A/N: The usual disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters, any of the boats or the Lake.
The good ship Swallow stood out past the peak of Darien and turned south towards Wild Cat Island. There was a steady north wind blowing down the lake, so Swallow could run easily down with her brown sail out to one side. John, sitting at her tiller, thought that was just as well; with the four of them and their camping things Swallow rode very low in the water, and he would just as soon not have her heeling over too much.
He smiled to himself as he remembered their first voyage to the island, five years ago. Then, Roger had acted as lookout, sitting before the mast. There was no chance of him fitting in there now; instead the space was filled with bags and boxes of food, and Roger sat amidships with Titty, Susan, Polly the parrot and their bundled tents and equipment. It was becoming a tight fit, and even then there had been too little space for everything. Mother had promised to visit them later in the afternoon, and she would be bringing their haybag mattresses and sleeping bags with her in Mr Jackson's rowing boat.
Swallow sailed on, Houseboat Bay opening up on her port bow. The long hull of the houseboat lay at her mooring buoy, the red ensign fluttering from her mast. There was no sign of Captain Flint, but no doubt they'd be seeing him before long. It seemed so long ago that he'd been "the houseboat man," an enemy who had tried to ruin their first holiday on the island. How quickly he had turned into a firm ally and friend! Despite his age, he had a bubbling enthusiasm for fun and life and the practical knowledge to quickly turn vague plans into reality.
Houseboat Bay fell behind them, and Swallow slipped into the channel between Wild Cat Island and the shore. The tall lighthouse tree stood high above them; now John was counting down towards the moment he would steer for the island. And here it was; he put the helm over and hauled in the sheet, and Swallow's bows swung to starboard. As she straightened up on her new course John began giving his orders to his crew. "Susan, cast off the halyard and prepare to lower sail. Roger, stand by to go ashore and secure the ship. Titty, you catch the boom as the sail comes down; we don't want to knock Polly overboard."
The crew chorused "Aye Aye, Sir" and moved quickly to carry out their orders. Swallow was already slowing as she ran in towards the landing place, the trees of the island stealing much of her wind. A few seconds more and... "Lower away!" Susan immediately began paying out the halyard, and the sail came down. More way came off, the chuckle of water from for'ard dying away, but they still had speed enough.
The stem crunched on sand and Roger leapt over the side onto dry land. He immediately seized Swallow's bow and hauled her a couple of feet further up the beach, making sure that she wouldn't float off as soon as the weight of her crew was removed. Once more, and for their last holiday as a complete crew, the Swallows had made landfall on Wild Cat Island.
Once the shipwas unloaded and the island was re-colonised, of course, there was lots of work to do. Susan set Titty and Roger to work putting up the tents, while John shouldered his knapsack and rowed Swallow round to the harbour. He returned in a little while and set to collecting the deadwood knocked from the trees by the winter's storms. They would still have to make a voyage to the mainland to collect more, of course, but the island managed to provide enough for at least three days. Susan herself cleared and tidied the fireplace, before starting a fire and setting the kettle over it. Camping was hard work that couldn't be done without tea. So it was that when Mother arrived the camp was almost ready to live in, awaiting only the supplies carried in her Native trading canoe.
But before that came the Amazon Pirates.
Susan had given her work party a tea break, which Roger had chosen to spend at the lookout place below the lighthouse tree. He was idly watching a steamer cruise up the lake when he caught a sudden flash of white at the eastern tip of Long Island. He swung the telescope back, and… there! Rounding the island was a little varnished dinghy with a bright white sail, crewed by two girls, one of whom wore a red hat. He watched for a few seconds more to be sure, then stood and trotted back to camp, managing to spill most of his tea on the way.
Susan and John looked up as he approached. "They're coming!" he cried, swerving to avoid a guy rope and spilling his remaining tea, "Amazon just weathered Long Island, they'll be here soon."
John sprang to his feet – surprisingly quickly, Roger thought. "Right, is the camp squared away?" he exclaimed. "Titty… where's Titty? Oh there you are… have you got Polly's feathers for Nancy? Roger, tighten your guy ropes. Let's make sure they know we run a tight ship."
Susan jumped up too, issuing her own orders, and by the time Amazon's slim bows ran up on the beach the camp was quite the finest that had ever been seen on Wild Cat Island (or indeed anywhere else.) The tents were all neat and tight, groundsheets and spare clothes were laid out inside each one, and the old black kettle was just coming to the boil on the fire.
The Amazons leapt ashore and pulled their ship further up on the pebbles, then headed for where the Swallows stood on the beach. Nancy walked first to John and, after what looked like a second's uncharacteristic indecision, shook hands warmly with him. "Hello John!" she exclaimed happily, "it's so good to see you again!"
They really were growing up, thought John. Last year she'd greeted him with a rousing "Avast there, Captain!" But she really did look as happy to see him as he was to see her, and even if she'd reined in her piratical airs a bit she looked, if anything, more Amazonian than ever. Only two inches short of his own six feet, she was a tall, strong and lithe young woman. He knew from her letters that she had recently won her school's lawn tennis championship, was Captain of the archery team and had been swimming champion for the last three years now, and she looked every inch the athlete. She wore a blue shirt and beige riding breeches, no stockings, and a pair of men's soft leather ankle boots (these, he knew, were antelope-hide veldskoen which her uncle had brought back from South Africa.) Without her old red knitted cap, her dark brown hair fell unrestrained around her shoulders; the wind out on the lake had left it in disarray, but he suspected it usually looked like that anyway.
"Hello Nancy! It's good to see you too. How are you? I was so disappointed that we couldn't meet at Christmas or Easter, but Father was very keen for me to spend some time with him. He's so pleased to have his own flotilla. Four destroyers, and he'll be getting one of the new H Class for his own ship when she's launched next year."
Nancy smiled. "I know, he's been writing to me about… oh, I'll tell you later! Come on, I need to say hello to your crew and I know Peggy's missed you too."
So after handshakes and greetings all round, and of course a work detail to establish Nancy, Peggy and Amazon on the island, the Swallows and Amazons found themselves once more sitting round the old fireplace, drinking tea and sharing out bunloaf and one of Cook's apple pies. Looking around, John thought that the campsite had not changed at all. The same old six tents stood there; the Swallows' four sleeping tents and the stores tent, and the larger tent of the Amazons. The fire was where it always was, fed from the same old woodpile. No, it was the explorers and pirates who showed the passing of the years.
Roger, at twelve, was now as old as John himself had been when they had first come to the lake. Titty was two years older, but still as dreamy and imaginative as ever and showing no inclination to return to her given name of Mavis. Susan was now a confident young woman of 16, formidably organised and efficient; while he himself had recently finished his Higher School Certificate exams, had completed the "school" part of Brittannia Royal Naval College and would be starting sea training in October. As for the Amazons, their piratical airs were greatly reduced (Peggy, he suspected, following Nancy's lead as always) and Nancy in particular was far less of a tomboy than she had once been. That was not to say that she was now a polite and conventional young lady; she was still bursting with energy and enthusiasm, still a hornet's nest of ambitious schemes and still willing to throw herself whole-heartedly into any project that caught her imagination. But she was less inclined than before to join in with fantasies, preferring to keep her plans in the real world.
This wasn't always reassuring; his first meeting with the Amazons had been heralded by an arrow landing in the fire, and Nancy still had a bow with her. Before, however, she had carried a home-made one, fashioned from an elm branch, with which she had shot home-made arrows fletched with feathers from Captain Flint's (now Titty's) parrot. Now she had the bow with which she had dominated her school archery team; a yew longbow, six feet of polished wood, and a quiver of steel-tipped arrows. She had hung a straw target from the Lighthouse Tree and had already promised to teach John how to shoot with the lethal-looking weapon.
For now, though, Swallows and Amazons alike were just happy to be back in the old camp that had been such a major part of all their lives. All of them had learned many lessons here; about teamwork, planning – and friendship.
Talk of school, of the Easter holidays and of plans for the summer quickly ate up the early afternoon, and with no lookout the first warning of Mrs Walker's approach was the gurgle of backing oars as Mr Jackson slowed his rowing boat before grounding. Roger and Titty leapt to their feet and ran to haul the boat up and Mother stepped ashore, smiling at the familiar sight of the camp. "Thanks Titty, Roger. Hello Nancy! My, Peggy, you've grown since Easter. Oh thanks Susan, tea would be very nice. I've some lemonade in the boat though, you can have that later."
Susan stirred milk and sugar into a steaming mug and handed it to her mother. John pulled out a wooden biscuit box for her to sit on. Nancy and Peggy shook her hand, grinning broadly. Roger was helping Mr Jackson unload the rowing boat, and taking the chance to investigate a few of the bags and parcels Mother had brought with her. Mother sipped her tea and looked around at the group.
"I hear you Amazons have a good batch of plans for this summer," she said, "your uncle – or is he still Captain Flint? It's funny, I often think of him as Captain Flint myself, it seems to suit him - said that you're planning a proper regatta when the Callums get here."
Nancy smiled. "Oh yes! Dot has been gushing in her letters about all the sailing they've done this year. They spent Easter on the Broads again, and it seems they won some race there. Well, I thought we should give them a chance to win here." And John saw, in the way her smile broadened, the old wolfish piratical Nancy. Too bad for Dot, he thought.
Captain Flint ran his rowing boat ashore half an hour later. He shipped his oars and wiped a large spotted handkerchief across his face; it was a warm day for rowing, and besides he'd spent several hours in the pub in Rio last night, swapping tall tales of the China seas with that journalist fellow Ransome. Now, though, he was back on Wild Cat Island with his nieces and their – and his – friends. Jim Turner had led a lonely life since the only woman he'd ever loved had died of blackwater fever 18 years ago in Natal, while he'd been a thousand miles away leading a troop of volunteer cavalry against the Germans in Namibia. After the war he'd thrown himself even more furiously into the wanderings that had always drawn him; when there was always a seam of gold or a swathe of new farmland ahead of him, there was no time to look back at the simple cross on the high veldt where Katarina lay in the ground.
And then he'd come home to the lake, and after a year or two he'd decided to write the story of his life. He'd only had the energy to write that story once, and after the manuscript was stolen he'd never have been able to start again. It was a damn good job that Titty and Roger had found it, really… and then he'd realised that his two wildcat nieces, and the friends they'd made, had all the spirit of adventure that had always driven him onwards; so what was he to do but encourage them? He grinned as he hauled his boat up the beach; those six children had put the energy back into his life just as he'd started to fear he'd buried it for ever in South Africa. He rocked the boat with one hand to check that she wouldn't drift away, then fished the bag of beer bottles from the water-filled bait box and went to greet John, the son he'd never had.