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The garage door creaked as he unlocked it, and John froze. Behind the door the dog scratched and whined. He opened the door a fraction more. Blue pushed out and jumped up on him. He staggered, and held the dog tight, feeling his coarse hair and warm body quivering. A pink tongue licked at his recently dried tears.
"Down, Blue," he whispered.
The night was still, frosty stars glimmered, and the house slept on in darkness. The clink of the bridle sounded loud in the stillness. John listened, and reassured, picked up the saddle and the sleeping bag.
He tiptoed along the shadows beside the house, almost holding his breath. What if his young brother woke up? What if his father was prowling around? What if his mother decided to check on whether he was asleep?
Blue's entire existence depended on them getting well clear by morning. The terse phone call he had overheard left no uncertainty as to what was going to happen. His dog Blue locked in the garage waiting for death.
The house stayed dark and undisturbed. No lights flashed on or noisy exclamations sounded. As he turned the corner of the street, he relaxed and started hurrying towards the paddock.
At John's approach, Roanie's head swung around, puzzled but interested. There were loud clicks in the still darkness as the gelding's stiffened joints unlocked, and soon the soft nose was pushing at him.
"No sugar," John apologized.
The warm strong smell of horse rose around him, as he threw the saddle on and tightened the girth straps. Even in his misery he was comforted. Horses smelt of summer and haystacks and wide-open spaces. He buckled the bridleon, and then swung up into the saddle.
Somewhere in the darkness a dog barked. Blue growled deep in his throat. John tensed and waited. There was silence. The houses slept on and the trees loomed blackly against the sky. The streetlights were a tired yellow stretching away into the distance. Not far ahead was the back lane that led across to the winding unmade road, where a horse's hooves would be muffled and unheard.
John hunched his shoulders against the cold, and relived the entire desperate evening. If only Blue hadn't brought the scuffed corpse of the chicken in at the exact moment that Mr. Perkins was storming up and down. It wasn't really Blue's fault that he had nipped Perkins--the old fool had aimed a kick.
So many ifs. If his father hadn't swiped him for protesting Blue's innocence. If Blue hadn't turned on his Dad and laid his shoulder open. Two grown men carrying on about a few stitches--pitiful it was.
John sighed, and checked his sleeping bag. With Blue under sentence of death, his Dad with five stitches in his shoulder and Perkins with three in his leg--what was there to do but leave home?
He guided Roanie through the shadowy lane and along the winding track twisting into the darkness. This was the end of street lighting and all the new housing subdivisions. Once over the next hill was the scatter of small farms and grazing land. He was nearly safe.
The twenty dollars in his pocket gave him a momentary feeling of unease. He had really burnt his boats by stealing it. Then again, it was exactly twenty dollars that his father had earlier confiscated from him. He had cleaned three cars, mowed four lawns, and weeded several Saturdays away for that twenty dollars. It was his savings towards Roanie's new shoes.
He fought a brief battle with his conscience. It was unjust and wrong of his father to take his money. No chooks were worth twenty dollars.
Roanie squelched through the mud by the creek. John ducked his head under the blackness that was the overhanging fern. Roanie was doubtful, but John urged him on. The darkness was absolute and heavy. He had a twinge of doubt and loneliness. The sound of Blue panting somewhere behind him hardened his resolution.
He couldn't have stayed home and let Blue get destroyed. He sat up straighter. Roanie, sensing John's confidence, quickened into a shambling trot. By the time they had reached the murmur of water that was the waterfall, there was an imperceptible lightening of the atmosphere. The stars were paler, and the treetops more sharply defined against the sky.
John veered into the left-hand track that led across the hill. He had to find a secure place to hide before daylight.
Over the hill, the bush stopped abruptly, and there was a sense of space; a large paddock perhaps. John looked at the horizon with desperation. The trees were outlined in jet black against a widening pink streak.
A dry haystack--that was what he wanted. Somewhere he could burrow down and sleep, and Roanie could feed. Just near the heavy bushland by the side of the clearing, a black shape loomed. It slowly became more visible as he sat and looked at it--hay baled and stacked high under a rusty iron roof.
A pale gold streak edged into the red and pink of the sky. From somewhere among the trees came a tentative twitter. John slid off Roanie and tugged at a tumbled bale. Surely the farmer wouldn't miss the remains of a bale already opened? He dragged it behind the shelter of the trees, tied up the horse and took off the saddle. Roanie whickered appreciation as he started nosing the hay.
John went back to the big haystack. In the brightening light he saw the hay piled in steps that led up to under the rusty roof. He scrambled up, puffing as he dragged the saddle with him. Shift two bales of hay and he would have a comfortable platform sheltered from the wind, with ramparts concealing him from any casual gaze.
He put down the saddle and unrolled the sleeping bag. He was tired and his eyes were sore. Blue crept into the sleeping bag with him, and John drifted off to sleep with the comforting feel of the warm body against his back.