Annie was down by the river doing some repairs to her raft when her father called out to her. Her father seemed to be in a bit of a hurry and anxious.
Annie left the raft and met her father halfway up the river bank.
‘Annie, I have been called out to the fires on the Black Hill Range. I just received word on the CB Radio; the Country Fire Authority needs every available person to help.
A big wind is picking up this afternoon and changing direction.The fire will head this way.
Your mother should be back from town any minute.
Our essential items are stashed on the veranda.
You grab anything you feel valuable to you from your bedroom.
You and your mother are to go to the assembly area at the football oval in Bracken Town and wait for me there.’
‘But Dad what about the animals?’
Annie’s Mum and Dad, Marie and Charlie Walsh were vets who had a practice in Bracken. They also cared for any sick or injured native animals on their animal rescue farm. Annie was the main hands-on carer. She fed the animals daily,cleaned their pens and cages, and also changed their dressings.
‘Annie, you have to be a big brave girl and do as Dad says.
You will not have much time. I know Mum will be here any minute. I have to head off to the Black Range, which is in the other direction. It will all be okay’.
Annie's Dad gave her a big hug, then jumped into his ute and sped off down the Black Hill Range road.
Annie went to her bedroom and chose a few things. Her favourite jeans and a hat that was given to her by the Park Ranger were stuffed into a back pack. Two hours went by and her Mum did not arrive. Annie tried not to worry about her Mum but was worried about the amount of smoke that was in the air.
The wind had changed suddenly; she could see that the smoke was thick. The caged birds were squawking. Annie was now very concerned.
Annie went straight to the pens and cages at the side of the house. She had named the animal enclosure, ‘Annie’s Hospital’. Annie had painted a sign, so everyone knew all the injured animals and birds were there. She let out the budgerigars and the magpie. The magpie, a mature female nicknamed Maggie, had had a broken wing from some crazy guy with a gun. Understanding the cage door was now open, Maggie jumped around for a while. It was like she did not want to go. She stood at the entrance, then landed on the ground. Shewalked up and down, then started to flap her wings. With just a few flaps she rose a few metres, then perched on the red tractor. In no time she was off, flying low at first then gradually gained height. She did a circuit around the olive grove then a flypast as if to say goodbye. Annie was very relieved that Maggie was well enough to fly.
'Well, that is one less I have to worry about.’
Ned, the draught horse, was her favourite. Ned was very old and way past any use on any farm. Annie had ridden Neddy bareback since she was very little. Hehad been in the paddock for as long as Annie could remember, but this was no time to be sad.
‘Neddy old boy you are going to have to fend for yourself. Go on, I have opened the gate ...off you go’.
Kanga, an Eastern Grey Kangaroo, was a joey when he first came under Annie's care. Kanga's mum had been hit by a car and was found on the side of the road. Fortunately, Annie's Mum knew to check to see if the kangaroo was a female and then if there was a joey in its pouch. There was a joey and it was very much alive. Annie loved caring for that joey, but now was the time to release it. Kanga was a good year old and had to learn how to fend for itself. Annie wanted to cry but toughened up. She did not look back, as Kanga jumped off into the bush.
She released any other animal that she thought might have a chance of surviving. The echidna with the broken leg, the flying fox that had just had cancer removed, the juvenile hawk, the dingo pup were not well enough. The pelican, the black swan, the white cockatoos and the black cockatoos were not fit to fly.
There was only one thing to do.
Annie hitched the trailer to the tractor. Annie had been driving the tractor under her father's watchful eye since she was eight...she was now a big ten.
‘I hope I don't get into trouble,’ she said to herself.
Cage after cage was lifted onto the trailer. She used a trolley and the wheelbarrow when the cages were too heavy, and tied all the cages and boxes to the raft.
The Bracken River could be a raging river after heavy rains, but at the height of summerit was very shallow. It was just deep enough for the raft packed with all the animals to float. The Bracken River went all the way into Bracken town then eventually emptied into the sea. Bracken town was Annie's destination.
When Annie was tiny, she went by boat into town with her Dad. The river had a lot more water then. She knew which way to go...or she thought she did.
Annie tied the cages together as best as she could. Some of the birds that Annie had released, decided not to leave and perched themselves on top of the cages.
There would be one more addition. She went back to the animal enclosure and unhooked her sign. She tied it to the cages. Annie thought she would just add one more word . The sign read ‘Annie's Hospital Ship’ Annie was quite pleased with herself.
Annie waded into the water and tied the lead rope around her waist and said out loud ‘here goes nothing ‘...and nothing it was.
Annie tried with all her might to pull the raft. The raft did not move. It was way too heavy. Annie tugged and pulled and gritted her teeth, but nothing happened. She was about to cry when she heard a neigh...it was Neddy. Old Neddy had returned.
'Oh Neddy, are you here to help?'
Neddy gave another neigh.
Neddy, the old draught horse, knew exactly what to do do. After decades of pulling ploughs and carts and hauling trees, Neddy instinctively stood in front of the raft.
Annie tied the rope to Neddy as best as she could. With minimal effort for Neddy, they were off to Bracken Town to find her Mum and Dad.
Although the air was full of smoke, Annie felt safe in the water. She had no idea how long it would take to get into town. Apart from a few fallen branches, the river was reasonably clear, but overhead the wind was raging and very noisy. The animals chatted to each other, calming each other down.
Annie rode on Neddy's back, patting him and told him what a good boy he was. After what seemed several hours, it started to get dark.
‘Oh well, it’s time to make camp,’ she said to the animals.
She had packed bags of seed for the birds and all sorts of food for the other animals. She had bread and cheese for herself. It did not feel right to light a fire, so she just snuggled up into her sleeping bag. Annie was quite used to the night noises of her animals as they were used to her. Being so tired, she slept very well. (maybe say? - she fell into a deep sleep?)
It was the red rooster that woke first. 'Oh shush Red’ said Annie. It was too late, she was now wide awake and so were the other animals and birds, as they started to make their morning noises.
'Who wants breakfast? ‘ sked Annie.
Annie went about filling their bowls with water and feed.
After breakfast, she said, 'Okay Neddy, here we go again.’ They continued along the river as they had the day before. All was going well until they came to a fork in the river.
Oh, this is a bit inconvenient,’ said Annie out loud.
‘which way do we go?’
There was a very audible warble in the air....it was Maggie.
'Oh Maggie, you beautiful bird, you are here to show us the way.
Maggie lead for several metres before joining the others on the raft, but first making sure Annie had taken the right route.
The wind had died down a bit over night, but there was still a lot of smoke in the air.
BACK N TOWN
The local farmers and townspeople had assembled at the football oval. Emergency Services had set up a makeshift hospital to treat exhausted firefighters. Farm animals were held in the showgrounds next door. Annie's father Charlie, was surprised to see his wife Marie attending the animals as well.
'Where is Annie?’ asked Charlie.
Marie said. ‘I thought she was with you.’
Charlie quickly explained what had happened.
'Didn't you come back to the farm Marie?’
'Oh, Charlie, I couldn't. A tree had fallen across the road and I couldn't pass. I assumed Annie was with you. I thought the safest thing was to walk back to twn. Steven Easy gave me a lift for the last ten kilometres.’
Charlie and Marie stood motionless, worried about Annie.
Charlie enquired at The CFA headquarters.
Ken MacKenzie, the head of operations, listened and understood.
'Charlie, we are doing everything we can. As soon as the smoke clears, we will get a helicopter to your property and find Annie. You will have to be patient and very brave’.
Charlie and Marie found it very hard to be brave, as they were so worried about their little girl.
It was Marie that was first to speak.
'Charlie, there is nothing we can do at the moment. Best make ourselves useful and tend to any person or animal that needs help."
Charlie knew Marie was right.
'Let's get back to work then."
BACK ON THE RIVER
The wind was very quiet.
'It's been too quiet’ thought Annie.
Neddy gave a nervous neigh.
'What is it Neddy, do you hear something?.
‘Oh Dear, where is that sound coming from?’ cried Annie out loud.
The birds and animals were making very loud noises.
They knew something was happening.
The wind was racing up the ravine behind the raft and Annie's E menagerie. The wind became a roar and Annie could see actual flames only a hundred metres behind them.
Neddy nearly broke into a trot.
'We have to outpace the wind and fire’said Annie.
‘If we get to The Lower Turn Back, we might have a chance.’
At Lower Turn Back the river twisted, snake-like, in a different direction.
'Oh, no, look Neddy, another challenge.
The river had narrowed to such a degree thatshe worried that the raft would not squeeze through and get stuck on the banks.
'Faster Neddy Faster’,cried Annie.
Neddy had a worried look on his brow as if to say
‘I am doing my very best Annie.'
As they got closer and closer to the narrowed section, branches were blocking their path.
Neddy simply head-butted the branches out of the way.
'You little beauty...Neddy, you are marvellous.’
With some extra grunts and pants, Annie's raft got through the narrow section of the river all thanks to Neddy. They were now into deeper water.
Annie had almost forgotten about the fire behind her and turned to have a look.
'Where did you come from old fella?’.
They had picked up a hitchhiker. Perched on top of the cages was an old male koala with very burned feet.
He must have been on one of the branches that Neddy knocked off.
'You are very welcome to join us’ said Annie.
She grabbed a small blanket and placed it on her lap.
‘Come let me nurse you. You will be much more comfortable up here’.
As they turned the bend, the fire seemed to stay the same distance behind them.
'We cannot go any faster than we are going", said Annie. "What will be, will be".
BACK IN TOWN
Marie and Charlie were allowed to board the helicopter.
The fire had passed through and they were ready to inspect their property and find Annie.
'The pilot, Jack Rip, said ‘Don't be surprised if your property is gone, Charlie. I am just preparing you for the worst.’
Marie and Charlie did not care about their property; all their thoughts were for their little girl.
‘Oh my goodness,’ cried Marie…'the house is still standing.'
Charlie had hoped that his fire prevention work had been effective and it was. He had cleared a very large patch around the house. There was not a tree for a hundred metres near the building.
'Where is Annie...where are the animals?' cried Marie.
Charlie ran down to the river.
'The raft is gone.'
‘Oh, what has she done/‘ cried, Marie.
The pilot yelled 'Get into the helicopter quickly.'
He flew low following the river back towards Bracken Town. The smoke had cleared enough for the passengers to view the damage. All the trees had been burnt along the river. They could see no sign of the raft or their Annie.
Marie and Charlie held each other and were sobbing.
'Hang on’, said the pilot. Jack, the pilot, was listening to a message coming through the radio.
'What was that...say it again’.
'What is it?’ asked Marie.
‘There is something we all have to see.’
The helicopter flew towards town and landed just near the bridge that crossed the Bracken River.
Marie and Charlie ran to the bridge. A crowd had gathered blocking their path.
Charlie and Marie pushed through.
'What is it?” cried Charlie.
Karen Brooks, an old friend, said, ‘Look, Charlie..just look.’
They could not believe their eyes.
They did not recognise their little girl at first with her ragged clothes and blackened face.
‘It's Annie' cried someone in the crowd.
It took a while for Marie and Charlie to take the scene in.
There in the middle of the shallow river was Annie nursing a koala, riding the old draught horse who was pulling the raft, laden with every type of animal and bird from their rescue farm.
Betty and Deb Ferguson from the Bracken Town CFA waded into the water towards the raft.
Annie spotted her Mum and Dad on the bridge.
‘Hi, Mum. Hi, Dad.’said Annie waving madly.
A WEEK LATER
The fires had passed. It was not the most significant fire in Bracken’s history, but it still did a lot of damage.
Three farms were lost but no lives, fortunately.
All of Bracken Town had gathered for the celebration. The local jazz band played lively dance tunes. The bakery served free pies and pastries. Genni Lee from the Sri Lankan restaurant served free samosas...everyone pitched in.
The local Lions Club created a new award for bravery. It was called the Little Hero Award. Annie was embarrassed when the Mayor placed the award around her neck.
Annie was prompted to speak through the microphone.
She was about to speak but said nothing. She could not find any words. From the stage, she could see Neddy, taking everything in.
Annie said into the microphone ‘Excuse me', and walked off the stage, down the steps, through the crowd to the animal shelter to Neddy. 'Hello Neddy, this is yours. You deserve this’. Annie tried to place the award around Neddy's neck. The award was way too small for Neddy's big neck. She decided to hang it on his ear. Neddy gave a neigh as if to say thank you.
Sometimes words are not needed.
The crowd understood and everyone cheered.
In Annie's Mum and Dad's eyes, Annie was their little hero.