We were halfway up the spur when we heard it. Homer and Gavin and I, just the three of us. The spur was steep and the rocks were loose; we slid back two metres for every three we climbed.
It was about 1:15 p.m. A warm afternoon in May. It had been a hot autumn. Surrounding us was the bush, an army of twisted trees standing to attention. They wore grey-green uniforms and waved their bunches of leaves in endless useless motion. They were the army that never went anywhere, never did anything. They were the army who cared about nothing.
Sometimes the bush is quite silent. Not often. But sometimes, around non on a January day, when the temperature is high and the gumtree leaves are hanging tired and limp and the birds stop flying and the insects hide in the shade, then all you hear is the cracking of stones and the grizzle of a lost fly and, if you're in a paddock, the shuffle of a steer as he moves slowly to a better patch of grass.
But on this May afternoon there were the usual background noises, none of them loud, just humming away. Bees and wasps and beetles; tree branches rubbing against each other; magpies an rosellas, wagtails and wrens. Mum had a friend from the city come to stay once; I think she'd had a nervous breakdown or something, and on the third day she ran into the house with her hands over her ears crying, "I came here for peace and quiet and it's nothing but noise noise noise."
This particular day we were making so much noise ourselves that I hardly noticed the sounds of the bush. The clicking and rattling and clatter of sliding stones blocked out nearly everything else. And then there was the puffing and panting, from Homer especially. He was getting pretty unfit lately.
He stopped and leaned against a tree-half a tree really, because it had lost most of its upper branches. He grinned at me. His face sparkled with sweat. I stopped and grinned back. Ahead of us Gavin head down, relentless as ever, ploughed on.
"You're getting slack," I said to homer.
"Race you," he said. But he didn't move.
I walked on a dozen steps. Now I was just ahead of him.
"I win," I said.
"Remind me again why we're doing this?" He asked, wriggling his shoulders to make his pack more comfortable.
"Fun," I said, as firmly as I could. "Fun, pleasure, recreation, sightseeing, enjoyment."
He sighed. "Some people swallow a dictionary," he said. "You have to swallow a bloody thesaurus."
It was on the word "thesaurus" that shots began.
They came from the bottom of the valley, echoing up the hillside, then around the valley. To be mathematical about it, I'd say there were fifteen shots in the first volley, evenly spaced, lasting about twenty-five seconds. Then there was a pause of maybe ten seconds before three ragged groups of shots that went for a minute. After that there were occasional random ones, probably thirty in all, for about five or six minutes.
Five or six minutes. By the end of five or six minutes we were halfway home again. It seems incredible when I think about it. After all, we'd taken about two and a bit hours to get that far. Of course that was uphill and this was nearly all downhill, but even so, considering I lost at least half a minute going back for Gavin...
Gavin's profoundly deaf, which doesn't mean totally deaf, but then according to his teacher, hardly anyone's totally deaf. All I know is that Gavin's very deaf. He can hear loud yells, semitrailers going past, explosions, and helicopters at close range. He can't hear TV or music or conversation. He definitely can't hear anyone telling him to clean his room or do his homework or set the table. He can't hear me telling him he needs to get a move-on or he'll miss the bus, but he can hear me saying, "Gavin, get your ass in gear right now or I'll kick you all the way to the bus stop," which I tend to say fairly often.
He can't hear shots that are a couple of kilometers away. I'd forgotten that. I remembered it after I'd turned and run down the spur a hundred metres. When I remembered I stopped, irresolute. I've always liked that word. I've just never had a chance to use it before.