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When he reached the top of Warinna Ridge he reined his bay mare a few short of the cliff face. This was a favourite aboriginal resting place when on walkabout and a magnetic spot for him, too; the best vantage point on the whole of Jabiru. From the high elevation he could look down on the herd scattered over the shimmering, wonderful, emerald-green valley. From umber to emerald. All it took was a drop of rain. Only this time they got a mighty deluge courtesy of Cyclone Amy. Danger was a woman, didn't they say? Now the danger had passed.
The rich-coated Brahmans with their distinctive floppy ears, dewlaps and humps didn't have to walk anywhere to graze. The country all around them was in splendid condition now that the floodwaters had withdrawn. Paruna Creek and the Oolong Swamp, home to countless waterbirds, pelicans, swans, ducks, brolgas, magpie geese, the jabirus, the large tropical storks that gave the station its name, were running a bumper and the cattle grazed face-high in rippling pastures. Blue and green couch, para grass, spear grass, you name it. The richest green feed any herd could need to thrive and fatten.
Deep pools of water like miniature lagoons glittered in the metallic noonday sun, a heat haze rising off the surface creating an illusion of hot mineral springs. The pools were everywhere, natural cooling-off spots for the herd, numbers of them wallowing in the silver lakes.
Cherish the earth, he thought, some of the restlessness in his mind quietening as he looked out over a vista that ravished the eye. It was still very hot and humid but a light aromatic breeze scented so sweetly of sandalwood cooled his dark-tanned skin. Though he had a million and one other things to do, it was hard to tear himself away. He looked for a long time, drawing strength from the land. Jabiru filled him with such a sense of pride, of achievement. Not bad for a kid born on the wrong side of the blanket. Nevertheless he felt the taste of bitterness on his tongue. Maybe he would never get rid of it.
The distant hills, spurs of the Great Dividing Range that separated the hinterland from the lush coastal strip, glowed a deep pottery purple, the colour the Aboriginal artist Namitjira had used so wonderfully. An extraordinary brilliance lay over the land. It gave him infinite pleasure. A compensation for the loneliness and isolation. Sometimes at night on long rides under the stars he felt at absolute peace. That wasn't easy for a man like him. Not that Jabiru was a glamour property. It was a lean commercial operation geared for results.
Jabiru cattle were becoming sought after now. But, God, it had taken years and years of backbreaking toil. Now, when he was starting to realise the rewards, he had no one to share it with. Not a soul. There had only ever been him and his mother. Going from town to town.
Never staying long enough anywhere to be accepted, until they had come up to tropical North Queensland, over a thousand miles from where they had started, where no one went hungry or cold. Abundant tropical fruit dropped off the trees, superb beef was cheap, the rivers and the glorious blue sea teemed with fish, and the weather ranged from halcyon to plain torrid.
He'd been around twelve at the time. A difficult age for a boy. At least it had been for him, his mum's protector. His mother, always so very pretty but so soft and vulnerable, had found permanent work helping out in a pub. Marcy Graham, the publican's wife, had taken the two of them under her wing. A good sort was Marcy. The sort that prompted the accolade "heart of gold." They had even lived at the pub for a time until Marcy found them a bungalow they could afford on the outskirts of town. It had been lonely but beautiful on the edge of the mysterious, green rainforest. He even got used to the snakes, mostly harmless. His mum never
It had taken a long time to make friends at the local school. Something about him made the other kids keep their distance. He had a wicked temper for one thing, mainly because he wouldn't take the least little gibe about his mother or him. And there had been plenty in those early days. He was tall for his age and strong. It had only taken a couple of fights for the bully boys to get the message.
It wasn't until he was around fourteen and the efforts of the school principal had paid off he found himself with the reputation for being "clever." He didn't know how it happened. He had missed out on so much
schooling moving around, yet when he decided to throw himself into itafter all it was he who had to look after his mumhe took off like a rocket. He had graduated from high school with the highest score of any student, giving him the pick of the universities when places were hotly contested. Hell, he could even have become a doctor, a scientist, or a lawyer, only there was no money for all that stuff.
"It's a shame!" Bill Carroll, his old headmaster, told his mother, bewildered to be so confronted. "Matthew could have a great future. He could be anything he sets his mind to."
Only he was a cattleman. And hell, he enjoyed it. He thrived on it. Even when he was living a life of near slavery he'd been happy. He hadn't been able to realise any dream of university but he'd brought the brain and the spirit of an achiever to bear on all his endeavours.
It was Marcy who found him a job as a jackeroo on Luna Downs. Filthy rich absentee owner, swine of a manager. Absolute swine: he had made all the young guys' lives hell, but he got square for all of them before he left.
Once he was old enoughhe was plenty strong enoughhe bought a very rough slice of scrub with what he thought of then as a hefty loan from the local bank. Somehow despite his youth he had convinced the bank manager he could turn the wilderness into a viable cattle empire. Finally he had sold it three years ago for a handsome profit, launching a full-scale assault on Jabiru.
Jabiru was owned by the Gordon family. In their heyday the Gordons had held significant pastoral hold-
ings, but times had changed. Jabiru had been allowed to run down. Everyone in the business knew it would take a lot of hard work to get it up and running again. Then, everyone knew he wasn't afraid of hard work. It worked for him, too, old man Gordon had taken quite a shine to him.
Of course Gordon knew the story. Everyone did. There were no secrets in the Outback. He was the skeleton in the closet. Jock Macalister's son. Illegitimate son. Difficult to hide it when even he knew he was the image of him as a young man. Sir John Macalister, nowadays referred to as the grand old man of the cattle industry. Macalister had three beautiful daughters but he had never conceived a son in wedlock. Wasn't that sad? He didn't even have a grandson to inherit. The daughters had married, had children. All girls. Perhaps it was the Big Fella up there getting square with Jock's dishonourable past.
His mother had always sworn Macalister had never forced himself upon her. He could have, as he flew around his cattle empire enjoying the traditional droit de seigneur. His mother, then working as a sort of nanny on one of Macalister's properties, swore she had wanted him as much as he had wanted her. Only when their relationship was suspected, she found herself shown the road by "The Missus," her immediate employer, who gave her enough money to move far away. Macalister was the Boss; a man with a reputation that needed upholding if necessary by his staff. He was already married to the Mondale heiress at the time. With two small children to think about. Matthew's mother had been young, pretty. In the final analysisforgettable.
He would have been, too, except for his red setter hair, the jet-black brows and his unusually blue eyes. Struth! He even had the same chiselled cleft in his chin. It hadn't taken that North Queensland town a week to uncover their secret.
He was Jock Macalister's kid. Only the rich and powerful Macalisters would never accept that. He had never set eyes on his so-called "father" in his life, though he had seen him plenty of times in the newspapers or on television. He wouldn't actually like to confront the old man. Only Sir John's age would prevent him from being beaten up.
Matthew's own burden in life was grief. Too deep for words. His mother had been killed two years before. She and a few friends had been enjoying a night out on the town, a night which ended in tragedy. His mother and her current boyfriend, not a bad guy, had inexplicably taken a wrong turn. They knew the area well, but ended up in a swollen canal. The dangers of drinking. The car with them in it had been fished out the next day. The same day he had been flown in by the police helicopter to identify the bodies. My God!
"You need to understand your mother, Red," Marcy had tried to console him. "She always felt so alone."
Alone? Who, then, was he? A nobody? He had worked like a slave getting a better home for his mother. It had been far too rough to take her out into the bush. Not that she would have gone. His mother loved people. But he had always provided her with money. Always made the journey into town looking like a wild man with his too-long hair and beard, to see how she was faring. She
couldn't have been too lonely. There was always a man. A couple of them he had personally thrown out.
His mother had come from England to Australia with her parents as a little girl. All had gone well for some years until her parents split up. She had stayed with her mother who eventually remarried.
"I never got on with my stepfather," was all his mother ever said, but anyone could read between the lines. His mother, pretty as a picture, was simply a born victim. It made him feel quite violent towards his natural father whose life must hide a multitude of sins.
He went by his mother's surname, of course, Carlyle, and his first name came from the grandfather in England she remembered with such affection. Matthew. But no one had ever called him anything but Red. No one outside his mother who always called him Matty even when he topped six-two and his body had developed hard muscle power. Well perhaps there were one or two others. His old headmaster and a Miss Westwood who had taught him to love books. Books were a great relaxation for a man who led a very solitary life. Not that he was a monk. He found time for women. There always seemed to be plenty but he picked ones who knew the score. No laying traps for any vulnerable little girls. And he took good care he never made one of them pregnant. That would have been carrying on the sins of his father.
Matthew lifted his battered akubra and raked a hand through his thick too-long hairheck, it touched the collar of his denim shirt, then set it back low down over his eyes. The sun was throwing back searing silver reflections off the serpentine line of the creek and multiple
pools. He had five men working for him now, two part Aboriginals. Wonderful bushmen, stockmen and trackers. He wouldn't swap them for the top jackeroos off any of the stations. And they were real characters, always ready for a laugh despite the endless backbreaking work. He had no troubles with the other men, either, all tough self-reliant, occasionally given to terrible binges in town when he had to take the four-wheel drive on the long journey and haul them back home.
What he needed now was a woman. The right woman. But how the hell was she to be found? He didn't have the time to start up any courting. His life was packed from predawn to dusk and then he was too damned tired to throw himself into the Jeep and drive a couple of hundred kilometres into town. And back. He was thirty-four now. He was well on the way to seeing results, so he kept thinking about starting a little dynasty of his own. From scratch. He had no past anyone wanted to acknowledge. His much-loved and despaired-over mother was dead. He wanted family, he wanted kids of his own. He wanted to make something of his life. Only there would never be a woman he'd force or a child he'd abandon.
Late that afternoon, icy-cold beer in hand, he sat on the veranda of the modest homestead he had built himself, breathing in the pure aromatic air and contemplating his future. Single-storey, the bungalow had its feet planted in the rich tropical earth, a wide veranda that ran the length of the house and a roof that came down like a great shady hat. To him who had never had a real home it seemed like a miracle. It was then as he rocked back and forth, a solution of sorts came to him.
Why not advertise for a wife? Frontier men had had
to advertise in the old days. In a way Jabiru was still frontier country. If he kept to what he really wanted in a wife he might weed out the empty-headed adventuress or the woman who just wanted to find herself a home.
The idea kept his mind occupied while he prepared himself a solitary but far from don't-give-a-damn dinner. Beef, of course. He ate lots of it and even if the health freaks had cut it out of their diet, the last time he'd seen Doc Sweeney in town he'd been labelled a superbly fit individual. So, grilled eye fillet served up with all the freshly picked salad greens he could lay his hands on.
Aboriginal Charlie, who must have been a Chinese market gardener in another life, had quite a garden going. Different kinds of lettuce, lots of herbs, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, shallotsyou name it. Waxy little potatoes that came up so clean from the red volcanic soil they only needed a brush off to shine. There were already thirty or more avocado trees on the property that fruited heavily to add the finishing touch.