Down Outback Roads

By: Alissa Callen

CHAPTER ONE




Found him. Alive.

Ewan Mackenzie stared at Travis’s text message. The noise and bustle of the outback search-and-rescue command post behind him faded to an indistinct murmur. Three simple words and the world could breathe again. All the police, emergency services, farmers and Glenalla townsfolk who’d searched for the missing American backpacker could now take their lives off pause.

Relief pushed Ewan’s exhaustion aside and dulled the tension that had been gripping him tighter than any tourniquet. The eighteen-year-old gap-year traveller hadn’t fallen victim to the vastness and isolation of the Australian bush. For the first time in two days, the sun warmed Ewan’s skin and he registered the rustle of the autumn breeze in the nearby silver-tipped gum trees.

His hand shook, blurring the letters on the small screen before him. He slipped the phone into his jeans pocket and swiped his cold palms over the dusty denim covering his thighs. The tremble in his fingers transferred to his shoulders.

It seemed it didn’t matter how often he helped search-and-rescue achieve a positive outcome, the blood on his hands would never rub off.

The thump of Whiskey’s tail sounded from the ute tray-back, directly in front of Ewan. The kelpie gazed at him with anxious eyes and whined. Ewan booted his anguish into the bottomless pit where it belonged. Whiskey sensed his every mood, and his guilt was not the dog’s to carry.

‘It’s okay, mate,’ he said, voice soft, as he tousled the kelpie’s thick, black coat. ‘All’s good. Our job’s done. They’ve found Kree’s brother.’

Whiskey sidled closer, unconvinced. Ewan forced a lightness he didn’t feel into his tone. ‘We’re heading home, Whisk. There’s cold beer in the shed fridge, and if you’re lucky Midget won’t have found the bone you buried under the orange tree.’

He ruffled Whiskey’s neck again and his doggy-mate’s eyes closed. But Whiskey’s contentment failed to quell the emptiness that had begun to seep through Ewan. Now that Seth Garrett had been found his dark-haired sister, who’d flown all night to help look for him, would return home.

From the moment Kree had walked into the tin hall that housed their makeshift command post, the sadness of her brave smile had pummelled his defences. Winter-pale and pretty, her quiet courage had stirred something deep within him, something he’d thought was long dead. He knew how much strength it took to go on when the world collapsed around you. But despite his sense of affinity, instinct had cautioned Ewan to stay away from the attractive American. He’d managed to keep a polite distance until she’d approached him after lunch yesterday while he’d consulted the map spread out on his ute bonnet.

‘Ewan? Ewan Mackenzie?’ she’d asked in her smooth and modulated accent.

He’d caught the subtle scent of vanilla before turning to meet her blue eyes. The beat of his heart had tripped. ‘Yes.’

‘Old Harry tells me you’re the next spotter in Travis’s plane?’

Throat dry, Ewan had nodded.

She’d extended a hand towards him. ‘Thank you.’

‘No worries.’ He’d hesitated and then returned the universal gesture of gratitude. ‘We’re doing everything we can to find your brother.’

‘I know.’ Her voice had lowered and her fine-boned fingers had curled around his as though they belonged there. Lips parted, she’d stared at him for a solemn second that stretched into two and then, hand trembling, she’d slipped her fingers free.

‘Thanks again.’

Ewan’s blood had pounded long after she’d returned inside the hall. Even the compass pointing north on the map before him hadn’t been able to centre him. A fleeting smile in a woman’s eyes had never affected him so much.

He stopped patting Whiskey, and the kelpie lifted a large paw to bat his forearm in protest.

Ewan shook his head. ‘We’ve gotta go, Whisk. The farm jobs won’t have done themselves while we’ve been away.’

He reached for the rolled-up canvas swag at his feet. There was no need to find Kree and tell her Seth was safe. Travis would have texted the command post leader and she would have received the news straight away. There was also no need to intrude on her relief to say goodbye. It wasn’t his place to share in her joy or to expect any thanks. It was enough he’d helped save a life. He should get home to Marellen. He’d had a liquid breakfast of too-hot coffee and his gear was already packed, ready for another morning shift spotting in Travis’s Cessna light plane.

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