Authors: Phil Cummings
She knew there was something wrong. She turned to Sam and frantically wiped her hands with her apron.
‘Where is she, Sam?’
Danny’s eyes were bulging when he looked to his older brother.
Please tell her
, he thought,
please. The dam! The water is so cold and the sides so slippery.
Sam took short sharp breaths. His nose was twitching and his dark eyebrows folded and unfolded. ‘I’m . . . I’m sorry, Mum, we . . . we didn’t . . .’
His mother shook him. She didn’t mean to do it hard but she did. ‘Where is Vicki?’ she cried.
Sam looked as though he might be sick when he finally said, ‘We left her at the dam, Mum.’
The kitchen wasn’t warm any more and the boys stood like statues as their mother flung her apron onto the mountain of delicately balanced dishes on the sink.
Into the throat of the passage she ran, her desperate feet thumping the floorboards. The boys followed. There was a loud creaking thud as the front door was thrown open.
From the verandah they leapt wildly into the rain and Danny saw his mum kick off her shoes as they crossed the road. They were her best shoes – the shiny black ones with the ribbons at the front.
Running barefoot in mud was usually good fun, but this time it wasn’t. His mother was swift. Danny pumped his arms and legs as fast as they would go.
I’m sorry, Vicki! I’m sorry, Vicki!
he kept saying inside his head.
Along the track they ran. They scrambled through the tangle of the old fence.
Danny slipped and struggled up the hill. He was the last one to run up the bank of the dam. With every step he took all he could think of was that he was going to see his little sister floating on top of the water like an angel flying.
He stood at the top of the bank, puffing hard and searching desperately. The dam was riddled with never-ending circles. Danny swallowed. The tadpole tin had gone and so had Vicki.
Sam was standing, saying nothing, just staring at the water. Danny looked at his mother running along the edge of the dam, searching and yelling.
Her head was flicking back and forth, back and forth.
Danny wanted to call but couldn’t find his voice. If only he could call her name she might hear him. She might come and be all right. Inside his head his voice was loud, screeching.
But he couldn’t say it out loud. He tried and he tried. His jaw quivered, he made soft squealing noises, but he had no voice.
He felt hot and sweaty then cold and shivery. A pain came to his chest. He found it hard to breathe. The louder his mother screamed the more Danny felt like crying. Images of Vicki spinning around the verandah post flashed rapidly in front of him. Time and time again they danced behind his eyes like instant replays. All he wanted was to see Vicki. All he wanted was to hear her annoying singing. All he wanted was to say sorry.
The world suddenly changed as the clouds began to break apart. The rain eased and Danny shivered all over.
Still his mother screamed. Light came peeking through and sunbeams spot lit the world. Danny looked across the dam through glistening threads of silver rain. He hung his head, then licked his lips and tasted the salt of tears.
Sam suddenly hollered, ‘
Danny spun to see Sam pointing toward the reeds of the small creek.
Tippy was at the reeds before any of them. He was jumping and bounding, his tail spinning like a helicopter blade. He danced on his hind legs and the reeds moved.
A hand appeared and pulled the reeds apart. Vicki pushed her face through the reeds as if peeking out from behind a curtain. Then up out of the creek she scrambled, covered in mud from head to toe.
Vicki’s white dress was clinging to her skin and thick mud gelled her hair into rat-tail strands. She was very surprised to see everyone there to meet her, especially her mum.
Her muddy face lit up and her white teeth shone brilliantly. ‘Hey Mum!’ She grinned cheerily. ‘Hey boys!’
Their mother ran, fell to her knees and cuddled Vicki, but Vicki pushed her away. ‘Don’t, Mum,’ she frowned. ‘You’ll spill them again!’
Her mother sniffed away tears. ‘Spill what?’
‘The surprise,’ Vicki smiled proudly.
The mud all over Vicki’s face made her blue eyes sparkle more than ever before.
‘Tah dah!’ she cried, as she pulled the big tin from the reeds and walked toward her brothers.
‘Look in there, boys,’ she said as she placed the tin carefully in front of Danny and Sam. ‘Go on. Look.’ She wanted to twirl, but the mud was slippery and she didn’t want to fall into the dam –
the sides so slippery and the water so cold
. And anyway, her dress wouldn’t fan out, it was too heavy with mud.
The boys peered into the tin. There was a shallow pool of murky water. Swimming about happily in the water were three tadpoles.
‘I couldn’t get any more,’ said Vicki. ‘They were all too slimy.’
She pushed her muddy face between the shoulders of her two brothers. ‘But that’s enough,’ cause it means we can have one each.’
Their mother took hold of Vicki’s hand. ‘Thank goodness you’re okay,’ she said.
‘Yep,’ said Vicki. ‘I’m fine.’ Then she looked up at her mum. ‘Are you okay, Mum?’
Their mother nodded.
Everything was quiet for a while. Then Danny pointed and said, ‘Can I have that fat one?’
Vicki shook her head. ‘No, that’s mine! I got’ em so I get to choose.’
Sam glanced down at Vicki’s thin muddy legs. He saw blood.
‘Your knee is bleeding,’ he said.
Vicki looked at the small trickle of blood. She hadn’t noticed it until Sam pointed it out. Her face suddenly buckled. ‘It really hurts,’ she whined.
Their mother knelt to look. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ she said, dabbing gently at the blood with a wet handkerchief. ‘I’ll fix it when we get home.’
‘You let Danny carry the tin and I’ll give you a piggyback,’ said Sam.
‘Will you carry me
the way home?’
Sam nodded. ‘Hmm, yeah, all right, all the way. I might have to stop for a rest though.’
Sam dropped to his knees and Vicki climbed onto his back. The rain stopped as quickly as it had started.
And so off they went, Danny with the treasure in the tin, Tippy at his heels as usual, Sam with a wild rider whipping his back and their mother trailing close behind. She would wait to get them safely home before she gave them the growling talk. They strode back along the track and past the church.
When the cockatoos flew squawking from the gum trees near the Mundowie Institute Hall they circled
overhead and Vicki tossed her head back, laughing and squawking just like them.
Danny looked up to the cockatoos and then to the clouds beyond. They were breaking up and floating in dark islands across an ocean of blue sky.
The sun came out. Beads of water had collected on the rusty barbed-wire fences. Danny looked at his pepper tree as he crossed the road and headed for home. The world around was sparkling, like it always did after rain. Then,
The thunder made them jump.
‘Run Sam! Run!’ Vicki cried, hitting her brother hard.
‘You just hang on,’ said Sam, galloping along. ‘If you fall off it will hurt!’
‘I know that,’ Vicki replied.
She turned to Danny. ‘Don’t drop the tadpoles, Danny! Or else!’
Danny stuck his tongue out at his sister. When she had turned away and yelled at Sam again, Danny slowed his run and peered into the tin. The tadpoles looked happy.
Danny felt happy too. ‘One, two, three,’ he counted. ‘Yep, that’s one each.’
Then he lifted his eyes to the sound of his mother’s voice.
‘Slow down please, Sam,’ she called as she picked up her shoes from the side of the road.
‘No, don’t,’ Vicki laughed. ‘Faster! Faster!’
The big creek was a wild place.
‘Come on, Danny!’ Sam called, his voice echoing around the treetops. ‘Hurry up if you’re coming!’ Sam was running along the edge of the big creek where the red-earth cliffs were highest. Danny was trying to keep up but he didn’t want to fall; it was a long way down to the rocky creek bed. Danny guessed it would be further than falling from the roof of the house. He’d been up on the roof to get a ball the day before and
ended up sitting on the very top, near the chimney, to watch the sunset. Yesterday’s sunset seemed such a long time ago.
Danny bounded determinedly through the tall grass, dodging large rocks and leaping over fallen branches. Tippy wasn’t with him. The little traitor had stayed with Vicki because she was making cakes. Danny had left him begging pathetically in the kitchen.
Danny flew over a stump. Twigs, leaves and bark crackled beneath his pounding feet like distant fireworks. ‘Sam, waaait! Slow down a bit!’ he puffed. ‘Wait up!’
Sam kept running. ‘No, Danny!’ he called back. ‘If you can’t keep up, go home.’
Danny gritted his teeth. ‘I’m not going home!’
‘Well, keep up then.’
Danny glanced down into the creek. There were huge trees, dead and grey, lying like the skeletons of dinosaurs. Danny didn’t fancy falling on them. He felt dizzy and nearly lost his footing. Stones from under his feet tumbled in a mini avalanche over the edge and bounced down the cliff face. Danny headed away from the edge. ‘Don’t look down,’ he muttered.
Up ahead, Sam stopped at a narrow sheep track that cut down the steep bank. He stood for a moment and looked back through the jigsaw-shadows of the overhanging trees. ‘Hurry up!’ he called again. Then he looked down to the rocky bed. ‘I’ve found the sheep
track. I’m going down.’ He squatted and began to slide on his heels.
Danny watched a cloud of red dust rise from his brother’s skating feet. Sam’s bobbing and shuddering head disappeared into the dust and below the horizon of the creek’s bank. Although Danny couldn’t see him any more it was obvious from the anguished cry that echoed to the treetops that the momentum of the downhill slide had made Sam go faster than he’d intended.
A thicker cloud of powdery red dust rose to the air.
Danny’s attention was taken away from his brother when he heard, ‘Coooooeeeee!’
Danny lifted his eyes to the call from across the creek. Mark Thompson was on the far side, standing on a high cliff with his arms folded and tapping his right foot impatiently. He lived across the road from Danny and Sam, just down from the Mundowie Hall. This expedition was his idea.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, ‘Get a move on, you guys!’ Startled galahs squawked from the trees. Mark was
Danny was puffing hard when he reached the sheep track. He hesitated at the top of the bank. He had a bird’s-eye view of Sam running, out of control, arms waving wildly, onto the rocky creek bed. He was screaming and laughing at the same time. ‘Aghahahaaaa.’
Amazingly, he didn’t fall. Danny smiled thinly and looked down through the veil of his brother’s scuffed-up dust. It was a long way down. Rocks jutted from the path and there were tree roots, crooked and claw-like, reaching in from the sides ready to scratch, cut and tear.
Breathing hard, with his toes hanging over the edge of the bank, Danny appraised the sheep track, steeling himself for the descent. He hadn’t been this way before. This was Mark’s way.
‘Come on, Danny!’ Mark bellowed impatiently. ‘What are you waiting for? The stupid sheep can do it!’
Danny didn’t want to be left behind and he didn’t want anyone to think he was sillier than the sheep, so he bobbed down, took a deep breath, said, ‘Here goes,’ and started sliding.
The powdery dust offered no grip. Danny was immediately out of control. He tried to slow himself. He dug his heels in, but the soles of his shoes were well worn. His bum scraped the ground and the sharpest rocks bit into his pudgy flesh. ‘Ow! Ow!’ He rolled onto his hip. That didn’t help. It hurt more. He thought he heard his pants rip. Gritty grains of dirt and muck flew up from his kicking feet and into his gaping mouth. When he closed his mouth he bit down on something soft, round and squashy like a pea. It tasted like sh . . . sheep dung. Yuck! Danny spat furiously.
He reached out desperately and clutched at a tuft of
thick grass, but it was prickly. ‘Yeow!’ He quickly let it go. Next he snatched at a small bush, but it came right out of the ground – roots and all. Dirt rained down into his hair and eyes. On he skidded with no way to stop, faster and faster, scraping knees and elbows, chewing on dirt and . . . all sorts of things.
Nearing the bottom Danny suddenly thought about the boulders in the creek bed. They made boulder-sized lumps if you head butted them. The creek bed was looming, but he had a plan. Danny
had a plan and this one was simple, well it sounded simple – stand up and run
fast. Danny’s face was stretched with horrid anticipation. His eyebrows were so high they’d disappeared under his flapping fringe. He prepared himself. Wait for it . . . ready . . . set . . . now!
With only a metre to go to the base of the bank Danny rose quickly to his feet. As if pinged from a slingshot, he flew out onto the creek bed. His stamping feet made the bed of smooth stones snap like clicking fingers. His legs were going far too fast, but there was nothing he could do about it. He waved his arms wildly, desperate not to be overtaken by his own momentum.
Without any real understanding of how it happened, Danny managed to avoid falling flat on his face. He stopped and tried to catch his breath. His legs were like jelly. Stunned, he looked across the creek-bed
landscape, past islands of fine creek sand, veins of smooth stones and the grey skeletons of fallen trees. Sam was already scrambling up a dusty slope not as steep as the last toward Mark Thompson.
The far bank was one of Danny’s favourite parts of the creek. When the rains came the bank was muddy and slippery, perfect for jumping on an inflated tractor tube and sliding, sometimes flying, down the bank. If there was water in the creek then they would skim across the surface.
Tsh, tsh, tsh
. And then fall in.
Danny was convinced that the muddy tube ride was better than any amusement park – although he’d only ever seen the parks on television.
Keen to keep up, Danny ignored any stinging grazes and raced off across the uneven creek bed. His ankles twisted, his cheeks wobbled and the world was shuddering. He reached the other side and looked up to see Sam clamber over the top of the bank and disappear.
Danny started climbing like an ant up a tree trunk. He was out of breath by the time he crawled, grunting and puffing, over the top of the bank and caterpillared into a small forest of tall yellow grasses.
He stood and brushed himself down. A prickle of pain caught his attention. His left knee was stinging.
It was an old injury. He had hurt it riding his bike down the slide in the playground a few days before.
There was a large scab from which a fine thread of blood was trickling. Danny spat on his hand and smeared the dirt, then the blood. He wanted to pull the scab off, but knew it would hurt.
A shadow suddenly loomed over Danny. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have brought you two. You’re slowing me down.’
Danny looked up. Mark Thompson was standing over him.
Mark was a few months older than Sam. He was taller and much bigger. His hair was the colour of the red dust in the creek. Freckles the same colour as his hair were sprinkled across his nose like the rust speckles spattered across the roof of Danny’s house. Mark always impressed Danny because he seemed to know everything about everything.
he said he could kick a footy right over the Mundowie Hall. Amazing!
Mark looked down at Danny’s scab. ‘Just pull it off,’ he said gruffly. ‘If you do it quickly it doesn’t hurt.’ He looked Danny in the eye. He shaped his fingers into a claw and crinkled his nose. Some of his freckles disappeared into creases. ‘Just get your fingernail under the crusty edge and pull.’ He looked away quickly. ‘I’ve done it heaps of times.’
That’s just what Mark had said when he told Danny to ride his bike down the slide in the playground.
done it heaps of times. You can’t hurt yourself.
Danny had known it was a stupid thing to do, but he felt as though he had no choice. So he did it. He flew off the end of the slide and went for a spectacular head-over-handlebars tumble. Afterwards, when Mark was laughing at him, he had felt as silly as a sheep. Incredibly, he had only hurt his knee.
Mark leant over and reached for the scab. ‘I’ll do it for you if you like.’
Danny glanced down at Mark’s hands. He shook his head and pulled his knee away. ‘No, thanks, I’ll leave it for now.’
Mark had big hands, chubby fingers and no fingernails because he chewed them. Grease and grime filled the skin creases in his knuckles. Mark’s dad had the same hands. He’d been a farmer like Danny’s dad, but not any more. He drove an old truck now and called his business Thompson Transport. He was a big man who loved cowboy hats and country music. He always had black oil or grease stains on his hands. He worked on his truck all the time.
On warm nights Danny and Tippy often sat on the front fence. And when they weren’t looking at the stars or the moon or trying to spot frogmouth owls they would look across to Mark’s place. The shed doors were often wide open. The radio would be crackling and the interesting percussion of chinking tools drifted out into
the night. Mark and his dad would be in there working away on the truck. The soft light, crowded with moths on frenzied flight paths, would reach out across the gravel road. For Danny, looking through the velvet darkness of night to the well-lit shed was like watching a 3-D television set.
‘Come on,’ Mark whined. ‘Let’s go. We’ll never get to the old Miller place at this rate.’
Mark led the expedition away from the creek. ‘You’ve got to keep up now,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m not waiting for you again. I’m not your
From the shade of the trees by the creek the path went across an open field and up a hill to where a few sheep were gathering. They all stopped eating grass, lifted their heads and stared at their visitors.
At the top of the hill the boys stood and looked back toward the creek and Mundowie nestled in a gentle hollow in the distance. So did the sheep.
Mark leant on Danny and frowned curiously. ‘So why isn’t Tippy with you?’ he asked.
Danny squinted up at him. ‘He’s at the funeral with Vicki.’
‘Funeral!’ gasped Mark. ‘Who died?’
‘Snot! Who’s Snot?’
‘You know, her frog. He’s called Snot because he’s all blotchy and slimy. She’s had him since we caught him
as a tadpole in the creek. She caught tadpoles for Sam and me as well, but ours didn’t last long enough to become frogs. She was looking after Snot pretty well, but then she forgot about him for a couple of days and didn’t put water in his drum, so he got fried. Mum made cakes with her and they’re going to bury him near the tractor shed. Tippy stayed, not because he loves Snot but because he loves cakes and knew he’d get some.’
Mark paused thoughtfully then nodded and said, ‘Yeah, he’s a wise little dog. I know where he’s coming from. Your mum’s cakes are almost as good as old Mrs. Wallace’s Anzac biscuits.’
Danny nodded and cast a glance toward the Wallace house. Old Mrs. Wallace
make pretty good Anzac biscuits. ‘We won’t miss out on the cakes. Mum will save us some.’
Mark hit Danny on the arm. ‘If not we’ll go see Mrs. Wallace,’ he said. ‘She’s always got a tin full of those biscuits.’
Danny smiled. ‘Good idea.’
The roar of a car on the gravel road caught everyone’s attention. They saw a familiar white station wagon rumble out of Mundowie. There was a lot of rattling and squeaking. Dust billowed from behind it like smoke from the nostrils of a brooding dragon.
The car roared into the shadows as the road cut
down into the creek. The horn sounded a musical signal.
Bah, dah, dah, dah
A hand lifted from the window and waved. Danny waved back. So did Sam.
Mark nudged Sam. ‘Where’s your dad going?’
‘To see the guy at the bank.’
Mark shook his head. The spike of hair that always stuck up between his eyes quivered.
‘Huh, my dad hates the bank.’
‘Yeah,’ said Sam. ‘So does ours.’
Danny frowned thoughtfully. He didn’t know why his dad hated the bank because the bank gave them money.
‘He’s just going to get some money,’ said Danny. ‘The bank guy came to visit him the other day about it.’
Mark leant forward. ‘A guy from the bank came to your house?’ he asked eagerly.
Danny nodded. ‘Yeah, he was a nice guy.’
Mark rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah right!’ he sneered sarcastically. He turned his back, mumbled something and walked away.
Danny scooted to catch up. Sam and Mark started talking about the old Miller place. It was a tumble-down homestead a couple of kilometres outside of Mundowie. Every kid for miles around said it was haunted. There were stories of two little toddler ghosts
wandering around in old-fashioned clothes calling for their mother.