BORDER RUN

An Extract
 

The crossbow seemed makeshift and ordinary, just a primitive piece of farm equipment. Will supposed he must at least practise with it. Setting the butt against his belly, with the end of the stock against the ground, he pulled the bowstring back. It was like working an exercise machine set for too much resistance, and his face reddened with the effort. By the time the trigger clicked into position and locked his arms were shaking. His stomach was sore where the butt had rested and pressure lines were drawn across tingling, red fingers where the string had dug in. The wood creaked then seemed to settle. He could feel the stored power, it seemed alert and humming. The quarrels were shorter and thicker than bow arrows. He rolled them in a palm and squinted down them. They were skilfully made, straight and true, almost perfectly cylindrical. Only up close could he see the marks and abrasions that showed they had been laboriously whittled and sanded rather than stamped out in a factory. The delicate fletching was not plastic, as he had assumed, but some thin wood - he guessed bamboo - pounded flat, folded and cut. He smeared beeswax along a quarrel and laid it in the groove. Its back didn’t quite reach the string, as he expected it to, and he wondered if perhaps these were defectively short. But there was no rear notch, as there would be with an arrow – perhaps the fact that string was already moving when it met the quarrel helped propel it with more force. He hefted it into his shoulder. It was heavy and awkward, and hard to steady. At least it was simple to aim - you just sighted along the quarrel. But that meant dipping his head right down, more than you would with a gun, so that his cheek was almost horizontal. He groped his hand along the stock, looking for the bone trigger, which made the thing waver and shake. When he did find it, he reckoned he was lucky not to shoot his own foot. He started again, this time getting down on one knee to steady himself. Aiming at a tree trunk, Will settled, held his breath, depressed the trigger and tensed for something to happen. As he was wondering if he’d been sold a dud the trigger clicked and gave in, the machine jolted, and the quarrel vanished quietly, with no snap or kick, catapulted tremendously fast into the green. Now he only had three shots left. Still, the exercise had been worthwhile: he had learned that this trigger was stiff, and that if he wanted to get an accurate shot off, he'd have to get the thing aimed quickly, as he couldn't hold it steady for longer than a few seconds. Will looked over the cliff edge. Cliffs frowned down almost sheer on either side of the river. After a couple of hundred metres the ravine narrowed and the cliffs were lower but here the forest was choking. There was no way out. For the girl it was a wedge shaped prison. She was down in there somewhere, in those hunting grounds, trapped with only a few hundred square metres to hide in. And Jake was in there too, prowling. Or, of course, he could be too late, the thing could be over. Will took a long look at the jeep. Everything about it was sturdily reassuring, even the tyres looked pretty. Sluggishness stole over him and as his resolve wavered the end of the crossbow dipped. Howard might be right, there was no guarantee that Jake would get anywhere with his hunt. Beside it was hot and he was very tired. He turned away and stepped onto the path. He knew it well enough now to place his feet without looking. Feeling pompous and a little daft, and not at all deadly, he held the crossbow awkwardly upright like a standard. He tried to think only about putting one foot down after another and hoped he wasn't making much noise. It occurred to him that if Jake was anywhere around the pool he would make an easy target. Still, at least this time he could shoot back. He stopped beside a large flat boulder - an old friend - and considered the river where it flowed away from the pool. The river seemed playful as it split at the rocks, frothing and jostling, forming translucent bell shapes where it flowed over smooth stones, doodling spirals and corkscrews. Then the various streams came together and the narrowing channel gave a sense of seriousness and purpose as it fell down a succession of steep steps. On either side the forest was thick but not impossible to move through, the grass was about waist high. Will saw a blue flash - just a flicker out of the corner of his eye, but he convinced himself that it had to be Jake, that he had glimpsed the man's denim shorts as he stalked. He could think of nothing natural that might be that colour. The man was about fifty metres into the ravine, on this side of the river, which was pretty much where Will expected him to be. Coming to the beach Will rubbed torso, face and neck with soft loamy earth, leaving brown streaks. He smeared the crossbow's central groove with beeswax and laid a quarrel into it, and it was like a final, irreversible assertion of serious intent. Still, he imagined an unconvinced, sceptical audience. He didn’t really intend this, did he? He had a sneaking suspicion he was acting, and soon the difference between pretence and reality would become apparent. The next thing a person who was hunting another human being would do would be to crouch low and head into the bush, so he did that. His heart was beating wildly and he realised with annoyance that he was shaking. He was in no state to steady and fire a crossbow and this thing had hardly begun. He tried to tell himself to calm down but that did not work so instead he thought about how absurd this was really, when you looked at it. To think that he was crouching here holding a crossbow and seriously considering aiming it at another person. He shook his head in dump disbelief, and that wry acknowledgement seemed to do it. He swished through dense, waist high grass. The buzz of insects and the gurgle of water would help cover the sounds he was making, of leaves crackling and twigs breaking. He tried to keep the crossbow level before him but that made it hard to move stealthily. Then a leafy branch knocked the quarrel from its notch and he had to stop and grope to find it again. He was tired now and not excited, feeling a bit lost and sorry for himself. Nobody in the world knew where he was. He felt as far from the familiar as it was possible to be, which brought images from home vividly to mind - cheese on toast, footie in the park, daytime telly. He saw Jake. The man was only about ten metres ahead, moving crouched forward. The crossbow was held low before him with the butt against his stomach, so that it pointed where he looked. Sadly, he did not look like a cold calculating killer, he still looked like a mate. Like the hunter Will was playing at, he sank to one knee, brought his crossbow up and tucked the stock into his shoulder. He dipped his head to aim and grass caressed his cheek. As he sighted down the bolt his vision narrowed to a tunnel. The things in the tunnel were sharp and beautifully detailed and all around was a green smear. Jake moved slowly across, scanning right and left and chewing on his lower lip. Will felt a strange intimacy with the man – they were joined together, he had made a frame to consider him in, and after all he had rarely looked so intensely at another human.
 

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