WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
The background research I’d done before heading north from Cairns to visit the Wild Dog River related mostly to the camp-dwellers’ backgrounds and their politics. It was easy enough to dismiss them as mad buggers – society’s cast-offs, or shell-shocked vets looking for a place to hide, but there was more to it than that.
Most were North Queensland locals, but others had cut their teeth Down South, in Clarrie O’Shea’s rebel unions in the late sixties. The war veterans were a separate group, who came from all over the country.
Gough Whitlam and his ‘It’s Time’ win in 1972 did not bring change fast enough, even though he was a war veteran himself and a visionary. His vision was too abstract and distant for people who were hurting inside and trusted no one outside their circle of mates.
They were searching for space, tired of being pushed around by governments and bosses, too bruised to have the stomach for taking orders. I understood. Even ‘good’ people, who went to work nine hours a day, five days a week for an envelope of cash were pissed off, and those of us who had served – we had even more reason to distrust our so-called leaders.
Seeing good mates leave Vung Tau in body bags made a man wonder who was making the real decisions and why. Made you want to walk away from this thing we call society and start steering your own ship.
I understood how those Wild Dog people felt. But there, on that night in Cooktown, seeing three men leave the Holden and charge towards us, I still didn’t quite know how I had made myself their enemy. I guessed that the bronze relic I’d bought from the kid was behind it all, but the reasons were a mystery. I wished that I had thrown the damned thing overboard like Tom had suggested.
Strangely, however, I wasn’t scared. I was angry. I wanted to know what the hell these refugees from society were thinking, coming at me. I wanted answers, and I stood my ground, studying them. They were big blokes, all older than Owen and I. One was the driver of the Holden, with his jet-black beard – and I was sure now that I’d seen him at the Wild Dog Camp. He was a solid bastard, maybe forty-five, sun-browned and brutal-looking.
Next came the denim-jacket man, taller than the others and light on his feet. His moustache was not the only thing that reminded me of a fast bowler like Lillee or Walker. The third had long hair down past heavy shoulders, with Charles Bronson lips and eyes.
The long-haired bloke was fast. He reached Owen at a run, whipped an arm around his neck and got him in a headlock. The bearded man made a grab at me, but misjudged his timing and I had a chance to scamper back a few paces, drop the paper bag of coke and cigarettes and shape up to him. Denim-jacket-man feinted a charge, driving me back towards a tree that was so fully encircled by a strangler fig that it was impossible to identify the original plant.
My main concern was for Owen, who was grunting with pain as his captor tightened his grip. ‘Let him go,’ I roared, adrenalin shooting through my system.
When he spoke, the bearded man’s voice was like two lumps of iron grinding together, and his eyes had a merciless gleam. ‘Now listen, mate. We want that old medal. We’ll give you a fair price if you hand it over now.’
Maybe it was the grog, but the thought of other people taking and ogling the bronze relic made me livid. I stared at the bastard, sizing him up past the balled knuckles of my fists. I was not stupid enough to lower my guard.
‘Have you got it on you?’ he went on.
I shook my head, ‘No.’
‘Then listen here. Go out to your boat and bring it back, ay.’ He waved a hand at Owen. ‘We’ll keep your mate with us until you do. Orright?’
Owen’s eyes were rolling back in his head with pain. No way would I leave him. I come from a family of nice people, but we don’t mind having a go either. I bounded forward towards the bearded man, forcing him to step back, but he wasn’t my real target. I pivoted off my left foot and went for the bloke holding Owen. He saw me coming and tried to disengage in time to defend himself, but not before I struck low, into his side, with a kidney punch that would have made my unarmed combat instructor at Canungra proud. My target grunted and fell to his knees, face twisted with pain.
Owen, free now, and showing some mongrel, started on the denim-jacket man. Meanwhile, I faced Blackbeard, ducked a haymaker that would have taken my head off, then managed a half-cocked jab that took him square on his nose.
Not seeing any point in letting them recover the advantage, I grabbed Owen by the shirt, turned towards the river, and started to run, dragging my mate bodily for the first pace or two until his legs caught up. We would have had a great start, but Owen spotted the bag with the skipper’s ciggies and coke that I’d dropped and ran back for it, before finally taking flight, neck and neck with me.
They chased us hard across the park, but we were young and fit, and the beer felt like it had evaporated away. With all the effort we could force into our legs, we were soon on the wild grass above the shoreline.
We reached the riverbank, shining in the moonlight, with dozens of moored boats propped with poles to keep them upright while the tide was out. My heart sank to see how far the water had receded – the tinnie was now at least thirty yards across dry flats from the water. We didn’t wait, me out the front with the rope over my shoulders, and Owen pushing from the back, mud claiming us to the knees.
Our three pursuers had the same mud to deal with, but we had a good lead, and were halfway getting the boat to the water when they started across the flats. Owen was pushing like a second-rower now, strong as a bullock. We were into the first of the water before long, and the mud turned slick.
Owen leaned over to start the Evinrude, and the mud was now watery enough to give the prop purchase. It streamed a rooster tail of ooze back into the chests of the mongrels chasing us, propelling the boat forward until the water deepened and we dived and tumbled aboard like sticks of firewood thrown in a trailer. Finally, Owen tilted the engine down, and we burned away towards the Naika through the sharp wind chop.
The fact that Tom’s coke and cigarettes were still in their paper bag, on the floor of the tinnie, gave me satisfaction. Salt spray, carried by the wind splashed into our faces. I felt sober and queasy in the guts.
©2023 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday.
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