ONE

Text copyright © 2015 by Beau Johnston

The sound of footsteps dragging through the long grass roused me from my sleep. I slowly slid my hunting knife from its sheath as I opened my eyes. Something large and dark hovered just above my face. My heart pounded heavily as I suddenly remembered that I had gone to sleep under one of the four-wheel drives. I redirected my attention to the stranger in our midst. The movement through the campsite was too fluid to be zombies..... we had company.

I quietly rolled onto my stomach and looked over to my right to find the source of the noise. Pale moonlight revealed a feral pig snuffling around in the long grass at the back of the vehicles. Two anxious piglets followed their mother, fidgeting nervously in the cool night air. My thoughts immediately turned to food. The older pig would be riddled with parasites but the two younger pigs might be ok. I realised I couldn’t use my shotgun because the noise of gunfire would draw attention to our location; not to mention panicking everyone sleeping in the vehicles above me.

I accepted that I had no way to kill the pigs silently, but I didn’t want them hanging around the campsite. I re-sheathed my knife then slipped the slingshot and a pouch of ball bearings from my backpack, then carefully slid out from under the four-wheel drive. Keeping low and quiet, I loaded a ball bearing into the ammunition pouch, drew back on the slingshot and took aim. A moment after releasing the ball bearing I was rewarded with a loud frightened squeal. All three pigs sprinted around the side of the house and across the backyard, melting into the darkness. Silence washed over the campsite. The rest of my group were either still asleep or lying quietly.

I looked up at the night sky and was amazed by how bright and clear the constellations were. I’d lived under the sickly orange glow of Sydney’s light pollution for so long I’d forgotten how beautiful the stars could be. My attention was drawn to the dark, foreboding farmhouse. I was confident we were alone out here; but I hadn’t made it this far by assuming I was safe. Even so, there was nothing to be gained by risking an unnecessary building search at night. There was nothing inside the house that couldn’t wait until morning. The piglets made me think about our food supplies. We’d brought enough food to last us for a week or two, but we needed to establish a sustainable food supply. In the next day or two I’d get Ben and Dad to set a few snares down by the river and around the property. After one last glance around our makeshift campsite, I slid back under the four-wheel drive and waited for sleep to take me.

Just before dawn I was wrenched from my sleep by the ear-piercing shrieks of sulphur-crested cockatoos. Their voices are as soothing as the screech of fingernails down a chalkboard. After quickly glancing around the campsite from under the vehicle, I slid out into the open, then stood and stretched. I had a quick look inside both vehicles to make sure nobody had gone exploring on their own. I could hear the local birdlife chittering and squawking as they drank, bathed and fought among themselves in the river at the rear of the property. Galahs, ducks, cockatoos and assorted bush fowl contributed to the cacophony that shattered the early morning peace. The sound of car doors being opened let me know my family were now awake. The group immediately broke into excited chatter about last night’s escape and plans for this morning.

I held my hand up to draw everyone’s attention “Alright everyone; a bit of quiet please”.

The talking quickly died down as everyone turned to me for instructions.

“We made it here in one piece and I’m sure you all have questions. Our first priority is to secure the house. I doubt we will encounter any problems, but until I confirm that the house is safe, we have to assume it’s not”. I walked over to the back of Ben’s four-wheel drive and gestured everyone to follow me. “Ben, what sort of firepower did you bring?”

Ben opened the tailgate of his four-wheel drive and pulled out a long metal box, which he gently placed on the ground. He swung the lid open on its hinges, revealing a .308 calibre hunting rifle with scope, a .22 calibre long rifle, and a 12 gauge double-barrel shotgun. Neatly stacked along the side of the box were two packets of ammunition and a cleaning kit for each firearm. This was a good start, but the ammunition was in short supply. I knew I had to obtain more ammunition as soon as possible.

I put my hand on Ben’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. “You have to take the shotgun because you and I are going to clear the house. I’ll go in first. I’ll open each door and search the room. If I find something, I’ll deal with it. You and your shotgun will provide back-up”.

Ben nodded to show that he understood his role then collected his shotgun from the box.

I looked over at my parents. “Dad and Mum; I realise that it has been a few years since either of you have shot a fox or a roo, but I need you both to provide covering fire. If it goes wrong for Ben and me, or something gets past us, you have to take care of it. Dad, I want you to use the hunting rifle; and Mum, the .22”.
Mum looked concerned, but they both collected their assigned weapons without comment.

Then I turned to Rebecca. “I need you to watch Mum and Dad’s backs. Their attention will be focused on the house. I need you to keep constant watch in the other direction,” I said, gesturing toward the road. “You have to let them know if anything is sneaking up from behind”.

Rebecca nodded, but remained silent. I wasn’t sure if the look on her face was fear of the impending fight or disappointment that she wasn’t issued with a firearm.
Ben handed Mum and Dad the ammunition for their weapons then made sure Mum remembered how to load her rifle.

I addressed the group once again. “This will be very different from shooting feral animals, or shooting targets at the rifle range. Everyone is to aim their weapon at the ground and keep their finger outside the trigger guard until they have identified their target. Failure to do so will result in someone..... probably me, getting shot”.

Four sombre faces nodded, indicating they understood the seriousness of the situation.

“Ok; everyone in position. Safeties off!” I said with a sense of finality.

My parents stood behind the four-wheel drives; positioned so they could use the hoods as stable platforms from which to shoot. Rebecca stood behind them, machete in hand, watching the road. Ben and I checked our equipment and mentally prepared ourselves to sprint across the yard.

“Where’s your shotgun?” asked Ben, with a puzzled look on his face.

I shrugged my shoulders, “On the back of my bike. I’m the silly bugger who gets to open the doors. If I can’t handle what’s inside with my garden fork, it’s up to you and your shotgun. Don’t hesitate. Empty both barrels”.

I’d thought about giving my shotgun to Rebecca, but dismissed the idea because she’d never used a firearm before. A twelve-gauge shotgun is not a weapon for a beginner. Her diminutive stature and lack of experience would be a bad combination if a firefight broke out. The recoil can injure your shoulder if you’re not holding the shotgun properly.

Using two rubber bands I had in my pocket, I secured my torch to the business end of the garden fork. This allowed me to carry my weapon in both hands as well as being able to shine my torch at my target. Ben and I scrambled out from behind the vehicles and sprinted across the yard to the front of the house. A wooden veranda ran the width of the building. It was sheltered from the elements by a large, bullnose roof. In the middle of the front wall, a dark brown door sat between two wooden framed windows. Ben stood on the left of the doorframe and I stood to the right.

I grabbed the doorhandle and gave it a turn. The heavy wooden door slowly creaked open on its badly worn hinges. There was no reaction from inside the dark room. I aimed the piercing white torch beam into the gloom and quickly peeked inside. The front door opened straight into the lounge room. My eyes were immediately drawn to the large, old-fashioned stone fireplace that occupied the middle of the southern wall. A bulky leather sofa sat directly in front of the fireplace with matching armchairs on either side. A doorway led off to the north and a corridor led to the east. I swept the blinding beam of light across the room then crept inside.

As I entered the building, I whispered to Ben “Follow me in, but watch the corridor and the door in the north wall”.

I flashed the torch around the gloomy room. There was still no response to our intrusion. Training the beam of light on the fireplace I silently crept across the room, ready to spear anything that lunged at me from the shadows. I sidestepped around the armchair, but found nothing hiding behind the furniture. A quick look up the chimney confirmed the room was empty.

I snuck across to the door in the north wall and threw it open. Inside the master bedroom was a double bed, a free-standing pinewood wardrobe and a dressing table. After shining the torch under the bed I checked inside the wardrobe; it was empty. I glanced over my shoulder and was happy to see Ben standing ready with his shotgun, aimed at the floor instead of my back.

“I thought you said this place was vacant and waiting to be sold”, Ben whispered from outside the room.

“It is”, I whispered back.

“Well, how come there’s furniture in here?” he asked, sounding slightly unsure.

“The owner took off to Kalgoorlie to work in the gold mines. It would cost him more than the furniture’s worth to take it with him. And it’s not valuable enough to put it into storage, so he included it as part of the sale”, I explained.

“Fair enough” Ben agreed, shrugging his massive shoulders.

As we crept east along the corridor, I flashed the torch through the open door to my left. Inside the second bedroom were a double bed and a dressing table. To my right was a small, empty room. I think the estate agent said it was used as a study. Several paces to the east lead us into the kitchen and dining area. I checked under the dining table, then in the empty pantry. Other than the two of us, the house appeared to be empty. There were only two doors left to open; one in the north wall and one in the east. I slowly opened the north door and found a tiny bathroom, containing a toilet, a washbasin and a shower cubicle. So far, our luck had held. Only the door in the east wall remained shut. I opened the door a crack and peered through. I was greeted by the cool morning air as I stepped out onto the back porch and looked out across the huge backyard.

To our left the laundry door hung partially open. Ben and I readied ourselves as I kicked the door inward. A spine-tingling, demonic hiss pierced the darkened room as a savage whirlwind of claws flew toward us. I dropped low and thrust my garden fork into the gloom. Above my head, Ben pulled the shotgun’s trigger twice. The weapon’s deafening roar and blast of hot, acrid smoke momentarily disoriented me. The air in front of us exploded into a red mist of blood and guts. The shredded gory remains of a large feral cat slammed heavily against the far wall then tumbled lifelessly to the ground; leaving a sickening, bloody smear running down the wall. The revolting stench of half-cooked intestines hung heavily in the air. A quick look around the room revealed no further threats to our safety. Ben reloaded his weapon while I picked up what remained of the twitching carcass by its long furry tail.

Gooey clumps of charred meat fell out of the corpse as I carried it across the backyard and out into the scrub. When we were far enough away from the house, I flung what was left of the feral cat into a thicket of lantana bushes. The feral pigs and goannas were welcome to what was left of this pest. I paused for a moment and surveyed the back of the property. From where I stood, I could see a well-worn track that led from the house down to the river. Its close proximity to the river was why I wanted to buy this house before the world went to hell. The river ran fresh and strong all year round and there were no factories or other businesses up-stream to pollute the water with their waste products. Local knowledge said the fishing was good all year long. The river wasn’t just a dependable source of fresh water for us, it also the served the local wildlife. At least we wouldn’t have to trek too far to hunt for game.

As we made our way back to the house, I smiled at Ben and clapped him on the shoulder. “Well done. We’ve cleared the house, now it’s ours to occupy. Let’s get the others and have some breakfast”.

Ben smiled and nodded as we began the short trip back to the house. Not too far from the house, we passed an old grey wooden work shed. Its large double-doors were held shut with a large metal hasp and a sturdy padlock. When I inspected the property a month ago, the real-estate agent said the key was kept on a hook behind the laundry door. The shed needed to be cleared; but after a quick walk around the outside of the building, I could see that the shed hadn’t been touched in years. Inspecting it could wait until after breakfast.

Sitting close to the back of the house were four massive water tanks. They were made of rolled, corrugated steel and painted white to reflect the sun’s heat. Recent above-average rainfall ensured the 50 000 Litre containers were nearly full. Even though we didn’t have electricity to run the water pump, we could use a bucket tied to a length of rope to get what we needed.

Once we were at the back door, Ben and I wandered through our new home and out the front door. Mum, Dad and Rebecca were still at their assigned positions, waiting for the “all clear”. While Ben ran across the front yard to his vehicle, I ran to my quad bike. I slowed down as I passed Dad and asked him to move his four-wheel drive closer to the house, so we could begin the unpacking process.

“What happened in there?” asked Rebecca.

“Don’t worry about it” I reassured her.

“But what was that horrendous racket?” she persisted.

“It was just a feral cat”, I replied while I unstrapped my torch from the garden fork and returned it to its pouch.

 

Want to read more?  Purchase your own copy here, or continue with chapter two here.