WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
Cooktown in 1973 was a place of ruins, ghosts, wind, and the promise of adventure. I’d been there once before, the previous decade, roaring up the Mulligan Highway with Dad at the wheel of the Valiant Safari. With Mum and my brother Dave we clambered over Grassy Hill and stared out at the water as Cook must have done two hundred years earlier while Dad glued himself to a stool at the Top Pub and explored business contacts.
Together we’d stumbled through the remains of a brewery and a convent, walked solitary beaches and met George Doughboy with his king’s plate and wooden pipe as he wandered around town. We found dilapidated buildings with faded, hand-painted Chinese characters in the backstreets, always with the feeling that the town was entrenched in a long-gone era, of glory days when it was a gold rush town, gateway to the Palmer River fields.
Now, laughing and sweating in the warm afternoon, Owen and I crossed Charlotte Street ahead of a slow-cruising Morris Minor while palm trees thrashed in the wind. Tucking in our shirts, we swaggered into the Sovereign Hotel opposite the Shire Office. We’d helped set the Naika up on a swinging mooring in the protected waters of the Endeavour River before heading to shore in the tinnie. Tom was happy to let us go, provided we brought him back a couple of packs of smokes and a bottle of Coke.
With two glasses and a jug of golden XXXX, we settled back on our stools to spin yarns, perve at the barmaid and half watch Redcliffe beat East Brisbane in the BRL semi-finals. The game was displayed on a black and white TV in a cabinet near the bar.
‘So the skipper was a POW, in World War Two?’ I asked.
Owen wiped a line of froth from his upper lip. ‘Yeah. You seen his back? Covered in scars, mate, like someone drove a chisel plough over it. Whipped by the guards he was, but he’s never told me why.’
‘Cripes,’ I said. It made my own military service seem tame. ‘No wonder he’s so quiet.’
‘The poor bastard never sleeps,’ said Owen. ‘Hardly at all anyhow – just sits up there in the wheelhouse, readin’ and smokin’ and looking ‘round at the water. Sometimes I’ve heard him muttering to himself, like he’s talking to old mates.’
I stared into my beer. There was nothing much else I could think to say, but I understood the old fellow and his ways a little better.
By the time it got dark we were both hungry, and we ordered a meal at the bar. The barmaid brought plates brimming with hot squid schnitzel, chips and salad. She was blonde, with bangles on her wrists; friendly enough to ask my name. She already knew Owen, and laughed when he dropped his serviette-wrapped knife and fork, insisting on bringing him a clean set.
Later, when the streets had darkened and the Rugby League game was over, we moved out to the verandah, where it was cooler, watching a couple of geckos chase and catch insects attracted by the lights.
A bloke of about forty, wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves cut off, took a seat alone at a table within my line of sight. He nursed a rum and coke, and I caught him staring at me. There was something about him that made me nervous, and it wasn’t just the Dennis Lillee-moustache and build to match it – he was a cold bastard, I could pick them straight off.
Soon afterwards a mint green HK Holden pulled up across the street and stopped with the engine running. The sound rumbling from the two-inch pipe, I was pretty sure, came from a 307 cubic-inch Chev V8.
Mr Denim Jacket left his table, crossed the street and leaned through the driver’s window to talk to the two men inside. One was bearded, and one not. After a minute or two he lifted his head, tapped the roof of the car a couple of times then came back across to the pub. The car growled off down the street to the front of the post office, where it reversed into a parking space. No one got out.
Owen and I had one more beer, but I was feeling unsettled. I’d had a good squiz at the driver of that car and I could have sworn that I’d seen him, just twenty-four hours earlier, hanging ‘round the campfire at the Wild Dog River. It seemed too ridiculous to be true, so instead of sharing my thoughts with Owen I said, ‘You ready to head back?’
‘Yeah, no worries. You right mate?’
‘A bit tired is all.’
Owen drained his beer while I bought a bottle of coke and cigarettes for Tom at the bar. The barmaid took my money and placed my purchases in a brown paper bag. As we walked down the street, I heard a car door open and shut, then the engine start up and crawl behind us. I swivelled my head to keep an eye on them.
We walked faster, but our pace was no match for a car. The Chev V8 growled as the driver kept pace with us. I loved that sound, that deep mumbling engine beat, but tonight it meant trouble.
As we left the footpath and headed into the park, intending to cut across to the water, the car stopped and the engine shut off. Now I could hear the shrill cries of flying foxes upriver, and a radio playing a Col Joye song somewhere muffled and distant.
Doors slammed, as if from another world, and in the glow of the moon I saw three men get out of the Holden. Pausing only to gather into a group, they headed our way, filled with purpose and menace.
©2023 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday
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