by Greg Barron
There, amongst the forest giants, death was an everyday thing. The detritus of past generations littered the earth. Elks clung to their hosts, and fern trees bowed their senseless heads to the grandeur of the trees.
Doug Fraser had stacked three quarters of a tonne of firewood into the truck when he heard the bough fall. Already he was thinking of telling the boy to stop cutting and help with the loading, for the chunks of hardwood were heavy, and slippery from last night’s rain. His breath rasped in his throat, and sweat dripped from his forehead.
Born and raised in the bush, the tearing crash and heavy thump was jarringly familiar. Doug knew the sound of a falling branch when he heard it. Even before the echoes faded he dropped the block of wood from his arms, and started to run, heavy boots clumping, tripping on bracken fronds as he ran.
The English boy lay on his back, blood seeping from the crown of his head. He did not move a muscle, not even a dead man’s twitch. The murdering bough, thick and heavy as a pylon, lay beside him.
Kneeling, Doug felt for a pulse, hairy belly hanging out of his singlet. Nothing. The boy’s normally red cheeks had already taken on deathly hues. Settling onto his ankles Doug stared up at the fresh scarred trunk where the branch had come away. They fell so fast, he knew, without warning, oblivious to what lay beneath.
‘Bloody gum tree,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Bloody widow maker. I warned the stupid bugger – a dozen times.’
Flies settled on the body. Doug swiped them away. The dead boy was a backpacker from Liverpool, England. Hitchhiking south, he’d admitted to overstaying his visa, fresh from two weeks in Byron Bay, cashless and broken-hearted, stale bourbon steaming from his pores. Eagerly he accepted the offer of work; cash money, no questions asked, sleeping in the van out in the yard in return for work.
Now Doug pondered the wisdom of that arrangement. The cops would get involved. Maybe even lay charges. There was a small matter of non-existent safety equipment. A grieving family was sure to turn up, blaming him, causing trouble. Lawsuits. Accusations.
One of the tools on the rack behind the truck cab caught Doug’s eye – the long handled spade. All his life he had dealt with his own problems and never troubled the police. Why shouldn’t he do the same now?
Doug nodded coldly to himself. Why not solve this once and for all, then shut his mouth and get on with life as if nothing had happened? No one knew the boy was staying with him.
At first he tried dragging the body away by hand, but the deep forest, where the canopy closed over and vines snaked from limb to trunk was still a football field away. Too far. He stopped, chest heaving, and went for the truck, backing up near the corpse, tying fifteen feet of grubby rope around both ankles, then to the truck’s tow ball. As an afterthought, he picked up the fallen chainsaw and examined it for damage. Satisfied, he placed it in the tray before climbing into the driver’s seat and easing into gear.
Doug drove deep into the forest, where the wheels crackled on a cushion of fallen leaves and vigorous green growth blocked out the sun. Leaving the cab, he took the spade from its rack and started to dig. He planned to go six feet down, but after an hour of hard yakka the grave was just half that depth.
That was deep enough, Doug decided. He rolled the body into the shallow grave and spread soil back over, throwing handfuls of dry leaves at random, until the surface looked natural. When it was done he felt reluctant to leave, squatting beside the spot muttering half remembered prayers.
Driving back to town, Doug’s hands loosened on the wheel. His breathing slowed to normal. Now and then a secret smile stole onto his lips, his quick thinking had saved a world of hassle. Sure, he felt sorry for what had happened, the kid had been a good worker, but he was gone, nothing would bring him back, so why ruin his own life as well?
Turning into the main street of town, with its rows of poplars and low chain mesh fences, two kids on bikes stopped to stare. Giving them the finger, Doug drove on.
Regular drinkers had gathered on the pub veranda. Doug recognised some faces and imagined how nice a cold schooner would taste. Just one, he decided, then he would deliver the load of firewood in the back of the truck. It was short on weight, of course, but old Mrs Fahey, the customer, wouldn’t notice.
As he swung over to the roadside, switching off the ignition and engaging the handbrake, a commotion developed amongst the drinkers. A woman screamed. People stared. The veranda crowd thinned as men and women alike fled inside through the doorway. Shouts and upraised voices continued, and faces appeared at the windows. Even the publican’s dog, a fat blue heeler, lumbered to its feet and let out a single, excited yip.
Stepping out onto the bitumen, Doug slammed the truck door and glared back. ‘What?’
No response, only cold and frightened stares.
Muttering to himself, Doug lumbered back alongside the vehicle, studying the load of firewood, wondering why he had attracted so much attention. Then, level with the rear bumper he stopped, dumbstruck, hardly able to breathe.
The boy’s bloody and tattered corpse, rope still neatly tied to the ankles, lay in stiff and untidy repose on the bitumen behind the truck. Shirt and skin had been partially stripped away, leaving raw red flesh with smudges of black soil from the temporary grave, pock marked with embedded blue gravel.
Doug’s mouth opened and closed like that of a fish. He looked up into the glazed eyes of the few hardened drinkers who still leaned on the rail. Turning desperately, he saw the town cop on his way across from the station. Pointing at the corpse with one stubby forefinger he cried, ‘It wasn’t me – a bloody widow maker, that’s what done it.’
Four years passed before Doug returned to town, and by then the story had settled into folklore. Twice a week he’d walk to the store, children skipping behind.
‘Don’t forget to untie the rope, Mister, untie the rope.’
‘Shut up,’ he’d growl, while the children sprinted out of reach.
‘Widow maker, widow maker, just a bloody widow maker,’ they’d cry in singsong voices.
Doug bought a second-hand five-tonner, soon back into the firewood business like he’d never been away. He even hired the odd backpacker.
One habit Doug could never quite shake, and the townspeople would watch and laugh. Every mile or two he’d pull the truck over and inspect the rear end before climbing back into the cab and driving off.
People say many things that aren’t true, but it seemed to most that Doug was afraid the body might still be there, dragging behind like a guilty secret.