Love at Lost Lagoons is the third novella in the linked series Stations of the Heart, set in outback Australia in the 19th century. It can be read as a standalone story or after Lord Muck and Lady Alice and Love and Other Addictions.
This novella tells the story of reclusive bachelor, Walter Jamison, who runs a struggling north Queensland pastoral station he desperately wants to turn into a paying concern. His isolated life is shattered by the arrival of Elizabeth Chesterfield, a young woman determined to escape an arranged marriage being forced on her by her scheming brother. Walter and Elizabeth fall in love while Elizabeth’s brother and her ‘fiancé’ camp on the other side of the flooded river. What will happen when the waters recede?
Read an excerpt:
North Queensland, December 1879
Elizabeth’s rasping breath thundered in the clear night air. Her booted foot snagged a tree root. “Umph.” She hit the ground hard. Dragging air back into her aching lungs, she scrambled to her feet.
Elizabeth stared back along the track, straining to see into the shadows made by the trees in the moonlit night. Did someone move within them? The chill creeping down her spine told her there was something more.
All around her the bush shimmered with the movements of unseen creatures. An owl hooted its haunting sound.
Dread knotted her stomach. Had they discovered she was gone from camp and were following her?
Her heart thundering in her ears, Elizabeth ran on through the dappled darkness along the lonely track. She prayed that by dawn she would be far, far away from them. Surely, if she could follow this path south she would reach the track that led back down the range, back to the coast, back to the port where their long slow journey westward had begun.
There would be a boat to catch. There had to be.
Elizabeth stumbled and fell again. Her long skirt and petticoats hampered every move, but she dared not take them off in case they were found and showed her direction.
She lurched onward. How much further? She must get to the top of the range before sunrise, when they would notice her disappearance.
As dawn’s first blush kissed the eastern sky, Elizabeth leant against the papery trunk of a ti-tree and struggled to silence her heaving breaths.
Ahead, in the clearing where they had camped the previous night, was a four-wheel dray, resting on the grass like an enormous horned beast. Bells hung off the necks of its hobbled bullock team clanged dully amongst the surrounding trees.
The bullock driver lay rolled in a blanket between the dray and a dwindling fire.
Where was he headed?
The vehicle faced towards the track down the range. It must be heading towards the coast. She tried to swallow the lump of fear in her constricted throat.
Could she make it past the man and onto the dray’s load without disturbing him? Her hands prickled with sweat.
Slowly, so slowly, she eased herself across the open ground to the dray. Her heart pounded beneath her chemise.
The man hadn’t stirred. Nor had the huge dog that lay beside him, its paws twitching in its sleep.
Elizabeth held her breath and raised the stiff canvas where its ropes were untied. She hitched her skirt and petticoats to her knees and climbed up the spokes of the wheel onto the close-packed goods underneath. Sacks of something formed a hard layer. She inched forward seeking the centre of the load. She needed to be far from the opening through which she had crawled, when the man awoke.
Her legs ached from the unaccustomed running. Tiredness scratched her eyes. She must stay alert … at least until she knew she was undetected and her transport was on its way to the coast.
The sounds of dawn were louder now. Raucous and chortling birdsong greeted the new day. Surely the man must wake soon.
Within minutes, came the sound of a deep voice and the tell-tale stamp of boots and herding of bullocks through the bush as the bullock driver re-assembled his team, his dog snapping at their heels. The dray rocked and creaked as the beasts were harnessed into their yokes. The job seemed to take forever but eventually the bumping ceased.
The man’s sleep-roughened voice called to the dog. “Stop sniffing around the dray, there’s nothing in that load for you to eat.”
From nearby came the crackle of his renewed camp fire. Soon, a billy can swung through the air with a whoosh. She knew that sound now. Next the stomp and clatter of the camp being broken up. A chink of light showed under the canvas beneath which Elizabeth sheltered as something—probably his bed roll and cooking gear—were restored to the dray’s load.
With the crack of a whip the man called, “Walk on, Perseus, Hector, Hercules.” The dray rocked once, twice, but didn’t move forward. “Get them moving,” the man ordered.
His dog responded with high pitched barks. Bellows of outrage answered the snapping of its jaws. The dray jerked. Elizabeth imagined the animal nipping the bullocks’ hocks and the beasts lashing out with their hooves while the dog dodged their intended blows.
Through the combined efforts of man and dog, the dray soon lurched and creaked into motion. It wheeled in a wide arc, then settled into a steady plodding tempo.
Now the dray was moving, Elizabeth permitted her stinging eyes to close. The rough descent down the range later would keep her well and truly awake. Stopping the dray from ending up down one of the steep gullies that lined the rugged track would take all the teamster’s persuasive powers.
It took only moments for her mind to drift into exhausted oblivion.
Elizabeth jolted awake—her heavy eyelids snapped open, her muscles clenched for flight. Canvas stretched above her, rough sacking scratched her arm. She slumped back onto the load. She was on the dray, not in her brother’s roadside camp.
She heard … nothing … well not silence, but no patient deep voice calling upon the bullocks with their classical names or to the cattle dog to keep them moving. The creak and sway of the dray was gone also. Those background noises and movements, which had lulled her into sleep, were gone.
How long had she slept?
The outside sounds were no longer those of dawn. Instead, waves of cicada song pulsed through the bush. The air around her was stuffy. Perspiration dampened her underclothes. A thirst all the rain in England couldn’t quench parched her mouth. Hunger gnawed at her stomach. The bread and apples she had taken when she escaped her brother had been eaten before sunrise. There might be a few crumbs in her pocket.
She would have to wait until nightfall and the bullocky’s sleep until she could move from her hiding place. There must be food on the dray she could eat. Surely?
Her limbs ached from being cramped in the same position.
What was happening?
Where was the man with the steady voice?
Why had she slept so long? The range descent should have woken her.
Distant voices sounded. And came closer. Brisk steps clumped nearby.
Something was happening to the tarp. Its tight form loosened, and light shafted in from the back of the dray.
Elizabeth wriggled further away, easing herself towards the front. Which corner was furthest from the man who was now taking some of the load from the tail of the dray? She crept to that farthest point.
The tarp there was no longer pulled taut by the ropes that had kept it in place.
She eased the canvas open. Could she get down from this height and run for the bush?
More men’s voices reached her ears. And they were approaching!
She had to move soon or she would be found.
Elizabeth lifted the canvas.
No-one in sight. The men congregated at the rear of the dray. She inched her body round on the sacks until her legs were positioned over the edge of the load, then slid clumsily to the ground.
“Umphf.” She landed in an inelegant heap on the dirt and scrambled under the dray on all fours. Sitting cross-legged on the bare earth, she rubbed the spot where she had hit her head on the vehicle.
Several sets of legs showed at the rear of the dray. They were unloading it. Men with sacks on their shoulders walked towards a cluster of buildings. The deep voice of the bullock driver, commanding and cultured, directed them.
Where am I?
A low-slung slab house stood nearby, overlooking a long lagoon. In the opposite direction were a number of timber buildings and yards erected down a long slope running away from the house.
At a pastoral station.
The men walked closer. Scuffed work boots stood within inches of her hiding place under the dray. At any moment one of them would lean down and see her. She shrank back, body rigid. If she could stop her breathing and the loud beat of her heart, she would.
After an eternity, while the goods were hefted from the flat tray above, the men departed. As soon as the last one disappeared down the rise towards the yards and buildings beyond them, Elizabeth crept from her hiding place. She edged alongside the waiting bullocks. They tossed their heads, as she inched past. Don’t bellow, please.
A line of bush stood about a hundred yards away. If she could make it there without being seen, she would have some chance of escape. Had she been delivered to her brother’s property? Surely not? She hadn’t heard him.
Elizabeth drew in line with the leading beast. It stamped a hoof and tossed its broad head, sending her heart galloping. She clutched a hand to her chest and sucked in a steadying breath. The wide gap to the trees had to be faced and conquered now. Oh, god. Elizabeth gathered her skirts in her hands, swallowed drily past her constricted throat, and ran.
One step, two…
“Oi!” A shout exploded the late afternoon quiet.
She sprinted even faster. The bushes were closer now, but the heavy steps behind her were getting louder. She had almost made the tree-line. Please, please, let me reach safety. Her heart pounded, threatening to burst from her chest.
A heavy hand slammed onto her right shoulder like an axe thumping down on kindling. Elizabeth’s knees buckled. A strangled scream burst from her mouth as she crumbled to the ground.
His long, hard fingers, roughened with callouses, bit into her shoulder.
She struggled with all her might.
He didn’t let go.
Fear, dark and menacing, seized her body, sending her heart thumping wildly.
He hauled her to her feet. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
She gulped air like a drowning sailor swallowing water. She couldn’t have answered him if she had wanted to.
She could only stare into his eyes, the colour of the tawny port her mother had allowed her to sip when ill. They looked fierce in his tanned face. Bushy auburn mutton chop sidelevers, of the kind that had been popular a decade ago but had fallen out of fashion, framed his face. A shaggy moustache straggled across his upper lip, half hiding the grim line of his mouth.
“Where have you come from?” His frowning face was just inches from hers.
She shrank back. “I … can’t … tell … you.” The words puffed out on short breaths.
“Who are you?”
She would never tell him. He would take her straight back to her brother.
“Are you running away from your employer?
“No!” The word burst out of her mouth, as she rocked forward.
Never. “I’m not married.” And I won’t be if I can do anything to stop it. “I want to go back to Cardwell. Are we close?”
“No, we’re several days’ journey away.”
Despair, bleak and heavy, hugged her. “Can you take me there?”
“No, I’ve just come back from there. The rains are due. Look at the clouds.” He pointed up at the threatening sky to the east where steel grey clouds rolled towards them. “All the creeks and rivers between here and the coast will be over their banks once that rain falls.”
He pulled her, unwilling and resistant, for a couple of steps. With a growl of annoyance, he grasped her about the waist and lifted her from the ground. Elizabeth yelped. She squirmed and kicked him with her heels, and tore at his hands, but it made no difference. His muscular body braced against her back like a wall, as his huge strides consumed the distance to the buildings.
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Best wishes, Isabella Hargreaves
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