then when we confirm that the Haney’s are missing cattle, we’ve got something to tell the police.”
"Her laughter stung like a whip might sting;
And mad with his wounded pride,
He turned and sprang with a panther's spring,
And struck at his rival's side"
From “Anthony Considine” ~ Banjo Patterson
The faint tail lights of the truck ahead had a mesmerising effect on Jemimah. They rose and fell and disappeared behind bends only to suddenly glow again in the depths of the night. Like two red eyes, they became a creature in its own right, flying around inside her mind, following her through the tunnels of
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been asleep when Angie shook her shoulder. “Look! It’s the same truck! He’s turning in at the big service station!”
“Where are we?” Bright street lights dazzled Jemimah’s eyes, and she sat up, blinking. They were slowing at a large round-about, and she was amazed how busy the traffic was at that hour of the night.
“Just past Narrabri. See, I told you he’d be heading for the highway! He’s had his lights on full since we hit town, so he must think he’s safe from anyone recognising him now.”
Something in Angie’s triumphant tone made Jemimah suddenly afraid. “You said we’d only follow him to Narrabri, and then go home …”
“Yeah - and this is Narrabri. We only need to keep on his tail now until we see which way he heads from here - through Narrabri or off to Gunnedah or Coonabarabran - then we’ll turn back.”
Angie turned into the fuel station, and pulled up in the shadows on the far side of the truck refuelling area. “And while he’s here I can get a good look at his number plate
Before Jemimah could answer, Angie had shoved the car keys into her back pocket and was sauntering across the concrete apron toward the service station. The driver of the truck they’d been behind was standing at the bowser and filling it with fuel. He looked like a giant to Jemimah, probably much the same height and build as Jack Hart, but with a much more intimidating set to his features. The standard trucker’s “uniform” of grey Stubbies shorts and a navy singlet top made him appear more threatening, and Jemimah shuddered as Angie casually walked past him. When the driver didn’t look up, Jemimah sighed in relief. The sooner they were out of here, the better.
Angie had disappeared into the 24 hour café when the driver finished refuelling, and Jemimah watched him stride toward the shop. Angie returned a moment later, her face flushed.
“He’s ordered a coffee, so we’ve got a few minutes!” she said as she thrust her head in through the open door. “He’s definitely got cattle in there, I heard them! I’m going to peek into the truck and see if I can at least tell the colour of the ear tags.”
“Angie! No!” Jemimah called after her, but her words were wasted on Angie’s back.
Jemimah scrambled across into the driver’s seat as Angie ran back across the concrete apron to the cattle truck. The door shut behind Jemimah as she leapt out of the car, intending to stop her - but she pulled up short when she saw Angie was already only metres from the truck.
It would only draw more attention to Angie if she went up to her, Jemimah realised, and slunk back toward their car. She stood beside it and glanced nervously toward the roadhouse, slightly reassured when she made out the navy tank top and grey shorts of the truck driver still waiting by the cash register. She looked back at his truck just in time to see Angie nimbly climb onto the back step of the truck.
No, no, no! Jemimah was aghast as Angie tried the bolt on the door, then slipped through a small gap into the back of the truck and pulled the door shut behind her. Faint with fear, Jemimah looked back at the window of the roadhouse, relieved to see the truck driver still waiting by the counter.
She kept her eyes on him, willing Angie to reappear at the back of the truck, but when she glanced away from the shop for just a moment to check whether Angie had emerged, she saw their truck driver walking across the driveway toward his truck.
Jemimah’s eyes nearly burst from their sockets. She blinked hard - she could still see him by the counter! Oh, no! The words came out of Jemimah’s mouth like a groan as she realised she’d been watching the wrong set of navy singlet and grey shorts.
The driver was only metres from the back of his truck - if Angie climbed out now he’d be sure to see her. I have to distract him … ask for directions or something …
With no other thought in her mind than catching his attention, Jemimah dashed across the driveway toward him, but her “Excuse me!” was drowned by was a sudden horn blast on her right, as a coach slammed on its brakes. Jemimah froze as the bus stopped only centimetres from her.
“I’m so sorry!” Jemimah mouthed while the coach driver swore angrily at her. She glanced up and saw their truck driver looking straight at her, shaking his head.
“Dumb blondes alright!” he laughed to the coach driver. Jemimah stepped back while the coach slowly drove past her, and as soon as it passed she looked over to where the truck driver had been standing. He was gone, and with a cold realisation that she was too late, Jemimah heard the cattle truck start up and saw its lights turn on. It moved off immediately, and she knew that Angie hadn’t had time to climb out.
Her flesh feeling as though it had been replaced by ice, Jemimah watched as the truck drove out of the roadhouse and turned toward Gunnedah - with Angie trapped inside. The tail lights disappeared as the truck - and her best friend - were swallowed up by the night.
Another truck passing within a metre of Jemimah jolted her from her trance and she ran back to Angie’s car, only to find all the doors locked. Through the closed window she could see her handbag with her purse and mobile phone locked securely inside.
Her heart pounding so quickly that she felt like the ground was moving, Jemimah sagged against the car. She had to do something - quickly. She ran through one option after another. She could call the police - but no crime had been committed, except that of Angie breaking into someone’s truck, and she didn’t even know its number plate. She should ring Angie’s dad - but he was over an hour away. By the time he got to Narrabri the truck could be anywhere, and what might happen to Angie if the truck driver stopped …
She needed someone now!
Oh, Lord - who can help me?
Jemimah weighed up the strangers moving amongst the bowsers in front of her, wondering whether to appeal to one of them for help. The shadows cast by the fluorescent lights contrived to make even the few women look menacing, and years worth of terrible stories about hitchhikers bubbled up in her mind. She could well end up in a worse situation than Angie.
She ran her hands through her hair. It had been a terrible night, ever since they’d left the Cox’s farm and Jack had tried scaring them on the road …
She bolted into the shop. He might be the last person she’d turn to for help in normal circumstances - but he was in Narrabri not even ten minutes away from where they were. And she knew his mobile phone number - apart from the prefix it was the same as her sister’s home phone - the coincidence had fixed it in her mind.
Jemimah snatched up the handset of the blue payphone, but it was only when she tried to dial Jack’s number that she remembered her purse was locked inside Angie’s car. She replaced the handset and started toward the counter at the far end of the store.
If she told the attendant how desperate her situation was, surely he’d lend her some money? Jemimah rounded the corner of the aisle, her mouth suddenly dry as she saw four burly men lined up for the cashier, one of them the coach driver who’d sworn at her earlier. She stopped short, recoiling from making a general announcement that she was completely alone, with no money, no transport, and no-one knowing she was there.
Dismayed, she stumbled back toward the door, her mind clogged up with fear and unable to think. It was with a strange detachment that she noticed the glint of a gold coin under a rack of potato chips.
Someone must have dropped it. I guess I should hand it in … She bent down, but as soon as she touched it, something twigged in her frozen brain and she curled her fingers around it possessively and ran to the phone. Thank you, Lord!
Jack’s mobile rang out twice before he finally picked it up.
“Jack - it’s Jemimah, I need your help!”
“What? What was that?”
Through the earpiece Jemimah could hear loud voices and laughter, and realised with relief that he must still be at McDonald’s.
She cupped her hand around the mouthpiece and raised her voice. “It’s Jemimah - I need your help! Angie’s --”
“Have you had an accident? Are you hurt?” Jack’s voice was suddenly serious.
“No, no, I’m fine but Angie’s trapped in the back of a cattle truck on the way to Gunnedah and the car’s locked and I haven’t got my purse and --”
“What?” Jack cut her off again, “I can hear the words but you’re still not making any sense. Take a deep breath and start again, Sparky.”
Conscious of the descending credit on the payphone, Jemimah forced herself to slow down, and told Jack the whole story.
“I’ll leave the boys here and pick you up in five minutes,” he told her as soon as he’d finished laughing, “And, Sparky?”
“Stay inside the shop, okay? Don’t go wandering off into any shadowy corners or talking to any strangers, you hear.”
Jemimah hung up and waited by the window. Something told her she’d live to regret asking Jack Hart for his help, but she was incredibly grateful that he’d offered to come without hesitation. If only they could catch up with Angie in time …
“Thank you so much,” Jemimah repeated over and over, fumbling to do up her seat belt as Jack accelerated quickly onto the road.
He began to laugh again. “I can’t believe the things you get yourself into, Sparky - do you go looking for trouble?”
Jemimah sagged against the seat, her limbs weak with relief now that Jack had taken control of the situation. His nonchalance made Angie’s situation seem less dire, but she was still very frightened for her friend, and asked Jack whether he really thought they’d catch them up.
“The trick will be catching them up before Quirindi,” he answered, pulling out and passing a sedan. “Otherwise we’ll have no way of knowing whether they’re heading toward Tamworth or Willow Tree. Now, let me get all the facts straight, Sparky -where did you say the truck was parked when you first saw it?”
“Angie said it was outside Haney’s.”
“And did you see any cattle being loaded into the truck.”
“No, but that’s what she thought was going on. She said there’s been cattle going missing around the area lately, and it made her suspicious that the truck had no headlights on.”
The road flashed by, and Jemimah looked across at the speedo, even allowing for parallax error she was sure they were at least 30 over the limit. She drew in her breath sharply, wondering if she should she say something? Jack seemed completely relaxed, left hand on the wheel, his right arm resting on the door. While she didn’t doubt that he was in control of the vehicle, it surprised her since he was a Christian too, and surely he didn’t think speeding was okay? From her point of view, deliberately going even one kilometre over the limit was sinning.
Jemimah chewed on her lip, but forbore to say anything. Perhaps it was just because this was an emergency, and going this fast was the only way to save Angie? Still, she’d never been this fast in her life and it made her very uncomfortable.
Jack reached down to his mobile, “I’ll check with the Haneys - might as well get to the bottom of things now.” He punched in the number for directory assistance, drumming his fingers on the wheel while he waited for them to connect his call.
“Hello?” A gruff voice answered over the speaker.
“How are things, Mr Haney?”
“Good Jack. What are you up to at this time of night?”
“Just checking up on you. Young Jemimah Parker’s here with me - she and Angie Turnbull saw a cattle truck leave your place not too long ago, they were worried it was suspicious.”
Mr Haney laughed, “No, mate - we sold five steer late this afternoon but the driver didn’t leave until after dinner. Poor bloke, if he was still out there not long ago. He’d been having trouble with his alternator on the trip here - it wasn’t charging the battery - but he thought once he got going he’d be okay. Said he might run with his lights low for a while to give the battery a chance to charge.”
“Where is he heading?”
“Just short of Willow Tree. Why?”
“It seems that Angie and Jemimah took it into their heads that since he was travelling without all his lights on he was obviously a cattle thief and they ought to do a citizen’s arrest or something. Angie stowed herself in the back of the truck when he stopped to refuel. I’m trying to catch him up now before young Jemimah here frets herself to death.”
Mr Haney’s laughter filled the ute. “What on earth where they thinking?”
“I honestly have no idea, mate - women are beyond reason.”
When his laughter finally subsided, Mr Haney said, “The driver’s Peter Robson. He’s a good bloke - Angie’s got nothing to worry about.”
“Peter Robson? I think I know him - he drives for his old man doesn’t he?”
“Yeah - Marc Robson. He hasn’t got a phone or anything in the cabin, but you’ll probably get him on the UHF.” He paused and there was the sound of rustling paper. “Channel 18.”
“Thanks, mate. I’ll try that when we’re in range. Have a good night.”
“You too, Jack - I hope you catch him up soon.”
Jack ended the call, and turned to Jemimah. “And making a simple phone call like that didn’t occur to either of you? I don’t know. But at least we know where he’s heading.”
“Can we slow down a bit then?” Jemimah asked in a whisper. The speedo had crept up even higher while he’d been on the phone.
“Don’t you trust me?”
In the darkness, Jemimah clenched her fists tighter. Admitting she was frightened would only egg him on, but perhaps there was an approach that might work.
“I was thinking it’ll be an expensive night all around if you get picked up by the police.”
Jack took his foot off the accelerator. “Yeah, you’re right there. I had wanted to make sure we got to the cattle truck and found Angie before the driver did - but even if we don’t, she’ll be alright with Pete.”
For a moment, Jemimah was touched by his concern for Angie, then he spoiled it all by chuckling, “I’d like to see her try and explain herself to him, though. I wonder if Pete’s still got the same sense of humour that I remember?”
He picked up UHF handpiece and spoke into the mike. “Peter - you on channel mate?”
There was no reply, and Jack calmly repeated his question every couple of minutes, until finally Jemimah heard a man’s voice crackle over the speaker.
“On channel. Go ahead.”
“It’s Jack Hart. I’m southbound about 20 minutes behind you.”
“G’day Jack - whatchya up to?”
“Trying to catch you mate - you’ve got a stowaway. A girl climbed in the back when you were stopped at Narrabri.”
“Wish I was - where are you now?”
“I’ve just passed Baan Baa. Want me to pull up?”
“No - I don’t. I don’t want her to jump before we get there - we’d never find her then.”
“Righto - I’ll slow right down though, you’ll catch me up in no time. What kind of game is your girlfriend up to anyway, Jack?”
Jack laughed, “This is no girlfriend - a girl from my church saw your truck outside Haney’s and thought you were cattle rustling. She followed you to the roadhouse at Narrabri, and apparently climbed in the back to check out whose cows you’d nicked.”
“Fair dinkum!” the other man laughed, “Don’t the girls up your way have anything better to do on a Friday night? Well, I can’t wait to meet your Annie Oakley and find out how she’s fared with my cattle. There was plenty of space in the back, so as long as she’s got the sense to hang on, she’ll be fine. Where are you now, Jack?”
“Not far out of Narrabri. I’ll call you up again when I get to Baan Baa.”
“See ya then.”
Jemimah felt dizzy with relief, they would be catching up with the truck and Angie soon.
“Will she really be okay in the back of the truck?” she asked Jack.
“Will the cattle be okay is more the question.” Jack’s teeth gleamed white as he grinned in the darkness.
Poor Angie, though Jemimah. Jack was enjoying this immensely and she knew that he’d be bound to make the most of it.
A few minutes later the UHF crackled again.
“On channel Jack?”
“Yeah, mate, go ahead.”
“I think I can see your lights behind me. Are you passing the Old Maules Creek turnoff?”
“Yep - that’s me. Where’s a good spot to pull up?”
“There’s a roadside stop in about 500 metres that’ll do me. What are you going to do?”
“Gee - I don’t want to make things too easy on her. I’ll pull up in front of you, so the ute is out of sight. We’ll take it from there.”
Soon Jemimah could make out the tail lights of the truck some distance ahead, and as it pulled in left, they passed it and stopped on the shoulder just in front. She quickly jumped out of the cab and followed Jack to the driver’s side of the truck, where Peter Robson was climbing down. When he saw Jemimah, he shook his head and laughed.
“I don’t believe it - you’re the blonde I saw nearly get creamed by a bus at the road house!”
Jack’s face lit up with wicked enjoyment, and Jemimah dropped her eyes to the ground. “Let’s just get Angie,” she muttered, her face burning, and walked past Jack toward the back of the truck.
It was only then that she noticed the heavy metal bar in Peter Robson’s hand. She turned back and grabbed at Jack’s arm urgently. “What’s that?”
“Looks like a tyre lever,” Jack said and both men giggled like boys. “I reckon he’s going to give Angie a bit of a scare.”
Jemimah raced after Peter as he moved swiftly to the back of the truck, but just as she was about to call out a warning, Jack clapped his huge hand over her mouth.
Peter went ahead, and bellowed menacingly “What th’ heck do you think you’re doing in my truck?”
Angie leapt down from the truck and looked as though she were about to sprint into the bush. Jemimah broke away from Jack’s hand and ran toward her.
“Angie - it’s okay! He’s only teasing. Jack knows him - he’s transporting cattle for Mr Haney.”
Angie looked from Peter, to Jemimah to Jack - her eyes wild in the moonlight.
“You stupid, stupid girl!” Jack berated her, before she could say a word. “What on earth did you think you were doing?” His tone was every bit as harsh as Peter’s, but Jemimah caught the twinkle in his eyes and saw him fighting to keep the grin off his face.
“I… I… just …”Angie started, but then composed herself, drawing herself up to her full height, her look of fear replaced by indignation. “What are you doing here?” she demanded of Jack.
“Rescuing you - before you end up in Woop Woop!"
“I didn’t need rescuing!” Angie spat back. “I was just waiting until the truck stopped--”
“Get off your high horse, Angie Pangie. Did you stop to think about what you were doing - or did you just jump straight in the back of the truck on impulse?”
“You’d think it was worth worrying about if you’d ever had livestock. You can sit at home and just watch your little plants grow. You’ve got no idea how many years of investment one animal can represent.”
Jack snorted. “And if Pete really was a cattle thief - were you just going to ask him nicely to turn around and take them back?”
“Shut up, Jack. I didn’t ask for your help!”
“No - you didn’t. And where would you be right now if Pete here wasn’t the nice bloke that he is, and we weren’t here to bring you home?” He jerked his head toward the other man who, Jemimah had to admit, was doing a pretty good job of looking menacing despite the grin on his face. “Talk about having more brains than sense!”
Peter finished locking up his truck, and turned back to Jack, his shoulders still twitching with laughter. “I’d better get going Jack - I’ll leave you with them. Good luck, it looks like you’ll need it with those two.”
“Thanks mate. See ya.”
They watched as the truck started up, and moved back onto the road. Peter sounded the air horn with a blast and Jack and Jemimah waved him off, while Angie stood fuming, with folded arms.
“What did you get Jack for?” Angie hissed to Jemimah.
Jemimah shrugged off her friend’s lack of gratitude. Angie was safe and she didn’t care about anything else.
“Well, get in then,” Jack said to Angie, as he walked around to the driver’s side. “Or would Miss Independence prefer to walk back?”
Angie opened the passenger door, but refused to go in - making Jemimah climb in to the middle seat. “You called him - you can sit next to him!”
Angie slammed the door as she came in after her. Jack turned the car around, and headed back toward Narrabri.
“I’m surprised your Dad thought it was safe to let you leave home alone!” Jack said with a definite snicker, “I can’t wait to hear what he says about this adventure.”
“Are we going to have to listen to this the whole way?” Angie snapped back, “You’ve had your fun, alright? Just drive.”
Jemimah sneezed several times, and then began to giggle. “Oh, Angie you smell dreadful!”
“It’s disgusting!” Jack wound down his window, as the strong odour of cattle filled the cabin, “No wonder I grow cotton instead of filthy cattle - I couldn’t live with myself if I stunk like that.”
Angie said nothing but wound down her own window. Jemimah squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry - I hate to think what it was like stuck in the truck with all those cows.”
“Better company than this. Why did you have to ring Jack?”
“There was nothing else I could do. I couldn’t drive after you myself - you’ve got the car keys in your pocket, remember.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have done you any good - since you can’t drive manuals anyway!”
Jack chuckled. “You didn’t tell me you couldn’t drive a manual, Sparky.”
“The car was locked - whether it was a manual or not wasn’t relevant.” Jemimah defended herself.
“If you couldn’t drive a manual the fact the car was locked was irrelevant!” Jack replied. “What use are you in these parts if you can’t drive anything but your own automatic?”
“Thanks a lot, Angie.” Jemimah glared at Angie, who smiled back, happy to have the attention off herself.
“We’ll have to do something about that, then, Sparky,” Jack continued. “I’ll teach you to drive properly.”
“Thanks anyway - but I don’t want to learn how to drive a manual. It’s too hard.”
“No - you have to learn, otherwise if anyone needs help in an emergency or there’s some fiasco like tonight, and you’re not in your own car, you’re a real liability. Jamie and I’ll take you out and teach you to change gears tomorrow afternoon.”
“Well, I’m certainly not going to have a lesson with Jamie watching. It’d be embarrassing enough without him there too!”
“Oh, no, no, no! I’m not going to risk being seen out alone with you, Miss Sparky - you know exactly how to start people talking, don’t you?” Jack’s laughter seemed to shake the cabin, and Jemimah was just as glad as Angie when the lights of Narrabri appeared in the distance.
As soon as they pulled up at the roadhouse, Angie was out of the cabin without a backward glance. Jemimah turned to Jack, suddenly awkward. “I can’t thank you enough for coming Jack ... I don’t know what I’d have done without you. I’m sorry if we didn’t seem very grateful.”
Jack snorted. “I didn’t really expect Angie would be. Don’t worry, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely, and I’ll be living off this for some time yet. Now, get yourself out of here. I’ll pick up the boys and catch you up on the road home - I’ll make sure you get home this time.”
Jemimah heard his cheerful horn blast as she followed after Angie, who was heading toward the ladies’ toilets. Several minutes had passed by the time they were back in the car, and almost as soon as they’d left the outskirts of Narrabri another vehicle pulled in close behind them.
“I don’t believe it!” Angie said after a scathing glance at her rear view mirror, “It’s Jack again! What does he think he’s up to now?”
Jemimah looked down at her lap. “He said he would follow us and make sure we got home safely.”
“Oh, did he now? Well, I know how to fix him!” Angie eased her foot off the accelerator and smiled as the car slowed to 40 below the speed limit. “Let’s see how long he follows for now.”
Equally aware of Jack’s weakness for speed, Jemimah couldn’t imagine him crawling along behind Angie at that pace, and waited for his next move. Within a minute, her mobile phone rang within her handbag.
“Hello Jack,” she answered.
“Is there some problem with the car, or is Angie just being a first class pain in the neck?”
Jemimah laughed. “There’s no problem with the car.”
“I knew that,” he replied gruffly, and hung up.
His lights flashed brightly a couple of times behind them, then the ute roared past - its tail lights quickly diminishing ahead of them.
“Good riddance!” Angie remarked then floored the accelerator until they were back at the maximum speed.
Jemimah leaned back against her seat with a long sigh. She was a little surprised how quickly Jack had forgotten his promise to see them safely home … although it gave her hope that his threatened driving lesson might be as easily dismissed from his mind.
© R. L. Brown 2007