A GOOD DROP OF RAIN
approx 2,247 words
They all agreed. That is, those on Lambina Station at the time agreed, that it was a good drop of rain and when the Alberga Creek ran a good stream, it was even better.
“Well Charlie,” Ted remarked, “you’ll be trucking off some fats this year, I reckon.”
“Yes, she’ll be a good year if we get the follow-up rain but it won’t do us much good if this is the end of it.” Charlie sucked on his pipe. He’d been managing stations long enough to know you didn’t count on one good fall of rain and he’d experienced enough time in the bush to know you couldn’t count on anything, let alone the weather. “I won’t be dallying in getting the new bore equipped.”
Ted grinned. “Come on, Charlie, try being an optimist for a change. The missus reckons the moon wept on the way in and she’ll be weeping on the way out, so there’s a good chance you’ll get more before the month is out.”
Jess slipped the risen loaves into the oven and, wiping the perspiration from her brow with the corner of her apron, smiled at her two waiting offspring. “Well, come on you two, come down and see the water.”
The last time the creek flowed the kids spent an enjoyable hour or two throwing sticks into the stream to watch as the water whisked them away, floating, bobbing and turning in the current. This time the current was stronger and the water stretched from bank to bank; angry, turbulent water filled with tumbling debris and thick heads of spume that rushed by with a roaring noise.
The little boy began to wail. “I wanna go home, Mummy. I wanna go home.” His sister, clinging to her mother’s skirt echoed her brother’s cries. Jess crooned words of comfort which were lost in the roar of the water and the children’s cries. She sighed as she placed a hand on her belly, “and to think in a couple of months there’ll be three of them” she said aloud as she gathered the two of them to her protectively and shepherded them back to the homestead where she found the camp women grouped by the gate. One stepped forward to meet her.
“What name, Maggie?” Jess inquired of the elderly lubra.
“We alla fellas go longa hills, Missus. You bringum piccaninny – big water come longa this way.” She pursed her lips and thrust her chin forward in the direction of their camp to indicate the path of the water.
“You reckon ‘im come here longa homestead, Maggie?” Jess asked in disbelief.
“Im come orright, Missus. Proper big fella water,” her eyes widened as she waved her skinny arms up above her head, “im come longa this place – you bringum piccaninny longa hill.”
The old lubra’s voice had risen and her warning of danger cut through Jess’ mind with startling clarity. It seemed so unlikely, yet she knew the Aborigines had a sort of sixth sense about these things. “Right oh, Maggie. Me tellum boss.”
She stood and watched the lubras hoist their belongings up on their heads and move off yabbering noisily. She looked down towards the creek, her mind filled with sounds of roaring water, the fearful cries of Garry and Lynette and Maggie’s urgent warning. She hurried across to the workshop where Charlie and the other blokes were working.
“Don’t be so bloody silly, Jess,” Charlie scoffed. “This country doesn’t flood for Christ’s sake.” He turned to the others with a laugh. “Did y’hear that? The gins reckon we’re going to go under water – ever hear anything so bloody ridiculous?”
Their laughter rang in her ears all the way back to the house. Well, she supposed they were right. This flat country stretched for miles on end and there were no great rivers to carry huge volumes of water, so where was it all to come from? They’d had less than two inches of rain and even if the Alberga broke its banks there couldn’t possibly be enough water to cause major flooding.
Maggie’s warning nagged at her however, and she decided it could do no harm to take the precaution of making up a tucker box. She packed a tea chest with bread, meat and tins of this and that from the pantry, every so often looking out to check on the creek.
When she looked out and saw the creek had broken its banks and there was water covering the flat between it and the house, she went across to the workshop to try and persuade the men that there was indeed cause for concern. They remained sceptical even when the water was lapping the front doorstep and they complained and grumbled when Jess insisted they put the furniture up on the roof and the tea chest on Ginger’s platform in the tree by the kitchen.
Ginger’s lookout hadn’t been used in months – not since Ginger passed on. He was a big Airedale Terrier whose claim to fame had been his tree climbing ability. Charlie had built the platform for him so that he could sit in the tree in comfort, as he kept his vigil for the first sighting of an approaching vehicle and give due warning.
Jess had already installed the children on the platform and now she climbed up to join them. Inch by inch the water rose while the four blokes sat in or on the Ford V8 Sedan, debating whether it had reached its peak or not. When it rose above the running boards of the V8, they decided to join Jess and the kids in the tree, but not before they’d questioned her choice of a safe refuge.
Percy thought the tall freelight tower might serve them better, but Ted, a boring contractor, reckoned the heavy steel structure of the windmill would be safer. Bob, Ted’s offsider, offered no opinion but reckoned they’d probably do well to get with the tucker. Charlie grumbled at the inconvenience of it all. “It’s bloody unheard of, that’s what it is – bloody unheard of.”
The water rose higher and higher. Jess’ attention was drawn to the black cat on the roof of the house, prowling and mewing loudly. She called to it. “Here kitty, come on. Kitty, kitty.” After a time the cat took the plunge and jumped from the house roof to the platform where it perched, body stiff with fear and huge green eyes trained on the rushing, rising water. Jess stroked the sleek fur but the body stayed rigid and the eyes never left the water.
They made themselves as comfortable as was possible and kept a wary eye on the raging water below. They watched as the rising water forced the chooks to higher perches and then saw them all disappear with the chookhouse as it was swept away. They watched as the water covered the homestead roof and saw the furniture disapear into the turbid sea. They saw the freelite tower teeter, then slowly topple and fall, and soon afterwards watched as the windmill suffered the same fate.
“Thank Christ we weren’t on that!” Ted remarked.
Up until this time, the four men had not considered their predicament dangerous to life. It was inconvenient but not dangerous. When the windmill succumed, a definite air of unease descended upon them.
Suddenly there was a shudder as the tree dropped a little. Jess uttered an involuntary cry of alarm and reached out instinctively to draw the children closer. Percy look about him wild eyed, spotted the tea chest and saw a boat. In a flash he upended the contents into the swirling depths below and had the chest over the side; grappling with it to hold it while he lowered himself into it, still clutching the platform with one hand. As his weight pressed it lower into the water, it became obvious to him that it was anything but seaworthy and he had no choice but to scramble back onto the platform, somewhat wetter than he’d been before.
“Jesus Christ, you stupid bastard,” Bob yelled when he found his voice, “what the hell did you do that for? Now we got no tucker.”
After that there was a long silence in the tree as each reflected his predicament. Charlie wondered what the stock losses would be – he had noticed dozens of carcasses tumbling past and he’d watched helplessly as now and then a live cow swept past still fighting desperately to stay afloat.
Daylight lessened as the sun sank behind the hills in the west. The sky turned pink and then a brilliant glowing red. “Take a good look at that,” Ted advised solemnly, “it might be the last sunset you’ll see.”
With the coming of night the usual sounds of the bush were masked by the sound of the rushing water but the monotonous cry of the mo-poke was clear in the background. The complete blackness was broken only by the glow of a cigarette at intervals and, in the distance they could see the camp fires twinkling like bright stars and these they viewed with envy.
Jess whispered something to Charlie. “Well, what the hell do you want me to do about it?” He hissed at her irritably.
A short while later Percy’s strident yells filled the air. “The bloody water’s risen – I’m getting wet!”
Jess smothered a giggle and when Percy kept on with his panic striken yells, Charlie finally blurted out the explanation. “Shut up you bloody fool. Jess had to pee, that’s all.”
When the new day dawned, they found they were perched above a sea of mud. The house was gone save for the huge corner post against which their tree was leaning precariously, the significance of which would not register until much later.
Charlie lowered himself into the mud and sank to his armpits. He began to wade, feeling with his feet for obstacles as he progressed in the direction where he’d last seen the workshop. There was a pile of debris heaped up against a fallen tree and tangled in it, he saw a rope which he retrieved after some difficulty.
When he finally returned to the platform he had a rifle, a single bullet, a packet of muddy prunes and a packet of muddy rice as well as the rope. He used the rope to tie the group together a s he lead them out to some high, dry ground where they made a camp.
Their search for food was mostly unsuccessful and when a light plane flew overhead the next day and circled their camp, they waved and cheered. Help would be a hand very soon.
Foraging as usual, Charlie and Ted spied a lone bullock standing under a tree in the distance. They moved down wind and when they were about six hundred yards away they dropped and crawled on their bellies so as not to startle it. After crawling for a hundred or so more yards, they noticed the beast put his nose up and sniff the air.
Charlie put his hand out to warn Ted to be still. To go on would be to risk sending the bullock off in a panic. He was still between four and five hundred yards away and they had just one bullet. Charlie settled himself and took aim, his hand steady on the trigger. Ted had been holding his breath and now he let it out slowly and quietly. “Just don’t bloody miss it, Charlie.” It was an earnest plea but Charlie was well aware of the warning.
The shot rang out and the bullock buckled at the knees to fall slowly to the ground. Before it had settled, both men were upon it to ensure it stayed there and Ted slapped Charlie on the shoulder. “OH, good shot Charlie. What a bloody good shot!”
In normal circumstances it would have daunted Charlie to think of butchering a beast with a penknife but now he considered himself lucky to have a knife at all. The rumbling of his stomach and the thought of a good feed did much to overcome the difficulty of extracting a sizeable chunk of meat from the carcass.
Several days had passed since the aircaft had spotted them but still there was no sign of help. All were suffering from diarrhoea and Charlie decided it was time they had a go at walking out while they were still able. They set off in the wee hours of the morning and had walked about twenty miles when they met the mail truck.
Alec hit the brakes and gazed at the bedraggled group in disbelief. The pilot had reported all was well so no-one was aware that Lambina homestead had been washed away. “Hell, Charlie. That dopey bugger came back and said ya waz all okay out ‘ere.”
“We reckoned a rescue party’d be out after he spotted us. He must have been a useless sort of bloke to send out,” Charlie growled, “did he think were having a bloody picnic out there?”
“Yeah well, he wasn’t sent exactly. He was jest sorta flyin’ about ‘n he said there waz no-one in trouble. Ya better get on ‘n I’ll take ya in.”
When Charlie and the boring crew parted company a week or so later, Ted shook his hand and grinned. “It was a good drop of rain, Charlie. I don’t reckon I’ll hang around for the follow-up though.”