by Luke because there’s no record, is there?’ They’d been through all this. ‘Where on earth did you get this idea? You keep insisting there’s land but we could be out of pocket if we—’
‘We could be out of pocket?’ Adam snapped the reins.
‘—attempt to make a claim. And that’s only if we could find a registered title somewhere. If he had a family, they’d be more in line to a claim than us. And what if they already live on this mythical plot?’
‘I’m following up with Mr Cutler to … ensure we are not in any way obligated.’
‘Rubbish.’ If it hadn’t been for the kerchief, Marcella knew she would have seen the calculation on his features. Her brother was trying to cover his avarice. He believed there was land somewhere that he could claim. Why did he believe that? Marcella kept pace with the cart. ‘And what’s Mr Cutler got to do with it?’
‘You’re to be pleasant to him, Marchy. You hear me?’ Adam pulled in alongside a shaded line of trees.
‘Be pleasant, my foot. You haven’t answered me.’
‘That’s very mild for you, sister dear, no expletive,’ Adam said as he braked and climbed down. He helped Hilda from her seat. ‘I’d rather you don’t teach my wife any bad habits.’
Hilda gave a laugh. ‘Too late, darling Adam.’
Still unanswered, Marcella ignored them, dismounted nearby, and draped the reins over a thin branch of a dead tree. She strode for the cart and picked the water bag from where it was tied, grabbed a bucket and poured. She shared the water between Demmy and the carthorse.
Mr Cutler rode in, dust in his wake, and slipped from the saddle. He tied his horse near Demmy and ran a hand down the mare’s flank. ‘She’s a beauty, Mrs Ross.’
‘She is,’ Marcella answered, short and without looking at him. It had taken gentle care, a loving hand, to bring Demmy back from the scrawny tiny beast she’d been, awaiting her awful fate. Beautiful Demmy.
Marcella pressed her face to her mare’s neck and softened her tone. ‘She is much loved. My father purchased her from the knackery as a gift for me when I married. We brought her back from the brink, and he died not long after that. She is his last gift to me, so she’s a precious soul.’ She felt his gaze on her.
‘I feel the same about Mars,’ he said and scratched his horse’s neck.
She shared more water. Demmy had taken her drink and allowed Mars to nose his way in. Marcella didn’t look up from her task. ‘He appears perfectly placid. Not at all warlike despite his name and your cavalry charge earlier.’ She refilled the bucket and glanced coolly in Mr Cutler’s direction, unruffled by his amused gaze on her.
‘Mr Cutler,’ Adam called. He had dropped the backboard, was rolling up the flimsy tarpaulin. He shoved aside leather bags, his satchel, other paraphernalia, making some space. Spreading large sheets of paper on the floor of the cart he said, ‘I had the fragments copied; the originals are too fragile for travel. Would you be so kind as to cast your eye over what we have?’
Marcella gave Mars a rub on his forelock before moving around him. ‘What fragments do you mean, Adam?’ He was about to shut her down again when she cut him off. ‘And would you please tell me what Mr Cutler has to do with this?’
‘Not the time now, Marcella.’ Adam’s hands flattened on the large sheets. ‘What do you think, Mr Cutler?’
Hilda had taken Marcella’s arm. ‘Let’s go to the shade over here, March,’ she said, tugging her to the side of the cart and out of the way. ‘Let the men talk.’
Mr Cutler watched the women a moment, then addressed Adam. ‘Mr Phillips, if Mrs Ross is uncomfortable with our arrangement—’
‘No, no, she’s not,’ Adam answered without looking up. ‘Now, this point here,’ he said, tapping his finger on the paper, ‘I think might be in that area to the west, and that means that this point is to the north.’ He waved his hand in the general direction, sweeping an arc across the cart. ‘It’s certainly fine country if we could get permanent water.’
Adam sounded too eager to be sure of himself.
Mr Cutler was quiet for some time. Then, ‘As I’ve mentioned in our correspondence, I don’t believe the land in question is in this region, and it’s definitely not in this particular area.’
Adam said nothing, his mouth working. He only nodded as he continued to eye the country as if he were surveying a claim.
Bemused, Mr Cutler addressed Marcella. ‘Mrs Ross, I’m here at the request of your brother. He responded to my advertisement in The Advertiser, the Adelaide newspaper.’
Adam pursed his lips.
‘Advertisement for what?’ Marcella demanded of her brother. ‘Later, Marcella,’ Adam said and tapped the paper again. ‘Well, could I convince you about this area here, Mr Cutler? It says there’s a survey marker. I think that’s where we should start.’
Mr Cutler’s attention remained on Marcella. ‘I was seeking information on family or friends of a Mr Ewen Wheeler.’
Everything stilled, went quiet. Adam dropped his chin. Marcella tried to snatch her arm from Hilda but the woman held on tight.
‘Adam,’ Marcella seethed, suddenly breathless, craning over the side of the cart to catch his attention. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’
Adam waved a hand in the air and the flies arose in a lazy, dark blur, moving as one to find another landing. Everyone waved them away.
‘Little to concern yourself, Marchy.’ He looked at Mr Cutler. ‘If you please, cast your eye over the area, and my calculations.’
‘Little to—’ Marcella stood by the cart, fury rising fast. ‘Mr Ewen Wheeler?’
‘Not now, Marcella,’ Adam said, between his teeth.
‘March,’ Hilda said to her, a desperate catch in her voice. ‘Come along. Let’s sit under the shade of those trees over there,’ she suggested again, firmly.
Marcella was burning to tug away her kerchief, but the flies would have assaulted her mouth and nose.
‘It’s not right, Adam.’
Mr Cutler regarded her from under the low brim of his hat. ‘I assure you that I am not in the business of anything underhanded if that is your concern.’
Marcella only glanced his way then back to Adam. ‘What are you doing?’
‘March, come away,’ Hilda coaxed resolutely, not relinquishing her grip on Marcella’s arm. ‘Please.’
Still in Hilda’s grip, Marcella stood her ground. ‘Do you know who Ewen Wheeler was, Mr Cutler?’
He nodded. ‘I do. He was my grandfather.’
Under the protection of her kerchief, Marcella’s mouth dropped. She swung to stare at Adam. ‘How could you contact this man?’ She waved a hand in Mr Cutler’s direction then glared at him.
He looked from brother to sister. ‘What’s the problem, Mr Phillips?’ he asked, on edge. ‘Mrs Ross?’
‘Don’t, Marchy. You’re not to go on about it,’ Adam growled, rolling his eyes a moment. Then he sighed. He clearly knew it was too late.
Marcella pinched Hilda’s fingers from her arm and squarely faced Mr Cutler. ‘The problem,’ she said, venom spiking her tone, ‘is that, according to the fragment of a letter that was in my late mother’s belongings, sometime in or about 1863, in this very area, your grandfather, Ewen Wheeler, murdered our great-uncle, Luke Phillips, and his body was never found.’
Release date: 2022-11-30