The camp was quiet. The tent was an airless oven. Alinea stared at her Latin textbook. Beeper, our pet, sprawled outside in the blazing sun, as motionless as the rocks around him.
I shut my book with a slam. Alinea grinned, gold lights dancing in her brown eyes. It was too hot to study Latin declensions, especially when we were supposed to be on holidays. It was just that we were in everyone’s bad books.
My name is Mike, and my Dad is an archeologist. His idea of an enjoyable holiday is working on other archeologists' digs instead of his own. He didn't really want us and our weird pet with him this time, but we had promised to behave. Miss Smith, known as Smithy, would have looked after us, except she wanted to come with Dad, so we came along as well.
We were somewhere in Central Australia. The scenery was bush petering into desert and stony hills that lifted fold after fold into the glaring blue of distance. There were unexpected creeks and waterholes, usually dry, and sometimes caves.
Alinea and I had prepared meals, washed dishes and sifted dirt. We had packed and unpacked stores, and were allowed to drive the jeep, under supervision of course, down the winding dusty track back to the small township for the supplies.
We were getting on very well, until it happened, Alinea, and me and Beeper. Beeper is an odd creature who attached himself to me on one of our expeditions. Not even Dad is quite sure where he came from originally or what he is.
He has funny bowl shaped ears, twinkling brown eyes and a heavy body covered in scales. His jaws are lined with sharp green stained teeth. He has retractable talons in his paws, and a long tail ending in a spike. His nourishment is from either basking in a hot sun or through eating wood.
On the quarantine form, Dad described him as a rare species of Tibetan Mountain dog. The official looked doubtful, but after the quarantine period we were allowed to bring Beeper home.
According to Dad, Beeper is just a baby, even if he is bigger than most normal dogs. He is also the nearest thing I have ever had to a pup of my own.
Alinea and I had used up dozens of old tennis balls teaching him to fetch. So whenever we went for a walk, we had to throw stones or sticks he could chase after to retrieve.
Anyhow, this particular afternoon when we were out walking, he dug up two dirty looking stones for us to throw. We skimmed them into the creek, and Beeper splashed after them, his silly ears straight up like sails and his long tail whirling.
When he dropped the wet stones at our feet, we noticed they were covered in a faint network of carved lines and squiggles. We were just examining them when an old Aborigine spotted us.
"Damn kids," he yelled, and snatched the stones off us.
More old men gathered around and shook their fists at us. Alinea and I walked away, but the old men followed us. When we reached camp, everyone gathered around and listened. We were supposed to have trespassed on sacred ground and desecrated sacred relics.
"How could you both," Dad kept saying.
We tried to explain it wasn't on purpose and that Beeper was only playing but Dad just got more upset. So we were confined to camp. No one wanted our help in digging, cleaning or writing up details. To make everything worse, Dad decided we could put in our time brushing up on our Latin.
"A handy language to know," he said as he marked the lines we had to learn, and even Smithy nodded approval. It was all right for Alinea. She had a flair for languages, but I was changing my mind about becoming an archeologist if I had to keep learning declensions. Also it wasn’t fair to keep punishing us when we really hadn’t done anything that bad.
"Let's go for a swim."
"We aren't allowed near the creek," Alinea reminded me.
"We can go to the waterhole," I retorted. "Everybody is away at the dig."
Back in the hills was a winding gorge that started somewhere up country and led nowhere, but in the middle was a small clear pool. It was deep and always cold. Dad said it was fed by an underground spring. I pitched my Latin book under the table. I felt cooler and less bad tempered just at the thought of a swim.
Alinea vanished into the tent she shared with Smithy. She came out carrying towels, a bag of fruit and both our water bottles.
Alinea wasn't really my sister. She, like Beeper was a sort of stray and Dad was acting as her guardian until we traced her parents. If I ever had to have a sister, Alinea was the sort of sister I would choose. She could ride, swim, run faster than me, and knew how to fix the trail bike.
"‘We won't need those," I protested when I spotted the water bottles. "It's only twenty minutes over the hill to the waterhole."
"You know what your Dad said," Alinea reminded me as she threw my water bottle at me.
"I know," I grumbled as I fastened it to my belt. "Don't move out of sight of the camp without water, even if you're wading in the stuff."
Beeper's ears sprang up in their bowl shape as he watched us. He had been very quiet all the morning, as though he understood he was in disgrace too.
"Beep," he uttered.
"Yeah, we're going for a walk, come on," I said.
Beeper shook the red dust off himself and waddled after us. We trudged past the steep rock wall and line of tents, over the hill and across the dusty plain to the gorge.
It was very still and quiet. The red dust drifted around us as we walked. It was too quiet. No hum of insects or birdcalls, or rustling of lizards slithering out of our path. The sky was a funny dull blue, and the heat haze shimmered across the stony hills, cutting down the visibility.
"There's going to be a storm," Alinea said as we slid down the steep track into the bottom of the gorge.
"Don't be silly," I scoffed. "It hasn't rained for about six months around here."
"It will though," Alinea predicted.
I just shrugged. We reached the pool. It was clear and cold and well worth the hot dusty walk. We just fell into it, shorts, tee shirts and runners. I ducked Alinea, and she ducked me and we both ducked Beeper. This was a waste of time as he didn't seem to need to breathe and just sat on the bottom, his tail stirring up the sand as he looked up at us.
"I can definitely hear thunder," Alinea spluttered as she bobbed up for air.
I shook the water from my ears. Somewhere in the distance was a continuous rumble. I looked up. The patch of sky visible between the high walls was still blue. If there was a storm the others would return early to the campsite, and we should get back before them. Not that the waterhole was off limits, but Dad was in such a touchy mood at the moment, I didn't want to upset him any further.
We climbed out, mopped ourselves down with the towels, put our water bottles back on our belts, and sat in the hot sun to dry. In five minutes flat our clothes and our runners were bone dry.
"And we didn't need our water bottles, Miss Careful," I said as I stood up.
Alinea was facing up the canyon looking past me. She suddenly looked scared. I spun around. For a few seconds I didn't quite realise what I was seeing and hearing. The thunder was deafening. A solid wall of tumbling yellow water hit us. We were knocked off our feet and pushed under water, tumbling and spinning.
I bobbed to the surface, coughing out water, and looked for Alinea. There was so much water racing down between the narrow walls it built up in the open space of the waterhole, and swirled around in a roaring whirlpool, spinning me around with it.
Alinea's head bobbed up beside me. I grabbed for her, shielding myself from the dried branches and then larger logs that tumbled and rolled with us. Something hit me. I went under. Alinea dragged me to the surface.
I coughed out the muddy water and pushed another heavy log away. We struggled to stay afloat, going round and round with the litter of dead trees and smaller branches. Alinea sank, and I hauled her to the surface. She came up spluttering. We tried to strike out for the sides. They were steep but we should be able to clamber up them but the current was too strong, and the sides of the gorge remained out of reach.
We both clung to a log as it spun around. The dismay in Alinea's eyes was mirrored in mine. We were both good swimmers, but we couldn't get across the current to the sides.
We were in danger of drowning in an area that had had no rain for six months. If it wasn't so frightening, it would be ridiculous!