Author's note: Just silliness, a bit of an angsty Parker, and a possible 'Librarians' moment if you look closely enough.
Lizzie and Kip skidded to a halt at Eliot's yell, and just for a second or two took in the sight before them. Gertie was partly obscured by the wooden wall of the box, but both children could see she was sprawled on her side, legs rigid and neck and head stretched out in the deep straw. Her ears were flattened and her bottom lip was quivering as her whole body strained as it dealt with a massive contraction.
Eliot knelt beside her, doing his best to soothe the huge camel as he ran his hands over her side, feeling the tense muscle beneath the brown hide. Gertie let out a pitiful squeak and tried to raise her head to give Eliot a camel-kiss, but he shushed her gently and turned again towards the children.
"Go on!" he hissed, worry making him beyond impatient, "GIT!"
The children didn't need telling again. As one they turned and ran pell-mell from the barn, down the incline towards the house, guided by bright starlight and the warm, golden glow from the veranda lights.
Charlie was sprawled, bony limbs akimbo, on one of the old, comfortable armchairs on the veranda, lazily listening to the hum of conversation around him. It was very late, he realised, and it was well past Kip's bedtime, but for once he didn't concern himself about it. Having his new family around him was helping the little boy recover from the tragic and senseless loss of his mother, and Charlie was willing to give Kip as much time as he needed.
Hardison was in the middle of a rambling story about how he had scared off some Korean bad guys by shooting out the engine block of their car, while Parker kept interrupting and saying that Eliot had told her how Hardison had actually been aiming at the lead bad guy's leg.
The blustering and arguments were beginning to make Charlie hungry again, so he levered his body out of the chair and was about to help himself to some pannacotta when he heard childish voices echoing out of the darkness.
"DAD! DAD!" YOU GOTTA COME!"
Charlie straightened, alarmed, as his son's shouts came to him from the night.
"CHARLIE! THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG WITH GERTIE!" Lizzie yelled as she emerged from the dark into the golden light of the veranda, followed by Kip. Both children were running as fast as they could, and Charlie could see the wide-eyed mixture of fear and excitement on their faces.
There were murmurs of alarm around him as Charlie dropped his fork onto the table and turned swiftly, striding to the veranda screen door as the two children stumbled up the steps in their hurry to get to Charlie.
Kip piled into his father's arms as Lizzie clutched at the station manager's sleeve, both of them talking at once in their need to tell Charlie what was going on.
"Gertie's having her babbie, Dad, and Eliot's chuckin' a wobbly –"
" –you have to hurry Charlie! Gertie –"
" – come on, Dad! Please! We have to go!"
Charlie crouched down and took Kip by the shoulders, the material of his sleeve still held tightly by Lizzie's small fingers.
"Hang on now, you young beggars! Take a breath, calm down and tell me what's going on. So … Gertie's in labour, right?" he said quietly, and both children did their best to steady their breathing while nodding as hard as they could.
"Yah-huh!" Lizzie gasped, "and Eliot's really upset, Charlie, and Gertie's really, really in a fix!"
"Dad!" Kip's dark eyes were wide with stress as he grasped his father's hands where they lay on his shoulders, tugging at Charlie's long fingers. "You have to help Gertie!"
Charlie straightened and stood up, Kip's fingers tangled in his.
"Righto – let's get going, hey? Are you nippers ready to help out?" he asked, and saw the relief on the children's faces. He twisted around as Hardison touched his shoulder, and took the object the hacker held out to him.
"State of the art, m'man," Hardison said, and handed the young aborigine a neat, two-way radio. Soapy's old walkie-talkies had finally been consigned to the spare-parts drawer in the barn office, and Hardison had introduced military-standard two-way radios, which were far more reliable and worked over longer distances. "If you need us, give us a holler, okay?"
Charlie saw the concern in the man's dark eyes, nodded his thanks.
"Will do, mate. We should be bonzer, but –"
"I'll come and help!" Parker interjected, and began to unfurl her slim body from its seat, but Charlie pushed her down again with a grim smile.
"Nah. Gertie's a big girl and takes up a lot of space. But thanks, Parker." His features softened. "Thanks."
Parker looked around at her family and saw the same expression on all of their faces … compassion, coupled with faint lines of worry. She hesitated for a moment, and then gave a single, jerky nod.
"Yes … well … just remember, Charlie Jakkamarra - I have really small hands."
"I know, I know." Charlie's amiable features broke into a grin. "If I need a really small hand to get this calf out, I'll make sure I give you a yell."
A little mollified, Parker grumped and settled again in her chair even as the children dragged on Charlie's hand, pulling him towards the veranda steps.
Lizzie led the way down onto the red dirt of the yard, her boots clattering loudly in the cool night air. As she did so, Nate and Sophie blinked and stood up as one to try and call their wayward daughter back to the house, but she and Kip were already running back through the darkness towards the barn.
Charlie, radio in hand, trotted after them but took the time to wave a hand at the two worried parents.
"I'll keep an eye on the nippers, so no worries!" he yelled, and then he was swallowed by the jasmine-scented night as he raced to help Eliot save Gertie and her unborn calf.
Nate watched until Lizzie was out of sight and then turned to his wife, whose features were a mixture of concern and pride.
"Well," he said, and lifted the plate on which lay Charlie's untouched pannacotta, "I suppose we wait."
Sophie eyed Nate as he toyed with the idea of eating the delicious dessert, and frowned. Nate was consumed with worry, she could tell, and the food was simply a way to distract his always-active mental processes. She saw Hardison sit down on Eliot's recliner and chew his lip, the tall young man obviously dealing with a dose of fidgeting, his leg jumping as he tried to figure out what to do with his hands.
"I know I shoulda set up a camera in there, dammit!" he muttered, his voice dark with guilt.
"Too late now, Hardison. But I seriously don't think it would have made any difference." Sophie sighed. "Dear God, I hope nothing goes wrong."
"Lizzie will deal with it, Sophie, although Gertie's in good hands," Jo said, green eyes warm with sympathy, knowing how much Gertie meant to all of them.
"Oh, I know, I know," the grifter retorted with feeling. "Lizzie's tough, and since she's been coming home to Wapanjara, I've realised just how tough. I'm not worried about Lizzie."
"So who - ?" Hardison began, but Effie interrupted as she poured out another cup of tea.
"The Yank," she rumbled, and even Nate could hear the worry in the little cook's voice. "If that hairy big bugger carks it along with her babbie, he'll never forgive himself."
For a moment silence overcame this unconventional family gathered on the old veranda, surrounded by soft, winking lights and the twinkle of the jewelled Christmas tree.
Effie took a sip of her tea and glowered unhappily, thinking about Eliot's love for the big camel. She let out a huffing grumble.
"Boofhead," she said with feeling, and settled down to wait.
Charlie shouted out orders to the children even as he ran into the barn.
"You two, I need soap, the vet lube and lots of towels, y'hear me? I'll get the hot water! Oh – and nip into the office and dig out the calving ropes, okay?"
He didn't even bother to check if Lizzie and Kip had taken the information on board as he grabbed a clean bucket and filled it with hot water from the faucet beside the feed bins. Hefting the bucket, he made his way to the foaling box and could hear Eliot crooning soft, silly words of comfort to Gertie. The controlled panic in the Oklahoman's voice made Charlie's kind heart ache. Gertie's pained grunts were tempered by her soft, desperate squeaks of love as Eliot spoke to her, trying to keep her still.
Charlie set the radio on the small table beside the box and then slid open the door and stared at the scene before him.
"Oh … bugger," he swore under his breath.
Eliot looked up at him and Charlie was shocked to see how white his face was, his friend's blue eyes stark under drawn-down dark brows.
"You gotta help her, Charlie!" Eliot whispered, and Gertie tried to lift her head as Charlie set the bucket down out of the way of Gertie's legs in case she flailed in her pain. He had never seen Eliot look so helpless.
"Here, Dad!" Kip called out, and the two children were suddenly beside him, handing him liquid antiseptic soap which he squirted into the bucket of water. Lizzie dropped the towels beside the radio on the table, and Charlie placed the two short, looped calving ropes into the soapy water.
Lizzie's eyes widened as she finally saw why Gertie was in such trouble. Instead of two forelegs and a head peeping out of the membrane ballooning from Gertie's backside, all she could see was a tail. A small, wet, pitiful tail and the round glimpse of the calf's rump.
"It's coming bum-first!" Kip gasped as he handed his father the bottle of veterinary lube.
"Is it going to die?" Lizzie couldn't stop the tremor of fear in her voice, but Charlie had no time to indulge either child.
"Righto, you two! Out you go! Eliot and I need room to work!" he said as kindly as he could, rolling up his sleeves and beginning to wash his hands and arms with the hot, soapy water.
"But Dad –" Kip began, but Charlie had no time for worried children.
"No buts, Kip! We have to work fast, so I need you to wait outside and hand me towels when I ask for 'em, alright?"
Gertie let out a barrage of pitiful, silly squeaks as another unproductive contraction rippled through her body.
"Easy, darlin', Eliot murmured and rubbed her velvet muzzle, doing his best to comfort her, but it was obvious the big dromedary was in serious trouble. "Charlie … we got to get those back legs in the right position," he added, and easing Gertie's huge head down into the straw, he waited as Charlie finished washing and rolled up his own sleeves, soaping up his forearms and hands.
Charlie glanced up from his inspection of Gertie's hind end and noticed that the children hadn't moved. His eyes sparked impatiently.
"What did I say, nippers, hey? Out! And close the door behind you and don't open it until I bloody well say so, or you go back to the house!" he snipped, and then bent back to his work.
Lizzie and Kip both blinked at the vehemence in his voice, but they hastily nodded and backed out of the foaling box as Eliot crouched down beside Charlie, ready to do what he could to help.
The hitter saw the fear on the children's faces, and managing to get his own concerns under control, he winked at them.
"Don't worry. Charlie an' me … we'll give you a yell for towels for the calf when it's born," he said, and he saw Lizzie smile shakily. "But now Gertie needs us, okay? An' she needs you two to do as you're told and help out when we ask you. Do you understand?"
Seeing the wordless nods on the two young faces as they slid the door shut behind them, he turned to Charlie as the aborigine studied the situation.
"Think you can fix this?" he asked, even as he dreaded the answer.
Charlie thought about it for a moment, and nodded.
"Okay, Yank. It'll be tricky, but I think the little 'un's small, being a first calf, so that works in our favour. Hand me the lube, and I'll want the ropes in a little bit. When I do …"
"Don't worry, Charlie. I know how to keep the calf from comin' any further while you fix the legs," Eliot answered, happier now that they could try and do something to help Gertie. "It'll have to be quick," he continued. "With the calf bein' breach, when the legs're brought around we'll have to get it out as fast as we can. It could suffocate, Charlie, so …"
Charlie, face grim with determination, agreed wordlessly. He knew they would only have seconds to spare to get the calf out once the legs had been realigned, or it could smother before it was even born.
"Okay mate," he said with a determination that made Eliot's heart ease a little, "let's get this baby born."
And as the clock crept inexorably towards midnight, the two men set to work to try and bring a new life forth into the warmth and love of Wapanjara.
The time ticked by, and the silence on the veranda was beginning to play on everyone's nerves.
Jo stared at her crossword, reading the clue for the umpteenth time and not ingesting a single word. Sighing, she tossed her pen on the table and muttered wordlessly to herself. She clasped Soapy's hand as he slumped next to her on his chair. Her husband checked his watch once again. Obviously nothing had changed in the past three minutes.
"What is it they say … a watched pot never boils?" Soapy asked no-one in particular, but Parker snorted.
"That's silly," she snapped. "Of course it boils whether it's watched or not!"
"It's just a sayin', babe," Hardison said, doing his best to control his own worry. He was very fond of Gertie, and she adored Hardison because he was the purveyor of gummy frogs, of which Gertie was extremely fond. Unfortunately the things gave her gas.
Parker stood up and began to stalk up and down the veranda.
"I know, Hardison! I know …" She flicked a glance at Soapy. "Sorry."
Soapy gave her a grin.
"Don't worry about it," he said, "I know everyone's in a bit of a tizz. But she's in good hands, Parker. Charlie's been delivering calves and foals since he was a nipper – probably more than any veterinarian. And Eliot's no slouch either."
"They'll give us a yell if they need help," Jo added, gesturing at the two-way-radio resting silently on the table. Mei had been staring at it ever since Charlie had disappeared into the darkness.
"Why is it taking so long?" she asked as she dandled a sleepy Rose on her lap. "Papa Soapy, is Gertie going to be alright?"
Soapy did his best to give his daughter a calming smile.
"There's always a risk with things like this, but Gertie has the best help in the world, sweetheart. We've even done caesareans on cows before now – with Jo's help – so she has a lot of support."
Mei leaned forward and kissed Rose's dark hair.
"I hope so, Papa. I hope so." She took a deep, huffing breath. "We love Gertie, and she loves us."
Mei often sat on the steps of the veranda with one of her children, and without fail Gertie would discover her presence and arrive at a lollop, squeaking madly and eager to give the baby camel-kisses. Both Rose and Jamie would collapse into giggles which made Gertie honk with delight.
Everyone was quiet for long moments until Parker gave out a wordless noise of frustration. She opened the veranda screen door, stumped down the steps and wandered into the yawning dark of the South paddock track.
"Parker!" Nate called out, but Sophie stopped her husband from following the little thief.
"Leave her, Nate," she soothed, "she needs a little time to herself. She's trying to process what would happen if …" she tailed off, her own concerns weighing heavily even though they were unsaid.
"But it won't," Hardison said doggedly. "Our girl ain't gonna die, Soph. Eliot won't let her. Her baby, neither. It's Christmas," he continued as though the word itself would make everything alright.
"Bugger this," Effie suddenly groused, and heaved herself to her lumpy feet. "We need tea and lamingtons." And off she went, her heart filled with worry that not even her precious lamingtons could suppress.
Parker was used to working in darkness, so making her way to Eliot's tree stump was something she did with ease. A possum was snurfling around the base looking for bugs, but Parker shooed the animal away and slumped down on the worn surface with a loud, fretful sigh. The possum grumbled tetchily and slouched off to resume its foraging among a clump of acacias, but Parker ignored it.
She tried taking deep breaths to settle her stomach, but it didn't work, and she just became dizzy. Next she curled her legs up and rested her head on her knees, her arms tight around her legs, and rocked gently. She had often done this as a child and teenager, when the world became too much for her to handle and she had no-one to turn to. Even Archie Leach's guidance hadn't helped, because she knew he was only interested in making her into a master thief. His acceptance of her as family later in her life had settled her insecurities a little, but only her team had become the family she had secretly craved. And now she had the people of Wapanjara who accepted her for who and what she was with such ease that the fact of it still took her breath away.
So with all of her heart Parker didn't want Gertie and her baby to die. Gertie protected her family, and loved them dearly. And a baby camel, Parker knew, would be spectacular.
With a noisy sigh she uncurled her slender frame and sat up as straight as she could, and leaned back so that she could see the depths of the sky through the branches above her, stars twinkling endlessly in the blue-black night.
"Phooey!" she said with a finality that Eliot would have recognised as Parker's 'to-hell-with-it!' tone. Standing up, she poised tall and proud, and thought for a moment before continuing. "Santa!" she called quietly in the darkness, "you can't let Gertie die! Or … or lose her baby! It's not fair! You know that! And it would kill Eliot … maybe not so he'd die, really, but … but he'd die inside, and I can't allow that!" She took a deep, steadying breath. "It would kill all of us inside … and … and … it's frikkin' Christmas!" she finished, her chin jutting just a little in defiance. Hugging herself for a moment, she steadied her lithe frame, hoped that Santa had heard her plea, and stalked back along the track to the warmth of the homestead.
Lizzie and Kip sat on the old bench outside the foaling box and listened to the terrible groans of pain which turned to hitching squeaks, always in answer to Eliot's gentle words of care and love even as he helped Charlie in his task of trying to ease the calf's hind legs over Gertie's pelvic bone.
The two children huddled together on the old bench, quiet and tense. Lizzie had dragged an old, heavy horse blanket over the pair of them in an effort to quell their nerves rather than to keep warm, but she clutched Kip's hand tightly as Charlie let out a soft curse, Eliot's soft murmur of support cutting into Gertie's grunt of pain.
Lizzie bit her lip, eyes wide with fear.
"It … it's going to be alright, isn't it Kip? Gertie and the babbie … they're going to be okay, aren't they?" she whispered.
Kip did his best to ease Lizzie's worries, but his frown lines, so like his father's, drew deeper between his brows.
"My dad … my dad, he's really good at this, Lizzie, I promise," he replied as confidently as he could, and he patted Lizzie's arm. "He's the best."
Lizzie knew all they could do was wait, but just as she tucked the warm blanket tighter around them, there came a small exclamation of satisfaction and Gertie let out a keening groan.
"You beaut!" Charlie exclaimed, and the children heard a slithering sound followed by a triumphant "Dammit, Charlie! You did it!" from an immensely relieved Eliot Spencer.
The children instantly threw off the blanket and ran to the door, both of them talking at once.
"Is the babbie here?"
"Dad! DAD! Is it alright?"
"Eliot, is Gertie okay?"
They were on the point of sliding the door open when Eliot's voice brought them up short.
"Awww hell, no!" he growled, and there was a thrashing noise as Gertie did her best to get up onto her chest, the huge camel squeaking and gurgling, and the children saw her massive head appear as they tried to peer through the bars of the box.
She suddenly heaved herself to her feet and instantly turned around, making a noise no-one had heard her emit before … a series of soft, mumbling murmurs, and her head dropped down to investigate something on the floor of the box.
Eliot's voice came again, this time urgent and on the edge of uncharacteristic panic.
"It ain't breathin', Charlie!" he said, and the children gasped, horrified at the idea of the baby dying before it even had a chance to take a breath.
"No bloody way!" Charlie retorted, "not if I can ruddy well help it!" There came a rustle of straw, and then it seemed as though Charlie had dropped to his knees. "Breathe, you little bugger!" he hissed. "Breathe!" And as he gave curt instructions to Eliot, the children retreated once more to their vigil on the bench.
"It can't die, Kip!" Lizzie whispered brokenly. "It can't! Gertie can't lose her babbie! It's not fair, Kip! And it's Christmas!"
So Kip put his arm around Lizzie's shoulders to comfort her, and both of them waited with their hearts in their mouths to see if Gertie's baby would live.
Nate watched as Parker stumped up the veranda steps, her hands jammed in her pockets and looking uncannily like Eliot when he was frustrated beyond belief. He checked his watch. It was past midnight, but he didn't feel much like wishing his family a happy Christmas.
"You okay, Parker?" he said, although he knew she wasn't, but he had to ask.
Parker let out a grunt, but said nothing as she flung herself in a chair. She stared at the radio lying on the table. The thing was stubbornly silent.
"There must be something wrong, Jo. It surely shouldn't take this long." Sophie clasped her hands together nervously. "I mean … how long does it take for a camel to give birth?"
Jo shrugged and tried to be as positive as she could, but even her normally upbeat persona was beginning to take a hit.
"Charlie and Eliot haven't called for help, Sophie, so … they know what they're doing." She let out a noisy sigh. "All we can do is wait."
"But the children!" Sophie insisted, "they shouldn't be seeing this if … y'know … Gertie or the baby …" she tailed off, unwilling to say what everyone feared.
"We don't hide things from Lizzie, Soph, you know that. And she's seen things most kids wouldn't see in a lifetime. She saw Eliot kill a man, remember," Nate replied despite the ache in his chest from worrying about both Lizzie and Gertie. He knew how much the huge camel meant to his daughter, and, he had to admit, he was very fond of the animal even if she smelled awful.
Sophie chewed her lower lip and nodded. Eliot had killed Derry Ryan when he had threatened to murder his family, and Lizzie had seen him shove the big knife into Ryan's throat. Eliot had been horrified, but Lizzie, frightened and shocked as she was, hugged Eliot and told him she loved him and the two of them had worked through the aftermath. For Lizzie, Eliot's actions had saved her life, and she understood why he had done it. It had made her love her guardian and Good Wolf even more.
"But it's taking so long –" Sophie reiterated, but this time Nate had to smile.
"And this coming from a woman who had a baby in about forty minutes flat, in Lucille during a thunderstorm." His eyes widened for a second or two as he remembered that day. It still gave him palpitations just thinking about it.
The radio crackled loudly.
Hardison was upon the thing before anyone else could move.
"Yeah?" he croaked, his voice failing him for a second. He placed the radio back on the table so everyone could hear. "Is – "
"Babbie's here, alive and kicking!" came Charlie's voice, rich with pleasure and not a little relief.
"WOO-HOO!" Parker yelled and waggled arms and legs like an upturned tortoise in her big, over-stuffed chair.
"What have we got?" Soapy asked eagerly, and leaned forward for the answer. Eliot's voice rumbled in the background, and everyone could hear the laughter and delight in the children's voices.
"Um … hang on a sec …" Charlie was apparently listening to Eliot, whose voice was just a little too soft for everyone to hear what he was saying. " … Eliot says you have to wait until the morning so he can introduce the little 'un to you properly," he added, somewhat amused. "Gertie's fine and so's the babbie, so no worries, okay?"
"But –" Sophie began, but Eliot's voice came from the radio, gruff and gentle, as it always was when dealing with children and animals.
"No 'buts', Soph. Gertie had a bit of a rough time, an' she an' the calf need some time to themselves. Lizzie an' me'll be back in a bit. We just have to check the baby's sucklin' and its guts're workin'." The Oklahoma in his voice made everyone smile. It was always at its strongest when Eliot was emotionally charged. "Charlie an' Kip're headin' home an' they'll see you at breakfast."
"Righto boy, as long as everything has worked out well," Jo said, "and I think I'm off to bed." She looked at the faces of the people around her. "I think we should all get some sleep. Then we can visit Gertie in the morning. How does that sound?"
"Give Gertie and babbie a kiss from me!" Mei called softly, her son sound asleep in her arms.
Everyone heard a soft, happy squeak and Eliot's equally happy "Dammit, Gertie!" as he fended of the big camel's affection. But there was a new sound … a light, high-pitched burble, and Gertie gave out the strange murmur she had uttered when the calf was born.
Parker, eyes alight with pleasure, chuckled.
"The baby's blowing raspberries!" she said, and hugged herself. "And it's Christmas!"
Hardison straightened and grinned.
"Yeah … yeah, it is. A Christmas baby!" He looked as though someone had handed him the newest, most secret piece of technology Homeland Security was denying they had.
"Righto, you bludgers! Let's call it a night! The Yank and the nipper'll tell us all about it in the morning, and I've got a busy day ahead, so don't you give me any bloody aggro, you hear me?" Effie grumped as she heaved her rotund frame to its lumpy feet.
Hardison leaned over and squished Effie into a clumsy hug, and while the little cook tried to fight him off, her heart wasn't in it. She grumbled softly and put up with Hardison giving her a kiss on her cheek.
"We got a new baby, Eff!" he whispered, and the boyish glee in his eyes made Effie McPhee very happy indeed.
"Well, sunbeam, so we do." She patted his cheek. "Go on, now. I need my beauty sleep, laddie, so off to bed with the lot of you!"
Hardison's grin lit up his handsome face.
"It's Christmas, Eff! Christmas. An' it's gonna be awesome!"
As everyone stretched and yawned and headed to their beds, Parker hesitated for a moment. Standing up she peered out into the night, listening to the silence and watching a shooting star trail into the distant hills. The glow of the tree on the veranda was warm and welcoming, and the jewels glittered, setting the shadows aflame with light.
Parker huffed a deep breath.
"Thanks, Santa. See? I knew you could do it."
She tripped lightly down the veranda steps, headed across the yard and clambered up Bernadette's formidable chassis to her tent on the roof. Changing into her sleepwear, she snuggled down into her comforter, pulled Bunny and Delbert to her chest, and slid into a dreamless sleep.
It was the magpies fluting in the almond stand which roused Parker from her slumber. She lay still for long minutes, Bunny tucked under one arm and Delbert snuggled against her side, and listened to the noises of the outback as it slowly roused to another dawn, the light creeping over the horizon and sending soft shadows flickering over the entrance to the little rooftop tent.
It was nice, just lying quietly in the tent, she thought. It was different from her warehouse. While she enjoyed being surrounded by her things in her huge space with the few objects she kept as memories of a difficult life, here at Wapanjara … somehow, it was different. She had brought Bunny as her only link with her past, but now … she had a family and a future.
And it was Christmas Day.
"Yes!" she hummed, and flung back her comforter. Wriggling into her clothes, she tumbled out of her tent, dropped off Bernadette's roof and landed on the red earth of the homestead yard.
She padded happily across to the veranda steps, taking her time, and was met by Buster, the little dog stretching and yawning as he wagged his tail, pleased to see her. She crouched down and scratched his fuzzy head. Buster closed his eyes and his right back leg began to vibrate. That made Parker chuckle.
"Happy Christmas, you noisy little beast," she whispered, and Buster sat down as his back leg finally weakened and gave way. It continued to vibrate as Buster collapsed on his side in ecstasy, the back leg beginning to waggle. He groaned with delight.
"Lizzie's not in her room," Nate said, and Parker, uncharacteristically startled, looked up to see him standing on the veranda in pyjamas and dressing gown, scratching his head. He still looked half asleep.
"She'll still be with Gertie and the baby," Parker said with certainty. "Eliot'll look out for her."
Nate thought about it.
"S'pose." He turned around, shuffled into the house, and returned moments later. "Eliot's not in his room either. We should go see if they're alright, I guess."
Parker thought he didn't look worried in the least.
Nate slumped down on one of the comfortable old chairs and yawned. His dark hair was sticking up in tufts. He made no move to go and look for his errant daughter.
"What time is it?" Sophie said as she wandered out of the house and onto the veranda into the ethereal light of a dawning day. "God, I need tea!"
"Well sit yer arse down then, Duchess!" Effie said as she stumped outside with her huge old teapot, steam curling from the spout and sending the scent of tea with a hint of bergamot wafting through the air. "Tea!" she added, somewhat superfluously.
Hardison trailed behind her, hands full of cups and plates. He wore his sleeping sweats and he looked like a startled wombat. Obviously waking up at this unearthly hour didn't suit him.
Nate looked at his watch. It was just after five am.
"Blech!" he said, and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, trying to clear the sleep out of them as Sophie settled down in the chair next to him, elegant as always in her silk pyjamas and nightgown. She blinked several times, and stifled a yawn.
"Lizzie's gone," she said, not in the least worried.
"She's still with that bloody great camel and her babbie," Effie grumbled. "Her and the Yank. Never came back to the house. Silly bastards," she added with growly affection.
"Ah," Sophie muttered, and then poked Nate in the ribs. "Tea."
Hardison wordlessly set plates on the veranda table and cricked his neck. There was the soft wail of a sleepy baby from the house, and he held up a finger.
"Be right back," he said, and went back into the house, only to reappear a minute later with Rose in his arms, the child feeling unsettled but happy to be comforted by Hardison's safe warmth. She nuzzled against his chest and slid immediately back into sleep. "That's my sweetheart," the hacker murmured, and kissed the top of her head. "Are we gonna go see Gertie?"
"Oh yes!" Parker replied and sat up as well as she could in the overstuffed chair. "Now?"
"Not yet, missy!" Effie snapped, and pointed at the plate of shortbread she had placed on the table. "Tea and a bikkie before you go, and I have a flask and some grub to make up for the Yank and the nipper. Eat up, and I'll be back in a mo'!"
Within ten minutes, tea was drunk and shortbread eaten, and once Rose had been settled back in her bed, the team, still in their sleepwear and now joined by Soapy and Jo, headed towards the barn. They carried a large flask containing hot coffee and a bag with juicy bacon and sausages stuffed into freshly-baked rolls, accompanied by juice for Lizzie and some shortbread. There was also a bag of apples for the new mother.
And not one of them noticed the strange tracks in the dirt of the yard.
When everyone peered through the metal grilles of the foaling box, it was Hardison who spoke – very softly – first.
"Well, will ya look at that!" he quipped and began to take pictures on his cell phone.
"Should we wake them?" Sophie asked Jo, who smiled, amused at the scene before them.
Lizzie was stretched out on top of a couple of big bales of soft straw, head on a pile of towels and covered with an old horse blanket. She was sound asleep. Her mouth was slightly open, and drool shone at the corner of her mouth.
Her right arm was hanging over the edge of the bale, and under her hand was Gertie's head, the huge camel sitting comfortably in the straw next to Eliot, who was sprawled in the deep bedding with Gertie's sleepy head on his outstretched legs. His head lolled back on a bale, and it was obvious he was out like a light. He snored softly, something he would deny until his dying day.
But tucked into Gertie's side was a small, slumbering shape, difficult to make out in the half-light of the morning.
Parker squeaked in sheer excitement.
And suddenly, as though on cue, a tiny head on an impossibly long neck unfurled from the shape and swung upwards to look at the source of the squeak.
"Oh my goodness!" Sophie whispered, and the bony little head stared at her with huge dark eyes and through enviably long eyelashes.
The calf was as black as night. Jet black, apart from a curious little tuft of white hair halfway down its neck on the left side. The mark was about the size of a thumbprint and lying just above the jugular vein. The baby let out a tiny meep, and struggled to its feet on gangly long legs, still unsteady but managing to wander over to the people gazing at it through the grilles. There was a collective sigh of wonderment, and Gertie blinked awake.
She lifted her head to see what her child was doing and let out the curious murmur that had so entranced Lizzie.
In turn Eliot, missing the weight of Gertie's enormous head on his legs, awoke with a jerk.
"Wha -?" he grunted, and ran a hand over his face, doing his best to wipe away the torpor he felt in his body. "Um … hey," he said as he noticed the faces peering in through the bars.
He stood up as Gertie got to her feet, and both of them wandered over to where the calf was busy trying to see through the grilles at the strange beings outside. Gertie mumbled at the calf, but didn't appear to be alarmed at the attention of these people she knew and loved.
Eliot stretched and then carded his fingers through his tousled and straw-laced hair. He looked weary, stiff and thoroughly pleased with both Gertie and her baby. He dropped a hand on the calf's non-existent hump and scratched gently.
"How'd you like my girl?" he asked.
"We got a girl-baby?" Hardison asked, his face wreathed in smiles. "She got a name?" he continued, and carried on taking snaps with his 'phone.
"She's beautiful!" Parker said, and reached out as the calf investigated fingers lacing through the grilles. She felt tiny, velvet-soft lips suck her fingers. She giggled. "I think she's hungry!"
"She's suckling okay and Gertie's doin' good." Eliot's soft smile couldn't quite hide the lines of worry. "The baby came the wrong way. Charlie managed to fix her though, but she wasn't breathin' when she was born."
"Charlie made her breathe again!" Lizzie said, and everyone looked at the little girl who was now awake, although she was obviously still tired as she knuckled sleep from her eyes. Sitting up, she threw off the blanket and swung her legs off the bale so she could stand up. "Charlie's awesome!"
"Well, I don't like to brag, but …"
Everyone turned to see Charlie and Kip wander through the barn door, Charlie carrying a bucket of feed followed by Kip with his arms around a couple of slices of a hay bale.
The little boy dashed forward and Soapy helped him slide open the door to the foaling box.
Gertie's ears pricked as Kip dumped the hay in a corner and shook out the compacted fodder. She swung around and began to pull out mouthfuls of the sweet feed, but the calf was still mesmerised by her new admirers, and let out a little squeak of pleasure as Nate reached out to scratch her neck. Her eyes bugged and her head began to bob, and she nibbled at Nate's dressing gown sleeve.
"She's a sweetheart," he said before he could stop himself. Nate had always thought he was impervious to such smarmy nonsense, but here he was, with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling deep, deep in his chest, as a baby camel gummed at his arm.
Jo eased forward and offered Eliot the flask and hot food.
"Here. Effie sent this. You two must be hungry, hey?"
Lizzie darted forward before Eliot could take the bag, and peered inside.
"Sausage butties!" she exclaimed, and beamed at Jo. "Thanks, Grandma!"
Charlie came alongside Gertie and placed the bucket full of the dromedary's favourite mash beside her, and while she chomped her way through the food, he checked her over as Kip settled down beside Lizzie. Both children tucked into Effie's delicious rolls, and Lizzie handed one to Eliot.
"She's looking pretty bonzer considering what she went through," Charlie murmured, running an expert hand over Gertie's hide. "The silly bint decided to have her calf arse-first, and all we could see was a tail."
Lizzie swallowed a mouthful of sausage and waved the rest of the buttie in the air as she gesticulated madly.
"And when she was born, Charlie had to give her artificial rumination!" she said.
"Respiration, 'Lizbeth Grace," Eliot corrected gently.
"Artificial respiration!" Lizzie continued, not in the least fazed by Eliot's comment.
"So … I ask again, what's she called?" Hardison prompted as the calf investigated his cell 'phone.
"Well – " Eliot began, but Kip and Lizzie were ahead of him.
"She was born at Wapanjara, so her name will begin with Wapanjara – " Lizzie began with authority.
"Like Sparky! She's got to have a posh name, right, Grandpa Soapy?" Kip interjected as he poked an errant sausage back into his half-eaten roll. Sparky's full registered name was Wapanjara Night Spark.
"If that's what Eliot wants, young man," Soapy said, nodding sagely.
"And … and she was born at midnight, wasn't she, Charlie?" Lizzie declared.
"She was indeed," Charlie agreed as Gertie finished her feed and carefully shifted around to see if there was any more food available. She spotted the bag in Eliot's non-buttie-holding hand, and she gurked happily. She could smell apples.
Eliot sat down on a free bale and dumped the bag of apples on the straw beside him. Gertie wiffled the bag expectantly.
"Hey!" Eliot rumbled as he tried to eat his food, but Gertie was apparently starving. Having a baby was hard work, she decided. Eliot dug out an apple and she inhaled it as quickly as she could before Eliot could snatch it back. Munching cheerfully, she burped apple and beet smell over Eliot, who flinched at the aroma.
"Soooo … Lizzie continued, "Kip and me … we decided the baby was shiny and beautiful, like Parker's jewels – "
Well, that made sense, Parker thought. The calf was a rich, stunning black and her soft curls were gleaming in the soft light.
"So we called her Gem!" Lizzie declared.
"Wapanjara Midnight Gem!" Kip explained, and the two children looked thoroughly pleased with themselves.
Eliot finished his buttie and grunted.
"I didn't have any say in the matter," he complained, but he didn't look too put out by the idea. "That's one helluva name for a little camel."
"We just call her Gem," Kip said with a finality that brooked no criticism.
"Gem it is," Eliot agreed, and he rested his head back on the wall and smiled that slow, sweet smile that meant he was truly happy, showing the rarely-seen dimples that gave his friends a glimpse of a young Eliot before the world took him in hand and left the scars on his body and soul.
"Hey, Gem-girl," Hardison rubbed Gem's ears which made the little camel shudder with pleasure, "now just remember – if grumpy ol' Grandpa Eliot gets too bossy or makes life tough for ya, you jus' come to Uncle Alec and I'll -"
The snarled "Dammit, Hardison!" delighted everyone within earshot.
Gem sniffed at Parker as she crouched down in the doorway, and her little pink tongue crept out and gave the entranced thief a camel-kiss.
Parker let out a delighted laugh, and stroked Gem's glossy black hide.
"Well, little Gem, welcome to Wapanjara," she whispered as she leaned forward and returned Gem's kiss on top of the calf's curly head. "And it's Christmas!"
To be continued …