Author's Note: I don't often do stories inspired by a song, but I couldn't help myself with this one. Honestbee suggested I listen to Keith Urban's 'Coming Home'. When I did, I just had to write this. You can find the song on Youtube.
And yes, there really is a small town called Elliott north of Tennant Creek, right on the Stuart Highway heading to Darwin.
Darwin, Australia – late September, 2012
On the face of it, Eliot thought, perhaps this wasn't the brightest idea he'd had for a while. No, he decided, this definitely was the dumbest friggin' idea he'd had in years, as he limped haltingly towards the check-point, set discreetly into the high-security perimeter fence surrounding Robertson Barracks*, located some kilometres outside of Darwin, Australia.
"You sure about this?" Mike Vance asked as he walked beside Eliot in the humid air, slowing his pace to keep the shorter man company. "I mean … I could –"
"Nope," Eliot said abruptly, a little testier than he would have liked, but damn, a bullet hole right through his right shoulder and what was left of a bullet still lodged deep in his left leg would make anyone antsy. "I got it covered. I'll be fine."
And as he said it, a jolt of pain shot up his leg to his head and the familiar black spots of impending unconsciousness swam into his vision for a moment before he got a grip on everything. Eliot was immensely glad it was the blue hour beyond sunset, and hopefully Vance couldn't see how much he was shivering despite the heat of the oncoming monsoon season.
He carried a backpack over his left shoulder, which did help a little in keeping him balanced, but mostly he was just concentrating on staying upright and not appearing to be in too much pain as he did it. He thought he wasn't doing too bad a job.
He could do this.
Vance eyed Eliot, concern on his mobile face. Eliot Spencer wasn't just an ex-black-ops legend. He was a friend.
"You look like shit," he muttered quietly as they reached the check-point. "Let me call someone –"
"Mike – leave it be, will ya?" Eliot ground out as the two marines manning the entrance checked Eliot out as he gimped past them, heading through the gap between the heavy swinging arm barrier and the guard post.
Vance eyed the marines, one of whom frowned and took a step forward to stop Eliot.
'Ten-hut!" Vance growled, and both men instantly stiffened to attention. "You don't touch him, marine," he said to the nearest of the two men, "if you do, I'll bust you so hard you'll be cleanin' out my old cesspit with a teaspoon until you retire, y'hear me?"
Both marines eyed Eliot, who grinned unrepentantly at them despite the paleness of his face and the glaze of impending fever in his blue eyes. Then they glanced at Vance - the formidable, bad-tempered, soldier-who-did-secret-stuff-under-the-radar Colonel Mike Vance and a legend in his own right.
They stiffened even more, and gazed fixedly into the distance. Eliot Spencer, as far as they were now concerned, didn't exist.
"Sir! Yes sir!" they both snapped out. Colonel Mike Vance didn't make empty threats.
"Gotta go, Mike," Eliot said quietly.
Vance looked off-kilter for once.
"Yeah … well … you take care. Keep in touch, dumb-ass," he added, a little of his concern leaking out in the softly-spoken words. He didn't offer a hand for Eliot to shake because he was pretty sure Eliot wasn't able to return it.
Eliot, secretly grateful for Vance's understanding, nodded once in thanks and gave his ex-commander a wry smile.
"Say hi to Marie an' –" he murmured before Vance cut him off.
"-the kids, yeah, I got it," Vance growled. "Listen, Spencer – if you die, Marie is gonna be so pissed –"
Eliot shook his head and damn, but that was a frikkin' stupid thing to do, because it made his head swim alarmingly.
"Ain't gonna happen, Mike, okay?" Eliot straightened as well as he could and gave Mike Vance an informal farewell salute with two fingers of his left hand. "I'll be in touch."
And without waiting for a reply, Eliot turned away and limped painfully into the coming gloom, crossing the road and melting away into the shadow of a mixed stand of stringybark and kurrajong trees far from the bright lights of the security fence.
"Asshole," Vance muttered with crotchety affection. He caught one of the marines eyeing him curiously. "What the hell're you lookin' at?" he grouched, and the marine blinked, embarrassed, and managed somehow to stiffen even further to attention.
And without another word, Mike Vance headed grumpily back to the warmth and brightness of the small base canteen, where he would sit and have some cherry pie and a coffee, and rant inwardly at Eliot Spencer and his stubbornness.
Eliot made his way through the trees and out of the other side of the stand, reaching a flat swathe of bush edging the lonely, little-used back road out to the base.
He knew where he was going. A couple of kilometres down the road was a bar catering to military personnel and a few stockmen from the surrounding cattle and sheep stations. It was basic but busy, and Eliot could wait there until closing time at least, nursing a beer he probably wouldn't drink.
Following the line of trees and staying in the dense shadows afforded by the fading glory of a rich purple-and-gold sunset, he moved slowly and very painfully, just wondering what the hell he was doing. He could have stayed in Washington. He could have gone to one of his contacts who would have dug all of the bullet out of him and stitched him up, and then he would have found somewhere untraceable where he could lie low and lick his wounds for a couple of weeks. He could have done that.
But he didn't. There had been only one thought in his mind as he gave Hardison and Parker the slip and headed off on his own. He had to go home. And home, for Eliot Spencer, wounded and alone, was Wapanjara Station in the remote Northern Territory of Australia.
He limped over to a tree, and dropping his backpack onto the ground he fished around in its depths and retrieved a cheap burner 'phone. Holed up in a grubby motel in Washington, he had managed - left-handed - to dig out most of the bullet from his leg and bandaged his wounds, but he had growled with annoyance as the bullet fragmented as he removed it, leaving a small piece still deep within his leg. Then he had bought the untraceable 'phone just before Mike Vance had picked him up and taken him to the military transport 'plane heading for Darwin. Vance owed him big-time now, seeing as he and his two team-mates had stopped a major terrorist attack on the nation's capital in a single afternoon.
Pressing a speed-dial number, Eliot held the telephone to his ear and leaned against the tree, feeling a tiny, slick trickle of blood under the thick, heavily padded bandage he had wrapped around his thigh. He waited a few moments until the dial tone clicked off and a voice answered.
Hello? Wapanjara Station?
Eliot almost sagged with relief.
"Hey Jo," he said with a smile in his voice. "It's me."
The clatter of dishes and the constant stream of muttered curses signalled to Jo Munro that Effie McPhee, housekeeper, cook and dearest friend, was beginning the preparations for dinner as she rumbled about in Wapanjara's cavernous kitchen.
"Need any help?" she called from the veranda as she finished up her weekly task of balancing the cattle station's books.
"Nah!" Effie bawled back. "Mister M'll be back in a bit and he can go dig me some stuff out of the freezer for tomorrow, but other than that, I'm bloody well grand!"
In less than two hours Effie would have a bunch of hungry stockmen and jackaroos to feed, and Jo knew better than to press her help on Effie. She was just about to put away the accounts when the telephone rang.
It took her a few moments to get to the receiver in the living room, but she lifted it and put it to her ear, even as she smiled at Effie's curses as the little cook wrestled with sliding a couple of fragrantly herby legs of lamb into the capacious oven.
"Hello? Wapanjara Station?" she said into the mouthpiece, and her heart immediately lurched as a familiar voice answered her.
Hey Jo, it said, and the soft Oklahoma lilt made her smile with delight. It's me.
"Oh, Eliot! Son, it's so good to hear from you! How are you? When are you coming home?" she rattled off, eager to hear all about his plans. Eliot hadn't been home to Wapanjara in nearly a year, although they received the occasional telephone call whenever he had the opportunity.
However, as the gruff, gentle voice answered her, speaking slowly and carefully as Eliot talked to her, Jo Munro's lean face became first concerned and then alarmed.
"But –" she said, and Eliot's voice rose a little, trying to calm her, telling her he was 'just fine,' but she instantly knew he wasn't and her mind began to whirr with plans. "Eliot, just … just be quiet for a moment, boy!" she interrupted, and she heard the pained sigh on the other end of the line. "We'll head off within the next fifteen minutes!" Eliot tried to carry on but Jo wouldn't let him. "No … no, we're not waiting until the morning! It's going to take us going on twelve hours to get to you, and you are not going to wait any longer than you have to." She listened to Eliot quietly telling her something about how he could easily wait for as long as it took, but she stopped him. "We're on our way, son. Tell me where we'll find you."
Picking up her pen she dug out a bit of loose paper and wrote down the directions Eliot gave her. The measured tone of his voice frightened the wits out of her. She knew then he was hurt more than he was letting on.
"Righto. Now you listen to me, Eliot Spencer," she instructed tersely, frightened for him, "you sit tight, you don't move any more than you have to, and for goodness sake eat something and keep up your fluid intake, y'hear me? I don't want you dehydrated on top of everything else, my lad!"
She heard Eliot's raspy chuckle.
I hear you. I'll see you soon, Jo. You an' Soapy an' Eff. There was a pause. I've missed you. There was an abrupt click as he rang off.
Jo blinked and stared at the telephone in her hand for long moments as though the thing had just bitten her. Then her mind shifted into gear and she slammed the telephone back onto its cradle.
"EFFIE! I NEED YOU!" she bawled, and as she heard Effie drop something in surprise at the tone in Jo's voice, Jo hurried back to the veranda to see Soapy wander slowly around the corner of the house into the yard, curling up his stock whip and draping it over his shoulder, moving easily in the fading light.
"SOAPY! GO GET THE UTE!" she yelled, gesticulating towards the barn, and Soapy looked up at her, stopping dead in his tracks.
"What's up, old girl!" he shouted back, puzzlement on his lugubrious face.
"We're going to Darwin!" Jo replied hastily.
"Darwin?" Soapy was confused. "What the hell's in Darwin that we have to go right now?"
Jo's face creased with worry.
"Eliot!" she said, her tone softer now as Soapy ran towards her. "Eliot's in Darwin, and he can't get home to us Soapy, and he can't catch the Ghan 'cause it doesn't leave for a couple of days and he can't get a flight or a bus because he's –"
Soapy clattered up the steps and gathered an agitated Jo in his arms just as Effie stumped onto the veranda as fast as her bunions would let her.
"The Yank's coming home?" she rumbled, and saw the worry on Jo's face. "The daft bugger's hurt, isn't he?" she added, her muddy eyes glittering.
Jo nodded fiercely.
"Hurt? What do you mean, hurt?" Soapy demanded, worried now.
"I don't know the details," Jo said, "he didn't really say. But I think he's not able to travel under his own steam anymore and he refuses to go anywhere near a hospital, the silly bugger. We have to go get him," she added fearfully. "We have to go get our boy now."
Effie dropped a hand on Jo's shoulder.
"I'll go pack up the big medical kit, Missus, and sort out food and some flasks of tea." And for such a short, round woman constantly plagued by her lumpy feet, she was gone in an instant, back to her kitchen to make sure the Munros had everything they needed to bring Eliot safely home to his family.
Soapy kissed Jo on the forehead.
"I'll get the ute," he said, tucking a silver curl back from his wife's face. "The crew can manage the station for a day or two – Effie'll keep 'em straight until Charlie and Alice get back," he added. Charlie Jakkamarra, their station manager, was away in the west paddock for a couple of days servicing the old water bore feed, and had taken his wife of less than a year with him.
Jo nodded, and running her hand through her thick silver-auburn curls, mentally began listing things they would need. Soapy let her go and was about to head into his office to drop off his whip and get the keys to the ute when he hesitated for a moment, turning back to his wife of nearly forty years.
"Jo, love …"
Jo, deep in thought, turned worried green eyes to her husband.
"If he's travelled from the States to Darwin and he's upright and able to make a 'phone call, he's doing alright so far."
Jo's answering smile was shaky.
"I know, I know," she fretted. "But it's a twelve-hour drive, Soapy. God only knows what state he'll be in by the time we get there! What if he falls unconscious and he's alone somewhere and we can't find him or … or … " Jo's voice faded away as she didn't want to even contemplate a worse scenario. "And," she continued, "we don't have a mobile 'phone so I can talk to him or –"
"Jo!" Soapy stopped her from going any further. "Jo, old girl … go get what you need. We'll be on the road in ten minutes, so shift your bum, love. We have to go get the lad."
Jo looked up at her husband and suddenly gave him a kiss on his cheek, which made the pastoralist raise a quizzical eyebrow.
"That's my Soapy," Jo whispered. "Mister Practical."
And turning, she headed towards their bedroom to gather up some essentials she would need to take with them.
Eliot was finding he had to stop more and more frequently to catch his breath and let the pain subside. Why, he asked himself, did he really think he could walk through the Australian bush with a couple of bullet holes in him, one of which wouldn't goddamn stop bleeding even if the blood loss was just the occasional trickle. He had managed to get some rest on the long flight from Washington DC, which had fended off the exhaustion for a while, but still …
He cut himself a stick from a gum tree to use as a walking aid, which helped, but he was immensely relieved when he heard distant voices and juke-box music drifting through the cool night air.
It took him the better part of fifteen minutes to limp into the almost-full parking lot in front of The Puddock's Rest, a noisy, cheerful bar which, he knew, served decent food and whose owner wouldn't mind if he sat in a booth by himself and waited until closing time.
Propping his makeshift walking stick against the wall and far enough away from the door so it would not get damaged, Eliot straightened, steeled himself, plastered a relaxed, smiling expression on his pale, strained face and went into the bar.
He was instantly swallowed up by the warmth of a mass of bodies and the sound of country rock music on the juke-box. He did his best not to yelp when a couple of Australian soldiers unintentionally and apologetically jarred his wounded shoulder, but when he got to the bar he was greeted by a charming middle-aged redhead whose face lit up with pleasure.
"Well now, look who's here!" She reached out to press Eliot's arm in welcome, but he coughed dramatically and hid his face in the crook of his good arm. "Oh, sweetie! Are you okay?" she said, frowning in concern.
Eliot wiped his face on his jacket sleeve and sniffed.
"Hey, Ginger," he said, and waved his hand vaguely. "Long time no see. Don't come too near, darlin' … got a real nasty dose of the 'flu." He let out another few tentative coughs to back up his words which hurt the crap out of his wounded shoulder. "I'm waitin' for a ride, so d'you mind if I wait here?"
Ginger, whose husband Geordie Cameron, a relocated Glaswegian who had given the bar its name after he saw the thousands of frogs in the nearby pond, nodded. Eliot had saved Ginger from a group of asshole bikers with knives when he had first wandered in for a beer after finishing a freelance job with Vance in Pakistan. So, as far as the burly Scotsman and his wife were concerned, Eliot had free beer and food for life.
"Abso, sweetie – I'll clear a booth for you and get you something to eat. You hungry?"
Eliot, for whom the mere idea of food made his stomach churn, smiled happily.
"Sure, thanks. Just somethin' easy, if that's okay?" Eliot thought about a beer and rejected the idea. Alcohol, no matter how little of it he drank, could further dehydrate his body in its already badly weakened state. "An' just soda or water – I'm drivin' later."
"No probs, love," Ginger answered, understanding.
Within a minute Eliot was seated in a cosy booth with plumped cushions, and Ginger brought him a pitcher of iced water, an empty glass and a couple of aspirin, which Eliot conceded he might just need. Aspirin he could take – it was hefty painkillers that made him fuzzy and sick.
When the light, tasty omelette with delicious home-made spicy fries and a side salad appeared before him, Eliot did his best to eat all of the food on his plate. He needed the energy, and something to fill his belly to keep him warm after the bar closed in a few hours. When that happened, he would be back outside and on his own, and he needed all of the internal fuel he could get, especially as the inevitable fever took hold.
With the food inside him and thankfully staying in his stomach, Eliot eased sideways in the booth and stretched his bad leg along the bench seat, the effort in doing so leaving him drenched with sweat and trembling with pain. He placed another cushion behind his injured shoulder, made himself as comfortable as his damaged body would allow, and sipping slowly from a glass of water, settled down to wait.
The long, long drive to Darwin was one of the most fretful of Jo's life.
She and Soapy sat in near silence on the broad stretch of the Stuart Highway as it made its way northwards towards the town of Elliott. There they stopped to top up the ute's fuel, even though they carried two full jerry-cans of diesel strapped to the flat-bed along with water containers and two spare tires. The big, sturdy tire-jack would make sure any flats could be easily and quickly dealt with. The Stuart Highway, with its vast distances through a difficult landscape, was not to be treated lightly.
As Soapy filled the tank at the Elliott service station, Jo double-checked everything she and Effie had packed. The big medikit was strapped beside the water canisters, and another box containing sandwiches, a large flask full of hot soup and two more containing tea were on the back seat of the cab. A comforter and pillows took up the rest of the space. Jo and Effie had tried to prepare for an Eliot suffering anything from a mild headache to being at death's door.
Jo hauled out one of the flasks of tea, and watched Soapy finish filling the tank and head off to the small station shop to pay for the fuel. Her impatience and worry were getting the better of her, and she chewed her lip. They had already been travelling for over three hours and still had more than 700 kilometres to go.
"C'mon Soapy … c'mon'-c'mon–c'mon … "she muttered, fidgeting, and gazed helplessly along the lonely road heading ever northward to where Eliot calmly waited for them. His trust in them was absolute.
Jo knew that Eliot would not have called if he could have made his own way to Wapanjara. Usually he changed flights from Darwin or Adelaide to Tennant Creek, and then picked up his old Ducati motorcycle from storage at the airport and drove the rest of the way home, the wind catching his open jacket and the thrum of the engine soothing away the stress as he rode the two-hour trip along Wapanjara's dirt road.
The fact he had called them from Darwin, of all places, meant he was physically unable to get any further. So, Jo knew in her heart, he was hurt. Or sick. Or - and this was what made her heart lurch - both. He needed them.
Soapy was walking quickly back to the ute, stuffing his wallet into his jeans pocket, and Jo waved at him urgently.
"Come on, Soapy! We have to get going!" she gritted out, and slid into the passenger seat.
"I'm coming, old girl, I'm coming …" Soapy said, trying to sooth her despite his own worry for the man they regarded as a son. "Can you drive for a bit when we get to the Mataranka servo?"**
Jo stared at her husband as he drove the ute off the service station forecourt and onto the highway, the road straight and true for countless kilometres.
"Are you sure, love?" she said, now worried about her husband as well as Eliot. "I can drive from here, y'know. It's nearly 300 klicks to Mataranka and you've already put in a full day's work –"
Soapy glanced at his wife and grinned.
"Remember when we were courting? I used to think nothing of driving a few hundred kilometres to see my girl, so this should be right up my street!"
Jo snorted, amused despite her concern.
"Yes, well, you were young and bloody daft back then, and now … well, you're still bloody daft, you old fool, but you've put a few more years on you since then!"
Soapy grinned unrepentantly.
"See – you still love me, my Josephine!" he said triumphantly.
Jo couldn't resist – she leaned over and kissed Soapy's cheek.
The pastoralist raised an eyebrow, delighted.
"What was that for?"
"Thank you, love," Jo whispered, "for making sure our boy is safe and for putting up with a silly old woman who frets too much!"
Soapy's expression softened.
"Don't worry, my Jo. We'll bring him home, patch him up and put him to rights. We've done it before, and he'll be just fine, you'll see." He said, reaching out with his left hand to grasp Jo's fingers where they lay on her thigh.
Jo squeezed his hand in return.
"Soapy Munro? Have I told you lately how much I love you?" she said.
"Not since yesterday. So prove it to me and pour me a nice, hot cuppa, wife of mine!" Soapy chided, trying to ease Jo's unhappy heart.
So as the old Ford ute travelled steadily along the great Stuart Highway under drifts of stars in a clear night sky, Jo and Soapy Munro drank tea and munched on Effie's excellent sandwiches. They had another eight or more hours to go, and they had no idea what condition Eliot Spencer would be in when they found him.
Eliot awoke with a start, immediately regretting the movement as his leg sent thrumming agony through his hip, up his spine and straight to his head, which made him squint, eyes watering with the pain.
"Hey, pal … are y'alright there?"
Geordie Cameron's broad accent was contained within a soft voice as he leaned over the stocky American, apparently asleep in the booth tucked away in the corner of The Puddock's Rest.
"Uh …" Eliot grunted as he tried to get the pain under control, and he coughed, his shoulder throbbing with the infection now taking hold in the wound. He managed to clear his vision by rubbing his sleeve over his face, and he saw Geordie frown at him, the man's fearsomely bushy dark hair and beard at odds with the gentle china blue eyes which lay deep under shaggy brows.
"Um … yeah …" Eliot croaked, realising he had fallen asleep in the booth – or maybe he had passed out, he wasn't sure. He coughed again, this time not having to pretend that he felt rotten. "What time is it?" he ground out.
"Just eleven past," Geordie said, and offered a hand to help Eliot to sit upwards. "Ginger's busy tidyin' up the kitchen, so … seriously … are you okay?"
Eliot grimaced and managed to sit up without Geordie's help, but the effort made him dizzy with pain.
"Y … yeah … I'll make it," Eliot grunted, waiting for the world to stop spinning.
Geordie Cameron, a Company Sergeant-Major in the Black Watch before he took retirement, emigrated, bought a bar and married his beloved Ginger, knew a severely damaged man when he saw one.
"I, ah … I know a doctor –" he murmured discreetly.
Eliot waved a hand at the burly Scot, and grinned ruefully.
"Nah … I'll be okay when my people get here to pick me up. Are you guys closin' up?"
"Aye … we closed at eleven. Look …" he continued, his eyes flicking towards the kitchen where Eliot could hear Ginger singing tunelessly to herself as she cleaned the gleaming steel surfaces, "are you in trouble, son? I can help –"
"Nope, Geordie … I'm not in any trouble. I'm just goin' home. I can sit outside an' wait, no problem."
The big Scotsman frowned, brooding.
"I can wait with you, laddie, if you need – "
Eliot shook his head carefully, trying to make sure it stayed on his shoulders.
"They'll be along. You've got a bench out there I can sit on, I got plenty of good food in me, an' all I have to do is just sit there. Easy."
Geordie chewed his lip and nodded.
"Right … right," he pondered. "Tell you what – how would you like a flask of hot tea with lots of sugar? You can drop the flask off … y'ken … when you next come by."
Eliot thought about it for a moment, and took a shallow, hitching breath. The heat of the sweet tea would help as he waited. Although the humidity and warmth of the impending monsoon season kept the nights very mild, Eliot knew he was shivering and chilled due to slow, intermittent blood loss. Tea sounded very welcome, and the sugar would help his energy levels.
"That'd be great, man, thanks," he replied, a soft smile easing the lines of pain and weariness on his face.
Relieved a little, Geordie headed off to the kitchen to join his wife and make up a flask of tea for this man who had saved his Ginger's life.
Eliot closed his eyes for a few minutes as he waited for Geordie's return, and thought about Hardison and Parker, and how he had given them the slip as they headed into a Washington hotel to organise rooms. He had been left in the rental car, and they had thought – mistakenly – that he would stay put, badly wounded as he was. Parker especially was going to make his life hell when he got back to the States.
But all Eliot could think of was going home … back to the peace and gentle heart of Wapanjara and his people. Jo would deal with his injuries, and he would sleep and heal and rest to the fluting song of the magpies in the almond stand, and he could just breathe easily and be himself.
Jo and Effie would no doubt tell him in no uncertain terms that getting shot was not acceptable behaviour and he would probably earn himself a few head-slaps from the old cook. Eliot couldn't suppress a grin, and he sighed, thinking of his comfortable old bed and good food and the people he loved. He could chill out with Charlie and Alice, and when he was feeling better, he would take his camel Gertie on walkabout for a few days and help with the never-ending work of the cattle station.
"Here, man … "
Geordie's rich Glasgow accent disturbed Eliot's reverie and he opened his eyes to see the burly man standing with a big steel flask in his hand.
"Need a haun' tae get outside?" Geordie asked.
Well, Eliot thought, it's time. He wasn't too sure if he could get to his feet unaided, and Geordie knew it. Placing the flask on the booth table, he did his best to help Eliot stand, and the hitter was glad of it. He was dreadfully stiff and his shoulder and leg were searing acid fire through every nerve in his body, Eliot was certain. He sucked in as deep a breath as he could, and with Geordie's help, he waited until the threat of unconsciousness faded and his vision improved.
"C'mon laddie … while Ginger's occupied I'll get you settled." Geordie raised a bushy eyebrow and waited.
"Yeah … thanks," Eliot grunted, and winced as Geordie, as carefully as he could, supported the injured man as Eliot limped out of the bar and out into the scented night.
A huge old boab tree stood at the edge of the parking lot, and Geordie had set several benches and picnic tables around its massive girth. It was there he settled Eliot, the moonlight dappling the bench, and once Eliot was seated, Geordie headed back to the bar and returned with the flask and Eliot's backpack, setting them both on the table beside the American.
"I dinnae like leavin' you like this, son," Geordie murmured, and even in the reflected moon-glow Eliot could see worry and gentle concern in the big man's eyes. "Are you sure –"
Eliot raised a hand and nodded.
"Yeah, I'm sure. This is perfect. They won't be long now," he lied, knowing Geordie would insist on staying if he realised Eliot's people were still hours away.
Geordie nodded, and was joined by Ginger, who wasn't too sure what was going on, but she did know she didn't like leaving this man – the stranger who had come to her aid on a night much like this - on his own, especially as he was obviously ill.
"Okay now …" Geordie said, feeling awkward. "We, ah … we'll away then."
Eliot grinned at the pair of them, appreciating their kindness, but now ready to settle down for the long wait.
"Go home, you two," he teased good-humouredly, eyes crinkling as he smiled, and he waved them away, no matter that it cost him dear when the pain hit and he had to make a concerted effort not to yelp. "I'll be by with your flask in a few weeks. 'Night."
"'Night sweetie," Ginger said, unsure but realising that Eliot was intent on doing this on his own, "you take care now," she added, and slipping her arm through Geordie's, they made their way over to their old ex-army landrover. In less than a minute they were gone.
Eliot turned a little, tucking his exhausted body into the angle of the bench back and the armrest, and he eased his leg up onto the seat. This time he was free to let out a wrenching groan of pain, and he cupped his right arm with his left, trying to support the damaged shoulder.
He took a few deep breaths to try and ease the throb of his wounds, and closed his eyes. Slumping further down onto the bench, he allowed his battered frame the luxury of being as still as possible.
The night enveloped him. Out here, on a side road between the barracks and the distant outskirts of Darwin proper, there was very little traffic, especially at this time of night. When the external lights from The Puddock's Rest were turned off, the night sky, a mass of faded stars and small, moon-gilded clouds, was soothing to Eliot's damaged soul.
The air, balmy and warm, was redolent with the heady scent of the roses and gardenias Ginger planted everywhere she could about the place, and Eliot could hear the croak of the frogs in the nearby pond that gave the bar its name.
He desperately wanted a drink of the tea Geordie had supplied, but he was just about as comfortable as he could get under the circumstances and moving meant a great deal more pain, so Eliot just dealt with the thirst for now. He knew he should really keep his fluid intake up, but all he wanted was to rest until Jo and Soapy came to save him.
And so, with the gentle 'oom-oom' of a nearby pair of nesting frogmouths echoing through the night, Eliot finally managed to fall into a light doze.
By the time Soapy and Jo hit Mataranka the pastoralist was very ready to hand over the driving to his wife. His eyes were scratchy with tiredness, and his back ached worse than when he had ridden for hours on a stiff-legged old mule as a youth.
Once more they topped up the fuel tank, and Soapy broke out the soup and chunks of home-made bread Effie had packed. Thankfully the soup was still piping hot, and as Jo drove out of the service station, refreshed after sleeping stretched out on the back seat, Soapy poured out the thick, rich concoction and tucked in.
Even as he chewed a delicious, soup-soaked hunk of bread, he poured more into a travel mug for Jo and set it where she could easily access it in the cup holder between them.
"Save some for Eliot, love," Jo murmured, "knowing him, he'll need it."
Soapy nodded and screwed the top of the flask tightly, trying to keep what was left of the soup as hot as possible. And so the pair of them trundled onward, towards the north where Eliot awaited them, just over 400 kilometres and four hours away along the endless sprawl of the great Stuart Highway.
The renewed throbbing in Eliot's wounded shoulder woke him with a gasp. He discovered he had slid down the bench slightly and the armrest was making his right arm lie awkwardly, which in turn put pressure on the festering bullet hole through his shoulder.
Damn, but he had to move. Somehow, with lots of swearing and a great deal of pain, he managed to pull his damaged body more upright, but the relief from the agonizing pressure on his wound made the effort worth it.
It took him several attempts to open the flask and shakily pour a generous dollop of the scented, rich tea into the mug, but the resulting hot drink was delicious. The bergamot in the Earl Grey tea moistened his dry mouth and tongue and soothed his scratchy throat. If need be, Eliot decided, he could now produce more than an arid croak if he had to speak.
It was as he savoured his third mouthful of the sweet, hot liquid that he heard the sound.
Eliot immediately tensed, which made his eyes water with the pain of it. Listening carefully, he waited. There it was again … a soft, crying yip.
He had emerged from a nightmare an hour or so ago, and although only half-awake he thought he heard the sound of a car slowing and then suddenly speeding away. Too disorientated and ill to take much notice, he had drifted again back into uneasy slumber, his leg on fire and the damaged shoulder sending streaks of agony across his chest.
The little squeaky cries came again.
Dog, he thought. Must be a dumped pup or somethin' … he coughed – which hurt like a sonofabitch - and then took another sip of tea to further moisten his mouth.
"H … hey, little guy," he called, and licked his parched lips. "S'okay …"
The response was immediate. A flurry of tiny, yappy barks answered him, which made Eliot smile.
"C'mon … I'm over here," he added, trying to sit up straighter. "Shit-shit-shit-" he wheezed as his wounds objected, and the pup's barks became frenzied. "C'mere, buddy … come to Eliot …"
But however much the pup barked and whined, it apparently made no move to come closer. That fact confused Eliot, his foggy, fevered mind not able to figure it out.
But the silence seemed to upset the mystery dog, and the soft cries began again, which in turn upset the hitter. The animal was hurt, maybe? He didn't like seeing animals hurt and neglected, and someone had dumped the poor critter, he was positive, which made him angry.
Finishing his tea, he came to a decision. If the pup couldn't come to him, then, Eliot concluded, he had to go find the pup.
He grinned weakly. That seemed like absolutely the logical thing to do. He could do it if he tried. Sure he could. He would find the pup and he would make sure it was safe. Maybe he could give it to Effie as a present. She liked pups. In fact, she tended to get downright squishy when cuddling puppies. It might save him from a head-slap or two.
"Okay … okay, lil' guy, Eliot's on his way. Don't you worry … it'll be fine …" he slurred, and still muttering gentle words and feverish, strung-out sentences, he began to make the long, painful journey to his feet.
To be continued …
* Robertson Barracks exists. An Australian Army base situated about 15 kilometres outside Darwin, it is home to Australia's 1st Aviation Regiment. Since 2012, it has been reported that U.S. Marines have been based there on a rotational basis. My version is pure invention. There is also a military base at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, which is much closer to Tennant Creek. This secret facility in the middle of Australia consists of a large computer complex which attempts to locate radio signals in the world's Eastern Hemisphere, via information fed into the U.S. drone programme. However, Soapy and Jo would never have got anywhere near the place because it's run in partnership with the NSA and the Australian secret services, hence my use of Robertson Barracks, even though it is twice the distance for the Munros to travel. Such is life.
** Servo – a typical Australian contraction – why use three syllables when two will do? Or in this case, four syllables, as in 'service station.' You won't hear an Australian say 'gas-station'. They are either petrol stations or service stations, where you can buy snacks and so forth. So, you stop by the servo to buy bikkies and a cuppa and fill your car with petty.