Amaroo Station, Queensland, Australia
Something was definitely out there.
Miah Betten tuned alarmed ears to the strange night sounds that rose from the desert highlands with the full moon. She didn’t dare move. Whatever prowled out there in the very much awake Australian bush was on the hunt, surely looking for her. After all the horrible things she’d said and done today, she deserved to be taken from her family -- just like Grandmother Jannali.
She really hadn’t meant to hurt her brothers. No, she’d simply grown tired of them wielding their teen-age status above her head like ringers cracking their stock whips. Her only intention was to make them tell the truth and return her journal they’d stolen. But somehow she’d spit the dummy right out there in the west paddock. If it wasn’t for her dad, she might have killed them both.
Thankfully Brad’s hand had only required a butterfly bandage, and Josh was merely nursing a sore belly and wounded ego. And she… Well, her brothers would say she’d gotten away scot-free. But they didn’t have to live with the chronic pain of a guilty conscience. Although she’d begged forgiveness from her family and God, shame from this morning’s outburst still stuck in her gut like a dull Mayall knife. Yes, she deserved everything she had coming to her. Even if it meant death.
Rolling over, she cowered beneath the thin quilt and hugged her reclaimed journal tight as the southeasterly wind tossed the white curtains in a ghostly dance. If she could muster the same fiery courage she’d shown today, she’d creep out of bed and shut the sticky, old window. Heaven knew open windows were portals through which all kinds of evil creatures could enter.
In fact, just this evening her dad had warned her that the deceiver might come and do battle with her soul. What if the wicked beast was sneaking around the corner of the tack shed right now? No… that was such a ridiculous thought, because in the same breath, hadn’t her dad assured her that once she’d been washed clean by the blood, not even the devil himself could snatch her away?
Devil or not, something was out there and it was getting closer. Even the horses that milled about in the paddock sensed something was amiss. Their nervous pacing was unmistakable. Surely her dozing brothers would tune into that. Betten stockmen, young and old, were attentive to the slightest upset in their precious commodities, weren’t they?
“Andrew…” The dry breeze stiffened and silenced her whisper before it could reach the boys’ side of the bedroom. “Drew… are you awake?”
Josh turned in the lower bunk but didn’t answer her call. Good thing. After she’d nearly killed him with her angry attack today, he’d likely retaliate with a searing curse. But a curse wasn’t as scary as the breathy shushing that marked time outside.
The eerie rhythm grew and took on a more distinct cadence, sounding almost like a march -- a death march. She kept one eye on the window and the other on the wind-up clock that sat on the nightstand, ticking out its own mocking beat. She’d never last until 5:30 a.m. Five and a half hours were much too long to wait for the comfort of lights and electricity. Why did her dad have to be so stingy with the generator? And why did her parent’s room have to be so bloomin’ far away? “Drew…”
“For crying out loud, Miah! Go to sleep!”
“Josh, I’m sorry I woke you, but… There’s something outside. Can’t you hear that?”
In the thin thread of moonlight she could just make out her brother’s silhouette punching up his pillow in irritation. “It’s probably a bunyip looking for a pesky, little sheila to eat. Now belt up and go to sleep!”
She deserved Joshua’s wrath, to be sure, but since he was the only person awake, all she could do was appeal to his merciful side. He did have one -- once upon a time. But a month ago he’d turned fourteen, earning the title of ringer and the respect of their three older brothers. Instead of honoring the allegiance he’d once sworn to her and Drew, it seemed he’d aligned himself with Brad and his devious purposes.
And today, after the “dastardly duo” had stolen her journal and discovered what grade of hide she was cut from, the three years that separated her and Drew from Josh were now gulch-sized. So what did it matter if she admitted she was scared? Josh knew the truth. All her begging to help with the musters was simply a front to compete for their dad’s attention. Josh and Brad had proof that deep down she was nothing but a whingy baby. They’d read her confessions of times out on the scorching, fly-infested cattle track when she’d choked back her tears and forced herself to man-up.
But she wasn’t a man. She was a girl who thought beautiful thoughts, dreamed fantastic dreams, and loved piecing them together like a puzzle or a colorful quilt to create songs and stories. So why pretend anymore? “I… I’m scared. Josh, please… Can’t I sleep with you?”
His impatience huffed across the dark room like a puff adder’s threat. “Good grief, girl! You’re eleven years old. Act like it!”
He was right. She was way too old to be afraid… But the whooshing sound was almost in the stock yard now. Fear grew and escaped her throat in the form of a tearful plea. “Please, Josh. How many times do I have to apologize? I’m sorry I spooked the horse. I’m sorry for ramming you in the gut. Josh… Please let me sleep with you.”
“Oh… All right, I guess you can----”
In a flash she was by her brothers’ bunk bed, and just as quick, Josh finished his sentence with a cruel, “not!” and a square kick to her belly. Crashing back against her displaced guitar and the heavy wardrobe that divided the room, she gasped for a breath she couldn’t catch.
* * *
What was that!? Claire Betten scrambled out of bed, grabbing her flashlight from the nightstand as she went. Had Drew fallen out of the top bunk? Stumbling in the dark, she ran down the hall, nearly smashing into Brad who’d burst from his closet-sized bedroom, obviously on the same mission.
“Mum! Did you hear that crash?”
“Aye. It came from down the hallway!”
Brad took off, leading the way. Although Bradley and Joshua’s teen-aged pranks had been a source of frustration earlier today, she was now thankful they’d both remained home when Trace and the two older boys had left to put the finishing touches on the new watering point for the cattle. At times like this, Brad and Josh could be such a reassuring presence.
For the past hour, she’d been laying in bed trying not to worry, but here it was midnight and still no sign of her husband and his offsiders. Please God, keep them safe… She couldn’t help it, images of calamity had overtaken any bit of objectivity she had left. So now she’d simply have to rely on Brad’s very capable, sixteen-year-old instincts.
She followed him past Rob and Nate’s empty room, then they both stopped short in the midnight shadows when frantic whispers and one soft whimper crossed the threshold of the younger kids’ room. Even in the weak glow of the dying flashlight, it was plain to see Brad shared her same sense of dread. And Father, let Drew be okay too… If anything happened to him, or any of the kids for that matter, her heart would surely stop beating.
Brad rushed to shove the door open, but it was her own anxiety that made her step into the large, darkened room first. “Drew? Is everything all right?” Adrenaline pulsed to the end of her limbs when the yellow beam spotlighted her three children huddled together on the floor.
“Mum! It’s Miah! She can’t breathe!” Andrew’s eyes shimmered with liquid fear.
“What happened?” Pushing her way past her younger sons, she reached out to Miah’s desperate arms. “Miah, sweetheart, it’s going to be all right.”
“Mummy…” Miah’s cry was as stunted as her breathing.
“It’s all my fault, Mum. I kicked her. Is she gonna be okay?”
“You what!? Joshua…” Disappointment pronounced every hushed syllable of her son’s name.
“I’m sorry, Mum.” Joshua knelt close to his sister, his man-child hands resting on her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Miah.”
It was definitely remorse that appeared as pallor on her fourth son’s face, but unfortunately for Miah, it had shown up five minutes too late. Pulling her daughter close, she patted her back, willing the air to refill her lungs. “Just relax, love. It’ll come,” Miah’s shoulders heaved with a cleansing sigh while Claire aimed her own exasperated breath toward her son.
She was fed up with the kids’ constant fighting. Two months ago she’d warned Trace that if he didn’t watch it, his worries over the drought would rub off on their sons and daughter. Well, it was obvious, stress had wasted no time wreaking havoc in their young lives. In fact, for the past couple of weeks Brad, Josh, and Miah had been locking horns about anything and everything. It wasn’t until after that big barney in the paddock today that Trace had finally addressed the issue and demanded their fighting had to stop.
“Joshua, I don’t know what possessed you to kick your sister in the belly in the middle of the night, but after your shenanigans this morning, what do you think your dad’s going to do when he gets home? Do you think he was merely talking through his hat today?”
Josh hung his head and remained silent.
“Mummy…” Miah turned her tear-streaked face to the moonlight. “Granddad’s guitar is broken… and there’s something outside. I was trying to tell Josh, but he wouldn’t believe me. I… I want to sleep with you.”
“Oh, Miah… I’m sure Daddy will be home soon; there’ll be no room.”
“Please, I’m afraid. Something’s in the stock yard. I heard it.”
Silver moonlight reflected off Drew’s blonde curls as he levered himself onto his haunches. “Miah, you can sleep with me.”
That was just like her youngest son -- to be the champion. He’d always been his twin sister’s greatest ally and fan. They were such a strange team really, but each one seemed content in the roles they’d assumed. Where Miah was impulsive and stole the show with her wild stories and energetic songs, Drew took the supporting role, entertaining the family with the steady beat of his thoughtful, caring ways.
“That’s very kind of you, Drew. But I think we’ll all sleep better in our own beds. And Miah, if something were out there, Milly and Frodo would bark. We’d hear the horses pacing. With the difficult day you’ve had, your imagination is probably working overtime. Come on. Let’s get you all tucked in.”
The boys didn’t need to hear another word. They stood and shuffled back to their respective beds, but Miah sank further into her lap, refusing to move. “No, Mum. Please… I know what I heard. Something’s out there.”