Story telling from Australia
Broken Hill has a dark side and this story reflects that (look away Nan, language alert).
Joe moved his head and felt shards of gritty sand shift under his cheek. It would be dark soon. Already the shadow of the nearby hill had lengthened, trickling along the sand like a slow moving creek. When it reached him it would be a blessed relief from the burning, tightening sunburn that had intensified all day.
Nightfall would bring other dangers.
He pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth, felt them wobble as he ran his tongue over the jagged cracks, then bit down, hard, hoping to find saliva. All he tasted was the tang of blood. Jeez, how much was there left in him?
‘We pick up the gear in Adelaide, drive to Broken Hill and flog it. Ten grand a piece. An’ a holiday thrown in!’ Rod was pumped, had it all planned. but Joe was nervous. You never knew who was listening on Hindley St.
‘Broken Hill won’t know what hit it,’ Rod said. ‘You and me mate, with a trunk load of cash! We’ll build a fire in the bush on the way back, have a few beers under the stars. Waddya say?’
‘Job going down?’ a voice behind them said, quietly, so only they could hear.
The guy was older, mid forties, skinny as a dingo and hair like an abandoned bird’s nest. ‘Nice town, Broken Hill,’ he said, once he knew he had their attention.
‘You know it?’ Rod said, wary of the sudden interruption.
‘Uncle’s a miner. I presume you’ll get off the road before you get to Mannahill?’
Rod took a swig of beer, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and set his glass down.
‘You’d get off before Mannahill would you?’
‘Oh yeah, unless you want to be stopped by the copper. He’ll search you soon as look at you.’
Rod nodded, like he knew that anyway but Joe wasn’t fooled. He doubted if Rod even knew where Mannahill was.
‘Now if it was me, I’d cut across Mutawintji way, over to Langawirra,’ the skinny guy said.
‘I haven’t decided yet,’ said Rod. He stared at the dregs of his beer, frowning.
‘You gotta love a system that sets off fire-crackers to let people know there’s a new batch in town.’
Rod looked at the stranger, summing him up.
‘Name’s Michael, Michael Jenkins,’ the stranger said. ‘Friends call me Lizard.’ He reached out his hand and Rod took it.
Joe kicked Rod under the table, Rod kicked him back and that’s how they ended up with a third partner.
Joe scrabbled to find a rock, his bloody fingers digging in the soft sand until they closed around a sharp stone. He raised his arm and the feeble throw fell short. The wedge tail hopped to one side, opened its huge wings and settled back down. The throw cracked the scab on Joe’s wound and he felt blood trickle down the side of his neck. Sunburn prickled his bare arm.
There was a sudden gust of wind, a muscular flap of wings and another eagle joined the one already in place, skipping sideways before settling down to wait, head cocked, black eyes fixed on the body lying on the sand.
Joe clutched at the dirt, desperately fumbling for more ammunition. His fingers found only a handful of grit so he threw it anyway and a cloud of dust drifted past his face. The coughing fit that followed was painful. He spat out a mouthful of blood and watched a buzz of blowflies settle in an ugly clump on the drying clot.
A cooling sensation at his ankle suggested the sun had dropped far enough behind the hill for the shadows to reach his foot, first his left, then his right. Sunset wasn’t far away.
The shadow of the hill crept towards his knees.
‘He doesn’t know shit about Broken Hill, any more than we do. All he knows is what he’s read in the papers,’ Joe hissed. They were standing in a creek bad, the car parked beside them, and Joe was pissing on the dead branch of a mulga tree. They’d stopped the car to take a leak and Michael had walked up a rise behind them.
‘We’re lost, you do know that, don’t you?’ Joe added.
‘Will you shut up?’
‘You shouldn’t have asked him to come.’
‘We need him. He knows stuff.’
‘What stuff? And who is he anyway? For all you know he’s –
‘Is there a problem boys?’
‘Shit!’ Joe shot a look over his shoulder to see Michael standing a few paces behind them, smiling. He’d crept up on them as quiet as a kadaitcha man. ‘Shit,’ he repeated. ‘Now look what you made me do.’
Joe zipped up and turned to face Michael, scowling at the smile on Rod’s face.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ he growled.
‘Creep up on someone.’
‘Sometimes it pays to be as silent as a lizard, my friend.’
‘I’m not your friend and we’re lost,’ Joe grumbled.
Michael threw back his head and laughed. Rod joined in.
‘I took us on a short cut, through a station. I know exactly where we are. Come on, my turn to drive.’
Michael held out his hand for the keys and Rod hesitated. It was his car and so far he’d been the only one driving.
‘Nervous passenger?’ Michael said, challenging Rod with an easy smile.
‘Nah, I’ll kip in the back. Joe, you can sit up front.’ And he tossed the keys to Michael.
A clump of wild flowers swayed just beyond Joe’s reach, a sentinel line of red and black. It was the weirdest thing he’d ever seen. He wondered if he was hallucinating. Maybe aliens had landed. Hah, that’d be right, he thought. He barked out a laugh, his body jerked and he spat more blood.
He clutched at the sand and blinked away the flies that crawled at the corner of his eye. One of the wedge-tails lifted its wing, pruned its feathers and settled back down to watch.
And to wait.
Rod had one leg inside the car when Michael gunned the engine. The car spun, Rod screamed then he disappeared in a cloud of dust.
‘What the fuck?’ Joe turned to see what was happening and the car took off, engine screaming. ‘You crazy fucker!’
He tried to grab the wheel and Michael punched him in the face, hard. The crunching blow connected with bone and gristle. Blood poured from Joe’s broken nose. He slumped forward, semi-conscious, clutching his face as the car skidded across the sand.
‘You can’t leave him there,’ he moaned.
Two kilometres later Michael reached across, opened the passenger door and pushed Joe out.
He must have slept, because when he woke the sun had lost its intensity and the sky had shifted from china blue to dark purple. The shadow had moved up his body like a blanket, settling him down for the night.
The flies had gone, vanishing before the sun slipped below the horizon. He ran his tongue along his cracked lips and saw the dark shape of an eagle outlined against the horizon. Thorn bushes loomed like giant pieces of popcorn.
In the distance something moved, a shadow. He felt the sound rather than heard it. Dthmp, dthmp, dthmp. It was the rhythmic thud of a kangaroo, hitting the ground and bouncing off again.
There was something else as well, a shape, no, two shapes. He squinted. Was that Rod? The wind carried the whisper of a man’s voice.
‘Max, here boy!’
Joe opened his mouth and felt the blistered skin crack on his parted lips. There was a rusty scrape, like an iron gate creaking in the wind, and it took a moment to realise the faint sound had come from him.
He tried again, failed again, and the shadows moved away. Tears cut through the mess of blood and sand on his face, carving a channel through his dried sweat like the hopeless dribble of a creek when not enough rain has fallen to make it flow. The tears were dry before they reached his chin.
He shivered. What wouldn’t he give to be at home in bed now? A feathery touch brushed the hair from his forehead, confusing him.
The shadow of the hill lengthened, darkness passed his open mouth and the eagles hopped into position.