The Off-Worlder Chronicles: Terror Australis. Part three.

                                       7

 

Several hundred meters down the road, Devil meandered over to a patch of lush, green, wild couch. She lowered herself down on all fours, seconds before Ried rolled from the saddle to flop into the long grass. After a few minutes, the mare bowed her head and with soft taps, she nuzzled him until he stirred.

“Shit.” He looked around. “I guess it’s not a dream.” He sighed and clutched the reins, to pull himself up as Devil helped him by walking backward.

Marveling at the animal’s intuitiveness, but still feeling a little weak, he hooked his arm under Devil’s chin to hold her bridle for support. He then slid his foot across the thick carpet of grass. “Did you know I was going to fall off?”

The mare replied by lowering her head and cropping the top of the turf.

“You’re not much of a talker, are you? Well, at least one of us can eat.”

In the distance, a flock of large, black birds flew around in circles, cawing, and squawking at each other. While watching the distant birds, a small swarm of little bush flies started buzzing around his head, along with an annoying march fly. Ried waved and slapped at the insects attracted to the salt from his perspiration. It seemed like the more he waved away, the more insects appeared.

Then, he heard running water from within the nearby scrub, which stopped his windmilling waves and slaps.

“I suppose if I can’t eat, then I can at least have a drink.” He tied the reins to a small shrub and left Devil to feed on the grass, before making his way through the dense foliage toward the sound of the running water, still waving at the accompanying cloud of flies.

After several minutes of shoving and pushing, he stumbled out of the trees into a small clearing with a nearby running creek. At the sight of the small stream, and without the slightest hesitation, Ried jogged over to fall on its bank, and pushed his head under the running water.

The flowing water hit him like a jolt of electricity to recharge his tired, sweaty, and sore body. Christ, that feels so good. With his head underwater, Ried enjoyed the weightless feel of his arms and head floating in the cool creek. When he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he sat back on his knees and let the fresh water drip down his body, before leaning forward with cupped hands, eager to quench his thirst.

“Look at what we’ve gone ‘n’ found, Muddgy.”

“I reckon we’ve got us a townie who’s lost and thirsty,” a female voice joined in.

“Bloody hell.” Startled by the sudden intrusion, Ried spun around, lost his footing, and stumbled backward into the creek with a splash.

“And he’s a cute one too,” she added.

Ried sat on the stream’s gravel bottom with the water halfway up his chest and peered at a man and woman who both appeared on the verge of feral. Christ. Where the hell did Grizzly Adams come from? He pushed himself upright to walk toward the bank but paused mid-step when a slow, menacing growl came from behind the man’s legs.

A muscular Rottweiler moved in front of the newcomer, and rolled its lips back, revealing a mouth full of yellow teeth and fangs glistening from saliva-fueled drool. The dog fixed its gaze on Ried and issued another threating rumble from deep in its throat.

“Easy now, dog.” The woman patted the animal’s head.

“Strewth. Give a bloke some warning before you sneak up on him.” Ried cautiously waded out of the knee-deep water, shivering under his sodden clothes, Easy now. Just stay calm. You’ve got nothing they could want. His focus shifted to the clean, oiled, and well-kept L1A1 self-loading rifle. The contrast between the weapon and the wild man sent Ried’s internal alarms into overload.

“We didn’t sneak up. You shoulda listened to what’s goin’ on around ya.” The woman grinned with a mouth full of yellow and brown stained teeth. “I like his clothes, Gazza.” She took a few steps toward Ried, who took another step backward, almost falling again into the water.

“Get away, Muddgy. They’re not gonna be yours to have.” The large man also approached Ried. “Now, don’t you move, pretty boy,” Gazza said. He looked Ried over, trying to figure out why old man Harris wanted the stranger. This bloke don’t seem like anything special.

“What is this?” Ried asked. “Have I walked onto the set of some new reality TV show?” He eased himself farther away from the creek. “You must have the crew and cameras well hidden.” He moved a couple more steps. The dog noticed, and lowered its head, offering another ominous growl.

“I told ya not to fuckin’ move, boy.” Gazza continued to stare at Ried.

Forget Grizzly Adams. I’m in some weird Queensland Deliverance.

Without shifting his gaze, Gazza raised two fingers to his lips and blew a warbled, shrill whistle. At the sound of the whistle, the scrub around the creek came to life.

More than a dozen men, women, and boys of mixed nationalities materialized from the surrounding bush. There were Caucasians, Aboriginal, and Asian – an eclectic bunch dressed in either skins and loincloths, or different combinations of repaired, faded, and torn clothes.

Every one of them carried one or more weapons: spears, lethal-looking clubs, and large knives. Most of the men also wore some type of hodgepodge body armor, yet not one of them, apart from the man who spoke, carried any firearms.

The half-dozen women in the crowd all sported similar hairstyles to the one called Muddgy, but less ornate. Much like the men and boys, the women also wore a variety of tattoos.

“Oh, Shit.” In an instant, Ried discounted the notion he’d stumbled onto the set of a TV show and went more with his deliverance theory.

“‘Shit’ just about sums it up,” Gazza said with a smirk.

Reality show or not, it didn’t take a script for Ried to understand who led them. The one called Gazza singled out two of his men from the encircling mob, who quickly moved in Ried’s direction.

He stepped back up onto the bank and pretended to fumble and slip on its wet edge so he could conceal a tennis ball-sized rock in his fist. “What do you want?” Ried kept his voice level.

Gazza smirked. “We want you to come with us.”

Okay, this is bullshit. “What if I don’t want to?” Ried took a step into more open ground. The dog rumbled another warning and stepped toward Ried, with every muscle coiled.

“No, dog. Stay.” Gazza knelt beside the dog and rested his arm on the animal’s shoulder.

“You don’t hear so good, boy.” The larger of the two new men waved his big knife at Ried. “The guv’na told ya don’t move.”

“I’ll tell you what.” Ried matched the stare of the knife-wielding man. “I’ll keep still if you do too.” He then directed his attention to Gazza without taking his eyes off the knifeman and his friend. “Maybe we can work something out.”

Gazza spat out a laugh. “Hear that? He reckons we can make a deal.” Gazza turned off his smile. “Just fuckin’ bag him,” he said.

The two men grinned with savage delight as they charged toward Ried. The quiet one took a couple of swift steps and dove at Ried’s legs, thinking he could tackle the stranger to the ground.

But the man carelessly telegraphed his move, which allowed Ried to skip out of his grasp. But, Ried stumbled on the uneven ground dropping his rock in the process. Before Ried realized, the first man sheathed his knife and charged up catching Ried off guard, with a brutal backhanded slap.

The blow sent Ried sprawling. He tripped over his own feet and came down hard. In a quick twist, Ried rolled onto all fours trying to replace the air in his lung between gulps of breath and spitting out a mouthful of blood. The side of his head feeling like an anvil just smashed into it as Ried blinked and flexed his jaw to stop his ear ringing, while the crowd coaxed and called out to their comrades.

Spurred on by the group’s encouragement, the brute picked up Ried by the shirt and pulled him closer. The larger man swore at Ried. Who flinched, almost gagging from the man’s foul breath.

Ried balked at the thugs feted breath while wrapping his legs around his attacker’s waist and dug his hands into the man’s greasy hair.

With a grunt, the man reached for the hands locked in his hair.

Ried took advantage of the man’s brief distraction, and in a whiplash move, rocked his head back, and then drove his forehead into his opponent’s nose.

The impact sent a white flare behind Ried’s forehead and shattered his attacker’s eye socket and nose sending out a stream of warm sticky blood.

Ried’s wounded and dazed attacker bellowed in pain and shock collapsing to the ground still holding Ried.

Dazed from the head but and fall Ried went to stand as the second attacker came in from behind. Caught by surprise, Ried felt the iron-clad grip of the smaller man, before he sensed it.

Although smaller, the second thug was all muscle. The man tightened his bear hug, arched his back, and lifted Ried up to drop him back down. The impact jarred Ried’s legs and forced the air out of his lungs and without pause Ried’s attacker retightened his grip and repeated the raise and drop move.

Ried’s diaphragm strained under the relentless vice-like grip. His head and ears throbbed from the increase in blood pressure. His lungs wheezed, and heart beat a furious staccato in his chest. In pure desperation, Ried raised his hands behind him to grope for his attacker’s ears.

When he found them, he clenched his fingers into his opponent’s thick, greasy hair. With the man’s head firmly in his grip, Ried took a deep breath, clenched his teeth, and then drove his thumbs hard into the man’s ear cavities, carving away the soft skin with his nails.

Ried ignored the man’s cries, and twisted his thumbs deeper, burrowing for his eardrums. Once he felt the vice-like grip slacken from under his chest, Ried withdrew his thumbs, twisted himself and his hands around to plow his thumbs into the man’s eye sockets.

At the same time, Ried pushed the man backward while he shoved his index fingers deeper into the man’s bleeding ear canals.

The man screamed and thrashed, but this only increased Ried’s resolve. Lost in anger and the red fire of rage Ried screamed as he squeezed the man’s eyeball from his head.

Blinded by the pain and loss of sight, the injured assailant thrashed wildly to loosen Ried’s arms and overbalancing them bot to the ground.

When they fell, Ried clamped his hands harder around the man’s head, rolled across the blind man’s body and twisted with a sudden jerk which silenced the screaming man.

Ried rolled back around and recoiled at the site of the twisted blood smeared dead face of the man oozing mulberry and honey-colored fluid from his torn eye sockets and ears.

The first man beginning to recover from the headbutt made a clumsy lunge toward Ried but misjudged his move through blood and tear-swollen eyes.

Ried, still catching his breath, caught the man’s move and rolled around, pushing down on his hands, and then throwing a desperate kick at the lunging man. To catch him between his ear and shoulder.

The force of Ried’s kick, combined with the other’s momentum, broke the attacker’s neck, sending him sprawling into the grass where his head landed with a bone-crushing thump on a large rock. The man spluttered with a garbled cough rolled his eyes back and died within a few heartbeats. The ground beneath his head turning to mud from blood and cranial fluid.

Ried crawled over to the dead man and relieved the corpse of its large knife. The side of his face burned with pain, and a couple of his teeth moved slightly when he pressed his tongue against them.

He stared in slow horror at the two men lying dead by his hand. Bile rose in his throat, which he kept swallowing back as he grunted and stood favoring his twisted ankle.

The sight of Ried holding the knife, and standing over their dead comrades, turned the cheers into threatening murmurs and hard scowls.

Ried stumbled back returning their looks through his weariness, confusion, and anger.

Then, came the snarl and bark and his world shifted to slow motion. Ried turned toward the attacking dog. He watched, mesmerized at how the animal’s paws spread out when they landed on the ground.

Ried then saw his other blood-stained hands grip around the knife’s wooden handle and let the pent-up emotions from the last two days surge through his muscles, now boosted with added adrenaline.

In Ried’s ears the sound of his incoherent scream of red rage, along with the dog’s guttural bark registered as a grumbling, phantasmal growl.

Chunks of dirt and grass floated in the air behind the dog’s paws after it launched itself from the ground.

Ried sensed no other movement around him. He focused on the dog’s face. Its lips rolled back to reveal teeth and fangs stained yellow and brown. The saliva flicked away to hang in globules, before falling to the ground and bursting like water balloons.

Ried’s own movements seemed drawn and slow when he slid under the leaping animal. He held the knife with both hands and slashed upward. The blade entered the dog’s fur and puckering the skin inward along the knife’s edge before the flesh split into a strawberry-colored smile to kiss the machete.

Ried stumbled back into real time as the blade sunk into the dog’s body.

The dingo crossbreed gave a short, high-pitched yelp, when the blade sliced past its ribs, and into its lung and heart. The dead animals weight and momentum carried them both into the creek. When he stood and shook the water from his eyes, the crowd of feral people closed in on him.

The woman wailed at the sight of the knife buried deep in her dog floating in a spreading pool of blood-stained water.

“You murderin’ bastard.”

His clothes soaked through, Ried stood with his eyes wide, breathing deeply through flared nostrils. He reached down, pulled the knife from the dog’s body and dropped it into the water as he sloshed onto the bank.

Nobody moved or uttered a whisper. The only sounds came from the gurgling stream, and the increased drone of flies converging on the dead bodies.

Gazza moved forward, his gaze burning into Ried wondering how a simple snatch and grab could go wrong. The sound of Ried’s voice broke into Gazza’s thoughts. “What’d you say?”

“I… I just want to go home,” Ried pleaded, and then slapped at the sudden sting of an insect biting his neck. Damn horseflies. When he pulled his hand away, the flattened object in his palm was no insect. Within two heartbeats all ability to stand or move deserted Ried and he collapsed onto his knees, glaring up at Gazza through blurring vision. “You fuckin–”

Gazza’s shoulders slumped, and he stared at the blowgun wielding man behind Ried. “Damn it, Squat. If I wanted you to dart him, I would’ve told ya to.” Gazza walked over to his two fallen men and stood in front of Ried. “There ain’t no tellin’ what that shit’ll do to a person.” He pondered the young man laying at his feet. This is gonna cost the Colonel double. Losing two of my men had not been part of the arrangement.

***

Ried blinked to focus on his dark surroundings. When his vision cleared, he found himself imprisoned alongside Devil in what appeared to be a dark shed or cell lined with dank, moldy hay. “Shit. Could this day get any worse or weirder?” He knew the first thought he had was a little morbid, but Ried wanted to believe he lay in a hospital bed in a coma, experiencing one of those bleak, subconscious dreams.

But, if this is a dream, then how come it’s all so friggin real? Sitting beside Devil, Ried recalled the fight with vivid, gut-wrenching clarity behind his closed eyes. “Jesus.” He collapsed back against the wall.

The familiar voice of his platoon sergeant echoed from the back of his thoughts:

“Killing a man with your bare hands is not a job done lightly. It is primal. It is brutal. It is the most personal fucking form of combat you’ll ever experience. But remember this… If afterward you feel squeamish or want to cry like a fucking baby, then you’re alive, and you’ve done your job.”

Ried pushed the sergeant’s voice back into the shadows. He might well be alive, but his dream had transformed itself into a nightmare. “Christ, please let me wake up.”

Beside him, Devil gave a small snort and shuffled her feet. “Hey, girl.” He pushed himself out of the hay and checked out his surroundings. With measured steps, he walked around and reached out to feel the rough surface of a corrugated tin wall and wooden frame.

He groped his way around the confines of their prison. With his arm raised above his head, he jumped up and down in several places. “Well, I won’t be riding on horseback.” By his reckoning, the whole building or shed didn’t seem any bigger than a horse float. Dream or not. At least the old man and his daughter didn’t lock me in a cupboard.

Stepping over to the faint stream of light in front of him, Ried traced the door’s outline. He eased his shoulder against the corrugated lining, leaned into it, and felt the sticky mass of old spider webs brush his face. “JESUS.” He slapped his face and leaped back, colliding with Devil.

Ried continued batting the dust-covered, gossamer threads. “Bloody spiders.” When a piece of hay fell from his hair to land on his arm, he jumped back, slapping, and waving his arm about. “Oh, shit. Fucking spiders!” In a bout of embarrassed frustration, he lashed out at the door with all his weight behind the kick, but the only result of his action was to shower himself with dust and grit.

The dust from the shed’s rafters brought about a series of bellowing sneezes. Infuriated, he hammered the door with repeated assaults. “Hey. What’s going on here? Let me out,” he shouted between kicks.

Catching his breath, he stepped back and in between his deep breaths, the sound of voices; singing and shouting amidst children’s laughter. Ried began kicking at the door again. This time, with each kick, the tin bent and pulled away from the door frame, but the timber frame itself stayed firm. “One or two good kicks more…” Halfway through the motions of his next kick, something heavy banged against the side of the shed, and he heard a deep voice.

“Oi. Be still in there.”

The loud bang against the corrugated wall and voice startled him. “Piss off,” Ried called back, resembling a spoilt child with each kick on the door. Then, without warning, the door opened, and the momentum of his unobstructed kick sent Ried sprawling out into the night.

Rolling himself over, he sat up to face five sharp spears pointed at his neck and chest. To his right, the darkness fell away behind a lantern.

Gazza leaned out from the shadow of the lamp. “I’d be keeping still, mate,” he said, “or they’ll be good ‘n’ happy to stick you.”

“What do you want with me?”

“Nothin’, really.” Gazza scratched his ear and stood up, “but, you went and killed their mates…” Gazza let the sentence hang.

“You should’ve just let me walk,” Ried murmured. “Then, they’d still be alive.”

“Yep, and you’d most likely run off and dobb us into the bloody Romans quick smart.”

Ried frowned and tilted his head. First, the old man, and now this bloke talking about Romans.

Misunderstanding Ried’s expression, Gazza continued. “Those two clowns were only s’posed to grab you.” Behind the lantern light, Gazza’s eyes seemed filled with regret. “Now they’re dead ‘n’ cold, and you’re here.” He looked down at Ried, broke into a bout of laughter.

Raising his arms and eyeing each of the armed men and women around him, Ried found nothing humorous.

“Put your bloody arms down, boy.” He tapped one of the men on the shoulder and pointed over to the shed. “Get the horse.”

He looked back at Ried under the lantern’s glow and went to lean only to turn when they heard a wet, dull crack, followed by a shrill cry. In the washed light, a shadowed figure stumbled backward from the shed to fall at Gazza’s feet.

The man rolled around with his hands clutching his groin moaning pitifully, curled into the fetal position as he threw up at Gazza’s feet.

“Fuckin’ hell.” Gazza issued a heavy sigh and rubbed his forehead looking at Ried. “Get your horse.” He planted a sold grip on Ried’s shoulder, “and don’t be stupid about it.”

Ried stepped over the crippled man and whispered, “Karma’s a bitch.”

He stopped a little shy of the door. “Easy, girl,” he whispered. Stepping inside, he untied the reins and led Devil out. “It’s all right, girl,” he cooed, caressing Devil’s cheek and neck. Still holding the reins, he took a step back and felt the pointy tip of a spear pressing into his ribs, just above the small of his back.

“Don’t even think of being clever,” the woman warned with deadly intent.

Ried gradually spun around to face her and the rock-steady spear tip millimeters away from his liver.

“Back off, Molls,” Gazza ordered. “Bring ‘em to the big house.” Molls stepped up to Ried with a rope, and Devil lowered her head, rolling her ears, and shifting her stance. Gazza held up the lantern. “For fuck’s sake, woman. You want to end up rollin’ in the dirt like him?” He nodded his head at the other man still curled up at his feet. “Just walk the boy back.”

“What about Ned?” she asked, keeping Ried within reach of her spear while making sure she kept a safe distance between herself and the horse.

Gazza contemplated the scene before him. He scratched his ear and glanced over at the two other men pointing to the moaning Ned. “You two take him down to Tilly’s tent.” He then looked across at Molls, Ried, and the remaining man. “Come on, you lot.”

Walking behind Gazza, Ried surveyed the roaring fire and the people surrounding it. The wafting odor of cooked meat, and the image of everybody seated around the fire – eating and drinking – made his dry mouth moist from saliva. It also increased the pangs of his hunger.

The scene of the approaching nomad leader in front of Ried, Devil, Molls, and her remaining companion caught the attention of a group of curious children dancing and playing near the bonfire. They came running up to get a better look – along with a few of the adults – many of whom Ried could tell were quite drunk.

Seeing the growing crowd, Ried’s anxiety level rose several degrees. He expected to have rocks, mud, rotten food, and even animal dung hurled at him. Instead, the adults pointed and whispered, and the children did what children do – they giggled and emitted oohs and ahhs.”

Unsure of how to respond to the attention, Ried smiled at them, but not one person from the crowd smiled back or offered even a simple nod his way.

At least the villagers in Afghanistan smiled back. Discouraged by their lukewarm response, Ried kept his eyes on the ground behind Gazza’s feet and did his best to ignore the onlookers.

Ried looked away from the trailing crowd and into the night sky. “Christ. I really hope this is just one long, bad dream,” he mumbled.

Gazza burst into a fit of laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Ried glared at the laughing man’s back.

“Bloody hell. You need a better dream,” he called back over his shoulder. “Now me, I’d be on a beach with a bunch of naked birds doin’ me every pleasure.” Gazza’s face split into a huge grin at the thought. “Now, there’s a fuckin’ dream.”

Ried held back his opinion and looked at the old high set Queenslander they approached where the fires reflections sparkled in the only unbroken window of what Gazza called “the big house.”

Under the overhanging verandas, the original owners decided to enclose the high-set building to make some extra living space accessed by French doors. Even in the dark, with the bonfire’s dancing light, Ried thought the old farmhouse seemed in a far better state of repair than anything else he’d seen so far.

“Tie the horse over there.” Gazza pointed to the stump of an old mulberry tree.

“Can I at least take off her saddle?” Ried asked.

Gazza hesitated for a moment before he nodded his consent. He doubted their guest would do anything rash, but he waved Molls over to keep an eye on him.

When done, Ried put the saddle and blanket on the backrest of the bench under the veranda and flopped down heavily from the weight of his confusion, weariness, and incredible hunger. “Any chance of getting something to eat?” he asked.

“Dunno,” Gazza replied. “I’m not sure I wanna waste any of our food on you.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Just pullin’ ya leg,” Gazza said as he walked away.

Ried watched him go and found it difficult to shake a sense of dread from the big man’s comment about not wasting food on him.

As he sat under the veranda’s shadow waiting for his food, he began to go over the events of the last couple of days. How does crashing in a storm lead to being kidnapped by a bunch of doomsday preppers? Absently, he scratched at the stubble on his chin and tried to remember how many days the young woman at the farm said had passed since his crash.

Ried watched the one called Molls, and the other man left to watch him. Danger exuded from their pores. He decided not to let them intimidate him, so he adopted an aggressive stance. After a few minutes, Ried grew bored of the silent game between his captors and himself. Closing his eyes, he massaged his temples to try to ease an encroaching headache. When he opened his eyes, he rested his chin in his hands and gazed at the strip of night sky between the overhanging veranda and distant tree-line.

What’s with the stars? This far away from the town, the sky should be filled with them.

The sound of heavy footsteps distracted Ried’s musings.

Putting a tray of food and drink down, Gazza handed him a small bowl of stew, and a mug full of some dark, reddish liquid.

Ried raised a cautious eyebrow after accepting the glutinous broth and dark colored drink.

“Don’t fret, boy. It ain’t full of poison,” Gazza assured him. “They’d bloody well hang me up by my short and curlies if it was.”

His hunger soon outweighed any trepidation, and he started devouring the stew, ignoring the odd texture of the meat, and the gravies earthy flavor.

“I’m guessin’ you ain’t eaten in a while?”

Ried continued eating and shrugged his shoulders in response. After spooning the last chunks of the stew into his mouth, he replaced the empty bowl with the clay mug and sniffed the dark liquid with its sweet odor.

“What the hell…” He whispered and then sipped a mouthful, only to gag on its pungent sweet and sour taste.

“It’s good stuff, huh?” Gazza laughed. “We brew it ourselves from prickly pear and berries.” He laughed again at Ried’s reaction to the drink. “Try sippin’ it, and then rest it on ya tongue before swallowin’.”

With nothing else to lose, Ried followed the advice and found it made the drink only marginally more palatable.

Gazza nodded toward the big, chestnut mare. “You work for old man Harris?”

“Nope.” Ried relaxed back into the bench and shook his head. “Why?”

Gazza pointed at Devils rump, “That’s his brand.”

Ried turned towards Gazza. “You know the old man?”

“Let’s say we’ve had our dealins.”

Something about Gazza’s tone told Ried the old man might well be a bit dodgy. He took another more adventurous mouthful of the bush wine which sent waves of relaxing warmth radiating from his stomach.

“If you don’t work for old man Harris?” Gazza asked. “then how’d you end up with one of his nags?”

“Mmm. Oh, I crashed in a big bloody storm–” Ried lost the feeling in his cheeks. “What’s with the stars?” The purple-red liquor had made him more than a little relaxed.

“What and the horse?” Gazza asked.

Ried gave Gazza a big, cheesy smile. “You mean Devil… I nicked her from the old man.” His tone then darkened. “The old bloke and his daughter held me prisoner for days and days,” he puffed up his chest, “but I escaped after he gave me some bullshit yarn ‘bout space tunnels… I told him to fuck off, and then I pinched the horse.” He nodded in drunken pride, blinked, scratched behind his ear, and then pointed to the sky.

“What’s with the stars?” Ried rubbed his nose again. “OH, shit. Wuz the old bloke tellin’ the truth?”

With a sudden pang of guilt, Ried glanced toward Devil, gulped down wore grog and swiveled around wagging an inebriated finger at Gazza. “I wuz tryin’ to head back to town when you lot showed up… Ried expression dropped along with his voice. “Fuck… are they really dead?”

“My blokes?”’ Gazza shrugged, “Pretty much.”

“Yeah well… It was their fault anyway.” Ried scanned the area, “So where is here?” Ried flopped back against the saddle feeling tired and then sat up pushing the mug against Gazza’s arm. “She’s a beaut, though,” he blurted out.

“Who?”

“Devil,” Ried said, “and the old man’s daughter, too.” He made several attempts to wink and gave up and instead, nudged his elbow into Gazza’s ribs, almost falling over from the effort. He took in a lungful of air, followed by a comical yawn before he slumped against Gazza and dropped the mug from unresponsive hands.

“Shit. He’s a one-pot screamer.” Gazza pushed Ried away and stood to stare down at sleeping guest. “You’re a strange one all right.” He tried to make sense of the mixed messages the younger man gave him, but only found himself more confused in the process. “You pair take turns to watch him ‘til the mornin’,” Gazza instructed Molls and her companion.

In all his secretive dealings with Dominic Harris, Gazza couldn’t recall seeing the stranger about. So, where’d he come from? Mind you, it’d make sense that the old man and his daughter would help an injured stranger. He turned to peer at the sleeping shadow on the bench. “But, why was old man Harris so bloody insistent we find you, eh?” I reckon it’s time we packed up and nicked off to the west… after I figure out a way to return you and the horse without pissing everyone off. “I need another fuckin’ drink.” Gazza sighed.

 

                                     8

 

The next morning’s early light revealed, Ried, stretching and rubbing his cheeks and eyes in the cold and damp air. His stomach heaved, his breath tasted sour from his dry throat and mouth. “God. What did they feed me?”

In the distance, a chorus of crows greeted the day. On a closer front, his sleeping guards and their inharmonious snoring and grunting assault his ears. Ried hawked and spat in their direction and padded across the wet grass and pick up the empty pitcher. “fucking amateurs.”

Ried tossed the clay jug into a bush listening for any other sounds from people moving about. A child cried while two more called out in a game, followed by a woman’s voice shouting at the playing children. The tangy odor of hot ash and smoke wafted in the breeze. Nearby, Devil snorted and shifted her feet.

Still, Ried waited, but when there were no other signs of movement or people talking, he decided to take a chance at escaping. He moved past his sleeping guards and lifted the saddle and blanket before softly making his way across to the horse. He allowed himself a smile, when a patch of ground erupted at his feet, along with the immediate report of a gunshot.

Devil jumped and jerked her head, almost snapping the reins still tied to the stump. Ried dropped to the ground behind the saddle.

Molls and her accomplice leaped to their feet in surprise.

Ried peeked over the saddle to see a pissed-off Gazza walking toward him, and pointing a long-barrel, semi-automatic handgun.

Molls and her startled partner clutched their spears unsure of which way to move.

To the surprise of everybody nearby, including himself, Ried pushed himself up and took a step closer to Gazza.

“Not another fuckin’ step.” Gazza glowered at Ried. “I knew I should’ve fuckin tied you up.” The last comment aimed at Molls.

Ried hooded his eyes and stopped. But instead of standing still, he bent his knees and sprang to his left. His forearm struck the guard’s chin, and across his ear.

The man head snapped back as he twisted around to collapse in a silent heap.

Before the man hit the ground, Ried dove, rolled and kicked Moll’s legs out from under her. He grabbed the end of the spear lying in the grass to strike Gazza’s gun hand with a vicious snap knocking the pistol from Gazza’s grasp, and leaving a ragged gash along the back of his wrist and thumb.

Molls, holding her ribs, made a lunge for Ried’s legs, which he sidestepped after he scooped up the pistol in his hand, a heartbeat before Gazza’s desperate attempt to retrieve it.

“Not another fucking step,” hissed Ried, pointing the pistol at Gazza.

A crowd of onlookers, awoken by the gunshot, drifted in growing numbers from the other side of the old house to form a human wall between the house and the broken fence near the horse.

The closest people pointed at the scene before them with their murmurs and catcalling growing louder while in the back a child cried. Others began to make wagers amongst themselves on the outcome between the young stranger, Gazza, and Molls.

Who the hell are these people?

Out of the corner of his eye, Ried caught Molls shifting her stance. With a quick step, he moved closer to her and pointed the spear at her throat. “Don’t even think of being clever.” His arm stiffened. “isn’t that what you said.” Ried shifted his stance to let the spear tip press harder against her skin. “It’s good advice.”

For a brief second, Molls considered defying Ried’s suggestion. However, when blood pooled around the spear tip, she curbed her defiant thoughts.

With the handgun trained on Gazza’s chest, and the spear keeping Molls at bay, Ried caught a glimpse of a man moving toward them under the veranda.

Another shot rang out and the child screamed as the lantern, hanging on the wall exploded above the man’s head. The near brave man stood fixed on the spot with lamp fuel running down his contorted face.

The bullet may have struck the lamp more by accident than design, but for Ried, it produced the desired result.

“All you lot hold off,” Gazza instructed. “Molls get behind me and don’t be stupid either.” He locked eyes with Ried. “You’re pretty handy with that,” he said, “but I’d be guessin’ you ain’t never shot a man.”

“Not with a pistol…” he walked backward to Devil, “…yet.” Ried, doing his best at keeping his tone level and his expression fixed with a hint of ‘try me if you want.’

Gazza smiled at the comment, but his smile faded when at something behind Ried’s eyes a look he’d seen on men many years before. Regardless, he tried his own version of verbal bravado. “Anyways, there ain’t enough rounds in there to take us all.”

“True. But what difference does it make?” Ried told him. “I killed their mates, so, I’m as good as dead anyway.” He could almost see Gazza’s mind ticking over.

“How’s about you drop the gun so we can make some sorta deal?”

With a shrug, Ried dropped the spear and cupped the gun in both hands. He adjusted his stance, squared his shoulders, and stood firm with his feet at shoulder width. He shuffled his left foot just in front of his right and leaned forward at the hip.

“You’re joking. After you lot attack me, drug me, kidnap me, and then fucking well shoot at me…” Ried’s voice never rose an octave. “You decide now’s a good time to make a deal?”

“All right, you lot. Drop your kit and back off.” Hearing only the odd murmur behind him, Gazza shot a quick glance backward. “Drop your fuckin’ kits. Now!” Behind Gazza came the sound of grunts and curses as the nomads dropped their knives, spears, and other assorted weapons. He spared a look over his shoulder. “What part about back off didn’t you lot fuckin get.”

Ried held his stance and watched the crowd shuffle back.

Gazza rolled his head forward. “Done. Now, get on your horse and piss off.”

“Just like that?” Ried asked without lowering the pistol.

“Yep, just like that.”

Ried bent his gun arm at the hip with the pistol still pointing forward. He stepped back to untie the reins with his free hand and maneuvered Devil around so he could saddle her. At no time did the pistol waver from Gazza’s direction, even when he went mounted the horse. “Which way is it to the old man’s farm?”

“You’re shittin’ me…”

“Which way?”

“North-west, about twenty-five to thirty klicks,” Gazza answered. “Head left past the creek. Take the third road on the right and keep on it ‘til you get to a wide T intersection with an old service station. Turn right and then left.”

Ried walked Devil over to Gazza, and whispered through a smile, “Just a suggestion.” He leaned in closer while keeping the pistol aimed at his kidnapper’s chest. “I’d look to your own house before you bother chasing after me.”

Conscious of how and where Ried pointed the gun, Gazza swiveled at the hip to see three men standing apart and forward of the crowd. “Fuck me,” Gazza growled. He looked back at Ried. “Don’t s’pose I can have the gun back?”

Ried smiled and turned Devil toward the creek while keeping some distance from the crowd’s edge. Without looking back, he tossed the weapon into a nearby lantana bush and smiled at the rising voices in the background. Yep, karma’s a bitch all right.

***

After crossing the creek leading to Gazza’s enclave, Ried rode on for about fifteen minutes and then dismounted so he could readjust the saddle and girth belt. Satisfied he could sit in the saddle without the saddle or him rolling off he remounted and set off only to stop at the sound of an approaching truck.

He scanned the road and the surrounding bush for a place to disappear. The scrub and grass taunted him with a definitive lack of options. “Christ. Well, after the last twenty-four hours, things couldn’t get any worse.” So, he reigned Devil over to the side of the road and kept walking in the hopes the driver would pass on by.

When the truck crested the rise, Ried raised his eyebrows at the old Bedford which came to a stop beside him. “Isn’t there anything around here that belongs to the twenty-first century?”

Unfortunately, Ried’s hope of the vehicle driving by disappeared in the dust raised by the lorry pulling over in front of him. When the portly, older driver stepped down from the cab, he lifted a small towel from his trouser pocket and mopped his brow before redressing the wispy, long, blond comb-over. Ried could feel the morning heat through his cotton drill shirt, yet the man approaching him wore a tweed sports coat over a white, collared shirt tucked into corduroy jeans.

“Hello, young man.”

Ried relaxed a little with the man’s jovial features and casual nature. With a congenial smile, the driver walked up to Devil with casual ease and fed the animal three lumps of sugar.

“Care to explain why you are on Julia Harris’s horse?”

“I stole her.” Ried couldn’t see how a lie could change his situation. He also noticed the man take a firm hold of the reins just past the bridle. Oh yeah, karma is a bitch. After a few minutes, Ried squirmed under the balding man’s gaze.

“You’re the young chap I took X-rays of?” The man squinted with intent curiosity. “You seem to have healed remarkably well.”

“You took X-rays of me?”

“Indeed.”

“So, you’re a radiographer?”

“Good heavens, not. I’m the district’s vet.”

“A vet with a portable X-ray machine?”

“That’s correct. It might be a tad old and cumbersome, but my unit has proven itself useful on many occasions.” The vet puffed in a proud statement and then he shifted closer dropping his voice. “It was all quite clandestine. You see, neither Mr. Harris or Mr. Bennett would explain what happened to you.” He walked around the mare. “I must say, I was mildly curious why they chose to tend your injuries in Julia’s old cottage, instead of the hospital. Considering the extent of your… apparent injuries.”

“Can you help me get back to the Harris place?” Ried dismounted and held the reins out toward the stranger. “I’m beginning to think I owe him an apology. Mister ––”

“Yes, of course.” The vet held out his hand. “Lester Jennings.”

“Benjamin Ried. But please, just call me Ben or Ried,” he said, accepting Jennings outstretched hand.

“Glad to meet you, Ben,” Jennings said with a broad smile. “Now, let’s load up Devil and get her back home, eh?” He tied the reins around one of the large hinged rings mounted on the truck’s side, before opening the rear door, and sliding out a ramp from under the floor frame. He locked the ramp in place, and they walked Devil inside the enclosed truck. Jennings leaned against the open door while Ried tied her reins to a small rail and removed the saddle. After which, he set about clearing a spot for himself beside her.

“Good heavens, son. You can’t ride back here.”

“Why not? Besides, you don’t even know me.”

“Which won’t change if you’re locked back here.” Jennings watched Ried gently stroke the horse before he stepped down the ramp into the morning sun. “Excellent choice.” He beamed.

“I don’t suppose you have anything to eat?” Ried asked candidly.

Jennings stepped up into the cab of his truck and brought down a basket covered with a clean, white piece of calico. “This should do the trick.” He lifted the cloth to reveal goat cheese, grapes, dried pork, a cob of bread, and a bottle of white wine. “It was gifted to me this morning.” Without prompting, Jennings gave a full account of his overnight visit and consultations within the small community at the old hamlet of Maidenwell, tending their various pets and animals.

Ried helped himself to the bread, fruit, and meat. Jennings, on the other hand, helped himself to everything in the basket, including the goat cheese, which Ried avoided.

“You don’t eat cheese?”

Ried only shrugged and continued chewing on the pork. On his deployment in Afghanistan, he had eaten his share of goat cheese, but he had never acquired a taste for it.

Jennings continued to devour the cheese with a handful of grapes. Without prompting he uncorked a bottle of wine which he passed over to a reluctant Ried who listened to Jennings continued banter about his adventures. Ried took a sip of the homemade wine. He would have preferred water, but the light, slightly sweet drink seemed palatable enough, especially after the taste of the nomad’s potent home brew.

According to Jennings, the Maidenwell community was the northern regions’ premium wine and cheese producers.

Ried wanted to ask what he meant by the northern region but found himself asking about Devil instead.

The vet explained how Dom’s wife, Julia, had found the newly born mare beside the remains of her mother, who some nomads shot and butchered for meat. “You see, Dom’s Julia always had a way with injured or lost people and animals, so she adopted Devil. Since that day, the animal had become very protective of Julia. No one else could ride her.” He broke out into a jovial chuckle. “In fact, it took about two years of constant visits, before Devil would let me be alone with her.”

“I think Devil only tolerates me because I give her sugar.” He smiled at his own joke. “The animal will tolerate Dom grooming her, but nothing else. And since Julia’s passing, Devil had not allowed a soul to ride her.” Jennings raised an eyebrow and glanced sideways between more mouthfuls of food and wine. “Yet, you managed to saddle her, and ride her from Dom’s barn.”

“My mom is the best person I know when it comes to horses. She made sure me and my sisters all grew up around them. I suppose I picked up her genes.” Ried shrugged, and then he broke into a broad grin. “She did give one of those feral blokes a good thump.”

“Ferals?”

Jennings’s expression morphed into one of horror when Ried talked about the people who had attacked and kidnapped him.

“Dear lord. Those were nomads, and you escaped them?”

Ried saw the color drain from Jennings’s face, while he scanned the bush around them.

It took a certain amount of convincing on Ried’s part to assure Jennings they were safe, and the nomads weren’t coming after them. Eventually, Jennings calmed down and continued eating and drinking. In between mouthfuls, he patted Ried’s shoulder to reassure him Dominic would be more relieved than angry when he saw both Ried and Devil were safe.

After consuming most of the food in the basket, Ried could feel his strength and alertness improving. The warm sun and a full stomach had a soothing effect on him. He stretched himself to ease the stiffness from his awkward night’s sleep on the bench and two days of riding. Even the fight and escape from the nomads seemed a distant memory.

Ried stood beside the truck in the sun and listened to the breeze rustle the leaves, serenaded by the chirping of cicadas. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to accept the calm and beauty of the morning. And now, there’s somebody to take me to a phone to contact my family, and hopefully, help get the car back.

Off in the distance, a faint and unusual whining sound ended his moment of bliss. Ried walked out to the middle of the road. “What’s that noise?”

Jennings put down the empty basket and walked over to join Ried. “Oh, dear me.”

“Relax I don’t think it’s the nomads.”

“No, but what is coming could be much worse.” His jovial mood evaporated into the humid morning air. “Hurry. Get in the back and try to hide,” he urged.

“Hey, stop pushing.”

“Hush, boy. Please, just do what I ask.” With persistent nudging, Jennings maneuvered Ried toward the back of the truck. He ushered the protesting Ried into the vehicle and pointed at a shelf above the truck’s cabin. “Quickly now. Get yourself up there and keep quiet.”

Jennings’s abrupt change in manner, along with his hyper nervous insistence, resembled the reaction of some Afghan villagers when suspected Taliban troops were nearby. Before he could ask what had spooked him, Jennings had slid the ramp inside the truck and closed the door, leaving Ried and Devil standing in the gloom.

Unsure of what just happened, Ried followed Jennings request and climbed onto the storage shelf above the truck’s cab. He wriggled closer to the side and peered through the truck’s timber slat wall. He could see Jennings nervously wringing his hands at the sight of a sizeable group of oversized motorbikes coming to a stop nearby.

The large, unusual bikes were unlike anything he had seen before, with their streamlined cowlings enclosing the frame and engines, and then sweeping back up and over the rear wheel to form a set of fixed panniers. He shifted his head to get a better look at the plum-colored machines and wondered which bikie gang the riders belonged to. He tried to see the emblem on the front cowling, but couldn’t get a clear view of the symbols.

What spooked Ried the most about the bikes was their riders. This gang looked almost militant, with their ink-blue uniforms and heavy black boots and molded body armor. He shifted to get a better look at the closest rider and his body armor.

Bloody hell… It looks like what I found yesterday.

The helmets on the riders’ heads were also a polished black, with plating to cover their ears, and a dark, polarized, drop-down visor, which only covered the riders’ eyes.

Ried craned his head and neck to listen when he heard Jennings step away from the truck after the rider dismounted. From the look of the rider and the uniform he wore, Ried assumed this was the gang’s sergeant-at-arms.

A blood-red sash wrapped around the man’s waist under a wide, dark, leather belt, decorated with a dozen leather straps situated over his groin. On each hip, Ried could see some pouches the handle of a knife, but when then Jennings stepped in front of the rider blocking Ried’s view. Who the hell are these blokes?

“Dr. Jennings.”

“Centurion Mettius.”

Ried frowned and mouthed the word centurion.

“Why are you here?” The man looked around and then studied the truck.

When Ried saw the man’s black-on-black eyes, he almost swore aloud. Okay, that’s just creepy. Who the hell would cover their whole eyes with all-black contacts?

“My truck overheated,” Jennings lied. “While it cooled down, I thought I’d have some breakfast.” In a bid to show he spoke the truth, Jennings timidly held out the empty food basket.

“Next time, for your own safety, I suggest you find a better place to stop.” Mettius ignored the basket. “This is scavenger territory.” Before Jennings could respond, he looked past Jennings, when he heard a noise from inside the truck.

Ried looked over his shoulder toward the horses moving dark shape. Jesus Christ, Devil.

“I’m taking a horse back for treatment,” Jennings said.

Ried watched as Mettius scrutinized Jennings, and then signaled the first three riders to join him beside the truck. Ried tensed, his ears pounding with the blood pumped by his adrenaline-fueled heart.

He heard them move around the truck, watching their bodies through the slatted side walls. With exaggerated slowness, Ried slid toward the front of the shelf area and waited. His internal alarms clamored, and his gut told him something was wrong. Very wrong. The big bikes, the riders in body armor, and their ominous, blacked-eyed sergeant-at-arms who Jennings called Centurion Mettius

Behind him, Mettius had opened the truck’s rear door.

Ried froze from the increased light spearing into the back of the truck.

“You see? Just a horse. There’s no need for your pistol,” Jennings said.

Holy shit. They’re armed? Ried’s gut knotted from Jennings warning.

“What’s under the blanket?”

“More wine and cheese. In gratis for my service.”

A long silence followed Jennings continued lies. When the door of the truck closed, Ried closed his eyes and willed his heart to slow down its juddering beat.

“Are you looking for somebody?”

Ried peered through the split between the boards to see Mettius spin around at Jennings question.

“Why would you ask that?” Mettius demanded.

Jennings pulled out his little towel and started mopping his head. “Well…” He avoided the cold, black-on-black eyes staring back at him. “Um, I’ve seen your patrols over the last couple of days, and, well, they don’t typically consist of so many men.”

“In fact, we are seeking out the scavengers, and one or more escaped prisoners.” Mettius moved his face closer to Jennings. “Or those in league with any of them.”

“I’ll be sure to report anything I see to either you or the governor,” Jennings said.

From his vantage point, Ried thought Jennings was about to faint.

“You look unwell.” Mettius stared at Jennings before he turned to march back to his bike.

“Too much wine and cheese, I fear.” Jennings continued to mop away the dripping perspiration.

“Just be on your way,” Mettius barked after mounting his bike.

Ried watched the twenty-plus bikes ride past, and when the last one passed, he jumped down and peered through the doors.

“All right, my boy. You can come out now.”

“They were armed?”

“Obviously.”

Ried paced in a circle while frowning at Jennings answer. It’s a bloody, bold move for any bikie gang to display their weapons. “Who are the scavengers they talked about?”

“I believe they were referring to the nomads.”

“The nomads?” Ried grabbed Jennings’s shoulders. “Shit. We have to follow them.”

“I will do no such thing.” Jennings clamored and went on mopping his face. “Those are armed men.”

“With a clear agenda against people mostly armed with spears and knives.”

“And it has nothing to do with us. So, we should do what the centurion told us to do.”

Jennings’s face paled to the color of ash and couldn’t seem to stop sweating.

Bloody hell. Whoever those riders were, they scared the shit out of him. Ried knew forcing the man’s help was a pointless exercise. So, he gave Jennings a smile and a nod of understanding, and thanked him for the food, before turning to run down the road after the bikes.

“Wait,” Jennings called out after a moment. “I’ll do it.” He looked miserable. “I’m not sure who’s madder; you for running after them, or me for driving you.”

Ried patted his shoulder and climbed into the cab after him.

It took a six-point maneuver to turn the truck around to follow the bikes. A few minutes down the road, Jennings pumped the brakes to stop when they rounded a bend, and they saw the last bike veering off the road.

“I don’t suppose you have a rifle?” Ried asked, climbing out of the cabin. Jennings shook his head. “That’d be right.” Before he closed the door, Ried insisted Jennings return Devil and pass on his apologies to old man Harris. But before Jennings could answer, Ried disappeared into the scrub.

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