About This Story:
This is one of the transition stories in the collection. It appears in comic sans font and there are some eccentric pictures accompanying the text. But at 40 000 words the story is long and much more complex. It sits beside Girls in Chains and Girls on the Goldfields as a story about the girls in colonial Australia but this time the setting is far North Queensland where I was working when I wrote the story. The Queensland coast north of Cairns must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Add to that people of great cultural diversity and you have a very special place where magical things like the ones narrated here can happen.
My favourite parts of the story relate to the mission in Cooktown and the Chinese and indigenous Australians who feature in the action. It’s a children’s story and the Chinese boys are still comic book characters but something of their energy and optimism shines through. The little scene where Emily performs surgery by the light of the hurricane lamp must have been recreated many times in the rough frontier of the north.
After all the stories I have written for the girls, it was probably inevitable that I would get into one of them as a character. The daffy priest who cares for the girls [and who is rescued many times by the girls] is me writ large.
Chapter 1: The Tea Clipper
Have you ever been on board ship on a tropical sea and felt the brisk, warm wind lifting you with the waves and stroking your hair and making you feel more alive than you ever could be on land? Have you ever looked into the night sky and seen stars so bright and close that you could reach up and pull them down with your hands? Have you ever felt so happy that your heart was simply throbbing with joy and excitement and you were frightened to go to bed in case you woke and found that all that happiness was just a dream?
Katie and Emily felt all these things one night as their beautiful clipper, the Orange Pekoe, came under sail through the South China Seas bound for Sydney, Australia, on a warm summer’s night many years ago. The Orange Pekoe was a tea clipper that started her voyage in Liverpool laden down with muskets and tin trays and cotton and whiskey and silver and steel, headed for the great Chinese port of Canton. When all these things had been unloaded, the ship was filled with porcelain and silk and tea in great big boxes that were sealed tight but which still filled the hold of the ship with the most wonderful fragrance. Katie and Emily loved to loiter by the big hatch that covered the hold, drinking in that delicious smell, but there were few occasions when the girls had more than a moment to spend there because they were so busy. They were, you see, cabin boys on board the most splendid of all the clippers that made the long voyage to China and then turned south to Australia before heading home.
The two little girls had grown up in a cold and bleak town in the north of England where it was always cold and rainy. They were orphans and went to a boarding school for poor girls. Theirs was a very sad story. Their father had been a missionary priest on the wild Orinoco River and had been lost in the wilderness there. It seems that his dugout canoe had gone over a waterfall and the poor missionary had been eaten by hungry piranhas. Their poor mother had been in the same canoe and both had never been heard of again. A native boy walked for days through the jungles to bring home all that was left of the missionaries: a tall black hat and a white silk parasol. The little girls kept the hat and parasol on a shelf in their bedroom – a sad reminder of the parents who had died and left them poor orphans.
Saint Bridget’s Boarding School may have been poor but their teachers were kind and good to the little girls in their care. When they were little, they listened to the stories that their teachers told them of the lands far away across the sea and of the fortunes that were to be made by brave boys who could fight against storms and pirates and sea monsters to bring the treasures from the Indies home to England. Of course the girls wanted to be rich; they were so poor that the thought of having as much as they needed to eat and all the clothes they needed to be warm was always a happy comfort. But more than anything, they wanted the adventure of being away from cold, dismal England with its dull food and dull people. And if brave boys could make their fortune, surely good girls could do this too!
It was Katie who first thought of running away to sea. She had first hoped to become a hedge funds manager on Wall Street or a pirate in the Caribbean Sea but then she saw a book in a teashop window with a picture of the most wonderful tall sailing ship you could ever imagine. As soon as Katie saw that picture, she knew she wanted to sail on a ship like this. She would bring Emily to the window every chance they had just to look at the tall ship and hope that one day, somehow, they could be on board. Emily loved the thought of being at sea too. She hated the cold, bleak days and she never could seem to be warm enough – no matter how many jumpers she put on.
Their chance to go to sea came in the most unexpected way – as most good things do. A gruff sea captain came to their school one morning. He was the brother of the school Headmistress [Mrs Hephzibah Spinnaker] and he told his sister that he was looking for two girls to be kitchen maids on his ship, the Orange Pekoe. They would have to be sensible and hard working girls, he said, who would not complain if things were a little uncomfortable or tough. They would have to be able to cook and sew and clean and polish. Did she know of any such girls who might like a life at sea scrubbing pots and pans and making the captain’s cocoa? And since the boat was sailing from Liverpool in two days, the girls would have to be ready to leave at once.
Now before I tell you the Headmistress’s reply, perhaps I should stop and tell you a little more about this sea captain because he is very important in the story. Captain Nathaniel Yardarm was a tall, gaunt man with a very weather beaten face that had been tanned the colour of dark leather. His hair was silver white and very elegantly curled under a splendid black hat. He wore black trousers, a green velvet jacket with silver buttons and an old fashioned linen shirt with a lace front. The captain also had twinkling blue eyes that were kinder than you might expect in that gruff and serious face. Emily said afterwards that she had never seen a more splendid gentleman: strong, gentle and wise.
Mrs Spinnaker thought for just a moment. There were lots of good girls in her school, of course, but what her brother, the brave sea captain, was asking for was something very special. I think that Mrs Spinnaker might have forgotten Katie and Emily if they both hadn’t come to the door of her office at that moment with a big tea tray sent up by the cook. The girls were favourites of the cook [Mrs Muffin] who always let the girls lick the spoons when she was making cakes or puddings. When the Headmistress saw them, she gave a little start: these were the very girls whom Captain Yardarm needed!
Katie and Emily put the tea tray down and gave a little curtsey. Mrs Spinnaker formally presented them to the Captain and he stood and made each of them a solemn bow. The teacher then turned to the girls and asked them if they would like to travel abroad, and see the world, and become rich and live on fish and chips and calamari.
Before the startled girls could reply, Captain Yardarm interrupted. He looked at the little girls and shook his head. They looked too pretty to be sailors. He asked in a cautious voice, “But Ma’am, are these girls tough and cheerful enough for a life at sea, do you think? ‘Tis a hard life for a boy, but a little girl might find it very hard and want her Mama.”
Emily spoke first in a shy voice, “Please sir, we have no Mama. And Katie and I are really tough. And we never complain or whinge.”
“That’s certainly true, Nathaniel,” said Mrs Spinnaker brightly. “Why, if you could have seen Katie last summer when she had a splinter in her foot that was so nasty I had to come at it with a big needle. And Katie never cried or complained all the time I dug about and worried that splinter out. She was a very brave girl then.”
Katie blushed. She remembered how much that splinter had hurt and how much she wanted to cry out in pain but she had said her prayers and bit her lip while Mrs Spinnaker dug out the splinter as gently as she could.
“And I remember Emily in the winter,” said Mrs Spinnaker, proudly, “when all the girls were sick in bed with colds. Emily cleaned up their rooms and picked up all their pyjamas and undies off the floor and kept the girls’ bedrooms so nice and clean with a mop and bucket. She is an excellent girl with a dustpan and brush.”
This was, perhaps, not quite true because Emily didn’t much enjoy cleaning up the bedrooms but she had done it cheerfully because all her friends were sick. Emily smiled broadly at Mrs Spinnaker, who gave her a shy wink.
“Well, girls,” said the Captain, “that’s my offer. Come to sail with me on my beautiful ship, the Orange Pekoe, and we’ll make your fortune in the China Seas. Will you sign on and serve the Queen in this way?”
Katie would have signed right there and then but Emily hesitated for a moment. “Please, Sir,” she asked timidly, “is it nice and warm in the South China Seas?”
“To be sure it is,” said the Captain, “it has to be warm to ripen the mangoes and bananas for the monkeys to eat.”
The girls laughed and hugged their teacher. What an adventure! That very afternoon they packed their few possessions into an old carpet bag; their father’s tall black hat and their mother’s white silk parasol were carefully wrapped and placed in the bag as their most precious possessions of all. Then they kissed Mrs Spinnaker goodbye and set off with Captain Yardarm for the port of Liverpool.
The Orange Pekoe was to be their new home for many months – for that was how long it took for the beautiful boat to go all the way to India and China, then to New South Wales and finally home. Captain Yardarm was anxious to be setting sail; he felt – as all sea captains do – that he was never alive and well unless he were at sea and could feel the ocean swell beneath is feet. He had one last piece of business before he could cast off, however. He had secured two good serving girls for the ship from his dear sister’s school; now he needed two equally good lads to be cabin boys. Where were they to be found?
Captain Yardarm had been in correspondence with a certain Rev’d Seymour Surplice, a clergyman who kept a school for poor boys [Saint Bosun’s School for Boys] rather like the one his sister conducted for girls. Did he have at his school, the captain asked, two good boys who might like to go to sea? Now the Reverend Surplice was a decent man and wanted to oblige the Captain but he was, after all, just a Headmaster and couldn’t resist the temptation to think of the welfare of his whole school when he received the Captain’s request. He had lots of good boys in his school but he had, at that moment, two particular lads whom he was very glad to send as far away from Saint Bosun’s as he possibly could. The school would be a much better place without them! He wrote a cautious reply to Captain Yardarm: he had two lads anxious to go to sea and once they were under the firm discipline of Captain Yardarm, he was sure that they would make, in time, fine young sailors.
Now most of this, to be very honest, was quite untrue and but for the fact that the Rev’d Surplice was a priest, one might even think that he was telling whoppers. The Rev’d Surplice offered to bring the boys to Liverpool on the day the ship was scheduled to sail with the tide. A busy Captain Yardarm had accepted the story and gone off to Saint Bridget’s to collect the little girls to complete the crew.
Mervyn Dursley: Dudley’s Cousin.
When Fr Seymour presented the boys at the gangplank of the Orange Pekoe – at the very moment that the tide was turning and Captain Y ardarmwas most anxious to be going – the boys were, in fact, the unlikeliest sailors you can imagine. The larger of the two boys was introduced as Dudley Dursley. He had a piggy face and a very big bottom. His companion was his cousin, Mervyn Dursley, and though he were shorter, he was just as fat and his face was just as ugly. They had between them a single sea chest of clothes and a large wicker hamper packed with pies, cakes and lollies. If Captain Yardarm had opened the sea chest, he would have found more things to worry him - for both the boys were smokers.
Dudley Dursley in his St Bosun’s School Uniform
Dudley and Mervyn were not orphans, like Katie and Emily. Their poor parents had been tenant farmers on a big estate in Yorkshire and however hard they worked, they couldn’t make enough money to send the boys to school. They were always in lots of trouble around the village – stealing fruit, cheeking the local police constable and pinching anything they could find. Their poor parents were sure that they would come to a bad end and be sent to prison; they pleaded with the kind priest in the village to save their boys from moral danger. The good man had written to his friend, Father Seymour, to see if the boys could find a place at Saint Bosun’s, and to the relief of parents and priest –and the whole village- the boys were sent off to school to learn some manners. Now, at the lubberly age of fourteen, they were being offered for sale to Captain Yardarm.
Poor Captain Yardarm. What could he do? He needed to be off and sailing and so very reluctantly, he sent Dudley and Mervyn below decks to their cabin and searched in his wallet for the five pounds he had promised to pay Fr Seymour if he could find him the two crew members he needed. To be fair, Fr Seymour was too ashamed to take the money and immediately pressed the five pound note back on the sea captain. It was obvious to everyone that Dudley and Mervyn were not the fine young men that the old priest had promised. Father Seymour bravely shook hands with Mervyn and Dudley and said that he hoped that they would be good boys. Then he was gone as quickly as he could go.
Still, Captain Yardarm remained a little hopeful. The boys looked like stinkers but once at sea, there was no telling what good things the two boys might be capable of. He had known many bad boys become good boys at sea with fresh air and hard work to tidy them up. All the same, Captain Yardarm made a note to get rid of all the cakes and pies and lollies as soon as he could.
Getting the ship away is always an exciting moment. Seven of the crew had to raise the anchors on the boat, turning the windlass and singing a happy song as they did so. The rest of the crew were in the rigging to lower the sails and set them for the bright, blustery afternoon. Katie and Emily would have liked to stop and watch all this but there was work to do. The crew would be needing their dinner soon and there was plenty to do to help the coffee coloured cook, Mr Swillpan, get on the roast mutton and vegetables. By the time the girls could draw breath and go up on deck to see what was happening, the Orange Pekoe had cleared the port and was heading south into the Irish Sea. Soon the land was just a green and blue blur on the horizon. They were at sea and the whole world beckoned.
The girls quickly grew to love the Orange Pekoe as much as Captain Yardarm did. They loved the dolphins that chased the boat for miles at sea, happily leaping out of the green water. They loved the great sea birds who circled high above the ship and who sometimes plunged like a rocket into the water to catch a fish. They loved the noises the elegant boat made in the sea as it churned through the green grey waves, the sails creaking and the largest waves splashing across the prow of the ship. They loved the sailors immediately. Many of them had said goodbye to their own families in Liverpool and were delighted to have two little girls with them on board ship. There were four passengers travelling with the ship as well and they were always kind and interested in the girls. They loved their little snug cabin with its hammocks and their wash stand built into a bench on the wall.
There was only one problem for the girls – but it was a mighty one. They had to work closely every day with the two cabin boys – Mervyn and Dudley Dursley - and you couldn’t be with these two for more than one minute without finding that they were a pair of terrible bullies.
For a start, they were lazy. The girls had to cook and serve the dinner to the captain and crew but the boys were supposed to set the tables and clear away afterwards. Both the boys did everything they could to make Katie and Emily do all of this. They even expected the girls to clean up their cabin and wash their clothes. That’s when Katie and Emily discovered the hamper of cakes and pies and lollies. I think that the girls might have wanted to take some of the cakes – there were so many of them that a few could not be missed– but they were, as you remember, very good girls who had listened to Mrs Spinnaker lessons on honesty very carefully. They would never take anything that did not belong to them!
The Orange Pekoe under sail off the African coast.
The Dursley boys were also very bossy. Emily particularly hated this and she prickled as soon as Mervyn had ordered her to hurry up and clear up the dirty plates from their first breakfast. Emily just gave him a smile and told him to do it himself. Mervyn pushed out his tongue at her and swore terribly. Dudley smirked and gave Emily a shove. Emily was furious and might have punched Dudley in the belly but both the boys swept out of the galley and found a spot on the prow of the ship to have a smoke. Emily was shaking with anger when she got back to Katie. What were they going to do?
For the next six days, things were uncomfortable and very hard for the girls. Dudley Dursley pushed and shoved Katie too and tried to trip Emily when she was carrying a bowl of the Captain’s dirty washing water up on deck. The water sloshed and spilled on Emily’s uniform. Emily was furious and for a moment she was going to throw all the water in Dudley’s nasty, smirking face. Several times the girls were close to tears. I think that they might have happily gone back to Saint Bridget’s if the good Mrs Spinnaker had made the offer at that moment. All this time, the Orange Pekoe sailed south and then east along the English coast to make its last landfall at Southampton before it set off for India. In Southampton, the pilot boat would bring out the big sacks of mail for India and China. Because they were the fastest ship travelling to the East, they carried the most important letters for the Royal Mail.
Dudley and Mervyn Dursley became more and more nasty in these days. They delighted in playing nasty pranks on the girls. Dudley had seen the look in Emily’s face when he had made her spill the water and he was determined to push Emily again until she cried in front of him. That would give him the most wonderful fun. No matter what Katie said to warn or comfort her, Emily boiled with anger as she thought about Mervyn’s piggy eyes and Dudley’s nasty smirk. More than anything, she wanted to punch him in the nose. Of course losing one’s temper was another thing that Mrs Spinnaker had also warned the girls against doing. And as Katie said, they were the children of two good missionaries who had died in a far off jungle doing good works for the poor natives. It would be awful to let their parents down by losing their temper with two fat bullies.
Then on the day that the Orange Pekoe reached Southampton, all of this changed – as it often does. The morning was busy and Captain Yardarm had to be on deck to see the mail bags safely on board. Katie and Emily were doing the washing up [a job that should have been done by the cabin boys – Mervyn and Dudley] when Mervyn came swaggering down to boss them around and tell them that Captain Yardarm wanted them at his cabin. He didn’t, of course; it was just his nasty way of getting the girls alone to bully them. The girls didn’t trust Mervyn but could hardly refuse to go and so they dried their hands and set out for the great cabin in the stern of the ship.
That’s where Dudley was waiting for them. For once he was doing something that the cabin boys should have done – he had gone to the cabin to tidy up and to empty the potty that was kept under the Captain’s bed. [This was a long time ago, you must remember, before there were proper bathrooms and toilets on the ship.] Usually Dudley just opened the window of the Captain’s cabin and threw whatever was in the potty out the porthole into the sea. It wasn’t a job that he liked but today he would have lots of fun. Mervyn had gone to send the girls down and Dudley waited ready. As soon as the Captain’s door opened, he would empty the potty on Katie and Emily. This would be such fun – the best fun! And as the girls walked down the deck in the blustery, bright morning, Dudley waited with the biggest smirk on his face to splash them with the sloppy contents of the potty.
“Katie! Emily! Come and see the mail coming on board. It will be your last look at England for a very long time!” Now that they were ready to leave England on the long voyage south, Captain Yardarm was as happy as any man can be.
“Please Sir,” said Emily, dropping a curtsey. “We were told you wanted us at your cabin.”
“Now who told you that?” the captain demanded – but gave his own answer immediately. “I’ll bet it was that lazy cabin boy, Mervyn Dursley, or his bullying cousin, Dudley. Aye, don’t think I haven’t seen a little of what those two have been about. I found them smoking and eating cakes last night and I asked them directly how it was that you two always seemed to be doing their duties. The lying rascals told me that you simply loved cleaning and clearing up and that they let you do it all as a kindness to them. Now can that be true, Miss Emily? My sister told me about the time you picked up the undies for your sick friends but I don’t think that Dudley and Mervyn are particular friends of yours. ”
“No Captain,” said Emily truthfully, “they most certainly are not. In fact ..” here Emily hesitated and Katie quickly stepped in before Emily said anything really nasty.
“We wondered if we should tell you, perhaps, what was happening...” said Katie.
“Now listen to me, Miss Katie, and listen hard. I’m the captain of this ship and there’s little that happens on board that I don’t know about. I’ve had my eye on that pair of scoundrels since they came on board. I think I might just go to my cabin and see now what these bullies want. Come along with me now. And step lively!”
Katie’s heart was just singing. No matter what waited for them at the captain’s cabin, they would have Captain Yardarm himself to stand up for them. Emily was happier at that moment than she had felt since leaving Saint Bridget’s!
At the oak door of the cabin, Captain Yardarm knocked and then swung the door, Katie and Emily behind him. And just at that moment, Dudley gave a cheer and launched the smelly yellow stuff in the potty – all over Captain Yardarm. He did this just as Mervyn pelted to the door: he had seen what was happening and ran as fast as his fat legs could carry him to warn his cousin - but he was five seconds too late.
Katie and Emily got the job of cleaning the mess off the cabin floor and off Captain Yardarm’s lovely white linen shirt and green coat but I must tell you that they never did a dirty job with such happy hearts in their lives. Every now and then, one of them would begin to giggle and then they would both collapse with laughter. They hadn’t been able to laugh when the potty had hit Captain Yardarm of course. He had gone purple with anger and he stayed purple for the next half hour as the crew lowered one of the boats and a sobbing Mervyn and Dudley Dursley had been put ashore. Katie and Emily had been sent to fetch the big hamper of pies and cakes from the boys’ cabin: this had been thrown into the sea as the rowing boat pulled away from the ship and headed for land. Mervyn and Dudley howled even more when they saw the hamper sink under the grey waters of the bay.
Captain Yardarm wished fervently that he was a sea captain in the good old days. Then he could have made the two fat bullies walk the plank. Even now he could have flogged them with a length of rope but despite his bluster, he was deep down a kind hearted man. Once he had had a nice wash and seen his soiled clothes go off to be laundered by Katie, he calmed down considerably. Emily fetched him a glass of rum and with the ship under sail and a long, happy sea voyage ahead, Captain Yardarm gave the little girl the slyest of smiles. Emily couldn’t help giggling again and soon the whole boat was alive with laughter – although the crew were very careful not to titter about the great potty throw when Captain Yardarm was about.
That night, Captain Yardarm announced to the whole crew that the two serving girls would now become the cabin boys. Since Katie and Emily had been doing all their work as well as their own they deserved to have the nicer cabin and the better pay that went with the new job. The crew [who had disliked the fat bullies as much as the girls had done] had a little party that night for them. Things were much less jolly back in Portsmouth. Captain Yardarm [being always a very kind and good man, after all] knew that he couldn’t put Mervyn and Dudley down in a strange city with no money at all. He had reluctantly given them five pounds and before the Orange Pekoe had cleared the harbour, they had spent some of it on smokes and another hamper of cakes and pies. They ate the cakes and smoked their tobacco until they were bilious.
What were they going to do? They couldn’t go back to Saint Bosun’s – they both hated it there, and it was unlikely that Fr Seymour would take them back in. No, they needed a change. Both of the boys wanted to make a fortune; neither of them wanted to work hard. Just by chance, something turned up. In the dockside pub where they had spent the afternoon a grizzled old sailor had kept his eye on them. He bought them a drink of rum –even though neither of the boys was old enough to drink. Then he bought them another. The silly boys began to brag and boast as they drank the rum. They told the old sailor that they had a five pound note [or most of it, after they had bought the cakes and smokes]. They boasted about how brave they were in tormenting little girls – and how they had thrown a potty over a particularly vicious captain of a splendid tea clipper. The old sailor quickly became their friend and by the time the boys had had their fourth tot of rum, they were quite drunk. The sailor offered them a place to sleep that night and lead the tipsy boys back to his shabby sailing ship, TheTakeaway. Compared with the elegant Orange Pekoe, The Takeaway was scrawny and grim. It was not uncommon for the captain to have to find his sailors in the pubs and bars of Southampton. When the boys woke the next morning, feeling horribly sick, they were at sea – and the newest members of the crew headed for Queensland, Australia. The old sailor, who turned out to be Mr Harry Hornpipe, the first mate on the ship, had thoughtfully trousered all that was left of the five pound note.
Chapter 2: The Cyclone
If the girls hadn’t been so busy on board ship, I think they might have had time to become sad and lonely as their old life in England slipped away. The fact is that they both worked so hard, however, that at the end of each day they were simply tired out and crept into their hammocks happy but exhausted. There really was enough work for four people –Captain Yardarm had been right there- but with only two of them, they just had to knuckle down and work twice as hard. If it hadn’t been for the wonderful fresh air and their sense of doing a good day’s work they might have been forlorn and sorry.
There were two joys on the voyage from the very beginning. The first was that they quickly made friends with everyone. The rest of the crew made such a fuss of them, helping wherever they could and being very careful indeed how they spoke and acted. When one of the younger crew members forgot himself one day and used some bad language in front of Emily [he was trying to carry a very big tea chest all on his own] the other sailors gave him a very hard time. These little girls were ladies, they would say. No bad language and no spitting when they were around! I have to say that the sailors still wanted to smoke and Katie and Emily sensibly told them very early that they didn’t mind that at all. It was so windy on deck anyway that the lovely purple smoke from their pipes was soon lost overboard before anyone else could breathe it in. The other great joy was a very simple one. Every day at sea took them closer to warmer parts. The sun became stronger and busier and soon frowsty old jumpers were washed for the last time and put away carefully. Now it was summer pinafores and hats!
Among the friends the girls made on board was an old gentleman going out from England to see his daughter in Sydney. His name was Father Fergus Ferguson; he was an old, Scottish priest and when the girls saw him in his tired black shirt and cassock, they were bold enough to ask him if perhaps he had known their father.
Father Fergus gave a start. “Aye now! Don’t tell me that you are the daughters of the Reverend Gordon Bland, the great Orinoco explorer?”
The girls nodded shyly; they had no idea that their father was famous.
“Why bless my soul!” said the old priest. “I was the priest who married young Gordon to the lovely Patricia Mollee– and a better man never walked this earth. What a loss he was – and what a sadness that the lovely Patricia was lost to the jungle just like her good husband. My, my! To think that I would meet his own little bairns in the middle of the ocean!”
I must tell you that Katie and Emily cried a little here. They really knew so little about their father and mother and to be brought face to face with a good gentleman who knew them well was like a miracle. The girls couldn’t stop to talk further, however, because it was afternoon tea time and the crew would be wanting their ginger nut biscuits and bread and butter. But many times after that, when their jobs were done or there was a quiet afternoon, the girls would find Father Fergus and listen for ages as he spoke of their father and mother. One day they shyly showed him the black hat and white silk parasol – and Father Fergus cried then too. The girls pointed out the stains on the hat and parasol caused by the grey waters of the great Orinoco River. It was a sadness that the three friends shared between them.
As you can imagine, the girls loved spending time with Father Fergus. When the Orange Pekoe after many weeks at sea finally made land fall in India, he pleaded with Captain Yardarm to give the little girls a holiday and let them come ashore with him. This the Captain was very happy to do and under big straw hats that one of the crew had made them, the girls set out to explore the wonders of Calcutta with Father Fergus.
The girls were a little frightened at first of the hectic sprawling city. They saw amazing things on the streets. Yes, there were big modern buildings; there were tram cars like the ones they had seen in the streets of Liverpool and there were policemen and shops and newspapers. But amidst this entire modern city there were thin black men pulling rickshaws; there were donkeys and ox carts and cattle wandering about. Whole families seemed to be living on the footpath and girls not much older than they were tended little fires on the roadside cooking for their families. In the middle of all this, the girls saw their first camel languidly loping down the road with a distinguished looking lady on his back. And even more impressive was their first elephant. I think that if the girls had been paying passengers instead of part of the crew that they would have left the boat at that moment just to explore this magic place.
The smell of the city was overpowering: they had smelled it miles out at sea even before the city came into view. The noise was deafening and although they never felt frightened or bewildered, they were very pleased when Father Fergus suggested that it was time for lunch and they found a tea shop and ate a spicy hot curry. If it hadn’t been for the cold, juicy mango and the wonderful ripe banana served with the curry I don’t think that any of them could have finished it. Back on board ship that afternoon, the girls watched the slim black men with the most magnificent moustaches unloading cargo from the hold of the Orange Pekoe and packing in silk and spices and lots of other treasures.
Two days later, the Orange Pekoe was gone, slipping her moorings and heading out into the grey waters of the Andaman Sea. Their next stop was Singapore where Father Fergus took them to see gardens and fountains; then it was on to Hong Kong - the most wonderful city of all. The Orange Pekoe was moored in Kowloon and the girls crossed the harbour to Hong Kong Island in a sampan. I won’t tell you all the things the girls did in that beautiful place – it would take up all this story – but after a week, it was time to cast off on the last leg of their voyage before they turned for home. The Orange Pekoe was bound for Sydney where it would unload some of the silk and tea it had collected in India and China and fill up the hold of the ship with wool for England. Katie hoped that the smell of the wool wouldn’t spoil the delicious smell of tea now coming from the hold of the ship. Every now and then, Captain Yardarm would send them down into the hold to bring out a barrel of rum or a gill of whisky. Both the girls went then – just to drink in that magnificent smell.
It was winter in Hong Kong- cool and sharp at night- but as the Orange Pekoe sailed towards Australia it became warmer. The ship sailed south, crossed the equator and headed towards New Guinea, the Coral Sea and the North Australian coast. Their next port was Sydney but that was still two weeks away. The days became hot and breathless; the wind dropped and without the wind, the boat slowed and made little progress. It was so hot that all the crew and even the paying passengers moved their beds out on to the deck to get a little bit of breeze at night. The sea became glassy. For the very first time at sea, the girls were uncomfortable and uneasy.
Captain Yardarm was always on deck now, scanning the horizon and shaking his head. He spent a lot of time with his barometer and his face was worried and drawn. The copper sky and sultry days could mean only one thing. Everyone of the crew whispered the same few words. The sailors who had long served in China and Japan called it a typhoon; the sailors who had served in the Americas called it a hurricane. Captain Yardarm simply called it a cyclone. The Orange Pekoe was headed into the thing a sailor fears most – a terrible storm at sea.
Captain Yardarm was worried. The Orange Pekoe could ride out the storm, certainly. She had come through hurricane, typhoon and cyclone before. But each time that had happened in the past, however, the ship was in mid ocean. Now, the Orange Pekoe was in the Coral Sea. To the west was the coast of North Queensland but between the sea and the land was a maze of coral reefs that could smash even the best of boats. It would be hard to steer the boat in a storm and with no sun or stars to guide you, even the best captain could become lost.
I think most of the crew knew a little of what the Captain was thinking, but like the girls, they had great faith in their skipper. He would bring them through certainly. And when they got to Sydney, there would be bars and drinks and pretty girls and happy days for sailors. But between them and Sydney was the storm.
Katie was a little puzzled. The air was still and choking but the wind was not strong enough to frighten anyone- certainly not a beautiful ship like the Orange Pekoe. But Captain Yardarm told them that very soon, they would be in the heart of the storm and there was no time to lose. All over the ship, the sailors worked in grim silence, taking in most of the sails and moving from the decks anything that might be swept away by waves or wind. The girls helped the cook, Mr Swillcan, to make biscuits that could be eaten if they had to put out the stoves in the galley. They made big pots of tea and coffee and fed everyone while they still had a chance. All the time, the wind was rising and when darkness fell, there was not a star to be seen. It began to rain heavily. But for the fact that they were on the best boat in the world with the bravest Captain I think that the girls might have been just a little concerned. They knew they would be uncomfortable and probably wet through by rain and waves but they had no doubt that the day would break fine and sunny.
All the same, the girls did a few things that evening that later in the night made all the difference. Captain Yardarm had asked them to serve every member of the crew with a good tot of rum. The rum was not in big barrels – the kind in which the sailors carried beer or salted meat – but in smaller drums about the size of a large bucket. Serving the crew finished up an open barrel and the girls had to go below into the hold to get another. When every one of the passengers and crew had had a serve of rum [and some thirsty ones had had seconds] they had two empty barrels on the deck. Normally the girls would take these back to the hold but it was already dangerous moving about in the pitching water and instead, they took the barrels back to their cabin. That’s where Emily had a brilliant idea.
The lid of the barrel screwed open and shut. When it was shut, it was well sealed and nothing could get out. The barrels were light and strong; they would float easily on water.
“Katie,” she said, “I think I might just put a few things in this barrel. If nothing happens, of course, we can unpack in the morning. But if a wave washes us overboard, the barrel will save all our special stuff.”
“Special stuff?” said Katie sadly, “We don’t have any jewels or treasures, do we? The only things I couldn’t bear to lose are Father’s hat and Mother’s parasol. Will they fit?”
They did – and there was plenty of room around them too. Emily picked up a box of matches and put them into the barrel. Then Katie put in a pocket knife, a pair of scissors and a brush and comb and a packet with six of the biscuits they had baked for the crew. Then they sealed the lid carefully.
Again, Emily was the clever one. “Just suppose we were washed overboard too,” she said grimly. “I know we won’t, - but just suppose.”
“Well neither of us can fit in the barrel!” said Katie with a giggle.
Emily giggled too but reached for a coil of light rope that was on the floor. It was one of the things moved off the deck as the storm approached. Together, the girls tied the two barrels together. There was more rope than they needed to do this; of course, they didn’t cut off the long loose ends of the rope. They just left them hanging. Then without taking off their clothes and finding their pyjamas they settled down in their hammocks – now swinging as the ship bucked under the growing wind and rising waves. Despite the discomfort, they fell asleep.
They woke many times through the night. Every time they did, the sea seemed bigger and the wind stronger. It fairly sliced through the ship’s mast and rigging. At one time they tried to nibble some of the biscuits they had made for the crew but the movement of the boat made them feel sick and exhausted. Captain Yardarm had said that the Orange Pekoe could ride out the storm. As long as they were at sea, they were safe. The danger would come if the Orange Pekoe were to drift towards land. In these waters near Australia, there were coral reefs and lots of tiny islands where a boat might come to grief. But the girls trusted Captain Yardarm and knew they would be safe. One last time they tried to settle into a fitful sleep.
They were awakened by the sound of shouting. It was very early morning and a pale grey light filled the girls’ cabin. As they jumped from their hammocks, the girls thought that they could see white water in the near distance– waves breaking in foam! The wind was so strong and powerful that anyone who wanted to talk had to shout to be heard. Katie opened the door of her cabin and there was a whoosh of water slopping down the corridor. Moments later there was a dull, groaning crash and the ship gave a huge lurch that tumbled the girls over. The boat seemed to rear up, its bow in the air, then there was a sickening groan and the girls felt one of the great masts of the ship come crashing down. Without being told, the girls know what had happened: the Orange Pekoe had hit a coral reef.
The ship’s bell was ringing and there was action everywhere on the deck. The girls ran outside to see some of the crew working to lower the life boats. Captain Yardarm was in the middle of all the action, helping, encouraging and trying to keep the sailors calm but his faced looked grim. As soon as he saw the girls, he called them urgently to get into the lifeboat that was just about to pull away. Among the others waiting to climb in and launch into that sea was Father Fergus.
Now Katie and Emily would have done anything at that moment that Captain Yardarm told them to do but while they had any chance at all, they wanted to take their precious things with them. Emily wondered if she had done the right thing last night putting them into the barrels tied together in their cabin below. The girls hesitated for a moment and in that tiny second two more terrible things happened.
A second mast came crashing down on the deck. It simply swept the lifeboat and the few people who were in it over the side of the ship and into the surf. Without thinking, Katie grabbed Father Fergus and pulled him towards them and out of the way of the splintering mast. The impact of the mast falling upset the balance of the ship as it stuck on the reef. There was great heave and the ship slid backwards off the reef and broke into pieces.
Katie ran like a knife to the cabin below, now at a crazy angle as the ship began to sink quickly. She picked up the two barrels tied together and struggled back on deck. The ropes which had flopped unevenly last night around the barrels were now wonderfully handy. Katie, Emily and Father Fergus hung on together, looking to see if there were another life boat. But there was nothing and in moments, the ship was sinking below them and dumping them into the surf.
Probably at this moment Katie was sorry that she had gone away to sea – and not to Wall Street to make her fortune as a futures trader! The water churned around them and the two little girls and the old priest hung on to the ropes as tightly as they could. Katie saw Emily’s face in the water and spluttered as a wave crashed down on them. They struggled – Katie was sure she touched the solid reef with her foot for just a moment. They couldn’t hang on for much longer. Then a huge wave lifted them and the barrel up onto the crest of the breaker; with a whoosh, they were over the reef and swept into the lagoon. They couldn’t touch bottom but this water was much calmer than the surf on the reef.
All around them was debris from the wreck – and in the distance on the other side of the surf they could see the life boat and some of their friends swimming towards it. The wind and waves continued to push them away from the wreck, however, and I think that this was the only time that the girls were really frightened. A miserable sun was trying to break through clouds. And in the distance, the girls could see a beach and high green mountains rising behind.
Chapter 3: On the Beach
I’m sure that you’re thinking of all the things that made that moment frightening and dangerous for the girls. The reef was home to savage sharks and poisonous snakes. The coast was home to enormous salt water crocodiles who could swim out right out to the reef and who could bite a girl in two or swallow her whole. Katie and Emily didn’t think for a moment about any of these things, however, because they were little English girls and had never met a snake, a shark or a crocodile. They were frightened of the surf because they couldn’t swim – but now they were in calmer water and the storm was easing at last.
They were uncomfortable in their long dresses and with a giggle Emily at last unbuttoned her pinafore and pulled it away from her so that her legs kicked free in the water. Katie did the same; I think that poor Father Fergus would have peeled off his cassock too if he hadn’t been so shy. He tried to be cheerful but he did know about crocodiles and snakes and sharks and couldn’t help but look anxiously at the distant shore and the high mountains rising above the beach. When the wind dropped a little, it was possible to push and paddle the clumsy barrels towards the beach.
At last Father Fergus could touch the sand of the bay below them and he could now pull them forward; then Katie could touch and finally Emily too and with a great groan and heave they staggered up on to the white sandy beach. Emily was exhausted but she knew that until the barrels were safely away from the reach of waves and wind that their precious things were not safe. It began to rain again as the girls found a spot under some dark green casuarinas where they flopped down and felt that they had never been so tired or so pleased or so exhausted in their lives. The rain increased their misery and soon they found that they had other things to think about. There were no crocodiles or snakes yet but some very savage mosquitoes seemed very pleased to see them. The next hour was truly worse than their time in the lagoon but by mid day, the sky had cleared a little and the rain stopped. The girls [without their pinafores -they had draped them neatly on a Casuarina stump]- now got up to stamp about and explore their new kingdom.
The first thing they saw was the wreckage of the Orange Pekoe scattered all along the beach. There were torn ropes, bits of sail and lots of wood floating on the water or tossed on to the beach. The girls found the splendid Union Jack that used to fly from the stern of the ship above the Captain’s cabin wrapped around a piece of mast. Katie picked up Captain Yardarm’s wonderful feathered hat, filled with sand and looking very bedraggled in the shallows. And everywhere the water was stained brown. It was, of course, the tea spilled from the hold into the ocean and now spread for miles up and down the coast. Katie would have given anything for a cup of real tea at that moment.
Then she smelled something almost as nice. It was wood smoke – light and fragrant and sweet. While the girls had been exploring, Father Fergus had carefully untied the ropes from the barrels and gently unscrewed the lids. Miraculously, everything that the girls had hurriedly sealed inside was safe and sound. Father’s hat and Mother’s parasol looked as good as the day the girls had been given them by the Missionary Society. More importantly for that moment the matches were dry and Father Fergus had managed to find some dry kindling and start a fire. That little fire provided warmth and cheer and enough smoke to scare the mosquitoes away. The girls’ spirits rose immediately.
Father Fergus may have been old and wrinkly but it turned out that he was also a good soul to have in a crisis like this. He didn’t moan or complain and there were times that afternoon when the girls thought that his mischievous brown eyes twinkled more on land than they had on sea. This was, he declared, a great adventure. They were safe. They had a little food – and they had seen many of their friends on the Orange Pekoe – maybe all of them- reach the life boats and head away from the surf to safety. There was a lot to thank God for, he declared. No doubt their friends would come looking for them and they would all be rescued soon enough. In the meantime, since it was probably lunch time, they should have lunch. The three friends sat down beside the fire and munched on the biscuits that Katie had packed. They were a bit crushed by their adventure but the girls declared that they had never tasted anything better in their lives.
After lunch, they decided they needed to explore a little. The sun had come out and while there were still rain clouds about, the girls wanted to find out what was around the corner of the little bay where they had been washed ashore. They decided that they would walk along the beach for a while and then walk back and go the same distance in the other direction. Father Fergus told them not to leave the beach under any circumstances; it would be easy to get lost here. Maybe they would find a town or a village. There didn’t look to be anyone about but they really had no idea where they were except that they had to be somewhere in North Queensland. The best outcome, of course, would be to find some of the others from the Orange Pekoe – perhaps one of the life boats come to shore to find them. Father Fergus would stay with the fire and keep it burning and smoking to attract attention. He would also rescue whatever he could from the wreckage on the beach. It seemed a good plan and so the girls set out to see what they could find on that desolate beach.
The beach was long and wide, made of soft, golden sand. They could see, away to the south, shimmering sand dunes that seemed to reach up like a giant saddle among the green forests. Near the beach, the green of the jungle made a tight wall at the sand line: there were palm trees and vines and tall trees reaching higher than trees the girls had ever seen in England. The girls would have been happy to push in and explore the jungle a little but they remembered Father Fergus’s warning and I think that he was wise: the jungle all looked the same and once you were in, it might be difficult to find your way out. It was like nothing the girls had ever seen before – but then you must remember that these were little English girls who had never been to Australia before. They felt lonely on the beach so far away from everything; both of them kept turning back to check that they could still see the smoky fire that Father Fergus was tending where they had come ashore.
It didn’t take long for the girls to find all sorts of interesting things. There were coconuts on the sand that the storm had shaken down. There was a great deal more wreckage from the ship and the girls carefully piled up things that might be handy including bottles, some tin mugs that they recognised from the galley and even a box half filled with ships biscuits. The biscuits were wet and soggy but the girls put them out in the sunshine to dry. After all, they didn’t know where their dinner was going to come from. There were clothes belonging to the crew and several felt hats too. The girls put those on- even though they were sopping wet. By the time they got back to Father Fergus, they would be quite dry.
Best of all, every little while there would be a stream of sweet water spilling over rocks. In one glorious spot, the girls found a waterfall tumbling down from high rocks on to the beach. Of course it only flowed like this because of all the storm rain but without a second thought, the girls slipped off their hot, salty clothes and were under that waterfall as if it were the best shower bath in a grand hotel. I think on that hot, muggy afternoon it was probably better! The water was deliciously cold and the two little girls stood there with their mouths open letting the cold, clear water wash into them. Then they rinsed the salt off their clothes and put the dripping clothes back on.
But there were no other survivors from the Orange Pekoe, no villages, no signs of ships or farms or lighthouses. The girls could occasionally see fires in the hills above them – smoky camp fires like their own and once or twice Emily was certain that she had heard movement in the jungle behind them as they walked along the beach. They returned to Father Fergus laden down with the bits and pieces they had found. There was the beach in the other direction to explore, of course, but they were already thinking about night and where they would stay.
Father Fergus moved their little camp to the nearest stream of fresh water. There was a nice patch of grass there on the edge of the jungle and that is where they set up camp. Father Fergus had been very busy while the girls were away walking. He had collected lots of things from the wreck and put branches and boards together to form a little shelter. If it rained during the night, the three friends would be snug and dry. Father Fergus had also collected a big pile of firewood so that their fire would burn through the night. Father Fergus solemnly handed out the last of the biscuits the girls had saved in the barrel. There was the big box of ship’s biscuits to eat later, of course, but they were still damp and soggy and it would be some time before they would be nice to eat.
Best of all, Father Fergus had collected big handfuls of the tea from the water in the shallows and put it aside to dry. He had found a saucepan and boiled some water and thrown in the driest of the wet tea. It wasn’t the kind of tea the girls loved: there was no milk and sugar and it still tasted a little salty. But it was hot and strong and the girls drank it greedily.
As darkness fell, the three friends sat around the fire and turned over the questions in their minds. Where were their friends from the Orange Pekoe? How were they ever going to be able to find their way home?
“We saw fires in the hills,” said Emily. “And I think that I heard something –or someone- in the jungle as we walked up the beach. Could there be people watching us, do you think?”
“Oh, I would think that we have been watched by the local people from the moment we staggered up the beach,” said Father Fergus. “I think that they are with us now – just beyond the firelight -waiting to see what we do.”
“Could they be cannibals?” Katie asked with real fear in her voice.
“If they are cannibals,” said Emily, “I think that I might be safe. I’m really skinny but you’re nice and juicy, Katie.”
Katie giggled. She knew that they had to be brave and not show how frightened they really felt. Once again Katie reminded herself that they may only be little girls but they were the daughters of brave missionaries – and they had to live with that bright memory before them. Katie took her friends’ hands and held them tight. In the morning, they would start the long journey to find the friends they last saw in the lifeboat. When the girls said their prayers that night, their friends were the very first people they prayed for. Surely brave Captain Yardarm would have been able to save the crew – even if he hadn’t been able to save their beautiful ship and all its cargo. They also prayed for safety and hope and that the next day might bring them rescue. In the darkness of that black tropical night on a strange shore many miles from a town or city, it seemed as if they might never be found. They could only trust in Father Fergus to find a way home. It had been an exhausting day; once they had said their prayers, the girls fell asleep almost immediately. But Father Fergus stayed awake and alert for a long time – staring into the darkness and praying for safety in the days ahead.
Chapter 4: A Haircut on the Beach
The very first thing that Emily saw when she woke up next morning was two very skinny black legs in the doorway of their shelter. A moment later, the legs were joined by a smiling black face and the whitest teeth that Emily had ever seen. Her first thought was of cannibals but the girl’s smile was so kind and cheeky that Emily couldn’t imagine that the little girl looking at her could wish her any ill. Emily reached for her sister; Katie was awake too and so was Father Fergus, looking as calm and as cheerful as he could – despite his fear. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to say the first words or make the first move.
The little girl at the door was no older than Emily. She had black skin, curly, matted hair and almost no clothes to wear. She was slim and seemed completely relaxed and pleased to see these strange visitors on the beach. In the end, it was the black girl who moved first, calling over her shoulder and reaching out to touch Emily’s white hair. Soon there were other black children- boys and girls - crowded around the simple shelter and the girls stood up awkwardly and out on to the beach to try to feel less vulnerable. Father Fergus stood protectively behind them.
Everyone in the little group of children wanted to touch Emily’s hair and for just one moment Katie felt a little grumpy that her lovely, honey coloured hair wasn’t as interesting as her sister’s. “Katie, what am I going to do?” Emily asked in a whisper.
“It’s fine, Emily,” Katie said. “I just think that they’ve never seen someone like you before.”
And here, Emily did a very brave thing. Even though she was frightened, she was just as curious as the black children. She reached out and touched the thick black hair of the first little girl who had woken them. Then all the girls – black and white – smiled. Suddenly it all seemed less frightening than it had a moment ago. But Father Fergus put his hand protectively on Katie’s shoulder; he could see what the girls had not noticed: at some distance down the beach there were black men with spears – warriors- who looked alert and dangerous. All night Father Fergus had thought about how to manage this first meeting between the Aborigines and the poor castaways. He had hoped that it would be friendly but he never for a moment imagined that the first people they would meet would be children about the same age as the girls.
It was Katie who made the next move – and as she said afterwards, she couldn’t have come up with a cleverer plan if she had wracked her brain for a week. Katie reached into the back of their shelter and found one of the barrels where their precious things had been stored. She quickly removed the brush, comb and mirror; when they had packed up their things on board the Orange Pekoe as the storm was breaking, Katie had wondered whether this were really a sensible thing to bring. After all, it didn’t much matter how they looked if they were being tipped into the surf on the reef. Now it seemed just the right thing to have to share.
Katie never stopped smiling and very calmly – well, as calmly as she could in that tense moment- reached over and began to brush Emily’s hair. The black girls giggled and Katie then reached across and tried to brush the thick black hair of the little girl who had woken them. More giggles. Emily took the comb and tried to comb the hair of the closest little boy. He squealed when the comb caught in his matted curls and with a shrug he ran off to join the warriors.
Katie and Emily, left alone with the girls, continued to brush and comb. They became a little more anxious when the warriors came a little closer but with them were some kindly looking older women who were just as curious about the brush and comb as the little girls seemed to be. Katie tried not to notice how few clothes anyone was wearing – she’d never seen quite so much of anyone before.
The next step was really bold – and might have had terrible consequences if it hadn’t worked out. Katie picked up her scissors and the comb and turned to one of the little boys in the group. Of all the children he had the brightest smile, the happiest face – and the untidiest hair that fell across his eyes and neck. Very carefully this time so as not to hurt him, Katie combed the hair as best she could. She spoke to the boy, telling him how handsome and brave he was, knowing that even though he couldn’t understand her, the warm voice might make the encounter less frightening. Then, very carefully, Katie used the comb and the scissors to cut the boy’s hair. She didn’t have much practice for this, of course, but she went slowly and carefully, often stopping and showing the little boy how he looked in her mirror.
From the moment the scissors began their work, there was a string of interested oohs and aahs from the black children. Katie took great care and really she was very good for a beginner. When she had finished, the boy looked much tidier and couldn’t seem to stop admiring his face in the hand held mirror.
Suddenly there was an excited chatter and a push of boys and girls, all wanting the same treatment. There was only one mirror, however, and only one pair of scissors and for a moment Katie and Emily wondered if they had only made things more difficult for themselves. Then the children were joined by a group of women who also wanted to see what was happening and to admire themselves in the looking glass. There were women and children all around them, some pushing and trying to get closer. The little party of castaways was almost surrounded.
Then it was suddenly silent. The group of five or six warriors had walked forward, spears in their hands and looking, it must be said, rather frightening. What would happen now? Father Fergus, who had been standing silently all the time, watching the group of warriors intently, now stepped forward. He took off his hat and bowed to the tallest and most dangerous looking warrior. He then held out his hand, hoping that the Aboriginal man would shake it. And he did, although Katie and Emily realised that shaking hands seemed as strange to the warrior as the haircut had been for the little boy. The warrior held up his hand to the others to show them that he was still safe and well and then laughed.
The group relaxed and the bravest of the girls – the one who had come to the shelter and woken them that morning – took Katie and Emily by the hand and they ran down along the beach. It was a beautiful morning – already warm and promising to be hot. The children ran to the water’s edge and began splashing about happily. Katie and Emily hesitated; they were still wearing their pinafores and they were even now a little damp from yesterday’s drenching. The black children, of course, had no clothes to worry about. Katie and Emily didn’t think for a moment; their English clothes were so heavy and confining. They shimmied out of their dresses and left them on the sand while they splashed around. It had been a very long time since they actually had time to play and on this beautiful beach on a splendid summer morning they felt like birds that had been let out of a cage at last.
Father Fergus watched the children playing happily. He was now relaxed enough to look at the warriors more carefully and he too began to feel more hopeful. From a distance, the warrior group had looked severe and dangerous but up close, they looked a great deal nicer. All of the men were really quite young – strong and slim and athletic. Only their leader – a tall, muscular man with a strong black beard- looked really fearsome and now his face was lit by a smile. Encouraged by this, Father Fergus bent down and found a piece of driftwood. He walked to a clear stretch of wet sand and drew the outline of a boat in the sand. The men all gathered around to look; the warrior nodded and pointed out towards the reef, then at the broken pieces of wreckage on the beach. Father Fergus nodded sadly. He wished he could ask if the Aboriginal people knew where the sailors who survived the wreck might be and if the life boat had come to land anywhere nearby. But that question was too hard to ask with drawings on the sand.
Then the warrior did something that made Father Fergus leap in excitement. The black man took his spear and using the end of it –not the sharp end, of course, because like every hunter or warrior he needed to keep the blade clean and bright - he drew carefully in the sand the outline of what was clearly a house or building of some kind. Then he did something truly remarkable: he drew a cross in the sand above the hut, then pointed at the silver cross that Father Fergus wore around his neck. Then he reached out his hand and pointed to the beautiful, high green hills and blue mountains that stretched to the south. Suddenly, the world for Father Fergus seemed safer and more hopeful. Somewhere to the south beyond the hills there must be a town or village with a church and there the poor shipwrecked castaways would be able to find a way to get home. The Aboriginal people who had found them on the beach seemed friendly and might even, he hoped, be able to take them to safety.
Chapter 5: The Takeaway Sails South
Now perhaps you are wondering what became of Mervyn and Dudley Dursley, the two awful bullies who had made the girls’ first week on the Orange Pekoe such a misery? They had woken up at sea as The Takeaway lurched through the grey water of the English Channel; the sky was grey with showery, scudding clouds and Dudley and Mervyn felt very grey themselves. Their cabin was close and airless with just enough room for two hammocks. Each of the boys had a terrible head ache and when they remembered what had happened and finally learned where they were both the boys very sensibly sat down to cry. They were blubbering when the old sailor who had lured them on to the boat, First Mate Harry Hornpipe, found them on deck looking sadly at the coast of England as it slipped away in the distance.
First Mate Harry Hornpipe
Mr Hornpipe may have been a thief and a scoundrel but he also had a kind heart. He didn’t approve of big boys blubbering when there was work to be done but he took the boys aside quietly and told them as gently as he could that they were now part of the crew of the plucky little cargo ship, The Takeaway. There were fifteen crew – some of them very villainous, Mr Hornpipe said, but no one was as wicked as the captain, Captain Flint. The Takeaway was not an elegant sailing ship like the Orange Pekoe but she was an honest working boat with a grim history. In her time, the boat had carried slaves from Africa and convicts from England; even Mervyn and Dudley could feel something of the sadness of those unhappy voyages oozing out of the timberwork.
The Takeaway at anchor in Malacca
In her old age, The Takeaway was now set up to move all sorts of general cargo – pots and pans, cheap crockery, nails and tools and cotton cloth – from England to India and Malaya. She took tea and rubber and the poorest of passengers from Singapore to North Queensland. On the run back to England, she took wool from the west and sugar from the canefields of Queensland packed into sacks and filling the hold. The voyage from England to Queensland and back again would take six months. If the boys were good, the First Mate promised, they would each be paid three pounds when the ship returned to Liverpool. If they were bad, the captain would beat them with a length of rope and they would be left on the first cannibal island the ship met south of the Equator. It was something that happened all the time on the Takeaway, the old sailor said.
The boys cried all the louder at this information and their wails brought Captain Flint himself to the deck. He had a cruel and unpleasant face and he decided that the best way to quieten these two sooks was to wallop them with a strap he kept handy for this purpose. Mervyn and Dudley howled all the louder; more whacks followed. The two bullies had learned long ago that if they made enough noise and cried loud enough that they could get what they wanted. This had worked at home and at school but it did not work on Captain Flint. They quickly learned that Captain Flint was well named and that he was as hard hearted as any man at sea.
Hard hearted Captain Flint.
It only became worse when First Mate Hornpipe told the captain that these were the very lads who had tipped the potty over Captain Yardarm of the Orange Pekoe! Captain Flint had heard this story while he was in port –every sailor was laughing about it! - and he was enraged that anyone would do that to a sea captain. Now he had these two scoundrels within reach of his strap and wasn’t he pleased. He told the boys that Captain Yardarm must be touched in the head to let two such awful boys get away with such a crime. While the two boys howled, he warned them of the terrible consequences that would flow if they ever tried anything like that on board his ship. Then he threatened to stand by and wallop the boys as long as they blubbered away.
He clearly meant to do it, and Mervyn and Dudley quickly dried their eyes and went off as told to the galley to begin work with the cook on making lunch for the crew. Then they had to do the Captain’s washing, swab the deck, polish the brass work and then make the dinner. How they wished that they were back on the Orange Pekoe with their tobacco and hamper of cakes – and two little girls to do all their work.
I wish I could say that the next ten weeks at sea made these two boys wise and kind and hard working. Instead, their time on board the Takeaway seemed to make them sneakier and slyer than before. They quickly learned to look sharp and busy when the Captain or the First Mate was around but they were forever skiving off to have a smoke or dodge work if they could. Captain Flint caught them many times and his strap seemed to be very busy for a while as the Takeaway sailed down the African coast. The boys did grow stronger and slimmer, however, without all the cakes and sweets they had eaten before. Their skin and hair looked clearer and sharper and their eyes twinkled more. But no one – certainly not the Captain or the First Mate – trusted the two boys.
Every night in their cabin, the two villains talked about what they would do to the First Mate if they could ever catch him unawares on deck. They boasted about what they would do to the Captain and his strap if they could just get him into a corner somewhere without his cutlass. But most of all the boys talked about what they would do to the two little girls who had started all their troubles back on the Orange Pekoe.
“I don’t know which one I would rather have first,” said Dudley. “Katie was the kinder of the two – and I hate that in a girl! If I had her here, I’d make her scrub these decks until they shone – and then scrub them again. And if she complained, I’d chuck a nice full potty on her and see how she liked it.” He gave the most awful chuckle just at the thought of it.
“No,” said his horrible cousin, “I’d much rather have the management of Miss Emily. She had the sharpest tongue and always seemed to want to have the last word on everything. I’d like to chuck her overboard and hear her plead for a rope to be thrown to rescue her. And would I throw her a rope? I would not! I’d rather see a shark eat her than save her alive.”
Then they would chuckle some more – and then wonder what it would be like to have just a few cakes to eat. They had decided that as soon as they came to the next port that they would ask the Captain for an advance on their wages so they could go ashore and buy a large quantity of pies – enough to keep them going until they reached Singapore. The two bullies fell asleep with thoughts of apple pies and fruit cakes and vanilla slice.
There was an awful scene on the boat just before it reached Cape Town in South Africa. One of Dudley’s jobs was doing the crew’s washing on Mondays; it was a job he hated but it did give him permission to look about the crew’s cabin and see what he could find. For a boy like Dudley, this always offered opportunities to pinch a little tobacco or scout about for something valuable that a careless crew member might have left behind.
This particular Monday he happened to find a gold sovereign in the pocket of the trousers of one of the sailors when he went through the crew’s cabin looking for soiled shirts and knickers. Dudley knew that the crew would suspect him – no one else could have taken it – so he hid the coin inside the toe of one of Mervyn’s socks in his kit bag. The coin belonged to Widmark – a giant black sailor whom all the crew loved because he was so brave and gentle. Widmark was foolish to leave the coin there but all the crew were like brothers and trusted one another completely. Dudley thought that no one would ever find the coin and that if they did, they would blame Mervyn for taking it. He hadn’t bargained on Widmark missing the coin so quickly – or his going to Captain Flint and asking his permission to search the ship carefully.
Captain Flint gave his permission and so all the crew had to bring their kit bags on to the deck and stand beside them. While First Mate Hornpipe then searched the cabin itself, Captain Flint watched as Widmark inspected everything very carefully. Of course the Captain began with the things belonging to Mervyn and Dudley. The Captain noticed that Dudley was smooth and smirking as the search began and that Mervyn seemed relaxed and confident. Sure enough, the coin was quickly found in Mervyn’s sock. He stammered out a denial in shocked surprise but the whole crew looked murderously at Mervyn. Stealing from your shipmates is the worst thing that any sailor can do on board ship.
Widmark, the brave sailor from whom Dudley pinched the gold coin.
Of course poor Mervyn denied taking the coin but no one would listen to him. Captain Flint raged and told the First Mate that the day he brought those two boys on board his ship was the worst day in his long career as a sea captain. He thought about hanging Mervyn right there at sea – and might have done just that but for the fact that Widmark had looked very carefully at the way Dudley had acted while the search was on. They were both nasty bullies, Widmark knew, but he rather thought that Mervyn was clever enough [if he had stolen the coin] to hide it somewhere less easy to find. Widmark could see the horrible smirk on Dudley’s face as he watched his poor cousin pleading for mercy. He knew who the real villain was!
Without a word to anyone, Widmark jumped forward, grabbed Dudley by the ankles and held him over the side of the ship by one leg. Without a steady diet of cakes and pies for the last ten weeks, Dudley had lost some weight but he was still a big boy and wriggling with it. How Dudley squealed and screamed! At any moment, Widmark might let him go and Dudley would then end up in the South Atlantic Ocean. The cowardly boy quickly promised to tell the truth which he did through terrible sobs and howls. Widmark had really frightened him. Ten minutes later, both of the boys were in the ship’s prison wearing horrible chains on their hands and feet. This was a little hard on Mervyn, perhaps, because Dudley had taken the money – not him – but as Captain Flint said, they were both terrible liars and rogues.
Mervyn was let out of his chains and the prison cabin at tea time but he almost wished that he wasn’t because he had to do all the work that both boys normally did. Poor Dudley stayed in his chains for another day and when the Takeaway finally berthed in Cape Town the next afternoon, neither boy was allowed ashore. Everyone else in the crew went ashore, bragging about cold beer and pretty girls; they had strict instructions to stay out of trouble and to be back on board the ship to leave with the tide the next afternoon. First Mate Hornpipe and Captain Flint stayed to watch the cargo [rifles, railway track and tin trays] being unloaded and big bales of leather being hoisted aboard in its place.
While this was happening, Captain Flint set the boys to scrubbing every bit of brass work on the ship until it fairly shone. They were allowed to stop at tea time but after that there was more brass to polish and more decks to scrub. Captain Flint would have liked to go into town himself but someone had to stay and guard the bullies. The Captain was certain that once off the ship, the two rogues would run away into the bush – and he was right. The two boys never did get their cakes and pies although Widmark and the rest of the crew made a special point of bringing back bags of cakes and eating them in front of the bullies. It served them right but did not improve their tempers.
Dudley and Mervyn had to polish all the brass on The Takeaway.
The next port, four weeks later, was Malacca on the Malayan coast. Here the Captain relented and after a long lecture and lots of threats, Mervyn and Dudley were allowed to go ashore for the day. The Captain gave each of them a shilling – enough to have some lunch but not enough to buy lots of cakes and pies. The Captain, you see, was keen to go ashore himself. He’d missed his chance in Cape Town to stroll about and enjoy the sights of the town. He hoped that after time in chains and time spent confined to the ship that Mervyn and Dudley would have learned their lesson.
Poor Captain Flint! He enjoyed his morning at least strolling about Malacca Town, enjoying a dim sum lunch and a big pot of China tea while he read the newspaper. Before he could get into the second pot, however, a policeman approached him to ask whether he were Captain Flint, the master of TheTakeaway now in harbour? If he were, could he come to the police station and help with inquiries? Two of his crew were being held in the watch house after a terrible incident in a tattoo parlour.
It was just as the Captain had feared. When he arrived at the station, there were five very angry Chinese sailors all trying to talk at once and all looking dangerous. Mervyn and Dudley were in a cell, blubbering as usual. They were each sporting a black eye and there was blood on their sailor suits where their broken noses and split lips had bled. While the two bullies cried, the policeman [a young Irishman] told the story simply. Mervyn and Dudley had spent one shilling in a bar drinking rum all morning. They had then gone to a tattoo parlour and wanted to have tattoos put on their arms – just like the other sailors on the Takeaway. The boys had chosen a spectacular design: a skull and cross bones surrounded by roses. They would be, they had decided, the toughest boys on The Takeaway.
Chinese sailors at the Tattoo Shop
Unfortunately, there was a queue at the Tattoo parlour. The Chinese sailors had been waiting in line ahead of them; one of them [the youngest of the boys] wanted a tattoo of an anchor and the Chinese word for Mother put on his arm and he had brought his friends in for encouragement. I don’t suppose that the situation would have gone as it did if Mervyn and Dudley hadn’t been drinking. They were not sensible boys at the best of times and when they were drunk they were quite stupid. The two English boys at first tried to bully their way to the top of the queue but the Chinese boys wouldn’t get out of their way. To show how big and dangerous they were they used some very bad language and said a lot of nasty, spiteful things about Chinese boys in general and these sailors in particular. Dudley and Mervyn laughed and swaggered and sniggered; bullying Chinese sailors wasn’t quite as good as bullying little girls but Mervyn and Dudley went on and on, becoming ruder and nastier in everything they said.
The mistake they made, of course, was in thinking that these Chinese boys didn’t speak any English. Little did they know that these sailors came from Hong Kong and spoke good English. They knew just what the bullies had said and even though they were remarkably well mannered they finally reached a point where they weren’t going to take any more cheek. When Dudley pulled the pigtail of one of the Chinese boys, the whole shop exploded. Dudley and Mervyn were dragged from the shop and out on to the street. Now that the Chinese boys were fighting back they weren’t nearly as bold and brave. The Chinese sailors hauled the two English bullies towards the harbour where they would certainly have been thrown in head first. Mervyn and Dudley howled and pleaded – and were lucky that the Irish policeman arrived just at this moment to rescue them – although they scored a black eye and a split lip each before the policeman broke up the fight. He was a policeman wise in the ways of sailors and when he stopped the fight he made sure that his baton left a few bruises here and there. Both Mervyn and Dudley had bumps on the head where the policeman’s baton had been.
Captain Flint listened to the noisy protests of the Chinese sailors, inspected the pigtail that had been pulled so rudely by Dudley and then to the alarming [and untruthful] story that the policeman told – of how dangerous and violent the two English sailors were. Captain Flint was forced to open his wallet and give the poor offended Chinese sailors a present to calm them down. He told them that Mervyn and Dudley were really good boys, that they were on their first voyage, that they missed their Mamas and that the heat of Malacca had made them act foolishly. All of this was simply nonsense but the Chinese sailors missed their Mamas too and reluctantly accepted the money from the Captain to go away and forget the incident. The Chinese boys left to go back to the tattoo parlour with their angry feelings calmed and money in their pockets. It took more money [rather a lot of it] to convince the Irish policeman to release the boys and so the whole afternoon that should have been a little holiday for the Captain became just another expensive exercise in keeping Mervyn and Dudley out of trouble. How those sailors on The Takeaway laughed when they heard the story the next afternoon when they were safely back on board.
Dudley and Mervyn were in terrible disgrace. They tried to tell their mates on board ship that they had fought and beaten a whole fleet of dangerous and bloodthirsty Chinese sailors armed with axes and knives. They had beaten them all, they said, before a wicked Irish policeman had stepped in to prevent Dudley from murdering the ugliest of the Chinese villains. Many of the crew, however, had been in a bar opposite the tattoo parlour and when the Chinese had finished there, they had come into the pub, told their story and shouted everyone a drink. In the pubs around Malaya, the story of the fight in the Malacca tattoo parlour was told as often as the story about the great potty throw. Everyone knew what foolish and silly boys those two bullies were. Captain Flint, of course, never saw the funny side of the story and kept Dudley and Mervyn under his stern scrutiny every moment of the voyage. When the ship docked in Singapore, Mervyn and Dudley hadn’t even asked to go ashore. They stayed behind and the brass work on The Takeaway had never looked so shiny!
Chapter 6: Over the Hills to Cooktown
On the beach, the girls and Father Fergus were suddenly very busy. It was clear that the little party of Aboriginal people was keen to head off and to take the English castaways with them. Katie and Emily quickly tried to pack up as many of their things as they could carry and this was frustrating because there was so much else to see happening around them. The warriors called the children out of the water and they stood silently on the sand while the black men waited patiently, then quietly went to work. Standing as still as they could in the shallows, the warriors raised their spears and soon there were ten or twelve fine fish on a string being carried by the black women. It was exciting to see the way those sharp spears slashed into the water, catching a fat fish every time the warrior struck. Emily was certain that the fish would make a better lunch than the few dried ships biscuits they had left.
The girls and Father Fergus were shipwrecked on this beautiful coast.
Before they left the beach, the little black girls looked very carefully at the girls’ cotton pinafore frocks. They felt the fabric with their long black fingers and grinned. The girls wished that their dresses were cleaner; they had, after all been through the shipwreck with them and had been tumbled in the surf and dried in the sooty wood smoke. The sun was higher now and the day was hot and steamy. The pinafores felt heavy and clammy. Katie and Emily had lost most of their clothes in the wreck but they were looking very enviously at the easy way the Aboriginal boys and girls ran about the beach with nothing on at all.
“I don’t think that Mrs Spinnaker would approve,” Katie said, “but wouldn’t it be nice not to have to wear these awful heavy dresses.”
“Mrs Spinnaker isn’t here, Katie,” said Emily. “If she turns up, I’ll put my pinafore on straight away!”
“Come on then,” said Katie, tugging Emily behind a Casuarina tree. She giggled as she wriggled out of the clothes and carefully folded up the dress. She still kept her knickers on, of course, but she suddenly felt a great deal cooler, freer and happier. Katie soon did the same and kicked her legs in joy. They stored their dresses in the barrel with the black hat and silk parasol. When they came out from behind the tree, they were surprised to find that Father Fergus had lost his black cassock and he was wearing only a pair of short linen drawers. He looked younger without his clothes on, Katie thought – and a lot happier too.
Soon, they were off. The three castaways were carrying a big parcel each. They had the barrels from the wreck which had held their precious things but they also had tried to salvage some rope and knives, a frying pan and a saucepan. Carrying the parcels didn’t matter so much while they were still on the beach but they soon turned into the rain forest and it became more difficult to manage. The girls wondered how much further they would walk that morning with their cumbersome loads and Emily was becoming particularly prickly that none of the men seemed to carry anything other than their spears. It seemed to be hard for grown men to carry almost nothing while the little girls struggled with the heavy barrels.
The girl stopped thinking this when one of the men leapt forward with his spear and brought a large, heavy snake down from the branches of a tree. The snake was enormous and had splendid mottled brown and gold leathery skin. Soon the snake was hoisted over the warrior’s shoulder as they climbed into the hills: the warriors were obviously still at work. They carried only their spears so that they could hunt as they walked. The little party walked for an hour or so, then the women in the group began calling ahead. The children left the girls and ran on excitedly; the warriors, of course, strode silently and manfully forward. In a few moments, they group of castaways and Aborigines entered a clearing in the rain forest and found a campsite with a circle of bark and branch shelters and cooking fires beside a swiftly flowing stream that ran over sand and mossy stones. The smoky fires, of course, were the same ones the girls had seen in the hills the day before as they wandered up the beach.
If the Aboriginal men and women of the camp who stood to greet the newcomers were surprised to see them they certainly didn’t show it. They called a greeting but were really much more interested in the fish for lunch than in the two little girls and the old priest who had come back with the hunters. Soon the fish were cleaned and baking on stones arranged among the coals of the fire. The warrior who had caught the snake gave it to one of the women and soon it was cooking as well. The little tribe then sat down together to eat.
The juicy carpet snake which Emily ate for lunch.
It was Katie’s idea to find the ship’s biscuits and put them out to eat as well. They were still a bit damp but the Aboriginal people looked at them carefully before following Emily’s lead and tasting them. To be sure, they were nowhere as nice as the fresh fish but everyone tried a little. It took a great effort on Katie’s part before she could eat any of the snake that was offered to her. She watched Father Fergus go first and it was only after he had taken a handful of the sweet white flesh that either of the girls would try it. Emily said afterwards that if you just closed your eyes it was fine! The children seemed to enjoy watching Katie and Emily clumsily handling the food without plates, knives or forks but for the first time since the cyclone, the girls and Father Fergus enjoyed their lunch.
When the meal was over, the men took Father Fergus to the stream and found a sandy spot in the sunshine. With all the Aboriginal men looking on and occasionally making suggestions, one of the men did his best to explain. He drew hills and mountains in the sand – and in the distance, a river and the building with the cross. Father Fergus nodded and pointed to the cross – and indicated that he wanted to go there. The Aboriginal elder then drew his spear towards the church and held up his hand with four fingers showing. He looked at the sky, then pointed to the cross again. Father Fergus guessed: in four days of travelling, the castaways would reach the church. Or perhaps, he thought, in four days the Aboriginal people would take them to the church. He couldn’t be sure. There were lots of smiles and nodding heads; at least the Aboriginal people were kind and friendly. And there was help not too far away.
The rainforest where the Aboriginal people took the girls.
Finally, the Aboriginal elder called over one of the young men who had been on the beach that morning. There was a lot of conversation in the soft, liquid language of the Aboriginal people, with a lot of pointing and looking at the map drawing in the sand. The young man looked pleased but solemn; he collected two spears and a club of some kind and went to the edge of the clearing. The oldest member of the group indicated the young warrior and said simply “Allunga”.
“Allunga,” Father Fergus said – although his way of saying it was rusty and crude compared with the lovely gentle way it came from the Aboriginal man. Father Fergus said the word again and gestured to the young man; he nodded. It was clearly his name. Then Father Fergus indicated himself and gave his name; this time it was the turn of the Aboriginal man to sound uncertain and rusty as they repeated the name without the old man’s lovely Scottish accent. Suddenly it all seemed a little less frightening. Father Fergus called the girls to him and gave their names before again indicating the young warrior and repeating “Allunga”. Allunga stood silently, then lifted his head and indicated that he was going. And the little group of Aboriginal people were standing and moving the girls and Father Fergus to join him.
The girls had enjoyed the company of their little black friends. They now wished that they could stay longer; instead they had to pick up the barrels and head further up the hills. They walked all afternoon, stopping every now and then beside streams to drink the cold, sweet water. The girls were tired and tried not to complain but they were very pleased when the path finally headed down hill and they emerged on to a beautiful expanse of white shiny sand so bright and clean that it hurt your eyes. Below them was the sea looking brilliantly green. The girls could see now why they had had to climb into the hills; they were on the southern side of a deep river and it might have been difficult for the little English girls and their old Scottish friend to swim across. They climbed down the shimmering, hot sand hills to the water below.
They made their camp under some palm trees well away from the river bank. Father Fergus slumped down in the shade to rest. Katie couldn’t understand why they had stopped here– the river below them looked so inviting and cool. It would be a much better place to camp, she thought. She left the barrel she had carried under the tree and ran down to the river water to see how refreshing it was but a cry from Allunga stopped her. He was alarmed and beside her in a moment. Emily joined them. Even though they couldn’t understand what he said, the little girls had the good sense to hear the fear and caution in the boy’s voice.
With his spear, Allunga pointed at the sand bank on the edge of the river. There were marks in the sand – as if something heavy had been dragged through the sand. Then Katie looked closely at the other side of the bank where there were mangroves and mud flats exposed by the low tide – and her heart stopped.
There on the bank were three enormous crocodiles, sleepy and silent in the afternoon sun but, Katie guessed immediately, still very much alert to what was happening on their doorstep. Emily squealed and stepped back: there might be crocodiles on this bank too. Of course the slide marks in the sand showed that they had been here recently.
Allunga laughed and pointed his spear at the crocodiles: he had all the confidence of a brave young hunter but the girls didn’t share his bravery and without thinking, took his hand and backed away from the sand.
This crocodile was disappointed Emily didn’t come in for a swim.
Allunga lead the girls along the bay to a place some distance from the river mouth towards a rocky point. He carefully put his club down on the sand and motioned the girls to be still. Then he went to work with the spear and as each fish was caught, he gave it without thinking to the girls to hold. In ten minutes, they had their dinner.
Father Fergus in the meantime had made a fire with the matches from one of the tight, safe barrels and he had also retrieved the sharpest knife he could find among their few possessions. He took Katie back to the water’s edge to clean and gut the fish. Allunga clearly expected the girls to cook for him; he was the warrior, they were the women who prepared the catch. And all things considered, the girls did well. The frying pan that they had lugged with them tied to a barrel that Emily carried now seemed to be well worth the effort and the fish dinner was even better than snake for lunch.
The evening was coming on quickly. Father Fergus collected enough wood from the beach to keep their campfire going through the night. The saucepan that Katie had carried with her barrel was used to make a shower beside the river and the water was clean and fresh and cold. Just as dark was falling, the little band walked down the beach to see what was around the rocky headland. The bay stretched on towards more blue hills and green rain forest. It was Allunga who was most alert and in the failing light he ran forward. There, on the beach, were the remains of another campfire - still a little warm to the touch. On the beach there were signs of something being dragged forward and the girls and Father Fergus knew straight away that these were not the marks of a crocodile but of a rowing boat being hauled ashore. And they knew with sudden hope and excitement that their friends had been here – and not long ago, either. They reached their own campfire with happier hearts and settled down to sleep on the beach with greater hope than they had felt for the last three days.
The four days walking were difficult for everyone. It rained often and there was nothing for it then but to trudge on through the rainforest or up the sand hills and beaches behind Allunga who never seemed to get tired. They seemed to be following the coast south, walking on the beach when they could and going into the hills only to pass deeper rivers. Allunga sometimes seemed to follow paths but more often he simply pushed into the green forest and expected everyone to be able to follow. He kept the castaways supplied with fish and food of all kinds from the forest. The girls quickly grew to trust him and to take whatever he gave them to eat without question.
He was certainly confident and had the bearing of a warrior but he also smiled very often and when the girls went in swimming from the beach or in a mountain stream, Allunga would often join them and splash happily. At night, the girls and Father Fergus would pray together – always for their friends in the longboat travelling ahead of them, and for Allunga and for their own safety. They would look at the wonderful stars in the sky and into the campfire and wonder what the next day would bring.
On the fourth night of their journey, they knew that it could not be far now to the house with the cross. They made camp a little earlier than usual – a tall mountain range stretched ahead of them and Father Fergus guessed that they couldn’t cross it before darkness. He was bustling about making up the fire and collecting branches to make a shelter in case it rained again during the night. The warm, dark night and the rain forest with all its noises seemed to crowd around them. The camp fire glowed beautifully.
“We’ll be safe tomorrow,” said Father Fergus cheerfully, “and we might hear some news about Captain Yardarm and the crew of the Orange Pekoe.”
“I feel safe here with Allunga,” said Katie, ”and do you know: I feel so close to something else. Here we are in the jungle with a brave native man to guide us. How many times must Mother and Father have been in a similar place like this on the wild Orinoco River –alone and friendless and dependant on others to take them forward? I am so pleased, Emmy, that we saved Father’s hat and Mother’s parasol from the storm.”
There was a long silence and Katie thought that perhaps Emily had fallen asleep – it had been a difficult, hard walk that day. Then in the darkness she felt Emily take her hand and squeeze it. The little girls lay together in the silence for a long while, listening to Father Fergus snoring gently until they too fell asleep.
The next day was the hardest part of their long journey. Allunga had them up early and they struck into the forest straight away, climbing along the spur of a range that seemed to run right down to the beach. The rain forest was thick with ancient trees and the weary castaways were soon looking down on gullies of palm trees and tree ferns. Katie often said afterwards that if they hadn’t been carrying their barrels of precious things and if they had perhaps had just a little breakfast that it would have been the best day of their adventure. The bush was so beautiful and full of interesting things to look at. There were, for example, beautiful orchids growing on the trees and the little streams, when they crossed them, were full of cold, sweet water. Katie and Emily stood for a moment in every creek they crossed, allowing the water to cool their poor feet. The most interesting thing they saw was an amazing bird which Father Fergus told them with a happy smile was the famous cassowary. The bird was as tall as Allunga and Father Fergus and while Katie could admire his wonderfully coloured feathers, there was the sharp beak and the strong claws to warn everyone that this was a bird who could be very dangerous. It was shy, however, and quickly slunk into the deepest part of the forest.
For two long hours, Allunga led the three friends up the spur of the range. It became cooler as they climbed but everyone was exhausted when they reached the summit at last. Katie, Emily and Father Fergus almost collapsed when Allunga finally called a halt. They drank a little more of the water they had carried from the last stream crossing, then Allunga grinned and pointed into the distance. And at that moment, their hearts almost burst.
Katie was very wise to be cautious of the cassowary.
There, below them but not very far away at all, was a busy little port on the side of a muddy, mangrove river. They could see the ships in the harbour; they could even smell the wood smoke from cooking fires. On what appeared to be the main street of the town, they could even see the wooden building with the cross on the crude wooden steeple. Katie began to cry because she was hoping that in just a little while she would be reunited with Captain Yardarm and her friends from the Orange Pekoe. I think that everyone of the three castaways were thinking something like that, although to be very truthful, Father Fergus was thinking about a cup of tea, a hot bath and clean sheets on a real bed. Emily was thinking about sausages and chips and rice pudding. Whatever their thoughts, you can be certain that the scramble down the other side of the range was made with very different spirits than the struggle and strain that had taken them to the top.
Now I have to tell you something that happened a little while before they reached the safety of the town. After an hour’s clambering down the side of the range, Allunga brought the party out on to a road. To be sure, it was not a road such as the girls might have seen in England –instead, it was more a rutted track roughly cut through the bush. But for Katie and Emily and Father Fergus, it was civilisation and hope and comfort and safety at last. Allunga lead them south along the road, his eyes and ears alert and cautious for every noise. After half an hour, there was the unmistakable sound of a gunshot. The birds in the rain forest rose in a noisy protest and then were quiet. Allunga looked suddenly grave; he held up his hand in alarm and motioned the little party off the road and into the bush. They moved as quickly as they could, but as silently as Allunga did, skirting the road and alert to danger.
What they found made their blood run cold. They had wanted to find people – white people- and people who spoke English. They found some all right, but it was not at all what they had hoped for. Tied to the branch of a tree beside the road were two fine horses. In the middle of the road was a wheel barrow; scattered in the mud all over the road were clothes and parcels and tools and bedding. In the middle of the mud was a splendid blue and white ginger jar. And tied up to a tree were three young Chinese men looking frightened and angry. Two other men, their faces covered with kerchiefs, were waving guns about and every now and then cuffing the Chinese men or pulling their pigtails and shouting at them to give up their gold.
Emily would have liked to have run forward and done her best to rescue the poor Chinese boys from these bullies but both Father Fergus and Allunga held her back. Allunga, silently, was reaching for his spear. Katie knew at once that this was just like the moment when Allunga had caught and killed the carpet snake; this was the reason he didn’t carry any of the luggage for them. He was the warrior ready to strike at any moment. Even as he raised the spear, Katie’s heart leapt. She expected at the very next moment that at least one of the bullies would be struck down by Allunga’s spear. He wasn’t far away – and Katie had never seen Allunga miss when he aimed his spear.
As he threw, Allunga gave an almighty yell. The spear sailed through the air with tremendous power – and landed in the mud right between the two masked men. Father Fergus, guessing at once that Allunga was only going to scare the men, added his voice, shouting in English and Katie and Emily screamed too. The poor Chinese boys were clearly terrified but no one was more frightened then the two bullies who fired their pistols wildly into the bush before jumping as quickly as they could on to their horses and riding away at speed from the direction of the town.
The little rescue party came out of the bush in a moment and were untying the prisoners as quickly as they could. Allunga retrieved his spear and carefully cleaned the blade as the girls helped the Chinese boys pick up their scattered possessions. The Chinese boys were most anxious to retrieve the ginger jar which they wrapped in the bedding and put into the bottom of the wheelbarrow. The girls were rather embarrassed a moment later when they realised that they had almost no clothes on; there was a furious hunt for pinafores and cassocks before the Chinese boys relaxed. They had thought for one terrible moment that they had been snatched from the hands of thieves only to be captured by bloodthirsty cannibals! The Chinese boys had very little English but they took the hands of every one of the rescuers and bowed their thanks again and again. Then they pointed the girls and Father Fergus south along the crude road. They would all travel together to the town.
And this was the moment when Allunga took his leave of the little group he had worked so hard to bring to safety. He motioned that he was going to Father Fergus who took his hand and shook it thankfully.
“Thank you, Allunga, and God bless you and your people!” he said. Of course, Allunga would not understand his words, but he understood the smile and the hug of the kind old priest. Katie was crying; she hugged Allunga tightly. She had grown to love this brave young warrior who had been so good to them. Emily – always a very practical person- grabbed him by the hand and held him, so he couldn’t go, while she struggled with the lid of her little barrel. When it was opened, she quickly found the sharp knife that had been so handy when they cleaned their fish dinners on the beach. She knew that Allunga would use it – and it was easy enough to carry home. He waved and silently slipped into the green forest and was gone.
Now it was time to move. The best discovery of all was that even when all the things once in the road had been transferred to the wheelbarrow, there was still room for the two barrels in which the travellers had saved all their precious things. The Chinese boys were delighted to be able to help them now – after all, they had saved them and their property from the two awful bushrangers. The Chinese boys took it in turns to push the barrow along the rutted road. With their arms free and their hearts rising, the two little girls and Father Fergus now walked the last five kilometres towards the town. In broken English, the Chinese boys told them that the town ahead was called Cooktown. And that is where the church with the cross and a whole new adventure awaited them.
A boat in the harbour of Cooktown
Chapter 7: The Save a Soul Mission
It was only a week since the storm but so much had happened to the three friends in those few days. The shipwreck, their discovery by the Aboriginal people and their long walk through rainforest and beach to Cooktown: all of these had made their earlier concerns and worries seem unimportant and trivial. But here they were, safe and secure: surely now they could be rescued.
You can just imagine how the three friends - Katie, Emily and old Father Fergus – felt as they walked into the streets of Cooktown that summer afternoon with their new companions, the three Chinese boys. They were all very excited and hopeful but fearful as well. Father Fergus knew that they would have to contact the police immediately; word of the shipwreck must have reached Cooktown by now and he expected that there would be a lot of interest in identifying the survivors. He would also need to inform Saint Bridget’s that Katie and Emily were safe: Father Fergus knew that Mrs Spinnaker was as close as anyone to being a mother to the girls and that she would be very anxious when news of the wreck reached her.
As they straggled into town, the girls felt very self conscious in their pinafore dresses. “We must look an absolute fright,” Katie said quietly to Emily. “What would Mrs Spinnaker say if she could see us? Here we are, bare footed and dirty with our dresses all soiled and our hair a mess. People will just stop and stare at us as if we were bandits!”
But people did no such thing. No one paid the least attention to the little party and instead of people staring at them in the streets, the girls found that they were staring at everyone else. Because although they had been in some strange ports in the Orange Pekoe, nothing had prepared them for Cooktown. The shops and houses looked as if they had been simply put up overnight. [To be fair, the town had suffered damage from the same cyclone that sank the Orange Pekoe and not all the damage was easily repaired.] The road through the town was no better than the track they had followed out of the rain forest and was churned up by the heavy drays and carriages moving through the streets. Footpaths of a kind had been made by putting wooden boards down to save pedestrians from sinking into the mud. There were a number of pubs on both sides of the road – all of them very busy with people noisily drinking even in the early afternoon. There were pigs and chickens wandering about and people of every dress, colour and culture in doorways or on the street.
There were many Chinese like the young men who pushed the barrow beside them. Their clothes were made of rough cotton; like the girls, they were bare footed and wore their long hair in a pigtail down their back. There were bare chested Malays dressed in wrap around skirts and Aboriginal people as black at Allunga although they were wearing a few more clothes than he did. They were sitting back in the street and looked sad and defeated – so unlike the happy group who had cared for them on the beach. Excited men pushed past with their goods in carts, on horses or being carried on their backs. Everyone seemed too interested in their own things to notice the strangers’ arrival although some women with reddened cheeks leered at the girls out of doorways. They were wearing not much more than drawers and a corset and their manners were frightening. The girls instinctively stayed close to Father Fergus, holding his hand and wishing that their boat had been wrecked on a more respectable part of the planet.
All of this was resolved when Father Fergus saw the church down a street and he gave a cheer that their goal was close at last. The Chinese boys took them right to the door and in the middle of that muddy street they said goodbye to their Chinese companions. There was much bowing and smiling and the Chinese boys seemed genuinely sorry to see the strangers head away. Before they parted, there was a lot of chatter in Chinese and the oldest of the boys beckoned them forward. He found the ginger jar in the barrow and gently eased off the lid.
The jar was full of nuggets of gold – each of them about the size of a little apple. The girls knew little about the value of gold but they recognised immediately that there must a fortune here. With broad smiles and much nodding, the Chinese boy pushed a nugget into the reluctant hands of each of the girls. What could they do? They knew that the real hero of the day was Allunga and that Mrs Spinnaker would have told them that well brought up girls do not accept presents from Chinamen in the street but it was impossible to return the nuggets and so they each made a little curtsey and murmured their thanks. Father Fergus put a hand on each girl’s shoulder and there was more bowing and smiling. The girls dropped their nuggets modestly in their pinafore pockets. They stood and watched the wheelbarrow and its three happy, waving owners, heading back up the street. Then it was only a quick step to the church – and the promise of comfort.
Can you imagine how crestfallen and disappointed the girls and Father Fergus were when they found the church almost abandoned? The windows were broken and the door was hanging awkwardly open. A crude sign proclaimed Saint Barnabas’ Church of England and Save a Soul Mission to Miners but it looked as if no one had been there for some time. Father Fergus dropped the barrels the girls had carried from the wreck on the porch and pushed the door open.
They were not alone in the church. Sitting at the prayer desk in the sanctuary was a most forlorn looking older man. He was wearing a purple shirt with a silver cross and he looked almost as sad and defeated as the Aboriginal people in the street. He lifted his grey head as the girls and Father Fergus entered and brightened up as soon as Fergus came forward with the words, “My Lord..”
The girls thought that this was a strange greeting for someone who looked no more like a lord than Allunga or the Chinese boys but they were wrong. You see, the old gentleman in the purple shirt was none other than the bishop of North Queensland.
He was simply astonished to see a badly dressed priest and two shabby little girls in front of him. Father Fergus quickly made his introductions, however, and explained why they were so shop soiled and unkempt. He was quite used to talking to bishops and his voice took on a quite dramatic tone. He explained that this little band of pilgrims had survived the wreck of the Orange Pekoe and tramped over cassowary infected mountains and crocodile filled swamps to reach the safety of Cooktown. As Father Fergus told the story, God had snatched them from the cyclone and delivered them into the hands of kind native people who had drawn the cross on the sand. God had raised up a naked warrior who had led them to the road and showed them their way. Could the good bishop now give them ten pounds so they could continue their journey to the safety of Sydney from where they could return to England? Katie and Emily wanted to giggle through this part of the story because they had never heard Father Fergus speak in this wonderful way before. It made their hard and difficult journey seem even more exciting.
The good bishop listened carefully to Father Fergus but his eyes twinkled. He had other plans for the travellers. He explained that from his palace in Townsville he had learned that the parish church in Cooktown had suffered two terrible blows. Firstly, the priest whom the bishop had sent to Cooktown had lasted only three months in the job before he had given in to temptation and run away. The bishop made it sound as if the priest had done something terrible – something unforgiveable. The good bishop had come north as soon as he could to see what could be done to salvage the work of the church in Cooktown but his arrival had been delayed by the cyclone. In the storm, the church had lost part of its roof and indeed there was blue sky to be seen above the sanctuary. The church in Cooktown was broken in every way you could imagine.
“But what had this priest done?” demanded Father Fergus. “Where has he gone?”
“Why, my good man, he’s left his vocation to go to the goldfields to make his fortune! I have been sitting here in the ruined church, praying that God would send me another priest for Cooktown – and you appeared at the door!”
Poor Father Fergus! It seemed that the bishop knew just how to talk to his clergy! I think at that moment Father Fergus might have thought that he had been safer with the Aborigines in the bush than here with the bishop in the ruined church. It was not part of his plan, you see, to find himself a priest on the frontier of the wild Queensland north.
“Good Father Fergus,” said the bishop rising and smiling broadly, “God has saved you from storm and tempest, from bushrangers and cannibals, cassowaries and Chinamen to be sure, not to take you off to Sydney but to bring you to Saint Barnabas’ Church and the Save a Soul Mission to Miners. You and your little friends are very welcome indeed. You’re just what I need here in Cooktown. Your job in the North starts here and now!”
And that was the start of all the girls’ adventures in North Queensland.
Poor Father Fergus sighed. He may not have chosen North Queensland but North Queensland had certainly chosen him! He had lived all his life in the happy quiet of the university and school; now he was tossed into the world of the Mission – and what a lot there was to be done. The bishop was anxious to catch the boat leaving that afternoon for Townsville and so he gave Father Fergus the quickest of introductions to his new role.
The Mission consisted of the parish church, the hall next door to it, the Rectory and a garden and orchard. Of these, much of the roof was gone from the church, a colony of flying foxes seemed to have taken over the rectory, there were possums in the hall and the orchard and garden were overgrown with weeds. No one had been living or working there for six months and the parish seemed to have melted away.
The big problem, of course, was the gold rush. In the ranges to the west of Cooktown, gold had been discovered on the Palmer River and people had come from everywhere to make their fortune. There were, apparently, thirty thousand people on the goldfields and most of them had come through Cooktown looking to make their fortunes and strike it rich. Some of them did find gold – lots of it – and they would come back to Cooktown to celebrate. Drunk as lords, they would boast about their luck to everyone. For every winner on the goldfields, however, there were five or ten men who found nothing and who came back to the busy port poor and miserable.
Father Phillip, the previous Rector of the Mission, was swept away in the excitement of the gold like everyone else. He saw so many lucky men in the streets and one winter’s morning he could stand the call of fortune no longer. He locked the church and the hall and told everyone that he was going away for the weekend. Father Phillip, however, had done very well for himself and while he was finding gold, all thought of the parish church and the Save a Soul Mission was lost to him.
The girls escorted the bishop to his ship going south while Father Fergus went to the police station to report on the loss of the Orange Pekoe. At least here there was good news. The survivors of the wreck – Captain Yardarm and the rest of the crew – had sailed into Cooktown just three days earlier in the ship’s lifeboat. The only casualties they had reported missing were two little girls and an old priest – last seen tossed in the surf on the reef as the ship went down.
Father Fergus was very pleased to be able to report to the Police Station that he and the girls were alive and well and that he was the newly appointed parish priest and the director of the Save a Soul Mission to Miners. In his turn, the Superintendant of Police was pleased to shake his hand and [even though it was early in the afternoon] to offer him a little drink in the Superintendent’s Office. Father Fergus was pleased to accept the kind offer and soon both men were supplied with a tot of rum.
To the old priest’s great grief, it turned out that Father Fergus was just a few hours too late. Captain Yardarm and the crew had sailed away back to Singapore that very morning on the Japanese ship, the Toyota Maru. The news of the loss of the Orange Pekoe had already been sent to Singapore [and from there to England] ; knowing that all the crew and passengers had been saved would be good news to everyone.
Father Fergus’s next stop was at the Bank where an even greater – and certainly more welcome surprise- awaited him. Father Fergus had assumed that the Mission itself had no money and no likelihood of finding any. He assumed that their bank account was as broken down as the church roof. Not so. It seemed that the Save a Soul Mission was actually rather well off. Father Phillip had not drawn his salary for six months and what was more, a large amount of money had been deposited in the Mission’s account by an elderly English woman, Lady Leadfoot. Her wicked son, it seemed, had run away from home and gone to the gold rushes at Palmer River where he had struck it rich and made a great deal of money. He had come back to Cooktown with sacks of gold but had fallen in with the wicked publicans and painted ladies of the town. Father Phillip had rescued him at the Mission, recovered as much of his gold as he could and sent him home to his Mama on the first boat. She was so grateful that she had sent a large present to the Mission in thanks. There would be money enough to repair the roof of the church and reopen the Mission.
While all of this was happening, the girls were busy in the Rectory, in the church and in the church hall. Emily got the job of chasing the flying foxes out of the Rectory – and an awful job it turned out to be! Armed with only a broom and an old towel, Emily opened all the windows and then went round chasing these strange creatures who made the most terrible sounds and smells. When the last ones were gone – flown into the mango trees and complaining bitterly- poor Emily sat down and sobbed. How she wished that she were back on the beach with Allunga and her little black friends.
Katie was having just as much trouble with the possums. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to chase a sleepy possum out the door but they are not easy to move and motivate. There was a rather large family in the roof of the hall [six or seven adults and ten or twelve little ones] and their droppings and horrible smell were everywhere. Katie thought that the possums were absolutely sweet – much nicer than the flying foxes – but they were really just as unwelcome. At first she tried to move them with a bucket of water but this only made the possums aggressive and noisy. Like Emily, she wished that Allunga were handy – with his sharp spears and keen eyes. In the end, Katie had to stand on the table and swing a broom. A couple of good cracks sent the largest and worst tempered of the possums towards the open door. Some of the ladies followed with their little ones clinging to their backs. More vigorous swinging with the broom and finally the whole lot of the possums were gone. They joined the flying foxes in the mango trees and looked furiously at poor Katie as she began to sweep up the possum poo.
How those girls worked all day! When Father Fergus returned with the bad news about Captain Yardarm and the good news about Lady Leadfoot, the girls quickly sent him out to the shops with a long list of things to purchase. Both the girls then moved into the Rectory and began exploring. It was remarkable that so much of the fabric of the house remained. In the kitchen, there was a big iron stove, cupboards with knives and forks and cooking pots and china plates. There were beds covered in dust but they could be cleaned. There was a washtub and board and even a bath tub although the water had to be carried in a bucket. The whole place was covered in smelly mould – the kind of dirt that grows everywhere in wet places like Cooktown. They had already found the brooms of course but now they found buckets and mops and washing tubs. Emily found some kindling and lit the fire in the stove to boil some water: what she wanted most was a cup of tea! Of all the things that happened that afternoon, that was the most exciting because it turned out that one last flying fox was hanging in the chimney of the stove and came out in a terrible state! Finally Father Fergus arrived back with the grocer’s boy pushing a cart piled high with things that they would need. They all stopped work for the cup of tea and watched as the sun began to set over the Western mountains.
On that first night when they were feeling so tired but happy they boiled a big bucket of water on the stove and all three of the little friends had a real bath. Father Fergus had a shave and then they walked next door to the ruined church. Emily lit the candles on the altar and they said their prayers with the flying foxes and possums complaining bitterly from the mango trees and all their hopes for the future welling in their hearts. The next day the girls put the nuggets that the Chinese boys had given them safely into the Bank of New South Wales. They would do for any rainy day that might trouble them in the future.
For the next three days, I think the girls worked harder than they had at any time in their young lives. They scrubbed and swabbed and rubbed and polished and dusted and scraped the walls and floors, the furnishings and the ceilings of the Rectory until the place shone and sparkled like a real house. They filled the washtub with hot water and scrubbed their pinafores and knickers clean. They moved into the hall of the Mission and went to work there, opening cupboards and finding more cooking pots and big tin tea pots, lots of mugs and bowls for soup and even [under a great heavy tarpaulin] a piano! Every morning before it became too hot they struggled with the weeds that were choking the orchard. To their delight, they found ripe oranges and lemons and lovely green avocadoes that were delicious on toast.
Three days after their arrival in Cooktown, the Rectory had been repaired, the garden had been cleared of the worst of the weeds and the Save a Soul Mission to Miners was ready to reopen its doors. At the end of that day, the three friends gathered with a cup of tea on the verandah of the rectory. For once, that hectic town seemed quiet. A dark cloud of flying foxes went over the town headed for the mangrove swamps. It was hot and sticky but the girls and Father Fergus were really feeling very proud of what they had been able to accomplish.
But the church was another story, of course. How could they repair the roof and shut out the rain? The possums seemed to think that the church was the next best thing if they had to move from the hall and there had been a real tussle to evict the last fat possum. They badly needed someone who could use tools and split wood for shingles and who could climb up to make the repairs. Poor Father Fergus would have done this if he could – and so would the girls – but they were stumped. They only knew the policemen in the town and the nice young men at the bank but they wouldn’t be any more helpful in practical matters than Father Fergus.
It was Emily who solved this problem. “This town is full of shiftless men, lounging in bars and on street corners. There must be men in Cooktown who can mend roofs,” she said the next morning as they all looked sadly at the ruined roof. But where to find such a one?
“We could put an advertisement in the local newspaper,” said Katie. “But today is Thursday– and we need the church for Sunday morning. It will take us a week, I know, to find someone to repair the roof.”
“I can do better than that,” said Emily finally. “I’ll be back soon!” She put on her hat and headed towards the noisy main street of the busy little town. Father Fergus [who had grown to love Emily and to expect the most amazing things from her] shook his head. He never doubted for a moment that Emily would do as she said she would. He and Katie went back to sweeping the floor and polishing the furniture in the church. It was hard work – and really pointless when the next shower of rain would undo all their good efforts.
Emily made her way to the noisiest pub on the main street of that frontier town and looked bravely at the door. Since the shipwreck, she had faced naked warriors, crocodiles, cassowaries and bushrangers but none of them made her feel as frightened as she did at that moment. Finally, she lifted her head, took off her hat and strode into the bar as bravely as she could.
There were lots of men drinking at the bar; others sat at the tables playing cards. Several of the painted ladies the girls had seen as they came into the town were there as well and when Emily entered, a terrible quiet descended on the bar. Every eye in the room was looking at her.
The publican – a red faced Irishman with twinkling eyes- called loudly, “And what would you be wanting, my little blond lady, in my fine, respectable public bar?”
“I’ve got a pot of tea and a batch of scones for any man who can fix the roof of the Parish church!” Emily said. “And I’ll darn his socks and mend his britches.”
There was a roar of approval from the bar and lots of catcalls and whistles. One drunken man tried to take his britches off there and then in the hope that Emily would sew them up for him! Then to Emily’s surprise not one but three men – all of whom looked sad and restless, to be sure – stepped forward and shook Emily’s hand. Everyone wanted to joke and chaff the boys but Emily wasn’t having any of it.
“I thank these good young men for offering to do God’s work here in Cooktown. With their help, the roof on St Barnabas’ will be in place very soon. On Sunday night you’re all invited to the service at the Mission. We’ll have sandwiches and cakes afterwards and the best cups of tea in Cooktown. But first, you’re all welcome to the service. And some of you must have terrible sins to confess. So come to the Save a Soul Mission and God will bless you all.”
There was another tremendous shout and whistle from everyone in the bar and Emily thought it best to leave on this high note. The three men left with her and while darkness fell on the town, Emily lead the little procession back to the Rectory. As they walked along, Emily learned a little of the histories of her three volunteers - Richard, Llewellyn and Angus- and while there were lots of different starting points for the story, they all seemed to end the same way.
Richard was a poor clerk who had run away from a dismal bank in London to seek his fortunes on the gold fields. He had arrived at the Palmer River with great hopes and had worked very hard but after three months he had nothing to show for all his work but a handful of blisters. He was hoping to find a boat to Sydney – and a bank that might give him a job.
“But can you fix the roof?” demanded Emily, suddenly alarmed.
“I won’t tell you a lie, Miss Emily. I’ve never fixed a roof in my life but I’ll do my best to help. It was the promise of darning my socks that made me put up my hand,” he said weakly.
Llewellyn was equally sheepish. In a gentle accent that Emily loved because it sounded like water falling over pebbles in a stream, the boy told his own sad story of a hard farm life in Wales and great hopes of finding a fortune so that he could marry his beautiful sweetheart, Gladys. Alas, there was no fortune found and Llewellyn hardly knew how he could find passage back to Brisbane –let alone to Wales. “I can’t mend the roof, but you must know, Miss,” said Llewellyn bravely, “I’ll do anything for that batch of scones. I’ll bet they’re as nice as the ones my Gladys used to make. I spent my last shillings on grog in that terrible pub. And if you don’t help me at the Mission, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Angus – a young Scottish boy with a fine head of red hair, was Emily’s last hope. And here, at least, there was cause for celebration. Angus, it seemed, did know about roofs. He had been an apprentice to his old father in Aberdeen – a master builder and a carpenter. The old man had taught the boy his trade but the ungrateful son had run away to make his fortune and when he reached the diggings after the long voyage he had caught a fever and almost died. He had limped back to Cooktown with empty pockets.
“But if it’s a roof you need, Miss, then I’m your man – and Richard and Llewellyn can learn on the job with me. They’ll be better at hauling lumber and splitting shingles than you will, I’m sure. Every job needs a boss – and I’ll be the boss.”
Emily squeezed his hand. She was delighted to have his promised help – although she quietly decided that she would be the boss of the job all the same.
What a night it turned out to be! Father Fergus and Katie couldn’t believe their eyes when Emily arrived back at the mission with three young men – all of them keen to share their dinner and tell their stories. The fact was that the three young men hadn’t had a home cooked meal for months. They hadn’t had a bath for almost that long either and they had lived like savages for so long that it took a little while for all of them to recover their manners and mind their language.
Katie sprang into action immediately. When she was cleaning up the Rectory she found some of Father Phillip’s clothes in a wardrobe. They were heavy with mould but she had washed then in the tub with good hot water and they were fresh and clean for gentlemen in need to use. Katie fetched them now and sent the three boys off to the bathroom in the Rectory with all the hot water that was on the stove. They had strict instructions to strip off their dirty things, dump them outside the bathroom door and wash all over. Two minutes later, Katie had a hamper of the most smelly, soiled clothes to launder. All these things went into the tub to soak. Father Fergus volunteered his razor and Emily thoughtfully stoked up the wood stove knowing that lots more hot water – and lots more dinner – would be required before the night was through. After half an hour, Richard, Llewellyn and Angus presented themselves in the Rectory dining room looking clean and sweet – and looking younger and smelling much nicer than they had when Emily brought them home.
There were big bowls of soup for starters followed by mutton stew with mashed potatoes which Katie had made that afternoon. With all the dinner things cleared away, the boys settled down to tell Father Fergus and the girls their stories.
Emily had heard much of this as she walked home from the pub with the boys that afternoon but in the quiet of the rectory kitchen with Richard, Llewellyn and Angus now clean and full of mutton stew it all seemed much sadder. They had come to the North with such high hopes and each of them had very good reasons why they needed to make their fortunes. Richard had a poor old mother who needed him back in England; Llewellyn wanted to go home to Wales to marry the beautiful Gladys who had promised to wait for him. And Angus needed to go home to repair his father’s broken heart after he had run away from home. [There were some tears here because the girls knew what it was like to miss your parents who were far away and lost.] Each of them spoke about the diggings on the Palmer River - of the fortunes to be made there but also of the dangers that lurked for poor miners.
They explained that the diggings were home to thousands of men [and very few women] from countries all over the world. Lots of miners were Chinese and the English miners sometimes bullied and tormented these boys. Katie and Emily knew all about that: they had seen the poor Chinese boys on the road being robbed by bushrangers!
Most of the miners, Angus explained, lived in tents where the rain dripped in and nights were grim. Everything was horribly expensive and life was hard – even for the lucky ones who found gold. What was worse, there were crooks on the diggings who would steal a miner’s gold, rob him of food or clothes and spoil his tent. The worst villains were the bushrangers who worked the lonely roads leading to and from the diggings. These wicked men bailed up poor miners and took everything they could. They were bullies and thieves. A miner could strike it rich and be headed for home – only to have his fortune stolen on the road.
Emily made her scones for pudding. They came from the oven warm and fragrant, smothered in butter with the Golden Syrup dripping through. How those three young men wolfed those scones down when they hit the table! It was soon clear that a second batch would be required and Emily was happy to oblige. Father Fergus gently lead the discussion to the question of the Aboriginal people. How did the miners get on with them?
The boys looked abashed for a moment but Richard finally said that some of the miners were cruel and violent – but that the Aboriginal people were quick to respond. Some diggers had been found speared to death – or with the marks of a club or waddy smashing in the skull. Katie remembered the sad looking Aboriginal men and women in the street of Cooktown and how different they were from the brave warriors they had met on the beach after the shipwreck.
There was nowhere in the rectory for the boys to stay but that night, the boys camped happily in the church hall. They didn’t have real beds but they were dry and clean and comfortable – and the next day would bring the church roof one step closer. The girls were so happy that all their hard work seemed to be getting somewhere at last.
When Angus and Emily climbed up the mango tree and on to the church roof the next day, they were able to give good news and bad. The good news was that the church had weathered the cyclone fairly well. The timber was sound, the roof structure was intact and didn’t need a lot of work at all. The bad news was that many of the wooden tiles that covered the roof and kept out the rain [Angus called the tiles, “shingles”] had blown away in the storm. “Once the first ones go, lassie, you might as well take the lot. I’ll have to find a whole new load of shingles if I’m going to fix it.”
“Isn’t there anything else that could work other than shingles?” asked Richard. “I’m sure I saw a roof going on to a new pub on the diggings and that roof had sheets of iron or tin.”
“A tin roof would be grand,” said Angus, “but it costs plenty. Do we have any money to spare?”
Of course the girls had their nuggets in the Bank of New South Wales but they were, as Father Fergus insisted, for a rainy day. “A broken roof might mean a rainy day,” Emily said as she clambered down the mango tree but everyone thought that there must be something more they could do before touching their precious savings.
“Well, I found myself three good carpenters just by asking at the bar,” said Emily. “I wonder if we could find some money for the tin roof in the same way?” And so it was settled. Katie would go to all the pubs on one side the road; Emily would go to the pubs on the other. Angus would go to the lumber yard to see if there were enough sheets of roofing iron for sale to fix the church. That way the girls could tell everyone how much money was needed.
Father Fergus was not very happy about the girls going anywhere near the pubs but the girls were very keen once afternoon tea had been served to go and see what they could persuade the drinkers of Cooktown to give to the church roof. Emily took Richard with her; Katie took Llewellyn. Angus and Father Fergus went to the chandler’s yard to leave instructions, then began to clear away the last of the sorry shingles. It seemed a hopeless business but just when dark was falling and Father Fergus was becoming more and more fearful for his little friends there was a great shout from the road and a dray pulled by two fine horses stopped at the gate. Sitting on top of a load of iron were Katie and Emily, Richard and Llewellyn. They had all they needed and more!
The girls had been blessed, you see, by the power of gossip. By the time Emily had arrived back at the Mission the night before with Angus, Richard and Llewellyn in tow, the story about the blonde lassie in the public bar had gone around all the pubs in Cooktown. Who was this girl and where did she come from? No one seemed to know. There were some miners who were grumpy that they never had the offer of hot scones to eat. Why hadn’t Emily come to their pub as well? Little children were rare in town but ones who were prepared to make friends with the miners were very unusual. When Katie went sheepishly to the first pub that afternoon with Llewellyn she thought she’d have to be very brave and bossy but as soon as she came to the door, everyone knew who she was – or at least where she was from.
Katie had a little speech pleading for help all prepared but the miners and drinkers were already opening their pockets by the time Katie started. When she had finished, one of the miners [a cheeky Irish boy named Mickey] took around the hat and made sure everyone gave something. Emily was just as lucky at her first pub – although there were several miners who called for their share of the scones. The girls were perfectly safe as they went from pub to pub but Llewellyn and Richard became very handy after all carrying the money they collected. The final stop was at the chandlers where they bought sheets of iron, guttering, nails and three hammers. The girls headed home in triumph. There was enough money left over to be able to plan for a real supper after the Mission service on Sunday night.
The whole of the next day, the three boys worked fixing the iron on the roof. Angus fixed on the gutters and directed the water to a big barrel. The girls spent most of the day cleaning in the church, cleaning the linen from the vestments cupboard and making sure everything was ready for the service. When the whole place was shining bright, Katie tried the little organ in the church and it made a terrible noise. When she opened the back of the case she found the problem: a large carpet snake had made a home for himself there, eating any mice and lizards that might stray into the church! Katie might have called the boys off the roof to help her but she remembered what Father Fergus had told her – that these big snakes were not poisonous. With a great effort of will, Katie lifted the sleepy snake out of the organ and took it outside to the mango tree. With any luck, Katie thought, it might eat a flying fox.
Dinner that night was a real celebration. The roof was finished; the church was ready; the boys felt that they had had their best day since arriving in Cooktown. And Father Fergus had one last surprise for everyone. He’d been so proud of what the girls had done when they went from pub to pub looking for help that he was inspired to do the same. He’d gone from ship to ship in the harbour asking the captains if anyone needed some good boys to fill up the crew. He wanted to be able to help Richard, Llewellyn and Angus to get home so that he could repay their kindness to him. No one had a job on a ship heading home to England but at the very last ship – a squat, ugly sailing ship called The Takeaway – the Captain reported that that very morning two of his crew had deserted and run away to the diggings. He wasn’t heading straight home: he was going to Brisbane first and then to Sydney – but he’d be pleased to give two good boys a passage home if they were prepared to work hard. The boys who had deserted, the captain told the old priest, were absolute knaves, rascals and scallywags. While the port was all in darkness the night before, the two scoundrels had broken into the captain’s cabin and stolen his pistols and twenty pounds before making their escape. He rather hoped that they would fall in with cannibals!
Chapter 8: Bushrangers!
Of course the two villains who stole the pistols and the money from Captain Flint’s cabin were Dudley and Mervyn Dursley. Captain Yardarm always said that life at sea was the making of wayward young men and many a bad boy had come on board his ship and gone off it a fine young man but in the case of Dudley and Mervyn they went from bad to worse.
The trip from Singapore south to Cooktown had been slow and difficult. The weather was hot and everyone seemed to be short tempered but the laziness of the two boys would have made even the most cheerful sailor on board miserable. True, Mervyn and Dudley had lost some weight and without a supply of cakes and pies they looked much fitter and stronger than they had but they were forever cadging treats from the cook and trying to skive off if there was any sort of work to be done. One of the things that The Takeaway had taken on as cargo in Singapore were some Chinese passengers. They were off to the diggings on the Palmer River in North Queensland and they were very excited to be on their way to making their fortune. The Chinese passengers didn’t have cabins; they were camped on the deck with their few possession and Dudley and Mervyn were delighted to have a new group of people to bully and torment.
They stole whatever they could from the Chinese boys. Worse than that, they delighted in trying to get a Chinese passenger alone so that they could pull his pigtail and insult him. The other members of the crew didn’t like seeing this at all – not because they liked the Chinese boys so much as because it meant that Dudley and Mervyn weren’t doing their job. And Dudley and Mervyn never seemed to learn anything from the trouble they got into. Widmark, the giant black sailor, had had enough one evening when he found that his tobacco had been pinched from his kit bag. Sure enough, it was found in Dudley’s pocket and Captain Flint had looked the other way when Widmark gave Dudley a black eye.
The one good thing that the Chinese boys did for Dudley and Mervyn was to arouse their interest in the gold fields. If a bunch of Chinese could go into the wilderness and find gold, well, so could they. The weak-headed boys listened to anyone on the crew who would tell them about the fortunes to be made – of so much gold in the creeks around the Palmer River that anyone could just reach down and collect it! The two scoundrels decided that when the opportunity came, they would grab it with both hands – even if it meant jumping overboard and swimming for shore.
At last The Takeaway reached Cooktown and docked in the little port. The boat discharged its passengers and Captain Flint gave everyone in the crew a holiday to go ashore for the evening. He warned them all that Cooktown was more dangerous to poor sailors than Malacca and that they should be very careful in pubs. Much against his better judgement, he allowed Dudley and Mervyn to go ashore too. He gave each of them six pence – not enough for a tattoo or a bottle of rum: just enough to buy a cup of tea and a sausage roll. Surely they couldn’t get into trouble on that. Captain Flint himself was keen to have some time on land too after weeks at sea.
The two boys had worked out a plan for just such an opportunity. They quickly spent their money and watched the boat to make sure that everyone was gone into town before they returned to the ship. They knew that before they picked up all the gold they could carry that they would need some things at least to get them to the Palmer River. Mervyn used an axe to break into Captain Flint’s cabin and then into the chest he kept under his bed. They took all the money there and the two fine pistols that he kept just in case there was danger on board. By the time the crew had returned to find what had happened, Dudley and Mervyn had left the town for the forty mile walk to the diggings.
It didn’t take them long to get into trouble. Even with their weak heads, they guessed [once they had left town] that a miner needed some equipment to find the gold. They had joined a little party of other miners headed into the hills and admired the picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and axes they took with them. Of course they couldn’t return to Cooktown to buy this sort of stuff because by now the police would probably be looking everywhere for them.
There were seven young men in the group heading up to the Palmer River and Dudley and Mervyn listened to their stories with interest. Four of them had worked for three months on the diggings; they had a nice little claim and were making good money. They had only come down to Cooktown for a little treat – some good food and the company of ladies. They said a great deal about this, boasting of their time in the Cooktown pubs [as some boys will]; Dudley and Mervyn didn’t like to be outdone of course so they boasted about their escapades in Malacca tattoo parlours when they had broken the noses of the entire Chinese fleet.
It was when the miners began to talk about the dangers of the road that the two boys became really interested. It was good that there was a party of miners to travel together, they were told, because there were often robberies on the road. The jungle pressed down close to the road for most of the first twenty miles. There were many creek crossings and a thousand places where bushrangers could lurk behind trees and jump out to attack poor travellers. The return journey, of course, was more dangerous than the climb up the mountains to the goldfield because the robbers hoped to be able to rob miners who were returning to Cooktown with gold they had found. Even the coach that ran every day between Cooktown and the goldfields had been stopped by desperate bushrangers – and the coach always carried an armed guard.
Dudley and Mervyn listened to all this very carefully. Both of them were thinking the same thing: even if the gold was there to be found, it sounded, in the end, like very hard work. On the other hand, it sounded much easier to lurk about beside the road and relieve hard working miners of their gold. They had the captain’s pistols, after all, and they were clever and brave – as everyone knew. When the road finally left the rain forest and climbed into gum tree country, the two scoundrels decided to lag behind and let the others go on alone. The miners were sorry to see them leave the group: this was the most dangerous part of the road and a group of five was easier for bushrangers to attack than a party of seven. The miners were beginning to feel uneasy, however, in the presence of Dudley and Mervyn. They could see straight away that they were foolish and boasting but their questions about the success of the bushrangers and the absence of the police made them uncomfortable. Perhaps they would be safer without these two sly young men in their party after all.
And that is how Dudley and Mervyn began their careers as bushrangers. They had their first success that very afternoon when they managed to waylay a small group of Chinese miners coming back from the Palmer River. Mervyn and Dudley jumped from behind trees not far from where they had parted company with the miners; they swore terribly, waved their pistols and forced the Chinese boys on to their faces in the mud. In a wheelbarrow they found a tent, matches, tobacco, some food and a frying pan and a tidy leather pouch full of gold nuggets. Once they had these, they made a point of kicking each of the poor Chinese boys and saying some very unkind things about Chinese sailors in Malacca and Chinese passengers on board English ships. Then they made them run, shooting the pistols over their heads to show how brave they were. Dudley and Mervyn made a little camp some distance from the road and later that day stole two horses from another group of travellers. Of course they thought that a career as a bushranger suited them very well indeed.
Chapter 9: A Knock in the Night!
While Dudley and Mervyn were enjoying themselves tormenting Chinese travellers, back in Cooktown, the Save a Soul Mission and Saint Barnabas’ Church held its first services that Sunday morning. Almost no one came to church in the morning and the rather long sermon that Father Fergus had prepared was mostly delivered to Llewellyn, Richard, Angus and the girls. All the same, it was a start. And business was certainly brisker that night at the Mission service. The girls worked all afternoon making scones and cutting sandwiches and when evening came, so too did many of the miners in the city. The hall was packed and Father Fergus was simply delighted to be able to use his sermon again – although he wisely shortened it a little after Emily made some suggestions over lunch. Katie played the piano for some favourite old hymns and Emily took up the collection. Then it was time for the tea and the refreshments.
The miners ate absolutely everything that was put on the table that night and drank litres of tea. The girls were very busy taking around the plates of scones and sandwiches but what they found was that as hungry as the miners were, what they wanted more than anything was the chance to talk with someone who looked just a little like the families they had left behind. Everyone had a story to tell. The successful miners boasted of what they had found and done; the others often cried a little as they told the girls of how all their hopes had come to nothing. The girls listened to it all and gave a kind word here and there – and a hug if that was what was needed. The last of the miners left at ten o’clock and everyone at the mission was tired but excited. They had done a very good thing, said Father Fergus. He would write to the bishop directly.
They couldn’t go straight to bed, however. There was washing up to be done – and then Katie produced one last pot of tea and one last batch of scones so that they could have a little party to say goodbye to Angus and Llewellyn who were leaving the very next day as newly enlisted sailors on The Takeaway. Father Fergus had wondered how he could choose two of the three good young men who had fixed his roof but Richard made the decision easy for him. He may have missed his family in London but he suddenly found at the Mission not only friends but also a hope for the future. That afternoon, he had asked Father Fergus whether he might stay on and open a school for the children of Cooktown. At the moment, they roamed the streets and were often in trouble. It seemed like a capital idea. The Church Hall would be a school by day and a Mission at night.
And that’s how the next six months went along. The girls were always exhausted by the time they went to bed because they worked so hard every day. Richard’s school was a great success – so many boys and girls came that they had to find another place to hold it. A School Inspector came from Cairns and found them a site on the edge of town where a school and a house for the teacher could be built. Richard thought this was grand because now he had a salary and he no longer had to sleep on a mattress on the floor of the hall.
The girls often helped at the school but the most important work they did was at the Mission. Word soon went around the town that there were people at the Mission who could help with almost anything. The girls became very clever at digging splinters out of the hands of poor miners and cleaning up heads that had been worried by lice. A copper in the back yard was always available for miners to do some washing and Emily rigged up a shower on a little cement corner of the orchard where grubby miners could clean up.
On some days, shy miners would come to ask if Katie or Emily could write a letter home for them. Lots of the miners, you see, had never had the chance to learn to read and write. Of course the girls were happy to do this and in this way, they got to know a lot about life on the diggings and to make some very good friends. They told Richard about these men and soon Richard had a group of miners meeting at the mission at night to learn to read. [Katie kept them supplied with tea and cakes during the lessons so no one ever missed a class.]
Sometimes at night before they blew the candle out in their bedroom in the rectory, the girls would talk about the extraordinary journey they had made to this point on the other side of the world from their home at Saint Brigid’s. They had put their mother’s parasol and their father’s black hat on the dressing table of their bedroom but it seemed in the last six months that they hadn’t had a moment to think about them.
“We’re like Mother and Father,” said Katie one night after they had said their prayers. She was brushing her hair; Emily was almost asleep. “They were missionaries to the wild people on the Orinoco River. They must have done some of the things that we do every day.”
“You’re right,” said Emily sleepily, “like taking out splinters and trying to launder someone’s dirty trousers in the copper boiler.” “And comfort broken-hearted and lonely people,” said Katie. “And the miners and sailors in Cooktown are probably quite as wild as the men and women on the Orinoco!”
Emily giggled. It was true. But the girls had come to love these wild young men like their brothers. Father Fergus never forgot when he wrote to the bishop to tell him how well the Mission was going that one reason for its success was the kindness and the faithfulness of the two little girls who helped him.
One night the girls were surprised when there was a commotion at the door of the rectory just as the four friends were sitting down to dinner. Emily answered the door and came back white faced with two Chinese miners carrying a third one between them. In a flash, the girls recognised the Chinese boys they had met on the road on that very first day in Cooktown – when Allunga had used his spear to frighten away the bushrangers.
The Chinese miner who was carried in had been beaten cruelly around the head. He was covered in blood and it looked as if his hair had been hacked at with a knife. In fact, one of the other Chinese boys carried a long pigtail in his hand. In very broken English, the boys introduced themselves as Wing, Wang and Yong. They were cousins and had come to the goldfields together. Wing [the oldest of the three] explained that they had been attacked that afternoon on the Palmer River road by two cruel bushrangers who had not only taken their gold but amused themselves by beating Yong when he tried to resist them. In an act of real cruelty, they had used a knife to hack off Yong’s pigtail. Father Fergus had explained long ago to the girls that the cruel warlords and rulers back in China insisted that every man wear his hair like this. Any Chinese man with short hair was treated as a rebel and would be killed. The boys remembered the bravery and kindness of the girls when they had met on the road; they had come to the mission because they didn’t know where else to go for help.
Katie did what she could to clean the poor miner up. A nasty cut on Yong’s cheek had to be sewed up with thread to stop it bleeding. Once the blood had been sponged off and the wound closed, however, Yong looked much better. Father Fergus found some brandy for the injured man and he was put to sleep on a mattress on the verandah. It was the only place at the Mission where the girls could put miners to sleep if they had nowhere else to go. Wing and Wang joined the friends at the table and ate some dinner. The girls were so pleased to be able to help the Chinese miners who had been their very first friends in Cooktown. While Emily did the washing up with Richard, clever Katie found a straw hat and sewed the pigtail that had been hacked off into it. She tried it on and looked in the mirror. You might think that that was your own pigtail hanging down behind. As long as he wore the straw hat, Yong would be safe from warlords and government police if he ever went back home to southern China.
The next morning, Father Fergus took the Chinese miners to the police. The police sergeant had got to know Father Fergus very well and often came to church on Sunday mornings; when he saw for himself what had been done he shook his head sadly. It seemed that there was a new gang of bushrangers on the diggings road – crueller and nastier than any of the ones who had worked the road before. Always, it seemed, these bushrangers not just stole from travellers but bullied and hurt them – and always the Chinese miners had the worst time of it. The local police seemed quite unable to control the bushrangers. Many times they had found the abandoned campsite and fireplace of the bushrangers but they seemed to move camp often. Travellers were now too frightened to use the road unless they went in large groups – although there were always some miners who were so anxious to get from the diggings into town that they took the chance to travel alone.
There were many similar stories told around the table of the rectory in the next few months. Wing, Wang and Yong brought other Chinese miners who had been bullied and bushranged to the Mission. Together, Katie and Emily cleaned them up and heard their stories. They were brave boys and often outwitted the bushrangers, hiding their gold in the most unlikely places and suffering cruelly if they wouldn’t give it up.
On another night long after the rowdy town had quietened, the girls were awakened by knocking at the door. Father Fergus was snoring quietly and didn’t hear but the girls did and quickly lit the hurricane lamp to see who was there. There were two dark figures and I think that most little girls would have been very frightened to open the door but Katie recognised the fine white teeth and the hopeful smile of someone they had grown to know and trust. It was Allunga – the warrior who had guided them over the hills to Cooktown. In his arms was another young man – although once Emily held up the lantern, it was plain to see that this young man wasn’t much more than a boy. There was blood all over his shoulder and it was dripping on to the floor of the verandah in heavy, sticky drops.
While Katie went to rouse Father Fergus, Emily brought the two Aboriginal men into the kitchen and put the boy up on the kitchen table. The wound in the boy’s shoulder looked angry and infected and Emily knew at once that this was something beyond her capacity to help. Despite his smile, Allunga looked very anxious and frightened. The town, of course, was full of dangers for black people. The girls knew that he would never have ventured into the town unless there were a real emergency. The lack of a common language was frustrating; how had the boy come to be wounded in this way?
Allunga told as much of the story as he needed to by raising his hands to his shoulder to form a rifle, pointing it and going “Bang!” He pointed at the young warrior and it was clear that he had been wounded in some kind of shooting attack.
Father Fergus recognised the wound at once: it had been made by a shot gun. “The reason it looks so angry, Emily, is that some of the shot is still in the wound. You will have to cut it out as best you can. I can’t do it with my poor eyesight.”
“Father,” said Emily, “I think we should send for a doctor. He needs a real surgeon.”
There was no surgeon in the town, unfortunately – for the same reason that there had been no priest until the cyclone had dumped Father Fergus on the beach. The last doctor in Cooktown had run away to the diggings on the Palmer River and had made, it was said, quite a tidy pile of gold. Now the miners and people of Cooktown had to make do with bush medicine and the wisdom of people who could set broken bones and nurse people through a fever.
“Emily, there’s only you,” said Father Fergus, his voice a mixture of hope and fear. “We’ll just have to do what we can.”
For the next hour, the girls worked tirelessly. Poor Allunga stood helplessly while the girls went to work. Father Fergus brought the kerosene lamp and held the hurricane lamp as close as he safely could to the table. Katie built up the fire in the stove and boiled water. She took the sharpest small knife and the finest pair of tweezers that were in the medicine chest and poured boiling water on them, leaving them to soak for some minutes. Also into the boiling water went a sharp needle and some fine silk thread. Emily washed her own hands first and then used a cloth to sponge away the blood from the wound. The young man felt hot – the fever from the infection was clearly strong and painful. Emily guessed that he had been shot about three days ago.
There were about six deep wounds on the right shoulder where the shot had cut into the skin and muscle. Some of these were clean and settled once the blood had been sponged away but three of them were red and inflamed. “These are the places where the shot must still be in the muscle,” said Emily. “I will have to open the wound to find the shot.” Emily said this so simply but the job of cutting into the wound and finding the shot was going to be hard for anyone. A shot gun does not fire bullets; it fires a host of beads of metal. Each one may be only tiny; finding them in the light of a hurricane lamp was going to be very difficult.
If it hadn’t been for the bravery of the young man, I don’t think that Emily would have been able to do the surgery at all. He didn’t flinch, no matter how dreadful the pain must have been. It was a messy job but it was clear that even though he were frightened and in pain, he was tremendously brave – and trusting. His face puckered with pain when Emily made the first cut into the swollen skin. Father Fergus was standing ready with a bottle of Scotch whisky he had bought as a Christmas treat and he poured some of the liquid into and over the cut that Emily had made. As gently as she could, Emily put her fingers into the torn muscle of the cut, searching for the cause of the infection – and immediately found two little balls of shot, each of them no bigger than a pea. She lifted them out with the tweezers and they fell noisily into the bowl that Katie was holding ready. There was more whiskey poured into the wound and then the skin was sewn up with the silk thread.
The same delicate operation was performed twice more. The final wound was the hardest to manage: it was right on the young man’s armpit and the skin had been torn badly. And just when Emily was about to sew up the last livid wound, she found – on her very last check – another of the balls of shot embedded deep in the muscle. Extracting this last shot was the most painful of them all. Even when the job was finished and there were seven metal balls in Katie’s bowl Emily couldn’t be certain that they had found them all but as Father Fergus had said, she had done her best.
Father Fergus used the very last of the precious Christmas Scotch whisky to clean the wounds. The towel that Katie had put down on the kitchen table was now dirty with blood and pus from the infection; the whole kitchen smelled of the whiskey that Father Fergus had used to clean the wounds. The young warrior, however, looked much more comfortable and composed and Allunga was clearly relieved. His black face beamed.
“Emily,” he said, in a soft, liquid voice and he smiled his thanks to Emily who was washing her hands for the last time. Katie had kept up a constant supply of boiling water through the night. “Katie,” he said. The girls grinned back: they had never heard him speak to them before. They were so pleased to see him again – and to be able to repay just a little of the kindness he had shown to them.
“Baringah,” said Allunga, indicating the young warrior. The boy smiled weakly. “Baringah,” each of the girls said. They both thought that they had never met anyone so brave before. Baringah looked very young – probably no more than fifteen years old- but already he had the dignity and authority of a warrior like Allunga.
Now the very last of the hot water boiling on the stove was used to make a big pot of tea. Father Fergus poured cups for everyone, making sure that there was plenty of sugar in everyone’s cup. As they sat on the steps of the verandah, the three friends and the two aboriginal men heard the birds calling up the dawn as the sky above the mango trees gradually went from black to dove grey to pink and pearl. Later there was hot buttered toast and marmalade and a big hand of bananas for breakfast. Father Fergus found Baringah one of the mattresses used by miners who needed to camp overnight at the mission. The girls always allowed travellers and poor miners to camp on the verandah of the hall – or in it on a cold or rainy night. Baringah slept for most of the day, Allunga sitting quietly beside him. Neither of the men would have any of the dinner Katie cooked but they were happy to have more of the sweet tea and a couple of coconut biscuits with Katie and Emily and Father Fergus as dark fell that next night. Baringah was obviously feeling a good deal better. He walked about at one stage and looked curiously into the orchard and chapel. He now smiled readily.
Everyone was tired after the broken night and turned in early. Emily had one last look at the wound in Baringah’s shoulder. It was already looking less painful and certainly much cleaner. Before going to bed, they solemnly shook hands with Allunga and Baringah. At the suggestion of Father Fergus, the girls wrapped all the left over coconut biscuits in a clean tea towel and left these beside the back door. Katie and Emily had never been so quietly pleased to be in Cooktown as they were that night. Without ever discussing it, they felt that their parents would have been proud of their little girls and what they had achieved in this far away land. They fell into a deep and dreamless sleep despite the heat and the thunderstorm that was brewing in the hills above them. In the morning when they work up, Allunga and Baringah were gone: the empty tea towel was neatly folded on the kitchen table.
One night, while the girls were going to bed, Emily couldn’t settle. They had had another visit from Wing, Wang and Yong who told them of more friends who had been beaten by the bushrangers. If there was one thing that Emily hated even more than flying foxes and crocodiles and cassowaries it was bullies. Over a long time she had been thinking of a cunning plan. She had been through endless possibilities but rejected them all. She had thought of digging a pit on the road and covering it with palm branches and sticks; she had read a story once about how African tribes used clever pits like this to capture lions and other dangerous animals. Another suggestion she thought of was buying a powerful sleeping draught from the chemist’s shop and drugging some bottles of beer. These could be left beside the road where the bushrangers would find them. Once they were asleep [or safely at the bottom of the pit] it would be easy to capture them. Both of these plans, however, [and all the other ones that the girls produced] had obvious problems. Any poor traveller might fall in the pit and any thirsty miner might find the beer. No: the plan really needed to bring the bushrangers out on to the road where they could be caught and delivered to offended Justice. But how to do this? Remember that the bushrangers had guns and were quite desperate enough to use them.
Then Emily had something like a brainwave. Once the candles were out that night, she shared it with Katie who listened with rising excitement. “Emily,” was all she said, “you are fantastic!” The plan was clever; it was daring; it was dangerous. And for all these reasons, they decided not to share it with Father Fergus who although very brave himself was always very cautious when it came to adventures for the girls.
They did tell Richard, however: they needed him to make the plan work. And if the plan worked, then there would be no more bushrangers bullying anyone on the Palmer River road.
What Happened on the Road
The Mission remained a very busy place. The girls and Father Fergus seemed to work day and night and weeks drifted into months. The short cool season had come and gone and summer was back in full force.
The Mission celebrated Christmas is style with a palm tree covered in decorations which the girls and some of the miners had cut out of paper one Sunday evening. Lots of people came to mass that Christmas Eve because the girls had gone around the pubs at closing time to invite all the miners to come on to church. The congregation sang all the favourite carols, there were lots of tears from homesick miners and after church had finished Katie produced a splendid Christmas cake which she and Emily had made six weeks earlier. The oldest miner was asked to cut it and the girls poured tea and carried around big trays of the scrumptious cake. With a little stab of pain, the girls realised that they had been in Cooktown for over nine months.
On Christmas Day itself there was a special roast dinner for the four friends who were joined by all the poor miners who had no one to share their Christmas with. Father Fergus dressed up as Father Christmas and there were jolly games and presents. It was hot, hard work and I think that about thirty people sat down for the dinner the girls had cooked. They ate every one of Katie’s fluffy roast potatoes and didn’t leave a lick of Emily’s famous gravy. After a final cup of tea, Emily escorted the last of the miners off the verandah and peace descended on the Mission. A thunderstorm was brewing and everyone had a lie off to see out the hot, sticky day.
The girls had become something of detectives over the months of their planning. They spoke to everyone they could about the bushrangers and listened carefully – especially to people who had met the bushrangers and lived to tell the tale. How many bushrangers were there? The girls had worked out that there was probably only one real gang of bushrangers on the road. The police had had success in catching several groups [including a group of desperate ladies who were especially disrespectful to gentlemen travellers.] For the last few months everyone told the same story: two bushrangers, both of them bullies, and both of them sly and sneaky. They were young but they covered their faces with red bandanas so no one could identify them afterwards. They were armed with pistols and while they bullied everyone they seemed particularly spiteful with Chinese travellers. They used very bad language and were forever promising to shoot anyone who didn’t hand over their gold as soon as they were threatened. Almost all of the attacks, they learned, happened on a stretch of the road about ten kilometres from Cooktown where the road crossed a little creek before climbing into the hills. There were big boulders beside the road and everyone [particularly the stage coach] had to slow down to cross the creek. Travellers who knew the road always hurried past this spot anxiously; if they could get past the creek crossing without trouble, it was likely that they would arrive at the goldfields safely.
It took Katie and Emily more than a month to be able to organise their plan; they needed to wait for Wing, Wong and Yong to come down from their mine on the Palmer River and at one stage Katie was worried because the school holidays were drawing to an end and Richard would then only be available on weekends. Just when the girls thought that they would run right out of patience, every piece of their puzzle fell into place. Wing, Wang and Yong were visiting. What was better still, Father Fergus had gone off to Townsville to see the bishop and in the week he was gone, the girls could hatch their cunning plan. He would come back to Cooktown to find that this terrible bushranging problem had been solved.
The girls went to bed that night with rain falling and woke that January morning to hear the sound of solid rain on the roof. It had rained all night as it sometimes does in those tropical parts. The girls had planned an early start and for a little while they thought that they would have to delay their plan but by 9 am the sun was coming out and it was steamy but fine. They would only realise later that night how important that unexpected delay was to their success.
Feeling very solemn and serious, Katie and Emily assembled the friends at the Mission together with the equipment they had gathered over the last month. There was a large wheelbarrow, lengths of rope, two leather belts, two whistles, two cricket bats and two large canvas sacks. As well, they had the straw hat that Yong wore; into it was sewn the pigtail that had been crudely hacked from Wong’s head six months before. Emily would have loved to have found a pistol to take with them but Richard was adamant that they must not risk shooting anyone. None of the friends could shoot and they didn’t have time to learn. They would have to make do with surprise, trickery and pluck.
The plan was relatively simple – but very bold. Richard, quite the largest of the men – and a good head higher than Wing, Wang and Yong – would dress in cotton pyjamas and wear Yong’s straw hat with the pigtail attached. [Yong’s hair was nowhere near long enough to put into a pigtail yet but he had a modest little pony tail that would have to do until he grew his hair back.] Dressed like that, Richard could easily pass for a [large] Chinese miner.
Richard was needed to push the wheelbarrow, you see. Stowed in the barrow would be two large canvas sacks looking full of something very interesting; in fact, each sack would carry one little girl, lengths of rope, a belt, a whistle and a cricket bat. Anyone lurking beside the road in wait for travellers would see only four Chinese miners going up to the diggings. They would be tempted to attack – to swagger out with pistols and grab whatever was being carried in the barrow. And when they reached into the sacks, the clever girls inside would blow their whistles loudly and use the rope to tie up the hands of the villainous bushrangers. Once they were secured, they would be confined to the sacks and the return journey would deliver the captured bushrangers to the police in Cooktown. The cricket bats would come in handy, Emily said, if the bushrangers didn’t sit still in the sacks as they were pushed back to the lock up.
Before they left the Mission, Katie wrote a note for Father Fergus and left it on the kitchen table. It said,
Dear Father Fergus,
Emily and I have gone to capture the bushrangers on the Palmer River Road. We expect to be home by dinner time.
Katie didn’t want to mention that she had the help of the Chinese boys and Richard because she knew [rather better than Emily] that Father Fergus would be very worried about them.
The six friends set off by mid morning. They wouldn’t climb into their disguise until they were clear of the town; too many people in the street might be intrigued by a strange looking, tall Chinese miner and there might be anxious questions to answer. As they passed the port, they could see the mail boat arriving from Townsville; it was just as well that they had got away when they did. Father Fergus would be on the boat and both the girls knew as soon as they saw the boat that no matter what they said after lights out at home, Father Fergus would most certainly not have allowed the girls to go off after the bushrangers if they had asked his permission. They instinctively hurried on. Once clear of the town, they relaxed a little.
Soon it was time to get into the sacks. This was certainly the most unpleasant part of the morning. It was hot and there was an occasional shower to make their little cocoon home stiflingly hot. The girls were soon thirsty and itchy – and wishing that they had brought a thermos of tea as well as their bushranger catching equipment. The girls could whisper to each other, however, as they bundled along and they rehearsed with each other constantly what they must do. It would be best, they knew, to try to grab hands as soon as they came into the sack. Surprise was everything because the bushrangers, they knew, were armed and dangerous.
The track was muddy and rutted and there were frequent creek crossings that tossed them about like a boat in a cyclone: remember that there had been a lot of rain the night before and every little trickle of water across the road had become busy and hard to navigate. At one of the slow spots there was a commotion on the road as the coach to the Palmer River came hurrying by pulled by four splendid horses. If the girls had been able to look, they would have seen the hurry the coach was in – and the anxious looks of the five passengers crammed into the coach. Richard and the Chinese boys moved to the side of the road to let the coach pass; they were sure that the driver knew that they were now in the danger zone for bushrangers – and that the most dangerous creek crossing was just ahead.
Just when the girls thought that they couldn’t survive another moment in their canvass sacks, Richard said very quietly, “Not far now, girls – just around the corner. Then there was a gunshot and then another – and their blood went cold. The shots came from the road ahead and even though he was tired from pushing the barrow all morning, Richard picked up his pace and pushed ahead. “Stay calm, girls, and quiet. We’re going forward and I expect to find our friends the bushrangers just ahead. Perhaps they are bushranging some other poor travellers. ” The Chinese boys whispered among themselves and the girls were suddenly very anxious. Wang, guessing how they must feel, put a calming hand on each sack with the words, “Be brave, Missie. Be brave!”
In what seemed like a long time for the girls but was really only a minute or two, Richard pushed the wheelbarrow around the corner to the creek crossing and there was a loud cry of “Bail up!”
Richard did not stop; instead, he pushed the barrow cheerfully forward and only stopped when one of the bushrangers swore terribly and threatened to shoot him. Richard, of course, was pretending to be a real Chinese miner who didn’t understand English. By pushing the barrow forward he brought the friends closer to where the bushrangers were standing on the road.
Sometime later, the girls heard the story for themselves but just at this moment, they couldn’t see anything– but both of them made sure that they had their ropes handy, ready to strike once the bags were opened. They couldn’t see the scene on the road – and a remarkable scene it was.
Tied to a tree beside the road were the poor driver of the coach and the guard – a grizzled, older man who had had to throw down his shotgun. On the other side of the road there were two horses tied to a branch. They were, of course, the horses belonging to the bushrangers. One of the bushrangers had already fired two shots from his pistols to show that they were serious. The guard’s shotgun had been dumped beside the road; the larger of the two bushrangers carried a shot gun of his own. The passengers in the coach – three men and two women – had been forced out on to the road and made to kneel on the muddy verge beside the creek. They had had to surrender their purses and wallets and these were in a little pile beside the road. One bushranger aimed his shotgun at the passengers while the other one climbed on to the roof of the coach and threw down the mail bags. The Chinese boys, Richard and the girls had arrived just as this was happening.
It was unlikely, of course, that there was anything the Chinese miners might have that was at all valuable but the bushrangers were nonetheless pleased to see them. Remember that these bushrangers were bullies who liked nothing more than to torment others – and the Chinese were their favourite targets. They would have a bit of fun with the miners who had unfortunately blundered into the scene of the crime on the road. The passengers from the coach were mostly older people anyway and easily frightened into being silent and cowed.
Even though their faces were hidden by red bandanas, you will already have guessed that the bushrangers were Mervyn and Dudley Dursley. It was Mervyn who had climbed on to the coach; he now swung down and swaggered over to the little group around the wheelbarrow. He made a fist, leered at his cousin and tapped the nearest of the Chinese on the straw hat covering his head, as if knocking at a door. Wing flinched away from the bully; this only made Mervyn bolder. Like every bully, he loved to see fear in the face of his victim. Next he pulled Wang’s pigtail and sniggered.
Dudley enjoyed watching the scene but he was growing a little uncomfortable. He knew that successful bushrangers struck hard, took what they could and disappeared quickly. It didn’t do to loiter on the road. After all, one little group of travellers had already surprised them as they robbed the mail coach.
“We’ve got to get going,” Dudley shouted. “You can have some fun once we’ve found if the Chinks have got anything worth pinching. Have a look in the barrow. What’s in the big sacks, for instance? Is it food or is it laundry?” Dudley never for a moment dropped his guard, however. Richard noticed that he now levelled the shotgun at the Chinese. He knew that if Mervyn opened the sack, he would have to move very quickly.
“Don’t be so impatient,” Mervyn called back. “I’m having fun! Look at the ugly dial on this big Chink! He must have eaten plenty of rice to grow this big. ”
And then he did a terrible thing. Mervyn pocketed his pistol and sauntered over to Richard, who was still holding the arms of the wheelbarrow and grabbed his pigtail, giving it a tug just as he had done to Wang. Imagine his surprise when pigtail came away in his hands and he was suddenly holding a straw hat with the pigtail sewn into it.
“What the..” But Mervyn never finished his sentence. Everything happened so quickly in the next moment. With a heave, Richard lifted the wheelbarrow and rushed with all the speed he could muster at Dudley who had the shotgun in his hands. Dudley was startled and the wheelbarrow caught him right in the shins and belly. What happened next was even more unexpected. The two sacks spilled out of the wheelbarrow and out came two little girls as mad as hornets. Wing, Wang and Yong did the bravest thing at that moment and rushed towards Mervyn. They had suffered at the hands of bushrangers on this road once before and all their anger at being bullied and robbed in the past came welling up.
It was at this moment on the road that everything went horribly wrong. Emily’s great plan anticipated disabling one of the two bushrangers in the first moments that the sacks were opened. If one of them were tied up, then the two girls and the four boys would have overpowered the other: he would, they hoped, be startled and frightened. After all, no one had ever fought back on the road when confronted with the pistols or shot gun. Now Dudley struggled with Katie and Emily who were trying their very best to tie his legs together while Richard was wrestling with Dudley for the shotgun. With a terrible explosion it went off but the shot went astray into the bush. Before Dudley could fire again, Richard had wrenched the gun from his hands and thrown it to the passengers from the coach who now joined in the affray.
Dudley knew that unless he could use all his strength and cunning his days as a bushranger were over – and if he didn’t escape from the ropes and the strong grip of the man struggling with him that he would be off to gaol in Townsville – and perhaps a hangman’s noose. It was enough to give him one last spurt of energy and he kicked out, catching Richard right in the face and breaking his nose. Blood spurted everywhere and the girls –fearing that Richard were badly hurt- stopped trying to tie up Dudley and for just a moment gave all their attention to their bleeding friend. Dudley took the opportunity to snatch up the shot gun the guard had been forced to throw down. Dudley took aim and fired.
He was cool enough to choose to aim his fire not at the girls or the Chinese boys but at the passengers beside the road. The shot struck the road and ricocheted all over the scene. Miraculously, no one was hit but the girls gasped and realised that the next shot would kill. They stopped struggling with Mervyn and he staggered up and joined his cousin, his pistol in his hands.
That moment on the road was terrible for everyone for many reasons. The lives of all the friends were in great danger; Emily’s clever plan seemed ready to end in tragedy. But that fear was quickly overtaken for the girls by a stronger feeling. You see, in the struggle, the red bandanas had been wrenched away from the faces of the two bushrangers and the girls realised in a moment who the bullying bushrangers were. They had lost weight, certainly, and looked meaner and more dangerous than they had on board the Orange Pekoe but there was no doubt that the bushrangers were Dudley and Mervyn Dursley.
If Katie were the least bit frightened of the armed men she wasn’t going to admit it. “I might have known,” she said grimly as she tried to stop the bleeding on Richard’s face. “Who else but you two could make a career as the most shameful and nasty boys in the whole of Queensland?”
Dudley and Mervyn were no less surprised but the excitement of the moment and the fact that they had a shot gun and a pistol trained on the poor travellers gave them even more insolence and cheek than they normally showed.
“Well, if it isn’t the two peskiest girls who ever sailed the seas,” said Mervyn coarsely. “And to think that you’ve fallen into my hands now on this lonely road with no sea captain to protect you. You’re going to pay for all the trouble we’ve had at your hands!”
“You’re nothing but a bully,” said Emily angrily, “and a coward, and a lazy, sneaking ..” She never completed the sentence because Dudley’s eyes blazed and he raised the pistol to hit Emily in the face.
It was a terrible moment but what happened next startled absolutely everyone: the poor passengers watching as they knelt beside the road, the driver and guard tied to the tree, the Chinese boys and Richard forced to cower back behind the wheelbarrow, the girls themselves and the bushrangers. Dudley’s hand was raised and his face was distorted with hatred when thudding through the air between him and Emily came a heavy spear that grazed Dudley’s cheek before coming to strike the road and finish standing upright in the mud. A second spear launched at that same moment caught Mervyn and pinned him to a tree by his trousers.
Of course Katie and Emily and their friends were amazed at what had happened but they didn’t wait to see who had thrown the spears. Instead, they sprang forward and struggled with the bushrangers.
Mervyn couldn’t move from the tree. He was blubbering like a baby; Wing, Wang and Yong had found the cricket bats that the girls had brought and were giving Mervyn a dose of his own bullying medicine. He collected some mighty whacks over the next few moments and he might have been badly hurt but for the fact that the Chinese boys began arguing among themselves. There were, you see, only two bats between three boys and they all wanted a turn at belting the bully.
It wasn’t over. Although unable to move, Mervyn still had his pistol. He was desperate and armed and dangerous. Wang realised where the greatest danger lay and when his turn to surrender the cricket bat came, he wrenched the pistol – and the belt itself – from Mervyn.
Wang threw the pistol into the creek and then grabbed at Mervyn by the trousers and gave an almighty tug. Instead of pulling the bully down, the trousers came away in his hand. They were stuck firmly to the tree by the spear embedded in the trunk of the rainforest giant. It was all that Mervyn needed and he lunged away and dashed into the bush, running as quickly as he could down the creek bed. Wang tore the trousers away from the tree and stood proudly in the middle of the road while the bully and his nasty pink bottom disappeared into the green forest.
With his cousin fleeing and the fear of another spear finding its target [a large target to be sure] Dudley decided to flee as well. He aimed the shotgun at Katie and pulled the trigger but both barrels had already been fired and the cap snapped shut without discharging. Furious and frightened, he threw the shotgun at the closest Chinese boy and ran for his life.
The first moments after the bullies had fled were a mixture of feelings for the girls. They were alive. Their friends were alive. They had been shot at but they had survived. Just to make sure, the girls grabbed their friends and hugged them, laughing and crying all at the same time. They felt suddenly proud and excited - as if they could wrestle a crocodile or chase a cassowary through the bush. They knew that every Chinese miner on the goldfields would toast Wing, Wang and Yong for their heroism. The cricket bats would be proudly shown to everyone and Richard - despite his broken nose and bloodstained clothes – would be a hero on his return to school.
But deep down, they also knew that Emily’s plan hadn’t really worked. The villains had escaped and might be back tomorrow on the road holding up poor travellers and tormenting Chinese miners. Still, they had come so close to catching the bushrangers and if it hadn’t been for what happened on the road in the next few moments, I think that Katie and Emily would have set off in pursuit.
Out from the rain forest stepped their friends, Allunga and Baringah. They looked solemn and fearful but their faces changed to the biggest smiles when the girls ran forward, safe and well and hugged them tight. When the excitement had cooled for a moment, Allunga retrieved the spears from the muddy road and the rainforest tree and carefully wiped the blades. Baringah held his shoulder up for Emily to see; the wound had healed nicely in the last few weeks. He pointed at the fleeing bullies and then again at his own arm. His message was clear; the wound to his shoulder had been made by the two bushrangers. As they travelled through the rainforest, the young warriors had kept a constant lookout for the bullies who had so cruelly used not just the travellers on the road but the native people of the beach and the rainforest as well. They had silently watched the scene from the cover of the rainforest and when they saw that their little friends were in danger, they had struck hard to rescue them.
Then on that most marvellous of summer days, something even more extraordinary happened. “Katie! Emily! You wonderful, crazy, naughty, brave, reckless, darling girls! Oh come here and let me see you’re all right!” It was Father Fergus. He was, you see, one of the passengers from the mail coach. And with him was the Very Reverend Bishop of North Queensland, scruffy and covered in mud but beaming and looking more excited and alive than a bishop on a country road in the middle of a robbery has a right to look. This was proving to be the most exciting afternoon of his life!
And beside the bishop, could it really be – Mrs Spinnaker? She rushed to the girls and gave them the biggest hug. She was crying despite her happy laugh: her dress was stained with mud where the bushrangers had made them kneel in the road but she had never been so proud of any of her pupils before. They were true Saint Brigid’s girls!
And standing behind the bishop and Mrs Spinnaker, looking at once lifted up and covered in happiness and joy, were two other people whom the girls recognised – not immediately, but after several wonderful moments of struggling between hope and fear that this was all too good to be true.
“Daddy!” cried Katie, flinging herself at the tall, thin man with thick blond hair and blue, twinkling eyes. She had last seen her father five years ago; she had only the barest memory of him: of his wonderful, kind smile, his encouraging laugh and his stories as he put her to bed at night. Emily couldn’t remember even that about her father but her face lit up with joy and wonder when she looked at the beautiful woman beside her father.
“Mummy!” she cried and she was in her mother’s arms and hoisted into the air and wrapped all around with her mother’s kind arms. Emily said afterwards that she might not have recognised her mother but for the fact that she looked so very much like the sister she loved.
There were so many questions and so much to say and so little time to say it all in. The girls remembered their manners of course – Mrs Spinnaker was so proud of the girls – and introduced Allunga and Baringah, then the Chinese boys and Richard to the bishop first and then to Mrs Spinnaker and their parents. If it were a little unusual for a courtly old bishop to be shaking hands on a rough bush track in the middle of the rain forest with naked warriors as if he were at a garden party then no one seemed to mind. The thing that Mrs Spinnaker and Fr Gordon and Mrs Patricia Bland noticed immediately was the gracious way the girls treated their Aboriginal friends and the Chinese brothers. They loved the way the girls fussed over Richard and stopped the bleeding on his poor nose – and used some water from the creek to try to sponge the blood from his shirt and pants. Of course the passengers in the coach had seen everything as it happened and they marvelled at the bravery of everyone who had come to their aid.
The mail coach finally set off for the Palmer River – late, to be sure, but the mail and the driver and guard were safe and would carry the good news of the incident on the road to all the miners on the Palmer River . All the friends headed the ten kilometres back to Cooktown. There were only two horses of course and it was quickly decided that Richard and Father Fergus would ride back and give the news to the police. They had a good description of the bushrangers and knew that without horses they couldn’t get far.
“Don’t forget to tell the police that one of the bushrangers has a very pink bum,” called Emily to Richard as he headed his horse back down the road, “And tell them that it’s much bruised at the moment by a cricket bat!”
Everyone laughed at this although it was the one moment that day that Mrs Spinnaker thought that her little pupil might not quite be a lady in all things. Katie caught the shocked look on Mrs Spinnaker’s face and decided that perhaps she shouldn’t mention the girls’ happy habit of touring the bars of Cooktown at closing time to invite the miners back to the Mission for tea!
Everyone was excited, then Emily turned from her mother for a moment and gasped with a sob, “Katie, they’re gone!”
And they were. Allunga and Baringah had been beside them on the road at one moment, shaking hands and joining in the excitement of their delivery and rescue – and then they had melted into the deep green of the rainforest and were gone. When the girls talked about that precious afternoon afterwards, it was always the one thing that they wished had happened differently. Allunga and Baringah deserved to be treated as the heroes of the afternoon; instead, they were never there to receive the congratulations of everyone whom they had helped by their quiet courage and skill.
Through the whole ten kilometres back to town, the little party of travellers talked and talked and listened and laughed and cried. There was so much to tell: no one wanted the journey to be a metre shorter. Here, very briefly, is the story that was told over that long walk that hot afternoon.
The two missionaries, Fr Gordon and his lovely wife Patricia were indeed given up for lost in the Orinoco jungles. They were exploring places no European had ever gone before. Then, one afternoon during the rainy season, the canoe in which they were travelling from one village to another was swept over a waterfall. Their native guide was drowned but they were rescued. Much of their luggage had been lost, unfortunately, [including Gordon ’s black silk hat and Dolores’s silk parasol]. Native people downstream of the waterfall had recovered the luggage and the body of the native guide. They guessed that everyone in the canoe had perished and they had sent the hat and parasol on its long journey back to the sea and over the ocean to England. The sad message was that the great Orinoco River had swallowed the good missionaries and they were lost forever.
While all of this was happening, the missionaries remained in the jungle, suffering great danger but doing great good too. They learned the local language; they built a little hospital, a church and a school. Soon, all the gentlemen natives were wearing pants and the ladies were wearing frocks which Patricia showed them how to sew. They were coming to church on Sunday morning and some also came for Evensong. Patricia and Gordon served for four happy years before thinking that they should perhaps travel home to England and their responsibilities there. During this time, they had sent letters downstream to the coast but it appears that none of these letters arrived safely. The postal service on the Orinoco proved terribly unreliable.
Imagine how astonished they were to arrive back in England and find that everyone thought that they were dead. What was worse, they learned that the girls had gone away to sea – and that they had been drowned in a terrible storm. Mrs Spinnaker was heartbroken – not just at the loss of the girls but because her brother, Captain Yardarm, had survived the wreck – and every Captain would feel that the safety of his crew was the most important thing of all.
This was a terrible fortnight for everyone and there were many tears as Fr Gordon and Mrs Patricia Bland met every day with Mrs Spinnaker, mother and father anxious to hear every detail of how their little girls had been at school. They spent hours as well with Captain Yardarm who told them wonderful stories about how brave and good the girls were on board the Orange Pekoe. And then, so unexpectedly and wonderfully, came the good news that the girls and Father Fergus had survived the cyclone as well and were under the protection of the Bishop of North Queensland in faraway Cooktown. That very afternoon, Fr Gordon and Mrs Bland decided to set off and find them there. Mrs Spinnaker would go with them and bring them back to the safety of Saint Brigid’s.
Even travelling as quickly they could on the fastest sailing ship in the fleet, the three travellers faced months of travel before they could find their way to Cooktown. From Liverpool they could board a ship headed to Townsville; from there, it would be possible to pick up the mail boat to Cooktown which sailed every week. Although they could not know it at the time, at the very moment that the girls were celebrating Christmas with their friends at the mission, the boat carrying their parents and Mrs Spinnaker was sailing through the same dangerous waters and coral reefs where the Orange Pekoe had come to grief the year before. And whom should they meet in Townsville but the good bishop [who turned out to have been a school friend of Fr Gordon when both were boys] and Father Fergus who was staying at the bishop’s palace on the hill? These five good people had come on to Cooktown as soon as they could with great hope in their hearts.
Imagine how they felt when they arrived back at the rectory to find Katie’s note saying that the girls had gone off to capture the bushrangers! The bishop was amazed; Father Fergus was fearful; Mrs Spinnaker was imagining all sorts of terrible consequences. The only people who were not concerned [and the only people who expected the girls to be successful, by the way] were Fr Gordon and Mrs Patricia Bland. For people who bravely paddled up dangerous rivers and persuaded naked savages to put on a pair of trousers it seemed perfectly natural that their children would be willing and able to take on a small gang of bushrangers. They quickly caught the mail coach heading up to the diggings, expecting to find the girls somewhere along the road.
The girls were tired by the time they neared the town and Fr Gordon hoisted Emily up on to his shoulders. Patricia wouldn’t let go of Katie’s hand; they walked together all through the afternoon and felt that they never ever wanted to be parted again.
“They’re coming,” shouted a young voice as they entered the town – and nothing had prepared them for the welcome they received. You see Richard and Father Fergus had ridden straight to the police station with the news and the word about what happened on the road went out through the town like a rippling tide. Father Fergus, Richard and all the police officers waited at the edge of town to form the official welcoming group. The bars and pubs emptied, the whole town came out to cheer, the streets were thick with people, all of them cheering and waving. The Chinese boys in the town rushed forward and put Wing, Wang and Yong on to their shoulders where they waved the cricket bats and the shot gun like trophies. Richard was kissed by all the painted ladies and ended the procession red of face but grinning. It was too late in the afternoon for police to be heading off into swamp and rainforest to chase the bushrangers; all of that could wait for the morning.
That night there was the biggest, happiest party at the Mission Hall that you could imagine. The girls, their mother and Mrs Spinnaker, worked to charm some cakes out of the wood stove but everyone who came to the party brought something. The story of what had happened on the road was called for again and again. Everyone agreed that the Aboriginal hunters deserved special praise and thanks. There were vigorous cheers for Richard and the Chinese boys and many speeches. Richard gave the kindest speech, saying that the plan had always been Emily’s and it was just bad luck that the bushrangers got away. They were the bravest and best girls anyone could wish for – and the best of friends. There were many tears when Fr Gordon and his wife lifted the girls up and hugged them while the party cheered.
That night, the bishop, Father Fergus and Mrs Spinnaker found a room at the pub so Katie and Emily and their proud parents could spend some special time on their own. Katie and Emily shyly showed their mum and dad the hat and parasol that they had carried all round the world, through cyclone and shipwreck and crocodiles and cassowaries to keep as a memento of the parents they had lost. When everyone had gone, Mother tucked the girls into bed and Daddy told the girls a story; they fell asleep as happy and as blessed as any little girls can be.
Now perhaps you are wondering what happened to all these people later on. In a little while, Wing, Wang and Yong decided that their mine shaft at the Palmer River was probably finished giving up its gold. The three cousins had made a nice little fortune; if they had gone back to southern China they would have been quite rich, I think – but then there were warlords and landlords there who robbed poor people and their fortune would not be their own for long. They decided instead to stay on in North Queensland and have a farm of their own. This was terrible, hard work, cutting down forest and clearing the soil of tree stumps and roots, but they managed to build their farm and grow enough good vegetables to support themselves comfortably. Wing, being the eldest, was entrusted to go home to China and bring back with him their aging parents – and a bride for each of them [although Yong had always wanted to ask Emily to marry him]. They lived very happily in North Queensland and their great grand children are still there today and still brave, decent and hard working, good people.
Mrs Spinnaker took a little while to get used to the idea that they were all living on the frontier and not at home in an English classroom. She was terrified one morning in the rectory kitchen when a giant snake emerged from behind the wood stove – and Katie had calmly picked it up by the tail and hoisted it outside into the mango tree – where it joined the delinquent flying foxes and possums. She was also amazed when a grizzled miner arrived on the verandah late one evening asking if Miss Emily could pull a sting ray barb out of his foot. He had stood on the stingray in shallow water while he was fishing near the jetty. He was obviously in terrible pain and his foot had swollen like a balloon. Emily ignored the poor miner’s bad language and gently and tenderly worked with a sharp needle to worry the barb out of the miner’s foot. No doctor could have done it better, Mrs Spinnaker decided.
The interesting thing is that Mrs Spinnaker quickly grew to love the north as much as the girls did. After cold, dismal, dreary England, Queensland was warm and lively and exciting. She needed a job, however, and the bishop was delighted to have such an experienced teacher suddenly wanting work. He asked Mrs Spinnaker to open a school for girls in the mountains at Herberton and that’s just where the good lady took herself. Katie and Emily donated the precious gold nuggets which Wing, Wong and Yong had given them on their first day in Cooktown so that the girls of Mrs Spinnaker’s school could have books and pencils. The school she opened there was famous in the North for the goodness of its girls and the kindness of its headmistress.
About six months after all these adventures, the gold at the Palmer River gave out just as suddenly as it had been found. The crowds of people who lived and worked there went to other gold fields in the state; the tents and slab huts on the Palmer River disappeared and Cooktown became a sleepy little town again. The Mission was closed and the bishop asked Father Fergus if he would go to be the priest in Cairns – the city to the south. It was just as exciting a place as Cooktown [although a little more respectable and less noisy most nights of the week]. Father Fergus went there as the priest at Saint John’s Church and he was soon appointed the Archdeacon. He never went to Sydney to open a school as he had planned and not a day went past without the good, old man thanking God for the cyclone that had placed him in the most beautiful part of the world.
And what of Katie and Emily and their brave missionary parents? The bishop asked Father Gordon if he would go to another tropical city in his diocese, Mackay, and open a mission there for the cane cutters and kanaka boys who worked the sugar cane fields of that frontier town. It seemed a fine way to stay near enough to their friends and soon Fr Gordon and his family were busy with their mission work in a place that really needed them. Katie and Emily had the chance for just a while to be little girls again. They missed their Chinese friends; they missed the excitement of the pubs of Cooktown and all the challenges of the Mission but they loved more than anything the kindness and care of their parents whom they had seen so little of while they were growing up.
In time, Katie grew into a fine young lady and lots of the sugar cane planters wanted to call on her for afternoon tea or take her out for rides on Sunday afternoon. She found that one of the kindest and best of these young men was a cattle man who had a big property far to the north and the west. At twenty-one, Katie married Alex and became the mistress of Faraway Downs near Cloncurry. Wing, Wang and Yong came from Atherton for the service and Emily was her bridesmaid; her father read the service in Holy Trinity Church, Mackay, with great solemnity. Katie had a wonderful life in the ranges and monsoon plains of the north and liked nothing more than the chance to welcome her parents or Father Fergus to Faraway Downs during the dry season.
Emily had quite a different career. She thought of being a school teacher, a crocodile hunter or a house wife and there was one very brave young sea captain whose boat spent the cyclone season in Mackay who even proposed marriage to her. But Emily, as much as she liked the young man, had set her heart on being a doctor. She went away to Sydney to train and then came back to Townsville. She was the first lady doctor in the whole of North Queensland. Mrs Spinnaker was fairly bursting with pride when Dr Emily came to see her at the school in the mountains and she introduced Emily to the girls at assembly as an example of what any good girl could accomplish in this world.
Now perhaps you are wondering what happened to Mervyn and Dudley Dursley? They were never caught by the police because they fled through the night over the mountains and down to the coast south of Cooktown. It was wild country and there were times when they both wished that they had stayed in the hills and continued their bushranging days. But they had suffered terribly from the spears of the Aboriginal hunters and the cricket bats wielded by the Chinese boys. Their biggest fright, however, was coming up against Katie and Emily again. Who would have thought that the girls would arrive to frustrate and annoy them yet again? They blamed the girls for all their misfortunes and boasted that one day soon they were going back to Cooktown to settle scores with those girls if it were the last thing that they did. In the end, however, the bullies decided that tropical North Queensland was too hot for them just at that moment and they needed a change of scene.
To their very great fortune, they managed to encounter a boat on that lonely shore headed for Port Douglas and the south. The boys told the kind sailors who took them aboard that they were miners who had been set upon by a tribe of wild natives and a horde of rascally Chinamen who beat them mercilessly, stole all their gold [and Mervyn’s pants] and then drove them into the crocodile swamps. The tender hearted sailors offered to give them passage to Sydney – something that they soon regretted because once they were safely on board and had had a tot of rum they became the swaggering bullies they had always been. They repaid the kindness of the sailors who had rescued them by stealing from all their kit bags just before they reached Sydney and jumping overboard with their treasure into Sydney Harbour.
The first stops the boys made in the city was at the pie and cake shops closest to the harbour. They ate until they were bilious and then they faced the difficult task of earning a living. They didn’t want to work, of course, and there were few lonely roads about the city where they could bushrange travellers and few Chinese miners whom they could insult and injure. What to do? They solved the problem by becoming members of a Trade Union – The Painters and Dockers Union. Here they could earn an income by swiping stuff on the docks, bribing corrupt policemen and loitering in pubs in Woolloomooloo.
In the bars of these pubs they told their stories to the other patrons in return for drinks of beer. Their fellow drinkers heard how brave they were at tormenting little girls and bishops; they heard about the great potty throw; they heard how they had scarred for life a mob of Chinese sailors in a tattoo shop in Malacca. In time, Mervyn and Dudley became founding members of the Right Wing Faction of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party. In middle age, Mervyn became the national secretary of his Union where he put to good use all the skills he had learned on the Cooktown road. Dudley did even better; he stood for Parliament and was appointed Attorney General in the State government. He liked to tell the House how his experience in the transport industry, in legal matters and the mining industry were a great preparation for service as a Minister of the Crown. His last political office was a Senator for New South Wales in the new Australian Parliament.
It’s just as well that Dudley and Mervyn Dursley never crossed paths with those of the girls – although there was an anxious moment one day on the Sydney docks not long after the boys had found their calling in the union movement. Mervyn and Dudley called on the captain of the Earl Grey, a beautiful sailing ship, looking for something by way of a bribe to make sure that the ship’s cargo was loaded promptly and there were no accidents. It was their common way of forcing money out of busy captains who couldn’t afford to be long delayed in port. Most captains found themselves paying something to the union thugs who came aboard but not this captain. It was none other than Captain Yardarm. His heroism in saving all the crew of the Orange Pekoe from the cyclone had been rewarded by a gold medal from the Queen and the command of another fine sailing ship. He recognised Dudley and Mervyn before they recognised him and the furious captain remembered their last encounter in the captain’s cabin when Dudley had emptied the contents of the potty all over the Captain’s bottle green velvet jacket and linen shirt.
In a moment, Captain Yardarm had whistled for the bosun and the two villains were clapped in irons. Captain Yardarm had heard from Captain Flint of The Takeaway exactly how these boys had behaved on his ship and Captain Yardarm believed [rightly of course] that the oceans would be a safer place if these two villains were fed to the sharks in the harbour. Deep down, however, Captain Yardarm was a kind and gentle person and he decided instead to summon the whole crew of the Earl Grey on to the deck. Ten of the crew were then sent below to bring out all the potties they could find. You should have heard those bullies wail when on the count of three all the potties were tipped over Dudley and Mervyn. The smelly bullies were then relieved of their chains and pushed overboard into Sydney Harbour. They swam ashore angry and humiliated. You can be sure that that story went around the pubs of Woolloomooloo very smartly too.
The good people of North Queensland didn’t hear this story until months later when Captain Yardarm wrote a full account to his sister, Mrs Spinnaker, and she happily passed the news to all her friends. No one was more gratified to hear the story of justice done at last than the bishop himself who had spent a horrible time on his knees on the Cooktown Road while Dudley and Mervyn robbed the coach. Emily was probably just as happy as the bishop to hear the story although her joy was mixed with the bitter disappointed that she had not been there to watch the fun.
The girls had many adventures in the North and never tired of the beauty of the place and its very different people. Their love for the North was all the more special because they had found something so good in terrible circumstances on that frightening morning of the cyclone when they came struggling through the surf and into the lagoon after the wreck of the Orange Pekoe.