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They had been on the road for what seemed like forever; Marissa Devlin, her seven-year-old half brother, Riley and Riley's brave and incredibly protective cattle dog, a Queensland Blue Heeler, called Dusty. A number of times on the long trek from Brisbane, the State capital, through the fertile central plains of that vast State, the fiercely loyal Dusty, one of the most intelligent breeds there is, had put himself between his 'family' and anyone who looked or acted in the least bit suspicious; indeed anyone who had given the intrepid trio a second or third glance.
Dusty was a splendid guard dog, not to mention the fact he could talk, something that gave Marissa so much comfort she always invited Dusty into the think tank. Her rationale was she needed backup and some reassurance she hadn't made one huge mistake uprooting them from a fairly 'normal' life to hit the wild blue yonder. At least Riley and Dusty were loving it. To them it was all a bit of a game. Neither of them fully comprehended the gamble she had taken.
In another life Dusty had done what cattle dogs do best, working and driving stock on a North Queensland cattle run; these days he was semi-retired, having taken on the responsible job of looking after his 'family." Cattle dogs generally were oneperson dogs. Nowadays Dusty answered to her, though he was still officially Riley's dog. Before that? Marissa's mind had to shut down on that one. There was simply too much pain to go there. The past had to be shoved awayalthough wasn't the past always there inside her, much like her heart and her lungs? But she had to focus on what lay ahead.
What lay ahead, came up on cue; a signpost, so weathered it could have dated back to a prehistoric time, listing destinations she had never heard of, let alone could get her tongue around.
Appilayarowie?Balukyambut? Cocatatocallen? Aboriginal and why not? This was Dreamtime country. From the severe cant on the signpost she didn't think the directions would be very reliable. It would work just as well to pull a blindfold over Riley's eyes and ask him to point.
Where's your sense of adventure, girl?
She was hoping to find it the very next day. At the moment her anxieties were outweighing her positive feelings.
A stand of many trunked gums were coming up on her right. Time for a break. Her arms were quivering from the time she had spent holding the wheel. She drove the utility-fire engine red with a painted black panther at full stretch on the driver's sidesupposedly a bonus according to the car salesmanoff the endless Outback highway, and parked it in the shade of the ubiquitous eucalypts. She had read somewhereshe sometimes thought she could win a prize for triviathat eucalypts, all six hundred recorded species of them, made up the great bulk of the continent's natural tree-life. Eucalypts were arguablynot in the fire seasonone of Australia's finest gifts to the world.
In the heat, the gums'narrow blue-grey drooping leaves denser at the bottom than the top, were turned edge on to the sun. Scant shade or not they gave off a wonderful aromatic fragrance. It immediately soothed her much like the hauntingly sweet native boronia oil she used to sprinkle on her pillow at night. The bush had such a marvellous smell. It had always been one of her great pleasures to breathe in the warm gushes of natural perfumes; the lovely lemon-scented gums, the grevilleas and acacias, the tremendous variety of native flowering shrubs and ground covers, the crush of wild flowers underfoot. She had found nothing more entrancing than wandering the rolling hillsides around her Brisbane home, mid-Winter, early Spring, when the hills were alight with golden wattles, mile upon mile. Wattle was the national floral emblem and she adored the fragrance, but it had always given her cousin, Lucy, hay fever. Not that Lucy would have joined her in her wanderings through the splendid isolation anyway.
They were well into the great South West of the State, the real Outback. It was almost like driving onto a new planet. One to replace poor old downgraded Pluto. No wattles here, but a burnished yellow ocean of Spinifex that went a long way towards concealing the parched reality of the landscape. The tall seed stalks glinted silver in the brilliant, dancing light. More than once she had felt glad she hadn't ventured into this endless expanse alone. No wonder they called it the Never Never. She wasn't entirely sure the spirits of the place welcomed them. Instinct told her they were watching. As a consequence, primal little fears had begun gnawing at her mind. They hadn't passed a single vehicle for days to break the eerie notion they had entered not only another world, but also a different dimension.
City born and bred she was gripped by the extraordinary mystique of this vast, arid region. The very air was saturated with it, but she recognised the mood of the Guardian Spirits mightn't always be pleasant. She suspected, too, the magnetic pull would get stronger and stronger the closer one came to the Wild Heart, the dead centre of the ancient continent and who knows, maybe the heart of the world? Every day they were travelling deeper into the riverine desert known as the Channel Country, the home of the cattle kings, bordering the great Simpson Desert.
That was the reason she was out here: to land a job as a governess on one of the Channel Country stations so she could keep Riley with her until she felt he was old enough and secure enough in himself to go off to boarding school. That would take pretty much all of what remained of the nest egg her maternal grandmother had left her, but she didn't take her responsibilities lightly. Besides she was grateful to the great force called Destiny that had brought Riley into her life.
She was certainly qualified to teach. Overqualified perhaps for young children, though teaching the very young was an important job. She had a Bachelor of Arts diploma, plus Bachelor of Education and had begun studying part-time for her Master's. The advent of Riley into her life had put that ambition on hold, at least for now. Saint Catherine's, her alma mater, where she had taught History and Economics to Classes 10 and 12 had been sorry to let her go.
You'll always have a place here, Marissa, if you need it. We won't say goodbye, my dear. It's good luck! And make sure I hear from you.
Marissa had every intention of keeping her promise to her long-time mentor, Dr Eleanor Bell, headmistress of Saint Catherine's who had always tried to make life easier for her, bless her! The atmosphere at school had always been much warmer than that at home. No, not home. Sadly never that! It was merely the house where she had lived with her uncle, aunt and cousin Lucy after her mother had died until her first year at University when she had moved into a women's college on campus; liberation and a whole lot of problems solved in one swoop; until she became aware of Riley's existence. That had changed her course irrevocably.
Marissa shook herself out of her preoccupations and stood out of the ute, stretching her arms above her head, generally limbering up. Dusty bounded down from the back of the vehicle and took off for the wide-open spaces, startling a great flock of white cockatoos, their cheeky yellow crests raised in a broad crown as they rose into the air, filling it with their harsh protests.
"Go for it, boy!" Riley's voice was slightly croaky as he called after him. Dusty cooped up for so long tore around the vast empty tract, full of joy at being able to exercise his well-muscled,
"Get out and stretch your legs, as well, Riley." Marissa bent into the vehicle to pull a road map out of the glove box, taking a good look at Riley while she was at it. Riley was an asthmatic. That meant as his surrogate mother she suffered, as well. She always kept her eye on him without making it too obvious, watching out for the signs. The specialist she had taken him to after that last bad bout told her he would probably grow out of it around thirteen or fourteen. She prayed the doctor was right. She had his medication. They could never be without his puffer but so far so good. She was hoping the dry Outback air would be beneficial to his condition. There were many claims this was so. She wasn't in the least surprised. The air seemed cleaner, brighter, more translucent than any she had ever breathed.
Riley obeyed her instantly. He was no trouble at all, no behavioural problems. Her father had brought him up well.
"You okay?" she asked lightly, gently squeezing his shoulder. He was small for his age, all fragile bones. Riley had lived a stressful life. She suspected there were many dark moments he hadn't told her about, but somehow he had built up an inner strength and courage by the age of seven that often brought the smart of tears to her eyes. Her little brothershe had stopped thinking of him as her half brotherhad made his way into her heart.
"Sure." Riley smiled up at her with his radiant blue eyes. They were densely fringed by black lashes, increasing the impact.
"You sound a little bit croaky?"She knew how fast Riley's condition could deteriorate.
"Dry," he explained, touching his throat. 'Don't you worry about me, Ma. I'm fine. I'll tell you when my chest gets tight. Can I have a drink?"
"Of course you can. There's cold bottled water in the cooler. I'll join you. Better give Dusty a drink when he comes back." 'If he comes back," Riley hooted, running off to the back of the ute. He reappeared a minute later with two small bottles of water. He passed one to Marissa before pointing to the signpost. 'Aboriginal names,"he commented. Riley knew a good deal more about aboriginal names and people than the city-born Marissa. 'Which way Wungalla do you suppose?"
"Your guess is as good as mine." Marissa's tone was laconic. She downed the cold bottle of water like it was the nectar of the gods. 'From the lean on that post it could be back where we came from or a thousand miles down the track."
"This is a big country," Riley said proudly. 'You'll get used to it, Ma."
There was that Ma again. Despite Marissa's efforts to get Riley to call her by her full first name, he stuck consistently to Ma. She knew what it was all about. Riley had been desperate to find a mother figure. She was it. The Ma stood for Mum. From the reaction in the bush towns they had already passed through she knew people immediately jumped to the conclusion she was indeed Riley's mother; another teenage pregnancy, another single mother probably on the run. A few times she had introduced Riley as her little brother but it was plain no one believed her.
Riley, of course, did nothing to help. If people wanted to believe Marissa was his mother, he was thrilled with that. She was everything he wanted a mum to be, as he had so poignantly told her. So that made her around fifteen at the time of conception, and around sixteen when she supposedly had given birth to him? In the normal course of events sisters or half sisters rarely took on the single-handed rearing of their siblings.
Going down on her haunches, Marissa spread the map out on the parched ground covered in heaps of bronze leaves. She couldn't put it on the bonnet of the ute. The metal was hot enough to fry eggs. 'Ah, here we are," she said, trying to sound the seasoned Outback navigator when navigating was way down her list of skills. At least she had made sure they carried plenty of water and supplies. 'By the look of it Wungalla is a cattle station. A big one!" she exclaimed. 'It's about 150 kilometres northwest of the town of Ransom."
"Why do you suppose they called it that?" Riley asked, half turning his head to keep Dusty in sight. 'Doesn't ransom mean money you have to pay a bad person to let their captive go?"
"Amazing! Is there any word you don't know?"Marissa smiled up at him, feeling a rush of love and pride. Initially devastated by the fact she had a sibling she had never known existed, Riley was a huge plus in her life. She had never received much affection from Aunt Allison or her cousin Lucy. Riley had been ready to shower her with love from Day One. Come to that, their bonding was instant. Such was the power of blood.
Riley gave a guffaw that turned into a muffled sob, then a covering cough. 'Daddy used to teach me lots of things."
Daddy! Michael Devlin, one time brilliant corporate lawyer, deceased alcoholic who had ended his days in an Outback mission shelter.
Riley's daddy, her father! How she had adored him. Pretty much like Riley who nearly eighteen months after their father's death, still cried for him at night, trying to stifle his heart-wrenching sobs with a pillow pulled over his face. She cried, too, but the tears fell silently down the walls of her heart. She thought she had cried herself out years ago, but she had soon learned tears were eternal.
Motherless Riley, was a 'thinking' boy, a highly intelligent little fellow who had physically clung to her like a drowning child would cling to a life line from the very moment he had set eyes on her walking down the corridor of a one room bush school in the North Queensland hinterland. Marissa was family. He had recognised her without a single identifying word being spoken. Both of them looked like their father; the black Irish, blue-black hair, vivid blue eyes, and, in his children's case, skin like porcelain. Riley's likely fate at that time would have been to be taken into care.
Twenty-one years of age and she had found herself surrendering to her sense of duty and the memory of the great love she had borne her father before tragedy had come into their lives, ripping them apart. Though she had known at the time what hardship could lie ahead she had consented to taking on the raising of a child, another woman's child, who had abandoned Riley and her much older partner, their father, when Riley was barely four. All efforts to find Riley's mother after Michael Devlin's death had ended in failure. It was as though the young woman, said to have Polynesian blood in her, had vanished off the face of the earth, leaving Riley an orphan. An orphan that is until Marissa had come into his life, never knowing, or even suspecting her father, a strikingly handsome man, had formed a relationship with a young woman he had met on his wanderings and had had a child with her.
Tragedy had shattered Michael Devlin's life, a life he had considered perfect and set him on his downward spiral; one from which he could never find the strength to pull out.
"Suicide! That's what it was!" Uncle Bryan, her father's brother had cried in great distress when finally they got the letter from the head of the bush mission, a Pastor McCauley, informing them of Michael's death and the existence of Michael's small son then in Pastor McCauley's and Mrs McCauley's care.
"Gutless!"Bryan's wife, Allison, had added in her cruel judgemental way. Aunt Ally had no difficulty finding fault in others, but never in herself. 'Michael had everything going for him, and he threw it all away! That child isn't coming here, Bryan. I'm telling you that now. We took pity on Marissa and raised her. Don't imagine for one minute I'm going to take on another one of Michael's children. He should never have shacked up with that woman let alone made her pregnant. If they can't find the mother, the boy will have to go into care."
Aunt Ally didn't understand grief. She didn't know much about the human condition. She had never fully understood how much her father had loved her mother. How much his life's happiness was invested in her. Then again Ally had always been jealous of the beautiful Maureen, Marissa's mother.
Yet it was Uncle Bryan and Aunt Ally who had raised her after her father had taken to the road. Before doing so Michael Devlin had set up a substantial trust fund to take care of all her expenses and see her through University, but Aunt Ally always omitted to mention that fact as though 'the raising' had involved a huge financial burden on them. It hadn't. Her father had seen to that part of his duty before he took off.
Michael Devlin had been a man full of guilt and despair. He had lost his adored young wife in a car crash with him at the wheel. That made him in his own mind a murderer. Miraculously he had emerged with fairly minor injuries. Maureen had not been so lucky. Marissa would have been with them only as fate would have it she had been invited to a sleepover to celebrate a class mate's twelfth birthday.
Marissa, the survivor, had had to battle her terrible grief virtually on her own. The family had been devastated by the tragedy, but no one had possessed the gift of being able to offer wisdom and comfort to a child so violently and unexpectedly rendered a near orphan. Grief and guilt had consumed her father to the extent less than a year after the tragedy he had abandoned his glittering career and his child to go on his travels in a vain bid to save himself and his sanity.
The way I am, my darling, I'm no use to anyone.You'll be better off without me. At least for a while. But always know I love you.