Following lunch, Rhett took up a perch atop the back of the tractor. With his burning gaze analyzing their every move, the workers were spurred on to completing their required number of lengths ahead of schedule, but they did not get to finish any earlier. The Australian insisted that they kept working until exactly three o’clock. Although the work rate was more productive with him in charge, it was certainly a lot less fun. The girls in particular felt uncomfortable in the old man’s presence.
‘That guy really unsettles me,’ said Rose, as she and the others made their way back to the bus.
‘Tell me about it,’ replied her sister. ‘The only time that he stopped staring at us was when he was shouting at the guys for not working fast enough.’
‘I cannot believe that Joe would hire such a creep.’
If there was any lingering doubt about the character of the man that had been placed in charge of the backpackers, it was irrevocably removed during the drive back to the caravan park. What should have been a straightforward journey back to camp proved to be anything but. The complications began when the usual subdued hush of the tired workers was abruptly broken by a loud thump and then a screech as Rhett roughly applied the brakes.
‘Fuck!’ the old man shouted, with more venom than a taipan.
Everybody was shaken by the unscheduled and extremely jerky stop. They each looked to one another for clarification of what had happened.
‘We’ve hit something,’ said Stephen.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Jenny. ‘There is nothing for us to hit; we are in the middle of a desert.’
Colin and Stephen exchanged an awkward look. Neither of the men wanted to be the one to explain what had happened to the girl, who was quick to pick up on their apprehension.
‘What are you not telling me?’ she asked.
‘Well, you must have noticed that there is an awful lot of road-kill around these parts and it has to come from somewhere,’ replied Colin.
Jenny covered her mouth with revulsion. She tried hard not to think about what ghastly scene may be unfolding on the roadside. Whilst Stephen and Colin got out of their seats and made their way to the front of the bus, Rose put her arm around her younger sister to try and offer her comfort. Rhett meanwhile, had already dismounted and the two Irishmen joined him outside.
‘What did we hit?’ asked Colin.
The old man looked back at the backpacker with a scowl as if inconvenienced by the question.
‘Kangaroo,’ he replied, bluntly.
The animal lay still by the side of the road. The force of the collision had knocked it a good distance from the vehicle. Rhett however, was more concerned by what damage might have been inflicted on the bus than the kangaroo. He crouched down to examine the impact point and fortunately for him, he could see that the bull-bar had fulfilled its role effectively. Apart from a small spatter of blood, there were no visible signs of the accident.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘luckily there’s no harm done so we can get going.’
‘No harm done,’ repeated Colin, incredulously. ‘What about poor Skippy over there; shouldn’t we check for any signs of life?’
For once Rhett smiled. The gesture did not make him any more endearing.
‘Be my guest,’ he beckoned.
Colin edged tentatively towards the stricken animal. As he neared, he could see its chest rise and fall and hoped that it had not sustained too serious an injury. When he got to within just a couple of feet of the animal, it violently bucked, launching itself up into the air with its powerful legs. Colin fell onto his backside and instinctively raised his arms to fend off any subsequent attack, but the kangaroo merely dropped back to the ground before rolling onto its side.
‘Jesus!’ exclaimed Colin. ‘The little bastard scared the life out of me. I guess we didn’t hit it as hard as we thought we did.’
Stephen was shaking his head as he helped his friend back to his feet.
‘Look again,’ he said.
This time when Colin looked at the animal, the full extent of its injuries became all too apparent. Its head was bent to an impossibly obtuse angle and trickles of blood could be seen to have formed around its mouth. The creature was clearly suffering and it was obvious to him that it would not survive for long on its own.
‘What should we do?’ he asked.
The rest of the boys had gotten off the bus when they had heard the commotion and they all eagerly waited on Rhett’s answer. Each one of them was hoping that their first encounter with the local wildlife would not leave behind a bitter taste.
‘We don’t do anything,’ the Australian replied. ‘It’s as good as dead, so why bother.’
This was not the response that anybody wanted to hear.
‘Could we take it to a vet?’ asked Niall.
‘If you are so concerned about helping the thing, the best that you could do would be to put it out of its misery.’
‘You mean kill it?’
‘Like I already said; it is as good as dead anyway. If you want to speed things up, I won’t stop you.’
Niall did not anticipate being placed on the spot in this way and had no answer. The Irishman’s silence was enough to convey to Rhett what it was that the backpackers expected from him.
‘Have I got to do everything myself?’ he asked, impatiently.
When no response came, the Australian let out a sigh of frustration before climbing back on the bus. There was a toolbox tucked under the driver’s seat. He opened it up and took out a screwdriver, which he turned over in his hands several times, mentally weighing up its effectiveness. After careful consideration, he replaced it and picked up a heavy wrench in its place. He then walked over to where the mortally wounded creature lay; making sure to approach it from the top end in order to steer clear of its deadly powerful legs.
Without further hesitation, he raised the wrench high above his head and then brought it crashing down against the skull of the lame and defenceless animal. The resulting impact sounded dull and wet. The backpackers turned away in disgust, but that which they could not see, could still clearly be heard. Two more blows followed, each eliciting a more sickening crunch than the last.
Once he had completed his grisly task, Rhett calmly walked back to the bus where the backpackers were quick to clear out of his way. The Australian took hold of a water bottle and used it to rinse the blood from his wrench, wiped it down with a rag and then returned it to the toolbox. He did not show one bit of emotion throughout.
‘What about the carcass?’ asked Matt. ‘Are we just going to leave it?’
Rhett glanced skywards to where a wedge tailed eagle had already begun to circle. It was a formidable bird of almost prehistoric proportions. With a wingspan of up to seven feet, it would not be wise to be caught standing so close to the kangaroo carcass should the creature swoop down to feed.
‘There is no need to do anything,’ the Australian told them. ‘Fresh meat never lasts long in the desert.’
With nothing more that anyone could do, they all got back on the bus. As Rhett drove them home, the pickers huddled around the back seats to keep as far a distance from him as possible. They all wanted nothing more than to try and put the memory of the brutality that they had just witnessed as far towards the back of their minds as possible. Despite them having no influence or responsibility for what had just happened, a feeling of guilt and shame prevailed throughout.
‘I cannot believe we let that happen,’ said Matt.
‘There was nothing else we could have done,’ replied Colin. ‘Nature is cruel; that’s just how it is.’
‘I know, but here it all seems so amplified. Everything is preying on everything else. If it isn’t eagles, there’s always a spider or a snake looking for its next victim. Why does everything have to be so angry?’
‘I don’t think they have a choice. Life here exists in such an open and empty environment that there is nowhere to hide. There are no shadows in the outback except those that we cast ourselves.’
Matt merely nodded in reply. Although he could see truth in what Colin told him, he took no comfort in it. Nothing more was said for the remainder of the ride home.
The Outback is currently on sale for 2.99. A further sample can be read on the book's Amazon page here