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Coronation Hill Station The Northern Territory FROM the crest of Crown Ridge, tumbled with smooth, near perfectly round boulders like a giant's marbles, Cal sat his magnificent silver-grey stallion, watching a section of the lowing herd being driven towards the holding yards at Yering Springs. From this incomparable vantage point on top of the ancient sandstone escarpment, the whole of JabiruValley was revealed to him. Silver billabongs lined by willowy melaleucas and groves of pandanus wound away to the left and right, the sun flashing off surfaces as smooth as glass. He could see the flocks of magpie geese and whistling ducks congregated around the banks and exploding from the reed beds. Wildlife was abundant in theValley: native mammals, reptiles, trillions of insects and above all, the birds. The gloriously coloured parrots, the cockatoos, galahs, rosellas and lorikeets, countless other species, the beautiful water birds and, at the top of the chain, the reigning jabiru. It was the great numbers of jabirus, the country's only stork, fishing the billabongs and lagoons that had given the Valley its name.
The Territory was still a wild paradise with a mystical feel about it that he firmly believed derived from the aboriginal culture. The Dreaming. The spirit ancestors had fashioned this ancient land, creating everything in it. Where he now sat on his horse had provided natural art galleries in its numerous caves and rock shelters. Many of the walls were covered in ancient rock paintings, art treasures fiercely protected by the indigenous people and generations of McKendricks who had taken over the land.
In whatever direction he looked, the landscape was potent withbeauty. He supposed he would have made a good pagan with his nature worship. Certainly he was very much in touch with the natural world. He even knew, like the aboriginals on the station, the places where great energy resided, certain sandstone monuments, special caves, rock pools and particular trees. The lily-covered lagoons on Coronation Hill were filled with magnificent waterlilies of many colours: pink, red, white, yellow, cream. His favourite was the sacred Blue Lotus. Underneath those gorgeous carpets it had to be mentioned, glided the odd man-eating croc or two. They had learned to take crocs in their stride. Crocodiles were a fact of life in the Territory. Don't bother them. They won't bother you.
God it was hot! He could feel trickles of sweat run down his nape and onto his back. He lifted a hand to angle his wide brimmed Akubra lower on his head, thinking his hair was getting much too long. It was curling up at the back like a girl's. He would have to get it cut when he found time. The mob had been on the move since the relative cool of dawn but now the heat was intense. The world of sky above him was stunningly clear of clouds, an infinity of burning blue. He loved his home with a passion. He loved the colours of the land. They weren't the furnace-reds of the Centre's deserts but cool blues and silvers, the deeper cobalts and amethysts. Instead of the rolling red sand dunes of the central part of the Territory, in the tropical north, the entire landscape was covered in every conceivable shade of lustrous green.
And flowers! Extraordinary flowers abounded in the Valley. The grevilleas, the banksias, the hakeas, the native hibiscus and the gardenias everyone knew, but there were countless other species unique to the far-away regions that had never been named. No one had ever had the time to get around to it. Australia was a dry, dry continent but oddly produced the most marvellous wildflowers that were becoming world renowned. Everywhere he looked exquisite flowers unfurled themselves on trees and shrubs, others rode the waving tops of the savannah grasses that could grow after the Wet a good four feet over his head and he was six feet two.
It was here in the mid-l860s, that his ancestor, the Scot, Alexander Campbell-McKendrick swore an oath to found his own dynasty in the savage wilderness of the Australian Outback. It was quite an ambition and a far, far, cry from his own ancestral home in the Borders region of Scotland. But as it stood, a second son, denied inheritance of the family estates by the existence of an elder brother, Alexander McKendrick, an adventurer and a visionary at heart, found an excellent option in travelling halfway across the world to seek his own fortune in the Great South Land, where handsome, well-educated young Scotsmen from distinguished families were thin on the ground. McKendrick had been very favourably received, immediately gaining the patronage of the Governor of the then self-governing colony of New South Wales.
The great quest had begun. It had started in the colony of New South Wales, but was to finish far away in the Northern Territory, the wildest of wild frontiers, where a man could preside over a cattle run bigger than many a European country. This was the mysterious Top End of the great continent, deeply hostile country, peopled with a nation collectively called the Kakadu.
McKendrick had been undaunted. It was from this very escarpment he had named on the spot Crown Ridge because of its curious resemblance to an ancient crown. He had looked out over a limitless lushly grassed valley and he had recorded as "knowing in his heart" this was the place where the Australian dynasty of the Campbell-McKendrick family would put down roots. Land was the meaning of life. The land endured when mighty monuments and buildings collapsed and dissolved into dust.
So that was my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Cal thought with the familiar thrill of pride. Some guy! And there is my inheritance spread out before me. The McKendricksthey had abandoned their double barrel name by the turn of the twentieth centurywere among the great pioneers of the Interior.
By late afternoon he was back at the homestead, dog-tired, bones aching after a long, hard day in the saddle. It was truly amazing the amount of punishment a young man's body could take. His father, Ewan, so recently a dynamo had slowed down considerably this past year. Ewan McKendrick was a legendary cattleman like the McKendricks before him. There had only been one black sheep in the family, the third heir, Duncan, the supposed quiet one, whose exploits when he came to power got him killed by an unerring aboriginal spear, the terrible consequence of ill-treating the black people on the station. It was a crime no McKendrick had committed before him and none ever did again.
Cal found his mother and father and his widower uncle Edward, his father's brother, in the library enjoying a gin and tonic and talking horses, a never-ending topic of conversation in the family. Their faces lit up at his arrival as if he had just returned from an arduous trek to the South Pole.
"Ah, there you are, darling," cried his mother, Jocelyn, extending an arm.
He went to her and put his hands lightly on her thin shoulders. A beautiful woman was his mother. She had made a great wife to his father, a fine mistress of Coronation Hill but she had never been a particularly good mother. For one thing she was absurdly wrapped up in him when sadly, she had spent little time or attention on her daughter, his younger sister, Meredith.
"Settle this for me, will you, son?" His father immediately drew him into an argument he and Ed were having about blood lines. The McKendricks had a passion for horses. Coronation Hill, named at the time of settlement in honour of the British queen, Victoria, was very serious about its breeding and training programme, not just for their own prized stockhorses, horses capable of dominating not only rodeos, gymkhanas and cross country events, but the racehorses on the bush circuit. Bush race meets were enormously popular, drawing people from all over the far-flung Outback.
Ewan clapped gleefully as Cal confirmed what he had been maintaining was correct.
"Sorry, Uncle Ed." Cal slanted his gentle uncle a smile.
"You were probably thinking of 'Highlander.' He was a son of 'Charlie's Pride.'"
"Of course." Edward nodded his head several times. Edward had never been known to best his elder brother. Though the family resemblance between the brothers was strong, Edward had always been outshone by Ewan in all departments, except Cal thought, in sensitivity and the wonderful ability to communicate with children and people far less fortunate than the grand McKendricks.
"Thanks for arriving just in time," his father crowed, giving his loud hearty laugh and stabbing a triumphant finger at his brother.
"Fancy a cold beer, son? I know G&T's aren't your tipple."
"I'll go and get cleaned up first, Dad," Cal replied, quietly dismayed at how much pleasure his father took in putting his brother down.
"Did you sack young Fletcher?" Ewan grunted, shooting his son a startling, blue glance.
Cal shook his head, not prepared to alter his decision.
"I've decided to give him another chance. He's young. He's learning. He takes the pain."
"Very well," was all his father said with a rough shake of his handsome head, when once he would have barked "You're not running Coronation yet, son."
Except these days he was, or close enough. It was, after all, his heritage. Irresistibly, Cal's gaze went to the series of tall arched stained-glass windows that dominated the library. The sinking sun was starting to stream through the glass, turning the interior of the huge room into a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour; ruby, emerald, sapphire, gold. Ceiling-high mahogany bookcases in colonnaded bays were built into the walls on three sides of the library housing a very valuable collection of books of all kinds: literature, world history, ancient and modern, mythology, science, valuable early maps, family documents, colonial history. It was a splendid collection that desperately needed cataloguing and maybe even re-housing. When his time came he would make it his business to hire someone well qualified to carry out this long-needed important work. Sadly neither his grandparents nor his father and mother had felt impelled to have the arduous task begun. Uncle Edward knew better than to interfere. Since he had tragically lost his wife to breast cancer ten years before, Ed had lived with the family.
Cal had no family of his own yet. No woman to share his life, ease the burden. Kym Harrison was the girl he was supposed to have married. He had been briefly engaged to her a couple of years back. He was still marvelling at how he had allowed it to happen. Of course, his mother had never let up on him to "tie the knot." But it hadn't been right for him and Kym deserved better. Six months the engagement had lasted. Six months of fighting something too powerful to be overcome. Passion for another woman. One who had betrayed him. Every loving word that had fallen from her beautiful mouth had been a lie.
How could he have been so blindly mistaken? Even at near twenty-five he'd been no naive young fool. He was supposed to be, then as now, one of the most eligible bachelors in the country. He had to know it. The women's magazines kept him constantly in their lists. But there had been no serious attachment since. Just a few pain-free encounters, pain-free exits. Not that there was any such thing as safe sex. Someone always got hurt. It wasn't just a question of taking his time, either, of being sure. It was more a battle to exorcise those memories so vivid, they denied him the power to move on with his life. Yet he had tried.
He had known Kym since they were children. They connected on many levels. But compatibility, similar backgrounds, close family ties, weren't enough. Not for him anyway. Their relationship lacked what he had learned, to his cost, truly existed. Passion. Wild and ravishing; emotion that took you to the heavens then when it was ruthlessly withdrawn dropped you into your own pit in hell.
Hadn't he wanted her from the very first minute? The memory surfaced.
"Good morning, sir. Another glorious day!"
No shy dip of the head, but a calm, smiling, near-regal greeting, as if she were a princess in disguise. A princess, moreover, of uncommon beauty, even if she did happen to be folding towels.
He had stood there transfixed, desire pouring into him like burning lava. And it wasn't desire alone. He honestly felt he had no other choice but to fall madly in love with her. It was his fate. He hadn't been looking for any holiday fling; certainly not with a member of the island staff. Yet he had wanted this woman to have and to hold. His woman. God, in his secret heart she still remained his woman. What an agony love was! It forced itself on you, never to let go.
How could he remain faithful if only in mind to a woman who had utterly deceived him? Kym had been his parents' choice almost from the cradle. Kym was the daughter of his mother's best friend, Beth Harrison. The Harrisons were their nearest neighbours on Lakefield. A marriage between them was a fantasy both mothers had harboured. His mother who had told him all his life she adored himhis mother was the classic type who doted upon the sonwas still trying to come to terms with the split up. He had spent most of his childhood fighting off his mother's possessiveness, so it had been almost a relief to go away to boarding school even if it meant leaving his beloved Coronation Hill.