WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
Poised to step out of the tinnie as I was, I had a good view of the camp: a bunch of dripping children, the corrugated iron and bush pole humpies I’d seen from the river, smoke drifting through from various campfires and a ‘fifties refrigerator leaning against a tree, in use as a set of shelves. A big campfire was smoking away about twenty yards downstream, and a bunch of people were lounging on camp chairs and stumps around it. I could smell tobacco smoke on the breeze, and I guessed from the laughter that more than a few were getting stuck into the booze.
A woman stood up from the group and rolled towards me in a gait that reminded me of Popeye the sailor. She wore a pair of shorts and a baggy T-shirt. The cap on her head had, long ago, come from the Central Hotel in Port Douglas. Her knees, hands and elbows were dark with grime, and her few remaining teeth were shaded black. Pushing her way through, she stopped on the bank and threw an arm around the shoulders of the big fella with the shotgun, leaning her body weight in his direction.
‘Well, what have we here?’ she asked, looking at me. ‘Not cops are ya?’
‘Not cops,’ I said. ‘I’m a journo with the Post back in Cairns. I’d like to do a story on the camp, take a few photos – have a look around – talk to a few people if I can.’
‘You’re a cute one,’ mused the woman. ‘But I ain’t sure that Nolan’s gonna want a spy from the city hangin’ around.’ She turned and hollered, ‘Hey Nolan. You oughta come ‘ere.’
A round of laughter carried to us from the campfire, and one of the men stood up, holding a mug in his hand as he wandered up. He was about fifty, but weathered from hard living. I could see him sizing me up as he approached, and the fella with the big gut stepped back to give him space.
‘What’s yer name?’ asked the newcomer. His face told me clearly that he was the boss around here. He had the face of a rascal, with Catweazle whiskers and crazy eyes that rolled and roiled in his head like pinball marbles. His cheekbones were lined with cracked and sun-hazed skin.
‘Pete Livermore,’ I said.
‘Right, I’m Nolan,’ he said. ‘What are ya doin’ here?’
‘I’m with the Cairns Post, like I just said, and the boss wants me to do a story on the camp.’
Nolan scratched his ear. ‘First I’ve heard of it. Why would they want you to write a story about us? Just to rake more shit up about poor old Clive getting killed?’ He made a noise in the back of his throat and spat. ‘I told the cops before that he must’ve been murdered offshore – drug runners or something. Nothin’ to do with us.’
‘It’s not just that,’ I said. ‘People are interested. There are veterans here – people with anti-government views, all that kind of stuff. Word on the street is that the Queensland cops are too scared to come here.’
Nolan narrowed his eyes, ‘How old are you?’
‘Did you serve? Overseas I mean.’
‘Yeah, I did a year over there.’
‘See any action?’
‘Not much, but some,’ I said truthfully. Not a lot of action, but a lot of being on a knife-edge waiting for action. In 1971 pacification had been the name of the game, and patrolling was how we did it, stalking through the paddies, rainforests and grasslands of the Xuyen Moc region, wondering when I might step on a punji stick or cartridge trap. I experienced a dozen or so actual contacts – frightening, exciting, adrenaline-soaring periods varying from thirty seconds to five minutes in length. After a few months my company was detached for training duties, and we were strangely jealous of our comrades following Centurion tanks and APCs into bunker raids and pitched battles. We still patrolled, with our apprentices from the ARV 18th Division, but it seemed that other men were doing the heavy lifting.
Nolan looked off into the distance then back at me. ‘What unit?’
‘7 RAR,’ I said.
Nolan inclined his head, and addressed the bloke who was still holding the tinnie in place with his foot, ‘Hey Mick, let him ashore.’
The tattooed man extended a hand and helped me to jump down from the bow, then pushed the tinnie back out into the tide. I turned to wave at Owen as he restarted the engine and motored away.
Nolan yelled back at the camp. ‘Hey Alfie, there’s another ‘pig’ here. You wanna talk to him?’
‘Yeah, I’m coming,’ came a voice, and a bloke of about forty with a bad limp shambled erratically over, and sized me up.
‘You were in the 7th?’
‘Charlie Company?’ he shouted, then twisted his features into something terrible, his eyes turning red like blood and even his nostrils growing cave-like in his skull. ‘You’re the bastards who left us in the lurch on the Dong Nai River!’
I reeled, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man go from friendly to utterly bloody frightening so quickly. He looked like he was about to tear me apart with his bare hands. I could remember the river he was talking about, and a series of ops against the VC in the area, but I could not for the life of my think of how we might have let this man and his comrades down.
Just when I thought he was about to make a grab for me, he threw back his head and howled with laughter. ‘Just havin’ a go atcha,’ he said, and still chuckling he thrust out a hand. ‘I’m Alfie. Delta Company. Do you remember what they called that fiasco?’
I sagged in relief, and realised that the question was a test. ‘Yeah,’ I smiled, ‘Operation Concrete. No bloody idea why though.’
‘Stupidest thing I ever heard,’ Alfie agreed. He clapped me on the back, then called to his mates at the fireside, ‘Hey boys, give the young feller a drink – he’s a digger.’
‘All good then,’ Nolan said to me, but his crazy eyes bored into mine. ‘You can stay for a quick chat, but leave that bloody camera in its case, an’ don’t ask no questions. Tell your editor when you get back that I told you to shove your story up your arse.’
Someone made a stump free for me near the fire, and Alfie himself gave me an enamel mug filled with frothy warm, dark home brew, yeasty like it hadn’t been long out of the fermenter. There were many other camp dwellers around that fireside, but no one bothered with introductions or other pleasantries. Even so, I glanced around, taking in the individuals around me.
There were whites and Murris too; even a man with Bob Marley dreadlocks. It struck me that there was an easy familiarity between black and white here that was unusual. Some of the inhabitants had those artless tattoos I’d learned to associate with gaol time. Stacked against one of the nearest trees was a bunch of rifles: old Lee Enfields, bolt action sporters and modern semi autos. The sight reminded me that these were dangerous people.
The armed men who had met me on the riverbank loitered behind the seated men, looking pissed off that I had been invited into the camp. They retained their weapons, and glared across at me often. There were others at that fireside that I would not have trusted with my back turned.
Alfie asked me questions – if I knew so-and-so or if I remembered such-and-such. I played the same game, all the time learning what I could from what I saw and heard around me, determined that I would write my article on these people whether they liked it or not.
‘I hear that they’re calling this the Wild Dog River,’ Nolan called out. ‘That’s not its real name at all – and it’s only a creek, barely five miles before the skinny water starts.’ He pointed to a couple of bearded Murris, ‘These blokes are from all over this area: Manyamarr, Gambiilmugu and Bagaarrmugu. They got their own names for this little slice a’ heaven, haven’t ya fellas? Lots of names – for every bend and rock-bar.’
I finished my drink and they poured me another. It was strong, and my gut was weak from the boat trip. The alcohol was already singing in my brain. I slowed down. I wanted to remember everything. I heard names and I tucked them away in my mind. I caught references to home towns and old occupations. One man, it seemed, was once a schoolteacher down in Victoria, a place so far away from my life that it was like a foreign country. They called him Chalkie.
Another had been a merchant seaman. One or two had been ringers on cattle stations. I noted scars, and unusual slang. I saw clothes that had been inexpertly sewn up, hands that shook from alcohol and eyes clotted up with trachoma. I noted a couple of croc hides hanging from a line down away from the river. The trade was obviously one way in which they brought money into the camp.
As the afternoon progressed someone dragged coals out of the fire and put a copper on to boil, soon adding a couple of live mud crabs with claws like gauntleted knights. A catfish, two mangrove jack and a barra were tossed on the coals and roasted, The woman who I had met on my arrival, called Lynnie, it turned out, knocked a loaf of damper out of a camp oven and the growing crowd started on a communal, unhurried, multi-course meal.
There was plenty of kids and teens around that fire, but there was one who I reckoned was trying to get my attention. He was a Murri kid, about ten years old, as lean as a mangrove shoot. He was dressed in cut-off King Gee trousers with threads hanging down like the dead blades of a grass tussock.
He was chewing open-mouthed on a hunk of damper folded over some crab meat at the other side of the fire. He looked at me constantly, and there was something compelling in his eyes. He wanted to talk to me, I could tell. I decided on the spot that no matter what Nolan said, I’d talk to the kid if I got the chance.
©2023 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday.
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