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The Cedar Cutter, страница 1


The Cedar Cutter

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The Cedar Cutter



  Tea Cooper is an established Australian author of contemporary and historical 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. She is the bestselling author of The Horse Thief, published by Harlequin in 2015.

  Also by Tea Cooper

  The Horse Thief

  Available in ebook

  Matilda’s Freedom

  Lily’s Leap

  Jazz Baby

  Forgotten Fragrance

  Jo, Ann, Kew and Sarah

  this one’s for you!

  Even if time heals all wounds,

  you still bear the scars…

  Wollombi, 1855


  Also by Tea Cooper























  Historical Note



  The road widened from a track to a well-worn thoroughfare and the chill afternoon air blended with the rank odour of civilisation, signalling the end of their long journey. The dray swayed past carts laden with goods and vendors hawking their wares. Women dressed in their Sunday best picked and pored over ribbons and gewgaws, everything from sweet baked delights to rabbit-skin hats, and layered beneath it all was the pungent scent of freshly cut timber.

  Drawn by the spectacle, the driver eased to a halt and stood, shading his eyes from the sun. A mighty roar rose up, drowning out the catcalls and cheers, and the crowd stopped and turned, their fevered excitement palpable as they elbowed and jostled their way to a front-row spot.

  Curiosity and her son’s wriggling body won out and Roisin dragged herself to her feet. Beyond the walls of the inn a seething crowd blanketed the bright stretch of grass, heads craning to catch a glimpse. Silence fell and the sea of bodies parted.

  Balanced on the shoulders of two enormous giants, a man sat brandishing an axe above his head, acknowledging the roar of adulation with a cocky grin before brushing aside the shock of damp black curls clinging around his lean, raw-boned face.

  ‘As if I couldn’t guess. Carrick’s done it again.’ The dray driver raised his clenched fist in a salute. ‘Good on him.’

  ‘What is it? What has he done?’ Roisin deposited the squirming body of her son back onto the seat with a thump.

  ‘Won. Won again. Champion.’

  ‘What’s he won?’ Something very noteworthy and highly prized, judging by the reaction of the crowd and the look akin to worship on the dray driver’s face.

  ‘Won the Woodchop. Best cedar cutter in the district, probably the country.’

  ‘Cedar cutter?’ Roisin turned away from the dirty champion clad in a stained, sleeveless vest and thigh-hugging moleskins.

  ‘Good God, woman! Don’t you know nuffink? Where you been all your life?’

  ‘Sydney.’ She straightened her shoulders and lifted her nose. Sydney was hardly beyond the black stump. It was the largest and most advanced city in the country.

  ‘Right.’ The driver gave a dismissive snort. ‘City girl born and bred. I’d forgotten.’ He hawked his displeasure into the dirt before edging the dray through the press of people. ‘Town’s on the up and up now the convict gangs have moved on. You won’t find the likes of Sydney here. Much as the new settlers pretend otherwise.’ He eased alongside another wagon. ‘Get your belongings off here and I’ll move on. Can’t block the road. The show’s as good as over.’

  The procession of men bore the cedar cutter closer, the slanting sunlight dancing on his sweat-soaked skin, and when he turned his muscles rippled like water over sand. The resounding cheers rent the air, then all sound receded as he fixed her with an intense stare and the strangest shiver tiptoed down her spine.

  ‘Oi! I’m talking to you.’

  Roisin blinked as the raucous parade swarmed on its way and the cedar cutter disappeared in a sea of jubilation.

  ‘I said stay there while I get your bags down.’ The driver climbed out into the hurrying throng that wavered this way and that, a tide swelling, rising and falling. ‘There you are.’ He reached out his hand and she balanced on the wheel before scrambling down and landing with a thud on the dusty road.

  Stretching up, he grabbed Ruan then deposited him and their bags beside her amidst the swirling chaos. With a wave of his hand he drew away, leaving her perched on the side of the road, Ruan’s hand clasped firmly and two carpetbags languishing at her feet.

  Her stomach turned three neat summersaults then righted itself. In the safety of Sydney Aunt Lil’s plan had seemed like such a good idea. Put the past behind her, make an end of the fear, the constant over-the-shoulder glances, and strike out on her own. A new life—all she thought she wanted and all she knew Ruan needed.

  The enormity of her decision sat as heavy as her carpetbags. Snatching a breath of the sticky, fetid air, she pulled Ruan closer, more for her own comfort than his. Now the whole prospect seemed the most foolish idea. If only she’d taken time to think it through instead of packing her bags and fleeing. It was too late for recriminations. She must find a room for the night then tomorrow … tomorrow she’d take the next step.

  Ruan squirmed from her grip, jiggling with pent-up energy, and dodged into the road.

  ‘Stop!’ One of the bags crashed against her shin as she grabbed at his arm and searched the crowd. No one offered any assistance; they were far too busy going about their business, making their way home. Perhaps if she took Ruan inside the inn she could leave him there and come back for the bags, maybe find someone to help.

  ‘You’re hurting me,’ Ruan moaned, as she made an instant decision, left the bags and dragged him across the road.

  ‘Hurry up.’ Holding her chin high, she marched the poor child towards the sign proudly proclaiming the Harp of Erin. It might be unseemly, a woman alone entering a place like this, but she had no option. She shouldered open the door and stepped over the threshold into the dim interior. Dust motes hung in the thin shafts of light illuminating the sultry gazes and appreciative stares of the gang of sweaty, half-dressed men lounging around the fire.

  The woman behind the bar wiped her hands on a filthy apron and looked her up and down. ‘What can I do you for you, love?’ Her wrinkled face creased into the semblance of something that could have been a smile.

  ‘A room for the night, if you please. For myself and my son.’

  Her son, Ruan, dangled from her hand, twirling around, his eyes as round as buttons as he took in the packed room.

  ‘Ruan, stay right beside me, here.’ She stamped on the floor to emphasise the spot.

  ‘Just for the one night will it be, love?’

  ‘Yes, that’s all.’ It wouldn’t even be one night except for the fact they’d been travelling for longer than she could remember and they needed food and sleep.

  ‘Come on Davy’s dray, did you? From St Albans?’

  The stares and the woman’s questions set Roisin’s teeth on edge. ‘Ruan, stay still.’ She sucked in a deep breath of rum-drenched air and willed herself to relax.

  After hours of bumping along the rutted road, the boy had ants in his pants. Roisin could understand his impatience, eve
ry one of her bones seemed dislocated by the buffeting they’d received. The dray had rattled and banged all the way from St Albans, falling into every single one of the potholes lining the road. What she wouldn’t give for a cup of tea.

  ‘Only got one left, it’s round the back. Got a few people in town. The Woodchop, you know.’

  ‘I’ll take it.’ She didn’t care how small the room was or where as long as it was dry and they could find something to eat. If the wretched driver hadn’t taken so long gawking at the crowds she’d have been inside ages ago and with her bags. Who knew how many light-fingered, dubious characters lurked in the shadows. There were enough in the cramped room of the inn to populate Hyde Park Barracks.

  She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Ruan?’

  ‘The man’s got our bags.’

  Roisin whipped around. The man in question, the woodcutter with the broad grin, had both her bags balanced on his shoulders, as though they weighed no more than a flimsy bolt of silk.

  ‘Where do you think you’re going with those?’ She took a couple of measured steps towards him, schooling the scowl on her face, hoping it would be enough to stall him in his tracks.

  ‘Depends where you’d be liking them.’ His intense blue eyes twinkled at her from under black-winged brows as he tossed the mess of curls off his forehead.

  A man had no right to hair that beautiful. A man had no right to her bags, either. ‘Just put them down here, thank you.’

  One eyebrow quirked and the corner of his mouth twisted into a slow mocking grin that would have done the devil proud.

  ‘The lady’d probably like them in her room—out the back.’ The woman tipped her head in the direction of a closed door behind the bar.

  ‘Right you are.’

  ‘Just a moment I …’

  Unable to do anything but gape, she stood stock-still as his broad shoulders edged through the doorway into the dark recesses of the inn and disappeared. Scrambling to follow, she nudged Ruan in front of her, intent on keeping their possessions in sight.

  ‘Woah! Not so fast, Missus. That’ll be a shilling each for the bed and same again for a bowl of my very best Irish stew. And as much tea and damper as you can handle.’

  ‘Oh yes, of course.’ She rummaged in the small drawstring reticule hung around her wrist while Ruan vanished through the door after the man. ‘Ruan, wait for me. You’ll get lost.’ She slid the coins across the bar.

  ‘He’ll be right. Carrick knows his way around the place.’

  ‘Carrick? The woodcutter?’

  ‘Carrick, the ’andsome bloke you couldn’t take your eyes off, carrying those bags of yours.’

  ‘Oh, Carrick,’ she stammered, batting down the flush scalding her cheeks. Something about the man, even in his sweat-stained clothes stirred a heated confusion in her. ‘Ruan, come back here.’ Her brain seethed. How could she find a man like that even remotely attractive? Most likely he was some ticket of leaver employed at the inn when he wasn’t showing off with an axe.

  ‘Off you go, and don’t worry. Your little boy won’t come to any harm unless Carrick sits him down and starts recounting his far-fetched yarns. He’s got the gift of the gab, that scoundrel.’

  ‘Yarns,’ Roisin echoed. She spun around, managing to catch her foot in the hem of her travelling skirt, before scuttling after Ruan’s retreating back. The lack of light hit her the moment she passed under the timber lintel into the passageway. ‘Ruan!’

  ‘Down here, Mam.’

  Following the sound of Ruan’s high-pitched giggle and a burst of deeper laughter, she edged her way through the half-open door and stopped dead. ‘Excuse me!’

  ‘Just testing the bed.’ Carrick slammed the palms of his big hands down on the coverlet, making Ruan bounce in the cloud of ensuing dust.

  More shrieks of laughter from Ruan reverberated around the crowded room and Roisin smothered a sneeze, then groped in the pocket of her jacket for a handkerchief.

  ‘’Tis a very fine colour on you. Brings out the green in your eyes. Emerald like the green grass of home, enough to tweak a poor man’s heartstrings.’

  ‘Come along, Ruan. Now.’ Roisin grasped at her son’s hand. As much as she longed to, she didn’t dare make eye contact with the owner of the dulcet tones. Not again. What man noticed the colour of a woman’s clothes? Even more, appreciated the fact she’d chosen the colour because it was an exact match to her eyes. It served her right, payment for a foolish moment of vanity.

  ‘That will be all, thank you.’

  In a flash the cutter was on his feet. His lopsided grin made a mockery of her cold words and his wretched eyes sparkled with amusement. ‘The pleasure’s mine, ma’am.’ He tugged his forelock and winked at Ruan, before striding through the door, whistling some tune that reminded her of swirling skirts and madcap dancing.

  ‘Get off that bed. I need to put the bags there. Where are they?’

  Ruan struggled off the mattress and landed on the floor with a bump. ‘Carrick put them down over there so they’d be out of the way.’ He pointed into the back corner of the room where both bags sat in a forlorn heap.

  ‘I hope you said thank you to Mr … Carrick.’

  ‘Yes. And he said mates didn’t thank each other.’ Ruan gave a delighted jump. ‘I’m going to like it here.’

  ‘Ruan, darling,’ she sighed, ‘you really must be a bit more sensible. You can’t just go off with anyone who comes along. It’s not the right thing to do.’ Roisin couldn’t bring herself to look into his eyes. Warnings like that belonged in Sydney, yet she couldn’t shake her concerns. They’d become second nature after two years of looking over her shoulder every time she and Ruan set foot outside the house.

  ‘I wasn’t following just anyone. I was following our blasted bags.’ He slammed his hands on his hips and pouted.

  ‘What is the matter with you? I shall scrub your mouth out with carbolic if I hear words like that again. And for that matter they’re not blasted bags, they contain our livelihood, our possessions.’ Her most precious possession, the pocket sewing machine Aunt Lil had given her, bought for a song from a gold digger’s wife when the woman and her husband had run short. ‘I’ll have you remember …’ Roisin sucked in a deep breath and glared at Ruan, a mirror image standing hands on hips scowling back at her. Her shoulders sank. ‘Oh, darling, I’m sorry. I’m tired after the long journey and you must be exhausted, too. I was worried. Come along, let’s wash your face and hands and then we’ll go and find some food.’

  A jug and bowl sat atop the single corner cabinet. ‘You’re big enough to do this yourself.’

  While Ruan threw handfuls of water across his face and the floor, she rummaged through their bags until her fingers touched the tasselled silk shawl covering her pocket machine. It was there, safe, just as Ruan was.

  Ruan scrubbed at his face, then his green eyes met hers over the top of the cloth and her heart hitched. She hadn’t made a mistake. Leaving Sydney was the right, no … the only thing to do.

  ‘My turn and then we’ll find something to eat.’

  ‘I’m not putting my coat back on.’

  Roisin nodded into the damp cloth as she patted her face, thankful to remove the grime from the journey. None of the raggle-taggle bunch hanging around the inn wore a jacket. She’d never seen such a collection of brawny arms and muscled shoulders. What she needed was a decent night’s sleep and some food, then with a bit of luck, this time tomorrow they would be in their new home.

  She patted the envelope tucked into the pocket of her skirt, relishing the reassuring crinkle of paper; a letter of introduction to the Reverend Benson, who would provide the key to the house. The owner, Mr Martin, had assured her there would be no problem, saying he was pleased the property could be used and the women in the town would more than welcome Roisin’s services. She couldn’t wait. This would mark the end to all of the uncertainty and the beginning of a lifelong dream. Every penny she’d saved, she’d gambled on this venture, and she had ev
ery intention of making it a success. The idea had grown from the moment Aunt Lil had told her half the businesses in Sydney were run by women, some of them even ex-convicts. That was when she began to think that perhaps her plan wasn’t as far-fetched as she’d originally believed.

  ‘Come on.’ She smoothed Ruan’s tousled hair behind his ears and opened the door. At least she didn’t have the stigma of convict hanging over her head. She was as free as the day her mam had birthed her. If convict women could make a go of a business, then so could she.

  When they entered the front room of the inn the woman behind the bar tipped her head towards a small table tucked against the wall. ‘There’s room for you over there, lovey.’

  ‘Thank you, Mrs …’

  ‘Me name’s Maisie. And you’d be?’

  ‘Roisin, Roisin Ogilvie.’ She swallowed, praying Ruan didn’t overhear her lie. ‘And my son, Ruan.’ He was too busy staring around the room, wide-eyed. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation when Maisie pushed two huge helpings of stew across the counter.

  ‘And you take this.’ She leant across the bar and handed Ruan a basket full of sweet-smelling damper.

  Roisin glanced across at the rough-looking men sprawled in front of the smoking fire, hogging the best spot.

  ‘Don’t worry about them. Just a bit rowdy. Celebrating Carrick’s win.’

  That confirmed it, as if she’d been in any doubt. Carrick was the good-looking bloke she couldn’t take her eyes off. Her face flushed. Had she really made it so obvious? Nodding her thanks, she edged her way to an empty table tucked into the corner. The conversation lulled and then a large guffaw filled the room. Determined not to be intimidated, she concentrated on the task at hand, crossed the room and set the plates down and turned back to Ruan to take the damper.

  The chair was whisked back from the table and she stared up, transfixed by the intent expression on the cutter’s face. His eyes were an even deeper blue in the dim light, almost black, the colour intensified by his thick lashes. For the second time they stared at each other amidst the clatter and chaos for a long moment, the impact of his glance warming her skin and scoring a path deep down into her belly. ‘I can manage, thank you.’

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