Deserted in a desert

by

John Gavin

 

The deserts of Australia are harsh and unforgiving to those who venture into them unprepared.

The author has attempted to portray the harshness of the desert with the reality that all men do not have altruistic motives, then to combine those truths with mystery and intrigue. The narrative is kept simple because the story was written for children.

The adult reader, who is not precluded by the intended age group, is assured that the setting is authentic. The location is the South-East portion of the Great Victoria Desert that spans inland Western Australia through South Australia, almost to Lake Eyre.

 

A blanket of dust spiralled from its wheels as the motor bike spewed up the desert sand. Kathy and Rusty watched their father, the punctured tyre held precariously at his side, clinging to the pillion seat of the machine roaring north.

A toss of Kathy’s head toward the broken down Morris Mini spilled the dust gathering in her long fair hair.

 “What can we do now?” Kathy asked in desperation.

“The next town’s three hundred kilometres inland,” Rusty replied. “It’ll take Dad most of the day to fix the tyre and get a lift back.”

“Maybe someone will stop to help,” Kathy suggested.

“Don’t put out your thumb to hitch a ride,” Rusty replied with a worried frown. “A weirdo might think your wearing too many clothes.”

The heat prickled Kathy’s skin and she self-consciously tugged at the hem of her short lycra skirt.

“Dad warned we wouldn’t be safe alone,” Kathy agreed. “Do you think we should find a place to hide?”

Almost two years older, Kathy had grown into a pretty young woman. Rusty was growing tall and strong, even though he would not be starting high school until after the summer holidays.

“Don’t worry, Sis,” Rusty smiled confidently. “Let’s look around.”

His confidence soon gave way to doubt as Rusty examined the barren country.

To the West, a gibber plain separated the track from a sparse clump of mulga scrub and spinifex. In all other directions the desert stretched to the horizon.

From the South a telltale barrel of dust spiralled toward them.

With a gasp Kathy exclaimed, “Rusty, you’d better find that place to hide. I think a car’s coming.”

“You lock the car Sis,” Rusty shouted and grabbed a jerrican of water with a tin mug tied to the handle from the boot.                      

They scurried across the gibber plain carrying the can between them. The stones, worn smooth by time, rolled under their feet. Puffing from the run, they stopped at the edge of the mulga.

“You can see right through this scrub,” Rusty said, a note of panic in his voice. “Let’s look for somewhere better.”

Pointing to the right Kathy replied breathlessly, “Rusty, look. Is that a dry creek bed?”                   

Less than a metre deep a trench, eroded by the wind and rain that so seldom fell, tapered to an end some twenty metres away.

 “We’ll not do better than this. Let’s get out of sight,” Rusty shouted and jumped into the trench. He yelped as his foot painfully struck something solid in the sand. Ignoring the pain he reached back to take the jerrican from Kathy.

“What hurt you?” Kathy asked, lowering herself over the edge.

Rubbing his ankle Rusty made a quick search before scooping at the sand with his hands to reveal a wooden shaft.

“It’s a spear,” Kathy cried. “It looks really old.”

Together they examined Rusty’s find. Three sharp barbs, shining ebony black in the sun, jutted from a flat head joined to a shaft about one hundred and fifty centimetres long.

“I’ll use this spear to frighten anyone who finds us.” Rusty bravely assured his sister.

A savage gust of wind whipped the sand high. It blasted at their faces and they hunched, closing their eyes against the stinging onslaught.

The wind died. A shadow fell over the trench. Kathy could not suppress a shocked gasp. An old man standing straight and tall with the blue sky at his back, looked down on them.

The snow white hair and beard contrasted with the blackness of his chest and shoulders while a Kangaroo skin, wrapped around his waist and tucked between his legs, was his only clothing.            

“Who, who are you? Where did you come from?” Kathy finally blurted.

“I am from the desert but don’t be afraid, I am not here to harm you,” the old man said kindly. Then with a flash in his eyes, like a mirror presented to the sun, he saw the spear Rusty held.

“You’ve found my spear,” he exclaimed in delight. He reached his hand toward Rusty who, without hesitating, gave him the weapon.

An engine revving nearby stopped suddenly. Then doors slammed.

“I think they’re at our car,” Kathy whispered in fright.

“He’ll be seen for sure,” Rusty replied softly, nodding toward the tall black man. Raising his head slowly he looked from their hide-out. A battered Ford was parked beside the Morris.

Two men, each swigging on bottles, walked around the car. One was fat and ugly. Stopping beside a wheel he thumped the bottle on the roof. Fumbling with the front of his clothing, he started to relieve himself over a wheel.

The smaller of the two men stumbled around the Morris tugging at the door handles. Moving unsteadily behind the fat man he tripped, not quite regaining his balance. With a loud cry of alarm he fell, chest first, into the dust.

The fat man turned in the direction of the commotion spraying his drunken companion lying in the dust.

“You fat scumbag,” the man on the ground shouted. Struggling to his feet they faced each other and argued, as coarsely as only drunks know how.

“They’re drunk and don’t seem to know we’re here,” Kathy said, giggling in spite of her fear.

“Bad men,” said the old man calmly. Pointing the spear to the South he raised it above his head. “They should leave, now.”

The argument stopped. The fat man shouted urgently, “Shut up. There’s dust on the track.”

Pointing his pudgy fingers to the South he yelled, “We’re out of here.”

“Stuff it,” his companion exclaimed. “We could have stripped this thing.”

The two men ran stumbling and shouting to their car, hurling abuse at each other. With a roar the motor fired and clashing gears the Ford lumberously gathered speed.

“We were lucky that time,” Kathy whispered, her throat parched and dry.

Rusty splashed water from the jerrican, offering a full mug to the old man, “Would you like some?” He asked politely.

The old man shook his head, “That is for you. The desert gives me all I need.” Lowering himself to the ground he crossed his legs to sit erect but comfortable in the sand.

Taking the mug, Kathy drank thirstily. Rusty was drinking from the refilled mug when Kathy said in surprise, “There’s no dust on the road now. It’s all gone.”

“The car must’ve stopped,” Rusty reasoned.

The old man smiled as Kathy asked curiously, “Have you always lived in the desert?”

Nodding and indicating with his hand, the old man said, “Sit, and I will tell you about the song of the desert breeze.”

Eagerly Kathy and Rusty listened while he told of the beauty of the desert, its harshness and the blazing sun that plays tricks with the mind of white men.

He told them about the wind that constantly changed the desert and the terrible chill when the blistering sun gives way to the night. They talked for hours and when the sun was low on the horizon the old man came to his feet.

Raising his spear he said, “I am pleased you found my spear. Soon you will not be alone.”

The wind blasted savagely, whipping the sand skywards. For a time Kathy and Rusty clung together to shelter their faces. The wind died and they heard the sound of an engine close by.

A pickup truck was coming from the North. Standing on the open tray, their father was waving furiously. Kathy happily raced Rusty across the gibber as their father leapt from the truck and hurried to meet them.

In the midst of the gibber plain they embraced.

“Daddy,” Kathy cried. “Come and meet our friend.”

Each taking a hand, they dragged their father to the trench where they had left the old man.

In the shimmering heat of late afternoon, carried on a faint breeze, Kathy and Rusty listened to the song of the still and empty desert.

And all that was left were the marks in the sand where Rusty had found the spear.

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