The Vanished

For another mile the men talked about how they could effect a rendezvous, in case they both succeeded in reaching Mt. Isa.  Jonas had flown into Mt. Isa twice in a dozen years, but Bernie had been there for several months and knew the place well.  He suggested they meet in the vicinity of the northeast corner of the trailer park and campground at the east edge of town—“Not so close that people might see us and get suspicious, but in that general area.  And the caravan park—I think it’s called Argyle or something like that—not the place with the sign that says ‘Dude Ranch’”.

They refined their plans a little and wished each other well.  Jonas said he’d take the northern route, and the fugitives parted with a hug.  Angling northwest, Jonas encountered a dry creekbed and followed it almost due north, until he could see the highway again.  Climbing atop the largest rock he could find, he scanned the road in both directions and listened carefully.  He heard a vehicle and jumped down to crouch behind the rock.

Once the vehicle, a dual-cab pickup with a mining company’s logo on the doors, flew past, Jonas climbed back up on the rock and repeated the exercise.  He heard and saw no movement so hurried to and across the highway and hid behind a small Prickly Acacia, as another pickup with a different mining company’s logo followed the previous one.  He then walked north for almost a mile before angling northwest for another four or five.

Jonas refrained from drinking, not a drop since his last drink inside the prison, but knew he had to balance conserving his limited supply of water with staving off dehydration.  He allowed himself one abstemious drink, as he began moving what he reckoned was close to due west.  He and Bernie had not discussed a pathfinding strategy, concentrating instead on finding a way to get outside the prison compound, so Jonas began to devise one as he walked.  He decided maximizing westward progress was probably less important than following a path that offered maximum shelter, both from the relentless sun and from prying airborne eyes.

The fugitive therefore began taking frequent opportunities to inspect his surroundings from high points and adjusting his route to pass near trees and large rocks.  As the afternoon turned to evening and the twilight deepened, spotting and reaching such shelters became more difficult, but he managed to sequester himself beneath the western side of a large, almost round boulder before the last of the light faded.

Although tired from a strenuous day, Jonas woke twice in the night to the sound of aircraft.  Neither of them circled his location, which gave him some hope and allowed him to drift back into sleep both times.  He woke on his second day of freedom to see the first faint hint of a glow on the eastern horizon and waited long enough to feel confident of heading at least close to west.  While he waited, he bit through the threads securing the labels to his government issued pants and T-shirt and tore the labels off both.  He then turned his T-shirt inside out, put it back on, and set out walking.  As soon as the sky provided enough light, he resumed climbing available vantage points and plotting his course via potential shelters.

His strategy paid off an hour later, when he cowered between two boulders as another aircraft criss-crossed the area where he hid.  He took his first, conservative drink after another hour and continued west.  One other airplane sent him diving for cover two hours later, but then none after that.  He decided the search for him and Bernie probably concentrated on areas east of the “processing centre” rather than west.  That thought lowered his stress level.

Jonas walked as gently as he could, as if taking care not to wake a sick child.  He knew the cheap, foreign-made government-issued shoes would not stand up to much use.  He also conserved water by not walking through the hottest part of the afternoon, napping under a large rock by a shrubby tree instead and resuming his walk after the day had cooled.  By the end of that second day, the water bottle in each hand felt as if it weighed a tonne, but Jonas didn’t want them to get any lighter.  He spent that second night beneath a projecting stone shelf at the side of a dry creek bed and hoped there wouldn’t be a flash flood in the night.

He caught a planigale early the next morning, while it was still groggy from its overnight mini-hibernation.  A vegetarian for twenty years, Jonas couldn’t bring himself to kill the little creature and released it before continuing west.  Otherwise, that third day continued the pattern of the previous one, with one difference: Jonas thought the density of trees, while still sparse, had increased.  He continued his irregular but frequent ascents of vantage points to plot an optimal course.  The first such ascent brought a surprise: the highway lay within view, much closer than Jonas expected, because the highway angled slightly north while he had proceeded almost due west.  He adjusted his course accordingly and covered almost fourteen miles before taking shelter under the trunk of a dead tree leaning against its live neighbour.

Jonas felt nervous about spending several hours in such a threatening spot, but with no other shelter nearby and almost no wind that seemed the least bad option.  He used what little urine he could produce to mark both trunks and a few nearby rocks, to encourage any roaming dingoes to bypass his sanctuary.  He didn’t sleep much but dozed a few times before deciding the air had cooled enough to resume his trek.  Before he fell asleep that night, he saw the loom of a town’s lights in the night sky and felt encouraged by that.

Day four followed the pattern of days two and three, again with one difference: once he’d chosen his overnight resting place, he realized he couldn’t hear the highway and hadn’t for at least an hour or two.  He reasoned the highway must have swung south and therefore began his day five march heading south of southwest, after drinking the last drops from his first bottle.

In his tired and thirsty fantasies, waking dreams, walking daydreams, Jonas imagined Bernie had already arrived in Mount Isa, revealed the secret prison to the world, and become an instant sensation and enough of a hero overseas that the government didn’t dare to touch him.  Jonas’s dehydrated brain extended that fantasy to imagine himself arriving in Mount Isa to a hero’s welcome.  Recognizing such a wildly successful outcome as unlikely, he also pictured Bernie lying dead, either from a snakebite or some other mishap or from a hail of bullets fired by government-issued guns.

Jonas began hearing trucks half an hour before beginning his mid-day estivation.  He took the first tiny sip of water from his second bottle, deferring a bigger drink until after his break.  He felt extremely thirsty and hungry but also felt pleased he still had one almost full bottle.  He knew he could handle the hunger for a few more days if he had to, but knew, too, he would have to find water within another two or three days.

He resumed his walk as usual and on his first reconnaissance saw a cell tower on a hill three or four miles ahead.  As his weary steps brought him closer, he could see the hill was a long bluff with the tower at the western end.  He debated with himself about the utility of climbing the bluff for a more extensive view versus conservation of his dwindling energy after his five-day fast.  He also wondered whether to pass to the north of the hill or to the south.  Arriving at the east end of the hill as the sun touched the horizon, Jonas decided climbing the hill provided a vantage point and eliminated having to choose whether to pass to the north or the south.

He encountered an access road part way up the hillside and made the remainder of his ascent by that riskier but easier route.  The sky remained light enough for Jonas to make a cursory inspection of the hilltop.  He avoided getting near the edges, because he didn’t want to present a moving silhouette to anyone looking up at the hill.  Even so, Jonas could see that Mount Isa lay less than three miles away.  He could also see the only brush thick enough to provide cover stood right beside the cleared area around the buildings, so he dropped down the north side into a small gully.  He found a spot that rendered him invisible to anyone not also in the gully and slept until dawn.

Jonas walked back up the hill as the sky grew fully light.  In the daylight, he could see, no more than two miles away, the trailer park and campground Bernie had described, as well as several houses and cattleyards between him and the trailer park and a subdivision Bernie hadn’t mentioned on the other side of the highway.  As soon as he reached the bottom of the hill, Jonas moved further north in order to remain out of sight of the highway and to skirt the houses he’d seen.

Less than an hour later, he drank most of his remaining water and then made a cautious inspection of half of the trailer park’s perimeter and, in the hope of finding Bernie, of the area northeast of it—or as much of that area as he could explore without getting too close to the houses.  He didn’t find Bernie but did find he could easily walk into the campground from the back.  The presence of a small house at the back of the property worried Jonas, but he watched the place for twenty minutes and saw no sign of anyone.  He also watched a man emptying his trailer’s holding tank at the park’s dump point and took advantage of the man’s going to the other side of the trailer.  Jonas strolled into the park with the big trailer between him and the house and also between him and the trailer’s owner.

The tired and thirsty fugitive stood within the park’s perimeter without having met any challenge and found himself next to a small shower and toilet block.  He used both amenities straightaway and even found an abandoned bar of soap on the shower windowsill.  Jonas began showering with his clothes on, then removed them and washed them by hand in the shower.  Once satisfied they were clean enough to be odor-free, he hung them on the available hooks and washed himself, enjoying the luxury of a private shower for the first time in three years.

Once clean and dressed in damp, but no longer filthy, clothes, Jonas turned his attention to exchanging those clothes for something less obviously government-issued.  He didn’t like the idea of stealing, but this extreme situation called for extreme measures.  He saw no alternative so began scouting for a new outfit, but nothing on any of the clothelines looked as if it would fit him.

Jonas checked that nobody was in, near, or approaching the camp’s laundry rooms and began inspecting the contents of the washing machines.  He interrupted his inspections frequently to check his surroundings but managed to find a pair of jeans that looked as if they would fit.  He took them into the adjacent mens’ room and tried them on in a toilet stall.  He found the waist a size too large but figured nobody would notice.  Otherwise, they fit reasonably well, so he wore them out of the building and buried his prison pants deep in a garbage can.  Jonas didn’t worry about the jeans being wet, because he felt confident they’d dry in less than half an hour in that hot desert environment.

Hunger and food plagued his thoughts, but Jonas considered making contact with someone who could help a higher priority.  He started toward the camp office with the intention of using the payphone sure to be there.  Before taking half a dozen steps, he decided using a phone somewhere else might be safer.  He walked back to the dump site and made his exit from the park carrying a full water bottle in each hand.

A quick reconnaissance of the area, in the hope Bernie had shown up, yielded nothing, so Jonas started toward town.  Hoping his newly acquired jeans lent him the appearance of an ordinary citizen, he decided to brave the highway.  Ten minutes and half a mile later, that led him to a shopping mall on the opposite side of the road.  He crossed the highway and strolled about the mall until he decided it had no public telephones and, despite his nervousness, walked along the highway further into town.

A stroll of four blocks brought the weary fugitive and his already-dry jeans to a pair of  phone booths by the side of the highway.  Hoping for the best, he placed a collect call to an organic farmer and environmental activist friend near Malanda.  When that friend answered, Jonas wasted no time.

“Jonas here, Marty.  I need help big time and fast.”

“Holy hell!  We thought you’d been killed.  Wh—”

“If they’d known I was going to get away, I would’ve been.  I’ve just escaped from a concentration camp and need to do some serious whistle-blowing.  How’re you fixed?”

“Usual.  How can I help?”

“A ride would be good.  I’ve got no money and no ID or anything.”

“Where are you?”

“Mount Isa.”

“Ouch!  OK, yeah, I can be there in about twelve or thirteen hours, prob’ly before midnight.  Where will I meet you?”

“Ummmm . . . yeah.  I hadn’t thought about that.  I don’t want to hang out anywhere visible.  Maybe just come to the first caravan park you come to on the highway.”

“Yeah, OK.  What’s it called?”

“Argylla, but it’s got a big blue sign out on the highway that says ‘Discovery’ and a bunch of other stuff.  Just come in and get an unpowered site—close to the back, if you can—and I’ll keep a lookout for your pickup, yeah?”

“That should work.  OK, I’d better get going.  I’ll flash my headlights a few times, once I get parked.”

“Thank you so much, Marty.  Safe travels.  Oh!  Could you bring a pair of shorts and a T-shirt—and maybe some flip-flops, if you have a spare pair.”

“All good.  Can do.  I know you—you’d do the same.  See you as soon as I can.”

Once the two men hung up, Jonas, feeling both exposed and nervous, walked back out of town and ducked off the highway as soon as he could.  He made his way back to the gully, where he had spent the night, and hunkered down to wait until evening.  He napped as much as he could, in order to remain wide awake and alert through the evening, and didn’t stint on consuming water whenever he felt thirsty.

The sun lay tangential to the horizon, but the sky remained fully light, as Jonas began making his way northeast around the intervening houses.  He re-traced his path of that morning until he stood less than fifty yards from the campground’s northeastern corner, with the little house, the dump site, and the ablution block in plain view.  He’d noticed that morning that the unpowered sites lay against the eastern boundary, so he moved thirty yards south to get a clear view of them and looked around for the biggest tree he could find.

No big trees presented themselves, but he found and climbed one big enough to support him and with enough foliage to conceal him from anyone not directly below his perch.  He remained in the tree until the sky grew fully dark, then climbed down and sat on the ground with his back against the tree’s trunk.  He stood and walked around the tree and did squats and a few other not-very-energetic exercises several times to keep himself from dozing off but eventually saw a familiar looking vehicle driving down the lane inside the trailer park.  The pickup pulled into the last space, and the headlights—almost illuminating Jonas—went off and came back on five times.

The weary but still wary fugitive suddenly thought, What if they tapped Marty’s ’phone, and this is a trap.  He decided that whatever branch of government was looking for him would have already saturated the area with their foot soldiers and caught him or shot him.  He heard the pickup’s door open and heard Marty’s voice say, “Jonas?”

Jonas softly called back, “I’m right here,” as he walked out of the darkness and into Marty’s hug.



Educated as a scientist, graduated as a mathematician, Cora Tate has earned her living as a full-time professional entertainer most of her life, including a stint as a regular performer on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Cora’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner, among other occupations. Cora has written five novels, three novellas (two published), three novelettes (two published), and about sixty short stories, of which forty-two have been published by forty-six literary journals in seven countries. Cora recommends Earth First!


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, April 14, 2022 - 22:02