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Authors: Lara Fanning

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BOOK: Red Fox
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“Right… and what shall
I
do?”

I look at him and arch my eyebrows in question.

“Can’t I stay with you?”

“Oh,” I say.

For his sake, I want to say ‘sure you can!’ but the words simply won’t come, and I sit there gawking at him like an idiot. He’s shown himself to be inept in the wilderness already, but that isn’t to say he won’t be helpful in a different, more domestic setting. Plus, I will need company if my aunt and uncle aren’t at home, else I might go mad. But then I realise that my delayed response isn’t due to me thinking logically about his companionship, it is something entirely different that makes me mute.

I’ve met plenty of boys at my school before. Plenty of attractive, friendly boys that I don’t act like a fool in front of. Why is this one any different? He was a city boy, which was one difference. And the one who made me feel comfort and hope in that transport box.

At my hesitation, Whil looks confronted. “If you don’t want me to, I won’t but I thought…”

Finally, my voice works again but it sounds crackly and high pitched. “I just didn’t think you’d want to come with me.”

“We should stick together,” he says, and he looks straight into my eyes.

I gaze back at him, mesmerised by the pale blue of his iris. For some reason, the two of us gazing at one another in the middle of the outback doesn’t feel awkward. I’m not compelled to turn away like I am with other people. Looking at him, I feel content and safe. I don’t feel like the world has just collapsed around me. All danger ceases to exist. I forget about my hunger and my thirst and the loss of my family and the death of my best friend. I only see him.

We sit for a minute, just staring, before a noise sounds nearby our resting spot. Both of us look towards the noise of twigs snapping and leaves brushing over a moving mass. Something big and black pushes through the white budded tea-tree bushes on the opposite end of the flat. A long, dark face. Bright, kindly eyes half covered by a matted forelock. A thin but striking black brumby stallion works his way onto the grazing ground, nibbling at the short grass as he comes.

I hadn’t noticed that the sky around us has begun to dim. In an hour, it will be dark and cold. Luckily the Alps don’t have any large predators so we can sleep safely knowing we won’t be attacked. Whil and I watch as the brumby walks onto the grazing flat, sniffs the air cautiously and then whinnies. Two mares, both with young foals at foot, follow their stallion onto the flat and the horses begin to graze quietly. It is difficult to think anything but peaceful thoughts while watching the horses graze as the sunset streaks the sky with soft pink and deep purple clouds that glow with golden outlines. The foals begin to play, chasing one another in circles and rearing in a mock battle.

I’ve seen this sight before. It always warms my heart to watch the horses and leave them undisturbed. They positively fascinate Whil. He chuckles when the foals tumble in the grass together and guffaws when the stallion eventually trots up to them and clacks his teeth in warning. His offspring are being too rambunctious and noisy. The two foals squeal and race to their mothers for protection. Whil laughs.

“Haven’t you ever seen wild horses?” I ask quietly.

“No. They’re peaceful, aren’t they? Not like the old movies where they are always galloping around.”

“They only gallop around if people chase them,” I say with a shrug.

“Will they notice us?”

“I don’t think so. Not if we stay here. They’ll just move away if they see us anyhow. They aren’t aggressive.”

Whil gives a sigh. “What should we do tonight? I’m hungry but there really isn’t enough daylight to set a snare.”

I shake my head—obviously even in the city school they were taught survival lessons. “No, we will have to wait until morning.” I look up at the sky and there is a grey cloud cover just thick enough to hold in the warmth of the day so that we shouldn’t freeze in our sleep. “I think everything will have to wait until tomorrow morning. You don’t have matches or a lighter?”

“No. I suppose we will just have to cope overnight without shelter or fire.”

We continue to watch the horses until darkness falls and leaves us in a completely different, gloomy, world. I love the high country in the daytime but in the evening every shadow cast by the moonlight shining silver on the leaves frightens me. It’s too wet to light a fire. All of the loose timber is covered in a thin layer of ice and even if we found some dry wood and twigs, lighting it without matches would be impossible for us. Funny, in school they taught us how to kill animals for food and make snares from twigs and vines, but they never showed us how to start a fire without a lighter.

Whil tells me he is going to lie down and get some sleep and I decide to do the same. Although I find a fairly dry patch of earth and a comfy clump of snowgrass to rest my ever-throbbing head on, my eyes snap open at the tiniest noise: from the snort of a horse to the scurry of something miniscule in the leaf litter. The darkness consumes me and hides the once comforting view of the flat and the peaceful creatures. I feel my body start to twitch. Electricity seems to course in my veins. My heart leaps as a mopoke owl begins a gentle hoot in the treetops above our sleeping place. My eyes dart from shadow to shadow, searching for something to be afraid of and my mind reruns a video of Clara collapsing on the ground and being shrouded in a pool of her own blood.

After an hour of tossing and turning on the verge of a mental breakdown, I sit up and decide that tonight sleep won’t be an option. So I sit awake with my legs tucked into my chest and wait for dawn to come. The mopoke owl continues to call for hours, never receiving a reply.

Mopoke. Mopoke. Mopoke.

8.

 

At some point I must have fallen asleep because when dawn comes I wake up: curled on the ground, feeling groggy in the head and sore everywhere else. Touching the golf ball sized bump on my forehead, I squint at the trees above me for a long time, wondering where on earth I am, before I remember everything that has happened over the last couple of days. I turn my head and see Whil is still sleeping a few metres away from me. He managed to find a dry patch of earth beneath a cluster of bushes. I, however, am cold and my back is damp.

Shivering as I sit up, every inch of my body feels like it creaks to life. I groan. My body isn’t used to sleeping on the hard-packed dirt. Rubbing absent-mindedly at the itchy lacerations on my wrist, I stand up and look onto the flat. There is a wispy mist lingering around the ground and the sun hasn’t yet peeked on the horizon, so the world is still a hazy dim. I spot the herd of horses but they are moving towards the other end of the flat to spend the rest of their day in the cover of the trees. The stallion leads them away and they vanish into the snowgums like ghosts, as if they were never there in the first place. The bitter cold has seeped into my flesh so I start jogging on the spot and blowing into my freezing cold hands, which are turning an alarming shade of pale blue. My breath comes in white puffs of mist. It takes a few minutes of movement for warm blood to start circulating through my veins again. My fingers start to turn pink and I feel warmth flood into my cheeks. My clothes are still damp, but if Whil and I can keep moving, we will at least stay warm.

I look down at Whil, who is still fast asleep. What a hopeless companion I’ve been burdened with! Last night I’d felt somewhat relieved that he’d wanted us to continue travelling together. Now, it’s obvious that I will be much more helpful to him than he will be to me. Someone could attack us and he’d still be dead to the world.

“Whil,” I hiss, kicking snow against his jacket. “Wake up. The horses are leaving.”

He rouses and opens one eye to look at me. I purse my lips, forcing back the bubble of laughter on my lips. He looks funny half-asleep: sort of disgruntled while at the same time plain stupid as he squints into the rising sun and stretches out like a dog. “What does that mean?”

“They’ll be going to water,” I say. “I’m thirsty.”

“Me too,” he yawns. He gets to his feet and rubs his eyes.

We start towards the other side of the flat and find the horse’s path in the trees. Knowing too much noise will make them flee, though they are far ahead, we move quietly and slowly. Eventually, the narrow path turns down a steep, rocky hill that Whil and I carefully navigate down. It gets so steep I start searching for branches to grab hold of or clumps of grass to grip. Pebbles slide away beneath my boots and the ice makes everything, even the bare dirt, slick and dangerous. The bottom half of my jeans are a disgusting mess of mud, snow and even flecks of blood: probably some of Seiger’s, some of Clara’s and some of my own.

“How big do you think this place is?” Whil says breathlessly. “Where is the fence Seiger told us about?”

“I wouldn’t have a clue,” I say, carefully placing my foot on a rock that looks like it might tumble away beneath my weight. The stone slips out of place and I grab the first thing my hand touches to balance myself before I topple down the steep hill. Unfortunately, my hand grasps a clump of razor grass and the sharp edges of the blades slit my palm open. I get my footing again, and cursing, I wipe the blood on my jeans, adding some more to my stock. “I suppose they have to give us a fighting chance of survival and give us a big area with food and water in it.”

“Is there anything we can eat in this place?” he asks, slippery-dipping two metres down the slope. He rakes his hands into the dirt and brings himself to a stop.

“Probably, but I don’t know what is edible. You could have been a hunter instead of a dairy farmer, Whil,” I say. Before he gets upset, I flash him a grin over my shoulder and jump down the final metre of the hill and into the shallow stream at the bottom of it.

The creek isn’t large but the water is clear and flowing steadily. It is nestled between the hill we just walked down and another steep ascent on the other side. The brook is full of smooth, round rocks that are different shades of brown from light copper to raw umber. Seeing the water and feeling it soak through my already drenched shoes, I suddenly realise how thirsty I am. I cup up handfuls of it and drink it down, filling my stomach until I’m fit to burst. It tastes brilliant. Nothing like the chlorinated water that we used to have in town or the earthy dam water my family has been boiling to drink for the past year. This water is fresh and cold. It hits the bottom of my stomach and chills me, while also sending a new surge of warm energy through my limbs.

Whil drinks it down eagerly as well and then we slump back on the bank to rest briefly. I glance around, looking for some sign of where we are. This creek looks vaguely familiar. I’m sure I’ve crossed it on horseback once or twice before. The brumby trail continues on the other side of the watercourse, through thickets of bracken and dormant, grey tangles of blackberry bushes. I wish the blackberry bushes were bearing fruit. A handful of the tiny tasty fruit wouldn’t go astray right now. Though the water makes me feel better, my stomach still feels hollow and my store of energy is slowly trickling away.

I wonder if the track leading up the opposite hill is the one that leads to Native Dog Flat or was there another path at Native Cat that I didn’t see? A small sign on a tree catches my attention. It is made from a piece of bark and has two letters painted on it in black paint: ‘
ND
’. There is an arrow pointing up the other hill.

Yep, this is definitely the right path.

I look up the steep hill, which is just as precarious as the one we just climbed down, and groan.

“We have to climb it, don’t we?” Whil asks but it isn’t a question. He’s smart. He knows what the sign means.

I nod. “Come on. The sooner we get out of the fence the better. If we get out today, we have a couple of weeks head start to get as far away as possible.”

“Alright.”

We tackle the hill one brambly step at a time. The blackberry bushes, although leaf-bare, still have horrible thorns that catch on both my clothing and my skin. I yank away from them painfully, becoming more flustered by the second. Hiding beneath the scratchy bracken ferns are sharp stones and wombat holes that Whil and I trip over. There are rocks all the way up and hidden crevices between them that catch our feet, a dangerous hazard for two exhausted wanderers. Five minutes later, we are only half way up the impossible slope and we are sweating like turkeys on Thanks Giving. Under different circumstances, the sweat dripping from my brow and the loud panting animal noises I make while trying to breathe might embarrass me—but not now. There is no time for embarrassment and no need for it. Whil is struggling just as much as me and by the time we reach the top, both of us double over, hands on our knees, gasping for air.

He looks at me and glance back. Soggy blonde hair hangs in my eyes. His face is as red as a tomato and he is shining with sweat. I feel just as hideous as he looks and my head pounds as if someone is tapping it with a hammer. I have half a mind to continue on before Whil realises how revolting I look but after a moment, his face breaks into a smile and instead, we both start laughing. For some reason, our disgusting bodily states seem outrageously hilarious and both of us cackle like hyenas for a good two minutes, half choking on our already laboured breath.

As ridiculous as the situation is, I can’t help but feel grateful for Whil’s company. Alone I could probably move faster, but I would be haunted by dark memories and crippled by grief and sorrow—and so, I decide being with Whil is best and I warm to him in that instant. With tears in our eyes, we finally stop laughing and I take the lead again on the flat ground.

But we don’t get far.

Once upon a time, this track would have gone straight to Native Dog Flat but not anymore. An eight-foot high fence with a cement base and razor wire coils glaring from the precipice brings our track to an abrupt halt.

My heart sinks. Some optimistic part of me was hoping that Seiger was lying about the ring. I had expected to just keep walking to Native Dog flat without any sort of obstructions. Knowing that we are indeed trapped inside an arena makes my skin prickle, and despair settles over me like a shrouding mist.

The wild horses must have followed the creek or veered off somewhere else because they are nowhere to be seen. However, at the base of the fence, where the track vanishes beneath it and continues on the other side, there is the carcass of a recently dead horse. I’m glad Whil doesn’t balk at the sight of the dead animal. He’s proven himself fit and capable and hasn’t muttered a single word of complaint, but the last thing I need is a person who can’t stand the sight of a carcass. We’ll have to be eating these sort of things soon enough.

We approach the body of the bay horse slowly and gaze down at it. Its legs are stiff and held above the snowy ground. The eyes, although now pecked out by crows, were open when it died. It looks like it simply fell over while standing and never got to its feet again. Flies swarm around it but luckily the bloated body is too frozen to stink. I look between the fence and the horse before my ears pick up a gentle humming noise. I look back at the horse, splayed out on the ground with stiff limbs like it has just been hit by lightning. There are several swollen blisters on its body and the hair on its muzzle has been singed away. Quietly, I curse.

“It’s been electrified,” I say quietly.

I had expected a fence and assumed it would be made out of razor or barbed wire to deter us. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be electrified—given electricity is forbidden. And whoever made this enclosure didn’t stop at that. A large strip of land five metres wide is cleared on both sides of the fence. The remains of the shrubbery that once grew near the fence is now a mangled jumble of logs and branches jutting from the bulldozed earth. The earth is churned as far as I can see up the fence line in both directions. I know in my heart that the bulldozed area will stretch the entire length of the arena and that no scalable trees will stand close to it. I stare for a long time, turning my head back and forth. It looks like a huge scar on the landscape, one that will remain for years to come—a bitter reminder that the government trapped us here like zoo animals. I worry for the animals that actually do need to move around the bush for new pasture or water when drought hits. What of the Native Cat horses that will eventually need new grass? I glance at the dead horse and don’t need to wonder what happens when they get too hungry.

“Typical,” I spit. “They turn off our electricity for the good of the earth but don’t mind keeping their own running. Just like with the guns, tranquilizers, and car. Those things shouldn’t even exist anymore. They went through a lot of effort—illegal effort—to keep us in, didn’t they?”

Too much effort,
I think.
Why do they want us so bad? Surely they wouldn’t give us a chance to survive if they planned on killing us later.

But Whil isn’t listening to me. He is now walking up the fence, looking between the fence and the line of trees five metres away from it. I don’t know what he’s searching for. There is nothing I can see that will help us escape. We could climb one of the larger gum trees distanced from the fence, pray for our lives and jump, but more than likely we’d land on the fence and be electrocuted or just fall to our deaths on the other side.

Desperate to find a way out, I fall to my knees at the concrete base of the fence and start digging in the slushy soil with frantic movements. The melted snow is cold but I keep hacking away at it until my fingers turn red and shards of ice cut my skin. My body is going to be covered in scars by the end of this ordeal. Dirt forces its way deep underneath my fingernails. I scoop half a foot of moist, cold earth away but the concrete base sinks deep into the ground. It could take days to dig a hole under it and it would be dangerous to try shuffling through an unsupported tunnel anyway. Rocking back on my heels, I give a snarl of anger and pound the cement base of the fence with my palm.

Whil is still pacing the fence line when I look up, my hands now plastered with mud and once more freezing cold and turning blue. I stuff them into my jacket pockets for warmth.

“What are you thinking?” I ask, slightly annoyed that he’s spent so long standing around doing nothing while I’ve been digging. I stand and go towards him.

“We can cut one of the larger trees and push it over the fence. And just walk across.”

“Cut it with what, Whil? We don’t have an axe lying around, do we?” I say acidly. My voice is fierce and offensive, but Whil takes no notice.

He continues pacing up and down the fence line while I just stare at the enormous, deadly barricade in bleak surrender. We can’t get out of this enclosure. We are trapped like fish in a barrel and free for the taking when Seiger returns.

I glare at the fence and try to work out its secret, try to figure out what its weakness is. We must have come in through a gate at some point but walking the perimeter of the fence will take hours, maybe even days. Given how well this part of the fence is built, I know the gate will be doubly secure because it’s only natural we would target that area to escape. A gate might even be guarded.

There must be a generator or transformer powering the fence, but the creator’s of the arena wouldn’t be dumb enough to keep such an important piece nearby for fear of us destroying it. I cock my head and listen intently, but hear no whir of machinery.

BOOK: Red Fox
13.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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