WHEN the distant rumble stirred Justine from sleep, she dismissed it as just another laden coal train struggling out of the mine, rolled over, and tried to return to sleep. Dreams came to snatch her away, but the sudden screams of the horses snapped her awake. Something wasn't right. She checked her phone: 5:41 am. The trains never moved that early. The sound grew louder.
She drew aside the curtains, and her heart froze in her chest. A dozen savage eyes glowed in the darkness. Thunderous cracks filled the still morning air as the hulking beasts stalked closer, snapping timber fence posts and trees.
Justine dressed in a fluster and sprinted into the hallway. She could see light already spilling out from under her parents' bedroom door, but she knocked anyway. Her mother met her. Her father was standing by the window, looking out.
"What are they?" Justine asked.
"Bulldozers, I'd say," her father said gravely.
"What are they doing here? They know we didn't move out. Don't they?"
Her father shook his head and stared at his slippers. "We should have taken the payout," he muttered.
"We can still stop them, can't we, Chris?" her mother asked.
"I think it's already too late," he sighed.
"The police!" Justine cried. "We can call the police!"
Her father shook his head. "Take a closer look out there."
Justine squinted in the gloom. There, coming up the main driveway, were white cars, their checked flanks just visible when one aligned briefly with the headlights of the one behind.
"The police are with them," Justine said dejectedly.
"I'm afraid so."
"But all our stuff's still here. . . our animals, our orchard. The mining company's destroying it!"
"They own it, now. It doesn't matter that we didn't sell. It was compulsory acquisition. We could have taken the offer and moved, though where they expected us to go, I don't know. But we chose to stay. And now . . ."
The bulldozers had edged close enough that their bellows could be felt through the floor. There was a resounding crack as one of the blades caught the edge of Justine's old cubby house, reducing it to splinters.
"I know, I'll call Ford's grandparents! They fought off the mining companies a few years back and saved their property." She unlocked her phone, but that was as far as she got. "What? I don't have a signal."
Her mother checked her own phone. "Me either. Do you think they've blocked us?"
Her father shrugged.
"I'll drive then," Justine said. "Their place is only in Maitland."
Her father didn't look hopeful, but even he could see it was their only chance. "Go, before they see you. Take one of the horses. You'll never get your car past the police."
"Right." Justine sprinted towards the stables. Their three horses were pacing, pawing and kicking out against the deafening roar of the dozers. Avian Melody was the first to settle at the sight of her, and she managed to comfort the chestnut mare enough to saddle her up. Justine walked her out of the stable, relieved to see the dawn sky lightening. Good, that would make it much easier to pick the way. She mounted and headed to the rear of their property.
She couldn't take Avian Melody on the Hunter Expressway, but the local roads would be quieter at this time of morning. She followed Wine Country Drive beneath the interchange, Avian Melody nervously snorting as a B-triple roared past overhead.
As the kookaburras began their morning chorus and sunlight began to wink through the trees, Justine broke Avian Melody into a gallop. They followed the shoulder until they reached the first residential streets of Greta. But as Justine turned Avian Melody around the first corner and looked down the main straight, flashing red and blue lights filled her with dread. More destructive machines were crawling towards North Rothbury, no doubt to claim the remaining land her family and neighbours had refused to give up.
She paused, and then headed east. When she arrived at Ford's property, she was surprised to find he was already awake, standing outside with his parents and younger sister, watching the approaching lights in the distance.
"Justine?" Ford asked uncertainly as she slipped from the saddle and jogged over. She told him the whole story. He nodded and when she was done, waved her towards the house.
"It's a long shot," he said, "but maybe granddad can help you. Our phones are out, too, so I'll saddle up King of Yore. It looks like the cops have the roads blocked off to the south for the mining vehicles. But we should be able to follow the Hunter River down to Maitland without being seen."
He saddled up his horse, a brown stallion, and led them to the river bank. They had galloped along the river many times before but this morning, as Justine held on tight as Avian Melody slid down the embankment, she felt like a fugitive.
Morning light filled the sky by the time they approached Luskintyre Bridge. She ducked as she noticed a white car on the road. It passed without seeing them, and she sighed. If they were lucky, that would be the last road crossing they would encounter on their meandering path east.
As the horses snorted and splashed through the low water, Justine wondered if by the time they arrived, it would already be too late.
Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in the Newcastle Herald until Friday, January 23.