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Authors: Ann Cliff

Haunted Creek

BOOK: Haunted Creek
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Haunted Creek

Ann Cliff

For Neville,
with thanks for the
Australian adventure.

Gippsland, Victoria, Australia: January 1875

 

‘Y
OU’RE A BRAVE
one, to come all across the world by
yourself
!’ The bullock cart lurched into a pot hole and the woman steadied herself with a hand on a bag of corn. ‘What did you think to Melbourne, then? Not as fine as London, I’ll be bound.’ She sounded envious of the traveller. ‘I was born near Melbourne. This is as far as I’ve been.’

‘I’ve never seen London, Mrs Carr,’ the passenger admitted and the older woman leaned forward to hear her. ‘I come from a village in Yorkshire. This is … it’s all so different.’
A neat little stone-built village with pretty cottage gardens … not like this
.

It was nearly journey’s end after endless weeks of sailing from England to Melbourne, with plenty of time to get used to the idea of leaving home. Rose had arrived at the other side of the world and then the journey through Victoria had begun. There was no railway east into Gippsland and the roads were rutted tracks through dense forests with no signs of civilization; no villages, no church steeples and no people. Only the wild, dark green woods.

Rose had been lucky to get a ride but the bullock cart seemed very slow after the mail coach. Cobb & Co. had stopped to change horses many times; fresh horses to keep up the cracking pace. They’d left Bourke Street in Melbourne at one o’clock yesterday afternoon and rattled east, reaching the Bunyip River just as
darkness
fell. (What
was
a bunyip?) The night stage was frightening and
hardly any of the passengers slept. The track was very rough, the horses floundering through deep mud at a place called the Gluepot before toiling up the steepest of hills.

Before daybreak, Rose had stepped down from the coach at the little town of Moe, aching and weary. There she’d had hours of uncertainty until she found a way of getting into the hills. The Carr family said they had room for her on their cart, so she stayed in a small boarding house and joined them early the next morning. Thank goodness, this was the last leg of the journey. It was also the slowest, in a lumbering cart drawn by eight bullocks with long horns. By evening, not long now, she would be on their Australian farm with Luke. Dear Luke! A real farm of their own and a new house to live in!

Rose had married Luke Teesdale a year ago just before he came out to Australia, promising to follow him as soon as he had
somewhere
for them to live. Leaving home was nothing, she’d told herself. Not compared to the promise of the future: a farm of their own in a new country and, above all, the chance of happiness.

On either side of the road were huge trees. As they came out of the valley and slowly crawled into the hills, the trees had seemed to get bigger, crowding in across the road and mercifully shading them a little from the pitiless afternoon sun. A familiar smell came wafting into the cart at intervals and after a while Rose realized it reminded her of Grandmother’s washing day: these giants must be eucalyptus trees.

There were woods everywhere here – the Australians called them ‘the bush’ – and huge bogs like the one round Moe that they called swamps. The birds she had seen were big and brightly coloured. It was a new world, different from anything she had seen before, and frightening in its silent emptiness. Rose had thought there would be more villages, more people.

‘Now, I always say a country girl fares best in Australia.’ Mrs Carr poked her husband in the back. ‘Get a move on there, Bert. There’s folks coming up behind us and they’ll get there first …’
Her voice was drowned in an uproar as the cart keeled over
sideways
in a rut that was deeper than usual. The hens swinging in a coop under the cart started to cackle, the bullocks bellowed and a rather thin cow that was tied to the back of the cart moaned
plaintively
. A saddle horse beside the cow plodded on as though nothing had happened. This was a whole farm on the move, ready to claim some land and settle down. But now it seemed that a race was on.

‘Have some sense, Martha. You can’t hurry cattle and you know it.’ Mr Carr clamped his teeth more firmly round his pipe. ‘Get up there, lads, get up.’

When order was restored Mrs Carr started again, fanning herself energetically. ‘You’ll be feeling the heat, dear, straight from England … My Bert has ambitions, otherwise we’d not be here. We had a little place near Melbourne, growing vegetables, but Bert wanted to get bigger and then he heard about this land for selection. So here we are, but they told us in Moe that there’s only one good block of land left near the creek and another lot has their eyes on it.’ Her faded blue eyes looked at Rose
curiously
. ‘So your man has a block already? He’d have got one of the better ones, then. When I first saw you in Moe, I said to myself there’s a handy young woman, she’ll make a settler.’ Mrs Carr was scrawny and brown, her work-worn hands folded over a faded print dress.

‘I hope so.’ Rose wiped the perspiration from her face. It was hot under the canvas and the bullock cart was stuffed to bursting with the Carrs’ possessions, including two small boys, Charlie and Peter, now mercifully asleep. They were bound for a place called Haunted Creek, where Luke said in his letters that he had bought a farm and built a house.

It would be wonderful to have a home of their own. Rose had lived with family all her life and longed for a little kitchen with a good cooking range and a cat on the hearth rug. She imagined the house neat and orderly, the way you could keep things if you got up early in the morning.

The road was getting steeper and the bullocks slowed down even more. Rose could have walked faster. ‘So what can you do, my dear? Can you milk a cow and bake a loaf?’ Mrs Carr smiled. ‘You’ll soon learn, any road. Now if you’re able to teach children, or nurse folks that’s sick, you’ll be right welcome up here. From what I’ve heard, there’s not enough good women to do those kind of jobs.’ They had passed a tea house where the road divided and the track had come close to the Latrobe River again an hour ago. A few sheds were dotted about and Rose saw some fences, signs of farming and a relief after the endless bush, but no people. Although she was a country girl, Rose had never been far from the neighbours in Yorkshire.

‘I’m a farmer’s daughter, Mrs Carr. Used to milking and all that … I like to grow vegetables and herbs, but I suppose it will be different here.’ There were many packets of seeds in the big
brassbound
trunk that Rose had sent off to Australia months ago; there was lavender oil, dried sage and plenty of pepper.

Other women on the ship had told her that they’d packed bone china and silk dresses for their new life. ‘You can’t get good china in the colony for love nor money, they say.’ But Rose had packed seeds and cooking pots and pans, wrapping them in material to make tablecloths and curtains. The ladies in silk had been bound for Melbourne, not the Haunted Creek. They had looked at her with pity when she told them where she was going.

‘You’re off to where? In the wilds of Gippsland, miles away from civilization? I wonder what you’ve let yourself in for, dear. I only hope you’ve got a good husband,’ one woman had sniffed. ‘You’ll likely be stuck alone with him for months at a time.’

Another had said, ‘You must have married a well-off-chap with a big grazing property. There’s fortunes being made from sheep, they tell me, and some of the farms out there are as big as an English county. Stations, they call them.’

Rose said nothing. Her man had bought fifty acres and at the place Luke had settled in, the land was being divided up into small
units, more on an English scale, thank goodness. That had led her to think that there would be a village or two … but where were they?

The cloud of dust behind them whirled up and enveloped the cart as two horsemen overtook them on the track, not slowing down and not even looking at the bullock dray. ‘Now that’s vexing, that is.’ Mrs Carr frowned. ‘They’ll be the ones, they’ll get the block near the creek. And we’ll get the hill … just our luck.’ Bert hunched his shoulders but said nothing.

‘Those men might not be going our way,’ Rose suggested, smoothing down her dark hair. ‘They didn’t look like settlers – they had no baggage, did they? How could you settle without your belongings?’

But Mrs Carr was convinced that they were selectors. ‘If they were neighbours, they’d have waved, or stopped for a chat. And they wouldn’t have covered us in dust – that wasn’t friendly, like.’ She wiped her grimy face.

Shadows across the road grew longer as the afternoon wore on. The strange thing was that the sun, though heading for a sunset in the west, was travelling through the north instead of the south. You could tell because the mountains were to the north of the valley; the bullock team was labouring up the hills out of the flat land. There was a lot to learn about Australia.

The road levelled out along a ridge and Rose could see a few scattered houses where a track led off towards a river. ‘Used to be hundreds of men down there,’ Mr Carr said as they peered into the deep river valley. Rose could see huts and some sort of machinery. The Tangil gold rush was almost over, Bert said, but men kept coming, still hoping for a big find.

The cart rumbled on through the hot day, lurching from side to side. In spite of her excitement, Rose was dozing when Mrs Carr put a hand on her arm. ‘Now, we’re coming to the place – the creek we’re looking for. You won’t mind if we try to find our block first?’ She looked at Rose, almost pleading. ‘I know you’ll want to meet
your man, but we’ve got a race against time …’ She consulted a rough map showing the outlines of vacant lots. ‘Hey, Bert, turn down here. This must be it.’ A mark was blazed on a tree where a narrow track turned down into a little valley.

The road was steep and Bert hauled the bullocks to a halt. ‘I’ll go down myself and see. Might not be able to turn cattle round down there,’ he muttered.

‘May I come with you?’ Rose jumped down and nearly fell, clutching the wheel of the cart for support. She was aching and stiff from sitting for hours; it would be good to walk for a little. Martha joined her and after tying up the lead bullock, they all walked down the track.

Between trees the water gleamed invitingly and the land levelled out as they went along. Bert kicked at the earth at the side of the track. ‘Good red soil,’ he said. ‘This’ll do me nicely.’

They heard a shout and Rose looked up to see two young men watching them. ‘Sorry, folks, this is taken!’ The man who spoke was laughing. ‘We got here hours ago. I’ve staked my claim and put a hut up – see?’ A few young trees had been felled and heaped together. ‘There’s good places over the hill.’

Bert’s face dropped when he saw the men. ‘This is the block I want,’ he said obstinately. ‘I’m a veggie grower, I’ve got a wife and two children—’

‘Hard luck, mate,’ the second man said with rough sympathy. ‘But t’other land’s not bad, just a bit steeper, going down to Haunted Creek.’ He came closer and stared hard when he saw Rose. ‘My – it isn’t young Rose – is it? Nay, I never expected you for another month or two, lass! Oh, Lord!’ He turned away.

It was hard at first to see in this thin, bearded stranger the
good-looking
Luke Teesdale she had married. He wasn’t even pleased to see her! Perhaps he felt shy; it was strange to meet again after so long, and in front of strangers. Rose had imagined such a warm welcome … not this. To come all this way, through these dark and frightening forests, for this.

The others watched as Luke walked over and gave her an awkward peck on the cheek. ‘Well, I suppose you’ll have to make the best of it. You’d have been better to come next year.’

Rose was lost for words. Her husband couldn’t look her in the eye. He didn’t ask how she was, but stood with his arms folded, looking grim. Bright hopes faded as she looked at him.

The other man, a curly-haired lad with a lopsided smile, came across and shook her hand. ‘Pleased to meet you, Mrs Teesdale. Luke has been looking forward to seeing you here. I’m Jim Carlyle, we’ll be neighbours.’ He at least had a few manners.

‘I knew it – they’re the ones that passed us on the road!’ Martha glared at the two young men. ‘They beat us, after all.’

‘I’ve had it booked for a while, you know,’ said the lad called Jim. ‘Just had to get here myself and stake it out … Luke’s been helping me.’ He turned to the Carrs, dusty and disappointed by the track, shoulders drooping. The little boys had run after them and now they began to cry. ‘There’s plenty of room for us all. I’ll show you if you like.’

Bert Carr roused himself. ‘We’ll camp for the night by the track and look for a selection tomorrow,’ he said shortly. ‘Right, Martha, let’s feed these boys.’

Back at the cart, Rose wished them luck and tried to hide her own disappointment. ‘Thanks for the lift. We’ll be seeing you again, I’m sure,’ she said as brightly as she could.

Luke picked up Rose’s bag and led her away. The horses were left with Jim. Her husband seemed ill at ease and she supposed the sight of her had been a shock. ‘But you knew I was coming?’ she asked him.

‘Oh aye, I got your letter, but I worked out it would take longer.’ He looked quickly at her, and then away. ‘And then it was too late to tell you to wait a bit … but hell, it was always going to be a bit of a shock for you at first. It’s not like Kirkby, you know.’ His smile was bitter.

This was not encouraging, but Rose tried to pull herself
together. ‘Well, I knew it would be different. What have you been doing, Luke?’

‘I’ve promised to help young Jim there to build a house. He helped me with mine. But he only got here this arvo to stake his claim – he’s been working for a man in Moe. And … well, I was going to do a bit of tidying up at our place.’

That didn’t sound promising, but Rose was too tired to care. ‘All I want is a cup of tea and a bed to sleep on,’ she said quietly, just like an old woman.

‘There’s the creek,’ Luke said suddenly as the track turned sharply. ‘Our place is up there on the little ridge. It’s a grand spot, it’s not far now. I suppose you must be tired.’

BOOK: Haunted Creek
7.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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