“Will we be working tomorrow?”
Henry nodded, and opened the door. He went and unlocked the doors of the Wanderer for Carter.
“Sadly, I can’t afford to keep the Wanderer closed that long. Depending how busy we get, one of us might be able to duck out to go help look for those boys – probably me or Gwen. We’ll sort it out. Try and get some sleep.”
Carter closed the Wanderer’s doors, and heard the click as Henry locked them. With that, he went upstairs to try and get some sleep, knowing that being exhausted the next day wouldn’t help those boys. It wouldn’t help anyone.
But while he was lying in a bed, warm, and safe, somewhere out there in the bush those boys were cold, alone, and frightened.
Sleep didn’t come for a very long time.
In the depths of the bush beyond the township of Fisherman’s Creek, Tobias Kingsley was stumbling around in the darkness.
Upon arriving at St. Paul’s to find Joseph still missing, Tobias had rushed off into the bush behind the school to look for his son. The physical education teacher had tried to follow him, but despite his chosen subject it was clear that Tobias was the more physically fit of the two men, and would have handily outpaced him even without the surge of adrenaline energy from knowing his son was lost. Tobias was furious. Time and time again, he had told the boy not to wander out into the bush, told him that dangerous things lay beyond the trees. He had tried to warn him of the Fisher, but the boy had not heeded his warnings. When he caught the boy, he would do everything he could to make his point clear.
Tobias knew the bush well, indeed spent almost every morning out here, either shooting at wildlife with his rifle or just walking along the creek. But he was not thinking clearly, and as time passed and the light faded he grew more and more reckless.
He was running down a slope when his foot got tangled on a tree root he had overlooked in his frantic rush. His body launched forward, but the root trapped his foot and held it in place, and he felt a sickening snap in his ankle moments before he hit the ground. He had thrown out his hands in an attempt to catch himself as he fell, but they had not been enough to stop his head colliding hard with the ground. He was dazed, dulling the pain in his ankle long enough for him to pull it free. In doing so, however, the force of it caused him to roll down the hill, unable to stop himself with one foot and his fingers unable to find purchase in the soft dirt. He jolted to a stop in the dip and the slope’s base, and lay there, staring up at the sky. For a moment, there was no sound but the buzz of insects and the chirp of birdsong. The he groaned in agony. Without even looking he knew his ankle was broken, bent at an unnatural angle. A quick mental survey of his body found that he was cut and bruised in multiple places. His head throbbed, and there was blackness dancing around the edges of his vision, threatening at any moment to close in. He fought it, knowing that to fall unconscious out here could mean death, and forced himself to sit up.
Burning pain shot through his ankle, and he swore, loudly. He swore again, and slowly stood up. He carefully tested his ankle, placing the foot on the ground and ever so gently shifting some of his body weight onto the ankle. It did not take his weight at all, pain shot up and down his leg, and he almost fell over again. He managed to keep his balance, and he looked around for a stick to use as a makeshift crutch. Spotting a suitable branch, he hopped over and picked it up.
He turned around, slowly, taking in his surroundings. The slope he had fallen down was wide, stretching as far as he could see in both directions. If he was going to go back the way he came – the simplest way to reach civilization, and safety – he would have to climb the slope.
Swearing loudly, an endless stream of profanity spewing forth from his mouth, he began to climb the slope. It was not particularly steep, but it was long, and he couldn’t move very quickly. Every step he took threatened to send him tumbling back down the hill. He moved carefully. He thought if he fell back down, he might not be able to get up for a second attempt. His head pounded. The blackness around the edges of his vision slowly closed in. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. When he finally made it to the top of the hill, almost twenty minutes had passed. He stood at the top of the hill, panting. It was pitch black now. He thought he could remember the way back, but it had taken him almost two hours to get this far out, and that had been at almost running pace. To get back like this, limping, it could take him all night. He thought even if he could walk for that long on a broken ankle, he had no water, and was wearing only jeans and a flannel shirt. He stood, breathing heavily, eyes closed. Then, a single word came to him, cutting through the fear and resignation, and he said it aloud to himself, as if to confirm what he had heard in his own mind.
With that, he turned, and began the long walk home. It was agony. Even with the tree branch to keep the weight off his ankle, just the act of taking every step jarred it enough to send a hot flash of pain through it. He walked in silence. Tears streamed down his face. Steadily, the temperature dropped. Luckily, it was coming to the start of summer, but even so, the night chill had a painful bite to it. He walked in silence. The only sound to be heard for kilometres was his heavy breathing, the snapping of twigs underfoot, and the occasionally scurrying sound of small bush animals, fleeing upon hearing his approach.
He began to lose track of his surroundings. What little he could see all looked the same in the darkness. He only realized where he was when he felt the crunch of animal bones under his foot.
He looked down, and saw that he was standing on a wallaby skeleton. He peered into the dark, and spotted more skeletons, then more, as he eyes adjusted to the dark. He had made it as far as his hunting grounds. When he had passed this way earlier, it had been an hour and a half into his search. Now, heading back, he had been walking for almost two hours.
He slowly made his way through the hunting grounds. Although in the mornings before work he would often only have enough time to stay fairly close to his house, when he had time, he preferred to come out here. This was where his own father, many years ago, had taught him to hunt. His father had died when he was only twelve – not much older than his own boy was now. The memories he had of the man were of a giant with a loud, booming voice that could cut across a crowded room with ease. His father had brought him out to this spot many times, and they would spend hours huddled beneath a camouflage-patterned tent, guns in hand, watching for any sign of moment. His father would clap him around the ear if he tried to speak during these times – admonishing him for ‘scaring away the beasts’ – but he hadn’t minded the silence. He would close his eyes and feel the warmth of his father close to him, listen to his breathing and try to match the rhythm with his own.
Beneath his foot, he heard a sharp crack.
He looked down. The wallaby skeleton lay there, the skull splintered, a bullet hole clearly visible under the left eye socket.
The skull moved to face him with a sharp cracking sound.
“Where is your boy, Tobias?”
He stepped away, keeping an eye on the skull. A cracking noise sounded behind him, and he whipped around – shouting as pain flared in his ankle – to see a bird skeleton crawling across the ground toward him. Its beak flapped at him, and a voice came from somewhere deep in the skull.
“Where is Joseph, Tobias?”
“I don’t know!” he screamed, hopping away. Around him, all the skeletons were coming to life with the snap of breaking bones, a hellish puppet show. They were crawling towards him.
“You have a duty, Tobias. You have a duty to the boy. He is the next in line. Would you allow the line of Fisher Men to end with you? You think you are so important, that you can be the last of the priests?”
A possum skeleton snatched at his pant legs with tiny finger bones. He quickly tugged his leg away. It screamed at him.
“You have a duty, Tobias. A duty not to die. A duty to your boy. A duty to your god. Or are you unworthy? Are you to be caught, Tobias, taken into the dark water and drowned, and drowned, and drowned again for all eternity?”
He heard someone screaming “Go away”, and it was only when his throat began to burn that he realized it was him, screaming at the top of his lungs. Still, the skeletons shouted at him.
“You are burdened, Tobias, burdened with divine purpose. Now go, and retrieve your followers, and return to the bush and find your son.”
Jaws unhinged, all the skeletons screamed at him in unison.
“FIND JOSEPH, OR BE DAMNED FOR ALL TIME!”
He shut his eyes. There was silence. He kept his eyes closed for a long time, tears streaming through. His head felt as if it was going to explode from the pressure inside. Finally, he opened his eyes.
The skeletons were laying still, exactly where they had always been. He looked down. Under one foot were the crushed bones of a wallaby skeleton. He shook himself, and began to walk.
He had a duty.