Ryan’s Run

The narrow dirt road shone white in the glare of the headlights. Jagged potholes cratered the frozen surface with deep lunar shadows. The black night closed like a void on either side of the advancing beams of light. The huge truck hauled its monstrous bulk along the rutted track, its big diesel engine straining in the freezing night air.

Bob Ryan sat in the warm, conditioned, air of the cabin, high above the frost-crunching wheels. He wrestled with the steering wheel as the truck slipped and slid over the frozen ground. Faint snatches of voices came from the CB radio, frequent static emphasising his distance from the highway.

His neck and shoulders ached from the strain of 140 kilometres of back road driving. His eyes were red and tired from following the cutting edge of the headlights. He flicked a glance at the rising temperature gauge and swore softly under his breath at the folly of taking a truck this far off the bitumen. The cabin shook and trembled over every pothole and gully. He prayed none of the tyres would blow.

He figured the cost of another new tyre, coupled it with the two from last week, deducted it from the trip payment and felt himself floundering again in the rising sense of helplessness that had become too familiar. The truck was overdue for its service in Adelaide but he couldn’t spare the time to take it off the road. Truck repayments and alimony to Joan and the kids left him with no room to do anything but drive, night and day.

Maria wanted him to give up interstate driving, get a local job that wouldn’t involve leaving her alone for weeks on end. She was right, of course. A young girl, new to the city, she found the isolation hard to take. During the endless nights on the highway he fretted at the prospect of losing her to someone who was around all the time, who was there when she needed a shoulder to cry on.

The anxiety had grown in him steadily. Long nights of pill-induced trances, striving to meet near-impossible deadlines, had taken their toll. His despair turned to a steadily expanding anger when he recalled the interview with the manager of the terminal where he picked up the load.

“It’s thirty tonnes all up. You take all of it or none of it.”

The terminal manager was a prancing five-foot-nothing of self-important vindictiveness.

“Look, they got me last week for being overloaded, if they catch me again I’m a goner for sure,” Ryan pleaded.

“You can’t pick and choose your own loads, mate. I say who takes what and that one’s yours. Take it or leave it.”

Other drivers restrained Ryan from following him into the office.

“Leave it be, Bob. You’ll only get yourself into more strife. He’ll get his one of these days, but not now and not from you.”

Ryan slumped against the truck, anger flowing out of him, replaced by deadening resignation.

Now it flared again as he cursed the track, the load and the circumstances that forced him to detour over back tracks like this to avoid the DMR inspectors at the Gilgowie weighing station. If they got him this time he was lost. The load was ten tonnes over the limit. Last week it had been four tonnes and that cost twelve hundred dollars in fines he still had to pay. This time it would be more, with jail likely for non-payment. He would lose the truck, the contract, everything.

But they would not catch him this time. They would never imagine anyone was crazy enough to take big wheels along these cow trails. Only a desperate man would take the risk. As he overheard a blue-uniformed transport inspector joke at the checking station; “If a man’s that bloody desperate to go around the backs in the wet, then bloody good luck to him. He’ll need it for sure.”

He had heard of the cold snap on the radio. Temperatures below freezing were expected. The frost out on the back mud tracks could just be hard enough to make it possible for a big rig to get through. It was a gamble he had to take.

On his way he dropped into the Trucker’s Friend, a roadhouse on the outskirts of Winburne to pick up on the latest road conditions. He had not stopped there for almost a year, ever since Maria quit her job and left to go with him. That led to a very unpleasant scene with Rosie, the wife of Nat Tyler, the owner.

She and Bob had been good friends, even more than just good friends. At one time it seemed that if anyone was going to leave the isolated roadhouse and make a run for the bright lights, it would be Rosie. She reckoned Bob was the man to take her. Then young Maria started work in the steamy, smoky cafe.

Their coming together had been slow and uncertain, shy smiles and private glances through the banter and laughter of the truckers. Everyone could see it, though they thought it was well hidden. Pretty soon the jokes brought it out into the open to the satisfaction of everyone, except Rosie.

From her position behind the coffee-making machine she had seen the romance blossom and tried to prevent it. Early on she had mentioned casually to him that, “young Maria had to go. She’s too lazy.”

His strong disagreement let her know the strength of her rival’s hold on his affections. She reluctantly agreed the young dark-haired girl could stay, hoping that the affair would wither and die.

But it didn’t, it grew stronger until finally there came the night of the showdown when Maria told her employers she was leaving to go to the city with Bob.

As it turned out notice wasn’t needed. Rosie lost her temper and threw the girl’s belongings out into the car park before locking herself in her room, refusing to come out until after Bob and Maria had left.

Memories came rushing back as he turned the big rig into the gravel parking area at the side of the roadhouse, and made his way through the screen doors. The bright lights and the warm, steamy food smells made it another world from the black freezing night outside.

The first person he saw was Rosie serving a table near the counter and for a moment she stared at him as he picked his way between the tables.

“Well, look what the night blew in,” she said with a scornful smile of recognition. “Hey, Nat, look who’s decided to grace us with his presence. Hello, Cowboy.”

Nat Taylor’s familiar red head emerged from the steam of the hamburger grill.

“G’day Bob, how are you? How’s Maria? Where’ve you been? You should’ve called in to see us before. We didn’t know what had happened.” He came around the counter wiping his heads on his apron. His handshake was firm and unreserved.

“I told him, young lovers have other things to do than visit old friends,” said Rosie.

Bob smiled away his embarrassment and made polite attempts at explaining his absence. He was surprised at Rosie’s friendliness. She seemed to have accepted his defection without any hard feelings. She fussed over him as if nothing had happened, getting him a coffee and taking his order as if he was just another old friend.

He was halfway through his meal when Nat took a break from making hamburgers and came to sit with him.

With a minimum of detail Bob sketched his situation and told his plan.

“The weather report said there’s a cold snap up on the tablelands. I’m gonna try to get around Gilgowie by the back tracks. What do you reckon? Will it be hard enough?”

Nat had been a driver himself before giving it away to run the roadhouse. He was also the recipient of years of trucker’s lore. He looked doubtful.

“You’d be battling, Bob, but if the frost is sharp enough there’s a chance you could make it. You’d have to be lucky. Let me ask some of these blokes here and get back to you,” he said, indicating other drivers in the roadhouse.

He left to get the consensus of opinion from the drivers who had just come through the tablelands from the opposite direction. Left alone to finish his meal Bob soon found Rosie standing, hands on hips, beside him, staring down at him from quizzical eyes.

“How are things with the trucker’s friend?” he said, making an attempt to revive an old joke between them.

“Good, never seen it better. And with you?” she asked.

“Fine, fine.”

“That’s good.”

They had nothing to say to each other that would not tear open old wounds. After a few more awkward exchanges she moved away to serve new arrivals. He was relieved.

“They say it’s been pretty wet down that way and the frost only came in lately,” said Nat when he returned. “You might get through but it’ll be touch and go. If you hit a wet patch you’ll be in it up to your axles and a long way from anywhere. Are you sure it’s worth the gamble?”

“It better be,” replied Bob getting up, finishing off his coffee.

“Good luck, Cowboy,” called Rosie. “Call in again, don’t be a stranger.”

He waved to her and headed back out into the cold night. The frost was coming in hard, his breath ballooned in front of him as he walked back to the truck.

Nat was right; it was touch and go. The steering wheel bucked and spun like a living thing in his hands as he eased the big rig through the mud. The frost had turned the quagmire into a passable imitation of a dirt road. Without it being well below zero the track would be impassable for a four-wheel drive, let alone a forty-tonne truck. As it was, the big tyres crunched straight through the hardened surface and ploughed deep into the soft mud underneath. The temperature gauge was moving into the danger zone due to the hours of low gear driving. Bob’s anxious eyes flickered towards it again, and he cursed silently.

A sudden blaze of headlights and the blinding probe of a spotlight dazzled him. With a curse he flung up an arm to block out the light and felt the truck slide in the mud. He hit the pedals and the truck jerked to a sudden halt, settling into the soft track. Squinting through the windscreen he made out the shape of a car, parked in the middle of the track with two shadowy figures standing beside the open doors. One of them was operating the blinding spotlight. He could just make out the peaked caps of department officials.

With a sense of growing despair he cut the engine and sat back, defeated. They had come after him, driving through miles of stinking quagmire dirt track to get him. He couldn’t believe it. Gradually the whine of the slowing turbo faded out into the absolute silence of the bush night. He sat motionless, waiting.

One of the men emerged from behind the glare of the headlights, carefully making his way through the mud towards the stationary truck. Bob rolled down the window as he came near and stared morosely at the excited face of the uniformed official.

“You’re a bit out of your way, ain’t ya?” The gloating tone of the voice cut through Bob’s weariness and despair like a knife. “Lost your way, have you? Let me see your log book and bills of loading.”

He was young, fair-haired, looked like he shaved once a week. The hand he held up for the papers had nicely trimmed nails. Bob stared down at him with warming hate.

“Come on, we haven’t got all night. We’ve been waiting an hour for you already.”

He was becoming nervous under the flinty stare.

“Who told you? Who tipped you that I’d be coming through?” His voice was hoarse with fatigue and anger. The question was irrelevant; he already knew the answer.

“That’s none of your business. Come on, give me the logbook. No sense in making it any worse for yourself.” He gestured with his impatient hand.

“Rosie, lovely Rosie, always the trucker’s friend.”

The murmured words floated past the officer’s comprehension. The sky was an infinite star-clustered void. Bob drew a deep breath of the cold night air.

“Better warn your mate to get out of the car,” he said conversationally before the scream of the air-start split the quiet of the night.

He shifted the truck into gear and it began to move slowly forward, the wheels crunching through the iced-over mud.

He saw the angry face of the official but couldn’t hear the furious curses and commands above the surge of the diesel. The huge semi-trailer bore down on the parked station wagon. A fat man stumbled out of the way, scrambling to get away from the car. Glass shattered as the massive bullbar crunched into the bonnet. The car buckled and was pushed back by the relentless bulk of the vehicle. The sound of tearing metal was submerged in the screaming revs from the engine. Like a giant behemoth the truck pushed on, remorselessly.

The man in the cabin laughed with sudden, glorious, sanity. The car slewed onto the verge, tipping into the paddock, a crumpled wreck. The way ahead was clear and Ryan pulled on the lanyard of the air horn with elation. The piercing blare rolled across the empty paddocks white with frost. With laughing triumph he shouted to the starlit night and to the worlds beyond, to the infinite number of glorious worlds beyond.

“Rosie, oh Rosie, the trucker’s friend.”

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