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Billabong Bend - Jennifer Scoullar

Paperback Published: 27th May 2015
ISBN: 9780143572886
Number Of Pages: 304

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From the author of Brumby's Run, Currawong Creek and Turtle Reef comes an evocative story of love and loyalty, set in the heart of Australia's riverlands.

For Nina Moore, the rare marshland flanking the beautiful Bunyip River is the most precious place on earth. Her dream is to buy Billabong Bend and protect it forever, but she's not the only one with designs on the land. When her childhood sweetheart Ric returns home, old feelings are rekindled, and Nina dares to dream of a future for both of them on the river. But a tragic death divides loyalties and threatens to tear apart their fledgling relationship.

This star-crossed rural romance sets Nina and Ric on a heart-rending collision course, amid the beauty of northern New South Wales.

About the Author

Aussie author Jennifer Scoullar writes page-turning fiction about the land, people and wildlife that she loves. Scoullar is a lapsed lawyer who harbours a deep appreciation and respect for the natural world. She lives on a farm in Australia's southern Victorian ranges, and has ridden and bred horses all her life. Her passion for animals and the bush is the catalyst for her best-selling books, which are all inspired by different landscapes.

She grew up on the books of Elyne Mitchell and all her life she’s ridden and bred horses, in particular Australian Stock Horses. Scoullar has eight published novels: Brumby’s Run, Currawong Creek, Billabong Bend, Turtle Reef, Journey’s End, Fortune’s Son, The Lost Valley and The Memory Tree. Buy her books now to discover why Jennifer Scoullar is one of Australia's favourite story-tellers!

Industry Reviews

'Like Currawong Creek before it, Billabong Bend is yet another great read by Jennifer Scoullar.'
Weekly Times

'An absorbing story . . . beautifully written, the landscape vivid and alive.'
Reading, Writing and Reisling

'Billabong Bend is a captivating read.'
Book'd Out

Chapter 1

Shotguns boomed and boomed again, shattering the morning peace of the marshlands, startling the roosting nankeen night heron into laboured flight. What the hell? Nina lowered her camera and steered the little runabout towards the gunshots. There, in the distance, past the bank of river red gums weeping in the heat – a tinny with two men in camo gear, weapons raised. A succession of deafening blasts echoed off the water, drowning out Nina's air horn as she powered towards them. The stench of gunpowder reached her nose and rage rose in her throat like bile. Damn them.

A mixed flock of wood ducks and teal were flapping away, well outside the fifty-metre range of an average shotgun. These men were the most incompetent poachers she'd ever seen. As Nina drew near, they turned their heads at the blare of her horn. 'This is private property,' she yelled. 'Get off my land!' These wetlands belonged to her in spirit, just as she belonged to them.

One man was fat, and swigged from a beer can. The other man was taller, older, with a bushy beard. He sneered and played with his gun. 'You've got a mouth on you, sweetheart.'

A movement caught her eye, something dark, floating in the water. The shadow took shape: a lifeless black swan. Nina uttered an anguished cry and slammed on the throttle. The man's sneer turned to a look of alarm. He aimed high and pulled the trigger. Birdshot exploded overhead as she closed in, but fury made her fearless. Pelican's heavy hull rammed the tinny. Its impact launched the men, weapons and all, into the water where they floundered, gasping for air.

'You crazy bitch!' screamed the fat man as his hat floated away.

She circled the poachers grimly for a bit, checking they could swim, then went after their craft and towed it back. Using her bird- catching hook, Nina hauled their belongings from among the empty cans that littered the floor of the tinny, all the while keeping the boat just out of their reach. 'Hey . . . idiots,' she said, searching their bags. 'You watching?' She checked their wallets. 'Brodie and, ah, Shane?' An assortment of items sailed overboard to a chorus of threats and pleas: fishing rods, ammo, their lunch.

'Oh, come on. Not my car keys,' yelled the older man, adding 'please' for good measure.

Nina paused. 'Brodie, Shane . . . are you listening?' The men trod water and nodded furiously.

'It's hard enough for birds to breed in this drought,' she said. 'Those ducks you fired on? They have young on the water, and now you've spooked them. If they don't come back, their chicks will die of cold or starvation or get picked off by predators. And for each adult bird killed, you wound three or four with stray pellets.' The dead swan drifted closer. 'Here,' she said. 'I'll give you the same sporting chance you gave the birds.'

Nina threw the keys skywards. The men swore and thrashed hopelessly about trying to reach them. Seconds later, their wallets and phones made the same trip to the bottom of the river. Nina unhitched the tinny and nudged it towards them. 'Next time' – her voice was quiet with anger – 'I won't be so friendly.' She waited until they had a hand on the side of their boat, then manoeuvred the Pelican away.

Her heart beat as loud as Pelican's engine as she wove her way upstream, through tangles of lignum and club rushes, skirting snags and overhanging branches. She didn't often encounter poachers in the wetlands, but for every rat you saw there were fifty you didn't. Duck hunting wasn't legal in New South Wales, not without a licence from the landowner, and never in breeding season. She'd seen some terrible sights this summer. A flotilla of fifty orphaned cygnets seeking the protection of a single surviving swan. A platypus drowned in a banned fish trap. A family of frightened day-old ducklings bobbing sadly in the shallows, crowded around a hunter's plastic decoy duck.

That story at least had a happy ending. She'd scooped the babies up in a net, taken them home and put them under a brooder lamp. Nina smiled to think of the peeping fluff balls, ducking and diving in the upturned dustbin lid that served as their pool. What kind were they? It was impossible to identify most waterbirds until they were fledged, and dozens of species called Billabong Bend home. She'd just have to wait and see.

Nina wiped the sweat from her eyes. Still early, and the air was already baking. The sun blazed down from a dome of flawless blue as it had done each day for months now. She slowed to manoeuvre the boat around a leaning river cooba that almost blocked the shrunken watercourse. She'd never seen water levels this low.

Nina detoured up Langley Reach, towards the mooring of Billabong's homestead, keeping a sharp eye out as always. You never knew what rare waterbirds might be found in this pristine marshland. Soon the historic house appeared through the trees. With peeling paint and smashed windows, it stood like a blind sentinel above the river. She cruised around the abandoned jetty and frowned. The water was a floating carpet of vivid green, splashed with delicate purple flowers. This was worse than she thought. Water hyacinths were pretty, no doubt about it, but outside of their native Amazon they were also a curse, choking waterways. Somebody needed to clear out the weeds here. Somebody needed to clear out the poachers. Somebody needed to fix up the homestead. Nina took some photos, squared her shoulders and set her deter- mined jaw. If she had anything to do with it, that somebody was going to be her.

Nina arrived home and jogged up the short dusty track leading to the house. She pushed in the flywire door of Red Gums, checked her watch and frowned. She always lost track of time out at Billabong. Jinx, her gentle retriever, followed her inside.

'Guess you'll have to see in the new year by yourself.' Nina fondled the dog's soft ears, and he furrowed his honey-coloured brow. She felt a sudden, nervous quiver in her stomach. Her ten-year high school reunion was tonight, a masquerade ball. She wasn't a party person. She hated crowds and didn't do small talk. Maybe she'd lived alone in the bush for too long or maybe she was just plain antisocial. Whatever the reason, Nina felt like a fish out of water in town these days. There were a couple of people she'd like to see, though. Dylan, for instance, and her friend Kate. It was New Year's Eve, after all.

'I don't think so,' Nina had said, when Kate first asked her. 'And anyway, Lockie can't go.'

Kate had laughed. 'Can't or won't?'

Lockie Carver managed Macquarie Station, a large pastoral property out of Moree. He and Nina had been an item for a couple of years now. Lockie enjoyed a night at the local pub as much as anybody, but Kate was right – he wasn't much of a party animal either. Nina smiled, imagining how horrified he'd be at the prospect of wearing a costume.

'Can't,' said Nina. 'He's spending Christmas with his folks in Queensland.'

'And you didn't go with him?'

Kate read hidden meanings into everything. 'There was nobody to look after things here, that's all,' said Nina. 'Sorry about the reunion, Katie, but I'd feel funny going by myself and I've got nothing to wear..'

'You won't be by yourself, you'll be with me, and my sister's your size. Her blue dress should fit . . . Nina, I've gone to so much trouble making your mask. You have to come.'

At the St Patrick's College reunion, guests were meant to remain masked until midnight. Nina sighed as she made herself a sandwich. 'It might be fun,' she said to the dog, who was lying politely under the table, soft eyes trained on hers. He was an excellent listener. 'And it's about time I saw Eva. Wonder what sort of mask Kate made me? Hope it's a bird.' She tossed Jinx the last of the cheese. 'Come on, boy. We'd better do the rounds before I go.'

Nina checked her watch. Still time to take Flicka instead of the quad bike. She saddled the pretty chestnut mare while Monty, Flicka's paddock mate, bucked and kicked around the yard. With ears back and tail up, he sounded his displeasure with long, trumpeting neighs that made his whole body quiver. 'I'll take you next time,' said Nina, 'if you behave yourself.' The rangy grey gelding calmed down long enough to take a carrot, and then went tearing around his yard again.

They were ex-racehorses, Monty too old and Flicka too slow for the track, and they were both on their way to slaughter, when Nina had adopted them them from North West Equine Rescue in Moree six months earlier. Nobody had told Monty that his racing days were over. He had only one gear – top speed – and he was a wild ride. Flicka had settled better, a gentle, sensitive mare who tried hard to please. But her nerves were shot, and riding such a hyper- vigilant mount had its challenges. Nina never quite knew when Flicka might shy, so she had to keep a keen lookout and spot any- thing scary before her mare did.

Nina mounted Flicka and stroked her sleek golden neck, breathing in her earthy scent, proud of the growing trust between them. The lightest squeeze of her heels, and they set off on their rounds. Red Gums Station covered three hundred hectares of belah and black-box floodplains. Well-bred mobs of Murray Grey cattle grazed in the paddocks, shady groves of olive and nut trees stretched out along the river, and tracts of red gum woodlands sheltered stock and wildlife alike. Neighbouring Billabong Bend might be ecologically more valuable, but Red Gums was still a top-notch grazing property.

Nina swung Flicka down towards the orchards, cantering along the wide rows of olives and pecans while Jinx ranged on ahead. She cast her eye over trunks and branches, occasionally stopping to pick a few leaves. She trotted down the laneway, checking troughs for faulty ball cocks or leaking pipes. With the drought eating into Red Gums' water entitlement, she needed to make every drop count. Hungry steers milled along the dusty fence line, under the familiar expanse of unbroken blue, bellowing for hay. There wasn't much of that left.

Her last job was to inspect the pump station. Nina jumped down to check the new digital display that measured her water usage. Good, well below last year, and even in this drought she'd used less than half of her annual allocation. Nina stood back and surveyed the recent installation with pride. Powered by four solar panels on a tracking rack, it pumped river water up to a pair of large stock tanks. From there it flowed through to the troughs and orchards. Drip irrigators fed the root zones of her trees in precise amounts and only when required, slashing water consumption. New fences protected the fragile river edge, where native vegetation was staging a comeback. Nina held her breath as a royal spoonbill and half-grown chick stalked from the reeds. Nature was quick to heal herself, given half a chance.

The growing roar of a motor shattered the silence and sent the spoonbills dashing for cover. On the north side of the river, an approaching tractor with spray unit attached travelled along the neat crop rows. The driver, old Max Bonelli, gave her a curt wave. Nina waved back, wrinkling her nose as the acrid smell of chemicals drifted across the water.

Compared to her brown paddocks, Donnalee's cotton crop stood verdant and green. Nina scowled. She was an old-fashioned dry-land grazier. This was black-soil country and these rich, alluvial floodplains were some of the most fertile in Australia. But just like the wetlands, they depended on water to bring them to life. When Nina was a child, the floods came every year. Visions came to her of fat cattle grazing knee-deep in waving meadows of water couch, way out in the back blocks. Of ephemeral little gilgai lakes, sparkling like jewels. Of open water and lush landscape, and running a cow and calf every few hectares. Of a dazzling profusion of wildlife. Mere memories now. There'd been no proper flood for years, not even when it rained. Not since they'd built the Hopeton Dam to tame the river, and auctioned off thousands of megalitres of water from the Bunyip to upstream irrigators.

Not more than a stone's throw across the river, a broad diversion canal led off through Donnalee's picture-perfect paddocks of green. In the distance, she could see the rusty old dethridge wheels that punctuated its course, simple steel drums round an axle, fitted with eight paddle vanes. They spanned channels, spinning with the flow, operating the counters used to charge irrigation farmers for their water. Dozens of these iconic water-measuring wheels still operated along the river, some with their own names and personalities: Bear Wheel, Big Cow, Old Slowpoke.

They may have been part of the river's history, but the counters were notoriously dodgy and always seemed to work in the farmers' favour. So many things could go wrong. Vanes and drums got damaged. Bearings wore out. High upstream water levels could drown wheels altogether. On top of that, the devices only functioned properly for twenty years or so, and needed their axles replaced every five. Some local dethridge wheels were over a hundred years old.

Stories abounded of farmers beating the wheels and stealing water. A cruel ruse was to jam turtles in the spokes, as the inspectors couldn't prove they hadn't become stuck and died accidentally. Irrigators once told these stories freely, but not any more. Not since the floods stopped coming.

Nina imagined the wheels, scooping up vast amounts of precious water and sending it gushing into the leaky, open channels beyond. When would this region move into the twenty-first century? Electromagnetic flow meters and flume gates were the way to go. Nobody should grow cotton along this thirsty river anyway. It just wasn't right. She hurried back up to the homestead: a modest weatherboard house with a wraparound verandah and a rusty tin roof, standing on the only rise for miles around. Time to put aside her worries. Red Gums could manage without her for one day, and she was starting to look forward to tonight. When was the last time she'd worn anything but jeans?

Nina dropped her overnight bag near the door and took a deep breath. That was everything. Now all she needed were her keys. She searched among the bills and journals and seed lists on the table in the kitchen. Why couldn't she just put them on the hook behind the dresser like Mum always used to?

Her parents lived in Drover's Flat now, half an hour's drive east; a picturesque little town nestled on the banks of the Bunyip River. Two hotels, a central school, two churches. A general store selling everything from liquor to souvenirs, and the agricultural supply store run by Nina's parents. The place had no great claim to fame. A rodeo in November, goat races in April and – before the drought, anyway – excellent fishing. Some of the state's biggest Murray cod had been caught downstream.

Her parents were fifth-generation floodplains graziers, but years of drought had crushed their passion for farming. They'd wanted to cut their losses and let Red Gums go altogether. 'If I had a son,' Dad used to say, 'it might be different.' But there was no son, no other children at all. Just Nina. She'd talked them into selling to her, on vendor terms. Much as she loved running the place herself, she did miss her mother's organisational skills. Nina looked hopelessly around the messy kitchen and shrugged.

'So, I'm no housekeeper.' Jinx smiled as if to say big deal. She'd barely changed anything since her parents sold her the house – anything indoors, at least. Dylan teased her that it was 'trapped in last century'. But she didn't mind. She never noticed the old-fashioned wallpaper and faded floral curtains anyway. There was too much to be done outside.

She discovered her phone and keys beneath a week-old newspaper that she hadn't got around to reading. A headline caught her eye: Premier Tuckey brands water theft a crime – 'In the current drought it's tantamount to environmental terrorism and should be made an indictable offence.'

Too right. About time somebody took it seriously. Nina checked her watch. Five o'clock already. The reunion ball was at Moree, more than two hundred kilometres away. She turned off the fan, grabbed her bag and hurried out the door. Jinx looked disapproving and she gave him one last kiss. 'You can't come this time, boy.' The dog lay down obediently and Nina headed off, past the coolibahs in the garden, their eucalyptus scent pungent in the heat.

Through the trees beyond the river, Nina could see Max's tractor pull into the house yard at Donnalee. She loved that Red Gums was the district's highest homestead. Not only did it mean protection from floods, it gave her a bird's-eye view for miles around. She hurried past the rundown lean-to that housed the ancient tractor and her jet-black Holden Rodeo ute. Past the cattle yards and packing sheds, to the back gate. Her step grew light in anticipation of the trip.

Red Gums' rough airstrip ran down the middle of the property, dividing the young pecan orchards on the left from the mature olive groves flanking the river. Nina raised her hand, shielding her eyes from the glare, relishing the shock of pleasure she always got at the sight of the Skyhawk, all hers now. The little Cessna gleamed white and tan in the afternoon sunshine.

Nina did a walk around, stroking the warm metal, admiring the custom, keen-eyed hawk design that ran the length of the striped fuselage. It was an old aircraft, a little rusty round the seams, with chipped paintwork. Tiny stress cracks showed in the wing fairings and tail cone, and she'd drilled them to stop them from worsening. It hadn't really worked, but little things like that didn't matter. What mattered was that the Skyhawk unchained her from the ground, let her soar on real wings, made her an honorary bird. It was pure pleasure.

The engine muttered and coughed, then settled to its job. The propeller spun to life and Nina angled her nose into the breeze, as a boat might slant into a current. The aircraft powered up like a grounded eagle keen to be airborne, bouncing and hopping down the uneven runway until that glorious moment of lift-off.

Nina popped a mint in her mouth and settled in for the flight. She hadn't been up for a while. From the air, the extent of the drought was shockingly plain. The earth's living skin had peeled and cracked. Dry dams. Paddocks grazed so bare their fragile, black topsoil lay exposed and vulnerable. The once mighty Bunyip River snaked through the parched earth like a muddy drain. Even the trees that lined its banks looked brown and lifeless, their canopies choked with dust. The only contrast in this bleak landscape were the cotton fields, geometric shapes of vivid green, roughly following the river. Stealing its water, while the marshes and dry-land farmers died of thirst. Nina's throat tightened. Let it go, for Christ's sake. This was meant be fun. Tonight she'd connect with friends. She'd laugh and enjoy herself, safe from the loneliness that too often crept from the shadows at day's end.

On impulse, Nina banked and flew downstream. She swept over the junction where the Kingfisher met the Bunyip. No irrigators drained the wild Kingfisher dry. No dams confined it. Faraway rains, high in its catchment, had been the saviour of this year's waterbird breeding season. Its course meandered through rugged grazing country and national parks, emerging to spill lifesaving water into the Bunyip basin, downstream from the cotton farms. The river broadened now, flanked by tracts of marsh and bushland. Billabong Bend.

Beneath her wheeled squadrons of pelicans and flocks of ibis. She flew lower. A startled white-bellied eagle took cover in a rare patch of weeping myall woodland. Lower again. Long-legged emus raced at breakneck speed through the swampy sedgeland. She could taste the vast, dry continent beneath her, hear the music of its river red gums, feel its clear, summer skies in her veins. Something prick- led the back of her neck and a profound sense of excitement and joy coursed through her. She whooped out loud and dipped her wings in tribute to the wild wetlands below, all trace of depression banished. Now this, she reminded herself. This was living.

ISBN: 9780143572886
ISBN-10: 0143572881
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 27th May 2015
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 13.0  x 1.9
Weight (kg): 0.23

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