Up on Horseshoe Hill
‘Penelope Janu’s fresh, bright, funny new twist on rural romance is an absolute delight. Her wit is as sharp as a knife. She is one of my absolute must-read authors.’ Victoria Purman, bestselling Australian author
A kiss can change your life …
Jemima Kincaid loves her home, her horses and her job as a farrier. Life has not been kind to her, but Jemima is happy in the close-knit rural community of Horseshoe Hill, which rallied around in her hour of need. Even so, she is fiercely independent and will never rely on anyone again.
Particularly a man like Finn Blackwood.
An infuriatingly attractive geneticist and wild animal vet, Finn threatens not only the serenity of Jemima’s present, but that of the future she has so carefully mapped out. But as their paths continue to cross, she finds her attraction to Finn impossible to counter, even as the trauma of her past threatens to undo her. Finn is fascinated by Jemima’s solitary nature and unique vulnerabilities but Jemima knows all about loss and how to avoid it. Don’t let anyone get close in the first place …
As the past begins to cast long shadows, Jemima and Finn discover that a kiss can bring worlds together-or tear them apart. Will they finally face their fears and find love on Horseshoe Hill?
My brother’s plot is in the third row of graves at the Horseshoe Hill cemetery. Dad made his cross from a red gum branch, which fell near the cottage in a storm.
Railway sleepers, faded dusky grey, mark the end of each row of graves. The timber is dusty and rough but my jeans are dirty from work, so I sit and stretch out my legs. At the top of the rise is a tiny stone church, weathered and golden with age. My ute is the only car parked there today; more people will come on the weekend. Some pray at the church, or chat with the loved ones they’ve lost. Others take shelter from the sun. Our wheelbarrow and gardening tools are stored at the back of the nave.
The land beyond the graveyard is mostly cleared for crops, and sheep and cattle grazing. I can’t see the river from where I’m sitting, but paperbark trees mark the flow.
‘So, Liam, I guess you know it’s the second of August.’ Tears blur my view of the cross. ‘You would’ve been sixteen.’
I saw Liam once, when he was only two days old. Mum was holding him closely and rocking him gently, her eyelashes spiky and wet. She opened the blanket and showed him to me, his little nose and mouth, and skinny arms and legs. Besides the paleness of his face and the stillness of his body, he was perfect.
There are gums around the cemetery, thick silver trunks and grey-green leaves, but very little shelter for the graves. In sum-mer and autumn, they’re peppered with grass; sometimes in winter they’re draped in white frost. For much of the year Liam’s plot is like the others.
In spring it comes to life.
We planted the daffodil bulbs the day that he was buried. The soil, ruddy red-brown and freshly dug up, was soft because of the rain. We made divots in the earth with our trowels, pushed the plump brown teardrops into the ground, and pressed the soil firmly around them. The rain was falling sideways in gusts and we were all cold and wet. When I said that planting a bulb was like tucking a baby into bed, Mum smiled bravely, and then cried even harder. I started to cry too, and so did Dad, but later he said it was a good thing I’d spoken. The rain and our tears, the moisture and warmth, fell into the dirt together.
Mum died two years after Liam. That was thirteen years ago, when I’d just turned fourteen. I was familiar with loss by then, and knew better than to quip about tucking things in. We planted daffodils on Mum’s grave too, and jonquils as well. Liam’s grave was more difficult to sow the second time around—it was March and it hadn’t rained in months. Dad softened the ground with water from the bore tap, and we planted the jonquils one by one, taking care of the bulbs that were already there. Mum used to say that nothing smelled better than a jonquil, even the scent of a baby, my freshly washed hair or clean saddle leather.
The freesias I planted a decade ago won’t have tall, straight stems like the daffodils and jonquils, but they’ll shoot earlier, spindly stalks with knobbly heads. At the end of the winter they’ll flower milky white, ruby red and pink—sweet-smelling colour that’ll tangle with the grass. A lot of the shoots are peeking out already, bright green and glossy.
Something glistens—I see it from the corner of my eye. I get to my feet and watch a car, a white four-wheel drive, pull off the loop road and follow the pot-holed lane towards the gums where I parked. I can’t see who’s driving, but the car is unfamiliar. Dubbo, the biggest town in the district, is only an hour away. Maybe it’s a day-tripper from there, checking out the church before heading into Horseshoe Hill. The town, named for the final peak in the crescent-shaped Horseshoe range, gets occasional visitors in winter. In addition to the pub, there’s a row of shops, a primary school and a doctor’s surgery.
I squat at Mum’s grave, being careful to keep my boots clear of the shoots. Her headstone is lined up with Liam’s cross, and I look at the letters, twisting and turning in front of my eyes. ‘Dyslexia is a blessing,’ Dad always said. ‘It gives you a special way of seeing things.’ He also said, ‘It’s lucky you were born with the memory of an elephant.’ I run my fingers over the words. In addition to the way they move around, it’s hard to recognise the letters and symbols. And things get worse when I try too hard. A word I read one day, I can’t read the next. But the words on Mum’s grave? I know them all by heart. Abigail Laney died at thirty-nine, doing what she loved. She was married to Ross Kincaid and had two beautiful children, Jemima and Liam.
‘Hey, Mum,’ I say, wiping my eyes with the palm of my hand. ‘Chili Pepper’s doing well. He gets a gallop occasionally, just to stretch his legs, and I take him to Follyfoot almost every week.’
It took me years to tell Mum I didn’t ride any more. And even then, I didn’t give her the real reason, just told her I’d lost inter-est. A lot of teenage girls do that. If she was listening, I hope she believed it.
‘Mrs Hargreaves called this morning. She knew it was Liam’s birthday, and so did Sapphie and Gus. It’s good that people remember about Liam, isn’t it? After so many years.’
I blink back tears again. Sapphie tells me not to do this to myself, that I can think about my family just as well from a distance as I can here, that they wouldn’t expect me to visit. But the only time I cry is on their birthdays. A few days a year isn’t going to kill me. When I wipe my face with my shirtsleeve, dark blue tracks mark the fabric. I trace them with my finger.
‘See, Mum, blue is still my favourite colour.’ She used to laugh when I competed at horse shows and waved first-place ribbons happily under her nose.
Wheels crunch on the gravel as the four-wheel drive does a three-point turn, before heading east on the highway. The wind picks up. When my hair, long and fair, flies into my eyes, I twist it into a rope and flip it down my back. Then I crouch by Dad’s grave. It has daffodils too, and jonquils and freesias. And there’s a headstone. Not that I can read those words any better than I can read Mum’s.
‘Hi, Dad.’ I shade my watch with my hand and make out the time. ‘I’ll be back on the weekend.’
I follow the pebble path to the first row of graves near the church. These are the oldest plots, with weather-beaten headstones, intricate crosses and tiny ornate fences. Dad used to chart my growth against the statue of the angel. I run a hand over her outstretched wings.
‘How’re you doing?’ I say quietly.
As I walk through the space in the fence where the gate used to hang, I kick through the leaf litter, breathe in its scent. There’s an ironbark tree at the front of the church, and its roots jut out of the ground. I balance on one and stand on my toes to get a closer look at the black slate roof. More tiles have come loose and slipped into the gutter. It’s bound to rain soon. On Sunday I’ll bring a ladder, rearrange the tiles and fill in the gaps.
The cabin in my ute smells of smoke from the forge, so I wind down the windows to let in the breeze. Behind the trees, the sun dips lower, casting brightly coloured spirals on the dash. I put the car into gear and check the rear-view mirror.
The cemetery, the crosses, the headstones. Liam, Mum and Dad.
I turn off the road towards home, driving through the pillars and over the cattle grate. Bushes and shrubs scrape against the ute as I round the bend in the driveway. My weatherboard cottage, built decades ago for a housekeeper, nestles beneath the branches of a towering gum. Barely twenty metres away, at the end of the drive-way, sits Kincaid House, the homestead owned by Dad’s cousin. It has a pitched roof, chimneys, wide verandahs and fifty hectares of grazing land that slopes down to the river. I pull over near the shed. And it’s only as I shut the door behind me that I notice the car I saw at the cemetery, parked beneath the peppercorn tree on the far side of the homestead.
Chili Pepper, my mother’s warmblood cross, is at the gate, as are my ponies, Freckle and Lollopy. Where is Vegemite? And where is the driver of the car?
Silence. But then I hear a long, loud bellow. Only horses are kept in this paddock, but my neighbour Gus grazes cattle on the far side of the river. More bellows ring out, increasingly distressed. I climb through the gate and run down the hill, towards the trees that grow along the riverbank. Finally I see Vegemite. He has his back to me but turns his head and pricks up his ears when I get close.
I press the stitch in my side. ‘What’s going on?’ Vegemite rubs his head against my legs as I stroke behind his ears.
There’s another bellow, not as loud as the others. And then, apart from the sounds of rustling leaves and the rush of water, it’s eerily quiet.
I climb through the wire fence and step carefully around the trees and undergrowth towards the six-metre cliff that drops to the river. It’s impossible to cross at this point, but I can see to the other side, where the slope rises steeply. A cow stands at the base of the slope, close to the water, her calf tucked in by her side. He’s small, probably only a few months old. His body is trembling; his legs are wobbly. His woolly coat is rust-brown and curly and I suspect it’s sopping wet.
I walk closer to the edge, wrap an arm around a sapling and take my phone from my pocket. I wave the phone around but can’t pick up reception to call Gus. So I walk a little further, back to higher ground. Which is when I see the man.
He’s not far from the cows, and is leaning forwards with his hands on his knees, as if to catch his breath. His hair is short and dark, his shoulders are broad and, when he straightens, I see that he’s tall. His blue shirt pulls tightly across his back and his navy pants cling to his legs. His feet are bare. He’s just as wet as the calf.
He opens his arms and walks towards the cows. When the mother gazes at him, wide-eyed but motionless, he picks up a branch. Taking care to stay between the cows and the river, he swipes the branch against the ground, until finally the mother gets the message, pivoting and scrambling frantically up the riverbank, her calf at her heels. As they crash through the undergrowth, the man runs up the slope behind them. A minute passes, maybe two, and then I hear a series of bellows, some loud, others soft.
I think they’ve found their friends.
There’s little brightness in the filtered sun, and the cliff shades the river. A tall wedge of rock divides the water, making a pair of fast flowing streams. Rocks beneath the surface glisten black.
My head jerks up. I don’t know his name; how does he know mine?
He stands on the opposite riverbank with his hands on his hips. I can’t see his face clearly, but I’m certain he’s young, maybe thirty. He runs a hand through his hair.
‘Are they okay?’ I shout.
‘Back with the herd.’
‘Was the calf in the water?’
One side of his shirt has pulled out of his pants. I see a flash of white teeth as he yanks the rest free and pulls it away from his body. ‘Unfortunately, yes.’
‘Is that your car at Kincaid House?’
‘Did you cross down there?’ I point downstream, to the kink in the river. ‘It’s much harder to find the path back. Walk a few hundred metres through the paddock behind you, as far as the paperbark trees. The riverbank levels out down there. It’s the best place to cross to this side.’
‘I’ll come back the way I came.’
He’s not Australian—his words are clipped. Maybe English? He climbs halfway up the rise before turning and facing me again.
He pushes back his shoulders as if he’s taking a breath. Surely he wouldn’t …
He runs as far as the distance allows, then leaps over the water, at least two metres wide, and lands with both feet on the rock that splits the river. For an instant he teeters, but then he pitches for-wards, taking hold of the rock with both hands. I suck in a breath as he climbs to the top. His body tense, he jumps, legs scissoring in midair, over the second stretch of water. He lands with bent knees, on the plateau of rock at the base of the cliff.
My heart is beating fast as I walk to the edge of the cliff and, once again, wind an arm around the sapling.
I look down. He looks up.
His eyes are blue, bright as summer skies.