We were peering in through the gas-station’s dirtied up windows when David called that he’d found something out behind, and we, China and me, went round to see what.
‘You won’t believe it!’ David said. He was giddy. ‘A real dinner already, a meal off the land, and we were only just beginning to talk about it.’
He had in his hand, bundled up by its ears, what he thought was a hare, but what revealed itself pretty quick to be just a skinny long-eared dog.
‘You dick,’ said China. ‘That’s just a dog!’
‘What would a dog be doing out here?’
‘What would a hare be doing out here?’ I said.
‘Maybe there’s a farm,’ said David, swinging the skinny dog up to eye level. It barked into his mouth. China, stepping past him, walked around behind the station to try the back door.
‘Quit holding it like that,’ I said.
‘Maybe there’s a farm with hares and other animals you can’t get in this country,’ said David, still peering at the dog.
‘You can get hares here,’ said China, hoisting himself up by the doorframe to try and peer in through a little window above it.
‘Then why isn’t this a hare?’
‘Because it’s a dog! Quit holding it like that. Jesus. You’re giving it a headache.’
‘Nothing,’ said China, stepping back down and walking back round the front. ‘We’ll get lunch someplace else.’
The dog had come, we figured, from a vacationing family at one of the camping grounds spread out along the coast. It was a city dog, we knew, because it smelled like it’d been around people. We figured if we left it it’d get snatched up by hawks.
In the long distance to the west there were bundled up rainclouds but it felt like the hottest day I’d ever been awake for.
David fed the dog some cheese sandwich and we left the gas station, heading on up the coast, to where China had been told there was a cave we could make some money from, the dog sticking its little rabbit face out the window and the western clouds stock-still and grey and no more real than an old photograph.
Traveling, wandering up the coast, almost waterless, China talked no more about our mission, which was this: we would find, with the aid of power-tools, something from history that we could profit by. The power tools belonged to David’s father, the car to my girlfriend. China drove because he knew the way, he was oldest, and he had been in prison. None of us, as far as I knew, had eaten breakfast that morning. We disliked each other immeasurably, but this was commerce, and no rich man ever liked his partners. We had learnt that together in school.
My water-bottle was dry by the time China said, ‘Here’, and pitched onto a track headed into hills made up mostly of scrub and red hot rocks. He hadn’t slowed much into the turn but but as we passed the junction of the highway and the track he suddenly halted and skidded the car a foot or so over the loose earth. He backed up slowly.
There was something unnatural-looking heft to the side of the track and he stopped next to it. It was an animal, a big animal, crooked and grey-white from days in the sun.
‘What is it? Is it a bush cow?’
‘It’s no cow, no,’ said China.
It had been hollowed out and had no real form any more. Its skin ratted loose in the warm breeze. The dog scrambled at the window to get a closer look.
‘It’s a moose, I think,’ said China.
David said, ‘A moose? How could it be a moose? Where did it come from?’
China looked over his shoulder. ‘Like you said, maybe there’s a farm somewhere nearby,’ he said. ‘A farm that has hares and moose.’
‘What killed it,’ I said. ‘It’s all open up.’
‘Maybe a bear? I don’t know.’
‘A bear!’ said David.
‘Well maybe there’s an American farm with American animals like that. Game beasts. Maybe there was a break out.’
‘Probably it just fell from a truck,’ I said.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said David, pulling the skinny dog to his chest. ‘Jesus Christ. Should we call someone?’
China began to slowly pass on from the destroyed moose.
‘Who in hell would we call about something like this?’ he said. ‘There isn’t a manaround who’d know what to do.’
He looked a minute at the map and then started on again.
For some reason, after a short while of silence, David took the opportunity to tell us at great speed all about his life since we’d known him in high school. He was now a Pentecostal Christian. He wouldn’t stop talking.
‘What’s happened to David?’ China said to me.
David told us he was engaged and his wife lived in South East Asia or in Sydney or someplace. She was a Pentecostal Christian as well. She had introduced him to the Pentecostal Christian faith.
‘David, an hour ago you were ready to eat that poor dog,’ said China turning in the seat to address David as he spoke. ‘Now you’re spooked out on a decayed old thing dead in the bush.’
‘Watch the road,’ I said. ‘Jesus, China, this isn’t your car, ok?’
‘But as soon as we get done here, if you invest wisely,’ China went on. ‘You’re probably not going to have to stumble on any mystery beasts any longer for as long as you or your Chinese Pentagon wife are alive.’
I grabbed at the wheel. We were headed quickly towards a bend with boney-white trees though which the blue of the ocean could be seen. We were higher than I thought, right on the edge of the coast.
‘China!’ I said.
He stopped suddenly one or two meters from where the road ended.
‘What!’ he said. ‘What could you possibly want?’
He looked at the trees through which we’d very nearly just plummeted and he started chuckling like he was just getting a joke. The sound of him laughing raked across my ribcage and seeped into my stomach and made me feel sick and dehydrated.
‘All here?’ he said. ‘Good. Lets go find some treasure.’
The cave China had been told about was well signposted and very close by to where we’d nearly died. There were ropes leading to it from a short path off the road. It was the principal destination for tourists on this edge of the national park, a plaque told us at the beginning of a walkway leading up to the cave’s mouth.
‘Are you telling me,’ I said to China. ‘That your ancient cave is a tourist hot spot?’
China read the plaque again as David beat on the base of the drill.
‘It can get a bit more juice going if you work it,’ David said.
China said, ‘Come on anyway,’ and began up the walkway.
‘Who told you about this.’
‘Someone. No one.’
The cave had a rope one third in to stop people getting too far. There was no one around, and so China stepped over the rope and walked to one of the walls. It was dim and red and cool.
‘Is there even anything here?’ I said.
David pointed over China’s shoulder.
‘Looks like a little horse over there. Little man with a little camel. Painted in white there.’
‘Ah Christ,’ said China, and I turned and headed back down the walk to where we’d parked and I threw my empty water bottle into the scrub. The dog was still in the car and I let him loose and very quickly he’d disappeared down a path leading through the trees.
Never in all of the western world, I thought, have there been three like us.
The path the dog followed led zigzagging to what I guessed was the sea, and when I got there found it too bright and brilliant to see. The sand was white as paper. I had to put my hands in front of my eyes to see where the dog had gotten to. It was standing by the water’s edge, just beyond where the sand burned hottest.
‘Come here, you shitty thing,’ I said, and began hopping over to it. It was barking out to the sea, at nothing I could imagine could possibly be there.
‘Fuck,’ I said. ‘Fucking hell.’
But then it was the cool sand, the wet sand, and I could stop. The dog regarded me sideways once and then looked back out. We were in a little cove beyond which the nubs of rocky islands were strewn just inside the end of the horizon. The water was very blue, the sun very bright. Much later I came realised that it was the hottest, strangest day I could remember.
It was a day you don’t realise you’re dreaming until you’re waking up from it. Somewhere behind me, through the trees, came the low, awful sound of a power drill.
When I bent to pick up the dog, I saw, finally, what it was barking at. There was a skiff, a little fishing boat, watching us from beyond the cove, either tiny or very far away, it was hard to tell in the sun.
My feet had sunk into the wet sand and I kneeled down and for the first time touched the dog on the back of its head. It took a few steps further towards the waterline and the skiff. There was someone on board, it didn’t make sense for there not to be, and so, after picking the dog up and tucking it under my arm, I waved once, and waited, before turning to leave, to see what might happen.