Saturday, February 16, 2008

WHEN DANGER FOLLOWS now available from New Concepts Publishing soon

The driver pulled Caitlin’s suitcase from the Greyhound tourist coach that had brought her up from Broome. He jumped back behind the wheel and drove off in a swirl of dust.

Caitlin looked around. She might well be the last person on the earth. The oppressive heat was far worse than anything she had imagined. Moving to a straggly, gum tree nearby, she sat on her case in the tiny circle of shade.

The mid-day sun bleached the sky to a silver haze, which shimmered, distorting everything in the distance. Pulling her hair free of its band, it settled like a damp towel on her neck. Caitlin put on her inadequate cotton sunhat, and began spreading sunscreen cream on any exposed bits of skin. She was sweating in her jeans–she’d have to change as soon as she arrived at the house.
Had she done the right thing coming here? She wanted so much to build a new life for herself, somewhere where she felt safe.

Down the road, another trail of dust rose. Relief spread through her at the sight of another human being. The truck rattled as it drove around her in a tight arc, pulling up with a spray of pebbles and dirt.

The door flung open and a man leapt out, grinning. "You’ve got to be Caitlin Fitzgerald." He grabbed her case and threw it in the back beside a panting kelpie dog.

She climbed into the cabin. It smelt of cow dung and smoke.

He nodded at her. "Harry’s the name. Gee, you’re going to have to be careful with that skin of yours. English are you?"

"Pleased to meet you, Harry,"Caitlin said, smiling. "Irish, from Dublin actually."
Harry was a big man, and he did have an easy way about him. She guessed he wasn’t much older than she was, maybe late twenties, but his skin was deeply tanned and laughter lines radiated from the corners of his hazel eyes. He wore khaki shorts and a sleeveless top that had seen better days, but his huge boots were polished until they gleamed like mirrors. He pushed his Akubra hat back off his face with a callused finger, and turned to look at her as they sped along.

"That’s a great head of red hair, you have, Caitlin. Do you have the temper to go with it?"

"I’ve been accused of being fiery on occasion," she replied, anxious that he should watch the road.

"I’ll have to stay on the right side of you then," he laughed, turning again to peer out through the dusty windscreen at the unchanging landscape. "What made you decide to come here, to the end of the earth to live?"

She paused. "Curiosity–I’ve read a lot about the Australian outback and wanted to see it. How far to Tall Trees?"

"We’re already on it."

"Did it start at that last gate?"

Harry gave a hearty guffaw. "Look to the horizon, east, west, north and south–all you can see is Tall Trees, and then some."
he peered through the window, struggling to grasp the sheer size of the landscape. She’d always felt at home in a crowd. Here, there was nothing but earth and sky for miles and it made her feel a bit odd.

Not afraid exactly, that’s an emotion she was familiar with.

"Tall Trees seems an incongruous name to me," she said.
"Do you mean it doesn’t fit?"

"Not many trees around here, tall or otherwise."

"Wait till we get there. You see that hill in the distance?"

She leaned forward, rubbing ineffectually at the windscreen. "That’s where we’re heading?"


Her mouth felt horribly dry, she’d had nothing to drink since the bottle of water bought at the last whistlestop. "Does it ever rain here?"

"In the rainy season. When it does, look out."

"It floods?" she said, with a strong note of disbelief in her voice.

Harry laughed. "If the river breaks its banks. You wait."

Caitlin wasn’t at all sure she wanted to.

Harry must have noted her expression. "The house is okay, it’s on top of a hill," he said taking pity on her. "But they do get cut off sometimes. So, you’re here to look after Jake Monterey’s kids."

"That’s right."

"Best of Irish luck to you."

Her heart sank. "They’re difficult?"

"More wilful than bad. Monterey’s let ‘em run wild since his wife died."

"How long is it since she passed away?"

"Over two years now. He goes off a lot these days–flies to Darwin on business. He has a lady-friend there."

She held her breath as Harry took his hands off the wheel and, steering with his knees, lit a cigarette. "Away now actually," he went on. "Maybe he plans to marry her and bring her back here. That would be a real good idea. The kids need a mother."

"Wouldn’t he tell you of his plans?"

He laughed and shook his head. "Nope, Jake’s a bit of a closed shop."

Trying to ignore her growing unease, she said, "What is it that you do, Harry?"

Harry pushed back his hat and scratched his head. "Jack of all trades master of none," he said cheerfully. "Tall Trees employs about thirty people and a fair few itinerant workers come and go. We all manage to work as a team under Jake, he’s the station manager as well as owner. I help muster the cattle. We send ‘em off to one of the bigger stations, for shipping to Asia and the Middle East. We also breed quarter horses. They’re my main interest, but I’m a mechanic by trade. I maintain the machinery–keep it all in good working order."

"That’s quite an impressive list of accomplishments," she said. "You must be kept very busy."

"Oh, I get time off." He glanced at her. "Saturday nights are always free."

Caitlin smiled and turned to gaze out of the window. They arrived at the base of cliff, glowing orange in the sun, and began to climb. She was amazed as the rocks and shrubs gave way to forest. "What sort of trees are they?"

"Bloodwood, Turpentine."

She thought it seemed a little cooler here, but that might be wishful thinking. It wasn’t long before they were traveling through dense bushland and she heard her first kookaburra laugh. A small, furry grey animal bounced across the track and the truck swerved.

"Effin wallabies," Harry cursed.

"Where’s the nearest town?" she asked when he’d straightened up again. She was beginning to relax; he handled the difficult conditions with practised ease.

"Burrawong–not far, twenty kilometres or so down the other side of the hill."

She wouldn’t be walking into town then. The revelation brought a wave of inexplicable claustrophobia washing over her.

"Do you ride?" he asked, breaking into her thoughts.

"No. I’m a bit scared of horses."

"You’ll have to learn," he said. "Can’t survive here, out of the saddle. Tell you what," he turned to look at her again, carelessly disregarding the slippery bush track the truck was negotiating.

"I’ll teach you."

"I might take you up on that, thanks," she said tensely.

A mile or so on, they emerged from the bush and approached another gate. Harry jumped out to open it with the truck still edging forward.

"You’ll be doing this in future," he said, back behind the wheel, grinding the gears as the truck leapt forward. "We’ll let you off today." Then he was gone again to close it.

Caitlin looked ahead at an amazing green oasis, Tall Trees, her new home. An avenue of shady trees with broad flat leaves she couldn’t identify, led up to the house. In the island formed by the circular sweep of gravel driveway, a sprinkler pumped out a wide arc of spray over lush green lawns and a rose garden.

She felt the wrench of homesickness, surprised to find roses thriving here. She needed to be somewhere that bore no resemblance to Ireland. "Where does the water come from?"

"Bore water. They’re lucky at Tall Trees. There’s a good underground supply."

The house was older and certainly bigger than she had imagined. Built of sandstone blocks, it had four stately, brick chimneys rising from its iron roof. A graceful curve of iron covered the wide verandah. She walked up to the front door; it had a light-well above it with Tall Trees etched into the glass.

"The jackeroo compound is down the bottom of the hill," Harry said, pointing away to the right of the house. He carried her suitcase as if it was packed with feathers. "You want some riding lessons, come find me."

"Thanks, Harry."

"Angela’s a real character," he said. "Wait till you hear her yodel, she’s a champ–won the pub talent contest four times running. The chooks love it." He took off his boots on the verandah, placing them together by the door. Caitlin stood wondering if she should do the same, was it a custom here, like in Japan? He opened the screen door and called into the gloom of the central hallway, "Angela?"

"Come in and have a cuppa." Angela appeared at the end of the hallway. She brought with her the aroma of something fresh-baked and delicious. Caitlin saw with relief that she was wearing shoes.

"You’ve taken off those beloved boots of yours, Harry, I’m pleased to see." She turned to Caitlin and in the same breath said, "You must be the new girl, Caitlin isn’t it?"
Caitlin moved forward to shake the woman’s hand. She was small and thin, her hair streaked with grey, but her grip was like iron.

"I’m pleased to meet you, Angela,’ Caitlin said to the woman's back as she headed briskly back down the hall.

"I’m glad you’re here," Angela said over her shoulder. "I have my work to be getting on with.

The children are out in the kitchen, having their tea. Come through."
Caitlin and Harry followed her over timber floors covered by a blue and gold carpet. Elegant lights like upturned crystal bowls hung from the high ceiling. Oil paintings dressed the walls. The kitchen was an airy room at the back of the house with both a wood stove and a more modern one. Windows looked out over a kitchen garden and open paddocks to the fringe of bush. At a well-scrubbed, wooden table sat two children, gazing at Caitlin from over the top of their mugs.

"This is Elizabeth, the eldest, she’s eight." Angela put her hand on the sandy curls of the girl.

"And this is William."

"I’m six." William said, wiping his milk moustache. He was a beautiful little boy with dark hair, smooth olive skin and startling blue eyes.

"Hello, Elizabeth, hello, William. I’m very glad to be finally meeting you both," Caitlin said, smiling. "I’ve bought you both a present all the way from Ireland. When I’ve unpacked my case I’ll give them to you." She’d brought them some books and two little woolly black-faced sheep, so different from the Australian ones.

Elizabeth was a pale, slightly built child. She had a high-strung look about her, her skin stretched tight over the delicate bones of her face. She screwed up her freckled nose. "Your hair is the colour of beetroots," she said dispassionately.

William giggled and twisted up his napkin, tossing it onto the floor. "Red as a beetroot," he parroted. "I hate beetroot!"

"Now you two," warned Angela. "That’s no way to behave. Apologise to Caitlin."

Elizabeth pulled her lips into a pout, looking mutinous.

"No, don’t worry about that now, Angela," Caitlin said, hastily. "I’d love that cup of tea. I’m as dry as a pharaoh’s tomb."

"What’s a faro’s toom?" William asked.

"Have you heard of the pyramids in Egypt?" Caitlin asked him, gratefully accepting the cup of tea Angela placed before her.

He wiggled in his chair. "Tell me."

"Pharaoh’s were kings a long, long time ago. When they died, their people buried them in tombs beneath the pyramids. Pyramids are shaped like this." She drew an outline on the tablecloth with a fork. "They’re strange and mysterious. I’ll show you a picture of them, perhaps tomorrow, okay?"
"Our mother died," said Elizabeth, in a conversational tone.
"Oh, yes, I know. I’m so sorry," Caitlin said, silently cursing her clumsiness.
"I can’t remember her very well, but Daddy says she was pretty. She didn’t have freckles." Elizabeth slipped off her seat and came close to Caitlin, peering into her face. "You’ve got freckles too. Like me," she said, her sweet child’s breath touching Caitlin’s cheek.
"I like my freckles," Caitlin said, resisting the urge to hug her. "but I’ll have to wear a big hat and keep out of the sun because I burn easily."
"Daddy doesn’t like freckles." Elizabeth looked as if she might cry.
"Oh, I’m sure he likes yours."
"No. He gets cross when I get burned, but I forget."
"Perhaps we can help each other remember."
Angela winked at her. "Now if you’ve finished your tea, Caitlin, I’ll show you your room."
The bedroom had a door opening out onto the verandah.
"You’ll have that open most nights." Angela pointed up to the high ceiling where a large fan slowly rotated hardly stirring the air. "It’s hard to get a breeze out of that this time of year."
Someone had taken great care with the room. The walls had yellow wallpaper with a frieze of violets round the top. The white, wrought-iron bed was covered in a dainty, patchwork bedspread like one Caitlin’s mother once had. A mosquito net hung above the bed by a hook. Freshly picked, yellow roses spilled out from a vase on the old cedar dresser, dropping petals. Covering the bare boards in front of the fireplace was a hook rug in cool greens that might have been homemade, and a wooden rocker with a yellow cushion.
"This is lovely," Caitlin said, surprised. "Thank you for the roses."
"Not my doing," Angela replied. "Bathroom’s down the hall. I’ll leave you to get settled."
Left alone, Caitlin sat down and rocked for a few minutes. Apart from a few birdcalls outside and the muffled sounds of the children from the kitchen, it was oddly quiet. She took a deep breath. She’d been so afraid this mad escape to the other side of the world would be a failure. She let her breath out slowly, and felt her tense muscles begin to unwind.
The next morning at breakfast there was still no sign of Jake Monterey. Caitlin and the children ate their bacon, eggs and sausage. Caitlin had asked for cereal, but Angela said, in that way of hers that brooked no reply,everyone should eat a good solid breakfast to set them up for the day. Caitlin decided to deal with that later and explained to the children what their daily routine would now be.
Elizabeth’s bottom lip stuck out. "We ride our ponies every day, for hours."
"And I’m allowed to jump my pony. Daddy set up a jump out in the paddock," said William.
Caitlin took a sip of tea. "You are both so clever to be able to ride. I wish I could."
Elizabeth’s eyes were scornful. "Can’t you ride at all?"
"Now, Missy, don’t you be so rude. Eat your breakfast,"Angela muttered. "She doesn’t eat enough to keep a bird alive."
Elizabeth pushed her plate away, barely touched.
Caitlin rose to take her plate to the sink. "I’m hoping to learn to ride and then perhaps I could ride with you."
"I can teach you how to jump," William said, jumping up and down on his chair.
"How nice of you to offer, William," Caitlin said. "Of course, you can ride, every day after afternoon lessons. But you shall not jump your pony, William, until your father returns and gives his permission."
Both children looked at her as they took this in, and the moment passed without argument.
It seemed she’d won round one and she felt quite pleased with herself.

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