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Authors: Margaret Way

Sarah's Baby

BOOK: Sarah's Baby
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Koomera Crossing: Now and Then

At the present time, Ruth McQueen is in her seventies. Ruth's heir, her beloved grandson Kyall, has fulfilled her every hope and dream. She loves him so much he can move her to tears, when she hasn't shed a tear in all the years she's been widowed.

Kyall will succeed her. Ruth can die happy. Kyall will marry well—a young woman Ruth approves of from an “exceptional” family. Since his early teens Kyall's had all the girls falling madly in love with him. Girls from the right side of the tracks.

Only once did Kyall cross over into forbidden territory. It was about sixteen years ago…. This wasn't the first time Ruth tampered with others' lives, but it was the worst. She retains disturbing images of that particular year.

Not that Ruth wouldn't do it all again. Ruth McQueen is used to disposing of threats, even if they come in the form of a fifteen-year-old girl. Ruth won't have her beloved grandson's life ruined. Everything she did, she did for him.

What does it matter that Kyall and Sarah Dempsey grew up together? That they formed a bond Ruth tried hard to destroy? For a grown woman to hate a mere child is demeaning. But it happened, and that hatred will continue unabated into the future.

In the end, Sarah brought the whole unhappy business to a halt. She got pregnant….

 

Dear Reader,

I'm currently involved in an exciting new project: a series of five books centered on the Outback town of Koomera Crossing in the Channel Country of far southwest Queensland, my home state. It's an endlessly fascinating, unique part of Australia—a riverine desert on the fringe of the Wild Heart, which is what we call the vast 56,000 square miles of fiery red sand at the continent's center. There are no permanent waters in the great Simpson Desert, but the Channel Country—by virtue of its natural irrigation system, a mighty filigree of tree-lined watercourses, billabongs, lagoons and swamps—is home to the nation's cattle kings.

The Channel Country, even to other Australians, is as remote as the far side of the moon. This remoteness, the loneliness, the savage beauty and the overwhelming sheer empty vastness give the Never Never its glamorous mystique. Often described as one of the world's harshest environments, the “Red Center” is transformed into paradise after rain. No one who has ever seen the incredible desert gardens, mile upon mile to the horizon, could ever forget such a sight.

My KOOMERA CROSSING stories are all set in this area. They are about the people who have been born and bred in the great Outback and will never leave it, and the people somehow damaged by life who find their way there, desperate for answers in the peace and freedom of the Outback. This is the land of the dreaming. Of miracles.

My first book in the series,
Sarah's Baby,
a Superromance novel, is about a young woman raised in this Outback town who returns after many years of banishment as resident doctor at Koomera Crossing Bush Hospital. Sarah's memories of her hometown are both glorious and devastating. Her journey home to Koomera Crossing, courageously undertaken, has far-reaching effects—far beyond anything she has imagined. Not only does fate give Sarah the chance to rebuild her shattered life, it steps in to reinforce what we all surely know: lies cannot be lived forever….

Margaret Way

Sarah's Baby
Margaret Way

Sarah's Baby
PROLOGUE

Koomera Crossing
Outback Queensland
Australia

T
HIS IS THE TOWN
. About as far off the beaten track as one can get. Roughly a thousand miles from the dynamic cosmopolitan cities of the continent's seaboard, where the bulk of the population lives. This is the Australian outback. The Never Never where the power of nature prevails and love for the ancient landscape suffuses life. It's what makes the outback unique.

Here the creeks run dry or ten feet high, bursting their banks and spilling their iridescent green waters across the fiery red sands. It's either drought or flood. One follows the other without break. But when the floods recede? The drought-ravaged country is transformed into a wildflower-swept paradise.

The red plains, parched and quivering under the all-powerful sun, are overnight transformed into a blindingly beautiful undulating ocean of brilliant yellow and white as zillions of paper daisies sprout with astonishing momentum from the reenergized soil. The lonely sun-scorched desert tracks, once trod by brave explorers and their chosen men, are obscured by a mantle of pure magic. Exquisite ephemeral plants create a kaleidoscope of colors—the scarlet des
ert peas, the felty bellflowers, woolly foxgloves, the succulent pink parakeelya, the fluffy lilac mulla mullas and the lime pussy tails, the native hibiscus and the thickets of pink and white rain lilies, the pure white Carpet of Snow that so gloriously embroiders the bloodred sands. These are the miraculous sights that give the Inland its fascination. These glimpses into heaven affect the lives of outback people like the hand of God upon their hearts. They can live in no other place on earth, despite all the hardships and isolation. They will never leave and if they do, they always return.

The town of Koomera Crossing is on the desert fringe. In the early days of settlement, it was called O'Connor's Waterhole in memory of one of the most romantic and foolhardy of explorers, Sweeney O'Connor, a young Irish adventurer who once enjoyed a spell in an English jail before being put on a boat to Botany Bay, where the good colonists were shocked by his howling hotheadedness and lunatic ideas.

O'Connor, to no one's surprise, all but perished on the site of the town. This was in the early 1800s when he was well into his doomed trek to find the fabled inland sea. Many Europeans in those days were convinced that a sea lay at the continent's center when it really lay underground in the Great Artesian Basin. Only O'Connor's fervent prayers—and he later confessed he had to dig deep to remember any—and the intervention of a great thunderstorm plucked him from the greedy arms of death. Life-giving water filled the dry creek bed where he and his faithful Indian sepoy, Gopal, had made camp, along with their four camels and small herd of goats. Ironically, the lot of them nearly drowned in the flash flood, although they emerged on dry land, smiling and blessing their various gods.

Instead of the inland sea O'Connor had boasted he would swim in, he found a land of savage grandeur, blazing heat,
vivid color and monstrous rock formations that had the power to undergo spectacular color changes. To O'Connor's eyes, it was “the most violent, most bizarre environment on God's earth” until it was refreshed and reborn by rain. Hell and paradise as a matter of course.

That long-ago thunderstorm saved O'Connor's life although he was to die at the age of twenty-nine, a scant two years later with an Aboriginal spear sunk deep in his belly. A tragic end, the more so since he'd left behind someone he loved with a baby kicking in her womb.

When the fledgling sheep stations started to prosper and the settlement developed into a service town, O'Connor's Waterhole, already elevated to O'Connor's Crossing, reverted to its Aboriginal name.
Koomera
refers to a stopping place with plenty of
moojungs
(birds),
nerrigundahs
(berries) and a rock pool or waterhole
(koomera).
So Koomera Crossing became a place of safety and promise. A place where a man had the opportunity to make a new life for himself, where he could raise a family. Or hide. These were the men who broke rules. Men who rebelled against the confines of the city. These were the adventurers and the visionaries and—it has to be said—a few out-and-out villains.

At the present time, some fifteen hundred people call this outback shire home. A relative handful of people with vast, majestic, open spaces to themselves. Everyone in town knows what everyone else is doing; at least they all like to think they do. In any event, gossip whips around Koomera Crossing like the wind in a dust storm. It's always that way in a bush town, but the community is closely knit, its members unfailingly supportive of one another in time of need.

The town is located more than one thousand miles northwest of the state capital of Brisbane. It continues to serve
this important sheep- and cattle-raising region as a vital transportation point.

Koomera Crossing has a mayor, a rich woman and handsome, with her thick shock of hair cut like a man's. Enid Reardon, born McQueen. Enid is a forceful, energetic, out-spoken woman who's spent her life trying to live up to her mother, the matriarch Ruth, but will never make it. Enid, for instance, has never done an unthinkable thing. Ruth has.

The McQueens are one of the oldest pioneering families in this vast area, and they all but own the town. The town geographically comes under the heading of the Channel Country. This is an extraordinary part of the world—riverine desert, quintessential outback. Deeper into the southwest pocket, even more remote, is the home of the country's cattle kings, with their giant sprawling stations that carry the nation's great herds.

The Channel Country is immense. Seemingly without end. There, one cannot escape the untamability of the land or fight its powerful allure. To the Aborigines, the Channel Country is a region of magic and mystery rich in Dreamtime legend, many parts of it capable of inspiring fear. The area covers at least one-fifth of the state and is more than twice the size of Texas. The name—Channel Country—refers to the great complex network of braided, interconnecting water channels, billabongs, lagoons and creeks, through which the Three-Great-River system, the Diamantina, Georgina and Cooper's Creek, make their way to what remains of that fabled lake of prehistory, Lake Eyre. Known as Katitanda to the Arabana, Tirari and Kujani desert tribes who won't go near it. The lake fills rarely, to the wonderment of man, beast and bird. Only twice in the twentieth century, in 1950 and 1974. Its surface, all four thousand square miles of it, is mostly covered by a glittering pinky-white “polar” salt crust, some fifteen feet deep.
It's as incongruous as the pack ice it resembles in the red heart of the desert.

Ruth McQueen, already halfway to being a law unto herself, saw the lake fill in 1950 when, as a young woman, she and her husband, Ewan, took a joyride over it in their private plane. Ewan was destined to die in a plane crash years later, when his Cessna came down in very turbulent conditions just outside Alice Springs in the Red Centre. Flying is a tricky business in the outback. The air is so hot there's little or no feeling of buoyancy, of riding the air currents. It's almost as if an aircraft could suddenly plunge like a meteorite out of the cloudless cobalt sky.

This was the fate of the much-loved, much-respected Ewan McQueen, leaving the devastated Ruth alone with two children, Stewart and Enid, to rear. But Ruth is a great survivor. As soon as she could cope with her grief, she took over the reins, running the family's historic sheep station with all the energy and skill her husband had. A task nothing short of heroic, but Ruth employs something Ewan had never used: a ruthless hand forever poised in the air, ready to slam someone down. This has earned her many enemies. Something else Ewan McQueen never had.

So the McQueens are held in love and hate. They are the most powerful and influential family in the Northwest, their historic run, Wunnamurra, named after the fiercely predatory eagle hawks that patrol the desert skies. The founder of their dynasty, Dougray McQueen, a Scot who had traveled the world, noticed these birds of prey when he first made camp on the site of his future homestead. This was in the mid-1800s. A man of great strength, McQueen flourished in the harsh, remote environment, so different from anything he'd ever known or ever seen on his travels. It all but defied logic that he chose to build his life there.

His first bride, Fiona, a cousin and a young woman of
breathtaking beauty, was brought out from Scotland to Dougray's immense pride and joy. Fiona lost her reason within a year of arrival. The heat as good as killed her. The isolation! The primitive, overwhelming landscape! The strange indigenous people with their glistening black skin and incomprehensible language. The terrible taste of creek water. The food. The millions of strange birds with their strange names—kookaburras?—their brilliant plumage, their strident cackles and mournful calls. The deprivations a gently reared young woman was forced to endure. It was all too much to bear. Fiona, in a distressed state of mind and in the absence of her husband, wandered off into the bush and disappeared without a trace, despite a huge search that employed the most skilled trackers on earth, the Aboriginals. A number of people over the years claimed to have seen Fiona wandering the lignum swamps, her long, curly red hair hanging unkempt and tangled down her back, face pale and strained, glittery, staring eyes. She wears a long flower-sprigged dress, the hemline dripping moss and mud. The claimants were not fanciful people, either, but iron-nerved family and tough stockmen already familiar with the eerie nature of the Australian bush and its foreboding moods.

Dougray remarried a short time later. He wanted sons. Another Scottish girl, Eleanor, not nearly so bonny, but full of fight. This one had the advantage of an adventurous nature. From that point on, with Eleanor willing and able to take over domestic affairs while producing six children (two dying in infancy), Wunnamurra prospered. It rose to a position of great wealth and prestige as Australia emerged as the greatest producer and exporter of wool in the world. Getting rich off the sheep's back, as the saying goes. Even before wool sales went into a decline, the McQueens diversified, raising cattle as well, growing wheat on their
newly acquired properties in the rich highlands of the central Darling Downs, investing in oil and mineral exploration in a state with fabulous resources and tremendous potential for development.

So the McQueens remain big contributors to the state's economy. Their fortune, presided over by Ruth, is substantial. The family always figures in the
200 Wealthiest
list. Enid, the mayor, is democracy in an iron glove. Her CEO, her husband, Max, has been reduced to a peripheral figure after all these years with two dominant women. Max's own family were once wealthy landowners, but a series of financial downturns and the loss of two sons in the Second World War took their toll. Max and Enid have two offspring—the vivid, commanding Kyall, the heir, and his younger sister, Christine. Unable to thrive under her mother's domination and declared disappointments in her, Christine has fled to Sydney to find her own identity and make her own life.

There are other families in the town who make their presence felt. The Logans, the Hatfields and the Saunderses, all represented on the shire council and serving variously as town consulting engineer, finance manager, building inspector and the like. Then there's the town lawyer, dentist, pharmacist, mechanical engineer and the owner of the local pub, Mick Donovan, good-hearted, with a short-tempered wife who's never quiet. There are also the lone police constable (his city-born wife left him, screaming she couldn't stay another moment), town trucker, the plumber, the postie, the baker and the hairdresser. There's the artist Carol Lu, who could make a fortune with her beautiful landscapes if she so wished but clearly doesn't, and the mysterious and exotic Maya Kurby. Kurby isn't her real name. Her real surname is impossible to pronounce, let alone spell. Maya runs the truly excellent ballet school. Then there's the near-
blind violinist, Alex Matheson, who had a nervous breakdown when he was forced to abandon a brilliant career and now conducts the town's orchestra guild. A man of mystery is Evan Thompson, who arrived in town a year or so previously. Evan can fashion anything from wood, but it's obvious to everyone that at some stage of his life Evan Thompson was “someone,” not just a gifted woodworker. Evan is a big man, with a dark, brooding presence. Of course, the women of the town are attracted to his good looks and smoldering dark eyes, but he acts as though he's had enough of women to last him all his life. Charlotte Harris (Lottie to everyone) is an extraordinary dressmaker who could find a job behind the scenes at a Paris fashion house.

Another important character in the town is the authoritative and highly respected Harriet Crompton, a spinster and the town's lone teacher for the past forty years. Harriet teaches the children and grandchildren of all the local families until they go away to boarding schools to complete their secondary-school education. Harriet is no ordinary woman but a woman of considerable culture (she founded the town's theatrical society) and fine, upstanding values. She has almost as much impact on the town as Ruth, of whom she has been highly critical from time to time; such is Harriet's standing in the town that Ruth has never been able to have her removed.

The families of the outlying stations served by the town, like the Claydons of Marjimba, have their role, too, although these stations, like Wunnamurra, are mostly self-sufficient, dealing with their own problems and their own affairs. Great technological advances have made station life a lot easier, telecommunications and modern media opening a door onto the world. All these families are admirable people, but an underlying “cold war” with the McQueens
has been going on for decades. Ruth McQueen has earned a reputation for being absolutely ruthless in business, even when dealing with so-called friends. She is indeed a tyrant and her words are set in stone. Even her family, with the notable exception of Kyall, fear to cross her.

BOOK: Sarah's Baby
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