claire12

The truck’s engine rumbled and black diesel fumes belched out the exhaust as the wheels crunched through the icy surface to the gravel beneath. It was a well-formed track, though, and the old truck had made the journey a thousand times before. Alan clung on when they went around the bottom corner. This was one of two ninety-degree bends on the track. From here, it was a steep straight climb up the hillside until they reached the top bend that turned another ninety degrees onto the table flats.

The warning that something was wrong only came when the Bedford swung wide on the last bend. Alan heard a scream of gears as Hazel attempted to change down. In this old truck, first gear was not synchronized and to get into it involved a double-declutch. Hazel as a confident driver but something went wrong. The engine howled as the gearbox slipped into neutral and the truck stopped and began to slide backwards.

“Don’t brake!” Alan screamed but Hazel had already reacted.

She braked slightly with the result being the opposite of what she had intended. On the icy surface the back wheels locked and the tray swung out. The hay bales that covered half the deck began to slide. Jiggy skidded sideways with a yelp of fright but Alan managed to grab her collar with one hand and hold the frame behind the cab with the other. He stuck a foot out to defect a hay bale away from them and waited for the truck to level out.

But it didn’t. He saw the snow covered valley and gasped in alarm as the hay bales hit him and he was propelled forward. The tray disappeared and Alan saw the blur of ground beneath him. A hay bale hit his shoulder and his legs went from under him. There was a bang of something snapping that penetrated his brain, the feeling of excruciating pain as he tumbled down onto a rock hard surface and the vision of the truck careering by down the slope.

There was more though. As he watched in frozen horror he saw the spinning back wheels. The truck was on its side as it skidded by!

More hay bales hit and Alan screamed involuntarily before the world around spun and he remembered no more.

*

Barking right outside her bathroom door made Claire jump in alarm. She opened the door to find not only Jiggy there barking but also one of the farm dogs. This one was a female but she didn’t know its name. The dog stood back looking almost nervous as if she knew she shouldn’t be inside while the little terrier continued to bark, run up the corridor and back again.

“What is it, Jiggy?’ Claire.

The farm dog stood up and whined.

“Where’s Alan?” Claire asked.

Both dogs stopped, sat down and gazed at her with sensitive brown eyes.

“They sent you to get me. Is that right?”

Jiggy barked and ran back along the corridor again. This time, though she didn’t stop but disappeared into the kitchen. The back door was wide open and icy air blew in. Claire followed Jiggy and the other dog out to the veranda. There was snow everywhere and the day clear and cold, far colder than she had ever experienced in Wellington. Both dogs ran out onto the drive and stopped between the truck tyre marks in the snow.

“You want me to come?”

Both dogs barked and the farm dog sort of pawed the snow and ran along the ruts created in the snow by the truck tyres while Jiggy stayed by her but continued to bark.

“I’ll get a coat.” Claire gazed out but could see nothing except snow and the tyre marks disappearing around the side of the far shed. She assumed this led out to the farm.

The farm dog watched while she put one of Hazel’s raincoats on and found a pair of gumboots. Her hands and ears were already freezing but there was no time to find a hat or gloves. As soon as she stepped out onto the drive, the farm dog sort of yelped an acknowledgment and disappeared out of sight. Jiggy stopped barking and trotted along beside her.

Behind the shed the truck marks followed a wide track that was fenced on both sides. Claire pulled her collar up and stepped out to follow the farm dog moving rapidly away in the distance.

*

In spite of the freezing temperature, Claire was perspiring and puffing by the time she reached a paddock where cattle were munching hay in two long lines. By the look of it, the truck tracks had turned in and come out again. Jiggy ignored the paddock, though and continued to run just ahead to where the track turned up the side of the hill.

“Oh hell,” Claire gasped when she saw how steep it was. “Jiggy, slow down, will yah.”

The little dog turned, ran back, around her and ahead again around the corner. Clair followed and heard something beside her. She glanced down and saw another dog. This was a larger male who had slowed its pace to trot beside her. Its tongue hung out the side of its mouth as it gazed up at her with almost pleading eyes.

“So you stayed behind until your friend arrived back, boy,” she said and reached down to pat the dog’s head. Unlike the females it did not bark but instead his tail wagged three or four times as he fixed her with a knowing expression his eyes.

The hill was steep and slippery. By the time Claire was half way up she was wheezing and gasping for breath. She ignored a spasm of pain under her ribs and continued on. Ahead, the track went left around a small cutting so only distant hills were visible. That was when she noticed that the tyre marks in the snow were different. The single front marks and double rear ones had become a continuous line that churned up snow and slush everywhere.

Claire stopped and gasped. The tracks went straight ahead, not around the corner beneath the cutting. She broke into a run, slipped and staggered but reached the edge and looked ahead. Half way down a steep valley she spied the truck surrounded by tossed out hay bales. It was jammed between two pine trees and looked as if a branch had crashed across the cab while the tray, devoid of any hay stuck grotesquely up in the air.

“Alan! Hazel!” Claire screamed but there was no reply. Everything was deadly quiet in the frosty air and the only movement was steam was curling from the truck engine. The three dogs stood in a line beside her with their ears forward, backbone hair ridged and tails drooping.

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About Ross

Ross Richdale is a New Zealand author of over 40 novels, both science fiction and contemporary that are sold as ebooks at all the major outlets.

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