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  • Published: 2 July 2020
  • ISBN: 9781760896942
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • RRP: $32.99

Croc Country

Extract

Chapter One

Tilly Hillyer woke with a jerk and a small cry, her heart in overdrive. It didn’t happen so often now, but on occasion the dream still returned, making a peaceful night’s sleep something of a lottery, with horror the consolation prize. It was so vivid and immediate even after the passage of two years – the tiny falling figure, bulky in its life jacket, tumbling endlessly through space into the rushing darkness and the waiting water.

An old tag of poetry, from schooldays or something she’d once read, popped into her mind as she panted for breath . . . at one stride comes the dark. Yes, she thought, it had been like that. As if the night had roared out of the mangroves to devour—

‘Enough!’ Tilly sat up, thrusting the cotton blanket aside. Once upon a time the world had been a different place but life had folded in upon itself, leaving her apart and separate from the then. Now was where she was at and the rest was a fairytale whose happily-ever-after ending she had been denied. She was suddenly aware of the bird calls beyond the window, as if her present life, which the dream had temporarily pushed aside, was demanding attention.

It was daylight then, time to rise. Life didn’t stop for anyone’s tragedy. Gerry and Francie were gone, and Tilly had passed through all the painful stages of grief that survivors suffered and it was unhealthy – and pointless – to let that nostalgic once drag her back into the depths through which she had already lived. Sophie, at any rate, would tell her so.

The thought forced a wry smile from Tilly. ‘Pointless’ was her cousin’s favourite maxim. Anything deemed so was best ignored in her view, be it unnecessary directives from head office in Adelaide or fretting over the weather. What is, is, Till, and you just have to live with it. You could call it tough love but by whatever name, Tilly couldn’t deny that Sophie’s brisk, can-do attitude had been the lifeline she needed to raise herself from the nadir of despair. And the same woman would soon be wanting breakfast, as would Matt and Luke, the other two members of the ranger station for which Tilly cooked and house-kept here in the isolated wilderness of the north-western Gulf Country.

It was Sophie who had wangled the job for her when her world had collapsed. ‘You need peace and space and somebody to look out for you, Till,’ she had said. ‘That’ll be me. And you need a job. You’ve got to eat, girl. So take it. You’ll get through this, love.’ Her brown, blunt-fingered hand had clasped Tilly’s own. ‘Not in a month or a year, or maybe even two, but someday, I promise, you will be happy again. Losing a child must be like losing part of yourself but things will get better. It’s a long road you’ve embarked on and the only way to get to the end is to just keep moving, one step at a time.’

The dull anger – at life, at fate, at Gerry – that had simmered deep inside Tilly ever since the tragedy had made her snatch her hand away. ‘How would you know? You’ve never had a child to lose.’

Sophie hadn’t taken offence. ‘Because you’re strong, love,’ she had said. ‘You were out here living in a fisherman’s shack with no mod cons – how many town girls would pull that on? You’ll make it, Till. Trust me.’ She had encircled Tilly’s tense shoulders in a brief hug. ‘And I’ll be there every step of the way to help you along.’

Showering, Tilly reflected that her cousin had been true to her word. She owed Sophie everything from her sanity to the roof over her head, for she had lost more than her husband and baby daughter in the tragedy. Her home had gone, along with Esmerelda, the fishing boat Gerry had operated from their base on the McArthur River, whose waters emptied into the Gulf of Carpentaria. She had never returned to their humble building of concrete and tin or the wide reaches of the treacherous river. Sophie had packed for her and organised the move to Binboona, the conservation park run by the Wildlife Protection Association, which lay well to the east of her former home, on the Territory side of the border in the rocky escarpment country of the western Gulf. The property of Binboona, eight hundred and fifty square kilometres in area, ran from the ranges to the coastline. The wildlife reserve had once been a cattle station but was now managed by Sophie and overseen from head office in Adelaide. Dedicated to the preservation of wildlife and the natural habitat, the WPA sanctuaries were dotted across the continent from the deserts of Central Australia to Western Australia’s wild Kimberley coast, precious oases in the struggle against the growing wholesale extinction of species.

 

Living at Binboona was not as easy as at their comfortable home in Cairns, but she had grown accustomed to the differences: partial power, a weekly mail service, a hot water system that relied on one stoking a fire . . . The isolation didn’t worry Tilly, while the injured and orphaned animals she helped care for had been a blessing in disguise in those early weeks, her empty hands and heart touched by their suffering and helplessness. And as time had passed she had come to know and like her three companions. At the beginning, Sophie had been little more than an acquaintance. A generation separated them: Tilly was twenty-eight and Sophie in her early forties. Matt Mercer, the older of the two men, was quiet and diffident, giving away little about himself though she guessed him to be somewhere in his late thirties. Luke Aldyce, with his wild head of hair and university education was a mere boy of twenty-two, in love with his vocation, endlessly enthusiastic about the country and its native creatures, both feathered and furred.

Gathering up her dark hair into a ponytail to keep it out of her eyes, Tilly tidied the bathroom and then went through to the kitchen to start the day. It was a large room, bearing the old-fashioned stamp of its 1960s origin in its furnishings; Binboona’s available funds were spent on the land and the fauna they protected, not the lifestyles of those doing the protecting. Thirty years on from its inception, the large double-ovened wood-burning range still dominated one end of the room, while the original kitchen cabinets and the long pine table, whitened from years of elbow grease and sandsoap, served the rangers as it had the stockmen of earlier years.

Some things had changed, of course. The kerosene fridge had been replaced by a coldroom and freezer, and Tilly cooked with gas. These days the old stove served as a planter stand and a place to stack the nature magazines Luke was addicted to. The homestead held five bedrooms and quite a comfortable living room where the television lived, but, especially in the cooler months from now, May, through to September, everybody tended to spend their free time in the kitchen.

At first she had wondered if Sophie was behind this, an organised effort to keep her from brooding on her loss, but she had come to see that the banks of louvred windows above the sink and either side of the door provided a good view of both the Nutt River fronting the homestead and the bird basin that Luke had erected near the old gate posts. A pair of binoculars rested permanently on the rickety cane table next to its matching chair, and her own idle moments were frequently passed there absorbed in the avian life of the area.

Placing the kettle over the gas ring, Tilly peered through the window at a cluster of tiny finches flitting about the basin’s rim. They took off as the screen door slammed behind Sophie.

‘Morning, Till. I was up early, thought I’d do the joeys for you.’ She set the empty feeder bottles on the sink, then removed the long thin teats to rinse them under the tap. A quick sideways glance and she frowned. ‘You look a bit peaky. Bad night?’

Tilly’s hands stilled on the bacon packet. ‘Not really. I had the dream again, that’s all.’ It embarrassed her to admit it; she wasn’t to wallow, Sophie had said, but who could help their dreams? ‘But listen, I just now saw a Gouldian finch on the basin! It was only there for a second or two among the others, then your coming scared them off.’

‘Are you sure?’ Sophie peered in turn. ‘You couldn’t have been mistaken?’

‘Not unless there’s a thumb-sized parrot out there. What else is that colour and size?’

‘We’ll count it as a sighting then. Mind if I borrow your kettle to scald these bottles?’

‘Go ahead. How are the joeys this morning?’

‘Doing really well.’ Sophie smiled with satisfaction. Hers was a round, weather-beaten face with a dimple in one cheek and hazel eyes, their corners much creased from squinting into strong light. Solidly built and of average height, with grey strands beginning to show in her brown hair, she was capable, self-sufficient and a dedicated conservationist. Over the last two years Tilly had come to love her dearly, and not just for her unstinting support. Her cousin had filled the void left by the absence of Tilly’s mother and her closest friends from whom she’d drifted apart, separated by the length of the continent.

‘That’s good,’ Tilly responded and nodded at the margarine container thawing on the sink. ‘There’s Mickey’s meat. I forgot to get it out of the freezer last night. Just slipped my mind, sorry.’

‘He can wait a bit.’ Sophie finished with the bottles. ‘You realise we’ll never get rid of him now – butcherbirds aren’t stupid. Why hunt their own tucker when it comes free from the humans?’

‘His song’s worth it,’ Tilly protested. Luke had brought home the injured bird some weeks beforehand and he’d settled in well. ‘You think he’ll fly again?’

‘I don’t see why not. The bones have mended. When his feathers regrow he’ll be right. Shall I ring the bell for the boys? I think Matt’s down the river checking the trap. I haven’t seen Luke yet.’

‘Yes, please. I heard him go out earlier.’ Tilly piled the toast onto a plate and pulled the milk jug from the fridge. ‘It’s ready. Will you be wanting lunches today?’

‘Mmm.’ Sophie took a piece of toast to the door and clattered the donger against the steel pipe that served as a dinner bell. ‘The boys will. I’ll be in the office all morning. Mail day tomorrow. You need anything in the tucker line? I’d best order it today if so.’

Tilly sipped her tea, putting down the cup as the screen door opened. ‘Morning, Matt.’ To Sophie she said, ‘I’d better have a tin of yeast.’ Air freight was expensive, so ration orders came by truck from Darwin, but small items could be got out on the weekly mail plane. Tilly tried not to let the place run out of essentials, but yeast was a perishable product that one couldn’t order in large quantities. At Binboona they had their own hens, a plentiful supply of fish, meat from the neighbouring Spadgers Creek Station, and the garden supplied them with most of their vegetable needs. The bush provided a few more: Luke, in particular, was an enthusiastic promoter of bush tucker, some of which Tilly had forcefully rejected, declaring, ‘Anything slimy, muddy or weird from the mangroves is not coming near my stove! You want to cook that, you can build a fire outside.’

‘Morning.’ Matt rinsed his hands at the sink before taking his place at table. ‘No fish, Tilly. Couple of young terrapin got in and took the bait.’ ‘Oh well, a tinned-tuna bake dinner instead, then,’ Tilly said philosophically. ‘What would you like in your sandwiches?’ ‘Anything.’ His ginger head settled lower over his plate as he added quietly, ‘They always taste good.’ He wore his usual jeans and longsleeved shirt, and she could smell the suncream on his exposed skin. A redhead, she reflected, really had no business in an outdoors job, but he was vigilant about sun protection.

‘You’re easily pleased,’ she said as the door opened. ‘Ah, Luke – morning. Any preference in sandwiches?’

‘Hi, Tilly, boss, Matt. Oh, let’s see. Roast beef and pickles?’

‘Uh-uh. No meat. How about cheese and pickles, or egg and lettuce?’

‘Whatever. Good-oh, bacon.’ He helped himself liberally, adding tomato and mushrooms before piling three slices of toast on the side.

Sophie eyed his plate with amusement. ‘You sure that’s enough? I wouldn’t want you starting the day hungry.’

He grinned, his narrow face alive with the mischief that twinkled in his eyes, brilliant blue against his dark hair and smudge of beard shadow.

‘Growing boy, boss. So, Mickey flew this morning. Not far, just from his perch to the ground. He flapped his wings a few times – bit doubtful, like – then spread ’em and wobbled down. He needs a few more feathers still.’

Sophie beamed. ‘That’s great news. Right, so, today. One of you needs to go across to Spadgers Creek to pick up some meat. You’d better do that, Matt. And Luke, you might take a swing down along the coast road, check things out. The station rang last night. Bruce Hansen says there’s a fire burning somewhere along it – he thinks it might be on our country.’

Tilly was surprised. ‘How? It couldn’t be a lightning strike, not in May!’

‘No,’ Sophie agreed. ‘Has to’ve been lit. Fishermen, illegals, tourists even. What matters is stopping it before it spreads. Bit hard to pinpoint from eighty-odd kilometres away. Give me a call on the radio once you know. Bruce said he’d send the grader across if we needed it. Oh’—she looked at Tilly—‘and I almost forgot. We’ve got a guest coming sometime this week. A botanist from the uni in Darwin. He’ll be staying for a bit, camping round the sanctuary and making the homestead his base, so he’ll need the spare room, Till.’

‘Okay, I’ll get it ready for him. You don’t know what day he’s coming?’

‘It was a message on the answering machine. Bit light on details. His name’s’—she wrinkled her brow—‘Colin . . . Carl? Something starting with a c. We’ll find out when he gets here.’

‘Okay.’ Tilly piled cup and plate together and carried them to the sink. ‘Your lunches will be ready in ten, boys. Luke, you didn’t bring your thermos back.’

‘Sorry. I’ll get it. It’ll be in the vehicle.’ He folded his last slice of toast about the rest of the bacon and took a large bite as he left the room, calling, ‘Back in a tick, oh slave driver.’

 

When they had all dispersed, the men to the vehicle shed and Sophie to the office, Tilly cleared away and washed up, then moved on to the morning’s tasks, the first of which was feeding the injured animals. Mickey’s mince had thawed by then. She had a margarine container of diced carrot and apple for the possum, and another of cubed meat for Harry the brolga, whose injury was permanent in that he had somehow managed to snap off the front half off his top beak.

‘Like he’d stuck it in a dog trap,’ Luke had said angrily when he’d brought the young, malnourished bird back to the homestead soon after Tilly’s arrival. ‘I can’t see how else it could’ve happened.’

Traps were illegal within Binboona’s boundaries, of course, but there was little the rangers could do about enforcing the rule. They would have needed to find proof first, and then the culprit – something they all knew to be impossible. Lacking the ability to dig or even to drink properly, Harry would certainly have starved if it hadn’t been for the ranger’s intervention. He’d be a permanent guest, Tilly mused, tossing him his breakfast, one piece at a time. She’d tried letting him take it from her hand, but his enthusiastic lunges hit her fingers as often as they did the target, as if the damage done to him had also addled his judgement. The possum, being nocturnal, required no effort beyond removing last night’s empty container from the cage and replacing it with the full one. It was almost ready for release, the injury to its front paw having healed and the fur almost grown back.

The garden was her next chore. Wearing a wide straw hat and gardening gloves, Tilly entered the netted enclosure, methodically watering her way along the rows, picking a lettuce for lunch and, when the hose had been coiled out of the way again, filling the crown of her hat with beans. It was a productive piece of ground and she enjoyed the work. In Cairns she had grown tropical shrubs and African violets, but since taking over the plot from the men’s hit-and-miss efforts, the vegetable garden had prospered.

‘You’ve got a natural green thumb, Till,’ Sophie had said admiringly.

‘I like it.’ She found a soothing rhythm in gardening, a thoughtless peace where for a little while she could forget everything but the task before her. With her hands in the earth, time seemed to flow over her without the constant reminders that accompanied the rest of her day. Only in the garden were the ghosts of the lost absent from her thoughts. Sitting back on her heels, Tilly smeared a muddy glove across one cheek to brush away a stray hair and looked about her with satisfaction. Weeding carrots was finicky work but she’d got most of them out, thinning the rows as she worked.

Resting for a moment, she surveyed her small netted kingdom and the reach of land beyond that stretched all the way to the river bank. There were no fences or garden beds around the homestead, though the gateposts near the bird bath showed there must once have been. Of the original station garden only the lemon tree had survived. Some natives had grown up and been left for shade, and there was one immense tree towering above the house whose name none of them knew. The grass that Matt usually mowed ran to the edge of the little springfed and pandanus-lined creek behind the homestead from which they drew their water.

Out front, the land dipped to the jungle-like edge of the Nutt River, where sweeping paperbacks intertwined with swarming creepers, palms and pandanus thickets that almost screened the water from view. It was a big river, the Nutt – deep and brown and dangerous, home to the estuarine crocodiles that could often be seen sprawled like drying logs on the muddy edges of its banks. Open forest country stretched beyond the water, a dry vista of grass, landscaped with bloodwood, stringybark and white-trunked gums. A blue-winged kookaburra was just now cackling his heart out from the branches of one.

With a last glance at her row of weeded carrots, Tilly stood, clapping her earthy gloves together. She just might add to the order for yeast, she thought. Surely the WPA could buy her a packet of flower seeds? She had a sudden desire to see a tub of them near the front steps. Cosmos, perhaps, or marigolds. Something bright and pretty to lift all their spirits at the end of the day. And if management considered them an unnecessary expense, she’d damn well pay for them herself.


Croc Country Kerry McGinnis

The new outback mystery from the bestselling author of The Roadhouse.

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Buy now

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