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  • Published: 31 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9781761040672
  • Imprint: Penguin eBooks
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 352

The Farmer’s Friend

an outback medical drama from the bestselling author of The Opal Miner's Daughter, The Desert Midwife and The Homestead Girls


Chapter One


The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border. Spirals spawned into dust beings where hot road tar met dry, desiccated dirt.

Gracie Olivia Sparke stared out of the passenger window beside Jed, christened Joshua Edwards, watching the funnels of dirt and dreaming of her new home. Her fingers rested on Jed’s warm, jeans-clad thigh in the battered F250 utility he’d bought cheap.

The old ute towed the horse float easily, a makeshift trailer Jed had panel-beaten back into shape, though it still looked like an origami tube of crinkled paper. Inside the float, furniture groaned and shifted, even when it had been jammed with pillows, and suit­cases of clothes jostled the carefully positioned second-hand baby cradle as it rocked. Everything swayed and made music like a retro theatre company serenading tyres on bitumen, with the fencing equipment as the baritone, and Jed’s tools as the countertenor to Gracie’s mezzo-soprano kitchen implements.

‘We’re singing our way into New South Wales,’ Gracie said.

‘Yoddelaee,’ Jed sang, not in tune but happily. His excitement for this new venture made her mouth twitch and she pushed away the precariousness of their finances that was weighing on her mind – if not Jed’s.

Outside, a funnel of grit passed across the truck’s bonnet in a swirl of crackling gravel rain and pattered over the roof of the cab.

‘I like horse floats.’ Jed flicked his gaze up to check the rear-view mirror. ‘Floats fit everything. And they keep the dust out better than a trailer, too.’

‘Yes, Jed.’ She’d wanted to hire a trailer from a petrol station, self-haul and return, and not outlay capital expenditure. Not to mention yearly registration costs. But Jed had spouted how useful floats were, and she’d given in.

He shook his head in admiration for the lumbering box behind them. ‘Maybe we could get a few floats and hire them out at our new store?’

Oh boy. He was starting already. But Gracie had to smile because his exuberance was one of the traits she loved about him. ‘Let’s just get the store going first before we add a new venture.’

‘Did I tell you Featherwood’s on the plateau, Gracie? The sur­rounding countryside’s in drought, but we’re on the edge of a fertile belt that almost always stays green. There’s a creek that’s still running behind the house and higher there are waterfalls in some of the gullies out of town. There are big falls somewhere out past Featherwood that we’ll have to find for a picnic. Even in summer the creeks are cold and boulder-filled, though a bit slow at the moment. I think you’ll love it.’

She would love anywhere with Jed. Gracie’s gaze shifted from the front of the vehicle to the big man who still made her heart jump into a four-beat gait like a runaway horse. She tried to share his absolute belief that this venture would make their fortune, but couldn’t quite keep her fears at bay. Having been destitute once, it wasn’t something she would ever forget. Sadly, Jed couldn’t appre­ciate the horror of that state. You don’t, until it’s happened to you. Despite that history, Gracie didn’t need a fortune. She just wanted to pay the bills and be secure. For the baby. And for Jed and her.

Still, they’d bought a tattered and derelict stock-and-feed produce store, called of all things the Farmer’s Friend. Diverted from her insolvency woes, Gracie smiled again at the name. ‘Isn’t a farmer’s friend a weed that sticks to your socks?’ she teased Jed.

‘Sure is. A weed that doesn’t give up easily. Like us.’ She could tell Jed thought it a great name. ‘Like the way farmers stick together. I like it. And I looked it up. They call it cobbler’s pegs, too. Bidens pilosa, with herbal antibiotic qualities. It’s good for lungs, and digestive and urinary-tract infections.’

Jed had looked it up to use in defence of the name. Gracie laughed. Every day he made her laugh. Oh how she loved him. ‘True story?’ He came up with the weirdest stuff. She was a nurse, a midwife really, because that’s where her experience lay, and she’d never heard anything like that.

‘True story.’ Tickled she hadn’t known, he stared straight ahead, his mouth kinked up in one corner. ‘You pick the leaves and infuse it as a tea or add it to a soup.’ He flashed his white teeth as he gave her a full grin. ‘Or a green smoothie.’ He glanced her way with his beautiful mouth now pretending to be serious. ‘Though not sure about pregnant ladies drinking it.’

His gaze returned to the road. ‘A town needs a good produce store.’ He was off again as he waved his fingers in a small circle. ‘Featherwood’s a village really, but that’s a good thing, Gracie. And there’s still passing traffic to Armidale.’ Jed’s big labourer’s hands tightened with excitement on the wheel. Like they did every time he thought about their new home.

She felt the wry smile at the corner of her mouth as she studied the hand closest to her. Despite the roughness from hard manual labour, Jed’s strong hands were always so gentle and caring with her. They were scarred too, with one hand oddly misshapen from a broken ring finger he hadn’t stopped working to get properly aligned and had healed bent.

She felt a common sadness for that finger. She’d healed bent, too. From the past. From being a penniless and pregnant teen who’d lost her baby.

‘You’ll see it all today.’ He smiled at her, as if sensing her melancholy. ‘How was your last day at work?’

Gracie hadn’t had a chance to tell him because it had been such a rush this morning. Sadness from leaving her job welled again. ‘I was so pleased Jesse gave birth before we left.’ Gracie had been waiting for her final client to go into labour and thought she’d miss the event due to their move. ‘At six am. Phew. And she was wonderful.’

She’d had to work right up to the final moment and leave all the last packing to Jed, because she’d had such a rapport with Jesse. She just couldn’t leave the circle of Jesse’s pregnancy and labour incomplete.

‘I’m glad,’ Jed said, but she could see he was drifting away again in his mind, thinking about his new adventure. ‘Everything worked out well, then.’

As if their fortune were set, which of course it wasn’t yet. They’d talked about taking chances, but Gracie feared it was only she who felt the chasm of risk in small business that was about to open under them. Jed was the eternal optimist. That was a good thing, she kept telling herself. But she’d been penniless before and optimism could give the sorts of hunger pains Jed hadn’t experienced.

He nodded his head as if he’d just had a silent conversation with his inner self. ‘There’s opportunity for growth without com­petitors close to the village. It’s a big valley with farming families, so the prospect for new customers is there.’

Except Australia had been experiencing the longest recorded drought and nobody had money to spend. And it was in New South Wales.

As if he heard her thoughts, he slanted a look at her. ‘It’s not far over the border.’

But it was still down in New South Wales. She’d vowed never to return to the state where her life had crashed and burned. Twice.

Jed gave her a big, apologetic grin, his black curls falling into the crinkled skin around his eyes, and he brushed the nuisance hair away. ‘You still okay with that?’

Bit late now, we bought it, she thought. But damn, she loved him. ‘I can’t remember, were there any other shops in the village?’ She hoped there’d be a hairdresser. She’d have to cut his hair if they didn’t have one in this tiny township. Her own as well. She wasn’t a princess, but hopefully someone had a good pair of scissors. Please.

‘A post office general store, and the pub. There might be a part-time barber behind a house, if I remember. That’s all the businesses running apart from us.’

‘Featherwood sounds wonderful, Jed,’ she said. ‘The fact that the rural store comes with a house, our own house, has a lot going for it.’

That part was true. Their own home. She’d wanted her own home so desperately after renting forever. It was worth the deple­tion of her tiny, hoarded nest egg for them to scratch enough together to do it. Which was no easy feat when no bank would touch them for a loan with both of them only having casual employment.

‘It’s worth moving if we own it lock, stock and barrel.’

Yes, it is. Still, there were rates and insurance and power and water, she thought, but didn’t say it. Jed had banked his payout from the pastoral company and Gracie had her savings from before they’d met. She was the one who managed their finances. Added up the bills for the year, divided by twelve, saved that each month and put aside savings. No matter how small, she always put aside savings. Ever since she’d read that book, the one with the alpacas, she’d taken control back from poverty and debt.

Pooled together, they’d had just enough. Both house and sheds were run-down, Jed had said, so they were cheap. Gracie didn’t believe anything came cheap. Or at least not without a reason.

‘Tell me more about the house.’ Unconsciously, she crossed her fingers. She’d been fantasising a little, too.

‘It’ll be fine.’ Jed waved it away, his mind still on the store. ‘It has more neglect than real problems.’

She could guess just how briefly he’d examined the old house that came with his precious produce store. It wasn’t Jed’s passion, but it would be hers. She’d find out soon enough.

Jed already loved the store; she could tell by the eagerness in his voice. It must have been better than he expected.

‘It has so much potential.’ Jed believed in fairytales. Gracie did when it came to birth and women and now, in finding love. Not so much with finances, though. She’d tried to since she’d met Jed.

He took his hand off the wheel briefly again to wave expan­sively. ‘The feed sheds are massive, and there are two small ones out the back and the shop itself is joined on the side. It’s great. One of the blokes I met in the pub reckons we’d get a loan just on the sheds if we don’t get one on the business,’ Jed said.

Gracie hated loans.

As if he’d heard her, Jed said, ‘We need a loan to restock the store. It needs rebuilding from the ground up. We’ll make it into the best rural produce store ever seen. The shop part will be great. And there’s even a tiny upstairs area we could make into a creche for the baby.’

Jed’s eyes shone like blue headlights, something she hadn’t seen for a while since the drought had turned tragic, and she did rejoice in that shining. Being the more pragmatic one, Gracie could see some battles ahead when Jed wanted to build a bigger-than-Bunnings boy-store with an empty bucket of money, because she still held the cheque book. All the same, though, he was animated now when he’d been low before. It wasn’t an image she ever wanted to see again. Her big man dry and shrunken like the land. Like all the men watching cattle going down on their knees in front of them.

He’d lamented the lack of rain that cracked the dirt around Roma, seen the beasts fail, and the tough, resilient men he worked with go quiet. Watched his outdoor, joyful job wither and shrivel with the pastoral company profits. And disappear. The drought had crushed everyone but especially those on the land.

She breathed in and silently made a pact with Jed and herself. Their new venture would work. Jed had the background and experience from many farms and stations all over Australia. He was a hard worker. Full of ideas. A man with ‘vision splendid’, like in the poem. It would be good for him to be his own boss.

And he’d be a good boss. Her man was honourable and always honest. Sometimes, and her mouth twitched at the thought, he was too brutally and undiplomatically honest. But he was a strong, solid, generous man and she loved him and his qualities, even though sometimes he was like a child in his simplicity of thought process.

Right wrong. Black white. It was always Jed’s way or the highway. Unless you were Gracie and knew the back roads and the sensible path through the woods. Quietly, and sometimes even silently, Gracie refused to budge until Jed cottoned on. She was no pushover.

She sat back with her head turned to watch his profile. ‘So, what do we sell in a rural store?’ She should have asked all these questions before, but they’d been chasing their tails since he’d seen the For Sale advertisement in the Land newspaper.

Jed’s face lit up with the exuberance of that kid with the new pony, but his eyes stayed on the road ahead. Since they’d found out she was pregnant, Jed had dropped ten kilometres off his usual driving speed and he watched like an eagle for danger towards her or their baby. Sweet man. Gracie could look after herself. She had made sure she would never be a victim again. But it was still sweet.

‘What can we sell?’ That hand lifted again as he waved. ‘Everything. Pumps, poly pipe, posts, wire, everything a hardware store sells. Then the produce stuff. It’s a drive-through feed store, so stock feed, horse, chook and dog feed. Fertilisers. Seeds. Hay. There’s a forklift, so you’ll have to learn how to drive that.’

She laughed. ‘Not until later.’

‘True story. No heavy lifting for you. And when the baby comes, we’ll have our own house to make the nursery. We can make a real go of this, Gracie.’

‘Yes, Jed.’ A rollover movement in her belly made her suddenly more positive. The baby thought so, too.

Gracie watched an eagle rise from a suspicious lump in the field. ‘It’s dry here, as well, poor things.’ They’d come around the back way into Featherwood down the New England Highway instead of in from the coast and the M1.

Queensland lay behind them as they drove past paddocks with brown patches of dead, stubbly grass in well-grazed clumps. ‘At least there’re patches of feed,’ Jed said. ‘It isn’t a dust bowl like in Roma.’

But they didn’t see signs of rain. And they were coming close to their destination as they travelled down the ranges.

Water restrictions shouted in red from road signs, with the heritage town of Tenterfield counting the days until it ran out of water completely. Gracie stared sadly at dry ornate gardens, the brown grass, the long-faced people on the footpaths who didn’t look up as they drove through and out the other side. Drought sucked. Period.

They passed an arid expanse where black cattle milled around a muddy waterhole. The edges of the dam were soft and torn and the cattle pulled one sinking foot after the other through the mud until they could reach the centre where the last of the orange water lay in a bowl of clay. Gracie sighed. ‘That one’s almost dry.’

‘And the cattle will stick and die if someone isn’t watching.’ A grim edge to Jed’s voice reminded her he’d seen too much of the drought.

‘You said there’s a creek through Featherwood?’ she asked to divert him.

Jed blinked, wrinkled his brow and then his forehead cleared. ‘Lots of creeks and a big one down the mountain that becomes the river when there’s flow. Between Bellingen and Featherwood, the pocket of mountain top is one of the last to feel drought in New South Wales. Just an hour down the mountain as the crow flies and it turns into the Bellingen River, where you can paddle to the sea. A real snake of a waterway. Though they said it stopped running in places last month for the first time in years.’

‘Where do you pick up this information?’ Gracie shook her head. ‘I’ve never met a man who could strike up a conversation like you can, Jed.’

‘That was from Molly, the schoolteacher in the village. She’d dropped some cakes into the pub when I was there. She reckons the house will come up good and offered us help. I can’t wait to show you.’

He’d mentioned the house. Positively. Gracie felt excitement stir in her belly along with their baby. She couldn’t wait either.

The sun had passed overhead and was now behind them.

Since they’d turned onto the Guyra road that apparently snaked past Featherwood, towards Dorrigo, Jed’s hand had lifted as each car or truck had passed on the road to their destination and the other drivers had waved back.

‘Just like you and me are locals,’ Jed said.

Now they were on the Waterfall Way and getting close. The last car, one they’d passed ten minutes ago, had been a blue BMW in a road tunnel of trees waiting to turn into a gate. The woman hadn’t waved, but that wasn’t a sign. Featherwood, the village, would be a friendly place.

As they approached the last rise, the overhead tree tunnel opened out into clumps of olive against the hills and pink cockatoos cawed in the sky in front of them as they swept the bend. A valley spread before them. Unbelievably, it was tinged with green.

‘That’s it!’ Jed’s face split in delight.

Featherwood fanned out below as they rattled down the hill. Houses and a church spire. The creek wriggled like a worm on a mission through a wide creek flat with the browns and greys of drought edged one side, while on the other, spotted cattle grazed hopefully across the still-green-in-places paddock of the flats. Gracie guessed that when it rained those same flats would be vibrant and lush.

Closer ahead, the spread of houses lay on each side of the one main road. Their new town. They crossed a bridge.

‘Welcome to Featherwood,’ she read aloud from the white board. ‘The sign looks new.’ Her gaze followed the road into the scatter of small buildings, some timber, some brick. Chimneys over all of them, as if winter meant woodfires and warm clothes.

But it was nearly summer and hot air rushed into the cab as Gracie wound down the window and let freshness blow her hair from her face. The breeze breathed the scent of their new home over them. Eucalyptus and dust. Cows. Cracked mud. Bottle-green bushes with waratah flowers.

The village started with the school on a flat pancake of land to the left of the bridge, with the two small brick buildings edged in white timber. The main classroom was a long, white timber verandah standing on short pylons with a ramp leading to the door. A row of small backpacks hung on the wall. A wide sports oval lay behind the buildings and she could imagine small, straggling cross-country runners gasping for breath. ‘Featherwood Public School,’ Gracie said with a smile. ‘Our baby will go there.’

‘I can see you in the tuckshop making lunches,’ said Jed.

‘Does that mean you’ll do the meetings at night for fundrais­ing?’ Gracie teased him. Jed had been on the committee for the Roma Cricket Club and the rural fire brigade. He could drive the big fire truck when needed. A team player, he was a sucker if someone asked for a favour.

On the opposite side of the road from the school lay a white-fenced rodeo-cum-cricket-ground – sporting a small grandstand overlooking the field. It appeared as though it had even been used as a dirt racecourse. The cricket pitch resembled a brown sticking plaster on a dirty knee inside the fence. But at least Featherwood had a cricket pitch. Jed would be happy.

Then came two boarded shops and a big hall on stilts that proclaimed, ‘Meetings held first Monday of the month. Progress Association’.

Gracie guessed with the drought, Featherwood hadn’t made a lot of progress recently. Jed would end up in the meetings, full of ideas, and occasionally getting up people’s noses.

Gracie slanted a glance at her man. ‘You’re going to be busy.’

Jed rolled his eyes. ‘Let’s sort our world first.’

That was a good sign. Sensible.

A small, white church presided atop another knoll on the right. With one tall belltower square, it was solid looking with narrow arched windows and was surrounded by a painted picket fence. A matching gate led through to the graveyard on the right of that.

There were maybe two dozen old graves, but they were well kept. Gracie liked graveyards. She also liked what she’d seen of the village, but the rest would have to wait. They’d arrived and she doubted Jed had seen any of the things she’d noted.

Opposite the church sat the Farmer’s Friend.

As they drove into the front driveway of the derelict produce store, her man’s eyes were firmly fixed with a bright sheen of glowing anticipation.

He pulled up outside the shuttered, soiled shopfront with a noisy shudder as their belongings settled. He sat there with his hands on the wheel and stared at the mouldy building decorated with rampant weeds and spiderwebs and studied the scene with something like joy.

That wasn’t quite the emotion Gracie was experiencing.

The Farmer’s Friend Fiona McArthur

A moving and uplifting Australian drama about what it really means to be a community – and learning that best friends can also make the best family.

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