A Bunch of Battlers by Kylie Reynolds - HTML preview

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The afternoon passed rapidly as the distance disappeared under the rolling wheels. The children breathed in the sights and sounds of the plains. Several times large trucks loaded with grain thundered past - the drivers waving cheerily to them.

Near dusk they turned off onto a narrow track that led into the lake. They slept in the shelter of some low bushes. At picaninny dawn they were awake and rode off as the sky lightened.

“Milkshakes at Manangatang” called Pete reading the map as he pedaled.

“I think we should buy some “Quick” and plain milk. It would be cheaper and just as nice.” suggested Robyn.

“Chocolate “Quick” then” ordered Billy firmly,

“Okay then, race you to that sign post”. Pete challenged. Wheels whirred and gear levers clacked as they sped on down the road.

Outside the Manangatang General Store Billy was downing his third cup of chocolate Quick and Pete was on his fourth Vegemite sandwich.

“I’ll spread the whole loaf now then we can just have a sandwich whenever we feel like it” said Robyn.

At 8am on a summer’s day the little town seemed sleepy. A couple of dogs sprawled in the shade.

“Mightn’t be a bad idea” Pete pointed to them “Looks like today will be a real scorcher”

A young man riding a horse and leading two others stopped by the store. He smiled at Robyn. “G’day, going to be a hot one. You plannin’ on pedallin’ for t’day?”

Before Robyn could answer Billy interrupted, “We’re going ever so far to see the pelicans. Are you a cowboy? Why’ve you got three horses?”

The man laughed at the small boy “There’s lots of people go through here on their way to see the pelicans. My mum owns this store and tourists usually stop here.”

“I like your horses” Robyn was stroking the nose of a dappled grey “What are their names?”

“Speedway, Thunderbolt, Starlight and my name’s Brian.”

Robyn introduced the family formally to Brian who shook hands with Pete and suggested, “The swimming pool will be open in half an hour if you want to cool off before you go on.”

“That sounds great.” Pete was already feeling sticky from the heat.

“Can I sit on one?” Billy tugged at Brian’s leg.

“Up you come.” Brian easily lifted Billy onto the saddle in front of him. The little boy’s eyes went wide with excitement, and for once he was lost for words! “Here why don’t we all go for a ride?

I don’t have to start work for Mum just yet. They’re pretty quiet horses”

“Gee thanks I’d love that” Robyn was thrilled Pete helped her up and with a few whinnies the horses trotted off.

Brian gave them a grand tour of the district the wheat silos racecourse and sports oval the school the church and the town pride and joy - the recently opened swimming pool!

“Gee, thanks for the ride” chorused the three as they got on their bikes and headed towards the pool.

Already there were quite a few children and some noisy happy games were in progress. A notice on the wall said. “PERSONS

MUST SHOWER BFORE ENTERING THE POOL”

“Right” Robyn fished out a cake of soap “Now you two get under the shower with your clothes on and wash them as well. Hang them over the fence and they’ll be dry in no time.”

A shower? With my clothes on? Billy protested and shrugged, -

“Robyn was becoming just like a grownup” he thought, “She was having funny ideas!”

Soon Robyn and Pete were swimming in the deep end of the pool enjoying the cool silk feel of the water on their skin. Billy played at swimming in the shallow end. Holding on to the side and kicking wildly. He stopped for a breather and sat down on the steps. A teenage boy sat down beside him

“Hey mate” the boy whispered “who’s that pretty little sheila over there? The one you came in with.”

“That’s not a pretty little sheila” Billy was puzzled, “That’s my sister!” he jumped back into the water. The boy leapt up and did a running dive into the deep end - looking sideways at Robyn as he did so.

It was late morning when they left the pool and munching sandwiches cycled along the main street.

“Have a good trip,” Brian waved from the door of the store,

“Thanks” Robyn replied “and thanks again for the horse ride.”

The boys waved and called out their greetings too.

The road ahead beckoned and the blacktop rolled beneath the wheels as the three children swung into an easy pedaling rhythm.

By late afternoon they had left Manangatang about forty five kilometres behind them. Pete was consulting the map as he pedalled. “We’re close to the Murray River here – see, it bends in near the road. So if we take the next track we see going towards the trees over there we should strike the river.”

“Will the pelicans live there?” Billy’s hopeful voice sounded a bit cross because he was hot and hungry.

“Maybe, this is pretty close to their lake,” Robyn soothed him

“But we can go there tomorrow - I reckon we all deserve a swim now, and a big tea. You can try out your boat again, how bout it?

Think you can wait for the pelicans?”

“Sure,” Billy was easily placated “Is that the way to the river?” as he spotted a narrow track, a path made by animals on their way to water.

“That’ll do!” Pete ducked his head to miss a low branch as he led the way along the sandy path that went to the river.

Robyn soon had food cooking in a camp oven on the coals and the billy sat steaming beside the fire while he boys played in the water.

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“Here I come!” Robyn made a running dive into the river SPLASH!

She tossed her head to clear the water from her eyes.

Pete was speaking. “I’ve checked under water beneath that overhanging branch. We can jump in from there it’s quite safe”

“I’ll be first” Robyn raced Pete up the tree and jumped off then it was Pete’s turn.

“Do it again!” Billy jumped up and down in the shallows laughing with joy.

Chapter 7 – Excitement in the Sand Hills It was just after dawn on the third day of their stay in Hattah Lakes National Park. Billy squatted beside the lake, his toes squelching in the soft mud. All around him were his little toys, and he was earnestly working at excavating a pond for his plastic duck.

Pelicans swooped, skidded, and squabbled on the surface of the lake. Billy stopped to watch. He was enchanted by them.

Enormous sand hills rose behind the spot where they had set up camp. Huge ghost-gums ringed the lake, giving homes to many different birds and possums.

The children were enjoying a few days lazing about the lake before, as Pete put it, they got into serious business. By this he meant looking for work and a more permanent camp-site. Pete had planned to go to Mildura on the following day to check out about fruit picking work and to see if there was any reply to his letter to the Correspondence School. It was a long way – 130

kilometres for the round trip, but Pete knew, that on his own, he could do it with ease.

They had spent the past few days playing and exploring the park.

A game they never tired of was jumping off sand hills, to land half way down and slide and tumble to the base. This day dawned as peaceful as others had.

At around noon a family with two small children set up a large tent on the other side of a clump of trees from the children’s camp. Billy watched them from a narrow hollow nearby – it was about 1 ½ metres deep and 8 metres long, and just right for playing at ‘spies’. When he was tired of that game, he went back to the lake.

Late in the afternoon Pete noticed that the pelicans had left the lake, and, looking up, he saw that the sky had changed colour – it was shades of grey and pink. Robyn noticed at the same time that the air was still and there was no noise – no birds calling, no insects trilling.

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“It feels creepy,” she shivered.

“I think there’s a bad storm coming,” Pete looked up again anxiously. The sky was darker “Get Billy – we better take cover.

Billy’s hidey-hole will do. In a high wind these gums will drop branches like crazy – we don’t want to be history just yet!” He began gathering their things and dumping them into the hollow.

Robyn explained with calm that she didn’t feel, while she quickly gathered Billy and his toys, “We might be going to see a great big wind, so we need to be down a bit, like in a hole, so that we don’t get blown away - or your toys, either. So we’ll get down in your hidey-hole and watch from there. Some of those big trees might fall over too – it’s going to be really exciting.”

As she settled Billy in the hollow, Robyn thought suddenly about the new campers.

“Pete...,” she cried, and pointed. The wind was rising. The camper’s tent was flapping wildly, and it tore loose, flying away, to wrap itself high in the branches of a tree.

“Come on!” Pete called as he and Robyn raced to their aid.

Billy, peeping over the edge, watched wide-eyed as Robyn scooped a toddler under one arm and grasping the hand of the pre-schooler, ran the short distance and pushed the crying children into the safe place.

Meanwhile, the wind howled, and branches cracked and whipped through the air like waste paper. One landed on the car roof, crumpling the vehicle like a cardboard box.

The lady was in a panic, screaming at Robyn to bring her children back. Finally, Pete, using all his strength, grasped her by the arm and pulled her to the hollow. She tumbled into it, and gathering her children to her, stopped screaming and sat shaking with fear.

The man, who had been trying to pull the remains of the tent down from the tree, came running after Pete.

“Hey you! Let her go! I’ll flatten you!” Branches whipped at his clothing as he ran. Just as he saw the group crouching in the hollow, a tree fell thudding at his heels, and he dived to safety!

After a moment he looked about sheepishly.

“Sorry, old man,” he shouted to Pete above the wind. “Sort of lost my head. Sorry and all that. Good job you were here.

Thanks.” He put his arm around his wife.

“This is just like on the telly!” Billy was really enjoying the drama.

The other two small children, encouraged by Billy’s enthusiasm, squirmed away from their mother, and joined Billy in shouting happily as trees crashed around them.

Then suddenly it was over and the sky cleared into twilight. As Robyn and Pete were setting up their camp again, the Park Ranger’s Toyota appeared, moving cautiously along the track.

Robyn stared with dismay – “If the ranger asks us awkward questions, the storm will be the least of our worries,” she thought. Glancing around, she saw Billy and the other two little children earnestly digging a muddy hole at the lake’s edge, while Pete struggled to help the man gather the remains of the tent from the tree.

“Maybe the ranger will think we all belong together,” she hoped as she helped the lady collect the family’s scattered belongings.

It all turned out as Robyn had hoped. The ranger showed no curiosity about the children. He gave the man a lift out to the

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telephone at the Ranger Station so that he could contact his brother to come out from Mildura and pick up the family later that evening.

Pete, Robyn, and Billy waved good-bye to the family and Pete said with a sigh of relief as the taillights disappeared down the track, “Thank goodness those adults were too worried about their own losses to even think of asking about our parents. I reckon that tomorrow we should shift camp to a spot between the river and the lake – away from any walking tracks where it’s a bit more private. The day after that I’ll go into Mildura.”

At 5am the day was already warm and Pete had no need of a sweater as he pedalled along the sandy track that led to the main tarred road to Mildura. In the half light kangaroos hopped frequently across his path. By 7am the sun was strong and the kangaroos had gone to shelter from the day’s heat.

His hazards now were the occasional dreaming motorist.

Soon after eight am he rode past the last of the orchards and vineyards on the city’s edge and into the well trafficked streets.

At a cool, green, shady park Pete refilled his water bottles, had a wash, and changed into clean clothes. Next he went to a milkbar for a second breakfast.

A while later Pete collected the mail at the post office, and with a feeling of mounting excitement he found his way to the Employment Service office.

“Sixteen years old, son? Bit on the small side aren’t yer? Shrunk in the wash did ja?” the clerk behind the counter had a feeble

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joke at Pete’s expense. He was so pleased with his own wit that he failed to notice the supervisor appear at his elbow, until she remarked icily. “As you seem to have forgotten your manners, Mr Sturgess, you won’t be serving the public today. The storeroom needs cleaning, all the bins need a good scrub, and as the tea lady is off sick, you will take over her duties.”

The fellow blushed to the shade of a ripe apple and slunk away.

Pete felt sorry for him.

The supervisor handled Pete’s request, and in a few minutes he was pedalling towards a vineyard 6km west of the town. Here the owner, a short tubby man dressed in a singlet and shorts was welcoming - he liked the look of the boy. “We start picking in four days. Start at dawn, work til’ dark. Weekends off. Three weeks work. I reckon. You bring your own bedding and you can camp on our veranda and eat with us too. Usually the workers camp in the huts down there and cook for themselves, but you look like a lad who could do with a square feed.” He punched Pete on the shoulder and grinned. “See ya Monday then – and thanks a lot,”

said Pete as he swung aboard his bike.

It was late afternoon when Pete arrived back at the camp. While Robyn opened the mail from the Correspondence School, Pete told them, eyes shining with excitement, about his day. “Think you can manage while I’m away for five days at a time?”

“Of course we can manage,” replied Robyn. “It’s not as if you do much of the house-work, anyway! Billy and I are going to be kept very busy doing these school lessons. You didn’t think to buy us some pens and pencils and so on, did you?”

Pete reached into his pannier bag and handed over a parcel.

“Naturally,” he said with a superior air “I think of everything!”

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Chapter 8 – Making Plans

The three weeks passed quickly. Pete returned to the camp each weekend bringing the groceries and stories of his week. He enjoyed his job. Although the work was hard and the days long, Pete felt exhilarated as his tan deepened and his muscles hardened. The food was good, and he did extra little jobs around the house for the boss’s wife out of gratitude. It was a busy time for everyone in the vineyard and no-one asked Pete any personal questions – much to his relief.

Each Friday night the pedals seemed to fly under his feet as the bike light showed the way back to the camp. In the still summer evenings the journey took him about two and a half hours. Pete liked the peace and quiet of this time of the week, and used it to plan the family’s next move.

The long summer holidays were over now for most people, so few folk were out and about in the Hattah Lakes Park. Robyn and Billy were undisturbed in the well hidden camp. As in Melbourne, they had found a more heavily wooded spot protected by a tangle of scrub. Robyn had organised neat and efficient living quarters for them.

Billy was eager to start work on his school lessons. He felt himself very important to be doing real reading and writing, so Robyn had no trouble motivating him to work. In between lessons she

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took him to play at the lake. While Robyn did her own schoolwork, she insisted that Billy play near the camp. He didn’t mind this as he had just developed a real ‘craze’ for climbing, and here the trees were tall and easy to climb. From his favourite perch Billy could see the shimmering lake and observe the pelicans as they swooped over the water. He often played at being a pelican himself, swooping and skidding on the sand –

much to Robyn’s amusement.

A light flickered through the night shadows. “Here’s Pete!” cried Billy.

Soon his brother pushed his bike through the scrub. “Here, Nipper, give us a hand to unload these panniers,” called Pete. He filled Billy’s arms with groceries.

“When do you have to go again, Pete?” enquired Billy

“The job’s cut out now, Billy – that means it’s finished. Today was payday. Here’s a present for you.” Pete thrust another parcel into Billy’s arms.

“Thanks, Pete,” the little boy dumped the groceries near their makeshift larder for Robyn to sort out and squatted by the fire to tear the wrapping from his present. “Another boat!”

“Look inside” Pete suggested

Billy lifted the roof off. “Animals .... I know – it’s a Noah’s Ark! We had that story, Robyn, remember....” he started arranging the animals in the sand by the light of the fire.

Robyn handed Pete a mug of tea and they sat a bit away from Billy to talk.

“I decided we deserved a present, too,” announced Pete

“Here!” He put a box into Robyn ’s hand. It was a small radio!

“Pete, this is a beaut idea. We can hear the news and weather forecasts, and listen to the ABC schools’ broadcasts .... How much did you get paid? This radio must have cost a bit.”

“No” rejoined Pete “It was only twenty dollars. We can think about wandering on now Robyn. We’ve got plenty of money.

Enough to last us for .... Oh, about three months at least –

without touching any of the savings that we banked in the city. I got paid NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!”

“Wow! Well, I bet you worked really long hours for it – and don’t forget that was for three weeks,” reminded Robyn “It just seems a lot when you get it all at once” “Gee Pete, we really are lucky that you got that job. Now we can have a good look around before worrying about finding more work.”

“I’ve been doing some planning,” asserted Pete, “and I’ve decided that up around that West Queensland border, is where I’m most likely to find work on a station. There’s not many people live in that part of the bush, so we should be able to make a pretty decent sort of camp without anyone knowing.”

Robyn went over to one of the parcels and pulled out the map.

She lit two candles, stuck them in the sand, and spread the map out.

“There’s a lot of country to cover between here and there, but we’ve plenty of time. Just have to remember to give the Correspondence School a Post Office address every so often, so we can pick up our lessons,” Robyn said thoughtfully.

The two children pored over the map. They decided on a route that followed the Lachlan, Bogan and Culgoa Rivers. They knew that the rivers would be just a chain of waterholes with a fair distance between them. But they also knew that in this pastoral country there would be bores and ground tanks.

By the time they finished planning; Billy was asleep on the sand by the fire, the Noah’s Ark beside him. Pete lifted him into his sleeping bag, then lay down himself and fell asleep almost right away...

Robyn lay awake for a while, looking up at the stars, and thinking of the coming months. The feeling swept over her just as she dropped off to sleep, that this time the track ahead would lead to a home.

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Chapter 9 – Outback Overlanders

Dear Billy, [wrote Mr White]

The picture of your Noah’s Ark is so good that I have put it on my display board for the other teachers to enjoy. When they have all looked at it, I will send it back to you.

“Morning, Ron. Hard at it already I see. That’s pretty colourful,”

Mr Stone picked up Billy’s drawing.

That’s from one of the children from that Tucker family – the family we were a bit concerned about to start with,” replied Mr White

“Oh, did we ever get the paperwork completed on that one –

sight the birth certificates, and so on?” queried Mr Stone

“No” answered Mr White “But their work comes in – very well done too. I think the girl is supervising herself and her little brother, does a fine job. The father is chasing work all over the countryside. They travel by bicycle – which is a new one for our itinerants! The next address we have for them is c/o Post Office, Nyngan. I guess the dad’s hoping to pick up a permanent position on one of those stations further north. I’m sending some more workbooks out to them today, as a matter of fact.”

“Well, so long as you’re satisfied with the children’s work, Ron, we won’t worry about the other. After all, the father will probably pick up a permanent job soon and send the children to school” Mr Stone smiled as he put Billy’s drawing back on the desk, “That’s certainly a happy looking picture.” He went off to his office.

Days rolled into weeks as the children pedalled over sandy tracks, following the Lachlan River north. The dry months had turned the rivers into a chain of water-holes often a day’s ride apart. Always they followed their Granddad’s rule for crossing dry country- -,

“camp the first water after lunch.”

Some of these holes were deep and Pete was able to catch plenty of fish. Mostly the water was brown – still quite good for drinking and as Pete remarked, “You don’t need so much tea in the pot!”

They caught yabbies too – which made a tasty meal. Sometimes they would camp for a couple of days on a water hole – catching up on schoolwork, making repairs to bikes or gear, and just playing around.

At small settlements the children bought food. Robyn had written to the Correspondence School that they would pick up mail at Hillston, Condobolin, Nyngan and Bourke.

Pete had decided that he would go to the Employment Office at Bourke, to see if he could find a job on a station.

It was late afternoon when they reached a small settlement – just a few houses, a store, church and recreation ground with a sign

“Free Camping”. While Pete spread out their swags and got a fire going in the fireplace provided, Billy and Robyn went into the store.

“Fancy that, a little fella like you!” gushed the lady storekeeper, who had watched from the door as the children had ridden into town. “You must find it hard going, pet.” She tousled Billy’s hair.

He stared at her. “I’m five. I’m the best rider of the bunch.”

The lady laughed, “Here, what’s your order, lassie?”

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Robyn listed some items of food. As she paid for them, the storekeeper reached under the counter, where the sweets were kept.

“Here you are, young man – think you can handle a bag of mixed lollies?” The woman put a white paper into Billy’s hand, adding,

“On the house”

“Thanks, you are nice.” Billy was properly grateful

“Thank you very much,” said Robyn as she gathered up their purchases. Billy waved as they left the store.

*

A cloud of dust rose as a willy-willy whipped across the track. The children were pedalling slowly in the mid-afternoon sun, across some bare country that lay between the Lachlan and Bogan Rivers.

“We should be able to spot the windmill. According to the map, there is a bore somewhere around here. Everyone look hard – we mustn’t miss it – we don’t want to make a dry camp,” Pete said anxiously. He did not want to have to break into their reserve five litres of water.

Robyn spotted a flash to the west. “There Pete – is that it?” she pointed “There!”

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“That’s it!” Pete swung away from the track and headed towards the bore. The other’s followed – wheels skidding and jumping on the rough ground. They made camp in a clump of stunted trees away from the troughs.

Using the spare billy, the boys showered each other by the edge of the narrow, deep bore pool. Meanwhile Robyn set the tea cooking in the camp oven. Then she went to have a wash herself and rinse out their dusty clothes, while Pete helped Billy with his maths lesson.

It was a few days later and they were camped near the junction of Pangee Creek and The Bogan.

“Nyngan tomorrow. Better get your shopping list ready, Robyn,”

Pete smiled. “Maybe we can have a few luxuries – the money is holding out really well.”

“Chocolate biscuits, then, and some extra large ice creams!”

replied Robyn

“And a bag of mixed lollies for me and Ted!” added Billy firmly.

“Okay” answered Pete “Now run off and play. I want to listen to the 4 o’clock news and weather.”

Robyn hid her smile as she thought, “Pete really is trying to act like a father,” she spread out her schoolwork and went on with some social studies.

....... Rain tonight, clearing tomorrow.” The announcer’s voice stopped abruptly as Pete switched the radio off.

“Rain” Billy exclaimed excitedly (not wanting to miss out on anything he had been listening with Pete) “I know where I’m sleeping then,” he dashed off and called “Over here! Look!” Pete and Robyn went after him.

A cheeky face peered at them from a hollow log.

“Billy! Come out of there!” Robyn ordered, grabbing him by the jumper she pulled him out. Billy was too surprised to protest.

“There could be red-backs or snakes in there” Robyn was worried. Pete examined the log.

“It’s okay,” he soothed, “But next time, little brother, ask me to check out your cubbies first. Now I need you to help me put up our tent, so we don’t get wet tonight.”

An early morning ride through the sweet smelling freshly washed bush bought them to Nyngan. Here they shopped, collected mail, and posted off their completed lessons.

Much later, as the day turned to evening, the children sat beside a waterhole 20 kilometres out of the town, opening their mail.

“Read my letter! Read my letter!” demanded Billy, waving Mr White’s notes in Pete’s face, “Look, stickers! Look, stamps!” Billy was so thrilled that he hopped from one foot to the other as Pete read the letter aloud. “Read it again!” Pete laughed as he did so.

Robyn read her letter silently, and then passed it over to Pete.

Dear Robyn, [Mr White had written]

Your family reminded me of pioneers. You are Outback Overlanders going in search of a future, like the overlanders of a century ago...”

“Outback Overlanders!” mused Pete “Well I guess we are too.”

He felt a glow of pride, and sat gazing over the water as the light faded.

Chapter 10 – Battling on to Bourke

Billy was listening to “kindergarten of the air,” while Robyn prepared lunch and Pete mended a puncture. This program was Billy’s favourite and so Pete decided that 11am was a good time to make a regular lunch stop. On the weekends, Billy always had a grumble because kindergarten wasn’t on.

“Might be in for a bit of bad weather in a day or two – according to the radio,” Pete commented

“Oh, well, we’ll just have to stay in the tent until it passes,”

remarked Robyn. “It’s pretty fine right now anyway,”

They ate their lunch and continued following the Bogan north. It was eight days since they’d left Nyngan. They camped that night in the tent beside a billabong about forty kilometres SE of the point where the stock route crosses a vehicle track near Tarcoon.

Next day, the morning dawned still, but heavily overcast.

“Reckon by this arvo we’ll be getting wet feet,” Pete asserted as they packed up.

Lunch was eaten at the abandoned railway siding at Tarcoon, and they filled their water bottles from an old rain-water tank there.

Five kilometres further on, there was a building standing beside some long abandoned tennis courts overrun with scrub and patches of prickly pear.

“This looks hopeful, let’s explore,” Pete suggested They pushed their bikes through some thick sand and leaned them against the side of the building.

All the doors seemed to be firmly bolted from the inside, and the windows were stuck fast

Robyn looked thoughtfully at the tank stand, then at a small opening that showed just below the roof and above the tank.

Suddenly, making up her mind, she climbed onto the tank-stand, and after testing the strength of the small tank, she heaved herself on top of this, and peered through the opening which was now at chest height.

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Below stood a kitchen bench. Robyn wriggled through feet first, dropping to the bench and then the floor. Within seconds she was struggling with the bolts and soon had a door open.

Just as they wheeled the last bike inside, the rain came down.

Peter and Billy explored the hall, testing for parts where the floor might be rotten. Robyn fixed a hot drink by using their small Metho burner, which she placed, in the kitchen sink. It was the first time that Robyn had used it, and she was pleased that she had thought to buy one.

“This is a community hall – from the days when lots more people used to live around here. There’s an honour board in the other room with the names of men who went to the Great War,” Pete said with authority. “By the look of this place, it hasn’t been used for ten years at least,” he drained his cup of Milo, and added, “I’ll clear away some of the dirt to make a sleeping place for us.”

“I’ll work on the kitchen,” put in Robyn. “There’s even water coming through the tap above the sink.”

“Teddy and me will play cars,”

announced Billy grandly, “Then

we won’t be in your way!”

It rained off and on for three

days.

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Many kilometres away on Paterson Plains Station, Mike and Jenny Scully sat in their kitchen listening to the welcome sound of rain hammering on the roof.

Mike was a thick-set man – 45 years of age – a quiet, hard working and very kind person. Jenny, his wife, had curly brown hair and merry dancing eyes. She had worked alongside Mike as they built up their station, over the fifteen years that they had been married.

They were well liked in the district and were often called “a pair of real battlers”. They always found time to help others. Although they had looked forward to having a large family there were no

“little Scullys” now the welfare authorities said they were too old to be allowed to adopt children. Still, they were great mates, and very happy in their life on the station.

“I reckon it’s about time we put on a young fellow on here, Jenny,” said Mike. “I’d like to take on a lad who’d sort of grow into the place – become a station hand we could rely on. A man to help with the place as I get older and who could look after things if we took a holiday”

“That’s a good idea, Mike,” replied Jenny “and if he stayed on for a few years, we could build him a house if he wanted to get married – there could be kids around on this station yet!”

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“Hang on!” laughed Mike, “I’m talking about putting on a lad –

and you’ve already got him married off!”

“Well I’m going into Bourke when the weather clears. I’ll put a notice up at the Employment Service then,” answered Jenny.

Early the next week, the children arrived in Bourke. After shopping, and collecting mail, they followed the Darling River south-west for a few kilometres, and then made camp.

Next day, while Robyn and Billy did school work, Pete rode his bike back to Bourke to go to the Employment Service office.

The notice read “Young man wanted to work on sheep station.

Must be self reliant and have practical skills.”

Pete’s eyes lit up. He went to the counter where the clerk gave him the full details. While the clerk telephoned Mike Scully, Pete looked at a large scale map on the wall. He worked out that it would take three days to get to Paterson Plains Station and to search out an isolated spot to camp.

“Mr Scully wants to talk to you” the clerk said , handing the phone to Pete.

Pete cycled furiously through the bush towards their latest camp.

He was so happy. Billy spotted him first and came running.

“I gotta job! A station job!” Pete scooped up Billy, sat him on the handlebars, and rode towards Robyn, waving his hat. Then he stopped, lifted Billy to his shoulders and rode on – one handed in delight while Billy sang out, “Look at me! Look at me!”

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Chapter 11 – Happy Days

“He’s a nice kid, Mike,” Jenny was talking to her husband as they sat on the veranda, watching Pete bottle feed a baby goat he’d found abandoned in the bush.

“He’s quiet – but I’m sure he’s straight and honest. We were lucky to have gotten someone so good first off.” Mike smiled at Jenny.

Little did they know that not 10 kilometres away, in a cave, formed by a rock overhanging on a small hill rising from a patch of rough scrub, Pete was hiding something from them.

Here, about half a kilometre from a small billabong in a channel of the Warrego River, the children had made a permanent camp.

Pete had memorised a small section of the map in the Employment Service office and had led them almost directly to this place.

The ground around the rocky hills was strewn with gibbers, and, as there was nothing for stock to eat – except close to the billabong – Pete thought they’d be unlikely to ever be ‘visited’ in their cave. From the top of the hill they could just see the silver flash of a new windmill, which marked the edge of some more fertile country.

They had been here now for some weeks and their life had fallen into a pattern. Pete turned up at the hide-out each Saturday morning and left early Monday. He was enjoying his job – for him it could not have been better.

Robyn and Billy went once a fortnight into Bourke, to collect mail, post schoolwork to Mr White, to shop, and use the library. They camped out for one night each way. The rest of the time they spent either in the snug little cave, which they had weather-proofed with a tent fly and extra rocks along the open side, or playing by the billabong from where they carted water each day.

On their first trip to Bourke they stopped at a little shop on the outskirts. Robyn had promised Billy a bag of mixed lollies at the very first shop as a bribe to get him to let her cut his hair. The storekeeper was standing outside as they arrived. He looked at the teddy on Billy’s handlebars and said with a serious face, but a twinkle in his eye.

“That fella give you much trouble, mate?”

“Well, he does like me to scratch his head, sometimes and I can’t always ride one handed, then he gets a bit cross.” Replied Billy just as seriously. “Do you have any mixed lollies in this shop?”

“Come on in I’ll mix some up for you,” smiled the man.

In the late afternoon of that day, Robyn sat in the sand near a small muddy hole in a channel of the river. She was reading through her new sets of school work. Billy played near the edges, poking his fingers into the mud. He looked up. Robyn was engrossed in her reading. He took off his boots and socks and squelched the mud through his toes. Oops, he lost his balance and was sliding on his back. This was fun! Billy was enjoying himself!

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Billy! You dirty little grub!” Robyn kicked off her boots, and ran towards him. She too fell a victim of the mudslide!

“Oh well,” she thought “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em”

They slid in the mud and splashed in the water for a long time.

Then they walked out along a log at the far edge of the pool, around the steep bank, and back to the patch of sand.

Together they laughed at each other’s appearance while they got a fire going. “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud....” sang Robyn as she toasted bread for their tea.

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Chapter 12 – Journey’s End

It was early on a Saturday morning. The sun glared through a dust haze. The wind gusted, first one way, then another. The forecast was for fierce winds and high temperatures.

Mike watched as Pete tied his hat firmly and pedalled away.

“What does the boy do on his weekends?” Mike wondered aloud as his wife set his breakfast on the table.

“Goes exploring I guess – there’s a lot of country, and he’s young enough to make an adventure of it.” Replied Jenny “He really is a lovely kid – isn’t he, Mike? He never talks about his past or his family – my guess is that he suffered some tragedy when he was younger and was brought up in a home. But maybe not – he might just be a boy who likes to keep things to himself.”

“I’ve got quite fond of the lad, Jenny. He’s so reliable and practical, too. We work well together. You know, I couldn’t wish for a better lad than if he was our own son.” Mike said thoughtfully.

“Are you going to check the new mill today – with this wind.....?”

asked Jenny

“Yeah, I better get going now. I’m taking the rifle – there have been some pigs after the lambs lately. If I see a pig it’s not going to get away!” asserted Mike as he left the kitchen.

Billy climbed to the top of the rocks above the camp and watched for Pete. The wind blew dust into his eyes as he scrambled down to shelter in the cave with Robyn.

“I saw him!” Billy announced.

Robyn put the billy on to boil and cut up a cake she had cooked in the camp oven the day before. Soon, Pete, dusty and wind-blown, joined them. They talked of their week, as they sipped the sweet tea and munched slabs of cake.

Later the children decided to have a look at the view from the top of the rocks. It was exciting to feel the wind tugging at hair and clothing. They watched trees bending; small shrubs uprooted, tumbling across the ground, and clouds of dust swirling.

Meanwhile Mike had checked the windmill. He was about to turn for home when he saw an enormous feral pig. He pulled the rifle from its pouch along the side of the motorbike, sighted, and fired. The pig was slightly injured and it ran. Mike started the bike and gave chase. The pig streaked across the plain in the direction of the rocky hill – heading towards the children’s hideout!

“Pete!” yelled Robyn above the wind “Look! Someone’s coming!

He’s chasing a pig!”

The hunt came nearer and nearer. Dust swirled around the rider.

About 100 metres from the foot of the hill, eyes stinging from grit, Mike saw a rock too late. He swerved, but the bike struck the side of it. Bike and rider fell in a tangled heap.

Pete went flying down the rocks – racing to help Mike, who was trapped under the motorbike, its motor still roaring. Robyn and Billy followed, slipping and falling in their haste.

Pete hit the kill switch and the roaring stopped. With a mighty heave he lifted the bike off Mike – who lay unconscious – and set it on its side stand.

“Pete – The pig! Look out!” Robyn screamed.

She grabbed Billy, pushed him up into the branches of a tree and stood watching with horror.

The pig, savage with pain, lumbered towards Mike. Pete grabbed the rifle and fired wildly. The pig stopped, retreated, then turned and charged. Pete stood his ground, and, holding the rifle steady, fired. The pig dropped.

Robyn ran to him, crying with relief. Pete hugged her as she sobbed.

There was a plaintive cry from Billy, “I wanna get down! Lemme see the pig! Pete! Pete!”

Robyn knelt to examine Mike while Pete retrieved Billy and carried him over on his shoulders.

Robyn sent Billy to bring a water bottle from the cave while she made a shelter to protect Mike from the sun and wind.

Pete checked the bike. It seemed okay. “I’ll go for help.” He kicked the starter and was off.

Mike regained consciousness as Robyn was sponging his face.

“Don’t move” she warned “Your leg’s broken. Pete’s gone for help”

“Who are you?” questioned Billy. “I’m Billy; I live in the cave up there.”

“You crashed your motorbike” he added conversationally Mike’s head was clear, but he still felt as if he was in a dream. “I was chasing a pig....,” he remembered

“Pete killed it,” interrupted Billy “It was going to eat you all up.”

“Where did you come from? What has been going on here?”

asked Mike

“Well” answered Robyn ruefully, “If you feel up to it, we’ve a long story to tell you”

“Good-oh – it will fill in time ‘til the flying doctor gets here!” Mike grinned against the pain

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The sun was setting and the wind had died down. In the homestead kitchen, Robyn was helping Jenny clear up after tea.

The children had come with the adults in the Toyota to the homestead. The Flying Doctor splinted Mike’s leg at the scene of the accident. Then Robyn, Pete and the doctor braced him against the bumps in the back of the vehicle as Jenny drove carefully to the airstrip.. Billy sat in the front making polite conversation, and then waved as Mike was loaded into the plane for the trip to hospital.

Billy had spent a busy afternoon playing with the chooks and a poddy goat in the house paddock. Now, his head nodded – with a full tummy he was ready to sleep.

“Bedtime, for you, sport,” Pete picked up the little boy who drooped his head on Pete’s shoulder. “You can sleep in my bunk.” Pete went out to the veranda and snuggled Billy into bed.

Jenny glanced at the clock, “I’ll go and phone the hospital. They should have some news for us by now”

Robyn cleared the table and started on the washing up. Thoughts whirled through her head.

“Surely we’ll be sent away now. Pete will be able to stay. He’s working. But the welfare will take Billy and me. We’ve had a good run, but now there’ll be strife with a capital ‘S’! Maybe they’d let us stay. I could work too – they wouldn’t have to pay us – just food and a place to camp. Jenny seems so nice – and not very surprised about us – almost as if she was expecting us, really. Oh I hope we don’t have to go away!” tears smarted and then rolled down her cheeks.

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“Mike’ll be okay. Home in two weeks and plaster for a lot longer.

I’ll go in tomorrow, and see him.” Jenny was smiling happily as she came into the kitchen.

“Why, Robyn,” Jenny put her arms around the girl and held her tightly. “Don’t cry, little one. It will be ok. I know what you’re worried about. We won’t send you away. You’re an answer to a prayer – the kids we’ve always wanted. “The words tumbled out.

Jenny had meant to discuss it with Mike first, but she knew that he would feel the same way.

His last words to her before the ‘plane door closed were “Look after those kids – they’re a real bunch of battlers – they deserve the best sort of caring.”

Dear Mr White [wrote Robyn]

The above is our permanent address. Please send our schoolwork here from now on. Thank you for all the stickers and letters you send to us. I hope you are well. Your pupil, Robyn Tucker.

It was a letter from Mr and Mrs Scully that told Mr White the whole story.