The River Runs Deep – Episode 02

Sailesh Thakrar © The main characters from the story Illustration by Sailesh Thakrar

Laura awakened with a jolt.

It was pitch dark; the moon wasn’t yet up. She could hear a creaking, clanking, rattling…

Leaping to her feet, Laura peered out through the open roof.

The noises had ceased, but beyond the bare trees at the Delderfield place a dull light flickered behind the broken shutter of an upstairs window.

Something was moving about in there.

Suddenly, the old house plunged into blackness.

William Robertson had regularly come to Pipers Creek and tended the Sinclairs’ fields and orchard.

If school was out, Billy-Bob accompanied him and the pair worked together, the elderly man teaching his grandson everything he knew about growing things.

Today was the day they would both have come, and while she was collecting the eggs, Laura thought on that.

“Ma,” she began, going indoors. “D’you reckon Billy-Bob’ll come? Like he did when Grandpa William was still here?”

Shona shook her head.

“Tending our land was something Billy-Bob and his grandpa did together,” she replied. “The poor boy surely won’t come alone.”

But he did.

Billy-Bob Robertson turned up as usual, carrying his grandfather’s tools.

“Weather’s right for broad beans, ma’am,” he mumbled with a respectful nod to Shona. “I’ll carry on with the long field.”

Around noon, Laura took a lunch pail into the long field so they might eat together.

Although Billy-Bob was a few years older than she was, they got along well, but today they ate in silence.

Billy-Bob didn’t speak, and Laura couldn’t think what to say.

At the day’s end, Shona and Laura went out with a large earthenware dish wrapped in muslin.

“I know peach cobbler’s your mother’s favourite,” Shona said, easing the baking into his poke.

“Will you tell her I’ll stop by to see her in a day or two?”

Billy-Bob nodded. Then, shouldering the unwieldy poke, he started away through the wicket gate and on to the creek path.

He looked lonely.

Laura slipped her hand into her mother’s.

“Why is Billy-Bob’s ma always poorly?”

“Before she married, Hannah worked underground at the mine,” Shona replied. “It made her very sick.”

Watching Billy-Bob trailing homewards on his own, Laura squeezed her mother’s hand. She wanted to ask if his ma was going to die, but couldn’t say the words.

“I’m setting aside this corner of the store for Deep River’s first lending library,” Adelaide Mathieson declared, her eyes sparkling behind silver-rimmed spectacles as she addressed a gathering of the town’s womenfolk.

“I’ve chosen works by Mr Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Harriet Beecher Stowe for our shelves.”

Adelaide paused, gauging her audience’s reaction, for Mrs Stowe’s abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would not find favour in a border state such as theirs, where men, women and children were enslaved.

“Our library must be a broad church, ladies,” she went on briskly.

“I’m keen to canvass ideas for further books we might acquire.”

Suggestions soon came in thick and fast. Adelaide was in her element. She was a born organiser.

A descendant of one of the founding families, she was among the town’s elders, as well as proprietress of its large mercantile store.

Selling everything from horseshoe nails to fancy bonnets, Mathieson’s occupied a corner location in the very heart of town.

From a vantage point like that, there wasn’t much that happened in Deep River that Miss Adelaide didn’t know about.

She thanked the ladies for their assistance and bade them goodbye when Hal Carmichael strode in, brandishing the latest edition of “The Clarion”.

Ever chivalrous, the owner, editor, writer and printer of the town’s only newspaper greeted each of the ladies amiably as they departed, containing his impatience to speak with his closest friend.

“Hot off the press!” he exclaimed the instant they were alone, offering her the newspaper with its scathing front page editorial about the Overton mine.

Raising her eyebrows as she read, Adelaide glanced over the tops of her spectacles at him.

“Are you sure this isn’t libellous?”

“Positive. Don’t forget, I was a lawyer once,” Hal replied wryly. “Besides, it could only be libel if it wasn’t true.”

“Every word is only too true,” she agreed, her eyes concerned. “But take care, Hal. You’re making a dangerous enemy in the Overton Mining Company.”

A look passed between them and Hal nodded, a smile touching his lips.

“Since when has danger ever deterred you from doing what is right?”

Adelaide inclined her head, returning his smile. They kept no secrets from each other.

“Have you unearthed evidence of negligence?” she enquired.

“Not yet. Conditions at that mine have always been appalling, but this past year there have been far too many incidents that indicate cutting corners in pursuit of profits.”

Hal frowned, frustrated.

“I’ve tried interviewing Caleb Robertson – he’s an honest man, straight as a die.

“As mine clerk, he must see and know plenty about what goes on at Overton’s, but he won’t say a word against the company.

“I never will understand,” the newspaperman railed, “how somebody can stand by and do nothing.”

“Caleb is an honest man and a hard worker,” Adelaide remarked soberly. “He’s also utterly dependent upon Overton’s.

“If he should fall foul of Ty Skinner or the company, Caleb risks not only losing his livelihood, but his family being turned out from their home.”

To be continued…

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