The Horse Thief, страница 1
Tea Cooper is an Australian author of historical and contemporary fiction. In a past life she was a teacher, a journalist and a farmer. These days she haunts museums and indulges her passion for storytelling.
the little girl who loved ‘the horses’ and
the beautiful woman who always picks the Cup winner!
All my love, always.
The Hunter, New South Wales
Bold black handwriting sprawled across the envelope:
Alexander Kilhampton Esq.,
The flourish beneath the writing stopped at a small spot of ink as if the author had prevaricated then come to a sudden decision.
‘Off you go.’ India Kilhampton clutched the letter and dropped a penny into the young boy’s hand. She tore open the envelope before he’d even turned to leave. Her fingers trembled as she extracted the paper and unfolded it.
‘Peggy! Peggy!’ Grasping her skirts in one hand she flew across the flagstone courtyard, the letter held high above her head. ‘I have a response.’ Skidding to a halt on the threshold of the kitchen, she brandished the letter under her housekeeper’s nose.
A sceptical look flashed across Peggy’s round, pink face. ‘That’s mighty fine news.’
‘I never believed we’d hear from anyone.’ She tapped the envelope against her lips, relishing the scent of ink and new prospects. ‘I placed the advertisement over a month ago.’
‘What does it say?’
She glanced at the paper again, elation and tension blurring the words. ‘Not as much as I hoped. His name is Jim Mawgan and he’ll be in the area during the week of fourteenth of August and will …’
So much depended on this advertisement. Twelve months to prove a point and perform a miracle. The fourteenth of August … the knot in her stomach tightened. ‘Wasn’t that yesterday?’ Too late. The date had passed. Why hadn’t he turned up? She slumped down at the kitchen table. ‘Maybe he changed his mind.’
A cloud of white flour settled over India’s precious letter as Peggy dusted her hands. ‘Calm down. Read me the letter.’
Shaking the paper clean India cleared her throat and adopted her most businesslike tone. It was one she intended to practise, and use, if she ever got the chance.
In reply to your advertisement in The Maitland Mercury, I wish to make application for the position of Stud Master. I will be in the area during the week of fourteenth of August and beg your permission to call to discuss said position.
‘There you are.’ Peggy’s rolling pin thumped the table. ‘You’re supposed to be the educated one. The week of the fourteenth of August means anytime during the week. Today’s Monday. It could be any day until the weekend.’
The simple script floated in front of India’s eyes, the neat lines merging and drifting. ‘Oh, Peggy, I think you’re right. I hope so.’ It wasn’t too late, he hadn’t changed his mind, he just hadn’t arrived yet. Somewhere in her chest a bubble of elation burst. Unable to stay still a moment longer she leapt to her feet and spun around and around, clasping the precious letter tight.
‘Stop cavorting and carrying on. Come and sit down while I finish these scones.’
More from habit than agreement India plopped down again at the scrubbed pine table. Neat circles of dough fell from Peggy’s hands and lined up like soldiers on parade. India’s thoughts were less cooperative. It was such an outside chance. Some might call her idea reckless and foolish. No-one advertised for a stud master. There was no point. No reputable stud parted with the one man who knew all their secrets. No-one would apply for the job. It simply wasn’t done. Well! She sat back and indulged in a smug smile. She’d done it.
‘Are you going to tell your father?’
As usual, Peggy discovered the hair in the icing.
Telling Papa wasn’t necessary. After all, he might not even be in Sydney. He could be anywhere. Sailing the seven seas, trading his goods, anything to keep him away from Helligen. She chewed on her lip. ‘No. Not yet. He agreed in principle. I’ll wait and see if the man can do the job before I let Papa know. And anyway, he agreed matters were in my hands for twelve months.’
With a long-suffering sigh Peggy swung the oven door open. ‘Morning tea. Who’s here today?’
The smell of freshly baked scones compensated for Peggy’s lack of enthusiasm. India knew her plan would work—she didn’t need Peggy’s approval. ‘Only Fred, Jilly in the scullery, and the men working on the back fences with Tom Bludge. I’m going to tell them it’s their last day today. I’ll just keep Fred and Jilly on until I discover what this new man is like.’
‘Don’t get your hopes up. You advertised for a stud master not a labourer. He won’t be sweating it out in the paddocks. He’ll have other things on his mind.’ The corners of Peggy’s mouth twitched and her eyes twinkled as she let out a loud chortle.
India had lived most of her life on Helligen Stud and she had no doubt about the direction the housekeeper’s thoughts had taken. ‘Peggy!’
‘Well, I don’t know. Putting an advertisement in the paper for a man to do your breeding.’ She slammed the oven door. ‘Hardly ladylike.’
‘Not my breeding.’ India laughed and pushed the chair back. She stretched her legs under the table and wiggled her feet. ‘I can’t wait. It’ll breathe new life into the place having some foals around again. I’ve missed the rhythm of the seasons so much. I’m never going back to Sydney or Melbourne again.’ She lifted her hands and pulled her heavy hair off the nape of her neck. ‘Except to race Helligen’s first champion in the Melbourne Cup.’
‘And will you be taking your sister?’ Peggy’s caterpillar eyebrows twitched.
Violet! Heaven forbid. There’d be no chance of leaving without her. She’d made the most awful fuss about returning home to Helligen. ‘She’ll do as she’s told. Until she marries she has to do as Papa says, and right now I’m in charge so she’ll have to learn to live with it.’
‘Those are brave words, my girl.’
India jumped to her feet. ‘I feel brave, audacious and adventurous.’ For too long she’d plotted and schemed, wondering how to get things moving. ‘It’s a new beginning for Helligen—for all of us.’
Heat radiated from the dry bush, carrying a pungent blend of eucalyptus and the almond scent of
Jim Mawgan ran his tongue over his parched lips as he searched the track. The boundary of the property couldn’t be much further. According to his father a change in the terrain would mark his arrival. In the old days the fertile wetlands provided year-round tucker for the natives.
He dug his heels into Jefferson’s flanks to urge him on. After a full day on the road both of them could do with a drink and something to eat. They’d covered over fifty dry, dusty miles since first light.
An expanse of shimmering water came into view, the long afternoon rays of the sun turning the surface of the lagoon to gold. Smelling water Jefferson whinnied. In response a flight of birds took to the wing, their cries breaking the silence of the tinder-dry bush.
The ground vibrated and a horse thundered past. It shuddered to a halt beneath a solitary stand of trees. A cry drowned out the sounds of the waterbirds. The rider fell forwards, arms dangling free, slumped against the buckskin’s neck.
Guttural gasps reached a crescendo and turned to rasping sobs. Jim jumped from his saddle, tethered Jefferson and edged closer. The figure sobbed and groaned. Flowing white robes cast an ethereal glow over the silhouette.
‘Ma’am, allow me. Are you hurt?’
She lifted her head, her face barely visible through the heavy curtain of tangled hair. The horse shied. Jim darted closer and grabbed the bridle. ‘Ma’am?’
With hands whiter than her cobweb gown she pulled back her hair. He smothered a gasp. Pain etched her ravaged face and her eyes blazed; her mouth stretched wide by her wracking sobs.
‘I’ve searched … I’ve searched high and low.’ She threw back her head, exposing the frail column of her neck. ‘I can’t find him.’
Her mournful keening sent prickles skittering across his sweat-soaked skin. Uttering a pathetic moan she slipped sideways. He caught her as she toppled to the ground and with his arms tight around her waist he steadied her.
She stared at him with a look of total confusion. ‘Have you found him?’ Her demented gaze scanned the edges of the paperbark forest, as though at any moment she would pull free and run.
In an attempt to pacify her he dropped his hands and spread his palms. ‘Ssh! Ssh!’
Her thin fingers bruised the bare skin of his forearms as she clung to him. ‘You must find him.’
‘Indeed I shall, ma’am, but first let me help you.’
At his words her head snapped up and her stormy eyes flashed a warning. With unexpected force she pushed him aside and vaulted back onto her horse. She gave one last agonising cry and took off in the direction of the lagoon, sending another flurry of waterbirds soaring upwards.
Loose white material billowed behind her. A long shawl trailed over her shoulders and tangled with her dappled hair, blending with the pale colour of her horse’s coat. As he peered after her she disappeared into the last rays of the setting sun.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and he ran his hands up and down his arms to chase away the strange sense of foreboding. Should he chase after her? She rode without a saddle and in her distressed state could easily injure herself. Then again, she’d mounted and galloped off as confident as any seasoned rider.
Unable to countenance leaving the woman alone he headed for the lagoon at a gallop. The ground softened, forcing Jefferson to pick his way along the edge of the lagoon, his feet sinking into the damp grass. The slanting sun threw tangled shadows across their path and Jim shaded his eyes as he scanned the foreshore.
She’d vanished. Only the two red brick chimneys his father had said pinpointed the house marred the pristine landscape. He shrugged his shoulders and turned his horse.
Within minutes an impressive set of double gates came into view. Jim dismounted. His heart beat hard and fast against his rib cage as he ran his fingers over the weathered words engraved on the timber sign. Helligen Stud.
He took one last look back at the lagoon, but there was no sign of the woman so he swung the gates open and entered the property, taking his first step towards avenging the past and securing his future.
A long meandering driveway curved up to the house, which dominated the landscape. It perched, master of all it surveyed, atop a small incline. Tangible proof of the power of the Kilhamptons. Pillars of Australian society, leaders of business, and the owners of a fleet of trading vessels that roamed the globe. Timber fences as solid as the family’s reputation ran the length of the treed driveway and marked out a series of lush green paddocks. Cattle grazed lazily and horses ambled along the river flats.
Dusk had settled by the time he entered the flagstone courtyard. How long since Kilhampton had bundled them off the property? Close on fifteen years. Not a lot had changed. A new dovecot sat in the middle of the vegetable garden and the massive barn was complete. The temptation to turn tail and run coiled in his gut but that would solve nothing. The top storey of the stables, the hay storage beckoned. That’s where he’d throw his swag, the perfect spot to keep an ear open and an eye on all the comings and goings.
He cast a surreptitious glance in the direction of the house and slid from the saddle, easing his cramped muscles. No tangible difference, yet everything seemed smaller, less impressive, and a little colourless. He inhaled the warm, heavy air redolent with the odour of hay and dung. A couple of stable doors swung loose on their hinges. The water barrel beneath the eaves wallowed in a damp puddle. Weeds clustered at the base making the most of the seeping moisture. A few chickens picked and plucked their way around the stable doors. More than anything the silence struck him—the heart had been ripped from the place.
Jim led Jefferson into an empty stall in the stable block. He removed his pack saddle then searched around for something to rub down his horse. A tousled head, cocked to one side, appeared around the half-door. Toffee-coloured eyes twinkled a sheepish welcome.
‘This your job?’ Jim inclined his head towards his horse.
‘Yep.’ The boy brandished a piece of sackcloth. ‘I’ll rub him down and see to his feed. They’re expecting you. Been waiting since your letter came. Miss India says you’re to be treated proper, with respect.’ An impish grin lit his face. ‘Sir.’
Jim ruffled the boy’s hair. The kid reminded him of a time and a person long gone. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Fred, you can drop the sir. Jim will do. And this is Jefferson. He should be treated with respect.’
Fred ran a practised hand over the horse. ‘Nice animal.’ His fingers reached up to trace the brand on his shoulder. ‘A Munmurra animal.’
‘That’s right. Know your horses, do you?’
‘Could say that. Jockey needs to know his horses.’
‘Oh, you’re a jockey, are you?’ Jim grinned; the boy’s cockiness impressed him.
‘Not yet. I will be, one day, if I’m ever allowed to race.’
‘Patience. You’re young, you’ve got all the time in the world.’
Lucky. He hadn’t a moment to waste and so much to achieve. In a matter of weeks registration for the Flemington Races opened and by then he intended to be ready.
‘Go and see Peggy in the kitchen and she’ll tell you what’s what.’ Fred clambered onto an upturned bucket and reached for Jefferson’s neck.
Jim ruffled the boy’s hair again and slung his saddlebags over his shoulder. Pushing aside his discomfort he made for the kitchen. The door stood ajar and he poked his head around the corner half expecting to see his mother standing at the stove. Disgusted by his sentimentality he rapped on the open door. ‘Jim Mawgan. I’m looking for Mr Kilhampton.’
‘Are you?’ The woman stood, hands on hips, guarding her range.
Jim dropped his bags to the ground and removed his hat. ‘I’m here about the job advertised in The Maitland Mercury.’
Small flurries of flour flew u
Jim gave a quick nod; he’d passed the first test.
‘I’ll tell Miss India you’re here. Dinner’s on in an hour.’
‘Right. Good. I need to check on my horse. The young boy in the stable is sorting him out. And then find somewhere to bunk down.’
‘The stud master’s house is across the way. Ready and waiting.’
Jim peered through the window across the courtyard, past the two rows of stables, to his birthplace. He’d played in the dust in front of the old cottage, split his head falling from the verandah roof. He blew out a breath of air and raked his fingers across his scalp, scratching the scar where the sweat and damp hair irritated. That house held too many ghosts. ‘That’s too big for me. I can doss down above the stables.’
‘You’ll do no such thing. That’s the stud master’s house and that’s the job you’re after, isn’t it?’ Not giving him time to draw breath, Peggy continued, ‘And that’s where you’ll be staying. You’ll eat over here with Fred, Jilly, the boys and me in the kitchen. Miss India will see you tomorrow. She’ll be pleased. She’s got big plans.’
Not half as big as his own, he’d put money on that. ‘What about Mr Kilhampton? Ought I have a word with him, tell him I’ve arrived?’
‘Nope. He’s not here. Miss India’s running the show.’
That wasn’t included in the advertisement. Jim shrugged off the memory of the mischievous pampered child who had hared around under everyone’s feet. Fifteen years of privilege added into the mix would make for a sight to see. Maybe his task would be easier with Kilhampton out of the way.
She dug a key out of a pocket in her voluminous apron and offered it to him. ‘Off you go then.’
The key nestled warm and familiar in his palm. He stooped and lifted his saddlebags, then stopped. ‘By the way, I saw a woman out by the lagoon. She looked upset and took off before I could help. I wondered if …’