He poked at the gravel with the toe of his boot, his brain going at a hundred miles an hour trying to get himself out of the hole he’d found himself in.
The accountant had been with his boss when he arrived back at the homestead. As she walked to her car, she saw Fraser pull up. She crossed the driveway, taking in the condition of the ute and fixing him with a deathly glare.
A galah streaked through the clear blue sky overhead, shrieking to its mates. He wished he could just leap into the air and fly off with them, but his feet remained fixed to terra firma.
She stood clutching her handbag to her chest, her blood red talons tapping impatiently. Blood red talons that could pluck your eye out in a millisecond; gouge your heart clean out of your chest; disembowel you while you watched your gizzards flop all over your boots. ‘I’m waiting for an explanation,’ she said sharply, ‘and I haven’t got all day. It’s going to cost a small fortune to get this vehicle fixed. I should probably just write it off as a complete loss!’ she shouted, as she paced angrily up and down. ‘What do you think Mr. Scott’s going to say?’
He cleared his throat. ‘Well, it wasn’t really my fault,’ he began, thrusting his fists deeply into his jeans pockets.
She snorted with disbelief, and started tapping the handbag again.
Trouble is, he didn’t know just what to say. Things happened last night that he couldn’t explain to anyone. She spun around on those terrifying stiletto heels and crunched across the gravel to her car. As she drove off, he heard footsteps on the verandah. Without even looking, he knew it was his boss, Jeff Scott. He took in a big breath, whooshed it out again, and turned to face him.
Jeff leaned on the verandah post and looked at Fraser. Twenty-six years old, single, worked on the station for seven years and never any trouble at all. He’d have a few beers on Friday nights but never been a drunk; didn’t gamble; didn’t chase around after the local skirts. Said he was just waiting for Miss Right to come along. Always been a good, reliable worker; responsible, smart, capable. Looking at him now he seemed to be a very different man. His jeans were dirty, his shirt ripped, boots muddy and his hair was a mess. His normal happy-go-lucky grin was missing.
Jeff walked down the steps and moved towards the ute, Fraser following like a dog that knew it was in trouble. The lovely new twin cab, V8 ATV ute. Built tough to do tough jobs the manufacturer said. Now here it was, covered in dirt and mud; paintwork scratched, muffler hanging awkwardly, back window gone. ‘What the hell happened Fraser? We’ve only had that ute for two months. I gave it to you because you were so responsible with station equipment and now it looks like it’s been through a damn war,’ his voice rising to a shout with the last few words.
Fraser slumped his shoulders and stared at his boots again.
Jeff sighed. ‘I know it’s early but I need a drink. Come inside and tell me what happened,’ he said as he turned and headed back to the house, ‘and it better be bloody good.’
Fraser followed him into the big kitchen. Jeff took two beers from the fridge and indicated for his leading hand to sit opposite him at the table. They sat in silence for a few minutes while they sipped at their drinks. Jeff folded his arms across his broad chest and waited for an explanation.
Fraser shuffled in his seat and leaned forward, elbows on the table. Clearing his throat he said, ‘Well. You know I went into town with the boys last night, just to have a couple of beers as we usually do.’
‘Well. While we were in the bar, this girl came in. A stranger.’
‘Yeah. She had a swag and a big duffle bag with her. Just got off the ten o’clock bus and needed a place to stay overnight until it left again in the morning. She asked Bill if there were any rooms available but he told her they didn’t have accommodation at the pub. So she looked at us and asked if we knew anywhere she could doss down for the night. She looked at me and, fair dinkum Boss. You know you hear stories about people who look at each other and that’s it. You’re like, in a trance or something.’
Jeff got up and took another two beers from the fridge. ‘I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need another one. Go on.’
‘Well, that was it. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Before I knew what I was doing, I said I could find her a place for the night. The other guys couldn’t believe it. She nodded and said, “Thanks. Tell me when you’re ready to go.” She sat at one of the tables in the corner and waited. I finished my beer, picked up my keys and offered to take her luggage to the ute. She said she’d handle it, so we went outside, put her stuff in the tray and fastened the tonneau cover down. The boys stood on the pub verandah making stupid comments that we both ignored.
‘I thought I’d take her to the little shearer’s cottage a couple of k’s up the road. It wasn’t flash but had a bit of furniture and would be okay overnight. I asked her where she came from, where she was going … you know, just regular questions. Said she was in the army, on leave, just looking around. You know, R & R I guess you’d call it. Said everyone called her ‘Bug’ because she was such a pest.
‘She looked over her shoulder a couple of times and said how dark it was and how there weren’t too many houses or people about. I thought she was a bit worried about what I might do, but I told her it was alright. I wouldn’t hurt her. She smiled at me and I almost ran off the road. She asked about the ute. How fast would it go, was the petrol tank full, which I thought was a bit of an odd thing for a girl to ask, but she was in the army and maybe she was just really interested in vehicles.
‘Anyway, we got to the turnoff and drove up the track to the hut. It was pretty rough because it hasn’t been levelled off for a while, but I took it easy and the ute handled it well.’
‘I grabbed the torch and we got her gear out of the back and took it inside. There was a hurricane lantern on the table, so I lit that and we looked around. It was pretty dirty but she said it was okay, she’d slept in worse places. It was a bit awkward then because I wasn’t sure what to do about the sleeping arrangements. I told her to take the bed and I’d sleep on the floor but she said she was happy in her swag, so I turned the lamp down and we went to bed. It was so quiet I could hear her breathing.’ He stopped for a moment, taking another sip of his beer, thinking about that – her gentle breathing.
‘I couldn’t sleep and just lay there for a while acutely aware of her sleeping so close to me. Then I heard something. She heard it too because she sat up suddenly, kicking her way out of the swag. We could see lights coming up the driveway, flashing wildly from bouncing along on the bumpy track. A car was coming.
‘She leapt up, shouting ‘Get up. Get up quickly. Put your boots on. We have to go.’ She snatched up her gear and the car keys, grabbed my arm and dragged me to the back door. I was still getting my boots on and tripped over, when the approaching car stopped.
‘Get down,’ she said and we crouched down, scrambling through the bushes, dragging her gear with us. She opened the back door of the ute and threw her stuff in. I heard someone shouting. She gave me the keys and we jumped in, I started the motor and we took off like a rocket around the back of the hut. I’m pretty sure I heard a gunshot. ‘Keep the hut between us and them,’ she yelled, ‘and plant your foot because they mean business.’
‘We powered through the paddock and into the scrub. Over the rise we went downhill so were out of sight of the other car for a bit. She clambered into the back, rummaging through her duffle bag. I couldn’t believe it. She pulled out a gun, slammed a clip into it, then climbed back into the front. Winding her window down, she hung her head and arm out and fired off a couple of quick shots at the car behind us as it came over the hill.’
‘Keep going as fast as you can,’ she yelled. I gripped the steering wheel and planted my foot. I knew there was a creek at the bottom of the hill, and made a quick calculation. The back window exploded and something whizzed past my ear. Thank God it missed the front windscreen. We flew off the high creek bank and crash-landed on the rocks. I swung the wheel hard to the right and gunned the motor. We bounced along the creek bed for a bit, then I wheeled hard left so we climbed sideways up the lower bank and were in the gully amongst the scrub again, heading for the road.
‘She watched the car behind and saw it fly off the bank and into the opposite side. The lights went out and that was the last we saw of them.
‘We got back onto the highway, neither of us speaking. I had so many questions but somehow knew they wouldn’t be answered. She asked if I was okay and I said yes. My heart was pounding. I started shaking and pulled off the road. ‘It’s just an adrenalin rush,’ she said, patting my hand. She unloaded her gun and put it back into her bag. We swapped seats so she could drive, and headed back towards town. I couldn’t believe it; the sky was already lightening. It was almost six o’clock. We’d be just in time for the bus.
‘She parked the ute around the corner from the main street, near the bus stop. The bus was waiting, its engine ticking over, the driver watching the clock.’
As she fastened her swag and lifted her duffle bag from the back seat, she smiled at me. ‘I bet you never expected that when you came to the pub with your mates for a couple of quiet beers. I’m sorry you got caught up in it, but you handled it really well. Thanks.’
‘When the bus moved out she smiled, blew me a kiss from the window, and was gone. I could’ve been killed, but I never felt so alive in all my life. I was totally wired, brain on fire, adrenalin pumping. Nothing will ever be the same again. I don’t even know her name but I just hope to God she’ll come back one day.’
Jeff sat back with a stunned look on his face. ‘Bloody hell Fraser, with a story like that you should write a book. You’d sell a million copies in a week!’
‘Um. Boss. I guess I should tell you. Um. The shearer’s hut? Well, it might have caught fire after the hurricane lantern got knocked off the table. I’m not sure because we weren’t really hanging around to check.’
Jeff shut his eyes and groaned.