Jenny and her mum lived alone on the farm. Dad had died when Jenny was little. Now, she was 9 years old, and helped Mum run the place. They were out of town a few miles, with cows and chooks, and a hundred or so sheep. Mr. Thomas down the road sharecropped some wheat, but the day to day survival on the farm depended on Mum and Jenny, and the rain water tank.
It was dry country in summer. The little dam on the creek would be dry just after Christmas each year and everything depended on the rain water tank. Even the sheep had to water from that big squatter's tank Jenny's father had bolted together years ago. They had never run out; it was a big tank. But you never wasted water, either.
Jenny came home on an old school bus each evening and did the chore of milking the cows. Five jersey cows gave milk and cream and a little bit of cash, although with summer coming on, the milk yield was going down as the grass turned brown.
One Arbor day half holiday, Mum was still away helping young Mrs. Graham feed the shearers when Jenny arrived on the bus. The milking began early and Jenny was still on her own as she lugged the milk buckets into the barn by the separator. Mum would turn out the cream after tea.
Jenny leaned against the cream separator to rest. Up on the stack of seed wheat opposite her was the forbidden fruit of the farm; her father's old .303 from the rifle club. Mum had kept it there in case of sick animals, or unpleasant swaggies. Nine year old curiosity finally overcame obedience, and Jenny climbed up the rails on the shed wall and out over the bags.
Very carefully she carried the rifle down to the floor and across to the old cool safe. Out of the safe came the bolt and three bullets. Outside Jenny and fitted the bolt and one bullet. The blast, and the recoil against a small shoulder left her shocked and frightened. But as the pain subsided a small thought began to wonder what a bullet would do when it hit something. Unsteadily, and unthinking, the heavy muzzle of the gun directed itself back towards the house and rain water tank, that source of life for the farm. A .303 calibre bullet would very likely blow a hole the size of a fist out the back of a 44 gallon drum and cause a disaster of unhideable and untreatable proportions. But Jenny's father had built a very large tank. When the fatal shot came the tank tremored and shuddered but swallowed up the force of the projectile. All that remained was the small entry hole, two feet up from the ground, and a suddenly horrified and all knowing little girl watching the farm bleed to death.
There was one other thing. A quarter of a mile away, coming in off the road, was the sound of the Vanguard. Mum was coming home. Jenny, galvanised into inspiration, jammed a gum twig into the hole. Only a trace of precious water seeped past. Holding the weapon close she hastened into the barn and thrust it back onto the top of the bags. There was just enough time to scramble down the side of the heap and get over to the house!
Mum didn't see Jenny; you could get to the house from the barn whilst keeping the tank between you and the track up from the road. Jenny was in bed, in fact, when Mum searched her out. Normally, if the milking had been done, Jenny would have been with the cat in the garden. But Jenny was not feeling well. She didn't look well, but Mum, with the insight that Mothers have, was not sure that this was the whole story. She could feel it; something had Happened.
Jenny's symptoms were rather vague, but she wanted no tea. Out in the shed Mum wondered what was `up' as she wound over the heavy handle of the separator and watched the thin stream of cream flow into the churn. As her eyes wandered she saw the dull shining of the bolt handle in the old gun, and knew. She topped up the reservoir on the Coolgardie safe and then took the remaining ammunition from the old safe. Before she went to bed it had been safely hidden in a drawer inside, and locked.
Sick Jenny was left alone in bed in the morning because Mum went back early to Mrs. Graham's. But after the sound of the old Vanguard died away the energy of a Saturday morning and a night of planning took over. From the barn she took a gutter bolt and nut, and a small piece of rubber off an old inner tube. She would poke the bolt into the hole and hold it with the old chair from the verandah. Then in a previously unthinkable act, she would plunge down in through the hatch in the tank roof, put the rubber over the bolt she had punched a hole in it and screw on the nut. She had seen Mum do the same on a rust hole in the cows' trough. Tightened up the bolt would stop the leak. A little splodge of mud over the bolt on the outside of the tank, and Mum would never have to know. The life of the farm would be saved.
Jenny's desperate, almost heroic, subterfuge was never to succeed. Carrying the chair around to the back of the tank where in a seeming miracle the hole had been hidden from Mum's sight, she felt her feet squelch. Dropping the chair in her horror she discovered the little twig, so tight when she had dashed back into the barn, had popped out. At the very beginning of summer all but the last two feet of water had gone!
Nothing could be done. Nothing. The chair and the bolt and were put away. Jenny went back to bed and proceeded to become very sick indeed! She was almost numb with horror as she thought of no water for the cows, and then remembered the sheep. And what would she ever say to her mother? How could she ever tell her mum what she had done? Whatever would they do for water?
Back from Mrs. Graham and the shearers, Mum found a little girl feverish and withdrawn. Jenny was morose and cut off from her only comfort, unable to say what she had done.
In the evening there was a dry thunder storm; irritable air and harsh lightning flashes. It seemed to Jenny to be God's anger lashing out, anger that would come from Mum in a few weeks when the tank ran dry. Jagged, thunderous anger, and, of course, without any rain; she felt fallen beyond forgiveness.
Everything at least seems to pass, and so did the fever. On Monday, Jenny went back to school, still unable to say anything about the happening. On the surface, life went on. At night Jenny had bad dreams; as she vainly tried to screw on the nut, the level in the tank dropped and a large grotesque and angry figure found her exposed in the bottom of the tank and locked her in the darkness.
The end finally came. A billy of tank water had been transferred to the parsley patch around from the tap when Mum noticed an out of season green tinge just further along. Exploring, she found a small hole, and remembered the gun.
Jenny's mother stood between tank and house thinking of dry tanks and gunshot wounds. Half formed thoughts of water carting mixed with pain at Jenny's foolishness, and understanding love for a little girl's agony. That little girl, coming out of the house, saw all this passing over Mum's face, knew she was finally found out, and burst into tears.
Probably the hardest thing to understand was Mum's lack of outrage. Jenny kept waiting for an out burst of temper which didn't come. Instead Mum seemed sorry for her and even cuddled her while the whole painful confession was sobbed out. Jenny felt closer to her than she had for a long while.
Later, they fixed the tank together, with some tar added under the bolt and rubber to stop rust. Jenny was allowed to climb into the tank and push on the patch and screw the bolt.
There was more summer thunder about. Standing on the verandah with Mum, Jenny remembered the angry lightning of ten days ago; that sign of a dry angry God which had so frightened her. But tonight, with the love of Mum's arm around her, she thrilled to its excited dance through the life giving rain.
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