SHADES

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Chapter 13

Hey, the engineer's gone, look at this ... bastard's gone, pulled the fucking tree roots right outa the ground ... let's get after the bugger, he can't be too far away... hey shit, look at this? These are razorback tracks, look, right where we tied him ... maybe the pig took him?

Without any noise? We would've heard that, believe me. The pig came across here too, look, past the truck, just a few feet away from us. Bastard. Forget the bloody engineer, we'll get him later, he'll be headin downstream. The pig's somewhere around, we're sitting on his bloody water hole ... get the gear, we're goin' after the pig, now. And pull the distributor outa the truck. The bloody engineer might be stupid enough to come back and try and steal it.

Rosset sees them leave, following tracks upstream on the far bank. The dawn light brightens, fiery red dims as the sun gets above the storm clouds. The humidity rises with the temperature. What the hell can I do about this? Those arseholes are mad, I'm sure. I'm going to have to just wait. What the hell else? He checks his mobile ... turns it on. Waits. No signal. Shit. The high gain antenna in the truck ... if I can get down and there's enough time? Wait. That's it. The GPS ... all I have to do is turn the bloody thing on. The office should be able to get a fix on the bloody truck. OK, wait a little, till those arseholes are well away. Exhaustion catches up. He dozes again.

Voices wake him. He creeps forward but again can't make out anything they're saying. Maybe they'll leave ... on foot I hope.

In the river-bed the shooters return to the camp then move off downstream. Distant voices … Shit it's hot. Where's the water, I could do with a drink. We've been following the shit pig's tracks for an hour and a half now, where is the shit thing?

He's ahead, maybe he has another water hole somewhere down here, but I don't remember another down this far. This country's too closed for the bugger, he likes space. The cliffs are in too close, both sides, he's headin for open space. Another mile this opens up. That's where he'll be ... come on, let's move it.

Now past mid-morning, and very hot, sweat drenched, but still they move on to where the cliff face on their left opens out, low bush moving in.

Hey, he's gone back down to the river bottom here, maybe his den aint too far away. You stay up on top here, follow us along the bank in case he breaks cover, we're goin down, we'll flush the bastard.

Scrambling, noisy, they crash down to the river-bed. They stop, looking for a deep recess in the bank, and seeing nothing likely here they move on, finding tracks in the mud. Another hundred meters or so, a bend. As they round it, the razorback breaks cover a couple of hundred meters or so further down the river-bed, trots out into the middle of the channel, looks back at them.

Holy shit that thing's effing huge! Can you get a shot at this distance?

Yeah, but not a good one. Tell ya Mate up there to get a move on, down stream about a hundred yards and be on his toes, we're gonna get closer, go down the right side here, scare the bugger up the other bank. He'll probly get the best shot. Move.

They scruff through the sand near the right bank, slowly advancing fifty meters on the razorback, still immobile in the middle of the river-bed, looking at the two men.

Look at the bugger, thinks he's king, just standin there. Bugger me, he's bloody big. I'm not too keen on getting much closer ... can't ya get him him from here?

Yeah I can ...

The razorback turns abruptly downstream, trotting fast, throwing up puffs of sand, tail twitching high, then another abrupt turn to the left, faster now springing up the bank and disappearing into the scrub.

Fuck the bastard.

A shot cracks in the trees above them and ahead. A loud squeal, then another shot. A shout. Then the muffled drumming of rapidly pounding feet pass by them in the bush on the bank above, heading upstream.

He got him ... hey did ya get the bastard?

The third man crashes down the bank a few meters ahead of them, rolls on to the sand, again shouting. The fucker's ripped me, Jesus I'm bleedin to death. Do somethin. Scrambling up, holding his left leg, bloody below the knee. Stumbles. They run to him.

Did ya get the bastard? What the fuck happened? Jesus that don't look too good. Stop screaming, let me look at it.

Well it looks like ya got lucky, he only nicked ya. Did ya get the bugger?

The bastard came up outa the river-bed so fucking fast I didn't have time to get a clean shot at him; he was only ten yards away, bastard. I winged im though, sure. He squealed, then he was on me and I got another shot off but the bugger was too quick. Ripped me as he went past, but I just about got outa his way. Knocked me right on me arse. Christ that thing is big. He's headin back where we came from. Gimme a drink.

Here, tie this around your leg, above the knee. And this over the cut. We'll dress it back at the camp, but let's get goin; we've got him on the run. And listen, now we winged him, he's gonna be good and mad. He'll charge, and we won’t get any warning. So keep ya bloody eyes and ears peeled. C'mon, let's go.

Rosset sits up with a start. A shot? Jesus yes, and another. Bloody long way downstream ... it's midday already. God I feel like ratshit. They're far enough away. The GPS ... Jesus I can hardly move.

Taking the plastic water bottle with him, he slides down the cleft, across the short level area then down again to the level of the river bank. A stumbling run, he reaches the edge, stops. Listens. Nothing. Breaks through the scrub, down, across the sand, to the truck. Opens the door, switches the GPS to ON. Nothing. Shit, what now? This is supposed to work without the ignition on. Maybe they pulled the battery leads. They're going to have to start the thing at some time, I'll just leave it on, she'll transmit when they start up. Got to get out of here. He looks quickly around the camp-site. Nothing useful anywhere, except at the front of the truck he sees the canvas water-bag, not full, but containing water. Fresh water. Do I take this? No, just drink ... get water from the pool. He crouches, drinks and stands again, wiping a hand across his lips. He turns towards the pool and notices that stink again ... Jesus, the razorback's somewhere around here. Stopping, he looks quietly around; moves slowly back to the door to the truck. There, at the end of the pool, deep in the shadow of the right bank, the razorback. Standing, panting, staring at him. Not twenty meters away. Eyes adjusting to the light, he can now make out the form. Jesus, that bugger's big. Half as big as the truck, almost. He moves slowly past the door, thinks about getting to the river-bank. The pig takes a step forward, head dropping slightly, fixing him with the small glinting eyes, set back from and above the pair of large curving tusks jutting from the lower jaw. Black muddy shoulders streaked on the right by a band of dark red. Blood? Could be. God I can't believe this. He takes a couple of steps across to the river-bed towards the spot where he came down. The razorback shifts sideways slightly, in the same direction, again dipping his head, this time kicking up sand and mud with a front foot. He retreats, climbs into the truck cabin, keeping the razorback in view the whole time. What have I done to deserve this? Hey Pig, just bugger off ... I don't want to do anything to you ... The razorback settles down onto the sandy mud, eyes fixed on the truck. Jean considers an exit from the opposite door, checks out the wheel tracks ploughed into the far bank, also about twenty meters away. I might make the track, but then what. Where to? I'll never outrun that bugger ... He wipes his eyes free of sweat dripping from his forehead, running out of his hair. Sweat runs down his back, under his arms, down his ribs.

And those madmen will be back here anytime now. Fuck. Nothing to do but wait. Maybe those idiots will make enough noise to scare the razorback away, then I may get a chance to get out of here without them seeing me. Maybe. Stay alert.

An hour passes, hot and sweaty, tense, senses fine-tuned for the faintest sound from downstream. Just the steady drone of cicadas at mid-day. The razorback suddenly moves, standing, head turned downstream. Dead silence, even the cicadas stop their buzzing. Jean hears voices but can't see anything. Are they up on the bank? Which side? He glances across at the razorback. Not there, gone already. Looking further upstream, nothing, no movement. He takes the chance, slides quietly out of the truck, quickly crosses the river-bed to where he can climb the bank and scrambles upwards. Louder voices now, the shooters are on this side, or two of them at least, talking. He burrows into the scrub at the top of the bank. Another voice calls from below ... Hey you guys, that fucking pig's been here ... tracks ... fresh. The two at the top crash down through the bush, just meters away.

Dead right, and real fresh, look, water's still running into these tracks here ... he's just ahead of us, upstream. C'mon, and keep your wits about you. You and ya mate stay here in the river-bed, I'll take the bank, far side. Work him that way if you can. Stay on this side.

Whaddabout me leg?

Screw ya leg, you'll survive, just keep the cloth tight. Get movin.

The view from his prone position in the scrub at the top of the bank was limited but he could feel the changes in the air, see the change in the background colour of the surrounding bush. From the filtered and leaf-shadow-dappled white light reaching the river-bed the colour of the air had darkened, first pink from a high dusty mask thrown up across the sun then blue grey as the dust dragged water-laden storm clouds behind it across the surrounding hills. He could hear distant rumblings, at first like a high flying jet passing over some distance to the east, then more constant, the rumblings of unhappy Gods. Lifting his head and turning to the east, the horizon of just visible low yellow red cliffs and more distant hills faded behind a smoke-screen of low dust clouds and the higher blue grey of the storm, lightning in vertical streaks burning red-lined holes in the background gloom, flashes of low red sheet-lightning blitzing the dust clouds, rushing now towards him. Jesus and God-Almighty this is really going to be some kind of storm ...

The light fades, the smell of dust and rain, something electric in the green grey gloom spreading downstream. The air starts to move, leaves rustle, trees creak and bend at the top. The wind picks up, leaves and pieces of tree bark fly through the air. Dust whips through the trees into the relatively protected air of the river-bed, swirling, hot. Flying leaves and more dust. A large branch or a tree crashes down somewhere to the right. Jean covers his face with his hands and presses into the grass as the scrub whips around him. Deep swirling dust clouds fill the air like fog, blast-furnace hot and gritty, darker, another tree, or a large branch, crashes down, the rustling develops into continuous thrashing and whistling. Huge rain-drops splatter down, denser, a deluge of red and yellow mud, shrieking wind and thrashing trees and bush. A thunder-clap right above, so loud it makes Jean’s ears ring, lightning blazes blue-white through the trees. Another crash of thunder shakes the ground, and now constant blue light. Everywhere. A huge rolling crashing tumult of thunder filled darkness, indigo blue black, lightning an endless luminosity, ripping the air, mind-numbing fury. Awestruck, Jean is unaware of passing time in the furious power of the storm. Shrieking air masks the crashing of trees and branches, lightning glowing continuously in the terrifying crackling unending thunder. Howling wind, lightning now ahead of receding thunder, blinding lacerating horizontal rain. As suddenly as it came the wind drops while the rain hammers still, pounding the earth to mud. Soaking, cool, then quieter, just rain. Then no more rain, just the loud patter of water-drops falling from the trees above. Light filters through the scrub again, thunder cracks continuously with lightning flashes away in the distance. Then silence. Deafness. Minutes pass and slowly the noise of dripping water is the only audible sound. Lifting his face out of the mud and debris, Jean sees his arms are still glowing, an electric fringe not yet departed. Lifting a little, the purple darkness lightens. And that's just for starters ... the front ahead of that storm up-stream .... time to get out of here. Then the smell ... humid, stinking wetness. That stink again.

The razorback's somewhere near me.

Jean turns, scrapes leafy mud from his face, water flowing under him from the river-flat, over the edge and down the bank just to his left, carving small chunks of the edge away. Yellow rivulets, insects catching on to twigs as they sweep past, ants, wood bugs. A small lizard creeps out from under flattened leaves. A grass-hopper struggles upright, fanning sodden wings. Lifting his head just a little higher, he tries to get a picture of his surroundings but cannot; leaves, strips of tree-bark, branches and tangled grass obscure everything beyond fifty centimetres. The wet blackened bulk of a large fallen tree next to him. But it moves slightly, further along a part of the tree turns to look at him. The curving scimitar of a tusk partly covered with wet grass swings towards him, then the profile, the eye, dark and glinting, looking directly at him. Neither makes any move. Noises, voices, down in the river-bed. Jean glances to the left but can't see anything. Evidently the razorback has a full view. Head up, tense, alert, still.

Jesus Mate, that was a bloody surprise ... where the Hell did that come from? I'm fuckin soaked ...

Ya coulda been dead too ... storms like that can kill ya in a flash, get in the way of one of them bloody fallin trees ...

Listen ta me will ya? ... I tell ya it's just up there somewhere, I saw it on the bank, running, then it just turned into the scrub, and if you guys didn't see it come down here then it's still up there!

In all that noise and fuckin dust an rain you saw the razorback? ... You're fuckin nuts.

No, just before, just before the storm ... look, fire a coupla shots up there, the bugger's in there somewhere, I'm sure.

Three shots; bullets rip through the scrub above and to the side. The razorback leaps backwards, body crashing into Jean, sending him sliding towards the edge. He glimpses the huge body and black mud-streaked hind quarters, mud flying into his face as the razorback heaves itself to its feet and pounds off through the sodden scrub. He scrabbles at the muddy ground, nothing solid to hold on to, slides feet first and face down off the edge, legs striking roots as he falls, lands on his back in the river-bed.

Well look what we got here, if it aint Mr bloody engineer! ....

Forget him, get up there after the pig, it's heading downstream again. Get up there now. And you, tie him up. I'm going down the channel. We'll take care of him later, but the pig comes first.

Winded, Jean doubles up, then tries to stand. The shooter with the injured leg motions him with his rifle to move over to the truck. The shooter scrabbles around in the tray for rope; Jean, beginning to get mad with himself for his stupidity, drops to a crouch, picks up a broken branch and without standing, swings at the bandaged leg. The shooter, distracted by the movement, fumbles the rifle then tries to jump aside, doesn't make it as the branch hits him on the bloodied bandage. He grunts, drops the rifle and grabs at his leg as he collapses, grimacing. Jean scrambles toward him, dropping the branch, reaching for the rifle. The shooter throws himself forward, they both grab the rifle, pulling at it, staring at each other. Jean recovers his balance, swings a punch at the dark-bearded face, a glancing blow, as the man ducks. Up on his knees now Jean grabs a handful of wet sand, throws it at the face. The shooter’s hands go to his face, letting the rifle fall. Jean grabs it and turns it, pointing it at the shooter. Backing off, he struggles to his feet, shaking, still with the rifle pointed in the direction of the man, now collapsed again on the sand, back against the rear-wheel arch of the truck, clutching at his bleeding leg.

Jean takes a few deep breaths, wanting to subdue the unaccustomed rage, getting rid of the shakes but keeps the rifle pointed at the wounded man on the ground.

What've you done to the truck? Jean asks.

The distributor ...

Where is it?

The Boss's got it, in his jacket.

Empty your pockets ...

He does so. Nothing useful. No distributor.

Unbuckle the knife.

The man unclips the hunting knife in its sheath, tosses it across.

What're gonna do now? I got nothing against ya. That's the Boss. I didn't want no part of this shit with you. Our truck broke down. All I'm interested in is that fucking razorback ...

Get away from the truck ...

Jean hunts around in the storm trash in the back, finds a length of wet sandy rope.

On your face.

Tying the man's hands behind his back, Jean backs off .

What about me leg? I'll bleed to death...

You'll survive.

Jean walks back past the front of the truck, upstream. But not far. Out of sight of the truck, he breaks left, up the muddy bank, and on to the river flat between the channel and the cliffs. He looks at the sky, now very dark, the storm clouds clearly visible upstream, a massive blue green mushroom with an enormous dark wall of falling rain below. Miles away still. In the west the sun is well down behind more clouds.

That storm we had was just the front of that bugger there ... sometime soon all that bloody rain is going to come down this channel, a flash flood, could be very bad. I've got to get out of this ravine, find wider spaces. Or get up that cliff. Looking at the cliff, rocky, normally climbable. But not now. I can barely walk. Get upstream, it can't be that far to where it opens out.

He walks, stumbling, between the line of trees and the cliff. Darkness quickly closes in. Resting against wet rocks, he listens for signs of life.

The other shooters return to the truck, find their man trussed and injured.

What the fuck happened to you? Jesus you are useless. Untie him. And dress that bloody leg before he carks it.

What about the razorback?

Bastard's disappeared again, maybe he doubled back. But fuck him for the time being, I want that bastard engineer now. He's beginning to give me the shits. Here, get the truck going, we'll run the bastard down. He won’t get far.

Jean hears the truck gunned into life, then the whine of reverse, then into forward gear, hears it coming towards him, along the river bed.

The truck ploughs along the wet sandy bottom of the channel, one man in the back on lookout, the others in the cab. One tries to get the spotlight to work, eventually gets it right, flashes into the bush from side to side.

Here. He's gone up on to the bank here.

OK. Keep going 'till we find a way up. We'll get ahead of him soon, then come back down on him.

We're not going to find a way up along this stretch. Stop here. He's on the left bank and will still be there, he can’t get up those cliffs in the shape he's in. You two, get up on the bank, walk back downstream. Take the battery spotlight. I'm gonna drive upstream just a bit, let him think we're still heading upstream. Then I'll come back down, lights out. You scare him down into the channel. We'll flush him.

Jean sees the lights through the trees as the truck passes below, heading upstream. Well ahead, he hears it stop, then move on again. The flashing spotlight ahead on the river flat is moving towards him. He checks the cliff, but decides that the other side of the channel is the better bet. He scrambles down through the scrub again, over the muddy bank, sliding further down on to the sand. Rests on the tree roots against the bank. OK you arseholes, let's see just how clever you are. He breaks cover, and in complete darkness begins to cross the sandy bottom. Headlights switch on upstream to his left, blinding, but still a long way off. He scrambles at the opposite bank, slippery mud, tangled tree roots. He can't make it. There's no way I'll get up here. He begins to run along the channel, stumbling, dead tired, hanging in close to the bank. The truck lurches nearer, stopping once. To pick up the others? Find soft ground. Engine roaring now, headlights leaping as the truck lurches over sand-banks, through hollows and mud, straight at him. He sees the outline of a figure standing in the back, holding on and unable to use his rifle. Jean jumps to the side as the truck roars past, inches away. He swings his rifle at the crouching clinging figure in the back, connects with something hard, hears a grunt. Something falls to the ground as the truck brakes and starts a turn thirty meters downstream. Blinded now from the glare of the headlights, Jean stumbles downstream again, close to the bank still. The truck makes its turn, headlights illuminating the opposite bank, then way upstream. Jean sees the white line coming down the river-bed ... the flash flood. But so far just a low white frothy wave. The truck turns towards him now, headlights direct in his eyes, coming fast. He leaps to the side as the truck slams, under brakes, into the jumble of vegetation and mud at the base of the bank. Jean scrambles to his feet and heads across the sand to the other side, as the truck is slammed into reverse, fails to get grip. The driver guns the engine again, engaging low ratio. The wheels plough their way back through the sand, the truck turning, headlights again downstream. Jean sees the first wave now very close, red in the light of the tail-lights, covering the left half of the river-bed, following the main channel. But behind it, another wave, a meter high, the full width of the channel. How far off? Not far, maybe a minute or so. Jean breaks off, again heading downstream, now not so worried about the truck, but wanting to find a way out of the channel. The headlights pick him up again, bouncing, flashing, shadows leaping as the truck lurches across the soggy river-bed. He heads to the opposite bank, the truck lumbers left also, headlights picking up a ladder of tree roots. He springs onto the lowest roots, slipping, scrambling for hold, catches a higher root, looks back as the truck slams into the mud just below, engine roaring, gears crashing into reverse. Jean clambers higher up the illuminated bank, hears a truck-door open. The white line, black behind, creeps along the river-bed on the opposite side, the first flood-wave, only about fifteen centimetres deep, and slow. Jean scrambles higher on the slippery tree roots, looks back again as the truck reverses out on to the remaining sand. A figure jumps on to the roots below him, slips and falls into the deep shadows on the river bottom. Upstream Jean sees the second meter high wave, much faster, red tinged in the taillights, turning white as the truck turns again. And behind that, the third wave, meters high, filling the whole river-bed, a foaming wall moving fast, pushing small trees, branches, tumbling, sweeping everything before it. Something thumps his shoulder, a shot cracks over the engine noise. He grabs another root, higher, pulls himself up and over the edge, crumbling mud. Pain. A rock. He scrabbles his way over the top, looking back, he sees a figure by the truck, transfixed. The second wave crashes into the truck, headlights glowing wierdly, lifting up out of the water, the figure disappears. Jean turns, his only thought is to get to even higher ground, the third wave is just about on them and there will be an even bigger wave behind that. The full flash flood. And in this ravine. Girls, this is not going to get me ...

In the open, he sees nothing, complete blackness. Then a light. The round, floating light. Downstream a little, not far away at all. Near the cliff face, and trees? I'm dreaming again. No noise. Darkness complete except for the round floating ball of light, next to a large tree at the base of the cliff. He stumbles towards it, a dreamlike state, clutching his shoulder. The tree is very large, partially hollow, growing out of the rocks, low large branches or roots, a tangle of other branches above. He climbs slowly up over the lower branch, difficult, his left arm refusing to function, into the tangle of low branches, wedges himself into the shelter of the massive tree trunk. Noise returns, rushing, crashing. Total darkness. Water swirls, rips at the base of the tree, rocks clatter down, falling into the rushing darkness. Rising, tugging, rushing, the flood wave pulls at his legs, then his lower body. Cold, spikey, prodding, whipping. He wraps his arms around a branch, locking his hands together. Locks his legs together under the branch he's sitting on. The water rises higher, louder, an incredible roaring, smashing noise. The full flash flood hits, total immersion, under water noises, crackling, rushing, rustling, banging. Now tearing, pulling, ripping at his clothes. Impossible to breathe, darkness. Seconds? ... or minutes? Impossible to tell. But passed. Gone. The seething water recedes, still pulling. He passes out.

… Fragments

Deep down, deep in the depths of a Well ... he knows it's a Well, there's a small circle of light way up, in the darkness, some reflected light at the bottom. How did he get here? ... How did I get here? ... at the bottom of a Well? ... I'm sure it's a Well, there's a little water here. Not much, hardly wet in fact. Who dug this? What were they seeking? Whatever, they can't have found it. It's just me here. No bucket, no water, no windlass. No way out.

Why am I here?

I fear that this has been dug by someone's expectations ... not mine. I remember.

Whose then?

There must be a way out. The walls are close enough, maybe I can wedge myself against them, climb out. It'll be a struggle. Help would make it easier. Is there anyone out there?

Haaaallllooo!


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