Most of Tobias’ group followed him into the bush. As they reached the road, however, he took two men aside, explained where the group was headed, and gave them a task. While the rest of the group disappeared into the Fisherman’s Creek bushland, the two men Tobias had taken aside – both young men, this year only being their third harvest – walked back into town. Once there, they split up, heading from business to business, and making phone calls.
Slowly a mob began to form in the center of the Creek’s main crossroads. Men and women gathered in the centre, and within an hour there were over thirty people standing in the middle of town, brandishing knives and other instruments – any farm or gardening equipment with a blade of that could be used to bludgeon or stab.
Finally, the last of the posse trickled in, and Tobias’ two men led them out of town, along the main road and out into the bush. They walked quickly, without saying a word. No one so much as looked at any other person in the group. They trekked slowly through the bush, sending birds flying and animals scurrying away as they passed.
It was midday when they finally reached Tobias’ meeting point. Animal skeletons dotted the landscape. In the distance, they could hear the sounds of the creek as it bubbled and splashed. The bush around them was eerily silent, seemingly devoid of any animal life. Tobias and his group were already there, either leaning against trees or seated on the ground, waiting. Tobias himself was stood in the middle of the hunting ground, his eyes closed, one hand closed tight around his rifle, the other resting on Joseph’s head. The boy sat cross-legged on the ground next to Tobias. He was staring blankly at a wallaby skeleton.
As the new group arrived, Lee Vickery began ordering them around. He had them spread around the hunting ground, facing outwards, standing guard. He gave them strict instructions – if they saw Carter, they were to notify Tobias as soon as possible. Some people protested, and Lee held up his hands, saying that he was only passing on what he had been told, and if they had any problems, to talk to Tobias.
Minutes passed, which turned into hours. Slowly, the light in the sky began to fade, and the air began to cool. Some of the sentries shifted uncomfortably, stretching sore muscles. One woman leaned back, and the sound of her cracking back split the silence. Still, Tobias stood motionless, one finger curled threateningly around the trigger of his rifle. No one dared move.
The harvest party stood, silent, and waited for Carter to come.
About a hundred metres from the main road, a gnarled gumtree stood silently. It was covered with many low, thick branches. A crow sat on one of these branches, close to the truck of the tree. It cawed throatily, and hopped once, moving further out along the branch. A strange item hung near the end of the branch, and the crow eyed it warily with one small black pupil. It turned its head left and right, its movements staccato-quick, sizing up the object with both eyes. It hopped again, taking another step towards the object, and cawed again. The object didn’t move. Satisfied, it hopped along the branch until it reached the strange object. The object had two loops, which were around the branch. It hung from these loops. The main body of the object was a dull grey, with many shiny metal objects dangling from it. The crow cawed, and flapped its wings. It pecked at the loops, one at a time. After each peck, it drew its head back, and watched the object closely. When it didn’t react, the crow flapped its wings again and hopped from the branch onto the main body of the object, which swung with the bird’s weight.
The crow gripped the object tightly with its talons, and pecked at one of the metal parts. It made a small, unsatisfying ‘tink’. It pecked again, and again. When nothing happened, it began pecking at the object itself. Small holes began to appear in it. Suddenly, the crow paused, freezing in place. There was the sound of twigs snapping and leaves rustling. The sound was getting closer. A figure appeared from behind a tree, and approached the object hanging from the tree, waving its arms and yelling. With a last throaty caw, the crow flapped its wings and alighted to another tree, where it landed on a branch, and watched the figure with a single beady eye.
The man carefully unlooped the straps of the backpack from the buckles, freeing it from the tree branch. He tutted at the holes that the crow had pecked in his backpack, and unzipped it. Everything he had packed was still there – ropes, dehydrated food, water. He retrieved one of the bottles of water and unscrewed the lid, drinking deeply. He drained it halfway, then replaced the lid and stuck it in a side pocket on the backpack, where he could easily reach it. He relooped the backpack’s straps, and slung it over his shoulders. He gave a nod to the crow, which cawed noisily at him, and walked away.
The crow flapped its wings in frustration at having lost its prize. Then, something on the ground caught its attention, and it swooped down, all frustration forgotten, discarded in favour of its new meal, a large, brown insect which tried and failed to burrow into the earth before the crow grabbed it with a quick thrust of its beak.
The sound of the man’s footsteps grew fainter, then faded altogether. The sun began its descent towards the horizon.
Lee Vickery had moved to a spot that was far away from any other member of their band. He was out of sight even of Tobias. The way Tobias refused to let go of either his gun or his son, and the latter’s far-off stare, made him feel incredibly uncomfortable – even afraid. He sat, leaning against a tree, watching the maggots and flies crawling over a half-decomposed crow. His knife sat next to him, buried point-down in the dirt. The sun was almost completely beneath the horizon now. Vickery had moved far from the group, and from where he sat he could see, in the distance, the small rise that indicated the creek was just on the other side. He watched the flies, and listened to the bubbling of the water.
There was the snap of a stick underfoot.
Lee whipped his head around, scanning the area. He couldn’t see anything, but there were many trees, most thick enough for a man to hide behind. He glanced down for a split second, to retrieve his knife.
There was a whistling sound as a rope was whipped around the tree he was leaning against. The rope wrapped around the tree, laying across Lee’s throat as it went. Before he had time to react, the rope was pulled tight, leaving him just enough space to be able to breathe, painfully. His hands flew to the rope, trying to pull it off his throat, but whoever was on the other end was pulling their body weight against it, and from his sitting position he was unable to pull it off his neck. A male voice hissed at him from the other side of the tree.
“Drop the knife, or I pull this rope so tight it crushes your windpipe.”
Lee could only gurgle in response, and he dropped the knife, throwing it to the side so that whoever was behind the tree could see it hit the ground. The pressure on his throat slackened, but only slightly.
“Where is everyone else? At the animal graveyard?”
Lee made a confused sound, then realisation dawned, and he stuck his arm out to the side, thumb pointed in the air.
There was a strange fluctuation in the tension of the rope then, until finally it settled, pulling just tight enough that he could only barely suck air in. The crunch and rustle of leaves indicated that his attacker was getting up to leave. With a snake’s lightning quickness, he reached out and picked up his knife, pulled the rope taut, and quickly sawed through it. He stood up, coughing and hacking, and turned to face his attacker.
It was Carter, singed and covered in ash.
Lee swiped at Carter with his knife, and it whistled as it cut through the air. Carter just managed to step back in time, and the knife cut close enough to his stomach that he thought he could feel the air parting. He reached behind him and retrieved his own knife, bringing it up just in time to clumsily block another swipe from Lee.
The resulting shock travelled through both knives to the wrists of the combatants, and caused them both to drop their weapons almost simultaneously. Lee barely paused, charging forward in a tackle, knocking Carter off his feet and sending both of them sprawling to the ground. Carter struck ineffectually at Lee’s shoulder with a clenched fist, and the larger man responded with a bone-crushing right hook to Carter’s cheek. Carter reeled, dazed, and Lee took the opportunity to stand up, lifting the smaller man with him. He turned, and threw Carter into the trunk of the tree behind them. Carter slumped to the ground, then regained his faculties and back away, scooting along the ground, hands scrabbling desperately in the fallen leaves and sticks that coated the bush floor. Lee charged, and Carter brought his hand up quickly, swiping it across Lee’s upper legs. Lee felt burning pain in a hot line across his upper legs, and soon after the unmistakable warm wetness of blood streaming down his legs. Carter had retrieved Lee’s knife, and cut the larger man.
Lee was unable to stop his own momentum, though, and he fell onto Carter, knocking the smaller man over again. Lee roared, and punched Carter square in the nose. He felt a satisfying crack as Carter’s nose broke, and drew back his hand for another punch, heedless of the pain in his own knuckles. Carter spat, and a great bloody wad arced through the air, landing squarely on Lee’s shirt. Then he leaned forward and up, bringing the knife forward as he did so, and stabbed Lee in the left shoulder. There wasn’t enough force for the knife to stick in Lee’s shoulder, and Carter stabbed Lee twice more before he was able to stand up and get away, pressing a hand to his now blood-soaked shoulder.