The car engine was so noisy and what a bumpy road! They must be on the back road to the school. Would Lavina be there today? Steve hoped so. He could see her gentle smile, but it wasn’t real. He was dreaming. His eyelids felt like lead. For some reason it was important to wake up but he couldn’t remember why. He forced his eyes open and the memories rushed back.
He was in an airplane flying over a dense valley of bush. He’d been kidnapped and Grant Ryland was sitting beside him piloting it. He shuddered, shook his aching head and pulled himself up.
“So you’re awake,” Ryland muttered. “That’s good. You can help unload.”
“What’s happening?” Steve muttered and gazed around. Lavina and Cathy were still slumped unconscious in the back.
“I gave ’em a needle to keep them out,” Ryland said. “Can’t have bloody nagging females screaming and bawling, now can we?” Steve stared at the man. Thoughts of retaliation swept into his mind but were immediately discarded. He wasn’t a pilot so, like it or not, the three of them were at Grant Ryland’s mercy.
“This is the situation,” Ryland ambled on in a voice that was too casual. “I’m a gambling man and, you wouldn’t believe it but I like you, young fellow. Bloody great job you’ve done fixing the old school and letting the locals use the swimming pool was real kind. I guess it’s not your fault Lavina here got her hooks into you.”
“Get to the point,” Steve growled. Ryland glanced at him and Steve noticed the man’s enlarged pupils. Steve had seen pupils like those before, round and dark with a lighter circle around them. He shuddered. Ryland was under the influence of some drug, which could be why the conversation was so casual. Steve wiped his dry lips and contemplated his next action but realized that at the moment all he could do was to try to pacify Ryland.
“Oh yes,” the farmer grunted, “I’m giving you a chance. If you come through, you can have Lavina. Cathy too, if you wish.”
“What chance?” Steve said calmly.
“I’m dropping you all off on the top tussock. You have supplies for four days and a small tent. If you can make it out, you’re home and hosed.” He shrugged. “Of course the weather’s turning to the worse and I heard snow’s on its way in. I’d say you’ve got about a twenty percent chance of making it out. Normally it would be a three-day hike.”
Steve stared at the man. “That’s just cold blooded murder,” he whispered. “That’s your wife and daughter at the back there. My God, man, just dump me off but take Lavina and Cathy home.”
“She’s no wife of mine,” Ryland’s voice turned hard. “A slut who sleeps around doesn’t deserve to live.”
Steve swallowed. “But Cathy!”
“Yes, I was thinking about that. Sweet kid but she can be a ripe pain.”
Steve was no longer able to remain calm. “You’re insane,” he burst out, clenching his fists.
“Would you rather I just tossed you all out? As I said, I’m a gambling man. I’m gambling you won’t make it out.” He laughed. “If you do, you can keep Lavina. Tell her if she comes to the farm again I’ll use my shotgun. They’re long odds, though.”
Steve clamped his mouth shut; frightened any comment would aggravate the situation. He watched as the bush and valley below changed to a high plateau of tussock. The flat area moved like an ocean as the brown plants waved in the prevailing wind.
The pilot pushed the steering column forward, the engine rumble changed to a quieter pitch and Steve saw a narrow strip of stunted grass. A tatty orange windsock shook horizontally on a bent pole at the end.
“Your new home is an old topdressing strip.” Ryland laughed as a small, lethal automatic appeared in his offside hand. “One false move and you get it in the neck, Garnet,” he continued, his tone now threatening “Bullet two will be the girlfriend and bullet three her daughter. You have their lives in your hands.”
“Okay,” Steve muttered, moving his hands out wide. His eyes blazed with fury as he stared at this monster.
“Good. I’ll miss Lavina in some ways. Great figure.”
Steve gritted his teeth but said nothing as the aircraft’s engine cut back, the flaps lowered and wheels touched ground. Moments later they had halted. Under Ryland’s direction, backed by the automatic, Steve half dragged and half lifted Lavina and later Cathy out of the back seat and carried them away from the Cessna. It was freezing and an icy wind cut directly into him. He hauled three canvas bags out from behind the back seat and tossed them on the ground.
“Shut the door,” Ryland snapped. His frame was turned and the revolver aimed straight at Steve. “No last heroics. Think of the girls all by themselves.”
“Can I have that first aid kit?” Steve asked and nodded to the small tin container fastened to the fuselage just beside the door he was closing.
“Sure, why not?”
Grant Ryland watched as Steve pulled the item off the wall and slammed the door shut. “By the way, there’s an old track down, due north. See yah in hell, buddy!”
The engine roared and Steve flung himself to the ground as the pilot made a violent hundred and eighty-degree turn and a wing whizzed over Steve’s head. The Cessna accelerated up the grass strip with the motor screaming at full revolutions in the high altitude. Wheels lifted, wings wobbled and it was gone. The engine sound faded and was replaced by the forlorn moan of wind across the tussock.
Shivering, Steve pulled his jacket close. He had to make a shelter before everyone froze. After finding Lavina and Cathy’s condition unchanged, he checked the bags. There was one heavy-duty sleeping bag that he unzipped and used to cover the two unconscious victims while he continued his inspection. Thank God! One bag contained a small tent.
It took some doing in the freezing wind but Steve found a slight dip and clipped together the aluminium poles, hooked on the guide ropes and had the small tent assembled. He unzipped the front; dragged Lavina and Cathy inside over the blue fabric floor and zipped up the flap. By now, his hands were blue and every breath puffed out huge clouds of condensation. The next bag contained the rations, adequate for five days if rationed. There was a two-litre container of water, and a small gas cooker with a screw-in cylinder of fuel. The third had spare clothes for Lavina and Cathy.
Grant Ryland was true to his word. Everything was designed to last exactly four days. Whether Lavina’s husband was insane, a ruthless killer or reckless gambler, Steve didn’t know, but at least they were safe for a while. He blew on his hands and decided to crawl into the tent to restore circulation to his numb limbs. He’d wait until the others woke up and then perhaps light the cooker.
He wriggled in between Lavina and Cathy, zipped the tent shut and pulled the sleeping bag over them all. With chatting teeth, he lay looking at the orange roof above and held his lover and her daughter in a close embrace so slowly their body heat flowed into him and, for the first time since leaving the plane warmth returned to his aching body. Outside, the wind howled across the bent tussock. A large black cloud blotted out the sun and the temperature dropped.