RED EARTH

A solitary Land Cruiser traversed the wide-open plains, a soaring plume of red earth in its wake. Ahead, a wooden trestle bridge crossed the Greater Anabranch River. Its banks lined with ancient red river gums; their grey green foliage contrasted the gritty red soil of the road. Unrelenting December heat gave the air a characteristic blue shimmer.

Even in midsummer the river flowed, a lifesaver for animals and humans alike. The thick gnarled bases of the trees were encircled by undergrowth and provided meager shade from the ferocious sun. Sandy banks, flat and bare, edged the water.

The battered vehicle drew nearer. From the bull bar hung canvas water bags. In the back, shovels, a roll of wire, toolbox, winch, and jerry cans of fuel.

In the clump of tangled lignum scrub something moved. Just enough to catch the eye then the shadows resumed their stillness, before being disturbed by another fleeting movement. Joe Rickard lay on his belly, wearing camouflage gear. The angular lines of his face were broken by dirt rubbed onto his skin. His immobility merged him into the scanty cover. He licked his lips, unwilling to stir and reach for the water bottle.

Greg McDonald’s strong hands rested lightly on the steering wheel.

His arms were covered by a long sleeved denim shirt open at the neck. A broad brimmed sweat stained hat was jammed onto his head. His eyes, shielded by sunglasses, constantly scanned the landscape. On the passenger seat a .303 Winchester rifle. Surrounding him, endless plains stretched towards the horizon. The road, graded, unsealed, was trimmed by uneven mounds of fine red sand constantly teased by the wind.
The Land Cruiser continued past clumps of blue gray saltbush. Sprawling fleshy pig face covered in purple flowers cascaded over small dunes.

Gradually the road approached the bridge.

Joe Rickard’s location enabled him to see the bridge and the approaching Land Cruiser. He had no need to see the driver’s face. He knew every gesture, every movement, almost as well as he knew his own. The way the driver lightly rested his hands on the wheel. And the way his shoulders were relaxed against the seat, the angle of his head.

This time the ending would be different. It would be Greg McDonald at the wrong end of a rifle. Rickard could not rely on him making a mistake. They each possessed an instinct warning them of peril. He’d seen McDonald pull out of a contract because his intuition had tipped him off.

As the Land Cruiser drew closer, Rickard adjusted his position and rested his finger on the trigger. He’d taught McDonald the skills of an assassin. Now the teacher hunted the student. McDonald was dangerous. It wasn’t personal, it was business. The way he saw it he had the advantage. His action was smooth, practised. The fleeting sound of metal on metal as a bullet was slipped into the chamber dispersed quickly in the hot air. He was ready. The river red gum above provided shade.

Slowly, Joe Rickard squeezed the trigger. A whip crack of sound echoed across the shallow river course, bouncing back and forth before spreading over the plains.

Instinctively McDonald slammed his foot on the brake, adrenalin flooding his body. The Land Cruiser slewed to one side, the windscreen and glass behind him shattering. The pothole had helped him dodge a bullet. His heart pounded in his chest.

In the thick clump of tangled lignum, Rickard swore, reloading. It should have been a bull’s eye.

In one fluid movement, McDonald was out of the Land Cruiser, making the most of the available cover, rifle at the ready. He knew where the shot had come from. McDonald scanned the other side of the river using the powerful telescopic sight. Though he could see no sign of movement, he knew who must be there. There was no anger now, no emotion. He would need to apply everything he’d learned if he wanted to survive this final encounter.

Joe Rickard was unmoving, the slow rise and fall of his chest showing life. He was not a bushman like McDonald, but he was a slightly better shot. It was hot, not a breath of wind stirred the dust. This was hard country, tough, unforgiving. He could feel the small lumps of clay digging into his chest. The shade of the tree was welcome. His usual hunting grounds were city streets paved with concrete and bitumen. Here he was out of his comfort zone. Nothing and no one moved. On the horizon, the heat haze shimmered. The intensity of the stillness was broken, shattered. The sound sharper than a rifle shot; as a crack rent the air, unexpected, brutal. From the old river red gum, a large branch fell to the ground.

The fleeting sound of a scream chilled McDonald’s blood, covering his body with goosebumps. In the unnatural silence that followed, a gentle breeze played over the river, forming creases and ripples on the smooth surface.

Greg McDonald took the bullet out of the chamber, put the safety on, and replaced the rifle in the gun case. He unhooked one of the water bags from the roo bar and drank deeply, splashing a little of the cool water over his face.

Joe Rickard had made a mistake. He’d sheltered beneath a river red gum. No bushman stood beneath one, its huge limbs were prone to falling without cause. Their nickname of widow maker was well earned.

McDonald brushed the shattered fragments of safety glass from the seat, and the dashboard before getting into the Land Cruiser and putting on his seatbelt.

The timber bridge rattled beneath him and glancing quickly to his left, he noted the size of the fallen trunk. He sketched a quick salute to his former mentor.

He’d be left alone now; the message sent was loud and clear. He grinned, white teeth in a dusty face. Changing gears, he directed his attention towards the road ahead, leaving the past behind.

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