Alone. Near destitute. But brave and determined. Can Maddy beat the odds to create a new home in the Hunter Valley? An exciting Australian historical debut, perfect for readers of Darry Fraser.
1831, New South Wales
Reeling from her mother’s death, Madeleine Barker-Trent arrives in the newly colonised Hunter River to find her father’s promises are nothing more than a halcyon dream. A day later, after a dubious accident, she becomes the sole owner of a thousand acres of bushland, with only three convicts and handsome overseer Daniel Coulter for company.
Determined to fulfil her family’s aspirations, Maddy refuses to return to England and braves everything the beautiful but wild Australian country can throw at her – violence, danger, the forces of nature and loneliness. But when a scandalous secret and a new arrival threaten to destroy all she’s worked for, her future looks bleak … Can Maddy persevere or should she simply admit defeat?
A captivating historical tale of one young woman’s grit and determination to carve out her place on the riverbank.
‘Richly detailed, inspiring and romantic – this engrossing story of a brave young woman overcoming insurmountable odds brings to life the early years of the Hunter Valley with clarity and authenticity.’ – Tea Cooper, author of The Cartographer’s Secret
Friday, 16 December 1831—extremely hot
Madeleine Barker-Trent shielded her eyes against the sun and pulled at her loosely tied stays. The heat was unbearable. Peer-ing over the heads of the twelve yoked bullocks, she sighed. How much further could it be? The bullock driver walked beside the team, patrolling up and down and constantly observing the slow-moving oxen.
‘Mr O’Brien?’ Maddy called over the sound of the creaking wheels.
His shoulders stiffened; his own sigh was loud in the sudden silence of the bush. The oxen lumbered on, but he waited until she drew level. His blue eyes met hers: eyes that were, she noted, startlingly bright in the leathered darkness of his face.
‘Bout five miles,’ he muttered, and turned his attention back to the bullocks.
‘But you said five—’ Maddy began, but the snaking stockwhip swirled and cracked, echoing through the bush, and cut her off mid-sentence. She frowned—had she misunderstood? She was certain he’d said it was only five miles when she’d asked earlier.
Five miles from Papa. A tingle of apprehension ran up the back of her neck and lifted the hair on her scalp. Why hadn’t he been at the docks to meet the ship, or even at Green Hills? Her stomach tightened and she prayed he had not suffered overly at the terrible news in her letter. Oh Mama, I wish you were here. She blinked back the tears.
A blast of raucous laughter echoed from the trees. Maddy swayed alarmingly, almost toppling from her precarious position on the hard bench seat as the dray lurched over the uneven track. Peering around, she searched the forest for the source of the mocking laughter. It had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Two large-beaked birds sat side by side on a branch, watching as the dray rolled by. The twin lines of cattle showed no sign of being disturbed by the laughter, but went on dragging their burden through deep ruts of dried mud. Spinning around on the narrow seat she saw Mr O’Brien also was unbothered, and he had to have heard it. His concentration remained locked on the beasts. One of the birds opened a vicious-looking beak, and with head tipped back, repeated the laughing call. Another unseen bird answered in the distance. Maddy scanned the trees for more of the creatures but saw only the dust and scrub. The surrounding forest was tone on tone of grey and olive green, looming threateningly above her. The open grasslands and fields of ripening wheat had been left behind as the bullocks wove along the trail, taking her further from what small measure of civilisation she’d seen since leaving Sydney on the overnight steamer to Greenhills.
‘Get up there, Sweety,’ Mr O’Brien cajoled, as one of the team paused to tug a clump of dry grass that sprang from the side of the trail. His gentleness with the oxen was incongruous, but she had noted the way the animals responded to his kindness.
‘Have you been in New South Wales long, Mr O’Brien?’ The glance he sent her told her she’d made some kind of faux pas.
‘I’m sorry,’ she apologised hurriedly, wishing she could recall her words.
The driver waited as the dray rolled on, and when he was once more beside her, he strode along next to the wagon.
‘’Tis of no matter, miss. I came a freeman, but some folks round here don’t take kindly to sharing history they’d sooner forget.’
Maddy swallowed, duly chastised by his quiet words.
Mr O’Brien sent an assessing glance over the track ahead before calling out once more to the yoked pair at the lead. Ahead the road was little more than twin ruts running through the thick scrub. Maddy wiped a rivulet of sweat from the corner of her eye and, extricating the bonnet from her head, flapped it before her face. She had been hoping to find a modicum of relief, but was disappointed. Teeth clashing, she clutched the side of the seat as the dray lurched through yet another deep hole, her entire body rigid in the effort to stay put. Her stomach churned as she anticipated the reunion with Papa. It should have been a joyous time, but it would be bittersweet without Mama. A sob swelled in her chest—the discomfort of the hard seat and the strange noises of the forest were forgotten as her thoughts, bouncing almost as much as her bottom, ran over the last bittersweet days she’d had with Mama, and imagining how Papa must have felt on receiving her letter. That she and Papa had not been with Mama at the end would forever be a source of distress for Maddy; she wiped an errant tear from her cheek and straightened.
After what seemed hours, Mr O’Brien turned the lead pair of bullocks off the road and into the bush. It was a moment before Maddy could distinguish the track they followed.
‘Here we are, lass,’ the bullock driver said cheerfully, and Maddy had the sense he was happy to be rid of her.
With her stomach fluttering and tears threatening once again she forced a wobbly smile which soon slipped away. There was no discernible difference there from the bush they’d been travelling through all morning, though in the distance she heard a dog barking.
‘Ah, where are we?’ This couldn’t be right. She swung her head from side to side, searching for the homestead Papa had described in his letters.
‘Why, we’re at Shelby, yer pa’s place.’
‘Mr O’Brien, there must be a mistake.’ She stared around in dismay.
‘No mistake, missy.’ He did not look at her.
The twin strips of dust widened into a clearing flanked by four lopsided slab structures the same colour as the grey bark of the nearby trees. This wasn’t right. It couldn’t be.
‘No!’ She stood up on the cart, only to have it lurch once more, sending her thudding back down onto the seat, adding another bruise to her already tortured backside. The sight that lay before her was as depressing as it was ramshackle.
Maddy breathed out, relieved. This was the working farmyard—the homestead would be situated elsewhere. A cloud of beige dust obliterated the scene as the bullock team drew to a halt at Mr O’Brien’s command. On her right she saw timber yards barely fit to contain the horses therein. She swallowed around the lump in her throat, not giving way to the threatening sob. Instead she examined the horses: the furthest yard held a grey and a scruffy brown horse with the solid stance of draught horses; in the next she saw a small roan mare; and the yard situated closest to her had a higher fence from within which a lean black beauty stared indignantly out at her, ears pricked and nostrils flared. She immediately knew this would be her father’s mount. Papa’s fondness for fine horseflesh hadn’t been left in England. She smiled, twisting on the seat to peer around. But where was the house?
‘Mr O’Brien, my father wrote of a grand house. Can you take me to it, please?’
‘I don’t know about a house,’ he said, still not looking up. ‘This is all there is.’
‘Mr O’Brien …’ she began, but he seemed not to hear. Maddy watched in dismay as he pulled her trunks from atop the supplies he was taking further up the Hunter Valley to Pat-rick’s Plains, and deposited them on the ground beside the large wheel. He reached up and wrapped his gnarled fingers around her waist and lifted her down.
Speechless, she stood beside her luggage.
He unfurled the stockwhip and called to the oxen.
‘Good day, missy.’ He nodded in her general direction before turning his attention back to the team. ‘Gee up, Sparkle.’
‘Wait, Mr O’Brien,’ Maddy called, taking several halting steps after the dray. She wanted to climb back on the wagon, to run away from this place. After a few yards she stopped.
‘Mr O’Brien, please wait.’ Her stomach sank as the bullocks leaned into the stocks and as one began to walk, obedient to Mr O’Brien’s cracking whip, they turned a tight loop and pulled the heavy-laden wagon around and away. For some reason, the beasts moved with a speed she was certain they’d not managed when she was on the dray.
She knew the man must have been able to hear her, but the only indication he gave was the slightest hesitation between strides, and soon he and the wagon had disappeared around the bend.
Maddy turned back to see a tall honey-haired woman had appeared and was watching her with a somewhat less than welcoming expression. Beyond the woman, a leggy black dog strained at the end of a chain. Straightening her shoulders, Maddy approached her.
‘Ah, good morning, I am Madeleine Barker-Trent and I would like to see my father. Can you direct me, please?’
‘Aye, miss, he’ll be happy to see you,’ she said in a distinctive West Coast accent, and her blue eyes flicked over Maddy before dropping away to examine the patch of dirt at her feet. Relief coursed through Maddy; she prayed her presence would bring him some consolation.
‘Thank you, ah, Mrs …’
For a moment the woman continued to stare at the ground, but then she lifted her head, her expression somewhat defiant. ‘Rose McMahon,’ she said, and she dragged a half-naked child with dark gold curls and large grey eyes from behind her skirts, ‘And this is Luke, my son.’
‘I, er—’ Maddy faltered. ‘Where is my father? Where can I find him?’ She rubbed her throbbing temple.
‘Robbie, er, I mean Mr Barker-Trent is in the field,’ Mrs McMahon said, her face pinkening as she returned her attention to the dust.
Maddy stiffened at the woman’s use of her father’s Christian name. ‘And where will I find the field?’
‘Down by the river.’ A small frown furrowed the woman’s brow as she met Maddy’s eyes. The connection was fleeting; almost immediately her glance flicked away.
‘Best wait here though, you don’t want to be going down there, miss—there’s been a lot of snakes around.’
‘Snakes?’ Maddy swallowed. Then her chin came up; she’d travelled from the other side of the globe alone, the possibility of encountering a snake would not deter her. At the far side of the clearing, she saw a break in the trees and glanced back at Mrs McMahon. ‘That way?’
The woman shrugged, then nodded.
Maddy lifted the hem of her skirt and started in the direction indicated, for once grateful for the darkness of the fabric as each step she took kicked up a cloud of powdery dust. The trail led her down the hill, and Maddy prayed it would take her to Papa. She tossed a glance over her shoulder and saw the woman and the little boy had disappeared. Feeling suddenly bereft at their absence, Maddy paused and swallowed hard; she straightened her shoulders once more and with her chin held high she continued down the track.
The forest floor was a tangle of rocks and branches and Maddy stepped carefully over the tufts of spiky grass that grew in the space between the dusty wheel ruts. She’d barely gone a hundred yards before she heard rustling nearby. Maddy froze. A snake? Her heartbeat thundered in her ears as she strained to see what had made the noise. When she neither saw nor heard anything more and her heart resumed beating something close to its usual rhythm, Maddy continued. The track wound down the hillside and the going became harder as the incline became steeper. She came to a fork in the path and heard another scuffling in the brush. She jumped and pitched sideways on the uneven ground. One foot landed in a deep wheel rut and she fell hard on her hip, scraping the skin from the palm she thrust out to break her fall. The largest ant she’d ever seen stood on hind legs, red and angry, waving nippers in an aggressive warning. Scuttling back-wards, she dragged her skirts in the dirt as she scrambled away from it, hardly noticing the small stones and twigs beneath her hands.
The sun beat down through the sparse canopy of leaves on to her head and she realised she’d left her bonnet on the dray: it was well on the way to Patrick’s Plains by now. As she got to her feet Maddy contemplated which direction to take. To the left the wheel ruts were deep, and the gradient easier, while the other track seemed not so well used. She followed the more obvious path, and silently cursed her unsuitable footwear.
The forest thinned and through a gap in the trees she saw a beautiful valley and distant mountain range. Her heart leaped when she saw the neatly fenced fields on the far side of the river. Looking back up the track, she frowned—the farmyard was quite a distance from the fields. But as she took in the view, wondering again about the house; she knew Papa would have chosen the ridge for the aspect.
To the left, past the last of the standing timber, was a large sloping field terraced with rows of hilled plants she thought were potatoes; beyond it was an expanse of open grasslands dotted with sheep. Directly below her, the river, a brown ribbon, looped across the wide valley floor, sweeping close to the base of the escarpment, from which it was separated by a narrow strip of green. She imagined Mama seeing this with her and Maddy’s step faltered. What would she have made of it? She recalled the haphazard state of the farmyard on the ridge, and realised the neatly fenced fields she could see on the other side of the river were on someone else’s estates. She closed her eyes for a moment before continuing, hob-bling a little and skidding on a patch of loose gravel, down the hill to find Papa.
The trees closed in around the track again before it levelled out and as she stepped out into glaring sunshine, it took her a moment to notice the men working in the centre of a field of reddish-brown ploughed earth. The cawing of a crow drew her attention and she recognised the ribbon-leafed maize plants on her right growing in the narrow field between the escarpment and river. The plantings were at various stages of growth; with glimpses of gold ripening ears visible in the furthest plot, and she felt a momentary pang of familiarity and longing for the fields near her Wiltshire home.
Her attention returned to the men and she searched for Papa in the line of dust-covered workers but couldn’t distinguish him as they moved forwards, digging into large sacks slung over their shoulders, bending to press seed into the soil, stepping onwards and repeating the procedure. Only two of the men were clean shaven, and neither of those looked like Papa. Where was he? Maddy’s gaze scoured their profiles, trying to identify him. She tried to visualise the miniature portrait her mother’s locket contained. None of these men appeared anything like the man of her memories, but it had been almost six years since she’d seen her father.
The man closest to her sported bright red mutton chop whiskers and strings of faded red hair hung from beneath his battered hat. A younger man, clean shaven and tanned, worked beside him, then another two bearded men, and a skinny youth on the far side also bereft of whiskers. One of the men, whose clothing was somewhat worse for wear, stood to stretch, and noticed Maddy at the side of the field. Even from a distance she didn’t think he seemed particularly friendly. His face, wide beneath a low brow, had a hard expression; his thin lips twisted as he stared at her across the field. His failure to resume his work alerted the others, and one by one they all paused and stared. In the centre of the group one of the men, who was a little taller than the others, jerked with recognition, and she knew this must be Papa. He’d changed so much in the intervening years he was almost unrecognisable. She started across the field towards them.
She noted the shape of his wide-set eyes, so similar to her own; the rest of his features were hidden by whiskers growing high on his cheekbones. He gaped at her. He seemed much thinner than she remembered; the father of her memory had a youthful fullness of feature where this man was lined, almost gaunt. A stillness stretched for several heartbeats before he broke rank and stumbled across the uneven ground. His halting gait gained momentum until he was running towards her, his arms outstretched.
‘Papa,’ Maddy cried as she started forwards.
‘Maddy,’ he sobbed as he ran. They met halfway across the hot dry ground and Maddy was enveloped in her father’s arms.
‘Why weren’t you—?’ Maddy began.
Pushing away from her, he peered into her face, as if he didn’t believe she was really there. His gaze narrowed as he took in the black gown she wore. He frowned and peered past her shoulder. ‘Where is your mother?’ His hands gripped her arms painfully.
‘Mama?’ she said, dumbfounded. What did he mean? ‘Didn’t you receive my letter?’
‘When you didn’t arrive on the Asia …’ His words trailed off and he pulled her close once more. ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re here now.’
The tight control she’d kept on her emotions crumbled as his strong arms were wrapped around her; safe in his embrace, the last vestige of her composure gave way and she melted into him. With her face pressed into his broad chest and her arms tight around him, at long last she found a place of comfort in which to grieve. Sobs wracked her body and he held her tight. Eventually her tears abated until only the occasional hiccough and sniffle remained. She became aware of the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear; his work-roughened hands rubbed her back as they stood in the middle of the field.
Remembering they had an audience, Maddy looked around to see the men had resumed their work, and other than an occasional curious glance, were allowing their master his privacy. Maddy watched them through watery eyes until her vision cleared sufficiently to meet the gaze of the one man who watched her. Some unreadable emotion twisted his features for a moment, but when one of his co-workers spoke to him he resumed his work without comment. She glanced away from him to find herself being observed by the younger man, who offered a small smile.
‘Maddy, what happened? Where is your mother?’ Papa said, dragging her attention back to him.
She pushed away to stare up into his face. ‘But Papa, I wrote, I sent a letter to you—Mama was so ill, she could not travel. Did you not receive it?’
‘Is she up at the hut?’ His dark grey eyes followed the track towards the farmyard. ‘I must go to her.’
Maddy opened her mouth to answer him, but nothing came out. She saw his joy leak away as he stared down at her once more. She struggled to find the words to tell him the terrible truth.
‘She … died, Papa. She was taken with a fever and did not recover.’
She searched his face for understanding, but he stepped back from her, letting his arms fall to his sides. For several long and agonising moments they surveyed one another. Then his gaze ran down over her black dress and his mouth twisted.
‘I sent a letter …’ Maddy lifted shaking arms; like a child needing reassurance, she reached for him. His expression grew stony, as hard as chiselled granite. Without a word he turned and lurched away, staggering like a drunkard over the broken earth.
‘Papa?’ Maddy sank down on the hot dry soil and watched him head towards the river. Her chest ached as despair enveloped her. Trying to stem the flood of tears, she murmured, ‘I sent a letter.’ She stared at the empty river bank for a long while.
‘Excuse me, Miss Barker-Trent.’
Maddy lifted her head to see the clean-shaven young man stood a few feet away, and after a moment he stepped closer and, reaching down, took hold of her hand and helped her to her feet. When she was upright she searched the field once more. There was no sign of Papa.
Maddy looked up into the man’s tanned face and saw his blue eyes were filled with pity.
‘I’m sure he will be along soon: he just needs a little time. He’s been disconsolate. To have his worst fears confirmed …’
The man offered his arm. ‘Let me walk you back up to the huts.’
With one last look for Papa, Maddy put her hand on his wrist. His skin was warm; she felt the soft down of the golden hairs beneath her fingertips and jerked away.
‘I apologise, I should introduce myself,’ he said. ‘I am Daniel Coulter, overseer here at Shelby. I work for your father.’
Maddy stumbled again as she turned back towards the river, but there was no sign of Papa. With a sigh, she replaced her hand on Mr Coulter’s arm and allowed him to guide her back to the track. ‘Papa will be along shortly.’ Her voice cracked as she blinked back the tears that flooded her already stinging eyes.
‘I expect you are right.’
At the top of the trail they slowed, and Maddy took in the dis-appointing array of the ramshackle farmyard again. ‘In his letters my father spoke of a homestead.’
‘Yes,’ Mr Coulter said, and hope flared within her, ‘he certainly has a wonderful vision for the house.’
‘Where is it? I asked Mr O’Brien the bullock driver, but he said there was no house.’
‘No, well, it’s not finished.’ There was something in the way he spoke that caused her to glance around at him. He didn’t meet her eyes, and after clearing his throat he continued, ‘The kitchen is almost done, along with the storeroom and scullery, but when you and your mother didn’t arrive, he lost momentum.’
Maddy’s heart pounded with relief. There was a house, only it wasn’t finished. ‘Can you show me?’ She strode on, invigorated by the thought of seeing the house, even if it was only partially completed.
‘Yes, I suppose so, though there isn’t much to see. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to wait for your father?’
‘Please—I have come so far with an image of what I would find, and I am longing to see it.’
He led her past the shacks and horse yards to a narrow foot path. It led to the edge of the escarpment where the forest had been cleared, and where she took in the erected walls of a stone structure, but without windows, door or roof it seemed decidedly forlorn. It all seemed more a ruin than newly constructed to Maddy. Beyond the structure were mounds of earth where foundation trenches had been dug. Turning to face Mr Coulter, Maddy’s mouth gaped in disbelief: she had no words.
‘It’s important to establish the farm first. To ensure there is a supply of food. Your father was fortunate when George Lester was sent to Shelby, he’s a mason, and men with such skills aren’t common amongst assigned labour.’
She nodded, barely taking in his words. She looked away from the sorry sight before her, the view blurring as tears filled her eyes. None of it made sense. Papa had been there years. After several seconds she blinked and nodded. Taking in the river, rolling fields and distant hills, she could see at least why Papa had planned to build their home on the top of the cliff.
‘The view will be spectacular.’ She could hear that her voice was flat, emotionless.
Mr Coulter nodded but said nothing.
Glancing at the building site once more, Maddy pressed her lips into a determined line and before heading back to the farmyard.
‘Miss Barker-Trent,’ he said, and she paused to glance back at him. ‘You didn’t travel all this way alone, surely. Where is your maid, or companion?’
Maddy hesitated before explaining, ‘I’m afraid my maid changed her mind on the day we were due to leave. But I did not travel alone, as there was a kindly matron on board the Bussorah Merchant, a Mrs Macleod, she and her husband were heading to their son’s property south of Sydney. They generously chaperoned me and saw me aboard the Sophia Jane when we arrived in the colony.’ She twisted to glance back at the house site and sighed, ‘I thought perhaps Papa would have engaged someone suitable for my arrival.’ Even as she spoke, she remembered Papa had not received her letter.
‘I see.’ Mr Coulter seemed at a loss.
Maddy nodded, pushing aside the threatening wave of desolation, and continued walking, ‘I shall settle in while I wait for Papa.’
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