Tallimba, the aboriginal boy came to them in the Spring. Henry was splitting firewood, and the boy padded up behind him and squatted unobserved nearby, watching silently. Henry had stopped to mop his face, and saw him -- a brown boy with velvet eyes and black satin hair. Henry looked a question at him and the brown boy flashed a dazzling smile. "Me Tallimba," he announced, and took the axe from Henry's hand.
From then on he was always there, waiting to be told what to do. He slept on the ground in the wood shed, and nothing Eve could say or do would induce him to sleep in the house. "Ingildo," he would say, pointing to the house, "Ingildo . . . very bad." He didn't speak much English, but Henry usually managed to communicate fairly well, and in time he learned a few words, and Henry began to hope that the boy would soon be speaking quite a lot of English. "He's an intelligent lad," he said to Eve one night. "I don't think it would take much effort to teach him."
Eve laughed. "That's just the schoolteacher in you talking. How old would you say he is?"
"I'd say about fourteen or fifteen. It's hard to tell."
"He's a savage!" said Jessie. "He won't even come into the house to eat!"
Eve frowned disapprovingly at her daughter, then said, "It's true though, Henry. How can you trust him? You could wake up one morning and find him gone. There's no point in training him if you can't even be sure whether he will stay or not."
But the day came when Tallimba was coaxed into the kitchen, and from then on, it was easy. He became a part of the family, eating at their table, and wearing European clothes, He was sensible enough to realize that by wearing the white man's clothes he no longer had to smear his body with mud to ward off the sun's hot rays, He even allowed himself to be persuaded to try sleeping in a bed, although he insisted on its being left out on the verandah, winter and summer.
The first summer in Australia for this immigrant family was a trial of their patience and stamina. It was an extremely hot, dry summer. The Spring rains had been good but had petered out earlier than usual, and by December the lush Spring growth had dried and stiffened, and bleached to a pale yellow. The flies were very bad that summer too, and Jessie refused to go outside. "They come at me in droves," she complained.
Each evening after dinner, Eve stood on the verandah and gazed across the parched paddocks where the heat haze was rising in shimmering waves towards the distant mauve-shrouded hills."It's so hard to believe," she murmured,squinting against the glare, "that in England it's cold . . . probably with snow!"
"That's right," said Henry with a chuckle, "but after all, it is on the other side of the world."
"What is snow?" asked Tallimba. "What is world?"
Henry looked helplessly at Eve. How could he explain snow to one who'd never seen it. Such great cold to one who'd never endured it?
She shrugged and whispered, "Don't look at me. You're the schoolteacher!"
So Henry brought out some books with pictures of snow; then to Tallimba's questioning eyes he hugged himself and shivered. "Very cold," he said.
"Ah," said Tallimba with understanding. "Kunama . . . snow. The cold come with Kareelah, the south wind."
"Why . . . yes," said Henry in surprise. "I have heard that in winter there's snow further south of here."
"Alright Dad," said Jessie. "Now let's see you explain the world to him."
Henry thought for a moment, then he took an orange, and with the edge of a fork he traced the outline of the continents on its skin, lifted the peel where the oceans should be, leaving the land masses intact like a relief map. "This water," he said, pointing to the yellow pithy surface, "much water." He pointed to the orange parts. "This land . . . your land . . . my land . . . altogether, world."
Tallimba took the orange in his hand and turned it over thoughtfully. "Where your land?" he asked.
Henry pointed to the uneven blob which was England, and said, "This my country -- long way from here, very far." He then touched the continent of Australia. "This is your country."
Tallimba touched the continent of Australia, running his black finger slowly around the coastline. "Tabulum," he said, grinning widelly. "Tabulum . . . this fella my country."
* * *
Christmas was over, and the New Year begun. If possible January was even hotter than December. One morninng, Henry awoke later than usual and lay staring at the sunlit leaves outside the window. Already the air in the bedroom was heavy and oppressive. It's going to be another day of suffocating heat, he thought. It drained a man's energy so that even thinking was an effort. He turned to look at Eve, still sleeping peacefully at his side. What a woman! He must have done something right to have a wife like Eve. Gentle Eve, brought up in a London household full of servants. Who would have thought she could take to this life the way she had? He wished he felt as confident about himself as he felt about Eve.
He pushed the sheet aside and swung his legs out of bed. The woollen rug felt warm and cloying under his feet. If only there was a job that needed doing inside, so that he didn't have to go out in that searing heat. How he envied the platypus and the water rats in their holes down by the bank of the creek. The thought of water made him remember the old well. Brilliant! He'd make that his job for the day: clean it out. The fencing could wait. It'd be cool down the well, at least he'd gain a little respite from the unrelenting sun.
Eve woke then, and he told her of his plan. "Heaven only knows how long it's been there," he said. "Fifty years at least, but if I pump out the dirty water, and clean the mud out, it should supply us with good water again, and be good for another fifty years."
But Eve looked doubtful. "Are you sure you should do it alone, dear? It sounds dangerous."
"I'll be careful," he said, unwilling to give credence to anything that might rob him of his escape from the sun, "besides, I'll have Tallimba to help me."
"I doubt very much that Tallimba will be much help. What could he possibly know about wells?"
"Well, he can at least fetch and carry for me, can't he?"
As soon as breakfast was finished they began work on the old well, diverting the pumped water onto the vegetable garden. On a rope ladder Henry climbed down, forty feet to the bottom. "It's lovely and cool down here," he called to Tallimba. "I think I'll stay here for the duration of the summer."
Tallimba laughed good-naturedly and called back, "You come up here, boss. You pull up buckets of mud and I go down there."
They worked steadily all morning , Henry shovelling mud into the buckets and scraping it from the old wooden planks which lined the walls. Tallimba hauled up the buckets and carried them to a corner of the garden where the mud would become next year's top-soil.Henry called out again, "I'll come up now Tallimba, and give you a spell down here in the cool . . . I'll just fill this last bucket."
"Alright Boss," called Tallimba, "an' I just empty this last one bucket." He trotted off to the garden with his bucket of mid, while Hugh wielded his shovel at the diminishing sludge at his fee. He swung energetically at what was intended to be the last shovelful, but this one felt different. He heard the steel scrape against rock, and at the same time the rock seemed to move under the tip of the shovel. Immediately water began to bubble up around his feet: clear, clean water it was, and he uttered an exasperated "Blast!" At that moment, Tallimba put his head over the rim and called out, "Okay Boss, you come up now."
"Look Tallimba," called Henry. " . . . look at this. Of all the rotten luck!"
Tallimba peered down the well but couldn't see anything different. "What's the matter Boss?"
"A confounded spring has opened up, and I haven't got all the mud out yet."
Tallimba could see now, the streaks of colour where the clear water was bubbling up through the murk. It was swirling around Henry's legs and was already halfway up to his knees. "I think more better you come up now Boss . . . pretty damn quick!"
"Yes, I suppose you're right," agreed Henry, and he made to grasp the rope ladder hanging against the wet wooden wall. He uttered an oath, then he called up "I can't move young fella, my feet are stuck fast in this wretched mud."
"More better you take off boots, maybe," suggested the boy, a note of alarm in his voice.
"Yes, good idea." said Henry, and he bent down and groped in the muddy water for the laces that tied his boots, but the water was higher now, and covered his face when he bent over. He took a deep breath and tried to locate the laces, but the slippery mud made everything feel the same and try as he might, he couldn't find the end of the knot. He swore again to himself as he remembered tying double knots that morning. Several times he tried, taking deep breaths between each plunge, but it was no use, he had to admit it to Tallimba, trying to keep the panic from his voice. "It's no use old chap, I'm stuck fast. Run off and get Toby -- wait a minute, throw down the end of the rope. I'll be tying it around my chest while you're gone."
The water was up to the tops of his legs now. Tallimba secured his end of the rope and flung the other end down to Henry, then ran off to bring Toby, the aged draught horse. He was only gone ten minutes but when he returned, pulling the horse by the bridle, he saw to his dismay that the water had reached Hugh's waist. "Don't worry Boss," he called. "Toby get you out now." He quickly passed the rope a few turns around the windlass, then tied the end tightly to Toby's yoke. "Giddyap boy," he walked forward with the horse, his hand on the bridle. "Come on Toby, come on horse . . . pull . . .pull hard."
Toby was moving steadily forward, and Tallimba left him a moment to look anxiously down the well. The rope was taut, but Henry was still held fast. "Not long now, Boss . . . put hands on rope above head . . . hang on tight . . . not hurt chest." Back to the horse, urging him forward. The powerful animal strained against the rope, then lurched forward as it gave way and began to move. Back to the well, a flash of white teeth as he grinned happily at the sight of Henry hanging free at last, then back to the horse's head. "Good horse, good Toby, pull hard."
Neither Henry nor Tallimba noticed the mud beginning to ooze from between the boards. Why would they? It moved silently and slowly, seeping out and crawling downwards with grey glistening fingers. The old boards, deprived of the support of water, had begun to sag, and as the mud seeped out, more moved in to take its place. At least one plank was rottten. The weight behind it began to push out.
It gave way with a sigh and a terrifying dull thwack, followed by a hideous whisper that struck a chill of fear to Henry's heart, but it was too late. The grey morass poured out in an avalanche, bringing more boards with it. The clattering of the falling boards and the slop of mud echoed up through the well. Even sound timbers were giving way. One after another they were pushed out of position and sent hurtling down the shaft. Rocks and stones that had long lain still in the wet mire now went crashing downward with a grating and a scraping that made Tallimba's heart freeze, but the horse was startled by the din and began to shy, so that Tallimba was unable to let go of the bridle: couldn't look to see what was happening. He heard Henry cry out shrilly, and his alarm mounted with each sound which reverberated from the well.
Eve heard the horse whinneying, and stood stock still, a dish of steaming potatoes in her hands, then she heard Tallimba's panic-stricken cry, "Missus, Missus," and she slammed the dish down with such force that the potatoes bounced and rolled across the table as she flew out the door and across the yard. Jessie heard too and came running from the side verandah.
"Bunda-bunda . . . well break open . . . beeriwera," yelleld Tallimba, unable to hide his panic. "Hold horse Missus, please."
Sick with dread Eve took control of Toby's head, and Jessie ran to help her. Tallimba peered down the well. "Aayee? Byamee!" he wailed, at the sight of Hugh danglling limply at the end of the rope, surrounded by the chaos of fallen timbers, mud and rocks. Further up, the rope was fouled on a piece of broken siding. "Missus, you keep horse still . . . not move," instructed the boy, and without another word he disappeared over the top of the well, clambering down the rope ladder towards the helpless man. He cleared the rope . . . Eve bit her lip as she heard the board clatter on downwards, but she dared not let go of Toby's head, so she fought the terror constricting her throat. Inside the well, Tallimba inspected the rope and found it frayed where the splintered wood had snagged it. He swung Henry's limp arm across his back and hugged him close, then he called "Horse pull now Missus . . . make horse pull hard."
She did as she was bid, urging the horse on with the strength that comes with desperation. Jessie too, pulled on the bridle with all her might. Presently, two heads appeared above the rim. Tallimba, on the rope ladder was supporting Hugh's weight with all the stamina and endurance of a grown man. "Hold still now, Missus," he called, as he carefully eased Hugh upwards. "Jessie, please . . . you help now." Jessie ran to obey. "Catch legs . . . pullem over side. You can do?"
"Yes," said Jessie breathlessly, as she grasped one muddy leg and then the other and pulled them across the top of the well. Tallimba at last released his hold and swung himself outwards. He secured the rope and called to Eve. "Come Missus . . . we get 'im now. Pull 'm out now, together."
Eve, white faced and trembling hastened to obey, and together they pulled him away from the yawning shaft and safely onto the ground, where Eve sat, cradling his head. "Don't die darling, -- don't leave me," she murmured again and again, rocking back and forth, her eyes dry but wide with fear. Jessie was sobbing bitterly as she knelt over her father's still form. She could not see his face for the thick coating of grey, greasy mud which cllung to him from head to foot, but a bright red stain had appeared at about the hair-line, and red rivulets trickled across his forehead and down his cheek. "Daddy, Daddy," she whispered.
Tallimba fell wearily to his knees and put his ear to Henry's chest. For a few seconds, which seemed like aeons of time to the two stricken women, he llistened intently, then his muddied face broke into a wide smile. "Boss live," he said happily. "Him heart beat strong."
"Oh, dear God," was all that Eve could say, but the tears began to flow as all the pent up terror loosed itself in relief and gratitude.
"It more better you clean 'im up now," said Tallimba wisely. "I fetch white doctor."
They washed away the mud and tried to make him comfortable where he lay. In half an hour, Dr. Kingsley arrived with Sam Brown and two of Henry's other neighbours, and after the doctor's initial examinatiion, they carried him inside, and helped bathe and put him to bed. Later Doctor Kingsley peered down the well and said, "He was a very lucky man, Eve. A nasty knock on the head, some cuts and bruises and grazed ribs, but . . . "gesturing downwards, "by the look of this, it could have been much, much worse."
"I know," said Eve. "If it hadn't been for Tallimba . . . that reminds me. I haven't seen Tallimba since we took Henry inside.
She went looking for him then, and found him curled up in the woodshed . . . covered in mud and sleeping the sleep of the exhausted. Eve lifted his muddy hair from his eyes, and whispered her thanks, then went to find a blanket to cover the hero.