Badger Hill – Chapter 3
Hannah woke with a jolt. Was that scream in her dream – or real?
Crack! The air rang with a sharp report. Another, the sound echoing around the valley. A rifle?
She fumbled frantically with the zip of the tent in the dark and scrambled out, momentarily forgetting her injured knee. She shone the torch, swinging the beam wildly in the dark. Then, realising what she was doing, dropped it to the ground with a gasp, before, at last, scrabbling to turn it off.
When she got to her feet again all was quiet. Dark. She stood in the darkness shivering, for what seemed like hours.
Then a bright light, down the valley, where she knew the barn to be. Surely too far away to have seen her puny torch beam?
Hannah grabbed her binoculars from the tent. Her hands were shaking so badly that she could hardly focus. She gripped the rubber tightly, controlled her breathing and forced herself to be calm. The image still wobbled, but she could just make out shadows moving across the lit doorway of the barn.
Then a motor being started. High pitched, a savage whine. A chainsaw? No, a dirt bike. Two dirt bikes.
The headlight beams of the two bikes snaked slowly across the paddock. Heading for the creek. Heading for her side of the valley.
Hannah’s thoughts raced. She had to get out, quickly. No time to take down the tent. Anyway, the coals from the fire were still hot, glowing underneath. They would know she had been here. They could be here in minutes.
She stuffed possessions at random into her rucksack.
Need water. Raincoat. Binoculars. Toiletries bag with painkillers. Where’s that stick? Fuck, where are my boots? I can’t run in socks … Faster!
She edged her way cautiously into the forest at the back of the clearing, retreating from the open sky into the blackness under the trees, swinging the stick before her like a blind woman.
She had advanced maybe two hundred metres under the sheltering canopy when the bikes roared into the campground. They quickly located the abandoned tent and wheeled around it, lights stabbing into the trees. She heard the door of the toilet bang. Angry voices.
She sank down as quietly as she could into the bracken, lying on her front in the cold dampness of the forest floor. I mustn’t make a sound.
At last she heard one bike cough into life and leave the campground, heading back the way they had come. Then the other.
Hannah huddled with her back against the base of a large tree and tried to order her thoughts.
Those two meant to do her harm, there was no doubt of that. They also belonged to the farm. Jay had gone to the farm for help. That meant that Jay was in a lot of trouble. Or worse. The rifle shots …
If they knew that she was here, and they did, it was unlikely that they had seen the torch. The other explanation was that Jay had told them. Jay would only do that if … if …
There was nothing she could do for Jay right now. She had to get herself out of this first.
It was highly likely that they would return at first light to search for her. Therefore, she had to put more distance between herself and the campsite. On the other hand, it was too dark at present to move safely.
And she would soon be lost in the bush, with little food and less than a litre of water. At the best of times, fit, strong, fully able adults could disappear into this trackless wilderness and never be seen again.
If she kept to the trail, they would find her. If she went to the farmstead, she would walk straight into their open arms. The only way out was westward, to the main road. But it’s impossible. We looked at the map. Damn ‘impossible’. What’s impossible is to stay here until they come for me.
She would have to start moving as soon as there was light enough to see. In the meantime …
When she came round, it was broad daylight.
What she didn’t know: that had saved her. Silent and immobile at the base of her tree, concealed by bracken, she had been invisible to the stealthy hunters who had quartered the forest in the first grey light of dawn.
Slowly, voices impinged on her consciousness. Fully awake before her eyes even had time to open, she listened. They were back at the campground. Curiosity overrode her terror and she reached into her backpack for the binoculars.
Taking advantage of the cover of the bracken fronds, she rolled out softly, slowly from behind the tree. Between fronds she could see the backs of two men. Facing them, a third, gesticulating to left and right. An older man, whereas the two with their backs to her seemed to be young, in leathers. She guessed these were the dirt bike riders. One had a rifle slung across his back.
She studied the older man’s face. Clean-shaven, sun-tanned, blue eyes under thick brows. A handsome face, but cold, deadly. She shivered and lowered the glasses.
When she raised them again, he was scanning the bush in her general direction with a frown. She sank quickly to the ground.
Soon after, she heard the bikes start and move away, to right and to left. The older man seemed to have gone, too, when she dared look.
As she moved away cautiously into the forest, trying not to make a sound, she heard it: dogs barking. Far away, for now.
It was an unequal race. Hannah had nothing on her side but desperation.
Yet desperation is a powerful weapon in the fight for survival. She kept pressing westward as the dogs and their handlers grew closer. Despite her fears of getting lost, it was easy to orient herself in the event, because westward was downward. Down steep wooded slopes, slipping and sliding between the skinny trunks of regrowth forest; down mudslides and over rounded boulders into ravines thick with thorny shrubs. Places that no sane person would attempt to go.
Eventually, even the dogs lost courage. She left their baying behind as she stumbled and slid onwards.
It was again dark when she scrambled up an embankment and found asphalt under her scratched palms. She clambered over the safety barrier and stood shaking at the side of the road.
Headlights approached. And stopped, blinding her in their beam. She heard the passenger door swing open.
‘What ever’s the matter, love?’ The woman was thickset, middle-aged, with a rough but kindly voice.
‘There were men with dogs and guns, they were chasing me … after my boyfriend … I think they –’ Her voice broke completely and she sobbed.
‘Deary me! Get in the car, love. You’re safe now. We’ve got you.’
Hannah allowed the woman to coax her into the back passenger-side seat of the car, put her seatbelt on and shut the door. The woman came round to the driver’s side and sat beside her, holding her arm reassuringly. Tightly.
Then Hannah saw the driver’s eyes regarding her in the mirror. Amused. Familiar steel blue eyes under thick brows.
Southwest Radio – News Bulletin
The search for two hikers in the Otway Ranges is now in its fifth day. Hannah De Vries (32) and Jay Kowalczyk (29) failed to return from a multi-day bushwalk on Monday. Their vehicles were found at the beginning and end of their planned route, in Henderson and Athena Bay in south-west Victoria. Police and bush rescue have found no other traces of the pair, who their friends say are experienced bushwalkers. Two walkers report seeing the couple on Thursday 9 September but so far there are no further sightings. Police are urging anyone with information to contact Victoria Police.
Thank you for reading Badger Hill! I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to leave feedback, as I’d love to hear your reactions.
Next week we’ll be starting on a new story!