“Nancy, I don’t think we’ll ever get through,” George Fayne said, stretching tiredly.
She scanned the lines of tourists waiting to have their passports stamped. “At the rate we’re moving, it’ll be time to leave Australia and fly back to the States, and we won’t have seen anything but the Sydney airport.”
Nancy Drew stifled a yawn, then pushed her backpack ahead as the line inched forward. “I know what you mean. We’ve been waiting over an hour, and that’s after sitting through two movies and three meals on the plane. I don’t even know what day it is anymore.”
“I know today’s Friday, but what’s the season?” George asked. “It was cold when we left River Heights, but here in March it’s late summer.” She ran her fingers through her short, dark curls. “Oh, well. I’m sure Mick will help us get oriented.”
Just the mention of Mick Devlin’s name caused Nancy to blush. “I, uh, hope so.” She opened her shoulder bag and rummaged around inside. “Where’s that customs form the flight attendant gave us to fill out?”
“In your hand,” George pointed out dryly. “You must be nervous about seeing Mick again, huh?”
Nancy smiled. She should have known that George would see through her in a second. “I guess I am,” she admitted. “It’s just that…” She hesitated, searching for the right words.
From the first second they’d met, there had been something special between Nancy and the gorgeous Aussie. She had met him when she was traveling in Europe with George and George’s cousin, Bess Marvin. When they’d returned to the U.S., Nancy thought she’d never see Mick again. She’d been totally surprised when he showed up at a friend’s wedding in Japan. Mick hadn’t made a secret of the fact that he was still crazy about her, but…
“Mick and I settled things when we were in Tokyo. We’re friends, that’s all,” Nancy said firmly. “He’s an amazing guy, but nothing is more important to me than Ned and the things I love in River Heights.” Ned Nickerson was Nancy’s longtime boyfriend.
George raised an eyebrow at her, but all she said was, “Okay. I’m curious about what’s so important that we needed to fly all this way to help out.”
“You know as much as I do,” Nancy said with a shrug. “A friend of his needs our help in the outback.”
“Sounds like my kind of trip,” George said. Nancy knew that George loved hiking and roughing it. The rugged and largely unpopulated Australian outback, like the American West, would be perfect. “Hey! Didn’t you say Frank and Joe sent you a postcard from Australia?” George asked.
“Yes,” Nancy said, “but they didn’t say where they were traveling.” She smiled, thinking about the Hardy brothers. They were the only people Nancy knew who loved to solve mysteries as much as she did.
She blinked and realized she and George were at the customs desk. “At last! It’s our turn. Come on.”
Emerging on the other side of customs, Nancy began to feel jittery about Mick again and quickly brushed a hand through her shoulder-length reddish blond hair. “I hope Mick is here,” she said, scanning the crowd. “He said he’d — “
The sound of Mick’s deep voice made Nancy stop short. She spotted him pushing through the crowd. He was grinning at her, and Nancy couldn’t help grinning back. One look at his amazing green eyes, and she felt a warm tingle spread through her from head to toe.
“Mick!” Nancy dropped her backpack as Mick caught her up in a huge hug. When he finally let her go, she felt breathless.
“It’s great to see you,” Mick said in a husky voice.
“Same here,” she told him, feeling slightly giddy. He was tanned, and his blond hair was bleached from the sun. In his jeans and white T-shirt, he looked more gorgeous than ever as he gave George a hug.
“Where’s your friend, the one who needs our help?” George asked, glancing around.
“Nellie Mabo,” Mick supplied. “She goes to university with me, but right now she’s with her tribe in the Queensland outback.”
“Tribe?” Nancy raised an eyebrow at Mick. “Is Nellie an Aborigine?”
Mick nodded. “Her people have been in Australia for forty thousand years, give or take a few thousand.”
“So what is it that she needs help with?” George asked.
“We’re flying to meet her in the outback in a little while,” Mick said. He picked up the girls’ backpacks and slung one over each shoulder. “Come on. I’ll explain everything over lunch.”
“I wish we could spend more time in Sydney,” George commented an hour later. She, Nancy, and Mick were seated in a restaurant called the Rocks Cafe. The waitress had just placed a meat pie, a platter of barbecued beef, and some grilled vegetables in front of them.
“I’ll say,” Nancy agreed. “Modern and old-fashioned at the same time.” She gazed out the window at the narrow, cobbled street lined with pubs, cafes, and shops. Behind the stone and brick buildings, tall skyscrapers curved around Sydney’s harbor and filled the downtown area.
Mick grinned at Nancy. “I always thought you’d love it here. Was I right?”
Nancy looked down at her meat pie, feeling her cheeks turn red. “Tell us about Nellie Mabo,” she said, abruptly changing the subject.
Mick’s expression immediately became serious. “Nellie and I have been good friends ever since we did a project together for a class last year.” He took a bite of barbecued beef, then said, “I’ve learned a lot about the Aborigines from her.”
“So what kind of trouble is she in?” George asked, taking a sip of soda.
“Actually, her whole tribe is in trouble.” Mick took a deep breath before continuing. “I guess I should start at the beginning. Nellie’s grandfather is a leader of the Yungi — that’s their tribe. He raised Nellie after her parents died, when she was little. Anyway, one of the things he’s responsible for is keeping the tribe’s tjuringa.”
“What’s that?” Nancy asked.
“The traditional Aborigine way of life is closely linked to nature. They believe that the earth was in a sleeping state until the Ancestors sang it to life,” Mick began.
“Sang it to life?” George repeated. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“The Ancestors were spiritual beings who traveled the country, scattering words and musical notes along with their footprints. As they traveled, the land and animals and people sprang to life. Kind of like a musical Genesis.”
“That’s really interesting,” George said, her brown eyes gleaming.
Mick nodded. “That whole process is called the Dreaming. Each Ancestor’s path mapped out the land of his tribe, and every tribe has a different Dreaming. Nellie told me that the Yungis belong to the Honey Ant Dreaming. That means their ancestral father somehow contained the spirit of the honey ant.”
“But what does this have to do with the tjuringa?” Nancy wondered aloud.
“Each tribe keeps a board carved with songs and patterns that show the wanderings of its Dream-time Ancestor,” Mick explained.
“And that’s the tjuringa?” George guessed.
Mick nodded. “It’s sacred. Only people who are initiated into the tribe are allowed to see it. Nellie told me her grandfather keeps it carefully stored away.” He frowned and stabbed at his barbecued beef with his fork. “But that didn’t stop someone from stealing it.”
“Oh, no!” Nancy said, staring at Mick.
“That’s what I said when Nellie told me about it,” Mick said grimly. “A week ago the tjuringa disappeared. Nellie and her grandfather haven’t been able to find it anywhere, and they didn’t want to go to the police.”
“Why not?” George asked.
“A lot of Aborigines feel they’ve gotten a raw deal from the government in the past.”
“Kind of the way some Native Americans feel back home,” George said.
“Yeah,” Mick agreed. “Anyway, Nellie’s grandfather doesn’t want to have anything to do with the authorities.”
George looked up from her meat pie. “But he doesn’t mind getting help from two girls who live half a continent away and know almost nothing about the Aborigines’ way of life?”
“Actually, Nellie almost wasn’t able to convince her grandfather to let you come,” Mick said. “But I’ve visited the Yungi community a lot since Nellie and I became friends, and her grandfather trusts me now. When I told him that I knew someone who could solve mysteries that baffled the police, he agreed to let you search for the tjuringa.”
Nancy felt flattered and hoped she wouldn’t let him and Nellie down.
“Nancy, look!” George shouted above the droning engine of the four-seater propeller plane and pointed out the window. She was sitting next to the pilot, while Nancy and Mick were perched on seats just behind. The rest of the tiny plane was packed with supplies being flown to the outback.
Nancy gazed in the direction George indicated and spotted a group of kangaroos bounding among the eucalyptus trees and grasslands below. “Amazing! I haven’t stopped looking since we took off from the Sydney airport,” she said, grinning.
Mick and the pilot, a lanky man in his thirties named Roger Lang, had been pointing out the sights as they flew. They’d gone north along the coast before turning inland, where the more populated areas gave way to a strip of thickly forested mountains. Then the lush green hills flattened out to the immense, dry outback that stretched endlessly in all directions. For the last hour Nancy had caught sight of only one or two small towns.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much wide-open space,” Nancy commented. “The outback seems to go on forever. It’s spectacular.”
“Most Australians live along the coasts. Huge parts of the interior are only sparsely settled, so flying is the best way to get around,” Mick explained.
While he spoke, Nancy kept her eyes on the wild, dry land below. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a spot in the distance where she saw a tinge of green rising out of the scrub and dust.
“Comet Creek National Park,” Roger told them. “Got some bonzer gorges thereabouts. You ought to be goin’ walkabout down there, eh?”
Nancy was still getting used to Roger’s way of talking, but she knew that bonzer meant “great” and walkabout was what Australians called taking a walk away from it all.
“Comet Creek runs through a series of gorges,” Mick explained. “It’s a real oasis. The Yungi community is right outside the national park, near the town of Flat Hill. That’s where we’ll be staying.”
As Roger flew closer, Nancy got a better look at the lush gorges. Near one was a small rise in the land, with a town that seemed to spring right out of the top of it. Buildings stretched for a few blocks wide and several blocks long. An occasional house or station, an Australian ranch, dotted the land outside the town and park.
“Nellie told me that the town’s permanent population is only about five hundred people. Mostly suppliers for the sheep stations farther out and people who cater to tourists going into the national park,” Mick explained. “Plus a few hundred Aborigines in the Yungi settlement.”
In a matter of minutes the plane touched down on a small airstrip about a half mile east of the town. “Wow. The air smells great,” George said, lugging her backpack from the plane while Mick and Roger began unloading the boxes of supplies.
“Mmm.” Nancy dropped her own pack and took in the clean, earthy scents. She turned as a battered green truck drove up to the airstrip, stirring up a cloud of dust. Behind the wheel was a dark-skinned girl who wore a scarf tied around her black curls.
“Nellie!” Mick cried. The truck stopped, and the girl got out. Mick jogged over to her.
“Eh, Mick,” Nellie greeted him. She was shorter than Nancy and wore jeans and a work shirt. Nancy was struck by the unhurried way she moved. There was an intelligent glint in her dark eyes as she and Mick moved over to Nancy and George. Up close, Nancy saw that the scarf in Nellie’s hair was bright red, with tie-dyed yellow circles.
“Nancy, George, this is Nellie Mabo,” Mick said.
“Afternoon,” Nellie greeted them, with a nod.
“Nice to meet you,” George said, smiling.
“I hope we can help you and your grandfather,” Nancy added.
A slow smile spread across Nellie’s wide, round face. “I do, too. Shall we go round to see him?”
After stowing their packs in the back of the truck, Nancy, Mick, and George squeezed into the front seat next to Nellie. Instead of driving up the rise and into Flat Hill, Nellie took a road that led northeast of the town.
“The Yungi community is this way, near the entrance to Comet Creek National Park,” Mick said.
“I’ve got a caravan, what you call a trailer, there, where you two can sleep,” Nellie told Nancy and George. “I’ll be staying with my granddad.”
“And I’ve got a tent,” Mick added.
A few minutes later Nancy spotted rows of houses nestled against some low ridges. Nellie turned onto a side road and stopped the truck in front of a low wooden house in the shade of a eucalyptus tree.
“Granddad?” Nellie called, pushing open the front door. Nancy, Mick, and George followed her inside.
The room they entered was sparsely furnished with a wooden table and chairs. A few wooden carvings hung on the walls. Sitting at the table was an elderly man in cotton slacks and a plaid shirt with the sleeves cut off. He had curly gray hair, a coarse mustache and beard, and the same wide features and soft eyes as Nellie. For a long moment he didn’t say anything. Then finally he gestured for them to sit. “Mick says you’ll be able to help us,” he said, smiling.
“I hope so,” Nancy told him. She decided she might as well get right down to business. “He’s told us about the missing tjuringa. Do you have any idea who could have taken it?”
The elderly man gave a slow shake of his head. “I know it could not have been anyone from our tribe. They would not violate a sacred board.”
Nancy knew from experience that it was possible for anyone in any community to do a terrible thing. But she decided not to say anything yet.
“How about someone from outside your tribe?” George asked.
Nellie turned to Mick and asked, “Have you told them about our conflict with — “
She broke off as a loud knock sounded at the door. Nellie opened the door, and Nancy saw a woman in a cream-colored suit and low-heeled pumps standing there. Despite her tanned, freckled skin and sun-bleached blond hair, the woman looked out of place in the rough outback. Anything but happy, she stormed into the house.
“You’re trying to ruin me!” she said, stabbing a finger in Nellie’s direction.
“Afternoon, Marian,” Nellie said calmly. “Come in, won’t you?” Her composed attitude only seemed to make the woman angrier.
“Don’t try that friendly act on me,” Marian sputtered, taking a threatening step toward Nellie. Her face was almost purple with fury, and her eyes were icy.
“You and your people had better back off,” Marian went on. “If you don’t, you’ll be sorry!”