“They went in here somewhere,” Amber puffed as Billy arrived. She could see how the Bullies would have been able to trot right on through the prison bar style fence but not the Malamute. “One of these spikes must be loose.” She grabbed two to shake them and hurt her wrist, expecting them to flex at least a little but they were solid. She jiggled just one cautiously this time, knowing full well that if the weld gave way and the pole fell on her, it could break a bone. She worked her way carefully from spear to spear while Billy caught his breath.
He was sucking oxygen like he’d arrived on the summit of Mt Kosciuszko. He tried to walk off his wobbly legs but it wasn’t helping. At least he wasn’t running anymore. He watched Amber work the fence and couldn’t help but focus his hunter’s eye for signs of the pups passing. A trail on the other side of the fence became immediately obvious with the grass laid flat and leading to a hole through the undergrowth.
“There,” he said, pointing to the tracks.
Amber raced to where the trail met the fence and found grey tufts of fur wedged into the rusty scales of the spears. One hung loose, angling ever–so–slightly to the side where it had rusted away from its weld at the bottom. Amber carefully pushed it aside, keeping a watchful eye on the weld at the top. It was only a matter of time before it gave way and fell, hopefully not on top of anyone.
“Careful, Billy,” she cautioned while holding it aside for him, “this could fall down.” He squeezed through, reached back for their bags and held the spear aside for Amber. She kept a good hold of it as she took her turn, before carefully letting it swing back into place. “Phew!”
Billy was straight onto the trail, Amber’s seriousness over the spear bringing him back on point. He entered the hole in the undergrowth on his belly, crawling through the tunnel until it opened up on the other side into the shadowy world of a pine–tree forest. He helped Amber up and waited while she put her backpack on and then they stood and stared, awestruck by the majesty of the ancient trunks of trees standing like giant’s legs as far as they could see. A dry, needle–covered creek bed meandered around their legs like a giant serpent disappearing into the darkened interior.
They heard a long, drawn out howl. Billy sighed and his shoulders slumped — it was a long way off. He expected Amber to start running immediately, but she only took one careful step at a time. She stopped to look back at him, her eyebrows rising in caution and her eyes widening in fear. It left Billy without a doubt that they had entered the domain of something serious.
A far off whistle filtered through the trees. They stopped to listen, not even daring to breathe. Billy didn’t like this. His fear of the whitefellas still ever–present in his mind. This was creepy. He felt hunted.
Amber moved on, her steps as light as a feather falling on a forest floor. A stick creaked beneath her foot, splintering before the break. She carefully backtracked a step and took off her sneakers. Billy took a moment too, to push the contents of his bag into a tight wad and tighten the shoulder strap. He checked his weapons. Both boomerangs in place. Knife secure. His heavy sling was always around his waist but his light sling was in the pocket of his shorts with the press studs so he took it out quietly and put it in the pocket that was easy to slip his hand into. The stones in his ears were fine and ready to go at a moment’s notice. He nodded to Amber that he was ready.
Off to their right, beyond the border of fallen pine needles lay dense scrub, like the scrub they’d crawled through. To their left the pine forest thinned out into an overgrown paddock of young trees and shrubs. Beyond that the skyline made an appearance, making Billy wonder if there was a clearing somewhere through there.
Two hundred metres later Billy stopped to stare past the overgrown paddock. Amber sensed his change and froze, turning carefully to see what he was seeing. He waved her to his side while moving behind the nearest trunk. Long cone turrets with tiny windows and sooty black chimney stacks speared the skyline. He looked to Amber for reassurance but her expression was ominous.
“Come on,” she whispered.
A good kilometre farther up the trail Billy was still freaked out. Bad spirits, he kept thinking. He desperately wanted peace for them but there was no way he wanted to be part of the process. Grandfather maybe, he thought, might be able to help them. But he wasn’t even sure about that.
Relief finally arrived to soothe his soul with the excited barks of the Bullies up ahead. They stopped following the dog’s scuff marks in the needle bed and crept forward knowing they’d see them soon enough. Bright sunlight lit up a clearing ahead so they slunk from tree trunk to tree trunk hoping to see the whistler before they were seen themselves. Sure enough, movement interrupted the light penetrating the forest. Ever cautiously, they approached the tree line where the forest gave way to the clearing. The creek bed slithered from beneath the pine needles exposing a sandy bottom, snaking into a large pool of water. To its left, a boy stood on a grassy embankment patting the dogs.
Billy and Amber hung back to take in the scene but the Malamute was onto them immediately, as if she’d been waiting for their arrival. She headed straight over, making Billy reach for his heavy boomerang. But he needn’t have worried as there was playful intent in her bounding approach. The Bullies saw them too and sped past her to greet them.
Billy turned his attention to the boy. His body stood stiff, alert and alarmed. Billy and Amber tried to appease him by stepping out of the shadows into the sunlight but he turned immediately and whistled urgently. Billy searched in the direction he’d whistled but he couldn’t see anything. Not a blade of grass moved but he knew something was there. Something not quite right. The boy’s whistle was commanding. Instructional. The birds had gone quiet too.
The boy stared at Billy. He looked really scared. Like a life was at stake.
Billy didn’t like that whistle. He’d noticed the Malamute’s ears turn to the sound and then ignore it, as if it wasn’t directed at her. He knew she’d obey the boy’s command in an instant so he kept ready with his boomerang while searching for signs. Nothing. Not even the startled flight of a grasshopper. That scared him the most. Whatever was there was smart enough not to move a muscle. The wind was on his back but he sniffed the breeze anyway. Still nothing.
He inspected the boy. Sunken eyes. Deep receding eyeballs shadowed into his skull in starvation. His arms were like twigs, the skin sucked against his bones and stretched over bulging joints. The breeze seemed to sway him.
Every nurturing bone in Billy’s body cried out to help him.
“Hello,” Amber said gently.
“Hello,” Billy said.
The boy kept staring through eyes that seemed lost in the depths of a frail mind.
“My name’s Amber and this is my friend Billy. Is she your dog? Her foot’s bleeding.”
After a strange pause, the boy looked down at her foot. She was standing by his side being very gentle. Calming him if anything.
“We followed her to see if we could help,” Amber added.
“Sit, Mel,” he commanded the Malamute weakly. “Give me your foot.”
She sat immediately and lifted her paw.
Amber edged a little closer.
“It’s just a scratch,” the boy suddenly said. Mel saturated his face with a lick and hopped over to the water’s edge for a drink. The Bullies joined her but they didn’t stop cautiously at the edge, they jumped straight in. Billy noticed the boy become instantly agitated, as did Mel who whined while looking back and forth between the Bullies and the boy. “No!” he told her firmly.
“They’re our dogs,” Amber said. “That’s Larry, Curly and Moe. Would you like us to have a look at her foot? Billy’s really good at fixing their sores.”
“No! I looked at it.”
“Oh. OK then.”
“This is private property. No one’s supposed to be here.”
“I’m sorry,” Amber said. “We just wanted to make sure the dog was OK.”
“She is OK.”
But Billy knew she wasn’t. He strode forward confidently and said,
“The Bullies always getting hurt. I always gotta fix ’em.”
The boy stumbled backwards a step and opened his mouth to object but nothing came out.
“Mel!” Billy called without getting too close to the boy. She looked at him but didn’t move. So Billy whistled to the Bullies. They came rushing over and sat right in front of him, as he commanded with his hand. He gave them a pat and said, “Mel! Come on, Mel. Come here!” The Bullies looked at her expectantly. Billy could see her considering it. He added a short, sharp, commanding whistle that no dog could ignore. She limped over obediently and joined the Bullies. “Give me your foot, Mel,” he said, just as the boy had done. She carefully put it in his hand.
Billy knew exactly which pad was bleeding as he’d been following her tracks all the way from the city, but he didn’t touch it. He manipulated every other part of her paw, gently squeezing and twisting and massaging the muscles to get her comfortable with his touch. She was quick to relax and when he felt she was ready, he touched the cut. She barely flinched, but Billy could tell that it hurt. He wiped the blood away and spread it to peer inside but he couldn’t see anything. It was only a small cut.
“Lick my fingers, Mel,” he said. Once they were satisfactorily clean, he inserted his finger to have a feel. Then he nodded knowingly and inserted his thumb and forefinger. Mel let him do it all. Amber and the boy leaned in, seeing that Billy was onto something. Slowly, he pulled out a long steel nail. Mel sighed with relief, slobbered a tongue kiss all over his face and then she bound off happily to play with the Bullies.
“She be OK now,” he said.
“No one’s supposed to be here,” the boy stressed. “You have to go!”
“No worries. We go.” Billy turned to leave as if he didn’t care in the slightest and flashed a quick look to Amber. Her eyes were pleading with him to stay, but he looked away quickly as if he hadn’t noticed. “See ya,” he said over his shoulder.
“Billy! We can’t just leave.”
“Can’t stay. This boy’s land. He say gotta go, so gotta go. I’m hungry anyway. Let’s go hunting, Amber,” he winked.
“Oh yeah. Hungry. I’m hungry too!” she agreed in a loud voice. “I’m really hungry! Yep, let’s go hunting for some food, Billy. See ya,” Amber waved back as if she’d forgotten the boy already too.
But then a low guttural growl stopped them dead in their tracks. Billy had heard Mel growl before but this was worse. It was deep, rumbling, and savage. Billy’s hand slipped to his boomerang as he turned around, slowly.
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