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Gertie - The Outback Job

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“Eat your broccoli, ‘Lizbeth Grace!” Eliot grumbled, “or no pavlova, okay?”

Six-year-old Elizabeth Grace Ford glared at Eliot Spencer, her guardian, bestest friend in the whole world and the man who insisted she eat her greens.

“Awwww, Eliot –“

“Don’t you ‘aw Eliot’ me, young lady!” Eliot scowled at Lizzie from his seat across the table in Leverage International HQ, “You’ve eaten broccoli since you got teeth to chew it with, an’ you’ve always loved it, so –“

“But I don’t like it now,” Lizzie whined, and drew her brows down in a fair facsimile of Eliot’s frown.

“Eat your broccoli, dear,” Sophie soothed as she worked her way through her plateful of broccoli gratin and pork escalopes with lemon, parmesan and thyme crust, one of Mikey Gonzalez’s excellent signature dishes. “It won’t kill you, and you love cheese, so don’t irritate Eliot. You know how he gets,” she added, and forked another bite of the tender pork into her mouth.

Mikey Gonzalez, one of the three excellent chefs at the Bridgeport Brewpub, had excelled himself, she decided. The pork was fantastic.

Lizzie glared at her mother, who ignored her, and switched her gaze to Nate, who drew his mouth down in dismay.

“Oh, don’t put me in the middle of this,” he muttered, and took a sip of his soda.

“But Daddy –“

“Hey, baby-girl, I’ll eat it for ya if you like,” Hardison interjected. He was sitting beside Lizzie and was on the point of shovelling Lizzie’s portion of broccoli onto his plate when he caught the death-glare Eliot Spencer was sending his way. He raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“You do anything of the sort, Hardison, an’ I will stab you with your own fork!” Eliot growled.

“But I like broccoli!” Hardison said, mystified.

“I don’t,” Parker muttered, shoving her portion around her plate, eating the cheese sauce and nothing else. The pork was sort-of-okay though. She preferred Fluffy Pops.

“Okay,” Hardison said, “I can eat yours too.”

Eliot’s blue eyes began to spark in annoyance.

“Have you got a parasite or somethin’, Hardison? Huh? A tapeworm?”

Hardison was revolted by the very idea, but tried his best to maintain his dignity.

“Hey, man! My Nana, she don’t abide waste, El! An’ this is great chow, so … it makes sense!”

And so the argument went on, the pros and cons of eating broccoli being bandied about the table as Lizzie surreptitiously shoved her serving of greens to the side of her plate and then tucked into the pork.

This is what she loved … her family around her, bickering and laughing, joking and eating, all over an impromptu homecoming dinner after a long trip.

The team was newly-home from Qatar. Just a few hours earlier they had wandered out of Portland International Airport, tired, grouchy and jet-lagged. However, they were all financially even better off, they had helped their client, a woman fired from a prestigious art dealership after discovering illicit artefact-smuggling from Iran, and now they were having a celebratory meal before going to their beds for a well-deserved rest. They would leave heading off to their respective homes until the next day.

Lizzie studied Eliot. She thought he looked tired, but she knew it was because he really didn’t like flying, and he never slept during the journey. She, however, felt as bright as a new pin. She slept like a log on aeroplanes.

Eliot was also beginning to sputter, which Lizzie thought was hilarious. Hardison knew exactly which buttons to push to send Eliot into an incipient rage, and the Oklahoman was well on his way to a spectacular fit of pique, Lizzie knew.

Things were beginning to get delightfully noisy when Lizzie heard something ‘ping’ under the arguing. It was a telephone ringing. Eliot stopped in mid-rant.

“Whose ‘phone is that?” Nate asked.

Eliot’s face was suddenly wary.

“Mine,” he said quietly, and standing up and pushing his chair back, he limped into his office and disconnected a small burner ‘phone from its charger.

“Must be family,” Parker stage-whispered.

They all knew Eliot now had a fragile but pleasant relationship with his folks back in Oklahoma, and he used the cell ‘phone as a contact for his sister. He normally left it in the office when he was working abroad, and hadn’t checked the ‘phone since arriving home. They all looked at one another.

Hardison realised he had never actually heard Eliot’s little private ‘phone ring before. It must be serious, he thought.

They saw Eliot through the row of windows separating the room from the main office, lifting the ‘phone and answering it. He looked worried.

“Yeah?” they heard him say, and then he paused, obviously listening to whoever was calling him. “Oh hey there, Jo!” They could hear the sudden warmth in his voice. “How are ya, darlin’?”

“Who the hell’s Joe?” Nate hissed sotto voce.

The only Joe the team knew was Joe Bartulis, the ex-marine who was one of the Brewpub’s chefs. But Joe wouldn’t be using Eliot’s private number.

“And I want to know why he’s callin’ this Joe ‘darlin’!” Hardison said, quirking a smile.

But all thoughts of the identity of the caller faded as Eliot sagged against his desk as though the breath had been knocked out of him.

“Oh Jesus,” he said, grief in every syllable. “When??” He ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair, making unruly tufts appear. He had left his ‘long hair’ phase behind several years before, and even though it wasn’t really short, it was still thick and curled around his ears.

“Did somebody die??” Parker asked loudly, and was shushed by Sophie, who desperately wanted to hear what Eliot would say.

“Jo … Jo, don’t worry. I’m on my way. I’ll be home as soon as I can,” Eliot muttered, and everyone, even Lizzie who was concerned suddenly at the pain in Eliot’s voice, wondered just what the hell was going on.

Eliot listened to the unknown caller, and then managed a soft smile.

“I’ll see you soon, sweetheart. I promise.” And ringing off, he turned and sat on the edge of his desk, wiping a hand over his stricken features. The team waited, holding their collective breaths as Eliot gathered his wits about him and stood up. He took a deep, deep breath and walked out of his office and back to the team, still clutching the cell ‘phone.

Nate chewed his lip for a moment before asking the question to which everybody wanted to know the answer.

“Is, ah … is everything okay, Eliot?”

The hitter slumped down in his chair and put the ‘phone on the table, staring at it. He then turned bleak eyes on Nate.

“No,” he said. “No. It’s not.” He turned to Hardison. “I need you to get me on a ‘plane, Alec. Soon as you can. I gotta go home.”

The young hacker studied his best friend and nodded, worried. Eliot never called him Alec. Whatever was going on with Eliot Spencer was frikkin’ frightening.

“Okay, El …” he reached for his tablet. “One flight to Will Rogers Airport comin’ up –“

“No,” Eliot said. “Not Oklahoma.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “Australia. Darwin, Australia.”

Well, thought Nate. That was unexpected.


“Australia?” Hardison blinked in confusion. “You … you want to go to Australia?

Eliot’s temper, already shredded with grief, wasn’t about to improve.

“Yeah, Hardison – Australia. You know the place … great big funny-lookin’ bit of land full of snakes an’ kangaroos an’ Australians. That Australia. Okay? An’ I have to be there like yesterday.”

Hardison suddenly noticed the strain in Eliot’s voice … and something else. Deep, deep worry. Eliot Spencer was nervous. He was worried to death about what he would find when he got to wherever-it-was in friggin’ Australia.

“Yeah, El … sure,” he replied quietly, “I’ll get you onto the best flight I can, bro. I promise.”

Eliot sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm himself.

“Eliot?” a small voice said, and the hitter suddenly realised Lizzie was watching him slowly going to pieces. “Are you alright?”

Eliot swallowed his anger and gave Lizzie his Lizzie-smile … a half-hitch of his lips that made the laughter lines around his eyes crinkle.

“I’m sorry, ‘Lizbeth Grace. Didn’t mean to upset ya, but … I just got some bad news, okay?”

Lizzie gazed up at Eliot and nodded, her dark eyes concerned.

Sophie ran her hand over Lizzie’s curls, reassuring her. Lizzie adored Eliot, and was sensitive to his feelings … which meant she probably understood the enigmatic man more than any of them.

“What can we do, Eliot? Is there anything –“

Eliot shook his head, and it was obvious to all of them that he was completely off-balance.

“I … I don’t know, Soph … I gotta think …”

“But … but I thought your family lived in Oklahoma? And I thought this was your home?” Parker asked, confused.

“Not now, Parker, okay?” Hardison mumbled, busy searching through flights.

“No … no, I don’t understand,” she insisted. “We’re your family and … and your folks’re in Oklahoma. So … how can you have family in Australia? I don’t get it –“

Parker!!” Hardison insisted quietly, “Leave it be, will ya??”

Parker’s face scrunched up as it always did when things baffled her.

“But –“

PARKER!” Sophie and Hardison said in unison, and the little thief shut her mouth, looking hurt.

Eliot tugged his hair until it began to stick up, and he sighed.

“Guys … it’s okay. I suppose it’s about time I told you.”

“Told us what?” Hardison said with a slight smile. “That you got a wife an’ six kids in a condo at Bondi Beach?”

For some reason Hardison’s flippancy broke the tension thrumming through Eliot, and his shoulders relaxed a fraction.

“No, you idiot,” he replied, a little of his growl back in place. “No … these folks … they saved my life.”

Lizzie’s eyes widened as she remembered a story Eliot had told her the previous year when they were on vacation in Crete.

“Your good wolf!” she said excitedly, “when you got that scar on your side!”*

Eliot’s gaze grew warm with memory.

“Yeah, darlin’. You got it.” He looked at each member of his team, this other family which had grown to be a part of his life over the past decade. Okay. So. Here goes. “When I left Moreau, he wasn’t too happy. Nobody left his world. But I did, an’ he made me pay. I spent seven months avoidin’ him, but then … but then some of his men cornered me in Darwin.”

Lizzie’s eyes grew round.

“They hurt you! They were really, really bad guys, huh!”

Eliot nodded.

“Yeah.” He didn’t mention that he had left all four of Moreau’s men bleeding in an alleyway. “I got away, but I was bleedin’ and hurt bad. I patched myself up and got the hell outta Dodge. But I got sick … I nearly died. Soapy an’ Jo … they saved my life. Took me in, put me back on my feet an’ set me right.”

Parker chewed the inside of her cheek as she absorbed Eliot’s words. She frowned.

“I get that, Eliot. But why didn’t you tell us?”

“Because it’s private, Parker, okay?” Nate said waspishly. Parker really didn’t understand the concept of privacy, although she could be as secretive as the rest of them.

“I know,” she said tartly. “But –“

“Moreau found them,” Eliot interrupted sharply. “Moreau found them and targeted them because of me. He sent Mason Coetzee to kill me.”

Eliot heard a hitch of breath come from Sophie and Nate. They had heard of Coetzee.

“He held ‘em hostage, hurt them and would have killed them, all because they took me in.”

The silence around the table was profound. Even Lizzie had heard of Damien Moreau, although she wasn’t aware of his history. All she knew was that he was one of her long list of ‘bad guys’ who hurt Eliot or who her family took down and made them pay for their ‘bad guy-ness’.

“What happened, El?” Hardison asked softly.

“Coetzee … he didn’t make it, and the Munros and their people are fine. But I swore on the day I left that nothin’ … nothin’ … would ever come back to hurt them because of me.” He shrugged. “An’ that’s why I never told you.”

Sophie suddenly leaned forward and squeezed Eliot’s wrist.

“You go back, don’t you? When you go and do your ‘independent’ jobs, you go back to them.”

Eliot nodded.

“Whenever I can. I go back to Wapanjara an’ I work. It’s a cattle station. I do fencing, work cattle … anything I can. I rest up, and I get to be just me for a little while. And because I go back now and again, my silence keeps them safe. But now …”

“What’s gone wrong, Eliot? How can we help?” Sophie asked.

“A good friend … Charlie Jakkamarra, he’s the station manager … he helped me back then. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known. He’s like a brother, y’know? He got married the year after I left, an’ he an’ Alice … his wife, they got a little boy not that much younger than Lizzie.” Eliot took a shaky breath full of emotion. “Alice … she, um … she was killed in a car wreck a few weeks ago. Charlie an’ Kip – their boy – are okay, but Jo’s been tryin’ to get hold of me.”

“Oh man …” Hardison whispered.

But Eliot wasn’t finished, the words coming from him in a rush.

“At first, they thought it was an accident. But now the police think her brakes were compromised somehow. She’s … was … active in tribal matters, and there’s been rumours of somebody sniffing around Warumungu land. It’s not just that, though …”

“There’s more going wrong, isn’t there?” Nate said.

Eliot nodded.

“Yeah … tainted water bores … cattle fallin’ sick … and now Soapy’s crew is beginning to leave and no-one else will work for them. This has only been goin’ on for a couple of months, and until Alice’s accident Soapy just thought it was drought problems with the cattle. But three days ago Soapy fell off the water tank housing. He’ll be okay … a couple of cracked ribs an’ bruises … but Charlie an’ me, we replaced the frame last year. It was damn’ near brand new.”

Parker was watching Nate’s face, and as she saw him digest everything Eliot was saying, a slow smile crept onto her elfin features.

“We’re going to Australia!” she crowed.

“Wait … what?” Hardison said, bewildered.

“If you want us to,” Nate said to Eliot. “We can help. If … everyone else is okay with that,” he added, checking the members of Leverage International.

Sophie looked at Lizzie, whose face was alight with anticipation. She dearly wanted to see a kangaroo. And, the little girl knew, Eliot needed them.

“I’m in,” she said, smiling at her daughter.

“Me too!!” Parker cackled, and she fidgeted with delight. Who these people were in Australia who Eliot thought of as family, she dearly wanted to know. And if Eliot thought of them as family, then they must be special. She couldn’t wait.

Hardison sat with his mouth open.

“Um …” he said.

“Well? Are you in?” Nate asked impatiently.

“Who? Me?” Hardison asked weakly.

“Yeah, Hardison. You.” Nate frowned.

“Australia?” Hardison’s eyes rounded in slight panic. “The continent entirely composed of things that bite, sting and kill-you-dead, Australia?”

“The same,” Nate said.

Hardison put down his tablet and began to gesticulate.

“Have you ever heard of Latrodectus hasselti … the Redback Spider? Or … or Oxyuranus microlepidotus … the Taipan snake? Did you know Australia has the largest number of poisonous critters in. The. WORLD? And I won’t even start on the crocodiles an’ frikkin’ sharks that swim in the rivers an’ –“

“Soooo …” Nate said soothingly, “… that’s why we take Bernadette and Oggie with us.”

“What? But Nate … they’ve only just got here from Australia!!”

“Wapanjara doesn’t have good internet access,” Eliot said, “an’ the house won’t take us all. We’ll need ‘em,” he added, warming to the idea. “The place is a hundred miles from anywhere.”

“So … that’s decided,” Nate said, satisfaction in every word. “We’ll want your geeky crap, Hardison. C’mon, man … these people need us.” He smiled. “They’re family.”

And Eliot, hurting and heart-sore, looked around at these nut-jobs who cared about him, and sighed.

“Thank you,” he said.


Eliot couldn’t sleep. He had a headache, and his right leg was sore, which only happened when he was exhausted. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Charlie and Kip. The boy was the light of his parent’s lives, and how the hell Charlie was coping without his beloved Alice, Eliot had no idea.

He had called Jo Munro and told her the team wanted to help, and she had been teary with relief. Eliot couldn’t wait to see her. He missed his Australian family so badly his chest hurt.

He shifted painfully on the big couch, and took off his spectacles to rub his eyes. He had read the same paragraph in his book half-a-dozen times and still had no idea what it said.

He checked his watch. Three-thirty-five in the morning. Some of the tiredness was jet-lag, but mostly it was worry and stress.

“Eliot?”

The tiny, sleepy voice snapped him out of his reverie and he turned to see Lizzie, comforter and pillow in tow, standing looking at him.

“Hey, ‘Lizbeth Grace, you should be in bed and sleepin’, girl!” he said quietly so as not to wake the others.

Lizzie gave her favourite hitter her best smile.

“Did you know wombat poop is like a cube?” she said.

Well, there wasn’t much he could say to that, Eliot decided.

“Lookin’ forward to Australia, huh?” he asked.

Lizzie shuffled over to the couch and crawled next to Eliot, placing her pillow against his shoulder and snuggling in. Eliot pulled the comforter over her and shifted sideways a little. Lizzie was all elbows and he didn’t want his ribs to suffer.

“So … what do you want to know?” he asked gently. Lizzie always knew when he was feeling down or sad, and also knew how to distract him by demanding stories.

Lizzie smiled up at Eliot as she settled down next to him.

“I want to know everything,” she hummed.

So, in the early hours of the morning, as the light began to tinge the horizon outside, Eliot told his god-daughter and best girl all about Wapanjara.

 

To be continued …


Author’s note:

* You can read about it in ‘The Wolf’.

Chapter Text

Hardison, now that the entire team was on board with the trip to Wapanjara, decided the easiest thing was to charter a private jet. It meant that they could catch up on their rest in comfort, especially as they were travelling halfway around the world. Again.

He was also worried about Eliot. He knew the man was fretting about these people whom it was obvious he loved deeply, and he was still worn out from the Qatar job. Although he hadn’t got into much of anything violent during their time in Doha, he had worked a substantial part of the grift involved and had very little sleep, unlike the rest of the team.

Hopefully the jet, with all of its comforts and space, would allow him some respite.

The hacker had already sent Bernadette and Oggie ahead of them, and they would be awaiting the team when they arrived at Tennant Creek airport. Hardison was secretly looking forward to working with them, he had to admit.

He sighed. He didn’t like bugs, and he hated snakes. Crocodiles … big, scaly, toothy bastards, and he didn’t even want to think about bull sharks. But … for Eliot, he decided, he would deal with it. But if he got bit by anything, the hitter would owe him big time.


It was mid-afternoon and Team Leverage was back in the air, less than twenty-four hours after landing in Portland, thinking they could relax and rest after a difficult job.

The big Gulfstream G650 climbed quickly to 40,000 feet and levelled out. The pilots held steady, and Eliot, even though flying wasn’t his favourite pastime, unbuckled his safety belt and pressed a button to lay the large seat flat. He had already pulled off his boots, and he laid his head back and closed his eyes. He had every intention of trying to sleep his way to Australia, only waking up while the ‘plane refuelled in Tokyo and then went through immigration and customs in Darwin before continuing to Tennant Creek.

But then he realised someone was watching him, and he pried open one eye. Lizzie was curling up in the seat beside him and studying him with such intensity that he frowned.

“What’re you doing, Eliot?” she asked, yawning.

Eliot shut his eye.

“Tryin’ to get some sleep here, darlin’,” he murmured, amused.

“But you don’t like sleeping on ‘planes,” she mumbled wearily, already half-asleep.

He heard Lizzie shuffling about and a hand flung itself over the seat arm and rested on his chest. The hand patted him clumsily. Eliot smiled. Lizzie had patted him since she was a baby, a way for her to satisfy herself that Eliot was okay. She knew deep down that he was stressed and worried about his Australian family, and Eliot was thankful for her care. He heard her snuffle.

“Go to sleep, ‘Lizbeth Grace. We got a long trip, an’ I’m tired.”

Lizzie’s only answer was a soft snorkle. She was out for the count. Her fingers twitched as they rested over his heart.

Eliot took a calming, deep breath, knowing his best girl was safe, and then he settled comfortably into his chair, and allowed himself to drift.

Ten minutes later Sophie wandered past with a couple of blankets and covered her daughter and her protector as they both slept soundly. She smiled. Trust Lizzie to get Eliot to rest. Shaking her head indulgently, she headed back to her team.


Tennant Creek airport was mainly used for internal flights from Darwin and Alice Springs, but could easily accommodate the Gulfstream on the longer of its two runways.

It was spring here in the remote Barkly region. Eliot had tried to explain to Lizzie about the difference in seasons between Portland and Wapanjara, but she was just delighted to find that Christmas Day in Australia was bang in the middle of summer and a barbeque was a great way to have a seasonal meal.

When Team Leverage collected their luggage and wandered out to the entrance to the airport, Hardison spotted a young man holding up a sign, ‘LEVERAGE INTERNATIONAL INC.’ He grinned.

“That’s our ride, people!” he said to Nate, who blinked at him tiredly. How the hell Hardison could be so cheerful after two days on an aeroplane, he had no idea. And now there was more sitting down and being jolted about to go, if Eliot’s description of the road to Wapanjara Station was accurate. He narrowed his eyes. Hardison was looking ‘waaaay too smug if the white smile and merry dark gaze were anything to go by.

As the young man grinned, said ‘G’day’ and led them outside, Lizzie gasped with delight.

There, sitting majestically in the roomy parking lot, were Bernadette and Oggie.

Hardison gave the young man a tip after the lad dropped a set of keys into the hacker’s palm, and then danced forward and flung himself on Bernadette’s gleaming black hood.

“Hello baby!!” he crooned, and patted her sleek paintwork. “How’s my girl?”

Bernadette* looked like a huge pick-up truck which had been designed by paranoid ex-military types who thought the zombie apocalypse was upon them. There was nothing rounded or ergonomic about Bernadette. She was big, angular and covered in grilles and winches and compartments tucked into every nook and cranny. She had a heavyweight roof rack and what looked like a built-in collapsible tent on the rear. Two spare all-terrain tires sat at the back, and her dual cab would take all of them reasonably comfortably.

All in all, Eliot thought as he took his first look at the vehicle, she was one bad-ass piece of shit. He had known about her, of course, and was party to Hardison’s detailed requirements for her build, but hell … she was somethin’ to behold.

Her sidekick, Oggie, was attached to her tow-bar, and was painted the same shade of black. To call Oggie a trailer would have been an insult. Built along the same lines as Bernadette’s thuggish design, Oggie was a whole lot of attitude stuffed into a rectangular box-shape which contained a fully functional kitchen and a huge fold-down tent. He carried emergency supplies, a military-standard first-aid kit, a refrigerator … the works. Hardison had also modified Oggie to be his geek-mobile, with state-of-the-art hardware and advanced – and probably purloined from the NSA – computer systems.

“Hmmm …” Nate said, studying the brutal-looking vehicles. “They’re not exactly inconspicuous, Hardison. ‘Way to go on the ‘we’re trying to meld into the background’ plan, huh.”

Hardison waved a dismissive hand.

“Well, now we’re ‘international’, we needed somethin’ that can take us anyplace. So,” he gestured at Bernadette and Oggie, “that’s what we’ve got.”

“Dibs I sleep in Bernadette’s tent!” Parker squeaked, delighted.

“You got it, babe!” Hardison said smugly.

“Can I get in, Alec? Please???” Lizzie said breathlessly, overwhelmed by Bernadette’s sheer bulk.

“Why, sure you can, baby-girl,” he replied, and opening the door to the rear seats he helped her clamber in. She bounced down on the leather seat and a Cheshire cat grin widened on her face.

Sophie had to smile at her daughter’s delight. However, they had more travelling to do.

“Can we please get going? I’m tired and we have a long way to go, so …”

Hardison’s grin widened even further.

“Your wish is my command, my lady,” he purred, and with Nate and Eliot’s help, stowed their luggage in one of Oggie’s numerous bins and they were ready.

“Before we leave town, there’s a couple of places I gotta go,” Eliot said as he clambered into the front passenger seat. Nate, Sophie, Parker and Lizzie crammed themselves into the rear seats. It was snug, but they would manage well enough. “An’ Hardison …” Eliot rasped as he glared at the hacker. “Remember you drive on the other side of the road, okay??”

Hardison looked affronted.

“Yeah, Eliot, I know, I know! I’ve done this before,” he added, inserting the key and turning on Bernadette’s V8 engine. The big vehicle rumbled to herself, purring like a mechanical panther. Hardison hummed happily. “C’mon gorgeous … let’s show Mr Punchy what you can do.” And easing into gear, Hardison drove Bernadette and Oggie out of the parking lot and onto the road towards the centre of Tennant Creek.

DAMMIT, HARDISON!!” Eliot yelled and clutched his safety belt.

“Oops … sorry …”

And Bernadette swerved back onto the left-hand side of the road.


A few minutes later, they found themselves at one of a row of small lock-up garages at the rear of the airport.

“Why –“ Hardison began.

Eliot unbuckled his belt, opened the door and slid out.

“Back in a sec,” he said.

Fishing a set of keys out of his pocket, Eliot unlocked the garage and disappeared inside, only to appear five minutes later pushing an old Ducati motorbike and wearing a helmet. Locking the door, he sat astride the bike and turned the ignition key, the engine growling into life.

Nate scrambled out of the rear seat and into the front next to Hardison, and then Eliot eased the Ducati ahead of Bernadette. Waving a hand in a ‘follow me’ gesture, Eliot led his team out onto the Stuart Highway, and headed south into the land of big, open skies and endless, lonely vistas.


After another stop in Tennant Creek to pick up provisions, Eliot rode along the highway for a few miles and then slowed and turned onto a single-track asphalt road to the right.

“Jeez … this looks interesting,” Hardison muttered as he manoeuvred Bernadette and Oggie onto the road and followed Eliot, who looked perfectly at home in this wilderness.

The landscape was one of Mitchell grass, mulga and strange, red-orange spiky mounds, and Lizzie opened the window so she could get a better view. It was a hot day, certainly into the eighties, but the warm, balmy breeze that wafted into the truck carried the scent of earth and eucalyptus, and Lizzie grinned with happiness. She was in Australia.

She pointed at the mounds and turned to her mother and Parker, who were peering past her at the view.

“Those are full of termites!” Lizzie said gleefully. “Thousands and thousands and thousands!

Hardison glared at the mounds. They seemed to be everywhere. Did termites bite? He had no idea.

And he nearly ran into Eliot as the hitter slowed his bike to rattle over a cattle grid beside a sign which read ‘Wapanjara Station’. The road instantly turned from asphalt to red dirt, but Eliot didn’t seem to take any notice of the rough surface and picked up speed.

“What the hell is it with Eliot an’ havin’ to be in the back of nowhere?” Hardison grumbled, and then had to slow down again as Eliot gesticulated urgently to his right.

“Oh mama!” Hardison breathed. “Lizzie … kangaroos!!”

And there, bounding alongside the fence of what they would later find out was the south paddock, were three kangaroos, moving effortlessly and easily keeping pace with Bernadette.

Lizzie yelled with delight. They were absolutely everything she had hoped they would be. She had, of course, seen pictures and programmes on television, but nothing … nothing … compared to seeing them in their natural habitat, as much a part of the landscape as the plants and trees and termite mounds.

Curly hair blowing in the draught, she pointed at the leader of the group, an enormous male, tail balancing his powerful body as each leap covered at least twenty-five feet of the uneven ground.

“That’s a boomer!” She shouted over the noise of the wind.

“A what?” Parker bawled back, entranced. She thought she had never seen anything so wonderful.

“That’s a big boy kangaroo!” Lizzie explained.

Sophie smiled to herself. Lizzie had always wanted to visit Australia, and when Eliot had mentioned the previous year that he had visited the country, she had been doing her research with surprising alacrity for a six-year-old. She loved reading – something she shared with Eliot – and Hardison had helped her do some searching on-line. And now Sophie saw all of that research come to fruition. Lizzie was in her element.

And for the rest of the drive to Wapanjara homestead, Lizzie stared out of the window, spotting a small group of emus as they trotted away from the noise of the vehicles. She saw a pair of dingoes slouching through the grass, which thrilled her beyond belief, and was even more delighted when another group of kangaroos bounded away into the bush, tails beautifully balanced as they moved.

For the rest of her long, adventurous life, Elizabeth Grace Ford never forgot this first drive to Wapanjara. It was everything she had hoped for and more, and it was then she knew in her heart that she would never settle for what others thought of as ‘normal’.


Two hours into the drive along this uneven dirt road Hardison tooled Bernadette and Oggie up a small hill, a stand of stringybark trees adorning the top and dotted here and there with acacias.

The sun was beginning to set, and he saw Eliot pull the Ducati to the side of the road at the summit and stop. He got off the bike, put it up on its kick-bar and took off his helmet.

“Now what is he up to?” the hacker muttered, but nevertheless he brought Bernadette to a stop behind the Ducati, and the team eased themselves out of the big truck and stiffly went to stand beside Eliot.

The hitter looked at his friends and pointed.

“That’s Wapanjara,” he said.

And below them, spread out amongst the trees and bush, was a neat homestead, the glitter of water shining amid the gum trees, and behind it rose low, beautiful hills fading into an endless horizon.

“We’re staying there?? Really??” Lizzie asked, her brown eyes huge with astonishment.

Eliot grinned and crouched down beside her.

“Okay … now, there …” he pointed at the bigger of the two houses, “… that’s where Soapy, Jo and Effie live. We’ll put Bernadette there in the yard beside the house. And there …” his hand moved to a big building and a series of smaller ones surrounded by what looked like a patchwork of fences and gates. She could see a few animals … cows, she thought … standing resting in the shade. “That’s the barn and the cattle yards,” he said. “You don’t go there unless someone grown-up goes with you, okay? And that house there …” he pointed at a neat bungalow about five hundred yards from the main house, “… that’s where Charlie an’ Alice –“ he stopped himself just in time. “That’s where Charlie an’ Kip live. Charlie manages the station. You’ll like him a lot. Kip’s maybe seven months younger than you, ‘Lizbeth Grace.” Eliot smiled sadly. “I haven’t seen them in almost two years.”

As Lizzie stared at Wapanjara, Eliot straightened and looked at his friends.

“It’s beautiful,” Parker sighed. “Lots of trees to climb too,” she added happily.

“Yeah … it’s beautiful,” Eliot agreed. “This is my true home. Wherever I am, I know I can come here and live out my life with no worries.” He took a hitching breath. “This is where I’ll die, an’ this is where I’ll be buried.”

And turning away from them, he put his helmet on and clipped the chinstrap. Swinging himself onto the seat, he pushed the bike off its kick-stand and started the engine.

“You people comin’ or what?” he asked. And pulling down his visor, he put the old bike into gear and set off slowly down the hill, taking his time now as though to absorb the timelessness of Wapanjara, as well as deal with what he had to face.

“Well, looks as though this is it,” Nate said quietly. “Guys … when we stop, let’s give Eliot a few moments, okay? Let him meet his folks … touch base. Then we can say Hi.”

Parker, who was buzzing with excitement at the chance to meet these people who meant such a lot to Eliot, nodded reluctantly, but she swallowed her disappointment and agreed. Eliot needed a little space, she knew.

So they all piled back into Bernadette, and Hardison drove the huge truck down the long incline to Wapanjara, into the setting sun and the beauty of this stark and ancient land.


They were waiting for him on the veranda.

Soapy and Jo had heard the familiar rumble of the Ducati’s engines, and rising from their seats in the shade, they stood and waited as Eliot halted the bike, put it on its stand and stepped off, unfastening his helmet and removing it.

“Happy now, old girl?” Soapy whispered softly. “Our boy’s come home.”

Jo looked up at her husband, his hair greyer than it used to be but the black eyes sparkling with happiness.

“Always, love … always.”

And then she was darting down the steps to meet the American, still sprightly despite her nearly seventy years.

Eliot’s face broke into a wide, happy grin and he opened his arms to gather her to his chest.

“Jo … we got here as soon as we could …” he whispered brokenly, and then he buried his face in her silver curls, still shot through with auburn. He felt her hiccupping sobs against his shirt.

“Oh Eliot … it’s been terrible. I’m so glad you came …”

Eliot barely held back his own tears, but then he felt Soapy’s hand on his arm and he let go of Jo and pulled the little pastoralist into his hug.

They stood comforting each other, until Bernadette and Oggie rumbled into the yard and pulled up under the gum trees beside the orchard.

Eliot reluctantly let go of the Munros and wiped his eyes with his jacket sleeve. He was damned if he was going to let Hardison take the piss out of him for what the hacker might think were tears. Which, of course, they weren’t. At all.

Soapy winced as his sore ribs twinged, and Eliot saw the bruises on his left forearm below the rolled-up sleeve.

“You’re okay, right? Jo? He’s alright, isn’t he?”

Jo, still a little weepy, patted Eliot’s arm.

“He’s fine. We’ll tell you all about it after we’ve had some tea.”

Tea, in Jo’s opinion, would sort out the end of the world if required, although it might take a couple of teapots-worth.

“Bloody hell! That’s a beast of a thing!” Soapy said admiringly as he studied Bernadette and Oggie.

“Yeah,” Eliot agreed, “but don’t tell Hardison. We’ll never hear the last of it.” He grinned ruefully at these two people who he loved dearly. “Want to meet them?” he added, as the rest of his team … his family … got out of the truck and waited, letting Eliot take the lead on the situation.

“Oh, yes please!” Jo said, and smiled brightly at the visitors.

Eliot waved at the rest of Team Leverage, and for the first time, Eliot’s non-biological family were as one.

As Soapy shook hands and introduced himself, Jo studied these people who were so much a part of Eliot’s life. She knew who they were, of course. Eliot spoke of them constantly when he was home, and she knew they meant the world to him, although she suspected he didn’t tell them so.

There was a sadness in Nate Ford, she thought. She knew of the loss of his son, and his marriage to this beautiful, elegant, kind woman called Sophie Devereaux had probably been the saving of him. But his blue eyes were warm with pleasure as he was introduced and she knew instinctively she had done the right thing to call Eliot for help.

Now the fair-haired slip of a girl called Parker intrigued her. Eliot had tried his best to explain about Parker. There was a child-like quality about her … something that was slightly odd in that she didn’t see the world as others saw it, but Jo also saw the intelligence, shrewdness and strength in the girl’s eyes, and liked her immediately. He could see why Eliot regarded her as the little sister he never had.

Hardison. Here was a boy who carried his heart on his sleeve. He was … what was the word Eliot used? Geeky. Hardison was a nerd. Which meant, apparently, that he spent a lot of his time with computers, which were mysterious and unknown creatures to Jo. But she instantly loved his open heart and big smile, and she sensed the inherent gentleness in him.

Both he and Parker were good for Eliot, she knew. They tempered him … grounded him. And with the steadiness of the two older members of the team, she knew in her heart that he had done the right thing when he settled down to work with them.

And then … there was Lizzie.

“Well now,” she said as she saw the little girl look up at her with brown eyes so like her mother’s, “you must be Lizzie. Welcome to Wapanjara, Lizzie.”

Lizzie studied Jo’s extended hand and then shook it carefully. She had never shaken anyone’s hand before. She looked into Jo’s green eyes and smiled.

“We saw kangaroos!” she said with wonder in her voice.

Jo chuckled.

“We have lots of those around here,” she said, “and you’ll probably see lots more things you’ve never seen before,” she added, amused.

Lizzie was just about to tell Jo about all of the other animals and birds she had seen when suddenly the internal door to the house swung open and a small, white hairy dog shot out and took the veranda steps three at a time, quite a feat for its short, stumpy legs. Roaring its yelpy ferocious-sounding barks it jumped at Eliot, who bent down and gave the noisy thing some rough rubs, making the creature wriggle with pleasure.

“Easy, Buster!” he said, and the dog flopped down on its back in the dust, legs flailing as Eliot rubbed a pink, chubby stomach.

Lizzie was enchanted. She loved dogs and had always wanted one but their itinerant lifestyle didn’t allow it.

But before she could make a move to go and say hello, a coarse voice came from the veranda.

“Well, Yank! It’s about bloody time you came home!! I heard your noisy bastard of a bike from a mile away, so I did, so why haven’t you come and said hello? Hey?”

Eliot gazed up at the small, rotund old woman standing on the veranda, grey hair pulled back in a bun and muddy eyes sparking with something which could have been ire or amusement. Nate, looking at her with amazement, couldn’t tell which.

“C’mon, you cheeky mongrel, aren’t you going to introduce me?” she growled. “These poor buggers look as though they could do with tea and cake, so hurry up and get the intros over with, you bludger! I’ve got lamingtons waiting!”

Eliot winced at the language, and then sighed. Lizzie’s precious ears would have to cope.

“Guys … meet Effie,” he said.

 

To be continued …


 Author’s note:

*If you would like to know what Bernadette and Oggie look like, go here.

Chapter Text


They ate dinner together on the veranda, just as the full moon filled the clear night and the cicadas thrummed in the scented air.

Lizzie sat and ate the delicious roast lamb Effie had produced, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the world outside the veranda. There was no sound of traffic … no street lights and no background noise. She heard a faint howl in the distance, and shivered with delight when Soapy smiled at her and told her it was a pack of dingoes singing in the night.

“So …” Eliot said quietly, “… what happened?”

“You mean Alice? Dear god, Eliot …” Jo said, her face suddenly struck with grief. She glanced at Lizzie for a moment, but Sophie smiled reassuringly.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Munro … we hide nothing from Lizzie. We tell her the truth. We …ah … adjust things, slightly, if we have to, but in general we don’t shut her out. The life we lead? It’s safer, and she knows we will protect her with our lives. So please, don’t worry about discussing this. She’ll be fine.”

Jo relaxed slightly, and smiled.

“Please … it’s Jo. Jo and Soapy. Any friends of Eliot are welcome here. And he’s told us so much about you, we feel as though we know you already –“

Hardison grinned, his eyebrows raised.

“You mean Mister Grumpy Butt told you about us??” Hardison shook his head even as Lizzie giggled at his teasing tone. “Oh man … you do care!”

Eliot scowled, but before he could speak Parker poked the hitter in the ribs.

“OW!” Eliot yelped, and rubbed the poked place, which was the nerve lying between the lower ribs on his right side. “What the hell was that for, Parker?”

“You should have told us, silly!” But even as she scolded Eliot, the little thief smiled gently at him. “We could have come sooner. I like it here,” she added, noticing Lizzie slipping Buster a morsel of lamb.

Eliot raised an eyebrow and glared at Parker.

“Yeah, well, just you wait until you see how many horses we got here!” he rasped, as he finished his last piece of carrot and laid down his fork and knife.

Horses?” Parker squeaked, and shuddered. But she took a deep breath and steadied herself. “They’re not so bad,” she said, trying to tough it out.

“You don’t like horses?” Soapy said, puzzled. How could anyone not like horses?

“It’s a long story,” Nate muttered, and smiled at Effie as she lifted his empty plate.

Then the little cook reached for Eliot’s plate and gave him a gentle slap to the back of his head in passing.

Dammit, Effie –“ he winced, and lifted his plate to hand it to her.

“So Missy don’t like nags! I’m not so keen on the buggers either, so that’s fine by me!” Effie grumbled, and Parker grinned at Eliot in triumph.

Hardison pushed his chair back and stood up, and then began to help Effie gather up plates.

“Let me help you there, Effie …” he murmured, and the little cook studied the tall young man.

“Well now, sunbeam, you get the plates, and I’ll go get dessert. Don’t drop ‘em, laddie, or I’ll smack you silly, y’hear?”

Hardison smiled down at Effie, who barely came up to his chest.

“Yes ma’am … I hear ya,” he answered dutifully, and as Effie headed off to the kitchen, he looked at his friends who were gazing at him with a mixture of disbelief and disdain. “What?” he asked. “She’s … well, she’s just like my Nana … only, like … well, a hundred times more Nana than Nana,” he explained sheepishly. And off he went, plates carefully balanced, into the kitchen after Effie.


Soapy and Jo told the team everything.

As they worked their way through Effie’s apple cobbler, redolent with cinnamon and nutmeg and served with rich, yellow cream, Soapy gave them a rundown of what had been happening at Wapanjara.

“It all began with the water bore in the north paddock,” he said. “A few months ago it began to run a bit cloudy and then slightly brown, and the cattle became lethargic and a few of ‘em died. The vet said it was because the water was tainted with dioxin, with traces of chlorine … antimony, even arsenic. It was traced to a titanium mine about fifteen miles north and their heavy metal treatment had seeped into the aquifer which feeds into our water supply. They fixed the problem – or so they say – but the water still isn’t right, I’m pretty sure.”

Eliot looked at Nate.

“I’ll take a look out there as soon as I can. Hardison … can you check out the mining company?”

Hardison nodded.

“Yeah … let me get my gear set up in the morning and I can do some digging.”

Soapy sighed.

“The Albany Mining Company,” he said. “Owned by some bloke called Troy Rickenbacker. He’s from your neck of the woods, Eliot … he’s from Texas. He bought over the land about six months ago. It’s right next to Wapanjara and borders tribal land too, and ever since they began mining things have been a bit wonky out here.”

“Wonky how?” Nate asked.

Soapy shrugged.

“After the cattle getting sick, we began having trouble with wrecked fences. Oh, it was nothing obvious, like cut wire, or anything like that. But there was a lot more damage than usual. Posts dragged out of the ground … rabbit wire peeled back, that sort of thing. And then my crew began leaving.”

Eliot frowned.

“But most of the guys have been here for years,” he said, puzzled.

“Yeah – they’re good blokes, and that’s the thing. It was just one or two here and there … they suddenly had family problems and had to go home, or they had a job offer from somewhere else, they said. Or simply that they wanted to move on. I can’t argue with that,” Soapy said, and Eliot could hear the hurt in his voice. “But they seemed desperate to be gone. And what’s more, I can’t seem to hire on any stockmen to replace them.” He shook his head. “I’ve got fatstock to go, Eliot, and I don’t have the crew to muster ‘em. I’ve got bills to pay, and although I can keep going for a while, I can’t survive in the long run if this keeps going on. And then …”

“And then some bastard killed our girl!” Effie swore, her voice full of venom laced with grief.

“I … um … I don’t mean to be rude,” Nate said gently, “but is it certain that Alice’s death wasn’t an accident?”

“Yes … I’m sure,” Jo said, her voice hitching. “The brake cables on her ute weren’t cut, but they were very worn and they failed as she drove down a track out at Jalkaji Point. But Charlie had replaced the brakes and cables only two months before. There was no way they would have given out so quickly.”

Eliot’s blue eyes became sombre.

“How’re Charlie and Kip?”

“As you’d expect them to be,” Soapy replied. “Charlie’s trying to hold it together for Kip’s sake, and the boy hardly speaks. It’s like somebody kicked the soul out of the pair of them. He’d be here tonight to welcome you, but he’s still got family at the bungalow and he needs to be there.”

“What about the water tank?” Parker asked. She had seen the big, cylindrical tank when they had arrived, and taken in the steel framing around it.

That’s another thing,” Soapy said. “The supply to the house suddenly got a bit iffy, so off I went to see what was blocking the intake. I climbed up there to check water levels, as you do. The bloody frame suddenly gave way. Which it shouldn’t have done ‘cause Eliot and Charlie replaced most of it last year. ”

Jo clasped his hand with hers.

“Luckily he hadn’t climbed very far,” she said. “When he fell he gave himself a bit of a knock on the noggin, cracked a couple of ribs and bruised himself silly.” She turned green eyes on Eliot, who looked as grim as she had ever seen him. “I don’t want to repeat the ride to Tennant Creek to the hospital any time soon. He’s a crabby old beggar when he’s concussed,” she added with a weak smile.

The team looked at one another, and all of them could see the silent, stony fury on Eliot’s face. This was the face they only saw when one of his own was hurt.

“’Lizbeth Grace? How’d you like to go for a walk an’ meet Charlie and Kip?” he said curtly.

Lizzie, now quietly scratching Buster’s scruff and sending the little terrier into paroxysms of delight, nodded eagerly. She was tired and full of Effie’s delicious food, but a walk before bedtime sounded like a good idea.

“Can we go now?” she asked eagerly.

Eliot nodded, and he got to his feet.

“Effie, leave the dishes until I get back. You pulled the stops out for us tonight, an’ I’ll –“

“No, Eliot. We’ll help Effie,” Sophie said, her voice soft with concern. “It’s the least we can do after such a lovely meal.”

Effie looked at these people who had come to help and to find out who had hurt her loved ones, and her muddy eyes were suddenly glistening with tears.

“Righto, Duchess,” she whispered, and turned to Lizzie. “Come with me, nipper,” she said, her voice gruff with emotion. “Let’s get Charlie and the little ‘un something for a treat, hey?”

Lizzie smiled and followed Effie into the kitchen, and returned a minute later with a bag.

“Effie says I have to give Kip these,” she said, holding up the bag. “His favourites.” And then she was off, following in Eliot’s wake as he headed down the veranda steps with an enthusiastic Buster in tow.


The walk only took ten minutes or so, but Lizzie was entranced by the whole experience.

Eliot took it slowly, both because Lizzie’s legs struggled to keep up otherwise and his own right leg was aching like a sonofabitch as it did when he was very tired. Not badly enough to make him use his stick*, but he would be glad of the hot water bottles Effie would nag him to use when he retired for the night.

As Lizzie clutched the bag of Anzac biscuits she was to give to Kip, she was amazed by the clarity and ghost-like presence of the moonlight. The night was rimmed with moon-silver, the trees stark and magical in the limpid light. The world was quiet, and she could hear clearly the sound of her boots and Eliot’s on the track to the bungalow, and fireflies left trails of cold light here and there in the clear, dry air.

A pair of eyes suddenly glowed in the undergrowth, and she let out a sudden hitching breath of fear. But Eliot laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and she grinned happily as a possum ambled across the track, minding his own business until Buster let out a grumbly bark of warning to the creature, who huffed and sped up to a slow trot as it forced its way into an acacia bush.

An old woman was waiting for them on the stoop of the small bungalow, standing in the light above the veranda.

Lizzie thought she had never seen anyone so old. She was tiny, and her skin seemed ten sizes too large for her. Her hair was absolutely snow white and cropped close to her scalp, but her eyes were dark, shining with knowledge and intelligence, and Lizzie wondered who she was.

Eliot’s hand came back to rest on Lizzie’s shoulder, this time holding her back.

“Stand still, ‘Lizbeth Grace.” His voice was low and calm.

“Why?” Lizzie asked curiously.

When Eliot replied she could hear the respect in his voice.

“So she can see us and decide if we’re to be invited to visit. It’s good manners,” he explained.

So Lizzie stood straight and still, doing as Eliot asked, and after a minute or two the ancient woman lifted a hand and beckoned them to come closer.

“Now,” Eliot continued, “Auntie won’t speak to you, okay? You can speak to her, but don’t expect her to answer you with words. She’s not allowed, because someone in her family has died. “

Lizzie looked up at Eliot, her eyes round.

“Alice?”

“Uh-huh,” Eliot murmured. “But you can’t say her name. That’s hurtful to those she left behind, and it’s rude and disrespectful. So just be quiet and mindful, alright?”

“Okay,” Lizzie breathed.

“We’ll speak to Charlie out here so we don’t intrude. C’mon then.” And Eliot led the way, Lizzie walking silently beside him, a subdued Buster alongside her. She clutched the bag of biscuits tightly.

And then Charlie Jakkamarra was there, walking through the door and out into the neat yard in front of his house.

“Eliot Spencer of the Aniwaya … it’s good to see you, brother!”

And before Eliot could respond, Charlie was hugging him as though Eliot’s mere presence could drive the pain of loss away.

Eliot held his friend tightly, rubbing Charlie’s back, the young stockman taking refuge in the American’s comfort.

“Hey, kukkaji**, it’s good to be back. I’ve brought them with me this time.” Eliot let go of Charlie, and the younger man wiped tears from his face with his sleeve. “We’re gonna find out what happened, Charlie. I promise.”

“She’s gone away, Eliot … she left me and the boy, and I don’t know … I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what she was doing up at Jalkaji Point. She was ‘way out there in the middle of nowhere and I don’t know why.” Charlie took a deep, shaky breath. “Anyway …” he looked down at Lizzie, who stared back at him. “I take it this is Lizzie. Hi, Lizzie,” he said and offered her a hand to shake.

Lizzie, now laid-back about this hand-shaking thing, did just that and then held up the bag.

“Effie said I was to give you this,” she said.

Charlie gave a flash of a white smile, and turned to the old lady on the stoop.

“Auntie … Eliot and Lizzie have brought something for Kip.”

And without a sound the old woman disappeared into the house and returned a few seconds later with a little boy in tow. She gestured at Charlie.

“C’mere, Kip. Look who’s arrived!” Charlie called out.

The boy was small for his age, but then, Eliot thought, neither Charlie nor Alice were tall and were slight in build. He smiled at the little boy, who made his way over to them to stand beside his father. Eliot felt a deep, deep pang in his heart as he studied Kip’s blond curly hair, a relic of his mother’s ancient Melanesian ancestors. The contrast of his fair hair with his dark skin was striking, and Eliot’s heart lurched. He was so like his mother. Kip’s big, almost-black eyes took in Lizzie, who smiled at him and offered him the bag.

“Hi. I’m Lizzie. Effie sent these for you.”

Kip hesitantly took the bag, and gave Lizzie a little smile. Opening the bag, he reached in and brought out a biscuit, and then offered the bag to Lizzie, who, being a bottomless pit when it came to food, took an Anzac biscuit and tucked in, despite having just eaten a two-course dinner.

Kip looked up at his father and then back to Lizzie.

“We’ve got a new foal. Wanna see her?” he asked shyly.

Lizzie took a deep intake of breath and then looked up at Eliot, desperate pleading in her eyes.

Eliot sighed dramatically.

“If you don’t, I’ll never hear the last of it. Go, you little terror, an’ listen to Kip – he’s knows about new momma horses an’ you don’t, so be careful, y’hear?”

“Yes!!” Lizzie hissed quietly and punching the air – Eliot would be having words with Hardison about that - and Kip grinned at her.

And before either men could say anything, the two children and one small, hairy dog headed off to the small paddock behind the house.

But Eliot’s smile faded and he studied Charlie, seeing the lines of grief deep in his face and the normally cheery visage riven with sorrow. He rested a hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

“C’mon, man … let’s have a beer an’ you can tell me what you can. Because I tell you now … we’ll get the bastards who did this.”

Charlie Jakkamarra nodded, and led the way towards the veranda where they sat down, and then he told Eliot all about how some unknown person had killed his wife.


The morning dawned bright and clear, and the sound of fluting magpies cut like crystal through the air as they bickered and chatted in the old almond stand beyond Jo’s beautiful little garden.

The entrance to the expandable tent on Bernadette’s roof unzipped, and Parker’s tousled head peered out. She yawned noisily, and then sat with her feet dangling over Bernadette’s roof. Closing her eyes for a moment, she took a couple of deep, lung-expanding breaths of the fresh, crisp air, and then still in her pyjamas, dropped to the ground and did a couple of back-flips to stretch stiff muscles.

She stood up and rotated her head to loosen the muscles in her neck, and then checked on her team.

The door to Oggie’s vast family tent was tightly zipped. Okay then … Nate, Sophie and Lizzie were still sound asleep, and probably wouldn’t be awake for quite a while. She had no idea about Hardison, but the fact that he wasn’t busy under the awning working with his built-in banks of computer-y stuff meant that he was probably still a-bed, snoring softly in the guest room in the low, comfortable house.

The reason, Parker knew, that Hardison had the guest room and not Eliot, whose room the ’guest room’ actually was, was because Eliot had chosen to sleep on the veranda on a fold-down bed. Why he had done this, Parker didn’t know, but she supposed it might be because he could keep an eye on everything from there.

But Eliot was nowhere to be seen. The bed was neatly made and three hot-water-bottles lay on the pillow.

Huh, she thought. His leg’s bothering him. And then she heard the clatter of pans coming from the cavernous kitchen, and of course, that was where Eliot would be, cooking breakfast and helping Effie.

She padded barefoot across the yard towards the veranda, and then her gaze was caught once more by the big water tank, set away from the house for safety, its metal frame gleaming in the sun. Soapy’s fall intrigued her.

So Parker changed her tack and headed northwards to the water tank, gazing up at all twenty feet of it, and studied the frame. Soapy was too old to be clambering about on the thing, she decided, and so it was up to her to check it out. Anyway, her skin was itching to get climbing again, and although the thing wasn’t high at all and it had a supposedly solid and easy frame around it, it was, Parker decided, better than nothing for now.

She was just passing the kitchen door in the side of the house when it opened and Effie stumped out.

“The Yank sez you’re goin’ to climb that bloody thing,” she said without any preamble, gesturing at the water tank with her stubbly chin.

Parker gave Effie a cheery grin.

“Oh yes,” she said. “That’s what I do.”

Effie screwed up her face in thought, and then pointed at Parker.

“You don’t move, Missy. I’ll be back in a sec.” But she was only gone for a few seconds and then she was back, and she threw a small paper bag at Parker, who caught it deftly. “These need eating up and they’ll keep you goin’ until brekkie,” she muttered. “And if you fall off that bloody tank like Mister M, don’t come crawlin’ to me to set your broken neck.”

Parker had a quick peek in the bag. Anzacs! She had discovered she loved the sweet, sticky things. Perfect climbing food.

“Yum!” she said, and grinned her thanks.

As Effie turned back into the kitchen, Parker heard her grumble to herself.

“There’s something wrong with that girl!” she muttered, and then she heard Eliot snort in agreement.

But right now Parker had a Thing to do.

By the time she had reached the base of the tank, she was set. She had studied the frame, and her innate sense of strength and weakness in structures was niggling at her.

Holding the bag of Anzacs with her teeth, she set her foot on the first cross-bar and swarmed up the side of the tank. Working her way around all four sides, she studied each join carefully and methodically, beginning with the cross-bar that had given way under Soapy’s weight. She looked at the slightly askew steel section and frowned.

“Hmm,” she said and scowled.

It didn’t take her long to check the whole thing, and then she slipped her legs through the frame and hung upside down, hair hanging and shimmering in the slight breeze. Opening the paper bag, she pulled out one of the two Anzacs and munched on it thoughtfully.

“Hey, Parker,” Eliot said, and Parker stared at the hitter standing at the base of the tank. “Find anything?”

Parker swallowed another mouthful of goopy deliciousness and nodded.

“Acid,” she said.

“Where?” Eliot asked.

“Here and there. In the soldered joints. Probably a nitric acid solution just to weaken the frame.” Parker pulled out the other Anzac and licked the sticky surface. “It was just a matter of time, really. Someone was going to fall off this thing sooner or later when the joints gave way. Soapy, Charlie … you.”

“Damn,” Eliot said to himself.

“Oh, and another thing,” Parker said as she decided which bit of the biscuit she would take a bite out of first. “We’re being watched,” she added.

Eliot’s body stiffened but he didn’t react.

“Where?”

“’Bout three-quarters of a mile away, beside some kind of pond. Someone in a tree with a scope. Not binoculars.”

“Ex-military, probably,” Eliot said, thinking it through. “Okay, Parker – get down from there before that thing falls apart around you. We gotta talk to the others.”

And Parker, easing her legs free and holding the Anzac between her teeth, eased over and worked her way off the tank, dropping down beside Eliot.

Taking the Anzac from her mouth she grinned up at the hitter.

“I like it here,” she said, repeating what she had said the previous night. “Let’s go eat!”

 

To be continued …


Author’s notes:

* Read ‘Too Late The Hero’ to find out about Eliot’s walking stick.

** ‘kukkaji’ – Warumungu for ‘little brother’ or ‘younger brother’.

Chapter Text


“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Soapy said with disbelief. “Acid??”

“Yep,” Parker said as she helped herself to pancakes and Effie’s homemade sausages. “Not enough to eat right through the steel, but enough to weaken the crossbars. Easy to do, and no noise. Somebody snuck in when no-one was about – and if you have no cowboys, then there’s nothing to stop someone creeping in at night, maybe. I could do it. Easy-peasy.”

“Stockmen,” Eliot grouched. “Not cowboys, Parker. There’s a difference.”

“What kind of difference?” Parker asked, mystified. “They ride horses, herd cows … same thing.”

Eliot sighed. Patience, Spencer … have patience

“Look … back home they’re called cowboys or cowhands … here they’re called stockmen, and in South America they’re gauchos … just different names for folks who work cattle. In the States they use a lasso, gauchos use a bolas … here we use a stock whip.”

“But why?” Parker asked.

“They just are, Parker, okay??” Eliot’s temper was taking a hit this morning, to the delight of his team, and Jo had great difficulty keeping her laughter under control. Now she understood why Eliot loved these people – they drove him crazy, loved him to bits and he was absolutely convinced that without him they would all be chalk-marks on the sidewalk. “I’m gonna go see my girl,” he muttered abruptly under his breath. “She don’t talk all kinds of crap, an’ I get more sense from her than from the whole bunch of you put together.” He then realised, far too late, that he had let something slip that would make his life a misery, at least for the next hour or so. Shit.

Hardison’s ears perked up.

“Girl? What girl?”

“None of your business, Hardison,” Eliot replied, eyebrows drawn down in a frown. He poured himself some coffee and spooned some more of Effie’s honey onto his pancakes.

“Eliot has a girlfriend?” Lizzie said, horrified.

Darn it Lizzie –“

“Where does she live? Are you going to introduce us? What’s her name?” Parker babbled, picking up on Eliot’s ire.

“You never said anything about a girl, Eliot,” Nate joined in, grinning.

“Why does Eliot need a girlfriend??” Lizzie asked. “He’s got us!” she added tartly, and Hardison sniggered.

“Now, darling.” Sophie said, “leave Eliot alone. If he wants a girlfriend then he can have one. It’s not up to us to tell him –“

“No, it ain’t!!” Eliot retorted, his voice raising a couple of notes as it always did when he was being verbally cornered by his so-called friends.

“So,” Sophie continued serenely, “what’s her name?”

“Do you guys know who this lady is?” Hardison asked Soapy and Jo. Luckily they both had mouthfuls of food, so Hardison turned to Effie. “So … is she pretty? Blonde? Brunette? ‘Cause Eliot likes both. Or a red-head?”

Effie’s muddy eyes glinted with amusement, even though her face was in its perpetual scowl. She had a sip of tea and sat back in her chair.

“Well … “

Dammit, Effie –“ Eliot was beginning to sound desperate.

“Tall,” Effie said, thinking. “Very tall.”

Hardison’s eyebrows shot up.

“Taller than him? Mind you,” he added, “that ain’t difficult.”

“I am gonna disembowel you –“Eliot hissed through clenched teeth at the hacker.

“ –and brown hair. Curly.” Effie continued, pondering her subject. “Big feet. She don’t have the prettiest smile, though. Long, yellow teeth. Bit of an ugly bastard, if you ask me.”

“Yuk!” Lizzie said, her face scrunched up. And then a terrible, terrible thought took her. “You’re not going to marry her, are you??” she asked her best friend with utter disgust.

Eliot had had enough. He pushed his plate aside and stood up. His pancakes could wait.

“Okay. You wanna meet her? You got it.” He said, muscles jumping along his jawline.

Team Leverage stared at their irate hitter, and then looked at the remnants of their breakfasts.

“Now?” Nate said. “But –“

Now,” Eliot snarked, and pointed at the veranda door. “C’mon!!”

It was obvious Eliot was not going to take ‘Later, Eliot, okay?’ as an answer, so Nate put a lid on it and gestured at his friends.

“Okay … let’s go meet Eliot’s young lady, people.”

They all stared at him as he stood up. Lizzie looked at her pancakes and then at her father.

“But Daddy –“

“Lizzie, they’ll wait. Pancakes reheat. C’mon now. Eliot wants us to meet his girlfriend – “

Not my friggin’ girlfriend!” Eliot snarled under his breath.

With his team in tow, followed by a highly amused Soapy and Jo, they trooped down the veranda steps and followed Eliot as he marched around the house and out to the gate of the huge south paddock.

“She lives out here??” Hardison whispered to Sophie. “Jeez … what kinda woman is she?” Then he thought about it. “Maybe … maybe she’s one of those rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl types who can rope a cow an’ cook a steak at the same time.”

“I have no idea,” Sophie stage-whispered back. “It can’t be much of a relationship if she lives here and Eliot’s back in the States. But who knows? A country girl might just be the type –“

But she fell quiet as Eliot came to a halt by the big gate. He pulled back the bolt, swung the gate open a smidgin and slid through, fastening the gate behind him.

“Well,” Nate said, raising a curious eyebrow. “This is different.”

Eliot walked out to the hard-packed earth which led away from the gate. Beyond that was nothing but bush … gum trees, acacia and the odd termite mound. A kookaburra laughed in a distant stringybark, and lorikeets chattered in a stand of old, grey-barked coolibah eucalyptus.

Eliot cocked a smug look at his team, and then turned back to the bush. He tucked his hands into his pockets and relaxed, and then he let out a soft, sweet whistle that echoed through the balmy air.

“This is one strange lady,” Hardison whispered to himself.

And then he straightened, alarmed, as there came the most godawful bellow he had ever heard in his life.

“What the hell -???

And then Parker let out a shriek of terror and slipped behind Hardison’s tall frame as a brown, hairy and absolutely enormous camel came charging out of a clump of big acacias, jaws gaping and long yellow teeth bared in a deafening roar.

Hardison started and took a step backwards, colliding with Parker, who let out a yelp.

“Bloody hell!!” Sophie whispered, and clutched Nate’s arm. Nate was so astonished he just stood there, jaw dropped, and he patted Sophie’s hands as though it would help. It didn’t.

For god’s sake Eliot!!“ Sophie screamed as the big camel bore down on their hitter, who just stood there, relaxed and smiling.

Lizzie, on the other hand, let out a whoop of delight. Eliot had a camel!! Not a girlfriend!! This was just perfect!

But even as the entire team – minus Lizzie - stumbled forward in some kind of feeble effort to rescue Eliot from certain death by camel, the big animal slowed down and began to dance about like a lunatic, gurgling and harrumphing, her big, flat feet sending up puffs of dust.

Eliot, for some reason, found this behaviour funny, and he took his hands out of his pockets and walked slowly towards the insane beast. Sophie was sure that the creature had rabies, especially as it began to generate a lot of frothy spittle around its mobile lips.

Are you insane!” She yelled as Eliot put his hands out to touch the crazy dromedary.

Eliot ignored them all.

He lifted a hand and ran it down the beast’s wiry curls on its forehead, and the camel suddenly stopped bouncing about like a yoyo and stood still. The thing began to hum.

“Hey girl …” Eliot murmured, his voice soft and gentle. “How’s my Gertie? Missed me?”

Gertie gurgled to herself, and her long, wibbly tongue crept out and licked Eliot’s face.

“Jeez … stop that, will ya??” Eliot said, wiping frothy saliva off his face, and then he gave her a scratch under her jaw.

Gertie melted. He friend was home, and he still loved her, even though he didn’t appear to have a carrot secreted about his person. But she forgave him and bobbled her head, flapping her bottom lip in delight.

Eliot tugged one of her rounded ears and Gertie rested her head on Eliot’s shoulder, closing her big, expressive eyes. She sighed. Life was good.

Hardison was in shock.

Eliot. Eliot and a camel. A friggin’ great, big, hairy camel.

“That’s a camel!” Parker whispered needlessly. Hardison could feel her trembling as she wrapped her arms around his back, hanging on tightly as if Hardison could stop the camel if it decided to eat them.

“Her name’s Gertie,” Eliot said, and gently pushing the camel’s enormous head off his shoulder, he walked back to the gate, Gertie following devotedly behind.

It was then everyone noticed a little bay gelding tagging along behind the camel, tail swishing lazily. He was a bit grey about the muzzle but he looked fit and well.

Team Leverage took a collective step backwards away from the gate – except Lizzie, who was jiggling excitedly in anticipation.

Eliot smiled down at her as he came to a halt a few feet away, Gertie whiffling at his hair, making it stick up in tufts.

“’Lizbeth Grace … go see Effie an’ ask her for a few carrots, will ya?”

And Lizzie was gone before Eliot could say anything else, running as fast as her legs would go. Eliot. Had. A CAMEL. And he needed carrots, because, she knew, he was going to feed the carrots to the camel and she, Elizabeth Grace Ford, was also going to feed the camel, because Eliot wouldn’t ever say no to her.

And then she let out the loudest yell she could muster as she ran, because, she was sure, life just couldn’t get any better.


“C’mon, Hardison, stop bein’ such a wuss!” Eliot grinned nastily.

Gertie was leaning against the gate, head outstretched on her powerful neck, and she was doing her very best to give Hardison a loving lick with her long tongue. She pulled back her prehensile lips and stuck her tongue out as far as it would go, but Hardison cringed away from her, horrified at the idea of being licked by a goddamn camel.

Parker, on the other hand, was completely enchanted. Once she had overcome her fear, she gave Gertie a tentative scratch, and then when the animal shivered with delight and let out a moan of appreciation, she flung her arms around Gertie’s neck and gave her a hug. Gertie hummed.

Not only was Eliot home, but he had brought other people with him … people who smelled odd but had Eliot’s scent on them, however faint. They were his people, so they were okay in Gertie’s book, although she could sense they were wary of her.

Then Lizzie came pelting back from the kitchen with a bag in her hand, and her eyes were bright with eagerness. She stumbled to a halt beside her mother, who was tentatively petting Gertie’s muzzle, and gulping in air, she held up the bag.

“Carrots!” she gasped, catching her breath.

“Want to feed one to her?” Eliot asked, his grin softening.

“Eliot –“ Nate said, caution in his voice.

“Nate, Gertie loves kids. She’s gentle and good natured, an’ Lizzie’s safer with her than she is with most folks. I’m here … I won’t let anythin’ happen to her, you know that.”

And Nate Ford knew the truth of it. Eliot’s heart belonged to Lizzie and he would protect her willingly with his life. Looking at Lizzie’s bright, eager face riven with desperation, he couldn’t deny her.

“Well, go on, sweetheart. Go feed the camel,” he said, and then realised how absurd he sounded.

Lizzie’s grin almost split her face in two. Digging out a long, juicy carrot, she looked at Eliot, waiting for guidance.

“Okay, darlin’ … hold the top end and let her take it. She’ll be real gentle, so don’t worry, it’ll be perfectly safe.”

Everybody stood back and gave Lizzie some room. Carefully holding out the carrot, Lizzie was thrilled beyond belief when Gertie carefully inhaled the carrot from her grip and crunched it noisily, licking her lips.

The old bay gelding shoved his head forward and Gertie let him, still enjoying her treat.

“What about a carrot for ol’ Bomber here?” Eliot said, scratching the horse’s rich bay neck.

Bomber, Charlie’s trusty stock horse, had taken over as Gertie’s companion when old Moke had died two years previously at the grand old age of thirty-one. She had been buried beneath the old mulga tree in Gertie’s paddock, and for a while Gertie seemed alright on her own. But she grew sad and distant, and Bomber, now getting a bit too slow for stock work, became her companion.

Lizzie gave Bomber a carrot, which he took graciously as was his wont, and Lizzie decided she was in heaven.

Parker eyed Bomber suspiciously, but the little gelding didn’t appear to have any kind of murderous intent, so she gave him the benefit of the doubt and fed Gertie another carrot while keeping an eye on Bomber.

“I’m gonna take Gertie out after we’ve finished breakfast … check out where Parker saw the guy watchin’ the house. See if I can find some tracks,” Eliot said to Soapy and Jo. “I want to know how long this has been goin’ on, so I’ll take a look around the billabong, okay?”

Jo nodded, and then turned to Soapy, who had been enjoying Lizzie’s instant connection with Gertie.

“Why is this happening, love? Why us? What have we done to deserve this?”

Soapy slipped his arm around his wife of over forty years and kissed her cheek.

“No idea, old girl. I wish we did … and some bugger killed our Alice because of it, I’m sure.”

Nate’s face was set and grim for a moment, even as his daughter laughed with pleasure at Gertie’s attention.

“We’ll find out, Soapy. This is what we do, and I’ll tell you now … we are the best at what we do. It sounds like the classic ‘we’re going to do our worst to you so you’ll sell out cheap and we can use your place to make lots of money in some way’, but we don’t know yet. Hardison will do some digging around today, and then we’ll maybe know more.” He took a deep breath and suddenly his face relaxed into an amiable grin. “I’m going to finish breakfast, people. I can’t think straight on a half-empty stomach.”

“You have a point,” Soapy said wryly. “Effie’ll be fizzing her way into an early grave trying to keep everything warm, so if you value your lives, I’d go and eat up before the Wrath of Effie is visited upon us.”

“Daddy, can I –“ Lizzie begged, feeding Gertie and Bomber the last of the carrots.

“Nope,” Eliot interjected. “We’re gonna eat, an’ then we can think about what we’re gonna do today, okay? This is work, sweetheart, you know that. You can come see Gertie an’ Bomber later.”

Lizzie let out an explosive breath of disappointment. Life just wasn’t fair.


Hardison was busy setting up his banks of mini-screens and keyboards, and extended a mobile antenna to enhance the Munros’ shaky broadband access. He was humming to himself, settling a fold-up chair in front of his workstation under Oggie’s awning, when a hand appeared and placed a mug of tea and then a slice of ginger cake at his elbow.

“Wotcha doing there, sunbeam?” Effie said. It was obvious she was intrigued.

Hardison looked up at the pudgy, round face with its muddy eyes and grey bun, and smiled with delight. He lifted the ginger cake and took a bite. Despite having eaten a big breakfast, his eyes closed with pleasure at the rich, sweet flavour.

Swallowing, he opened his eyes and sighed. Man, that was delicious.

“Effie … ma’am … take a seat.” He dragged over another camping chair. “Let me tell you all about how I’m gonna take apart The Albany Mining Company an’ Troy Rickenbacker an’ find every nasty little secret he’s got.”

Effie’s resulting grin was revenge personified.


It was mid-morning when Eliot rounded the corner of the house leading Gertie and Bomber, both of them saddled and ready to go. He and Soapy had checked the few cattle in the yards and fed them, and then fed the horses, Lizzie helping as best she could. Charlie had enough on his plate for now looking after Kip, and he needed space to grieve.

Soapy and Nate were studying a plan of Wapanjara on the veranda table, looking at the water bores and borders of the station, and Lizzie was working on the project she had decided to do for her schoolwork, which, it turned out, had everything to do with Australia and camels. Her tongue stuck out as she drew a rather ferocious picture of Eliot and Gertie.

Sophie sat beside Jo, drinking tea and looking out over the garden and almond stand in the distance. The scent of newly-opened rose blooms was almost overpowering.

“Hey Soph …” Eliot called out as he came to a halt in the yard and kooshed Gertie down, the big camel settling down on all fours and tucking her legs under her like a cat. Eliot tied Bomber’s reins to her saddle. “… feel like gettin’ on a horse? Bomber’s a safe ride,” he added, one eyebrow hitching up questioningly.

Lizzie instantly abandoned her project and flew down the veranda steps and gave Gertie a hug before anyone could stop her.

Nate sighed and then looked at a grinning Soapy.

“What can you do? She never listens to me these days,” he added.

Sophie was suddenly back to her childhood. She had hunted with her local hounds as a teenager and was a keen rider, and since Lizzie had been learning to ride over the last year, she had accompanied Eliot and her daughter to the local stables in Portland and re-acquainted herself with the joys of horseback riding.

Jo patted Sophie on her arm.

“Go. It’ll do you good, and goodness knows, Bomber needs the exercise,” she said.

“What about me???” Lizzie squeaked. “I want to come too,” she said, wheedling. “Please? Eliot? Mama? Please, can I? Daddy?” Her face was rapt with yearning. Gertie licked her ear, making the little girl giggle.

“Don’t ask me, ‘Lizbeth Grace, you know that. It’s up to your Momma an’ Daddy.” Eliot said gently.

“Gertie has two places on her saddle and Eliot can hold me and Gertie won’t let me fall, I know she won’t and … and …” Lizzie, breathless, ran out of words and just looked pleadingly and her parents. “Pleasepleasepleasepleeeeeze –“

Nate checked in with Sophie, who nodded.

“You wear your helmet, okay?” Nate warned, knowing Eliot had made sure Lizzie had brought her riding hat, “and you do everything Eliot tells you to do without argument, you hear me?”

Lizzie shrieked with delight. Making Gertie blink, she danced for a moment on the spot and then dashed over to Oggie’s tent to retrieve her helmet.

Eliot watched Sophie as she trotted down the veranda steps and he untied Bomber, handing her the reins. She set her foot into the stirrup and swung astride the little horse, settling into the stock saddle with its thigh pads and deep seat. She touched Bomber’s sides with her heels and the gelding obediently walked forward. Her face was a picture, Nate thought with pride. God, how he loved his wife.

Lizzie burst from the tent, fastening the chin strap on her riding helmet, and stumbled to a stop beside Eliot, gazing up at him with adoration. Eliot had a camel, and she was going to ride it.

Long ago, Eliot had fitted stirrup bars to Gertie’s Afghan saddle, and he had now attached stirrups to both seats. Lifting a giggling Lizzie onto the front seat, he adjusted the stirrup leathers for her and then helped her slip her feet into the safety stirrups. Gathering up Gertie’s soft rope reins, he slipped onto the rear seat on the heavy saddle and they were set.

Wrapping one arm around Lizzie, he whispered instructions in her ear and Lizzie nodded.

“Gertie … hut-hut!” she said loudly and clearly, and then let out a yell of surprise as Gertie rose to her feet backside first, and without Eliot’s strong arm holding her close she would have ended up around Gertie’s neck.

And then she was seven feet in the air, sitting comfortably astride Gertie, her guardian’s arms holding her steady as Eliot told her to balance properly and to tell him if she felt unsafe.

Lizzie knew in her heart that she would never feel unsafe if Eliot was beside her.

With Lizzie nestled safe against his chest, Eliot turned Gertie towards the almond stand, and led the way along the track, Gertie striding rhythmically along with Sophie trotting easily behind them on a happy Bomber.

“I’ll be watching!” Parker yelled.

Eliot turned in the saddle, and saw Parker sitting on the house roof, munching an Anzac biscuit and holding Eliot’s sniper scope. She could see for miles, and she was never happier than when she was high above the world.

Now, though, Eliot and Sophie were all business. They needed to know who was watching them and why, and with that in mind Eliot headed towards the huge billabong in the south paddock.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long to reach the great billabong in the south paddock. Sophie dismounted and opened the paddock gate to let Gertie through, and then she remounted and seeing the water glint in the near distance, she touched Bomber into a canter and she was off, black hair blowing behind her and her dark eyes alight with sheer pleasure. A yell of pure, unadulterated joy echoed through the vastness of this ancient land.

Eliot and Lizzie watched her from their seat on the big camel, and Eliot, his blue eyes shaded by the brim of his stockman’s hat, chuckled. Lizzie felt rather than heard the rumble in his chest, and she twisted around to look questioningly at the hitter.

“Can we go faster, like Mama?” she asked.

“Yeah, we can. But not this time.” Eliot said softly, watching Sophie lengthen her reins and let Bomber go, the little gelding stretching into a gallop as she discovered just how responsive and well-trained the animal was. “Let’s just leave your momma be an’ let her enjoy herself without us hangin’ on her shirt tails, ‘Lizbeth Grace.”

“But Eliot –“ Lizzie didn’t quite understand Eliot’s reasoning.

“Sometimes grown-ups just need time to be themselves, darlin’,” Eliot explained. “Your momma is a lady who spends a lot of time workin’ with people. She understands how they tick and what they want … what their plans are. She reads people like you would read a book. An’ because of that she sometimes needs to just belong to herself, and not to anyone else. Besides, I think she’s just havin’ fun,” he added, amused.

Lizzie, rocking easily to the sway and tilt of Gertie’s long stride, thought she understood, and, she had to agree, her Mama did look really happy and relaxed. So, she leaned back against Eliot’s broad chest and listened to the sounds of the outback … the calls of a mopoke and the ever-present galahs, and she breathed in the heady scent of eucalyptus. Elizabeth Grace Ford knew then that she loved Wapanjara.

By the time the billabong came into sight, Eliot saw Sophie sitting on the trunk of a fallen mulga tree, Bomber munching on the new spring spurt of grass beside the water’s edge.

Just for fun, Eliot nudged Gertie into a trot, and Lizzie, taken by surprise, let out a yell and then burst out laughing at Gertie’s lurching speed as she balanced easily in the saddle and put her hands on Eliot’s as he held the soft rope reins of Gertie’s bosal, and he helped her guide Gertie to the fallen tree.

Lizzie thought her mother looked beautiful. Her skin glowed with the effect of the wind and her eyes sparkled with pleasure, and her easy, relaxed smile warmed the dark pools of her gaze.

“Mama! Mama!” she called out as Eliot helped her bring Gertie to a halt. “Look at me! I’m steering Gertie!!”

Sophie laughed, pure joy in her heart.

“I see, my darling! You’re very clever and very brave! And I have to admit riding Bomber has done me the world of good,” she added, looking at Eliot, whose eyes shone with good humour.

“Thought it would,” he said. “Sometimes … you just gotta take time for yourself, Soph. Now then … c’mon, Lizzie, do as I told you an’ get Gertie to sit down.”

And taking his hands away from the reins he held her gently as Lizzie, so full of herself she was almost at the point of implosion, cleared her throat.

“Gertie … koosh!” she said as loudly and as clearly as she could.

And Gertie kneeled, folded her back legs and sat down, shifting slightly to make herself comfortable.

Lizzie wriggled out of Eliot’s grasp and slid in an ungainly heap out of the saddle and onto the ground. She lay there, flat on her back and limbs spread-eagled, and giggled helplessly until she had an attack of the hiccups. Gertie swung her big head around and whiffled at Lizzie’s hair in affection.

Eliot dismounted and scratched Gertie’s head, and then looked around at the trees, mostly young stringybarks, but here and there was a big mulga tree. They were each well in excess of two hundred years old and had grown to over thirty feet high, and their branches were spread in a halo of burgeoning buds.

Leaving Gertie and Bomber to idle their time away beside the billabong, Eliot began to methodically work his way around the stand of trees. He ignored the stringybarks – they were much too young and willowy, certainly not strong enough to support a human, let alone enable someone to climb high enough to view the homestead.

With this in mind, he concentrated on the old mulgas, and began on the leading edge of the tree stand, Sophie and a still-hiccuping Lizzie following on behind.

It took nearly an hour, but Eliot finally found what he was looking for. Sophie was checking the ground on the outskirts of the small wood, looking for tracks, but Lizzie stayed with Eliot, dutifully following behind him so that she didn’t destroy any evidence. She was getting a bit bored, but she knew enough not to complain – she had had a terrific morning so far, so she kept quiet and let Eliot work.

But her interest peaked when Eliot suddenly hunkered down below a big, spreading mulga, and studied what appeared to Lizzie to just be some wood fragments which lay under a sturdy limb. Eliot picked one of the fragments up from the dusty ground and studied it closely, and then tasted it with the tip of his tongue.

“Tastes sweet …” he murmured, and then picked up a few more. He sniffed them and frowned. “’Lizbeth Grace … can you go an’ fetch Gertie for me? Don’t ride her, y’hear? Just walk her over here. Don’t worry about Bomber … he’ll just follow.”

Lizzie, thrilled at finally having something so important to do, ran back to Gertie, and grasping the camel’s reins, she ordered Gertie to stand up. It took her less than two minutes to lead Gertie - with Bomber in tow - back to Eliot, who by this time was working his way around the tree.

The tracks were faint … but they were there. Eliot traced them moving away from the mulga, and he yelled to Sophie, who was away to his left.

“Soph! To your right! Look for marks like sneakers or converses heading towards the notch in the hill yonder. Use that for gettin’ your bearings.”

“Oh … okay!” Sophie called back, “What have you found?”

“Not too sure yet … I gotta climb a tree first!” Eliot yelled back, looking up at the mulga. This was where Parker would be useful, he thought. However, when you had a Gertie, at least getting into the tree might not be too difficult.

Lizzie arrived, Gertie huffing behind her, and Eliot kooshed her down beneath the long, sturdy limb under which he had found the fragments.

“Okay, 'Lizbeth Grace, you just keep Gertie here an’ wait for me to tell you when an’ where to move her.”

And leaving Lizzie to hold Gertie’s reins, Eliot got her to her feet, bending low over the saddle as she stood under the tree limb. Reaching up and wrapping his arms around the limb, Eliot swung free and hauled himself up into the tree, working his way along the limb to the trunk.

Lizzie stood as still as she could, holding Gertie and talking to her and scratching the big camel’s muzzle. This was work, Lizzie knew, and she was convinced it was up to her to keep Eliot safe while he was in the tree.

Eliot leaned against the trunk, his feet braced against where the limb grew from the sturdy main structure of the tree. He noticed his boots leaving tiny scuff marks on the tough bark, and he realised that there were no other marks other than the ones he made. So, he thought, sneakers or something similar that are too soft-soled to leave a trace. He pushed away from the trunk, and hanging onto nearby branches he clambered his way upwards for a few feet, and turned towards the homestead. He could just see Parker sitting on the roof. He needed to be higher. It took him another ten minutes to work his way to a three-way fork in the main trunk, ideal for sitting in with a scope.

Seating himself in the fork, he thought about the man – for Parker, with her excellent eyesight, was sure it was a man – who had sat and watched the house through a scope. Parker had seen the glimmer of a single lens, and when she described the way the man was seated, Eliot knew then that he had not been using binoculars.

A scope, with its sharp, single lens, gave more clarity and was easier to manage under difficult conditions. He also knew the man wasn’t tall, and hadn’t been in the tree for more than a day. Then he noticed something caught in a loose piece of bark in the tree trunk down by his left boot.

As he cautiously negotiated his way back down the tree, Eliot carefully removed what appeared to be fibres from the sliver of bark, and he tucked them into the breast pocket of his shirt.

“Okay, Lizzie … bring Gertie close to the trunk, will ya?”

Once Lizzie positioned Gertie beneath Eliot, he eased himself down and slid into the saddle, and Lizzie led the camel away from the tree.

It was as Gertie was kooshed down that Sophie called out.

“Hoofprints! Whoever it was tied a horse here in the bushes. The prints head off towards the hill, as you said,” she added, and then she hurried towards Eliot and Lizzie. “Find anything useful?” she asked as she drew near.

“Yeah, I think so,” Eliot replied and he crouched down beside Lizzie, Gertie peering with interest over their shoulders. Sophie came to a halt beside them and watched as Eliot included her daughter in his discoveries. She smiled to herself. Trust Eliot Spencer to turn everything he could into a life lesson for Lizzie … and he didn’t even realise he did it, she noted with amusement.

“See these?” he said, holding out the little fragments of woody substance he had found under the tree limb.

“What are they?” Lizzie asked, intrigued. The tiny objects appeared to be what was left of a twig with some sort of soft substance attached. They gave off a very faint smell of apples.

Eliot frowned, as he often did when he was concentrating on telling something interesting to Lizzie.

“Mulga apples,” he said, turning the fragments over with his fingers. “But they’re not really apples at all,” he continued. “They’re little balls created by a baby wasp … a larva … and they’re called galls, made by the tree around the larva, and you can eat ‘em. But folks call them apples because that’s what they taste like.”

Lizzie’s face suddenly screwed up in disgust.

“A wasp??? You eat a wasp???

Eliot grinned at her dismay.

“It’s good tucker,” he said, “and yeah … you eat the larva along with the gall. Charlie would call ‘em ‘good eats,’ an’ they’ll keep you alive if you’re hungry,” he added. “Anyway … the man who was watchin’ us was eating these. He’s either an aborigine or someone who knows how to survive in the bush. He wasn’t tall … shorter than me, anyway … because he only ate the apples within reach. I could easily go further an’ grab a few he couldn’t get to.”

“Seriously?” Sophie said, and had to agree with her daughter. “Eating wasps??

“Yeah, Soph – they’re tasty.” Eliot insisted. He pulled a couple of round, rough balls from his pocket. “Here … wanna try one?”

Sophie blanched and shook her head, horrified. But suddenly Lizzie was curious.

“They really taste like apples and not wasp?” she asked.

Eliot nodded.

“They’re pretty good.” And he popped one into his mouth and crunched with relish.

And before Sophie could stop her, Lizzie screwed up her courage and ate the other mulga apple. She scrunched up her face expecting something revolting, but her expression went from distaste to a relieved smile. It really did taste of apples!

“Mmmm … she sighed, and looked up at her horrified mother. “Good eats!” she said past a mouthful of gall and wasp larva.

“Eliot Spencer,” Sophie said, exasperated beyond belief, “you have far too much influence on my daughter!”

Eliot grinned at her unrepentantly.

“Life lessons, Soph,” he said, “… life lessons. Might keep her alive one day,” he added a little more seriously.

“Well … let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” she said under her breath.

“I also found this,” he said, gently pulling out the few fibres he had found caught in the tree bark. They were rough, like hessian, and dyed a murky green.

Sophie, still internally cringing over her daughter eating a wasp larva, bent over to look at them.

“Did you find any tracks of somethin’ like a canvas shoe or sneaker?” he asked.

Sophie shrugged.

“I’m no expert, but I found a couple. The foot was smaller than mine,” she added, “not much larger than a child’s, to be honest.”

Eliot thought about that for a moment, and then proffered the fibres to Lizzie.

“Smell,” he said.

Lizzie sniffed and then recoiled.

“Stinky feet!!” she said loudly, making Gertie chomp with surprise.

Eliot let out a soft huff of amusement, and his eyes crinkled as he smiled, as they always did when Lizzie was involved.

“Yeah … stinky feet,” he repeated. “The colour … the smell … these are from a pair of Chinese Liberation boots. They’re the smelliest army footwear in the world. Bad ventilation an’ jungle environments … the stench can be pretty bad. I got kicked in the head by someone wearin’ a pair once … they’re very distinctive,” he said, grimacing at the memory.

“So … we’re looking for a small man … possibly an aborigine, with a scope, a taste for wasps and with a pair of incredibly smelly feet.” Sophie said, humour now rife in her voice.

Eliot shrugged.

“That’s about right,” he agreed. “An’ what’s more, he only got here after we arrived … someone sent him here probably to keep an eye on the strangers at the Munro home.” He stood up, and so did Lizzie. “We should head back,” he said, frown lines appearing on his brow. “I don’t like leavin’ Soapy, Jo an’ Effie unprotected.”

“But Nate, Hardison and Parker are there –“ Sophie said, and then quirked a smile. “Well, I suppose you have a point …”

Nate could handle a gun but Parker and Hardison wouldn’t be a great deal of help if a bunch of hoodlums turned up unannounced. Soapy was injured and Charlie … Charlie was too wrapped up in caring for his son right now. Eliot had to guard his family.

So with that in mind, Eliot lifted Lizzie back onto Gertie’s saddle and sat behind her, and with Sophie heading off in front of them riding an eager Bomber, they rode back to Wapanjara homestead through the noon-time heat of a spring day.


It was Lizzie who spotted the vehicle first.

As Gertie and Bomber ambled along the track towards the house, Lizzie straightened in the saddle and prodded Eliot’s arm as he held Gertie’s reins.

“Look! A truck!”

She pointed towards the summit of the hill from where Eliot had first showed her Wapanjara.

Eliot checked the house roof – no Parker. It was lunchtime, and Effie must have called her down to eat. Then he checked out the road leading to the homestead, and he saw the pall of dust and the large pick-up heading down the road towards them. It didn’t appear to be in any rush, and the driver was cautious on a road which to the uninitiated could be a little bumpy.

By the time the big, black pick-up trundled into the homestead yard, Buster was barking like a lunatic and the three heelers who lived at the cattle yard were yelping hysterically as the vehicle drove past the barn.

Gertie and Bomber were hitched beside the house, and Soapy and Jo had joined Nate and Hardison on the veranda to eye the big vehicle as it drew to a halt. Parker and Effie were nowhere to be seen. Sophie stood beside Eliot and Lizzie leaned on the veranda steps, her eyes cautious. Before the pick-up had rolled to a complete stop, Sophie had spoken quietly, her voice subdued.

“The Belgravia Stalemate, I think,” she said.

Nate’s eyebrows raised.

“You sure?”

“Absolutely!” Sophie replied, a little irritated. “It’s perfect!”

Nate hitched a shoulder in a half-shrug. He trusted his wife.

“Okay. You lead. Soapy … you and Jo just follow our lead. Agree with everything Sophie says, no matter what.”

Soapy, his dark eyes confused but willing to give whatever idea Sophie had come up with a go, nodded and looked at Jo, who smiled confidently.

“No worries, Nate – we’ll go with the flow.”

Nate straightened, and Hardison slowly walked down the veranda steps to stand by Lizzie. The little girl was standing warily at the bottom of the steps, watching her mother and listening to every word.

She knew this was serious. In her nearly seven years of life, she had lived and breathed as a member – however small – of Leverage International. She had travelled with her family and been a part of their world. She was kept away from any danger, but she knew her parents, Parker, Hardison and Eliot were people who helped those who had nowhere else to go. People who needed justice. And her family delivered that justice, sometimes at enormous cost. It was a reality she lived with, but she wouldn’t change a moment of it. So she knew to trust her family and to go with whatever came.

Hardison stood beside her and rested a big hand on her shoulder, ready to protect her no matter what happened. Lizzie relaxed.

The truck was a big Dodge RAM, a left-hand drive, with the logo of the Albany Mining Company plastered along both sides.

The front doors opened and two men got out.

One, the driver, was tall and lanky, dressed in work clothes and wearing a baseball cap with the company logo on it. The other was very different. Stocky and middle-aged, he had a round, amiable face shiny with good humour. He wore an expensive suit and a bolo instead of a tie, and he wore a spotlessly white Stetson on his head. He beamed a smile at Sophie as she stepped forward and he respectfully removed the Stetson, revealing perfectly coiffured blond-grey hair.

“Well now,” he said, his voice maple-syrup smooth, “to whom do I have the pleasure?” He held his Stetson in one hand and extended the other for a hand-shake.

Sophie’s demeanour had changed. She was a beautiful woman and she knew it, and she suddenly had an aristocratic elegance about her, an aura only bred from a Roedean education and the benefits of a Swiss finishing school. She extended a hand.

“Lady Eloise Stanton,” she said diffidently. “And you are …?”

“Oh, I’m Troy Rickenbacker, Lady Stanton, owner of the Albany Minin’ Company.” He gestured at his driver, “an’ this is my manager, Derry Ryan.”

The tall man nodded, but didn’t speak.

Rickenbacker grinned.

“Derry isn’t much of a talker, I’m afraid.” He looked around the faces gazing at him. “I, uh … I thought I would come by and see Mr and Mrs Munro. I hear Mr Munro had an accident, so I had no meetings this afternoon and Derry and I were passin’, so I thought I’d call in,” he added, his Texas accent finally battling its way to the surface.

“That’s very kind of you,” Jo said and introduced herself and Soapy. “Would you care for tea?”

Rickenbacker smiled cheerfully even as he eyed Bernadette and Oggie, noticing the high-end electronics, the heavy military-style build and the sheer bulk of both vehicles.

“Um … no thanks, Mrs Munro, but its very kind of you to offer.” He turned back to Sophie, who arched an eyebrow at him. “Are you visiting for a vacation, ma’am?”

“Oh no,” Sophie said airily, waving a hand at the house. “Dear Soapy and Jo have decided to retire, and my livestock manager, Mister Stone here,” she gestured at Eliot, who nodded his greeting, ”has known the Munros for years. He thought the place might be an interesting investment.”

“Investment?” Rickenbacker was suddenly taken aback. “You … you’ve finally decided to sell?”

“We have never considered selling before now,” Soapy said from the veranda. “We just decided … after the accident, it might be the time to retire,” he continued, grinning.

“Yeah, it’s a great place,” Eliot said, “an’ Soapy breeds some of the best brahmans I ever saw,” he added, his Oklahoma accent rich and strong, “an’ Lady Eloise … she sure does love her cattle,” he said, grinning.

Sophie sighed.

“Daddy - Lord Edwin Stanton – was very keen on his rare breeds. He won the Derbyshire Longhorn championship at the Royal Show nine years running, you know. When you’re raised to appreciate a good brisket, then it becomes a bit of a passion,” she said.

“Lady Eloise … she’s kinda gone international,” Eliot explained. “I run a small place for her … ‘bout ten thousand acres … in Oklahoma where we breed black angus, an’ then there’s the ranch up in Wyomin’”, he added, warming to his subject. “She’s got into breedin’ buckin’ bulls an’ she’s got some really good cows but the seed bulls ain’t up to par. Soapy here’s got a couple of young ‘uns that make Asteroid an’ Bushwhacker* look like a couple of three-legged donkeys, if you know what I mean,” Eliot concluded with a knowing wink, grinning.

“My team are looking into the pros and cons, Mister Rickenbacker, but the indications are that I will buy Wapanjara. I’m very taken with it, I have to say, and my ward …” Sophie gestured at Lizzie, “can spend time here when she’s not at boarding school. The Munros and Mister Jakkamarra … the station manager … will stay on for a while, I think.”

Rickenbacker stared at the people standing looking at him, and he cleared his throat.

“Well, I wish you the best, ma’am,” he said, and Nate thought he could hear a little bit of a shake in the man’s voice. Rickenbacker was thrown, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. “I … uh … I’d best be going, then.” He put his hat back on and tipped his fingers to the brim. “Ma’am,” he said, and gesturing at Ryan, he got back into the RAM and without any further ado, the vehicle backed up and drove away, sending up clouds of red dust.

Hardison frowned.

“Well now … that was interesting. No-one does a four-hour round trip just to ‘drop by,’” he said, thinking.

“Yeah,” Nate added. “And he was really shaken by the prospect of you guys selling Wapanjara. So why was that? Hardison, you found anything about this fella?”

Hardison shook his head.

“Not a damn’ thing. Nada. This guy is as squeaky clean as the inside of an empty morgue. No shell companies, no tax evasion, no nothin’. An’ believe me I looked,” Hardison said, irritated. “Not even a parkin’ ticket.”

“Huh,” Nate said. “Weird. I have a gut feeling this Rickenbacker isn’t the brains – I think he’s part of it, but he’s not the instigator.”

This whole business, Nate decided, was just getting curiouser and curiouser

 

To be continued ...


 

Author’s notes:

* ‘Asteroid’ and ‘Bushwhacker’ – two of the greatest bucking bulls of recent years.

Chapter Text


“So … let me get this right, baby-girl …” Hardison said, disbelievingly, “you won’t eat broccoli, but you will eat baby wasps.” He stared at Lizzie, who was bright-eyed with enthusiasm.

“Eliot says if I ever get lost in the bush they’ll keep me alive!” she said as she sat beside him on the veranda. “Eliot says they’re ‘good eats’ and great bush tucker, and I should know more about this stuff. Eliot says –“

”Well, what Eliot says is a whole lot of crazy stuff!” Hardison countered, glaring at the hitter who was sitting at the table, busy cleaning his old Ka-Bar knife and scowling at the blade, which apparently had some invisible blemish on it that only he could see. “You do know he’s taken one helluva lot of hits to the head over the years an’ it’s probably sent him a bit doo-lally? Huh? Or … or … he’s just eaten too many bugs an’ one’s got into his brain an’ he’s got some kind of brain-bug eatin’ away at his little grey cells –“

Eliot snorted.

“You never know when this sort of information will keep you alive, Hardison! Might do you some good to learn this stuff, y’know.”

Hardison raised an eyebrow in extreme disdain.

“Ooohhh no. No way. You keep your bug-eatin’ tendencies to yourself, m’man. Ain’t no way Nana’s little boy is gonna start eatin’ worms.” He shuddered.

Eliot waggled the Ka-Bar at him.

“Well, if you get lost out here, I’m not gonna come lookin’ for you, an’ we’ll find your dried-up ol’ carcass lyin’ under a tree all wizened an’ chewed up by dingoes –“

“Eliot says dingoes like eating old meat!” Lizzie interjected knowledgably. “And they can crunch on bones, but not like a hyena, and they –“

“Jeez, Eliot!!! What the hell are you teachin’ this girl???” Hardison squawked.

Eliot curled his lip in a sly grin.

“Playin’ games on a computer with nerdy people you’ve never even met ain’t goin’ to keep you alive out here, man. It’s about time you learned some survival skills –“

“Well, the last time we ended up out in the ass-end of nowhere we almost got ate by a bear!”* the hacker complained testily.

“Yeah, an’ without me you’d have been bear-poop, Hardison!” Eliot growled, sounding very much like the grizzly that had stalked them.

“And without me, you’d have both frozen to death,” said Parker sunnily, materialising beside Eliot as if from nowhere.

“Okay, people!” Nate said as he emerged from the house followed by Sophie and Jo. He placed files and plans onto the table, and rolled out the large map of Wapanjara for everyone to see. “Let’s see what we know so far.”

Soapy wandered in from the cattle yards where he had been feeding the heelers, just in time for Effie to bring out a tray heaving with tea-cups and saucers, her big industrial-sized teapot and a huge plateful of scones with butter and jam.

She set the whole thing down in front of Eliot and shoved his shoulder.

“I need the milk bringing through, Yank. Make yourself bloody useful for once.”

Hardison looked at the still-warm scones and beamed even as Eliot muttered and put his knife away.

“Effie … you are simply a wonder,” he sighed dreamily. “I just gotta introduce you to my Nana.”

Effie scowled.

“Well, at least that nice lady has raised a boy with some bloody manners,” she grumbled.

Hardison raised a hand, waving Eliot back down into his seat.

“Don’t you worry, Effie … I’ll get the milk an’ sugar, okay? Anythin’ else you need?”

Hardison’s cheesy grin made Eliot want to poke the hacker in the eye with his knife, but he just narrowed his eyes and sent revengeful vibes the tall young man’s way.

“Nah, sunbeam,” Effie muttered, “just the milk and stuff. Oh, and maybe a few side plates.”

“Mmmm,” Parker hummed, sounding very much like Gertie, “not-pancakes!” She reached out and picked up a scone, splitting it in half with a butter knife and lathering on the butter and jam.

“They’re called scones, Parker,” Sophie said with a sigh.

“Not pancakes?” Parker said before biting into the butter-glistening perfection.

“That’s right, not pancakes,” Sophie answered and then realised she had been cornered by Parker’s miles-out-of-the-box logic.

“But that’s just what I said … not-pancakes!” Parker mumbled while stuffing a loose crumb into her mouth.

“Dear god,” Sophie said to herself, “why do I bother … anyway,” she continued, rolling her eyes, “I want to know why dear Troy was so taken aback at the idea of Wapanjara being for sale,” she asked.

“Well … I can tell you now, he ain’t got the money to buy a second-hand pick-up,” Hardison commented as he placed the milk jug and sugar bowl down on the table. “The Albany Mining Company is workin’ on a hand-to-mouth basis. If someone’s wantin’ to buy this place and tryin’ to chase you guys off so you’ll sell cheap, it isn’t our good ol’ boy Rickenbacker. I think somebody else is funding the whole rig.”

“Why would he want it anyway? That’s what I can’t figure out,” Soapy said. “There’s been mining in the Barkly region for a century or more … mostly gold … but not here. There’s a little gold … some bauxite and manganese … but nothing worth mining. Albany wouldn’t be interested in the station as a livestock concern, so … what’s going on?”

Nate frowned as he studied the map and ate a scone.

“No idea.” He gestured at the north-west section of Wapanjara where the west paddock abutted not only aboriginal tribal land to the north and east but also what had once been Amery Downs sheep station and was now Albany Mining Company. “Soapy … how long has this ‘sniffing around’ been going on … all of this weird stuff that’s been happening?”

Soapy shrugged.

“I thought about three months, but thinking about it, maybe a bit longer. Y’know, daft stuff … gates left open … nobody out here leaves gates open … complaints from Albany about cattle getting out through the fences … isolated stuff here and there. But I keep my fences in good repair – Eliot knows that.”

Eliot nodded, grinning ruefully. “Yeah … I’ve fixed enough of ‘em over the years.”

“So … what’s been happening on tribal land?” Nate continued.

“Just sightings of trucks and horseback riders here and there … nothing concrete,” Charlie Jakkamarra said as he wandered into the yard, Kip running ahead of him. “If people want to go onto tribal land they have to get permission from the council, so … yeah … trespassers.”

Eliot stood up and clattered down the veranda steps to greet the man he regarded as a brother.

“Hey man … it’s good to see you!” he said softly, and then he ruffled Kip’s blond curls. “Hey buddy. How’re you doin’?” he asked.

“Is Lizzie here??” Kip asked, brown eyes wide.

“KIP!” Lizzie yelled, and ran down the steps to see her new friend. “We’re eating scones! Want one??”

“Wait a minute, ‘Lizbeth Grace …” Eliot said, “mind your manners. Let’s introduce everyone first.”

“Oh … yeah …” Lizzie thought about it for a moment, and then gestured at her family. “That’s my Daddy, my Mama, Hardison – I call him Alec – and Parker. Now would you like a scone??” she asked breathlessly.

Charlie grinned, and Eliot was pleased to see his friend’s dark eyes light up with pleasure. Charlie raised a hand in greeting.

“Charlie Jakkamarra, station manager … and this little tyke is my son, Christopher Eliot Jakkamarra. But we call him Kip.”

Eliot, to Team Leverage’s delight, blushed, the tips of his ears turning a delicate shade of pink.

“Y’know …” Sophie said, “Wapanjara never ceases to amaze me. Soapy, if you two ever really want to sell this place, let me know. It’s beautiful.”

Jo looked up at her husband and shook her head.

“This place … when we’ve gone, it’ll belong to Charlie and Eliot.”

And it was then that his friends realised how much Eliot loved his home and his people here in the remote Top End of Australia, and how much Wapanjara meant to him. And they also remembered his comment that he would die here … and he would be buried here. No matter where the team was in the world, Eliot had a home to go to.

Charlie made his way up the veranda steps and joined them, and Effie stumped out of the kitchen, her muddy eyes warm with the pleasure of seeing the young aborigine.

“About bloody time, boy. Sit. Eat.” She turned to the two children. “Do you two ankle-biters want some ice cream? I got mango or pash!”

“BOTH!” Kip yelled, and the two children pelted into the kitchen with Effie following, a knowing grin on her lumpy face.

Now with the children out of the way, they could get on with their discussion about why Wapanjara and its people were under threat.


“So … this is mostly happening on the north-west border of the station,” Nate pondered, as he looked at the station plan.

“Yeah …” Charlie stood beside him and pointed out places where gates had been left ajar, boundaries had been breached and on one occasion where cattle had strayed onto Albany land. “It’s the obvious place to push the issue if you want to incriminate Albany and Rickenbacker. But I don’t know …”

“What are you thinking, Charlie?” Sophie asked, seeing the doubt on the aborigine’s face.

“It’s a bit of a haul from the west boundary to get to the homestead to wreck the tower frame, and Eliot said your visitor rode off to the south. That’s Wapanjara land all the way to the highway, and to the north it’s Warumungu. It just seems strange, that’s all.”

“You think the hinky stuff up here,” Hardison prodded at the map, resting a long finger on the west boundary, “is a distraction?”

“No idea, mate. It just rubs me up the wrong way a bit,” Charlie pondered.

“Your crew … your stock hands … why did they leave?” Nate asked.

“At first it was just one or two,” Jo said sadly. She had known many of their stockmen for years. “Sick family members, that sort of thing. The first lads to leave were just here for a few months, and youngsters like to move on. But then they began to get wary. Jittery, even. They couldn’t look Soapy or me in the eye. It took nearly three months. But they all went, and on the face of it for perfectly good reasons … even our old hands, two of whom had been here for as long as Soapy and me. They just suddenly decided to retire. But the really annoying thing is that we can’t seem to hire anyone on. In this day and age, with a recession going on, and we can’t even hire a jackaroo or two,” she said bitterly.

“Jackaroo??” Hardison asked. “Who they?”

“Both Charlie and I have been a jackaroo … someone learning the job.” Eliot said, studying the map.

“Y’know,” Charlie said quietly, “the blokes used to hang out at a boozer in Tennant Creek … bit of a doggo place, but they’d go on a bender now and again and Mabel would let them sleep it off in the coal cellar. She runs the place,” he explained. “This all began when they came home from a booze-up at Mabel’s. After that, every time the hung-over buggers came back from a bender, one or two of them would be gone within a couple of days.”

“Interesting,” Nate said, and Sophie could almost see the cogs turning in his brain. “I think we, as the prospective buyers of Wapanjara, should perhaps go into Tennant Creek tomorrow and show our faces. Y’know … meet the locals.”

Eliot’s scowl turned into a wide, knowing grin. “Y’know Nate, I think I feel the yearnin’ for a cold beer comin’ on,” he said.

“Me too,” Charlie added, his dark eyes showing some life at last. “I think I need to get out for a bit. It would do me good. It’s too late today, but tomorrow is the day for picking up groceries and feed, so … why don’t we do that? I fancy a beer, so I do.”

Nate rubbed his hands together almost gleefully.

“Can we come??” Lizzie piped up, and everyone turned to see Kip and Lizzie working their way through platefuls of mango and passion fruit ice cream, courtesy of Effie.

“Actually, Kip came to ask you a favour,” Charlie said, studying Lizzie. “He goes back to school tomorrow … the first day back since … since she left,” his voice catching a little. “He, ah … he wondered if Lizzie would like to meet his class and talk about living in America.”

“I think that would be a lovely idea,” Sophie said smoothly. “Lizzie and I will be there. Where –“

“Oh, it’s via the internet. School of the Air. Our connection’s a little bit bung, but Kip can usually manage. His schoolmates live all over the Territory. So if Lizzie could come up to the bungalow tomorrow morning, he can introduce her via the video link.”

Hardison thought this was an excellent idea.

“Hey, man … I’ll see if I can help improve your link. I got some nifty little doo-dads that might work out here in the boonies.”

Lizzie, although not enamoured of school, thought about it.

“Can I bring my project? It’s about camels!” she said, and Kip nodded enthusiastically.

“That would be pretty great!” he said shyly. “Dad? Can she?”

Charlie winked at the two children and nodded.

“Okay, that’s sorted,” Nate said. “Hardison – go look at Charlie’s internet problems now, ‘cause you’re coming with us guys tomorrow. “

“Me too,” Parker said around a not-pancake. “What? Is it a boy’s day out or something?” she added, seeing the frowny faces. “I’m coming, and that’s that,” she stated before anyone could stop her, and licked jam off her fingers. “I haven’t anything to do. Nate’s plotting, Sophie’s grifting, Hardison’s … well … doing whatever it is Hardison does, and Eliot gets to be all growly and be Wilderness Eliot. Even Lizzie’s got to ride a camel. All I’ve done is climb a water tank. Well, phooey to that,” she snorted, her decision made. “I’m coming with.” She grinned. “Oh, and I hope you have an extra helmet around, Eliot, ‘cause I’ll be riding with you on the bike.”

Parker looked at the faces surrounding her. They ranged from Sophie’s smugness to scowly frustration, the latter being their short-tempered hitter. Eliot let out an explosive sigh of annoyance and glared at her.

“You start wrigglin’, Parker, an’ I leave you on the side of the road for the dingoes to eat, y’hear?

Parker grinned happily.

“Well that’s sorted then,” she said, and patted Charlie on the shoulder. “No worries, mate!”

Tomorrow, Nate thought, was going to be interesting.


“WOO-HOO!!!” Parker yelled, the wind catching her blonde hair as it flew around her face from under Soapy’s old motorcycle helmet as Eliot sped down the Stuart Highway towards Tennant Creek. Now this was what she was talking about! She could see the wonderful landscape of outback Australia unfold before her as she peered past Eliot’s shoulder, the only thing between her and the flies being her visor.

She unlocked one of her arms from around Eliot’s waist and twisted around, giving a couple of air punches to Hardison, following on behind the motorbike in Bernadette.

“Will you friggin’ sit still!!” Eliot yelled, and cringed as Parker gave him a hard poke in the ribs. The Ducati swerved slightly. “Shit!!” he yelped, although he knew neither of them were in any danger, but Parker could be nothin’ but a goddamn pain. “Dingoes, remember!!” He bawled, trying to make himself heard against the wind-noise. He swore to god he would never … ever … let Parker ride on one of his bikes again.

This is awesome!!” Parker yelled back, grinning.

In Bernadette, Charlie, sitting beside Hardison in the passenger seat, watched the young woman on the old bike, clinging to Eliot like a limpet and obviously having the time of her life.

“Is she always like that?” he asked, puzzled.

“Charlie … m’man … you have no idea …” Hardison muttered.

Soapy, sitting in the rear seat beside a drowsy Nate, chuckled. He had a feeling this little outing was going to be fun.


 

The afternoon was taken up with ordering feed and picking up essentials, and Nate made sure he dropped the name of Lady Eloise Stanton around whenever he could. Like all small communities, he knew the gossip would spread like wildfire, even though he never actually mentioned that Lady Eloise was trying to buy Wapanjara. The wonderfully unique character of Chinese whispers would soon put paid to any so-called secrets, and he wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the day it would be common news that a member of the British royal family was moving to Australia.

Parker wandered about, looking at the local stores, and found the people welcoming, chatty and kind, although a bit nosy. But that was okay, she thought – she discovered home-made treacle toffee, hats with corks suspended from the rim for the tourists who browsed through the local market, and she treated herself to a koala soft toy. Maybe Bunny would like company, she decided.

She re-joined her friends just as Soapy was stowing dry goods in one of Bernadette’s numerous bins, and she offered the pastoralist her bag of toffee. Hardison reached past Soapy and stole a piece and then instantly regretted it. The stuff was sticky enough to be used as super-glue.

Nate checked his watch.

“Okay guys and gal … let’s head to Rafferty’s and see how our presence will disturb the local low-class watering hole.”

Within minutes, the Ducati and Bernadette were parked in an abandoned lot behind the Tennant Creek dump, alongside a couple of battered utes and a twenty-five-year-old landrover.

Charlie was right – Rafferty’s was a little bit of a dump. A low building with a corrugated iron roof, the interior was bright and noisy, and the bar was propped up by a selection of men obviously having a cold beer after the end of a hard day in the spring heat. Some of them wore boiler suits and a couple of old drunks lounged next to a battered television suspended behind the bar. A game of Australian football was creating a noisy reaction amongst the customers, most of them obviously regulars.

But there was also a group of tough-looking customers wearing baseball caps, most of which carried the Albany Mining Company logo. One of them was Derry Ryan.

The only woman in the place before Parker walked in through the door was a middle-aged brassy blonde with a big, cheery smile.

“G’day, folks,” she called out as Nate led the way into the bar, Eliot bringing up the rear. “What can I getcha?”

“Oh, what’ve you got?” Nate asked, smiling genially.

“Well, a Yank! Welcome to Rafferty’s,” she answered, “I’m Mabel. This is my place. I got cold beer mostly, bottled or draft. Four-X? Foster’s? Or maybe you like American … Bud? Miller’s? Take your pick.”

“Foster’s,” Charlie said, setting a booted foot on the brass foot-rail and leaning on the bar.

Mabel frowned good-naturedly at the young aborigine.

“You been in here before, love? I remember you … coming in with that rowdy mob of charmers from Wapanjara, hey? I’ve not seen ‘em for a while.”

Charlie flashed Mabel a white smile.

“Yeah, that’s us,” he said, accepting a glass of beer so cold the condensation ran down the outside. “It’s getting warm out there, so we thought a beer would just hit the spot before we head home,” he added.

“I’ll just have a soda,” Nate said. He winked at Mabel. “Designated driver.”

“No probs, mate,” Mabel said. “It’s nice to see somebody plays by the rules,” she added acidly, looking pointedly at Ryan, who stood drinking further along the bar.

Ryan watched as Nate and the team took their drinks and leaned against the old, worn surface of the oak bar. A few of the regulars eyed Parker appreciatively. A pretty young woman in Rafferty’s was as rare as hen’s teeth.

“I uh … I heard Wapanjara’s on the market,” Mabel said, eyeing Soapy. The pastoralist was a well-known figure in Tennant Creek, and she recognised him instantly.

“Well …” Soapy said, humming and haa-ing a little, and then he gave Mabel a cheeky wink. “So they say …

Mabel laughed raucously, delighted.

“Keeping it under the table, hey! Well, I heard you’ve got some posh lady looking at the place – good luck to ya, pal! It’ll be a sweet deal if you pull it off!”

Soapy sipped his beer, but waggled his eyebrows at Mabel in agreement.

“Hey, girlie … want to join us for a drink?” The voice was rich with the tang of Belfast.

“Huh?” said Parker before she could even take a drink of her light beer. She turned and found Derry Ryan standing behind her. “Oh … hi!” she answered. “Um … no thanks,” she added, and turned back to her drink.

Eliot watched the big Ulsterman, his eyes narrowed. The big man’s cronies, he noticed, were mostly Chinese, he thought. Odd.

Silence fell around the bar, the only noise coming from the muted commentary on the television.

“Derry –“ Mabel warned.

“Shut it, Mabel,” Ryan said, his grey eyes stony. “I’m talking to blondie here,” he continued, his angular face studying Parker as though she was a piece of meat. “Come and have a drink with me. I’m better company than a couple of yanks, an old man and a bloody abo.”

Charlie twitched, but his half-smile never wavered.

Hardison, on the other hand, straightened, his dark eyes hooded.

“Back off, man –“

“Oh yeah,” Ryan said, his shark-like smile widening, “I forgot the nig – OOF!”

His grunt of agony came as his eyes began to water as Parker, smiling sweetly, dug her strong fingers into his crotch. Her nails began to cut off the blood supply to very sensitive parts of his anatomy he thought essential.

“I don’t like you,” Parker hummed softly. “Go away.” And giving Ryan’s groin a hard, scrunching, parting squeeze, she let go and turned back to her friends.

“You bitch –“ Ryan snarled, his voice betraying the pain Parker had caused.

Eliot caught the wrist of the hand Ryan had raised to Parker, but before he could break the bones a baseball bat slammed down on the bar, the noise echoing through the still room.

“Derry!” Mabel growled, her good humour nowhere to be seen. “Out! D’you hear me? OUT! You and your merry men! No fighting in here – I like having a liquor license!!”

The Irishman scowled, but pulled his hand out of Eliot’s grasp and gestured at his cronies. Jerking his head silently, the men reluctantly put their beer glasses on the bar, pulled out a few dollars as payment and wandered after Ryan as he left the bar. Eliot watched as the man glanced back as the door closed behind him.

Mabel lifted her baseball bat from the bar, and grinned apologetically.

“Sorry about that. He’s a bit of a pain, sometimes. He used to hassle the Wapanjara blokes every chance he could for some reason.”

Nate, eyes softening with humour, thanked her for his drink and raised the glass to her in a salute.

“Ma’am, you’ve never seen a bar in Boston when the Patriots are three points down in the last quarter with twenty seconds to go,” he said, and took a mouthful of the lemonade Mabel had placed in front of him. “Anyway … where were we …”

And for a little while, Team Leverage and the Wapanjara owner and station manager relaxed in a doggo bar behind the dump in Tennant creek, Australia, and chatted with Mabel about the pros and cons of the recession and what it meant to the local economy. Perhaps having a member of the British aristocracy living locally might be a benefit, it was decided.

But they all noticed Eliot didn’t touch his beer.


It was getting dark as they left Rafferty’s.

Mabel had prodded them for more information on the supposed sale of Wapanjara, and they had played along, giving little hints here and there, and promising to bring Lady Eloise Stanton along to the dingy bar next time she came to Tennant Creek.

It was as Eliot emerged to a resplendent sunset that he murmured loud enough for his friends to hear, but no further.

“Soapy … stay out of the way, okay? I’m not goin’ to explain to Jo why you got beat up on a regular trip for groceries.”

Soapy flexed his hands, but nodded. At nearly seventy years old, he was a little too old for a good brawl.

Eliot’s blue eyes checked the lot where Bernadette and the Ducati were parked. The two utes were still there but the landrover was gone.

“You think –“ Hardison said nervously.

“Dammit, Hardison!” Eliot said sotto voce, “how long have we been doin’ this! You an’ Parker keep an eye on Soapy an’ Charlie … I don’t want ‘em hurt.”

“Eliot –“

“Nate … let me do what I gotta do. If you want to throw a punch or two feel free, but don’t get in my way, okay?”

They began to head for Bernadette when a figure stepped out of one of the utes, silhouetted against the setting sun.

“Hey, cowboy,” Ryan said. “Just want a quick word.”

Eliot sauntered to a halt, and the others ranged out behind him. The Irishman had chosen his position well – the sun’s rays made Eliot squint, but there wasn’t much he could do about it right now.

“And what word would that be?” he asked casually.

“Leave,” Ryan said, his Belfast accent full of distaste. “Go back to bloody Hicksville, or wherever it is you come from. And take your hoity-toity tart of a boss with you. Wapanjara won’t be sold to you.”

Eliot’s eyes creased into a warm smile.

“Seriously? Why? You want to buy it? Ask the Munros and make a bigger offer,” he said, amused.

Ryan turned to Soapy.

“You don’t sell to her, old man. You hear me? Not her.”

Soapy’s grin was feral.

“Rack off, you arse,” he said, and clenched his fist.

And it was then that Eliot saw a movement out of the corner of his eye, but his vision, limited by the brightness of the sun, couldn’t quite make out what it was. And then his eyes cleared a little and he knew exactly what it was.

A slight figure, almost like a child, moved like lightning and he caught the sudden, lethal glint of a knife aiming straight for his chest.

 

To be continued …


Author’s note:

* Read about Eliot, Hardison and Parker going head-to-head with the wilderness in ‘A Walk on the Wild Side.’

 

Chapter Text

Eliot shifted his balance onto his left leg and twisted sideways even as he felt the sting of the blade as it nicked his right biceps, and he swore under his breath. His left hand grasped his assailant’s wrist and his right pushed at the figure’s shoulder in a smooth move intended to dump his attacker on the ground.

But he was profoundly surprised when a small, fine-boned hand punched him hard in the chest and staggered him and he let go of the hand bearing the knife. It swept forward again, once more aiming straight for the place under Eliot’s sternum where the slender blade could slice slightly upwards through his heart and surrounding major arteries. Eliot would be dead in seconds.

But a hand grabbed hold of Eliot’s jacket and he was yanked sideways, and then all hell broke loose.

Once again the knife came at him, even as Nate let go of Eliot’s jacket and took on a heavily-built man who was targeting Soapy, and Eliot saw the slight figure slide back and away only to come at him again from another angle, stark against the setting sun.

But Eliot let loose a flurry of short, chopping blows that powered the figure backwards even as the razor-sharp blade nicked him again, this time pricking his chest, and he felt a tiny stream of blood trickle down to his belly, soaking his shirt. Damn … that was deeper than he had anticipated. But he pushed forwards, driving his assailant backwards until … whoever … slipped and fell to one knee, nearly dropping the knife in an attempt to stay upright.

Eliot let his breath hiss through his teeth and he caught the figure as it got to its feet and he let fly with a neat but powerful slam with the heel of his hand that made whoever-it-was gasp with agony, and the small, slender shadow-person staggered back and wiped blood from their face.

Nate was piling into the heavy-set man and out of the corner of his eye Eliot could see Hardison flatten a skinny fellow with a pretty decent left hook, the tall hacker whirling to take on another attacker coming in from his left.

And then, goddammit, he saw Soapy floor Derry Ryan with a calculated blow to the throat and backing it up with a sharp kick to the Irishman’s sternum as he went down.

Soapy!! Back off, man! Hardison!! Help Soapy will ya!!”

“Don’t need help, boy! Look after yourself –“ Soapy yelled back, looking as fearsome as a snake on the prowl.

Eliot growled and began to run towards Soapy, knowing he had to protect him … save him for Jo, and make sure Charlie went home safely to his son –

… and then Eliot was tackled to the ground by what felt like a rhino. The man crashed on top of him and Eliot bucked hard, trying to dislodge the moron, but he just couldn’t move nearly three hundred pounds of human sitting astride his chest.

The pressure on his ribs was agonising. His focus, such as it was as the black spots of impending unconsciousness prickled around his vision, settled on the enormous fist that was heading his way, and he knew if it landed it would break something as well as leave him with a concussion he could do well without.

But suddenly the enormous man jerked and folded sideways - remarkably gracefully, Eliot thought – and crumpled groaning to the ground clutching a broken upper arm, revealing Parker holding what appeared to be small length of piping which she had used on the man’s shoulder. She was grinning like an idiot.

She held out a hand and helped Eliot to his feet, only for the shadow-warrior appear from nowhere and whirl a kick at Parker that would have broken her knee had it landed. But Eliot suddenly grasped Parker’s shirt front, hauled her towards him and in one smooth, elegant move, lifted her sideways and pushed her away from him.

“Stay put, will ya?” he yelled, exasperated, “I can’t keep an eye – “

And then the goddamn knife nicked him again, this time through his nearly-new jacket and into his shoulder, and that really pissed him off, because, dammit, he really liked this jacket and now it had a friggin’ hole in it and Effie would make his life friggin’ hell for getting blood all over his clothes.

ELIOT!!

He turned at Parker’s yell and she threw him the pipe, and he caught and twirled the short length of metal, wielding it expertly to deflect yet another blow from his mystery assailant. He still hadn’t managed a good look at whoever it was, but for all their slight build, they were extremely skilled and very dangerous indeed.

And then it became a beautiful, frightening and lethal dance of death as Eliot and his nemesis wove patterns of light in the ensuing gloom, the last vestiges of the sun striking the shining blade and the dull length of pipe, Eliot’s solid build and his unknown enemy’s tiny frame oddly well matched. Both were deadly, skilled fighters, and the knife slid past the pipe to clip Eliot’s forearm while the pipe caught the small figure hard enough for Eliot to hear the grunt of pain as the metal connected with the figure’s shoulder.

They both stepped away from one another, breathing hard, and Eliot couldn’t make out any features in the lessening light, but before they could engage in another round of blows, Derry Ryan staggered to his feet and stumbled his way back to the utes.

Eliot could see Charlie demolishing a broad, rangy man with a flurry of well-placed, accurate punches, but Ryan’s voice rang out and the man managed to pull himself away from Charlie’s grasp.

“Leave ‘em!! Let’s go!!” Ryan gasped.

Eliot wasn’t too sure how many men there were, but he didn’t have any time to think about it as the phantom attacked him again, this time the knife aiming for his leg. He knew what this crazy ninja-person was doing … trying to cut the tendon behind his knee, and then once Eliot was down and crippled, the knife would slide home into his chest or his throat.

“Khen!!! KHENBISH!! Leave him!! NOW!!” Ryan bawled, his voice hoarse from the damage Soapy had inflicted on his throat.

The figure stopped dead it its tracks, knife poised, even as Eliot prepared to do his best to break the phantom’s neck. And in a heartbeat, the figure ran lightly to the other ute, following Ryan and his stumbling, hurt men, and within seconds the vehicles were heading out at speed, away from the abandoned, run-down lot and from the six people now standing panting in the evening light.

Eliot limped over to Soapy, the older man leaning on Charlie’s shoulder. The young station manager was grinning, a wild light in his dark eyes. The pair of them looked thoroughly pleased with themselves.

Dammit, Soapy!! What did I say about stayin’ outta this?? Jo’s gonna have my hide for a duster when she sees you … both of you!!” Eliot growled, wincing as the sting of his cuts began to get more painful as the adrenaline wore off.

Soapy had bruised knuckles and a cut under his eye and Charlie’s nose was bloody, but that didn’t seem to worry either of them, and Eliot had to admit Charlie looked more like his old self than he had since Alice died. Perhaps pummelling the crap out of one of Derry Ryan’s cronies made him feel as though he had worked out some of his grief on one of the people who might have been responsible for her death.

Nate wandered over, dabbing at a split lip.

“Give them a break, Eliot … they’re fine, both of them. They look as though they can handle themselves.”

Hardison, face wreathed in a cocky grin, sauntered across, rubbing cut knuckles.

“Two, Eliot! I took out two of ‘em!” he drawled, thoroughly proud of himself.

“You’re bleeding!” Parker snapped, her eyes narrowing as she perused Eliot. “Let me see!” And she began to tug his shirt out of his pants belt so she could check his wounds, but Eliot fended her off as gently and as firmly as he could.

“M’okay, Parker! It’s these two idiots I’m worried about!” Eliot gestured angrily at Soapy and Charlie. “You could’ve got your sorry asses killed!”

“Now, son, stop getting your undies in an uproar,” Soapy said in a conciliatory tone and smirking at the Oklahoman. “You know damn’ well I can take care of myself in a pinch, and I think it’s done Charlie the world of good, don’t you?”

Eliot stabbed a finger at no-one in particular, his face suffused with anger.

That ain’t the point!! My job is to keep you safe – that’s what I do, an’ there’s a little boy who needs his father an’ Jo needs you, Soapy, you know that! I can’t be worryin’ about you an’ … an’ …” He suddenly stammered to silence, and he understood then that his anger had boiled into suppressed grief and pain, his lips set in a thin line of hurt. “DAMMIT!” he ground out, and Parker, perhaps the only person on earth who could do what she did then with any safety, wrapped her arms around Eliot and clung to him, her head between his shoulder-blades, one hand rubbing his chest and to hell with the pain it caused.

Eliot realised he was shaking.

“It’s okay to breathe, Eliot,” Parker said quietly, and the hitter slowly forced his breathing to slow and become steady instead of the hitching, stuttering mess Parker was trying to ease.

Soapy began to look a little sheepish, and rested a bruised hand on Eliot’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, boy. You’re right. Still … we’re all upright, so let’s go home, hey? By the way … who was that little arse with the knife? Are you okay?”

Eliot looked around him and saw that his team and family were alright, if a little bruised here and there. He was bleeding, but he would make it home easily enough if he patched himself up.

“C’mon,” Parker whispered, patting Eliot’s damaged chest. “Let’s get you cleaned up a bit. Effie is going to be so pissed.”

“Hey … guys …” Hardison said wistfully. “I took down two baddies. Look!” he waved his hands about as if to prove his point. “My knuckles’re all beat up … guys?? Guys???”

Parker let go of Eliot and grasping the sleeve of his jacket, dragged him over to Bernadette where she unshipped a flashlight and the big medical kit and proceeded to try and mop up blood, Eliot protesting loudly about the fuss.

Nate grinned at Hardison, wincing at the pull on his split lip.

“You’ll live, Hardison. Let’s go back to Wapanjara.”

Hardison scowled.

“But Nate … two bad guys!” he repeated, a little desperately.

But nobody took any notice as they wandered back to Bernadette, rubbing sore bits and admiring each other’s bruises.

Hardison sighed and trailed behind, muttering to himself.

“Yeah, sure, Hardison … you did good, buddy … two bad guys … eat your heart out Spencer, m’man … but no … it’s you gettin’ the attention jus’ ‘cause you’re bleedin’ all over the damn place …”

And wincing at the pain in his precious hands, he pulled out Bernadette’s ignition keys.


It turned out that Parker was wrong.

Oh, Effie was pissed, alright. But so were Jo and Sophie.

It had been a long, long time since Soapy had been in Jo’s bad books, but she certainly made up for it as he sat on the veranda under the lights as she cleaned the cut below his eye and ranted at him as though he was a five-year old. The only blessing to the whole debacle was that she had to rant in a loud whisper as both Lizzie and Kip, who was having a sleep-over, were out like a light in Oggie’s tent.

“But Jo –“

“Don’t you ‘but Jo’ me, you old fool!!” she hissed, “you cracked some ribs and had a concussion just a week or so ago, and you get into a bar fight??

“Well, not really a bar fight –“

“I don’t care … you got into a fight!! You were too old for that twenty years ago, you nerk!!”

Soapy shrugged, a little embarrassed.

“Well, it just kind of happened, and -“

“Theodore Alphonse Munro Junior, if you weren’t already recovering from a bashed noggin I’d get Effie to give you the hardest head slap she can muster!”

Soapy sighed. She was using his given name, and he knew then that she was furious with him. It was time to concede.

“Sorry, love,” he muttered and then winced as his irate wife pressed on the cut under his eye. Oh well. He supposed he deserved it. “Won’t happen again.”

“It’d better bloody not!” Jo said.


“I took two of ‘em down, Effie! Two!! Ow!!!” Hardison winced as Effie wiped his cut knuckles with antiseptic and he told her about the ambush in the abandoned lot.

“Next time, you young boofhead, keep your fist tighter and wrap your thumb over your fingers – that way you won’t break anything,” Effie commented as she taped up Hardison’s hands. “Bloody stupid – hasn’t anyone ever taught you how to hit somebody??”

“Well, now you mention it …” Hardison said, glaring at Eliot as Parker helped the hitter ease off his undershirt as he sat on the kitchen table so he wouldn’t drip blood on the floor, “ … not really.”

“That’s because you’re more of a liability in a fight, Hardison! All that … arm-wavy … thing you do an’ dancin’ around like you’re walkin’ on some kind of hot coals!!” Eliot hissed in pain as Parker prodded at the still-oozing nick in his chest. “That’s why I do the fist-fighty stuff!”

“Hey! I do my ‘floatin’ like a butterfly thing, Eliot!! Helps distract the enemy!”

“Yeah, so they can’t hit back for laughin’!” Eliot retorted and then winced as Parker began to clean up blood.

“Sit still!” Parker ordered, and scowled at Eliot, who grimaced back. Nate wandered into the kitchen with Sophie and Charlie, the latter having some cotton wool stuffed up one nostril. Sophie studied both men with ill-concealed disdain.

“A bar-fight? Seriously, Nate? At your age? Charlie, I can understand, and Eliot … well, Eliot’s just Eliot –“

“Hey!!” I’m here, y’know. I can hear you!” Eliot grumbled.

“So shut up,” Parker scolded, and taped a dressing over the cut in his chest and moved on to the one in his shoulder. “Who was that who did this?” she added, studying the nick. It was deep, and she wondered if it needed a stitch or two. “I couldn’t see whoever it was really well, but they were fast!” she added, concerned at the deadly turn the evening had taken.

Eliot shook his head.

“Don’t know. But they were damn good,” he pondered. He thought about the skill set of his assailant. The style was vaguely familiar … a martial art, he knew, and he thought about the spartan execution … never a wasted move, functional yet elegant – “Xing Ye Quan!” he said suddenly. “I knew I’d seen it someplace before. It’s a battlefield style – no fuss, you get the job done as soon as you can. It’s been part of the Chinese elite for hundreds of years. It’s aggressive an’ practical. You don’t see it much in our business, but … it’s pretty distinctive.”

Parker bit her lip.

“This needs stitches, Eliot. It’s deep.”

Eliot raised an eyebrow.

“So stitch it, Parker. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.” He checked Charlie. “You doin’ okay, man?”

Charlie unplugged his nose and sniffed to see if the blood had dried up. He grinned.

“I never thought I’d ever feel better, but … I do. I feel as though I’m doing something, at least, to … to … just know why. I need to know why they took her away from us. So I can try and explain the whole bloody mess to Kip when he’s older.” His voice hitched a little, and Nate put a hand on the young widower’s shoulder.

“You never get over it, Charlie … but you do get used to it. Believe me, I know … and I tried my damnedest to kill the pain instead of learning to live with it. If we can give you answers … then hopefully at least the pain will become manageable.”

Charlie knew about Sam. He knew that Nate had spent years trying to drink away the ache of loss, and Charlie wanted nothing more than to get rid of the pain of losing the love of his life. But he also knew he had to look forward, because Kip was all he had left of Alice, and he was damned if he would let anything harm that.

Parker broke out a needle holder, sterile needle and suture thread and prepared to clean up the nasty cut in Eliot’s shoulder. Eliot, who had stitched himself up more times than he cared to remember, was secretly grateful for Parker’s care, and gritted his teeth as she began to skilfully push the needle through the flesh with the holder.

“Somethin’ … ow! Jeez, Parker!!” Eliot grunted in protest as Parker none-too-gently inserted the needle through the left side of the cut, and then grumpily continued with his line of thought. “There was somethin’ … Ryan shouted out a name, or … or order, maybe … it sounded like ‘Ken’ … and then ‘Knish’ or ‘Kenbish’ or …” he sighed, frustrated. “It sounded familiar, but I can’t figure out where the hell I heard it before.” He flinched as Parker tugged the thread through the incision. That was the bit he hated most of all.

“I still can’t figure out why they don’t want you to sell,” Nate pondered, careful of his split lip. “The whole thing’s just all out of whack. And now there’s this strange Chinese connection,” he added, puzzled.

Effie had finished cleaning up Hardison’s knuckles and shooed him away so she could make hot chocolate on her old cooking range, and she gave Eliot a gentle clip on the ear in passing, before spooning chocolate powder into rich, creamy milk, added vanilla, and set the big pan on the hotplate.

Eliot let out a rumbling curse of protest, but knowing it was done out of what Effie would label as love, he let the head-slap pass, although Hardison was delighted. He thought Effie, next to his Nana, was the coolest person ever.

Parker finished the third stitch and cut the thread, and then perused her handiwork as Jo wandered through followed by a resigned Soapy.

“You’d better check him in the morning, sweetie,” Jo said to Parker. “Cuts can fester here in the outback overnight.”

“I’ll be fine –“ Eliot cut in as Parker helped him put on a tee-shirt.

“I will, Jo, I promise,” Parker smiled at Jo, completely charmed. She wasn’t used to being called ‘sweetie’, and she was touched that Jo thought of her so kindly. “Don’t argue, Eliot. I’ll check you out before breakfast.”

“God, El … you are so ass-whupped, m’man!” Hardison crowed.

Eliot was very pleased indeed to see Hardison yelp with surprise as Effie slapped him hard on the back of the head.


It was past midnight and everyone else had retired to their beds over an hour earlier, but Eliot wandered over to the south paddock gate and fussed Gertie for a while. She burbled and hummed, sniffing at him in concern. She had seen him hurt before, and it always worried her, and she lipped at the bandage on his forearm.

“M’okay, darlin’ … nothin’ serious this time, I promise …” Eliot murmured, scratching Gertie’s head. The big camel leaned her head on Eliot’s shoulder, and he let her even though it pulled the stitches in the cut there.

So he stood there for a while, allowing the cool evening breeze sooth him. He inhaled the scent of newly-flowered jasmine, and he listened to the night-noises of the outback. It was a clear night, and away from the veranda lights he could see the outlines of the hills behind the station.

Who was this mysterious assailant who had attacked him with such skill and speed? He had a name now … Khenbish. It had come to him as he sat on the veranda drinking Effie’s excellent hot chocolate.

He knew of only one person called Khenbish. But it couldn’t be her, surely. She had been dead, as far as Eliot knew, for over a decade. He didn’t know much about her other than she wasn’t Chinese – she was Mongolian, an unwanted child from a large family of the reclusive yet powerful Khoton clan. She was one of the deadliest undercover agents China had ever produced.

The reason for her success was her ordinariness. She was unassuming, bland … anonymous. Eliot smiled grimly. Even her name suited her. Khenbish in Mongolian meant ‘nobody.’

But he had known so-called ‘dead’ agents come back to life many times – hell, he’d even done it himself once or twice. So, he wouldn’t be surprised if the woman was still alive.

He looked skyward and took in the huge night sky, the crescent moon hanging bright over the top of the hill over which the road to Wapanjara ran, the stand of stringybarks stark against the ghost-light of the moon.

But one of the black shapes moved.

It resolved into a figure, small and sparely-built, and Eliot pushed Gertie’s head from his shoulder and walked into the centre of the yard to where the moonlight cast inky shadows. He stood where the figure could see him, clear and solid in the moon-glow, and he looked back at the figure who stared down at him.

They studied one another for long moments, and then, in an unmistakeable gesture of disdain, Eliot slowly turned his back on the figure, walked back to the house, and was gone.

 

To be continued …

 

Chapter Text

Lizzie and Kip thought they were the first ones awake the next morning. They hauled themselves out of their respective bunks in Oggie’s ‘Nipper Nest’ - as Effie had nicknamed it - and unzipping the entrance, they were on the point of roaring up to the house in their pyjamas to see if Effie was around. They both knew that the little cook would feed them if only to keep them quiet until everyone else had roused from their slumber, but they were surprised when they found the entrance blocked by an Eliot.

He was sprawled out on his fold-down bed, guarding the entrance to the children’s sleeping area, warmly wrapped in his blankets and apparently sound asleep.

But Lizzie gasped as she saw the dressing on the wound in his exposed shoulder, and the bandage covering the cut in his biceps.

“Eliot –“ she whispered, her eyes round.

“It’s okay, ‘Lizbeth Grace,” Eliot said softly without opening his eyes. “I’m alright. Just thought I’d keep an eye on you young ‘uns through the night.”

“But … but you’re hurt –“ Lizzie continued, worried, and crouched down beside her best friend, Kip standing beside her, his cuddly goanna toy in one hand.

Eliot opened an eye and smiled his Lizzie-smile, a half-hitch of his mouth which made his laughter lines appear.

“I’ll be fine. Go on now … Effie’s awake an’ cookin’, and if you’re lucky you might get a pancake before Hardison wakes up an’ eats ‘em all,” he said warmly.

Kip gazed at Eliot and then at his injuries.

“Is my dad – “

“He’s asleep on the veranda, an’ he’s perfectly okay.” Eliot widened his smile and opened his other eye. “Your pa …” he added quietly, “… is a very brave man. But I reckon he could probably do with a hug right now. Think you can do that before gettin’ your pancakes?”

“Really???” Kip asked with wonder. “Was he in a fight??”

Eliot closed his eyes and winced as he shifted into a position where his injuries didn’t hurt quite so much.

“We’ll tell you about it over breakfast. Go give your pop his hug an’ leave this beat-up ol’ soldier to get a little more sleep. Damn, I’m as stiff as hell …” he muttered, and pulling his blankets over his shoulder, tried to relax.

“See you in the kitchen!” Kip said to Lizzie hurriedly, and ran off to find his father while Lizzie knelt down beside Eliot. The hitter felt a small hand cup his cheek. He sighed.

“’Lizbeth Grace … I’m tired an’ I’m sore, so stop worryin’ and go get fed. I’ll be ready for breakfast in an hour or so, so go pester Effie an’ go away,” he said good-naturedly.

“I don’t like it when you’re hurt,” she said, her voice wavering.

Eliot raised an eyebrow even as he tried to slide back into sleep.

“It happens, sweetheart, you know that. Anyway, wait until you see your daddy’s lip. Oh, an’ while you’re at it, ask Hardison about the two guys he hit. He’ll tell you all about it. At least twice. So git, an’ leave me be.”

“Oh … okay.” Lizzie said. Eliot heard a sigh, and then he felt a tiny kiss on the very end of his nose. “But I want to know everything!” Lizzie continued. “I bet Mama’s throwing a blue fit!!

And there was another phrase Eliot would be having words with Hardison about. He heard the little girl get to her feet and wander off towards the kitchen. Damn, but he ached. He was gettin’ far too old for this kind of nonsense, he decided. And settling once more into the warm embrace of his bed, Eliot Spencer fell into an uneasy doze.


Breakfast that morning was far from quiet.

Two, baby-girl! Two bad guys!” Hardison said enthusiastically, “that’s one more than Eliot!”

“Yeah, well, mine had a knife!” Eliot growled as he forked more food onto his plate.

“Grandpa Soapy, did you save anyone’s life?” Kip said, his eyes round with amazement.

Soapy ducked his head shyly and grinned.

“Well –“

“Grandpa Soapy should know better!” Jo retorted as she poured herself a cup of tea. “Fighting isn’t something to be admired, young man!”

Kip tried to look chastened, but he couldn’t stop the smile from creeping onto his face as he glanced at his father, who now sported a bruise on the bridge of his nose and a swollen cheek. His Dad was amazing.

They finished eating and as Parker helped Effie to clear the table, the children were excused and Kip led the way down to the yard with Lizzie and Buster in tow, the little terrier ready to have a great day digging holes and haring around doing doggy stuff.

“Hey!” Eliot called out. “You two stay in the yard where we can see you, okay?? An’ keep Buster with you! No wanderin’ around, y’hear?”

Both children bawled a distracted agreement, and dashed off yelling.

“Are you going to tell us what’s going on?” Nate asked quietly as he sipped coffee. “Parker said she found you asleep in front of the kids’ door this morning,” he added.

Eliot leaned back in his chair and waited until Effie and Parker joined them, and sighed.

“Her name is Khenbish Hadan. She’s the most dangerous operative China has … had,” he corrected himself. “She was watchin’ us last night.” He looked at Sophie. “She doesn’t care who she kills. Women … men … children … they’re all targets to her.”

Hardison frowned and looked over at his god-daughter who was watching Buster excavate a hole at the base of a gum tree, Kip giggling as dirt flew in all directions.

Eliot’s eyes were chilly blue.

“Maybe you guys should take Lizzie back to Portland,” he said. His face was stern and worried. “Whatever the hell’s goin’ on, the fact Hadan’s hangin’ around here means it’s goddamn serious. Charlie … I’d take Kip to your folks if I were you. In fact … I’d be happy if you all left for a while. Let me take care of Hadan.”

Nate looked at Sophie, eyebrows raised in query.

“Well, what do you think? You could take Lizzie back home, and we can stay and –“

“No,” Sophie’s reply was emphatic, much to everyone’s surprise, especially Eliot’s. “You need me to finish the job. And,” she continued, holding up a hand to stop Eliot’s growl of protest, “if we don’t finish the job, your family won’t be safe. We’ll be leaving them out on a limb. This needs to end or Soapy and Jo’s life – and probably Effie’s and Charlie’s – won’t be worth a bugger. Kip … that’s a different matter. He can go –“

“Not going to happen, Sophie,” Charlie said, his voice sad with loss. “The last thing Kip needs is being fobbed off on relatives. Look … this is Kip’s home. It’ll be his home long after I’m gone. He’s happy here, and the last thing he needs is more disruption. And with you lot here …” he gestured at his new friends, “we’re probably safer at Wapanjara than anywhere else.”

Eliot wiped a hand over his face and then ran fingers through his hair, as he often did when he was frustrated. But, he had to admit, Charlie had a point.

Sophie leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table.

“Eliot … Charlie’s right. Lizzie is safest here with us. With you. You’re her guardian and her best friend. No-one could keep her any safer. And there’s the fact that if we sent her away with her knowing you’re in danger, she would never forgive either Nate or me. We’re better than the FBI and NSA combined, and if we close ranks and work together as we’ve always done, we can end this.”

Eliot turned all of this information over in his mind, but he already knew the views of his friends by the expression on their faces.

“She targeted me, you know that,” he cautioned. “She knows what I am.”

“Yes, well,” Parker said, “you know who and what she is, so that makes sense, don’t you think?”

“But why? Just what the hell is going on???” Soapy asked, exasperation now in every word.

Eliot’s gaze sought out the two children playing in the yard, and he felt his stomach knot with fear. What if … but no, he decided. He couldn’t think like that. If he did, then Hadan’s mind games had succeeded.

“But if she knows your skill set, then won’t that blow our cover?” Hardison asked. “I’ve just got everyone’s stories in place an’ I’ll tell ya, it was a damn’ pain! If I never see another picture of a cow it’ll be too soon!” he added, irritated.

Nate shook his head.

“I don’t think it’ll make one bit of difference. So Lady Eloise has hired an ex-special forces professional with twenty years’ worth of experience, and who also knows a thing or two about cattle and all of this outdoors-y stuff. So what? Eliot is, in fact, a pretty logical choice. They’ll probably think he’s an up-market security guy who also happens to be a cowboy. It works.”

Eliot turned the whole thing over in his head a couple of times, and then had to grudgingly agree both Nate and Sophie were right. But putting Lizzie in any kind of danger … hell, it made his heart almost stop in mid-beat.

He threw up his hands in resignation.

“Okay … okay, you got me. At least we’re all within sight of one another we can keep the kids safe. But … I think we need to take a look at Albany. Any way we can use earbuds?”

Hardison pondered the issue for a moment, and then shrugged.

“Yeah, I guess, but only around the homestead. Cell ‘phones the same – although the upgrade I installed on the satellite dish should help. Google Earth is a no-no – not enough band-width. But out in the bug-ridden, scary ol’ wilderness? I doubt it. Too many dips an’ hollows. We maybe gotta go stone-age an’ use walkie-talkies an’ even they might not work.”

“There’s a radio in every vehicle we have, and they still work alright,” Soapy said. “We have a couple we carry when we’re out on horseback, and the reception’s not too bad. But how are we going to get a look at Albany?”

And Hardison did that thing when he had the answer and no-one else did. He beamed brightly and rubbed his hands together.

“I think, my friends, it’s about time you met Larry, Curly and Mo!”


“A drone?? You’ve built a drone??” Nate gaped at the small, unobtrusive machine that looked like a cross between a mechanical praying mantis and a helicopter. The weird-looking contraption was parked somewhat menacingly on Oggie’s kitchen surface.

“Technically, a quadrocopter … a UAV with military standard stealth software an’ facial recognition capabilities,” Hardison explained smugly. “Larry here is my spy drone. Curly deals with tactical issues when I don’t have stuff like CCTVs to work with, an’ Mo … well, he’s just packed full of heat-sensor equipment an’ search an’ rescue sequentials.”

“You really have to get a life, Hardison,” Eliot muttered as he bent over and studied Larry’s sleek casing. He poked at a hexagonal box suspended under Larry’s chassis between the two curved legs. “It’s a camera, right?”

Hardison batted Eliot’s hand away and frowned.

“Hey, man! Fingers off! I don’t want clumsy fingerprints all over the damn lens, okay???” The hacker couldn’t stop the pride leaking out of him. “Yeah … camera … it’s mounted on a 3-axis precision gimbal, it’s got ultra hi-def video … slo-mo … no-distortion lens … all the bells an’ whistles, bro. Jus’ the thing to deal with Albany Mining Company. All we gotta do is get reasonably close.”

“How close?” Eliot asked, thinking about locations.

“Four miles, maybe a little bit more. But that limits us to only twenty-five minutes flyin’ time.”

“How quiet is it?”

Hardison dismissed that with a shrug.

“Military standard stealth mode, remember?”

Eliot leaned carefully against Bernadette’s bulk and scratched his neck as his team, Soapy and Jo studied Larry’s elegant design.

“Bore Seven,” Eliot said, eyeing Soapy.

The pastoralist nodded.

“That’s about as close as we can get and stay on Wapanjara land.” He looked at the group of people around him. “Bore Seven supplies the water to the house as well as that part of the west paddock. But it’s a bit of a beggar to get there. We usually have to back-pack in on horseback. I’ve had plans to dig a new bore close to the house, but … well, other things get in the way … you know how it is …”

Eliot grinned wryly.

“Well, seein’ as you had water problems with the house intake and supply, it makes sense to go out there an’ check it. Hardison?” He turned to the hacker. “How do you feel about riding a horse?”

“Huh? What? A horse?” Hardison’s jaw dropped. “Oh, no-no-no-no-“

Eliot grinned, a wicked glint in his eye.

“You got a choice – horse or camel,” he said, unable to control the triumph in his tone.

“Wait … I-I-can’t – horses???” Hardison blustered, horrified.

“Well … yeah, Hardison. Not unless you can get Larry here,” he patted the drone, “to carry your sorry, heavy behind over nothin’ but bush. And you know what’s in the bush … snakes. Lots an’ lots of snakes.”

Hardison shuddered.

“Horses … blech!” Parker huffed.

“You said it, babe,” Hardison breathed, thoroughly un-nerved by the whole idea.

“An’ this from the man who took down two bad guys to my one, and you’re afraid of a horse,” Eliot scoffed.

Hardison brightened suddenly.

Bernadette! She’s designed for that kinda thing! We can –“

Eliot shook his head sagely.

“Nope. She won’t. C’mon Hardison … where’s that heroic nerd we all know and love?”

“But … horses –“

Jo patted Hardison on the shoulder sympathetically.

“Don’t worry, son – it’s not that bad. It’ll only be a few hours each way.”

“Hours?? On a horse?? Nuh-uh.” Hardison began to back up, stumbling into Bernadette’s rear, “Not goin’ to happen, m’man, no way Jose –“

“Soapy, we’ll keep an eye on the kids while Eliot and Hardison check out Albany,” Nate was already in mastermind mode, “and – how long will you guys need?” he asked, mid-flow.

“If we head off today we’ll get there mid-afternoon,” Eliot said, “it’ll give Hardison a chance to do a fly-over. We camp overnight, let Larry do his thing again at sun-up an’ head home. Easy.”

“I am not –“ Hardison grouched, desperate now because it was obvious no-one was taking any notice of him whatsoever.

“We need to know exactly what they’re up to … layout, activity … see if we can figure out how many of them there are. And see what the hell the Chinese have to do with it!” Nate added, the exasperation obvious in his voice.

Dammit, people –“ Hardison was bordering on panic.

“Suck it up, Hardison,” Eliot rumbled. “It ain’t gonna kill you, so go pack up little Larry here and be ready in thirty minutes. I’ll have provisions, hammocks … everythin’ we need ready to go, okay?”

“But …” Hardison watched as his team … his friends … headed off to do whatever it was they needed to do, and he listened to the screams of two happy children as Buster chased them around the yard barking like an idiot. He sighed dramatically. “Why me?” he asked no-one in particular. “Why is it always me??” He rubbed his backside, probably in anticipation of the agony incurred by sitting on a goddamn horse.

Damn, he thought wistfully, this is gonna hurt.


Bomber eyed Hardison, doubt in his eyes. He flicked an ear as Hardison muttered to himself, even as Eliot handed the horse’s reins to him. This noisy, arm-wavy human didn’t look too happy, but Bomber, being the phlegmatic horse he was, decided he would see what was going to happen.

“Okay …” Eliot said, gesturing at the stock saddle and left stirrup, “left foot in there, hold here,” he touched the base of Bomber’s neck and placed his other hand on the far side of the cantle, “and just try not to pull the damn saddle off as you get up there. Oh, an’ do not kick Bomber’s ass as you get on or he’ll dump you, okay?”

Hardison, muttering epithets under his breath, stared at Eliot and then at the saddle. Oh … man. He could do this. He placed his left foot in the proffered stirrup, hopped a couple of times and then, with his heart in his mouth, managed to swing aboard, settling into the deep-seated saddle. He sat there for a moment or two. God-damn. He was on a horse. Leaning forward slightly and slipping his right foot into the remaining stirrup, he patted Bomber on the neck.

“Nice horsey,” he said.

Bomber sighed.

Gathering up the reins, he felt Bomber shift a little under him, but he managed not to fall off. So far, so good.

Eliot checked Hardison’s stirrup length and prying the hacker’s hands off the reins he showed him how to hold them and how the horse-steering thing worked. Then he grasped Hardison’s booted foot and pushed his toe further forward. “Keep your heels down, man,” he said. “Keeps the thigh muscles tight. That way you won’t fall off so easy,” he added.

Hardison nodded nervously, and then inadvertently touched Bomber’s side with his left heel. Bomber, well-trained as he was, moved several steps forward and to Hardison’s right.

Jesus!” Hardison gasped, and clutched Bomber’s mane.

“Don’t worry boy,” Soapy said, rubbing Bomber’s soft muzzle, “You’ll soon get used to it. Bomber here’s a good horse … safe, gentle and he’ll look out for you. Just relax and enjoy the ride,” he added, unable to stop the humour creeping into his voice.

Effie scowled at Bomber and patted Hardison’s knee.

“No worries, sunbeam – there’re biscuits and a box of lamingtons in that bloody camel’s pack, alright? And don’t be a daft bastard and do something silly, y’hear? Or your Nana will be getting a call from me, you young bugger!” She then passed a stockman’s hat to Hardison, who managed to hold the reins in one hand and place the hat on his head with the other. “Keep it on or else you’ll get bloody sunstroke!”

“Yes’m,” Hardison mumbled, as Eliot swung onto Gertie’s big Afghan saddle and got her to her feet.

Two packs slung over the rear seat of Gertie’s saddle contained everything Eliot and Hardison needed on the trip, including Larry – broken down into his various parts – and the small portable radio kit.

Eliot felt his wounds twinge, but he knew he had to do this – without the information Hardison could gather with Larry’s hi-tech equipment, they were at a severe disadvantage. He was also fretting about leaving the homestead with Hadan possibly on the prowl, but Nate had assured him the children would be sleeping in the house and Charlie, his family having headed home, would bunk down in the living room of the homestead.

It was now or never.

“C’mon, Hardison … time’s a-wastin’. Let’s get going.”

And Eliot touched Gertie into a long, swinging stride, Bomber following on behind with a terrified Hardison aboard.

As Lizzie stood by her mother and watched Eliot and Hardison head for the big gate to the western paddock where Charlie waited to let them through, she glanced up at her mother, her brown eyes worried.

“But Mama …” she whispered, slipping a hand into her mother’s grasp, “Eliot’s hurt! What if he gets sick! And Alec’s never been on a horse before and what if he falls off and bashes his head and –“

Sophie frowned. Lizzie had seen both of her menfolk hurt before, Eliot more than once, and she fussed and worried over anyone in her family who was hurt or sick. But she had never fretted about them going out on a job. This was new. She rubbed her finger over her daughter’s knuckles, trying to ease the little girl’s concerns, and her voice was reassuring.

“It’s only until tomorrow, darling, and Eliot’s fine. I promise. They’ll be back before you know it.”

But even as she said it, Sophie felt a sudden roil of worry in her stomach, and hoped to God she was telling her daughter the truth.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Hardison only fell off Bomber twice.

Once was when he – not Bomber – was alarmed by a group of little red flying foxes clumped together sleeping in a gum tree and disturbed by Gertie plodding past. The creatures rustled and flapped before settling down again, and Hardison, caught unawares, flinched in the saddle, lost his balance, slid elegantly off sideways and landed in a heap beside Bomber. The little gelding, somewhat resigned now to his fate of being lumbered with a rider so inept, stopped, eyed the hacker and huffed.

Eliot didn’t even stop to wait for him as Hardison scrambled to his feet and did his best to pretend it had never happened as he struggled back into the saddle, gathered up the reins and tried to catch up.

“You okay, Hardison?” Eliot asked without turning around as Bomber tucked himself behind Gertie and settled down to a sleepy amble.

“Me?” Hardison said squeakily, “Yeah … yeah, I’m fine. Just startled is all. Bats,” he added, a little queasy. To Hardison, bats were on a par with squirrels – hairy, rabid critters with sharp teeth. He didn’t like either of the scary little bastards.

“Uh-huh,” Eliot said, sitting easily in Gertie’s saddle, swaying gently to the rhythm of the animal’s rocking gait. “Good job you didn’t get too close.”

“Um … why?” Hardison asked, and then wished he hadn’t.

“Those little guys can carry three different kinds of disease fatal to humans,” Eliot explained, a little too happily for Hardison’s taste.

Hardison digested the information, and then shifted in the saddle, trying to take the ache out of his ass-bones.

“Yep …” he murmured to Bomber, who wasn’t listening. “M’gonna die.”


The second time he and Bomber parted company was a little more serious.

They were about half-way into the trip when Hardison realised why Bernadette, although designed for remote areas, would not have made it through this particular landscape. Gertie and Bomber were picking their way through a boulder-strewn shallow valley, ending in a deep billabong cutting into a loop of what had been at one time a raging torrent of a river. Hardison was riding ahead of Eliot, the hitter wanting to keep an eye on both Bomber and Hardison as they tackled a steepish incline climbing out of the valley.

Bomber inadvertently slipped on a loose rock and suddenly slid sideways, almost falling onto his side. He scrabbled upright, but Hardison let out a yelp and was dumped onto the rubble-strewn track.

Eliot, not having enough room to koosh Gertie down, slid straight from the saddle and landed crouched beside the big camel. He had to stop a yelp of his own as his wounds burned, but he was beside Hardison in seconds, helping the hacker to his feet.

He dusted off Hardison’s jacket and checked him for damage.

“You in one piece?” he asked.

Hardison did a body-wriggle and pronounced he was safe and sound, if a little bruised. But Eliot wasn’t really listening. He was checking Bomber, who apart from a tiny scrape on his hock, was perfectly fine.

“We walk from here,” Eliot said. “Only a mile or so and then we’ll be back on level ground. If you try ridin’ up this incline you’re gonna end up in the billabong, and I ain’t fishing you out,” he continued, pointing at the still, forbidding body of water further down the slope. It looked scarily deep, Hardison thought.

“Damn water’s probably full of friggin’ sharks an’ things that chew you into little itty-bitty pieces,” he said, grimacing.

Eliot had to duck his head to hide the grin on his face.

“Nah,” he said, trying not to chuckle, “no sharks.” He didn’t add that the billabong would never have held a shark. Bull sharks inhabited rivers only accessible from the sea. But he couldn’t resist. “Crocodiles ate all the sharks,” he said casually.

Hardison stared at the billabong. Nothing moved. Then he looked at Eliot’s back as the man headed past him and began to lead Gertie up the rough, stony track.

Crocodiles? Here? I mean … here??

“Yeah,” Eliot informed him. “Freshies … freshwater crocs. They’re okay. Maybe seven … eight feet long. Just little guys really. They’re nothin’ on the saltwater crocs – they’re nasty, mean bite-y sonsabitches an’ a whole lot bigger.”

Hardison’s eyes widened even as he led Bomber up the stony incline.

“God,” he said. “I friggin’ hate Australia.”


It was early afternoon by the time they reached Bore Seven.

Powered by a windmill, the large pipe shaped like an upside-down L stood over an old, circular concrete tank intended for watering livestock. The base of the pipe was embedded in a cement block box with a small metal door. This in turn gave access to the valves and pump mechanism that powered the flow of water from the artesian aquifer nearly one hundred feet below. It was one of the deepest bores in the area and accessed an independent supply, which was what made Wapanjara such a successful station. It never ran dry, and managed correctly even in droughts, meant that the livestock had access to year-round fresh water.

Only now, the supply was being interrupted somehow. This was what had puzzled and deeply worried the Munros.

The bore had been sunk in Soapy’s grandfather’s time, and although the equipment was old, it was well-maintained and serviced regularly. Eliot had replaced one of the valves himself, and knew the design of the bore as well as its foibles.

So, why had the water suddenly become tainted? No other supply ran into the artesian basin, and it could only be subterranean seepage which had worked its way through the rock. It was possible, the experts had supposed, but Soapy thought it really meant that they had no idea. Still, Albany Mining Company had apologised and said they had fixed the problem.

But now the water-flow itself was under threat. Soapy had been checking the tank at the homestead, and had found no problems when the crossbar he was standing on gave way and he had fallen ten feet to the ground.

Eliot unpacked the gear and unsaddled Gertie, leaving her to graze happily. Hardison, left to his own devices, managed with a little difficulty to take off Bomber’s saddle and bridle, and with Eliot’s shouted instructions, hobbled the little horse.

So, as Eliot set up camp and dug out the small camping stove and billy to make tea, Hardison pulled out his little folding seat, parked his saddle-sore backside on it and perused the land laid out before him.

Albany Mining Company was situated below them in a dip in the countryside about three miles away, and from Hardison’s vantage-point on this low plateau at the very edge of Wapanjara, he could, with his binoculars, make out the buildings and mining works.

To his left was a heavy scatter of gum trees which ran from the slight rise behind him, then leading away to the south-west onto Albany land and settled amid large boulders, left behind from ancient flash-floods which had carved away the edge of the plateau.

He knew from the plans Soapy had shown him that the artesian basin stopped at the edge of the shallow escarpment, and did not encroach on Albany land, so the decision to drill a bore hole on top of a narrow plateau had been irritating but necessary. It meant drilling deeply and had cost Soapy’s grandfather far more money than he had intended to spend, but the reliable water supply had saved Wapanjara many times over the years.

He was so engrossed in studying the lie of the land that he didn’t hear Eliot crouch down beside him, two mugs of hot tea in his hands.

“Here,” Eliot said, offering one of the mugs to Hardison, who took it gratefully. “Anythin’ interesting so far?”

Hardison shrugged and then took a sip of the hot liquid. Even though the temperature was in the eighties, he savoured the hot drink as it soothed his parched, dusty throat.

“Not really. Well, not from here. I’ll get Larry up an’ runnin’ and send him out there to see what’s what.” He lifted his hat and shaded his eyes from the sun, the heat filtering through the shade of the gum trees behind the bore and their little camp. “I’ll have to run him pretty low to keep him below the skyline behind us,” he added, trying to gauge angles.

“Yeah, well, you do what you gotta do, Hardison.” Eliot, hunkered down beside the hacker, grunted as he stood up, wincing. “I’m gonna have a look at the bore valves an’ then I’m gonna try an’ sleep for a half-hour.”

Hardison glanced up at his best friend. The man looked as sore as hell.

“’Kay, El. You do that. It’ll take me a while to put Larry together an’ calibrate the software, so …”

Eliot waved a dismissive hand, and began to saunter stiffly back to where he had strung the two hammocks between some gum trees.

“Yeah … fine. Wake me if you need me. Oh … an’ watch out for bunyips,” he added.

Hardison blinked.

“Wait … what??” he watched Eliot’s retreating figure. The hitter didn’t look agitated or worried. “What the hell is a bunyip?” he asked nervously.

“Don’t worry about it,” Eliot said. “You’ll know when … if you see one.”

Hardison heaved himself to his feet and headed to his pack, muttering quietly.

“Goddamn wildlife … friggin’ bats an’ sharks an’… an’ crocodiles an’ now friggin’ bunyips … I ain’t never ever comin’ back to this hellhole no matter how much Lizzie likes it here … that girl spends jus’ too much time with Mister-Crazy-as-a-fruit-bat-Eliot-goddamn-Spencer

And grumbling under his breath, he began to extract Larry from his bag.


Eliot swore quietly as he checked the main valve which regulated the water flow from the bore. Artesian aquifers worked under high pressure, and the valve dropped the pressure so the water ran from the pipe into the huge trough in a low but steady trickle. He had found some rust which he wire-brushed off the valve plug and he had discovered the actuator spring needed replacing sometime in the near future, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with either the pump or the valves.

He studied the inside of the small pump-house and tapped his wrench lightly but rhythmically against the lead-in pipe as he thought it through.

There was something not quite right, but he was damned if he could figure out what it was. So … he would check the perimeter of the pump-house and windmill to see if the … whatever-it-was … had left any signs. He flinched as his shoulder wound throbbed and ached. He really ought to check it, he thought. But he had other things to do, and it could wait until he settled down to eat after nightfall. His afternoon snooze would have to wait.

Stopping his pensive tapping, Eliot eased himself out of the door and into the late afternoon brightness.


Hardison was finally ready, and so was Larry. He lifted the controls and brought up the live feed on his tablet. Clear skies meant he was getting fairly decent reception, so he powered up Larry and the little quadrocopter whirred into action.

Larry lifted off and Hardison grinned, manipulating the toggle controls to send the small, dark machine hovering overhead, its soft hum barely noticeable in the clear air.

And then Larry was off, skimming lightly over the trees, Hardison keeping the drone low and level so that anyone who happened to look in their direction would find it almost impossible to see Larry against the backdrop of the escarpment dotted with trees and boulders.

Now this was what floated Hardison’s boat.

“Go, Larry … go!” he cackled, and the camera streamed images on the tablet, all of them recorded on the roomy pen-drive. He listened to Eliot working his way around the bore pump-house, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the hitter stop and stare at the windmill, the blades turning only slightly in the light, balmy breeze coming from the great Tanami Desert far to the west. Then he heard Eliot swear to himself and saw him hoist his damaged frame painfully onto the top of the pump-house.

Hardison toggled the camera so that it took in the fast-approaching buildings of the mining site, and he slowed Larry down, allowing the drone to hover for a minute or two as Hardison scanned the area, filming every nook and cranny he could find.

He frowned. Something had caught his eye.

“What the hell is that?” he muttered to himself, and sent Larry in for a closer look.


Troy Rickenbacker was getting mighty fed up of trying to keep his cash flow problems under wraps, and as he sat in his air-conditioned office at the heart of the Albany Mining Company site, he ran his fingers through his carefully combed-over hair.

But he was distracted from shuffling invoices by a knock on his door and without waiting for an answer, Derry Ryan entered, closing the door behind him.

Rickenbacker sighed. He studied Ryan’s bruised face – the damage which had, he was told, been inflicted by a man in his late sixties and half Ryan’s size – and put down his pen.

“What?” he said irritably.

“I just got a call from Eades,” he said, his voice still croaky from Soapy’s punch to his throat.

Rickenbacker straightened in his chair.

“Somebody’s at the bore,” he guessed. “Who?”

“Two of the yanks,” Ryan answered, his lip curling in disdain. “The mad bastard Khenbish had a dust-up with, and the tall black kid.”

Rickenbacker ran the information through his mind and made a decision.

“Sit.” He waved Ryan into a chair and then lifted his cell phone and pressed a single number. Putting the ‘phone to his ear, he waited, drumming his fingers on the desk top impatiently. Someone eventually answered on the eighth ring. “Yeah,” he said, “It’s me. They’ve made a move.”

Rickenbacker listened intently for long moments, and then he glanced at Ryan, who sat silently, waiting to find out what was to be done. The Texan nodded a couple of times, and then his face became grim.

“Done,” he said, and rang off. Placing the ‘phone carefully on his desk, he turned to Ryan.

“Tell Eades to fix it,” he said.

Ryan nodded.

“Will do. And Khenbish?”

Rickenbacker thought it over and then shook his head.

“She’s to stay put an’ just watch. Let Eades deal with them.”

Ryan allowed a slow smile to creep onto his face and he stood up to leave, but he was brought to a halt by Rickenbacker’s soft voice.

“Tell Eades when he’s done to put them someplace on tribal land, alright?”

Ryan’s smile widened into a grin.

“Happy to,” he said, and headed out of Rickenbacker’s office with a spring in his step, closing the door behind him.

Rickenbacker sat quietly for a few minutes, digesting the instructions he had been given during his telephone call. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all. But, he knew, he couldn’t back out now. And in the long run, if it got him out of his financial tight corner and also made him a whole heap of money, then it was worth the risk.

Sighing, he lifted his pen and returned to the ignominy of dealing with unpaid bills.


Hardison was squinting at the pictures streaming onto his tablet, and he toggled Larry to turn almost 180 degrees to the left to look at what appeared to be a number of metal columns, not unlike silos, next to four small ponds.

He felt a sudden chill down his spine. This sure as hell didn’t look like titanium mining. He checked his watch. It was time to bring Larry back, or else the little drone’s batteries would be bled dry and Hardison would not be happy to see his state-of-the-art quadrocopter crash-land right in the middle of Albany territory.

“Okay, bubba, come to Papa,” he mumbled, and instructed Larry to make his way back to the camp.


Sonofabitch!!” Eliot swore, his blue eyes sparking with anger.

The ‘thing’ he had been looking for turned out to be a simple flow inhibitor. The needle valve was set into the pipe leading from the windmill to the pump-house, inserted just before the pipe led into the pump-house. But instead of slowing the flow of water even further, it was set to systematically introduce air bubbles into the pump and cause a lock-down. A timer allowed the inhibitor to be switched off and on, and the result was intermittent flow which would cause issues all the way from the bore to the homestead.

No wonder, the hitter thought, Soapy had found nothing untoward in the homestead water tank feed.

Eliot had managed to heave himself onto the low, flat roof of the pump house, gritting his teeth against the increasing pain in his shoulder, and sat down on his heels to study the inhibitor. He knew he would have to stop the pump to remove the thing, and then check the electrical system.

Damn, he thought.

Standing up, he turned to yell at Hardison, knowing his expertise would be useful.

“Hey!! Hey, Hardison!! When you got a minute!” The pain in Eliot’s shoulder made him flinch, and he shifted slightly to his right to ease it.

But the sudden, wickedly hard blow to his left side, followed almost instantly by the sharp crack of a rifle shot, knocked him sideways, staggering, and he tried desperately to stay upright, and it was so, so hard, but for some reason his legs wouldn’t obey him, dammit, and he fell off the low roof. The ground rushed up to meet him and the sudden agony in his body that bloomed through him was cut off by a blinding pain in his head and then … nothing but blackness.


The sound of the rifle shot startled Hardison so much he unbalanced and fell off his little stool, Larry’s controls still tightly clasped in one hand.

As he sprawled on his side, cursing, he rolled over and tried to sit up, only to have to scuttle backwards as a bullet sent up gouts of dirt only inches from his face.

“Oh … shit!!” he yelled wildly, and he backpedalled on his rump as fast as he could go to the relative safety of a small clump of acacias. “Eliot! ELIOT!!!” he bawled, and scrambling onto his knees he looked over to the pump-house.

Oh … Jesus!!!” he breathed, horrified.

All he could see of Eliot was a crumpled, still figure sprawled on the ground. Hardison just stared. He could see blood on Eliot’s side and shoulder, and his face was masked with a splatter of fresh red.

Oh-god-oh-god-oh-god –“ he swore, and then he heard the crack of another shot.

The bullet hit Bomber in the head, killing the little gelding instantly, the horse collapsing and kicking spasmodically, sending up clouds of dust despite the hobbles he wore. Hardison yelled wordlessly in horror.

The next shot punched a hole through Gertie’s left ear, and the huge camel roared with pain. She skittered sideways and then galloped untidily away into the stand of gum trees, bawling in fear.

The following flurry of shots destroyed the camp. The water canteens, packs and radio were blown apart by rapid fire, and Hardison, in a sudden moment of clarity, realised he had only one chance to try and stop this nightmare.

Several yards away sat his tablet, un-noticed by the shooter so far, so while the bullets were tearing apart everything they had brought with them, Hardison army-crawled over to his tablet, grabbed it and scurried back in a flurry of arms and legs to his refuge in the acacia.

“Okay … okay, I can do this …” he rambled under his breath, and glanced once more at Eliot’s body. His friend … his brother … looked dead. “M’comin’, bro … hang on … I’m comin’ …” he babbled, and then he took a deep breath and focused as well as he could as another bullet smashed into his little stool just feet away from him.

The tablet was still streaming visuals, and Hardison shifted onto his backside and sat cross-legged, resting the tablet on his legs. Lifting Larry’s control box and with his hands shaking, he began to focus the little drone’s camera on the source of the shots.

Larry had been heading back to the camp in a straight line, a red light beginning to blink on his chassis. His batteries were just about done, and Hardison knew he didn’t have much time. Larry banked to Hardison’s left, heading towards the fall of great boulders lying between the gum trees heading down the escarpment towards Albany.

The Wapanjara boundary fence lay no more than two hundred yards from Hardison, so he knew the unidentified shooter was on Albany land. That little bastard Rickenbacker was trying to kill them. He scowled at the tablet and angled Larry a little further to his left, cranking up the lens definition to its limit. Just for a second he wished he had Mo with him with the drone’s heat-sensor capabilities, but he dismissed the thought instantly as he caught sight of a small flash of light and a bullet pinged off the already perforated water canteen.

Hardison flew Larry closer.

There, almost invisible between a pile of large rocks and dotted with acacia, was draped a camouflage net, whoever-it-was lying a few degrees above the level of the camp. As Larry hummed closer, the barrel flash came again, and Hardison flinched as a bullet smashed the little gas bottle that fuelled the camp stove. The small explosion was deafening.

“Cmon-c’mon-c’mon-“ Hardison ranted, and his eyes widened as the net moved and a head appeared. Whoever this asshole was, it was obvious he thought he had done his job and was creeping out of his hidey-hole.

“Har … Hardison …” a voice croaked painfully.

The hacker’s eyes widened. Oh, thank God.

He stared at Eliot and saw a shaky hand rise into the air, Eliot trying to somehow let Hardison know he was still in the land of the living.

“M’comin’, El!!! Be still, bro – just hang in there, okay??” he yelled, relief pulsing through him.

But his voice cracked as he saw the shooter throw back the net and stand up, the man bringing his rifle to his shoulder. He had seen Eliot move.

Hardison’s lip curled into a sneer.

“Not on my watch, you sonofabitch!!” he snarled, and jamming the toggle on Larry’s control box forward, he sent the sturdy, solid little drone straight at the shooter.

The view on the tablet telescoped dramatically.

Hardison’s dark eyes glittered with anger as the man suddenly realised he wasn’t alone. He must have caught a hint of Larry’s soft hum, Hardison thought, because he turned and looked straight at the camera, his lean, pale face changing from determination to sudden shock.

And then his face filled the screen and Hardison heard a small, contained crashing sound and the screen became nothing but static.

Taking his life in his hands, Hardison stood up and ran, zig-zagging his way down the incline to the Wapanjara boundary fence, and craned his neck to see the result of his work.

There, a hundred yards away, he could see a figure sprawled on the top of the boulders, legs and arms akimbo and a rifle lying ignored in a crack in the stone. The man’s head lay at an unnatural angle. What was left of Larry was scattered about the surrounding area.

Hardison suddenly realised he had killed a man.

But right now, right this minute, he didn’t have time to worry about it. He had to get to Eliot. Turning his back to the dead man, he quickly made his way back up the escarpment to the small plateau, and once on the flat he ran desperately to the body of his best friend.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


“Eliot! Eliot … c’mon man … wake up …”

Eliot struggled through a red-tinged fog of pain and disjointed sensations. Whoever the hell was sticking a molten poker in his side was pressing so hard he was sure his ribs would melt.

He tried to lift his left hand to punch the mystery figure, but agony tore through his side and his head was feeling decidedly brittle, so he tried with his right hand instead. It was batted away and he growled in protest, but the effort of taking a deep breath nearly sent him spiralling back down into limbo.

“Leave … leave me ‘lone –“ he rasped weakly.

“Welcome back, dumb-ass … lie still, okay? You’re bleedin’ like a stuck hog and we don’t have that many pressure bandages so damn’ well stay still, y’hear?”

Eliot grunted as the pressure increased, but he did his best to open his eyes despite the throbbing pain in his head. All he saw was a blurry, shifting world with faint impressions of shapes and colours. One of the shapes moved.

“Who … I can’t … where …” he whispered, confusion echoed in every word.

Hardison glanced at Eliot’s bloodied face and took in the gash over his left ear. Like all head wounds it had bled like crazy, but he knew he had to deal with the wound in Eliot’s side, so he kept pressing one of the only two pressure bandages left in their decimated first aid kit against the gouge along Eliot’s ribs.

“To answer what I think were questions, it’s me, Hardison, you can’t move because you’re shot, you fool, and we’re still in the armpit of the world and stuck here, so let me patch you up first an’ then we’ll talk, okay?”

“Head … hurts …”

“Yeah … well … that happens when you get shot, fall six feet head-first off a pump-house an’ bash your head against a rock.”

Eliot frowned and then wished he hadn’t as pain thudded through his skull.

“Shot?” he asked. Huh. Some bastard had shot him.

He struggled to get up and managed an inch or two before his side exploded in even more pain and he sank back onto the dusty, bloody ground with a groan.

“S’all right, El … the shooter … he’s taken care of. Here,” Hardison pressed a gauze pad into Eliot’s right hand, “if you want to do somethin’ useful, hold this against your thick skull.”

It took two tries for Eliot to get a firm grip on the gauze and then Hardison helped guide his hand up to the still-oozing cut.

“Sniper?” the hitter asked faintly.

“Yeah …” Hardison replied. “I took care of him. He’s … he’s dead.”

Eliot, eyes blessedly shaded from the light by his right forearm, digested the information, but he would ask Hardison about the sniper’s demise later. But if the man was dead, others would come looking for him.

“Al … Albany Mining, right?” Memory was returning, and Eliot figured out now what had happened. Someone had been watching Bore Seven, and reported their presence. What the hell was Albany Mining hiding?

“Yeah,” Hardison said as he checked to see if the bleeding was easing up. “I got some footage before Larry crashed, an’ there’s somethin’ definitely hinky goin’ on – aw hell,” he added under his breath as Eliot felt him run his fingers around the wound and check something. Hardison pressed gently over a rib, and the pain made Eliot want to rip the hacker’s face off and feed it to him, but he just let out a keening groan and dealt with it.

“What … what’s wrong,” he asked huskily. God, he was thirsty.

He heard Hardison hesitate before he spoke.

“Bullet’s still in there, man. Under the skin and lyin’ against a rib. But it’ll have to be cut out an’ I can’t do it. Half of the medikit got blown to pieces.”

Eliot shifted and winced.

“It’s okay. Just get Gertie an’ Bomber saddled up an’ we’ll be out of here –“

“El … listen … we’re stranded.” Hardison explained awkwardly. “Uh … Gertie, she’s … she’s gone, an’ Bomber … that bastard shot him right after he shot you. He’s …”

Shit,” Eliot said under his breath. He was very fond of the little horse and for Bomber to have been killed so needlessly … “Gertie … she’s gone, you said?”

“She got nicked by a bullet and high-tailed it.”

Eliot lay still and thought about their situation for a bit while Hardison bandaged up the bullet wound. They were in one helluva bind.

“Eliot … I gotta get you sittin’ up so I can take off your tee and check your shoulder. You must’ve bust your stitches.” Hardison muttered.

Eliot removed the gauze from his head wound and nodded, even though it cost him a lot of pain. Jeez, he had a headache.

Hardison managed with a bit of effort to help Eliot to sit up and prop himself against Gertie’s saddle, which, apart from a bullet hole in one of the pads, seemed to be in one piece.

It turned out that Eliot had indeed burst the stitches in the wound in his shoulder, but what made Hardison take a deep breath was the redness of inflammation around the injury. Infection. And he could do nothing about it other than clean it up and bandage it.

Eliot, screwing his eyes shut against the sunlight, gave a tired grin.

“It’s fine, Hardison – you know I’ve survived a helluva lot worse.” He saw Hardison raise a doubtful eyebrow as the young hacker taped gauze over the wound. How were they to get out of here? Because the dead man would soon be missed and people would come looking for him, and, Eliot knew for certain, they would not be friendly.

It was then he heard a soft gurgle, and he twitched a smile. He let out a gentle whistle, although he wished he could have had a drink of water first. His mouth was as dry as the Gobi Desert.

And there was Gertie, trotting out of the bush, big, ugly head held high and bottom lip flapping as she headed straight for Eliot and Hardison. But she stopped and smelled Bomber as he lay silent and still. He had been Gertie’s constant companion for over two years, and she rumbled to herself as she nosed at her friend. She honked quietly, and Eliot, his heart aching, called out to her.

“Hey! Hey, Gertie! C’mere, girl …”

And Hardison moved nervously out of the way as Gertie trotted over to Eliot and dropped her head down to him, awaiting a scratch. She rumbled dejectedly to herself, and even though Eliot’s sight was still a bit blurry and his head felt as though it was on the point of exploding, he managed to raise a hand and rub her soft muzzle.

“I know, darlin’ … I know …” he murmured, doing his best to soothe her, and Gertie tried to rest her head on his chest. Eliot could make out blood on her left ear, but not the detail of the damage. He didn’t think she was too badly injured because she began to hum, but then she realised Eliot was hurt. Her humming turned to concerned rumbly squeaks, a silly noise, Eliot thought, for such a big animal, and she nuzzled very gently at his side and shoulder.

“Hey, hey! Stop that!” Hardison scolded, and tried to push Gertie away, but the camel just gave him a couple of slurpy licks on the face and returned to fussing over Eliot.

“Hardison … I can’t see straight … c’n you check her out for me? See if she’s okay?”

Hardison, doing his best to fend off the huge animal and sputtering through the camel saliva, scowled.

“She’s fine, man, I promise … she’s got a bit of a hole in her ear, but not much blood. I think she’s gonna be okay. Now, I need to get your head fixed an’ then we talk.”

Eliot, rubbing Gertie’s head and smiling at her squeaky attention, decided they were ‘way past the time for talking.

“Hardison … we gotta go as soon as we can. Can you saddle up Gertie?”

“Me?” Hardison sat back on his heels after finishing taping up the cut on Eliot’s head. “How the hell do I do that?”

Eliot sighed in exasperation.

“You just put it on her back, tighten up the girths an’ the breastplate an’ that’s it. Give me those ropes I hung on the tree beside the hammocks. I’ll clip ‘em to her bosal … that’s her bridle.”

“Oh … okay,” Hardison answered, and then looked at the devastation of their camp. He didn’t really want to look at Bomber. The little horse had been very patient with him and had been the perfect introduction to horseback riding, and Hardison discovered he was very upset by the animal’s death. “El … I’ll cover Bomber with the hammocks. It don’t feel right just leavin’ him like that.”

“Yeah … yeah, do that, Hardison. Look after the little guy.” Eliot didn’t mention that the hammocks wouldn’t prevent predation by scavengers, but it afforded the old gelding some dignity until someone could come back to the spot and either burn the body or bury his bones. “I gotta lie down for a few minutes, Hardison … feelin’ a bit queasy here …” Eliot continued, and Hardison suddenly saw the hitter’s face turn ashen.

“Uh-oh – you gonna hurl?” he said, and before he could do anything Eliot turned away and vomited, although he didn’t have much in his stomach to bring up. The pain in his side didn’t help, and Eliot retched until his stomach muscles ached with the effort.

Hardison held him until he finished, and then wiped his friend’s face with a cloth soaked in water from the trough.

Eliot was wheezing, and resting his head back on Hardison’s chest he closed his eyes and tried to deal with the explosion of pain in his head and side.

“God, I friggin’ hate bein’ sick!” he gasped, swallowing bile. He dearly wished he had a mouthful of water to rinse with, but the water canteens all had holes in them and had bled their precious contents onto the dry earth.

“Easy, man … it’s the concussion, okay?” Hardison whispered, trying to keep his voice low so as to not make Eliot’s headache any worse. “Let me get you moved to someplace a little more shaded and see if I can find a clean shirt for you. Then I’ll go find out what we got left. That bastard pretty much wrecked everythin’ we had.”

Gertie nuzzled at Eliot, and Hardison couldn’t help but give her velvet nose a rub, although how Eliot’s concussion-riddled noggin dealt with the overwhelming smell of camel he had no idea. But the animal was obviously worried and fretting as well as dealing with the loss of her equine companion, so Hardison had to sympathise.

He spent the next half-hour sorting through their damaged packs and salvaged what he could. Taking down the hammocks, both of which were torn and now not much use, he draped them over Bomber after giving the old fellow a pat on the neck. At least his passing had been painless and instant, but it still didn’t stop the swell of fury and grief in Hardison’s chest.

But when he turned back to Eliot, who he had moved to rest beside a gum tree, he was astonished to see the hitter on his feet, slowly working his way around the tree and poking at it carefully with his old Ka-Bar knife.

“Eliot!! What the hell -??” he ranted and was about to sort the idiot out, but Eliot, left arm tight against his bandaged side and squinting at the tree trunk, waggled the knife at him. Gertie stood beside him as though making sure he didn’t fall.

“You keep on doin’ what you’re doin’, Hardison. I’m gonna try and fix the canteens,” he rasped, and then turned back to his chore, almost falling as his poor balance threw him, but he used his left hand to grab hold of Gertie’s bosal and the big camel stood as still as she could as though she knew he was out of kilter.

“Whoa … dizzy …” Eliot murmured to himself and his shoulder and side twinged, but he righted himself and letting go of Gertie, he felt the ‘give’ in the piece of bark his knife had gently eased loose. Sticky resin clung to his fingers and he grinned. Sliding the Ka-Bar back into its sheath at his belt, he gathered a lump of the resin, moulding it into a ball. Once done, he shakily kooshed Gertie and slid down to sit beside her. He waited for the world to stop tilting, and then he waved erratically at Hardison.

“Hey! Hardison! Got the canteens??”

Hardison, sifting through his pack, raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah … just a sec –“

He grabbed the three canteens, all with neat holes punched through them, and took them to Eliot, dropping them in his lap. Crouching down beside the hitter, he gave Eliot a run-down of what he had managed to save.

“Okay, ‘m’man … I sure hope you like gummy frogs ‘cause I got four packs. Bullets, apparently, cannot destroy gummy frogs.”

Eliot, trying his best to focus his bleary gaze on the canteens, began to plug the bullet holes with resin.

“Figures. An’ there’s me tryin’ to improve your and Parker’s eatin’ habits. Gummy frogs ain’t a food group, Hardison! What else did you find, an’ I hope it’s some proper chow.”

“A few packs of that organic soup you like … uh … let me see …” he rummaged in the bag in which he had placed all of the available food. “Not much, I gotta say. Tea … two tins of condensed milk, whatever the hell that’s for … some fruity oaty bars … and, would you believe, Effie’s box of cookies an’ lamingtons, bless her antsy-rage-y heart.”

Gertie suddenly showed a great deal of interest in the box, and Hardison had to shove her whiffling lips away from it. He slid it back into the bag.

“Other than that, I got some bandages and one pressure bandage left … butterfly strips … no thermometer, that’s broke … a couple of ampoules of saline. Tape.” Hardison shrugged. “Socks … bottle of paracetamol –“ he lifted the little plastic container and shook it, the contents rattling, “-which, of course, you won’t take because you’re Mister roughy-toughy punchy guy … an’ some of that dried stuff you add water to an’ you get some sort of orangey drink with lots of electrolytes in it. That’s it – oh, and the billy with two mugs. Forgot those.”

Eliot finished repairing the canteens and left them in the sun for a few minutes for the resin to harden, and then he slumped back against Gertie, who gurgled quietly and turning her head, lipped at the injured man’s side.

Eliot closed his eyes and rested his right hand on Gertie’s head, and thought about the situation in which they found themselves. If he could stand the strain and if they could find somewhere safe for the night, they could be back at the homestead by midday the next day. But they had to get away from Bore Seven, and the sooner the better.

He opened his eyes and waited for his vision to settle. Concussion was a bitch.

“We have to go, Hardison,” he said wearily. “We can’t stay around any longer. We need to be someplace safe by nightfall.”

Hardison studied his friend. Eliot was concussed, although he didn’t think it was too bad as Eliot’s pupils were even and reacted to the light. But he had a helluva bump on his head coupled with a nasty cut held shut with butterfly strips and nothing else. He was dizzy, disorientated and a little punchy. But that was the least of the Oklahoman’s problems. Apart from the infected cut in his shoulder, he was still carrying a bullet. Hardison had no idea how long Eliot could keep going under the circumstances. But he couldn’t worry about it at this moment in time. They had to leave, and it had to be now.

So with Eliot giving him somewhat addled instructions on how to put an Afghan saddle on a camel, Hardison managed to get Gertie saddled up and the pack slung over the raised peak in front of the second seat. Then he filled the patched canteens with fresh water straight from the bore pipe, and was surprised when the containers proved to be completely watertight. Eliot Spencer, the man Hardison was sticking to like glue if the apocalypse was ever upon them, had done it again.

He made Eliot drink a couple of mugs of the cold, fresh artesian water, and then he quenched his own thirst. They were ready.

Helping an unsteady Eliot to his feet, Hardison looked at Gertie. Gertie gurgled at him as she sat comfortably in the shade.

“Um … Eliot … I have no idea how to ride a camel,” he said as Eliot stood beside him, the hitter having a distinct list to the left.

Eliot winced.

“Dammit, Hardison! Not so loud, okay? Look … all you do is sit on her an’ tell her to stand up. Then you just steer her like a horse. Easy.”

“That’s what you say, El!! It was hard enough ridin’ Bomber … this … I mean … I don’t know … she’s your camel, I don’t know if she’ll work for me …”

“She’s not a robot, man! Just … just get me settled an’ I’ll help you all I can … damn, my head hurts …”

Hardison caught Eliot as he sagged a little and the man grunted as his side flashed pain.

“Rear seat … you’re up front …” Eliot gasped, and as Hardison helped him sit astride Gertie, the hacker was wondering how the hell Eliot was even going to stay in the saddle. Well, he thought, it couldn’t be an issue. They had to get out of danger, and that was that.

Once Eliot was aboard, feet in the stirrups, Hardison, with his heart in his mouth, eased himself into the front saddle. He sat there, looking at Gertie’s ears which twitched as she listened for Eliot’s voice. Her ear was ragged and torn, but the bleeding had stopped. She would have the scars for the rest of her life.

“Okay … okay El … what now?” Hardison asked nervously.

“Got the reins?” Eliot said, his right arm clutched around Hardison’s waist to help keep himself in the saddle.

“Yeah …” Hardison said faintly. This was going to be just terrifying, he could tell.

“Here we go. Lean back as she stands up,” Eliot advised, and then he said “Hut-hut!” as clearly as he could.

Gertie hoisted her backside into the air, unfolded her front legs and stood up, Hardison letting out a yelp of terror, but miracle of miracles, they both stayed in the saddle and they were ready to go.

“You … you alright, Hardison?” Eliot asked tiredly.

“I think so … hell, it’s a long way down …” Hardison swallowed dryly, and then urged Gertie forward, and she set off down the track towards the billabong they had passed the previous day.

It they could make their way down past the billabong before nightfall, the rocky terrain would proffer shelter and safety through the long night and Eliot could get some rest.

Hardison just hoped Eliot could stay in the saddle long enough for them to get there.

 

To be continued …

 

Chapter Text

The sun was setting, flaming red and peach-orange as it dropped towards the horizon, and both Lizzie and Kip sat at the table on the veranda at Wapanjara, Buster flung in a snoring, twitching pile at their feet.

They were poring over old photographs with Soapy. Both children had projects to do, and Kips’ teacher had decided it would do the little boy some good to have a friend to help keep him grounded, considering the isolation in which he lived and the trauma with which he was dealing.

So camels had become a focus for both children, and Soapy had brought out some photograph albums of his grandfather during his cameleering days. The table also was littered with books from the Munros’ informal library, much added to over the years by Eliot Spencer, who was an avid reader.

“See … look at the saddle. It’s just like Gertie’s,” Soapy explained, pointing at the train of camels photographed packing goods into the wild interior in the 1930s.

“But the camels have things in their noses, Grandpa Soapy,” Lizzie stated, pointing at the pegs in the animals’ sensitive septum. “Doesn’t that hurt them?”

“Grandpa Soapy??” Sophie asked as she emerged from the house, cup of tea in hand and settling herself in Eliot’s recliner chair.

“Kip says Grandpa Soapy is his other grandpa, and I don’t have a grandpa and grandma, so I thought –“ Lizzie began to explain.

Sophie raised an elegant eyebrow, amused.

“Lizzie, have you asked Soapy and Jo if it’s alright –“

“It’s fine, Sophie,” Soapy said, a little embarrassed. “Jo and I … we don’t have kids of our own and Kip decided we should be honorary grand-people, so when Lizzie asked …”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Sophie said with a wide smile. “Lizzie doesn’t have grandparents, so … if it’s alright by you …?” the hope in her voice was unmistakeable. She had always regretted that Lizzie’s grandparents had all died before she was born, and this unexpected family of Eliot’s had made them so welcome. And, with Eliot being Lizzie’s guardian and also one of the inheritors of Wapanjara, it sort of made sense.

Soapy’s grin was infectious, and Sophie laughed softly, enjoying the warm family dynamic. The Leverage team was very much a family in its own right, but now it had grown, and rightly so. And all because of an enigmatic, taciturn loner of a man, war-scarred and dangerous, for whom a family had been for so many years out of reach and not for him.

“Well,” she said, “if it’s alright with Grandpa Soapy and Grandma Jo, then it’s okay with me … and with your daddy too, I have no doubt.”

“Works for me,” Nate said as he wandered up the veranda steps and sat down beside his wife. “Kids need grandparents,” he added, and felt a twinge of grief as he thought about his own father and his untimely death.

“Mama … why haven’t Eliot and Alec called us?” Lizzie asked suddenly.

Sophie looked at Nate.

“Well, probably because they can’t get any reception,” Nate explained, which wasn’t unexpected, although Soapy had said the radio was fairly reliable. But Nate wasn’t unduly worried – Eliot could take care of both himself and Hardison.

But Lizzie’s expressive eyebrows wrinkled, puzzled and a little concerned.

“But Daddy,” she said in a loud whisper, “Eliot’s hurt, y’know.”

“I know, sweetheart,” Nate soothed, “But Eliot’s very capable and I’m sure he’s managing perfectly well,” he added, although he remembered Parker telling him about Eliot charging a man with a gun intent on infecting a whole city with the Spanish ‘flu virus. Twice. And had also been shot twice, even as he stopped the fellow with a hefty punch, teeth bared like the wolf he carried in his heart. He could be impervious to danger if people’s lives were threatened.

But that had been years ago, before Lizzie was born, and he had been nearly a decade younger. Still, Nate reasoned, Eliot was always at the top of his game, despite the scars and old injuries.

Sophie studied her daughter, and once more felt the chill of worry run down her spine. Lizzie was sensitive when it came to Eliot. She knew what he did and she knew his skills, but she always trusted that he could handle himself and keep his family safe. Lizzie had never fretted about him like this before.

“Tell you what,” Soapy said. “After dinner we’ll see if we can raise them on the radio. They’ll have camped for the night so we have more chance of getting through, okay?”

Lizzie and Kip looked at one another, and then Lizzie nodded reluctantly.

“Okay,” she said, chewing her lip. “I suppose. But what if they don’t answer? What if –“

“There are lots of ‘what if’s,’ my darling,” Sophie said gently, hoping to ease her daughter’s concerns, “and most of the time they are completely unfounded, you know that.” She smiled reassuringly. “Come on now, you two – let’s tidy up, put the books away and you can help Grandpa Soapy feed the horses with Daddy and Charlie, if that’s all right, Soapy?”

Lizzie and Kip both broke into broad smiles.

“Can we? Please??” Kip begged, his face alight with hope.

Soapy grinned back.

“Well … I suppose so ... but only if you get everything put away first!”

Kip picked up several books and ran into the lounge intent on putting them back on the library shelves, but Lizzie was slower, and happy as she was at being able to help, she looked up at her father.

“Eliot’ll be okay, won’t he, Daddy? Alec will look after him if he’s sick.”

Nate nodded, but felt a sudden pang of worry. Where the hell was Lizzie getting this from?

Stop worrying, Lizzie. They’ll be okay,” he said.

But even as Lizzie carried her armful of books to the lounge, Nate could see the doubt in her dark eyes.


Fairwell and … and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies … fairwell and adieu to you ladies of Spain …” Eliot sang softly, his forehead resting against Hardison’s back and doing his best to control the thumping pain in his head. Singing didn’t exactly help, but the idea was distraction more than anything else.

“Um … a pirate movie …” Hardison proffered. “Maybe … maybe Captain Blood? Errol Flynn?”

Eliot huffed in disgust as his damaged body rocked gently to the rhythm of Gertie’s stride.

“Call yourself a movie buff?” he murmured into Hardison’s shirt. “C’mon, man … think!”

“Okay, okay … gimmee a clue!” Hardison retorted, annoyed.

Eliot thought for a moment and then came up with something.

“’We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he quoted.

Hardison’s eyebrows went up.

’Jaws?” he said, keeping his voice low so as to not make Eliot’s headache any worse. “Are you kiddin’ me??”

Eliot let out a low, raspy rumble of a chuckle.

“Quint sang it, remember? When he was goin’ out of his way-“ he couldn’t stop himself letting out a grunt of pain, “- goin’ out of his way to piss off Hooper.”

“Shit!” Hardison cursed quietly. Eliot Spencer, damaged, bloody and not-quite-right-in-the-head, was winning. “Okay … okay, let me think …” He tried to come up with a movie he thought Eliot wouldn’t watch if his life depended on it. He brightened. “How about this one?” He cleared his throat and Gertie gurgled to herself as though in answer. “’Was you ever bit by a dead bee?’” he quoted.

Hardison could feel the heat from Eliot’s body and knew the man had a fever, and he was doing his best to keep him conscious until they camped for the night.

“That’s easy …” Eliot said, his voice dry with pain. “To Have an’ Have Not. Walter Brennan.”

“Damn, Eliot!! I’m gonna have to start on Disney movies in a minute!”

Eliot chuckled, despite the lights sparking agony behind his eyes.

“My momma was a Bogart fan. Me too, come … come to think of it …” He closed his eyes and tensed. “Hardison …”

“Yeah, El?”

“Think … think I’m gonna puke … koosh Gertie …” Eliot gulped.

“Uh-oh!!” Hardison, panicking slightly, quickly brought Gertie to a halt. “Koosh, baby … c’mon now –“

And Gertie sat down, Hardison still un-nerved by the way she did it, and the hacker was off the saddle before Gertie had even settled herself. He eased Eliot off the big camel just in time.

After Eliot finished retching and bringing up nothing, the two men sat quietly for ten minutes leaning on Gertie’s comforting bulk, allowing Eliot to catch his breath. Hardison held one of the canteens to Eliot’s lips and the hitter drank some of the cool liquid, freshening his mouth and quenching his increasing thirst.

Hardison felt Eliot’s brow with one hand and frowned at the feverish heat he felt emanating from his best friend’s skin. Then he checked bandages, and there was no blood seeping through, so that, in Hardison’s opinion, was a win.

“Right – you ready, bro? ‘Cause I think we’ve got that crappy steep bit comin’ up.” He asked Eliot. There was no answer. Eliot just sat with his head resting on Gertie, eyes closed. “Hey! Eliot! C’mon now … no sleepin’ on the job, m’man!” And he gently prodded Eliot’s good shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah …” Eliot groused, opening his eyes and squinting in the low evening light. “I know.” He sighed. “God, I just love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he said.

Hardison snorted.

“You’re slippin’, El. Easy-peasy. Apocalypse Now, Robert Duvall.”

“Feelin’ … feelin’ fuzzy,” Eliot murmured. “I hate feelin’ fuzzy.”

“Yeah … I know. But you’ll feel better in a day or two, once we’re back home an’ you can rest up. How’s the pain?”

“Keepin’ me conscious,” Eliot said, almost relieved. “It helps.”

Hardison shook his head.

“Only you, you idiot, would say pain is a good thing. You always gotta push things to the limit, huh.”

Eliot gave a pained half-smile as the thumping in his head made him wince.

“You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul,” he said cryptically.

Hardison’s eyed widened in surprise.

Ratatouille??? You’re quotin’ Disney now??” He reached out a hand to help Eliot to his feet while shaking his head in disbelief. “Well, thinkin’ about it, of course you are. It’s about a rat. Who’s a chef. An’ the whole damn film is about cookin’.”

Eliot’s soft chuckle made Hardison feel a bit better. Knowing Eliot was still able to pull his chain meant the Oklahoman was dealing with the situation so far. So far.

Once Eliot was standing up, looking more than a little wobbly and pale underneath his tan, Hardison tried to help him back onto Gertie, but Eliot waved him away.

“Nah … we gotta walk from here for a little bit. Get down the hill and past the billabong.” He rubbed his head as though to ease the ache. “I don’t think I could stay on Gertie … when we’re back on the flat I’ll be okay.”

“You sure?” Hardison was doubtful. “Your leg …”

“I’ll be fine,” Eliot insisted, although Hardison knew the old wound in his back could cause Eliot severe pain on occasion. “You walk in front an’ lead, an’ I’ll hang on to Gertie. I can see her easier … you’re still a bit of a blur,” he added.

“Story of my life,” Hardison muttered. “Especially when Parker’s pushin’ me off a damn’ building,” he complained. “Okay, tough guy – hang on to this big hairy bastard an’ we’ll go easy, alright? Tell me if you need to stop.”

He grasped Gertie’s reins and got her to her feet – which made Hardison wonder about the sheer craziness of his life … Nana’s little boy workin’ with a camel, for Christ’sake – and waited for Eliot to get a firm grip with his right hand on Gertie’s breastplate.

“M’ready,” Eliot said, and Hardison thought the man looked like he was ready to fall over and pass out.

The hacker rubbed Gertie’s nose, and the animal gurgled with affection, whiffling at Hardison’s fingers.

“Okay, girl … you take it easy now, y’hear? Look after your papa …”

And off they went, Gertie pacing slowly and carefully, Eliot supported by her comforting presence. Hardison couldn’t make his mind up whether to watch Gertie or keep an eye on Eliot, so he decided Gertie would find her own way, and he let the animal take the lead while he dropped back, still holding her reins, to walk beside Eliot.

They were quiet for a few minutes, and then Hardison just had to ask.

“Why didn’t you tell us, El? You know we would have kept ‘em safe, because they’re family. Same as you would take care of Nana. An’ I know it ain’t anythin’ to do with trust, bro … hasn’t been for years.”

Eliot, doggedly holding onto Gertie, squinted as he thought about answering or not. But, he knew, Hardison wouldn’t let it lie. He never did.

“Honestly?” he said finally.

“Yeah, Eliot … honestly. They’re good people. I like ‘em a lot.”

“They are that,” Eliot admitted. “For … for a long time … they were all I had. An’ sometimes … when somethin’s precious an’ it’s all you got … it’s not easy to share, even with those you –“

“-love?” Hardison finished, grinning. He caught Eliot as he stumbled and let his friend regain his balance and his breath again, “yeah … an’ we love you too, you stubborn, bad-tempered ol’ bastard,” he added.

Jeez, Hardison – don’t say things like that! It’s … it’s just weird …”

“Yeah, Eliot … of course it is,” Hardison quipped and Eliot grumbled to himself even as they came to the beginning of the steep track leading down past the billabong.

Then and there, Eliot Spencer swore to God that when he was fit again he was going to lace Hardison’s friggin’ gummy frogs with laxative, so help him.


The billabong looked even more menacing now, Hardison thought, as the sun began to set in earnest and the dark waters lay still and deep below them. He saw a movement at the far side … something lean and scaly at the edge of the sandy shoreline, and he realised it was a crocodile resting with its mouth open, cooling down in the balmy evening air. It wasn’t a huge one, Hardison had to admit, maybe five or six feet long, but hell … a crocodile of any size was something he really, really didn’t want to meet.

Eliot grunted with pain as a stone rolled away under his boot, and Hardison was there in a second, making sure his friend didn’t fall. Gertie was taking it slowly. She didn’t like the incline, although her big, tough feet tackled the rough surface with ease. But heading downhill was more difficult for her, so she was wary and careful of Eliot, whom she knew wasn’t up to par.

Eliot was on her left side, next to the steep fall down to the billabong, his good right arm and hand hanging on to her breastplate as well as he could, Hardison keeping an eye on both animal and human.

“D’you think they’ll be followin’ us?” Hardison asked, his voice hollow with stress.

“No idea,” Eliot replied huskily, and he coughed, his throat dry and his wounds aching like a sonofabitch, “whoever ‘they’ are. That bastard who shot Bomber an’ me … was he Chinese, d’you know?”

“Not Chinese,” Hardison replied. “But he’d been there for a while, watchin’ the bore. I guess they’ll miss him sooner or later.”

Eliot was silent for a moment.

“You did the right thing, Hardison. Saved my life.”

“Yeah … well …” Hardison sighed. He really didn’t want to think about the fact he had ended another human being’s life. “What the hell was he watching the bore for?”

“The pump was sabotaged,” Eliot said. “Just what … what the hell is goin’ on?” he ground out. Staying on his feet was getting harder, and sweat ran into his eyes. He let go of Gertie and tried to wipe his face.

“For god’s sake, El, hang onto Gertie will ya??” Hardison rasped, irritated.

“Dammit, Hardison,” Eliot retorted, his mind fuzzy but annoyed and trying not to catch the wound in his head with his sleeve, “I know what I’m doin’ so-“

And then he slipped.

In a split second Eliot was a crumpled, sliding figure and he landed hard on his back, and no matter how hard he scrabbled with the fingers of his right hand he couldn’t get any purchase. His boots couldn’t get a grip, and he yelled with agony as his wounds jarred with the impact and the subsequent inexorable slide down the slope.

But then he felt a hand grasp his wrist and pull.

Hang on!! I gotcha!!” Hardison bawled, and for a minute the hacker thought he had stopped the slide, and he pulled hard as he fell to his knees beside Gertie and hung on. But Eliot’s solid one-eighty of muscle and bone was too much, and before Hardison could even think about it, they were both rolling down the incline in a tumble of arms and legs, Hardison doing his best to cushion Eliot from the worst of it and failing.

The slope ended fifteen feet above the billabong.

The two men suddenly found themselves falling through nothing but air, flailing and trying to control their descent, but then they were in the water, plunging deep, deep into the still depths in a rush of bubbles and muted noise.


Hardison broke the surface, gasping for air and coughing. Shaking water out of his eyes, he trod water and looked around for Eliot.

“Eliot!! ELIOT!!!” he yelled, desperation growing the longer he went without seeing his friend.

There was a sudden tinge of red in the water.

“Oh no … oh no-no-no-no-“ he swore under his breath and dove straight below the stain of red, thanking his Nana for insisting he learned to swim.

The water was reasonably clear as Hardison discovered as when opened his eyes, holding his breath and frantically looking for Eliot. Oh God. There he was, suspended in the water, arms and legs unmoving and eyes closed. Bubbles escaped from his nose and mouth. Blood drifted from his head and side, and Hardison saw Eliot’s mouth open. He was drowning.

He swam as fast as he could and reached out, hoping against hope to grab Eliot’s shirt before the man drifted out of reach, and he strained forward, almost out of breath … and missed.

The material treacherously floated like a wisp of smoke from his fingers and he struggled forward even as he ran out of breath and tried again. Eliot floated ever downward.

The surface of the billabong settled as the ripples faded, and apart from a faint and persistent tinge of blood, nothing moved. The crocodile snapped its jaws shut and shifted in the fading light, sliding back into the still water, the light of the sunset painting the surface in fire and brimstone, the only movement coming from the muscular tail of the crocodilian, drifting lazily across the billabong.

The water suddenly erupted as Hardison surfaced, spluttering and coughing water up and holding Eliot in the crook of his arm, the unconscious man pulled close to Hardison’s chest as blood streamed down his face from the gash over his ear.

Hardison began to work towards the south side of the billabong and he could see Gertie hovering like a fussy nurse, honking and pacing backwards and forwards on the waterline, having trotted down the hated incline to make sure her charges were safe.

Hardison obviously wasn’t swimming fast enough, because she then began to wade into the water, rumbling and gurgling, and Hardison aimed for the big beast, and it was just then that Eliot started to rouse from unconsciousness. He began to flail, annoyed, and as weak as he was, the wallop he landed on Hardison’s nose hurt.

Hey!! Stop it, Eliot!! I’m tryin’ to save our sorry hides here, an’ you’re gonna drown both of us!!”

Eliot coughed up a lungful of water and struggled against Hardison’s fierce grip, even as the young man reached out and grabbed Gertie’s bosal, the camel instinctively knowing to work her way back to the safety of the sandy edge.

By the time they were on dry land, Hardison felt as though his arm was being pulled out of its socket. Soaked and exhausted, he let go of Gertie, who dropped her big head down to inspect her charges, mobile lips running over limbs and Eliot’s chest. Then she licked Hardison’s face, making the young man curse, although he didn’t have the heart to push her away seeing as she had just saved his life.

“Good girl … you’re a special girl … that’s right … you are …” Hardison crooned, and he scratched her chin, making Gertie huff with pleasure. “Okay … let’s check out this pain-in-the-ass, huh? Why don’t you hold him down so he doesn’t take a swing at me?” His nose was still a little tender.

Gertie, always happy to oblige, dropped her head down to rest very, very gently on Eliot’s good shoulder, humming to herself.

“Gert … Gertie … you okay, gal?” Eliot gasped, his lungs still feeling waterlogged and wheezy. He could sense Hardison checking his head wound and then ease up Eliot’s sodden shirt to look at his side.

Gertie hummed louder at Eliot, happy that he seemed responsive, and Hardison stood up to drag the pack off Gertie’s saddle to retrieve what was left of the medical kit.

“Ask how I am, why dontcha,” Hardison grumbled, “but no … you have to ask how the goddamn camel is, huh. Now I know where I stand, Spencer –“

And it was then that the crocodile erupted from the shallows in a spewing gout of water and fastened powerful jaws on Eliot’s left boot.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


“OW!” Eliot croaked, irritated. “Gertie … get … get off my damn foot –“

Hardison dropped the medikit in shock.

“ELIOT!! ELIOT!!!!” he bawled, but was almost knocked sprawling by Gertie as she dashed forward towards the reptile.

The freshwater crocodile had had to twist itself sideways to try and grab Eliot, and it had only got a perfunctory grip on Eliot’s sturdy boot, so it loosened its hold and tried to shift its prey further into its powerful jaws.

But before it could regain a hold Gertie was upon it.

With a roar, Gertie bit down hard on the crocodile’s front leg and yanked the creature away from Eliot and hoisted it, wriggling, into the air. It hissed and struggled and twisted, but no matter how hard it tried, its snapping jaws couldn’t quite reach Gertie.

The big camel began to try and shake the crocodile, all two hundred pounds of it, her throaty rumbles working their way past the mouthful of reptile.

Eliot, lying flat on his back, soaking wet and bleeding, was a little annoyed.

“Hardison?? HARDISON!! What the hell’s goin’ on –“

“CROCODILE!!” Hardison yelped, and stumbling backwards to Eliot, he leaned over the hitter’s prone body and yanked Eliot’s trusty Ka-Bar knife out of its sheath.

“HEY!” Eliot yelled as he felt his knife being purloined, and he managed to dabble water and tears out of his bleary eyes, but he still couldn’t make out what was going on. All he could see was indistinct shapes shifting in front of his eyes and the only one he was fairly certain he could identify was Gertie.

Hardison grasped the knife firmly even as the wet grip felt slick in his hand, and then he unceremoniously grabbed Eliot by the scruff of his shirt and dragged him away from the edge of the billabong, Eliot protesting every inch of the way.

Gertie was enraged. She had no intention of letting go of the beast, but her grip was slowly slipping as the crocodile used its muscular body to twist and coil itself free, tail whipping and jaws getting uncomfortably close to Gertie’s neck.

Eliot, foggy-minded and hurting, suddenly realised what Hardison had yelled at him. A crocodile. He had been attacked by a crocodile. And now, it seemed, Gertie had grabbed hold of it. He had an idea.

“Hardison!!” he bawled as he tried to sit up. “Kill it!!

Hardison, doing his best to stay out of Gertie’s way and avoid the lethal jaws of the flailing crocodile, nearly dropped the knife in surprise.

“Wha – kill it??? Whaddyamean, kill it???” he yelled, terrified.

“Hell, yeah!!” Eliot shouted back. “We can eat it!!

Hardison’s eyes widened. Now he knew Eliot was insane.

EAT IT???

Gertie roared as the crocodile finally managed to wriggle free, snapping at Gertie who was busy baring her bloodied teeth at the creature. The crocodile lunged at Gertie’s legs and missed her by a hair’s breadth, and the irate reptile tried again, this time sprawling between Gertie’s front legs. If it got hold of Gertie the sharp teeth would rip her leg to pieces.

Hardison waved the knife in the air and ran at Gertie, trying desperately to shoo her away, but the dromedary wasn’t about to abandon either Eliot or Hardison, and she just tried to stamp on the crocodile, honking. Then her head snaked out and she suddenly flipped the crocodile onto its back.

Hardison seized the day.

KOOSH, Gertie … KOOSH!!” he bellowed, and Gertie, obedient camel that she was, promptly sat on the crocodile.

The end came quickly. When twelve hundred pounds of camel sat heavily on two hundred pounds of crocodile, there was only one outcome. Gertie burbled triumphantly as she sat on the now-defunct reptile, and looked distinctly smug.

Hardison leaned forward and resting his hands on his knees, dragged in whooping breaths as Gertie gurgled happily to herself. Eliot managed to sit up, holding his side and squinting in the increasing shadows of the late afternoon.

“Well?? Did you kill it??” He yelled, and wished he hadn’t as his headache began to thump again.

“Wait … wait a minute …” Hardison gasped, and then he straightened up. He clutched the knife as though his life depended on it, and gazed at Gertie and then at the long, scaly tail sticking out from beneath her ribcage. “Yeah … yeah, El … Gertie got it …” he wheezed.

Eliot grinned. He was soaked to the skin, shot, bleeding, concussed and in pain, but most of all he knew they both had to have something substantial to eat, and crocodile meat would give them some much-needed protein.

“Okay, Hardison … skin out the tail an’ … an’ … we’ll find a place to camp. Okay? I’m … I’m freezin’ …” Eliot shuddered, chilled to the bone after his unexpected dunking in the billabong.

“Wait … skin … are you nuts???” Hardison croaked.

“Yeah,” Eliot retorted brusquely, “Skin. The crocodile. That’s what …” his breath caught for a moment as his side protested at the movement, “that’s what the knife’s for.”

Hardison glared at Eliot, who was now sitting up and gesticulating at him, his right hand making vaguely knife-cutty motions. He thought he had never seen Eliot look so bloodthirsty, especially as blood still trickled down his face and stained his shirt. It didn’t help that Eliot was grinning ferociously.

Hardison stood straight, still dripping water and shaking with cold and terror.

“Now, just how the hell do I skin a friggin’ crocodile??” he demanded.

And that was when Eliot lost it. He leaned back on one elbow and hugged his damaged side with the other, and then slowly toppled back onto the sandy ground and laughed until the pain became too much and he had to groan with the intensity of it.

Hardison turned to Gertie and gingerly told her to stand up, and he winced as he saw the somewhat flattened carcass underneath her. He led Gertie back to Eliot, and the camel dropped her head down to whiffle at Eliot’s tousled hair, sniffing worriedly at the blood on his face. She hummed contentedly to herself when she realised he was conscious and responsive.

Eliot lay quietly for a minute or two, shivering from the sudden shock of the cold water, but his head was a little less painful and to his surprise, once he had knuckled the water out of his eyes, his vision was nowhere near so blurry.

“We … we gotta move, Hardison. There’s an overhang about a mile away where we can shelter an’ start a fire without bein’ seen. Help me up an’ I’ll tell you how to skin a croc.” He couldn’t stop the grin widening on his face.

Hardison stared at Eliot, and realised the hitter was enjoying the hell out of the situation.

He looked at Gertie, and then looked at the crocodile.

“This,” he said glumly, “is gonna be just disgusting.”


It was getting on for nightfall before Hardison and Eliot had skinned the meat-packed tail and boned it out. To Hardison’s distaste Eliot pushed the lean steak meat away from the spine, reached into the resulting gaping hole and pulled out a length of tender fillet meat, wrapping it in the belly skin Hardison had gingerly peeled off the creature.

Hardison had not appreciated Eliot growling instructions at him … comments such as “Dammit, Hardison! Don’t stick the knife through the belly or you’ll get a face-full of croc shit and guts, an’ you’ll taint the meat!” and “Jeez, Hardison! It’s a knife, not a goddamn toothpick! If you don’t get the skin off now, it’ll get tougher as the carcass cools, so man up an’ damn well pull!!”

But he had managed to keep himself from heaving his guts up and skinned the damn croc, and after quickly washing his hands in the billabong, keeping his eyes open for more of the nasty, toothy, scaly sonsabitches, he got Eliot onto Gertie and led the camel through the encroaching gloom along the ancient river bed.

By the time Eliot had found the dry, sandy place carved out thousands of years ago by the ancient river, stark moonlight filled the night sky and a soft breeze caressed tired bodies and helped to dry them after the sudden shock of the cold water of the billabong.

Hardison’s fire-starting capabilities had somewhat improved over the years, and he soon had a fire crackling on the flat, clear ground away from the stunted trees and acacias trying to keep a grip on the rock-strewn dry river bed. The heat was very welcome, and after helping Eliot get settled against Gertie’s warm, solid bulk, Hardison dug out the crocodile meat and spitted the steaks over the fire to roast.

Eliot had stopped Hardison several times along the way to pick stuff off plants and trees, which had made the hacker cringe, because he had no idea what Spencer was going to force him to eat. But now Eliot managed to sprinkle wild lemon myrtle and some thyme over the fillets and wrapped them in fresh saltbush leaves, and laid them on the coals to cook. Hardison heated water in the billy, and while their food cooked, he cleaned up Eliot.

He replaced the butterfly strips in the head wound and cut off the still-wet bandages around Eliot’s ribs. The bullet wound worried the crap out of him. The skin and flesh around the embedded bullet was swollen and discoloured, and he soaked a gauze pad in hot water and laid it over the entry wound, letting the heat try and draw out some of the infection.

Eliot bore it as well as he could, and then handed a few long, leathery leaves to Hardison.

“Here … see if you can find somethin’ to soak these in boiling water. Maybe after we’ve had some tea we can use one of the condensed milk tins,” he said. “Emu bush leaves. Crush ‘em into the water and it’ll help with the infection.”

Hardison raised an eyebrow.

“You drink this stuff?” he asked dubiously.

No, Hardison,” Eliot answered, irritated. “Use it to clean these holes I got in me. Now these,” he held up some other leaves he had pulled off a tree as Gertie had brushed past it, “I can drink like a tea once they’re left to infuse. Eucalyptus leaves. They’re good for fevers.”

Hardison could feel the heat emanating from Eliot, and knew he had quite the fever brewing. The unexpected swim hadn’t helped, and Hardison had stripped Eliot of his wet boots, pants and shirt and wrapped him in the old, warm blanket that covered Gertie’s saddle.

So, as the fire warmed them up and their clothes lay spread on acacia bushes to dry, Eliot and Hardison ate a hearty meal of crocodile meat, accompanied by sun-dried kutjera*, and followed by a hot mug of tea laced with condensed milk, and kakadu plums for dessert. Hardison was highly relieved they still had their can-opener.

The crocodile meat was tender, juicy and chicken-like in texture, but with a hint of fish – not unpleasant, Hardison decided, and Eliot’s impromptu bush herbs added even more flavour. Huh, he thought – trust Eliot Spencer to produce chef-y type food with a bullet hole in him and stuck in the outback with a camel and an out-of-his-depth techy genius.

Hardison ate until he was stuffed. Eliot managed what he could, although the heat of the food did him more initial good than the calories and protein content. His stomach was still queasy and his balance wasn’t great, but he knew he would rest easier with a full stomach and some fluids in him. He also got a great deal of satisfaction gloating over Hardison actually enjoying eating croc steaks.

They sat in silence for a while, the only noise being the crackle of the fire and Gertie’s never-ending grumbles and gurgles as she chewed her cud, eyes half-closed as she sat contentedly with Eliot tucked into her side.

Hardison was beginning to doze, but he mentally shook himself. He wanted to redress Eliot’s various injuries before they settled down for the night, and the emu bush leaves intended to help with the infection were still steeping in hot water.

He pulled out his tablet and powered it up, the light from the screen sending an eerie glow around the small space. The thing still had about a third of its power left, Hardison discovered. Good. He inserted the memory stick and began to look over the shots Larry had taken before his untimely demise.

The quality was as good as he had hoped. High resolution definition, and as Hardison had sent Larry in closer to the Albany setup, he mentally patted himself on the back for choosing the best equipment he could find. And, of course, Homeland Security would never notice that some of its surveillance software had been copied and modified.

“El …”

“Yeah?” Eliot replied, already halfway into a doze.

“Do you know anything about mining?” Hardison asked.

“Coal, precious metal or minerals?” Eliot murmured.

“Metals. Titanium, to be exact.”

Eliot thought about it for a moment or two.

“Not much of it up here. It’s mostly western Oz and New South Wales. That’s not to say there isn’t any up here, and I reckon licenses would be hard to get if there’s no titanium on Albany land, wouldn’t you say?”

Hardison pondered the information, and then looked again at the strange, silo-like columns and the four, square ponds.

“What do titanium mines look like?” he asked. He so wished he could do an online search but the remote, sheltered landscape negated that particular option.

“I, uh, I retrieved somethin’ from one in Kwa-Zulu Natal, back in ’07. It’s mostly dredge-mining, taking titanium oxide slag from the sand. Damn’ big strip of land, a mile wide or so an’ maybe ten miles long. It’s a damn mess.” Eliot said, his eyes still closed and leaning back onto Gertie’s warm hide.

“So …” Hardison was thinking aloud now, “titanium mines don’t have silo-thingies, then? Or filtration ponds?”

“Hell, no,” Eliot murmured quietly. “Why?”

“Albany Mining Company has a real tidy set of buildings, lots of pipes and these silos beside four ponds on the east side, away from the main setup. I have no idea what they are.”

Eliot pondered the information, and then his eyes suddenly snapped open.

“Alice!” he hissed quietly, and tried to sit up, wincing. Gertie rumbled and swung her head around, worried. Eliot managed to ease himself upright using Gertie as a prop, and then he frowned, thinking hard.

“What about Alice?” Hardison said, puzzled.

“I know why she was up at Jalkaji Point.” He fixed Hardison with a hard glare, his blue eyes glinting in the firelight. “Alice was a rock hound,” he added by way of explanation. “She loved art, an’ she loved her tribe. Both of ‘em were at the heart of her. But she’d been interested in geology since she was a kid. Especially here, with the land being so much a part of her people. She kept an eye on commercial mining all through the Barkly region, just makin’ sure they didn’t damage the land too much an’ didn’t impinge on aboriginal rights. She’d know what kind of mining Albany’s doing an’ she could keep an eye on ‘em from Jalkaji Point. It’s the only place on Warumungu land that’s high enough to see the mine,” he said firmly.

“Well sonofabitch,” Hardison breathed. “So … we need to know what Alice knew before those bastards killed her.” He studied the footage again, but he was really too tired to make much more sense of it, so he shut down the tablet and stowed it away in Gertie’s pack. He stared into the fire for a while, and tried to shake off the dread that suddenly permeated his mind, and he tried not to think of Alice Jakkamarra or the man he had killed.

“Eliot?”

What?” Eliot replied wearily. He was very sore and he felt crappy. The fever made his joints ache.

“What did you ‘retrieve’? Y’know … in Africa?”

Eliot shifted and couldn’t contain the moan of pain.

Shit …” he grunted, and then answered. “A ten-year-old boy,” he said.

Hardison’s eyes widened in shock. Now he almost wished he hadn’t asked.

“He’d been kidnapped by his father,” Eliot continued, the memories coming thick and fast. “He wasn’t much of a dad. He ran the mine for a diamond and mineral consortium with connections to far-eastern cartels. The boy’s mother is a high-ranking American criminal lawyer. I won’t go into the family dynamics, but … the boy was leverage.”

Hardison could almost feel the disgust in Eliot’s voice as he spoke of the man who threatened his own child.

“I … uh … I take it the job went okay?” he asked tentatively.

Eliot sighed, twitching with pain.

“Mostly,” he said, his tone soft and gentle now.

“Mostly?”

“I killed the boy’s father before the bastard could cut his son’s throat,” he said bluntly.

Hardison blinked.

Jesus,” he breathed. He was silent for a second or two before speaking again. “Eliot … sometimes … sometimes I wonder how you’ve done … how you do the things you do, m’man, an’ don’t go crazy-insane because of ‘em.”

“Yeah …” Eliot said ruefully, “sometimes I wonder that too. An’ sometimes I think I already have.”

Raising a hand he scratched Gertie’s head, and listened to her grumbles of pleasure. He gazed into the fire and fervently hoped he wouldn’t see the faces of the people he had killed as he dreamed that night. But in his heart, he knew, he would. He always did.


All Soapy got on the radio was static. Lots and lots of steady, rawling static and nothing else.

Soapy tried again. He clicked the button on the old Motorola mike.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy,” he intoned. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy, over.

Nate sat beside the pastoralist, staring at the radio set as though he could make Hardison or Eliot answer by sheer power of will.

Soapy had smiled at the call signs when Hardison had told him what they were. He could hear Richard Burton’s precise, Welsh tones as he used the call signs in Where Eagles Dare, and Hardison loved the film, hence the somewhat prosaic names. But right now, ‘Danny Boy’ was as silent as the grave.

“It could simply be they’ve got no reception,” Soapy said, trying to be upbeat.

Nate frowned and shrugged.

“Could be,” he agreed, and on the face of it that was a perfectly reasonable supposition. He looked at his watch. It was well after nine in the evening, and the moon hung limpid and bright over the homestead, the night clear and still. There was no wind. But Charlie had explained that there were several places along the track to Bore Seven where reception was bad even in the best of weather, and at least two of the locations were blind spots. But on the other hand … he remembered that Hardison and Eliot were camping at the bore as Larry the drone was supposed to be flying again in the morning before the two men headed home. “Would you mind trying once more, Soapy?”

“No worries,” Soapy replied, his own concerns now beginning to knot his stomach. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy … over.”

Silence.

“Have you got them, Daddy? Can I speak to them??” Lizzie wandered in through the doorway into Soapy’s office, wearing her pyjamas and carefully carrying a mug of hot chocolate. “Are they okay??” Her voice was rife with hope.

“Nothing yet, sweetheart,” he answered, trying to keep his voice confident and calm.

Lizzie’s face fell.

“Grandpa Soapy … they’re alright, aren’t they?” she said, her voice wobbling a bit. Her brown eyes were huge and worried. “Why don’t they answer??”

Soapy reached out and grabbed Lizzie’s mug before hot chocolate spilled over his desk, and then took Lizzie’s hand in his, the rough calluses on his palm warm and comforting.

“Lizzie, sweetheart … just because we can’t get hold of them on the radio doesn’t mean they’re in trouble. It could just be because they’re in a place where the radio doesn’t work, that’s all.”

Lizzie’s lip began to tremble.

“But –“

“Soapy’s right, Lizzie,” Nate said, trying his best to reassure his daughter. “Don’t assume they’re in trouble just because they –“

Daddy!” Lizzie said firmly, her wobbly lip turning into a grim line. “Eliot’s hurt. And he’s sick. I just know it. And he needs us. We have to go help him!”

“He was perfectly alright when he left this morning, darling,” Sophie said as she entered the office and put a comforting hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Please don’t worry – you know Eliot’s extremely capable of looking after both of them.”

But Lizzie wasn’t to be placated that easily. Her face became the very epitome of Eliot-Spencer-stubborn, and the scowl was fearsome.

“I’m going to see Effie!!!” she declared, and grabbing her hot chocolate, she stumped off to the kitchen. Effie would understand, she was sure.

Sophie moved to go after her, but Soapy laid a hand on her arm, stopping her.

“Effie’s the best thing for her right now,” he said quietly. “The old bugger’ll calm her down simply by agreeing with her. And I have to say … Lizzie might have something. This radio silence just doesn’t feel right,” he sighed. “We can’t do anything about it tonight. I’ll try again in the morning, and if they’re not back by midday at the latest, we’ll go look for them. Doing it at night would be bloody dangerous.”

Nate eyed Sophie, seeing the worry deepen on her beautiful face.

“Soapy’s right, you know,” he said. “We’re stuck until the morning.”

“And we’re still being watched,” Parker said as she came into the office through the door which led to the cattle yards.

“You sure??” Nate asked, surprised.

Parker had spent the day on top of the water tank, sitting on a deckchair under Jo’s sun-brolly and drinking lots of water. She had Eliot’s scope and a cool-box filled with sandwiches and Effie’s lamingtons, and watched the silent figure in the distance. Whoever it was wasn’t even bothering to hide in the stringybark stand at the top of the hill.

“Yeah. I’m still not convinced it’s a woman. But they’re on a horse.” She shuddered dramatically. “Horses. Blech. Anyhoo … they’re still there. I can see the horse in the moonlight because it’s kinda grey.”

“Well, that decides the matter,” Nate sighed. “We stay put tonight and probably the morning, and then try and sneak away somehow. I don’t want the kids out of sight for a second. We’ll make a plan in the morning, people.”

Soapy nodded, although he didn’t like the idea of someone watching their home. But what worried him even more was Lizzie’s concern about Eliot and Hardison. He knew the little girl loved them both, but had a deep connection to Eliot, her guardian and closest friend.

But there was nothing for it – they would have to wait.

“Oh well,” he said, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. “Tea anyone??” he asked, and without waiting, he switched off the radio and headed out of the room to get his evening cuppa.

 

To be continued … 


Author's note:

* ‘Kutjera’ – wild bush tomatoes, best eaten dried by the sun. Very tasty.

 

 

Chapter Text


Hardison was dreaming.

He was looking at his tablet and there was Larry the drone’s view of the world, humming his way across the landscape and the man, that goddamn man with the rifle was aiming at Eliot, and Larry just wasn’t fast enough and no matter how hard Hardison pushed the toggle he knew the little drone wouldn’t get there in time. The man aimed and fired … again and again and again, and Hardison couldn’t tear his eyes away from the bullets striking Eliot … his best friend … his brother … and he knew Eliot was dead as his body jerked with the impact, and Hardison screamed. It was a primal scream, one from his very soul, and he swore and yelled and Larry just didn’t get there in timeoh God, Eliot was gone … he was gone and Hardison hadn’t saved him and –

“Hardison!”

Hardison awoke in mid-yell, the terror surging through him like an icy river, and there was Eliot, hand on Hardison’s shoulder and concern rife in his blue eyes.

“El –“ he croaked, and he realised he was trembling.

“You okay?” Eliot asked, his voice gruff with worry.

Hardison swallowed bile and nodded.

“Y… yeah … I think so …”

“Bad dream, huh,” Eliot said quietly.

“You could say that,” Hardison answered, and sat up.

Eliot was sitting beside him. Somehow the wounded hitter had managed to retrieve his dried clothes and boots and dressed himself, and he had been in the middle of heating water in the billy when Hardison had begun yelling.

“It’s tough,” Eliot murmured as he studied his friend. “Seein’ things in your head an’ not able to do anythin’ about it. I’m guessing I died, huh.”

Hardison closed his eyes and instantly saw the horror as Eliot’s body jerked again with the impact of the bullets and he gasped, opening his eyes wide as though reality would drive away the shock of loss.

“You killed a man,” Eliot continued. “It’s not an easy thing to live with. I know.” He winced as he tried to ease the throbbing pain in his body. “First time I killed a man I didn’t sleep for three days. An’ you know what? It’s as though your mind can’t decide between the guilt of killin’ a human being an’ what might have happened if you didn’t kill them. An’ I’ve killed a lot of people since then. You deal with it.” He grimaced. “But that’s probably not what you wanted to hear, though, huh.”

“M’okay …” Hardison rasped, and wiped the bleariness out of his eyes. He suddenly remembered listening via an earbud to Eliot tell an interrogator about why he didn’t need to count the people he had killed. He remembered everything … their eye colour, their last words … whether they begged, and whether they deserved it or not … and once again Hardison didn’t know how Eliot stood living with himself sometimes. He sighed. His own memory was too raw for him just yet. He would deal with it later. Much later. If the nightmares would let him, he decided.

“It’s comin’ up dawn,” Eliot said, digging a couple of teabags out of their pack and dropping them in the billy. “C’mon, man … get dressed, warm up an’ eat something. We gotta go soon.”

Hardison nodded wordlessly and stretched, trying to ease the stiffness from sore muscles. Sleeping on the ground was not one of his favourite occupations. He reached for his pants and boots, but was stopped by Eliot, who waggled a finger at him.

“Check ‘em first,” he said. “Shake out your clothes and boots.”

Hardison sucked in a breath.

“Oh god … scorpions, right?”

“Hell no,” Eliot said laconically. “They’re not too bad. It’s the centipedes you gotta watch out for. Nasty bastards.”

“Seriously??” Hardison ground out, staring at his boots. “I mean … seriously?? Frikkin’ centipedes??

“Oh sure,” Eliot said carelessly. “The bigger ones eat frogs an’ lizards.”

Cursing to himself, Hardison shook his clothes until his arms ached.


Effie sat quietly on the veranda at Wapanjara homestead, a cup of tea and a plate with slices of her own version of walnut cake beside her on the table. Looking out over Jo’s garden, she sighed, watching the sky slowly lighten as dawn approached.

Somewhere out there in the bush, two of her boys were fighting for their lives, she just knew it. She sipped her tea and wiped her eyes. Hardison, in just a few days, had wormed his way into her old, cynical heart, although it hadn’t been difficult. His Nana must be a bloody wonder, she thought. The lad was kind, funny, frighteningly intelligent and respectful. And he had a way of prodding Eliot into a raging fit that delighted her, because sometimes Eliot, the boofhead, was so uptight Effie was sure he would burst a blood vessel and Hardison gave him a way of letting go. Hardison was good for Eliot … a little brother who drove the older man nuts but, Effie knew, Eliot would protect him with his life.

And her boys were in danger, she felt it deep in her soul.

She took another sip of tea, and then a soft voice disturbed her reverie.

“Is that cake?” Parker said as she ambled through from the living room, wrapped in a sleeping bag.

“Walnut with honey. Want a piece?” Effie asked, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb the household.

“Mmm, yeah!” Parker murmured and dropped into a chair opposite Effie. She took a piece of cake, bit into it and mumbled happily. “Ooohh, tea!” she whispered and disappeared for a minute into the kitchen, returning with a cup of her own. She poured tea and drank it black.

“Well, Missy … can’t sleep, hey?”

Parker’s eyes blinked and she looked away, drinking more tea.

“Eliot and Hardison … Lizzie’s worried, Effie. That makes me worried too.”

Effie grunted in agreement and ate a piece of cake.

“The nipper’s got a feeling, so she has. She an’ the Yank … they’re good mates, I can tell. He’s her best pal, and she thinks the world of the daft mongrel. She knows, Missy. She knows something’s up – she has a feeling in her gizzard.”

Parker wasn’t too sure what a gizzard was, but she knew Effie had nailed it – there was something wrong, although she couldn’t place exactly what it was. She turned in her chair and looked up to the stringybarks at the top of the hill, and saw something shift in the early morning gloom.

Whoever it was watching Wapanjara, they were still there.

“If they’re still hanging about,” Effie murmured, “it means they’re not chasing the Yank and young Alec,” she said. “If some drongo has hurt my boys, I’ll gut them with a spoon, I swear,” she growled.

“Effie? Can’t sleep,” a small voice declared, and both Parker and the little cook turned to see Lizzie standing in the doorway, her comforter in one hand and using the other to try and wipe weariness from her eyes.

“Want some cake?” Parker asked, her voice warm with love.

“Yes please,” the little girl mumbled. “Has Eliot radioed us? Is Alec okay? Why haven’t they called?” Lizzie said groggily, and dragged her comforter around her as she clambered onto Eliot’s recliner next to Effie. The child was obviously very tired but worry was preventing her from sleeping.

“They’ll be back today, little ‘un, come hell or high water,” Effie said firmly. “So stop worrying. Mister M and your dad will go looking for them or they’ll come home on their own, I bet, so why not go back to your bed and get some sleep.”

Effie tried to sound in charge, but her own worries softened her words. So she leaned over and tucked the warm cover around Lizzie, pulling out the soft old cushion Eliot kept on the recliner to ease his back when his leg hurt, and placing it under Lizzie’s head.

Lizzie sighed, snuggled into the cushion and grasped Effie’s hand in hers. The old woman clasped the child’s fingers and rubbed the small knuckles gently with her rough-skinned fingertips.

And so the three of them sat in silence on the veranda, eating cake, drinking tea and worrying, and watching as the light grew on the horizon and the sky became wreathed in the gold and blue of a new day.


The sun was nearly above the horizon when Hardison finished eating his second lamington of the morning and washed it down with a mug of tea. He eyed Eliot. The man was leaning back against Gertie, sipping some eucalyptus infusion in an attempt to halt the ever-growing fever in his system.

Hardison had cleansed Eliot’s wounds with the emu bush concoction to try and control infection, and the bullet hole looked messy … oozing pus and blood, and Eliot had stoically borne the agony of Hardison tending to the swollen injury. The shoulder wound was also badly inflamed, but this morning the injuries looked a little less angry, and Eliot’s eyes were clearer. The fever was taking a hold, but Eliot was bearing it as best as he could.

Perhaps this bush medicine nonsense wasn’t so weird after all, Hardison thought.

Eliot finished his drink and made a face.

“Damn, this stuff’s evil,” he grumbled, and then dropped his head back against Gertie, who whiffled at his hair. “You ready to go?” he asked Hardison.

“More to the point, are you?” Hardison replied. “You ain’t slept a wink.”

Hardison had set the alarm on his watch to remind him to wake Eliot and make sure the concussion wasn’t getting worse, but every time he checked, Eliot was already awake. His eyes might have been closed, but his wounds ached too much to allow him any meaningful rest. The Oklahoman was exhausted.

“I’ll make it,” he said wearily. “It’s only a few hours to go, an’ then I can get stitched up. It’ll be fine.”

“Eliot … you need a hospital, man. You got a bullet in you – Parker can’t deal with that –“ Hardison insisted, just a little exasperated with Eliot’s declaration that he was raring to go.

“Jo can,” Eliot interrupted with conviction. “She’s dug a bullet outta me before.”

Hardison’s eyebrows hitched in surprise.

“What?? When??

“Washington … Spanish ‘flu … remember?”

“No way!” Hardison was stunned. “That’s where you went?? You flew all the way to Australia with two bullet holes in you??? Parker an’ me … we thought you disappeared off to one of your struck-off animal doctors!! You came to Australia??? Damn!! The flight alone coulda killed you! How’d you get through immigration, hurt like you were??”

“Vance,” Eliot smiled wanly. “I patched m’self up, an’ then he got me on a military transport to Darwin and into the country with no problems. He owed me big-time. Jo an’ Soapy drove all the way to Darwin to fetch me. To be fair, she dug out what was left of the slug. I’d already got most of it. She found the fragment an’ pumped me full of antibiotics. I was pretty out of it for a while, but I healed up good as new.” His smile became a slow grin. “Not even a limp.”

Hardison remembered Eliot showing up suddenly after being missing for over three weeks after he was shot … he had gone to ground like a wounded bear. He’d looked thinner and a little frayed around the edges, and he was careful when he moved, but he had been whole and well … more or less.

“Sonofabitch, Eliot!! We were worried sick about you!!”

Eliot shrugged and grunted as the wound in his side objected.

“Hey … now you know. You’ll also be thrilled to know that Jo wasn’t too happy either at me comin’ home with two bullet holes in me. She an’ Effie made my life hell for quite a while.”

“Damn straight!!” Hardison grated, “an’ you didn’t bother lettin’ us know you were okay, either, you idiot!”

“Couldn’t,” Eliot said. “Had to keep ‘em safe … remember? I couldn’t afford any mistakes or weak spots, an’ a ‘phone call is always risky. Our security’s been breached more’n once.” He eyed Hardison. “You knew I’d be alright. You knew I’d be safe an’ healed up when I came back. It’s not as though you hadn’t seen me hurt before.”

Hardison had to grudgingly agree, but he didn’t have to like it.

“Parker’s going to do somethin’ real nasty to you when she finds out, m’man. You know that, don’t you?”

“I’ll live with it,” Eliot stated huskily, pain etched in every muscle. “I just … I had to go home.” He took as deep a breath as his ribs would let him. “C’mon, Hardison. Help me up. We gotta make a move.”

“Okay, okay … I’ll put out the fire an’ clear up here, an’ then we get going. You stay put until I’m done, El. Jeez.” He shook his head. Eliot Spencer, stubborn asshole.

Heaving himself to his feet, he began to tidy up their camp.

Eliot rested against Gertie, closed his eyes and tried to deal with the pain in his head and the fever in his body.


“They still there?” Nate murmured as he picked at his breakfast and glancing up at the stringybarks on the hill. He didn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean their mysterious watcher had gone.

“Missy thinks so,” Effie grumbled quietly. “Eat something, will you? I didn’t spend hours over a hot stove for you lot to waste good food,” she added testily.

Nate gave a tired smile and looked at Sophie, trying her best to work her way through one of Effie’s delicious omelettes. She recognised the recipe … she’d eaten it often enough when Eliot cooked breakfast for the team.

Parker yawned and stretched, nodding.

“Yep. Still there. What are we going to do, Nate? I mean … what can we do without alerting Rickenbacker?”

“I could go checking yearlings maybe,” Charlie said, sitting beside Kip and pouring his son some orange juice.

“Not on your own, you won’t,” Soapy commented, buttering toast. “I can’t sit a horse just yet … bloody ribs … but that might work.”

“I’ll go,” Sophie interjected suddenly. “Charlie could be showing me the lie of the land. It wouldn’t look out of place, and we can head along the track towards the bore.”

Nate frowned and shook his head.

“I don’t like it. It’s splitting us up again, and I don’t want either of you taking any risks. We have children here, people. Look … Eliot and Hardison aren’t supposed to be back until midday, and we don’t know that anything’s happened to them, so why don’t we wait?”

“Daddy … I told you –“ Lizzie sat by her father, eyes bleary and dead tired, but refusing to sleep until Eliot and Hardison were safely home.

“Lizzie … sweetheart …” Nate couldn’t stop a hint of exasperation from creeping into his voice. Lizzie wasn’t usually so stubborn. “We know absolutely nothing. It’s what … less than four hours from now? It’s common sense to wait until they’re past their ETA.”

“But Daddy –“ Lizzie’s Eliot-frown was back.

“Enough now, Lizzie. This is serious. We’re being watched by someone who probably managed to stick a knife in Eliot more than once, so until we know what’s going on we act normally. You know that, sweetheart. We’ve done it before. So … we wait, okay?”

Lizzie looked around at her family, tears finally beginning to well in her eyes.

“Lizzie, love … it’s killing me worrying about them,” Jo said softly, “but your dad’s right. We have to wait. Eliot would be furious if we endangered ourselves for him. I know that’s daft, because we love him … we love both of them … but we have to be careful.” She thought for a moment. “Tell you what – Charlie and Kip are supposed to be shifting bales this morning over in the yards … why don’t we go over to the west paddock gate and feed the horses? That’ll take the pair of us most of the morning, we’re in Charlie’s view and you can keep an eye out for Gertie, hey?”

Parker perked up a little.

“I can watch out for all of you. I can see just about everywhere in the yards and the homestead boundary from the water tower, so … it should be safe enough.”

Lizzie straightened, looking more hopeful.

“Can we, Daddy? Grandma Jo and Parker will keep an eye out for bad guys, and then we can wait for Eliot and Alec??”

“Soph?” Nate raised his eyebrows at his wife.

“I don’t see why not,” she answered. “But you stay in sight of Parker and Jo, and yell for Charlie if anything happens, you understand? Promise?”

Lizzie didn’t take promises lightly … Eliot had made sure of that.

“I promise, Mama.”

“Soapy and I have some digging to do through land registration records, and I think there are old mining reports on Wapanjara?” Nate asked Soapy.

The pastoralist nodded.

“Deep in the recesses of my filing cabinets, yes. My grandfather had them done back in the forties after the war. You never know … they might have some useful info in there. Worth a try,” he added hopefully.

“I just have a hunch that it’s to do with mining rather than taking over the station,” Nate pondered, and then ate a mouthful of omelette. “Maybe not whatever they’re digging up, but how they’re doing it and what they’re trying to hide. And what have the Chinese to do with it? Damn … I wish Hardison was here …” he fretted. He would have set Hardison on finding out what mineral interests any Chinese businesses might have in the Northern Territory. The whole thing was so amorphous … so hard to nail down the facts, and the landscape itself was the difficulty, he knew. In an urban landscape everything was much more accessible, digitally and physically. Out here, when one had to drive over a hundred miles to buy groceries … it was almost impossible. Unless you were Alec Hardison.

“Okay … breakfast then work. Lizzie … you listen to Jo, y’hear?? No wandering off.” Nate said.

Lizzie managed a mouthful of toast and nodded.

“Hey nipper,” Effie rumbled, “how’s about you and the Missus take a picnic with you?” She stood up and began to gather empty plates, and ruffled Lizzie’s curls. “I know it’s just here at the homestead, but bloody hell … it’s better than nothing. And then you’ll be able to keep a watch out for them two daft young mongrels without having to come back here for lunch. You alright with that, Missus?” she asked Jo.

“Too right, Effie! Sounds like a plan to me.” Jo smiled at the little cook who had begun to love this new extension to their family.

“Righto then. C’mon, nipper. If you’re not going to eat that toast you can help me clear up and then pack some grub. And before you ask, yeah, you can take some anzacs,” she added with something that was almost – but not quite - good humour. She knew Lizzie was fond of the sticky oaty biscuits.

Lizzie stood up and nodded. She was very, very tired, but she wouldn’t rest until her menfolk were home safe. So gathering up her plate, she headed into the kitchen after Effie.

“Dear God, Nate … how did we produce such a stubborn daughter? Look at her – she can barely stay awake.” Sophie sighed, frustration in every word.

Nate had to smile at his wife’s comment.

“Nurture versus nature, Sophie. Who else do we know who’s so damn stubborn?”

Sophie got it.

“Oh, bugger it. Bloody Eliot Spencer.” She sighed. “Oh well. Nothing we can do about it now. I just hope he’s all right – that they’re both alright - or else we’ll never hear the last of it.”

Nate, sipping his coffee, couldn’t agree with her more.


“Hardison …”

The hacker, sitting on a saddle-sore backside in front of Eliot on Gertie, had felt his friend slump against him more and more over the last hour, so he halted Gertie as she strode along a narrow track barely visible in the bush.

“Yeah, man? You need a break?”

“Just a little bit,” Eliot murmured weakly.

“Hang on …” And Hardison kooshed Gertie down before dismounting and easing an increasingly weak Eliot off the saddle. “Here … rest up for a few minutes,” he said.

Eliot found himself resting at the base of a dead mulga, the dry wood rough and warm against his back. Hardison crouched beside him with a canteen of water.

“Here. It’s the last of it,” the young man said, sloshing the canteen. “No more until we get back to the homestead,” he added sombrely.

“Nah,” Eliot rested his head back against the tree, “I’ll be okay. You finish it – you’ve been givin’ most of it to me, an’ you need to stay rehydrated.”

Hardison had to admit he was parched, but after nearly three hours in the saddle, Eliot looked like he was on the point of unconsciousness. At this pace he had another couple of hours to go, so he needed to keep up his strength.

“Drink, you moron,” the hacker rasped, irritated. “I’ll be fine.”

“An’ you idiots call me stubborn,” Eliot muttered, and then swallowed the remaining few mouthfuls of water.

“You need it, El.” Hardison felt Eliot’s forehead and tsk’d. “You’re burnin’ up, bro. Take a break an’ chill. Want a gummy frog?”

Eliot scowled.

“I’d rather eat my boot,” he growled, sounding a little more like his usual grumpy self. Then his eye caught movement in the leaf scatter around him from the nearby acacias. “Huh,” he said softly. Then he pulled out his knife and began to dig in the dirt around the base of the tree.

“Now I know you’re delirious!” Hardison said, scowling at the wounded man. “What the hell crazy thing are you at now??”

Eliot didn’t answer, but carried on excavating a hole beside him, trying hard to not jar his injuries while working diligently.

“Eliot … what are you doing??” Hardison insisted, now getting annoyed. “You’re gonna open up that hole you got in you, man! What the hell –“

Eliot let out a grunt of satisfaction, dropped his knife and reached into the hole, and Hardison could now see the red dirt sifting downwards into what appeared to be a small underground chamber seething with –

ANTS!! Dammit, Eliot!! Those are friggin’ ants!!!

Eliot was too preoccupied with digging around in the small hole he had made in the top of the chamber, and then he grinned as he pulled out his hand. He was holding something, and his hand and sleeve were swarming with small, irate insects. He shook them off and then uncurled his fingers.

In the palm of his hand lay maybe a dozen insects with huge, swollen abdomens. Eliot picked one up by its front end, stuck the almost transparent abdomen in in his mouth and sucked. His eyes closed with the pleasure at the sweet flavour.

Jesus!!” Hardison yelped and then glared at Eliot, who ate another of the ants.

Eliot licked his lips and cleaned a dribble of fluid from his chin.

“Honeypot ants,” he said. “Good eats. Want one??”

“What?? No!!” Hardison was appalled at the very idea. “That … that’s … Eliot, that’s beyond disgusting!!”

Eliot finished off his handful of ants and went back for more.

“They’ll help stop you from bein’ dehydrated, Hardison. The aborigines treat them as a delicacy.” Hauling out more of the big-bellied creatures he held one out to Hardison. “I’m bein’ serious here,” he said, his face drawn and tired despite the grin. “The honey’s high in energy an’ should keep you goin’ for a while. C’mon, Hardison,” he wheedled. “Grow a couple, will ya?”

Hardison, thirsty as hell, gulped.

“But –“

“Just bite down and don’t worry about it. Insects are protein too, so you’re gettin’ two in one.”

Hardison stared at the ant and then at Eliot.

“Oh god … I don’t believe I’m actually doin’ this,” he moaned, and gingerly manoeuvred the ant between his forefinger and thumb. But … Eliot said they were tasty. “That is one big-ass ant!” he whined, and then opening his mouth and closing his eyes, Hardison ate the ant.

It was a combination of crunchy insect and sweet, honeyed nectar that soothed his throat and freshened his mouth, and he managed to swallow without barfing.

“See? Good, huh,” Eliot said. He held out the handful of fat ants. “These are the main nest’s food supply for the winter. Don’t worry – they’ll easy make more of ‘em,” he said. “They feed off the honey through the winter if food gets scarce.”

Hardison opened his eyes, grimacing, and covered his mouth as though trying to keep the ant down. But he held out his other hand and took the ants from Eliot. Within five minutes he had eaten the lot.

As they settled back onto Gertie and got her to her feet, Hardison shuddered.

“Eliot?”

“Yeah?”

Don’t ever … ever … mention to anyone that I ate ants, y’hear? No. BODY.”

Eliot’s devious silence didn’t bode well, Hardison thought. The nasty, beat-up, crazy-in-the-head cowboy was gonna tell everyone. He just knew it.

Muttering dire threats as he touched Gertie into a walk, Hardison looked at the horizon and knew he had to get Eliot back to the homestead as soon as he could before the man passed out, because an unconscious Eliot was an Eliot who couldn’t ride a camel, and then, Hardison knew, they were both completely up shit creek without a paddle.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text

Jo had a hard time keeping Lizzie focused. On the face of it, Jo thought, it was to be expected. Lizzie was only six years old, tired and worried about her family, and every few minutes, the little girl’s eyes strayed to the wilderness beyond the west paddock gate, as though her need to make sure that Eliot and Hardison were okay would make them appear as though by magic.

But Lizzie did enjoy helping Jo feed the dozen brood mares that Wapanjara owned. The animals were due to foal within the next week or two, and Jo kept her busy leading each mare into the yard for a feed and a quick check to see how they were progressing.

She told the child each horse’s name and about the foal’s sire, and explained that the foals would eventually become sought-after working stock horses. If Lizzie was still at Wapanjara when the foals arrived, Jo said, then she would get to name one of them.

“Really??” Lizzie said, eyes bright with pleasure. “Can Eliot help?”

Jo nodded, even as her heart clenched with concern for the man she regarded as a son.

“Of course he can, sweetie. Alec too.”

Lizzie nodded, and even as she held the lead rope of a big grey mare, huge-bellied and due to foal within the next day or so, her eyes strayed beyond the yard and towards the west paddock, studying the stunted mulgas and stringybarks, the grass and termite mounds stretching into the haze of a hot spring day. Nothing moved.

Lizzie sighed. She patted the mare’s neck, and the animal lipped gently at her fingers, hoping for more scratchies.

She turned and looked up at the water tower, and there was Parker, sitting sprawled on her chair under the sun-brolly, munching on a handful of grapes. The thief was, to all intents and purposes, relaxing in the sun, but Lizzie knew Parker’s keen vision was sweeping the homestead.

All she could hear was the occasional lowing of cattle coming in to drink at the big troughs just beyond the yards and within the paddock boundary. Here and there were the calls of galahs and lorikeets and she suddenly heard ‘boo-book … boo-book’ from a little mopoke, the tiny owl trying to sleep but now hassled by a pair of magpies, their fluting calls shimmering through the clear air.

Lizzie checked the paddock again, and seeing no sign of her family, disconsolately turned back to the big mare, who was happy to receive the attentions of this small human who gave such nice hugs and scratches.

Jo watched and fretted and smiled reassuringly, and checked the west paddock as often as Lizzie, and her heart sank at the emptiness of the landscape.


“It’s … it’s a good job … we’re not up in Arnhem Land …” Eliot ground out as he hung onto Hardison, every step Gertie took jarring his side and his head.

“That right?” Hardison murmured, trying hard to make out the faint track Gertie was following in the bush. He just fervently hoped the big camel knew where she was going, because Eliot had become less and less helpful over the past hour. “How come?”

Eliot let out a low chuckle.

“Ever heard … ever heard of mangrove worms?”

Hardison grimaced.

“Hell no! Sounds disgustin’, Eliot. Jeez. The crap you know …”

Eliot flinched as pain hit him hard and his head swam, but he smiled grimly.

“Big, long grey things … live in the mangrove trees. Good tucker,” he added.

“You eat ‘em??” Hardison cringed internally. He though pemmican had been bad enough when it came to survival food.

“Yeah … it’s like eatin’ a foot-long slimy grey piece of snot. It … it don’t taste like much, but it … it’ll keep you alive,” Eliot explained.

“Dear God, Eliot … I tell you now, I am never comin’ back to Australia!! Well, not unless it’s Sydney, with cars, an’ street lights, an’ … an’ … cell phones, an’-“

Eliot suddenly shifted sideways.

Hardison felt his friend’s grip slacken, and Eliot sagged and fell bonelessly from Gertie’s saddle before the hacker could do a damn’ thing about it.

Eliot!! Oh, no–no-you-don’t, you ass-holekoosh, Gertie … koosh!!

And Hardison was out of the saddle before Gertie had properly sat down. He crouched beside Eliot, who lay sprawled on his back, blinking hazily in the bright light of this hot day.

“I … I fell off Gertie,” he mumbled vaguely. “Side … side hurts …”

“Of course it hurts, you moron!!” Hardison babbled as he checked his friend’s wounds, and he gritted his teeth in annoyance as he saw the fresh stain of blood on the bandage around Eliot’s ribs. “Damn-damn-damn …”

“S’okay …” Eliot said, waving a hand in Hardison’s general direction. “I … I’ll be fine … we can’t be far from home now … few miles, maybe …”

Gertie stretched her neck out and laid her great head beside Eliot, her prehensile lips nibbling at his shoulder, her concern evident by the pathetic little squeaks she gave. Eliot rolled his head to squint at her, and he gave a wobbly smile.

“Hey now, pretty girl … ‘m okay, I promise … ow! Dammit, Hardison!!” he cursed as Hardison eased a folded gauze pad from their pack beneath the bandage to try and stop the bleeding. There were no more pressure bandages, so he had to improvise.

“Well, maybe next time you’ll think twice about fallin’ off a camel, Eliot, huh??” Hardison griped, managing to work the pad into place. “Dumb-ass,” he added under his breath. Finished with the bandage, he held up three fingers in front of Eliot.

“Okay, Spencer … how many fingers’m I holdin’ up?”

Eliot scrunched up his face in an attempt to focus.

“What fingers?” he croaked.

Shit. Well, that’s just great!” Hardison muttered, worried. “Okay, you fool, up you get … we gotta get home an’ I have to figure a way of keepin’ you on Gertie ‘cause I sure as hell ain’t carryin’ your sorry ass!”

“I … I c’n walk –“

“Eliot … you can’t even sit up on your own, man!” Hardison tried to be as gentle as he could as he lifted Eliot to his feet and half-walked, half-carried him over to Gertie and eased him into the saddle. “Okay … now listen … hey – Eliot!! You listenin’ to me??”

Eliot peered at him hazily.

“Yeah … I hear you …”

Hardison thought the situation through for a second before continuing.

“Right … here’s what we’re gonna do, alright? Eliot? Okay?”

“Uh-huh …” Eliot sounded befuddled.

“You’re head’s all screwed up, an’ you got a fever, an’ we have to get home an’ let Jo clean you up, so … you ride Gertie an’ I’ll walk. So … I’m gonna tie you to the saddle.”

Eliot let out a ‘pffff’ and grinned.

“I can … I can ride a damn’ camel, Hardison,” he scoffed and then tilted dangerously sideways.

Hardison propped Eliot back on the saddle and unclipped one of Gertie’s reins. Within minutes he had Eliot anchored to the central cantle with the pack on the seat in front of him.

“If you feel as though you’re gonna fall let me know, will ya? Lean forward an’ rest on the pack … just let Gertie an’ me look out for you, El.” Hardison patted Eliot’s good shoulder, and helped the wounded hitter lean his body and head on the pack, cushioned by the soft blanket from Gertie’s saddle. Eliot sighed with relief as the position took the pressure off his ribs and eased the pain in his head. It took no effort now to stay in the saddle as long as he kept his feet in the stirrups. “Okay?” Hardison asked, taking his hands away to see if Eliot could balance on his own.

“Yep,” Eliot whispered into the blanket. All he wanted to do was sleep and feel no pain.

“So … hang on … Gertie’s gonna stand up, an’ then we can go home.”

“Sure … sure …” Eliot muttered to himself more than to Hardison.

Hardison took a deep breath. It was now or never. He grasped Gertie’s remaining rope rein.

“Gertie … hut-hut!” he ordered.

And Gertie, still giving out tiny squeaky grunts of concern, rose to her feet, and Hardison could have sworn she did so as gently as she possibly could.

Hardison patted her on the neck.

“Good girl … you’re a good girl …” he crooned, and Gertie whiffled at his short-cropped hair. “You okay up there El?”

“I’ll live,” came the muffled reply.

“That’s cool, bro. So … let’s go home.”

And with Eliot now safe and secure on Gertie’s back and Hardison looking forward to an uncomfortable hike through the bush where there were snakes, and lizards and goddamn stuff that bit and stung, they headed along the faint track that led to Wapanjara and safety.


Parker enjoyed sitting on top of the water tower. On her first full day at Wapanjara she had asked Jo for some ribbon, and she had systematically fastened red ribbons –neatly tied into fetching bows - around all of the acid-weakened joints of the frame so she didn’t have to keep checking, and Jo and Soapy had thought the ribbons charming. Effie had grunted and raised an eyebrow, but declared the ribbons useful.

So, she sat comfortably in her chair, the balmy breeze riffling her hair, and watched out for her two errant team members while also keeping an eye on the stranger loitering in the stringybarks.

Opening her chill-box, Parker lifted out a donut. Effie made excellent donuts – Eliot’s recipe, Parker knew. She had Eliot’s scope, and she studied the figure on the hill. She only saw a vague shape most of the time, but the stranger wasn’t trying to hide, just stay out of the heat and sun. She saw the roan horse’s tail swish in the shade. It took her a moment or two to seek out the figure of the watcher. The person was small … child-like small, and Parker remembered that the person Eliot though was his assailant was a Mongolian woman, Khenbish Hadan. But Parker couldn’t tell if the stranger was male or female.

She took another bite of her donut. The watcher was sitting on a rock, cross-legged, facial features shadowed by a stockman’s hat. Parker grinned. The watcher was looking right back at her. She waved cheerily at the figure on the rock and pointed two fingers at her own eyes and then at the watcher. The stranger didn’t move.

“That’s right …” Parker murmured to herself, “I’m watching you watching me, and now you know it. You and your icky horse,” she added. “Now you just stay there, so I can keep an eye on you, dumb-ass.”

And finishing her donut, she took a swig of Effie’s home-made lemonade and settled down to wait.


The sun was high in the sky with not a cast shadow in sight, and Lizzie was just about asleep on her feet. Jo had noticed that the child was flagging, and had fed and checked the last two mares herself, making Lizzie sit in the shelter of the big water trough beside the barn.

“Alright, young lady,” she said as she turned the last mare out into the small paddock beside the barn, “let’s find somewhere shady to sit and eat lunch, and then it’s to bed with you, y’hear? You can hardly see straight.”

Lizzie turned bleary eyes to this kind, gentle lady whom she had decided was her new grandparent, and shook her head.

“Not until my Eliot’s home, Grandma Jo. And Alec. ‘Cause Eliot’s –“

“-hurt, yes, so you said,” Jo finished, and felt a sudden lurch of fear as she said it. She lifted the basket which contained their little picnic and took Lizzie’s hand. “C’mon, then. We’ll find somewhere nice to eat where we can keep a lookout and you can also have a little nap. Does that work?”

Lizzie rubbed her eyes, thought about it, and then nodded reluctantly.

“You’ll watch for them?”

Jo nodded.

“I will. I promise.”

And Lizzie knew she would, because Eliot belonged to Jo just as much as he belonged to Lizzie and her family, and Eliot always kept his promises. So, it made sense, Lizzie thought, that Jo would do the same.

So they wandered over to the ground where the land rose in front of the yards and the road from Wapanjara headed up the incline towards the stand of stringybarks, and sat on the ground beneath the shade of an old gum tree which marked the boundary of the homestead. There, Lizzie discovered, she had an even better view of the west paddock as it stretched into the distance, and she sat down with her back against the ancient tree and helped Jo unpack the basket.

The house was only a couple of hundred yards away, and she could see her parents on the veranda with Grandpa Soapy, looking through piles of old bits of paper and talking very seriously about something.

She checked Parker. Yes … there she was, sitting on the water tower, looking through Eliot’s scope at the stranger who was watching them from the stringybarks high above them. This person, whoever they were, made Lizzie angry. She knew her daddy thought the watcher was the one who had wounded Eliot in the fight, and nobody … nobody … was allowed to do that.

She took a plastic mug filled with lemonade from Jo and drank it gratefully. Feeding horses was thirsty work, and she could hear the tractor’s rumble from the back of the homestead where Charlie and Kip had begun stacking bales of fodder.

Jo sat down beside her and munched on a sandwich, and Lizzie took one for herself, taking a bite of the delicious bread lathered with ham and tomatoes and Eliot’s homemade mayonnaise. She felt better with a little food in her, and she peered into the basket to see what else she could eat. She was about to lift out some figs when something caught the corner of her eye.

Lizzie frowned as she peered at the expanse of the west paddock. She took another sip of the cold lemonade and swallowed it, studying the bush spread out before her. Glancing down, she grasped the figs. She must have been mistaken … there had been nothing there. But as she munched one of the figs, she glanced back at the paddock.

And deep in the shimmering haze of midday, there among a clump of termite mounds and white drifts of bindi-eye, something moved. Something big, brown and camel-shaped.

Lizzie took a sudden, sharp intake of breath. And then she dropped her food, stood up and began to run.


Alec Hardison was very, very tired. He plodded on beside Gertie, listening to the scuff of her big, flat feet over the dusty track. He carried a stick he had cut from a mulga, because only an hour earlier he had stopped to relieve himself and come face to face with a large brown snake as he stood behind a tree. He didn’t know which one of them was more agitated, and the snake – all six or so feet of it – slithered off into the undergrowth, leaving Hardison frightened out of his wits and now without any inclination to pee in the bushes.

Eliot, only half-conscious and feverish, had grinned as Hardison babbled on about the snake. He had somewhat gleefully informed the hacker that the thing was a western brown snake – a somewhat unimaginative name, Hardison thought – and that while it was highly venomous, it was a shy snake, Eliot said, whose aboriginal name – ‘Gwardar’ - meant ‘go the long way around.’

Hardison had not been convinced. He was sure the beast was hatching plans to return and bite him for the sheer hell of it, so now he carried a stick.

“Are … are we there yet?” Eliot murmured yet again from his slumped place on Gertie.

Hardison, who knew damn well that Eliot was doing this just to annoy him, scowled.

“Don’t make me come up there, Spencer. Y’hear me? An’ no, we’re not there yet!!

They walked on for another twenty minutes or so. Hardison wiped the sweat from his face and neck with his handkerchief, and damn, but his feet hurt. He hung onto a stirrup leather and let Gertie have her head, knowing now the big camel had some sort of homing instinct as the dromedary had a determined aura about her as she strode along the faint track.

Hardison lifted his hat and shaded his eyes as he walked, gazing into the midday haze, the horizon shimmering in the heat. He narrowed his eyes, trying to focus, but he brought Gertie to a halt so that he could stop the blurring caused by every jarring footstep.

“Why … why’re we stoppin’?” Eliot asked painfully. “Are we –“

Hardison smiled then, a white, even smile full of joy. In the distance he could make out buildings and yards, and there, in the centre, was a water tower adorned with red ribbons.

He rested a hand on Eliot’s leg and patted it.

“Yeah, man,” he said, voice warm with relief. “We’ve made it.”

And even as he said it, he saw a tiny figure running towards him in the heat haze, arms flailing and curly hair flying.

Lizzie was coming to bring them home.


She flew into his arms, and Hardison lifted her, holding Lizzie close and hard, feeling the tremble of her small body and hearing the sob in her throat.

“You’re safe … you’re safe …” she whispered into his neck, burrowing into him, trying to reassure herself that Hardison was living and breathing and safely home.

“S’alright, baby-girl … it’s alright … we’re here …”

And peering past Lizzie’s arm he saw more figures running towards them, and he closed his eyes for a moment, relishing the feeling of the nightmare being almost over.

Eliot??

Hardison felt Lizzie lean back in his arms and reach out for Eliot, her sudden, sharp intake of breath making her body hitch.

Eliot!!” she cried, and she touched his limp hand where it hung down Gertie’s side.

Eliot, sprawled on Gertie’s back, heard his best girl’s voice through the fog in his head, and his heart calmed, and little fingers clutched his.

“Don’ … don’ worry, ‘Lizbeth Grace … I … I’ll be fine …”

Hazy, dull blue eyes opened and studied her, and she took in the raw gash above his ear and the blood-sodden bandages around his ribs through the unbuttoned shirt. She held his hand, feeling the heat in him, and she knew then he was very sick.

“I told them,” she wailed, “I told them you were hurt … “ and she looked at Hardison, eyes full of tears. “You’re both hurt!”

“Nah, baby-girl, I’m fine, so don’t you worry. We’ll be good as new … both of us. Now … c’mon … we gotta get Eliot home an’ patched up, an’ then you can tell us all about it, okay?”

And then Jo and Parker were there, fussing and organising and Nate was reaching out for Lizzie. But she refused to be separated from Eliot so her father lifted his heavy six-year-old daughter onto his shoulders so she could be beside him as Soapy caught up with them, ribs protesting. Sophie checked Hardison, and as a family they walked Gertie out of the west paddock and swung the gate shut behind them, with Lizzie hanging onto Eliot’s hand and fretting about the blood soaking down his side and pants leg from the still-bleeding hole in his side.


“What the hell happened??” Soapy ground out as Charlie and Kip met them at the front of the house, Effie standing with Buster at the top of the veranda steps.

Hardison kooshed Gertie down and many hands reached out to hold Eliot, and he moaned as he shifted in the saddle. Lizzie whimpered as she heard the sound, and Nate lifted her from his shoulders and she bustled forward to stand beside Eliot as Sophie and Charlie untied the rope holding Eliot in the saddle.

“He’s shot, Soapy … some bastard shot him!” Hardison hissed quietly so Lizzie couldn’t hear. “We got to the bore, and we were doin’ okay and some asshole shot him an’ then shot Bomber an’ …” Hardison’s chest heaved as the memory hit him, and he knuckled tears from his eyes.

“Soapy, love … can you help here?” Jo asked, cradling Eliot’s head as they lifted him from the saddle.

Some mongrel shot my boy???” Effie growled, fury in every word. “By God, I’ll – I’ll … “ and then she took a deep breath as she saw Eliot eased from the saddle and laid onto his back on the ground. “Bloody young boofhead’s bleeding again,” she said softly. “I’ll clear the kitchen table, Missus,” she said, and turning on her heel, headed back up the veranda steps as fast as her bunions would let her.

Lizzie was sticking to Eliot like a limpet. She knelt beside him as Jo checked him quickly, and Eliot lifted his hand to ruffle her curls.

“Hey, ‘Lizbeth Grace …” he slurred. God, his head hurt, and his side was a mass of agony, but he was safe now with his family and ‘Lizbeth Grace was beside him and –

“You got shot!!” Lizzie snapped, fury oozing from her, “You got shot and you’re bleeding and I knew you were hurt and … and you bashed your head and you’re all … all beat up and –“

“Lizzie darling,” Sophie interrupted, “let’s get Eliot inside so Parker and Jo can take care of him, okay?”

Lizzie turned hurt eyes to her mother.

“I told you he was sick, Mama!!”

Sophie felt a pang of guilt, even though she knew the decision they had taken to wait was the right one.

“I know, Lizzie … I know. But right now he needs us, so come on – off you go and keep the doors open so we can get Eliot inside, and then we can see how hurt he is. And yes, before you ask, you can stay with him for a little bit until Grandma Jo says we all have to leave while she cleans him up.” She said soothingly, even as Nate gave her a look which said Lizzie wasn’t to be so easily placated.

“’Lizbeth Grace …” Eliot gasped as he was gently lifted by his family, and Lizzie stowed away her anger and walked with him as he was carried up the step and into the house which he thought of as his home.

But as Parker turned away to run to Oggie and retrieve the big medikit from its storage bin, she looked up at the stringybarks.

The watcher was gone.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


The bright, scorching light of midday turned quickly to the cool dimness of the house he loved as Eliot was carried into the kitchen, gentle hands supporting him and Lizzie’s small fingers grasping his. For through the pain and fog of infection and hurt, his best girl was there and she would watch over him, and he knew he would survive this, no matter what, because his ‘Lizbeth Grace wouldn’t let him die.

The old, sturdy table awaited him, he knew. Huge and made of oak, for over a century it had been the workhorse of the kitchen at Wapanjara, and Effie kept it scrubbed and spotlessly clean.

He felt the solid surface, and he heard whispered conversation as Lizzie’s hand disappeared from his, and Eliot, alone again, suddenly began to fight against the hands, those grasping, restraining hands, holding him down and making him lie still and –

“Eliot, I’ve brought a cushion.” Lizzie’s voice cut through the fog and he felt her raise his head and a warm softness was placed beneath him so as to ease the discomfort. “Grandma Jo says to stop being silly and lie still! She wants to turn you on your side,” she added gently, and Eliot quieted, his god-daughter being the only anchor he had in this world of hurt and confusion. He opened his eyes and through the blurry dimness, there she was, staring at him, eyes large with worry.

“That’s great, Lizzie,” Parker said as she marched into the kitchen and placed the big medikit on the sideboard. “Keep talking to him while we have a look and see what we have to deal with.”

Hardison followed her in, and Nate and Sophie stood in the doorway, watching out for their daughter.

“Jo …” Hardison whispered, “the bullet’s still in there.”

“Oh … blast!” Jo muttered. “He needs a doctor, people! I can’t –“

“It’s lodged under the skin, next to a rib,” Hardison continued. “Eliot said you’d taken a bullet out of him before. This shouldn’t be too bad,” he added. “He seemed to think you’d cope with it just fine.”

Parker’s head snapped up from her job of disgorging equipment from the medikit, but Jo was already cutting Eliot’s shirt off and perusing the sodden bandage and the fresh blood. She studied the infected cut in his shoulder and the older injuries from Hadan’s knife. He was a ruddy mess.

Parker frowned at Hardison, who looked exhausted and somewhat shaky.

“When? When did he get shot? Did he tell you?”

Hardison opened his mouth to answer, but Jo, beginning to snip through bandages, answered for him.

“Years ago. He turned up one day in Darwin with two bullet holes in him … right shoulder, left leg. The shoulder wound was through-and-through, but I had to dig a fragment out of his leg. Silly idiot was bloody sick for a bit, I can tell you – oh Eliot!” she murmured, shocked.

As the bandage fell away she was faced with the ugly, suppurating wound, swollen and sluggishly bleeding once again.

“He came here???” Parker ground out. “He didn’t tell us where he went and left us worrying for nearly a month and he flew to Australia??” She stared at Eliot, absolutely furious. “Eliot … I … you …” she stuttered, and then poked him in the hip where he wasn’t hurt. “You and me … we are going to have words!!

Eliot, not too sure why Parker was angry with him, swore quietly so Lizzie couldn’t hear him, or so he thought.

“You said it, momma,” Hardison grumbled at Parker, and then swayed.

A chair appeared as though from nowhere and Effie pushed him down onto it.

“Park your arse, sunbeam,” she growled, and gave him a mug of hot tea. “Drink. Then you go and have a shower and get some sleep, y’hear me? Are you hungry?”

Hardison looked up at worried muddy eyes, and Effie’s pudgy face was creased with concern.

“Um …” he pondered, “maybe a lil’ bit.”

“Righto, my lad. Duchess?” Effie looked at Sophie fretting quietly in the doorway. “Could you take this young bludger out onto the veranda and I’ll bring him something to eat in a minute once I get the nipper settled?”

“Settled?” Nate said, a little startled.

“Yes, Einstein,” Effie said a little testily. “She’ll be staying with the Yank until the Missus gets him patched up. You seriously think she’s going to leave him? She’s only just got the daft sod back, and she won’t let him out of her sight, I betcha.”

Lizzie turned hot, teary eyes to her parents.

“Not leaving, Mama. He needs me.” Her voice turned from anger to desperation. “Please, Daddy … don’t make me go. Please.”

Effie, not one for mincing her words, ruffled Lizzie’s curls and rested a hand on Eliot’s shoulder.

“This is the life you chose for her,” she said quietly. “She understands consequences, so let her deal with ‘em in her own way. She’s a good kid. She’s bright. She’ll cope.”

Eliot groaned as Jo and Parker turned him as gently as they could onto his side, blood trickling down his stomach and his back.

“’Lizbeth Grace … I … I’ll be fine … you shouldn’t see this … “ and his hand reached out to wave her away.

Lizzie was having none of it. She caught Eliot’s hand in both of hers and squeezed, and Eliot, despite his heart-felt wish for her not to see him like this … bloody and sick and … and useless … caught her small fingers in his and hung on as though his life depended on it.

“Effie says you’re nothing but a bloody pain in the arse!” Lizzie stated, loudly and very, very clearly, to her best friend and guardian.

There was a collective cringe from her family, and Eliot winced.

“Too bloody right, nipper!” Effie agreed. This was a child after her own heart, she decided.

Soapy elbowed Nate.

“Give it up, mate,” he murmured. “Effie and Lizzie. That’s too tough a combination for me. The little‘un will be just fine, I’ll wager. Jo and Parker will make sure she doesn’t see anything too bad, I’m sure, and I think she’ll be concentrating on Eliot more than anything else. You can deal with any fallout later. Now’s not the time, I reckon.”

Nate and Sophie looked at one another. This was their life. Stuff like this happened, and Lizzie knew it. They had never hidden anything from her, and had never lied to her. She knew danger was part of the job.

“Oh God …” Sophie groaned, and looked at her daughter who was now concentrating on Eliot. The hitter was watching Lizzie with an intensity that made Sophie’s heart ache. She and Nate had done the right thing making Eliot Lizzie’s guardian. He was devoted to her, even as he did his job and kept his team safe. But it had never occurred to her that Lizzie could guard Eliot with equal ferocity. “Nate … leave her be. She’ll be fine.”

Nate hitched an eyebrow. Of the two of them he had always been the pragmatist when it came to Lizzie and the life they led, but now … he studied his daughter, holding Eliot’s hand in hers and talking to him quietly. Eliot’s blue eyes, dull with pain and the effects of concussion, continued studying Lizzie even as Jo began to explore the bullet hole in his side.

“You’re right, Soph. Of course you are.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. He was so proud of Lizzie it hurt. She was loyal, loving and kind, and was the sum of everything he and the rest of the team stood for … especially Eliot, one of the most dangerous men in the world. He deserved her love.

“Nate …” Soapy tapped Nate on the shoulder. “We need to talk.”

Tearing his eyes away from his daughter Nate followed Soapy into the living room. Kip was sitting at the table, eyes big and worried, his school project in front of him unheeded.

“I, uh … I’ve asked Charlie to get the rifles from the gun case in the office,” Soapy said, his voice low.

“Are you sure –“ Nate said, frowning.

“Some bugger shot Eliot and would have killed Alec too. And now that bloody woman or whoever they are watching us has gone.”

Nate wiped a hand over his face as Sophie joined them.

“I don’t like guns, Soapy … and Eliot likes them even less. But I suppose you’re right. We can’t involve the police in this. I think there must be some involvement at a political level, and who knows what’s going on.”

“I got some stuff on the tablet, Nate,” Hardison said as he stiffly wandered into the living room, his mug of tea in his hand. “There’s definitely somethin’ hinky goin’ on out there at Albany, but I need to review the footage an’ do some research before I can say any more. I … I can’t see straight right now. I’d rather wait until El’s doin’ better …”

“Don’t worry about it, Hardison,” Sophie said, patting the exhausted hacker on the shoulder. “Come on … let’s get you some food and then rest. Kip …” She turned to the little boy watching them with wide eyes. “Would you like something to eat? Lizzie will be through in a bit, okay?”

“Is Eliot going to die??” Kip asked fearfully.

Oh, Lord.

Sophie smiled reassuringly at the child who had already lost his mother. To lose Eliot would be … damn, she didn’t even want to think about it.

“I think he’ll be fine, Kip. In fact I’m positive. Grandma Jo will get him better, although I think he’ll be feeling grouchy for a bit, knowing Eliot! So … come on, let’s get some lunch. I’m sure you can see Eliot later.”

“Really?? You promise??” Kip’s black eyes brightened with relief.

“I promise. And Eliot will tell you I always keep my promises.” Sophie said, and held out her hand. “Come on, Kip. Let’s go out onto the veranda and I’ll ask Effie for something for us to eat.”

Nate caught her arm before she could move.

“In here, Sophie. Please.”

Sophie raised an elegant eyebrow.

“It’s that dangerous?” she asked quietly.

“Probably not, but seeing as Eliot’s out of commission for a bit, then …” Nate shrugged.

“You’ll be safe enough,” Soapy said. “Did Eliot tell you my history?”

“Hell, he didn’t even tell us you existed, so no …” Nate replied as Sophie moved to sit down beside Kip.

“Well … let’s just say I know how to use a rifle, so no worries about safety here at the house,” Soapy added.

Nate decided he didn’t need to know more and grinned, the tension easing. He took a deep breath and scratched his head. This was turning out to be one helluva day.


Jo was impressed with Team Leverage’s extensive medikit.

“Take what you need,” Parker insisted. “Eliot’s very thorough.”

Jo ran her fingers very gently through Eliot’s sweat-damp hair and winked at Lizzie.

“Now then, young Lizzie … I need your help.”

Lizzie tore her eyes away from Eliot’s ashen face and nodded vigorously.

“What do I do?” she asked, still holding Eliot’s hand in hers.

“Well … apart from talking to Eliot and keeping him still, I was hoping you and Effie could take care of that cut on his head while Parker and I sort the rest of him out. Could you do that?”

“Oh, yes!” Lizzie gasped eagerly. She was sure she could take care of Eliot.

No …” Eliot muttered feverishly, “no … she shouldn’t be seein’ this … she’s just a kid –“

“I’m not a kid!” Lizzie retorted, her anger still bubbling. “I’m nearly seven! Effie will help, and Grandma Jo and Parker will make you better, so just be quiet!”

“Boy … she’s mad!” Parker whispered not-very-quietly.

“Parker … take … take her outta here –“

Lizzie was now beyond angry. She was incensed.

“Stop talking about me as if I’m not here!!” she ranted, and cupped Eliot’s cheek with a small hand. She leaned forward and kissed his nose. “I’m staying,” she said, her bottom lip quivering.

“Aw, ‘Lizbeth Grace …” Eliot groaned, “don’t … don’t even think ‘bout … ‘bout cryin’ –“

Lizzie’s lip gained a definite wobble.

“You’re my Eliot. And I look after you. So … so I’ll cry if I want to,” she added, knowing full well that Eliot couldn’t deal with a weepy ‘Lizbeth Grace.

“And I thought Sophie was a good grifter!” Parker wondered, and Jo had to hide a grin despite the worry about Eliot’s condition.

She nudged Parker.

“Let’s get on with this,” she said. “Any lidocaine in there?”

“Topical or injection? We have both,” Parker answered, pulling out a small vial and a spray.

“Injection,” Jo said, now concentrating on the bullet wound. “The intercostal nerves’ll make it bloody painful digging the bullet out.”

“Just … just do it,” Eliot grunted, “don’t bother with –“

“But … but it’ll hurt!” Lizzie bubbled, eyes filling with tears.

Eliot, sore and confused and feeling just a tad bullied, sighed even though the pain in doing so made his stomach churn.

“Okay … okay … I give up …” he said wearily. Lizzie grinned through her tears.

As Jo and Parker set to and placed a series of injections around the wound, Effie took through as much food as she could muster at short notice into the living room. After giving Hardison a small clip around the ear for being so tired and sore, she told everyone to tuck in, and then added that Eliot was holding his own and that everyone had better bloody well stay clear until Jo, Parker and the nipper had finished sorting Eliot out.

Nate thought Eliot didn’t have a chance in Hades of using his usual grouchy anti-social behavior to get his own way.

Effie reappeared through the kitchen doorway and stumped over to the table, studying Eliot as he lay there, battered and bleeding.

“Alright nipper … the Missus wants us to tidy up this bloody idiot’s head. Think we can do that?”

Lizzie nodded enthusiastically, happy to be doing something positive.

“Wait … wait a minute –“ Eliot murmured, not too sure what was going on, even as Jo began to mop up blood and pus before she attempted to cut out the bullet.

“Shut your cakehole, Yank – you just be still and we’ll sort out that dent you put in your noggin, you pillock!” Effie ordered, a sense of satisfaction in every word.

So Effie set the big kettle to boil and Parker handed her some antiseptic to add to the water as well as some nitrile gloves and a pack of gauze pads. No-one had any gloves small enough for Lizzie, so Effie told her to wash her hands as well as she could. With Effie’s help she scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed again with some special pink liquid soap Parker gave her from the medikit, and then they were ready.

Effie and Lizzie sat on stools beside Eliot’s head, and Lizzie passed the little cook gauze pads when asked and told Eliot everything she was doing so that he knew she was helping.

Effie was uncharacteristically gentle. She cleaned up the raw, swollen gash and muttered to herself as she did so, and once it was as clean as she could get it, Lizzie was allowed to stick on the butterfly strips to keep the cut closed.

Eliot watched and listened and occasionally said ‘ouch,’ but he complimented Lizzie on her gentle touch and said the cut didn’t hurt much, which was a bit of an understatement and Lizzie knew it, but she loved him anyway.

The bullet wound was a different matter.

By the time Lizzie had finished her work, Jo was ready to remove the bullet.

Parker looked nervous. She had some medical skills and she had stitched Eliot and other members of the team up now and again, but removing a bullet? This was shaky ground for Parker. But Jo smiled at her and told her not to worry – the bullet hadn’t gone beyond the rib and Eliot wasn’t bleeding internally, so while the wound was messy and bloody, the infection was more of a problem.

But, Jo knew, it wasn’t going to be easy.

The lidocaine had numbed the area around the wound and done it quickly, much to Jo’s relief. But she wasn’t too sure that the entire area of the injury had been numbed, and the nerves lying deep against the bone could be difficult to get to.

“Okay … now then,” she said more to herself than anyone else, “we need you to be still, Eliot, alright? I’m using a scalpel and I don’t want any slip-ups, so Parker … Effie … hold him if I ask you to. Lizzie, you just stay put, and you can talk to him if you like, and hold his hand. But if I ask you to move, you move, hear me? I don’t want you in the way of getting hurt.”

Lizzie frowned, confused.

“But Eliot would never hurt me –“ she began, but Eliot squeezed her hand gently.

“Lis … listen, ‘Lizbeth Grace … I need you to be safe, no matter what … so do as Jo asks.”

Lizzie, seeing the grim weariness on Eliot’s gaunt face, realised then that he was serious, and she nodded wordlessly.

“Okay then, laddie … let’s get this damned bullet out of you and you’ll feel much better.” Jo said, sounding far more confident than she felt.

Eliot, hurting and exhausted, closed his eyes and felt Lizzie’s hands clasp his. He was ready.

“Do it,” he rasped, and tensed.

Jo pressed down with the scalpel and opened a two-inch incision from where the bullet entered Eliot’s flesh to run over the lump where the bullet lay. A stream of blood and pus trickled down the injured hitter’s side onto the table.

Eliot grunted and his breath hitched, but he didn’t move.

“You felt that??” Parker asked, worried, as she mopped up the blood welling from the cut.

“A … a bit,” Eliot said wanly.

But Jo had lifted the forceps and she began probing for the projectile lodged hard against Eliot’s rib.

Eliot couldn’t stop himself. He let out a keening groan, and Lizzie looked up at Jo, frightened by Eliot’s pain.

“It wasn’t supposed to hurt!” she gasped, and then she saw the blood. Lizzie swallowed and looked away, focusing hard on Eliot’s face as he clenched his jaw against the pain.

“Lidocaine’s not perfect, love,” Jo said even as she carefully felt for the bullet. Damn, but it was playing hard to get. “It can’t numb bone, and we don’t have the equipment to go deeper. It’s just an awkward injury –“

She felt something hard click against the forceps.

“There you are, you little bugger!” she hissed triumphantly. “I can’t see … can you –“

But Parker was already there, wiping away oozing blood so that Jo could try and get a grip on the projectile.

“Let me …” Effie said, and handed Parker more gauze pads. “Talk to him, nipper … he needs you to talk to him,” she added, urgency in every word, and Lizzie, gulping, tightened her grip on Eliot’s hand.

“Eliot … Eliot!” she stammered, trying hard to think of something to tell her best friend.

“Y … yeah?” Eliot ground out, muscles jumping along his jaw.

“Um … oh yeah …” Lizzie suddenly remembered something. “Grandma Jo says when the foals are born I can name one!”

“Did … did she now?” Eliot’s voice was hoarse with pain. “Thought of … thought of a name?”

“Not yet,” Lizzie continued, “but I’ll have to think of one for either a boy or a girl, won’t I?”

“C’mon … c’mon, you little blighter –“ Jo muttered, probing hard, and Eliot shuddered.

“You … oh, jeez … you could ask Kip about … about a nice Warumungu name …” Eliot gasped, shaking, and Lizzie felt tears begin to prick her eyes. But she couldn’t cry … not now. Eliot needed her.

“Or maybe a Cherokee name,” she continued desperately, and she glanced up at Jo, who was chewing the inside of her cheek as she concentrated on finding the bullet buried in Eliot’s sturdy frame.

Eliot grimaced as the agony ran through him. The lidocaine was friggin’ useless.

“When … when I’m feelin’ more like it, ‘Lizbeth Grace … we can … we can think up some great names, huh …”

Lizzie bit her lip. Jo was obviously struggling to find her quarry.

Grandma Jo –“ she almost sobbed, her voice wavering in her distress.

GOT YOU, you little bastard!!” Jo almost shouted, and Eliot’s battered body sagged with relief as he heard the metal clink when Jo dropped the bullet into a bowl.

“Is it out???” Lizzie demanded, her face breaking into a tremulous smile. “Is Eliot going to be alright??”

Jo, pressing gauze against the freely-bleeding wound, nodded.

“I think so, sweetie. Just let Parker and I get this stitched and the rest of him cleaned up, and then he can get to bed and heal.”

“Antibiotics?” Parker asked quietly, holding up a pack of various small containers.

Jo nodded.

“He’ll need ‘em. The infection’s pretty nasty. The silly sod didn’t take care of that shoulder wound like we told him to,” she added wryly. “But I think he’ll live to fight another day.”

Lizzie shook her head vigorously.

“Nope,” she said, gazing at Eliot. “No fighting. He’s going to sleep and do as he’s told, isn’t he, Effie?”

Effie sat down on the stool next to Lizzie and put her hand over Eliot’s, still enclosed within Lizzie’s small fingers.

“Too bloody right, nipper. We’ll keep him straight, won’t we??”

Lizzie’s face was set with determination, and when Eliot finally managed to open his eyes and squint at both Lizzie and Effie, his heart sank even as he began to drift into an exhausted sleep as he lay sprawled on his side on a kitchen table. They had a decidedly dangerous glint in their eyes as they gazed back at him.

“Aw hell … “ he said, hearing Parker’s snort of humour. “Why … why don’t you people just … just leave me alone!

“You still have to explain to me why you didn’t tell us you were flying to Australia with two bullet holes in you!” Parker growled, and she prodded him in the leg.

Eliot understood then that if he continued he would be taking a figurative long walk off a short plank if he didn’t shut up.

Jo felt his forehead. There was still the infection and fever to deal with, and Eliot was going to have a rough time of it, and not even Lizzie’s care could prevent it.

There was also the fact that the watcher on the hill had gone. Something dire was brewing, and Eliot needed care. But they would deal with whatever came, and they would close ranks and protect their own.

Gathering her wits about her, Jo Munro began to stitch the wound in Eliot’s side, and hoped to God that nothing else would happen for a day or two. But even as she worked, she knew that it wouldn’t be long before the watcher was back … and this time the stranger wouldn’t be alone.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Charlie made his way up the veranda steps with three of Soapy’s rifles and a pump-action shotgun in a bag, and carrying as much ammunition as he could manage. Although everybody was safe for now, he didn’t know how long that would last, so he wanted the house well-protected.

Gertie honked wistfully at him as she sat patiently in the yard, bereft of the human she loved and flicking her sore ear.

“We’ll get you sorted in a minute, girly,” Charlie whispered, and he knew that something terrible must have happened to Bomber, because he had heard the horse’s name in a whispered conversation between Soapy and Hardison as he helped ease Eliot off Gertie. But he hadn’t had time to chase it up until now. He would ask Hardison, and then he would do his best to break the news quietly to Kip, who had ridden the old gelding since before he could walk, sitting in front of his father as Charlie and Alice had ridden down to the billabong for picnics. God, how he missed his wife.

Gertie flapped her lip and stretched her neck out, sniffing, trying to find out what had happened to Eliot. She knew he was hurt, and it made her fret. She gurgled unhappily to herself.

Soapy relieved him of the weapons and disappeared into his office, locking the door behind him. The pastoralist didn’t like weapons around children, so he would minimise any contact until it was needed. He would check and load the weapons alone.

“Alec?” Charlie said softly.

Hardison sat at the table tiredly finishing off a plateful of food. Everyone was trying to eat while they waited to hear how Eliot was doing, and Sophie was busy talking to Kip about Portland and how he and his father should visit someday, which Kip thought was a great idea. Seeing his son occupied and distracted, he felt he could ask Hardison about what had happened.

Hardison took a swallow of tea, and smiled wearily at the aborigine.

“Yeah, man … what’s up?”

Charlie flicked a quick glance at Kip before answering. The child was animatedly asking Sophie and Nate about animals in the Oregon Zoo.

“What happened out there? I mean … I know about Eliot … but Bomber? What happened to Bomber?”

Hardison caught Charlie’s quick check on his son, and immediately understood. Lifting his mug of tea, he cut a slice of Effie’s pecan pie, put it on a small plate along with a fork, and eased himself out of his chair.

Gesturing at Charlie with a jerk of his head, both men wandered over to the big, comfortable old armchairs surrounding the fireplace and sat down.

Hardison sighed with pleasure at the comfort of the cushions as he leaned back, and then he eased a kink out of his neck.

“I’m sorry, Charlie. I know he was your horse, an’ he took good care of me on the ride out there. But this sonofabitch came from nowhere. He shot Eliot. Knocked him right off the pump-house, an’ then he tried for me, missed, an’ shot Bomber. One shot in the head. It was quick an’ painless, at least. Then he tried for Gertie. He shot up the whole damn’ camp, Charlie … like he was tryin’ to obliterate us. If he couldn’t get El an’ me, he was goin’ to make sure we would never get out of there.” Hardison couldn’t stop the tremor in his voice.

Charlie sat silently, absorbing the information and felt his chest ache. It was more loss to deal with, and Kip had loved the old horse. Then he nodded.

“Okay, Alec … I understand.”

Hardison stared at the unlit fire.

“I covered him up, Charlie. Made sure he was taken care of. But we couldn’t bury him, bro. I had to take care of Eliot.”

Charlie smiled softly, his mobile face worn with grief.

“That’s alright. When this is done with I’ll go out there and take care of the old fella. Don’t mention it to Kip. I’ll tell him later.”

Hardison sighed.

“Yeah, well, we’ll have to tell Lizzie an’ Soph too, so I’m with you on that one.”

The both sat quietly for a minute or two, and then Charlie spoke, his tone a little raw.

“What happened to the bloke who shot Eliot and Bomber?” he asked.

Hardison’s face crumpled a little, but his voice when it came was sure and steady.

“I killed him.”

Charlie studied the hacker and saw the exhaustion in the young man’s frame and the strain on his face. He leaned forward in his chair and smiled grimly.

“Good,” he said.


Hardison had one more thing to do before he could finally get some rest. Rather than bother Jo and Parker as they cared for Eliot, he went to the bathroom and filled a bowl with hot water from the faucet. Then he found some antiseptic and cotton wool in a cupboard. Carrying the whole lot carefully in his arms, he clumped down the veranda steps and laid everything on the bottom step.

Gertie was still resting where they had left her. She sat like a huge, brown, gurgling cat, legs tucked neatly beneath her, rumbling to herself in the hot afternoon sun. Buster sat beside her in the shade of her big body, tongue hanging wetly as he panted.

Hardison looked Gertie in her good eye.

“Okay, young lady. I’m gonna see to that chewed-up ear of yours. You understand?”

Gertie flapped her lip at Hardison and squeaked.

“Hmmm … I’ll take that as a yes, then. So … let’s see if I remember how to do this …” He bent over and unfastened the girths on the heavy saddle and the buckle on the breastplate, and then removed the pack from the seat. Hauling the saddle off was a bit of a struggle. He had forgotten how heavy the thing was, but he finally managed it and carried it over to Oggie, leaving the old saddle on the stainless steel work surface the team used as an impromptu kitchen.

Returning to Gertie, he checked her over for any sore places left by the girth, but apart from her ear, she seemed to be in one piece.

“Right … you listen to me, Gertie – you don’t spit or bite or … or … do whatever camels do when they’re pissed, an’ I’ll clean you up so Eliot don’t whup my ass for neglecting his camel. Sit tight – here goes …”

Gertie harrumphed and waited to see what Hardison would do next.

Hardison soaked a large clump of cotton wool in the antiseptic-laced hot water, and standing beside Gertie’s head, he scratched her muzzle. Gertie hummed with pleasure. Then working his way up her head to her left ear, he very gently began to bathe the ragged edges of the bloody hole punched through the cartilage. Gertie flinched and she bawled a little, but she soon quietened down and the soft humming began once more.

Hardison smiled as Gertie chewed her cud, and he began to work in earnest on the injury. He soaked and cleaned and soothed, Buster sitting beside him studying Hardison’s work, and the more he tended to the big animal, the calmer the young hacker became.

Gertie’s gentle nature had worked its way through the chinks in Hardison’s urban-orientated armour. He found that he enjoyed the company of the ugly creature, and Gertie’s good humour and patience went a long way to easing Hardison’s anguished heart.

He sat down on one of the lower veranda steps next to the bowl of water, and patted his knees. Gertie dutifully laid her enormous head on his lap and grumbled happily to herself, and Hardison finished up cleaning the wounded ear. He examined it closely. The hole was clean and would heal well, but Gertie would have a ragged, scarred ear for the rest of her life.

“Well, babe,” he murmured. “It ain’t gonna improve your looks any, but who cares, huh. I’m sure any self-respectin’ boy camel will like a gal with a few scars. Eliot says scars’re sexy, so I know you’ll knock ‘em dead.”

Gertie, resting her head on Hardison’s lap and with her eyes closing as she relaxed in the heat of the day, had to agree. She chomped a couple of times and then she huffed lazily. She was very, very tired.

Hardison shifted a little so that he could lay his head against the handrail of the steps, and he closed his eyes against the bright sunlight. Rubbing Gertie’s velvet muzzle, he let the sounds of Wapanjara ease his exhaustion and his worry about Eliot, and lulled by the fluting calls of the magpies in the almond stand beyond Jo’s little garden, he began to doze.


It was late afternoon when Jo emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. She looked stressed, but there was relief in her green eyes.

“Okay … we need help to get Eliot settled in bed.” She took a deep breath to calm herself and then quirked a smile. “He’s tired, sore and complaining, and he’s running a bit of a fever, but I think he’ll be okay … given time.”

“Oh, thank God,” Sophie said under her breath. “Lizzie?”

Jo rolled a shoulder to ease the stiffness in her neck.

“With Eliot. She, ah … she won’t leave him – and believe me, I tried. And boy, is she giving him hell,” she added, amused.

“That’s my girl!” Nate breathed, tickled by the prospect of his six-year-old daughter ranting with impunity at Eliot Spencer, whose very name alone could make strong, very nasty men run for the hills.

Effie gimped through, easing past Jo and heading for Eliot’s room.

“I’ll get his bed ready, Missus, and he’d better bloody stay in it or I’ll kick his Yank arse all the bloody way to Alice Springs,” she muttered. “That’ll teach the mongrel to get himself shot, so it will … worrying the nipper … bleeding all over my table … not taking care of himself … young drongo …”

And so it went as she disappeared into Eliot’s room to turn the bedding back and put out a pitcher of water and a glass.

But even as Effie’s grumpy muttering continued, voices raised in argument drifted out of the kitchen.

You didn’t tell us, Eliot!!

“OW!! Stop … stop pokin’ me, Parker –“

“You’re sick, Eliot!! You got shot an’ now you’re sick and you didn’t take care of yourself and –“ Lizzie’s voice was shrill with anger.

There came a weak, pained growl.

“’Lizbeth Grace … will you please –“

“ – and another thing!” Parker continued, “you could have died on that ‘plane!!” she ranted, “you were shot and you shouldn’t have flown and then where would we have been, huh?”

“Parker, I was just fine –“

No you weren’t!!! We didn’t see you for nearly a month!! We didn’t know if you were alive or dead, you idiot!!” Parker poked Eliot again, this time in the knee.

“Grandma Jo says you’re going to be really sick for a bit, and if you’d taken care of that cut in your shoulder you wouldn’t be sick and Effie says you’re a stubborn boofhead and –“ Lizzie continued, now on a roll.

Jeez, Lizzie … stop! I’ve … I’ve had worse –“

“I. DON’T. CARE.” Lizzie was getting frighteningly precise. “YOU. GOT. SHOT!” The little girl was apparently of the opinion that saying things slowly would help stupid, dumb, damaged hitters to understand what she was getting at.

“Aw hell –“ Eliot’s voice now had a desperate edge to it, “will … will you two leave me alone?? I’m shot –“

“That’s the whole point, you … you … dumb-ass!” Parker blurted, slowly getting red in the face with fury.

Nate and Sophie peered around the kitchen doorway.

Eliot, lying prone on the kitchen table, looked as though he had been bandaged to within an inch of his life. Obviously Lizzie had been allowed free use of the medikit.

“Wasshappenin’?” Hardison said blearily, appearing at Nate’s shoulder. He had awoken from his doze on the veranda steps and wandered into the house looking for tea, leaving Gertie sitting half-asleep in the yard.

“Eliot’s getting a talking-to,” Sophie said matter-of-factly.

Hardison’s face slowly eased into a big grin.

“You go, girls!” he said, and his grin widened with delight. There was nothing quite like Eliot gettin’ an ass-whuppin’ from Lizzie and Parker. “That’s perfect … Mister Punchy gettin’ the butt-end of the argument for a change!”

Eliot flinched as he raised his head to say something insulting to Hardison, who was obviously taking great delight at his discomfort.

“Lie still!!” Lizzie ordered curtly. “And leave Alec alone! He’s very tired!”

“Tired??” Eliot let his head slump back onto the cushion. He was feeling woozy, shaky and feverish. His head was throbbing and his whole body was on fire, and he knew he was in for a bad night or two. “Tired?? I’m … I’m the one with the bullet hole here –“

“Yeah, and who saved you from the crocodile?” Hardison taunted.

Nate and Sophie started in surprise.

Crocodile? What crocodile??” Sophie gasped, horrified.

“Gertie!!” Eliot croaked, his voice beginning to fade. God, he hurt, and these people were takin’ advantage of his weakness and were intent on makin’ his life hell. “She sat on it!!”

“Only ‘cause I told her to do it,” Hardison drawled smugly.

“You were attacked by a crocodile??” Lizzie’s eyes were wide with disbelief.

“Yeah … yeah … an’ who went all squirly when I told you to skin it, huh?” Eliot grouched.

Skin it?” Nate said faintly. This was getting downright weird.

“I skinned it!!” Hardison said defensively. “An’ I cooked it!!”

Lizzie looked at Eliot, his eyes glassy with fever, and then she studied Hardison’s smug expression.

“You ate a crocodile??” she asked. “Really??

Hardison shrugged.

“Well … just its tail,” he explained.

“You should’ve … should’ve seen his face when he ate … ate the ants,” Eliot continued triumphantly, despite the weakness of his voice. “He looked like … looked like he was suckin’ lemons.”

Parker’s jaw dropped. She glared at Eliot and then stared at Hardison, who was beginning to look more than a little embarrassed.

“Hey man!!” he hissed, annoyed. “You promised you would never mention it –“

Did no such thing!” Eliot grumbled.

Parker shook her head in disbelief.

“There’s something wrong with you two!!” she snapped, and then stalked off to the bathroom to have a shower.

“Eliot … sweetheart … shut up,” Jo said as she began to clear up the detritus of taking care of the wounded man. “You’re going to bed and you’re going to stay there. You’ll take your antibiotics, sleep, eat and mend. If you’re very good, Lizzie can stay with you for as long as she likes … if that’s alright with her mum and dad.”

“Oh, we don’t seem to have any say in the matter,” Nate answered, sighing. “Lizzie? Is that what you want?”

Lizzie sat up straight on her stool and crossed her arms, her face grim and determined.

“Abso-bloody-lutely!!” she said.

Eliot slumped back on the table and groaned.


It took longer than the team had anticipated to get Eliot settled in his bed.

First of all he demanded to sleep in his fold-down bed on the veranda, where, according to his concussed and feverish mind, he could watch out for Khenbish Hadan.

This resulted in a rather colourful and inventive rant from Effie, who guided Nate and Charlie as they carried Eliot through to his bedroom and gently deposited him on his bed.

Eliot, stubborn to the end, tried to stand up, failed miserably and after being changed into a pair of soft pyjama pants, was manhandled very carefully into bed and propped up with pillows.

Jo decided it was time she took his temperature, and when Eliot opened his mouth to snarl something annoying at Effie, she shoved the digital thermometer in his mouth and told him to keep it there if he valued his life.

“You can come in now, Lizzie!” Jo called out softly, knowing the child was hovering outside the closed bedroom door, waiting for Eliot to be sorted out before she was allowed to see him.

Lizzie opened the door and peeped in. She carried a comforter, her school project book was tucked under one arm and a glass of orange juice was clutched in her hand. Obviously she had every intention of settling down to watch over her damaged guardian.

While Jo waited for the beeping of the thermometer, she pulled over Eliot’s huge old armchair and left it beside his bed so that Lizzie could be close to her best friend.

“There you go, Lizzie … you can sit there. Now … he’s not up to entertaining you. He’s your responsibility, and you have to make sure he rests properly. Can you do that?”

Lizzie settled herself in the chair and carefully placed her glass of juice next to Eliot’s pitcher of water. She nodded eagerly, and tucked her book down the side of the chair just as the thermometer beeped.

Eliot eyed Jo as she retrieved it and looked at the result.

“Hmmm …” Jo said thoughtfully. “Not too good.”

Lizzie’s face dropped in alarm.

“Why? Is Eliot going to be alright? Is he –“

Jo smiled at the little girl, and held up a placatory hand.

“I’ll show you. See if you can read this …” and she held the thermometer out for Lizzie to see. Lizzie read well for her age, and she and Hardison enjoyed working with numbers, so with only a little difficulty she read out the result.

“One … one hundred and … and two … point six …” she murmured. “what does it mean?”

“Well,” Jo explained, “it means Eliot has quite a fever. Body temperature is normally about ninety-eight point six, so Eliot’s is high. It means his body is trying to fight off infection. So …” she picked up a bottle of pills from the bedside table, “that’s why he has to take these pills. They’ll knock the infection out and his temperature will come down and he’ll feel much better. But it can take a few days.”

“I … I’ll be fine, ‘Lizbeth Grace … you don’t … you don’t have to worry …” Eliot breathed, trying his best to reassure Lizzie.

“I’m not worried,” Lizzie said a little sharply. “I need to know this stuff in case you get hurt again. Grandma Jo’s showing me so I can help Parker if she’s not around, and take care of you.”

Now that made Eliot smile. Trust his ‘Lizbeth Grace to be so practical.

“Righto, boy,” Jo said, arching an eyebrow, “medication time. You take the pills with no argument, you hear me??”

“Oooh – Grandma Jo … wait a minute …” Lizzie shuffled about and brought out her project book. Pulling the pencil from its loop, she turned to the back page and rested the book on Eliot’s bed. “How do you spell temp … temp’rature?” she asked.

Jo, enchanted by Lizzie’s plan to take care of Eliot, helped her write out headings. One was ‘Temperature’, then ‘Time.’ Next came ‘Pill’ and then ‘Time.’ Jo suggested a third heading, which was ‘Notes’.

“Wait … what?” Eliot queried, a little nonplussed. “I … I’m a school project now??”

“Well,” Jo said, amused, “Sophie tells me you turn everything you can into a life lesson for Lizzie, so why not this?”

“But … but … I’m shot –“ Eliot said plaintively.

“Oh, stop the drama,” Jo scolded lightly. “She’ll practice writing skills, maths, telling time … it will help her observational skills as well as note taking. These are all useful, life-enhancing abilities which will stand her in good stead. Plus, you idiot, it’ll be a handy record of what a bad patient you are.”

Eliot couldn’t argue with that. He did, however, try a growl, but it made him cough which in turn hurt his side and head, all of which Lizzie dutifully recorded in her project book. He said a bad word under his breath. Lizzie laboriously wrote ‘Eliot swore.’

“Pill-taking now, laddie. Then try to sleep. Effie’s going to sit with you for a bit, and Lizzie … make sure he doesn’t try anything daft.”

Lizzie nodded seriously. Eliot was obviously going to be quite a responsibility, but, she decided, she was ready for anything Eliot could throw at her.

Eliot closed his eyes and felt every ache and twinge his battered body came up with. Jo had told him that the bullet had broken a rib and he now had a series of stitches in his side as well as in the injury to his shoulder. Lizzie had used just about every bandage in the medikit and he felt like an Egyptian mummy. And he felt sick and cold and the fever made his joints ache.

“M’cold,” he muttered.

Jo tucked sweat-damp hair back from his forehead.

“I know, boy … I know. Fever chills. I’ll ask Effie to bring a couple of hot water bottles for you when she comes in.”

Lizzie slowly jotted it all down, although she struggled with the spelling. Her mother would help her fix it later.

Jo studied Eliot and the child for whom he would give his life. She also had a feeling Lizzie would do anything to save Eliot. They were quite a pair.

And as she shook out a strong antibiotic pill and poured a glass of water, she knew that Eliot was in for a hard night. But maybe this time … this time … Lizzie’s presence would ease the man’s nightmares and pain.


That evening, Hardison switched on Oggie’s bank of plasma screens and sat down to review the shots he had taken of Albany Mining Company. Plugging in the memory stick, he began to study Larry’s flyover, and once more zeroed in on the strange, silo-like columns and the four filtration ponds.

He pressed the ‘pause’ button and sat for a while, chewing his lip and thinking. Then he reduced the screen and began to try and find out exactly what he was looking at.

Gertie wandered over to see what he was doing. She had been left to roam the yard, a great, big, hairy guard-camel, Buster tagging along behind her. She whiffled at Hardison’s arm, and he patted her absently.

“Yeah … I need to find out just what the hell they’re up to, babe,” he said, and Gertie gurgled. She harrumphed and then sat down beside him, her huge body almost filling the space under the canopy. Buster flopped down at Hardison’s feet and promptly went to sleep. “So … “ Hardison continued, “what are those things, huh? Because they ain’t anythin’ to do with titanium mining,” he declared.

Gertie rubbed her head on Hardison’s shoulder.

“Yeah, you’re right. They are mining, but what, exactly?” He pulled a bag of gummy frogs from his pocket and ate one. “Huh. Let’s see what dear ol’ Google can tell us.” He glanced at Gertie, who was staring at the bag of gummy frogs. He took one out of the bag and offered it to her. Gertie, very, very gently, inhaled the gummy frog and chewed contemplatively. She hummed with pleasure. Hardison grinned. Eliot’s camel liked gummy frogs.

So for the next hour, Hardison, with Gertie’s aromatic help and assisted by two bags of gummy frogs, delved the depths of the internet and tried to find out just what the hell Albany was up to.

When the answer came, Hardison’s eyebrows shot up.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” he said. He turned to look at the veranda, where Charlie sat reading with Kip, one of the rifles safely stowed under his seat and away from his son. “Hey, Charlie! Got a sec?”

Charlie looked up.

“Yeah, mate. What can I do for you?”

“Um …” Hardison didn’t quite know how to ask. He knew from Eliot that he shouldn’t mention Alice’s name, and he didn’t want to upset the man or his son, but this was important. “I, uh … I was wondering if … y’know … you had any rock samples from Albany,” he finished lamely.

Charlie got it instantly. Eliot must have mentioned his wife’s interest in geology.

“No idea. But Kip and I can go look, no worries!”

“Cool … cool …” Hardison muttered. “Yeah … if you wouldn’t mind, that is … if it’s not … y’know … awkward …”

Hearing Hardison’s request, Charlie knew it would be painful looking through Alice’s things, but he also knew he had to face it sometime. It would be a start.

“Sure. Now??”

Hardison thought about it, and shook his head.

“It’ll wait until tomorrow, m’man. I’m gonna turn in,” he replied.

He ate another gummy frog, fed one to an eager Gertie, and in the morning, Hardison decided, he would rummage in Oggie’s secure locker and bring out the team’s small geiger counter.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


The homestead was quiet that night.

With Gertie and Buster on the prowl, Nate and Sophie retired back to their comfortable bed in Oggie’s big tent, and Charlie and Kip settled down in the Nipper Nest as it was safer than heading back to the nearby bungalow. Charlie took the opportunity of relative solitude to tell Kip about Bomber. The little boy was upset, and after a while, Charlie held his son close and dried his tears, and Kip tucked himself into his father’s side and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Lizzie wrapped herself in her comforter and dozed next to Eliot, curled in the big chair with her arm flung out onto the bed, fingers resting on Eliot’s arm as he lay, sweating and feverish and shaking with chills.

Effie sat silently in her old rocking chair, the perennial cup of tea beside her, and watched over both of them.

The nightmares had gradually begun as darkness fell. The fever ran through Eliot like wildfire, and the memories of times past came strong and sinister, a megrim of despair coursing through his confused mind.

The concussion wasn’t helping. Already having problems focusing, the fever made it worse, and the only thing keeping Eliot anywhere near sane was Lizzie’s small hand on his arm. Whenever the dreams became too bad or he began to struggle with what was real and what was nothing but wisps of memory, her fingers would tighten and she would waken, patting his arm as she had done all of her short life, calming him.

Occasionally he would feel the pressure of a cold compress on his forehead, blissful to his concussed brain, and he would hear grouchy murmurs as Effie took care of him. Words like ‘boofhead’ and ‘mongrel’ drifted through his delirium and he smiled even as the chills shook him to the bone.

A rota had been introduced to look after Eliot, but Effie had growled objections, saying she would look after the bloody Yank and take care of the nipper, so help her, because she was the housekeeper and it was her job. Nate did try to offer to take over for a while so she could get some sleep, but Effie, in her own incomparable way, shot him down in flames and told him he had better come up with a plan to deal with those bastard shite-heads who had shot her boy, and Nate obviously needed to rest his brain.

It was at some point in the early hours of the morning that Eliot somehow got it into his fever-addled head that Khenbish Hadan had come to take Lizzie and Kip. Of this fact, he was absolutely certain. The woman was going to take the children and hurt them, and he was the only person who could stop her, because that was his job … that was his very being. And he couldn’t protect them lying in this goddamn bed and being useless, so he decided he was going to get up, get dressed and fetch Gertie, and then he was going to take the children into the bush where they would be safe and where Gertie would guard them. And then he was going to kill the murderous bitch who was threatening them or he would willingly die in the process.

The first Effie and Lizzie knew about it was when Eliot awoke with a shout. He struggled to get himself upright, and he was halfway out of the bed before Effie, who was dozing in her chair, could manage to catch him and he ended up in a heap on the floor, taking the little cook with him.

She held him close and felt the shuddering tremor in his stocky frame.

“Now then, laddie, just what the bloody hell d’you think you’re up to, hey??” she said in what she hoped was a conciliatory tone, as Eliot had a wild-eyed glare on his face and whatever was going on in his head was obviously worrying him.

“Eff … Effie … get the kids … she’s here … that friggin’ woman … she’s … she’s gonna take ‘em, Effie … she’s gonna hurt ‘em … please, jus’ … jus’ let me go, dammit!”

Lizzie awoke with a start.

“Eliot??? Are you –“

“’Lizbeth Grace!! Go … go get Kip … we’re … we’re leavin’ … gotta keep … keep you safe …” Eliot ranted, his face twisted in pain and his hair damp with sweat.

“Go get the Missus, nipper. I think –“ Effie began, and then struggled to hold Eliot even in his weakened state. He was determined to protect his own, and despite his illness she realised he was still going to be a handful to deal with. “Stop it, you pillock!! The kids are safe, don’t you worry now -”

Eliot was having none of it. He fought feebly to be free of Effie’s strong arms but his body wouldn’t obey him and he slumped against her. But fight he did, with every inch of his being. He ranted and railed and he struggled, because he knew Lizzie and Kip were in mortal danger and it was his job to keep them out of harm’s way.

“Let … let me go!” he wheezed, and tried to pry Effie’s arms away from his chest. “Effie … please … jus’ … jus’ let me go … ‘Lizbeth Grace … she’s … she’s in danger … gotta make sure-“

Lizzie, now wide awake and alarmed, scrambled over the bed and slid down beside Eliot, and with the clarity and simplicity of a six-year-old, she caught Eliot’s fevered face in her hands and looked him straight in the eye.

“Here I am, Eliot!! I’m safe, I promise!! And Kip’s with Charlie!!” she said, her voice clear and loving. “That woman isn’t here … you’re sick and your mind is all mixed up!! No-one’s going to hurt us!! See??” She patted and stroked his cheek, and slowly, so slowly, Eliot stopped struggling. His best girl was here, and she was safe, and he was hurting and the fever was running riot through him. But Effie was holding him and Lizzie was … oh thank God, she was unhurt and Kip was with his dad and he could stop worrying for now and he was so tired

“What’s going on?” Jo said as she came through the door tying the belt on her dressing gown. “I heard yelling –“

Effie looked up at Jo and grimaced.

“Silly bugger thought that that flamin’ shonky Hadan woman had come to take the nippers,” she said, and slowly loosened her grip on Eliot, who rested back in her arms, exhausted beyond belief. Effie shook her head. “His heart’s going like the clappers, Missus. Gave himself a bit of a panic there for a moment or two. But the kiddo here … she calmed him right down.” Effie grinned at Lizzie, who was still stroking Eliot’s cheek.

Lizzie looked around at Jo.

“He’s really, really hot, Grandma Jo,” she said, worry in every syllable. “I think he’s getting worse!”

Jo knelt down beside Effie and felt Eliot’s brow. Lizzie was right – he was burning up.

“I think his fever’s peaking,” she said quietly. “Eliot … Eliot, love … we’re going to get you back into your bed and get you settled, and then see what your temperature’s doing.”

Eliot turned bright, glassy eyes from Lizzie to Jo.

“They … they’re safe, right?” he asked huskily. “’Lizbeth Grace an’ Kip … they’re okay?”

Jo smiled tenderly, understanding his fears.

“Perfectly alright, boy. I promise.”

“Need a hand?” Hardison appeared at the door in his sweats, yawning. He was sleeping in the living room on a fold-down bed, and the commotion had awoken him.

“Oh, Alec, bless your heart,” Jo answered gratefully. “Help us get this fool back into his bed, will you?”

Hardison scratched his head and stretched.

“I seem to spend half my time haulin’ his sorry behind about, so … yeah. Let me in there, Effie …” He managed to work his way around Eliot and Effie, and leaned over, arms out. “C’mon, man … let’s get you back to bed … jeez, you’re burnin’ up –“

Eliot closed his eyes and leaned his head back as Hardison replaced Effie and held him for a moment or two so Lizzie could get out of the way.

“The … the kids … Hardison … they’re safe, right?” Eliot wasn’t letting go of the worry just yet.

“Lizzie an’ Kip are both fine, El … I promise. You, on the other hand, are a damn’ mess, bro. An’ you can’t stay here on the floor, so be still an’ let us help you, okay?”

Hardison’s soft voice helped Eliot’s pounding heartbeat settle a little, and knowing now that Lizzie was with him and that she had told him he was sick and needed care, he finally relented and allowed Hardison and Jo to ease him back into his bed.

Lizzie padded around the big bed, bare feet almost silent on the Navajo rug Eliot had brought back to Wapanjara from a road trip to Arizona, and waited as Eliot was settled under the warm blankets.

This time she had no intention of allowing Eliot to get so agitated, so she grabbed the two cushions from the chair and hauling her comforter with her, she settled in on the unoccupied expanse of bed.

“What’s she doing?” Jo whispered to Hardison.

The tired young hacker gave a wry smile.

“When she was a baby … Eliot got hurt real bad. He nearly died.”

“His back? That metal fragment in his back and that beating he took?”* Jo asked.

“You know about that?” Hardison’s eyebrows hitched. Seeing Jo’s nod, he continued. “While he was down and out, the only way we could keep him still and healing was to settle Lizzie beside him.” The memories came thick and fast now. “Parker … she did his physio, an’ Eliot, stubborn cuss that he is, used to try an’ avoid it, but Parker would jus’ dump Lizzie on his chest an’ he didn’t move. Damn, but she’s good at keepin’ him in one place!”

“Well now, that’s useful to know!” Jo grinned as she saw Lizzie settle down, wrapped in her comforter and sitting cross-legged beside Eliot. She caught his hand in hers, and be-damned, Jo thought, but the man instantly relaxed as she wrapped her fingers around his.

“You stay put, Eliot!” Lizzie murmured softly. “Grandma Jo’s going to take your temp’rature and then you’re going to try and sleep. You promise??” She tried a glare, and Eliot, fuzzy and sore as he was, nodded, impressed.

“O … okay, ‘Lizbeth Grace … you sure you’re alright?” he slurred, already on the point of drifting asleep, although the prospect of more nightmares bothered him.

Lizzie just patted his hand and Eliot’s eyelids slid closed, even as Jo told him to open his mouth for the thermometer so she could check how the fever was reacting to the antibiotics.

Jo waited for the ‘beep’ and asked Lizzie for her school project book so she could see how Eliot was doing. His temperature had gone up … to be expected at night … but she also thought the fever was reaching its conclusion and she hoped it would break at some point in the near future.

When the ‘beep’ came, both Jo and Lizzie studied the result.

“103.2,” Jo said, and felt Eliot’s brow. He was sweating and pale, and Lizzie leaned forward to place a hand on his heated skin.

“He’s getting hotter,” she muttered, “and he’s so sick, Grandma Jo! He’s getting worse! Is he going to –“ she gulped, she couldn’t say any more.

Jo shook her head reassuringly.

“No, sweetie, he’s not going to die. It just means his body is fighting back, and his temperature has gone up to try and combat the infection. I’m hoping his fever will break soon, and then he’ll feel a bit better. But when it does … he’ll need plenty of care and rest. Think you can help with that?”

Lizzie nodded eagerly.

“He’ll do as he’s told, Grandma Jo! Won’t he Effie??”

“Too bloomin’ right, nipper!” Effie growled. “He’ll stay in that bloody bed until we say so!!”

“You … you two …” Eliot whispered, even as he slipped into a troubled sleep, “nothin’ … nothin’ but friggin’ bullies …”

Hardison grinned toothily, tickled to bits.

“Aw, man … admit it … you’re beaten, Eliot! The great and dangerous Eliot Spencer, meek an’ mild like a fluffy little kitty-cat! Wait until I tell Parker –“

But Eliot wasn’t listening. He was sound asleep, his hand tightly held by a determined Lizzie.

Hardison yawned again.

“You folks need anythin’ else? Want me to spell you for a little bit, Effie? You’ve been up all night –“

“Nah,” Effie grumbled, settling herself back in her rocking chair. “Go back to your bed, sunbeam. Mind you …” she added, frowning, “ … why the nippers? He knows what this bloody Hadan cow’s like, and in his mind she’s going after the little ‘uns. Why?”

Hardison shrugged.

“Eliot an’ kids an’ animals … his weak point. He’d go through livin’ hell to keep ‘em safe, an’ these two are so close to his heart … maybe that’s it. His mind’s just fixatin’ on that.”

Effie brooded for a moment.

“Maybe, laddie … maybe.” She gave a little shuddery wriggle, as though ants were crawling on her skin. “Blasted woman. Gives me the heebie-jeebies, so she does. Go to bed, boy. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Hardison frowned, but he was too tired to think about it. He had to tell the team about his findings in the morning, and he needed his wits about him. Explaining techy stuff to his people was always a challenge.

“’Night, Effie … Jo …” He didn’t bother speaking to Lizzie – she was too wrapped up in looking after their idiot hitter. So Alec Hardison shuffled off to his comfy bed, where he could rest and ease his sore body, and hope that the pale, shocked face of the man he had killed would not come to him in his dreams.


It was as the sun inched over the horizon, sending golden light over Jo’s garden and orchard and silhouetting the trees in the almond stand beyond it, when Eliot’s fever finally broke.

It came in a rush of perspiration and a gasp of discomfort, and Eliot’s frantic, stressed heartbeat began to slowly settle.

Lizzie, lying in a crumpled heap beside Eliot in a light doze, woke blearily and felt Eliot’s hand spasm in hers as he shuddered, muttering and disorientated.

“Effie!” she called out softly, but the little cook was already leaning forward and wiping Eliot’s face with a damp, cool cloth.

“Well, nipper,” she said, “looks like the fever’s broken. He’ll do better now.”

Lizzie’s weary face broke into a broad grin and she stroked the damp skin on the back of Eliot’s hand. Eliot murmured at her touch, knowing she was there, and the little girl knew then her guardian and best friend would, with care and love, be back on his feet in good time.

Nestling down in her heap of cushions and comforter, she curled up and went to sleep, Eliot’s hand clutched tightly in hers.


“Uranium?” Nate said, confused. “They’re mining uranium? So what’s the big deal?”

“They’re mining uranium illegally, that’s the catch!” Hardison explained.

Team Leverage were all – bar Eliot – sitting around the plasma screens under Oggie’s awning and Hardison was doing his level best to explain what he knew … which wasn’t that much, to be honest.

“I would think the restrictions and safety procedures would be enormous, given the radioactivity issue,” Sophie pondered and took a sip of tea.

It was mid-morning, and after Eliot’s bad night, they were all a little tense and weary, even though he seemed to be on the road to recovery. They had left him sleeping soundly after Jo and Effie had changed his bedclothes and got him comfortable. His wounds seemed less inflamed, and Lizzie had given him a few mouthfuls of cool, sweet orange juice before he slid into a dreamless sleep. The little girl was now dozing beside Eliot, protecting the man whose job it was to protect them all. But, Lizzie thought, he had no-one to protect him, so, she reasoned, that was her job.

Nate had cooked breakfast, surprising Effie with his skill, and he had told her to go to bed – he and the rest of the team could look after themselves for a day, he said. The little cook, grumbling and cursing, was secretly grateful for the respite, and hobbled off to her bed.

So now they were trying to figure out what was going on.

“So … why bother us,” Soapy queried. “There’s no uranium here on Wapanjara,” he added, frowning. “You saw the mineral reports, Nate – what the hell is this all about?”

“I can only give an educated guess, but I think it’s to do with your water supply, not the land itself,” Nate said.

Soapy thought about it before he answered.

“But our water is an independent artesian aquifer,” he said, confused. “Albany has no access to it, and why do they need it? They don’t have any livestock and they’ve got their own water,” he added.

“Yeah … but it isn’t an independent supply,” Hardison said, bringing up a map on the largest of the plasma screens. “See? Their water supply filters into Warumungu land to the east, and further to the west under the Barkly range and onto other stations.” On his tablet he drew the outlines of the Albany water supply and it appeared on the map. “Here …” he put a large, red cross on the map,” … is the mine. See? The water supply runs through it and off their land.”

Soapy’s face cleared.

“The buggers need the water to process the uranium ore without anyone finding out!” he breathed.

“You got it in one!” Hardison said gleefully, rubbing his hands together. “There’s also the issue with the leachin’ process … sulphuric acid … sodium chlorate …” he brought up a screen capture of the Albany Mining Company site and pointed to the silo-like columns. “Leachin’ towers. Then the ore is turned into a slurry, an’ then it goes through an extraction process, leading to precipitation to concentrate the uranium. Then it’s dried and packaged.” He brought up a photograph of a bright yellow powder. “Here it is. Uranium oxide. Usually called yellowcake. Toxic stuff.”

“So … This is what they’re selling,” Nate said, thinking out loud. “Chinese … are they selling to the triads? Or are the triads funding this and selling elsewhere?”

“Well, there’s a ready market,” Sophie said, her eyebrows dawn down. “Eastern Europe … former Soviet bloc … far east … not to mention that whole bloody mess in Afghanistan. North bloody Korea, for god’s sake!” she added.

“They have to hide the footprint, y’see,” Hardison continued. “Uranium minin’ is a messy business, usually strictly controlled because of the environmental fallout. See these ponds?” He returned to Larry’s image of the mine. He pointed at the four ponds. “I thought they were filtration ponds. I was wrong. These are for the tailings from the mine. Open to the air … full of heavy metals … hellacious nasty stuff.”

“So … they want access to Wapanjara water because it doesn’t flow into anywhere else, and if it becomes tainted no-one’ll know?” Jo asked incredulously.

“In a nutshell, yeah,” Hardison said.

“But this whole business … it … it’s so complicated!” Soapy blurted.

“It appears they have plenty of money and lots of patience,” Nate said. “They want to drive you off,” he continued. “Not buy the place. That would bring too much notice from the authorities, and that’s why ‘Lady Eloise Stanton’ is such a threat.”

“But … even if we leave or die,” Jo continued, “Eliot and Charlie inherit this place. It would have to be sold to stop that. And from them it goes to … oh no. Oh no-no-no-“

“What? What is it old girl?” Soapy asked, worried.

Jo’s eyes went to the cattle yards, where Charlie and Kip were checking on the in-foal mares.

“Alice … is that why she died?”

Hardison’s face was sombre.

“She found out what they were doing, and that’s why she was killed,” he explained. “Charlie found some rock samples from Alice’s collection, taken from what had been the sheep station before Albany bought it. I checked ‘em out with the geiger counter, and although I’m no rock hound, I’d bet my last gummy frog that it’s uranium ore.”

Nate’s mind was now working overtime.

“The past few months, your stockmen left. They were being warned off … told to leave, or being told it wasn’t safe to work here. You can’t hire anybody else. The word if out. So … there are already rumours that things aren’t right out here at Wapanjara. Alice died … Soapy was hurt … and … someone knows about the inheritance. It figures! You called Eliot and he came here without a murmur. Somebody shot him because they knew that either Eliot or Charlie would check Bore Seven because of problems at the pump-house.” Nate’s face became grim. “They know. They know that if you remove the heritors, there isn’t anyone to leave the place to and when you two get scared off – or maybe even die in an accident – the place can be bought quietly and with no fuss through a shell company. Hey presto – instant independent water supply.”

Jo’s face suddenly paled.

“But there are other heritors,” she said faintly.

Parker frowned. She had a sudden feeling of dread.

“Who?”

Jo ran fingers through her silver-auburn curls.

“If anything happens to Eliot or Charlie … Lizzie and Kip inherit Wapanjara.”

 

To be continued …


* Told in 'Too Late the Hero'.

Chapter Text


“’Liz … ‘Lizbeth Grace …”

Eliot awoke from a restless sleep, and opening his eyes, it took him a moment or two to figure out where he was. And then his gaze settled on familiar things … his old stetson hanging beside his stockman’s hat and whip on hooks by the doorway … the Cherokee blanket draped over the bed that had belonged to his great grandmother … and there, on the mantelpiece over the bedroom fireplace, in pride of place and displayed on an ironwood stand, was his Hanzō katana. It had a companion now … a wakizashi, also forged by the legendary master swordsmith Maeda Hanzō Mitsuyo* and as unique and as highly prized as the katana.

He was home, and now he remembered why. He checked his surroundings. He knew Lizzie had been there while he was delirious, her presence grounding and safe, and he had felt her little fingers soothing his forehead and holding his hand, and the shadows in his heart had lifted a little with her tender care. So in the midst of terrible illness, he had closed his eyes and slept quietly.

But Lizzie was gone, and he tried to sit up, as near to panic as Eliot Spencer ever could be. But a strong hand caught his shoulder and pressed him gently but firmly back down into the pile of pillows.

“Easy, Eliot … she’s okay.” Nate was sitting in Effie’s rocking chair. “Sophie took her away to get her to eat something. She wanted to eat here, but we thought you wouldn’t appreciate steak and eggs in your bedding.” He continued, smiling.

“You got that right,” Eliot croaked, his throat dry.

“Orange juice?” Nate asked, reaching for the pitcher beside the bed.

“Yeah … that’d be good …” Eliot murmured, and felt better as Nate helped him drink a glass of the delicious liquid. “Thanks.”

“How do you feel?” Nate asked, his voice rich with concern.

“Like I’ve been shot an’ someone hit me upsides the head with a baseball bat, but otherwise … a bit better. Clearer … not so fuzzy.” Eliot laid his head back on the pillows. “Don’t think I’ll be fightin’ a dozen ninjas any time soon, but otherwise … I’ll be okay in a day or two.”

Nate snorted.

“More like a week or two, man … you’ve been fighting quite the infection. You’re on the mend, though, Jo says.”

He fished around in his pocket for a moment, then pulled a small metal object out and handed it to Eliot, who squinted as he studied it.

“She dug that out of you.” Nate said quietly.

Eliot waved his other hand weakly at his bedside table where his spectacles lay.

Nate stood up and wandered around the bed, retrieved the spectacles and handed them to Eliot, who gingerly put them on, carefully avoiding the cut above his ear.

The spectacles helped the blurriness a little, and Eliot turned the bullet over in his fingers.

“Huh … .762 … probably a Dragunov or maybe a Tabuk, but unless I see the rifle, I can’t be sure.” Eliot winced as his head throbbed with the effort of studying the spent round, one side misshapen where it had skittered along his rib. “It’s the most common calibre for precision sniper rifles. If I remember rightly … and my memory’s not too clear, I gotta say … it was … it was rapid-fire, so a semi-automatic, not bolt-action. Tabuks … damn’ things are all through the middle east … they’re old but accurate within their range an’ easy to get hold of.”

“The sniper had been waiting for either you or Charlie.” Nate stated bluntly.

Eliot raised the wrong eyebrow and winced, the cut pulling painfully.

“So … it turned out it was a set-up an’ I was the target,” he said grimly. “Figures. The whole thing was intended to take me out, right? That’s one of the reasons they killed Alice.”

Nate nodded.

“Albany – well, their backers – needed you back here in Australia so they could dispose of you and Charlie, and then probably Soapy and Jo, somehow. But –“

Eliot paled suddenly, and Nate instinctively knew it had nothing to do with the Oklahoman’s injuries. Eliot, even as concussed as he was, had suddenly connected all the dots.

Jesus, no … they are gonna go after Lizzie an’ Kip! I … I was right!” he growled feebly, and he felt the terror again … that gut-wrenching worry he had encountered during his delirium, and this time he made a concerted effort to sit up and fight his way out of the big bed. “Nate – help me out here –“ he ground out, and managed to fling back the blankets and swing his legs out of the bed in an attempt to sit up.

“Whoa-whoa-whoa!” Nate hastily put an arm out to keep Eliot off balance, and the hitter sank back onto his bed with a hiss borne of both pain and frustration. “They’re safe, Eliot … I promise you! We figured it out and we’ve got it covered, so will you just damn’ well stay put, you idiot!”

“Eliot!! What are you doing??” Lizzie demanded as she swept into Eliot’s room and bounced onto the bed, settling down cross-legged beside him. “You’re supposed to be in bed!

“Eliot thinks he should be guarding you, Lizzie,” Nate said with a hint of smugness in his voice.

Lizzie’s brows drew down in a scowl as she studied Eliot, who was struggling to either get comfortable or make another attempt to escape the confines of his bed, she couldn’t quite decide which.

“That’s just silly!” Lizzie declared testily, annoyance in every syllable. “You can’t even stand up! You’re still sick and Grandma Jo wants you to stay in bed until you’re a lot stronger and the ‘fection’s gone, so I’m looking after you. And that means I’m in charge … Grandma Jo says so!!” Lizzie laid a small hand on Eliot’s brow and the scowl deepened. “You’re all hot again!”

Eliot’s gaze had more than a hint of desperation in it as he glared at Lizzie – who ignored him – and then at Nate, who shifted the blankets back over Eliot after easing the frustrated hitter back into the bed.

“Hell, she’s even worse than Parker!” Eliot groused, unhappy but acknowledging he was still far from even being able to stand.

Nate’s brow furrowed. “Now, Eliot … you’ve always encouraged her to be independent and trust her instincts, so … you’ve only yourself to blame.”

Well, Eliot thought, perhaps Nate was right. He sighed painfully and settled back into his pillows, and Lizzie leaned over and dug out her project book from the chair. Opening it to the Eliot Project page, she studied Eliot, and then looked at his bedside alarm clock. She chewed her lip as she figured out the time – seven-ten in the evening – and wrote it down.

Eliot suddenly understood that Lizzie, his six-year-old ‘Lizbeth Grace Ford, hadn’t really left his side since the previous midday. He could see the tiredness in her face even as she stuck out her tongue as she concentrated on her writing. He glanced at Nate, and he could plainly see the pride in the man’s face at the tenacity and loyalty of his daughter, and Eliot once again thanked God that ‘Lizbeth Grace was in his life.

“She’s been here since –“ he whispered.

“Yep,” Nate interjected warmly. “She’s refused to leave you. Nothing Sophie or I say can sway her. She only agreed to go eat supper if I promised to sit with you.”

“It’s my job,” Lizzie mumbled as she wrote. “It’s what I do,” she added, and the echo of Eliot’s words almost broke the hitter’s heart.

“’Lizbeth Grace … go sleep, girl. I’m goin’ to be just fine, you know that, an’ –“

“Grandma Jo will be here in a little bit to take your temp’rature and give you your pill, and Effie said you should try to eat something then,” Lizzie continued as though she had not heard Eliot. “You have to eat, Effie says, or else you’ll be bloody useless.”

Eliot mentally made a plan to have words – gentle ones – with Effie about her language issues.

“If I promise to eat somethin’ will you go get some sleep –“

“I can sleep here,” Lizzie said. “I’ve got my comforter and cushions and my school project, and Effie says she’ll bring me some hot chocolate later and I found a book in Grandpa Soapy’s library that I can read, so –“

“What book?” Eliot asked. Despite himself, he was beginning to relax and the pain of his wounds was lessening. Lizzie’s chatter helped.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie,”** she answered. “One of Kip’s favourites,” she added. “Grandpa Soapy told me.” She huffed a brief sigh and continued. “Eliot?”

Eliot, still fretting about the threat to the children – indeed, to the rest of his family – shifted a little, and he held out a hand. Lizzie took it in both of hers, and Eliot rubbed a thumb across her knuckles.

“Yeah, darlin’?” he said softly.

“Grandpa Soapy told Mama and me about Bomber,” she said, and her voice hitched.

Oh.

“Yeah … I’m so sorry, ‘Lizbeth Grace. I couldn’t stop it … Hardison and me, we –“

“I know,” Lizzie piped, and leaning over, patted Eliot’s cheek. “You were hurt and Alec would have been hurt too if he’d tried to do anything about it, and I know at least that Bomber didn’t feel anything. But … but you will find out who did it, won’t you?”

Eliot flinched. Lizzie didn’t know about Hardison killing the sniper. And, he decided, she didn’t need to know. Six-year-olds had no business having their lives tainted by the ugliness of violence and death.

“We’ll sort it out,” Nate said soothingly, with all of the love and certainty only a father could give. “Anyway, Kip’ll be in to see you before bedtime, Eliot. It’s the first time he’ll have seen you awake since we carried you into the house,” he grinned.

Eliot nodded and gently eased off his spectacles. Holding them out for Nate to take and replace on his bedside table, he slipped the bullet into his friend’s palm. Although he never lied to Lizzie, right now he didn’t want her worrying herself any further by seeing the battered piece of metal.

Nate’s blue eyes flickered and then he nodded.

“You gonna read to me, ‘Lizbeth Grace?” Eliot asked, as he closed his eyes and rested his head on the pillows. His head was aching, but he didn’t care.

“Really?” Lizzie asked eagerly. Eliot had read and sung to her since she was a bump in her mama’s tummy, but she had never read to him before.

“Yep,” Eliot murmured. “It’s about time you put in the work instead of me.”

Lizzie wriggled with delight and opened the well-worn book at the first page. She cleared her throat and began, slowly working her way through the words.

“Snugglepot and Cuddlepie … have a house up in a tree … it’s made of eu … eu …”

“Eucalyptus …” Eliot murmured. “That’s a tough one.”

Lizzie continued haltingly.

“ … eucalyptus leaves, so it’s very hard to see …”

And so, on a dark, breezy night that carried the scent of rain through the open window, Eliot Spencer and Nate Ford relaxed and listened to a little girl read to them of kangaroos and possums, and gumnut babies and snakes, and they were content.


The next day dawned dull and damp, a rare break from the normal spring heat. Effie was laying out breakfast on the veranda when Charlie clumped up the steps to join them, Kip and Buster in tow.

Soapy gestured at the young aborigine to sit down and eat, and Effie dumped a plate covered with steak and fried eggs in front of him. Kip snuggled next to his father and drank his orange juice before tucking in to a plate of scrambled eggs … his favourite, Effie knew.

The only people missing from the table were Eliot and Lizzie, both of whom were catching up on some sleep.

“Well, looks as though Dottie might foal today or tonight,” Charlie said, yawning. Dottie was the big gray mare who had fussed over Lizzie. “Maybe Lizzie might get a chance to see the foal being born … if that’s okay?” he asked, looking at Nate and Sophie.

“Charlie … if our six-year-old daughter can cope with watching Eliot have a bullet dug out of him, I’m sure she can deal with a foal being born,” Sophie said, reaching out to pour Charlie a cup of tea.

“Good-oh!” Kip said with relish. He had recovered a bit from Bomber’s loss, and a new foal would help. “Can I go see Eliot when he wakes up? Please, Dad? I want to tell him about Dottie!”

“As long as you don’t tire him out, son,” Charlie said, grinning. “He’s an old wreck, and he’s a bit stuffed to boot, so be gentle on him,” he added, teasing.

Parker snorkled as she ate what Effie called a ‘bacon butty’, bacon in-between two slices of bread and dripping with glistening butter.

“Eliot … old.” The thought of Eliot ever getting old tickled her. But something else struck her. “A foal? Like … a baby horse?”

Jo nodded.

“We have lots of foals due over the next couple of weeks. Dottie’s our first, although Charlie’s mare had hers a week ago.”

Parker pondered the idea. She hated horses, or so she told herself, but a baby horse … well, that was different. Maybe. She had been intrigued when Sophie was expecting Lizzie, and Parker discovered she loved babies of all kinds, so … a baby horse. She would think about it for a bit.

Soapy buttered a slice of toast and gave a sideways glance to Nate.

They had discussed options the night before as to what they would do. Leaving wasn’t one of those options. There was livestock to care for, and the aforementioned brood mares needed close watching. And, Jo had said, where would they go?

Nate was still working his way through the situation, but Soapy had some ideas of his own. They couldn’t go to the police. Tom Reid, the area inspector and a close friend of the Munros, had retired the year before, and a new man … Spicer … had been sent from Adelaide as a cover. Jo had instantly taken a dislike to him, and Soapy wasn’t impressed.

“Alec …” Soapy asked as he finished his toast. “Is there any way … y’know … that you can check on police officers? On the web?”

Hardison, much refreshed after a good – and mostly dreamless – night’s sleep, nodded, waving a hand in the air.

“Sure, no problem. Who?”

Soapy saw Jo’s curious glance, and continued.

“His name’s Everett Spicer … Detective Inspector, originally from Adelaide.”

Jo shuddered.

“Horrid man,” she said under her breath.

Hardison thought about it before answering.

“This is why you can’t go to the police,” he said. “You don’t trust him.”

Soapy nodded.

“Creepy bugger,” he answered. “There have been a few whispers about his temper and that he’s out here to get him out of the way, but that’s all.”

“Sounds iffy,” Sophie said, sipping tea. “Bent coppers … a dangerous breed,” she murmured to herself.

“I’ve a lot to look at today, so yeah … I’ll see what I can dig up,” Hardison said quietly. “I’ve come to a few dead ends so far, but I have a couple more avenues to explore … dark web stuff,” he added mysteriously. “I can’t make my mind up yet about who’s runnin’ the show, but the triads’re in there someplace. I just can’t nail down where an’ who they’re sellin’ processed uranium to. I also want to run Larry’s footage again an’ see if they’re makin’ uranium rods on-site or whether they’re shippin’ ‘em elsewhere.” He glanced at Nate. “I … uh … I also want to run facial recognition on the shooter. See what I can come up with,” he added cautiously.

Nate nodded.

“I’d love to have a look inside the whole place,” he said, “see what they’re up to and what their weaknesses are, but we’re so damn’ far away. I have to say … this country has me struggling. I mean … it’s so remote, and we have to travel through tough countryside to get here, let alone figure out what Albany’s plans are. Is there any way you can hack into their systems, Hardison?”

The young man pondered before answering.

“I’ve been trying, and so far, no luck. This place is riddled with blind spots, although now we’ve had a look at the place … maybe I can target my tech better. I could take Bernadette up onto the ridge there,” he gestured to the escarpment east of the homestead. “I could maybe get better reception.”

Soapy shook his head.

“Can’t,” he said. “It’s sacred. The Warumungu wouldn’t be happy about it. But,” he said, brightening, “There’s a place a couple of miles further down that might work. You could try there. It wouldn’t take more than thirty minutes to get Bernadette up there. You can’t see much, but it’s free of trees and surrounding hills.”

Hardison shrugged, willing to give it a try.

“Okay. I have stuff to do today, but first thing in the morning, maybe? I want more info before I try it. Want to come with me, Soapy?”

The pastoralist grinned.

“Try and stop me, boy!”

“Take your rifle,” Jo said, putting her hand on Soapy’s arm. “No heroics, you hear?”

Soapy’s hang-dog face became grim in a moment.

“I hear you, old girl. And I’ll take the Webley.”

Jo nodded, not happy about the idea but knowing that her home – and their lives – were possibly at stake.

“I don’t like this waiting game,” Parker interjected, frowning. “I want to see what they’re up to. I feel like a duck on a plate,” she added cryptically. “Just waiting to be roasted. Why can’t we do something??”

“Yeah,” Nate sighed. “At the moment we’re waiting for Albany to show its hand, and I don’t like these S.O.Bs having the advantage. I need to even it out a bit, if nothing else. Can we push them a little?”

Everyone was silent, thinking about the problem.

Then Jo let out a giggle.

“Ethel Krapinsky,” she said with a grin.

“Bloody hell!” Soapy said, eyebrows hitching. “You’re right! Ethel! She’s perfect!!”

“Ethel-who-now???” Hardison said, mystified.

“Ethel Krapinsky. She runs the post-office in Tennant Creek, and I’ve known her all my life,” Jo said. “A very, very nice lady and very kind, but the most prolific and dedicated gossip I’ve ever known – and in remote places, gossip is almost an Olympic sport,” she continued, grinning. “I just tell Ethel we’ve sold Wapanjara! It’ll be all over the Barklys in thirty minutes! Won’t that bring Albany out of its hole?”

Nate burst out laughing.

“If that doesn’t, then nothing will!” he chuckled. “They think they’ve scared Lady Eloise Stanton off, but this should set them on the wrong foot. Unbalance them a little. We have to give them a good prod in the ribs … it might not be pretty and we might get a reaction that’ll be tough to deal with, but I think this is the time for baseball bat politics instead of convoluted plotting. They’re trying to be quiet and subtle. We need to be noisy as hell.”

“Won’t they come in with all guns ablaze, though?” Sophie said, sudden fear for Lizzie rilling through her.

Nate shook his head.

“That brings attention. They can’t afford that right now. No … I think they’ll try and wrangle a deal. It’ll give us time and also more information. And maybe … just maybe … a way to figure out how to get free of this. They’ve been either subtle or secretive so far. This country can let them do that. But we’re going to get them to bring the fight to us … we’ll have the upper hand. We can’t work the job on their terms, you know that Soph. We’re a two-hour drive on a rough road from the nearest human contact. This place has poor communication and the land isn’t the easiest to deal with. But remember … these facts hamper them too. We can make the landscape work for us … we have Charlie, Soapy and Jo who know this land better than anyone. We can do this,” he added, that spark of Nate Ford madness gleaming in the depths of his eyes.

Parker chewed her lip thoughtfully.

“I’ll scout out a watching place. The water tower’s too obvious and too risky.” Her eyes narrowed, like a hunting cat. “I’ll set up some hidey-holes … someplace we can put Lizzie and Kip if we need to.”

“I’ll help,” Charlie said. “Those drongos at Albany aren’t bush-wise, so I can figure out a few things to keep ‘em jumping!”

They were interrupted by a distant, faint rumble of thunder, miles away to the west. Soapy shrugged.

“That thunderstorm might help … or hinder,” he said thoughtfully. “It won’t hit here until late tomorrow, probably, but when it comes, it’ll be a downpour. We don’t get ‘em too often in the spring, but the Wet’s*** coming and this one … it’ll bring lightning, rain … the lot. It might flood the billabong in the south paddock, but we’ll be fine. At least it might hamper anything Albany wants to do for a bit. They can’t come overland … only by air – and we don’t have a helipad or runway like some of the other cattle stations - or by way of the station road there,” he indicated the dirt road leading over the hill where the stringybarks grew. “They could trespass onto Warumungu land and come by way of the east paddock gate, but that would be risky.”

“So, in which case, we have freedom of movement and they don’t.” Nate scratched his head. He didn’t yet know what concrete advantage this was, but he knew there was an advantage. He just had to find it. He sighed. “Okay people, let’s get on with the day. Things to do, people to gossip about, doncherknow!”

Jo grinned.

“I think … I think I’ll get on the radio. I feel like a chat with Ethel,” she said with relish.

Hardison glanced over to Oggie, where Gertie sat under the awning away from the breeze, happily burping to herself and chewing her cud. Apparently gummy frogs gave her gas.

“Looks like Gertie an’ me have work to do,” he said with a resigned sigh. “This is goin’ to be not pleasant,” he groaned as Gertie shifted, farting gently.

Parker leaned over and whispered in Hardison’s ear.

“Serves you right for giving her gummy frogs!” she hissed, her voice containing more than a little taunting. “Wait ‘til I tell Eliot you gave Gertie gas!”

Hardison scowled.

“Do that, Parker, an’ Eliot finds out who used up all of his very expensive tea tree shampoo!” he sniped.

“Ohhhh!!” Parker snarled, “Don’t you dare!” She loved Eliot’s shampoo which the Oklahoman thought he had hidden in his office drawers at Leverage HQ. He had stalked the offices in a snit when he discovered the empty bottle, snarling and glaring and watching Hardison like a hawk. Eliot had his suspicions.

“Hey,” Hardison said drolly, “All’s fair in love an’ war, babe! OW!!”

Parker grinned as she poked Hardison in the ribs with strong little fingers.

And off the pair of them went, bickering and sniping happily, down the veranda steps and over to Oggie, where Gertie greeted both of them with a couple of pungent gummy frog burps and a face-lick.

So teams Leverage and Wapanjara settled down for the day, formulated plans and laid the foundation of a scheme to rattle Albany Mining Company and its shady owners. What the next couple of days would bring, they had no idea, but they had to be ready, come what may.

And as the day grew darker and night fell, they ate dinner on the veranda and watched the lightning arc across the sky in the distance, deep, thrumming rumbles of thunder echoing in the far hills and over the billabongs as Namarrkun, the lightning man of the Warumungu, grew angry at the interlopers who would hurt his ancient land and its people.

 

To be continued …


Author’s notes:

* Maeda Hanzō Mitsuyo never existed. I remember listening to the commentary on ‘The Ho Ho Ho Job’ DVD and heard how the creator of Eliot’s katana was imaginary. So, I thought I would invent a 16th century swordsmith to make Eliot’s treasured blade.  

** Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – a series of books written by Australian author May Gibbs. The books chronicle the adventures of the eponymous Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and were first published in 1918.

*** The ‘Wet’ – the wet season, which in this part of the Northern Territory begins about October and ends around April. Temperatures are high and humidity can be 80%. The countryside becomes lush and green.

Chapter Text


It was during the hour before dawn on the following morning, as the first fat, drenching drops of rain puffed dust from the yard surface, that Dottie decided it was about time she had her foal.

Hardison was woken from his deep slumber on the fold-down bed by a squawk from the elderly walkie-talkie beside his pillow. Eyes still closed, he fumbled for the thing, managed to find the button and pressed it, holding the device to his ear.

“Um … yeah?” he croaked dryly, “wassup?”

Dottie’s foaling, Charlie’s voice crackled over the connection. Tell Lizzie, will you?

“Riiiight … uh-huh,” Hardison mumbled, and then cracked open an eye. “I’ll go get her …”

And without waiting for an answer, he clicked off the button, dropped the walkie-talkie on his pillow and pried himself reluctantly from his bed. He had been put on walkie-talkie watch because he knew how to work the thing properly and Soapy hated it with a passion, so Hardison, in a moment of insanity, had volunteered to let Lizzie know when the event was happening.

Hauling on pants and a warm sweatshirt, he padded out of the living room and along to Eliot’s room. The door, as always when Eliot needed looking after, was ajar, and he knocked gently and peered around it.

Soapy was sitting with Eliot and Lizzie, happily reading the latest issue of Stock & Land. Eliot was out like a light. Hardison thought his friend’s colour was better and he wasn’t as restless, although that could be because Lizzie lay curled up on the bed in a mélange of comforter and cushions, her hand on his bare arm and making sure her best friend and guardian was safe.

“The horse is doin’ its thing,” Hardison whispered as Soapy raised an eyebrow in query. “Lizzie? Lizzie, wake up …” The hacker touched Lizzie’s shoulder and she awoke with a start.

“Eliot …?”

“Nah, baby-girl … c’mon now … Charlie says Dottie’s havin’ her baby, so if you want to go see then get dressed an’ I’ll meet you on the veranda. Will you be okay, Soapy? Lookin’ after this fool?” He gestured at the sleeping Eliot.

“Don’t worry about me, boy …” and the pastoralist glanced at the old Webley Mark IV revolver in its holster tucked beside him out of Lizzie’s immediate sight. “Eliot and I will be fine. And don’t worry about that dratted walkie-talkie … I’ll get it when I go make tea in a minute.”

Hardison nodded and watched as Lizzie tried not to squeal with excitement and wake Eliot, and then she slid onto the floor with a thump that Hardison was sure would have woken the gods if there were any. But Eliot never stirred. Well, Hardison thought, it was about time the man got some decent rest.

Within minutes Hardison was standing on the veranda in the gloom, now booted and dressed in a waterproof jacket, a flashlight in his hand, waiting for Lizzie to emerge from the bathroom after changing into her day clothes.

Hardison was listening to the increasing thud of heavy raindrops on the veranda roof and inhaling the perfumed scent of wet roses when Lizzie appeared beside him in jeans and jacket, her gumboots on her feet and an exact replica of one of Eliot’s beanies keeping her unbrushed riot of curls under control.

Damn, Hardison thought wryly, that girl’s gettin’ more like Eliot-Mister-Punchy-Spencer every frikkin’ day.

Lizzie was almost vibrating with excitement, but just as they began to make their way down the veranda steps, she tugged on Hardison’s coat sleeve.

“Alec?” she whispered hesitantly.

“Yeah, sweetheart?” Hardison stopped and turned to look at Lizzie in the glow of his flashlight.

“Eliot … he’ll be alright if I go see Dottie, won’t he? I mean … Grandpa Soapy will tell me if he gets sick again –“ Lizzie bit her lip, unsure.

The effort it took to stop his smile made Hardison twitch.

“Lizzie-girl … Eliot is not goin’ to up an’ die just because you ain’t there for a couple of hours, y’know.”

Lizzie’s eyes became round with worry.

Die??? But … but … Grandma Jo said –“

Hardison realised he had mentioned the ‘D’ word in relation to Eliot, and he back-tracked as fast as he could, mentally beating himself about the head with a hypothetical brick.

“No, no … what I mean is,” he said hastily, “Eliot will be perfectly fine with Soapy for a couple of hours. Besides … if he does get sick again, all Soapy has to do is call on the walkie-talkie, plus Jo’s there to look out for him … so … you’re allowed to take time out, baby-girl. And El will want to know all about the new lil’ bit when he wakes up.”

Lizzie thought about it for a second, and then nodded.

“I … I s’pose. But … but next time … I think I should have an earbud, Alec. Those walkie-talkies are just silly.”

And as the pair of them walked through the silent, ever-increasing rain to the barn, Hardison had to agree.

But neither of them noticed a slender figure drop down from Bernadette’s roof tent, clad in black and wearing a warm jacket. The shadow then followed them towards the warm glow of the barn lights and the promise of new life.


Dottie was getting a bit tired. She paced and pawed at the ground in the large stable the Munros used as a foaling box, and her tail swished in irritation. A back hoof stamped, and she grunted as she lay down, trying to ease the contraction as it tightened through her body.

“Is it here yet?” Lizzie gasped as she and Hardison appeared in the barn and the little girl ran to Charlie and Kip, who were sitting on an unobtrusive bench quietly watching the big mare through the rails of the box.

“Shhh …” Charlie smiled, “she shouldn’t be long now. But we have to be quiet and not pester her, alright? She’s an old hand at this so she shouldn’t need any help, but she’ll try and hold onto the foal if we annoy her.”

“Okay!” Lizzie whispered, and sat down next to Kip, who grinned with excitement. He was delighted that he could share this with Lizzie … show her his world and his people and animals.

“Shove up, baby-girl,” Hardison said softly, and Lizzie and Kip shuffled along the bench to let the tall young man sit beside them. He pulled out his cell ‘phone. There was no way he was going to miss taking pictures of Lizzie and the foal.

Dottie seemed unaware of her audience. She was concentrating now, and her body tensed as she lay flat on her side and she needed to push.

Lizzie’s eyes widened as the mare’s tail lifted and she could see a thin, opaque membrane appear, slowly ballooning out, and through the membrane she just glimpsed what appeared to be a tiny hoof.

“Oh! Oh Alec!” she gasped under her breath “Look!”

Hardison’s eyes were as round as Lizzie’s.

“I can see, Lizzie!” he sighed, entranced.

Another neat, small hoof appeared, a few inches behind the first, and then Lizzie’s breathing hitched as a small muzzle, only big enough to fit in the palm of a hand, lay tucked between the two front legs.

Lizzie was absolutely enchanted.

Dottie rested for a moment or two, and then another contraction hit her and her legs became rigid with effort, and the legs and head became more visible. Dottie relaxed, panted and then began another push and Lizzie saw the elegant head begin to emerge, eyes closed and ears folded back against the neck, and the foal seemed asleep, limp as it lay still enclosed within the membrane.

But Lizzie noticed something. While the first leg and head were slowly inching into the world, the second leg wasn’t moving.

“Charlie –“ she began, but Charlie was ahead of her.

“Oh … bugger,” he said under his breath, and getting up from the bench he washed his hands and arms in a bucket beside him, full of warm, soapy water.

“What’s wrong?” Hardison asked, alarmed.

“The foal’s elbow’s caught on Dottie’s pelvic bone. I have to try and ease it over the bone before the foal gets any further out or we’ll have a bloody awful job shifting it.” He eased open the door of the foaling box and slid in beside Dottie, crouching down to check the foal’s progress. “This is where I wish I had small hands,” he muttered, running a finger around the stuck leg, trying to gauge how difficult it would be to correct the problem.

“I have small hands,” a soft, hesitant voice said.

Hardison and Lizzie twisted around to see Parker standing behind them, eyes wide with wonder.

“Help them, Parker! Please!!” Lizzie begged, fretting now for the foal.

Charlie looked up, seeing the little thief shift uncomfortably at the proximity of the horse, but he could tell she couldn’t take her eyes off the foal. He made a decision.

“Wash your hands and arms and get in here,” he said, and Parker started as though awoken from a trance. Blinking, she stripped off her jacket and rolled up her sleeves, blue eyes constantly flicking back to the straining mare and the trapped foal.

Parker was truly terrified. The horse was enormous … a big, grey lump of quivering flesh, and Parker almost bolted with fear. But the foal … she could see the tiny head, the neat muzzle … eyes still closed and in danger of dying before it could even leave the warmth of its mother’s body.

Before she knew it she was dropping down beside Charlie, frighteningly close to big, sharp hooves and powerful quarters. But Dottie didn’t appear to notice – she was too busy trying to have her baby, and her body was tense with pain.

“What … what do I do?” Parker asked, her voice trembling.

Charlie smiled reassuringly at her.

“It’s not too hard really … we just need to ease the foal’s leg over the pelvic bone in time to Dottie’s pushes, okay? So … all I want you to do is slip in there and cup the elbow in your hand. It’s a tight fit – I’d bloody struggle with it. But you … your hands are small enough to manage it. And when Dottie pushes I’ll apply a little bit of downward pressure and you try and ease the elbow over the bone. Once it’s clear we should be fine. Think you can manage?”

Parker looked at the seemingly lifeless foal and nodded.

“I can do this.”

And taking a deep breath, she funneled the fingers of her left hand and so, so gently, eased the tips along the foal’s trapped leg. She was suddenly enveloped in wet rubbery warmth, snug and alive, and she felt along the leg and leaned her body on Dottie’s massive quarters to balance herself. The mare groaned, but didn’t move, as though knowing they were trying to help.

“Right … move your hand around the elbow … can you feel it?” Charlie instructed.

Parker nodded, gulping.

“Y … yeah … it’s … kinda icky …” she laughed shakily. She spread her fingers and was instantly cupping the foal’s bony elbow in her hand, and then the squeeze began. Contractions rippled over her hand, and Dottie grunted and gave a mighty heave.

“Ow!” Parker yelped, but hung on as the foal began to slide forward, and her hand was being pushed too, and there … there it was, the pressure of Dottie’s pelvic bone against the back of her wrist and she gritted her teeth and allowed her hand to be the cushion that teased the little elbow up and over the obstruction.

“That’s great, Parker … keep going … let Dottie do all of the work, alright? I’m just going to ease the leg forward a bit and once it’s free we can let Dottie do the rest,” Charlie muttered, concentrating on making sure neither Dottie nor the foal were damaged in the process.

And then … and then the leg was sliding forward, Charlie guiding it into its proper place and Parker’s hand came with it, gooey and slippery with fluid and Parker let out a soft shriek of triumph as she felt the foal twitch.

“Okay … we can leave her to it now,” Charlie said, and both of them slumped back against the box wall, sitting in the deep bed of straw and watching as the foal slid further out of the mare, shoulders and body and then the hind quarters, and Parker saw the front legs flop loosely and the head fling out, breaking the membrane.

A gush of amniotic fluid soaked the straw, and the foal, wet and sleek, lay under its mother’s tail, back legs still within her warm body.

Parker was completely enthralled, and then it became even more amazing as the little animal suddenly snorted and took a breath. It was as though somebody had pressed its activation switch. From a limp, floppy bundle of wet hide and spindly legs, it suddenly became a living thing, and filmy eyes blinked open and the head lifted from the straw, snotting fluid from its nose and flailing long legs in the air.

Parker, wet and sticky with amniotic fluid and smeared with blood and foal-ick, laughed with pure joy.

She could hear the soft shrieks of delight behind her from Lizzie, and Hardison’s voice rumbled with astonishment. Charlie grinned at her.

“There you go,” he said. “One foal, alive and kicking. Good job!” he chuckled.

Dottie felt the movements of the foal, and exhausted as she was, she rolled up onto her chest and bent her neck around to see her new foal. She let out a low, huffing nicker and the foal squeaked a small neigh at its dam. Dottie was instantly besotted.

The big mare heaved herself to her feet, breaking the umbilical cord and still dangling the membrane, and turned around to investigate the new arrival, licking and mumbling at the shaky foal as it lay sprawled in the straw.

Charlie eased around her for a moment and lifted the foal’s tail.

“It’s a colt,” he said.

“That’s a boy horse!!” Lizzie told Hardison, and she hugged the hacker’s arm in sheer excitement.

“Kip, can you hand me a towel?” Charlie asked, and Kip lifted one of the clean old towels folded beside the bucket of water. Kip threw the towel to his father, and Charlie began to rub the foal dry, helping Dottie as she cleaned up her new child.

Long ears flicked forward and the foal shook his head, front legs outstretched. He was dark, probably bay, Charlie thought, with a long, slender stripe down his face which tumbled sideways over his muzzle and one nostril. But what Parker found enchanting were the distinct dark grey circles around each eye.

“He’s wearing spectacles!” she said, laughing.

Charlie nodded.

“Yeah … that means he’s bay now, but when he loses his foal fluff he’s going to be grey like his mum,” he explained.

“He’s amazing!!” Lizzie said, grinning madly. She had never seen anything so magical. Kip nudged her, and she hugged her friend as the little boy gave her a brilliant smile.

“You got a name for him yet, Lizzie?” Kip asked.

Lizzie’s face fell. She had been so wrapped up in caring for Eliot, she had forgotten she had the responsibility of giving the new arrival a name. Eliot was going to help her, but he was so ill she hadn’t been able to think of anything else.

Parker gingerly eased herself to her feet and crept out of the box, not wanting to startle Dottie as she got to know the colt. She would come back later to see him, she thought, when he was dry and a bit less sticky.

She stood beside Lizzie and the two of them watched as the little colt began to try to get to his feet.

“Y’know what?” Parker said. “He reminds me of Eliot … like … when he wears his glasses,” she added, eyes narrowed in a soft laugh.

Lizzie looked up at her friend. She had an idea. She pulled Parker down by tugging on her jacket and whispered in her ear. Parker listened to Lizzie’s plan and her smile widened into a knowing grin. Eliot would hate it.

“Works for me!” she said, and patted Lizzie’s head, leaving goopy smears on the little girl’s beanie.

“So … what’s his name?” Hardison asked as he continued taking pictures with his cell ‘phone for Nate and Sophie to see.

“His name’s Sparky,” Lizzie said. “I want to call him Sparky.”

Hardison’s brown eyes twinkled with merriment.

“Man,” he said, “Eliot’s goin’ to be so pissed!

And Hardison knew he couldn’t wait to tell him.


For the next couple of hours they all sat and watched as Sparky came to grips with first his legs and then with the problem of getting his first drink.

Parker sat beside Hardison and chattered away, completely absorbed with the new arrival. She saw him flop about as he tried to get his pesky legs under control, and worried when he kept falling over in a tangle of knobbly-kneed limbs, and asked Charlie if he needed help because obviously the little fellow had no sense of balance.

Charlie just grinned and passed around mugs of sweet, milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies. He suddenly realised with a pang that the pain of Alice’s loss eased a little as he sat with people he had only known a few days and now felt like family.

“Nah … he’ll be fine. The more he struggles the stronger he gets. Now we have to make sure he has a drink and gets his guts working.”

“We have to check he poops,” Lizzie explained to Hardison, who grimaced.

“You know weird stuff, Lizzie, sweetheart. Hangin’ out with Eliot … it’s melting your itty-bitty brain, girl!”

“She’s right,” Charlie continued. “And as for Dottie … once she’s shifted the afterbirth she should be fine, but I always worry until that happens. It’s a bit of a bastard to get rid of it if she doesn’t do it herself. But when Sparky has a drink, that should get things going – the sucking helps her insides to contract and that should bring away the afterbirth.”

Hardison decided this was too much information, and it got even worse when Lizzie piped up.

“His poop’s black to begin with, and then it turns yellow, like mustard, from the milk!” she explained eagerly. “Eliot says it’s really, really sticky, like glue!”

“Yeah,” Hardison grumbled under his breath, “an’ of course he knows stuff like that, which is downright disgustin’.” He glanced down at Lizzie, her face aglow with pleasure and unable to tear her eyes away from Sparky as he finally gained a modicum of control over his recalcitrant legs and stood, swaying alarmingly, in front of his proud mother. The little colt chuckled to himself, his eyes bright with health and his bottle-brush tail flicking.

“Why can’t you be normal, like other little girls, an’ play with dolls and do dressin’ up?” Hardison complained.

Lizzie’s face screwed up with disgust.

“Dolls … yuck! OOH, look! He’s found the milk bar!” she clutched Hardison’s arm as Sparky managed to wander along his mother’s side, nosing for her udder.

Parker poked Hardison in the neck with a sticky finger.

“Stop with the girly thing,” she warned. “I like playing with locks and stuff, and dolls are just … just … creepy.” She shuddered. “They’ve got that … that eye thing going on, and they stare at you as though you’re dead and … and … blech!

“Huh,” Hardison grumbled to himself. “Weird women. I’m surrounded by weird, weird women … and … and I-I love you for it … all that weirdness an’ stuff … ”he waved his hands about, “… awesome much …” he added hastily as Parker sent a death-ray of a glare in his direction.

But finally Dottie fed her son and the afterbirth splattered on the straw in a gooey mess. Hardison blenched as Charlie spread it out, showing Kip and Lizzie how he was looking for missing bits. If Dottie had any left inside her, he explained, it could make her sick.

Parker was fascinated by the whole thing.

By the time Charlie decided Dottie and Sparky could be left alone to get to know one another, it was dull, wet daylight outside. The sound of heavy rain on the corrugated metal roof became louder, and thunder cracked in the distance. A flash lit up the inside of the barn moments later as lightning seared through the roiling black clouds above. It was not a day to be outside.

Pulling on hats and coats and wandering out into the rain, the little group trudged through ever-increasing puddles towards the homestead, knowing Effie would be in the throes of putting a copious amount of food on the table for breakfast. She had hungry people to feed, and Charlie knew she would be all ears as Lizzie and Kip told her about the foal, even though the little cook wasn’t too fond of horses.

Even as they hurried through the sheets of rain, Lizzie and Kip kept up a torrent of chatter, still on a high after the excitement of the birth, Hardison and Parker on each side of the children and unconsciously making sure they were protected. Charlie walked ahead of the small group. He strode on, down the slight incline from the barn and cattle yards, checking the lie of this place he called home which he had known all of his life. He checked every nook and cranny … every shadowed place and hidden space … every tree and bush, and even the skyline lurking through the rain.

He reached the corner of the kitchen extension, seeing the lights were on, but oddly there was no sound of clattering pots and pans … no soft curses as Effie went about the work she loved so that she could feed the people she adored.

Charlie frowned. Something wasn’t right. He slowed his pace and tucked himself into the shadow of the house, and creeping along the struts that supported the building, he carefully peered around the edge of the veranda and looked at the yard.

“Oh … bugger!” he said under his breath, brown eyes wide with shock.

There, sitting astride a sturdy roan gelding and gazing steadily at the veranda and the house entrance, was Khenbish Hadan.

She was a small, slight figure, and she wore no hat or waterproofs. The rain streamed down her boyish face and over her shaven head, but it was as if the storm above did not exist. She had positioned herself in plain sight, relaxed, ready … and the deadliness of her chilled Charlie’s heart.

It was obvious she was waiting for something … or someone.

Charlie darted back into the shadows, turned and silently hurried back to the others.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text

Khenbish Hadan relished the rain and the thunderstorm crashing above her. It made her blood run hot and her skin tingle with anticipation.

It reminded her of her childhood, in the gers of her family out on the steppes. She recalled watching storms roll across the landscape and the herds of small, tough horses drifting across the endless vistas. Although she was the nameless one, the one nobody wanted, she had still been able to ride before she could walk. She was never more at ease than when she was on a horse.

She had watched these people as the light came, and seen the two from the tent make their way across the yard, splashing through water under a vast umbrella. Hah, she thought. Weak. What harm could rain do to them? She sneered her disdain, and then touched the gelding into an easy walk down the dirt road to the house, even as the man and woman disappeared inside and shut the door behind them.

“On, Batu,” she murmured softly. “Let us see what these people are made of.” Batu flicked his ears back and listened.

She had called him Batu … the ‘loyal one’ … after she had slit the throat of the man she had taken him from, the man in the far south of Australia who had beaten the horse to within an inch of the animal’s life. People were nothing to Khenbish Hadan … but a good horse was life itself.

She rode easily through the downpour, and she saw lights on in the house. He was in there, she knew. The man she wanted … the man she would kill. Bringing Batu to a halt in front of the house, only ten yards or so from the veranda, she settled into the unfamiliar stock saddle and patted Batu’s rain-drenched neck. The gelding, obedient and stolid, immediately relaxed and stood hip-shot, resting a back hoof and ignoring the rain and the lightning as it crackled and flickered above them.

She was noticed less than a minute later.


“The weather … I have never seen anything like this!” Nate said loudly over a thunder-rumble as he burst in through the front door, guiding Sophie in past him and shaking rain off the umbrella, leaving it upside down on the veranda to drain and dry a little.

“You’ve obviously never been to Scotland in the spring,” Sophie muttered as she took off her scarf.

Effie emerged from Eliot’s room and yawned. She had sat with the Oklahoman for a couple of hours and it was ‘way past her time to begin breakfast, so she was running late.

“Mister M and the Missus are in the living room,” she sighed. “This weather’ll put a block on anything those bastards over at Albany can do, I betcha, so it’s going to be a day for plotting rather than doing,” she added. “Oh … by the way … the nipper’s over in the barn with your two young ‘uns. Bloody horse decided to foal, so they took her over a couple of hours ago, so no worries, alright? Charlie’s there along with the boy.”

Nate raised his eyebrows. Was there no end to the surprises Wapanjara could spring on them?

“Well, I have no doubt we’ll hear all about it when they come back,” Sophie sighed. “You do realise that it’s going to be difficult to leave here now?” she added. “Lizzie just loves this place.”

Effie snorted good-humouredly.

“So she bloody should. Half of it’ll be hers one day.” She rolled her shoulders and yawned again. “Righto – breakfast. We maybe under siege here, but there’s always time for breakfast.”

Sophie grinned.

“Want a hand? You must be worn out. I’m no cook but I can help –“

“Go sit down, Duchess,” Effie grumped, amused. “I’ll have coffee sorted in a jiffy and I’ll get something started for the tiddlers when they come in – they’ll be hungrier than a wombat on a diet.” She wandered through to the kitchen, still talking. “Those kids’ll eat us out of hearth and home, so they – bloody hell!!!

Sophie and Nate hurried through to the kitchen to see Effie staring out of the window at the water-drenched yard. Following her gaze, Nate paled.

Khenbish Hadan sat quietly on her horse, gazing at them through the rain-spattered glass.

Oh shit!!” Nate swore, and almost ran through to the living room. “Soapy – are you armed?”

Soapy, who was sitting in his old armchair gazing into a lingering fire in the hearth, frowned and stood up, his hand straying to the old Webley in its army holster buckled around his lean hips.

“What? What is it?” Jo said from her seat by the living room table, dropping her crossword and pen on the polished wooden surface. Her green eyes were instantly full of alarm.

“Hadan. Hadan’s outside in the yard.” Nate growled, and turning on his heel, headed for the front door, Soapy close behind him. They both peered through the small glass inserts beside the door. The woman and her big horse hadn’t moved.

“What’s the bitch doing?” Effie hissed as she emerged from the kitchen with Sophie. Effie was holding one of her iron skillets, and she hefted it with every intention of using it if Hadan came anywhere near her people.

“Just sitting there,” Soapy murmured, and he checked the load in his old Webley. The revolver was nearly ninety years old, but Soapy kept it in good condition and the .38 cartridge easily had the power to knock Hadan off the horse at this close range, especially if Soapy aimed for her torso. It would be the safest kill shot, he knew, and the calibre was enough to blow her heart apart.

Nate cocked an eyebrow at the pastoralist.

“Want to go find out what she wants?” he asked quietly.

Soapy shrugged.

“Why not? She’s just sitting there cluttering up the yard and looking wet. If she wanted to take us out she wouldn’t just be parked out there, now would she?”

“Soapy love –“ Jo stood in the living room doorway, fear now vibrating through her. “Don’t you bloody dare do anything daft, you old fool!”

Soapy, black eyes bright with anticipation, grinned at his wife of over forty years.

“Now, now, old girl … I won’t take any pointless risks, I promise. I think … I think she’s just here to talk.”

“We did say that Albany would probably make an offer rather than come in, guns blazing. Let’s just find out what she has to say,” Sophie added. “Lady Eloise Stanton will be available if required,” she smiled evenly.

“Is Eliot okay?” Nate asked before he headed out of the door. “Maybe someone should keep an eye –“

“The young shite’s sound asleep,” Effie grumbled. “Don’t worry – he’ll do for now.”

Looking around at these people he loved, Nate opened the door and stepped warily out onto the veranda as the lightning ripped through the sky and the thunder sounded as though the very fabric of the world was being torn apart around them.


Eliot had awoken with a start.

He had slept most of a day and a night, and while he was still in pain and the remnant of the fever lingered, he felt better. His headache had lessened and his sight was clearer, and he shifted, managing to sit upright in his bed.

He was alone.

“Huh,” he said, surprised. No Lizzie and no watchdog growling at him to shut up and go back to sleep.

The deep rumble of thunder and the battering rain against the window told him what had woken him from a dreamless sleep. But it didn’t explain why the chair beside the bed was vacant and Lizzie’s cushions and comforter lay empty on the bed cover, along with her book and pencil.

He heard voices … voices redolent with anger and concern.

Eliot frowned, wincing as the cut above his ear burned. There was something wrong. Very, very wrong.

This time when he tried to get out of bed, he managed to get himself upright, and then he gritted his teeth and hanging onto the headboard, levered his aching body onto shaky, weak legs. The dizziness hit him like a freight train and he almost had to sit down again, but he hugged his wounded side and waited for the world to straighten itself out. So far, so good, he thought.

Inhaling a few deep breaths, Eliot took a chance and let go of the headboard. Surprisingly, he didn’t fall over, and within moments he was able to move over to the open door, using the wall as a prop. His bare feet made no sound, and he flattened himself against the wall and listened.


Soapy stood like a rock, the old Webley aimed and ready, his right hand cupped by his left and the revolver held close to his chest. The pastoralist had lost any hint of amiability. Right now he was a soldier, an elite sniper of the SASR, with fifty-two kills to his name. And he had Khenbish Hadan firmly in his sights.

Nate eyed the old soldier and for some reason had the same vibe from Soapy that he always had from Eliot … that aura of deadliness which brooked no opposition.

Hadan gazed almost benignly at Nate and Soapy. She didn’t look particularly threatening on the face of it, Nate thought. She was tiny … no more than four feet ten or eleven, and slightly built, almost boyish, androgynous and angular. Her eyes had the tell-tale epicanthic fold of her people, but her skin was wind-blown and tanned with exposure to the elements, and the only thing that made her stand out was her eyes. They were a curious olive green, and even from yards away, Nate caught the glint of gold flecks in her gaze. Her shapeless, soaking clothes were old and well-worn, and she wore what appeared to be dull green hessian boots. Her skull shone wetly, glistening in the torrential rain as water ran down her shaven head with its stubble of black hair.

Nate took a deep breath and spoke, loudly and clearly over the groaning thunder above.

“What do you want?” he said, standing straight and defiant in the shelter of the veranda.

Hadan smiled, showing even, white teeth. Her eyes glittered, amused.

“Don’t you know?” she replied. Her voice, unlike the rest of her, was soft and gentle, with only the tiniest hint of an accent.

Nate’s smile had a chill to it.

“Humour me,” he said.

Hadan cocked her head to one side and studied Nate and Soapy for a moment.

“I’m here to kill Eliot Spencer,” she replied, and her eyes grew cold as she said it.


Eliot had heard enough.

It took him two tries to lift his jacket off the door hook and then it was a bit of a struggle to put it on over his bare torso, but he managed it. Zipping it up to hide the damage to his body, he then put on his stetson, careful of his head injury. He studied his boots for a second or two where they sat under the washstand, but realised that he had absolutely no chance of putting them on without ending up in a heap on the floor, so he decided he could do this barefoot. He had no choice.

He worked his way over to the window and opened it wide, and grimaced at the weather. He was going to get soaked. But if it meant deflecting Hadan’s attention from his family, then he could bear it.

He was about to hoist himself over the windowsill and do his best to drop to the ground without passing out, when he had a thought. He moved stiffly over to his katana and lifted it off the ironwood stand.

Now he felt a little better. The old katana felt solid and reassuring in his left hand, held just under the neck of the koshirae, his fingers sensing the ancient inscription carved into the surface. Holding the sheathed katana with the cutting edge facing upwards and ready for use, he struggled but succeeded in working his way out of the window, and then dropped silently to the ground seven feet below.

The impact almost made him pass out with the pain of it. Leaning against the house supports to catch his breath and to fight back the agony and black spots encroaching his consciousness, he waited for a moment, his bare feet chilled instantly by the water-drenched earth.

Taking a couple of deep breaths, Eliot levered himself away from the house and stumbled towards Gertie’s paddock shelter.


“Wh-what?? Hadan?? You’re kidding, right?” Hardison stood in the pelting rain and stared, unbelieving, at Charlie. “Right??

Charlie had stopped the little group in its tracks and pushed them back against the kitchen extension, well out of Khenbish Hadan’s eyeline, and the two children huddled together between Hardison and Parker, trying to shield each other from the rain. Both of them looked frightened out of their wits.

“No way, mate – that … that woman’s just sitting there like a bloody statue in the rain, just staring at the house!”

Parker instantly took in her immediate surroundings. They couldn’t get into the house via the veranda and front door, but there was the exterior door to the kitchen.

“We have to get the kids inside,” she hissed, “out of this rain. We either get into the house or head back to the barn.”

Hardison shook his head, sending water droplets through the air from his soaked hood.

“No – we don’t split up. There’s no sign of anyone else, right?” He raised a sodden eyebrow at Charlie.

“Not a soul. Just her, sitting there.” Charlie replied.

“So it’s into the kitchen, then,” Parker said.

“The door’ll be locked,” Charlie fumed. “Effie’s manic about keeping the house safe until she’s begun breakfast, and by the look of it she hasn’t started yet,” and in his heart he wondered why.

“Pfff!” Parker snorted. “Give me fifteen seconds.”

And before anyone could answer she was delving in a pocket and quietly making her way up the wooden back steps to the little deck in front of the kitchen door. Effie’s old wooden chair sat there, her favourite place to be on a sunny day while dinner was cooking and a hot cup of tea was freshly poured. Parker slipped the lock-pick into her fingers and began.

It took the little thief precisely six seconds to unlock the door.

Grinning, she turned and waved the little group up the steps, holding a finger to her lips to make sure the children were as quiet as possible.

“Where the hell’s Gertie?” Hardison hissed, annoyed. “I thought she’d be givin’ that bi … that woman … a good telling off!!” he continued lamely, mindful of little ears, although with Effie about he suddenly thought such concerns were far too late.

“In her humpy, probably,” Charlie whispered as he herded Lizzie and Kip into the cavernous kitchen.

“A humpy?? What’s a –“

“Have you ever seen a wet camel? It’s not a pretty sight,” Charlie answered, silently shutting the door behind them. “Gertie hates rain and she’s frightened of thunder, so Eliot built her a humpy … a shelter … in her paddock. She’ll probably be in there, complaining to herself and Buster, silly old bint,” he added.

“Damn!” Hardison swore, quietly working his way through the kitchen to the doorway to the small hall. He listened carefully, and he could hear voices coming from the veranda. Angry voices … voices with worry running rife though them. He chastised himself – he had no idea what was going on, and Hardison hated being in such a position. And Eliot … dear Lord, Eliot was vulnerable and hurt, and -

“We gotta put the kids someplace,” he said urgently, his voice low. “Eliot’s room. We’ll put ‘em with Eliot, then we can find out what she wants.”

“Eliot! Is he okay? Is that woman going to hurt him??” Lizzie asked, a tremor in her voice. She started forward but Parker put a hand on her shoulder and shushed the little girl.

“You have to be quiet,” she said, “and we’ll check on Eliot right now, okay? But you have to be quiet!

Lizzie, eyes wide and frightened, nodded, and she crowded next to Kip, who in turn clutched his father’s arm.

“C’mon now, nippers,” Charlie cajoled softly, ruffling Kip’s hair, “it’ll be perfectly alright as long as you two do as we say. Let’s go see Eliot,” he said, and smiled reassuringly at his son and Lizzie.

They worked their way along the short corridor to Eliot’s room, and as expected, the door was ajar.

The trouble was, Eliot was gone.

 


“The stupid, stupid sonofabitch!!” Hardison cursed.

“Where’s Eliot?” Lizzie began to wail. “I shouldn’t have left him, Alec! I should have been here –“

“SHHH!” Parker insisted, and, crouching down, pulled Lizzie to her in a hug. “Don’t worry now … you know Eliot … he’s tough. Tougher than anything,” she added, eyes narrowing in a feral smile. “And besides … he’s armed,” she added.

“What?” Charlie said, confused.

“His sword’s gone,” Parker said, unwrapping Lizzie from her hug and turning the little girl around so she could see the empty place on the ironwood stand that had once held Eliot’s katana. Lizzie looked at the hooks by the door and saw Eliot’s stetson was missing. Her best friend was wounded but upright. She huffed, gulping back tears.

“He went out of the window,” Charlie said, peering out past the curtains at the blustery sheeting rain outside. “Holy dooley, he’s one silly bludger,” he added under his breath. It was a nearly seven-foot drop to the ground straight into Gertie’s paddock. How he had survived the drop and stayed conscious Charlie had no idea.

A crack of thunder drowned his words and was immediately followed by the arcing fingers of lightning stitching across the roiling clouds overhead. Pulling his head back inside before he became soaked, Charlie tugged the window shut but didn’t latch it, just in case a quick escape was needed.

“What’s going on?” he asked as Hardison crept back out to the corridor.

“Nate’s talking … I can’t hear what he’s saying though. You guys stay here with the kids – I’ll go find out what’s happenin’,” he muttered, and before Charlie could answer Hardison was gone.

“Where’s Eliot, Parker?” Lizzie whimpered, and sat down on the empty bed. “He’s sick and he’s hurt and he should be in bed! Not out in the rain where that … that woman is!! What’s he going to do?? What if she –“

Lizzie!” Parker was being firm now, because it was obvious Lizzie was becoming distraught. “You have to have to keep it together now, because if your mom and dad have to worry about you getting upset or if Eliot thinks you’re in danger, you could put them in danger, okay? So trust them – they know what they’re doing, so you have to stay here with Kip and be as still and as quiet as a mouse! No-one is coming into the house – you’re safe. So just hang tight and we’ll wait to see what happens.”

And Parker held both children close to her, and hoped to God she was telling them the truth.


Nate was a little confused, a feeling he detested. Nate Ford was a man who organised, manipulated and controlled, and he had expected a formal visit by either Rickenbacker – or better still, the people behind the whole mining project, so he could have a look at them and see what information he could glean.

But, he knew now, something else was going on.

“I can drop her from here,” Soapy said sotto voce, “quick and clean.”

“I don’t think she’s armed, Soapy,” Nate replied. “She has nowhere to hide a weapon. She looks like a half-drowned rat.”

“Don’t care,” the old pastoralist muttered. “She’s openly threatened a member of this family, and I’ve killed for less,” he added, his face like stone.

Nate held up a placating hand, but his eyes sparked with understanding.

“Hang on a minute, Soapy … let’s see what she has to say. We might if we’re lucky learn a thing or two,” he cautioned, and Soapy scowled.

“Fine,” he growled, “but I keep the gun on her. If she makes any kind of threatening move, I’ll bloody well blow the heart out of her.”

“Fair enough,” Nate agreed, and thought about Lizzie and Kip, and his gut churned at the very idea of this woman being anywhere near the children. But, he decided reluctantly, now was the time to return to business.

“Care to explain what Eliot did to put your nose out of joint?” Nate called out to Hadan, although he had to admit to himself that it didn’t take much for Eliot to piss people off.

Hadan allowed a small frown to creep onto her face, even as the rain streamed down and dripped off her chin in a steady, endless flow.

“His name was Rafe Eades,” she said finally, and it was then Nate knew why Khenbish Hadan was here to kill the hitter.

“Means nothing to me,” Nate shrugged. “And to be honest, I don’t really care.”

Hadan touched the gelding’s sides with her heels and moved forward a step or two, which made Soapy’s finger tighten on the Webley’s trigger.

But she halted and studied Nate, seeing the chill in his blue gaze.

“He was my lover,” she said starkly. “For seventeen years we worked together and slept together. He was …” she hesitated for a moment before continuing, “ … my partner. Nearly five days ago, Spencer broke his neck.”

Nate shrugged.

“So? Both of you had been hired to take care of Eliot and Charlie Jakkamara. This Eades was stationed at the bore specifically to kill either or both of them. But the tables were turned and he paid the price.” He grinned mirthlessly. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, Ms Hadan.” The name was almost an epithet. “As far as I’m concerned it means there’s one less murdering bastard in the world.” Nate leaned back against the door jamb and relaxed, crossing his arms.

Khenbish Hadan smiled. The lines around her eyes crinkled, and but the implied humour didn’t reach her odd green eyes.

“My employers wish to speak to you,” she said, now businesslike and clipped in her speech. “They will visit you tomorrow. But after that, I will return and Spencer will be here. If he isn’t … I will kill your woman, and then I will kill the old ones. And then the girl with the quick hands and the sharp eyes … yes, I will kill her slowly … with a knife. The men will be next. And then I will kill the children. I will kill them in front of you and Spencer, and I will skin them while their hearts still beat.”

Nate heard Soapy growl with fury, but he forced himself to stay still and relaxed, and put his hand on Soapy’s shoulder, staying any reaction the pastoralist had.

“I swear to God –“ Soapy fumed, and Nate could feel the tension thrumming through the man. Soapy was on the edge, and Nate knew he soon wouldn’t be able to stop him from ending Khenbish Hadan right here and now.

“You won’t touch a hair on anyone’s head, Khenbish,” came a voice through the drenching rain and pitched to be heard over the storm howling around them.

Both Nate and Hadan turned to see Eliot standing twenty yards away at the edge of the yard, Gertie beside him. He held tightly to her bosal with his right hand, but in his left was his Hanzō sword, still sheathed, but Nate saw the hitter’s thumb rest against the old sword’s tsuba, ready to free it from the koshirae.

Now Hadan’s smile was genuine, and she studied both man and camel.

“It’s an honour,” she said. “I have heard much about you. Your death at my hands will be both satisfying and fitting. Although,” she added with a little surprise, “I had heard you were dead.”

Eliot gave a feral grin from beneath his stetson as the rain pooled around the brim and trickled onto his jacket. He was freezing cold, soaked to the skin and he could barely stand, but he was damned if he was going to show it.

“Yeah … well … you were misinformed,” he countered. “I heard the same about you. Shame it ain’t true.”

“Ah,” Hadan agreed soberly, “yes. These things are sent to try us, are they not?”

But Eliot didn’t answer as he slowly made his way towards her, and she could see the white knuckles of his right hand as he hung on to the big camel, who sensed his loathing of the slight woman on the big horse. There was nothing Gertie wanted more than to charge at the hated human, but she knew Eliot needed her … he was bleeding, she could tell … and the coppery scent made her nervous, especially since she was out in this hated, terrifying rain and thunder. But she remained steady and true, and Eliot was thankful for her good sense. Without Gertie, he would be a useless heap on the water-soaked ground.

When Eliot was just a few yards away from Hadan, he brought Gertie to a halt and managed, teeth gritted and trying to stop himself shaking, to let go of Gertie’s bosal and stand on his own two bare feet, balanced and ready.

Gertie bared her teeth and growled, chomping angrily, and the big roan gelding fidgeted nervously. He had never seen a camel before, and Hadan dropped a hand to his neck, soothing him.

She looked at the katana and raised an eyebrow in appreciation.

“I see you have brought the Sword of the Okuri-Inu*. I have heard it is exceptional … a legend, and it is certainly most magnificent. When I kill you, I will honour you by taking it as my own,” she said graciously.

Eliot shrugged, trying not to let her see how much it hurt him.

“Yeah, well … you gotta come get it first,” Eliot grunted, and Hadan heard the snick of the blade leaving the koshirae as his thumb pushed against the tsuba, loosening the weapon ready for it to be drawn in battle.

Hadan raised her other eyebrow as the world flickered with electricity, lightning making the dull day dance with energy. The thunder sounded as though it would bring the house down.

She studied this man whose reputation was as fearsome as her own, and Hadan was known throughout the underbelly of society – as well as many governments – as one of the world’s deadliest assassins.

He looked pale, and she suddenly noticed a watery red stain spreading on the hip of the thin sweat-bottoms he wore. It was only then that she saw his feet were bare. Eliot Spencer, the world’s best retrieval expert, was hurt and bleeding. Eades … her Rafe … had left his mark.

“No!!! No, you don’t touch him!!” A male voice rang out, desperate and angry.

Aw hell!! Eliot groaned internally even as pain almost took his breath away.

Hardison!” he growled, frustrated. “Just shut up, will ya!!”

Hadan’s gaze turned to the veranda in time to see a tall young black man burst through the doorway and down the veranda steps, stumbling to a halt at the bottom. His dark eyes were alive with fear, but they also held something else. Anger, she thought. Anger and determination.

“He didn’t touch that shitty, murderin’, horse-killin’ bastard!” Hardison said as he stood straight and tall, fury evident in every inch of him. “It was me!” he shouted, defiance in each word. “I killed him, not Eliot. An’ I would do it again in a moment!”

Eliot leaned wearily against Gertie, who honked at him, worried. He sighed, irritated beyond belief.

God-DAMMIT, Hardison!!” he said.

 

To be continued …

 


Author’s notes:

* Okuri-Inu – the ‘escort’ or ‘guardian’ wolf of Japanese legend, which would make sure travellers found their way home if they showed no fear.

Chapter Text


“You?” Hadan appeared puzzled as she studied Hardison, now standing awkwardly at the base of the veranda steps, rain streaming down his face and soaking him to the skin almost instantly. “You killed Rafe?? A … a soft creature like you killed one of the best snipers in the world? How??”

She glanced at Eliot, who was struggling now to keep upright. But the hitter had a smirk on his face.

“He may not look dangerous,” Eliot grated, “but he stopped me from gettin’ my head blown off by your asshole of a boyfriend. He did the job an’ he did it quickly … even if he is a geeky idiot,” he added under his breath.

Hardison raised an eyebrow at Eliot’s words. He honestly didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted, but he realised that in a roundabout way Eliot was telling him that he trusted the hacker with his life, and that made Hardison stand straighter … prouder.

He grinned at Hadan, his teeth white in the gloom of the storm.

“Age of the geek, baby!” he retorted, dark eyes alive with triumph.

Hadan pondered this new piece of information for a few moments, and then she shrugged narrow shoulders.

“So … it just means he dies along with you,” she said to Eliot, whose smile widened slightly.

“Yeah? You’re a creepy little bitch, aintcha?” he answered lightly, even though he knew that he could no more take on Hadan right now than Hardison could. “I can see why your folks called you ‘nobody’, ‘cause that’s what I see sittin’ on a horse right now … nobody.”

Hadan curled her lip, unsettled more than she felt she should have been at the pointed insult. It rankled, even after all these years. Her people … her family … did not want her.

Looking at Hardison and the people ranged on the veranda behind him … the old pastoralist with the revolver … his wife, the small, slender one who had the toughness and resilience of this strange, shimmering land so unlike her own home. Then there was the dark-haired man and his equally dark-haired, beautiful woman, both of whom studied Hadan with calculating intelligence … and the old, short, fat woman with the skillet in her hand and whose muddy eyes shone with hatred at this threat to her family.

And that, Hadan thought, was the thing … family. The tall young black man was looking at her with derision. He had his family surrounding him, and Eliot Spencer, she knew, would guard them all like one of the great grey wolves that roamed the ancient steppes of Mongolia, the spirit animal of her people that was known as the Assassin, preying as it did on the flocks of sheep that were the livelihood of the tribes.

She had no family. Or rather, her family did not want her. So she had learned that she did not need a family. Family meant weakness and dependence and a cage to hold her … the wild one … the one who was known as ‘Nobody’.

Khenbish Hadan sat still and straight, her small frame at ease on the big horse, and her olive eyes turned once more to Nate.

“Chong Bun-Tsui is coming,” she said. “He will come to speak to you, old man,” she said, indicating Soapy, “and then he will speak to that woman … the one who calls herself Lady Eloise Stanton but who is no such person,” she said to Nate, but she glanced at Sophie before returning to her study of him. Her eyes wandered over him minutely, as though she was studying a laboratory rat ripe for vivisection. “I know who you are, though. I know you are Nathan Ford.”

Nate raised an eyebrow, but that was all. He still stood, relaxed, arms crossed, with a half-smile on his face.

Hadan continued.

“These are your people. When that fool Rickenbacker described you to me, I knew ‘Ellis Stone’ was Eliot Spencer. I’ve spent over twenty years doing what I do, and I hear things … see things … and the things you do, Eliot Spencer, are very distinctive.” She shrugged. “I was hired to watch you, harass you … be a thorn in your side. I don’t know what Chong wants – I learned long ago never to ask my employers questions. But whatever he does or does not do, I will return and kill your people, Nathan Ford. All of them. Because you,” she gestured with her chin at Hardison, “killed the only thing I ever loved.”

And Eliot saw her right hand drop from where it rested on her thigh to hang beside her.

DOWN, HARDISON!!” he yelled, and with every bit of his remaining strength he lunged forward, knowing he didn’t have time to draw the blade. He hooked the katana around and under Hadan’s left knee and yanked upwards, even though the movement caused him untold agony, unbalancing the assassin and levering her from the saddle. But he was a nanosecond too late.

And the world slowed to a crawl, or so it seemed.

Hadan slid sideways on Batu’s back as Eliot’s sword, still sheathed, unbalanced her. But it didn’t stop the small, wickedly sharp throwing knife sliding from her sodden sleeve into her hand, and even as she fell, she grasped the blade and threw it underhand straight at Hardison.

It was the lightning which saved Hardison’s life.

The electricity crackled through the roiling sky above, and long, blinding fingers of lightning suddenly arced above them and rippled down to crash into the stand of gum trees beyond the yard. The nearest tree, an old, battered forty-foot monster which had stood at Wapanjara for over a hundred years, exploded at the strike, sending fiery shards of ancient wood flying over the yard, and the crack of the trunk splitting was deafening.

Soapy squeezed the trigger of the old Webley and cursed, even as the recoil from the old revolver bucked into his hand.

He saw the glitter of metal in Hadan’s grip, but the brilliant flare from the lightning blinded him for a split second, and he knew in his soul that he had missed Khenbish Hadan.

Hardison heard Eliot’s desperate yell and his eyes widened and then flinched with the sudden glaring whiteness of the lightning. Without thinking he twisted sideways, recoiling from the flying splinters, and the knife intended for his heart instead slammed high into his left shoulder.

For a moment or two he felt no pain.

Huh, he thought. Is that it?

And then the sharp, agonizing impact took his breath away, and he stumbled back against the veranda steps and he couldn’t do a damn thing, and Jo was yelling and oh God, that hurt, and another gunshot echoed through his mind but it didn’t really register.

The next thing Hardison knew was that he was looking up at the black thunder clouds above and the ream of lightning spattering through the sky, his retinas aching with the brightness of it.

Alec!!

Jo was suddenly beside him, and Hardison, the rain making his eyes sting, managed to look sideways as a pair of hands caught hold of his face and turned his head so he could see a pair of green eyes and a cap of short silver-auburn curls.

“Alec! Look at me!” Jo snapped, trying to keep Hardison from seeing the stubby silver-steel hilt protruding from just beneath his collar bone.

Hardison blinked, surprised. Hell, he thought. I’m gonna friggin’ die in goddamn friggin’ Australia, an’ this is all Eliot’s fault!

“Jo?” he whispered, and his right hand came up to his shoulder and he felt slick, warm blood oozing through his fingers. “Jo … she … she stuck me with a frikkin’ knife!

Jo was busy looking for something to press against the wound to try and quell the bleeding, and a hand swam into Hardison’s vision.

“Here …” and the hand held a beautiful pashmina. “This should do it,” a voice whispered, fear rife in every word.

Sophie.

Hardison felt the pressure and the pain and Sophie’s steadying hand on his right arm. And then Jo muttered something nasty, and he passed out.


The explosion of the tree into a gout of flaming splinters broke Gertie’s resolve, and her terror finally got the best of her.

Bawling as a burning fragment hit her neck and singed her thick curls, she yanked her head up and jerked free of Eliot’s tenuous grip, sending him in an untidy sprawl into a muddy pool of water. He convulsed with the pain of the impact and was unable to control the yell of agony that ripped from his throat.

Confused and frightened, Gertie fixated on the one thing she knew she was responsible for all of this discomfort and upset. Her one eye set itself murderously on Khenbish Hadan as the tiny assassin neatly twisted in the air and landed firmly on her feet.

The tiny woman snarled in fury as she realised her knife had not killed Hardison, and she saw Eliot prone in muddy water, only semi-conscious now but with the katana still held in his left hand.

His sword. She would take the Sword of the Okuri-Inu, and with it she would take Spencer’s head and the heads of every one of these people he held dear, and her Rafe would be avenged because there would be nothing left of these people to continue their line. They would become like her … they would become nothing.

She ran forward on light feet and knelt down beside Eliot, reaching for the katana, now held only loosely in Eliot’s lax fingers.

But the hitter somehow sensed her presence, only half-conscious as he was, and managed to roll sideways with a grunt of agony. His right fist snapped out and hit Hadan in the shoulder, knocking her back onto her rump and sending an arcing splatter of muddy water over both of them.

Growling, Eliot tried to sit up, but then Gertie was upon them both.

The camel was roaring her fear and anger, and suddenly she was between Eliot and Hadan, and her long, yellow teeth were bared as her head snaked down and she chomped her powerful jaws on Hadan’s knee and lifted the woman bodily into the air.

The little assassin yelped in pain and the pressure on the joint was fearsome and agonizing. But gritting her teeth, she managed to bend at the waist, grasp Gertie’s bosal and punch the big camel over her blind eye.

More surprised than hurt, Gertie honked and dropped Hadan, who landed with a breath-halting thud on the unforgiving, sodden ground.

Scrambling backwards, she managed to get to her feet, her injured knee buckling under her as she limped again towards Eliot, face fixed in a grimace of lethal menace.

But Gertie’s protective streak kicked in and overcame her fear, and dancing clumsily on big, flat feet, she turned her back to Eliot, her huge frame steadfast in her determination to make sure he was safe. Her friend was wounded and sick, and she was not going to let this … this … creature harm a hair on his head.

But Gertie grumbled in surprise as another shot rang out and Hadan was punched sideways with the impact of a bullet on her left arm. It was only a nick, Soapy still half-blind from the lightning flash, but the nasty groove cut into her biceps stopped her deadly move forward, and it was at this moment she decided she would be best served to return later, wounded now as she was. She would treat her injuries and then … then she knew she would have to kill the camel first, because she would not be able to get close to her prey with the crazed animal on guard.

Struggling to her feet, she limped as fast as she could towards the big gelding, and reaching up to the saddle she swiftly eased into the soaked leather seat without even putting her foot in the stirrup.

Turning Batu towards the house, she reined the horse back and stared at the people now trying to take care of the young man lying unconscious in the rain.

Wincing as her injured knee throbbed, she saw the little, round woman, pure hatred engraved on her pudgy face, stump along to the veranda doors. Hadan hitched an eyebrow in surprise as she saw Effie was holding something and now it wasn’t a skillet. It was a pump-action shotgun.

“Hurt my boys, would you, you evil little shite!!” Effie spat.

And working a cartridge into the chamber, she expertly tucked the stock of the shotgun into her shoulder, took swift aim and fired.

Hadan barely managed to turn Batu towards the road beyond the yards that led up the hill to the stringybarks, before grunting as several pellets of double-ought buckshot hit the back of her shoulder, the impact slamming her forward in the saddle. She only just managed to keep her seat, but she straightened with a groan.

Got you, you bloody jumbuck!!! Effie bawled triumphantly. “Go on … get lost!! If you come back here, then by crikey I’ll knock your bleedin’ block off, you doggy loafer, see if I don’t!!”

Sending Batu in a steady, mile-eating lope along the road and upwards to the stringybarks, Hadan fumed to herself. These people, for all of their quirky oddness, were a force to be reckoned with. Her knee was on fire and she could feel blood trickling down her arm and the back of her shoulder. Without Eades to help, she was going to have a difficult task digging the pellets out.

Reining in at the top of the hill, she turned Batu around and watched as more people emerged from the house … that young aborigine whose wife Rafe had killed, and the slender young woman whose ability to climb almost anything Hadan grudgingly admired.

And there … there were the children, the young ones growing up in a family who loved them and nurtured them unconditionally, guarded fiercely by their human wolf.

She spat at the ground, angry with herself for allowing this family dynamic – so unlike her own – to get under her skin. It was one more reason to end this. Without Eades, she was empty of whatever love she had been capable, and now all that mattered was finishing this nonsense.

Running a hand down Batu’s sodden neck, she turned him into the shelter of the stringybarks and melted into the storm-drenched shadows.


“Charlie!! Charlie, I need help here!!” Jo yelled even as Sophie, ignoring the driving rain, cradled Hardison’s head in her lap. Soapy holstered the old Webley and he and Nate thumped down the veranda towards Hardison, although neither could decide who to go to first – the unconscious hacker or Eliot, now lying sprawled unmoving on his back in a morass of watery mud and being nosed by a panicked Gertie.

“Help Eliot!” Sophie snapped firmly, “Jo and I have Hardison!”

“Go get him out of this weather,” Jo added, “before the silly sod catches pneumonia!”

Charlie burst through the doorway from the house, followed by Parker and the two children, the little thief now unable to control their need to see the rest of their family once they heard Jo’s shout.

“Alec!!” Lizzie yelled, eyes round and dark as she tumbled down the steps to sprawl beside her mother. “That’s a… that’s a knife!!” she gasped, horrified, but Hardison didn’t respond. Lizzie could tell by the way his head lolled in her mother’s hands that he was unconscious, or worse still – “He’s not –“ she wailed.

“No, no, sweetie …” Jo soothed, still pressing Sophie’s pashmina, now soaked with blood, against the wound, careful of the knife still embedded in the young man’s shoulder. “He’s just unconscious. He’ll be better once we get him inside and that knife out. It looks worse than it is, I promise,” she added with a tight, grim smile at the little girl. “Now then,” she continued. “You’ve got your coat and hat on, so if I were you I’d go help your dad and Soapy with Eliot. He needs you now, love … your mum and I can deal with Alec.”

“Come with me!” Parker joined them alongside Charlie, and held out her hand to Lizzie. “Let’s go take care of Eliot. He’s already sick, remember? We don’t want him to get any worse, now do we?”

Lizzie was fraught with indecision. She gazed at her friend, the man with whom she played video games and who willingly helped her tease Eliot … the kind, gentle, funny soul who helped her with her sums and made learning a discipline for which she really didn’t have any aptitude so much fun. She loved Alec Hardison very much indeed.

“H… hey, baby-girl …”

She saw dark, hazy agony-filled eyes slowly open and gaze at her blearily.

“Alec!! Alec, don’t move and let Mama and Grandma Jo look after you! You’ll be okay, I promise!” Lizzie grasped his hand and squeezed.

Hardison, hurting and wet as a haddock, smiled.

“Go, girl … go … go take care of that dumb-ass camel-hugger. I … I’ll be fine …”

“Now you sound like Eliot!” Parker said shakily.

Lizzie leaned forward and kissed Hardison on the forehead.

“Be back in a bit,” she said. “And listen to Mama and Grandma Jo and Effie, because I’ll be angry if you don’t!!” she warned, and then she was gone, splashing across the yard to take care of Eliot, because, she knew, she was the only one who could make him do as he was told.


Lizzie was a whirlwind of cajoling, fussing, patting and scolding over the next hour. Eliot, soaked and filthy, bleeding and only vaguely aware of everything going on around him, just kept asking if Hadan was gone and if everyone was safe, even when he was repeatedly told she had been sent packing, bleeding and defeated.

Lizzie walked, fussing, alongside her father as Nate and Soapy carried Eliot into the house, Parker behind the injured man so as to hold him steady as he was carefully eased up the wooden steps, through the veranda and into the bathroom.

He was shivering uncontrollably, but it still took Parker three tries to get him to loosen his grip on the katana. When he finally did relinquish his hold, he tried to tell Parker how to place it back on the stand. Parker shoved his hand away and replied that she had to gently clean and dry the wet grip, blade and koshirae before placing it back with its companion.

Eliot, confused and freezing, then began an addled diatribe, concerned that Parker would manage to slice her fingers off in the process, dulling the blade and dripping blood all over the place.

“And you’re not dripping??” Parker answered, feeling snarky, and looked at the man sitting on the toilet seat, his clothes nothing but mud-soaked rags and his wet, bare feet raw from the gritty soil. His stetson had fallen off when he hit the ground, and his hair was ropey clay-filled strings.

Unzipping his jacket, Nate and Soapy were dismayed to see the hitter’s broad chest and ribcage soaked in watery streaks of blood from his side and shoulder, and the cut on his stomach was also bleeding slightly.

“Oh, for goodness sake!” Parker snapped. “Lizzie?? Out you go!!”

“What? Why?” Lizzie asked tartly. She didn’t take kindly to being removed from her patient’s presence.

“Because Eliot’s going into the shower!” Parker said, and began to strip off her clothes.

Soapy’s eyebrows hit his hairline.

“Um …” he stammered, taken aback.

Nate grinned over Eliot’s head as he propped the man upright on the toilet seat.

“You sure you can manage?” he asked the little thief.

“You think I can’t?” Parker grouched as she bent over to take off her boots and socks. “Soapy, can I have a stool from the kitchen?”

Soapy, red-faced at this young woman’s complete lack of concern over the possibility of her being naked in company, just nodded before escaping from the bathroom as quickly as possible, dragging a protesting Lizzie with him.

“And more towels!” she called after him.

“You need a hand to get him in there?” Nate asked, gesturing at the big walk-in shower.

“Wasshappenin’” Eliot slurred, teeth chattering.

“Eliot, Parker’s going to clean you up and get you warm, okay? C’mon … let’s get you undressed …”

“Oh no … no you don’t …” Eliot feebly struggled as Nate managed to peel the soaked jacket off him and then he tried to bat Parker’s hands away as she helped Nate stand him up to remove the sweat pants. He made a grab for his boxers, which after a brief argument, Parker allowed him to retain. Eliot hung on to them as though his life depended on them, scowling to himself.

“You’re such a prude sometimes!!” Parker scolded, even as she took off her pants, leaving her in shorts, bra and teeshirt. She then dug out some scissors from the bathroom cabinet and snipped off the plethora of bandages wound around bits of Eliot’s battered body. He certainly was a sorry sight, she decided.

A knock at the door came and Effie peered in.

“Brought you a stool, Missy. Need any help?”

“Nate’s here, but I might need a hand when we’ve got him clean and dry. His wounds are a mess. Idiot!” she snarked quietly.

Effie grinned despite her worry for the Oklahoman.

“The nipper’s going to lose her block when she sees what a mess he’s in. Poor bugger,” she said, although she didn’t have any sympathy in her voice for him, Eliot thought through the fog of cold and confusion in his head.

“M’fine …” he muttered, stubborn to the end.

“Shut up, Eliot!” Parker said testily, and then with Nate and Effie’s help managed to haul Eliot carefully into the shower and onto the sturdy stool. But despite her annoyance at Eliot putting himself in such a dangerous situation in his condition, Parker stood behind him and leaned him back against her. “I’m going to turn the water on, Eliot … alright? Tell me if it’s too hot or cold.” He heard the smile in her voice. “Don’t worry … I’ve got you.”

And before Eliot could say anything, he was enveloped in more water, but this time it was hot and the spray was soothing, and Parker was as good as her word as she began the job of gently tending his injuries and washing the mud and blood from his damaged body.


“Is … is it gonna hurt?” Hardison muttered as he lay on Effie’s kitchen table, still bleeding a little and soaked to the skin.

“What do you think, you young fool,” Jo said as she cut through Hardison’s jacket and then his sweatshirt, removing both.

“Oh …” he said. “Um … can I have a painkiller?” he asked hesitantly. “Or … or an injection … or somethin’ –“

“It would take too long,” Jo explained, and readying a pressure bandage she grasped the short, stumpy grip of the knife and pulled.

Charlie had to push down hard on the hacker’s undamaged shoulder as the young man let out a bellow of pure agony as Jo slid the knife from the wound. She immediately pressed the pad against the freely-bleeding injury, and Hardison’s body was rigid with tension as he fought to control the pain.

“There now … it’s all done, laddie …” Jo crooned, “now all we have to do is get you stitched up and then you can have some painkillers, I promise.”

“Oh Geeerrd …” Hardison moaned, “that was friggin’ awful …” he babbled. “My arm … tell me I won’t lose the use of my arm, Jo … I need my arm … I do, honestly …”

Jo laid a hand on his forehead, cool and soothing.

“You’ll be fine,” she told him gently. “It’s deep but clean, and if you take care to do some physio – which Parker can help you with – you should heal up perfectly,” she added.

“Parker???” Hardison whispered. “Oh no … no-no-no … she’s a monster, Jo … a monster I tell ya … she’s like … like the Spanish Inquisition on double shots of caffeine, only nastier … ‘way, ‘way nastier … you can’t do that to me, Jo … please, anythin’ but that –“

Jo burst out laughing, which on the face of it, Hardison thought, was a little uncalled-for.


That evening, with Eliot back in his bed and under orders not to move if he wanted to see the sun rise again and with Lizzie beside him to make sure her instructions were obeyed, everyone else relaxed in the living room with hot chocolate and lamingtons.

Well, everyone but Hardison.

Nate sighed.

“Please remind me to never ever let Hardison have Percocet again, Soph.”

The hacker was sprawled in a long, ungainly heap on the couch, arm in a sling and propped up with cushions. He had been talking non-stop for over an hour. Team Leverage was usually quite at home with Hardison’s rambling, being the chatty soul he was, but this was different. Very, very different.

Happy and smiling and feeling no pain, Hardison was cheerily telling anybody and everybody who would listen how much he loved them. And, apparently, he loved everyone a lot.

“An’ … an’ I love you, Effie … I do, ‘cause you, you’re jus’ like my Nana an’ I love Nana more than anythin’ ‘cause she, like, raised me right an’ makes the best cathead biscuits in the world an’ –“

“Cathead biscuits?” Sophie said faintly, although Kip, sitting beside Hardison on the floor looked up.

“Oooh,” he asked, black eyes wide, “they sound great!! Is your Nana coming to visit us one day? Would she make them for us?”

“Kip, my boy, my Nana would love to make ‘em for ya,” he said brightly. “An’ jerk chicken, an’ –“

“HEY! Tryin’ … tryin’ to sleep in here!” Eliot yelled weakly from his bedroom. “Somebody shut him up, will ya?” he added plaintively.

“Eliot, m’man!!” Hardison bawled back, delighted to hear his best friend was awake and with the living. “Hey El … I love ya, man!! I do!! I really, really do!!”

Jeez!! Don’t say things like that, Hardison!!” Eliot complained, horrified. “Nate!! Tell him to stop sayin’ things like that! It … it’s just weird –“

“Oh, now,” Hardison cajoled, “don’t be like that! I took a knife for you, man …”

No, you frikkin’ didn’t!!” Eliot insisted. “If you hadn’t butted in I’d have taken out Hadan in a second –“

Parker snorted from her place beside the fire, curled up in one of the huge old armchairs.

“Yeah, right. You couldn’t even stand properly!” she said loudly so Eliot could hear her.

“Parker, I love you, girl!! I know you’re weird an’ somethin’s wrong with you, but I love you, honest!!“ Hardison insisted, all google eyes and soppy grin.

Parker giggled.

“You’re funny when you’re high,” she said.

“He ain’t funny!!” Eliot retorted feebly. “He’s deranged!!

“Will you stop complaining Eliot!” Now it was Lizzie’s turn. “You’re supposed to be sleeping!!”

“’Lizbeth Grace, I’m tryin’ to sleep but Hardison –“

“That’s my baby-girl!! You tell him!” Hardison urged. “I love my Lizzie. She’s so clever … she’s like you, Nate. Have I told you I love ya, Nate? Friend o’ mine?”

Nate dropped his head in his hands. After the day they had had, this was the last thing he needed … a family argument.

And so it went on, and Jo, desperate to finish her crossword and failing, settled deeper into her chair and tried hard not to smile.

And overhead the rain drifted through the sky and drenched the landscape until it could hold no more, and the distant hills were rimmed with silver lightning and the billabongs filled with water, breaking their banks and filling the land with dark, mirrored pools.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


The rain had finally eased, and was no more than a pitter-patter on the sheets of water now lying in the yard. A fitful moon had broken through drifting clouds, and Nate Ford sat on the veranda in the early hours of the morning, gazing at the distant hills. The stringybarks, their branches outlined against the scudding clouds overhead, were gilded with moonlight.

Unable to sleep, despite Sophie’s warmth next to him on the mattress they had brought into the living room from Oggie’s tent out of the rain, Nate had eased himself out of the bed and padded silently past Hardison, snoring softly on the couch and cradling his hurt shoulder.

Kip was curled up next to Parker, snuggling into the little thief as she dozed in the roomy old armchair she had claimed as her own. Charlie had long ago headed off to check Dottie and her new foal and to make sure the rest of the mares were alright after the storm. He had Soapy’s old Webley with him, and the young aborigine was quietly stalking the homestead boundary, Gertie and Buster keeping him company now that the rain had eased.

The sudden murmur of voices had finally been the deciding factor for Nate to get out of bed.

Eliot had begun to cough, and Lizzie, sleepily alarmed, had roused Effie who in turn had fetched Jo.

Nate, wrapped warmly in his old dressing gown and glad of it, peered around Eliot’s open bedroom door and asked if there was anything he could do.

Jo, sitting on the bed beside Eliot and Lizzie, shook her head.

“Nah. The lad’s just a bit hot and this cough’s bothering him. It’s probably just a chill, so no worries for now.”

Nate thought Eliot looked a little flushed and feverish, but he was in good hands.

“You okay, sweetheart?” he asked his daughter, who was writing notes in her project book.

“Yah-huh,” she replied absently. “Eliot’s got a cough,” she added, slightly annoyed. “I told him to stay in bed!”

Nate smiled indulgently. This daughter he and Sophie had produced was going to turn into one hell of an amazing young woman.

“Maybe he’ll listen, next time, huh,” he replied softly. “Can’t sleep,” he continued. “If you need a hand with anything, I’ll be on the veranda. I need to clear my head.”

Effie glanced at him from her seat beside Eliot’s bed.

“Kettle’s just boiled if you want me to make you some tea,” she said, her voice gruff but soft.

Nate shook his head.

“You’ve done more than enough for us as it is, Effie. I’m sure I can manage to make myself something to drink, so you just relax, okay?”

Effie nodded.

“As long as you’re sure? This daft young mongrel has the nipper and the Missus, so I can –“

Nate held up a placatory hand, grinning.

“Stay put, okay? I’ll be fine.”

Eliot broke out in a fit of chesty coughs, and Effie frowned, but the coughing eased and Eliot muttered, only half-awake.

“Bloody boofhead,” she whispered gently. “Always has been … always will be,” she murmured, leaning forward to rest a hand on Eliot’s forehead, calming the man she regarded as family. “Wouldn’t have him any other way,” she added grumpily, affection in every word.

Nate ducked his head, smiling. Eliot really did have a home and family, and, Nate thought with a pang, one day Eliot would leave them and return to this place he loved.

“He’s lucky to have you,” he said.

“Yes … well …” Effie grumped, a little embarrassed, “he’s an arse sometimes, but then, who isn’t?”

Nate thought about his own mistakes, and had to agree. He was just on the point of heading to the kitchen when Effie spoke again.

“Look in the wooden bread box … the rest of the lamingtons’re in there. Help yourself.”

Nate, who had quickly developed a taste for the rich confections, grinned.

Lamingtons. Heaven.

So leaving Eliot to the tender mercies of Jo, Effie and Lizzie, Nate made himself a large mug of tea and purloined two lamingtons from Effie’s bread box. Digging out a plate from Effie’s capacious cupboards, he carefully carried his tea and lamingtons out onto the veranda. There he eased himself into Eliot’s recliner, shifting the cushion behind his head and draping the throw rug over his body.

Now warm and relaxed, Nate sipped the fragrant tea and bit into a lamington, and then began to think about Chong Bun-Tsui.

He knew who the man was, of course, even though they had never met. Or rather, he had known Chong’s father, back in the days when he worked as an insurance investigator. Chong Zhi-huán, a man of ambition, was ruthless but traditional, dragonhead of a triad gang based in the business district of Shanghai. His second son, Chong Bun-Tsui, took advantage of his excellent education, majoring in business and politics at Yale. Then he went back to Shanghai and cultivated contacts in unstable parts of the world, principally as a snakehead … a human trafficker to the west.

When Nate had met with Zhi-huán all those years ago, it was to do with the destruction of a block of offices in Shanghai, originally thought to be caused by a gas leak. Nate knew it wasn’t, but he couldn’t prove it … one of the few investigations which had eluded a satisfactory conclusion in Nate’s mostly distinguished career. The old triad dragonhead, who owned the building, was gracious, pleasant and smiling … and his dark eyes were as cold as tempered steel.

Nate took another sip of his tea. It appeared the son had branched out. Well, he thought … the younger Chong certainly had the contacts. He had just moved on from selling humans to selling uranium to the highest bidder. There would certainly be more profit in it, once the mine and processing plant was set up and running, and although the outlay was probably very high, the returns would be … breathtaking.

“Ah, lamingtons!” Sophie sighed as she exited the door and sat down beside Nate on one of the wicker chairs. She was wrapped in her warm dressing gown and Nate’s heavy jacket, and had Eliot’s sturdy boots on her bare feet. She also had a cup of hot tea in her hand.

“Sorry … didn’t mean to wake you,” Nate murmured.

Sophie smiled indulgently and gazed into the quiet solitude of the night.

“You didn’t wake me,” she said warmly. “What woke me, my darling, was our dear, sweet, gentle daughter who wouldn’t hurt a fly, reading Eliot the riot act because, apparently, he now has a chest cold and he’s currently trying to cough up a lung. Lizzie does not approve.”

Nate looked at his wife, who was ravishing even when she was wearing his jacket and Eliot’s boots. He grinned.

“Well, if Eliot can survive Lizzie and her caregiving, he truly can survive anything the world throws at him.”

“She gave Hardison a good talking-to before bedtime,” Sophie added, “and he looked completely terrified … although maybe the Percocet had something to do with it,” she continued, frowning. “Anyway … he’s been told – and I quote – to ‘stop whinging, keep the pillows under his elbow and support his shoulder, and to stop being such a daft bludger,’ whatever that means.” She sighed extravagantly. “Our daughter, Nate, is turning into some sort of mish-mash of Eliot Spencer and Effie.”

Nate winced, but he could certainly see the humour in the situation … and it was certainly character-building. He hoped.

Sophie reached over and lifted the second lamington, tucking into the sweet cake. In-between nibbles, she leaned back in her chair and listened. The distant, haunting howl of dingoes echoed through the air and then silence settled one more on Wapanjara.

“It’s so quiet here,” she whispered. “I know it’s been traumatic, and God knows we didn’t need Hardison and Eliot getting hurt, but … I see why Eliot thinks of Wapanjara as home.” She sighed again. “Nate … we need to sort this out, because this will be Lizzie’s one day … or at least half of it will. And she loves it here. I mean … really loves it, and not just because it’s Eliot’s home.”

Nate nodded and finished his tea.

“That’s why I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been thinking about Chong Bun-Tsui … about his plans and the situation he’s created. He’ll be here soon … today … maybe tomorrow, depending on the road conditions. He’ll try and buy you out, ‘Lady Eloise’ … and when you say no, he’ll try and force it. And with Eliot laid up and now Hardison’s out of commission, we’re two down to begin with and Chong won’t be alone.”

“Well …” Sophie said thoughtfully, “… instead of selling … how about a partnership? If Lady Eloise owns Wapanjara, she has something Chong wants. Maybe we can string him along a little until we find out more. I prefer more of a plan, but if we have to fly by the seat of our pants, then so be it.”

Nate thought about it for a moment.

“But the kids –“

“ - will be safe enough, Nate. You know that. Parker and Charlie have some plans – and don’t ask me what they are, because I have no idea – and you and Soapy could take Hardison in Bernadette up to that place Soapy was speaking about … y’know … where Hardison thought he might be able to tap into Albany’s web access and accounts.”

“Those bastards at Albany won’t be able to get here today,” Charlie said, emerging from the darkness. Gertie plodded along beside him and Buster trotted at the aborigine’s heels. He had Soapy’s Webley in its holster around his waist. “We’re just about surrounded by water, and will be for a couple of days. The weather’s going to be too difficult for a helicopter just yet, and besides, there’s no place to land even if we weren’t flooded out. So, unless they have a bloody big boat, Albany will just have to bide their time.”

“So, we have time to put something in place plan-wise,” Nate pondered. “Will we be able to get up to –“ he waggled his fingers in the general direction of the place Soapy had mentioned.

“Munaji Ridge,” Charlie filled in. “Yeah … no worries, especially in that thing,” he gestured at Bernadette. “There’s only the creek between here and there and luckily it never fills up too much and the bridge will hold. It floods further down. We won’t manage the road out onto the highway, but yeah … Munaji Ridge? Easy.”

“What about Hadan? She’s probably still up there somewhere, licking her wounds,” Sophie murmured, gesturing at the hill above where the stringybarks grew. Her voice was steady and calm, but Nate knew better. The Mongolian had threatened their daughter and the rest of this wayward but superbly functional family.

“I think she’ll stay away for a couple of days,” Nate said thoughtfully. “She had buckshot in her and a bullet wound, and unlike Eliot, she’s on her own. She’ll be too stiff and sore to do too much for a day or two. She also won’t be able to get back to Albany, although I have a feeling her priorities have changed. But we have Parker. She’ll keep an eye out, I’m sure.”

“And earbuds,” Sophie said firmly. “I know they won’t be brilliant out here, but Hardison thought they would work around the homestead. I want all of us to wear one – and that includes Lizzie and Kip.”

Charlie trudged wearily up the veranda steps and turned to look out at the breezy moonlit night, thinking about this place he loved and about Alice, the woman who had stolen his heart and his soul. The sudden wrenching feeling of loss that he had kept under such rigid control for weeks almost made him unable to breathe.

Nate stood up and put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder, squeezing it gently, and felt the slight tremble in the man’s wiry frame.

“I’ll get you some tea, my friend. You look as though you need it.”

Charlie ran his fingers through his thick, black curls and nodded silently. To even think of Alice was just too much right now, but he found he couldn’t stop himself.

He sat down at the table as Nate disappeared inside to make more tea, and he rubbed his eyes. He was so tired, and his heart was shattered.

Sophie studied this grief-stricken young man for long moments, and then reached out and squeezed his wrist.

“You must miss her dreadfully,” she said quietly.

“More than I can stand,” Charlie finally managed to grind out. “Now Eliot’s home, it’s been a little easier … but … it’s like someone punched a hole right through my chest,” he blurted, pain echoing in every word.

“We will find out who did this, Charlie, I promise. And if we can help in any other way … all you have to do is ask, because we’re all in this together. This place will belong to Lizzie and Kip one day, and that makes us family. You understand?”

Charlie looked up into the dark, kind eyes of this beautiful woman who had brought her family to help him find out about why his Alice had died, and finally … finally … the pain got the better of him and he gave a breathless sob.

“I miss her, Sophie … I bloody miss her and life’s just too damn’ hard, y’know? If I didn’t have Kip …” tears filled his big, expressive eyes. “He’s all I have left of her. That, and the memories. And they’re not enough. Just … not enough. I miss her laugh and I miss her bloody awful singing and … and her touch. She could make me shiver just with a look.” He grimaced. “I miss her hair spread out on my chest. It tickled, and she knew it, but she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen … me twitching like an itchy ‘roo, and I hate being tickled, but I lived with it because I loved to hear her giggle.” He gave a shaky smile through the tears. “She adored Eliot like a brother, and he’d do anything for her and the boy. Did you know Eliot was home when she had Kip?”

Sophie, knowing Charlie needed to let it all out … all of the grief and pain and heartache … shook her head.

“He was a rock,” Charlie continued. “Me? I was a bloomin’ wreck. I never knew he was such a dab hand at changing nappies. With one hand. His left hand. He’s the best uncle a little boy could have, I can tell you.”

They sat quietly for a moment, allowing Charlie to gather himself a little. Then Sophie smiled at the young, heartbroken man.

“Did Eliot ever tell you that he delivered Lizzie? In a van, of all places, and in the middle of a rainstorm.*”

“Bloody hell! No he didn’t!” Charlie exclaimed, surprised.

“You should have seen his face when he held her. It was love at first sight, although he’ll deny it to his dying day, no doubt!” Sophie’s eyes crinkled in amusement at the memory.

Charlie wiped tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand.

“My kumunjayi* *… she was besotted from the first moment she saw Kip.” Charlie patted Sophie’s hand where it lay on his wrist. “Every time I look at Kip I see her,” he said softly, his voice breaking.

A hand placed a mug of steaming tea on the table in front of him, and he looked up to see Nate, who then put down a plate with more lamingtons on it. He sat down beside Charlie and put an arm around the young aborigine’s shoulders to comfort him.

The touch of these kind people wrenched something loose in Charlie’s heart.

“She’s gone, Nate,” Charlie whispered, his voice raw with pain, “She’s gone and I love her and I’ll never see her again and I don’t know if I can live with that!”

And before Nate could say anything, Charlie crumpled, and Sophie and Nate held him tight and grieved with him on this moonlit night with silvered clouds drifting high above, and never was the loss of Alice Jakkamarra so keenly felt.


“Nope,” Eliot said weakly, wheezing and sitting up in bed with his arms crossed. His eyebrows were in ‘don’t-friggin’-mess-with-me-‘cause-I’ll-rip-your-friggin’-arms-off-an’-friggin’-feed-‘em-to-you’ mode. He coughed and the pain of his wounds made him flinch and the cough became even worse.

Yes, Eliot,” Lizzie said patiently as she sat amongst her cushions and comforter, project book open on her lap. “You have to. It’s good for you. You’re poorly.” She fixed him with steady, knowing brown eyes.

“It …” he coughed, congested, “ … it’s just a cold, ‘Lizbeth Grace –“ Eliot muttered, and noted Lizzie’s illness grading system had gone from ‘sick’ to ‘poorly.’ Hmmm. He’d gone up a level. Lizzie’s system started at ‘a bit wibbly’ and got progressively more descriptive. Eliot knew if he ever got to being ‘in a bad way’ he was probably doomed.

Lizzie arched an eyebrow that was pure Sophie Devereaux Ford.

“You have a chest ‘fection, Grandma Jo says, so take the medicine!

Eliot took a deep breath, ready and more than willing to argue until the sun set, but all it did was set off another heavy bought of coughing, and he had to unfold his arms and cover his mouth. The pain almost made him curl up into a ball.

“Effie? He’s being awkward,” Lizzie sighed, gazing at the little cook as she stood above Eliot and Lizzie, a bottle and spoon in hand.

Effie, not one to tolerate Eliot in a stubborn mood at the best of times, harrumphed.

“I’ll give him bloody awkward!” She muttered, and glared at Eliot, who pointedly ignored her. “Righto, nipper – looks like it’ll have to be Plan B.” Her muddy eyes took on a nasty gleam.

Eliot, his coughing easing a little, hesitated. He studied the bottle in Effie’s hand. He couldn’t see the name, but he could read the tagline. It wasn’t very inspiring.

‘IT TASTES AWFUL – AND IT WORKS!’ he read. Dear God, what was this stuff?***

The antibiotics were one thing, but Jo had decided in her wisdom to also dose Eliot with a good cough medicine to help with the congestion, and Eliot had a choice of this decongestant – whatever it was – and the drench they used for the cattle if they had pneumonia.

“Plan B? What’s Plan B –“ he grouched, feeling a bit out of his depth.

But before he could continue, Lizzie kneeled forward on the bed, clamped Eliot’s nose closed with little fingers and hung on like a terrier with a rat.

Eliot, surprised and not a little annoyed, opened his mouth to yell at Lizzie while inhaling much-needed air. Seizing the moment, Effie shoved the spoonful of disgusting-looking liquid into his mouth and pushed his jaw shut.

“Swallow!” she commanded.

The stuff was appalling. Heavy with camphor and menthol, the bite of pine needle oil and other powerful herbal ingredients hit Eliot’s throat and he tried hard not to gag. He took a deep breath as Lizzie, grinning triumphantly, let go of his nose and the sudden intake of air dragged the heady, powerful vapour through his nasal passages and down into his congested lungs.

He couldn’t help himself … Eliot swallowed rather than spew the stuff all over Lizzie, which she knew he wouldn’t do, and he coughed and retched and groaned at the reaction from his injuries.

“See? Not so bad, now was it?” Effie said with great satisfaction. “And anyway … the nastier it tastes, you daft bastard, the better it is for you, so live with it,” she added, screwing the top back on the bottle.

“Effie …” Eliot croaked, eyes streaming, “Don’t you ever … ever bring that crap near me again –“

“You’ll have some more before supper,” Lizzie said, writing her notes out on Eliot’s response. “It’ll help your chest.” She studied her notes once more before adding “you don’t want to get pew-monia, now do you?”

Eliot lay back on his pillows, gasping with the effort of it all, and grudgingly had to admit to himself that the vile vapours were even now beginning to ease the discomfort in his lungs.

“I swear to God –“ he began, chest heaving, but Lizzie was having none of his nonsense.

She leaned forward, kissed his nose, and smiled at him.

“See? Don’t you feel better now? You’re poorly, Eliot. And you’re hurt.” Her smile faded, and then Eliot saw the worry for him in her dark gaze, and realised he had probably frightened the wits out of her when he had lain soaked and half-conscious in the mud and pouring rain.

He twitched a small smile.

“I’m feelin’ better already, darlin’,” he said gruffly, and Lizzie brightened. She had sat with him all through the night, watching him sleep fitfully and worrying herself witless about his increasingly bad cough. But now it was breakfast time, and her Daddy and Grandpa Soapy and Alec were heading off up into the hills in Bernadette soon. So she had quite a job on her hands to keep Eliot in his bed because he would want to be up and about, protecting his family.

“That’s good, isn’t it Effie?” Lizzie said, feeling much happier. Effie grunted to herself and stretched.

“If he behaves himself, I might let him get out of bed this evening for dinner,” she said, eyeing Eliot shrewdly. “But only for an hour or so, y’hear? And if you even begin to look shitty it’s straight back to bed with you, my lad! Understand?”

Eliot, tired and sore and full of noxious medicine, nodded.

“I hear ya!” he muttered, and Lizzie squeaked with happiness.

“You up for some breakfast?” Effie demanded, bottle in hand so that she could stow it away out of Eliot’s reach.

Eliot, weary, feeling rotten and still with the taste of the Devil’s Decongestant in his mouth, shook his head. But Lizzie drew down eyebrows in a glare, and his gesture reluctantly turned into a resigned nod.

Effie smirked to herself. Having Lizzie around certainly made Eliot-wrangling a lot easier.

“Just a little orange juice and toast, Yank. How does that sound?” she said, almost-kindly.

“And now I can tell you all about Dottie’s foal!!” Lizzie crowed, bright and happy that Eliot was doing as he was told for once. “It’s a boy and he’s bay, Charlie says, but when he loses his baby fluff he’s going to be grey like Dottie, Charlie says, and he’s wearing specs like you do and Charlie says –“

And as Effie hobbled back to her kitchen, she could hear Lizzie cheerfully prattling on and on, and she knew Eliot would listen and comment and be as attentive as only Eliot, damaged as he was, could be. The little girl was good for him, Effie thought. But her smile turned into a grin as a loud, phlegm-riddled growl of angry surprise came from the bedroom.

“You called him WHAT??? DAMMIT, Parker!!

Lizzie’s delighted laugh made Effie’s heart sing with pleasure.


“Ow … ow-ow-ow- “ Alec Hardison babbled as he was helped into Bernadette’s capacious front passenger seat and gently strapped in, a cushion placed between his wounded shoulder and the safety belt. “S’okay,” he said to himself, “m’okay … I’ll be fine …”

He had slept well enough on the couch, but Hardison had awoken to find himself stiff and very sore. Bur he was determined to go up onto the ridge in Bernadette this morning, and with Soapy and Nate’s help, he was going to do his best to hack into Albany’s software. The sky had cleared and although it was breezy, he thought he might, if he was lucky, to be able to piggyback a signal through a convenient coms satellite. He had hoped not to have to do this. But things had taken a very sinister turn, and the knowledge he hoped to glean was essential to their plans.

“Are you sure about this, son?” Soapy said, worry making his forehead crease and his face look even more like a depressed bloodhound.

Hardison nodded, wincing.

“I gotta, Soapy. We have to know what those sonsabitches are up to now, an’ they know that we know what they’re up to. Their cover’s blown, and ours too, maybe. We only got a couple of days to work all this out.”

“I’ve stowed your gear, Hardison, so we’re ready to go,” Nate said, appearing at Soapy’s side.

Soapy held out his hand.

“Keys.”

Nate and Hardison looked at one another.

Soapy grinned.

“I’m driving, mate. I know the track, and I can save Alec from the worst of the bumps. It’ll only take us thirty minutes or so.”

Nate shrugged.

“Works for me,” he said.

“Good-oh!” Soapy said, a little too enthusiastically for Hardison’s taste.

“Um … she’s pretty heavy an’ –“ he began hesitantly, but Soapy held up a hand.

“I’ve driven tanks, laddie. I think this little lady’ll be a doddle!”

Hardison blinked.

“But –“

“Park your bum, Nate – it’s going to be an interesting ride!!” Soapy said, grinning manically, and he hurried around to the driver’s side, got in and inserted the key in the ignition and turned it, Bernadette’s big V8 engine purring into life. Nate got into the rear seat and fastened his safety belt.

Hardison groaned helplessly as he clung onto the safety belt with his good hand, rested his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. Damn, but this was gonna hurt.

And Soapy, grinning like a lunatic, drove Bernadette’s bulky frame out of the yard and headed along the track towards the billabong, and then he would take the rocky trail towards Munaji Ridge where they would do their best to be a few steps ahead of Chong Bun-Tsui and his plans.


Parker watched Bernadette and her cargo disappear along the track, only moving when she sensed someone beside her.

“Are you ready?” Charlie said.

Parker looked at this young man who had lost so much.

“Whenever you are,” she answered.

Charlie looked grim, she thought. His face wasn’t made for sadness. His was a face made for fun and laughter and kindness, and she felt bad for him, knowing how difficult all of this was for him and his small son.

Parker knew about loss, although she tried not to think of her brother’s death.

“We’ll stop them, Charlie,” she said softly. “I promise.”

Charlie’s smile had no pleasure in it. It was a smile borne of heartache and anger and grief.

“C’mon, Parker. Let’s go see what we can do to stop the buggers getting close to the house, hey?”

Parker’s grin was like that of a predator sighting its prey.


Jo and Sophie sat playing chess on the veranda. They hadn’t seen Charlie and Parker for a while, but they both knew that the two of them were doing their best to keep the homestead safe.

Gertie prowled the damp yard, a growly Buster in tow, and Jo had loosed the heelers in the cattle yards, the three working dogs now haunting the barn and pens. They would be an excellent warning system.

As Jo took Sophie’s rook, she rested her other hand on the rifle propped against the chair beside her.

Sophie could hear the children inside the house, chatting to a still-coughing Eliot as he lay in his bed, drowsily helping them with their projects, but she knew the hitter’s old razor-sharp Ka-Bar knife lay unsheathed under his pillow.

Effie was in the kitchen, keeping an ear open for Eliot getting too tired as she worked on lunch. She wanted to make something easy for Eliot to digest, something nourishing and tasty, so she was preparing some barramundi fillets from her capacious freezer.

But even as she worked, she would occasionally stop and listen and watch out of the window, and her hand would stray to the pump-action shotgun laid across the huge old kitchen table.

 

To be continued …


Author's notes:

* Told in ‘Military Precision’.

** ‘kumunjayi’ – a Warumungu word used as a name for those who have died, although it is thought to be originally Warlpiri and came into use in the Tennant Creek area when Warlpiri people came to live there in the 1930s. Seeing as Alice was Warlpiri, it would make sense.

*** The wonderful, evil-tasting, Buckley’s Mixture. Made in Canada, the company is no-nonsense about its product, and uses its awful taste to market the mixture, which, incidentally, is sugar and additive free and apparently extremely effective.

Chapter Text

Charlie headed off to the barn with a single-minded determination which Parker recognised as something achingly similar to Eliot’s attitude to life, when he had a job to do and his team was on the line.

The young aborigine had parked the ute beside the barn door in readiness, and Charlie, a rifle slung over his shoulder, disappeared inside before Parker could catch up with him. By the time she had reached the vehicle Charlie was loading old but still useful rolled loops of barbed wire onto the ute’s flatbed, followed by an axe, a couple of packs of dark green baling twine and fencing tools.

“What can I do?” she asked breathlessly.

Charlie gave her a grim smile before gesturing to the office.

“Have a look in the back store room through there. You’ll find a whole bunch of old dingo traps. We don’t use ‘em any more – neither Soapy nor I like ‘em – cruel buggers, they are, but we might find a use for ‘em,” he said.

“’Kay,” Parker replied, nodding. “Anything else?”

“See if you can find some high-tensile wire,” Charlie added, but Parker could see he was thinking about other items he had in mind to help protect the people he loved and the son he adored. “Oh, and there should be packs of six-inch nails in the workshop – bring as many as you can find.”

As Parker began rummaging about for the objects she wanted, Charlie went to the workbench in the barn and retrieved packs of split pins, a couple of drainage shovels and a small hacksaw, and then he found Jo’s gardening box and purloined two trowels. He pondered for a moment, and then lifted the heavy pinch-bar used to dig holes for fence posts, and added a couple of one-kilo packs of fencing staples.

Once his various acquisitions were loaded into the ute, he was sure he had almost everything he needed, but Parker appeared in the doorway hauling several loops of sturdy, high-tensile wire which Charlie added to his collection in the flatbed. Parker returned dangling half-a-dozen heavy old gin-traps in her hands.

“I checked them,” she said. “They all work and I gave the springs a squirt of oil just to make sure,” she smiled malevolently. “Oh … and I found these,” she said, and turning back into the barn, she reappeared a minute later and manhandled two big truck batteries into the ute’s flatbed accompanied by a tangle of jump-leads and several chain neck-halters for cattle.

“If we can’t cause a bit of mayhem with this lot,” Charlie said, pleased with their haul, “then my name isn’t Charlie Jakkamarra!”

Parker cackled, and her face broke into a wicked grin.

“This is going to be fun!” she said.

Both of them slid into the ute seats, and then Charlie started the engine and drove around to the yard, parking beside Oggie and leaving the engine running as Parker slipped out of the door and headed into the house for a few minutes.

When she emerged Sophie was with her, and the two spoke for a moment or two before Sophie nodded and waved at Charlie before sitting down at the veranda table next to a laptop and a half-finished game of chess. Parker trotted down the veranda steps and flung herself into the ute beside Charlie.

“Here,” she said, holding something out in the palm of her hand. “Doesn’t matter which ear.”

Charlie looked at the tiny earpiece Parker was offering him, and carefully lifted it, figured out which way around it went and slipped it into his left ear. He broke into a wide smile as a babble of voices filled his head.

There was Effie, muttering to herself about her herb-rich butter sauce for barramundi steaks, and overlaying her complaints was Kip, cheerfully telling Eliot about one of his classmates who lived two hundred miles away on a sheep station near Alice Springs. Lizzie’s voice giggled, and then Eliot was there, drowsy but attentive, asking if there was any orange juice left and Jo answered, saying it was time for Eliot to take his antibiotics.

Can you hear us? Sophie’s voice sounded as though she was right next to him.

“Just speak,” Parker said to Charlie. “We can all hear you.” And she slipped a tiny earbud into her own ear.

Charlie, intrigued, tried it out.

“Um … Kip? It’s Dad. Are you okay?” he asked hesitantly.

Yeah, Dad! I’m with Lizzie and Eliot! Can you hear me? Kip sounded thrilled.

Hi, Charlie!!! Lizzie joined in, delighted that Charlie and Parker were now part of their secret world.

“I can hear you … all of you!” Charlie said, surprised at the clarity and ease of use. “Eliot? Are you managing those two terrors?”

No worries, Eliot said, and coughed painfully. I’ll keep an eye on ‘em, he growled softly.

We’re keeping an eye on you, Kip said sternly, and Jo chuckled.

Feels strange, hey, Charlie! she said, and Charlie heard the clink of a glass as she helped Eliot take his medication.

Will you lot keep the bloody racket down, Effie complained, I’m trying to bleeding concentrate and you drongos are yappin’ like a bunch of dingoes in the mating season!!

“Eliot, mate … when Alec gets back tell him I want these for using around the place! Means I can keep an eye on Soapy and make sure the silly old bastard doesn’t get himself into trouble!” Charlie said, grinning.

You got it, Eliot said, and Charlie could hear the smile in his friend’s voice. Are you guys headin’ into the bush? Eliot asked. Yell if you need us. I ain’t so laid up that I can’t help -

“Eliot … just shut up and take your pills!” Parker said waspishly. “We know what we’re doing, so just be quiet and rest!”

Dammit, Parker! You’re turnin’ into a friggin’ nag! Eliot said with feeling.

Shush! Lizzie snarked. You’re poorly! Be quiet, Eliot!

Do you buggers want lunch?? Because if you don’t shut your cake-holes, you noisy bastards, you won’t get any!! Effie cursed grumpily.

“Don’t worry Effie … Charlie and I have lots to do so we’ll try and not bother you. But if you need us … “ Parker let the rest of the sentence hang.

We’ll let you know, Sophie said. I’m on the laptop monitoring you two, so I know where you are. Hardison’s set up the positioning software so your earbuds are pinging your location back to me. We’re covered.

“Good, you can mark where we put all of our little surprises!” Parker said and pulled on a pair of work gloves. “Okay Charlie – let’s go.”

And Charlie put the ute into gear and drove slowly out of the homestead perimeter and into the bush, where he and Parker were going to make sure that any person trying to harm their people would pay for it dearly.


Hardison was feeling every bump, lump and lurch that vibrated through Bernadette’s solid chassis, but he had to admit Soapy knew what he was doing. The pastoralist, with a lifetime of off-road driving under his belt, treated Bernadette like the princess she obviously was. Soapy had a light touch on the steering wheel, even though Bernadette was a left-hand drive, and he cajoled her over rough, lumpy ground, slippery, wet clay-pan and a deeply-rutted track up an incline which would have daunted even the most experienced off-roader.

But Hardison, despite the pain, was grateful for Soapy’s care and knew the trip could have been a great deal worse. But it was an uncomfortable half-hour for sure.

The rain stayed away, but as they climbed towards the low ridge, Nate was entranced by the spread of flood water around the homestead and through the huge, sprawling paddocks. He could see small mobs of cattle unconcernedly wading through the pools to higher grazing, and flocks of brolgas drifted in on silver-grey wings and stalked majestically through the shimmering water, dancing and trumpeting in the clear, rain-freshened air.

He understood then about the magic of Wapanjara. An urban creature himself, he suddenly grasped wholeheartedly why Lizzie loved this place. In just a few days it had gone from an exciting place that just so happened to be Eliot’s home, to somewhere she loved deeply and wholeheartedly, despite the trauma and danger she was witnessing. Like Eliot, her heart was here, and Wapanjara would now forever call to her, whisper to her in dreams, no matter where she was in the world.

And for his daughter, Nate Ford would protect Wapanjara and its people with everything he had.

“Nearly there, Nate,” Soapy said, and he carefully drove Bernadette out onto a stark ridge, not particularly high but clear of trees, overlooking the station road leading out, out into the grass and termite mounds of the south paddock towards the Stuart Highway and distant civilization.

Hardison grunted as his shoulder was jarred, but he managed to undo the safety belt after Soapy brought Bernadette to a halt, stopping on a level patch of ground behind the dip which led down to the road in the distance.

“Wait, Hardison … I’ll give you a hand,” Nate said and opening his door he slid out of Bernadette and helped Hardison ease sideways out of his seat to stand on the stony ground.

Within minutes Nate had brought out a folding chair and table for the injured hacker and made sure he was comfortable. Soapy pulled out a large bag which turned out to contain desert camouflage netting, and Nate, the only uninjured man among the three of them, draped it over Bernadette’s dusty black bulk and used the excess to make a small shelter.

As Hardison and Nate dug out all of the tech-y stuff Hardison needed, including a small but sophisticated portable satellite dish which Nate attached to an inbuilt port in the vehicle’s dashboard, Soapy laid out sandwiches and soda as well as a flask of tea and some water from Bernadette’s 70-litre tank.

They were all set.

“Okay, mate – what can I do?” Soapy asked eagerly. This felt much better than waiting for the bad guys to come to them.

Hardison swallowed a couple of paracetamol tablets and gestured at Nate, who switched on the power supply generated from a large battery encased in Bernadette’s biggest storage bin. Booting up the two small screens and his laptop, Hardison took a swig of orange juice and grinned at Nate and Soapy.

“Now this is what I call fun, Soapy!!” he grinned happily. Even one-handed, he managed to speedily begin the process of finding the nearest communications satellite within range.

“Uhhhhh-huh,” he murmured to himself, “there we go … see, Soapy … these babies are about 26,000 feet up, so it takes a minute or two to find one with enough room in one of its transponders to carry our uplink without being noticed. I already got Albany’s server info, so … hang on a minute … yep – as I thought – the control channel is unencrypted … means all we need to do is find the password, an’ …” his fingers ran over the keys and waited for his software to do its thing. “ … gotcha!! Huh – someone’s a fan of Tarantino movies … and … we’re in!” he crowed despite the throbbing in his shoulder.

Soapy sat down on another of the folding chairs and watched Hardison, dumbfounded at the levels of technology he was sweeping aside to access the carrier he was using to piggyback his signal.

Hardison cocked an eyebrow at the pastoralist.

“Spectrum analysis,” he said smugly. “Now all I gotta do is make sure I don’t exceed bandwidth an’ stick our head above the parapet, an’ we’ll copy every damn’ piece of electronic information Albany has.”

“Alec, son, I have no idea what you just said … but I’m bloody glad you know what you’re doing!” Soapy said, shaking his head in wonder as he poured a mug of tea from the flask.

“Very little gets past Hardison,” Nate grinned. “Although his weeping St. Nicholas statues took a while to perfect –“

“Well …” Hardison mumbled, a little irked, “that’s because you didn’t EN-NUN-CI-ATE clearly enough –oh – here we go –“

And the two little plasma-screens burst into life, various reduced pages popping into being along with scrolling lists and a whole bunch of encrypted information. Hardison concentrated on the latter. He frowned, focused.

“Dumb-ass!” he said under his breath. “Whoever’s workin’ their digital info is using a run-of-the-mill encryption algorithm. Jeez. Hang on –“

He settled into his work now, his lack of a functional left hand not holding him up for even a second.

Nate settled down and fished out a sandwich and poured himself tea. He cocked a look at Soapy.

“This might take a while, Soapy. I’d have a snooze if I were you.”

Soapy took a swallow of tea and undid a foil-wrapped still-warm sandwich full of pan-fried turkey garnished with heirloom tomatoes and laced with caramelised slices of the sweet maui onions Jo grew in her garden, the whole concoction redolent with chives, harvati and cream cheese. He loved these sandwiches, and Effie knew it.

“I’m too fascinated!” Soapy said, before taking a bite of the sandwich and murmuring his pleasure at the taste.

Hardison eyed the sandwich for a minute before his laptop gave an electronic burp and the encrypted information began to quickly translate into English. The young hacker frowned.

“Spicer,” he said. “That cop at Tennant Creek … his name … Everett Spicer … is that right?”

Soapy regretfully swallowed his mouthful of sandwich and nodded.

“Yep – that’s him. Sinister bastard,” he added, grimacing. “Always bloody smiling.”

“What have you found?” Nate asked, curious now.

Hardison shrugged and then wished he hadn’t, but he managed a pained grin.

“So … can either of you tell me why a sort-of-senior career cop is in direct contact with Troy Rickenbacker and Chinese triads via a burner ‘phone?”


Dinner that night was upbeat and thankfully earbud-less, which was a relief for Effie, who found the little things most annoying.

Eliot had rested well throughout the day, and the antibiotics were taking a firmer hold, so he had managed to get some sleep and even eaten a little lunch, much to Effie’s satisfaction. So, with Jo and Sophie helping, he had slowly dressed in jeans and a warm zip-up hoodie, and was finally allowed out of his bed for an hour for the evening meal.

His stiff, careful movements as he made his own way into the living room were sure signs of his continuing pain and discomfort, and he had to stop for a moment in the doorway as a coughing fit took him and caused a few moments of silent worry for his friends. But he held up a hand as he leaned against the door jamb, a gesture that yelled “I’m fine!!” to everyone as they watched with bated breath. And right enough, within a minute the cough had settled, and with Nate and Charlie hovering beside him in case he fell, he gingerly made his way over to his recliner which had been brought inside the house for him, his arm tight against his wounded side.

Lizzie and Kip shadowed his every movement, and both children let out relieved sighs of satisfaction as Nate helped Eliot settle into his chair.

Eliot, looking at the tight, concerned faces around him, smirked triumphantly.

“See?” he rumbled. “’M’ doin’ just fine. So stop coddlin’ me, will ya?” he added testily, glaring specifically at Effie, who had the bottle of the Devil’s Decongestant in her hand, along with a spoon. “An’ I ain’t takin’ any more of that … that … pukey crap!” he finished, scowling.

Effie raised an eyebrow.

“Hmmm … you think so, do you, you cheeky mongrel?” She hefted the bottle as though it was a sword, bracing herself for battle. “We’ll see about that!”

“GO EFFIE!” Parker prattled cheerfully. She had scratches on her arms and a smudge of oil on her nose that she had missed when washing up for dinner. “Doomed, Eliot – that’s what you are! Doomed!!”

Can it, Parker!” Eliot growled menacingly, which made Lizzie and Kip giggle.

Nate leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, winking at Sophie, who grinned back, amused beyond belief. Eliot really thought he was going to be left alone. Yeah, Nate mused wryly, and pigs might fly.

“Nippers!” Effie declared loudly. “Sounds like we need Plan C!”

Lizzie and Kip acquired matching looks of determination, and dropped to the floor next to Eliot’s feet. His bare feet.

“Ready, Effie!” Kip declared, far too cheerfully for Eliot’s comfort. His eyes narrowed.

What the hell …??” Then he figured it out and the muscles along his jawline suddenly flexed with anger. “Oh, no … no you don’t … ‘Lizbeth Grace, don’t you frikkin’ dare –“ he hissed in warning.

Lizzie was the very epitome of innocence.

“Don’t what, Eliot?” She held up her little hands and made a great show of making tickling motions.

Eliot suddenly let out a strange hitching noise that sounded suspiciously like a nervous giggle.

Much as he told his team that Eliot Spencer just didn’t giggle, no-way no-how, it was a well-known fact among them that all Lizzie had to do was threaten him with tickling, and he became a twitching wreck. Mister-Eliot-I’m-invincible-Spencer was ticklish. Hardison always maintained that he could make a fortune selling this priceless bit of information to Eliot’s many enemies.

Lizzie’s brown eyes were warm with humour.

“Take your medicine, Eliot,” she said sweetly. Her fingers made crab-like motions and headed towards his vulnerable feet. Normally Eliot could just grab her around the middle and turn her upside-down until she shrieked with laughter, but in his weak and damaged state he had no chance.

His left eye tic’d.

DAMMIT, Lizzie!!” he suddenly ranted, furious with himself for his weakness. He glared at Effie. “OKAY! Okay … I’ll take the crappy stuff!”

Effie’s muddy eyes glinted with triumph.

“Open up, Yank!” she ordered.

Eliot Spencer, renowned hitter, legendary retrieval expert, one of the most dangerous people in the world and a thoroughly beaten man, screwed up his eyes, opened his mouth and resigned himself to his fate.

One spoonful of the disgusting concoction later, and Eliot was wheezing with the impact of the fumes, but he manned up, swallowed and Lizzie held his hand to make sure he knew she still loved him anyway despite his stubbornness.

“See?” Hardison said, drowsy with light painkillers and tired after his excursion to Munaji Ridge. “Not so bad, now was it?”

“So you friggin’ take the stuff, Hardison!” Eliot sputtered, a shudder running through his damaged frame, which made him wince. “Blech!!” He stuck his tongue out as far as it would go as though airing it would get rid of the taste.

“Nah,” Hardison said airily. “I jus’ got stabbed. You, on the other hand, have a whole lot of stuff gone wonky in that muscly heap of bones you call a body! No sympathy, m’man!”

Eliot’s snarled threats were cut short by Effie, who had returned the bottle of liquid evil to her locked cupboard and was now serving dinner.

For once it was finger food. Thick, home-made burgers in freshly-baked buns, accompanied by what was left of the maui onions, tomatoes and cheese as dressing, and the food was easy, delicious and filling. The children sat on the floor with trays and the adults in their comfy armchairs with side-tables, and even Eliot managed to finish his helping, even though he wasn’t particularly hungry. But it did help to rid him of the taste of the medicine.

As they ate, Nate and Hardison filled in the rest of them on what they had found out.

“We, people, have what Sophie would call a ‘bent copper’ on our hands,” Nate said as he helped himself to another burger from the hotplate on the sideboard. “Everett Spicer, Detective Inspector of the Northern Territory Police Force and head of the investigative division in the area, is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”

Charlie scowled, his dark eyes sparking with grief.

“I knew it! When the forensic team told me about her* brakes, and I said they couldn’t have failed, there was a suspicion that there was something not right. Well, that’s what the sergeant in charge said. But every time I’ve asked about how it’s progressing, this bastard just says they’re ‘looking into it.’ Like hell they are!” he added, his voice hoarse with pain.

Kip, sensitive to his father’s grief, scrambled up from his place on the floor and eased himself onto his father’s lap, hugging him tightly. Charlie, eyes teary, kissed the top of Kip’s head, grateful beyond belief for the love of his son.

“I did some diggin’ into Spicer’s financials, an’ after a whole lot of hassle … “ he waited for effect and then continued, “I found at least three hidden accounts … two in the Caymans an’ one in Panama. They’re all funneled through shell companies, two associated with small Shanghai clothes manufacturers an’ the other through an import-export business in Yemen. The sonofabitch’s money’s comin’ from human trafficking,” Hardison added, his lip curling with distaste.

“Well, that’s what Chong does for a living, after all,” Nate commented, taking a sip of orange juice. “And if I remember correctly, we’re talking substantial amounts for our friendly neighbourhood crooked cop.”

“Yeah … at least a half-million in each account. That kinda money buys silence and co-operation, folks. This ass-wipe’s coverin’ up murder an’ illegal production of uranium for sale to the highest bidder. ISIL will probably be all over Chong like a rash, willin’ to pay what it takes for processed uranium,” Hardison rasped, angry to the core.

Charlie, holding his son tight to his chest, turned bleak eyes to Nate.

“I want him taken out, Nate. No, I don’t mean dead, although I wouldn’t be unhappy about it. But I want his backside in jail until he withers and dies, mate. Him and those … those people over at Albany. All of them.”

“Spicer’s walking a thin line already,” Nate answered readily. “He’s in Tennant Creek because he has temper issues, and a dubious association with a local businessman with links to prostitution and drugs. He’s got away with it because he has some hold over his big boss, who’s an old partner, but when he began getting a bit reckless he was sent out here for a while to cool off. Seems he didn’t take the hint,” Nate explained, and then took a bite of his burger.

“So …” Sophie pondered. “He could be our weak link. Has he been up to anything else while he’s been here?”

“Yes indeedy,” Hardison said, his anger turning into a glint in his eyes and a grim smile. “He has a contact in the local government offices. A nice young lady called Cheryl who thinks he’s cute, doesn’t know the bastard’s married and who has fingers in lots of pies, includin’ licensing local mining concerns and safety certification.” His smile turned into a grin. “She likes goin’ to the movies, Johnny Depp and eatin’ out in a place called Vallone’s in Tennant Creek. Spicer’s credit card records say he spends a lot of time there and payin’ for two, so I’m guessin’ that’s Cheryl.”

Vallone’s …” Eliot said, thinking. “It’s not cheap. Sicilian cuisine. I’ve been there a couple of times. S’okay, I guess … but their pesto alla trapanese’s crap. Mine’s better.”

“Food aside,” Hardison continued, I got a firm association with Chong at Vallone’s. I tracked both Chong an’ Spicer there at the same time if their credit card records’re accurate, although Chong’s usin’ an alias … Frankie Lee. He’s a little too cocky about showin’ himself. But I got him on my radar.” Hardison’s voice was smug. “An’ he’s here. He’s at Albany. He arrived the day before yesterday.”

“So … he’s here to try and figure out what to do about us – or rather Lady Eloise Stanton,” Jo said quietly. “D’you think he’ll try and buy you out?” she asked Sophie.

The Englishwoman shrugged.

“I would think so. But Nate and I think we’ll string him along a little … make him think I’m angling for a partnership. We can come clean as to who Eliot and Nate are, and it would certainly make Lady Eloise a lady with whom Chong can possibly work, given their reputations!” she added, amused.

Nate snorted and Eliot gave a small, pained smile.

“But sooner or later,” Eliot murmured, “their patience will come to an end an’ they’ll come after us. They gotta get rid of Charlie an’ me, so –“

Eliot heard Lizzie’s breath hitch, and held out a hand. Lizzie took it and squeezed Eliot’s fingers fearfully.

“Eliot??” she whispered.

“It’s okay, ‘Lizbeth Grace. Nothin’s gonna happen to either of us, I promise.” Eliot countered, blue eyes warm as he studied his best girl.

“He’s right, Lizzie – Parker and me … we’ve got the perimeter covered. We’ll drop their numbers. I can promise you. Nothing and no-one will sneak up on Wapanjara without them paying for it!” Charlie added, his dark eyes shadowed with menace. Kip snuggled up under his father’s chin and held on tight.

Hardison, who was sitting beside Parker on the couch, wetted his thumb and reached out to rub the smudge off Parker’s nose. The little thief grinned eerily past Hardison’s fingers.

“We closed the main gate into the homestead and yards,” she said, “so whatever you do, do not go beyond the perimeter fence. You can stay on the road, but that’s about it. We’ve been … thorough,” she added gleefully.

“D’you hear, nippers?” Effie growled. “You stay close and in the house or yard. Nowhere else!! Promise??”

Both Lizzie and Kip nodded, and Effie grunted, satisfied.

“Righto, then. Eat up, you lot. I have passion fruit cheesecake for afters,” she rumbled, getting to her feet.

“Yum!!” Parker said. She sat back, smiling happily to herself.

She had had a good day.


After dinner, Eliot felt like he had to move or he would stiffen up, but he wasn’t quite ready to go back to his bed yet, despite Jo and Lizzie saying he looked tired and sore.

He was both of those things, but before he settled back into the warmth of his blankets, he decided he needed a breath of fresh air. So, with Nate and Soapy helping him up, he slowly made his way outside. They left him on the veranda for a few minutes, threatening severe repercussions if he hurt himself, but he waved them away and managed to ease his way to the veranda steps.

Taking a few deep, phlegmy breaths, he hung on to the rail, shakily managed a couple of steps down and seated himself on the edge of the veranda, leaning against the handrail. He rested the uninjured side of his head against the upright, took several more deep breaths, coughed for almost a minute as the cool air hit his inflamed lungs, and then he settled.

The fresh air was cold and a little painful for his chest, but he immediately felt better. Eliot could smell the rain-fresh scent of jasmine, and he heard the little mopoke begin to call in the darkness. God, how he loved this place.

Gertie spotted him as she ambled around the corner of the house, and she gurgled, flapping her lip with pleasure as she crowded the bottom step and reached out to Eliot, long tongue licking up the side of his face.

“Hey! Stop that!!” he complained even as he scratched her nose, the big camel giving out a rumble of pleasure.

“She’s missed you,” Lizzie said as she came out of the house and sat down beside her best friend. She looked up at Eliot, seeing the dark circles under his eyes and noticing how he held himself … tense and sore and in pain. “You should be inside,” she continued, worried. “You’re still poorly, and you could catch pew-monia sitting out here!”

Eliot lifted his head and gingerly gazed down at the little girl.

“Nah. It’s just for a minute or two. Just needed some air,” he said quietly.

Lizzie wrapped her arms around Eliot’s and laid her head carefully on his shoulder.

“Please come back inside,” she said, squeezing his arm. “You don’t look right. Gertie, you tell him!”

Gertie of course obliged, and squeaked and burbled to Eliot, who gave them both a weary smile.

“D’you like it here, ‘Lizbeth Grace?” Eliot asked Lizzie.

The child gazed up at her guardian with brown eyes that reflected the starlight.

“More than anything!” she said softly, and Eliot knew then he had done the right thing in leaving his share of Wapanjara to Lizzie. Her heart, just like his, belonged to this place.

Eliot’s smile turned to a wince as he tried to move, but discovered he just didn’t have the strength.

“’Lizbeth Grace?”

She frowned up at him, hearing the gravelly hint of pain in his words.

“Eliot? Are you okay?” Uncurling one arm she laid a small hand on his brow. “You’re all hot!!”

“Just a lil’ bit,” he replied, trying to ease her worry. “Could you go get your Dad? I think I need a hand here … I can’t get up,” he finished, looking just a little sheepish.

Lizzie frowned.

“See??? I said you were still poorly!!” She unclasped Eliot’s arm and turned towards the door.

“DADDY!!” she bawled, and Eliot winced at the volume. “CAN YOU HELP?? ELIOT’S STUCK!!

She turned back to Eliot, who leaned his head back against the rail and sighed, coughing slightly.

“Boofhead!” she said.

 

To be continued …


Author’s note:

* Charlie will never mention his wife’s name again, out of respect for the woman he still loves.

 

Chapter Text

The water receded somewhat through the night, and by the time the magpies awoke in the almond stand and began their fluting cries, the mitchell grass and bindi-eye were peeking above the drift of water through the paddocks. In another day the grass would be greening up and the water would have soaked forever into the ever-thirsty land of Wapanjara.

Eliot awoke from a long, restless night of what was left of a mild fever and pain, but he had slept, and when the sun peeked in through his window, he stirred and instantly felt his breathing was better and the pain of his wounds was now evolving into that annoying, aching itchy phase that spoke of healing.

He still had to regain his strength, but given that he would need a few days more rest and recuperation, he knew now he was on the mend.

His first action was to gently ease himself out of bed. He could hear Effie clattering about in the kitchen, and she had obviously decided he was well enough to be left to his own devices.

Lizzie was sprawled amid her comforter and cushions on the big bed, snoring gently and lying with one arm draped over an equally unconscious Buster, who had somehow snuck into the bedroom in the early hours of the morning.

If, Eliot thought, he could get away with not wakening either of them, he might get a shower and dressed before anyone was awake and notice he was up and about.

He managed surprisingly well. The dizziness wasn’t so bad this time, and he eased himself upright and gathered up his clothes. His journey to the bathroom was a little unsteady, but he got there, and sitting on the toilet seat, he peeled off bandages and dressings, and checked his wounds.

His side looked ugly, but the edges of the incision were beginning to scab and knit, and the infection had almost gone. The rest of his wounds were beginning to heal, and when he looked in the mirror, the gash over his ear was still swollen but nowhere near as tender.

The shower was bliss. Ignoring the fact that he wasn’t supposed to get the stitches in his injuries wet, Eliot let the heat soothe away the stiffness and remains of the fever in his body and by the time he had washed his hair – difficult as it was with his bullet wound and broken rib pulling at him as he stretched – he felt much better.

Drying off was a little harder, but he coped and digging around in the bathroom medical kit, he found what he was looking for and taped a dressing over the bullet hole and left the rest of his other injuries uncovered.

By the time he was dressed – boots, Ka-bar knife and all – he was exhausted, but triumphant. The aura of illness which he always hated had been washed away – almost – and he slowly made his way through to the kitchen to make himself some tea.

Effie paused in her work of beating the life out of a bowl of pancake mixture, and raised an eyebrow.

“Well now,” she smirked, “look who’s got out of bed all on his own! Seems the cough medicine’s done the job, hey?”

Eliot suddenly realised he had only coughed a couple of times, and the pain in his chest that usually accompanied it was almost gone.

He pulled out a chair from the table and gingerly sat down. There was a teapot, steam curling from the spout, sitting on a trivet and Effie handed him a mug.

“Here … help yourself, Yank. Feeling better?” Effie asked.

Eliot nodded, and for the first time since he was shot, his head didn’t feel as though it was about to fall off if he moved it too quickly.

“Yeah … guess so,” he replied quietly. “Can’t stay in bed all my life. We got trouble here,” he continued, glancing at Effie as he poured tea into his mug and added a liberal splash of milk, “an’ I can’t protect my people if I’m lyin’ in bed.”

Effie went to the huge old refrigerator and pulled out a jar of marinated peaches, unscrewed the lid and handed Eliot a fork and a small plate.

“Here. Have a couple of these, lad. They’ll give you some energy. You look pooped.” She noticed his damp hair, curling as it dried in the heat of the kitchen. “Don’t overdo it, you idiot! You’re just newly on the mend, and the nipper will have your hide if you pull another stunt like you did last night!”

Eliot smiled as he forked a couple of peach halves onto the plate. Effie’s syrupy spiced peaches were one of his favourite things.

“Yeah, well … I’d just been in bed too long an’ seized up a bit, is all. I gotta get my act together, Eff,” he said, his smile fading and grim lines appearing on his face. “Albany an’ Chong ain’t gonna wait for me to heal up, now are they?”

Effie, returning to her pancake mixture, nodded thoughtfully and glanced at the shotgun lying on the table, near to hand.

“You do know that nutso bitch up on the hill was sent packing, bleeding all over the place?” she said softly.

“Yeah,” Eliot said, quirking a grin. “I heard you’re a mean shot!” He sobered again. “She’ll be up there somewhere thinkin’ on what to do next. An’ I don’t think she’s going to care about Chong an’ his cronies. She’s marchin’ to the beat of her own drum now, since Hardison killed her boyfriend,” he added, frowning.

“But she’s a bit knackered, boy! Mister M caught her in the arm and I parked a load of buckshot in her, so she won’t be in a fit state –“ Effie growled.

“It’s not goin’ to stop her, Effie.” Eliot insisted. “It wouldn’t stop me. An’ she knows I’m wounded an’ not healed yet. She’ll be back sooner rather than later.” He cut one of the peach halves up with his fork and ate a piece, savoring the sweetness. He swallowed, and looked at the little cook. “I have to be ready, Eff. If I’m not … she’s gonna go after every one of you. Especially Lizzie an’ Kip. An’ you know I’ll never allow that.”

Effie stopped her whisking and studied Eliot for a moment before speaking. She saw the weariness in his damaged frame and the shadows under his eyes. He held himself carefully, trying not to let the pain show, and he was far from being well enough to face a killer. But she knew he would do it, no matter what.

“Well, you young bludger, that’ll never happen. If she gets through you, she’ll have to face me. And I’d blow the shitty little crone apart before she got anywhere near ‘em, you know that.” She tousled Eliot’s damp hair, making it stick up. “But she won’t get through you, laddie. So eat up and drink your tea. Breakfast’s in an hour and the nippers’ll be starving, so I have work to do. Stay put and keep me company.”

Eliot, tired and sore and more than a little frustrated, ate more of his peaches and smiled.

“You an’ me, Eff. We’re friggin’ invincible!” he teased, and sipped his tea.

Effie, muddy eyes sparking fiercely, grinned.

“Abso-bloody-lutely!” she said.


The day was a tense one.

Eliot, after a mild argument with Lizzie, sat in his recliner on the veranda. She had grudgingly agreed to his status being ratcheted back to borderline ‘sick-to-wibbly,’ and he rested while keeping an eye on his family and the place he loved. Every hour or so he got to his feet and kept moving, battling stiffness and pain, but he knew he had to get a grip on his weakness because he had a job to do.

Hardison, feeling much better and now decrying his sling, retired to Oggie and his computers, Gertie in tow so that the big camel could split her time fretting over Eliot and wandering over to try and lick his face, and fussing Hardison while getting the odd, secretive gummy frog when Eliot wasn’t looking.

Everybody else went about their business, earbuds letting Eliot know exactly where they were, and he smiled as he listened to Lizzie and Kip chatter on as they helped the adults do the regular chores around the homestead.

Soapy, still sore, finished off moving fodder in the tractor, while Charlie, Jo and the children checked the horses.

Eliot snorted as he caught Parker talking to Sparky. She had sidled into the big foaling box alongside Dottie, who had nickered quietly at the little thief in the hope of a treat.

Hello, mommy horse, Eliot heard Parker mutter, and he could hear the tension in her voice. You just stay over there while I say hello to Sparky. There was a pause. Hello, Sparky! Remember me? I helped you get born. I’m Parker.

Eliot heard the little colt chuckle and Parker giggle. He guessed the foal was busy nibbling at Parker with his toothless gums, and Parker suddenly did something Eliot had never heard her do before. She began to coo.

Every earbud on Wapanjara heard the gibberish Parker came out with as she scratched and petted the little colt, and the young horse chuckled back, happy at the attention. Parker was mesmerised.

You go, mama, Hardison whispered, delighted, and Eliot could almost hear the smiles of amusement from his friends.

Eliot levered himself to his feet and made his way down the veranda steps, trying to loosen tight muscles and ease the ache, and he wandered over to Hardison who was busy scrolling through information streaming in from Shanghai, where the young man was digging about in Chong’s life and career. He slipped Gertie a gummy frog as she sat beside him, resting her head on the hacker’s lap and tucking it tight against the edge of the table. Hardison felt her jaws work as she partly-sucked and partly-chewed the little, sweet treat.

“Chong … find any more about him?” Eliot said quietly so as not to disturb Parker as she communed with Sparky.

Hardison jumped, surprised. He was deep in concentration, and Gertie lifted her head and honked, happy to see Eliot back in circulation.

“Uh …” Hardison scrabbled to hide the packet of gummy frogs, but Gertie turned her head and gazed adoringly at Eliot, peering into his face and breathing on him affectionately.

Eliot scowled, puzzled.

What the hell??” He muttered, and sniffed as Gertie hummed at him, still chewing. She farted loudly. “Jeez, Gertie!! “ He said, wafting a hand at the stench. “Dammit, Hardison! Are you feedin’ my camel goddamn gummy frogs??? Huh?? Are you???

Hardison was the very epitome of innocence, even as he held the bag of sticky, full-of-artificial-crap confections.

“Gertie,” he said indignantly, “is a camel of excellent taste, El!”

They make her fart! Parker said happily, and returned to fussing Sparky. Who’s a lil’ bit? She murmured, Huh? Who’s a huggy bunny?? I wish Bunny was here. You’d like Bunny … Bunny could play with you and –

Eliot, feeling vengeful, heard Nate mutter to himself as the man emptied a bag of cattle cake into a trough in the yards for weaned calves, the young ‘poddies’ intended for store cattle sales over the next few weeks.

So she’s a little gassy, Eliot, Nate grumbled breathlessly. Work on a cattle station wasn’t easy. So what? It’s not going to kill her –

Eliot tried his best to pry Gertie’s jaws apart to retrieve what was left of the gummy frog, now well-masticated, but Gertie had other ideas. She hummed and gurgled and licked Eliot’s face, leaving gummy frog juice and saliva in a trail along his cheek, and Eliot cringed painfully. This was disgusting! He gave up battling Gertie and turned to Hardison and made a lunge for the bag of gummy frogs, which was a mistake. His side flared in agony and his muscles complained, and he had to put a hand out and lean on Gertie, who rumbled in concern even as she let loose another gassy explosion.

“Hey! Easy there, m’man!” Hardison said, reaching out his good hand, still holding the bag, to steady his friend. Eliot cursed under his breath, coughed for a minute and then took advantage of Hardison’s concern to swipe the bag.

“Those’re mine, Eliot!! Give ‘em back!!” Hardison squawked.

“Suck it up, Hardison!” Eliot railed. “You ain’t feedin’ Gertie any more of this crap! She’s allowed carrots or apples as treats – nothin’ else!” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “What. Have you found out. About. Albany.” He ground out.

Hardison sniffed and rubbed his damaged shoulder, apparently greatly offended, but he dealt with Eliot’s snit as he always did – he ignored it and knew he would grab his gummy frogs back at some point.

“Well,” he said, “Chong’s been in Tennant Creek for the past couple of days … ate at Vallone’s with guess who?

Eliot, still annoyed a little, frowned, but thought about it.

“Spicer. Any idea why?”

“Well, I’m not positive yet, but I think it was to pass on information about Lady Eloise Stanton’s purchase of Wapanjara,” Hardison said. “I checked the registration database at the Town Hall, an’ Cheryl, bless her love-struck little heart, printed out copies of the proposed transfer of assets yesterday.”

Hardison had carefully planted electronic applications and legal papers days before, and obviously the news had reached Spicer almost immediately.

“So …” Eliot pondered, “Chong’ll be here soon. Maybe even today.”

The heelers’ll let us know if anybody comes along the road, Jo said through the earbud as she fed the mares, Sophie beside her.

Nate and I decided we might run with the Belgravia Stalemate with a twist, Sophie said as she led one of the in-foal mares out of the south paddock gate. We’re going to see if we can offer a deal. The only issue is knowing how much Hadan has told Chong and Rickenbacker, but I think … I think she has a personal agenda now, and given that she’s hurt, she might have just gone to ground for now.

“If she turns up with Chong, then we know our cover’s blown, Soph,” Eliot said as he leaned against Gertie’s bulk, easing the pain in his side.

We go with it, Nate said. However it turns out, Chong either knows or we tell him who we are. Same thing.

“It might give us another couple of days before all hell breaks loose,” Hardison said, “because he ain’t gonna be taken in for long. He’ll know we’re stringin’ him along an’ then he’s gonna –“

“Yeah, we know, Hardison! But we’re ready for ‘em,” Eliot said, cutting off the hacker’s train of thought before the children understood what he was talking about. “But we need to take out Spicer an’ his contacts at the same time,” he added.

Hardison grinned that grin he usually let loose when he had a plan.

“Well, since you ask …” he said smugly. “I gotta dig out his not-so-honest associates in the police in Adelaide an’ Chong’s crooked politician he’s gotta be pals-y with, but I’m gettin’ there. An’ then I think I got me a Cunning Plan!”

Well, while you buggers spend time thinking up bloody confusing plans to con this bastard Chong, you’re wasting time and I’ve got lunch ready, so hurry up and finish what you’re up to and get your backsides back here before I give the lot to Buster! Effie grumbled, the earbud making her growls even more menacing. There was a short, sharp bark as Buster heard his name mentioned.

Eliot sighed. He was weary and he didn’t feel much like eating, but the shrieks from Lizzie and Kip as they ran down towards the house from the yards made him smile. He pushed Gertie’s muzzle away from the bag of gummy frogs as the camel tried very hard to whiffle it out of Eliot’s grasp.

“Stop that, darlin’,” he said, and then relented. “C’mon, you big moron. Let’s go get you a carrot.”

Gertie honked and then suddenly let loose a veritable explosion of gummy frog gas that made Hardison cough and his eyes water.

“Serves you frikkin’ right!” Eliot said, and grinned.


It was after lunch that Charlie decided it was time to let Dottie and Sparky outside now that the threat of further rainstorms was over for now.

Parker accompanied him to the barn, and Eliot watched from his chair, amused, as a few minutes later Charlie led Dottie down the slight incline from the yards, little Sparky awestruck by the new, big wide world now surrounding him.

Parker followed behind, and Sparky spent his time cantering around his mother, who was very patient with him, and trotting over to Parker who would reassure him with a pat and a scratch. Once he had decided it was safe enough, the colt began to buck and kick, the fresh air and open spaces emboldening him.

Charlie wanted to let Dottie get some exercise for the afternoon in Gertie’s paddock, but he brought the big mare to a halt in from of the veranda steps so that Eliot could finally see his namesake.

The hitter got to his feet, and accompanied by Kip and Lizzie, he made his way down the steps to get a better look.

“Well?” Charlie said. “What do you think?” he asked Eliot, who was a sudden object of interest to the foal. The little horse tentatively crept forward, head outstretched as Eliot let the colt sniff him. Eliot eased his fingers under Sparky’s jaw and scratched. Sparky’s eyes bugged and his head began to bob in pleasure, upper lip curling.

Eliot studied the colt’s strong quarters and good shoulders, the neat head that showed just a little of the foal’s distant arab ancestors, and nodded approvingly.

“He’ll do, Charlie. He’s got a lot of quality about him. He’ll make a helluva stock horse, I’m thinkin’,” he added.

“He’s cute!” Parker interjected, and Sparky tore himself away from Eliot’s scratching to wander over to Parker, who rested a hand on his withers. Sparky leaned on her, asking for a scratch, which made Parker chuckle.

“Parker helped him to be born!!” Lizzie said enthusiastically, “and Sparky loves her!”

Eliot looked down at his god-daughter and nodded, taking Lizzie’s comment very seriously.

“Yeah. So I see.” He saw the adoration in the little girl’s gaze, and after getting a fuss from Parker, the colt fearlessly headed over to Lizzie and nibbled at her jacket. Lizzie giggled and rubbed Sparky’s head, the foal flicking his tail in delight. There was a bond there, Eliot realised.

But before he could say anything, there was a loud, frenzied flurry of barking from the heelers, and the three big cattle dogs ranged themselves in front of the homestead gate, staring at the hill where the stringybarks grew and the rough, red-dust road led away towards Tennant Creek, two hours away. The barking quickly became hysterical.

As Nate and Sophie emerged from the house followed by Jo and Soapy, a dusty, huge sand-coloured SUV appeared on the brow of the hill and made its way down towards the homestead.

It was heavy, luxurious and armoured, and it dealt with the road as though the bumps didn’t exist.

Eliot eyed Charlie, and then spread his feet a little to balance himself, ready for whatever might come.

Well, people, Nate’s voice said over the earbud. Here we go.

Chong Bun-Tsui had finally come to Wapanjara.


The first big surprise came as the SUV came to a halt outside the closed gate.

The driver, a tall, skinny aborigine in a neat black suit, exited the vehicle and trotted around to the rear passenger door.

The door swung open before the man could reach it, and a slender, immaculately-dressed Chinese man stepped out, shoes gleaming in the light which also reflected off the dark glasses he wore.

Chong Bun-Tsui was everything Nate had expected him to be – sophisticated, urbane and groomed to perfection.

He scowled up at the driver, who hurriedly mumbled an apology for his tardiness, and Chong flicked an imaginary dust mote from his suit – Zegna, Sophie was sure – and he looked in distaste at the still-soggy ground by the gate.

He’s worried about getting his Kiton derbies scuffed, Sophie murmured, and Nate nodded, glancing at Eliot.

“’Lizbeth Grace? Can you go get my stockman’s hat, darlin’?” Eliot said quietly.

Lizzie, still petting Sparky, glanced up at her guardian and saw the intensity of the look on his face. Without a word, she turned and trotted up the veranda steps and into the house, Sparky skittering about in surprise, the little girl returning only moments later with the hat.

Hardison appeared from the door behind her, followed by Effie and Buster, the little terrier beginning to bark a warning when he saw the new arrivals.

Eliot heard Effie’s growl of hatred through the earbud. This was the man who had killed Alice.

But even as Lizzie appeared at his side with the hat, Eliot’s eyes widened as another figure emerged from the SUV, this time assisted by the driver, who stepped back as a tiny, exquisite woman got out of the vehicle. Beautifully dressed in a shimmering dark green silk dress, her black hair drawn tightly back in a bun, the woman came to stand behind Chong, a respectful three steps away. It was also obvious that she was heavily pregnant.

Chong did not even acknowledge her presence as he barked a few words at the driver, who ran around both of them to open the gate. But the driver stopped when he saw the three heelers run forward to the gate, teeth bared, growling and barking.

“I suppose I’d better go rescue them,” Soapy said, hand resting on the Webley at his hip.

“Take your time, Soapy. Make him wait,” Nate replied, and he clumped down the veranda steps after Soapy and came to stand beside Eliot, who was putting on his hat and adjusting it so the gash over his ear wasn’t quite so noticeable.

“Are you up to this?” he asked the hitter.

Eliot ruffled Lizzie’s curls as the little girl stood between her father and her guardian.

“Have to be, Nate.” Eliot replied, even as his side ached and his head began to throb. “You an’ Soph do your thing. I’ll back you up, although there’s only the driver, an’ he’s about as useful as a three-legged gopher. The dogs would’ve told us if there were more people comin’ in where we couldn’t see ‘em. They wouldn’t get through anyway,” he finished, thinking of Parker and Charlie’s efforts the previous day.

“Eliot??” Lizzie looked up at Eliot, eyes round with worry.

“It’s all right. ‘Lizbeth Grace. He’s only here to talk. Your Daddy an’ Momma an’ me … we’re here, an’ no-one will hurt you,” Eliot soothed.

Lizzy’s eyes narrowed a little in annoyance.

“I know,” she said, irritated. “I’m worried about you, silly!”

For some reason, Lizzie’s sharp retort eased the tension in everyone, and Eliot let out a low murmur of amusement.

“Go keep Gertie company, will ya,” he said, and gestured at the big camel, sitting underneath Oggie’s canopy staring at the new arrivals. “Keep her kooshed down – she’ll stay sittin’ if you tell her to,” Eliot added, knowing Gertie would do as she was told, even by a six-year-old.

“But –“ Lizzie’s brows were drawing down into stubborn lines.

“No buts, ‘Lizbeth Grace. Take Kip with you an’ stay put. Your Daddy’s workin’ and he doesn’t need to be worryin’ about you kids, okay?”

Do as Eliot says, my darling, Sophie said, her voice calming through the earbud. Go on now. Be safe.

“I’m always safe!” Lizzie said, and Eliot was charmed by her unbending conviction that nothing could harm her because her family was around her. Kip straightened beside Lizzie and frowned. Eliot could tell he was about to object, and was on the point of continuing when Charlie took over.

“Go on, you two! Do as you’re told, before I tell Effie –“ he began as Dottie rubbed her big head on his arm.

Tell Effie what? Effie said, disgust at Chong’s presence making her voice rumble through the earbud. Git, nippers! Look after that big bastard of a camel, and I’ll make pash ice cream for afters tonight, alright??

Kip and Lizzie looked at one another. Kip wanted to support his dad, knowing Charlie needed him now his mum had gone, while Lizzie really didn’t have any intention of leaving her father and guardian on their own without her protection. But Gertie needed her too.

The two children came to a silent agreement. The offer of Effie’s passion fruit ice cream was the deal breaker.

“Okay Dad,” Kip said grudgingly. “But Lizzie and me … if you lot get into trouble, remember we can tell Gertie to bite,” he added, a grim, determined look on his face, and Charlie’s heart broke with pride in his young son as he tried not to stare at the man who had probably ordered his wife’s death.

“Righto son,” Charlie said, looking at Chong. “We’ll remember.”

And the two children wandered off towards Gertie, both of them watching as Soapy called off the heelers and ordered them back up the incline to the barn. The dogs, still growling, obeyed and trotted off, but all three of them turned by the yards and sat down to watch the proceedings from a distance.

Chong, now walking through the opened gate, smiled at Soapy, charm oozing from every pore.

Crocodile smile, Jo whispered, and the two children giggled secretively at the comment as they fussed Gertie, the camel happy about the attention but still eyeing Chong.

Sophie knew it was her turn. Casually wandering down the veranda steps, her poise and elegance shone even though she wore boots and jeans – Dolce & Gabbana – and an expensive shirt, her hair bound back by a scarf. Her skin was glowing with the fresh air and exercise and her brown eyes sparkled, and Nate thought he had never seen her look more stunning. But then, Sophie always glowed when she was grifting.

Easing off her work gloves, finger by finger, she stood still and gazed appraisingly at Chong and the petite woman who followed him, always three steps behind.

Soapy led Chong and his companion through the yard, taking his time because the young woman looked weary and uncomfortable under the make-up and beautifully-cut garb. The driver stayed by the SUV, eyeing the dogs warily.

“Hello there,” Sophie called, her tone clipped and wary. “How can I help you? Are you lost?”

Chong’s smile grew wider and he removed his sunglasses, revealing dark eyes which ran appreciatively over Sophie’s figure. He proffered a hand to shake, but Sophie just stared at it for a moment before raising an aristocratic eyebrow.

The handsome young man with the crocodile smile was put off balance for a moment or two, but he regained his composure and dropped the hand back down at his side.

“My name is Frankie Lee,” he said, using his alias, “and you must be Lady Eloise Stanton.”

Sophie stared at the man as though he was dirt on her expensive boots. She waited for a few moments until it became obvious Chong wasn’t going to introduce the tired young woman. Her eyebrow arched even more and she pursed her lips with disdain, but let the lack of manners pass for now.

“I am indeed, Mister Lee.” She felt a tiny muzzle nibble at her fingers, and she glanced down at Sparky, who was investigating her gloves. Rather than shoo him away, she smiled indulgently at the little colt, and then returned her gaze to Chong. Her stare had returned to being decidedly chilly. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Chong, a little disconcerted, went from charming to business-like. His lean face creased into a knowing, contained smile.

“I’ll get right to the point, Lady Eloise,” he said, his accent betraying his American education. “I’ve come to buy Wapanjara.”

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Sophie stared at Chong Bun-Tsui for so long that Nate thought she had blanked out – something he knew in his heart his wife had never done in her entire career. But as Chong frowned slightly and shifted, Nate realised what Sophie had done – she had un-nerved this arrogant young man, and now she was leading the interaction. She was in charge, and that was the way it would remain.

When Sophie spoke, it was with controlled, polite disdain.

“Tea, Mister Lee? I’m sure Mrs Munro can oblige?” Sophie said to Jo before turning to the young woman, who stood patiently behind Chong, arms by her side as though awaiting her next command, like a trained dog. Which perhaps was the thing, Sophie thought. “Would your wife care to sit down? I’m sure she would like to –“

“She’s fine,” Chong snapped suddenly, irritated. He understood that his position in this ‘conversation’ had changed, but he didn’t quite know how it had happened, and it annoyed him. “And she is not my wife,” he added, trying to regain his composure. He suddenly realised how he had sounded, and his tone softened, turning once more silkily charming. “This,” he said, smiling slightly and gesturing at the young woman, “is my companion, Mei-Ling.”

Sophie studied the girl more directly now, seeing as she had been formally introduced.

“You are most welcome to Wapanjara,” she said softly, and reached out a hand.

Mei-Ling glanced at Chong for a moment, and Sophie caught the sudden hint of fear in the girl’s pretty face before she smiled slightly and nodded, just brushing Sophie’s hand with her own before drawing it back as though retreating into a place of safety.

“Thank you,” she murmured in heavily accented English. Beneath the makeup, Sophie thought, she couldn’t be more than seventeen or eighteen years old.

Chong was unable to control a scowl as the girl spoke, but he forced the smile back onto his face and looked at the people around him.

“Tea would be most welcome,” he answered formally. “Thank you,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

Sophie gestured at the veranda, intending for Mei-Ling to take her time in getting up the steep steps, but Chong strode lithely up the wooden stairs and onto the veranda, where Nate waited.

Jo’s green eyes were dark with anger at Chong’s lack of manners, and she heard Effie mutter Bastard! over the earbud connection. Jo couldn’t help but agree with her, but she raised her hand slightly and Effie, seeing the gesture, ratcheted the hatred down to a silent simmer.

“I’ll get tea, Missus,” Effie grumbled, and added “I’ll bring some cool lemonade for the little miss.”

Eliot saw Effie’s face as the little cook stared at Mei-Ling, and sympathized. Effie would, if she thought she could have got away with it, have dosed Chong’s tea with ipecac just for the hell of it, but Eliot knew she couldn’t as she would jeopardize the con.

Stepping past Charlie and Parker and running a quick hand over Sparky’s soft hide, Eliot took off his hat and, ever the southern gentleman, offered Mei-Ling his arm.

“Ma’am, let me help ya there,” he said, his now-strong Oklahoma accent rich with warmth. He was back in his role of ranch manager, and he smiled as she hesitantly – and gratefully – took his arm. “Cain’t have ya standin’ out here in the mud, now can we?” He continued, and his eyes crinkled at the corners with genuine concern, his blue eyes welcoming.

Mei Ling looked up at Chong, who was settling himself down at the table and nodding thanks at Jo and Sophie. He was not in the least interested in her, so she gave Eliot a tiny smile.

“Thank you,” she murmured, and Eliot knew then she was terrified of Chong.

“C’mon now,” he said under his breath, “you jus’ take it easy, ma’am, an’ you can sit down an’ we’ll get you somethin’ to drink.”

Mei-Ling’s tiny smile widened, and feeling more confident, she looked up at Eliot with dark, cautious eyes.

“That would be very nice,” she whispered, a little confused at the respect and gentleness in his voice. “You are so kind.”

Eliot grinned back.

“Effie makes wonderful lemonade an’ you’ll feel much better once you’ve had a rest,” he said, and holding onto the rail, Eliot carefully guided Mei-Ling up the steps, mindful of his own injuries which he was trying hard to conceal, although the healing cut above his ear was very visible. But he really wasn’t too worried about that as it could be explained away.

Mei-Ling looked at the injury and started slightly, eyes widening. She knows, Eliot thought. She knows Chong ordered Eades to shoot me.

By the time Eliot and Mei-Ling reached the veranda, Soapy had plumped up the cushion on Eliot’s recliner and put a small table beside it, and Mei-Ling was guided carefully into the chair as Jo and Effie arrived with tea and cake.

“So … Lady Eloise,” Chong began, “will you sell Wapanjara to me?”

Both of Sophie’s eyebrows arched this time. There was no small talk to be had. Chong went straight to the point, which was unusual amongst far eastern businessmen. There was always a certain amount of small talk, a traditional politeness that had to be dealt with before getting down to business.

She waited while Jo poured tea and then she added lemon and sipped the fresh brew, fixing Chong once more in her steady gaze. She had seen how it disconcerted him, even though the reaction was slight … but it was there. She shrugged.

“Why?” she said bluntly.

Chong frowned, a little puzzled. He had expected polite refusals, a bit of flattery perhaps … maybe even a willingness to do business, but this bluntness was not something he had expected, although his team’s research had shown Lady Eloise Stanton to be a hard-headed business-woman – a woman always open to a deal at the right price. Her one-word challenge had been surprising.

Chong nodded slowly. Alright. So that’s the way this aristocratic witch was going to play it.

“Wapanjara has … attributes which would benefit my business interests,” he said carefully. He took a cup of tea from Jo and added milk. The cake was richly dark, moist and almost black, and sandwiched together with buttermilk frosting redolent with vanilla. The same frosting glistened in thick waves on the top of the cake. Chong, trying to look relaxed, lifted a slice onto a small plate, grasped a fork and tasted the cake.

Hmmm … he thought. The little cook was very talented. The cake was delicious.

“Why would my cattle station help with your mining business?” Sophie said, sipping more tea. “There is no titanium on Wapanjara. In fact, there are no mineral assets here at all,” she added frostily.

Ah. So she had done her research too, Chong thought.

“It has one asset, Lady Eloise, which makes it valuable to me.” He paused slightly for effect before continuing. “It has easier access through to the main highway to Adelaide and Darwin. I wish to build an access road from the mine to the Stuart Highway.”

Bollocks, Sophie thought. But she nodded, understanding.

“I see,” she murmured. “So … let me understand this … you wish to buy my cattle station just so that you can build a road. And what happens to the rest of the land?”

Chong shrugged.

“Nothing. Nothing at all. It can be left to the wild creatures and aborigines,” he said, and Sophie could swear she heard a hint of derision in the man’s voice. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Charlie stiffen, even as he held Dottie while Sparky took a drink.

“Mister Jakkamarra,” she called out to Charlie, hoping to nip his anger in the bud, “would you be so kind as to put Dottie and the foal out in the paddock for me? I’m very impressed with the colt … thank you.”

Charlie gritted his teeth but nodded. He knew he would have to keep his mouth shut so that Sophie could do her job, but Chong’s obvious dislike of aborigines needled him.

“No worries, Lady Eloise,” he said as calmly as he could. “I think he’ll make a fine riding horse.”

Sophie smiled warmly at Charlie, and he could see she was thankful for his understanding.

“I agree, Mister Jakkamarra, and it is thanks to your skilled eye and knowledge that the colt is as fine as I expected.”

Charlie nodded, and with Parker in tow, he led Dottie and Sparky around the house to Gertie’s paddock so that the foal could stretch his legs properly and Dottie could graze.

Sophie turned back to Chong and studied him. The man was curious now, to see Sophie’s reaction to his comments.

Sophie smiled at him suddenly, taking the young man by surprise once again.

“Do you like horses?” she asked.

Chong blinked.

“Uh … I have very little experience with them, Lady Eloise, but my father owns a string of racehorses in Macau,” he answered, wondering just where this was going.

Sophie’s face shifted to semi-boredom.

“Your father …??” she let the question hang in the air for a moment.

“That would be Chong Zhi-huán,” Nate said suddenly as he sat down on one of the wicker chairs and crossed his legs. “Dragonhead of the Shumchun triads, and you are Chong Bun-Tsui, his only living son. Am I right?”

Chong sat straight up in his chair, cake forgotten.

“And you are?” he grated out.

“Surely you know of my business manager,” Sophie said dryly. “Nathan Ford. I believe he knew your father.”

“Now, now, Lady Eloise,” Nate said smoothly, chiding her with a smile, “I didn’t know him … I only met him a few times in Shanghai years ago. The Bunyo office explosion. Maybe you remember …??” he waved a hand at Chong.

The man shook his head, his lip curling with anger.

“I did, of course, hear about it,” he ground out, “but I was in America, attending college at the time.”

“Ahh, yes …” Nate murmured indulgently. “Of course you were. Yale, I believe.”

“Yes,” Chong said, “Yale.” He was silent for a few moments and then frowned at Nate. “How did you –“

“My colleague here, Mister Hardison,” Nate said, gesticulating at Hardison who was perched in a chair munching his way through a wedge of cake. He waggled fingers in greeting at Chong. “He is a very, very able researcher,” Nate added, his smile widening.

Hardison swallowed his cake and grinned cheekily even as his shoulder throbbed.

“Age of the geek, Mister Chong,” he quipped.

“As you can see, Mister Chong, I have an exceptionally skilled team to further my interests, and it isn’t in my interest right now to sell Wapanjara,” Sophie said firmly.

Chong’s face darkened with anger and he opened his mouth to reply heatedly, but Sophie held up a finger, stopping the words before they were uttered, and Chong shifted uneasily in his chair.

“But …” Sophie declared quietly, “ … I may … may … be interested in some kind of partnership.”

That caught Chong by surprise.

“Partnership? What kind of partnership?” he blurted and then hated himself for showing his lack of understanding. He gave himself a few moments to gather his thoughts by scowling at Mei-Ling, who was sipping cold, delicious homemade lemonade and nibbling on Effie’s delicious cake, Eliot standing beside her, arms crossed and looking very much like a guard dog. Or wolf, Chong thought.

Sophie smiled and allowed a little smugness to creep into her voice when she spoke.

“My land … your road. You rent the land, build the road, I keep my cattle station and you give me just a tiny percentage of your profits.”

Chong’s gaze darted back to Sophie.

“How much of a percentage?” he pondered, playing along.

“Only five percent,” Sophie replied casually, and topped up her teacup.

Chong thought quickly. He needed Wapanjara’s water, not a road, although the four hours travelling time each way from Albany to the nearest highway would be reduced considerably if a rough road went through Wapanjara. It would also be a good cover for their operation and rouse no curiosity as to what Albany was up to.

He finished his cake as he thought about it. It would be a starting point for further discussions, and if this forthright Englishwoman didn’t agree to some sort of purchase, then he would have to dispose of her and her team as quietly and efficiently as possible. He could not rouse too much suspicion, but Spicer and his associates could make most of it ‘go away,’ as it were.

All that was needed was for one crazy old ex-soldier to snap and kill his wife and visitors, including the children, and then turn the gun on himself. It wouldn’t be difficult to allow the information to get out that Soapy Munro was an elite sniper in his day, and that he had killed not only men, but women and children who had threatened his team. His medical records could also somehow be leaked to the press, where the obvious symptoms of PTSD were clearly noted. Chong had done his homework very thoroughly indeed.

But, he thought, if he could avoid killing, then he would do so. The results were messy and costly, leaving more people to pay well to keep them quiet. If he could acquire Wapanjara legally, it would be more secure in the long run.

In the meantime, Chong thought, he could keep this steely British aristocrat on the hook while he consulted with his financial advisors. But in the end, he needed the station’s water. It was essential to his plans. He already had buyers on the hook for processed uranium, and while they were patient, he had agreements to fulfill within the next six months. He decided he would play it by ear.

“Well, Lady Eloise … that may be a solution. I will speak to my people and look at some numbers, and then we can discuss it in a few days?”

Sophie’s brown eyes were steady and, Chong thought, a little unforgiving, but she smiled at him coolly.

“Why not? A discussion won’t hurt, and I’ll talk through the idea with my own team here. But be aware, Mister Chong … I have bought this station not only for my own use but as a financial inheritance for my ward,” she said, indicating Lizzie sitting with Kip and Gertie under Oggie’s awning. Gertie grumbled unhappily as she saw this stranger turn towards her.

Chong saw the two children, and his smile was almost shark-like.

“I can understand that, Lady Eloise,” he said, and waved a hand in the general direction of Mei-Ling, who was relaxing now in Eliot’s old recliner, still enjoying Effie’s delicious lemonade. “I too am looking to the future. When my son is born, he will inherit my father’s businesses after me.”

“A son?” Sophie murmured genteelly, turning to smile at Mei-Ling. “You know the baby’s sex, then?”

Chong’s jaw set as he studied the girl carrying his child.

“It will be a boy,” he said, eyes narrowing. “I don’t need doctors to tell me.”

Eliot’s face became even grimmer and his blue eyes glittered, but Chong didn’t notice as he continued, warming to his subject.

“I will raise him well … he will be strong and ambitious, and he will be mine … a dutiful son who will bear his family name with pride.” He frowned thoughtfully before continuing. “Speaking of which … the mare and foal. I would like to buy them. My son will learn to ride when he is older and the foal will make an excellent steed for him, don’t you think? Name your price.”

Chong looked at Sophie expectantly.

Eliot’s jaw muscles jumped, but his voice when it came was soft, although his team could hear the menace oozing from every word.

“Ma’am … didn’t you promise the colt to Miss Lizzie, seein’ as she was there when the colt was born? She’s got her lil’ heart set on it, you know that.”

Sophie sighed, sounding bored.

“Perhaps you’re right, Mister Stone … perhaps you’re right. I did promise the foal to her, didn’t I? Oh well.” She smiled languorously at Chong, who bristled a little but swallowed the fact that he had been rebuffed again. “So sorry,” she added, sounding not sorry at all.

Chong forced a smile, and got to his feet. This time he didn’t bother proffering a hand.

“Mei-Ling? We must be going. Perhaps I can telephone in a couple of days, Lady Eloise, and we can meet to discuss the project further?”

“Yes,” Sophie said, already sounding bored beyond belief. “Let’s.”

And without saying another word, Chong made his way down the veranda steps and headed towards the SUV, not looking back to see if Mei-Ling was following until he was halfway across the yard.

“Mei-Ling!” he yelled. “Come!!”

She’s not a bloody mutt!! Effie snarled over the comm link. Poor kid!!

Eliot heard Effie’s angry comment, but he was too busy being the gentleman Mei-Ling appeared to now trust a little, as he helped her to her feet despite the pain it caused him.

“Ma’am …” he said quietly, still in character, “you take care of yourself, y’hear?”

Mei-Ling stood up and took Eliot’s arm, unbidden this time, and followed him down the steps and through the yard to the SUV, where Chong was already waiting impatiently. The driver opened the rear door and Eliot, ignoring both Chong and the driver, helped the girl into the vehicle. As she sat back in the luxurious seat, he glanced down at her wrist, and what he saw there made the rage begin to flow though him. But he kept it in check and nodded at Mei-Ling.

“Ma’am,” he said in farewell, and smiled at her reassuringly. Chong pushed past the hitter rudely and got in beside Mei-Ling, making Eliot flinch as his wounds were jostled.

But it didn’t stop him fixing Chong with a look that was all blue ice, chill and as deadly as a winter storm.

Mister Chong …” Eliot said, his voice low and calm. “If you ever … ever … touch a hair on this young lady’s head, I swear to God I’ll kill you.”

And then Eliot smiled, and Chong felt a shiver run down his spine as he looked at this man who had suddenly gone from an amiable cowboy to a wolf on the hunt.

“Let’s go!!” Chong snapped at the driver, and reaching past Eliot as the American straightened, he pulled the door shut.

Eliot took a couple of steps backwards as the SUV headed up the hill and away from Wapanjara, and he sighed. His wounds hurt and his head was beginning to ache badly, but he was pleased he had made himself understood. Turning stiffly, he shut the homestead gate behind him and began to slowly make his way back to his family.


When he got back to the veranda and was making his way up the steps, he walked into a full-blown argument, not only about Mei-Ling and Chong, but also about Sparky.

“You can’t sell him to Chong!” Parker was ranting, “he belongs here, on Wapanjara!!”

Sophie had her fingers pinching the bridge of her nose, exasperation now beginning to give her a mild headache.

“Sell Sparky???” Kip and Lizzie said in unison.

“Sparky is not being sold to Chong –“ Sophie began, but Lizzie broke in, furious.

“Mama!!! He’s only two days old!!! You can’t sell him –“

“Lizzie … darling … he’s not mine to sell, in the first place, and it was only a ruse …” Sophie winced. She would have to explain what a ruse was. “… it … it’s a bit of a lie so the bad guys will think we are who we’re pretending to be, that’s all. Sparky is perfectly safe, and will stay here with Dottie!”

Parker narrowed her eyes, suspicious.

“You promise??”

Charlie grinned.

I promise, Parker. Sparky’s safe here.”

“Well … he’d better be!!” Parker reiterated. Sparky was part of Wapanjara and its odd little family, and there would be trouble if he left, Parker would make sure of it.

In the meantime another conversation was going on, mostly consisting of Effie ranting about Mei-Ling and Jo agreeing with her, while Soapy fretted, wondering what on earth they could do about it.

“Shitty little oik!!” Effie swore viciously, “treating the kid like that!! She’s hardly past being a nipper and the bastard’s knocked her up! He’s a bloomin’ cradle-snatcher, that’s what he is!!”

Hardison came to stand by Effie and he wrapped his good arm around her, giving her a hug. What surprised Eliot was that Effie didn’t threaten the tall young man with a head-slap. Instead, the little cook’s muddy eyes were swimming with tears.

“S’alright, Effie … we’ll try an’ make sure Chong’s out of the equation soon. Maybe the girl can go home to her folks –“ Hardison said, trying to comfort Effie.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Eliot said, silencing all of the discussions going on around the veranda table. He was very tired and his side was on fire. But what was worse was the feeling of depression that had suddenly swamped him when he saw the look on Mei-Ling’s face when he had threatened Chong. It was both terror and hope, and he didn’t know what he could possibly do to help the girl.

Nate looked at Eliot, seeing the weariness in him and he gestured at Eliot’s recliner.

“Sit, man, before you fall down.”

Eliot thought about it, unwilling to surrender to the discomfort and pain of his injuries, but common sense kicked in and he eased himself gingerly into his chair. He sighed as the cushion eased the pressure on his ribs.

Lizzie, now reassured that Chong wasn’t going to come along in the night with a gazillion ninjas and steal Sparky away, came and sat beside Eliot, frowning with concern.

“Eliot??” She whispered, and the hitter heard the worry in her tone. He held out his hand, palm upwards, and Lizzie took it, patting it gently. Eliot ran the fingers of his other hand through his hair in exasperation.

“The girl – she’s got no home to go to,” he continued. “She’s bought and paid for. Her parents probably gave her to Chong in lieu of a debt.”

Jo blanched.

“Dear God, Eliot … how do you know –“

“She’s shackled every night, Jo. Her right wrist’s a mass of bruises, old an’ new. Not handcuffs … shackles.”

“How can you tell?” Hardison asked.

Eliot winced as his side burned, and turned tired eyes on the hacker.

“Shackles leave different marks. The drag of the chains means the bruises are heavier on one side, an’ the chains give more movement. They’re very distinctive. So she can walk about, go to the bathroom … that sorta thing, an’ still be kept under control. It also means –“ he stopped abruptly and looked at Lizzie and Kip. “It means, that Chong has access to her whenever he feels like it,” he finished.

Nate face was the epitome of hatred. He loathed human trafficking, and Chong’s blatant display of his power over the girl disgusted him. But what were they going to do about her?

“We need to get her out of there,” Jo whispered more to herself than the others, but Hardison agreed.

“But how?” he said. “Albany’s pretty inaccessible an’ I have no idea how we can even reach the place without bein’ seen –“

“We don’t,” Eliot said. “We take down Chong first. The girl will have to wait. If we go in now, we blow the whole thing an’ maybe get the girl an’ her baby killed in the process. An’ I’m not about to let that happen again,” he said under his breath. He abruptly stood up, squeezing Lizzie’s hand in reassurance before letting go. “I gotta get some rest. ‘Lizbeth Grace, you go back to your bed tonight, okay? You don’t need to look out for me now. I’m doin’ much better.”

And without another word, Eliot stalked into the house, went into his room and closed the door behind him.

Lizzie stared after him, surprised and a little annoyed.

“But … but he’s still hurt!” she said, somewhat irked.

“It’s alright nipper,” Effie said, a little mollified. “He’ll be fine. If he’s not, maybe we’ll give him some more of his medicine, hey?”

That made Lizzie laugh a little, and the tension eased.

But Hardison was puzzled.

“What did he mean when he said he wasn’t about to let a girl an’ baby get killed again? What –“ he asked, his question not posed to anyone in particular.

Jo bit her lip.

“Sierra Leone*,” she said softly.

“What? What about Sierra Leone?” Parker asked.

Jo gave the little thief a sad smile.

“He’s not told you?”

Parker shook her head, mystified.

“Well, it’s not for me to say. Maybe when he feels able, he’ll tell you about it one day.”

And gathering up the tea things, Jo left the rest of Team Leverage wondering once again just what dreadful, inhuman things Eliot had had to endure in his lifetime.


As night fell, Khenbish Hadan sat beside her small fire, miles away from the homestead at Wapanjara and deep in a woody clearing where no-one would see the meagre smoke.

She had spent the time since she was shot trying to dig all of the buckshot out of her shoulder, getting most of the pellets out apart from two which were just too far out of reach, even with her flexible joints enabling her to twist in ways most people could only dream of.

She wasn’t too worried though. The injuries were clean, and she had doused them with carbolic, so even if the pellets were never removed, the injuries shouldn’t fester.

She had stitched up the bullet wound in her biceps, and then she had drunk some tea, dosing herself with prophylactic antibiotics and painkillers.

As she rested and ate a couple of rabbits she had caught earlier in the day, she reached out to her large backpack, sitting inside the small shelter she had made with saplings and tree bark.

Sticking out of the top flap, contained within an oilskin sheath, was a sword.

Untying the oilskin, she reverently worked the sword, still encased in its scabbard, out into the flickering light of the fire.

It was, she thought, a thing of great beauty. It was a Tibetan dpa’dam, the straight, elegant blade gleaming in the night, the distinctive ‘hairpin’ pattern down the blade sending a river of light down its razor-sharp length. The grip was adorned with damascened silver and turquoise, and of all the things she had owned in her life, apart from Batu, this sword was her most treasured possession.

Easing herself to her feet, she slid the blade from its scabbard and began to move … stiffly at first, but as the exercise began to loosen sore muscles and burn injuries, she moved more smoothly, elegantly, the great sword flickering like quicksilver in the night. It sang its deadly song as the fireflies danced and the stars shimmered, and Hadan knew that very soon she would use this sword to kill Eliot Spencer.

 

To be continued …


Author's note:

* To find out about the Sierra Leone incident, read ‘Gertie – part One’.

Chapter Text

The frustration was beginning to drive Eliot nuts.

After resting on his bed for a couple of hours but finding himself unable to sleep, he growled in frustration and hauled his aching body off the bed and padded through on bare feet to the kitchen, where Effie was sitting peeling potatoes.

He sat down beside her and watched her, his eyes taking in the fury that the old woman couldn’t quite hide. The fact that the potato peel was more potato than peel told Eliot that she was venting her spleen on the poor defenseless tubers.

Reaching forward, he caught Effie’s hand in his own and gently eased the peeler out of her grasp, and then took a potato from the pile. Pulling over the bowl into which Effie was dropping the skins, he began to slowly peel the potato. Effie’s hands dropped to the table surface and she sniffed furiously.

Eliot, not looking at this little woman whom he loved dearly, concentrated on the potato while Effie got her emotions under control.

“What’s for dinner?” Eliot asked conversationally.

“Beef Wellington,” Effie muttered, now a little lost without her peeler.

“Nice. Need a hand?”

“You’re already giving me a hand, you young bugger!” she replied testily, but she relented a bit. “You can do some Mediterranean roast veggies if you like,” she added reluctantly.

“You got it,” Eliot said softly, and deftly quartering the peeled potato and dropping it in the bowl of water beside its compatriots, he began another one.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Eliot peeling potatoes and Effie brooding, and then she stood up and took a deep breath to steady herself.

“Righto … dinner,” she said, more to shake her anger away than anything else. “Can’t have the nippers starving, and I’ve spent enough time moping.”

“I’ll finish these, Eff, an’ then I’ll get the roast vegetables prepped. Anythin’ else?”

Effie shook her head as though she was trying to clear it, and she wiped her hands on her apron.

“Nah. The Wellington’s cooking and I’ve got the rest of the pash ice cream on the go with mangoes for pud, so everything’s dead-set.”

Eliot finished the last potato and put it with the others. The bowl of skins would end up on Jo’s compost heap. Pulling a handful of paper towels off the roll, he drained the potatoes, dabbed them dry and then got up and wandered over to the shelves where Effie kept her cooking utensils. He pulled out a big, two-handled roasting tin, then tossed the potatoes into it and then began sorting through the vegetable rack for tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, eggplant, shallots and courgettes.

Finding what he wanted, he retrieved a sharp knife and began cutting up his choices into tasty chunks.

“You okay, Effie?” he asked finally as he peeled garlic cloves.

Effie took her time checking the big roast of sirloin, beautifully seasoned, topped with home-made paté and wrapped in pastry. It was cooking perfectly in the old range, so she closed the oven door and straightened, holding her back as though it ached.

“That girl …” she whispered, and Eliot barely heard her.

“What about her?” he said, slicing the eggplant into rounds.

“She’s just a bloody kid!” Effie couldn’t contain her grief. “That arse put her up the duff when she should be just beginning to make her way in the world, and he’s got her shackled! Shackled!! She’s nothing more than a bleedin’ slave to him!! And if, heaven forbid, she has a babbie girl, he’ll kill both of ‘em, I know it, the nasty little shite!”

Effie had to grip the edge of the sink to stop herself from punching the neighboring cupboard.

Eliot had seen Effie in many moods. He’d certainly seen the gamut of her many ‘angry’ guises – happy-angry, irritated-angry and angry-with-a-hint-of-playfulness to name but a few. But in all of the years he had known Effie McPhee, he had never seen her helplessly angry.

He put down the knife and the half-sliced eggplant, and turning to Effie, pulled her into a hug.

Not one for hugging, Effie tried to gently push him away, worrying about hurting him, but she suddenly succumbed with a grumbly sigh and rested her head against Eliot’s chest.

Tightening his hold around her, Eliot placed his chin on the top of her head and felt the tremor in Effie’s round body. In the space of an afternoon, Effie’s formidable armour, never the most effective when it came to children and hurt things, had failed her and Mei-Ling and her unborn child were now firmly on Effie’s protective radar.

“I’ll do my best, Effie. I promise,” Eliot said.

Effie stilled. Then she wormed her head out from beneath Eliot’s chin and stared up at him.

“What??” she asked, her voice now clear and hard.

Eliot’s mouth quirked with humour as he answered, feigning exasperation.

“I said –“

Effie scowled as she pulled away, and Eliot could see she dearly wanted to give him a head slap, but with the concussion and the cut over his ear, she just poked him in the stomach instead with a pudgy finger.

“I heard what you said, you young mongrel! D’you think I’m deaf?? And if you think you’re going to put yourself in the middle of that bastard’s world, hurt the way you are, well … just … “ Effie struggled to find the words. “ … don’t.”

Eliot couldn’t contain the smile that crept onto his face.

“Eff … we’ll find a way, darlin’ … we always do.”

Effie glared at him, her eyes sparking fiercely.

“Good!” she growled. “Because that little girl and her young ‘un should be safe and away from that shitty dead-head, and she needs to be here where we can look after ‘em both!”

Eliot nodded.

“I know. Like you looked after me all those years ago.”

Effie’s muddy eyes softened.

“You were just a skinny-arsed sick-as-a-pup young bugger back then, bleeding all over the bloody place. The Missus thought you wanted to die, but she wasn’t about to let you, was she??”

Eliot, knowing Effie was lost in memories, gave her a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead, which for once the old woman didn’t seem to mind.

“Nope. An’ you wouldn’t let me die either … none of you.” Eliot murmured. “An’ I know you want to help the girl because you know she’s got a future, her an’ her baby. So that’s why we’ll try our damnedest, Effie. That I guarantee.”

They both stood for long moments as Effie gathered her thoughts, and then Eliot let her go, Effie reaching up and patting his cheek.

“C’mon, you cheeky bludger – let’s get cooking. We’ve got people to feed!”

Eliot, feeling better than he had for days, grinned.

“Yes, ma’am!!” he said.


The Beef Wellington, as expected, was delicious, and Lizzie and Kip, both of whom were apparently starving to death, wolfed down two helpings each. Lizzie even ate all of her vegetables, including a small side serving of Eliot’s green salad with peppers, made with ingredients fresh from Jo’s garden and picked by Kip and Lizzie themselves. Wapanjara and its fresh air was working wonders, Sophie thought.

As the evening meal went on, Sophie looked around at these people she loved – and now she included the Munros, Charlie, little Kip who was Lizzie’s dear friend, and even Effie … the grumpy old woman with a heart of gold.

Despite the danger … despite members of her family being badly hurt … she did not for one moment regretting coming to Wapanjara. Sophie Devereaux Ford was a woman who had spent a lifetime on the move. She knew the world like the back of her hand … had eaten at the best restaurants and stayed in many of the most luxurious hotels, and she was used to the best of everything. But here, in a remote part of outback Australia, in a place with very little contact with ‘civilisation’ – Soapy and Jo didn’t even have a television – she felt completely at ease.

Which was why she had every intention of destroying Chong Bun-Tsui and his organisation.

Hardison, feeling the pain after a long day, looked tired and sore, but he was already making plans to go back up to Manaji Ridge in the morning to pick holes in Everett Spicer’s contacts and he needed to access one of the world’s many security satellite systems to do it.

“I want to know who the hell Spicer’s been talkin’ to,” he was saying, “an’ I need to dig about in the secure police systems in Adelaide. Can’t do it from here – sorry Soapy, but you guys live out here in the boonies with crappy access to anythin’ digital, so –“

Soapy waved a hand dismissively, grinning.

“No worries, boy. So … we go after breakfast. In Bernadette, right?” He couldn’t prevent the tone of hope running though his words.

Hardison grinned, tired but feeling as though he was making headway.

“Bernadette has stolen your heart, m’man!” he said, placing his hand over his own heart.

“Well, just a teeny bit of it,” Soapy admitted, and then grasped Jo’s hand and slipped his fingers through hers. “Because the rest of it belongs to my old girl, so it does.”

Jo smiled back at her husband.

“Well, I’m not the jealous type,” she said, amused. “I’m sure I can allow Bernadette her moment in the sun.”

The look of delight on Soapy’s face was almost child-like.

“Oh, Jo,” Sophie said indulgently, “Boys and their toys.”

Soapy rubbed his hands together, savouring the mere anticipation of driving Bernadette again.

“Good-oh!” he exclaimed, and then his black eyes sparkled even more when Effie dumped a plate of passion fruit ice cream and sliced, fresh mangoes in front of him.

“Bloody great thing,” she muttered, “sitting there … clarting up the yard … bloody camel using it like a living room …”

“Shame you can’t drive, Effie,” Charlie said. “I bet you’d love crashing through the undergrowth with Chong in your sights. He’d be flatter than a road-kill ‘roo,” he added with a smile.

The mention of Chong made Effie slam Eliot’s plate down on the table harder than was necessary, and Eliot wiped a small splatter of mango juice off his chin.

Dammit, Effie –“ he grumbled, but lifted his spoon ready to tuck in.

“Bastard!” Effie swore, scowling. “If I ever get my hands on the drongo he’ll have his bloody scrawny neck wrung faster than an old chook’s!”

“Sit down and eat, Effie,” Jo said, her voice soothing, “before you do yourself – and the rest of us – a mischief.”

“Death by mango!” Parker chortled to herself.

But the tone of the room sobered a little as everyone’s thoughts turned to Mei-Ling.

“That poor girl …” Jo said softly. “She must be pretty near her due date by the look of her, and I bet she won’t have a doctor anywhere near to help. It’s a four-hour drive from Albany to Tennant Creek … unless they have a chopper,” she added. Helicopters were a common form of transport in the outback.

“No sign of a helipad or runway out there, Jo,” Hardison commented. “They want to keep the whole place pretty low-key … Rickenbacker obviously doesn’t want to attract any attention.”

“What about the … what-d’you-call-it … the flying doctors? Surely they can land on a field?” Nate asked, curious.

“There’s still a lot of water about and Albany’s notorious for getting a bit swamped. All the rain will have put a hold on the mining too, I betcha,” Soapy explained, singling out a piece of mango before angling it onto his spoon.

“I checked the employee roster an’ there’s a small medical bay an’ a male nurse, but no doctor that I can find,” Hardison commented, “although I guess that there are people on the ground at Albany who don’t show up as even bein’ in Australia, let alone on a payroll.”

“Won’t matter to that shonky bastard,” Effie snarled, her dander now up, “if the girl don’t make it he can just go buy himself another one and make another baby and keep going until he gets his bloody son!

“And we can’t help her until we take care of Chong,” Eliot said grimly, “an’ until Hardison gets his act together an’ figures out how to take the whole damn’ lot of ‘em at once, we can’t do anything …” he dropped his spoon in his desert bowl and slammed the flat of his hand gently on the table. “I friggin’ hate this,” he growled under his breath.

“I can’t ‘get my act together’ until I’ve tracked down Spicer’s contact … the one who’s coverin’ for him … and find his or her weaknesses. ”Hardison grumbled. He knew Eliot was just fretting about the few options they had, and in the end their only recourse was to goad Chong into action.

But they had to be ready for him, because, Eliot knew, leaving wasn’t a choice for them. Looking back, he thought, it never had been an option. Soapy and Jo would probably have been dead by now, along with Charlie and – the thought made Eliot shudder – also young Kip.

So the fight had to come to Wapanjara, and it was on Wapanjara that they as a team had the most control.

“Look,” Nate said, thinking their situation through for what seemed the umpteenth time, “once we find Spicer’s associate we have the last piece of the puzzle, and then we can see the complete picture. We can take Chong down, along with Spicer, Rickenbacker … the whole shebang. Once we find out what hold Spicer has on whoever-it-is we can put Hardison’s plan in action.”

“Man, I can do the geeky stuff from hundreds of miles away, an’ it is goin’ to be soooo satisfyin’!” Hardison crowed, and then winced. His shoulder was very painful and he had overdone his computer-y stuff through the afternoon after Chong departed, determined to see what he could set up for the information-gathering the following morning.

Kip saw the hacker flinch as his shoulder flamed with pain, and slipping from his chair he ran over to one of the big chairs, lifted a cushion and returned to Hardison, helping the hacker rest the cushion under his elbow to ease the ache.

The relief on Hardison’s face was almost palpable.

“Ahhh, thank you, m’man!” he sighed, and held his right hand out to Kip. The pair of them went through some complicated fist-bumping which ended with an exaggerated finger-waggle.

Charlie’s jaw dropped.

“Just what the hell was that??” he said, mystified.

“Daaad!!” Kip said with a loud sigh and an eye-roll that would have impressed a bored teenager, “Don’t you know anything???

Charlie looked at the people around the table, whose faces were a mixture of amusement, astonishment and - on Eliot’s part – irritation. Obviously Hardison and Kip were sympatico.

“Just be thankful Hardison ain’t showin’ him how to fight orcs on-line with lots of sad little people he’s never met …” Eliot rumbled, and finished the last of his dessert. “Gonna go to bed,” he added, slowly getting to his feet and letting out a soft flurry of coughs.

“Eliot??” Lizzie queried, brow furrowing.

“S’okay, Lizbeth Grace. It’s gonna be a busy day tomorrow, an’ I have to catch up on my beauty sleep. Can’t get by on ninety minutes a night like I used to. Gotta be about three hours these days, ‘specially when I got a bullet hole in me,” he added, hitching his Lizzie-smile, making his eyes crinkle at the corners.

Jo stood up and began clearing dishes, but as she passed Eliot she tapped his arm.

“Antibiotics, boy … they’re on your bedside table,” she murmured, and Eliot nodded wordlessly.

“And cough medicine,” Effie added, muddy eyes glittering ominously.

Eliot said something under his breath, and it was obvious that whatever it was it was unfit for Lizzie and Kip’s tender ears, but he grunted his agreement.

“See y’all,” he muttered, and the slip into the soft Oklahoman accent of his youth told his friends that he was indeed very tired and still extremely sore. “’Night.”

And with that he was gone, back to his room and – hopefully – some restful, healing sleep. But Nate doubted it. Mei-Ling was going to haunt him, along with the memories of whatever had happened in Sierra Leone all those years ago.

“Sometimes,” Sophie said quietly, “I wonder just how long he can keep taking the punishment.”

“And I wonder if he’ll ever make the decision to stop, or we’ll have to do it for him,” Nate added, running his fingers through his hair. “Provided someone else doesn’t stop him first …” he said under his breath so that his daughter didn’t hear.

Sophie caught her husband’s hand and rubbed the knuckles, but she didn’t speak. She didn’t have to. Because one day Eliot Spencer would have to stop giving and receiving damage, but she just prayed that it wasn’t because someone did it for him with a bullet or a knife or … no. She wouldn’t let the sudden thought take hold because it was just too terrible to contemplate. Sophie sighed.

“Tea,” she said. “I need tea.”

And Nate, sitting holding his wife’s hand, looked at Lizzie and wondered what would happen to their beautiful, clever daughter if anything happened to Eliot, her guardian, best friend and life mentor. Sighing, he squeezed Sophie’s hand and decided that thinking that way led to madness, and Nate Ford had had enough madness in his existence to last a lifetime.

So the team and their new family sat around the table and talked into the night, as the dingoes howled under the limpid moon and a slight breeze whispered through the gum trees, leaves rustling quietly in moon-glow.


The sudden crazed barking woke Eliot with a start.

He was dozing on top of his bed, still fully clothed, and he reached out with his right hand and lifted the old wind-up alarm clock beside his bed and squinted at the luminous dials.

Three-twenty in the morning.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and rose.

The rattling screech of tires and the following crashing thump of metal on wood had Eliot on his feet in a split second and he didn’t even feel the pain as he jammed his feet into his boots and moved stealthily out of his room, along the corridor and onto the veranda in less than ten seconds. He met Charlie as the young aborigine came running around the corner of the house from Gertie’s paddock, surprised by the ranting of the heelers in the middle of one of his rounds through the station homestead and barns.

Clumping down the veranda steps, Eliot broke into a trot as voices suddenly erupted in the house behind him.

Headlights glared through the night and a car horn blared, and behind the lights he could see a vehicle skewed off the dirt road and lying at an angle against the sturdy post of the homestead gate.

Holding his right hand against his bullet wound to support the broken rib, Eliot gritted his teeth against the jarring pain and sped up, knowing instantly that no matter what plans Hardison had, they had probably run out of time.

Charlie ordered away the heelers, and they slunk towards the barn, still barking, as Charlie unlocked the gate and swung it open, the station manager shining his flashlight at the vehicle now crumpled against the post. The hood was buckled and the windscreen was spider-webbed with cracks.

It was an old blue Ford ute, rusty around the wheel-arches and the doors, and Eliot grasped the passenger door and wrangled it open, not an easy task as the panel was distorted by the chassis being sprung on impact.

Charlie peered in through the broken window of the driver’s seat and swore.

“Oh shit!” he muttered, and it took him two hefty pulls to open the door. “It’s the girl!!”

Eliot managed to shimmy his way into the passenger seat and looked at the young Chinese woman sitting half-conscious in the driver’s seat, blood trickling down her forehead from impacting on the steering wheel even as her head lolled back and the blaring horn suddenly cut out. Eliot could see the shackle and chain still attached to her right wrist.

Mei-Ling moaned and tried to sit up but she cried out and clutched at her pregnant belly.

Eliot’s heart sank. Either she was hurt, or she was in labour. Either way, it wasn’t good.

“Hey … hey there,” he murmured softly, and reached out to touch her shoulder. Mei-Ling flinched visibly at the contact and she whimpered through the pain. “Easy now,” Eliot continued, “don’t move. We’ll get you out of here in just a minute, okay?”

For the first time Mei-Ling turned hazy dark eyes towards him, and it took her a few moments to recognise the kind, gentle cowboy who had told Chong he would kill him if he hurt her. And it was then, as her mind cleared a little, that she began to babble at him hysterically.

She reached for Eliot with her shackled hand and Eliot caught it, feeling the sweat on her palm and the shaking in her tiny frame, but he couldn’t make out what she was yelling at him because she was speaking Chinese.

Eliot had a working knowledge of Cantonese and a smattering of Mandarin, but this was a dialect of the latter which he didn’t quite understand.

“Whoa now, ma’am … easy …” he squeezed her hand and Mei-Ling cried out, even though Eliot’s grip was light but firm. He looked at the shackled wrist. Damn. She had obviously somehow yanked the chain free, but the damage to her wrist was very visible, and blood was crusted around the shackle itself from cuts and abrasions. “Ma’am … Mei-Ling … listen to me, sweetheart … you have to relax, okay?”

The mention of her name made Mei-Ling calm down somewhat, and she let go of Eliot’s hand and returned it to her swollen abdomen. Her babbling softened a little, and as Eliot checked her over for damage, she began to rock backwards and forwards.

Now that he had the driver’s door open, Charlie crouched down beside Mei-Ling, aiming the flashlight so that Eliot could look the girl over for further injury.

“How’s she doing?” he asked urgently.

“Her legs seem okay an’ she’s not trapped, no broken bones that I can see. She’s just a bit knocked about is all. We gotta get her out of here, Charlie. I could be wrong, but I think she’s in labour.”

“Bloody hell!” Charlie grimaced, squinting past Mei-Ling and her babbling. The girl suddenly stopped and grunted, bending over and hugging her belly.

“Yep – she’s in labour,” Eliot confirmed. “We need to get her inside so Jo can take a look at her.”

“Is that who I think it is??” Jo’s voice rang through the darkness, and she materialized beside Charlie in nightgown and work boots, crouching down beside the wiry young man.

“Yeah, an’ she’s still chained, Jo – I need Parker –“ Eliot said gruffly.

“Here!!” Parker rang out, and emerged past the brightness of the headlights to stand beside Eliot, who wriggled out of the passenger seat, although Mei-Ling reached out for him even as she worked through the contraction now rippling through her belly.

Parker had one of Soapy’s coats on over her pyjamas, and her feet were bare. But that didn’t stop her sliding past Eliot and into the passenger seat beside Mei-Ling.

“We have to get her out of those –“ Eliot began, but Parker already had a lock-pick in her hand and she grasped Mei-Ling’s wrist as gently as she could.

“Done!” she exclaimed happily, and handed the chain and now-unfastened shackle to Eliot.

“Parker, can you unfasten her safety belt?” Jo asked, concentrating now on Mei-Ling’s discomfort and the need to get her somewhere safe, dry and comfortable.

Parker was already working on it, and it only took a couple of tries and the strap sprung clear. Mei-Ling moaned and she began a litany of Chinese words, repeated again and again and aimed at Jo, who smiled reassuringly at the young woman.

“We need Soapy,” Jo said. “He speaks Chinese,” she added as she cupped Mei-Ling’s cheek and smiled at the girl, whose face was shining with perspiration and twisted in pain.

“But she speaks English!” Parker said, now a little confused.

“Not much, I expect, and in her present condition she’s gone back to the language she’s most comfortable with.” Jo turned her attention back to Mei-Ling. “It’s alright, sweetie … you’re safe now, I promise. Do you understand? You’re safe.

Mei-Ling glanced around at the faces surrounding her. They were concerned, kind, and trying to help. She knew that now. She tried to smile, but another contraction hit her and she doubled over. There was a sudden gush of fluid from between her legs.

“Oooh, here we go!” Jo was all business now. “Her waters just broke. It won’t be long now.”

“JO!!” Soapy emerged from the darkness followed by Sophie and Nate. “What’s – oh!” the pastoralist exclaimed as he saw Mei-Ling. “What can I do?” he asked, instantly grasping the situation.

“How’s your Mandarin?” Eliot asked, raising an eyebrow in query.

“Fair to middling,” Soapy replied. “Rusty though.” He grinned. “It’s been a long time, mate!”

“Tell her she’s safe and she can calm down now. We’re here to help,” Jo said as she rested a hand on Mei-Ling’s distended stomach. She could feel the muscles quiver as the contraction tore through the young woman.

“Here!” Parker emerged from the passenger seat and gestured at Soapy. “Keep her company.”

Soapy settled in beside Mei-Ling and the girl turned large, frightened eyes towards the ex-soldier, and Soapy suddenly understood the girl was absolutely terrified. He held up a hand in surrender and winked at her. Thinking for a moment, he began to speak.

“Um … let me see … lěngjìng … lěngjìng … nǐ xiànzài hěn ānquán. Nǐ néng shuō yīngyǔ ma?

Mei-Ling’s eyes darted from face to face, not sure what was going on, but she nodded.

“Yes … I speak English a little.” She closed her eyes and whined at the pain for a moment. “You say … you say I am safe?”

“Yes, Mei-Ling,” Jo answered, and patted the girl’s hand. “You’re safe. We won’t let anyone harm you or your baby.”

Mei-Ling burst into tears.

Xièxiè … xièxiè … gǎnxiè nǐ de qīnqiè …” she sobbed, and grasped Soapy’s hand, and he saw the raw, torn skin on her wrist. That bastard, he thought.

“What is she saying?” Parker whispered.

Soapy shook his head sadly.

“She just keeps thanking us for being so kind. Poor kid,” he added, and he couldn’t stop the anger in his voice from showing as he thought about Chong and what he had done to this young girl. “Well, enough of this. Let’s get Mei-Ling inside where it’s warm, hey?”

And with Jo and Parker hovering beside the young woman, Nate and Charlie eased her carefully out of the car. Before she could even attempt to stand, Nate gently lifted her in his arms, and with the greatest care he began to carry her back to the house where Effie and Hardison stood, guarding the children who slept so soundly in their sleeping bags. He saw Effie tap Hardison on the shoulder and they both disappeared into the house. Nate knew Effie would be preparing for the birth of a new life at Wapanjara.

But Eliot stayed beside the battered old ute for a minute or two, thinking about what was to come.

However Mei-Ling had escaped, she had run to the only people she thought might help her. It was an insanely brave thing for her to do, not knowing what she was letting herself in for. All she knew was that they had been kind to her for the space of twenty-five minutes.

Pulling the gate closed and padlocking it, Eliot leaned on the top bar and gazed into the darkness.

The girl had done the right thing, he understood that. But it also meant that Chong would come looking for her … or rather, his child. His son.

The ute wasn’t from Albany, and he had no idea how the girl had got hold of it, but as soon as it was daylight, he would help Charlie haul it into the barn with the tractor. Out of sight, he thought, and out of Chong’s way.

Eliot sighed.

It didn’t matter what Chong thought, the young snakehead would come back to Wapanjara sooner rather than later, and their plans to bring down the man and his organisation were put in danger because Hardison probably wouldn’t have time to complete his clandestine research.

No matter, Eliot decided. Tonight, there was a baby to deliver and a young girl’s life to watch over, and Eliot would settle himself down on his recliner with Effie’s pump-action shotgun by his side, despite his hatred of firearms.

Tonight, under the lowering moon and a sky streaming faint meteor trails, he would keep safe the people he loved, as Chong Bun-Tsui and the deadly creature that was Khenbish Hadan came ever closer.

Eliot Spencer would protect his family, or, he knew in his heart, he would die trying.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


It was as the first, fluting calls of the magpies rang through the almond stand and the pale glimmer of dawn’s golden hour glowed on the horizon that the weak, angry cry of an infant rang through Wapanjara homestead.

Eliot, sitting in the shadowed veranda on his old recliner and watching for any threat to his people, rested his head back on the chair, closed his eyes and smiled that slow, rare smile his family treasured … the smile that spoke of Eliot’s heart and soul … the smile that Lizzie loved because it meant Eliot was happy.

Born in the middle of strife and danger, a new life had begun, and eased his memories of Sierra Leone, when a girl and her child had died because of greed and lust and degradation, and Eliot had been too late to do anything about it even though he had freed her from her bondage.

But even as he rejoiced at the arrival of the child, he realised how weak the cry was. Maybe … maybe it was small … premature, possibly. But the baby was alive, and Jo Munro and Effie McPhee would do everything in their power to keep it that way. He, along with everyone else not immediately involved in assisting Jo and Effie, would have to wait and see.

Leaning forward in his chair, checking the skyline and the road for the umpteenth time, Eliot lifted the chain and shackles off the table beside him and studied the free end. It was attached to a small but sturdy plate with a loop, through which the chain was fastened. The plate still carried the splintered remains of wood. Eliot thought about it. A plank, possibly … no. A floorboard. The chain had been attached to a heavy old floorboard. So how the hell had a tiny thing like Mei-Ling, heavily pregnant, wrenched the chain away from the wood, shattering it in the process?

As daylight increased, he fingered the remains of the wood, and in doing so found his answer. The edges of the wood were slightly spongy and when pressed, began to crumble.

Chong was an idiot, Eliot decided.

Albany had been a sheep station, neglected and unused for a couple of years when the owner died and the station was caught up in probate before being sold. The house was like Wapanjara’s … an old, single-storey bungalow, twice the size of Wapanjara, raised on heavy wooden props to keep it above any flooding that might occur during the Wet. Soapy and Jo had replaced Wapanjara’s century-old props with steel girders many years ago, but Albany homestead still had its ironbark props and floorboards.

Eliot ran his finger over the wood shards and smiled.

Termites. Albany had a termite infestation that hadn’t been treated. Ironbark wasn’t a termite favourite, but it still needed regular treatment to keep it from being slowly destroyed by the tenacious little insects. It would have still taken a lot of effort to pull the chain free, but Mei-Ling must have spotted the weakness somehow and just kept working at the plate until the weakened floorboard gave way.

And Chong was an idiot because he hadn’t bothered checking the condition of the wood before having the plate attached. But then, Eliot thought, Chong probably thought a tiny, cowed young woman, heavily pregnant and with nowhere to go – or so he thought – wouldn’t even attempt an escape.

The twenty-five minutes she had spent on Wapanjara had finally given her a chance, however faint, to get out of her living nightmare. How she had escaped the house and then Albany itself was a story they still had to hear, but escape she had, and now she was relatively safe and a mother.

And as Eliot placed the shackles and chain back on the table, something else impinged on his awareness, and his eyebrows raised in astonishment.

Through the open door to the veranda, even as the child’s cries echoed through the dawn coolness, another voice joined it. This was an even weaker cry, more of a wail than a cry of anger. It was a little, breathy sob of irritation, too frail to make much noise.

Jesus.

Twins, Eliot thought with a sudden rush of understanding. That tiny slip of a girl had done the well-nigh impossible and escaped Albany while in the early stages of labour, and now she had borne twins.

But the fragility of those cries of new life cut Eliot to the bone. Nono, not again. He instantly thought of the 14-year-old girl in Sierra Leone, too young and too weak and too traumatised to carry a child, and her beautiful, tiny little boy had been born still and so, so silent. The young mother had died minutes later. Eliot Spencer, barely out of his teens, had grieved and buried them himself, denying all help.

Getting stiffly to his feet, he made his way into the house where the murmur of voices which had kept him company through the night were now raised in urgent concern.

Hardison met him at the living room door.

“Where’s Charlie?” the young hacker asked, cradling his arm and peering past Eliot. “Jo asked me to –“

“Doin’ his rounds. I’ll go get him. What’s happenin’ –“

Parker came barreling out of Eliot’s room where Mei-Ling had been settled in, and the little thief was both elated and deeply worried.

“Charlie has to go and fetch stuff from his house,” Parker rattled off. “Baby clothes, crib, bottles … everything he can find. Jo says he kept all of Kip’s old baby things,” she added. Her blue eyes were suspiciously moist. The baby cries were continuing, weaker now, and Eliot’s gut lurched.

“How are –“

“They’re tiny!!” Parker whispered, and flung herself at Eliot, forgetting his wounds, but he didn’t flinch and held her tight. “They’re so little, Eliot!! We have to keep them warm and Mei-Ling has no milk, so we need to find something for them to drink –“

“Okay, darlin’ …” Eliot comforted her as best he could. “How’s Mei-Ling doin’?”

Parker snuggled against Eliot’s chest, and her tears dampened his jacket.

“Tired … really tired. And Jo says she’s not been eating properly, which is why the babies are so little. The little boy’s smaller than his sister, and she’s just a tiny thing.”

So … Eliot thought fleetingly. Chong has his son. But he would never see him, or his daughter, Eliot vowed silently. They were part of his world now, and under his protection.

Sophie was next, carrying bloodied towels and sheets.

“Eliot … Mei-Ling’s asking for you.” She said quietly. “She wants to see the cowboy, she says.”

Eliot let go of Parker, who wiped her eyes and smiled up at the hitter.

“I’ll go find Charlie,” she said firmly, and then she was gone, out into the new day, running lightly on bare feet towards the barn.

Eliot turned to his room, but Sophie stopped him with a touch on his arm.

“Give them a minute, will you? Jo’s just getting Mei-Ling settled and cleaned up.” Sophie’s brown eyes were warm with compassion. “She’s had a tough time of it, poor thing. But she wouldn’t yell.” Her face flickered with barely-hidden ire. “She didn’t yell, because if she yelled with pain or complained when Chong used her, he would hit her. So she learned not to make a noise.” Sophie’s lip curled with hatred. “He’s quite the charmer, isn’t he?”

Sonofabitch,” Hardison breathed.

And,” Sophie continued, “she’s only just turned seventeen. Chong’s owned her since she was fifteen.”

Eliot suddenly realised Sophie was shaking with fury.

He cupped Sophie’s cheek in his hand and was about to say something when Effie stumped out of the kitchen, scowling. She was carrying two stoneware hot-water bottles wrapped thickly in towels.

“Well, Yank, I hope you don’t mind your undies dumped on the floor in a corner because clever-clogs is turning the drawer into a crib for the babbies,” she growled.

“Nate came up with the idea.” Sophie added. “A bit like a makeshift incubator.”

While Eliot mentally winced at the idea of his ‘undies’ flung onto the floor for all to see, he immediately understood Nate’s thinking. Effie would keep the old stoneware bottles at the head and foot of the drawer and the babies would be warm and cosy in the centre, away from draughts and where they wouldn’t lose precious body heat.

“Works for me,” Eliot said. “Anything I can do until I can see her?”

Effie nodded, eyes sparking with anger and compassion.

“Powdered milk, in the cupboard by the door. We have to figure out some kind of formula for the tiddlers,” she ground out. “That girl doesn’t have enough milk for one babbie, let alone two. Poor little bugger,” she added under her breath.

Eliot nodded and was about to head into the kitchen when he had a thought.

“Effie … ask Jo if we can use powdered cow colostrum,” he said.

Effie nodded approvingly.

“I should think so. Mister M ordered some just a month ago, I think. It’ll be in the –“

“ –in the office next to the veterinary case,” Eliot finished. “I’m on it.”

As Sophie headed off to put the soiled sheets and towels in the laundry and Effie disappeared into Eliot’s room with her stoneware bottles, Eliot felt Hardison touch his arm.

“El, listen … I been thinkin’ … Soapy an’ me, we can head off in Bernadette as soon as it’s light enough an’ we can be back in a couple of hours. I need to do my thing before Chong gets the bit between his teeth an’ comes chargin’ in here ready for mayhem and misery,” Hardison said under his breath. His dark eyes glanced at the closed door to Eliot’s room. ”Would you an’ Parker an’ Charlie be able to hold the fort until we get back? I need Nate to help out ‘cause Soapy’s still a bit sore.”

Eliot swiftly calculated timing and vulnerability, especially as they now had three more people to take care of, all of them weak and two of whom would need continual care for the next little while.

“Yeah … we’ll manage. Anyone who messes with the womenfolk of Wapanjara needs their head lookin’ at.” Eliot said grimly. “You go do your thing. We’ll be waitin’ for you. But don’t stay out there any longer than you have to, Hardison, okay? No arm-wavin’ crap tryin’ to impress Soapy, or … or … any of that geeky hoo-ha -“

Hardison rolled his eyes and nodded impatiently.

“Yeah, yeah, Eliot, I gotcha,” he sighed. “Go up onto the ridge, get the info, come back … done deal.”

“An’ that’s it, Hardison! You understand?? I can’t be worrin’ about you guys any more than I need to, you got it? Huh?”

Hardison saw past the gruff scowly Eliot he knew so well and perceived the concern and care behind it all. Eliot was quickly descending into touchy-guard-wolf mode, and now wasn’t the time to piss the hitter off – especially seeing as he was injured and sore, which made him all the more of a pain-in-the-ass.

Hardison gave Eliot a toothy grin.

“We got new babies, bro! Just how cool is that??

Eliot, despite himself, tweaked a smile.

“Yeah … pretty cool.” He had a tough time getting the smile under control, but he did it and settled his face back into its customary ‘I’m workin’, so don’t push me, okay?’ frown. “As soon as Soapy’s ready you get goin’.”

“An’ in return you guys wear your earbuds around the homestead, alright?”

Eliot agreed, nodding.

“Eliot, love … Mei-Ling wants to talk to you, boy,” Jo said as she peeked out of the bedroom door.

“Comin’ –“ Eliot breathed. “Hardison – can you go to the office in the barn an’ find a bag labelled ‘Calf colostrum’, okay? It’s in a cupboard beside the veterinary cabinet.”

Hardison screwed his face up, thinking.

“What the hell is colos … colos …”

“Colostrum!” Eliot snarked, “it’s special milk powder with lots of antibodies an’ everything in it! The babies’ll need it, alright??”

Hardison digested the information and hovered a bit.

Dammit, Hardison!” Eliot hissed quietly. “Go!!

“Okay, okay!” Hardison answered, “I’ll go an’ see if Charlie an’ Parker need a hand,” he added.

Letting Hardison go, Eliot took a deep, pained breath and eased himself quietly into the bedroom where Mei-Ling lay, looking white against the pillows and small and very frail under the warm blankets. She was watching Nate intensely as he busily lined Eliot’s ‘undies’ drawer with warm towels. She tenderly held a little, weakly squalling bundle in her arms.

Soapy sat beside her, holding a smaller bundle which wriggled against the pastoralist’s chest. Soapy couldn’t take his eyes off the little boy in his arms. Eliot knew a besotted look when he saw one.

Jo turned and smiled at Eliot.

“Sit down, laddie. You look shattered,” she added, and shooed Eliot into the other chair beside the bed.

Mei-Ling’s dark eyes lit up tiredly when she saw him, and she began to repeat just one word.

“Cowboy!” she said, thin face alight with pleasure, “Cowboy, Cowboy!!”

Eliot smiled back, but his smile faded into a grim line when Mei-Ling struggled with her next sentence.

“He … he will come here …” she said haltingly, “he will kill you … you are … you are in danger …”

Jo’s hand settled on Eliot’s shoulder, and he glanced up at her. But his answer to Mei-Ling was soft and kind.

“I’ve been in danger most of my life, sweetheart, so don’t you worry,” he reassured her.

Mei-Ling, not quite understanding, turned to Soapy, who tore his eyes away from the baby in his arms and quietly translated.

Mei-Ling’s face was drawn and exhausted, but she smiled tremulously and reached out to Eliot, who held her free hand as she cradled her daughter. She began speaking again, this time in Chinese, and Soapy murmured the words softly so as not to disturb the infant he held with such reverence.

“A man came …” he said, as Mei-Ling began to speak. “A … a policeman – hang on a mo … no, two policemen, she’s saying … arrived to see Chong right after they got back to Albany.” Soapy waited a few seconds as Mei-Ling caught up, and then he continued. “One was from Tennant Creek and she had met him before – that must be Spicer,” Soapy added as an aside, and then he continued. “The other one … he’s from Adelaide … he’s - bloody hell!!” Soapy exclaimed, sotto voce, as Mei-Ling said the man’s name.

Jo turned from her task of helping Nate make up the warm bed for the twins.

“What? What is it?” she asked, not understanding Soapy’s surprise.

Soapy looked up at his wife.

“It’s Toby Custance!” he said. “Bloody Toby Custance!!”

“What? No! It can’t be!!” Jo said disbelievingly.

“You know him?” Nate asked.

“Too right we know him!!” Jo said. “His folks used to own Albany when it was a sheep station!”

“Well!” Nate finally had the lightbulb moment he had been yearning for. “It’s all coming together now, huh! He didn’t inherit the place when his folks died then?”

“Oh yes, he inherited the place – but he hated it. Couldn’t get out fast enough and left as soon as he could,” Soapy explained. “Joined the army, but decided to leave after a few years and went into the police. He’s a bit of a big-wig in the Adelaide force, I heard. It took him a while to get sole ownership of the place, but as soon as he did he sold it. It must’ve been to Albany.”

Nate grinned. At last things were beginning to make sense. They now had a name, and all Hardison had to do was dig around and find the connection between Chong, Spicer and Custance and exploit it for all it was worth. That would save a lot of time.

He finished his job of putting together the little bed for the new arrivals, and Effie tucked in the stoneware bottles. It was ready. Now all they had to do was try and get some food into the infants.

Hardison poked his head around the door.

“Got the milk powder,” he said, and tried to peer at the babies from the doorway. “Charlie an’ Parker are just comin’ in with all of the baby stuff, includin’ bottles.”

“Righto then, sunbeam. I’ll go make up some milk for the tiddlers,” Effie said, now in fine fettle because she had something to do to help the undernourished young woman and her babies. She stumped out of the room, pulling Hardison with her.

Mei-Ling slumped a little in the bed, still clinging desperately to her daughter, but it was obvious she was struggling.

“No more talking, now,” Jo said firmly. “You, my girl, need to eat something and then get some rest.”

Mei-Ling, understanding, nodded, but before Jo could bend over and take the child from her, the new mother reached out to Eliot and gestured to him to hold the baby. This man would watch over her children, she knew.

And before Eliot realised what he was doing, he carefully cradled the tiny bundle in his arms and held her close to his heart.

He hadn’t held a baby since Kip and Lizzie were small, and gazing down at the little, elfin face blinking up at him, topped with a thatch of dark hair, he tucked her into his good side to keep her warm using his body heat. She was very, very fragile, but he would keep her safe, he promised silently, both this little one and her brother.

There was a hesitant knock on the door and a little voice asked,

“Can we meet the babies?”

Lizzie and Kip had slept through the whole thing. Not even the toing-and-froing through the night had disturbed them, but now they were wide awake, informed, and very, very excited.

But before Jo could tell them that Mei-Ling and the babies needed to rest, Mei-Ling’s eyes lit up, hollow and exhausted as they were.

“Yes!” she called out. “Yes, come see! Come, children!”

Lizzie and Kip were through the door before Mei-Ling had finished speaking, and as they saw Soapy and Eliot holding the tiny bundles, their eyes became round with wonder.

Kip snuggled up to Soapy and looked at the baby boy in his Grandpa’s arms.

“Is it a girl or a boy?” he asked, and very carefully tucked the thick towel away so he could see the child’s face.

Soapy grinned at Kip.

“This is the little boy,” he whispered back. He’s the youngest.”

“So … so what are they called?” Lizzie asked as she peered over Eliot’s shoulder. “Do they have names yet? She’s so little!” she added, unable to tear her eyes away from the baby in Eliot’s protective arms.

Mei-Ling, gratefully taking a mug of hot, milky tea from Jo and sipping it, shook her head.

“No names,” she murmured tiredly. “Not yet. But …” she continued haltingly, “my babies … they are Aus … Australian,” she added, struggling a little with the word. “Not Chinese. They … they were born here. They will be proud to be Australians!”

And once she had said it she relaxed back into the pillows and drank her tea, barely able to keep her eyes open.

Jo, making sure Mei-Ling was warm enough, smiled wryly.

“Well, Soapy – what do you think?”

Soapy looked up, his surrogate grandson at his side and the baby boy held close as though he would never let him go, and had the light of joy in his black eyes.

“I think … I think these Australians can stay for as long as they wish, old girl. Don’t you?”

“Too bloody right!!” Effie interrupted as she rolled into the room with a tray on which resided two small baby bottles filled with a yellowish creamy milk as well as a plate of scrambled eggs with toast for Mei-Ling. “Now then … let’s get our tiddlers fed, hey? See if we can fatten them up a bit.”

“Can we help??” Kip asked, delighted at the presence of the two tiny babies. Now he could be a big brother.

“Well, Kip my lad, I have to go with Nate and Alec in Bernadette up to Manaji Point, but I’m sure –“

“Off you go then, Mister M, and take clever clogs here with you. We’re perfectly capable of taking care of mum and babbies,” Effie stated firmly, indicating Nate who felt like a spare tire now he had finished his chore of making the warm bed for the twins. She placed the tray on Eliot’s sideboard and held out her hands.

Soapy, very reluctantly, handed over the little boy and stood up, ruffling Kip’s mass of blond curls.

“Alright … I’m off. Kip – you look after him now, hear me? Lizzie will make sure his sis is safe, but this little man is your responsibility.”

Kip puffed out his tiny chest to the point where Jo thought he would explode, but it was Lizzie who answered.

“We will, Grandpa Soapy! We promise!”

Soapy hovered for a moment until Effie scowled at him, exasperated.

“Well??? Go on!! Out! Stop cluttering the place up! We’ve babbies to feed and you’re in the way!”

Soapy and Nate exchanged glances and took the hint, and as they closed the door behind them, Mei-Ling began her breakfast, closing her eyes in pleasure at the taste of the delicious eggs, and Effie settled into Soapy’s chair, Kip almost glued to her side.

“Alright, nippers!” she said authoritatively, “get the bottles and we’ll see if these little blighters will take some milk, hey?”

So Effie and Eliot, with Kip and Lizzie’s help, fed the two infants, only an hour or so old, and they took their first mouthfuls of food eagerly despite being small and weak. Eliot helped Lizzie hold the bottle so that the baby girl didn’t take in gulps of air instead of the nourishing colostrum, and as the morning brightened and golden light streamed in through the open window, Mei-Ling lay in the warm bed with her babies safe and sound and surrounded by kind, decent people. For the first time since she had been forcibly taken from her home by Chong Bun-Tsui, she dared to be happy.


Gone??? What do you mean, GONE?!?!

Chong Bun-Tsui sat at his breakfast table and slammed his fist on the old, polished teak surface.

After spending long, wearing hours until daybreak discussing options with Rickenbacker, Spicer and the sly, smug creature that was Toby Custance, he was very tired, and he had demanded Mei-Ling’s presence so he could have someone to browbeat while eating his breakfast.

Derry Ryan had been duly dispatched to Mei-Ling’s small, makeshift bedroom at the other end of the house, only to find no Mei-Ling, no chain, a crumbling floorboard wrenched from the joists and a window pried open. The tiny, thin, heavily-pregnant girl had managed to drop the five feet to the ground and was gone.

Chong was incensed.

“YOU!!” he railed, pointing at Ryan, “YOU DID THIS!! You didn’t shackle her properly!!”

Ryan shook his head in denial.

“No … no, I fastened it securely, Mister Chong! It turns out the floorboard’s rotten! She must’ve figured it out and just kept yanking at it until she pulled the thing apart!”

Chong stared at Ryan as though he was a small, insignificant bug ready to be ground into Albany’s fine, red dirt.

“Go find her!!! You search every inch of this foul place and you find her, bring her back, and make sure she’s secure this time!!” Chong gestured vaguely at the door.

Ryan nodded hurriedly. He knew how powerful this slender man was, and his view was confirmed when Chong gave the tall Ulsterman a hard slap across the face.

“Go find her – NOW!!” he hissed. “And if any harm has come to her, I will kill you! She’s carrying my SON!!” The threat, Ryan knew, didn’t really need to be said, and holding a hand to his face he turned on his heel to get some men together and then they would look in every hole, storeroom, nook and cranny throughout the place for Mei-Ling.

Chong sat down and savagely tore apart a piece of toast that the elderly cook had made for him. The toast was burnt and only partly edible, and he threw it at the old man who cowered beside the door.

“This … this is disgusting! Bring me something else!!”

The man scuttled towards the kitchen, and Chong was just about to snarl an oath when Rickenbacker slipped into the dining room, his well-fed face creased with worry.

“What do you want??” Chong snarled.

“Er … Ryan just told me what happened, an’ I was thinkin’,” Rickenbacker said, pouring himself a coffee. “Any idea when she high-tailed it?”

Chong shook his head.

“I didn’t see her from about nine last night. I had business to discuss and she was in the way, so I told Ryan to shut her away for the night.”

“Well,” Rickenbacker said hesitantly as he sat down at the table and nursed his coffee, “’Bout midnight last night was the weekly shift change. New team comin’ in an’ the old one headin’ for Tennant Creek. D’you think she might have hid in one of the pick-ups goin’ into town?”

Chong’s lip curled as he considered this new information, and his lean face suddenly cleared.

“I know where she’s gone,” he said. “If she got to Tennant Creek, she’ll have found a way to get to Wapanjara.” He grinned, but it had no humour in it. “She’s gone to that … that … cowboy who dared threaten me!”

“I’ll tell Spicer to keep an eye out for her –“ Rickenbacker began, knowing the man and his Adelaide colleague had returned to Tennant Creek as the dawn broke.

“She won’t be in Tennant Creek,” Chong interrupted. “She’ll be long gone. It wouldn’t be difficult stealing a car on a Saturday night around the bars,” he added. “Get the team together and make sure they’re armed. Find Hadan and tell her –“

“She’s gone too,” Rickenbacker said quietly. “After Eades was killed …” his voice tailed off uncertainly.

Chong said something very nasty in Chinese.

“Alright – forget the damned woman. We go in an hour. Be ready,” Chong said and returned to his repast. Only there was nothing to eat.

“Old man!!! Where the hell is my breakfast???” he roared.

This, Chong Bun-Tsui decided, was going to be a very annoying day.


Hardison was talking to himself, which wasn’t unusual, but time was of the essence, Nate knew, and they didn’t have the spare moments for Hardison to indulge his flare for the dramatic.

“C’mon, Hardison! Move it will you? We don’t have all day –“

“Nate, Nate, Nate … “ Hardison soothed, still studying the plasma screens set up alongside Bernadette high on Munaji Ridge. “This jus’ takes a little time, is all.” He couldn’t stop himself from grinning.

“What’s so funny?” Soapy said, intrigued.

Hardison held up a finger for a moment as studied the laptop, and then he pressed a hot key and the screen suddenly became a mass of streaming numbers and letters, and just for a split second Soapy could have sworn he saw the words ‘Taizhou Securities’. But then the words were gone, and the screens became blank.

“All done!” he said, turning to Nate and Soapy as they leaned against Bernadette’s heavy side. “Let’s go!”

Nate and Soapy looked at one another and shrugged. Hardison was so pleased with himself he couldn’t sit still, although his injured shoulder prevented him from being as demonstrative as he would usually have been.

It took only seven minutes to pack everything away, and then Soapy backed Bernadette up, put her in gear and drove the big truck down the rough track towards Wapanjara and home.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text

Yáo Mei-Ling drifted slowly awake from a deep, restful sleep to the sound of children laughing and a soft, scented breeze stirring the curtains of the open window. Inhaling the perfumed air, she heard something else … the soft, sleepy wordless hum of an old lullaby.

Turning her head, she saw the tall young black man who had grinned cheekily at Chong during their visit. He was sitting in an old rocking chair, head resting back and his eyes closed, and tucked into his chest was one of her children. His other hand lay on the sleeping form of her twin, comfortable and warm in the makeshift crib.

The young man was rocking very gently, and his humming was soothing and so peaceful that Mei-Ling would have been happy to slip back into sleep and dream painlessly and sweetly, where there was no danger or hurt and her children could live safe and sound and away from the evil thing that was their father.

She smiled to herself. For the first time in what seemed forever, she felt safe. She was still very sore and tired, but Mei-Ling was also hoping she would be allowed to get up and get dressed. She wasn’t hungry for once, and she felt as though, given a little time, she would be well on the way to good health again. And she desperately wanted to get to know her children.

“Hey … you’re awake!”

The humming had stopped and the young man was watching her with gentle brown eyes and a white smile.

Mei-Ling blinked, not knowing what to say.

“My name’s Alec,” he continued. “Or Hardison. Take your pick.” Hardison glanced down at the child in his arms. “Your girl has a dose of the hiccups ‘cause she ate too fast, so we’re havin’ a little quiet time to see if she’ll settle. Your boy over here,” Hardison rubbed his thumb over the little, snoozing lump in the drawer, “likes his zees. Fell asleep halfway through his lunch an’ conked right out.”

The child in his arms twitched and a loud ‘Hic!’ was heard. Hardison chuckled.

“Here. See if she’ll settle for her momma.”

And before Mei-Ling could utter a word, Hardison gently cradled the child in big hands and mindful of his injured shoulder, passed her over to her eager mother, who smiled her thanks.

Mei-Ling studied her daughter. She was tiny, it was true, and she ached to feed her, but Mei-Ling knew in her heart she couldn’t. The deprivations she had suffered with Chong … the lack of care and decent food and attention had told on her young body. But both of her children were alive and well, thanks to the kindness and love of these people she didn’t even know.

The little girl let out another soft ‘hic!’ and Mei-Ling laughed and instinctively popped the child over her shoulder and rubbed her back. It felt good to laugh, Mei-Ling thought. She hadn’t laughed in nearly three years. It felt odd … unfamiliar.

Hardison painfully heaved himself out of the chair.

“I’ll go tell Jo you’re awake. You get to know your babes, okay? You need anything, you just yell.”

Mei-Ling looked up at this kind, gentle young man.

“Thank you,” she whispered, even as she nuzzled her daughter’s tufty hair. “You do not have to go …” she added, a little fearful at being alone.

Hardison grinned, amused and understanding what she was feeling.

“Don’ worry,” he chided, “you’ll be fine. An’ you’re not alone – you got your very own protector right there,” he added, pointing under the low, wide table set firmly against the wall which carried Eliot’s ‘undie’ drawer and its precious cargo.

Mei-Ling peered at the table, and was a little taken aback when she saw a pair of boot-black eyes and a moist nose set in a white, wiry face gazing back at her, eyebrows beetling as their owner stared at her.

“A … a dog??” she asked, a little confused. Dogs had never been a part of her life.

“That’s Buster,” Hardison replied. “The dumb mutt has been under there since the babies arrived. We kept shooin’ him out, but it seems he’s decided to make sure your babies are safe an’ sound. I doubt anythin’ bad will happen to them or you while he’s around,” he added, grinning.

Mei-Ling looked at the little terrier, and Buster’s stubby tail wagged hesitantly. He lifted his head off his paws where he lay keeping guard, and gave the young woman an ingratiating grin, lips rising over white teeth, his eyes narrowed with pleasure.

Mei-Ling had to smile.

“Hello, and I thank you, little Yong,*” she said solemnly.

Buster sat up and panted happily, but he didn’t leave his post. He glanced at Hardison but then his eyes returned to Mei-Ling and the child she held. He clawed gently at the bedclothes with a scruffy paw, telling her that he was there and ready to guard the vulnerable, squeaky tiny humans. He was a terrier, fierce and protective, and he had to uphold the honour of his tribe, Buster decided. He sneezed, knowing he had made his point, and slipping back under the table he returned to his duties.

Hardison shook his head.

“Damn dog … been hangin’ about too much with Eliot …”

Jo bustled in at that moment, and was delighted to see Mei-Ling awake and looking much better.

“Well now, young lady, would you like to get up this morning? Maybe have a shower and have a bite to eat? The little ones will be fine, I promise!”

Mei-Ling felt strange. She had a choice.

“Yes … yes! I would like that!” she said before she could stop herself.

“Good!” Jo said and placed a small pile of clothes on the bottom of the bed. “They might be a bit big, but they’ll do at a pinch.”

Mei-Ling smiled, the joy shining from her face. She was free – she and her children were free. She took a deep breath and felt her daughter shift drowsily against her, and the scent of flowers overwhelmed her senses.

“Thank you … thank you so much!” she murmured, and nestled her cheek against the baby in her arms. “The flowers I can smell … are they roses?”

Hardison laid a big hand on they little boy’s head as he snoozed in the makeshift crib while Jo nodded, pleased.

“Yes … roses. I love roses, and they grow so well here.”

Mei-Ling watched Hardison, engrossed as he watched over the sleeping child.

“My mother … she loved roses.” Her daughter smacked tiny lips, the hiccups having subsided. “She … she died … when I was a child.”

Jo’s face became full of compassion. This young woman was barely more than a child herself, and she was already a mother.

“I’m so sorry …” she murmured, and touched Mei-Ling’s arm in sympathy, but the young mother smiled up at her.

“My daughter … I will call her Rose,” she said suddenly. “For my mother,” she added.

Hardison’s dark eyes shone with delight and reached out his other hand and gently stroked Rose’s cheek with his index finger.

“Well, lil’ Rose … I think that’s a beautiful name for a beautiful girl. You got a name for this handsome fella here yet?” he asked.

Mei-Ling shook her head.

“But I will. When he is awake … I … I will say hello to my son,” she added, smiling. “They will have Australian names and … and … be free and safe … and I will be just Mei … because …” she straightened proudly, “I will be Australian too,” she added.

“I think that’s a bloody good idea!” declared Effie who stumped into the room with a pair of sand shoes for Mei.

And Jo, looking at this surprising young woman, couldn’t be happier.


Eliot, sitting on his recliner and watching, as always, the perimeter of the homestead and beyond, was trying to finish his late breakfast. But he had to privately admit he was struggling. Hardison, Nate and Soapy had returned an hour previously, just as he finished helping Charlie haul the battered Ford ute away from the gate-post with one of the tractors and shunt it into the barn, where it was covered with a tarpaulin.

His side was on fire and his head ached, and he was very tired. He desperately needed to rest, but, Eliot knew, their time of quiet and respite was fast running out. Chong was on his way, he was sure. He calculated all of the options – it would have been this morning at the latest when Chong found out Mei-Ling was missing, and that was being optimistic. Eliot always worked with the worse-case scenario, and if the vicious young snakehead had found out about Mei-Ling’s disappearance earlier, given the six-hour drive from Albany to Wapanjara, Chong and his thugs could appear at any moment.

Eliot pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to ease the headache thumping behind his eyes. Much as he enjoyed Effie’s pancakes, he was just shoving them around his plate as Nate and Soapy discussed what Hardison had done. He wasn’t really paying attention, and only made out the odd word that impinged on his consciousness … words such as ‘stripped assets’ and ‘shell companies.’ That and the constant babble of voices through the earbud he wore increased the pressure in his head. While his team knew to keep the chatter to a minimum, two small children prattling on to each other – plus Charlie telling them to keep the noise down – didn’t help.

Gertie stalked the homestead burbling to herself, and Effie was busy making up more milk for the babies and muttering, as was her habit. Parker was arguing with anyone who would listen about why she should be allowed back up the water tower, and Eliot, tired to death of the racket, finally had had enough.

Can it, Parker!! You’d be too much of a target, okay?? You’re twenty feet off the ground on a damn’ exposed metal tower!” he growled, his voice sharper than he intended.

I can take care of myself Eliot! Parker snapped back through the earbud, irritated.

“It means, Parker, there ain’t no way I can stop you takin’ a goddamn bullet from here if you’re up there! So stay away from the friggin’ tower!!” Eliot snarled.

But Eliot – Parker insisted waspishly, not about to let it go.

Then Hardison chipped in, his voice soft and reconciliatory.

Hey, babe … how about a compromise? There’s a bit of cover beside the chimney an’ you can still see a-ways from there on the roof. Eliot? Howzat?

Eliot ran fingers through his unruly hair and winced as his head throbbed.

“Okay …” he sighed. “ … okay. But you get down from there if I tell you, Parker. Y’hear me??”

He heard a disconsolate sigh.

S’pose … Parker answered glumly.

Eliot heard her grumble to herself for a moment, and then the earbud fell silent, as though everyone had realised their hitter wasn’t in the mood for rebellion.

Weapons were posted about the house at each window, and everyone – including the children – knew their place. Eliot wasn’t too sure that Lizzie and Kip quite understood how serious this was, but at least they would be safe – Parker had run them through their exit route a dozen times, and the little thief would also make sure Mei-Ling and the twins would be taken to shelter should the worst happen and Eliot was taken down.

Chong was one problem that, at least, was a little predictable. But Khenbish Hadan … she was the unknown quantity in the whole equation. Eliot guessed that she was now marching to the beat of her own drum, a beat of revenge and hatred, and she was completely unpredictable. The only hope he had was that she didn’t side with Chong.

Letting out a wordless grunt of frustration, Eliot finally set his plate of pancakes on his little side table and flung his fork onto it. Levering himself to his feet, he suddenly swayed, disorientated, and he had to sit back down in his chair in a hurry before he went to his knees.

“Eliot?” Soapy said, worried, and Nate turned to look at the Oklahoman, alarmed by the concern in the old pastoralist’s voice, but Eliot waved a hand dismissively.

“M’okay,” he said, just a little too forcefully. “Just tired of starin’ at nothin’ is all,” he added by way of some sort of explanation.

A hand dropped onto his shoulder, and he squinted up to see Effie standing beside him.

“Go rest, boy,” she rumbled under her breath. “You’re done in, and a watched pot never boils, you know that.” Her muddy eyes were soft with compassion.

“Can’t, Eff. Chong’s comin’ … and sooner rather than later. Besides, Mei-Ling and the babies are in my room, an’ I don’t feel like catchin’ a couple of zees here on the recliner. If I did that I’d be as stiff as roadkill in fifteen minutes. I have to be able to move, Effie – I can’t do my job otherwise,” he added doggedly.

“My bed’s made up, you daft young bludger. Go get ten minutes in my room, then. Missy’ll be able to see anyone coming on the road from on the roof, so we’ll waken you long before they get here. And I betcha we’ll know soon enough if they come through the bush!” she grinned malevolently, thinking of Charlie and Parker’s little ‘surprises’ they had left for interlopers.

Eliot, for once, couldn’t make up his mind. He knew Charlie was lurking around the barn, shadowed by the three heelers, and Parker’s sharp eyes watched from the roof. Soapy, no matter that he was nearly seventy, was a marksman of the highest standard, and not afraid to end a life if it kept his family safe. Jo and Sophie were inside, watchful and perfectly capable of defending themselves, and Hardison, despite being wounded, was rested and alert. Nate’s mind was constantly gauging parameters and options, and he was also a mean and spirited fighter. Effie … well, Effie was more than able to look after herself and her people.

He decided he could spare ten minutes to lie down and ease his battered frame.

“Ten minutes, Effie. No more, okay?”

Effie sat down beside him and gazed into weary, slightly glazed blue eyes.

“No,” she said as patiently as she could – which for Effie McPhee was a struggle. “You sleep for as long as you can, you daft lump. And if you’re going to be arsey about it, remember we need you as fit as you can be, and right now you’re just bloody useless. So go, you pillock – sleep.”

Eliot scowled, but hesitated, trying hard to think of a reason why he should stay right where he was, but Sophie’s voice suddenly came through the earbud, mildly exasperated.

Oh, for God’s sake, Eliot! Just go to bloody bed, will you and stop being such a pain! She sighed, slightly annoyed.

Are you sick again? Lizzie piped up from the kitchen, a little alarmed.

Eliot’s scowl deepened.

“No! I’m fine ‘Lizbeth –“

Grandma Jo! Make Eliot go lie down! Lizzie demanded.

Eliot? Do as Lizzie says! Jo said sharply, making Eliot wince at the tone through the electronic earpiece.

El? You bein’ a moron? Hardison joined in as he took little Rose in his arms and wandered through to the living room to let Mei get out of bed and have a hot shower.

Dammit, Hardison!” Eliot began, “Will you people just leave me alone –“

Give it up, mate, Charlie piped up as he checked the fence line beyond Gertie’s paddock. Eliot heard the big camel harrumph to herself as she followed Charlie and the dogs. You’re bloomin’ buggered and you know it. We’re perfectly capable of looking out for ourselves, you know. Stop pissing about!

Eliot knew then he was at an impasse. With a sigh he slowly got to his feet and nodded, although the pain in his head made him flinch.

“Ten minutes.” He said to Effie, and the old woman smirked. “Only ten minutes.”

“Go sleep, son. We’ll see you in a bit,” Effie said.

Without replying and with the various echoes of smug satisfaction humming through his earbud from his entire family, Eliot made his way into the house, through the kitchen and into Effie’s capacious bedroom.


Albany Mining Company was abuzz with activity.

Heavily armed men, over a dozen of them, were settling themselves into two open-backed trucks. Derry Ryan, followed by Chong Bun-Tsui, now dressed in boots and fatigues, headed to the cab of the foremost truck. Chong’s face was set in anger and determination.

Ryan, peering through a Soapy-induced black eye, was trying to get some sort of plan out of Chong.

“We could go overland man, through the Wapanjara fence-line and take ‘em from the west –“ he insisted, his Ulster accent raw with annoyance.

“NO!” Chong growled. “We go by road – it takes longer, but we have to make it appear as though old man Munro killed his family and then himself. Tracks through the bush and damaged fences wouldn’t look right. When we get there, you take the men and surround the place. I’ll tell you what I want when we get there.”

“What about the girl?” Ryan asked.

“I take her back, she has my son and then I dispose of her. I can get as many wet-nurses as I need,” Chong snarled, still furious that the young woman had not only defied him but left him. Nobody left Chong Bun-Tsui, heir to the dragonhead of the Shumchun triads. Nobody.

Chong slid a well-used 9mm Glock into the shoulder holster under his left arm, and slipped a couple of spare clips into his pocket. At his belt was the gun’s partner, a Glock survival knife, with its saw-edged back-blade sitting snug in its polymer sheath.

“And that cowboy …” he added, eyes narrowed with hatred, “that bastard is mine.”

Ryan slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

The small two-truck convoy was rolling out of the mining yard when Rickenbacker came stumbling out of the old homestead, the sweat of fear beading his forehead. He waved his arms frantically at the trucks, trying to stop them, but it was too late.

Rickenbacker slumped against the railings of the veranda and groaned, wiping a chubby hand over his perspiring face.

He had just now been trying to organise payments for supplies and was checking all of the legal – and not so legal – bank accounts. He had sat and stared at the first account he had opened, and his heart began to pound and his gut tightened in sheer terror.

“Oh god …” he whispered, and bringing up a new tab he had checked another. And then another. And then … “oh god,” he repeated, and he began to babble. “Oh no-no-no-no … this … this can’t be happening …”

Lurching desperately from his seat he had hoped to catch Chong before he left, but he was seconds too late.

Rickenbacker managed to stumble to a veranda seat and settle into it, and held his head in his hands, rocking backwards and forwards, keening quietly. For no matter what Chong did this day, he, Troy Rickenbacker, was a dead man.


Eliot realised that in all of the years he had known Effie McPhee, he had never seen her room.

Easing wearily through the heavy old door, he found himself in a big, welcoming, light-dappled room, with its own table and chairs and a huge old oak bed almost submerged beneath a deep, comfortable mattress and a mass of pillows and multi-coloured covers. It was obvious Effie liked her comfort.

Eliot smiled when he saw the three hot-water bottles awaiting him on the quilted comforter. Effie always knew when he needed their easing heat.

His smile widened into a knowing grin when he sat down on the bed and discovered a hefty cricket bat propped against the wall beside the pillows. An aboriginal nulla-nulla club hung above the bed, and when he slid his Ka-Bar knife from its sheath at his belt and went to place it beneath a pillow, he was somewhat disconcerted to find a razor-sharp Chinese cleaver already there. Effie obviously had no intention of being taken by surprise without some kind of weaponry to hand.

Lifting one of the hot-water bottles he held it against his side, the sharp heat easing the deep ache of the broken rib. It was bliss. But just as he was about to shift himself sideways and lie down, his eye was caught by something on the opposite wall.

There was a large chest of drawers and a big, over-stuffed chair with a footstool against the wall itself, but above it … Eliot’s breath caught in his chest.

Photographs. Dozens and dozens of photographs, all pinned willy-nilly to a huge cork board and lit by a small lamp on the chest of drawers so that Effie could sit in her soft chair and read by its light.

Intrigued now, Eliot stood up, and still holding the hot-water bottle to his wounded side, he limped over to the wall to get a closer look.

It was the history of a life. Or rather, Effie’s life with the people she loved. The photographs had a sort of wayward time-line about them, and the oldest – tucked against the corner of the room so that light from the window wouldn’t fade them – were of Effie as a girl, with another girl beside her … probably a sister, if the similarity was a pointer. Both Effie and this other girl looked like mini-Effies, only less pudgy, more bright-eyed and dark-haired. And grinning like idiots, both of them.

Eliot’s own eyes creased into a smile at the joy in the young faces.

Another photograph which caught his attention was of Soapy and Jo, in stark black-and-white, and they were both young and laughing and obviously desperately in love, if the looks on their faces were anything to go by. Soapy was in uniform, his long face looking like a cheerful bloodhound, and he was grinning at Jo with his arms wrapped around her. She gazed up at him from a mass of chestnut curls, and – oh, God, Eliot gasped … Jo was pregnant. But they had no children, Soapy had always maintained. The pain it must have given both of them every time he had said it must have cut them deeply, for Eliot knew now the child had not survived.

He wiped the unshed tear out of the corner of his eye with the back of his hand and moved on to the other pictures.

Time drove forward in monochrome and then colour, and there was Charlie as a little boy and as a teenager, working around Wapanjara and helping gather mobs of cattle or fixing one of Soapy’s elderly tractors. Sometimes there was a girl with him, and Eliot’s chest suddenly ached. Alice. Charlie’s beautiful Alice.

And then, all of a sudden, Eliot found himself looking at his own face, scowling into Jo’s camera as he marinated steaks for the crew for an impromptu barbecue not long after he arrived at Wapanjara. Eliot could see the fresh scars on his face and the shaggy hair, and there was a blur of camel behind him.

The next one he saw of himself – and Eliot was not a man who encouraged photographs to be taken of him, but he could never refuse Jo – made him chuckle ruefully. He would ask Effie if he could have a copy of this one to show to Parker.

He was lying on one of the fold-down beds in front of Jo’s garden in mid-summer, bare-footed and wearing only cut-off jeans, sound asleep. His stock hat was tipped over his eyes, a white bandage bound his left thigh and his right shoulder and chest were also swathed in dressings. Tucked against his left side was a small, snoozing white pup, one leg taped with red crepe bandaging. Gertie was sitting at Eliot’s head, her neck stretched alongside him, dozing in the sun as she shaded her friend. Eliot’s right hand rested on her curly brow.

He remembered that day. He was healing up from the bullet wounds he had gained in Washington all those years ago. When Jo and Soapy had driven all the way to Darwin to pick him up from the military airfield and finding him only half-conscious and very sick, they had also found an abandoned, injured pup by the side of the road. So Eliot and Buster had healed together, fussed over by Gertie and yelled at by Jo and Effie.

More photographs tugged at memories … Charlie, Alice and Eliot, doing a stint as rodeo clowns at a charity campdraft and rodeo in Tennant Creek, goofing it up for the camera … then Charlie, holding a newborn Kip and looking completely terrified. There was Soapy, on horseback and in mid-gallop, whooping like a lunatic as he brought in a mob of cattle … and Jo, head thrown back in pure joy as something Eliot had said made her laugh.

And there, at the edge of the mass of photographs, were several new ones, obviously printed off in high-resolution, probably by Hardison.

There were Kip and Lizzie, arms around each other’s shoulders, grinning toothily into the lens … Parker hanging upside down from the water tower, munching on an Anzac biscuit … Hardison grinning straight at the camera and feeding Gertie a gummy frog … and Nate and Sophie snoozing on the swing-chair on the veranda, wrapped in each other’s arms.

New lives became new family, and Effie treasured them all.

Eliot sighed. He reached out and touched a picture of Alice, her dark eyes alive with joy as she held Kip as a toddler in the crook of her arm. He turned back to the bed, and gingerly stretched himself on the covers. The hot-water bottles helped the pain in his leg and side, and then his head began to clear a little as he took one last look at Effie’s memory-wall before he drifted off to sleep, his family watching over him.


Khenbish Hadan was waiting.

She had seen the arrival of the pregnant young woman when she had returned to check on what was going on at Wapanjara, and she knew that Chong would come after his possession.

So that morning, Hadan finally tidied up her camp and packed away her belongings. She was stiff, and the remaining buckshot in her shoulder was very painful if she moved too quickly. But, she knew, she would bear it.

Saddling up Batu, she swung into the saddle and waited for the agony in her shoulder to subside before touching her heels to the big gelding’s side. She was not in any hurry. Chong could do what he wanted, she thought. Her plans had changed because of her injuries, and she knew she could not take on all of the inhabitants of Wapanjara by herself, so Chong’s hatred of these people would serve her well.

But if he touched Eliot Spencer, Hadan decided, she would kill the young snakehead. Because Eliot Spencer – and his sword – were hers.

 

To be continued … 


* ‘Yong’ – A Chinese name meaning ‘brave one’.

Chapter Text

Long hours in a truck with a very angry Chong Bun-Tsui, Derry Ryan pondered, was not a whole lot of fun. How the man could seethe for that length of time and not take a break from his anger was impressive, Ryan decided, but not particularly productive.

They were driving along the Stuart Highway now, when Ryan spotted a road leading to the right and slowed, indicator light blinking to let the truck behind know what was going on. Once the main highway was clear of traffic, he drove onto the asphalt road and within minutes, the trucks were rattling over the cattle grid beside the sign which read ‘Wapanjara Station.’

All Chong did was snarl.

Derry gritted his teeth, annoyed, but didn’t say a word. Two hours, he thought. Two more hours and then he could maybe kill that old bastard who had nearly choked him to death at Rafferty’s Bar.

And as the sun beat down in the midday heat, the trucks rumbled ever onwards towards Wapanjara homestead and its people.


Mei emerged into the noon sun, freshly showered and dressed in some of Jo’s old clothes and a pair of neat sandshoes. Her face, bereft now of the makeup Chong forced her to wear for appearance’s sake, was tired but happy. Her eyes had a little sparkle about them and instead of being encased in expensive but restrictive silk attire, she moved as freely as her sore body would allow.

And in her arms she carried her son, held tenderly against her chest. Sophie followed her outside onto the veranda, little Rose snug and safe in her arms.

She was immediately welcomed by murmurs of pleasure from the people who had taken her in as they saw her looking so much better, and she beamed a big, happy smile as Jo ushered her to Eliot’s recliner.

Kip and Lizzie, who had been allowed to go and see Dottie and Sparky in Gertie’s paddock and give them their feed, scampered around from the paddock gate and thumped noisily up the veranda steps, giggling.

Lizzie’s eyes widened with pleasure.

“Mei-Ling!! You’re awake!! Can we see the babies?”

Mei smiled, but held up a hand.

“Just Mei, little ones. I’m just Mei, now. And my daughter is called Rose,” she added.

Effie stumped through with tea, and Buster slunk after her and slithered under the recliner, keeping an eye on his charges.

“Well now, that’s as good a name as any,” Effie rumbled approvingly. “Got one for the other tiddler yet?”

Mei relaxed back in the chair and studied her son as Kip and Lizzie ranged on either side of her and peered at the little face blinking up at them.

“I don’t know,” she murmured, and the little boy yawned noisily. Despite being the smaller of the two, he seemed stronger now, and was certainly a good eater. As Hardison pointed out, he ‘liked his chow.’ “I don’t know many Australian names,” Mei continued a little helplessly, her English better now that she wasn’t so stressed.

The babies were due another small feed, and Effie returned to the kitchen to fetch their bottles. As everyone settled down on the veranda, ever-watchful and on guard because they not only had Mei and the children to protect, they had to factor in that their hitter was off-line for a few hours so that he could try and recharge his seriously depleted batteries. Only Parker wasn’t present, although she could hear everything that was said from her place beside the old, sturdy brick chimney on the roofline where she was keeping watch.

Soapy sat on the veranda steps, his Webley to hand, and gazed up the hill towards the stringybarks. Whatever Hardison had done to Chong, it would be devastating, although Soapy would be the first to admit he didn’t understand most of what the young man had concocted.

What he did know was that Chong would be here soon. The loss of Mei would be enough to set the arrogant young snakehead on a course of delivering of pain and death, if Nate’s explanation of the Triad system was anything to go by. And if he also now knew of Hardison’s cyber-assault … well the man would be hell-bent on retribution.

Soapy Munro would kill Chong if he got the chance, and then he would deal with whatever fall-out came his way. He would kill him to protect his family – all of his family, and that included Eliot’s team, Mei and her children. And he would kill Chong because the man had ordered the death of Alice Jakkamarra, the girl he and Jo thought of as their daughter.

He sensed a familiar presence and he quirked a smile as Jo sat down beside him on the step. She wrapped an arm around his and leaned her head on his shoulder, as she had done throughout their long marriage. The soft breeze stirred her curls, and Soapy looked at his wife. She was so beautiful, he thought. Nuzzling her hair he dropped a kiss on the top of her head.

“Soapy … “ Jo whispered.

“Yes, old girl?” he murmured in return, and her hand sought his, her long fingers entwining his callused ones.

Jo sighed.

“I was thinking … Mei needs a name for the boy. Perhaps …” She lifted her head and gazed into the face of this man she adored. She saw his dark, expressive eyes glisten with tears. He nodded so slightly that if she hadn’t been studying his face she would have missed it.

“How about James?” Soapy suddenly said loudly, shifting so that he could look at his family sitting on the veranda, drinking tea as Mei and Sophie fed the babies. “It’s … it’s the name of Scottish kings, y’know. Munro being a Scottish name and all that … it was …” he took a deep, shuddering breath and continued. “Our son … he was called James … Jamie.” Jo’s hand tightened on his as he tried to gather his strength to continue. “He, ah … he died when he was two days old. Premature, y’see. Jo nearly died having him. But those two days … they meant the world to us.”

Mei looked up as she fed her son and gazed at Soapy and Jo, and realised how difficult it had been for them to share such a private, heartbreaking memory. She saw the pain in Soapy’s dark eyes and the sadness in Jo’s face. She looked again at her son, suckling lustily at the small bottle of rich milk.

Jamie.

The name was perfect.

“My son,” she said quietly to the child in her arms. “My Jamie. His name is Jamie.”

And Nate felt Sophie’s hand rest on his as he remembered his own father, Jimmy Ford, dead before his time.

“That’s a wonderful name,” Sophie said as Rose shifted against her.

Rose and Jamie … born on Wapanjara Cattle Station here in the remote Northern Territory of Australia. This was – and would ever be - their home, no matter where their lives took them.

“Well done,” Jo whispered to Soapy, knowing how hard it had been for him. Their Jamie, she had instinctively understood from the moment he was born, was only to be with them for a short time, and somehow she had managed to bear it. But Soapy … the tough, deadly sniper who protected his own and would give his life for them gladly, had not coped well. For once, there had been nothing he could do. He could not protect his son against the inevitability of the child’s death. And it had broken him forever.

Jo loosed her fingers and cupped Soapy’s face in both of her hands. And then she gave him the softest, most deeply passionate kiss she could muster, and she felt him reciprocate. Her Soapy. The love of her life.

“Well, Jamie,” Nate said as he peered at the little boy in his mother’s arms. “You and your sister be good, behave and don’t worry your mother,” he smiled, and the joy on Mei’s thin face made the pain of loss in his own heart ease a little.

Now my children are Australians!” Mei declared proudly, and Hardison chuckled.

“Yeah … and I can fix it so you all really are Australians,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Once we got Chong an’ his cronies all tied up an’ dealt with, you can think about what you want to do. Just take your time.”

Mei nodded, completely overwhelmed by the never-ending kindness of these people on whose mercy she had thrown herself.

“Rose an’ Jamie … good names.” Eliot said, and everyone turned to see him leaning against the door jamb, hair a little unruly and his face worn with pain, but he did appear more rested than he had done for days. He was still frayed around the edges, but he seemed better.

“ELIOT!” Lizzie yelled, and then cringed as her mother shushed her. Two feeding babies didn’t need the wits startled out of them. “Oops! Sorry!” she whispered loudly, and crept over to Eliot to fling her arms around his waist, careful of his wounded side.

Eliot ruffled her curls and then scowled at Effie.

“Since when did ten minutes turn into over two hours, Eff?? Huh?? I gotta -”

“Oh, shut it, you daftie!!” Effie grouched defiantly. “You needed the rest, you silly bugger. You were out on your feet and about as useful as a bloody chocolate fireguard!”

“Abso-bloody-lutely!!” Lizzie agreed, her face buried in Eliot’s shirt and her voice muffled.

Eliot let his Lizzie-smile creep out, that tiny half-hitch of his lips that made his eyes crinkle in pleasure. Straightening up, he rested his hand on Lizzie’s head and used her as a sort-of-a-prop to walk to a chair and sit down, Lizzie standing straight and steady, sure she was the only thing keeping Eliot from hitting the ground because he was sick and shot and still a ‘bit wibbly.’ Eliot, amused, didn’t let on that he was perfectly balanced, thank you very much.

Sophie had finished feeding young Rose, so she got to her feet and wandered over to Eliot.

“Here,” she said. ‘Make yourself useful and burp this child.”

Eliot, more than happy to do so despite his scowl, took Rose and gently laid her over his good shoulder. She promptly burped and dribbled a little milk down the back of his shirt. Well, it served him right for not asking for a towel, he thought.

Lizzie, however, stared at the milky stain as Eliot rubbed Rose’s little back.

“Eliot! She puked on you!!” she said, just a little horrified.

“So did you when you were a baby, ‘Lizbeth Grace. An’ you were a whole lot bigger.” Eliot replied calmly, unfazed by this sartorial disaster.

Lizzie was scandalized.

I did not!!” she said, her eyes round with shock.

“Oh yeah, baby girl,” Hardison said as he rested back in his chair eating a lamington. “He lugged you around so much that when we were doin’ a job it got so’s we could tell where he was without an earbud ‘cause of the overwhelming aroma of baby. Even the marks we were tryin’ to grift began to notice.”

“Sour, milky baby puke!” Parker yelled down from the roof.

“His shirts … there was this … this … stain on them that he couldn’t quite wash out,” Nathan continued, relishing the narrow-eyed snarly look beginning to appear on Eliot’s face, even as little Rose let loose a ripping fart. “Yeah … there was that, too.” Nate added, sighing at the memories. “But you know Eliot. He became quite the baby-carrying ninja. It’s a wonder you ever learned to walk.”

“We drew the line at him carrying that damn’ sword with him whenever he took you out for some air though. That was just a little extreme.” Sophie smiled.

No it wasn’t!” Eliot hissed defensively.

“An’ damn, but the ladies fell for this hippy-lookin’ man takin’ this cute lil’ baby out for walks in the park!” Hardison grinned, eyes merry with the memory. “He always used to come home with lots of bits of paper with ‘phone numbers on ‘em tucked under your blankets an’ a big, dumb grin on his face.”

Lizzie took all of this information in and when Eliot didn’t refute one word of it, she poked him in his non-baby-carrying arm. Jeez, Eliot thought – she had sharper fingers than Parker.

“Are you going to do that with Rose and Jamie??” she demanded.

Eliot frowned, puzzled.

“Wait … what?” he said, and then realised what was going on. His best girl was just a teensy bit jealous. “Well,” he said, thinking it through, “Since they’re here, we’ll all help Mei out. Your momma an’ daddy only had you, an –“

“Tell me about it,” Sophie said languidly, enjoying the warmth of the day. “It’s a wonder your father and I ever got to see you.”

“ … and,” Eliot continued, a little tetchy even as Rose settled happily against his shoulder, “Mei’s gonna be both momma and daddy to these two, an’ needs all the help she can get.”

Lizzie thought about it. She did think the babies were cute. Not as cute as Sparky, but she did feel protective over them. She had no siblings, and she had discovered the joy of having someone her own age to play with when she met Kip. And now, she acknowledged, Kip had instantly taken on the role of big brother. Therefore, she decided, she would be a very good and very responsible big sister. Decision made, she kissed Eliot on his nose and patted Rose’s back carefully. Rose dutifully burped, and Lizzie grinned, delighted at the response.

“Nate!” Parker’s voice was sharp in the balmy air.

Nate stiffened, understanding the tone of Parker’s voice.

“Earbuds, people!” he said, his words low and urgent.

Sophie handed Mei one of the tiny earpieces and crouched down beside the young mother, who felt the sudden tension.

“Use this … just slip it into your ear,” Sophie explained. “We can hear you, and you can hear every one of us. Don’t worry,” the grifter said giving Mei a reassuring grin, “you and the babies – we will protect you. No harm will come to any of you. That I promise.”

Eliot handed Rose to Lizzie, who took the tiny baby so carefully that Eliot had to suppress a grin. Lizzie would rather die than drop the child.

“Good job, ‘Lizbeth Grace. Now you just take Rose inside to my room along with Mei, Kip an’ little Jamie. I’m expecting you an’ Kip to look out for them, okay? Buster will be with you, and you do not move or leave without one of us goin’ with you. Do you understand?”

Lizzie, round-eyed, nodded.

Nate leaned over and kissed his daughter’s head.

“That’s our girl,” he said softly, pride oozing from every pore. “Your mother and I will be right here, so do as Eliot says, okay?”

Sophie ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair as the little girl followed Kip and Mei into the house, Rose safe in her arms. Buster brought up the rear, black eyes watchful and his little body taut with tension.

“What is it, Parker?” Nate asked.

Dust, Parker murmured. It’s quite a way away, she added. I can’t see any detail, even with Eliot’s scope.

“Chong,” Soapy bristled. “The ground’s dried out enough after the rain to send up a bit of dust.”

Maybe thirty minutes away, Parker said, and then she corrected herself. It’s stopped. The dust’s settling now, but why – oh … here we go. It’s started again.

“He’s dropping people off,” Eliot said. “They’re gonna work their way through the bush and around the homestead.”

Goody! Hissed Parker. Charlie? Are you listening?

Always, Charlie said, a little distant. I’m out by the west paddock perimeter with Gertie, and she’s suddenly perked up. She senses something. Hey … there go the dogs!

Soapy and Nate turned to look at the edge of the barn and they saw the three heelers trotting silently towards the homestead main gate, ears pricked.

Sound carried here in the remote bush, and even though human ears couldn’t tag onto whatever Gertie and the dogs were hearing, it was obvious something was out there and coming ever closer.

But one of the heelers suddenly turned and loped through the yard to the track beyond Jo’s garden and orchard, the track that led to the south paddock and the billabong. The dog stood quietly and gazed along the track, not alarmed as yet, but definitely alert to something.

Eliot wandered to the veranda steps and watched the dog for a moment before grunting something vague and chewing his lower lip.

“Be right back, Soapy,” he murmured, and he headed into the house, unbuttoning his shirt as he did so.

“What the hell is he up to now?” Hardison said, irritated as he stood up to go and lock down Oggie’s technology systems. The trailer would be more difficult to penetrate than a huge metal-armoured tortoise.

Effie grinned nastily.

“The Yank? Well,” she said, a hint of satisfaction in her voice, “he’s going bush!”

“Bush? What do you mean. ‘bush’?” Sophie exclaimed, confused. She was mentally preparing herself to be Lady Eloise Stanton, probably for the last time.

But before Effie could answer, Eliot emerged from the house, wearing a teeshirt for freedom of movement, and his katana in his hand. It was unsheathed, the blade glittering in the afternoon sun and matched only by the deadly gleam in Eliot’s blue eyes.

“Jesus, Eliot!” Hardison exclaimed. “You ain’t Rambo, an’ you’re not fit –“

Everyone could see the newly-applied bandage around his ribcage under the teeshirt, helping to hold the broken rib in place and to hopefully stop the bullet hole from re-opening.

“You people do your thing,” he said softly as he went down the wooden steps to the yard, and Nate wondered how the hell Eliot managed to move in almost complete silence even though he wore his heavy work boots.

Jo watched as Eliot hunkered down in the yard and taking a few fistfuls of the red dirt, smeared it over his chest and arms, teeshirt and all. More covered his worn jeans, and finally another handful powdered his face and hair, so that when he stood up he looked like a dusty wraith, a creature of the outback, walking the silent places of the world.

This was an Eliot she had rarely seen. She remembered him emerging from the shadow of an old gum tree to tackle Mason Coetzee, sent to kill him by Damien Moreau. He had been younger then … lean and recovering from long illness, much like he was now, only he had had longer to recover back then.

She remembered another time, when he returned home from hunting Simeon Karlo, the murderous and crazed Kurdaitcha man of the southern Ramindjeri, and Eliot had looked like a phantom as he rode into the homestead on Gertie with Karlo stumbling along behind, hands zip-tied and roped to Gertie’s saddle. Eliot had just gazed at Jo, exhausted, battered and dehydrated, eyes hollow and lost like the ghost he had become.

She had hoped never to see that Eliot again.

But here he was … dark and dangerous and unstoppable, no matter that he was wounded. Her heart was in her mouth as she watched him, his sword in one hand and the other hand held loose and ready at his side, his old Ka-Bar knife sheathed at his waist.

“God … look at him …” Sophie whispered to her husband. She instinctively clutched her hand over her heart. She had never seen Eliot in this environment, a man of this land of heat and dust and shimmering horizons, as stealthy as a krait and just as deadly.

Eliot stood, head hanging for a moment as he centred himself, but when he raised his head to look at them, there was a flash of a white smile.

“I’ll be around, watchin’. Don’t come lookin’ for me. I’ll find you.” He growled.

And within seconds he had walked purposefully towards the track and melted like a wisp of smoke into the undergrowth.

“But … but what about the traps Parker an’ Charlie laid –“ Hardison began, but Parker’s voice rang through the earbud.

He knows exactly what they are and where, Hardison, she said. He’ll keep us safe.

“Well, I sure hope the idiot knows what he’s doin’,” Hardison muttered as he headed over to Oggie and Bernadette to do a final check and run through his lock-down routine.

“Nate … I think we ought to be getting dug in, mate,” Soapy said grimly and looked at Jo. “Can you keep an eye on Mei and the nippers?”

“Will do,” Jo replied, and as she headed into the house she lifted the lever-action Winchester Soapy had given her as a wedding present nearly forty years earlier.

Nate raised an eyebrow at the skill with which the slender woman handled the weapon, and Effie grinned.

“The Missus … she can shoot the balls off a flea at fifty yards with that thing,” she said gleefully. Nate thought the little cook was somewhat relishing Chong’s appearance.

“That’s a .22 magnum,” Soapy said as he checked the load on his Webley. “Hollow-point rounds … enough to bring down anyone who gets to Mei and the kids.” He grinned. “Best present I ever gave her – she’s a bloody ace shot!”

Parker – get off the damn’ roof! Eliot’s voice suddenly came through the earbud.

Aww! But – Parker grumbled, but Eliot was having none of it.

Down! Now! Go help Charlie keep watch down at the yards an’ yell if you need me! Eliot rumbled, annoyed as he often was on a job and trying to keep his team safe.

Spoilsport! Parker huffed unhappily, but within seconds there was an almost imperceptible thump as the little thief dropped down onto Effie’s little deck outside the kitchen, and the quickened breathing they heard through the earbuds told the team that Parker was trotting across the yards towards the west paddock gate where Charlie waited.

For God’s sake don’t give her a crowbar, Charlie! Eliot snapped waspishly.

Why not? Charlie asked, curious now.

Believe me … Eliot groused, you don’t want to know. Just … just give her somethin’ with a bit of weight to it an’ stay out of her way if you want to stay conscious an’ upright, okay?

No need! Parker prattled happily. I’ve got Mister Zappy!

Eliot’s groan of annoyance made his team smile. Parker just loved her taser.

Charlie’s swift intake of breath let everyone know that Parker was waving Mister Zappy at Charlie to prove she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

Okay … you … you just stay over there, Parker, he said warily, and I’ll stay over here and -

But Charlie’s cautious comments came to an abrupt halt as the three heelers suddenly erupted into a frenzy of barking and the sound of heavy truck engines drifted through the afternoon haze.

“Well,” Sophie sighed as she made sure she looked poised, unflustered and very wealthy. “Here we go.”


Chong was speaking to Rickenbacker on his cell ‘phone, and the longer the conversation went on, Derry Ryan realised, the paler Chong Bun-Tsui became. The young snakehead didn’t say anything – he just became more and more rigid as he sat beside Ryan in the truck.

Despite being somewhat wary of Chong at the best of times, Ryan was curious.

“What’s going on?” he asked as he drove the big truck along the rough dirt road.

Chong turned harried dark eyes to the Ulsterman.

“When this is over, I want you to head for Tennant Creek, fuel up the jet and be ready to go. Mei-Ling and I will join you as soon as we can. I just have some items to retrieve from the mine,” he rasped, his voice shaking. “I will also need to speak to my father,” he added. “There are … issues –“ He suddenly held up his hand and Ryan slowed the truck and brought it to a halt, the other truck slowing behind them.

Chong guessed they were about a mile and a half away from Wapanjara homestead, and he slid out of the truck, waving at his men to get out and gather around. He gestured at a tall, lean Korean who had the air of quiet authority about him. He carried a Chinese bullpup Type 86 semi-automatic, ideal for short-range work in difficult terrain, and he had several 30-round magazines in a backpack. The man meant business, Ryan thought.

“Take your men through the bush and surround the homestead,” Chong ordered. “Pick off anyone you find apart from Mei-Ling, you understand? Do not touch Mei-Ling!!! I don’t care about anything or anyone else, other than perhaps the old man. Yes … ” Chong thought it through, “yes, leave him until last. Then he can end up with a bullet from his own gun through his head. It will look like some mental aberration and he kills all of his people before turning his gun on himself.”

The tall Korean nodded silently and looked at the terrain around him. It consisted of dense bush and stands of trees – not an easy landscape, but he had dealt with worse.

Splitting his team into two entities, he sent one group down the incline to their left, towards the gleam of a vast billabong. From there the men could work towards the homestead along what appeared to be a track, but he couldn’t see clearly from this angle. The seven men began to make their way downwards, and the Korean turned back to Chong.

He signed at the young snakehead, indicating that he would take the remaining men to the north and west, covering the barns and yards behind the house. He would have preferred to speak to Chong about it, but Chong Bun-Tsui’s father had cut his tongue out years ago for failing to kill a rival quickly enough to prevent an attempted takeover bid. The loss of his tongue had not only ensured his silence but also his loyalty.

Within seconds, the Korean and his men had eased quietly into the undergrowth and were gone.

Chong checked his watch. He would spend no more than an hour on this. He wanted Mei-Ling, and he wanted rid of these people who had now ruined him. And more than anything, he wanted the head of the cowboy who had threatened him.

“Come on,” he snarled at Ryan. “Let’s go. And when we’ve finished, you take every piece of electronic equipment in the place. I want to know how they did it!”

“Did what??” Ryan asked, mystified.

But Chong didn’t answer. He got back in the truck, waited until Ryan had got into the driver’s seat and begun to drive the truck along the last mile or so of road, and then he slid the Glock from its holster and laid it ready and waiting, on his knee.


Khenbish Hadan was back in her place by the stringybarks. But this time she sat the big gelding deep within a cluster of acacias where she couldn’t be seen, but where she had a fair view of the homestead. Her shoulder was throbbing and the wound caused by one of the small pellets of buckshot lodged under her skin wasn’t healing.

“Well, Batu …” she said to the gelding, who flicked an ear at the sound of her voice. “ … this is going to be interesting.”

She had seen Eliot Spencer bring out the katana, which made Hadan’s heart leap with desire, and then watched the man become an invisible part of this ancient land. She knew she would not be able to track him from her present position, but she would wait and see what Chong Bun-Tsui was going to do next before making any kind of move.

She studied the groups of men moving slowly through the undergrowth, and she couldn’t stop a small smile from gracing her angular features.

“Fools,” she said, a little amused. “Nothing but fools.”

So sitting comfortably on the old stock saddle, she leaned forward and affectionately pulled one of Batu’s black-tipped ears.

Now, she decided, she would relax, watch and wait. And when she made her move, she would kill Eliot Spencer and take the legendary Sword of the Okuri-Inu as her own.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


As the tall Korean made his cautious way along the low ridge that was the edge of the Wapanjara road, he began to notice that a slight wreath of mist was beginning to lift from the land. Looking skywards, he noticed dark clouds forming on the horizon, and the humidity was beginning to intensify.

The Wet was coming early this season. As the heat of the day hit the slightly cooler ground, drawing hidden moisture from the rainstorm of a few days before, the clumps of acacias and stringybarks began to become indistinct, and the gaunt stretch of the old mulgas peered eerily through the encroaching pale drift of the mist.

His grin was feral as he hefted his weapon, and before the mist really took a grip on the land, he waved his men into a fan as they moved through the bush. The mist was an added bonus, and their targets would not be aware of the danger until it was too late. The mist also had the benefit of deadening sound, and the calls from a kookaburra prattling happily in a nearby gum tree were oddly flat, the sound soaking into the increasing drift of mist through the trees and termite mounds.

This was going to be far easier than he thought, the Korean decided, as the tendrils crept through the land, crawling like insidious fingers among the tree and bushes, letting loose a dank, loamy smell which made the Korean’s nose twitch in distaste. But he knew what he had to do – find this girl carrying Chong’s son and kill everyone – everyone – he came across, including the children. But he would let Chong deal with the old soldier with a face like a bloodhound. That was the plan, and the Korean did not cross his boss when it came to plans.

His men walked carefully, ranged on either side of him as they began to work their way through a particularly dense copse of old, tangled acacias, and it was made more irritating as they could now not see more than twenty feet ahead of them.

He heard a sudden riot of barking, somewhat dulled by the mist, and he decided Chong had arrived at the homestead. His other group of men were probably well on their way towards the billabong and would be in place shortly. He had to trust his men to know their jobs as the area meant radios and cell phones were useless, not that he had any use for either.

The Korean checked his bearings, and then nodded, satisfied that he was on the right track. But before he headed into the copse, he had a sudden, strange feeling that he was being watched.

But that was nonsense. No-one could watch him through this fog. Shaking the feeling from his prickling skin, he moved on.

He didn’t see the ghost-like figure slide momentarily like mercury through the trees and disappear into the gloom behind him.


“What do you want me to do?” Derry Ryan asked as the trucks peaked the hill by the stringybarks. They could both see the mist-wreathed homestead of Wapanjara as it lay before them.

Chong studied the lie of the land. At the moment the trucks were above the layers of mist, and he knew his men were now working their way through the bush towards the house. Within minutes they would be in place. His actions would be their signal. He turned to Ryan.

“The gate’s shut and padlocked. Just go straight through it and stop in front of the house.”

Ryan nodded.

“What if they have weapons?”

Chong grinned.

“We have the element of surprise – if Mei-Ling’s in there the stupid bitch will be too terrified to say anything. She knows better than to tell them anything so we will have the upper hand. And that old man will want to protect his people and won’t like gunfire around the women and children, so … we can talk. Or not,” he added, grinning. He checked his watch. “My men should be in place within the next few minutes, so go – get down there.”

Chong stared through the window at Wapanjara. Come hell or high water, Mei-Ling would give him his son and Wapanjara would be his, and then he could possibly fix the mess Rickenbacker had told him about, the man’s voice shaking with terror as he spoke to Chong about the disaster with their finances. If he could dig out the information encrypted on the hacked files on that young black man’s software, perhaps all was not lost. If he had the proof, then …

He mentally shook himself and glared at Ryan.

“I said go!!” he snarled.

Derry Ryan took the hint, shifted the truck into gear and put his foot on the gas, sending the big truck careering down the hill towards Wapanjara, the second truck following belatedly behind them.


The small group of seven men eased carefully through the dense undergrowth as they headed towards the gleam of water that occasionally glinted through the increasingly thick mist.

Their leader, a short Malaysian called Sayid, wiped his dripping nose. Damn, but this humidity aggravated his allergies. He stifled a sneeze, and then stopped for a moment, listening. He held up his hand and hoped his men could see him. The sound came again. It was a soft rustling, and he slowly aimed his semi-automatic rifle at the source. But he had to let out a quiet bark of amusement as a big goanna ambled his way through the undergrowth, gulping happily to himself, his throat working as he tried to cool down.

Sayid eased back on the trigger and motioned to his men to keep moving. The bushes were getting thicker and he sighed, trying to hold back another sneeze. God, he hated this damned country. Finding what appeared to be an old, overgrown track through the bush, he headed towards it. At least this way seemed to be a little easier, he thought.


“Bloody hell!” Soapy said urgently. “The bugger’s not going to stop!!”

He, Nate and Sophie were sitting at the veranda table, to all intents and purposes having afternoon tea, when two trucks appeared at the top of the hill by the stringybarks. The mist was getting very dense, but the bulk of the trucks was unmistakeable.

They careened down the road, and it was soon obvious that Chong was going to send his lead truck straight through the padlocked gate and into the yard.

Soapy began to get to his feet and draw the Webley, but Nate put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back onto his seat.

“Wait, Soapy – we need to control the situation and having bullets flying in all directions isn’t a good start.”

“We need to let him think he’s in charge, though,” Sophie whispered as she slowly eased to her feet, standing relaxed and curious, as the trucks headed closer and closer.

“I’m not having Jo and the kids in danger, Nate –“ Soapy growled, but Nate patted his shoulder, telling the old pastoralist that the situation was under control. Well, for the next fifteen seconds or so.

“Give Sophie and I a minute,” Nate replied under his breath. “He wouldn’t have made his move if his men weren’t close. Charlie and Parker’s perimeter traps should be coming into their own any moment now. That’ll distract Chong.” He saw the fury in Soapy’s eyes. “I know, I know … it’s too close for comfort. But it’s the only way we have of tying it all together. The only wild card is Hadan, but we’ll have to leave her to Eliot.”

Soapy, not convinced but unable to come up with an alternative, nodded jerkily.

Nate grinned.

“If it all goes shitty, feel free to take Chong down, with my blessings – but I’d prefer we didn’t. The fallout might be difficult to fix.”

“Okay …” Soapy said with a breathy sigh, “ … okay … we can do this …”

Nate squeezed Soapy’s shoulder in reassurance, but didn’t reply.

“Everybody okay?” Nate added over the earbuds.

From Jo to Effie , Hardison and the children, voices filled his earbud. Charlie growled quietly to himself as he faded into the shadows of the cattle yards.

The only voices absent were Eliot and Parker.

“Parker?”

There was no answer. Eliot he knew wouldn’t reply, but Parker?

Dammit, Parker, answer me! Where the hell are you??” Nate hissed as the trucks drove closer and closer.

“Nate …” Sophie warned.

And then the lead truck crashed through the heavy homestead gate, the post already weakened by the impact of the old Ford ute when Mei-Ling had arrived in the early hours of a spring morning, terrified and in pain.

The gate shattered dramatically under the impact and the explosion of noise, dulled as it was by the mist, made Sophie jump despite the calm she was trying to exude. The shower of splinters sent the dogs into a frenzy of hysterical barks, but the size and speed of the vehicles sent the animals scattering into the surrounding buildings out of the way. Soapy’s heart clinched, worried for his animals, but they safely made it away from the vehicles and he knew then they would probably return to bark abuse at the intruders, but they would come no closer.

But it was then he noticed Chunk, the largest and oldest of the heelers, stop and prick his ears at the outback beyond the yards. He didn’t bark, so whatever had taken his attention, Soapy knew the dog was familiar with it.

But he could spend no more time watching Chunk. The trucks slewed to a halt in the middle of the yard, and Sophie stood firm and still, Nate and Soapy ranged behind her.

Before the lead vehicle had even stopped completely, Chong had opened the door and was dropping down onto the red dust of the yard. Not bothering to shut the passenger door, he held his Glock at his side while pointing his free hand at Sophie.

“I want Mei-Ling!! Bring her to me!! NOW!!” he yelled, his lean features twisted with fury.

Derry Ryan shut off the engine and carefully eased out of the truck behind Chong, and no-one could miss the Ruger tucked under his arm in a shoulder holster. The driver of the rear truck also exited the vehicle and Nate recognised the tall, lanky aborigine who had driven the SUV on Chong’s first visit. The man was not armed. In fact, Nate thought, he looked absolutely terrified.

Sophie walked serenely to the veranda steps and made her way down to the yard, Nate behind her every inch of the way. He carried no weapon. Nate didn’t like guns ever since Eliot had stopped him from killing Victor Dubenich all of those years ago, and he trusted Soapy and Eliot to have both his and Sophie’s backs.

Chong stalked towards Sophie, and she could see the man was on the point of furious hysteria.

Ah, she thought. He knows what Hardison’s done. She would have to be careful, because the young snakehead was on the point of losing control of his emotions.

She raised an elegant eyebrow and studied the irate man.

“And just what is the meaning of all of this?” she said coolly, gesturing at the shattered gate. “You do realise you will be paying for the damage?”

Chong’s fury went up a notch, and Sophie wondered just how far she could push him.

Where is Mei-Ling??” he hissed, spittle flying.

“You mean that poor child carrying your baby? God help her, I wish I knew,” Sophie sighed languidly. “I pity the girl,” she added, “carrying a child of yours,” she added, just a little pointedly.

“She’s here, I know it!! So where is she???” he repeated, and this time the hand holding the Glock began to rise.

It was then that Hardison made his way out of the house, a cheery smile on his face, and stood at the top of the veranda steps, arms crossed.

Chong’s face went white.

“You!! It was YOU!!” he ranted.

Hardison’s eyebrows rose innocently and he placed a hand on his chest.

“Me??” he asked, curious. “What did I do? Man, I think you must be mistaken –“

“MY. MONEY!!” Chong railed, the Glock now being waved about in all directions, and even Ryan twitched as the weapon pointed at him for a moment or two. “Where is my money!?”

“Oh my …” Hardison pondered, and then he apparently had a moment of profound understanding. “Oh, THAT money!” he said, nodding. “Gosh … what was I thinking … the money you got from people who want to buy your uranium. Is that the money you mean?”

He waited for an answer from Chong but the man seemed incapable of speaking because his lean frame was trembling with fury.

Hardison’s smile widened even further.

“That would be those nice, cheery folks from ISIL an’ those nut-jobs in Uzbekistan, oh … oh, an’ who else … let me think … oh yeah … Boko Haram.” He sighed happily. “Well … y’see … I gave the money away,” he said. Then he held up a finger. “Well, I’ve not actually given it away as yet, so my bad for misleadin’ you there, m’man,” he added. “I just put some of it in a bank account in your name in the Caymans, an’ more in a secure investment brokerage in Myanmar. And there’s a really, really neat cyber-trail that leads right to you and your dear ol’ daddy. They know you stole their money, an’ they know where it is. Because, you see, I told ‘em. Oh,” he added airily, “ you don’t know that yet, do you? Oops.”

The look of sheer horror on Chong’s face made the hacker very, very happy. Hardison tried to look repentant but couldn’t really pull it off.

“Yeah … all you knew until now was that all of your bank accounts are a teensy bit empty. Like … nothin’ left. But now … now all of those nice, very crazy people know you cheated ‘em.” His face was the very picture of smugness. “Bummer.”

Chong almost dropped his Glock. He was having trouble breathing, but he managed to get some air in his lungs as he stared at these people who had not only ruined his life, but who had probably signed his death warrant. His ‘customers’ were not known for their forgiving nature.

He shuddered, trying to get himself under some sort of control, and then his upper lip lifted in a snarl. The Glock began to rise, and it was aimed straight at Sophie.

And it was just at that moment the screaming began.


Sayid held back another sneeze as the mist began to wreath its way around him. His men were almost invisible as they moved through the undergrowth, and just once in a while there, ahead of them, was the tell-tale gleam of water, The track they were looking for should be around here somewhere –

The Malaysian felt a tiny, tell-tale pressure on his shin, and a soft snick reached his ears.

Sayid’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to warn his men, but it was too late.

He was suddenly faced by a length of high-tensile wire, chest-height and taut and vibrating, and before he could stop himself he stumbled forward straight into it.

The scream he gave as the high-voltage electric shock connected with his hands and the metal semi-automatic he held was pure with agony. His muscles contracted, cutting short the scream, and he fell, shuddering and twitching to the ground even as his trigger finger twitched convulsively, letting off a flurry of shots.

To his left another man did the same, but this time the man fell forward, and his left elbow triggered the toothed dingo-trap embedded in the undergrowth. It closed with a vicious, deadly snapping crunch, shattering his upper arm bone. This time, the screaming didn’t stop.

Two more men narrowly avoided the wire, and back-pedalled as quickly as they could, swearing loudly. Another discovered the 12-volt battery attached to a cattle-prod, in turn attached to the wire turning the low voltage into something much more powerful. The man cursed and used his rifle-butt to disconnect the attachments.

Sayid and his compatriot were now out of action, so they advanced again with much, much more caution.


Chong heard the pure agony in the screams which were accompanied by what sounded like random shots. They came from his left, towards the track and the silvery billabong, but he couldn’t see a thing because of the mist. One of the screams stopped as though a switch had been flicked.

He stared wildly at Derry Ryan.

What the hell was that??” he bawled, and gesticulated in the general direction of the noise.

Ryan shook his head, bewildered.

“I … I don’t –“

Soapy eased the Webley from its holster as Sophie was tugged backwards by Nate.

“We have to go –“ he whispered urgently.

Sophie took the hint, running up the veranda steps as fast as she could, Nate close behind her.

Soapy shoved both of them behind him, and Hardison took over, manhandling Nate and Sophie into the house. Soapy raised the Webley and took aim. He set his eye on the centre of Chong’s chest, but before he could gently squeeze the trigger, there were a couple of small explosions, like gunshots, away to his left, beyond the cattle yards. And now, the screams went on and on and on


The Korean heard the commotion coming from the other side of the homestead and he also heard Chong’s furious, uncontained yelling.

He frowned and checked his men. From what he could see through the fog, they were proceeding with caution, especially as it was apparent something was going very wrong with Sayid’s group of men. But no matter, the Korean thought. He would continue with his orders and be more careful.

Gesturing with his rifle, he urged his men onward, and it was as he stepped forward that he felt the ground give way under his boot.

Even the slight pressure of his step was enough to unbalance the metal plate covering the hole beneath it. The plate pushed down on the .22 hollow-point round pointing upwards, held in place by three short pegs embedded in a piece of wood at the bottom of the hole. The primer at the base of the cartridge was instantly pushed against the metal nail-point beneath it.

The cartridge exploded, and the bullet blew through the Korean’s boot and his foot, taking two toes with it before emerging from the hole and striking the metal casing of the rifle, shattering the housing.

The Korean fell without a sound as what was left of the bullet clipped the side of his head, knocking him unconscious, and he collapsed in a bleeding, useless heap.

Another man to his left let out a blood-curdling scream of agony as he did the same thing, losing part of his foot.

The remaining members of the Korean’s team just stood there, confused for a second or two, but in a moment of clarity decided that they would backtrack and leave their compatriots bleeding in the bushes.

One man, realizing that they had no idea what awaited them in this dense undergrowth, panicked.

He dropped his rifle and ran away from the group and towards the homestead. But within seconds he disappeared, as though his legs had been swept from beneath him by some beast lurking in the shadows.

Nothing else moved other than the two men already down and shot, one moaning loudly at the pain of his shattered bones.

Then there was a loud, terrified shriek and the smell of burning flesh. Then came what sounded like a soft, manic giggle.

That was when the men finally decided they had had enough. They dropped their guns and fled.


Chong seemed to become completely unhinged by the commotion. He had no idea what was going on, only that it appeared his men were under some kind of assault. He turned to Ryan, who had slipped the Ruger from its holster, and pointed with his free hand at the house.

“Go guard the back of the house!!” he yelled. “Kill anyone who comes out of there. Anyone!! You hear me??”

Ryan blinked.

“What about the girl??”

Chong’s eyes glittered.

Grab her, cut the child out of her and then slit her throat!” he hissed.

Jesus …” Ryan whispered under his breath, but he nodded and headed off around the side of the kitchen.

Chong swung around to see the other driver, but to his dismay the man was gone.

“Shit!!” he snarled, and raised his Glock, meaning to shoot Sophie where she stood. But when he looked back at the house, Sophie, Nate and Soapy were gone. The veranda was empty.

Chong Bun-Tsui, snakehead and sole heritor of the Shumchun Triad clan of Shanghai, threw back his head in helpless fury and howled his anger to the dull, damp sky.


In the acacias beside the yards, Charlie Jakkamarra flung the aboriginal driver onto the ground and sat across his chest, pinning the young man’s arms. He leaned forward and stared into terrified black eyes.

“You don’t like working for Chong, do you, mate?” he asked amiably.

The aborigine shook his head vigorously.

Charlie grinned.

“You want to live, brother?”

The young man nodded, eyes becoming round with fear.

Charlie’s eyes narrowed and the bleakness the man saw in the station manager’s gaze made his breath hitch. Unbuttoning his shirt, Charlie exposed the cicatrices scarring his chest.

“I am Charlie Jakkamarra. I am the Kurdaitcha Man of my clan.” Charlie said, his voice low, calm and suddenly very deadly. “This man … this Chong … killed my woman. If you move, my magic will kill you dead, slowly and with great pain, and the claws of the eagle will tear your heart and your liver and your kidneys. You will see the dead and the walkers in your dreams will break your bones. If you want to go back to your people, then be still, brother. Stay quiet and I will not use the magic of the emu bone to stop your heart. You understand, man of the Gurindji?

The young man was now almost rigid with terror, but he managed a shaky nod.

Charlie eased himself to his feet, but the driver didn’t move.

Leaning over his captive, Charlie’s face once more relaxed into a grin. Lifting a finger to his lips, he winked.

“Shhh …” he said.

And then he was gone like a whisper on the wind, and the young aborigine lay as still as he could, because the last thing he wanted was the Kurdaitcha Man haunting his dreams and the eagle’s claws tearing him asunder in the dark of the night.


The billabong, newly filled by the recent downpour, lapped lazily against its sandy shoreline, and the unfortunate Sayid’s men worked cautiously along the line of gum trees and coolibahs until they found the paddock fence. It took them only moment to find the gate, and they slipped over it rather than spend precious time pulling back the heavy sprung latch and going through the gate itself.

Once on the other side, they found the track leading through a stand of trees towards the homestead. One of the men, an Australian ex-special-forces veteran called Bayardo, frowned and stared at the track through the mist.

Very, very faintly, he saw freshly-cut branches laid out on the track willy-nilly, as though covering something. It wasn’t obvious – it had been done with skill and cunning, but he recognised the signs.

“Stay off the track,” he whispered, and his remaining men spread out among the coolibahs. The wittering, fluting cries of magpies accompanied them as they began to move through the acacias and occasional termite mound, although the screams coming from the other side of the homestead were unnerving to say the least.

Suddenly the sound of the magpies changed to a soft, murmuring chuckle. Something was coming.

Bayardo glanced at his men, although he could barely see them, but they too had noticed the change in the magpies’ calls.

And there, looming through the mist and making its way along the track, strode a huge, brown camel.


Soapy closed the door behind him and peered through the glass inserts beside the entrance.

“He’s a bloody nutcase!” he said wonderingly, and Nate nodded.

“Yep. That he is.” He agreed. “Okay people, stay away from the windows. Jo? Are you all fine in there?”

Jo, Winchester in hand, was peering out of Eliot’s window, but she stood back as the screaming and yelling continued outside.

She knew that getting into the house via this particular window would be almost impossible as it looked out onto Gertie’s paddock, which was bare of cover apart from an old mulga tree and Gertie’s humpy, and the window was a good seven feet above the ground.

Mei sat on the bed with both of her babies in her arms, and Kip and Lizzie sat beside her, arms around the young woman who was obviously scared out of her wits. She had heard Chong’s order to kill her and take his son.

Effie sat silently in the kitchen, pump-action shotgun in hand and braced beside the door.

Hardison had retreated to the living room with Sophie. Neither of them were experts with firearms, and with Hardison wounded he wouldn’t be much good in a fist fight, but he had borrowed Effie’s cricket bat which he hefted with obvious relish.

A bullet sudden pinged off the door jamb and whined away, punching a hole through the veranda fly-screen.

My men are coming for you!!” Chong bellowed, letting off another shot which slammed into the heavy oak veranda door. “You will all die!! ALL OF YOU!!” he repeated, and one more shot cracked out, this time shattering one of the glass inserts. Soapy flinched, but stood his ground.

“Come in here, you arse, and I’ll blow you apart!!” he yelled.

Chong began to laugh, a high-pitched, unfettered noise, rife with insanity.

“Yeah … nuttier than a fruitcake,” Soapy whispered to Nate.

Nate Ford ran his fingers through unruly hair, and smiled.


Bayardo grinned.

A camel. A bloody camel. It would soon tell them if the track was booby-trapped.

He and his men moved quietly through the undergrowth and they eyed the big animal, but the camel suddenly scented the air and let out a grumbling honk. The huge head swung in Bayardo’s direction, and the creature let out a growl of anger.

Now the camel didn’t seem quite so funny, and turning, Bayardo aimed his rifle at the animal just in case it turned nasty.

What he didn’t see was another scatter of cut branches at his feet. He tripped and fell, along with one of his men.

The pain as the hidden, stretched lengths of barbed wire constricted and sprung around his body was agonising. And the more both men struggled, the more tangled they became, and they rolled amid the bushes, the barbs tearing and ripping and catching in quivering muscle. One loop had strung around Bayardo’s neck, and as the loop tightened and squeezed against his skin, Bayardo was suddenly aware that if he struggled any further, the barb would slice open his jugular vein and he would bleed out in less than thirty seconds.

So he stilled, his limbs and body torn and bleeding and completely wrapped in over ten yards of high-tensile barbed wire.

His compatriot was still shrieking.

Carefully peering around and trying hard not to move, Bayardo looked for his other men.

The ground shook as the camel loped by, bottom lip flapping and teeth bared, and he heard one of his men bawl in agony as the beast caught up with him. The sound suddenly stopped, and the camel roared in triumph.

Bayardo gulped, and then noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. A pretty blonde woman dressed in black suddenly hunkered down beside him, eyes narrowed like a cat with a bag of catnip.

“Hi!” she said brightly, and then held up something which sparked cheerily. “Meet Mister Zappy!” she said, and then Bayardo’s battered body arched in spasms as the taser was pressed against his chest.


The remainder of the Korean’s men scattered through the undergrowth, not caring where they were going. They just wanted to get away from this nightmare, but two of them didn’t make it.

They stumbled into a small clearing, but didn’t notice the trip-wire of green baling twine criss-crossing the space. They didn’t even hear the snick of the split-pin coming out of the loops at the end of rope leading high into nearby gum trees.

The catch of the trip-wire made them stumble, but they didn’t go down, only to see three objects swing towards them from the surrounding trees.

The small, closely- woven baskets burst as they impacted on the two hapless men, and they were instantly swarming with thousands and thousands of very angry bull ants. The creatures were in their hair and their clothes and they stung and stung and stung, and as the two men opened their mouths to scream, they found they couldn’t because their lips were rapidly swelling and then the furious ants swarmed down their throats and the screams stopped before they were even born.


Derry Ryan hurried around the kitchen extension of the homestead.

He studied the small deck leading to the kitchen door. Maybe … maybe he could make his way in there, as Chong’s lunacy was probably keeping everyone occupied at the front of the house. He walked a little further and found the rear fence to Gertie’s paddock. If he watched from there for a few minutes, he could, he thought, see what was going on and try and work his way into the house.

He checked the load in his Ruger and was about to settle in beside the fence, when he heard a growl.

Turning around he saw Chunk, the big heeler staring at him with ears laid back and teeth bared. The animal looked bloody furious, he thought. He couldn’t shoot the dog because it would alert the people in the house, so slipping the Ruger back into its shoulder holster, he pulled out the big Razorback knife he wore at his belt. Now all he had to do was get close enough to the stinking mutt to cut its throat and then –

“What? You gonna pick a fight with a friggin’ dog, now?” said a calm, gruff voice. “Man, you got no more balls than a castrated sheep.”

Derry Ryan turned further towards the mist-ridden bushes beyond the yard and saw nothing at first.

And then, to his surprise, emerging from the mist dusty and ghost-like, he saw Eliot Spencer, and Ryan’s eyes were drawn to the deadly, gleaming sword in his hand.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Derry Ryan studied the man before him.

He knew that this … this cowboy … wasn’t all he appeared to be. The blue eyes, shadowed in a dusty, worn face, glittered like ice, and for all that the man was a good six inches shorter than Ryan, he was all hard muscle and bone.

The Ulsterman grinned even as Eliot gestured at Chunk, ordering the big heeler back to the barn.

The American was wounded, and badly, if the heavy bandages he could see under the dust-smeared teeshirt were anything to go by.

“You’re the bastard Eades shot,” he commented easily, letting his hand gripping the big, heavy knife hang loosely by his side. “Looks like you got hit hard,” he added with malice.

Eliot hitched an eyebrow and a smile quirked his lips. He touched his injured side with his empty hand.

“What? This?” He grinned, teeth white against the dusty skin. “I’ve had a helluva lot worse an’ killed far better men than you. Damn, I’ve killed better women, who’re a helluva lot more dangerous,” he added, voice hard under the grim humour of his tone.

Ryan nodded thoughtfully.

“Well, that crazy whore Hadan is out there somewhere, looking to gut you like a herring, boyo, and she’ll do it and not even turn a hair.”

Eliot shifted, and Ryan realised that this man was hurting badly.

“She’ll have to wait,” Eliot ground out. “Because I’m going to kill you first, and then I’m gonna deal with Chong. An’ she’ll be happy to wait.”

Ryan pursed his lips and hefted his knife, knowing the movement would make Eliot’s muscles tense, which would hurt like Hades.

“Oh? And why’s that then?” he said softly.

Eliot walked forward a few steps and Ryan braced himself for an attack, but Eliot just stopped beside the steps leading up to Effie’s deck beside the kitchen door.

“See this?” he said, and lifted the katana, studying the beautifully crafted blade and the wavering line of the hamon down its length. “This sword was made in 1592. It was made by Maeda Hanzō Mitsuyo, one of the greatest swordsmiths of the Sengoku period.” Eliot smiled with affection before continuing. “He made plenty of excellent swords, Ryan. But he made only five almost perfect swords in his lifetime, an’ this is the best of ‘em.”

Eliot, perfectly balanced and without any wasted movement or apparent effort, swung the katana elegantly from left to right horizontally and then with both hands on the hilt he raised it above his head and brought the blade down and around in an arc of cold fire, ending with the great sword once more poised gracefully above his head, a classic jodan no kamae.

“This is the Sword of the Okuri Inu, and Khenbish Hadan will have to kill me to own it,” he said huskily, and Ryan, impressed, nevertheless didn’t miss the flinch as Eliot straightened and brought the katana back down to his side.

“Impressive,” Ryan murmured. “It hurts, though, doesn’t it?”

“Well,” Eliot said ruefully, “no pain, no gain, no problem.” He grinned, his point made and his blue eyes amused. “Pain I can deal with. Which means I can deal with you.” He turned and looked up at the kitchen door, closed and locked against Chong and his men. “Effie!! Hey, Effie!! You in there??” he yelled, and within moments he heard the door lock clunk and saw the door itself swing open.

Effie stumped out, her pump-action shotgun in one hand.

“By crikey!!” she growled, muddy eyes furious as she surveyed the face-off between a man whom she loved dearly as a son and another who wanted to kill him and the rest of the people she cared for. “You alright, Yank?”

Eliot’s grin widened as he looked up at her.

“I’m fine, no worries. Can you do me a favour, Eff?”

Effie turned her hate-filled gaze onto Derry Ryan, who studied this short, stumpy woman with the grey dress and hair and the flowery apron. His eyebrows rose, somewhat bemused.

“’Course I ruddy can, boy!” Effie rumbled.

Eliot made his way halfway up the steps and offered the katana to Effie.

“Look after my girl here, will ya? I don’t want to soil her with this asshole’s blood.”

Effie’s pudgy face broke into what Eliot knew was a smile of sheer delight, but the apparent grimace just made Ryan cringe a little. She reached out and took the katana with great care and respect, knowing how much the sword meant to the Oklahoman.

“Righto, you young bugger!” she declared, and her affection for Eliot was written all over her face if one knew where to look. “She’ll be safe with me while you slice and dice this shonky bastard!” For a moment her voice dropped to a whisper. “You sure about this? I’d just take the wanker’s head and be done with it!” she hissed.

Eliot dipped his head in acknowledgement.

“Yeah, I suppose,” he murmured. “But this means I can get up close an’ finish it, because he thinks he’s stronger ‘n’ fitter than me – which he is,” Eliot conceded. “But this katana’s over four hundred years old – a piece of shit like him ain’t fit for a beauty like her. Besides,” he grinned wolfishly, “I’m savin’ her for Hadan.”

Effie chewed the information over in her head for a moment, and then nodded. Her eyes gleamed dangerously as she hefted her shotgun.

“You be careful, Eliot. Hear me? If you’re not, and the Missus and I have to patch you up again I’m going to bloody well slap you silly!”

Eliot smirked, tickled and touched by her concern. In all the years he had known Effie, she had never ever called him by name. He had always been ‘Yank’ to the little cook.

“I hear ya, darlin’,” he whispered.

Effie shifted her focus back to Derry Ryan, who was watching all of this apparent idiocy with confusion. She glared at the Ulsterman who was becoming impatient even as he heard the shots coming from the front of the house. He had no time for this goddamn nonsense.

“Let me end him, Yank,” she continued, her voice low. “I’m up for it, and I won’t lose any bloody sleep over the drongo.”

Eliot shook his head.

“No, Eff. This has to be on me. I don’t want anyone else carryin’ his death. It marks you, Effie … believe me, you don’t come away from killin’ a person without –“

Effie’s eyes were sharp with understanding, but she stopped him in mid-sentence.

“I know what it does to you, boy. I haven’t always been a bleedin’ cook, y’know,” she murmured.

Eliot, for once in his life, didn’t quite know how to answer such a declaration, but stubborn man that he was, he had to make his point.

“This is my job, Eff. Okay? But if I look as though I’m screwin’ up, you got my permission to fill his rotten hide with buckshot. Happy now?” he muttered, one eye on Ryan who was working his way towards Eliot’s left.

Effie’s grin became decidedly malevolent and her eyes were like hard, dark bullets as she shouted out to Derry Ryan.

YOU!! You’re the one who came to kill my nippers!!!” she snarled, and she shifted the shotgun and one-handed, worked the mechanism to pump a shell full of double-ought buckshot into the breech. “If the Yank don’t kill ya, then maybe I’ll just finish the job, you arse-faced dickwad!! My bloody oath, I will!!”

Eliot, making his way back down the steps and unsheathing his Ka-Bar, stopped and turned, looking back at Effie.

Dickwad??” he asked, surprised.

Effie, still glaring at Ryan, shrugged.

“Sunbeam and me … we watched a couple of films on his tablet-y-thing … about some mad bastard of a copper played by that Gibson bloke. Bloody ripper they were, too!”

Lethal Weapon??” Eliot rasped. “You an’ Hardison were watchin’ Lethal Weapon movies???

“Yeah! So???” Effie argued. “You were out for the count and the nipper and her dad was watching over you, so I took a bloody tea-and-cake-break and sunbeam joined me. He said that Joshua bastard in the film was a dickwad. You got a problem with that, you cheeky young mongrel?”

Eliot just gazed at her, and then shook his head.

“When all this is over,” he rumbled as he faced Ryan, who was listening to the conversation with utter disbelief, “Hardison an’ me’re gonna have words.”

“Phooey!!” Effie snorted, channeling her inner Parker. “Leave the poor bugger alone. He’s a good boy!”

Yep, said Hardison gleefully through the earbud, you an’ my Nana’re totally sympatico, Effie!

Ryan, not sure just what the hell was going on, mentally shook himself and moved sideways, making Eliot shift with him.

Effie, now feeling confident that no-one was immediately going to come barreling out of the undergrowth with weapons at the ready, eased herself down on her wooden chair and rested the shotgun on her ample lap. The katana rested beside her, the mist leaving a slight hint of condensation on the ancient blade.

“Are you going to let that stupid old cow just sit there and watch??” Ryan said, now somewhat confused even as he settled into a knife-fighting stance, the big Razorback gleaming in the dull, fog-ridden light. “Because I’m going to slit her rank old throat when I’ve finished you,” he added.

Eliot hitched a shoulder to get the kinks out of it and worked a crick out of his neck. Lying in bed for days, seriously hurt and riddled with fever, had not done him any favours. He was stiff, very sore and far from healed up, and the broken rib pulled with every movement, making his breath hitch with the pain of it.

But studying Ryan as the Irishman flouted his knife, Eliot knew Ryan was over-confident.

“Nate?” he whispered. “You there?”

Uh-huh, Nate murmured, his voice low as it crackled through the earbud. Need any help?

“Nope,” Eliot said softly as he walked to his right, head down, keeping himself between Effie and Ryan. “Take the kids outta here while I keep Ryan occupied. You know where to go?”

Yeah, Nate replied, but I can stay with Soapy –

Please, Nate, protect Mei an’ the kids. You said you’d follow my lead, an’ I need to know the kids aren’t anywhere near Chong an’ I need someone who’s fit an’ ready to go. Hardison, you stay with Soapy. Can you do that?”

Eliot, one eye on Ryan as he gauged distances, wiped the palm of his free hand on his pants leg. Ryan’s grin widened, taking the gesture as that of a man sweating with tension.

No probs, El. I got Soapy’s back, Hardison said guardedly, and Eliot heard the hacker walk through the house to the hallway. His wounded shoulder wouldn’t stop him from wielding the cricket bat with alacrity if Chong or his men came into the house. Nate, unhurt and with Sophie and Jo beside him, would protect the children with his life.

Okay, Nate said, we’re on our way. Eliot … I’m armed. If you need me –

“Any killin’ to be done will be done by me, Nate. You know how I feel about it. Gotta go.”

And pretending to scratch his ear, Eliot removed his earbud and managed to slip it into his jeans pocket.

Nate, preparing to take the children of Wapanjara to safety, cursed uselessly, profoundly and very angrily, but Eliot didn’t hear him.

DAMMIT!! Nate raged, but taking a deep breath to steady himself, he did as he was asked and headed for Eliot’s bedroom to get Mei and the children out of danger.


“Are you prayin’ there, boyo?” Ryan asked, seeing Eliot murmuring under his breath, and he saw the American wiping his hand on his pants leg as thought ridding him of a sweaty palm. “A little nervous, are we? A little scared? So you should be, you stupid bastard, playing around with a bloody sword and talking as though you’re some kind of feckin’ ninja!”

Eliot, sore, weary and losing patience, grimaced.

“Oh, screw this,” he said and took the fight straight to Ryan.


Nate walked into Eliot’s bedroom to an argument, even as Chong continued to rave outside the house.

“But Grandma Jo, Eliot’s taken his earbud out!!” Lizzie ranted quietly, “He’s hiding something! Is he going to fight someone? Is he?” Lizzie turned to her mother, brown eyes huge with fear. “Mama! What’s Eliot going to –“

“Lizzie darling, Eliot’s doing what he has to do to keep us all safe, you know that!” Sophie replied, doing her best to keep her voice level and calm.

But Lizzie was having none of it, and now Kip was getting agitated.

“Uncle Nate,” he said, arm around Mei and the babies, “Eliot and Dad … are they okay?”

Nate smiled warmly at the two children, trying to ease their concerns.

“Both of them are alive, well and know exactly what they’re doing,” he said, and hoped fervently that he was right. He knew Charlie had taken down the young aboriginal driver, and he felt the hairs prickle again at the back of his neck as he remembered Charlie’s words, softly spoken and eerie through the earbud, filled with the bone-deep conviction that went with thousands of years of living in this unique, dangerous landscape. “C’mon now – we have to go.”

Jo looked into Nate’s blue eyes and nodded. She would have to leave her husband - her best friend, lover and soul mate – to face Chong with only Hardison for backup, although she knew the hacker wasn’t helpless and would be a formidable opponent even though he was wounded. Effie’s old willow cricket bat was solid and heavy enough to easily kill a man.

Nate quirked a smile at her.

“We have to get going, Jo. C’mon – Eliot doesn’t need to be worrying about the kids, Mei and you.”

Jo took a deep breath, and stepped away from the window.

“I know … I know. We have to keep them safe.” She glanced through the door, knowing Soapy was only yards away, and she heard him say something she couldn’t quite make out through the earbud about Sophie to Hardison. For some reason she could hear amusement in his voice, and it made her smile. “Alright, nippers,” she said, “you know what to do. Lizzie – help your mum to shift the rug, and Kip, you help Mei and the twins.”

Lizzie, angry and afraid for Eliot, began to object, but Nate lifted a finger, halting the complaints before they even began.

“Lizzie – stop now, sweetheart. What did Eliot say? Huh?”

Lizzie’s brows drew down in fury, but she kept her ire under control.

“We have to go so he doesn’t have to worry about us,” she muttered, and even as she said it she helped Sophie lift the thick Navajo rug off the floor at the bottom of Eliot’s big bed. Underneath lay a sturdy old trapdoor with a brass handle slotted flush to the wood. Jo grasped the handle, turned it and the trapdoor lifted easily, swinging upwards to prop against the bed.

A set of wooden steps led downwards to the dusty ground under the house, enclosed by what appeared to be old, weathered iron sheeting. Unless someone was looking for the steps, all that could be seen was what appeared to be an old water tank under the house.

Nate quietly led the way down the steps, making sure he didn’t touch the metal sheets as the reverberations might be heard outside. Once at the bottom, Lizzie joined him followed by Kip. Jo slung the strap of her Winchester over her shoulder and held little Jamie until Mei reached the ground, and then she passed the infant down to his mother. Jo herself was next, and Sophie handed down Rose once Jo had joined the others.

Left alone in Eliot’s room, Sophie looked around at this place which had more Eliot Spencer in it than she could have ever thought possible. At that moment she realised how precious this place was to their hitter … how much he was loved here and how much he loved in return. Within the next hour or so he could well give his life to protect his people, both the Wapanjara and Portland families he treasured.

Her eye caught sight of the wakizashi sitting alone on the ironwood stand. Reaching up, she lifted the superbly-crafted short sword and hefted it. Yes, she thought. She could handle the weapon.

Decision made, within seconds she had hidden the Navajo rug under the bed and pulled the trapdoor shut, locking it firmly behind her.


Chong fired another shot, this one smashing the window in Effie’s kitchen.

BRING MY WOMAN TO ME!!” he screamed furiously.

Soapy winced.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered to Hardison who stood in the living room doorway, “Effie is going to be racked off at that arse breaking her window!”

“Isn’t he going to run out of ammo soon??” Hardison grumbled, as another round smacked into the front door.

Soapy shook his head.

“No way, mate. That’s a Glock parabellum. Seventeen rounds in the magazine. He’s not stopping any time soon. If he starts getting too close, I’ll drop the bastard, but Eliot –“

“-doesn’t want you takin’ the responsibility of killin’ him,” Hardison finished, sighing. “Yeah, well … that’s just the way Eliot is.”

Soapy grimaced as another round tore into one of the veranda uprights, splinters showering the table and chairs.

“Well, I’m happy enough letting him faff about out there, so the nippers and the girls are safe – not that Jo and Sophie need any protection,” he added, humour glinting in his black eyes. “They’re not women you get on the wrong side of,” he added wryly.

Too bloody right, they both heard Jo whisper. Hardison frowned as he heard clattering and then just faint sounds. No-one was talking. They also knew Eliot had removed his earbud, but unlike Nate, Hardison was not worried. Effie was with him, and if either she or Eliot needed help the old cook would let out a yell loud enough to waken the dead.

Soapy peered warily through the broken glass insert for a moment and then cringed out of the way as Chong fired another bullet into the door surround.

“Why don’t you have a go at distracting the silly bugger?” Soapy said to Hardison, who brightened, a cheery smile working its way onto his mobile features.

“Hey Chong!” The hacker yelled, his voice rich with derision. “Y’know that little bit of money you had in the Caymans? That spare million dollars or so you had put by for emergencies an’ food an’ spendin’ money?”

Chong, standing in the mist, eyes blazing with fury and his body trembling not only with anger but also the terror of what this man had done to him, took a step back as though punched in the chest.

“My … my money?? What –“ he stammered, knowing this particular account was the best hidden of all of his stashes throughout the world, for use if he had an issue that needed dealing with instantly. Nobody knew about the account - not even his father, who kept a fearsomely-talented hacker in his employ.

“Y’know I said I gave some money away? Well … I gave that money to Mei-Ling,” Hardison said triumphantly.

Chong felt his heart constrict. A tear of sheer, unadulterated frustration trickled down his cheek and he swept it away with a shaky hand.

YOU … YOU –“ he stammered, and he fired a flurry of shots at the front door, huge splinters of old oak showering the veranda, and Chong yelled uselessly as he did so, his voice hitching with tears. He knew Soapy Munro was a sniper of the highest standard, yet not a shot had come from the house. He didn’t know why, but he wasn’t about to try and enter the house and find out. He would leave that to Ryan and whatever men he had left.

Dust settled through the fog as Chong stood, chest heaving and his Glock held in trembling hands, and then Hardison’s voice drifted from the house, warm and clear.

“Oh … an’ by the way … your mother was a hamster an’ your father smelled of elderberries!!” he paused for a moment, and Chong heard him clear his throat. “I fart in your general direction!!” Hardison finished smugly.

Chong, not quite understanding how it had all gone so terribly wrong, heard Soapy Munro burst out laughing.


Eliot Spencer charged straight at Derry Ryan.

The big Ulsterman braced himself, expecting Eliot to use his left hand to deflect the Razorback and push the Ka-Bar towards the centre of Ryan’s chest, angling it upwards to pierce under the breastbone and into the huge arteries feeding the heart and lungs. The big man rejoiced as it was a classic mistake, although deep down he was surprised that this man would make such an error, as the attack left a wounded Eliot vulnerable to Ryan’s added height and length of arm.

What he didn’t expect was the American to tuck his head down and use his body as a weapon, and Eliot charged straight into Ryan, making the man stagger back. The impact of Eliot’s head and right shoulder on his chest made Ryan let out a whoosh of air. As he fell backwards into the dust he saw the blue, murderous glint in Eliot’s eyes. This madman meant to kill him.

As Ryan hit the ground, the impact drove what air he had left out of his lungs. But he still managed to raise the Razorback and angle it to his left, intending to drive the massive recurved blade deep into Eliot’s left side, between the ribs.

But in a heartbeat Eliot was gone, rolling off Ryan’s prone body to the American’s right. As Ryan felt Eliot’s weight shift he also gasped at the agonizing pain in his left arm, and he knew with a jolt that Eliot had sliced through the radial nerve running down the inside of his triceps.

SHIT!” he managed to yell breathlessly, and the pain and the lack of breath in his lungs made the words come out as a croak.

Eliot rolled lightly over on his shoulder and onto his feet in mere moments, although he staggered a little as he righted himself.

Effie hitched a breath, but didn’t say anything, mesmerised as she was by the lethal battle playing out in front of her.

Ryan was slower to get to his feet and it was obvious that his left hand was useless, no matter how the Ulsterman shook it to get the feeling back. Blood streamed down his arm and dripped relentlessly into the dust.

Sitting in her chair, Effie leaned forward and grinned despite her worry.

Eliot inhaled as deeply as he could and couldn’t help a hitch of pain as his side objected. But he didn’t let it bother him. He had a job to do.

Once again, he took the fight to Ryan, but this time he used his solid frame to try and unbalance the big man, going in low and hard and difficult to grasp.

Ryan, hurt, bleeding and with a useless arm, was nevertheless waiting for him.

The two men crashed into one another, and Eliot used sharp elbows to dig into Ryan’s solar plexus, making it even more difficult for his opponent to catch his breath, and he was on the point of ducking under Ryan’s knife hand when the big man lurched away and landed a kick on Eliot’s knee.

Eliot tried to stop the keening grunt of pain as his knee gave way and he put out his left hand to prevent himself sprawling in the dust.

But Ryan twisted onto his side and the Razorback opened up a shallow gash in Eliot’s leg that made the Oklahoman curse as he flung himself sideways, away from this lanky-framed asshole that had threatened to kill Effie.

The two men separated and got to their feet, both wounded and trying to catch their breath. Eliot used the back of his left hand to wipe away blood from the reopened cut in his brow that now threatened to trickle into his eye.

Ryan clenched his jaw at the pain in his arm, and had become very aware now that his left hand was useless.

Damn this cowboy, whoever the friggin’ hell he was!

“C’mon, Ryan!” Eliot taunted, grinning through the blood he had failed to stop oozing down his cheekbone and jaw from his brow. “Call yourself a knife-man!”

But Ryan wasn’t to be goaded, and the two men circled one another, even as another flurry of shots rang out from the front of the house.

“Looks like the Boss is takin’ care of your people!” he said gloatingly, but Eliot curled a derisive lip and ignored the comment.

The hitter stood straight and balanced, eyes dark with intent, and he lifted his left hand. He made a ‘come get me’ gesture, and once more that white, irritating grin appeared on his face. Ryan saw the man firm the grip on the old Ka-Bar knife, slender and far lighter than the wide-bellied Razorback and worn with use, although he knew the damn’ thing was as sharp as hell if his useless arm was anything to go by. He knew that the damage was bad … probably permanent. This feckin’ Yank had crippled him.

Effie was watching the altercation with her heart in her mouth, but she knew Eliot was calculating moves and reactions with whirlwind accuracy, and she couldn’t help a thrill of excitement as she watched him work.

It was then that the dynamics changed, and Effie’s heart almost stopped with fear.

Out of the undergrowth erupted two men, both armed, although one of them was covered in small nicks and cuts.

And they ran straight towards Eliot as they aimed their semi-automatics at the battered and bleeding American.


Parker was happily hunting down the remainder of the Korean’s men, although she had to grimace at what the bull ants had done to the two dead men lying amid broken trip wires in the clearing. She sensibly stayed away from the quivering, crawling heaps of dead flesh, and headed along a track, knowing there were still more men from both groups in the vicinity, and they could easily work their way around and head back to the homestead.

She heard thudding footsteps away to her right, and grinned. This was going to be interesting.


There were two of them, making their way as quickly as they could through the undergrowth away from the homestead. Both men were of the opinion that this job wasn’t worth the hassle and the death of the two men they had found, swarming with ants, had been the final straw. They were leaving, as quickly as they could.

Working their way through a long, sprawling group of acacias, they stepped carefully, eyes darting at every sound and hint of movement, but there was nothing. Perhaps … perhaps this far away from the house wasn’t set with booby-traps? It wouldn’t make sense to set traps this far from the yards and the old house.

The man in front stopped and turned, looking at his compatriot.

“The truck’ll be around here someplace, I’m sure of it,” he said, his soft Carolina accent eerily flat in the dense fog. If we can get to the truck we can’ just light outta here an’ get free of this shit!”

His companion nodded and tugged out a pocket compass.

“Yeah … yeah,” he muttered, gesturing vaguely to his right. “Should be over there someplace.”

So off they went, trying to avoid the denser parts of the undergrowth, and their pace quickened.

That was a mistake.

Now walking abreast they headed for a clearing, and the southerner grinned.

“Can’t be far away from here now!” he said, and the pair of them quickened their steps.

The animal track they were following was clear and easy to follow, but in this fog they had to watch the ground rather than the space ahead of them, and the sudden familiar snick of a trip-wire was as unexpected as it was terrifying.

Before they could duck or step backwards, both men were tangled in a morass of big triple fish-hooks tied in loose bunches dropped upon them. Soapy’s fishing line, intended for catching the heavy barramundi that inhabited the billabong, was almost impossible to break and both men screamed and cursed and screamed some more as the bronzed fish-hooks embedded themselves deep, deep within their flesh.

And the more they struggled, the more the agony tore at them.

Two hundred yards away, Parker grinned with delight, and she grinned even more when Charlie materialized out of the mist, a heavy, shallow-curved boomerang held lightly in his right hand.

“You ready to go back to the house?” he asked.

Parker looked at the aborigine, and noticed he had removed his shirt and she could see the scars on his chest and abdomen. She understood then that Charlie was going to deal with these men who had killed his Alice, and Parker’s face settled into grim lines, her eyes deadlier than a panther on the prowl.

“Let’s go, Charlie. Let’s go and make them pay.”

Charlie Jakkamarra of the Warumungu nodded, and with Parker following, they both disappeared into the cloaking mist.


Nate heard the screams and the shots as he worked his way along under the house, Jo behind him. Then followed the children and Mei with Sophie bringing up the rear.

He felt in his jacket pocket, and the comforting bulk of the humane killer Soapy had given him made Nate understand that he may have to use it, probably in front of his daughter and the other children. He would have to get up close to use it because the thing was intended for humanely putting down cattle and horses and it didn’t have any range to speak of, but it would certainly do lethal damage to a human being.

Behind him, Sophie crept behind Mei, and when the screaming began again in the distance she drew the old wakizashi from its sheath and held it down and away from her. She knew how razor-sharp it was, used as it was for fighting at close quarters and even sometimes for ritual disembowelment, and she knew in her heart she would use it without compunction if her family was threatened.

But suddenly the sound of semi-automatic fire came abruptly from the side of the house, and she heard Effie’s shout of terror.

ELIOT!! Effie bawled, and Sophie winced at the pitch, ELIOT!!! GET DOWN!!

And then everything stopped, and all Sophie could hear was her daughter, calling out in a voice that echoed with grief … a sound Sophie knew she would never forget for the rest of her life.

NO!! NO!! NOT MY ELIOT!!” Lizzie screamed desperately, and shoving past her father, she began to scramble her way out from beneath the house.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Oh shit!!” Nate swore out loud as he tried – and failed – to catch Lizzie as she wriggled past him, his fingers barely missing the shoulder of her jacket as she scooted past him. “Lizzie!! Get back here right now!!” he yelled as he stumbled along behind his running daughter, hampered by the lack of height room under the old house. Hunched and swearing, he saw Lizzie scramble through the uprights ahead of him and disappear, and Nate knew then that his daughter would not stop until she found Eliot.

Go get her!” Sophie shouted behind him, “please Nate - go get our daughter!!” she wailed, even as she hefted the wakizashi.

“We’ll be fine!!” Jo hissed urgently, and Nate didn’t hesitate. He struggled along the narrow space as fast as he could, pulling out the humane killer as he did so.

Squeezing through the uprights supporting the old house he emerged into thick fog. As he got his bearings, he heard the ear-splitting squall of an infant, and to his right sounded the flat, deadly BOOM of a shotgun.

Heart in his mouth and his chest bursting with fear, he headed towards the deadened echo of the shotgun blast.


Both Ryan and Eliot paused for a split-second at Effie’s yell and Eliot turned to see two armed men heading straight for him. He knew instantly that he had absolutely no chance of moving quickly enough to even try and avoid the spray of bullets.

Right here and right now, as he tried to save the family he held so dear, Eliot knew he was going to die.

Lips curling in a defiant snarl, Eliot Spencer held his head high and welcomed death.

And as he waited, a small figure topped with a riot of curls emerged from the all-consuming mist and charged towards him, yelling his name.


Parker swore she could hear whimpering. Touching Charlie on his arm, she cocked her head to one side in query. Charlie nodded, and raising his right hand he extended his thumb and index finger, making a twisting motion.

Where? Over there? The gesture meant. He had given Parker a quick lesson in the complex and ancient sign language of the Warumungu, and had been surprised how quickly she had picked it up.

Parker raised one finger in reply.

One person.

Charlie’s black eyes glittered as he led the way towards the sound, and entering a small clearing they found the source of the noise.

A man lay sprawled on his back, his right leg bent at the knee. His foot was deep in a hole, and he keened in agony at the devastation of needle-sharp split bamboo spikes driven through his foot and ankle. His whole lower leg was a mass of blood, and the multi-angled spikes meant that no matter which way he moved his leg the bamboo was driven even deeper into his mangled flesh.

“Help … help me …” he begged, tears of pain running down his face. His semi-automatic rifle was lying yards away, flung there as the man fell to the ground in agony.

Charlie hunkered down in front of the terrified man and studied him carefully. Parker just stood to one side and watched both men, her face impassive.

Charlie tapped the man’s forehead with the end of his boomerang to get his attention.

“Did you kill my wife?” he asked quietly.

The man blinked, tears running down his dirty cheeks leaving trails in the dust there.

“Wh … what??? No!!” His eyes darted to Parker. “Help me – please!! Don’t let him kill me!!” he begged, his voice raw with pain and fear.

“Who did kill her then?” Parker said, her voice flat and expressionless.

The man began to shake.

“Eades!” he babbled, and he tried to gesture at the homestead. “Eades killed her, but Chong wanted her dead!” he continued, deciding the more he talked, the more chance he had of not being killed by this deadly, ghostly man crouched in front of him. “She knew about the mine!” he sputtered, and his head fell back on the ground as he began to succumb to the pain. “And he wants you dead too! You and that other fella, the cowboy!”

Charlie nodded calmly.

“Well, mate,” he said, gazing into the man’s pain-filled eyes. “Knowing about it makes you as much of a murderer as Eades.”

And before the man could even react in horror, Charlie cracked him alongside the head with the boomerang and the injured man slumped back on the ground senseless.

Charlie stood and perused the unconscious gunman. He was on the point of turning away when he suddenly tensed and shoved Parker hard to one side and she staggered, letting out a sharp epithet.

A man erupted from a clump of Witchetty bush, yelling with what was probably part fear and part anger, rifle swinging up to aim at Charlie.

But the young aborigine, Kurdaitcha Man of his people, leaned to his right in perfect balance and with practised ease launched the heavy hunting boomerang* horizontally at his assailant.

The crack as the old weapon caught the intruder on the side of the head sounded dull in the fog, but the gunman dropped like a poleaxed bullock. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Charlie walked silently over to retrieve his weapon, and wiping it on his pants leg, he returned to Parker, who was staring at the dead man.

“When this is over,” she said, “you’re going to teach me how to use that thing!”

Charlie smiled, but there was no humour in it.

“Glad to,” he said.

The sudden crackle of rifle fire coming from the homestead disturbed the air, and Parker flinched.

“Eliot!” She whispered, suddenly afraid.

And without a word, both of them melted into the mist and were gone.


Effie got to her feet as soon as the two men charged from the shelter of the bush, the shotgun flying to her shoulder, but she was stopped dead in her tracks even as she saw Eliot straighten, head high and nostrils flaring in defiance, and she knew then he was preparing to die.

From her left came a sudden yell, followed by the figure of Elizabeth Grace Ford, running as fast as her sturdy legs would carry her, ready to save her best friend and guardian and not caring if she put her life in peril to do it.

“Oh no …” Effie whispered, dread in her heart, “Oh no, nipper … please no …”

’LIZBETH GRACE!!” Eliot roared, “GET BACK!!!” and Effie saw the desperate horror on the hitter’s face and the look of satisfaction on Derry Ryan’s lean features.

But even as she raised the shotgun again in a frantic, pointless effort to save both of the lives of these people she adored, three low, lithe shapes ran silently out of the mist and launched themselves at the gunmen.

Powerful jaws, designed to control thousand-pound bullocks by biting and nipping at lethally quick hind legs, clamped onto the first man’s body, slamming him down into the dirt. He screamed as Chunk bit into his arm. His trigger finger spasmed and a short burst of gunfire cut through the air, flying harmlessly into the fog-ridden sky.

Chunk savagely worried the man’s arm, snarling with anger, and the rifle was dropped as the man shrieked with pain, followed by a bellow of agony as Dopey, the youngest of the heelers and the most excitable, tore into his thigh. Blood spattered the red dust.

Nugget, the only bitch in the trio, set her odd-coloured eyes on the other gunman and launched herself at him, lips curled back in fury, and her solid frame hit him in the knee, almost bringing him to the ground. But she slipped before she could get a hold, and the man got to his feet, turning once more towards Eliot, the semi-automatic lifting and taking aim.

He never made it.

A shotgun boomed and a load of double-ought buckshot hit him squarely in the side, and he was slammed backwards, bouncing off the heavy fence of one of the cattle pens.

“Gotcha, ya bastard!!” Effie hissed in satisfaction.

Nugget, satisfied that the man was dealt with, turned her attention to the other gunman now screaming in terror, as Chunk and Dopey began to shake him as though trying to tear pieces from his limbs. Nugget decided they shouldn’t have all the fun, and running forward, clamped her strong jaws on his knee. She felt bones crunch.

Lizzie, hearing Eliot’s shout and realising he was alive and upright, stumbled to a halt, unsure now what to do. She could see Ryan, useless arm hanging by his side, begin to advance on Eliot from the rear.

ELIOT!! BEHIND YOU!” She bawled, terrified for him, but Eliot heard her. He turned with the grace and poise of the warrior he was and parried the thrust of the heavy knife Ryan had aimed at his side.

But Ryan had anticipated Eliot’s reaction and now he had the shorter man within reach he head-butted Eliot, aiming for and succeeding in hitting the cut on the side of the American’s head.

The blow was almost Eliot’s undoing. Agony burst through his head and he dropped his knife, and the only thing that stopped Ryan from ramming the Razorback into Eliot’s stomach was the hitter’s years of experience and training. He managed to sway sideways and step backwards, trying not to stumble as he attempted to clear his head and get the pain under control. He felt something give in his side and the trickle of warm blood ran down his ribcage from beneath the heavy bandage, soaking his teeshirt and pants waist. The pain of the broken rib almost crippled him.

Eliot Spencer didn’t let pain get in the way of dealing with anything. His hands came up and pushing himself hard, he reached for Ryan, something the Ulsterman did not expect. He had thought Eliot would go down, or at least be so disorientated that Ryan could finish him - something the lanky man would have relished, seeing the Oklahoman die in front of this child he protected with everything he had.

Eliot knew he had to end this or die.

Using his left fist to grasp Ryan’s knife-wielding hand, Eliot used his right to punch his opponent’s chest as hard as he could, unbalancing the man. As Ryan stumbled slightly, Eliot brought around his free hand to join the other, his strong, work-hardened fingers covering Ryan’s hand itself.

Once more using his shorter, sturdier body to great advantage, he hooked his leg around Ryan’s and shoved.

The tall man let out a surprised yelp and unable to back-pedal to keep his balance, he fell once more flat on his back in the dust, Eliot falling on top of him, the knife held between their bodies.

Eliot saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

Nate. Nate was here.

But Nate was busy too, tackling the man Effie has shot. The gunman was staggering to his feet, bloody and severely damaged. But he still had his rifle.

Nate veered to the side as he ran into the yard, his one aim to protect his daughter, and slammed into the gunman who didn’t know whether to aim at Eliot, now entangled in a death grip with Derry Ryan, the six-year-old child watching everything unfold in front of her with huge brown eyes, or the old woman desperately hovering on the little deck glaring at the battle playing out in the misty yard.

Nate almost lifted the man from his feet with one hand, and pushing him back into the pen fence he snarled into the man’s sweating face.

“Think you can shoot at my family, do you?? Huh?? That’s my daughter, you shit!!” he hissed, and pressing the humane killer against the man’s thigh, he pulled the trigger.

The stark crack of the shot dimly percolated through Eliot’s mind as he fought for his life. The sound was followed by relentless, agonised screams as the .32 round-nosed lead bullet shattered the remaining gunman’s femur beyond repair.

Eliot pulled back his lips in a grimace and he began to force Ryan’s hand and the knife upwards. Ryan did his best to free himself, but with his useless arm it was almost impossible.

Heaving himself upright to sprawl astride Ryan’s stomach, Eliot, worn and hurting and bleeding so badly from the opened bullet hole in his side he could feel the weakness creep into his muscles, slowly turned Ryan’s hand and knife until the blade pointed upward, heading inexorably towards the soft tissue of Ryan’s throat.

He chanced a glance sideways and saw Nate run towards Lizzie.

Take … take her outta this!!!” he yelled, and Ryan took the moment to try and heave Eliot aside. The American struggled to keep his grip on the knife, but he could not … would not … allow Lizzie to see him kill a man. “GO!!” he bellowed, “take … take her away from me!!

Lizzie began to run towards Eliot, not sure what she was doing, but knowing her friend was in serious peril. But then Nate was behind her and swept her off her feet in one smooth motion, and he pulled his daughter tight to his chest and glared at her even as Lizzie struggled to be free of her father’s care.

DADDY!” she yelled, “ELIOT’S IN DANGER –

“LIZZIE!” Nate tightened his hold and Lizzie stopped struggling, suddenly realising her father was not going to let go of her. “Lizzie, we have to go, okay? Eliot can take care of himself, and he-“

“NO!!” she whispered, and her fists clenched her father’s shirt, and she was shaking with a combination of anger and fear. “No, he’s –“

But before Lizzie could say any more, Gertie came roaring into the yard at a gallop, mouth agape, and headed straight for Eliot.


Through the damp air Chong heard something. He stopped his ranting for a moment and replaced his now-empty clip with a fresh one as he listened, and then his heart swelled with need and pride.

It was the angry wail of a baby, and it made Chong’s eyes glitter with triumph.

MY SON!!” he yelled, voice cracking with emotion. “I HAVE A SON!!” He aimed purposefully at the oak door, firing a round to try and gain the attention of the occupants of the house, as though the previous shots hadn’t already done so. “BRING. ME. MY. SON!!” he screamed, froth flying from his lips.

“Listen, mate,” Soapy’s laconic voice drawled from inside the house. “You do know you’re a bit wacko, don’t you? Oh … and you’ll never see the tiddlers. Never.”

Chong blinked in surprise, his mouth working wordlessly as he absorbed what this mad old bastard had said. Did … did he mean there were two babies??

Two. He had two sons.

Hr threw back his head and laughed until tears streamed down his face.

“Man,” Hardison muttered, “the cheese sure slid right off that sonofabitch’s cracker,” and he raised his eyebrows at Soapy.

“You said it son,” Soapy agreed with a sigh. “You said it.”

And from outside, the laughter went on and on and on


Nate quickly hurried towards Effie, who was gesticulating wildly with one hand and still holding the shotgun in the other while growling through the earbud, telling everyone that both Nate and Lizzie were safe. She heard Sophie’s soft sob and Jo’s murmur of relief.

But Eliot – Jo whispered, fear in her voice.

“Holding his own, Missus,” Effie rumbled, and watched as Gertie charged towards the two men locked fiercely in a life-or-death struggle, wreathed in swirling mist.

The big camel ignored the man being slowly being torn apart by the dogs and the other lying screaming in agony from his shattered thigh and buckshot-riddled hide. She bypassed them with nary a glance and bawled at Eliot, knowing he was fighting for his life.

She slowed to a skittery halt and began to dance around the two battling men, and she dearly wanted to get at the tall, skinny man who was obviously trying to harm her friend, but with Eliot’s body in the way, she could do nothing but roar and flap her lip, her big flat feet sending up gouts of dust which turned the mist a frightful, bloody red.

Eliot ignored her. He knew she wouldn’t attack because he was in the way, but Ryan tore his eyes away from Eliot’s blood-streaked face for a split-second and Eliot saw the quick flicker of fear on the man’s face.

Grasping Ryan’s knife hand as hard as he could, he used the last of his strength to force the knife up, up under Ryan’s chin.

The great recurved blade nicked the skin at Ryan’s throat and brought the Ulsterman’s attention back to Eliot.

Eliot smiled then … a wild smile that came from the great Cherokee wolves he carried in his heart, and his teeth were white in his blood-and-sweat stained features, and Ryan, knowing then what Eliot had planned, saw his death in those glittering blue eyes.

“This is for Alice!” Eliot growled, and the wolves howled in his chest as he used Ryan’s own hand to thrust the Razorback upwards, deep, deep into Ryan’s throat just above his adam’s apple, severing the carotid artery. The point sliced into the spinal column at the base of the Ulsterman’s skull, and the light went out of Ryan’s eyes and his body became limp under Eliot, with only residual tremors rippling through the dead man’s muscles.

Eliot didn’t move for long moments, even as the blood soaked his teeshirt from Ryan’s throat, and he couldn’t quite catch his breath.

He heard Gertie’s honks as though from far away, and he could swear he heard Lizzie yelling, but he wasn’t sure, and he shook his head to clear it.

Then he felt soft, prehensile lips wiffle his damp hair and Gertie was there, nosing at him with concern and inspecting the bleeding cut in his head.

Letting go of the knife he pushed himself away from the corpse lying in the dust, and reached around for Gertie’s bosal, knowing she would help him stand up, because he was pretty damn’ sure he couldn’t get up on his own.

He didn’t quite make it. His grasp on the bosal was tenuous at best, and although he got to his knees, his hand, soaked with Ryan’s blood, slipped and he sat back on his heels and slid sideways, ending up sitting almost cross-legged in the dirt. His side was on fire and his blood-drenched hands lay in his lap.

His awareness had improved though, and he lifted his head and squinted.

Lizzie was around here somewhere, and … oh … oh dear God, no … she had seen him kill a man.

Something broke in Eliot Spencer … something deep and primal and horrific, and he flung his head back and howled his anguish, because he knew she would never forgive him, and she would know that he really was a monster … a murderous, evil creature not fit to be part of her life. Nate and Sophie had been wrong to make him Lizzie’s guardian, because he was a killer and nothing more, and –

-and then two small arms wrapped around him and he felt a shaking body plaster itself to his back and a little voice murmured in his ear.

“Eliot … my Eliot … you’re alive … I thought you were dead or hurt or …” Eliot heard Lizzie’s teary hiccup and he felt her curly head burrow into his neck and shoulder. Her arms tightened as though she would never let go.

“’Lizbeth Grace …” he managed to croak, and he rested his weary head against hers. “M’ … m’sorry, darlin’ … Nate … take her away from me … I ain’t fit for –“

Eliot felt more than saw Nate drop down beside him and a hand rested beside Lizzie’s head on his shoulder.

“You did what you had to, Eliot,” Nate whispered softly, as though knowing if he spoke louder Eliot would fracture into countless pieces because of what he had done. “Lizzie will deal with it. As long as she has you, she’ll be perfectly okay.”

Nate – Nate, tell me our daughter is safe! Sophie’s voice came through the earbud reeking of desperation and worry.

Effie stumped up beside them and stood staring at Ryan’s corpse.

“Good bloody riddance!” she muttered, and then turned to Eliot, Lizzie draped over his back and hugging him as though her life depended on it, and Nate crouched beside him. Before Nate could answer, Effie grinned.

“Don’t you worry, Duchess … clever clogs, the nipper and the stupid Yank boofhead are all just fine.”

Oh thank God, Sophie breathed. Eliot …??

She let the question hang in the air.

Is he hurt?? Jo interrupted, and Effie could hear the wailing of one of the babies in the background.

“Looks worse that it is, Missus,” Effie replied, but was stopped from elaborating as she heard gunshots and laughing, for goodness sake, coming from the yard by the veranda.

Eliot lifted his head and opened his eyes. The bleariness had settled, although the pain hadn’t, and he felt the slickness of blood at his side. How Lizzie could bear being near him, he couldn’t understand, but at this moment he was very thankful for her love and care.

“’Lizbeth Grace … go with your dad now. I got more work to do, okay? An’ I can’t be worryin’ about you, so … so go. Nate, make sure she stays away. Hear me?

Nate, feeling the slight tremor in Eliot’s body, nodded, unhappy about leaving the man to do what he needed to do, but understanding his intentions.

Lizzie lifted her head and gazed at Eliot, who avoided her dark, rounded eyes. He couldn’t look at her. He just couldn’t.

“Eliot??” she asked, and he could hear the worry in her voice. He smiled wryly to himself. She didn’t understand what he was.

“Nate, help me up, will ya?” he asked, and Effie handed him her apron so that he could wipe the worst of the blood from his hands. He could not afford to have the grip on his katana compromised.

It took two attempts to get Eliot up and onto his feet, but finally he was upright, somewhat battered, but rapidly recovering what strength he had left.

Lizzie stood next to her guardian, looking up at him. Her breath faltered a little as she saw the seep of blood at his side and the sluggish flow from the gash in his thigh, but she instinctively knew that now was not the time to shout at him for being hurt. Again. Grandma Jo was going to be furious.

Eliot looked towards the house and not at Lizzie. How could she not see what a foul thing he was?? But he shook the thought from his mind, and took the katana from Effie, who lifted a hand and cupped his cheek.

“Be careful, you daftie. And don’t worry about the nipper. She’ll love you ‘til the day she dies.”

Eliot studied Effie with a gaze of such sadness that her old, cynical heart lurched in her chest.

“Yeah, Eff …” he said, his voice a soft, weary rumble. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Because, y’see, I ain’t worth it.”

And before any of them could reply, Eliot turned, and followed by a gurgling Gertie, limped painfully towards the corner of the house and to Chong.

Then, he knew in what was left of his heart, he would become even more of a monster, because he had every intention of killing the man who had ordered the death of Alice Jakkamarra, and had taken her forever from the family who loved her.

 

To be continued …


* Hunting boomerangs are boomerangs that don’t come back. The popularised, sharply-angled returning boomerangs were not used for hunting or warfare, and would be incapable of bringing down game. A hunting boomerang, larger, heavier and with a far shallower curve, is made of hard wood like mulga. When thrown with skill, flat and horizontally, it is a very capable and deadly weapon.

 

 

Chapter Text


Nate watched Eliot as he limped away, shoulders hunched and katana held low but ready, and as the thick mist swallowed the battered figure and the huge camel which followed, he looked down at his daughter and caught her hand in his.

“Come on, Lizzie. We have to go now. We have Mei and the babies to protect, and we can’t leave it all to your Mom and Jo,” he said, and as he said the words he knew Sophie and Jo were perfectly capable of protecting the new mother and children, as well as young Kip who was watching over the infants.

Lizzie frowned, confused.

“But Daddy – “

“No buts, Lizzie. We have a job to do, and so does Eliot. He’s expecting you to make sure you do that job.”

Lizzie stared at the ground for a moment, seeing the splashes of blood and Effie’s gore-ridden apron. She glanced at the corpse lying beside it, but avoided looking at the embedded knife and Ryan’s sightless eyes.

“Eliot had to do that, didn’t he?” she whispered, awed and a little frightened as though Ryan would suddenly snap back to life and tear the knife from his throat so he could use it on her. Nate nodded, his face grim.

“Yeah … he did.”

He knew there was no going back on this – it was a fact, and Lizzie would have to accept it.

“It was … it was horrible,” Lizzie whispered under her breath. “My Eliot … it’s my fault he had to kill that man, Daddy … he had to do it because of me …” she continued, her face stricken with guilt and anguish.

Nate, fidgeting with worry over his wife and the others, nevertheless crouched down beside his daughter.

“No, Lizzie, sweetheart … it is not your fault. Now, you shouldn’t have run away like that – and we’ll be discussing running away and straight into danger later, young lady, have no fear – but Eliot had no choice, even if you hadn’t been here. If Eliot hadn’t killed him, Ryan would have come after all of us, including you.”

Lizzie’s frown fell into a look of deep confusion.

“But … but he won’t look at me, Daddy! He –“

“We have to go, Lizzie!” Nate interrupted, knowing time was wasting, but he couldn’t just ignore Lizzie’s worry. “Look … Eliot isn’t angry with you. He’s angry with himself because you saw him kill Ryan. He never wanted you to see that … to see him end someone’s life. He thinks he’s frightened you. It’s not something anyone should see, let alone you. Do you understand how important that is to Eliot? Do you??

Lizzie realised she would have to think about it when it was all over, and nodded reluctantly.

“Can I hug him later? Tell him it’s alright? That I know why he did it?” she asked, and her eyes strayed once more to Ryan’s corpse where Effie stood over it, scowling at the dead thing lying on the ground.

“No worries, nipper. We’ll sort him out, I promise!” the old cook growled.

So Lizzie, a little heartened, nodded as Nate got to his feet and held out his hand once more to his confused and shaky daughter. Taking it in her own, Lizzie followed him once more to the rear of the house where they could catch up with the rest of the group.

But as she passed the now-unconscious man being worried by the three heelers and the screaming gunman by the cattle pens, she glared angrily at them.

“Serves you right!” she shouted at them desperately, needing to let out her pain. “You tried to hurt Eliot but my Daddy and Effie stopped you!!” She took a deep breath before flapping her free hand at the heelers. “Good dogs!!” she added, and Nugget turned her broad head and barked in answer, panting happily and tail wagging.

Effie watched as Nate and Lizzie headed quickly back to the rear of the homestead, fading into the fog. She looked once more at Ryan’s corpse, and snorted.

“Stupid bastard,” she rumbled, “thinking you could kill our boy.” And spitting on the body, she turned and made her way up the steps to her kitchen deck and the solid back door, hefting her shotgun. Ignoring the ravaged men lying in the yard, one man clutching his shattered leg and the other lying in the dirt torn and bitten, the little cook opened the kitchen door.

A small, hairy blur shot between her legs and Buster, signalled by Jo to stay behind in Eliot’s room when the children were spirited away, hurtled down the deck steps, his paws barely touching the wood.

“Bloody hell, Buster!!” Effie hissed at the dog, but Buster wasn’t listening – he was intent on finding his charges, and his small, muscled body tore silently through the fog and was gone. Effie grumped to herself. Buster was well able to take care of himself, but she would still worry about the little terrier.

Well, there was nothing she could do about it now. Sighing, she stumped off into her kitchen, intent on protecting the back door to the house, and no-one – no-one – would ever enter this home to threaten this family she loved.


Eliot felt every jolting step tear through his side, and he knew he was on borrowed time when it came to being able to take down Chong and Hadan. He knew she was out there, waiting, although she probably couldn’t really see what was happening. But she would bide her time … wait until Eliot had dealt with Chong, by which time – if Eliot Spencer was still alive – he would be weary and his meagre strength depleted because of the bullet hole in him. The only thing on the hitter’s side was that Hadan herself was wounded.

The fog was becoming thicker, and he slowed down as he reached the corner of the veranda where it jutted out from the house itself. Pulling Gertie to one side where her huge bulk was hidden by the house, he put his left hand over her muzzle to silence the constant squeaks and gurgles she gave out.

Gertie knew when she was supposed to be quiet. She and Eliot had once tracked a pack of feral dogs which were killing young calves, and she and Eliot had watched them for days before determining where to put the humane cage traps.*

She licked her lips and huffed to herself, but she was now silent as Eliot figured out what to do next.

Peering around the veranda supports, Eliot managed to take a quick look at the situation, and he raised an eyebrow. He had heard the laughing, but he wasn’t quite prepared for the hysteria which had overtaken Chong. The young snakehead, face red with fury, fired another barrage of shots at the door an windows, this time sending a couple through the small window on the left side of Eliot’s fireplace in his bedroom, shattering the glass and probably scattering needle-sharp fragments over his Navajo rug and the old guitar on its stand below the window.

Eliot curled his lip. He was pretty sure that Mei, Sophie, Jo and the children were gone from the room to their safe place, but it still annoyed him.

Chong let out another screaming torrent of demands, now in Chinese, but all that garnered was a soft laugh from Hardison and Soapy’s sardonic voice came from behind the battered door.

“Bloody hell, mate … for a fella with no moolah you make more hullabaloo than a clucky chook! So why don’t you just come off the raw prawn and bloody well choof off, hey?” he taunted, and Hardison’s cackle of delight – even though he didn’t quite grasp some of Soapy’s insult - made Eliot smile grimly.

Eliot rolled his eyes. These two idiots were having ‘way too much fun with Chong, who promptly screamed a babble of words in Chinese.

“Soapy? Did he jus’ say somethin’ rude to us??” Hardison said, apparently shocked to the core.

“Y’know, Alec … I think he did!” Soapy agreed amiably.

“It’s a good job my Nana ain’t here, ‘cause she’d wash his mouth out with carbolic an’ paddle his ass with a carpet beater. She don’t hold with such language,” Hardison added, affronted, no matter that his Nana could probably out-cuss Effie.

Two more bullets tore into the door frame, and Chong began to mutter to himself, stalking up and down the yard, holding some sort of manic conversation with an invisible companion … or maybe having a discussion with himself, Eliot thought.

The hitter studied the mist, and he decided it was at its densest along the track leading to the almond stand. He grinned painfully, his head hurting and his side and thigh burning. He knew that particular section of the homestead the best. He knew every tuft of Marshall grass and every lump, bump and stump in the area. He had spent so many hours there when he first came to Wapanjara all those years ago, as he slowly healed from a wound that had nearly killed him. He could move there in total freedom, even if he couldn’t see more than a foot in front of him. This fog was far better than any camouflage net.

Making his decision, Eliot waited until Chong’s back was turned as the man strode backwards and forwards in the yard, and then he and Gertie made their way silently through the fog to the other side of the open space, and faded unseen into the bush.


Mei tried her best to quieten young Rose, but her daughter had been startled by the noise of gunfire and Lizzie’s yell as she rushed to Eliot’s side, and the infant wailed her displeasure.

The three women and Kip stood at the exit of the hidden metal corridor under the house and listened to Eliot’s battle with Derry Ryan, and their hearts clenched in unison as first Effie and then Nate arrived to try and sway the odds in Eliot’s favour without Lizzie getting involved.

Then through Nate’s earbud came Eliot’s deadly growl to Ryan about Alice Jakkamarra, and after that was a pulsing gurgle as Ryan died, and then … silence. But the sound that broke Jo’s heart was the howl of anguish from Eliot, convinced he had done something so irreparable … so damaging … to his and Lizzie’s relationship by killing a man in front of the six-year-old he guarded and loved with his body and soul.

But Jo knew better. She knew that Lizzie understood. Many children saw worse every day, and Lizzie was no wilting flower … she was a child of Team Leverage, born of tough, resourceful people and surrounded by a pack of protective predators, one of whom was the legendary Eliot Spencer. The death of a human being was a hard, hard thing to comprehend, let alone to watch – but Elizabeth Grace Ford was made of stern stuff.

We’re on our way, Nate said softly through the earbud, jolting Jo from her momentary reverie.

Will Eliot be okay, Mama? Grandma Jo? Lizzie whispered, obviously worried out of her wits, but Jo had to admire the level tone of her voice. This little girl didn’t frighten easily.

“Don’t worry about him right now,” Sophie said firmly. “We’re at the back of the house, waiting for you, and we need to move, so come on, you two – get cracking, will you?”

I can see you now, Nate said, and as he spoke both he and Lizzie jogged out of the mist towards them.

“Right,” Jo said. “You nippers walk between Nate and me, Sophie in the lead. Nate – can you take little Jamie here, seeing as you’ve no working weapon now,” she added, a smile tweaking the side of her mouth. She had heard Nate’s fury at the man with the rifle and the ensuing shot as the humane killer blew apart the man’s femur. “I’ll bring up the rear and watch our backs.”

Nate’s blue eyes warmed as he cradled Jamie to his chest. The little boy seemed oblivious to the furore going on around him. Jamie smacked his lips and shifted in his sleep, and Nate allowed himself a smile of pleasure. It felt good to hold a baby again, and he glanced at Sophie, but his wife was busy studying the fog-drenched space across the space beside the upper cattle yard to the bush beyond. There, Charlie and Parker had created a camouflaged area deep within a close-grown patch of spiny acacias. Anybody coming too close would have to brave the two-inch needle-sharp spines before meeting the adults protecting the children.

Their earbuds were filled by the noise coming from the front of the house. There was a lot of yelling and gunfire, and when Chong wasn’t creating havoc, Nate heard Soapy and Hardison’s double act, the banter oddly reassuring in the maelstrom of madness their world had become.

Eliot was silent, but that wasn’t unusual - he wasn’t the chatterbox type, and he had just killed a man and had the serious intention of killing another, so now earbud-less, he had dissolved into the background like a lethal ghost.

“Let’s go,” Sophie murmured, and leading the way across the rear yard, she moved with the stealth of a panther, and Nate watched this woman he loved as she held the wakizashi with every intention of using it if need be.

The children and Mei followed behind with Nate and Jo bringing up the rear, and Rose slowly settled, her anger subsiding into little hiccups and whimpers, and within a minute she was asleep, held tight against her mother’s chest. Jamie never stirred, happy and content in Nate’s protective arms.

Sophie carefully moved forward, her boots silent on the dusty ground, and her dark eyes swept the misty, contained world in front of her. The hide where the children were to be secreted was twenty yards away and to her left, and all she had to do was find the path through the bush, which, she was sure, was just a few yards ahead.

But she didn’t have any more time to think about it, because Buster came tearing around the corner of the house at full speed, which was considerable for such a small, tubby dog, and he headed straight for the bush ahead of Sophie.

All she could see then was a white, wiry-haired backside with a stiff, angry tail sticking out from beneath an acacia and the little dog let loose a roar of fury, his barks deep and vicious and predatory. There was a very human voice cursing in what Sophie thought was Malay, and then came a shriek of pain and Buster’s barks stopped and Sophie heard a chopping growl.

A man stumbled out of the undergrowth.

He was short, covered in scratches and bloody nicks, and he spat epithets at the small, furious terrier hanging on to the calf of his right leg. Buster clung on, teeth embedded in flesh, and the man staggered, trying to shake Buster’s grip.

But the man wasn’t alone. Another charged out behind him, and while Buster’s victim seemed unarmed, this one was carrying a machete and he swung it straight at Buster.


Eliot worked his way around the perimeter of the yard, heading for the track and hidden by the bush and the thick fog. He had no idea how many rounds Chong had left in his Glock, but he knew Soapy and Hardison were coming under more and more pressure from the man’s assault on the front of the house, and the door shuddered with the impact of another bullet as Chong fired, this time with more intensity and control. He was becoming more focused, and he aimed for the shattered glass insert at the side of the door. Obviously he had spotted what appeared to be movement inside, and he knew one of the two men behind the door would be keeping watch.

The shot went through the blown frame, and Chong heard the ricochet and a sharp exclamation of pain and then came a stream of distinctly Australian curses.

Eliot flinched with anger. Soapy was hit!

Chong strode to his left, and turned, his back now towards Eliot.

He couldn’t wait any longer. He could have hung on until Chong ran out of ammunition but he couldn’t take the risk that the snakehead didn’t have a spare clip or two on him. Chong could reload quickly … he was young, fit and unhurt. Eliot was bleeding and debilitated from illness and loss of blood.

Eliot decided he had to take the chance.

Chong heard Soapy’s yelp of pain and laughed, this time with triumph.

“See, old man?? The end is coming!! Just GIVE ME MY SONS!!” he yelled, and aimed the Glock again at the broken window.

Eliot straightened as much as he could, and gritting his teeth against the pain, he strode out of the fog and towards Chong.


The sound of Jo’s old Winchester sounded dull in the foggy air, and the short Malayan yelped as the .22 bullet hit him in the upper chest, knocking him backwards into the spiny acacia. The bullet shattered his left clavicle and lodged in his shoulder-blade, and he screamed as the two-inch spines of the acacia pierced his back, buttocks and thighs.

Buster immediately let go, and at Jo’s stern order he scooted out of the way of the machete-wielding thug who missed slicing the little dog in half by mere inches. The terrier shot back to Mei, and standing by the young woman’s side he began barking and growling, his bloodstained jaws lending him a decidedly lethal air. He was obviously very pleased with himself, Nate thought hurriedly, before he turned back to Sophie.

Standing helplessly with an armful of baby, he could do nothing to help her, and Jo couldn’t draw a bead on him with her rifle due to being at the wrong angle, so Sophie was on her own.

It was then Nate saw the glint of hatred in Sophie’s dark eyes as she handed the wakizashi’s scabbard to Kip, who was standing protectively beside Mei.

She stepped lightly towards the man now watching her with dark, guarded eyes set in a face that would not have looked out of place in a pirate film. He bared an impressive set of rotten teeth, and what he obviously thought was fierce scowl spread over his narrow, stubbly face.

Sophie arched an eyebrow in disdain, and set her slender body into a classic fencing pose, left hand on her hip and balanced over her right leg, the knee gently flexed. Her left foot was set at an angle, toes pointing sideways, the leg ready to help her move forwards or backwards with little effort.

“Soph!” Nate hissed, Jamie still soundly asleep in his arms. “What the hell’re you doing!! This isn’t goddamn Hamlet!”

Sophie smirked, and her piratical opponent’s eyes flicked from Nate to Sophie and back again. He flourished the machete menacingly.

“Oh, now, come on!” Sophie chided gently as the pirate snarled, now unsure. “You can do better than just wave that thing about, surely!”

The pirate suddenly lunged, and Sophie parried easily with the wakizashi, forcing the machete away, the man staggering slightly, unbalanced.

“Deary me,” Sophie continued, a little amused. “You’re going to have to do a little bit better than that. Try holding your weapon at a forty-five degree angle … yes, that’s better!” she added, as the confused man did as instructed.

Sophie suddenly executed a near-perfect high-seconde sabre attack, although the wakizashi’s short blade made it impossible to complete properly, but the arching thrust downwards with the back of the blade smashed into the machete and Sophie carried through to slice a long, deep cut along the pirate’s forearm.

Within a second or two she had danced backwards and was ready to attack once more, while the pirate screeched in pain and anger, blood streaming from the wound.

She smiled at Nate, but kept her eye on her enemy, who was trying to keep the blood from making the simple, roughly-made grip on the machete difficult to hold. The pirate swore loudly and succinctly in what sounded like Jamaican patois.

The shots came again from the front of the house, and they were all distracted by Soapy’s sudden yelp of pain.

“God, no!” Jo gasped, and put her hand to her mouth. “Soapy! Soapy’s hurt!”

Nate didn’t hesitate.

“Go! Sophie and me …” he nodded, wonder on his face as he watched his wife face off this machete-wielding thug. “I think we’re going to be just fine –“

I’m okay, old girl! Soapy’s voice came over the earbud even as Hardison swore at nobody in particular. It’s just a nick. I’ll be fine –

He’s alright, Missus – I got him, Effie rumbled. Silly old bastard’s just got himself a chunk taken out of the skin on his shoulder.

Stay with the kids, Jo – please! Soapy said, and they all heard him gasp as Effie pressed something against the wound to stop the bleeding.

Sunbeam an’ me’ll be just jim-dandy, Effie continued. Please, Missus – just look after the nippers!”

Jo chewed her lip, but nodded reluctantly.

“Alright, Effie … Alec … but take care of the silly old bugger for me, will you? Until I can come back and kiss him silly?”

Jo, don’t you worry – we’ll keep him safe, I promise! Hardison said softly.

Chong let off another shot and Soapy growled with annoyance.

If he carries on the door’s going to bloody well give way, dammit! He hissed, angry with himself for getting shot.

Don’t worry, Effie said, her loathing for Chong echoing in every word, the Yank’s on his way. He’ll see to the doggy shite!

But then a thin, unearthly scream of agony came from the south side of the household, deep in the bush behind the orchards … a noise that keened and echoed dully until it suddenly wasn’t there anymore. It stopped instantly in mid-scream as though it had been switched off, and everyone from the children to Nate and the people in the house heard Parker’s voice in their earbuds. There was a tinge of deadly fury in the little thief’s tone.

Gotcha! she hissed with triumph.

Charlie said something in Warumungu that most of Team Wapanjara didn’t understand, but it was obvious by the tone in the young widower’s voice that he was garnering his revenge for the death of his beloved wife.

I think that’s the last of the dopey bludgers, he said, switching to English, but Parker and I’ll have a dekko just to make sure. Then we’ll come on in.

“Well,” Nate said, watching his wife, “we’ve got one more dopey bludger here, but Sophie’s taking care of him right now,” he added with something akin to awe in his voice.

Now that I’d like to see, Charlie said, humour in every word. Tell me about it later.

But Nate was back watching Sophie, and he realised that she was actually enjoying herself.

She lunged skilfully and the pirate parried, but suddenly found himself desperately trying to protect his groin from the ancient blade as Sophie didn’t finish her move and shifted backwards and then in for another strike. The pirate stumbled backwards, the wakizashi missing him by a hair’s breadth.

“Well done,” Sophie praised the man laconically, “well done! My Uncle Gerald would have enjoyed watching this,” she said softly, and moved lithely to her right, the pirate watching her with more than a little nervousness. This beautiful woman was no pushover.

Nate felt a tug on his sleeve, and looked down to see his daughter standing beside him, her eyes fixed on her mother.

“Daddy!” Lizzie said softly, her fist clutching Nate’s sleeve. “Help Mama! I can hold the baby –“

Nate shook his head.

“I don’t think your Mama needs any help, sweetheart,” he answered. “She’s doing pretty well on her own. Now scoot back there, Lizzie, and stand with Kip. We have to keep you all safe.”

To his utter surprise, Lizzie did as she was told instantly, and Nate didn’t know whether to be pleased at her understanding or worried about her silent compliance. He knew she was frightened for Eliot, and now her mother was facing off this hairy, piratical bad guy with only Eliot’s short sword as a weapon.

Sophie was beginning to look predatory, even as the pirate attacked, swiftly and with force, aiming for Sophie’s chest so he could split her breastbone with the heavy old weapon.

“Now, now,” she said, parrying skilfully and slamming the machete to one side she gave the man a small nick on his belly, blood soaking through his filthy shirt. “That’s just clumsy … you need a little more finesse,” she critiqued, and she glanced at Nate as she moved back out of reach. “My Uncle Gerald …” she began to explain, and then she performed the neatest set of lunge-and-parries Nate had ever seen, leaving the pirate trying to skitter out of the way and the man gaining another nick, this time on his neck, “he was bonkers, bless his heart. But he was ex-Household Cavalry … he guarded the Queen.” She waggled her free hand at her head. “Wore the bearskin hat and everything. After he retired from the army … “ she paused as she engaged in another flurry of lunges and parrying the pirate’s increasingly wild attacks, “he went a bit loopy and he thought he was one of Picton’s Forlorn Hope at Badajoz in the Peninsular War – against Napoleon, y’know.” She grinned. “When I was fourteen he taught me how to use a heavy cavalry sabre. The silly old bugger thought I was his second-in-command.”

“Well,” Nate breathed, captivated, as Sophie did a very Eliot-ish ‘Come get me’ gesture with her left hand, egging the pirate on, “god bless Uncle Gerald!”

“Well … I’m just getting bored now,” Sophie said suddenly, “he’s really not very good at all,” she added, and then pressed home her final attack.

She performed a perfect false lunge, looking at the pirate’s legs as she forced her way through his wild swings with the machete, and the man followed her gaze thinking she was going to try a cut at his thigh or knee.

The machete swung down to protect his limbs, but Sophie smoothly altered her stance, brought the wakizashi in a beautiful, glittering arc above her head and sliced downwards.

The ancient, razor-sharp blade opened a cut down the man’s right shoulder, severing tendons and muscles. Not a fatal blow, but enough to put him down in a screaming jumble of limbs on the ground.

Sophie stepped back and stared at the man, and then she kicked the machete away from his hand, although she knew he was in no fit state to even hold the thing.

“Bloody amateur,” she declared elegantly.

Nate’s eyebrows were near his hairline as he watched Sophie, his beautiful, elegant and urbane wife, wipe blood from Eliot’s wakizashi with such casual diffidence that it took his breath away.

“Remind me not to get on your aggressive side,” he murmured as Sophie came to stand by him. She reached out with her left hand, bunched his shirt in her fist and pulled him in for the deepest, longest kiss they had had for a while.

“Bloody hell,” Sophie said, her dark eyes luminous with love and her skin still carrying the bloom of excitement, “I never realised using a sword made me just a teensy bit horny!”

Nate grinned.

“Down, girl. Let’s get going – we have the kids to get to a safe place.” But he paused for a moment. “Just … just hold that thought,” he said.

“Happily,” Sophie smirked.

Turning back to the two badly damaged men before them, she glowered at both of them and then began to lead the small group into the bush where the mist and the spiny, ferocious acacias would keep their family safe.


Chong let loose another shot, his aim becoming ever steadier now that he knew he had wounded one of the occupants of the house, his arrogance oozing from every pore. He raised the Glock once more, taking leisurely aim at the glass insert above the one he had already smashed. He felt calmer now … more settled. His sons were almost within his grasp.

But as he fired his shot, the Glock bucking into his palm, he saw something just out of the corner of his right eye … something that moved … something that he knew was instinctively threatening.

Turning to his right, he was caught slightly off-balance, trying to readjust his aim and face whatever-it-was as a steady, deadly force.

He didn’t quite realise how close this new threat was, emerging from the dense fog, and as he turned, he discovered some … thing … striding towards him. A wild, blood-soaked man with a dust-and-dirt covered frame and blazing blue eyes fixed on the snakehead with such deadness of soul that Chong flinched for a second.

The cowboy. It was that cowboy who had threatened to kill him, and in his right hand, Chong discovered, was the most beautiful sword he had ever seen.

He suddenly decided he wanted that sword with an all-consuming ache that made him almost aroused.

The man was nearly upon him, and Chong struggled to raise the Glock in time, but he did it. Just as Eliot broke into a charge, the katana held low and ready, Chong fired.

Eliot was unstoppable. Even as the bullet slammed into the leading edge of his pectoral muscle and carved a deep furrow in the flesh under his arm, Eliot kept going. The sting of the new wound was unfelt, and he raised the katana elegantly and with deadly skill.

Chong realised instantly he had misjudged the distance. It should have been a kill-shot, but the cowboy didn’t even flinch. Back-pedalling desperately, he saw Eliot lift the katana and now holding the hilt with both hands, he brought the breathtakingly elegant curve of the blade down, cutting from left to right.

The Sword of the Okuri-Inu cut Chong from right shoulder to left hip.

But what should have been a killing blow, spilling Chong’s guts like a red, glistening flower, was merely skin-deep. Chong instantly knew that while it was bloody and messy and hurt like hell, it was not lethal. But the pain made him drop the Glock, and he staggered backwards, a hiss of agony forcing its way through clenched teeth.

But Eliot didn’t stop.

The pain of the new bullet wound made him flinch, and he had to let go of the katana with his left hand, pressing his free arm tight to his side to try and ease the agony from both wounds in his side and to attempt to quell the bleeding.

He kept going and as Chong stumbled backwards he aimed a slicing cut at the man’s leg, trying to cut the inside of his thigh, aiming for the femoral artery.

He missed.

He was stumbling himself, he knew that now, and he saw Chong roll away from him and towards Oggie, even as the younger man pulled his Glock knife from its sheath at his belt.

Eliot staggered to a halt, breathing hard. He was almost spent with only those first two blows, and here was Chong, fit and still fresh, and a good fifteen years younger than the Oklahoman.

Chong glanced at Oggie, and grinned painfully. Turning, he shifted the knife to his left hand and ran to the big trailer, pulling on one of the slender steel poles that held up Oggie’s awning. He wrenched it from the ground, shaking it hard to free the awning ring from its sharp, prong-like end.

He turned and lifted the pole, twirling it skilfully and bringing it to rest with the bottom end tucked under his arm.

Whatever this crazy, cruel snakehead was, he wasn’t a coward.

Eliot, bleeding and weak and hurt to the bone, sighed, wincing at the chronic, tearing pain in his side.

“Aw shit …” he said wearily. “Give me a friggin’ break.”

Flinching at the throb of his wounds and with his aching head pounding to the beat of his flagging heart, Eliot raised the Sword of the Okuri-Inu and waited.

 

To be continued ...


* Feral dogs are a huge problem in Australia, not only to livestock but to native species and even to humans (and there is a difference between ‘wild’ dogs and feral dogs). In NT, it is illegal to use steel-jaw traps (quite rightly), although poisoning is allowed. I can’t imagine the Munros, Charlie and Eliot allowing poison anywhere near their livestock or dogs, as well as where it could be picked up by non-canines or even small children. Therefore Eliot used a humane cage trap where the dog is caught and then transported away from the station. If they are abandoned pets, they may be able to be rehomed. Just in case you were wondering.

Chapter Text


Eliot rolled his shoulder and eased stiffness from his neck as Chong studied him, the man’s dark gaze dancing with insanity.

Chong appeared quite happy to stand there and let Eliot study him, even though his clothing was cut to ribbons across his chest and abdomen, and bloody with it. But the cut was shallow, Eliot knew. He had simply not had the strength for that extra inch of impetus to finish Chong.

The hitter took advantage of the snakehead’s utter belief in his own skills and strength and speedily worked through the pros and cons of this desperately dangerous situation.

Eliot moved slowly to his right, sword poised, and allowed his limp and flinches of pain to be as obvious as possible without being theatrical. It didn’t take much effort, Eliot had to concede, but if it made Chong believe that Eliot was badly debilitated, it might – just might – make the lunatic take chances.

And, Eliot knew, if it gave him even a meagre advantage he would take it, for he didn’t have much left in his reserves of strength to just take the fight to Chong. This battle would be won by guile and observation, not power and strength.

He saw Chong’s eyes follow the katana as Eliot raised it slightly.

He likes the sword, Eliot thought, his mouth twitching in an almost unrecognisable smile.

Tightening his left arm against his side to support his ribs, Eliot limped and allowed himself a small, controlled stumble as he circled Chong. He raised the katana a little further so that the dull, eerie light of the fog-strewn yard caught the hamon and sent a faint gleam down the blade.

Chong’s eyes widened from interest to what appeared to be a pure gaze of hunger … almost lust, Eliot thought.

“You like her, huh?” he grated, and let his smile widen into a grin of devilment. “Well … she’s not for the likes of you, ass-wipe.”

The younger man sneered.

“I will take her from you, cowboy – she will be mine, and I will keep her to pass on to one of my sons. But in the meantime … I will open your throat and you will see me make her mine as you die!”

And as he spoke he skilfully lunged at Eliot, the steel pole aimed unerringly for Eliot’s chest.

But Eliot, ignoring the pain it caused him, parried the thrust with his left arm, the arm Chong thought was out of commission, and pushed his damaged body forward until he was within reach of the younger man. Lacking the energy to pull the katana back for a killing blow in such an awkward position he slammed the hilt upwards and the pommel of the katana hit Chong in the mouth, splitting his lip and breaking two of his teeth. Eliot was gone in a second, stepping backwards, perfectly balanced no matter what the effort cost him in pain and blood.

Chong cursed and stumbled away, but immediately righted himself and spat out the broken teeth along with a spattering gout of blood.

He squinted at Eliot as he brought the pole to bear once more, and he studied the American before him. He took in the blood-soaked shirt and the outline of the bandages that lay beneath, wrapped uselessly around the bullet hole he knew Eades had put there. Soulless blue eyes gazed at him from a face marred with dust and dirt, runnels of blood from a head wound lending a demonic air to this man who separated Chong from his sons.

Eliot suddenly grinned, his white teeth at odds with his grimy, blood-stained features, and despite his obvious pain and weakness, he brought his left hand to the hilt of the katana and held the sword high, ready for Chong’s next attack and purposefully leaving his broad chest vulnerable to the sharp, spear-like pole.

“C’mon, you stupid bastard … is that all you got?” Eliot taunted, and Chong snarled, wiping blood from his face with the sleeve of his left arm and once more twirling the pole before setting it back under his right armpit, the wickedly pointed tip circling slowly as though to try and mesmerise his opponent.

Eliot flinched as pain shot up his back and down his right leg, streaking from the old injury to the nerves in his back that had never quite healed right and was now beginning to protest at the effort of keeping Eliot on his feet.

But Eliot absorbed the pain and recognised it for what it was … a mere reaction of his body to stress and damage and he relished it, knowing the adrenaline and endorphins it produced would help prop up his meagre reserves.

He braced himself, and Chong made his move.

Eliot exhaled, making his body relax, and instead of looking directly at either Chong or the lethal tip of the pole, he allowed his senses to take in the scene in its entirety, focusing on the environment rather than trying to make sense of the detail. He absorbed the moment, and in his mind the world around him slowed and sharpened.

In a veritable explosion of movement, Eliot swung the katana down and away to his left and the sound of the blade meeting the pole shuddered through the air. The thrum of the impact drove along the pole and vibrated through Chong’s hand so much it made his skin and muscles tingle painfully, loosening his grip momentarily.

The same vibrations hummed along the blade of the katana but were muffled by the tsuba and the hilt, and Eliot grimaced in triumph as the shimmering, perfect blade sheered through the pole as though it was butter.

Over two feet of steel pole arced away from the two men and landed in a puff of red dust by Bernadette’s front wheel.

Using the sword to push away the rest of the shortened pole, Eliot wheeled and his left elbow slammed into Chong’s chest, powering the man backwards as Chong shrieked at the pain of the impact on his bloody, cut chest.

Eliot completed the turn and once more faced Chong, but he was unable to follow up as he would have liked. Nevertheless he managed to pull the hilt of the katana back towards his abdomen in a move that drew the blade along Chong’s hip as the man stumbled away.

Chong bellowed in even more pain but he righted himself, and glared at the pole. It was now shorter by at least a third of its length, although the angle of the cut left a point able to drive through flesh and leave a gaping hole in Eliot if he so much as misjudged his attacks by a fraction of an inch.

But, the snakehead knew, his advantage had been lessened. He couldn’t attack Eliot and still be out of reach of that beautiful, deadly sword he wanted with every atom of his being.

His eyes glittered as he settled himself and shook his head to get rid of the blood dripping from his mouth. The grip on the knife in his left hand tightened. Now he had to get closer to this man who looked as though he was dead on his feet … a dead man walking, he thought, and mentally sneered despite the injuries this American had inflicted on him.

Eliot stumbled back but regained his balance in a second, and he planted his feet apart with his left foot ahead of his right, and his head lowered slightly as he took deep breaths, trying to oxygenate his blood as much as he could without making his head swim. He needed as much power as he could muster.

Chong charged. The pole came in low, tucked under Chong’s arm like a jousting lance, and the metal point aimed straight for Eliot’s side.

At the last moment Chong veered to his left in a feint, hoping Eliot’s concentration on the pole would open up his right side as he balanced himself to parry the strike. Then Chong could slide the knife deftly between Eliot’s ribs to his lungs, leaving the man in the dirt to drown in his own blood.

Eliot, with every bit of power he could muster, stepped straight into the path of the pole and used the katana to deflect the lethal length of steel. Twisting sideways, which hurt like hell, he allowed the length of the pole to slide harmlessly along his back as he rolled away from the attack. Pivoting on his right foot he turned and found himself facing Chong’s back, but the younger man, realising he had been thwarted, swept his body around in turn, hot breath hissing through the broken gaps in his teeth as the katana opened up a cut along his right buttock even as his knife nicked Eliot’s arm in passing.

Both men staggered, and Eliot, desperate and in agony, charged as quickly as he could to take advantage of Chong’s lack of balance.

His powerful left hand cracked again on Chong’s breastbone, and trying to prevent the man from regaining his balance, Eliot smashed a flurry of punches against Chong’s chest and torso, driving him ever backwards and making it nearly impossible for the man to use either of his weapons.

But Eliot’s body finally betrayed him.

Chong had finally ended up on the ground. Despite his weapons, loss of blood was beginning to weaken him and for a moment he lay there as Eliot followed him down, pinning Chong’s left arm to the ground, meaning to reverse the katana and drive its beautiful, unrelenting blade into Chong’s heart.

Eliot reared up on his knees and raising the sword above his opponent’s supine body, he reversed the katana. The point quivered over Chong’s bloody chest, but Eliot’s left side, the side carrying two bullet wounds as well as a broken rib, failed him. The broken ends of the rib shifted as he reversed the sword and suddenly he couldn’t breathe and the pain was murderous, and he let out a yell of pure agony.

Chong used every bit of strength he had and slammed the steel pole into Eliot’s chest.

The impact nearly made Eliot pass out. Pain exploded in his torso and his head, and it was only pure instinct that kept his grip on the katana as firm as it could be as he fought his damaged body and forced it to stay upright and not collapse sideways onto the ground. The black spots of impending unconsciousness swam though his vision, and Chong’s triumphant gaze locked onto the American even as Eliot fought with every ounce of willpower he had left to keep Chong pinned.

Eliot wheezed and tried to force enough air in his lungs so that he could move, but Chong had other ideas. He shifted the pole, sliding his hand further towards the sharp, slanted end. If he could angle it just … so … he could drive the pole straight through this maddening cowboy’s side and into his straining heart.

Eliot, sagging back onto his heels and unable to even see the katana let alone kill a man with it, let go of the sword hilt with his left hand and tried to stop himself from collapsing by putting his hand out and steadying his failing frame. All he did was encounter the steel pole.

This was the moment Eliot needed.

Blindly grasping the pole and using what little strength he had, he gripped the younger man’s hand where it held the pole. Pulling both pole and hand upwards and towards his chest, Eliot angled the blunt end of the pole over Chong’s face and slammed it downwards. The blows were feeble by Eliot’s standard, but he felt with relish Chong’s cheekbone and upper jaw break, and the next blow blinded the man in his right eye.

But even as Chong screamed his agony, Eliot lost the fight to stay upright. Unbalanced and no longer able to retain his grip on the pole, he swayed and then sprawled onto his left side.

Both men now lay in the red dust, one flailing and yelling and screeching in pain and the other trying desperately to regain some control over his damaged body.

Eliot crawled agonisingly away from Chong until he caught a little of his breath, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Chong, blood streaming down his face from his ruined eye, struggle up onto his knees.

It was now or never.

Chong lunged at Eliot, knife raised high and deadly and glittering, so Eliot gritted his teeth, rolled sideways and managed to raise himself up onto his right knee.

He raised the katana in both hands but found to his dismay that he was unable to gain any momentum or to angle the sword to take Chong’s head. So instantly shifting his aim, he targeted the next best thing. Even without the power behind it that a non-damaged Eliot would have given the strike, with one blow the ancient blade cleanly sliced Chong’s knife-hand from his wrist.

For a moment the world telescoped to the sudden spurt of blood from the severed limb and to Chong’s remaining eye as it widened in utter horror. The hand and the knife it still held tumbled away from the snakehead’s ruined body and Chong dropped the pole. He collapsed back onto the ground and clutched what was left of his wrist, trying to stop the bleeding as his mouth made a perfect ‘o’ of shock. He frantically tried to pull his sleeve down over the stump, and, Eliot knew, if he didn’t control the bleeding, Chong might very well bleed to death.

As Eliot tried his best to get to his feet, he suddenly realised that Chong was not making a sound. All the man could do was writhe on the ground and try and scream, but the sounds just wouldn’t come.

Eliot somehow managed to stand, even though his broken rib made every movement agony, and he limped raggedly over to Chong and kicked the pole out of reach.

Chong’s face was a bloody, writhing mess of pain.

Eliot used the flat side of the katana’s blade to push at Chong’s shoulder, to get the man’s attention and to make sure he knew this was his last day … his last moment, because Eliot could not allow Chong to live.

This was an execution, Eliot knew. But it had to be done for the safety of his family, especially Lizzie, his best girl - although his heart lurched at the knowledge that she now knew what he really was. He was a cold-blooded murderer. He always had been, and, he realised now, he always would be, no matter that everyone – including himself - thought he had changed.

Chong pried his gaze away from his blood-soaked, handless wrist, and looked up at Eliot - at this dusty, bloody being that stood over him like an avenging dark angel, sword in hand, and blue eyes blazing with the soul of a predatory wolf. The snakehead knew then he was about to die.

Chong’s one dark eye was glazed in pain, but Eliot thought he could see in that eye nothing but madness tinged with confusion and utter hatred. The world would be a better, cleaner place without this insane, psychotic young man in it.

Eliot’s lips twitched in a grim smile that held no humour in it.

“By the way, Chong,” he grated. “Your kids. They’ll be nice kids … good kids. And their momma’s gonna grow into a fine young woman. They’ll know nothin’ of you. They’ll grow straight an’ true, and be good people, an’ you, you twisted little bastard, will never know their names or anythin’ about ‘em. Because, y’see, you’re nobody. Nothing.”

He raised the katana in readiness.

“Go to hell, you piece of shit,” he said, and his soft voice was Death.

And it was at that moment that a figure burst through the fog … a figure on horseback, lying low along the galloping animal’s neck and with a sword held high.

Khenbish Hadan had come to take the Sword of the Okuri-Inu as her own.


Sophie and Jo finally found the small hiding-place Charlie and Parker had created deep, deep within the crowd of tall, spikey acacia bushes. Getting through the narrow gap was tight and occasionally painful when one of the spines caught bare flesh, but it was worth it.

Surrounded by the tall bushes and reinforced with hidden strands of barbed wire around the exterior of the copse, Charlie had created two spy-holes through the bushes. The entrance was well-hidden but had accessible views around the surrounding bush.

Settling the children and Mei on the ground where they were cushioned by dry, fallen leaves, Jo checked in on Soapy.

She had been listening to the cursing, complaints and general bad behaviour coming from the house through her earbud, but had not interfered because it was pretty obvious Effie had the upper hand, even as Soapy muttered and moaned as she tried to patch up the old sniper, who was trying to wriggle out of Effie’s care and return to his post at the door.

“Is the old fool causing you any trouble, Effie?” Jo asked, her amused voice unable to conceal her worry for her husband.

Jo!! Jo, old girl … will you – ouch!! – will you please tell Effie to leave me bloody well alone??? Soapy grumbled, exasperation in every syllable.

Missus! Effie hissed, now very annoyed, Will you tell this daft old bugger that if he don’t sit still I won’t be able to stop the bleeding properly, and I’ve told him you’ll skin his sorry arse alive if –

“Soapy –“Jo began, but her husband wasn’t about to be ordered about.

I’m bloody well fine! He ranted, and Jo heard Effie mutter something rude under her breath.

“Hardison?” What’s happening out there? What’s Eliot –“ Nate interjected, wiping sweat from his brow with his sleeve even as Jamie snuggled into his chest, calmed by Nate’s heartbeat.

Can’t say, Hardison’s voice came back, curiously subdued.

Nate looked at Sophie and he frowned. Hardison’s cryptic words meant he couldn’t explain because the children were listening.

Sophie nodded. Crouching down, she smiled at Kip and Lizzie.

“Alright, you two – we’re safe now so you don’t need the earbuds.” She held out her hand, palm up. “Put ‘em there, children.”

Kip nodded reluctantly but removed his earbud and dropped it onto Sophie’s hand, but Lizzie wasn’t about to let hers go so willingly.

“But Mama … what about Eliot??” she said, her voice soft but desperate.

“Now then, what did your father say? We have to let Eliot do his job, sweetheart, and we can’t hear him anyway –“ Because the bloody idiot took out his earbud – again, Sophie thought, “and we can wait here until everyone’s finished doing what they have to do.”

Lizzie’s lower lip began to tremble, and her dark eyes filled with tears.

“I made him angry, Mama … maybe he won’t love me anymore … what if –“ Lizzie’s voice finally broke, and she flung herself into her mother’s arms and sobbed.

Sophie held her daughter tight as though she would never let her go.

“Don’t worry, my darling … believe me when I say that Eliot certainly is not angry with you, and when this is over you two can talk and it’ll all come right, you’ll see.”

But as Lizzie wept until she thought her heart would shatter, Sophie slipped the earbud out of her daughter’s ear. Lizzie didn’t even notice when her father turned his back to them all and whispered to Hardison.

“All clear. What’s going on?” he asked.

God, Nate … from what I can see from here, Eliot’s takin’ this bastard apart, Hardison murmured. But Chong ain’t made it easy. I got no idea how Eliot’s still standin’, he added, his voice sounding sick with worry.

“So he’s doing okay, though?” Nate insisted.

I guess so …he’s - oh - oh, jeez! Hardison gulped, and Nate thought he heard the hacker swallow bile.

“What?” Nate hissed, “What’s happening??”

Hardison managed to stop himself from vomiting, it seemed, and he ground out a few words which made Nate’s blood run cold.

His hand! It … it’s gone!! Hardison dry-heaved, his breath shallow and hitching over the earbud.

Effie muttered something about Sunbeam? You alright there, boy? not really hearing Hardison’s words as she struggled with a bad-tempered Soapy, but catching his stress and fear.

Whose hand!!” Nate insisted, his heart in his mouth. The thought of Eliot missing a hand was … was …

Chong! Chong’s hand!! Hardison said shakily.

Nate closed his eyes in relief, but they snapped open again at Hardison’s next words.

Oh … Oh God, Nate! Hardison replied, his mouth suddenly dry.

What?? What is it??” Nate rasped, his chest tight with fear.

She’s here!! Hardison croaked. Hadan!! She’s here and she’s headed straight for Eliot and she’s going to ride that goddamn big frikkin’ horse right over him!!


It took Eliot precisely one-point-two seconds to absorb the situation, calculate his options and plump for the obvious one, which was get the hell out of the way of Hadan’s big gelding and leave Chong to his fate.

Hadan extended the elegant dpa’dam sword sideways and if Eliot had remained where he was, his head would have been taken from his shoulders, which, he knew, was Hadan’s very intention.

In a desperate, twisting leap sideways, Eliot turned in mid-air and as the big horse thundered past him, Hadan’s stirrup brushing his blood-soaked chest, the katana’s blade rang hard against the straight length of the old Tibetan sword.

Hadan, surprised, was almost unseated as the power of Eliot’s blow rang through her sword-hand in a shivering echo, and she saw the American hit the ground and roll, coming up on one knee with the katana arcing around to lie tucked against Eliot’s hip as though returning to its scabbard.

Something under Batu’s hooves made the gelding stumble and Hadan lurched in the saddle, but the horse righted himself instantly and so did Hadan, straightening and dropping her sword to lie against Batu’s side as she used her knees and the slightest pressure on the reins to bring Batu to a rump-sliding halt.

Turning the big gelding, she felt him prance under her, eager to go again, his need for action singing through him.

My Batu, she thought with pride, my warrior horse with the heart of a god!

Batu champed at the bit, froth on his lips, and even though she couldn’t see his eyes she knew Batu was wild-eyed with excitement. But he was still hers to do with as she wished, and Batu was her servant who did as he was told simply out of love for her.

She touched her heels to Batu’s side and he responded with a snort, and went straight into a gallop, hooves kicking up red dust in the fog, coating his eerie greyish hide with bloody smears .

Eliot managed to get to his feet, and he prepared to meet Hadan head-on. He glanced at Chong, and saw that Batu had galloped straight over him, and the man was a mere thing now … barely moving, his limbs twisted and bloody and broken by sharp, solid hooves. His mouth opened and shut slowly, like a fish gasping on a river bank, and his remaining eye was wide and unblinking.

Eliot felt nothing. He was a soldier now. He had an enemy to defeat or die in the trying, and he knew that this might well be his last battle. So he straightened and raised the Sword of the Okuri-Inu and grasped the hilt in both hands, holding the blade upright with his right elbow raised to bring the sword close to his bloody chest.

Steadying himself, he gazed at Hadan as she sent the big horse into a gallop.

Unafraid, he pursed his lips, and let out a piercing whistle.

And bursting from the fog-laden track came a huge brown camel, jaws agape and roaring like a bunyip.*

Gertie set her one eye on Batu and Hadan, and broke into a lumbering gallop, teeth bared.

Eliot grinned. He had noticed Batu’s nervous reaction to Gertie during the thunderstorm, and he knew the horse had been disconcerted at seeing a camel, probably for the first time in his life. He firmed his grip on the katana, and waited.

Gertie headed unerringly for Batu, neck outstretched and teeth bared, and Eliot saw Hadan shift in the saddle in surprise. She tried to avoid Gertie by steering Batu into a swerve, but Gertie wasn’t in the mood to allow either Hadan or Batu to get away.

She slammed straight into Batu’s shoulder with her chest while she snaked her head around to bite Hadan’s face, but she missed, spattering frothy slobber on the assassin.

Batu staggered drunkenly and went to his knees, sending Hadan sprawling from the saddle, although she quickly got her bearings and rolled away from Batu as Gertie swiftly turned and fixed a furious eye on the Mongolian.

Batu, unharmed but dazed, stumbled to his feet, stirrups and reins dangling. Gertie ignored him, but Batu, coming to his senses, stared at the camel and deciding that this big, hairy smelly thing might just eat him and backed off, head up and eyes wild with fear.

Hadan scrambled to her feet and was instantly on guard, but she couldn’t see Eliot for this annoying animal which had attacked her Batu. She remembered her decision that she might have to go through the camel to get to Eliot Spencer, so she turned, raised her sword and attacked Gertie.

Eliot’s eyes widened, and without a thought and not noticing the pain in his battered body, he broke into a staggering run and charged straight at Hadan.

Hadan executed a smooth, low blow intended to slice into Gertie’s neck but the camel began, much to the assassin’s surprise, to dance. Big, flat feet scuffed through the dust, and the huge animal bounced about, lower lip flapping. Gertie burbled and groaned and honked, and she bubbled frothy saliva as she danced, and Hadan, trying not to get run down by the animal, was finding it difficult to find an angle whereby she could cut Gertie’s throat and stay out of the way of those big feet.

GERTIE!! AWAY!!” Eliot roared even as he ran, but Gertie wasn’t listening. She had to protect Eliot with every inch of her being, and as she often did when upset, she pouched out her cheeks, gurgled, and then vomited her stomach contents, the stinking effluvia spraying through the air. Some of it spattered over Hadan, and she hissed with anger, the sting of the stinking liquid making her eyes smart.

She cursed and raised her left hand to wipe her face, stumbling backwards and away from Gertie, and it was as she managed to clear her vision that she saw a figure come at her through the mist, and Eliot Spencer crashed into her, sending her sprawling once more.

Eliot hit the ground hard and yelped, but he staggered to his feet and still holding the katana, waved it at Gertie.

GO!!” he bellowed harshly, and this time Gertie heard him. Confused but obedient, she changed tack and decided to chase Batu, who grunted in terror and ran, with Gertie trotting, still gurgling, behind him as the gelding headed up the incline towards the cattle yards.

Eliot, hurting like hell and unable to catch his breath properly, limped backwards and away from Hadan. He stopped, swaying, and took a moment or two to gather his wits about him and settle once more into a fighting stance, chest heaving and every muscle in his body protesting at the movement.

Hadan swore softly, still dabbling at her eyes, and she felt the drip of camel vomit as it slid down her face and hands. She peered at Eliot, who grinned back despite the exhaustion visible on his face and in his stance.

Hadan settled herself and took a couple of deep breaths to calm her shaking hands, and then brought her sword to bear.

“Nice sword,” Eliot rasped, and brought the katana back to its position before his chest, both of his hands on the hilt and ready to strike in any direction.

Hadan’s eyes narrowed and she nodded.

“I told you I would come for the Sword of the Okuri Inu,” she answered, ignoring his comment, and then she spat to get rid of a fragment of vomit-covered gummy frog which slid down over her lips.

But Eliot noticed that she held her shoulder oddly, and her movement was undeniably stiff. He knew Effie had filled Hadan’s shoulder with double-ought buckshot, and Eliot guessed the tiny assassin still carried a few pellets under her hide which she couldn’t reach. She seemed a little pale, he thought, and despite the red dust now coating her face and the splatter of vomit on her skin and clothes, there was a slight sheen of perspiration on her upper lip and forehead.

Infection.

Eliot shook sweat from his own brow and took as deep a breath as he could.

It wasn’t much, and she was still fresher and a whole lot less damaged than he was, but it was a chink in Hadan’s formidable defences that he could breach.

His grin became feral.

“You want this sword?” he snarled. “So come and get it, you crazy bitch!”

And bracing himself for the onslaught, Eliot Spencer stood firm, and as a watery sun sent pale light filtering through the fog, Khenbish Hadan brought the fight to him.

 

To be continued …

 


* Bunyip – a large creature from Aboriginal mythology, said to lurk in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes. Eliot still hasn’t informed Hardison of this.

 

Chapter Text


Eliot settled himself, the katana held low in his right hand, and he squared off instead of offering a smaller target by standing at an angle. He stood straight and still, head lowered slightly, and allowed his senses to do the work for him … to absorb every muscle movement of this tiny woman and her magnificent, ancient sword so different from his own.

His nostrils flared for a moment and he caught the tang of sweat and a long-unwashed body, and there was a faint drift of what seemed like lemon in the air.

Yeah, he thought, she’s hurting. She’s got a poultice on her … herbs … frankincense … she’s got an infection …

He shifted and breathed as deeply as his wounds would allow, centering himself and forcing his heart to slow down and his screaming muscles to ease. He faintly heard the magpies fluting and singing in the almond stand, and he felt eyes on him.

Hardison.

The hacker was watching, no doubt with his heart in his mouth and relaying everything to the others. Eliot just hoped someone had had the sense to take the earbuds from Lizzie and Kip. They didn’t need to hear him speak of death, whether it was Hadan’s or his own. But at least Eliot wouldn’t be alone if he died – he knew Hardison was with him, even if the young man knew to stay out of the way. Eliot had always thought he would die alone and unsung, and now … his team … his family … would at least mourn his passing … even Lizzie, who thought he was a monster, and for whom he would kill Khenbish Hadan.

But right now, his death didn’t matter, as long as he took Hadan down with him.

And Eliot Spencer drew deep within himself and found his balance. He didn’t see Hadan … he sensed the swirl of the fog around her as she moved, and the kick of red dust from her old hessian boots … he felt the movement of the air as she swept towards him, and he caught the glimmer of the unique blade as it cut through the limpid light, the oblique tip sent unerringly towards Eliot’s chest.

She meant to run him through.

But he stood his ground, still and solid and calm, and he heard the ancient Tibetan sword thrum softly as the point sped towards him.

And still he waited.


Oh God …” Hardison gasped as he peered through the broken insert beside the door, and he swallowed bile. “The dumb sonofabitch is gonna get hisself killed!”

Soapy, sitting on the huge old table in the kitchen, looked up as Effie bound the wound in his shoulder tight with a pressure bandage, trying to stop the flow of blood streaming down his arm.

“What’s happening??” he ground out, wincing as Effie growled with impatience.

“He … he’s just standin’ there, waitin’ for her to just … just … kill him!!” Hardison gasped, and his hand reached for the door handle.

“Like hell he is!!” Soapy snapped, and ignoring Effie’s attentions he slid off the table and lifted his Webley, which lay beside him, with his good hand.

Effie, not to be left behind, grabbed her shotgun and hobbled after Soapy, both of them emerging into the hall where Hardison was peering through the damaged insert.

Soapy managed to take a look past Hardison and glanced up at the young hacker, his dark eyes full of fury, but he suddenly understood what was going on.

“Hang on, Alec – give him a minute. We’ll get out there when we can do it and not distract him. We could get him killed if we go now, mate – he’s in the zone.”

Zone? What zone? Nate’s voice crackled through the earbud, but it was Jo who answered.

He’s not seeing her any more, Alec – he can feel her every move, her every thought. Disturb him and you could get him killed, she said, and everyone listening in could hear the desperation in her voice. My Soapy … he understands, so follow his lead.

And then Hardison understood why Eliot had so much respect for Soapy.

“You … you’re like Eliot. Just like him,” he murmured, and saw the grim look on the old pastoralist’s face. “Black ops, right? he added with awe, and turned his gaze back to Eliot.

“You don’t want to know, son … you really do not want to know …” Soapy said softly, and all three of them watched Eliot through the broken insert and the other small glass panes, their hearts in their mouths.


Eliot seemed to have endless time to study the blade aimed at his heart as it came at him. He saw the strange striped marks within the metal of the blade and the oddly shortened hilt, so unlike the elegant curved blade of the katana and the wavering ripple of the hamon, the border of the hardened edge of the old sword. His blade was folded metal, he knew, while Hadan’s blade was layered. Surely there would be a difference in resilience.

But time had run out, and his focus was suddenly all on the quivering tip of the blade now only inches away from him.

He saw for the first time the glimmer of triumph in Hadan’s olive eyes, and Eliot twitched a smile.

In a split second he was a blur of movement, swaying to his left and not even raising the katana to defend himself, and before Hadan knew it Eliot was turning away from her with a speed she could not have imagined, his icy blue eyes fixed on hers in a look of such derision that anger suddenly flared in her heart as her blade sliced harmlessly through space where moments ago Eliot Spencer had stood.

She had misjudged him. He was wounded, yes, and badly, but he had the heart of a warrior, and even as her sword missed him entirely, he was once more standing, balanced and still and smiling, and she caught herself and arm extended, she wove her sword through the air and brought it back to her side.

They studied one another for a few minutes, and Hadan cocked her head, curiosity getting the better of her.

“Where did you learn to fight?” she asked, her almost-accentless voice soft and flat in the humid air.

Eliot’s smile turned into a grin.

“Here an’ there … y’know … as you do.” He nodded at the Tibetan sword. “You like usin’ that thing?”

Hadan’s eyes flicked down to her weapon, and she slowly raised the sword until her right arm was outstretched and the point was at a forty-five degree angle from her body. She looked deadly, Eliot thought.

Hadan shrugged and it was obvious the gesture hurt her.

“It is the weapon I grew up with. It belonged to my grandfather. I was eight years old when I first killed a man with it.” She paused for effect. “My father.”

Eliot showed no emotion.

“He must’ve pissed you off big-time,” he answered mildly.

Hadan nodded, agreeing with him.

“He killed my horse,” she said. “He told me I was nothing and didn’t deserve a horse, and killed my Jochi. I took this sword and then I took my father’s head.” Her eyes were hazy with memory for a moment or two, before she continued. “I stuck it on a pole outside his ger. I was somebody after that,” she added, and her lips quirked in a smile. “My family didn’t like me – but they did learn how to fear me.”

“I bet they did,” Eliot muttered under his breath, and moving slowly, he readied himself, holding the katana in both hands now, the point lowered as he took more deep breaths, his ribs tearing at his side as he moved. He couldn’t stop the flinch of pain from showing and Hadan seemed amused.

“You can hardly stand, my friend. You look bloodless, like a slaughtered beast.” She shook her head earnestly. “You will not live through this day.”

Eliot allowed his shoulders to slump a little, as though he was past exhaustion – which, he admitted to himself, wasn’t too far from the truth – and then he made a show of shifting his grip on the soft, aged silk wrapping of the tsuka, feeling the beautiful ebony carving of a wolf guarding a child bound into the grip.

Hadan lifted her right leg, both arms akimbo and perfectly balanced, and flowed towards Eliot like a ghost.

She brought her sword upwards in a slice that would have disembowelled Eliot had it landed, but he exploded into action and the katana drove sideways in a controlled, punching blow that deflected the long, straight blade of the dpa’dam and both swords clashed, sending sparks through the fog.

Eliot pushed his damaged body towards the Mongolian, and her sword was like lightning on a moonless night, all flickering death and gleaming edges, and Eliot anticipated every blow she took as she whirled and fought and was as silent as the grave.

The Sword of the Okuri-Inu sang her song to the still air and her razor edge cut the mist into ribbons of smoky swirls, and Eliot suddenly caught Hadan’s left wrist and he pulled her towards and around him, her slight body slamming into his right side as he reversed the katana and slid it backwards.

The blade caught Hadan in the side. It was a glancing blow and merely sliced along her ribs, but blood spurted from the wound and she couldn’t stop herself from crying out with the pain of it.

But she had enough clarity left in her mind to slam the hilt of her sword into Eliot’s left side in return, and he keened an agonized groan as the blow smashed into his broken rib.

Staggering apart, one bleeding and the other breathless with pain, they turned to face one another once more.

Hadan’s free hand clutched the bloody gash along her lower ribs, while Eliot stood hunched, trying his best to catch his breath and control the pain, but he felt a fresh slickness under the bandages around his ribcage. He didn’t know how long he had now, with the blood-loss becoming more and more debilitating. Minutes, perhaps … maybe less. He just hoped he could stay on his feet long enough to deal with Hadan.

He had to end this.

Hadan finally got her pain under control and readied herself for a moment, and then raised her sword. She dodged to his left and then leapt, twisting in the air, bringing her blade down as she arced around Eliot, trying to take his head with one blow.

But Eliot rolled to one side and in turn aimed a slice at Hadan’s thigh as she wheeled past him, but they both missed, and stumbling away from one another, they staggered but stood still, breathing heavily.

But Eliot didn’t wait.

He held the katana before him, two-handed, and with the soul of the samurai surging through him he attacked, the great katana humming her song of death as Eliot wove a pattern of light about the Mongolian who was forced to stumble backwards and defend herself.

He sweated and he swore and he fought, and Hadan parried every blow he struck. She fought back, desperation in every strike, and the ring of ancient metal striking ancient metal filled both of their hearts with the need to kill.


Nate turned to Jo and Sophie.

“I … I can’t stand this,” he muttered, hands on hips and head hanging.

Jo nodded, fear in her green eyes for both her husband and Eliot.

“Mama?” Lizzie said fearfully. “Mama, can we go back to the house?? Eliot and Grandpa Soapy need us!”

Sophie shook her head.

“No, darling. We stay here. We don’t know how many more men are hanging about and –“

None, Parker’s voice said through the earbud.

We got the lot, Charlie added, his voice flat and grim. We’re coming to you right now, he added. Parker and me … we’ll take care of Mei and the kids, and the rest of you head back to the house. We’ll be with you in a minute or two.

Nate looked at Sophie and Jo, and they both nodded.

“We’ll do that then,” he said.

“But Daddy –“ Lizzie insisted, her voice beginning to rise with fear.

Nate crouched down beside his daughter and grasped her shoulders with both hands, forcing her to look at him.

“Lizzie … Lizzie, listen to me,” he ground out. He knew there was no time for gentleness. Lizzie had to understand, and so did Kip as he sat beside Mei helping her hold the babies. “You can’t come with us. And there will be no argument, young lady, d’you hear me?? We have to be very careful and not get in Eliot’s way, and if he sees you he might get distracted and get - well … he might get very badly hurt. Do you understand???

Lizzie stared at her father with her mother’s dark eyes, and they swam with tears.

“Eliot could die, couldn’t he? If I was there?” she whispered.

Nate, hating himself for having to do this to his daughter, nodded.

“Yes,” he said firmly. “He could die, sweetheart. Because he loves you and he would worry about you if you were in danger and he would put himself between you and anything that would harm you.” The muscles along his jawline jumped as he gritted his teeth and held his daughter so that she could see the truth in his eyes. “He’s doing this for us … and Grandpa Soapy and Grandma Jo … Effie … Charlie and Kip, and now Mei and the babies. All of us. And we can’t get in his way because he’s Eliot and this is what he does, and we let him because that is what makes him who he is. Alright? So stay here with Charlie and Parker, and afterwards we’ll talk, okay? Once Eliot’s safe.”

Lizzie, wide-eyed and shocked to the bone, nodded.

“Okay,” she said, her voice so soft Nate hardly heard it.

Nate let go of her shoulders and stood up. But before he could turn towards Sophie, Lizzie let out a hiccupping sob, and she crossed her arms as though trying to stop herself falling to pieces.

“If Eliot dies … I … I don’t want him to die, Daddy. He thinks I’m a bad person because I did something dumb when I ran away and he’s mad at me and now he’s going to die and … and … he can’t, Daddy – he just can’t!!

Nate ran a finger along Lizzie’s cheek and caught her tears.

“We’ll do our very best to make sure he doesn’t, sweetheart. I promise. You stay here, and let us do what we can to make sure he comes back to us safe and sound.” He smiled sadly. “And believe me, Lizzie my love. Eliot doesn’t hate you. He could never hate you. He loves you very, very much.”

Lizzie scrubbed tears from her eyes and sat down beside Mei and Kip, little Buster tucked between them protectively. The young mother, holding Rose tight to her chest as Kip cuddled Jamie, put a hand on Lizzie’s shoulder, rubbing it gently with her thumb.

“He is … he is your protector, yes?” she said kindly.

“He’s my best friend,” Lizzie answered, and Kip nodded in agreement.

“He’s my uncle, too,” the little boy chimed in, “and my dad’s brother.”

“And our son,” Jo whispered to herself, and she heard Soapy’s murmur of agreement.

M’bro, Hardison muttered. Dumb-ass camel-hugger!

He’s just our Eliot! Parker added, somewhat puzzled. What’s the problem? Parker’s grasp on relationships was always a little tenuous.

He’s a bloody clueless boofhead, that’s what he is! Effie grumbled furiously. If he loses any more blood he’s going to be flat on his back for a bleedin’ week! She added, blithely unaware of the pun.

He’s family,” Nate said finally, and smiled as Parker and Charlie appeared as though from thin air and worked their way into the hiding place.

Charlie looked grim as Kip carefully handed baby Jamie over to a slightly snotty Lizzie and stood up to run to his father and hug him.

“Are you alright, Dad?” the child asked, a tremor in his voice, and Charlie, his bare chest displaying the marks of his people, ruffled his son’s blond hair and smiled.

“I’m fine, son,” he said tenderly, and then he turned to Nate. “You lot go and make sure my brother doesn’t get his head lopped off, will you? He’s a bloody idiot.”

The tension eased suddenly, and Nate grinned.

“We’ll do our best, Charlie. And thanks. You and Parker. I have no idea what you did, but it kept our daughter and the rest of us safe.”

Parker grinned, looking very much like a cat who had stolen a whole dairy-full of cream.

“It was fun!” she said smugly. She held up her taser. “Mister Zappy had a blast!

Kip looked up at his father, pride oozing from every pore.

“That’s because my dad’s brilliant!” he bragged happily.

And as Nate, Jo and Sophie headed off back to the house, they hoped that they could make sure that Eliot Spencer, the man who had absolutely no idea that he was so much loved, didn’t get himself killed.


The two antagonists slowly circled each other, gasping and breathless, bloody and exhausted. Eliot, his katana held before him in a two-fisted grip, razor-point dipping carefully as he gauged Hadan’s next move, could hardly contain a grunt of pain every time he inhaled.

Hadan moved a little easier, he noticed, but her side was bleeding freely and her injured shoulder was causing her a great deal of pain, if the flinch that came with each cautious step was anything to go by.

She raised the dpa’dam and touched the tip of the katana, the two blades coming together in a testing caress, the gentle clash of metal whispering in the dank air. She wondered about the man before her. She wondered about what had made him the deadly creature he was, what had bred in him the tenacity and sheer inability to give up and die, which she had to admire. He was a man after her own heart, she decided, and in another life they may have been friends.

And as she concluded she might have liked Eliot Spencer, she forced the katana aside with her sword and darted to her right. The tip of her blade made its way through Eliot’s defences only for a split second as Eliot went with the movement and stepped elegantly back and circled his own blade, catching a nick from Hadan’s weapon on his flank but using her impetus against her as he twisted to his left and slid the katana’s razor edge along the back of the dpa’dam, the tiny cross-guard of Hadan’s sword failing to halt Eliot’s attack.

The katana opened a shallow gash along Hadan’s sword-arm from wrist to elbow.

She screamed in frustration as blood dripped from her wrist and her sword-grip became dangerously slippery. The coppery scent of her blood made Eliot’s nostrils flare and he ignored the slick feel of his own blood ooze from the new cut between his hipbone and lower belly. He had hoped to make her drop her sword, but he had underestimated her strength of character.

He backed off for a few steps and slowly corrected his stance, controlling his breathing as much as he could. The katana was held low once again but now to one side, Eliot’s left elbow raised and bent to help him lead his next blow and absorb the impact.

Hadan swore under her breath and Eliot allowed himself the tiniest of smiles, although there was no humour in it.

“Why did you stop workin’ for the Chinese?” he asked suddenly, his breath hitching with pain but every word as clear as a bell.

Hadan blinked even as she hissed with the sting of her new wound, and she shifted the dpa’dam to her left hand for a few moments as she wiped her bloody hand on her dirty shirt.

Eliot did not attack – he knew she would be as deadly left-handed as with her right, as Eliot himself was.

The Mongolian studied Eliot with a newer understanding. This man would kill her without regret. He was more like her than he would ever know.

“Politics,” she spat. “They were so happy playing games that they became confused, self-important little people full of wind and words and nothing else. I don’t play games.” She returned her sword to her right hand and seamlessly ran a few steps to her right, trying to make Eliot move to keep an eye on her, making his wounds continue their slow but steady drip of blood.

But he didn’t move. He didn’t even look at her. He knew where she was, and he knew her skills.

“Yeah,” he ground out painfully. “Politics. So … you went into business for yourself instead, huh?”

Hadan shrugged awkwardly.

“There is always plenty of work. Warlord against warlord … cartel against cartel … personal hatred and family vendettas. It’s a living,” she added as she noted Eliot’s stillness. “Why did you stop?”

Eliot closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again, focusing on something indefinable in the depth of the mist.

“My business,” he said between gritted teeth.

Hadan nodded sagely as she began moving again, her blade poised, and now she was out of Eliot’s line of sight, even though he wasn’t watching her.

“Damien Moreau … he told me you gained a conscience,” she said, scorn in every word.

Eliot’s eyebrow twitched.

She knew Moreau. But of course she knew Moreau.

“He hired you to kill me,” he said, more of a statement than a question.

“He wanted to,” she answered as she settled herself. “But … I had another, more profitable job, so … I declined. He hired Coetzee instead*.”

And that made Eliot snort with humour.

“Yeah, well … we all know how that worked out,” he said, and his muscles relaxed a little.

“Coetzee was a fool,” Hadan said. “If I had taken the job you would not have lived.”

Ya think??” Eliot retorted, and burst into action.

Leading with his left elbow he moved sideways and dropped to one knee, bringing the katana sweeping in a breath-taking sliver of light that was intended to take Hadan’s leg and dump her on the ground where Eliot could finish her off.

He nearly made it.

Hadan’s eyes widened and with a desperate, bone-aching leap she pivoted in the air, and even as she cartwheeled in the still air her own sword parried the katana and swept towards Eliot’s throat.

For a man slowly bleeding to death Eliot moved like a phantom. Pushing with  his left foot he rolled to his right, off his bent knee and the blade whistled past his jaw without touching him, and he was up and running, not very well, it was true, but with purpose and skill.

Eliot submerged into the fog, the glitter of his sword the last thing to disappear, and Hadan landed lightly onto her feet and dropped instantly into a defensive crouch, the dpa’dam stretched low beside her, almost level to the ground.

The fog was thicker here near the bush, and she didn’t like the prospect of allowing Eliot Spencer to take the fight to this place he knew like the back of his hand, so Hadan slowly unfurled herself like a lethal, untidy butterfly, and allowed her sword to hang by her side.

She sighed, and walked slowly back to the middle of the yard. She hadn’t realised how much this man cared for these people he called family … all of them, including that dumpy old xiǎo lǎopó who cooked the foreigners’ food.

Her reverie was disturbed by the sound of the battered, bullet-hole-adorned front door opening and she looked up, squinting at the veranda.

Working his way cautiously through the doorway was the tall young black man who had killed Eades, and following behind was the tough old man who owned this huge, sprawling landscape, he and his equally tough wife. He was hurt, she could see. Blood soaked his right shoulder and the stark whiteness of the bandage glared loudly in this dull, misty world. He carried an old revolver, but she doubted he would be able to use it, wounded as he was.

But the round old woman who followed him was a different matter. Even as she gimped through the doorway, she lifted the pump-action shotgun she held to her shoulder and was on the point of taking aim when Eliot Spencer erupted from the fog.

Hadan cursed. She had allowed the people on the veranda to distract her for all of a few seconds, and Spencer had taken advantage of it.

The katana sliced downwards in a double-handed blow, and Hadan had to use every bit of her fast-waning strength to twist sideways in a move almost absurdly acrobatic, even as the katana cut a grazing blow across her back and she bit back a growl of annoyance as she powered a thrust sideways at the blur that was Eliot Spencer.

Eliot leaped like a salmon, turning in the air as he parried, and the swords clashed, the impact sending a shiver through the still air.

The two combatants separated as they fell and they both crashed to the ground, rolling apart and sprawling in the dust.

Both lay gasping, hurt and bleeding and almost finished, but first Eliot and then Hadan managed to turn over and lever their damaged frames upright, both swaying and using their swords to keep their balance.

Eliot wheezed, his breath coming in short, agonized gasps, and even as he tried to gain his balance he knew the next minute or so would mean life or death for either himself or Hadan – and right now, he wasn’t sure if he would be the one who came off best.

The mist was thickening even more, especially around the bush-line, and Eliot finally took a few deep, deep breaths, although the effort made his vision blur as his broken rib vehemently objected to the movement. He was bleeding from a dozen wounds and he could barely see. He was drenched with sweat and gore, and he was living on borrowed time, he knew it. He didn’t even know if he could muster enough power for one more blow.

Hadan turned to face him, and he saw the raggedness in her face and the dragging exhaustion in her stance. She could barely catch her breath.

Maybe … he thought doggedly … just maybe I can do this one more time.

And lifting the Sword of the Okuri-Inu, he set his shoulders straight, cracked the stiffness from his neck and slowed his heart.

Khenbish Hadan was the enemy. She would murder his family without a thought. She would kill his ‘Lizbeth Grace in a heartbeat. Eliot stood between one of the most lethal assassins in the world and the people he loved, and he was their protector until his dying day.

And as the fog enveloped both of them, Eliot smiled.


“What’s going on?? What’s happening?” Nate’s voice suddenly came from inside the house and startled Hardison as he stood, open-mouthed, riveted by the display of swordsmanship acting out in the mist in the yard, the clashing of swords and the indistinct shapes now being swallowed by the fog.

“Can’t … can’t see …! Hardison murmured, scared to death for Eliot but mesmerised by the battle.

Nate, Sophie and Jo had worked their way back along the hidden passage beneath the house, and flinging back the trapdoor, they scrambled into Eliot’s room, only to find the house empty.

Jo ran past Nate and burst onto the veranda to see Soapy leaning against one of the veranda uprights, and she gasped with horror at the blood on her husband’s shoulder and flew into his arms.

Soapy winced at the hug she gave him, but Jo knew instantly he wasn’t too badly hurt and that Effie had done all she could do for now. She turned to Hardison and then peered out through the smashed fly-screen to the yard.

Sophie was beside them in an instant, and she heard the ring of sword against sword and two indistinct figures could be momentarily seen in the fog, and then they were once again hidden from view as they fought desperately, and she could see the staggering weariness of both combatants.

“Oh god …” Sophie gasped as she heard a very masculine grunt of pain echo through the still atmosphere. “ –is he –“

“He’s holding his own,” Soapy said as calmly as he could, but he felt Jo’s whole body flinch at the sound of Eliot, obviously hurting, as he battled this crazy, tiny assassin.

The fog swirled and shifted, and light from swift, deadly blades as they weaved in a beautiful, deadly dance flickered in the washed-out air, and once more there was a clash of metal on metal, and all of them, watching with desperation, gasped as a voice called out and a splatter of red sprayed through the mist.

And out of the fog, arcing high above the hidden battle, a sword flew. It hummed through the air, and plummeted downward, the point embedding itself deep, deep in the red dirt and quivering with the impact.

Hardison’s legs almost went out from beneath him.

“Oh … no-no-no …” he gasped. "Eliot!!!

 

To be continued …


* Read about Eliot’s meeting with Mason Coetzee in ‘Gertie – Part One.’

Chapter Text


The sword thrummed gently as it vibrated, standing straight and quivering in the dank earth. A weak glimmer of sunlight crept through the fog and winked off the reflected light of the turquoise and tiny coral chips embedded in its silver hilt, and the straight blade had a notch taken out of it near the cross-guard.

Blood smeared both blade and hilt.

“That … that’s not Eliot’s sword,” Jo muttered tightly, still hanging on to Soapy, who had his good arm wrapped around his wife.

Hardison blinked and stared harder at the sword.

“Wait … yeah … yeah …” he stammered, his voice turning from horror to desperate relief, “you … you’re right. That … that’s not Eliot’s sword!” He turned and grinned at the people around him. “That’s not Eliot’s friggin’ sword!!” he repeated, as though saying it made the world a far better place to live in.

Is Eliot okay?? Parker’s voice crackled over the earbud. Hardison – is Eliot okay???

Hardison heard a sob in the background and knew Lizzie was waiting to know about her best friend … to know he was still alive.

“I … I don’t know yet,” he admitted, and tried to peer through the thick fog. “Can’t see –“

And at that moment, Eliot limped out of the swirling greyness, his katana held low by his side

He seemed more wound than man, soaked in blood as he was, and there was a collective intake of breath from his family as they saw him make his way over to the dpa’dam where it still quivered, upright and gleaming, in the dull light.

Oh hell yeah!!” Hardison breathed, and he heard Parker’s YES!! burst through the earbud echoed by Lizzie’s sob of relief.

Nate took a few steps forward, intent on clattering down the veranda steps to Eliot, when Soapy’s voice cut through everyone’s almost palpable excitement.

“Wait!!” he growled, and Nate turned worried blue eyes to the old pastoralist.

“Soapy, he needs –“

“Leave him, Nate,” Soapy insisted urgently, his hangdog features grim and lined with pain. “He won’t see you … won’t know who you are. Give him a few minutes.”

Six pairs of eyes turned to the hitter as Eliot stopped by the dpa’dam and stared at it. He made no move to pull the sword from the earth, and now they could hear the breath rasping from his chest and see the hard, flinching undercurrent of pain in every movement. It was obvious he was barely able to stand.

His eyes, though … when Eliot’s blue eyes flicked up at them they realised he didn’t recognise any of his family. He truly was, as Jo had explained, ‘in the zone.’ He was still attuned to any danger around him and his muscles were thrumming with tension and pain, and for the first time since he had met Eliot Spencer all those years ago, Nathan Ford fully understood what the man had been - a precise, deadly and unstoppable killing machine, and that realisation made Nate’s stomach churn.

Eliot had locked that part of him away when he left Moreau. He had come here to Wapanjara, badly wounded and ready to die, and in turn the people of Wapanjara had healed and saved him, body and soul. When he began to work with his new team, he was still the touchy, wary, deadly hitter. But his humanity, kept for so long in a place deep and still within him, began, oh so slowly, to rise to the surface. Over the years he had mellowed and learned to trust once more, and had proffered his life again and again for his team.

But never – never – had Nate seen Eliot as lost to them as he was right now.

“Nate …” Sophie’s voice came from right beside him. “Nate … we have to help him … dear god, look at him …” she whispered, the manicured nails of her right hand pinching as she clutched Nate’s arm.

But before anyone could do anything, another figure emerged from the fog.

Khenbish Hadan, hunched and holding her right arm tight to her body as blood soaked her shoulder, staggered behind Eliot.

Immediately Effie raised the shotgun once more, ready to drop the assassin where she stood, but Hadan lurched to a halt and stood silently, several yards from Eliot, who turned his head slightly as though acknowledging her presence. But he did nothing.

Sophie shook her head slightly, confused.

“Wait … there … there’s something going on here …” she said quietly.

“Bugger that!!” Effie hissed angrily, “let me just blow the bitch apart where she stands!!”

Jo frowned and looked up at Soapy, who shrugged even though the movement hurt like billy-oh.

“No, Effie … Sophie’s right,” she murmured, and putting a hand out she pushed the shotgun barrels downwards.

“But Missus –“ Effie was bristling like an old, angry bear, not willing to give up the fight. “That piece of shite came here to kill our nippers!!

“Not with that arm, she isn’t,” Jo commented, studying the Mongolian’s ruined shoulder. “Eliot stuck her right through the shoulder, under the clavicle. There’s a whole bunch of nerves in there and I have a feeling he’s sliced the lot of ‘em,” she added thoughtfully. “He’s crippled her for life.”

Effie still wasn’t convinced, but Jo carefully gestured at Hadan.

Look at her, Effie – look at the way she holds her left shoulder.” Jo’s lips twitched grimly. “I think you did her permanent damage when you filled her with buckshot.”

Effie squinted at Hadan. The evidence was slight, but it was there. Hadan was finding it difficult to hold her crippled right arm, and she seemed a little out of kilter, Effie decided, although it would be difficult to be sure given the damage the woman had taken.

Her eyes shifted back to Eliot. The line of her lips tightened and her muddy eyes glistened with tears.

“Our boy’s all bust up again, Missus,” she complained softly. “He’s bloody knackered, so he is. Why didn’t he just end the shonky cow and come back to us?”

“Don’t know, Eff,” Soapy rumbled. “He’s up to something –“

But Soapy’s words were cut short by Eliot turning slowly towards Hadan, whose olive eyes studied him bleakly.

The two adversaries gazed at one another for long moments, and then Hadan suddenly dropped awkwardly to her knees in front of Eliot. Closing her eyes, she bowed her head and waited. Eliot lifted the katana.

“Oh Jesus!” Hardison gasped. “He’s not … oh god … he’s notis he??

Sophie covered her mouth, shocked to the core, and Jo flinched. Nate’s face was pure stone. Effie was right – this woman had come to Wapanjara to kill his family … his daughter.

Surely Eliot wouldn’t do such a thing, Jo thought … take Hadan’s head in front of these people he loved?

But slowly Eliot seemed to emerge from the distant place in his mind, and he glanced up at his family. He let out a deep, ragged sigh, one that came from somewhere dark and deadly inside him.

“Stand up, if you can,” he ground out to Hadan.

The Mongolian frowned, unsure of what was happening, but she struggled to her feet.

Eliot dug around in his pocket and bringing out his earbud, slipped it into his ear.

“Charlie?” he said hoarsely. “Can you hear me??”

Eliot!!! Lizzie yelled, sobbing, Eliot! Are you –

“Charlie??” Eliot cut in, trying to stay focused even as his head throbbed, and he was struggling to keep his mind straight. Much as he desperately wanted to settle Lizzie’s worries, he didn’t have much time left.

Hey, brother … you’re still breathing then? Charlie said carefully even as Lizzie made a little noise of confusion and distress.

“Just about,” Eliot replied, not without humour. “Can you go get that driver you frightened the crap out of? Bring him into the yard?”

Sure, Charlie answered, and Eliot could see in his mind’s eye Charlie’s eyebrows raised in curiosity. Be with you in a minute or two, mate, he added. Anything else?

Eliot wiped the sweat from his brow with his free hand. He was fading fast, and he had decisions to make before he could give in and just pass out.

“Yeah … yeah there is. Can you an’ Parker take the ute and go gather up anybody out there in the bush that’s still alive? Bring ‘em back to the house?”

Awwww, do we have to? Parker pouted, and Eliot had to smile, even though it was a struggle to make his lips carry out the movement.

Dammit, Parker!” he drawled, with no bite at all in his weary voice, “Just do it, will ya?”

Eliot heard Parker take a breath so she could argue more, but he kept going.

“And no, Parker, you can’t use Mister Zappy!” he said with just a hint of a growl.

You’re no fun, Eliot! came the waspish reply, and the whole team sighed with relief at Eliot’s retorts. Their hitter was slowly coming back to them.

But Eliot had one more thing to do.

“’Lizbeth Grace … I’m fine,” he rasped gruffly, “Just fine. Okay? Your momma or daddy will come get you in a little bit an’ you can come back to the house. You an’ Mei an’ the others stay put for now. It’s nearly over.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Lizzie spoke, her voice coming in a stammering whisper.

Okay … Eliot … I … I’m … you’re not hurt?

Eliot sighed, but didn’t reply.

Eliot?? Lizzie repeated, unsure of why Eliot was so hesitant. Are … are you okay? Grandma Jo, is Eliot –

“I’ll see you soon, ‘Lizbeth Grace,” Eliot cut in. “Now, I got more work to do, so leave me be until I’m done, an’ then you can come back. You an’ Kip look after Mei an’ the babies. Promise?” He asked, weary beyond belief.

There was a long pause, and then Lizzie broke the silence between these two people who had been the best of friends since Lizzie came into the world, yelling and bawling and held gently and carefully in Eliot’s deadly hands.

I … I promise.

“Good girl,” Eliot smiled genuinely then, and turned to Hadan. He could barely move, he discovered, but he made his limbs work and he shifted uneasily, trying not to stumble as he leaned down and wrenched the dpa’dam from the red earth.

Hadan glared at him, still fighting in her mind, but there was more than a hint of acceptance in her gaze.

Eliot nodded to himself. She understood.

“I’m not going to kill you,” he forced out, enunciating as clearly as he could even as his voice wavered.

Hadan straightened carefully, and she couldn’t stop a whimper of pain from passing through her lips, and she scowled at her own weakness.

“Why?” she asked, curious now.

Eliot grimaced.

“Because you want to die an’ I ain’t gonna let you, Khenbish.” He took a shallow breath. “You’re not worth it, y’see,” he continued, and his dull blue eyes suddenly sparked with satisfaction. “Because you’re nobody.”

Hadan visibly flinched.

Everyone on the veranda held their breath as Eliot mustered what little energy he had left, and stood strong and proud and triumphant.

“You leave here, an’ you take your sword with you … to remind you you’ll never use it again … at least, not against me an’ mine,” he added. “On your honour,” he finished, and holding the dpa’dam by its damaged blade, he held it out, hilt-first, to Hadan.

Hesitantly, Hadan let go of her wrecked right arm and grasped the hilt with her left hand. But Eliot held the blade tightly for a moment and gazed deep, deep into Hadan’s eyes.

“You maybe nobody,” he said softly, “but you got honour in you. An’ I respect that. So you owe me, Hadan. You owe me a debt you can’t possibly repay, so when you leave here, you leave my people alone. Always. Because if you do come after anyone I care about, I will dishonour you an’ no-one will ever fear you again. Because I’ll put your head on a pole an’ I’ll make damn sure those wore-out boots of yours’re hangin’ from your ears. You understand me?

Hadan paled, but nodded.

From Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, to declare that a woman wore worn-out shoes meant she was a woman of very loose morals, and Eliot knew this would strike hard at the Mongolian’s sense of self. The loss of face, much more than the loss of her head, would make the assassin a laughing stock in a world where reputation, living or dead, was everything - and her reputation as one of the world’s deadliest assassins was Hadan’s only vanity.

Like Eliot, she stood as steadily as she could, and dropped him a formal nod.

“I accept,” she said, clearly and with a tone of finality that Eliot understood. She would keep her word.

Eliot swayed and letting go of the sword blade, he caught the handrail of the veranda to keep himself standing, and it took all of his strength to not show his weakness.

No-one on the veranda moved or said a word. They understood that Eliot had to do this on his own, to show his resilience and tenacity, and to prove his honour. To interfere would have been anathema, and Eliot would have never forgiven them.

So, to show support to a beaten and bloody Oklahoman with a stubborn streak a mile wide and a pride in his work, they stood quiet and still while fretting themselves witless.

“Jo …” Eliot managed to croak out, “do you have somethin’ to stop her arm fallin’ off? A pressure bandage or somethin’ like it?” Eliot’s accent was getting stronger, as it often did when he was exhausted or hurt.

Jo started in surprise, and Effie growled.

“You’re not going to stop that bitch from bleeding to death, are you, Missus?” Effie snarled, but her eyes widened at the look on Jo’s face. “Missus??? She nearly killed our boy –“

Jo glanced at Effie, her face stiff with anger, but she nodded.

“It’s Eliot’s decision, Effie … he knows what he’s doing, so …” Jo ended with an unhappy shrug.

“But –“ Effie wasn’t about to let it go, but Soapy shook his head silently, and Effie settled into a muttering simmer, her shotgun still ready to go if need be.

But Nate understood.

Eliot had long ago tired of killing, and now he had been forced to kill a man not once, but probably twice in one day, if Chong had lost the battle to stay alive, however tenuous that life might be.

At some point in this last, vicious battle he had decided on another solution – to cripple Hadan and make her live with the disgrace and dishonour of it. And Nate could deal with that, he thought.

As Jo disappeared into the house to fetch a bandage, Charlie arrived, walking around the corner of the house with the terrified young aborigine who was Chong’s driver in tow, Charlie’s old boomerang dangling nonchalantly from the station manager’s grasp. In his other hand Charlie held the reins of a sweat-drenched Batu, who ambled along behind him. Gertie was a few steps further back, keeping an eye on both Batu and the driver and grumbling to herself.

“Look what I found!” Charlie called out, grinning. But the grin faded as he saw Eliot’s condition. “Bloody hell, papparti!* I’ve seen better looking corpses, mate!”

Eliot finally allowed himself his own grin, even as he desperately fought to keep upright. To sit down on the steps now would show weakness in front of Hadan.

“Looks worse’n it is,” he answered readily, although everyone, including Eliot, knew it wasn’t true.

Then came the rumble of the old homestead ute as Parker drove it into the yard and brought it to a halt. After turning off the engine, the little thief leapt from the driver’s seat and charged towards Eliot, her eyes wide with worry as she took in his condition.

But Charlie dropped Batu’s reins and caught her around the waist as she ran past, hoisting her back before setting her once more on her feet.

“Let me go, Charlie!!” she hissed, and scowled at the young station manager. But Charlie whispered in her ear and she quieted, nodding reluctantly. “Okay … okay … I get it. But when we’ve found all of those … those drongos, then I can hug Eliot??”

“Yeah … once he’s been patched up, kukkaji**,” Charlie said trying to ease Parker’s worry.

He shoved the driver towards the big truck still parked in front of the shattered gate.

“Wait over there, and don’t move, brother,” he said quietly, and as the young aborigine stumbled over to the truck, Charlie walked forward, once more leading the big roan gelding, and tied Batu’s reins to the veranda rails.

Glancing at Eliot, who nodded his thanks, Charlie stared for long moments at Hadan. When he finally spoke his voice was redolent with menace.

“There is nothing more I would like than to see you dead,” he said. “The man you worked for ordered my wife’s death, and the man you shared your bed with murdered her. They are gone now. I trust my brother … ” he gestured at Eliot, “ … and I trust his wisdom in letting you live. But if you return here … “ and it was only now that Charlie’s voice deepened in grief, “then I will skin you, and your living flesh will be left for the dingoes and the ants to eat.”

And turning on his heel, Charlie headed to the ute, followed by a subdued Parker. Sliding into the passenger seat, he said something to the young woman now seated beside him, and they drove past the truck and the terrified driver and disappeared into the mist-riddled bush.

Jo emerged from the house and ran down the veranda steps. She was holding two large pressure bandages, and stopping in front of Hadan, she gritted her teeth and gestured at the Mongolian’s wound.

Hadan stared at Jo and then at the bandage. Then she swallowed her pride and allowed Jo to strap up her mangled shoulder.

When Jo had almost finished, Hadan studied the small woman and looked into sparking green eyes, seeing the anger in Jo’s every movement.

“Why?” Hadan asked finally. “Why do you help me? I am your enemy. I came here to kill all of you.”

Jo chewed the inside of her cheek as she tied a knot in the strapping, and then glared at Hadan.

“Because Eliot asked me to help you,” she said, her voice shaky with fury. “And because he’s family and he protects us with every inch of his being, we do what we can when he asks us for help. Because that’s what real families do. And because your family let you down, you won’t understand that. Ever.”

Hadan flinched as though she had been slapped. Muscles jumped along her jawline and she had to look away from the intensity of Jo’s gaze.

And then Khenbish Hadan recognised the feeling now crawling through every inch of her body.

She was ashamed.

Jerking her head in thanks, she turned away and limped over to Batu to lean against his sturdy frame for support.

Jo turned to Eliot, the other pressure bandage in her hand.

He squinted at her, his eyes now dazed, but he shook his head to stop her trying to ease the bandage under his torn teeshirt and against the bullet hole in his side.

“Not yet, Jo,” he said faintly so that Hadan couldn’t hear him. “Not yet. Wait until she’s gone. I’ll be fine until then.”

Jo frowned, not amused by his ridiculous pride.

“Eliot … son … this is nonsense –“

“If I don’t move,” he replied and winced as he said it, “I can stand it. I can manage for a little while longer. I’ll be okay.”

Jo stared at him incredulously, but Eliot just winked at her.

“Go take care of Soapy before he leaves blood all over the veranda,” he murmured warmly, and Jo knew he was only staying upright by sheer willpower alone. If she stayed, she thought, she would burst into tears. She jammed the bandage into her pants pocket and scowled.

“Alright, boy. But heaven help you when this is done. Effie’s on the warpath as it is, and she’s going to turn you into rissoles for this!” And then she was gone, trotting up the veranda steps and herding her still-bleeding husband into the house.

The look of hatred on Effie McPhee’s face was a sight to behold as she watched Hadan rest her damaged body by leaning on the patient Batu. But that look melted into distress and worry as she turned watery eyes to Eliot.

She handed the shotgun to Nate and turned to Hardison.

“Now you listen to me, sunbeam – I’m going to help the Missus patch up Mister M, so you look out for that stupid bastard,” she said, glaring at Eliot. “You hear me?? And if he even begins to look wonkier than he already is, you come get me. Understand??”

Hardison had a job dragging his gaze away from Eliot, as if he could keep the hitter upright and conscious simply by staring at him, but he managed to look at Effie.

“Yeah … yeah, Effie … I hear you.” His eyes drifted back to Eliot … to the man standing hanging on to the veranda handrail as though his life depended on it, dirty and bloody and beaten, but also desperate to protect his people. “I’ll watch out for him. I promise.”

“Good lad,” Effie rumbled, and instead of giving Hardison a loving clip across the ear, she patted his cheek. “You’re a bloody credit to your Nana.”

And hobbling into the house, she left Hardison, Sophie and Nate to watch over Eliot and keep an eye on Hadan.

And not one of them moved, knowing Eliot needed to do this on his own.


It took nearly an hour for Parker and Charlie to round up the various damaged bodies littering the vicinity, but with the aid of wire clippers, a hammer and the occasional threatening gesture with Mister Zappy, the two of them returned to the homestead with a groaning pile of injured men sprawled on the flatbed of the ute.

Eliot was still standing by the veranda, hanging on to the handrail of the old wooden steps. His eyes were half-closed as though it was too much effort to keep then open, and he was shaking with the sheer effort of keeping himself on his feet.

Before the ute had even stopped, Charlie was out of the passenger seat and trotting over to Eliot. He jogged to a halt as he studied the hitter, chewing his lip anxiously at Eliot’s condition.

“Eliot … brother … you need a hospital, mate –“

Eliot pried open his eyes and peered at Charlie. The hitter was pale and sweating, and Charlie had no idea how Eliot was even conscious.

“Put … put ‘em in the truck,” Eliot said with effort, ignoring Charlie’s comment, “an’ get the driver to take ‘em to Albany.” He cracked a ghostly grin. “Don’t worry - they won’t talk. Hadan’ll see to that,” he added, glancing at the Mongolian who seemed to be dozing, propped against the horse.

“There’s another truck up by the stringybarks,” Charlie added, eyeing the little assassin. “I, uh … I managed to drag the dead ‘uns over to it and haul ‘em in. If you want ‘em at Albany, somebody can drive the extra truck and I can follow on your bike. Nate, are you up for a night drive?”

“No problem,” Nate said from his place leaning against the doorway into the house, still holding Effie’s shotgun pointed at Hadan. “Jo’ll need Parker here to help with Eliot,” he added, looking at his friend. Watching Eliot over the past hour as the man stood, sick and badly hurt but refusing to give in to it, had almost been too much to bear. “Can we do the whole trip in a night?”

“No probs,” Charlie answered, and then reached out to touch Eliot’s shoulder. “It’s done, papparti” he said. “She can go now … to the Dreaming Land. She’s been avenged.”

Eliot nodded almost imperceptibly, but winced as he did so.

“Yeah. It feels …” he reached for a word and found it. “It feels better.” He glanced at Charlie. “Ryan … can you haul him outta here? And Chong? I got no idea if the bastard’s still alive, but … I just want them away from Wapanjara. Then Hardison can get to work.”

“Parker can take me up to Manaji Point in the morning, Charlie, once El’s cleaned up. I got a lot of stuff to send to lots of people. It’s going to be … interesting,” Hardison explained, a little smugly.

Charlie nodded in agreement.

“No worries. Once I get these dead people away from here, Sophie, could you bring Mei and the kids home? Eliot, Lizzie’s fretting herself silly. You’ve got to straighten out the aggro between you two, mate. Seriously.”

Eliot pried himself away from the handrail and somehow managed to stand unaided.

“Later,” he said, and let out a low, pained grunt as his battered body objected. Before anyone could stop him, he began to make his way over to Chong’s body, three pairs of eyes following every flinching, painful step he took.

Sophie sighed.

“I, ah … I’ll go get Mei and the children now. It won’t take you long to move Ryan and that … that … thing over there, will it?” she said, gesturing at Chong’s body partially hidden by fog.

“Nah. Give me a minute or two and it’ll be done,” Charlie said, feeling better than he had done since Alice’s passing. Somehow he felt he could breathe easier, knowing his beloved wife was free now to go where she needed to go, to move on to the Dreaming Land.

He took a good look at Hadan. The woman was beaten and crippled, but she was still alive. Eliot had let her live. But Charlie understood his brother’s thoughts – Hadan was a message. If she could be defeated, then word would get around that Wapanjara was protected by the best … by Eliot Spencer.

Turning away from the little assassin, Charlie headed off to collect Ryan’s butchered carcass and to remove both Ryan and Chong from Wapanjara, never to return.

Ignoring the groaning men now being moved by Parker into the truck, the young driver wide-eyed but willing to help as long as Charlie didn’t make his bones melt and his flesh rot, Eliot held in the pain and ignored the slickness of oozing blood to stand over Chong Bun-Tsui’s broken body.

Against all the odds, the man was still alive.

A dark, frightened eye stared up at Eliot, tears drying on the dying snakehead’s bruised and broken face. Eliot glanced at the handless wrist, wrapped desperately in a useless sleeve and soaked with blood. Chong didn’t have long to live, Eliot knew. He also knew that his own condition was becoming more and more dangerous … he was very slowly bleeding to death. He knew that now. If the small but steady leak of blood from his body wasn’t halted soon, he would die.

But it would be worth it if his family was safe.

He rested the point of the katana on Chong’s chest as the wreck of a human being tried to speak .

“Don’t bother,” Eliot grated, his voice no louder than a gruff whisper. “You’re dyin’. It won’t be long now, although the longer you hang on the better I like it.” His eyes darkened with menace, and even as Chong’s wordless, shattered mouth tried to make words that would never be uttered, Eliot cocked his head, studying the thing that had once been a powerful, influential and deadly man. “Hey … don’t feel bad, m’man. You couldn’t help bein’ a useless, weak asshole.” The faint humour in Eliot’s voice was at odds with the icy blue eyes boring into Chong’s misbegotten heart. “Yeah … an’ it won’t be long until your daddy follows you, I reckon. Try an’ die well, shithead.” Eliot twitched a smile. “’Bye.”

Eliot turned his back on Chong and limped slowly away.

And as Charlie and the young aborigine grabbed hold of Chong’s blood-sodden clothes and heaved his wrecked and failing body into the truck, he managed a gargle of agony, even as his amputated hand landed beside him, still holding the knife.

Surrounded by his wounded men and Ryan’s corpse, Chong Bun Tsui, snakehead and sole heritor of the Shumchun Triads, stared at the sightless eyes of Derry Ryan and tried to scream.


Eliot wondered if he would even make it back to the veranda steps, but he heard someone move to walk beside him, and he felt Charlie’s hand touch his arm.

“I’m here, papparti,” the young man murmured. “I won’t let you fall.”

Swallowing dryly, Eliot jerked a small nod.

“Thanks, kukkaji,” he grunted, and was about to rest his free hand on Charlie’s shoulder for support when a small, boyish voice shrieked with delight and Charlie suddenly had his arms full of young Christopher Eliot Jakkamarra, the little boy hugging his father now that the danger had passed.

ELIOT!!!” Lizzie ran around the corner of the house, followed by Sophie and Mei carrying the twins, Buster trotting behind them.

Lizzie, wait –“ Sophie called out, but trying to stop Elizabeth Grace Ford from running to her beloved guardian would have been as difficult as stopping a speeding freight train.

Eliot stuttered to a halt, swaying, and Charlie had to use all of his willpower not to reach out a hand to help, even as Kip hung onto his father with both arms.

For a moment Eliot thought Lizzie was going to fling herself at him, and he didn’t know if he could survive the impact. But just in time, Lizzie slid to a standstill beside Eliot. She gazed up at him with horrified brown eyes, taking in the blood and wounds and dirt, but Eliot just hung his head, not looking at Lizzie’s frightened face.

Lizzie saw Eliot’s free hand clench, and stopped herself from reaching out to hold his fingers, as she had done all of her short life. He was still angry with her. But she swallowed her sadness and as Eliot once again began his long, painful walk towards the house, she walked slowly beside him, knowing that even though he was angry he desperately needed her, and she would never abandon him.

Eliot, ashamed and knowing what he really was, was grateful for her care, no matter that she had seen him kill a man like the cold-blooded assassin he was.


Hadan was still waiting beside the house. She had, with some difficulty, untied Batu’s reins and she stood patiently for Eliot and Charlie, with Lizzie in tow and Kip still held tightly by his father, to reach the steps.

For a few moments she studied the two men, one a father and the other a guardian, and nodded. She had made a decision.

She stepped towards Charlie, and Eliot let out a low growl, but Lizzie touched his hand.

“It’s alright, Eliot … it’s fine …” she whispered softly, and Eliot subsided but still watched Hadan as she studied Kip, who stared back with wide black eyes.

“My Rafe killed your mother, and then your horse,” Hadan said bluntly, and Charlie’s eyes darkened, but he said nothing. “My people … when a death is caused by another’s hand, have to pay restitution.”

Now Kip frowned, puzzled. He had no idea what restitution was, but this strange, tiny woman’s eyes were calm.

Hadan held out Batu’s reins and surprised, Kip took them in one hand.

“His name is Batu,” she said. “His name means ‘loyal one’ in my people’s tongue. He is a good horse. I cannot take him where I am going, and he deserves someone who will treat him well. Will you do that? If I give him to you? As a small part of my restitution for your loss? To replace the horse you lost.”

Kip looked at Batu, and then turned to his father, feeling confused.

Charlie smiled sadly at his son. A horse was no replacement for Alice, but dear old Bomber’s loss had been more undeserved grief.

“Well, Kip? Would you like to have Batu? As your own?” he asked his son.

Kip thought about it, and then Batu stretched out his neck and lipped at Kip’s fingers. Kip let loose a tiny smile.

“Yes, please!” He whispered, and rubbed Batu’s soft nose. “Hello, Batu.”

Hadan nodded to herself. She had chosen well.

And without saying another word, she walked stiffly towards the truck and climbed in, not looking back.

Charlie sighed and then set Kip on the ground.

“Dad … Batu looks like he needs some food and water. Can I take him around to Gertie’s paddock and give him a brush and something to eat?”

Charlie let a tired grin slip out.

“He’s your horse, son. He’s your responsibility.”

Kip grinned, but the joy faded from his face as he looked at Eliot.

“Are you going to be alright, Eliot? You look pretty banged up,” he said.

Eliot somehow arranged a twisted smile on his face as he studied Kip.

“I’ll be up and runnin’ before you know it, boy. Go on now – take care of your horse,” he ground out, trying to not look as though he was on the point of keeling over.

As Kip led Batu away, Sophie and Mei watched as Charlie strode back to the truck and pushed up the tailgate. Then the young man turned and shouted to Nate.

“I’ll go get Eliot’s bike, and we can head off. You ready, mate?”

Nate waved an acknowledgement and kissed Sophie on the cheek.

“I’ll be back tomorrow morning. Will you guys be able to take care of –“

“Yes, yes!” Sophie answered brusquely, “Go!” and she returned Nate’s kiss. “We’ll take care of Eliot. Don’t worry,” she muttered under her breath so only he could hear.

And knowing Sophie was as good as her word, Nate hurried into the house and retrieved his jacket, and then headed over to the truck. By the time Charlie had returned riding Eliot’s old Ducati and carrying a spare helmet hung over one handlebar, Nate was ready to go.

Sophie and Mei watched the truck and the Ducati make their way up the foggy incline to the stringybarks where the other truck awaited them. The young Aborigine would then lead the little convoy along the road away from Wapanjara and head to Albany.

Eliot could barely focus. He could make out the shape of the truck, and he could sense Lizzie standing beside him, but not much else other than the throb of pain throughout his body. He tried to take a deep breath and failed.

“Okay, Eliot … let’s get you –“ Sophie began, and still carrying little Jamie she turned to the hitter. “Eliot??”

But Eliot didn’t hear her. He tried to take a few steps, but his legs wouldn’t behave, and he began to falter. Before he knew it he dropped the katana and stumbled, trying to right himself.

The impact as he hit the ground drove what little breath he had from his lungs, and the last thing he remembered was a pair of small hands cradling his head and a little voice yelling in the distance.

ELIOT!! Mama - Mama, help him!! Eliot’s dying!!” Lizzie cried.

And then Eliot faded into oblivion.

 

To be continued …


* Papparti Warumungu word for ‘big brother’ or ‘older brother.’

* Kukkaji Warumungu word for ‘little/younger brother’ or ‘little/younger sister’. The word is used for either gender, which is highly unusual in Aboriginal languages where people are defined by strong familial ties.

Chapter Text


No, Eliot … you can’t die … you can’t …” Lizzie whispered, keeping up a litany of desperate words as she lifted Eliot’s head onto her lap, trying to make him understand that she was with him and that she would not let him die because he was her Eliot … her guardian, her protector and her best friend. But he did not answer her, lost as he was in a world of distant voices and long-dead faces.

Even as Hardison tumbled in a flurry of arms and legs down the veranda steps to drop down beside Lizzie, Sophie stared in horror at Eliot’s sudden collapse. She had an armful of baby, and Eliot needed her … and her daughter was a weeping wreck, cradling Eliot’s head in her lap, patting his sweat-soaked hair and stroking his bruised and bloodied face.

“Here!” Mei whispered urgently, “Give Jamie to me – I go to Papa Soapy and he will care for them while I get help!”

Sophie took Mei at her word. The young girl managed to hold both babies, and she tripped lightly up the steps and into the house, calling for Soapy and Jo because the cowboy was dying and needed them.

Sophie dropped down in the dust on the other side of Eliot while Hardison checked his best friend’s pulse, and he nodded tightly.

“His heart’s runnin’ like the favourite for the Kentucky Derby,” he said, and his eyes fixed on Eliot’s wounds, trying to figure out where the culprit was – there was a bleeder somewhere.

Hardison knew enough about injuries, especially after hanging around Eliot for years, to look for the not-so-obvious. Eliot’s wounds were mostly superficial, bloody and painful, but most were clotting. Hardison’s main worries were the bullet holes in his side, or … he swallowed dryly … maybe Eliot was bleeding internally. Given the running battle he had been involved in and the damage he had taken, there was a serious possibility that Eliot’s rib had done something terrible inside the hitter’s sturdy body.

He heard the clatter of footsteps as Jo and Mei crowded down the steps even as he gently ran long fingers over Eliot’s bloody side. Pulling up what was left of the torn teeshirt, Hardison could see that the older bullet wound had bled. There were fresh stains, and the heavy bandaging was spongy with blood, but it didn’t appear to be bleeding right now. Frowning, he slid his hand upwards to the second wound, the tear through the pectoral muscle and the groove along Eliot’s side under his arm.

The hacker’s face became grim.

“Hey, baby-girl,” he said, touching Lizzie’s shoulder, “c’mon now … Eliot needs your help. I think I found where he’s losin’ blood, an’ I need you to help your Momma an’ I turn him a little. D’you think you can help us do that?”

Lizzie turned reddened, teary eyes to Hardison and stopped her whimpered words of grief. She nodded, even as the hiccupping sobs racked her frame.

“What … what can I do?” she asked softly, her hands still trying to sooth her unconscious guardian as he lay sprawled on the red earth.

Hardison smiled at her, trying to reassure her.

“You jus’ tell him what we’re doin’, okay? That we’re gonna stop the bleedin’ and get him all patched up.”

“But … but he can’t hear me – “ Lizzie whispered, not daring to hope that Eliot could be whole again.

“He can hear you, Lizzie …” Sophie was urgently checking out Eliot’s other side. “Eliot will always hear you, my darling, even though you think he can’t.” She pulled up Eliot’s tee on the other side and checked the nick in his flank. It was bloody, but not life-threatening. “He’s seems to be alright this side … mostly,” she said as Jo kneeled beside Hardison.

Jo noted the sheen of sweat on Eliot’s skin and the thud of his pulse as Lizzie tenderly held his head. Here we go again, she thought. Why does he do this? Why does he always have to put himself in the way of harm? And even as she thought it, she knew why. This was what Eliot did for the people he loved.

“Lizzie, sweetheart,” Jo said, all business now, “you have to lay his head flat on the ground.” She pulled out the pressure bandage she still carried in her pocket and as Lizzie very carefully slipped Eliot’s head from her lap and onto the dusty earth, Hardison and Sophie gently eased Eliot onto his right side, and there it was. Underneath the torn and bloody teeshirt was a small, inconsequential-looking hole in the muscle, through-and-through, and as Eliot was moved dark, venous blood pulsed slightly from both parts of the wound.

“Damn … every time he moved he lost blood … no wonder he’s compromised,” Jo muttered as she unfolded the bandage and pressed it hard against the wound. “The bullet must’ve nicked a vein.” She looked up at Sophie, Hardison and Mei. “He … he needs to go to hospital.”

Sophie leaned over and helped Jo put pressure on the wound, and Lizzie stroked Eliot’s cheek, whispering to him in words no-one could hear. But Lizzie knew in her heart that Eliot could hear her, unconscious as he was.

Sophie’s dark eyes glistened, but she had to ask Jo one thing.

“Jo … if we call the flying doctors … will he make it to the nearest hospital?”

Jo glanced at Lizzie as the little girl did her best to tell Eliot he was loved and she would take care of him. She shook her head.

“No,” she murmured. “The nearest RFDS* base is Alice Springs, and we’d have to get him to Tennant Creek to be picked up – either we could take him or we’d call in the emergency services from the hospital there. It’s a 2-hour drive each way, and although they’ve got acute beds … well, Eliot would never make it, no matter how we got him there.” She chewed her lip as she checked the bleeding. It was slowing, but the leak from the nicked vein would begin again if Eliot moved. In two hours he could be dead.

“Can you fix this?” Hardison ground out as he watched Lizzie.

Jo’s green eyes widened.

“I … I don’t know … he needs oxygen right now, and whole blood … maybe plasma … we have none of those things and I don’t even know Eliot’s blood type –“

“A-positive,” Parker snapped as she joined them, jogging around the side of the house from the barn after putting away the ute. “Eliot’s A-positive.” She saw the surprise in the faces around her. “What? D’you think Eliot would put an emergency medikit together and not include a list of everyone’s blood type??”

Hardison’s smile was grim.

“Figures.” He touched Lizzie’s shoulder once again and the little girl looked up at him, wide-eyed.

“Is he going to be alright, Alec? Grandma Jo? Can you fix him like you did before?” She asked, hope in every word.

Jo swallowed.

“I have to try, don’t I? But supplies – I don’t have -“

Parker grinned, worried as she was.

“Oxygen bottles and mask coming up, plus we carry five units of FFP in Oggie,” she added. “We’d have to defrost it though.” She sobered a little. “I don’t know how to do any of this … this … blood thing. Eliot’s the one who knows.”

“Well, babe,” Hardison said softly, “when we’ve got the fool through this little escapade, we need to all damn well learn how to use all of this stuff he’s got. Dammit, he’s the one who usually uses the medikit the most, so … “

“Missus!!” Effie rumbled urgently from the veranda. “The table’s cleaned and ready. Let’s get the idiot stitched up, hey??”

It took a moment to figure out how they would lift Eliot as gently as possible and keep pressure on the wound, but with Jo and Parker taking the brunt of Eliot’s solid weight as he was carried on his side, Hardison with his good arm around Eliot’s legs and Mei tending to the wound, they managed it. Lizzie, with a maturity that both worried and impressed her mother, supported Eliot’s lolling head while walking backwards up the steps, along the verandah and into the house, talking to him every inch of the way as she studied his pale, sweat-drenched features.

Effie already had cushions ready to go, the kettle and a couple of big pots sitting on the stove heating water and a supply of clean towels to hand. Before Eliot was even settled properly on the old oak table, Lizzie had positioned a cushion under his head and pulled up a stool to sit beside him.

Parker was gone in a moment, tugging Mei with her, and both young women appeared again just as Jo, heart in mouth, began to cut off Eliot’s teeshirt so she could deal with the still-bleeding wound.

All Hardison could see of Mei was a pair of legs peeking out from beneath an armful of equipment. Considering the young woman, already in poor condition, had given birth only days earlier, she was bouncing back with alacrity.

Parker dragged in a sturdy rectangular container and with Hardison’s help she lifted it onto the nearest kitchen surface. Unclipping the lid, she pulled out a small oxygen tank and quickly fitted a regulator and mask. Mei was busy sorting through the collection of tubes and sterile packs and containers she had brought in and she suddenly let out a squeak of excitement

“Look!” she said, holding up a grey vacuum-sealed package with the words ‘FIELD BLOOD TRANSFUSION KIT’ stamped on it. “Will this help?”

Jo, peeling back the teeshirt and wincing at the sluggish bleeding still coming from the injury under Eliot’s arm, raised an eyebrow. She noticed another, smaller label which read ‘TACTICAL MEDICAL MODULE.’ How the hell Eliot had got hold of military-issue transfusion kits, she had no idea, but she thanked God for his forethought.

“Perfect!” she said with feeling, “how many are there?”

Mei rummaged in the bag she held. “Four,” she said. “Is that enough?”

Jo nodded.

“I think so … it depends if any of you are O-Neg -“

“I am,” Effie said quietly as she watched Parker and Lizzie fit the oxygen mask over Eliot’s nose and mouth and adjust the regulator. “Universal donor, that’s me.” She added, and rolled up her sleeve.

Parker seated the oxygen tank on another stool beside Lizzie, and nodded with satisfaction as she heard the sudden hiss of the regulator helping feed the gas to Eliot’s depleted system and support his vital organs. Without it, Eliot would become even more seriously compromised.

“Listen, Lizzie,” she said, and the little girl regarded Parker intently. “You have to make sure Eliot keeps this mask on, especially if he wakes up. It’s really helping him right now, so can I leave you in charge? It should last an hour or so, but we have more, so he’ll be okay for a little while.”

Lizzie gently pushed a damp curl of Eliot’s hair back from the wound alongside his ear and made sure the elasticated band didn’t irritate the damaged flesh.

“Will this make him better?” she asked tremulously.

“Indeed it will, young Lizzie,” Jo said with a little more confidence now that there was at least a chance she could help Eliot. “He’s lost a lot of blood, which carries oxygen which helps his body work properly, so … the mask will do the work his blood usually does, and it will help him feel better,” she explained, trying to make it simple for Lizzie to comprehend.

Lizzie’s face cleared as she understood, and listening for a moment, she smiled.

“I can hear him breathing,” she said, relieved, as she saw the mask fog up as Eliot took the life-giving oxygen into his lungs and thence into his bloodstream.

“You just make sure he keeps doing that then,” Jo said as she scrubbed her hands with the medical soap and hot water Effie had provided, and then she slipped on a pair of nitrile gloves. She looked up to see Sophie and Hardison also rolling up their sleeves.

“O-neg??” she asked, relieved.

“Indeed we are,” Sophie replied. “Maybe Eliot’ll develop a few less-growly traits with some healthy British blood flowing through those punchy veins,” she continued affectionately, resting a hand on Eliot’s hip.

“Yeah, well,” Hardison said, “I reckon he just might get a likin’ for gummy frogs, the philistine, an’ maybe figure out that there’s more’n one way to reboot a computer other than just kickin’ it.” He shrugged painfully. “Some computer-y genius blood comin’ your way, bro,” he added, patting Eliot’s boot.

“Right … let’s see …” Jo said to herself, and unpacked a selection of vacuum-packed sterilised scalpels and forceps … “Parker … we’ll need saline … hang the bag higher than Eliot … and open up one of those transfusion packs. Effie … can you pour some water into a bowl and it has to be 45 degrees. I want two bags of FFP defrosting in there, and if you could gently scrunch them about a bit every now and again, that would be great. If we could get some blood and saline in him, it would help no end while I try and sort out this dratted bleed.”

Jo was once more the experienced nurse she had been for over thirty years, and she still treated the stockmen for injuries and illness. She had delivered countless babies, and had sat beside people during their last moments, her quiet words and smiles and gentle touches easing their passing. She had done her time in emergency and trauma care, and had even done a stint as a theatre nurse. Now she used all of that experience and skill to try and stop Eliot Spencer from bleeding to death.

“How’s he doing, old girl?” a voice came from the kitchen doorway.

Jo glanced up to see Soapy leaning carefully against the door frame, right arm heavily bandaged and supported by a sling. Her husband’s dark eyes were shining with desperation and worry.

“He’s alive, love, and we’re working to keep him that way.” Jo gestured at Sophie and pushed her down in a chair. She had Sophie rest her left arm on a cushion on Effie’s chopping-board, and then she quickly tightened a constriction band around the grifter’s biceps. Within a few seconds she had swabbed the inside of Sophie’s elbow, inserted a collection needle and blood began to flow into the sealed bag hung from a cabinet handle near her knee. Gravity and Sophie’s beating heart did the rest.

“The babes are asleep. Can I do anything?” Soapy continued, feeling a little useless.

Jo smiled at the love of her life, and then gestured to Hardison and Parker to turn Eliot onto his less damaged side. As they eased him over Lizzie made sure Eliot’s oxygen mask didn’t shift, and then stroked his cheek, letting him know she was there.

“Sit down, be quiet and behave yourself,” Jo said to Soapy and then she winced as blood pulsed from Eliot’s wound, soaking the heavy gauze pad she pressed over the injury. “I have to get this damned bleeding stopped,” she muttered as Mei handed her another pad as the first quickly became sodden with blood.

“’Liz … ‘Lizbeth Grace …” the voice was weak, but it was a very welcome sound as it made its way past the oxygen mask.

Lizzie’s gaze widened with delight as a pair of hazy blue eyes tried to focus on her face.

“Eliot!! Eliot, you’re awake! You’re not dying!!!” She breathed, and she laid a hand on his brow. He didn’t seem quite so clammy and pale. “No!! No, don’t do that!” she cried softly as Eliot lifted a shaky hand to remove the mask. “You can’t! It’s helping your blood get better!”

Eliot closed his eyes and then opened them again with the greatest of effort.

“Mouth’s dry …” he croaked, “thirsty …”

“Wait a sec, nipper … I’ll have something for him to drink in a minute …” Effie mumbled, reaching for a glass.

Soapy managed to drag out another stool and sat down right beside Lizzie, and when Effie handed the little girl a cup half-full of iced water complete with straw, he helped her with his good hand to ease Eliot’s mask down just for a moment or two as the hitter swallowed a couple of mouthfuls of the water, his Adam’s apple working as the cool fluid helped his parched throat.

When he had had enough Effie took the glass, and Lizzie very conscientiously replaced the mask and leaned forward, kissing Eliot’s nose as she had done since she was a baby. His eyes crinkled in a tiny Lizzie-smile.

“You have to be still now,” she said, so gently that Eliot almost didn’t hear her. “Grandma Jo has to stop some bleeding and Mama’s going to give you some of her blood so you’ll get better. So don’t move, Eliot. Promise?”

Eliot gazed at his god-daughter as though she was the only thing anchoring him to this world.

“You … you should go, ‘Lizbeth Grace …” he ground out as her dark eyes studied him. He frowned, even as Jo applied lidocaine spray to the wound. She needed to make a small incision to get at the nicked vein and stitch it, and she didn’t want Eliot flinching, which could be disastrous. “Go get some rest. I don’t need you coddlin’ me.”

Lizzie stroked Eliot’s cheek and frowned back. He was still mad at her, she could tell.

“Actually, right now Lizzie, it would be a good idea.” Jo said. “We need access to Eliot’s arm and hang saline and the blood bag beside him sweetie, and it’s getting a bit cluttered in here. You can come back and see him when we’ve finished, alright?”

Lizzie stared at Jo and then turned teary eyes to Sophie.

“Mama? Do I have to?” her voice wavered. “Eliot needs me –“

Sophie, watching the bag attached to her arm fill with her life-blood, the blood that would keep Eliot with them, and nodded.

“This time, darling, you have to go. As soon as he’s feeling better and we’ve finished getting fluids into him, you can take care of him, I promise. Soapy … could you …???”

Sophie let the question hang, and Soapy, sore as hell and very tired, stood up and held out his good hand.

“C’mon, Lizzie – let’s go and check on the babes and see if Kip’s finished feeding his horse. Then we’ll find a book to read until you can see Eliot again.”

Lizzie, surrounded by adults trying to save her Eliot’s life, knew when she was beaten. Her eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t object. Perhaps Eliot didn’t want her there because she had let him down by doing something dumb. She squeezed his hand, but there was no response. His eyes were closed and he looked desperately ill, and she saw out of the corner of her eye Jo swabbing betadine around the bleeding wound.

Parker was busy checking the blood bag volume and then clamping off the line. Within seconds Sophie was disconnected and her arm taped up with a gauze pad, and the blood was ready.

“Okay, Lizzie – scoot!” Parker said, waving the child out of the way. She glanced at Jo. “Wide-ass open, right?” she asked Jo, who nodded.

“Yes please,” Jo replied. “We need the blood in Eliot as quickly as possible, so don’t worry about the valve – wide-ass open would be perfect!” she continued with a smile. She could hear Eliot’s voice echo in Parker’s … the words of a man trained in the field to keep his comrades alive.

Mei was busy hanging a bag of saline and Hardison was taking off Eliot’s boots, ready to get the hitter stripped down so Jo could clean the rest of him up. Effie was standing by with hot water and a cloth to wash blood and dirt off the man’s battered frame.

Her Mama was right, Lizzie thought. She had to go. She was in the way, and if she was in the way she could endanger Eliot. She reached out and took Soapy’s hand, and the two of them slipped silently from the kitchen where Eliot lay on the table, hovering somewhere between life and death.

“Righto,” Jo said. “Let’s do this.”

And with Parker and Mei setting up transfusion lines under Jo’s direction, Hardison breaking open another field transfusion kit so that he could give his brother some gummy-frog-infused blood and Sophie drinking a restorative tea while keeping an eye on the defrosting plasma, Eliot lay quietly as they all did their best to save his life.


In the end, it took sixty-eight stitches, three units of whole blood and two packs of plasma to at least restore Eliot’s abused body to a place where he had a reasonably good chance of surviving the night.

For Lizzie, those couple of hours felt like a lifetime.

Kip joined them after removing Batu’s old saddle and giving the gelding a good brush to get rid of dried sweat. He had cooled down enough to have a drink, and then Kip walked him over to the barn and settled the big roan into a stable, giving him hay and a feed. Batu had a good roll in the straw, shook himself and then tucked into the bran mix with gusto.

But Kip wasn’t in such a good mood when he found out Eliot had collapsed and was in a bad way. He snuggled, teary-eyed, next to his grandfather on the couch as Soapy, with a weepy Lizzie carefully propping up his shoulder with the remaining cushions, worked his way through a lifetime’s collection of photographs in old albums. He had discovered both Lizzie and Kip were fascinated with them. They saw Wapanjara as it was almost a century ago, when it took over two weeks by bullock-cart to bring supplies to the station.

“That’s my great, great grandmother,” he said, pointing to an old, creased photograph of an austere, bearded man in his Sunday best posing with a tiny, dark woman looking uncomfortable in her corsets and leather boots. Intelligent black eyes peered at the children from the past, and Kip, feeling a little better, ran a small finger over the picture.

“She’s Walpiri … like my mum.”

“Her name was Lily,” Soapy said. “It’s not really properly respectful to have a photo of her, but … she’s my great-great-gran, and I admire her a lot. She could shear a sheep better than most, and my grandfather said she was the best rider he had ever seen, even when she was in her eighties.” He sighed. “I’m lucky to have a picture of them, really,” he said softly.

“Why?” Lizzie asked with curiosity.

“Well,” Soapy said, trying to make the explanation as easy as possible for the children to understand. “Back then, white people didn’t really marry black people, let alone have their photo taken,” he said. Keep it simple, he thought. “But they loved each other a lot and they didn’t care.”

“You and Grandma Jo,” Kip said, “you love each other an awful lot!”

“Indeed we do, nipper,” Soapy smiled. “An awful, awful lot!”

But Lizzie was confused.

“But … but why weren’t they supposed to get married?” she asked.

Soapy realised he had probably backed himself into a corner on this one, but he seized the day and ploughed on.

“Well … back then, white people thought aborigines were not the same as them. Because they lived in the bush and not in houses, they were too different … too difficult to understand … and, to be honest, they didn’t make any effort to understand them.” Soapy thought trying to explain about genocide and bigotry and child abduction was something he didn’t want to get into right now, so he focused on the photograph. “But great-great Grandpa Chester,” he pointed at the austere, bearded man in the picture, “he and Lily adored one another. He became a member of the tribe, and they were married for over fifty years.”

Lizzie studied the picture carefully. It was then she realised that Soapy’s dark, expressive eyes were staring back at her from the image, and it made her smile. If Soapy had great-great-Grandma Lily’s black eyes, then she was probably like Soapy, and Lizzie decided she would have liked this pioneering Aboriginal woman who had flouted both races’ rules and married the man she loved.

“It’s done,” said Jo, standing in the living room doorway. She had Eliot’s blood on her shirt and she looked very, very tired, but there was a gleam of triumph in her green eyes. “We’ll just get him to bed and then you can see him. But listen, children … you can’t tire him. He’s lost a lot of blood, and he has stitches all over the place, so be very, very careful, okay? And don’t keep him talking, even if he wants to.”

Lizzie stared at Jo for a moment, then flew off the couch and flung herself at Jo, wrapping arms around the small woman’s waist.

“You saved him, Grandma Jo …” she whispered, her face buried in Jo’s bloodstained shirt. “You’re awesome.”

Jo tousled Lizzie’s curls, and Kip wriggled off the couch and stumbled with weariness as he joined Lizzie.

“Is Eliot going to be alright?” he asked, knuckling sleepiness from his eyes. “He’s not going to –“

“He’s badly hurt, but I think, with care, he’ll come back to us,” Jo said quietly. She was exhausted. “Lizzie, your Mum gave Eliot some of her blood, and she’s a bit tired because she gave a little more than she should, so don’t give her any grief, you hear me?”

Lizzie peeled herself away from Jo’s side and nodded. Her mother was very brave indeed, she decided. She took a deep breath and tried to calm her heart. She heard voices and peered around Jo to see Effie, a gauze pad over the hollow of her elbow, lead the way as Parker and Mei very gently helped a semi-awake Eliot shuffle slowly from the kitchen to his bedroom.

Lizzie let out a soft sob.

Eliot’s chest, shoulder and ribs were a mass of bandages, and she could see a taped dressing peeking above the waist of his light sweat pants. Every step was costing him immense pain, and Hardison carried a bag of plasma which was attached by a line to a cannula taped to the back of his hand. He held it as high as he could.

Jo followed Lizzie’s gaze and pried herself away from the children.

“Give me ten minutes, Soapy love, and then you can bring the children through … if you feel able. Don’t overdo it, you hear me?” she scolded the old pastoralist. Jo had a houseful of damaged people to look after, and she didn’t know if she had the strength to do it all.

“I’ll be just fine, Jo love, but you need to get some rest. You look a bit bung, to be honest. Can Parker take over for a bit?” Soapy replied, seeing how worn out Jo was.

Jo smiled wearily.

“In a while. I’ll just make sure Eliot’s resting properly and that his stitches are holding, and then I might take a nap until Charlie and Nate get back.”

“We can take care of him, Grandma Jo!” Lizzie said eagerly, but Jo shook her head.

“Not this time, nippers,” she replied, and as Lizzie’s face dropped she tried to explain the situation. “This isn’t just watching over him and taking temps this time, young lady. He’s very, very ill and he needs rest more than anything. If he feels as though he has to keep an eye on you two it could make him worse. He’s got to make more blood to replace the pints he lost, and he needs complete rest to do that.”

Kip and Lizzie exchanged looks.

“So … I could look after Grandpa Soapy and the babies and Lizzie can take care of Eliot?” Kip asked, eyes wide with eagerness.

“ … and I could just stay in my chair and help get stuff for Eliot and just make sure he’s not moving. Could I do that? If I was really, really quiet?” Lizzie asked desperately.

Jo sighed. She was too tired to battle these two children who were determined to do their bit to take care of their family.

“Okay … okay! I give up!” Jo saw Eliot through the doorway of his bedroom being so very carefully helped into his bed, and Parker suspended the plasma bag from Eliot’s coat stand which she had moved beside the bed. Eliot lay back on a mountain of pillows, and Mei fitted a new oxygen mask over his face and attached a fresh bottle.

Effie stumped wearily back to the kitchen, grumbling to herself.

“Kip … go to Effie and ask her to fill some hot water bottles. Then you give two to Grandpa Soapy for his shoulder. Lizzie, you’ll need two more for Eliot. He’s cold because of the blood loss. Now don’t upset Effie – she gave Eliot some blood too, and so did Alec. We’re all very tired and we have a long night ahead of us, so try not to get in the way. Effie’s going to make up milk for Jamie and Rose, and they’ll need feeding and changing.“ Jo wiped her face with a shaky hand and yawned.

“Righto!” Kip said, and he grabbed Lizzie by her arm and pulled her after him into the kitchen, where Jo heard Effie’s rumbling complaints as she put yet more water on to boil.

Soapy patted the couch seat beside him.

“C’mon, old girl … sit down for a minute. You’re done in.”

Jo saw the concern on Soapy’s drawn face, and knew he was very sore and stiff, and other than to patch him up, he had had none of her attention. Guilt suddenly consumed her, and she blinked back tears.

“Oh Soapy … I’m so sorry!” she hiccupped, and dropped down beside him where his good arm held her close, and she could hear the beating of his heart as she laid her head on his chest.

She burst into tears.

Soapy rested his chin on her head, and patted her shoulder.

“No worries, old girl …” he murmured, “it’s all over now, and you’ve brought our boy back to us, and the kids are safe. Just sit there for a bit and get your breath back.”

And holding his adored wife close to his heart, Soapy Munro thanked God that his Jo was an abso-bloody-lute wonder.


Lizzie followed Kip into the kitchen and was about to give Effie a hug for letting Eliot have lots of her blood to make him better, when she caught sight of the big kitchen table. She gasped. Effie hadn’t had time to clean up the aftermath of dealing with an Eliot Spencer on the point of bleeding to death, and Lizzie’s eyes became round with horror as she looked at the mess.

Blood-sodden pads littered the floor and discarded blood-bags and tubing had been dumped in a large plastic bag by the window. But it was the table that shocked her to the core. There was blood everywhere. She knew that Eliot had a dozen or so wounds from tiny nicks to the two bullet wounds in his left side, but she had not quite grasped the physical evidence that constituted blood loss.

That was all Eliot’s blood.

“Don’t worry, nipper,” Effie said as she caught Lizzie’s shocked gaze, “we put plenty of the stuff back into him. He’s a bit bloody useless right now, but give him time. He’ll do alright. Here,” she continued, “hot water bottles. He’s bloomin’ cold. It happens when you lose a lot of blood, so don’t worry. Missy’ll tell you where he needs ‘em. I’ll be by in a bit with some hot chocolate. How does that sound?”

Kip had come to stand beside Lizzie, and joined her in gazing at the discarded bandages and red-stained table.

“Crikey!” he said under his breath.

But both children had jobs to do and Effie had babbies to feed so she shooed them out of the kitchen. Kip ran back to the living room to take care of his beloved Grandpa Soapy, and Lizzie headed for Eliot’s room.

But just as she reached the open door, she hesitated for a moment. She could hear gentle words of comfort from Mei and Hardison and Parker were discussing who should take the first watch. She wondered if Eliot was awake, and if so, was he still angry with her? She knew she had done an unforgiveable thing. She could have got hurt and Eliot would never have forgiven himself. And had her sudden appearance got Eliot hurt? What if it was her fault that he was so badly injured? Would he ever forgive her??

But he needed the heat right now, she knew, so taking a deep breath she quietly entered the room.

Eliot looked like a ghost. Dreadfully pale under the tan, he lay on his back, eyes closed and breathing the oxygen which has initially saved his life. One arm lay outside the warm blankets, and Lizzie saw the steady drip-drip of the plasma through the valve and into Eliot’s system via the cannula.

She handed the hot water bottles to Parker, who smiled at her reassuringly. But then, Parker didn’t know what Lizzie had done … that Lizzie had caused all of this damage to her best friend.

She desperately wanted to hold Eliot’s hand and make sure he knew she was there taking care of him, but she didn’t want to disturb him. Besides, what if he rejected her? What if he didn’t want her holding his fingers?

Lizzie didn’t think she could cope with that right now. So, she flung herself into the big old chair beside his bed, tucked her knees under her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. She would wait and watch and hope Eliot Spencer lived.

And Eliot, now caught in the nightmares of a disturbed and uneasy sleep, missed his best girl, and for the first time in a long time, he felt utterly alone.


It was past midnight as the two trucks got within twenty miles of the homestead at Albany Mining Company.

Nate studied Khenbish Hadan by the lights of the dashboard as she sat beside him, and saw her gamin face set into grim lines. He wondered what the tiny assassin was thinking. But, Nate thought, she had given her word and Eliot had believed her, so he had to trust the team’s hitter. Hadan would do them no harm.

So he concentrated on the dusty dirt road ahead of them and shifted up a gear.

Hadan, clutching her sword and leaning against the window, peered out at the darkness. They would be at the mine soon. She thought through what she had planned next, and nodded imperceptibly. Before she could leave this place she had one more job to do, and she would carry it out once Nate Ford and Charlie Jakkamarra had left. She had a driver she could use, and the two trucks. Yes, she thought. They would do. They would do very well indeed.

And closing her eyes, she settled down to wait.

 

To be continued …


* RFDS – the wonderful Royal Flying Doctor Service.

 

Chapter Text


Eliot had never seen Wapanjara so deserted. The day was gloomy with clouds that were dark and constant, and the silence was unnerving. Not even the magpies wittered and fluted in the almond stand as he walked down the incline from the stringybarks at the top of the hill, his shoes kicking up dank, red dust.

As he carefully strode through the open gate of the homestead, there was no welcome from the three heelers, no chopping barks or wagging tails or a daft Dopey leaping about like an idiot.

Where the hell were the dogs?

Looking to his right he tried to see if the ute was parked in the entrance of the barn. Yep. There it was. So … everyone was here, but he just couldn’t see them yet. A glance to the gate of the nearby paddock took him aback slightly. Gertie would have noticed him by now and would be hanging over the gate, honking and flapping her lip in delight, Bomber close behind, swishing his tail patiently. But no Gertie, which was odd … and Bomber was dead, wasn’t he? At least that was what Eliot remembered.

He frowned, puzzled. He didn’t like being puzzled.

Bernadette and Oggie still sat in the yard, but the trailer’s awning was torn, flapping in a breeze Eliot couldn’t feel.

He ran his fingers through his hair, and encountered a neat, expensive haircut, short and practical as befitted the work he did. He looked down at his arms and saw he was dressed in one of his favourite suits, made by a very exclusive bespoke tailor in Savile Row. Eliot, a man best at home in Henley shirts, boots and a beanie, liked to dress well if need be, and the suit was understated and beautifully cut. Damien Moreau moved in exclusive circles, and therefore so did Eliot. He did ‘well-dressed knucklehead’ very skilfully indeed, which had cost many, many people their lives when they didn’t see the highly intelligent, very deadly man beneath the easy smile and charming blue eyes.

Huh.

He looked up at the veranda.

Jo’s crossword lay unfinished on the table, and Soapy’s stock whip lay unfurled on Eliot’s recliner chair by the door. A tray set with tea and lamingtons sat beside the crossword puzzle, but Eliot was suddenly aware of the sound of buzzing flies. The lamingtons were blue with mould, and now there was a creeping, ever-increasing odour of decay and rotting flesh.

Looking up at the water tower he saw the remains of a deckchair and sun umbrella, and the cooler box beside the chair swarmed with bluebottles.

Something moved.

At last, Eliot thought, and strode over to Gertie’s paddock, a smile on his face. So that’s where the dumb-ass camel was, but his smile faded as he saw something standing under the ancient mulga tree in the paddock.

It was Moke, the old brown mare who had been Gertie’s constant companion until her death of extreme old age two years ago. Moke let loose a soft nicker of welcome, but the quiver of her nostrils shook free the maggots feasting on her decaying flesh. She was swarming with them, Eliot realised, and he stepped back in shock as Moke ambled shakily on bone-bare legs towards him, peering at him through empty eye sockets.

What the hell??

“Good job, Eliot!” a voice said, and he turned. A handsome, smiling face greeted him.

Moreau. Moreau was here, at Wapanjara. At his home.

“Damien,” Eliot replied, and his eyes narrowed. He had no idea what was going on, but maybe … maybe his old boss would have some answers, even if Eliot had to squeeze his throat a few times to make him come clean. Why here … why Wapanjara? And where the hell were his team and his family?

“Job?” Eliot asked, keeping his body attuned to the moment. He couldn’t let his guard down … not with his people missing. “And what job would that be?”

Moreau smirked and raised an eyebrow.

“Coming here … making them trust you … and then clearing the way for me. You know I want this place as my base of operations in northern Australia.”

But that doesn’t make sense, Eliot thought. Damien Moreau would no more want to base his business at remote Wapanjara than in Antarctica. He was a man of the city, of urbanity and tall buildings made of glass and evenings at the opera. Not red dust and poor communications and bad roads.

Moreau smiled, his eyes crinkling in good humour.

“Besides,” he continued, “it was a little bit of a test … you know the kind of thing … just for fun. I suppose you’ve heard the story about the Waffen SS during the Second World War? The one about every young officer being given a cuddly little puppy when they began training? And they looked after it … fed it, trained it … allowed it to become a companion until their last day of training, when their commanding officer told them to kill their dogs, and if they didn’t, they failed their training?”

Eliot said nothing, but a feeling of utter dread began to settle in his heart.

Moreau waved a hand dismissively.

“A myth, of course. But I was curious to see if it could be done.” His smile widened, dark eyes sparking with amusement. “And, Eliot, my loyal, deadly right-hand man, you passed the test with flying colours. Well … almost.”

Eliot felt something in his hands and he looked down at them. The horror was almost a physical blow. His hands were blood to the elbows, fresh and bright, soaking into the beautiful cashmere wool suit and dripping from his fingers. His right hand held his old Ka-Bar knife, and in his left … dear God, what had he done?? His left hand held a beautiful, bloody plait of hair, blonde and glimmering in the dull air. Eliot knew then it was Parker’s.

But when he looked up again, his tear-ridden blue eyes seeking out Moreau, he realised the man wasn’t alone.

Lizzie stood beside him, holding Moreau’s hand. She lifted her free hand and waved happily at Eliot.

Moreau let go of Lizzie’s hand and used it to ruffle the child’s dark, curly hair. Then he touched her shoulder, urging her towards Eliot. Lizzie grinned up at Moreau, and set off, walking cheerfully towards Eliot, who just watched, disbelieving, as the horror began to descend into true nightmare.

Moreau turned his benign visage on Eliot.

“Just one more to go, my friend. One more, and then you will be back in the fold as though you had never left. A stray lamb, coming back to the shepherd. She’s all yours. Kill her.”

Eliot dropped the plait of hair and the knife.

He realised he was shaking so badly he could hardly move, but he had to save Lizzie. No matter what he had done … and he knew now he had betrayed and destroyed the only true family he had ever had … he could not allow Lizzie to walk into danger.

Lizbeth Grace!!” he yelled, desperation rife in every word, “Git!! Go on!! Go into the house an’ I’ll take care of Moreau!!

Lizzie just kept coming, her dark eyes never wavering as she gazed at her blood-soaked guardian … the man who was her best friend in the whole world and who had just murdered her family.

Moreau cocked his head.

“Aww,” he said, “’Lizbeth Grace’. So very cute. And I’m not denying she’s a little sweetheart, as children go. But … she needs to die, Eliot. You know she does. So be a good boy and slit her throat for me, will you??”

Eliot snarled and his eyes blazed. He leaned down and picked up his knife, ready to charge Moreau and spill his guts on the ground, but he found his feet wouldn’t move.

No … no-no-no-“ He growled desperately, and he tried again, but his feet just wouldn’t budge, as though he was nailed to the red earth. “Lizzie!! Stay put!! Don’t come near me!!” he roared, but Lizzie acted as though she didn’t hear him and kept coming, her love for him shining from her face.

GO TO HELL, MOREAU!! I ain’t touchin’ her!” Eliot swore, and even as he said it, Lizzie reached out to hug him.

Moreau sighed and shook his head.

“There now …” he murmured, “I thought that’s what you would say. I’m disappointed, Eliot. Very disappointed indeed.” He turned his eyes to Eliot’s left, and when the Oklahoman followed his gaze, his heart almost stopped.

Derry Ryan stood a few feet away, his grey eyes filmy and dull. He turned his dead gaze on Eliot, and then reached up and pulled the Razorback knife from his own throat, and watery blood and maggots streamed from the gaping hole in his flesh down his chest and onto the ground.

Moreau nodded and gestured at Lizzie, who smiled at Ryan.

“Mister Ryan,” Moreau said amiably. “If you would be so kind …?”

It was then that Eliot knew he was in Hell.

LIZZIE!! GET AWAY FROM ME!! GO!!!” He bellowed with all his might, helpless and unable to save his best girl from the monster that was Eliot Spencer.

And Lizzie kept walking towards him, her smile empty and loving, and the flies buzzed around her and the stench of death was all around him and he could do absolutely nothing about it until the hands held him. Hands, tight around his arms and pressing on his shoulder, and he could smell jasmine and roses on still night air.

Then … then he could fight back, and he struggled and yelled and flailed, but there were too many, and all he saw were Lizzie’s dark, dark eyes widen and flare with terror, even as the voices began.

They drifted into his mind as though through a sea-fog, and the hands became tendrils in the darkness, wrapping around his wrists and forcing his head back, and oh God, he hurt, but the hands wouldn’t stop.

The light was becoming too bright, and Wapanjara wasn’t there anymore. Moreau dissolved into the mist and Derry Ryan’s rotting face and Lizzie’s terrified eyes was all he could see.

Eliot!! ELIOT!! C’mon, bro … relax … it’s okay, you’re safe … Lizzie’s safe …”

It was a voice he knew but couldn’t place, and he curled his left fist so he could punch the crap out of the owner of the voice, but the sudden pain in his left side and chest took t