Exclusive Sneaky Peek - The Stockman's Daughter


It's sneaky peek time, which means the release day for The Stockman's Daughter is drawing closer!

You're really going to love this story.

So without further delay, here is a never-before-seen excerpt of the first three chapters of The Stockman's Daughter.

The Stockman’s Daughter

Jacquie Underdown

Chapter 1

Maddy

An uneasy feeling had sat with Maddy Carmichael all afternoon. While out doing yard work, there were whiffs of it on the breeze, in the twitch of a Brahman’s long ear, or deep in her muscles like a tired ache.

She felt the unease around her because this farm was in her blood. The herbaceous scent that filled her senses was as familiar as worn leather, a blade of grass, or the sweaty coat of cattle after a long muster. Bird chorus rocked her awake every morning, while crickets and cicadas lulled her to sleep at night.

Each day she worked hard under the bleaching sun. And by the evening, she would be so tired, she hurt. Cattle would come and go. The sun would rise and fall. Some years were good. Some not so much. But that’s how it was here. This farm was alive. It breathed new life, it hurt sometimes, and it spilt blood.

She ran her hand down the damp coat of her stock horse, leaned in closer to the mare’s ear and whispered in a cooing voice, “Thank you for your help this afternoon, Miss Sky.”

Miss Sky’s dark pointed ears twitched and Maddy laughed. “You know you’re my favourite. But don’t dare tell the others.”

Maddy climbed off. A familiar saddle-weary ache in her butt and inner thighs. She held the leather reins and led her horse to the stables. When Miss Sky was in the stable manager’s capable hands, she headed back out into the sunlight, pulling at the front of her work shirt, billowing it to allow air to cool her sweat-sheened skin. She could always tell when winter was behind her by how much her shirt clung to her stomach and back.

Her parched mouth had her reaching for her water flask, and she drank deeply, splashing a little over her face to wash the day’s dust from her eyelids and cheeks. She lifted off her Rough Rider, held it between her jeaned legs while she let out her ponytail and retied it. The fresher afternoon air was wonderful against her sweaty head.

Noisy activity was coming from the horse arena, so she put her hat back on and marched behind the stables to take a look. From over the timber fencing, she spotted her sister standing in the centre of the round yard, rope in hand, tapping it against her thigh, as a gleaming colt galloped the perimeter. Her father stood outside with his hands leaning on the fence, watching on.

That uncomfortable sensation in her belly awakened again, like a sprouting tree branch that splintered as it grew. She shook her head, gave herself a berating smile. There was no reason for this uneasiness, yet she could taste it on her tongue—faint but bitter.

The arena was her dad and younger sister’s domain. They were the horse people in the family. Though Maddy loved to ride and work with horses, the thought of having to break one in frightened her. But stock horses were essential to the day-to-day operations on the farm, so they had to be taught to trust humans, wear a saddle, bear the weight of a rider, but also stay calm during a muster of three thousand head of cattle while chopper rotors chugged overhead.

She opened the arena gate, quietly entered and stood beside her father, not wanting to frighten the horse.

“Hi, love, good day?” Dad asked, smiling at her from under the brim of his hat. His hands were tanned and well worn, as was his face after working his whole life under the oppressive Central Queensland sun’s rays. He wore a red and white chequered long-sleeved shirt with a neck chief and dark blue denim jeans.

“Yeah, a productive day,” she said.

“That’s what I like to hear.”

She turned to watch Candace who stepped forwards or backwards now and then to alert the horse to change direction as he circled the pen.

Maddy nodded towards the colt. “Who do we have here?”

“This is Grady. We’re hoping to break him in for the stock team, so we can eventually retire Marshmallow.” Marshmallow was a senior mare who was a fixture on the farm. The equine family at Bunderdoo were a broad mix of ages. The senior stock horses or broodmares who had put in years of hard work were allowed to rest in the paddock in their twilight years, munching away on grass. Or, as Dad liked to say, they became pensioners.

Candace had secured a loose rope around the horse’s neck and was guiding him around the yard.

“Looks a little timid,” Maddy noted to her father.

“He’s young. He’ll get there.”

Timid could indicate dangerous when dealing with an untamed animal this size. But big beasts were the normal course of business on a cattle farm like Bunderdoo. Maddy would take an untamed horse over a bull any day.

“Warmed up, you reckon, Candace?” Dad called.

“Yeah, he seems fairly calm.”

“I’m gonna see how he goes with a rider.”

Candace held her father’s gaze, eyes shaped with concern. “You think he’s ready?”

“No time like the present.”

Dad collected the harness, saddle and blanket from the ground and carried it into the yard. Candace assertively helped him harness and saddle-up Grady, then joined Maddy outside.

Her sister was twenty-two, four years younger than Maddy, and had inherited Dad’s colouring—sandy-brown hair and blue eyes. Whereas Maddy and Felicity had got their mother’s blonde hair and green eyes. All three sisters shared a slight build and not one of them could call themselves tall.

Dad held a stick with a plastic bag taped to the end in one hand and a lead rope clipped to a harness in the other. For a while, he led the horse around the yard.

“Grady’s pulling a little on that rope,” Candace said.

Maddy had noticed the slight turn of the horse’s head as he trotted around. Dad let the lead rope out a little and allowed Grady to pick up to a canter.

“Don’t push, don’t push,” Dad cooed. “Ease up. Good boy, now that’s what I want to see.” Grady slowed again and then came to a stop.

“He’s come a long way,” Candace said, lifting a foot onto the lower rail and resting her forearm on her thigh. “It took him so long to learn to trust us. But we’ve been working him a few hours a week for the past month and he’s showing some promise.”

Maddy placed her hand on Candace’s shoulder. “If anyone is going to make him into a fine horse, it’s you.”

Her sister smiled bashfully and lowered her gaze.

Candace’s affinity with horses, and theirs with her, was unmistakable. Since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, Candace had gone to pony club, her love for horses growing as she, herself, grew. After high school, she had strived to become a vet but didn’t quite earn the grades that would qualify her to study the course at university.

Candace had been utterly dejected after that until the local vet suggested she study a veterinary nursing certificate. So, she did. She was now able to help the vet when he attended Bunderdoo.

Most of Candace’s time was spent ensuring the welfare of the family of horses here on the farm, assisting in the stables and long days in the round yard with new or young horses.

Dad shook the rope a little in front of him, stepped forward and Grady backed up. “Good boy. Good boy.” Then tugged lightly on the lead rope, stepped backwards and the horse came forward. “That’s what I like to see. Good boy.”

Maddy was more mechanically-minded than her sisters. She always put her hand up for machinery maintenance. The long-term mechanic at Bunderdoo was solely to thank for that passion. He apprenticed her from the time she was fifteen to service all kinds of machinery from tractors to cars to motorbikes. Said her little hands were perfect to fit into tight places.

While Felicity preferred the business side of farming and since the arrival of her son, spent her days mostly in the office.

Grady stopped and Dad praised him softly and patted his snout and neck.

“We’ve had the saddle on him a dozen times,” Candace said. “And I’ve stepped up in the stirrups, but that’s it so far.”

“So, this will be the first time with a leg over him?”

Candace nodded.

Dad used the stick with the bag and rubbed Grady’s neck with it, down to his back. The horse twitched, moved his head away from the flapping sound.

“He’s a little tweaky,” Candace whispered. “I hope we’re not too soon to ride him.”

Dad rubbed the stick on Grady’s back flank and he pranced on the spot then backed away, head shifting from side to side.

“You can’t let that bother you,” Dad said to Grady. “Imagine what my leg’s gonna do if this bothers you.” He steadied the horse and continued to rub the stick on his rump and back. He flicked the stick up and down, from ground to saddle, mimicking how it would be when Dad mounted him. He tipped Grady’s head, so he had side vision of what was happening.

Grady shifted, backed away, walked five or so paces. Dad shortened the lead rope and when he had the horse still again, he continued with the bag. “That’s it. No need to be moving around like that.”

A small tug of anxiety in Maddy’s stomach. This was why she didn’t go into the round yard. She didn’t have nerves of steel like Dad and Candace when it came to unbroken horses. She’d had spills over the years—impossible to avoid when horses were a big part of her working life—when they had become unexpectedly spooked in the yards, and that was painful enough. Let alone being thrown from a bucking, anxious colt.

Dad moved the bag up and down a few more times. The horse twitched but was mostly still. “See, you understand me now. It ain’t gonna hurt ya.” He shifted to the front of the horse, got in nice and close and rubbed the bag over Grady’s ears, between his eyes. “That’s it.” He looked to Maddy and Candace. “All right, I reckon he’s ready. Let’s give this a go.” He carried the stick and passed it over the fence to Maddy. She placed it on the ground beside her.

Dad tied a rope halter and pulled gently on one side, nudging the horse to move his head as directed a few times on each side. “Okay, I’m not going to waste any more time here.”

He held his hands up on the saddle and put his foot in the stirrup. Maddy’s stomach was a flurry of butterflies. A small jump to lift off the ground and Dad threw his leg over Grady. He patted his neck and cooed indecipherably as he sat horse-high on Grady’s back.

Candace and Maddy looked at each other, wide-eyed, but with hopeful smiles.

Dad continued to sit there, patting the horse, talking softly to him. Grady’s front leg lifted, his head tilted to the side, but he soon steadied again.

With feet locked into the stirrups, hands holding the halter, Dad pulled left on the rope, turning the horse, and put a gentle heel in Grady’s side. He made a series of clicks with his tongue. One step, two steps and Grady took off, lifting his legs, bending his back, head down low. Dad held on, despite his body being thrown backwards and forwards as the horse bucked, jumped and raced around the yard.

“Bloody hell,” Candace growled. “Hold on tight, Dad.”

Their father was rocked and tilted as he tried to steady the horse but to no avail. Grady, breathing heavily from his big nostrils, rumbling neighs from his chest, headed towards the fence and tried to jump it. His front legs hit the fence with a loud clunk, which spooked him more and his bucking became ferocious.

Maddy’s heart was in her throat.

“Come on, Dad, get him under control,” Candace said under her breath.

But he couldn’t hold on after the next savage buck and flew from the horse. His head smacked into the yard rail and his body followed until he landed on the ground with a heavy thud like a sack of wet flour. Grady’s back hoof came down hard on Dad’s ribs. Oomph.

Maddy gasped, her hands flung to cover her mouth. Her heart was racing. With the rider gone, the horse finally calmed and moved away from Dad.

“Call the medic,” Candace said and raced into the yard, not looking back.

Maddy’s hands were trembling when she pressed the receiver on her two-way, still strapped to her chest from the day of work.

“On Channel, Medic?”

A few seconds that felt like years had passed. “I’m here. Over.”

“I need you to call an ambulance and get to the horse arena now. Dad’s taken a fall. He’s hit his head.”

“Apply first aid where necessary but don’t move him. He could have potential spinal injuries. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

Fear rose from Maddy’s clenching guts up to her throat, tightening and deepening her words. “Hurry. Please.”

Candace had a hold of Grady’s lead rope and brought him to a halt. She led the frazzled colt to the side of the yard. While Candace tied the horse to the fence, Maddy opened the gate and sprinted inside.

Her breaths were coming fast, head light, dizzy. She skidded to a stop and dropped to her knees beside her father. He was out cold, his mouth lolling open. She pressed her fingers to his neck and almost cried when against her fingertips was a rhythmic beat. A rushed, heavy exhale, and she squeezed her eyes closed.

Candace was beside her now, panting.

“Marcus said not to move him, but to apply first aid where essential.” Maddy unbuttoned her shirt with shaky fingers and peeled it from her shoulders and arms. She held it to the side of Dad’s head that was covered in the most blood, careful not to press too hard in case fragments of skull were pushing against his brain.

The soil beneath his head was an inky red-brown. Tears pricked the back of her eyes. “Please, please be okay.”

Forever seemed to pass until Marcus, a trained medic, came roaring over the hill in a farm ute and skidded to a stop. He rushed with a big first aid kit in his hand down the grassy slope to the arena. He was with them a moment later, firstly bracing Dad’s neck before he attended to the rest of him.

Maddy hugged her bare midriff as she stood back with Candace. When Dad stirred and opened his eyes, Maddy bent at the waist, hands on her knees, and almost moaned with relief.

But then the yelling started—a pain-filled bleating. A noise, unlike anything she had heard come from her father before. The tortured sound made her teeth ache. Goosebumps prickled along her skin.

Her throat was tight with tears, her eyes burning, but she drew her chin up, breathed deeply. She reached for Candace’s hand and squeezed it.

In the distance, the very faint whine of sirens sounded. The closest town centre to Bunderdoo with an ambulance station was twenty-five minutes away and the closest hospital was nearly an hour.

The windswept clouds overhead crossed the path of the sun, dulling the daytime with shadow. Her uneasy feeling from earlier was loud, unbearably present. It had shifted from her belly, up to her heart, and onto her tongue. Words formed around the feeling as though her intuition had found a voice. Constriction in her chest as she listened. Change had come. Her father’s accident was just the start. No stopping it now.

Dad screamed again and again. Maddy had never felt so helpless, relegated to the sidelines as her father suffered.

Chapter 2

Ryder

Ryder closed the gate to the top paddock and wiggled the clasp a couple of times to make sure it was firmly shut. He cast a glance over the large ewe flock. They were strong, healthy, still donning their thick winter coats, and most with bulging stomachs ready to lamb any day now as they marched into spring. Thanks to good rains over winter, he had spent the day on horseback calmly herding them to a more fertile paddock.

The sun was sinking behind him as he strode to his Land cruiser ute parked a little way over a slope. Less noise for the ewes that way. He liked to keep things as quiet and calm for them as possible at this time of year.

His breath was a puff of steam before him as the cooler evening air settled in. When seated in the driver’s side, his two-way sounded. Frank’s voice came loud and a little crackly through the speaker. “On channel, Ryder?”

He held down the responder. “Just leaving the top paddock.”

“Good. Stop in at the house on your way through.”

He hesitated as he noted the strange timbre of his boss’s voice. A tightness. “Sure. Be there in five.”

He cruised along the worn dirt track towards the homestead. The odd rock or stick crunched under his tyres. He had learned each bump and turn of every track that sliced across this property in the years he had worked here. Two years as a farmhand as he earned his place and trust, and now coming on three years as the farm manager.

The late afternoon sun’s glow was reflected in the rear-view mirror. The lush paddocks were a mixture of vibrant green, shadows, and brushstrokes of fluorescent orange.

He pulled up out the front of the sheds and headed through the back door of the house. Frank was in the office, sitting silently, hands on his knees, staring at the blank computer screen.

“Everything okay, Frank?”

Frank blinked. His gaze shifted to meet Ryder’s. Bloodshot blue eyes. “Not really, mate. My brother had a fall off a horse yesterday. He hit his head. Copped a hoof to the ribs, it appears.”

“Oh, no. Not good. How…how is he?”

“Not the best. Broken hip. Femur. Collarbone. Ribs. A concussion. He doesn’t remember the accident.” Frank scrubbed a hand down his cheek. “Not sure that’s such a bad thing.”

“He’ll make a full recovery, though, right?”

Frank nodded emphatically. “Of course. Mate, my brother, he’s a stubborn old bugger. He’ll be back to it soon enough, that’s a certainty.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Frank’s shoulders sagged. He was a stubborn old bugger too. An unfaltering resilience regardless of the hardships he had endured on the farm. Ryder couldn’t but respect that type of perseverance and mental strength. Yet, despite all that, a few cracks were showing.

“I know this is last minute and the ewes are moments from lambing…” He spun in his chair to face Ryder directly and frowned. “My brother needs help to manage his farm until he is back on his feet. Coming out of a dry winter, he has a few paddocks he needs to spell, so there will be some big musters. The wet season will settle in up there before you know it, so he can’t afford to wait. Not when he has five thousand head of cattle at risk of being flooded in.”

Ryder crinkled his brow. “Are you saying you want me to go up there?”

Frank had spoken about his brother’s farm over the years. A fourth-generation Brahman stud and commercial beef raising farm in Central Queensland just north of Mackay. From what he had gathered, it was enormous. And if Frank was throwing numbers like five thousand head out there, it was bigger than any farm Ryder had worked on.

Frank had a mixed farm here where he raised cattle and sheep, so Ryder had kept his hand in with musters. He had participated in many when he jackarooed for a year at a station near Adelaide and another year at a cattle farm in northwest Victoria after agricultural college, but the numbers were nothing like this. His stomach flipped, and he wasn’t sure if it was with excitement for the new adventure or nerves. Was he cut out for this role?

Frank got to his feet and roughly patted Ryder’s shoulder. “I have faith in you. I wouldn’t send you up there otherwise. I’d go myself, leave you here, but that station needs a young bloke—fit as a Mallee bull. You’ve proven you can go like a cut cat when required. Well, I need you to do that now.” Frank turned his head, sat again and raked fingers through his thinning hair. “It’s a big blow, what happened to Alan… Doctors think he’ll be out for at least three months. He’s scheduled for hip replacement surgery…”

“I’m sorry. I just don’t think at this time I should be heading away. The anniversary of Dad’s”— he cleared his throat — “death is coming up. I don’t want to be away from Penny. My—” He closed his mouth. He was going to say his footy team was likely to make the grand final this season, only a few weeks away, and he couldn’t desert them either. Not after last season when he was such a grief-stricken mess and was practically responsible for the Woodford Creek Bulldogs losing the semi-final when he’d missed kicking the winning goal in the last seconds. But voicing that in the face of what had happened to Alan would be insensitive.

“I know you feel a lot of responsibility for your sister, but she’s a very capable young woman. And you need to be living your own life.”

Ryder nodded. All true, but it still didn’t absolve him of the obligation he felt for his younger sister. Since Dad had died, it was only the two of them. She was six years younger than him and studying her last year of university while working part-time at the Woodford Creek pub. He didn’t want to up and leave her a couple of months before her final exams. She had already had such disruption to her study while they cared for their father who had slowly deteriorated from lung cancer.

“Let her know tonight. You can leave the day after tomorrow. It’s a three-day drive with stopovers. Alan’s daughters can’t run the place on their own, and I don’t trust anyone else. They need you up there.” His words were fast, laden with worry.

Ryder respected Frank a lot. After the ups and downs of the past five years, his loyalty towards Frank was steadfast. He would always be grateful for the compassion Frank had shown him during his grief. He had guided Ryder through those dark patches, even on his worst days. He owed Frank this peace of mind.

“Fine. I’ll leave Monday morning and aim to get there Wednesday afternoon.”

Frank nodded. “Thanks, mate. I knew I could count on you. Plan to stay up there until Christmas. Though, Alan will probably be ready to take over again before then.”

“Three months. Got it.” No problem—except he now had to cop stick from his footy team and tell Penny he was deserting her for Queensland.

“And, Ryder, pack for warm weather. It’s going to be hot.”

“I’m not looking forward to that.”

Frank managed a short laugh. “You’re young. You’ll get used to it soon enough.”

Later that evening, Ryder strode into the local Woodford Creek pub and spotted Penny already seated at a table. His mate, Josh—the Woodford Creek Bulldog’s captain—was also there.

The pub smelled like faint beer-soaked carpet that had been masked by the smoky scent of a steak grill. In the small dining area, he shuffled onto a seat across from Penny and smiled at his little sister. She grinned back.

Yes, he was only leaving for three months, but it felt like a big deal. Like they needed to get through this first year, since Dad’s death, together. Especially when she had her most important exams right in the middle of it all. And here he was heading up to Central Queensland, thousands of kilometres away, with barely any warning.

“Big day?” Josh asked him. “You look tired.”

“Oh, mate, you know what it’s like this time of year.” He wriggled in his seat. “And, I’ve got some news.”

Penny arched her brows, leaned closer across the table. “Good or bad news?”

Ryder shrugged. “Not sure. I guess you’ll have to decide.”

She frowned, passed a worried look with Josh. “Well, hurry up. Stop keeping us in suspense.”

He cleared his throat. “Frank’s brother, Alan, had an accident. He’s in pretty bad shape and will be recuperating for about three months. Frank wants me to head up to Central Queensland and manage the farm for his brother.”

Penny sat back against her seat and blew out a long breath. “Wow. Okay. I thought you were going to say something much worse than that.”

He chuckled. “So, me leaving for three months is no big deal?”

“It’s a big deal. But nothing compared to what I was imagining.”

“So, when do you head off?” Josh asked.

Ryder winced. “Monday morning.”

“This Monday? As in two days?”

Ryder nodded.

“What about the team? We need you in the forwards. You’re the leading point scorer.”

“I know. Mate, I’m sorry. If I could leave it until the season is over, I would. But they need me up north as soon as possible.”

Penny elbowed Josh in the ribs gently. “I’m sure one season isn’t going to hurt.”

Josh sighed but managed a tight smile. “No, perhaps not.”

“I’ll be all guns blazing next season. I promise,” Ryder said.

“You better be.”

He shifted in his seat again. His voice was softer when he asked Penny, “You don’t mind that I won’t be here for Dad’s anniversary?”

She shook her head, smiled sadly. “We can still talk on the phone or video chat.”

“And what about university? Your exams are coming up. Are you going to be okay?”

She smiled. “It’s not like you can do the exams for me anyway.”

“I know, but I’d be here for…you. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I know. But I’ve come this far, I’m not going to screw it all up now.”

Ryder blew out a noisy breath. “It’s settled then. I’m heading to Queensland.” He turned to face the bar. “I suddenly feel like a beer.”

Josh got to his feet. “I’ll get this round.”

“You don’t have to threaten me with a good time.”

When Josh was out of earshot, Penny frowned at him. “I’ll miss you, but I also want you to know that I’ll be fine. We’ve both been through a storm much bigger than this and we managed to come out the other side. I’ll be right here where you left me when you get home.” She shrugged, giggled. “Except, hopefully, I’ll be a university graduate by then.”

Ryder rose to his feet, leaned over, and wrapped an arm around his sister. “I’ll miss you too. And I know you’ll be fine.”

“It’s kinda exciting, don’t you think? “Penny said when he was seated again. “You haven’t done anything like this since after ag college.”

She was right. While their father was sick, it was like their lives had been put on hold for so long. Now, with him gone, there was a massive gaping hole in their hearts, but also, in a way, and he hated to admit this because he’d take it back in a second just to see his father again, but the thick, choking rope that had tied him and his sister down had been severed too. “In a way, it is. It will be a challenge, that’s for sure. Much bigger farm than I’ve ever worked on, let alone run.”

“You’ll smash it. You’ll see.”

He grinned as he silently hoped his sister was right.

Chapter 3

Maddy

At dusk, Maddy received a phone call from Candace telling her that their father’s operation had been a success. She sank onto the swing seat on the front veranda and watched, beyond the unending subtle slopes of pasture, the last of the sun’s colours fading behind the mountains as night crept in.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said into her mobile.

Her younger sister had a smile in her weary voice. “I feel the same.” Candace had sat at the hospital for eight hours as their father was prepped and operated on, until he had been wheeled out of recovery into his hospital suite. “He’s a little sore, and very sleepy, as can be expected. But there’s no point me staying at the hospital any longer. The nurses are taking good care of him.”

“That’s so good to hear. Go check into your hotel and get a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ll give Felicity a quick call, then I’ll do just that.”

There were many rules Maddy and her sisters had to follow living out here on the farm. One such rule was to avoid driving long distances at night. Especially along the lengthy back highway that was notorious for unexplained deaths, motor vehicle accidents, crimes, and even paranormal encounters. The highway stole her mother a decade ago and that was a lesson learned in the very real dangers a long stretch of road presented.

“You’ll be back tomorrow?” Maddy asked.

“I’ll head to the hospital in the morning and stay with Dad until noon, then make my way home.”

“Call me before you leave.”

“I will.”

Maddy ended the conversation and let her mobile roll from her hand onto the seat cushion beside her. She drew a deep breath and when it noisily released from her lungs, it was rich with relief.

She rested back in the seat, the tips of her steel-cap boots brushing against the decking, so she could gently rock. Crickets chirped. The evening offered a breeze that held the last remnants of winter and