Jacky O’Toole turned the chunky old key in the lock and opened the wooden door. Already there was a congregation on the verandah waiting for their afternoon ale. Bernie Costa wiped his nose on the back of a grimy hand as he pushed past Jacky, looking for his regular spot at the end of the bar. He was followed closely by his blue heeler Spud.
“Get that mutt outta here,” Jacky hollered. Spud turned around, bared his teeth and uttered a low growl. “Get orf it Spud,” Jacky snarled back.
The dog wagged his tail and lowered his head, sauntered over to Jacky and leaned against the publican’s knee waiting for his usual head scratch. Jacky complied and the dog trotted back to his master, sitting curled up underneath Costa’s stool.
“Ow yer goin’ Jacky,” Kerryn Murphy said with a wink. His twin brother Patrick slapped Jacky on the back as he walked past.
The farmers, tired from their early start and hard slog, were firmly ensconced on their usual pews, frosty glass tankards in front of them. They discussed farm business, and before too long they could hear the three-thirty bell sounding over the road. A dozen children poured out of the school gates, laughing and kicking stones on the dirt road. Some crossed over and peered in cheekily through the pub’s dusty window.
“Get ‘ome George Morrow, ya cheeky beggar,” yelled Jacky. But it was more of the same good natured bluster he reserved for boys and dogs for whom he felt a familiar fondness.
Following a few yards behind George was his little sister Elizabeth who had started school just a few days earlier.
The children would all rush home and change into their work clothes to do chores as quickly as they could. Then most would run off to the Murphy farm for a dip in their dam. The Murphys accommodated the kids with a diving board and shelter shed. Although kind, it wasn’t completely altruistic. The Murphys were occasionally glad the youngsters visited, helping with a few chores of their own. The children were rewarded with a penny for hot chips on the way home after their swim. It saved the children the trouble of rummaging in rubbish bins for discarded refund bottles along the way for their chip money. All in all, a happy mutual arrangement.
The February summer was particularly hot this year; Jacky was not complaining. His beer sales were on the up. He was hoping if profits were good enough he would buy some secondhand lino for the bare boards in his bar or maybe even some carpet for the ladies lounge. He was thinking of replacing the cracked forty-fives in the juke box too, but that was pie in the sky. They would have to make do with Elvis, Slim Dusty and the Easybeats for a few more years.
On the other hand, hot summer meant a downturn in the crops.
“It’s all a bit of a balancing act, innit!” said Bernie as Jacky pulled him another beer.
“Yer, a reckon,” Jacky said. “Don’t know how you blokes do it year in, year out.”
“Me neither,” Bernie grumbled. “S’long as I get enough to keep them bastards from the bank off me front porch.”
Come five-thirty the blokes began to drift out the door and on their way home for dinner and early turn in. O’Toole kept the bar open for another hour or so, as was the law of the land; and that’s how each day unfolded usually.
Patrick was swigging the last of his drink and mentally preparing for the walk home. An uncharacteristic ‘d and d’ left him without a licence. Kerryn refused to drive his brother anywhere, said a lesson had to be learned.
“Besides, not your taxi mate,” he said when he laid down the law.
On the other hand Patrick was feeling fitter than he had for years so he was not too put out by the lesson.
Paddy had barely set foot on the verandah when the fire siren began its winding up pitch halfway across town.
The switch was flicked and O’Toole’s bar emptied in a split second. Half the town ran the length of the main street to the fire station.
Despite his bulk, Bernie Costa got there first. He expected to see his second-in-command winding the siren handle. Instead, the nine-year-old lad who had peered in the pub window earlier was struggling to wind the lever around. Bernie braced himself to rip into the boy but checked himself when he saw tears streaming and the lad’s mouth pulled down in a terrified grimace.
“What’s going on, Georgie?” Costa asked.
George let the handle go. Momentarily he was mesmerised by it, watching it slowly wind around.
The boy was sobbing in front of the gathered men.
“Lizbeth, she’s gone,” he said.
The simple pronouncement, innocuous in itself, sent cold fear through everyone who heard.
“She ran off down Bateman’s Reef Road,” George answered, fear growing in his eyes.
George’s shoulders sagged.
“She was following me everywhere so I told her to bugger orf. But she wouldn’t so I pushed her and she fell over and skinned her knee. And me mate Reggie laughed. Lizzy was cryin’ and she got up and ran down Bateman’s Reef Road!”
The emphasis was not lost on anyone.
“Why would she go that way?” Kerryn weighed in.
“It’s a shortcut home,” George answered guiltily.
“You kids’ve been told not to use that road,” Kerryn said angrily.
“Time for that later,” Bernie interrupted. “Right now we need to find her.”
Like the good captain that he was, Bernie barked orders to the gathered people.
“Paddy, set up base. Maps, list all searchers and where they’re going. Frank, doorknock for as many people as you can. Stop by Kurt’s. Might need to call in some help from the police. Smithy, we will need lights if the search goes on for longer than a coupla hours. Won’t hurt to be prepared. George, go home. Go straight home. Not by the reef track. Make sure Lizzy isn’t there. And wait! If she turns up, call the station immediately.”
The boy nodded and ran off as fast as his legs would carry him.
The town was quickly mobilised, with groups of five searching specific areas of the old diggings, leaving white crosses on trees, rocks, anywhere visible. Bernie made sure the only one in each group to call Lizzy’s name was a woman. He was very specific on that point.
Smithy tore off in his FJ ute. First stop was the hospital where he borrowed a diesel generator and lights; then the Royal Hotel.
“Better light the lantern Jacky,” Smithy called from the doorway. “Lil’ Lizbeth Morrow’s gone missing up at Bateman’s Reef.”
Jacky immediately took the hurricane lamp hanging from the verandah architrave. He shook it a little to see if there was still kerosene in it and fumbled in his pocket for matches. Almost reverently, he placed the lantern on the bar. With shaking hands he lit the wick before taking it back outside and hanging it in the familiar place.
Even though Jacky was a bit beyond a search these days, his role to keep the lantern burning while the search was on was no less important to the town’s people. He remembered with stark clarity the last such search. That light burned for over two years while hope lived on in someone’s heart.
Then one day Bernie told him to take it down.
Smithy headed back to the fire station with the generator. ‘Why, he wondered, ‘does the clock go around faster when you don’t have the time to spare?’ Already the sun was sinking towards the hills, casting shadows across the most western part of town. Once the shadows reached the edge of the Murphys’ farm they would have to accept the search would continue into the night.
Paddy and Kerryn each led a group. This was how they usually found themselves, even in team sports. While identical, they also displayed the uncanny ability to know exactly what the other was doing and so were ideal for ‘twin’ groups.
Without uttering a word, Paddy beckoned his group off to the left of the track near a pile of rusty machinery; its original use was anyone’s guess. Kerryn’s group took a dog-leg track off to the right, uphill and towards the mullock heaps. Both ways were somewhat treacherous, with tunnels shooting off in every direction, some collapsed in places and leaving veritable bear traps.
“Watch out for drop bears,” Kerryn called after his brother. Of course no one laughed and he did not expect they would. It was just something to say.
Every now and again the group could hear women calling out to Lizzy.
Walking shoulder to shoulder, Paddy’s group made slow progress in the growing darkness.
“Waddaya reckon, Flip?” he said to Philip Potter.
“Head south-west for ten minutes, then maybe double back adjacent to the track?”
Potter nodded. “Yup. Reckon!”
In the distance: “Lizzy. Liiizzzyyy, come out now please.”
Paddy watched in the corner of his eye the lights of other groups bobbing along as they searched adjacent areas.
Back at the station Bernie Costa received updates from each completed area, marking them on his map of the region. Deep down, he felt they would not find the girl. Deeper still, he was certain she was hiding in the same place as his boy. But he tried to fight down that sad certainty.
As the twilight faded, Smithy cranked up the generator and lights near the intersection of main and Bateman’s Reef Road. The ladies’ auxiliary set up chairs and cups of tea for searchers taking a break.
The sole police officer for the town, Kurt Hutchings, tried to call in extra help from the next town, but the two-man station was caught up in a family brawl of eight strapping lads. He cursed under his breath and again called headquarters who were promising search and rescue back up if the search was fruitless after further hour.
“I dunno Merl,” he said, taking a cuppa from the woman. “When you’re posted to the country, you really are on your own.”
Bernie Costa rocked up in the brigade’s scout vehicle with two Army lads, Andy Johnson and Malcolm Beckinsall, just back in town on leave.
“All hands on deck now, I reckon,” he told Kurt. “We can take the Blind Vein track. That one’s the least likely but it’s the only one not covered by the other groups.”
Kurt nodded, swigged the last of his tea and tipped the tea leaves out on the grass beside the road.
“Right ho then. Let’s go.”
Bernie handed his map over to Smithy. “Keep track, mate.”
“Andy, Mal, this way,” Bernie called, then whistled. Spud jumped from the tray of the scout ute.
The dog knew the deal, running ahead of the group.
“She’s been missing four hours now,” Bernie said, shaking his head and looking at the ground. “Soon it’ll get cold. She’s only wearing bathers and a towel. We better get to her quick.”
They trudged past the rusted pile of junk where Paddy’s group was still combing through shrubby undergrowth. They were about to pass Kerryn’s area when they heard a yell.
“Over hear, need a stretcher,” Kerryn yelled in the distance.
“Have you found her?” Bernie called back.
“No mate. Sorry. Vicki’s fallen down a hole. Broke ankle I reckon but okayish. Can you get Smithy to organise a stretcher. We’re just getting her out now,” he called back.
The flame of hope flickered then settled back to a dim sputter. Bernie was angry at no one in particular; just at his own response.
Bernie called it in on his two-way. “They’ll be with you in twenty,” he yelled into the darkness.
“No worries,” Kerryn called back.
“You right with that Kerryn mate?”
“Yep, all covered. Vicki’s okay. In pain but she’s good!”
Bernie led his group further into the bush.
“Take it slow, boys,” he grumbled. “No use to anyone if you fall down a bloody hole.” He was concerned about the accident and not at all angry with the victim, just a bit frustrated that a group was out of action while they lifted her out of the area. He kept hoping he would get a message over the two-way that Georgie Morrow found his sister at home, but that would have happened hours earlier and he knew it was a foolish hope.
“A desperate mind will grasp at anything,” he mumbled.
“What was that Bernie?” Andy asked.
“Nothin’ Andy. Never mind.”
The group walked abreast deeper into the bush for a further hour, quietly calling Lizzie’s name, listening intently for any sign.
A thicket of pink heather shifted beside Malcolm as he made his way past a fallen tree log.
“Lizzy?” he called, startled. “Lizzy, don’t run away. We’re here to help,” he called out.
Adam shone his torch towards Malcolm in time to see a shadow jump out from the brush but nothing more.
“Quiet,” Bernie commanded.
They listened to the steady thump as a wallaby tore off into the bush.
They slumped collectively.
A full moon, high in the sky, cast eerie shadows through growing mist.
“Hot days, colder nights,” Bernie muttered. “Better start making our way back. Take a break and try again at first light.”
They grouped, then spread again to retrace their way but off to one side.
“Spud, here boy,” he yelled.
The dog appeared as though from nowhere, panting and wagging his tail.
They stepped out from the thicket onto the main path that led back to Blind Vein Track, but Adam misjudged his step and tripped over the graded ridge of the track.
“Oh shit,” he called and landed heavily on the gravelly verge.
Kurt darted forward and helped the youth to his feet. His hands were bleeding from scrapes but no other damage. Even so, Kurt suggested Adam sit for a minute or two at the side of the road.
“Won’t hurt to take a break for a second, get our bearings,” he said.
Bernie crouched next to Adam.
“Pull up a pew, Mal,” he said.
“Wadda ya reckon our chances are?” Malcolm said after a minute of silence.
“Don’t ask,” Kurt answered for Bernie. “Been too long. She’ll be cold, scared. Dunno, maybe pray for a miracle.”
Spud was dancing around the group enthusiastically.
“Siddown,” Kurt growled at the dog although he was ignored. Bernie whistled to the dog quietly to far better effect.
“Here boy,” he said.
The dog sat next to Bernie and dropped something on the ground.
Adam put his torch beam on the object and gasped.
“It’s her shoe,” he exclaimed.
Bernie reached over and grabbed it from beside the dog’s feet.
It was a typical black school shoe but Bernie recognised it immediately. He grabbed it from the dog, horrified to find the bones of a little foot inside.
“She weren’t wearing shoes. She was wearing sandals. This isn’t hers.” He could not keep the tears from his voice.
“Whose then?” Adam asked thoughtlessly.
“Shut up,” Kurt told him. “Stop, think!”
Bernie took the radio from his belt.
“We may have something Smithy. Nothing certain, but we need as many groups as we can up here near Blind Vein track.”
“Got that,” came the reply through static. “Might be say ten minutes.”
Bernie’s mind went into overdrive.
“You remember where that wallaby was, Malcolm, Andy?”
Malcolm nodded. “Yeah, next to a tree fall. I marked it with a cross and …”
He stopped, looking away guiltily.
“Drew a wallaby next to it.”
“Bit daft, mate, but I could just kiss ya.”
“Get orf it.”
Bernie clapped him on the shoulder. He told Adam to wait for other searchers.
“We’ll be heading north west. I reckon about five miles. Tell ‘em to keep it calm and quiet but not silent.”
The three men again headed off into the bush trying to follow the white crosses as best they could.
“Lucky they’re not bread crumbs,” Kurt muttered as he heard more wallabies pounding off deeper into the bush.
They found the wallaby tree with greater ease than they expect.
“What now?” Malcolm asked.
Bernie thought for a moment. He told Malcolm to wait by the tree while he and Kurt walked off into the direction that the wallaby had fled. Perhaps serendipity kicked in, or perhaps Spud was a far better trained dog than even Bernie had hoped for. Within metres of the tree, Spud’s nose went to the ground and he took off with confidence. It was all the men could do to keep up with the dog, but then he disappeared behind a mound. They walked around the small mullock pile without seeing the dog.
“Yeah Spud. Here boy,” Bernie yelled for a good twenty minutes. By that time they were joined by the Murphy twins and the remainder of their groups.
Twenty people fanned out, with the mound at the hub of their search. The dog suddenly appeared again.
“Everyone’s lights over here,” he yelled. They all made their way back to the mound, spotlighting the dog and waiting for the clue they needed.
Spud seemed to enjoy the game, running around and around the mullock heap.
“This is bloody useless,” Kurt finally spat out.
“Just give ‘im a minute, Kurt.” Bernie’s hope was again sparking up.
He was rewarded. Spud darted beneath a huge box thorn bush.
“Here, gimme a hand,” Bernie yelled.
Paddy and Kerryn grabbed ropes from their kit. They tied them around the trunk. With the help of a half dozen of their mates, pulled to-bilio. Their aim wasn’t to pull it out. That would have been a pointless effort; but just to pull it side. Sure enough, the side of the heap was pitted with rabbit holes, but deeper in was a much larger hole. A small cavern was formed by collapsed burrows and the effect of time and erosion.
Spud sat at the entrance, holding another shoe in his mouth.
Behind the dog, they could see the little girl lying down, blue from the cold.
As Malcolm crawled under the bush on his belly, he did not feel the thorns. His mind willed that he would find a pulse. He was almost up to her when he heard her whine in fear.
“It’s alright honey. We’re here to take you home. You now Spud? You know Spud’s master Mr Costa. They’re all out here waiting to take you home.”
The little girl crawled out to him stiffly, crying and shivering.
Behind her, Malcolm could see a small boy’s clothing and perhaps a hint of ivory sticking out from the pile. But Malcolm knew these artefacts could wait just a little longer.
They wrapped Lizzy in blankets, gave her water, and took her back to base camp where an ambulance waited. The atmosphere was of elation, although somewhat muted by the collective exhaustion both physical and emotional.
Back at base, Bernie sat beside the little girl, making sure her blankets kept her warm while they waited for the ambulance.
“Mr Costa. I am very, very sorry,” Lizzy said tearfully to her rescuer.
He regarded the little girl for a moment, deciding he was more relieved than angry.
“Why did you go out there? Why down in that hole?” he asked Lizzy. “We might not have found you.”
Lizzy told him she got confused and when it got dark she was well and truly lost.
“I was getting cold and I couldn’t find my way home. Then the little boy said he had a house I could stay in until someone came,” she said simply. “I told him I didn’t think anyone would come, but he said they would. He said the lantern was lit. I don’t know what he meant."