The Harmonics of Evil
The Harmonics of Evil is available in a variety of e-book formats, such as the following.
Following are the first four chapters of The Harmonics of Evil.
Chapter One – Stormy Night
An intense flash of light bleached the tropical night. The thunderclap was simultaneous, sharp and reverberating. It shook the earth ominously. There was death in the air. You could smell it. The odour of blood lingered insidiously in the humid night mingling indecently with the lightning ozone.
The flashbulb drench of light revealed a white man clad only in briefs. His muscled body was pressed against the rough bark of a tree trunk. In that split second of brilliance he looked absurdly white and very much out of place in the dark earthy tones of the surrounding wilderness.
At the thunderclap he had barely but perceptibly flinched. He could be forgiven for that. Without breaking his unblinking gaze into the surrounding night the white man hawked and spat, trying to clear the gritty taste of blood and bone fragments from his mouth. The taste of blood is never pleasant especially when it isn’t your own. He wiped more of the splattered gore from his face.
The breaking storm held no angst for him. He had much greater concerns than the tropical tempest. Over the preceding days he had learnt that this ancient land held threats and terrors he could never have imagined. The preceding ten seconds had been utterly unexpected and deadly. However the situation had evolved into something from his cookbook that he could deal with. It was almost a relief to be back on familiar turf. He blinked and immediately returned to his wide-eyed feline stare.
His feet hurt. He had stubbed his toes on the rocky terrain during his wild dash into the sheltering night. He ignored the pain in his bare feet as he waited for the next flash. It was not long before the light and sound show was repeated. During the brief strobe of light he quickly assessed the next 30 metres of his route. With a clear mental picture the man tensed and waited for the rushing darkness to envelop the world once more.
Leaving the tree he ran with a prancing step to minimize the chance of tripping on unseen obstacles. When he was halfway to his objective a prolonged flicker of high level lightning lit the valley again. For a split second he pondered whether to hit the ground or continue on the short distance to the shelter of the next clump of trees.
“Fuck!” he snarled. As the word left his mouth he was surrounded by that chilling sound, sssssszup – zup – zup. A split second later the harsh over-lapping refrain, dak-a-dak-a-dak, rattled the night. Just ahead a shower of sparks erupted from the rocky terrain. Whining bullet fragments went flickering away into the darkness.
He dived. The unwelcoming earth and its fist sized rocks bruised his ribs and grazed his skin. Winded and fighting to regain his breath he found himself suddenly in that strange detached state which always came over him in moments like this. In the most demanding and outstanding episodes of sport and combat it is athletic instinct and training that commands the moment.
He had long ago learnt to release conscious control and trust his instinct. But on this night, for the first time he hesitated, resisted. Memories of the flipside of that instinct were still fresh and raw. Truly the only thing that frightened him was himself.
Lying gasping on the hard ground he quickly assessed the situation. The shooter was disciplined and no stranger to night combat. He was limiting himself to 3 round bursts from what sounded like an AK47. Given the slight delay between the sounds of the bullets’ passage and the shots the shooter was still about 100 metres away. The shooter was working to the lightning as well. Obviously he did not have night vision capability. That and the distance was a momentary advantage. He realized that he could not wait for the next burst of lightning.
Get up and run. Now. Obeying his instinct he rolled and scrambled into a crouch. There was a brief pause to regain his bearings with his senses on high alert. During a moment of quiet between the heavenly rumblings he could hear the sound of approaching footsteps. There was no time to lose. In the inky black prevailing from the last bout of lightning he sprinted toward the next clump of trees.
The trees were closer than he thought. Still sprinting in the pitch dark he ran headlong into a solid branch just as the next lightning strike lit up the world again. The big dead branch gave not an inch.
Disjointed awareness flitted through his consciousness as he lay flat out on his back, stunned. The world was spinning. He could taste blood again, this time his own. Get up and get going. He tried to obey but his world was still reeling and the only result was some feeble movements. Was he on a mission or a football field? He knew he was in trouble. While the sense of urgency was strong he struggled to clarify the situation. In the moments of awareness he realized he was concussed and would have to be careful in his thinking.
Propping himself up on an elbow with his head hanging back, he tried to get a grip. Suddenly there was a light in his eyes and somebody spoke. It sounded like a command but he did not know what had been said. He tried to peer at the light but the pooled blood from a gashed eyebrow and busted nose clouded his vision. His nose and face felt numb. He could feel blood flowing freely both internally and externally. He coughed and weakly spat blood. There was that command again. The light, much closer now, played over him.
He fell back concentrating on his breathing, punctuated by the need to regularly spit out the accumulated blood that was pooling at the back of his throat. As his senses slowly started to come together he concentrated on what he could discern from his immediate surrounds. Someone was standing a few metres from him with a flashlight pointed directly at him. The flash light was affixed to an assault rifle. The voice called out loudly to a distant companion. He recognized Chinese. The voice sounded happy. I am a good prize, I guess, thought the prone man before his consciousness made way for a confused patchwork of football and combat replays.
The armed voice spoke in command once more, “You move, me shoot!” in not very good but abundantly clear English. The injured man concentrated on remaining still while trying to marshal his wits.
A big raindrop plopped into the centre of his forehead. From all around came the accelerating tempo of other fat raindrops thumping to earth. The humid night released the tropical downpour that the lightning had promised. A rush of rain pummelled the man lying on the ground. It was refreshingly cool and washed the pooled blood from his face. The rain hammered down as only a monsoonal storm can. The captor advanced a little closer, but not too close, in case his captive had intentions of somehow using the sudden downpour to his advantage.
Blinking through rain sodden eyes the stunned white man could see a second flashlight advancing toward them. Moments passed while the rain drenched down relentlessly. The guard was alternately looking from the man on the ground to the approaching light. He called out loudly over the din of the rain to the second light. He would have been wise to be more vigilant but it would probably not have been to any avail.
Above the insistent pattering of the rain there came a soggy thud. The flashlight wavered. Above the sound of the deluge there was a gurgling cough and the clatter of a rifle falling to the ground. The flashlight remained on to show the guard flop face forward into the ground. A strange line of light issued up from the fallen man and wavered in the air.
The naked man raised himself onto an elbow, intrigued by the faint writhing line of light. A strong unseen hand suddenly pushed him back to the ground. He tried to resist and speak out. A strong body pinned him down and clamped a hand over his mouth. There was a low muttering of another unfamiliar language. Not Chinese this time. He sensed a second moving shadow approach the fallen guard. With a strong tug the spear slurped out of the guard’s back. There was some brief fumbling before the flashlight was switched off. The darkness was utter black. Again the low muttered words. A second pair of hands joined those restraining the man on the ground.
He made another effort to resist and speak. The hands would have none of it. With one hand clamped over his mouth he was dragged brusquely upright and half-carried off into the dark bush of the Northern Territory wilderness. He did his best to carry his weight but his legs were still rubbery. It did not seem to matter much to the two men who had him in their grip. Were they friend or foe? He struggled to remember.
His face was starting to throb. He had a splitting headache, felt nauseas and wretched. His world was still reeling and confused. “What am I doing here?” he demanded of himself. But no answer was forthcoming. It was a good question though. The trail to that particular point in time stretched back over decades, maybe even millennia, depending on your perspective. As far as the dazed man was concerned this event had germinated a little over twelve months earlier.
Chapter Two – The Hunters
A Toyota four wheel drive utility motored slowly down the suburban street. The driver whistled cheerfully as he steered the vehicle with one hand. A little flutter of excitement was stirring in his stomach. Early morning sunshine sparkled from the reflectors of big spotlights mounted on an intimidating bull bar. Nothing else on the vehicle caught the light; it was painted all over in drab brown, dulled further by the patina of fine dust that accumulates from a lot of off-road driving. A long, spring-mounted radio aerial on the bull bar swayed with a lazy metronome beat that seemed appropriate in the tropical heat. The street was otherwise empty.
The vehicle idled past rows of squat concrete, mining town bungalows. The grey bunker-like dwellings were inconspicuously immersed amidst lush tropical gardens. There were big mango trees and loftier, leaning palms towering over a verdant understory of crotons and orchids. A flock of white cockatoos, dazzlingly highlighted against the dark green backdrop of the urban jungle canopy, were feeding and squawking raucously, dropping mangos and other fruits to the ground. Vivid parrots and honeyeaters flitted from blossom to blossom, adding to the chorus and colourful choreography.
It was still early and things in the neighbourhood were quiet. The day shift workers had already left for work and the night shift crews had just come home. It was mid November and the build-up to the wet season in the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land was well underway. The kids that were awake at that time on a Saturday morning were watching television in the air conditioned comfort of their living rooms rather than playing outside in the humid tropical heat.
The ute turned into a driveway and pulled up beside a similar Toyota four wheel drive. Both vehicles were set up for heavy duty off-road use in remote tropical Australia. Each featured big steel bull bars, side scrub bars, driving lights and winches. Two spare tyres and a high-lift jack were mounted up against the cabin headboard on each ute. There were also cages for the hunting dogs. A closer inspection of either vehicle would show long range fuel tanks fitted underneath.
Two hunting dogs in the fenced side yard started to bark boisterously. The open front yard of the bungalow was cluttered with a full sized shipping container and two battered Toyota 4WDs, in varying degrees of disassembly. The grass was long and in need of mowing. A small girl’s bicycle with trainer wheels lay on its side half-hidden in the feral lawn.
The door of the vehicle opened. Robert MacDonald, dressed in mining company khaki slacks and shirt, stepped down out of the Toyota. Turning to the dogs he called out “Hush! Rambo, hush Chopper!” The dogs quietened and began to wag their tails, yelp and jump about excitedly. The young fellow pulled a well-worn bedroll, bound with rope, from the tray of his vehicle and transferred it onto the tray back of the other vehicle, placing it alongside a similar bedroll. There was a large coldbox in the tray and a couple of long tool boxes, plus two crates with ropes and some simple, blackened, camp cooking gear.
He lifted a battered tool box out of his own ute and lugged it over to the other vehicle. With a grunt, he heaved the scratched and dented toolbox up onto the sideboard, paused a second then dropped it into the tray with a heavy thud. Returning the few paces to his ute, he took a small, scuffed travel bag plus a travel-stained, soft rifle bag and transferred those too.
Having wound up his car windows, he left the vehicle and wove his way past the derelict cars to the front door of the house. Speaking a few more hushing words to the dogs, that were running back and forth making excited throaty noises, he knocked on the mildewed and moisture beaded front door.
After a short wait, the door was jerked opened by a woman of forty-something. She was clad in a long, grubby dressing gown of faded pink. A wild nest of early morning hair completed the portrait. The captured air conditioned chill took the opportunity to escape and rolled past her. It wafted around the visitor.
“Hi J-J-J-Jill, where’s Scruffy?” the young man stammered, shyly looking away from the ample cleavage on display in the gaping gown. She smiled at his awkwardness, as she often did.
Before the woman could answer there was the sound of a motor cycle engine turning over and then the loud and reverberating throb of a powerful engine kicking into life and being revved. Jill raised her eyebrows and, with a tilt of her head and another wry smile, indicated the back yard.
Keeping his eyes averted from Jill and her billowing gown he nodded, turned and made his way through the gate, pushing the exuberant dogs aside. With a chuckle and shake of her head Jill closed the door.
The small back yard was private, being fully enclosed by a luxuriant border of vivid tropical plants. Half of the yard was shaded by a make-shift awning off the house. The walls of the house, and the posts supporting the awning were festooned with the skulls of buffalo, scrub bulls and wild boar. The décor was abetted by a draping of derelict fishing net and other beach-combed pieces of flotsam and jetsam that typically wash ashore in far northern Australia.
In the shade of the awning a tall, heavy set man with close-cropped hair and a bushy beard was standing next to a Harley Davidson. He was dressed in stained and tatty jeans and a blue singlet. His tattooed right arm was tweaking the throttle; his left arm was supporting a little girl of four, perched up on the fuel tank. The man was heavily tattooed; the thick beard effectively hid the tatts on his face and neck, but his chest, back and torso displayed an interesting pallet of ink work. There was the expensive sort done by professional tattoo parlours alongside the crude sort executed by delinquent teenage boys doing time.
The man and girl both looked up. The girl, wearing only a pair of loose fitting shorts was tanned brown all over and sported a thick plaited braid of blonde hair. She beamed joyously and threw out her arms to be picked up by the young man, happily squealing “Bobby!” over the loud idle of the bike.
With a “Hey Scruffy”, Bobby reached past the bearded man and obligingly picked up the little girl and perched her on his hip.
Scruffy gave the throttle a couple of brief blips then cut the motor. “Sounds like it’s missing a bit,” he said in the sudden quiet. The dogs were excitedly milling about between them, leaning heavily against the men’s legs and thumping them with their vigorously wagging tails.
“I’ll come around one evening next week and tune it up,” said the mechanic whose day job had him working on the fleet of light mining vehicles.
“Good-oh, are you ready to go?”
Bobby tilted his head in response to the little girl’s playful pulling of his hair. She clambered up to sit astride the young mechanic’s shoulders.
“Yep. Everything’s in your ute.”
Scruffy turned and headed for the back door of the house.
“I’ll get my gun and meet you out front,” he called over his shoulder.
Bobby entertained the little girl with a horsy ride up and down the footpath until Scruffy and Jill emerged from the house. Scruffy was carrying his rifle case and a small carry bag. He opened one of the long tool boxes and transferred both his rifle and Bobby’s rifles into the padded interior. Bobby’s jockey was reluctant to leave her ride and it was with some difficulty that Jill was able to prize the child loose and restrain her determined little body. Bobby quickly got into the vehicle.
Scruffy gave Jill a perfunctory goodbye kiss and said, “We’ll be home Sunday evening Love.”
“We need meat, so bring home some beef, not more bloody horns!”
When Scruffy started the ute the dogs began to wail in disappointment as it became obvious that they were being left at home.
“No worries, Darl. We plan on shooting some wild cattle for Dobbo and his mob, so we’ll bring home some rib and eye fillets for ourselves. Cheers Possums!”
He gave the little girl a poke in the ribs and patted his wife’s shoulder before backing the ute out onto the roadway.
“Shaddup!” Jill bellowed at the howling dogs, as Bobby and Scruffy drove off.
Chapter Three – The Gap
The hunting buddies motored through the suburb past several hundred identical houses. The only other traffic was a couple of four-wheel drives towing large power boats, headed for a day of sport fishing on the Arafura Sea. Scruffy and Bobby’s path was in the opposite direction to that of the fishermen. They were headed inland. Within a couple of kilometres, the bitumen ceased and the dirt track began. The next habitation was four hundred kilometres away, at the halfway mark to the tarmac highway.
It was late dry season and the track, which had been open since the end of the wet season, was dusty and corrugated. The ute threw up a billowing plume of fine red dust as it rattled and thumped its way down the dirt road at 90 kilometres per hour.
They drove for a couple of hours, chatting intermittently and passing only a few other vehicles that were headed into town. Those vehicles were Toyota troop carriers crowded with aboriginal families on their way into town to shop and catch up with their kin folk. At an unsigned turn, Scruffy slowed and took a little used side track. Their speed was, by necessity, now slower as the track was just a pair of wheel marks that meandered in and around the trees and dry creek crossings. Constantly changing gears and working the car around and over obstacles, Scruffy was working mostly in second and third gear.
After an hour of weaving through the scrub the track suddenly popped out onto the broad expanse of a bush airstrip. A few hundred metres more and there was the glimpse of a dozen houses located next to the dirt runway. Scattered groups of aboriginal children recognized the white fellows and their vehicle and waved to them. Halfway down the strip the track turned past the tattered remnant of a windsock and went straight into the community.
The houses were surrounded by a parking lot of battered Toyota 4WDs that had been towed back to the community and scavenged for spare parts. A bunch of dusty, naked piccaninnies was milling about with a pack of scrawny, mangy dogs. Smoke drifted lazily into the air from a camp fire where a large tin of water was simmering, with a few elderly aboriginal women sitting about it on the bare ground.
A much dented Toyota was sitting jacked-up on a couple of twenty litre oil drums, minus its front wheels and with its engine cover raised. Every panel was gouged and scraped by glancing impacts with trees, fallen logs and the large termite nests that dot the landscape of northern Australia. Both the rear and one side window were missing, as were the external rear view mirrors.
Two aboriginal men were working underneath the vehicle, while a third leaned on the front of the vehicle, looking down through the engine bay. Scruffy pulled up alongside the bush mechanics. The white men alighted and walked over to the group. The guys under the car were older, probably in their fifties; coal-black full blood aboriginals. The older blokes called out a greeting, but remained working on the vehicle.
The younger man was in his mid thirties and paler skinned than the mechanics due to his mixed ancestry. Terry Dobson smiled broadly and shook hands with the white men.
“G’day you blokes! You ready to go huntin’, yeah? Hey, you got smokes?”
“Hi Dobbo, yep.”
Scruffy obligingly pulled a pack of Camels out of his pocket and passed it over. Dobbo pulled out a cigarette and the disposable gas lighter that was in the packet with the cigarettes. He lit up, took a deep draw and held it, savouring the smoke.
“Ahhhh,” he exhaled, “Crikey I needed that. I ran out of smokes a few days back. Nobody’s got any, well not that they’re lettin’ on anyway.”
From one of the houses an elderly aboriginal man shuffled over to join the group. A shock of wind-blown white hair topped off a craggy countenance. His face was deeply lined and weathered. The white beard contrasted vividly with the black skin. He was barefoot and dressed only in a pair of loose shorts that seemed in danger of falling off at any second. His bare chest was welted with ridged, traditional scarring.
He nodded imperceptibly to the white hunters and did not make eye contact with them. He held out his hand in an unspoken request for a cigarette. Scruffy passed him the smokes and the old fellow lit himself a Camel too.
“So, where are we going to shoot some meat then?”
“Hey Noel,” Dobbo relayed the question to one of the older bush mechanics still tinkering beneath the vehicle, “where is the best place to go for some bullocky?”
“Reckon you should go up near the last water hole.”
“What? All the other billabongs are dry already?” queried Bobby.
“Yo. Very dry this year. Been a long time since it was this dry, old fellas say.” confirmed Noel from beneath the car.
Bobby eager to start hunting replied, “We have only been up near that last billabong once before. It was a long, hard drive. Lot of thick bush. It’s a long way to go for bullocky!”
“Yo,” agreed Noel, “but, the bullocky have all moved up there now, cos it so dry. We already been there hunting and been burning too, so the drive’s not so bad.”
The billabongs the hunters were referring to were a series of large waterholes spaced along the path of the Gurridji river as it snaked torturously back and forth across a vast flood plain on its way to the sea. From high in the air you would observe that the Gurridji rose out of the hinterland, winding its way down through the palmated flood plains that intersected the escarpment marking the transition from coastal plains to the vast interior. During the wet season the flood plain became a massive shallow swamp, thirty kilometres wide. Millions of water birds nested there as the shallow waters produced huge crops of wild rice and other lush growth. The barramundi, crocodiles and turtles swam leisurely through the warm shallow waters, feeding from the cornucopia of rich pickings, getting fat, putting on the condition that would see them through the lean times of the dry season.
The country was primordial, untouched by the hand of modern man. A stunning expanse of virgin wilderness, part of an even larger area set aside as a protectorate for the aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, the country bore only a few dirt tracks and scattered small communities where access was generally made via light aircraft.
In times gone by, the aboriginal people had walked all over the country, following an ageless seasonal trek that took them to different hunting and foraging grounds. In recent decades however, as the older generations passed on, that practice had ceased. Aboriginal people now relied on cars, boats and light aircraft for their travels and many areas of the country were inaccessible to such vehicles and, as a consequence, were no longer visited at all.
The old man spoke for the first time. He spoke in an aboriginal tongue, clearly addressing himself to the men under the car. Noel answered the old fellow in kind. There was a brief pause, then the old man yelled angrily, waving his arms about, and made an impassioned speech. Noel dragged himself out from under the vehicle and stood up. Clearly keeping his calm, he replied at length. The old man waved his words aside and continued to yell in a loud and strident voice.
A scattering of aboriginal people began to drift over to the confrontation. A couple of other old men called out loudly as well and seemed to be supporting the argument.
Dobbo beckoned to the white hunters and they withdrew to go lean on the tray of their vehicle.
“What’s the big problem?” asked Bobby anxiously.
“Argh! Old man business!” Dobbo was dismissive, “but, this might take a little while to sort out.”
The group swelled to include most of the community, about twenty adults and as many kids. For half an hour the debate ebbed and flowed. At length Noel looked over and beckoned to Dobbo. After a brief chat, he returned to the white men.
“Hey, you got another packet of smokes?”
“Well … maybe,” replied Scruffy warily. He only had a few packets and was a heavy smoker.
“It’s for the old bloke. Peace offering. Okay?”
Scruffy went to his bag and fished out a new packet of Camels. He passed them over to Dobbo who returned to the fray. Noel took the smokes and after some more loud dialogue, handed them over to the angry old man. The old fellow shuffled back to his house, muttering loudly as he tore open the packet. The crowd dispersed. Noel and Dobbo joined Bobby and Scruffy at the car.
“So, what was all that about then?” queried Bobby.
“Old fellas upset about old man business, I reckon, anyway those smokes will help,” Noel evaded the question with a disarming smile. “But, you gonna need to take somebody else with you, apart from Dobbo.”
“Yeah, okay, but he’ll have to stand in the back. There’s only room for three in the front and that’s a squeeze,” said Scruffy.
“No problem. Bring back plenty a meat. Everybody happy then, okay?” instructed Noel.
After the delay for the debate the hunters were eager to get going and did not need any more prompting. The two white men and Dobbo opened the doors of the Toyota, ready to leave. As they did that, Noel called out to the camp. A lean young full-blood man responded and sauntered over to the car.
Shane, a fit young fellow in his twenties, leapt up into the tray of the ute and stood holding onto the sturdy metal frame over the dog cage. Dobbo climbed in and sat in the middle. Scruffy took his position behind the wheel, started the car and drove off.
As the bullocky hunters drove toward their destination it was apparent that the country was indeed very dry. The seasonal fires had extended further than normal as wet areas that rarely ever dried out had become fodder for the custodians’ burning. Rather than follow the bends of the now dry river bed, Scruffy followed the set of wheel marks left by earlier hunters. This took them onto slightly higher ground where the open flood plain transitioned to low fringing scrub. The ute moved across a desolate landscape of fine dust and ash from the fires, generating a billowing dust cloud in its wake. The scatty bush was scorched and leafless. The ubiquitous legions of cycads were just blackened stumps.
The extensive burn-off had opened up the country and the trip was quicker than their much earlier effort. After an hour of following the weaving wheel marks through the bush they again emerged out onto the floodplain. The tracks went straight ahead toward the last billabong, about five kilometres away. Scruffy pulled up. They took in the view before them. A soft tap on the roof by Shane caught their attention. He quietly spoke a few words in aboriginal to Dobbo, who translated.
“There’s a big old fella buffalo over there” he indicated with a nod of his head. Scruffy and Bobby looked and it took a second to pick up the one ton beast, even though it was a mere two hundred metres away. The bull was standing partially hidden by a big termite nest. Its shape and colouring perfectly matched that of the mound.
A surge of excitement swept through Bobby. “Scruffy, I reckon I should go shoot that big bugger.”
“The horns aren’t that great, and we need meat, maybe on the way back.”
The last billabong, as they called it, was situated right in the narrowing of two opposing faces of the escarpment. The Arnhem Land escarpment varies in height, but is typically only about twenty or thirty metres high. It is generally quite steep and rocky. In places the escarpment meanders widely, and in others it can run more or less straight for many kilometres. In this particular spot the escarpment had drawn itself into a big loop, encircling a large, almost cut-off piece of the floodplain. Roughly oval in shape, and about fifteen kilometres long, and maybe five across at its widest, the escarpment doubled back to almost meet itself where the river emerged onto the broad expanse of the open floodplain.
The river had carved itself a big, deep bend, reaching from one face of the escarpment to the other, effectively sealing off the fifty metre gap between the opposing faces. An extensive swamp extended from the edges of the deeper water, well out onto the floodplain. Here the river had spread itself into an extensive shallow wetland, before regrouping into a proper river several kilometres from the gap in the escarpment. The shallow swamp featured large reed beds shaded by big old paperbark trees and fringed with a wide swath of thick, nearly impenetrable pandanus. There was a matching swamp inside the escarpment valley too, running well back and spreading itself out across the throat of the valley.
As they approached the forest of pandanus that surrounded and masked the swamp, Shane again tapped on the roof and spoke to Dobbo.
“There’s a mob of bullocky up there,” Dobbo translated with an excited catch in his throat.
As Scruffy brought the vehicle to a stop Bobby leapt out taking a pair of battered binoculars with him. Bobby climbed up into the tray and stood next to Shane, who pointed out where the wild cattle were, amongst the edge of the pandanus, half a kilometre away. At first he could not see anything but from experience Bobby knew not to doubt the wonderful ability of aboriginal people when it came to spotting game. It took nearly a minute of close scrutiny with the binoculars before a tell-tale movement caught his eye. A heifer had moved and given her position away. Some more close scrutiny revealed several more beasts in the area.
“There’s three or four heifers at least,” he told his friends.
Shane spoke again in aboriginal and again Dobbo translated. “He says there’s one proper mickey bull, two young-fella bulls, seven cow, three heifer and two calves.”
Bobby laughed, gave Shane a playful punch on the shoulder and said, “Tell him not to be such a show-off wanker!” Dobbo translated the comment and they all chuckled.
“How much closer can we get?” asked Scruffy.
Dobbo and Shane conferred, then Dobbo replied, indicating, “We can drive across that way straight up to the bush, then walk up on ‘em. They feeding through that way and wind is okay for us.”
The men returned to their positions in the car and Scruffy drove slowly across to the area indicated by Dobbo. He nosed the car into the edge of the bush and once again they all climbed out of the vehicle. Bobby, his mouth dry with excitement, took a lengthy drink from the water bottle then passed it on.
When they had all taken a drink, Bobby and Scruffy buckled on their hunting knives. The leather scabbards were well worn and stained with dried blood. The six inch blades of each knife bore the marks of many sharpenings and were razor sharp. Scruffy opened the gun box and the men extracted and loaded their rifles.
“Okay, you take first shot, one of the yearlings. I’ll keep an eye on the bull. If he looks like being a problem I’ll smack him. Otherwise we’ll try for another couple of eaters, okay?” stated Scruffy.
“Yup,” confirmed Bobby.
The hunters moved off into the bush, led by Shane with Dobbo second. They walked along slowly for a few hundred metres, weaving through the scrubby bushes and around the larger tree trunks, until Shane stopped and held up his hand. Everybody froze. After a few seconds, Shane beckoned his three companions forward. Dobbo, Bobby and Scruffy cautiously moved up to join him. Ahead, about one hundred metres away, a couple of red coloured cows were feeding toward the hunters through the open forest.
Bobby made himself comfortable. Taking a steady lean off a tree trunk, he looked through the scope of his rifle. Scruffy drifted off to another convenient tree about ten metres away. The men waited silently for several minutes. In that time, the leading cattle closed the distance between them to sixty metres and the rest of the mob followed out of the bush and were now in sight. Bobby had one of the cows loosely in his sights and was following her with the rifle. He shuffled slightly to settle himself and put his hand on the bolt to lock the action. Before he could do that, there was a gentle tap on his shoulder and Dobbo, hovering behind him, wordlessly indicated he look further to the right. A plump yearling had moved into an open space and had paused nicely side on. It was clearly a better animal than the cow he had been tracking.
Bobby put the cross hairs just under the heifer’s ear. The distance was about eighty metres. He squeezed off the shot and lost sight of the animal in the scope as the rifle recoiled. There was the sharp smack of a bullet hitting bone and the headshot heifer collapsed instantly. Scruffy brought his rifle to shoulder and intently watched the scene unfolding before him. The older animals, including the bull, had lost no time in running off into the bush. However, a couple of the younger beasts, confused by the sound of the shot and the scattering of the herd, milled about uncertainly. Bobby ejected the spent case and hastily slammed the bolt home to chamber a second round. But before he could acquire another target, Scruffy deftly dropped one of the yearling bulls.
Shane said something approvingly and both he and Dobbo laughed. “Plenty tucker now Bobby”, he said happily. Bobby approached his quarry. Crouching down, he slit the throat of the heifer. Scruffy continued on to his young bull and did the same.
Scruffy told Shane to go and bring the vehicle in to the kills. Taking a crumpled packet of Camels out of his trouser pocket, Scruffy pulled a cigarette and then offered one to Dobbo. The men lit up and drew contentedly on their smokes. Bobby, who was not a smoker, chewed on a piece of gum. They moved to squat down in what little shade was available. It was hot. Trickles of sweat generated both by the humidity and the excitement of the hunt was cutting clear lines down the light coating of dust and ash on their faces.
Scruffy suddenly stood up and shouldered his rifle. “Those cattle headed off toward that gap in the escarpment. They should be cut off by the water there, so I’ll just poke along up there and see if I can get another shot. If I see a decent buff, I’ll leave him for you.”
With that Scruffy set off. He had not walked far when he stopped and turned. “It’s a hot day. You better drop the guts out of those kills right away,” he instructed his companions before resuming his quest.
Dobbo helped Bobby position each of the kills and then carefully slit them open. Bobby pulled out the glistening jumble of soft, bulky viscera. He then reached in deep inside the body cavity to cut the restraining ligaments. Moving to the rear of the animal he then reamed carefully around the anus. Turning his attention to the throat, he extended the cut where he had bled the animal and then severed the oesophagus. With a practiced yank he pulled the slithering mass of wet plumbing out of the carcass and slid it away from the body. Then he repeated the exercise on the other kill. The whole procedure had only taken a couple of minutes apiece.
Dobbo had collected a bunch of small bushy branches, breaking them off nearby shrubs. Close by the carcass he laid the branches on the ground. Bobby wiped the knife clean on his trousers then passed it to Dobbo who recovered the hearts and livers from the piles of guts, and laid them on the bed of leaves. Bobby wiped his hands clean with tufts of grass. The two men then moved around collecting a bigger bunch of leaves to line the tray of the ute with. Having done that, they gathered up a bundle of firewood and got a small fire going. As the flames took hold, they could hear the sound of the vehicle coming towards them.
Shane pulled up right alongside the first kill. Bobby opened up the bundle of butchering knives. Selecting a flaying knife he immediately set to work, pulling the skin back off the carcass. The aboriginal men then worked together to pull the skin right back from the uppermost side of the carcass and lay it on the ground. Bobby left Dobbo and Shane to begin pulling the carcass down and set off to start preparing the second kill. They quickly had the bare flap of inner skin piled with boned out meat. The cuts of meat were then transferred to the bed of leaves in the tray of the ute. Lastly, they cut away the entire rib section and added that to the growing pile.
Having boned out the meat from the first side, they rolled the carcass over and set about pulling the skin back off that side too. Again, it did not take long to pile the exposed area of clean inner hide with meat. Having completely dismantled the carcass, leaving only the major bones and skin, the men shared another drink from the water bottle. Breaking up a carcass in the midday heat was thirsty work.
The meat was spread out as much as possible on a thick layer of leaves in the tray of the ute. Another layer of branches was then laid on top. Once all the meat was loaded onto the tray, the vehicle was repositioned in the shade of a tree. After cleaning themselves with handfuls of grass, the aboriginal men put a big billy of water on the fire. While they were doing that, Bobby cleaned and stowed the knives. Waiting for the billy to boil, the three sat in the shade, sweating. There was hardly a breath of wind and it was oppressively hot.
Once the water started to boil, Dobbo threw a handful of tea bags into the water, then pulled the billy to the side of the fire to simmer a while. After five minutes he took a full packet of sugar from the tucker box, ripped it open and poured a generous dash into the billy. Picking up a dead stick, he gave the mixture a stir. Returning to the tucker box he pulled out a handful of battered stainless steel mugs and, dipping into the brew, passed one to each to his companions.
Squatted in the sparse shade the men sipped the steaming hot mugs of tea. Dobbo had no sooner asked, “Where do you reckon that Scruffy has got to?” than they caught sight of him walking toward them through the bush, rifle on shoulder. It took a few minutes for him to reach the vehicle. As he neared, Bobby got up and ladled out a mug full of tea. Scruffy leant his rifle against a nearby tree, accepted the mug of tea and found a spot in the shade. He sat down with his back to a tree. The sweat, dust and ash had created a mottled appearance, some areas of his skin were relatively clean and others were dark patches of wet dust and ash.
“Crikey! It’s hot!” said Scruffy, stating the obvious. “Jeez, I needed this,” he said as he slurped appreciatively on his big mug of sweet, black tea.
“We were wondering where you got to,” commented Bobby, “we didn’t hear a shot and you’ve been gone a while. The meat’s all done and in the back of the ute.”
“Well, I followed the cattle. Caught site of them a couple of times, but they were a bit skittish and I couldn’t get a shot. The swamp is all dried out and the water in the river is real low, just a series of pools now. The cattle actually went through the gap between the escarpments.”
“What? They swam through?” queried Bobby.
“No. The water is so low that there is a bit of beach between the water and the cliff face. They ran through into the valley beyond. Best thing is I reckon we can follow them. In the car.”
“You reckon you can drive through the gap? Seriously?”
“Yep. The water is really low, the swamp has retreated and dried out a lot. I followed the cattle on foot and we can easily do the same in the ute. It is a great chance to explore the other side. Might never get another opportunity. And I’ve done enough walking for a while. A few easy kilometres in the car would be nice. With a bit of luck we will get a killer for ourselves.”
The guys all finished their tea, stowed the mugs in the tucker box and climbed back into the ute. Scruffy drove the car up to the wall of pandanus, then picking a spot, turned into it. Shane ducked down low behind the shelter of the cabin. The guys in the cabin of the ute wound their windows up just as the vehicle nosed into the pandanus. The massed, prickly-edged leaves scraped and squealed across the windscreen and body work of the vehicle. They were engulfed in the green of it all and Scruffy was navigating on auto pilot. After twenty metres or so, it started to thin and within another twenty metres the pandanus had given way to a forest of small paperbark saplings. Scruffy simply drove straight through these, knocking those in front of the vehicle flat. Fifty metres of that and the car drove into the open bed of what was normally a swamp. There were only scattered big paperbark trees and the bare, dried mud bed of the swamp. Once the water had receded, the mud had dried out and hardened. The beds of reeds had dried then been burnt in the fires. It was now easy driving.
Scruffy steered the vehicle toward the deeper reaches of the river which lay up near the approaching escarpment. As he had told his companions, the river had withdrawn to a series of deeper pools, interspaced by hard dry ground. He took the car across one such a dry reach, almost up to the escarpment itself, then turned to his left and followed the face of the cliff toward the gap. Shane, standing in the back of the ute said something in his native tongue, sounding rather agitated.
“Has he spotted something?” asked Bobby eagerly.
“Uh, no, it’s something else,” replied Dobbo a little distracted and listening intently to Shane who had raised his voice a little and was making quite a speech.
Scruffy noticed too, “He sounds a bit worked up, Dobbo. What’s the problem?”
The vehicle had almost reached the gap, and Dobbo was yet to answer, when Shane jumped out of the tray of the vehicle. They were only going slowly. Nevertheless it was quite a leap. He landed in the sloping, sand of the bank and rolled, almost ending up in the nearby river. Scruffy brought the car to a halt as Shane stood up and dusted himself off. He did not look happy.
Shane glared intently at Dobbo and launched into some more impassioned aboriginal dialogue. His eyes were wide. There was no mistaking the fear in his face. Shane’s body language said clearly that he was not going any further. Dobbo took it in, but did not say anything until prompted by Scruffy.
“Something’s up his arse in a big way. What’s the problem?”
Dobbo was silent a while, obviously weighing up what Shane had said to him. Finally, he replied.
“It’s blak-pella business. He won’t go through the gap into the valley behind. He says only the full law men, the old black fellas, fully initiated, can go there. There is a sort of curse on the place and a lot of bad spirit business there. He’s scared.”
Scruffy and Bobby knew enough about aboriginal people to avoid making fun of that statement. Shane was a full blood aboriginal, steeped in the folklore and dreaming stories of his tribe. He was clearly agitated and not happy to be even near the gap, let alone go through it. The white men got out of the ute and joined Shane near the water’s edge.
“Dobbo, I respect black fellas and their ways, you know that. But that’s their way, not mine or Bobby’s. We really want to go through and explore the other side. We’ll probably never get another chance.”
Dobbo nodded. “Yo. Let me talk to him some more.”
Scruffy and Bobby took that as a cue to leave the mixed blood and the full blood to their discussion. The white fellows ambled off along the edge of the water. Scruffy had another smoke. The two companions spent a quarter of an hour chatting about their prospects, speculating on what the country might be like once through the gap.
“Maybe we’ll never know. Look, Shane’s taken off. We better go get the story from Dobbo,” noted Bobby. With that they walked back to where Dobbo was leaning against the vehicle.
“So Dobbo, what’s the go?” asked Bobby directly.
“Shane is walking back to where we shot the bullocky. He’ll wait there for us,” replied Dobbo.
“So, we can go on through the gap?”
“Yo. Black fella secret men’s business not a problem for you.”
“What about you Dobbo?” asked Scruffy.
“I’m only part Yolngu. I never been initiated into all that stuff. I grew up mostly in Darwin and only came back here to my mother’s country not so long ago. I’m not scared of the blak-pella bogeyman stuff.”
To Bobby’s ears that statement sounded a little hollow; more bravado than genuine conviction. Fifty metres away the gap brooded silently; a sentinel pair of bare black rock walls standing above deep dark waters, all hemmed in by a wall of tall paperbark trees. It was still and unusually quiet. No birds disturbed the scene. A little shiver of foreboding tickled Bobby’s back. He tried to shrug it off. Silly black fella business.
Chapter Four – Discovery
The vehicle was close up to the wall of rock. The beach sloped down to the still waters. The tilt of the vehicle was pronounced and it seemed in imminent danger of tipping over. Bobby took his mind off that concern by studding the parade of pock-marked hoof prints from the many buffalo and cattle that had passed that way. The vehicle grudgingly negotiated the tight turn as they passed through the gap, following the beach around the projecting rock face and into the valley. Once through the gap the two cliff faces diverged sharply apart. With the unusually low water level, the swamp on the inside had receded away from the rock face.
Keeping to the high ground, close to the escarpment face, they could not see much more that about a hundred metres ahead. A forest of closely spaced big old paper bark trees stretched from the escarpment to the wetland. By keeping close to the cliff face there were less of the big trees and they were able to keep driving further into the hidden valley.
After a half a kilometre of slow progress, the forest dropped away and they were suddenly presented with a view across the whole enclosed valley. It was stunning. Bobby drew a breath and felt the flutter of a hunter’s excitement. The great expanse was a mixture of savannah and broad swampy meadows. Small islands dotted the open wetland here and there. The islands were scattered groves of big trees thickly surrounded by an understory of scrub. The majority of the islands were less than a hundred metres in diameter.
Most impressive was the wildlife. There were vast flocks of magpie geese peppered with the white specks of feeding egrets. Buffalo and pigs there were there in numbers, all belly-deep in the rich grazing, gorging themselves.
“Phew! Will you just look at that!” exclaimed Bobby on everybody’s’ behalf as the tingle of excitement intensified. The three hunters just sat in silence for a few moments, taking in the spectacular view before escaping the sweaty confines of the vehicle cabin. Scruffy and Dobbo had a smoke while Bobby took up the binoculars to better check out the game.
After some time sweeping back and forth, he declared, “The buff all look to be cows, or yearling bulls. There’s some big pigs too. Most look to be sows, although,” he pointed, “that one over there is a whopper boar, I reckon.”
The three hunters gave the animal in question their attention. Bobby passed the binoculars across to his buddies.
After some careful scrutiny, Scruffy opined, “It’s a good boar alright, a real big bastard. We should be able to walk up close enough for a shot without getting our feet wet. We can spare a bit of time to go whack him, before we go looking for some more bullocky.”
“Scruffy, I’ll use your 375 for that bloke; I want to be sure to anchor him.”
Their interpretation of the terrain was accurate. Even though they had to detour a few times they got to within about sixty metres of the hog without getting their feet wet.
Bobby sat down and rested his elbows on his knees. He checked that the variable scope was dialled up its maximum power of 4. He then pushed the cartridge home into the chamber and closed the breech. It was not a difficult shot. He centred the crosshairs just above the boar’s ears. It was facing him, head down, and feeding close to the edge of a broad expanse of shallow water.
The vast open space soaked up the roar of the heavy calibre rifle. Bobby felt the recoil jar his shoulder and the rifle jumped in his hands. It was a good shot, smashing through the pig’s spine, heart and lungs before exiting just behind the ribs. There was a resounding wallop from the bullet impact and the pig collapsed instantly. The exiting projectile hit the surface of the water behind the pig, threw up a shower of spray, then skipped into the air. It sailed into one of the islands of jungle out in the wetland behind the pig. There was the brief sound of the projectile tearing through the leaves and branches before terminating in a loud, metallic clang.
Bobby exchanged a quizzical look with Scruffy. “What the fuck was that?” queried Bobby.
“Dobbo, any idea what that was?” asked Scruffy.
Dobbo shook his head.
“Let’s have a look then,” declared Bobby, suddenly losing interest in his pig.
“It’s not too deep, we might as well just walk straight across,” suggested Scruffy. The water was no more than knee deep and the mud, while soft, was only ankle deep, overlaying a firm bottom. It was a relatively easy walk, at the expense of wet feet.
As they approached the island there was an outer border of spindly, chest-high bushes to weave through. Dobbo diverted to inspect something at the base of one of the bushes. He gave it a poke with his foot, then leant over to pull the water grass aside for a better view. The two white fellows had kept wading, but stopped when Dobbo whistled them.
“What is it Dobbo?” asked Bobby.
“Best you look.”
The two men splashed their way over where Dobbo was standing. A large wheel was laying flat, just level with the surface of the water. It was covered with a layer of silt and had water weeds growing on and around it.
“Looks like a grader, or tractor, wheel. There must be an old bit of gear there in the island and that’s what the bullet hit.”
“It’s not a tractor wheel, it’s an airplane wheel,” corrected Scruffy.
Bobby arched his eyebrows, “Whoa! That’s interesting.”
“Do you know anything about this?” asked Scruffy again.
“No. Nobody comes,” replied Dobbo.
“Come on then, let’s see what’s in the scrub,” commanded Bobby eagerly.
They completed the short remaining distance to the edge of the island. It had started as a few isolated shrubs many years earlier. The growing collection of bushes, then trees, had gradually captured silt and debris from each passing wet season. The result was an expanding, heavily timbered mound slightly above the normal water level. As they pushed through into the jungle they found themselves walking on soft, damp mulch. Coming from the harsh brightness of tropical sunlight into the sudden embracing gloom of the thick forest, it took a little while for their eyes to adjust. A little further in, where the biggest trees grew and the understory was less pronounced, a couple of large dark shapes loomed. To a casual glance they would have passed for big granite boulders of the sort often encountered in that country.
These were no granite boulders however. As they approached the nearer object it was obviously part of an aircraft wing, bashed and battered, leaning half upright against a tree trunk. Moss, lichen and small ferns grew all over it. They gave it only a quick inspection, then continued on to where a long, dark object was nestled in amongst the biggest trees at the centre of the jungle patch.
The fuselage was sitting the right way up, leaning a little to the left. It was bent into a pronounced zigzag shape and concertinaed a bit here and there. The cockpit was crushed in, having taken a head on impact with a big tree during the crash landing. The men walked around it. There were no openings, other than a few small rips in the hull where it had been bent. There were only a few small round windows, but nothing could be seen of the interior through the mouldy glass. The door was wedged tight.
“It looks like one of those World War Two cargo planes. Probably based up in the Torres Strait during the war. Got lost, ran out of juice and crashed here,” suggested Bobby.
Dobbo nodded, but Scruffy did not say anything. He continued to walk slowly around the wreck, then clambered up to walk along the top of the hull. The thin metal creaked and complained under his weight. He stood there a while, then got out his smokes and lit one. He tossed the packet down to the waiting Dobbo.
Bobby knew his friend well enough to realize that Scruffy was dwelling on something. “So, what do you reckon Scruffy?”
Scruffy answered with a series of questions. “Do you see any insignia or markings?” he asked, taking a long, thoughtful draw on his smoke.
“Well, no, they’ve probably just faded away over the years. All the rain, and such,” returned Bobby, starting to feel a little uncertain. He hated it when the normally taciturn Scruffy cross examined him on a point.
“What do you make of the colour?”
“It’s just turned black with time, mould, fungus and shit like that.”
“What do you reckon that is?” asked Scruffy, indicated an unobtrusive, long low bump on the fuselage immediately behind the cockpit area.
“Shit Scruffy, I don’t know, you sound like you’re the expert here. So what is it?”
Bobby was tense with mounting excitement. Scruffy did not answer immediately but continued to inspect the wrecked aircraft for a little longer.
“I reckon we’ve found ourselves a black bird.”
“So what’s a black bird then?”
“I heard about these from the guys who had been in ‘Nam. They were used by the CIA or somebody like that.”
“They generally only landed at night, refuelled, got some maintenance done, delivered or collected whatever it was they were moving around and were gone by daylight. The planes were old DC3s painted matt black. Supposedly radar absorbing. That bulge on top of the hull is some sort of radar pod. Definitely post World War II technology there.”
“Why didn’t they use modern military planes, like Caribou?”
“Modern planes can be tracked back through records of ownership. There were a lot of these old DC3s left over from World War Two and Korea, with no pedigrees. You could pick them up all through Asia and Africa, for cash, no questions asked, from little freight companies, mining companies and the like. The spooks would buy these DC3s and get them all kitted out for their own particular requirements.”
“So what do you reckon is inside this one?”
“Who’d know? Something pretty interesting, maybe guns, and some dead guys. Let’s see.”
Scruffy walked back down the roof of the plane and jumped down.
Dobbo, who Bobby noticed had suddenly begun to look less than completely happy with the situation, asked earnestly, “Is there dead guys in there?”
“There’d have to be, looking at the mess it’s in, and the fact that nobody has come here since it crashed.”
“Yakka! No way! I don’t wanna mess with any dead guys,” stated Dobbo emphatically, starting to succumb to the instilled fears and folklore of his aboriginal heritage.
“You don’t have to come inside Dobbo, just give us a hand to open the door, come on.”
The men scouted around to find some heavy branches. They spent a sweaty half hour trying to prize open the hatch. Despite its seeming fragile thin hide, the old plane proved remarkably resilient to their efforts. Dobbo was clearly becoming ever more unhappy to be participating in forcing entry into a wreck where there human remains.
The sweat was pouring off them. The surrounding forest was effectively a hothouse, capturing and holding the humidity.
“Fuck! This is hard work,” declared Bobby, “I need a drink.”
“We need more than a drink,” returned Scruffy, “the day is getting along and we need to see inside this baby before it gets dark. Bobby, can you and Dobbo go back and bring the car into the edge of the water. You should be right if you pretty much take the same route that we walked, but dodging the soggier parts. We don’t want to get bogged and have to spend the night out there.”
“Too right!” agreed Dobbo, looking sick at the very thought of it.
“You guys bring in the car and some tools – and torches, we’ll need the torches out of the car – then you can stay out on the edge of the island with the car, Dobbo” instructed Scruffy. As Bobby and Dobbo went to leave, Scruffy caught Bobby for a quick aside, “You drive and don’t leave the keys in the car.”
“You think Dobbo would take off on us?” asked Bobby, surprised.
“I would hope not, but he’s got the colly-wobbles. Best not take any chances.”
Half an hour later Bobby plodded through the shallow waters, lugging the gear. The first thing he did was to pass Scruffy the water bottle. Scruffy took a long drink while Bobby dropped a heavy duffle bag with a clank of tools. As it turned out, they did not need to break in. With the two of them working on it, using a big spanner for leverage, they were able to move the hatch lever. The hatch swung down with surprising ease. While only partially open, there was enough gap for a person to crawl into the aircraft. The interior of the aircraft looked to be as black as ink. Scruffy lay on his back and wriggled in under the hatch, which was only waist height, until his head was just inside the airplane. He switched on his torch and shone it slowly and carefully all around the interior.
“W-W-What do you see?” Bobby stammered excitedly.
“No much at all. The hull looks to be mostly empty. But it looks safe enough. Let’s have a good look.”
With that he wriggled into the fuselage and stood up. Bobby followed. The two of them shone their torches around. The beams of light were solid in the fine humid haze inside the hull. It was apparent that most of the cargo had cascaded to the front of plane during the impact. The cargo had consisted of perhaps thirty heavily built, wooden boxes. The boxes were made of inch thick pine. They could see where these had been secured to the floor of the plane, well spaced apart. A half dozen of the boxes on the port side had survived largely intact. There was some code lettering on the boxes, in what might have been Greek, or maybe Russian, but nothing descriptive or intelligible as to the contents.
The rest of the boxes had torn loose and disintegrated during the crash. Everything was in a compact, jumbled mass at the front of the plane. Not quite everything, that is. Bobby spotted a folded magazine tucked into some cargo webbing up close to the ceiling. He pulled it down and pulled it stiffly open. It was a bit mouldy and brittle, but in otherwise good shape. It was a Playboy magazine.
“Look, December 1973. Maybe this flight got caught up in Cyclone Tracy and wound up here.”
Scruffy moved on toward the front of the hull while Bobby flicked through the magazine checking out the girls, until he heard Scruffy draw his breath and yell, “Fuck!”
Bobby hastened to join his companion, asking, “Have you found a body?”
“Something much better than a fucking body,” stated Scruffy with some passion.
There in the light of Scruffy’s torch, amidst the jumble of aged wood and dull grey metal bits and pieces, was a small, gleaming block of yellow. It was about four inches long and two inches wide. Scruffy picked it up, gave it a brief glance and then dropped it into Bobby’s hand. The weight took him by surprise and he dropped it to the floor. It landed with a solid metallic clunk. He hastily picked it up again.
“Is this what I think it is? Shit, it’s heavy for its size.”
“That’s a block of solid gold!”
Bobby had never seen his mate so excited and could feel his own surge of exhilaration.
“Look, there’s more, hold the torch,” said Scruffy as he excitedly set to pulling the jumbled mess apart to get at more of the precious yellow ingots that they could now see scattered amongst the pile of wrecked cargo.
Quickly he extracted another five ingots. Most of the cargo appeared to have been composed of the strangely shaped grey metallic blocks. The pieces were not large, they could be comfortably held in the palm of your hand, but they were also very heavy.
“D-D-Do you think these are platinum?” asked Bobby eagerly.
Scruffy examined one of the blocks in the light of the torch before answering, “No, I reckon not. They look to be machined, not cast. There aren’t any proof marks and they’re a funny shape. Might be some sort of armour plate. Don’t know really.”
The two of them worked side by side on the pile again and managed to extract a couple more bars of gold. It was hot work, moving the more numerous heavy grey metal components out of the way. There seemed to be a lot more gold further down in the pile. The heat inside the hull was stifling. The hazy light of the torches highlighted a plume of vapour rising from their sweat sodden clothes.
“Jesus!” said Bobby, “You’re steaming just like a crab fresh from the boiler.”
“So are you mate, let’s get outside for a breath of fresh air and a drink before we keel over.”
Outside they drank thirstily from the water bottle and Scruffy had a much needed smoke. Bobby examined the little pile of yellow bricks. They were all the same size with the same proof markings. The light of day revealed the proof markings in great clarity.
“Have a look at that!” said Bobby, offering an ingot to Scruffy. Apart from the imprinted proof numbers, each bar had the bold impression of an eagle over a swastika.
“How much more gold do you reckon is in there?” asked Bobby.
“Quite a bit, under all that other shit. Enough to make us rich for the rest of our lives.”
“So w-w-what do we do now?” Bobby was breathless with excitement.
“We are going to run out of daylight, and we don’t want to cause any more drama with Shane and Dobbo, so let’s just check the intact boxes. See if they’ve got bullion as well, then we better get going.”
The pair returned once more into the wreck. They prized open the remaining boxes. But there was no gold, just more of the odd shaped grey metal pieces, all packed in their own, separate compartments.”
Outside once again, Bobby stashed the gold bars into the tool bag. They closed the aircraft hatch then scattered forest debris back around the area and up against the hull.
“What are we going to tell Dobbo?” asked Bobby.
“I’ve got an idea, let me do the talking. You stow the booty in the gun box while I distract him.”
They emerged from the island into the open and could see that Dobbo was sitting on the hood of the car awaiting their return. Dobbo slid off the car and opened the door, clearly eager to leave, as they emerged from the water.
“What did you find?” he asked anxiously holding on to the inviting, open door.
“We couldn’t get inside, but we managed to open up a couple of holes and get a look. There’s nothing much inside, cargo wise, and it’s all been trashed anyway. But, there are bones, a lot of bones. I think a fair few fellas checked-out in there,” lied Scruffy.
“I want to come back next week with my camera and get some photos. We might be able to make some dollars out of this, so we treat this plane the same as that crocodile business, eh?”
Scruffy was referring to a big bull crocodile that the trio had poached and skinned a few years earlier. Through Scruffy’s contacts they had sold the skin and skull to an illegal collector, making a couple of thousand dollars. There had been a few other similar episodes over the years.
“Yo,” confirmed Dobbo, “let’s get going then.”
Scruffy had one more point to make. “Hey, Dobbo you didn’t see any other black fellas here just now did you?” asked Scruffy innocently. Dobbo was clearly shocked at the thought and did not say anything. He just stood there looking serious. Scruffy added, “I thought I caught a glimpse of an old fella in that scrub, must have been my eyes playing tricks on me.”
Dobbo wasted no time jumping into the front seat. Scruffy gave Bobby a surreptitious wink as they moved to get back into the vehicle. Scruffy steered the vehicle back along the wheel marks in the grass. As they neared the escarpment once more, Bobby’s attention was drawn to the forest of large paperbark trees ahead of them. The trees were liberally peppered by black specks, maybe a thousand or more. He had not noticed them on the way in.
“Hey Dobbo, what are those black things in the trees?”
Dobbo looked up and saw them for the first time. He took a breath and was clearly alarmed.
“Are they some sort of fruit, or ant nests? What are they?”
“I think they’re birds. Crows maybe,” suggested Scruffy, while Dobbo just stared anxiously ahead.
“They’re Ngatili. Black cockatoos you balanda call them.”
The vehicle was now close enough that there was no mistaking the black cockatoos.
“That’s weird, they’re all just sitting there stock still. They’re not moving about or feeding or calling, none of the stuff you’d expect, and I’ve never seen so many in one place before,” observed Bobby leaning out of the car window for a better look. The nearest birds were only metres away in the lower branches of the trees they were now passing.
“Do you want me stop the car?”
Before Bobby could answer, Dobbo interjected.
“Fuck no! Yakka! Keep going!”
“What’s the problem Dobbo? They’re just harmless old black cockies.”
“Not in this country, they’re not. They’re sort of spirit guardians. Keep going and let’s get the fuck out of here. Fast!”
The drive out seemed tediously slow. Dobbo was a fidgety passenger and it was not until they passed back out through the gap in the cliffs that he visibly relaxed. The sun had just set and it was getting dark. Scruffy switched on the headlights and spotlights. Their tracks across the dried bottom of the swamp were plain to see and easy to follow.
As they approached the rendezvous spot where they were to collect Shane they could see a sizable bonfire burning.
“That’s a mighty big fire for a black fella, eh? I reckon Shane will be glad to see us,” observed Scruffy dryly.
That was certainly the case. As the vehicle pulled up alongside the fire Shane deftly leapt up into the back before it had stopped rolling. He tapped on the roof and said something in aboriginal. Dobbo translated, “He say go.”
“I already figured that out,” replied Scruffy.
“Hey, let me out. I’ll get in the back with Shane. Need to have a talk to that young bloke,” said Dobbo.
It was a quiet and uneventful trip back to the community through the dark tropical night. Bobby could hear the murmur of the two Yolngu men in the tray. Dobbo was doing most of the talking. As they pulled into the circle of houses and came to stop, Dobbo jumped down and stood at the driver’s window.
Scruffy reminded Dobbo, “Our business, okay?”
“Yo, no worries.”
“Will Shane cause any trouble about this afternoon?” asked Bobby.
“Yakka. No. I had a good talk. He’ll be in big trouble for letting us even get close to that place. I tell ‘im keep his mouth shut about that business.”
A group of people gathered around the vehicle. Scruffy had parked under the single streetlight in the centre of the little community. Dobbo jumped back up onto the tray of the vehicle to help Shane distribute the meat. Within a few minutes it was done and everyone except Dobbo had retired to start cooking their share of the meat. All around small fires were being lit. There were some harsh words and the yelp of dogs that had gotten too interested in the fresh meat.
“Where’re you blokes going to camp?” asked Dobbo.
“Down at the first creek crossing,” replied Scruffy, referring to a favourite camp spot some kilometres away. “We want to have a wash and hit the sack. We will get up early and get going. We’ll look for a bullocky for ourselves on the way back.”
“When you coming back?”
“Like I said, a week’s time, to get photos of that plane. You going to come along too?” asked Scruffy.
“Uh uh! Yakka! No way,” Dobbo was emphatic.
“Well I’ll drop you and Bobby off to go hunting. I’ll drive in by myself. I don’t need any help to get some photos. Okay, see you next time.”
Scruffy started the vehicle and with a wave set off to their camp spot.
The creek was little more than a trickle, shallow and sandy, fed from a spring only a hundred metres away. It did not take long to get a fire going. Scruffy got out a grilling rack and a pack of sausages and started to prepare a simple meal while Bobby stripped off and had a much needed wash in the shallow water. He returned to fire glistening wet and dressed in a pair of damp shorts and said to Scruffy, “I’ll cook the snags, you have a tub yourself.”
Bobby raked the fire out into a bed of glowing coals, filled the wire grilling rack with sausages and positioned it close above the layer of coals. He pulled two cups out of the tucker box then rummaged around in the dark, behind the seat of the car. He knew what he was looking for and pulled out the dusty, scratched bottle of Bundaberg rum that was kept there. He sat that on the fender of the vehicle alongside the cups and went around to the tray of the ute. He took out the two bedrolls and dropped them on the ground near the fire. A little away from the now sizzling sausages he built up the fire and positioned a blackened billy of water.
Scruffy returned from his ablutions, clad only in a damp towel. Bobby poured a generous dash of rum each and they each took a seat on their respective swags, sitting astride them, as you would a horse.
Bobby raised his mug, “W-W-What a day!” he toasted.
They each took a gulp of their rum.
“Hmm, that’s j-j-just what the doctor ordered,” stated Bobby.
They chatted quietly about the likely history of the airplane, what its destination might have been and when it crashed, as Bobby kept an eye on the sausages, turning the rack over occasionally.
Once he deemed that the sausages were done he took the rack from the fire and positioned the handle into a crevice in the bull bar. The rack sat out in the night air to allow the sausages that were still sizzling, a chance to cool down a bit. He pulled a loaf of sliced bread, a tub of butter and a bottle of tomato sauce out of the cool box. Using the fender and hood of the vehicle as a table he buttered a pile of bread then picked up the rum bottle and re-charged their mugs. Noting that the billy was now boiling nicely, he tossed in a handful of teabags and pulled it a little away from the fire. He took another sip of his rum and declared, “Chow’s up!”
They selected a slice of buttered bread each, picked a few sausages off the rack. A squirt of red sauce over the snags and another slice of bread completed the arrangement. With the sausage sandwich clamped in one hand and a mug of rum in the other, they hungrily ate their dinner, sipping rum between mouthfuls. It had been a long and tiring day and they had not eaten since breakfast, so the first sandwich went down fast, the second more slowly. Bobby had cooked a generous pile of sausages, to allow for extras.
Dinner over, the men had finished their rum with the last of the food and then scooped big steaming mugs of tea straight out of the billy.
They relaxed, sitting now on the ground, leaning back against their rolled up swags, feeling satisfied and replete. It had been a momentous day. A wash, a feed, and a couple of stiff rums had them feeling pleasantly relaxed. Scruffy lit a cigarette and leaned back into his bedroll.
Bobby re-opened the topic, “Scruffy, what are we g-g-going to do about this?”
Scruffy wriggled into a more comfortable position and drew on his smoke.
“We have to move fast. The first of the good wet season storms will be here soon, maybe within weeks. Once that happens we won’t be able to get a car back in close to the bird again for decades maybe. The wet will cover our tracks okay, but until then anybody, let alone the aboriginals, could follow us. The abos, would be wondering why the three of us walked out into the swamp. They could track us across that water, no problem.”
“Next days off when we come back, what is the plan?” asked Bobby.
“Next time we take just Dobbo. We tell ‘em we are looking for horns and photos, like we often do and we will get them some meat along the way somewhere. I’ll drop you guys off near the last water hole and drive in by myself. There looks to be a stack of gold. I’ll have a proper frame backpack and will do as many trips as I need to get the loot back to the car. I’ll lock it all in the gun boxes, then tidy up the wreck and leave it as we found it. Nobody should be any the wiser. We can stash the gold at my place and then see about selling it.”
“Shit Scruffy, how do you go about selling a truckload of Nazi gold?”
“I have contacts that can arrange that in Asia.”
“Seriously? How w-w-would we do that?” Bobby was thrilled, but also incredulous.
“Bobby, in my previous life, before I was obliged to seek a quieter existence up here, I mixed with people who could help with those sorts of transactions.”
“How would we get it out of the country?”
“There are ways. It won’t be a problem, trust me, I know,” assured Scruffy.
“Jesus Scruffy! We’re going to be rich!”
Scruffy’s face hardened. He leaned toward Bobby and spoke in a harsh flat tone that Bobby had never heard him use before. A chilling tone.
“Only if you don’t make any mistakes. Don’t you mention it to anyone. This is the score of a lifetime. If you fuck it up I’ll kill you.”