Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Tracker

With his right ear close to the red earth and his eyes squinting against the setting sun, he could make out the uneven ruts left by a four-wheel drive. The tread marks were smooth on the tyres’ shoulders, grooved on the insides. The killer’s wheels needed balancing.

The tracker didn’t have to be on his hands and knees, his face so near to the dirt that if he drew in a breath the dust would silt up his nostrils. Crouching on the ground was an affectation. No, he decided, that wasn’t right. It was a performance. He could just as easily have inspected the marks by leaning out the window of his Land Rover, but the bounty hunter would expect a touch of show business. You don’t team up with a blackfella to have him sit in the air conditioning, peering through a window: you want him scrabbling amongst the spinifex and ants’ nests, making remarks like: “Gubba gone bush. Lookin’ like shame job, boss.” and hefting a kangaroo carcass onto the campfire.

Standing up, the tracker left the dust on his palms and the knees of his jeans. More bits of business. Brushing off the dirt wouldn’t match the hunter’s preconceived ideas of how an aborigine behaved. He had to be as one with his country. For the tracker, his country was now a block of land and a self consciously neat house on the outskirts of Broome. “On with the show,” he said softly.

Inside the Land Rover, the airconditioning was barely keeping the desert heat at bay. A cluster of sweat beads shone on the hunter’s forehead. “Is it him?” the hunter asked.

Turning away, the tracker held his breath and nodded. When the hunter spoke there was the sour aroma of stale tobacco and fresh alcohol. Lowering the driver’s side sun visor, the tracker unhooked a photograph held in place by two elastic bands. He studied the photo as if the image of a man standing at a ticket booth in a foreign land would help. “Photo man” was braced against the booth’s counter, his face only partially exposed – damn useless for identification but it was the only ID that the client could offer. For all the tracker knew, “Photo man” mightn’t even be the killer. Maybe an acquaintance, maybe not.

The photo had fallen from the killer’s jacket when he’d swung a pub pool cue, cracking the client’s brother above the ear. The brother was dead before he hit the floor. Within the hour, the killer had fled the town, leaving behind one photo, one dead man and one vengeful relative.

Tracking down the killer should’ve been a task for the Broome police but the client wasn’t a patient man. He was, however, wealthy. He offered the hunter and the tracker a two-tiered deal: if they caught the killer and brought him back to justice, the two men would share $40,000. If they found the killer and he never returned, the split would be $50,000 for the man who did “the job” and $20,000 for the other person. Maths wasn’t the tracker’s strong point but he worked out that, as he had no intention of murdering anyone, either way he would get $20,000.

The hunter popped open the glove box. A 9mm pistol lay in its holster amongst maps, discount petrol coupons and unpaid traffic fines. Reaching in, the hunter cleared the scraps of paper away, leaving the weapon in clear sight. Looking satisfied, he twisted around. “Where do you reckon the photo was taken?”.


“I knew it was some wog country,” said the hunter. “Not much use to us.”

At least they agreed on one thing, thought the tracker. Securing the photo back onto the sun visor, he reached across the hunter’s legs and clipped the glove box shut. He liked everything tidy. Guns weren’t tidy. On the second night after the men had left Broome, as soon as the hunter began drinking by the fire, the tracker had popped the first three cartridges out of the 9mm’s magazine, prised off the bullet heads, emptied the gunpowder and replaced the heads and then the cartridges. If he was getting 20K for the killer dead or alive, he wanted it to be the latter.

By dawn, the men were rattling inside their violently shaking vehicle, its tyres slipping on desert shrubs, sliding off rocks. The Land Rover was tilted at almost 45 degrees, the crest of the hill above them seemingly beyond reach.

“Why didn’t you take the road?” shouted the hunter, his hands flailing, searching for something to grip onto.

“Ask the killer,” said the tracker almost at the same time as he heard the crack.

The hunter hit his seat belt’s release button and spun towards the rear. The tracker stared ahead. He’d heard that sound before. The differential was gone, buggered, cactus.

The two men abandoned the Land Rover and began the climb, each with their water bag, each with a weapon – the hunter and his gun, the tracker and a nulla-nulla which he’d never used and which he only vaguely remembered his grandfather throwing 30 years earlier at a dingo foraging in a rubbish bin. Each man unhappy in his own way.

On the top of the hill they saw it: a dark blue Toyota with a pile of rocks propped under the passenger’s side wheel hub. Left under the only shade for 50 kilometres, the vehicle was cool to the touch. The tracker estimated it had been there for at least 12 hours.

The surrounding ground was hard but there was enough grit for the imprints of the killer’s boots to have left scuffing. The killer was heading further into the desert. There was nothing ahead for him but death.

As arguments went, it was a short, sharp dispute. The tracker was adamant that only a fool would walk deeper into the desert – and only a fool stood before him. They parted without farewells. The hunter’s shoulders were back, peacock proud, his holster on his hip. The tracker watched the hunter, just as much a dead man walking as the killer.

Taking off his Akubra, the tracker flicked dust off the brim, checked the bash in the crown was even from front to rear, then pushed the hat back into place. The sun was climbing above the lone tree. Time to go. It was going to be a bloody long walk back to collect the hunter’s $50,000.

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