Tara loved living near the mangroves, where the tides rolled in and out every day. At high tide the water was bustling with jumping mullet and schools of small bream darting to and fro, their bodies glistening silver in the sunlight. Yellow-finned whiting swam about, and flathead skulked in the shadows of the mangroves. The high tides also brought great clumps of khaki coloured seaweed and hordes of jelly blubbers, invisible but for the touch of purple around their middles. Some nights, especially when the moon was bright and as round as the most carefully constructed crab hole, the water would come right up onto the grassy bank.
But it was the low tide that fascinated Tara the most. When she came out onto the mudflats the landscape was always different, so filled with promise. There were days when the low tide was so low, she felt as though she could walk across the mudflats for hours before reaching the salt water of the estuary.
There were always interesting things the tide left behind, but today she found something truly remarkable. It was an object that had been caught up in the the spiky mangrove shoots near the old log. She didn’t know what the object was but its look and texture fascinated her.
Tara had not seen anything quite like it before. It was thin and colourless and it made the sound: rustle, rustle in the breeze. Slightly nervous, she went back home to collect her younger brother Oscar.
“I don’t want to come with you Tara,” he moaned.
“Come on Oscar. It’s something different.”
“No. I’m going fossicking with my friends.”
Tara thought deeply and said, “I should never have asked you to come. It’s a bit scary. Only brave boys would want to go and see it.”
Oscar frowned. “Oh, Ok. But it better be good.”
As they left, their mother warned Oscar, “Make sure you listen to your older sister.”
* * * *
Tara led Oscar to the old log by the spiky mangrove shoots and pointed to the object.
Oscar stood there wide-eyed.
“I see what you mean,” he said. “What’s it called?”
“Um…it’s a…Rustler,” said Tara, calling it by the first word she could think of. They crept closer to the log.
“Wow, it’s so clear. It’s amazing,” said Oscar. “Let’s take it back home before anyone else sees it.”
“Good idea. I’ll take one edge and you take the other.”
Carefully, Tara and Oscar began to drag the Rustler towards their home. It ruffled and rippled in a gust of wind and Tara had to grip it tightly to stop it blowing away. It felt to Tara, as though she were carrying a dry, weightless, jelly blubber. They had taken it for only a short distance when a shadow passed over them.
Tara looked up and saw Old Elly the pelican circling above. Then the big white bird with the curious beak headed down towards them and with a great snap of her wings landed on the log. There was a look of severe disapproval on the eye that was turned towards them.
Old Elly cleared her baggy throat. “What do you young crabs have there?”
Tara exchanged looks with Oscar. “Oh, it’s just something we found.”
“Does it belong to you?”
“It does now,” said Tara.
“Are you sure you know what it’s for?”
“I don’t know. It’s such a pretty thing, it must be harmless.”
Old Elly hopped off the log and waddled across and prodded the Rustler with her beak. She tilted her head and stared at it for a while without saying anything.
Come on, Tara thought to herself. Why do pelicans take so long to say anything? Papa says pelicans’ brains are in that ridiculous bill of theirs and that every thought has to travel all the way around it.
“All I can say is be careful,” said Old Elly in a very pompous tone. “I would advise you to leave it well alone.”
“Why, thank you Old Elly for your wise words,” said Tara through gritted teeth.
Old Elly lifted her wings, gave both Tara and Oscar a mournful look, then took a few ungraceful running steps and flapped into the air.
“Stuffy old fusspot,” mumbled Tara to Oscar, staring up at the sky.
“You heard what she said. I think we should put it back.”
“Oh, come on Oscar, don’t be a sissy.”
From underneath the log, something wriggled. It was slimy and green and looked like a fat worm. It was a tentacle belonging to Slunkie the octopus.
Slunkie let out a big yawn and said in a lazy voice, “So, what are you up to my little ones…” His voice trailed off when he saw what they were carrying. “That’s beautiful, what is it?”
“It’s a Rustler. And it’s ours.”
“Hmm, it is so lovely, perhaps you can let your friend Slunkie have a lend of it? I’ll return it to you without so much as a scratch.”
Tara said, “I don’t think so, Slunkie. Old Elly said we have to be careful. I wouldn’t want anything to go wrong.”
“What could go wrong? Just a little touch wouldn’t be too much to ask,” said Slunkie, his tentacles wriggling and writhing as he spoke.
Tara didn’t like how the whites of Slunkie’s eyes had turned yellow.
“Come on,” Tara whispered to Oscar. “Let’s get out of here.”
A large tentacled arm knocked Tara and Oscar to the ground. When Tara scraped off the mud and got back to her feet she saw Slunkie with a stupid grin on his face, trying to place as many arms as he could into the Rustler. He walked off lopsidedly and when he got to his log he couldn’t pull himself underneath it. With his arms inside the Rustler, the suction cups on Slunkie’s tentacles had no grip.
He tried again but nothing happened and his yellow eyes blazed red. Tara and Oscar took a few stuttering sidewards steps and got ready to run. Slunkie cursed and writhed and after a great deal of effort extracted himself from the Rustler, He shook out all his tentacles and said, “Here, take your silly Rustler. It’s not so lovely after all.” Slunkie pulled himself under the log and disappeared from sight.
The wind caught the Rustler and it was blown right over to the water’s edge.
“It’s getting away, Oscar. Hurry we had better get it.”
They ran across the mud to where the Rustler was now floating in the shallows. Tara caught sight of two very small lumps sticking out of the water. She realised they weren’t lumps – they were eyes. They belonged to Lena, the electric stingray.
Tara clicked and called out hello. Lena flipped her flaps and swam over.
“Hello Tara and Oscar. What is that gorgeous thing that landed in the water? I think it would make a lovely hat.”
“It’s a Rustler. Please be careful,” called Tara.
Lena’s eyes bulged even more than usual and she flapped up and put her head inside the Rustler. She darted a few metres in one direction, then in another. Her sandy brown and white spotted body started to go pale. Lena flipped over onto her back so that her pale underside was facing upwards and her gills were rapidly opening and closing.
She was gasping for air.
Oscar began to cry. “We have to do something,” he said.
Tara ran into the water and grabbed hold of Lena’s tail and pulled. With a final convulsion, Lena was freed from the Rustler. There was a zapping sound and Tara was thrown up in the air and landed upside down on her shell. Her body tingled from her antennae to her claws.
Lena was resting in the shallows, panting through her gills. “I’m sorry if I shocked you. Oh, I don’t like that Rustler any more. Are you alright, Tara?”
The tingling was starting to subside. “I think so,” she said and turned back over onto her feet. They watched Lena swim away.
“We are going to get rid of it now, aren’t we Tara?” said Oscar.
Tara poked her tongue at him. “We are not throwing it away.”
Oscar put his claws on his hips said in his biggest voice, “We shouldn’t do this Tara. Old Elly warned us and you saw what happened to Slunkie and Lena.”
“You’re my little brother. I know better than you. All these creatures are too stupid for the Rustler. We’ll take it down our crab hole and keep it where nobody can see it.”
“I don’t think we should.”
“Remember what Mumma said about listening to me?”
“Oh, alright,” Oscar said, sounding surly.
After they had hidden the Rustler in their crab hole, Tara said to Oscar, “I’m going to play ebb-and-flow with my friends. Don’t tell a soul about the Rustler now. Pincer promise?”
She held out her claw.
“Pincer promise,” Oscar said, tapping her claw.
* * * *
When Tara returned to the family crab hole after her game she was shocked. There must have been a dozen young crabs pulling at the Rustler.
Oscar shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Tara. The Rustler is just so cool I couldn’t help talking about it.”
The sound of the excited crabs carried across the mudflats and one or two other crabs came scurrying across. Soon there was a crowd. And it wasn’t just kids, there were adult crabs too. Even a few curious King mudcrabs came down to have a look. The crabs were jostling one another, shouting and pulling the Rustler this way and that.
Tara was so mad she yelled at them to stop but noone could hear her above the noise. The crowds grew thicker and Tara’s Mama and Papa were furious with her.
Tara scurried away across the mudflats as fast as she could. She came to the old wooden jetty and climbed up one of the pylons. At the top she scrambled along to the end of the jetty where Old Elly was sitting watching the commotion.
“Old Elly, it’s a disaster. The Rustler has caused so much trouble. I know you said to get rid of it but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What can I do now?”
Old Elly scratched the end of her bill with a wing tip and considered the question. “Let me think on it for a while, young Tara.”
“Please Old Elly. I need your help now.”
The pelican cleared her throat. “I knew the Rustler was trouble when I first saw it. It reminded me of something I have tried to forget. My Old Jim swallowed a Rustler. He tried to cough it up but nothing happened. He gasped and squawked but it was stuck. I tried to help…but it was no use.”
“Is that why we don’t see Old Jim anymore?” asked Tara.
Old Elly slowly nodded, her eye looking glassy and morose.
“That’s right. Please Tara, you must get rid of this thing.”
“That, I can’t tell you. Tara, you are clever girl, and have a great sense of fun. Use that to guide you.”
Tara had to wipe a tear from her eye. She clicked her claws and thanked Old Elly then scurried back down the pier. When she clambered down the pylon there was water at the bottom. She had to swim to get to the mudflats.
* * * *
Back near Tara’s home, things had gotten worse. The throng of muddies had stopped arguing amongst themselves and were now facing towards the bank. In front of them were massed ranks of blue and white soldier crabs, their pink claws snapping. A general barked an order and a battalion of the soldier crabs marched to the left and another marched to the right. The muddies would be no match for such an organised mob. The now tattered Rustler was held by Shelley, the leader of the muddies.
General Crabbe, commander of the soldier crabs, stepped forward and called out in a military voice, “Hand over the Rustler now, or we will declare war!”
The muddies mumbled and muttered to themselves. Shelley responded, “It’s our Rustler and we will never give it back. Consider ourselves at war.”
“No!” shouted Tara running in between the two bristling armies.
There was murmuring from all the crabs.
“What the deuce?” cried General Crabbe, his claw raised, ready to give the order to attack.
“Please General, we cannot fight over this. I should have left the Rustler alone like Old Elly said. It’s caused such a lot of trouble and I’m sorry for it.”
General Crabbe and Shelley marched towards each other. Tara stood in between them.
“I’m sorry to hear it young Tara, but honour calls for crab blood to be shed,” said General Crabbe.
“You blithering imbecile, we will teach you and your brainless soldier crabs a lesson,” said Shelley, putting down the Rustler to reach over Tara and poke General Crabbe in the chest with his big claw.
“No! You can’t,” shouted Tara, looking back down the estuary.
“Because THE TIDE IS COMING IN!”
All the crabs looked at Tara, then at each other, then at the water, which was coming in fast, taking the Rustler with it.
“Retreat! Down to your crab holes” shouted General Crabbe. The order was relayed across the ranks of crabs on both sides. Taken by surprise by the rising tide, the crabs ran about in every which way, some of them bumping into each other, others running into the wrong holes and some up onto the shore. A King mudcrab scrambled under the log and was picked up by one Slunkie’s tentacles and tossed back onto the mud.
Tara and Rob followed their Mama and Papa down the family crab hole and waited.
* * * * *
At low tide, Tara’s mother called to her, “Hurry, you have some important visitors.”
Tara could see General Crabbe and Shelley at the entrance to their crab hole. She gasped and clambered out onto the mudflat.
“Thanks to you Tara, we have seen the folly of our ways. There will be no more fighting,” said General Crabbe, with a warm smile. Shelley smiled as well and placed his claw over General Crabbe’s shoulders.
“That is so good to hear,” Tara said.
“There is still one problem,” said General Crabbe pointing to the mangroves. “The Rustler has come back on the high tide.”
“Oh, no!” Tara looked to where the general was pointing and her shoulders slumped.
“What can we do?” asked the general.
A noise came from the bank and the crabs looked up. It was the sound of a human child’s laughter. The words of Old Elly came back to Tara – you are clever girl, and have a great sense of fun. Use that to guide you. Tara had an idea.
“Follow me,” she told them.
Near the bank they could see the little human girl who had laughed. Tara organised Oscar, General Crabbe, Shelley and some of the other crabs to line up.
“Now after me,” she said. ‘Left-two-three, and right-two-three, and spin, and twist…”
The little human girl laughed and walked down onto the mud. “Look mummy! The crabs are … dancing!”
“Oh my goodness. So they are!”
“Now head towards the mangroves,” said Tara, and the crabs danced sideways across the mudflats. The human girl followed them, squealing with delight.
When they reached the Rustler, Tara got them to stop.
“Look mummy,” said the human girl. “It’s a plastic bag. That’s naughty.”
“Yes, let’s get rid of this mess,” said the child’s mother, who picked up the Rustler and tossed it into a garbage bag she was carrying. The human mother and child walked away towards the bank, picking up pieces of rubbish along the way.
“Tara’s done it!” shouted General Crabbe.
“Three cheers for Tara,” said Shelley.
Tara was aware of a growing noise about her. She looked across the mudflats and saw crabs coming out of their holes, clicking their claws in unison. Even Slunkie waved some of his arms from his log and Lena flapped in the shallows.
“Hip, hip, hooray!” they shouted.
Her Mama and Papa and Oscar came over to give her a hug. The whole family was lifted onto the bigger crabs’ shoulders. Tara was so overwhelmed she thought her shell would turn pink.