The dogs were barking. He didn’t like it. The sound of a dog barking with intent could carry clear across the warm plain on a still night like this. Any local who heard that sound would know it wasn’t the rhetorical yelp of a dog on a chain.
In the dark distance, the random lights of scattered houses broadcast an unneeded reminder of the risk he was taking. Even though it was midnight on Christmas Eve, the best night of the year for stealing, you never knew who might have stepped outside for a leak, or a leg-stretch, or an attempt to cool the blood after too many servings of ‘family’.
Sweetapple commanded the dogs to drop, and in the weak light of the skinny moon he could just make them out, squatting, unconvinced, as anxious as he was. Then he sooled them on, and, padding lightly, fast and slow, snapping at heels, they guided the heavy, black steers over the remaining short span of tussocks, through the gate into the steel cattle yards that were perched on the boundary fence, with the loading ramp aimed at the road as if they had been especially designed for Sweetapple’s Christmas.
He climbed the railing fence and stepped down in behind them. All he could see was the steam from the steers’ nostrils; all he could smell was the rich stink of their manure; all he could hear was the sound of them snorting and stomping against each other, the dogs panting softly, now resigned in the background. He ran the steers through the yard, hissing at them. There was no light for them to run towards, and no way for them to know what was up ahead. He just had to keep them moving away from the sound of him, up the loading race into his little truck.
The stock float rocked as they jostled each other, one way and then the other, like they’d been crowded onto a too-small boat. They were big. If they decided to jump or fight, they were big enough to smash the structure of the creaking float and then leap back out onto the road. But ‘big’ meant money — more than a grand each.
This time, there was no bike or horse to load. He’d taken the chance: either the dogs could bring in a mob on their own or he would let it go. He clipped the back gate, let Whiteface and Smiles jump up into the cab, because there was no time to put them in their boxes, and followed them up into the driver’s seat.
He turned the key, but the motor didn’t respond. Sweetapple held his breath and tried again. This time it half-heartedly complained, not ready to be reawoken, making only a weak, squealing noise that tortured his insides. He tried again, and the same resistant sound rattled out into the dark. Being stuck with a broken-down truck at the wrong loading ramp was something he didn’t have a contingency for. He would have to jump them off and let them out, and then what? Hope for some magic to make the truck start? In an old truck like this, the problem could be any number of things. Could he find it and fix it before daylight?
But he was panicking. He tried to calm himself, to think his way through the problem. The battery was good, and there was plenty of fuel. It couldn’t have been much more than an hour since the truck was running well. He tried again, but it was no keener. He could feel his heart start to go. Something flashed in his rear-vision mirror. Headlights in the distance? A single car could give the whole game away. He turned the key again, willing it, wishing it to start, knowing he was asking for supernatural help that he didn’t believe in.
Then it fired and, after a few coughs, continued to fire. His lungs worked again, his pulse no longer banging along the insides of his arms.
He pushed the truck into gear, kept the lights off, and pulled out onto the coarse-gravel road, feeling the weight of the steers as they tried to hold their feet on his tired tyres and suspension. The truck groaned, even in the lowest gear, but gradually built momentum as though it were a giant lumbering machine that, once started, could never be stopped. There was no cough or smell from the clutch. He peered into his side mirror, saw that the float was holding, and then looked back at the rear tyres, knowing it would be a very bad time for one of them to blow. It was a risk he hated taking, but one he had to. Bald tyres didn’t leave tread marks.
As the truck eased into its rhythm, and the yards faded behind him, he almost began to hum to himself at the wheel. This would make for another good payment. Soon enough, maybe a year on, there would be no more duffing, and that would be a relief, even if he didn’t care for the landowners he stole from: self-righteous, two-faced bastards, proud cockatoos of honesty until it didn’t suit their needs.
Suddenly, far back, a tiny set of headlights appeared from behind a rise in the road, and Sweetapple felt adrenaline’s surging return. If anyone saw him driving with cattle on board at 1.00 am, Christmas day, nowhere near home, the conclusion would be obvious. And, worse, they would be able to place the time and location of the truck.
His truck couldn’t outrun them. He’d be caught — if not now, then in a week or two, when old man Alcorn worked out that he was missing cattle, alerted the Stock Squad, and they joined the dots.
Sweetapple consoled himself with the idea that the vehicle probably belonged to revellers of some sort, finally finding their way home after Christmas. Possibly, hopefully, they had overindulged, and were tired, maybe even drunk, forgetful, and not very observant. Or maybe it was a pigger, restless and bored, filling in the night. Or perhaps a traveller with no family who wanted them, driving for the sake of driving. Sweetapple knew all about that, too.
He could take a risk that if they were piggers, out on a night like this, they might be up to no good themselves: cutting fences and sneaking into properties to chase porkers, using the festive season to their advantage, just like he was. They might not give a bugger about what he was up to, but they would know pretty quickly that he was up to something, and he wasn’t keen to chance it and give anyone that kind of leverage over him.
Up ahead, a sign pointed to a large ramp that said: ‘Pine Hills — truck entrance’. The lights behind him were getting larger. The vehicle, whatever it was, was moving at a hell of a clip, which meant it probably wasn’t conveying a Christmas family.
He took the entrance, accepting it as as close to an instance of divine intervention as he was ever likely to get, and coasted up the road, his lights still off, as if it were perfectly normal for him to be doing what he was doing. He drove until he was far enough off the main road that the vehicle’s lights couldn’t pick him up — but not so far that he would alert the property owners — parked within sight of the pale reflection from the Pine Hill sheds, and killed the motor. The homestead was probably seven hundred or eight hundred metres in the distance. There were no lights on. He was pretty sure this was the McKinnons’ place: Ted and Janice, wasn’t it? And their son, Peter, who he knew to be a good guy. It didn’t matter. If they heard the truck and came looking, they would be unforgiving. Everyone hated a thief.
The night was warm and still, except for the throaty sound of the vehicle approaching at pace. Within minutes, a ute, the owner of the headlights, sped past, trailing music almost as loud as its motor. He breathed out in relief. The only threat they offered was to themselves.
Sweetapple started the truck again, and then eased it forward and manoeuvred it around, trying to use as little throttle as possible. If he could get across the couple of hundred metres to the road without being detected, he would be safe. It was a long way, his ears tuned for any sound, his eyes scanning for a light. He was out of Plan Bs. All he could do was make a run for it; at eighty kilometres an hour, it wouldn’t be a long run.
Halfway to the road, one of his bovine passengers started a window-shaking bellow, loud enough to rattle the sleep of the McKinnons, as well as neighbours two properties away. The McKinnons probably didn’t even have cattle in this paddock. They would wake to the noise, and immediately know that something wasn’t right. He slammed on the brakes, hoping to knock the beast off its feet and its song, and then sped up, racing to the ramp and turning out onto the road, pushing the truck as fast as it could go and hoping desperately that old man kangaroos would resist the desire to jump blindly onto the road.
About ten kilometres away from the Pine Hill turn-off, he turned his lights on and, despite the sensation of being a little blinded, began to relax. He was gone from the crime scene and was now just driving a lorry on the road, minding his own business, bothering no one. His home was still forty kilometres away, but they were kilometres he could do in his sleep, on a road he knew as well as anyone. And now there were no cars and no kangaroos to worry about. Even the ghost-faced barn owls had given up for the night.
Sweetapple dared to turn the radio on, and was ignoring the early-morning fill-in talkback when he rounded a bend and saw in his high beam a ute on its bonnet, newly squashed against a tree, its wheels still spinning. He felt fresh, sickening fear. The gravel near the crash was carved with the fishtailed swerves that had sent the ute sling-shotting upside down into the tree.
He pulled the truck over, grabbed for his torch, leapt down, almost sprawling, righted himself, and ran to the wreck. Contents from the back of the ute — swags, bags, and a spare tyre — were strewn cyclone-like among the sticks and trees. Two kids, twentyish, a boy driver and a girl passenger, were in the front of the ute, still strapped in their seats, upside down. Music was blaring, as if nothing was wrong and they were waiting to drive off.
He got the driver’s door open, leant in and down, and felt for pulses and arteries. What else did you feel for? He turned the music off. They were both breathing. Then the girl groaned, and the boy whimpered.
What was the next thing he needed to do? He knew that vehicles didn’t normally blow up — that was a TV myth. Back injury. They couldn’t be moved until he was sure.
The girl was breathing deeply, not yet panicked as she ran a hand over her legs and arms. She nodded and looked at him, her eyes clear in the dark.
The boy appeared to be trying to work out what had happened. The air around him was heavy with alcohol. ‘Shit. My leg. My ribs.’
Sweetapple stepped back out and dialled an emergency number. An irritable woman began asking him what part of the state he was in. When he explained, she asked him again. He cursed her and hung up. He would deal with that when he’d got these kids out. The phone would have to be dumped, too. Lucky it was a cheap pre-paid.
He went around the other side of the vehicle, reefed the door open, then held the girl as best he could as she undid her seat belt and flopped down onto him, onto her side, and he dragged her out. She lay on the ground and sobbed, maybe twice, and then caterpillared herself up into a sitting position. Sweetapple went to the driver, who had his seatbelt off and was bawling in pain as he tried to fold his legs down.
‘Are you all right?’
‘It’s broken. Down here.’ He was pointing below his knee.
Sweetapple could hear the girl on her feet, shuffling behind him. He guessed she was coming to help, but when he turned to look he saw she had stumbled over to a bag that had been thrown clear. She knelt and rummaged through it. Then she extracted a small suitcase and, still limping, carried it warily away into the trees, and put it down flat.
He stopped watching her because the boy was scrabbling to get out. Sweetapple did his best to help him, to take some of his weight. Then the girl was suddenly by his side. They pulled the boy clear, and he sat on the ground, almost holding his thigh and cradling his chest, breathing like it could control the pain.
‘You know first aid?’ Sweetapple asked. He wondered if the girl was capable of helping. She nodded, and bent down to inspect the boy. He watched her look into the boy’s eyes, and then feel his leg and search the parts of his body that were covered in blood.
‘You got a phone?’
She looked up at him as though he had said something strange. ‘A phone?’
He made a signal with his hand. She nodded and reached into a pocket, pulled out a phone, examined it, turned it on, and handed it to him.
Sweetapple rang the emergency number again. This time, a different woman came on the line, one who seemed to pick up very quickly where he was and how long an ambulance would take. He clicked the phone off and handed it back to the girl.
‘The ambulance will be here in an hour and a bit.’ Lucky they weren’t dying.
He walked over, and retrieved a swag that had been launched into the branches of a whitewood shrub. He unbuckled it and spread it out on the ground, away from the ute.
‘Can we get him over here? He needs to rug up for shock or … whatever. So do you.’
As the girl put the boy’s arm over her shoulder, Sweetapple stepped in under the other side, and they swung him across to the blankets. The boy was strangling a scream. Sweetapple got them to sit down close together, and covered them.
‘I’ve got some painkillers in the truck.’
He found some old tablets in the glovebox. They wouldn’t do much, but the thought might help. As he shut the cab door and closed the dogs in, sniffing and licking at him, the steers shuffled restlessly in the back, rocking the truck as though it were a little overloaded boat. When he returned, the boy and girl were sitting, dazed, murmuring nothing intelligible, wrapped in the blankets.
‘Here.’ He offered them the tablets and a water bottle.
Sweetapple sat down in the spiky grass next to them. The night was black and unbroken; hardly a cicada sang. The girl swallowed some tablets with the water, and helped the boy do the same. Then they sat still again, shocked.
Sweetapple thought it was best to talk.
‘Ute’s too old for airbags. You hit your heads?’
He tried to see if there was anything out of kilter about them, some injury he hadn’t picked up.
‘Where’re you from?’
‘He’s from round here.’
‘Nowhere, really.’ It wasn’t glib; it sounded somehow disappointed, as if belonging somewhere was something she had never been offered.
‘Pleased to meet you. What’s your name?’
‘Anna. Yours?’ She had straight hair, probably blonde, right down to her shoulders. A nose ring caught the light. She looked fit enough in her unremarkable shirt and jeans. She could have been anyone’s daughter.
‘You’d better ring your parents.’
‘My parents? I’m not going to do that.’
They sat in silence for a while. The boy couldn’t stifle an occasional groan. ‘You been to a party or something?’ Sweetapple really didn’t want to talk to them. He wanted to leave. The longer he stayed, the greater the risk that the police would turn up, alerted by Emergency Services, and the better the chance that, in the future, the boy and girl would remember him and his truck full of steers on Christmas morning.
‘I got a lift with him yesterday, so I could get the lift today. He’s taking me south. I had to go to their Christmas family piss-up. Got a bit out of control.’ She sighed heavily. ‘You think the police will come?’
‘Eventually. You’re supposed to report it anyway.’
She looked at the boy. ‘I don’t think this one ought to be breath-tested.’
‘What were you doing, letting him drive?’
She shrugged again, and shook her head. Sweetapple pulled at the dry plains grass under his legs. It crackled in his hands, crisp against the dull murmuring from the boy. How many times had he seen or heard of kids in car accidents?
‘Must have been important.’
‘Whatever it was that was in your bag.’ He couldn’t see her face well, but could make out her eyes.
‘I just had to check something. It was only a few seconds.’
There was discomfort in her voice. She paused. He couldn’t tell if she was thinking or just calming herself. ‘Anyway, there wasn’t anything I could do to help right then.’
He looked at his phone and stood up. ‘I’ve got to go.’ He saw her looking at the phone, and put it back in his pocket. ‘Do you think you two will be all right? The ambo’s only about quarter of an hour away. You could ring and check.’
‘You’re going to leave us here?’
He realised how bad this sounded. ‘Ah, yeah. Got a bit on. Got to get back.’ It didn’t make sense, but he wasn’t going to jail because two kids had decided to drive too fast, full of grog. ‘Keep the water bottle.’ He didn’t think there was anything in the bottle that could link him to it.
‘Thanks.’ She said it like she meant it. ‘For everything.’
He strode towards his truck, telling himself it was selfpreservation. There was nothing more he could do. The ambulance would arrive soon, and they would be fine. Maybe he could drive back through at daylight and make sure.
As he opened the cab door, he heard her ask, sharp as a dog’s bark, almost to herself, ‘Your cattle, are they?’
He stopped and held on to the door. Then he said, clearly enough for them both to hear, ‘I didn’t have to stop, you know.’
He saw her stand, painfully, and then walk determinedly to the place in the trees where she’d left the suitcase. She picked it up carefully, came back, and stood in front of him, holding out the small bag.
‘I need you to look after something for me.’
‘You don’t even know who I am.’
‘I know you’re a thief.’ There was no reproach in it. It was just a useful fact.
She pushed the suitcase at him. It was heavy in his hands.
‘What am I supposed to do with it?’
‘Don’t open it. Get rid of it. Don’t burn it, it’s … explosives.’
‘A bomb?’ She didn’t look like she could ever have got hold of a bomb, or would know what to do with one if she did. He held the package a little further out from his body, thinking that to throw it away might cause it to explode, and then pushed it back at her. ‘You’re kidding.’
‘It’s not a bomb yet.’ She pushed it back. ‘I had to remove it so someone didn’t use it as that.’
He was trying to decide if it was worth throwing the bomb as far as he could and then diving for cover behind the truck.
‘What if it blows up me and my truck?’
‘It can’t do that. The detonators are quarantined — the computer has to provide a number to make it go off. The computer tells the bomb when it’s a bomb.’
It probably wasn’t a bomb; most likely something else precious to her that needed safekeeping. It wasn’t the time and place for a game, but it didn’t make him feel any safer.
Sweetapple held her gaze and weighed up his choices. She knew what he was up to, and that this bag meant as much to her as the wellbeing of her friend, if not more.
‘Why don’t you just leave it in the scrub?’
‘Someone’ll find it sooner or later.’
‘Maybe they’ll find it at my place.’
She was still, a two-dimensional image suddenly granitehard. ‘But that will be your problem.’
Her resolve chilled him. ‘Are you a terrorist or something?’
‘No. That’s why I’m giving this to you, to get rid of it.’
He could call her bluff — drive off and leave her there. She didn’t even know his name. But all she had to do was describe the truck to local cops, and when the cattle were found missing, they’d track him down and maybe even pin the bomb on him.
He put the suitcase onto the passenger seat of his truck carefully.
‘Last time I stop at a crash.’ Then he walked around and swung up into the cab, behind the wheel, and kicked the motor into action first time.
It was still dark when, blurry-eyed and feeling his fatigue, he crossed his own ramp. He had spent the first part of the trip rigid with panic that the bomb sitting next to him on the seat would launch him suddenly into the night sky. And then he got used to it near him, and started to believe that it wasn’t a bomb, and that even if it was, it was as safe as she had said. It had already travelled this far and been in a car accident. It couldn’t be too unstable.
He figured those stupid kids would be fine. Lucky. But that girl, Anna, was scary; nothing like what he had first thought. Why would she have a bomb? Was she a religious nut? She had that kind of certainty.
The bag, with its supposed bomb inside it, was still on the seat. Years ago, before the time of terrorist threats, his dad haddone a farm-explosives course and afterwards taught Sweetapple what he’d learned. For a while they’d blasted holes and blown up tree stumps together, and then a miscalculation had caused a crack in the concrete at the sheds, so his mother’s insistence that they give it up finally had its effect. But because of that time with his dad, he’d always felt he knew a bit about explosives.
Now he was close to his house, and the lights were on. The television would be blaring, and the timer would have just made the kettle boil. He liked to have it set up so that at any time, if anyone happened to come snooping around, they would think someone had just left, had just been having a cup of tea and watching television. You couldn’t be too careful with security. The Stock Squad were pretty good at their job, but only if they got help from suspicious neighbours or could track backwards from a dodgy sale. So far, he hadn’t aroused suspicion and had never been caught.
Sweetapple drove past his house and his yards — the yards he used for show — and continued to where the scrub started on the rise at the back.
He motored in amongst the box trees, old giants and skinny saplings, and almost thanked them for their protection. His second set of yards, the ones he used, where no one could see what was loaded in and out, was up ahead. From there, he could walk the steers up into the scrub paddock and leave them till the fuss died down. They would do well up there. It was rested, and the feed was fresh
Sweetapple backed up to the loading ramp, and unloaded them. One by one, he pushed them up the race and put their heads in the bail, cut off their lifetime identification tags, and put them in a bag. It was still dark, and his only light came from the torch.
The steers didn’t have any earmarks or brands, so, with their tags out, he’d have no trouble reselling them. He let them out onto water with their genetic mates. Sweetapple had gone to the trouble of buying culled cattle from Alcorn through the yards. It had taken some time, but he’d managed to pick up some tailender heifers that were too weak and malnourished for anyone else to bother with.
It was a strategy that was worth the trouble. If the police decided to pay him a visit, it was important that they didn’t find any incriminating cattle DNA stuck to fences and yards. Alcorn had a pretty closely bred herd, which meant that any DNA testing of hair, or hoof, or even steer slobber would give clearcut results. The cops would want to know where the paperwork was for the cattle that matched the DNA. The cull heifers gave him paperwork and an alibi.
He drove back to his house, showered, took the phone off the hook, and went to bed. When he woke at midday, sweaty in the bedclothes, his first thought was of Anna and the suitcase. They had both invaded his dreams, talking to him and taunting him. Somewhere, too, Carson was involved, laughing at him, teasing.
Sweetapple got up and walked outside, letting the dogs go, checking garden taps, and turning on hoses — anything to clear out the dreams and remind himself it was just his head making stuff up.
When he felt calmer, he ate a large breakfast, and listened to Kenny Chesney crooning and young galahs outside wheezing dissonantly about the heat. Then he washed up his breakfast things, wiped down the benches, took some frozen meat out of the freezer for dinner, and went out to work on the truck. But once outside he realised that, before he could start on the truck, he had to deal with the bag. He would not be able to think straight while it sat there in the truck, warm and possibly glowing like it had in the dream.
He pulled the suitcase from the front seat, wrapped it in several bags, and then took the bike far up into the scrub through the apple trees, kurrajongs, and shiny bush, before stopping and walking along a rocky wallaby track above the dry gully to a stand of remnant box trees, huge-girthed and imposing in the landscape. The heat had its own weight, squashing the smell of eucalyptus out into the air as the sweat ran down his ribs under his shirt. He shoved the parcel deep into the grey hollow of one of the larger trees. There was no need to mark the tree or remember the track; the trees were solid in his memory, more permanent than family or love or desire, or anything else that had imprinted itself on him.
He walked back to the bike, dusting his hands and feeling that the problem was now dealt with. A kookaburra raised the possibility of rain, and, in the distance, one of his new steers bellowed in confusion about its new surroundings.
Now he had things to do: the good tyres had to be put back on the truck, and the white truck doors had to be replaced with his trademark brown ones. He could forget about last night.