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#DIAMONDS & THEIR FLAWS

They docked at Robe, where the southern coast somehow contrived to face due north, where wind and sea made elaborate sculptures from limestone cliffs, where clear waters and rich fishing drew the sporting and the sedentary alike. But these two men had come for neither recreation nor relaxation: they were on a mission, each, in his own way, with something to prove.

For Professor Treesmith, it was not his first visit to this region; and his return, six years on, brought curious pangs of anticipation, nostalgia and regret. Back then he could almost convince himself he was still a young Turk, even though his position as part of the academic establishment was long cemented. But now, in his mid-forties, he could feel himself slipping into the comfortable, conformist habits and outlook he had once so despised in the generation of naturalists that preceded him. But he was determined, before he succumbed fully to the musty armchair and the morbid echo of the lecture hall, to accomplish something of great importance, beyond theorising and taxonomy – something solid, palpable, and for the future.

Treesmith’s sense of rapid aging was not helped by the presence of his companion. Wilson Reader was fresh out from England, barely twenty, and with enough potential for original thought as to set Oxbridge ablaze – or rather, knowing the way things usually proceeded in parochial academe, coaxing it to a warm, comforting glow. A colleague had commended Reader to Treesmith, and the Professor had to admit there was more than a hint of incipient genius: the problem was that it lay purely in the academic realm; what was needed was practical experience in the field. Hence a lad, who might have expected to be touring the capitals of Europe for a season, was instead transported – as convicts once were – half a world away, to assist the master in his latest project. So far, the boy seemed to be coping well, but Treesmith knew there were culture shocks coming for which he could not adequately be prepared.

They no doubt looked a slightly odd pair, walking up into the middle of town with bags of luggage and equipment suitable for neither holidaying nor sport: stopping outside the Bush Inn, the professor contemplated taking his young charge inside for a drink, but reasoned it was a little early to expose an impressionable Englishman to the horrors of an Aussie bar; and vice-versa. Besides, there was salient information that he had, for a variety of reasons, not yet passed on regarding their expedition.

“Well, what do you think so far?” he began, clumsily.

“I think this is a fine place,” Reader gushed, as he tended to do. “Some quite magnificent buildings – the lighthouse especially.”

“Yes, well, keep in mind we’re not staying here: our destination’s about ten miles out, and it’s a touch more rustic.”

“I’m sure it will be lovely.” The boy’s manner was so wide-eyed and innocent that Treesmith wasn’t sure whether to adopt him or punch him in the mouth.

“Look,” he said, after a pause, “there’s something I haven’t told you about where we’re going. When we get up to the sheep run, it’s not just Farmer Gilcross who’ll be there…”

Reader nodded blankly.

“Fact is, Gilcross is a widower, but he has two daughters: two rather interesting daughters.”

The boy grunted, noncommittally. In fact so noncommittally that the Professor glanced sidelong at him, wondering for a moment if he had perhaps picked up absolutely every English Public School habit. His thought disappeared in a roar of internal combustion and a cloud of exhaust, as a battered Volvo truck came grinding to a halt before the inn. Reader jumped up, ready to make acquaintance with what he no doubt imagined was some grizzled bush veteran. His surprise was therefore a picture when out of the cab leapt the most beautiful woman he had yet seen in his short life.

“Wilson Reader, meet Rue Gilcross,” said Treesmith, adding under his breath, “There’s more like her at home…”

Konetta sheep run, near Robe, South Australia: 1923

As the truck bumped along an increasingly theoretical country byway, Rue extracting all possible speed from its underpowered engine, the Professor could only smile inwardly at Reader’s slack-jawed, stunned-fish silence. After all, Rue had had much the same effect on himself, four years previously, before things had become excessively complicated – she would be twenty-five now, and had lost none of her lustre. Even attired as she was in man’s shirt and working coveralls, she still looked incomparably feminine: feathery, sweeping cascades of gold-blonde hair just reaching to her shoulders; a softly angular face with high, ornate cheekbones; wide, heavily-lashed brown eyes; a perkily prominent nose; a mouth narrow yet full, like a succulently ripened strawberry. There was mischief in her eyes and sunlight in her smile, and Treesmith knew his charge was smitten with her, just like that: at least for the time being. And what was more, Rue knew it, too.

They bounced down a driveway of little more than compacted mud, to reach a cluttered yard where the farmhouse seemed to be hiding amid a clutch of other, carefully neglected buildings. Upon disembarking Rue, as was her wont, plunged into their luggage – Reader sprinted to intercept her.

“Please,” Treesmith mumbled to himself, “don’t say anything stupid. Please don’t…”

“Allow me, Miss Gilcross,” the boy panted, all but wresting a bag from her hand. “I cannot permit one so charming to engage in menial labour…”

At which point he got The Look – the one Treesmith knew all too well, the one Rue seemed to give everybody save one person; the one that implied its recipient was lower in intelligence than a common garden snail.

“Suit yourself,” she drawled, glancing over at the Professor, who could only shrug, awash in déjà vu. Both men were abruptly saved by the bombastic emergence of Farmer Gilcross from the house.

“Prof, you old galoot!” He seized Treesmith’s hand, shaking so hard wrist damage seemed inevitable. “Good to see you.”

“Good to see you too, Joe,” the Professor smiled, then quickly turned sombre. “I’m so sorry about – well, you know…”

“Yeah. Bloody influenza – did a better job on us than the Boche, I say. I miss her, Prof, can’t ever say I don’t. But I press on, like she would’ve wanted.” His eyes swivelled and locked onto the boy, blushing beneath a demonstrative excess of baggage. “And this would be…?”

“Wilson Reader, from England – he’ll be assisting me in the project.”

“A Pom, eh? Well, can’t promise any tea and crumpets, ‘less of course you count the girls.” He winked extravagantly. “Still, c’mon in and make yourselves at home: we’ll get your stuff squared away later.”

In the quaintly feminised parlour, over coffee, Farmer Gilcross came right to it.

“OK Prof, let’s have it: you don’t make social calls, and you wouldn’t bring Muggins there out for a holiday to this godforsaken spot. So what’s the plan?”

Treesmith smiled wryly. “You still get wallabies out on the Run?”

“You bet. Must be at least a dozen, just like your last visit.”

“Suppose I told you, Joe, that your dozen may just be the last Toolache Wallabies left in South Australia?”

“You serious?”

Treesmith nodded grimly. “They’ve been in decline since before the war – serious decline. Some think it’s hunting, some think it’s foxes: either way, I’ve been doing field work in all their usual haunts, and I’m convinced yours is the last substantial colony left.”

“And you intend to do what about it?”

“I intend to capture them,” said the Professor, with authority. “Or as many as I can, at least. I’ve been authorised to create a refuge, out on Kangaroo Island.”

“Strewth, that’s not gonna be easy - those buggers can really travel, they’re bastards to take alive.”

“I propose to use a truck, or even two. If we keep them contained in the Run, we’ll be able to pursue them for miles. The intention is to exhaust them, so they can be netted, intact and unharmed.”

“And these would be my trucks, I suppose.”

“You’ll be generously reimbursed, Joe…”

Gilcross sighed, then pointed at Reader.

“And what about the boy wonder here – can he drive?”

Reader, his attention jolted away from sidelong adoration of Rue, shook his head.

“Then I guess you’ll be wrestling wallabies, Mate – best of luck.”

Rue got to her feet, gathering the empty cups. Before Treesmith could intervene, Reader had jumped up, following her towards the kitchen like an attentive puppy. The Professor sat back, resignedly – let the boy make a fool of himself, he thought. ‘Twas no more than he too had done, after all.

*

Safe in the kitchen, as alone with this radiant creature as he was likely to get, Wilson Reader could contain himself no longer.

“Miss Gilcross,” he stammered, “I realise this is most forward of me, and under normal circumstances, I would not even consider being so abrupt: however, I feel I must speak. I confess that I am enchanted with you, Miss Gilcross, and would be most honoured if – provided you have no other suitors – you would consent to walk out with me.”

He stopped, flushing scarlet, beads of expectant nervous sweat upon his forehead. Rue quietly folded her arms, regarding him with a thin, kindly smile - a pitying smile.

“I don’t think so,” she replied softly.

“But – but I freely admit I am head over heels in love with you,” Reader stammered.

Rue shook her head slowly. “No you’re not. And even if you are, it won’t last for very much longer. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to get on with preparing supper.”

And she turned to her pots and pans, leaving Wilson to retreat, feeling flattened as an ant beneath the unheeding foot.

*

Back in the parlour, Joe Gilcross wasted little time in introducing alcohol to the negotiations. The Professor watched as Reader morosely sipped his home-brewed grog, and smiled inwardly. He could guess what had just occurred in the kitchen, and the coolly dismissive manner in which Rue would have crushed his aspirations. He felt a paternal surge, wanting to explain to Reader that he was merely the latest in a long line of historical contingents for this most singular of families – but the student would draw his own conclusions soon enough.

As if on cue, at that moment the unfastening of a door heralded a new arrival in the farmhouse. Gilcross lurched to his feet.

“Ah, here she is at last – gentlemen, may I present the flawed diamond herself: my youngest, Stockard.”

As she came into the room, Treesmith felt again the old, familiar yet unfamiliar sensation: it was like being smacked in the face by a waft of sheer, distilled beauty. For if Rue merited the appellation ‘beautiful’ – and few would deny that she did – then how did one begin to describe the vision of pulchritude that was her younger sister? Four years on – she would be twenty now, maturity adding sweet hints of curves beneath her gaily patterned dress. Her hair, a gilded glittering mass, had been carefully piled and pinned up (Rue would have done this – his insight to the sisters was intimate enough to know that much), fully revealing a face so angelic it could easily shame any true cherub. A high-browed, slightly rounded, sweetly open face, possessed of the most exquisite cheekbones, that swelled and bubbled like blown pink glass at the merest hint of a smile. Great, deep-lashed brown eyes glowed intelligently, flanking a delicately rounded nose beneath which lay a mouth narrow, like her sister’s, yet even more lustrous – the lower lip, in particular, full, ripe and voluptuous. A rather sharp, daintily noble chin completed the vista. Looking upon it, Treesmith felt curiously conflicting urges – affections at once fatherly and deeply masculine. Stealing a glance at Reader, he wryly noted the shock stealing across the young man’s face: having been smitten by one, now he faced the other; and now he had to choose.

If nothing else, Reader’s manners were impeccable – he stepped smartly forward, proffering his hand.

“Wilson Reader, Miss – delighted to make your acquaintance…”

A flash of panic showed in those fabulous eyes – Stockard glanced towards her father, who shrugged.

“Oh, what the hell – might as well get it over with: say hello to the young man, Junior.”

Stockard took a deep, audible breath, and spoke.

“P-P-Pleased to m-meet you.”

For some reason, Treesmith’s eyes were on the lad at that point, and he noticed something in his manner – almost a slight recoil.

“Same as ever, Prof,” Gilcross was saying to him. “I stop her from talking, so she stops me from cutting her hair. Yet somehow, she’s the one all the young bucks go gaga over…”

Treesmith saw Stockard’s face fall a little, and he bristled.

“Maybe,” he said, sage as he could manage, “You shouldn’t stop her talking.”

“Are you nuts? How can anyone stand all that blub-blub-blub nonsense? She’s done it nigh on twenty years now, and I’m bloody sick of it. I say if she can’t talk proper English, best she doesn’t talk at all. Isn’t that right, Junior?” He looked at his daughter with a curious expression that mingled paternal care and outright contempt. “All right, you’ve made your Grand Entrance – now run along and help your sister with the meal.”

*

Stockard retreated gratefully to the kitchen, where an overworked Rue greeted her with an affectionate smile.

“Hi Stocky – I take it you met the visitors?”

Stockard nodded, tying an apron about herself and setting to work on some vegetables.

“What d’ you make of that young English bloke?” Rue prompted. “Dishy, eh?”

Stockard’s only response was a shrug, but it was sufficient to raise a laugh from Rue. Ever since the age of twelve, when it became obvious that her stammer was not about to be grown out of, her father had decreed, over ferocious objections of both Rue and her late mother, that she should not be permitted to speak more than few key sentences. In response she had developed a non-verbal vocabulary that Rue found infinitely expressive, for she could read it like none other.

There was a lot behind that shrug. It was all part of a strange, endlessly repeating cycle of fate that bound them together, when by rights it should have driven them apart with wedges of bitter acrimony. It went something like this: a man, usually young, though not always, would arrive at the farm. He might be an Assessor, an itinerant labourer, or merely a local lad from Robe – he might even be a naturalist claiming to study rare wallabies. Either way, his first contact with the household would almost invariably be Rue; for whom, equally invariably, he would fall hard. That fall would last for as long as it took to encounter the even more stunning Stockard, whereupon the unfortunate male would find himself overwhelmed by a new romantic affliction, from which he might never recover. That she was, for the most part, kept hidden away by her father, and of course forbidden to speak, only made her more alluring – a fact Joe Gilcross seemed incapable of grasping. He simply could not understand why all eligible males seemed to lose interest in his capable, beautiful, eminently marriage-worthy elder daughter; preferring instead to dash their affections upon the hopeless rock of his embarrassingly flawed junior offspring. But the sisters understood – they understood it to the point where it was a running joke; a diversion from the mundane realities of the sheep-farming life, the all-consuming demands of the mighty Merino. It had never at any point occurred to Rue that she should be jealous, just as it had never occurred to Stockard that she might reciprocate the hopeless longings so often directed her way – it was simply the way of things, a pattern set as lambing and shearing; and it was never going to change…

*

They were in their room, preparing for supper, feeling more than a little awkward in the enforced intimacy of sharing. As Treesmith tried not to observe his assistant dressing, he became acutely aware of how very much younger, not to mention more handsome, Reader truly was – envy was not a condition that sat easily with him.

“So,” he began, in an effort to break the tension, “What do you think?”

“The plan is sound,” Reader grunted. “The problem is going to be getting the animals to Kangaroo Island.”

The Professor was momentarily nonplussed. He chuckled, and shook his head.

“I wasn’t talking about that. I mean here, this household – what d’you make of the girls?”

A dreamy look came into the lad’s eyes, as he knotted his tie.

“Rue Gilcross is a most… admirable young woman,” he said, softly.

“And Stockard?” Treesmith prompted. “Isn’t she a veritable angel?”

There was a quiver in Reader’s lips, just for a second. It might well have been a sneer.

“Pretty enough, I suppose,” he answered coldly. “But really, I do not think she’s quite the full shilling.”

Treesmith felt a stab of emotion that actually made him wince. His jealousy burned in a sudden urge to defend Stockard’s honour.

“What makes you say that?” he demanded, trying not to seem demanding.

“Well honestly, this stammering business. Normally it’s a mere childish habit, like sucking one’s thumb – easily curable with the appropriate discipline. For it to be maintained to the age of – did you say twenty? – seems indicative of a deeper aberration. Quite possibly congenital.”

“So you agree with her father? You think of her as a flawed diamond?”

Reader shrugged. “I’m afraid the flaw is all I see: compared to her sister, that girl seems of very little worth.”

Treesmith could not believe he was hearing this, nor could he quite believe the fury that was welling up within him. Stockard was obviously the more beautiful: her ‘flaw’, her enforced silence, only made her more fragile, more precious. Only a fool would claim otherwise…

“Stockard means nothing to you?” he persisted, struggling to keep his voice even, disinterested. “You would not even consider a romance with her?”

“Of course not,” the younger man replied, with cutting offhandedness. “To marry one of questionable stock, to sully one’s bloodline, would be an offence to evolution. For a naturalist such as myself, it would be an insult to the memory of Mr Darwin.”

“What on earth do you mean?” Treesmith burst out, unable to contain himself any longer.

“Why, survival of the fittest, of course. Was that not the great man’s legacy? Does his message not behove us to keep our bloodlines as pure, as strong as possible?”

No, thought Treesmith, though he did not voice the opinion: for if he had, it might have been accompanied by insults, or even violence. He had dedicated much of his career, outside of fieldwork, to debunking nonsensical ideas such as this, to protecting what he regarded as Darwin’s true message. If evolution had a lesson – and he was not convinced there was any lesson to be gleaned – it was merely this: diversity was the key. The maintaining of ‘pure’ bloodlines (whatever that meant) would never ensure progress – precisely the opposite, it led to over-specialisation, first step on the path to evolutionary ruin. He had laboured hard to convey this message – that one of the next generation might have fallen under the sway of old nonsense was more than disheartening, it was enraging.

They finished dressing in what Treesmith hoped was an angry silence, but suspected Reader had mistaken for complicity.

*

Dinner was a trial, as he feared it might be. He sat across from her, forced to watch her eat delicately, with her head slightly bowed, only occasionally glancing up to acknowledge the conversation from which she was excluded. He had tried to convince himself he had moved on, was over the giddy infatuation of his previous visit, but it was hopeless. He longed for her, even more than before; yearned for her lips, her hair, the new ripeness of her: merely by existing, she awoke in him desires he had once thought smothered for good by the rigours of field and academe. Flustered by his own feelings, he recklessly and liberally partook of the libation Gilcross was only too happy to provide.

Reader, likewise, seemed to be struggling, drinking with the desperate rapidity of youth, becoming voluble with Holland’s courage. Under Farmer Joe’s ruddy-faced, genial manipulation they were in danger of making fools of themselves, Treesmith realised – and all the while the girls sat serene, unconcerned, perhaps even unconscious of their siren-like hold upon the feeble hearts of men.

“Gentlemen, a toast,” Gilcross declared, upon the umpteenth refill. “To the Toolache Wallaby, and its ultimate salvation.”

Glasses clinked, a little heavily.

“You know, Professor, I’ve been wondering a little about this,” Reader began airily, voice and gestures gilded with alcohol. “There are many species of kangaroo and wallaby, and surely not all are destined to survive. Why preserve this one in particular? What makes it so special?”

“If you’d seen one, you wouldn’t be wondering.”

It was exactly what the Professor would have said, but the words were not his. They came from Rue, who was regarding the boy with that scalding look of pitying resignation: she had abandoned him to Stockard already, just like all the others.

“It’s a beautiful animal,” she continued steadily, “the finest of the ‘roos. I’d’ve thought that alone earned it the right to survive…”

Treesmith, yet again, was looking at Stockard – she was smiling with satisfaction at her sister’s defiance. Reader seemed momentarily nonplussed, as if his professed adoration for Rue had been momentarily jolted, but he was riding the confidence of the mildly sozzled.

“An interesting point, Miss Gilcross. But must beauty be our only gauge of worth? A thing of beauty can nonetheless be fatally flawed…”

“Like a diamond?” Farmer Joe broke in. Fear flashed in Stockard’s eyes – she dropped her head, cowed.

“Yes, exactly like that,” Reader smiled, oblivious. “Beauty in itself is not enough – it must be wedded to spirit, to heart. Only then is it beyond corruption.”

He was looking right at Rue when he said these words, and it was unmistakeably the look of a man in love. She, however, didn’t seem to notice.

*

Eventually they retired from the male presence, leaving the men to a final round of whiskies (and leaving their guests feeling somewhat bereft). Upstairs, in Stockard’s tiny bedroom, came their special time: where, by flickering lamplight, Rue carefully undid her morning’s work, with a locksmith’s deftness removing the pins that bound and shaped her little sister’s locks. This was, for Rue, a precious, almost sacred act – there was something miraculous about Stockard’s hair, and not just the open rebellion it represented. The moment, as she knelt behind her sister, that Rue pulled the crucial final pins, momentarily feeling the weight and gossamer softness of her crown, before it flowed between her fingers like gilded rainwater, slipping down in a glittering fall to the small of Stockard’s back – was a moment of great, almost sensual anticipation. And afterward, as she lovingly and laboriously dragged a soft brush through its thick lushness, trying to disentangle every golden strand – this was when the sisters were at their most intimate.

“So,” said Rue gently, “how does it feel?”

“How d-does what f-feel?” Stockard responded, looking in her dresser mirror to meet Rue’s reflected eyes.

“Well, you’ve claimed another one, Stocky – looks like the young fella has fallen head over heels for you, just like the Prof did those years before, and just like all the others.”

Stockard shook her head emphatically, her mane rustling and roiling with the motion.

“Oh, n-no – not this one: I d-don’t think he l-likes me. He hasn’t f-fallen for m-me at all.”

The assertion was enough to still Rue’s brushing hand.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“I m-mean, it’s you he’s f-fallen for.”

Rue carefully studied her sibling’s expression in the mirror – she wasn’t joking.

“But... that isn’t right,” she said at last.

*

Treesmith blasted the truck across Konetta’s rugged terrain with fierce abandon, partly because he was trying to keep up with Gilcross, who was careening the Volvo ahead of him like a madman; and partly because he felt like it. To Reader, his passenger in back, he gave scant regard – the young fool’s heroic snores had served to rob his tutor of sleep: if he was dumb enough to opt to ride in the flatbed with the nets, he deserved to be shaken up a little. But what really irked the Professor, and what had really kept him awake, was his own weakness, which he hoped blazing like a cutter through a seemingly endless sea of merino might ameliorate. Coming back here was a mistake, he had to admit to himself – not because the mission was flawed, but because he was still, ludicrously, besotted with Stockard. He had spent a night alternately thinking and dreaming of her: and if his mind might consciously deny the depth of his longing, then his body would not cooperate – he had also spent the night affecting a massive an uncomfortable erection that forced him to lie on his front, lest Reader catch an inadvertent glimpse and draw all sorts of erroneous conclusions. So intent was Treesmith on silently berating himself that he barely noticed the tide of wool on hoof had ebbed and all but disappeared, and that Gilcross was slowing dramatically, cutting his engine. Treesmith did likewise, and following the farmer’s meaningful point, looked towards a distant ridge. At that moment Reader appeared beside the cab, looking decidedly green about the gills.

“You alright?” Treesmith inquired wryly.

“That was a bit bumpy,” said the boy defensively.

“Well, it’s about to get a lot bumpier – look over yonder…”

There were perhaps half a dozen of them, grouped in rough defensive circle, grazing in a manner that was at once indolent yet highly alert. Upon seeing them, a sense of purpose flowed back into Treesmith: they were, without doubt, the most beautiful of the kangaroos. Perfectly proportioned, covered in fine silver-grey fur that was paler on the chest, limbs and tail; and subtly, characteristically barred darker down the back. The black toes and forepaws, and the black-and-white band running from eye to tip of muzzle, were eye-catching and perfect details – regal touches to a princely animal. Treesmith smiled as he took a lingering look through field-glasses, before passing them to Reader.

“Well, there it is, my boy – your quarry. Think you’re up to the task?”

“Well, I haven’t vomited yet,” replied the youth ruefully, “so I suppose I must be used to the terrain. Very well, let’s get on with it.”

He jumped once more into the back, striking a heroic pose that made the Professor chuckle. A nod to Gilcross, and engines were gunned again, but gently, and this time their progress across the rough ground was as stealthy and circumspect as the trucks allowed. The Toolaches, of course, detected them almost instantly, their heads bobbing up in unison, ears pricked, dark eyes warily staring. Treesmith could feel tense sweat trickling down the back of his neck – he detected a slight shifting behind him, and knew it was Reader gathering the net and setting himself. The wallabies, innately assessing the slowness of their approach, now affected nonchalance: they returned to grazing, though their great ears remained turned in the trucks’ direction. Treesmith’s foot cramped upon the accelerator – not yet, not yet. They were within fifty yards when the Toolaches turned and bolted, en masse. In truth their movements were so leisurely, so indolent, that the term ‘bolt’ seemed singularly inappropriate – what really happened was they all took a casual, minimal hop forward, almost like a step; then, applying all the power of their mighty, angle-iron feet, they vaulted forward with such colossal lift and drive that they seemed to sail over the ground. Another bound, and the distance between them and the trucks was doubled in an instant. Treesmith mashed the accelerator, his engine screaming in protest: a fraction later Gilcross did the same, and the chase was on.

Careening over bumpy ground, Treesmith worried that Reader might be bodily thrown from the back of the truck; that he might shatter the vehicles suspension; and most of all that his plan was not going to work. The wallabies were moving with seemingly no effort, yet he was barely keeping up – they kept rigidly to their habitual short-hop, two-long-hops pattern, yet travelled at a speed one might have thought beyond any living creature. Glancing to his left, the Professor saw that Gilcross was doggedly keeping pace – indeed, he seemed to be enjoying himself. Focussing once more on the quarry, Treesmith noticed one Toolache seemed slightly out of step with its fellows – as he watched it definitely began to lag. Gilcross, who knew a thing or two about splitting flocks, picked up on the same thing – surging ahead with a ferocious burst of extra speed, he then cut sharply in with a flurry of wheelspin and raised dust. Panicked, the wallabies scattered for a moment, and in the disorientation Treesmith was able to split off his chosen victim. The remaining Toolaches milled confusedly for a moment, until another roar from the framer’s throttle had them bounding off in a different direction. Now there were two trucks, and just one tiring wallaby.

Not that the animal showed any signs of giving up. It continued to bound ahead, weaving and darting in an effort to shake what it no doubt assumed were predators. But with Gilcross cutting off the only lateral escape route, Treesmith could remain locked in the beast’s shadow, incrementally gaining, gaining…

And then the wallaby fell down. It did so quite suddenly, tumbling in a heap of legs and tail. Treesmith slewed his truck alongside the prone form, and Reader hurled the net with admirable accuracy. Disembarking, Treesmith saw that the wallaby was unmoving. Gilcross roared his own vehicle in beside them, jumping from the cab like an oversize schoolboy.

“Bloody hell, Prof, that was brilliant! I haven’t had so much fun in years – that bugger led us a merry dance for sure. How’s he doing anyway?”

Treesmith knelt to examine the specimen closely.

“It’s dead,” he said softly.

“Dead?” Reader gasped. “But it was going flat out – I thought we were never going to catch it…”

“We weren’t,” observed the Professor, sombrely. “It was never going to let us, so it kept going until it dropped dead from exhaustion.”

“Jeez, Prof,” said Gilcross, actually removing his hat, “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault, Joe,” Treesmith sighed. “I suspected this might happen – as you said, they’re hard to take alive.”

“Maybe-,” Reader offered, “maybe this one just wasn’t up to survival. Perhaps it had some inherent weakness that caused this, some physical failing…”

“Another ‘flawed diamond’, eh Lad?” Treesmith smiled ruefully. “Perhaps you’re right. There’s only one way to find out – we have to try again.”

Having secured the carcass in Gilcross’s truck, they trundled off again in search of fresh prey. Careful scanning with the field-glasses picked out three more foraging in the open, seemingly oblivious. Again the engines roared, and again the animals took off at terrific speed: by now, however, Treesmith and the farmer had honed their act, and they quickly split off the slowest of the trio from its fellows. The Professor hurtled over the rough ground, his wheels juddering in protest, determined to run this one down before it could overexert itself. But the chase still dragged on, Treesmith unable to get close enough for Reader to have a clean shot with the net. He was just beginning to despair when the young fool, with a howl borrowed from the fiercest African tribe, hurled himself and the net bodily from the truck and bowling the unfortunate animal off its oversized feet. Treesmith slewed the truck to a stop and hit the ground running, knowing that if Reader had failed to disable the Toolache, it was perfectly capable of crippling him with a well-timed kick – however, luck was on the boy’s side. The wallaby’s legs were tangled in the net, and it had fallen awkwardly, but it was still breathing, still alive.

“Bloody hell, Boy,” shouted the arriving Gilcross, “You are one barmy Pom, and no mistake. But still – bloody good work, Son.”

The animal offered no resistance as the three of them carefully bound its feet, arms and muzzle. Then, as gently as if they were carrying an injured solider, they lifted it into the back of Treesmith’s truck, setting gingerly off back toward the farm. By the time they got there, this second wallaby was also dead.

*

Farmer Gilcross took their inadvertent carcasses direct to the tanners at Robe – the pelts, at least, would be of considerable value, and there was enough ‘roo meat to feed a sheepdog or three. Nonetheless it was a rather dispirited trio that sat down to dinner that evening, until alcohol and the charms of the girls – not to mention their culinary skills – began to lighten the clinging despondency.

“I’m not sure what else we could’ve done, Prof,” Gilcross declared, ladling vegetables onto his plate. “If those buggers refuse to be taken alive, that’s all there is to it…”

I know what you could do,” Rue broke in suddenly. “If you had a third truck, you could box them off – stop them running such a great distance, and make them easier to net.” She drew a poker face. “Course, you’d need a better driver than either of you two old scrotes…”

Gilcross looked as his daughter as if she had just sprouted wings and declared herself seraphic.

“Y’know Prof, she’s got a point there. I’m pretty certain I could scrounge up another truck from somewhere, and… Prof?”

Treesmith had not been listening to the conversation, the whole of his attention taken by Stockard, ever demure, ever winsome, seated with maddening provocation directly opposite. The words seemed to sink into his brain only after a slight delay, like echoes. The possibility had not occurred to him, but it was nonetheless intriguing - only a fool would deny the elder Gilcross girl’s proficiency behind the wheel. He did not, however, get the chance to accede or demur.

“Absolutely not – I forbid it.” The voice was Reader’s, and it brooked no argument. “I cannot countenance this young lady being placed at any risk.”

“Well, there you go, Rue,” Gilcross chuckled, “That settles that. Gotta hand it to ‘im – young lad knows what he wants…”

“It seems to me,” Reader continued, once again slipping towards speechifying, “that no change in policy is needed here. The two unfortunate examples we encountered today were obviously lacking something, ie the sense to acknowledge when they were beaten. If these creatures are as worth saving as the Professor suggests, then at least some of them must be strong enough to survive over-exertion. We are, perhaps, doing this colony a favour by weeding out its weakest members.”

Treesmith dragged his eyes from the silken perfection of Stockard’s cheek just long enough to rake his young charge with a look of abject contempt.

“I’m going to bed,” he announced abruptly. “We’ll try again tomorrow, maybe we’ll have better luck.”

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Prof,” Gilcross said, scratching his ear. “I didn’t like the looks of that sky as we came back from Robe – I think there’s rain coming in.”

“I’d like to think it’d take more than a shower to put you chaps off,” Reader snorted, before savage looks from both Farmer and Professor stopped him cold.

“You’re not from around here, Boy,” said Gilcross slowly. “When it rains on Konetta, it rains. I’m happy to lend my trucks to the Prof here, but I can’t afford to get them bogged down in mud.”

“We’ll see tomorrow,” Treesmith shrugged, rubbing his eyes. “For now, it’s been a long day – you’ll excuse me ladies, Joe…”

And that, to the Farmer’s chagrin, was enough to break up this particular party.

*

Rue fumed as she brushed out Stockard’s hair, so much so her strokes were almost violent.

“The nerve of that pup,” she spat. “Making a fool of me in front of Dad, in front of the Prof…”

“I th-think you’re over r-reacting,” Stockard replied. In spite of her hair being savagely yanked, she was smirking. “He’s only t-trying to p-p-p-protect you.”

“Why the hell would he want to protect me?”

“B-because he’s in l-l-love with you, S-Silly.”

Her words seemed to totally enervate Rue, the brush slipping from her fingers.

“Oh God, Stocky, please stop saying that…”

“W-why?” Stockard turned around, to directly face her sister. “D-didn’t you want someone to f-fall in love with you? Only w-with you?”

Rue’s expression seemed almost stricken. “I thought I did – I thought I wanted that more than anything. But that’s not how it works, Stocky – they fall for me, then they fall for you: that’s always how it’s been.”

“And it b-bothers you that it’s d-d-different this time?”

“No, it doesn’t bother me,” said Rue emptily. “Tell the truth, it scares me to death…”

*

Rue was usually first to stir of a morning, venturing down to begin a breakfast that Stockard would ultimately augment. It was normally a sleepily gentle time, before her father descended to fill the place with gusto. Upon entering the kitchen, she started fit to expire when she was confronted by a lurking figure – it didn’t much help that it was Reader.

“Bloody hell, you made me jump,” she gasped. “What’re you doing down here, anyway?”

“I’m sorry, Miss Gilcross – I didn’t know where else to wait. I assumed you’d be here at some point.”

She stared at him, dazedly. “You mean… you’ve been waiting – for me? For how long?”

“I’m not sure - it would have been about four am when I came down.”

“What about the Prof?”

“Oh, he’s dead to the world, don’t worry.” Reader took a step forward, his expression intensely earnest. “The truth is, Miss Gilcross, I really wanted to speak to you in private, and this seemed like my only opportunity.”

“I see,” replied Rue, a little nervously – not for the first time, she wished she genuinely possessed Stockard’s silent, coolly dismissive manner with men.

“Yes – I wanted to explain about those things I said, the other night…”

“Oh, I get it,” Rue all but slumped with relief. “You want to tell me you’ve changed your mind, right? You’re not really in love with me at all – you’ve fallen for her, is that it?”

He looked at her as if she had just accused him of deviancy.

“Of course not. I want to tell you that, whatever you may have thought, this is not some passing fancy on my behalf. I declared my feelings for you, and those feelings have not shifted one iota.” He drew himself ramrod straight. “Miss Gilcross, what I mean to ask is: would you consent to be my wife?”

It seemed to Rue as if the very air in the room had somehow collapsed in upon itself – everything abruptly stilled and cooled. She found it suddenly hard to breathe; her heartbeat, though violent, felt unnaturally slow and sluggish, suspended.

“I…” she said, and her lips had difficulty articulating even that one syllable.

“I…” and time seemed to come to a total standstill, trapping them, the house, perhaps the whole world in a single unending moment.

“…Yes,” she said, finally.

*

“Well – about bloody time,” was Farmer Gilcross’s considered response, when Reader timorously approached him, seeking permission for what was in effect a fait accompli. “Never thought I’d got shot of this one – all the blokes around seem to go ga-ga for Junior, God knows why.” He thrust out a might paw, almost crushing they boy’s hand. “Good on yer, ya Pommie bastard.”

For the time being, the household was plunged into pandemonium. From Gilcross coming down to find no breakfast had been prepared, to Treesmith awakening alone in the guestroom, to Stockard descending in a nightgown with her hair unpinned, falling in wild, careless waves and swirls over her shoulders, plunging down to the small of her back (Treesmith found all this most fetching, almost maddeningly sultry), to Rue’s patent stupefaction at what had just happened, to Reader bouncing about like a boy who had just scored the winning goal in a vital under-12’s soccer match – it took some time for order to be restored. At last a meal of some description was assembled, but by this time Gilcross had unearthed a bottle, and a celebration was ensuing, heedless of anyone’s qualms. It seemed to have been under way no time at all before Stockard stealthily excused herself, slipping away like a ghost, unheeded by her father or the groom-to-be, but duly noted by the Professor and, curiously, by Rue, who seemed to Treesmith to be wearing a strangely stricken expression.

Treesmith was certainly not a morning drinker, and one glass was sufficient to spin his head and encourage him to retire, leaving the happy couple and proudly indulgent papa to their lot. In truth, the alcohol had merely deepened his already black mood. Disappointment as yesterday’s events and frustration at the impending delay, now were joined by a seething, jealous resentment that Reader had so brazenly, and successfully, ‘seized the day’ – he might be boyish, and impetuous, but he was no fool; and he had just made the Professor seem by comparison like a craven coward in matters of the heart.

Climbing the stairs, he thought he might lie down for a bit, until the black mood and disorientation dissipated. Instead he found himself loitering before Stockard’s door, which was poised at a curiously ambivalent angle – just open enough to let one see in, yet pushed sufficiently to imply privacy. By carefully, and voyeuristically, leaning, Treesmith could actually spy her, sat at her dresser, struggling to brush out the long glittering tendrils of own hair. She looked up sharply at his gentle knock, like a frightened bird. Knowing she would not speak unless heavily coaxed, he gabbled to fill the silent void between them.

“Well, that was all a bit of shock, wasn’t it? I must say I didn’t think Reader had it in him, nor for that matter your sister – always thought she’d be running this place, at least until your father passed on. Do you think Rue would like England? ‘Cause I don’t think Wilson will want to settle here, not immediately anyhow. Do you think you and your father can manage the farm by yourselves?”

Without really meaning to, he had stepped right into the room, she watching him steadily all the while, expression maddeningly neutral.

“Really,” he pressed on, “do you think your sister will be happy?”

“I w-would hope she f-follows her heart,” Stockard responded softly.

“And what about you, Stockard? When will you follow your heart?”

In response she merely dropped her head: that cowed, characteristically beguiling gesture.

“I was t-trying to b-b-brush my hair m-myself,” she murmured. “But I c-c-can’t do it. I m-must look such a m-m-mess…”

“Good Lord, no,” he protested, shocking himself with his vehemence. “You look beautiful. You always look beautiful, Stockard.”

He reached out, lightly stroking stray strands of her wonderful hair, aware that he was trembling. Excitement filled him, surging and roaring, making him lightheaded – he could feel his phallus engorging and stiffening, yearning to be free. He put his hands to her cheeks and drew her gently to her feet, towards him. Brushing her tender lips gently with his own, he was consumed with a longing, urgent and molten. Her softness, her scent, her taste; her very nearness was too much to bear.

“I want you,” he breathed. “God, how I want you…”

She took a step back from him, brown eyes wary, watchful, but unafraid. Her look was almost analytical, studying him as he might a creature in the field. She was going to deny him, he knew with palpable dread – deny him as she had done before, as she denied all comers. Perhaps that was really why Reader had fallen for Rue: he couldn’t bear the thought of Stockard denying him. Rage filled him, a rage of love and torment: he put his hands upon her shoulders, and in a sudden wrenching downward movement tore her dress from her upper body, exposing her slender neck and pert, dainty little breasts. Still she fixed him with eyes that seemed to look as much through him as at him: he didn’t want to hurt her, but he had to make her to understand his need; understand she could toy with him no longer. He took her hand, not roughly but firmly, and guided it to where his trousers bulged, to where he felt huge and hard and magnificent. She glanced down at the spot, her eyebrows a little raised, her mouth a little parted: it seemed to him her cheeks and throat had coloured slightly, but there was no overt sign of awe, or fear, or lust; nor indeed of fascination. Her fingers lingered, pressing just a little – she looked into his eyes and smiled, but it was not the sweet innocent smile that she had briefly favoured him, all those years ago. This was a knowing smile, a hint of wickedness, a glimpse of the secret harlot lurking behind those angelic features, biding her time. She pressed a little harder, and he knew she had beaten him, hands down.

“Oh Stockard, no,” he quavered. “Please, no… Oh God, I’m so sorry…”

The thrill of her touch ran away from him, spiralling from his mind down to the base of his spine, then rocketing uncontrollably up through his straining penis. He could only gurgle as he climaxed, savagely and stupidly, within the chafing confines of his own trousers. It was at once the greatest pleasure and humiliation of his life: Stockard’s hand shot away from him as if he had scalded her, and looking down, he morosely observed a deep grey stain spreading relentlessly across the flannel; something warm dribbled onto the inside of his thigh, cooling rapidly. He felt about three years old and two feet high, and he could not look at her; could not even begin to frame any sort of apology. The awful moment might have dragged on forever, had someone not called out to him.

“Prof!” Gilcross was calling from below. “You up there?”

“I…” Treesmith was genuinely surprised to find he still had a voice. “Yes… what is it?”

“Listen, the boy Reader feels it’s his lucky day, and who am I to argue? He thinks we’ll beat whatever weather’s around, and he wants to have another crack at the Toolaches. You up for it?”

By the time his brain had processed this new variable, she had restored her dress, turned away from him and resumed the struggle with her hair – an effective, and total, dismissal.

“Tell Reader to start loading the truck,” he managed to call out. “I need to change my clothes…”

*

It was an ugly looking sky: a solid, bubbled layer of grey-fringed cloud that reminded Treesmith of curdling milk. But there was a grim determination about the Professor as he climbed into the Volvo – so far, he had messed up absolutely everything, but this part at least he might still salvage. Rue saw them off, her expression curiously neutral for one just embarked upon the road to matrimonial bliss: she received Reader’s parting peck on the cheek with what seemed – to Treesmith at least – a modicum of reluctance. Somehow, it had never struck him that Rue might be at all shy, but he was disinterested in pursuing the thought. If nothing else was certain, he was done with the Gilcross women.

*

Rue felt no requirement to knock when entering her sister’s room, for she knew she was always welcome. Even though she was still a touch fogged from the impromptu celebration, she immediately took in the fact that Stockard was struggling, and failing, to brush out her own hair, and the possibility that her younger sibling had been weeping.

“Hey Stocky, you alright?”

“I’m f-fine. I j-just c-can’t sort out this b-bloody hair…”

Rue chuckled, lightly stealing the brush and setting to work.

“You can’t do it on your own, Junior – it’s either me or a team of specially-trained grooms.”

“I s-suppose, when you l-l-leave, I’ll have to have it c-cut.”

“When I leave? Who says I’m leaving?”

Stockard’s head whipped around, fixing Rue with a look of utter bafflement.

“You’re g-getting m-married, aren’t you?”

“Oh,” said Rue. “Yeah. That.” She smiled wanly, and then her face crumpled and she too began to weep. “Oh God, Stocky, I don’t want to marry him.”

Stockard was all but cross-eyed with bewilderment. Tentatively, she put her arms around Rue’s heaving shoulders.

“B-but, d-don’t you l-love him?”

“Hell, I don’t know… When he asked me, I was so stunned, so flattered, I thought yes, maybe I could. But just now, with Dad and everything – I didn’t want to be there. I was just so bloody relieved when they said they were going hunting: I thought, if I came to see you, you might help me figure it all out. Damn it all Stocky, what am I going to do?”

“You have to f-follow your heart,” Stockard intoned carefully. Rue gave a violent shake of her head.

“But I don’t know where my heart is. I agreed to marry a bloke I hardly even know, just because he asked me – how idiotic is that? I mean, I’ve never even kissed him – to be honest, I’m not sure I know how to kiss.”

Stockard gave one of her certain smiles, which to Rue translated as ‘you’re a bloody fool, but I still love you’. Then she leant forward and kissed her sister delicately upon the lips.

It was all so gentle, yet for Rue it was a jolting moment, as if something, somewhere had detonated deep within her. Involuntarily she closed her eyes, savouring the sweet friction, the slight adhesion of their melded mouths. It seemed only natural, only fair, to return the kiss, just a little, softening the union with a hint of moisture; when their lips parted, it was with a faint but clearly audible smack.

Stockard was smiling at her still, but this was either a smile Rue had never seen before, or simply one she’d never appreciated. It was the smile of an angel, literally radiant: light was pouring from her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth; her entire face. Rue found it dazzling, blinding: it was burning her, searing away all her illusions and inhibitions, a light of revelation. She felt a terrible pressure building in her breast, like something struggling to be born.

“Oh, Stocky,” she breathed. “Oh, my God…”