On the blog, I left out Chapter 11. It was an accident, and wasn’t caught in time to fix it easily. So instead of compounding the problem by renumbering everything, I invited the readers to supply the missing chapter and the winner was chosen by popular vote. Reader/writer Jenna Reid won and I liked her entry so much I decided to consider it canon and included it here in the book as an actual chapter of the story, with her permission. It fits into the story better as Chapter 12, so we moved it.
Hellbender Hungerford had seen men beaten up before. Life on the
stations of the Flinders Ranges, where he had spent the early part of
his life, could be rough. Hundreds of miles had separated those
homesteads from the civilization of Adelaide, so law and order was as
thin on the ground as it ever was here in Green River. Storm’s condition
wasn’t the worst he’d ever been witness to, but nevertheless he knew it
was bad. Storm’s insistence on leaving immediately had lasted as far as
the boardwalk, and he had slumped, trembling and ghost pale, on the
bench outside the jail. Bender knew that even if he tied Storm on to his
pinto mare and hitched her reins to Swagman he’d never manage to get
Storm back to the station alone. Trying would only make Storm’s injuries
worse, so they were stuck where they were, forced to be content with
waiting for Lynch to arrive and hoping he had the sense to bring a
wagon. At least the boardwalk was shaded. It could get hot here in this
season, hot in a dusty way that reminded him of home.
years the Flinders Ranges had enjoyed what was, for the very outer hem
of the Australian Outback, a wealth of rainfall. The valleys were
greened and comparably lush, and the sheep and cattle men had prospered.
Plenty of work for a horse doctor, although he’d ended up tending sheep
more often than not. Bender didn’t like sheep much, but sheep were the
lifeblood of the region. Or so he’d once imagined. He had been wrong, of
course. The lifeblood of the Ranges, of the whole continent, was water.
Towns were blossoming like wildflowers around the largest stations…and
then the drought had come. First the rain had ceased, and then the small
creeks dried up, until even the largest rivers had vanished into dust,
leaving nothing to show that they had ever existed save lines of
skeletal gum trees pointing accusingly at the searing blue sky. All
across the ranges homesteads stood lonely and abandoned, with neat rows
of graves in the yard and a skeleton or two strewn somewhere, the
remains of the last poor unfortunates to die with no one to see to their
eternal rest but the dingoes and the wedge-tailed eagles. Many had
waited too long for a miracle and paid for it with their lives when the
horses that were their only hope for escape had succumbed to the
Storm’s rasping voice jerked him
out of his reverie. “You ever been beaten up, Bender?” he croaked. “A
couple of times, yeah,” Bender replied, remembering. “What happened?”
Storm was looking at him intently, probably trying to keep his mind off
the pain. “Well, one time I was just in the wrong place, at the wrong
time, with too much money in me pocket.” “And the other?” Bender smiled
slightly. “The other…was about a girl.”
and swollen lips tugged sideways in a tiny smile. “Tell me about it,” he
said. Bender grinned. “She was the prettiest little thing in the whole
of South Australia, and I loved her with all me silly young heart. I
wasn’t the only one with an eye on her, though. She was the daughter of
the blacksmith, and he had an apprentice who wanted to be a son-in-law.
He wanted to pound me into my boots, and he did. He was a great
strapping bloke, and pounding out horseshoes all day builds bigger
muscles than dosing sheep and trimming hooves.” He paused, and his eyes
grew unfocused, looking back on that distant day. “I was a sorry sight,
but I won, in the end. Me darling girl picked me.” He glanced again at
Storm and was surprised to see a look of aching sorrow on his face.
Bender had the strangest feeling that that expression had nothing to do
with Storm’s battered ribs, but the next second the twisted, despairing
look had faded, and Bender wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it.
the silence that settled between them, Bender stood and stepped down
into the dusty street beside Swagman. A thought had occurred to him, and
he felt slightly ashamed for not thinking of it sooner. He pulled a
flask of water from his saddlebag and brought it back up to Storm. Storm
took a swig and spat, rinsing dust and blood out of his mouth. “Oh
God,” he hissed, clutching at his left side, “I’ve felt better.” “Don’t
you worry, mate, you’ll be apples once we get ya back to the station and
Miss Lewis-Smythe’s tender care.” Storm groaned. “Fiona. She’s going to
be furious. I hate upsetting her…” Storm’s voice trailed off, and
Bender saw again that pained expression. He thought he understood it a
little better this time, but he was distracted by the unhealthy flush
rising in Storm’s pale face. Lynch had better get here soon. Damn Holt for a sheep-buggering fool.
Storm had slumped back again, eyes closed and head resting against the
rough wooden wall behind him. Bender looked away up the street, in the
direction of the Green River Station, waiting.
happened to her?” The question was barely more than a whispering scrape
of sound. “What’s that, mate?” Storm cleared his throat. “What happened
to your girl? Where is she?” Though clearer, his voice was barely louder
and he hadn’t opened his eyes. Bender had the sense that he was barely
clinging to consciousness. “She died.” Storm’s brow creased faintly.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed. “Nah, mate, it was a long time ago.” Years and
half a world ago, and his heart was still as sore as the day he’d
buried her under a still-green gum tree next to their small son. He had
left the Ranges the next day, along with the few families who had
remained, down to the coast and Adelaide. Bender had fled farther than
most, across the wide Pacific, running from that pair of graves as much
as the terrible drought. He was profoundly grateful when the jingling
rattle of a team and wagon interrupted his thoughts. He gazed up the
street again, squinting against the intense afternoon light, and relaxed
when he recognized the slouched figure on the seat.
on mate, up you get,” he said, carefully hoisting the injured man to
his feet and supporting him, “Saint Peter’s here for you.”
© 2010 Jenna Reid