She followed him and the two dogs for a hundred metres through the bush. In the clearing, a quiet fire smoked; peppermint logs facing star-like into the centre. He had constructed a large shelter of tea tree branches woven into each other and lined with soft, flaking paper bark. He must have been there for a while because the reeds around the camp were crushed flat and the ground swept or raked into swirls. A red trail bike slouched on one side of the shelter, next to a plastic fuel drum.
He shook the possum gently from the bitch’s mouth and hung the carcass in the crook of a tree. He poured water from an old juice bottle into a billy and settled it in the coals. As he squatted beside the fire, the dogs lay like shaggy sphinxes beside him, their paws outstretched. Sal stood, uncertain. There were no chairs and though he was making her tea, nothing about his countenance suggested that he was happy with her being in his camp.
“My name is Sal,” she said.
He looked at her. “Jack,” he said after a pause. She knew his name wasn’t Jack.
“Do you live here? I'm from here.”
“For the moment, yes.”
There didn’t seem to be much else to say.
“I was so scared. I thought he was going to kill me.”
“He’s just an idiot dog.”
“I was looking for my friend Crow’s camp. Do you know where it is?”
He nodded towards the highway. “A mile or so back that way. You came too far.”
“And my car is bogged. There’s a whole heap of fish on the back that I have to get to the trucking joint.”
He smiled without showing his teeth, forking at the fire with his stoker. “You’re working out of Pallinup, right? Seen you lot out there lately. Who’s working the inlet this year?”
“Bob and Al, couple of other guys.”
The billy began hissing.
“Bob and Al. Yeah. One of my ancestors lived around the corner at Doubtfuls for a while, before the west was even settled. There’s even some books in the library about him. Now there was a hard man. Stole a kid. He did some bad things.”
He shook his head and dropped one teabag into a filthy china mug and another into a tin can. He twitched some wire around the tin with some pliers, to make a handle. “Only got one cup,” he explained, and poured boiling water into them, stirred in powdered milk and sugar. “Yeah, I seen you and Bob and Al there. Reckon I seen you and that Crow character too.”
Sal felt the skin on her arms prickle. She rubbed at her shirt and thought of the cave where she and Crow had last met. “Seen a bit of stuff then?”
“Yeah. Seen some stuff.”
He left it at that and she felt herself shrug in annoyance at his cultivated reticence.
“Why do you live here, in the bush?”
He passed her the china mug, the tea bag string still dangling over the grimy brown lip. “Just can’t be with people,” he said.
“People huh?” She laughed. “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
He stroked his beard and didn’t laugh. “Best without them, myself.”