The Rabbit Proof Fence

Chapter Five

 

The next morning, the girls were awakened by the sounds of birds fluttering and chirping all around them. The rain had stopped but the wind was blowing strong and cold. The clouds were scattered about like huge balls of cotton wool and the sun was trying hard to shine through the gaps. It may have been wishful thinking on their part, but the weather looked promising.

For breakfast they ate what was left over from supper with a refreshing drink of water. When they had finished they quickly removed the firewood that was still burning and covered it with wet sand and moved on. Molly looked up at the sky and said confidently, “More rain comin’,” pointing to the west where the white, fluffy clouds were now being pushed aside by grey rain clouds. “Never mind,” she said. “It’s good because that Mardu policeman can’t follow us now. We lose all our tracks anyhow. The rain will wash them all away.”

She and her sisters were safe from capture for the time being.

“Come on, walk faster, the rain is a long way off yet,” she told them, hoping her estimation was accurate, because she wanted to be a long way away by nightfall. In this weather and in this sand plain country the girls had been covering 24 to 30 kilometers a day. They each realized that they must push on further into the wilderness, steadily covering as much ground as they could during the daylight hours. By midday, the girls were hit with pangs of hunger. Gracie was feeling very irritable and began to stamp her feet in protest and dawdled along. Suddenly she got caught in the dense, tangled scarlet runner creepers, she overbalanced and fell onto the wet ground with a thud. She lay there moaning and groaning softly to herself.

“We gunna die. We got nothing to eat.”

“Oh shut up and stop whining,” ordered Molly as she helped her up on her feet. “We gotta hurry up.”

Molly was losing patience with her younger sister. At that moment, the most important thing on her mind was distance; the more land they covered in this weather, the less chance they had of being captured. Getting lost or walking around in circles may have signaled the end of their escape, but Molly kept reminding them to be brave and to conquer their fears. There was little danger in this part of the country, as there were no poisonous snakes lurking about at this time of year.

          Gracie withdrew into herself, refusing to talk. She just followed Molly and Daisy in a trance, eyes straight ahead, looking neither right or left, silent and sullen. Suddenly, Molly shouted excitedly, “Look over there.” Shaken out of her grey mood, Gracie was interested in what her big sister had seen.

“What is it, Dgudu?” Daisy wanted to know.

Daisy and Gracie looked up to see the rabbit burrows in the sand dunes.

“We’re not sleeping in the bunna (dirt hole) again, eh Dgudu?” asked Gracie.

          “No,” replied Molly. “We gunna catch them to eat.”

          The girls hadn’t eaten since the morning, and it was now very late in the afternoon. Stumbling on another rabbit warren was indeed an exciting find. They were starving, and the prospect of a feed of meat spurred them on.

          “We will block all the burrows except that one in the middle, alright?” suggested Molly. So the three set about blocking all the entrances, leaving only one open. Then they sat down quietly behind some acacia bushes and waited.

After what seemed like ages, out came the rabbits. First one, then two, four, then more.

          “Now!” ordered Molly. “Go!” She leaped up and chased the rabbits and the others joined in. Molly and Gracie were excellent runners, they caught a rabbit each, while their knock-kneed youngest sister missed them. She could not catch even the slowest in the group.

It was past dusk when they found a suitable place to make a shelter and camp for the night. The girls were in good spirits as they made a huge fire in a hole in the ground and cooked the rabbits in the ashes, after gutting them roughly by using a sharp point of a green stick. They ate one of them for supper that evening with water from a soak they found in the limestone rocks near the camp site. The other rabbit was saved for breakfast.

Molly rose early the next morning to stoke up the dying fire. The other two were content to lie there in their cozy shelter for a couple of hours more - they got an hour at least. Molly sat warming herself by the fire, listening to the sounds of the heathlands. There were lots of black and white Willie wagtails and other beautiful birds darting in and out of the trees and shrubs but she still missed the sounds of the finches and white cockatoos of her home. Thoughts of home reminded her of the distance they had to cover and as quickly as possible.

          “Come on, get up,” ordered Molly. “We can’t stay here all day. We got a long way to go yet,” she added impatiently as she broke the rabbit in three portions. There was no response so she called again for them to get up. “Move, come on,” she urged.

“Oh, alright, we’re coming,” said Daisy as she shook the sleeping Gracie.

When her sisters joined her for breakfast, Molly said, “Don’t eat it all; save some for later.”

They nodded in agreement as they bit into the tough flesh of the cold cooked rabbit. Once breakfast was over, they drank the soak water and washed their hands and faces, drying them with the calico bags. Then they continued onwards, over the sand hills and through the banksia woodlands, with their acacia thickets and thick clumps of heath. Scattered among them were tall marri gums and mallee. The drier conditions along the coastal sand plains made bushes grow thick and small, and the trees were stunted because of the sandy soil.

Molly was pleased that there was no shortage of trees and shrubs to hide under. They grew in abundance, quite different from the sparse landscape of the north-west.

The morning was pleasant; everything was quiet and peaceful. The sun was shining through the clouds and the raindrops on the leaves and spider-webs sparkled like diamonds. Below them was an open grassland of lush green pastures that would soon become a field of bright yellow dandelions. By their manner, one could have thought that the girls were taking a leisurely stroll in the bush. They appeared very relaxed as they walked along together. Then all of a sudden they stopped and gasped; all three of them looked then dropped behind the shrubs and peeped around cautiously to watch from this safe distance.

In the clearing in the far end of the paddock were two of the biggest and blackest kangaroos they had ever seen.

“Look at them; they’re standing up and fighting like men,” whispered Molly. “But they can’t see us up here.”

“I’m frightened, Dgudu,” Gracie whispered.

“Me too, Dgudu,” said Daisy moving closer to her older sister.

The sight of these big boomers (kangaroos) had unnerved the younger sisters, and Molly wasn’t feeling brave herself. The fear of venturing into unknown territory had resurfaced, and she didn’t want that to happen.

          “Come on, let’s get away from here. We’ll walk around them. They won’t see us if we crawl behind these bushes,” Molly whispered. “and keep your eyes on them all the way to the end of the paddock. Ready, come on,” she ordered. Molly began to crawl on her hands and knees with great discomfort as the ground was covered with prickles and dry twigs and leaves. She tried to make a clear path for her two sisters to follow.

          The two smaller girls felt threatened by the size of the big boomers so they were glad to be out of sight. They didn’t want to be attacked by kangaroos, and they were very relieved when they had climbed the boundary fence. It was only then that they could feel safe again. The three girls sat on a fallen log, trying to recover from the shocking sight of the fighting animals.

“Those boomers are bigger than the ones we got at home, indi Dgudu (isn’t it sister?),” said Gracie fearfully, “and cheeky fullahs too.”

Daisy and Molly both answered together. “Youay (yes!).”

The trio sat quietly on the dead log. The silence was broken suddenly by an alarmed Molly, who pulled Gracie up roughly by the arms.

“Run under that big tree over there,” she yelled, pointing to a large banksia tree. “Climb up and hide there. You too Daisy. Come on.”

When she saw that they had difficulty getting up, she ran over to help them. She pushed her two young sisters up into the branches and told them not to move unless she said so.

Although the two youngsters could not see any danger they obeyed without question, they trusted her with their lives. After all, hadn’t their big sister proved herself to be a worthy leader? Her self-control and courage had never faltered throughout the trek.

So there they lay, stretched out on the rough branches, not daring to move; just silently waiting and listening. At last they heard it. It was a plane, a search plane sent out to look for them, these runaway girls. Sitting very still, the girls listened while the plane circled above them, then it gave up and returned home. Several minutes passed before Molly decided it was safe to climb down from their hiding places in the trees. Once they were on the ground they quickened their pace, keeping close to the trees in case they needed to hide again. They walked in silence, concentrating on movement, distance, and safety.

No one took any notice of the change in the weather until they were caught in the showers. It was only then that they realized that the sun and blue sky had disappeared. There was nothing but dark rain clouds. It seemed hopeless to try to find shelter; they were drenched and their hair hung limp and dripping with water. Just when they were overcome with gloom and despair, they heard the most welcomed sounds with which they were each familiar. At that moment they realized just how much they had missed them and they were overcome with depression.

          It was noon, and these were the sounds of fowls, squeaky windmills, and barking dogs - that reminded them of Jigalong, Walgun and Murra Munda stations, but most of all these sounds brought back memories of their loved ones who remained there. Pangs of hunger overcame their nostalgia. As they approached the farmhouse, Molly gently urged the two sisters forward.

“Go in there and ask the missus for some food to eat. Hurry up. I’ll wait here,” she said as she settled down behind the thick trunk of a marri gum.

Daisy and Gracie went willingly because they were feeling very hungry and here was the chance to find something more substantial than what they had been forced to live on so far. The last remaining pieces of rabbit leftover from breakfast had all gone.

Approaching the farmhouse slowly, they looked about them. Glancing at the barking dogs, they saw that both were chained near their kennels; but they still gave the girls a scare as they tried to rush past them. Fortunately, the strong chains held. The girls opened the wooden gate and were greeted by a little four-year-old girl who was playing with her toys on the large verandah.

“Come inside,” she said warmly as she opened the door. “My name is Susan,” she added as she rushed inside.

“Mummy,” she yelled, “there’s two girls outside and they’re all wet.”

Daisy and Gracie didn’t accept the child’s invitation to go inside; they stood politely on the verandah, letting the water trickle to the hems of their dresses, then onto the timbered verandah.

Little Susan’s mother came to the door and asked them, “Are you the runaways from the settlement?”

“Yes,” they replied shyly.

“Where’s the other one?” she asked.

“She’s outside near the big tree, on the other side of the fence,” Gracie informed her.

“Go and tell her to come inside and dry herself while I make something to eat,” the woman said.

When she saw their reluctance, she smiled and said, “It’s alright, you won’t be reported.”

So Gracie dashed out in the rain to bring Molly inside the warm kitchen.

The woman, whose name was Mrs. Flanagan, had received a phone call from Superintendent Neal on Tuesday afternoon, asking her to watch out for three absconders and to report to him if she saw them. Mrs. Flanagan asked the girls a lot of questions, especially about their ultimate destination.

“We are going to find the rabbit-proof fence and follow it all the way home to Jigalong,” Molly said.

“Well, I’m afraid you’re going the wrong way. The rabbit-proof fence is not north. You must go east towards Ayres Find and Wubin. If you keep going north, you will come to the coastal towns of either Dongara or Geraldton.”

Mrs. Flanagan made thick mutton and tomato chutney sandwiches, which the three girls stared at as if mesmerized. The aroma was overpowering; they could almost taste the cold mutton and crusty bread. Then they devoured them greedily, like the starving youngsters they were. These were followed by generous pieces of fruit cake and a cup of sweet, milky tea. A feeling of contentment prevailed in the comfortable, warm, dry farmhouse kitchen. Soon they became quite drowsy.

The girls watched as Mrs. Flanagan filled a couple of brown paper bags with tea-leaves, sugar, flour and salt, and half a leg of mutton and a chunk of fruit cake and bread. She took three large empty fruit tins and said, “You will need these to boil your tea in. It may be easier to carry them in your bags. Have you all had enough to eat?”

“Yes, thank you,” they said. They almost added, “missus” but managed to stop quickly.

“Right then, come with me, and I’ll give you some dry clothes to change into — and warm coats,” she said as she led the way outside to a large shed opposite the house, where there was a small storeroom. Inside was stored farm machinery, implements and grain. Mrs. Flanagan pulled out some old army uniforms — a greatcoat for Molly and jackets for Gracie and Daisy.

“Here, you’d better take these too,” she said, handing them some wheat bags. “Use them as capes to protect you from the rain and cold winds.” Mrs. Flanagan demonstrated how to make a cape by pushing one corner into the other. With their army coats and bag capes, they were warm and dry.

 

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Watching the three girls disappear into the open woodlands, she said loudly to herself, “Those girls are too young to be wandering around in the bush. They’ll perish for sure. They don’t know this part of the country. And the three of them with just dresses on! It’s a wonder they didn’t catch colds or worse — pneumonia. I’ll have to report this to Mr. Neal for their own good before they get lost and die in the bush,” she said. “It’s my duty.”

When she had made her decision she went inside and lifted the earpiece of the telephone, turned the handle and listened, then she spoke into the mouthpiece. “Good afternoon, Christine,” she greeted the girl at the exchange. “Has Kath Watson had her baby yet?”

“No, not yet,” the girl replied.

“It’s due any day now.” After a few minutes, Mrs. Flanagan had learned all the news of the local townspeople.

“Christine,” she said, “can you send a telegram to Mr. Neal, the Superintendent of the Moore River Native Settlement, please.”

“Yes. Just hold the line for one moment.”

Mrs. Flanagan made a fresh pot of tea, satisfied that she had done the right thing. Anyway, she told herself, those three girls from the north-west would fare no better than the other runaways. Once they reached the railway line they would decide to sit and wait for the train, then they would be handed over to the police at the next railway siding or station. They always get caught.