The horses picked their way through the trees and bushes as the sun dropped low towards the shimmering horizon. The moon, full and silver, was already up, beginning its climb as Jo and Cadie let the horses find their own way towards the waterhole. Jo and the palomino mare, Tilly, had enjoyed a happy reunion at the stables, though there was an element of wistfulness to the tall woman’s mood. Cadie could have sworn the gentle old mare had a twinkle in her caramel eyes as Jo had crooned softly to the horse, forehead to forehead with her four-legged friend. In the end, on Maggie’s advice, they’d left Tilly to pick at her fresh basket of hay and saddled the two younger horses. The colts had proven to be placid and sure-footed; a relief to Cadie who didn’t like to think about how many years it had been since she’d tested her ability to stay in the saddle.
Now they were picking their way along a barely-visible track that wound through scrubby trees and low brush. The light was eerie, the golden sunset and pastel hues gradually giving way to the silvery glow of moonlight. The two women hadn’t spoken much since they’d saddled the horses and set off, content just to absorb the peaceful surroundings along the way. Both had backpacks on filled with a picnic dinner Maggie had somehow magicked from nowhere. There were also a cold bottle of wine and two glasses buried in Jo’s pack.
Cadie watched her lover as Jo’s horse took her slightly in the lead. The blonde was fascinated by her partner’s ability to adapt to whichever environment she found herself in, seamlessly blending in.
Just a few weeks ago I was thinking that I had never seen anyone more at home on the ocean than she looked onboard Seawolf, Cadie thought. And now look at her. She watched Jo’s easy posture in the saddle and the happy smile just touching the corners of her mouth. You’d never know she hadn’t been here for the past 15 years.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Jo said, curious about the expression on her partner’s face, an interesting mixture of query and delight.
Cadie laughed gently. “I was thinking about that day out on Seawolf, during Hamilton Island Race Week, when you were standing on the edge of the cockpit, looking like Captain Ahab,” she said with a grin.
Jo’s eyebrow almost disappeared up into her hairline.
“What made you think of that?” she asked.
Cadie shrugged. “Looking at you then I couldn’t imagine you anywhere else but out on the ocean,” she replied.
Jo kneed the colt gently, sidestepping him around until they were facing Cadie and her mount, even as they kept moving along the track.
“And now, I can’t imagine you anywhere but on a horse in the middle of the outback. How do you do that?”
Jo’s pearly white teeth glistened in the moonlight, and it was her turn to shrug.
“Beats me, sweetheart,” she answered. “If anything, this is where I should feel most at home, but I’ve never really thought about it. I’ve always made my home wherever I was.”
Their eyes locked and Cadie already knew where this conversation was going.
“And now?” she asked quietly, waiting while Jo brought the colt around beside hers.
“And now you’re my home,” Jo said calmly, acknowledging the truth of that for the first time.
“And you’re mine.”
For the next few minutes they rode side by side, hands clasped across the space between the two horses.
By the time the sun had dropped below the horizon they came upon a picturesque oasis in the middle of the dustbowl through which they had been traveling. Two of the three creeks which crisscrossed the Madisons’ land came together here, forming a small waterhole. Jo was pleased to see there was still water flowing through the little billabong despite the ravages of the drought around them.
“You beauty,” she exclaimed as she slid off her horse’s back and walked to the top of the small rise that formed the bank of the waterhole. “This place always was the last thing to dry up.” She looked back over her shoulder and grinned at Cadie who had dismounted and was leading both horses by the reins.
“Oh, sweetheart, it’s gorgeous,” Cadie gasped as she reached the top of the bank. Surprisingly, the water flowing through the waterhole looked crystal clear and deep. Maybe it’s just the moonlight, Cadie thought. The billabong was ringed by gums, their bark silver-grey and fluorescent. Thick, green grass had managed to eke out an existence close to the water.
It was there that Jo began to unload the bags and backpacks. She unsaddled her horse and stripped off the blanket underneath, spreading it on a level patch of grass overlooking the waterhole.
“Do we need to hobble the horses?” Cadie asked as she handed Jo her backpack.
“Nope. They won’t go far away from the water. Just tie their reins up so they don’t get tangled, and they should be right.”
A few minutes later they were sprawled on the blanket, tantalizing packages of food sitting between them. Cadie handed Jo a paper plate and a knife and fork before she started to pull the lids off the various containers. Soon potato salad, cold roast beef, ham, freshly baked crusty bread, and homemade pate were laid out.
“Have I mentioned lately how much I love your mom?” Cadie said, her mouth watering even as her stomach rumbled ominously.
“You love anyone who feeds you, sweetheart,” she giggled.
Mock outrage sent Cadie’s eyebrows on a trip north. “I think you have me confused with your cat, Miss Madison,” she said haughtily. Delicately she spooned a few mouthfuls of potato salad on to her plate, not an easy task given her nose was high in the air. Eventually, she too burst into giggles as one spoonful missed the plate altogether.
“Klutz,” Jo teased.
Cadie carefully maneuvered her half-laden spoon around until she had it poised to launch its load in Jo’s direction. Again she raised her eyebrows, this time in challenge.
“You wouldn’t,” Jo growled. Cadie said nothing, but pulled the bowl of the spoon back even further. “In this light your aim’s going to suck anyway,” Jo warned. “So it’s going to be a complete waste of good potato salad.”
Cadie again stayed silent but let a slow, slightly feral smile spread across her lips. She raised the laden spoon higher and then let fly. The glob of creamy potato sailed through the air, seemingly in slow motion, splattering across Jo’s cheek with a very satisfying squelch. She waited for the inevitable reaction from her partner, but for several seconds there was a heavily pregnant pause. Uh-oh, she thought. There’s no way she’s gonna let me get away with that. Better get my running shoes on.
Jo’s eyes had closed automatically as the incoming missile approached and now she slowly opened them, even as she tentatively licked away the mess with the tip of her tongue. She took a deep breath and decided that two could play that game.
“You know, that’s not bad,” she said, tasting the tangy dressing her mother always used on the potato salad. “And, in any other circumstances, I’d let bygones be bygones so we don’t waste any more of this delicious food.” She deliberately kept her voice low and calm, the effect of which was to give Cadie chills. Jo slowly reached out for the container of potato salad. For the first time she met Cadie’s eyes, and she chuckled internally at the look of wide-eyed apprehension she saw there. “However, on this occasion,” she grinned wickedly, a glob of potato salad dripping from her chin, “I just don’t think I can let it go.”
“Jo-Jo,” Cadie said, raising a warning hand. “Don’t do anything I might regret, okay?” She started to backpedal, pushing herself away from Jo, towards the far edge of the blanket.
“Oh, I think it’s a little late for that, don’t you?” Jo drawled, even as she let her long fingers dip into the salad bowl. Quickly she grabbed a handful and lunged across the other dishes towards Cadie.
The blonde squealed and scrabbled backwards, but she wasn’t quick enough to move out of range of her partner’s long limbs. Jo launched herself, leading with the handful of potato salad, laughing wildly as she managed to grab Cadie, mashing the sloppy mess into her lover’s face.
Cadie howled in outrage and twisted under Jo’s oncoming weight, trying to get a purchase on the long body that would give her some kind of advantage. Before long the women were rolling and wrestling in the soft grass on the verge of the waterhole, giggling and squealing and tickling.
Breathless, they finally exhausted themselves and each other and they lay on their backs, side by side, gazing up at the stars. Cadie laughed. “Oh, I needed that, thank you,” she said, panting.
“You started it,” Jo pointed out, turning her head and grinning at the blonde.
“I couldn’t resist,” Cadie replied, rolling on to her side and sliding her leg over Jo’s hips. She snuggled in close, resting her cheek on the dark hair splashed across Jo’s chest. Jo’s arm curled around her shoulders and pulled her in closer. Cadie tilted her face up and extended her tongue to lick the remnants of potato salad off Jo’s chin. “Mmmm, tasty,” she murmured.
“Yes you are,” Jo growled in response as she rolled them both over in the grass until she was holding herself above Cadie.
“Oh my,” the blonde breathed, gazing up into silvered blue eyes that glinted in the moonlight. Jo’s face was silhouetted against the star-laden night sky and she exuded barely restrained energy that gave Cadie chills to be close to. “Good thing we didn’t bring any hot food,” she murmured as Jo leant down and nuzzled her neck.
“Mmmm,” Jo burred against her skin. “I want you, Arcadia,” she whispered.
Cadie groaned, low and throaty. “What is it with you and the outdoors, Jossandra?” she murmured back, sliding her hands around till she could tuck her fingers inside Jo’s jeans back pockets.
“It’s the fresh air,” came the breathy, deep response close to her ear. Cadie felt the goose bumps rise on her arms. Jo’s lips caressed along the line of her jaw and the blonde tipped her chin up in reflex, giving her lover access to her neck. Jo obliged, sliding the silky tip of her tongue down, until she nuzzled sensually in the hollow at the base of the blonde's throat. Cadie felt Jo’s long, sure fingers slide under the cotton of her shirt, brushing teasingly against the skin of her stomach.
“Ohh, Jo,” she gasped.
“I want you too.” She felt Jo smile against the curve of her breast.
“I know.” Fingers brushed against the telltale response of Cadie’s nipple.
The blonde laughed throatily. “Dead giveaway, huh?”
Jo cupped Cadie’s breast gently, the pad of her thumb teasing and encouraging. “Hardly dead, my love,” she said softly. “Very much alive and well.”
Cadie closed her eyes against the sensation, absorbing the jolting tingle that followed every movement of Jo’s fingers.
“God, sometimes I think all I need is the sound of your voice,” she muttered. She felt Jo chuckle above her.
“Oh really?” Jo drawled. “Want me to stop touching?” She stilled her fingers, grinning as she saw Cadie’s eyes fly open.
“God, no!” the blonde exclaimed. Jo laughed out loud, a rumbling that sent vibrations through them both, even as she let her fingers continue their roaming exploration. “I just meant your voice does things to me I can’t even begin to describe,” Cadie explained.
Just to be contrary, Jo didn’t reply, preferring to use her mouth for other things.
“Oh myyy,” Cadie gasped, feeling the warm wetness around her breast as Jo suckled her through the thin fabric of her t-shirt. “Very good thing,” she breathed, “about the hot,” she swallowed, “food thing…”
“Mhmm,” Jo hummed. She lifted herself off Cadie’s breast and reached up, finding the blonde’s willing mouth with her own. The world contracted around them, and the two women lost themselves, happily, in the easy sensuality of their love under the full moon and watching stars.
Mmmm, we need to do this kind of thing more often, Jo thought drowsily as she watched Cadie crouch at the edge of the water. The blonde was rinsing out the plastic containers in which Jo’s mother had stored their food. The moonlight was strong and bright, giving them plenty of light, and Jo enjoyed the view of her lover’s profile through half-lidded eyes. Gorgeous, inside and out. How did I get so lucky?
They had made love under the stars, oblivious to the ants and the mosquitoes and the other distractions to being outdoors. It had been slow and gentle and altogether delicious. Then they had fallen upon the food like a couple of half-starved kids. Jo chuckled. Anyone would think we hadn’t eaten in a week.
Cadie stood and shook the excess water off the containers before she walked back to where Jo lay sprawled on the horse blanket.
“You look very languid, sweetheart,” the American said with a smile. She dropped down onto her knees next to the backpacks and stored the containers inside.
Jo leant on one elbow. “I feel pretty good,” she observed. “Funny that.”
Cadie laughed softly. “Me too. Must be the company, huh?”
“I guess so.”
They smiled at each other for a few seconds, reveling in the warmth between them.
“This light is so eerie,” Cadie said as she broke Jo’s gaze to look around at the silvery scenery. Unconsciously she rubbed her arms, the cool night air raising goose bumps on her skin.
“Cold, darling?” Jo asked.
Cadie turned back to her and nodded. “Mhmm, a little. It’s a pity we can’t light a fire.”
Jo nodded. “I know, but it’s just too risky. Even if there wasn’t a total fire ban, the way the wind is blowing it would carry sparks back into the trees and that would be that. This place is a tinderbox at the moment.”
Cadie looked around at the idyllic scene the waterhole and its surrounds presented. “Hard to believe from this little patch,” she said. “But I guess you’re right.” She looked down at the circle of smoldering mosquito coils Jo had set up around their picnic area. “Are these safe?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Jo smiled at her partner, who was hugging herself against the chill. “Why don’t you come snuggle?” she suggested. “That’ll keep us both warm.”
Cadie chuckled. “Y’know, for an old ex-assassin, you sure are a cuddlehound,” she teased, even as she crawled closer and happily curled up in the crook of Jo’s arm.
Something old and rotten in Jo almost bit back at the reference to the dark past she would much rather forget, but she had learned that with Arcadia Jones she was safe from any judgment. God knows, I’ve hurt people for saying less than that, she conceded to herself. Things have certainly changed. She looked down at the blonde head resting on her shoulder, the soft puff of Cadie’s breath warming her skin. Safe as houses.
“I love you,” she whispered against the silky hair.
Cadie tipped her head back and blinked curiously at her partner. “I love you, too, Jo-Jo. What brought that on?”
Jo shrugged. “Felt it, so I said it.” Her standard response to that inquiry, Cadie had learned.
“Mmmm,” the blonde pondered. “Somehow I don’t think so, Jossandra. Something else triggered that one.” She reached under Jo’s shirt and playfully tickled her ribcage, making the taller woman squirm. “Spill it, skipper.”
“Okay, okay,” Jo laughed. “It was what you said about me being an old assassin.”
Cadie sat up quickly, apology written all over her face. “Oh, honey, I didn’t mea-”
“Sshhh.” Jo placed a gentle finger against Cadie’s lips, silencing her. “I know you didn’t and that’s my point. If anyone else had said that to me, especially a few years ago … well, I don’t know what I would have done exactly, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.” Cadie looked at her with gentle understanding, a look so intense it made Jo lower her eyes. “And I just realized that there isn’t any part of me that I don’t want to share with you. And that’s because you make me feel safe.” She lifted her eyes and met Cadie’s gaze again. “That’s new for me.”
Cadie nodded. “I know. And I’m glad I can give you that. You deserve it.”
She opened her mouth to say more but the sharp retort of a gunshot cracked the air. Cadie ducked down instinctively as the horses, startled from their grass-picking further down the watercourse, whinnied and shied away into the scrub behind them. Jo was on her feet before Cadie had a chance to draw breath.
“Was that what I think it was?” the blonde asked as she scrambled up to stand next to Jo.
“Sshhh,” Jo urged, and then nodded wordlessly. She leaned close to Cadie’s ear and whispered. “Hunting rifle, and close by. Stay here – I’m going to go see what I can find.” She made to move away but was pulled up short by Cadie’s hand on her elbow.
“No way,” Cadie hissed. “I’m staying with you, Jo-Jo.”
“I can move faster and quieter without you,” Jo snapped, her mind already tracking the shooter.
“Hey!” Cadie yanked on the tall woman’s arm again, forcing Jo to look down at her. The blonde summoned her fiercest frown and waited until Jo’s eyes acknowledged her. “I’m going with you. I’m not staying here alone with some gun-toting idiot stumbling around in the dark.”
“All right,” Jo muttered. “But stay close.” Cadie let go of her elbow, her expression still showing signs of hurt and annoyance. Fix this, Madison. She didn’t deserve to be snarled at. Jo reached out and cupped the blonde’s cheek gently. “I’m sorry.”
Cadie smiled at her, her forgiveness instant. “Come on, let’s go find out who’s shooting.”
“And at what,” Jo murmured.
The two women skirted the edge of the waterhole, Jo deliberately leading them through the longer grass in the hopes of keeping their footsteps as silent as possible. She had a fair idea where the sound had come from but her sense of direction was considerably sharpened when another gunshot rang out. Both women dropped to their haunches, Cadie wrapping a hand around Jo’s elbow.
“This way,” the old ex-assassin hissed. Together they picked their way through the scrub, Cadie instinctively making sure her feet followed in Jo’s footsteps almost exactly.
The tall woman was bristling with … something, Cadie thought, but I can’t put my finger on the right word for it. One look at her lover told her that something ingrained was coursing through Jo’s bloodstream right now. Ice-chip blue eyes were narrowed and sweeping left and right for signs of trouble. Jo moved silently and swiftly, trusting that Cadie would keep up. She did, but the blonde was breathing hard by the time they came to a sudden halt at the edge of a small clearing. Jo waved her hand, telling Cadie to get down.
The American crawled forward on her elbows until she was side-by-side with Jo. “Who is it?” she whispered.
Jo sighed. “Collingwood, predictably,” she muttered. “Though why is a very good question.”
Cadie wriggled until she could see through the tiny gap in the foliage that Jo was looking through. What she saw sickened her. A lean figure, silhouetted in the moonlight, stood over what could only be the carcass of a sheep. Another lay close by. Cadie swallowed back the nausea.
“We’ve got to do something, Jo.” She turned to look at her lover’s grim profile. “What’s the plan?”
“I’m working on it,” Jo murmured, her eyes still flicking around the clearing, absorbing the lay of the land.
For long seconds they watched as Collingwood nudged the corpses with his foot.
“Hey, Jo?” Cadie whispered, an idea forming in her brain.
“Remember the snake?”
Jo looked at her, puzzled. “What snake?”
Cadie crawled closer so she could put her mouth close to Jo’s ear. “The snake up in the islands, remember? The taipan?”
Jo did remember, suddenly. She had been with Cadie and two other members of the group of Americans she had been chaperoning around the islands. They had been on a hike up one of the islands when they had come across the taipan in the middle of the track. Jo had moved around the venomous nasty, coming up behind it while Cadie and the men kept its attention focused on them, and she’d been able to trap it with a stick, while the Americans had got past. She chuckled quietly. “Honey, that’s not gonna work here.”
Jo shifted slightly, pulling the blonde against her and brushing her lips against her earlobe. “Gun-toting idiot, remember?” she whispered. “Unlike that snake, this guy is stupid, and can’t see what he’s shooting at. That’s a dangerous mixture.” Cadie growled under her breath, and Jo smiled. “Part of it’s a good idea though, love,” she conceded. “We do need to split his focus.” She felt Cadie smile.
“So, what’s the plan?”
Jo chuckled at her partner’s bizarre taste for this kind of adventure. “I created a monster, showing you where that rifle was the other day, didn’t I?” she teased.
Cadie leaned in, the smirk evident on her face even as she kept her voice low. “You’ve awakened my dark side.”
“Yeah, well, just keep Arcadia the Conqueror in check for a bit, will ya, while I try and figure out what to do with this idiot.” She softened her words with a friendly tickle of Cadie’s ribs.
She needn’t have worried. The blonde was more than willing to admit that Jo was the one with all the experience and know-how in this kind of situation, and she happily lay alongside her partner as they both gazed out into the clearing. Collingwood was circling the two sheep carcasses slowly, almost as if he didn’t believe the animals were dead.
Pretty hard to miss a standing target like a poor, dumb sheep, Jo thought grimly. She felt a slow, burning anger in her guts at the actions of the man her father trusted to help him run the station. What the hell is going on here? She listened as Collingwood cocked the gun again, and she wondered if perhaps the man wasn’t half-aware of their presence.
“Does he know we’re here?” Cadie whispered close to Jo’s ear.
“Not us specifically, but he might think there’s something else worth shooting,” she replied. “Stay here,” she decided. “I’m going to circle around until I’m opposite this position.”
“And then what?”
Jo’s brow furrowed. “By the time I’m round there, I’ll have figured that out.”
“Just follow my lead, okay?” And with that Jo was gone, slinking away into the shadows before Cadie could raise any further objections.
“Right. Just follow your lead. I can do that,” the blonde muttered. She bit her lip as she lost track of her elusive lover and glanced back through the small break in the foliage. Collingwood was crouched near one of the sheep now, his rifle resting across his thighs as he smoked a cigarette, its red tip glowing. Cadie waited, knowing that once Jo was in position, something was going to happen. God knows what, she pondered. But it isn’t going to be dull.
Jo moved through the dry underbrush with a stealth that came to her automatically. While her body took care of business, avoiding sticks underfoot and tree branches overhead, her brain went into overdrive, finding a way to deal with Collingwood without getting herself, Cadie or any other animals shot in the process. She tried to picture a scenario in which the man wouldn’t react first and think second, but no matter which plan formulated the outcome was always a risky one. By the time Jo had reached the place she’d pinpointed earlier as being opposite Cadie’s position, she was quite frustrated by her lack of any idea. Collingwood seemed totally unconcerned, smoking in the moonlight like he had all night to accomplish his task.
Whatever the hell that is, Jo thought. Okay, now what, Madison? Cadie’s sitting there waiting for some grand plan to unfold, and if you don’t come up with something shortly, she’s likely to go all gung-ho on you and take matters into her own hands. She couldn’t help grinning. There was something surprising, but downright sexy about the diminutive blonde’s newfound taste for excitement. Concentrate, would you? Jo berated herself. This isn’t a game. That idiot out there’s got a gun.
Jo growled under her breath and shifted slightly as she tried to get a bead on the man sitting in a pool of moonlight in the middle of the clearing. As she moved, her foot kicked against a baseball-sized rock. Jo looked down at the stone and laughed softly. It can’t be that simple, can it?
She dug her fingers under the rock and pulled it out of the dirt, hefting it in the palm of her hand. Well, if nothing else, it’ll certainly get his attention, she concluded. Slowly Jo stood up and moved to a patch of relatively clear ground, where she could move her arms freely. Collingwood had his back to her and had very kindly removed his Akubra, making the back of his skull a tempting target.
Jo sized up the distance between them, allowing for some depth perception errors due to the moonlight, and then slowly drew her arm back. She unleashed the throw and held her breath as the rock whizzed through the still air, smacking into Collingwood’s skull with a sickening thud. He slid bonelessly to the ground without a sound and Jo stepped out into the clearing.
“That’s it?” came a plaintive shout from the other side of the clearing. Cadie emerged into the moonlight, her hands on her hips. “That was the grand plan?”
Jo stood over the unconscious man and shrugged nonchalantly. “I thought it had a certain simple elegance,” she said casually, grinning at the blonde.
“Uh-huh,” Cadie said skeptically. “And I guess it had nothing to do with the fact that you couldn’t come up with anything better?”
“I didn’t need anything better,” Jo argued. “Look.” She gestured at the unconscious man, whose cigarette still dangled from his lips. “Mission accomplished.”
“Yeah,” Cadie admitted grudgingly, finding it hard to resist the confident grin on her partner’s face. “But I didn’t get to do anything,” she pouted.
Jo chuckled. “Sure you did,” she said teasingly. “You were my inspiration, darling.” She beamed at her shorter lover.
“Oh, you are so full of shit, Jo Madison,” Cadie replied, but she couldn’t stop smiling. She glanced down at Collingwood. “Sure he’s just unconscious?”
Jo knelt down behind the man and felt for his neck pulse point. “Alive and well,” she concluded. “Relatively speaking.” Carefully she slid the rifle out of Collingwood’s grasp and stood again as she unloaded the weapon, tossing the bullets into the bush.
“So what now?” Cadie asked. “How are we going to get him home?”
Jo nudged Collingwood with the toe of her boot. “I am so tempted to just tie his feet together and drag him behind the horses.” She sighed. “But I guess we can’t do that.”
Cadie smirked. “Tempting,” she agreed. She looked up at Jo. “Um, do we even have any rope?”
Jo nodded. “We do, if we can find the horses,” she answered. “I’m beginning to wish we had hobbled them after all.” She raised her fingers to her mouth and blew, a sharp piercing whistle echoing around the clearing. “That always used to work for Tilly, but I don’t know if these two have been trained the same way.”
She needn’t have worried. Half a minute later, both colts trotted into the clearing, trailing their reins and wuffling breathily.
“Pretty cool,” Cadie murmured, capturing her horse’s reins while Jo pulled a coiled-up length of rope from where it hung around her saddle horn. She knelt down by Collingwood again and proceeded to tie his hands behind his back, leaving a long section of rope free.
“Give me a hand?” she asked as she moved to shift the dead weight of the man’s body. Between the two of them they managed to sling Collingwood over the saddle of Jo’s horse, his head hanging down one side, and his feet down the other.
“Not the most dignified position in the world,” Cadie said.
“Who cares?” Jo muttered. “This guy’s an arsehole, Cadie.”
“No argument from me, love.”
Jo grabbed her colt’s reins and reached out with her other hand to take Cadie’s hand. “Come on, love, we’ve got a picnic to finish before he wakes up.”
Cadie grinned up at her. “Now, that sounds like a plan.”
It was close to midnight when they finally made it back into the homestead compound. Collingwood had come to about an hour after Jo felled him with the rock, and he had whinged and moaned as he hung over the back of the horse. Jo finally relented when she and Cadie were ready to head back, and she'd tied the rope off around her saddle horn and let the man walk in front of them as they sauntered home.
Collingwood had remained stubbornly and sullenly silent throughout, and neither woman pushed it. As they came in range of the homestead, Cadie was surprised to see the lights on.
“I thought they'd be in bed by now,” she said as both women slid down from their saddles.
“Well, we're about three hours later than we said we'd be and they may well have heard the gunfire,” Jo reasoned, unsurprised to see her mother bustling out of the kitchen door. Jo busied herself with the saddlebags, finding herself unaccountably grumpy and out of sorts. Maybe it’s this damn headache, she decided. Or maybe I’m just really pissed off with Collingwood. She glanced at the stone-faced man, who looked close to exhausted, and felt the low burn of anger deep in her chest. Ya think?
Maggie peered through the gloom. “Where on earth have you two been? We heard shots.”
Jo and Cadie exchanged a look, the taller woman's face saying ‘see, I told you so’.
“We ran into a little trouble, Maggie,” Cadie explained.
“I'm beginning to think you attract trouble almost as much as my daughter does,” Maggie said with a slight smile as she stood with her hands on her hips. “Well, you both look like you're in one piece and the horses are fine. So what kind of trouble was it?”
Jo hauled on the rope and dragged Collingwood into the pool of yellow light spilling out from the kitchen. He stumbled and fell to his knees in front of the family matriarch, who scowled at him.
“Why does this not surprise me?” Maggie muttered. She looked up at her daughter. “What happened?”
Just then David Madison walked out of the house and Jo waited until her father had absorbed the scene.
“Caught him shooting sheep away to the north of the billabong,” Jo replied succinctly. “They weren't hurt or dying, so we figure he’s just doing it for fun. Didn’t seem acceptable to me.” She shrugged.
“You were right,” David growled. He reached down and pulled Collingwood's head back with a rough hand, ignoring the copious amounts of slowly drying blood in the man’s thin hair. Jo couldn’t remember seeing her father ever being so physical with another human being. She watched as David bent over, getting right up into Collingwood's face.
“What's the story, Jack?” he said. “Wasn’t it enough that I trusted you with this place? Why are you killing my stock?”
“I'm not saying a word,” Collingwood spat back. “So you can shove it, Madison. You and your bitch wife and bitch spawn.”
Cadie leaned forward and put her mouth close to the man's ear. “What about me, Jack? Don't forget how much you and I enjoy each other's company.”
“Fuck you, you Seppo bitch!” he shouted.
Cadie straightened up and looked at Jo. “Doesn’t have a great vocabulary does he? Not much imagination.”
David shoved Collingwood away in disgust. “If you haven’t already figured it out, Jack, you're fired. Not only that, but I'm calling the police out here, right now. So you can tell it to them.”
David pulled his hand back to strike his former employee, but Maggie put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Don’t, love,” she murmured. “It doesn’t do anyone any good, least of all you.”
For long seconds her husband just looked at her, cool grey eyes sparking. But then he relaxed noticeably, and Maggie patted his arm. “I'll call the police,” she said as she turned and walked back into the house.
Cadie woke to the sound of groaning from the warm lump curled up next to her.
“Jo-Jo?” she mumbled blearily as she rolled over to seek out the source of the noise. “What’s up, sweetheart?”
Jo moaned piteously again. “Did someone get the number of that buffalo herd?” she grumbled. “I feel like I was caught underfoot.”
Cadie pulled back the covers which, she realized, were damp and cool. “Honey, you’re soaking,” she gasped. Quickly she placed the back of her hand against Jo’s forehead. “And you’re burning up.” She looked more closely at the pale, clammy face. “I knew you were feeling less than great when we got home last night. Why didn’t you say something?” Why didn’t I make her say something, damn it.
Bloodshot blue eyes blinked at her. “It was the middle of the damn night.” Jo shrugged and coughed dryly. “Just started sweating like a horse and I couldn’t breathe properly.”
“Tch, you should have woken me up, love,” Cadie chastised.
“Why? So you could say exactly what you’re saying now, only three hours earlier?” Jo complained. “I decided to let at least one of us get some sleep.” She sniffed pathetically. “I feel like poo.”
Cadie smiled down at her suffering lover. “Yeah, you pretty much look like it too,” she said. She leaned down and touched her lips to Jo’s forehead. “You’re running a fever.”
Jo shivered and hunkered down further into the bedclothes. “No shit, Sherlock. What was your first clue?”
“Oooo, and grumpy with it,” Cadie said tolerantly, forgiving Jo her bad temper. “If you’d said something last night perhaps we could have gotten some aspirin and vitamin C inside you. But no, you had to play the strong, silent type.” She smiled gently, knowing that getting annoyed with a sick woman was a waste of energy.
Jo started to object but a series of wracking coughs reduced her to a shuddering mess.
“Okay, stay there. I’m going for some maternal aid,” Cadie decided. “And some dry bedclothes.” Long fingers wrapped themselves around her forearm before she could roll out of bed, however.
“Don’t leave me,” said a small, hoarse voice which melted Cadie’s heart.
Awww. Big and tough on the outside, marshmallow on the inside. You’ve got to love that. “Ssshh sweetheart. You can’t lie in these sheets any longer. It’s just going to make you worse. I promise I won’t be gone long, honestly.”
Jo looked up at her from under long, dark lashes. “And then will you get back into bed with me?”
Cadie leaned down again for another reassuring kiss. “I promise.”
Jo released her and Cadie slipped out of the bed. She pulled on a pair of sweatpants before she ventured out into the house. It was about an hour after daybreak and she knew David would already be out in the paddock. Their phone call to the police the night before had resulted in Jack Collingwood being hauled away in a paddy wagon for a night in the Louth lock-up. The police were planning on questioning him later in the day, Cadie knew. She could hear Maggie moving around in the kitchen and it was there she headed.
“Morning, Cadie. How are you?” Jo’s mother said cheerily.
“Hi, Maggie. Um, I’m fine, but I think Jo’s in need of some TLC. She’s managed to brew the cold from hell overnight.”
Maggie frowned. “Really? That’s not like her,” she replied quietly. “I can count the number of times she was sick as a kid on the fingers of one hand.”
“Tell me about it,” Cadie answered. “She spends half her life soaked to the skin up in the islands and never even sniffles. I’ve had two colds since February.” She smiled up at her mother-in-law. “But right now, she's running a temperature and the bed sheets are soaked. I’d really like to get some fresh ones on so she can try and get some sleep.”
Maggie nodded and smiled back at the blonde. “Tell you what, you’ll find fresh sheets in the linen closet outside the bathroom. While you’re getting her comfortable I’ll put some of my world famous chicken soup on to simmer.” Maggie turned away and then remembered something else. “Is she coughing?”
Cadie nodded. “Just starting to,” she replied. “Pretty dry so far.”
“Hmm, well, when she was a girl she used to love having Vicks Vaporub rubbed on her chest on the rare occasions when she felt like that. It cleared her sinuses and kept her warm and happy.” The older woman grinned at Cadie, a distinct twinkle brightening her eye. “I think you’d better take care of that, though.”
Cadie’s eyebrows shot up almost into her bangs and she could feel the heat of the blush spreading over her neck and face. “Um, yes, you’re probably right,” she mumbled, unable, for the moment, to meet Maggie’s amused gaze.
“Tch, I don’t know, you young people. You’re so easily embarrassed.” The older woman chuckled. “You’ll find a jar of Vicks in the bathroom cabinet, behind the mirror.”
“Uh, okay.” Cadie rubbed her face as she walked down the narrow hallway, trying to dispel the blush. Funny how I keep telling Jo there’s nothing to be self-conscious around her parents, but Maggie can turn me inside out so easily. Soon she was heading back to the bedroom, Vicks and clean sheets in hand. Jo hadn’t moved and was sweating drowsily. Cadie deposited her load on the chair and sat down on the edge of the bed. She reached out a gentle hand and stroked a lock of lank hair from Jo’s forehead.
“Sweetheart.” Blue eyes blinked open. “I’ve got clean sheets and Vicks Vaporub, and your mother has chicken soup brewing. I need you to get up for a bit so I can change the sheets.”
Once she had Jo settled in the armchair, her shivering body wrapped in a light blanket, Cadie quickly set about changing the sheets. Jo watched with bleary eyes.
“Guess I’m not going in to town with you and Dad, then,” she muttered. They had been planning to head for the Louth police station to get the latest news on Collingwood.
“Nope,” Cadie said bluntly, as she tucked the bottom sheet in at the base of the bed. “You’re not going anywhere, my love. Not until your fever’s broken, at least.”
Jo scowled. “I wanted to watch that arsehole get his just desserts.”
“I know, love, but I’m sure his butt is gonna get kicked whether we’re there or not,” Cadie said, smiling at her passive partner as she changed the pillow cases.
“I think you should still go,” Jo replied.
Cadie thought about that. A few hours alone with a pissed David Madison. She smiled to herself. an do that. "Okay, sweetheart. I’ll try and remember all the details so you feel like you were there.”
Jo managed a weak smile. “Thank you.”
Cadie patted the mattress in satisfaction. “Okay, that’s done.” She walked over to the chest of drawers where she and Jo had stored their clothes and pulled out fresh t-shirt and cotton boxers. “Come on, let’s get you into something clean.”
Jo stuck her bottom lip out in a child-like pout that almost made Cadie giggle, it was so cute.
“Vicks second, clothes first,” Cadie insisted. She helped Jo stand and together they got her out of her drenched nightclothes and into the cool, clean cotton. “Better?”
“Much,” Jo agreed as she crawled back into the fresh sheets. Cadie picked up the small jar of ointment and sat down next Jo. She unscrewed the lid and dipped her fingers in, coating them with the slippery, aromatic cream. Jo lifted the edge of the t-shirt and Cadie slid her hands underneath, rubbing the ointment over Jo’s upper chest.
“I think you’re enjoying this,” Jo observed, a tiny smile touching the corners of her mouth.
“Looking after you, or rubbing your chest?” Cadie asked mischievously.
“Yes,” Jo replied.
Cadie grinned. “You’re right,” she agreed. “You’re so good at looking after yourself that I don’t often get the chance to pamper you.” She withdrew her hands and patted Jo on the arm. “How does that feel?”
Jo closed her eyes and let the warmth from the menthol and eucalyptus oil soak in. The sharp aroma immediately cleared her head a little and she sighed softly. “Better,” she said hoarsely. “Thanks.”
“No thanks necessary, love,” Cadie replied. She leaned down and kissed Jo’s fevered brow. Still hot as hell, she realized. Just then there was a light tapping on the door. Good timing. “Come on in.”
Maggie pushed open the door and stepped inside. In one hand she held a liter-sized bottle of spring water, and in the other she carried a large bowl of steaming soup.
“Luckily I keep a few tubs of this stuff frozen for just such an emergency,” she said cheerily. She looked down at her suffering daughter. “Well, Josie, looks like you’re not going anywhere for a while.”
Jo scowled at her mother. “Not my fault,” she grumbled.
“I wasn’t attributing blame,” her mother chipped back. She placed the bottle of water on the bedside table. “You ready for some soup, sunshine?”
Maggie sighed and looked at Cadie, who shrugged.
“She’s been a really good patient so far,” the blonde said.
“That won’t last,” mother and daughter said together, provoking a laugh from Cadie.
“Here you go,” Maggie said as she handed the soup bowl and spoon to the American. “Maybe you can persuade her to get a few mouthfuls down.” She smiled knowingly at her daughter’s partner. “I have a feeling you can get her to do almost anything.”
For the second time in less than an hour Cadie felt the flush of a blush across her skin. “Tch, Maggie. How do you do that?” she complained.
“It’s a mother thing,” came a croaky retort from the bed. “Get used to it.”
Maggie leaned down and kissed her daughter’s cheek. “Be good, Josie.” She straightened. “I’ve got some baking to do,” she said to Cadie. “David should be back in a couple of hours if you’re still interested in going into town with him.”
Cadie nodded. “Mhmm,” she replied. “Tall, dark and diseased here wants me to go watch Jack’s rear end get a kicking.”
“Hey!” Jo grumbled. “I’m still in the room, y’know.”
Cadie and her mother-in-law exchanged amused glances. “I’ll leave you to it,” Maggie said cheerily. “Yell if you need something.” And with that, she left, closing the bedroom door behind her.
Maggie withdrew the metal skewer, satisfied that the freshly-baked loaf of bread was done to perfection. She wrapped it in greaseproof paper and slid the loaf into the bread bin sitting on the counter. She looked up when she heard the familiar sound of David’s truck pulling into the yard.
He looks pretty fresh considering he was up all night and has just driven an hour each way, Maggie decided. David walked slowly towards the house, his suit jacket slung over his shoulder and his hands buried in his trouser pockets. She smiled quietly. He still scrubs up pretty well for an old fella.
“Hello, love,” she greeted him as he walked in the kitchen door. He dropped his jacket over the back of a convenient chair and kissed her. “How was the service?”
David sighed. April 25 was always a day of mixed emotions for him. It was Anzac Day, a day for commemorating Australia and New Zealand’s war dead and those who had survived their times in battle. As a Vietnam veteran, David had always taken part in the services and marches whenever he could, even through the awful times in the 70s when he was more likely to have been spat upon than cheered. These days taking part was a more pleasant affair. Even as the numbers thinned among the ranks, it was always heartening to see the large groups of young people who took part in the day’s activities.
After the dramas of getting Jack Collingwood arrested, David had opted out of sleep and instead had made the long drive down to Cobar to take part in the dawn service at the small town’s war memorial. It was an annual pilgrimage for him, a chance to catch up with other veterans who were normally scattered widely around the region.
“Not too many of us left,” he said in response to Maggie’s query. “Remember Scoby Jackson?” A member of David’s platoon in Vietnam. Maggie nodded. “He’s gone,” David said sadly. “His wife was there. Said the cancer came back about six months ago.”
Maggie reached out and took her husband’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I’m sorry, love.” He shrugged fatalistically.
“That’s the way it goes,” he murmured.
Maggie watched as he eased himself into the chair and reached for an apple from the fruit bowl on the table in front of him. She had never enjoyed Anzac Day. She knew it was something David needed, a connection to friends and comrades and memories that she would never be able to share. That wasn’t what bothered her about it though. It was the sadness she could see draping itself around her husband’s shoulders as he sat munching the apple, his eyes faraway in some memory of Scoby Jackson. Sometimes, Maggie thought, I just wish he could let all that go.
“You’re back earlier than I thought you would be,” she said.
David nodded. “Thought I’d come back and pick up Josie, and then we could go to the two-up game at the Louth pub,” he said, smiling up at her. “Y’know, like we used to do when she was a kid.”
Maggie smiled back, hating the fact that she was about to disappoint him. “It’s a lovely thought, sweetheart, but unfortunately Jo’s sick.”
He frowned, concern warring with disappointment on his face. “Sick? What’s wrong? Is she okay?” He stood up and she stepped forward, placing a reassuring hand on his chest.
“She’s got a bad cold and is running a temperature, but she’s getting some sleep and Cadie is looking after her.”
David relaxed a little. “Not like Josie to get sick like that,” he muttered, wondering now if he could be bothered going back up the road to Louth, though he did want to drop in at the police station to see what the news was about that bastard Collingwood. And I suppose I’ll have to start looking for a new foreman, he thought glumly. He reached up and loosened his tie, then sat back down again.
“That’s what I said,” Maggie replied. “But the poor baby’s all wrung out and feverish so she’s not going anywhere today.” One glance at her husband’s face told her he was now in two minds about going to the game. “Here’s an idea,” she said. “Why don’t you take Cadie?”
David scowled. “She’s American,” he muttered.
Maggie put her hands on her hips. “And your point is what exactly?” She sat down in the chair next to him. “David, it’s not like they don’t have days like Anzac Day as well. They’ve fought in wars too.”
David grunted. “Yeah, when it suited them.”
Maggie reached over and slapped his thigh. “Oh stop that. You know better,” she said, wondering if this wasn’t part of the reason David was so uncomfortable around Cadie.
Her husband squirmed in his seat. “Yes, I do, but some of the older blokes might not be too friendly around a Yank, Maggie. You know they’re all pretty set in their ways. I don’t want to spend all my time looking out for her.”
Maggie patted his thigh again. “I think you’re underestimating Cadie, love,” she said. “She’s not helpless, y’know. She can look after herself and from what I can gather, she’s more than capable of holding up her end of the conversation.” She held her husband’s gaze. “And taking her will make her feel like part of the family,” she said pointedly.
David scowled again. “All right, all right. I’ll take her.” He pointed a finger at his wife. “But don’t expect me to be telling anyone that she and Jo are …” He hesitated. “… what they are.”
Maggie rolled her eyes at him. “Do you usually go around discussing your daughter’s sleeping arrangements, David?” she said. “It’s not even going to come up. Leave all that to Cadie.”
“All right, all right.”
Maggie let herself into the bedroom after her knock brought no response. One glance at the scenario in the bed told her why and brought a gentle smile to her face. Cadie had climbed back into bed with Jo and was fast asleep as she leaned against the wall behind the bed, her partner’s dark head cradled on her belly. The blonde’s arms were wrapped securely around Jo’s shoulders in a protective embrace. Maggie chuckled softly and sat down on the edge of the bed. She reached out and patted Cadie’s forearm.
“Cadie. Wake up, sweetie.”
Green eyes blinked open immediately. “Oh, hi.” Cadie grinned sheepishly. “Guess I needed some more sleep too, huh?”
“I guess so. If you still want to go in to town with David, though, you’d better get up now.”
Cadie nodded. “Yep, I do.” She glanced down at the still sleeping woman in her arms. “Do you mind keeping an eye on her, for me? She’s still really hot.”
“Don’t you worry about that, now,” Maggie said, patting her arm again. “I’m not going far from the house today. We’ll be right.”
Jo stirred, mumbling softly in her sleep, and Cadie took the opportunity to slide out from underneath. “Where you going?” Jo muttered without opening her eyes.
“Sshhh, sweetheart, go back to sleep. Your mom’s going to be around while I go with your dad, okay?”
“’k,” Jo replied, barely waking at all.
Maggie moved out of the way, allowing Cadie to clamber out of the bed.
“Listen, this trip into town’s more than just a visit to the police station,” she said as the blonde moved around, gathering clothes together. Cadie looked at her inquiringly. “Today’s Anzac Day,” Maggie explained. A blank look from the American made her smile. “It’s the day all the war veterans get together, and walk in parades and sit around in the pubs and reminisce.”
“Ahhh.” Cadie nodded in understanding. “Like our Veterans Day.” She pulled on her moleskins and zipped them up, before reaching for the shirt she’d chosen. “Are these clothes going to be okay, then?” she asked, suddenly wondering if she shouldn’t be finding something less casual to wear.
“They’re fine,” Maggie confirmed. “David’s already been to the dawn service, and now he wants to go to the Louth pub and catch up with some old mates, play some two-up.”
Maggie grinned. “You’ll see.”
Cadie nodded, accepting that. A sudden flash of insight made her look up at Maggie sharply. “Jo used to spend the day with him, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” Maggie replied, quietly impressed with the American’s ability to cut to the chase.
“So I’m daughter by proxy for the day.” Cadie met Maggie’s steady gaze again. “Oh boy.”
Her mother-in-law laughed. “Don’t worry. He really is a teddy bear. And he likes you.” Cadie raised a surprised eyebrow. “Trust me, I can tell.”
It took about 15 minutes for Cadie to screw up the courage to start a conversation with the silent man behind the wheel. David had given her a brusque nod in greeting before pulling on his suit jacket and waiting for her to climb in the passenger side, but his utterances had been few and far between.
“So,” she said eventually. “Tell me about Anzac Day.”
Grey eyes flicked over her and then away again. “What do you want to know?” David said gruffly.
“Well,” Cadie replied carefully. She shifted slightly so she was turned more towards him. “Why is it today? April 25, I mean.”
David took a deep breath and bit back a retort. Figures this kind of history doesn’t make an impact in America, he thought. Not her fault though, and at least she’s interested.
“April 25, 1915,” he said. “That’s the day Australian and New Zealand forces landed on the beach at Gallipoli.” He looked quickly at Cadie who kept her face impassive. “That’s on the Turkish peninsula at the entrance to the Black Sea.” She nodded understanding. “Trouble is the British commanders got it wrong and the landing took place too far north. The Turks were sitting at the top of the cliffs waiting for the Aussies and when our blokes landed they were pretty much cut down. Eventually they managed to dig in at the foot of the cliffs. Nine months later they were withdrawn, without making any significant advances. There were 26,000 Aussie casualties, 7500 Kiwis.”
Cadie let the hot, dry wind from the open window wash over her for a moment. “Sounds like it was a terrible, pointless war,” she said quietly.
“It was,” David said bluntly. “But a lot of people think it was the making of us.”
“How do you mean?”
David rested his elbow on the edge of the window, his fingers pressed against his temple. “Up until then, we’d pretty much followed around after England, doing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. I mean, that’s why we were fighting in World War I in the first place, after all,” he explained. “But after Gallipoli we were a lot more skeptical about being at their beck and call. It was the start of our independence as a nation, I guess.”
Cadie nodded slowly. “Thanks for explaining.”
Cadie did a quick sum in her head. “I guess there aren’t too many Gallipoli veterans left,” she said.
“None,” David replied. “Last one died last year. There’s only a handful of Great War vets left as well.” He looked at her again. “You’re going to meet one this morning.”
Cadie grinned. “Cool.”
Maggie startled slightly as the phone jangled next to her. “I’ve got to figure out how to turn that bloody thing down,” she muttered as she turned away from the computer screen. She had been working on the station’s accounts and, despite her grumbling about the discordant sound, she was grateful for any excuse not to keep looking at the grim figures. “Hello,” she said after lifting the receiver off the hook.
“Mrs Madison? Uh, g’day. It’s Ken Harding here.” The gruff voice of the Sydney-based policeman surprised Maggie.
“Oh, Detective Harding,” she said, smiling to herself. “Hello to you, too. How are you?”
“Fair to middling, thanks,” replied Harding. He was sitting at his desk in a seedy corner of NSW police headquarters on Charles Street. It was a public holiday, but Harding, himself a Vietnam veteran, preferred to avoid the Anzac Day rituals for a chance to catch up on some paperwork. “Thanks for the Christmas card, by the way. Sorry I didn’t get around to sending one back.”
Maggie swiveled her chair around till she was facing out onto her back garden. “That’s all right, Ken,” she answered. “We know how busy you get, especially at that time of year.” Aware of her daughter’s presence in the bedroom, just a short walk away, she lowered her voice, even though she knew Jo was more than likely still asleep. “What can we do for you today?”
“Just checking in really, Maggie,” the cop said. “Haven’t talked to you in a while so I thought I’d see how things are going, see if you had any questions about Jo.”
Maggie grinned. “Well, actually, I’ve got some news for you, for once,” she said, a little smugly. “Jo is here.”
There was a suitable silence on the other end of the phone as Harding absorbed that totally unexpected piece of information. Bugger me, he thought. Madison finally got up the nerve to go home. “That’s great news, Maggie,” he said.
“We’re pretty happy about it,” Maggie confirmed. “Cadie is here too.”
Harding wrapped his pudgy, nicotine-stained fingers around his coffee cup and spun the mug idly in his hand. “Yeah?” Jesus, one surprise after another. She went home and she told ’em she’s a dyke. Gutsy.. “She’s a feisty one, that one. She beaten anyone up yet?”
Maggie laughed. “Yes, actually,” she replied, thinking of the American’s run-in with Jack Collingwood. “She’s lovely.”
Harding smiled, his memories of the fierce little blonde fond ones. “Yeah, she’s not bad,” he understated. He cleared his throat awkwardly, suddenly feeling like he didn’t quite know what he was doing in this conversation. “Does Jo know yet … well … you know?” He hesitated to spell out the extent of his relationship with Jo’s parents.
“Not yet,” Maggie replied, hearing a quiet note in the policeman’s voice that she hadn’t heard before.
“Fair enough,” Harding murmured. He felt vaguely disoriented, as if the natural order of things in his world had been tilted strangely. He had been so used to Jo Madison’s self-imposed isolation and the sense of duty he felt towards her parents, that now … Well, if she’s back in the family fold, then I guess they won’t need me any more, he thought glumly.
“I hope this doesn’t mean we won’t be hearing from you any more, Ken,” Maggie said, as if she could read his mind. “You know David and I will always consider you a friend of the family. I don’t know what we would have done without knowing you were there to help when we needed it.”
Harding swallowed around the lump that had suddenly developed in his throat. “Awww, you know I was just doing my job, Maggie,” he said huskily.
“Rubbish,” Maggie retorted. “You know damn well you went above and beyond what you needed to do for the job.”
Five years ago, when Jo had turned herself in, Ken Harding had been the Madisons’ contact with the police. He had planned on offering protection for her parents as part of the package in exchange for her testimony. But when the ex-assassin had turned down any form of police help, Harding had taken it upon himself to contact the Madisons and put them out of their misery as to Jo’s safety and whereabouts. Over the years, since he was keeping tabs on Jo anyway, Harding had become the Madisons’ only link to their wayward daughter.
And, along the way, he had been the one to tell them what Jo’s ‘job’ in Sydney had been. He knew it was something for which Jo would probably never forgive him, but at the time it had seemed the right thing to do. He’d also made sure to tell them just what good Jo had done by turning on her former cohorts. The lives she’d saved. The Madisons had rewarded him with friendship and gratitude.
“Did you decide to let her tell you herself?” the detective asked tentatively.
Maggie studied the line of ants marching along the sun-warmed windowsill. “Not necessarily,” she answered. “It’s been difficult to know how to bring it up, and to be honest, there hasn’t been much chance yet. Now,” she went on briskly, “when are you going to come out and visit?”
Harding tried to imagine himself out in the bush without ready access to a McDonald’s and fresh packs of Winnie Blues and just couldn’t see it. But there was something deeply appealing about getting away from the city and spending time with the Madisons. It touched something in him that had never gotten a lot of attention over the years – a sense of family.
“I’d like that,” he heard himself say. “Not sure when I can get away, though.”
Maggie wouldn’t hear anything of it. “Well, then it’s time you looked into it, Ken. There’s a side of beef walking around my back paddock that’s got your name on it.”
Cadie contemplated the silent figure sitting next to her. She was desperately curious about David Madison’s own military history but she knew better than to just blunder in with a bunch of clueless questions. She had been a politician’s wife long enough to know that Vietnam vets were not always happy to talk about their war service. She watched as a tiny smile creased the corner of her father-in-law’s mouth.
“It’s okay, Cadie, you can ask,” he said wryly. She grinned.
“Thanks. Maggie said you were in Vietnam.”
He nodded. “Yep. Shot at and shat upon,” he said quietly. Cadie waited, knowing that if she let him talk, he just might. “I was with 6RAR.” He glanced at her. “That’s a regiment.”
“I figured,” Cadie smiled.
“Served in Phuoc Toy province in ’66 and ’67. You ever heard of the Battle of Long Tan?” he asked, not expecting any answer other than a negative.
Cadie thought about it for a moment. Naomi had served on a couple of house committees for veterans affairs and Cadie had gone along with her ex-partner to several functions. Naomi had never been interested in the details, but for Cadie, talking to the veterans and hearing their individual stories had been something she had greatly treasured. More than one of those functions had featured visiting Australians and Cadie dug around in her memory banks. She smiled when she realized she did know what David was talking about.
“Didn’t the President give out some honor to the Aussies for that?” she said, ridiculously pleased with herself when she saw David’s double-take.
Maggie was right, David thought, impressed despite himself. She can handle herself. “Yeah, he did,” he confirmed aloud. “A Presidential Unit Citation from Lyndon Johnson to Delta Company of 6RAR.” He looked at Cadie thoughtfully, even as he continued to steer the truck along the road. They were nearing the outskirts of Louth and his attention was divided as he dodged a rheumy old cattle dog that was meandering across the highway. “That was my company,” he said.
“So you were right in the middle of that battle, huh?”
He shrugged and swung the truck onto the main street of Louth. “There were three platoons involved. It was 11 Platoon that made contact with the Vietcong first and they got hit hard. Then it was 10 Platoon who went in from one side and tried to help them out. I was in 12 Platoon. We were held back in reserve and then sent in from the other direction. We were the ones who eventually extracted what was left of 11.” He went silent and Cadie could see his throat working hard.
“This all happened in one night, didn’t it?” she recalled.
He nodded wordlessly, and then took a deep breath. “Yeah. The 11 Platoon survivors stayed with us, but we had to leave the dead and wounded out in the field overnight. Then the next morning we went in and pulled them out. Seventeen dead, and some 20-odd wounded. All good mates. All young – 20 or 21. A couple were 19 or so.”
Cadie shook her head in wonder. “I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like,” she said quietly.
“You don’t want to know,” David muttered.
She watched as a whole range of emotions swept across his lean, lined face. The telltale rippling at the corner of his jaw told her he was grinding his teeth.
“Do you still dream about it?” she asked. His head snapped round and she felt the full blast of his cool, grey gaze. Oooo, may have pushed a little too hard on that one, Jones. But it didn’t take long for his eyes to soften.
“Yeah, I do,” he muttered. “But don’t tell Maggie.” He grinned suddenly. “She’ll have me taking those damn herbal concoctions again and I can’t stand the taste of those buggers.”
Cadie chuckled. “My lips are sealed,” she promised. “But I think it’s a fair bet she already knows.”
“Yeah, probably. But as long as I don’t say anything she won’t push it.”
“Well, now I know where Jo gets it,” the blonde said, shaking her head.
“Gets what?” David asked, eyebrows raised.
“Damn-fool stubborn nothing-hurts-so-don’t-expect-me-to-say-ow stoicism,” Cadie shot back, her own eyes twinkling. “Jo just about has to be bleeding on the floor before she’ll admit she’s hurting.”
“So I guess she’s pretty crook if she’s laid up in bed this morning, then?” David asked.
Cadie smiled, her brain now automatically flipping through its growing lexicon of Australian phrases. Crook is sick. “Mhmm. I’ll give her credit, though. She’s been a good patient so far.” She folded her arms and looked pensively out the windscreen.
David snorted. “That won’t last,” he said. “Wait till she gets bored.”
Jo padded out into the kitchen. She had pulled on a pair of sweatpants and yet another fresh t-shirt and was wrapped in a blanket. Waking up about 20 minutes earlier, she had felt a little better, although disappointed to be alone. It hadn’t taken long for her ‘restless’ gene to kick in and she had gathered herself up to go in search of company.
The kitchen was empty and Jo figured her mother was probably somewhere in her flower garden. Barefoot, she shuffled out the back door, trailing a corner of the blanket in the dust behind her.
“Hi, Mum,” she said hoarsely, as she spotted her mother on her knees in a corner of the flower bed.
“Tch, Josie, what are you doing out of bed?” Maggie pushed herself to her feet and walked to where her daughter was standing. Jo was swaying slightly, as if unsure of her balance. “You should be horizontal, love. You’ve gone all pale.”
“Yeah, I’m just deciding that you’re probably right,” Jo replied glumly. Her bottom lip slipped out in a fair imitation of a pout. “I got lonely.”
Maggie took her daughter’s arm and led her to a folding deckchair that sat in the middle of the lawn. “Here, sit down before you fall down.” She helped Jo lower herself into the comfortable hammock-like seat, tucking the blanket in around her shoulders.
“Cadie went with Dad, huh?” Jo asked. It was a nice feeling, the sunlight on her face and her mother looking after her. Warm and fuzzy.
“Mhmm. You don’t remember her leaving?”
Jo frowned, trying to think. She had a vague memory of Cadie saying she wouldn’t be long, but other than that, the morning was a bit of a blur. “Not really.” She snuggled down further into the blanket. “Cadie okay with spending the day with Dad?” She knew how much Anzac Day meant to her father, and she just hoped the blonde wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by the experience. Lassitude again swept through her before she could give it too much more thought, however.
“I think she’ll be just fine.” Maggie watched as her daughter’s eyelids began to droop and she smiled affectionately. I give her about 10 more seconds and she’ll be fast asleep again, she thought. Gently she brushed a lock of sweaty hair from Jo’s forehead. Such a life you’ve led, my girl. I hope you can tell us about it yourself one day. Sure enough, Jo’s eyes closed and Maggie backed away slowly before returning to her task in the rose bushes. She turned the soil over with her trowel, mulling through all she knew about the young woman’s history. Some of it still hurt to think about, even though her gut told her Jo was no longer that person. I’ll bet my last dollar you’re scared to tell us because you think we’re going to reject you somehow. She glanced over, smiling again at the figure sleeping soundly in the sunlight. Going to have to convince you otherwise, kiddo.
Cadie stepped inside the circle of men and felt the butterflies skitter across the lining of her stomach. She was half-aware of her father-in-law just beyond the circle of faces, watching her from where he leant against the bar, cold beer in hand. They had been at the pub a couple of hours and Cadie had met all the old-timers of the town, including one World War I veteran and a handful of David’s Vietnam compadres. He’d introduced her as a friend of Jo’s and she hadn’t seen any reason to elaborate on that. One or two of the men had baulked at her accent but she’d shown plenty of interest in their history and medals, the result of which was she had managed to charm just about everyone in the smoke-filled bar.
The two-up game, illegal on every other day of the year except Anzac Day, had been in full swing for about an hour. Cadie had watched long enough to get a handle on the rules, such as they were, and it hadn’t been long before her new friends had urged her into the middle of the pit.
“Place your bets, gentlemen,” yelled the pit boss. Cadie pulled out her wallet and extracted a five-dollar bill, handing it to him as he passed. He gave her a short, flat, wooden stick on which lay two large pennies, one head-side up, the other tail-side up. All she had to do was toss the coins in the air, using the paddle. As the tosser, she automatically bet on two heads coming up. Everyone else in the circle could either bet with her, banking on two heads, or against her, banking on two tails. If the coins landed different sides up, she got to throw again.
Cadie waited while all the bets and side bets were negotiated and laid. A nod from the pit boss gave her the all-clear and she stepped into the center of the circle and flipped the coins up into the air. Whoops and calls came from the ring of men around her, urging the coins to fall their way. As they clinked metallically to the floor, silence descended. The pit boss stepped forward.
“Heads it is!” he shouted and a roar went up from the majority of the surrounding men, most of whom had backed Cadie’s hand.
“Good on ya, lass,” said one old-timer close to Cadie’s shoulder. “I’ll be riding on your coat-tails, never you mind.” Cadie grinned at him as the pit boss gave her a handful of cash and the paddle for another toss, before making his way around the ring again. Winnings were doled out and further bets laid as a crowd began to gather beyond the inner ring of participants.
Well, it’s not the most complicated game in the world, Cadie thought happily. But it’s a lot of fun. Her next throw ended in a split result, which meant nothing except to serve to raise the tension levels.
Cadie could hear the chatter and banter around her increase. A quick glance over in David’s direction told her that she was doing all right, as her father-in-law nodded and raised his beer glass in acknowledgement. The gap in the crowd closed quickly, however, and Cadie turned her attention back to the game at hand.
Twenty minutes later the blonde was the toast of Louth. Happy punters pocketed fistfuls of cash while the losers consoled themselves with another round of cold beer. Cadie sauntered over to David, feeling somewhat impressed with herself.
“I did okay, for an American, huh?” she said smugly, not surprised to see the patented Madison expression of skepticism on the older man’s face.
“It’s a game of chance, ya know,” he said gruffly, taking another mouthful of ale. “It’s not like there’s any real skill involved.”
Cadie opened her mouth to retort when the man who had been acting as the pit boss tapped David on the shoulder.
“Here ya go, Dave,” he said, handing David a wad of cash. He grinned in Cadie’s direction. “You want to hang on to this one, mate, she’s a dab hand. And I reckon she’s got a bit of a lucky streak about her.” He tipped his hat at the blonde. “Come back and visit us again, lass, you’re good for business.” And with that he walked away.
Cadie raised a sardonic eyebrow at David who cleared his throat as he tucked the money into his back pocket. Neither said a word as he caught her clear green-eyed gaze and held it. Finally, he admitted defeat, letting his face relax into a grin that dropped years off his lined features. Cadie chuckled, relieved that a barrier seemed to have disappeared between them. It’s about time, she decided.
“Come on, girl,” David said, downing the last of his beer. “They’re expecting us at the police station.”
“You are kidding me?” Jo’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. She was trying to figure out if this whole conversation was part of some weird fever-driven delusion because she couldn’t quite fathom what it was her father was telling her.
“Nope. Fair dinkum,” David confirmed.
All four of them were in the Madisons’ living room. Cadie and David had just arrived home after spending the afternoon watching the police grill the Madisons’ sheep-killing ex-foreman, Jack Collingwood.
Jo was curled in a corner of the couch, wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by a ring of used tissues and various packets of medication. After her nap in the garden she had moved in here where at least the cable television helped her stave off the bouts of restless boredom that had threatened to drive her crazy between sneezing jags. Stuffed in the head and still with a high temperature, she felt crappy, but at least the sneezing had held off long enough to hear the news from Cadie and her father.
“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” she muttered stuffily. “Collingwood was working for a loans officer from the bank?” Jo looked at Cadie for confirmation.
“Apparently,” the blonde nodded. “The idea was to try and put your parents out of business, so they’d default on their mortgage.” She shrugged. “Brownie points for the loans officer, I guess.”
“That, and the bank’d make more money, in the short term, by selling off the defaulted property than by waiting for me to pay off the damn mortgage,” David growled.
Jo snorted derisively, or tried to. All she really managed was to make herself go deaf in her left ear. “Well, if that isn’t the stupidest damn scheme I’ve ever heard,” she said, shaking her head. “One sheep at a time? With something as obvious as a shotgun? Did he think you wouldn’t notice?”
Maggie moved from her spot near the door and came and sat on the arm of the sofa by Jo’s shoulder. She smiled as she felt her daughter shift slightly so she was leaning back against her thigh.
“I always suspected Jack wasn’t just a slimy character. Now I know he’s a complete idiot as well,” Maggie said quietly.
“So what now, Dad?” Jo asked, looking over at where her father lounged wearily in his armchair. “You’re not gonna let them get away with it, are you?”
“No fear of that, Josie,” he mused. “They’ll both be charged and I’ll make sure it goes through to the right conclusion. And, what’s more, there’ll be an investigation at the bank. I dare say this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has been tried, and they’ll want to see how far up it goes.”
Cadie felt something nudging at her thigh and she looked down to see Jo’s foot begging for attention. “You should be wearing socks,” she murmured, feeling the cool of Jo’s skin against the palm of her hand when she wrapped her fingers around the foot.
“My feet are the least of my worries right now, love.” Jo replied as she reached for yet another tissue. “So, are you going to be compensated for the sheep you’ve lost?” she asked her father.
“Yeah,” he grunted. “Not that it will make much difference.” He turned away from his daughter’s intense, if bloodshot, gaze. “If it doesn’t rain soon, I’ll have to start shooting the buggers myself.” He pushed himself up and stalked out of the room, leaving a pregnant silence behind him.
“Is that true, Mum?” Jo asked quietly, looking up and over her left shoulder into her mother’s face. Maggie’s answering look didn’t waver.
“Pretty much,” she replied. “But not to worry, love. Rain has to come some time and it takes more than a bit of sunshine to beat your father. We’ll survive.”
Cadie could feel the tension in Jo. “At least we can help out for the next few weeks, until you guys find a new foreman,” she said hopefully. Maggie smiled back at her kindly.
“That you can,” Maggie said, nodding. “But first we’d better get this one healthy.” She patted Jo’s shoulder before standing up and moving towards the door. “And we can start that by getting some food inside her. Time to get dinner on.”
Cadie waited till they were alone before she locked eyes with her partner. “You want to help them out with some money, don’t you?” she asked softly.
“Yeah, I do,” Jo admitted. “But that means …” She let the sentence hang.
“That means pretty much telling them everything,” Cadie finished for her. Jo nodded and they held each other’s gaze for long, telling seconds.
“God help me,” Jo muttered.