Andrew was absorbed in details as his eye and memory studied the map. He followed the dirt track, crossed the bridge and found the spot where they parked their car. Andrew and Malcolm referred to this spot as locked gate. It was a private joke; the gate was never locked. It was typical of the reverse sense of humour they enjoyed. The spot on the map marked the beginning of many hiking expeditions. From there they would cross the flat and follow the spur line that headed north. They'd pass the old homestead that age and weather had reduced to the lonely pinnacle of clay-brick chimney and fireplace. Andrew had often imagined a family of pioneers gazing into that fire after a day's toil: a warm yellow light bathing their faces and their prayers for rain and good crops. From the homestead the two trekkers would follow the spur line, ascending for several miles.
Contour lines drawn close together on a topographic map indicate steep slopes. Just like those, which formed the dividing mountain range that ran along the eastern seaboard of the continent. The map-set Andrew selected from Mr. Henry's; Maps for Sale section at $9.95 each, covered an area over 100,000 square kilometres. The range ran right through the centre of the set. The town of Arkefield was shown in the bottom right hand corner, the airfield located on an adjacent map. Each map-set was broken down by smaller scale maps with a ratio of 1:25,000, meaning that every 4 centimetres of paper represented 1 kilometre of land. Using the larger scale map for the moment meant he could cover more land for every centimetre however what Andrew made up for in coverage he lost in detail. Later he would need that detail, for now he was looking for possible sites where his father might successfully land a plane unseen.
The spur line ran from the grass hills into the wooded foothills. From there the pair would make a slight left turn and follow a long ridge that dipped and rose again until it reached Sullivan's Bluff. At this elevation they had views of the Cedar Valley running northwest and the Sandleford Range that ran almost due east and west. At this point they would choose a different direction to take each time. They never camped at the bluff but always made a point of stopping to smell the cedars, which was another bit of reverse humour as no cedar tree grew within a bull's roar of Sullivan's Bluff.
Andrew always felt each trip truly had begun once they'd reached the bluff. He'd take in the blue haze of the range and the quiet air and wait for a cue from his dad to make a small billy fire for a cup of tea. Nothing quenched the thirst like a good billy tea after the first march. The first four hours of hiking always seemed to be the hardest. During this time all the kinks would get ironed out as you developed a walking-breath and found your rhythm.
During the first few hours your pack would shift about and take a while to settle into the shape of your back. You might find you'd left a strap loose or the laces on the one of your boots were done up too tight. But you wouldn't stop to fix anything because you didn't want to break the rhythm and you certainly didn't want to be perceived as a wimp at the beginning of several days bush walking. By the time you reached the bluff you'd sweated into everything you were going to sweat into. If there were going to be any chaffing then that to would be well under way. By now you'd have grass seeds spiking your socks, flies in the corners or your mouth and eyes and an itch or two from an insect bite. It was all part of the joy of bush walking with your dad. You were in the bush and loving it.
From a young age Andrew accepted the bush and all that came with it: spiders, snakes, biting insects, stinging bushes didn't phase him. He wasn't bothered if charcoal got in the stew, or if he had to sleep on uneven ground, he didn't even mind having to crap into a hole. It was all part of the adventure. He only hated one thing. Leeches. He wasn't big on blood. Specially not his own and the thought of taking off his boot to see a sock soaking in blood disturbed him deeply. It had happened once when they'd gone hiking several hundred kilometres north and Andrew never wanted to repeat the experience. For this reason he preferred temperate to sub-tropical. He preferred Cedar Valley and the Sandleford Ranges to anything the tropics had to offer.
He recalled the last time they'd gone to the bluff. Turning west they'd descended to the valley floor to follow the watercourse to the place where two creeks joined. Thirty-two kilometres from locked gate, Lover's Creek flowed in from the west and Cedar Creek from the north: a good place for a campsite. With the sun touching the rim of the range it was time to gig out a fire pit in the scree at the base of the slope. After 10 hours of hiking they'd make short work of their preparations; roll out the swag, collect enough wood for a small cooking fire and bed down early. With a long hike ahead their habit was to strike camp the next morning before first light. Andrew and his father operated as a disciplined unit, and were able to cover a lot of ground in difficult terrain.
Andrew recalled the first night he spent in the bush. Long after his father had fallen asleep, he lay awake wide-eyed, focusing on every rustle, whistle, scrape and crackle. Fascinated and intrigued, he heard the uttering of a foreign language. It was as new and enthralling as it was old and familiar. For a long time that night he went on listening and listening as if remembering. Even on the stillest of nights the forest moved and breathed. Andrew took it all in. Beyond the warmth of a diminishing fire, the rim of light retained the black curtain that ran around them. And above all this, Andrew gazed at the wonderment of the stars in an infinite sky.
At that moment Jenni returned from serving. I'm shutting the store at one o'clock, she said. Noticing Andrew's puzzled expression. It's Saturday.
Arkefeild continued to observe country trading hours. Stores closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. The local chamber of commerce was keen to encourage free trade yet strongly opposed adopting city ways. It was a contradiction they were happy to live with.
Back in a sec, she said.
Andrew resumed map reading. What the eye could scan in less than a moment would take the feet the greater part of a day to cover. He followed the line from the campsite, heading north. Cedar Creek Falls lay twelve kilometres upstream. Further along, the creek turned northwest and splintered into several smaller valleys. Traveling another 15 kilometres into the range Andrew and his father had discovered the source. Cedar Creek waters sprang from a series of granite springs. Andrew recalled the day of their discovery and the moment when the two pioneers had savoured the cool, pure chill of mountain spring water. His father had said they were, tasting life itself.
Beyond Mt Warner, the highest part of the range, Andrew noticed a few cleared areas. Most of these he knew had been returned to the national park service and were in the process of being reforested. The two had never ventured beyond Mt Warner together, although his father had shared stories of how some of the farmers on that side had cut timber illegally when times were tough.
Andrew was about to move to another map-set when he detected a symbol he'd not seen before. The icon indicated a short landing area in a cleared field. A chill ran through him. He'd not expected to find anything as obvious and certainly not on the first map-set he inspected. A sensation of hope and promise mixed with anger and indignation surged through him. Andrew wrestled with the contradiction of mixed feelings. What he knew of his father made all this impossible yet before him was proof that a landing strip existed in country his father knew well. Evidence such as this made Jenni's suggestion all the more plausible.
The disused landing field had been built decades before at the foot of Mt Warner. It had been put there to exfill or infill fire-fighting troops in event of significant bush fires, although it had never been used for that specific purpose. The field was a day and half's hard walk from Cedar Ck Falls and three and a half days from locked gate. If all that Andrew now imagined were true, he knew exactly where to look.
Several issues arose. If he were going to find his father he'd need to convince his mother to let him go, which he knew she'd never do. Which meant making up a story, which he knew she'd never buy. Which meant just taking off, which he knew would crush her. There was no getting around it.
The next issue was the question of getting out there. Although he was capable of driving motorbikes, tractors and the occasional farm car on his uncle's property, he had no license to drive. He'd have to ask Jenni but she had no car so that was also going to be a challenge.
Assuming he could get out there, the next issue would be deciding which direction to take. He considered his choices. He could start at the locked gate knowing it would take at least three days to reach the other side of Mt Warner or he could start on the other side of the range which meant driving at least 150 kilometres north to meet a road going south west which would eventually take him to the northern side of Mt Warner and the Sandleford Range.
What's your plan? Jenni asked having closed the store.
I need to get out there and check this out, he said, showing her the place on the map he'd just found. He looked at her thoughtfully: Can you borrow your uncle's car? Drive me out there? Today? Now?
Without any pause: Yeah sure, she said. Let's go. I'll call him first just to make sure it's ok.
I'm not going to lie to him Andy, she stated.
Andrew nodded. He understood. Mr Henry was someone to trust. And they had to tell someone where they were going. It was a golden rule.
Andrew waited a full ten minutes, while Jenni talked to her uncle on the phone in the next room. She spoke quietly and it was hard to get a sense of the conversation.
What did he say? Andrew asked when Jenni had finished.
He said be sensible, make good choices and only go where you know you can. She said with a wink.
Andrew felt a wave of relief wash over him. With the help of good friends he would soon be taking action.
It was one thirty in the afternoon when they drove out the back lane behind Mr Henry's camping and disposal store. Andrew was still in his running gear. He'd need to get home to collect his pack, boots and walking kit. Jenni had given him the maps he needed and some satchels of dried food to take with him if he had to go out alone.
They agreed they would drive to the northern side of the range, which would take them a coupe of hours. The maps indicated they could follow a ten kilometre fire trail to the landing field from the closest point Jenni could drive to. If they didn't find anything they'd return to the car. Light would become an issue but they agreed to figure that out when they got there. If they found the plane or some other indication of his father's presence Andrew would have his pack and be able to continue the search. If that happened Jenni would return to Arkefeild and they would make a decision about the best time and location for a rendezvous.
They were talking through their plans as Jenni turned the corner into Excelsior Street.
Jenni had to stop the car suddenly; a police car was parked diagonally across the road with its lights flashing and blocking their way. Several houses down a burning car lay on its roof in the driveway of number 42. Black smoke billowed from all sides. Andrew recognised it as the family car. Spiked with terror, he threw open the car door and ran toward the house. He saw her, distressed and terrified, holding the rail of the front stairs as if her legs might go at any moment. Mom, he yelled. She looked up and propelled herself toward him. She threw her arms around him with so much protective force she took his wind away. Andy, she sobbed, where have you been?
Mom, what is going on, what happened?
She couldn't tell him. She'd been inside the house getting lunch ready when she heard an explosion. Then she found her car on its roof in the street.
She explained and questioned him in bursts of adrenalin. Nobody was anywhere near the car … no one was hurt … my god Andy what is going on … I didn't know where you were … the policemen said … it was such a loud bang … I ran out … and the broken glass and … first your father now this … Oh Andy.
He had no response. All he could do was hold his mother and offer comfort.
The fire truck arrived and three firemen dowsed the flames with foam retardant. The heat was intense and the stench of burning rubber nauseating. They looked on in disbelief at the damage. It was a miracle no passerby or neighbour had been hurt.
Later that afternoon after the police had gone and the tow truck had removed the burnt out shell of their car. Jenni, Andrew and his mother sat together on the back deck. The police had said that it appeared the car was firebombed. They'd asked many questions of all three. But there wasn't much that any of them could say. The reasons why someone would want do this were totally unknown to them. What danger were they in? Were they safe if this was intentional? Why would some one wish them harm?
The police had no answers however they indicated they'd be involving the city CID. Firebombing was not an everyday event in the quiet town of Arkefield. The tongues of the town had already begun to infer and speculate: first a disappearance and now a bombing, were the Chesterman's just having a run of bad luck or was something more sinister going on? They would have the answers to these questions in due course, for now they'd have to draw their own conclusions.
Andrew had not yet made any sinister connections to what had happened, he was still perplexed and torn between the powerful instincts of protection and rescue. Once again he felt the agony of inaction, now fed by indecision. Jenni sensed his anxiety. I think you have to tell her, Andy. She said.
Perhaps that was the best solution. He wanted to think some more before making any decisions. For now he had to deal with the implications of what had happened. There was something missing but he couldn't yet figure it. I should call uncle Colin, he said. I should tell him what's happened.