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Authors: Lucy Walker

The river is Down

The river is Down by Lucy Walker

Suddenly, Cindie felt she was someone else .. .

She had crossed the river! The very act had made her into a different person. The weight on her heart, the muffling in her ears were gone: all because she had crossed the water and there was no way hack.
Looking around her at the wide, wild, hot spinifex-plain of a world, she knew she was not Cynthia Davenport any more.

Now she was free to be Cindie Brown !

by the same author:

SWEET AND FARAWAY

COME HOME, DEAR

HEAVEN IS HERE

MASTER OF RANSOME

KINGDOM OF THE HEART

THE STRANGER FROM THE NORTH

LOVE IN A CLOUD

THE LOVING HEART

WIFE TO ORDER

THE MOONSHINER

DOWN IN THE FOREST

THE DISTANT HILLS

THE CALL OF THE PINES

FOLLOW YOUR STAR

THE MAN FROM OUTBACK

A MAN CALLED MASTERS

THE OTHER GIRL

THE RANGER IN THE HILLS

REACHING FOR THE STARS

First published 1966

First issued in Fontana Books 1969

CONDITIONS OF SALE: This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without

the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it

is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

© Lucy Walker, 1966 Printed in Great Britain Collins Clear-Type Press London and Glasgow.

CHAPTER I

Cindie sat in the car, her hands gripping the steering wheel with a quiet kind of despair.

She was marooned!

Well, probably, anyway!

The billabong which she had crossed earlier would be bogged deep by now. When she had come over it she had seen the froth of water as it came lacing over the string of claypans from the water-shed in the ranges hundreds of miles away, and she had thanked her good angel she had beaten it to the crossing. She hadn't realised the billabong was only a loop and that the major crossing still lay half a mile ahead.

Now, down the slope before her was the real river-bed. She had just consulted her map and realised the truth. How wonderful the scene before her would be to her sun-hazed eyes, with its lovely aloof river gums lining the banks, if there hadn't been at least a foot of brown swirling, gurgling water racing along the clay and gravel between them.

Through the trees on the far bank she could see the great yellow spinifex plain, a pale hot shimmering sky above it. Behind her was the barrow-rise between her and the treacherous pool of the billabong—a foot of water in it by now, without a doubt.

So what did she do now?

`Don't attempt the crossing if the river is down!' Everyone had given this warning as she had passed through from the coast.

The station people, from homestead to homestead, standing in the shade of the river gums with their hats pulled forward to shield their eyes from the glare, had been mad with joy because the river was coming. There had been years of drought, and the smallest of the children had never seen water in the dried-out gravel bed.

The radio calls passing down from the ranges, then picked up and passed on again, had been like glad cries of the heart—The river is coming! The river is coming!

Meantime Cindie was caught, high and dry.

Suddenly a burst of hope rose like a bubble in her heart. The overseer, Jim Vernon, back at Baanya, the last station she had passed through, would know the river was down by now; quicker than was expected. He had said he would

pass the news on up the track that she was coming. Someone would pick up that call, surely.

She stopped worrying while she thought about Jim Vernon. She had liked him so very much. She had known that he had liked her too. There had been something so friendly between them, almost as if they'd known one another a long, long time. Yet they were strangers.

What a darling he was!

As soon as he had come down from the stores when she pulled up her car by the petrol bowser, he had smiled. She'd smiled back too, and in a funny little way her sore heart had lifted—just that little much.

Now, sitting in her car above the river, Cindie closed her eyes and said a little prayer—Please Jim Vernon, do something about me!'

She opened them again and looked kindly at the wide spread of green branches shadowing the water. Not a tree in all the hundreds of miles of country—except here! In the Dry, and the droughts, their feet lived deep down on the underground seepage.

Cindie was not alarmed any more. Jim Vernon had said he would send forward the news of her coming. He would keep his word. She was certain of that.

Funny how you knew instinctively, when you first met a person, you could trust him, and that you liked him—without rhyme or reason. Maybe it was something to do with needing a friend. Meeting Jim out here in the Never had been like a tender touch on the heart, a warm handshake in a lonely wilderness.

Specially when your heart had been so very empty, Cindie sat and thought about that meeting.

Several hours earlier, Jim Vernon had seen the girl pull up by the bowser at Baanya in the dusty outdated Holden, and had gone down to give her petrol.

She was travelling alone, and was covered in dust, hot and tired. He hoped the old Holden was as good as she probably thought it was. It had brought her a long way so far. He'd heard over the two-way that a stranger was coming. She'd passed through three stations since the coast.

He tipped his broad-brimmed dusty hat back on his head, leaned against the petrol bowser and smiled at her : and it was the smile that did it. Cindie's heart went out to him.

`Well,' he drawled. `So you've got this far safely!'

Cindie smiled too, beguiled for a moment by the brightness of his blue eyes in the brown of his face; his easy grin. Also his six-feet-one of wiry manhood.

`You almost sound as if you were waiting for me,' she said wistfully.

`Who wouldn't? A young girl out in this wasteland! You know the river is coming?'

Cindie nodded. 'Everyone knows,' she said. 'Even the animals. It's early afternoon, but the kangaroos are coming out of the bush all along the track.'

`The snakes too, bet.' His grin deepened.

`I didn't see any snakes, thank goodness.'

`They'll come for a hundred miles north and south of the river. They'll have known the water is coming before we humans knew. Where you heading Miss . . . Miss Topsy?'

Not Topsy!' She smiled again. 'I'm going up to Bindaroo. I have relatives up there.'

`It's a long way. You won't get there till tomorrow sundown: and then, only if you don't strike trouble.'

`And keep my petrol tanks full?' Cindie looked up at him through her window. 'That's why I called in here. Just to make sure. I have stores, Thermos flasks and my sleeping-bag.'

`It's a good job the rain's in the upper tableland only. Otherwise the land'd be a quagmire. You know what? That rain's right out of season. I've been overseer here years and years and I never heard of a rain-burst up in the ranges at this time of the year. I guess a High and a Low must have got themselves mixed up on the good Lord's weather chart.' His blue eyes, so brilliant that they fascinated her, twinkled in his leather-brown face.

He might be younger than he looked, Cindie guessed. The heat of this outback country had seared his face and hands with dark brown sunburn. There was a fine etching of spider wrinkles round his mouth. He wouldn't be much more than thirty perhaps.

But he was kind. His expression was rich with the droll humour of the outback, and a natural chivalry towards women.

If only David had had a face like this man's. David was the sweetheart Cindie had lost—oh, weeks ago now! She was thankful, but still bruised.

The overseer went to the rear of the car to hold the nozzle from the petrol pump to the mouth of her tank. She could hear his voice, but not see him.

`How come you're out this way by yourself?' he asked. `You've a city number plate on your car. That's eight

hundred miles away as the galah flies. And not by road and track either.'

He put the cap back on the petrol tank and came round to the passenger window. He leaned his elbows on the door frame as he looked at her.

`There wasn't anyone else free to come with me—just now,' Cindie explained. She changed the subject quickly. `How far away is the river now, do you know?'

'It hasn't come through the gorge in the breakaway country yet,' he answered easily. 'You've time. That is, according to the last radio call we had from the construction camp northwards in the spinifex plain. You know they're building the world's longest road up there?' He watched her face as he spoke. 'Right across the north, then a thousand miles down south. Sort of circumnavigating a whole continent by the time they link up with the Nullabor crossing. Bigger than Europe, and some more too. Makes you kind-of think, doesn't it?'

Cindie nodded. 'Yes, I have heard about the road. Who hasn't?'

'You have to cross the stretch they're working right now on your way up to Bindaroo, That is, after you're over the river-bed. If you meet up with the chaps there, tell them Jim Vernon sent his regards, will you? Not that I don't call 'em on the radio from time to time. But it's nice to have the personal message too.'

'Jim Vernon's your name?'

He nodded.

Cindie thought about his dusty brown slouch hat, pushed to the back of his head, and the very bright eyes under it. The blue shone out, of course, because of the brownness of his face.

'What's your name?' he asked, smiling at her. She was a lovely girl, he thought. Pretty in a quiet, dusty way. He liked girls with dark hair and violet eyes. Not that he'd seen violets since he was a boy. If she stepped out of that car and stood up he guessed she would be tallish, but not too tall. And slim and neat and graceful. A smile that had tears in it too. Kind-of touched the heart. He hoped that when she came back from Bindaroo she'd call in for more petrol here at Baanya. There was something about this girl! Confident, yet anxious!

Now there's a paradox for you, Jim Vernon told himself.

Cindie was looking into his face, not quite following the

thoughts that were flitting at the back of his eyes, but thinking again that life might have been different if David had had a face, a gentle drawling manner, an easy smile, like this Jim Vernon.

'I said—what's your name?' Jim asked gently, fetching her back from faraway thoughts. 'You see . . . I like to radio through to the next station, or maybe up to the construction camp, that someone's coming. That way we keep track of travellers. Just in case. . .

'My name's Cindie.' She brushed her forefinger over her cheek, then looked at the dust on it with dismay. She couldn't tell this nice Jim Vernon all her name if he was about to radio it across the whole northwest. She didn't want the Stevens brothers up at Bindaroo to know she was coming yet. She had to surprise them in order to find out what they were doing about that money, and share, that belonged to her mother. Her mother was in pretty dire straits since her father died. There had been rumours of the Stevenses selling out. And trucking out hundreds of sheep by night, too. She had to find out.

Jim watched her face, guessing at what was passing through her mind. He knew all about Bindaroo.

She looked down at herself where the fine red dust had settled over her slacks and shoes, and the floor of the car.

'I guess I'm Cindie Brown-all-over right how,' she said with a half-smile 'Look how the sun has burned my arms—and the dust is all over everything. Mr. Vernon, why does red dust become brown mess on a car so soon?'

'I see,' he said, with a grin, letting her know he understood she didn't want to give all her name. Well, 'Brown-all-over' was good enough for him. There were more Smiths, Browns and Robinsons in the northwest than any other name. She was Cindie Something, but wasn't telling.

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