JASON DELANY’S ANGEL IN BOOTS

       Stanley woke to the warm lick of a tongue along his cheek. ‘Get away, Toby.’ After pushing his eager dog away, he eased out from under his German wagon and yawned. Although dawn light barely touched treetops on the far hillside, galahs were already squabbling in spindly branches above his camp.

       After rolling his bedding and loading his cooking pots on the wagon, Stanley took a stick and threw it in a wide arc. ‘Fetch, Toby,’ he called. While his dog was busy hunting for the stick, Stanley carried a bucket of water to his tethered horse. Taking a tin cup full for himself, he set the bucket down and watched his thirsty horse drink noisily. Then Stanley turned and whistled. Toby came running with the stick clamped in his mouth. His master pointed to the bucket. ‘Drink up, boy. It’s a dusty road to the Pine River and every creek is bone dry. Hercules does all the work, so he gets our water.’

        With a heavy heart, Stanley harnessed Hercules to the wagon and whistled Toby to his usual seat up front. He was on the move too: away from his worthless farm at Drayton, his half-built house, his debts, his ruined dreams. While he loaded a bag of horse feed, footsteps sounded behind him. ‘Are you the owner of this horse, sir?’

        Stanley gritted his teeth: a government inspector moving travellers out of town. He turned, then stopped. Lustrous brown eyes looked him over, chestnut ringlets spilled from under a jaunty straw hat trimmed with parrot feathers. The scent of violets reached him. ‘Who’s asking?’ he growled, suspecting trouble.

        A shapely mouth curved into a smile. ‘Theodosia Clarke, spelled with an ‘e’. Suddenly aware of his sweaty shirt-front and chaff stalks in his hair, Stanley wiped his hands down his pants. His visitor stepped around the feed bag and held out a slim hand. ‘I want to buy your horse and wagon. What is the heaviest load he can pull? I can pay a generous price.’

        Stanley blinked, uncertain whether she was playing some clever trick. Her hand felt smooth as velvet in his. Then he pulled his brain into order. Likely a sharper keen to trick a new chum and make easy money for herself.  ‘Hercules is not for sale. If you want a carthorse, then go to the saleyards near the river.’

        Her brown eyes turned a darker shade as she raked him with an appraising inspection. ‘I have no use for a carthorse. I want a Clydesdale like yours, a young beast with vigour who can haul a loaded wagon for many miles without tiring. I saw you camped here and knew your horse to be just right.’.

        Stanley narrowed his eyes. She was pretty enough, her starched white blouse tucked into a blue skirt, a hint of stocking showing above her calfskin ankle boot—not that he was partial to slim legs in stockings. She was also an uppity little baggage spying on him and she had taken a shine to his precious horse. She stepped closer. ‘What about £50 for your horse and wagon. I can pay in cash and give you a lift to Queen Street.’

        Annoyance prickled up Stanley’s neck. She must take him for an idiot! £50 was ridiculous when the horse trader would baulk at £25. He could not bear to part with Hercules although £50 would get him to Bundaberg on the coach and a new start working on someone else’s farm. He stared around at dull-eyed swagmen pushing hand carts, a street hawker selling firewood, unfinished buildings gaunt as ancient ruins. £50 was a fortune when times were so desperate.

        While Stanley wrestled with his conscience, Toby settled against his master’s leg and yawned. With a sigh, Stanley glanced at Hercules standing patiently in growing heat while flies wandered in his mane. If he lost Hercules and his wagon, he would have nothing left.

        ‘Very well, sir. I take you for a man of integrity who refuses to part with his valued companion.’ Miss Clarke tilted her hat to shade her eyes. ‘I have a different business proposal that you may find agreeable instead. Would you care to haul a load of crates from here to the Mary River for £50 plus expenses? Are you available for an immediate start?’

        Stanley burst into roars of laughter. Even if he was interested in her silly proposal, she had no way of paying him because the Bank of Queensland was closed to customers and the money lender’s shop on Ann Street nailed shut. Finally, he wiped his eyes and shook his head. ‘Miss Theodosia, you must take me for an idiot. You don’t have cash to pay me $50. Find some other country dullwit with a horse.’

       Theodosia Clarke retreated by a step and patted Hercules’ rump. Then she smiled at Stanley. ‘You have a suspicious nature, sir. Has anyone told you so? Do you distrust me in particular or ladies in general? I said I can pay you in cash and I will do just that.’

        Before he could remind her that he refused her offer, she turned aside, lifted her petticoats to show a generous length of leg, and pulled a thick wad of notes from under a garter. She held out six $10 notes and stuffed the rest down the front of her blouse. ‘Don’t look so shocked, sir. Where else can a respectable woman carry money in this honeypot for thieves?’

        While Stanley glared at her outstretched hand, Toby rose from his place, shook himself, then ambled across to Miss Clarke’s boot and flopped against it. ’What a sensible dog. What’s his name?’ Scowling at Toby, Stanley took the notes, being careful not to touch Miss Clarke’s fingers, and folded them into his shirt pocket. Toby was a traitor. But his dog had more common sense than ten dogs put together and sensed this pert little stranger was offering an honest deal. Besides, his smart mate knew how crisp new notes meant juicy bones. ‘His name’s Toby.’

‘Hello, Toby,’ she said ruffling his ear. ‘You and I will be best friends.’

        ‘Not bloody likely,’ said Stanley under his breath. He was still smarting at Toby’s betrayal and Miss Clarke’s cunning in outwitting him into some hare-brained scheme when Hercules grew restless and backed against the wagon shafts. Toby pricked his ears and jumped up to his usual seat. Seeing this, Miss Clarke strode forward, balanced one foot on a wheel spoke and hauled herself into the wagon. ‘Let’s not dawdle, sir,’ she called to Stanley. ‘The sun is growing very fierce. If you take the reins, we can head for the teamster’s premises and load the wagon.’

        By the time they reached Roma Street and joined traffic between a hay wagon and a tinker’s van, Miss Clarke had added a veil over her hat and a pair of sturdy gloves to her apparel and spread her skirt so Toby could sit in comfort beside her. Stanley took a sideways look noticing her uncommonly long eyelashes and the charming dimple in her cheek when she smiled. Unlike everything within view including himself and his dog, Theodosia Clarke’s whole person down to her boots was remarkably free from dust.

        Near the river, Hercules came to a stop behind a bullock dray loaded with logs. Stanley loosened the reins. ‘Exactly what is this load waiting at the teamster’s yard?”

        ‘Theodosia, please. We can ignore stuffy formalities.’ She ticked off items on her fingers. ‘Seven bags of flour, candle moulds, paraffin wax, tools, three rolls of canvas, molasses, and 23 casks of Jamaica rum.’

        ‘Rum.’ Stanley bristled with suspicion. What was she up to? ‘You expect me to haul a load of rum more than a hundred miles into god-forsaken rough country without a tavern for miles round.’

        She smiled at him while she stroked Toby’s ear. ‘Yes, Mr Fenwick. That is our agreement. You might want to attend to your horse. The traffic is moving again.’ Annoyed at his carelessness, Stanley flicked the reins and Hercules took up the strain. What the hell had he let himself in for?  Theodosia Clarke could be a ruthless schemer regardless of her fancy name and shiny boots. Once they reached the edge of settlement, her cronies could jump from the scrub and knock him over the head before they took everything—his horse, his dog, and the money. If Miss Uppity Clarke thought he was a gullible new chum, she was wrong. He would be on his guard. ‘Exactly where along the Mary River are we taking these supplies?”

        Pushing her veil aside, she pinned him with an enigmatic look. ‘A gully called Gimpi Gimpi on the riverbank.’

        Stanley hauled on the reins and brought the wagon to a shuddering stop. ‘You must be mad!  He glared down at her. ‘Do you know what a gimpy gimpy is? It’s a stinging tree. This bloody camp is in the stinging tree forest, a scrubland so dangerous no traveller will go there.’

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