(For links to the six Prelude segments, see side bar.)
‘Why does nobody in Rhino Valley answer phones? Are all the lines down?’ Hugh’s father asked.
The man behind the counter shrugged. ‘I haven’t seen any of the Valley farmers in town for quite a while,’ he said.
‘Would you mind trying the number of the Two Old Fro… I mean, the Henderson brothers for me? It has to be landline, because I know of old that for some reason the whole area has no mobile reception.’
The man gave a half-shrug this time, but nodded. After listening at the handset for a while he said, ‘It seems to ring normally, but with no reply. You’ve stayed there before quite a few times, haven’t you? You are …’ he paused for a second, and then said, ‘… Mr Redcorn, I seem to remember.’
‘That’s right: Donald Redcorn, and this is Hugh.’
‘Howzit, Hugh. I’m Jan,’ he said, stretching a hand over the counter.
‘Hugh, Jan here is greeting you!’ Donald said sharply.
Hugh gave a start. ‘Uh … oh; howja do,’ he mumbled.
His father glared at him, and then said to Jan, ‘I imagine you’d know if the cottage has been booked?’
‘Don’t think it is; and most people who are on their way there stop by. The last ones were a couple of months ago, though.’ He paused to ring up a sale for another customer, and then said, ‘Many of the farmers there seem to have had the worst of luck lately. Ben Coetzee got bitten by a puff adder six times, which is unusual, and they couldn’t get him treated in time so he died. Then Jo Ferreira’s horse threw her, and it trampled her as well, and that was the end of her. Miguel went a bit crazy after that, and he’s now in a sort of home. Then everyone at Crags got some strange sickness and the whole lot are in hospital.’
‘That’s really sad,’ Donald said. ‘We’ve met all of them. It shows, I suppose, that even in such a paradise things go wrong, and one finds danger. Anyway, it looks as though we’ll have go out there and take a chance that the cottage is available.’
Back in the car, his father looked suspiciously at Hugh. ‘You did take your meds, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, dad,’ Hugh said. It wasn’t quite a lie. He was managing to get away with taking only half what he was supposed to, and was wishing desperately that the effect of the last half-dose would wear off soon. The pills always made him feel less than alive.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the tiny town they turned off onto the gravel road which led towards the mountains. ‘It gets worse every time we come,’ Donald complained, fighting with the steering wheel in trying to miss potholes or at least dodge the bigger ones. The car jounced and juddered. ‘Your mother always said this part of the trip was better than a massage.’
Hugh had also been thinking of his mother, and how he missed her. Rhino Valley brought her to mind particularly strongly. She had always seemed so extra alive there, but now, he reminded himself bitterly, she wasn’t at all. She had been the only one who had constantly seemed to understand.
When they reached the view site, which lay just before the road started its imitation of a snake in death-throes to get down into the valley, Donald pulled to a stop and they got out. The scene was, as always, breathtaking. From the top of the saddle they were on, the valley stretched for countless kilometres ahead of them. To the left loomed the range dominated by The Rhino with its distinctive peaks, and to the right the slightly lower range topped by the rock columns of The Sad Ones was etched, closer, against the sky.
‘Magnificent,’ breathed Donald. He turned to look at his son, and his pleasure evaporated. Hugh was staring fixedly here and there with a lost, bemused expression. ‘Hugh!’ he snapped.
Hugh gave a start, and looked at his father in some apprehension. That tone of voice was never good news. ‘Are you um …’ Donald stopped to search for words before going on in a rush, ‘are you seeing things again?’
‘No, Dad, absolutely not!’ The conviction in his voice was unmistakeable, and Donald relaxed. ‘Well, then, why …’ On second thoughts, he decided to leave well enough alone.
Hugh had to force himself to study the view again and not what had worried him. What he had told his father was quite true. Actually, it was what he wasn’t seeing that was truly disturbing.