Authors: Nicole Alexander
It is Dallas, 1886, and the Wade family is going from strength to strength: from a thriving newspaper and retail business in Texas to a sprawling sheep station half a world away in Queensland.
Yet money and power cannot compensate for the tragedy that struck twenty-three years ago, when Joseph Wade was slaughtered and his seven-year-old daughter Philomena abducted by Apache Indians.
Only her uncle, Aloysius, remains convinced that one day Philomena will return. So when news reaches him that the legendary Geronimo has been captured, and a beautiful white woman discovered with him, he believes his prayers have been answered.
Little does he know that the seeds of disaster have just been sown. Over the coming years, three generations of Wade men will succumb to an obsession with three generations of mixed-blood Wade women: the courageous Philomena, her hot-headed granddaughter Serena, and her gutsy great-granddaughter Abelena â a young woman destined for freedom in a distant red land.
But at what price â¦?
From the American Wild West to the wilds of outback Australia, from the Civil War to the Depression of the 1930s,
The Great Plains
is an enthralling novel about two conflicting cultures and one divided family.
Oklahoma after 1907 (select locations)
Indian Territory, 1866â1889
May, 1925 â Condamine Station, Southern Queensland
Wes Kirkland found the manager of Condamine Station sitting in the dirt under a tree. The bullet had punctured the fifty-four-year-old in the shoulder. Not a fatal wound, unless he'd been tethered to the tree's wide trunk with rope and left there for four days without water. Wes kicked the man's leg. Meat-ants had found a welcome food source and were clambering over the body.
âI'm still alive, you bastard!' Hugh Hocking gasped. His skin was burnt red from the sun, his lips a line of blisters.
Wes squatted by the man, leaning across to flick an ant from Hocking's thigh. âTough old bugger, aren't you?'
Hocking gave a raspy cough. âNot as tough as you,' he replied sarcastically. Overhead, the sun shone hard and hot. A grassy plain extended out from the shade of the tree; air and sky merged in a haze of heat. A few miles behind them lay the Condamine River, water and shade out of the wounded man's reach.
âThe thing I don't understand,
' â Wes's American accent had a harder edge to it compared to Hocking's â âis why you'd keep stealing Mr Wade's livestock when you knew I was about to arrive?'
âDoes it matter?'
âYes, it does.' At forty years of age, Wes was large framed with red hair and freckles and a temper easily roused. He retrieved a water bottle from his horse and returned to dribble the warm liquid into Hocking's mouth. âYou've made yourself a tidy pile in his absence all these years, so why let yourself get caught? You were a month away from heading home.'
Hocking licked his ruined lips. âBecause I don't care anymore, about the money or the Wades.'
âAnd by my reckoning you've no family left in Oklahoma,' Wes added.
âI thought the bastard would show himself one of these days, but I guess he's too busy chasing those Injun relatives of his.' Hocking tried to raise enough saliva to spit in the dirt.
âHe's not as soft-hearted as his father, Aloysius, was and you seem to be forgetting that this property forms only a fraction of Edmund's combined business interests.'
âRubbish, that's why he hasn't come to look at this great pile of land he purchased,' Hocking puffed. âYou forget, Kirkland, I was the one Edmund Wade came to for advice when he decided to purchase a property here in Australia. And why did he buy down here? So he could run away with that Indian squaw of his.' Hocking's head fell back against the tree, his chest heaved. âEdmund may not be as soft as his father but the Wade men were obsessed with that woman.'
Wes took a sip of the water and offered more to Hocking. The suffering man choked and spluttered.
âMr Wade's not coming but his son Tobias will eventually,' said Wes.
âAnd how do you know that?' Hocking asked breathlessly.
Wes screwed the lid on the canteen. âHe and I used to ride together back in Oklahoma.'
âSo you think you're his friend?' The question lingered. âMy father thought that. Aloysius Wade offered my father silver shares, and they sent him broke. He killed himself.' Hocking coughed, his head drooped on his chest.
For a moment Wes thought the man was really dead this time.
âOver forty years of service with the high and mighty Wades and look what he got for his troubles.' Hocking was barely audible.
âWhat's this then? An accountant's revenge?' Wes laughed but the man had passed out.
Across the flat country came the familiar pounding of hoofs. Two Aboriginal stockmen and a scraggly white man eased their mounts into a walk. Wes noted the unease on the men's faces. He'd arrived only months ago from America, and the Australians, regardless of whether they were black, white or brindle, were reluctant to talk to him. They were a suspicious lot, wary of strangers and no doubt expecting him to fail in his role as the new station manager. The only stockman with any noticeable confidence was the straggly bearded white who stared down at him from the saddle. Evan Crawley was leading hand on the property, what Australians called an overseer. The man knew livestock, had the ear of the men and so far had done everything he'd been told. This situation, however, would test him. Evan had been friends with Hocking.
âMr Kirkland.' Evan gave a nod and dismounted. âYou've been busy.'
It was difficult to see the stockman's eyes under the wide-brimmed hat he wore but his voice was steady, a reasonable sign that the man had the stomach for work such as this. âEvan. Nice of you to join me.'
âI'm guessing you wanted some time for Mr Hocking to become acquainted with your management style otherwise you wouldn't have sent us ten mile in the opposite direction.'
âThis is bad business,' one of the Aboriginals commented.
âThen pack your belongings and leave,' Wes replied calmly.
âTake off, Chalk,' Evan told the elder of the two Aboriginals. âTake your boy and head back to the bunkhouse. We'll be along soon.'
The Aboriginals turned their horses and left.
âCan they be trusted?' Wes asked.
âThey'll be right,' Evan assured him. âThey know what side their bread's buttered on.'
Wes put pressure on Hocking's shoulder wound with his hand. The man awoke with a groan.
âWe usually get the coppers when stealing's involved,' Evan said sociably.
âWell, I've ridden with the law and the best kind of justice is the quick kind.' Wes took a rifle from his horse and, lifting it, fired into Hocking's thigh. There was a splat of bullet and bone. Hocking screamed, Evan winced.
âFor the love of God, Evan, do something!' Hocking pleaded, as blood seeped from his leg. âThis isn't the wild west. We've got laws in this country.' Evan lit a pre-rolled cigarette and wedged the smoke between the dying man's lips.
âAustralia isn't my country.' Wes cut the ropes binding Hocking with a pocket knife and coiled the two lengths up. âAt least drag yourself away from those blasted meat-ants.' He turned to Evan. âIt seems Hocking had a difference of opinion with Mr Wade's father, something about silver shares, which isn't much of an excuse when it comes to stealing livestock and siphoning funds from the books. I never did like accountants.'
Evan sniffed. âDon't have much of a need for them myself.'
They caught their horses and mounted up. Both men gave Hocking a fleeting glance before riding off, as the former station manager attempted to drag himself away from the ants.
The two Aboriginals hid in the scrub until the white men disappeared across the plains, then they rode back to where Hocking lay, face down in the dirt. They picked him up and carried him deep into the trees, where they gave him water and a strip of salted mutton to chew.
âYou be right, Mr Hocking.' Chalk, the older of the Aboriginals, cut away the bloodied shirt and prodded the wound. âGone straight through, Mr Hocking.' He left the maggots wriggling in the dead flesh surrounding the festering injury and pulled a mix of dried herbs from a leather pouch, then added water. As he mixed the concoction, his son Jim checked the bullet hole in Hocking's thigh.
âThe bullet's still in there.'
âMy leg's broken,' Hocking told the boy tersely. âBest shoot me and get it over with. I'll not survive.'
Chalk divided the poultice between both wounds and bound the injuries tightly with strips of Hocking's shirt as the land grew dark. The man fell unconscious.
âThis is a bad business to be tangled in, Father.'
Chalk gestured for his son to assist him and they lifted Hocking onto a horse. âKirkland cannot take the law into his own hands.' Once the unconscious man was tied securely to the saddle, they led the animal towards the river.
âAre all Americans like Mr Kirkland?'
Chalk glanced at the lifeless man slumped on the horse. âI've only known two. Hocking talked many times of America,' he told his fourteen-year-old son as the branches overhead grew thick and daylight dwindled. âHocking talked about the red peoples called Injuns, abducted relatives and black men kept as slaves. These Americans are no different to the white man here. Their greed makes them want to conquer all others, but most of all they want to conquer the land.'
âIs that why they came here, Father?'
Chalk sucked in the dry scent of the bush. âNot initially. Hocking said a woman was involved, but it's not her we need to worry about, or Kirkland. I have waited for the All-father to show me what lies ahead. In my Dreamings I sense another all-powerful one and I worry for what may come across the great waters in the years ahead. You must remember our people, our teachings, Jim, and remain committed to our beliefs.'
The trees grew wide and old. The thick girths of the ancient plants lined the steep bank of the waterway. The men navigated ancient roots eroded by bygone floods and finally, on the sandy banks of the river, they lay Hocking on the ground. It was dark and shadowy between the water and the trees. Overhead the night sky was bright with stars.
âWill he live?' Jim placed a rolled blanket under the man's head.
Chalk looked upwards at the Emu in the Sky. The great bird's body lay across what the whites called the Milky Way, its head a dark smudge near the bottom of the Southern Cross, its murky body stretching across myriad stars. âBring my medicine.' Chalk selected some quartz crystals and shells from the saddle bag, and placed them in a line on the man's chest. âI cannot judge whether he should or should not die. I only know that he was our friend.' He mixed wild tobacco weed with ash from an acacia bush and placed the drug behind Hocking's ears and on his bare chest.
Jim looked on. âI don't know this place, but it feels different.' On the far bank a number of the trees showed scarring, the waterhole in the river was still and wide.
âMy father found me as a child in his dreams and sent me to his wife, but I came too early and was born here at this sacred site, where the rainbow serpent rises for a breath.' Chalk removed his shirt and sat cross-legged next to Hocking. His lean chest showed three deep scars, thick black welts against blacker skin. âYou will leave me, son. Return in five days and bring food.'
âEvan will wonder where you are, Father.'
âTell him what we have done. Tell him that Hocking was his friend and ours and that we have done what he could not. Tell Evan I will return.' He chewed on a wad of tobacco weed. âGo.'
Chalk watched as his young son gathered the reins to their horses and began to ascend the riverbank. When the boy finally disappeared through the trees, he took a knife from his belt and cut a fourth, deep line in his chest.
Through the pain the world grew still. Chalk focused on the great waters that bordered the land. On the land beyond the waters, and the people known as Wade. Then a shadow appeared and wings grew from the shadow. Overhead the Emu in the Sky stayed constant, but from afar another great bird called.